How to flex it – your secret weapon for fussy eaters
It used to be simple. When I was a kid, my mum put food on the table and the rest of us ate it. No ifs or buts. Now family dinners are nothing but ifs and buts with all the foods that have to be avoided. My parents have cut out meat. My sister-in-law is vegetarian. My brother likes chicken and fish but can’t manage lamb or excessive spice. My nephews prefer their rice plain. Family meals have got complicated. And not just ours. Between dietary restrictions and dietary preferences and the pickiness of fussy eaters, what’s a cook to do but rustle up separate meals for everyone? The obvious solution when multiple dishes are required is for a family to share the load. But in many households (79 per cent of them in Britain according to a YouGov survey) the responsibility for preparing meals still largely falls to one person.
Jessica Seinfeld’s recent cookbook Vegan, At Times (Gallery Books) offers one road map for bringing the family together, albeit as vegans. The book follows her attempts to eat a less animal-based diet, if only part-time. But how to manage that while feeding her husband (comedian Jerry) and kids, who weren’t on board with veganism? (“Great, more seeds,” her daughter moaned.) Mostly, Seinfeld didn’t tell them; she just slowly removed dairy. “I quietly strategised about getting my family to eat anything vegan,” she writes. “Any experienced parent knows this is how you get your family to do things. You don’t make bold statements and ambush people.” Otherwise, she cooked one meal for herself and another for her family. Her husband took notice of her “bright and beautiful” dinners and was seduced. Her kids followed. “As a result I liberated my whole family to enjoy what I am eating,” Seinfeld says as if logging a military victory. Her strategy worked because her recipes impress. Among the crowd-pleasers in her book are mushroom bolognese (“a Seinfeld family favourite”), tomato pasta (“this was how I subtly lassoed Jerry into being vegan”), and chocolate banana bread (“unanimously approved”).
Georgina Hayden, author of Nistisima (Bloomsbury), swears by meze. When cooking for her largely Greek Cypriot family (which includes pescatarians, meat-eaters and a sister who can’t stomach onion or garlic) she relies on olives, yoghurt and bread with an array of vegetable dishes such as crushed coriander and olive potatoes, sweet and sour leeks and mushroom and caramelised onion pilaf, which are easily prepared in advance. Proteins come on the side. Meze, like other non-western styles of eating, is ideal because everyone can pick what they like. And certain dishes like yiahni (braised green beans) can be embellished for all diets, including with dressed tuna. Hayden has also identified the dishes everyone in her family can eat. These include prawn saganaki (with tomatoes, chilli, ouzo and feta) and lentils, which she cooks in a batch for her sister before adding tempered spices with garlic separately (as you might with dal), and her favourite, a fried egg on top.
Dishes that layer up are a godsend. To keep his family of vegetarians, pescatarians and meat-eaters happy, Rick Toogood of Prawn on the Lawn in Islington relies on a few base dishes to which variations can be added. To his Sri Lankan black curry with cardamon rice he adds courgettes and aubergines fried with ginger, caraway and turmeric; prawns fried in coconut oil, ginger and fenugreek leaves; or a meat equivalent. To another base of courgette, fennel and celery risotto, he adds a herb dressing, pan-fried red mullet or crispy pancetta.
Sometimes, pragmatism is required. Camila Alves McConaughey, entrepreneur/author wife of Matthew McConaughey, has co-written a children’s book about picky eaters called Just Try One Bite (Dial Books). In it, the roles are reversed and grown-ups are the ones not eating their vegetables. When one of her three children developed a gluten intolerance, she settled on a plan. Some days the family ate gluten-free. “I had to do a lot of work shopping around to find the right ingredients where they wouldn’t even notice,” she says. Some days she cooked separate meals. “You pick your battles.” When her 12-year-old daughter said she wanted to become vegetarian, however, the McConaugheys had a family meeting and decided they’d all join her. “When one of us really misses [meat] we cook it; we’re not super strict,” she says. Isn’t that what families do? Accommodate and support. When my mum cooks several dishes to make everyone happy, it’s an act of love. It’s not that we all eat the same but that we eat from the same table.