How to modify a meal to meet the dietary needs of your whole family

In a perfect world, every member of your family happily eats the same meal. But sadly, that’s just not always reality, especially if you’re feeding kids or teens.

Here’s some ideas on how to modify the same basic dinner to hit different dietary needs. Let’s take a classic dinner meal made up of a meat, a starch and a veggie.


  • Grilled chicken, breast, 6 ounces (250 calories)
  • Mashed potatoes, 1 cup instant prepared (220 calories)
  • Broccoli, 1 cup (30 calories)

This meal totals about 500 calories, a completely reasonable number for those aiming for the average 2,000 calorie-a-day mark. The protein in the chicken and the fat in the potatoes have a nice satiating quality, and the broccoli packs a nice punch of fiber. The only red flag – sodium. Pre-packaged foods like instant potatoes, although easy time-savers, tend to have a lot of salt.

For the Teenage Athlete:

  • Grilled chicken, breast, 6 ounces (250 calories) with barbecue sauce (50 calories)
  • Mashed potatoes, 1 cup instant, prepared with milk and butter (300 calories)
  • Broccoli, 1 cup (30 calories) with ¼ cup melted shredded cheddar cheese (200 calories)
  • Milk, 12 ounces (150-225 calories, depending on what type of milk you use – skim or whole)

We’ve just the doubled the calorie count of the classic meal. Teenagers need a lot more calories than adults do because they are still growing. Plus, when you add hours of dance, soccer, color guard, gymnastics and track into the mix, your teen becomes a calorie-burning machine! The teenage years are also incredibly important bone building years, so foods that have calcium and vitamin D should be a priority. Melting cheese onto broccoli and pouring a tall glass of milk boosts calcium and vitamin D content. Busy kids often don’t have time to relax and eat a luxurious meal, so packing a lot of calories into fewer foods is a good trick. By mixing butter and milk into potatoes, you increase the calorie density without increasing the amount of food, which gets your kid out the door faster.

For the Salt-Avoider:

  • Grilled chicken, breast, 6 ounces (250 calories)
  • Baked potato (215 calories) with butter, 1 tablespoon (105 calories)
  • Broccoli, 1 cup (30 calories)

About 75 million Americans have high blood pressure. For the same number of calories, replacing the instant mashed potatoes with a baked potato slashes the sodium content of your meal by 75 percent! Try buying microwaveable “baked” potatoes to save a few minutes.

For the Fat Conscious:

  • Grilled chicken, breast, 6 ounces (250 calories)
  • Fingerling potatoes, ½ cup (100 calories), roasted in olive oil, 1 tablespoon (120 calories)
  • Broccoli, 1 cup (30 calories)

Butter is very high in saturated fat (“bad fat”), while oil is very high in unsaturated fat (“good fat”). A simple fat swap makes this meal much more heart-healthy. Studies have shown that replacing dietary saturated fat with unsaturated fat reduces cardiovascular disease by approximately 30 percent. Trans fat, listed on food labels as “partially hydrogenated oil,” can be found in margarine and is considered the worst type of fat when it comes to your risk of heart disease.

For the Vegetarian:

  • Tofu, half block OR seitan, 6 ounces (200 calories) with barbecue sauce
  • Mashed potatoes, 1 cup instant prepared (220 calories)
  • Broccoli, 1 cup (30 calories)

For the vegetarian in the house, the same meal can be served, just switch out the protein for a different meat alternative. Tofu is made from soy beans, has a fairly mild taste and is high in calcium, protein and iron. Seiten is made from wheat gluten and is a decent source of fiber, protein and iron. Vegetarians should focus on getting adequate protein, iron, calcium, zinc and vitamin B12. Here’s how!

Kerri Link Heckert is a registered dietitian at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She earned her master’s degree at Drexel University and currently lives in the Philadelphia suburbs. She is also a yoga instructor (RYT-200), ACSM certified health fitness specialist and certified personal trainer.