Cooking for Different Diets

Cooking for a Mixed House Without Going Crazy or Broke.

Food allergies and sensitivities, health reasons and personal preference. These are just some of the reasons why different members of a family may be eating different foods. My family has included several different diets for many years now. First, it was my youngest son and his food allergies. Then my husband tried low carb for a while. At the time, I had no idea what that meant or how to cook that way. Then I became primarily healthy plant-based, and my oldest son changed his diet to match his weightlifting. While I will be the first to admit that this has been and continues to be challenging at times, it is doable. You just have to go about it strategically. If you’re trying to cook for a “mixed house” for whatever reason and are getting frustrated, I’m sharing my tips for cooking for different diets without going crazy or broke. 

**Note: As with anything with this site, the word diet is used to refer to the general way that someone eats, not restrictive eating. 

Agree to Eat Together as Much as Possible

If everyone is eating something different, it may be tempting to just let each person do their own thing when it comes to meals. In my book though, eating together as a family is one of the most important things that you can do. If everyone is eating something different, this is especially true. Meals are a shared experience that you can still have even if the food that you’re eating isn’t the same. That’s why making a concerted effort and agreeing to eat together as much as possible is so important. You may not be able to bond over the food that you’re eating, but you can still bond through the time spent together. 

Agree to be Supportive of Each Other

If one person has to eat differently because of health reasons, that’s easier to understand. If someone decides to eat differently for another reason, it can easily become a source of misunderstanding and conflict. This can be especially true as children become teenagers and start to develop their own identity. Assuming that eating differently than the rest of the family is grounded in rational reasoning rather than just being picky, I believe that diet exploration should be encouraged and supported. 

I also think that as adults, we should be continuing to grow and change. If that includes someone changing how they eat and think about food, I believe that should be respected and supported – as long as that person does the same for those who may not have changed how they’re eating. We can’t force others to change, nor should they necessarily need to. We also can’t force people to stay the same. 

Everyone Has to Pitch In

This is a critical concept when it comes to cooking for different diets. No one should feel like a short-order cook unless that’s their paid job and is what they want to do. Otherwise, everyone in the family needs to pitch in to help with meal planning and preparation – especially if they’re going to eat differently than everyone else. When dividing up the responsibilities in the kitchen, I think it’s not only perfectly fine but important to have people doing tasks that may or may not contribute specifically to what they’re going to eat.  Caring about, contributing to and experiencing the food that someone else is going to eat in that way is a vital part of being a family. 

Learn About Each Type of Diet

I mentioned earlier that when my husband decided to try going low carb before I had changed my diet, I didn’t at all understand what he was doing. This was frustrating for both of us. While I had researched everything that I could get my hands on having to do with food allergies to get my son’s health back on track, I didn’t understand that I needed to do the same for the way my husband wanted to eat. That’s why I would get my feelings hurt when he wouldn’t eat some of the food that I had fixed or would look for something different. 

On the other hand, when my oldest son started eating a high protein, no dairy and very little sugar diet, I got him to share with me what he was reading and learning about. That way, I could understand and help him do it in a relatively healthy way. Needless to say, it went much more smoothly. 

Figure Out Staples 

If you figure out which staples are needed and always have those on hand, options will be available to everyone – no matter what their diet. Many staples can also be bought in bulk, which helps to keep prices down.

Determine staples that would work for everyone. Here’s my list along with some additions from Harvard Medical School

  • Beans and other legumes
  • Olive oil and avocado oil
  • Broths or soup stock – such as chicken or vegetable
  • Vegetables – frozen and fresh
  • Herbsspices and other seasonings such as lemon juice
  • Fruit – frozen and fresh
  • Whole grains – oatmeal, brown rice and quinoa 

Determine staples needed for individual diets. In my house this includes the following:

  • Variety of flours – brown and white rice, whole wheat and coconut
  • Variety of starches – tapioca and potato
  • Xanthan gum
  • Variety of pasta – Lentil and other gluten-free and whole grain 
  • Variety of lean meats
  • Nut and seed butters – peanut, almond or sunflower seed butter
  • Tempeh and tofu
  • Plant-based milk alternatives
  • Variety of sweeteners – honey, maple syrup, agave and white and brown sugar
  • Variety of seeds – hemp, flax, pumpkin and sunflower

Meal Planning

If you’re a regular on here, you know that I believe that meal planning is essential to healthy eating. That’s especially true for cooking for different diets. Planning out the week’s meals and other food needed will make sure that all needs and some wants are met. It will also cut down on the frustration factor involved with having to make multiple trips to the store because essential ingredients are missing, or you’re stuck at the last minute trying to figure out what’s for dinner. 

Stick with the Basics

While elaborate, complicated meals are fun to fix every now and then, if you’re cooking for different diets, you’re going to want to stick with the basics for the most part. Keep it simple and use spices, herbs and other seasonings to add flavor. This will keep you from becoming so overwhelmed with fixing one person’s meal that you forget to leave time to fix the rest of what you need. Again, if you keep the staples mentioned above on hand, there should always be plenty of options available to everyone. 

Find Meals with Things in Common

Finding meals with things in common will keep you from having to start from scratch for each individual diet. It’s also crucial for keeping costs under control. If you try to prepare meals that use entirely different ingredients, the price tag will quickly go up. 

Good examples of finding meals with things in common include:

  • Brown rice and vegetables for sides
  • Have a base of pasta and tomato-based sauce and add different types of protein for each person
  • Bowls – Rice, beans and corn provide the base for everyone and then different toppings and sources of protein are added
  • Fajitas – If someone is plant-based and everyone else eats meat, cook up the peppers and onions with seasoning mix and then remove some from the pan. You can then add chicken or steak to the rest for the meat eaters and cook up tofu with some of the seasoning for the person who is plant-based. Brown rice and black beans can round out the meal for everyone. 

Meal Prep

Meal prepping means to prepare individual ingredients or entire meals ahead of time. This is another concept that I think is critical to healthy eating in any case, but it’s especially true for cooking for different diets. When it comes down to cooking on a busy weeknight or after a day of activities, you want things to be as simple and easy as possible. Meal prepping will make that happen because everything will be ready to go, and everyone can just build their own meal. 

There are two strategies that I highly recommend for this. 

  1. Prepare as much as possible (with everyone helping) on the weekend or days off. 
  2. Try to have a set time for meal prepping so that everyone can be involved.

Have Designated Utensils and Bakeware for Food Allergies

This doesn’t mean that you need to go out and buy completely different utensils, dishes or pots and pans for foods being prepared for those with allergies. It does mean though that while you’re cooking, if there are foods being prepared that someone else is allergic to, you should have designated cooking utensils and pots and pans that are only used to prepare the food for that person. 

When it comes to washing the items in a standard home kitchen, the simplest thing to do is to wash everything in the dishwasher so that they can be sterilized. Putting everything into a sink full of hot, soapy water isn’t necessarily safe because unless you wash each item thoroughly before you put it in the sink, the remaining food particles come off and stay in the water. That means that you’re washing dishes for an allergic person in the same water potentially containing remnants of the foods that they’re allergic to. 

Bottom Line on Cooking for Different Diets

While the idea of cooking for people with different diets can seem overwhelming, following these strategies will make it very manageable as well as help to keep costs lower. 

If you have experience with this and have additional suggestions, feel free to leave those in the comments below. 

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