I am absolutely shocked that a quick search of this site reveals that I have never mentioned nor alluded to Smorgasbord. Unless I’m searching the wrong word… which is just not possible. So here’s a brand spankin’ new food memory for y’all to devour.

Growing up, my amazing mother put a hot meal on the dinner table every single night, without fail, for at least the first 10 years of my life. I understand that a child’s view of the world may be skewed, so you’ll have to forgive me if some things are a bit blurry. I can tell you that we went out to eat occasionally, but usually for lunch; a family of five, we ate dinner together more often than not (“I’ll have dinner in my room” wasn’t an option).

Every night, dinner was on the table, family style. Bowls of rice at each seat, and platters of veggies, and some meat with veggie, maybe a sauce. Fish, meat, whatever. My mother made dinner from scratch, every night. Occasionally she’d try some new dish, but everything had an Asian slant to it (at least initially; as I got older, things changed, but that’s not part of this story).

I have to tell you that I cannot imagine the frustration she must’ve felt when her youngest (that’s me) would beg for McDonald’s. Or for spaghetti & meatballs, or for anything that I thought would make me more “normal” – a word that I eschew with great caution now. Feeding a total of five people every night – five people with largely varying palates – without complaint (if she complained, I didn’t hear it). It’s quite amazing, wouldn’t you agree?

Now, my family wasn’t rich. I wouldn’t say we were poor, either, but regardless, waste was not something we did. My mother, careful as she might have been, unlikely could predict accurately how much food we’d eat every night. So I’m sure some nights, there were leftovers, and others, not so much.

The funny thing is, I don’t remember eating leftovers. I don’t remember a night – in the early days of my memory, anyway – where my mom would put out bowls of rice and then a reheated version of whatever we’d had the night previous. No, that didn’t happen. And now that I think about it – for the purposes of sharing this memory – I presume my mother must’ve eaten whatever leftovers for lunch the next day, or possibly sent them to work with my father for lunch. (I didn’t frequently bring leftovers to school – possibly because I hated rice, and hated bringing it to school even more – though I remember eating spaghetti from a Thermos sometimes… No, I usually brought a sandwich.)

As I got older, I took to the habit of feeding myself on weekends. This is before parents signed their kids up for activity upon activity upon activity – I was left to my own devices to find my own amusement, and some weekends, this was watching reruns of movies on TV, or on videotape, with my brother. Other weekends, I’d curl up with a book and read till I went blind – seriously, my eyesight is terrible now, I wear contacts. One of my favorite things to do was to heat up a bowl of whatever leftovers I could find in the fridge, sit at the dining table and read while I spooned whatever it was into my mouth. Repeat. Mindless eating at its finest – which is bizarre since now I tend to sit and enjoy whatever I’m eating, and avoid reading specifically for the purpose of focusing on what I am ingesting.

There was one Saturday, long ago, let’s just say it was 1990 or 1991, that I walked into the kitchen around 4 or 4:30 – it was later in the day – and pulled open the fridge. My father must’ve been nearby or in the kitchen, because I asked him with some interest, “What’s for dinner?” I knew it was close enough to dinner time that me fixing a bowl of whatever would be frowned upon – my parents didn’t like me eating right before dinner because obviously, it ruined my appetite. But I could also see that there was nothing on the cutting board. My mother wasn’t in view, she was not prepping to make a meal. I don’t know where she was, actually.

My father looked at me and said, “Smorgasbord. It’s smorgasbord night.”

I don’t know where he learned the word*, but that was the moment I learned it. I wrinkled my nose up and asked, “What does that mean?”

“It means we’re giving your mother a break from cooking. There’s plenty of food in the fridge, just make yourself up whatever you want, that’s dinner tonight.”

“But what does smorgasbord mean?”

“It means a wide variety of food.”

Satisfied, I turned away and fixed myself up a plate of whatever.

In reality, the word is a little more specific and complex than that – definition and etymology here – but the basic principle is there. It became my favorite type of meal at home – my father would randomly declare a night ‘smorgasbord night’ and we’d eat whatever was in the fridge. As I got older, occasionally I would actually make myself simple meals (salad was a favorite of mine, or sandwiches, cans of soup, whatever) as opposed to eating leftovers, but it was all the same.

Now that I think about it – I wonder if my father hadn’t asked my mother the same question – what’s for dinner? – and if she’d told him there were too many leftovers in the fridge to justify making a new meal. Maybe she was tired, or had a headache, or wasn’t feeling too great. I don’t know. I’ve never asked her.

I just remember those random nights when he’d declare “smorgasbord!” and I’d get all excited to be left to my own devices as to choose what to eat for dinner.


I still practice the same principle at home occasionally – though I might not yell “SMORGASBORD NIGHT!” I definitely occasionally have too many leftovers in my fridge, so I pull out all the containers and make up a mish mash plate of food for myself. The above? chicken artichoke spinach casserole; sauteed kale; Swedish meatballs over mashed potatoes; blanched green beans; a chicken taco with spicy cilantro dressing, sour cream and fresh cilantro; roasted asparagus.

That was way too much food for me to eat comfortably. Oops.

Eh, but what’s smorgasbord without some excess?

*After a quick Google search, I see that my guess of this being 1990 or 1991 is extremely accurate. It’s incredibly likely that my father learned this word when Ikea opened in Elizabeth, NJ in 1990, and tossed the word at me to see how I’d react. He liked teaching me new words when he could.

Also, extremely blurry in my memory is my father occasionally writing menus – planning out the week’s meals – and occasionally slipping “Smorgasbord” on one of the days. I remember his slanting handwriting writing out the word… and underneath it, listing out our choices.

I really wish I could remember more about my childhood.

Do you remember your first Ikea experience*?

Funny how my post about Smorgasbord and Ikea includes me having made Swedish meatballs… ha!


  1. Abbie says

    I love this story! We had those nights as well (my mom also cooked from scratch every night). I think we might have eaten out once a month- if that. Mom would declare a “Fending” night- usually on Thursdays. She pulled everything out of the fridge and you picked whatever you wanted, heated it up, then we all watched a movie in the living room while we ate. It was the only time we were allowed to eat in front of the TV. Loved those nights- great memories!

    • says

      I love this! I love hearing that this was something other people did as well. I think a few other people messaged me separately to tell me similar names – fending night! Love it!

  2. SkippyMom says

    We didn’t have this kind of night in our house growing up, but my mother [or me] made dinner ever night. On the table, 6 pm. If you weren’t there you were in trouble. And forget taking anything in your room. Dinner table, in your chair and keep your mouth shut. {We weren’t allowed to talk at the dinner table. Go figure.]

    I created this idea for our family because, although Steven takes a lot of leftovers for his lunch, I always have tupperware containers haunting the shelves of my fridge. I am still in the habit of cooking for seven. I try to scale some meals back, but it’s just me I guess.

    We call it “FEND FOR YOURSELF NIGHT”. And the kids are welcome to make, reheat, repurpose anything they want. I usually throw something together for Steven and I, but the kids run the gamut from leftovers, to breakfast for dinner, to cereal with a side of fried rice. They love FFYN, and it usually occurs [as you guessed] when Mom is feeling less than great.

    When you described your tray, I started to drool. Dang that looks awesome – but then I had to agree with you. DANG, that’s a lot of food, but it is all so tasty.

    Now ask me about my finest Mom moment. We call it “Cold Hot Dog” night. giggle

    • says

      I have a habit for cooking for a small army and when there are no leftovers, I feel weird – like maybe I didn’t make enough food and that’s why we ate it all. It’s terrible.

  3. Laurie says

    My mom called it Skip! As in I’m skiipping cooking, there were five of us.
    She would be happy to know that I’m passing the traditional down to her greandchildren.

  4. says

    I didn’t go to Ikea until I was very much an adult and had to buy cheap furniture for myself.

    But back to food. Similar to my mother, there’s always something to eat in my home. Going hungry is not an option.

  5. Ttrockwood says

    My mother also cooked every. single. night.
    Meals away from home were rare, either the amazing mexican hole in the wall or for americanized chinese food- maybe once a month.
    Once a week we had “fake it” night and would have what we found or dad would make scrambled eggs and toast if there weren’t a bunch of leftovers. Once i became vegetarian (when i was 11) mom wasn’t going to make anything different for me – she was convinced it was a “phase” for a good four years- so i made a lot of my own meals from then on.
    Those fake it meals were always great though since there was such a variety!

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