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The Struggle (Plate) is Real: Tips for Side-Stepping That Questionable Holiday Dish

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The holiday season, if you haven't heard, is in full swing. It’s that time of year when family members trek from near and far for warm hugs, hearty plates and -- in some instances -- a side of family drama.

But let’s be honest, despite good intentions and valiant attempts, very few holidays would be complete without the obligatory “struggle plate.”

Before we continue let us review the unofficially official definition of the term struggle plate, as so eloquently laid bare by UrbanDictonary.com: “a dish of food that either looks like nasty, unappetizing slop or is simply ugly in presentation, even if it might actually taste good.”

So, basically, a dish that simultaneously elicits a sympathetic “Oh, bless her/his heart, at least he/she tried” and “I’ll be damned if I allow anything in that casserole dish to touch my lips.”

If you have at least one relative who regularly supplies a struggle dish or two at family gatherings (or perhaps you’ve been this relative from time to time), you’re keenly aware of how quickly the mood can sour into awkwardness, hurt feelings and worst of all, confrontation.


Fear not! I’m here to help. Check out my top tips for keeping the peace (and your appetite).


This is your baseline defense. If possible, avoid the dish at all costs. In a fantasy world, you can politely decline without making waves. If this sounds like your reality, this guide is not for you, you need not read further. Feel free to mount your unicorn, ride back to your gingerbread house and live happily ever after in Candyland. The rest of these tips are for those of us with the pushiest of relatives and family friends, many of whom should be classified, respectfully, as “elders.” AKA, according to the manual of “family traditions and good home training,” people we're required to oblige. avoidance-gif

Suggested Strategy: So, you’ve spotted a dish you're sure you want to avoid? Pile as much edible food onto your plate before the dish in question is presented. If your relative insists, decline politely, referencing your full plate. If you’re lucky, you won’t be reminded about the dish “you should really taste,” and they'll be no need to graduate to the SF Neo-Futurists'strategy of locking yourself in the bathroom.

Adopt a Dietary Restriction of Preference
This one's good if you’re caught with an empty plate! The cook has offered a dish you’re sure will lead to an unpleasant after-dinner experience, and Aunt Trish is unswayed by your polite decline.

Suggested Strategy: Inquire about the ingredients, latch onto the one you could potentially dislike the most and run with it. Run. Like. The wind.sleeze-gif

“You know Aunt Trish, it’s the weirdest thing, recently I’ve had a really horrible reaction to [insert ingredient here]. And...” Who knows? Maybe this is the moment you decide to convert to veganism. Now ask Aunt Trish about her new job, new shoes, new husband -- whatever will take the focus away from the food you’d like to avoid.

So you’ve been defeated. Despite your efforts, the item you’ve worked so hard to avoid has violated the pristine sanctity of your holiday plate. Don’t feel too bad: even the most thorough strategies can falter under the pressure of a persistent relative, especially a beloved elder. Listen, we’re all grown here. But the day may come when -- in an effort to spare the feelings of our loved ones -- we resort to childish ways. As in, conceal, conceal, conceal.

Suggested Strategy: Little by little, sweep the undesired item under a pile of rolls, brisket, mac and cheese, salad, whatever you can find,  until -- to the casual observer -- it appears you’ve eaten it all. When the coast is clear, sweep the item into the garbage. Keep in mind, you may need to take at least one bite to appease your watchful relative. Who knows, maybe the taste will surprise you.gag-gif

We’ve checkmarked “childish strategies” off the list; now let’s discuss grown-up options. Enough wine, eggnog or brandy can accomplish one of two things: numb your taste buds or empower you with enough courage to deliver a firm and unflinching decline -- hierarchical traditions be damned!


Lastly, please keep in mind that one person’s struggle dish may be another’s delight. This is a judgement-free zone, so keep it respectful, pass the potatoes and eat up!

A version of this guide appears in this episode of The Cooler, a podcast you really should be listening to:

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