Monday, September 21, 2015

Gifts for yourself: surviving your busy weeks

I haven't even posted all of our summer photos yet.  Case in point: Back-to-school month is crazy busy, and a major adjustment from our relaxed summer pace, but you all know this already.  I'll get to the summer post eventually.

We are back in action:  The kids started 3rd and 5th grade, and I started my 16th year of teaching.

Skyler is rocking a henna tattoo on her hand, and Reed is rocking the knee socks.  Skyler still lets me pick out her clothes and Reed is EXTREMELY particular.

We are living at our house on Phillips Lake, about 20 minutes outside of town for the month of September. We decided to do this to see how we liked living out here while driving the kids into town every day as a possible trial run for a future move.  It's September at the lake, so it's gorgeous, plus, we have had the hottest September on record.

That means, our first school nights at the lake looked like this:

And this:

And this:

I love it out here. When I come home from work, and the wind off the lake is filling the house, I feel like I'm holding on to some pieces of my summer self.

Once the after-school activity schedule kicked in, we had no time to lounge on the dock.  Instead, I was frantically running around and trying to get dinner on the table.

Reed started playing football, and I definitely have at least a whole blog post of thoughts about that.  

I'm conscious about not over scheduling kids, but somehow, we feel over scheduled.  Reed has football 3 nights a week and guitar one night.  Skyler has girl-scouts, piano, soccer and Nature club.
We are busy, and it's a challenge to get it all done.  So, I came up with this Sunday-cooking-day idea that I want to share.

Disclaimers:  Let me be clear about a few things, because I hate it when I accidentally come off as some sort of know-it-all-mama.
 1.) I have an awesome husband who does at least half of the work around the house;  he cannot cook dinner most nights because he gets off the air at 6:25.  But he always jumps right in to help and then cleans up. He takes great care of all of us and I know how lucky we are.

 2.) We share custody with the little kids' dad, so there are 2 week days that they aren't with us.  This gives me a chance to run errands, clean, workout, grocery shop and go to appointments.  I know that gives me an enormous advantage in terms of staying organized, but before you get jealous, remember, I don't get to kiss their heads every night at bedtime.  I would trade with you in a hot second.

The first few weeks of this school year, for a bunch of reasons, I was just off my game, and I was in that mode where I was running to the grocery store on most days to grab something easy for dinner.  This is a stupid waste of energy and I know it.

This past weekend, I was presented with a rare opportunity:  a Sunday all to myself.  The kids were with their dad and Tim was in New York with Hillary, and so I set out to cook the whole week's worth of dinners in one massive cooking session.  It was super windy and cool out and it felt like fall as the leaves were whipping around outside.  I was inspired.  I made a plan and turned on NPR and I was HAPPY cooking for 3 straight hours.  I promise you, this makes me happy. It felt like giving myself a present, or a life preserver, for the upcoming week.

My goal is to have mass-cooking-sessions once or twice a month. The plan is to spend a few hours on Sunday cooking, and then I will thank myself every other day of the week. Some friends requested the recipes that I did this week. I'll be honest and tell you that I mostly make them up, but I'll try to recreate what I did.

Here is one week's worth of meals (if you eat meat, that is) from my first mass-cooking experiment.

I made 4 dinners and prepped a bunch of stuff for lunch.  I'll give you the recipes and then tell you about my approach for tackling them all at once.

Chicken and Cheese Enchiladas, Super-NOT-fancy edition:

I don't even want to insult you with this recipe, because it's as basic as you can get: Chop up two large chicken breasts into cubes. Saute them in a pan until cooked through, then shred/ dice them into even smaller pieces. Stir in one package of taco seasoning. Let the chicken cool, mix it with a couple handfuls of Monterey Jack cheese, divide the mixture between 8 flour tortillas and roll 'em up, sprinkle with the rest of the cheese, cover with foil, put it in the fridge or freezer. When it's time to eat it, bake it with foil at 350 for about 30 minutes (assuming it's not frozen).  Then serve with salsa, sour cream and shredded lettuce.

Chicken Pot Pie:  
I use whatever veggies I have, and this week I had a bunch of good stuff from our farm share. I sort of made up the recipe, but this is the one I used as inspiration.  I use one top layer of store-bought puff pastry as the crust instead of a top-and-bottom pie crust as this recipe suggests. I also use less than half the butter that recipe uses.

Pork and Veggie Stir Fry with Peanut Sauce:
Mix together in a bowl:  1/2 cup water, 2 teaspoons sugar or honey, 1 teaspoon black pepper, 2 teaspoons salt, 2 tablespoons sesame oil, 1/4 cup rice or apple cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons natural peanut butter, 2 tablespoons soy sauce, and 1-2 garlic cloves, minced.

Chop up pork chops into 1-inch cubes.  Put in a zip lock bag with the Peanut Sauce, above.
In a separate zip lock, store all of your pre-chopped veggies.  I used broccoli, red onion, and green beans.

When it's time to cook it:  Cook the veggies separately from the pork because of different cooking times in two saute pans.  Once it's all cooked (make sure that marinade comes to a boil/ simmers hot in the pan for several minutes, otherwise it's not safe to eat), toss it all together.  Serve with rice.
The pork and veggies are pictured in the back here, in two separate zip lock bags.

Turkey Meatballs: 
Skyler likes these on plain pasta, Reed loves them with spaghetti sauce.  It's very easy to customize.

I have no exact recipe for this.  I just mix together a pound of ground turkey, one egg, a handful of breadcrumbs, some diced onion, a handful of Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, and oregano.  Then, mix it up, form meatballs, brown and turn in a frying pan with some spray oil until cooked through.

I combined these with one bottle of Marinara plus two cans of Tomato Sauce and it's all in the freezer.  Just boil some pasta, warm the sauce, and done.

Mass-Cooking Strategy:  I roasted 4 chicken breasts in the oven at 350.  2 of them went into the pot pie, 2 of them went to Curried Chicken Salad (greek yogurt mixed with curry powder, cubed chicken, celery, and dried cranberries). I saved the last 2 chicken breasts for the Enchiladas.  While the chicken was in the oven, I also roasted a cookie sheet of diced sweet potatoes (tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper). I then made the Peanut Sauce and prepped the pork and veggies.  Then I assembled the enchiladas and pot pie, then I made the meatballs.

I used most of the sweet potatoes on 3 salads I pre-made for myself for lunches.  I saved another serving for a snack or another day's lunch.  I NEVER get sick of sweet potatoes.  With these salads, I also pack some extra toppings on the side, like cranberries, blue cheese, and sunflower seeds.  You can pre-package these in small tupperware for your lunches too.

Once the dinners were made, I took a few minutes to portion out some snacks, cut-up veggies, granola, diced melons, and cheese and crackers that the kids take for lunches.

All of this prep took me 3 hours.  And then I collapsed on the couch and thanked myself for making my week ahead so easy.  

I have other thoughts about helping yourself during the week. Once I got into the habit of doing everything the night before, I can't NOT do it.  I think I would freak out if I had to pack a lunch in the morning.  All I have to do is drink coffee and take hot showers. I also get up in time to have at least 30 minutes of quiet time to myself.  Everything else is done.

Things I do the night before:
-Set up the coffee pots (Tim drinks caffeinated and I've switched to decaf).
-Put out clothes for the kids.  Right down to the socks and underwear and shoes, it's all in a pile in the morning.
-Make all the lunches.
-Put all the bags (school bags, soccer stuff, piano music, whatever is going with us in the morning) by the door.
-Iron my clothes and put an outfit out.
-Tidy up the house.  Tim and I both believe in going to bed with a clean house.  Even when he gets home at midnight from work, he'll empty the dishwasher and/or fold laundry before bed.

If I'm swimming or going to the gym before work, my bag is also packed and by the door.  I have a bag that stays packed with shampoo, conditioner, brush, deodorant, lotion, make up, and a hair dryer, so all I need to remember is the day's clothes.  Investing in two of everything just makes your life easier.  

I'm going to stock up on more ideas for make-ahead meals.  If you have a favorite, or a strategy for making YOUR life easier during your busy weeks, please share.

Carry on, busy people.  xo