A mom's survival guide to a diet-diverse family
One's a pescatarian, one's an ethical vegan, one's allergic to nuts. Our columnist knows how to cook for a family that can't all eat the same thing.
In our family of five, we have a nutritarian, a mostly pescatarian (me), an omnivore, an ethical vegan and a vegetarian with a sweet tooth. One of our kids is highly allergic to peanuts, tree nuts and sesame. Our omnivore won’t touch cheese – even soy-based cheeses – with a 10-foot pole (may have something to do with the fact that I fed the poor fella mac ‘n’ cheese every day for his first five years.) And the hardest of all, although it really shouldn’t be, is that the nutritarian avoids oils, salt, and any form of sweetener.
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When this fascinating little tidbit about our family comes up in conversation (way too often for my liking) the response I always get is a wide-eyed, “wow,” followed by, “what do you make for dinner?”
What a great question. With such diverse culinary lifestyles, we had to find some common ground. We all enjoy vegetables and fruit, thankfully. So the dishes that bring us all to the table to feast together are salads, cooked vegetables, and soups. For a universal treat, we make nana ice cream, cut up juicy melons, or head to our local juice bar for smoothies. Anyone who is still hungry before, during or after all that goodness is welcome to cook their own food, and they do.
When I have the time and the inclination to spread some love, I make salt- and oil-free tofu steak for the nutritarian, meatballs for my omnivore, sesame-free vegan stir-fry or flax pancakes for my ethical vegan with food allergies, and lasagna for my vegetarian.
And you know what? It works.
I can’t say that it’s ideal – I definitely miss being able to make one "normal" dinner and have everyone dig in and enjoy with no hesitation. There’s a very tiny – but very powerful – grandma inside of me that loves feeding people. I enjoy cooking, baking, garnishing, plating – all of it. So when I invest time, energy, love and so many other resources into the food, I want to see it enjoyed. Having such particular diets means that quite often I am giving away food to neighbors, co-workers, and friends just so that it won’t go to waste. Ever try making a lasagna for two? Meatballs for one? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
Years ago I published an article on the importance of family dinnertime. You’ve heard the statistics – healthier, happy families, fewer instances of drug and alcohol abuse, reduced rates of mental and emotional illness, and so many other benefits that arise from sharing at least one meal a day. But what’s a family to do when that meal may look very different for each one of them?
I’ve shared what our family does – we find the common ground, and we do some individual cooking. But there’s really more to it. We’ve had to bend toward each other in a sense, and make changes to our individual diets in order to be able to enjoy some of the same foods.
A few examples: For my first 30 years, I detested mushrooms and wouldn’t eat them in any form. They looked dirty, gnarled, and quite unfood-like, and I thought everyone was making a grave mistake ingesting these brown, rubbery growths. But when my husband started eating a healthier diet, and told me that mushrooms have fabulous nutrients, I decided to give them another chance, y’know, so I’d make them more often. You know the end of that story – I’ll eat just about any kind of mushroom raw or cooked, and they’ve become a staple of my diet.
I also love baking, and have a muffin "addiction" that threatens to turn me into one if I’m not careful. And while I won’t give up baking entirely, I have learned to use whole wheat and higher fiber flours, flax instead of eggs, applesauce as a partial fat replacer, and dates as a sweetener. Without even trying, I lowered my sugar tolerance. All this from living with people who are trying to eat healthy, be healthy, and contribute to a healthier environment.
So would I really want to go back to the early days when we ate pizza, hot dogs, mac ‘n’ cheese, and all the other comfort foods regularly? Heck no.
We’re in a better place, but it’s a dynamic one. We learn, grow, change, move forward, regress a little, and always try to be aware and conscious that there are different strokes for different folks.
All five of us agree that more leafy greens, beans, veggies, fruit, and whole grains are the way to a higher functioning mind and body. We acknowledge that limiting animal proteins, added fats, and sugar will improve anyone’s health. But after that is said and done, our paths diverge and we go our separate culinary ways – eating hamburgers, muffins, salmon, or vegan cookies once in a while, and then meeting up for veg-focused family dinners.
It’s more than a way to survive – we’re thriving on culinary diversity.
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