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How To Cope With A Fussy Eater At Your Dinner Party

Updated on September 3, 2015

When you invite friends for dinner, you’re probably looking forward to an evening of sophisticated fun and great conversation, all centered around a table of good, tasty food.

One of your guests drops the bombshell — there is a whole list of food that they don’t eat. Your heart sinks as you realize that the menu you’ve been thinking of just won’t work and the other guests will be judging your culinary skills through the lens of a set of restricted ingredients.

Scroll to the bottom to compare how fussy your own eating habits are to others reading this article

Here are some simple tricks that you can use to ensure your guests have a great evening, including your fussy eating friend.

A dinner party gives you a chance to show off you culinary prowess, but remember that it's mostly about bonding with your friends
A dinner party gives you a chance to show off you culinary prowess, but remember that it's mostly about bonding with your friends | Source

What is fussy eating?

Fussy eating, (or picky eating) is often rooted in their upbringing — and the sufferer may or may not be aware of the reasons behind their eating habits — so best not to ask too deeply.

Fussy eating habits are learned behaviors and preferences that have built up and been reinforced over time, and range from needing to separate the items of food on the plate or not having certain combinations of food served together, to a long list of food groups that they just won’t eat.

Be aware, though, that eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia are very real for some sufferers, and these medical conditions are out of the scope of this article.

Being a vegetarian isn't fussy eating, and you shouldn't be surprised if some of your guests don't eat meat.

Attention seeking?

If your friend is older than a young child, then the fussy eating is not likely to be the attention seeking that’s often thought. Your friend is likely to be embarrassed about having to mention their eating habits. Probably they'll be wishing that they could just enjoy a normal meal without the fuss.

Being a vegetarian isn’t fussy eating — it may be not your usual diet, but these are your friends, and you shouldn’t be surprised that in the 21st century a significant portion of the population doesn’t eat meat — but some of the tips in this article will still work for you.

Tip #1: Don't be angry and try not to judge

Your friend probably knows they’re complicating things for you, and if they have mentioned it in advance then at least it gives you time to plan and follow the tips below. If, on the other hand, they have neglected to mention their eating habit until their arrival, then you’ll need to see some of the emergency tricks at the end of this article.

Staying calm and taking it in your stride is all part of being their friend — they’ll be worrying about it as much as you will. Even if they have “self-diagnosed” themselves as gluten intolerant, lactose intolerant, or some other allergy, then you should still respect their wishes — remember the reason for inviting your friends in the first place was to spend a nice evening with them.

Tip #2: Create meals that are self-assemble, or self-serve

Although the look of a well-presented plate of food, exquisitely arranged with a flick of sauce or dressing may be your ideal way to show off your culinary prowess, it’s often better to let your guests serve their own food from shared dishes on the table.

This simple tip lets your friend decide which food they take and they arrange it on their plate. There's no need for you to be offended when your fussy eating friend just pushes their food around the plate that you lovingly dished out. If they prefer the sauce separate, or don’t like to eat pasta but are fine with the vegetables then this is an easy solution — it helps to take the attention off the fussy eating friend and turns the serving of the meal into more of an “event”.

Tip #3: Make sure there are lots of side dishes

If you are serving up a one-pot meal, like a curry, or tajine, then make sure there are lots of side dishes. These don’t need to be complicated — generally the simpler the better. Salads (without added dressing), pulses, dried meats, dips and flatbreads all make good, no effort side dishes.

That way, your guest can help themselves to the extras without you feeling bad that you've not fed them enough. Even better, if you have time, would be to prepare two or more main dishes in advance, giving your guests a choice.

Remember — you’re not serving food at a restaurant — you are allowed to present a selection of dishes.

A homemade tajine with lots of side dishes for your fussy eater to choose from is a great idea
A homemade tajine with lots of side dishes for your fussy eater to choose from is a great idea | Source

Tip #4: Go back to basics

If your guest has given you a list of foodstuffs they won’t eat, and that makes you think “I can’t cook anything” — you’ll need to go back to basics. I once had a guest warned me that they couldn’t eat wheat, dairy, meat or nuts. While that might make you wish you’d not invited them, all is not lost.

When you go back to the basics of cooking (and this may take a little more effort), and decide what you can cook from each of the three big food groups, there’s still an awful lot of choice left. For example, beans and pulses can form the protein; wholegrain Basmati rice for a healthy carbohydrate, and almost any vegetables cooked using your favorite technique contain the vitamins and minerals. Adding herbs and spices mean that you’ll still get a great flavor.

Tip #5: Talk to your friend

Although it sounds obvious, your friend deals with their eating habits at every meal. If you’re truly stumped for ideas of what to cook, then just ask your friend for some ideas — they will probably be flattered that you’re asking for their advice — people like to be needed. Honesty is always the best option, and will likely have the added benefit of help your friendship grow.

Two instant emergency tricks

Your guest has just announced on the doorstep that they don’t eat wheat, or they can’t eat food with a sauce in it — and you’ve just made a spaghetti bolognese or lasagna — what do you do?

Tip #6: Always keep some basic food groups on standby

Tinned vegetables, beans and pulses at the back of the cupboard have a very long shelf life, and let you quickly rustle up a simple bean salad. Dash with some basil or Italian mixed herbs, and you have a healthy and nutritious meal for your friend.

Tip #7: See the funny side of it

Seriously — although deep down you’re going to feel angry because the effort you've put in is not being appreciated, you do still want to remain friends. Laugh it off with a shrug and an offer to ring for a (suitable) take-out meal, or even a raw veg platter. Your other guests will still appreciate your flexibility, and your fussy friend will likely be very apologetic and embarrassed, and glad that you’re accommodating them.

How do your own eating habits compare to others?

Which of the following describes you best

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  • Ensure a balance of the three main food groups — Protein, Carbohydrates and Vegetables (vitamins and minerals).
  • Let your guests serve their own food from shared dishes on the table
  • Have plenty of side dishes
  • Talk to your friend about what they would normally eat

© 2015 Chris Buckett


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