I have a confession to make.  Hello, I am a grown up, and I eat kid food.  My basic cooking repertoire consists of kid food.  No fancy French reduction sauces, nothing braised or poached or simmered.  Essentially, it’s kid food, and I am deeply shamed.

My freezer and cabinets hold the following foods which can be boiled and smothered in a jar of some kind of sauce – pierogies, gnocchi, ravioli, macaroni, and noodles.  I even have Kraft fluorescent orange Mac & Cheese, and Chef Boyardee dinosaur pasta.  There are no children in my house, to speak of.  You may often catch me grating cheese over a flat tortilla, and throwing in some hastily warmed frozen veggies for a mock-quesadilla.  I eat roasted yams with ketchup.  My sandwiches are mini-bagels and cream cheese.  My lunches have Oreo-style cookies in them, string cheese, boxes of raisins, and goldfish crackers.  The only thing missing is a cookie cutter for my grilled cheese sandwiches. 

Maybe it’s because I came of age as a vegetarian in small towns without much culinary imagination.  Minnesota was a meat-and-potatoes place, and our part of Upstate New York hadn’t heard of bagels yet, let alone couscous, quinoa, or açai berry.  Though my parents have been vegetarian, or nearly, for longer than I have, so our family meals have always had a meat-free vibe, I didn’t get a tremendous amount of modeling of culinary sophistication.  My brother, the notoriously picky eater, influenced what was served at the table, and his predilection for chicken nuggets/fish sticks, pasta drowning in red sauce, and French fries swimming in ketchup didn’t allow the rest of the family to have a gourmet experience.  That’s not to say I don’t enjoy grown-up food; I do, very much, but I’m petrified of cooking it. 

My coworkers come in with Pyrex containers (there’s a BPA phobia around here, so glass is “in”) brimming with delicious leftovers.  “Oh, just some panko-encrusted flank steak I whipped up last night” sidled with fresh green beans and homemade mashed potatoes.  “This?  It’s my homemade barley stew.”  “Leftover lasagna” “Herbed chicken in a bouillabaisse with polenta.”  My sad little bagel stares up at me. 

I’ve heard people say meat is easy.  Not that all the myriad things being done on television cooking shows are basic, but meat is an easy thing to base a meal around.  You start with some cut of some animals, do stuff to it, and add on veggies and a starch.  Crafting a balanced vegetarian meal is trickier, so I usually end up mixing such flavors as pickles, cheddar and sour cream potato chips, and a garden burger.  If it’s not billed a “main dish” when I pick it up off the shelf or out of the freezer, I’m not quite sure how to convince myself it’s meal-worthy.  I’ve tried innovating a few times – chick pea “cutlets”, home-made garden burgers, barbecue “chicken” sandwiches with a fabulous product called “Quorn,” but many of these are just meat substitutes repackaged to look like a vegetarian main course, and that feels like cheating.  I’d like to make meals that aren’t trying to replace meat meals, but that stand on their own.  And I have no idea where to start. 

I haven’t make quinoa in years, polenta scares me, and tofu never has a pleasing texture when I make it at home.  My stir-fries are fabulous, but few and far between as I am lazy and/or rushed in making dinner.  Lasagna is great, but it makes enough for the block, and I get easily bored of eating it for a week straight in my lunches.  And, really?  It’s just noodles and sauce and cheese repackaged in layers, which reminds me too much of my former roommate.  She, too, was a vegetarian, who gave the rest of us vegetarians a bad name by subsisting entirely on combinations of white bread, cheddar or American cheese, pasta products, and tomato sauce, with nary a real vegetable in sight.  Her meals rotated between grilled cheese, pasta in sauce, and pizza, the very essence of kid food.

It’s bad enough I still package up my lunches in Ziploc baggies of snack foods; my mother only feeds into this by purchasing me applesauce in a squeeze bag, which has a warning on it that this produce is not suitable for children under 3 as the cap is a choking hazard.  I can’t bring myself to squeeze a bag of applesauce into my mouth in public, even if it is strawberry applesauce. 

Give me my Chef Boyardee, give me my Kraft Mac & Cheese.  At least I’m not eating Dora ice cream, flourescent Gogurt, or chicken nuggets in the shape of dinosaurs.