When it comes to dietary needs and preferences, I have become quite the innovative mama in the kitchen. My family alone has a slew of food sensitivities and, in addition, I cook meals for other individuals on a regular basis and tie their needs and preferences into the menu as well. I work with dairy, egg, gluten, corn, nut, and nightshade vegetable sensitivities in my household. Imagine what happens when I throw in vegan, low-FODMAP requirements for another family — it gets interesting. But, there are two things I know; it’s all workable, and sometimes someone doesn’t get his need met perfectly — and that’s okay!
So, how do we accommodate so many different needs without becoming a short-order chef? It may feel overwhelming at first, but hang in there. It scared me at first too. After all of my experience, I would now suggest that having to make these accommodations can be a gift. It teaches us to put thought and effort into our meals and ultimately drives a lot of creativity in the kitchen.
There are many ways that differing needs show up at the family table. Let’s take a look at some of them:
The Sensitive Family: Like mine, this is a family with varying food sensitivities. My middle son was the first to be diagnosed with food sensitivities and I thought it would kill me to learn to cook without dairy, gluten, and corn. I was convinced I would need to make two separate meals — one for him and one for the rest of us. I quickly learned that we could all benefit from removing corn, dairy and gluten from our diets and the whole family ate the same. Since then, we have all identified other unique food sensitivities. Now just avoiding corn, dairy and gluten seems like the good ol’ days.
The Suspicious Spouse: This is when a key family member is not on board. I see this scenario come up a lot with gluten elimination. One parent wants to eliminate gluten from the family’s diet but the other partner resists the thought of anyone taking away his bread. Or, one partner wants to lose weight and eat healthier and the other partner has no intention or interest in changing — “No one better take away my burger and fries.”
The Herbivore in an Omnivorous Family: This family has a mix of meat eaters and vegetarians or vegans. Need I say more?
Picky Eaters Among Us: I can hardly keep track of my kids’ food preferences. My oldest doesn’t like broccoli, onions, and mushrooms, my middle son changes it up every day, and my youngest dislikes most plant-based foods. For several years, I was so afraid of my kids waking me up at night hungry or having a low blood sugar meltdown that I would feed them whatever it took to keep them stable and sleeping. Now I know that those habits just created picky eaters.
It can feel maddening and overwhelming to have to cater to differing dietary needs (and preferences), but it is doable. Here are some tips to help keep your sanity.
- Prepare One Meal. You may think that you need to cook different meals for different folks, but that is not sustainable and can be incredibly stressful. I think the ritual of sharing the same meal is important. I know I can make healthy egg-free options by using chia seeds or flaxseed in baked goods — so I don’t worry about who is egg-free or not. Everyone eats gluten-free in our house because our vegetable based substitutions are best for all of us. Whether the kids like broccoli, onions, or spinach or not, it’s on their plate regardless (accompanied with continued encouragement to try it again). Try not to make the kids mac and cheese or hot dogs, or leave off the salad or broccoli, while the adults indulge in a healthy plate.
- Having Options Can Be A Good Option. Now, with the above being said — it can be helpful to be flexible with options when accommodating your meal. For example, having meat as an optional side can accommodate both your plant and meat eaters. I love tacos because you can put a whole spread of options out that meet the needs of everyone. I even make spaghetti work when my youngest son can’t have tomatoes. I save him a side of the meat and veggie mix before it is doused in tomato sauce — weird yes, but it works. Our spread isn’t always going to be perfect, but it gets us by and mostly meets the needs of everyone at our table.
- Know the Law of Complementarity. This is fundamental! Communication is key to navigating food differences. We must speak from the heart but we must listen even harder. It is important to understand the core values behind why someone wants to change or not change their habits. Think listen, rather than convince. The law of complementarity says that the more we stick to our conviction and try to pull someone towards our perspective the more they will rebel and feel further convicted in their way of thinking. The more that we listen and show understanding of the other’s point of view the more they will loosen their conviction and move closer to our perspective. So, if we want a loved one to improve eating habits we don’t want to be forceful and condemning but instead listen and validate her views.
- Be Clear With Boundaries. In my family, the meal that is served is the meal that you get. There is no second option. And if you don’t eat your meal there are no snacks later on. When we give kids second choices they soon learn that they can eat only the foods they want (usually starches and rarely vegetables) and reject the foods they don’t. They then lose the opportunity to expand their palates and learn to love the foods that are healthiest for them. Sometimes our kids get fruit or a healthy homemade treat after dinner if they clean their plates. But if they are not hungry enough to eat their veggies at dinner we figure they aren’t in a dire need for a snack later on and we will feed them again at the next meal. And when they eat skimpy at one meal they are usually hungry for the next meal (which inevitably contains a good portion of vegetables). We have found not forcing our kids to eat foods they don’t want has relieved mealtime stress. We encourage them to try foods and educate them on the benefits of various foods, but we don’t make it a battle. When they whine about a portion of the meal we simply say, “No problem, you don’t have to eat it.” However, we don’t turn around and feed them their food preferences when they are hungry after mealtime like we used to.
It can be a bit of a challenge to feed a family with differing dietary needs. Do your best and let yourself off the hook for not being perfect. Challenge yourself a little and you will soon uncover creativity and confidence when feeding your eclectic family.
To learn more about how to feed a family with differing dietary needs, check out my book Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family’s Whole Health in a Busy World.
How do you accommodate your family’s unique needs?