Named for things that please me (“me gusta” in Spanish) and rhymes with balabusta (Yiddish for “good homemaker”).

Defensive Dining

We’ve all been there: Mom’s favorite restaurant (“Voted #1 for Mexican in Zagat!” because there isn’t another Mexican restaurant within 100 miles) which doesn’t serve much other than over-processed factory food with lots of fat and no flavor. And, we go back every time because that’s where Mom wants to eat.

The corollary to this is the Dreaded Group Decision. This happens when everyone else wants to go for some form of food you simply don’t like, whether ethnic or just plain bad food. It gets exponentially worse in unavoidable business situations or someone’s birthday.

What to do?  Now is the time to think about what we all learned in Driver’s Ed, Defensive Driving. We need to practice Defensive Dining.

Unless they pose threats to life and limb (in which case Mom or the colleagues get overruled) these culinary minefields CAN be navigated successfully, sometimes even deliciously.

Here are myMEGusta’s Three Key Action Points for survival in unappetizing situations:

#1  Read the menu and look for the gems.  Look for local foods which might be actually prepared from scratch. Daily specials can also be the answer, but always ask the price before ordering. Check out the menu on the internet ahead of time. If it’s looking particularly dreary, call the restaurant and ask if they can modify dishes for you; for example, if they serve salad and have a grilled shrimp appetizer, ask if they’ll make you a shrimp Caesar. This way, you avoid the whole negotiation (“I’ll have to ask the chef”) while everyone else is ordering.

#2  Keep It Simple Stupid. KISS the complex dishes goodbye. They can’t destroy lettuce. Well, they can, but it’s much easier to mangle cooked vegetables. Order the chicken breast without any sauce. Shrimp cocktail is usually a winner (note “usually”).

When the problem is a serious matter of taste (some people just don’t like Mexican or Indian or Chinese flavors, and this is OK), look for the most simply prepared items. In a Chinese restaurant, for example, consider avoiding the usual “share” by telling everyone you’re on a diet and can only have steamed vegetables. If it’s Indian and spice is the problem, focus on the wonderful breads, maybe with a little raita (yogurt and cucumber).

#3  Take the Minimalist approach: The Poke and Push. This is especially potent when you are able to sneak in a snack before the meal so you are not starving. Order the absolute minimum (“I’m not really hungry. I’ll just have a salad. Dressing on the side.”), eat what you can stand to eat, and don’t worry even if your share of the bill is unfairly high. After all, you didn’t leave with unwanted calories and fat, not to mention potential ptomaine poisoning.

Another common challenge in many restaurants, even good ones, is portion size. Because food cost is such a small percentage of the real costs of running a restaurant (rent, staff, insurance, utilities), some operators load plate to build “perceived value”, which you, the customer, pay for. If you don’t want to overeat, waste food or carry out leftovers, just don’t over order. There is no shame in just having a salad and an appetizer (no main course), or sharing dishes.  Most good restaurants will divide portions in the kitchen (unless a dish requires elaborate, architectural presentation).

Recently, at the wonderful Capital Grille, a friend and I shared a (delicious) steak, and they even divided it before cooking so neither of us had to compromise on doneness. Now, THAT is good service!

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7 thoughts on “Defensive Dining

  1. Great suggestions. Always enjoy reading your blogs!

  2. on said:

    You are something else! I doubt that even I would ever ask to have an entree cut in half before cooking at any restaurant. Good for you!

  3. calicobob on said:

    When I see commercials where everyone is sitting around the table laughing and eating plates of bubbling cheese, all I can say is “eew!” These great suggestions will help me survive those times. Thank you!

  4. Bea Crumbine on said:

    You are a marvel, ME! Good advice sensibly presented — no embarrassment and no fat-laden moments!


  5. Sol Matsil on said:

    Oh what special in site to a situation that could be bomb.

    Leave it to u our special MaryEllen, and thank u sooo very much for the guidance.

    Looking forward to seeing in the summer..great company, good wine, food and a wonderful Ballet … lucky can we get? poo! poo! poo!

    luv ya luv ya

  6. janett edelberg on said:

    HI — doing some e-mail clean up and look what I found!

    Meant to write sooner than I loved this one.

    How was your Turkey Day? We were 13 — a baker’s dozen and my maternal grandfather was a baker.

    Attached is a picture of Ron and me, the holiday table and a peak into my brand new kitchen. So happy to have a double oven > made meal planning and serving hot food so much easier!

    Happy holidays.


    janett e.

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