Food Stories from a 1970s Kid

My parents were raised in the 1940s and 50s with plenty of good, real, nutritious food every day. Needless to say, when they became parents, they expected to stay on the same track. A few things happened to steer them off course, though.

Now certainly my grandparents’ “food system” underwent huge shifts during their time as well: from gardening and canning to buying off the shelf; from hunting and farming and curing to selecting cuts of beef from the butcher counter; from daily shopping to weekly stocking up. My grandmothers were surely amused by pancake mixes and instant mashed potatoes! These big leaps in how families ate occurred from 1940 to 1970, as car culture and suburban life also took hold.

Some of the twists and turns my parents dealt with were:

  • Food Science
  • Convenience Foods
  • Health Food / Natural Food
  • Cost-Cutting
  • International Food
  • Food Trends
  • Marketing
  • Fast Food
  • Restaurants
  • Food Technology, and
  • Fussy Eaters!

First of all, manufactured products were promoted as being healthier than “old-fashioned” real food. The most glaring example was that most babies, including us, were raised on formula made from Carnation evaporated milk. We then got baby cereal as soon as possible to “help us sleep through the night.” The good part, I suppose, was that bottled baby foods were not the norm, and babies switched to tolerated table foods as soon as possible, which probably introduced a better range of nutrients. We all ended up healthy, but maybe that was from our hours of vigorous outdoor playtime every day!

My parents’ acceptance of convenience foods seemed to start and end with Jell-O and instant pudding. When rice was still a novelty, we had Minute Rice, but that was just a hiccup! We had a few basic canned and packaged foods, such as cereal and soup, but they didn’t figure prominently in our diet at all.

Perhaps in reaction to manufactured foods, an “all-natural” movement sprung up, and suddenly all the moms were deep-frying granola! What I remember about natural foods is that it seemed to be all about grains and baking, and there was little emphasis on vegetables, fruit, or other whole foods. I recall my mom switching from chocolate to carob chips and us not being too happy about it. Around then, lots of people started eating yogurt for the first time, and drinking herbal teas.

My parents were very cost-conscious, as most families were at the time, so they were always trying to balance frugality and nutrition. “Mixed milk” was the #1 indicator of a family on a tight budget. Dry skim milk powder was cheap back then (unlike now) and was used to extend real fluid milk: Mom would mix up a quart of skim milk from powder and water, and then mix equal parts of this with real milk. If it was made in the evening and refrigerated overnight, we didn’t know the difference. If we ran out of milk unexpectedly and had to mix some up on the spot, we were always repulsed by it.

Like most kids in the 70s, we grew up drinking Tang and Kool-Aid (powdered, sugared drink mixes). At least we had beautiful clean well water, and drank that too! Most moms made juice from frozen concentrate, and diluted it much more than the instructions called for. Kids don’t drink much straight juice any more, so maybe the 70s moms were onto something!

1970s families were exposed to food from other countries on TV and in magazines. Even Italian and Chinese were considered exotic themes for meals. At home, our “Italian nights” with spaghetti and garlic bread were special occasions! There were also lots of food trends and their necessary equipment, such as fondue sets, woks, escargot dishes, and the obligatory candle in a Mateus (wine) bottle!

Although it was still prior to Kid Consumer days, kids and teens had more money than in past generations, and more things were marketed to them, especially sugared cereals, pop, candy and gum. It seemed to be understood, though, that you had to spend your own allowance or earnings on these things – kids didn’t expect their parents to shell out for them. Over time, though, families started stocking pop and chips at home on an everyday basis, rather than as a treat.

Fast food virtually did not exist when I was young, so a restaurant meal might involve going to the diner at Woolco or Zellers! I remember my first meal at A&W (not impressed) and at McDonald’s (impressed). I didn’t eat fast food regularly until I was in university and buying it myself.

By the time I finished school, restaurant culture had taken hold, and although families didn’t eat meals in their cars yet, there was a lot more pressure on parents to take their kids out to chain restaurants or order in pizzas. By the early 80s, it wasn’t uncommon for families to have Chinese food, pizza and McDonalds once a week each.

Meanwhile, technology was changing, and my parents owned a microwave oven before I left home (ensuring that future generations would never know what a real grilled cheese sandwich tasted like). The greatest advance brought by the microwave was that you didn’t have to decide a day ahead what meat to thaw for the next day’s dinner! On the negative side, you weren’t tied in to your choice either, so you could always change your mind and have Pizza Pops instead.

My parents never seemed dismayed by advertising or the availability of fake foods. They had fun with trends (such as wine-and-cheese parties) and enjoyed a few conveniences (such as a big chest freezer). Except for the cost-cutting measures noted, they continued right along serving healthy home-cooked meals as if the decades never changed.

Unfortunately I made my parents’ job much harder because I was an intensely fussy eater. It took me to about age 23 to outgrow this and become the most adventurous eater in the family. The list of foods I disliked was endless; carrots and string beans, fish and shellfish, tomatoes and tomato sauce, garlic and onions, gravy and butter, and on and on. But there was no such thing as “kid food,” and I had to suffer though it all. I remember horrible food battles (not being allowed to leave the table until I ate my fish, long since cold). On the other hand, my family had to suffer through my whining and crying at meal time too, and also had to make do with under-seasoned food so it would be acceptable to my picky palate.

The good thing is that we were offered so many real foods that I still ate a wide variety, and that stood me in good stead through the fussy years. I had chicken and beef and beans, milk and cheese, potatoes and rice, peas and corn, fruit and berries of all kinds, oatmeal and cornmeal, bread and biscuits, nuts and peanut butter, and on and on.

I won’t go so far as to say I am nostalgic for the 70s. But I am very grateful that my parents retained their traditional food ways, and I can now re-learn them!

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