5

This has been a thing since I was a kid, but I experienced it again tonight. My mother has always done the cooking at home, it's also something she won't give up. She's the kind of person that would rather order takeout than let anyone else cook if she's not feeling like cooking, even when someone else offers to cook.

Sometimes, she tries new recipes. And sometimes, everyone but her collectively hates the dish or sees room for improvement. Like tonight, she made an oven dish consisting of leek parts wrapped in ham and covered in a cheese crust, with boiled potatoes and a hamburger. It's nothing too weird, we usually eat vegetable + boiled potatoes with gravy + meat at our place.

While eating, she'll request your opinion on the new dish. This is the moment everyone hates, as honest feedback easily upsets my mother. So, everyone takes special effort to sandwich their feedback, or make it as mild as possible:

  • We try pointing out that we appreciate the time, effort, gesture of trying to come up with something new, pointing out specific things we like about the meal, sandwiching the things we don't like in between all sorts of good things.
  • Since one thing that seems to upset her so much is her liking a dish while we think it's 'meh', we try to let her know that there's no shame in making a dish that not everyone loves, we reaffirm that tastes differ, we let her know that even if a dish isn't our favourite, it's also not bad. We remind her that she eats things that aren't her favourite to please us, and we can do the same for her.
  • We try presenting our feedback in an actionable way: so instead of just complaining by saying 'it was too salty', I try to suggest or ask that next time the dish could be made with less salt.
  • We try to avoid words that are too strong. For example, my brother and dad both dislike leeks, but they would always try to say that leeks aren't their favourite, instead of saying they dislike/hate something.
  • For things that we really can't twist in a nicer way, we try to let her know that it's okay that we don't like them, and that we can still eat the rest. For example, my brother refuses to eat cheese, so he'd eat every part of this dish except the cheese crust.

Despite all this though, at this point, my mother usually starts to become argumentative, and upset, she keeps repeating that 'well, she likes it'. If we skip the part of pointing out that we appreciate the time/effort, she'll also resort to 'you ungrateful lot' and 'I can't do anything right for you all' types of remarks. She starts being short with everyone, stops engaging in the conversations going on, and if she has a really bad day, she lets us know she's angry by stomping around and slamming kitchen cabinet doors while getting the desserts.

Using pro-social deceptions instead of being honest isn't really an option. My mother can somehow sense whether or not you like a dish (probably has something to do with the speed of eating and chewing, something I haven't been able to control in such a way that it fools my mom). So she'll either call you out on it directly or you'll have the same problem the next time she cooks this dish, with the addition that she'll say you lied to her.

Is there any way we could present our feedback to my mom's new dishes, that would allow us to still be honest enough to avoid future trouble, but that would further reduce the chances of making her this upset?

5
  • A location or culture tag would help understand your mother's culture. In some cultures, for instance, saying anything against the parents is strictly frowned upon. – baldPrussian Apr 20 at 17:29
  • @baldPrussian it already has the netherlands tag, which goes for the entire family ;) – Tinkeringbell Apr 20 at 17:29
  • I have to wonder if she's just doing this because she wants the conflict. Does she ever exhibit similar behaviours for other things? Or just cooking? – Sarov Apr 20 at 20:04
  • @Sarov I don't think she wants the conflict. She does get upset in similar ways from time to time over other things, like being lied to, promises not being kept, or basically any other obviously destructive behavior in a relationship... it's just so out of place for something as banal as cooking a new recipe and gently being told we don't love it.... – Tinkeringbell Apr 21 at 6:35
  • I think sandwiching feedback doesn't let you come out of this situation. If I like something and others wrap their opinion around and around until I understand "well there could be one thing I like better" then I'd think fine, let's keep doing it. On the other hand I know situations when my opinion should be other's opinion. It costs a little courage but did you try to ask back "which opinion would you like to hear - mine or yours?". I suggest to change that question into how to keep control over escalation and how to react properly. – puck Apr 21 at 11:17
8

First, please do not say that things "are not your favourite" if you don't like them. My husband uses the phrasing "I'm not a lover of" something like ham and I used to think "well fine, I love it, you're ok with it, we'll eat it sometimes" and it was literally decades before I learned this actually meant "I don't like ham and don't want it for dinner."

There are more honest and useful ways to let someone know you don't like something very much. Here some examples:

  • maybe it's just because it's new, but I didn't really enjoy the leek part of the dinner
  • I didn't like the leek thing as much as [something similar she makes that you like]
  • except for the cheese, the leek thing was good
  • that recipe writer sure had you doing a lot of work but I don't know if it ended up worth it
  • this ham and cheese combination is interesting; I think I would like it on broccoli more than on leeks
  • seems like I just don't like leeks no matter how much delicious stuff you add to them!

I have made meals that people love and those that people, well, ate, or at least ate most of, so I can see how your mother feels. And I have wanted to try new things and been met by people who have no objections to the old things, and felt frustrated. Cooking is an expression of love whether it's a traditional meal or something new and exciting. Finding a new recipe, getting what you need for it, working your way through learning to do it: the whole time you do this work it's with an imagined goal of everyone loving it, which can make it a little crushing if they don't.

Instead of softening your "complaints" with praise for effort or the parts you liked, I would suggest acknowledging the work and also shifting the blame a little to the recipe writer or the tv show or the magazine, or emphasizing your own personal preferences.

  • Sorry mum, I know you are trying to find new ways to cook X and this one looks like it was a lot of work, but it's not working for me
  • I'm sure the book/magazine/show made it look quick and simple! What a lie, it took you ages. I think I would have just preferred regular broiled X, sorry to say.
  • I expected to like this because I love X and Y, but the combination just doesn't work for me
  • I would never veto this if you suggested making it again, but I'm not going to ask for it specially

(Starting or ending these with "sorry" feels natural to me but that may be a Canadian thing.) If you then want to add "the potatoes and meat were great" or "I really appreciate that you cooked" try to keep yourself from starting with "but" or tacking a "though" on the end. The praise is stronger without them.

Also, try throwing around more praise during the meal preparation. If you come home while dinner is cooking, "something smells delicious!" is always nice to hear. Or "yay, mum is cooking, so nice to come home to dinner underway." Or come into the kitchen and ask what she's making. "Leeks? Cheese? Are you making something new? Where did you find the recipe?" Give her more opportunities to get good feelings out of the cooking process than just the moment where you eat it. Sometimes I would feel like nobody had any idea whether a given meal was 10 minutes or 3 hours work. Noticing that she is cooking, praising that, and being interested in what she prepares might lessen her feelings that people are ungrateful if they don't like the end result much.

Finally, when you really like something, be a little more vocal about it than you might plan to. Like on your first bite, even of something she makes all the time and you eat twice a week, say something about how much you enjoy it and how lucky you are to eat it twice a week. "Delicious as always, mum!" "Ah, this is the life, thanks mum." "X season is the best, I swear I could eat this every day." If all she hears is silence when you like something and complaints when you don't, feeding you will be sad. If she hears happy appreciation when you like something and silence when you don't, she will know you don't like it of course, but it's not "zero or negative" it's "positive or negative" and that may make the negative easier to take. I know for myself, hearing people really like something I've been making regularly is pleasing, even if it's an absolute staple in our house that I make all the time. Coming back to the "praise during cooking", this also includes coming into the kitchen and saying "yay! we're having X tonight!" rather than waiting until X is on your plate to enjoy it.

2
  • 1
    Sometimes my spouse cooks something I don't like at all. Then firstly I'll only eat a little of it, and then, "no, really not my thing". If he's making it for the 100th time, because he really likes it, and he must have noticed by now that I won't eat it, "You know, I really don't like eating X, but the vegetables are good." He does the same for me. – RedSonja Apr 27 at 9:10
  • @redSonja : your SO seems more cooperative than @ tinker 's mom you know :) so maybe this won't help that much... – OldPadawan Apr 27 at 17:37
3

You are asking for how to give your mother feedback in a way, as you put is that 'doesn't upset her but still allows for honesty.' You tell us that:

everyone takes special effort to sandwich their feedback

I wonder why you are doing that, given the answer you accepted on the your earlier question on the effectiveness of sandwich feedback.

The article gives a thorough list of both speculation- and literature-based (though it's literature written by managers relying on their personal experience) of why they consider this method to be ineffective. In short, it benefits the manager and not the employee. Over time, moreover, the employee learns to anticipate a reproach when praised and will doubt the honesty of the praise itself

Your mother probably distrusts the praise, and your recognise yourself that she knows when you don't really like a dish. So from her perspective, you are not only criticising her, but she can probably see that the compliments are to make the rest of you feel better.

I didn't have exactly this situation in my family, but there was a period when my mother existed in a state of perpetual stress and resentment at the domestic responsibilities that fell to her after my sibling and I had left home and my father had retired.

The nub of that issue was that my father didn't take actively take on more responsibility around the house once he was home all day. Leaving my mother doing housework and food prep she was bored to tears with and getting what she saw as insincere compliments for what she did. Those compliments read to her, probably accurately, as being delivered more with the intention of getting past a present unpleasantness in my father's day than of truly seeing, valuing and appreciating her and her efforts (which extended also to all sorts of invisible emotional labour). Like the sandwich feedback compliments, they were not spontaneous and didn't feel genuine.

The real solution was not better delivered compliments, but not continuing to live the way they were. In the end it was solved when she was widowed, but it might have been solved much sooner and with fewer regrets if my mother had been more forceful about the change she needed to see, and if my father had been prepared to engage with restructuring how they lived. get out of his Eames chair and do his bit, rather than smother her with praise whenever she expressed feeling undervalued and un-respected.

And I think that's what your mother is doing, expressing feeling undervalued and un-respected and it isn't all about cooking, not least it encompasses how she feels about broken promises and being lied to.

Words alone won't cut it, do you have the phrase 'fine words butter no parsnips' in the Netherlands?

It expresses the notion that fine words count for nothing and that action means more than flattery or promises.

Something in the family dynamics probably has to change, and I'm not sure that that is something any of us can answer, so I suppose this is a frame challenge. You ask how you can give your mother feedback, over dinner, that doesn't upset her but still allows for honesty. My answer is that you can't.

No magic formula of feedback delivery will change your mother's reaction to criticism. It doesn't involve saying, ever more convincingly 'you are valued, the fish needs more salt, well done you'.

If what you really want is for your mother not to be upset, you (and I mean everyone who sits at this family dinner table) probably need to work out more about what contributes to her being upset, because I'm pretty sure it isn't just about the ham and leeks. People don't react badly to minor critique if the rest of their life is okay and their relationships with the people giving the critiques are okay.

But don't guess at what's going on with her, she isn't a broken part that needs fixed from the outside for the family wagon to keep rolling. She's part of the family wagon and needs to be seen and heard as such. Conversations are needed, genuine multi-way ones that pick up over days and weeks. You can't sit her down and demand to be told what her solution is, it is a family problem, don't make it her responsibility to tell you the solution. It's something you are all going to have to work out and navigate together.

Being appreciated and respected goes much deeper than whether you get compliments or brickbats. It can include whether you feel you have the space to shape what you do, what choices you have, how supported you are. It doesn't mean that you always have to get what you want in life, but it might involve a rebalancing in who gets what they want the most in your family and a requirement for others to take a more proactive role.Have family roles adjusted appropriately as you and your siblings have reached adulthood?

The question shouldn't be 'how do we fix mother so that she doesn't get upset when see say we don't like her food?' so much as 'What can we all contribute so that mother doesn't feel the need to press for compliments over food?'

I've tried to back this up, with reference to a previous question and to my own family experience, but I don't have a gold standard 'I did this and it worked'.

2

Choose a dish your mother cooks that everybody likes. Ask her if she would show you how to make it the next time she is cooking it, because you would one day like to impress people with your culinary skills.
Repeat. Now you have a list of favourites you can steer her towards. Yes, this new recipe was OK, but you know I like your Lancashire Hot Pot so much more.

Trying new recipes is a way your mother is expressing her creativity in what seems to be a rather traditional role she has adopted, where she is the sole cook in the family. So you might just have to put up with the experiments. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y2m4stAZqss#t=1m16s

1

Though i'm not from the Netherlands, my mother also likes to cook and try new recipes, some of which are more of a success than others.

My main piece of advice is to ensure that your feedback has something positive or at the very least, constructive, as if someone has put any amount of effort into preparing a meal for you they won't like being told its bad.

If someone has cooked me a meal and I thought it could be better i'll normally start with something I liked about it, for example "I really liked the ham and the burger, but I don't especially like leeks". If you didn't especially like anything you can still be constructive but I recommend phrasing it both as an opinion and giving them a way of saving face, "I thought the potatoes could've been cooked for a little longer, but you were managing a lot of different elements". I find this to be effective because it allows you to give genuine feedback whilst giving them a way out so they don't have to feel like it was entirely their fault.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.