Dear Helena,
I want to take my mom out to eat on Mother’s Day, but I’m not looking forward to it because of the food I’ll probably have to eat. When she comes to town, she always wants to go to a chain, like Applebee’s. This is in part because she worries about money. Believe me, money—at least money for a nice dinner—is not that big an issue. I’d like to take her someplace nice and more interesting. What’s the best way to persuade her? I don’t want her to fret the entire time about how much we’re spending. Or should I just let her decide because she’s my mom?
—Sick of Applebee’s

Dear Sick of Applebee’s,
You don’t have to just let your mom go where she always seems to want to go. For one thing, she may simply be choosing somewhere familiar, rather than a place that she really likes. If you can persuade her to go somewhere else, she may love it, and that may actually become your new familiar destination.

As for the cost, your mom might claim she doesn’t want you to spend your money, but in fact, as Mary Marcdante, author of My Mother, My Friend, points out: “She may like to play the martyr and really does want to indulge for a night.” So feel free to veto Applebee’s. Now all you have to do is get Mom to venture beyond her restaurant comfort zone. Here’s how.

A few days in advance, initiate a casual conversation about restaurants. Find out what your mom values about Applebee’s and why she shrinks from other restaurants. “It might be fear of the cost, fear of being shown up and not knowing what to order, or fear she won’t fit in,” says Marcdante, who advises: “Mirror her opinions, or restate them back to her.” For instance, you might say: “You think Chinese restaurants are unsanitary.” This shows Mom that you’re listening and softens her up for later.

Now use what you’ve learned to choose a restaurant that satisfies her fundamental values. You can shift some of the other variables. If her priority is thriftiness, you could take her somewhere that is economical but has interesting food—like an inexpensive Indian restaurant. If what she really wants is down-home cooking, then try taking her somewhere that offers a more upscale version of the comfort food she’s used to—fried chicken and mac ’n’ cheese, but with good-quality, fresh ingredients.

Stacy∗, a graphic designer who lives in Los Angeles, says her mom, who lives in Gary, Indiana, refuses to go anywhere other than Olive Garden: “Her fear of indigestion outweighs any desire to expand her palate.” Therefore, Stacy says, her answer is to take her mom out to brunch rather than dinner. “They don’t have anything really weird at brunch. If I took her to a nice, high-end place, she would be charmed as long as she had her Prilosec.”

And if your mom is reticent about spending your money, you might be able to use her selfless instincts to your advantage. Dr. John Townsend, coauthor of The Mom Factor, says, “Mothers love it when you tell them they’re making a sacrifice for you.” Try saying: “If you’d allow me to treat you to a really nice meal, you’d be doing me a huge favor.” That way, your mom will feel like she’s the one spoiling you.

You might also try some subtle mind games. Marcdante’s trick is to substitute and for but. You might say: “I know you like Applebee’s and I want to treat you to somewhere extra-nice.” Marcdante explains: “If you use the word but, it disqualifies what your mother is saying and triggers resentment.” By contrast, the word and makes it seem like you’re offering two equal alternatives. Your mom will feel like she’s getting a choice, even though really you’re telling her what to do.

But in the end, if you feel like your mom really just wants to go to Applebee’s, then for God’s sake, go to Applebee’s. It’s Mother’s Day.

*Names and identifying details have been changed.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena. You can also follow her on Twitter and fan her Table Manners column on Facebook.

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