It can be hard enough to feed a family, but it is even harder when your dietary requirements differ. With vegetarian and veganism on the rise, and increasing diagnoses of coeliac disease, lactose intolerance, and not forgetting allergies to nuts, seafood and even avocados, it’s highly unlikely that any two people living together will have the same diets.
The easiest thing to do is to find dishes that everyone likes, but this will probably mean some compromising. It’s easy to fall into the trap of everyone eating “kid” meals- beige foods like chicken nuggets and chips. But there can be a middle ground to be found. If one person is gluten-free, but everyone likes pasta, gluten-free pasta is a good option, as is a soup or stew. Is one person vegan? Then look at a few meals a week where everyone eats plant-based. It’s easier than ever to replace meat with alternatives- try vegetarian sausages with your mash, tofu in stir frys or seitan meatballs with pasta. Maybe everyone takes it in turn to pick a dish- that way someone gets their favourite eventually.
Try meals that have a neutral base that each person can add their own extras too. Things like tacos, wraps, or salad bowl, where each component can be served in separate bowls- rice, proteins, and veggies. Pizzas are another great option; you can buy a base, and everyone can choose their own toppings before cooking. Serving things independently reduces risks of cross-contamination but also gives small children a sense of free-will which increases the likelihood they will eat what they have chosen for themselves.
Stock up on Staples
A cupboard full of staples is essential when cooking for a family. Neutral, versatile foods with long shelf lives can be thrown together in many ways.
- Canned or dry beans and legumes, such as lentils and chickpeas. These make a great base for chilis and stews and make a great meat substitute for lasagne, bolognaise and Shepherd’s pie.
- Grains such as rice, oats, quinoa, and couscous will cover most dietary requirements and are a surprising source of protein, as well as fibre.
- Frozen fruit and vegetables are fantastic, especially with small children in the house. A bag of sweetcorn in the freezer will outlast even the most stubborn “I don’t like vegetables!” phase. It’s also a cheap way to supply the whole family’s favourites- throw a handful of peas, carrots or spinach into separate bowls and cook in the microwave to ensure everyone has something they’ll eat.
- Protein options, such as frozen or tinned fish, or cartons of tofu and seitan, that can be on hand to make a meal when someone suddenly announces they’re no longer eating chicken.
Fill the Freezer
The freezer is your friend! There are a few main schools of thought when it comes to meal prep, and sometimes it’s easiest to do a bit of them all. Keeping a small stockpile of meals on ice gives you some freedom on those days you just do not want to cook but also provides options meaning there’s always something available that everyone can eat (even if it’s different!).
- Prep ingredients first- some people prefer to just cut and store staple ingredients first. Chop onion, garlic, carrots and celery and store in several freezer bags. These can be easily tossed in a pan to serve as a base for many meals, including pasta sauce, chilli, and most soups.
- Prep batches of meals- fans of this method will typically make a week of meals on one day and then store them for use throughout the week. This will generally take a couple of hours but works out shorter than spreading the cooking time across the evenings. Casseroles, tagine, and pies freeze well and can be easily reheated in the oven.
- Save the leftovers- my personal favourite method is to always make an extra portion or two of meals. It doesn’t take any extra time or effort but does mean that I have enough food to feed the family and fill a couple of plastic boxes that will keep in the freezer.
Get a helping hand
If you have a family of fussy eaters, The University of Alberta found that when children help prepare and cook a meal, they are more willing to eat it. The NIH has a list of suggestions of age-appropriate tasks to help children of all ages to help with kitchen tasks. My toddler loves to mix and pour and lay the table. Getting children involved early will inevitably make things harder, with food flying everywhere and everything taking six times as long to get from fridge to plate, but, in the long run, it should hopefully encourage a greater willingness to eat a range of foods and hopefully teach them the skills required to be a helpful sous chef.
Hide the Evidence
Absolutely do not hide the offending foodstuffs from an intolerance sufferer, nor should you hide meat products from a non-meat eater, but you can get creative and hide fruit and vegetables from the kids. Whizz vegetables in a blender to make pasta or pizza sauces- butternut squash and tomatoes are the easiest, but you can also throw in most other chunky vegetables such as courgettes, peas and aubergines. You want to choose vegetables that can be smoothed into a paste rather than broccoli or cauliflower that will break into small bits and give the game away. The same thing works with smoothies- hide lesser-liked fruits in with their favourites for some extra nutrients.
The range of diets being consumed has never been more diverse, which may actually work in our favour. In a family of fussy eaters or intolerances, the range of alternatives available in the shops is continually increasing, as are the expertise of recipe makers. The internet is awash with gluten-free alternatives to traditional baked goods, dairy-free desserts, and more vegan options than you can shake a celery stick at. The most important thing to bear in mind is to not stress yourself out making a different meal for every person. As long as everyone is getting fed, don’t feel guilty for reaching for the microwave from time to time.