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What Being a Latchkey Kid Did to Your Diet


Bagel Bites, popcorn, cheese balls, Kool-Aid, Pop Tarts, Count Chocula cereal. Are you getting nostalgic yet?

A “latchkey kid” is a child whose parents work, so when they get home from school they are home alone. This means they are responsible for making their own after-school snacks with no parental supervision or nutrition advice.

Does this sound like you? If it does, you are not alone. The term became a big one in the 1980s as more and more households became two-working-parent households. In 1992, the Buffalo News even ran an article called “Home Alone and Hungry: How Latch-Key Children Can Avoid the Hazards of the Kitchen.”

Those snacks we mentioned above are all things you may have devoured in bulk when mom and dad were not around to portion control you. But did that actually harm your nutrition habits as an adult?

We spoke to a few people to find out, and the answer we found is: Not necessarily.

According to one registered dietician, “Eating habits growing up do affect you, but it doesn’t mean you can’t change them. Taste buds are always changing and if you expose yourself to new foods, you can change it.”

If you grew up in the 80s, you will recall that there were not as many healthy snack options as there are today. Kids today don’t have to dive into greasy potato chips. They can grab some organic lentil chips from Whole Foods (we can feel you rolling your eyes). In fact, there are a number of articles out there about how different being a latchkey kid was back in the 70s, 80s and 90s compared to today.

But no matter what the era, your nutrition habits growing up depended on what kinds of foods your parents kept in the house. In our small case study, we found that kids who grew up in a nutrition-conscious household are likely to hold onto those healthy eating principles.

Caitlin, 31, grew up with a nutritionist for a mom. And while it was frustrating to not have all the sugary snacks her friends did, she says it made it easier for her to create healthy eating habits as an adult.

“We didn’t really have restrictions on what we snacked on, but seeing my mom not snack much made me not do it,” she says. “My mom always acting like snacks were garbage had an impact for sure. I was never allowed to eat sugary cereal as a kid and now I don’t like it.”

Snacks in her house were often nutritious foods like fruit and yogurt, and they had very few pre-packaged foods at home.

On the flip-side, though, her family never ate take-out so when she moved out and went to college, she says she indulged in a lot of fast food and take-out meals to makeup for lost time.

But let’s face it, most people did not grow up with a nutritionist for a mom, so we ate some junk food and ordered out for dinner sometimes, and it was fine because we were young, active and had a high metabolism. But as we get older, we learn that our bodies can’t and shouldn't sustain that type of low-nutrient diet.

“Ultimately as I get older and in my 40s, I am noticing that I can’t eat like I did while in my 20s. And if I do, I know that I have to step up my workouts to burn those extra calories,” said Mike, 41.

Michael, 33 says he was an extremely picky eater growing up. “My mother said I would only eat McDonalds, Roy Rogers, cereal, waffles and peanut butter. When I was making my own food living on my own, typically did a lot of stir fries, egg sandwiches and grilled chicken.”

A runner and athlete his whole life, Michael never had issues with weight, so it actually wasn’t until he tried a fad diet out of curiosity, that he really started thinking more about nutrition.

“I did a six-week, strict paleo detox that changed the way I view food and what I put in my body. It was extremely tough, but after six weeks, I got rid of sugar cravings,” he says. “Now I basically watch what I eat all week, but allow myself cheat meals and alcohol here and there. I don't adhere to any diet and never will again, but I learned some basic things.” 

Mike, 41, grew up eating healthy food. His father always cooked nutritious meals according to the food pyramid. And today, he remains health conscious.

He sticks to whole foods, a balanced diet of protein and vegetables with small portions of complex carbohydrates. But we’re all still kids inside, and every now and then a Bagel Bite looks good. So, let the latch-key kid out sometimes and indulge in a snack or two.

“I also think that if you go very strict and completely cut out all the fun foods like ice cream, chips, and pizza, that food suddenly becomes not enjoyable,” he says. “And isn’t that a part of it.”