Before I became a mom, I swore I wouldn’t become a short order cook at dinnertime.

I had memories of my own experience growing up — we simply ate what my mom made for dinner, and I was never consulted as to what that would be.

It’s funny how much we think we know before we have to actually walk the talk.

I still feel strongly about having dinner as a unified family meal, but my desire to include my childrens’ preferences (to some degree) in the meals they eat, paired with our different food needs or restrictions, makes for a daunting challenge.

I needed a way to keep from literally making a different meal for each person sitting at the dinner table.

For example, in my family, my husband has taken dairy out of his diet, but my children and I still enjoy a bit of dairy.   But my husband has a much higher need for meat in his diet than I do.  My children often won’t eat meals that are too spicy or “exotic” for them– and yet, my husband and I need to have more flavor and variety  in our meals to feel satisfied.

I’m sure you can also list your family’s various requirements for a meal that everyone can enjoy.

There is also a sense of unity that comes from everyone eating the same meal at the same time, and family dinners are an excellent way to promote a strong family bond.

So… how to make it work?

The way I have found is to take a “flexitarian” approach to our dinner meals.

The Flexitarian Approach

I may be misusing this term, but I’ll explain what it means to me.

I seek out meals that have a  “base” layer which can easily be built on to suit individual tastes and needs.

For my family, I looked at our common denominator– that is, what kinds of foods we all enjoy.  Because dairy, meat and spiciness were my “variables,” I decided to become an excellent vegan cook and find satisfying, delicious, nutritious vegan meals with different additions to suit each family member’s need.

Photo by McKay Savage

What Does That Look Like?

Here is an example.  One meal we all enjoy is whole wheat pasta with fresh vegetables and a delicious artichoke salad dressing (recipe below!).  This becomes our base.

Then I set out a small plate of sliced baked chicken, a bowl of crumbled feta, toasted walnuts, a bowl of sprouts, and a condiment caddy (with things like a flavored oil, indian curry spice, basil, chili flakes, a pepper mill, pesto, and Parmesan cheese).  These are our embellishments.

Each of us can then build a meal that suits us well. My husband can load on the meat and spice.   I reach for the feta, walnuts, and sprouts. The kids are big fans of Parmesan cheese and walnuts.

Most days I’m comfortable making my kids’ breakfast and lunch requests…  But we have established dinner as our family meal, and this strategy has worked very well for our sense of unity and togetherness, while still allowing for differences in preference or nutrition.

And on a practical note, it saves precious prep time that is often tight during dinner anyway.

Going “flexitarian” has been a great strategy for me and has opened up a whole new area of cooking that I previously never explored.  Do you think it may work for you?

Artichoke Pasta Salad

1.  Cook whole wheat pasta al dente (penne or rigatoni are good choices).

2. In a food processor or blender, combine a drained can of artichoke hearts, 3-4 Tbsp. of olive oil, 2 Tbsp. of lemon juice, 2 cloves of garlic, and a pinch of sea salt.  Blend until smooth.

3.  In a large bowl mix the hot, drained pasta with the artichoke sauce.

4.  Then add 2 cups of chopped spinach, 1 large chopped tomato (or 10-15 cherry tomatoes), and 1/2 cup fresh peas or blanched green beans.

5.  Toss together and serve.

Do you struggle with feeding a family of individuals that all want different things?  How have you handled getting your whole family on the same “plate”?