Pop-Tarts Are My Family's Love Language—And That's OK

These '90s treats might be bad for our bodies, but one mom discovers that they might just be good for the soul.

Homemade vegan strawberry toaster pastries with sprinkles
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In my house, juice is a controlled substance.

But growing up in the '80s and '90s, birthday cake for breakfast was as normal as Sugar Pops, Cookie Crisp, and Toaster Strudel. (My mother drew the line at Oreo O's, sadly declaring they had "no nutritional value.") My parents packed Lunchables for school, saving Bagel Bites for the weekend's special treat. I drank so much Mott's apple juice, it might as well have been on tap.

I've tried to shield my kids from the sugar-first, vacuum-packed foods that were a part of almost every meal of my childhood. But when my 6-year-old came home from my father-in-law's raving about how delicious Lunchables were—specifically, the cheese pizza option with the Capri Sun and the cookie—it opened the door to a summer of better? eating.

More connected eating, for sure.

I bought the Lunchables. As my son sat at the kitchen table with the red sauce from the package smeared all over his smiling face, I held the happy yellow box. Memories flooded back to me: My elementary school cafeteria, where me and the Jennifers would pool our lunches together in one big pile of tin foil. The cheese pizza Lunchable was an easier trade to the Little Debbie Zebra Cakes. The days when Mom packed Oscar Mayer bologna meant I'd be stuck alongside no-trade Heather, who brought apricots, rice cakes, and cottage cheese.

The best part about lunch was that Mom always packed a note. I have a box of "just because" greeting cards from her. Often, a quirky photo, like Steve Urkel or Popples, on the outside; her beautiful script on the inside, sealed in an envelope where she'd write my name and dot the i with a little heart. She'd share tiny affirmations like "Good luck on the test!" and "Have a great day!" and "I believe in you!" so I'd know she was thinking of me. Because she was.

When my children started school, I continued Mom's tradition, though I'm writing on paper towels instead of American Greetings cards. I write affirmations and riddles for my eldest, animal facts and Pokémon jokes for my son. I write them wondering if the kids will read them, if I can give them a moment of connection and reprieve in the middle of the tumult of their days. Wondering if my mother felt the way I do, sort-of silly, as she wrote mine, if she tried (and failed) to straddle the line between dorky and cool.

I don't know if I ever told her how much I loved those notes. At the time, they gave me a lift of fame with my friends, solidifying her as the mother who was everyone's Mom. My house was everyone's home. Most days, a friend would follow me home after school. It was understood I could go into the family room to watch cartoons and eat the salted carrots Mom had prepared; my rotating cast of friends would slide into my spot at the table and spend the afternoons talking to my mother. I remember her serving them Squeezeits or sweet tea, sometimes cut-up veggies and sometimes Dunkaroos, while dinner cooked on the stove.

I want to be that parent. The one my children and their friends see as a safe adult, the one with whom they can share.

So, I bought the requested Lunchables. There was enthusiastic consumption for a few weeks and then my son wanted his usual: a bagel, cucumbers, string cheese, and an apple.

Then I added Pop-Tarts. Specifically, the chocolate with white crème frosting.

Dad and I would eat these together for breakfast after Mom left for the classroom where she worked. We'd watch Duck Tales, and, during the commercials, we'd share the real talk that cemented our relationship, the type child-rearing books try to coach into parents. This specific flavor of Pop-Tarts has such a positive association for me that I begged my father for them while in labor. Of course, it was the year they discontinued them, but Dad hunted them down and arrived shortly after the baby, triumphant. The Pop-Tarts were as delicious as I remembered them.

They're available again. I brought them home and asked my son if he'd split them with me. We sat together at our kitchen table, quiet and content at first, then chatting in a way that shared more than sugar.

I recognize my privilege. To share not only my nostalgia foods with my children, but to eat nostalgia foods, in a country where, in 2020, 10.5% of its population was food insecure. We talk about that too, what it means to go into the world with full bellies, how that affects our responsibilities and relationships. How there isn't "good" food or "bad" food, but foods filled with more or less nutrients, food that nourishes and sustains us. Food that connects us, in both obvious and quiet ways.

Brandi Larsen is a writer and speaker. She's the Board President of Literary Cleveland and the co-writer of UNCULTURED, forthcoming from St. Martin's Press.

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