The Trouble With Cereal

by Ali Berlow

The Trouble With Cereal

Fae Kontje-Gibbs

A version of ‘The Trouble With Cereal’ aired on WCAI & WNAN, the Cape and Islands NPR Stations, in January 2005. A Cook’s Notebook audios are also available on  

She’d told me that it was the typical after-school scene in the grocery store. The aisles were crowded with hungry, overwrought children being herded about by their hungry, overwrought mothers. Jane was one of them, trying to pull together a decent family meal at the end of the day. But it felt too late to start anything, and, besides, she felt too tired to care.

Her children, ages 7 and 9, ran amok down the cereal aisle. As if by osmosis, their little bodies had already absorbed the preservatives, refined sugar, and food coloring just from being around the stuff. Jane said that when she’s by herself, she rushes past that aisle, averting her eyes from Count Chocula’s fangs and the Cartoon Network characters that hawk product because they freak her out. I have to agree with her. It’s the scariest aisle in the store, a techno-colored toxic waste dump, of piled high processed sugar and starch, lit beneath fluorescent lights.

Her children, sensing her weakened state, converged around a box of toastie-sweet-crunchy-whatevers that advertised 11 essential vitamins, iron and low fat. It also claimed to contain the hottest-super-cool-must-have toy. Her littles rallied around it, trying to convince mom that their cereal lust had nothing to do with the prize inside but that it had everything to do with its nutritious contents. No amount of yogic breathing was going to calm Jane’s nerves, and, besides, they outnumbered her 2-to-1. She had to pick her battles: dig in and walk away without a box of the toastie-sweet-crunchy-whatevers, or submit. In her last cleansing breath, she gave in.

On the way home, the kids knew better than to gloat about their victory. It was a coup, and the chances of it happening again were slim to none. They coveted their spoils, and what a fabulous trophy it would be, instated head-to-head next to the dull ancient grains and gluten-free granola in the cupboard. At home, Jane immediately emptied it into a big bowl so the kids could get at the prize without making a mess. Then, she said, what happened next wasn’t a premeditated act on her part: it was more like fight or flight and an act of anarchical brilliance. Sheer survival instinct, like what a lioness would do to protect her cubs from danger. Right there, in front of her children, she dumped every last green marshmallow and color-changing crumb into the garbage can. Her kids thought she’d lost her mind.

“We were going to eat that,” they said. “What are you doing?”

Jane’s body trembled, but her voice was strong. She told them: “I’m sorry, but you’ve been tricked, fooled. This isn’t really food, and it’s not really good for you. Real food doesn’t come with toys. The company put that in there to bait you.”

Her kids were confused. “But you’re not supposed to waste food.”

“Yes,” she said. “It’s horrible to waste. But this isn’t food.” The kitchen went quiet. The three of them stood there looking at each other, a stand-off between them and the cereal. Jane grabbed the made-in-China plastic before they could, ran out to the back porch and chucked it with all of her might into the woods behind their house. The kids stood staring at her in amazement. Between that and the trashed cereal, their adrenals suddenly kicked in; they sensed it was better to leave—run even—than argue.

Today, she tells me that she looks back at it as an inspired moment, a moment of clarity, and as an act of rebellion against marketing schemes that target children. She says it felt so good to throw that cereal away, and even scare the kids a bit. In retrospect, with their perspective of teenager-wisdom, they feel bad at how they pushed her.

I ask the kids if they really do like the taste of that sugary, weird-colored cereal. “Oh yeah,” they say. “But we never ask Mom to buy it. We eat it at our friends’ houses instead.”