I have eight siblings, and in talking to others from large families, I’ve discovered some commonalities to our respective childhoods: Hand-me-down clothes, waiting for the bathroom, sharing bedrooms. Likewise, the large-family phenomenon played out in the kitchen with certain reliable themes: Going out to eat was extremely rare and special (too expensive), there was a ubiquitous stack of white bread on the table for every dinner (aka: filler) and we all remember waking up early to snag the prize from the Apple Jacks (or even to get a bowl of Apple Jacks, since any sugared cereal would be consumed in half an hour and anyone who overslept was relegated to Wheaties instead).
While I experienced all of these things in my youth, this wasn’t my experience throughout my entire childhood. That’s because I occupy a spot toward the end of my sibling line-up: Eight of Nine (not to be confused with Seven of Nine from Star Trek). There have been some unique benefits from holding this place in the family, as well as some drawbacks. For one, I’m a pretty decent cook. My mother—who was a devoted homemaker for most of my older siblings—joined the workforce when my younger brother and I were in elementary school. So, as latchkey kids, we learned to cook earlier than many of our sibs. In fact, the baby is a rather accomplished chef. (It’s fun to think I knew him when his favorite kitchen appliance was the Presto Hot Dogger!)
So, I learned to cook at a young age. And, because I come from a large-family, I have a special skill for being able to cook decent food in large quantities. I can host Thanksgiving for 25 people without breaking a sweat—heck, I cooked my first Thanksgiving dinner of that size at the tender age of 17. (My parents were lined up to host, but my mother was sick that year, so I assumed the role of Head Chef.) I generally don’t break a sweat unless the guest list exceeds 50.
Part of this is due to my upbringing, but part of it is practicality—after all, it takes approximately the same amount of time and effort to make a 11×14 lasagna as a 9×9 lasagna, for example. In addition, it’s more economical to make, say, five pounds of pasta salad instead of one.
So I learned this particular skill from my mother, but there was a dark side to this cooking abundance. My mom never managed to adjust her cooking style to her shrinking family. Which means my little brother and I often heard the headline of this article (but you can substitute any number of foods for the word “spaghetti”) whenever we asked the dreaded, “What’s for dinner?” question in our teen years. He and I still laugh about this, but my older siblings can’t relate. Leftovers never lasted long enough to “go bad” in their day.
Which brings us to the present. I have three kids, so I became accustomed to cooking my usual “large batch” of whatever and putting half of it in the freezer. When we frequently ate family dinners and my son was going through his rabid-wolverine-growth-spurt phase as a teen, this method of cooking served us well. But now, with one kid away at school and the other two grown and rarely eating meals at home, I find myself throwing out perfectly delicious food—because it just isn’t being eaten before it starts to spoil.
It’s clear I need to learn a whole new method of cooking, but I think part of the problem is letting go of big family meals. I don’t want to admit that those days of the five of us gathered in the kitchen, comparing our busy days, and joking around–instead of a stack of white bread, our meals were always accompanied by much laughter–are over now, except for special occasions and holidays.
Perhaps instead of splitting my large batches into freezer portions of two five-person meals, I need to make five two-person meals. I’m sure I’ll figure it out, but I have to admit that on more than one occasion lately, I’ve pleaded with my own family to “eat the leftovers before they go bad.” 😦