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Simplifying Special Diets So Everyone Eats Well

Simplifying Special Diets So Everyone Eats Well

I eat a vegan, gluten-free diet; I have a daughter who cannot eat dairy and is sensitive to gluten; a son who is very allergic to shellfish; another daughter who is a self-proclaimed vegetarian; and a husband who loves all kinds of food, and enjoys variety.

If anyone in your household has food allergies or ailments that require a special diet, you know how challenging it can be to prepare multiple meals for a whole family, not to mention providing variety for the individuals with special diets, all week long.

Some time ago, while learning to cook for two special diets in our family (and learning to deal with picky eaters), I felt overwhelmed making multiple options for different people at the same table each night. But with a little research and experimentation, I found ways to handle the special diets and special tastes in a way that now, I make just one dinner each night that we can all enjoy together.

I now create a plant-based meal each night for the whole family, adding well-sourced fish, chicken or eggs in for my husband or kids a few nights a week, but always keeping veggies in the center. I have found that there are ways to make one meal that satisfies a whole family. (There has to be, right?!)

Here are some of my tricks:

There is a rhythm to our meals: I always make beans on Monday, rice bowls on Tuesday, soup on Thursdays. My kids are not always 100% happy with the meals, but they eat it and don’t argue with the meal because that’s just how it is — they are not seeing me try to choose every night. And over time, my one picky eater has come to enjoy soup more and more! Have you ever noticed how most objections occur before a bite is even tried?

There are moments every week where the kids cook. At least once a week the kids plan and cook dinner — with my help since they are still young! My favorite story is when my daughter was 7 she wanted to make a recipe all on her own from a cookbook that someone had given her. The recipe she found was for “carrot pennies”. I thought this was funny because carrots were a vegetable she regularly refused to eat, but I did not say a word. She cut the carrots, measured all the ingredients, and even asked to light the stove, and that night she ate all her carrots!

I regularly let the kids serve themselves from many little dishes. We talk a lot about eating the rainbow, and trying new things, so they eat a bit of everything for the most part. But little dishes allows me to skip the animal protein, the kids to skip mushrooms, and everyone to serve themselves the amount each is hungry for. It also allows my one-food-at-a-time girl to spread the dishes out on her plate, and my son and I to mix everything together, which we enjoy!

And an important note: There’s a difference between a special diet and a special request… If you feel your picky eater requires you to make multiple options, do yourself and your child a favor – DON’T! Picky eating doesn’t really last very long in my family because I don’t force my kids to eat anything they don’t really want to eat, but I also don’t cook up a second option. If they are really hungry, they will try the kale or the carrots (and they are usually well received!); if they aren’t, they can try them next time I cook them. Studies have shown that it can take anywhere from eight to twelve “tries” for a palate to learn to like a certain food, and you can find ways to help them develop a taste for vegetables by adding them into foods they do enjoy, like pasta, burgers, and soups.

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