Friday, May 05, 2006

Cereal Numbers

Eight boxes of cereal sit atop my dining room table.

Every weekday morning and most weekends, they are pulled from the cabinet by my two children and poured in a ritual of precision and order, each portion carefully measured in a blending process that would impress vintners and distillers of the finest wines and spirits. Neither of my sons will go for all eight in one sitting, although occasionally, in a fit of characteristic whimsy, my younger son will have a whole bowl of just one variety. Generally, but not always, this rare occurence transpires when the box is nearly finished, and he knows that he can enrage his older brother if he leaves the box empty.

How did it come to this? Even in America, the land of the free and the home of overindulgence, eight options of whole-grain goodness for morning nourishment seems excessive to me. But as parents, we fight the war of nutrition with our children, a neverending campaign where we endure challenges inspired by television commercials, peers with mythically permissive parents, and that nefarious, longlived nemesis, the mail-in or "free inside" giveaway. In order to survive this near-constant onslaught, we make small concessions and live to eat another day.

Like most parenting scenarios, the roots of this daily idiosyncratic exercise lie in my childhood. For reasons economical and nutritional, my seven brothers and sisters and I were raised in a sugar cereal free environment. In our household, the flakes were not frosted, the Cap'n was not crunched. My mother recognized that my brother and I would eat huge quantities of cereal as teenagers, and she bought us large plastic Snoopy dog bowls well suited to the occasion, but nothing that changed the color of the milk was allowed in them. Save for a brief period of parental deception known as the Golden Grahams Era, ours was a breakfast menu of Cheerios, Corn Flakes and Wheaties. And I can barely force myself to type the words Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice without gagging.

The only exception to this rule came on your birthday, when you could pick out a box of whatever cereal you wanted. And so you paced the length of the cereal aisle, weighing the merits of peanut butter versus Crunchberries, as leprechauns, rabbits, vampires and frogs beckoned from every shelf. Once you finished breakfast on your birthday, you could either put the box away, resigning yourself to the knowledge that it could not possibly withstand the assaults of your siblings to last until the next morning, or, you could hide it in your room well enough that it would only be found by ants sometime in the next six weeks.

For a time as a young adult, I would occasionally indulge in an act of rebellion against this childhood privation and buy a box of something akin to the Calvin and Hobbes favorite, Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs, only to find that one bowl was enough to keep me off sugar for the rest of the week. So, of course, it turns out that our parents were right, again.

Naturally, none of this matters to my own offspring. There has been much debate on the topic with a variety of proposed legislation and numerous calls for a floor vote (which the Doc and I rejected). After months of experimentation and test marketing, the standard upon which we finally settled is no more than six grams of sugar per serving and no high fructose corn syrup or artificial sweeteners like aspartame. The result has been a flurry of label reading and comparison on every trip to the grocery store. Forget about "Hooked on Phonics," this dietary policy has forced my boys to boost their math and reading skills well beyond grade level. I'm still not sure what riboflavin is, but I think I am going to find out.

There are some exceptions to the rule. Any cereal with fruit, such as Raisin Bran, gets an automatic exemption to the six gram ceiling, although we try to limit bran and dried fruit consumption, for obvious reasons. Meals taken outside the home, either at friends' homes or in restaurant, are also exempt. And, on your birthday, pick a box of whatever you want. Just don't be surprised if your dad polishes off a bowl after he puts you on the school bus.


Rick said...

My father-in-law is a healthy 95 years old. He is a retired farmer, who for all these years has a breakfast consisting of a bowl of half bran flakes, half cheerios.

John said...

What a gem of a blog! I love the recounting of the history of the Golden Grahams era. I can't even get those past my wife these days. It might shock you to know that I am reduced to soy milk over bran flakes (usually generic) with generous portions of raisins and nuts (almonds or pecans) added in. Soy milk is actually the preferred breakfast beverage of my running buddies. You get some sort of benefit in phlegm reduction. Nice thought to end with. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!