8 Tips for Cooking Meals for People With Different Food Preferences, Intolerances or Allergies [Plus: the best of the worst vintage Weight Watchers recipes!]

by Charlotte on April 30, 2013 · 30 comments

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??

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Mandy April 30, 2013 at 1:08 am

Growing up (and even now), my mother subscribed to the idea of many different meals for different people. For example, my brother is squeamish when it comes to meat on the bone, so if we were eating chicken, my mother would make him a separate dish of meatballs. Or if we were eating something spicy (which she couldn’t eat), she’d make herself a separate meal.

I’m more likely to try find one menu that will suit everyone – like a veggie pasta with sauce on the side. Ditto with my SIL – apparently my grown-up policeman brother actually can eat meat on the bone if that’s all he’s given. Fancy that!


Willard K April 30, 2013 at 2:42 am

In my family, we go for either the “lowest common denominator” if that is possible, or else just make sure that there are separate dishes to address the specific needs. Luckily, there are not too many food restrictions from everyone. My husband likes to eat chicken and fish without bones, so we mainly go for the boneless fillets. When my vegetarian aunt dines with us, we always toss a no-meat, no-egg salad for her, or else make a vegetarian stew. That seems to have worked. I like your LEGO method tip. It seems to be more encompassing than cooking a separate dish for my aunt, who is dear to us.


Peter @ MadForFit April 30, 2013 at 3:59 am

Reading this post makes me realize how lucky I am not to have any type of food allergy/intolerance.

However, just like you recommend, I do plan my menu for the week ahead, which means I can keep it healthy and avoid junk food temptation!


Katie April 30, 2013 at 5:05 am

Mealtimes with my parents were quiet and orderly. It was me, my sister, and parents, and my sister and I were very well-behaved. We had to be, in my culture, disorderly kids get spanked. Seeing poorly behaved kids at restaurants makes me want to get my tubes tied…


Cyndie April 30, 2013 at 5:43 am

I take the same approach to meal time! One additional tip I have for getting kids to eat their veggies takes advantage of the “mindless eating” principal. I typically need ~30 kid-free minutes to get dinner on the table, so I stick the kids in front of the tv with a plate of raw veggies and hummus or ranch dressing. Eight times out of ten, they will eat the entire plate, and then I can relax a bit on the veggies at dinner (which they still get BTW)!
Also – ewwww. Weight Watchers in the 70s looks like torture.


Terri April 30, 2013 at 6:12 am

I just have to say I may never eat again after looking at those recipe cards ! eeewwwww people seriously ate that ?


Terri April 30, 2013 at 6:37 am

Just a little payback ;)

I had to google those recipe cards and found this – from the 50s


Camery April 30, 2013 at 10:13 am

Oh. God.
You win!


Rosa May 1, 2013 at 9:49 am

… pahahahahahahaha.

I love that this entire post was helpful/useful tips interspersed with ridiculousness. This is probably one of the things that puts this blog in my “can’t-miss-any-posts” list!


Leslie April 30, 2013 at 7:33 am

I love the tapas idea-super fun and ez!
In high school, I went vegetarian and all health-conscious and my mom, god love her, would cook separately meals for me and her/my brother/dad. (I mean, we always ate fairly healthy with salad and veggies at every meal, but i wasn’t gonna eat pork chops or chicken stir fry) Then they slowly started migrating to things like sushi with me. Heidi Klum has a cute quote about not being a short order cook…


Rebecca April 30, 2013 at 7:52 am

Charlotte, you must check out the Gallery of Regrettable food… http://www.lileks.com/institute/gallery/ , for a collection of the most amazing things that can be done with jello and molds! My father was given the book a few years ago for Christmas.


Anne April 30, 2013 at 8:41 am

Just FYI, “caucasian” in your example is referring to a food from the Caucasus region. It’s like saying “Indian curry” or “Southern grits”.


Stephanie April 30, 2013 at 8:52 am

My husband is an incredibly picky eater (i.e. won’t eat like 90% of the veggies I make, hates onions and peppers, etc.)…so I basically just ignore him and make the chunks big enough for him to pick out. Worst wife ever. But, if I didn’t, we’d be subsisting on steak, potatoes, and stove top. =/

Also, have you read Perfection Salad? It talks about where all those molded food recipes came from (among others). Awesome book.


Julie April 30, 2013 at 8:37 pm

I am so glad to hear that others have picky husbands. Mine’s the same way with onions and peppers, too! And very reluctant to try new things. Is your man in denial about it like mine? (He really doesn’t think he’s picky, he just says he won’t eat “gross” or “disgusting” food. I remind him that those are subjective terms…)


Stephanie May 1, 2013 at 8:55 am

He’s definitely not in denial anymore lol. His is purely from his parents…they eat a very “all-american” diet, and my family basically ate all the things. And my mom refused to make more than one dinner. His mom will (still!) make something different for every single person eating if need be. He tries more now, but I don’t think I’ll ever get him over the “ewwww! Onions and peppers!” thing.


Abby April 30, 2013 at 9:37 am

Yeah, growing up my mom always made one thing. She would do things like serve my brother deconstructed taco salad but it included all the parts that everyone else was eating. My aunt was shocked that my mom wouldn’t just make him pb&j but we’re way less picky eaters than my cousins at this point!

At our house now we do weekly meal planning the way we did when I was a kid but it’s definitely a more annoying process than 5 minutes. I think we’re both just too indecisive. But we always eventually get it figured out. It did become much better when my fiance stopped eating poultry and red meat at home (and in general mostly) and started eating the way I do. He never wanted to cook his own food and one meal is just so much easier. The only exception to that is that he dislikes a bunch of vegetable that I’m not willing to swear off so sometimes he doesn’t have any veggies at dinner. Like when I’m too lazy to do more than toss a bag of baby carrots on the table and he hates carrots but oh well. His lack of veggies is on him at that point I figure. And we both tend to eat big salads for lunch so I guess it’s okay on the dinner veggies.

You’re right though. Letting go of the “perfect” meal is so freeing! I realized only recently that it’s okay if we have something like artichokes and cheese and crackers if that’s what we want. My dad would have a heart attack that there isn’t a real main dish but who cares? That’s between my parents, we don’t have to eat the same way (though I do cook a lot of my mom’s meals since she’s a fabulous cook) and some of our favorite meals are ones we created ourselves. And when there are weeks like this where the fiance is out of town and I can’t be bothered to cook for 1 person and I eat frozen meals? Oh well. It’s a few days and if I’m going to do it anyways why bother feeling guilty?

I have to ask, what is a hay stack? I’m always looking for menu ideas. (I am so making breakfast burritos next week!)


Cindy April 30, 2013 at 9:42 am

I only get together with my family for holidays. When that happens their are so many food restrictions that half the people come with their own food. Myself included. It is just not possible to feed all of us without a problem. Almost everybody will have one serving of something from the meal served and I think we all look forward to that one serving.


Linda April 30, 2013 at 11:11 am

In my family, I am the fish and vege person, hubby eats anything that is tasty (usually meaning more fat or sauce), two older kids prefer meat and meat and youngest is the fussiest….and hates vegetables…..


Amanda April 30, 2013 at 11:40 am

I think making base dishes and then letting people add what they want is the easiest thing. I was vegan for awhile and my husband wasn’t so we would do a lot of meals that he could add meat to if he wanted and I could add tofu, tempeh, etc


Katie April 30, 2013 at 4:36 pm

Dinners at my house are just me, so they are easy and I don’t have to cook for other people. But, when I go to other peoples’ houses or have people here, I usually just do a combo of the LEGO method (my favorite by far!) or I keep things really simple by making roasted veggies with a few other side dishes and a main dish of some simple meat (steak or burger or brat, because I have summer grilling on the brain). Then, as always, I am a sauce FIEND, so I make several different sauces and dips and people can customize to their hearts content.

Those pictures. I wasn’t going to comment on them because I have NOTHING to say, but….well. I have nothing to say. Except I curse you because I can never un-see these images and they will haunt my nightmares.


Ali April 30, 2013 at 6:06 pm

I’m lacto-ovo vegetarian and my partner is omnivore . . . but she doesn’t cook, so she’s long accepted that she’ll mostly eat veg at home, and just get meat at restaurants and when visiting friends/family. Works for me! I will grill her a hot dog along with my not-dog, then also have grilled veggies and potato packets.


Alyssa (azusmom) April 30, 2013 at 6:31 pm

I lean toward the vegetarian side, so I’m usually making up a mishmash. Tonight, for example, I’ll be making a cheese quesadilla for my son, a veggie one for me, and cooking up turkey bacon for my daughter. Hubby can also feel free to add the bacon to his quesadilla. And there will be salad for all.
Not too complicated, which is nice.
But those recipes…and the photos! I’m guessing Weight Watchers was so successful back in the day because folks would rather starve than eat the food.


Casey Kay April 30, 2013 at 7:04 pm

My mother always said she wouldn’t be cooking two meals. That worked out when I learned how to use the can opener or microwave on my own. I love the smorgasbord idea!
Those Weight Watchers recipes are horrendous. If those were your choices you probably wouldn’t be eating too much at any given meal.


Susan April 30, 2013 at 7:21 pm

I asked you about meal prep and special diet needs. Thanks for all the ideas, especially build your own meal ideas to make dinner time sane.


Shady April 30, 2013 at 10:21 pm

I love this topic! I transitioned to vegetarian at 12 and for the majority of my meals – my meat and potatoes mom would have me eat the veggies and potatoes and usually nothing else. Oh I almost forgot, the occasional faux meat product. Stuff I rarely touch these days.

After graduating from university, I was forced to move back home for my lack of job and excess of student debt. As an adult with a decade of independent living under my belt (including a couple of years where I dabbled seriously in veganism), I had a much different approach to co-eating with my carnivorous family. We really only shared supper on a daily basis but this is sort of how things evolved over the 6 months I was back at home.

I often used the lego approach – tacos, quesadilla’s, stir-fries, meal-sized salads. Alternatively but very similar I’d start with one base that I could turn vegetarian for me or omni for my fam (Ifor example – yellow curry which I would start together -than split them up, add chicken, yogurt and heavy cream to theirs, chickpeas and cashew creme to mine).

Or if all else fails and my mom and bro just wanted a baked potato and steamed veggie meal – without having to deal with creating a meat alternate for me – I’d dig into my freezer stash. I usually kept a couple of kinds of veggie burgers, soups, chilli, lentil loaf, quinoa lentil mushroom croquettes and other home made protein sources that just needed to be reheated and I could have a complete meal too.


Mary @ Fit and Fed April 30, 2013 at 11:37 pm

The Lego approach– what a great name for assembling your own meal at the table. We did that with our kids often and it is very helpful, not only do the kids feel ownership of what’s on their plate but it makes the meal less work for the parent, too. Veggie tacos and potatoes with a lot of non-traditional toppings (sunflower seeds, nutri-yeast) in addition to the expected ones were a couple of the assemble it yourself meals we used to serve when our kids were little. By the way, the recipe cards in your post were so grosstastic that I had to show them to my husband. I lived through the jello mold era and I know I saw some similar dishes! Asparagus Jell-O anyone?


Laurel May 1, 2013 at 5:57 am

Hmm, and we wonder why obesity was not as high back then… funny LOL


Shell May 6, 2013 at 10:42 pm

Excellent Blog, planning meals in my opinion is the best way to live a good healthy lifestyle.
It will help eliminate a lot of stress.Thanks for sharing


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