Grading my parents on instilling healthy eating patterns

Hello pork zucchini and potatoes

Sometime while reading It’s Not About the Broccoli I began to wonder how well my parents did at cultivating good eating practices in me. Let me state up front that the 50s were a very different time than today. I was a free-range kid who walked a mile to school and back twice a day as I ate lunch at home during our 90-minute lunch break. Parents were more authoritarian then, and kids were less likely to talk back to them. Whippings by parents or school principals were accepted practices. Some of us were quicker learners than others and less likely to be disciplined. My mother and father both had a background in nutrition. Mother was understanding of my wants, needs and food preferences and aversions. She could be worked by gentle persuasion. Dad, not so much. We ate all three meals together as a family. Eating out was a rare treat for me and my mother.

Here are the grades I would give my parents based on major recommendations from Nina Rose in It’s Not About the Broccoli:

Focus on eating patterns and not on nutrition. Since both of my parents were educated in nutrition, my sister and I were encouraged to eat up our vegetables. The emphasis was generally on eating foods that “were good for us” rather than on avoiding foods that were not. We were encouraged to eat pork liver because it had lots of vitamins and red meat for its iron and protein. Then we were told to drink our orange juice because it was high in vitamin C and milk for the calcium. The only food fight I remember having with my parents was over milk. I had no problem with it on my breakfast cereal, but I gagged when trying to drink it out of a glass. The solution was to give me chocolate milk. Our meals were balanced with respect to vitamins, minerals and protein. Each lunch and supper featured a dessert. When I took on an early morning newspaper route, my dad would get up and feed me eggs for breakfast to boost my nutritional profile. He also added an ironized yeast pill each day to make sure I was getting a full complement of minerals and vitamins. Grade C-.

Bad eating habits developed in childhood are likely to stay with us into adulthood. If processed food, as I define it, can be part of a healthy diet, I developed good eating habits when I was young. I was always a member of the clean-plate club. Items that I did not like were served less often and in smaller portions, but I generally ate what I was served. I grew up in a prairie province in Canada, so we dined on midwestern fare— meat and potatoes. Portion sizes were always small. My diet underwent some major changes when I married a Southerner. Over the years midwestern and southern cuisines merged to a meat-and-vegetable-based diet. Somewhere along the way we dropped desserts from our meals. Grade A-.

Rather than focusing on specific foods, focus on eating healthy. For most of my life up until age 12, dad grew a home garden. We had many fresh fruits like pumpkin, squash, rhubarb, cherries and raspberries. Vegetables included asparagus, corn, radish, carrots, peas, and beans. Potatoes made up a large portion of the garden which were protected from pests manually. My sister and I made money each summer by picking off potato bugs (a penny a piece) and leaves with egg casings (a penny for each five leaves). We ate fresh fruits and vegetables in the summer and fall and home-canned or frozen ones in the winter and spring. We also had a root cellar for potatoes and carrots year-round. As mentioned above, we ate a balanced diet, but one, in retrospect was higher in sugar than what is recommended today. We didn’t have that many sandwiches, but when we did mother only used white bread. My favorite sandwich was canned tuna fish (spiked with MSG). My least favorite sandwiches were canned salmon and Spam. On the whole the emphasis was on a wide variety of foods with vegetables, potatoes and meat as its staples.  Grade B+.

Knowing so much about nutrition but eating poorly. I contend that the basic message about nutrition was clearer and better understood by the general public in the 50s and 60s when I was young than it is now. With the current conflicting nutritional information from food evangelists and pop nutritionists, the general public does not know what to believe. Back then the guidelines were general and not so hard and fast. Now stories abound about superfoods, the five foods we should never eat, and miracle diets that will provide immediate weight loss. Both mother and dad knew the general rules of good eating and were able to apply them to our daily menu. We did not eat out much—primarily when we were travelling with a big breakfast after 100 miles on the road, tuna-fish sandwiches at a roadside park for lunch and fast food for supper. They knew much about nutrition, but we did not eat poorly. Grade A

Structure of meals and mealtimes is critical in creating a positive food environment. Our family meals were carefully structured around breakfast, dinner, an afternoon snack and supper. The noon meal was the main meal of the day until we moved to where lunches were served at school. It consisted of a meat, a potato, two vegetables and a dessert. Supper could be a less substantial version of dinner, a sandwich or a TV dinner. The Sunday evening meal was a special one, particularly the year that dad bought a side of beef, and I was designated to select the steak or other cut from the freezer we had in the basement. Most meals were family affairs where all members gathered to discuss the issues of the day. Twice a year or so we travelled the 27 miles to the nearest Dairy Queen for a special treat. Grade A.

So how did my parents stack up? First, since they both had backgrounds in nutrition, they probably over-emphasized nutrition in getting me to eat my food. Since I ended up as a food scientist, I am not sure whether that was a plus or a minus, but I believe that I have gained an appreciation for traditional nutrition. I believe that my parents taught me good-eating habits. Overnight visitors to my home seem to be impressed by commenting at how “healthy” I eat. My diet consists of balanced meals which incorporate a mix of both whole and processed foods with a minimum of sweets and snack foods. The structure of mealtimes, with a reasonably fixed set of food alternatives and its emphasis on family time, is also a plus for what I learned at home. I must confess, however, that my wife has reinforced this structure—something I might have abandoned without her positive influence. I have been very fortunate for such good parents and such a good wife. Final Grade B+.

Next week: In defense of nutritional information in restaurants, chocolate milk, sugar-coated cereal and energy bars



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