family dinner

If you’re anything like me, you aim to please, and strive to impress. Is that necessarily a good thing? Sometimes. Sometimes, I’m not so sure. But that’s me. So, when I was dating my now-wife, it was very important to me that I impress her parents. After all, they could be my in-laws one day (they are!), and I want them—no, I need them—to be happy with me. After three years of marriage, it remains important that I impress my in-laws. I want them to know their daughter is in good hands. I want them to know that she has a real-deal, 50/50 partner in life. I want them to know that she is supported, and loved, and cared for. I want them to be proud of me, not just tolerate me. I want them to feel like I deserve to be part of their family. I want them to know that my parents did a great job in raising a good man. Is this a little much? Do I need to see someone about this? Am I putting too much pressure on myself? Probably. Maybe. And yes—but I like pressure!

In this quest to impress, as with many other things, my first thought rests firmly in food. As I prepared for this article, I questioned why that was. The answer probably is rooted in what I view food to be. Some folks eat to live. Others live to eat. I’m somewhere in the middle, at what I consider to be the golden mean (an Aristotelian term), the perfect compromise along that spectrum. I view eating as the human necessity it is; the fuel that sustains us. As such, it’s an absolute requirement for our existence, and serves a physical purpose. I also view food as full of potential in what it can provide the psyche. If we must consume it and make it a regular part of our day, we have two choices: 1) We can choose to add enjoyment to this routine requirement, lifting our spirits; or 2) We can treat it like a chore—an unwelcome interruption in our day to maintenance ourselves. I choose the former. I choose turning the chore into a treat. I choose to take a full-blown, Mary Poppins, spoonful-of-sugar (mostly figurative, but sometimes literal!) approach to food. So, for me, food is a perfectly reasonable tool to use in my quest to impress. It is a tool of care, both physical and emotional, because it literally (yes, I’m using it correctly) ensures our survival, and has the potential to bring enjoyment to one’s life. Ultimately, this is what I want my in-laws to know about me, and what I bring to the table. It’s also why, when I’m angling to impress, I choose to do it with food, and cook.

Okay, before I proceed, there’s something I need to bring up. I am a man. And while I think the tips I’m going to share could work across gender/sexual preference lines, I only claim to know how these practices have been received by in-laws as a husband to a wife. Are the expectations for a man to cook a little lower? Unfortunately, the answer is probably yes. The downside there is that we can sometimes be discounted in the domestic arena. The upside is it’s probably a little easier to get that nod of approval. I likely don’t have quite as much societal pressure on me to be a good cook. Is that fair (to both sides)? No. Do I ignore it, cook anyway, and reap the spoils of victory when I hit a meal out of the park? Absolutely. Now that I have that out of the way, I want to present seven tips, accumulated over the six years (three dating, three married) I’ve been with my wife, on how to impress the in-laws (she tells me they actually are impressed!).

  1. Do your homework: Figure out what your in-laws like to eat. If they’re vegan, you should make vegan food. If they’re gluten-free, you should make gluten-free food. If they love pork (like my mother-in-law), you should make pork. Heads up: Figure out if your in-laws have any specialty dishes they make, and stay away from those. This isn’t the time for competition, or one-upmanship. Besides, if they have a specialty dish, then they probably will want that exact taste when chowing down. Anything short of that specific taste won’t measure up. Work within the realm of specific ingredients your in-laws like, not specific recipes your in-laws make.
  2. Practice, practice, practice: Once you know what types of things your in-laws like to eat, find a dish you can make and practice making it at home for your spouse. When my mother-in-law requested I make lamb chops for the family Easter celebration a few years ago, I made sure I cooked up some lamb chops at home a week or two before in order to get it right for the big show! This step is particularly important if you’re making a new dish, or working with new ingredients. If you want to get it right, don’t have the first time you make something be for a guest (if you’re cooking for your in-laws, you want to get it right).
  3. Scout and obtain quality ingredients: When I cook at home for a weekday, I’ll often get ingredients based on convenience. If the steak at the supermarket is cut a half-inch too thin, so be it. But, if I’m hosting folks, especially my in-laws, I’m going to get quality stuff. Now, my in-laws are meat eaters, so this means getting my meat from a butcher I trust. The first time I cooked them pork chops, I ignored the grocery stores within walking distance, and went to Paulina Market. Result: Best pork chops my mother-in-law ever had! I still go there for my now-annual Easter lamb chops. When you’re looking to impress, go to specialty stores. For meat-eaters, find a butcher. For vegetarians, find a farm stand, farmers market, or produce market. Quality ingredients take the meal from “meh” to magic.
  4. Take hosting seriously: When looking to impress the in-laws, or any guest, remember you are there to serve and contribute to the conversation. This is another reason why practice is important. You can’t be so engrossed in the cooking process that you forget to be sociable. From the moment they arrive, make sure everyone has what they need to eat, drink, and be merry! The last time my uncle-in-law came over, I opened the door with a bottle of one of his favorite beers. Before he came in the door, I had placed it in his hand, and by the time he stepped in, he had already taken his first thirst-quenching sip.
  5. Cooking is part of the show: In my experience, the act of actually cooking the food fresh, right then and there, is important. You can make certain things ahead, but there’s something in the seeing that really impresses. It shows you’re willing to put in the work. It shows you know how to manage time. It shows you can multi-task. It shows the care you take in making things right. It shows you are actually making the meal. Sometimes seeing is believing—and impressive!
  6. Always have enough: The last thing you want to do is run out of food or drink when hosting your in-laws. Running out sends a bad message. You want to be known as someone who can plan ahead, and provide enough of an over-abundance to make sure everyone is completely satiated. Enough signals stability. Enough signals satisfaction. Enough signals contentment. Make sure you have enough.
  7. Clean up: This is the most annoying part of the process (at least for me). But it’s really important. Admittedly, this is the one where I probably fall short from time to time, since I’m not regularly responsible for clean-up duties during the week. Still, I realize when trying to impress, cleaning up signals some very important things: 1) You start what you finish; 2) You value follow-through; and 3) You are capable of cleaning up your own mess. All nice qualities, all very impressive!

If you want to make a good impression on your in-laws and impress them, or you’re worried about whether they like you and want to get their stamp of approval, think of the power of food, and try out these seven tips. Regardless of the situation, they’ll likely give you a good starting point. Good luck!

Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.

See more articles