Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Taking My Family on Food Adventures...Painlessly

My family is divided along some pretty definite lines. Food lines. Half of us are open-minded, adventurous eaters, the other half, well, let's call them skeptical and maybe even reluctant. The adventurous crowd tends to get bored with the same meals week after week and month after month while the food-fearful gang would relish a predictable schedule of safe favorites.

As the chef-in-residence AND leader of the food-adventurers, I'm always on the lookout for new dinner options to serve to my diverse group of eaters.  When I find a fun new possibility, I've learned that it's important to keep a few things in mind when serving the new dish to my family.

First, and maybe most important, have a back up option on hand just in case you've got a major FLOP on your hands. Tonight, I'm fixing a new dish. More than a new dish, tonight we're going international! Since my family doesn't have much experience with the bright, vibrant, flavors of Thai cooking that I've come to love, this meal is A BIG GAMBLE!

My backup: a big pot of left over soup from last night's much loved dinner. If things look like a bust, it will take about 10 minutes to heat the entire pot of soup and save dinner. This takes some thinking ahead, but all of the effort is worthwhile if the end result is a new, interesting dish to add to your family's repertoire.

Second, it is a good idea to have a side dish or two that are tried and tested family favorites. Tonight, we are having Grandma's homemade applesauce, rice, and good 'ole bread and butter to accompany our international fare.

Third, having the pickiest eaters in your family help with the meal preparation goes a long way in tearing down the walls of food prejudice. This is not always the case, but I've found that a child is very much more likely to sample a new ingredient if she is the one who lovingly peeled, chopped, unwrapped, or measured it.
Dessert is an excellent way to reward those brave adventurers who have tried something new. It can also offer consolation to the chef who tried a new dish and ...well...met with less-than-favorable reviews in kitchen stadium. Since we rarely do dessert, this is a big treat. Tonight, we have pie at the ready.

Once you've made all the necessary preparations, fixed your new and adventurous meal, and have called your loved ones to the table-- RELAX. You've done your best, you've taken a chance. If it all goes bust, at least you tried and you've proven that you are no rut-dweller! If your whole family says, "Please don't EVER make this again." Smile and don't take it personally, they didn't ask YOU never to cook again, they just didn't like this particular meal.

I've struggled long with this one. I used to place my whole value as a wife and mother on whether my entire family raved over a meal or whether they hated it. I ruined many a meal this way..."Honey, do you like it?" I'd ask before the first bite had been properly chewed much less swallowed, my eyes never leaving my poor guy's face. "Kids, how's the meal? What do you think? Do you like it? I thought you would, I worked really hard on it."

TRANSLATION: "Do you love me for how good this is? Do you see the weariness on my face, see the tender spot in my heart that awaits your answer?"

No pressure there!! My poor family had to suffer doubly if the meal wasn't a winner. First, they had to try to down the meal and THEN they had to be honest with me about it so that I wouldn't fix it again and thus deal with my utter disappointment and overdramatic feelings of failure. I'd like to think I've grown. A little.

Also remember that if your family turns a thumbs down on a particular food from a more general category, don't automatically cross the larger category off of your list of things to try. If your family tried and disliked chicken enchiladas with red sauce (that took forever to cook and were very labor intensive...I'm over it...really), I'm not going to declare that we "don't like Tex-Mex". I'm simply not going to go with that particular entree again. I'm not even going to say that we "don't like enchiladas" because we do, just not with the red sauce. In other words, don't throw the baby out with the bath water, or don't throw the enchilada out with the red sauce as it were!

I'm a firm believer in writing in books, especially cookbooks. I learned this trick from my mom. Make notes after your family has finished dinner. If you leave the recipe page blank, how will you know if it was a hit or a miss? Note it right there by the title. If it was a miss, can it be adjusted a bit? Did it amply feed everyone or do you need to double it next time? What did you serve with the entrée? All of this information is vitally helpful the next time you are mining your cookbooks for dinner inspiration.

I also like to note if a certain meal was served on a special occasion or on a particularly snowy day. Did I fix this meal to take to another family in need? Did I serve it to guests in our home? I write it all down. Cookbooks have lots of margin space, use it and your cookbook collection will become more and more valuable as the months and years go by. Some of my oldest cookbooks are as much cooking references as they are family timelines and scrapbooks. A valuable treasure to me and perhaps to the next generation of cooks as well!
Happy Adventuring!!

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