I was picking up my library holds when the librarian noticed that I had some vegan cookbooks. “I have some vegans and vegetarians coming over for Thanksgiving,” she told me. I didn’t know what to make of her; she had a somewhat dour expression and spoke slowly. “It’s such a relief,” she continued, “I hate having to cook a turkey!” It was the first time I saw her smile.
While there are undoubtedly at least a few relieved cooks and hosts out there, many of us may be alarmed or annoyed that an alternative guest is coming. A refusenik! An ingrate! Like we don’t have enough to do. What a burden, how rude and selfish and unfair.
As if everyone else around the table wasn’t holding out an empty plate, expecting to be fed like so many gaping chicks in a nest.
We tolerate picky eaters as long as they only make horrid faces, call everything ICKY and YUCKY and GROSS, and rant at length about The Texture and every other detail of a perfectly fine meal. It’s fine if you’re merely picky; that’s a personality trait. But if you choose to do it on purpose!
Like from a food sensitivity!
Geez man, just choke it down and go to the hospital later. That’s what I’d do.
We’re alienated by each other’s demands around the table. We don’t see our own needs or preferences in that light, those of us who refuse to eat, let’s see, what have I heard from supposed omnivores?
Any kind of sauce
Anything with a speck in it, like whole-grain pasta
Anything that touches something from another part of the plate
Raw carrots, although cooked are fine
Onions, only raw or only cooked
Soup, any kind, or just chunky soup, or just a bisque
Individually: eggplant, mushrooms, squash, cabbage, pumpkin, cauliflower, sweet potato, et cetera
I’ve cooked for groups including all kinds of sensitivities and weird preferences, and weird preferences masked as sensitivities. From my perspective, everyone has at least one food that they absolutely will not eat, under any circumstances. No sense blaming anyone for it. We have a historically unprecedented access to a vast array of foods from every region on the earth, from every culture, with spices that used to cost a king’s ransom.
Salt! Black pepper! Lemons! Oranges! Cinnamon! Saffron even!
The fact that we feel perfectly free to reject food, shove it around the plate, leave it to be scraped into the trash, is an extravagance of abundance. We aren’t fighting each other over the last withered turnip and that is magnificent.
BTW if you’ve never tried turnips, you totally should. They’re fantastic, much nicer than ordinary potatoes, especially baked in the oven.
Anyway. In this year of grace two thousand nineteen, there is no way that any holiday table is going to have a standard set of completely standard diets. Someone is going to have a special need, and those of us who like to cook and play the host are going to have to learn how to accommodate it. Consider it next-level hospitality, an opportunity to experiment.
How do we manage? How do we avoid putting our friends in to anaphylaxis or violating their spiritual principles?
The first thing is that there must be no trickery. We must agree not to lie to anyone about what is or is not in a dish. That is against the concept of free will.
I admit that I did this once, when I was making the pies and everyone else was running errands and the cat jumped on the table and started licking the pie crust. I chased him off, but I couldn’t remember which pie he had his face in, and there was no time to make another one and the store was already closed for the day. I figured the heat of the oven would destroy any cat germs in the pie, shrugged, and carried on like it hadn’t happened. Everyone ate the pie and nobody got ill. It was years before I confessed.
If you don’t think someone should trick you into eating cat-lick pie, then don’t trick other people about their food either.
Second thing: avoid cross-contamination. Each dish gets its own serving utensil. Each pot and pan has its own ladle or its own flipper or whatever.
Next, a lot of dishes can be made in such a way that a taboo ingredient can be left out for one serving, then added in for everyone else. Shredded cheese, butter, or breadcrumbs are a few examples. My mom used to save a raw carrot for me when she made candied carrots, and the same with the yams from the candied yams. (Not raw but not covered in brown sugar and marshmallows, either). It’s a simple yet unforgettable gesture of love, an act of service as well as a gift.
As a cook and a foodie, I love to experiment with new recipes. I tend to favor the exotic, with complicated spice blends and fruity sauces and tons of condiments. I married a man who likes foods to be simple. Why make wasabi mashed potatoes when you can just have regular mashed potatoes? It remains hard for me to fathom, but most people gravitate to the simple and unadorned, the exact foods that I find bland, boring, and sometimes completely inedible. I’ve learned to keep the sauces in a bowl, to leave most of my sides predictable and standard. This is also the way to make it easy for guests with special needs to know what they can and can’t put on their plate.
Interestingly, most standard dishes can easily be made both vegan and gluten-free. (Salads, potatoes, certain grains, all side vegetables, drinks, some desserts). I’ve done plenty of five-course meals that are corn-free, yeast-free, canola-free, or whatever the need is for that day. It’s only hard when we feel martyred, that it is not fair for this person to “refuse” to shut up and eat what everyone else is eating. When we see it as a chance to be magnanimous, to lavish generosity on someone, to show that ours is a welcoming home, well then, it turns out not to be such a big deal.
Ultimately, it can be the most hospitable just to allow our guests with special needs to bring their own food. We can set aside a clean dish and a clean serving utensil. We can lay it out and label it in such a way that it isn’t accidentally consumed by those who can eat everything. We can smooth the process and carry on with the party, making it a non-issue.
The social problem of incompatible diets is not going to go away. If anything, this is the tip of the iceberg. More people are going to get laboratory testing and find out that they shouldn’t be eating certain specific things. Next it might be our own turn. As hosts and cooks, we may as well start adapting now, knowing we are learning vital skills that our own families and closest friends may need. We can show ourselves to be generous and hospitable, our homes warm and welcoming, our tables the places to be. We can laugh it off and everyone can have a good time.
I caved. I looked at too many fridge pinups and I ordered some fridge organizers. For years I’ve thought this was one of the dumbest interior design trends of the century, a frivolous waste of time. Really, who is looking in our refrigerators besides the people who live here?
Then I realized that I’m the only one who always knows where everything is, and that I could automate away the necessity of giving fridge directions to anyone. Where is the margarine? Why, it’s on the top shelf behind the chard, of course!
In honor of Thanksgiving, I thought I would redo our fridge as a nice little surprise for my husband. As an engineer he finds this sort of thing more compelling than I do.
November and December are the months when I try to plan meals around what we already have on hand. A lot of the jars that find their way into our fridge come without expiration dates. If I don’t write the date of purchase on them, which I rarely do, then I am unlikely to remember how long they’ve been in there. Having an almost entirely empty fridge on New Year’s Eve means that at least nothing is older than a year.
I work with hoarding and squalor, and I’ve helped to clean out fridges where scary things came out. “Do you want some hummus from 2005?,” I text my husband, and he replies in a way that I can’t share here. There are often jars and bottles seven years old or more.
Separated salad dressings. Runny mustards. Olives with suspicious films floating on top. Crispy soy sauce. White celery and brown lettuce. Rare and special shades of aqua and pink and orange.
My people don’t believe in germ theory, but I do. I can’t help but make the connection between their invariably poor health and the fact that almost all the food hoard in their kitchens is old, old and expired, old and expired and often leaking. They haven’t eaten it yet and they never intend to, but they’ll never get rid of it. They need a sort of barricade as the wallpaper to their lives. Once it’s in place they can safely ignore it.
If you are alive right now, I tell them, then you have always had absolutely everything you needed. QED. You made it. You survived.
We all try to argue against this but we can’t. We have survived as well as or better than the sparrows in the parking lot. We’re still here. If we’ve managed to do it without having to open our stores of expired food, then we don’t need them. If we’ve managed it without opening our various boxes of clutter, then we don’t need them either.
But my anxiety! What am I supposed to do with that?
Live with it, I suppose?
I have a jar, my fairy jar. In it is the sum total of all the pennies and other coins I’ve picked up in the past 15 years. There’s about $200 in there now. I used to struggle with wanting to keep a lot of extra food in my pantry, but now I just keep the fairy jar. I know if an endless series of crises came to our home, and all our savings disappeared, and we had both been out of work for months, I know we could open the jar and use the contents to buy a carload of fine groceries.
24/7. There are groceries available near me every minute of the day, even on holidays.
I don’t have to keep a bulging pantry any more. It’s okay for my fridge to be empty sometimes. Every time that has happened, I’ve been able to go out and fill it back up.
Well, every time in the past 15 years, anyway...
This is part of what bothers me about the expired food hoards that I keep finding, home after home. A month or two before the expiration date, that household could have donated all of those packaged nonperishables to a food pantry. They could have been distributed and eaten by people who really don’t have enough to get by. I’ve been there myself and I know that even a single can of soup can make a difference.
Instead they will eventually, inevitably, get thrown out. I’ve had to throw out rusty food cans and dissolving cardboard food packages lots of times, when we’re clearing out storage units or space clearing unusable kitchens. Such a waste.
This is why I’ve finally given in to the trend of extreme fridge organization. It’s a simple way to avoid wasting food.
Most households have pretty scary fridges. Perfectly lovely restaurant leftovers wind up getting thrown out instead of becoming someone’s nice lunch. Expensive condiments spoil and get rinsed down the sink. Households like mine wind up with two open jars of capers, three mustards, and five salad dressings.
Then, when it comes time for any holiday, but especially Thanksgiving, we can’t find anywhere to put the leftovers. It adds another layer of hard labor to what could have been fairly straightforward.
I’m cheating this year, like I did for the last two. I ordered a meal with all the sides from a restaurant. All we have to do is pick up two paper bags, empty them into the fridge, and then heat them up on Thursday when we’re ready to eat. I can picture just what this looks like, and I know how much space we’ll need.
The truth is that all our meals are really this predictable. We eat pretty much the same dozen meals over and over again, and the portions are pretty much the same every time. This is why our refrigerators could easily be as orderly as anything else in our lives.
Why have an appliance in our homes that is reliably full of dubious food and bad smells? Why have to dig around and hunt for stuff when we want it? Why not take a little time and find some fridge freedom for ourselves?
I just met a man who hates mashed potatoes. What, seriously? How could anyone possibly hate mashed potatoes?
He says it’s because he eats really slowly, and mashed potatoes are gross cold. Fair enough. I suggested putting a mug warmer under the serving bowl. It turns out he also dislikes gravy. How about wasabi mashed potatoes, I asked, and he admitted that sounded good. Then we substituted Japanese curry sauce instead, and we were off and running.
Incidentally, the same guy loves stuffing, which I think is the most pointless food in the world. I hate stuffing both wet and dry. Why not a nice cornbread, or wild rice with mushrooms and cranberries?
The truth is that there is no one food that everyone likes to eat, no matter how cherished the holiday tradition. A lot of people take it very personally when someone doesn’t want to eat their favorite food(s), even though it has nothing to do with them.
Why care what anyone else does or does not eat?
Welcome to 2019, when not everyone eats the same things!
I’m not even talking about food sensitivities or alternative dietary lifestyles. I’m just sharing the open secret that even the most dyed-in-the-wool traditional omnivores don’t all like the same foods, and it’s high time to consider mixing things up.
My husband loves every type of pie, but he hates all things pumpkin. Sweet potato pie he will eat, pumpkin pie he won’t.
But they’re the identical color and they have the exact same texture and the exact same spices!
People like what they like. De gustibus non est disputandem. That’s usually translated as “there is no accounting for taste,” but really it’s closer to:
As for taste preference, it is not to be debated.
You can’t talk someone into wanting to eat black olives if they don’t like black olives.
What’s more, not everyone likes turkey and there is nothing you can do about it.
Why try to convince someone to eat something they don’t like, something they don’t want to eat? This has always been a huge mystery to me because whatever I don’t eat, there’s more for you, right? I’m never going to be the one to eat the last slice of bacon. I’m also not going to interfere with your sandwich leftovers.
This is what people have told me:
Not all meat eaters like either turkey, goose, ham, beef, chicken, elk, venison, salmon, or any other animal meat you can name
Most people hate that sweet potato dish with the marshmallows/whipped cream
Likewise the green bean casserole, although I personally think it’s fantastic
Macaroni and cheese - single most disgusting food that humans have ever concocted
You know what else I don’t like? Dinner rolls.
As a child, I got a lot of guilt for resisting my Thanksgiving dinner, particularly because it was expensive and it took a lot of work. Nobody asked me, though! On my plate, I enjoyed the peas, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and the canned black olives. Of course I ate pie. We also had a fruit salad with whipped cream that was pretty good.
I wanted nothing whatsoever to do with:
Turkey meat, white but especially not dark, bleah
Stuffing, either wet or dry
Gravy, heck no!
Candied yams, not in this lifetime
I liked rolls back then, although my tastes have since changed.
As an adult, I made some executive decisions the first time I hosted Thanksgiving for my family. I always felt that Thanksgiving needed SOUP and nobody ever made any. There was never any salad, either, and I particularly felt the absence of my good friend cornbread. Furthermore, I was putting my foot down and offering kale, chard, and Brussels sprouts. I rounded out the menu with stuffed mushrooms. There were also a couple of different options for the main course, but most importantly:
There was. To be. Zero stuffing. At my table.
Nobody rioted! Nobody complained. Everyone raved about the soup and I had to give out the recipe. Brussels sprouts and cornbread made the must-have list for holiday dinners from that year onward. And the stuffed mushrooms are mandatory, my most requested offering.
I sort of had this idea that I would try out different recipes every year, but no, now it’s all stuffed mushrooms all the time...
My ex-husband’s family always put on a burrito buffet, which satisfied every dietary preference. I think it started the year everyone went into the kitchen to get pie, and the Basset hound got up on the table and snarfed the turkey.
The no-mashed-potatoes guy I mentioned earlier? His family are doing Indian food, and I hope they have a lot of leftovers because I’m totally climbing in their window on Friday.
Another friend has a Chinese buffet, which I admit also sounds far more appealing than the sad, brown, and lumpy traditional Thanksgiving.
It is a huge amount of work, isn’t it, my fellow home cooks? A huge amount of work for fussy non-cooks who need prodding to offer to clean up or contribute. Do we really want to keep doing it?
As a longtime plant-based person, I’ve often been asked to bring my own entree to Thanksgiving. I prefer this! I’m a great cook, and it takes a lot of anxiety off my mind to know that there will be at least one thing for me to eat. If you go this route, recognize that it’s very untraditional to expect guests to bring their own meal and that you haven't asked this of anyone else. Therefore, your only requirement as host is to protect this guest’s experience in your home.
Do not bully your nontraditional guest. Do not allow anyone else in your home to do so, either. Continue to talk about topics of broad conversational appeal to everyone. You’re pretty sure you wouldn’t want a veggie guest to try to “preach” or “convert” anyone, especially any little kids who might be there, right? So don’t bring it up. You probably don’t want to spend the entire meal discussing the symptoms of nut allergies or gluten intolerance. You probably don’t want to spend the whole meal learning all about ketosis, either. The best food-related comments are along the lines of “This is fantastic” and “Thank you so much for spending your holiday with us.”
Remember, even your few acquaintances who have no food sensitivities still have their preferences. Not everyone likes turkey, not everyone likes any specific thing. Don’t take it personally. Just smile, offer to let them bring their favorite dish, and make sure everyone helps wash up afterward.
The first time I ever saw or heard of a quesadilla was when my younger brother decided to make some. In our kitchen. At home. It’s hard to express just how mind-boggling this was. YOU’RE cooking? But you’re in grade school! What are you making? What IS that? Where did you learn how to do that? I just couldn’t get my head around it. Another kid taught him. Suddenly my kid brother could cook something even our parents had never made.
Dang, it smelled good, too.
I spent the next nearly twenty years continuing to be a bad cook. Both of my brothers went on to spend at least a little while working in restaurants, where they learned to do things like fold cloth napkins in fancy ways.
The only culinary skills one learns in an office environment are how to use a plastic knife to cut chunks off a muffin or donut (apparently - but who is doing that??) and, if you’re lucky, how to slice a sheet cake.
I was in my early thirties before I decided it was time to learn how to cook. I didn’t start with quesadillas, though. I went through my cookbook collection and started with something fancy. It didn’t occur to me to work my way up from simple recipes first.
Thus I messed up a lot of perfectly nice groceries. It would have been discouraging, but I was hungry and I lived alone. I’m also extremely stubborn. I wasn’t going to quit just because I had to eat a few gallons of watery soup for lunch.
Something seems to have happened, where a lot of perfectly good adults out there have no idea how to cook. Everyone is ordering food delivery and not tipping. It turns out the delivery drivers are eating people’s fries, too. This is an all-around sorry state of affairs!
I don’t like delivery food for several reasons.
One, it takes freaking forever. Minimum half an hour even for the lowest quality.
Two, it’s lukewarm at best. Even if a delivery driver actually heated everything on a passenger-side griddle, by the time I got out to the curb to get it, it would no longer be piping hot. That’s assuming I eat it standing on the sidewalk.
Three, the trash. If I’m feeling too tired and sorry for myself to cook, it’s not like I’m magically going to want to haul out five times as much trash as usual.
There are two things I would do before I ordered delivery food, even though one of my favorite fast-casual places is two miles up the street. I would either make a sandwich or microwave a can of soup. I can say this with confidence because I do it every now and then.
How hungry does someone have to be before waiting for lukewarm delivery food for forty minutes actually seems easier than opening a can of soup?
Or making toast even?
My husband makes quesadillas sometimes. This is always funny to me because neither of us eats dairy. The plant-based cheese is finally stretchy enough to melt. It’s also funny because I never ate one until I was nearly forty! We usually have them for lunch on the weekend, though, because we take our roles seriously when we cook dinner.
It doesn’t have to be fancy, though. When either an adult or a child is building basic cooking skills, it just has to be easy and good enough to be its own reward. That’s motivation.
Sometimes, when I was learning to cook, I would just get out a cookie sheet and make veggie nuggets and tater tots. All I had to do was set a timer and flip them with a spatula. A nine-year-old could probably handle that.
When I was actually that age, nine? I could make a grilled cheese sandwich, scrambled eggs, canned soup, and cookies. I was also totally confident about making instant oatmeal, toast, and vast bowls of breakfast cereal. I wish I’d realized there were so many more simple and easy foods a child could cook, because I relied on these simple staples well into adulthood.
I still occasionally ate breakfast cereal for dinner into my thirties.
I could do that today, if I wanted, but it doesn’t even sound remotely appealing anymore. I guess I ate my quota. I cook “real food” now because it’s what I want to eat. It tastes good enough that it feels worth the effort.
We always eat a side vegetable (unless it’s a major part of the main course), and the secret is that hardcore power vegetables only take a few minutes to prep and cook. You can wash a head of broccoli, cauliflower, or cabbage in seconds. You can chop it up in a minute or two. Broccoli microwaves for 4 minutes, cauliflower is 7, and you can stir fry half a cabbage in under 5 minutes as well. Kale, chard, collard greens, etc. Ten minutes from crisper to table.
The big secret there is that they cook faster than tater tots. They’re faster than waiting in line at the drive-thru, too.
Here’s another secret. You can pour out a bag of pre-made salad in seconds and throw anything you want on top. Quesadillas, grilled cheese, a donut. If half your plate is vegetables, it doesn’t matter what else you’re eating; suddenly it’s “part of a nutritious breakfast.”
There are several reasons why people “hate cooking,” and the second of these is not knowing how to make anything good. The first is having a perpetually dirty kitchen, and the third is living with selfish ingrates who do nothing but whine, complain, insult the food, and demand more. Those can be solved by making sure everyone in the household is “empowered” to DO THEIR FAIR SHARE. Roommates or whoever.
Start with quesadillas. Basically anyone over eight years old can learn to make a pretty good quesadilla, and after that, there are at least fifty easy meals within reach of a beginning cook. The faster and better we are at cooking simple meals, the more likely we are to think of eating at home first. It’s fun, it’s cheap, and you know the driver never touched your fries.
Oh, it’s happening. It’s going down. I’ve got my Halloween costume and my bags of candy and my full game-day agenda.
What, for the kids? What kids?
Oh no no no. This candy is for ME.
Candy isn’t good for little kids. Why would I give it to THEM?
I look forward to this day all year long. It’s the ultimate cheat day. I’ve spent enough years waiting around all night with twenty dollars’ worth of candy only to have two kids knock on my door. If they want candy they can go to the fire station down the street.
One year I waited around to hand out candy. I wore a plain black cotton dress and I took a strand of my roommate’s fake cobwebs and stretched it into a shawl. Some kids knocked on my door and I gave them each a handful of candy.
“You’re scaring us,” said one little boy.
What, in this? I don’t even have scary makeup on. You should see what I wear on laundry day. Or is this about having to talk to a childless woman?
Hey, it’s not my fault you had kids, don’t blame me. I wasn’t there.
Anyway. Back to my candy.
I really don’t eat candy most of the time. Usually it’s too sweet, and a lot of it is just gross. For instance, I am not a fan of gummy candy or Swedish fish or any of that nonsense. Chocolate doesn’t impress me and I don’t like sour flavors. I also tend to hoard a bag and want to nibble at it over months, but at that point even peppermint candies have started to dissolve. Either it goes in the freezer or it goes in your mouth, right?
Planning a single day for major candy consumption requires forethought and planning. Over time, I’ve probably spent more brainpower thinking about my Halloween candy than I did in planning for my marathon.
For instance, I’m not very well going to be mixing peanut butter cups with fruity candy, am I? There are rules about these things.
Last year, I spent a month accumulating and organizing my candy. Then I ate only a small part of it on Halloween. I still had some of it six months later and my husband made fun of me.
I’ve decided that instead I should just splurge and choose one flavor. Eat as much as I want on Halloween, and then I’m done.
People tend to associate “willpower” and “self-control” with this kind of behavior. That’s inaccurate. First of all, I have no willpower. That’s the entire point of this exercise. Second, it’s not self-control if you just don’t like something. I’m sure everyone can easily think of something they don’t want to eat.
Cold greasy fries
I eat oatmeal every day for breakfast and I get “eww gross” commentary about that all the time. Basically anything with dietary fiber goes on most people’s yucky list, and that’s why 95% of Americans don’t get enough of it.
Ask yourself, does it take willpower or self-control to not eat things you think are gross? No it does not.
And you know what’s gross to me?
That’s my name for the feeling I get the day after I eat a bunch of candy. Actually sometimes it’s the same day.
A sour, stale, thoroughly non-delicious feeling.
Halloween mouth is the reason I don’t go crazy eating candy all the time. I have a vivid memory of the consequences that I refresh every year.
There are similar reasons why I don’t eat certain other foods. Fast food french fries tear up the roof of my mouth. I’ve cut my lip on corn chips. Popcorn bothers my gums. Pop Tarts, on the other hand, are simply nasty. Some foods I have thought were gross beyond words since childhood. Even as a kid I didn't like syrup, marshmallows, or popsicles.
I’m allowed not to eat things, especially when those things are treats that other people are delighted to have. Someone else always drinks “my” beer on race day, because why would I want to punish myself after all that training by drinking a beer?? Of all things???
Yes, I like candy, sometimes. It’s available to me literally twenty-four hours a day, every single day. It’s small and portable and a lot of people give it away for free, like at our veterinary office. If you plan your route you can get free candy every day and you don’t even have to say Trick or Treat, or ask anyone to smell your feet, although I suppose they might at the podiatrist.
For these reasons, I don’t need to feel scarcity around candy. Just like any other snack or dessert food, if I wake up at 4 AM with a craving, I can walk across the street and satisfy it. I can order it and have it delivered. I could keep it in my kitchen all the time, although that isn’t really fair to my husband.
A lot of people will eat whatever is in front of them, and eat it until it’s gone. I’m not like that because my memory is too good. I remember that while I *have* eaten an entire large pizza, or a family-size bag of chips, or a pound of candy, I didn't like how it felt afterward. Why do that when it’s actually better to have just the right amount? It’s not like pizza is canceled after tomorrow.
That’s why on Halloween I eat all the candy I want. I know at a certain point I’m going to go “You know what? Bleah” and seal the bag. As a child I was rationed to two pieces of Halloween candy a day, and that made it last until Easter, when, guess what? More candy!
My fun and holiday indulgences are not limited by availability, by cost, by tradition or by social pressure. I could literally have a piece of candy in my mouth every waking moment, and nobody would say anything, unless maybe I happened to be meeting the Pope. It is completely up to me to decide what I think is fun and how I like to celebrate. My limiting factor here is Halloween mouth. I respect my natural limits, and that allows me do whatever I want, all the time.
People often ask me if I eat wheat. This has been going on for, oh, fifteen years? It used to surprise me, because I’m vegan and most people agree that wheat is a plant. At the time, there weren’t many other commonly-known dietary restrictions and it seemed unusual to link my plant-based diet with something more medical in nature. Now, of course, everyone knows what gluten-free means, and it’s more obvious that we are natural allies. That’s why I often cook GF food for my friends.
It isn’t a big deal. I have empathy for the recently gluten-departed because I remember what it was like (and often still is like):
Spending an extra hour at the grocery store just to read ingredients
Going to parties where you can’t eat the food
...and then people keep asking you about it
Having to bring your own food to a gathering, only for others to nitpick it
Going out to dinner and finding nothing on the menu
Communicating with uninterested or actively hostile waitstaff
Getting food that still has something you can’t eat, no matter how carefully you explain
Feeling excluded and resented
Listening as other people put words in your mouth or question your motives
Being “told” you have an eating disorder by random uncredentialed bystanders
There are certainly other groups who feel excluded from social or business settings that involve food, and they know what I mean when I sum up the attitude:
“Eat bacon, eat pizza, drink beer, or get out.”
People are basically like, if you don’t eat the exact same foods that I do, I have no interest in being your friend. And I’m like, but what about sense of humor and taste in music??
Oh well, their loss.
When I meet people who have recently quit eating gluten, I know just what to do. Most of my diet is GF anyway, because almost all baked goods fall outside of the category of what I consider food for humans. I, too, feel cruddy after I eat ordinary foods like white bread or bagels or pizza crust. It’s basically glue. I don’t have a problem with gluten, I have a problem with industrial foods in general.
I don’t refuse to eat these things. It’s more like I walk on by and they don’t exist to me.
Other people may feel a similar feeling when they contemplate eating foods like black licorice, or pineapple on pizza, or soggy cornflakes, or whatever else they think is kinda gross and uninteresting. Baby food, there’s your example. I can watch other (small) people eating baby food all day and not mind, not feel like it applies to me or that I’m missing out. It just... isn’t for me.
Nobody minds if I don’t eat a dinner roll or a croissant or a bagel or a muffin or whatever. Nobody is required to eat anything off a buffet. Any host who pushes past a “no, thank you” to find out why a guest is not eating a specific thing is setting themselves up for an awkward moment. Nobody needs that.
Not that that stops them...
I mean, I AM an animal at the zoo, here for everyone’s third-degree pleasure, am I not?
I’ll never forget being invited for a holiday meal - a stranger who couldn’t afford to fly home - and having twelve people question me about my lifestyle as I resorted to eating the entree I had to cook for myself. Wouldn’t you all rather exchange book recommendations or play Never Did I Ever or something?
It’s a dynamic that always ends poorly. The interlocutor feels like they’re doing their best to engage and take an interest. The newly different, and probably quite hungry, person with the non-traditional culinary habit feels defensive and isolated. Everyone involved would be better off switching to another topic, yet for some reason they don’t. The one who would really like a nice hot meal that doesn’t make them ill, comes across as annoying, preachy, and socially “not a good cultural fit for this office.” The “normal” person comes off like a bully.
A bully with a cold table and a harsh home.
There, I said it.
I love to cook, and I love to cook for large groups. I will never stop bursting with pride when, inevitably, my potluck offering is cleared before anyone else’s dish - and sometimes before I can turn around with a serving spoon. I see it as a basic component of hospitality to offer a crowd-pleasing spread. I don’t see cooking gluten-free as any more complicated than anything else. In point of fact, there are all sorts of foods that are both vegan and gluten-free that anyone would eat, such as watermelon, corn on the cob, or bean dip.
Try as I might, I still get picky eaters. “Normal” people take zero accountability for how picky they can be. They will patently refuse to try any dish with a food they don’t like, sometimes even if they’ve never tasted it in their life. They’ll pick around something like sweet potato or escarole, and nobody ever gives them any flack for their demonstrably restrictive dietary habits.
We’re only in trouble if we do it for medical or philosophical reasons, or, really any other consistent purpose. The only socially acceptable reason not to eat something is because you just don’t like it and you think it’s icky.
Personally I think it’s my right as a consumer to eat or not eat whatever I choose, and it’s the right of any business in a free market to sell and serve it to me.
I also think it’s the right of my friends and acquaintances to eat or not eat, end of story. If they aren’t hungry, if they’re doing intermittent fasting, if they just had dental work done, if they’re embarrassed about their table manners, how can I care? If this is a person I want to feel welcome and comfortable, I’m going along with whatever they need.
This is why I’ll always accommodate my gluten-free friends. I have nearly thirty years of experience scrutinizing labels and reading the ingredients of the ingredients. I already know to use separate serving utensils and prep things on a clean cutting board. There are also plenty of convenience foods I can quickly throw in my cart or pop out of the freezer. It’s fun to watch my gluten-free friends’ faces light up when the realization dawns that they can trust me, they can enjoy a fine hot meal, and they can feel safe to come over and do it again another time. Gluten-free friends are grateful friends!
Our fridge is still full. Not only did we buy a bunch of party food for our housewarming, but people brought stuff, too. Like every potluck, if everyone brings enough for 6-8 people then it’s a pretty big multiplier.
There was so much that we couldn’t even bring everything out, which is why there’s still a giant watermelon filling most of the top shelf.
The problem with this situation is that we’re only two people... well, unless you go by size, in which case we might get an extra quarter-person between us... and we can only eat so much. How are we going to reach our year-end goals of physical transformation when there are all these GOODIES laying around?
As I may have pointed out, the Halloween Store is already open in our neighborhood, in a place so close and conspicuous that we see it every time we leave our building. This is the first reminder of how we do it:
A month of eating candy and watching horror films
Mashed potatoes in general
And suddenly, oh dear, New Year’s Eve
What this all means is that our September party food problems are just the beginning, just the tip of the iceberg, an iceberg with chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and a cherry on top.
I’m a “live to eat” person. I can’t see why I shouldn’t enjoy something I do at least four times a day to the absolute maximum. I’m never going to stop eating and loving party food.
On the other hand, I’m also a tightwad who hates shopping, so it’s incumbent upon me to continue to fit in my clothes. The alternative would be to buy more, without being able to escape the memory of all the fries and cake that put me back in the changing room.
One of my secrets here is to make sure to buy or make very particular party foods. There’s a method to the madness.
First of all, there are a lot of perfectly great snacks and treats that I don’t necessarily like that much.
I’m a potato chip person, so we always have corn chips or pita chips, both of which I can walk right by. I’m also fussy about anything in a huge bowl where people are reaching in with their bare hands. I see that and it’s like that bowl isn’t even there anymore, it stops existing to me.
Not a big fan of salty foods in general, like nuts, pretzels, or popcorn.
I quit drinking soda of any kind back in 2013.
Probably most of all, I’ve been vegan for 22 years, and that makes it easy for me to skip anything with even one non-plant-based ingredient. Pie, cookies, cake, deviled eggs, anything with butter or whatever... I would no sooner eat those foods than I would walk by someone in a restaurant and grab something off their plate. Not mine, not for me.
The easiest way I’ve found to deal with party foods that I actually find tempting is to make them myself. Cooking in my kitchen is an intensive activity. I do a lot of bulk cooking or attempting to feed groups of a dozen or more - even when only three people are coming over. I’ve found that the act of cooking from scratch keeps me from snacking. There is nothing about flour, raw onions, or a teaspoon of spices that makes me want to pop it in my mouth. Other people sneak bites when they are doing food prep, and I can’t really imagine how, what, or why. Clean hands!
I made a platter of hummus wraps but never got around to eating one.
It turns out that being a hostess in a small space packed with people makes a conveyor belt of continuous snacks less possible. Every time you turn around, you’re either meeting someone, greeting someone, or trying to finish the story about how they got the purse out when it fell down a hole six feet into a bank of lockers.
It’s also different with a dog and a parrot. Our critters are both extreme extroverts who love meeting everybody and they were on their best behavior. Ah, but neither of them are trustworthy if there’s a plate of food within reach. There happened to be a lot of avocado on the premises, mostly in the form of guacamole or seven-layer dip, and it’s literally a matter of life or death to make sure nobody unknowingly offers some to Noelle. I kept my eye on her as she kept dancing around, asking someone to carry her to the kitchen or at least bring her a few pounds of snacks.
The reason to have a party is to be with your friends.
There happens to be a ton of food around, of course, but the grocery store next to our building is open eighteen hours a day. Just because there is food next to me does not mean I am required to continually shovel it into my cakehole.
It’s basically all there for sustenance so that we can focus on serious business, like fast card games, or conning an intern into trying to spin two hula hoops while juggling three balls.
Also cheaper than sushi for a crowd.
Entertaining at home can be a good bargain for all concerned. No parking, no traffic, no waiting for a table, no tips, no babysitters. If you’re in the habit of doing it on a regular basis, it takes off a lot of the pressure for perfection, and it can also take away the pressure of feeling like this is the one and only lifetime opportunity to eat snacks. Eh, that’ll be there next week.
I made it through unscathed. Rather than gaining three pounds, which is typical after a big party, I was still on track the next day. This is important, because I never want to feel like avoiding a social gathering just because there will be food there. People first, then everything else.
This summer has really done a number on our waistlines. We went on three trips out of town, adding up to over a month. Between that, moving, and my series of oral surgeries, there hasn’t really been a normal day for us in months. Like most people, that means we haven’t been eating normal meals, either. We’re in our new place, which has a mirrored door on the bedroom closet, and we’re thinking, Oh dear.
Note that I said “normal” meals, not “regular” meals. This isn’t about missing any mealtimes, oh no. It’s more about restaurant food, eating at the airport, and half a metric ton more French fries than we’d normally eat in a year.
This is what happened. We moved into our new apartment, literally were unpacking boxes until 11:00 PM the night before we went to the airport, and then left the country. When we came home, it was a lot like walking in the door of our new home for the first time.
We walked in, and we were both at our highest weight of 2019.
Not everyone cares about this, and if you personally don’t have to care for health or financial reasons, well bully for you. In both our cases, we’re at the point where we either need to replace our ENTIRE WARDROBES or we need to slow our roll.
Since we just moved and went on vacation, we’re not in any hurry to spend money on anything that isn’t a strict necessity.
I don’t enjoy the feeling of the waistband of my pants trying to do stage magic and saw me in half, so the sooner we can make some changes, the better.
The good news is that we’re benefitting from three things. One, we both know we want to have good news to report in four months for the New Year, so we’re intrinsically motivated. Two, we’ve collectively lost 100 pounds and we know what to do. Three, and probably most important, we are structurally supported by our new kitchen.
One of the main reasons we moved is because we were both sick and tired of the tiny kitchen in our old studio apartment. We could only be in the room one at a time. We had one square foot for meal prep. It was hard to reach anything and removing one item, like a bowl or a pan, required moving other stuff out of the way. As a consequence, we started relying on a lot of frozen food.
The new kitchen is woefully short on drawers, there is only one cabinet deep enough to hold a lot of bigger stuff like baking pans, and we still don’t have enough space for a pantry cupboard. The spice rack is on top of the fridge. BUT!
There is plenty of counter space, it has a full-size dishwasher, the sink is deeper and it has a sprayer, it’s better lit, and it looks much nicer all around. We basically went from 1980s kitchen to modern overnight.
For the first time in our marriage, my husband can find ingredients and utensils without having to ask me where they are. That is momentous.
He cooked a proper meal the second night. I had already unpacked the kitchen well enough that it was functional. In fact I had managed to heat up a can of soup for lunch while the movers were still hauling things in. We were both more interested in getting the kitchen in order than we were in anything else, at least once the bed and shower were operational.
When you enjoy cooking, it’s relaxing and fun. When you walk into an inviting kitchen space, the first thing you think is, What would I cook in here? I often cook at my parents’ house and sometimes I cook with friends, too. It’s a lot like how musicians display their instruments, and sometimes their friends ask to pick one up. It’s also a lot like Sewing Room Envy.
We were still in the unpacking process and we were already stacking carefully labeled leftovers in the freezer.
There is nothing like eating home cooking after a long absence. DANG this is good!
We had been consciously eating down our provisions for a couple of months before the move, planning to avoid leftovers and finish off containers without replacing them. Our fridge and freezer were almost completely empty the day of the move. This left us with a more or less clean slate in the new place.
Right now the fridge is full of a bunch of chard, a head of cauliflower, and the biggest cabbage that we’ve ever seen, almost the size of a watermelon! When I say “full,” I mean that the main compartment is mostly produce. This is fairly typical for us; we’ll eat the chard and the cauliflower over two meals. The cabbage might take three.
What happens when two good cooks share a kitchen is that they start working to outdo one another. A particularly fine meal inspires a follow-up. As bachelors, we both would occasionally eat cereal for dinner, and of course we could do that any time we like, but it seems really depressing now. Why settle when you have the time, space, and resources to make something better?
We were at the grocery store, stocking up, when I noticed a new kind of frozen pizza. I pointed it out. We both shook our heads, Nahhh. We also walked right past the mini corndogs.
Most people don’t have functional kitchens. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the main three are: at least twice as much stuff as necessary, power struggles, and lack of a system. People with far larger and better equipped kitchens than ours are not appreciating them at all! My suggestion would be to rate your mood and energy level against what meals are actually emerging from your kitchen, and then reevaluate all the stuff on your countertops.
It doesn’t take actually relocating to get yourself both a new kitchen and a new dinner!
It’s that time again, time to move! We’ve been eating up what we have on hand, and this has led to some interesting revelations. What are we doing when we’re coasting along in default mode, and how does it compare to what we would rather claim to be doing on some sort of survey?
Our freezer is almost completely empty right now. We decided to get ready to move immediately after coming home from vacation, when we hadn’t been shopping yet. That was the first disruption. HALT! Eat what we have and try to avoid bringing home anything new.
The second disruption happened when I also skipped my occasional “stocking up” trips. One of our frugality tricks is to wait until certain staples go on sale, and then buy as much as we can fit. Since we haven’t had a pantry for the past couple of years, this means freezer stuff. It keeps, it’s at eye level, and it’s a very limited space, so we know we can’t overdo it.
This would definitely be the point when I would plan to fill up the freezer with entrees to last 1-2 weeks.
The third disruption was when we noticed we were running out of oatmeal and declined to go to Costco. There is truly no point to going to a warehouse store immediately before loading a moving van, especially when you plan to live closer to said warehouse store afterward.
As with any area of complexity, there are multiple inputs here, all with different causes and all with different effects.
As our freezer has gradually and steadily emptied out, it is becoming apparent that I harbor some major fantasies about leisurely hot breakfasts. Now more than half of what is left in there consists of breakfast foods. That does sort of solve the low oatmeal reserve problem.
It has also become apparent that we tend to eat certain foods more quickly than others, and some orphans have been hanging around. I discovered, much to my surprise, that there are two containers of homemade soup in the freezer, and one of a special katsu sauce that I batch-cook because it is incredibly messy.
This makes it theoretically possible to eat an actual “home-cooked” meal in our new place the very night we move in!
Something else came up in the surprise pantry assessment. My hubby found my carefully hidden, freezer-burned non-dairy chocolate brownie ice cream. It’s probably been in there, what month is it? Six months or more? It was under my stash of vegan white chocolate chips from New Year’s Eve 2017.
Yes, it’s true, no matter what I eat or claim to eat, I always have a stash of dessert foods hidden away somewhere. Twenty-five years ago it was a bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies in the back of my desk drawer, kept at work so I wouldn’t have to share with my boyfriend. Now it’s - well, it’s whatever I feel like - considerately hidden from my abstainer husband.
Abstainers have to avoid temptations entirely, because otherwise they will immediately cave in. Moderators like me prefer to have the temptation on hand, just to know it’s there, like a fire extinguisher. It’s just as unfair for me to prominently display treats around my husband as it is unfair for him to require me not to keep any in the house.
I learned to be a moderator from my dad, incidentally. He would get three Cadbury chocolate bars for Christmas, one plain, one with dried fruit, and one with nuts. They lived in a desk drawer next to his favorite chair. Sometimes, while reading a book, he would unwrap one of these, snap off one rectangle, and nibble at it. Just one. Not every day. Those chocolate bars - you can imagine how I knew, a little kid staring at candy - would last him for months. I learned to associate moderation with higher-quality candy! That’s probably why, in our fruit bowl, I still have a few pieces of candy left over from Halloween, over nine months ago.
What else do we have in our pantry, now that we’re aiming for nothing?
A dozen or so jars of homemade soup stock, canned four years ago when we had a much larger kitchen. Likewise home-grown and canned tomatoes and collard greens. Are we going to cook from scratch more when we move to a new place and have a conventional kitchen again?
A few different kinds of flours and sweeteners, kept in the fridge for lack of space. Again, bought when we had a bigger kitchen and more counter space for baking. Are we going to do more of that, or are we wasting money by buying more than we use?
Condiments, so many condiments. We seem to keep accumulating mustards and capers and barbecue sauce and salad dressings, no matter where we live or what we’re doing. At least they are current, since we definitely started from zero when we moved to this region.
Behavioral research indicates that moving is the best time to start new habits. Thinking about when we first moved to this apartment, things have been different. We’ve eaten a lot more prepared foods and we’ve done very little cooking. We’re fitter, though, because we started taking classes at a gym instead of leaving our workouts up to fate. We used to alternate which one of us cooked, but it’s been very haphazard in this tiny studio kitchen.
Now what we want to do is to set careful intentions about our new place, because if we don’t, we will certainly fall into default behavior. We’ll have our first grocery shopping trip to fill up our ghostly, echoing fridge. What’s going in the basket? What will we bring home, what will we cook, what will we eat?
Most importantly, where will I hide my treats?
There must be people cooking out there, but who, and where are they? Everyone I know seems to be scrambling between protein bars and stale sandwiches. Who is going to cook a nice dinner when it’s often nearly 8 PM before they get in the door?
This is where I advocate for Dinner One and Dinner Two.
It’s true that nobody has the time for anything. Actually it totally isn’t. Everyone gets the same 24 hours. Good person, bad person, busy, not busy, nobody gets any more time and nobody gets any less. We just use it up while we try to pour it from one bucket into another.
I started to realize how much time I could reclaim when my husband I were first dating. He preferred, over what I always saw as the enticing reward of weekend brunch, actually cooking a hot breakfast at home? Why? Who on earth doesn’t like to go to brunch? He pointed out that it involved driving across town, putting your name on a list, standing around for an hour waiting for a table, finally getting seated, waiting twenty minutes to order, waiting half an hour or more for the food, and then waiting another twenty minutes to get the check.
If he made the breakfast, we could eat, clean up, and take a nap in the same amount of time.
He sealed the deal and proved his point by making massive hubcap-sized waffles.
I started cooking dinners from scratch around the same time. I had grown bored of the selection of frozen dinners available to me, and I also realized that I really wanted two of them. I would always be hungry afterward and round out my meal with a large bowl of cereal. If I started buying double meals, I’d double my grocery bill, and also my trash. What if I tried cooking, making some soup or something?
It took so long, though! I didn’t like having to go directly to the kitchen when I got home from work, and then, because I was new to cooking, have to work for ninety minutes before I could eat.
That was the beginning of Dinner One, Dinner Two.
I would come home and cook something quick and easy, one of the microwave meals on which I had been subsisting. I would eat it, and only then would I get started on the real meal, Dinner Two.
Dinner Two was fancy. Dinner Two would be something I really wanted to try, something I’d look forward to. Since I had already eaten, I could take my time and enjoy myself. I found that I liked cooking for myself as long as I wasn’t hangry!
When you’re only cooking for yourself and yourself alone, it can be miserable or it can be fantastic. The misery is when you just aren’t motivated and you find yourself eating directly out of a can, or shrugging and eating a bowl of cereal and then just going to bed. As a bachelorette, I ate meals alone that I would never, ever feed to a guest.
The fantastic part of cooking for yourself and yourself alone? Actually there are several. One. If there is a mess in there, it’s your mess and you have nobody else to blame. If you keep it clean, it stays that way. Two. You can make whatever you like, and nobody else will complain. Three. You get all the leftovers. If you stock something, it’s still there later.
(The trick to that last, if you have roommates, is to hide special leftovers in ugly containers. Wrap it in foil, use old stained and melted plastic containers, or reuse a frozen okra bag as a sleeve. Hide it behind the spinach. Write up a label reading ‘CABBAGE STEW.’)
It was cooking Dinner Two while listening to audio books that convinced me I could learn to be a good cook. I would eat a small serving when it was ready, because I was never satisfied by my cardboard-encased frozen meals. Then I would portion out the rest in containers, some for lunch and some for dinner.
Depending on the recipe, I would have anywhere from 3-8 servings.
If you have a small freezer, it will fill up with leftovers very quickly. After the third time I did Dinner Two, I didn’t have enough room (or containers) to fit any more. As I ate servings from earlier batches, I would free up more space, and that helped to add more variety. My goal was to have at least six different kinds of leftovers stored in there, which was about the same as the frozen aisle at my grocery store.
Bringing homemade lunch was fun. I would carry it in still frozen, and by lunchtime it would have defrosted. I would heat it up, and people would wander into the break room, sniffing, saying, “That smells good!” A far cry from the microwave popcorn/diet cola “lunches” of my friends. Our office park was too far from civilization to go to a restaurant for lunch, and the cafeteria served the singularly worst sandwiches I had ever tasted. Nothing I made could be had locally at any price. Conspicuous consumption!
Dinner Two bought me time. Every batch meant I traded one evening of cooking and cleanup for roughly two additional dinners and three lunches. In a sense, they pop magically into existence. They seemed to stack up at a rapid rate. A couple of times I even managed to feed a friend who dropped by for a surprise visit.
With time, I learned to be faster at food prep. I invested in better knives, bigger pots, grander glass pans. Not only could I cook more, faster, I also found a bunch of recipes that took less than half an hour. A few dinners in my repertoire can be on the table in ten minutes!
I prefer cooking for a family or a dinner party to cooking for myself alone. It gives me a reason to get fancy. I eat better, and certainly I eat more fresh vegetables. It doesn’t hurt to have extra hands to help with the cleanup, and someone else to trade nights. In that sense, Dinner One and Dinner Two can represent an alternating schedule.
Cooking from scratch and cooking in batches has a lot going for it. It saves money, tastes better, and frees up all the time everyone else is spending waiting in line, waiting for a table, waiting for delivery of what is so often disappointing and unsatisfying. The more you do it, the easier it gets and the more variety you have on hand. In another way, Dinner One, Dinner Two is a form of time travel, a way to send gifts, money, and time to Future You.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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