Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Terrible Eating Habits of My Childhood Home

When I was little, I remember being yelled at on a fairly regular basis for not eating all the food on my plate at dinner.  Actually, I remember this being a thing for as long as my mother cooked, which ended around the time I was in middle school, to be replaced with dining out, takeout, and fast food.  My dad would sit with me and tell me I couldn't leave from the table until I "cleaned my plate," and I remember sitting for a few minutes until he would give up in a string of curses and scream at me to get out of his sight.

When I got older and moved out on my own, my mother told me about how she hadn't understood serving sizes when Dante and I were kids.  She laughed about how she used to cook a roast or a casserole, divide it into fourths, and serve us each a quarter of the meal.  From the time I was able to eat solid food, she had expected me to eat the same amount as my morbidly obese dad and mom, each of whom was eating at least two adult sized servings, often more.   

She also laughed about how fat Dante had been as a toddler when she fed him two adult portions of sugared instant oatmeal every morning because one packet of oatmeal "just didn't look like that much."  Toddlerhood was the only time the naturally thin Dante had been chubby in his life, though his eating habits never improved.  His regular meals as a 20-year-old man consisted of hot dogs and lunch meat, potato chip sandwiches, a variety of Little Debbie snack cakes, and candy from the limitless supply my mother kept in baskets around the house. 

I, on the other hand, spent my childhood wondering why I was heavier than most of the kids at my elementary school.  The candy around the house didn't help, but it was a comparatively mild problem.  My mother encouraged me to eat cake or cookies for breakfast on the frequent occasions that we had them on hand because "they have eggs and flour in them, just like breakfast food."  In retrospect, she probably just wanted me to leave her alone so she could go back to sleep, but I took this logic so far that I ate Cadbury Creme Eggs for breakfast in the weeks surrounding Easter because I thought they were made of real eggs, not just chocolate and colored fondant.  I knew nothing.  No one corrected me. 

I knew I was chubbier than I wanted to be, but my mother insisted I had inherited my figure from her and it could not be altered.  "We're big boned," she said.  I didn't get made fun of to my face often, but I do recall being called "Fatso" by a boy I didn't know and being asked by one of my best friends in elementary school if I oversalted my food because I was "overweight and had trouble losing weight," and I guess it didn't occur to her these problems could also come from eating mostly junk food. 

My mother forbade me to drink low-fat milk with my school lunches because, as she explained much later, she had fed me skim milk as a new baby and been scolded by my pediatrician for doing so.  I drank full-fat milk with every meal thereafter, blind to the fact that I eventually got older and had different dietary needs.  We drank a lot of soda too.  My mother kept a Big Gulp full of 7Up or Pepsi on the table beside the couch and drank from it all day everyday.  I don't remember having a glass of water before the age of eight or so, when Dante started drinking water with his meals and I insisted on having the same because anything he did was "cool." 

When I was ten or eleven, I had my first cholesterol test, and it was already over 200.  For reference, an adult's total cholesterol should be below 150 for optimal health.  My pediatrician told me I needed to lower my cholesterol, but I didn't know what cholesterol was, let alone how to lower mine.  He was shocked to hear I was still drinking full-fat milk at my age, so we switched to low-fat and eventually to skim.  My mother encouraged me to reduce my saturated fat intake -- another cause of high cholesterol, my doctor said -- by buying me countless boxes of Snackwells fat free cookies.

We were a "meat and potatoes" household at mealtime.  And casseroles.  Casseroles featuring Miracle Whip and cheese.  We didn't eat a lot of vegetables.  Sometimes we had salad, which consisted of iceberg lettuce, croutons, and a bottle of creamy salad dressing.  Sometimes we had a warmed up can of vegetables, or a can of spinach dumped into a bowl.  I lost a little of my chubbiness when I hit puberty and had a sudden growth spurt, but it got even harder to control my weight when we started having exclusively restaurant food for dinner.  One night per week was devoted to McDonald's, one to delivery pizza, and one to Chinese takeout, which mostly meant crab rangoon.  I tried to make up for the calorie dump at dinner by eating plain shredded wheat for breakfast and celery sticks for lunch.  I was generally starving by dinnertime, which I knew wasn't good, but I didn't know what else to do.

When I moved out to go to college, I lost weight.  I had starting reading books about nutrition after that first cholesterol test -- they became something of a hobby for me -- so I knew more by then.  I also went back to eating normal breakfasts and lunches since my dining hall dinners were significantly more reasonable.  I also walked a lot because public transportation cost money I didn't have. 

I gave up meat, just because it had disgusted me for years and I finally had full control over my diet away at college.  When I came home for spring break, my mother asked, "Why are you doing this to me?!"  She said I was ruining spring break for her because now she would feel like she couldn't eat anywhere she wanted (she could and did -- I could find something to eat at any restaurant, and she didn't cook anymore anyway).  She also said it was too expensive to eat vegetables so much.  She said her own mother had stretched meals for their large family by adding ground beef to canned spaghetti.  Her logic was presumably that, since her family had been poor and her mother had done this, it must have been the cheapest way to eat.  And cheap was good.  Especially if it was something for me.  Also, my mother hates vegetables.  Also, I think she wanted me to be like her.

I didn't know how to cook until I got a campus apartment.  From the time I was in grade school until I moved out for college, our oven was mostly broken.  My mother used a pair of pliers to turn it on and off, and it burned the bottom of any food she cooked in it.  We couldn't get it fixed because we lived in a hoard house and she wouldn't allow a repairman inside at that point.  My dad taught me how to boil pasta and scramble eggs when I was in high school.  Beyond that, I learned to cook from the internet when I was 20.  I turned out to be good at it.  When I came home on break and wanted to show off some of my new cooking skills by making a simple side dish for my dad to try, my mother burst into tears.  She said I'd make a mess, I'd ruin everything.  I was taken aback at her crying.  I had rarely seen her cry in my life.  She normally defaulted to screaming or guilt trips.  I promised to clean up after myself -- something I also started figuring out how to do in college -- and cooked my dish.  I washed everything I'd used too.  The kitchen was still a filthy, sticky mess.

I want to put a happy ending on this, but I don't want to sound like I'm gloating, so here:  I'm in my 30s and healthier now than at any point in the story above.

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