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I'm at a loss here, I love my wife, she's a hard worker and a great support for me in basically everything. But when it comes to food I don't know what to do. I think she has the capacity to be just as competent as I am in the kitchen. I like plenty of food that other people make too, so it's not like it's "my way or the highway", I just want something pleasant. My question is how do I talk to her about improving her cooking without upsetting her?

Background

In my marriage, my wife and I eat separately for all of our meals except dinner which we share (because of being busy or just having different preferences). I cook 90-98% of the time and she seems perfectly fine with what I cook. If I ever mess up on something, I openly let her know and if she doesn't like what I messed up on, well, no big deal.

However, it seems like every time she cooks I genuinely dislike something about it. I feel compelled to say something, show her something, anything, in order to ensure a better meal the next time. Keep in mind that I'm not the next top chef of America, I'm just a competent cook. I want my wife's food to be good, I really do, but something always goes wrong. It's gotten to the point where she doesn't like cooking for me because it will be inevitably criticized. (I apparently don't know how to not say something. Even if I don't verbalize it, she reads my body language.)

Recently I've started going back to school and she's been helping with meal prep. I'm working part time and going to school full time while she's working full time and watching our child part time. Her helping with meal prep is a life saver because I have very very little time right now to do much of anything. However, any time she helps I always dread eating that batch of meal prep. I try to offer input on how I would prefer things (nothing even vaguely unreasonable), but that input either goes misinterpreted or ignored.

Additional background

We've been married for almost seven years, and we have a child who is a little over 1. I'm really bad at giving compliments (in general), but I am also compelled to comment on something being wrong with the hope of making it right (in general). Because of that, I'm always criticized for being too critical in all aspects of life. I'm also studying nutrition right now with the intent of becoming a Registered Dietitian, so food is a big deal to me. She's cooked well plenty of times in the past, but I feel like she's losing confidence. I want to encourage her, but it's hard.

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    please clarify your objections to her cooking: does she burn things? Are things undercooked to the point of being inedible? Overspiced? Or is it that she makes omelettes and you don't like eggs, she includes vegetables you dislike, or other "design failures" that will not end well even with perfect technique? – Kate Gregory Oct 5 at 18:00
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    Hey JustSnilloc, welcome to IPS! I'm a little unclear as to what your goal is with your question. Are you trying to figure out how to talk about her cooking without upsetting her, or are you more focused on figuring out how you can help her be a better cook? – Rainbacon Oct 5 at 18:39
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    @KateGregory - Starting from the most recent example, in this last batch of meal prep, the meat (seasoned ground beef) was dry, underseasoned, and had a loose texture (instead of being firm). It was hard to swallow. In general though and off the top of my head, I can't pin down any consistent or "usual" problems outside of blandness (which I try to fix on my plate with whatever seems to make sense). She tends to take that as the food not being good enough though. – JustSnilloc Oct 5 at 19:01
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    Hey JustSnilloc, welcome to IPS! Could you give us one or more examples of how you usually give feedbacks to your wife? And who your wife react after that? That might help us better understand what you do "wrong" when you give them. – Ælis Oct 6 at 6:43
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    "If I ever mess up on something, I openly let her know and if she doesn't like what I messed up on, well, no big deal." Looks like she accepts your food even if she dislikes it. While you can't do the same. Do you ever show gratitude to her whenever she accept your mistakes in the kitchen? – Santiago Oct 7 at 15:10
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Cook together sometimes, especially the dishes your wife prepares for you that you value most

I endorse everything Rainbacon's answer says, and have a complementary suggestion: cook together sometimes.

It's pretty easy to underestimate how much variation there is in cooking ability and technique. When I was a kid, my friends and I cooked often when hanging out because if we wanted food beyond chips, that was the only way we were going to get it. It never occurred to me that that was unusual until college, when I met a lot of people who had never cooked anything more complicated that boxed macaroni and cheese (if that!).

It also never occurred to me to question the cooking techniques that I'd become accustomed to. We did what made sense to us, and worked well enough. Sometimes those techniques were really good, sometimes they were OK but idiosyncratic, and sometimes they were flat out bad.

I mention all of this to express that many people have internalized cooking techniques without necessarily having had enough cooking experience and feedback to develop the most effective approaches or account for varying tastes. And it can be difficult to identify which steps in the cooking process are causing specific outcomes in the resulting meals.

The end result of that can easily be formless, unhelpful criticisms. Your wife may be aware that you don't like her cooking, but unclear on which specific things she should do to improve it for you, or even how to go about meaningfully changing how she works in the kitchen. She also doesn't have access to your sensory experience of eating the food, so she can't isolate your feelings about it unless you tell her about them.

It is incredibly frustrating and demotivating to exclusively hear "this is bad, next time make it better" and then get no additional information or help. Even saying something like "this chicken is overcooked for my taste" doesn't necessarily help much, because it doesn't tell her what the correct amount of cooking would be like or help her assess when the chicken has reached that point on the stove or in the oven.

If you cook together sometimes, you can compare and demonstrate cooking techniques in real time with the exact dishes you'd like to see improved. If you show the process you follow when making a dish the way that you like it, you're giving constructive feedback on your preferences and also showing methods that you know produce the results you like. You might also notice practices that produce results you know you don't like, and can express that as well. Those are much better than a flat demand that things become abstractly "better".

As an adult I regularly cook with friends and family, and seeing how they cook food themselves helps me a lot to figure out how to prepare foods the way they like them.


Note 1: "I feel compelled to say something" and "I'm bad at giving compliments" are not impressive here

You feel what you feel, and it's not my place to tell you that you are definitely right or wrong about that. But it's obvious that "saying something" is not effective here, and so I wonder a bit about why you feel compelled to criticize "in order to ensure a better meal next time" when it seems like that outcome doesn't follow.

The nature of your comments and the manner in which you deliver them are very important, and indeed that is what interpersonal skills deal with here. As you are asking your wife to change how she does things to be more to your liking, it seems appropriate to at least consider changing how you go about things to be more to her liking. Practice giving compliments, if you think those are lacking, and practice criticizing less (or more gently), if you think you are too negative or harsh.

"You need to improve X, but I do not need to improve anything" is a difficult position to work from. If your attitude is that it is unfair or inappropriate for your wife to continue cooking food that you feel is subpar, it is an awkward stance to effectively claim that it's perfectly OK for you to discuss her cooking in a manner your wife dislikes simply because that's already how you happen to approach it.

So when you speak with your wife about her cooking, good interpersonal skills will involve changing the balance of complaints and compliments. However good or bad you feel you are at those things is immaterial to whether or not they are part of an approach that leads to the results you want.


Note 2: Your wife is helping you out

If she's cooking meals for you because you don't have time to do it yourself, her assistance is in saving you time, not in exactly replacing a meal you would have made yourself. Saving you the time is a favor she does for you, and in a case like that criticisms without anything positive to say can feel extra insulting. If you don't value the contribution she's making, or you legitimately have trouble eating the food, you don't have to eat it.

Cooking food my significant other likes is one of the joys in my life, and I send her off nearly every weekday with a lunchbox full of leftovers from food I've prepared for her. But if she started complaining about every dish I prepared and had little or nothing good to say about it, I would become irritated and my contributions to her lunch would quickly become something like some McDonald's coupons.

When you speak with your wife about her cooking, try to bear in mind all of the effort she is making on your behalf. I doubt she's intending to make food you don't want to eat, so consider emphasizing the work she's doing for your benefit more than the outcome that happens not to suit your tastes.

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Background

I can certainly relate to what you are going through. I recently got married and meals have been the largest source of conflict for my wife and I. I am on the autism spectrum, and because of that I am highly sensitive to food. There are very few foods I can eat, and if they aren't made right I have trouble even eating those, though I am trying to push through that (more about this later). My wife cooks more often than I do because she gets home from work earlier than me.

How your wife likely perceives the situation

I don't know your wife, so I can't say for sure that this is her perspective, but from your question it sounds like she feels similarly to how my wife has described her feelings to me. There have been nights when my wife has cried because I didn't eat the food she made. From talking through the issues with her, I found that the biggest issue is that she feels completely lost as to what she can do. From her perspective, she has worked hard to make dinner for me because she knows how I am with food. She's trying her best to work with my sensory issues, but I still have them and she doesn't know what to do.

My not eating her food also makes my wife feel bad about her own cooking skills. One night while we were trying to work through the conflict caused by my not eating her food, my wife told me that sometimes she wishes that I was better at lying. It's fairly common that when someone does something for you, they want to be complimented and thanked. It's not that people do things just to get compliments, but it's always nice to know that your effort isn't going unnoticed.

Ways we've handled the issue

Compliment along with critiques

One of the things that's been most helpful for me is to never just criticize the food. I try not to vocally critique my wife's cooking, but she's pretty good at reading my body language, so she'll often ask if she can tell I'm not liking something. When I do have to vocalize that something about the food is wrong for me, I try to pair it with a compliment about something else. For example:

Wife: You're picking at the potatoes, is everything ok?

Me: They're a little undercooked, but the chicken is really juicy tonight

I've found that when I compliment one part of the meal whenever I am commenting on something wrong with another part she is less likely to become upset and feel poorly about her cooking.

Show gratitude

Another thing that I do is to thank her for making dinner, even if I don't like the food. I started doing it based off of a story she told me about how whenever her parents go out to eat, whichever one does not pay (they combine their finances, but someone has to actually get out a credit card and swipe it) will thank the other one for paying for dinner. By thanking my wife for making dinner, I've gotten into a habit of showing gratitude when she does things that I benefit from. Thanking your wife for cooking even when you find something wrong with the food will help her not feel overly criticized.

Don't criticize everything

I mentioned that my wife is pretty good at reading my body language, but she still misses things. I've worked on my acting, and have found myself able to not always show when something bothers me. The less objectionable the food is to me, the easier I'm able to mask my distaste for it. I'm not suggesting that you hide all of your distaste for your wife's cooking, but pick your battles. Don't criticize every single thing that is wrong with the food. Instead, find things that you can be ok with being wrong, and learn to live with them. Only provide feedback on the things that are too wrong for your tastes.

One other thing to do

I haven't done this with cooking because I'm not very good at it, but I have done it with other skills that I'm better with, but offering to help her can be a great option. Find time where you can cook with her. You say that you are serviceable cook, so teach her some of your skills. A few things to remember about teaching a skill:

  • Be empathetic
    • She's just learning, try to remember that there was a time when you were learning and were probably not a good cook
  • Be patient
    • As I mentioned, she's just learning and she probably won't pick things up immediately.
  • Compliment her progress
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One of my sisters is a very very good cook. She learned cooking from our mother. :)

Her husband is not a very good cook but wants to make meals for the family because he wants to share in house responsibilities.

What my sister does in not let him cook alone. She always cooks with him and tells him that it's more fun when they do it together. But what she really is doing is helping him learn to cook like our mother did for her.

You ask about talking to her but I don't know that's a good idea because that may make her argue with you. Instead, have her help you in the kitchen so you can show her.

It's like in my work when someone asks for some help, it is always better to show them than telling them how to fix and waiting for them to finish.

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