Flashbacks of a Poor Childhood: Hindsight is 2020


Flashbacks of a Poor Childhood: Hindsight is 2020 If you’ve been anywhere on the planet these past few weeks, you’ll know that grocery shopping has now become a spin-off of the Hunger Games, perhaps in more ways than one. Also, if you’re reading this and haven’t even heard of the Hunger Games, then I have no words.

If you found bread, flour, or yeast this week, I applaud you with freshly washed hands. If you managed to score a Walmart pickup or Instacart delivery, I bow to your prowess with my face in the crook of my arm. And if you are surviving on the dented cans of ravioli from the back of your pantry or the glob of brown stuff (not labeled or dated, of course) in a ziplock bag you found in the freezer, I offer you Katniss Everdeen’s salute of resistance. May the odds be ever in your favor as you set off in search of rice.

In this day and age of instantaneous gratification and delivery, most of us probably never imagined that the world could turn upside down as fast as you can flip an egg, over easy. (Wait, you found eggs? Today? Where?)

Welcome to the new normal, mamas.

In short, even if you have the money to buy exactly what you want, there’s a chance you won’t get everything on your shopping list, at least right away. Allow me to let you in on a little secret: You can get by for longer, on less than you think. Welcome to my world growing up.

My family lived paycheck to paycheck (sometimes with no actual paycheck), as many families still do today. I learned quickly that we only bought groceries on certain days, when the money ran out, that was it, and getting a slice and a grape soda at the authentic Italian pizzeria was truly a treat. I also existed on a steady diet of macaroni and cheese and hot dogs, TV dinners, peanut butter sandwiches with ginormous glasses of milk, and all of the powdered instant iced tea and Doritos you could eat and drink in one go.

On one (washed) hand, this, combined with 25 years of actual travel bugs, may explain my gut issues and dietary restrictions these days. On the other (thoroughly washed) hand, I have nothing but good memories associated with standing in the kitchen eating that sugary tea powder straight from the can with a giant soup spoon.

Childhood recollections are funny things. I’m no psychologist (although I did major in Liberal Studies with an emphasis in Psychology* from a now defunct university, so that counts for something right?). But I do know I’ve had some flashbacks to my own childhood since becoming a parent myself, and especially over these past few weeks while we all operate in crisis mode.

I remember being poor.

I was the beneficiary of reduced lunches at school, and every Monday morning I silently prayed that none of my friends would see me sneak into the cafeteria to pick up my lunch tickets.

I remember standing guard in the back parking lot of a grocery store while my mother went dumpster diving one week for the fruit and vegetables that got thrown out because they were either past their sell-by date or looked too icky for customers to purchase.

I never remember feeling panicky about not having enough food, however. In spite of our family’s situation, my mother didn’t put the stress on us kids — it was her job to absorb it. It was our job to be kids.

In short, in times of scarcity, I still felt content. I remember sitting at the table after school and eating an apple or a cookie and simply feeling safe and loved — both feelings that I want my son to remember whenever social distancing, pandemics and panic buying hopefully become a thing of the past. I in no way want to minimize what is happening in the world, because it truly is unprecedented in our lifetime. But I do want to instill an attitude of gratitude for what we do have in our family daily.

Whether you’re in a poorer position this week than last, or you are financially just as well off as before the world caught on fire, a poverty mindset is still a fairly valuable life skill to have in your arsenal. I’m not suggesting you go out and dumpster dive for that chicken you’ve been hunting for, but we would all do well to teach our children to survive and even thrive on less stuff in general, because as we have just witnessed, the world can turn on a dime.

And for those of you now staring at your cabinets wondering what on earth to do with the random things you did manage to find at the stores this week, allow me to give you a few tips:

Don’t throw away ANY food. Recently, a mom commented that she kept the leftover taco meat from that night’s dinner instead of throwing it out like she normally would, and all I could think was, ‘People actually threw out perfectly good food in their house before this?’ If you haven’t been doing so already, start getting creative with any and all leftovers. Can’t find chicken or vegetable stock? Make your own. Carrot peels, onion skins and lots of other stuff you normally toss into the garbage disposal, can all go into making an easy soup stock. Wilted veggies make for great curry. Bread going stale? Make croutons or bread crumbs. Fruit a little too soft? Throw it into a smoothie.

Start a garden. Now is as good a time as ever to plant things — even if you only have space for a tomato plant in a windowsill. Several local nurseries are even offering curbside pickup.

Learn to cook. I suspect that people’s lack of culinary skills has lent itself to panic buying. (All y’all who stocked up on yeast this week — do you actually know what to do with it?) Learn which foods are versatile and long-lasting. I’ll give you a hint: potatoes are gold.

Learn to do without. Your child will not die for the lack of a choice between goldfish crackers or fruit snacks.

Plan a menu, and then throw it out (the menu, not the food — didn’t you read the first point?). Don’t plan such a detailed menu that you get bogged down by one missing ingredient. Discover how to reverse engineer cook by utilizing what’s already in your kitchen. Learn some basic substitutions; for instance, applesauce can be used in place of eggs in many baking recipes. The Yummly app also lets you plug in whatever ingredients you have for recipe ideas.

Try not to pass along your own stress to your children. Worrying about food and grocery shopping is an adult thing. If you harp on about stores being out of things or not getting what you want from an online order, what message are you sending to your kids? It’s not their job to worry about groceries. It’s yours. Keep it that way.

I hope that when my son looks back on his own childhood, with the year 2020 hindsight, he doesn’t remember his mama panicking about anything. I hope he recalls feeling loved and fed, even if he only remembers those boxes of mac and cheese and hot dogs I scored on sale. That reminds me, I should probably add ketchup to my grocery list.

*It should also be noted that despite having a minor in English, I still cannot for the life of me remember how to actually spell the word Psychology without looking it up.

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I spent my twenties and a good chunk of my thirties living and working in various countries. I met and married a South African sailor and I was quite content to keep traveling without kids. We landed in Chattanooga in 2013 and our son arrived over the summer of 2014. We haven’t really slept since. Sometimes jet-lag gets the blame. Or Daylight Savings, or even a good book. Usually though, it’s the Peanut. You can often find me charged up on caffeine, chasing after my son at Coolidge Park, the zoo or the library. You can also find me online on my blog.


  1. Great article Brenda!

    I grew up poor in the projects (government housing). Free lunch, subsidized rent and utilities, we even had a free lunch program during the summer where white vans would come to the project center (basketball gym) and deliver sack lunches.

    I ate a lot of potatoes, eggs, and beans growing up. And I learned how to cook and used it to make a living. (background in Restaurants and Catering, Chef)

    Nowadays the memes on Facebook say it’s like the Food Network show “Chopped” trying to make a meal out of what’s in the basket. I say it’s more like “Guys Grocery Games” where you rush around a grocery store trying to shop and put together a “gourmet meal” while having crippling restrictions out on you, then prep, cook and serve it in 30 minutes. Just imagine our kids and spouse being the judge…

    Just like my most favorite times as a child, very humorous even in the face of hardships.

  2. I don’t think I knew this about you! And look at what a great chef you turned out to be! I love ‘Chopped’ and I agree — these days it’s more like a combo of all of those food shows 😉 Hope you and your family are doing well during these crazy times!

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