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Mama V’s Approach to Family Meal Prep with Different Dietary Needs

When I was in my twenties, I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, an autoimmune disease that rendered me intolerant of gluten. Gluten is the protein in wheat and other grains. For years, I got sick after eating certain meals like pasta, but it never occurred to me or my doctor to consider the problem was food since my symptoms seemed all over the place. A few symptoms that I would experience frequently was brain fog, distended abdomen, abdominal cramps, headaches, fatigue, and an overriding sense that something just didn’t feel right. My doctor did a full thyroid panel, discovered my anti-TPO levels were horrifically high (around 25,000 when normal is less than two IU/ml), and diagnosed me with Hashimoto’s Disease. This is an autoimmune disease that causes your body to create antibodies to attack your thyroid. I was prescribed levothyroxine and, in time, I started to feel better, yet something was still wrong.

Having the Hashimoto’s Disease diagnosis clued my doctor that the problem could be another autoimmune disease. For reasons I still don’t fully understand, autoimmune diseases tend to occur in pairs. Eliminating gluten from my diet and subsequent testing showed that I had Celiac Disease. I eliminated all gluten from my diet and everything changed! For the first time, I felt healthy, focused, and that feeling of malaise was gone. It was a powerful lesson of how food can heal the body.

At first, I created meal plans for myself using naturally occurring gluten-free foods, like rice and potatoes instead of pasta and other wheat products. After a while, I wanted to be able to enjoy an indulgence like cake or eat a slice of pizza. Grocery store options were fairly unsatisfying, either because of taste or texture. I experimented with different products and combinations, and today, I have learned to create gluten free meals to satisfy any craving.

Fast forward a decade later, I met my husband, Andy, we got married and today, we have two beautiful children. Andy has no dietary restrictions and will jokingly tell servers in restaurants that he’ll eat all of my gluten. Even while dating, he was big on dad jokes.

Our oldest daughter at age one began experiencing seizures. This both shocked and terrified us. No one on either side of the family has epilepsy or any related conditions. All tests to determine cause was inconclusive. Her seizures were frequent and debilitating, often leading to falls. At her worst, she would experience about ten per hour. She wears a helmet and pillowed backpack now to protect her from head drop seizures. Cognitively, she is still a non-verbal 18-month old in a three and a half year old’s body. She was diagnosed with epilepsy at 18-months, and a year later, a rare condition called Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome. We’ve tried numerous medications, none of which made her seizure-free. We were warned by doctors that she may never be seizure-free.

In August 2020, we initiated the ketogenic diet to treat her seizures. Prior to the diet (but still on four medications), she would have ten seizures on a typical day. As I write this, she now averages three per day and the cognitive improvements are increasing day-by-day. Even if she still experiences seizures, the essence of my daughter is slowly coming back. She may be non-verbal, but she is humming songs like “This Old Man,” which she hasn’t done since she was 18-months-old! She still has a long way to go, but I see more improvements using the ketogenic diet in a month than I had with any of her medications over two years.

Still, it must be said that planning and prepping her ketogenic meals is not as simple as planning and prepping a gluten-free diet. My gluten free diet mostly involves ingredient substitutions; her keto diet involves a complex ratio of accurately measured macro nutrients by the gram and calculations that takes me back to balancing chemical equations in high school chemistry. It is work, time-consuming work that requires the patience, diligence, and cooperation of every person in Maggie’s life.

We had tried the Modified Atkins Diet (M.A.D.) when Maggie was still in daycare, but it failed. We simply could not control her environment and, at the time, I could not leave my job. Maggie doesn’t understand that if another kid drops a cookie, she shouldn’t crawl under the table and eat it. Either due to Maggie trying to take food from other kids or her merely finding foods that are off the diet, M.A.D. was an epic fail due to our inability to fully commit to the diet.

Today, that’s not the case. My husband was offered an incredible opportunity that allows me to be a stay-at-home mom. I’m now able to fully control all aspects of Maggie’s diet and environment. I don’t need to worry about Maggie crawling under tables to find cookies because there aren’t any cookies lurking in random places.

Still, I don’t want to be nor do I think it’s cost or time-efficient to be a short-order cook. In addition, I think it’s better for Maggie to see that the whole family is essentially having the same meal (or what looks like the same meal). But the family is not on keto. Keto is a medical diet and Hazel, my 22 month old, needs carbs. What’s a mom to do? I could prepare three meals for every meal time: keto for Maggie, gluten free for me, and anything goes for Andy and Hazel. But no. That’s too inefficient for a type A mom like myself. There must be a better way, and there is.

Before we begin, let’s break down some basics about nutrition and what is commonly considered a “balanced meal.” There are three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and lipids (a.k.a. fat); all foods consists of one or a ratio of these macronutrients. All three macronutrients are important in the body and serves different functions.

Carbohydrates are found in grains, starches, fruits, and vegetables. Protein is primarily found in meats, animal products, and also vegetarian sources like tofu and beans. Lipids are found in oils, butter, mayonnaise, and nuts. Dairy products are often a combination of all macronutrients to various ratios. For example, whole milk consists of lactose (a.k.a. milk sugars, a carbohydrate), protein, and fat. Heavy whipping cream, is like milk concentrated in fat, so its carbohydrate and protein ratios are low enough to consider heavy whipping cream the ideal milk substitution for keto kids.

When thinking about energy, food is fuel. The number of calories a person needs, like the ideal carbohydrates-to-protein-to-fat ratio, varies from person-to-person. The quality of your food choices matter. In the case of my daughter, her calories are limited to 1,200 per day, which are broken down into three 300-calorie meals and two 150-calorie snacks at a 4.5:1 ratio. What that means is Maggie eats 4.5 grams of fat to one gram combined carbohydrates and protein. If it doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s not. This means that I will opt for the highest nutrient dense foods when meal planning. The few carbohydrate and protein sources in each meal are strategically chosen for its nutritional properties.

Keeping this information in mind, I start meal planning by thinking big picture for the week. I take a weekly planner and plan for dinner. In our home, breakfast is typically some variation of eggs and lunches are leftovers of dinner.

Step 1: Pick the dinner proteins for each day, like chicken, ground beef, salmon, shrimp, sausage, pork, steak, bacon, eggs, or whatever else. This protein source will be everyone’s meat, regardless of dietary restrictions.

Step 2: Pick your carbohydrates, like starches, grains, vegetables, or fruits. This is where the creativity factors in the process. For starches, I will alternate rice, quinoa, potatoes, gluten free pasta, gluten-free bread, or forego starches altogether for vegetables. For example, let’s say the family is having gluten-free pasta with chicken. Maggie’s plate will look like pasta, but it will consist of a substitution like spaghetti squash or spiralized zucchini. If we’re having rice, Maggie’s plate would have riced cauliflower. If we’re having mashed potatoes, Maggie’s plate would have mashed turnips, a low carbohydrate substitute that resembles the mashed potatoes on everyone else’s plate. The vegetables typically are the same for everyone, and they could be broccoli, asparagus, spinach, tomatoes, bell peppers, or whatever else best fits.

Step 3: Pick your fat. Depending on the meal, certain fats will enhance the flavors of the chosen meats, starches, and vegetables. This could be olive oil, butter, coconut oil, mayonnaise, or any other kind of oil. I save this choice for the end. For most of us, the fat is a flavorful but not typically overpowering addition to a meal. In Maggie’s case, the fat takes center stage. For example, instead of thinking would you like mayo in your tuna, think would you like tuna with your mayo? A dish like that would have thinly sliced celery, tuna, and lots of mayonnaise. Would tuna and celery be as appealing with olive oil or coconut oil? Maybe. It depends on your palate. Because different fats have different properties, I opt to alternate fats and select fats based on underlying flavor.

So, let’s get started with a single week’s meal plan.

Monday’s Dinner: Melt in your mouth chicken

Protein: Chicken

Carbs: Quinoa & Broccoli (only broccoli for Maggie)

Fats: Olive oil & Mayonnaise

Tuesday: Spaghetti Squash Carbonara

Protein: Bacon

Carbs: Spaghetti squash

Fats: butter & heavy whipping cream

Wednesday: Salmon Baked with Feta

Protein: salmon

Carbs: asparagus

Fats: olive oil & feta

Thursday: Stuffed bell peppers

Protein: ground beef

Carbs: bell peppers

Fat: olive oil and Colby jack cheese

Friday: Turkey chili

Protein: ground turkey

Carbs: kidney, black, and pinto beans with peppers and tomato sauce (Maggie’s chili would be without beans)

Fat: canola oil

Saturday: Beef Pot Roast with Vegetables

Protein: beef pot roast

Carbs: Mashed potatoes with carrots & mashed turnips with carrots for Maggie.

Fat: Butter and olive oil

Sunday: Coconut Curry Shrimp with rice

Protein: Shrimp

Carbs: rice (Maggie’s plate would have riced cauliflower), and broccoli

Fat: coconut oil and coconut milk

These aren’t complete recipes, of course. There are numerous possibilities and inclusion of additional ingredients like spices, other vegetables, condiments, and so forth. However, starting the week with a meal plan, even in outline form, gives you the opportunity to plan for dietary modifications from a macronutrient perspective.


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