Hamburger Helper

Collage of classic '80s and '90s pantry favorites including instant lunch, pop tarts, campbells soup...
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The Food Our Parents Fed Us

Cans of Cream of Something and frozen vegetables and rice plus more rice made for dinners that tasted like love. (And sanity.)

Originally Published: 
The Food Issue 2022

When I think about the meals my mom fed me, I’m overwhelmed with nostalgia. I don’t think she ever panicked about meal planning — and her version of meal prep was throwing a bunch of stuff in the Crockpot before we left for school some mornings. And yet there was always a delicious, healthy dinner waiting for us when we walked in the door after 6 p.m. (6 p.m.! I cannot believe she wasn’t even home until after 6 p.m. and still managed to feed us.)

I’m using “healthy” not as a label for local, organic foods with zero sugar, but as a way to describe literally any meal that gives your kids nutrients and makes them feel good and loved. The food that just feeds your people, without labels or worries or anxiety tacked alongside it. It’s when I’m just pulling through McDonald’s for the second time in a week, feeling like a failure again because I set the expectations for myself way too high to make a lasagna out of sliced zucchini noodles so I end up not making anything at all, that I miss those days the most. What my mom made us for dinner every night was perfectly good food. Why am I going in search of something better, stressing myself out so much that the kids eat frozen nuggets anyway?

My mom baked us a lot of homemade cookies, but also a lot of muffins from the 99-cent mix packets. She cooked casseroles and steamed bags of frozen vegetables, and on Fridays we got to pick out a Kid Cuisine from the frozen section of our local grocery store. Never — not for one moment — do I think my mom worried about the pudding cups we had as a snack or if the shepherd’s pie was the right balance of protein and healthy fats. I know damn well she wasn’t making “mashed potatoes” out of cauliflower, and she had zero problems with us bringing goody bags of candy home from birthday parties.

My mom didn’t let us eat Ho-Hos for breakfast, but she also didn’t let herself stress about feeding us pasta two nights in a row.

Look, I’m not saying everything we were fed in the ’80s and ’90s needs to come back. My mom dealt with her fair share of diet trends. She once came home from work furious that my little brother and I drank her chocolate SlimFasts as milkshakes, and I remember there being a period in my life where we ate a lot of tilapia and cookbooks suddenly had the word “Light” in all of their titles.

But in between those meals, during the weeks when my mom was just feeding us food and trying not to worry about her weight or ours, there was spaghetti with parmesan from a can and baked potatoes with a big dollop of sour cream and shredded cheddar cheese. There were chicken and broccoli casseroles; there was bottled teriyaki sauce poured over frozen meatballs and rice and meatloaf with a side of steamed frozen veggies. There were frozen waffles for breakfast with sliced strawberries and normal peanut butter that didn’t gloop out when you opened the jar because it needed to be mixed together, and there was Daisy cottage cheese topped with canned, syrupy mandarin oranges, and there were bowls of Lucky Charms.

My mom didn’t let us eat Ho-Hos for breakfast, but she also didn’t let herself stress about feeding us pasta two nights in a row. She didn’t make her life harder by insisting that she chop fresh green beans instead of popping open a can of them, or that the bread she used for our cheese sandwiches didn’t have 21 added whole grains and look like something that had been dropped in the dirt outside and rolled around. She fed her kids.

And my siblings and I? We ate it. All of it. That’s the part that bothers me the most about the rut I am currently in with my picky girls. Instead of just serving them veggies like my mom served us — a bag of frozen broccoli popped into her little plug-in steamer — I spend way too much time roasting spaghetti squash because I already tried to serve them raw cucumbers at lunch and I don’t want to repeat. What’s wrong with a salad being made of iceberg lettuce and bagged cheese instead of kale massaged in olive oil and pomegranate seeds? Literally nothing! Why am I doing this to myself!

I want to cook daily. Knowing that my daughters — ages 8, 4, and 6 months — have had more fast-food and to-go meals in their lives already than I did in my entire childhood embarrasses me. But the thought of meal planning and prepping and cooking every single day fills me with dread. And I know I’m not alone. There is an entire category of Instagram accounts dedicated to feeding kids. But while they are meant to inspire and encourage parents to cook and (hopefully) get through picky eating phases, those accounts still feature things like cucumbers cut into butterflies and pancakes made out of eggs and bananas instead of flour.

I wish I could turn the noise off in my head that says the way I was fed isn’t adequate for my children. Because the way I was fed said everything about motherhood — it was love.

There are so many things I want to bring back from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s days of parenting. I wish community was more easily found — I wish every mom could walk into her yard and instantly become besties with the neighbors around her like my parents seemed to do. I wish I could let my kids play in the backyard alone without worrying that some busybody is going to see them and assume they’re being neglected. And I wish I could turn the noise off in my head that says the way I was fed isn’t adequate for my children.

Because the way I was fed said everything about motherhood — it was love. Love done in the best possible way for the whole family.

My family deserves those kinds of meals, and so do I. And it’s why I’ll be grabbing a few cans of cream of mushroom soup and a block of cream cheese at the store this weekend. We’re going to make my mom’s “Chicken Surprise.” It’s delicious, great for leftovers, cheap, and takes about three minutes to make. It’s love in a Pyrex dish.

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