Poor, pooped and copping out: '90s crowd pours dinner into the cereal bowl


What did overworked working people make for dinner in the 1980s? That's easy: reservations.

But that particular fast-food option has gone the way of positive economic growth and infinite credit lines. So what do the time-crunched make now that they're too broke to eat out?

Cap'n Crunch, for one.

But more often Wheaties or Cheerios. Or, on evenings of indulgence, Frosted Flakes.

In the '90s, what many worn-out yuppies with maxed-out credit cards make for dinner is breakfast cereal. Just add milk and serve.

And what they make even better, to cover for the same inability to manage their time that in better times had them speed-dialing the maitre d' from the car phone, is excuses:

"It's easy," said Gale Santa Maria, a 23-year-old med student who eats breakfast cereal for her evening meal at least once or twice a week.

"It's quick," she added.

"There's no fat, and the cholesterol is low," said her housemate, Kelvin Kresge, also 23, a waiter about to start graduate study in nutrition at Columbia University.

Indeed, given the massive fortifications listed on the side panels of cereal boxes, "Why take vitamins?" asked one Cheerios fan.

"Plus," said Mr. Kresge, "you have variety."

"It's just easy, fast," said Bruce Katlin, a 34-year-old actor who gets by on a bowl of cereal about one night a week -- "whenever there's milk in the house and there's nothing else to eat."

"Yeah," added his housemate, Terry Graziano, 26, a fashion designer. "We have to eat cereal for dinner to use up the milk."

"And it doesn't seem like it's fattening," Mr. Katlin said.

"Even if you have three bowls," added Mr. Graziano. "It's cold and sweet, but it's not as fattening as ice cream."

At this point, these and other nighttime cereal eaters are just a blip on the demographic charts, accounting for only about 75 million of the 2.5 billion pounds of cold cereal consumed in the United States each year, cereal researchers figure. Suffice it to say, then, that members of the brain trust at Kellogg's aren't wracking their skulls to devise novelty brands like Meat 'n' Tater Crunch for the after-dark contingent.

Still, the bowl-and-spoon crowd reflects -- in comically exaggerated form, but with the unmistakable glint of truth -- what's going on in the United States as a whole. America, despite its advanced drive-through culture and its mastery of the microwave oven, is losing the race to get fed.

Eric Miller, a trend watcher from Long Island City, N.Y., who edits the newsletter Research Alert, sees the cereal eaters as the latest in a line of overworked working people who can't find the time to cook: Their predecessors ate out or they bought packaged foods and nuked in.

The next wave took out, subsisting on pizza and Chinese food.

These guys just basically cop out.

"I think of this as the I'm-too-tired-to-do-it-right-but-I'll-do-it-the- best-I-can crowd," Mr. Miller said. "I don't even have it together enough to get take-out food tonight. I'm doing pour-out."

Their sitting down to a dinner of champions is not some economic catastrophe, according to Mr. Miller. Rather, it's a social one: a complete breakdown in the ability to organize their lives.

And, surprisingly, most of them aren't single. Rather, they're couples who place more of a premium on spending time together than they do on approximating a normal meal. "Single people go out to restaurants a lot more, and they're very big on take-out foods," Mr. Miller said. "They can wait 10 minutes for a microwaved potato."

The way market researcher Dave Jenkins sees it, the cereal eaters could probably find time in their schedules to cobble together an assemblage of foods that traditionalists would recognize as dinner -- as could the popcorn eaters, another oddball dinner faction that his company, National Eating Trends, has smoked out.

"You can have time for anything if you make time," he said. "They're just too lazy to fix anything else."

One thing he'll give them credit for, though: "They're creative."

Enter Ken Stranieri, 29, a drummer and a leading proponent of breakfast cereal as dinner food.

Mr. Stranieri's wife, Lona Marchetti, is a coupon shopper who refuses to indulge her husband's passion for gimmicky full-price foodstuffs, like those that list crunch berries on their ingredient panel. "When you buy the ready-made cereals, with marshmallows and stuff in them, it's too expensive," he said.

His solution? Buy the stripped-down models -- corn flakes, bran flakes, puffed rice -- and customize. "I'll crush up cookies and put them in," Mr. Stranieri said. "My favorite is the chocolate-covered Oreos.

"Brownies are another favorite -- and candy bars, especially Bar None. They don't get too soggy. They've got kind of a good crunch.

"It's always nice to throw things into it to keep things interesting," Mr. Stranieri said.

Beyond creativity, what distinguishes enthusiasts of pour-out food from take-out and eat-out apologists is the cereal eaters' defiant pride in the way they make do for dinner.

Greg Barnes, a 28-year-old bachelor who buys more than his fair share of Apple Jacks, doesn't even blink when his eyes meet those of the observant cashiers at the grocery store.

"I'm not embarrassed," Mr. Barnes said. "They don't know who it's for."

Or when.

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