I feel a special shade of terrible.
Allow me to set the scene: it was our third date and my turn to plan our activity. I had set up the most romantic meal I could imagine: cheese fondue on the back patio -- a picnic that almost begged for us to sit close and share with each other. The cheese had melted perfectly into the white wine, the bread was crusty and glutenously* indulgent, and as he leaned in, appreciative of this spectacle, he whispered seductively, “You know, maybe if you put this on a Philly cheese steak or something, it’d be OK I guess”.
Now look: I realize we are all raised differently, and not everyone has parents who would expose their kids to different cuisines and ethnicities. I know because I am pretty sure by now that I have dated them. All of them. Every chicken finger, Taco Bell, “does this place have a burger on the menu?”, General-Tso's-Chicken-loving dude out there. They’ve been generally good natured about it- in one or two cases they were adventurous enough to grow to love food the way I do.
Mostly though, we just existed on different culinary planes -- our dinners usually separate, pedestrian restaurant choices unless one of us would eat and the other would sit there politely, with the occasional, “I can’t believe you’re eating that.” I swear if you sliced my last boyfriend open you’d find him to be 70% Del Taco, 20% gatorade and 15% frozen fish sticks. Also: he was bad at math.
They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and even when my other halves had simple tastes, there were easy meals that would still impress so we could both enjoy them. Not just your significant other, but friends, family, kids -- everyone knows someone who’s a picky or finicky eater. Most finicky eaters, I’ve noticed, focus on the texture of foods, and prefer to be able to identify everything they’re eating. The best route involves cutting out processed foods, introducing some vegetables where you can, and focusing on simple whole foods.
Meatloaf and Real Mashed Potatoes
My college boyfriend, when he knew he had my culinary ambition at his disposal, would plead for this dish. Having never made it myself, I consulted my dad and then utilized my ceramics know-how to mold meat into a loaf. It's not that hard and I got major bonus points for making real mashed potatoes -- he had only ever had the kind out of a box. (Allow me to put into perspective, his mom would unwrap the turkey at Thanksgiving, spray it with Pam, and put it into the oven, and call it a day.)
When you think you can get away with it, try mashing cauliflower into the mashed potatoes and eventually, you might try replacing the potatoes altogether. Consider swapping the beef with buffalo or turkey.
I would not dare to suggest a meatloaf recipe because... well, let's face it, it's like telling you my mother has the best Matzo Ball soup recipe. But if you've never made it before, I usually do 2 lbs of ground meat, 1 egg, 1/2 cup of breadcrumbs, 1 tsp of worchestshire sauce, 1 tsp of catsup or bbq sauce and salt and pepper, mix it all together and then... you know, form it into a loaf and bake it at 350 until done all the way through. Really, any recipe you use for meatballs will work for this.
Fried Chicken and Broccoli with Cheese
Vegetables always seem to be a sticking point. I love them, but if you’re a picky eater, veggies seem to be off the table. Literally. Yet, add cheese and they’re like a disenfranchised vampire welcomed back inside the homestead.
Fried chicken is a universal winner, and when we prep it a bit differently, we can make it a palatable dish for everyone. Skip the breading, and dip chicken into yogurt then coat in breadcrumbs or panko. Spray with pam, then bake at 375. You can skip the cheese on your broccoli, or you can go with parmesan or real cheddar instead of fake cheese.
Pork Chops and Fake Rice-a-Roni
Those cardboard boxes are highly addictive -- but easy to wean off of. Try using orzo instead of rice, and coating it simply with a bit of olive oil, garlic and parmesan. Orzo is great because its not really rice, not really pasta. (For the record, it's pasta. Just sayin'). I've even born witness to brown whole wheat orzo. Seriously. It's out there!
For the pork chops, roast them simply or grill them with a bit of garlic, a bit of salt, pepper and olive oil. Again, simple is best.
Flank Steak and Baked Potato
Baked potatoes are easy -- wash them, stab with a fork multiple times and pop into the microwave for 5 minutes apiece. Then remove (carefully) and put into oven for 10-20 minutes on 375 to get a nice crispy skin on it. Serve with olive oil, low-fat sour cream, and cheddar cheese or scallions.
Flank steak is a great, easy cut to cook. Marinate it in.. ready? Coke. Seriously. Overnight in a ziplock. Then simply grill it or throw it into the oven at 350. Even better, flank steak is super versatile and can be thrown on a salad for you, or leftovers!
Tomato Sauce. And More.
Anytime I’ve tried to sneak veggies into pasta, it's a no go. But I could literally blend a leather shoe into tomato sauce and no one would know. Tomato sauce tends to be where garden vegetable miscellany end up: eggplants, zucchini, mushrooms, onions, squash of all kinds, basil, etc. I've written about my recipe before, but you don't even need to start from scratch. The key is your blender. Blend GOOD tomato sauce with up to 40% vegetables. You CAN sneak in brown pasta, but you’ll need to overcook it and oversalt it. If you need to add meat to the sauce, go with ground turkey instead of pork or beef. And top generously with Parmesan.
Some general tips:
There are some items that I just remove from menus in cases of picky eaters: seafood, cilantro, mushrooms. For reasons I've never gotten, they seem to be on the universal "ew" list. Broccoli seems to be easier to get across than say, chard or spinach. But Kale chips seem OK.
There is no sense to these things. I could never wrap my head around my beloved's need to see and ID each item on the plate at home, and yet he'd just hold the faith on a burrito purchased from any rando place.
I spent my college years dating someone who was convinced that there was a difference between McDonaldses, and would drive 3 miles out of his way to go to a specific one, convinced the fries were better. Once, sitting at dim sum in the heart of Chinatown in New York, I looked over at my boyfriend and admitted, "You don't like it." He took a breath and just said unapologetically, "I think it's just that it's not authentic. I'm used to real Chinese food." It was one of our last arguments, closed out with "YOU ARE USED TO PANDA EXPRESS. LOOK AROUND, WE'RE IN FUCKING CHINATOWN YOU IDIOT. YOU CANNOT ORDER ORANGE CHICKEN IN CHINA!"
Mostly, I just don't press people to eat what they don't want. I serve one meal in my house, and appreciate parents who do the same. Sometimes there's a vegetarian variant for guests who require it, but even so, I tend to believe that people can pick what they want off the plate and leaving a plate clean is not a goal in my home.
I'm curious what you guys have done to appease the picky eaters in your world, and what stories you might have to bear. As for myself, I'm happy to report that my last date asked if it was okay to order a white pizza with roasted lamb, artichokes and goat cheese for us. Yeah, he had a good night.
*a derivative of gluttonous, but specifically of the gluten plentiful kind that put you into an immediate coma after eating. usage: Amanda made up the word glutunous, but it kind of works, right?