Calories of Contentment

The other night – too late for a grocery store run but with few options in the pantry – my wife and I split a box of Kraft Mac & Cheese for dinner. No spicing things up, no healthy side of vegetables to lessen the guilt – just a heaping bowl of the little pasta elbows with powdered cheese. MAN did that taste good. I promptly considered a Hostess Ding Dong for dessert but caught myself just in time. Whoa, boy. Who says there’s no traveling during the pandemic?  I’ve made the journey to the land of comfort foods!

A little context before we explore the calories of contentment.  After the kids moved out of the house several years ago, our diet moved decidedly to the more healthy.  We upped our fruit and vegetable count.  We focused on meals with whole foods and fewer ingredients.  We started shopping in boutique grocery stores, discovering foods and brands we never knew existed.  Dairy and starchy carbs took the back shelf to pure proteins and Mother Nature’s bounty.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this good intention, a box of Kellogg’s Pretzel Cinnamon-Sugar Pop-Tarts dropped casually into my grocery basket.  I’d heard they were pretty good and I’d never tried them before, so… why not?  Then the kids came to town for a long weekend, so we just had to load up on old family favorites like Cap’n Crunch, Good Humor Creamsicles, and Red Baron frozen pizzas.

But here’s the thing.  Our kids eat so responsibly these days, sugary cereals and snack foods no longer appeal to them.  They make flourless banana pancakes and organic food “bowls”.  They nosh on healthy proteins and Boba teas.  They spend most of their time in the kitchen instead of the drive-thru.  Those comfort foods we purchased got no love, so naturally we purchased a couple more (the Kraft Mac & Cheese and Hostess Ding Dongs).  Heck, we even embellished those choices with a countertop bowl of Brach’s caramel “Royals”, and a huge container of Peanut M&M’s in a nearby cupboard.  There’s now a junk-food roadblock in front of every attempt to eat healthy.

What is going on here?  I blame the coronavirus.  Most of our processed-food pals moved into our pantry in the last six months.  All of them were impulse buys (or “moments of weakness”, or whatever else you want to call them).  No surprise though; we’re contributing to a nationwide, if not worldwide trend during this pandemic.  The world’s biggest packaged-foods manufacturers reported sales growth of 4.3% in the first three months of the year (vs. forecasts of 3%).  Canned soup purchases rose 37%, canned meat 60%, and frozen pizza 51%.  Hot Pockets and SpaghettiOs flew off the shelves.

Is one of these YOUR comfort food?

In all seriousness, a turn to comfort foods is a sign of something more complicated below the surface of our psyches.  I wish I could credit nostalgia: the sentimentality for past happier times and places, or emotional eating: the propensity to consume comfort foods in response to positive/negative stimuli.  Instead, I think we’re dealing with declinism – the belief our society is heading towards a prolonged downturn or deterioration.  We’ve been here before America, as in the Depression of the 1930s, the spread of Communism in the 1950s, or the rise of Japan’s economic powerhouse in the 1970s.  In each instance our country soldiered on better than before, but that’s not to say the short-term endurance is any fun.  And that, boys and girls, is why comfort foods maintain a “healthy” presence in grocery stores and in your pantry.

Hilton Hotels rivaled the pandemic headlines when they revealed their Doubletree chocolate-chip cookie recipe to the world last April.  Talk about your classic comfort food.  Doubletree cookies have nestled on hotel pillows since the mid-1980s; a whopping 25,000,000 in less than forty years.  “We know this is an anxious time for everyone”, was Hilton’s excuse for sharing their secret.  I baked a batch as soon as I came across the headline and now I can’t seem to stop.  A heaping bag of Doubletrees now sits in our refrigerator more often than it does not.  I could probably recite the recipe from memory, and I dream about them in my sleep.  Hilton’s got me hooked.

I still haven’t tried those Pretzel Cinnamon-Sugar Pop-Tarts, the preservative-filled pastries responsible for this whole mess.  All are still paired neatly in their foil packets, sitting quietly on the shelf.  The box may even be getting a little dusty.  I figure my willpower remains intact if I leave the tarts alone until their expiration date.  Er, wait – now that I think about it – Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts never expire.  Dang it; that’s a little depressing.  I’d better have a Ding Dong to cheer myself up.

Some content sourced from the 4/24/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Comfort Foods Make a Comeback in the Coronavirus Age”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Behind Bars

Every now and then I crave a Kellogg’s Frosted Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop Tart. You can debate the matter and say the fruit Tarts are better – Strawberry, Cherry, and Blueberry – and I’ll give you those, but I stand by my boring-looking Brown Sugar Cinnamon. Maybe that’s because I consumed hundreds of them as a kid, piping hot from the toaster.

Somehow Pop Tarts eluded the otherwise healthy content of my mom’s pantry.  You’d walk in to dozens of those little red boxes of raisins, a pretty good assortment of nuts (which were more meant for recipes than snacking), and the occasional graham cracker.  The fruit and veggie drawers in the frig were loaded and there was always a gallon of milk on hand.  Yet there they were, in foil-wrapped packages of two: Kellogg’s Pop Tarts.  I wish I could see the ingredients list from the 1970’s versions versus those of today’s Tarts.  Surely the former leaned more towards “real food” and less towards chemicals, or my mom would’ve never gone for them.

Pop Tarts now come in twenty-seven varieties, which by any standard is ridiculous. Who wouldn’t be happy with the four I already mentioned? (Okay, let’s add Frosted Chocolate Fudge and call it good).  Do we really need options like “Wildlicious Wild! Cherry”, or “Confetti Cupcake”? Apparently so, because that’s where our demand for choices has taken us. The new approach to snacks: invent one, sell enough to get them into everyday conversation, then evolve to twenty-seven varieties.  Have you seen your options with Oreo’s these days?  I rest my case.

The other day I traveled down the cereal aisle of our grocery store for the first time in a long time (we have house guests). I was shocked to discover the “healthy cereal” section is just as big as the space reserved for regular cereals. Even more interesting, the overhead signs on the aisle first announce “Cereals”, followed by “Granola” a little further down, followed by “Diet and Fitness” a little further than that.  The entire aisle feels like the same kind of food, only you start with boxes, morph to bags, and end up with little bars.  I’d love to know the combined total grams of protein in the products in the “Diet and Fitness” section.  Gotta be ten thousand or more.

Fun facts: Americans now choose from over 400 brands of “healthy” bars, in 4,000 varieties.  At $6 billion in 2012, the healthy bar market was only 17% as big as that of savory snacks ($34 billion) but growing in a hurry.  American children consume almost 500 calories a day in snacks.  The routine starts when we’re young.

Snack bars seem to be almost-entirely carbs or almost-entirely protein. I won’t comment on the first variety because I don’t eat them (I’ve moved on from Pop Tarts), and I don’t even see the carb variety because our store puts them over in the cookie aisle. But protein bars are a challenging enough decision. For starters, are protein bars a “snack” or a “meal”? Many are advertised as “meal-replacements”. Others look small enough to be snacks. Even the ever-present “Nutrition Facts” label doesn’t really lend a hand, except to confirm you’re taking in more calories and sugar than you’d hoped.

I belong to Lifetime Fitness here In Colorado, a gym which stresses “healthy lifestyle” in everything they offer, whether personal training sessions, workout classes, spa treatments, or a cafeteria full of healthy choices. The mantra I hear like a broken record: “carb-up” at least an hour before the workout; “protein-up” within 45 minutes after. I’m sure some would dispute that approach, but regardless, it suggests a “snack” before AND after a workout.  And as I stand in “Diet and Fitness”, I ask myself, “Is that snack half of a “meal-replacement” bar?  Two or three of the “fun-size”?  Scrap the whole aisle and go with fruit and cheese instead?”

For my money, snack bars before and/or after a workout neither benefit the short run nor ease the long run. It’s kind of like my daily multi-vitamins: no clue whether they help me either (but I still take them). This much I know: I need to have a somewhat full stomach before I work out. On that note, maybe I’ll just skip the “Diet and Fitness” aisle from now on and go back to Pop Tarts.

Some content sourced from the Wall Street Journal article, “Our Misplaced Mania for ‘Healthy’ Snacks”.