Some days it seems like we just finished breakfast and already it’s time to think about lunch. And just after lunch, there’s dinner to figure out. How can human beings have to eat so often? I love food, love to eat, often love to cook and bake as well, but there is a part of me that longs for astronaut meal pouches or maybe a Star Trek replicator.
It is not enough to simply get some food on the table so that we can refuel.
First, there are preferences to keep in mind.
My son struggles with new foods or even new combinations of familiar foods. He may take an unexpected turn away from an old favorite any day. After asking for pancakes nearly every morning for a year, he suddenly recoils if pancakes are even suggested. He won’t eat fish or eggs or tofu. On the bright side, he will eat every vegetable in the world and even cheers for Brussels sprouts.
My husband doesn’t like to eat butter, cheese, or milk. He won’t eat tofu either, and he hates much spice.
Then, there is balance to consider.
Did my son get the questionable treat of a Big Mac for lunch? Then it’s definitely big salads and fruit smoothies for dinner. Was there cheese at lunch? Everyone but me will complain if dinner is also cheesy. Has my son gotten enough calories? Has he gotten enough fruit and vegetables? Enough protein?
There is the eating well factor.
Much as I long for a silver pouch that provides all the nutrients we need in a meal, I’m actually a bit of a food snob. My husband could eat a soy burger and a plate of greens—no dressing—at every meal, and my son would be thrilled with a rotating menu of burgers, nachos, and spaghetti, maybe spiced up occasionally with chili dogs. But I want to eat well. I’m a sucker for words like local, organic, and grass-fed. I love the idea of “quick and convenient” cooking, but I rarely like the taste, which is so often underdeveloped and one-note. And I notice that my son is becoming a bit of a food snob too. He has a thoughtful palate and strong opinions—and he’s usually right on in his criticisms of new recipes.
And of course there is the daily battle with time.
How much time do I truly have in a day to plan, shop for, prepare, eat, and clean up after meals? In an ideal world, cooking would feel more like a personal hobby, like something enriching that rejuvenates and replenishes. I would look forward to my time in the kitchen. In reality, it’s closer to another household chore. I do love to cook—sometimes. But not necessarily when I have to.
In the end, though, meal preparation isn’t another daily household task like folding laundry or putting away the dishes. It may be a chore, but it’s a chore with added value. When I fold my son’s laundry, he doesn’t feel special. When I cook his favorite meal, he does.
Food, ultimately, is about love.
Maybe it’s a Southern thing, but I need the people I love to eat well. I grew up in the South, and I have been away for a very long time. I have lost my Southern accent and my ability to tolerate heat and humidity. But I have never lost my taste for the flavors of my childhood—grits and fried okra and vine-ripened tomatoes and biscuits—and I have never lost that Southern belief that food connects and heals.
When I know my son has had a stressful day at school, I’ll sometimes shift dinner plans at the last minute and make nachos. When I know he’s been missing his mom, I’ll make an Ethiopian feast.
On the days when the trauma is toughest, I head to the kitchen when he finally agrees to eat. I know just what to prepare. I dry sauté an onion, then add a little water and bring it to a boil. I pour in several glugs of olive oil and a heaping tablespoon of berbere, the complexly flavored Ethiopian spice. I chop a tomato and add that to the mix with a little more salt than tastes good to me. While the sauce is simmering, I cook spaghetti. In about fifteen minutes, we have a meal that feeds more than bellies.
We sit together and eat, our lips stinging from the spices. My son polishes off his bowl and asks for more.