All my life, I’ve had a happy, healthy and soulful connection with food. That extends to the entire food journey, from planning to shopping to cooking to eating, and comes from a place of abundance, as well as a smattering of scarcity, courtesy of my grandmother’s depression era influence. Both are precious.
My heritage has played a huge role in that connection. I’m German, Slovak and Irish, and many of the dishes I grew up with involve potatoes, flour and butter, such as pierogies, halushki and potato pancakes.
Yep, that’s a lot of cholesterol and calories, but my family members are big believers in ‘everything in moderation’. That philosophy has served me well overall, and certainly, health wise.
As a child, I remember sheets of dough covering every horizontal surface of my grandmother’s kitchen for the pierogies she’d fill with potatoes and cheese, prunes, or sauerkraut. My mother is an excellent cook, and growing up, I’d often help her, or watch from the kitchen table, delighting in the scents of whatever she was making.
Until I was about sixteen, my family also ran a restaurant — another unique leg of my food journey. From the time I was about ten, I worked alongside my parents, brother, aunt, uncle and cousins in our down home, family style restaurant, where we served up homemade fare, including spaghetti sauce and meatballs, pies and grand slam breakfasts.
It wasn’t unusual for me to go with my father to the restaurant at 6am on a Saturday to do heavy prep of coleslaw, stuffing and pasta salads. I loved every minute of it, stirring vats of sauce with wooden paddles the size of oars and mixing ingredients in tubs big enough to bathe a small child. By the time I graduated high school, there wasn’t a job I hadn’t done there, including cooking, serving, cleaning and ordering.
In college, I worked in the dining hall for two years, perfecting my egg and omelet making skills on the flat top and washing dishes. And, on breaks from college and all through high school, I worked at the local grocery store. It was another perspective on food, and I learned about produce, prices, and much more.
As the Food Network grew in popularity, I became a groupie, watching and learning and enjoying. I have a packed shelf of cookbooks and a trove of recipes written in my grandmother’s, and other beloved relatives’, own handwriting. Every time I pull one out — some of them dogeared and spattered with some of the recipe itself — and create the dish, it’s a nod to them, our history. The love.
I Wanted my Daughter to be a ‘Foodie’ Too
So, as a ‘foodie’, when I had my daughter, I was determined to pass on my love and enjoyment of food and eating.
In other words, I refused to raise a picky eater.
As children, we weren’t permitted to be, and I adopted that policy for her. We didn’t talk about it. It simply was.
When my daughter was old enough to eat what I was making, there was no discussion. I assumed she would like it, and lots of times, she did. If she turned her nose up at it, my only rule was that she try everything at least once. If she didn’t like it, that was fine, but I’d ask her to try it again a few weeks later.
In my opinion, many people, including well-meaning parents and caregivers, often mistakenly assume children won’t like certain foods, namely vegetables, then make yet another mistake by verbalizing it. And we all know our children hear everything we say, good and bad. In other words, it’s my belief we bring some of that ‘picky eater’ syndrome on ourselves. And that veggie shtick, unfortunately, seems to be a ‘go to’ staple in many forms of advertising.
Now, I realize there are food allergies, sensory-based feeding difficulties and many other issues children experience involving food. My daughter was lucky enough not to have those issues. And it gave me a golden, carte blanche opportunity to empower her, and teach her all about food, and eating well, joyfully.
When she was as young as five, I started bringing her into the fold, getting her buy in. She’d crack eggs, stir the batter, scoop out flour, and of course, be a taste tester. When we went to the market, I’d tell her about different vegetables and fruits and explain to her what we might use them in, and how to select the best. When we’d go the next time, we’d make a game of identifying the produce.
When she got a little older, I’d give her ownership by sending her into the produce section with a list while I waited at the deli, and have her choose the lettuce, the strawberries, the parsley.
As a teenager, she still cooks with me, but she’s gravitated more toward baking, and she loves trying out new recipes and sharing the goods with her friends.
Empowering Our Children
I’d say my form of ‘tough’ love has paid off. At four years of age, she requested salmon. To this day, she loves broccoli, red and orange peppers and all kinds of salad and fruit. Again, I’m blessed to have a child who’s allergy free, and I think I warded off her being picky by simply, not giving her a choice.
It seems more and more we have too many choices, all around, and it’s my parental opinion, when it comes to food, young children don’t need a whole lot of them. What they do need is nutritious food and a healthy attitude toward it.
I believe I’ve empowered my daughter in this way. My end goal, as a parent, is to not only enable her to feed herself well when she’s living on her own, but to carry on the tradition of love and abundance and history with her own family and friends.
And more, much more than just not raising a picky eater is the message that food is fun. It’s love in a bowl, it’s comfort on a plate, and it’s about enjoying the process, feeding your soul and bringing people together.
Yet another stop on my food journey has been embracing dietary changes. As middle age approached, I adopted a new way of eating, per a popular weight loss program, to shed those stubborn pounds. And my joy of cooking and eating has only increased.
Food is about my daughter and I listening to music and talking as we chop vegetables. It’s laughing about our saying that ‘you can never have too much cinnamon’. It’s her coining the phrase ‘Mom sandwiches’ for my special ham club. It’s a chef salad, it’s Thanksgiving stuffing, it’s a new recipe, it’s hearing about what happened in class.
At the end of the day, and the meal, when I’m washing the dishes and she’s drying, food is in my blood. And I believe, wholeheartedly, it’s also in hers.
Proudly published on Medium in P.S. I Love You ~ Editor’s Pick
Rebecca E. Neely is a reader, storyteller, blogger and author. Her latest novel is The Betrayer, Book 3 in the Crossing Realms paranormal romance series. Find Rebecca on Twitter @RebeccaNeely1.