Don't Think Twice About Dinner. Just Do This.

It's Thursday, and if you're anything like me on most weeks, you've run out of all of the food you bought last weekend. You've run out of dinner ideas—if you had any in the first place. You've run out of time. Generally speaking. Don't worry. Don't succumb to spending $40 to $100 on takeout (my kids eat like men). What to do is this: Survey your freezer and your fridge and your cabinets and make a kick-ass buffet. Use those convenience items. Don't be shy. Have no shame. What's that they say? Try to be perfect and you end up a shitshow? Kidding, kidding: I know: it's perfect is the enemy of good. It's true.

Anyway, if you don't know what to have for dinner, do what I did on Tuesday and embrace the easy. Here are some ideas that will work for a variety of have-on-hand scenarios (and/or my unsolicited advice about what to buy next time).

First, fancy up a totally pre-made frozen entree. 

These here are tamales from Trader Joe's (thanks for the tip, Elisa!), cut in half and topped with a slice of avocado to make them look all appetizer-y. Purchasing pre-made tamales from TJ's is a no-brainer because: 1) they're relatively healthy 2) they contain meat, which my family loves and I never make, and 3) I WILL NEVER MADE TAMALES FROM SCRATCH. But there's no reason you shouldn't buy and serve healthy entrees that you actually would make because YOU'RE BUSY and food should not be stressful. So also try using—or next time stocking up on—these things: pizza (healthier and way cheaper than the ones you order), veggie burgers. Remember: halving or quartering standard servings makes things look cute. You could also go the route (which I often do), of buying frozen salmon or turkey/veggie meatballs and rounding out the meal with grains and veggies (see more soon)—but I consider that legit cooking.

Grab those prehistoric bags of frozen veggies.

And cook 'em up. Now's a good a day as any. Above is a bowl of grilled cauliflower, again from Trader Joe's. It legit has two ingredients: grilled cauliflower and salt. For all intents and purposes, it's just as good for you as regular roasted cauliflower: delivering detoxifying isothiocyanates, fiber and all that jazz. I know this because I have a master's degree in nutrition. Not to brag. Just to let you know that my opinion is informed by facts and my opinion is this:  there is no shame in frozen veggies. (Note: I agree that they sometimes feel limp and soggy-ish. But frozen veggies are better than no veggies and if that really bothers you can go for things like peas and corn.) Or you can just eat things like snap peas and green beans and cherry tomatoes from the fridge. (See two blurbs down.)

Make something starchy you have stashed in a cabinet—real quick.

And by "real quick" I mean approximately 20 minutes, start to finish. This here is one giant (mutant?) sweet potato turned into baked fries (375 to 400 degrees for 20ish minutes) that one of my kids will eat until he turns orange. Ketchup is totally okay. Sweet potatoes, or potatoes of any kind, are also a great base for a bowl. Like rice (quick-cooking brown), quinoa and other grains. In the case of a bowl, you just pull ALLLLL the things out (beans, veggies, avocado, cheese) and put them on the table. Let the people decide what to pile on top.

Raid the refrigerator. 

Peel the oranges. Slice up some cheese. Put out some hummus. And olives. And pickles. It's a picnic! Toast up old pita or just regular bread. Slice it in triangles to impress the people. Use all the stuff. Dinner is SERVED. 

Sometimes a total breakdown can turn your day around.

Today, my life felt like a Zen Short of sorts.

When I left work, I was cranky and annoyed and frazzled. It hadn't been a feel-good day. And I was jetting out early to take Kai to the pediatrician—for shots. I needed to take the Escape, typically Jon's vehicle—a shift in plans that had prompted a hissy fit (mine) over mud-caked cupholders, fast food wrappers and abandoned softball snacks (which, this morning, I angrily referred to as "old nuts"). The car also contained toys, preschool papers, a college diploma (not mine) and two sets of skis that someone who was a small child in the 1960s must have worn. I have no idea of their origin.

Before work, I had removed all of these things from the car and tossed them onto the mudroom floor. I rinsed out the cup holder. So as I was pulling out of the parking lot of my employer, the Escape was uncluttered if not clean. It was all good. Turns out, not so much.

About halfway to Kai's school, the radio stopped working. And then started working again. The dash went blank and then flickered back on before all "computer" displays disappeared for good. I started feeling anxious, wondering if I should bail on the kid pickup, feeling lucky that Kai wasn't in the car already. I kept going, pulling into the Hannaford-plaza turning lane to get off the busy road. I glided to a stop. For good. The car was dead.

My first response: gratitude. The old Escape had chosen this relatively safe place to throw in the towel; I was by myself, no kids. I called the pediatrician and cancelled the appointment. Then I started flipping out. I called Jon and told him I had no idea what to do next (really?) and that I was SO hot (what?) He told me to calm the f*ck down (in much nicer words), call the car insurance and get the hell out of the hot car. So I did. From a nearby curb, I watched frustrated motorists lined up behind this unoccupied vehicle—mine—that did not turn left, COULD NOT turn left, curse and toss their hands wildly into the air. I tried to wave them past. I realized they could not understand me, that there was nothing I could do to solve the problem. I'd made the requisite calls. Now all I could do was wait.

And that's when the magic started happening.

  • The Progressive man dispatched a tow truck.
  • Someone called the police and two officers came out to investigate the the mysteriously abandoned car/direct traffic/get the car the hell out of the middle of turning lane. They directed me to get back behind the wheel and put the car in neutral and then they pushed me into the Burger King parking lot. 
  • Since my car was still sort of blocking a driveway, Officer Jamie stuck by and told me amusing stories about his day, then invited me to sit in his air-conditioned car. He offered to clear off his front seat so I wouldn't look like a criminal in the back. I declined and offered to get him an iced coffee at Burger King. He declined.
  • I got my own iced coffee—with real cream because didn't I deserve that?—and parked myself on the curb with the beverage. I posted pictures of my broken-down car and my calmed-down face on Instagram.
  • Seeing my post, recognizing my location as one near her home, KIMBERLY FREAKING DROVE OVER WITH A LEMONADE POPSICLE. FOR ME.
  • Blown away by her kindness, I babbled a bunch of nonsense, gave her a hug, snapped her photo (for Instagram!) and vowed to be the kind of incredibly thoughtful person that does things like this much more often.
  • Dave from Handy's arrived. He instructed me to get into his air-conditioned cab. He loaded up my car. He asked me what happened and, when he heard, he diagnosed a bad alternator.
  • Then he drove me and the Escape with the bad alternator to Darren's shop WHERE OUR VAN WAS READY, after having gone in for a routine service this morning. (Which is why I was driving the Escape in the first place.) What? How lucky is that?
  • I switched Jon's softball gear into the Escape—his after-work game was close enough to walk and now he had an awesome excuse to go out after the game and grab a ride home with someone else.
  • I was too late—obviously—to get to Kai's appointment but just in time to get him from school. And with plenty of time to drive out to Jules too.

All of this kindness and serendipity had me feeling downright giddy. Lucky. Happy. The only one who was bummed was Kai. "I wanted to go to the doctor to get shots!" he said, crossing his arms and turning away to process his disappointment. 

"I'm sorry, Kai. Sometimes these things just happen. It's disappointing, I know." 

He turned back to face me. "Mama, can we go to the doctor tomorrow morning?" he asked with a trembling lip. 

"We can try," I said. "Maybe we'll get lucky." 

 

Even breast pumps bring back good memories.

I'm in the airport cleaning up my notes from a most amazing work conference. A baby is crying. I glance up to see a shock of dense dark hair. With a barrette. It's a girl - and she's strapped to her Mom's chest in an Ergo, brown, just like mine was. The mom bounces and sways, to quiet the kid. Neither looks particularly upset. I feel a pang. Nostalgia? For traveling with a baby? WTF?

Yesterday, I saw a different young mom setting down a breast pump on a shelf, in a public bathroom, at a hotel hosting a largish conference. "Ah... That brings back such memories for me." Umm... Not great ones... I'm not sure anyone enjoys milking herself in an unsanitary space and making inconvenient arrangements to cart a cooler full of breast milk across state lines. Still, a pang.

That baby phase is gone, and the toddler one too. Now, the struggles are how to handle reports of tussles on the playground, how to stay present when a little big boy is asserting his independence, how to go with the flow when life feels packed beyond my comfort zone. I can leave for a few days and no one REALLY misses me. I get to sleep all night long. I won't have to race to nurse a hungry baby at the finish line of my 1/2 marathon in two weeks. There's lots more freedom in my life, which I like. And there's still a lot of chaos - more, actually. The "cats" I am herding now can talk. They have things to say. And they run faster.

And, in 4 years from now, I will look at the mom in the airport with two loud, rowdy little men, running in two directions - perhaps punching or elbowing each other - I will long for these days too. You can quote me on that. 

But for now, I'm just gonna try to soak them all in. 

I suck at stories.

I call myself a writer. Jon is an engineer. Our children—like all children—love stories. And in this family, one of us parents is constantly creating fantastical stories: full of magic and forests, dragons and fairies; the other tells tales of two little brothers who get lost in the woods or boring "mini-shorts" about animals who learn that it's awesome to be different, and it's important to be nice to people.

I am "the other." I suck at telling stories. (Jon rocks but who's comparing.) Sure, my brain churns out fiction but it tends toward character development. I've never really gotten very far with plot. That's why I've only dabbled in short stories and why writing a novel, even a really bad one, feels way harder than running a marathon. But even if I were able to draft a novel with a solid plot, it'd be fraught with family secrets... or it'd circle around one moment, one event, or one meeting that unraveled relationships, or saved a life. I don't know what exactly—but drama kids definitely don't care about.

Nevermind  the topic or tone, anyway. Telling anything on demand, isn't something at which I excel. Particularly at the end of the day. I try. Tonight, I told Julian about a monkey who loves oranges and all the other monkeys make fun of him but his mom tells him that he is so special for loving what he loves and, because she and his dad and his brother collect bananas, the oranges make their dinners more colorful and delicious. This 30-second story was lame-ass and Jules told me so, nicely. And because he was super sleepy and because I actually am a good back rubber, I got off easy.

Not so with Kai. I started with a story of many dinosaurs. His request. This story was about a carnivorous dinosaur who'd decided to become a vegetarian. Kai demanded that I include a pterodactyl, an allosaurus and a "long neck." So I made the allosaurus, a carnivore, the star. Basically, he walked around looking for plants. I named all sorts of plants. I asked Kai to contribute. He added onions. Brilliant. So the plot became that the dinosaur had bad breath and his friends taught him to eat mint. Kai thought this plot lame. He was right.

"Tell me about the long necks."

"What should I tell you about the long necks?" This is what I do. I turn the tables, looking for interaction, or a team-effort exquisite corpse sort of story approach. It never works.

"Long necks are brachiosauruses, Mom," he says, exasperated.

I try my best to think of something, talking about the long-necked brachiosauruses looking for food in trees. It does not suffice. I offer a back rub.

"I want a stooooorrrrry!!!" Kai begins kicking me. For real. Kicking. And punching.

I literally am incapable of producing an acceptable story. I tell him this. He keeps kicking and yelling. I leave, walking downstairs, telling him I won't listen until he can be nice. Moments later, he appears at the bottom of the steps.

"I'm angry at you, Mom." He snarls and growls. Literally. I laugh. He is not joking. This is serious—and I am fucking up. I get serious.

"Why are you angry?"

He runs up stairs, screaming—and sobbing, like his feelings are hurt. I follow. He reiterates that he is "angry at [me]" and turns away from me to face into a large plant in the corner of the hallway. I tell him he needs to talk with me about why he's angry, or to go into his room for some alone time (after he sits on the potty because he forgot to do that earlier and I'm sick of washing sheets... I didn't say that last part). After a bit more snarling and pouting he reveals that he's "very angry at me" because "he wanted more story and a snuggle."

We go back to his bed and I cobble together a tale about a beautiful girl with long green curls and purple basketball shorts. Her name is Sack (Kai's choice). She's sad because her brother is at school and so she has no one to play basketball with. She rounds up a bunch of insect teammates (reminiscent of those in James and the Giant Peach - I have no imagination). They walk to the court and... to be continued. Tomorrow, I'll tell the story of who they encounter there...

This story was incredibly lame. But Kai snuggled it all up with his "favorite blankie" and, with heavy eyes, started nodded off, satisfied.

I feel only defeated, a storytime failure. I'm sure there's a some sort of solution out there for unimaginative parents like me and I'm going to find it. And get more sleep, so that my brain isn't too tired to tell tales. Perhaps I should start reading books about fairies and dragons instead of ones about mothers dying of cancer. I could use a little more magical thinking, across the board. How 'bout you?

"Vegan Till Thanksgiving" Take-Aways

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, the official end date of my first my "Vegan Till Thanksgiving" experiment, which has been a totally enlightening and fun challenge.

Before I list what I learned in the process, a couple of confessions (my Catholic upbringing has raised me to reveal these sorts of transgressions): 

  • I splashed real milk into my coffee on three occasions.
  • I ate many, many bittersweet chocolate chips (which I assumed were vegan and then learned that the brand I bought were not). 

Now, what I learned: 

  • I can live without ice cream and cheese pretty easily. This came as a major shock to me.
  • I'm not a huge fan of non-dairy "milk" products, particularly in my coffee. The coconut milk creamer was acceptable; soy lattes (purchased only out - I only bought almond milk and coconut milk creamer at home) were good. 

 

  • I drink less coffee and more green tea when I'm not doing dairy.
  • I eat more and less healthfully when I'm following a vegan diet: more vegetables and beans and far fewer saturated fats (and fatty "junk") but probably more carb-y snacks, like tortilla chips and Triscuits.

Also... 

  • Homemade vegan cookies taste as least as good as non-vegan ones. 
  • For me a vegan diet is not a way to shed pounds. I didn't weigh in (weight loss wasn't a goal) but suspect I stayed the same or gained, as I ate loads of avocados and nuts - which are staples in my diet typically anyway - and extra servings of higher-cal carbs (wild rice, say) in place of fish.
  • Speaking of fish, I missed it a lot - particularly when we went out for sushi. (I ordered a sweet potato tempura roll - again, not as healthy as my typical yellowtail scallion... but perhaps comparable to a spicy tuna).
  • Eating out wasn't as hard as I thought it'd be. At even the "super-meatiest" of restaurants, I had the most amazing meal... just requested that my roasted beet salad come without the cheese and the dressing and that they leave the smoked bacon butter off the pickled tomatoes on toast. Which were AMAZING.
  • I should have been better about taking a multivitamin. (I did OK with the calcium supplement and somewhat OK with the omega-3s but didn't pick up a multi till last week). And when my arm broke out in hives the other night after prolonged content with a wet sweatshirt sleeve (incurred during bath-time duty) I was convinced I had a vitamin B12 deficiency and would soon start seeing signs of irreversible nerve damage. Ridiculous given that I'd had my fair share of fortified veggie products.
  • I have such respect for the commitment it takes to follow a 100% vegan diet, 24/7/365.
  • I thought even more about where my food comes than I normally do. The other night, when the boys didn't want to finish their milk at dinner, I found myself saying, "it's fine if you don't want to finish but next time let's not take so much. The cows work really hard to make that milk." 

Tomorrow, I will eat on turkey and likely lots of buttery sides. Yum! After that, I will live on a little more vegan than I was in October - "veganish,"  a la Mark Bittman, as a friend pointed out. (Here's what's definitely coming back: milk in my coffee, fish, non-vegan foods served by friends, probably yogurt, definitely "good" cheeses.)