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8 Tips for Cooking Meals for People With Different Food Preferences, Intolerances or Allergies [Plus: the best of the worst vint

Posted Apr 30 2013 1:49am

Nothing says SPECTACULAR! like a volcano of processed pork products! 

Picture a cozy scene, with mom and dad bracketing smiling children all seated neatly around the table, talking about our day and eating broccoli casserole with nary a complaint. Now smash that Rockwellian fantasy to bits because that is definitely not what happened at my house tonight. (Or really any other night). Tonight: My husband was out of town, two of my boys were seated on the floor in separate corners after brawling over an olive (“You’re going to act like animals? Then you can eat like animals.”), the third boy was under the table licking my sock (don’t ask) and Jelly Bean was whining about… well, I don’t really remember because I wasn’t listening to her. Mother of year, that’s me. But those weren’t even the real problems. No the real issue began with – what else? – what to eat.

One of you commented on one of my posts last week (and I’m sorry that I’m too tired to go look it up and credit you properly) asking about how I cook for and eat with my family while still dealing with my dietary restrictions (i.e. dairy is my one-way ticket to a ride on the vomit comet). She wanted advice on how to make a family meal for people with different dietary needs. I don’t want to brag or anything, but thanks to all my bizarre-o self restrictions in the past, I’m kinda perfect to answer this question. For years I was a vegan married to a carnivore! And no, the answer does not involve eating a bowl of cereal every night while everyone else dines on herb-crusted salmon and asparagus in citrus sauce.

And for entertainment purposes, I’ve interspersed my ideas with some recipes that no one anywhere should ever eat.

Consider: first they killed the fish, then canned it for your convenience and now they want you to try and resurrect it before you eat it? And is it just me or do those fish eggs look an awful lot like lemons?

1. Learn to cook. When you have family members with lots of different needs and/or likes, it can be very tempting to just buy a can of ravioli for one, a box of Fruit Loops for another and enjoy your brown rice California rolls in peace. But not only is that unhealthy and expensive, it does a disservice to the family meal. And I may be old fashioned but I think breaking the figurative bread together is important both for connecting with other people and for teaching kids (and adults) to be well-rounded eaters. So, your first step is to get comfortable with cooking various meats and veggies and having a few staple side dishes you can throw together.

I do not see where the “melon” nor the “mousse” come into this “dessert.” But I really really dig the saucers. They actually look more like food than the food product.

2. Avoid sauces. The fancier food gets the more ingredients are involved and the greater the likelihood that someone can’t eat it. I’ve found that most of the allergenic ingredients hide in toppings, sauces and the like. If you really feel like you need a sauce for a particular dish, you can always serve it on the side rather than over the top.

Jelly, tomato and refresher are three words that should never be together. Jellied tomatoes? I’m pretty sure they are talking actual Jell-O here. It was the ’70s. I’m sure tomato Jell-O existed. If not, somebody call Atrayu, I hear he’s got an in.

3. Use the LEGO method. I often cook meals that allow the eater to build the dish themselves by adding different pieces. You provide the ingredients and they provide the assembly. This has the added benefit of being entertainment as well as nutrition. Things like taco salads, breakfast burritos, baked potatoes, chili, salad bar, fajitas, hay stacks and stir fries work well for this.

This enchilada is on a piece of TOAST. Mexicans everywhere thank their lucky estrellas for quotation marks.

4. Discover yummy substitutions. I’ve become a huge fan of all things coconut since losing my beloved dairy. Coconut ice cream, coconut milk, and coconut whipped cream are not just good for a substitute but amazingly delish in their own right! Just because you can’t have gluten or sugar or strawberries or whatever doesn’t mean you can’t have yummy food! It’s worth your time to find substitutes that the whole family loves.

Here we are again with the Jell-O mold. And purple cabbage. People in the 70′s must have had awfully low standards for “perfection.”

5. Make them eat your food. (Or make yourself eat their food.) I think far too many people allow their food preferences or intolerances to morph into picky eating. For instance, I eat a lot of vegetables and sometimes I’ll make cashew “cheese” to put over the top. I expect my kids to eat the veggies and it’s fine for them to eat the cashew cheese too. And if it’s the reverse? Like, for instance, you have a kid who can’t eat gluten, then have the whole family learn to enjoy rice pilaf with them.

Well color me surprised: fish bleed red.

6. Smorgasbord! Some nights for dinner I like to do the Spanish tapas style of eating where you just put out small plates of a variety of healthy foods and then let people choose what they want. A recent dinner had a bowl of popcorn (whole grains, baby!), a jar of pickled peppers (yes for real and no none of my sons are named Peter Piper), a bowl of olives, a plate of mini bell peppers, a dish of hummus, a box of cherry tomatoes, a plate of edamame, a dish of steamed shrimp and a bowl of mandarin oranges. It sounds like a lot but really only the shrimp and popcorn took any preparation and even that wasn’t much. This also works great for using up leftovers. Bonus: We just eat off the plates in the middle of the table with our fingers. Shh.

These actually don’t look too bad except I’m confused about one thing – what exactly is the “caucasian” involved? Can Weight Watchers possibly be promoting cannibalism? Somewhere Atkins wishes he’d thought of it first.

7. Plan a menu for the week. I’ve found that taking five minutes on Sunday to plan out the dinners for the rest of the week saves hours on weeknights. And when you plan ahead you can make sure the meals are balanced for everyone’s needs. Just make sure that you make a grocery list at the same time so you have all the ingredients you need!

Whew! Good thing they chilled this celery log or it might not look like the disgusting spawn of a sea cucumber and what my dog pooped after he ate a roll of Mylantas! Also, what up with all the pimientos Weight Watchers?

8. Have a few “safe” options on hand. I put this one way at the bottom of the list because I don’t like it very much – I think offering someone an entirely different meal than the one everyone else is eating sets a bad precedent, not to mention making a ton more work for you. But sometimes it is necessary to have a box of mac-n-cheese or chicken nuggets or whatever handy.

It’s fluffy AND it’s mackerel AND it’s pudding. How could you ever go wrong with that? PS. I love that strawberry potholder.

9. I have nothing else to add to this list but I’m hoping you do! Plus, I haven’t run out of funny, er disgusting, pictures yet! You’re welcome!

This is yet another Jell-O mold but this time with the delightful palate-pleasing combo of green beans, ‘shrooms and what appears to be ketchup. Note the Mommy mushrooms in the background telling their kid mushrooms, “Now let this be a lesson to you…”

10. Okay, I do have one more (gotta make it an even 10!): Let go. Let go of trying to make the “perfect” meal. Let go of trying to please everyone. Let go of freaking out over calories. Let go of your preconceived notions of what a “family dinner” should look like. Let go of your mother’s standard. Let go of food that makes you feel icky and/or tastes icky. Sometimes you have to let go of a lot of things so that you can embrace the one truly important thing about a family meal: to connect with your loved ones.

And my number one Weight Watchers Flashback Favorite is… liver pate en masque! My favorite part about this is that from afar it looks like a delicious bundt cake drenched in caramel frosting and garnished with candies (and…lettuce). But imagine your delight when your dinner guest bite into it and realize it’s really liver pate! You’ll be the talk of the town!

What are dinners like at your house – do you have multiple food intolerance/allergies/restrictions you have to work around? What are your tips to add to my list? Anyone have a fave gross recipe?

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