I started meal planning shortly after I got married – planning simple, cheap meals to make the most of our budget. While there is always a learning curve to establish a rhythm of planning & preparing your meals, our circumstances were uncomplicated with very little restrictions.
Now, with a toddler that has multiple food allergies, a husband who needs a higher-protein diet to support his workouts, and the occasional health kick – I’ve learned how complicated and overwhelming it can be to meal plan for multiple dietary needs.
Several of my readers find themselves preparing meals for a variety of diets within their family. The reasons can vary, as well:
- A temporary dietary restriction for health reasons or procedure-related
- A personal commitment to a specific diet
- A food allergy or sensitivity
- A condition like Celiac disease
- Picky eaters – toddlers or adults!
When you have multiple diets to accommodate, it can feel demotivating and confusing to find a meal that works for everyone. Or worse, you give up entirely because no one has time to prepare multiple recipes for every meal.
To work around this obstacle and find solutions that work for you, I have compiled 9 tried-and-true strategies:
- Use a deconstructed approach.
- Customize individually.
- Use a multi-diet meal planner (template included).
- Adjust family favorites.
- Make simple switches and small sacrifices.
- Involve your family in the process.
- Focus only on sharing the most important meals of the day.
- Batch and freeze when you can.
- Create reusable sets of meal plans.
1. Use a deconstructed approach.
The very first and most basic strategy you can employ is to find common ingredients. Some people refer to this as the “lowest common denominator” amongst the diets.
It may help to start with food groups.
Based on the restrictions, eliminate any entire groups that any person can’t have. (For example, my son can’t have any dairy, so we would eliminate that entire category – just while we’re finding common ground.)
Then, brainstorm a few types of food that are common for everyone in each category. Examples would include:
- My son can’t have eggs or nuts, but we can all eat meat for protein.
- If someone is vegan and can’t have meat, perhaps you include legumes and beans in the protein section.
- If you’re planning gluten-free meals, rice, quinoa, some oats, and many others could be the perfect common ground. (Source & more info here.)
Finding these “key players” will help you in constructing meals that can be customized for each person. We’ll talk about “garnishing with preference” in the next strategy, but the focus here is to choose the base (or majority) of your meal that works for everyone.
2. Customize individually.
Instead of making multiple meals, you can start out with a common base or entire recipe – but customize it with multiple options. Going Zero Waste blog calls this “garnishing with preference”
There could be ENDLESS options to make available:
- Butter vs. a plant-based alternative
- Greek yogurt vs. full-fat sour cream
- Sunflower seed butter vs. peanut / nut butters
- Pre-made diced chicken vs. tofu or beans
- Shredded cheese vs. nutritional yeast, or even a fresh avocado for Mexican meals
This also applies for waiting to add certain spices until afterward – like salt (to low sodium diets) or hot spices (for indigestion-related conditions).
3. Use a multi-diet meal planner.
Regular meal planning printables just don’t have the space to keep track of individual modifications or the different options mentioned above.
Using a template that has space for you to make notes while you’re planning – and for you to refer to as you prepare the meals – will help keep things clear and simple.
This printer-friendly, easy-to-use template can be the perfect way to get started. When planning your meals for the week, write down the “main meal” for each night – then record the variations needed for each person. This will make sure you don’t miss anything during your grocery trip and will make it a breeze at dinnertime.
This template is an editable Word document, so you can rename the “Options” columns to reflect names of family members or descriptions of their diets.
I think this printable makes it really easy to bring strategies 1 & 2 together. Check out the examples below for ideas and inspiration.
|Monday||White chicken chili |
(low sodium broth)
|Sliced avocados||No salt||Cheese & sour cream|
|Tuesday||Vegetable Tuscan pasta (with GF noodles)||As is or with cheese||Do not top with cheese||Add diced chicken and cheese|
|Wednesday||Ground beef tacos||Use gluten-free tortillas||Use lettuce wraps||Use guacamole instead of cheese|
4. Adjust family favorites.
Another great way to avoid making multiple meals is to find diet-friendly versions of your family favorites.
Wellthy Boss recommends a simple, brilliant technique: do a quick Pinterest or Google search of a favorite recipe but simply add the desired diet as part of the search. Anything goes!
- Clean eating chicken pot pie
- Dairy free potato soup
- Vegetarian shepherds pie
- Gluten free chicken parmesan
You may not be able to find an exact match but it could open up many options you hadn’t thought of before!
5. Make simple switches and small sacrifices.
In addition to finding alternatives to your favorite recipes, you can also save yourself a lot of time and effort by finding individual ingredients that work for everyone.
While you may sacrifice a little bit on the flavor or texture that you’re used to, it will be worth it to avoid preparing multiple options.
- Finding gluten-free or veggie pasta options to avoid wheat
- Switching to almond or soy milk to avoid dairy
- Using allergy-free options like sunflower seed butter instead of nut butters
- Cooking in olive oil or plant-based butters instead of butter to avoid dairy
- Cooking lean ground turkey instead of higher-fat ground beef for low-fat diets
- Using flax or chia eggs in baking instead of eggs
- Purchasing specific sauces that are low sodium, sugar-free, fat free, gluten-free, etc. to meet your specific needs
- Using spiralized vegetables in place of noodles or cauliflower rice in place of regular rice to accommodate low-carb needs
6. Involve your family in the process – especially if the diet is voluntary.
If you are dealing with a spouse, family member, or older child who is making voluntary diet choices or who simply has different preferences from the rest of your family, try to involve them in the effort to find meals that work for everyone. This can be a great way for them to take ownership, learn meal planning skills, and lessen your burden.
Not only will this keep you from guessing what they would like, it may help them realize the difficulty involved and lead to compromises that will make it easier for everyone.
Every situation will be different based on the preferences of personalities involved. However, here are some ways you can think about sharing this responsibility with your family members.
- Ask them what meals they really like and task them with finding recipes that fit their new diet – similar to the Pinterest search we discussed earlier
- Ask them what additional toppings or food groups they would like to have on-hand more often to add to meals. Enlist them in helping prep those items regularly and freeze ahead of time. For example, when my husband wanted to increase his protein intake, he was in charge of cooking a large batch of diced chicken and freezing it to add to lower-protein meals.
- Create a family Pinterest board where everyone can save recipes that they would like to try or that they feel meet their dietary needs. This can serve as a great starting point for you to look at when you are selecting meals.
7. Focus only on sharing the most important meals of the day.
The extra time, thought, and energy it takes to create menus that meet multiple requirements can put a drain on us. In order to balance this extra work, I’ve learned to only focus on the meals that matter most.
For example, maybe your family eats breakfast and/or dinner together. These are the meals you can focus on preparing as one, big, happy meal. 🙂
But when it comes to snacks, packed lunches, or any other more “separate” eating times – use these as opportunities to choose no-brainer, individual options.
For example, my husband and I both eat muffins for occasional morning snacks. Since my son usually eats Cheerios during this time, I don’t worry about avoiding his allergies – I use egg and milk in the muffins, since he won’t be eating them. (His allergies aren’t severe enough to react in proximity to food, just if they are in contact or digested. This may not be an option for you if you are dealing with severe allergies.)
If you buy pre-packaged snacks, let that be a time where you can tailor specifically to preferences by purchasing options for each individual.
8. Batch and freeze when you can.
One HUGE way to cut the stress and time often involved with planning and preparing meals is to cook once and eat twice 🙂
This technique can be helpful in several ways.
If you find a meal that everyone truly loves, try doubling the recipe when you make it and freezing the rest. That way, you always have an “emergency” meal that has everyone covered.
You also can prep a big batch of the “custom” options and freeze them so they’re always on hand when you need them.
- Cooked, diced chicken to add to low-protein or meatless meals
- Gluten-free pancakes, bread or baked goods to swap out for wheat-based options
- Frozen veggie noodles to swap out for higher-carb options
For all my tips on batching & freezing, plus other time-saving techniques, save this post.
9. Create reusable sets of meal plans.
If you are meal planning for multiple diets in order to accommodate every member of your family, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel every time. I am a big proponent of creating your meal plans in a way that allows you to reuse them and save yourself from re-creating the work, and this is especially true when it takes more time and effort for multiple diets.
You can get my full guide to reusable meal plans here (one of my favorite resources!) but the basic idea is this:
- Create a meal list with options that work for your family, whether it’s for one week, two weeks or even up to a month.
- Create a consolidated grocery list that only includes ingredients for these meals. Before adding miscellaneous items you need for snacks or things around the house, save this list either in an electronic format to reuse, or make a copy to use as your starting point next time.
My full guide also provides information about creating a “household staples checklist” to ensure you don’t miss anything you need, as well as a food prep list to identify efficient ways to prep food ahead of time. But the simple act of saving your meal list and the associated grocery list will save you a ton of time in choosing meals and planning for your shopping trip.
Check out the post here, or sign up to download the free guidebook!
By subscribing, you’ll also receive a monthly email called This Month on Purpose. If you’ve ever struggled with having GREAT ideas but losing the motivation or interest to implement it, this is for you.
I hope you feel supported and inspired in your efforts to coordinate meals in your family. Eating well and eating together is such a defining, critical part of our lives, and the time & effort you devote to it really makes a difference. 🙂
And check out these other meal planning guides for more tips & recipes:
► 10 Meals to Take to Others – includes lots of recipes with gluten-, soy-, dairy-, and meat-free options