I’ve been thinking some about how we ate and moved when I was a child. Countless people have thought about and argued about why Americans have become so overweight over the years. Some say it is because we are less active than we used to be, others point to all the unhealthy processed foods, others say it is just the greater calories consumed and point to larger portion sizes, and others talk more about the types of foods we eat (and the attempt to get us to eat low fat which didn’t exactly work out as intended).
I personally tend to feel it is a combination of things. I was born in the 1950s and I don’t remember much about that that time. But, I remember what it was like to eat and live in the 1960s and early 1970s (I graduated high school in 1972). It would be easy to look back and say that we moved more then, and that portions sizes were smaller and we didn’t eat as many processed foods. And, to some extent, that is true. But, truthfully, in some ways, I think we do better on some things now than we did back then.
Before I talk about food, though, I want to mention a bit about movement. In some ways, when I was a child, there was more activity than I see now. We did play outside after school and I remember riding on my bicycle around the neighborhood. I also talked to and from school most of my school career. High school was a mile away. So, yes, I did go outside a lot after school.
And, yet, really it wasn’t all that active. There weren’t nearly as many after school activities then as now and other than boys on sports teams, there wasn’t a lot of activity other than PE at school and maybe playing outside. I took swimming lessons in the summers as a child, but that was about it. By high school, there wasn’t really any activity except PE and walking to and from school.
It is true that there were fewer labor saving devices. My mother hung wet clothes on a line in the backyard. But, adults didn’t really exercise back then. I never really saw anyone just walking around the neighborhood, let alone someone running. And, adults didn’t go to exercise classes or go to the gym. It was true that my Dad liked to be active outside and would work in the yard. And, he and my mom would go water skiing sometimes. But, really, the idea of adults needing to do any exercise was not one that I ever heard anyone even mention.
As for food, yes, in some ways eating was healthier then, even when eating snacks. I remember when I was old enough that my parents would allow me to have a Coke most days of the weeks. This was, however, a 6 1/2 ounce Coke. Later, they would sometimes let me have a 10 ounce Coke, which seemed huge to me. I would put it in the freezer and let it just start to freeze, then would punch a hole in the top with an ice pick and slowly drink the Coke. It never occurred to me to even think to have more than one. It just wasn’t done. Occasionally, I was allowed to stop at the drugstore on the way home and have a Coke float.
And, having a Coke was my big snack on most days. Cookies, candy, and stuff like that were really more occasional. And, when we did have them, it was small portions. A couple of cookies, not the whole bag. Eating out was not very often. We sometimes ate a nearby cafeteria in a nearby shopping center. This was in no way exciting as this food was very like the food we would eat ate home. In other words, boring. The big excitement at the cafeteria was to get a bowl of Jello — on good days, they had the cherry flavor.
Rarely, we would eat out somewhere else. There was a nearby hamburger stand and maybe a few times a year we would get a hamburger and fries. Another few times a year we would eat out somewhere else. There was a pancake restaurant we went to once or twice a year. A seafood restaurant that we went to very rarely. Eating out was really a special occasion, not something we did every few days.
When I was about 12 years old, a Jack in the Box opened nearby, next door to the local movie theater. I was enthralled by it, particularly the tacos which seemed like the best food ever. But, even back then, it was a very occasional thing to eat there and I would have a couple of tacos. The serving sizes of the food and the Cokes were very small by today’s standards.
So, looking back on it, we just didn’t consume much food outside the house (except for school lunches). We lived across the street from a convenience store and I would sometimes go over there and spend some of my allowance to buy candy or another snack. Again, this was all small portions by today’s standards. Oh, and schools didn’t serve junk food. If you bought a school lunch it was basically food similar to what you would eat at home. No pizza, no fries, no soft drinks. Schools served milk. I’m not saying the food was all that healthy by today’s standards. But, the point is that it wasn’t food that you would particularly want to overeat either.
At home, one big difference between now and then was that we pretty much ate defined meals and there wasn’t much snacking. There was a little snacking on the weekends, but the operative word there is “little.” And, mostly my snack was a 6 1/2 ounce Coke.
Yet, what we did eat at meals was in some ways not all that healthy. My usual breakfast on school days was Frosted Flakes. I didn’t like milk on it (still don’t like milk on cereal) since it would make the cereal soggy. My mother would insist, though, that I have a glass of whole milk with my meal. I don’t remember anyone ever really suggesting that the sugar in the cereal was unhealthy. Occasionally, we would have other less sugary cereals, but I didn’t like them.
Unusual for that era, my mother always worked so she wasn’t making my breakfasts during the week. I was content with just the cereal and milk. Weekends were different though. We usually had bacon and eggs, occasionally with sausage patties. This would also be with either biscuits (I would sprinkle cinnamon sugar on them) or toast. We usually had a choice of butter or margarine and I preferred margarine at the time. And, of course, the toast was white bread. I don’t recall even being aware that there was anything other than white bread.
For lunch, I sometimes would buy lunch at school. When I didn’t, it was usually a bologna sandwich on white bread. On weekends, we would occasionally have something more exotic, like a BLT. And, sometimes we would go to family events where everyone would bring food, often casseroles and things that were really high fat and full of refined carbs.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but dinners in our house were a bit unusual. See, my parents both worked for a meat packing plant. Until it closed when I was 17, my parents never bought meat at the grocery store. They bought all their meat from their employer, at a discount. The result was that we had broiled steak for dinner 5 or 6 days of the week, usually a T-Bone (my favorite) or sirloin. Growing up, I just thought that was normal. One time I remember having a friend stay for dinner and she was agog to be served steak for dinner. She kept exclaiming how unusual it was to have steak for a regular meal during the week. I thought that was strange, since we had steak every night during the week. One reason I think I was later not a big beef eater was that I got so tired of beef over the years.
Once a week we would have chicken, though. This was always fried chicken. I don’t think I had a concept of serving chicken any other way. And, one other day on the weekend we might have something different. Maybe fried fish (again, I didn’t really have a concept of fish being served any other way) or occasionally a ham or something else. But, quite often, that 6th meal might be more… steak.
Along with the steak, my mother would always serve 2 vegetables. Most of the time these were canned vegetables. One reason, I think I’ve had trouble getting into vegetables as an adult was that these vegetables were overcooked, soggy, and just not very appetizing. My mom liked English peas and spinach which I decidedly didn’t like. I didn’t like the squishy texture of the peas or the sliminess of the canned spinach. It would annoy my mother when I would “eat” the peas by swallowing them whole so I didn’t have to suffer through the squishiness.
One vegetable I did like was okra. This was because she would serve fried okra. This was good. I could almost forget that it was a vegetable. Of the canned vegetables, the best ones were green beans and carrots. They were overcooked, but the texture was better than with the peas or spinach.
On weekends, though, we would sometimes have my absolute favorite vegetable — a baked potato. This was in the days before microwaves so it took a long time to cook a potato. During the week, my mom didn’t really have time to make baked potatoes, but would sometimes do it on the weekends. Another occasional vegetable was corn on the cob, which was slathered with butter and lots of salt.
And, of course, we had bread. Everyone was given at least one piece of white bread, sometimes two. It was common to use the bread to help mop up the food. (I was fastidious about eating and always ate one item of food at a time, and didn’t like my food to touch so I never used my bread in that fashion). I would eat my bread slowly, spreading some margarine on it. Occasionally as a treat, I would make (or my dad would make for me) cinnamon toast.
Usually, we didn’t have dessert unless we were visiting family for an occasion. My mother made these great blonde brownies, but that was only a few times a year. And usually there wasn’t much eating after dinner. My mother would often have some grapefruit in the evening. I would sometimes have that. We had apples around the house (I usually didn’t like them) and some oranges. I was just not much of a fruit eater and my mother didn’t insist.
Looking back on it, part of what seems strange to me was how limited our diet was in terms of the food that we ate. Or, to put it another way, there were some foods that I just never ate until I was an adult or almost an adult. For example, we rarely had cheese. In fact, I don’t really have any memory of having cheese at all. I remember in high school going out with someone who suggested I try a cheeseburger. I had never had one as I thought cheese sounded yucky. Well, I went ahead and tried the cheeseburger and couldn’t believe what I had been missing.
Another thing that we never ate was rice. When I was about 10 we went on a vacation and we ate at a buffet that served white rice. I tried it and thought it was awful. It wasn’t until years later that I ever tried rice again.
Pasta was also not really something we ate. Very occasionally, we had spaghetti and meatballs and I remember my mom making spaghetti sauce from scratch. This was time consuming and not something often done.
Another thing we didn’t eat was salads. Occasionally there was a salad made with iceberg lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and some bottled dressing. But, it wasn’t often and I had no notion of any kind of greens other than iceberg lettuce. None of those salads were particularly appealing and it wasn’t until years later than I learned a salad could actually be good. (Like the incredibly yummy salad I had for dinner tonight with homemade balsamic vinaigrette).
Two reasons for why I wasn’t really overweight back then was the fact that we didn’t do much snacking and we didn’t eat out much. And, when we did eat out, portions were small by today’s standards. A 10 ounce Coke seemed enormous to me when I would have one at home. At restaurants, if you ordered a soft drink, you didn’t get free refills.
Another thing is that food just wasn’t as, well, yummy as it seems now. I was reading the book Salt Sugar Fat the other day which is about the processed food industry. One of the things it talks about is how the food industry uses salt, sugar, and fat to hook people into eating more and more food. It talks about food manufacturers always trying to design food for the “bliss point” for sugar, which is the point that the is exact amount of sugar that gives you the most blissful taste.
Back then, processed food did exist, but it seems almost primitive compared to now. There just weren’t the tastes then that exist now in most processed foods and restaurant foods. Food was plainer. Even in restaurants most of the food wasn’t all that much more exciting than the food we ate at home. One reason Jack in the Box was such a revelation was that the tacos were so out of the ordinary. We occasionally would have a TV dinner at home (usually Mexican food) and they weren’t that good and took a long time to cook (no microwaves).
There was just less temptation to overeat when you were going to a cafeteria that might serve fried chicken and mashed potatoes and English peas, food not much different than you could eat at home. And, the fact we didn’t snack all that much also made it easy to rein in the calories. Treats were, well, treats and not every day items. And, servings were small. With all that, even though I did drink Cokes and a lot of the food we ate wasn’t the healthiest and I had no concept of there being anything wrong with sugar or refined grains, I still kept my weight mostly in check. And, so did most everyone else that I knew.
Of course, there would come a time when I would grow up and leave home and started eating more adventurously which wasn’t always to my benefit. More about that later…