Boy with ice cream

Growing up in communist Czechoslovakia: How children ate

Apple treeWhen we say we want to “eat normal” without picking up weight, we  have to realize that the definition of ‘normal’ varies from person to person. Usually, the idea of “normal eating” is formed in childhood. How we used to eat when we were little, that’s what we consider to be “normal” and natural to us.

For example, I grew up in 80’s, in communist Czechoslovakia. Let’s leave out the politics now and have a look solely at average diet habits of children of that era.

For someone it’ll be difficult to imagine the market was closed and there was no trade with Western countries. As there were really little products that could be imported from the East,  Czechoslovakia was living mostly out of its own production. Kinder egg or Coca Cola were very scarce and expensive, many families would get them only for Christmas.

Of course, there were other chocolates and cool drinks produced inside the country and everybody could afford them. The most common cool drink was an orange lemonade, resembling Fanta, but it was less ‘orange’ and less sweet. If you wanted to drink something that resembled Coca Cola, you bought Kofola. Again, much less sugar added.

But most of the time we drank water from the tap with syrup. I would say it was the most common drink of the kids of that time.

For breakfast, we usually took a piece of bread with butter, or a bread roll. Every town had its own bakery and you could taste the difference between the roll made in Prague and the one baked in Litomerice, a provincial town where I lived. “Our” rolls were crispy, sprinkled with salt and pop seeds, and if you got them fresh out of the bakery’s oven, you ate them just like that, without butter. They were incredible!

For school, kids would take snacks from home – well, my mom was a bit lazy snack maker, so I usually went with a sliced apple and a small pack of cookies. At that time government started a program “dairy snacks for schools”, so two days a week we got a dairy product at the break time, to the account of the state.

We had school canteens where cooked meals were made for lunch. This tradition stayed by us up to now – obviously nowadays it’s different. Today children can choose out of three meals and what I heard, the quality is sometimes better than in a restaurant. Those days, of course, it was one meal, eat it or leave it.

The food at school canteens in 80’s was… how to describe it… very specific. The basics stayed in Czech tradition of soup as a starter and dumplings with a piece of meat and sauce as main, that was still an eatable option, if you didn’t look closely at the meat.

Some of us developed life-time disgust towards mashed peace, liver or dill sauce, thanks to the way it was prepared by school canteens. If it was our lucky day, we had a chicken tight with mash, or the children’s most popular meal ever, mash with Frankfurters.

The canteen’s menu basically followed the health instructions of that time, making pulses one day in the week, now and then fish fillets, with boiled potatoes and carrots as the most common side dish. We never had fried chips.

Apart of the yummy days when you went for a second and competed with your schoolmates who would eat more dumplings, there were days when everybody would just nib into the plate and leave it. Teachers didn’t force us to finish it all. Only once, one elderly teacher decided to give us lesson and stood by our table till we wouldn’t empty our plates. For half an hour, I was poking into that piece of beef full of veins and tendons with my fork and eventually won the psychological battle. The teacher wanted to go home as well.

When I came home, I opened the fridge, ate one or two strawberry ice creams and maybe even a bread roll with butter – in case the canteen’s food didn’t satisfy me. Other kids would do sports in the afternoon, or they would just play outside, but I headed to music school. My parents were both musicians, so sport activities were not preferred in our family.

The music school was about half an hour of fast walk from our house. Wonder that I walked alone? At that time, it was normal. Since I was 7, I walked freely outside in the streets without supervision. I knew I shouldn’t talk to strangers, I knew I should look left and right when crossing the road and I knew I shouldn’t go into areas where I could get lost. Simple.

And so without doing a sport, I had every day exercise by walking half an hour to music school and half an hour back. And my next meal was only the supper, usually prepared by my grandmother, because my mum was often playing in orchestra till late.

BreadRegarding our suppers – as our parents believed we had a “proper, filling and meaty meal” at school, they didn’t bother cooking meat every night. It was always something quick. Sometimes just soup, sometimes just bread with salami or Frankfurters. Why not.

Saturday, it was my play day. After lunch, I took my dog and I walked with him to see my friends that lived at the edge of the town. We would run around the whole afternoon in apple plantation in summer and sledge in winter. Sunday, the roast was in oven early morning and all the family members overate themselves to half-death.

The summer holiday most of the kids spent by grandparents in countryside, in summer camps or at family cottages. Our cottage was in Moravia, in the middle of woods where raspberries, blackberries and gooseberries grew wildly. And if you were full of these, you could pick young corn straightly from the field or steal some fruit from other people’s gardens – yes, it was stealing, but sort of tolerated stealing.

Probably every family had an auntie, uncle, grandma or neighbor who grew a fruit tree and who would flood you with baskets of fresh fruit in the season. Our garden was very small, but still, an apricot tree and two apple trees fit there. Apple was the most common fruit we would eat through the year, and when apricots got matured, me and my cousin would eat the whole basket just between two of us in one day. Nobody was worried we would have rush, running
stomach or allergy reaction. We just stuffed in.

As average, you could see probably one overweight child in a class of 30 children. Allergies were scarce; yes, some kids were sick more often than others, but it was more due to the pollution than to their eating habits. I missed school on regular basis once a year in autumn, for a week or two, lying down with tonsils or a flu. That was it.

The political regime wasn’t good. And don’t you think that these eating habits were the same in all the countries in the Eastern block. I visited Russia when I was 10 and it appeared to be a completely different story. But I’ll talk about that later in Unbalanced world.

For now, regarding the children’s eating habits, I’ll just point out few things I assumed, judging my own childhood:

  • It’s no use of forcing children to eat everything we dish for them. Some foods they hate as kids they might start eating as adults (you know, I actually made the dill sauce couple of times, and it was delicious).
  • We don’t need to arrange the fruit in a more funny or cute way, hoping it’ll motivate the child to eat it. Just leave the bowl with fruit on the table and give the kids the freedom to grab and eat whenever they feel like.
  • It’s not only sport that keeps the child fit. If your kid hates sports, try arts or scouting. There must be “something” that will keep the child occupied and interested, with no need to have one hand on tablet and other hand on plate.
  • Bread isn’t a “no no” unhealthy food. It’s the basic food human race ever invented. As long as it’s a farmyard, fresh bread from a bakery, not that long lasting one, wrapped in plastic and full of additives.
  • If there’s a day when the child eats less or not at all, don’t be worried, unless fever is present. If they’re hungry, they’ll eat.

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