Here’s Looking at You, JP: Did you have to eat what your parents served?

By Gustaf Berger / Special to the Gazette

My sweetheart’s mother prepared and served food her father enjoyed, and she had to eat everything even if she didn’t like it. There were starving children in China, after all. I called that child abuse. I was free to pick and choose, and assumed that was normal. She called me out-of-touch. What do you think?

I asked 350 adults and received comments such as: Of course I had to eat. Children were starving in (China, Africa, Europe.) My parents grew up in the depression. I’m 49, maybe it’s a generational thing. Not acceptable and rude. Too poor to be picky. Had to join the clean your plate club. Lucky to get two meals a day. Jewish ethic. I had to try at least one teaspoonful, one forkful, a no-thank-you portion.

Some reported threats: Eat your vegetables or no dessert. You don’t eat, you go to bed – hungry. I could refuse, but the beatings were harsh. I sat at the picnic table, refusing to eat Cocoa Puffs in milk and watched the rest of the family swim, play, eat lunch, eat dinner – the standoff lasted all day. Since then, I haven’t touched cereal.

A few battled back: I gave it to the dog. I hid it in a napkin. Put it in my pocket. Buried it in baked potato skins. One man learned to cook: “My mother’s cooking was so bad, I prayed after the meal.”

Alas, my sweetheart was correct. The numbers are overwhelming. I questioned 350 people and seven out of ten had to eat what their parents served. What I thought of as abusive was common, often done out of necessity in tight times and out of love, if sometimes extreme. This survey is skewed toward older adults, and I detected a shift toward less strict behavior in younger respondents.

Taste is complex, affected by genes, culture, modeling, and behavior. Increased anxiety around food can lead to eating disorders. Psychologists recommend a flexible approach. Have a variety of foods available and model healthy eating habits. Introduce a new item many times to let a child sample and grow accustomed to the taste. Don’t make separate meals but consider alternatives for unwanted foods.

Easy for me to say; I’ve never lived in poverty. What do you think? Do you make your children eat what you serve regardless of their preferences?

Next Month: “What Foods Do You Detest?” I think you’ll be surprised by my findings.

(Questions or comments? Please contact me at [email protected])

Gustaf Berger is a writer living in Jamaica Plain. He is the author of “Death Postponed.”

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