It happens. You’re visiting a relative for dinner. Your friend is planning a party. You even go out to what you think will be a nice restaurant.
Unfortunately, the meal is not what you think it was going to be. It stinks.
This is a frequent enough occurrence that it’s worth knowing how to navigate. Although it’s not the most pleasant situation to deal with, there are a variety of ways you can politely tell someone that they can’t cook which might spare you from future aggravation and spare them from embarrassment.
The most considerate and effective means of telling someone they can’t cook is to tell them how to make the meal better. Give honest feedback on how the temperatures, seasonings, or cooking techniques could have been improved. This will at least help them to become a better cook!
What do you want to achieve?
The first objective in dealing with telling how to tell someone they can’t cook is identifying what your goal is. It might seem needless, but this will help you to clearly identify your approach and how you will handle the situation.
Some people just like to express their opinions or air grievances without any consideration as to what the consequences are for what they say. In such scenarios, it’s not surprising when others who are on the listening end become upset.
If your goal is to upset someone, then you can just tell them:
“You can’t cook”.
If you are trying to end a relationship with someone and haven’t found another way to do it, particularly with a significant other, this is a good way to go.
If you aren’t trying to end a relationship and hopefully try to maintain or even improve one, you have to be a bit more tactful.
That’s why it’s a good idea to know what you are trying to accomplish with the situation.
Do you just want them to stop making a certain dish, stop cooking altogether, or hopefully change their cooking habits?
The last option is perhaps the most constructive but will require the greatest investment of time and energy on everyone’s part.
If you won’t see this person again
Another consideration regarding this situation is knowing how often do you will see this person. If this is an infrequent occurrence or an evening at a restaurant, then you can choose between ignoring the unpleasant meal or even being a bit blunter.
If they don’t ask, and you won’t be seeing them again, then you really don’t have to say anything.
If they do ask you what you think of the meal, you could say:
“I don’t want to offend, but it wasn’t the best.”
This probably will catch them off guard, but at least you don’t have to pretend to harbor any ill will. Chances are, however, that you aren’t one to be exceptionally blunt, and therefore erring on the side of compassion is always a wise approach.
Even if the meal isn’t up to your standards and you won’t be seeing this person again or eating at that specific destination, if they ask you about your opinion of the meal, you can just reply:
“Maybe it was just me, but something didn’t quite taste right.”
This way, you deflect your criticism towards them and yourself while implying that the meal wasn’t so great. This option is also effective if you have a recurring relationship with the person, though depending on the relationship and the nature of the meal, you can take different approaches regarding how you can express your dissatisfaction.
If someone wanted to do you a favor
Another question that helps to address the situation is: what did they prepare? Sometimes, people try new recipes to impress others, and their lack of experience shows.
Other people aren’t as great at cooking some dishes over others or, if they know that you’re visiting and you like a certain dish, they may try to prepare that dish to impress you.
If this is the case, and they ask you what you think of the dish, you can say something like:
“Thanks for the effort, but this isn’t your greatest dish.”
Try to acknowlede their efforts while providing some constructive criticism.
In other instances, they may prepare something well but it is something that doesn’t suit your palette. In that situation, you can just refrain from responding or, if they ask you, simply say:
“Sorry to say this, but I just don’t like this type of food.”
If you’re never going to see this person again, then there isn’t much else to say. If you will be seeing this person again and they think that they are preparing a dish that will please you, but you never want them to prepare it again, then you can say:
“Thanks for thinking of me, but this isn’t the kind of food that I like to eat.”
You can make recommendations if you want them to prepare another dish or you can just leave it at that so they won’t feel compelled to try and impress you in the future.
The type of your relationship is important
It’s worth noting what relationship you have with this person. Casual acquaintances are probably more likely to be startled, offended and embarrassed than someone you already have a relationship with, though acquaintances may take criticism and honesty better than someone who you already know.
If the person who prepared the dish for you is someone you already know, then you can try and make a joke, though probably err on the more pleasant side if the person gets upset easily. If they want your feedback, you can say:
“Well, I think that you’ve had better cooking days, honestly.”
It’s a more lighthearted way of telling them that they didn’t make the best meal. Chances are, if it’s someone you already know, you’ve already eaten with them before and they either know how to cook well or know what dishes to prepare for you.
More likely than not, a bad meal will come from an acquaintance. In that case, it’s best to try and be polite.
If asked about the meal, replying simply:
It will indicate that the meal isn’t the best while diffusing any negative concerns; the person who prepared the meal may even inquire as to what you think could be done differently.
Wait for the best moment
If you’re going to tell someone that they didn’t prepare a meal well, it’s best to do so when they are in a receptive mood.
Don’t interrupt a conversation to tell someone that they can’t cook.
At best, you’ll upset them, and at worst, you might get asked to leave. If you’re going to express your opinion, you can wait until you are alone if they haven’t asked you already.
If they ask you in front of a group of people, try not to be too blunt and embarrassing, as you will come across as rude and will probably never find yourself among such people again. It’s also a good idea to probe to see if they are open to suggestions.
You could even ask them:
“Do you mind if I give you some suggestions about the meal?”
If you are an accomplished cook, they are learning how to cook, or they respect your opinion, they will probably welcome your suggestions as it is beneficial to them.
How are you going to inform them is also important. As noted, doing so in public is probably not best unless it’s a large gathering of friends and you regularly tease, criticize or insult each other.
Also, it’s probably not best to say something during the meal as this may ruin the experience for everyone and make for a really awkward situation.
You can wait until the meal is over or when you are leaving if you feel that you have to tell them; if they ask you what you think, then you can wait until there’s a private moment to share your opinion unless you’re brave enough to be blunt right there and then!
Dealing with challenging people
You should also take into consideration what will you do if they aren’t receptive. Some people don’t like any sort of feedback, especially if they can interpret it as criticism.
If they become offended or hostile, try and diffuse the situation.
You could say:
“I’m sorry if I offended you, I was just answering your question”
It is a valid answer if they asked you for your opinion. Most people are sensible enough to know that some people will answer them honestly, even if the answer isn’t what they want to hear.
In the end, the most effective response is one where you tell them how to make the meal better. If they ask you what you think about the meal and it isn’t up to your standards, you can give them honest feedback about the meal’s qualities: how the temperature could be different, whether it needs to be cooked more or less, what seasonings should be used instead, how to cut the ingredients to make them easier to chew, etc.
This is perhaps the most considerate and effective means of telling someone they can’t cook because it will at least help them to become a better cook!
In the end, it doesn’t happen too often, but if you find yourself in a situation where you’ve had a bad meal and need to tell the person who made it, there are a variety of tactics you can use.
Just remember, swallow a little of your pride so that your feedback will be easier to digest!