When I stopped being a kid, I stopped eating kid food. I went 20 years without eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. If I made myself a grilled cheese during that span, I don’t remember it. Quesadillas were only ever someone else’s order at a bar; ditto chicken tenders. Hot dogs were strictly experiential: for baseball games, or outings to Coney Island, or giving up.
As I exited the impoverished ramen-powered stage of adulthood and entered what felt like a stable career, my social life began to rotate around food: Dates at trendy restaurants, sunny afternoons tracking down food trucks, potluck dinner parties where the hosts inevitably had the same slate cheese plate. Food was both transcendent and everywhere, destination and experience, centerpiece and backdrop to new memories.
Then I had kids. The things that were most enjoyable before I was a father — eating in restaurants, traveling to far-off places, drinking with friends late into the night — suddenly became the biggest pain in the ass imaginable. Sure, my children have brought me joy and emotional fulfillment, but at what cost?
In any given week, I’m a garbage disposal for half-eaten PBJs, grilled cheeses, quesadillas, chicken tenders, and hot dogs. This is not some dad-life boast; it’s the status quo with two kids younger than 5 years-old. But more important, it’s not a lament. I love kid food! Have you HAD a quesadilla recently? Have you intentionally blistered a flour tortilla oozing with cheddar, knowing full well that your children don’t like the blackened parts? Because I have. I gave that bad boy a smear of sour cream and savored it like a quail egg crostini topped with caviar.
What happened to me?
Well, for starters, I’m starving. The reason I’m eating a crust of PBJ at noon like a wolf cracking into bone marrow is because breakfast was half a cup of coffee that I set down on a shelf when my son started crying, forgot about for 30 minutes, reheated in the microwave, left on a different surface when I cajoled my daughter to get dressed, microwaved again, put somewhere else, and finally dumped in the sink hours later. Oh, and half a banana.
Parents love to tell people without kids that children change your entire life. That’s true, but those wizened parents never told me that I would hover over my children at lunchtime, circling like a vulture, waiting for them to leave a pizza bagel unfinished. Or, worse: That I would make an extra pizza bagel for myself and gobble it rapturously while standing in my kitchen, right in front of God and the ghosts of New York pizzaioli who laid the groundwork for the classic slices that sustained me through my leanest years in the city.
To be clear, I don’t prefer pizza bagels to a wood-fired, brick-oven margherita topped with fresh basil. But the latter is no longer a realistic option. No restaurant from my previous life is a realistic option. If my wife and I want to go out to eat, we need a babysitter, which requires planning ahead, and then doubling the cost of the meal so a young adult can sit on our couch and watch Netflix.
“Oh, we take our children with us to restaurants,” is what some jerk is saying while reading this, oblivious or uncaring that the diners near him loathe his very being; they see his children and make solemn promises to each other about how they will NEVER raise children in such a slipshod manner. I remember. I made those promises, too.
My wife and I are occasionally foolish enough to take our kids with us to restaurants, usually, about once every four to six months to see if it’s still an exhausting, stressful experience that — again — requires planning ahead. Do we have the diaper bag? Activities to keep kids engaged and quiet? Snacks in case there’s a wait? Change of clothes? Water purifiers in the event of a nuclear apocalypse?
We show up with two kids and a shipping container of supplies, order the very INSTANT we sit down, then take turns eating and parenting while the kids slowly transform from charming scamps to squirming malcontents. Their attention spans are a radioactive material, and the half-life is short. As their behavior decomposes, they inevitably ignore the food they ordered — the food I am paying for! — and simply eat a meal of French fries. Every time! GRRAHHH!
I would rather make pizza bagels. Pizza bagels are fine! When I make pizza bagels, the result is never “We can never come here again.” What the pizza bagel lacks in a perfectly charred crust, it more than makes up for in not white-knuckling through a meal that takes a year off my life. Our sense of taste is wired to the brain’s pleasure centers, and let me tell you: Few things taste as good as NOT having to change a poopy diaper on the cold tile of an intimate restaurant’s sole tiny bathroom.
There’s a saying about parenthood that it makes your world narrower but deeper. You no longer have as broad of a cultural experience: less time for fewer friends, fewer pastimes in what little leisure time remains — but you’re granted a bottomless well of love for your child that gives you more empathy and appreciation for other people’s experiences.
That saying fits how I eat now, too. Fewer opportunities to eat transcendent meals have made those experiences much richer, and I savor them in a way I could never appreciate when they were commonplace. At the same time, the unsophisticated food my children prefer isn’t a culinary desert I wander until their palates develop; it’s a tapestry of rediscovery. A brown tapestry, sure, but delicious just the same. The foods have narrowed, but my enjoyment has only deepened.
And this isn’t forever. Someday, when my kids can sit at a table for 45 minutes without turning into feral animals, we’ll enjoy a real brick-oven pizza together. And if they haven’t come around on perfect bubbles of blackened crust by then, well, that’s more for me.
Matt Ufford is ESPN’s director of digital video social content. He has written for The New York Times, GQ, Forbes, Deadspin, The Awl, and SB Nation, among others. His last name rhymes with “tough word,” in case you were wondering.