How to date a picky eater
June 20, 2005 3:03 PM   Subscribe

I want the tasting menu, she wants plain chicken and mashed potatoes - how can my girlfriend and I eat out and at home so that we are both happy?

About me: I am a 23 year old SF bay area food lover who grew up trying new foods all the time and is an aspiring home cook. I'll try anything at least once and I like to cook elaborate, exotic, richly flavored meals. Though I'm not rich, I'm happy to pay good money for great meals, and want to try everything the bay area has to offer (e.g. chez panisse, french laundry, gary danko, etc.). I love my girlfriend and would like to share these fine dining experiences with her (who else would I take out to a $500+ dinner in Napa?).

About her: She's always been a somewhat picky eater, and recently found out that she has Gastroparesis (a stomach condition that stemmed from her diabetes), which further limits what she can eat. For those unfamiliar with the condition, it essentially slows down your digestive system to a near halt, and thus you must only eat easy to break down foods (i.e. low-fiber, low-fat). Combined with her personal preferences, this means that she won't eat almost any vegetables, raw or cooked, and can't eat anything fried or covered in a fattening sauce. She likes everything plain, or with only simple flavorings. She loves me and is willing to slightly push her limits and occasionally try new things, but it takes some coaxing and I know she's only doing it for me. We've already had a couple of occasions where I've picked a restaurant that I thought was relatively safe and she's been unhappy and unable to find choices that she likes.

My questions: Has anyone dealt with a situation like this, where your partner has seriously different eating preferences? If so, how did/do you make it work? Also, I'm curious about how high-end restaurants would react to her eating habits (e.g. can I seriously ask Thomas Keller or Alice Waters to cook without fat or anything green)? I know that they accomodate for food allergies, but is this too extreme? If you think they would accomodate us, how and when do I tell them? Any other tips?
posted by rorycberger to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
When cooking for picky eaters, I've had good luck sticking to more traditional Italian recipes and Sarah Leah Chase's French cookbooks (purists argue that she's not really traditionally French, but I love her stuff). Things like Marcella Hazan's milk-braised pork roast or chicken roasted with lemon, or Chase's salt-crusted beef tenderloin, are basically just "meat" but with really rich flavors. They're fussy enough to be fun to cook if you like messing in the kitchen, without being too intimidating to non-foodies.

You might also do lots of smaller side dishes, so that she could try a bit or two without worrying that if she didn't like it, she had "ruined" the meal and so that you could have the variety you want.
posted by occhiblu at 3:12 PM on June 20, 2005

Response by poster: oh yeah, she can't eat most fruits either. basically she's limited to low fat cuts of meat and fish, and simple carbohydrates like pasta and potatoes.

[on preview: good suggestions occhiblu, I'll have to seek out those cookbooks. thanks, and keep em coming!]
posted by rorycberger at 3:15 PM on June 20, 2005

I don't see the problem, rory, most main-course recipes are little more than:
Choose one: red meat, white meat, fish
Choose one: potatoes, pasta, rice
Choose one: dairy-based sauce, tomato-based sauce, stock-based sauce (fish, meat or veggie)
Choice of veggies optional and determined by availability
How is she with herbs and spices? A dish can be completely changed simply by substituting the seasonings.
posted by mischief at 3:25 PM on June 20, 2005

When going out, especially to fancy restaurants, I would call ahead (NOT during peak hours), explain your girlfriends preferences and ask what on the menu would possibly suit her. I can't think of any restaurants which would not accomodate her (though I guess I don't know how they roll in San Fransisco). Almost every style of food (even Thai, which I've been in to recently mmmm...curry) has some sort of simple chicken or fish or pasta or potato dish, and chefs are usually more than willing to serve them without seasoning or sauce if it is asked for nicely before hand. (Just don't be obnoxious about it).
posted by muddgirl at 3:30 PM on June 20, 2005

Dishes that contain white fish (e.g. tilapia, roughy, cod) might help. White fish generally are very "tasteless" and are brightened with sauces. You could make a rich sauce for yourself, and a simple flour, herb and milk sauce for her.
posted by Rothko at 3:40 PM on June 20, 2005

I am a picky eater. My wife is a picky eater. In fact, nearly every adult I know is picky about food in some way or other. Very few of us are truly omnivorous.

We've learned that the trick when preparing food for a large group of near-forty-year-old picky eaters (for a dinner party, say), is to take everyone's preferences into account, but not to be slavish to them. (For example, we have one friend who is vegetarian and another who will not eat pork; this does not prevent us from using bacon in our clam chowder.)

If we keep the dishes we prepare fairly basic, it's easy to add complexity or customization. We might prepare a basic pasta dish, for example, and those who want more garlic can add it, those who want it spicier can add pepper flakes, etc. By making dishes customizable, everyone can enjoy the food they like. Or, if the dishes are made so that the offending ingredient can be picked out, that helps, too. (For example, I hate mushrooms, but am perfectly content to pick them out of a salad, but I really dislike being forced to endure a soup in which the mushrooms are miniscule but omnipresent.)

Mostly, though, my wife and I (and all the picky eaters we know) have learned to just make do. We don't impose our tastes on others, nor do we expect them to cater to us. When I go to dinner at somebody's house, I often take a can of soup as a backup. Sounds silly (and possibly rude), I know, but better safe than sorry. (And better than wasting food.) All of our friends are comfortable declining food if something is too creamy, or has beans in it, or is too spicy, or whatever.

Basically: as long as neither you or your girlfriend tries to impose your taste on the other, you should be fine.

(Also, I have two friends with severe (life-threatening) food allergies. They deal with this on their own, on a meal-by-meal basis. They speak with restaurant staff to be certain there's no, say, garlic in the meal, and everything works out fine.)
posted by jdroth at 4:04 PM on June 20, 2005

I have a relative who had pancreas failure that spread to other organs, with the result that he can not eat anything fried or containing oil, sugar, or simple carbohydrates. The wrong food could kill him.

He manages to eat out at high-end restaurants by calling ahead, like muddgirl suggests, and explaining his restrictions when he makes the reservation. He reminds the restaurant when he is seated, then makes modifications when he orders from the menu. For example, I once saw him order the fried salmon with some kind of sauce -- only he asked them to poach it and only flavor it with lemon juice.

I don't see why your girlfriend can't just order her version of what's on the menu, as long as you confirm with the restaurant in advance that they can do it. She can ask for the chef to prepare the meat in a way that appeals to her, without the sauce -- or with the sauce in a dish for her to experiment with if she's feeling daring. She can alway sask for white toast or plain pasta (maybe with lemon juice and pepper?), and get any greens on the side so she doesn't have to eat them.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 5:15 PM on June 20, 2005

alway sask=always ask
posted by croutonsupafreak at 5:17 PM on June 20, 2005

As an extremely picky eater, I can think very little that's more rude than someone who tries to pressure me into eating something I don't want to eat, doubly so if the picky eating is a result of a biological disorder. What's fun and exciting for you may end up as a painful night in the bathroom (or worse) for her. Not to mention the embarrassment factor...

I think it's nice that you want to involve your girlfriend in your culinary adventures, but if you get any impression that she's not into it, it might be better that you go by yourself or with a friend who can better appreciate a $500 meal.
posted by MegoSteve at 5:24 PM on June 20, 2005

Oof. Well, both of you will have to compromise a bit. And you might need to find a chowfriend, because your girlfriend does not share your favorite hobby, and has medical reasons to be even less enthused. Last time I was in a relationship with a picky eater, we just didn't talk about food much, and didn't structure dates around food. It was weirder for me than it was for him.

I'm like you now, but I used to be like your girlfriend -- a former very picky eater transformed into major gourmand. Here's my advice from both sides of the equation.

1) Taking her to Chez Panisse or French Laundry or anything other fabulously expensive incredibly famous restaurant will likely be an exercise in frustration for both you. She's going to be trying not to be weirded out by the food and you're going to be anxious that she's not frustrated, and both of you will be well aware that the very expensive food is going to waste. No, you cannot really tell Thomas Keller or Alice Waters not to cook with fat or anything green. Splurge with a picnic in some gorgeous spot when you want to be a romantic boyfriend.

1b) It is NOT fun not be able to bring yourself to order any single blessed thing on the entire menu. No matter how nice your dining companions and the waitstaff are.

2) Look for some common ground in food that she'll be able to like without faking it. Vietnamese and Greek are good choices, as simple grilled meat/seafood is a brilliant mainstay of the cuisine.

3) You might be able to have fun making both of you happy if you get involved with buying local/organic/sustainable ag. foods. Free-range chicken and eggs have a lot more flavor, and if you prepare them simply, you can challenge yourself to let the ingredients do the talking as simply as possible. Also, do a little research to find out what other foods are easily digestible -- she might be more open to something a little exotic if you picked it because it won't disagree with her.
posted by desuetude at 5:30 PM on June 20, 2005

My (former) partner had a life-threatening allergy to, of all things, carrots. This may sound like no big deal, but the sad fact is, at most decent restaurants, almost every stock is made with carrots, and almost every sauce is made with stock.

That having been said, most better restaurants were more than willing to make adjustments for her. A place like French Laundry or Chez Panisse would certainly be able to deal with your girlfriend's special dietary needs. It would probably be helpful, however, if you mentioned those needs when making reservations (many moons in advance for both those establishments...)

Less high-end restaurants, and ESPECIALLY ethnic restaurants (asian, latin, etc.) where sometimes the servers have an imperfect grasp of English were always a minefield, however, as, occasionally, the "This doesn't have carrots in it, does it?" was apparently interpreted as "Please to put more carrots in."

You're lucky, however, that you live in such a food-savvy area. If you were in a small town, or in many midwestern cities (I'm looking at you, Omaha), you'd likely be greeted with blank stares by your server if you asked what was in a particular dish, or how it was made...

You're lucky also that Zuni Cafe offers a fantastic dish you BOTH can enjoy: the best roast chicken EVAR!!!11! (it's for 2 people). She may not be able to eat the bread salad it's served with, but still-- mad yumminess.

As far as cooking at home is concerned, my situation was easier than yours-- I would simply substitute either red peppers, or perhaps another root vegetable whenever carrots were called for, but you can make it work for you guys. A leaner cut of meat for her, a richer sauce for you; a small side salad for you, but not for her, things like that.

Stews and other braises might also be a good solution; a Moroccan chicken tagine (but leave out the raisins!), an Italian pork & tomato stew (substitute a leaner cut of pork such as the loin for the fatty shoulder such recipes usually call for, and reduce cooking time accordingly...), Belgian boeuf carbonnade, hell, cioppino, even.

Beware some braises, however, as they can be too fatty. Someone up top suggested Marcella Hazan's milk-braised pork, which is one of the more delicious things I've ever made, but it is VERY rich, and I say that as someone who revels in rich food.

There are probably specialty cookbooks that cater to her sort of issues; if not, take recipes you like and adapt them to suit her diet better.

I dunno, I think I'm rambling on a bit here. Sorry. Food is a subject near and dear to my heart.

On preview, I'd like to second what desuetude suggested regarding things like organic / free range chicken and meat, etc. It really does taste better (as you no doubt already know), it tends to be less fatty-- at least the chickens-- and could be an excellent common ground for you guys culinarily...)
posted by dersins at 5:42 PM on June 20, 2005

Yup, go to any place you want, and she'll order exactly what she wants--they'll accomodate her with no problem, and maybe she'll take a taste or 2 from you as you eat. : >
posted by amberglow at 5:43 PM on June 20, 2005

(and it doesn't have to be on the menu at all--every restaurant has chicken in the kitchen.) Tip really well, tho.
posted by amberglow at 5:44 PM on June 20, 2005

At home, you could concentrate on perfecting techniques for foods she's able to enjoy (grilling, poaching, pan-searing, roasting, stewing), with simple-but-perfect seasonings rather than sauces. You might also want to try to track down some of Michel Guérard's cuisine minceur cookbooks from the late 70's, he was at the forefront of the movement to slim down french food and those recipes all have very little fat and plenty of flavor. They were panned at the time for their difficult and time-consuming techniques, which sounds right up your alley.
posted by cali at 5:47 PM on June 20, 2005

This is so sad. I adore food and fortunately so does my partner. It would grieve me mightily if I were involved with a picky eater - even one who, like your girlfriend, has some good excuses for it. Obviously if you love your girl you'll find a way to deal with this but man, it must be hard. Food is one of the great sensual joys of life. You realise this; she doesn't. Nightmare.

I agree with what someone else said: you need a chowfriend. You cannot and should not deny this side of yourself. But you should also try to find foods that your girlfriend can enjoy. So, the key is go on a mad gastronomical experiment adventure. Try everything. Go to restaurants of all nationalities and styles. Explain to her what you're doing: trying to throw a lot of food against the wall so that you can see what sticks. Let her know it's OK; that most of the time she won't get on with what you try. It's a journey, and the destination is "Here are maybe half a dozen really nice types of food we both can enjoy." And in between times, scarf it up like a whore with your chowfriends. The great thing about being a food tart is that it hurts your partner so much less than infidelity. :-)

No pain, no gain. I wish you well.
posted by Decani at 5:59 PM on June 20, 2005

This is all to complicated--it seems to me it is all a matter of respect and a willingness to suspend expectations--you are obviously bright and you both seem well informed and clear about your needs and preferences--ask and you will receive, if not, be humble and ever gracious when you can not be accommodated--my wife and I have totally different eating habits/preferences--twenty years on we have eaten in some of the best restaurants as well as down home cafes/bars/bistros and seem able to go away happy and full--not every experience is perfect but they add up to fun and good eating
posted by rmhsinc at 6:06 PM on June 20, 2005

sushi? seems to fit the bill of lowfat fish and simple carbs for her, and you can get fancier/more exotic stuff for you.
posted by judith at 6:18 PM on June 20, 2005

Has she considered medication for her condition? I know that it can be effective in some cases.
posted by rxrfrx at 6:29 PM on June 20, 2005

Response by poster: sushi? seems to fit the bill of lowfat fish and simple carbs for her, and you can get fancier/more exotic stuff for you.

ha, that's great. sushi is one of the things that I love most and she absolutely refuses to try (raw fish is icky, apparently). Of course I tried to sell her on the lowfat/simple carb aspect but she's pretty resolute about it.

Thanks for all of the suggestions, I agree with the idea of making alternate versions for each of us (different sauces particularly) and realize that this usually doesn't need to be complicated (every restaurant does indeed have chicken). And don't worry, I'm all over the local/organic/etc. stuff. Luckily her problem isn't life threatening (well the diabetes could be but she's got that well managed with insulin); at worst, she'll get sick and throw up, then be fine the next day. That carrot allergy sounds crazy, dersins. Zuni's on my list of restaurants to check out too, thanks for reminding me about the roast chicken.

Cali - that does indeed sound right up my alley, just ordered a used copy from amazon. Keep the cookbook suggestions coming, so far much of my collection does not fit her dietary requirements (Keller, Julia, etc. are almost always too fatty).

Sounds like the verdict's still out on the French Laundry. I understand that it won't be a fabulously romantic experience, and it may be difficult for her, but I'm dying to go there, and just can't see any way of doing it without making at least a night in napa out of it (I know I won't want to drive home afterward). I'd love to make it part of a weekend getaway, and I think she'd be willing to go with me if they would keep the fat and veggies to a minimum. derfins says they'll do it, desuetude says they won't - I guess I'm just going to have to call the restaurant and ask (I wonder if there's a non-reservations line that i might actually get through on). This is the part of the equation that I think will be the hardest though. I've got other chowfriends who I can go to Chez Panisse, etc. with, but what about the places I'd have to travel to? If we ever take a vacation to, say, Chicago (a city we are both interested in visiting), I'm going to want to go to Alinea and Trotter's. Ditto for Per Se and Nobu in NYC. And if we ever want to travel to Europe - how do you ask for plain food at El Bulli or the Fat Duck?

Thanks for the sympathy Decani, you've totally captured my pain. It's not just about finding something she can eat, there's also an emotional aspect to the fact that this is something I'm passionate about and she just doesn't get it. I've got other chowbuddies, but, like real infidility I'd imagine, the satisfaction of enjoying a great meal with my roommate or my mother will never be the same as I'd like it to be with her. I guess I'm just going to have to accept a separation between food and romance and enjoy them both on their own.

[on preview: yes, she takes medication. I forget what it's called but she takes a pill before she eats. This is what allows her to eat more than saltine crackers and water, but her stomach's still really sensitive.]
posted by rorycberger at 7:07 PM on June 20, 2005

Clarification: It's more my opinion than fact that no, one doesn't tell Thomas Keller not to use fat or anything green. I think that the French Laundry most likely would accomodate you as much as possible...there is likely at least one dish on the menu that could be made in a way that she could eat it. That said, I stand by not being so sure that one of the most exclusive restaurants in the country will be as exciting for her as it is for you. If someone had taken me to a really beautiful romantic restaurant with amazing food when I was still picky, I would have been miserable. Sorry.

Sashimi is actually is a good option, as a lot of it is really easily digestible. This might be something to work up to as a compromise. I fell into that raw fish icky thing too, until I tried it and found that raw fish know, not fishy. Could you start with seared ahi tuna, move into the sushi counterpart, and then talk her into the divine barbequed eel? Oof, don't call it eel, though. Aw, forget the eel and try to get her into tuna sashimi, then proceed from there.

[sigh] I feel for you. Try not to argue about food. Her medical issues are non-negotiable, obviously. Her unwillingness to try new foods, well, ultimately she'll have to decide on her own to try something. Probably when no-one's looking. E-mail if you want to pick my brain more on how I "evolved."
posted by desuetude at 8:03 PM on June 20, 2005

Don't take her to these gorgeous meals. What's the point of taking her out and having her eat chicken and rice while you sample tasty, exotic foodstuffs? As a fellow food lover, nothing could kill the experience faster except for, uh, sucky food. Find a friend to go these restaurants with and leave your gf at home. When you get back, tell her all about it or maybe she won't want to hear it and this'll just be your thing. I have a feeling you'll both be happier for it. Couples don't have to do everything about it. Sometimes two people can't reach a compromise and they should just go their own way.
posted by nixerman at 8:57 PM on June 20, 2005

From experience, I also second the chow friend option. Together with my wife and kids we found some restaurants in our neighborhood that we visit for family meals. Nothing special food-wise, but the predictable menu takes a lot of pressure away from the dining experience.
If I feel like having something special, I have dinner with my food friends. We even make some food frenzy trips once in a while. This may sound like a bit too much. But on the other hand - I don't have a weekly pokernight, I don't go to football games, I am a faithful husband (yes, my wife is also reading MeFi), and I don't have that shoe and boot thing going on, so what's the problem?
Also, as I do all the cooking in the household, I use my new experiences to develop my home cooking skills, from which she also benefits. The first time I went out on a food safari with my buddy, I felt a bit awkward, but that feeling was immediately gone when I tasted some wild strawberries (on the market in Yangon, Burma, to be exact). Damn, you only can find out that you can be knocked out of your senses by eating a strawberry at the other side of the globe when you actually do it. Meanwhile, I still count my blessings for the solution we worked out.
posted by ouke at 1:56 AM on June 21, 2005

Befriend another foodie/non-foodie couple who likes to travel. You and your fellow foodie can enjoy the nice restaurants and let the non-foodies shop or sightsee or go to museums.

Barring that, just suck it up and spend a night alone in Napa (or wherever). Don't make your girlfriend tag along on a trip she won't enjoy just because you need company.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:54 AM on June 21, 2005

Chowbuddy, chowbuddy, chowbuddy. It can't be said enough. That in conjunction with calling ahead (and tipping well!) and home experimentation seems like it's going to be the only viable solution. Wish I could offer some advice on how to expand a picky palate, but my own foodie-awakening was more of a lightning strike: that is, suddenly I became willing to try anything once. And I'm usually glad I did.

There can be upsides to the DIY route, though. I never would've attempted to make my own marshmallows until I became close friends with a vegetarian.
posted by Vervain at 11:43 AM on June 21, 2005

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