My mother’s tip to healthy eating was always to stay away from anything my grandmother wouldn’t make, which meant no processed foods or other tasty junk. Only vegetables, fruits and lean meats should touch anyone’s lips. But times change and only the rich ate that way since food prices skyrocketed. The rest of us poor commoners made do with the cheaper, more unhealthy products.
Cooking was my favourite pastime, especially when it was for those I loved—until I had children. Not only was the price of groceries cheaper, so I could make wholesome meals, but everyone loved my recipes.
By the time I had my fourth child, cooking became the most intimate and challenging chore I faced each day. To keep my budget from exploding, and to keep the peace around the kitchen table, I’ve had to endure macaroni and cheese, spaghetti with hot dogs, French fries with hamburgers, or mashed potatoes and corn as our sole diet.
Today would be different. It was Mother’s Day and my children agreed to eat whatever I made without complaint. I decided on making a healthy Shepard’s pie that I wanted to try since I had thought up the recipe.
I pulled out cauliflower, kernel corn, cream corn and minced turkey. As I was breaking florets onto a baking sheet, my oldest daughter Lucy strolled into the room. She saw the food and squealed before lifting her scrunched fingers to her lips, signing food. Waving her hands in the air in excitement, she plopped down to rock in the closest chair. She smiled and looked up at me expectantly, waiting for me to sneak her some pieces.
She wasn’t like most others with autism. Lucy loved all forms of food and was a pleasure to cook for.
“It would be so much easier, Lucy, if your brothers and sister ate more like you,” I said, knowing full well she couldn’t hear me. “You’re gonna love this. Wait and see.”
I placed the cauliflower in the oven for twenty minutes. While that was baking, I fried up the minced turkey, adding a bit of sriracha sauce for a little flavour. Lucy abandoned her chair and swayed beside me, eager to get her hands on the food. Twice she pushed me, trying to get to the meat.
“Now, quit it, missy.” I guided her back to her chair, which she only stayed in for a minute. I signed, “Silly girl, wait.”
Lucy cried out with a loud groan and continued to dance beside me.
“What is that smell?” Victor, my oldest child—a teenager really, hollered from the hallway. “Oh my God, that stinks.”
He stomped into the kitchen, holding his nose.
“Mom, what are you cooking?”
“Cauliflower. I’m going to make mashed cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes for the Shepard’s pie.”
“Cauliflower? I hate cauliflower.”
“You hate all vegetables except potatoes, corn and peas.” I turned off the oven and set the cooked meat to a back burner. I opened the oven door and took out the florets. “You promised you wouldn’t complain today.”
“I can’t eat cauliflower, Mom. I’m sorry but I can’t do it. God, it stinks!” He made a few gagging sounds. “I’m going to eat at Dwayne’s. I know I promised, but I can’t keep it. Don’t worry, I’ll buy you a gift instead.”
“Alright, I don’t want to force you to eat it. It’s going to taste fantastic, though.”
He bent over, kissing the top of my head.
“Happy Mother's Day. I gotta go now before I ralph everywhere.”
He laughed before releasing more gagging noises as he left the house.
I placed the florets in the blender with milk and a ton of butter. Once mashed enough, I set the cauliflower aside and took out a glass dish I reserved specifically for Shepard’s pie.
I emptied the pan of meat into the glass dish and gave a fork to Lucy, guiding her to spread out the turkey. This activity delighted her to no end. She had a hard time choosing between eating with the fork and waving her hands in applause.
I added the kernels and cream corn, then the cauliflower. I let Lucy spread some butter on top before placing the dish in the oven and setting the timer to thirty minutes.
After washing the blender container and pan, I sat with Lucy, signing how beautiful and smart she was. She couldn’t care less. All she wanted was the food. Every few minutes, she’d eyeball the stove, placing her fingers to her lips impatiently. I couldn’t help but laugh.
When I got up to leave the room and announce supper to Vera and Luke, the youngest of my brew, Lucy stood in my way, blocking my path.
“What do you want now?”
She nudged me towards the cupboards, took my hand, and shoved it upwards. I touched a can of soup. She nudged my arm, which meant that wasn’t what she wanted. I touched a loaf of bread. She nudged my arm. I kept this up for several items, knowing full well she wanted tea. Finally, I touched the tea, and she screamed in victory, waving her hands in the air, moving her fingers, but not actually signing anything.
I grabbed the tea and put water on to boil.
With that done, Lucy let me leave the kitchen to find her siblings. It did not surprise me to find them playing on Victor’s video games.
“You know your brother is going to chop your hands off if he catches you on his game.”
“You won’t tell him, Mom, will you?” Luke asked with worried eyes. “It’s not fair he doesn’t let us play.”
“You’re too young for these games. That’s why you’re not allowed playing them. Now, it’s time to go eat.”
The two groaned, turning off the game, and flinging the remotes across the bed.
“What’s for supper, Mommy?” Vera asked, following close behind.
“Victor said it’s gonna suck.”
“You haven’t even tried it yet,” I said, hiding the annoyance that grew in my stomach. This was why I never strayed from the familiar meals. “Give it a chance. You’ll like it. I swear.”
Lucy opened the oven door while I was gone and was peering inside when we returned to the kitchen. She slammed the door shut as soon as she saw me.
“Hey! You know you’re not supposed to touch that,” I said, rushing towards her and the stove. I signed with my limited vocabulary, “No. Bad.”
Lucy stomped her foot and shrieked before heading to her seat.
The pie looked like regular Shepard’s pie, but the smell couldn’t be more different. My mouth watered as the odor reached my nose. Lucy slammed her hand on the table. Vera and Luke watched me dish out the food with suspicious stares.
I made it a point of giving Lucy her plate first so no wars would start. She dived right in with a vengeance. The other two were not so eager. They poked at their food, not taking any bites.
I made four teas, pretending not to hear the kids whisper back and forth about how the food smelled funny. By the time I served the beverages, Lucy finished her plate, and was demanding more by banging the edge of her plate on the table.
“See, Lucy likes it.”
“Lucy likes everything,” Luke mumbled.
“Yeah, she’d eat the universe if you let her,” Vera said, sticking her tongue out at Lucy. “She’s lucky she doesn’t blow up bigger than a hot-air balloon.”
The two kids squirmed in their seats.
“Eat. You promised.”
Luke hung his head back, leaving his mouth hanging open. Vera tried hiding a pout, but failed miserably.
I took my first bite of the concoction myself. The texture was very similar, but the flavours danced on my tongue.
“Mmm, isn’t it delicious?”
Luke and Vera had yet to bite a morsel. Lucy finished her second plate and tapped for more. I ignored her this time. She’d eat herself sick if I let her. I shook my head and signed for her to wait longer, wiggling my four fingers in the air.
“Okay, now. I’ll count to ten, and the two of you are going to take a bite at the same time. Ready?”
By the time I said eight, they had the edge of their forks touching the food. By nine, they scooped a tiny mouthful and crammed it in their mouths before I counted ten. Like little mirrors, they stared at each other and chewed twice before making faces. Luke started it, but Vera was quick to copy him.
“Swallow it—don’t you dare spit it out.”
Vera swallowed and gagged while Luke shook his head and made a beeline for the garbage. He spit it out and made his own disgusted noises.
“I can’t believe you two. Do you seriously not like it?”
“Please, don’t make me eat it,” Luke croaked. “I’m gonna die having to eat that.”
“Me, too. Mom, can’t we just have some French fries and hot dogs?”
I couldn’t believe it, even though I shouldn’t have been surprised.
We were a poor family—a single parent family—and eating cheap was what the kids grew up on. They didn’t know any better and their long-term health would suffer for it.
I sighed as I pulled out some frozen French fries and wieners.
My wallet appreciated my children’s fussiness, but my poor taste buds and widening hips did not. It was back to the same five meals day after day.
So much for healthy eating.