I have recently launched a kid into the big wide world. I have found myself thinking a lot about how I fared as a parent – what worked and what didn’t. Our household had just started transitioning to meal planning and real food when Link left for university. Sometimes I could kick myself for not starting earlier. Here’s a look back at the evolution of our family meals.
OK, things were different 18 years ago!
Early adoption of cereals, followed by store-bought baby-food jars of vegetables. Ate mashed bananas and avocadoes, and then baby-food fruit in jars, some with added tapioca. Started eating real vegetables (peas and carrots) at 7 months, and chewed on finger foods at 8 months (crackers, cheese). By 11 months, rejected prepared baby foods.
Maternity leave in Canada was only 6 months at that time, so Link was in full-time childcare at 6 months. We had some great caregivers over the years, with only a few bad incidents. I used to send plain Cheerios for Link to nibble on during the day. One caregiver told me not to bother; she would provide them. I later found out she was giving Link Froot Loops!
At one year, liked eggs, beans and pasta; refused baby cereals; ate oatmeal; drank whole milk. Started eating with a fork at 18 months. No separate meals were made; just served plain versions of grown-up food. Liked raisins and graham crackers for snacks. Decided to allow candy on a moderate basis so it wouldn’t become a longed-for obsession.
Cheerios or Rice Krispies for breakfast; occasionally cinnamon toast. Brought only whole-grain bread into the house. Link didn’t like meat very much; added protein powder (made with pea flour) to parmesan and put it on pasta! Wouldn’t eat any combined foods, such as casseroles. Visiting friends’ homes, implemented a no-complaint policy: Link could take or leave anything offered, but was not allowed to make any negative comments, or ask for additional foods. I found that the meals offered at childcare were quite skimpy in an attempt to save money on quality foods, so we had to make it up at home. Similar to the incident mentioned above, a caregiver told me once that the kids were having chicken noodle soup for lunch, and I later found out it was ramen noodles. We lived in the US at this time, so I had to buy organic, non-rBGH milk.
I found this the toughest time because there was so much peer pressure at both school and daycare. This is when Lunchables came out – and they had Pokemon cards on the back! (They were pre-packaged lunches containing things like crackers, salami, and pudding). The kids wrangled fiercely to get complete sets of McDonalds kids’ meal toys. I am sad to report that we probably went to McDonalds or Burger King twice a week. There seemed to be birthday parties every weekend, and school parties for every occasion. I was a single parent, and after daycare pick-up time, I needed to get something on the table in half an hour, so we cut a lot of corners. One of our default meals was Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese, another was beans and toast. Our best habit was that we’d splurge on expensive fruit, such as pineapple, mangoes or strawberries, as a treat. Link also had some amusing tastes – would not eat anything with tomato sauce in it, but loved fish!
Things took a turn for the better when we moved long-distance and lived near my extended family again. Link got used to eating family meals with relatives. As a bonus, my parents raised chickens, turkeys and trout; we could pick apples and berries locally; and we lived near a farm stand. Link would go bake cookies with Nannie. I was out of work for a year, and had time to create some healthier routines around meals. The biggest change was that my home town has a frugal/homemade culture, and most of the kids’ competition around junk food and merchandise disappeared.
My career kicked into high gear again. I was not very satisfied with Link’s schooling, but was unable to homeschool (as a single income earner), so we developed a busy schedule of enrichment activities. We limited our fast food to once a week, but actually got tired of it and gave it up voluntarily. We figured out a few quick suppers, such as rice-and-beans or pasta-and-meatballs, and ate them often. Our biggest vice was eating breaded chicken strips or breaded fish with oven-baked frozen French fries a couple of days a week. Link had never liked “real” meats so they were our go-to protein foods. Link developed an aversion for breakfast and got by on granola bars and Mini-Wheats for a couple of years before giving up breakfast entirely, to my dismay.
In junior high school, I was proud of Link for being willing to take packed lunches to school, and even tote re-useable containers back and forth. We lived on the same block as the senior high school, so when Link was in grades 10-12, friends would come home at mid-day and Link would cook them lunch! Another cute hobby was taking friends home after school and baking cookies or brownies.
Because Link had always liked beans and vegetables, we started serving chili, curries and stir fries regularly, so the dreaded “no mixed foods” rule ended! As an added bonus, these took quite a while to prepare, so we no longer felt the need to have dinner on the table immediately after work, and started enjoying food prep time.
I had remarried when Link was 16 and we enjoyed having family meals together. We had some nice family rituals, like making mushroom omelettes on Sundays. After giving up fast food, Link eventually tired of breaded meats and asked not to have them any more. Over the years, real meats were served at all family meals (grandparents’ home), so perhaps a tolerance was built up. I was quite surprised when Link became willing to eat real chicken, pork and beef, and not just fish. I had expected Link would become a vegetarian, but instead, Link is rather boldly carnivorous – this might have something to do with the fact that the grandparents raised their own meat, and my brother is a game hunter.
So in Link’s senior year of high school, we started meal planning as a family, and Link had to do a share of choosing meals, making grocery lists and preparing evening meals. The planning part worked out fine. Sometimes Link’s cooking nights were rescheduled to a less busy night – but never cancelled! The net result was that Link learned to cook favourite family meals before leaving home, and developed some interest in cooking as well as baking.
Now (almost 19)
Link is living solo now and is responsible for maintaining a bachelor apartment while attending university full-time. On the negative side, Link still doesn’t eat breakfast, and a recent Doritos fixation had to be stopped because of stomach problems! On the plus side, Link makes chili, stir fries and casseroles most weekends, and eats them throughout the week. And, inviting a bunch of friends over for a simple dinner is a preferred activity!
Despite our years of fast food, breaded food, prepared and frozen food; we have all turned out OK. All of us are feeling better than ever now. It’s been quite a journey. I could never tell any other family how to eat, but I see now that there were “tipping points” or opportunities for change every once in a while, and by acting on them, we moved toward healthier eating. It only took 18 years 🙂