But I only have X!

This post has been a long time in the making. Internet, if you only knew how many blog posts I compose in my head. It’s about half as many texts as I compose in my head (I am always thinking I’ve responded to texts, and then realizing at 2 am when I wake up to pee that I, indeed, haven’t actually responded). Well, it’s the same with blog posts. I think about them forever, but I feel that I can’t execute them perfectly because I’m, as per the usual, subsisting on protein powder, and iced coffee, and a few quiet moments when the toddlers were playing with Magnatiles and not fighting, and back rubs from my husband which hurt-so-good. It doesn’t leave a lot left in the tanks. So, I compose and compose in my head, dream of the technology that translates my thoughts into typed words, and then one day I find myself with a wide open swath of time, and napping seems like it won’t work (I’m looking at you middle seat on this Delta flight) and so I open my computer and try to get it down and out to you.

Can you relate?

Lately,  I have found myself fielding a lot of requests from friends that start with “I am thawing chicken breasts, what can I make for dinner? And, indeed, I even find myself facing that protein quandry on a weekly basis. While I’m sure it’s not an original idea, I decided to make a post about what you have in the freezer and how much time you have that day — and try to combine it with a list of pantry items. If you get these pantry items, you can, in theory, come to this post and type your ingredient into my matrix (bahaha, I can’t make matrices) and it will spit out your dinner idea. Shall we play?

Most dinner quandaries start with either:

  • I won’t have any time when we get home tonight to make dinner OR
  • I just got home and I need to make dinner
  • I need to make something from what we have in the fridge/pantry- no time or not enough patience in the world to schlep these children into the store

…..and while I realize there are a variety of Trader Joe’s entrees and pizza delivery places that can probably solve this problem for you, I tend to be a little old school, so here’s my round up of some of my very favorite quick recipes that can either be thrown in the crock pot/Instant Pot in the morning, or can be made quickly in the evening. If you aren’t banking proteins yet in your freezer like it’s about to be Chernobyl, I encourage you to get rid of some frozen waffles, and purchase some chicken thighs and pork tenderloin. Costco can help you. So can Aldi (weekly specials on chicken for three weeks running). Last, this is not the most vegetarian friendly post, so if you’re veg, you probably want to find another post to help you with the weeknight feeding your fam issues.

First, the pantry round up. In order to be able to execute on these recipes, stock your pantry with:

  • 2 cans of diced tomatoes with chiles (such as rotel)
  • 2 large cans of crushed tomatoes (these are large usually 28 oz)
  • 2 cans of black beans
  • 2 cans of chickpeas
  • 2 cans of tomato paste
  • 2 cans of chipotles in adobo
  • 2 cans of enchilada sauce
  • 1 jr of Better than Bouillon (chicken flavor)
  • 2 cans of pumpkin (like Libby’s)
  • 2 cans of white beans
  • 2 cans of canned green chiles
  • 1 can of corn
  • 2 jars of marinara sauce
  • 2 small jars of sliced black olives and whole kalamatas or your preferred olives
  • 2 cans of refried beans
  • Shelf stable gnocchi
  • Bagged green lentils (love the trader joes ones)
  • 90 second rice packets (such as Seeds of Change) in your desired flavor
  • Orzo pasta
  • Boxed Jiffy Cornbread mix

Next up, your freezer should be stocked with:

  • Chicken thighs (we love the perforated packs from Costco)
  • Chicken breasts (same)
  • 1 lb packages of ground beef and ground turkey (not breast)
  • Frozen deveined and peeled shrimp
  • Shredded cheddar and mozzarella cheese (did you know you can freeze cheese?)
  • Feta cheese
  • Corn tortillas
  • Frozen broccoli
  • Assorted frozen veggies*

And last, it really helps to keep some fresh produce* on hand, but if you are not doing so well in that department, you can always use and bulk up on more frozen. So, if you typically don’t keep carrots, celery, onion, tri-colored peppers, and garlic on hand (those are usually in my drawer), you can always get the frozen bags and stock them. Don’t hesitate to take a handful out of a frozen bag of produce, and stick the rest back in with a rubber band to use for another recipe. We do this a lot with corn and peas.

Recipes!

If you have 15-20 minutes in the morning, or at some point during the day, and you own an Instant Pot or crock pot:

  • Combine chicken thighs + lentils + better than bouillon + canned tomatoes (instead of fresh) + whichever aromatics you have on this list into Gina’s Chicken Lentil Soup. Double the chicken, and don’t fret the onion, garlic. I have omitted the onion, added chopped red peppers and carrots (about a cup of each) and have never been able to keep my family from eating every last drop of this amazing soup (which is so much more than the sum of its parts) and turns out more like a stew when you double the chicken.
  • Combine ground beef + chickpeas + black beans + canned tomatoes + canned tomato sauce + tomato paste + whatever aromatics you have on hand (peppers, garlic, onions) into my favorite and most requested chili of all time – Gina’s Two Bean Beef Chili – top with crushed tortilla chips, serve over seeds of change rice, sprinkle with shredded cheese, or bake some of your jiffy cornbread doctored with green chiles and frozen corn
  • Combine frozen ground turkey + canned pumpkin + canned green chiles + canned white beans into Gina’s Turkey Pumpkin Chili
  • Combine frozen ground beef + tomato sauce + chopped celery/onion/carrot + milk (optional IMO), wine (optional again IMO), and shelf stable gnocchi to make one of the most comforting and crowd pleasing dishes evverrrrrrr – Quickest Gnocchi Bolognese – recipe isn’t online yet, but you can half this recipe and then add the shelf stable gnocchi and cook the whole thing for 6 minutes.

If, you have 30 minutes or less to get dinner on the table:

  • Combine frozen shrimp (run them under water), frozen broccoli florets, fresh garlic and orzo in this quick shrimp scampi with broccoli pasta that comes together soo quickly using her genius method of cooking the broccoli with the orzo.
  • An all-time favorite one pot recipe for Chicken Orzo Tomatoes and Olives that uses frozen chicken thighs + orzo + canned tomatoes and olives + fresh spinach (if you have it) and feta cheese or another salty cheese if you have it

If you have time to prep protein (specifically shredded chicken) on Sunday or Monday, even more options open up to you for quick dinners. I make a batch of this chicken weekly. I use it throughout the week in salads for our lunches, and I use it when I need a quick dinner for us or the kids. It’s such a help to have this on hand and I find its easier to use than rotisserie chicken because its already “picked” and the quantity is much more than a rotisserie chicken. I double this recipe and make sure to save it with the liquid (so moist!). Sometimes, I freeze half if I have a line-up of meals that I feel good about. My favorite uses for this chicken are:

  • Enchilada Skillet: combining this chicken + canned black beans + canned enchilada sauce + sour cream (optional IMO) and frozen corn tortillas
  • Tostadas or tacos: combine this chicken + a can of refried beans + cheese and other fresh toppings – let your kids make their own burritos, tacos, or tostadas
  • Lettuce wraps: combine this chicken + fresh butter lettuce + your favorite flavor combos – you could use buffalo sauce/ranch dressing, peanut sauce and chopped peanuts or peppers, or even enchilada sauce or salsa and beans and cheese
  • Quick chicken soup – combine better than bouillon + shredded cooked chicken + frozen veggies (peas, carrots, corn) + orzo
  • Chicken Tamale Pie combine cooked chicken, cornbread mix, canned corn and canned enchilada sauce
  • Stuffed peppers: combine chicken with the seeds of change rice in a 1 to 1 ratio, add cheese, seasoning and stuff in bell peppers, bake for 15-20 in a 350 degree oven with a tablespoon of water in the bottom of the pan

If you have an hour to prep dinner but no time to go to the store:

  • Combine thawed chicken breasts + enchilada sauce + any fresh veggies you have and frozen cheese to make this favorite in our house – Enchilada Chicken Roll Ups – serve with seeds of change rice or salad if you have some that’s fresh
  • OR do her pizza roll ups using canned olives + tomato sauce + frozen mozzarella and any other items you have on hand (I keep turkey pepperoni on hand because it lasts forever)

And, that’s a wrap for now. I’m going to come back and add to this post when I can and if you have ideas, please ping them to me in the comments!

Happy weeknight cooking!

Quiet Time (a work in progress)

Well, it’s been a minute hasn’t it. My kid turned four, we sent some thank you notes, and then we kind of went underground like the daffodil bulbs and we’re just now emerging. I’ve been wanting to write this post for a long time, but I wanted it to have a perfect bow on it.

Earlier this week I was sitting at my MOPS meeting and listening to the speaker of the day and I was introduced to the concept of the “Nobow” — it’s a gift, a story, or a life with “no bow” on it. There is no perfect ending to this story, but I wanted to share with you where our family is at with naps, and a few of the things we’ve found that work.

Right now, you might be pinned under a napping baby, or maybe you’re doing a big cook up in your kitchen and rocking out to Atomic Moms while your toddler is sacked out. Perhaps you have a stroller napper, or a swing napper, or a napper who only goes to sleep to the tunes of Motown and a heavy sway.  For a long time, you build your little world around naps. Everything revolves around naps, and in fact, friendships can make or break due to nap match-ups.

You can tell someone is not a parent if they just don’t understand the nap schedule. They will innocently send out an invite for a party at 2 pm when 97.2% of the under 4 population is napping. It’s amazing, they see days in long, stretching swaths. You see them in chunks. Before nap. After nap. Bam.

Some of you have already experienced the death. Some of you wear your black armbands like badges of courage. You’ve experienced true loss: the loss of the nap, but the advent of earlier bedtime, and the time in your evening that opens up to you like open road in Summer.

For those of you who are still approaching this stage, and want to make sure you’re ready, this post is for you.. Here are my totally Nobow unofficial quiet time tips.

  1. Be ready: Like a mic drop, it comes when you least expect it. You probably have a sense that it’s coming, but if your kid is still napping as they approach four, you better get ready quick. Have your plan. Map out what hours you are going to try to achieve “quiet time”, what spaces you are going to use in your house, and what your overall rules will be. Get your equipment in order.
  2. Equipment: Don’t go into battle without supplies. For us, the transition to quiet time has included three main items – an OK to wake clock – we have the Hatch rest, that I can program daily to turn green when quiet time is over, a CD player which can play quiet time CDs, and a door monkey for securing the door.
  3. Game plan:  Before Marilyn dropped her nap, I had thought about what I wanted quiet time to look like. I talked to moms about what works (shout out to Molly and her brilliant CD player idea with CDs from the library (we love the Magical Tree House series), and I had decided against the use of screen time. Screen time is for mama showers and mama meetings, but quiet time for us was going to be about quiet play, puzzles, creativity, and stories. Having a plan made me feel more prepared, and I was able to shop consignment for puzzles and some quiet time activities. Every kid is different but try to identify what your kid likes to do independently. I also chose things that she normally can’t play with if George is around (because he will destroy).
  4. Space plan: I had a hard time determining if Marilyn should be allowed to be anywhere in the house, or confined to her room. In the end, I decided that I needed some physical separation from her during quiet time, and that could only be achieved with a door. She can come out to use the potty, of course, and because #toddlers, she does pop out to ask for help or questions, but we go over the rules before quiet time and she understands that quiet time is for mama and her. I put George down to nap in a different room so that Marilyn can have full access to the toys in her room. When I am working my office, we do the reverse, and I’m behind the door and I let her have the run of the house. It helps that we have cameras downstairs so I can check in on her occasionally.
  5. Make it work: In the immortal words of Tim Gunn, make it work for you. Perhaps you want to use or approach quiet time differently. I struggled the most with accepting quiet time and not darkening the room , giving her the lovey, and hoping she would nap. Our quiet time is about 2 hours a day, and so far it’s working pretty well for us.

If you have any other tried and true strategies unique to your family for quiet time or this challenging transition, I would love to hear them. As your kid drops his nap, just remember, you may now get those few extra hours you were searching for at night, and those, I can say are pretty priceless.

Thanks for being patient with my pregant pause! More soon. xo

 

 

 

Plus One (advice from the trenches)

My friend Kelley does really hard things like, say, hiking for hours to the top of tall snowy mountains with her skis on her back (meanwhile I’m complaining about having to park in the 2nd row at Target) and then skiing down, and then doing it all over again like twenty times, all before lunch. Sooo, it really said something to me when she texted saying that she’s freaking out about having a toddler and a newborn . I mean, how could a mama who literally climbs mountains be afraid of a little 2:1 action. But then I realized I had a whole phone’s worth of texts from recent mamas of two asking for advice, venting, or both.

One text string really epitomized the struggle. It was the quintessential: my toddler is freaking out and hates the baby, I’m tired and feel like I’m not enough, and oh, yeah, do you know a good vasectomy doctor? If you had to sum up the struggles of a new mama of two, this would do it.

When I made the transition from one to two kids two and a half years ago, I was the first among my primary friend group to have two children. In addition, mine are fifteen months apart, and my husband traveled for periods of time totaling about six months of the first year. I owned the hashtag #twoundertwo and wore it like my badge of honor. I ran the race that year, and learned a lot, and continue to learn so much about how to juggle the needs of two kids, find time for myself and my marriage, and laugh and somehow thrive throughout it all. So, today I’m sharing a few of my tried and true strategies for juggling two.

  1. Spoiler alert: it’s still all about your toddler: funny thing about toddlers, with rare exception, they make babies look easy. The world will still revolve around your bigger kid for a while, and that makes it a bit easier. When you first became a mama, you went from leisurely mornings reading the NYTimes to…. leisurely mornings reading the New York Times with a swing in the center of the living room or your boob popped out. Now that you’re a mom of a toddler, the only leisure in your mornings is athleisure, and it’s what you sport to the morning playdate/music class/doctors appointment. Now that your baby is here, just insert them into the toddler’s schedule. This is how 2nd children become so chill. They never drive the bus, they’re just along for the ride.
  2. But really, it’s all about your toddler; ignore your baby, sometimes. In the heirarchy of needs, babies really know how to get our attention – their cries are, I believe, designed to attract their mothers in the wild, and so when they cry, and milk leaks out, and fibers of your being scream “go to them”…try to resist, sometimes. I found that letting my son cry while I tended to my toddler almost always ended up just A-Ok – usually with him putting himself to sleep, or just chilling out after a while. Meanwhile, progress was made on helping toddler with her shoes, getting out of the house, getting dressed, or finishing something. I don’t think I let my older kiddo cry for more than 5 minutes when she was a baby, but my son, he routinely cried while I did my entire getting ready routine. This strategy works and results in a less needs-driven baby.
  3. Try to match their schedules up, for survival. A lot is going to depend on whether you are home with both kids, but I am a huge proponent of matching the baby’s nap schedule to the toddlers ASAP. Trust me when I tell you, your survival depends on it. If you have one kid napping all day long, your life is going to feel like a game of whack-a-mole – familiar? I put my son on one nap at 4 months – he grabbed cat naps in the car, but see #1 – the toddler had things to do and people to see, and we couldn’t be stuck at home for naps, so I kept him awake, and put them both down every afternoon for 3-4 glorious hours. By the time the woke up, I had just about regained my sanity. Don’t indulge your baby with crib naps or you’ll have a cranky toddler and cranky mama.
  4. Paper. Plates. I should own stock in Chinet. I for real credit almost my entire existence to paper plates. It is nearly impossible to serve breakfast to two little ones, dress yourself in athleisure, dress your kids, and get out of the house if you have dishes to do, and I for one, like to use my 20 minutes a day of Daniel Tiger to put on deoderant and spray myself into a snowball of dry shampoo, rather than using it to do dishes. Paper plates. Paper bowls. Chuck them. Get out in to the world and come home at lunchtime to a clean(ish) house, not a sink full of dishes. Note: if you are solo parenting, this strategy should also apply to dinner time because aint nobody can face a sink of dishes coated with food that no one even barely ate once they finish doing solo bedtime.
  5. Put them in the same room: we are huge fans of room sharing. More room for guests/helpers. More room for workout equipment and/or an office. No crazy back and forth at bedtime. No duplicates of stuff. Once you have a sleeper-through-the-nighter – get them in the same room. They will entertain each other in the morning and night, and you’ll get more of your space back.
  6. Everything belongs to everyone: this is big. In our house, everything, except for our one most precious lovey, belongs to everyone. This cuts way back on the amount of “mine!” battles. You may have to get creative in explaining this to your todder depending on his/her age, but you can handle it. I usually invoke God in these situations- God knew our family would have four, and when you got this gift, it was for all of us!
  7. Leave both kids with your partner as soon as humanly possible. It is hard to explain how hard it can be with 2:1, so you should give your partner the opportunity to experience it before too long. You will inevitably feel bad doing this, and think he can’t handle it (not to stereotype, but most of my readers are women), but trust me, the sooner you do it the better. For him to give you the support you need, he must understand. When you come home, he will look like he’s seen a ghost. This means it has worked.
  8. Leave both kids with other trusted caregivers as soon as humanly possible. Funny story, we left our two kids with our dear friends when our son was 4.5 months and our daughter was 20 months. I had a tremendous amount of anxiety about it- mainly about them waking up in the middle of the night. Turns out they were dreams, and with only one roll off the couch and a frantic call about being out of breast milk (she later found it underneath the Ben & Jerry’s like 4 months later), the night went off without a hitch. We got ridiculously drunk and acted like people without children, and our friends were initiated into the feel of having two. They still call us, so I consider it a success. If you never ask, you’ll never know. You’re better parents when you get breaks. You will need 10x the breaks than you did with one. Parents of 3 and 4 kids, I am guessing you need regular breaks like every 2-3 days in order to survive. Also, buy those people chocolate. They deserve it (see cake above).
  9. Keep it real: there are going to be a LOT of tears in your house for the first year. You’re going to lock eyes with your partner across the table and think “this is our life” with the utmost pride and contentment about as often as you’re going to lock eyes with your partner and mouth the words “what the f did we do to ourselves” during that first year. It gets easier, and harder, and then easier again, I think. I mean, I’m still in it.
  10. Lean on your tribe. So many milestones in parenting would have been impossible without my tribe. When one kid is hellaciously sick. When you are hellaciously sick. When you need to run to a public restroom in a park with your toddler and you need someone to watch your baby for a moment. When you’re stuck under a nursing baby and just need a friend. When you’re solo parenting and facing an entire Saturday alone. When you’re solo parenting for weeks and you need adult conversation delivered to your living room. Surround yourself with supportive people who make you laugh, build your confidence and can handle your crazy.

I hope some of this resonates or at least gives you a laugh. One book I could not have lived without is Siblings Without Rivalry. I recommend it to all new moms of two along with this Superhero cape which I like to buy for new big siblings. Also, because kids, my mind is a seive- so I might remember more and add to this post later. As always, thanks for reading.

 

 

Grand Gestures

As part of this blog, it’s my hope to also share longer, more edited posts. In celebration of my five year anniversary, I’m sharing this, which I wrote on marriage earlier this year.

****

It’s usually 9:30 pm when I drag my spent body into bed. We finally bought ourselves a king-sized bed a few years ago. Along with the king bed came king pillows, and one of them always runs the length of my body, creating a wall next to me. At the end of the long repetitive days with two tiny, needy, touchy humans, when I climb into bed, I just want to put the wall up. Don’t touch me. Don’t come between me and my seven hours. Maybe eight. Maybe four if insomnia or teething hits. That’s one of the things about having kids, you never know what any night will bring: you could miss your doctor’s appointment because your kids sleep until eight for the first time in a year, or you could see every hour on the clock and change the sheets on their beds three times.

The sheets on the bed were a gift from my husband on our second anniversary. We alternate planning a getaway for each other every year for our wedding anniversary. Each year, one of us gets to run with it and do all the planning – no check-ins necessary, and the other just gets to show up with a suitcase. This tradition, which started during our first year of dating, was borne out of a love of grand gestures and romantic surprise, but it continues to thrive due to the boldly unsexy necessity of parenting two small children with very little help. In our house, it has become almost impossible to have a conversation about anything, to break through the ceaseless din of two pleading, whining, growing, curious toddlers. So the grand gesture continues because it’s efficient, not because it’s romantic.

But, back to the sheets. Zac planned the trip that year. We escaped to Oregon. I was 7 weeks pregnant with our son and we left a 9 month old at home. I was constantly nauseated. I was pumping to try to maintain my supply. I was trying to feel like a relatively newlywed wife and embrace the freedom of being away from our daughter to totally focus on us, but the two little ones pulled my focus toward them, even then. One made it impossible to swirl and swish the crisp whites of Oregon wine country and the homemade hazelnut cream liqueur of our small family-owned hotel on the coast. The other necessitated that I pump day and night, lest our trip be the end of nursing, which would carry with it a bucket of mom guilt I didn’t feel like lugging around for the next several years.

On that trip, I fell in love with the sheets on the bed. I’d love to say they were a tangled mess due to endless love-making, but the truth is that I was sick with first trimester exhaustion and nausea. I spent much of the time curled up in bed while Zac walked the beach alone. On our last day, I lamented having to leave behind the luxurious sheets, and when we returned from our trip, they were sitting on the doorstep. They remind me of what two years of marriage felt like. They are their own grand gesture. They bring me much more joy than that vacation did, despite the best of intentions. They remind me of how my husband listens and hears my tiniest desires and wishes and delivers them to me, even when he can’t change the day-to-day of our lives or effortlessly pull my focus back to him.

***

We celebrated four years of marriage by driving down the PCH in a borrowed convertible, wine tasting in Santa Barbara, and working our way up through Big Sur. On that trip, we left two full-blown toddlers at home. We fretted less. We drank more. We sent them live photos of us trying on masks on State Street. We FaceTimed a little, but mostly we re-introduced ourselves to each other and took meandering walks holding hands, had long uninterrupted conversations and debates, and climbed back into each other’s arms at night a little less tired, a bit less frayed. Four years felt like coming home and knowing you would stay there for a very, very long time.

On the way back from that trip, as the unrelenting sun beat down on us in the convertible and our hours together without toddlers were numbered, we fought. We fought the way that only two people who have barely had room to talk for several years can fight. We had long periods of silence followed by heated discussions and more silence. As we pulled back into our neighborhood, it was as if we had picked a fight just to make it easier to come back home. Within moments of coming inside, being greeted by kids and grandparents, all of the grandness of the trip had evaporated.

Still, I woke up the next morning to coffee and a clean kitchen. My husband is a man who every single night, while I am sleeping, empties the dishwasher, takes out the trash, makes the coffee, hand-dries the pots and pans and puts them away so that I have a clean slate for the next day of the rat race. His small ways of loving me amplify his servant heart. He understands that the small gestures become the grand ones over time.

***

As we approach five years, I marvel at the ways our love has changed. It’s a Tuesday night. We’ve decided to feed the kids first, and steal a supper for two later after bedtime. James Morrison is belting “You Make It Real” out of the speaker: “There’s so much craziness surrounding me/ there’s so much going on it gets hard to breathe” and in between playing ponies on all fours to our half-naked kids, rather than stepping by and over each other while one grabs one kid and the other grabs the other kid, we allow a brush against each other to turn into an embrace. Before I know it, we have stopped for a slow dance and a make-out session in the middle of the living room: “that’s why I’ve been missing you lately /’cause you make it real for me.” It’s one of those sitcom moments that I never actually thought would happen in (our) real life. Only a few seconds pass before I can feel my son climb between my feet and in between our calves, wedging himself there and yelling “up, mama,” but in those few moments I’ve made one of the grandest gestures I have in a while, allowing myself to be caught up in the moment.  

In many ways, it’s easy to parent small children – it’s tactical and problem-based, and, as my friend Anna says, children bring you into the eternal present. It’s much harder to be a wife; to allow your husband to pull you close to him during the witching hour and stay there for more than a beat. To allow him to push you off your course for a moment – derail you in the kitchen. To let him in, beyond the quick pecks of hellos and goodbyes, to make your spine tingle. To take your pillow wall down.

It’s my year to plan our anniversary trip, but as the small has become the grand in our lives, I resolve to master the art of the small gesture in time to make the grandness of the trip, the bliss of uninterrupted time together, small in comparison.