68

Some friends invite you to their home. There's just the 4 of you (2 couples). S/he is cooking. At the end, s/he is asking you how was the meal s/he made for you. You didn't enjoy it at all, food was far below average, not to say worse than that. How can you answer that question?!

They are good friends, the meal is standard food for the country.

I don't want to hurt their feelings.

Is there a polite way to answer or deflect the question?


EDIT (from comments / more details):

  1. my 2 cents: she asks because nobody made compliments during the meal.
  2. It happens all of a sudden, I was stunned by a question that I didn't expect.
  3. It's quite common to ask in Western Europe (from experience: with people in/from UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy).
  4. Host is a standard cook with average experience.
  5. Dishes: salad as an appetizer, chicken with "sauce" (?) and vegetables. Sweets weren't homemade. Nothing too spicy/salty/bland, just an unpleasant taste.

UPDATE: I have put into practice a method based upon a mix of some answers. Long story short: good meal with (closer) friends, but did like it was not in my mind. Asked my host right away: what is this taste in your dish? looks like you put [ name it ] in it? Her: this, and this too. Why? Me: tastes different, I never expected that it would do this. Her: but did you like it? Me: maybe it would have better matched MY taste to put less of it, or none at all, because I like it [ your taste ]. Don't worry, I'm curious, it's just a question, not a big deal :)

All went fine. Then I told them the whole story, that the meal was very good, and apologized for making them part of an experience, to which they laughed. As they were curious about it, we even talked about this awkward situation, and my previous experience, and what one should do. Like some others I asked to, they said that you should be very careful when you answer, and that deflection was the smartest way to do it, in their POV.

2nd try : I brought this in an unformal talk: how would you react if...?. Most people said: don't tell it's not good! Either you deflect or you white lie. (but to me, liying is not an option though).

Anyway, thanks a lot, you all have been very helpful at this point. To be continued...

  • Did you finish the meal? (would be a good indicator for the response, she may know you're lying if you say something like "That was delicious, thanks.") – Bradley Wilson Aug 24 '17 at 16:54
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    @anongoodnurse : my 2 cents: she asks because nobody said something during the meal (no compliments). – OldPadawan Aug 24 '17 at 16:55
  • @BradleyWilson: ate it, but said I was not really hungry this particular evening. I hated lying... EDIT: this is not a food I have any problem with, it was just the horrible taste of it this time (to my taste) – OldPadawan Aug 24 '17 at 16:59
  • Please edit this question to specify the country and language you are asking about. – curiousdannii Aug 27 '17 at 22:49

11 Answers 11

96

Was the dish too spicy?

“I think the chilis disagreed with me a bit, a pity because (find something, anything, that was "good", maybe it was the accompanying beverage) the wine you chose was simply superb.”

And change the topic to wines.

Was it too bland?

“I'm used to spicier food myself. I blame 25 years of Indian takeaways, no reflection at all on your cooking.”

And change the topic to takeaways, and eating out.

Was the food... (horrors) slightly off?

Do not say anything. But ask where she bought the meat/fish/cream/seafood salad etc. As you would like to pop in there one day (and interrogate the manager).

Change the subject to supermarkets vs open markets

Is the host usually a good cook?

Simply say it was very tasty but not up to her abnormally high standards, she has spoilt you and your wife rotten over the years, and as a result, you expect nothing less than two Michelin Star when dining at her home.

Swiftly change the topic to cooking programmes and cooks vs chefs. Is Gorden Ramsey overrated? Should Jamie Oliver be crowned saviour of English cooking?

Is the host a novice cook?

Say nothing. Compliment her on everything, tell her you were tired but enjoyed every morsel. Then for Christmas, or her birthday, get her any Gordon Ramsey's cook book.

Are you very good friends with her husband?

Tell him the truth.

Are you a wonderful cook?

Invite them around for dinner next month.

  • Thanks Mari-Lou, it's a useful coverage of various aspects. Food was not "too spicy/blant". She's "not novice / average cook", as I am. "normal" friends, not very close. Nothing like ++ or -- for each and every aspects you cover. – OldPadawan Aug 25 '17 at 6:57
36

There is no polite way to tell someone you care for that you didn't enjoy their cooking. If you go to a restaurant that charges a lot of money but serves substandard food, you might have a leg to stand on. But in this situation, the host's feelings are more important than your tastebuds.

You said in a comment:

she asks because nobody said something during the meal.

Exactly.

Maybe an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure here.

During the meal, compliment things you can (it's expected in the US anyway. It's a social grace.) There must be something nice you can say. Depending on your culture,

Your table looks lovely.
The food looks wonderful!
I like these spices (leave out the "...even if you didn't add enough of them.")
I love (x)! (leave out the "I never thought anyone could make bad (x)!")
Thank you, that was lovely. (At the end of the meal. What was lovely about it? The conversation, the time your friend took to prepare it for you, the time you spent together, the fact that you're no longer hungry.)

I'm unaware of any way to suggest improvements without hurting the person's feelings. That's not something I would ever do.

Lying, to me, is a big deal, and I hate to do it. But friendship and feelings are important, too, and I would never tell someone their food was sub-par. I would look for an opportunity to praise someone.

Once a friend invited me and my friend to dinner, and served a Greek dish. It was Mousaka, and I said, I love mousaka! and when it was served, "This looks great!" Unfortunately, I found a hair on my first bite. I didn't say anything and kept eating, but then found a second and third and fourth hair. I wondered if she had brushed her hair right over the ingredients! I felt sick. I just said, (X), thanks so much for the lovely dinner. I really appreciate the time you put into it. I'm sorry I can't finish it; I don't feel too well." It was awful, and I never ate there again, but we did go out to restaurants to eat.

  • 1
    I'm asking because I don't live in the US and might not get certain hints. Is there any veiled, implicit or diplomatic criticism in these compliments, or are you suggesting not to criticize and keep the compliments genuine but truthful? – user510 Aug 25 '17 at 14:17
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    @henning - I'm aiming for genuine but truthful. I would never criticize a host's cooking, ever, veiled or otherwise. – anongoodnurse Aug 25 '17 at 21:31
17

Unless your host explicitly invites criticism (and, to be clear, asking how the meal was appears to be inviting compliments, not criticism), don't criticize the food.

You should always find something nice to say about the meal, even if it just looked nice (complimenting the "presentation" makes it sound fancier!).

If the host says something like "I don't think this turned out the way it was supposed to, so please be honest and tell me what you think" or "I'm trying to get this right, so please let me know if there's anything you didn't like about how it turned out", you may be able to point out one thing you didn't like, but always start by pointing out at least one thing you did like, first.

You also want to avoid mentioning more than one thing you didn't like (again, only if they explicitly request criticism). One negative comment can be taken as constructive criticism. Two may or may not be acceptable. Three or more will most likely result in the host feeling like the meal was a complete failure.

13

I can see three potential avenues here: you want to kindly give truthful advice; you want to avoid the question and let implication do the work for you; or you want to maintain the friendship and deflect without lying.

Avenue one: Gentle critique

Use your answer to shift the frame of reference. "I'd be glad to get your recipe for this," for instance, means you are now talking about a set of instructions from who-knows-where rather than anything the cook did or didn't do correctly. If you're a cook yourself, you can then shift to shop talk: "Have you ever tried some flaky sea salt? I love what it does with texture" or "I remember making something similar--I used the broiler to sear it, which was fun." You can suggest something you think would have improved the food without casting aspersions.

Avenue two: Reservation and implication

This technique would be difficult for me to pull off, and runs a bigger risk of offending or hurting your friend. "Oh, I wasn't very hungry," you could say (if it were remotely true--it's clear that you hate lying). Or just say "fine" and change the subject.

Avenue three: Face-saving deflection

This is a classic politician's technique: when asked a question you don't like, answer a different question. "It was so nice of you to cook for everyone!" is a complimentary and honest answer that doesn't actually address the food. Similar responses include "it's so great of you to have us over" and "this has been such a lovely night, we'll have to have you over soon to repay you." This requires a certain confidence and follow-through to shift the inertia of the conversation; hesitation can betray your reluctance to answer. But warmth and positive body language (leaning forward, eye contact) can help you move from talk of the regrettable past meal into plans for future gatherings and the good things they can bring.

11

The only polite way to answer the question is honestly but with tact. It is not polite to deflect the question.

No matter the culture or setting if your host is your friend and you have mutual trust, an honest answer is the only correct choice.

All of the other suggestions of avoidance, false pleasantry, forced compliments, or out right lying are not helpful for your long term friendship. Your friend will most likely see them for what they are and you will have eroded part of your friendship for naught.

The best course of action is to own it.

A simple "I didn't care for it." followed by a sincere "But I really do appreciate it. Thank you." is probably all that is needed.

If you want to get more complicated some suggestions that might apply...

  • "Maybe it's just me but it wasn't great."
  • "It was ok but something seemed off about it."
  • "Do you want the nice answer or an honest one?"
  • Agreed. That's why I'm torn apart! Wouldn't lie, wouldn't hurt :/ – OldPadawan Aug 25 '17 at 7:04
7

Say something nice, and continue the conversation in the usual flow.

If, in case, the food really affected your well-being, then be honest. Let them know if you're allergic to something.

If you wanted to give feedback, do provide some suggestions, not criticism. "adding lemon to this would be a good idea" or something.

It's like asking "what's up". There is no need to go into details about the food a host is offering.


I grew up in an Indian setting, that means, a lot of the family members lived in the same house, ate together at the same table - parents, grandparents, uncles, cousins, and if guests are present, them too.

And in practice, the men folk ate first, because they have other matters to quickly get back to. The women ate afterwards because women preferred to sit, relax, and gossip for a while, while they're eating, and also needed the rest after long hours spent cooking.

We made it a habit to comment on the food only when it's extraordinarily good. That is, a good comment will be rare, and that will make the women very happy, and feel rewarded for their long and combined effort in the kitchen.

On the other hand, we would ask any and every guest eating with us what they felt about the food. It's our tradition to consider guests as gods (in a manner of speaking). So far, every guest would only say good things, even if something might have been tasteless.

Similarly, if we go to visit others, we would show the same etiquette. Say something nice and pleasing, not honest and brutal.

5

I had a similar thing with a friend who would consistently under-do everything, whether it was not quite enough spice, or not cooking it long enough, for fear of over-doing or burning it, etc.

If this is a repeated problem with one type of dish or element of cooking or something like that, I would suggest gently telling your friend not at a meal, something like

"I've noticed you're a little timid with the salt, maybe you could add more the next time you cook?"

Another option is to have a solid critique of their food, "It was a good idea, but mine was a little burnt," or emphasize that maybe it was just your serving that was bad (even if it wasn't just yours).

"I liked it, but mine didn't have enough spice."

Then your friend has a little bit of plausible deniability but might remember your comment the next time they prepare the dish.

3

Perhaps I'm going against the norm, and I can be considered blunt when giving an opinion, but I usually say this to almost every food that I prefer not to eat again (even when eating in a restaurant and trying a new meal, not necessarily cooked by the asker):

(with a pity smile or small laugh) It's an interesting meal.

I used to say "interesting meal" whether it's a "just okay" meal, or it does have a really weird taste for me. By saying this, I don't give the impression that the food is good/bad explicitly. However, based on my experience, the asker will usually become more curious when they hear "interesting meal", so when they ask me further about that, then I'd just describe the taste in a neutral way (avoid superlative/exaggeration), e.g.

(when eating pineapple fried rice) It's sweet! It's the first time I have a really sweet fried rice. I usually have a very spicy fried rice.

If in the end they still force you by asking if you like the meal or not, then say it honestly,

Thanks for the meal, but I'm afraid it doesn't suit my taste/I'm not used to such meal.

The conclusion is: everyone has their own taste, so there's no right or wrong when a meal is unsuitable to someone's preference. The next thing is to give a hint of your food preference but at the same time not hurting their effort.


I usually don't give suggestion to someone who is not really close to me, that I can be certain that I won't hurt their feeling instead. Additionally, I can't cook! I try hard not to give suggestion when I can't do it myself.

2

Why has anyone not mentioned...

You Lie

This is what they were made for. Tell a falsehood, the opposite of the truth.

Smile while doing it. It is quite easy. If you are uncomfortable with that because of personal ethics, make it a lie of omission, or answer the unanswered question.

I had a great time, thank you very much.

or

We really appreciate you taking your time to cook for us! Thank you!

Lies are the glue that holds society together, and the oil that keeps the machine running. Start learning.

1

I'll give this an answer from my point of view.

I'd just start with "It was a good try. Not too bad at all, but you need some practice before I start showering you with praise." and I'd do it as light-heartedly as possible and I'd also do it jokingly.

After that, unless they ask what they could do to improve it, I wouldn't comment on the foods at all. If they ask, I'd tell them what they could do to improve the food if I can tell them at all. If not, then I'd say I'm not sure.

Of course this all assumes the base food is something that I'd like. If they made broccoli for example, I'd just plainly say "I really don't like broccoli and I don't think it'll ever change, so I wasn't able to really tell it apart." and not comment further.

I've never seen anyone get their feelings hurt by the comments I've made, so I'll keep assuming they're fine until someone does get hurt.

0

I'm probably not going to be liked for saying this but

Be honest.

The person who cooked the food has asked for your honest opinion and you should give it to them. You don't have to be harsh or go into great detail, but you should still be honest.

You could make your answer an understatement, for example if e.g. the sausage was practically charcoal, you could tell them

Well, to be honest I found the sausage to be a little overcooked.

Your tone and wording are very important.

  • Say it gently
  • Sound forgiving
  • Make sure you don't sound accusative

Most importantly, thank them for the meal. For example:

Thank you for the food, I am very grateful for the effort you have gone to.

Whether you enjoyed it or not, I suspect you still are truly thankful for the effort they went to. (If not, then yes lie and say you are grateful. Lying about being grateful for something is more acceptable than trying to pretend bad food was good.)


Finally, some justification.

On the part of the host:

There are two potential reasons for them asking how your meal was.

  1. They are fishing for praise.
  2. They genuinely care about being good at cooking.

If they are in mindset #1, then they simply have to accept while their efforts are commendable their cooking ability does not currently merit praise. Praise must be earned, otherwise it has no value.

If they are in mindset #2, then you are actually helping them. They want to improve, they want criticism so they can get better.

On the part of other people:

Think of the next person the host invite to dinner. If you tell the host that you enjoyed their burnt sausages, the next person they invite will also have to endure that. If that person doesn't tell them the truth, the next person invited will also have to endure it. If nobody tells the host the truth, people will continue to have to suffer their bad cooking and the chain will never end.

For the sake of everyone else: break the chain.


Long story short:

You are doing the host no favours by not telling them the truth.

(But you may understate the truth to make them feel better.)

  • I was happy with the evening/meeting, no problem, and said so when it was time to go, but I still had on my mind the stunned-guy-weird-answer of mine and was pi***! Hope nobody caught any tell from my face/voice/body language... – OldPadawan Aug 25 '17 at 21:18
  • @OldPadawan There you go then, you could be honest that you didn't enjoy the food, but say that it wasn't a problem because you enjoyed the evening. The host might be upset that you didn't like the cooking, but if they know you genuinely had a good time they might not even care about that - they will probably just be happy that you enjoyed yourself. If in doubt, put yourself in the other person's shoes and think how you would react in their position. – Pharap Aug 25 '17 at 21:30

protected by NVZ Aug 26 '17 at 3:36

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