30 at 30 Lists #21: Food

In honor of me turning 30, I’m compiling 30 different top-30 lists on a wide variety of topics ranging from trivial interests of mine to meaningful life moments. Read the introductory post for more background information on my 30 at 30 project. Reminder: there is no scientific rationale for these lists. They were composed by a panel of one—me.

If food and I were in a relationship on Facebook, it would probably be labeled “it’s complicated.” It was only a few months ago that the leading digit on the scale was a 2 for the first time in my life. I was always a skinny, athletic kid. In my brief high school basketball career, my struggle was trying to bulk up and add weight. 200 pounds was my wake up call.

When I first started a relationship with Jessie, I developed a notorious nickname: “The Picky Eater.” However, over time, my openness to trying new foods increased as did my ability to consume them. By the time we were married, I was somewhere in the neighborhood of 185 pounds—nowhere near the skinny kid I was in high school but still in pretty good shape.

Although I still managed to frequent the gym on a fairly regular schedule throughout the past several years, my workout regiment apparently did not increase as much as my appetite did. Or perhaps my now 30-something-year-old metabolism did not burn calories as efficiently as it did 10 or 20 years ago.

Regardless of how it happened, it happened. As the late Owen Hart said, “Enough is enough and it’s time for a change!” Of course, I’m not one for radical change. I have seen too many people dive headfirst into diets only to return to bad habits again once the diet ended. Instead, I prefer to institute more subtle, more sustainable changes. I don’t need to get back to my high school weight. And I don’t even need to get back to 185 right away. It took years to put the weight on; it may take as long or longer to shed the excess pounds. Rather than focus on the result, I am heeding my wife’s words of wisdom and focusing on the process. So after having some conversations with Jessie over the past month or so about making some dietary changes, I am optimistic that my future will be a healthier one. She is much more nutritionally educated than me, and anyone who saw her rock her pregnancy knows this.

Now that I have a son to care for, I realize that I also need to take better care of myself, which includes being more mindful of the food I eat. I am not buying into a specific diet. I am not doing a 30-day cleanse. I am not eliminating all fats, or all sweets, or all carbs. I am not going vegetarian or vegan. All of those are fine options for other people, but I am opting for a simpler, less stringent change that feels both manageable and helpful. I am making small changes like not eating a kids cereal every day for breakfast and a bologna sandwich for lunch, or not eating a processed, salty snack every single night before bed. The truth is I am not an entirely unhealthy person, but I can work to be a healthier person.

Having said all of that, the following list of my favorite foods is probably the answer to the question, “How did I end up reaching 200 pounds?” This is a list of my favorite things to eat. It is not nutritionist-approved. I know that I cannot all of the items on this list all of the time, and that I should probably reign in my portion size when I do eat them. But these are 30 foods that I am definitely not ready to quit just yet.30. Subway’s chicken bacon ranch
I don’t eat fast food very often, but when I do, Subway is near the top of the list, and my order is almost always the same: a footlong chicken bacon ranch sub on Italian bread with pepper jack cheese, lettuce and tomato.

29. Blueberry yogurt
Eating yogurt as part of my regular lunch is one of the healthier choices that I have made in recent years. Although I mix it up with different flavors and styles, any version of blueberry yogurt ranks near the top for me.

28. Perkins’ blueberry muffin
Speaking of blueberry, Perkins’ blueberry muffins are amazing. Whenever I eat breakfast or brunch at Perkins, I always save the blueberry muffin for last to end my meal on a sweet note.  Honorable mention to my mom who used to treat us to Jiffy blueberry muffins when I was a kid. The only reason they don’t outrank Perkins is because they were so much smaller. It was always an extra special treat to get to lick the spatula for the excess muffin batter after mom was done.

27. Mom’s Buffalo chicken dip
You didn’t think my mom was going to be relegated to an honorable mention spot on this list, did you? I have yet to taste bad Buffalo chicken dip, but I vote my mom’s version as the best. Some people make it too spicy, but her version is perfect for my palate.

26. Smith’s hot dogs
If you are from Erie and Smith’s hot dogs don’t make your list of favorite foods, I am pretty sure you can be fined. I’d rather put that money towards the world’s best hot dogs. I do prefer the skinless ones though. Thankfully I’ve matured beyond the point wher

25. Peanut-butter-filled pretzel nuggets
I first discovered these wondrous creations on a family trip to Chicago, and I don’t think I have stopped eating them since. My mom purchased a bucket of them at Wegmans. I have since sampled different varieties and haven’t noticed much of a difference in flavor. They are bite-sized and addictive. Move over, Lays. These snacks deserve the “bet you can’t eat just one” tagline. 

24. Mighty Fine Donuts’ chocolate-covered cream-filled
Erieites are passionate about their doughnuts. I grew up in a Mighty Fine household. As far as I am concerned, there is no better doughnut than Mighty Fine’s round chocolate-covered cream filled doughnut. There is also nothing worse than expecting to bite into a cream-filled doughnut only to be rudely surprised by custard. 

23. My big (everything but) salad
In theory, salad is a healthy option. The problem begins when the green part of the salad gets buried in everything else, especially a fatty ranch or honey mustard dressing, which is often the case for me. My typical big salad consists of lettuce (my favorite these days is the butter lettuce from Aldis) and spinach, grape tomatoes, two hard-boiled eggs, a sliced apple, grilled chicken, almonds, crushed walnuts, cranberries, croutons, and salad dressing. 

22. Aunt Titi’s cheesy potatoes
I am blessed to have grown up in AND married into a family with some great cooks. Holidays are always a smorgasbord of deliciousness. Of all the many extended relative dishes that have stood out over the years, Aunt Titi’s cheesy potatoes are among the best, year after year.

21. Soft pretzels with cheese
Whenever I am out at a restaurant and people are inquiring about an appetizer, I try to make the case for the soft pretzels. It’s my usual go-to option at a ballgame as well.

20. Cheddar Chex Mix
Unlike the pretzel nuggets, I have yet to find a knock-off version of the Cheddar Chex Mix that tastes as good as the name brand version tastes.

19. Jessie’s shepherd’s pie
I don’t know if I had ever even heard of shepherd’s pie—let alone eaten it—prior to getting married. I think it’s basically some combination of seasoned ground beef and vegetables covered in a layer of mashed potatoes and cheese. I have sampled other recipes in the past few years but none of them have compared to Jessie’s signature dish.

turkeyinthepan18. Turkeyinthepan
Speaking of signature dishes, Jessie has co-opted this wonderful post-Thanksgiving meal from her mother. I used to look forward to the Thanksgiving meal (OK, I still do) and dread the days of leftover turkey. Not anymore! Turkeyinthepan (yes, it’s one word) is, in my opinion, the ultimate turkey eating experience. As the name implies, the leftover turkey is cooked on the stove in a pan along with mashed potatoes, corn, and of course a significant amount of gravy that holds it all together. 

17. Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
Jif peanut butter + my mom’s strawberry jelly on white bread. Classic.

16. Reese’s Fast Break
This is the only candy bar to make the list. The original Reese’s Cups are great, but there is something about the addition of a layer of nougat that pushes the Fast Break to the top of my candy bar rankings.

15. Jessie’s multi-colored potato pouches
Summer grilling season makes for many delicious meals. One of the staples in our household is the potato pouch, which pairs well with whatever the meat of the day happens to be. Jessie prepares the aluminum foil “pouches” with oil and seasoned potatoes. She often uses combinations of red, blue, and sweet potatoes for maximum beauty and taste.

14. Olive Garden’s Zuppa Toscana 
Italian is rarely my first choice, but whenever I eat at Olive Garden, I make sure to order my favorite soup. Their Zuppa Toscana has just the right amount of kick and flavor. I also love dipping their breadsticks in the soup as a bonus treat.

13. Aunt Nancy’s buttered noodles topped with bread crumbs
Amid a stellar Thanksgiving meal lineup, this simple side dish is my favorite.

12. Cracker Barrel’s country fried steak
Country fried steak is a meal that I love to order out at a restaurant. I have tried many different varieties, and thus far, Cracker Barrel serves up the best rendition.

IMG_004811. Wendy’s Triple Baconator
I was introduced to this heart-threatening meat mountain of a burger a few summers ago by my friend Dustin. Admittedly, he succeeded more easily than I did on finishing his meal that day, but after multiple layers of beef, cheese, and bacon, I was sold. We even co-ran a fantasy football team named the Triple Baconators.

cinnamontoastcrunch10 . Kids’ cereals
I could not limit myself to just one, so I lumped them all into the broad category. Despite being 31 years old, I still much prefer to start my day with a kid-friendly cereal rather than something focusing on oats or wheat or bran or flax. If I had to break it down within the kids’ cereal category, I would rank Cinnamon Toast Crunch as my favorite, followed by Reese’s Puffs and Frosted Cheerios. I’d also like to pour some milk out for my favorite discontinued kids’ cereals, Peanut Butter Cookie Crisp and Wegmans Blueberry Muffin Squares.

9. My mom’s peanut butter pie
In an ideal world, my peanut butter pie has no chocolate. That is why my mom’s recipe takes the cake (pie?). Too many peanut butter pie recipes ruin my experience with chocolate crust, chocolate fudge, chocolate syrup, or some other variation of chocolate interference. 

8. BBQ meatloaf
Although I owe a shoutout to Jessie for giving me the recipe many years ago as part of a starter-kit cookbook when I moved out on my own for the first time, I believe this is the only item on the list that is prepared by yours truly. Breadcrumbs and Jack Daniels BBQ sauce mixed into the meat help make this one meal that I can hang my hat on…well, if I ever wore a hat.

IMG_12867. Creamland’s cookie dough Flurry
Winters are long in Erie, but the first Flurry of the year is always a surefire sign that spring is upon us. Creamland is a local ice cream shop less than five minutes away from where I grew up in Fairview. They open every year on April 1, and my sister and I usually make sure to get there within the first week or so to celebrate the start of a new season. I sometimes opt for a Reese’s or Butterfinger Flurry, but cookie dough is my top choice.

6. Jessie’s breakfast bowls
This is quickly becoming one of my favorite new traditions. On Sunday after Mass, Jessie whips up a breakfast bowl that seem to get better and better each week. No two weeks are exactly the same, but no week’s feast has been a disappointment. She mixes in veggies and sweet potatoes along with some assortment of meat, cheese, and eggs, and then tops it all off with fresh avocado and/or sour cream. Her presentation is TV-cooking show worthy, and the flavor blows me away every time. Of course, the one thing Jessie does better than prepare food is describe it, so I’m sure my words are not doing it justice. Just trust me: her breakfast bowls are restaurant quality!

5. Steak
My success with grilling steak at home to meet my medium rare wishes has been inconsistent. However, few food items excite me more than a well-prepared steak. Tender, flavorful steak does not come cheap, so I pick and choose when to order steak, but filet mignon almost always lives up to its price tag. The best steak-eating experience I ever had was eight years ago when I had a bacon-wrapped filet mignon at the Presque Isle Downs and Casino. The two places I am most consistently pleased with my steak are Texas Roadhouse and Ricardos. 

GringosLoadedNachos4. Gringos’ loaded nachos
Prior to Moe’s, Chipotle, and Qdoba opening restaurants in Erie, Jessie and I were enjoying fast food Mexican food at a local Meadville place called Gringos. Jessie attended Allegheny College, so any time that I drove down to visit we made a point to go to Gringos. While I have grown to love Moe’s, Chipotle, and Qdoba, none of them have been able to match the heaping portions of steak nor the delicious flavor of Gringos’ queso. Sadly, Gringos closed for business suddenly in 2011.

TownHouseCrackers3. Town House crackers
I consider myself a connoisseur of salty snacks, but while other brands will attempt to woo you with fancy packing or bold, inventive flavor combinations, Town House crackers stick to a simple formula that works. The oval shape is much preferable to the round Ritz as is its light, salty, buttery texture. Many people enjoy their crackers as a miniature, edible plate, covering them in various meats and cheeses. That’s fine, and Town House are perfectly well suited for that. But more often than not, I enjoy half a sleeve of plain Town House crackers plain to end my evening. My only complaint is that the packages have gotten smaller in recent years.

This is pretty much how excited I am every time someone gets/bakes cookies for me.
This is pretty much how excited I am every time someone gets/bakes cookies for me.

2. Cookies
Fancy desserts do not excite me. I will take a cookie over a cake or pie every day of the week. With the exception of Oreos, I prefer my cookies to be soft and chewy. There are too many awesome cookies for me to name, but I would like to give special recognition to my Mom and Molly’s chocolate chip cookies, Uncle Jeff Badach’s giant cookies, Ye Ole Sweet Shoppe’s chocolate chip cookies, pretty much any of the buttercream frosting options from Cheryl’s Cookies, Wegmans’ chocolate chunk cookies, the Chips Ahoy! Chewy chocolate chip cookies, Golden Double Stuf Oreos, Grandma Nies’ Christmas cut-outs, Subway’s white chip macadamia nut cookies, and Giant Eagle’s pumpkin cookies. My apologies if I forgot your special variety of cookies. Bake me a batch and I’ll let you know if you’re worthy of sharing top billing!

meatlovers1. Pizza
Of all the food items on this list, I think pizza is the only one which I have consumed as breakfast, lunch, dinner, and as a snack at some time in my life. I generally believe in the notion that there is no such thing as “bad pizza” but I’m sure I could find exceptions. Generally I opt for a meat lovers or a simple cheese and pepperoni pizza, but I also enjoy a good buffalo chicken or chicken bacon ranch pizza. When it comes to crust, I prefer a softer, thicker crust rather than a crunchy, thin crust. I am also a big fan of stuffed crust, although I don’t like how stuffed crust sometimes means they skimp on the rest of the pizza dough. In terms of a favorite pizza place, I wish I could say I know of this cool, underground local pizza shop that is MY pizza joint, but I have yet to discover said place. Growing up, I used to say Little Caesar’s was my favorite pizza place. That died out when they shifted into Hot-n-Ready mode. Today, Pizza Hut is my go-to pizza place. Whether it’s the lunch time buffet on East 38th Street with Grandma Nies or a game night online order and delivery at home, Pizza Hut’s stuffed crust meat lovers pizza is my ultimate meal guilty pleasure. Bon appétit!

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