Want to cook a romantic meal for a diet-following loved one? Got a family member who’s celiac or diabetic? Here’s a FbB article guest-written on food blog from-our-kitchen.com
There are loads of resources out there with nutritional advice and information about allergies and intolerances, food regulations and legislation, etc., but how do you actually go about planning a menu for special dietary requirements? Here’s some practical advice from Tor (Victoria) Johnson, host and cook at Float by Boat meditative canal breaks.
Float by Boat provides peaceful, floating eco-breaks on a charming narrowboat called Spirited Away. It offers a program of meditative retreats and takes bookings from private groups too. With all the food onboard exclusively vegetarian or vegan, freshly prepared and, where possible, locally sourced, it’s a huge part of the experience. As such, guests tend to be really into nutrition and taking care of themselves. As a bit of a ‘foodie’ myself and keen to take good care of my slightly wobbly body, I love to cook meals that are both wholesome and nutritious, whilst still tasting a little bit special or naughty. And, despite some peoples’ grumbles towards faddy diets and picky friends, I think aiming to please is important when cooking for others. The importance of what we put into our bodies can’t be underestimated and we’re all experimenting to find just the right combination to stay healthy. Therefore, from vegan to lactose-free, raw to paleo, diabetic to celiac, mushroom-, tomato- or banana-haters, I’ve really encouraged guests to state their likes and dislikes, as well as the necessary allergy or intolerance related requirements. Nowadays I’ve become quite accustomed to cooking for all manner of diets and with a wide range of ingredients. Here are my tips.
The obvious starting point is to ask people what their dietary requirements and preferences are. However, as you’re reading this, I’d guess you’ve got that far. One school girl error I’ve often made here is not asking for enough detail. For example, if someone says that they don’t eat eggs, is that because of how they taste, for their health or for ethical reasons? In other words, are they saying they don’t like boiled eggs and omelettes or that they don’t eat cakes and pastries? Similarly, when guests have allergies or intolerances, check how sensitive they are and how much caution is needed with respect to cross-contamination. Many people can’t have food that’s been in contact with the allergen, like peanuts or wheat, so different chopping boards, butter bowls and knives, stirring spoons and cooking oils may need to be used. Others are less cautious. For example, I eat a mostly wheat-free diet but buy normal oats, carrying the gluten warning label, and will eat rye.
This leads me comfortably on to my next tip; do your homework. The internet is awash with informative sites covering all aspects of diet and nutrition. There’s a few good links below. Like anything else, make sure your source is reputable and be aware that there is a huge cross-section of varying opinion. If in doubt, it’s usually best to err on the side of caution.
Once you’re fully clued up about your guests’ requirements and have grounded your understanding in a bit of light factual reading online, you’re ready to start menu planning. No one likes to feel left out, so I create menus that everyone in the party can eat. It helps me because I’m not trying to simultaneously cook several different dishes and there aren’t cross-contamination issues. An added advantage is that the person, or people, with dietary stipulations doesn’t feel left out or under the spotlight. You’d be surprised how many times celiacs, vegans, diabetics, vegetarians, raw foodies and so on, find themselves pressed to explain their lifestyle over the dining table.
Start with foods that can be eaten. For gluten-free mains, I tend to start by thinking of the carbohydrates that can be safely used; such as rice, potatoes, polenta and buckwheat. If you’ve already got a recipe in mind, there’s plenty of alternative flours, breads and pastas in the ‘Free From’ isles and health food shops, though it’s often more expensive. There are also lots of substitutes that you can experiment with. For instance, did you know that ½ a cup of applesauce can often replace an egg when baking? If you’re struggling for inspiration, just search online for ‘gluten-free’, ‘vegan’, ‘raw’, ‘paleo’ recipes. My advice, if you’re writing a vegetarian or vegan menu, is to include a good source of protein. A lot of meat-eaters think that being veggie or vegan means stocking up on plates loaded with vegetables. While that’s partially true, we love a good protein like the next person. There’s a wealth of beans, lentils, nuts and soya products on the shelves that can be transformed into a delicious meal.
Finally, I’d like to end on a word of encouragement to simply be brave and have a go. A lot of people with specialist or unconventional dietary requirements are used to not being able to eat out, having limited choice, being served uninspired food and even having to bring their own food with them. As a low-wheat, vegetarian, I’m speaking from experience. Whatever efforts you go to and however successful it is, I’m sure they’ll be deeply appreciated by your guests. Treat it with an air of playful curiosity and experimentation. It’s an opportunity to try something new and learn fresh skills.
Cooking for Special Diets – Tips Recap
- Ask questions and get all the detail
- Do your homework
- Plan a menu that everyone can eat
- Start with foods that can be eaten
- Be brave and have go
Pear and chocolate brownies (vegan, gluten-free option)
- 100g plain flour (gluten-free if needed – Doves Farm are a good, widely available brand)
- 50g light muscovado sugar
- 4 tbsp sunflower oil
- 2 tbsp golden syrup/runny honey
- A few drops of almond essence
- 1 tsp baking powder (gluten free)
- ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 1 tbsp cocoa powder
- 1 pear, peeled and grated
Preheat the oven to gas mark 5 or 190ºC
Mix the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and cocoa powder.
In a separate bowl, mix the grated pear and sugar. Add the oil, almond essence and syrup/honey.
Gradually mix the dry ingredients into the wet.
Put in a well-greased or lined rectangular brownie tin and bake for 25 mins.
Leave to cool before removing from tin. This can be served with cream or natural yoghurt (soya versions available for vegans) and fresh raspberries, cherries or strawberries to make a lovely dessert.