I am taking a vacation from all the clutter in my head

I am taking a vacation from all the clutter in my head

My mind has been in overdrive this summer. It’s constantly moving, but not always in a good way.

On any given day it’s a health challenge. Or travel. Or work. Or a toddler tantrum. Or, my favorite, wrestling with unsolvable life questions, which keep me up at night. I am ready to stop.

So I will.

This week I am going to stop worrying. Well, I am going to consciously let go of all the crap that’s been occupying my head for the last few months. It’s starting to get crowded up there.

I will fulfill all of my responsibilities at home and at work, but I am going to stop thinking. Yes, it’s a cleanse for my head.

Throughout my many years, I have found that it’s not easy to banish something in your life without replacing it with something else. It creates a vacuum and it doesn’t always end well. What am I supposed to do if I am not worrying?

Instead I will:

  • Be grateful for this wonderful life I am living, and the wonderful people in it.
  • Stop judging myself for not being perfect. (Ok, I won’t be perfect at this one but I have to start somewhere.)
  • Let myself be at peace, at least for 5 minutes a day. No TV, no internet, no texting, no cleaning, no people. Just quiet.
  • Add smaller items to my to-do list so I can feel a bit more accomplished. It feels so good to cross items off the list.
  • Love more. I’ll work to be more patient, kind, compassionate, and thoughtful to everyone. Including myself.

I am looking forward to this vacation from all the clutter in my head. It’s just a week, right?

Hosting a large brunch? Hold the bacon

Two tips for hosting a large brunch (or any meal)

Some people are natural party hosts.

I am not one of them.

Or at least, I have not achieved a level of mastery or ease in this process.

I work hard to plan every detail so I don’t stress the day of the party. This means I am always looking for easier ways to host, especially when it comes to meal planning.

One day I’ll learn to relax. Well, maybe…

Earlier this month we hosted a large brunch held in honor of a bride and groom on the day after their wedding. Here was the good part: technically I wasn’t hosting the party and it wasn’t at my house, but I played a role.

The brunch went well, and the bride and groom had a great time (as far as I could tell).

On a side note, I don’t believe that the perfect food and the perfect presentation make a party. It’s the people. It’s the host(s) bringing these people together. It’s the feeling of camaraderie that each guest leaves with. To me, that’s the mark of a truly successful party.

But these guests needed to eat.

During the party, I learned a couple beginner lessons about meal planning for larger groups, and here are my top two takeaways:

  1. Serve food that is low-maintenance. Cut it once and serve, or throw it in a crockpot and let it cook.
  2. Outsource. If you don’t have time or the inclination to bake or make it, purchase the food from somewhere that excels in it. Or ask a friend to bring their specialty.

Following these principles, more or less, this was the menu:

1. Croissants. Some with chocolate. Some without. All very yummy. My friends picked these up from a local bakery that morning. We cut the pastries up into more manageable pieces so that guests wouldn’t get overwhelmed by their size.

2. Bagels and Cream Cheese. Get your bagels fresh as well as your cream cheese. Find fun flavors. Just cut and serve.

3. Fruit Salad. My favorite is a variety of berries plus mint and honey. I’ll share this recipe in a future post. I usually keep half of the salad in the fridge so that there is fresh fruit for the stragglers. We also cut up melons.

4. Bundt cake. I am not sure what was in it, but my friend’s mother can bake a cake! I snacked on it all day.

5. Egg, Ham and Spinach Breakfast Casserole. Not all egg dishes can stand the test of a five-hour brunch, but this one worked well! The Greek yogurt preserved its moistness and the crockpot kept it warm. The initial prep took a little time but then you can forget about it. We doubled the recipe, and added a least another half hour to the cooking time. Here is the recipe we used.

We left these foods out for guests as they came, chatted with the newlyweds, and left. I only had to remember to put the fresh fruit out at the half-way mark.

And as it happens, we had one dish that didn’t work quite as well. There’s always one in the bunch.

Bacon. I admit the bacon was hugely popular. We would pull one batch out of the oven and it was gone in minutes. We served Uncured Apple-Smoked Bacon from Trader Joe’s and we threw it in the oven to make for a more simple preparation. But we had to cook batch after batch, which took time and attention. Although it was popular, I would omit this for the next brunch for a large number of people or over a long duration of time. It’s not worth the effort to keep it going the entire party.

When serving for large numbers, it’s always simpler to serve things that don’t need attention. Either outsource your food or serve food that is low maintenance. Also, serve food that you know will work.

Otherwise, you will miss the party.

Kitchen Hack: Use a melon baller for bell pepper prep

Use a melon baller to make bell pepper prep easier

I’ve been on vacation for the past few weeks, and now I am back with an oldie but goodie: Use a melon baller to clear out those hard-to-clean bell pepper insides.

You know those three or four cliffs of veggie pulp that really make it difficult to cut the pepper properly? I’ve struggled for years to give my peppers a clean look.

I bought a melon baller a couple years ago when I was going to make an elaborate fruit bowl. No one mentioned to me how difficult it was to make fruit balls look good. Melon fail.

This year I resurrected our melon baller to help with bell pepper prep. Just scoop the pulp and seeds out (gently). The insides are now clean, smooth and ready.

Then cut your slices. So much easier.

Last weekend I roasted them in the oven with a basic dressing: balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt, pepper and rosemary. Marinate and throw in a 425 degree oven for about 20 minutes. Yum!

A Trick to Serve Hot Dogs – A Shortcut Dad Guest Post

This post is by The Shortcut Dad. 

A hotdog tutorial by The Shortcut Dad!

Ever since I was a kid, hot dogs have always been one of my favorite foods. The Shortcut Mom, ZJ, and I all enjoy them today, but we serve them differently. ZJ is still at the stage where we cut his food into pieces, and Deb likes to eat hers without a roll. My preference is to have my hot dogs on a bun, but as the only one in our home who does it creates a minor dilemma for me. Since I don’t eat hot dogs that often do I buy hot dog buns, knowing that they will go bad before I get to use them all or do I allow them to take up valuable freezer space? Thankfully, I’ve found a better way.

Nobody really likes the ends on a loaf of bread for their sandwiches, but they make the perfect substitute for a roll to eat with a hot dog and a slice of cheese.

What follows is an easy recipe – note that we keep our bread frozen to last longer, and for this recipe it assumes the same for cooking a hot dog in your toaster oven:

1. Set your broiler for 450 degrees, generally the highest setting for a toaster oven, and put some aluminum foil in the toaster tray to make cleanup easier.

2. Before cooking, put a lengthwise split, several sideways splits, or both to help grease drain from your hot dog. If you’re eating it on a hot dog bun, take the bun out of the freezer when you put the hot dog in the broiler.

3. Let the dog cook for 7-8 minutes, then turn it to the other side. If you’re cooking with a bun open it now so the inside can thaw. If you’re using a bread loaf end piece take the bread out of the freezer now. You can also set the cheese on whatever bread you are using at this time.

4. Give the hot dog another 7-8 minutes or when it looks ready. When you take it out put it on the bread and place it in the microwave to melt the cheese.

5. Depending on how deeply the bread was frozen, set the microwave for between 12 and 17 seconds. This is enough time to melt the cheese and thaw the bread without turning it soggy.

Lunch is served!

Ridiculously Easy Recipe: Two-ingredient chicken and salsa

Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy. Easy!

Did I mention how easy this recipe is?

This simple slow cooker chicken recipe is from Holly Homer at Kids Activities Blog. It requires two ingredients and a slower cooker. There is virtually no prep, which is perfect for days when everything has gone crazy.

Ingredients:

  1. Chicken (frozen is fine)
  2. Fresh salsa

Mix the salsa and chicken in your slower cooker, and set it to cook. You can cook it half a day on high, or a whole day on low. And voila! Easy chicken. Shred the chicken and serve.

Ridiculously Easy Recipe: Chicken and Salsa

You can eat the chicken by itself, or mix it with rice. It would also taste great in a taco or fajita.

Use fresh salsa if you can, but you could substitute that with jarred salsa.

Click here to see the original recipe!

So easy! Chicken and Salsa. That's all you need!

An unexpected lesson I learned in motherhood: How to set boundaries for myself

Here is one thing I am learning through motherhood: How to set boundaries.

I knew I had a lot to learn when I became a mother, like how to overcome sleep deprivation and how to stop a toddler meltdown. The one thing I didn’t know I needed to learn was how to set boundaries.

Not for my kid (which is important), but for me.

I work. I mother a toddler. I wife. I have other interests. I think I still have friends. The house gets dirty.

Most times I can’t do it all, or things get half done. Not because I don’t have enough time, but because my attention is pulled all over the place.

Do you know how many half-read books are on my bedroom floor? That pretty much sums it up.

I am at a stage in my son’s life where boundaries are difficult. There are always two Duplos stuck together that need to be unstuck or a shoe that needs to be put on. A temper tantrum to be handled or a diaper to be changed.

My son also wants cuddles. Tons of cuddles, which I won’t complain about.

Some days I wake up and I need more order. More room, even if it’s just mental. I know my life is inherently complex (at this moment in time), but I need my own space.

I set boundaries for my son. What about me?

It took me a while but I am finally starting to figure out how to carve out space simply for myself. This change only has been possible with the help of my husband who makes sure I follow through.

In the morning, I now make time to read, to journal or to maintain my spiritual practice. It’s a priority. I have to fight for it some days and sometimes it’s only for a few minutes.

Even a few minutes counts, and I am happier for it.

I have regular gym times that I set aside during the week and I am starting to kick butt. I don’t always want to go but I do. I always feel better.

Last weekend, I spent half an hour reading a book at a coffee shop. It was divine.

Recently at work someone tried to schedule a call to start at 5 p.m., which was too late for me. At that point, I am usually at home with my kid, possibly starting dinner. I usually get 2-3 hours at night with my son. That’s it before bed, and our family time is precious.

This meeting wasn’t worth ruining our dinner time.

I said, “No” to the meeting. It was magical. I could say no. Of course this meeting wouldn’t make or break my career and the meeting time was ultimately changed.

Before I had my son, I would have made it work, even if the call was at 8 p.m.

Damn, it feels good to say no sometimes.

In some areas of my life, I have always had trouble setting boundaries. Now as a parent, it’s particularly challenging. For me, it is easy to put off self-care like exercise, reading, a trip to the hair salon or other things I used to enjoy, because my son (or our home) occupies much of my available physical and mental space.

I am now learning to make space for me.  To read more. To move more. To relax more. It may be easier with just one kid but if we ever have another, it’s probably wise to start this practice now.

It’s starting to feel good.

Five simple tricks to keep you and your sandbox happy

How to keep bugs out of your sandbox and other sandbox tips!

I have mixed emotions about sandboxes.

They keep my son occupied for long periods of time. He is so happy slinging sand around.

They are also very messy. Sand sticks to everything and magically spreads throughout the yard.

Not to mention that sandboxes attract bugs.

I am not sure if I love or hate our sandbox but it sure makes my son happy.

Here are few tips that will help you and your child enjoy the sandbox more this summer:

Tip #1:

How to keep bugs out of your sandbox and other sandbox tips!

Fight bugs by mixing cinnamon into the sand. I was happy to hear that bugs hate cinnamon, which will keep the insects at bay. I bought an industrial-size bottle for a few bucks and poured it in. Not only does it help keep bugs out, it may keep them away from the perimeter, too. Afterwards, my son used the cinnamon container as a sand toy. Win-Win.

Tip #2:

Choose your sand wisely. Play sand is specifically cleaned for children. We almost bought the run-of-the-mill sand at Home Depot until we were warned against it. Play sand is softer and nicer, and it doesn’t have carcinogenics that may be present in other sand. Read the package, do your homework and make sure you are getting the sand you want.

Tip #3:

Keep baby powder on hand. Is sand stuck to your kid? Feet? Hands? Arms? This magic powder will get it right off.

Tip #4:

Don’t forget to keep it clean. Take out any stray plants or other flotsam that has migrated into the sand box. Keep it covered when not in use.

Tip #5:

Change out the sand every year or two. We won’t need this reminder because we lose sand daily. There is something about flying sand that delights a kid! However, it’s good to keep track of how old your sand is.

My favorite tip is adding cinnamon to our sandbox to keep the bugs away. It smells great too.

Any more to add to this list?

Note: There may be affiliate links in this post to help with the costs associated with this blog. All opinions are my own.

Three words: Cook. Pasta. Faster.

You can shave 4-5 minutes off your pasta prep time with this shortcut.

Last week we had one of those nights. I got back from work late. Our toddler’s tummy was rumbling and we didn’t want to give him a snack or he wouldn’t eat dinner at all. Oh, he was a cranky toddler.

We were going to grill for dinner and all of a sudden, a very menacing thunderstorm approached. I didn’t see it on my weather app. Surely it couldn’t rain if it didn’t say so on my app, right?

We had to change directions, which was fine. I chose the Easy Ham and Cheese Pasta, which we love. We had ham and peas in the freezer, cheese in the fridge, pasta in the cupboard and spices on the rack. We were set.

It’s an easy recipe to begin with, but this time I decided to see if I could cook it even faster. My son’s whining tends to push me toward innovation. 

Recently, Huffpost ran an piece on how to cook pasta in less time. Here are the key points:

  • Use a frying pan, sauce pan, skillet or the equivalent, instead of your normal pot.
  • Put the pasta in first, then add the water. (The instructions said just enough water to cover the pasta. I added a bit more than that.)
  • Turn on the burner and boil until done.

First, by using a frying pan there is more surface to heat and it takes less time for the water to boil. I definitely noticed a difference in the time it took to heat the water.

Second, the noodles start to cook from the time you turn on the burner.

Pasta doesn’t take long to make but this saved me about 4-5 minutes from the total time.

I can see how it would be a sin to cook like this if you are serious about your pasta. Or, if you are making a very large batch. I agree that the tried-and-true way would work best.

This trick is absolutely perfect if you are cooking a quick meal for a hungry family. I’ve used this a few times since then and it’s the only way I’ll cook pasta now.

Here is a YouTube Video to see exactly how it’s done.
Life Hack: Cook pasta in half the time!
Life Hack: Cook pasta in half the time!

This post is part of the Mom Blog Party.

Thank you “Llama Llama” for helping us transition to preschool!

Llama Llama Misses Mama: Great for transitioning to preschool!Starting preschool can be hard stuff for some toddlers. I had no idea it would take this long to adjust!

ZJ started daycare/preschool in March and it’s still difficult for him. He had to leave a babysitter who loved him dearly and gave him tons of personal attention and is now in a room full of two-year olds with a few very sweet teachers who don’t have the time to hug him all day long.

I don’t blame him. Heck, what toddler wouldn’t want to be hugged all day long?

We’ve had our ups and downs. I can tell he genuinely enjoys the school but the evenings have been hard. Sometimes he acts out because he is so tired. Or doesn’t eat.

One thing we found that helps a lot is talking to him. I explain where we are going. When I will pick him up. That I will miss him, but he will have so much fun.

My husband and I are good at managing expectations for each other, and we want to do the same for him.

For this reason, our family loves the children’s book Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney.

The book is about a toddler llama starting preschool, not wanting to get involved because he misses his mama. The book goes through his day — from hanging up his coat in his cubby to lunchtime and playtime. Then, mama picks him up after the day is done.

Of course, the little llama finds that he can love both school and mama.

My son loves that this book mirrors his day. I often find that he is better at school if we read this to him often. We always read this to him on Sunday nights before bed.

I highly recommend Llama Llama Misses Mama, especially before transitioning your kid. to preschool or daycare. We didn’t read it until after he started school but it still helps!

If you want to see how the story ends, this YouTube video says it all.

How to make a simple meal divine with the right ingredients #WFMfoodie

Great ingredients make simple meals better!

 

A recipe doesn’t need to be complicated to be good. That’s been my mantra since I became a mother. A simple meal is always better in my book.

I’d like to go a bit further: A high-quality sauce, oil or ingredient can make a simple meal divine.

As a working parent, I’ve mentioned that I don’t have time to cook every night. I never have time to make sauces, and I look for shortcuts whenever I can.

Last week I attended a tasting at the Whole Foods Market in Arlington, Va., which introduced their new program: WFM Foodie. Whole Foods Markets across the country are highlighting special products they think their customers may like.

WFM Foodie products are high-quality, no preservatives, all natural. And hand-picked by foodies. We tasted a variety of the olive oils, sauces and black-bean noodles. All fantastic. And from what I saw: all very simple to incorporate into a meal. The product is simple, not the taste.

Here is what it boils down to: A well-thought out, high-quality ingredient can make almost any meal better.

I am saying this out loud because sometimes I just rush through the meal-planning process and forget that I can change things up with a good product. I used to embrace this concept a lot more, pre-baby.

Also, buying the right ingredients (not more ingredients) is often a great way to cut down time in the kitchen. 

Great ingredients make simple meals better!

At the tasting, Jackie from Whole Foods introduced a few products (and recipes), which I think are worth mentioning:

Christian Potier Sauces: I am very excited about this find. Christian Potier was voted the best sauce chef in France by Gault & Millau, and he was able to package his magic in microwave pouches. We tried the Bernaise (over grilled aspargus) and it tasted great.

Great ingredients make simple meals better! On a busy night, just grill up asparagus, heat up the sauce and there is your side dish. It would work great on Eggs Benedict as well. Christian Potier has other varieties too.

Great ingredients make simple meals better!

Black Bean Noodle Salad

Black Bean noodles: Yes, you read that right. Noodles made of black beans. Created by Explore Asian Authentic Cuisine, these noodles are full of protein, which I love. Very healthy. Very little sugar. Organic.

We tasted the Black Bean Noodle salad (above), which cooks up very quickly. Click here for the recipe.

Great ingredients make simple meals better!

Tandoori Salmon

The Sassy Indian Olive Oil: Oh my, so tasty. We ate grilled salmon, finished with this Tandoori olive oil that truly added that extra something. This main course only has four ingredients and takes no time to make. So delicious! Click here for the recipe.

Great ingredients make simple meals better!

Smoked Arbequina Olive Oil

Great ingredients make simple meals better!

I also enjoyed the smoky flavors of the Castillo de Canena Smoked Arbequino (used as a dressing above). A little pricey but worth the splurge.

Great ingredients make simple meals better! Here are some examples.WFM Foodie items are usually located in a display at the front of participating Whole Foods Stores. It’s a good place to start if you are looking for some new flavors this summer.