Feeding My Family Overseas

One of the biggest challenges when moving continents is food

We all need food to survive, no question. You’d think that in order to survive, we’d eat just about anything, no matter how unusual it smells or how strange it looks. Beggars can’t be choosers, right? 

My children are not convinced. 

Knowing my children as I do, and having lived overseas before, I did a little research before coming to Africa. I found a few Youtube tutorials on local cuisine. I wasn’t necessarily taking notes on how to prepare various dishes the local way, but I hoped to get an idea of the common ingredients available. Green pepper, tomatoes, rice, onions, carrots, and chicken. Whew. Okay. I can work with those. 

But then I got here and started encountering difficulties. 

Like shopping. 

If you’ve never shopped internationally, I can tell you it’s definitely a learning curve. Wait, what am I saying? Even if you’ve shopped internationally, repeatedly, in multiple countries, it’s a learning curve. Rather than having rows and rows of choices along with hand-picked, mouthwatering produce, you have a yard-sale style selection of whatever happens to be available. At least, that’s how it feels.

I had anticipated having to make major adjustments, but it turned out to be even more intense than I thought. I knew it would be hard to find cheese and sure enough, cheese is scarce and expensive. There are also no packaged lunch meats, no canned chicken, leaving peanut butter sandwiches as the staple — and only option — for quick lunches. For as much milk as my family drinks, Ultra Heat Treatment (UHT) milk, or shelf-life milk, is the way to go. You can buy it in bags or boxes and it makes for great food storage. I wouldn’t say everyone loves the shelf-life milk, but fortunately I’ve had few complaints. I knew it would be impossible to find quick “dump in a pot” canned items like cream of chicken soup, stewed tomatoes, or black beans. I didn’t expect the canned peas to taste even grosser than usual. Oh, and surprise, the boullion I got turns my sauces a bright orange — like orange popsicle — and has lots and lots of corn starch. The good stuff is expensive, there’s familiar stuff that ends up tasting gross. And it’s really hard to find new and creative ways to use green pepper, tomatoes, rice, onions, carrots and chicken for three meals a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. 

I’m stubborn though, and maybe a little sadistic. The first month I just kept on trying to stick to local and affordable meal opinions by substituting ingredients, leaving items out, or making things from scratch. I spent more hours in the kitchen making stewed tomatoes, learning how to roll out tortillas, and burning pots of beans. I endured the predictable complaints before, during, or after every meal. I lived through the wrath of my 6-year-old who gave me an earful when I decided to ration the peanut butter and didn’t put in enough when making her breakfast oatmeal. 

See, because transportation is another issue. As much as I love getting into a car with a complete stranger and navigating unknown roads to unknown stores, I didn’t want to have to go as often as we were burning through certain ingredients, peanut butter especially. The tantrum was a pain, but if I could put off going to the store again for just a few more days it was totally worth it.

As I started to get a bit of a rhythm, and began to build a bit of confidence, I ran into yet another problem. 

After a kind friend took time to show me how to make several local dishes, I learned that certain foods like raw peanuts and certain root vegetables, like cassava, can sometimes contain aflatoxin which causes liver damage. Seriously? The only way to eliminate this particular threat to our health was by cooking the food in a pressure cooker. Mine is still floating in a crate somewhere on the Atlantic. The meals I had confidently made were now potentially harmful. And then I learned that the crops here are often fertilized with human feces, which, if I don’t think about it too much, seems like a simple circle of life. But with the way that certain diseases are spread specifically through fecal matter, well, that’s not good. 

Don’t drink the water from the tap. Remember to take your malaria medication. And try not to barf as you wash off the clumps of mud, smears of poop, straw, and feathers from the chicken eggs. 

The more and more information that came my way the more I started to wonder if I had been putting my family in danger by trying to eat local. And what about all of my efforts to recreate or reimagine familiar favorites? Was I doomed to a never ending stream of complaints and meltdowns? I felt myself slowly succumbing to an endless stream of generic Nutella sandwiches with bread we found at the local gas station. 

As I sat one day feeling down and in despair, a scene from one of the kids’ animated movies came to mind. It comes from Brave, a story of a rough and tough Scottish princess who inadvertently turns her mother into a bear. Her mother is furious, of course, but straightens her furry shoulders and faces her new challenge head on — like a queen.

The first morning as a bear, the queen puts together an impressive-looking breakfast for herself and her daughter. However her daughter, who has spent every spare minute shooting arrows and wandering the woods, is not so impressed. Ignoring her daughter’s lack of appreciation for her efforts, she proudly pops some freshly picked berries into her mouth. The princess examines the berries on her own forest plate and identifies them as poisonous berries. The queen instinctively spits the berries out of her mouth and reaches for her cup of water. Mid-gulp her daughter looks into the pitcher and observes that the water has worms. Out sprays the remaining water. As the queen-mom-bear reflects on her near death experiences, she can’t help but faint.

I know how you feel, queen-mom-bear.

But that’s not the end of the story. 

With time the princess shows her mother how to find the right berries, collect clean water, and even how to catch fish. Where the queen had tried to manage all by herself, she realizes the value of allowing her daughter to teach her the un-princess-like skills she has learned. She doesn’t master her new skills right away, but with encouragement from her daughter, she keeps trying and eventually achieves success. 

She didn’t do it by herself. She didn’t do it all at once. 

I realized I could do that. I could keep looking for people and resources to help me figure things out. I didn’t have to expect myself to have mastered everything all at once just because I had watched a couple of YouTube videos and had lived overseas before. No matter what, I was going to struggle and would continue to struggle with shopping and cooking and managing all of the complaints. It was hard to ignore all of the things we didn’t have and stay focused on the good things I knew how to use. But every time I did, every time I managed to master even a minute of positivity and good planning, I was getting that much better at doing it consistently and achieving mastery.

The challenges we face are not unique and the answers to our problems can be applied over and over again. We don’t have to do it alone. We don’t have to master it all at once.

And struggling doesn’t change the fact that we are still queens.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s