Coming from a divorced family, I grew up in two very different homes. One of the most significant differences was the experience around food.
My mom was a food writer, had started cooking at four and was making family meals by the time she was eight. All of our traditions on her side of the family were based around food, my mother, my aunt, my grandmother and I spent hours in the kitchen preparing dinners, and the stories at the dinner table revolved around these family meals. My grandfather and uncle were hunters, so the meat was usually pheasant, venison or duck. I was taught at a very young age how to make sides of potato dumplings and sauerkraut from the recipes my great grandparents had brought with them from Czechoslovakia.
At home it was just my mother and myself, and while dinner was casual and I often ate while immersed in a book, my mom was always testing out recipes, so the meals were fairly elaborate. Her meals were healthy, in that they were made from scratch and from whole foods, but they were often quite rich, as many of her recipes called for heavy cream and butter. Because it was just us, I would frequently take breaks while eating, go play, and come back to finish when I was hungry again. We called it grazing. The one rule was that I had to cover my food with a bowl before I left or it was fair game for the cat. We ate dessert every night.
By contrast, at my fathers house, food was for sustenance and was very sparse. We had oatmeal for breakfast with a pat of butter, cheese sandwiches for lunch, and dinner was rice and beans with salad on the side, or polenta and cheese with steamed vegetables, spaghetti, or my personal undoing - chicken livers and steamed chard with lemon. As a kid, I sometimes preferred the simplicity of these meals, but the portions were always too large. If dinner was something I didn’t like, the evenings were endless. I would sit and push food around on my plate, while my Dad would wash dishes and proclaim that I would sit there until I’d eaten every last bite. Threats were made that if I didn’t eat it for dinner, I would eat it for breakfast, and if I didn’t eat it for breakfast I would eat it for lunch. Dinner was a battle of the wills, and there were nights I sat until bedtime waiting for my Dad to give up in exasperation so he could finally clear my plate.
At his parents house, my grandfather made classic american breakfasts of bacon, eggs and hash browns, and for dinner my grandmother made thick, brown, Irish stews with chunks of beef, and vegetables from my grandfathers garden. My grandfather had an enormous garden in the lot below my fathers house. I would spend hours with him learning the names of all the vegetables, eating sun cooked corn on the cob right out of the husk, and he always carried a pocket sized salt shaker to sprinkle on kohlrabi and melons, that he’d slice with a pocket knife and serve to me right there in the garden.
I have take-aways from both experiences. As a teenager, to be different, I refused to learn to cook. This infuriated my mothers father, and he would quiz me on how I was going to find a husband if I wouldn’t cook for him. The years spent watching my family in the kitchen have since paid off and I cook quite well. I have a husband that I cook for, and he also cooks for me.
I’ve learned, as an adult, that it’s important to listen to the signals telling me that my body’s full, and that solving the worlds hunger crisis is not going to be accomplished by my eating three more bites. While I’m certainly grateful for an abundance of food, I can stop eating when I’m full without feeling guilty.
The most important take-away I’ve received from both sides of my family of origin, and the one I incorporate into my own families way of life, is the importance of eating fresh, whole foods, made with quality ingredients. While we fluctuate from simple to elaborate meals, depending on the occasion, we tend to cook everything from scratch. We talk a lot about food. Where it comes from, how it’s made, the difference between processed foods and unadulterated foods. While my kids don’t have anything resembling the gardens I grew up around, we do shop at the farmers market and we visit farms during the summer time to pick our own fruit.
Food is much more complex than just sustenance. Because we depend on it for survival, we’re wired to respond to it emotionally. When we factor in all of our family traditions and celebrations, it’s no wonder we’re faced with a lot more challenges when changing our diet than just changing the way we shop.
Writing down your experience will help you identify why you make the food choices you do, and better assist you in unblocking any barriers that are limiting you from progressing to a healthier diet. What were your family traditions around food, and how has that shaped your relationship with food today?