Freezer Swap

Today, I participated in my first drug deal.

I dropped my kids at school, drove to the parking lot of a church (I know, right?) and met up with some people who have the stuff I like. We all gathered between our SUVs and minivans, exchanged the goods, and went home feeling like we could do anything.

What would I do with my new found freedom? Take a week off? Stay up all night? Spend naptime napping myself? The possibilities were endless, folks.

But really – I participated in my first freezer meal swap today, and I want to share how we did it, so you can get the good stuff and feel like you can fly.

This is actually my second swap, but my first one was a crock pot meal swap. In that swap, we met at someone’s home, we did all of the crazy chopping together and bagged up our stuff, and we each went home with 4 crock pot ready meals in gallon ziplock bags.

I was invited to join this freezer swap group recently. My street cred had somehow been established, and I was issued an invite to join on this group’s second round.

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Based on how we did our swap, I’m sharing some rules about how to get this going in your life.

  1. Choose your swap group carefully. Know that chick who never puts in enough for the bill at a restaurant? She’s the same one who will stiff you at the swap. The one who always cancels last minute? She’ll bail. Choose dependable, reliable people who will stick to the deadline, the rules, and the spirit of the swap.
  2. Stick to the spirit of the swap. What is the spirit of the swap? Again, know thy group — our group all has small children, and we all eat everything. This is an omnivores swap. We have a few husbands who don’t like onions, but for the most part, no foods are off limits – this makes it immensely easier to swap. I love my friends with food allergies, but a meal swap may not be for them. Stick to your kind for the swapping. Additionally, we all want the meals to feed big families with big eaters and have some leftovers- so this isn’t a skimpy swap.
  3. Include it all: meals should contain everything needed to make the meal. If it’s a soup, give a box of broth; if it’s taco soup, include the bag of tortilla chips. If it’s a meatloaf, it should have a veggie side. You get the point.
  4. Be clear: be clear on your directions for each item. I wasn’t as clear as I should have been, but the best meals are in a foil pan, cooked, sealed in a bag with the name of the meal and the instructions clearly included. Remember, you’re going to be digging through your freezer to get these out, and the easier they are to identify and make, the more helpful they are.
  5. Set clear parameters: your swap could be an Instant Pot swap, or a Crock pot swap, or a things are already cooked and frozen swap, or a healthy swap- just be really clear so everyone knows what to do.
  6. Group text must exist: today I was told – text when you make your meal! Report back to the group, share what you loved, anything you learned while reheating it, and what the reviews were. This is the fun part.
  7. Extras are fun: during this swap, someone included a breakfast casserole as an extra, someone else made ginger molasses cookies to be baked, and someone else had homemade applesauce. The more the merrier.
  8. Be ready with freezer space: this goes without saying-be ready to clear some space, or be ready to have a light week of cooking!
  9. Set aside time to make your meals: our swap has 6 participants. Prepping my ingredients, setting aside time to assemble my items, and freeze and package them, took time – so make sure you plan your time accordingly.

 

My freezer now contains:

  • chicken and dumplings
  • ginger soy chicken and rice and veggies
  • taco soup
  • meatloaf and sweet potato mash and side of green beans
  • chipteh stew with flatbread
  • molasses spice cookies (to be baked)
  • chocolate chip cookies (to be baked)
  • applesauce

If you decide to do a swap, my advice is to:

  • start small – 4-6 people
  • choose a date 2-3 weeks in the future
  • decide on any parameters re: ingredients
  • get cooking!

I am so excited to have a freezer full of meals to get us through this busy month, and especially for the nights when we are gone all day and get back and want a home-cooked meal.

If you have done a swap before, what made it work? what didn’t work? Share please! And if you want to start a swap, how about sharing this post and seeing who might want to join you? Good luck!

 

Advent(ures)

I’ve been searching for meaning. Meaning in a season that seems to revolve around Santa, elves that do the parenting for you for a few weeks, spending money you may or may not have, stress, weight gain, zero downtime, and a lot of musts and shoulds and expectations. I know that it’s supposed to be magical, but it hasn’t felt that way for me for a long time. Christmas seems less about Christ’s birth than ever. Ask my husband and he’ll give you a spiel about Paganism, Saturnalia, fire hazards and lying to your kids about a fat man breaking into your house. Sorry for anyone who has been to a Christmas cocktail party with him in the last, er, lifetime, he can be a bit of a (historically accurate) buzz kill.

When I had children, I resolved to resolve some of the inner turmoil I was feeling. I felt that, in order to be a good parent, I had to really believe in the season, and strive to create traditions for them that would feel like…home. I wanted to be able to explain to my kids why we celebrate the way we do, and why we are celebrating in the first place.

Whether you eat braised short rib lasagna on Christmas Eve (looking at you Gina, and wow was that a Christmas Eve to remember), or Chinese food after Mass, or whether your traditions revolve around Santa, cookies, Jesus, elaborate gifts or more, your traditions must mean something to you. You must be able to defend them.

Why are those traditions important to you?

Growing up, Advent was synonymous with a chocolate calendar with little perforated doors. My sister and I alternated days of putting that little wafer of molded milk chocolate on our tongues. When I started my own my family, I identified Advent as a season of anticipation, and I have always been an anticipation-junkie.

For me, waiting for a vacation, or anticipating a reunion has always been as sweet to me as the actual event, so it makes sense that Zac and I have centered our traditions around Advent, as a way to reconnect around the values that matter most to us: togetherness, undivided attention, quality experiences, memory making and giving back to the people who hold up our little family.

The Medium

 

Your calendar can be elaborate, it can be virtual, or it can be a small DIY project that you put together during a naptime. My friend Starr has an Advent calendar that is an elaborate wood structure, hand-painted, a work of art. My friend Katharina has a gold and white inspired tree with sachets attached that glitters in the way only German Chirstmas decor can do. My friend Megan made one herself that matches her stunning winter white and gold decor scheme. My sister-in-law Carey made one from solo cups once that inspired me before I even had kids. Mine is from Pottery Barn kids, and takes two seconds to hang and fill with paper. Because our advent season centers around experiences, I don’t need for it to hold much.

What follows is a template for advent, should you choose to take on this tradition with your family.  You can mix and match these to create a calendar that works for you and your family, and I’ll let you in on a secret, you can switch up the papers/days as the month goes along – the key is being flexible. This is not meant to be something that adds a lot of extra work to your plate – if it does, it shouldn’t be a tradition in your family. I want you to revel in your traditions, question them, reform them so they constantly work for you, and include your family in them as much as you can as they grow. As a mama, it can feel like the work of the holidays falls straight onto your shoulders alone, and that can be really lonely.

The Mix

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The mix that I’ve come up with has 6 categories. Use these 6 categories to choose your activities, and assign them to days. If you are working parents with kids in school, the bulk of your experiences will fall during the weekends, where the weekday activities will be light. If you are home with kids all day and looking for ideas, you may center more of your experiences during the week and keep the weekends light, as holiday month weekends are always busy on their own. As the month goes on, you can always adjust these. In our home, the majority of our celebrating will be done in the days leading up to Christmas, and the day itself will be mostly lazy, with 1-2 gifts, and a lot of snuggling and eating, playing and FaceTiming with family.

  • Making Things: clove oranges, popcorn garlands, cotton ball snowmen, homemade snow globes, cutting snowflakes, signing Christmas cards, coloring wrapping paper, painting ornaments, watercolor place card settings, or any number of crafty crafts you can find – this is not my forte, but I can google stuff and if it’s not too messy, I can roll with it. I love to host these as play dates so there are more adults around and the supplies can cover multiple kiddos
  • Baking Things: holiday appetizers (to be frozen and popped in the oven for impromptu guests), your family’s favorite cookie, classic sugar cookies, instant pot lemon curd, freezer biscuits, monkey bread for Christmas morning, rolling pigs in a blanket, making egg nog, making a gingerbread house or scene
  • Giving Things: cookies for the mailman, goodies for the UPS/FedEx delivery men, teacher gifts, assembling kits for the homeless, shopping for kids for the Angel Tree, sending care packages to the military stationed abroad, delivering gifts to those in need, volunteering at a local shelter
  • Dollar Store Things: dollar store, dollar section at Target – I’m talking stickers, window decals, light up necklaces, gold chocolate coins, coloring books,
  • Big Days Out: tickets to see the Nutcracker, plans to see a Christmas parade, attending a Christmas concert, caroling, a wagon stroll to see Christmas lights, visiting Santa, attending a live Nativity, ice skating
  • Chill Nights In: decorating the Christmas tree, unwrapping and setting up the Nativity, opening up the box of Christmas books, reading Twas the Night Before Christmas, watching a Christmas movie with popcorn, dancing in the house to Christmas movie

Here are a few of our Advent highlights from last year:

Opening new ornaments

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Making a Christmas appetizer together

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Holiday cookie baking (peppernuts!)

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Wrapping for military kids

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Caroling at a Nursing Home

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Seeing Madeline’s Christmas

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Making pine cone ornaments

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Hot Chocolate for breakfast

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Holiday Light Stroll

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Ornament Making with friends

 

Seeing the Nutcracker

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If you’ve read this far, hopefully you’re thinking about the traditions that are important to you, and if Advent is the one that resonates with you, I hope you’re inspired by these ideas. I’d love to hear how you anticipate Christmas in a meaningful way – let me know in the comments or on the Facebook Page.

Cheers,

Sarah

 

 

Byeeeee November (hello, Nut-ville, er December)

I swear it was just yesterday that I was trashing 15 lbs of my kids’ Halloween candy. Where the H did November go? We survived Thanksgiving mostly intact, although a bug swept through our household and pushed us over like dominoes one-by-one. This led to an exorbitant amount of down time. Lazy time is not something I am really good at, but it did leave me restored and slightly ready to face Cyber Monday and the onslaught of December antics headed our way.

Before we’re hit full on with December, I thought I’d take a few minutes to re-cap what I did in November that worked and preview what I’m thinking I can wedge into my life for December. My goal is to make you feel like you can take things off of your list, change the paradigm for something in your family, or make your life more simple and joyful during this season of musts/shoulds!

What worked:

  • Cooking Thanksgiving in advance was a hit. We enjoyed the day with pigs-in-a-blanket and the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade. Everyone who wanted one took a nap. There was a lot of champagne consumed. The day was very low stress (although significantly more work for my mom who cooked the turkey while I curled up in the fetal position with the stomach bug)
  • After dinner, I put the turkey carcass directly into the Slow Cooker covered with water and added the remainder of herbs and set it for 20 hours – it yielded 3 lbs of additional meat and an unctuous turkey stock which became the basis of meals for days.
  • We ziplocked all leftovers in gallon bags. This made it way easier to pitch them when we were sick of them and made stacking easy in the fridge
  • We resisted the urge to decorate for Christmas, and spent a few extra days enjoying our Fall decor. It made the weekend feel a little longer and more indulgent.
  • I made the following meals with our leftover turkey meat and bones: turkey pot pie (from Ina’s recipe – makes enough for two, so half the filling is frozen and will make a great December meal), turkey soup (filtered stock, all of the meat that came off of the turkey carcass, celery, carrots and egg noodles; plussed up the broth with a little better than bouillon); split pea soup with a smoked turkey leg was divine and perfect (from the new One and Done cookbook); and the remainder of the turkey is going in turkey tetrazzini (my grandmother’s recipe gets a fresh makeover).
  • I made potato cakes for breakfast using leftover mashed potatoes – added a cup of flour to two cups of mashed potatoes and one egg and some salt – fried up in olive oil and served topped with fried eggs
  • I ditched the corn pudding and stuffing – I’m not even sure I’ll make these sides next year- roasted veggies and mashed potatoes were perfect.
  • I sent an email to our families about gifts – posing the question – is the tradition of buying gifts important to you? I suggested a few things – pooling our money and donating to charity, setting a limit and picking a name, or focusing on a family experience together. I sent another email about experiences > things letting grandparents know that if gifts were important to them, we’d love museum memberships and gymnastics and swim lessons. I feel like every year I wait too long to send this message, and then it’s off to the races. I feel like a huge weight has been lifted just starting the conversation.
  • I solidified our “No Santa” plan with the husband — we need to be careful about the way we talk to the kids this year, and what we say and how we ensure that the kids are respectful to other kids. Even after telling our almost 4 year old that Santa doesn’t come to our house and that he’s a fictional character, she was still excited to see him at the Ice Rink Opening last week. The magic can still be there, folks, even if he’s a character. Food for thought.
  • I ordered gift cards for teachers using credit card rewards points. That is $500 I won’t have to shell out this holiday season and my points were sitting there doing nothing! Score.
  • We made our famous family bread – gruyere popovers – two days after Thanksgiving and served them with turkey soup. We have always made them with the Thanksgiving meal but they have to be served hot straight from the oven and they’re quite filling, so they kind of add stress – two days later they were bliss with soup.

Looking forward:

  • Look for an Advent post on Friday of a full list of experiences /ideas for your advent calendar. It’s not too late to celebrate advent and infuse the whole month with quality time with your family.
  • We’re planning to adopt a family and shop together for kids the same age as our kids
  • We’ll do a toy purge/donation before Christmas to emphasize the needs of others and make way for new things
  • We’re planning to stick to this rule of thumb for our kids: 4 things: something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read
  • I’ll have a post on teacher gifts- I like to combine something tangible (gift cards) with something homemade
  • I’ll post about our family cookie recipe which uses an entire 5 lb bag of flour – scared?
  • I’ll share some of our favorite traditions around the holiday menu
  • I’m planning a post about what toys we are eyeing for our kids this year for Christmas with a focus on imaginative play and family/evening games
  • I’ll do a post on easy apps to have on hand for impromptu gatherings
  • I’ll share my thoughts on Bullet Journaling– I’m a month into the practice and finding it is helping me organize for the holidays in a really fantastic way

What else would you like to see? Let me know in the comments here or on the Facebook page!

Thanksgiving Game Plan

Thanksgiving is my Super Bowl. It’s how I define my success as a cook, entertainer, builder of traditions in my family. I can never compete at Christmas – I just don’t have it in my DNA, but oh Thanksgiving, oh, I can bring it and enjoy it and still look good doing it. Here are a few of my tried and true tricks for making it through the week with your sanity, your waistline and your relationships still in tact.

  1. Stay home for Thanksgiving: In our little family, we have made it a tradition to stay in our own home for Thanksgiving every year that we’ve been together. I know this isn’t possible for everyone, but we snatch up this little holiday as a 4 day staycation in [insert whatever town we are living in] and we fill it with a million of our own traditions. We prefer to travel to see family during times that aren’t so expensive/busy and we have found we enjoy those trips even more. We have filled our home over the years with friends and sometimes family who come through, but through it all we’ve stayed home, and kept it sacred. I love to cook, so I get to control the menu, and he who controls the meal controls the leftovers. Bonus.
  2. But, invite buffers: We host our dear friend Anna every year for Thanksgiving. Not only is she a master storyteller, epic kid-entertainer, ultimate go-with-the-flow girl and night owl (which gives Zac a late night movie watching companion when I turn into a pumpkin at 10 pm), but she gives us a reason to make the holiday special. In short, because Anna is here, we put on pants. We use the fancy silverware. We dress it up.
  3. Keep the rest of the day’s meals simple: Our traditions are eating pigs-in-a-blanket which we prep the night before and wake up and bake early and munch on throughout the day, and a huge veggie tray. Last year, Zac’s sister outdid her self with this veggie turkey tray that we fell in love with and will make every year. We keep it very simple, avoid cheeses and breads, and nibble throughout the day on these crowd pleasers.  We watch the Wizard of Oz sometime on Thanksgiving every year because it’s my mother-in-law’s favorite and it reminds us of her, and makes the perfect backdrop to the day (after all, there’s no place like home, right? Even when we don’t appreciate it?)
  4. Don’t cook on Thanksgiving (other than your turkey): We eat our meal at around 4 pm.  I cook everything in advance of the day, using a game plan that is as detailed as “thaw corn” and “peel potatoes” – I mix in the tasks throughout my week, doing a few things each day during naps and while I prep dinner, and other than the turkey, the gravy and the roasting veggies which take 5 minutes to prep (I cut them earlier in the week), I don’t cook on Thanksgiving. Weird, huh? The day flies by with checking on the turkey and making the gravy, watching toddlers and spending time with friends who have joined. The kitchen can be really lonely on a holiday unless you’re surrounded by your aunts and sisters, so I don’t want to spend the day in there alone and this is my answer.
  5. Cook a soup the night before: The night before Thanksgiving used to be for dive bars and hook-ups with exes. Oh, how times have changed. Now, I make a filling but healthy soup the night before, in the Instant Pot of course. It feeds a crowd and doesn’t mess up the kitchen the night before the big day. We roll the piggies for the next morning (great toddler activity) and get to bed early.
  6. Leftovers: Be strategic about leftovers. Over the years, I’ve found that I really only want the “second meal” once or twice, and then I want it all gone. What I want is leftover turkey. We make two turkeys (one is smoked) so we have plenty for Turkey Pho and Turkey tettrazzini, which is our family’s leftover jam (recipe to come), but we don’t make 20 million pounds of sides because they rarely get eaten. This year’s Cooking Light issue has great ideas for using leftover ingredients (instead of leftover cooked items) – check it out for genius uses for carrots, butter, apples, sweet potato, sourdough, shallots and half and half.  I will make plenty of turkey and roasted vegetables, but as for the rest, I don’t max out. Friday morning it’s back to the gym and onward through the holiday calorie season gauntlet.
  7. Get outside: Not being stuck in the kitchen all day on Thanskgiving means we can always make time to get outside and be active. Run a 5K Turkey Trot, throw a football, take a family walk, or hell, do all 3. Move your body, you will feel better. I know Americans make a sport of eating on Thanksgiving, but you can be active, eat an amazing meal and you’ll probably sleep better and feel a little more human the next day.
  8. Skip dessert: Coco Chanel said it best – “before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one accessory off.” I say, take one accessory off. Thanksgiving just doesn’t need dessert – it’s a gluttonous meal and most people will eat dessert if it’s around, but do we really need it? I realize this is controversial, but in our family, we skip dessert. Dessert can shine on another day, and it cuts the work in half. Ice cream is always in the freezer if someone has a sweet tooth.
  9. Incorporate kids: Every year, the kids help me make the place card settings. It’s their way of putting their stamp on the table, is minimal and costs barely anything, and gives my table a homemade feeling. Two years ago, we used their handprints as turkeys and then embellished them with feathers. This year, my mom will do watercolors with Marilyn the day before as placecard holders. You could have your kids color on craft paper, make napkin rings, or collect leaves  – it’s a great and useful tradition.
  10. Finally, don’t forget to reflect: The tradition of giving thanks is ever-present at Thanksgiving tables. Don’t forget to reflect upon your year, count your blessings, and share them. Whether or not your Thanksgiving is spent in sunny Florida eating stone crab, or in snowy Ohio surrounded by relatives, and whether your year has been incredibly wonderful or incredibly tough, Thanksgiving is a time for renewed hope, and sincere gratitude for that which we do have.

This Thanksgiving, I encourage you to be intentional — reflect upon the aspects of the day that you love, try to disconnect from traditions that leave you feeling drained (I’m looking at you crazy holiday travel), and start traditions that will keep your kids coming home for years to come, bringing friends, and making memories that are seared on their brains forever.

Thanksgiving Crudite Platter Recipe

Assorted raw vegetables: bell peppers, sugar snap peas, carrots, celery, radishes, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.

Ranch dressing

Sour cream

Peppercorns (for eyes)

Round Tray

Arrange cut crudites in a fan pattern as the “feathers” of the turkey, keeping colors together, and building from the outside to the ceter of the platter. Adjust platter size based on the amount of people you are serving, keeping in mind that you can always use up extra raw veggies in a day-after Thanksgiving chopped salad. Using one of the bell peppers, cut off the side so that the pepper becomes the waddle of the turkey.  Fill a small bowl with ranch dressing, plussed up with sour cream to make it extra thick and rich for Thanksgiving.  Cut two carrot feet and a nose and arrange with your red pepper waddle, and drop in two peppercorns as eyes. Voila!

I Just Can’t: Christmas Cards

A few years ago, I got on my soapbox on social media about Christmas cards, and I’ve never really lived it down. This was of course before kids. Now I’m way too busy making sure my 2 year old doesn’t climb on the counter to “pour” me a cup of coffee into a wine glass to worry about what other adults do. But, I digress. I was bemoaning the fact that out of the over 150 holiday cards I received, only three of them were signed personally. I dug in my heels and got into a comment war on a post that didn’t end until somebody using the C word and once that word is said, you can’t exactly gracefully retort (Cancer, not the other word, get your minds out of the gutter.)

Now acutely aware of the amount of time and effort that goes into signing and writing a note on each and every holiday card, I still feel the same way I did all those years ago. I wish I could tell you that I’ve changed my mind, but my friend Emily still signs her card to me every year with a note basically saying she’s afraid to be on my shit-list. Close friends know that this remains my soapbox….and it’s only getting taller.

I think that my strong feelings on the subject really get at the heart of how I’m currently feeling about holiday cards. Here’s how this goes every year:

  1. Shop for months for outfits for children that don’t cost a million dollars, reflect timeless style and will somehow “go” without “matching”
  2. Hire photographer and choose location that hasn’t been used before by anyone I know, or by me
  3. Block a Saturday during the busiest time of year
  4. Wake up family at an ungodly hour. Bribe children relentlessly with leftover Halloween candy so that they will wear the outfits.
  5. Choose husband’s outfit. Ignore eye rolling.
  6. Choose my own outfit. Note: this usually happens less than an hour before we leave the house because during the whole process I never stop to consider what I will wear.
  7. Endure family photos. If you’re lucky, these are fun; we’ve gotten really lucky in recent years and we’ve chosen photographers who we adore being around. I always order a canvas of our holiday photos, so this part of the process is totally worthwhile, but for me, it’s more fun to do it during a less crazy time of year.
  8. Shop for cards. Sift through the hundreds of deals offered during the holidays. Put them in the cart 4x and then freak out at the price and start over another day.
  9. Time ticks. Ticking. Ticking. It’s December 15th at this point if I’m lucky
  10. Update contacts in my address book. Discuss who has moved. Because we are in the military and we know a lot of folks in the military, this is usually 1/3 of our list. Text folks for addresses. Nag the husband to do the same. End up having some good catch ups with friends that were much needed.
  11. Ask husband to mail merge because, toddlers, and print the address labels.
  12. Finally take the plunge and order cards. Cringe when I give my credit card.
  13. Cards come. For the next 11 nights, we will each take our stack, label them with addresses and sign and write personal notes. At this point its basically Christmas Eve. Husband makes fun of my handwriting. Most people get notes that say “hope to see you in 2019” which is totally sincere and the whole reason I keep up this whole charade.
  14. Post photos to Facebook. Who can resist this step? Just got photosssss back bitches. Outfits “go” and don’t “match” – gotta share. So many poses. Must share. Please like. And love. And fireworks.
  15. Drop major cash on stamps. Seriously – nothing makes me feel older than seeing how much stamps cost in 2018.
  16. Stamp these MF cards. Mail them. Must drive around and drop them in multiple mailboxes because there are so many.
  17. Never hear anything. From anyone. And Scene.

This is how it feels to me. Now, the reality is that many of you love receiving cards. You have elaborate gorgeous set-ups to display them and some of you even keep these little works of art up all year long. I know they are enjoyed by many of you, and I hope that my terrible handwritten note means something.

I just can’t help thinking about how this time, money, effort could be better spent. Rather than co-signing cards, I would rather be beating my husband at Scrabble in front of a fire. Rather than posing for photos, I’d rather be shopping for our Adopt-a-Family or spending the morning outside to counteract the zillions of holiday calories. There are upsides to family photos, upsides to an annual communication to your mailing list, but I’ve totally lost the joy this year, and I’m not sure I can go through with it, readers.

Maybe it’s the Minimalism Bug. Maybe its the cost of postage. Maybe its the fact that everything feels so transparent on Facebook. Maybe I want my $500+ back. This year, I’m driven to change the paradigm around holiday cards.

So, I have decided to try something. We’ll call this a pilot program. if you’re on our list this year, you’ll be getting an email from me with our new address and a simple question – do you want to receive a holiday card from our family?  I am going to print a handful of our stunning family photos (stay tuned for a post about these) using Social Print Studio. They make it so easy to love them with their adorable square prints and easy ordering app. The upside to ordering these is that I can use them throughout the year. I usually keep a dozen or so prints on hand of the kids, and I include them in thank you notes throughout the year.  If a holiday card with a photo is something you cherish, nothing would make me happier than dropping one in the mail with a handwritten card. It may take me until February, but hey, that’s life. I would rather send 15-20 cards with intention than blanket my mailing list this year.

I realize that this will be controversial. Still, I want the world to know that I will love receiving a holiday card from you if it brings you joy to send one to me, or if it’s a tradition that is special to you. I’ll open each one with joy, show them to the kids at night, tell a funny story about that one time I beat you in a push-up contest, and display them until New Years Day.  I wish I was the sentimental kind when it comes to cards and paper, but I’ve learned after years of saving things that I rarely look back at such items. My kids routinely find their art in the trashcan and pick it out and approach me tearily, so please don’t take it personally that your card will only be displayed for a few weeks.

I’m going to try something new, and see how it makes me feel. Maybe I’ll hear from more folks this year that they really missed our card. We will see what happens with this experiment. In the end, I’m writing this to say that I hope that the act of sending your holiday cards (or not sending them, or sending an email, or whatever your tradition maybe) brings you joy. I simply can’t pretend that mine do anymore.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or on the Facebook page – what do you love about this tradition? What do you hate? I promise no comment wars. 

Why You, Mama, Need an Air Fryer

One year ago, I broke with tradition and bought my husband a Christmas gift. It all started when he was listening to his favorite sports radio host. Paula Deen was being interviewed, and she when they asked her about the one tool she needed for football season, she replied: an air fryer. Now, Paula Deen is not known for her healthy food suggestions, but my husband became obsessed with the idea that he could have chicken wings on Game Day without leaving the house. You see, when you’re a real fan, as I’ve learned from five years of marriage to a real fan, you can’t really chance your game watching experience being out of the house. First, your team could be losing, and that would put you out of the house, surrounded by other humans, and in a really terrible mood. Second, it is really difficult to find bars and restaurants that will show “your game” depending on where you are in the country or world, and even more chancy that they’ll play it with sound. No, true fans want to tilt the world in their favor and watch their games at home.

I researched Air Fryers that year, and lo and behold found that the Pope, AKA, Oprah, had blessed one in particular. I read about about the Maillard reaction, researched recipes and footprints, and with the blessing of Oprah herself, purchased the Cuisinart Air Fryer and Toaster Oven. 

Out went our toaster oven, and in went our new improved version. In the year that we have owned the Air Fryer, I’m pretty sure we’ve sold 100 of them during cocktail party conversations. We talk this thing up to everyone we know, and practically cart it with us to parties. So, I’m here to tell you, mama, why you need to put this baby on your Christmas list.

  1. Kid food: Picture this, you’re coming home from a long day at the zoo/trampoline park/birthday party/playdate/outlet mall with your children, and they need to be fed stat. There is no time to spare, these kids need to be in bed in 32.5 minutes and they’re ravenous beasts. Grab your bag of (organic!) dinosaur chicken nuggets and throw them in the Air Fryer. Zero preheat time. Done in five minutes. Kids scarf them all and want more? Five more minutes for another batch. Your dinos will approach Chick-fil-A deliciousness when cooked in the AF, and you can have dinner ready in basically zero time.  You can apply this method to any frozen food – french fries, tots, taquitos, pick your poison. The stuff simply tastes better and is done in almost no time at all.
  2. Vegetables: You can cook batches of brussels sprouts, sweet potato fries, parsnips, rainbow carrots, broccoli, in basically 7-10 minutes, no preheat time, crispy, browned, perfection with the same amount of oil you would roast them with in the oven. We love to cook batches of veggies quickly because we don’t have to heat the oven. We make the best oven fries. It’s a game changer in terms of time spent to cook. We love our AF roasted veggies.
  3. Wings: Buffalo wings, spicy sesame chicken wings, lemon pepper wings, pick your poison. If you like wings, you can make them for pennies on the dollar at home, tossed with your favorite sauce, anytime you want them. Wings have always been our favorite game day food, and we can make them exactly like we want them at home in 20 minutes per batch.
  4. Toasting functions: If you don’t have a toaster oven, you need one. This air fryer takes up the same room as a toaster oven, so if you have a toaster oven, you simply need this upgrade. Toasting waffles for kids, toast for eggs, garlic bread from frozen, you name it- I can’t live without a toaster oven.
  5. Empanadas: we finally figured out where to buy empanada dough, and once we found it, we make empanadas like we’re Argentinian blondes. Several fillings, some dough, and the air fryer, and we can feed crowds. We can freeze the empanadas and cook them from frozen, or cook them in batches for parties. The results are light and flaky, cooked to perfection.
  6. Bacon! Yes, Bacon. I only cook bacon in the air fryer. On a Saturday morning I can avoid the splatter, the multiple pans, and I can cook bacon to perfectly crispy in 12 minutes start to finish.
  7. Pizza: Order your favorite pizza. Freeze individual slices if you can’t finish it. Heat the slices in the air fryer from frozen and you’ll feel like you just ordered the pizza fresh.
  8. Bagels: Skinnytaste’s Greek Yogurt bagel recipe is a huge favorite of ours. I can make these bagels in 20 minutes start to finish in the air fryer. They’re healthy, so flavorful, and the perfect canvas for a fried egg, a schmear or some of my favorite flavored butters.

In short, we use our Air Fyer & Toaster Oven in One every single day- probably 2-3x a day. It uses hot air to circulate to “fry” things, and doesn’t require any oil. It does have to be frequently cleaned (the trays do). It rivals the Instant Pot in effectiveness and MVP status in my kitchen, and I’m pretty sure it will look great with a big red bow under your tree this year.

If you do decide to purchase one, use my link and you’ll help me keep my husband flush in chicken wings. If you have any questions about recipes or ideas, let me know. The new Skinnytaste cookbook One and Done has an entire section dedicated to this amazing appliance (including the cover photo of this post.

Spaghetti Squash Pizza Bake (Gluten-Free)

Toddlers, man. One day, you’re spending your last iota of sanity convincing them to eat something like, plain pasta with butter and parmesan, and the next day you make two perfect over easy farm eggs with avocado toast for yourself with breakfast, and you feel the gentle tug of a kiddo next to you and end up getting two bites of your own meal.

Trying to figure them out is maddening, so I’ve stopped trying. I’ve made it my mission to fight the good fight over here— one meal, eat it or don’t, or you go to bed hungry. Last week, my son went to bed without lunch or dinner three days in a row. I’m not kidding.

I listened to a podcast recently that talked about minimalist meal planning — and it suggested that you identify the top ten meals that your family loves, and basically put them in heavy rotation. I thought it would be fun to identify our family’s top ten meals, so I opened a note on my iphone and started to write. I ended up with a few.

  1. Spaghetti Squash Pizza Bake
  2. Chicken and Lentil Soup
  3. Two Bean Beef Chili

And there the note sat. My biggest problem is that I forget to make things again, until my husband asks about it like – remember when we had that great thing with the mushrooms? Can you make that again?

So, all that is to say that this recipe has been an unlikely favorite of our family’s for going on two years. I don’t know how I stumbled upon it, but I have made it probably over fifty times, and every single time, there is not a bite left in the pan. My kids shovel this meal in like they haven’t eaten in days (I’m looking at you, George). My husband says this meal gives him is “lasagna fix” – which is good, because I never make lasagna (too many steps, too many calories, just too much and I choose to get my fix at a really good Italian restaurant once a year.

My friend Jen is in town. She is gluten free and dairy free, so this recipe seemed like the perfect one to make for her. Knowing my ravenous beasts, I doubled it, and cooked it in a cast iron skillet so large that I can’t lift it over my head (and I’m strong.) As it baked, we opened up a bottle of really good red wine and the kids helped us make a salad. I’m obsessed with these knives for kids. If you children like to be with you or like to cook, buy them! You may not even know how much your kids like to help you yet, but when you buy these, you’ll find little helpers all the time. Marilyn cuts carrots, celery, lettuce, apples, tomatoes, avocado, and pretty much anything else she can get her little hands on.

As for this recipe, I’m embarrassed to say that we almost finished the entire pan of this doubled recipe, but it’s kind of hard to be mad at any of us given how packed it is with

Spaghetti Squash Pizza Bake

1 large spaghetti squash, or 2 smaller

1 lb. of Italian pork sausage – I prefer to buy Jimmy Dean in bulk, but you can also use links and remove the casings (you can use turkey sausage, too)

1 cup of your favorite marinara sauce

3 eggs, beaten

seasonings like oregano, garlic powder, red pepper flakes, basil – to taste

salt and pepper

shredded mozzarella, optional

additional veggies, optional – such as spinach, olives, mushrooms, peppers, onions

First, start with your squash. Get out some frustration by inserting your knife in the side, and banging it furiously on the counter until there is a fissure, use your knife to open it up. Using a grapefruit spoon or spoon, scrape out the seeds. Put face down on a sheet pan with parchment and 2 tablespoons of water and roast at 350 for 1 hour. You can do this part a day ahead, and scrape out the strands of squash into a ziplock bag.

I often do this next step a day early, too. Saute the sausage until browned and broken up with a spoon.

In a large bowl, mix the slightly cooled squash, the sauce, the browned sausage, and the beaten eggs, seasonings and mozzarella (if using). Spread into an oval baking dish, a cast iron skillet or a 9×13 pan sprayed with cooking spray.

Bake at 400 for on hour, or until the edges are golden brown and the center is set.

We serve with a big green salad with some misshapenly cut vegetables (toddlers).  You can easily double this, and might want to.

Don’t forget to add these knives to your kiddo’s lists for the holidays and if you shop through my link, you can help me buy a stamp.

Favorite Things: Late October Edition

We’re roaring into Fall. It’s been in the 60s every single day for a week here, and I am soaking up every moment of this crisp feeling. I’m solo parenting for this last stretch of the month, and that means a lot of short cuts around here so that we can all stay sane. So, today, I’m sharing a few of my Fall favorites.

This Pumpkin Spice Latte Cold Brew from Califia is what I think pumpkin spice should be – evocative of Fall flavors, not cloying. I bought it for my sister when she was visiting, and we both have been “spiking” our coffee with it lately. It’s made with real pumpkin, no soy and no dairy, and has less than 100 calories in an 8 oz serving.

I caved and bought me and Marilyn matching Fall sweatshirts from Marley Lilly. I’ve been obsessed with their monogrammed items for a while, but now that they have a toddler line, it’s like take all my money. When you spend $100, you get free shipping, and most orders qualify for free blanket scarves, too. Life’s too short to not do mommy & me fashion, amIright?

Billions. Zac and I are burning the candle at both ends binge watching the mumbler of the century, Paul Giamatti and Damien Lewis in this totally addictive series on Showtime. Our free three months of Showtime ends in a few weeks, so we’re in a race against time. I can’t remember the last time we both loved a show so much. The writing keeps you guessing, and the characters are so complex. The Ann’s Snack Shack ghetto burger reference from this week had me chuckling (shout out to my ATL hot spots).

While lazing by the pool in Miami, I finished this fantastic book of short stories by Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Prep, Eligible, American Wife and Man of My Dreams. The stories are modern, set in a post-Trump era and seem to capture the unfinished nature of so many connections and relationships in our lives. I enjoyed them so much, and even let Zac read a few. Curtis continues to be an author of our time, and I still really love to mix up my reading list with a book of short stories every once in a while.

Speaking of books, my hero (sorry Ina, you’ve been dethroned), published her new cookbook this month, filled with meaty chapters dedicated to all of my favorite cooking mediums: Instant Pot, skillet, Air Fryer, Slow Cooker and Sheet Pan. Man, does this woman speak my language. I’ve always kind of hated the name Skinnytaste – it is reminiscent of Skinnygirl margaritas (ew), but anyone who has cooked Gina’s incredible food, knows that she builds flavor seemingly effortlessly. Her recipes also tend to pull from an established list of pantry and freezer ingredients that I find easy to procure and keep on hand. If you’re in a rut, you simply can not go on without owning this new book- expect to see a lot of these meals on my insta this Fall.

I attempted these pumpkins, thinking, wow, that looks so easy. Wrong, simply wrong. I was going to post a tutorial, but my tutorial shall read as such: run, don’t walk, away from anything that involves perfect lines on imperfect gourds that is time bound by naptime.

For you Netflix subscribers, I watched Private Life this weekend with Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn. It’s the story of a couple trying to have a baby, and I think it really captured the mundane, the depressing, and the blessed optimism of couples who experience infertility. It’s worth a watch when you’re in the mood for a flick.

Finally, I got my brows microbladed last week. So far, I’m thrilled. Zac says I should drive a Harley now that I’m all tatted up- but really it was a very easy, mildly uncomfortable, but really simple process, and I woke up today, rolled outta bed, and found that I really didn’t need more than my tinted moisturizer now that my brows are defined. I’ve always hated my super blonde brows, and so this was a really nice upgrade to my mom-hair-don’t-care look.

That’s all for now! Hope you enjoyed this little round-up!

 

 

(Make Ahead) Amish Baked Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal

If you don’t eat breakfast, we probably can’t be friends. If brunch were a sport, I would be a decathlete. I love it all, but especially eggs. For many years, I woke up early every single day to cook a hot breakfast for Zac before he left for work. I can work magic for breakfast – I’ve been known to make eggs-in-a-hole with sourdough leftover from take-out, I invent elaborate hashes using leftover ribye from Sunday dinner, and a mash-up of veggies, including brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes, and I am famous for my over-medium eggs. An audience assembles when it’s time to flip them over. With breakfast, I am creative and resourceful, using whatever I can. My love language is breakfast. My kryptonite is time. Very few breakfasts make the cross over from sweet/cinnamony to eggy. This is one of them.

One morning a week, all Fall and Winter long, I mix up this make-ahead Amish baked oatmeal right after I clean up after dinner. It takes less than 5 minutes to prepare, and I know the recipe by heart. I put it in the fridge, covered, and in the morning when I get up to go to the gym, I take it out and put it on the counter. When I come back in, I preheat the oven, and by 8 am, when it comes out of the oven, puffed and brown, the entire house smells like an apple pie.

This recipe makes a weekday morning feel like a weekend, it’s all of the luxury of a hot, filling breakfast, with all of the laziness of me in my bathrobe, mainlining coffee. I get to be with my family for the brief time that we had together in the morning, rather than being in the kitchen.

My family devours this hot breakfast. It lacks the gumminess and stickiness that I’ve always found off-putting about traditional oatmeal. This recipe easily adapts to feed a crowd (read: houseguests), and can be liberally adapted to use whatever fruit you have on hand, although I love apples, pears and bananas the most. It’s a showstopper, beautiful on the table, and easy to serve up seconds (you’ll want seconds).

I made some swaps to the original recipe that I feel really good about. I want my kids to have the full monty in the morning – some fat, some carbs, and some protein, without too much sugar. This oatmeal sticks to their ribs like glue, warms their tummies, and makes mornings so easy for me. I only wish I had more tricks up my sleeve like this one.

(Make Ahead) Amish Baked Cinnamon Oatmeal, adapted from Once Upon a Chef

The original recipe used 3/4 cup of brown sugar, 2 cups of whole milk, and 4 tbsp of butter. I’ve made swaps that make sense, and make this a healthier morning choice. After all, we’re not working in the fields, we’re um, probably hitting up Target.

2 cups old fashioned rolledoats
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 cup of milk (I use 2%, but skim or whole milk will also work fine)
1 cup of almond milk (if you don’t buy or use almond milk, feel free to use 2 cups milk)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons melted butter, plus a little more for greasing the pan
1 cup of chopped fruit- peeled and chopped (I use 2 medium honeycrisp apples, peeled, or I often slice 2 bananas and layer them in the bottom of the pan; pears work too)
1/2 cup of toasted walnuts (optional, my kids actually love them in this dish)

IMG_7242.jpg

Preheat oven to 325F. Grease the bottom of an 8×8 or an oval baking dish with butter or your preferred greasing method. I love my 8 inch Le Creuset oval baker for this dish.  Scatter your fruit in the bottom of the greased pan.

In a medium bowl, combine the oats, brown sugar, maple syrup, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.

In another bowl, whisk the eggs with the milk(s). Add the vanilla and stir until combined. Add the milk mixture to the oat mixture, along with the melted butter.

Pour the mixture over the top and spread it out evenly. Sprinkle the 1/2 nuts on top, if you are using. Bake for 40-45 minutes until the top is golden and the oats are set – jiggle the pan and it will not jiggle if it is set. Serve warm.

Halloween Seven Layer Dip

Halloween is a tricky holiday. I never really liked it as a kid, which seems odd now, but I have a distinct memory of wearing one of those t-shirts that said “This is My Halloween Costume” at age 8. Such a killjoy, I was; I’ve come a long way.  Then, I married a Halloween-lover. Our first Halloween as a couple (which was two weeks after we met), I went into a tailspin trying to come up with an impressively funny/sexy/adorable costume, and failed so miserably that I still laugh about it.

I tried to be “sushi” by tying two sewn black pillow cases around myself, wearing a white long-sleeved shirt, and using tiny orange and red balloons as the fish roe. I put chopsticks in my hair. My balloons all deflated, and my nori belt made me look closer to a sumo wrestler than a cute roll of sushi. No one knew what I was, and most people actually scratched their heads while looking at me. When I met up with my now-husband at the party, he was standing in the street, leaning against a car, dressed head to toe in black, with black hat and eye mask, holding a real sword and doing an insanely good representation of Zorro. As you can see, I married up.

All this is to say that I’ve always kind of avoided Halloween until I met my husband, and as marriages go, it sort of helps to try to be into the things your spouse is into, so I’m trying really hard these days. Since having kids, we’ve hosted Halloween at our place, and I always make chili (I’m sure this is universal due to the fact that it stays hot and feeds a crowd cheaply throughout the night). We’ve come up with some amazing family costumes for the past few years, and last year, I came up with this dip to serve to the crowd.

This recipe is inspired by my dear friend Ashley. She is a woman of several stellar recipes. She makes an egg bake that she serves at almost every party she throws, and it makes you forget your name. She says its mostly cheese, but it truly has 4 ingredients and I could eat it at every brunch party from here until the end of time. She also makes a seven layer dip. Last Fourth of July, she made it in a huge sheet pan to look like a flag, and that inspired me to find one that I could do for Halloween.

This is the kind of crowd-pleaser that can be thrown together in advance, feeds a crowd, and has that Pinterest-worthy theme-y-ness to it that Halloween is known for. I love making this in a huge, flat, sheet pan, with a lid. People, if you don’t own sheet pans with lids, let me show you the light. They make prepping for parties and even taking dinner to someone’s house so much easier. I like this method better than making it in a 9×13, because it gives you plenty of surface area for your scene, and for cheese.

Halloween-Themed Seven Layer Dip

2 16 oz cans of refried beans

32 oz sour cream, with 6 oz reserved

2 packages of taco seasoning

3 8 oz packages of pre-made guacamole – I love Wholly Guacamole because it’s smooth and easy to spread

2 cups of finely shredded mexican or cheddar cheese

1 4 oz can of whole pitted black olives

1 4 oz can of sliced black olives

2 bags of scoops tortilla chips

tomatoes (I used grape, but any are fine, chopped or sliced in half)

green onions (optional)

a ziplock bag for piping

First, take out 6 oz of the sour cream and put it into a ziplock bag. Then, mix the remaining sour cream with the two packets of taco seasoning.

Spread the refried beans into the bottom of a quarter sheet pan. Spread them evenly. Top with the carefully spread sour cream mixture. I find it helps to put dollops all over the top and then spread with an off set spatula. The third layer, the guacamole, is the hardest to spread, so you will want to use the dollop method and spread very carefully. If you mix the layers, you can always “cover” with the shredded cheese to hid your mistakes. This layer takes the longest. When you’re done, cover the edges with cheddar cheese, leaving the center uncovered. Snip off the corner of your ziplock, and pipe the sour cream into a web-shape (as pictured). Using a paring knife, cut three of the whole olives in half for bodies, and then six more into 4 strips each for legs. Sprinkle the sliced olives and tomatoes around the edge, and green onions if you want (or depending on if kids are eating).