Family planning

Managing household food preferences

April 21, 2010

“Are you buying for an orphanage?” the grocery checker asked, eyeing the three overflowing carts that my mother and my two oldest brothers were maneuvering through the checkout line. “Because if you’re buying for an orphanage, you get a 10 percent discount.”

We were newcomers to this small town on Lake Michigan, where my dad had been hired to run the local pulp mill. So Mom smiled politely (one of the many things she did well) and said calmly, “No, just stocking our kitchen.”

How did her mother cope with feeding a family of 10? She drank three pots of coffee a day and read a lot of murder mysteries.

Are you buying for an orphanage? It became one of our family stories, and we eight kids laughed about it. But Mom was humiliated and angry — so angry, she said later, that she was tempted to say yes and get the discount, even though she knew the truth would catch up with her. Small towns are like that.

“I can’t comprehend asking such a question,” she would say, shaking her head. “That town didn’t even have an orphanage.”

Here’s what I’m unable to comprehend: Planning, shopping, cooking, and supervising kitchen clean-up, day in and day out, year after year, for 34 long years, until the youngest of your eight kids (me!) finally leaves for college.

Here’s another thing I can’t comprehend: My mother never complained about the sheer volume of effort and creativity demanded by cooking for that many people. Not in my hearing, anyway. Of course, she did drink three pots of percolated coffee a day, and she read a lot of murder mysteries. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Unlike my calm, competent mother, I whine incessantly about food duties. Also, I swear a lot during all phases of food procurement, preparation, and clean-up. You’d think I was cooking for Napoleon’s army — or an orphanage — instead of for four people.

Occasionally I remember what my mom faced and wonder: What’s wrong with me? I have it so easy compared to her!

In my defense, however, I ask you to note the following:

  1. My mother did not have to consider gluten intolerance. She was a terrific baker, and our house usually smelled like fresh-baked bread or warm cookies. Homemade bread or rolls were an integral part of most meals. I inherited both her love of baking and her talent for it.
  2. My mother did not have to consider vegetarianism. At least, not until the late 1960s, at which point she gave my teenaged hippie sister the freedom to prepare and cook her own food, until the unfortunate “Grow Your Own Bean Sprouts” stink-and-moldfest of 1970. My own teenaged hippie daughter has not asked to grow bean sprouts. Yet.
  3. My mother did not have to consider lactose intolerance. We lived on dairy. We thrived on dairy. Our second refrigerator was stocked with several back-up gallons of milk at all times. I learned to drink directly from the carton by watching my brothers. Strangely, this skill has also been displayed by my teenaged daughter, who has no older brothers to learn it from. Perhaps it is genetic rather than learned behavior.
  4. My mother never considered making different foods for different people, and I salute her for that. Dinner was dinner, and you ate it or you didn’t. There was always the cereal cupboard if you didn’t like meatloaf and baked potatoes and green beans, something I have gotten increasingly skilled at pointing out to my own children.
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I, on the other hand, must consider Items 1, 2 and 3, above, which makes it hard to stay out of the trap of Item 4. Our family consists of one vegetarian (the milk-carton-sucking teenager), one gluten-intolerant husband, one lactose-intolerant preteen, three pets whose food allergies continue to surprise and confuse me, and one omnivore. No prizes for guessing I’m the last one on that list.

The dinner scene at my house undoubtedly has my mother rolling her eyes (and probably flapping her angel wings in bemusement). Picture, if you will, the supposedly simple pasta dinner: Two large pots of boiling, salted water. One package of wheat pasta and one package of rice pasta and two different cooking times. One pan with homemade vegetarian spaghetti sauce. Another pan with the same spaghetti sauce and sweet Italian sausage. One loaf of garlic bread in the oven. Two slices of non-gluten bread cooling in the toaster. A small bowl of Parmesan cheese for those who can tolerate it. A big bowl of greens with dressing on the side, because the kids hate “salad sauce.” Sliced apples and peppers for those who don’t like greens.

The results? Chaos, impatience, cold pasta, and colder non-gluten toast. And, yes, swearing, another thing I never knew my mom to do in the kitchen, except that time the pressure cooker exploded and we had to wipe split-pea soup off every surface, including the ceiling.

So you can roll your heavenly eyes, Mom, but here’s what I’ve learned about juggling intolerances and dietary preferences:

  1. The freezer is your friend. We have a full-sized freezer in the garage stuffed with essentials, including cooked edamame, which the veggie teen eats straight out of the bag; frozen bean-and-cheese burritos, which the 10-year-old can nuke on her own; meatloaf waiting to be cooked; bags of chopped veggies ready to hop into a saucepan; and ice cream, soy-based ice cream, popsicles, and frozen homemade cookies.
  2. A little planning goes a long way. Every sauce I start is vegetarian; ditto every soup. If necessary, partway through the process, I put half of the liquid into another pan and add whatever meat I’m using. This won’t satisfy hard-core carnivores, but it works for us.
  3. There are a LOT of gluten-free baking mixes out there, some quite heinous. Our current favorite is from Pamela’s Baking Products. I still bake mostly with wheat, however, and my husband’s gotten really good at whipping up his own pancakes.
  4. Don’t be too hard on your household vegetarian if she asks to leave the table earlier than you’d like. If it’s a “cruelty against animals” issue, it can be really hard for such a person to sit through a meat-centric meal.
  5. Eggs are also your friend. Probably once a week I heat sliced veggies in a large saucepan, toss in some whipped-up eggs, and let it cook over a very low flame. Slap some hash browns on the side (from your freezer, remember?) and everybody’s happy. And if they’re not? There’s always the cereal cupboard. Or the freezer (burritos, remember?).
  6. Get your kids involved, especially if they have food preferences or intolerances that increase your kitchen workload.
  7. All hell will not break loose if your children hear you swearing.

In fact, if I’d been my mom, I probably would have said to that grocery clerk, “Hell, no, I’m not buying for an orphanage,” and then we would have been known as “that family whose mom swore at Emmeline down at the A&P,” because small towns are like that.

Instead, my friends told me they loved being at our house, because my mom was kind and our home smelled like fresh bread. I’ll bet my mom would take that over a 10 percent orphanage discount any day.

Meg Descamp doles out advice at her blog; her book Slug Tossing and Other Adventures of a Reluctant Gardener was published by Sasquatch Books in 1998.

There are 22 comments on this item
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1. by Allison Cash on Apr 21, 2010 at 8:17 AM PDT

I suggest King Arthur Flour’s gluten-free baking mixes. Really good stuff.
Great post, I enjoyed it. Taking on cooking for the family is a job I underestimated before I did it!

2. by Betsy on Apr 21, 2010 at 9:36 AM PDT

For the child who cringes about animal cruelty, I recommend her mother consider procuring only pasture fed and finished meats. In that bargain goes humane slaughter. If she can stomach it, Temple Grandin’s book (title forgotten, lost in the kitchen, no doubt) about how she single handedly transformed beef slaughter in the US (not all, but many, slaughterhouses) is wonderful.

And I’d be more concerned with the suffering of living on a feedlot more than the suffering at death, but that’s just me. I ate my own cow once.

3. by CentreofNowhere on Apr 21, 2010 at 9:46 AM PDT

As a fellow food prep/cook swearer, I loved this post. LOVED it. Three picky-eaters plus a husband, and I have an idea about where you’re coming from (no allergies, tho, thankfully). Now I’m scanning the weekend fliers for a decent freezer.

4. by Meg DesCamp on Apr 21, 2010 at 12:03 PM PDT

Thanks for the comments! Upon re-reading the article, I realized that the “bean and cheese burrito” reference for the lactose-intolerant preteen might be confusing. Join me in my confusion: she can usually eat cheese with no issues, and she’s recently started to add milk back into her diet without bad effects. Maybe it was a funky hormonal stage. I’ve stopped trying to figure this stuff out.
Allison, we haven’t tried the King Arthur mixes, so I’ll put them on the shopping list.
Betsy, we buy local and humanely-raised/slaughtered animals, but the teenager is firm in not eating any animals at all, no matter what their life was like. I totally get where she’s coming from, but I really enjoy eating meat.
And CentreofNowhere, I would blow up without my extra freezer. It’s saved me more times than I can think.

5. by marsha chmielewski on Apr 21, 2010 at 12:39 PM PDT

This article was great!! I enjoyed the humor of your adult life now, and the “orphanage story” made me laugh and cry. I remember the warmth of your house and your mom’s kindness. You can’t beat growing up in a small town!! You make Manistee proud with your successes. I look forward to reading more from you.

6. by Meg DesCamp on Apr 21, 2010 at 1:10 PM PDT

Aw, Marsha, now I’m blushing! And swearing...time to figure out what’s for dinner tonight.

7. by Anne on Apr 21, 2010 at 4:52 PM PDT

I second Marsha’s comments. I looked forward to walking to your house after school on Fridays, knowing we’d walk in and your mom would be pulling a fresh loaf of bread out of the oven, getting us settled down and cleaned up and then serving up a thick slice with butter (real butter!). Those were the days in our small, Lake Michigan town.

8. by Sustainable Eats on Apr 21, 2010 at 7:27 PM PDT

As a swearing short order cook I loved this story. I do also pull fresh bread out of the oven on a regular basis but think all the time about the countless women before me who have done this with unparalleled style and grace. I need to work on the style and grace part a little bit harder.

9. by dawn Nelson on Apr 21, 2010 at 9:32 PM PDT

Great post Meg. It confirms that I have a pretty typical family. My two “boys” will eat anything and not complain, but my daughter is a frequent visitor to the cereal cupboard.

10. by Dee on Apr 22, 2010 at 3:30 AM PDT

Meg, I enjoy your humor and your wit. You sincerely crack me up and I love you for it!


11. by zegg on Apr 22, 2010 at 7:47 AM PDT

I don’t have any food intolerances to cope with, but one very picky eater, and the other and her dad both solid meat eaters while I would very much like to cut down on meat. But cooking separate meals is too much for me. The picky eater sometimes gets hardly anything she likes to eat, other days I’ll cook her favorite (for everyone). For myself I’m experimenting with cooking up chickpeas/beans and only enough meat for the meat-eaters. But it’s still twice as much work....

12. by redweather on Apr 22, 2010 at 9:59 AM PDT

zegg - i encourage you to try a “meatless Monday” (or Tuesday, or Wednesday...) with your family, to go with the night you dedicate to your picky eater. i went veggie a year ago and was lucky enough to have a family, friends, and boyfriend who all support my meatless eating - i bet your family would too.

13. by Meg DesCamp on Apr 22, 2010 at 10:17 AM PDT

Zegg & Redweather: I love the “meatfree Monday” idea. One thing I’ve done in the past (and keep meaning to reinstitute) is to have one night a week be the Same Damn Thing every week. For a long time, it was Taco Tuesday, easy to do meatless or meaty, since everyone builds her/his own taco from the cute little bowls that you’ve filled with chopped/cooked/shredded goodies. Also: I will sometimes cook up a whole bunch of bulk Italian sausage, or make spicy taco meat filling, let it cool, and then pack it in small containers and shove it in the freezer. This saves so much time and hassle during dinner prep. Just be sure to label each package as to contents and date; nasty surprises are not what we need at mealtime.
Sustainable Eats: I, too, am distinctly lacking in the style and grace department, unless there’s a way to swear gracefully. Which I doubt.
And to all my wonderful long-lost friends from that small town on Lake Michigan: Thanks! Your comments have brought back wonderful memories for me.

14. by zegg on Apr 22, 2010 at 10:23 AM PDT

One thing I’ve had success with is the “make your own pasta topping” night, when I have veggies on my penne and they get to chop up ham and grate cheese for theirs. But no luck whatsoever getting anyone else to eat beans/lentils etc. Completely “Meatless monday’s” would have everyone else cooking their own dinner (and they are all good at cooking what they like - my husband would happily do all the cooking so that he could have red meat every day).

15. by Meg DesCamp on Apr 22, 2010 at 10:35 AM PDT

I LOVE the idea of “everyone else cooking their own dinner” especially if they’d be happy doing so. I also love the “make your own pasta topping” idea and I’m going to steal that for my next pasta night. As for the rest of it, sounds as if you’re on your own in VeggieLand--at least right now.

16. by Pat Jennings on Apr 24, 2010 at 12:10 PM PDT

Meg, I remember going to your house to play with Mark (when I was a little kid) and the smell of baking bread. That is one of the best smells that I remember from my childhood!

17. by Meg DesCamp on Apr 26, 2010 at 11:17 AM PDT

Pat, I had no idea my mom’s bread-baking influenced so many kids outside our family, and it’s wonderful to hear about it. I guess this inspires me to bake even more often than I do. Who knows what innocent kid’s memory bank will be permanently, and positively, impacted by the smell and taste of homemade bread?

18. by Marlena Amalfitano on Apr 28, 2010 at 3:07 PM PDT

I had a family like that. I used a large calendar on which I planned meals for a month - all 3, as 3 of us were on rotation diets. We would have a basic meal which everyone could eat and small extras for individuals. crazy making, but we all survived - even me.

19. by Meg DesCamp on Apr 30, 2010 at 1:06 PM PDT

Holy cow, Marlena. You and my mom would have loved each other--she was extremely well organized. My hat’s off to you. Given your meal-prep circumstances, I would have run shrieking into the pantry and stayed there.

20. by Sue at FNMusings on May 1, 2010 at 10:20 AM PDT

I would love to know how she really DID do it. Did any of the kids help? Please may we have a follow-up post? My own mother began to rely on all those awful time-savers in the 60’s and 70’s. Cream of Mushroom Soup on top of chicken (with Minute rice!) became one of her favorite meals. I don’t blame her, though. I don’t know how any of us did anything without a microwave. And not for cooking, but for reheating and prep.

21. by Sustainable Eats on May 1, 2010 at 1:05 PM PDT

Sue it’s totally do-able. I make everything from scratch. I grow all our produce, we have chickens for eggs and I source local meats & dairy & grains & legumes. I have 2 small kids who help. You just need to plan ahead and work tonight on tomorrow’s meals. It’s honestly not too much more prep work than what you are doing now likely. Most of the extra time is inactive. If you click on my link it will take you to my blog so you can get an idea of what we eat. I hope it inspires you to make more and support evil corporations less!

22. by Meg DesCamp on May 3, 2010 at 2:08 PM PDT

@Sue: To be perfectly honest, as the youngest of the crowd, I don’t remember too much beyond the fact that dinner was always on the table at six o’clock and it was always (and I mean always) home-made. The town we lived in had no take-out pizza joint until I was in high school, and eating out with such a huge family was prohibitively expensive, anyway. Catholics of a certain age will remember the Friday Night Fish Fry--we went out for Friday night dinner probably twice a month. Mom was really organized, which I imagine helped an immense amount (Sustainable Eats: yes to the organization!). By the time I got more conscious, my three oldest brothers were off at college and the herd was somewhat thinned. As far as helping, we certainly did. We did some prep (I still hate making salads!), including setting the table, and we did almost all the clean-up. Also, I remember that someone (usually my closest brother) always held Mom’s chair for her, and no-one ever started eating until Mom was seated at the table. And while I remember the occasional Cream of Mushroom/chicken thing, mostly I remember REAL food. The thing that most amazes me is that not only did she run the house well, but she also was a really active volunteer AND she read a huge amount AND she tolerated us in the kitchen, especially when it came to making desserts. And we had people over for dinner a lot. Sometimes dinner guests were out-of-towners who were working with my dad, and sometimes they were school or church-related guests. Really, looking back at what I’ve just written makes me feel totally inadequate. I guess she ran on equal parts determination and organization--and coffee!

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