Q. My partner has two teenagers who live with their mother in another state. We see them on breaks and two to three weeks in the summer. They seem to get along quite well with my son who is about their same age. My biggest problem is that they don't eat the same way as we do. I don't buy junk food and we have a consistent time for meals where we all sit down together. They think that's weird. I asked them what they liked and tried to cook it, but they hated my pizza and they wouldn't eat it. How can I make these children feel welcome while maintaining some kind of order in my home? What's good ex-etiquette?
A. Ah, food preferences – a huge bone of contention when trying to combine families. Kids, teenagers particularly, have very definite preferences when it comes to food – and it can be regional. Pizza in Chicago is not the same as pizza in California. One family I worked with almost broke up over mayonnaise as opposed to Miracle Whip. My own bonus son ate specific things at his mom's house and did not eat them at my house.
One of the key components to successfully combining families is to have reasonable expectations for the outcome. I understand that you would like to make your husband's children feel like they're part of your family when they visit – but the truth is, they're only with you for a very short time and to expect them to "blend," especially when it comes to food, is really not a reasonable expectation. Nor, is it a reasonable expectation to think that life will continue as normal when they are there. Perhaps the most reasonable expectation is to accept life will be messy for those two to three weeks, and things will be completely unpredictable. The more you can roll with the punches, the better time all of you will have.
That said, it's wonderful that you're looking for ways to make the kids feel welcome and loved, but don't be too hard on yourself. If you greet them with open arms, if you smile when you talk to them, if you seem genuinely interested in their feelings and what they think, that's what will make them feel welcome in your home – that you are invested in them will bring them back.
A good way to make them feel included is to make sure they have a space of their own in your home. If they don't have a room, at least give them a closet or a shelf or a footlocker in a special place that designates their own space.
Finally, if you want them to be part of the family, get them involved with your everyday activities. So, if dinner is the issue in question, get them involved with the cooking – pizza can't be wrong if they are the ones who cook it. Go to the grocery store together. Let each child pick out some toppings and make their own individual pizzas.
Finally – take a deep breath and relax. You can only do so much with the time you have. That's good ex-etiquette.
(Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of "Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation," and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com. Email her at the Ex-Etiquette website www.exetiquette.com at email@example.com.)