Making dinner was tough enough before Junior became a vegan and Dad got on his low-carb, meat-eater's diet. Now planning a meal and cooking it is not only time-consuming, it's complicated.
Just ask Lateefah Viley, who cooks for her two younger brothers and a sister. Viley is a pescetarian - a vegetarian who eats fish. All three siblings are committed meat lovers, but one won't eat pork; another eats beef but no chicken. The third rejects cheese.
"The hardest part is just cooking it," Viley says. But shopping is no small matter either.
"If they were all vegetarians, I wouldn't have to worry about buying the roast or buying the pepper steak. I would just be happy with my bags of soy protein," said the 26-year-old account executive in Nyack, N.Y.
So on one night she might marinate jerk chicken for her siblings, ages 12 to 21, then grill a veggie burger for herself.
Even ordering out is complicated. When the family wants pizza, they have it cut in four sections with individual topping instructions for each quarter.
Individual tastes, a multitude of choices and America's diet craze have done their part to divide the family dinner table, occasionally leading to some nasty food fights.
"Sometimes it can create a lot of stress" - especially for the cook, said Leslie Bonci, a Pittsburgh dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Some diets are low-fat - rejecting red meats, dairy products and most oils, while allowing grains and fruits. Others are low-carbohydrate, dependent on plenty of meat, eggs and cheese, but forbidding bread, rice and pasta. More teens and preteens are experimenting with vegetarianism; others are just plain finicky.
The key to a harmonious family dinner table is compromise, Bonci says. To save time, the main cook in the family can improvise one-size-fits-all dishes for low-carb and vegetarian diets by adding or leaving out meat instead of preparing separate plates for everyone.
"That way, you really nip the fights in the bud," she said.
For Lynn Pizzirusso, of Memphis, Tenn., holiday dinners and outdoor family cookouts are especially challenging. Her 28-year-old son, Jamie, is a vegan, shunning all meats and dairy products.
For Thanksgiving dinner, the Pizzirussos constantly have to coordinate their time in the kitchen so that Jamie's "tofurkey" - a tofu-based vegetarian turkey - is ready when the rest of the family sits down to eat. With a shortage of oven space, it means everyone has to take his turn to cook.
"It's a tight squeeze and sometimes tempers will flare," said Pizzirusso, a 57-year-old marketing director at the University of Tennessee Medical Group.
Lora Ruffner and her husband, both on a low-carb diet, make their big family get-togethers pot-luck. That way, she says, everybody's eating habits are met and she can still enjoy her green salads, lean meat, hard-boiled eggs and low-carb ice cream.
"You just need a number of main dishes that everybody can work with, and then everybody brings their own. It's the best way to do any kind of holiday," said Ruffner, a graphic arts designer from Xenia, Ohio.
But it's not just dieting adults that are the problem. Children today play a larger role in family food decisions compared to past generations, said Ardyth Gillespie, a nutritionist at Cornell University. The result is that families often negotiate their eating lifestyles.
Then, there's the expense. Viley says she easily spends $200 on groceries every shopping trip, buying meat and vegetarian items. And it's time-consuming.
Often, she goes home on her lunch break to defrost the meat in time for dinner. During holidays, she prepares the food a day in advance. Yet her family respects her eating habits as she does theirs.
"Everyone has different needs," she said.
On the Net:
Cornell University: http://www.cornell.edu
American Dietetic Association: http://www.eatright.org
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