Food brings people together. A great deal of bonding can happen over a pot of soup, but when one person wants chicken noodle while the other wants vegetable, it can turn into a food fight - and not of the John Belushi variety.
Couples expect the normal relationship woes – sex, money, respect – but with the growing prevalence of dietary restrictions and interfaith marriages, the kitchen is increasingly turning into an all out turf war.
This shouldn't be a surprise, says psychotherapist Karen Koenig – food is an "anything-but-simple subject."
Dean Thompson, 41, of Austin, Texas, and his girlfriend, Amanda Abbott, 39, know the anything-but-simple nature of food all too well. Thompson is a vegan; Abbott is not.
"The first time I brought Dean over to my family's home for a meal and he just put salad on his plate, passing up most of the huge gourmet meal my father had cooked, I remember thinking this might be a problem," says Abbott.
"At first, I knew it was an issue, but did not notice or think of it as such a big issue," says Thompson. "Most people I was around did not eat like me, so it was not so 'weird' for me to be different in that way."
While the couple says there were always moments of contention, Abbott and Thompson said their culinary contingencies reached boiling point when their now 2-year-old daughter was born. They have since started counseling.
At the time, Abbott was struggling to produce enough breast milk for the baby and Thompson suggested they feed their daughter vegan-friendly almond milk.
"Dean did his due diligence in showing me some studies, and after a long discussion with our pediatrician, I surrendered," says Abbott, who admits she is a cheese lover and grew up on cow's milk. "This was extremely hard for me since most of our friends and family were in my ear with their opinions on how crazy it was to only give a growing child almond milk."
While neither says they will change from omnivore to vegan or vice versa for the other, Abbott says she does find herself cooking more vegetables and eating more healthily.
"I had done the 'regular American diet' for more than 30 years previously. I know what it is like and I have no desire to go back to it," says Thompson.
Lindsey Rosenberg, 27, and Daniel Weisinger, 31, an engaged couple who live in Berkeley, California, say they also argue about how their child will eat, even though that child doesn't exist yet.
Both are Jewish – they met on the Jewish dating Web site JDate.com – but Weisinger keeps mostly kosher, avoiding pork and shellfish products. When they started dating, Rosenberg confesses she just thought he was picky and that her home cooking would change his ways.
"I was dearly wrong," she says.
"If I ever bring bacon or shrimp into the house to cook for myself, it's like I may as well have brought in rotting fish guts," says Rosenberg. "You know how a small child reacts to broccoli on their plate? That's how he reacts to those foods in our home. He insists on turning the stovetop fan on full blast, opening all the windows. It's a hilarious reaction."
Like Abbott and Thompson, it came down to compromise. When they started dating, Rosenberg refrained from cooking any pork or shellfish and changed her ordering style at restaurants so they could share dishes.
To reciprocate, Weisinger always made an effort to eat whatever Rosenberg cooked that was within his dietary restrictions.
"In our early months together, I made a quinoa dish with turkey sausage (instead of pork sausage) and kale. Quinoa and kale were totally foreign to this picky eater, but he didn't make a peep, even though I could tell it was a stretch for his more conservative palate."
Relationships, like gravy, aren't always smooth, and couples must learn how to whisk through the bumps, says Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology. Here a few of her tips:
Respect: Regardless the reason for the choice – religion, ethical conviction, medical – it is critical that one person not mock or otherwise ridicule or put down the choices of another partner. That runs both ways: If one person is a committed vegan, he or she may need to get off his/her high horse and not make it a moral indictment of the partner who does not choose to eat that way, because that is a choice that may not be amenable to that partner. Find ways to voice preferences that are not disrespectful.
Communicate: Such different choices only work if there is clear communication about grocery shopping (perhaps one person will not buy meat for the other), meal planning, restaurant choices etc.
Compromise: If the person with more restrictions also does the bulk of the cooking, then there may need to be a way to meet halfway so one doesn't feel there is no choice but vegetarian, etc. It may also require both parties to step up to the plate and cook together.
Meet halfway: Cook together or surprise each other with a restaurant choice that suits the preferences of the other.
Be an opportunist: If the husband is a card-carrying vegetarian and finds it hard to go to places where steaks are the "thing" on the menu, but the wife loves her steaks, then a great time for the wife to eat her beloved steak is on a girls' night or at lunch.
Create space: In some dietary restrictions (like kashruth), there should not even be proximity of one food to utensils, pans, etc. Create zones in the kitchen that respect those choices.