I lived without a microwave from 2004 to 2009, and by the time I got back in the quick-cooker game, those gizmos sure had added a lot of features.
This last October I moved into a house with a built-in microwave, and I realized I was still way behind the times. These appliances can do everything now, and I am living the high life with options for not only melting but also softening both butter and chocolate at the touch of a button. Want a baked potato? Defrosted meat? It is so convenient! The microwave button that most provoked my curiosity was the one labeled "Kids Meals". My ire at the lack of an apostrophe was nothing compared with the revulsion I felt when I pressed the button and saw the following options:
Press 1 for chicken nuggets
Press 2 for frozen french fries
Press 3 for frozen sandwich
Press 4 for hot dog
I was raised in a house where my parents cooked homemade meals, and where salad was a nightly experience. Our combination microwave and conventional oven had no preset buttons. My sister and I thought vegetables and cooking from scratch were normal parts of eating. This is not to say that we didn't delight in going over to the houses of friends whose parents bought Fun Fruits and Sprite.
Sugar tastes good to the human tongue. As a species, we have evolved to like sweet tastes because they signal that fruit is ripe and at its most nutritious. They signal that something is safe to eat, rather than poisonous. And they signal that we will get an immediate energy boost from readily-available sugars. Fats and salts also signal our 50,000-year-old metabolisms that we are getting vital calories and nutrients, and that we will feel sated. But we also know that now the tastes of sugar, salt, and fat are not necessarily the tastes of good nutrition. On the contrary, since those tastes can be manufactured and added to anything, all they signal is that a company wants our business. In addition, we as a society know that diet is the number one factor in health. That we are what we eat. That processed foods are not good for us.
Recently I saw an episode of a reality show called Extreme Couponing, in which families save up to 100% of their grocery bill by cutting out coupons and going on extreme shopping trips. A nine-year-old boy helped his mother by making out the family shopping list for one of these coupon shopping runs. He included soda, chips, cookies, candy, and other snack foods. I watched, waiting for the mother to tell him he could not have all of these things, or that perhaps he could choose one treat he wanted to have. She did not. She shopped directly from his list.
The nine-year-old in me was awestruck by this TV moment. I can recall that at that age I would fantasize about how I would fill my shopping cart when I was an adult. Oreos, Coke, sugar cereal...the list would grow as we walked up and down the aisles of the grocery store (on those few occasions when we weren't shopping at the local health food store). And I guarantee, I really wanted all of those foods and was resentful that I didn't get to have them. I was also resentful that I was not allowed to watch TV before doing my homework, and that I had to wash my hair more than once a month. Parents set limits because they are responsible for their children's health and well-being.
Most of the time, parents and other adults readily take to this job of setting limits despite what children want. This is because we know that the judgment of a young person has not fully developed. No, you can't play with that ax, no matter how fun you think it would be. Yes, you do have to go to bed, even though you would like to keep watching TV. Why is it that when it comes to food, we tend to cave to our children's desires, even when they are deleterious? Is it because our own food cravings make it difficult to deny our children something that we ourselves want?
So what is my adult shopping cart like? I have to say, it falls short of my 9-year-old fantasy: it never includes any Oreos or sugar cereal - or cereal of any kind, for that matter. I cook for myself for almost every meal. The smell of McDonald's makes me ill. My shopping cart is regularly filled with all kinds of boring adult items, such as chicken, pasta, canned tomatoes, spices, nuts, and lots and lots of veggies. How could I have let down my inner child so much? I blame my parents. Not for what they didn't give me, but for what they did give me.
An emblematic memory of my childhood is of walking into our blue kitchen in the middle of the house and hearing and smelling sauteing onions in a cast iron skillet. I asked my mother what was for dinner, and she answered that she wasn't sure yet, but that sauted onions were a good start for pretty much everything. I still love the smell of sauteing onions, and I begin many meals with that iconic ingredient. For me, it is the smell of dinner. My pallet was trained to recognize this aroma and flavor as good, as pleasing, as food. My parents used the power they had to train my mouth to love complex flavors, spices, and textures.
Given that we are naturally drawn toward sugar, fat, and salt, shouldn't we work to cultivate different tastes in our children? They will find the big 3 on their own. Just like they will find dirt, sharp toys, and procrastinating. Wouldn't we be better off, while they are still too young to work the microwave themselves, to train their taste buds to like a wide variety of veggies, grains, legumes, and fruits? That way, when they have the choice to choose their own food, it will be a real choice. A choice among many options. A choice to eat food, not simply to consume prepared, processed "Kids Meals".