09/09/2013 03:43 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2013

The Smother-In-Law: Standing Up for Your Health and Food Choices

During summer you vacationed with your spouse, but fall is the family holiday season. From tailgates to Thanksgiving, chances are you'll be seeing a lot of in-laws these next few months. Depending on the people involved, you could be spending some lovely quality time with wonderful people, or dealing with smother-in-laws. If food is involved, your weekend may be heavy on the smother and it can affect your long term health and well-being.

One thing I've noticed both as a wedding wellness nutritionist and as a wife is that many family gathering disagreements are based on food, nutrition and health. Food is a huge bonding point for families. It's tradition, ethics, creativity and in my family, food is how you show love. On top of that, food is full of un-spoken social rules that can be hard to define. Example: Your mother makes marshmallow jello at every family event. Funeral. Thanksgiving. It doesn't matter, the marshmallow dish is always there. The family has learned to like it, subtly skip it or pretend to like it. But when someone new joins the picture who doesn't understand these unspoken food rules, there's going to be trouble and feelings will be hurt.

As a pescatarian, I had several years of explaining why I didn't have the steak every time I visited the in-laws. And as a more health conscious eater than some, there were times when I was the recipient of remarks said in a tone of jest, but full of loud, mean-spirited commentary. It hurt. As an outsider your habits and beliefs surrounding a tradition as big as food can make you different and possibly controversial. I'll bet you've been to a gathering where saying no to a hamburger led to a heated discussion on ethics, environment and the economy. Someone probably left pretty angry.

Marriage is all about blending philosophies for the sake of love. Food choices and health habits included. How do you take your point of view on what you do every day, and blend it with someone else's? Or how do you stand your ground for what really matters to you without burning bridges? Is it possible to tell the smother-in-law that you've had enough with the weight comments or the force feeding while being respectful? It is.

5 Tactics for Standing Up for Your Health With a Smother-In-Law
  • Firm but friendly: Don't beat around the bush and don't lie. If you're full and she's feeding you a second or third slice of holiday pie, say "Thank you, but no."
  • State the 'why': There will be in-laws who do not understand what no means. They want to know the reason for saying no. This is when you add in 'Thank you but no. I'm full and I don't want to eat more.' It's honest and logical, not personal.
  • Guilt squashing: Even if you've explained the 'why' of your behaviors, someone may turn it into a personal attack. My personal favorite? "You don't like my cooking!" which my poor husband has heard many times from my own family. Your response is to address the statement and redirect. You say "That's not true. I love your (insert name) dish. I'm feeling full right now but would love a slice for tomorrow."
  • Be two steps ahead: If you are over served and listen to your body's full notification. You may be picked on or even called anorexic for stopping when you're full. Some people can be awful. But you can be two steps ahead of the situation. Make a point to serve yourself. Or offer to set the table or open wine to let everyone settle in and be distracted. Lastly, have one or two discussion topics ready to go that the chronic meanie-pants will like. From "Did you see the game last weekend?" to "Your garden is looking amazing! How do you do it?" everyone will like this discussion more than rude commentary.
  • Step aside for the spouse: If this becomes a chronic family gathering issue that leaves you honestly hurt, speak to your significant other. Your partner cares about your feelings. Sometimes a smother-in-law fails to take your word seriously, but they love their child and if it bothers them, they will stop.

Food and family are very personal, but as part of a new family, you need to stand up for your health and your body image. There are times we feel smothered by another person's food and health philosophy, or we may even be guilty of this ourselves. Marriage is about coming together with patience and love, but it should never mean feeling belittled for your health and positive body image efforts. Here's to a healthy and happy fall holiday season.