If someone in your family has heart disease, diabetes, celiac disease or food allergies or intolerances, chances are they’re following a restricted diet. That can make feeding your entire family seem like a major challenge. Suddenly, you may need to limit staples like salt, wheat or dairy, changing the way you think about cooking, food shopping, and even eating out. But that doesn’t mean putting an appropriate meal on the table has to be a Herculean task. Whether it’s low-salt, heart-healthy, diabetes-friendly, or gluten, nut or dairy free, these tips can make restricted diets easier than you ever imagined:
Become an expert label reader: Knowing exactly what’s in the food you buy is the first – and potentially most important – step to making a restricted diet work. If you’re cooking for someone with heart disease or diabetes, the Nutrition Facts label can quickly tell you how much saturated fat, sodium, cholesterol and carbohydrate a food contains. Feeding a family member with celiac disease, food allergies or food intolerances? The ingredient list is your new best friend. Thanks to new FDA regulations, ingredients must now be listed by their common names - and allergens like milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, and wheat must be clearly identified.
Find smart substitutes: Just because a restricted diet is the order of the day doesn’t mean your family has to say goodbye to their favorite foods. For almost every food out there, there’s a healthy swap. If peanuts are on the diet don’t list, swap in sunflower nut butter. Looking to lower sodium? The health food aisle of your supermarket likely stocks an impressive assortment of low-sodium canned tomatoes, beans and broths. And if gluten-free is now the rule; there have never been more choices. Gluten-free grains like quinoa and brown rice are now staples on many store shelves and entire gluten-free sections are growing by the week.
One family, one meal: When you first find out that someone in your family needs a restricted diet it’s easy to assume you have to start cooking separate meals. But that’s rarely the case. In fact, if you’re feeding small children, making two separate meals often encourages picky eating on their end – and is exhausting for you. Instead, take a few minutes each week to think of meals that will work for the whole clan. The truth is, many restricted diets like low-sodium, low glycemic index and low-saturated fat often offer a nutrition upgrade for everyone. Others may require some creative thinking. So if your daughter was recently diagnosed with celiac disease, pasta is still on the menu, but maybe now it’s quinoa or corn pasta. If your husband just found out he needs to focus on heart health, it’s a great opportunity to dish up those two servings of fish a week we should all be eating anyway. And if diabetes is an issue, small servings of healthy whole grains, like whole-wheat pasta, couscous, or quinoa, beat out oversized servings of highly processed refined versions any day of the week.
Eat out smarter: It may sound counterintuitive, but occasionally eating out can be a good thing. Not only does it give the cook a break, it also gives everyone a chance to order their favorite foods. Plus, restaurants today are savvier than ever about catering to restricted diets. Many have gluten free menus, vegetarian offerings and low-fat dishes. And others are now developing allergy friendly menus. For those that don’t, plan ahead. Simply call the restaurant and explain your situation to the manager. You’ll be surprised that they’ll often be happy to help out by finding foods that are safe to eat.
Finally, don’t go it alone. If you feel overwhelmed by the demands of feeding a family member with unique nutrition needs, a registered dietitian has the expertise to demystify the process so go find one today.
Karen Ansel, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. is a nutrition consultant, journalist and author specializing in nutrition. She is a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a contributing editor for Woman’s Day magazine. Her work has been published in magazines such as Cooking Light, EatingWell, Prevention, Fitness, Women’s Health, Woman’s Day and Oprah.