A food fight that played out recently in the comics had its roots in real life.
"For Better or For Worse" mom Elly used a "take no prisoners" approach to making her family eat vegetarian. Her reward? Full-scale revolt. Like Elly, the strip's creator learned the hard way that the family cook can't dictate what people want.
"We tried cutting down on [bad foods]," Lynn Johnston says from her Ontario, Canada, home, "but my daughter loves pepperoni pizza. And there are times when my husband just has to have a hamburger or he's not a nice man."
Rather than start World War III, the cook's challenge is to meet conflicting demands without becoming a galley slave -- whether it's a carbo-loading power walker sharing the table with a gourmet cook, or a dieter crossing forks with a meat-and-potatoes mate.
Throw in a weight-conscious teen and a picky grade-schooler, and it's no wonder the cook sometimes feels defeated before setting foot in the kitchen.
"The biggest error [the cook] makes is adopting a yes/no attitude," says Kathleen Duran, a registered dietitian. Finding a middle ground is essential, she says.
Not to worry. There are easy ways to customize dishes for different tastes, whether it's finishing a dish with different sauces or providing creative add-ons and condiments at the table.
One of the simplest ways to keep everyone happy is to adjust portions.
For someone watching fat, a meal of grilled swordfish, broccoli and baked potatoes might include a low-fat salsa with the fish, broccoli with balsamic vinegar, and a potato with low-fat sour cream or yogurt and chives, plus a roll with a squirt of I Can't Believe It's Not Butter cooking spray.
The rest of the family might have larger fish portions with a dab of flavored butter, a squeeze of processed cheese on the broccoli, loaded potatoes -- real sour cream, bacon bits, chives and cheese -- and a couple of those rolls with butter. Kids who are picky eaters will respond to loading their own spuds.
"Do it yourself" meals such as fajitas or tacos naturally lend themselves to portion control. Hungry Bill can eat several more than the next family member and load them up with different ingredients. A child may eat only one or two.
"Parallel cooking" is another alternative. The term means preparing two versions of an entree, side dish or sauce. For instance, use a divided casserole or separate baking dishes, and add a richer sauce to one portion of meat or pasta, a lighter, zesty tomato sauce to the fat-watcher's portion.
The same technique can be used to control spiciness or cheesiness for children. Set aside some spaghetti sauce for kids before you add the Italian sausage and peppers for adults.
In "Kidfood" (Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1989), Lisa Tracy calls this "dovetailing meals." If the little one prefers pasta with a little Parmesan and butter, she says, scoop some plain pasta out before adding the marinara. If kids like their vegetables raw, don't cook all the carrots and snap peas.
Or you might prepare a couple of versions of pasta salad, one with less dressing or low-fat dressing plus artichoke hearts and a bit of grated Romano cheese, the other with regular dressing, some pepperoni slices and grated mozzarella. For fussy kids, it might mean holding the onion -- or whatever it is they balk at -- from either version.
Of course, custom finishing can always come at the table.
"Do it yourself" entrees like tacos and fajitas make this easy. The big eater can fill tacos or fajitas more lavishly with meat, cheese and guacamole. Those counting fat grams or calories will load up on the lettuce, tomatoes, salsa and scallions with just enough meat, cheese and guacamole for flavor. Kids can avoid the salsa altogether.
Ms. Duran likes to add side dishes that fill people up without a lot of fat. She will combine a frozen vegetable such as broccoli with cheese sauce with a package of unseasoned broccoli. This reduces the fat by half without compromising flavor.
She also recommends bulking up a menu with vegetables, whole-grain breads and extra helpings of starchy foods such as rice and pasta.
"The dieter will benefit nutritionally from additional roughage," she says. And athletes will appreciate the additional carbo calories.
Ms. Duran also prepares "eye-fooling" meals such as shish kebab or stir-fries that call for less meat, more veggies.
She finds that many packaged foods can be prepared with less butter, oil or margarine at no flavor cost. "The package instructions call for 1/4 cup butter or margarine. I use 1 tablespoon," she says. "It tastes just fine."
For Amazon appetites, single-serving frozen side dishes offer creative ways to flesh out a meal in a hurry. Also, serve sauces on the side so the fat-watcher can control the amount he or she eats.
An array of condiments is often the most effective way to address disparate food needs, Ms. Duran says.
Take a dish like roasted new potatoes. Spray a pan with nonstick cooking spray; toss some cut-up new potatoes with a bit of olive oil and fresh rosemary; roast in a hot oven for 20 to 30 minutes. The fat-police love such a dish.
Then let these who can handle more calories add butter, Parmesan cheese, feta or olive oil at the table.
Put out low-fat salad dressing for the fat-watchers, regular for the rest of the family. Or let everyone choose his or her own.
Lightly seasoned vegetables can be spiked at the table with everything from balsamic vinegar or lime juice to grated cheese or a smear of Boursin cheese.
And don't neglect "extras" for the low-fat fanatic, Ms. Duran says.
Canned hearts of palm, artichoke hearts packed in water and chick peas add interest to food without adding a lot of fat. Salsa livens foods at no fat expense.
Live and let diet
To keep mealtime hassles to a minimum, dieters should consider doing much of their dieting away from the table, says Jane Dennis, a registered dietitian.
"If someone wants to lose weight," she says, "a realistic approach is to cut out 500 calories a day in order to lose 1 pound per week."
This can be done over the course of the day, she says. Here are some items that each equal roughly 500 calories: three Cokes, three glasses of whole milk (substitute 1 percent or skim), one fast-food hamburger, one slice of pecan pie, one loaded burrito, a breakfast sausage-and-egg biscuit, a large order of fries, two slices of pizza, a bowl of premium ice cream.
"Eliminate things you will not miss," Ms. Dennis advises. "By examining what you eat, from morning to bedtime, you can plan ahead for certain indulgences." Like dinner with the family.
Here's how to customize a dinner staple -- spaghetti and meat sauce -- in steps for every member of the family. Basic recipe: Spaghetti with bottled sauce.
Set some sauce aside for kids.
Serve with lots of cheese. Flavor the rest of the sauce with fresh herbs and peppers. Set some aside for those who are watching their fat intake. Add Italian sausage to the remaining sauce. Pass Parmesan at the table.
Grilled Swordfish Steaks
Makes 3 to 4 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
juice of 1 large lime
4 (6- to 8-ounce) swordfish steaks, 1-inch thick
freshly ground pepper
Tomatillo Salsa or Cilantro-Lime Butter (recipes follow)
Prepare a fire in the grill. While the grill is heating, combine olive oil and lime juice in a wide, shallow glass pan. Coat both sides of each swordfish steak in lime-oil mixture. Sprinkle lightly with fresh pepper. Set aside and allow to marinate until fire is ready.
Position oiled grill rack 4 to 6 inches from flame. Grill swordfish steaks about 10 minutes, turning once or twice. Fish will be opaque in center when done. Remove from heat; salt to taste.
For fat-watchers, serve immediately with Tomatillo Salsa. For big eaters, add Cilantro-Lime Butter.
Per serving: calories: 247; fat: 9 grams; cholesterol: 74 milligrams; sodium: 172 milligrams; 36 percent calories from fat
Makes 4 servings
6 fresh tomatillos, papery husks removed
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 small red onion, roughly chopped
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1 serrano chili, stemmed and seeded
1 yellow banana pepper, stemmed and seeded
juice of 1/2 lime
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Coarsely chop tomatillos. In the bowl of a food processor, mince the garlic. Add the tomatillos, onion, cilantro leaves, chili and banana pepper. Process using short pulses, until coarsely chopped. Transfer to a bowl; add lime juice and salt and pepper to taste.
Per serving: calories: 36; negligible fat; no cholesterol; sodium: 143 milligrams; 8 percent calories from fat
Makes 4 servings
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
3 tablespoons fresh minced cilantro
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons lime juice
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Stir all ingredients together in a bowl until combined. On a sheet of plastic wrap, form the butter into a log about 4 inches long and 1 inch in diameter. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill until firm. Cut into 1/2 -inch thick discs and place atop grilled fish.
Per serving: calories: 109; fat: 12 grams; cholesterol: 33 milligrams; sodium: 136 milligrams; 97 percent calories from fat
Citrus and Spinach Salad
Makes 4 servings
4 cups packed spinach leaves, stemmed and well washed
2 cups orange sections, canned Mandarin oranges, drained, or a combination of orange and grapefruit sections
1/2 cup red onion rings
avocado slices (optional)
1/4 cup Citrus Poppy Seed Dressing (recipe follows) or other dressing
Place salad ingredients except avocado slices in a bowl and toss with dressing. Add avocado slices, if using. For fat-watchers, toss salad ingredients with Citrus Poppy Seed Dressing. For big appetites, toss with a richer dressing and/or add avocado slices.
Citrus Poppy Seed Dressing
Makes about 1 1/4 cups
1/2 cup grapefruit juice
2 tablespoons prepared mustard
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons poppy seeds
2 tablespoons grated onion
1/4 teaspoon salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Combine ingredients in small bowl. Chill until serving time.
Per serving: calories: 112; fat: 4 grams; no cholesterol; sodium: 91 milligrams; 26 percent calories from fat