Ironically, many adults who are now trying to cut back on their eating were once small children who had to be coaxed into eating. I am sure that some scientist could study a correlation between the two, but I will simply make the observation. “Picky eaters” are nothing new, though what they “pick” to eat has changed over the years.
My best kindergarten friend, Dude(his dad was named Bud, by the way) would only eat two foods, Gerber’s vanilla pudding and hamburgers. My mother had no patience for such demands and couldn’t believe that Dude’s mother went along with this routine. As I have mentioned before, picky eating wasn’t an option for us. My mother cooked one dinner and that was that. We were hungry and we ate what was there. In fact when I was first married I maintained that I liked all food since I had never really had a chance to form preferences. The only food I knew I hated was lima beans. Fortunately my father loved them and was only too happy to eat more than his share at dinner time.
As an adult I have been delighted to try all sorts of foods. I think that my childhood exposure to many tastes has helped. I know adults who still stick to just a few foods and even seem to take some pride in being “picky eaters.” A neighbor won’t eat leftovers. A friend’s husband won’t eat food in sauce. I wonder if their mothers catered to them the way Dude’s mother did. Wisely they married agreeable women who go along with their demands. As for me, I still seem to answer the question “what’s for dinner?” with my mother’s tired reply. “Food.”
Throughout my childhood and teen years, I kept noticing new foods that didn’t resemble ones I was familiar with. The first jolt was seeing Wonder Bread. Supposedly it could “build strong bodies 12 ways,” but I was most intrigued by its ability to be squeezed into tiny balls and hurled across the classroom. My mother refused to buy it, maintaining that they had taken everything healthy out of the bread and she used to say “I WONDER why they call it bread.”
At the same time, some of my classmates arrived with strange sugar deserts in their lunch boxes. Among them were Hostess Twinkies and Hostess Cupcakes. Sadly, having these in your lunch became a status symbol. But my mother refused to “waste the money on that junk,” and we stuck to regular cookies.
The strangest invention of all was Tang, soon to be advertised as the drink of the astronauts. My mother did succumb to our pleadings to buy this wonderful invention. She warned us that it would probably fail to live up to its advertising. Sadly, she was right. In no way did it taste like orange juice, and it even fell short of the kick from orange Kool-Aid, a much cheaper powdered drink. That unfinished Tang bottle hung around for months.
Today kids are used to invented foods from Pirate Booty to Gogurt. But they were a rarity in my childhood, and I remember the disappointments of each one.
As soon as television made its way into American homes with programs designed just for children on Saturday mornings(allowing parents to “sleep in”) advertisers saw their opportunity. And they rushed in with appeals to kids. One of the first was the introduction of “Tony the Tiger” with his gr-r-reat endorsement of Sugar Frosted Flakes. Interestingly after a while Kellogg’s dropped the Sugar from the name and just went with Frosted Flakes.
Not to be outdone, General Mills created a rabbit for its brightly colored Trix cereal. He was repeatedly told, “silly rabbit, Trix are for kids.” Of course Rice Krispies had their own trio of Snap, Crackle and Pop. And for many years when I was a kid toys and prizes came at the bottom of the cereal box. There was only one toy to a package, forcing some major negotiations when there was more than one child in the family. The best solution we offered our mother was to buy more packages.
I don’t remember any particular concern about feeding kids sugar in the morning. Certainly no one was worried about the burst of energy it gave since it would be used up on the walk to school. And once a kid tasted sugar cereal it would take an act of Congress to get her back to plain old corn flakes. Fortunately Congress wasn’t taking up the topic of childhood obesity. Not then.
One of the oft mentioned suggestions from health professionals is to avoid eating between meals to maintain a healthy weight. They say to pay particular attention to “snacking.” I started reflecting on this activity and wondered if it was just my imagination and faulty memory that led me to think this had not been an issue in my childhood. It turns out that my thinking was fine. Even between the 1970’s(when my children were young) and today, children in the United States have gone from two snacks a day to an average of six snacks a day.
We had no snack food in our home unless there were crackers left over from an adult party. We had cookies, but they were for our lunches, not for eating whenever we felt like it. In fact we understood, as did many Americans in the 1950’s, that food was consumed three times a day. That, combined with our very active childhood lives, probably explains the lack of concern about “childhood obesity,” a topic now much in the news.
I don’t know if it is possible to get the snack horse back in the barn now that it has run free through American lives. Somehow we seem to have acquired, in a land of plenty for many, a fear of being hungry. The first pang of hunger sounds a danger signal, apparently, and we must reach for a snack. There are genuinely hungry Americans who lack access to healthy food. But there are also plenty of overfed, underexercised kids in this country. And that is a change for the worse.
Before vaccines, my siblings and I went through all the childhood illnesses as well as frequent bouts of ear aches, sore throats and stomach bugs. When we went to bed, our appetites took a nose dive and food didn’t appeal. My mother had two foods for invalids, toast and orange juice. She cut the toast into strips such as those above and made them into a little log cabin. She diluted the orange juice to a very pale version of itself and served it in a glass with a glass straw. When we saw the glass straw, we acknowledged that we were in fact sick.
Illnesses merited a special green metal tray to deliver food to the invalid. We were expected to eat all the toast and sip a glass of the pale juice before we were allowed to get out of bed and rejoin the family table. I still remember the mixed feelings of being treated as special but feeling horrible at the same time. I preferred regular meals.
My mother had some mysterious illness in childhood which she never really explained to us. All that she told us was that for a long time she had to drink beef juice. Apparently this was derived from meat somehow by the family cook. It sounded awful, and we were glad we didn’t have to drink it. When she was pregnant she had to eat calf’s liver per her doctor’s orders. Fortunately, she didn’t share it with us. However the fact that she didn’t share it made it seem very adult and very desirable, and I acquired a taste for it when I grew up.
As a parent I relied on steamed white rice when a child was ill. I still turn to it for myself when I am ailing. I never acquired a glass straw. Now, I hear, they may finally be coming back in fashion as a substitute for plastic ones. Everything old is new again!
Nobody had commented about diet during my early years. I ate whatever was put in front of me without complaint. The idea that parents would plan their meals around children’s preferences had not taken hold in the 1950’s. So I was quite surprised in third grade to be presented with a version of the poster above produced in the U.S. in 1956 and distributed nationwide.
This plan prescribed “good eating,” and our third grade teacher used it to discuss a “good breakfast.” Up to this point in my life I had happily enjoyed a bowl of cold cereal with milk every morning. On special mornings it was Frosted Flakes, but generally it was Corn Flakes or Rice Krispies. Our teacher went over the plan with us and then asked each one of us what we had eaten for breakfast that morning.
To my dismay, my classmates began describing hot breakfasts including eggs, bacon, orange juice or hot cereal, toast and orange juice. I quickly got the message and hastily invented the breakfast that I would report when it was my turn. So for that one day, I had two fried eggs, toast and bacon! It was the first time I felt shame about what I ate, but it would be far from the last time. Government edicts, women’s magazines and schools would be standing in line from then on to tell me what I ought to be eating.
My first formal exercise came in elementary school with a beloved teacher Mr. Graven. We had gym every day and had a little basket to keep our gym clothes and tennis shoes. Since all girls wore dresses we needed to change into shorts and blouses. We never knew what we would be doing and waited to hear if he said we needed to “dress down” or not.
Mr. Graven was incredibly supportive to me, a tiny, underweight, not all that coordinated kid. In fact at our eighth grade graduation he awarded me a school letter purely for my unfailing effort. But in the early grades he spent a lot of time helping me learn to do a somersault and then, to my amazement, a backward somersault. I never mastered cartwheels, hesitant to take both of my feet off solid ground. Standing on my head seemed a similarly pointless exercise.
But gym class had days where we learned folk dances and square dances. I loved all the variety of music and dances, especially when we whirled around. We also got to dance to the Hokey-Pokey putting first a right foot in then out. Even the Farmer in the Dell delighted us, not yet cynical about “children’s ” music.
My primary advantage came when we formed a pyramid with four girls on the bottom row, then three on the next, then two on the next. As the littlest, I always got to be lifted high onto the top of the pyramid. Then when he signaled us to collapse, I never got squashed as we fell.
So exercise was fun, not that different from regular play at recess and after school. No one had to encourage us to do it, and we all trooped happily to the gym.