This notoriously cheap and tasty dish, loved by undergraduates and toddlers everywhere besides Berkeley, has re-branded itself, smacking the word SMART across its boxes, in addition to a promise to provide a helping of either vegetables, fiber or omega 3. I’m naturally drawn to all things cheap, easy, and tasty, but then add words SMART and well, you had me at cheap.
Kraft Dinner is a formidable favorite of mine left over from my student days, when hitting two food groups in one meal for 99 cents was only trumped by the cheap beer at J.J. Rossi’s every Tuesday night. And to this day, KD (as it is affectionately known to all who consume it) is a runaway favorite when nursing a hangover. Try it, and thank me later.
But MOST importantly, it is liked by all three of my children, and that has only ever happened with chocolate and root beer, naturally making me suspicious of its nutritional content. Since it takes about 3 minutes to whip up a lunch of KD, from a time management aspect alone I want to love the stuff. I could really use a break from my children complaining about the healthy food I give them – There are too many seeds in this bread! Why doesn’t this peanut butter taste like peanut butter? Can’t you put sugar instead of a banana in my smoothie?
I get a fair bit of flack every day for toiling over their meals. It is crazy to want to provide your kids with a healthy diet, after all. Drives. Me. Insane.
So sue me – I got a bit excited by the SMART marketing. I purposely avoided reading the labels – I suspected the fine print would only reveal a dish that was still, for the most part, unhealthy. I even got creative and bought all three different boxes and combined them into one dish, so my kids would get a serving of vegetables, fiber, and omega 3 in one, painfully orange, highly processed blob.
No surprise, they loved it. Licked their bowls clean. Why don’t you make this for us all the time?
Unable to stand the suspense any longer, I grabbed the box and read the fine print. The vegetable serving they promise amounts to half a serving of vegetables (my ten-year old is supposed to have 6 servings a day), and it comes by way of a cauliflower powder. It’s hard to imagine, all chemistry aside, how many nutrients can be left of the cauliflower once it has been processed into a fine blend of dust and mixed with processed cheese.
As I peeled carrots, I told them sadly, KD would remain in the “seldom consumed” category. Damn you, Kraft Dinner, I really wanted to invite you into my life again. Parting is such sweet sorrow – so, until the next hangover.
I have a penchant for competition, but I would never dream of attempting to beat the French at their own game.
Their passion for eating, that is.
It would take a serious training regime of long lunches and longer dinners – over weeks, preferably months, perhaps years – before one could possibly achieve a similar metabolism, let alone the tolerance for wine that would render one a contender.
Food and drink are their game, and they play it extremely well.
Everywhere you look between the hours of 12 and 2, and then again from 7:30 – 10:30, people are enjoying sumptuous lunches and dinners, eyes closed and conversation hushed as they concentrate on the task at hand.
Rose is consumed like water. We stopped at a little cheese shop the other day and noticed the proprietor was also doing a booming business selling rose out of a vat, filling large glass jugs for his patrons for one and half euros per liter. (It was pretty good wine, I might add.) Bottled water costs more, so it is perfectly rational to drink wine instead.
So although I freely admit I will never beat the french at this game of eating, I would like to join them at playing their game, in my own miniscule way. And so to this end we ventured to Jardin d’Ivana the other night.
Jardin d’Ivana is exactly as it translates: Ivana’s garden, which also serves as a restaurant every night. Ivan is apparently the host, server, and busboy while his wife, Nadine, concocts miracles in her kitchen. It was a short walk down the hill from where we are staying, so we struck out on foot. We felt a little sheepish walking into our neighbor’s yard, but this is how it’s done here we reminded ourselves, and went in.
Ivan greeted us and ushered us in to our table. This night their tables were all set under their sheltered veranda – the mistral, high winds that blow down from Siberia, had arrived the day before, and were whipping up the tablecloths and making waves in their small swimming pool.
In the next fifteen minutes, twenty other people were ushered in to surrounding tables, reconciling our previous worries that this was, in fact, very normal here.
The feast began.
There of course were no menu’s, just Ivan telling us what the menu would be that evening. We didn’t understand all of what was to come, so it was a bit like getting a grab bag of of delicacies – each course a little present in its own right.
It was a slow but steady procession of dishes in various forms of pomp and circumstance. Slim aperatifs were served in tiny champagne flutes. Pureed carrots laced with parmesan and cardamon arrived in glass bowls. A long slice of eggplant spooned an equally long slice of zucchini on a salad plate. A pork stew with thick sauce came in round bowls. Slices of apricot sweetened with brown sugar and some other divine sauce were set down just as I started to see double. Wine glasses were replaced with tiny digestif glasses smaller than shot glasses. Espresso in tiny vessels with saucers.
As we rolled out of their garden, I humbly raised my white flag in defeat. I couldn’t eat like that every night, but it was fun trying.
And I hoped like hell that Ivana had an industrial sized dishwasher.
I live a somewhat healthy lifestyle. Kale smoothies, whole grains, vegetables and lean proteins make up the bulk of my diet. But lurking in that qualifier, “somewhat,” amongst chocolate, wine, and coffee, is my guilty pleasure that I start the day with, and have ever since I was a child: I’m addicted to Honey Nut Cheerios. High in sugar and sodium and low in protein and fiber, I doubt Jillian Michaels would be enthusiastic.
It’s all my mother’s fault.
Easy going on most issues, my mother was staunchly opposed to sugar cereals. When Lucky Charm and Honeycomb commercials came on during the Saturday cartoons, making breakfast look as fun as a trip an amusement park complete with leprechauns and Flintstones, I salivated over my Shreddies (which added a little flavor).
But for some reason – likely fatigue – when General Mills introduced Honey Nut Cheerios, they made the grade for my mother. I took to that buzzing bee on their box like a fish to water, and have not looked back since. They have seen me through grade school, university, and now adulthood. My faithful companion. The ideal complement for my simple palate, the perfect combination of honey sweetness and crunch.
They are the low-water mark for groceries: I can substitute canned pears for fresh fruit, and whip up vegetarian concoctions when there is no meat to be found in my fridge, but when we’re low on Honey Nut Cheerios, I give in and hit the grocery store. I get panicky when the last cheerio and all of that dust falls into my bowl.
I have avoided studying the nutrition chart on its brown and yellow box for years; ignorance is bliss. But a friend recently pointed out that there was almost as much sugar and sodium in this cereal as Cocoa Puffs, forcing me to reconsider my favorite breakfast choice.
In search of better nutrition for my morning meal, I have gone through stints with various healthier options like steel cut oats and Kashi Go Lean Crunch. The steel-cut oats take too long to make and the Kashi Go Lean necessitates so much chewing it hurts my jaw. After a week I invariably retreat back to my old standby.
I’m trying another cereal this week. My health-freak dentist sold me on Nature’s Path version of Cheerios made with quinoa flour. He enthusiastically bade me to try it last time I was in for a cleaning. “Not bad,” I told him. “Revolting!” I thought. Yet every morning this week, I have reluctantly reached past my super-sized Honey Nut Cheerio box for an eco-packaged, nutritional version of my favorite cereal.
They have a much better nutritional score: no sugar, low sodium, higher fiber, more protein, all organic ingredients. Paired with skim milk, they are not quite as revolting, but still taste more like cardboard than food. I tell myself I’m doing my body a favor, but my heart is not in this change.
I console myself with the thought that when life gives me lemons, I will pour myself a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios and let their sweetness override any of life’s sour taste. In an effort to eat healthier I have replaced white rice with brown, plain pasta with whole wheat, mashed potatoes with quinoa. I need to draw the line somewhere.
A curious thing happened the other day: my daughter refused to bring McDonald’s to school for lunch. So not cool, mom. The negative stigma associated with fast food has trickled down to today’s youth.
I was one part proud, one part annoyed.
Since I’m writing this on the heels of admitting my Honey Nut Cheerio addiction, I hasten to tell you we very rarely eat McDonald’s, but it happens to be conveniently located next door to my dentist. The superstar mother I am managed to get all three of my children in for their 8 am cleaning appointments, minus their lunches. I fell from glory when I couldn’t convince my child to walk into class wielding a golden arch emblazoned bag.
Put it in your lunch kit for heaven’s sake – no one will be any the wiser! No dice. The smell, she said, would surely tip them off.
Interestingly, we had this conversation over muffins and juice inside McDonald’s – breakfast was also sacrificed to arrive at that early appointment (fine, so I was more drill sergeant than super mother). She has no trouble eating the food, she just didn’t want to be seen eating the food by anyone she knew.
My other two children could not believe what had just come out of their mother’s mouth – they were being offered the jackpot of all lunches, would be the envy of their classmates. I couldn’t go back on this offer. In the same way I refuse to be a short order cook when they all don’t like the dinner I’m serving, I wouldn’t be running to different restaurants for their lunch that day. It was McDonald’s or nothing.
I was in a position I never dreamed of: singing the praises of the fast food chain that in previous conversations I had proclaimed as evil, trying to cajole her into a quick and easy lunch. My words were coming back to haunt me, I had been too convincing in my earlier life, when I had more time for nutrition.
Other kids get Whole Foods, and I get McDonald’s? The high water mark for lunches is now the over-priced organic grocery store, incidentally. While undeniably full of healthier options, Whole Foods was not at my disposal.
We settled on a fruit and yogurt parfait and a couple of biscuits with jam, taken out of their packaging and disguised by her lunch kit. Hardly a lunch of champions, but under the rushed circumstances it would suffice.
Another day, another life lesson: be careful what you wish for.