FEEDING A CROWD // vol. 3
When one family, one meal fails you (how to deal with special diets, food allergies, omnivores and picky eaters—under one roof)
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And welcome, new subscribers! I’m coming to you today with a strategy guide, one of my favorite things to write in this space lately, and it starts with a story:
“Mama, I think Uncle Timmy has surpassed you in cooking,” my daughter said to me the other day, deadpan.
She’d just seen a text from him with a video of my young nephew, cranking fresh pasta through the press. This is a weekly occurrence, a text, and photo of something fabulous in prep phase, with a note like, “Guess what I’m making?” Sometimes it’s one of the more beloved recipes from my first book (his favorite)—my braised short ribs with herby gremolata or linguine with sausage. Or it’s something new he’s trying—like melt-in-your-mouth mortadella and ricotta ravioli—on a Monday!
Uncle Timmy—my baby brother—makes his own bread, brews his own beer, and ships his salmon in directly from Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle. He has a garden and a pantry easily three times the size of mine—five varieties deep in every category (chocolates, flours, and every tea, herb, and spice known to man)—plus all the cooking toys (The Green Egg, an immersion circulator, and the pasta attachment on his Kitchen Aid, naturally).
Meals in his house are nothing short of epic.
At my brother’s house, ONE FAMILY, ONE MEAL (i.e., no short-order cooking, no catering to special palates, no separate meals for parents and kids) checks out. It’s not only efficient but rewarding. His kids are young, and for now, at least, they all eat the same things—which is to say, everything.
Growing up, we were 100% a ONE FAMILY, ONE MEAL crew, too—six of us, all omnivores. My mom had a repertoire of four meals everyone loved (lasagna, cashew chicken, meatloaf, and grilled chicken with mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli) and one we merely tolerated—the white dinner: white fish with lemon, white rice, and steamed lima beans so pale they qualified. This was peculiar since Mom’s mantra was the more color on the plate, the better (color, at least the natural kind, equals more nutrients in the body. She was ahead of her time on this…). And while the white dinner gave us something to poke fun of, mostly we shut up and ate. We were a clean plate club, all the way.
As I approached adulthood, I assumed I would run things this way, too. There were already too many pasta-with-butter babies in the world (picky kids, their every need catered to); I wouldn’t be contributing to the lot.
Flash-forward to my late twenties: I married a vegetarian, shortly after culinary school, after stints in several three-star New York City restaurants, and cooking for three summers in France; I reasoned I’d eaten so well (and so much!!) up to that point, adopting his diet at home was NBD.
I did all of our cooking, and as a newlywed, it felt like an exciting challenge—and an act of great love—to figure out how to feed András well on grains, beans, and greens alone. Back then, he was running marathons, decathlons and racing 60 miles on his bike every week. I was thrilled to move him off his Amy’s burrito diet (though, props to Amy—she got him through his twenties), so thrilled I wrote a whole book about it (FEAST, still a favorite; if a bit ahead of its time).
We were what I called Mostly Vegetarian.
ONE FAMILY, ONE MEAL.
This continued through my first pregnancy. I worked at the Food Network in those years and ate out frequently with my food-obsessed friends. I got plenty of fish and meat (for the baby and me) via my work and meals out when I craved it; it felt like a very small sacrifice to stay meatless at home. Greta was born, and we continued on this way up until she was age 4. Her pediatrician said her blood work was off-the-chart healthy. “Keep doing what you’re doing,” he told us, so we did.
But at the pre-school graduation lunch with friends, sitting in front of her rice and beans, she pointed to her best friend’s thick, juicy burger and said—“I want THAT.”
Toddlers and young kids are intuitive, almost primal about their likes and needs when we don’t get in the way. As four-year-olds do, the friend offered her a bite, and that was that—Greta became a meat eater.
ONE FAMILY, ONE MEAL became more complicated but still manageable.
When I started craving meat, too, during my second pregnancy (with a son who would later eat ALL the things), red meat and chicken came back into our home more and more. Meanwhile, I helmed the food content at Real Simple magazine (where chicken, pork, and beef were still front and center on the plate), and wrote two more books, this time for omnivores.
Along the way, András started eating fish/seafood, which the kids and I love. Oysters and clams, mussels and scallops, salmon, and fried fish (fish and chips)—are universal wins for us. ONE FAMILY, ONE MEAL worked out pretty well again, for a time. When I did cook meat at home, they were epic, deliciously juicy meat dishes that I could portion, freeze, stretch, and share. I sprinkled Magic Pulled Pork into tacos and rice and bean bowls, and roast chicken could last us days for just three of us. On those nights, I’d fry an egg or veggie sausage for András, and often he was content with a small plate of cheese on the side. It worked.
But, if I’ve learned anything in parenting, it’s that nothing lasts forever—good or bad.
Over the pandemic, Greta spent two weeks with her friends and their pet chickens—each with a name and personality. She returned home a vegetarian, again—just as Mátyás requests for meat started ramping up: oven-baked chicken (his favorite), hot dogs (we have my dad to thank for that), spaghetti and meatballs, and especially chili.
I adjusted. It was easy enough to think of meals in pairs: fish or vegetarian fare for András and Greta, anything and everything else for Mátyás and me (though, news flash: surf and turf five nights a week isn’t exactly sustainable, financially or otherwise). Then, just when I thought I had it figured out—Greta added chicken back into the mix.
(Is your head spinning? Mine, too).
Greta has always been my easier kiddo. She’s eaten everything, mostly without complaint, all her life. Her current choices, like her dad’s, are ethical and also spiritual. I want to honor them. I want to honor both of my children’s choices, even when they change.
I am not alone in this struggle. Almost every family I know accommodates some form of restricted eating, sometimes several, within one household.
As our families grow, as schedules change and new people become regulars at our table or help with the cooking, the family meal shifts. Children grow up, schedules get complicated, and often meal times take a beating.
Sometimes there’s a diagnosis that changes a family’s diet. Maybe we accommodate your picky eater (pasta with butter, again?) or defer to the needs of a particular family member out of love, necessity, or peace (battles at mealtime are unhealthy for everyone—and rarely worth it).
These changes can be dramatic, but sometimes they are so gradual you barely notice. Until one day, you are staring at four completely different plates in front of your loved ones at the family meal, thinking: HOW?
This is where I found myself just before vacation, wondering how a lifetime ONE FAMILY, ONE MEAL crusader had become my family’s possibly overqualified and definitely (!) underpaid private chef. A short-order cook—on steroids.
Worse than my irritation (mild to aggressive, depending on the day) was the real-time inefficiency this presented. The dishes kept piling up (one pot for veg, one for red meat, another for chicken…), and I started to see increasing waste—of time, ingredients, and leftovers that couldn’t get eaten up by the one person they were designed for before they went bad.
Whatever happened to one family, one meal?
In our house, it died. But—stay with me—this is a resurrection story.
I’ll spare you the details—involving an ultimatum (un-welcomed), reversion to an all-vegetarian diet (utter fail; bratwursts are saviors on soccer nights), and one very restorative vacation—but we’ve arrived at a resolution, or at least, a groove that feels like one.
I figured out a way—some STRATEGIES— to make everything about family dinner feel less oppressive for me, the primary cook in our house. And I’m hoping this will work for you, too—if you have special diets in your family, or if one (or all) people in the house are transitioning to a new way of eating—and you still want to keep mealtime apolitical, joyful, and nourishing (physically and emotionally), for everyone.
Read below for SIX STRATEGIES to get back that ONE FAMILY, ONE MEAL feel in your house.
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STRATEGY 1: Put on your oxygen mask before helping others.
First, a mental shift —and some self-care—may need to happen to land in a reasonable new place with family dinner. For me, this means eating out alone or with friends when time or budget allows, at least once a week. This can also look like one or two meals at home in the company of my favorite podcast, in the sunniest window, while the kids are at school. I make it a point not to multitask; instead, I enjoy that food in gratitude for having the privilege to nourish myself, however I choose.
During these times, treat yourself to what you love and crave; lingering more over your cup of coffee and a favorite treat or going all-out of a favorite juicy, layered sandwich (if you’re cooking for vegetarians but you crave a brisket) can preserve the mood while making mac-and-cheese for the fam, later that day.
STRATEGY 2: Aim for ONE FAMILY, ONE MEAL, three times a week.
Concentrate on fewer, better, hot, homemade meals that everyone on your team will eat. Make sure these are complete home runs: universally beloved by your entire crew and make extras. Then mix and match leftovers for the rest of the week (STRATEGY 3). In our new nuclear family, favorites include soup (this, this, or this do the trick), shrimp, stir-fries, sushi, fish and chips, and any pasta—especially cacio e pepe.
Many of my recipes from INSTANT FAMILY MEALS work wonderfully here, like Big Flavor Bolognese (pictured, top—make it with Beyond Burger for vegetarians!), Coconut Poached Salmon, or Cacio e Pepe risotto (BONUS: there are dozens more vegetarian, gluten-free, and meaty main-course meals in this book—check the special diets index in the back for guidance).
STRATEGY 3: Flex those leftovers into choose-your-own-adventure dinners.
On days I’m not serving a hot, home-run meal, we have DIY DINNER NIGHTS. Here’s how: Lay all the leftovers and any stand-alone options for a complete meal on the counter, straight from the fridge, with a stack of shallow bowls, spoons, forks, and napkins. Have everyone build their own meal-in-a-bowl and heat their finished dish in the microwave themselves* (or eat it at room temp if this is more your family’s style; check out author Nicki Sizemore's clever book Build-A-Bowl for more ideas, and check out her great article about food sensitivities—she gets it!).
This gives every family member autonomy over their choices and makes those ONE FAMILY, ONE MEAL moments feel more precious and appreciated. It also takes some pressure off the main cook in the house and helps kids build a repertoire they can lean on when you’re not around.
*if your kids are younger, you can start by asking little ones/toddlers to point to their favorite foods while you put them together in a bowl or sectioned plate.
STRATEGY 4: Embrace condiments!
Consider kimchi, pico de gallo, pesto, romesco, ranch, and sriracha willing helpers. We’ll talk more about this soon, but whether homemade or pre-made/prepared, sauces and condiments go a long way to pulling together a meal so that all parties can customize it to their liking without extra work—especially for DIY DINNERS.
The old me would decant the sauces into pretty bowls. The new me (simplify, simplify, simplify) reminds kids that there is bbq, soy, ketchup, spicy mayo, sriracha, and more on offer, and they can help themselves. Sometimes I pull them out on the counter on DIY nights, if a particular set of sides and proteins lend themselves to an obvious condiment (try this! I say, drizzling soy over someone’s rice bowl en route to the table). Other times, I let kids help themselves to anything in the fridge, with the caveat that once everyone sits down to eat, we stay there.
STRATEGY 5: Keep no-cook, help-yourself proteins at the ready.
These should be no-work proteins that can be easily subbed in or layered onto rice, grains, pasta, bread, or greens. Think: tinned fish, cans of sardines, tuna-in-olive-oil, hard-boiled eggs (if you’re a meal-prepper), poached chicken, rotisserie chicken (straight from the grocery), frozen veggie burgers, etc.
If it helps, type out a list of proteins you have on hand and keep it on the fridge to help partners/roommates/older kids learn to help themselves, especially if theirs is the diet that needs the most catering.
STRATEGY 5: Offer at least one safe food.
Dahlia Rimmon reminded me about the principle of offering safe foods to babies and toddlers when you are introducing new foods (for example, you want to introduce your baby to avocado, so you offer some smashed banana—a food they already know and love— alongside; let them explore, without forcing the new food).
We discussed over in threads (a cool place for this community to have casual but deeper discussions about a topic—join us!!) that this is important with family members of all ages. Older children who are used to one way of eating while part of or all of the family is transitioning to another meal type will benefit from seeing their safe foods on the table while they get used to the change.
Safe foods are important for grown-ups, too. Every time I announce we will trim back on gluten, my husband starts panic-buying bagels; I know when I’m making dietary changes for our family, keeping bread in the freezer makes him feel seen and valued. This could be important for elders in the household, too.
OK, REAL TALK: This is how these strategies looked in practice this week.
Last week, our three ONE FAMILY, ONE MEAL MENUS were:
Oven Baked Chicken with roasted vegetables (heavy on the vegetables that my husband ate with toasted bread, while the rest of us ate chicken).
Cacio e Pepe (no leftovers, we eat it to the very last noodle every time) and a big green spinach/arugula salad with homemade dijon dressing.
This Veggie Stir fry with white rice (with lots of extra steamed rice for later in the week).
*We also had one pizza night at our favorite wood-fired oven pizza, from which we took home three pieces of margarita pizza.
THE NEXT DAY:
I reheated the rice (which could also be a new batch of rice, warm from the rice cooker) and brought all other sides, proteins and condiments from the fridge onto the countertop cold.*
Mátyás ate warm rice with a whole (halved) avocado and soy sauce.
I ate cold chicken on warm rice with avocado, pickled daikon, soy sauce, and sesame seaweed chips.
Greta ate warm rice, avocado, cucumbers, and kimchi.
*András, had he been there, would have needed fried egg on top because a meal isn’t a meal for him without protein. He was working, so I got a free pass.
CLEAN UP: three bowls, three forks, and all the leftover containers we emptied, which all landed straight in the dishwasher. Easy!
THE NEXT, NEXT DAY:
I reheated the remaining chicken (with some broth) in the microwave. In my trusty cast iron, I slow-fried (i.e., evenly golden yolks) six eggs in olive oil and removed them to two shallow bowls. I cooked six cups of spinach and arugula (mixed) in the residual olive oil with salt and red pepper flakes and opened a jar of imported Italian Bruschetta mix (tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and herbs).*
Mátyás ate two eggs with leftover pizza and a few cucumbers and carrots.
I ate two eggs, sautéed greens, and a super healthy dollop of (prepared) bruschetta mix over everything—yum!! (pico de gallo would have also worked).
Greta ate the last chicken leg with wilted greens and bruschetta mix.
Andras ate eggs on toasted sourdough with bruschetta mix on top, and wilted greens on the side.
*I sweetened the deal with glasses of root beer on ice (a rare treat), kettle chips, and chocolate ice cream for dessert.
CLEAN UP: three bowls, three forks, three glasses (into the dishwasher), plus one cast-iron pot to hand wash.
No fuss. No Drama. No Waste. How I like my family dinners these days.
Sometimes I fantasize about what it will be like when my kids grow up (though I’m not in a rush for that: see this graphic) when I won’t have to cook a certain thing or anything at all—when I’m not worried about children having enough fats/protein for their brain and muscles to develop— when I can trust everyone at the table to eat their greens before dessert.
In that world, I’ll live in New York, Lisbon, or Vienna and eat out as much as my budget allows (with friends, with my husband, and alone) because I love eating and restaurants more than I’ll probably ever love cooking. I love the theater of it, the variety, and that everyone can get what they want, with little help from me.
But who knows? Maybe we’ll all evolve to become vegetarians (or weekday vegetarians, ala). When my kids visit, we’ll cook wonderful feasts from Maya Kaimal and Andrea Nguyen. Or Maybe we’ll be cooking together in a big old kitchen in the south of France (or Italy or Spain!), making dreamy ravioli with ricotta and mortadella.
My kid and grandkids will be veracious eaters and cooks, and we’ll have found out that joy and decadence are the secret of long life, after all.
We shall see. I can’t wait for all of it.
YOUR TURN: I want to hear from you in the comments below! Please pick one question below and answer it so we can learn about and from each other—or share anything that came to mind while reading above.
What are your three to five top home-run family meals?
What is your family’s most significant challenge to one family, one meal?
Who is your pickiest/more special-needs eater, and how do you accommodate them?
What does your fantasy the kids are all grown-up meal scenario look like (either with or without the grown-up kids!)?
Thank you, as always, for being here!!
Photos for this newsletter by Christopher Testani and Gentl and Hyers. Food and Prop Styling by Sarah Copeland. This newsletter contains Amazon affiliate links that help fund continuing this work, at no extra cost to you. Thank you for your support!