- Honestly, Dara -

Happy Meals

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A lot of us are still clinging to adult versions of our favorite childhood eats. Will we — and our tastes — ever grow up?

I sampled some artisanal string cheese at a wine bar recently. It came from a small herd of local dairy cows, and was hand-pulled and formed into squeaky strings by a young, bearded cheesemaker with big dreams.

When I happened to run into him later, I couldn’t help remarking, “So we’ve got artisanal Pop-Tarts and artisanal chicken nuggets, and now you’re the artisanal string-cheese guy!” He grinned and raised his eyebrows in that special way that conveys, Duh!

The string cheese was served sliced across the middle into two shorter cylinders, one of the tubes leaning across the other, like a toddler’s first attempt at stacking blocks. It was tasty string cheese and it paired well with the saline and dry French white wine that accompanied it, but I couldn’t get over the feeling that I had pilfered something from one of my kids’ lunchboxes.

Was I the only person in the wine bar with 1 Corinthians 13:11 echoing through my head: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things”?

Well, that’s a silly question. Of course I was. But I can’t help noticing that everywhere I look these days, restaurants are sprouting up with menus catering to grownups who are yearning for the meals of their youth.

In Manhattan you can visit the Nugget Spot, a restaurant that specializes in chef-made chicken (and vegetarian) nuggets crusted in the usual way, or breaded with something resembling Cap’n Crunch cereal.

The Nickel Diner in downtown Los Angeles offers an artisanal version of the Pop-Tart: hand-formed, real-butter pastry with the signature white icing and red sprinkles on top.

At drink.well in Austin, Texas, the flavors of artisanal, handmade twinkies change almost daily. Any number of companies now make artisanal gummy bears.

Upscale-restaurant chefs reared on the contents of chip bags and cereal boxes have been playing with these flavors for years. New York’s Macaron Parlour boasts airy French macarons infused with the flavors of Cheetos.

The most important pastry chef of her generation, Christina Tosi of New York’s Milk Bar made her name creating flavors like “cereal milk,” conjuring memories of slurping up the milk at the bottom of your bowl of Lucky Charms.

And don’t even get me started on the chef-driven peanut-butter-and-jelly thing. SpreadPB in Los Angeles offers nearly a dozen takes on grown-up PB&J sandwiches, including one with marshmallows. New York’s Peanut Butter & Co. offers the classic sandwich (with grape jam!), ants on a log (peanut butter on a celery stick, with raisins!), and even a double-decker PB&J.

When a Nutella bar opened in New York’s Eataly, lines stretched around the block. Why would someone spend an hour of his or her life standing in line for a slice of bread slathered with a hazelnut-chocolate spread?

Beats me. Perhaps I should ask some of the innumerable Americans now frequenting a growing number of upscale macaroni-and-cheese restaurants.

What? You didn’t know upscale mac and cheese is a thing? You can get it at the two locations of S’Mac in New York (with hamburger; or Parisian-style with brie). Or you can get it at Macbar in Manhattan (with duck confit or lobster). In Los Angeles, try Mac-O-Licious, with bacon or blue-swimming-crab meat. The eateries competing to be America’s next big mac-and-cheese thing are quickly multiplying.

So why are so many adults eating kids’ food these days? I’m going to go out on a limb and guess: Because it’s what they ate as kids.

For baby boomers, “comfort foods” were the stars of the Happy Days–era suburban kitchen — mashed potatoes, meatloaf, pot roast, chicken and dumplings. But Gen-Xers and millennials grew up on bright-orange mac and cheese, bowls of Froot Loops, microwave pizza rolls, and fast-food chicken nuggets.

If those are our cozy, safe foods, if those are the foods that mean your mom loves you and there’s a kiss and a hug at the end of a tough day, why would we want to leave them behind just because we’ve reached adulthood?

That’s benign enough. But did you know that one out of every four packages of kid-targeted Lunchables — those prefilled boxes of crackers and cheese squares — is now bought by adults for their own consumption?

Go-GURT (yogurt in a portable tube) was marketed to kids in the 1990s, and today those same “kids” can pack tubes of Icelandic strained skyr yogurt when they head off to their tech jobs.

All of these childish foods have one thing in common: Vegetables figure in to virtually none of them — not broccoli, not lettuce, not asparagus. Fiber hardly figures in at all either, despite all we now know about how our guts and immune systems require fiber to function correctly.

I’m not suggesting that we sit around and chew on kale stems with the tykes before heading out solo for a big night on the town. But as adults, I do think it’s up to us to instill the next generation (and perhaps ourselves) with at least some appetite for real food.

On a Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago, my kids and I volunteered in their school’s vegetable garden, and then we stopped at the grocery store on the way home. After I put everything away, my little girl said she wanted to finish the chapter of the Harry Potter book we’d been reading.

I looked her straight in the eyes and said, “If we read a book, we’re going to have to skip making meatballs and get Chinese delivery.” She weighed the options and decided meatballs took priority.

Making meatballs is a thing we do. We make three pounds at a time, and toss some spinach in with the meat for nutrition and texture. I freeze half-pound portions for my family to use on nights when I go out to do grownup things, or when that special confluence of science projects, swimming lessons, and piano practice makes cooking a last priority.

As my daughter and I mixed up the spinach-studded meatballs, we talked about how they’re her favorite food right now. She directed the project — we sometimes make tiny ones, sometimes giant ones. It’s a dinner I get bored with, but the kids never do.

It’s not that I have it all figured out. Like everyone, I do the best I can with the available material, the available time, and my own skill set. But, if there’s one thing I have that a lot of other people don’t, it’s deep information about the boom in mac-and-cheese, chicken-nugget, and PB&J offerings at American restaurants.

This knowledge has fueled my determination to buck the trend, and I’ve redoubled my commitment to offering my kids childish and grownup-ish foods in equal parts.

There’s a lot I can’t give them, but I can at least provide them with the assurance that whatever makes them feel better at the end of a tough day can include a vegetable.

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a James Beard Award–winning food and wine writer.

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