Worlds colliding at the dinner table

Worlds colliding at the dinner table

What to do when everyone has different likes and needs

It can be quite a challenge when different members of your household have different eating styles or needs; especially when it comes to the divide between those who eat meat and those who don't.

The cook of the household often ends up preparing separate meals, which is a source of frustration and exhaustion I hear about often. Can you relate?

It has to be said, modern food culture has amplified the divide: before frozen meals and takeaways were available, choosing your own separate meal was a luxury reserved for restaurant outings only. In those days the eater was beholden to the cook, these days it's the other way around it seems.

But what to do when you find yourself in this situation? I got into practical brainstorm mode today, and here is what I came up with:

It's easier to stay flexible when you think of components rather than meals as a whole. This way you don't have to come up with a whole separate meal for everyone's needs; instead you can offer variations of the same.

Take a leaf out of restaurants, especially Asian ones: here you can commonly order the same type of dish, say korma, or green curry, or Pad Thai or ramen noodles, with your own choice of ingredients, say veggie, chicken, lamb or salmon.

What kind of meals or dishes lend themselves to this approach?

I can think of a few!

Sauce & Curry

To my mind a curry and a sauce are fundamentally similar: A sauce is being served with something else (e.g. pasta), a curry is the saucy base to cook other things in (e.g. a green coconut curry with veggies, or fish, or chicken)

It's true that many traditional curries and sauces require long simmering of all ingredients together, but these days quick curries and sauces are certainly 'a thing'. Obviously, they do taste different to a slow cooked version, but they can still be delicious!

Slow cooked stews and curries, especially of the meaty variety, can be frozen to easily whip out as a separate meal as needed.

Pasta sauce

  • Start with a basic tomato sauce with veggies, while that's simmering sauté some quick cooking meat on the side (mince, sausage, chicken pieces). 
  • Now separate your sauce into portions; add the meat to the meat eaters version and simmer for a couple extra minutes just before serving.
  • There is nothing to stop you loading your tomato sauce with enough layers of veggie deliciousness so that non-meat eaters don't feel short changed. 
  • And if anybody objects to veggies in their sauce, try blending the sauce to hide the veggies.

Sauce doesn't always have to be served with pasta. In fact these days I'm avoiding pasta (unless it's made out of beans or lentils). You can serve a sauce (tomato-based, creamy, cheesy sauce, mushroom-based or whatever) with baked or boiled potatoes, with simple veggies, or with added chickpeas or lentils.

A sauce doesn't have to be cooked, by the way. Cold herby sauces (like pesto) or creamy nut sauces (like satay or tahini sauce) are like a magic sauce: Quick to make and with the potential to transform any dish, from steamed veggies to some quickly pan-fried chicken pieces, from a bowl of fried rice or a pile of egg noodles.

Quick aside: Meatballs are a great way to quickly add a meaty extra. They can be cooked in advance and kept in the freezer, you can easily drop them in a sauce or soup, or crisp up in the oven for a meaty side to any veggie dish. Oh, and you can make veggie patties too!


As above: Make a veggie curry, add a quick cooking meat component at the end. 

Thai-style coconut curries are really quick to make (if you keep a jar of spice paste in the fridge, home-made or shop bought) and work equally well with veggies, fish or chicken.

Stir fry

Again, see above: make a veggie stir-fry, and fry up some quick cooking protein on the side (fish or chicken). If adding tofu for the veggie version fry that up separately too.

Noodle soup

Think Japanese-style, broth based soup bowls: my favourite 'component' meal.

Basically a base of stir fried aromatics (garlic, ginger, lemongrass, etc), topped with broth, noodles, and 'extras'.

  • Keep home made broth (veggie and meaty) in the freezer, or use miso paste to add deep savoury flavour to a veggie broth that will not disappoint. Use bouillon powder or paste if in a real rush.
  • Extra toppings: sauteed/steamed veggies (leafy greens are great here), hard boiled eggs, fresh herbs, quick cooking meat or fish, and anything else you can think of!
  • Not to forget: extra soy sauce, fish sauce, lemon/lime juice, hot sauce, etc so everyone can jazz up their soup bowl to their own taste.
  • To make a show of it, lay out all the toppings on the table so that everyone can help themselves.

Chunky soup

Any kind of veggie-based soup can be served with extra meaty toppings. 

A chunky spiced lentil stew is a favourite in our house, sometimes served as is, sometimes topped with sausages or mince.

Bowl food (rice bowls etc)

Another classic 'component' meal': a base of rice or fried noodles or steamed veggies served with different toppings


Meals in wraps (tacos, pita breads, tortillas, rice paper, ...) are another great way to play with components that can be varied individually. 

You don't have to stick to traditional fillings - the sky is the limit! Add a sauce or a dip (or two) and you have a super meal!

Veggie tray bake

A veggie tray bake is one of my favourite no-brainer dishes, even for guests.

Bake a tray of chicken pieces or sausages on the side to serve to those who need it.


Last but not least: I love a tapas (or meze) style spread where everyone can help themselves.

It doesn't have to be a lot of effort: it's a great way to use up leftovers! Lay everything out on the table, add a dip and a salad and you're done.

What about you? Do you have a favourite 'component' meal you keep making variations of?

Let me know, I'm always looking for ideas!

Categories: (RE)THINK, EXPLORE


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