How to deal with fussy grownups: Reader Q&A

Jul 10, 2011 by

A reader from Texas had this question for us:

So how do you feel about grownups who come to your house and state that they will not eat any food that is not organic, vegetarian, free range, or fair trade? This happens to be the night you are cooking steaks and nonorganic baked potatoes. Is this any different than the rebellious child, or just an extension of what happens as the rebellious child grows up? Would you cook a special meal for this person, in addition to the food you had already prepared, or would you simply say, “I was not aware that you had food preferences. Had I known, I would have prepared accordingly. However, I am not offended if you decline to join us.”

Sacred Appetite answers:

Miss Dinner Table Manners is shocked and dismayed that grown adults would come to your house and express their preferences like that on the spot. Miss Dinner Table would think twice about inviting those people over again. I don’t know which is worse: those who won’t touch a single bite of vegetables or whatever of my home cooked, healthy food (this has happened frequently), or those who turn their noses up frivolously because it’s not healthy enough (those are far rarer, I find).

I don’t see such behavior as you describe as an extension of childhood rebellion unless their parents were junk food junkies, maybe. I see rebellion and fussiness as two separate problems. I don’t really blame children who rebel against their parents’ forcing them to eat or over-controlling their eating. It’s a normal response. It’s up to adults to quit acting that way once they’ve grown up, though, for their own good and everyone else’s. Your “friends” seem to be displaying a general attitude of fussiness and hard-to-pleasedness and disagreeableness that Miss Manners finds rather unappealing in a person, to say the least. Such attitudes should be extinguished well before adulthood.

I see the phenomenon you describe rather as the extreme logical conclusion of cold culture thinking (I have a story to tell here):  the view that eating is an individual, please-yourself and merely physical act. Instead of seeing food as something to be shared and a meal with others as something we do to be sociable, agreeable and human, we see it as something we do to please ourselves. Liking the food or getting what we want is the main issue. Being personally pleased is key.

I think your “friends” would do well to respond to dinner invitations like this: “We have such a restricted diet that why don’t you come over to our house and we’ll feed you.” Or they should find some graceful way to get out of it. Or they should only talk to people that eat the same way they do.

My policy is to ask people before they come over for the first time if there are things they won’t or can’t eat, or swell up and die if they eat. Usually I forget to ask, and let the chips fall where they may. If I know ahead of time someone is fussy, I try to have some things they will eat but I don’t usually try very hard to please them. Since we can’t change those people, not trying very hard to please them might be one way to weed them out before you endure another awkward evening such as you describe. For me, there’s a natural selection process; people who don’t like my food, well, I don’t feel very motivated to invite them back. People that are enthusiastic and appreciative naturally inspire me to cook for them again. That way everyone is happy. Here is a blog post by another blogger that I read some time back and thought was good on this subject.

I think what you would say to your quests is quite nice, nonjudgmental, and polite and may work to get rid of them at that point. You can then go out into the highways and byways and compel more appreciative friends to come in and share that meal. I don’t think I would start cooking different food on the spot if such guests showed up and informed me they wouldn’t eat my food, unless I had something super easy and quick on hand that met their standards, like some lettuce or leftovers. How uncomfortable such a situation must have been.

However, if someone has cancer, for example, and is doing an extreme diet in hopes of surviving, obviously they have a good excuse to say, “I only eat organic, vegan, or whatever, because it might save my life.” Or people who suffer from problems like Celiac disease or allergies should feel free to tell their hosts upon being invited. If I know someone is in delicate health, I make sure to ask if they have restrictions. Those in normal health should realize that eating one meal that’s not perfect isn’t going to kill them if they eat mostly perfect meals. The body can process a certain amount of toxins. Even the Bible says somewhere to eat whatever is put before us. But here I am, probably preaching to the choir.