Childhood Eating Habits

For the second time this week I have found myself writing what was going to be an epic comment on someone else’s blog post and realizing that it would be better and likely more polite to just move the whole thing over here.

Today I was reading Elizabeth’s post about children who are picky eaters and her own experiences with eating preferences as a child relative to an adult. I won’t spoil her story here so you can just visit her entry. I will say, though, that this is a really interesting subject to me and it makes me wonder how the way our parents raised us might affect us as adults.

When I was a kid I wasn’t indulged quite as much as Dude but close. The only vegetables I liked were potatoes, canned green beans, peas (frozen not canned), fresh cucumbers in vinegar, and corn. Any other vegetables were pretty much off limits for me. Tomato sauce should have no discernible bits of pepper or onion (imagine how this must have been for my Italian mom). Eggs were completely verboten. And so my mom just adjusted the menus to make sure I always had something. This wasn’t too hard if you follow a lot of the recipes in magazines of the era of my childhood. Below you’ll see a few of what I would’ve considered my favourites from those days. Stray too far from this menu and I might need someone to make me a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner. (But please, no tomato soup – that’s on the NO list!)

You can’t go too wrong with fish sticks and tater tots. Mix a little mayonnaise and relish together to make some tartar sauce and you’ll have one of my favourite things to eat.

The fish bear no resemblance to anything that lived in the sea. It was minced up, breaded, deep fried, covered in salt, and frozen. Toss them in an oven for 20 minutes and they’re done. Oh, and hey! That’s what the tater tots are also: mince up, bread, deep fry, salt and freeze some potatoes.

Sloppy joes were as likely to be found at home as at school and the formula is the same. Fry some ground beef, add tomato sauce (NO PEPPERS OR ONIONS!!!), tomato paste, brown sugar, and a little bit of chilli powder (no, not red chilli powder – that’s too spicy! the Mexican blend of cumin, oregano, and coriander and a TINY bit of actual red chilli), toss in some corn and simmer. Toast some hamburger buns and spoon the beef mixture over the top. The photo isn’t fully accurate, though. There would be no coriander on the top of the ones my mom would make. In fact, it would be the early 1990’s when I was in my early 20’s before I would even know that coriander existed in the world.

Ah yes, “Tuna Wiggle”. No, I don’t know why the word “wiggle” is in there. Yes, even then it made me think of worms and other wiggly things. But we still liked it. This would be served in our school lunches (only $0.35 when I started school!) and my mom would make it also. Another simple one: make a white sauce with flour, butter and milk, add canned flaked tuna, peas (FOR GOD’S SAKE’S FROZEN NOT CANNED!), salt and pepper. (NOT TOO MUCH PEPPER THAT IS SPICY!!!). Toast some Wonder bread and spoon it over.

Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast – another one from school and home. At school they would serve this on instant mashed potatoes. (Potatoes that had been ground up, freeze dried and in powder form. Add water/milk and reconstitute. Like the paste we’d use in art class but with less of a noticeable flavour). Take the same white sauce you would make for tuna wiggle above, add “chipped beef” – this is thinly sliced beef that had been cured with a huge dose of salt.

A variation of this theme that my dad liked to have was called “SOS” which stands for “Shit on a Shingle” – a name it earned in the military mess halls where I think my dad first had it. Make a white sauce, add fried ground beef, and pour that mixture over, you guessed it, toasted Wonder bread (the “Shingle”).

Tuna Noodle Casserole. Casseroles were a huge thing in my family. Put a bunch of ingredients in a casserole dish, toss them in the oven for 30 minutes. Instant dinner. In this case it was egg noodles, canned tuna, peas, milk, and cheese. If you’re adventurous you could add pepper to this also. Or not. After all, if your palate has not even discovered fresh coriander yet, you might go in to shock.

This casserole was one of my favourites and probably was my mom’s as well. In her version she would fry some ground beef, add a can of corn – most families used whole corn but my mom was adventurous and would use creamed corn. Imagine corn tossed in a blender with a bit of sugar and made smooth enough that you could drink it with a large bubble tea straw. Pour that mixture in to a casserole dish, top with mashed potatoes. If your family is fancy maybe you’ll top with a bit of shredded cheese or even paprika. We weren’t so fancy. (See warning about fresh coriander and shock above.)

This one was a later addition to our regular dinner menu. Cook up a couple of boxes of Kraft Mac & Cheese (or Kraft Dinner as it’s called in Canada). While the water is coming to a boil, open a can of Spam. No, not emails promising cheap Viagra, but the original Spam: canned pork product. Cut it in to small cubes. If you’re out of Spam or want some variety, you can cut up some hot dogs instead. Or hey – you only live once, why not add both? Mix it all together with a little bit of garlic powder and toss in the oven. Cook until everything is hot and serve with a bit of ketchup if you like that sort of thing. Be sure to have an ample supply of Kool-Aid Tropical Punch or Tab cola (both in unlimited supply in our fridge) on hand to wash it down. There is enough salt in this dish to turn your tongue in to Spam as well.

With this as my childhood, one might wonder how I got to where I am now, loving delicious foods from around the world with fresh vegetables and more seasoning than just salt and dash of pepper. When I got to be older I had a couple of experiences that changed me. The first was going to work doing odd jobs for a family who provided lunch. They made fried egg sandwiches. I was very hungry and also was raised to just eat whatever was given to me when I was a guest. And so I ate it – and loved it! And then when I was 14 I went to a summer program for high school students at Cornell University. Often friends and I would order out pizza and I wouldn’t be the one to say no to other’s choices and look like a fool – and imagine that: I liked most of it (except black olives and mushrooms – I still am not a fan). After that my mind opened wide. I’ll try just about anything and love most of it. Vegetables are now a favourite of mine. To be fair, if they were cooked like they were when I was a kid – boiled to within an inch of their lives – I would still despise them

Meanwhile, Sage was the opposite. She was raised to eat what was given to her – and all of it. Her dad also used limited seasoning. His stated reasons were different, though. He wanted to be healthy and for a time was even macrobiotic. I think that if you lived in California in the late 70’s and early 80’s it was mandatory for all citizens to have been macrobiotic for at least a year to be granted residency. And her dad did just that. So for her most everything was steamed, and there was one seasoning: soy sauce. So her dinners looked like this.

To this day she will not eat broccoli or millet. If I roast broccoli in the house she will open windows and burn incense to cover the smell. Millet isn’t even allowed in our house and she won’t eat it in any form. She won’t even try bajra roti because in her heart she thinks that eating it will, perhaps, take her back to San Jose in 1982 and really, who wants to go back to having Ronald Reagan as president?

And so she would sit for hours at the table in a standoff with her dad with a meal like that in front of her. She couldn’t leave until she ate everything no matter how little she liked it even if that meant falling asleep at the table.

As an adult she’s become relatively fussy – or maybe, like you, she discovered she had much narrower preferences than she once knew. She also has an odd quirk in that generally she also has to leave just a little bit left on her plate – perhaps as a subconscious @(*& you to her dad.

As parents we couldn’t have been more different than our own parents. We eat food from around the world, much of it spicy, all of it with lots of different flavours. We never made Daegan eat anything he didn’t want to but we asked him to at least give the food a try. He wasn’t particularly fussy – there were only a couple of things he didn’t like and that meant that it wasn’t a big deal for us to work around it.

So it seems like in our family, being allowed to choose to eat the foods we like – no matter how horrifying they might look to us a few decades later – results in a willingness to try more and eat more different foods in the future. And for Sage, forcing her to eat motivated her to be much more choosy about what she ate as a grown-up.

Or maybe it’s all speculation. Maybe my tastes just changed as a grown-up and Daegan was born with a more “open-minded” palate and Sage was always that picky but only got to be that picky as an adult.

What do you think? How were you raised? What are your preferences like now as an adult?

13 thoughts on “Childhood Eating Habits

    1. Same here. But in a ridiculous coincidence – while I was writing that, Sage was out at the grocery store buying the ingredients for tuna noodle casserole. Neither of us knew what the other was up to. Too funny!

  1. MMM YUM! We had the tuna wriggle, but with canned salmon and diced hardboiled eggs.My mom’s comfort food.

    Also combo – do the kraft mac n cheese but add the tuna and veggies for cheesy tuna casserole. 😀

    I half expected to see shipwreck or seven layer dinner. Layer potato slices, onions, rice (uncooked), sliced carrots, frozen peas, some hamburger, then a can of tomato soup on top and a can full of water. Bake for.. an hour or so? Ugly but good.

    1. I forgot about adding tuna to Kraft Dinner. We didn’t do that often but it was on the list. I never heard of seven layer dinner which is a surprise. I feel like there is a fair bit of cultural overlap between NB and New England.

      Also as I’m now a Canadian citizen I probably should’ve also mentioned the other name I know for Shepherd’s Pie: Pâté Chinois. I’m not entirely sure what China had to do with Shepherd’s pie but I remember being very excited to try a new dish when I went to the cafeteria at work in Quebec City years ago. Nope – no new dish, just time travel back to Vermont in 1982.

  2. I think most kids are picky in their food habits and they rarely change over the course of life unless they are in a situation where they have to i.e. army life etc. I know only a handful kids who will eat everything. So I guess that’s how it is for the kids brought up in cities.

    1. For sure – there’s definitely an element of privilege at play as well. Many (most?) families can’t afford to indulge all of the preferences of all of the children. So for some I imagine this could be an odd conversation.

  3. That’s a lot of variety of people in the same family with different kinds of upbringing. Did you make all of these dishes again or did you have these pictures stored from the past?
    I used to be quite choosy as a child and young adult and whined about the food my mom prepared but since the time I started living alone, I am a different person and I eat whatever is easy to prepare. Now, I feel really bad thinking of all the times that I troubled my mom whining about the food she prepared.

  4. I think we were not very picky during childhood. My father used to say that we should eat what my mother prepared. We are vegetarians. Every summer vacations my brother and I used to our maternal grandparents’ home in a small town. My parents had made it clear that we should eat whatever my grandmother made because there were so many at home. We enjoyed those vacations. I never used to like bitter gourd but it is one of my favourite vegetables now. Fortunately, our children were not very fussy. I used to tell them they should eat what I have prepared at least once, either for lunch or dinner. But to be frank I always prepared what they liked when I made something for us which they did not really like 🙂

    1. Are you talking about karela? I hadn’t had it until I was in my 30’s. A coworker brought some in – stuffed – and it was delicious. Since then I’ve loved it. But as an adult I love bitter things.

      When we were in Bangalore we went to an Andhra style restaurant and OMG they had the best karela I’ve ever had. It wasn’t even bitter at all. I only knew what it was by how it looked. I had to have seconds that time.

      It sounds like we manage our meal planning about the same. Sage and Daegan both have things they don’t like – Sage has more things that she doesn’t like. Unless I’m really craving something (like karela) that not everyone likes, I’ll make things everyone can enjoy.

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