Grownup versions of your favorite childhood foods

My childhood was defined by the foods I loved. Busy school mornings meant grabbing cherry Pop-Tarts as I ran out of the house. Afternoons included their fair share of microwaveable pizza pockets. In between the snack foods there were the dishes that I craved often and that brought me comfort. Whether I was digging into a bowl of warm mac and cheese, stuffing too many fries into my mouth at once, or dipping fish sticks into copious amounts of lumpy white tartar sauce, I was in my happy place. And while they are ideal for a finicky 6-year-old, they might be less so for an adult with a more nuanced palate and vague feelings about a so-called balanced diet.

If you want to munch on chicken nuggets and still feel like someone who works and pays rent, read on. You might find it useful to have a handful of recipes in your arsenal to help you create grownup versions of childhood foods. I'm talking about healthy-ish versions of nostalgic foods that make your belly happy. These creative takes on childhood foods turn them into complexly flavored, mouthwatering dishes you can feel good about eating. Get excited.

Chicken nuggets

What's not to love about chicken nuggets? Your inner child can't get enough of these portable snacks, but they're definitely a kid food. Here are a few ideas for how to give your chicken nuggets an upgrade.

I love this recipe from Jo Cooks, as it yields a scrumptious dish that approximates chicken nuggets but with tons of grownup flair. Chicken pieces are breaded and baked instead of fried, then served with the most mouth-wateringly good sweet-spicy garlic sauce.

This fun recipe from Gimme Some Oven adds a twist to chicken nuggets by coating the chicken pieces with crushed pretzels for added crunch. Also baked instead of fried, you can save the guilt for something else and just enjoy every last bit of chicken nugget goodness.

Fish sticks

Fish sticks are a school cafeteria classic and for good reason. Like chicken nuggets, they're breaded and fried, which are two qualities that give them a leg up on many other foods when you're a school-aged human. That said, once you graduate from child status, you might still desire fish sticks but perhaps with a slightly more dignified spin. The good news? There are plenty of recipes out there that help you to reimagine this delicious food from your past. Check these out.

This recipe from Bon Appetit takes plain old fish sticks and transforms them into a gourmet meal. I bet your school caf lady didn't serve up halibut fish sticks with an herbaceous dill-caper tartar sauce.

Um, fish sticks meets sushi? Yes, please. This recipe from PBS turns fish sticks into a luxe Japanese meal by coating meaty pieces of salmon in panko and frying in the style of traditional katsu.

Mac and cheese

Mac and cheese is one of those dishes that kids just love. It's so darn comforting. With its generous use of melty cheese and tender short pasta this dish can also be found at many bars and restaurants. Apparently, adults enjoy mac and cheese as much as children. Huh. If you're seeking ways to elevate mac and cheese to grownup status, you'll be glad to know there are lots of wonderful recipes to help you do precisely that. With the right cheeses, pasta, and sauce, you can easily make this dish age-appropriate.

For tons of inspo on how to reinvent mac and cheese, try incorporating ingredients you might not have initially considered for the dish. You can also experiment with different types of cheeses to boot. Always fun to conduct serious mac and cheese experiments, amiright?

Frozen pizza

I'm glad I am not privy to the exact number of microwaveable pizzas I've eaten in my life. I'd probably shudder in horror. I lived off of these highly processed snacks after school. In retrospect, they're pretty unremarkable taste-wise, yet back then they were everything to me. With my more grownup tastes, I'm always in search of new ways to make pizza taste like food meant for an adult to eat. Here are a few pizza recipes that give you the carb fix and a whole lot of foodie flair.

This recipe from 10th Kitchen truly speaks to my not-so-secret desire to eat fancy pizza all day everyday. Sweet fruits and cured meats are a combo that screams grownup dinner party. 

If you're looking for a beautiful pizza that's out of the ordinary, try this recipe from A Beautiful Mess. Creamy pesto and potato on pizza? Yes, all of that somehow works here.

Peanut butter and jelly

Ah, the ubiquitous PB and J brings back loads of fond memories of the brown bag lunches that accompanied me on school field trips. A classic in the canon of childhood foods, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich is easy for a kid to make and brings together two ingredients that are truly destined for long-term love. Even so, it might need some reimagining as grownup food. These recipes are a great place to start.

This recipe from the cleverly named blog Rhubarbarians achieves the difficult task of making PB and J fancy. How? Add bacon, apple, and heart-healthy pomegranate, then grill it.

This recipe from Half Baked Harvest turns PB and J into a delectable French toast sandwich using rhubarb jelly. It's an amazing time to be alive.

Grilled cheese

Like its buddy, the PB and J, grilled cheese is probably a unanimous favorite among the elementary school set—at least the kids who aren't lactose intolerant anyway. Hard to go too far off course with bread and cheese. That said, maybe you'd like a more dignified way to eat bread and cheese in the company of other adults. No problem! Here are a few of my go-to grilled cheese recipes for the over-11 crowd.

This grilled cheese sandwich courtesy of Joy the Baker tastes like the best grownup party dip ever. Spinach and artichoke plus three kinds of cheeses really make a difference in elevating a humble kiddie meal.

Leave it to Foodie Crush to turn grilled cheese into a fancy affair with lobstah! This recipe yields a decidedly grownup version of everyone's favorite childhood meal.

Tater tots

Deep-fried grated potatoes that take the form of snackable little cylinders are hard not to love when you're a kid. That said, they might feel a little juvenile to eat on the reg when you're an adult. While making these tots taste more grownup seems like an impossibility, trust me. It's all possible with a little know-how, creativity, and these fun recipes.

This grownup version of tater tots from The Pioneer Woman is perfect for sharing with those who are young at heart. Tater tots top a skillet full of beef and veggies, making this dish one you're likely to find comfort in at any age.

For your next date night, try this recipe from Gourmet Cooking for Two. Simple and elegant, the graceful mounds of potatoes look fit for a five-star restaurant.

Cheeseburgers

Like pizza, cheeseburgers have a special place in the hearts of the young. Kids love a the simplicity of a regular cheeseburger: plain soft bun, beef patty, processed American cheese, and maybe ketchup. The truth is we never quite outgrow our love our cheeseburgers, but there are certainly ways to make them healthier and more interesting. Here are some ideas.  

This recipe from How Sweet It Is renders a cheeseburger fit for Insta. Tender juicy meat gets a leg up on the competition with some kicky pimiento. Yum!

This recipe from Just a Pinch brings together succulent beef, bold blue cheese, and flavorful red onion for a dish that feels grownup and completely satisfying.

French fries

Children and adults alike love French fries. As a side dish to burgers, they're a must. On their own, they're perfection. They are ridiculously addictive and yet oh so greasy. Of course anything fried is not known for its health benefits. Still there are ways to enjoy fries without feeling guilty afterward. These recipes show you how.

This recipe from My Dish Is Bomb is amazing. Think French fries topped with heaps of cheese curds and gravy. Yeah.

This recipe from The Woks of Life brings together French fries and kimchi in a dish that makes me happy for food mashups. Spicy and irresistible, this baked dish is warming and hearty.

Pop-Tarts

Pop-Tarts are made for children and everyone's inner child. I mean, who could possibly resist pastry pockets filled with jam? Not me. These rectangular snacks come in foil packages containing not one but two. Pop them in the toaster for a warm portable pie on the run or eat them as-is. If they weren't so darn processed, I'd probably have maintained my unseemly Pop-Tart habit well into adulthood. Lucky for you, this homemade Pop-Tart recipe from The Pioneer Woman is everything you need to enjoy jam-filled pastries minus the processed junk. Go on.

S'mores

Mmmm, give us s'more, please! S'mores are the quintessential campfire treat. A graham cracker sandwich of sticky marshmallow and melty chocolate, this dessert is a universal favorite, especially with the kiddies. That said, s'mores can be kind of one-note once you reach a certain age. Alas, there are super fun and creative ways to take this tasty snack from the campgrounds to the grownup dining table.

This lovely s'mores pie from Food Network is straightforward and stunning. Enjoy without accruing mosquito bites at a campground.

Eat like an adult but always with a wink at your inner child.

Quesadillas

Quesadillas are a childhood dream food because they approximate grilled cheese sandwiches: cheese sandwiched between carbs. While this is a meal any kid would love, as a grownup you might want something with a little more character. Fortunately, quesadillas are a blank canvas for many exciting flavor combinations. Experiment and play around types of cheeses and change up the toppings to elevate the meal. Here's how.

Quesadillas filled with Jamaican jerk chicken? Yep, this dish from Host the Toast tastes just as incredible as it sounds. Tender pieces of chicken with a smoky, spicy flavor are involved.

Try this recipe from Sally's Baking Addiction for a sweet, sophisticated twist on quesadillas. Wrap your head around the idea of quesadillas filled with rich, creamy brie and crisp apple slices. Oh, there's also a generous drizzle of caramel on top.

Chicken pot pie

Chicken pot pie is cozy as can be. The food equivalent of a great big hug, this dish is a childhood meal that pleases on all levels. How to make pot pie fancy and grownup? Well, let's see.

This recipe from For the Love of Dessert gets me. Chicken pot pie made with sweet and savory cornbread is probably one of the best ideas ever.

For a vegetarian take on pot pie, try this beet-forward version from Four 'N' Twenty Blackbirds. Beet and goat cheese are combined in a lovely pastry crust.

Spaghetti and meatballs

Most of us remember the spaghetti and meatball dinners of our youth with great fondness. Hunks of meat tossed with carby pasta in red sauce—what's not to love? While you may long for this childhood favorite every now and then, you're palette needs something a little more grownup. Luckily, there are recipes to help you turn this kid-friendly dish into something with even more flavor.

This recipe from Bon Appetit turns the flavors of spaghetti and meatball into a delectable meal for everyone. A handful of spices does the trick.

Mark Bittman's recipe for The New York Times is one of my favorites for weeknights when I want to carb load. Easy, fast, and oh so full of flavor.

Fried chicken

Fried chicken probably ranks pretty high on the list of childhood comfort foods. Whether prepared at home in a vat of oil or ordered from a fast food joint, this dish is a surefire winner for any kid. There's just something so satisfying about all that crispy skin and tender meat, especially the fatty dark meat. While kids don't think about waistlines much, adults might want to seek lighter, healthier versions of this childhood food. These recipes are pretty awesome.

Food52's recipe for fried chicken is simple and on point thanks to a ridiculously delicious rosemary brine. Try it ASAP!

This Korean spin on fried chicken from The Tart Tart transforms fried chicken into fusion food at its best. A finger-licking good sweet and spicy sauce helps. Loads of nutty sesame seeds lend depth and crunch.