Dear Family Advisor

My Mom is Making Mealtime Miserable!

Last updated: Sep 27, 2011

angry at meal time

My mom moved in a few months ago after recovering from a bad car accident. When a new eye condition made it unsafe for her to live alone, we invited her to stay on permanently. All of us have managed to adjust to "Nonny" -- except at mealtime.

My kids are 11, 16, and 21, and since I work full-time they pitch in and take turns cooking. Our meals are simple, sometimes store-bought, but decent. My old-school mom turns up her nose at just about everything we put on the table, and she goes on and on about why people are overweight (one of my kids struggles with this). It's upsetting. I've tried to coax her into the kitchen to help, but no, she'd rather just complain.

What can I do to convince her that mealtime should be pleasant?

Being a working caregiver with kids and a mom all under one roof is about as chaotic and stressful as life gets. Pleasant mealtimes are important for everyone in your house, so make that your mantra -- but you may have to be innovative about what "pleasant" means.

First, give everyone more time to adjust to living together. Being part of a multi-generational household isn't easy. And think about what your mom is going through: She's lost some eyesight and many of the freedoms she's enjoyed all her life. She herself was the nurturer, the cook, and the mom for many years, and this transition to your home is hard. This one little act of rebellion may feel like all she can control right now. Hopefully she'll get it out of her system and see that you and your children are trying to welcome her into your lives. Be understanding and show her how much you love and appreciate her. But since she doesn't want to pitch in, then she has to eat what's placed in front of her or go without. Sounds harsh, but you're not forcing her to eat or not eat; you're providing food, and the rest is up to her.

Here are a couple of suggestions that might help:

First, suggest that she doesn't have to eat all her meals with the family. She's an older adult with different needs than yours, and the inevitable noise and chaos may be too much sometimes. Suggest that she take a portion of whatever she likes from the family table and eat in her room or in her recliner while enjoying her favorite television program. If she'd rather eat four to six smaller meals throughout the day, then that's OK too. Ask that on special occasions -- holidays, birthdays -- she "play nice" and join everyone, but the rest of the time she can have the freedom to live her own life as much as possible.

It may be a relief for everyone not to have to be together all the time. (She might even change her mind once the family dinner no longer feels like a requirement.) It's also OK for you to take your kids out for pizza or the movies or to take your mom out alone. Having a choice may lighten her mood -- and everyone else's.

Next, consider making certain days or meals center around a theme. Friday night: pizza and a movie. I know a family that's had "Italian night" for more than 20 years now. There's something comforting about knowing that Monday means pasta. Draw from any heritage you think you'll all enjoy. Your kids may act like it's hokey, but in time most people come to enjoy these family traditions.

Another suggestion is that everyone gets to take turns writing the menu, but when it's "your" night, you have to help cook. Put on some music -- some Sinatra or Count Basie -- and cook together. That might lure her to join in. Be a little sneaky and try to cook one of her signature dishes; when she comes in to correct you, let her. Ask her to taste the sauce to see if you've put enough garlic in it. Give her some say-so in the matter. She may be a bit grumpy about it at first, but we all need to feel needed. The key is to subtly draw her into feeling connected without making a big deal about it.

A fourth suggestion is that you study whether your mom's appetite or tastes have changed, or whether she's having dental issues. Due to chewing problems, my mom simply couldn't eat many family-style dishes. She wasn't interested in tacos or pizza, and as she aged she seemed to like carbs, such as rice and potatoes, more. There were times when she wasn't that interested in food at all. Keep an eye on when your mom eats, how much, and what types of foods she picks out for herself. She may not be trying to be fussy.

Finally, consider that your mom may be missing being around people her own age, which could make her irritable when she's with the family. Does she have any friends nearby who can visit? A senior center to go to? She may just need to chat with -- and vent to -- some peers.

In general, try not to give your mom a hard time about meals, and don't try too hard to create an "all for one" home life. You're already a family. If your mom doesn't want to come on board and enjoy the benefits of children and grandchildren, then let it go. It's her loss; don't let her steal what you've worked so hard to create. That's giving her too much power.

Your mom is ultimately responsible for her own happiness -- as we all are. Focus on your life and your children's lives for now. You all deserve a home you look forward to coming to at the end of the day -- a place that's safe and relaxed.