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What not to talk about at the Thanksgiving table

(Abbey Lossing for The Washington Post)

The Thanksgiving table can make for the best of conversations — and the worst of conversations.

In general, good things happen when we gather together for meals. For instance, research shows that when children eat with their parents, they consume more vegetables, have higher self-esteem, lower risk for substance use and better reading scores, vocabulary and grades.

But in the United States, dining together doesn’t happen all that often. Each week, as much as 70 percent of meals are eaten away from home, and fewer than 1 in 3 families, on average, eat together more than twice a week, according to the Family Dinner Project at Massachusetts General Hospital.

While the Thanksgiving table is a rare opportunity to bring people together for a meal, the conversation there can be uniquely fraught. The table often includes a mix of people who don’t normally spend time together — chatty grandparents and sullen teens, picky eaters and exuberant noshers, sober friends and holiday imbibers, vegetarians and turkey lovers, liberals and conservatives, skilled chefs and bad cooks, the vaccinated and the unvaccinated.

Alice Julier, professor of food studies at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, said she often talks with students who feel anxious about returning home for the holiday meal.

“There’s nothing like a holiday meal to bring into focus what has or hasn’t changed in a year,” said Julier, author of the book “Eating Together: Food, Friendship and Inequality.” “It gives you a chance to assess. Who’s aged? Who’s deepened their quirks or belief systems? Who has changed their eating practices? All those things come together in a single day, in a single meal.”

One way to get the best out of holiday conversation is to know what not to talk about. We’ve gathered advice from the Family Dinner Project and other experts to help you steer clear of risky conversations and be ready to rescue your diners from the kind of table chatter that can spoil an appetite. Here’s what they had to say.

Don’t comment on what others are eating

Although it’s fine to praise the chef or talk about how much you love sweet potato casserole, refrain from making comments or jokes about what others are eating or not eating. Discussion of food choices can put children at risk for eating disorders. And it can be a trigger for adults with a history of disordered eating. And your comments about the food on someone’s plate are not welcome. Examples of food shaming range from “You eat like a bird” to “Are you going to eat all of that?”

Stop talking about the wine

Be aware if one or more of your guests is recovering from alcohol use disorder. Excessive discussion of wine or alcoholic beverages can make them feel uncomfortable. When you have a sober guest at the table, keep the wine and alcoholic beverages on a separate table, so bottles are not being passed around them.

Don’t ask students about grades, school problems or college plans

For young children, discussing bad grades or problems at school at the dinner table will just make them dread eating with the family. High school students are stressed out enough — the last thing they want to talk about at Thanksgiving is the college application process.

Avoid asking people about having kids or getting married

What is it about holiday gatherings that prompts some people to discuss reproduction? Plenty of people are child-free by choice. Others may be coping with infertility or a recent miscarriage. Either way, even well-intentioned comments such as “It will happen,” “Don’t give up” and “Will you try again?” are intrusive and often hurtful. And while we’re on the topic, people who are single don’t want to be grilled about their relationship prospects, either.

Skip the politics

Political conversations are a fast way to derail the celebratory vibe. Tempers can flare, and people can feel picked on if their views diverge from most of those at the table. If the discussion does turn to politics, or one person starts espousing political beliefs you disagree with, don’t try changing minds over a meal. Instead, be ready to change the subject.

And whether you’re a host or a guest, just remember that everyone needs rescuing from time to time. Pay attention to multigenerational tables, and intervene if a grandparent is criticizing a child’s eating habits. Save the sole single person at the table from probing questions. If the discussion turns to politics, be ready to jump in. The Family Dinner Project has a number of holiday conversation starters (“What’s your favorite family tradition?” “If you could start a charity, who would it help?” “If you had a superpower, what would it be?”) and printable place mats with questions guests can ask each other.

Despite the potential pitfalls of holiday conversation, there’s also the potential joy of reconnecting with family and friends. And if things don’t go perfectly, that’s okay, too.

“The Thanksgiving meal can unfortunately bring out the tensions, but tensions aren’t always bad. We learn who we are that way,” said Julier. “The only thing I say to students is to be prepared, be ready and don’t take it all on. And try to enjoy the meal.”

The Checkup with Dr. Wen

This week, we’ve asked Leana S. Wen, physician, public health professor and Post contributing columnist, to answer a reader question. To hear more from Dr. Wen, and for more guidance on covid-19 and other topics, sign up for The Checkup with Dr. Wen.

“I have family and friends who have been invited to my son’s wedding in Costa Rica in January 2023. What are the best covid testing requirements (for those vaxxed and unvaxxed) and instructions for us to send out and request of them before flying two to three days before the wedding and, once there, activities that start the day before the wedding?” — Michael from California

Dr. Wen replies: The question for your son and his soon-to-be spouse is how strongly they feel about having a covid-free wedding. If it’s something they wish to prioritize, there are strict precautions — including testing — that you could suggest.

That includes having all guests wear an N95 or equivalent mask (KN95 or KF94) in all indoor public settings from at least three days prior to the wedding. They should avoid indoor restaurants and gatherings with non-household members during this period. Then, they should take a rapid test upon arrival in Costa Rica. Continue to avoid indoor spaces with others who are not part of the wedding party, and participate only in outdoor activities before the start of the wedding.

Finally, take another test the day of the wedding. If indoor gatherings are planned with guests on other days, they should continue the self-imposed quarantine and daily testing, and gather indoors with only the other wedding guests.

That’s a lot of precautions. Most hosts probably won’t want to make such an ask of their guests. A less cumbersome request is for everyone to take two rapid tests, once upon arrival in Costa Rica and then the day of the wedding. I think it’s also reasonable to ask that all guests wear a high-quality mask while in crowded places like airports.

And congratulations to your son! I hope he has a wonderful wedding.

Please let us know how we are doing. Email me at wellbeing@washpost.com.

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