A Touch of Class in the Wee Hours

My day starts with coffee.

Yours too?

Alarm goes off, I think about staying in bed but know that I really need my Alone Time before the kids get up, so I roll out of bed, put on my robe and slippers, and pad down to the kitchen.

Often, my husband has already made coffee, but sometimes I get there first and I do it.

Either way, a few minutes later I’m sitting in the living room with my coffee, enjoying a bit of silence before the alarms go off in the kids’ rooms. (For some of the kids, the alarm wakes them up. For others, the radio going on lets them know they’re allowed to come out of their room.) Sometimes I read, sometimes my husband joins me and we have a chance to have some actual meaningful conversation instead of the business we usually conduct (who needs to be where when and who is taking whom there—whew!)

Last week, I had an hour between dropping my kids at preschool and needing to be back to chaperone a field trip. Not enough time to get home and get stuff done, but too much time to sit outside the school and wait.

So, I took advantage of the time and for one of my favorite hobbies: thrift store shopping. I showed up just after my neighborhood Goodwill opened and headed first to children’s shoes (where I picked up a pair of like-new pink Keens for my daughter) and then over to kitchen wares.

Some days I hit the thrift stores and don’t really find anything, but this was not one of those days. I hit the jackpot! A lovely vintage cape in fall colors marked half off, a beautiful travel tea mug with a built-in strainer for loose tea, and some adorable napkin rings for my mounting collection of mismatched fine china were just a few items I picked up.

But my favorite find of all was this glass French press.

coffee

Isn’t lovely?

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For some reason, when I have my coffee in this vessel, it reminds me that aesthetics really do matter. The feel of it, the fact that I need to take a bit more care than when I’m pouring from a metal carafe, the look of it – such beauty in the shape and transparency and the curve of the handle. I take a moment to select the mug that I want for the day—a scripture mug? The charming clay mug that was a gift from a dear friend? One of the owl mugs my daughter insisted on getting my husband and me for Christmas last year? The mug from my mom that reads, Good morning, Christy—I’ll be handling all of your problems today. – God?

Taking a moment first thing in the morning to remind myself that my heart, my mind, and my aesthetic preferences matter before doing the daily deep dive into tending to others (school lunches made? backpacks ready? everyone dressed? breakfast on? shoes tied? got your coats? is today show-and-tell? did you remember your project? etc.) can make such a huge difference in my day.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not above skipping the beautiful French press and slopping instant coffee into my mug. But those are not my best mornings. Those are survival mornings (and we all have those).

But I don’t want to make it a practice of just surviving the day.

I want to flourish. I want to thrive.

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I recently took a trip with friends to Amsterdam. For 72 hours, I drank a lot of coffee in sunlit cafés and enjoyed long, lingering adult conversation. I walked along the canals and people-watched and danced to my favorite band.

It was such a gift.

But I can’t rely on those moments to sustain my sense of well-being. I need little gestures in my day-to-day life that remind me that I am not just a caregiver, not just a need-meeter, not just the shuttle driver (therapy! gymnastics! dance class! more therapy! swimming lessons! PTA! teacher conferences!), not just the mediator between squabbling siblings…

I am a woman who loves beautiful things and coffee and silence and solitude.

And sometimes a $7 French press from Goodwill makes all the difference in the world.

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It took me a while after becoming a (foster) parent—a couple of years, in fact—to realize how important these little gestures would be for my sense of personal well-being. For a long time, I just gritted my teeth, put off those little moments and pushed through. We became parents of two children ages five years and five months overnight—there was a lot to do. I dug deep, wore clothes I could sleep in and go out in public in, cleaned compulsively in the middle of the night, and became an organizing fanatic—desperate for some sense of control in the midst of utter and complete chaos. I accomplished a lot that way, and I kept it together.

But I wasn’t flourishing.

And it wasn’t sustainable. Burnout was imminent if something didn’t change.

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I’m working on a new program right now—a book and video series—that is called “The Flourishing Foster Parent.” It is born out of my struggles for the first few years, and the hard lessons I learned. I hope to have it ready by January—fingers crossed! It will be my best effort at helping new foster parents move past the season of surviving foster parenting and into the practice of thriving for the long haul. I am creating what I needed in that first year.

I pray it will help many. Too often we become satisfied by just getting through the day. But we weren’t made for that. We were not made to live in survival mode. And no one thrives and grows and flourishes when survival is the long-term goal.

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Large, time-consuming, expensive opportunities for self-care are great and necessary every now and then. You need to plan for those and make them happen.

But they are not sustainable for the day-to-day.

Day-to-day flourishing lies in finding ways to fill your cup in small and sustainable things. For some it might mean getting to yoga a few times a week or showing up to a monthly support group come hell or high water. It might mean setting the alarm thirty minutes early so you can have some peace and quiet before things get cray-cray. It might mean seeing your doctor and being surprised when she suggests trying an antidepressant (and following her advice). It might mean hiring two babysitters for the evening, because that’s what it takes so you and your husband can go out on a date.

And it might mean treating yourself to a classy French press and making your morning coffee a more meaningful moment.

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My Favorite Easy Dinners

I love to cook. I love making everything from scratch, especially—hours standing in the kitchen, chopping, mixing, seasoning—it’s one of my favorite ways to spend a free afternoon.

But I live in the reality of having four active children who attend three different schools and have various extracurricular activities—not to mention weekly therapy, speech, and other appointments. Which means that grocery shopping sometimes gets pushed off a few days too long and cooking has to happen in between tying shoes, refereeing sibling spats, and monitoring bike riding in the street.

It’s kind of a miracle we don’t eat take-out at least five nights a week, now that I think of it!

The thing that has saved me is that I have several go-to recipes that are unbelievably simple and require very little forethought. Most of the items needed are in my freezer or pantry.

As I’ve focused on food in a few recent videos (here and here), I’ve gotten more questions about what eating looks like in my busy household.

I hope to do some more videos about food, but for now, I wanted to share a few of my quick-and-pretty-nutritious-not-to-mention-darn-tasty recipes:

Image result for frozen chicken thighs Pace Chunky Medium Salsa, 16oz

Salsa Chicken (about an hour and ten minutes)

Ingredients:

  • Frozen Boneless Chicken Thighs
  • One or two jars of salsa
  • Shredded cheese (cheddar is great)

Preheat oven to 375. Lay the frozen chicken thighs across a baking dish. Pour salsa over the chicken. Bake for one hour. Sprinkle cheese on top before serving. Serve with tortillas or rice (which you can cook ahead of time and freeze to heat up in the microwave), slices of avocado, and corn (frozen).

Image result for frozen meatballs  Prego Roasted Garlic & Herb Italian Sauce, 24 oz.

Spaghetti (about 30 minutes)

Ingredients:

  • One jar of spaghetti sauce.
  • One bag of frozen meatballs.
  • One box of spaghetti.

Warm the sauce. Add the frozen meatballs. Make the spaghetti according to the directions. Boom. Serve with a bagged salad.

Image result for turkey smoked sausage

Sausage and Vegetables (about an hour)

Ingredients:

  • Whatever of the following you have on hand: onions, potatoes, bell peppers, garlic
  • Smoked sausage/kielbasa (I usually use turkey, but whatever you have works)

Preheat oven to 375. Chop veggies into bite-size pieces. Cut sausage into large bite-size pieces. Pour everything into a baking dish. Toss with some olive oil. Bake for 45 minutes until veggies are done.

Veggie Fried Rice

Ingredients:

  • Cooked rice (from the freezer)
  • Sesame or peanut oil
  • Chopped onion
  • Chopped garlic (from a jar)
  • Frozen mixed veggies
  • Soy sauce
  • Optional: frozen cooked shrimp or leftover cooked chicken

Heat oil in large skillet. If using frozen shrimp, add that first. Otherwise, add rice, veggies, and soy sauce to taste. Cook, stirring frequently, until it’s all hot and delicious.

Breakfast for Dinner I (15 minutes or less)

Ingredients:

  • Eggs
  • Bread
  • Fruit

Cook the eggs to your preference. My favorite way is to break eggs (two per person) into a large bowl (taking care not to break the yolks), heat a large skillet with butter (or olive oil if you have a dairy allergy in the house), pour the eggs into the hot skillet, cook for about two minutes then cover and turn off heat.

Meanwhile, put bread in the toaster. Toast. Top with butter and jelly of your choice.

Cut whatever fruit you have on hand. Applesauce from the pantry does quite well if you don’t have any fresh.

Breakfast for Dinner II (about an hour)

Ingredients:

  • Eggs (about 8-10)
  • Any of the following you have on hand: onion, broccoli (frozen florets are fine), tomatoes (I’ve used canned diced, drained), spinach, mushrooms (canned work), asparagus, etc.
  • Optional: shredded cheese

Preheat oven to 375. Break eggs into a bowl and whisk them well with a fork or whisk. If you’re going to use cheese, whisk that into the eggs. Chop veggies into small pieces. Heat a large skillet with olive oil. Sauteé veggies for a couple of minutes then pour eggs over veggies. Bake for about 45 minutes or so. Serve with cut up fruit or applesauce and toast.

Vegan Taco Bowls

Ingredients:

  • Frozen meat-substitute crumbles
  • Taco seasoning
  • Canned black beans
  • Chopped tomatoes or canned diced tomatoes, drained
  • Cooked rice (from the freezer or made ahead of time in the Instant Pot, which I use all. the. TIME.)
  • Avocado
  • Corn (from the freezer)

Heat a skillet with olive oil. Warm the meat-substitute crumbles. Add taco seasoning and water per instructions. Warm rice in the microwave. Warm beans in the microwave. Warm corn on the stove (I prefer that to microwave, but you can totally microwave the corn). Dish a cup or so of cooked rice into a bowl. Top with taco-meatless-meat, warmed beans, corn, tomatoes, and sliced avo. My family LOVES this one! It also works with the salsa chicken in place of the meatless meat substitute.

Chili

  • Canned beans (black, pinto, red)
  • Canned diced tomatoes, not drained
  • Chopped onion (from freezer)
  • Chopped garlic (from jar)
  • Chili powder (2-4 T)
  • Cumin (1 t)
  • Corn (from freezer)
  • Shredded cheese (optional)
  • Tortilla chips.

Heat oil in large sauce pan. Sauteé onions and garlic. Add beans, tomatoes, chili powder (2-4 TBSP), and corn. Stir and heat until simmering. Serve with shredded cheese and tortilla chips.

Cereal for Dinner

I’m not above serving bowls of cereal for dinner. My kids think it’s a huge treat. I usually do this when my husband is away.

PB & J for Dinner

I’m also not above serving PB & J for dinner. I usually serve it with fresh fruit or—yep—applesauce.

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A Few Notes:

  • I make large batches of rice in my Instant Pot and freeze it right away so it warms up nicely in the microwave when I need it and doesn’t get dry. So I usually have cooked rice in the freezer, which is a great go-to for a base for many last-minute meals. It’s also a good idea to freeze leftover rice the day you cook it rather than put it in the fridge in a plastic container. Rice gets dry so quickly in the fridge, but not if it’s frozen right away.
  • When corn on the cob is in season and at its cheapest, I buy TONS of it, cut it off the cob and freeze it in big freezer bags. The taste of frozen fresh corn is SOOOOOO superior to frozen corn from the grocery store freezer-section. It can been cooked easily on the stove or in the microwave.
  • While most of the meat I buy is ethically sourced, I do keep bags of frozen boneless chicken thighs, which I have not been able to find from ethical sources, which cook pretty well without thawing. To avoid this, you can substitute ethically sourced legs or thighs, but they need to be thawed before cooking.
  • Whenever I have veggies that are getting really ripe that I’m not about to use, I prep them — peel, chop, whatever — and freeze them to use later.
  • I periodically buy a bag of onions and chop them up and freeze them for using in recipes. This saves a bunch of time.
  • While I much prefer cooking with fresh garlic, I do keep a jar of chopped garlic—which is available from my Dollar Tree—in my fridge to use in a pinch.

So I’d love to hear back from you! What are some of your favorite go-to easy recipes that you can whip up on a moment’s notice from things in the fridge/freezer/pantry?

Baked Potato Bar!

Last Monday, our family was in Virginia Beach with my parents and my oldest brother’s family of five. We each had a cabin on a little dead-end street in a beautiful state park, and we all took turns making dinner for one another.

Of course I volunteered for Monday 🙂 #MondayNightDinnerParty

I wanted to do something that would be relatively simple and healthy that could be tailored by each person according to their dietary preferences (one does not eat meat, one does not eat dairy, etc.) I went to the grocery store in hopes that something there would inspire my menu, and discovered that baking potatoes were on sale. Score! I decided to do a Baked Potato Bar, and it was a huge hit!

Here’s how I did it, from start to finish:

Grocery List:

12 baking potatoes

1 package of fresh chives

1 yellow onion, sliced

1-2 c sliced mushrooms

1 can of chili (I used Amy’s Organic Chili with Vegetables—not spicy!)

1 package frozen or fresh broccoli crowns

1 package of shredded cheddar cheese

1 container sour cream

1 container of spreadable butter

coconut oil

salt & pepper

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 400.

Scrub each of the potatoes clean and pat dry.

Scoop out a teaspoon or so of coconut oil, rub it all over your hands, then rub each potato all over with the coconut oil. Get more oil on your hands as needed. Place potatoes in a baking dish or cookie sheet, leaving room between each potato. Poke each potato with a fork two or three times if you want to (I do because my mom always did, but I’m not sure what purpose it serves!) Liberally salt and pepper the potatoes in the pan.

Bake for 60-90 minutes. (Note: there might be some smoke at first as some of the oil burns off the potatoes. That’s normal and will stop unless they’re actually on fire!)

Meanwhile, heat a skillet to medium and add about a teaspoon of coconut oil. Sautée your onions until clear, then add the mushrooms and continue to stir/sautée them until they’re cooked. Remove from heat.

Steam your broccoli (stovetop or microwave, your choice).

Warm the chili just before serving (again, stovetop or microwave).

Chop your chives.

Presentation:

Set out the toppings, buffet style. I left the sour cream and butter in their store-bought containers, but if you wanted to get a bit fancier, you could, of course, put them in nice bowls. I did set out the cheese, chives, chili, and onion-mushroom sautée, but left the broccoli on the stove so it would keep warm.

Set out the potatoes.

Set out a stack of plates and a jar of utensils.

Call everyone to dinner.

This menu is especially appealing to kids, because they love to fix their own food! It was so fun to watch each of them get creative with what they put on their potatoes.

This menu is especially appealing to adults, because there was zero whining or negotiating about who would eat what or how much. Oh, and also it turns out adults like to have the freedom to fix their potatoes the way they like them too 🙂

NOTE about using coconut oil:

I am pretty much obsessed with coconut oil these days. I use it on my body, on my kids’ bodies, to brush my teeth, and for cooking. I love how it smells and how it tastes, but note that it does add a definite flavor to your food when you cook with it (at least, the kind I buy does). So if folks in your midst don’t like coconut, or have coconut allergies, substitute olive oil, which is what I used for baking potatoes for years.

NOTE about baking potatoes:

I like the skins crispy. Some people like them softer. If you prefer softer potato skins, wrap them in foil before baking. Otherwise, leave them just oiled, not foiled, and they’ll be deliciously crispy. 

ANOTHER NOTE about baking potatoes:

This would also work well with sweet potatoes! Perhaps you’d choose different toppings, but sweet potatoes or yams make great baked potatoes as well, and add a bunch of good nutrients to boot!

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Y’all, this is one of the simplest, crowd-pleasingest menus you could do. There is almost no actual “cooking” involved! It’s mostly prep! And you could easily involve your kids in the prep if you wanted to (mine were too busy running around with their cousins this time, but other times, they’d be right there with me, chairs pushed to counters).

What would you add to the menu? Do you have favorite baked potato toppings I didn’t include?

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