When a friend or family member decides to cook you a meal, there’s a special kind of love behind every bite. But sometimes that love could use a little more seasoning.
While the intention behind a home-cooked meal is almost always good (unless they’re your arch nemesis, in which case I have no idea why you’d accept food from them), that does not mean the execution of the meal will be a five-star experience. And if it’s not, how do you tell the chef? Or should you just keep quiet and clear as much of your plate as possible?
There’s a time and place for dining reviews, and there’s a right and wrong way to let a loved one know their culinary skills could use some work. Here are some tips for offering constructive criticism without ending up in a food fight.
Sometimes a dish is dangerously undercooked, and that’s an acceptable time to be honest with the cook. In the name of preventing a nasty case of food poisoning, it’s okay to let your host know that your meal could use a little more time in the oven. This will spare everyone an hours-long trip to the bathroom (or the emergency room), and calling out the food in this case can still be done tactfully.
A recent Ask Amy column tackled this issue when a reader wrote in explaining her desperation to save her family’s stomachs from her mother-in-law’s undercooked food. The reader notes that the poultry they’re served is often burnt on the outside and raw on the inside, and family members have become physically ill after eating these meals. Amy advised that the mother-in-law should be politely informed that the dish needs more cooking time—but that the daughter-in-law should have her husband do it so the criticism doesn’t accidentally come across as rude or negative.
In a situation like this, feelings are important, but safety is more important. Do not force yourself to smile through an unsafe meal.
If there is something wrong with the food that warrants a conversation, be sure to inform your loved one in a discreet way.
When the food is placed on the table and everyone is staring at it, that probably isn’t the best time to say, “Hey, Nana, this chicken tastes like it’s been swimming in the Pacific Ocean.” The last thing you want to do is embarrass the person who took the time to cook something for you and possibly other guests.
Instead, be sure to let the person know in a one-on-one conversation if possible. Hopefully, if something is really wrong, the cook will be able to taste it as much as anyone else once they dig in.
If you happen to be in the kitchen while the meal is being cooked, you’re in the best position to make sure the meal turns out well and to give constructive criticism that might be better received than after it hits the plate. But understand that it’s not always up to you to weigh in.
If someone directly asks you to taste something and assess it, you’ll probably be given a set of parameters. If they ask, “Is this too sweet?” then there’s absolutely no harm in saying yes and offering a suggestion to fix it. Your feedback was requested, and the cook is likely to find it helpful.
However, unsolicited advice in the kitchen may not be as well received. Some recipes are passed down through families, and if you step in trying to mess with tradition, that is likely going to get you kicked out of the kitchen.
Read the room and understand the difference between when someone is looking for a helpful suggestion or just wants to share a cooking experience with you.
Imagine meeting your significant other’s parents for the first time and, as you tuck into a carefully prepared home-cooked meal, you inform your potential in-laws that the steak is blander than plain toast. Not a good first impression.
Aside from any aforementioned food safety concerns, this might be an instance when muscling through a bad meal is the way to go. Don’t oversell it by raving about the food or scarfing down three helpings; just eat a normal amount to show your appreciation. And as you get to know everyone better and have more conversations, you can toss in tidbits of information about the kinds of foods you love. That way the next meal might be a little more suited to your preferences. Or maybe not. But talking about food is still a great way to get to know someone, and to allow them to get to know you.
The best way to avoid awkward dinner table moments in the future is to be kind and honest. Otherwise, you can all just go out to a restaurant instead.