Lesson from Hurricane Sandy, #4: Picky eaters are less picky when they’re really, truly hungry

I made a joke on Facebook the night before the storm hit, joking that (to paraphrase the Talking Heads), I had some groceries, some peanut butter, to last a couple of days. My family has been in this neighborhood a long time, and we knew that this block had never flooded (not even during Hurricane Donna), but we thought it was likely that we would get some water in the basement. So our plan was to ride out Sandy as we had ridden out every other hurricane–to stay close to home so we could man the sump pumps and the generator. Like most of our neighbors, we battened down the hatches and hunkered down, with candles and flashlights at the ready. I had groceries up on the high shelves in the basement, and the second fridge was well stocked with a few gallons of milk, some beer, and frozen food.

Of course, that was all in the basement. So, that didn’t quite work out like I’d hoped.

Food-wise, the first day or two after the storm were kind of hilarious, as we all emptied our pantries and thawing freezers (the ones we had up in our kitchens, that is) and fed anyone who was there to eat it. I introduced some of my neighbors to Irish sausage; my next-door neighbor ate a granola bar for the first time in his life. Perhaps the most surreal moment came when another neighbor came around with a tray of just-thawed shrimp cocktail, and we all stood in the cold, covered in basement sludge, feasting as though we were at a country club.

But as time went on, the whole sustenance thing became decidedly less entertaining. For the first few weeks after the storm, there was just a ton of work to do, and we were all burning every minute of daylight mucking out and cleaning up. There was still no power, no heat, no refrigerator, or hot water to wash dishes. I had two kids who were not particularly good at eating things that they weren’t used to eating. So, sorry kids–I’m not making you Kraft mac and cheese or rolling up plain turkey cold cuts today.

But guess what? Apparently, picky eaters become less picky and more adventurous when they’re really hungry and choices are limited. For weeks after the hurricane, we were living on canned goods and the kindness of strangers. When you’re hungry, things that might have smelled weird to you a week before suddenly smell delicious. My son still talks about the amazing Jamaican jerk chicken he ate, delivered from a church van that was just trolling through the streets, offering food and comfort. My daughter ate chili from a Red Cross truck (yes, they did eventually make an appearance) and everybody dug into a huge pot of jambalaya delivered by one of the local surfers. My kids have never been big in the appetite department and would have lived on nothing but milk if they could have. But now they were, probably for the first time ever, hungry enough to get past the novelty of new textures and flavors and realize that not only did they feel better after eating it, but they kind of liked it.

I guess the point is that when it comes to getting our kids to try new things, it doesn’t hurt to tell them there’s just nothing else to eat. The thing is, I didn’t really have to wait for a natural disaster for it to happen; I’ve found a similar phenomenon occurs in less dire circumstances. If I don’t pack junk and snacks when we go to the beach, they’ll get hungry enough to just try what’s offered. That’s how I got them to consider foods that they’d previously wrinkled their noses at: hummus, fish tacos, sweet potato fries, a frozen banana. So the moral of the story is, if you don’t let them have the junk, they’ll eat things that are not junk–eventually, and after a lot of whining.

The other lesson for me was that as a parent, we fall into habits as much as our kids do. My son was 12 when the Sandy hit, but I was still playing by the food rules that we’d surrendered to established when he was a toddler and refused to eat most fruits because they were “Slippery.” In the two years since, he’s become a much more adventurous eater. I can’t say this is entirely (or even partly) due to the hurricane experience–most likely it has more to do with the fact that he’s hitting his growth spurt and is just way hungrier than he ever was before (but still not hungry enough to eat slippery fruit). And, it’s not like he or my daughter have gone and become vegetarians over night: when the junk was available again, they went right back to it (and as I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t really believe in banning anything outright). But: They have at least started to open themselves up to new food experiences, which is the first step toward a greater appreciation for different kinds of ingredients, flavors, cuisines, and textures. That’s as much a part of growing up as reading more complicated books, or learning to work independently. Having them expand their palettes has made dinners easier and our family life richer: we’re no longer cooking two different meals for the kids and the grown ups, and we can finally go out together to a restaurant (my favorite thing to do) that doesn’t have chicken nuggets on the menu.

So go ahead, starve your kids a little. It will be good for everyone.







2 thoughts on “Lesson from Hurricane Sandy, #4: Picky eaters are less picky when they’re really, truly hungry

  1. I’ve just found your blog, and I’m glad I did. Your MOP gives me hope that Someday, I won’t have to nag both my husband and daughter (she’s still just a toddler) to get away from glowing screens.

    Coming from a very typhoon-prone part of the Philippines, I grew up where people are used to rebuilding their homes almost annually. It’s not uncommon to see people wading (swimming?) in waist- or armpit-high water trying to get a cellphone signal to order new building materials as soon as the rain has stopped. Sometimes, the floods reach the second storey too. My sister learned in 2009 not to live in a bungalow. Thankfully, she and her dog were able to swim and find shelter by the time the water was shoulder-high. But as she huddled with her neighbours in their upstairs bedroom, she had to watch her home get swallowed up by the flood. Aside from her work phone and the clothes on her back, she also kept her sense of humour, which was a godsend as she rebuilt her life.

    One thing we don’t have too many of is picky eaters. As you’ve noticed, hungry people eat what’s on hand. Being in the UK, I still struggle to wrap my mind around the concept of so many picky eaters in one place. I’m sure there are many Brits who aren’t picky, but I seem to have met more picky eaters than not.

    Another thing we have in the Philippines is a lot of dishes cooked in vinegar. One tip I learned growing up was to cook chicken or pork adobo to take on long trips or when I knew the power was about to cut out. Adobo is a dish that Filipinos have been cooking and travelling with since before we had access to refrigeration. Because the vinegar makes it keep for over two weeks unrefrigerated, there’s no need to wolf it down as soon as a storm hits. You can also take the meat out of the sauce, shred it, and panfry it until it’s dry and crisp. Then it keeps in a jar on the counter for a lot longer. Of course, we also have other vinegar-based dishes, but adobo is the most popular.

    I wouldn’t wish calamities on anybody, but in case you get another hurricane warning, I’d suggest stocking up on vinegar and having lots of vinegar-based dishes on hand. They don’t all have to taste the same as long as there’s enough vinegar to preserve each dish.

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