When I moved into the graduate student housing at USC, for the first time, I no longer had a meal plan. I was now on my own for all three meals, frightening for someone who didn’t know how to cook.
I quickly figured out how to fry an egg, so fired egg sandwiches with American cheese and mustard became a staple along with cold cereal, toast and jam. Lunches were often bologna sandwiches with pickles, more American cheese, mustard and mayonnaise. On occasion I had the fried egg sandwich for lunch as well.
Dinners usually came out of a can. Soups were the most prevalent choice.
My brother also attended USC. He had a car and so would drive us to second-hand food stores where we could buy damaged goods for a fraction of the normal price. I learned to cook things out of boxes, greatly expanding my repertoire.
I relied on these foods until I got married, when I felt an obligation to become the food provider. By saving and redeeming wrappers from Campbell’s Soup cans I was able to get a cookbook that used some flavor of soup in every meal. The recipes were easy to follow and required simple ingredients. My confidence grew with each recipe I tried.
I bought more cookbooks, some of which are still in our cabinet today. Even with increased options, I tendered to stay with the tried and true.
As a parent I tried to fix a hot breakfast almost every day, reserving cereal for rare occasions. I got good at pancakes and French toast, but I failed at oatmeal. Mine was always a lumpy mess.
My mother canned fruits and vegetables and made jams that were quite delicious. I felt compelled to do the same. I poured through cookbooks until I’d find a recipe that looked doable.
My specialty became applesauce cooked in a crock pot. I’d add cinnamon because my kids liked it that way, and stop the cooking when there were still chunks. We went through lots and lots of applesauce.
I still relied on boxed and packaged foods such as macaroni and cheese, Hamburger Helper and noodles. Lots and lots of noodles. Canned vegetables were preferable over frozen, probably because I’d turn frozen into mush.
In time I attempted pork roasts, pot roasts, meatloaf and homemade soup. The soup tasted like dishwater, so no more of that. Using soup as an ingredient, I could make tougher, cheaper cuts of meat edible.
What I prepared provided sustenance, but was not creative or even things of beauty. Our family didn’t go hungry unless a child refused to eat.
Considering how my weight skyrocketed over these years, one would have thought that I was an amazing cook. I was not. My skills had improved since college, but I never added an ingredient that wasn’t in the recipe, never altered preparation or cook time. The basics got us by.
So, why did I become obese? I have a love affair with cookies and candy. I was pretty darn good at making cookies, plus they were often on sale, so there was almost always a package or two in the house. I failed at fudge-making: mine came out as soup. Fudge became a special treat, one that I could not resist.
I could make a moist cake from a box mix, so there were lots and lots of cakes. I didn’t need a special occasion such as a birthday: I made a cake because I wanted one.
My mom had made a tapioca pudding that I loved. I bought a box of tapioca and cooked it up. It came out pretty good, so now we had pudding. Jello as well.
A pattern emerged. I could make sweets better than I could provide healthy dinners.
About twenty years ago my husband took on the job of cooking dinner. Things improved greatly with one caveat: he loved sauces and gravies. Almost every meal he made contained at least one of those two. He was also not a fan of most vegetables, so they were often missing from our plates. We never went hungry, I was relived of cooking duty, and so I was happy.
My relationship with food is mixed. As a child I was often punished for not cleaning off my plate. I spent hours crammed into an old high chair in front of the stove, condemned to be there until I ate every last remnant of cold food.
I knew the old sayings about starving children, but I didn’t care. If I didn’t like something, I wasn’t going to eat it. Period.
My childhood diet was carb-heavy. My mother believed that a fat child was a healthy child and so she worked hard to keep me fat. I was doomed from the start. Years of putting on weight created a situation in which it would take years to get it off. Over and over and over again.
When I first decided to end the cycle I enrolled in a course at Kaiser. I learned about nutrition, about balance, about control. I lost thirty pounds over twelve months. When they told me I couldn’t repeat the course for a fourth time, I forgot what I had learned and the weight returned.
I joined a gym. I exercised almost every day, after work, and both days on weekends. I lost some weight. It came back when I had a knee replaced.
Walking in water was supposed to be good for my knee, so I found an indoor pool a twenty-minute drive away. Every morning I was there, bright and early at six in the morning. When I got the okay from my doctor I switched to lap swimming. I had put on weight after the surgery: I lost a bit of it.
After seeing commercials on television I turned to Weight Watchers. I returned to the practices I’d learned at Kaiser. I lost some weight, put it back on, over and over.
My obsession with food, with sweets, was powerful and pulled me down. I’d swear I wouldn’t eat a cookie and then I’d consume three or four. I wasn’t going to have ice cream, but then I’d have a bowlful.
As time passed health issues derailed efforts to lose weight. Another knee replacement kept me from the gym. Then I fell and broke my ankle. I chipped my elbow removing my laptop from the trunk. I fell going down steps and fractured the bone below my knee replacement. Another six months of limited exercise put on the pounds.
Mu love affair with sweets was hard to tamp down. I tried, really I did, but the call was too great and my willpower too weak. I loved food, loved to eat, loved the socialization around eating, loved sitting at a table waiting for food to arrive. Much of my childhood had been spent being hungry, so it was as if I was making up for it, over and over again. No amount of self-ridicule or negative self-talk curbed the appeal of food.
I am grateful that my husband learned to prepare low-calorie foods. He changed the way he cooked in order to help me. No more were serving dishes set on the table. No more were meats drowned in sauces.
Meals now included fruits and vegetables. Carbs were limited in frequency and size of serving. He grilled more, stewed less. He still prepares food that I don’t like, but less often.
I’d like to report that food no longer takes center stage: it doesn’t. I can be satisfied with a tiny bit of rice, a scoop of mashed potatoes or a half-cup of noodles. There are a lot of meats that I prefer not eating, but I make sure I have the correct portion anyway.
I discovered a love of fresh fruits and vegetables, two things we seldom had growing up. No longer do I drink hot chocolate or egg nog when it’s in season. Instead I consume water and other calorie-free drinks.
All the changes I’ve made, all the miles I’ve walked, all the obsessions I still struggle with, continue to be a burden. I understand that sweets will always call my name, so when I hear a cookie speaking, I reach for a banana. When I yearn for ice cream, I turn to grapes.
It’s interesting to me how child who hated eating as much as I did, managed to get as fat as I was. Because of this I understand that the same child is still here, still dreaming of sweets, still hearing their call. And if I succumb, that obese me will make a comeback.