A Dinner Date With Your Dog

This is a recipe designed to be shared with your pets (I have checked safety for cats, though I focus on dogs here). It’s adaptable to whatever meat you wish. It is not meant to be your pet’s complete diet, just a meal you can share to add variety while still paying attention to their health.

Skip to the recipe.

This time of year, with hearts decorating half the isles in the grocery store, we love to shower our loved ones with treats. It’s widely recognized that gifts of candy and a fancy dinner can demonstrate your love to a partner, but often the desire goes beyond romance. We include the children in our lives, both giving treats to them and encourage them to share treats with their friends. Naturally, many of us want to include our pets. I can see the evidence of that in how quickly the Valentine’s day doggie treats vanish at Target.

There’s reason for this strong connection between love and food. The bond over sharing food is recognized beyond this holiday. Festivals and celebrations across the world feature food, and sharing it to celebrate each other. The reason for the season might be lost on our pets, but the significance of bonding through shared enjoyment of treats certainly isn’t.

It’s disappointing when a vet tells you to stop, that your doggie’s health might suffer otherwise, especially when you know the treats communicate so much to your dog. One of our Pomeranians is a senior who struggles with joint pain, heart disease, failing eyesight, and alopecia (he went almost entirely bald after a groomer inexperienced with Poms clipped him too close, it took a couple of years to start growing back). All of these are problems I can ease somewhat by paying attention to his nutrition.

I bought an excellent book by the Dog Food Dude, did a bunch of internet browsing, even doodled bullet journal pages. Then, I spent the last couple of years doing what I could to help him within the constraints of time, energy, and budget. What I can do varies, as our situation varies throughout the year. But, we’ve learned to make it a priority to do what we can for Baby Bear nutrition-wise. He has more vitality, and I’ve gotten most of his hair to grow back.

Sometimes, money is tight, but time is plenty, so I cook the food for all three dogs from scratch. I learned the hard way to not make a large amount of a recipe, a sample large enough to last a few days will show if they are willing to eat the same thing long term. Switching things up every now and then is definitely appreciated, and leftovers can be divided into portion sizes and frozen, making it easy to maintain a variety while still cooking in batches.

However, I usually don’t have money for a fully balanced diet when I resort to this. I tend to see it as a healthier substitute for low quality dog food, and not something I do long term. In theory, home cooked food is more nutritious. In practice, if I can’t afford vitamins to add, then it’s better to get the highest quality kibble I can and enhance it with a couple of tricks. Gluten-free and hypoallergenic kibble is preferred with Bear’s joint pain, to keep down inflammation as much as possible.

Then I pour bone broth over it to help his joints, and top it with a few sardines or squirts of fish oil. I might add a few roasted carrots or sweet potatoes to help his eyes. Other things I might add, if I can get them, would include coconut oil, seaweed, and organ meats like heart, kidney, or liver. You can find other things to add online, but also pay attention of lists of foods to avoid for both dogs and cats, they are different.

It isn’t that difficult to do, and the results are worth it. The problem comes when the family wants to eat something fried, or with heavy spices, and the dogs think that looks much better than some roasted sweet potato sprinkled with seaweed. It’s a struggle to say no to good doggies, especially when the bond through food obviously means so much to them.

This can be solved by setting aside a few dog safe foods during cooking and putting them on the edge of your plate, and also by making something designed for everyone to share. This recipe is a guide for the latter.

This can be done with a pound of any meat, but naturally the goth in me couldn’t resist the darker side of the season. Heart is a source of vitamins B2, B6, and B12. It also has iron, zinc, and selenium. Using organ meats as a source of protein can help add variety to the diet, and at a fraction of the cost of the choice cuts.

As it turns out, beef heart is wicked delicious. It tastes like steak, but the texture is different. The muscle fibers don’t get stuck in your teeth. It’s a texture that might be described as a little bouncy. It almost reminds me of agar jelly, but more firm.

As the family’s resident weirdo, I was the only one delighted at the thought of cooking organ meat for my dogs, and sampling it. There are still certain organs that the humans in my family aren’t anxious to try, but as soon as the scent of beef heart rose in the air, it was like a magnet drawing curious tasters who came back for seconds and thirds.

You have a choice of one of two ways to cook it. The civilized method would be to slice the heart into even strips, and saute them as such. For those who love chaos and darkness, I suggest throwing the whole thing on a cast iron skillet, sear it, and then lower the heat to prevent too much char. The center will take a while to heat up, and it will bleed, bleed, bleed. Sip some red wine out of something with a skull on it, and hum your favorite horror movie theme. Turn frequently to prevent burning. It can be sliced into strips or chunks to serve. The result will be something that will delight those who love a range of textures and flavor on their meat.

In selecting ingredients, avoid onions, garlic, chives, leeks or anything in the onion family. Go easy on seasoning as much as possible in general, especially salt and hot spices. If you don’t like the result, remove some of the food for your pets, then season your own remaining portion how you wish.
Go easy on seasonings, especially peppers and curries, but a little bit is okay. Cats might avoid foods with pepper added, and may be more sensitive to digestive upset from it.

Use bone broth for the liquid, to give as many beneficial nutrients as possible. If you want to cook chicken or pork, you might want to substitute half the broth with apple juice. Do not try grape juice as a wine substitute in a sauce (or wine itself). If I don’t mention an ingredient specifically, always check if it’s toxic to your pet. Avoid oily foods and supplements for cats, though they might like a sardine as a garnish.

The basic meal format I use for sharing is a starch topped with vegetables, then a meat, then a sauce. If you like, you can simply make a plate and toss bits to the floor if they are good doggies (they are). Or you can serve them in their own dish, mixing in some kibble with the starch. This also gives you a chance to add things that some people might not want on their plate, such as ground flax seed, or coconut oil. If mixing in something for omega 3 fatty acids, stir it after cooking to prevent nutrient loss. Aim to serve dogs up to 40% protein in puppies, 30% in adults, and 25% in seniors. Just cook the meat separately so you can eyeball this and avoid a lot of math.

If you have an ingredient you want reluctant pets (or kids sharing the meal) to eat, such as green beans or peas, you can purée them into the sauce, or serve the meat and veggies as a pâté. Put it on a bed of rice, shaped into a heart, and drizzle sauce over it. Show it off on the innerwebs. You can also sneak ingredients into meatloaf or meatballs.

Tomato sauce can be used, but only from ripe tomatoes without a hint of green on them. Add something such as carrot puree to thin out the tomatoes, and serve only a little. Dogs can benefit from a little olive oil and basil as a dressing to the starch, but cats should only have a limited amount of oil or it might upset their stomach. Avoid dairy based sauces, which leaves mostly gravies.

For a starch, I usually use brown rice, gluten-free egg noodles, or barley. Brown rice and barley can be prepared before you start cooking the meat, egg noodles can be dropped in boiling water as the sauce is being made.

If using brown rice, I cook it in my rice pot, with vegetables in the steamer insert, rather than sautéing them like I do in the recipe. You can cook the meal however you like, thinking of it as a stir fry, stew, pasta with meat sauce, or a one pot meal. Eggs are also an excellent protein source, sometimes I include a few sliced hardboiled eggs as a “garnish”.

If not using heart, use lean meat, no more than 10% fat. I usually cook the meat in a stainless steel skillet, deglazing with a drop of bone broth to start the sauce. To thicken sauces, I use corn starch or rice flour, as a lot of pets have a wheat allergy.

No grapes or raisins, avoid anything in the onion family, curries, cumin. Go easy on spicy peppers, if feeding a cat you might want to keep them out entirely. Go easy on sugar, it can mess with their digestion.

Things to use
There is more, this is just what has occurred to me to check for safety in my cooking, therefore made it into my notes. Use enough rice and veggies to serve all who are eating, leftover sauce and meat can be frozen in individual servings, to be warmed up and served over freshly cooked starches.

Starches and Grains:
Barley
Black Beans
Brown rice
Gluten free noodles
Lentils
Red Beans

Vegetables:
Carrots
Green Beans
Peas
Potatoes
Pumpkin
Seaweed
Spinach
Sweet potatoes
Zucchini

Seasonings:
Basil
Cinnamon
Dill
Ginger
Sage
Sesame
Rosemary
Thyme
Turmeric

Sauce thickeners:
Cornstarch
Rice flour

Heart over Noodles
This is a make as much as you like, and season to taste kind of recipe.

You need:
1 beef heart
Gluten-free egg noodles
Cornstarch
Beef broth
Zucchini, cut into chunks thick enough to not cook too quickly.
Sweet potato or carrots, cut into thin pieces to make sautéing easier.
Just a pinch of salt and pepper

Start warming water to boil. Slice beef heart into even strips. Sauté in a skillet on medium high heat, letting the juices blacken and stick to the pan. Move the meat to the side. Sauté vegetables, and move them to the side.
Throw the noodles into the boiling water. Use the beef broth to deglaze the pan and make the sauce. Season the sauce lightly, whisk in about a tablespoon of cornstarch, and stir as it simmers until it is the desired consistency. Drain the noodles, top with the veggies and meat, then the sauce, and serve.

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