Cooking For Others: Picky Eaters

Side-by-Side Classic and Spicy Chipotle Hummus hanging out on my window sill.

EVENT: The Rents’ Belated Birthdays
VENUE: Phoebe’s Apartment, Flatiron
TYPE: Festive Celebratory Dinner; Side-by-Side Dishes
MENU: Spicy Chipotle Hummus; Classic Hummus; Spiced Lamb and Sweet Potato Kababs; Rosemary Monkfish Skewers; Yellow Rice Pilaf with Pinenuts and Parsley; Arugula Salad with 3-Herb Vinaigrette

When I was little, I mean really little, I was quite a picky eater. But my palate wasn’t refined to white foods like most children—I loved my veggies, perfectly prepared meat and fish, and all herbs. It was the usual kid stuff that I took issue with: pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs, and really anything that was conceptually hard to grasp. I couldn’t understand that soup was just a hot puree of the foods I normally ate. I didn’t like the idea of eating raw lettuce slathered in creamy dressing, and the concept of bread covered in tomato sauce and cheese was disturbing. Hamburgers and hotdogs didn’t come from any animal I knew, and therefore were out as well.

When my mother cooked, she cooked real food. The table was covered in bowls holding one item from each food group, and when I filled my plate with broccoli spears, roasted potatoes, and lamb chops, I did so without allowing the items to touch each other. I was kind of a purist in that sense. When I was 3, we moved to France, and they ate real food over there too. My favorite meal was sole meuniere with a side of haricot vert and French fries. When we moved back two years later, my mom packed peanut butter and nutella sandwiches in my lunchbox for school. And a year after that, I became a real American child and started trading them with my classmates in exchange for lunch money, so I could buy a hotdog.

Now, there are very few things I don’t eat, though I am still limited by almost the entire category of raw fruits (texturally disturbing). But the same cannot be said of my parents. My mother has always been the problem child. Her gluten and lactose intolerance, refusal to eat fish with high mercury content, and general dislike of most hot spices, including black pepper, means that sometimes when we go out to restaurants, there is not one item on the menu that she will eat. And when she chooses a basic chicken paillard or hanger steak, 9 out of 10 times, she will send it back at least once. It’s not her fault really. When you cook for yourself as much as she does, it’s hard not to be overly picky when others don’t prepare your dishes just so.

My dad, on the other hand, has always been easy. That is, until last winter when he decided to stop eating red meat and poultry. I now get email after frustrated email from my mom asking for vegetarian solutions, as she is so sick of making fish for the two of them she could scream.

Today, an ideal meal for my dad would be pasta (with cheese). For my mom, it would be steak. So when I offered to cook them both a belated birthday dinner (they were born ten days and 1 year apart), I was at a loss.

I decided to employ a strategy Cara and I often use for mixed veggie-carnivore crowds: the skewer. I made lamb and sweet potato kababs for my mom, enhanced by Moroccan spices, and for my father, monkfish skewers with toasted ciabatta (he loves his carbs). To start, chipotle hummus with pita (spicy/with carbs) and classic hummus with carrot sticks (mild/gluten-free). It sounded like the ideal solution to please both parents.

Unfortunately, it turned into one of those disaster days: over-cooked lamb, under-cooked sweet potatoes, way too salty fish, bland, gummy rice. My guests humored me by putting their pickiness aside, and eating everything on their respective plates, even if both of their dishes failed to be cooked just so.

From my kitchen, where picky eaters don’t always leave hungry, to yours,


p.s. we would love to know how you accommodate the pickiest eaters at your table!


Spiced Lamb and Sweet Potato Kababs
Makes 3-4 servings

Though the meal was bit of a disaster, I know exactly where I went wrong. Make sure you dry the lamb properly before skewering it, and that your broiler is very very hot. It may take 20 minutes are so to preheat.


4 garlic cloves, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 lemon, juiced
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp ground coriander
1 tsp salt
1½ lbs boneless leg of lamb, cut into 1½ inch cubes

1lb sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes
10 bamboo skewers, soaked in water for at least 20 minutes

Combine all the first 7 ingredients in a small bowl and whisk together. Place the lamb in a large ziplock bag and pour the marinade over it. Seal and place in the fridge for at least 2 hours, or overnight.

Preheat the broiler, and line a baking sheet with foil.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook the sweet potatoes until almost fully tender. Drain and set aside.

Remove the lamb from the marinade and pat dry with paper towels. Toss the sweet potatoes in the remaining marinade.

Thread the lamb and sweet potatoes on the skewers, alternating (you should have two of each on the skewer).

Arrange on the baking sheet and broil in the oven for 6 minutes, 3 minutes per side. Remove and allow to rest under foil for 10-20 minutes.

Rosemary Monkfish Skewers
Makes 3-4 servings

I used this Jamie Oliver recipe. It turned out great. One thing to keep in mind: do not heavily season the fish. The pancetta is very salty and will almost season the whole dish for itself. If you have a non-meat eater, leave it out altogether.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees instead of 400.

Posted in: Cooking for Others
  • Frankie

    I've had a guest over a couple of times who admitted herself that she ate like a bird. She leaves 3/4's of her food on the plate. Once I decided to give her bird-like portions – about a tablespoon of each dish. She left 3/4s on the plate. Go figure. Another time I had a no red meat or poultry eater like your dad, plus someone who was allergic to fish, and a third who was dairy and gluten free. I made your BGSK vegetarian chili with a polenta topping I finished off under the grill. It was a little strange but they were happy.

  • Becca

    One of my favorite potluck dishes is rice salad, because it is easy to keep gluten-free and vegan without feeling like you're missing anything. I particularly like it with dried cranberries and pecans, or pomegranate seeds and scallions, and a citrus vinaigrette.

  • Jessie Blum @ Eclectic Unions

    My fiance doesn't eat a lot of vegetables (no onions unless they are super fine and cooked to death – no cooked tomato chunks – it's all a texture issues for him), sweet and savory together (breaks my heart!), or fish. Alas, this means I must eat Thai and Indian food on my own, because the entire cuisine just doesn't agree with his wacky food rules. A watermark in our relationship was when I discovered he will eat CANNED tomato sauce – completely smooth, it's just thickened tomato juice really, but it saved me from an eternity of white pasta sauces.

  • Caitlyn

    The usual problem I have is a mix of health-conscious ladies (sorry to be gender-biased, but it's usually the ladies who refuse to eat carbs or fried foods)and men with big appetites (or me…I eat like a 200 lb man). I've actually found many of your recipes to fit the bill, specifically the Moroccan stew. The veggie chili is also a great option and appeases the vegetarians as well, no matter their gender.

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