A Locavore Goes Home for the Holidays: How to Avoid Clashing With Family Over Food

Imagine, if you will, a modern-day remake of the renowned dinner scene from the holiday classic National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

In today’s version, as Clark W. Griswold is about to cut into the turkey, someone from down the table yells out, “That’s a free-range heritage breed, right? I don’t eat factory-farmed turkeys!” While cousin Eddie eagerly dips into Aunt Bethany’s green Jell-O, his wife Cathrine balks, launching into a diatribe about processed foods. And in the remake, the kitchen scene turns ugly when daughter Audrey lays into her mom for only purchasing conventionally grown vegetables.

This version of the comedy may seem far-fetched, but with more and more Americans concerned with ethical eating, it could be a scene based on a real problem. As families reunite for extended periods during the holidays, food is often at the center of festivities—but it can also be a point of conflict between relatives. When family members disagree on what constitutes a nutritious and ethical meal, what is the conscious eater to do?

Brandy Brooks faced this dilemma the first Christmas she went home after making the decision to only eat sustainable, locally raised meat. But instead of getting frustrated with family members who hadn’t made the switch, the Somerville, MA, resident brought a couple relatives along with her as she searched for an ethically suitable ham.

“It gave me a chance to explain why this was important enough to me to drive out of the way and pay extra for this kind of meat,” she recalls. “This eventually led to three other members of my family discovering and becoming regular shoppers at an organic market chain none of us knew existed in the area three years earlier.”

Concerns about the effect dietary differences can have on relationships is not a new problem—it dates back to the ancient Israelites hashing out the Levitical code, if not even earlier, notes Michael Stiglitz, a marriage and family therapist based in Brooklyn. He adds that finding solutions depends heavily on how well families communicate about their needs in general.

“There’s no need for a vegetarian to eat turkey on Thanksgiving, but does that mean he needs to preach to his family about how awful they are for killing animals?” Stiglitz asks. “That might not be the time.”

Sarah Bryce, who lives in Boston, says she’s been perceived as judgmental in the past when expressing her beliefs about food to family. Not wanting to dampen the limited time they have with family, Bryce and her husband don't rock the boat and now eat what’s put in front of them. What's the price of her familial peace? “We both usually feel a major need for detox when we come home,” she says.

Others take a more principled approach, like Chêz Dishman, who doesn’t eat animal products and is raising her daughter vegan as well. She says that rather than compromising here and there, it’s easier to draw a firm line for what she and her daughter will eat when visiting family. But that doesn’t mean she’s not simultaneously trying to open people’s minds about the reasoning behind her dietary choices.

“I work really hard each time to make sure that the recipes or items I contribute are the most delicious on the menu so people will realize vegan food isn’t all sprouts and tofu and will hopefully be more open to these recipes next year,” she says.

This all might be too much to ask for the bumbling Griswolds. For the rest of us, though, Stiglitz says leading by example is one of the best ways anyone with strongly held beliefs can stick to their values while not driving their families away.

“It’s about leading people to good information to make better choices for themselves,” he says.

Will you be spending the holidays with family members who don't share your views about food?

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Steve’s story about healthy fast food was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011. His food and general interest stories regularly appear in Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other places. Email Steve | @thebostonwriter