You’ve made the commitment to feed your animal family members the way you feed everyone else: fresh and wholesome, prepared with your loving touch. Maybe you began by serving up an extra portion of your own meals, and that’s an excellent way to start. But you wonder if your friends are really getting all the nutrition they need—and if you’ll really have the time and energy to sustain the program for the long haul.

It’s great to take a careful, conscientious look at your feeding plan, but rest assured it doesn’t have to be complicated or cumbersome. With a few simple guidelines for ingredients, and some good strategies for making preparation fast and easy, you’ll be feeling like a pro before you know it.

So what exactly should you put in your dog’s or cat’s dinner bowl? Start with the following list, and adjust it according to individual needs. Be sure to vary the ingredients from day to day and week to week so that your companion will have many different foods from which to draw the nutrients he needs.

Protein: There are many excellent alternatives to meat, including tofu, tempeh, lentils, beans, and even peanut butter. (Because of its high oil content, peanut butter can cause weight gain or soft stool in some animals. Offer a small amount at first, and monitor your friend’s response.)

Carbohydrates: Choose from potatoes, winter squash, or a variety of grains, including rice, millet, quinoa, rolled oats, whole grain bread, or pasta. For animals with a tendency to have very soft stool, try white rice and refined grains. For others, choose whole grains, including brown rice and whole wheat pasta, whenever possible for their greater nutritional value.

Vegetables and fruits: The options are as varied as your imagination and your animals’ taste preferences. Different colors offer different phytonutrients, so think about feeding a rainbow of colors—dark greens, reds and purples, yellows and oranges, and even blues. Feed them raw whenever possible for optimum nutritional value. (Some of the nutrients in cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, are more readily absorbed when lightly steamed, while other nutrients are diminished in the cooking process. For optimum benefit, vary your routine when feeding these vegetables—steam them one day, feed them raw the next.)

Calcium supplement: Animals on a vegetarian diet that includes ample dark leafy greens probably won’t need a calcium supplement. Those who eat a meat-based diet will need added calcium to balance the high phosphorus levels in meat. Calcium carbonate, available at most health food stores, is a good choice. PLEASE NOTE – The correct amount of calcium, and the correct ratio of calcium and phosphorus, can be critical for youngsters and puppies who will grow into large dogs, and for dogs and cats who are pregnant or nursing; suffering from kidney disease, cancer, parathyroid disease, or some urinary stones; or taking long-term medication. Please check with your veterinarian about supplementation for these animals.

Fats: A tasty drizzle of oil on top of the meal will add essential fatty acids that support many body systems and mental function. Flax oil or ground flax seeds, or canola, olive, or hemp seed oil are good alternatives to fish oil. As with other ingredients, vary your source from time to time.

Vitamin-mineral supplement: Animals who eat a well-varied diet of organically grown foods may not require a vitamin-mineral supplement, but it’s good insurance for everyone. A human-grade formula made from whole foods is a good choice. Be sure to adjust dosage in proportion to body weight. PLEASE NOTE – Cats on a vegetarian diet must have supplementation designed specifically for them. Vegecat, from Compassion Circle, is an excellent choice.

Nutrition boosters: You can add interest for yourself and your animal family, and even more varied benefits, by rotating a different whole foods “booster” into the diet every few days. Try spirulina (or blue-green algae), wheat germ, probiotics, lecithin, nutritional yeast, or garlic.

Finally, here are a few tricks to help you maximize the nutritional benefits of your homemade diet, and minimize the time and energy you spend creating it.

Perhaps the single most important ingredient in any dietary plan is variety. There is no single list of ingredients that will supply all the nutrients your animal friend needs. When her meals are made from different foods day to day, week to week, her body will have a broad range of sources from which to draw the nutrients she needs.

Dried beans and other legumes are cheap and nutritious sources of protein. They take a little more time to prepare than their canned counterparts, but for most of that time they’re sitting in the pot while you go on about your day, so you may find it well worthwhile. To minimize “gassiness,” soak beans in water for at least eight hours or overnight, rinse thoroughly, and add a small potato to the pot while they cook. (Discard the potato after cooking.) If you don’t have time for a long soak, bring beans and water to a boil, remove from heat, and soak for one hour. Rinse thoroughly, add fresh water, and proceed with cooking.

Tofu, lentils, and split peas are quick and easy protein sources. Tofu is ready-to-eat, lentils cook in forty minutes or less, split peas in about an hour—with no presoaking. All three are favorites with most four-legged taste-testers.
Overcook beans and grains a bit, to help make them easier to digest.

Raw rolled oats and rolled barley can be fed raw, so they’re excellent sources of vitamins, enzymes, and amino acids that might otherwise be diminished by the heat of cooking.

Carrots, broccoli stalks, apples, and melons are just a few of the fruits and vegetables that can become tasty snacks. Not only do they provide phytonutrients, but they help exercise teeth and gums and satisfy the need to chew. (Your dog will love discovering that his crisp, juicy apple tastes better than any other ball he’s ever played with. Your cat will feel the same about her melon balls.)

When you first switch to a fresh food diet, you may see pieces of whole foods appear in the stool. After a few weeks, your friend’s system will accommodate the change and you should see less undigested food passing through. If that is not the case, try cooking those items a little longer, or purée them in a food processor or blender.

If your dog or cat is a little fussy, try a tasty topping to spark her interest. Popular choices include tomato sauce, non-dairy milk, nutritional yeast flakes, broth; vegetable, olive, or flax seed oil.

If all of this sounds like a lot to remember, please don’t get bogged down in the “how-to.” Your own good sense about healthy food choices, along with your ability to monitor your animal family members closely for information about what they need, are your best tools for making the most of your dietary plan. Let the above guidelines help you eliminate hassles and inform your choices—but remember to keep it fun and creative. You’ll find that preparing meals for your companion is a subtle but meaningful enhancement to your relationship. There’s a big difference between opening a can or a bag of food while your mind is busy with the affairs of the day, and thoughtfully choosing ingredients that meet your loved one’s changing needs and please his palate. It’s just one more opportunity to connect, and to honor the relationship you treasure. Believe me, the way you’ll feel when you see how much he loves what you made for him tonight will make you glad you took the trouble. When you see him blossom with vibrant good health, and continue to thrive long into his senior years, you’ll know it was one of the best things you could have done for him. And you know how appreciative he can be.

Adapted from The Complete Holistic Dog Book: Home Health Care for Our Canine Companions by Jan Allegretti, D.Vet.Hom. Copyright © 2003, 2018 by Jan Allegretti.