Making one meal for a family with different taste preferences is a challenge. But cooking for a household where each person is on a different diet plan — whether for medical reasons, health goals or personal preference — can feel downright impossible.
Some people might simply throw in the towel and declare that each person is on their own when it comes to making meals — after all, you're not a short-order cook. Fortunately, though, there are ways to cook for a diet-diverse famliy — as long as you do a little prep work before you even start making a meal plan.
1. Take Stock of Each Diet
Some family members might be on a particular diet for medical reasons, such as a low-carb eating plan for type 2 diabetes or a gluten-free diet for celiac disease. Others might shun particular ingredients for ethical reasons, such as in the case of vegetarians and vegans; or for safety concerns, as with a food allergy.
Someone in your family might also try to eat a certain diet to lose weight, lower blood pressure or improve their cholesterol. Of course, there's probably one or two folks who are simply picky.
Before you do anything else, sit down with a notebook and jot down some notes about your family's diets. Make a list of each person's dietary preferences and any foods they cannot eat (or, alternatively, foods they prefer to eat). It might look something like this:
- Johnny has a tree nut allergy: He can't eat almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, chestnuts, coconuts, Macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, walnuts, nut butter, nut milk, nut oil or pesto, according to Food Allergy Research and Education.
- Susie is following a lacto-ovo vegetarian plan: She doesn't eat meat, fish or poultry; she eats eggs and dairy products, per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
- Karen is following the Mediterranean diet: She prefers meals centered around vegetables, fruits, fish, whole grains with a moderate amount of poultry, eggs and dairy.
- Joe is lactose-intolerant: He can't eat or drink dairy products that contain lactose.
2. Shop for Staple Ingredients
Next, start building a list of food basics that might work for everyone. Yes, this will be hard considering the wide range of medically necessary diets and fad diets out there, Bri Bell, RD, points out. But there are still enough food choices at your local market to give your family variety and flavor.
Some healthy staple ingredients to consider, per the American Heart Association, include:
- Canned and dry beans and legumes
- Whole grains, such as brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, rolled oats, quinoa and whole-grain bread and tortillas
- Cooking oils, such as olive oil and avocado oil
- Canned, frozen or fresh vegetables
- Canned, frozen, fresh or dried fruits
- Herbs and spices
- Chicken or vegetable broth
- Plant-based dairy products
- Protein options such as fish, chicken, lean red meat and tofu
Consider which options can be used as the base for a wide variety of diets. For example, a bed of zucchini noodles is a great option for people who are vegetarian, lactose-intolerant, gluten-intolerant and low-carb, while sweet potatoes and cooked lentils work for nearly everyone except people following an ultra-low-carb diet.
3. Plan Build-Your-Own Meals
Although some recipes might fit your family's dietary preferences, it can be hard to figure out a whole week's worth of dishes.
"My biggest tip for these families is to prepare meals that can be easily customized," Paige Foote, RD, tells LIVESTRONG.com. Dishes like burrito bowls and stir-fries are great because they use the same base ingredients of a starch, a protein and vegetables, Foote suggests. "Depending on your family's, everyone can prepare two or more variations of those base ingredients."
For example, in a burrito bowl, the starch can be brown or white rice or cauliflower rice, while the protein can be black beans, chicken or steak. "Most veggies should work for any diet, although it's important to keep in mind how they're prepared," Foote says. "Sautéing fajita veggies, such as bell peppers and onions, in oil instead of lard or butter is a safe bet. You can also use salad greens with an oil-based dressing."
Salads are another customizable option. "You can have a bunch of ingredients prepped, and each person chooses what suits their needs," she says.
4. Prevent Cross-Contamination
If you have family members on particular diets due to health concerns, particularly for food allergies or intolerances, make efforts to avoid cross-contact in the kitchen. For example, it's easy to inadvertently expose someone with celiac disease to gluten when you cut a slice of bread from a gluten-containing loaf and then use that same cutting board or knife on a loaf of gluten-free bread.
To avoid situations like this, make sure you're following these protocols in the kitchen:
- Consider buying separate dishware: Simply wiping crumbs or spills off kitchen utensils, baking sheets, cutting boards or counters isn't enough. If there's a life-threatening allergy, the Food Allergy Research and Education recommends you have separate items — from knives to cutting board to plates — for preparing food without that allergen.
- Wash thoroughly: If buying separate dishware is not possible, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends using hot, soapy water to wash all equipment and utensils between prepping safe and unsafe ingredients.
- Work strategically: In situations where cross-contact might be less dire — such as when it's a personal preference rather than a dangerous food allergy — you can avoid contaminating one person's portion of food by adding the problematic ingredients only after that person's portion has been removed. For example, you could add meat to spaghetti sauce after a cup of sauce has been taken out of the pot for a vegetarian to eat. Or, you can portion out a side salad before you've added croutons for someone who has a gluten intolerance.
Read more: 9 Foods You Didn't Know Contain Gluten
5. Use Your Freezer
There's going to come a day when you can't (or don't want to) figure out a meal that'll work for everyone in your household. In those cases, turn to your freezer, where you can stash single portions of diet-friendly foods.
Plan a meal prep day where you make one or two recipes that work for one or more family members, even if you have to make tweaks within those recipes.
For example, you can whip up a batch of black-bean burritos for the vegetarian in your family. If there's someone else who can eat the burritos but can't eat the cheddar cheese because they're lactose-intolerant, make a few of the burritos without the dairy element. Or, you can make a batch of dairy-free burritos and let those who like dairy add cheese or sour cream themselves.
- American Heart Association: "Staple Ingredients for Quick Healthy Meals"
- Food Allergy Research and Education: "Avoiding Cross-Contact"
- Food Allergy Research and Education: "Tree Nut Allergy"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Vegetarianism: The Basic Facts"
- Harvard Medical School: Don't Tolerate Food Intolerances
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Preventing Cross-Contact at Home"