There’s nothing more frustrating for an enthusiastic home cook than cooking for picky eaters. And when I talk about picky eaters, I’m not defining them in the way that an extreme foody like Anthony Bourdain would, who looks with disdain on anyone who wouldn’t try pickled feral cat noses. I am talking about hard core picky eaters, the type who views any spice other than salt or pepper with deep suspicion, who eats only white bread, drinks only light beer, and has only ever ordered the steak at any fancy restaurant he or she has ever visited.
The fact is, these people make up about half of the population, so unless your family and social circle consists entirely of foodies and professional chefs, you will have to cook for these people on a regular basis. You could just say to hell with it and serve shake and back chicken breasts with plain baked or mashed potatoes, or you could find a compromise that will allow both you and your guests to have a satisfying meal.
Rather than talking about what you should cook, it is best to start with what you can’t; nothing too spicy, nothing undercooked or raw, nothing with its head still attached, nothing overly trendy, and nothing foreign other than Italian or Mexican. You are going to have to work off of a base of some of the most commonly used ingredients in your local grocery store, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be creative; if anything it forces you to be more creative.
Throwing a pile of painfully hot or exotic ingredients into a pot does not make you creative. You can actually be just as creative with everyday ingredients as you can with fish sauce and habanero peppers. In any case, many of the finest restaurants in North America serve dishes made almost entirely of local ingredients, so there is no shame in just trying to add a little twist to a traditional meat and potatoes dish.
Your strategy should be to start with safe ingredients, add more flavour than your guests might be used to but not so much that it overwhelms them. If you want to be a good dinner party host than you have to remember you should be focused more on the enjoyment that your guests get from eating the food than the enjoyment you get from preparing it. The ingredients and taste are only one part of the equation; you also need to put some thought on the presentation. You can serve your guests something they’ve eaten a hundred times before but if serve it in a new and visually impressive way it will feel like something new.
If you have the budget for it, beef wellington is perhaps the quintessential fancy dish for picky eaters. It takes some work to prepare but it essentially is just roast beef with mushrooms and puff pastry, so anyone who doesn’t like it doesn’t really belong on anyone’s guest list. You don’t necessarily need to reward every picky eater you invite over with a beef wellington, you should just look at serving something that visually impressive and appealing to the non-foodie.