College Food Angst: A Mother’s Tale of Woe – Seasoned Food Writers Weigh in On Letting Go

by Chistine Burns Rudalevige
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Seriously, Christine? Your kid’s headed to Chicago for school and you’re most worried about what he’s going to eat?” Leave it to my former college roommate, always pragmatic, to help calibrate my food-centric world on a bigger picture axis.

In mid-September, the 2004 powder blue minivan I call Bessie will be carrying some very precious cargo for what is likely to be the very last time. The old girl should hit 200,000 miles somewhere between my Brunswick, Maine, driveway and the University of Chicago, and we can’t really ask any more from her than that. The freight in tow is my first born and all the stuff to make his new dorm feel like home.

The road trip will mark the end of two eras: my time as an unusually proud minivan owner, and my tenure as primary food provider for my son. I make no apologies for my fondness for Bessie. But I do fret that my fixation about preparing an average of 18 meals per week for my son with my own two hands for as many years will serve neither him nor me very well as we embark on this new phase of life.

Nutritionally, I see the value of my feeding obsession manifest itself each time Owen’s 6-foot-5 frame fills a doorway. But psychologically, I’m lost: gutted by the forfeiture of a hot breakfast routine; the loss of comfort I take in knowing his packed lunch bridges the gap between physics and AP calculus; and, the impending shift in the ritual that is dinner with the three people I love most.

I am not worried he’ll go hungry. He is an 18-year-old boy with a healthy appetite and we’ve invested in the unlimited meal plan. And then there is always Giordano’s deep dish pizza, Harold’s Chicken Shack on E. 53rd and a family friend who lives four blocks off campus who’d gladly feed him in exchange for babysitting duties. I’m anxious, though, that in my success in having good food everywhere, every day, I’ve not schooled him enough about just how difficult it is to pull off that continued culinary feat.

“Oh they’re definitely watching. Even as my girls were rolling their eyes at my obsession with food – not condemning it, but definitely criticizing it — they were watching. Of course I didn’t get to find that out until well after they’d left,” said Kathy Gunst, a James Beard award winning writer and author of the upcoming book, Soup Swap (Chronicle Books, September 2016). Gunst’s younger daughter is a cookbook editor in San Francisco and the older is a consummate dinner party hostess who understands the power of food as a community builder as she travels between New York and Beijing.

Gunst and the handful of other seasoned food writers who’ve already sent kids off to college sympathized with my impending unease about Owen’s plate. But they were also very clear that the initial problem would be mine alone. He’s going to be just fine navigating both traditional cafeteria buffet lines and the more evolved student eating options enabled by the Internet and flexible meal and snack time spending plans. Not knowing what he’s eating would really only hurt me.

“You’re focusing on food because that is obvious to you. But you’re not going to know anything about anything if he doesn’t tell you. That’s the bigger part of letting go of all kinds of control that first year,” counseled Gunst.

Carla Snyder, a Cleveland-based cookbook author about to release One Pan, Two Plates: Vegetarian Suppers (Chronicle, August 2016), mother of three adult children, and self-proclaimed healthy food fascist when her kids were growing up, says it’s very likely that most college freshmen veer away from well-balanced diets after the initial break. “Sure they go off the wagon. But when the novelty of bad food wears off, they always come back to what they know,” said Snyder.

The bigger issue for college kids and food consumption centers on when they graduate to upperclassman housing that includes both a kitchen and an expectation that they have the time and the inclination to use it, said Beth Lee, a west coast food writer who blogs at OMGyummy.com and contributes regularly to Edible Silicon Valley. Lee sent her son off to San Francisco State three years ago and her daughter recently matriculated from Chapman College in southern California. Her son was not enamored with the majority of his factory food choices at school and therefore she opted to reduce his meal plan to give him the leeway to fix two of his three meals a day in his dorm’s kitchen facility. She watched the experiment on-line as she noticed charges to his account at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and local farmers markets.

Gunst’s oldest daughter, while attending Columbia University in New York, presented her parents with a dollar and cents rationale of how it would be less expensive for her to prepare her own food. “She claimed wanting to have the control, but then she soon realized that she’d quickly run out of time, money and energy to make her own meals every day,” said Gunst.

For those of us whose children have watched, and likely participated in, meal-making at home, the parts of that process that take place in the kitchen are not foreign to them. “It’s the food planning and shopping skills they lack,” said Snyder.

Lee agrees. “My son is great at brainstorming what we should have for dinner based on what’s in the pantry or the refrigerator. But I’m not sure he had a good handle on the planning and coordination it took to have all the ingredients on hand,” said Lee.

Snyder, once each of her children graduated from college, taught them how to shop so that they didn’t have to spend every day in the grocery store if that was not what they wanted to do. “With a stocked pantry and a once a week visit to get meat, a nice piece of fish and a head of lettuce, they can go home and make dinner without thinking about it too much,” said Snyder, who feels that an adequate pantry always has eggs, butter, lemons, mustard, rice, beans, tuna fish, canned tomatoes, broth and pasta.

While none of my food centric colleagues said I’d be able to bypass the worry brought on by this next chapter of motherhood, they were all confident that both Owen and I would get through it. “Trust that you’ve laid a good culinary foundation. You’ve got this,” promised Gunst.

In the meantime, I’ll bake his favorite cookies. Or at least send him the ingredients to bake them himself.