When the Picky Eater is 40 (Not 4)
Food is meant to bring us together — not drive us apart. But conflicting palates and diets can make eating together pretty complicated, even as adults. It doesn’t have to, though.
The other night, I ended up cooking three different main dishes for one dinner party, because one person doesn’t do soy, someone else doesn’t do garlic, there was a range of vegetarians — and I just wanted Korean barbecue.
Sure, you can call it poor menu-planning. I could have gone with a cuisine that wasn’t almost solely based on the three things — soy, garlic, beef — that raised red flags. But I wanted to have the dinner party I wanted to have, and I wanted those people to be part of it. And so I made three different meals.
Other days, I’m trying to remember that my mother-in-law abhors peas, my husband hates eggplant, that so-and-so doesn’t like to eat meat off the bone, that this adult only eats chicken breast, and these people will be fighting me over the thighs (so don’t invite too many of them!).
It’s enough to drive you to a restaurant. Which is fine! But that’s not home cooking. It’s not a dinner party. It’s not my vision of coming together as friends and family over something delicious that we’ve made ourselves.
Cooking for friends in the 21st century can feel a bit like a twisted, cookbook-based Choose Your Own Adventure — if I invite him, I can’t do gluten; if I invite her, no fish; she’s keto; he’s trying a FODMAP diet this week. My own wide-ranging, omnivorous tastes get boxed in by vegans and vegetarians and the dairy-free, or those who don’t like tomatoes. Who doesn’t like tomatoes, I always think to myself, shaking my head.
But at the end of the day, can you really begrudge your friends their food issues?
When it’s a food allergy...
I mean, there’s no arguing this one — food allergies are real and potentially deadly. If you don’t get to put cashews in your Thai curry this one time, so be it. I make a point to always ask. Take a look at our roundup of allergy-friendly meals for more ideas.
When it’s a dietary choice...
Dietary choices and allergies often overlap — going gluten-free, for instance. But in some cases, it’s clearly a preference, not a prescription. This is when what you perceive as someone else’s choice and your own choice — about what to eat — go head-to-head.
In cases like these, I do try to accommodate, not necessarily by changing the entire menu, but by offering what I imagine is a suitable option. Having a newly-vegetarian daughter has helped me exercise this particular menu-planning muscle, where there’s always a lentil side to go along with our weeknight roast chicken and lemon rice, for instance. Yes, you are cooking more. No, it doesn’t have to ruin the meal. And, really, it’s great for leftovers.
If you do decide to cook a special meal that caters to a specific diet, check out our primer on what you can and can't eat on several popular diets, and see our favorite recipe recommendations.
When it’s a plain ol’ picky eater...
This is where I tend to get a little eye-rolly. Yes, I can remember that you don’t love fish and consider that when planning the menu for a meal that I’d like you to attend. High-level stuff like that is easy enough.
But if someone doesn’t love raw tomatoes, I think it is incumbent upon them to, well, eat around the tomato in the salad — ideally, with a bit of grace. And that’s usually the case.
Remember, picky eaters aren’t doing it to you
One thing that has helped me immensely as I plan ever-more complicated dinner party menus is to have a little compassion for people who aren’t as omnivorous as I am. I try to remember times I’ve been skeeved out by certain foods (for example, organ meat). While I know my issue with, say, grilled chicken hearts is likely all in my head — and I can often get over myself enough to try it — it doesn’t erase the sometimes-visceral dread of eating something I don’t want to eat.
That’s them, just with … peas.
Also, I try to remember that it’s not fun being the picky eater, the one to be accommodated, the one needing special attention. “Adult picky eaters are far more likely to be dismissed or ridiculed, told to grow up, to toughen up,” Anya Jaremko-Greenwold, a self-described picky eater, wrote in Vice. “It’s a really scary thing to overcome,” Stephanie Lucianovic, author of Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate, told The New York Times. “People aren’t choosing to dislike food. There’s a lot of shame involved. There’s not a lot of empathy for picky eaters.”
When you put it that way, I don’t want to be the dinner party bully that makes people feel bad.
Finding flexible recipes
There’s no magical recipe that works for all picky eaters — at least, not that I know of. Fries, maybe? A poutine party? If you have eight people at the same table with eight different dietary needs, the calculus is never going to be easy.
But there are a few things that can help.
Ask. Yes, it’s just that simple. Ask your picky friend what some of their fave meals are — and learn to cook them. Or even riff a little to surprise them.
Find your resources. Look for recipes that can flex a little — like the ones in Mark Bittman’s Dinner for Everyone, which can be made quick n’ easy, vegan, or full-blown omnivorous, or Anna Thomas’ Vegan, Vegetarian, Omnivore.
Embrace the challenge. If I’m being honest, I got a little anxious and depressed trying to cook Korean without garlic, soy, or beef. The one thing that saved me was turning it into a bit of a game. I looked up vegan Korean recipes, put a miso-butter sauce on the side of Japanese yams, and paid a lot more attention to my prepared products. I let go of my go-to Korean barbecue menu and tried something new. Once you stop fighting the food issues, it’s almost … fun?
Options, options, options. Cooking three main dishes might seem a little overboard, but … not really. It’s just another way of looking at your table. Instead of one "ta-da" centerpiece dish, à la a roast, you create a spread, à la a giant mezze platter, from which people can pick and choose what they like.
Rethinking what it means to break bread together
I love to cook, so the idea of not cooking ... bugs me. But sometimes that’s the answer. Maybe certain friends just come over for drinks and store-bought snacks? Maybe those picky friends are your go-to potluck people, where they can BYO-whatever-makes-them-happy and you don’t even have to think about it. Maybe you do more buffets than precious sit-down meals with set menus and courses and fancy forks.
It’s about being a little more flexible, and thinking of yourself less as “chef” and more as “warm, welcoming host.” The purpose of having people over to eat can actually be less about the food, more about the people. And — with those priorities — your proverbial cup can still runneth over.
Did You Know?
If you’re looking to find recipes that suit a specific diet, avoids common allergens, or simply omits disliked ingredients, Yummly has a simple filter to help you search smarter! Apply the filter to an individual search or add it to your profile preferences to permanently display only search results that match your selected diet.