How to Cook One Flexible Dinner That Makes Everyone Happy

Meal PlanningTips

A few simple tweaks during dinner prep means that you can make one meal that everyone will eat. The trick is to customize as you go!

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If you feel like dinnertime turns you into a short order cook for your family, you are not alone.

One kid is a vegetarian, another hates spicy foods, someone else is just plain picky. Sometimes we feel like we have to make multiple dinners to keep the whole crowd happy (or reluctantly reach for the box of mac and cheese).

Annoying, right?

The solution: Find “Fork in the Road” dishes that let you cook one meal, but adapt it in different ways to suit multiple palates.

What is a fork-in-the-road dish?

I came up with the idea for “fork in the road” meals when my kids were young, and I was looking to prepare meals that we could all eat together. I didn’t want to be a short order cook, making different things for different people. And even beyond the time factor, I liked the idea that we would all be eating basically the same thing.

However, not everyone was in the same place in terms of love of spice, vegetables, spiciness, and so on. I realized that with a few tweaks during the cooking process we could get to a harmonious family dinner (well, as harmonious as it gets when you’re eating with children!).

The idea behind these meals is that you can prepare your meal as usual up to the point when you’d start adding extra flavorings. At this point, scoop out a portion and set it aside for people with simpler palates. Then continue on cooking the main dish, gussying it up for grownups and adventurous eaters with herbs, seasonings, and so forth.

For instance, maybe you’re making a pasta sauce, but your kids really like their tomato sauce on the plainer side. Make a straightforward tomato sauce, and then separate some out into a bowl or another pot. Then you can add capers, chopped olives, anchovies, herbs to the remaining sauce—whatever you and the other more intrepid eaters like.

A Flexible Meal Makes Everyone Happy!

The result is that you essentially are making one dish for the entire family, with some tweaks that allow everyone to be happy—including you, by the way.

And it’s not about dumbing down the food for the “more selective” eaters in the house. This approach addresses the reality that if you drizzle a certain child’s salmon with sauce and that’s a no-go, they might not eat the salmon. Here, you might be better off serving their salmon with just a touch of the sauce on the side, and letting them investigate it at their own pace. But drizzle your own salmon at will!

SOME “FORK IN THE ROAD” IDEAS TO TRY!

Ready to see this idea in action? Take a look at some of the ideas below and see what might work for your family!

Turkey Burger with Rosemary and Thyme

Herbed Turkey Burgers

Burgers

Start with your burger meat, whether it’s beef or pork or turkey or lamb, and give it a nice seasoning of salt and pepper. You can then pull out enough for one or two (or however many) plain patties, and then continue adding other seasonings for those who want more interest in their burgers.

Keep in mind, however, that you’ll want to reduce the amount of seasonings called for in the recipe if you are separating a significant amount of meat out for plain burgers. You can eyeball this, though, because seasonings are subjective anyway.

Greens Eggs Ham Sandwich

Green Eggs and Ham Sandwich

Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a plain grilled cheese, one of the most perfect foods on earth. But it’s also fun to layer in all kinds of extras.

Change things by adding in different types of cheeses; make sure you have at least one really good melting cheese such as havarti or gouda or fontina, so you get a cohesive sandwich with a promising cheese pull when you cut it or bite into it.

You can also add extras like leftover deli meat or roasted vegetables from another meal.

Grilled cheese sandwiches are easy to make Fork-in-the-Road style: just assemble each one individually.

Black Eyed Pea Salsa with Cheese Quesadillas

Quesadillas

Similar to grilled cheese, quesadillas are easily made to order. You can vary the cheeses, the fillings, and also the toppings according to individual preference.

A fun family dinner or gathering might entail you putting out a spread of grated cheeses and potential fillings such as sliced roasted peppers, shredded chicken, chopped sautéed vegetables and so forth.

Offering a few different salsas helps each person customize the spice level. And then you just let everyone assemble their own!

This is also a great way to get kids to try new things—Fork-in-the-Road doesn’t mean keeping things plain or dumbed down, it also means offering them the chance to expand their palates in a fun way.

Broccoli Cheddar Soup

Broccoli Cheddar Soup

Soups

There are so many things to add to a soup, and I always find this to be a fun way to work through some of the different condiments in my pantry and fridge. Separate out some to keep it plain, and then have at it with all sorts of seasonings and add-ins and toppings—just keep in mind the basic flavor profile of the soup.

For the adults or the more adventurous? Consider anything from harissa sauce to black beans with garlic to those last few chopped artichoke hearts to a final sprinkle of sunflower seeds. All of these items can add interest to a soup.

Easy Shrimp Scampi Recipe

Shrimp Scampi with Peas and Shrimp

Pasta

As mentioned above, sauces can stop at plain and simple (tomato sauces, cream sauces) or be embellished with fresh herbs, spices, anchovy paste and so on.

You can also add more things to the pastas themselves, such as diced roasted vegetables or leftover shredded roast meat. Or finish the pasta with a sprinkle of breadcrumbs for a nice textural surprise. Just remember to pull out some of the sauce or pasta before you take it past the desired level of the whole gang.

Taco Filling Chicken Chili Crockpot

Slow Cooker Shredded Chicken Chili

Chili

With chili, the Fork-in-the-Road often comes with the level of desired heat. Separating out part of the chili when it is just mildly spicy, and then adding more heat to the rest by way of red pepper flakes, hot sauce, fresh or dried hot peppers, or chipotles in adobo is a good way to make sure everyone is happy.

Also, it’s easy to make a vegetarian chili and divide it in two, then add meat to one of the pots. I make this kind of two-way chili all the time; it’s an easy way to entertain a crowd.

https://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/fish_tacos/

Fish Tacos

Tacos

Tacos are the ultimate fork-in-the-road meal. Just divide the filling and adjust the level of heat. Or maybe make a taco seasoning mixture, and then sauté the spices with some ground turkey in one pan, and some ground beef in the other, for two options.

One of the most appealing and natural Fork-in-the-Road options for tacos comes in the form of the toppings. Put out salsa, sour cream, grated cheese, chopped tomatoes, avocado or guacamole, and sliced scallions. And then let everyone make the taco of their dreams.

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Katie Workman

Katie Workman is on a mission to make people feel more comfortable with getting weeknight dinners on the table and entertaining friends. As she developed solutions to making her family meals easier and more universally liked, she created The Mom 100. Her cookbooks are The Mom 100 Cookbook and Dinner Solved.

More from Katie

7 Comments

No ImageHow to Cook One Flexible Dinner That Makes Everyone Happy

  1. Val

    I too make “fork in the road” grill cheese, I just didn’t know that’s what it was called. I add a fried egg and a slice of ham (or what ever lunch meat I have). I put Sundried Tomato pesto on the inside of the bread. YUM!!

  2. Karen from Minnesota

    I like your ideas…..but my challenge is that half of my family eats a vegan diet. That is more complicated than what you are suggesting. Any ideas here?

    • Emma Christensen

      Hi, Karen! Here’s what the author Katie has to say in response to your question! “Yes that is a challenge! I think one way to go about working with a vegan in the mix is to actually start with a vegan recipe, and then later on the non-vegan elements, rather than to try and take things out. I would make a hearty salad, for instance, maybe one with some protein-filled grains in it, like quinoa. Then you could either split the dish into two serving bowls, and add something like cubed chicken or cheese to one bowl, and perhaps chickpeas to the other. You could also pick a vegan recipe, like maybe vegan stuffed squash with brown rice and mushrooms, and then offer a simple meat option as well- grilled steaks or pan seared pork chops for instance. And don’t forget about cuisines that organically have many vegan recipes associated with them, like Indian and Asian- try Easy vegetable fried rice for instance. My family never even notices this is vegan! ( and you could add some diced cooked meat to some of it at the end if you like).”

  3. Veronica

    Wonderful idea to please all. Thank you,thank you. I just love your blog and enjoy each and every email. Keep doing what you do. It inspires and helps young and old alike

  4. Marlena

    Excellent idea. My family had a lot of allergies, so I would make something everyone could eat and then have a bunch of sides and condiments suited to their allergies. After a while it got pretty easy – same idea as yours, but with a twist.

  5. TG

    In my family, the common “eat what you want” dinner is either salad or grain bowls. Both involve me chopping up a ton of veggies, laying them out in a line, and going down the line with each child adding the items they want. Both kids like cucumbers and tomatoes, but one of them likes baby kale and the other likes bell peppers. Sometimes one or the other will want broccoli or beans. One will not touch most meats, and the other loves meat. However it goes, both kids love being able to choose their foods, even if I do insist on a certain number of veggies. :)

    • Sian

      It’s easy to do that these days but when I was a child, ‘salad’ was something that only happened very briefly in summer – I eat more tomatoes in a few days than I ate then in a whole year & we weren’t served whole ones either. Bowls must be an American thing, we just have meals on plates, younger people eat rice or other grains sometimes instead of boiled potatoes (rice & pasta arrived in the 70s in the UK for youngsters eating at restaurants), but the rest is meat & vegetables, proper portions not just a few thrown into a pot, or a veggy/vegan ensemble. I honestly think picky eaters are made – my mother cooked one meat, , boiled potatoes & one vegetable – if you didn’t eat that, there was nothing else, it was the way they were brought up when people had very little money & no fridges (we didn’t have one either). Hunger at mealtimes was the best appetite in the days when meat was nowhere near the same quality for most, nor were vegetables.
      Definitely no ice-cream, if we had that for desert in summer, we ate our main course, then Dad had to walk to the newsagents, 1/2 a mile back uphill very quickly with it, he needed it cool by the time he got back but it had already melted & started seeping through the cardboard.
      I don’t see half the ‘picky-eaters’ stuff on vegetarian/vegan blogs. I sometimes rejected food for reasons like the sinews being tough in meat & the mortification of having to take it out of my mouth (with a napkin never on tables) or ditto for hard-shelled peas. Parents then encourage this by telling everyone that the child doesn’t ‘like’ something. Picky eaters are not welcomed at other’s houses, either as children or adults, socialising for work can be difficult too. I think that it is important that children are taught that not everything will be totally to your liking all the time, you are not a princess (or prince). I don’t like wafers or crispbreads, they taste like cardboard, but if I am served them I eat them out of politeness. I used to eat meat, brought up on it, but would never eat seafood because either they are alive or they have been boiled alive, disgusting; I hated the sinew things in kidneys or liver not cooked well, but I’d eat the ‘meat’ parts even though I’d never choose to, it was the way some cooked them, not well enough that was the problem. People did the opposite with cabbage, instead of wilting it in a little water, they would drown the stuff & boil it for hours – sulphuric smells wafted up the back streets – enough to put anyone off.
      I looked at women who started the multi-dinner thing in the 80s, when rice & pasta had become ‘everyday’ staples as well as potatoes & decided I was never going to do that, I never did, a polite person accepts that not every portion will be their preferred foods or always cooked exactly how they like it.
      I am vegetarian now & brought up my children that way, if I know vegans are coming for dinner, everything will be done that way. I am also keen to accommodate other ethical or religious or medical diets. If friends serve meat, I am happy if my portion is a cheap ‘mock-meat’ burger, I don’t want people to go to special trouble & those things are everywhere, costs a lot less too & as this article says, I can have a basic sauce with my burger added later.
      What I don’t appreciate is having someone go to the whole trouble of making a pasta ‘dish’ for something like Christmas, plonking this in the middle of a huge plate & not expecting us to want vegetables. A pasta dish or gnocchi in tomato sauce is inappropriate for serving with ‘traditional’ veg but we don’t even get catered for. We took our children for Christmas dinner on Boxing day to a new friends house, when the children (teenagers then) saw the vegetable dishes they squealed with delight saying how much they adored red cabbage with carrot, sprouts with chestnuts & honey roast parsnips. There were 12 sat down but only 7 parsnips, as they served themselves, the hostess disappeared to the kitchen to open tins of peas & broad beans/butter beans, she obviously hadn’t thought that we would want a ‘dinner’, she opened cans of new potatoes too as she had only done enough roasters for 7 people too as well as serve make extra stuffing that hadn’t been baked. It was nice to make a pasta dish from scratch, but don’t deny us the seasonal vegetables too, we also have appetites! It was very awkward for all!!
      Perhaps it was wishful thinking but I thought everyone knew about Quorn/mock-meat & vegetarian gravy in supermarkets, a cheap couple of burgers each with veg gravy & no separate food otherwise would have been a lot easier & a lot more acceptable. Work dinners in hotels are no better, potato gnocchi with herb tomato sauce, pasta again & potato – I already had roast & boiled new potatoes so why would I want more. I didn’t want tomato sauce with honey parsnips, peas, sprouts & cabbage either so I had a (very) dry dinner with no veggy gravy – this was in a 5* hotel.
      I once saw my niece (in-law) pick at quiche to get the peppers & sweetcorn out, I wasn’t going to break the other one out or heat pasta gnocchi for her, her mother never ate sweetcorn or chicken because her husband/children didn’t like it, I could see where it came from. Goodness, it’s like an epistle, none of this is personal criticism, it’s a great idea.

One Flexible Dinner to Make Everyone HappyHow to Cook One Flexible Dinner That Makes Everyone Happy