Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Chef-Salad

http://recipesranger.com/chef-salad

I love salad. Whether I’m dieting or not, I could eat salad more than once a day, every day, for quite some time before tiring of it. When people discover that Chef’s Salad is a regular meal that I serve to my family, I am always asked the question “and your children will eat that?” Yes! They do! They love it. It’s one of the meals that everyone in our home agrees on. Sure I have one that picks out the nuts and another that doesn’t like the hardboiled egg, but they are gracious about it, and it’s a fantastic way to pack in nutrition! I tend to serve this meal with a basket of rolls or baguette slices.

Chef’s Salad

1 package of 3 romaine hearts (I use organic), chopped

3 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cooked and cubed (I use grilled chicken)

1/2 to 1 lb. of bacon (preferably uncured), crumbled

3 hardboiled eggs, chopped

1 to 2 cups grape tomatoes

1 cucumber, sliced (I take slices and cut up further into quarters to make small chunks)

1 or 2 avocados (ripe but not squishy), sliced or cubed

3 scallions, chopped

1/3 cup bleu or gorgonzola cheese

1/3 cup dried cranberries

1/4 cup pecan pieces

Other suggestions: chopped deli ham or turkey, herbed croutons, chopped apple, different varieties of cheeses or nuts, shaved red onion instead of scallions, or any salad vegetables that you might like to add.

I arrange all the toppings over the chopped lettuce in rows, similar to the picture above. You can also make your chef’s salad restaurant style by cutting the meat and veggies into matchsticks. Also, if you don’t mind washing a few extra dishes, you could put some or all of the toppings out in pretty bowls with spoons for serving and make a “salad bar”, which works well for picky children and makes for a fun meal for company as well.

“French Cooking Class” Salad Dressing

My oldest daughter went to a French cooking camp last summer and brought home this delicious salad dressing recipe. It has become my go-to dressing, thanks to my Ninja Pulse that makes whipping up dressing right before dinner a snap!

1/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 shallot

1 T dijon mustard

3 sprigs thyme, leaves removed from stem

1 t. sugar or honey

salt and pepper to taste

Blend all ingredients in a blender until shallot is very finely minced.

20131006-153100.jpg

Bacon, Brie & Leek Quiche

2 pie crusts, 9″, homemade or not
1 pint heavy whipping cream
1/2 to 1 pound of bacon, cooked and crumbled
6 large eggs
2 bunches of leeks* rinsed and chopped
1 T olive oil
1/2 of one medium wedge of Brie
Fresh thyme
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees (I’ve done convection 350 when in a hurry). If you are making the quiche from scratch, sauté your leeks in the olive oil and cook the bacon first, then turn your oven on. If you have done your Micro Session Freezer Cooking, then of course you already removed the bags of leeks and cooked/crumbled bacon from the freezer with a few hours to spare for defrosting, as well as your pie crusts. I use only half a pound of bacon in order to economize (because I use natural, uncured bacon and it tends to be expensive), but a full pound certainly works if you prefer it.

Cut up the Brie into small chunks. Line two 9″ pie plates with the crusts. In a mixing bowl, whisk the eggs and cream with the salt and pepper (depending on the saltiness of the bacon, you might not need more than a pinch of salt). Place leeks, bacon and Brie into the pie crusts, dividing out and spreading ingredients evenly. Use your fingers to slide fresh thyme off the stalk and onto the mixture, using as much or as little of the herb as you like. I buy the little plastic pod-like packages from the grocery store and use about 3 stalks per quiche. Next, pour half of the egg mixture into each filled pie crust. Bake for 40 minutes or until firm and beginning to brown. Cool for at least 10 minutes before serving. Two quiches serve a large family or a gathering, but leftovers will keep nicely in the fridge for a few days, and it’s also great to take on a picnic and serve at room temperature. It works for any meal of the day, truly a versatile yet simple meal!

Freezer cooking notes: I freeze pints of heavy cream in quart size freezer bags (because I use organic cream and with a very short “use by” date window and we don’t live close to a store that offers it, so I buy several at a time and freeze them). I purchase many bunches of leeks at a time and sauté them all together, then freeze 3-4 cup portions in quart size freezer bags. The bacon is cooked ahead, packaged and labeled, and I stock up on store bought pie crusts and freeze them as well.

*By a “bunch” of leeks I don’t mean the grouping of two or three bunches tied together and sold as a unit by the grocery store. That “cluster”, if large enough, would be double what you need for this recipe. When I buy leeks, I get three “clusters” and process them to have enough for up to six recipes of quiche. Also, leeks tend to be really dirty and gritty between the leaves, so slice lengthwise before rinsing and watch carefully to make sure it’s clean!

Chicken Tikka Masala

5 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cooked and cubed
1 1/2 jars of Patak’s brand Tikka Masala Sauce
2 cups of dry rice, rinsed and cooked
1 package naan (I far and away prefer the naan from the freezer section at Trader Joe’s)
3 T butter, melted
Salt

Raita

1 6oz individual size Chobani plain yogurt (or plain yogurt of your choice)
1 tomato, diced
1/2 cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
Salt to taste

Preheat oven to 400 (convection 350). Simmer chicken with sauce. Serve over cooked rice. Coat naan with butter and sprinkle with salt. Warm in the oven for 5 minutes. Mix ingredients for raita together in a small serving bowl. We also eat oven roasted broccoli spears with this, which I prepare in a large metal baking dish, tossed with olive oil, lemon juice and salt and roasted for about 20 minutes.

The Twelve Meals

20130926-145052.jpg

Bacon, Brie & Leek Quiche

As comments and feedback on the Micro Session Freezer Cooking post trickled in, a common question was “so just what are these Twelve Meals? And where are the recipes?”

Actually, if you glance back over the previous two posts, you’ll find reference to most of those meals, but to make things super easy I’ll list them out and then begin to post the recipes as well, a few per post.

Before I do that, let me just back up a bit.

Over a decade ago, when my husband and I were first married and living with minimal expenses, renting a charming apartment in an old Victorian house for just $450 per month and eating well on a grocery allowance of $70 a week for just the two of us, I never would have dreamed that an income over twice what we brought in then would be so difficult to stretch now. But five children, a dog, a mortgage and two vehicles, together with all the costs of being a responsible grown up (insurance, medical expenses, retirement savings, etc.) add up quickly and keep me on my toes to find creative means of keeping our family budget in check.

I went through all the usual steps of listing out income and expenses, cutting and slashing, and we were already saving money on clothing and housewares through thrift shopping, tag sales, craigslist and the like.

In the end, there were only a couple categories of monthly expenditures with any “wiggle room.” And the most significant of those? Ah, yes. The grocery budget. So easily sent into a tailspin. And with food costs skyrocketing, the slightest lack of planning and a few extra grocery runs to “pick up a few things,” and the difference between “the budget” and reality can quickly rack up to hundreds of dollars per month. Ask me how I know.

So I came up with a firm number for our monthly grocery budget. Not to be exceeded. And from that number I subtracted an allotment for cooking and baking staples (condiments, flour, oil, sugar, butter, etc.), snacks, coffee, fruit and milk (basically, items not featured as a key ingredient in a meal). Then I came up with a template for meal costs. For our family of two adults and five children, this worked out to be 50 cents per person for breakfast, $1 each for lunch (my husband’s lunches at work are a separate budget item), and $2 per person for dinner. That’s how I arrived at the target of a $14 average cost for dinner every night.

Even before I discovered Micro Session Freezer Cooking, I had decided on a Twelve Meal plan. A rotating list of meals, repeating twice each month and allowing for occasional dining out, dinner at the homes of friends or family, takeout, holidays, or trying a new recipe. Sometimes a meal is repeated more frequently, but for the most part, no meal shows up on our table more than twice per month. I selected the meals carefully, knowing they needed to be simple to prepare because of our busy schedule, made with mostly fresh and healthy ingredients, economical, and a good blend of beef, chicken, and vegetarian options for reasons of variety, health and cost.

The Twelve Meals

Chicken Tikka Masala over Rice with Roasted Broccoli, Naan and Raita

Bacon, Brie and Leek Quiche with Fruit or Garden Salad

Chef Salad with Crusty Rolls

Penne with Meat Sauce, Steamed Broccoli and Artisan Baguette

Club Sandwiches with Kettle Chips

Tuscan Soup with Crusty Rolls

Tacos with Fresh Homemade Mango Jalepeño Salsa

Crock Pot Chili with Cornbread Muffins

Pizza (one 19″ XL pizza from a local pizza parlor for $12)

Marinated Grilled Chicken with Baked Potatoes (Sweet and/or Russet) and Steamed Green Beans

Pancakes or Waffles with Bacon

Gourmet Burgers and Waffle Fries

full-freezer

http://www.notdabblinginnormal.wordpress.com

The following contains some duplicate information from my most recent post, but I promised my mom that I would pinch hit for her Saturday Pantry Lifestyle post, as many of her readers wanted more details about micro session freezer cooking. So I’ll start from the beginning!

How It All Started

Just recently, my weekly meal preparation routine was revolutionized. Determining that I wasn’t going to waste the many downloads on my computer from the Ultimate Homemaking eBook Bundle, I sat down with a few spare moments toward the end of the summer to peruse a chapter or two of Crystal Paine’s ebook on Freezer Cooking. Right off the bat, I was inspired with a number of practical ideas that I could immediately incorporate into my own rhythm of meal preparation, but what stood out the most was the idea of “micro sessions” of freezer cooking.

Knowing that I’ll never be a once-a-month freezer cooking kind of gal (I just love the daily rhythm of the dinnertime hour, the chopping and the stirring, the bubbling pot and the aroma of dinner as it simmers or roasts), I thought that I was left to “cooking from scratch” for each. and. every. meal. Sure, I had a baggie or two of cooked chicken or ground beef floating around in my freezer. And “floating” they were, lost amidst the frozen vegetables and unmarked tupperware containers of mystery leftovers. But a system of every possible fresh ingredient that could be prepped and then frozen for the meals I most regularly fix was certainly not something I’d thought of doing before! But once I got started, the micro sessions quickly snowballed into a well-stocked freezer of ready-to-go meal ingredients, and my dinnertime prep became nearly effortless.

Freezing Tips

Flash Freezing: This might sound fancy, but flash freezing is simply freezing separate pieces of food for a short time so that they harden enough to freeze all together without sticking or clumping. For instance, if you spread berries out on a cookie sheet in your freezer and freeze for two hours, you can then bag them in a freezer bag and they should separate easily for you when you go to use them.

Clear Labeling: One of the biggest mistakes I made in the past when placing food in my freezer was not labeling it clearly. I now find freezer bags more convenient to use over tupperware or other containers because they are so easy to write on. Labeling the bag with the quantity (pound, cup, batch) and what meal it’s intended for is extremely helpful. A date is helpful as well, so that you don’t keep pulling out the freshest bags of diced chicken breast and leaving behind one you bagged four months ago.

Identify the Meals: The true key to success with this style of freezer cooking is to narrow down your core list of meals, the ones you use in regular rotation whether you plan your meals out on a calendar or not. For me, that meant making a list of twelve moderately healthy and economical meals that are generally liked by my family. I then listed out any perishable ingredients that could be prepped ahead and frozen. Another trick is to make sure you buy enough of a particular grocery item to make your micro session a profitable use of your time, which for me was a bit of a learning curve.

Freeze Core Ingredients

As I said, the idea of grilling extra chicken or browning extra beef is not new. What’s new is the idea that I do so, separate the cooked and seasoned meat into appropriate amounts, and freeze in a plastic bag (or preferred container) clearly labeled for the intended meal and stored in the freezer with or near the meal’s other ingredients, if applicable.

For instance, I have 1 lb of cooked and crumbled bacon packed up and frozen next to leeks sautéed in olive oil and salt, a pint of heavy cream (yes it can be frozen, but only for recipes, it will not whip up after defrosting), two pie crusts and sprigs of fresh thyme. The day I plan to make Bacon, Brie & Leek Quiche, I take out these ingredients and just simply add eggs and cubed brie…dinner comes together literally in a few minutes and soon those luscious quiches will fill the house with a tantalizing aroma as they bake in the oven.

How about Tuscan Soup? That’s a recipe where I use both ingredients from my pantry and the freezer. So one day, when I have about 20 minutes to spare, I might take three or four packages of Italian Style chicken sausage, slice it all up on a diagonal (to make it fancier, don’t you know), and sauté all of it in one big pan. Separate into one pound portions, bag it up, label and freeze. On another day I will wash a few bundles of kale, tear it into bite size pieces, and sauté in batches with olive oil, garlic and salt. The kale does especially well in this recipe after defrosting, because it’s going into a soup. Come dinner time, when Tuscan Soup is on the menu, out comes the box of chicken broth, 2 cans of diced tomatoes, the sausage and kale (straight from the freezer if you like!), two cans of rinsed cannellini beans, and a package of dry cheese tortellini (added 20 minutes before serving). If you like to add herbs or diced onion to such a recipe, just freeze them right in with the kale.

What about Chef Salad? That’s all produce, right? All that rinsing and chopping? But if I have diced grilled chicken, cooked and crumbled bacon, crumbled hard boiled egg yolks, pecans, craisins, chopped deli ham, herbed croutons, and crumbled bleu cheese all portioned out and frozen together, all I have to do is defrost them and arrange them neatly over a package of salad greens. Add some rinsed grape tomatoes, chop a cucumber and drizzle on some salad dressing and you just pulled together a fresh, nutrient-dense entree salad in a few minutes flat!

For Chili, Tacos, and Pasta with Meat Sauce, all I need is the one or two pounds of ground beef cooked and labeled. I was seasoning my taco meat before I froze it, but then I realized I need to reheat the meat anyway, and my taco seasoning is at hand right near the stove, so now I eliminate that extra step. For Tacos, you can even portion out your shredded cheese and yes, even the sour cream and freeze all of it together. Sour cream will alter in texture slightly after spending time in the freezer, and it also has a pretty good shelf life in the refrigerator, as does cheese, so I freeze only the meat.

Freeze a Main Course

This would be more traditional freezer cooking as we know it, but don’t be deceived, it can still fit into a micro session of freezer cooking! For example, if you have several pounds of fresh (not previously frozen) ground beef on hand, think how quickly you could whip up four or five meatloaves? Take an extra large mixing bowl, grab some eggs, breadcrumbs, milk and seasonings and within minutes you could have foil-lined loaf pans filled with a future main course! Flash freeze and then wrap up tightly in parchment paper and an outer layer of foil. You can also do this with mini-meatloaves in standard or jumbo muffin tins, but the flash freezing might be a little trickier, requiring plentiful greasing or sturdy foil baking cups.

Also consider prepping a crockpot meal or roast in this fashion. Again, beginning with fresh meat, you can get all the prep stages of rinsing, stuffing and seasoning out of the way and then freeze the chicken or roast in a freezer bag complete with oil, butter, or sauce. Allow an hour or so on the counter or overnight in the fridge for defrosting before loading your crockpot, or fully defrost for an oven roast. This takes the headache out of a citrus chicken, an herbed pork roast, or a garlic and pepper beef roast with onions and carrots. Freeze fresh chicken breasts in a bag with a jar of marinade and the meat will absorb the flavor as it both freezes and defrosts. Having your main course essentially done ahead leaves you more time for preparing side dishes, making this method a perfect fit for entertaining or for the end of a busy day out of the house.

Freeze-a-Mix

How is this different than “Make-a-Mix”, you ask? Well…not that much, really, but it does open up some new possibilities. For one, I don’t care to mix salt and baking soda up with other ingredients and then store them at room temperature. I think it takes some of the “POW!” out of the chemical reaction when wet ingredients are introduced.

However…mix up six batches of cornbread by measuring the ingredients into propped-open freezer bags, label the outside of the bags with the required wet ingredients (milk, eggs and oil), and then freeze, and Chili Night seems that much more effortless because I served up a basket of piping-hot corn muffins, whipped up in minutes flat and baked on a convection setting for a mere 10 minutes.

Let’s take it a step further…how about Blueberry Muffins or Apple Cinnamon Bread? Or any muffin or sweet bread for that matter. Mix up your dry ingredients, down to citrus zest or chocolate chips. Flash freeze your berries on a cookie sheet and bag them up. Sauté those apples in a little butter, sugar and cinnamon. Does your recipe use sour cream, cream cheese or heavy cream? You can freeze those right alongside, if you think the expiration date might roll around on the calendar before your next baking day does. You can also freeze a basic muffin or cupcake base in a baggie and keep your add-ins flexible, choosing berries or raisins or chocolate chips as inspiration directs! Store all these (the base baking mix, dairy, and add-ins) in separate bags near one another in the freezer or grouped together in a larger freezer bag.

I recently saw an idea on Pinterest for freezing your pancake batter in large cake decorating bags, the 16 inch disposable plastic kind. FIll the bag, and secure at the top with a Twixit Clip. Defrost in the fridge overnight and when your griddle is sizzling hot, just clip the bottom of the bag and squeeze out perfect circles of batter! (I would recommend moving the twixit clip up an inch before defrosting to allow for bubbling and expansion!).

The sky is the limit with baked goods. Bread products freeze beautifully, whether in batter form or already baked. So if you have room, fill that freezer up with little loaves of quick bread, homemade pancake mix (dry mix or batter), dinner rolls, or cookies all mixed up and scooped out on parchment, then flash frozen into individual balls for an after school snack of cookies and milk. You can flash freeze cinnamon rolls before they are cut and pressed down. You can freeze individual homemade crescent rolls and bake up two or two dozen on a whim, simply by flash freezing first and then popping into a freezer bag. Homemade pie crusts, pizza dough and mini pizzas work the same way. All can be made in large batches with spare time in the kitchen and later yield savings of both time and energy when the time rolls around to get dinner on the table!

Freeze Odds and Ends

I also use the freezer to help me save money on perishable ingredients that I use in my regular meal rotation. For instance, I realized I only need a jar and a half of sauce each time I make Chicken Tikka Masala for my family. In the past, I would simply use two and have a rather unsuable portion of leftovers (having not added extra chicken) and the extra sauce was virtually wasted. Now, I take the half jar and pop it right in the freezer, as is! Next time I make that meal, I not only pull two pounds of cubed, cooked chicken out of the freezer (clearly labeled for Tikka Masala, of course), but I also pull out the half-full jar of sauce. They are stored near one another in the freezer. I use this same method for jars of tomato sauce, packages of bread products, tortillas, etc. Once I realized my family only needed half of a long Artisan Baguette to compliment a pasta meal, I bought a few of them and froze them, sliced in half on a pretty diagonal, in gallon size freezer bags. Tortillas come in packages of 8 but we consistently use 10? That’s right! Purchase 5 packages, rip open and divide into four freezer bags, clearly labeled for Taco meals, and the item needn’t appear on my grocery list for at least a month if not two! I like to warm my breads and tortillas in the oven before serving, slicing up the bread or piling rolls up into a pretty basket lined with a colorful cloth napkin.

And so, one can achieve the ease and time-saving benefits of freezer cooking without the grueling all-day cooking session. And I’ve cut my grocery budget by around 30%! Keep checking back, I plan to post many of my recipes in detail, with notes about what is stored in the pantry and freezer.

colorful_socks_in_a_laundry_basket

http://susandayley.wordpress.com/tag/socks-without-mates/

I’ve basically given up on ever “getting it all together.”

And, surprisingly, as I get older and watch our family life shift from that of a young couple with babies and toddlers to the doorstep of middle age with a couple tweens and everyone school-age (if one counts preschool)  and no more diapers, I have settled in more and more to the notion that our home is more of an artist’s loft or a laboratory than a showroom or magazine spread. I have gone from thinking that some day all the projects will get accomplished and the wish lists of renovations and furnishings will be paid for and purchased and we would get There (you know, There…the place of Pinterest boards and the American Dream, our castle in the sky that we build in our daydreams while we wash dishes or fold laundry or sort through paperwork) and have come to embrace the reality that something will always be broken, in need of repair, torn or shabby, smudged or dirty, and coming apart at the seams.

And it’s okay.

However, despite my epiphany that I can go on existing as wife and mother (and even flourish!) in a less-than-perfect environment, it doesn’t mean that I’ve given up on my ideals, thrown in the towel, or laid down arms in this fight for Order and Beauty in the home. More than ever, I am committed to the idea that we can and should nurture our families through meals on the table, clean and comfortable beds, piles of fresh laundry, books read by a roaring fire, objects of art on the walls, music drifting through our rooms, a place for everything and everything in its place. And over the course of this grand, ongoing battle I’ve learned a few things and collected a few tricks up my sleeve. These are completely random, in no particular order. They have been passed on to me by friends, family, blogs, articles, books and experience, but I will try to provide a reference where appropriate.

1. White Sheets and Fitted Only (for the kids)

I’ll be honest. Years ago, when my sister-in-law told me she didn’t use flat sheets at all, I thought it was strange. I suppose most new ideas that aren’t a part of our experience seem strange to us at first. But somewhere around the third kid mark I realized that it was not only crazy and unnecessary to wash an extra sheet, but my kids were getting frustrated trying to learn to make a bed whilst making that slippery, extraneous sheet behave. I found sheets in corners, sheets coming out from under the bedspread stretching out into the room several feet, wadded-up sheets under spread-up bedding. Now, with just a fitted sheet and a bedspread, it’s easy for them to make their beds and less laundry for me. Being children, their bedding has to be washed occasionally anyway, so the fact that their bedspread is in direct contact with their little selves doesn’t really phase me. Why white? So that all the sheets can be washed in one load in hot water, and so that extras can be put on easily without concern about pink sheets being the only option available when one of my boys needs a change of bedding!

Along the same lines:

2. White Socks

When a friend told me that she bought all her children white Hanes socks (the sizes are distinguished by the color of the Hanes logo on the toe end of the sock), I saw a potential end to the dramatic saga of the Missing Match to My Favorite Socks. At the time we had family that really enjoyed giving our children fun, colorful socks as gifts, and nary a one of those pairs of socks were the same. At all ends of the color spectrum, socks could be found in every one of my laundry loads, and finding a match (or, as the case may be, not finding it), because the subject of many a morning fit. Add to that the time investment of matching socks while sorting and putting away laundry, and you can easily see how a couple packages of the same white socks for everyone in the family solves a huge problem. Just grab two socks from your drawer. They will match, I guarantee. We follow a similar rule for my husbands black socks for work, in that when we buy new socks we buy a lot of the same ones, so that a match is more easily found.

For those of you with children for whom the removal of all their colored socks is a violation of their self-expression, you are in luck! Mismatched socks are still a trend (just pray it’s one that lasts!).

3. Micro-Session Freezer Cooking

When I half-heartedly began to peruse Crystal Paine’s eBook on Freezer Cooking, I really wasn’t expecting to find much help in getting healthy and affordable meals on to the dinner table each night…mostly because I really, really don’t like freezer cooking. I had tried it out a few times and found myself completely exhausted, with a messy kitchen and a slew of meals in the freezer that didn’t heat up well and tasted all the same. I also had a hard time figuring out how to store things properly so that they could be easily reheated. Add to that the fact that I actually enjoy cooking meals from scratch, and the whole idea just really wasn’t appealing

One of the things I loved about this book was the various approaches to freezer cooking. The other was the detailed explanations on everything from preparation to how to flash freeze, wrap, store and reheat.

An idea tossed out in the book was “micro or mini sessions” of freezer cooking. For me, this translated into taking 20 minutes out of my day now and again to brown several pounds of ground beef, separate into quart size freezer bags and label for meals such as chili, tacos, or pasta with meat sauce. I began purchasing extra produce for a particular meal (see number 4) and prepping that ingredient for two or three batches instead of one, such as sautéed kale or leeks for Tuscan Soup or Bacon Brie Quiche. The extra veggies, when cooled, are packed up in a freezer bag and labeled for a meal. I even discovered from this book that I could “freeze a mix”! So now I have corn muffin mix in freezer bags, ready for milk and eggs and oil, saving me extra minutes and hassle. I have cooked and crumbled bacon, sliced and browned chicken sausage, cubed grilled chicken, and halves of artisan baguettes all prepped, labeled, and ready to go.

Though I still have to assemble and cook my meals, I found that this little “nudge” in the direction of dinner preparation was all I needed, and I still retain the enjoyment of tying on my vintage-style apron, throwing on some Sinatra and cooking up a storm in my kitchen.

But it wouldn’t be quite so easy and efficient if I hadn’t switched to:

4. The Twelve Meals

I’m a planner. I love lists. And I’m a chef at heart. Recipes? Not really. Just give me a general idea (like Citrus Chicken or Loaded Potato Soup), fresh ingredients, a long stretch of kitchen counter and a sharp knife and I’m off to the races.

I’m a little too good at coming up with delicious meal ideas. And I’m great at grocery shopping.

And that’s about where it ends. Because reality is that I have five children. And I homeschool them. And I have a house to clean and laundry to wash and put away and bills to pay. And the dog has to go to the vet. And I struggle just about every day with health issues.

So oftentimes, that fresh and delicious gourmet meal is never prepared. And then some of the ingredients spoil. Guilt sets in, and it’s pizza for dinner or even worse…everybody fends for themselves, raiding the pantry and eating Cheetos as their main course. (In case my husband is reading this…no, love, there aren’t any Cheetos in our pantry, but the turn of phrase was really working for me. Creative license, you understand).

I’ve tried out various forms of meal planning in the past, basically to no avail. But what they all had in common was too much variety. Wait! Don’t run away! I know that variety is important to us, right? But when you really think about it, when you are on cooking auto pilot, don’t you end up preparing the same meals two or three times a month for your family anyway? Tried and true favorites? The stuff you keep ingredients for stocked up in your pantry?

I had always tried to come up with a list of 30 meals to make over the course of a month. Finally, I decided to choose about twelve meals that fit a template of being tasty, moderately healthy, affordable, and generally liked around our table. I didn’t want them all to be chicken, either. These meals would be put into a permanent rotation every two weeks (allowing for the occasional pizza, leftovers, restaurant meal, or church picnic, etc.) and I would plan them out on the calendar accordingly.

When I had selected the Twelve Meals, I then made a list of all of the ingredients for each, right down to the salt and pepper. For shelf stable ingredients, I stocked our pantry shelves and added those items to my recurring grocery lists on Paperless, the app I use to basically organize my entire life. That way, when making my grocery lists, I will see the item and remember to buy more if needed.

For the perishable ingredients, I stocked my freezer with staples such as ground beef, chicken, bacon, chicken sausage, broccoli florets, shredded cheese, pie crusts, and bread. As mentioned above, I began to purchase and prepare vegetables that were freezer-appropriate, such as the kale and leeks. The refrigerated items with an extended shelf life such as sour cream, wedges of brie, sweet onions, condiments, and sealed containers of dairy such as cream and yogurt can be purchased once a month and stocked for many meals in advance.

That leaves the perishable items with a short shelf life. When all the other ingredients are shelved or prepped and frozen, you’d be amazed how little is left over. I am fortunate to have an excellent and affordable grocery delivery service available to me, and it’s these kinds of items that often end up on that list. Our fresh fruit for the week, milk, sandwich bread (and I even store extra sandwich bread in the freezer when I have room), salad ingredients…and that’s about it.  Whether I make a run to the store for these items or send my husband for them on his way home from work, its a short list, a quick stop, and never very expensive.

Are there still days that my plans flop and we order pizza? Sure. Once or twice. But “normal” in our house has now become a hot, nutritious meal, served on time with minimal mess left behind in the kitchen…candles burning and music lilting and peace in my heart because I gave up shooting for the moon and “settled”…settled for variety, flavor, less waste, more time, less guilt, a lower grocery bill, and satisfied smiles around the table.

5. Don’t Take My iPhone Away. Ever.

It sounded like such an extravagance. And I knew I was taking a chance. But I saw how well suited my children’s Apple devices were to how we learn and how our family works. I’m a visual and tactile learner. My phone at the time was failing, a popular service provider was running a deep discount on an older model iPhone, and I was tired of technology that was poorly designed and dysfunctional.

I had no idea the impact such a small piece of glass, aluminum, and electronic components would have on my life and my homemaking.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Handsfree parenting. I hear you, I really do. There are boundaries on my screen time, I promise, as there should be for all of us.

My phone has helped me streamline and organize in ways I’d never dreamed possible. My unlimited service plan is now only $50/month, and the money I save with all the apps that keep me on my toes more than makes up for the $99 I originally spent on the phone. From the calendar and email to the Paperless lists and camera always ready at hand, I have less paper clutter in the house, never miss an appointment, always pay my bills on time, rarely forget something at the store, keep up on blogs, capture more memories with my children, keep track of fitness and calories, have all my recipes at hand with the tap of a finger, track my children’s chores, place Amazon orders, buy groceries, read my Bible and complete my Bible study stored in iBooks, drill my children on their Catechism and memory verses, train for a 5K, fill the house or car with music, listen to sermons, watch a favorite television show, plan a kitchen renovation, send a thank you note (a real paper note!), pay for a tank of gas or a latte, use a GPS, keep track of all of my financial information and balance my budget down to the most recent transaction, pay all my bills, and control the TV when the remote is lost. Not to mention any other thing you can think of that can be done with the internet. And yes, I have even blogged from my phone. And, amazingly enough, I can use it to call or text my Mom!

If I find the time, I will make another list of tips. But I would say that these are my “Top 5″…tricks and shortcuts for keeping our sanity in a bustling house of seven people, all flawed and in desperate need of Grace. I hope this list can spark some ideas for how you can simplify life for your own family!

The Songbird…

2013-06-04 10.20.40-2

I am convinced that God brings us through seasons where he presents us with a particular theme or idea repetitively in various formats to solidify a concept in our hearts that he desires to work out in our lives to his glory. Lately, I have been inundated with thoughts, ponderings and vision concerning giftings, personality, and how we live out what has been wrought within us by our Creator in the context of life and community. And I have a strong feeling that all that mumbo-jumbo can be summed up with the simplistic questions “who am I?” and “what am I here for?”, but that starts to sound a bit existential and man-centered.

Many of us are familiar with the very first question of the Westmister Shorter Catechism and its corresponding answer: “What is the chief end of man?” and “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Romans 12 gives us insight into spiritual giftings and their use in the body of Christ:

“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them…” Romans 12:4-6 (ESV)

But I think a lot of us, though thoroughly familiar with these ideas and in wholehearted agreement with them, are still left with the question “what does that look like in my life?”

How do we live day to day, exercising our gifts and glorifying God with our unique personality and ways?

One morning, quite early, I was struck with a new realization as I delighted in the clear, sweet song of a bird piercing the morning quiet with its clarion call of beauty and grace. I paused what I was doing to truly hear, to let the music of nature wash over my soul. The lilting few notes, a delicate trill. Repeated again. And again and again. The same each time yet never diminished in loveliness, never lessened in its effect on the parched places of my being.

And suddenly it hit me. We each of us are songbirds. Each wondrously created with a “song” to sing…with at least one, if not many, gifts and talents inherently woven into the fabric of our nature that may be used to glorify God and bless others. And though we might attain many accomplishments over the course of our lives, gain competence in several areas of skill and knowledge, there tends to be for each of us a particular area or gifting where we excel and feel most ourselves when we are doing it, doing that thing, singing that song.

Well. What is it? What is my song, you ask?

You know what? I think you know. I think we know deep down what it is that delights both our hearts and the heart of the Father. That thing, little or big, that not only blesses us but blesses others. That thrills our soul and makes us feel real, gives us a taste of Eden, hints at the truest essence of our personhood at times difficult to glimpse, so marred as it is by sin and brokenness. What hinders us is the haunting fear that our song isn’t what others expect it to be, or as glorious as the song of another.

The birds outside my window, perched amongst the drooping branches of the weeping birch, do not change their song with passing fancy. They make no attempt to sound like a different bird nesting in the opposite tree. Their soul-stirring melody pours forth, effortlessly…they can’t help but sing out their song, full and loud and bold, no holding back or hesitation. It’s the song they were created to sing. It’s what they do. And there can be no question as to whether it brings glory to God. To stop and listen is to be graced with the holiest of arias perfectly executed by a soprano with flawless timbre and tessatura. Drawing forth praise from the driest and most wounded of hearts. Lifting the spirits, whispering…no, shouting truth from the treetops.

He exists. He has always existed. He creates. He created you. He created me. He gave me a song. He gave YOU a song. You know the notes. Sing it out. Sing it clear. Be His Songbird!

David tenth

 

 

Happy Birthday, David! Your charm, wit, intelligence, humor, and fun-loving ways have been winning my heart for ten years now. Such a delight to watch you grow up and mature! I can’t wait to see what amazing things you will say and do in the years to come! Love, Mom.