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The Picky Eater's Guide to Surviving a Dinner Party
December 21, 2012

Excerpted from Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater's Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate. Perigee Books, 2012

Most -- if not all -- of these methods have been rigorously tested by yours truly. Admittedly, the majority of them were implemented when I was a kid, but consider this: It was harder for me to get away with these things as a kid because my beleaguered parents maintained constant vigilance at/under the dinner table and in the kitchen. And bathrooms. And windows.

1. Baked Potato Skins. Just like those hide-a-key rocks from Brookstone, baked potato skins allow you to hide unwanted food practically in plain sight. My older sister and I hit upon the Potato Skin Escape Hatch once my parents gave up on insisting that we eat our (allegedly) vitamin-packed skins. Once you have secretly filled the empty baked potato skin with unwanted food, the key is to strategically crush the skin with the back of a spoon (we used the heel of our hands, but that's harder to pull off when you're an adult) in order to give the skin the appearance of being empty. And unless you have a host who--like my freak husband--decides to eat your "empty" potato skin off your plate, you're home free.

Picky Pro Tip: To make sure baked potatoes are on the menu that night, seed advance conversations with your host about how much you love baked potatoes. If your host considers herself a consummate cook, try bemoaning the fact that no one really knows how to make a proper baked potato and that you are on a quest to find the perfect one. Take it from a cook who knows' your host will try to deliver a perfect baked potato unto you.

2. Paper Napkins: Sure, this is a crude tactic, but probably one of the oldest and goodliest. It worked for many years in my house and is as simple as: napkin in lap, food in lap, food in napkin. Ball the napkin up into your fist and toss at your earliest convenience. It’s best to stash in yours or your wife’s purse (plastic baggies come in handy here) and deal with outside of your host’s home, but the kitchen trash is acceptable, too.

Picky Pro Tip: Invest in cargo pants. The more pockets, the better.

Drawback: Fancy friends who only use cloth napkins.

3. Escherize Your Plate. This is more than just pushing your food around your plate. This takes it to another level. An optical illusion level. What you need to do is find the arrangement that makes the same amount of food look like there's less on the plate. And it needs to look natural. Lining your plate with a circumference of peas will make it look like you have fewer peas, but it will also make you look like a freak, which is exactly what we're trying to avoid. (Looking over my shoulder at my laptop screen as I write this, my husband Mark informs me' "The Banach-Tarski Theorem uses actual mathematics to prove that there is a way to cut an object into a finite number of pieces and rearrange it into something half the size." He adds, "I mean, it's true that no one's ever actually done it, but the point is that it's been proven that it can be done." Hope springs eternal.)

Picky Pro Tip: Practice at home, and when you get arrangements that could work in a variety of situations, take photos of them with your cell phone of choice, and then refer to those pictures at the dinner party. You won't look any ruder than the people checking email, Twittering their Four Squares' and sending texts.

4. Bookshelves. Maybe they have books in the kitchen, maybe they have them in the living room, but wherever they are, find them and use them to your advantage by sticking food behind the volumes of David Foster Wallace, Colette, and Stephenie Meyer. If noticed, your literary loitering will just make you look so highminded that mere food -- such a crass mortal addiction! -- can't pull you away from your intellectual pursuits. My sister proudly pioneered this tactic in our house, and my mother is still finding fossilized hamburgers to this day.

Picky Pro Tip: Know ahead of time which books they've already read and are therefore least likely to pull out anytime soon.

Drawback: Doesn't work in houses of the illiterate.

5. Get Pregnant (Sorry, Guys): Pregnant women get a pass on just about everything, especially food. When you are "great with child," food aversions are very real and documented events. The scientists tell me that food aversion during pregnancy probably occurs because the baby is telling the mother what it wants (and who can argue with a Cheetos- craving fetus? I couldn't) and doesn't want (in my case: fresh vegetables, fish, and anything healthy).

6. Yoga: As you know, Dr. Zucker is big on relaxing the body before sitting down for a meal to combat food anxiety, so don’t be afraid to unfurl a sticky mat in the middle of the kitchen and do a few Down Dogs or Sun Salutations to bring yourself to calm center. Everyone will admire your dedication to your spiritual and physical well- being and wish they were so disciplined.

Picky Pro Tip: To further the effect and reduce even more anxiety, throw some Oms into table conversation. For example, "Ooohhhmmm going to need a wine refill," "Ooohhhmmmazing weather we’re having, don't you think?" and "You know, ooohhhmmmbilical cords are crazy things— they’re like a straw in the uterus!"

7. Offer to Clean the Kitchen. Look what a great guest you are! You are giving your fatigued host a break from the kitchen where they've been slaving away all day and clearing everyone's plates, including yours! The best way to effect this maneuver is to be mindful of when dinner is drawing to a close. Immediately, drop your napkin over your plate, all casual-like, and pick up your plate before anyone can really get a good look at what's left. (This is where cloth napkins work best.) Announce that you are volunteering to clean up and suggest that everyone stay in their seats and enjoy the surprise dessert you brought over. (Note: Bring a surprise dessert.) If another guest tries to hone in on your generosity, divert them by suggesting they serve your surprise dessert, leaving you in peace to deal with the food.

Drawback: You will probably get invited back.

8. Urns. This is not for the fainthearted. But come on, big urn just sitting there mostly empty? And seriously, who is going to check it? By the way, if you do try this and get caught, drop some ancient Egyptian burial knowledge on your hosts and demand to know why their dearly departed doesn't deserve to have food in the afterlife like King Tut. Announce you were treating the deceased like royalty, and then end by telling them they're lucky you didn't stuff the cat in there, too.

Drawback: You probably won't get invited back.

Author's Note: Admittedly, this is not one I have personally tried, but only because my mother won't tell us where she hid my grandparents. However, I did get the idea from an episode of Mad About You, and Paul Reiser is very trustworthy.

And then send your host a huge bouquet of flowers the next day to thank them for such a wonderful meal. After all, they will find your new additions to their library one day.

For more more practical tips, see my pieces, "Holiday dinner tips for picky eaters (and their hosts)" at The Washington Post, "Five Tips for the (Picky) Kids Table" at Food52, and my ground breaking piece "The Picky Eating Science of Sitting with the Cool Kid" over at The Huffington Post.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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Stephanie Vander Weide Lucianovic