Questions for cooks: Meal planning for picky eaters

Reader Katie submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I was wondering if you have any suggestions or might do a post asking for reader suggestions about how to balance food likes/dislikes within a couple? There are a number of things that my husband and I are both particular about, but since I always do the cooking, I have a tendency to stay away from ingredients that I dislike but don’t always stay away from the ones he dislikes. I try to make dishes that are still easy enough to work around the stuff he doesn’t like, but I think it is probably still frustrating for him. Any ideas?

A great question, and a problem we struggled with for years in our home. To name just a few items from the long list of foods my husband dislikes: he won’t eat pasta (unless I make it by hand), rice (unless it is accompanying Chinese or Thai food at a restaurant), or anything resembling a casserole (there aren’t any exceptions to this one). Before we met, I’m fairly certain he survived on hamburgers, hot dogs, and limes (that isn’t a joke, he really likes limes).

To be fair, I am also a picky eater. I don’t like store-bought mustard, mayo, or ketchup (I’ll eat them only if I make them) or anything containing one of these ingredients (deviled eggs, coleslaw). I won’t eat raw fish (it’s a texture thing), walnuts (I’m allergic), or heavily processed foods with ingredients I can’t identify (like Oreos and Velveeta).

After three years of eating out almost every meal at restaurants, I started craving home-cooked food and tried numerous strategies to find common ground. In the end, these are the ways we were able to finally sit down together and share a meal:

  • Three strikes. I will offer up three meals that I know he likes that I am also okay with eating. If he shoots down all three meal ideas, he has to make three alternate and legitimate suggestions (naming three things I hate is not acceptable). If he can’t come up with one option that interests both of us, I have to make three more suggestions. This back and forth idea generation distributes the burden of coming up with meals between the two of us, and it also makes us more willing to compromise and revisit a suggestion.
  • Mark it. I’ll get a cookbook (like Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone), read it, and mark every recipe that looks interesting to me with a removable flag. I’ll give him the cookbook, give him a due date (usually a week) for when I want it back, and ask him to look at the recipes I’ve flagged. He’ll then look at all the recipes I’ve flagged and remove the flag if he doesn’t like the recipe. We’ve never had a situation where he removes all of the flags, so the recipes that remain flagged are added to our notebook of recipes to try.
  • Recipe notebooks. As I just mentioned, we keep recipe notebooks. One notebook is full of recipes we both love, and the other is full of recipes we have agreed to try. We go through waves of creating meal plans out of the different notebooks. When we’re stressed, we tend to rely on our the book of our favorite recipes. When times aren’t so stressed and we’re feeling in a rut, we turn to the recipes we’d like to try. Both notebooks are arranged by type: Appetizers, Entrées, Side Dishes, Desserts, Drinks, etc.

Once or twice a month, we also have an on-our-own night. On these nights, we’ll both prepare dinner for our son, and then make whatever it is we want for ourselves. Our son might have leftovers, I might have a bowl of pasta, and my husband may pick up something from a drive-thru (another food type I usually avoid).

Thank you, Katie, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. I hope I was able to give you some ideas, and please check the comments for even more suggestions from our readers.

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7 comments posted

  1. Posted by Tracey - 06/24/2011

    This is a HUGE issue for me. I am beyond frustrated at trying to cook for my partner. I hope others will chime in with their advice/suggestions.

  2. Posted by Keter - 06/25/2011

    Wow. I had no idea others had such angst over what to cook. My husband and I both avoid processed food and tend to eat healthily, and not having kids makes it a lot easier. Still, there are a few things that he likes that I don’t, like powdered donuts and hot dogs and there are a few things I like that he doesn’t, like seaweed and mustard.

    Especially in summer, we often make cold plates, with sliced veggies, meats, cheeses, crackers, spreads, nuts, and fruit, and each of us can take what we want. He might have garlic salami and prosciutto (which I don’t like) and I might have cucumber slices and fresh spinach leaves (which he hates), but we both can agree on tomato slices, microgreens/sprouts, and hummus. We use a similar approach when making sandwiches and smoothies.

    When cooking, I find ways he will eat things. For example, he hates green beans and squash as stand-alone sides, but he doesn’t mind them in stews and loves them grilled. He also loves McDonald’s, which I abhor, and he’s free to eat that when he’s out and about. If I’m along when the Big Mac attack hits, we go to IHOP instead, where we can each find something to eat.

  3. Posted by Brenda - 06/25/2011

    No rice unless it’s from a Chinese or Thai restaurant and no pasta unless you make it? I find it hard to believe that anyone would put up with that. They’re both basic food items and he does eat them. It sounds to me like his dislike is all in his head.

  4. Posted by Heather - 06/28/2011

    I have this exact same problem and its been challenging to find stuff that two adults and one kid can agree upon and we easily fall into ruts. After much frustration I am experimenting with trying to make meals with flexible components. An example is baked chicken leg quarters – my husband loves it just plain (and could eat it daily) and I can’t abide it that way. I found that I can slather some BBQ sauce on one piece it while it bakes so everyone is happy. With roast leftovers my son and I will turn it into sandwiches or fajitas for the second night while my husband enjoys it unmodified. I am alone in my house with my love of asparagus & brussels sprouts, but with the wonders of frozen veggies and the microwave, I can enjoy them and add some variety. I love the cookbook idea and am going to try that with my husband and the cold plates idea from Keter. Thanks for bringing this up!

  5. Posted by Lisa W. - 06/30/2011

    My husband and I agree on many favorite foods, and have mainly the same eating habits. We even both went vegetarian at the same time, albeit with different choices for a while. That was 25 years ago. The addition of 3 kids made mealtimes a nightmare for me. I insisted on cooking most things from scratch, and felt guilty using store-bought, pre-made meals, which I rejected as “not really cooking”. These meals take a lot of time to prepare, and hearing “I don’t want that” from one or more kids got me angry. Eventually, I gave up in frustration, and he took over. Meals often became store-bough pasta with sauce and tofu-pups, but most of the kids ate most of the time, and the mealtime stress was significantly reduced.

    Like you, I started a notebook, with recipes and frustration-night quick-fixes that most of them liked most of the time. It has helped me immensely over the years, and i still use it occasionally, so I think others might want to try that as well. I like blank computer paper in a binder for writing my recipes. Adding a packet of inexpensive plastic sleeves allows me to add clipped recipes and recipe cards without having to re-write, and everything is neat and in one place. I really struggle with organizing, and this is inexpensive and fast, and it works for us!

  6. Posted by Karla - 07/12/2011

    so here’s our household:

    Me: I’ll eat just about anything, or try it once.

    Husband: Actually a pretty broad palette, but very few fruits and vegetables (no asparagus, zucchini, peas, broccoli–there are others), absolutely no fish. Raw fruits and veggies are better than cooked. Nuts are out (peanuts don’t count technically, right?)

    Daughter 1: lacto-ovo vegetarian (and been that way since she was 10) loves, loves, loves tofu and seaweed. is adventurous within her dietary impositions

    Daughter 2: meat, starches and some raw fruits and vegetables (I really think she has sensitive taste syndrome. She tries to like different foods, she can’t deal with texture and strong flavor) She could survive on chicken, rice, ramen and Nutella.

    It used to be worse–my husband was on a gluten-restricted diet for a time (not a bad thing, actually)

    So here’s what we do: we start with a theme. The easiest to explain is, perhaps, fried rice. Make the rice. Scramble some eggs (veg daughter prefers just yolks, just whites is better for the rest of us so this is where two pans start) Empty out the eggs and start stir-frying vegetables everyone will eat in one pan, add mushrooms to the veg version. Add ginger, garlic, thai green curry paste to the all-vegs. Dump some of the veg mixture in with the yolks and ‘shrooms. Add chicken to the everything else version. Dump the eggs back in their respective pans, add rice to each pan and soy sauce.

    I will take a little bit from both pans and add hot sauce. Daughter 2 will add sweet and sour sauce and try to avoid the cooked carrots.

    Loaded baked potatoes is also easy. Make a meat sauce for those so inclined, I really like peas and mushrooms, baked beans are a good protein source as well. Cheese all around.

    Pizza is also easy–cheese pizza is go-to for everyone. Small shells mean everyone can add what they like.

    If you don’t like what the main cook has prepared you are welcome to fend for yourself (which happens quite a lot)

  7. Posted by gypsy packer - 08/24/2011

    He loves meat, I love veggies. Split the meal. He hates spices and loves fried anything, and his cholesterol shows it. For some men, just cook the same menu you would for the children, and they’ll be fine. If you can cook your own food on an outdoor stove where Mr. Baby can’t smell it, you can have healthy and varied eating while he and the young’uns enjoy their Chef Boyardee or the equivalent.
    No, loaded baked taters are not an option–too complex.

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