Managing the crazy

Sometimes I feel like being a mom is like running a factory. It takes strategy and efficiency and planning and meticulous execution to keep it all running on time. And by on time, I don’t really mean on time (because that rarely happens anymore), I really just mean running… barely. Oh yes, motherhood, one of my two full time jobs. Just because I’m not home with my kids during the day doesn’t mean I shirk any of the other mom responsibility. Nope. The daily housekeeping, laundry, dishes, meal planning, grocery shopping, hauling in and putting away all the purchased groceries (as I was reminded of this weekend when I brought home a huge haul from Costco and the hubs wasn’t home to help – holy freaking cow), packing lunches, sports, team mom duties, oh my gosh it goes on and on and on. And somehow all that “stuff” has to get squeezed into my nights and weekends. And throw into the mix that I’m 27 weeks pregnant, not sleeping well and beginning to waddle. However, I’m pretty certain that I should relish in the “easiness” (haha) of just 2 kids, because come 12 weeks from now, it’s really going to hit the fan… but back to the now.

So how does one keep the factory running? It’s a good question, and while I don’t think I’m coming anywhere close to Six Sigma certification, the place is running. I’m churning out clean (well most the time), loved, fed, clothed and healthy little boys into the world each day. But to say it is easy would be a lie. It takes hard work. It doesn’t allow for many “I just don’t feel like it days.” It means coming to “work” whether you feel like it or not, through sickness and fatigue and all out exhaustion. Because once you get the machine running, it takes effort every single day to keep it going. Sure, I could decide on any given Tuesday that I just don’t feel like loading and running the dishwasher. Which would be fine on Tuesday. But come Wednesday when there’s no room for the dinner dishes and I’ve got no clean sippy cups, Houston, we’ve got a problem. This means that at some point I’m going to either run the dishwasher twice in one day, hand wash the darn things or live with a continuous sink full of dirty dishes until the weekend. And it’s easy for husbands to forget this ripple effect. I can’t tell you how many times while complaining about the monotony of the nightly dishes that Blake tells me, “it’s okay to not do them every night.” And then I give him one of those wife stares… and he thinks I’m dramatic… and I think he’s delusional (and perhaps were both a little right).

There is no doubt more than one way to skin the proverbial cat when it comes to running a family. And while I don’t claim to be an expert (at all), I am sometimes asked, “how do you do it all?” And so here is my two cents on a practical approach to managing the crazy:

  1. First off, I don’t do it all. No one can. Some of the things I do may be more visible… because I blog about them, but it’s impossible to fit it all in. What I do is prioritize. I’ve thought about what’s important to me and my family and I make an effort to make those things happen. What causes you the most stress if it doesn’t get done? What can’t you live without? For me, eating home-cooked meals (even on practice nights) is really important.  So I plan my week’s meals on the weekend, go grocery shopping once (assuming everything on my list actually makes it in my cart, ha!), write the weekly menu on a board in the kitchen (to keep me honest and help me remember what I need to pull out of the freezer), sometimes make an extra meal on Sundays and go for the 20-minute options that I pre-prepped the night before on practice nights. It’s a lot of effort, but it’s important and so I make it happen.
  2. Figure out what’s not that important to you, and cut yourself some slack when those things don’t get done. Maybe it’s okay that the kids want to pick out their own (unmatching) outfits for school. Or that they leave the house with bed head. Or that the house isn’t picked up each night. Think about it, own it, don’t stress about it, and use the extra time to focus on what is important to you.
  3. Do things now. You’ll never think back and say, what a bummer that I already folded and put away the laundry! But it is highly likely that on a Sunday evening, when you opted to ignore the dryer buzzer (not once, but twice) and the clothes are cold and wrinkly that you think, why didn’t I take care of that earlier! This is a personal challenge of mine that I’ve been working on for the last 6 weeks. Let’s just say I’ve been successful 4 of those weeks, and the feeling of accomplishment was awesome. You’ve got to cut the procrastination, because in the end, it takes less time to handle things in the now than kicking the can down the road all week long and dealing with the side effects of the undone chores.
  4. Decide what days you want to tackle your chores, and then don’t worry about it on the other days.  For me, this means that I just do laundry on the weekends. Yes, there ends up being a lot of it come Saturday, but I’ve found that once you’re in the mode of doing it, it’s easier to keep it going… rather than trying to find the motivation every single day. Sure, sometimes I run a load during the week. But it’s just because I want to get ahead for the weekend, and I don’t feel a sense of obligation to do it. I’m sure the luxury of this choice will eventually be gone, but for now, I’ve made sure that we’re stocked with enough socks/underwear/practice attire for a full week and I just let it chill till the weekend. On weekdays, all I ask of myself is to cook dinner and do the dishes. If I’m feeling spunky, I pick up the house – sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. This is one of those lower priority things that I don’t stress about if it doesn’t get done (and so please don’t stop by unannounced during the week unless you don’t mind wading through the sea of toys and promise to check your judgement at the door!).
  5. I know planning is not everyone’s thing… but having a plan makes the crazy much easier to handle.  Whether it’s a meal plan, a grocery list, or a to-do list, a little forethought goes a long way. For me, planning out what I’m going to make for dinner each night is the only way I’m able to sustain cooking on a nighty basis. Before I wrote it all out, I’d forget to thaw meat from the freezer, I wasn’t efficient with my prep (if I need onions chopped tonight and tomorrow, might as well chop them all tonight!), I would grocery shop multiple times a week – mostly when I was hungry… and would wind up with a much larger grocery bill than necessary. All things that are frustrating and made weeknight cooking a much bigger chore than it needed to be.
  6. It’s really all a mindset.  I’m a firm believer in being intentional with your thoughts. I feel that if you spend all your energy saying you’re overwhelmed and out of control, you sort of make your own bed. It’s hard to not be those things when that’s what you tell yourself. However, if you focus on getting things in order and think I’ve got this, you probably will. Yes, there will be days where you feel overwhelmed, but it doesn’t mean you are overwhelmed. Make those feelings a blip on the radar of a life where you are in control. Yes, my boys get the best of me at times. Multiple times a week, as a mater of fact. But I don’t dwell on being overwhelmed – I make it a temporary feeling. I remind myself that my attitude on the situation is my reality and I choose not to live the life of someone who is a slave to their kids and their home. I take control. I figure one of these days my boys will behave and things will get easier and so I will keep my eye on that prize.

So now that I’ve got a system to help keep things running, I’m about to tip over the apple cart with a third child. I guess that’s just my MO – always chasing a challenge. I’m hopeful that even with the changes coming to our family, I’m able to find my sanity long enough to keep the factory running. Maybe not as smooth as it is now (haha) – simply running will be just fine. And because I know me, I will. Things will change, I will regroup and then get another plan in place. And then my kids will do everything in their power to throw me off my game, but I won’t let ’em! 😉

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What’s for Dinner? 4 Weeks of (different) Home-cooked Meals

4 weeks of dinner

What to cook for dinner… one of the most nagging questions of the day. Sometimes it’s the hardest thing about making dinner – simply figuring out what to cook. I’m one of those weird people who loves to plan out my meals, loves to go grocery shopping and then loves cooking the food.  When I don’t take the time to plan, I find that I spend too much money at the grocery store and I end up wasting a lot of food throughout the week. But, when I make a plan and stick to it, I’m less stressed, I stay on budget and I find that I can actually cook (almost) every day of the week. So I decided to share what I make for dinner and how I plan it out – perhaps it will help someone figure out what to make for their dinner! And taking it a step further, if anyone is up for the challenge, I’ve laid out a plan for how to cook from scratch for a whole month! It can seem daunting, but it’s totally possible. 

I’ve found that when looking at meal planning week over week, it’s easier to think about food categories rather than dishes. When you think about dishes, you end up having the same things every week. Now, there are some things that I don’t mind eating every week, but for the sake of demonstration, I won’t go there. Generally speaking, I think of my meals in the following categories: Pasta, Chicken, Something Different, Mexican, Grill, and a “Sunday Meal” – something that takes longer than the weekday options. These categories aren’t exclusive – there is grilling in the chicken category and chicken in the Mexican category – so try to not get caught up on the fact that it’s not a perfect science.

Sample Week 
Monday – Pasta
Tuesday – Chicken
Wednesday – Leftovers
Thursday – Something Different
Friday – Mexican
Saturday – Grill
Sunday – “Sunday Meal”

So thinking of dishes in terms of these categories, below are 31 dinner ideas (with recipes for most – check back, I plan to make, photograph and post the missing recipes in the next few weeks). Aside from the Sunday Meals, they can all be done in less than an hour (and some in 30 minutes) – although depending on how many times you are interrupted by kids (if applicable), I can’t guarantee those times precisely. I can also only speak to how long they take me to make.  All of these meals are from scratch. Aside from beans and tomatoes, there are very few cans. Aside from plain pasta, there are no boxes. I try to “eat clean” so these recipes reflect real ingredients. To cook like this, some things take a little longer, but some things don’t. I think people just assume that cooking from a box is quicker and cheaper, but in a lot of cases it’s not. And it is certainly not healthier. These are not “low-fat” or “low-calorie” – but they are “low-chemical,” something to me that is much more important. I’m a little old fashioned when it comes to what constitutes a “meal”.  For me, it’s a meat, a starch and a vegetable.  In some of these the veggies are cooked into the main course, and some they’re on the side. I also don’t discriminate against any food type – we eat red meat, pork, seafood and chicken (and try to mix it up between them all). We eat wheat and a little cheese on just about everything – so unfortunately, this plan does not cater to gluten or lactose free folks. Now that the disclaimers are out of the way, here you go…

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Pasta Dishes

Simple Sausage Marinara with Garden Salad (30 min)
Spaghetti with Meat Sauce (30 min)
Pasta with Meatballs and Marinara (45 min)
Sausage and Peppers Spaghetti with Garlic Bread (45 min)
Shrimp Scampi over Parmesan Orzo with Broccoli with Lemon (35-40 min)

Lemon pepper chicken
Chicken Dishes

Lemon Pepper Chicken with Parmesan Mashed Potatoes and Brussel Sprouts (30 min)
Chicken and Yellow Rice (45 – 60 min)
Garlic Dill Chicken with Dill Oven Potatoes and Roasted Cauliflower (30 min)
Dijon Maple Chicken with Roasted Butternut Squash and Broccoli with Lemon (40 min)

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Something Different

Baked Salmon (30 min)
Sloppy Joe’s with Roasted Sweet Potatoes (30 min)
Cube Steak with Rice and Gravy and Maple Carrots (45 min)
Shepherd’s Pie with Drop Biscuits (60 min)
Buttermilk Pancakes with Oven Baked Bacon (30 min)
Buttermilk French Toast with Sausage Patties(30 min)
Biscuits and Gravy (if you don’t make your sausage, 30 min)

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Mexican

Tacos with Spanish Rice and Refried Beans (30 min)
Mexican Lasagna (45 min if your shredded chicken is already prepared)
Chicken, Corn and Caramelized Onion Quesadillas with Guacamole Rice (30 min if your shredded chicken is already prepared)
Mexican Shrimp with Cilantro Lime Rice (30 min)

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Grill

Rosemary Pork Chops with Mushroom and Herb Orzo and Roasted Cauliflower (30 min)
Cheeseburgers and Oven Potatoes (30 min)
Steak, Baked Potatoes, Sautéed Mushrooms and Garden Salad (30 min active time, 90 mins to bake potatoes)
Maple Dijon Pork Tenderloin with Baked Sweet Potatoes and Grilled Zucchini (30 min active time, 90 mins to bake sweet potatoes)
Lemon and Herb Grilled Salmon (45 min)

Pot roast with mashed potatoes and carrots
Sunday Meals

Pot Roast with Carrots, Mashed Potatoes & Cornbread
Chicken Pot Pie with Salad
Chicken Tetrazinni
Pork Tenderloin Marsala with Dijon Mashed Potatoes and Roasted Asparagus (I would half this recipe for a “normal” meal)
Meatloaf with Dijon Mashed Potatoes and Roasted Broccoli
Shrimp and Grits

Below is a 4 week meal plan (based on the categories and dishes above), complete with main courses and sides, as well as the accompanying weekly grocery list.  In general, these dishes will feed a family of 4 to 5 easily (maybe more if they are small kids). You’ll notice that I’ve reserved Wednesday as a “leftover” day. Between the big Sunday meal and the Monday and Tuesday options, I find there is usually always leftovers. I take leftovers to work most days for lunch, and there is still typically enough for one night for my family as a meal. On the nights that I’m not cooking, sometimes I’ll do (easy) prep for a following night to help myself out later. I added breakfast for dinner a couple of nights too, because 1) it’s easy 2) it’s cheap and 3) it’s fun. Did I mention it’s easy?

I calculated an estimate of the prices for each item (based on purchasing items not on sale from Publix) which gets this to an average weekly cost of $118. However, if you stock up at places like Costco, or when things go BOGO at Publix, you can get the cost down. One of the major savings with Costco over a regular grocery store is chicken. At my Publix , chicken breast is typically $4.49-$4.99/lb, but at Costco it is $2.99/lb. There is a lot of chicken in this meal plan so if you try this, I suggest you try to find it cheaper. Other items I would get at Costco for this “month” would be: cherry tomatoes, flour tortillas, black beans, canned tomatoes, onions, frozen shrimp, ground beef, baby carrots, mushrooms, lemons, and parmesan cheese.

4 Week Meal Plan (here is the full calendar and grocery list with notes)

4 Week Meal Plan

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Keeping a stocked kitchen helps make cooking from scratch easy. Below are the things that I always have on hand. I buy some of these things in bulk to reduce the cost.  When you’re not using boxed sides, you have to have many of these spices and condiments to create the flavor.

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When people ask how I have time to cook every night, this is how. I make a plan, I only go grocery shopping one time a week, I keep my pantry stocked and I try to give myself a break now and then with leftovers and breakfast for dinner. Sure, we eat frozen pizza every now and then, but mostly, this is what’s cooking in the Stembridge house. If anyone does try to do this (or any part of this), I’d love to hear how it went! And as always, hope you enjoy!