Wednesday, May 11, 2011

5 Ways to Get Your Parents (Or Anyone, Really) to Try New Foods

We've all been there with our parents – the same ol' restaurant, with the same ol' menu– because they're reluctant to try something new, strange, or simply unappealing. And there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, per se. People like what they like, and odds are, your parents' eating habits have been pretty set for decades.

But wouldn't it be nice to try something else for a change?

Convincing your folks to move on to new cuisines and cultures can be a wonderful experience for all involved, and not just because kimchee is awesome. "Ethnic" foods, or foods found outside your traditional cuisine, are frequently:
  • Less expensive: When HOTUS and I order Chinese takeout, we can turn $15 into dinner that night and lunch for the office the next day. While not as cheap as home cooking, it's darn comparable.
  • Healthier: Okay, so the ghee (clarified butter) in Chicken Korma won't put it on the happy side of the Eat This, Not That list, but non-traditional dishes can often pack in vegetables, lean cuts of meat, and healthy oils. Compared especially to most American-style restaurant meals, ethnic food is frequently a lighter choice.
  • Educational: By eating foods outside of your customary cultural cuisine, you're exposing yourself to a new world of ingredients, flavor combinations, and styles of preparation, which you can then implement at home.
  • Delicious: Mmm. Take two bites of baba ghanoush and call me in the morning.
But then again, we're not talking about you here, are we? We're talking about your parents – wonderful people, to be sure, but not necessarily the most daring of eaters. So, how can you get your beloved Ma and Pa to dig into falafel, injera bread, and even sushi (or "bait," as a certain family member calls it)? Try five these strategies:

1) Pay for it. Sometimes, older folks (actually, any folks) simply don't want to blow money on something they're not sure they'll like. So, pick an inexpensive restaurant and treat 'em. Think of it as an adventure you don't need hiking boots for.

2) Start at home. Prepping a meal for mom? Throw in a teriyaki side dish or a plate of pierogies. By surrounding a new food with ones she likes, it may seem more approachable.

3) Order a gateway food. Introducing your parents to a mild dish – one with a less-assertive flavor, similar to a recipe they might already love. Pad Thai is way Americanized, but it's an effective tool for getting reluctant eaters into more daring Thai Food. For me, lassis and samosas were the gateway dishes to a lot of delicious Indian cuisine.
  • SPECIAL NOTE: This can be a way effective strategy for people with an aversion to spice, which was probably the most-cited fear in yesterday's Ask the Internet comments. Feeding your parents a super-mild quesadilla proves to them that all Mexican food isn't a five-alarm chili, which could encourage them to attempt other dishes.
4) Embrace media. This might sound lame (I hope not), but for many folks, seeing a dish in a magazine, on a TV show, or at the movies – when it's been styled and served in the best possible light by super-attractive people – can make it seem tremendously appealing. I wonder how many parents wanted an Italian meal after watching Julia Roberts slurp spaghetti in Eat Pray Love? Or how many folks decided Indian food could be super-awesome after 30 minutes of Aarti's Party? Or how many moms and dads tried matzoh ball soup for the first time after seeing a glossy photo in Saveur? Probably a lot.

5) Know when to accept defeat. My dad will never, ever, ever develop a love of curry, no matter how many "mmm … slurp … ahhh" sounds I make while eating a big ol' bowl of it. And that is totally, 100% fine. Not everyone has similar tastes, and pushing a loved one too hard can (seriously) get pretty annoying. Food should be a joy, not a struggle. Move on.

Opening parents - and anyone, really - up to new cuisines, and as a result, new cultures, is something from which we can all benefit. Happy eating.

Readers? Comments? Questions? Suggestions? Fire away.


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Sally said...

"But then again, we're not talking about you here, are we?"

Actually, I think we are. You think it would be nice for them to try something new or it would be nice for you if they tried something new. It certainly isn't about them wanting to try something new but being hesitant; it's about you wanting them to do something they don't want to do.

If they're willing to try new things -- wonderful. If not, leave it alone.

One of the best pieces of advice I got when my kids were about to become teen-agers was "pick your battles." Same goes here. This one isn't worth it. You'll likely have bigger, more important issues confront you and your parents.

Kris said...

@Sally: That was my point with Tip #5.

Meister @ The Nervous Cook said...

#5 is the truest of all -- in the end, I know it's not important whether my parents start ordering laab gai or ma po tofu, as long as they're happy and healthy (and willing to not judge my tastes and preferences, just as I vow not to judge theirs).

You can love food and love your parents, but not love your parents' food. That's not a failure. Plus, more ma po tofu for me!

Sarah said...

Why did Thursday's post disappear?

hillary said...

Oh, great suggestions! Especially the gateway foods one...I think that is key. I am married to a very picky eater and some things that have worked for me:

1. Associating the new food with something the person enjoys rather than something the person dislikes/fears. For example, I might compare raw tuna to a rare steak rather than focusing on how it is UNLIKE cooked fish. Sometimes it is better to claim NO association at husband is more likely to try something that he's never tasted before than something he has tried and disliked. So, for example, saying that bok choy is "kind of like a mix between spinach and cabbage" would make him avoid it altogether, whereas saying "it doesn't really compare to another vegetable" might tempt him to try it.

2. Tasting the dish I'm introducing to gauge for spice level and quality before sharing it. Sometimes things are surprisingly spicy compared to the norm, or aren't the best example of the dish, and it can put the person off from trying it again. My husband appreciates that I try to give him the best possible version of a new food and is more willing to try something if I think it is high quality. I think it's about establishing trust...I'm not trying to trick him into eating something he doesn't like or something that is gross. A corollary is to make sure the dishes are the right temperature. Globby cold cheese, coagulated fat, hard rice, wilted salads, etc. all put people off.

3. Giving the eater an "out" so they don't feel panicked about a whole meal with potentially nothing they like. "If you don't like it, we can go to _____," or a snacktime visit instead of a dinnertime visit put less pressure on the person being introduced to the new food.

Kris said...

@Sarah: There was a glitch with Blogger (our platform), which is why Thursday's post disappeared and Friday's didn't go up. I'll repair next week.

Amee said...

I LOVE your blog, ladies!! Please check out my page, YOU have an award:):)

Anonymous said...

Seconding hillary - great suggestions!

Anonymous said...

As a parent (and grandparent) I am mildly annoyed at the way you assume that all "older people" are stuck in a rut with respect to their diets. Most definitely not the case for me or most of my friends.

My guess is that people who don't try a lot of new foods likely didn't do so when there were younger, either. I think it comes down to temperament as much as age.

Food is important to you. It's not important to your parents in the same way. I'm sure you would like to share your enthusiasm with them - but they probably have interests that you don't share.

Frankly, you come across as a little patronizing about older people in general and your parents in particular. My guess is that you don't like people telling you what is good for you either.