Skip to main content

Meeting Your Family's Dietary Needs Without Becoming a Short Order Cook

Sanity-saving strategies for feeding the clan in an age of diet diversity

Published on: February 21, 2019

Hungry boy wants dinner

When I was 15, I came home from a band trip and proudly announced to my parents that I was a vegetarian. Mom’s reaction: Panic! What on earth was I going to eat? She had no frame of reference for this. My dad was, still is, and always will be a meat-and-potatoes man of Irish stock, and that’s what we ate as a family (albeit with a few more veggies thrown in for good measure). It took a bit of time, but we figured out that, as long as I replaced the meat with another protein source, I could keep eating most of what the family ate. Not such a disaster after all.

Flash forward a couple of decades, and now it is not uncommon for family members to follow divergent diet plans. Health, personal ethics, food sensitivities, tastes and popular culture all play a role in this. These days, a similar pronouncement from a teenager would barely register a blip — just throw some “chick’n” nuggets, veggie ham and black beans into the grocery cart. No problemo!

But what if several members of your immediate family insist on (or require) drastically different and often contrasting diets?

But what if several members of your immediate family insist on (or require) drastically different and often contrasting diets?

As roles within the family unit become more flexible, it’s no longer always “Mom” who is responsible for feeding everyone. (Although, it still often is.) In my family, my husband can cook — well — but he also likes the idea of “spontaneity.” Unfortunately, my idea of spontaneity does not include a hangry preschooler screaming in my ear at 5:30 p.m. while I peer desperately into the pantry cupboard, praying for inspiration to strike.

Family dinners are a thing in our house, the one guaranteed time when we share food, space and conversation. It’s preferable if that time is positive. Hence, I am the primary meal coordinator and cook in our family.

I’m still a lacto-ovo vegetarian (eggs and dairy are on the menu) who very occasionally dabbles in wild salmon. Over the years, I’ve accrued some great vegetarian recipes that passed the picky preteen taste test and also covered our nutritional bases. If my husband wanted meat, he cooked it himself. I had a shopping list and a meal rotation worked out, and it was all going far too well, until …

Two years ago, my stepson went into kidney failure, and he needed to follow a renal diet (low sodium, low phosphorus, low potassium). It’s possible, but pretty hard to do as a vegetarian. My husband jumped at the chance to include more meat and he was good at preparing it to go with what I’d planned for everyone else. I avoided using foods that were no-nos for my stepson, and it was working out okay. We actually got used to the “real” taste of food, without salt.

Then (curse you, Netflix documentaries!) my husband decided overnight that he was now vegan. Whaaaa? Now, I enjoy a challenge, but this was getting to be too much! Gone were the sweet, sweet days of the one-dish dinner. The toddler and I could happily eat vegan, but it would be virtually impossible for my stepson (who, in addition to his new dietary restrictions was, and still is, an incredibly picky eater).

So, I was faced with a conundrum to which the only solutions I could see were: 1) plan and cook three separate meals every night (uhhh, nope); 2) go crazy (already there); 3) ditch the concept of family dinner altogether (not appealing); or, 4) desperately look for ways to make this easier. Obviously, I went for the latter. Here is some of what I tried that did help:

Let go of the “ideal”

I think many of us conjure up a Rockwellian image of presenting our family with a delectable, steaming dish that they are all delighted by and will all gratefully dig into as they bestow compliments and gratitude… No. Even if everyone eats the same diet, that’s never going to happen. Maybe change that image to something simpler, such as everyone is actually at the table and eating food.

Look for commonalities

I literally spent an afternoon at the kitchen table sifting through dietary information sheets, trying to figure out what foods could be on the menu for everyone. I made lists of fruits, veggies, proteins and grains in common. They weren’t long lists, granted, but at least I had a starting point.

Think in terms of bases and accessories

I often prepare a base ingredient — pasta, rice, lettuce or taco shells — and then put out a variety of toppings and sides.  Everyone chooses from these and “accessorizes” their base, according to their tastes and dietary requirements.

Turn to technology

Meal planning apps are enormously helpful (and time-saving) when it comes to finding and storing recipe ideas. I can also search for recipes based on particular ingredients.

Plan and post

I write out weekly menus and post them in the kitchen. It sounds like a lot of work, but it doesn’t take too long, lowers my stress, and also discourages the inevitable daily question (the one that makes every meal-prepper want to explode): “What’s for dinner?”

Bonus points for involving the family in the planning — if they suggest it, they can hardly complain about it, right?

Stock up

When my husband went through his vegan phase, I kept alternative products on hand to make old favorites possible. For example: soy cheese/meats, nut milk and low-sodium stock. Our options expanded once my stepson was on peritoneal dialysis and his dietary restrictions eased.

FFY nights = self-care

It’s perfectly okay to take the night off once in a while and have a FFY night (fend for yourself — Mom’s on a break!). Putting it on the menu will keep everyone in the loop so protests don’t cramp your relaxation.

All of these strategies help ease my anxiety around meeting everyone’s nutritional needs while maintaining our family connection over dinner. I’m not going to lie, though — it’s still really hard sometimes. When my husband, within a month of ceasing his vegan diet, announced (curse you, yet again, Netflix documentaries!) that he was now embracing a Keto diet, the first words out of my mouth were: “Well, you’re on your own, now!”

But in the grand scheme of things, it hasn’t been that awful. We’re still married, everyone is still fed, and, well, eating more greens was on my resolution list anyway.

Get the best of ParentMap delivered right to your inbox.

Share this resource with your friends!