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Ask the Readers: Bad Meal Rules

by Nick

I recently had a conversation with a friend that went something like this:

Friend: I’m really dreading going over to my Aunt’s house this weekend.
Me: Why’s that?
Friend: Because she always makes this completely gross meal that I hate.
Me: How bad could it be?
Friend: Super bad.
Me: Well… you probably just have to suck it up. Fill up on sides!

My advice was that he basically had to eat it and couldn’t say anything about it. It was a meal she had made for years and took a lot of pride in it. It was clearly an important meal for her for one reason or another and it probably wasn’t worth it to cause a fuss.

That got me thinking though… when is it okay to refuse a meal or offer suggestions for improvement?

When do you just have to suck it up and eat something you don’t love?

My Bad Meal Rules

The thing I try to remember when I come across a bad meal is that cooking meals for people is a very personal thing and people react in different ways to it. Whether you are criticizing a professional chef who cooks for people daily or your grandmother who cooks only once a year, be gentle and remember that they are just trying to make people happy.

That said, here are some general rules I tend to follow.

If you paid for it, you can say something

If you paid for a meal in a restaurant, and the meal wasn’t what you were expecting, it’s okay to say something.

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still pay for it. If it’s generally edible but just not to your liking, you should probably still pay for it.

But, you can very politely have your server give feedback to the kitchen. Maybe it was too dry or too salty. Most good chefs will take the criticism to heart and try to fix the problem.

Also, be sure to peg your expectations to the level of restaurant you are in. Don’t expect an impeccable chicken cordon blue from your local Applebee’s.

If the meal is absolutely horrible and you can’t eat it, then it’s fine to ask for something else. For me, it has to be pretty bad to do this. I’ve probably done it less than ten times in my life.

Don’t risk health for politeness

If you have a food allergy or if you notice something is possibly dangerous about a dish, you should say something.

Some things that I’ll quickly point out is raw chicken, if something smells spoiled, or cross contamination.

I don’t care if it’s your dear grandmother and she slaved away for hours.

It ain’t worth Salmonella!

If the person is a regular cook, it’s okay to give suggestions

As someone who cooks for people frequently, I rely on honest feedback on dishes. It would be truly horrible if people just said everything I made was excellent. First, I know they would be lying because I fail a lot. Second, it wouldn’t help me improve the recipes which is always my goal.

Most people who cook regularly are used to failing and know that things can go wrong in the kitchen.

If you approach the situation with tact you can usually make suggestions or give feedback.

What you shouldn’t say: OMG Craig. This meal is freakin’ the worst.

What you could say: You know Craig, I had a dish very similar to this awhile ago. It had some fresh veggies in it and I think the chicken was grilled instead of boiled. I’ll send you the recipe if you want to give it a shot.

If the person isn’t a regular cook, it’s okay to give suggestions

This might be shocking, but even if the person doesn’t cook much, it’s still okay to give suggestions.

After all, if the person never gets any honest feedback, how will they ever get better?

The key, in this case, is to not overwhelm them with suggestions. Just give one or two things they could change.

When you should keep your trap shut!

As you can tell, there are a lot of times when I think it’s okay to mention polite suggestions about recipes. After all, that’s how we all get better at cooking!

Plus, if someone really thinks that everything they cook is magically, perfectly delicious, they need to have their bell rung.

But there are some times when it is 100% not worth it to mention anything about the dish.

If the dish is a tradition and is made every year by someone in your family, just let it happen. The dish probably means a lot to that person and it’s probably not worth rocking the boat.

If you don’t know the person well, you probably shouldn’t be critical. It’s just not a super-great way to make friends. You don’t want to be the dude always criticizing people’s queso dip.

When Do You Say Something?

I know people have a lot of different feelings on this subject. I’ve talked to people who think you should always be polite and never critical when someone makes a meal for you.

What do you think? Do you ever give honest feedback about meals or do you just grin and bear it? Leave a comment!

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21 comments on “Ask the Readers: Bad Meal Rules

  1. If I am paying for the meal I have no problem with politely asking for a different or replacement meal. Otherwise I say nothing. If someone took the time to make me a meal it is not really my place to complain about it. I would probably just eat a little bit and then claim I am full.

    1. I agree completely. And I would only request a replacement if there was something ‘wrong’ with the dish…undercooked or overlooked for example. Ifithas been well prepared, but simply not tomy taste buds, that is hardly the cook’s fault. But, it is funny, very often the server, seeing a meal virtually untouched, will offer.

  2. My Pennsylvania Dutch grandmothers used to make things that were truly horrible, but were part of their usual fare. To wit: stuffed pig stomach and beef heart. I just didn’t eat them and still wouldn’t. I feel the same way about liver — except good pate — and haggis. Yuck. Otherwise I’ll try nearly anything.

  3. People are often intimidated cooking for me, but I’m a gracious person. There is a time I can remember that the food was so horrible, and smelled so bad that I could not eat it. I pushed it around on the plate and was counting the time to leave. I could smell it for a whole day. The mistake people make when cooking for others is mixing things like onions cabbage and fish. Really hard to eat.

  4. My MIL is….well, she’s not a great cook. So what I typically try to do is 1) avoid eating there–often we eat before we get there (we’ll happily take drive-thru over my MIL’s cooking) or 2) eat a small amount and claim to be full or 3) eat more of something that is tolerable (like bread–she makes excellent homemade bread.)

    One way to avoid bad food is to ask if X is in it. For example–I can’t/won’t eat onions. I don’t like them, they give me indigestion. Same with green peppers. So I’ll ask them to leave X out (if that’s not possible I’ll order something else) and if it comes out with them in it, I’ll send it back. I don’t know, I guess I’ve never really thought too much about it–if something isn’t how I ordered it, I’ll send it back. I’m paying for it, and I’m always careful to be specific when I order.

  5. At restaurants, I have few qualms about speaking up–though I will confess that I am perhaps more paranoid than the average person when it comes to fearing/expecting the kitchen’s revenge! And of course when something is round-the-bend, I won’t hesitate.

    What I just can’t seem to bring myself to do is the simplest thing: ask for salt. Nick, I know I’ve seen you mention several times over the years the observation that home cooks just don’t use enough salt. Then when given an otherwise wonderfully seasoned dish, I am underwhelmed, but I can’t bear to ask for salt. If it’s not on the table, I’m outta luck.

    As you might imagine, this happens regularly in the home of a valued constituency: my girlfriend’s parents’. What to do?

    1. Oh man… salt is tough because people have a fear of it and some people think it’s healthy to use no salt. This is true if you are eating out a lot as restaurants use A TON of salt. If you are cooking at home though, you can be more liberal with it.

      My favorite salt story is when I made what I thought was going to be these great arancini (http://www.macheesmo.com/2009/08/citrus-arancine/) THey came out pretty bland. My friend who was helping me make/eat them just sprinkled some salt on top.

      They became instantly delicious.

      I can say that I would ask for it in your situation… but in reality, i would probably bite my tongue. :)

  6. I think a lot of the time, if someone doesn’t cook a lot they feel compelled to compliment the cook. But, a cook knows if there’s something not quite right with the dish. S/he *knows* when it’s not good and if you lie about, well, your opinion on food becomes permanently suspect. And like you said, suggestions to make a perfectly fine dish even better are always appreciated.

  7. My mother-in-law is a truly horrible cook and over my 15 years of marriage I have perfected the art of going to family meals and managing to eat very little. Thankfully my kids had food allergies as infants/toddlers so I’ve always brought their food, and even as they’ve gotten older I still do it (except for that nasty Easter when my MIL gave the grandkids hard-boiled eggs from a centerpiece because she didn’t know you had to refrigerate them…ugh). For me I always offer to bring an appetizer, and will even if she tells me not to–it’s always something on the “heavy” side and I load up on that. The “traditional” holiday meal in their house is prime rib cooked to well done and the side dish that is ALWAYS served is “tomato bread pudding”: buttered wonder bread with the crusts cut off layered in a dish with brown sugar and campbells tomato soup then baked until it’s a gelatinous mass.

    I’ve given up on offering comments or recipes; if people are going to go an additional three miles from home (on a weekly basis) to go to the “good” McDonalds they’re beyond hope!

  8. I don’t eat a lot of salt, so sometimes I do under season, but I feel I can usually tell if something isn’t salty enough for the average person. Of course, whenever my BFF is over, she douses everything with so much salt, I figure at that point it’s her and not me. :) Other than that, if I’m out, I just focus on the more tasty things on the plate but keep my mouth shut about anything that’s below par!

  9. Great list! Knowing when to stay quiet as well as what to say to be helpful is important. Now, how could I make suggestions about my mother-in-law’s always overcooked and super-salty proteins? (Chicken? Salty and dry. Pork? Salty and dry. Beef? Salty and dry.) Funny thing is that she has no qualms about the fact that I need to cook my meats more (no medium steak or juicy chicken for her), or the fact that I might have gone through too much trouble peeling, boiling and mashing fresh potatoes, or baking a cake from scratch. I have come to the conclusion that you can’t please everyone!

  10. I agree with all your points! I don’t think I’ve ever really complained at a restaurant before (it has to be REALLY bad for me to do so, and plus, since I work at one now, I have a new appreciation for kitchen workers) – I’ll definitely not say anything to a stranger or new friend – because they were obviously kind enough to make a meal for me, I’m pretty satisfied with that kind gesture to be rude or complain.

  11. As a cook, I know I under salt. When cooking for others, I always let them know that the food is probably under salted for them and make a show of putting out several crystal salt shakers.

    As a consumer in a restaurant, I feel that I’m paying for a commodity and if I don’t get what I’m paying for (an edible meal) I have the right to say something and have it made right. I also try to accomplish this in the nicest possible way. I also have a very nasty food allergy (peppers/chilis) and carry an epi pen. I am as specific as possible when ordering and tend to ask tons of questions about the prep of an item. You would be surprised how many servers do not know that paprika is a ground up chili. sheesh. One of these days, I just may end up owning one of the places that tries to kill me. lol

    When invited to dine in-house with friends or acquaintances I make sure to let them know of my food allergy up front. If the food is not to my liking (read nasty or I just don’t like it) I usually eat very lightly and tell my host/hostess that I fill up quickly.

    Pamela

  12. I agree with the crowd: food you’ve paid for, you get to comment on, and the more you pay the more right you have to expect your meal to be top notch. As for commenting on other people’s food? I generally only give feedback to those people who are likewise comfortable enough to comment on my food. But unlike some of your readers, I haven’t really encountered inedible food. Well, I did once when I was a child spending a night at a friends house, but I was young enough to be blunt, and got in trouble.

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