It used to be easy. When I was a child, my mother put food on the table and the rest of us ate it. No ifs and buts. Now family dinners are just ifs and buts with all the foods to avoid. My parents gave up meat. My sister-in-law is a vegetarian. My brother likes chicken and fish but can’t handle lamb or over-seasoning. My nephews simply prefer their rice. Family meals have gotten complicated. And not just ours. Between dietary restrictions and food preferences and the fussiness of picky eaters, what can a chef do other than prepare separate meals for everyone? The obvious solution when multiple dishes are needed is for one family to share the burden. But in many households (79 per cent of them in the UK according to a YouGov survey) the responsibility for preparing meals still largely rests with one person.
Jessica Seinfeld’s latest cookbook Vegan, sometimes (Gallery Books) offers a roadmap to getting the family together, albeit as a vegan. The book follows her attempts to eat less animal, albeit part-time. But how is she supposed to do that while supporting her husband (comedian Jerry) and children, who weren’t on board with veganism? (“Great, more seeds,” her daughter moaned.) Seinfeld mostly didn’t tell them; She was slow to remove dairy. “I have quietly devised a strategy to get my family to eat something vegan,” she writes. “Any experienced parent knows how to get their family to do things. They don’t make bold statements and mug people.” Otherwise, she cooked one meal for herself and another for her family. Noticing her “bright and beautiful” dinners, her husband was seduced. Their children followed. “As a result, I freed my entire family to enjoy what I eat,” Seinfeld says, as if celebrating a military victory. Her strategy worked because her recipes are impressive. Crowd favorites in her book include mushroom bolognese (“a Seinfeld family favorite”), tomato pasta (“this is how I subtly turned Jerry vegan”), and chocolate banana bread (“accepted unanimously”).
Georgina Hayden, author of Nistisima (Bloomsbury), swears by mezze. When cooking for her predominantly Greek-Cypriot family (which includes pescetarians, meat eaters and a sister who can’t stand onions or garlic), she relies on olives, yogurt and bread with an array of vegetable dishes such as shredded coriander, olive potatoes, sweet and sour leeks and Pilaf with caramelized onions and mushrooms that can be easily prepared in advance. Proteins come to the side. Meze, like other non-Western eating styles, is ideal because everyone can choose what they like. And certain dishes like yiahni (braised green beans) can be embellished for all diets, even with dressed tuna. Hayden also identified the dishes that everyone in her family can eat. These include shrimp saganaki (with tomato, chili, ouzo, and feta) and lentils, which she cooks in one go for her sister before adding tempered garlic spices separately (like you might do with dal), and her favorite, a fried egg on top.
Dishes that overlap are a godsend. To keep his family of vegetarians, pescetarians and meat-eaters happy, Rick Toogood of Prawn on the Lawn in Islington relies on a few staples to which variations can be added. To his Sri Lankan black curry with cardamom rice, he adds zucchini and eggplant fried with ginger, cumin and turmeric; Prawns fried in coconut oil, ginger and fenugreek leaves; or a meat equivalent. To another base of zucchini, fennel, and celery risotto, he adds a herb dressing, roasted red mullet, or crispy bacon.
Sometimes pragmatism is required. Camila Alves McConaughey, model/entrepreneur wife of Matthew McConaughey, has written a children’s book about picky eaters called ” Just try a bite (election books). In it, the roles are reversed and the adults don’t eat their vegetables. When one of her three children developed gluten intolerance, she came up with a plan. On some days the family ate gluten-free. “I had to do a lot of work to find the right ingredients where they wouldn’t even notice,” she says. Some days she cooked separate meals. “You choose your battles.” However, when their 12-year-old daughter said she wanted to become a vegetarian, the McConaugheys had a family reunion and decided they would join her. “If one of us really misses [meat] we cook it; we’re not particularly strict,” she says. Isn’t that what families do? accommodate and support. When my mom cooks multiple dishes to make everyone happy, it’s an act of love. It’s not that we all eat the same, it’s that we eat from the same table.
Mix and Match: Four of the Best Cookbooks for Flexitarians
Mostly plants by Tracy, Dana, Lori and Corky Pollan with a foreword by Michael Pollan (Harper Wave, £22)
dinner for everyone by Mark Bittman (Clarkson Potter, $40)
One pot, pan, planet by Anna Jones (4th Estate, £26)
The flexible vegetarian by Jo Pratt (Frances Lincoln, £20)