Coke. Oreos. Cheetos. Pringles. Fluff. French Fries. TV Dinners. Frosted Flakes. Froot Loops. Dunkin’ Donuts. Most of these foods (well people eat them, but I have never considered them food, per se), my children had heard off, maybe tasted a bite thanks to some one else, but had never heard me offer, let alone watched me buy. And for one day, they also watched me eat.
Labeling me a “health food mom” would be an accurate characterization. Since I do just about all the food prep for my family, we get to eat mostly fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains and other whole foods. At the same time, I try not to be militant about it. We’ll share in a small amount of candy or junk food in social situations to keep everyone happy. But, I’m hoping for life-long buy-in by not putting my foot down with an absolute “no” to things many people eat regularly (even if I liken it more to poison than to nourishment). So to quell any nascent curiosity, I proposed a junk food day. All junk food, and only junk food, for 24 hours. A sort of Morgan Spurlock undertaking in overdrive – I was aiming for the same totally repulsed outcome in just 1/30 of the time.
I met my fellow junk foodies at the school bus, and we were off to get supplies. First stop: K-Mart. I figured, if we were on a cultural adventure as foreign exchange students in junk food land, we should shop in a different place too. Even though the food K-Mart carries does all undeniably fall into the “junk food” category, the selection was skimpier than we had hoped, so we trudged on to a large-scale supermarket to round out our assortment of frozen dinners, soda, overly salty snacks, overly sweet snacks and still more snacks. I had to say no to things we agreed were too healthy: the kids tv dinners with a vegetable, and the cookies with real ingredients, and definitely no actual fruit, although the pomegranates did look good. I caved a little when I made an exception for a can of jellied cranberry sauce (which fortunately turned out to really be two forms of corn syrup with a hint of cranberry). Fully stocked, we swung by Dunkin’ Donuts on the way home for coffee for me and a first-ever donut for the younger set. We were off to a buzzing good start.
We unpacked and displayed our goods. For dinner I made, (if opening boxes and putting plastic trays in an oven can be called “making”), TV dinner-style frozen macaroni and cheese, french bread pizzas and french fries. A plate full of yellowish beige sat in front of us, to be washed down with coke. As my older daughter repeated many times over, “this is weird.” I had to agree. Despite our best efforts, there were left-overs. It just wasn’t very good. What to do with the rejected remains? Normally, we give kitchen scraps to our hens, but my youngest insisted,”I’d rather give it to the trash, than give it to the chickens.”
For breakfast we poured hot water on our instant hot cocoa and coffee mixes, and opened various small boxes of exceedingly sweet cereal. The rest of the morning, I encouraged them to snack straight out of bags: pringles, cheetos, oreos… Without much of an appetite, at lunchtime, we made fluff sandwiches and wondered how this sticky, glue-like concept came to be.
As we reached the final hour of my “scared straight” inspired experiment, we had successfully tried a variety of highly processed versions of corn and soy, reconfigured and presented as distinct food products, each decorated with numerous numbered colors, flavored artificially and packaged enticingly. Admittedly, the initial taste of some was nice, but the full experience was not. Overloaded on junk food, we felt simultaneously tired and wired, overly full but still sort of hungry, entertained by our binge, but not sorry to dump the remaining soda down the drain, and the uneaten fluff and cereal in the garbage.
With a kitchen table full of foreign items, my girls had done more than just taste the contents, they had thoroughly examined the packages – being struck by what they read: how many different forms of sugar a single product had, the impossible to pronounce ingredients, the bogus health claims, etc. Probably the most shocking was the invitation on the bottle of Coca-Cola to “join Diet Coke in the support of women’s heart health programs,” in a campaign called “The Heart Truth.” They felt the inherent lie could not be more obvious: there is no way that Coke could be supportive of any form of health. They took pride in their skepticism and inability to be “tricked,” while feeling put off by that fact that such clear untruths were allowed to be printed.
They were absolutely right. The junk food world serves up ingredients I don’t want in my body, but perhaps more insidious, it promotes (false) information and uses unrestrained marketing tactics I don’t want in my head or theirs. Since it is virtually impossible to separate junk food from food marketing, immersing ourselves in a day of junk, was as much a taste test as it was a test of critical thinking. Allow children (in particular) to be surrounded by the products and information this industry creates, and it will have you captive. In fact, a large-scale study discussed in today’s The Atlantic shows that the amount of marketing to children is going up, not down. In “Are Children Prey for Fast Food Companies?“, the author reports, “the average preschool child sees three ads for fast food, every day. For teens the number is five. Much of the advertising is to create brand loyalty as much as it is to promote certain foods.” Because it was so unusual, our one day total immersion experience revealed both that the food is unsatisfying, and the marketing messages thoroughly unsavory.
This is a day we will always remember – the day we bought crap food, finally tasted what we have seen people around us eat, ate way too much of it in a short period of time, felt all-around “weird”, were baffled at the desperate marketing attempts to make this junk appear somehow healthy, craved real food and, in the end, were happy when it was over. My girls assure me my reverse psychology experiment has worked. They can now go through life knowing what oreos, pringles, fluff and coke taste like without turning these into regular habits.
Though we had fun with it, I don’t necessarily recommend this strategy. If you feel inspired to try the same, I’d love to hear about your family’s experience. Good luck, have fun, and savor with renewed appreciation that fresh, colorful, crispy, delicious and nutritious salad waiting for you on the other side.