Grocery shopping for my 15-year-old grandson’s annual summer visit, I tossed taboo (in my house) foods such as Dinosaur Eggs, Cosmic Brownies and Cheez-Its into my cart. OK, I know this is an opportunity to set a good example and encourage healthy eating. Just let me relish being a grandmother a little.
Flashback 10 or so years: Sitting in his pajamas at his kitchen table, he asked, “May I have cupcakes for breakfast?” “Of course you can, Granni’s here,” his mom replied, with a nod to me.
Not that I could get away with that with all my grandchildren all the time—especially the one in health-conscious California who never tasted baby food from a jar—but I plan to indulge this teen on this visit.
Seeing Hoda and Kathie Lee eating bologna sandwiches on white bread (yes, they did) on their show this week reminded me how greatly what we eat has changed since my youth. Better nutrition information, advances in food preservation and culinary creativity have altered menus significantly—for good and bad. Boxes of processed foods with potentially harmful preservatives line the interior aisles of most grocery stores. We know better than to buy them, but often for convenience, we do.
Fatty foods and sugar, in soft drinks and almost everything else that tastes good, are culprits in today’s childhood obesity crisis. Yet when I recall what we ate, all kids in the ‘50s and ‘60s should have been fat. We were not. Then again, we ran around all day—safe and unsupervised, too—unlike kids today.
I can still envision the compact kitchen of my childhood home before dad broke through the wall to the dining room and enlarged it. Our refrigerator had a small freezer with a couple of metal ice cube trays with removable levers. Almost always, on a lower right shelf, were Hostess Sno Balls and cupcakes, usually chocolate with the squiggly white icing.
Potato chips and pretzels were in big Charles Chips cans in a cupboard. An aluminum grease container with a strainer on the stove held solid fat to be reused for many meals. This picture looks just like ours, which one of my brothers has as a memento in his kitchen.
Although I seldom eat fried or fatty food today, that was my childhood norm and I recall it being pretty tasty. Like gravy bread. Most main meals included gravy made from meat drippings that we slopped over most everything on our plates, and often on plain white bread—soppy stuff that we cut up and ate with a fork. Mom used a pressure cooker to cook meat, usually breading and browning it first. It wouldn’t be dinner without a starch, usually potatoes or baked macaroni—mac ‘n cheese in current lingo.
Meatless Fridays were our favorite: French fries from the neighborhood drive-in and pizza from an Italian woman down the street who sold it from her back door. At restaurants, my usual was a hamburger, fries and chocolate milkshake.
Lunch was frequently canned soup and Lebanon bologna sandwiches, with mustard and smashed potato chips on mine. Between meals we drank lots of Kool-Aid, sucked the sweet syrup from tiny wax bottles and ate candy cigarettes, Tootsie Rolls, licorice sticks and whatever else we could afford at the penny counter of the corner store.
As I became a teen and more aware of nutrition and appearance, I switched to no-calorie Tab with my pizza, which amused my godfather/uncle. In sync with the times, I didn’t do much better as a young adult. Raising children in the 1970s coincided with the explosion of fast food. We made frequent trips to Hardee’s and McDonald’s and held birthday parties at Burger King. My pantry contained Froot Loops, Twinkies, Pop Tarts, SpaghettiOs, and still, white bread. We entertained friends around a fondue pot filled with hot oil or melted cheese.
My sons and I know better now and make genuine efforts to choose healthy food. (Well, more often than not.) Salad with chicken is my go-to meal. Even my boyfriend, accustomed to eating out most of the time before we met, appreciates my healthy recipes. Except the chia seed pudding. And the cucumber quinoa salad. “Hey Midas, you want my quinzy?” he called to his dog, purposely mispronouncing quinoa.
My teenaged grandson, who would eat only chicken nuggets and French fries for years, has developed a more mature palate, too. We’ll balance the junk food with good nutrition. But first, a trip to his favorite restaurant, a fish camp that offers such appetizers as fried kangaroo, ostrich, antelope and gator, and, his selection last summer, bison mountain oysters. Welcome to Florida!