Uh-oh, Spaghettios

A single dad with a junk food past develops an obsession with health food.

Published September 28, 1998 6:54PM (EDT)

Am I guilty of child abuse if I give my 4-year-old daughter a hot
dog for dinner? Will a SWAT team burst through my door if I unwrap a
slice of processed American cheese or drop a Pop Tart into the toaster?
Being a responsible single parent can be a daunting task when it comes
to nutrition. I try to provide well-balanced meals for Leah, but after a
long day at the office, I hardly have the energy to bake my own
whole-grain bread, steam all-natural basmati rice or prepare a turkey
casserole. And it's not like I have a history of eating wholesome,
farm-fresh meals every night myself. In fact, I'd say that most of my
neuroses concerning my daughter's digestive fare can be traced directly
to the sugary, synthetic, freeze-dried foods that graced my own
childhood plate.

Don't get me wrong. My mother was a caring, loving person. She just
wasn't an expert on the nutritional value of the food she served. Her
main concern was that I ate everything on my plate: "You mustn't waste,"
my mother railed on a daily basis. "Don't you know there are starving
children in Europe?" My mother's focus on the children of Europe said
more about her background than it did about the current patterns of
world famine. While I don't doubt that there were starving children in
Europe during the 1960s, as there probably were just a few miles from
our Chicago home, global attention had long since shifted from the
ravages of postwar Europe to third world trouble spots. While other
parents admonished their children with the latest statistics from
Ethiopia, the Sudan, Vietnam and Bangladesh, my World War II-raised
mother, unable to break free from her own mother's constant admonitions,
was forever locked into her own Marshall Plan of European recovery.

As I struggled to lick my plate clean, I tried to imagine how eating
every morsel of my Swanson TV Dinner was going to help the wide-eyed
orphans in the bombed-out ruins of Rotterdam or Berlin. When I got fed
up with this guilt trip, I offered to pack up the remains of my
Salisbury steak, freeze-dried vegetables and burned-at-the-edges brownie
and ship them off to the Continent. There was only one problem
with my plan: I'm sure that the nuclear waste that passed for American
cuisine in the 1960s would have been rejected by officials of the World
Health Organization.

I suspect that my short stature and premature baldness came not from
genetics but from the steady diet of manufactured, chemical rich,
artificial foods I consumed as a child. This is what prompts me to feed
Leah nutritious, all-natural foods whenever I can. Not that I hold a
grudge against my mother for her skewed view of nutrition. The new
prefab goodies she fed us were designed to free American women from the
drudgery of the kitchen and add quality time to family life. My mother
yearned for culinary freedom. As consumer dependency shifted from the
farmland to the factory, we all felt lucky and proud to be citizens of
the ultra-modern United States. Our foods reflected the hopeful wonder
of American technology. Why spend countless hours preparing the boring
meals of our grandparents' generation when you could simply grab a box,
open a can, break a plastic seal or pull back a foil lining?

My day began with breakfast cereals that boasted a staggering array
of artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. Cocoa Puffs, Sugar
Pops, Cap'n Crunch. My favorite was Trix -- tiny spheres of crunchy
Day-Glo sugar that sent spirals of fluorescent colors strafing across my
bowl of milk. I also liked Lucky Charms, which featured mini-marshmallows
in leprechaun-inspired shapes. I foraged past the bland cereal bits to
find the yummy hearts, moons and clovers in a spectrum of hues that
never existed on God's rainbow.

Lunchtime foods sprang forth from a stock of canned goods that was
big enough to outlast the Cold War. Our luncheon menu might include Spaghettios ("the neat new spaghetti you can eat with a spoon!"), Chef
Boy-Ar-Dee mini-raviolis, Goober's peanut butter and jelly swirled
together in the same jar or the glorious marshmallow fluff, a pristine
white concoction of sugar and air that was made into heavenly
"fluffernutter" sandwiches. When she had a little extra time, my mother
prepared comforting Kraft Macaroni 'n' Cheese. As she mixed the powdered
topping with milk, it was magically transformed into a cheesy goo
guaranteed to stay in the colon until Nixon's resignation. All of these
treats were washed down with refreshing sugary beverages such as grape
Kool-Aid, strawberry Fizzies, Tang, Fresca or chocolate-flavored

- - - - - - - - - -

For our nightly dinner meal, my mother demonstrated a flair for the
exotic. Hawaiian meatballs made with canned pineapple in heavy syrup;
lemon chicken, cooked all day in a Crock-Pot with frozen lemonade
concentrate. Sometimes she served honest-to-God fresh produce: wedges of
watery iceberg lettuce drowning in the dazzling gelatinous red-orange of
Kraft French Dressing. In an era that worshiped brand names, our dinners
were offerings upon the altar: melted Velveeta, cubed Philadelphia Brand
Cream Cheese, ReaLemon juice, crushed Kellog's Corn Flakes, Kikkoman
Teriyaki Sauce, Wish-Bone Italian Dressing, Lipton Onion Soup Mix,
Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup, Durkee's French Fried Onions.
Capitalism was alive and well in America and living in our

My mother's desserts rivaled science fair projects. She made Dole
pineapple upside-down cake, sticky Rice Krispies treats and the
infamous "mock" apple pie made of Ritz crackers instead of fruit. My
favorite dessert was the short-lived Jello 1-2-3. Although prepared like
regular Jello, this amazing product would separate into three distinct
layers as it cooled: creamy top, fruity middle and plain artificial
black cherry bottom. Top the whole thing with non-dairy Cool Whip and
you have a dessert fit for an Apollo astronaut! I didn't care for the
gritty middle layer but I was not allowed to bypass it and move on
(remember those hungry tots in Europe!).

One result of all the forced plate cleaning was that I forgot what it
felt like to be hungry. Whether or not we felt like eating was never a
factor in our mealtime plans. In truth, our schedules were related more
to the TV Guide listings than to our stomachs. Our 12-inch Sony sat at
the end of the white Formica kitchen table as a full-fledged member of
the family. I remember the meals of my childhood in conjunction with
what was on TV at the time. During breakfast we watched "Dennis the
Menace," "Captain Kangaroo" and "Rocky and Bullwinkle." At
lunchtime we enjoyed "Bozo's Circus" followed by "Let's Make a
Deal." Dinner usually began with 15 minutes of gruesome color
footage of the Vietnam War followed by a changing schedule of sitcoms:
"My Mother the Car," "The Munsters," "Mister Ed," "My
Favorite Martian," "The Mothers-in-Law."

Looking back, I'm surprised I was a thin child. I should have been
clinically obese. Especially when you take into account the overstocked
candy bowl at the entrance to our kitchen. This bottomless candy bowl
was legendary in our neighborhood and responsible for a good portion of
my local popularity. I never left the room without grabbing a Mars Bar,
Milky Way, Butterfinger or Hershey's Almond Bar. Other daily snacks
included Twinkies, Ho-Hos, Suzy-Qs, Fiddle Faddle, Screaming Yellow
Zonkers and my favorite delicacy, pink snowballs: globes of
cream-filled devil's food cake cloaked in a thick layer of the softest
marshmallow and coconut that science could deliver.

A rare nod to our high calorie intake during these years was the
occasional purchase of Diet Rite, a soft drink loaded with
soon-to-be-discredited saccharin and cyclamates. In the late 1960s,
perhaps as a backlash to a decade of chemical experimentation on the
American public, the virtues of natural foods began to move into the
spotlight. At first, my mother's version of "natural" was using
maraschino cherry juice as a food coloring in her cake batter, but
eventually we started consuming a few "health food" items such as Roman
Meal whole wheat bread and tubs of soft artificially colored margarine
that replaced butter on our frozen waffles. Whatever ad campaign
persuaded Americans to forsake wholesome butter for these nasty
polyunsaturated mixtures was a stroke of marketing genius.

I'm not quite sure what the official repercussions were of ingesting
all that junk food, but I don't want to play nutritional Russian
roulette with my own young daughter. I wouldn't dream of letting Leah
near a box of Trix or Lucky Charms and I worry that every bite of a Big
Mac or sip of a sugary soft drink might take an inch off her height or a
month off her life. Over the years my own metabolism has slowed down to the
speed of Log Cabin syrup and it's become very difficult for me to shed
any of the 20-or-so extra pounds I've put on in recent years. I know
the sludge I grew up eating is partly responsible: I visualize the
mutated molecules of pink snowballs jumping onto my fat cells and
hanging on for dear life.

I must admit to one serious infraction with my daughter, however.
Recently, out of a wistful sense of nostalgia, I brought home a can of
Franco-American Spaghettios. The moment I opened the container and got a
whiff of those sauce-covered circles, I was transported back to my
childhood dinner table circa 1965. I could close my eyes and see my
mother setting down the accompanying Tater Tots and Ball Park Franks. I
could hear the strains of the "Gilligan's Island" theme song in the
background. I gingerly placed a bowl of Spaghettios in front of my
daughter and watched her take her first bite. Her eyes grew as big as
pink snowballs and she smiled from ear to ear in a chemical-induced
reverie. But before you call the child welfare bureau, rest assured:
Whatever the current status of starving children throughout the world, I
did not make my daughter eat every bite.

By Danny Miller

Danny Miller is the editor in chief at the Galef Institute, an educational reform initiative working with public schools across the country. He lives in Los Angeles with his daughter Leah.

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