How to Cook One Flexible Dinner That Makes Everyone Happy

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!

One Flexible Dinner to Make Everyone Happy

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 recipe made with herbs and olive oil, served on a bun with onions and lettuce
Herbed Turkey Burgers.

Elise Bauer


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.

Elise Bauer

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
Black Eyed Pea Salsa with Cheese Quesadillas.

Elise Bauer


Similar to grilled cheese, quesadillas are easily made to order. Start with the classic Mexican template and 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.

Elise Bauer


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.

Sheryl Julian


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.

Emma Christensen


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.

A table is set with a plate with fish tacos. Corn tortillas layered with fish, avocado, cabbage, cilantro, cheese and lime.
Sally Vargas


Tacos, originally a Mexican creation, 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.