Thanks but no thanks.
July 16, 2012 7:30 AM   Subscribe

Need help on how to avoid eating someone's food.

So, our neighbor um, guilted us into taking her and her two kids to a large theme park before they move next month. She asked my boyfriend if we had season passes and for some unknown reason, he decided to tell her we did. (we do). Of course, this led to her asking us if we could take them because her kids are crying all the time because they are not having fun this summer.

Background (so you can see what I'm dealing with):

She and her family moved in about a year ago from India. Her husband is working out of state right now. She doesn't have a car because she crashed it three times in 3 weeks (once into our parked car - which is how we ended up knowing each other). There are zero kids in our townhouse complex - and the kids don't have friends.
She knocks on our door often and catches on our way out to ask us to bring her somewhere or to bring her kids somewhere. I understand it is tough for her because of the kids, lack of car, lack of friends and/or family around. But since we are complete introverts and afraid of confrontation, this became out of control to us and we stopped answering the door.

So, in the last few months, she repays us by bringing us homemade food. I have some ridiculous anxiety issues about eating other peoples food (some restaurants I will eat at, though) and I cannot eat Indian food because it's usually too spicy and I don't like whatever seasonings are used. I told her this, so she started bringing me non-spicy food (still spicy to me). My boyfriend can handle it but he said after he saw her kitchen (giant mess and gnats), he will not eat the food. So basically, she brings by this food and we end up throwing it away.

So, she and her kids are geared up for this trip to the theme park which is about an hour away. She is adamant about making a bunch of food and bringing it with us so we can all save money (plus, other than fried dough and french fries there won't be any vegetarian food there). I told her I wasn't sure if that was allowed (I'm pretty sure it is - no one does bag checks there) and she said she would just leave it in the car and we could leave and eat in the parking lot. I should mention it's about 90-100 degrees out for the last month.

We offered to handle bringing the food - but she said that she wanted to. I also know she is very picky about what she and her kids eat.

I really can't just say, "Look lady, we don't like your food"
I'm afraid if I eat the food, I will get an upset stomach. Also, I am not a good actress.

What else can we do to get around this situation?
posted by KogeLiz to Human Relations (36 answers total)
"Sorry, but to be honest, Indian food doesn't sit well with my stomach. I'll just have some french fries."
posted by downing street memo at 7:33 AM on July 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

Are you a good enough actress to suddenly develop an allergy to an ingredient commonly found in Indian cuisine?
posted by lovelygirl at 7:34 AM on July 16, 2012

"I'm actually in the mood for fried dough! I've really been looking forward to it."

If she tries to insist on feeing you: "No thanks," repeating as necessary, literally 10 times in a row if required.
posted by cranberrymonger at 7:35 AM on July 16, 2012 [9 favorites]

At this point, why be nice?

What's wrong with saying, "I LOVE the crappy amusement park food. That's one of the reasons we have passes!" Let her do what she's going to do. If she wants to go back to the car and eat her food, let her. I would have a second key made to give to her for the purpose, as I would not trust her with the only key as she does not seem to have her act together.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:37 AM on July 16, 2012 [26 favorites]

What's wrong with saying, "I LOVE the crappy amusement park food. That's one of the reasons we have passes!"

I would say this. I think it's kind of rude to make a blanket statement about Indian food, but just saying that the theme park food is what you want is fine.
posted by sweetkid at 7:47 AM on July 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

Bring a cooler for the food - let those who want to eat the Indian food eat the Indian food, and let her know that you're looking forward to junk snacks.

Here is a thing: often on metafilter people give advice that's basically "each table has to stand on its own legs", we have no responsibility to help each other if we don't want to, and it's very important to draw really hard boundaries. Also, that interactions that are stressful or make us uncomfortable should always be stopped via the boundary-drawing.

Now, I'm a total pushover in almost all areas of life, so this type of advice is often helpful to me.

However, I have encountered many recent immigrants who were really struggling, and I have also lived in a very different culture for a couple of years. (Albeit with no kids, a decent job and enough money.) This poor woman is probably flailing. She's probably depressed and culture-shocked and afraid and lonely. She's probably worried about "failing" her kids. She may feel that she has nothing to offer except her cooking and probably feels bad about being so dependent on you. She may have her own non-culture-shock related issues - maybe she has an anxiety disorder and would have one if she were still in India! - and they're getting worse because of being alone abroad. Vis a vis the kitchen situation - she could be depressed, or she could be unused to American-style kitchens. Frankly, when I lived in China there was a six month period when my kitchen was a disgusting, filthy wreck and I lived on take-out and microwave Beijing duck because I was depressed, lonely and freaking out (even though this was interspersed with some amazing experiences.) I can't imagine how I would have done if I had kids.

Can you sit down with her and have a conversation about how she's doing in a larger sense? Are there local resources of any kind that you could recommend to her? Is there a community center? Are there any social services that you could call and get recommendations from? Are there other Indian immigrants nearby? Is there any public transit at all, even the weird kind that just runs during commuter hours? Can she get to the library with the kids? Can she get to the pool? Would this be the kind of thing where you could go with her once to show her the ropes and she could go on her own? (Did she get proper driving lessons back when she had a car?)

Some of what is happening to this woman is a structural problem - if there were public transit and a meaningful community structure, she would have far fewer problems. (Buses and bikes and a chummy apartment complex were life-savers for me.) You can't fix the entire social structure of the world. But would it be possible to help her find some resources that she could use?

I am just reminded of seeing this poor Somalian woman who lived in my building crying on the front steps one day and saying that she wished she could go back to Somalia - she was just miserable and it totally killed me. (There were social workers involved and also larger factors in play, so I couldn't do much.)
posted by Frowner at 7:47 AM on July 16, 2012 [113 favorites]

Just buy or bring your own food. If you buy, tell her you want the food you're buying and smile. It shouldn't matter to her if you don't care about saving money. If you bring, tell her you had some things you wanted to use at home. You should tell her your plan ahead of time and tell her you don't need her to bring any food for you. It seems pretty simple to me, you just need to communicate what you want. You're the one doing her a favor here.

Leaving food in a hot car for hours isn't actually safe. It sounds like you know this. Don't forget to bring it in a cooler with a bunch of freezer packs if anyone plans to eat this food.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:51 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just because she insisted on making her own food does not mean you still can't bring yours. Pack a few vegetarian items, think of it more as a potluck, and then load the plate up with your own stuff (and maybe a few bites of hers but just mash those around and don't really eat them).

I like Ruthless Bunny's suggestion too. Could take it a step further and make reservations for yourself and husband at a restaurant in the park and let her know ahead of time (so she doesn't make a ton of food) that lunch will be at 1:00 and you and husband are going to eat in the amusement park while they have their lunch?

Another suggestion is time the day so you are between major meals, like an 11:00 - 4:30 trip and say you had a huge breakfast and have something planned for dinner so you are not all that hungry. Maybe grab a snack at some point.
posted by click at 7:56 AM on July 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Thanks! This has been a big help.

The family is moving out of state 3 weeks from now. So, this will not be a constant issue any longer.

As you can probably tell, I have major issues with upsetting people (apparently unless its myself) or making people feel bad. And obviously I have issues with being assertive.

@wolf: This is kind of why I don't make eye contact with neighbors and never talk to them. i always end up in some ridiculous situation!
posted by KogeLiz at 8:09 AM on July 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

A black hole of neediness...who is moving next month

Yeah, just be nice like the nice people you are. Take your own food and eat it as part of a shared meal, if you are a little bit discrete out of it no-one loses face or feels bad. Try to enjoy the day and their company, and feel good that you're helping someone who seems to need it.
posted by howfar at 8:10 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

out of = about
posted by howfar at 8:10 AM on July 16, 2012

Instead of acting as if your neighbor making you food is a rude, bad thing, own up to your own hang-ups and say, 'I have an anxiety issue with eating other people's homemade food. So, while I appreciate you cooking for us, I don't eat and won't eat it because of my hang-up." And while you're hoping she'll have enough empathy to get your issue, perhaps work on your own empathy for the situation she's likely in (as per Frowner above).
posted by Pineapplicious at 8:12 AM on July 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

treehorn+bunny has it.

Keep in mind that she may still insist on you trying some of her food as a cultural gesture of gratitude or hospitality. If this happens, just take a little to be polite (a bite or two won't kill you) or explain that you're allergic/not hungry while complimenting her on how it looks/smells.
posted by fight or flight at 8:14 AM on July 16, 2012

I want to favorite Frowner's comment 1000x. (Except I don't even know how to link back to it properly!).

I really think that is the essence of the situation and she needs more help than you can give her. She probably feels really badly about not being able to afford food at the park as well and is wanting to contribute. Please direct her to the Y or whatever equivalent place you may have where she can find friends and get assistance with her kids. I feel for her, and I'm sure you do too. You don't have to eat Indian food, maybe tell her you want the kids to have the "full american experience" (which may mean you may have to buy them overpriced fries etc). You don't have to eat her food but it would be really great if you could help her in some larger way, like Frowner suggested.
posted by bquarters at 8:18 AM on July 16, 2012

While I agree with all the "bring your own food" advice above, I think that you might ask her to show you haw to make one of her dishes in your nice clean kitchen. She might appreciate the chance, you might learn something and get to weigh in on the spice factor, so you could enjoy the rsults with less anxiety. I understand about introversion and pushy neighbors, but being kind to this woman is good karma, a mitzvah, good deed, etc..
posted by Ideefixe at 8:18 AM on July 16, 2012 [8 favorites]

Thinking about it a little futher, maybe you could consider bringing or buying some small food items (candy, fried dough) or toys for the kids? As Frowner so eloquently put it, they're alone in a strange country -- a small gesture like this will probably mean a lot to them, and if they're moving in 3 weeks, what's the harm?
posted by fight or flight at 8:19 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

"Instead of acting as if your neighbor making you food is a rude, bad thing, own up to your own hang-ups and say, 'I have an anxiety issue with eating other people's homemade food. So, while I appreciate you cooking for us, I don't eat and won't eat it because of my hang-up." And while you're hoping she'll have enough empathy to get your issue, perhaps work on your own empathy for the situation she's likely in (as per Frowner above)."

The main point of my question is basically, we haven't been eating her food - now we will be with her - I can't just say, "I don't like eating other people's food' - then she will realize we haven't been eating it the whole time. I would rather have my hang-up then be totally blunt and be a complete asshole.

I have discussed my hang-ups and am aware.
If we didn't have empathy, we wouldn't have driven her kids to art/math/music lessons, helped her call her insurance company each time she crashed her car, listen to her talk for 2 hours everytime she sees us, offer to bring her and her two kids to a theme park all day, let her kids borrow some our books, let them borrow tools, etc.
posted by KogeLiz at 8:19 AM on July 16, 2012 [8 favorites]

If you have passes and it's not putting you out too much financially and it's a one time thing, I really suggest you and your partner offer to pay for lunch. Again for the kids. They probably don't want to be eating their regular food in the car while there are all sorts of other options on this totally exciting day out. That takes away the awkwardness of you not eating their food and the awkwardness of the mother probably not having enough 'fun' money to pay for these sorts of extras. It would be a huge favor to them and probably one you won't have to replicate if they are moving in 3 weeks.
posted by bquarters at 8:23 AM on July 16, 2012 [9 favorites]

Instead of acting as if your neighbor making you food is a rude, bad thing,

FWIW I think this attitude is unnecessary. KogeLiz is here in an objective environment, asking for help and candidly acknowledging her own issues, and we have to assume she is empathic when she actually interacts with her neighbor.

I agree with bquarters' idea. Make this your last hurrah, a good and gracious deed, knowing that this family is leaving and your anxiety around them will disappear forever, very soon. It solves a lot of the issues: the food safety, the cost to them, the revelation that you don't like her food. Insist that you want to treat them, as a going-away gift.
posted by pineapple at 8:29 AM on July 16, 2012 [9 favorites]

"I'm actually in the mood for fried dough! I've really been looking forward to it."

Just don't say this. If you do, you will be receiving endless puri and parantha until she moves out.

I think there's a very easy solution to the food problem. Get a cooler for the food. Take the food into the park. Scout out some place YOU'D like to eat while in the park. When it comes time to eat, position yourselves near that food vendor and say, "Oh, man, y'all eat this delicious food your mom has packed -- I'm going to go get X from the vendor." And just GO. Don't let her stop you; just leave them sitting there eating while you go get your own food.

When you get back, the will try to push food on you, and you will say, "My stomach's been feeling a little weird these last few days and I was really just craving [the food you just bought]. Thanks, though."

She may not understand this, because homecooked food ("ghar ka khana!") is considered the perfect, wholesome cure (against the perils of restaurant food) where she's from. But she'll probably accept it, because she is polite (bringing you her homemade food so regularly proves that) and also because she certainly knows by now that things are done differently in different places.

Also, I think it's wonderful that you're taking her and her kids to the park, and I absolutely agree with Frowner that empathy is called for here.
posted by artemisia at 8:33 AM on July 16, 2012 [9 favorites]

Yah it seems like the issue is that you are not able to set boundaries. and people will take advantage of that.

I think you should use these 3 weeks as training ground for YOU. Practice how to set boundaries with her. Be polite and firm, learn it now before you have to restart the process with someone else or a new neighbor. She seems pushy and is forcing you to do things you dont want to do. Learn to stop people like this firmly.

Like someone said, you don't have to be everybody's friend, that is what puppies are for ;)
posted by pakora1 at 8:37 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I really do think you're being empathetic toward this woman and I think you've put tremendous effort toward helping them, truly. I actually think the suggestion above, of bringing your own vegetarian dishes and having a little potluck for lunch is probably the least-offensive/most successful option. You can take a bit of her food, move it around, hide it under your leftover sandwich, whatever. And keep repeating "you've shared so much of your food with us, we wanted to share of ours with you!"

(Also, I've twice moved to a new country, including one where I spoke none of the language, and I think her extreme neediness and frequent requests are really out of line with the norm.)
posted by kate blank at 8:41 AM on July 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Wow, this is such a sad situation for everyone involved--my heart goes out to you both. I really, really like Ideefixe's idea of asking her to cook in your kitchen so you can learn. If she wasn't leaving, I could see this turning into a carte blanche to come over and give you Indian cooking lessons everyday, but luckily, there's that impending departure date. Bringing your own items in conjunction is also a great idea.
posted by smirkette at 8:44 AM on July 16, 2012

You also have the option of driving them to & from the theme park and not hanging out together the entire day - you're glad to take them and share the tickets, but it's a special anniversary or whatever for you and your boyfriend and you'll be spending the afternoon with him while the kids and their mom enjoy the rides, etc. You can certainly start and end the day together, but you can make it clear that you need some time in the middle to yourselves, thus avoiding the lunch question altogether.
posted by judith at 8:47 AM on July 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Who is it that's the vegetarian?

If it's you, what do you normally eat when you go to the park?

If it's them, you can talk about how part of your fun at the park is eating the [specific park food] but you'll be happy to help them accommodate a cooler and access to your car when they want it.
posted by CathyG at 8:49 AM on July 16, 2012

Indian here. Obviously I don't want to generalize, but food- cooking for others, sharing your food- is a huge part of our culture. And I know that especially for older people, buying food from outside is considered hugely wasteful when you can make (in their opinion) better, cheaper food at home.

I love Frowner's comment- it says what I wanted to say so much better than I could.

I would definitely suggest bringing your own food to share over buying them something, as I know that being the recipient of generosity you can't reciprocate can be a huge deal. And I also like the idea of asking her to come over to your house and showing you how to cook something, if you're okay with that. That way she has a better idea of your spice tolerance and hopefully the food she brings on the day itself will be better suited to your taste. If you want to try discouraging her... perhaps try suggesting that leaving food in a hot car all day is going to make it spoil? I know I can't keep food out very long at home.

(Also, from my own experience, it's possible that she doesn't realize that not-spicy to Indians is still spicy to everyone else. I once accidentally halved the amount of spice in an already bland (to me, and I have a very low spice tolerance) recipe I was making for my Western friends, and they still found it spicy. So that's there, too.)
posted by Tamanna at 8:56 AM on July 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

Instead of acting as if your neighbor making you food is a rude, bad thing, own up to your own hang-ups and say, 'I have an anxiety issue with eating other people's homemade food. So, while I appreciate you cooking for us, I don't eat and won't eat it because of my hang-up."

What she might understand immediately adn be respectful of is if you say you have dietary restrictions due to certain beliefs (no need to expand if they're religious or not). India is full of them and people respect other's restrictions. Say yours is no turmeric or no spices.

Frowner has it spot on. Before she moves, find out if you can help her get organized on public transport.

I've been there, done that. No kids luckily and I had grown up all over the world, but I've been the "abandoned Indian wife in new kitchen/culture/America" with no driver's license and thank god for the interwebs.

Yes, she's been asking a bit much but you've also been probably the ONLY friendly adult she sees.

I'm empathizing with both of your sides.
posted by infini at 9:17 AM on July 16, 2012

Will you be going on crazy rollercoasters at this theme park? You could bring your own food and say that you always get motion sickness on the rides if you eat anything besides (whatever it is you brought that day, maybe something bland).
posted by dogwalker at 9:27 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

We do not have public transportation near us. We are kind of outside our "city" more in the suburbs.

Just so everyone knows - she does have a couple of contacts - an older guy that comes over sometimes - I think he's one of the kids teachers or something. And an Indian couple that she met.
She is extremely nervous that her kids will be mad at her - so I believe this is why she is so "needy".

To be honest, I really would like to fill myself up on fried dough - so I think, I'll just go with, "We really love blah blah blah, so we are going to eat that." We already told her we would bring the bottled water and a cooler if she needed one.

I'd offer to pay for all of our food - but this is Dollywood we're talking about - it's way overpriced and it's pretty much ALL BBQ. My boyfriend is vegetarian and last time he ended up eating fried dough and french fries.
It would probably cost about $100 for all of us. We cannot afford that extra expense right now. I certainly will probably buy some snacks here and there for them, though.

(I liked the splitting up idea - but she really would like her son to be able to hang out with my boyfriend and go on rides with him.)

Thanks again!!
posted by KogeLiz at 9:38 AM on July 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think once you get there she will be pretty focused wrangling the kids, so she might not notice if she winds up bringing food and you don't eat it. You can just put it in the cooler, then express interest in the fried dough, then say how great it is that she can take the food home for the kids for later.

Also, we are in Tennessee for a bit and plan on going to Dollywood, we could always go on the same day and bring you food from a place you do eat at or accidentally knock into you and spill the food...
posted by Vaike at 10:08 AM on July 16, 2012 [6 favorites]

(I liked the splitting up idea - but she really would like her son to be able to hang out with my boyfriend and go on rides with him.)

What she would like doesn't have to take precedence over what you would like. You're already being incredibly generous in sharing the passes and arranging the trip. Her son can hang out with your boyfriend for some of - but not all of - the day you're there. It seems to me like you might feel less resentful/more generous if you were able to set some boundaries and compromises rather than just be 100% accommodating in all things.
posted by judith at 10:23 AM on July 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

I've got to vehemently disagree with a poster above, who suggests giving her a duplicate key so she can take her kids back to the car and eat her food, while you and BF eat amusement park food: I would not give this woman a key to anything! Maybe I'm a touch paranoid, but she's already gone so far over line into your lives that it's reached ridiculous levels.....

I'd suggest you make her haul her food around the park with her ("no one's going back to the car until we all leave!"), and you & BF can either cart your own or eat the park's food.
posted by easily confused at 10:27 AM on July 16, 2012

I understand where you all are in this situation, and I feel for you. She's needy and her over-compensating is actually making things worse for you, the nice but introverted folks who just want to be left alone.

Could you let her know that you don't allow food or eating in the car, because you like to keep it clean? This is a policy I know a lot of people actually do have, and it's true enough that kids eating in your car will mess it up quicker than anything (I'm a Mom, and I'm talking about my own kids here).

And I agree that splitting up once you get to the park, and then meeting at the car later, is a great plan. After all, you have passes and have done everything at the park, while the kids will surely want to ride some rides or go some places that won't appeal to you.

I think the kitchen idea is nice, but really not something that is going to work here. You don't even like Indian food! She will want you to taste things as you are cooking....nope, not going to work.

You've been helping her, she's gone in three weeks, I think you just need to hang in there!
posted by misha at 10:34 AM on July 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Nthing putting her in touch with local Indian resources....I would think that U Tennessee has them.
posted by brujita at 10:36 AM on July 16, 2012

I think you need to back out of the trip, and/or be brave and tell her, "Friend, I appreciate your generosity and the effort you've put into making food for me, but I have a very strict diet and cannot eat certain foods sometimes. Right now, Indian food unfortunately falls into that category, and I don't want to waste your generosity by not being able to eat what you make. Thank you, though. You are very kind."
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 10:54 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd offer to pay for all of our food - but this is Dollywood we're talking about - it's way overpriced and it's pretty much ALL BBQ. My boyfriend is vegetarian and last time he ended up eating fried dough and french fries.

Hey! Neat! We're coming up next month, our friends have passes too!

As for vegetarian, there's pizza, but it's not Vegan, although it is vegetarian. As for the rest, it is kind of its own slaughter-house isn't it?

Perhaps let your friend know that there's cheese pizza to be had, if she'd like that as an option. Going into and out of the park is an enormous schlep, fo-sho.

Husbunny is already talking about funnel cakes. I mean, it's a freaking continuous loop.

Here's what it says on the FAQ about picnicing, etc:

Picnic Area
•After careful consideration of park policies across the nation, consultation with health and safety experts and much consideration of the welfare of our guests and employees alike, we are unable to allow coolers, food or drinks into Dollywood. Although we do not allow food or drink to be brought into the Park, Dollywood offers a wide variety of delicious foods available at our restaurants and snack vendors. (Special dietary needs should be addressed with the Foods Office prior to arrival at 865-428-9428.) However, if you would like to eat elsewhere or must leave for any reason during the day, remember to get your hand stamped, then you can return later that same day. Dollywood does not have picnic areas at the Park, but if you would like to picnic somewhere, the Smoky Mountains National Park is a great place to visit.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:29 PM on July 16, 2012

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