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How do you tell your mother-in-law her dinner parties/family dinners are not fun?

My mother-in-law is a nice lady. She means well. She is 78 years old with 6 adult children. She loves having everyone over for Christmas Eve dinner & present opening. My father-in-law has had some health issues this year & doesn't have all of his strength back.

This is the way it typically plays out: Mother & Father-in-law slaving away in the kitchen, bickering about timers & gravy, etc. Father-in-law usually loses his temper about something, due to the stressful nature of cooking for such a large crowd. We don't see them until dinner & then mother-in-law won't sit down, for fretting about forgetting something and then 'polices' everyone's plates--"Why aren't you eating that?"

Mother-in-law asked today if we would like to come this year. I said "Yes, but I don't want you killing yourself to make it happen. We all want to help. I think you should consider a different logistical set-up, instead of a formal sit-down dinner. Perhaps heavy hors d'oeurves, buffet style?" Of course, she would not hear of it.

I have three young kids--age 7, 4 and 8 months. I want them to remember Christmas at Grandma & Grandpa's fondly, not with the two of them hiding in the kitchen & stressing out, not at the celebration.

All of us (the adult children & spouses) have discussed this at length and are in agreement that it is really unpleasant. Is there any way to handle this or do I just suck it up?

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  1. the kids do the cooking at Grandma & Grandpa's.

    Everybody brings a dish (or two) so that there's really nothing to be cooked.

    somebody else hosts.

    1. that's a tough one. if she's like my MIL she has "martyr syndrom", so won't DREAM of putting the burden on anyone else. for a wonder, my FIL put his foot down this year - they've had a lot of health issues in the last several months - and I got to host Thanksgiving. I hope it's the start of a trend!
      can you have a family meeting after dinner this year and discuss alternatives? just make sure to be kind and loving, to let them know you want to spend time with them without the stress. :)

      1. Tell them that your "gift" to them this year is that they get to sit, and enjoy the day with their grandkids. The adult children plan the meal, divvy up the cooking, and each bring a dish. Explain to your in-laws that the best gift they can give the kids is a memory. No one is going to remember what was served, but the kids will entertain each other for years with stories of how grandma sang off key or how grandpa cheated at charades.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Whinerdiner

          good point and a nice way to word it, but how do you cheat at charades?

        2. She is not going to admit she is getting older or that she and dad need help. That she would ask if you would "like to come over this year" is a clue.

          Siblings (not spouses) need to suggest changes to mom starting now, in the weekly or daily phone call, they can tell her they know dad is not going to be able to help as much. Siblings need to go over early to help out, cutting items the night before, setting the table early in the day, menial stuff, letting dad rest. Spouses and children can show up for dinner. Someone could volunteer to go shopping with mom the week ahead (perhaps to be asking about family recipes..and then ask if could come over to watch how something is prepared...). Subtle, but helping.

          6 Replies
          1. re: Cathy

            I agree entirely. Let the kids tell them, not the spouses. Or war will ensue. I know.

              1. re: mtngirlnv

                > not the spouses

                Reedmangler can try to orchestrate the effort but absolutely needs to remain behind the scenes with the MIL. Then at some point, before arriving at the in-law's house, stop, take a breath, and admit that it is what it is.

                1. re: GraydonCarter

                  Reedm, ask yourself-what's wrong with the occasional backseat. Sometimes letting others do the "driving" is a very cool and relaxing safe place to be. Why stress more than need be. Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

              2. re: Cathy

                Completely agreed... Make it about helping, keep the meal mostly the same except with help the whole family. That is much easier than significantly changing the meal. Also, do not put her out of the kitchen entirely. My grandmother insisted on helping right up to the end (age 85), and was terribly upset if she couldn't contribute. At first it was just help with the turkey while she did everything else, then different family members took over different dishes, one at a time. Eventually there were just a few tasks that were hers - peeling the hard boiled eggs, slicing the pound cake... For the last few years, she was perfectly happy just to have a seat near the action so she could join the conversation as the rest of us cooked (and taste the turkey when it came out of the oven to give final approval).

                1. re: Cathy

                  Yep. This is probably the answer. That way gran still has the dominance of having it at her house (if that is her thing). If she fusses over all the help, the backup plan is to tell her that having it at sibling A's house is the only other alternative, but that you thought keeping with tradition - with modification would be the happiest alternative.

                  It could be that gran resents having to host. Maybe someone should say they would like to do it at their house (and make whatever arrangements with siblings) and have the two elders be catered to for a change. Time to pass the torch so to speak. If there is something special that mom does that memories are made of - ask her to make it and tell her why.

                2. If all of these good suggestions don't work, there is always honesty. She would not be "killing herself" if she thought you all didn't enjoy it. You can be kind and honest at the same time. Her children need to let her know that the fun is no longer there due to the stress and worry - a potluck style dinner would be more fun. Don't make it an option. I would suggest potluck style at her house or moving the dinner to somewhere else-as she sounds like a bit of a control freak and would likely resent others in her kitchen. I don't think "helping" in her kitchen, at her house, would work.