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cooking for non-foodies

The thread on the rarity of chowhounds prompts me to wonder how you all cook for people who aren't that involved with food. We get together regularly with DH's family, all of whom live fairly close by. I used to labor for days to produce something really good and because the family includes vegetarians, non-fish or seafood eaters, people who are lactose intolerant or have other issues with food, this is not simple.

I really enjoy cooking and eating with friends, but it's finally penetrated that DH's family doesn't care. They avoid all unusual foods including eggplant, any mushroom that isn't a button, all cheeses that aren't cheddar or local Brie, any meat that isn't cooked to medium. Further, when we eat at their homes, the offerings are usually storebought fruit and veggie platters, packages of premixed salad greens with bottled dressings, meat or fish grilled or roasted with no seasonings - you get the picture. I get a little annoyed that no-one makes much effort, but then if they don't care why should they do a lot of work? They're good people, we enjoy spending time with them but food is never going to be important.

I can't bring myself to buy premade food and just throw it on a table, but I don't want to spend hours in a kitchen putting together meals no-one will appreciate. How do others deal with this?

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  1. My husband's family is the same way, so I can sympathize. With them, I just try to keep it simple. I still make a homecooked meal, but instead of experimenting with a new recipe or slaving away in the kitchen for hours on end, I'll make an old standby that I can cook in my sleep - like spaghetti and meatballs, macaroni and cheese, roast chicken, etc. - real down-home kind of cooking. I also avoid putting out "exotic" stuff like hummus and pita chips as noshes because I know it won't get eaten. I save the really amazing, blow-your-mind stuff for the people who I know are going to appreciate it.

    1. It's hard to say given your strong hints about their food "issues" but without a lot of detail; it may be that those issues have simply killed food as anything other than a nutrition source for them, but I cannot tell from your post.

      Absent those food issues -- which is probably unrealistic -- if you would still like the opportunity to improve as a cook and host, you might use their visits to perfect your repertoire of non-exotic foods that you may have neglected. Think of Edna Lewis's "A Taste of Country Cooking" and "The Pursuit of Flavor" and all manner of wonderful Amish and Mennonite cookbooks and the classic American offerings in Rosengarten's "It's All American Food" and "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook". There's a ton of wonderful foods that get neglected because they use no exotic ingredients or techniques. The kind our great-grandparents knew better than we do.

      4 Replies
      1. re: Karl S

        I didn't want to put in too much detail about the issues - BIL has acid reflux, SIL has finicky digestion, some of the kids are squeamish about anything they don't recognize. DH's stepfather is firm about what he likes (chicken, potatoes, apple pie) and doesn't like (almost everything else).

        You're right, I should learn more about traditional American cooking. I'm Chinese so my ideas about home cooking are a little different from some - homemade noodles with red-cooked belly pork are my best memories from my mother's table.

        1. re: cheryl_h

          Yes, but within each of those, you can make something special. I mean, there's chicken, and then there's CHICKEN!

          Try adding some Lavender to the apple pie, or making fondant potatoes next time. Just because you are constained by your ingredients, does not mean you can't be creative in their preparation.


          1. re: TexasToast

            I've tried this -- and who knows, it may work on the OP's DH's stepfather -- but usually what that sort of thing means is either "boneless skinless tasteless chicken breast in one of about five approved preparations", or "roast chicken"... potatoes means "mashed, baked, or fried"... and apple pie means "apples, sugar, flour, butter and cinnamon only".

            I have a friend who's the chicken person. Parmigiana, breaded-and-deep-fried, barbecued, in soup or in brown-sauce stir fry. That's IT.

            The worst was the day she called and said she needed home cooked food because she was sick, and could I make chicken with dumplings in that so-flavourless beige sauce, mashed potatoes that weren't at all lumpy, and green beans [from a can, of course]. I did make it (she was sick, I felt bad).

            She thought it was the best meal I'd ever made... until I showed her the menu.

            Suprême de poulet sauce Illinoise
            (Downstate-style chicken and dumplings)

            Purée de pommes de terre au Marquis de Sade
            (Mashed potatoes, beaten to death)

            Haricots verts à l'Anglaise
            (Green beans boiled Oxford-style, for three days)

          2. re: cheryl_h

            okay i don't know if this will apply across the board because of the lactose issues you mentioned, but check this one out.
            my father-in-law likes game. my mother-in-law is sicilian and puts mint in her meatballs (wtf??). my husband grew up without ever being properly introduced to the vegetable group (outside of tomatoes - and lettuce - in their family, a "salad" is a washed and chopped head of iceberg lettuce with gobs of dressing on it) but, every one of them dies for this recipe and it's so simple it hurts.

            Easy-Pleasy Chicken (lame name, but oh well)
            boneless, skinless chicken breasts pounded flat
            1 whole white or yellow onion
            butter or margarine
            heavy cream (again the lactose thing, but read on!)
            salt & pepper to taste

            peel the onion and cut into rings, breaking them apart. sautee in the butter/margarine until just about caramelized. add the chicken breasts and when they are just done, pour heavy cream over the top and simmer until the cream turns a nice golden brown. it's food the non-chowhounds can enjoy, as well as tasting like there was some effort put into it.

        2. I can relate. Same story with DH family. I'd do the homemade pasta..the works. They'd barely say a thing about the food..no matter how long I'd spent preparing it. So..one Sunday I decided to buy pasta (the cheapest)a bag of salad, a jar of Italian dressing (kraft), a jar of Prego sauce, and some frozen meatballs. So much easier and they didn't seem to notice any difference. Now I don't go hog wild when they come over. No need.

          I only cook like I want to for DH and myself...and for any chowish guests. I want to hear those ooohs and aaahhs thank you very much!

          1 Reply
          1. re: melly

            Dang, I'm glad it's just not me!

            SWMBO's family are food-is-fuel people and won't ever aspire to anything beyond prepackaged, prefab, over-processed foods. It took me the first ten years to finally give up and not put out different and unusual items. That usually meant there would be massive screaming, nashing of teeth and beating of chests -- usually mine.

            I've since decided to go with two simple dishes for this group: lasagna with meat sauce or spaghetti with meat sauce. (I'll put out a mini-salad of heirloom tomatoes or cherry tomatoes for my immediate clan, though.) Nothing beyond Safeway bread, First Street pastas, and simple meat sauce. They aren't made uncomfortable from new-and-different and I don't go psycho because they act like a bunch of pre-k kids.

            Our immediate friends and daughter-units are much more appreciative of the extra effort we invest in cooking so that's where the effort and energy are placed.

          2. I used to do this fairly often as my girlfriends run from the real foodies, to the real lolipops and then we'd all get together.

            My saving grace was that I TRULY enjoy to cook. So for me, the enjoyment really came in preparing the meal, durring the meal, I would focus just on the good company and the latest gossip... ;)

            As for how I would present it, I would annouce a simple menu a few days before the party... A Veggie Lasagna, Home Made Pizza, Fettucine Alfredo.

            Then, I got all the e-mails of 'issues', and worked them with my menu, I would serve and let the raves come in. It was only AFTER the meal I would say, "Oh, I used Truffle Oil, or a super aged Parm, or Shredded Eggplant...". Which would then cause another chatter because they either previously had hated one of those things or had been too afraid to try it (Or had never heard of it at all!)

            The thing is, these type of people will probably always be this way. Fearful of Slimy Eggplant, Wierd dried mushrooms, and stinky moldy cheese. I accepted that the greatest compliments I could recieve from these type of people is "Oh! Wow! That was so good, I didn't even taste it!"


            2 Replies
            1. re: Dommy

              When we're inviting the family, I send out an email with a short description (warning?) of what will be served. I add that everyone is free to bring anything they want. The vegetarian who has vegan kids often brings food they will eat because they refuse to eat anything their mother doesn't make.

              You have a great attitude. I've pretty much given up on sneaking in foodie ingredients but perhaps I should think about this some more.

              1. re: cheryl_h

                I used to have this problem years ago, but for me personally, I realized that what I enjoyed the most about entertaining was the whole creative process itself. My joy came from the actual cooking. Doing the simple tasks that as a teenager only seemed to frustrate me working in kitchens.

                Now when we have people over I tend to keep our menus pretty simple. For brunch I'll make them Lemon thyme honey pancakes with roasted peaches and homemade creme fraiche. The pure pleasure of manipulating these simple perfect ingredients into something delicious and ephemeral is almost zen like.

                My friends and family seem to take pleasure in the fact that I'm happy cooking for them. They don't always have to know that the peaches were picked that morning by my daughter and I at an organic farm. Simplicity is good.

            2. The thing of it is, you still have to eat whatever you make, so you might as well please yourself! Once in a while, out of love, I will make something I actually won't eat (i.e., peanut butter cookies for my favorite person in the world), but generally, if I'm going to put any amount of effort into cooking, I want that effort to go into something I'm going to be excited about eating.

              It seems like there might actually be 2 issues here:
              1. Your in-laws don't have the same interest in food.
              2. Your cooking, aka time and effort, are not being properly appreciated.

              To deal with #1, eh? no biggie. I have to admit that if I'm going somewhere I know the food will suck (to my family or to the family of peanut butter cookie lover from above) I will actually fix it so that we'll make the meal ("Oh, you have so much to do, let us cook"), or I'll just barely eat and then have a "real" meal later (I happen to like this option because then we can rant about how bad the food was, which lets us feel superior - yes, we're petty and we're bad people). ;)

              #2 on the other hand could result in some hurt feelings.

              Personally, it doesn't really matter to me if other folks understand and appreciate the level of technical skill required for a particular dish, or recognize any special ingredients involved. It's nice if they do, but that's not a pre-requisite for eating at our house. However, if a certain amount of general gratitude isn't displayed for our general hospitality, that's a good way to get crossed off our guest list!

              Anyway, we basically have 3 ways of handling the non-chowhounds in our life:
              1. Coming to our house for dinner: ask them to bring specific bottles of wine or specific brands of beer.
              2. Going to their house for dinner: suggest going out.
              3. We think this one is the best: do things together that do not involve food (this is actually possible).

              9 Replies
              1. re: grubn

                I have to admit we're dealt with #1 in the same way as you do. We take food to their homes so we know something will be to our liking, and I peck at the food at the vegetarian's home because it really is pretty bad. Then we eat a full meal at home, or we eat before going.

                Clearly I need to deal with this more competently. We can't cross them off our guest list, and I need to find recipes that suit their tastes as well as mine.

                1. re: cheryl_h

                  I feel kind of bad...obviously I have the need to have my food appreciated. I do enjoy cooking a really great meal..but I guess only if it is appreciated! Arghhhh! That sounds bad. Maybe it's because I grew up in restaurants and if it wasn't appreciated, we went broke! That's my story and I'm stickin to it. (I promise you this...my husband tells me every time how much he appreciates it..and when he cooks, I do the same).

                  1. re: melly

                    Melly you're perfectly normal. We all want to be appreciated. My husband is a great cheerleader for me and I am for him. But with his family I can't bring myself to make something I wouldn't eat myself so I have to compromise somehow.

                    He's never met my family who live on another continent. It's going to be a shock when he encounters people who talk about food ALL the time.

                    1. re: cheryl_h

                      Oh yes, it was a shock for me when I first met my husband's family and they talked about food ALL of the time. Since I really was scared of food, I thought it was the strangest thing ever.

                      And it never ceases to delight me that not only did I get over my food phobia, I am now the person who talks about food all of the time at family gatherings.

                  2. re: cheryl_h

                    I admit to bringing ingredients or eating prior for one person in particular. Houndish friends and I would conspire to bring over coordinated items. This started after one evening where we watched the evolution of a disaster and had to run out to the grocery store to get some key ingredients. I mean, simply dumping a can of tuna fish into a pot of boiled pasta is NOT getting the job done. At that time in my life, going out was not $$$ possible.

                    I also admit to asking for specific bottles of wine, nothing extravagant, just decent. This after an especially cheap friend kept bringing over the worst plonk after I put in extra effort for some meals.

                    1. re: ShortOrderHack

                      I stopped asking anyone to bring anything after being handed Baskin-Robbins butterscotch ice cream and having to serve it with apple pie made with apples we picked ourselves and my very best pastry.

                      1. re: cheryl_h

                        I would have brought Hagen Daz vanilla. Would that get me banned or asked back later for more pie?

                        1. re: cheryl_h

                          That's exactly what I would have chosen. You would have been invited back with hugs and kisses.

                          1. re: cheryl_h

                            I would have brought Cool Whip.

                            ...just kidding.

                    2. Otoh, there's nothing quite so satisfying as a moment of awakening - when light dawns on marble head. My DW's family eat to live, simple as that - it's meat and potatoes, and it's just not that important a part of life (and I'm a fruitcake for making it so).

                      On one occasion, I served beef curry (Japanese style). The initial reaction was quite as expected - what's this? what's in it? My MIL even asked why I'd serve a dish that had both potatoes and rice - apparently that was more unusual to her than the curry itself.

                      But then - amidst the noise of scraping the bottom of the plates, people started asking for seconds (and I had loaded the plates to begin with). Many of them asked for the recipe.

                      I'm not saying that this one occasion changed them or started an entirely new appreciation of food - but I'll take every minor victory. Those are the good days!

                      1. I used to do the same thing, go all out for people that I love. But honestly, if your guests have a lead palate (my usual test is that they can't taste the difference between margarine and butter)you will end up ultimately frustrated. Also, I've found that the food issue is a little intimidating/annoying for people who don't love food the way we do, so they're already uncomfortable to begin with! My mom made the same mistake when cooking for her bunco group...she slaved over homemade eggrolls and chow mein for days and they didn't bat an eye. But they RAVED about the "bagged dinner" I gave her: frozen Tyson bbq chicken wings, frozen biryani from Trader Joes and the caesar bagged salad. She was crushed because they said it was the best meal she ever made, but was ultimately glad that they were happy.

                        So I still cook fresh and homemade, but keep it simple for these folks. Roast chicken, fruit salad, fresh bread. Maybe, just maybe I might sneak in fresh basil instead of dried and someone won't faint, but the whole point is to enjoy the company and experience, not necessarily the food. I once had to cook for my diabetic mother, a vegan friend, and my picky eater sister (the one who thinks basil is weird). I ended up making a very mild falafel, a green salad and a flourless low-sugar chocolate cake and it was all fine.

                        1. I'm a recovered food-phobic and the only thing I can suggest is that you wear away at the food resistance very slowly. Only do one unusual (for your food audience) dish per get-together, but have it there every time you bring food so that it will become part of the regular food landscape.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: jillp

                            This is a fantastic suggestion: one unusual dish in a sea of familiar ones is usually better received than a table full of exotic eats. I snuck a watermelon feta salad in with a plate of roasted chicken and vegetables (with all boring vegetables except for the addition of glorious pink and white striped beets). Raves on the chicken, with one priceless comment on the salad: "It doesn't belong with cheese and olives and onions...poor watermelon."

                          2. I have picky friends, very picky ones. What I do when the come over for a meal is always to make one or two things that I know they really enjoyed and throw in whatever else the rest of the crowd would eat. I've had parties where there were non red-meat eaters, non pork eaters, lactose intolerant, Kosher, aversion to a vareity of different vegetables and even won't eat chocolate all meeting for a meal. It takes planning for those events, but everyone is happy at the end. Guests are happy with their food and I'm happy that people enjoyed the food.

                            One more thing, I always, always tell people NOT to bring anything. There are people who will still, but usually wine, which isn't a problem for me.

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: anna

                              I HATE it when someone insists on bringing a dish and wrecks my carefully thought out menu. Even more, one of my friends will insist on bringing something, tell me what she's bringing, I'll rearrange my menu to accommodate this and then she'll decide to do something else. I love her dearly but this makes me crazy!

                              1. re: sheiladeedee

                                I always ask the host/hostess if I can bring something. If they're adamant that they don't want anything, even wine which they could enjoy later, I take flowers. And I'll offer to arrange them when I get there if they're busy.

                                1. re: cheryl_h

                                  On the rare occasions (most of our friends are non-cooks and come over to our house) when I get asked to dinner, I will ask if I can bring anything. If the host/ess says no firmly, I won't bring anything for consumption at that meal, but might bring a gift of chocolates or wine, or send flowers the next day.

                                  1. re: sheiladeedee

                                    Even though I hateit when people bring food over, it's also hard for me to NOT bring something to someone's home when invited. So, I usually stick with things like a bottle of wine or sometimes just some fruit. I'm careful with flowers nowaday because of potential allegies.

                            2. I've taken to bringing preserves, condiments or whatever pickles we've recently made. It seems to go over relatively well. My daughter and I usually make her favorite smoked tomato and fig ketchup when we go to new friends for dinner. Though sometimes we do take flowers.

                              Anyone ever see Babettes Feast? The scene were she is making a dinner to die for the locals seems to remind me of some of these postings. You can lead a non foodie to good chow, but you can't make them appreciate it.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: chef poncho

                                Poncho's last sentance is blazing truth! Made a Sunday supper last year for 'new' friends; simple pork dish that was in the LA Times with a cinnamon rub (which we had tried before and really loved). Friends said, why are you bothering? We could just have some soup. I wanted to stuff them in the can. Did they really think we ate canned soup for a Sunday supper when we had invited guests?????????

                              2. My in-laws do appreciate my cooking to some degree although they are not chowish. It took me a few years to figure out that my MIL, while intimidated in the kitchen, also truly does feel that processed pre-made is really really good stuff.
                                I stick to meat and potatoes, well-known dishes, and low-effort but fresh and tasty stuff. We'll often do steak as that's a simple meal we can all appreciate. Once I made Batali's bolognese sauce, which was a relevation to me (never had a true bolognese) but was still close enough to "spaghetti and meat sauce" to them. They realized it was something special though, so that was nice. My MIL likes beef barley soup, so do I, so I make that. One of the meals that most impressed them was a 10-minute roasted salmon steaks on bed of asparagus and red pepper. I am still a little embarassed to sit and accept compliments for something so basic but what can I do?

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: julesrules

                                  I have a repertoire of only-slightly-scary foods that I trot out at need. You'd be amazed what a hit you can make if you poach a piece of salmon in white wine, water, gin and peppercorns, set it on a bed of dillweed, then "scale" it with thinly-sliced lemons. Takes all of fifteen minutes of actual work to do, and impresses people out of all proportion.

                                  I grew up eating Italian-American food, and so the things I cook best and most often are not "scary" to a lot of people. Chicken picatta is "special" to most people, and it takes no time at all. Pound cake can be a real sleeper win, and it's got six ingredients (butter, sugar, eggs, flour, salt and vanilla).

                                  Slowly, slowly, the foodphobes I know have learned that I'm not out to scare them, just to feed them well... and the big compliment to me is when I put a new dish down, they want to know what it is, and I say, "Just try it," and they do.

                                  Espinacs a la catalana was the last such dish -- woah, raisins and pine nuts, heady stuff! -- but I've got them even to eat ghapruto (eggplants with peppers, anchovies, olives and garlic).

                                2. Thank god the people in both my and my partners family like good food and appreciate it. One friend who refused to try avocado and was scared of rillettes was umm... summarily excused from the "invite to dinner" list... actually now that I think about it my family is pretty intolerant towards unadventurous eaters.
                                  This thread reminds me of what one of my chefs said when I asked him why, on top of working 60 hours a week, he then slaved to make Christmas dinner for his wife's entire family: "It's a favour to them, and it's a favour to me."

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: mbe

                                    Are you saying that you wouldn't extend your hospitality, or spend social time with, a friend who doesn't measure up to your standards? I forgive my friend their peculiar food dislikes (my best friend doesn't like mashed potatoes, her husband doesn't like vegetables or raisins), and they forgive mine (I won't touch blue cheese with a ten foot pole). So I don't make what she doesn't like when she comes over, and I made a portion of kugel without raisins for him. For me, having my friends over for dinner is a chance to do what I love to do--cook--and extend my hospitality, and the only people that would be "summarily excused" are those that are just unsociable and/or rude, period.

                                    1. re: rednails

                                      I'm not saying that. I'm just saying I don't invite them over for dinner. We do something else. I have no quibbles with dislikes, intolerances, or allergies, but when an otherwise mature individual, at 35 years of age, says... "ooo my mum had an avocado once and didn't like it" and then refuses to try something, it's all I can do to try and not beat them with the whisk at hand.

                                      I think it's also important to make the distinction between what cooknKate termed "elevating ones palate" and "trying something new". I'm not hoitey toitey, if you make me Kraft Mac'n cheese I will and do eat it and appreciate your effort. Whenever someone makes food for me I eat it and the enjoyment comes from the fact that they made the effort, as well as whether the food tastes good or not.

                                      But, when people look at something and are completely closed off to it because of some preconceived notion (and I'm not even talking about "scary" foods like chickens feet, or brains, or deep fried crickets here) then I really take issue with that. I think that often it's manifest of a lack of curiosity about life and experiencing new things and that I find hard to digest. I should emphasise that this happens very very rarely, in my experience most people are adventurous and will at least try something, and that I totally respect. If you try it we're all good. But if we're all eating it (ie it's safe), you've never tried it and won't even touch it, I consider that behavior rude.

                                    2. re: mbe

                                      Please don't give up on your scared-to-eat-things friend. Think of this as your Food Ministry: by repeatedly showing this person that interesting food isn't fatal, you can bring him/her to the Path of Chowhoundness.

                                      If it were not for the repeated invitations to dinner from very foodish friends, combined with my husband's infinite food patience, I'd still be eating boneless chicken breasts, Uncle Ben's Converted Rice and some really unadorned vegetables.

                                    3. There are people who live to eat, and people who just eat to live. Rarely does anyone vacillate from one camp to the other, but when they do, it's best done with the mind-set that not everyone needs or should share in their love and passion regarding food. I can and do vacillate because it is totally necessary. Not everyone is going to share my love of food, my willingness to try new and unique flavors and my sensory enjoyment of eating. I know I am fortunate to have had opportunities to expand my palate, to learn to cook better and to appreciate really, really good foods. Not everyone does, nor does everyone want this experience. What keeps me off my high horse about it is to remind myself of the many lean years of my life when I ate simply to exist and lived off some pretty vile food stuffs.

                                      Food is such a subjective topic, and just because one has elevated their palate to a higher standard of cooking and taste doesn't mean that anyone in the other camp should be considered inferior if they haven't. To many people "food isn't going to be important to them". It's just the way they are. I have family like that- food is sustenance to them and that is all it is. I still make whatever I want for our gatherings, and those who like it will eat it and those who don't, won't. I simply don't lose sleep over it, it isn't worth it. And if I am invited to someone's house and they put a pan of spaghetti in front of me with Ragu on it, open a loaf of store bought garlic bread and a bag of salad, I eat it and don't say a word because I am grateful to be able to sit down with people I love and share a meal. And I am grateful to have a meal, period....those memories of lean years will never leave me. If I always insisted that it be on my terms, or that I have to have all my food a certain way I would never be invited anywhere.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: cooknKate

                                        cooknKate, Yours is the most comprehensive and sensible post on this thread.

                                      2. This is probably going to sound really trite, but while I love to cook and experiment, for me it's ultimately about pleasing my guests and making them feel comfortable and at home. I always ask new guests if there are foods they can't/won't eat, and I plan the meal accordingly. If they're vegetarian, I don't cook meat for that meal, or if there are others invited who are not, I offer them an alternative. If there are picky eaters and I know it, I try to not put food that's too unusual in front of them. had a friend once who was terribly food-phobic, and would (I am not exaggerating) only eat burgers and chicken fajitas. And when I say chicken fajitas, I mean cooked unseasoned chicken breast meat with Kraft shredded cheese wrapped in a tortilla. I simply didn't invite them over very often, and when I did, we had burgers.

                                        If you entertain a lot, there are ample opportunties to showcase your cooking skills. But when I invite guests into my home to share a meal, my ultimate goal is to make them comfortable and happy and to be able to enjoy their company.

                                        Now, that being said, I will add that when I am invited to someone's home to eat and they have made absolutely no effort whatsoever, including trying to make me feel the least bit comfortable, I do tend to complain later.