Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Fleeting Moments

I have a lingering cold that got worse and then got better and then got worse again. It's slowly crept up my body starting with the classic aches and chills then a sore neck and throat. Then I felt fine for a few days. And now it's back again. In my nose and in my head. Like I'm in a fog. Never bad enough to contain myself in bed all day, but annoying enough that it's, well, annoying. So instead of writing up some well thought-out post, I'm going to sit here with my glass of water and box of Kleenex and clear out some pictures on my camera from the last week or so.


Photo #1
Last week I started taking a series of pictures of our backyard.  The temperatures were warm and I thought it might be cool to show a time-lapse photo series of the melting snow.  I only got to through two photos before we got dumped on again.  Darnit.

But here's the pictures anyway.  I know the difference appears to be very little but I'm telling you, it was huge.  Look at those sidewalks.  Just lovely to finally see pavement even if only for a little while.

Photo #2

I thought about taking a photo on Monday morning after we were greeted with a punch in the kidneys (well over a foot of snow) but I just couldn't do it.  A little too depressing for this summer-lovin' mama.






So instead here's some more puddlin'-jumpin' and walk-around-the-block photos from the one day last week when it hit a whoppin' 52 degrees.  William asked if we could blow up the swimming pool in the backyard.  He was 100% serious. 
I love this one.  Just when I thought he was going to run into her and bump her to the ground, he enveloped her in a huge hug.  And she hugged him right back.

And if you really must see, here's what our street looked like in the midst of the blizzard on Sunday night.  Two steps forward, seventy-nine giant steps back.
Moving on to other news, we all got haircuts on Monday.  We get haircuts once every couple of months at my girlfriend's house.  This usually doesn't make news except on this particular occasion my little lady was to get her very first chop.  She's had a few wispy ends evened-up here and there but never a full-on cut.

I was a little nervous.  When he was the same age, William loathed getting his hair cut more than anything in the world.  At four years old, he's come around.  
He asked for a Mohawk and got something a little Sven-ish.
When it was her turn she crawled up on the stool all by herself.  Her normal antsy toddler body sat perfectly still as the cape was wrapped around her little neck.  She tilted her head to the floor just as she was asked and didn't flinch an inch.  I noticed how old she looked.  I noticed how she still carries half her weight in those massive cheeks of hers.  I noticed how long and perfect her hair had really grown.

Every once in a while just her eyeballs would move up, looking at me, "A hair cut, Mommy!"

My heart danced.  On so many other fleeting moments it doesn't even cross my mind, but in those few seconds I was so, so happy to have a little girl.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Adding Some Color

While I really enjoyed writing my 5-part series on meal-planning, I know things got a little dull around here.  Especially if your purpose for coming to Mama Nash is to see adorable pictures of the kiddos and hear about hilarious stories.  So it's time to lighten things up a little, don't ya think?

Here in the Midwest we are experiencing an amazing stretch of gorgeous February weather.  I've always said that the six weeks preceding Valentine's Day are my darkest days.  The holidays are done and suddenly that snow isn't so White Christmas-y beautiful anymore.  Especially considering it's usually April before the last pile has melted.  And as if Mother Nature and I were right in sync, the weather started warming up just before the fourteenth of February.

Of course 40 degrees is all relative.  My bloggy friend Becca who lives in Arizona warned me on Twitter to keep my gloves on.  Instead we peeled off our gloves, our hats and even our coats for a while.

On Sunday morning I went to the early mass so that we could hurry up and get outside.

We walked the 8 blocks to the coffee store and then made a pit stop at the park on the way home.  We haven't been to the park since October.  It was funny.  It looked as though the playground had sunk with a two to three foot packed snow base beneath it.  See Brian's outstretched legs while sitting on the bench?

We sat there on that bench together for a long time. We watched our kids play all by themselves, Lucy a whole four months older than the last time we'd been here. We watched them chase a funny golden retriever who had also stopped to play in the snow. I sipped my perfectly hot coffee. I closed my eyes and held my head up to the brilliant sunshine.

"This makes me happy, you know," I told Brian.

"I know," He said.

Today is our fourth (or fifth?) day in the 40s and tomorrow it might even reach 50.  We've been outside every day.  Even if it's just a walk around the block.  I'll take what I can get.  The kids are so soaked by the time we get inside that I have to strip them naked at the back door.  But I've let it go.

Puddles are like a magnet to Lucy.  The bigger the better.  Also the bigger splash the bigger laugh.  Yesterday she found herself in the middle of a puddle that came up to her knees.  I gasped when I saw her, about to yell.  But then I just let it be.  It was too late for yelling anyway.  So I laughed instead.  Then she dove in head first when she tripped on her way out.  I sent William in to save her since he had on the big waterproof boots and I only had on a pair of sneakers.  She didn't think the puddle was so funny anymore.  So we went inside to dry off and put everything in the washing machine.

Later that same day, after dinner, William was pondering the idea of love.  No doubt love was on his mind after a sugar-induced high from all his Valentine's Day candy.

"Daddy loves you, you know," he told me.

"Really?" I asked, curious how he would respond, "How do you know?"

"Because he sleeps with you.  When you sleep with someone in the same bed that means you love them."

I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Meal-Planning: Final Thoughts and Recipes to Share

One of the biggest risks I ran by writing this series was coming off as an all-knowing, got-it-all-figured-out expert.  It's completely untrue.  I go through peaks and valleys with my meal-planning abilities.  At the beginning on January I went through a big valley.  I think I was burned out from all my holiday cooking and baking.  My holiday meals and sweets are typically very involved.  They take a lot of time and a lot of money.  I don't ever regret any of it but it's hard to go back to a normal routine after all that rich-ness.

But shortly thereafter I got inspired by some awesome new recipe suggestions.  Once again I started cooking every single day.  Things were running like a well-oiled machine.  Brian came home from work one evening as I was working on my fourth new recipe.  The house smelled amazing.  "Wow," he exclaimed, "You're really knocking things out of the park lately."

It felt good that he said that to me.  That he recognized something I was doing well.  And it felt good that he said it before I even thought to ask for some recognition.

And that's when the lightbulb went off.  I knew I held some secrets to success.  Some secrets that come so naturally to me that might be a struggle for others.  So that's why I wanted to share.  Of course, knowing the secrets and actually using them are two totally different things.  Even if you know how to change, it doesn't always mean you will change.

Just to prove I am not supermom, here are some suggested topics I could use help with from you: how to make exercise less sporadic, how to read faster, how to be awake before 8 a.m. and how to be ready for the day before 10 a.m., how to turn off the television, how to pray more, how to come up with fun activities for the kids that won't bore me, how to be more hospitable, how to be more patient, how to keep a garden, how to take better pictures...

I also want to add in some regrets about my series.  I feel bad that there aren't a ton of tips for working-outside-the-home parents.  I wish I had better insight into this but I don't.  When both Brian and I were working we ate like crap.  Mashed potatoes from a box, Spaghetti-Os and lots of the Big Blue Box.  And we'd eat it all in the living room mostly with the TV turned on.  It wasn't pretty.  I only started to figure things out after my son began eating solids and I wanted to be more healthy for his sake.  But it turns out this change has benefited all of us in so many unexpected ways.

And now for some recipes!  These are some of our favorite meals that have been adapted by me from some original recipe that I've long forgotten where it's come from.

Pasta with Italian Sausage and Mushrooms

1 lb of your favorite pasta (We usually pick either rotini or penne, whole wheat or Barilla Plus version)
1 Tbsp Olive Oil
1 container of fresh mushrooms
1 lb. Italian sweet sausage
1 jar of your favorite marinara sauce
8 oz. package of fresh mozzarella, cubed
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
(Note: I usually add a veggie of my choice to this dish as well.  Think diced carrots or celery or chopped zucchini.  The veggie can be added in step #3.)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cook pasta according to box instructions.
3. Saute mushrooms and sausage in olive oil until the sausage is cooked through.
4. Add marinara sauce to mushroom and sausage mixture and heat through.
5. Combine cooked pasta, mushroom and sausage mixture and cubed mozzarella in a 9x13 baking dish.
6. Sprinkle the top with grated Parmesan cheese.
7. Bake for 20-30 minutes or until Parmesan cheese is melted and sauce is bubbling.

Beef Stir Fry1 cup uncooked rice
1/2 tsp ground ginger
2 green bell peppers, sliced into strips
2 stalks of celery, chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
1 lb (give or take) stew meat (This is the beef that is sold already cut into cubes.  If the cubes are big, I will cut them in half.)
2/3 cup cold water
2 tbsp soy sauce
4 tsp cornstarch
1 tsp sugar
2 tomatoes, cut in wedges

1.  Cook rice according to package instructions.  Add in ground ginger.
2.  Saute green peppers, celery and olive oil until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes.  Remove and set aside.
3.  Add meat to saute pan and brown.  (Remember that because it's not ground beef you don't have to cook it all the way through.  You can choose medium-rare, medium or well-done.)
4.  Whisk together water, soy sauce, cornstarch and sugar in a small mixing bowl. (I use my glass measuring cup.)
5.  Add water mixture to meat.  Cook and stir until mixture thickens and bubbles.
6.  Add celery, green peppers and tomatoes to heat through.
7.  Serve over rice.

Pan-Fried Tofu(I had never cooked with tofu before but my family now LOVES this recipe.  It's cheap, easy and is a great meat substitute.)

1 cup uncooked rice
1 pkg of extra-firm tofu
1/4 cup flour
1 cup bread crumbs (You can make your own bread crumbs in the food processor but the end result won't be quite as crispy.)
2 eggs, beaten
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp soy sauce
1/4 cup chicken stock
Crab meat or frozen cooked shrimp (optional)

1.  Cook rice according to package instructions.
2.  Cut tofu into bite-sized cubes
3.  Combine flour and bread crumbs in one bowl and eggs in a separate bowl.
4.  Coat tofu in egg then dredge in flour and bread crumbs.
5.  Add olive oil to frying pan.  Fry tofu in pan over medium heat.  (Tofu doesn't need to be cooked so your cooking time will depend on how crispy you want the outside of the tofu to be.)
6.  Combine soy sauce and chicken stock and microwave for a few seconds until warm.
7.  Serve fried tofu over rice and crab or shrimp, if desired.  Use soy and stock mixture as a dipping sauce.
(Note: I usually serve this with edamame to get a veggie in there.)

Other awesome recipes:Sausage and Kale Soup
Cashew Chicken Stir Fry
Four Cheese Spinach Manicotti
Vegetarian Fried Rice

Your turn!  Please add your favorite tried and true recipes in the comments below.
Previous Meal-Planning PostsBreakfast and Lunch Staples
Have a Plan, Make a List
Getting to the Grocery Store [with kids]
Cooking It, Eating it, and Cleaning it all up

Monday, February 14, 2011

Meal-Planning: Cooking It, Eating It and Cleaning It All Up

And now from my least favorite step (shopping) to my most favorite step, cooking!  For me, my love of cooking is all about the process.  In all honesty, I really don't care too much about the end product.  I love chopping, sauteing, and assembling.  I feel at peace when I'm in the kitchen, putting together some love for my loves.  Here are my top five tips to make the dinner routine work for you:

1.  Set aside enough time.  I think this is probably this biggest reason most people end up ordering in or going out to a restaurant.  You look at the clock.  It says 5:30.  You look at your recipe.  It says 45 minutes.  Your kids are hitting a wall and you know there's no way you're going to be able to hold them off that long.

Instead, try to look at your options for meal plans at the beginning of the week and give yourself a rough schedule.  Pick your quickest and easiest recipes for your most hectic days.  Pick your most involved recipes for your least-hectic days. The flow of a day can turn on a dime so don't feel guilty about having to put in a pinch-hitter meal when need be.

Remember not to underestimate the time it takes to put together a meal.  The cook time on the recipe might say 30 minutes but that doesn't include the time it takes wash, chop, stir, preheat, etc.  Many times, if I have a recipe that contains a lot of "pre-cooking" steps, I will complete these during naptime so I'm ready to rock and roll come 5 o'clock.  As a start, begin making your meal at 4:45 for dinner to be served between 5:30 and 6:00.

2.  Cooking is your sacred time and the kitchen is your sacred space. 
My kids know, albeit with many reminders, that they are not allowed in the kitchen while I'm making dinner.  (Sidenote: We do not have an open floor plan so this line is easier for me to draw.)  While there is definitely a time and a place to cook with your children, it isn't a good idea to do this every night.  You'll be more stressed out and frustrated with little cooks on your heels every step of the way.

On good days, my kids will play by themselves in their toy room or up in their bedrooms.  Sometimes I turn on the stereo and let them burn out all their energy in the form of dance.  On more challenging days I turn to the television.  I have no guilt about this because it's a very small means to very large and very good end.  When my babies were newborns, I would put their bouncy seats on top of the counter while I cooked.  They liked that they could see me as I was moving about and rarely complained.  For babies at that in-between age, put them in their highchair and move the chair close to your workspace.  Throw a few Cheerios on their tray and they should be good to go.

Allow yourself this time.  Pour yourself a glass of wine and know that you are doing something very, very good for your family.

3.  Dinnertime is family time.  For us, it's time for dinner as soon as Daddy steps foot inside the door.  Sometimes this is 5:30, sometimes this is 6:15.  Rarely do we ever eat dinner without him.  (Sidenote: If you or your spouse are consistently unable to be home in time for dinner, try picking another meal for your family meal. Maybe breakfast works better with your schedule.  Or maybe weekends work better than weekdays.)

No matter your children's ages, try very purposefully to all sit down at the table together at one time.  There are many studies correlating family meal time to loads of positive results.  Before anyone is allowed to touch their food we all pray together. Sometimes this is the only time the four of us will pray together all day.  Then we dig in and fill in each other on our day's activities.

If your kids get antsy during the meal and want to get up, try to focus less on the eating part of dinner and more about the together-ness aspect.  (i.e. "William, can you tell me what your favorite part of the day was?" or "Lucy, do you know how to sing the ABCs?")  Within reason, we never let our kids be excused from the table until everyone is finished eating.  We also don't hand out treats until every one is finished eating their main dish otherwise jealousy will erupt.

We do incentivize eating dinner with a small treat but I'm not happy with this.  So far we haven't figured out a better plan.  We don't advocate for a clean plate but we do say things like, "You have to try three bites."

4.  It's OK if you don't like it.
  If you, your spouse or your kids don't like what was cooked for dinner, this is OK.  You cooked something new and you tried something new.  That's the biggest hurdle of them all.  In the end, declare this recipe banished from your box or limit when you might make it next.

If William eats his food and declares he doesn't like it, I smile and happily say, "That's OK."  (I may, however, remind him how to make his point in a polite way.)  And then I'll continue on with our conversation.  He is a person like anyone else with likes and dislikes and this should be respected.  Again, focus less on the eating part and more about the experience of it all.

On the flip side, if every one seems to gobbling the meal down at record pace, it looks like you may have found a new recipe to put in your regular rotation!

5.  Cleaning up is fun to do.  I think it was my sister who declared that she would cook more if only she didn't have do the dishes in the end.  Even as an admitted clean freak, I can totally understand this.  Who wants to be hunched over the sink scrubbing off bits of baked-on food off a casserole dish at the end of a long day?

Here's what we do:  When the meal has come to an end, we immediately shuffle both kids upstairs and into the bath.  Sometimes one of us will bathe the kids while the other cleans up the kitchen or, and this is a better option in my opinion, we'll both help bathe the kids, get them in bed and then clean up the kitchen together.  I've found that Brian and I have our best conversations while we're cleaning up the post-dinner mess together.  Two birds at once: kitchen clean and marriage renewed.

In the summer we try to take full advantage of every last drop of daylight.  On those hot summer nights we will eat dinner and leave the mess to go outside for about an hour.  We'll then resume our normal evening routine when we get back inside.

If you have a dishwasher, make it do all the work.  If my dishwasher is full and I still have dirty dishes, I will let them rest in the sink until the dishwasher is available again.  But you might be more of a dish-washer aficionado than I am.

Whatever you do, go to any lengths possible to not go to bed without having cleaned up the mess.  There's nothing worse than waking up to a chaotic kitchen.  The mess will defeat you and make you less likely to be excited about cooking another meal again that night.

What other tips would add about cooking, eating and cleaning?

Up next I'll have some final thoughts on meal-planning plus I'll share some of my favorite recipes.  Also, be prepared to share some of your own favorite tried and true meals!

Previous Meal-Planning Posts

Friday, February 11, 2011

Meal-Planning: Getting to the Grocery Store [with kids]

Just a quick reminder to check out all the comments listed under each Meal-Planning post.  From the beginning I've said I'm not an expert on all this and the comments prove this.  There are some really great tips in there that I never crossed my mind.  Plus I think it's so fun to take a glimpse into other family's routines.

So, on to shopping.  Admittedly, this is my least favorite part of meal-planning.  I would so love to make my list, check some boxes online and have all my items delivered to me that afternoon.  And there's actually companies that do that.  But it's not in our budget.  So at least once a week I pack up all the kids, load them in the car, play referee as we navigate the aisles, shush crying as I'm frantically bagging my items so the next customer can get through, loading everything into the car and then unloading the kids and all the items into the house and putting everything away in the cupboards, frig and freezer.  It's exhausting!

Some people actually like to grocery shop.  I used to be that person before I had kids and before my first baby turned into a toddler.  If you have kids and you still like to grocery shop, share your secrets in the comments.  Here are my top tips for a successful grocery shopping trip:

1.  Pick the right day and time.  There's nothing worse than trying to control the kids in an already chaotic situation.  So it's best to shop when the crowds are light.  In my experience this is always on a Monday or Tuesday morning.  After 11:30, things get dicey.  Thursday and Friday afternoons are usually the worst.

If you work during the day, I recommend shopping after 8:00 p.m. Monday through Wednesday.  When Lucy was a newborn I used to shop alone after both kids went to bed.  What a treat!

Every once in a while we will go shopping as a family on a Saturday.  The crowds are extremely heavy on the weekends but when Daddy's along everything goes much more smoothly.

2.  Corral the kids.  Lucy totally fights me when I try to put her in the shopping cart seat now.  But I force her in it anyway.  Two minutes later she's totally forgotten that we ever had a disagreement.  While I don't often like to force my kids to do things they don't want to do, keeping a toddler contained in a big store means a quicker trip.

Every once in a while I find a diamond in the rough: A two-seater cart!  William, ironically, loves to ride in the cart.  But if no two-seater is available I put him hard at work finding me items on my list.  He's usually extremely happy to help.  "OK, what's next, Mommy?!"

3. If there were ever a time for snacks...  I completely break our "no snacks" routine while grocery shopping.  Our store offers a free chocolate chip cookie to every child and my kids gladly accept.  Sample stations are also great!  But if none of that is available, simply throw a baggie of Cheerios in your purse before you leave the house.

I try to refrain from any treats or snacks until after the produce section.  The produce section takes me the most time and is the most tedious so if I can keep the carrot dangling that much longer I'm guaranteed a longer stretch of good behavior.

4.  Check your list.  Every time you leave a department (produce, non-perishables, frozen or dairy) check your list.  Did you get everything you need in that section?

Also check your list before you go down each aisle.  If you don't need anything in that aisle bypass it.  It will save you time and prevent any possible impulse buys.

5. Don't let coupons rule your life.  Don't forget about the list.  It's your Bible, remember?  Just because you have a coupon for something does not make it a good deal.  A good deal is having a coupon for something that's already on your list.

And this brings me back to my point about box cereal being expensive.  It is expensive.  But I've found ways around it.  Every few weeks my grocery store offers a deal where if I buy six boxes of General Mills cereal I will get $10 off my shopping trip + a free gallon of milk + a free carton of eggs.  It's a slammin' good deal and I stock up whenever I see this advertised in the weekly flyer.  But if your store doesn't offer this, don't worry.  Cereal is probably at the top of the list when it comes to "most printed coupons."

The problem with extreme couponing is that it becomes more about the shopping experience than it does about your end goal: providing healthy meals for your family.  Getting $1 off a $3 item that isn't healthy is a wasted $2, in my opinion.  A while back Laura totally hit the nail on the head about why I haven't gotten into the couponing craze.

Save coupons for staples, items that are already on your list or items that inspire a healthy meal idea.  But, and this is huge, keep in mind that most of the time generic items are still cheaper than the brand name even with a coupon.  Bringing me to my next point...

6.  Don't be afraid of store/generic brands.  Most of the time store and generic brands taste exactly the same and are just as healthy as their brand name counterparts.  There will always be some exceptions and each family's exceptions will be different from the next but even just a few generic substitutions will equate to big savings.

I buy generic for things like rice, beans, eggs, oatmeal, baking supplies, butter, milk, etc.  Our family's exceptions include: bread, cereal, ketchup and peanut butter, to name a few.  These are personal decisions.  Not rules every one should live by.  I'm interested to hear yours!

7.  Time to check-out!  This is my least-favorite step of my least-favorite activity.  Go figure.  If there is a bagger in sight, choose that aisle no matter the wait.  I can always find ways to play with and distract my kids while we wait but taking the time to bag all my groceries makes me a nervous mess.  I try to get everything bagged just so and I take way too long and the next person is trying to push me out of the way.  I hate it.

If there are no baggers available then I choose the line with the lowest sum of items, not customers.  That way I know I'll be able to start bagging all my groceries right away since the person before me only had a few items.

8.  Shop at the grocery store one or two times a week at the most.  If you only buy a few ingredients at a time and have to keep going back for meal recipes, you're going to dramatically increase your chances for impulse buys.  If you think of something you need mid-week, put it on your list for the following week and challenge yourself to get by without until then.

There are exceptions to this rule, in my opinion.  If you are out of something vital, like fruit for example, it's OK to run in and grab a bag of oranges or a bunch of bananas.  Likewise, if you're missing a key ingredient or two to a meal recipe, it's OK to make a short trip.

I typically shop at the big supermarket on Monday mornings.  But on Tuesdays I swing into Trader Joe's for a 15-minute trip.  Trader Joe's is on the way home from our Early Childhood class and, as I've mentioned, I'm totally in love with their produce prices and selection.  Plus Trader's is waaaaaaay more kid friendly than any other grocery store so I never get stressed out there.

9.  If you're a beginner, try not to focus on the end cost (at first).  Fun fact: Even though our family has doubled, I spend way less on groceries now than I did before we had kids.  There's no magic answer to this except that as I keep going, I keep learning new ways to cut corners to make my dollar stretch.

But if you're used to eating out or eating prepared foods most days of the week, my recommendation to you is to not worry about the end cost.  At least not yet.  Eating homemade food for six out of the seven days of the week is going to be such a radical change for you that you need to focus on the how-to part first.  The money part will come naturally over time.

As a family of four we usually spend $100 or less on groceries in a week.  And I'd say we do it pretty easily.  Some may think that's a lot.  Some may think that's ridiculously low.  It's all relative.

If you're ready to start cost-cutting, save your receipts and circle the most expensive items to see if they are something you are willing to do without or something you're willing to limit.  Meat, for example, is something we limit around here.  Instead I've learned to find dishes the incorporate brown rice or beans.  I've also completely converted my family from regular pasta to whole wheat pasta so that we're still getting plenty of protein.  (Whole wheat pasta also kicks in tons of other nutritional benefits.  Compare labels some day.)

What other tips would you add to make grocery shopping a success?

Up next: cooking it, eating it and cleaning it all up.

Previous Meal-Planning Posts
Breakfast and Lunch Staples
Have a Plan, Make a List

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Meal-Planning: Have a Plan, Make a List

I typically plan my week's dinner menus on Sunday night or on Monday.  You'll usually find me on the living room sofa, laptop on one side, pen and paper on the other.  I ask Brian what he wants for dinner.  He'll usually tell me what he's been craving lately and then I'll search for the perfect recipe.  Sometimes he'll request a frequent favorite and then I'll jot down the list of ingredients from memory.

I always plan at least four menus for our week.  On the fifth day we eat leftovers.  On the sixth day we may eat out or order in or have other plans.  On the seventh day I leave room for making whatever our hearts' desire.  It might be buttered noodles.  It might be breakfast for dinner.  Or it might be an intricate recipe that I saw on the Food Network that morning and sent Brian out for the ingredients.  It's a routine that works for us.  (I should note that Days 1-4 don't always correlate to Mon-Thurs.  Sometimes we have leftovers on a Wednesday.  Sometimes we have dinner out on a Friday.  It all depends on the week.)

I realize that every family is different and every cook is at a different level.  So here are my top tips for being a successful meal-planner:

1.  Get inspired.  If you don't already love to cook, learn how to love to cook.  Watch the Food Network, or Rachael Ray or a cooking segment on the Today Show.  You can even search for cooking shows on YouTube.  Watching others do it will inspire you to try it at home.  I recommend Giada at Home or The Barefoot Contessa on the Food Network.  As a bonus, all of the recipes used on television are usually found on that show's website so there's never a need to frantically write everything down while you watch.

2.  Follow your cravings.  If you're craving Chinese food, for example, try searching for a Chicken Cashew dish online.  Maybe you've got a hankering for Chipotle?  Try searching for a burrito recipe.  Here are my top three favorite recipe websites:
    1. http://www.foodnetwork.com/
    3. http://www.tastykitchen.com/

(Note: Sometimes if I'm stuck on what to make, I'll take the first dish featured on the homepage and give it a try.)

3.  Plan for at least two tried and true meals.  If you try a brand new recipe every single day of the week, you're going to get burned out really fast.  Instead, aim to try at least one or two new recipes a week.  Here are some of our family's favorite recipes that we eat at least once a month:

Chicken Enchiladas
Homemade pizza (sometimes a homemade crust, sometimes a Boboli crust)
Creamy Orzo
Guacamole Salad
Spaghetti with Edamame
Mushrooms sauteed in beef broth and flour served with noodles and peas
Stuffed Pepper Soup
Shrimp & Bean Couscous
Kiddie Cobb Salad
Tacos
Beef Stir Fry

4.  When in doubt, break out the slowcooker.  If you don't already own a slowcooker, buy one.  Now.  It will be your best investment in cooking.  If you really cannot come up with a recipe idea, buy a whole chicken and throw it in your slowcooker in the morning with a cup of stock or water and some raw veggies.  Set it on low and it will be ready by dinnertime.  Want something heartier?  Buy a pork or beef roast and a McCormick seasoning packet.  Feel like some soup?  Search online for Slowcooker Soups and you'll get hundreds of options.

5.  Find the healthy happy medium.  I am a big believer that you can eat whatever you want without many physical consequences as long as you make it yourself from scratch.  (Even baked goods!)  So if your recipe includes butter or heavy cream, don't fret!  It's probably still loads healthier than any take-out or fast food option.

On the flip side, however, just because you bought it at a grocery store and not through a drive-thru does not make it healthy.  Avoid box dinners and frozen entrees like the plague.  Even the big blue box has been banned in our house.  Cheese was never meant to be powdered, people.

Instead, if there's a box dinner you totally heart, try searching for a recipe online.  There are tons of recipe options for tuna noodle casserole or macaroni and cheese.  These homemade alternatives are usually cheaper, healthier and tastier!  (And just as quick as their packaged counterparts.)

6.  Save money by using what you already have on hand.  If I already have a full package of flour tortillas, you can bet enchiladas will be on the menu that week.  If I have a lot of rice on hand, I might make stir fry that week.  If I found a jar of pizza sauce, pizza it is!  Check your shelves and freezer.  Even if you have just one item from a recipe on hand, it will make a huge difference in your weekly grocery budget.

7.  Don't let ingredients scare you.  When I first started cooking I would follow recipes exactly.  More often than not I would get to an ingredient that was either unknown or unfamiliar to me and then I would completely throw out that recipe convincing myself I couldn't make it.  Does that ever happen to you?

Enter the 21st Century, my friends.  This weekend I made chicken drumsticks and the recipe contained arrowroot.  I had no idea what arrowroot was.  So I Googled it.  If you're unsure of an ingredient ask Google what it is.  Ask Google in what aisle it's usually found.  Ask Google for possible substitutions.  Google is your friend.

Other questions I've asked Google in the past: How to cut a pineappleHow to peel a pomegranateThe best way to dice an avocadoA perfect hard boiled egg.  It's fun!  Try it.

8.  Don't dictate which day gets which menu.  Life is unpredictable.  Life with kids is even more unpredictable.  You'll set yourself up for more success if you don't assign menus to each day.  Instead, know that you have ingredients on hand to make X number of meals.  Wake up in the morning and see how the day goes.  If it's totally crazy you might opt for your easiest recipe.  If the kids seem happy, now might be a good time to tackle that recipe you've never tried before.  Go with the flow.

On a related note, don't freeze meat that you intend to use within the week.  You'll get frustrated if you forgot to thaw it out the night before and meat doesn't go bad that quickly.  If the end of the week nears and you still haven't used the meat, then opt for the freezer.

9.  This list is your Bible.  When making your list, make sure you write down every single item you need for a recipe.  Leave out items you already have on hand so that you don't confuse yourself come shopping day.  For some items it helps if you list how much or how many you need so that you don't overspend.  If the recipe calls for two cups of cheddar and you buy four cups, there's a good chance the extra cheese will go bad before you need it next and that extra money will have gone to waste.  Buying in bulk isn't always better.

Also, resist the urge to add extra items to the list that are not a part of your staples or included in your menus.  Unless you have a planned event, try not to include chips, crackers or cookies.  (Note: Baking ingredients for homemade sweets are OK as long as they aren't from a box!)  These extras will really hike up your grocery bill and they will only distract from the meal-planning goal.  If this is tough for you or your family, try to keep these items off-limits during the week and allow yourself to have them during the weekend.  Brian and I definitely splurge on chips and dip on the weekends, especially during college football season.

10.  Organize your list.  When I was grocery shopping with a newborn, I knew my time was limited to the next feeding.  So in order to make things easier on myself once I got to the store, I would write out my grocery list twice.  First I would write out everything I needed.  Then I would write the same list out a second time with everything listed out in four categories: Produce, Non-Perishables, Dairy, and Frozen.  It's no exaggeration to say that this simple trick cut my shopping time in half.

I admit I don't really do this anymore mostly because grocery shopping is an excuse to get out of the house when it's too cold to play outside!

What have I missed?  What are your top tips for menu-planning and list-making?
Next up, how to make your grocery shopping trip a success!

Previous Meal-Planning Posts
Breakfast and Lunch Staples

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Meal-Planning: Breakfast and Lunch Staples

This week I'll be doing a series of posts about meal-planning.  I admit that I'm not an expert in this area but, without much humility, I will admit that this is a definite strong point in my job as the stay-at-home parent.  My goals for this week are to provide you with tips that are:

1.  Quick
2.  Inexpensive
3.  Healthy

First I have to define meal-planning.  Meal-planning, for me, is really only about one meal: dinner.  My kids get the same options every day for breakfast and lunch.  I recommend this because (1) it makes list-making easier and (2) now you only have to plan for one meal a day.

For breakfast William gets either homemade oatmeal or cold cereal.  We never buy the instant oatmeal anymore.  It's expensive and the real stuff is just as quick to make and it's healthier.  Buy the old-fashioned oats (if you buy the quick-cooking kind you'll lose some healthy points) add 1 cup of milk to 1/2 cup oats and microwave for a few minutes.  We add a bit of brown sugar and a few frozen (NOT thawed!) berries to help cool it down faster.

Cold cereal is a real hit in our house and while it's expensive (I'll explain more later how I cut down on costs) it still is a staple.  We rarely buy sugary cereals and my kids don't seem to mind.  If you have a hard time converting your kids from Honey Nut Cheerios to regular Cheerios, for example, try slicing up a banana into the bowl and chances are they won't notice the difference.  This, in fact, is what Lucy gets for breakfast every day.  She's still too young to feed herself cereal and milk from a bowl so instead I just separate it all out: sliced banana on one side, a handful of Cheerios on the other, and a sippy cup of milk.

Next is lunch.  My kids LOVE lunch.  For both of them it's their biggest consumption of food for the day.  Every day they get a peanut butter and honey sandwich, fruit and yogurt.  For bread I only buy Arnold 100% Whole Wheat.  It uses whole wheat flour, contains no high fructose corn syrup and I can usually buy an entire loaf for under $2.  If you were to come to my house on any given day you would find four loaves of this bread in my freezer.

A weakness that I'm fully willing to admit is that I have not been able to convert our family from "regular" peanut butter to the more natural and less sugary kind.  For us, we buy the big 4-pound family size of Jif's creamy peanut butter about once every two months.  If you're able to convert to a healthier version, more power to you but for me, this is one compromise I'm willing to make.

Fruit for lunch is anything fresh that's in season and is never in a can or in pre-packaged cups.  I tend to buy whatever is on sale which is usually what's also in season.  Hands down, Trader Joe's has the very best deals on fresh fruit.  Sometimes I shop there only for the fruit.  Options: Oranges, blueberries, pineapple, apples, strawberries, raspberries, pears, nectarines, etc.  If your kids are picky about fruit then buy only what they like no matter the price.  It's well worth it.  (But don't forget to also keep offering fruits they don't like.  They might just change their mind one day!)

Yogurt is a beloved lunch companion in our home.  Yogurt is a healthy option but the problem with yogurt is that it can go terribly, dreadfully wrong.  In my opinion, people focus too much on if it's organic instead of how much sugar it contains.  Some yogurts contain more sugar than a chocolate bar!  This extremely popular brand is one of the worst sugar offenders.

There are approximately 4.2 grams in 1 teaspoon (not TABLEspoon) of sugar so if you see that a product has 24 grams of sugar, for example, that means it has nearly 6 teaspoons of sugar (24 divided by 4.2).  Try adding that much sugar into your coffee or tea one morning and you'll start to understand just how much sugar that really is.  When shopping for yogurt I try to find cups that have 12 grams or less of sugar.  And if you're really looking for brownie points try buying plain yogurt and adding your own fruit.  I know that it's much, much cheaper to buy yogurt in the big tubs but this is another compromise I'm willing to make because it's just easier to hand out individual cups rather than scooping it into bowls.  Your decision.

One thing you may notice missing from my ramblings is snacks.  I don't do mid-morning or afternoon snacks around here.  I think snacks are debatable and can definitely be done in a healthy way.  It just doesn't work for our family.

Pre-packaged snacks are expensive and they rarely provide any health benefits.  An ideal healthy snack is one of fruits or veggies and most of the time those things require prep time (washing, cutting...).  I, like anyone else, get burned out on the constant revolving routine of preparing, eating, and cleaning up so if I can cut out snacktime, I cut out more work for myself.  I've also found that my kids are more apt to eat all of the healthy options at lunch and dinner if they are hungry enough once that meal time arrives.  (Note: Diets high in fiber will help keep little ones feeling full in between meals.  Think oatmeal or whole wheat bread.)

As for beverages my kids don't drink any juice or soda.  They get whole milk at breakfast and dinner.  They get water at lunch and at any other time during the day that they desire.  We keep the cups accessible to them and water is self-serve.  Believe it or not, water is a huge hit around here.

So, if you're keeping track, my list of grocery store staples includes:

Milk
Cereal

Old-fashioned Oats*

Frozen Berries*

Bananas

Whole Wheat Bread

Peanut Butter*

Honey*

Fruit

Yogurt

Starred items usually last longer and thus don't need to be purchased on every single shopping trip.

If you stick to a few basics for breakfast and lunch it leaves much more space in your budget to focus on variety and creativity in your dinner options.

Next up, making a dinner menu plan and writing a list!

Tell me:  What are you household staples for breakfast and lunch?  And also, do you feed your children snacks?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Superbowl Spread

I was thinking about devoting an entire week to meal-planning. Is that something you think you might enjoy? I know I promised a meal-planning post last week and I just never got around to it so I'm thinking maybe an entire week might do us all some good. It's something I've totally been nailing lately and I want to get out all my good pointers before I lose my mojo.

In the spirit of meal-planning I'd like to share what we had cookin' yesterday for Superbowl Sunday. It was a special Superbowl because Brian's family is all a bunch of Packer fans. I, myself, bleed purple (Vikings!) but since the 2010 season didn't treat them so hot I converted to green and yellow for just one day.

First, breakfast. Or brunch, rather, since the kids had already had a banana and some cereal.

Does your man cook? Mine does. And he's really good at it. But he's also really, really, painfully slow. It's OK that I just wrote that. We both acknowledge this weakness and laugh about it. He almost never cooks dinner because the kids are too starvin' marvin to wait that long so for him brunch is the perfect meal to take his sweet time.

Here he is whipping up some cornmeal and blueberry pancakes. Yum! See?

We follow the recipe except replacing blue cornmeal with the regular yellow and replacing the pine nuts with blueberries.  I like it better than regular pancakes because they're a bit stiffer and thus don't make a huge crumbly mess when the kiddos dig in.  They're also a bit sweeter than your average pancake so we ate ours without any syrup.
Next up I started preparing for our Superbowl feast.  I grabbed my slowcooker and got started on a Spinach and Artichoke Casserole.  This recipe comes out of this book which I totally recommend if you're BFFs with your slowcooker as am I.
You'll need some fresh sliced mushrooms, a tablespoon of butter, two garlic cloves and the juice from one lemon.  You saute that all up until the mushrooms are nice and tender.

Then you throw it in the slowcooker and add two packages of frozen chopped spinach, 8 ounces of sour cream, a can of cream of mushroom soup, a teaspoon of worcestershire sauce, two tablespoons of flour, one can of artichoke hearts (drained) and one cup of shredded Monterrey jack cheese.

You stir it all up nice and pretty and then you smooth out the top like you would any other casserole. Then top it with an additional cup of shredded Monterrey jack cheese.  Then you put on the lid and set it on low for four hours.

(P.S. I've been trying to steer clear of cream-of-whatever soups in a can because of the added chemicals but I didn't have time to Google a substitute for the cream of mushroom.  I suppose you could add an additional package of fresh mushrooms and then a cup of heavy cream?  What do you think?)
Here's the finished, cheesy, gooey, delicious-ness.  I never said Superbowl Sunday was low in calories.

Brian and I both loved this but agreed that it was very rich.  It serves well as a side dish in a small portion.
Next up was Chicken Adobo courtesy of Giada.  I followed this recipe exactly except I left out the red pepper flakes for the kids and used cornstarch instead of arrowroot.  I also took the cilantro option instead of parsley because I will walk over fire and hot coals for cilantro.  Some people cannot stand cilantro.  I do not understand some people.
Here's a rare picture of me cooking in the kitchen.  Rare because there's usually not another adult around to snap a picture of me.  Check out the one-sock wonder on my hip.
I'll leave all the instructions for Chicken Adobo to Giada but here's a picture of the final product.  This was a definite keeper.  I loved that I didn't have to bake, fry, broil or roast the chicken.  It just sat and in the marinade and simmered away until it was falling-off-the-bone amazing.  I think Lucy ate three of these bad boys.  No joke.

And because we needed something to munch on while those first two dishes were cooking away, I threw together these little gems.
I diced up a smoked ham steak and some dill pickles. Then I mixed those together with some softened cream cheese, about a third of a block. Next, I spooned some of the mixture onto a flour tortilla, rolled it up and sliced it like a jellyroll.

They were very tasty (except Brian requested more spice next time) but they were difficult to keep together. I'll have to do some experimenting next time to figure out how I can bind them together better. Suggestions?
And finally, what's a Superbowl post without a shot in front of the TV?  Here's my little pajama dancers breaking it down during the halftime show.

I want to know, what was on your Superbowl menu?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Why I'm Here [even if it is only 8 degrees today]

I happened upon this video today.  It made me cry.

Life has brought me in contact with people who live all over the U.S.  In college.  At work.  While blogging.  And when winter hits, the real dead of winter, I always get the same question from those who live elsewhere, "Why do you still live there?"

Sometimes I'm not really sure.  Sometimes I think they've got a point.  Are we, Minnesotans, all that crazy?

When the mercury struggles to get above freezing, when the snowbanks are taller than my house, when I'm forced to dress in three layers, when a heatwave means it might be 30 degrees, the rest of the country thinks we've lost our marbles.

Maybe we have.

But...the best thing about living in Minnesota is that we're all in this together.  It's the people.  It's always been the people.  It always will be the people.

We rank "Best" in many different categories.  Why?  It all boils down to the people.  The people who love to work here, to play here and yes, even to live here.

This video is heavy on the Minneapolis side of the Twin Cities and thank goodness for that.  If it had been all about St. Paul I would have been a blubbering, emotional mess in front my computer.  I love my city that much.  And for those of you who have never been here, let me assure you, this video doesn't even scratch the surface.  Enjoy.


Why We're Here: Twin Cities from Seven and Sixty Productions on Vimeo.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Monkey See, Monkey Do

I don't post many videos on my blog anymore.  My blog has gotten more popular in the last year (especially among people I don't know) and I have this illogical idea that somehow posting videos of my kids is dangerous.  I think that idea, however, in unwarranted.

The other day I was struggling with getting a meal together while constantly shooing away two kids who were on my ankles.  I came up with this brilliant idea of setting up two chairs in front of the webcam.  Genius!  Now that the kids are in bed, I'm treated to what became of their movie-making venture.  Enjoy.

video
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