Cooking School: Where Do I Start?

Photo Credit: beingoxymoronish. via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: beingoxymoronish. via Compfight cc

Welcome to my Cooking School series, which is designed to share what I’ve learned as an experienced home cook with people who want to learn how to cook healthy, homemade food. If you have a topic you’d like me to address, please leave a comment!

I don’t know who said “Don’t compare your beginning with someone else’s middle,” but it definitely applies to the journey of learning to cook healthy meals.  I think it’s a lifelong process and we all have room for improvement.  That being said, if you’re just getting started, please don’t get discouraged by people who have been on the journey longer!

Normally my Cooking School posts are more instructional, but today I just wanted to write a note of encouragement to all of those people out there who want to learn to cook, or change the way they cook, but aren’t sure where to start.  You can do this!  You are not behind.  Jump in where you are and don’t feel guilty about how you’ve done things in the past.

Over the holidays, I was having a conversation with a family member who is really wanting to get away from convenience foods and fast food, and help her kids start eating healthier foods, but doesn’t know where to start.  My husband excitedly showed her the menu planning website we’ve been using lately, filled with things like curry, roasted salmon, and lamb kebabs.  It was a bit overwhelming for someone trying to break out of a mac-n-cheese and chicken nugget rut!  I know my husband was trying to help, but it’s not realistic to go from the freezer section to 5 homemade meals a week.  We didn’t get there overnight and it’s unreasonable to expect anyone else could, either.

I grew up in a family where we ate out a lot (my mom ran a business and worked a ton) but we ate pretty healthy when we ate at home.  My mom has always been interested in the latest health trends (she’s all about her chia and flax seed these days) so that balanced out all the Pizza Hut and Golden Corral we ate.  My own real food journey started several years ago, when I watched Fast Food Nation.  I’ve never been a big fast food eater, but that movie convinced me of the importance of eating foods that were as close to their natural state as possible, and trying to avoid unpronounceable ingredients.  Not long after that, I read Animal Vegetable Miracle, and started shopping at farmer’s markets and even joined a CSA for a while.  Michael Pollan and the blog Kitchen Stewardship were big influences for me as well.

These days, between a full time job and little kids keeping me busy, don’t have time to volunteer on the CSA farm or even visit the farmer’s market on a regular basis.  I focus on cooking and eating a wide variety of foods (including lots of veggies) that are as unprocessed as possible.  No, my kids don’t always eat everything I serve them — but at least they’re being exposed to them and seeing them being eaten.  (Keep trying, and eventually it will pay off.  My 4.5 year old asked for seconds of brussels sprouts the other day.)

Each person has their own reasons for starting to cook and eat healthier.  Figure out what your why is — if you base the changes in your eating/cooking off of your values, you will be much more likely to be successful.  And I’m here cheering you on!
For everyone I recommend to try out vacuum sealers to preserve your food if you have not already. You are going to love it. Read reviews and best rated vacuum sealers by visiting http://vacuumsealerresearch.com/.

What or who has influenced the way you cook or eat?

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Choose Your Own Adventure Enchiladas

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“Mom’s Chicken Enchiladas.”  Ever since I moved away from home and had a kitchen of my own, I’ve been making some variation of this recipe.  More recently, I’ve been trying to eat fewer processed foods, so my latest varieties have involved various substitutions for the two “cream of” soups that my mom’s original recipe calls for, while still maintaining the flavor and texture of the original.  (Mom’s recipe doesn’t actually list enchilada sauce as an ingredient, but trust me, it’s supposed to be in there.  She always used one can of mild and one can of hot and mixed them together.)

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I’ve included some of my favorite variations, but feel free to make this your own!  Let’s go on an enchilada adventure…

1.  Choose your pan.  This recipe makes a 9×13 pan-full of enchiladas, or you can make two 8×8 pans of enchiladas and freeze one for later.

2.  Choose your tortillas.  I like corn, but flour tortillas are fine too if that’s how you roll.  (Enchiladas…roll…ha!)

3.  Choose your protein.  Chicken, ground beef, shredded beef, shredded pork, beans… I’m sure it would be delicious with seafood or venison too, but I’ve never tried it.  You’ll need about 1 1/2-2 pounds of protein.

4.  Choose your veggies (and cook them).  My mom’s original recipe uses one onion and one green pepper, but I say the more veggies the better.  Lots of colorful bell peppers would be great, or even some sauteed spinach.  Go for about 1 1/2 cups of veggies.

5.  Choose your sauce.  So many options!  For the enchilada sauce, you can go red or green, store-bought or homemade.  I like red sauce with beef and green sauce with chicken.  You’ll need about 2 cups (or 2 cans).

6.  Don’t forget other stuff.  The original recipe also calls for 1 can each of cream of mushroom and cream of chicken soup, so for a healthier twist you could make your own or use a cup of sour cream.  You’ll also need 4 oz. of green chiles and about 2-3 cups of shredded cheese.

7.  Choose your assembly method.  Rolling the enchiladas would be traditional, but they taste just as good and are much easier when assembled in layers.

Here we go!

Coat your baking dish with cooking spray.

If you’re rolling your enchiladas, turn to the next page: In a large bowl, combine protein, cooked vegetables, soups/sour cream, and green chiles.  Soften corn tortillas in chicken broth or fry ever so briefly in oil (so bad for you but OMG good), fill each one, roll up and place in baking dish.  Cover with enchilada sauce and top with cheese.

If you’re layering your enchiladas, turn to page 17: In a large bowl, combine cooked vegetables with soups/sour cream, and green chiles.  Begin layering ingredients, in this order: tortillas, protein, sauce/veggie mixture, cheese, and then drizzle enchilada sauce over the whole thing.  Repeat all layers.

Bake at 350 degrees F until bubbly, 30-45 minutes.

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What’s your favorite kind of enchiladas?

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Cooking School: Back-Pocket Recipes

Photo Credit: CHRISSPdotCOM via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: CHRISSPdotCOM via Compfight cc

Welcome to my Cooking School series, which is designed to share what I’ve learned as an experienced home cook with people who want to learn how to cook healthy, homemade food. If you have a topic you’d like me to address, please leave a comment!

I love to try new recipes, but we’re all busy people, so it’s nice to have some familiar recipes that you know how to make and that you know are crowd-pleasers — whether you’re cooking for your family or dinner guests.  For this latest installment of Cooking School, I thought I’d share some of the meals that I make over and over again — recipes I keep in my back pocket (or have memorized!) that I couldn’t live without.  Here are the meals that I keep in a regular rotation:

Breakfast:

Dinner:

  • Chicken enchiladas (I’m usually too lazy to roll up the enchiladas, so I guess it’s really enchilada casserole.
  • Tacos – just plain ol’ ground beef with onions and taco seasoning, bowls of lettuce, tomato, cheese, beans, avocado, salsa and sour cream.  Everyone can make a taco or taco salad that suits them perfectly.
  • Stir fry (with rice or noodles) — you can mix up the flavors so much by using different sauces!  This is a great way to use up leftovers, too.
  • My go-to Sunday dinner is roast beef (I learned that one from my grandma).
  • Homemade pizza (Williams-Sonoma dough recipe, spaghetti sauce, cheese, and whatever you want for toppings)
  • Grilled chicken (make extras for salads and wraps).
  • Southwest quinoa salad

This post was inspired by a similar post from my friend AfricanKelli (check out her Top 8 meals!) and 15 Recipes Every Parent Should Know from Dinner: A Love Story.

What are your back-pocket meals?

Like what you read?  Check out some of my other Cooking School posts:

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Sarah’s Famous Steel-Cut Oatmeal: Fall Remix #pumpkinspice

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Fall’s cool mornings just cry out for warm, filling breakfast, right?  Save yourself some money on those overpriced fall-spiced lattes and coffee shop muffins the size of your head, and and make a bowl of pumpkin spice oatmeal instead.  You can get your pumpkin spice fix without hurting your wallet or your waistline.

Steel cut oats are a tasty and nutritious way to start your day, but whenever I mention them, people raise some objections.  The two most common ones I hear are:

They take so long to cook!

and

Oatmeal?  Isn’t that kind of boring?

Let’s start with the first one.  It’s true — Ain’t nobody got time for simmering oatmeal on a hot stove for thirty minutes in the morning.  But as long as you don’t have an aversion to microwaving, you can have delicious steel-cut oatmeal in your life without waking up early to cook.  Make them in the evening while you’re cleaning up from dinner.  They really are just as good reheated — I promise!

And boring?  Not if you add all of your favorites things! way.  I love oatmeal because there are so many different ways to make it your own.

The Basic Recipe (makes 4 servings):

1 c. steel cut oats

4 c. water

Pinch of salt

Combine ingredients, bring to a boil, and reduce to a simmer for 30 minutes.  Add your favorite oatmeal toppings and enjoy.

Fall Remix – Pumpkin spice oatmeal mix-ins:

I like to add mix-ins to the whole batch of oatmeal while it’s warm, then portion it out into individual pyrex bowls for storage and easy reheating.  If you have a variety of food preferences in your family, though, you could certain do this bowl-by-bowl as you reheat in the morning.  Down with boring oatmeal!

For a full batch, add:

1/2 can of pumpkin puree

1 T. (or more!) of pumpkin pie spice or cinnamon

Handful of dried cranberries, unsweetened applesauce, and/or a drizzle of maple syrup for sweetness (add to taste – I like cranberries for the texture)

Chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts would be excellent) or a big dollop of nut butter (I like the crunch of actual nuts, but use what you have on hand)

To reheat:

Microwave a single bowl, then add a splash of milk or almond milk to thin it (I will admit, refrigerated oatmeal can be a little gloppy) and cool it off.  It lasts for a week in the fridge!

Have I convinced you to give steel cut oats a try?  What’s your favorite warm breakfast food? 

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Healthy homemade pancake mix

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Before we had kids (and even when we only had one small, highly portable kid), we loved to go out to eat breakfast on Saturday mornings.  Our favorite place was a old-fashioned pharmacy-turned-diner that serves excellent omelettes, pancakes, and constantly refilled cups of coffee.  We loved to sit at the old soda fountain counter, read the paper, and watch the hipster waitstaff rush around while we waited for our breakfast.  It’s a popular place, so sometimes the wait would be pretty long.

These days, between trying to save money, a busy preschooler who doesn’t appreciate long waits (even for yummy breakfast food), and a strong desire to stay in my pajamas on Saturday mornings — we usually stay home and make our own big breakfasts on the weekends.  I like my pancakes topped with almond butter, slices bananas, and a drizzle of maple syrup.  Or blueberries, sliced almonds and real butter.  Or a couple of extra crispy slices of bacon and an over-easy egg.

No matter what your favorite pancake toppings are, this super-simple (and cheap!) homemade pancake mix will ensure that you never have to buy Bisquick again.  (Please steal my idea and tape post-its with the instructions to the side & top of your mix container.)

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To put together the MIX:

4 c. flour (I use whole wheat, but any mix of flours should work)

2 T. baking powder

2 t. salt

4 T. sugar (optional, but I think they taste better with just a hint of sweetness.  Another option would be to add a squirt of honey when you mix in the wet ingredients)

When you’re ready to make PANCAKES:

To make 8 6-in. pancakes (I can’t flip them when they’re any larger) // serves 2-3 adults

1 c. MIX

1 egg

1 scant c. milk

3 T. oil (anything will work here — melted coconut oil, melted butter, vegetable oil, etc.)

To make 16 6-in. pancakes // serves 4-6 adults

2 c. MIX

2 eggs

1 3/4 c. milk

6 T. oil

What’s your favorite weekend breakfast?

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Local Product Swap – the best that Springfield MO and Apex NC have to offer

Whenever someone new comments on my blog, I try to hop over and see what their blog is about, and leave them some comment love. A few weeks ago, I clicked onto Kelli’s blog, She Crab Soup, for the first time.  The first post I saw was announcing a swap of local products with a dollar limit of $15.  That sounds fun, right?  So I signed up on a whim, and a few days later I found out I’d been paired up with Elizabeth from North Carolina.

She sent me a great package of goodies — some local honey (with the comb still in it — can I do something with that?) and barbecue sauce, along with some postcards showing the downtown of her town, Apex NC.

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I come from an area where we know a bit about barbecue ourselves (cough cough KC BBQ is the best cough cough) but I always love to try new sauces.  She says it is great on meatballs, so that’s how I’ll have to eat it!  (Bone Suckin Sauce?  Meat BALLS?  I can’t help it — I’ve got Beavis and Butthead laughter going off in my head like crazy!)

And what’s MO amazing than a gift from Missouri?  Here’s what I got for Elizabeth:

My go-to gift item from Springfield is always Askinosie Chocolate.  It’s an amazing bean-to-bar company that goes beyond fair trade to develop relationships with cacao farmers all around the world.  (And the chocolate is just. so. good.)

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I blog-stalked Elizabeth for a while and decided to make her a mix CD of local Springfield artists, since she obviously loves music.  (Check out her Songs from the Unknown series!)

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I finished out the box with the book Winter’s Bone (set in the Ozarks and written by a local) and a can of cashews, along with a recipe for Springfield-style Cashew Chicken.

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What’s the best local product from where you live?  Have you ever participated in a swap like this?

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Cooking School: Frugal Dinners

Photo Credit: Tax Credits via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Tax Credits via Compfight cc

There are blogs devoted to saving money, couponing, and getting the best deal on everything you buy.  Unfortunately, I just can’t get excited about that stuff.  I really dislike grocery shopping, so I’ve always gone for about speed and convenience over getting the best price on every item.  However… Now that I’m paying for two kids in daycare, it is becoming clear that I have to start paying more attention to our budget. After tracking our spending for a couple of weeks, our grocery and household budget is an area that can definitely use some trimming.   I’ll write more about our budgeting (or lack thereof) later, but for now I want to talk about some ways to save money by cooking meals with inexpensive ingredients and stretching your more expensive ingredients to last longer.

Go meatless or meat-light.  Meat and dairy are some of the “spendier” items on my weekly grocery bill.  Many families have incorporated a meatless Monday or another vegetarian night each week for the health benefits as well as cost savings.  My husband usually doesn’t enjoy vegetarian meals unless they’re fairly elaborate, like Indian meals with lots of side dishes (which I love but rarely have time to prepare). So instead of going completely meatless, I’ve been trying to cut the meat in some of our dinners down by as much as half, by mixing it with grains, beans or other vegetables.  (Here’s a whole post devoted to hiding veggies in plain sight!)  This sneaky trick works great in casseroles, enchiladas, chili, and soup.  I can also usually get away with a meatless meal as long as it has a significant helping of eggs in it, like a veggie quiche.  (Lentil sloppy joes are pretty good, too!)

Shop in season. I don’t always follow this advice these days, since my son loves grapes even in the winter when they’re ridiculously overpriced.  But when you can, buying fruits and vegetables that are in season is so much more affordable than those that have to be flown in from the southern hemisphere.  (Also — nothing beats good in-season produce for taste.  I’ve pretty much stopped eating fresh tomatoes except for during the summer.)  For family favorites that aren’t in season, try the freezer section.  I can almost guarantee it will be cheaper, and they still taste pretty good.

Buy in bulk. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the produce that I have found that our local Sam’s Club lately (we don’t have Costco but I suspect it is similar). With a little bit of planning, even our family of four (two adults and two small children) can usually use the larger quantity packages that are sold at the warehouse clubs.  Here are my use-it-up strategies:

  • plan meals that use a lot of whatever you’ve bought (like fajitas for a large pack of bell peppers)
  • wash and chop the fruits and veggies as soon as you get home from the store to encourage healthy snacking
  • use them in freezer meals 
  • buy vegetables that can be frozen (did you know you can even freeze spinach to use it in smoothies or cook it in the future?)

Go exploring.  Two of my best bargain grocery shopping tips (especially if you like to cook ethnic foods) are buying spices from the bulk bins at the local health food store, and buying sauces and and other speciality ingredients at ethnic markets.  I don’t have time to run down every sale in town at a zillion different grocery stores, but these are staple items that you can stock up on, and it’s really worth the extra trip — we’re talking prices that are half or a third of what you would pay at the grocery store.

Rubber chicken.  Yeah, it’s cliche, but it’s true — you really can s t r e t c h a single chicken into a lot of meals.  First, buying a fryer is cheaper per pound than buying the pieces cut up.  You can cook the breasts for one meal, then throw the thighs and drumsticks in the crockpot for another meal.  (Mmm…chicken pot pie.)  Use the backbone and other random bits to make stock for soup.  (Don’t be scared of cutting up the chicken yourself!  Get yourself a sharp knife and watch this YouTube video to learn how.)  You might even be able to pick off the last bits of meat from the carcass to use in enchiladas or a casserole.

What are your best budget-friendly cooking tips or recipes?

And an annoucement:  Shira Miller won the Wildtree giveaway by liking my Facebook page.  Thanks to everyone who entered!

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Freezer Meal Workshop and Wildtree giveaway

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A couple a weeks ago, I attended a Wildtree freezer meal workshop. I paid for it myself and all the opinions in this post are my own. My friend Angela Smith, who sells Wildtree and who led the workshop, has provided some Wildtree products for a giveaway at the bottom of the post.

Here’s the concept behind the workshop: you pre-purchase a “bundle” of Wildtree spices (seasoning blends, flavored grapeseed oil, etc.), you bring the protein for the meals, and you walk away from the party with 10 assembled freezer bags of ready-to-cook meals or main dishes that serve about 6 people each, plus plenty of leftover spices. (I don’t know if they offer a vegetarian workshop, but the one I attended was definitely for meat eaters.)  Here was the list of meals from our “Comfort Foods” workshop:

  • Spanish Style Garlic Shrimp
  • Italian Marinated Flank Steak
  • Best Burgers
  • Italian Meatloaf
  • Chipotle Lime Fajitas
  • Italian “Medallions” (I think they just wanted it to rhyme — it’s chicken tenders marinated in Italian seasonings)
  • Honey Balsamic Chicken Drumsticks
  • Crockpot Chipotle Lime Chicken
  • Adobo Chicken
  • Mozzarella and Tomato Chicken Pasta

All the recipes for this workshop are available here.  I’m guessing if you google “Wildtree freezer meal workshop,” you could find others.

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Here are my thoughts about the Wildtree freezer meal workshop:

Unlike what I usually think of when I think of freezer meals (precooked casseroles, etc.) these are all raw meat + veggies + seasonings, and you thaw them ahead of time and cook them the night you want to eat them.  They don’t quite have the simplicity of a freezer-to-crockpot meal (although I believe Wildtree does offer a crockpot workshop) but on the plus side, eating all soupy/mushy crockpot meals can get a little boring.

I think for people who aren’t confident cooks, especially as far as what seasonings or spices will best enhance your food, this is a great concept.  However, you would still have to be able to follow a recipe and cook meat.  (That really intimidates some people!)  And the convenience of having your meat and veggies all chopped, marinated, and ready to go is certainly nice.

The meals are good and the Wildtree products are very high quality — no weird ingredients that you can’t pronouce.  I’ve made the shrimp, the burgers, Italian steak, and the Italian medallions so far; the shrimp has been my favorite.  (And I didn’t even think I liked shrimp!)  But I will say, if you have a well-stocked spice cabinet, you could certainly recreate these meals at home without buying the bundle or attending the workshop.

It is WAY more fun assembling freezer meals around a table with your friends (and a glass of wine!) than working in your kitchen alone!

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A note on the cost: the workshop itself doesn’t cost anything, but you do have to purchase the Wildtree spice bundle for around $80, which sounds like a lot of money for spices — and it is.  But, I would say Wildtree spices are equivalent in price and quality to Penzey’s… I just don’t normally go into Penzey’s and buy 5 large jars of spices and a bottle of vinegar and a bottle of grapeseed oil all in one fell swoop.  So even though it is a little pricey, I think it’s a good value for your money.  It’s also worth noting that you will have plenty of spices left over after assembling the 10 freezer meals at the party, and Wildtree has a great search function on their website that lets you search recipes by spices.

Another note on cost:  Buying enough meat for 10 meals that serve 6 people each is EXPENSIVE.  I mean, you would have spent it eventually, but just be aware, especially if you are on a tight budget (and who isn’t?) that your grocery budget for the week is going to be blown.

Closing thoughts:  Freezer meal cooking is a great tool to simplify meal prep in the evenings.  A combination of cooking double portions of freezer-friendly meals like soup, chili, enchiladas, etc. and putting one portion in the freezer for later, making some freezer-to-crockpot meals, and making some Wildtree-style freezer meals (uncooked meat & veggies & seasonings) would give you a great repertoire of meal choices that save a lot of time during that crunch time between getting home from work and trying to get dinner on the table.  (Although, if you forget to thaw ahead of time or get the crockpot going in the morning… you won’t be eating a freezer meal that night.  Put a Post-it on the door you leave through in the morning to remind you!)  If all that cooking sounds overwhelming to you, maybe you could start a Freezer Meal Club where you cook several portions of the same meal, then swap with friends to get an assortment of meals for your freezer.

And now for the giveaway! Angela has kindly provided three Wildtree items for me to giveaway: Wicked Good Slow Cooker Sauce, Quick and Easy Beer Bread Mix, and Everything Spice blend.

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a Rafflecopter giveaway

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“Clean Out the Freezer” Meal Planning

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Freezer meal assembly in process

Between that freezer meal workshop I attended a couple of weeks ago, and a few too many grocery trips to Sam’s, our freezer is overflowing!  My plan this week is to cook as much as possible out of the freezer.  Here’s what’s on the menu:

After this week, I will have cooked about 5 meals from the freezer meal party.  I’m planning to share my thoughts about the products (Wildtree), the whole concept of freezer meal cooking, and maybe a giveaway!  Stay tuned.

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Linking up with the Menu Planning Challenge from Mommy Run Fast & Fitness, Health & Happiness

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“Survival Mode” Meal Plan, January 26-February 1

Breakfast for dinner... Mmm...

Breakfast for dinner… Mmm…

I’m going to be solo parenting this week, so here is my loose plan for some very easy meals that I can either pull out of the freezer, prep ahead or make quickly while entertaining a 3 yr old and holding a baby.  (Note to self: move the Ergo carrier into the kitchen for easy access!)

  • Tacos! So easy, especially if I chop the veggies ahead of time. Plus, Dragons Love Tacos, dontcha know?
  • dragonsBreakfast for dinner — scrambled eggs w/ veggies and pancakes (although after reading this excellent article, What I Make for Dinner When I Don’t Feel Like Making Dinner, maybe I’ll make french toast instead?)
  • Italian chicken (freezer meal), garlic rice, and roasted vegetables
  • Order pizza… the easiest dinner of all!

I’m also following the old “It Takes a Village” adage and letting friends invite us over for dinner a couple of times.  I get a break from cooking, our kids have fun playing together and we get to visit!  Wins all around.  (I loved this article that talks about how the “village” advice applies just as much to taking care of yourself as it does to taking care of kids.  I struggle to ask for help, but I’m never sorry when I do!)

What are your go-to meals when you’re in survival mode?

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