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May 3, 2018

Cooking for a Split Household: When Half the Family is Vegetarian, and Other Half is Not

Written by: Shannon Corlett, MS, RDN, LDN

As vegetarianism continues to increase in popularity, I often mind myself discussing the balancing act of preparing meat-free meals. And this discussion isn’t limited to vegetarianism; Any dietary restriction can challenge the family’s head chef (e.g. low sodium diets, weight loss diets, etc.). Often, I find families trying to make entirely different meals for one member: buying different groceries, cooking at different times, not sharing in the experience of feeding and eating. As a member of a “split family” (i.e. I’m the only one who doesn’t eat meat), I find it much easier to prepare one nourishing meal for everyone and make small tweaks to accommodate preferences. Here are the top three tips I’ve learned:
1. Take time to understand, what the person does and does not eat. When it comes to vegetarianism, there are several eating patterns subsets (defined below). Most diets have individual nuisances, and understanding what people are willing to consume can significantly expand your cooking options.

  • Vegan- Excludes all animal products, including meat, eggs, and dairy. Most vegans also exclude gelatin (derived from animal collagen) and some also exclude products that were processed with animal products (e.g. honey, some wine, sugar, etc.).
  • Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian- Consumes diary (lacto-) and eggs (ovo-) but no meat, poultry, or fish. This is the most common type of vegetarianism in the United States and is often shorted to just “vegetarian”. Some individuals prefer to only include one of these items, i.e. a lacto-vegetarian eats dairy but not eggs and and an ovo-vegetarian eats eggs but not dairy.
  • Semi-Vegetarian or “Flexitarian”- Usually follows a vegetarian diet but will occasionally eat meat.
  • Pescatarian- Eats fish but no other meat or poultry.

2. Develop options within each food group. Most well-balanced meals should contain about 4-5 food groups (protein, dairy,  fruit, starch, vegetables, or fats), giving plenty of variety even if a specific food is not preferred. Not a fan of the starch? No problem, fruit will also provide carbohydrates. Prefer not to eat the protein being served at this meal? A dairy source will help meet your macronutrient needs. Because most foods provide a variety of nutrients, including choices and multiple colors at your meal helps ensure that everyone is well-nourished. This is particularly important for children, who will feel much less pressure at meals if you’re confident that they’re meeting their nutrient needs without stressing about every food choices.

3. Plan meals that the whole family can enjoy. Instead of trying to cook for each individual, develop meals that can be adjusted to personal preference. For example, if you’re following a diabetic diet or trying to lose weight, you may eat a smaller portion of starch but increase your vegetable intake. The preference to have less of one item and more of another doesn’t mean the entire meal has to change. Similarly, for a vegetarian diet, you can often just switch the protein source and share the same meal. Here a couple examples of recipes and their vegetarian swaps that I’ve tried and enjoyed recently:

Grilled Kabobs

Everyone ate: Zucchini, Onions, Mushrooms, Cauliflower, Pineapple, Potato, Marinade.

I switched: Chicken for tofu.

Cauliflower Fried Rice

Everyone ate: Cauliflower, Carrots, Broccoli, Sauce.

I switched: Shrimp for egg.

Lettuce Wraps

Everyone ate: Lettuce, Edamame, Carrots, Peanuts, Green Onions, Sauce.

I switched: Chicken for more edamame.

Knowing that you don’t have to come up with a whole new meal plan just because you or someone you love is changing their diet can be a huge stress relief. Start by thinking about all of your favorite recipes and then identifying the necessary swaps. Once you’re feeling confident with the pattern, it may even become fun to find new recipes that everyone will enjoy!

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