I have spent more than a decade cooking for a husband and – eventually – a family where everyone has their own unique eating preferences. Most are vegan, some are not. Some eat mushrooms, some hate onions – it used to drive me absolutely insane, because it felt like I had to cater to everyone’s whims otherwise we’d end up with a dinner table full of complaints and food being pushed around on the plate.
If this sounds familiar to you, then I have some good news: it doesn’t have to be this way.
You don’t have to cook a different meal for each person in the house. You don’t have to put up with complaining every night. You don’t have to deal with kids who push their food around on the plate at dinnertime then make a PB&J sandwich 20 minutes after dinner.
If you live in a family with mixed dietary preferences then there are a couple of strategies you can employ to keep everyone happy without having to cook a dozen meals every night. You’ll have to experiment and mix-and-match the below to find the best approach that works for you and yours, but with a bit of practice and perseverance you’ll be amazed at how simple it can be to keep everyone happy!
1. Cook Twice Eat Once
In a mixed diet household this is unfortunately the way it’s usually done, where you cook two meals for one dinnertime. The upside with this approach is everyone eats what they want, so there’s less complaining and less food getting scratched into the bin.
The major downside, obviously, is that it takes twice as much effort to get everything made, and results in a much messier kitchen. And when it’s a big hurdle to prepare dinner is when things start slipping to takeaway or other types of less healthy meals.
2. Hide the Healthy
This approach is especially effective with young children (and grown men) resistant to eating their vegetables.
Make a delicious pasta sauce (for example), season it to perfection, then… blend the hell out of it. An immersion blender can turn a healthy icky sauce (or soup!) into a meal where even the pickiest eaters are scrambling for seconds.
I love to sneak some baby spinach into a breakfast smoothie, for example. Or cauliflower blitzed up in a creamy pasta sauce is the bomb: the cauliflower taste and texture disappears but the nutrition stays behind! Speaking of cauliflower in a creamy sauce – when you’re hiding the healthy, remember to put some thought into the colour of the sauce you’re creating – you don’t want it looking like a witchy stew if you put too much spinach in that breakfast smoothie!
Try it with: Take an immersion blender to this delicious Cheesy Broccoli Soup.
I personally use this approach quite often in my own home. Though our household eats vegan every night, my husband and one child (of four) are not strictly vegan and sometimes – maybe once every week or two – feel like having some meat. They know they’re free to eat it, but they have to cook it themselves (and clean up after).
This approach can work in your household if your family members are old enough to use the kitchen unsupervised, and are happy to eat the same meal most of the time. Then if they want a bit of variety they’re welcome to introduce it themselves!
Keep in mind the variety here doesn’t have to be a whole different meal. It could be as simple as a chicken breast cooked and sliced, then added to a bowl of pasta.
While we’re here, a quick word about guilt: don’t let it prevent you from using this approach.
It can be tempting to just give in when (especially) children complain, and just give them what they want. No mother wants to send the kids to bed hungry, right?
This “make it yourself” suggestion doesn’t have to be a negative thing. In fact, if you approach it the right way it can be a good thing because it encourages your children to take charge of their own preferences, and it helps them develop confidence in the kitchen. If your child is less than enthusiastic about what’s for dinner, ask them how they think the recipe could be improved – and if their response is a real one (and not a silly “turn it into pizza”), then encourage them to apply that change to their own meal!
Try it With: This lovely Alfredo with Garlic Greens works great with some sliced chicken breast added on top.
4. Just Add Meat
Kind of an extension of the DIY approach, but when you’re feeling generous you can cook the extra ingredient on their behalf.
Simply cook a vegan meal as normal, and prepare a suitable meat separately. Plate up the meals as you normally would, and add the meat to the plates that want it.
This approach is, in some ways, simpler than the DIY approach because you don’t have to dance the kitchen tango around other people while trying to finish dinner, and you don’t have to worry about the guilt factor (if it’s a factor, which it shouldn’t be – see above).
A quick note about protein: If you do follow this approach, ensure the vegan meal you’re cooking has adequate protein in its own right, such as tofu, tempeh, seitan, etc. Let the meat-eaters double up on protein (vegan protein and meat), don’t let the vegans miss out!
Try it With: Cook up some cubed lamb or steak to add to this wonderful Moroccan Tagine recipe.
5. Mix & Match
Certain types of dishes work well served up with some assembly required.
Our family loves burritos, for example, where all the ingredients are brought to the table separately and then everyone is free to build a meal to suit their own preferences (with a bit of pressure from the parents to add at least something healthy to each serving)
You obviously won’t be able to use this approach every night, because it works best with certain meals like salads, sandwiches, or baked potatoes. This strategy was absolutely made for Mexican food: burritos, tacos and fajitas can all be made pretty easily tableside.
Let your imagination run wild though – with a bit of thought and practice you could prepare much more complex meals for use in this strategy. Even stir fries or pastas can be prepared in this way if you have a clear plan in mind from the start – the only downside is you will end up creating more washing up.
Try it With: These Jackfruit Bao are delightfully delicious, and easy to assemble table-side. Cook up some pulled pork as a jackfruit substitute (but also don’t, because the jackfruit way is delicious!)
6. Two-Pan Cooking
When making dinner, split your ingredients into two pans then – at the appropriate time – add meat to one pan and your vegan protein to the other. The end result is one meal eaten together which caters to two wildly different eating preferences.
This strategy does take some getting used to, especially when considering that cooking times of vegan and non-vegan proteins may be different; it can be tricky to get the timing of both meals just right. With a bit of practice, though, this could be a great way to cater to varying preferences and requirements without having to go to the trouble of cooking two completely different meals.
It’s a difficult situation to be in, and the plain truth is there is no silver bullet solution that will suddenly make it easy to cook for a family with mixed mealtime preferences.
But! It is also plainly true that you don’t have to put up with cooking a bunch of meals every night just to keep everyone happy and fed.
The strategies above can help make dinnertime much easier to manage. Experiment with each of them (except for the first one, yuck) and once you’ve found a plan that works for you stick with it – you will find yourself with more free time at night, and a family that’s well-fed and happy.
Also keep in mind that the best approach is probably a mix and match situation. In our house, for example, we usually all eat the same meal but I frequently call on DIY and JAM (for the two occasional meat-eaters), Build a Plate (Taco Tuesday!), and Two-Pan Cooking.
If you have questions or would like specific advice about a mixed diet problem you’re facing, why not join our Facebook group? We’re a lovely bunch of friendly people who would love to help!