Eat Your Spinach

Photo by John Griswold


When I was a kid, in the Midwest, spinach was obviously good for you because it came hygienically frozen in blocks straight from the factory and was bitter as sin in the pot. Who would ever have eaten that boiled mush if it did not provide the iron we were all supposedly lacking? (Braunschweiger, too, smeared on untoasted white bread with mayo, was said to be an iron-rich food.)

Was that nutrition needed? Who knows? No one I knew took vitamins, and Eat your spinach was a refrain. Kids are starving in Asia, the grownups said, to guilt us into cleaning our plates, but that did not improve our appetites for the worst of what we had. It was an age of unpleasant canned and badly-frozen food.

That is why it seems odd to me that, despite the texture and taste of so many foods then (frozen broccoli, canned chow mein), I did not instantly shift to better, fresher food when I got older.

I suppose it took a while in many places for supermarkets and distribution to improve, prices to come down on items from elsewhere, and technology such as microwaves to make steaming quick and easy. But I was in my twenties before I had shrimp at home or an apple other than a Red Delicious, and in my thirties before I began making tofu stir fry.

Our kids benefitted from this time lag, since we had them relatively late. I have tried to cook for them with fresh ingredients whenever I could, and for a while even tried making baby food. (I had given that up by the time our second son was born.) Steamed broccoli was a hit from the start, for example, sweet and nutty, as were other fresh vegetables and fruit from the farmers market in the town where they were born. To my astonishment, they self-regulated with food, not snacking much, and mostly chose to eat healthily. They began to notice when friends brought school lunches consisting of things like a bag of Cheetos, Fruit By The Foot, and a soda.

Both boys work out, walk, run or swim, and they read food labels without being obsessive about it, and take their vitamins with being supplement-crazy. It is more of a challenge now for my elder son, who is in college and has his classes, a job, a student government position, and is rushing. Sometimes a bad pizza has to do, but he knows what he would rather have. My younger son has been on a spinach kick for months. We get the big tubs of baby spinach and sauté it lightly with garlic and olive oil, a little salt and pepper, and he eats it as a side, in omelets, and on home-baked pizza. I feel the need to say, once every few months, how spinach used to be. He is unimpressed, though he got the point when I had to use canned peas in a recipe recently and he hated them.

I cannot say in the end how we got so lucky with them, other than to say it is possible that, presented with real nutrition, a body knows what to do.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.