Once, my grandmother made meatballs with rice. She announced that I wasn’t getting up from the table until I ate them. I sat at her kitchen table and wailed into that ground beef. She didn’t relent. Hours passed. I cried harder, in hitches and moans. No, I couldn’t have a drink to wash them down. No, I couldn’t have ketchup to cover up the taste. I finally choked them down, one dry sick bite at a time. This is one of my most vivid memories of Gram.
Because no one — I mean no one — made me eat what I didn’t want.
They offered, of course, always kindly. Did I want to try the steak? The tacos? The prunes? I refused to take even a cursory taste. So my mother shrugged her shoulders, walked to the stove, and put a pot of water on to boil. While the rest of the family ate cheesesteaks or pork and sauerkraut, I got one of two things: buttered noodles or bright-orange Kraft mac and cheese. Every family dinner featured green beans and corn, plus a large veggie tray, so I never wanted for decent nutrition.
Once, as a joke, my aunt told me the Kraft company had folded. I howled in despair. I don’t think they expected such an extreme reaction. But that mac and cheese was my savior.
I lived on pasta because my sainted Mom-Mom never forced her own darling youngest child — my mother — to eat anything she didn’t want. And my mom said that if she didn’t have to eat anything she didn’t want as a kid, her daughter wouldn’t have to either. So I lived a childhood bereft of all meat but chicken. I ate no seafood — the smell of cooking shrimp could make me vomit. Cabbage in all forms disgusted me, which ruled out the sauerkraut my family loved, plus any number of soups. In fact, I mostly hated soup. When my family went to Taco Bell, they had to stop first at McDonald’s to get me fries — but only fries because I wouldn’t eat fast-food meat. I didn’t even like Cheerios. Who the fuck doesn’t like Cheerios?
I grew up. And when I started college, without my trusty side of buttered noodles, I was definitely the chicken-finger-and-fries type. But I also didn’t want to look like an uncultured asshole. So I tried my first steak. Shockingly, once I trimmed every single bit of fat off, I liked it. My friends introduced me to hitherto unheard of things like feta cheese and avocados. We didn’t have that stuff in my small town, and if we did, it didn’t darken our refrigerator door. I tried tacos with chicken instead of that hated ground beef. In short, I developed a palate.
I had to work on it. And I still don’t eat seafood. Something about a fish phobia and a dislike of creepy-crawlie arthropods. But I’ll devour a hamburger now like any other red-blooded American. My mother almost applauded when she saw.
I did not end up spoiled. I do not expect someone to drop everything and cook me a special meal twice a day, though my husband the cook often eats stuff I don’t like — I’m talking the likes of haggis, not hamburgers — and when he does, God bless him, he tosses me a salad or heats me a plate of nachos. I do not feel entitled to this; in fact, at these times, I offer to make my own dinner. When the offer’s batted down (and happily, because his vinaigrette is better than mine), I’m grateful. But he hasn’t replaced my mom as chief noodle cooker. She will always hold that title.
I did not end up malnourished either. I always ate veggies. My grandmother set them out at meals, and she doled them out as snacks. I probably could have stood more protein and calcium, especially since I wouldn’t drink plain milk unless it contained cereal. But we stocked the pantry with Nestle Quik in the brave old 1980s. I lived. I grew. I thrived.
If they had ordered me to eat what I didn’t want, and sit there until I did, I was stubborn enough to refuse food — it took me four hours to eat those stupid meatballs my Gram made, and that was because other threats were levied. Treating me like that might have created some malnutrition. And the take-three-bites rule? If they’d have made me try seafood, I’d have vomited on the table. Nobody wants that.
Buttered noodles and Kraft mac and cheese probably aren’t the healthiest options out there. That’s why my kids always have the option of a PB&J, an apple, or a banana instead. As long as I don’t have to cook it, they can eat it instead of what we’re having. They rarely take us up on it. They don’t go hungry. And we don’t battle over food.
Other than the Meatball Incident, I don’t remember battling about food once during my childhood. You ate when you were hungry, and I could always have a banana. My kids can always have a banana or a slice of bread.
So just stop the food wars. They aren’t worth it. I lived through a childhood of such extreme pickiness that I wouldn’t eat white bread unless it was lightly toasted. And I thrived. I was athletic: I hauled my butt up on top of giant horses without a mounting block, then galloped them across the countryside, jumping 4-foot fences along the way. I did track, which meant running 6 miles a day during practice. I also didn’t eat my first sub sandwich ’til I was 15.
I’m so grateful my mother never fought with me over food. I was picky. I hated strong tastes, and I hated certain textures. Many other kids are the same way. So leave them alone. And maybe make them some buttered noodles.