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." 


Day 16 | 5x5 challenge, modified | Time ran out

1 snap:
6:15 pm - When all was sunny.

1 minute: 
Approximately 9:35 p.m.
I am missing the birthday party of a quartet of amazing women (one, among my closest friends), due to miscommunication. And in the midst of realizing my time to make it is running out, I hear a curious chirping.

The cats are confused. And then I see: they are chasing a tiny mouse. She runs through Dempsey's legs. He looks at her, bewildered. She runs into my favorite room, still chirping. Now I look at her, bewildered. I come to my senses. I want to save her but I'm pretty sure it's too late. I look for a broom. Can I open the door? She's in the corner by the stairs, near the credenza. Is she underneath? No. The chirping has stopped. Tina runs into the dining room table. I look for the mouse. I meet Tina's eyes. She licks her lips. The mouse is missing. Her time ran out.

I failed. I feel sick. Sickly sad.

Day 15 | 5x5 challenge | Terminal illness (airport - don't worry)

5 minutes:
Day traveling again, and it's sparked many observations and questions. Too many to note here, on my phone in the United Express terminal at Newark (Delta a LGA, with its free wifi and comfy seating, would accommodate a longer post).

The area surrounding the BTV airport is lush and green, sparsely populated and beautiful; the area surrounding Newark is not.

Many, many men wearing crisp business suits and carrying conservative business-y bags wear casual packs on their backs (a la Jansport). Tell me business-men-friends: what's in there? Gym clothes and razors? Toothpaste? How does this work?

There is a dearth of acceptable eateries in my Newark Airport terminal. But I am hungry and I order a Greek chicken salad. A waiter serves it to me at a table, where the flatware is plastic. He kindly whispers that I might consider ordering my coffee elsewhere. (Later, I hear another waiter nicely telling a couple who's been staring at the menu situation by the hostess station that, if they have time, they can shuttle to another terminal where there's better stuff to eat.) I dig this honesty.

As I eat my salad, I observe many fellow travelers looking for dinner, hopelessly circling. Those who look most health concerned appear to bypass a proper meal altogether, settling on yogurt. Or fruit. Or coffee and water.

I get a coffee too—from next door, like the server suggested. It is not good but it is hot and caffeinated. I am happy. And I am grateful for Skinny Pancake's egg and cheese sandwich, served on a house-made English muffin, alongside with a rich French roast—at the Burlington International Airport.

5 minute

Day 14 | 5x5 Challenge | It's a predictable pattern, at least.

5 Minutes (truly, because blogging this should not have even made it to the top of my list tonight): 

I remember my mom telling me once that my Grandma Mary used to have a hamburger roll spread with jam and a cup of her standard coffee—light with cream—after dinner. It was her dessert and a way to unwind. I'm pretty sure she didn't engage in this relaxing ritual when she was a young mom of five kids, also taking care of her ailing parents down the street. It was probably after she retired. In fact, I can't actually even imagine her taking time for her self, as she was always doing stuff for other people. But apparently she did at some point. I thought of her—of this—tonight, out on the deck, sipping my light coffee, feet up while I watched Jules hit baseballs thrown by Jon and Kai find the soccer ball that soon we'd be kicking around as a family (newly discovered World Cup fever). And I just rested there, for a full five minutes.

I bailed on two of my favorite people tonight—pretty last minute—because I was anxious about preparing for another work trip combined with the fact that Kai-guy never goes to sleep. Oh, sure, he goes through the motions: I read him books, tuck him into bed, scratch his back. He sends me off with a hug and a kiss, to find his "favorite blankie." I bring it up, and he fakes like he's going down. Then it begins: the request to read in our room, or at least his room (he typically sleeps on Julian's top bunk). I set him up with books, ask him to just stay quiet and relax. And he complies—momentarily. Then he's on to rearranging furniture and un-organizing drawers. Sometimes he sings. Sometimes he recites—spoken-word, Beatnik style—song lyrics. "Scooby. Doo-by. Doo. Where. Are. You." Tonight, he unearthed a Batman lanyard and an Akron RubberDucks baseball cap, which he was wearing sideways when I walked in. I placed him back in his bed, turned on the overhead light he'd turned on and flipped on his scrolling-underwater-scape nightlight instead. I walked out of the room and into the one where I am now. Ten minutes.

"Mom? Mom? I can't find Teddy."

I go into his room to help locate the tiny bear, who once sported a Mets jersey and now sleeps naked. He was missing. He being Kai, not Teddy. (But Teddy was still missing, too, at this point.) The little imp had transported himself to the top bunk in Julian's room again. There he was sitting, surrounded by two bears who were bigger than Teddy, but had his same light brown fur. Still, no relation. Teddy was under his knee.

"Teddy is under your knee."

"Oh! There he is!"

"I love you. Good night."

"I loooooove you! Good nii-iiiiight!"

Now I am in here. And he is in there. There, where there is rustling. I'm going to pack for tomorrow and he is going to crash—in 45 minutes or so.