Today a reader asks for tips on how to avoid eating the holiday candy that will make its way into their home via their children. My answer in the video, plus extra tips from friends. Special shout-out to Winter Redd of the podcast, Hungry Squared—check it out!
Dear Misery Loves Cookery,
My spouse and I had a large number of relatives over for the Thanksgiving holiday. Hosting was fun, but we spent the day before prepping our house and meal. With Christmas coming, we’ll be doing the same thing again. Can you suggest something quick but still healthy and hearty that we can make for ourselves while prepping for a holiday? So we don’t have to eat take-out again?
‘Tis the season for making extravagant amounts of food for a holiday meal…and starving while preparing them.
I feel your pain, friend. We had the exact same situation this Thanksgiving, and will again this Christmas. As I mentioned in response to a reader looking for easy Christmas breakfast ideas, it isn’t unusual for everyone but the cook (who is tasting everything) to starve while awaiting a holiday meal.
The breakfast casserole I suggested may work well for you in this situation—it is certainly quick and hearty, and its healthiness is easily adjustable depending on which extras you put into it.
My usual go-to solution—when I actually think of it ahead of time—is to splurge on some good cold cuts, so family members can make a sandwich when they are hungry. Now, our family is not really a big sandwich-eating group, by nature, so this isn’t always welcomed.
My ugly confession: I am usually so focused and busy prepping holiday dishes, I bark something at them like, “Can you PLEASE just make a sandwich? I bought lunch meat…can’t you see how busy I am? I can’t cook a lunch and make this meal. Don’t you want [insert holiday meal?]” I then gripe that they are in my way while making the sandwiches they don’t really want but I guilted them into preparing.
Yeah, I’m not super proud of this behavior. Seems like I made need a better solution, too.
Here’s a brainstorm: how about crockpot chili? You could either make your favorite chili recipe the day before, then keep it warm throughout the holiday prep day in the slow cooker, or just dump all the ingredients in the slow cooker the night before your prep day, set it to low, and have chili ready (and simmering) by the morning.
Chili is quick, hearty, and healthy, especially if you load it with vegetables, and family members can serve themselves whenever they are feeling peckish without needing to get to the stove, fridge, etc.
As you do your holiday grocery shopping this week, think about picking up:
1 lb lean ground beef, turkey, or chicken
Chili seasonings (Whatever you like, whether pre-packed or your own mix; we always add extra cumin.)
Chopped veggies like onions, peppers, zucchini, yellow squash, corn, etc.
2 large cans crushed tomatoes
1 can diced tomatoes
2 cans kidney, pinto, or black beans
Throw everything but the beans into the crock pot in the order listed above (meat first, then seasonings, etc.), add 1-2 cups water or broth, and cook on high for 3-4 hours or low for 6-8. Add beans 1/2 hour before you’d like to serve.
If you want to be fancy, get accompaniments like cheese, sour cream, tortilla chips, oyster crackers, hot sauce, chopped jalapeño, etc. Be aware that your family retrieving these extras will mean they are likely to get in your cooking space. Try to be nicer than I am in this situation.
The slow cooker has its cooking foibles, but cooking chili (and keeping it warm for all day eating) is one of its strong suits. If you haven’t used your slow cooker in awhile, this is a great opportunity.
I hope this solution works for you. Heck, I hope this solution works for me, too! Family, if you are reading this, get ready for some Christmas chili.
Christmas cookies, or Hannukah cookies, or Kwanzaa cookies, or Yule cookies, or New Year’s cookies: whatever you celebrate this month that involves cookies, I want to be a part of the action.
I know that a lot of us have family recipes that are near and dear to us. I also know that those recipes also often remain family secrets, and then (sadly), when the bakers in the family can no longer make them, they aren’t ever made the same way again.
One of the best things about cooking and baking is that we can both cherish and enjoy our own traditional foods, while being delighted by the traditional foods of others. I love discovering new recipes, especially when I can learn the stories and traditions that come along with them.
I’d like to feature your favorite holiday cookies all throughout this December. Have a cookie that you make better than anyone? A treat your grandparents brought with them from their native country? A dessert born of humble times, that is now considered a family delicacy? Let’s share our stories and baked goods this holiday season!
Please email me with your recipe, as well as either a short story about how it was created, the reason why you love it, a funny anecdote—whatever you’d like to share, nothing fancy, long or complicated is required. If you have one, feel free to attach a photo or two of the cookies (or you making the cookies), and I’ll share it with my readers.
If you’d like to be credited with contact information, I can include that, too, otherwise I’ll attribute your recipe to your first name, only, to protect your privacy (while featuring your beautiful baked goods.)
I can’t wait to try your recipes, friends, and share them with fellow cookie lovers here at Misery Loves Cookery.
I’ll premiere our signature family bar cookie—a little treat we call Granddad Surprise—next week. Why do we call this recipe, “Granddad Surprise?” You’ll have to check back next week to find out.
Disclaimer: Any story, photo, or recipe sent to Misery Loves Cookery may be used on this website. By emailing your information, you give permission for me to feature it here, and certify that the information you are providing (ideas, text, and images) are yours to give away. Thank You!
Dear Misery Loves Cookery,
I do all the cooking for Thanksgiving and am no slouch in the kitchen. We invite family members for the meal, including a couple who does not like to cook. Because we know that they do not like to cook, we ask them to bring something very easy each time that we don’t have for the table (dinner rolls, etc.).
They ignore that suggestion each year and bring a 1.5L of the worst rot-gut white zin or paint thinner “Table Red,” a box of plastic-wrapped cakes (the kind we ate as kids) from the bakery “outlet,” and a box of nasty chocolate-covered goo-cherries that have been darkening the pharmacy’s bottom shelf since the Kennedy administration.
I politely take them with thanks, but they seem miffed when they don’t make it to the table, front-and-center. My spouse goes to great lengths to set a beautiful table. I go to great lengths to create an amazing meal. They go to the corner store and get whatever’s cheap, even though they are well-off.
I mean, really, do I have to decant bad wine so that I don’t have to look at a handle of turpentine on my Thanksgiving table?
Yikes! I have to admit, your letter made me laugh when I first read it, as you very humorously describe your difficult situation. I bet you are a very fun host.
I empathize with your plight: when you work hard at a making a meal, and go out of your way to accommodate your guests’ desire to contribute something for it, it is frustrating when they a) don’t bring what you ask, and b) bring something you really don’t enjoy/something that doesn’t accompany your meal.
We could assume that they simply don’t care about honoring your request, even though you specifically pick something that should accommodate them. We could assume that they actually really like goo-cherries and snack cakes. We could assume that they don’t drink enough wine to really know the difference between one type or another, and think they are getting great bang for the buck with a full 1.5 liter.
One could assume a lot of things in this situation, but I’d suggest you assume nothing, give them the benefit of the doubt, and simply take this at face value. Why? Because this is family, you love them, and actually making judgements about their motivation (e.g., frugality, lack of taste, lack of attention to your request) will only make you resentful.
They will bring whatever they want, it likely will be something you don’t like, and you should find a way to serve it.
With that in mind, here’s my recommendation:
Expect nothing, be happy: When you speak to them about their invitation, and they inevitably ask what they can contribute to the meal, turn the question back to them. “What would you like to bring?” Hopefully, they will make a suggestion, but if they say something like, “Oh, whatever you need,” do not give them any “assignment” that is actually required. If you ask for rolls, buy rolls, just in case. If you already know that they will bring wine and packaged desserts, ask them to bring wine and desserts (just be sure to have your own favorite wines and homemade desserts ready to be served, too.)
Rely on “knock-out” punch: A few hours prior to their arrival, chop up two-to-three cups of fresh fruits: apples, pears, berries, citrus—whatever you like that looks fresh. Macerate that fruit with a few teaspoons of sugar or honey, the juice from one-half a large lemon or lime, and one or two cups of a favorite spirit or liquor (e.g., bourbon, whisky, cointreau, grand marnier, brandy, or a flavored vodka), then refrigerate.
When they arrive, have your most lovely punch bowl thoughtfully displayed and loaded with the macerated fruit/alcohol, as well as a few cups of fruit juice or cider. Gratefully accept their bottle (i.e.. “This is perfect, exactly what we needed!”) and pour at least half of the wine into the punch bowl. Top off the punch with some sparkling water or ginger ale, and add ice. Check sweetness, and adjust with more citrus juice (or liquor), as necessary.
If this knock-out punch doesn’t elevate the wine, at least it will make everyone a little tipsy as you eat appetizers. Save a glass or two of the wine in the bottle in case they would like some with their meals, otherwise, serve your own stash when the turkey comes to the table.
Kids make everything adorable: Who can resist a dessert tray artfully decorated by tiny children? If you have a few children handy, ask them to decorate a plate with the pastries and cherries your guests bring, then make a point of having the kids show these guests their creation.
For a childless event, just bite the bullet, be polite, and arrange their desserts on platters alongside your other baked goods. A spouse who can set a gorgeous table can also display the most humble of pastries in a beautiful way, and it’s a challenge worth accepting if it makes your guests feel welcome.
Thanksgiving is about gratitude, so as you place the store-bought goodies next to the pie that took you four hours to make, try to focus on being grateful that your family is there to enjoy this lovely meal. Their contribution of sticky cakes and old cordials—while not your style—is a reminder of their presence at your table.
I imagine that, years from now, you will smile when you think of them and their reliably unappetizing choices of beverage and dessert. You may even find yourself getting misty when you walk past a bottle of bad wine, or a box of pre-packaged sugar bombs. The strongest family memories so often center around the weirdly awful stuff the most, and eventually solicit laughter (even as we tear up with nostalgia.)
Give your guests the benefit of the doubt, assume all things are done with the same love and care with which you make your meal, and enjoy each other’s company. Even the bad (tasting) stuff will someday make for the sweetest memories.
The past few weeks, I have gotten several letters asking similar questions, which I could sum up with three larger inquires:
- How can I talk to relatives and friends with whom I do not agree politically?
- How I can be sensitive to people in my life when I am elated/they are depressed (or vice versa?)
- What topics are strictly off-limits, particularly at the holidays?
Sigh. These are hard times, everyone. Of course, you don’t need me to tell you that, it’s obvious. Many people are fearful and grief-stricken. Others feel vindicated and excited. The country is deeply divided, and even if it hasn’t happened, yet, it will be nearly impossible to avoid some amount of angst or awkwardness in our interactions with others.
I don’t have any magic answers. While I know good manners would compel us, at least around the holiday table, to avoid contentious topics, I do think that we need a strategy when faced with discussions that confront or oppose our values.
A therapist taught me years ago that, in communicating with people with whom we have relationships, we typically have three aims in mind:
- To achieve our goal/get our point across
- To protect or enhance the relationship
- To preserve our self-respect/dignity.
The catch? In most conversations, you can’t have all three things.
Example: You drop your child off at his/her grandparents’ house for the afternoon, and ask them not to give your kid too many sweets. They agree. You may even take a moment to negotiate an appropriate amount of sugar (so they can spoil, but your kid doesn’t go bananas), and when you leave, everyone is on board with the plan. You come back to find your child in a Twinkie haze. You have options:
- You might tell them that you will not be able to drop your child off again because you had a specific need, and it was not honored. This would satisfy achieving your goal and preserving your self-respect, but it might damage your relationship.
- You might let it go, laugh it off, and then expect this behavior in the future, too. In this scenario, you protect the relationship, but you might lose some dignity (they promised something, didn’t do it, and then weren’t accountable), and you certainly didn’t get your wishes honored.
See how that works? You can’t have everything, because you are now in a conversation about a thing that already happened, you must react to the actual reality. There is no outcome in which you can have all three objectives met, so you have to be strategic, and decide what is most important, so you can focus your energy in that direction.
Some folks might say that the right answer is always to have your goal met, others will say the relationship is always paramount, and of course, we all know that without self-respect, what do we have? You’ve heard these statements, you’ve probably said them at times. “Awh, come on! Grandparents should be able to spoil their grandchildren as much as they want, why are you so uptight?” or “I will not be disrespected, ever, I don’t care how small the issue is, you will not disrespect me.” or “What can I do? I love her and don’t want to make her mad.”
The truth is that all three of these conversation aims are valuable, and being flexible and strategic—valuing the right stuff at the right time—may lead to the best overall results.
In the above example, if you have a terrific relationship with your parents/in-laws, it would be easier to insist that your child cannot visit if your requests will not be honored, as your relationship has room to take the hit. A strong relationship foundation wouldn’t be broken by this small bump in the road.
If, however, you are seeking to build tighter bonds, particularly with your child and his/her grandparents, having a sense of humor and keeping expectations low might make more sense. This once-in-awhile, no-big-deal spoiling of your kid might not be worth squelching it if it damages your overall trust/relationship.
Finally, if a pattern of behavior has been established that shows you that your requests will not be honored, and you fear for your child’s future well-being (i.e., what happens when the stakes are higher than some extra candy in their system?), you may be wise to throw down the gauntlet.
On any given day, between any given parent and grandparent, this could be a totally different conversation. The critical point: You must have a strategy.
Like I mentioned while speaking with Sharon and Winter on the Hungry Squared podcast, no one goes to dinner expecting to be converted to new religious or political convictions. The dinner table is a great place to discuss what matters to us, though, with the comfort of a communal meal to (hopefully) grease the works and make things less animated.
But what happens when the conversation around the holiday table takes a turn, and big, ugly issues must be confronted? What do you do when your uncle makes a racist joke? When your cousin uses a slur to describe a group of people? When you find yourself strident and yelling about points of fact that others believe only to be points of opinion?
You must have a strategy.
I have a zero-tolerance policy about racist/homophobic/xenophobic/sexist remarks. This is an absolute value for me, a point of human dignity that I feel I must defend, period. That doesn’t mean I scream, yell, and get argumentative. It means that, when I hear something unkind or offensive, I don’t hesitate to say something like, “That comment hurts me because…” It means that I give people the benefit of the doubt—I never assume people mean to be cruel—but I don’t let comments that are hurtful hang in the air without challenge.
I put a lot of work—and a lot of emotional energy—into my family relationships. I try hard to make as many connections with each family member as I can, building on our similar likes/dislikes, our experiences, and always, our senses of humor. Because of this, when I hear someone I love saying something crude or demeaning, I’m not afraid to say something. My relationships can (usually) take it. I hope they feel the same way for me—I want to know when something I’ve said is hurtful.
Several Thanksgivings ago, I had a long discussion with a relative about “those lazy people” who want health care. I doubt it changed his opinion, much, but the way he was speaking didn’t honor the kind and loving person I know him to be. My hope is that, by the end of the conversation, I both enhanced our relationship—by engaging with him thoughtfully, not just yelling or being defensive—and protected my own dignity. I learned from him, too. After our talk, we were hugging and joking with each other.
Recently, at a conference I attended, I confronted a relative stranger at our lunch table about her racist remark. In this scenario, I used questions to diffuse the situation while still making my point. What did she mean when she called a neighborhood “sketchy?” When she went on to say “sketchy” = “she would be the only person of her race there,” I noted that being an absolute minority is not the same as being in danger, then asked her why she thought that was the case. Because I had no real relationship with her, I didn’t have to worry about that dynamic; I could focus entirely on dignity and my point. All the same, I didn’t seek to destroy her dignity, only to confront her statements.
You may find yourself at a Thanksgiving meal with an assortment of relatives and friends you know well, along with others you barely know. Before you go, think through a strategy about what is important to you, and practice being patient and thoughtful in your (potential) responses. Remember that there is no one-size fits all strategy—each situation may require a different approach.
Know your values. Give others the benefit of the doubt. Take a breath (or two) before you talk. Ask questions instead of making harsh statements. Be kind. Don’t gang up on each other. Rely on your sense of humor—laughter can help more situations than we can name. Don’t be afraid of the consequences of difficult discussions, just be prepared.
I wish you peaceful, lively conversation this holiday season.