Work in Progress
Is there a recipe for happiness when a mother can’t eat, and a daughter can’t stop? In A LOT ON HER PLATE, a 12-year-old girl starved for approval is challenged by diet culture and the fear she’ll have to give in to fit in.
Eden Sterling has quit every activity except for cooking because she loves the yummy prize at the end. Trouble is her body is growing wider not taller and now her bat mitzvah dress must be ordered in a larger size. Oh, yes there are tears at the store. Mom’s tears. Then Eden finds out why. Mom isn’t just weight-conscious she’s been diagnosed with an eating disorder and the tables turn. Mom is admitted to a treatment center that will force her to eat while Eden gets to savor her first taste of freedom. One day she sneaks into a kids’ culinary school only to meet Chloe, a skinny rival who can sharpen a knife and her tongue. Chloe eyes Eden’s body and warns her not to lick the mixing spoons which so mortifies her she goes home to binge on comfort food. Eden feels so ashamed of her stress eating she vows to hang up her apron until she is urged to enter the baking competition Chloe wins every year. But just when Eden’s confidence is building, Chloe sabotages Eden and now she is torn. Will she try for the sweet ending she deserves or let her dream of winning go up in flames?
Sleepaway camp was the best two months of my life even though I was the worst at sports and the food was mostly gross. Didn’t even care. I went back every year to hang out on the lake with my friends, share secrets and laugh so hard my stomach hurt.
Until the summer of seventh grade.
Ava Zelinksy got everyone in our bunk to ghost me so suddenly I was walking to activities alone and talking to my napkin at dinner. Then I found a note under my pillow that said I was the reason boys didn’t think we were the Best Flirts in Skirts. Sorry not sorry if I wasn’t obsessed with having a flat stomach or wearing a low-cut top that showed my bra.
One night after lights out I braved an honest question. “Shouldn’t our looks be the most boring thing about us?”
“NO!” the girls shouted as if I’d offended the host country at the Olympics.
Sheesh. I was only trying to share a lesson I learned from my Glamma who used the prize money from beauty pageants to pay for law school. But after that little chat, I felt like the star of a TV series who suddenly got written out of the script.
Eden Sterling? Never heard of her.
It almost made me wish I’d gone to day camp instead. At least I’d be sleeping in my comfy bed every night and eating fresh Manhattan bagels instead of the frozen waste of dough the cooks pretended were bagels.
Trouble was spending the summer at home meant not getting a break from Mom’s nagging. Sure, I loved her, especially when we snuggled in bed to watch our favorite movies. And nobody on planet Earth would have taken me to see as many Broadway shows. What I didn’t love– the part that really hurt- was her blah, blah, blah lectures about “proper nutrition” because in her opinion being thin was more important than being happy.
At least when I was hundreds of miles away in Pennsylvania, she could only pressure me during our weekly phone calls.
“Honey, are you wearing your fitness tracker?”
“And how do your shorts fit?”
“They’re kind of big.”
“Should I send smaller ones?”
“With Oreos,” I said.
I knew she wouldn’t send cookies because that was against the rules (the #1 reason she picked this camp). But if I told her the truth—that I needed to share a treat with the bunk so everyone would like me again– look out camp directors! Lori, the lawyer, would demand to speak to whoever was responsible for my unhappiness. Then my counselors would force a friendship circle on us and ignore all the side-eyes coming my way.
Not happening. Instead, I made each girl a beaded name bracelet and thought I’d done a great job problem-solving until I found another note under my pillow: Wear a bathing suit under your clothes so it sucks in your gut.
When no one was watching, I hid behind a bathroom door and quiet cried into scratchy toilet paper. I hated it so much that being fun, and a good listener didn’t matter anymore and what did matter, like acting older and flirting, didn’t matter to me.
And that’s when I begged my parents to let me come home. “It’s boring and everyone is being mean,” I whispered into the camp office phone.
“Sorry, Eden,” Mom said. “Quitting is never the answer.” Dad said he’d give anything to spend the summer in the mountains and Jayden, my 15-year-old bro, made the closing argument. “Dude. No one misses you.”
My last hope was to plead my case on visiting day. Lots of kids went home then and I was sure Mom would say okay when she realized I wasn’t joking about being miserable. Ugh! Of all times for her to get a bad cold and not come. Even worse, she missed my awesome cooking demonstration- my one chance to convince her I should go to culinary school in the fall.
I’d asked before, but her answer sounded like a song from HAMILTON. Classes are expensive. Your schedule is full. They use butter in their dishes which goes against my wishes and if food isn’t nutritious who cares if it’s delicious…
If only she cared as much that with my whole heart, I dreamed of being a chef. That I loved to mix and chop and smell food simmering. That I couldn’t wait to try out a recipe and get a yummy prize at the end. I also secretly liked being better at something than Mom. Seriously! Get this woman out of the kitchen before the smoke detector went off.
YES! to making it to the last day of camp and our final friendship circle- the one with all the sobbing and selfies. Love you… I’ll text you every day. Instead of joining I boarded the bus early and discovered Shauna Becker had too. She was in the older girls’ division, so we hardly saw each other, but like me, she lived on the Upper East Side and always seemed to be alone.
“Okay if I sit with you?” I asked.
“Go for it,” she said. “Good summer?”
“Worst one ever.”
No wonder my chest puffed with relief when the bus sped over the narrow dirt roads. Soon I’d be hanging with my real friends and cooking with Mrs. Adler, our down the hall neighbor. She had been giving me lessons since I could stand on her kitchen chair and stir, and I couldn’t wait to see the new recipes she’d collected.
Hopefully Mom wouldn’t be her usual annoying self and schedule things for the exact time Mrs. Adler invited me over. You need a haircut… I made you a dentist appointment.
Anger started building like steam in a pressure cooker. I was twelve. Old enough to pick the activities I liked and to follow my dreams like Mom got to follow hers. Which was what I had planned to say to her if she showed up on visiting day like she was supposed to.
I drifted off thinking of how to tell her she owed me an apology when Shauna nudged me. “You snooze you lose.”
“Sorry,” I said. “How was your bunk?”
“Someone put bugs in my bed and spread a rumor I had a contagious rash.”
I handed her my last good tissue. “Sucks… are you okay?”
“I decided if I like me who cares what anyone else thinks. I already blocked everyone and deleted their pictures.”
To be nice I said I would do that too, but it was a lie. I #wanted/needed/HADTOHAVE a long list of friends in my phone to prove I wasn’t a loser. I also couldn’t wait to entertain my bestie with videos of girls trying to look cool when they looked the opposite.
Faith Feldman was already back from camp and tonight our families were meeting at Venti Uno for our annual reunion dinner. Hello, crispiest, crunchiest mozzarella sticks in New York City… and a scary thought.
If this was the year of not knowing which friends to trust, would she ghost me too?
So wrong that there were GPSs to help us find places and Alexa to give us weather reports but not one device to tell us if we were about to be ditched. And that awful possibility put me in such a daze, I didn’t realize the bus had arrived at our pickup spot.
Shauna groaned. “Someone’s parents showed up in a limo.”
“Who’s the Richie Rich?” a counselor shouted, and everyone laughed.
Not me. But I still felt my heart pound as I bounded down the steps. Maybe now wasn’t the best time to pick a fight with Mom about visiting day because the only time I won our arguments was in the shower. In fact, why fight with the one person in my world who had a solution for every problem?
Lori Sterling was my human GPS.
“Eden! Over here, honey.”
I turned to see a frail looking woman waving beside the shiny, black limousine. A woman I barely recognized. “Mom?”