As couples around the world get ready to enjoy an intimate Valentine’s Day meal, eating face to face at a restaurant can be an extremely unpleasant reminder of your partner’s dining idiosyncrasies ― loud chewing, eating with their hands, a penchant for sending dishes back, indecision and so much more. And for many couples, those eating habits have only gotten worse since the pandemic began.
I’m not immune. As my husband and I started eating more meals together alone, I found myself becoming more critical of his eating habits — especially since we no longer had the ability to dine with others at restaurants. I felt he often talked with his mouth full and ate his food at breakneck speed. I became increasingly vocal about those habits, and my pointing them out was not met with appreciation.
My husband believes that working exclusively from home did somewhat change his eating habits. “I used to go to the cafeteria, eat with people and engage in conversation,” he said. Eating alone at his desk in between Zooms, or taking a break and reading a book while eating, had him eating with more haste. However, he argues there’s nothing wrong with being comfortable with your partner and that nitpicking doesn’t solve anything.
Jenna Appel, a registered dietitian nutritionist from Boca Raton, Florida, has seen eating habits become more relaxed over the past few years. “We’re definitely a society of distracted people, and that was exacerbated during the pandemic,” she said. Distraction impacts eating habits — people scroll on their phone, they take a work call and don’t recognize how they’re chewing, they don’t take time to drink enough fluids, and they shovel food into their mouths. Appel’s recommendations include removing distractions, aiming to consciously connect, and setting an environment that’s conducive to a more measured eating experience.
Appel said behaviors around eating and food can be very sensitive topics, which is why my husband doesn’t appreciate my criticism. “Some people utilize food as decompression time, so they may not be as attuned to their habits as the people dining with them may like.” She said that while partners can call certain things out, they should ask themselves, “What is my end goal in bringing this up?”
The people you love the most are likely to see your worst eating habits
Kara of Great Neck, New York, who asked for her last name not be used, said it was her children who pointed out to her husband that he was “open-mouth chewing; they equated it to a cow chewing its cud.” She said since then she’s become hyperfocused on the behavior. “It’s the same whether we’re sitting down to dinner or he’s on the couch eating popcorn.” Kara said she’s paused TV shows and proclaimed, “I can’t hear the TV over those sounds.” Her husband generally asks, “What am I doing?”
“The more comfortable and familiar you are with people, the more your manners become more relaxed, and that includes table manners,” said etiquette expert Myka Meier.
“In general, it is bad etiquette to correct bad etiquette,” Meier said. She pointed out that when you’re dining with a partner or a child and notice something, “you do want the best for that person and don’t want them dining out and displaying bad habits,” so you can gently say something. “I teach that etiquette is about kindness and respect.”
It’s often more about mindfulness than manners
Speed of eating is also a source of contention. My son Jake, a fast eater, and his husband, Terence, a slow and mindful eater, are Chicago newlyweds who are dealing with this daily. Terence said, “I always read that eating food too quickly is not good for digestion and often leads to overeating. ... I don’t know who eats faster, Jake or our dog.”
Terence said Jake’s speed of eating impacts him because it makes him feel rushed, noting that he’s aware of the issue in strangers, as well. “I think it’s good etiquette to match the pace of someone you’re eating with.” And he said, “I have a hard time not calling out what I see; I definitely didn’t notice how quickly he ate early in the relationship.”
For Jake’s part, he knows he’s a fast eater, but says “it doesn’t bother me when people point that out.” He said he generally wants to eat something, whether at home or in a restaurant, immediately upon it being served. “When food is brought out, I want to eat it when it’s hot and don’t want to have it cool off on my plate.”
Appel says that to eat mindfully “is about connecting the mind and the body — you want to utilize your senses and ask yourself why and how you’re eating something.” Terence noted, “Eating is such a part of our daily lives and I do think it’s hard to remind yourself to be mindful of something that is so basic.”
How to talk to your partner without raising their defenses
Kaely Phelps, a licensed master social worker and psychotherapist, said it behooves both people in a relationship to aim for a healthy approach to “bad” habits. She noted that food and eating habits can be very ingrained in people by the time they enter a relationship. For those who are bothered, Phelps said they can ask themselves, “Is there a context where I can have a little compassion or at least some understanding of the habit?” She also said people should do some reflection on what it is about the behavior that’s irritating them. “Any sort of conversation about behavior should stay focused on the behavior itself, not on someone’s entire personality.”
Phelps teaches couples that the person who is annoyed or triggered should try to demonstrate compassion, while the one perpetuating the behavior should try to demonstrate some flexibility and not see properly delivered criticism as a personal attack on them.
Jessica Arciola from Yonkers, New York, tries to show that kindness and understanding when it comes to her boyfriend’s eating habits. He was recently released from prison and she’s very aware that his habit of “stuffing food in his mouth like a chipmunk and chewing very quickly” most likely stemmed from both the amount of time for meals in prison and the fact that he “grew up very poor and often there wasn’t enough food to eat.” Though Arciola tries to be understanding, there are times when she finds herself thinking, “This is going to drive me insane.”
Kim Lampson, a certified Gottman therapist, licensed psychologist and professor of graduate psychology at Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington, said, “People are likely to feel humiliated or embarrassed and get defensive when something is presented in a really critical way.” Lampson said issues with eating habits between couples usually start out with a partner feeling the issues will go away, they’re not such a big deal, or that the partner will be able to fix it.
Lampson pointed out that some eating habits, such as wiping your mouth with a sleeve, can be more easily corrected than others, such as loud chewing. “If you tell your partner that a certain sound makes you anxious, and ask if you can work on the issue together, it’s more effective than reacting with disgust.”
Consider that your partner’s habit may be more deeply rooted than you realize
Lampson also said if people grow up in households where a parent has been critical of eating behaviors, they’re likely to react defensively if their spouse is critical. Another phenomenon that occurs if the person is repeatedly criticized for a behavior is using “secrecy and deception to hide their behaviors,” said Lampson.
Lara Fram from Hartford, Connecticut, notices that phenomenon with her husband, Dan. She said Dan has a habit of finishing his food, wiping the plate with his finger and then licking his finger. “It is habitual; I don’t think he knows what he’s doing.” Fram reported she has noticed that sometimes her husband will either create a “diversion” to make her look away from the table, or wait till she’s doing something else, so he can wipe the plate clean. “When I catch him he does get sheepish; he knows I’m not happy when he does that.” Fram said she’s actually surprised her husband does this. “His mother used to call herself Emily Post, so I know she was a stickler for good manners at the table.”
Dan doesn’t recall his mother correcting him for this habit and said, “I don’t like it when Lara corrects me — if she does it in front of other people I get angry and if it’s just the two of us I actually don’t think what I’m doing is terribly wrong.” He said when she admonishes him, “I feel more like her child than her spouse.” Dan noted that how his wife delivers her criticism also impacts how he feels. “If she would say, ‘Do you have to do that?’ as opposed to ‘Why the fuck do you do that?’ it would make a difference.”
“You don’t want to embarrass your partner; the criticism should be handled respectfully and privately, not while one is frustrated by it, and generally after the fact,” Phelps advised. And Lampson added, “I think partners want the other person to stop either the habit or the criticism.”