Cheese, Layers and Tots: My 2021 Survival Guide

If you’re anything like me, the pandemic has pushed you to do things you’d never before fathomed.

Maybe you’ve ordered your groceries online

Maybe you’ve hosted a birthday surprise on Zoom

Maybe you’ve washed your bags of Doritos with soap

From setting up a stationary bike in the dining to pumping gasoline through a plastic bag to raising a toddler who thinks he’s the only child in the universe, the past 11 months have been unlike anything I’d ever imagined. But one of my new behaviors that’s surprised me the most?

How many frozen tater tots I threw on top of a cheesy, Minnesota “hot dish” casserole I baked last week. Hello, 2021. I’ve arrived.

Words cannot describe the cheese levels.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I try to focus on whole foods and fresh ingredients, at least when I’m cooking for myself at home. That focus on “clean” eating made sense when I could occasionally dig into something salty and greasy and delicious at a restaurant or dinner party or happy hour – a little give and take to balance things out. But with basically all my opportunities to indulge in situational comfort food now off the table due to Covid-19, I realized I needed to let a little more lenience into my everyday diet.

I started in the fall by adding homemade pizza to the menu once a week. Then I got a waffle maker for Christmas, and both the Belgian variety and griddled hashbrowns were added to the rotation. Every now and then, I toss prosciutto or chocolate milk or some other tasty treat to my Instacart order. I know rewarding yourself with food isn’t always the best choice – the six pounds Lucille put on this year are proof of that – but I also now understand in the absence of other joy, a slice of thick-cut maple bacon can go a long way toward self-care.

What, me, eat chicken right off the baby’s tray?

That’s why, when I opened a recent issue of Eating Well, I kept returning to the photo of the cheesy, neon-yellow, tater-tot adorned casserole that looked like the epitome of comfort. It was nothing like how I usually cook – processed, layered and reminiscent of the 1990s — and therefore exactly what I wanted.

I ended up swapping ground turkey for ground beef, because that’s what I had, but other than that, I followed the recipe to the letter: the two cups of cheddar cheese, the four cups of milk, the entire bag of tots. (To be fair, these were Green Giant’s veggie tots, conveniently advertised as part of the same magazine spread, which – in theory – also contain broccoli. But I can attest they just taste like breading. Delicious, sodium-laden, artificial breading.

I was not compensated for this photo except via my waistline.

And you know what? It came out looking just as day-glo yellow as the photo and, dear readers, it was perfect. If you can’t #treatyoself during lockdown, when can you?

How are you treating yourself in the kitchen as the pandemic nears the one-year mark? Tasty answers only.

Get the recipe here.

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