Catering to Picky Eaters and Food Lovers at the Same Time
Picky eaters—frustrating mothers and caterers since the dawn of time. (“If you’re not hungry enough to eat that wooly mammoth meat I just gave you, then you must not really be that hungry.”) There’s one in every crowd—a picky eater, that is. Or, more likely, several picky eaters. But is it picky eaters’ faults that they’re so picky about their food? Why are some foods loved and hated with equal passion?
And, more importantly, how can you as a caterer find a way to cater to picky eaters and food lovers at the same time? Can you please the picky eaters without denying the rest of us the food we love?
Science actually has an answer. Turns out our food likes and dislikes are influenced by both nature and nurture. Our genes influence how we taste certain foods and whether or not we’re going to like certain textures. Culture, experience, and nostalgia influence what we like, too, which is why mom’s spaghetti or grandma’s apple pie will always be the best!
And remember—it’s not always the taste that bothers people. Smell and mouth feel play very strong roles in whether or not we like a food. Texture is a big one. How many times have you served someone a food they hate, perhaps well disguised, only to have them declare they love what they’re eating?
These are some of the top foods that people either love or hate—and some ways to serve each to even the pickiest of eaters.
Best to get this one out of the way early. Turns out, some people are more sensitive to a compound in cilantro, called aldehyde. People with a certain gene think that foods with this compound taste like soap or metal. Try bruising cilantro first or adding it to food while it’s cooking to help lessen its potency. Both of these actions release some of the offending compounds, which could make it more tolerable to folks who are sensitive to aldehydes. Or, if you’re serving it fresh as a garnish, because you like the full strength of it, serve it on the side and let people add their own.
It’s not just the strong taste and odor of onions that people don’t like—it’s the texture of biting down on a small crunchy thing in the middle of your sauce or soup that turns off people from onions. But the taste of onions can make or break a recipe for onion lovers. Please both parties by sautéing your onions before you add them to a recipe, perhaps with a bit of brown sugar to really bring out the sweet tones of the onions, and then puree them before adding them to your food.
Mushrooms fall heavily under the “hated texture” category. And how can you blame people? How many times have you eaten over-cooked, rubbery mushrooms? It’s enough to make the most ardent supporter hate mushrooms. On the other hand, mushrooms add such a wonderful, distinctive flavor to whatever they’re added to. They can make or break certain recipes—especially in vegetarian and vegan dishes. Consider processing mushrooms in a food processor to make mushroom crumbles, which when cooked could be mistaken for a tender ground beef. Or, take it one step further and puree them. If you make the mushroom crumble and then sauté the whole batch, you’ll release a lot of liquid. Once the mushrooms are very watery, pour the mushrooms and the liquid into a blender and puree. You can also add a little liquid, such as some broth. Or, try adding unsweetened coconut milk to make a thick mushroom cream that’s also vegan. (We recommend Trader Joe’s refrigerated unsweetened coconut milk, because it adds no coconut flavor.)
Ketchup seems to be the dividing line between food snobs and common food folk—and toddlers, who will eat ketchup like it’s a main dish. (And let’s be honest—is there anyone among us who hasn’t in a moment of desperation covered a child’s food in ketchup just to get them to eat it?) However, toddlers may be on to something. Ketchup is salty and acidic—and both flavors enhance other food flavors. If you’re thinking of offering ketchup as a condiment, try making homemade ketchup in a variety of flavors. Try adding dill or garlic—get creative! Because even the snobbiest food snob won’t be able to resist a well-flavored handmade artisanal ketchup.
OK. Even for vegetarians, it’s easy to understand why many folks hate tofu. But if it’s so bad, why do some people absolutely swear by it? What magic have they discovered? Two things—how to flavor it and how to manipulate the texture. Tofu, especially when being used as a meat substitute or as the main ingredient in a dish, needs to have a chewy texture. Try these tricks. First, freeze it. Freezing firm or extra firm tofu makes it tougher and a bit chewier. Once it defrosts, you can squeeze the liquid out of it like a sponge. And that’s the second thing. Get the liquid out of it. You can either let it sit out on paper towels and press it between plates, constantly turning it and checking it. Or, you can cut up the tofu and bake it. You can do a slow bake at 250 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour or more (or until it’s the consistency you want), or you can bake it at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for around 30-45 minutes, give or take. (This isn’t an exact science, so experiment with what works best for you in your ovens.) Once the tofu is nice and dry, you can marinade it however you like. Then, you can stir fry it, add it to soups and sauces, or bake or fry it to make delicious nugget treats.*
This list could go on and on…green peppers…oysters…black licorice…olives…What are some of the most polarizing foods you have served, and what’s your go-to method for preparing and serving them?
Happy cooking! And good luck with those picky eaters at your next event!
*Bonus suggestion. One of our favorite things to do is to take extra firm tofu, squeeze out the liquid, and cut the tofu into squares (which we call nuggets, because kids will eat almost anything if you call it a nugget). Spray a cookie sheet with canola oil. Then, lay the nuggets on the cookie sheet and spray them with the oil, too. Sprinkle sea salt, nutritional yeast, and garlic powder on the nuggets. Then, bake them at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about 30-45 minutes, checking them to see if they’re crisp on the outside. If you cook them too long and they turn into croutons, that’s OK, too. Add them to salads or put them in soup—they’ll absorb the broth and become soft again but with a delightfully chewy, meaty texture. Kids love these! And yes, they often dip them in ketchup.