Tim Urban Embraces the ‘Dark Late-Night Unhealthy Seamless Order’

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"I try to limit myself to one DLNUSO a week."
"I try to limit myself to one DLNUSO a week." Photo: Melissa Hom

As the author of the wildly popular blog Wait But Why, Tim Urban tackles existential topics like what makes you you, how to pick your life partner, and why procrastinators procrastinate (complete with his signature stick-figure illustrations). It’s no surprise, then, that he thinks analytically about his diet: “If I could assign myself the perfect diet, I’d eat really healthy almost all the time, except for the rare treat,” he says. “You’re putting food into your body. Nothing’s more intimate in the world than that. It becomes your brain and your thoughts and your skin. It’s really not something to be lazy about.” Still, as Urban’s Grub Street Diet demonstrates, he has his vices — General Tso’s chicken, miniature cupcakes, and pappardelle, to name a few. Read all about them, straight ahead:

Thursday, June 9
Every day I have my house manager, Hershey, wake me up with a hot washcloth for my face, a leg rub, and a plate of toast soldiers.

Oh, wait, no, that was Courtney Love.

I started my day with a banana and a granola bar from Starbucks.

That Starbucks is in Ipswich, Massachusetts, where I woke up on the last day of an exhausting six-day, three-state trip with a 2:30 p.m. talk looming ahead of me. This talk required a bunch more prep than usual, because it was on a topic I had never done before, so I prepped in bed until 1:30 and headed out. I realized that I hadn’t eaten anything yet that day, and I knew that I’d be a super-weird-acting person during the talk if I were on an empty stomach at 3 p.m., so I zipped into Starbucks for a coffee and the above items and pushed them into my face as I shuffled my way to the talk.

The next eating event took place in South Station in Boston while I waited to catch my train back to New York. I was starving because I had eaten almost nothing all day, and I had some time, so I sat down in a Mexican restaurant called Tavitas. I was craving hard tacos, and, of course, they didn’t have any, because Mexican restaurants hate happiness and never have hard tacos. Just when I was about to settle for soft tacos, I noticed an entrée called “Walking Tacos” with the following description:

West Coast-style served in a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, topped with spicy slaw, tres quesos, crema, and your choice from our house flavors and salsas.

Huh? I ordered it.

Then it came and turned out to actually be a meal inside a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. Given the menu description, I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was.

I got back to my apartment at 11 p.m., re-hungry, and I had been eating non-satisfying quick things all week, so it was time for an old-fashioned Dark Late-Night Unhealthy Seamless Order. I try to limit myself to one DLNUSO a week, and since I hadn’t even been home in the last week, it was a fair time for it.

I rarely go two weeks without Chinese food, but it had been even longer in this case, so that was a no-brainer. Unfortunately, at that time of night, the only available Chinese options on Seamless were super-dark — too dark, even, for a DLNUSO. So I went a notch less delicious and a notch less dark and ordered a straightforward vegetable udon-noodle soup from Ageha Sushi. Udon noodles are how I imagine cartoon noodles would taste.

There are two great champions of the DLNUSO, and one of them is pizza. Ordering a pizza any time after midnight and eating at least three slices is super-dark. No one is happy in that situation. And the other one is Chinese food. The main reason is: What kind of Chinese places are open at one in the morning to deliver? And it’s the most mysterious kind of food — no one knows what goes on in those kitchens. Who’s there cooking? It’s don’t ask, don’t tell, enjoy yourself.

Friday, June 10
Quick warning: I’m about to spend three days in my apartment. Reasons:

1) Being in my apartment is easy and fun.
2) I just returned from traveling for a week, and starting Monday I had a busy out-and-about week coming up.
3) My girlfriend’s traveling for work all month, so there’s no one to see me live my life up close and be sad about it.
4) Except it’s fucking Grub Street week, so actually there are a lot of people I’ll be making sad.

Also, a general note: My usual eating rule is, “Keep things reasonably healthy until dinner and then whatever happens happens.” Usually a week of dinners is a mix of pretty healthy cooked meals, moderately unhealthy Seamless orders or restaurant meals, and the occasional DLNUSO. This week, the girlfriend out of town eliminates the cooked-meals component, which isn’t ideal. It’s not that only she cooks — I do, too, sometimes — it’s that, what’s the point of me cooking just for me? Just a really inefficient thing to do. Ya know?

People developed their cooking habits before things like Seamless. When I have access to 150 cuisines, it’s a pretty hard proposition to turn down in favor of a) making sure I have groceries, which is another errand; b) getting into perfectionist mode and cooking well; and c) cleaning up the whole kitchen. You have to love cooking, or justify the health or financial benefits.

Anyway, back to the diary:

Friday started with breakfast not being a thing (other than a cup of Keurig Peet’s French roast) — something that proved to be a theme during this three-day hermit period.

For lunch, following my “try not to be a dick about food until dinner” rule, I ordered a spinach salad from Gigi Cafe and doused it with a few of my 17 hot sauces to dull the disappointment.

For dinner, I finally did a real DLNUSO and got that Chinese meal in: a hot-and-sour soup (the best food item in existence in my opinion), an order of General Tso’s chicken with white rice, and six steamed pork dumplings from Lili’s 57, one of those upsetting places that serves both Chinese and Japanese food. (I’ll order Chinese from one of those places if need be, since Chinese is already a gross situation, so who cares, but not Japanese and definitely not sushi.) I ordered the dumplings because I had a friend over to watch the NBA Finals game who claimed he wasn’t hungry, and I knew that when the food arrived he’d suddenly find the inspiration to share my meal (he ate four of the six dumplings and a third of the chicken). While waiting for the food, I had a bottle of my favorite beer, Stone IPA.

Saturday, June 11
Nonexistent breakfast, Keurig Peet’s, and a light delivered sushi lunch like a good boy. A spicy tuna roll, salmon avocado roll, and miso-soup lunch special from Ageha. Delivered sushi is the only meal I know of in the fully overlapping center of the “legitimately delicious / legitimately healthy / completely effortless / not expensive” Venn diagram, so it happens for lunch at least three days a week.

Dinner was a Seamless-delivered item called pappardelle al ragu di salsiccia from Ristorante Il Melograno. I had no idea what was gonna be in the bag when it arrived, because I don’t speak Italian, and Ristorante Il Melograno doesn’t seem to care, but it was delightful and gluttonous. I topped it with some drops of the extraordinarily delicious Tabasco Family Reserve sauce, which is different and better than normal Tabasco.

I’m not a huge candy person, but that night I tried a blood-orange-and-honey-flavored “Chewie Fruity” made by a company called Torie & Howard. It had arrived to me as part of my latest installment of the Love With Food food box, which sends me an assortment of high-end junk food once a month. Imagine a Starburst, but a super-fancy one, made from things like cane sugar and brown sugar and maple syrup. It was literally the best thing I have ever eaten. It hurt my soul, it was so good. I immediately had the other two (there were three in the box total) and spent the time eating the third one deeply sad that the game was over. I went straight to their site and ordered two bags of assorted flavors and am still excruciatingly waiting for them to arrive. And now I’m telling you about it. Welcome to Love With Food’s business model.

Sunday, June 12
An important thing happened Sunday at noon — the FreshDirect order I placed on Friday night arrived.

We order FreshDirect about once a month, and the week after it arrives is always incredible. For those few days, the fridge is converted from a nothing-machine into a cornucopia of fresh, un-depressing produce. Like an adult.

So Sunday lunch (breakfast was not a thing again) was a heavenly snack meal — Blue Chips, fresh salsa, a ripe avocado, baby carrots, hummus, black olives, grapes, lime seltzer. My fridge had burst into springtime.

For dinner, back to my old ways with a Seamless-enabled lamb shish kebab plate from Istanbul Kebab House. Good hot-sauce meal.

Monday, June 13
The dream is over. Time to leave the apartment.

On the bright side, I had breakfast for the first time since this diary began: an avocado, some mango slices, and a bottle of coconut water. God bless post-FreshDirect week.

Note: When I eat an avocado, I do it by cutting it in half, taking out the pit, and filling the two pit indents with a delicious thing like apple cider vinegar, Italian dressing, olive oil, and sriracha. Then I eat both halves with a spoon in about 20 seconds. It’s messy and hectic but very enjoyable. This started in L.A. in 2005, right after college. I don’t think I had any idea how anyone ever ate an avocado. My roommate’s mom cut it in half, and explained that you should put something in the middle. I tried it and thought, This is the most delightful thing I’ve ever had; I’m doing this all the time.

I eat healthily in phases. If everything else in my life is good — if I slept well, and I exercise, which I don’t normally do — I’m not going to go and eat horrible things. I’m all high self-esteem-y in those moments. And then I eat something good, and that makes me want to eat the next good thing. All it takes is two days to start looking down on everyone else, like, “Ugh, people are disgusting!” But then I’ll fall off the wagon: I’ll get four hours of sleep and think, Fuck it. But what I don’t do anymore is just eat crap all the time.

When I’m writing, if I’m treating myself to anything delicious, it means I’m not being productive. I only have one mode when I’m being productive: I’m miserable. It means I should be eating some joyless energy bar and just move on. I have Soylent in my fridge, and I drank it for a while for breakfast. And then a friend who knows a bunch about nutrition said, “This is complete trash — never drink this again.” But why shouldn’t we be able to create a drink filled with all your nutrients?

Anyways, I had Stumptown black coffee from a coffee shop that truly doesn’t give a shit, Boule & Cherie. Lunch was with Wait But Why’s one employee and three of our four summer interns. We were at Friedman’s, where I found myself staring at these two adjacent items. Keeping to my predinner-non-self-loathing rule, I ordered the horribly disappointing-tasting one. Upsetting. Worse, some other dick at the table ordered the good one.

Later that afternoon, I walked by a Baked by Melissa shop, which is not something I can do without eating six cupcakes. I bought two mint-cookie, two cookies-and-cream, and two red-velvet tiny cupcakes, and ate them all in 12 luscious seconds on the sidewalk. By far the best moment of this diary.

That night for dinner, I ate the second half of my joyless vegetable sandwich from lunch that day, but I brought the experience up from a 4/10 to an 8/10 by blanketing the whole thing with an assortment of hot sauces.

Tuesday, June 14
We grow a lot of broccoli in our garden, and I’ll often cut it up and sauté it with olive oil or coconut oil, Maldon sea salt, and a sprinkle of Parmesan.

Oh, wait, no, that was Kristen Bell.

I had some FreshDirect cherries out of the fridge.

Then Stumptown Coffee from dickbag Boule & Cherie, and off to the Harold to meet a friend for lunch. I ordered an outrageously priced $20 tuna niçoise salad, which was subpar. Grabbed a cucumber seltzer from Pret after lunch to remind myself that some things were good.

I had plans to meet a friend for dinner, but first I went to a book-launch party, where I had two glasses of wine and starvingly ate 12 spring rolls and 14 pieces of cheese from the succulent hors d’oeuvres table. Not a good look.

Having made that life decision, I arrived at dinner at a delightful hole in the wall called Galaza’s Place. Unfortunately, I was now super not hungry, so I just split an appetizer sampler plate and skipped an entrée. I also ordered a beer, which I then didn’t want, because I never want alcohol when I’m full.

I finished the night at Pig ‘N’ Whistle for a drink with a friend. Having learned my lesson from dinner, I ordered an iced tea, which depressed my friend.

So there you have it. I give myself a B-minus for the week, which is pretty standard.

Tim Urban’s Grub Street Diet