Cheesy Shells

I think that chain supermarkets rank high on my figurative list of “places I don’t expect to be surprised.” They’re up there with “Apple stores” and “in a room with a hardcore Trekkie.” I know exactly what I’m going to get, whether it’s slightly wilty produce, a feeling of displacement, or a fleeting moment of common ground before losing the thread. And yet, occasionally the most slavering fanboy shows critical detachment, occasionally Geniuses (TM) live up to their name, and occasionally I’m struck with a rare moment of reflection in aisle six at the local edibles warehouse.

Earlier, I was at the local store for a smash-and-grab stop for salad dressing. This is always a longer buy than I want it to be, because, in my compulsive world, anything processed and in a bottle needs to be compared to three other processed-and-bottled things so that I’m getting the one that’s best—sorry, least bad—for me.

With my thoughts on something else entirely, I wove through aisles looking for the dressing and several times crossed paths with a family of four. And each time, the snippets of conversation I overheard were strikingly similar.

While near bread: “… Hamburger Helper…”

While pausing at a boxed meat display: “… with the Hamburger Helper…”

Grabbing fish fingers: “…Hamburger Helper tonight…”

At pop and chips: “…next it’s Hamburger Helper…”

These weren’t just fixated younguns, either. This was the entire family, and the kids were grade school seniors or in grade seven.

I found my aisle and ducked down. I grabbed a PC Blue Menu yogurt dressing, an Irresistables, and a fat-free generic one. A couple of minutes with the labels and a handful of comparisons (the yogurt one actually had significantly more carbs than the others, and the fat-free one more sodium) made the choice for me. I grabbed some pasta, too (as it was on firesale), and headed out.

On the way, I passed the family again. They were doing their own comparison.

“We’ll get these, then, and leave the cheesy shells for next time.”

The cheesy shells were abandoned and the family headed out.

Notice a difference?

Maybe it’s my compulsion. Maybe it’s because I have a wonderful mother who has for some time worked at Health Canada, and who drove home the importance of eating balanced meals early. Maybe it’s a combination of the two, resulting in mental math every time I prepare a meal to see how well I’m providing servings of the food groups. But irrespective of my compulsiveness, the fact that they spent as long selecting the night’s flavour of Hamburger Helper as I did comparing nutrition labels says something.

Taken by itself, that night’s helping of Helper isn’t significant. But when your cart is full of cheapo red meat, pop and chips, juices, processed chicken patties and fishsticks, a couple of tins of vegetables, bottled sauce and a half-dozen assorted types of Hamburger Helper and you start to develop a clear picture.

I try not to be someone who judges peoples’ health based on size. I creeped on their cart at the checkout because I didn’t want to make assumptions. This was a big family. Pale, too, and the kids walked with splayed feet, both of them. This isn’t a case of assuming these folks weren’t too healthy based on a smattering of conversation and their size. Their colouring, stride, grocery loadout (checked off a list), and size all contributed to a clear snapshot.

What I’m getting to is this. It’s unfortunate that the adults in this situation have poor nutritional sense. Neither of them were in great shape, obviously. But the fact is, once you have kids, your bad nutritional habits aren’t just your own. They become your kids’ bad habits too. And whatever good sense your parents have that set you up with a nutritional baseline you could fall from, you’re condemning your kids right from the start.

The parents were in bad shape, but they were models of athletic health compared to their children.

I wish Health wasn’t limited to a part-time course in high school, and that nutrition didn’t have to fight with sex and drugs for time at the podium. I wish Home Ec was compulsory and in every grade. I wish the importance of activity, any activity, was stressed more by teachers, that balance was paramount, that we valued health care instead of sick care, that prevention was more important than treatment. I wish that parents like that saw what they were doing to their childrens’ health and that the difference between poor and proper nutrition can be the difference between anxiety disorders and not, back issues and not, compromised cardiac and pulmonary function and not, arch issues and not, stroke and not. That’s not just weight-related stuff, that’s cholesterol, sodium, sugars, chemicals, and the rest. Things that can be controlled by being aware of what you’re putting into your body.

Learn about nutrition. Start with Canada’s Food Guide and the Percent Daily Value on nutrition labels. Know what exactly a portion size is (a 40g portion of those cheesy shells is barely half the size of a hockey puck). Then move on from there and tailor your nutrition and activity to yourself–Health Canada’s web tool will do it for you. Figure out how you should be eating and do it. Figure out what level of activity you should have and do it. Don’t think of it as health for health’s sake. Think of it as health for a better quality of life.

It’s its own reward.

Paddle your own canoe, guys and gals.


Postscript: Taking another look around the Food Guide website has made me really appreciate the work that HC does. Mom, and all your coworkers, thanks for looking out for us, in spite of our best efforts to wreck ourselves and blame others. And on an only slightly related note, Mom, I love you. And thanks for helping me develop those helpful supermarket-aisle compulsions.

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