The saying “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” originated in New England and became popular during World War II. In theory I believe in it. However, we live in a disposable culture. Replacements are cheap and easy to obtain. Often, I don’t take the time to fix something myself. Sometimes that’s based on a dollars-time analysis. For example, my kids wear through their pants at a spectacular rate. Do I patch the knees on four pairs of pants for an hour, or do I spend that hour grabbing four more $2 pairs of kids’ jeans from the thrift store? Usually my instinct is to mend more expensive long-term adult clothes, and replace the kids’ clothes I bought for fifty cents with new (used) fifty cent items. The blog Thrift at Home has me rethinking that approach lately. Even if it hadn’t, there are certain things that are irreplaceable. Exhibit A: Annie’s beloved and tattered bear.

We give each of our kids a stuffed Jellycat animal and a board book for their first Christmas. Annie’s bear has led a rough and tumble life since then. She chews on his nose and paws for comfort, drags him from room to room, and pillows her head on him every night and nap. He’s been rolled in the mud, splattered with food and hair products, crammed in small spaces, poked with sharp instruments, and dropped in the tub, toilet, and sink.

One evening last week Annie let loose a howl of despair followed by wails of “Mommy! Mommy! MOMMMMMYYYY!” Bear’s much chewed paw had finally given way, followed by a significant chunk of stuffing. Somewhere between our last home and this house my box of scraps went missing so I let Annie pick between The Man’s ink-stained khaki pants and an old stained and fraying shirt from the outgrown basket. She picked the floral shirt. I restuffed bear with old pantyhose and handstitched a new paw in place. I also grabbed a skein of brown embroidery thread and restitched Bear’s chewed-off nose. I had to make it a little wider than the old nose thanks to the width of the chewed off area.

I haven’t done any significant sewing since the move. It was fun to do a little something with my hands. And, of course, Annie is delighted to have her best buddy back in her arms.

 

Out Solo

I often take all four kids out by myself for walks around the neighborhood, tricycle rides, playing in the yard, or car-based errands like the bank drive-through. Going to actual destinations by car is a different story. I managed baby twins out and about easily, and even outings with three kids aged one and under were doable. Going anywhere with all four kids aged three and under is much more difficult. Without a second adult to help with the prep/potty/diapers, into car, out of car, activity, into car, out of car, resettle at home routine it can take so much time that everyone is starving, cranky, and in need of a diaper change with missing socks before I’m half done.

However, things are shifting. Josie is 10 months old and has reached the point where she doesn’t spontaneously combust from a late nap or feeding. Jenny can walk with reasonable stability and copes with the occasional missed morning nap. The twins are dramatically more capable and mature at 3.5 than they were at three. In the last month I’ve taken all four out alone for hikes, errands, park time, the town festival, and the nature center among other things. I’m enjoying the ability to slightly relax the tight daily routine that keeps our family ship under sail. Yesterday I took them out for a quick one mile hike before dinner. We enjoyed a beautiful afternoon and lovely walking. Lest taking two three year olds, a one year old, and a baby hiking alone sound too Mary Poppinsish I’ll add that one child had to stop at the public restroom where the twins touched everything (then licked their hands). Also, I had to bribe them past the playground at the end of the hike with cookies to get home in time for dinner, which they then refused because they’d just filled up on cookies. Also, Jenny woke up with vomit caked into her cornrows this morning. You win some, you lose some.

In the Kitchen: Pantry-Clearing Meals

Movers won’t generally ship opened packages of food, easily perishable items, or liquids so we’re in a pre-move push to eat up the pantry and freezer contents. My meal-planning this week centered around “stash busting” dishes.

Roast Pork with Dried Apricots from the (so far) infallible Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Slow Cooking. So good. So, so, so good. We sat down to this meal after a chilly afternoon’s hike with the kids and quite literally moaned from happiness over our meal. It’s fabulously flavorful and moist. I used the stovetop method, plus dried thyme and spicy brown mustard because that’s what I had on hand. Bonus, it used up the big pork roast I’d purchased on sale months ago and tossed in the freezer. The kids also liked it – served with…I forget? Definitely one to keep in mind for dinners with guests – it’s very low maintenance and hard to mess up.

Steak with Chimichurri Butter. I received a free subscription to Martha Stewart Living after taking a survey this winter. The most recent volume included this mouth-watering recipe for Chimichurri Butter. I just used some steak from the freezer, pan fried it, and served with the Chimichurri and a big salad. Delicious – I deeply regret waiting this long in my life to discover Chimichurri sauce!

Chicken Thighs with Leeks, Potatoes, and Spinach. This was a good dish! It’s simple but tasty. I used ground coriander and bigger potatoes cut up. I enjoyed using the multi-stage approach to cooking an entire meal under the broiler. The lemons are really key – they provide a large part of the sauce’s freshness. Served with rice to soak up the sauce.

Louisiana Red Beans and Rice. This was also a nice recipe worth making again. It’s another one that used up lots of ingredients from the fridge and pantry. Some recipes for Louisiana red beans call for ham hocks. We didn’t have any on hand, but this version was still delicious. I more or less followed the recipe except for not measuring, using red pepper instead of green, and throwing in some oregano since parralel recipes called for it. Delicious served with rice. Nice flavors, but still mild enough for the three-year-old contingent with just a touch of background heat. If we didn’t have young kids I would increase the spice.

Also cooked recently: waffles for a big waffle breakfast with friends, smoothies to use up our frozen fruit, a so-so double chocolate skillet cookie from Martha Stewart Living for Bible Study, and chicken nuggets (also pretty unexciting thanks to really tough meat).

In the Kitchen

We’ve had more seat-of-the-pants meals and fast food dinners than we’d prefer lately. As things settle (we accepted an offer on our house this week!) it’s been satisfying resuming normal scratch cooking routines and predictable family dinners.

We had a lot of hard boiled eggs in the fridge after Easter egg dyeing. A friend recommended this recipe for olive oil-braised chick peas. Delicious! I used dried chickpeas and dried thyme because that’s what we had on hand. Al dente savory chick peas, tangy capers, warm smooth olive oil, sharp creamy feta, smoky hot paprika – it’s such an amazing flavor medley for a simple dish. We had it on crusty bread paired with hard-boiled eggs the first night, then with salads the next night.

Baked Italian dishes with ricotta are among my favorite comfort foods. I loved this recipe for baked manicotti. The assembly is less fussy than lasagna or stuffed shells, but the flavors are just as lovely. Four out of four kids loved it, as did their parents. I started a quick marinara with sautéed onion and garlic, 28oz whole tomatoes, 28oz diced tomatoes, dried basil, salt, and pepper, then simmered it while prepping the rest. I increased the ricotta to 2 cups (perfect), used half fresh and half frozen spinach (I didn’t ice after cooking – it was fine), stuffed the manicotti with my fingers, and sprinkled some extra mozzarella on top for a nice browned crust. 30 minutes at 375. Addictive comfort food.

I’d made this carrot cake before, tweaked it again this time, and will alter it further next time. I like the base recipe because it has a wide variety of spices that create lovely complex flavors. I double the batter so it filled two round cake pans (adjust cook time to 25 minutes) but there’s no need to double the frosting. I reduced the frosting sugar by about 60% – it’s still plenty sweet. I substituted unsweetened applesauce for pineapple in the batter. I may try the pineapple one of these days. The Man doesn’t always like nuts in desserts so I substituted raisins. That ended up being too many raisins for the cake – next time I’ll try half raisins and half finely ground nuts. I only had vegetable oil, but it would probably be awesome with the recommended walnut oil.

As I’ve whined “discussed” before, the slow cooker and I have a fraught relationship. I want it to work. It smells so nice cooking all day, you don’t have to heat the oven, you can leave the house, it’s low maintenance… Then every time I use it the meal is flavorless or rubbery or just plain strange. I’d previously tried a recipe for crock pot shredded taco chicken that someone had raved about (“just throw some chicken in with a jar of salsa for four hours on high! It’s fabulous!”). No. No it was not. It was flavorless, dry, rubbery, and a complete waste of my meat budget. I really do want to find at least a couple good crock pot meals for our family for days when we’re out all day and hosting a crowd, so I tried this recipe instead. It was good! I think good slow cooker meals demand extra seasoning because the technique dilutes any seasoning’s flavor impact. The meat also just doesn’t do well cooked on high, no matter what recipes says. While this recipe does use some pre-made ingredients, they’re of the fresh flavor variety vs. the can o’ soup and a ranch seasoning packet variety. I followed the recipe except for chopping four cloves of garlic instead of using the jarred stuff. It’s pleasantly spicy, but not too hot for our little people. We had it with corn tortillas, tomatoes, sour cream, cheese, and salsa verde. It would also be good with rice and bean bowls. The recipe is worth doubling and freezing. As written it only filled our crock pot a third full. I may play around with the seasonings in future for more depth of flavor. Oregano? Cumin?

February Mantel

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Christmas is wonderful, but it always leaves me longing for a clean, bright, and freshly decluttered home. I love decorating for the holiday. I also love how open and clear our home looks after everything’s boxed up again.

Despite all the best advice of decorating magazines, at this point in our lives we have very few “styled” surfaces. I keep a few things out on the fireplace mantel, the piano, and one cupboard. Since having kids I’ve gradually stored or discarded our extra decor. You’ll notice most decorating magazines don’t feature homes with four kids three and under! I believe in house-proofing the kids versus just childproofing the house, but I also like spaces where our little people are free to play without requiring constant vigilance (name that character). I found the best decorating tip for this stage of life on the Dyno-mom blog. She has 11 kids, and lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The Keweenaw easily sees 28 feet of snowfall each winter. Frequent storms keep her family cooped up in a relatively small house for many months a year. Her advice for non-practical decorations is just…don’t. If you’re maxed out on childcare you don’t have the mental space for clutter and visual distractions. Not everyone is wired the same, but I’ve found her advice true for this stage of parenting. I try to choose attractive options for the practical things we need like lamps or couch throws, but avoid putting things on a surface just because it’s bare. My three year olds take care of that!

The fireplace used to be dark gray and pink stone with a boxy dark ’80s mantel. I didn’t have the energy or resources to replace it so I did the next best thing and painted it all a clean bright white a few years back. My mantel picks right now:

  • Pillar candles and holders (vases? chimneys? what would you call them?) from Hobby Lobby. My favorite go-to candle option with small kids. I love candles in the winter months or at dinner. These are the basic unscented candles from Hobby Lobby. I pick them up during 50% off sales and they last forever. I lit the last set almost nightly for…four months? six? before they burnt down. The holders make them hard for the kids to tip, prevent wax spills on the furniture or tablecloth, and make it harder for little kids to accidentally lean over into the flame. They also don’t get hot like narrower glass holders would. Also, on that appalling morning when you come downstairs and realize you never blew out the candles last night you’ll be happy to know the holder makes it very hard for anything else to catch fire while you sleep. We have one pair downstairs and one set upstairs.
  • Fisherman’s creel. I love nice baskets and spots of natural material around our home. They’re practical and pretty at the same time. This one contains the remote, matches, or other living room odds n’ ends that would float around the house or get eaten by babies.
  • Flowers. It’s hard to escape your genes. My mother’s flowers seemed so boring as a kid, but flowers in the house make me smile now. They’re beautiful and cheery, but they’re not clutter or permanent. I love a pretty bouquet, but for best return on investment it’s hard to beat a $5 pot of flowers from the grocery store. A good one blooms for weeks before heading out to the compost heap. My only advice is the lesson my Mom taught me when I was six: don’t get the plant with the most flowers – it’s almost done blooming and will die soon. Get the plant with the most buds. Thanks to Christmas checks from relatives I have a pot of hyacinths in the kitchen, another in our bedroom, and a pot of daffodils in the living room right now. They’re sitting in a bowl I’ve had since high school.
  • Painting. My parents had a few paintings inherited from my great grandmother when I was growing up. Because they were always around I barely registered their existence. My husband re-sold me on the value of “real art” and every few years we find something we love at a thrift store, antique shop, or gallery. We ran across this old portrait during an otherwise disastrous trip to Savannah (the Army cancelled our leave and ordered us home). The artist is unknown and it’s not in great condition, but that doesn’t bother us – it made it much cheaper! I’d wanted a portrait for years and I love this one.

What’s making you happy in your home this season? Any decorating tricks that work for you with small kids or many kids in the house?

Picnic Week

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When The Man works an ICU rotation the kids feel like he’s out of town for a week. He leaves long before they’re awake and comes home long after they’re in bed. As any parent can tell you, young kids tend to act out and test boundaries when the household dynamic shifts. Maintaining familiar routines when Daddy is gone provides stability and comfort for our crew, but they also benefit from a bit of novelty thrown into the week. Our kids are always calmed by good outdoor play so I cringed when the weather forecast predicted heavy rain for four of the first five days this week. We take the kids out to play in all weather, but it’s just harder to pull off hours splashing in the mud when there are two shivering wet babies in tow and only one parent to handle the necessary post-mud cleanup and drying. Instead, every day this week during the kids’ nap I’ve prepared a simple tray with their snack and sippy cups, a few books, and a picnic tablecloth. When I get the twins up from their naps I announced that it’s special day. Instead of having snack time in their booster chairs as usual, we’ll be having a picnic in the living room! (/library/porch/bedroom…). To add to the novelty I picked up Cheez It crackers, a favorite treat the kids rarely get. We spread the picnic blanket in the room of the day, set out the snacks (deliberately low-crumble/smear food items like hard crackers and apples), put on some classical music, and settle in for some read-alouds while they eat. It’s turned into a surprisingly sweet and calm time that I enjoy myself.

As a kid we always had meals at the table. Snacking around the house wasn’t allowed, so it felt very special when my Mom would call us to a Sunday afternoon tea with scones in the living room, or when we ate dinner around the fire on a cold winter evening. My kids are no different; though they always have an afternoon snack and we often read them books and listen to music the novelty of all three with a “picnic” clears their mood and puts them on their best behavior.

As a side note, our in-home picnics are definitely easier with a few minutes quiet preparation and thought. It always amazes me that tasks that take five minutes (like prepping the snack and selecting books) turn into half hour jobs when the kids are on the move. I also make sure in advance that there’s a place to put each baby if I need to set them down. Jenny’s crawling now, and would love nothing better than a marauding romp through the twins’ plates of food on the floor. Extra baby seats help me juggle the two babies and their feedings while I read. Books and the internet are full of ideas for ways to entertain your kids, but they’re often not a good fit for us. Indoor picnics are one of those activities that just wouldn’t have worked with our kids six months ago. At two and a half they’d still likely have stepped in the plates, been jumping up and down through the meal, or crumbled their food into the rug for the joy of it. At three, it suddenly works well and provides a daily bright spot in long days with one Mom and four small children.

A Fall Menu – Meals this Week

Family Dinner

People often ask how we manage our houshold with a lot of very little children. Do we have help? How do we organize the day? How do we manage meals? Everyone needs to eat and I like to cook the majority of our food from scratch. One big help is menu planning for at least a week at a time. I cannot simply run out for unplanned trips to the grocery store; four children need help with diapers and potty, shoes, jackets, buckling, and strollers. Along with menu planning, I always stock staples for a few quick and easy meals in the pantry and freezer in case life derails my cooking or grocery plans. Another trick is trying to cook what I can at convenient times rather than right at the hectic dinner hour. I tend to prepare a lot at once so one cooking session covers multiple nights and produces a freezer meal or two.

I love to experiment with new recipes, stir up French sauces, or throw together multiple complimentary dishes but this is just not the stage of life for extra hours at the stove. My first goal is to serve nourishing, filling, flavorful meals. If there’s a lot of time I might make something extra. If there’s not, I don’t feel guilty if it’s all in one dish and reheated from the night before. I know everyone has been fed with good homemade food. Time for complicated recipes and cooking extravaganzas will return soon enough; kids get more independent, and infants’ sleep routines become more predictable. This week’s menu is a good example of how these principles work for our family.

Breakfast for Dinner We were very short on ingredients because I prepared dinner while Carl was out picking up the week’s groceries. I pulled out the last couple strips of bacon from the fridge plus some sausage from the freezer and cooked it half an hour ahead, then set the meat aside to be reheated on the frying pan when were ready to eat. I stirred up my standard whole grain pancake batter while Carl and the kids were out and set it aside for half an hour so we could unpack and stow groceries before frying up the cakes. Apples, butter, and maple syrup rounded out the table. These pancakes actually turned out better than ever before – so perfectly light and fluffy. I think leaving the batter sit made the difference? This is a good example of a pantry meal I can almost always pull together from ingredients on hand. It’s also a good example of a meal prepped just a bit ahead during a quiet lull to reduce pressure right at the dinner hour.

Butternut squash soup with 30 minute dinner rolls The soup is from this staple fall recipe. I doubled it so we’d have a couple of nights’ dinner plus a couple freezer meals. I roasted the squash when I got up in the morning. In the evening I just had to assemble everything. I packed up the freezer half without the added milk as dairy products don’t always freeze well. This soup is always delicious and the kids loved it, even though I forgot to add dollops of sour cream. I served it with these 30 Minute Yeast Rolls, substituting honey for sugar. It was a disappointing bread recipe. The rolls felt flavorless with a borderline cake consistency. I won’t make them again, but it was nice to smell fresh bread baking for the first time since the new baby came home.

Pot Roast I followed my usual recipe, more or less, doubled so we’d have two or three nights’ dinners plus a couple frozen meals. This is another meal I had prepped and into a 300 degree oven by 7:30 in the morning. That allowed plenty of time for a three hour low and slow roast for perfect falling-apart meat. It guaranteed we’d have dinner in a busy work day no matter what happened or how hectic the afternoon became as I juggled small children.  This pot roast is a great food to make in large quantitites because the flavors deepen and marry as they sit on the fridge. A lot of roasts don’t freeze well, but this one can be pulled apart into more of a stew and freezes nicely. The kids loved the meat, though they were more hesitant with the veggies. I’d considered a side of salad, fresh bread, or potatoes, but in the end bowlfuls of rich broth and veggies with savory hunks of meat were more than satisfying.

Goat cheese and red pepper frittata I found this recipe in a Williams-Sonoma vegetarian cookbook I borrowed from th library. We haven’t tried it yet but it looks tasty. I expect this to only make enough for one meal (reheated eggs aren’t great…). We will eat it with salad or raw veggies for balance.

On Sundays we usually eat dinner at our small group leaders’ home so I only plan six dinners a week. Breakfasts and lunches are pretty simple and routine.