This story is part of Junk Food, Redefined, our new collection of snack recommendations, recipes, and perspectives that celebrate an undervalued food group. Read all the stories here.
When I was in elementary school, I filled out a well-intentioned worksheet that asked me to sort foods into boxes. In one box were the things I could eat every day, every meal, forever: skim milk, broccoli, orange juice, apples. In another were things that were okay as a treat: ice cream, butter, chocolate milk, cheeseburgers. Indulgent but still featuring nutritious traces of, say, calcium. And then came the area for food that I should avoid: sugary cereals and, most dastardly of all, junk food. The drawings of apples and broccoli all had smiling, welcoming anthropomorphized faces. The french fries looked like they were about to go rob someone’s piggy bank.
I grew up in a middle-class home, which meant that we could always afford groceries like broccoli and apples, and everything on the worksheet mirrored the way my mom talked to me about food in the early ’90s in Idaho. I recently asked her how she came to understand which foods were “healthy” and “unhealthy,” and her answer probably resembled that of a lot of middle-class parents from the time: the almighty food pyramid and the general discourse, floating all over middle-brow publications like Time, Prevention, Reader’s Digest, and Good Housekeeping, that saturated fat was bad—same for salt, margarine, and “too much sugar.”
The worksheet didn’t consider how to feed your child when you’re a single parent working swing shift and a Happy Meal or a frozen pizza is the cheapest and most reliable way to feed your kids, or if the nearest fresh broccoli was an hour’s drive away. I loved the junk, the so-called bad stuff too—Lucky Charms, Nacho Flavored Easy Cheese, Albertson’s Fried Chicken. And it didn’t take long for me to understand myself as “bad,” or at least somehow misbehaving, when I ate them, the same way my mom felt bad when she relied on them, as if they were some indicator of her failure as a parent instead of an opportunity for me to have some really delicious chicken.
My understanding that certain foods were so “bad” they were junk was complicated by the peculiar diet culture of the ’90s, which convinced me that cheese and avocados were high-fat and to be avoided, bananas had too much sugar and should also be avoided, but Starburst Jellybeans (lot of sugar, sure, but fat-free!) or Snackwell Devil’s Food Cookie Cakes (cake…but diet?) were somehow okay. I entered my 20s with deeply illogical ideas about food and nutrition, which became even more contradictory when injected with the sustainability gospel of Michael Pollan, anti-GMO politics, the locavore movement, and the rise of “fast casual” cuisine. Was a Chipotle burrito healthy? What about this vegan chocolate cake? Churros at the farmers market? A quiche made with free-range chicken eggs and locally sourced bacon? Oh, and guess what, cereal has lots of fiber now! Smoothies aren’t as healthy AS YOU THINK!!! Definitely put butter in your coffee! Paleo is bad now, but keto is good!