8 Tips for Easier Dinners with Options for Everyone
Story by Lisa A. Listwa
Keeping everyone happy at the kitchen table can be a challenge. Some days it is downright frustrating. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s actually a lot easier than you think if you remember that you’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, just get everybody fed. And while making two meals may seem like the simplest answer, you’ll end up spending a lot more time and doing a lot more work (and a lot more dishes). Nobody wants that.
I live in a house of three omnivores. That should be easy, right? Wrong. If I listed our specific combinations – yes meat, no meat, yes any vegetables, only this vegetable, never that vegetable, and only-if-you-hide-it-so-I-don’t-know-I’m-eating-it (more on that in a future blog post) – you would probably throw in your kitchen towel and order takeout. Trust me. Instead of fighting with everyone, I try to find ways to be creative and have fun with the diversity.
Whether you’re dealing with allergies and sensitivities, dietary restrictions, picky kids, or simply personal taste preferences, here are a few of my best suggestions to bring everyone to the table together in peace.
1. One Meal, Two Options
It’s not difficult to make two versions of the same dish if you keep two ideas in mind – add-ins and swaps. Start with a basic dish that works for everyone and go from there. Make a meatless pasta dish or stir fry and add meat or extra vegetables at the end. Have meatballs with your spaghetti or don’t. Prepare two protein options for your main entrée but do the rest of the meal the same. Or do one entrée and make different vegetables. You can prepare two vegetables the same way and just scoot them to opposite sides of one pan. I sauté broccoli and cauliflower together, then serve as needed – broccoli for the kid, cauliflower for the husband, both for me. No extra time, no extra pan.
2. Go Ahead and Use Two Pans
I know. I said avoid extra dishes, but sometimes that one extra pot or baking dish will pay off down the road. Instead of adding an ingredient at the end, make half of your stir fry in one pan with chicken and half in another with tofu. For casserole type dishes make two versions. I do either half recipes or prep the full amount, then bake half now and freeze half for another day. This works great for things like lasagna or shepherd’s pie. Soups, stews, and chilis are easy meals to do two versions at once. I can make two versions just as easily and in the same amount of time as one and pop the surplus into the fridge or freezer.
3. Sheet Pans are Your Friend
Sheet pan dinners are a popular weeknight option and a great way to avoid extra dishes. Since everything goes on one pan, it’s easy to make adjustments. Having chicken, green beans, and potatoes on a sheet pan? Swap out the chicken for a piece of fish for the pescatarian at the table. Add an extra vegetable. Just scoot everything to separate spaces on the pan or make a little foil “dish” to separate items and you’re all set. And once you discover you love sheet pan meals, you’ll be coming up with your own combos to suit everyone in no time!
4. Leftovers are a Lifesaver
My family has no issue with leftovers and this often helps out in the food diversity area. If we have just one or two servings left of a meal, that gives me the option of preparing something different on another night and using the leftovers for the non-eaters. My husband is happy to eat a leftover serving of whatever is available from Monday if it means he can escape the mushroom stroganoff on Wednesday. Even just a single ingredient can be helpful – use that one leftover chicken breast to toss on top of your otherwise vegetarian/vegan dish and everybody wins. I often think intentionally about leftovers and make sure I have that one serving or item on hand to use later in the week.
5. Make the Most of Your Side Dishes
If your main dish includes something your fellow diners prefer to avoid, keeping sides meat/dairy/gluten free can give them a way to be satisfied without having to worry about making anything extra. And if you have a variety of sides to choose from, no one goes home feeling like all they got to eat is a plate of one vegetable. I am not a fan of turkey so if I can choose from a variety of sides and a salad at Thanksgiving, I’m perfectly happy.
6. Get Everyone Involved
Let your guests bring something. So what if it doesn’t quite go with the rest of your meal? They’ll feel comfortable and helpful, you don’t have to worry about an extra dish, and everyone else can try something new! Get your family to suggest meal ideas when you do your meal plan or shopping list and work from there. Sometimes just having my crew suggest one ingredient gives me something to work with and despite their claims to the contrary, I think they like being part of the process.
7. Build Your Own and Customize
Sandwiches. Tacos. Fajitas. Burgers. Salads. Stuffed potatoes or squash. Homemade pizza. These are all great ideas that can easily be customized according to taste simply by switching up the burger patty or taco base, providing enough toppings to let everyone choose, or filling the potatoes with different stuffers. Around here we make two different potatoes for a stuffed potato night – two sweet, one russet. Go with beef patties or a veggie burger option on burger night. Make a meat and vegetarian option for taco night. I make salads on individual plates for lunch here. For a crowd, though, start with a simple base that everyone will eat and then have extras available salad bar style for everyone to add on their own.
8. Keep It Simple and Streamline
You don’t always have to start from scratch to provide a variety of options. Used canned beans instead of making a whole pot of dried for a vegetarian protein option. Make use of leftovers. Make a little bit of something to be leftover on purpose. Pull something from the freezer. I try to think of how I can be smart and efficient in the kitchen when trying to get everyone to the table. And it never hurts to have a little fun with the challenge – kind of makes me feel like I’m cooking on my own private Chopped episode.
In the interest of full disclosure, it is fair to admit that meeting the varied needs of people at my kitchen table was not always my strong point or even my inclination. I grew up in the “this is the meal – take it or leave it” era. There may be some merit to that, but over the years I have learned that it’s not all that difficult from a practical or a philosophical standpoint to find ways to make everyone feel welcome. And that way of thinking extends far beyond the dinner table.