21: Cooking for Special Needs

21: Cooking for Special Needs

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Multitasking Mom's Survival Guide

Cooking for Special Needs

Let food be thy medicine…


My mother used to cook a traditional dinner each night. We had broiled meat, potatoes or rice, a vegetable, and a salad. Dessert was always fruit — sometimes fresh, often canned. There was one rule: we had to eat what was offered whether we liked it or not. My sister was frequently in trouble because she didn’t like the canned asparagus Mom regularly served.

I thought about those dinners when I had my own family. I tried to make dinnertime a pleasant experience, encouraging our young children to try new foods but not punishing them if they didn’t like the new tastes. All went well until the kids grew older.

And then dinner became a challenge.

My teenage son had been eating voraciously and yet he seemed to be losing weight. I took him to the doctor, and he was diagnosed with diabetes. I had to re-appraise what I was serving. I became aware of the impact of fats and carbohydrates on blood sugar and tried to balance his meals to help him stay healthy.

Then one day my daughter looked at the dishes on the table and said, “Mom, I can’t eat that.” She was having some health problems and started experimenting with an allergy-testing diet. It seemed to me that she was hardly eating anything — a typical mommy response — but she needed to identify those foods that caused a reaction.

But my dinner woes didn’t stop there; my husband discovered he needed a lactose-free menu. And although I had been vegetarian for many years, I was now vegan, which caused more issues.

I found myself needing to cook one dinner for four special needs diets. In general, I liked to cook, but it wasn’t fun anymore. How could I keep everyone happy — and healthy — and maintain my sanity, too? I could just imagine the turmoil this would have caused for my mother. But now I was a mother, too, and I had to do what was necessary for my family.

I developed a multi-meal plan. It was based on a Mediterranean model with several dishes offered from which we all could choose. A meat or fish platter, a few plain, steamed vegetables, a non-embellished carbohydrate, the makings of a salad sliced and served on different dishes, seeds and nuts put out separately as condiments, and a variety of fruits allowed us all to choose what we each needed. Sauces were served on the side to be added or not, as desired.

We all seemed to thrive on the new regimen. Yes, it was a little more work for me, but the results were worth it. My son was able to keep his diabetes under better control, and my daughter found out which foods she would do well to avoid. The grown-ups, too, could have a meal with appropriate foods to eat.

We went back to enjoying dinner together. And we discovered that we actually liked the new plan. It gave us all a degree of culinary freedom and, because of the differences in our dietary needs, offered us a sense of discovery in dining.

~Ferida Wolff

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