When I was a child, we ate at home. Eating out was something you did on vacations, which were not annual events in our family.
There was, however, this one McDonald’s where my father would stop on our way to our grandparents’ town. It was near the halfway point of the four/five hour drive, which we made several times each year.
My siblings would look forward to this treat, but I dreaded it and wished we would not stop. We always did. Then the ordeal began.
I would ask if I could just have french fries, not a burger (these were pre-McNugget days). My parents would insist that I needed to eat meat, so I would order a plain hamburger.
My family would eat their meals while I waited, and waited, and waited at the counter for the staff to grill a fresh burger for me. (Special orders did upset them.) I’d eat it walking to the car (no eating in the car), while my parents complained about the inconvenience I’d caused.
I don’t deny that I was a picky eater, but my parents were misguided in thinking that I took any delight in mealtime drama. The only thing worse than the embarrassment would have been the stomach cramps and nausea from the vinegar in all the condiments.
Of course, it wasn’t just McDonald’s where the food drama occurred. It was a regular feature of my childhood. I was the picky eater, the one who couldn’t swallow the fried liver, didn’t like the mouth feel of mashed potatoes, and was disgusted by the smell of canned green beans.
My siblings and parents could not relate. To them, a potato was a potato. Mashed, boiled, baked, fried, or instant did not matter.
As an adult, I came to believe that I was not the only picky eater in my house. My parents claimed to “eat anything,” or at least “normal foods,” and it’s easy to see why they were able to delude themselves.
My father, like many others of his generation, was only served meals that he already knew he liked. My mother only cooked foods she liked. There were set meals that he and my mother ate, and those were rotated on a regular basis, with only small substitutions. (Look, we’re having creamed corn instead of regular corn tonight!) Neither of my parents were adventurous eaters, and my mother was not a good cook, but most of my friends described the same meal-rotation that my mother employed.
I can understand why having a child who didn’t like six of the ten meals they regularly ate would be incomprehensible to them. Their childhoods were marked by food rationing, necessitated first by the Depression and then by the War. The idea that a child would refuse to eat perfectly good food must have been maddening.
Nobody talked about sensory integration issues or food sensitivities in those days. Picky eaters were just being difficult.
In retrospect, sometimes I was. After so many bad food experiences, I dreaded mealtimes and the ensuing battles. My guard was always up. The best I could hope for was to not be noticed. The only meal I enjoyed was breakfast, where I could eat my bowl of Kix or Rice Krispies alone, in peace.
Cold cereal is still a comfort food for me. I still prefer to eat alone.
It wasn’t until I moved away that I began to discover foods I liked. None of them come from McDonald’s. On road trips, my family is welcome to get whatever condiment soaked meat they want while I walk the dogs. I’ll happily eat my apple and graham crackers when we all pile back in the car.
What were the mealtime staples of your childhood? Did you love them, endure them, or hate them?