I’ve been cooking professionally for more than a decade, but I didn’t really get the joys – and challenges – of cooking for a family until last year, when I became engaged to a Montclair man and his 9-year old daughter.
I know I can cook–heck, I teach home cooking classes, but I didn’t really get it.
When we were first dating, we’d cook and eat meals together. But once I moved in and started doing the food shopping, and she started asking for this and that, combined with me being an all around Type-A, determined-to-cook-one-meal-for-the-family, that we could all enjoy, that’s when things got trickier.
Plus I was determined to avoid the kid-food crutches, so no chicken fingers, pizza delivery or chips. I didn’t want to go down the path of processed foods or store-made junk. I wanted to home cook everything, as I had been doing for years on my own. Sort of like the mom who makes all her own baby-food, except my newborn was nine.
And then something changed. This summer, my fiancé, stepdaughter and I spent a week in North Carolina with my nephews, ages 2 and 4, and I got a lesson in what real kids eat. The pantry was filled with microwaveable mac-and-cheese, mini Oreos, Goldfish–the treats parents give their kids when they’re trying to get them to eat something – anything – for dinner. Vacation food.
My stepdaughter ate with her cousins and loved it. She begged me to have some of these foods at home, saying, “This is what normal kids eat.”
After a year of prim pantries, I finally thought: what the heck? My nephews seem no worse for wear, and I’ve never seen her this happy to eat.
When we came back from vacation, I headed to the Clifton Super Stop & Shop and filled my basket with all the foods she enjoyed. Cheese-and-peanut butter things, mini Oreos, Ritz crackers, string cheese, 3 kinds of Goldfish, Fudgsicles, and yes…mac and cheese. I had cooked many homemade mac and cheeses in my Montclair tenure, but this, this was the stuff of joy in my new home.
For the next week, when she came home from camp, she’d throw open the pantry doors, see her beloved processed food and hug me, saying how happy she was to have this food in the house. She told me she was thrilled riding the bus, just thinking about the food that was waiting for her.
“It’s not food, it’s crap, but I’m glad you like it,” I’d say, shaking my head. Gone were my dried beans, lentils, anchovy paste and imported pastas: we had to make way for crap.
“Can I have mac and cheese for dinner?”
“Sure you can.”
“Can I sit in front of the TV and watch?”
I give an inch, she’s wanting a one-way ticket to Crazytown. But what the heck, I was on a roll. “Yes you can.”
“You are the best Allison ever!” Of course, my fiancé was convinced I’d lost my mind.
A few days later, while I was preparing an August dinner of grilled chicken, zucchini, and tomato salad, and she was gearing up to eat who knows what, she said, “You know, I’ve been thinking. Maybe I should start to eat a little healthier again.”
“Sure,” I said. “You’re always welcome to eat healthy.”
And that night, she sat down to dinner, eating the same food she’d pushed around her plate weeks ago, and went on and on about how wonderful and delicious the food was.
Something happened during that craptastic experiment; when I took the taboo out of the junk, it became a lot less interesting to her. And somehow, my homemade food became the object of her desire.
Moving forward, I intend to keep a little crap in the closet. Seems like that’s the best way to ensure it isn’t eaten.
By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.