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Real Foods on the Road

We just returned from our third road trip of the summer last week–an eight-hour trek to my parents’ home in Pennsylvania. This drive always seems immeasurably shorter than our 11ish-hour trip to Indy  to see the Guy’s side of the family.

Still, eight hours means we needed to plan on lunch and snacks for the road. I try to pack our own lunches for long trips to save money and avoid fast food (we cut that out long before we start eliminating other processed foods). But even packed lunches are a little more challenging now that we’re eliminating processed foods–like deli meat and storebought bread for sandwiches that might have been a “go-to” before. Add in some of the Kiddo’s picky eating quirks (um, he doesn’t like peanut butter–there goes the PB sandwich staple!), and it’s more challenging.

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My son who is not my son
Calls me at work to ask when I’ll be home
And wants me to play hookie with him when he is sick.
My son who is not my son
Argues with me with the tenacity of a bulldog lawyer
Or just your average teenager.
My son who is not my son
Talks endlessly about the merits of any video game system known to man
While I try my best to pretend to know what he’s saying.
My son who is not my son
Is smart, curious, thoughtful and witty
And leaves me forever amazed.
My son who is not my son
Believes accuracy and detail are important
So when I, for a moment, forget that
This son is not my son
And use the wrong word–like “mom”
He is quick to correct me–gently.
This son who is not my son
Will never be my son, nor I his mom
No matter how I wish it.
He has a mom, who ought not be a mom,
She breaks his heart across time and miles
And I am left to hold the pieces together.
Meanwhile this mom who is not his mom
But would be if she could be
Cries a thousand unseen tears for the battered & beautiful soul
Of my son who is not my son.

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What You Don’t Know

I don’t generally wax too philosophical on here, so I hope you’ll forgive me this one time.

Five years and a month ago, I drove in an almost trance-like state from North Carolina to Pennsylvania, to be by my critically-ill grandma’s bedside. She had been in and out of the hospital since the prior Christmas and deep down, I knew it was the last time I would see her.

I was on autopilot the whole way. At times I would realize that my thoughts had carried me away, and I was in the left lane holding up a number of other cars who wanted to go 5-10 miles faster than me. I remember thinking that I wish I could tell them I was sorry–that I didn’t mean to be a bad driver, really. If they only knew what I had going on, I was sure they’d forgive my frustrating driving.

Since taking that long drive, on the way to say goodbye to one of the kindest and strongest women I’ve ever known, I’ve found myself with a constant refrain running through my head when I’m dealing with other people, especially when I find them frustrating–“You don’t know what you don’t know.”

We make the mistake of assuming that someone’s words and actions in a small window of time can give us a complete picture of who they are. But everybody has bad days. And sometimes bad weeks, months or even years.

We never know as much as we think we know. We don’t know the full back story. When the cashier at the grocery store is less than friendly, it’s hard to say whether she’s just a natural grouch, or if her joy has been slowly leached away from years in an abusive relationship. That person who neglected to thank you when you held open the door? Maybe he is just thoughtless and rude. Or maybe he just got a difficult diagnosis from the doctor and his mind is a thousand miles away.

Of course there are people who are just mean, rude or uncaring. But sometimes we are too quick to judge and too slow to consider the burdens someone might be carrying. And it robs us of the chance to be caring and possibly provide a moment of sunlight to someone trying to push through the darkness.

My little family recently learned some difficult news. We are all going to come out on the other side, and we will be okay. But right now, we are finding our way blindly through the darkness. We are worried 90 percent of the time, and we are in pain.

And we aren’t always ourselves. We may seem distracted, and maybe, just maybe, there are times that to others, we may seem rude or unkind.

We are not. You don’t know what you don’t know. And because of the nature of this particular heartache, I can’t share it with you. Sometimes we just have to understand that we never really know someone else’s story.

And because we don’t what we don’t know, then perhaps our default position when confronted with people who frustrate us should be one of empathy and understanding.

Perhaps we will end up giving some mean, little person the benefit of the doubt that he or she doesn’t deserve. But in the long run, the more we are able to let go of and forgive the minor daily infractions others visit upon us–consciously or unconsciously–the more peace we find ourselves. And in the process, maybe we will also grant someone who is going through a hard time just a little bit of much-needed understanding.

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Smoothie Freezer Packs

My weekdays seem to be a blur of crazed days at work and rushed evenings–cooking and eating supper, followed by dishes. laundry and squeezing in a little QT with the Guy and Kiddo. Summers are, blessedly, a bit slower-paced, since the mad race to make sure the Kiddo is ready in the morning is out of the mix and there’s no fear of realizing at 9 p.m. that we need ink for the printer so Kiddo can finish a school project that’s due the next day.

But the slow, lazy days of summer are never as slow and lazy as I’d like. And every morning I still seem to be rushed getting ready for work. The result is that I frequently skip breakfast–it always seems like what would taste good to me would take too long to make, and what we have on hand that is quick is not what my taste buds want, and usually not healthy either.

I always find that I crave fresh fruits and vegetables more in the summer (good thing!), and smoothies are a great way to start the morning–but they definitely don’t fit my schedule. But what if I could find a way to make them work?

I’ve mentioned that I’m a big fan of prepping my ingredients for weekday meals on weekends, to make meal time simpler during the week. If I’m going to chop one pepper, I might as well chop them all, and not have to get out (and clean) the knife and cutting board multiple times. Fall is my busiest time of year at work, so often late in the summer I expend a little extra time and energy to plan and execute a slew of freezer bag crock pot meals. If you haven’t discovered these yet, you need to–here are a few to get you started.

So it occurred to me that I could apply the same principle of pre-prepping and pre-packaging for morning smoothies. I started with divvying up some strawberries, blackberries and bananas that I had on hand in to freezer bags.

Freezer pack smoothies Hint: Make sure to label what’s in your bags!

20150719_103804For some extra nutrition, feel free to throw a handful of greens in the bag, too. I’ll confess–I’m not much one for this myself, but I may try it now and again to see if I can grow to like the taste. To whip this up in the morning, just add a cup of apple juice and throw it in the blender (no need for ice since the fruit is already frozen).

Or, to pack a little extra protein punch to get through the a.m., there’s always the option to throw in a bit of honey and some frozen yogurt cubes. Spoon yogurt (I used Greek) into an ice cube tray, and after the cubes are set, pop them out and store them in a freezer bag to add into your smoothies as desired.

frozen yogurt cubes 20150719_153953

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Southern Snow

Our backyard this morning.
Our backyard this morning.

The Guy and I are both Yankees, transplanted to North Carolina. Technically that makes us damn Yankees, because we stuck around. The truth is that us Yankees only get a hard time down here if we follow the Yankee stereotype of always pointing out how much better everything is done up North. While our progressive views do clash with the ideology of a lot of folks down here, for the most part the Guy and I really like living here (ok, the Guy does have a bit of disdain for hot, muggy summers).

So we don’t make fun of the dialect, and when we actually get a substantial amount of snow, we don’t make (too many) jokes about Southerners not being able to drive in this stuff and the mass hysteria that surrounds even the forecast of winter weather. We are entitled to make at least a few jokes, because at this point, the natives even make light of themselves. The most well known joke is that if you go to the grocery store right before a predicted snowstorm, you’ll find only empty shelves where the bread and milk once were–presumably so everyone will have ready supplies for milk “sammiches” should they be snowed in for a week.

While it is all a bit entertaining, I learned my lesson pretty early why you really do need to be prepared for the worst around here. We all know that weather forecasts are less than perfect, but for some reason, when it comes to predicting snow in the South, the forecasters have the worst time getting it right. If they call for a couple of inches of snow, the actual result could range from a dusting to half an inch of ice to a foot of snow that locks everything up for a week. The latter was my first real introduction to winter weather in the Carolinas. I came down here for college. One afternoon in my junior year–after seeing no more than a quarter inch of snow in my first two years there–big fluffy flakes started falling. Within an hour there was some decent accumulation and 90 percent of students on campus were either sliding down hills in makeshift sleds (note–Southerners can make a sled out of anything), having a snowball fight or building a snowball.

Being the damn Yankee that I am, and never really being a fan of winter anyway, I ignored the hoopla and went back to my warm apartment, shaking my head. But by the time the snow stopped falling the next night, we had 14 inches of snow outside, and no power inside. The power wouldn’t come back on for four days. Luckily, living on a college campus, we were able to trek on foot to the dining hall for food–where we had hamburgers and hot dogs cooked on propane grills nearly every night for the rest of the week. If it weren’t for that option, we’d have been awful hungry, since we’d failed to properly stock up on the oh-so-precious bread and milk, our cars were completely snowed in, and all the stores nearby were closed. When the roads did finally get plowed after a couple days and we’d heard word that a nearby convenience store was open, we used pots and pans to shovel my roommates car out of her parking space. Because, um, it’s North Carolina–do you really think we had shovels?!?

A few days ago, snow started showing up in the forecast for last night. Since then, predicted amounts have swung wildly from two inches to 10 inches and anywhere in between. Being good adopted Southerners that we are, we made sure we had shovels at the ready and picked up a few essentials at the grocery store (including milk, but no bread since we already had a loaf at home). Luckily, the result this morning was somewhere around five inches of snow–enough to paint the beautiful landscape you see above, but not enough to shut everything down for weeks. As I type this, most of the roads have already been plowed, the sun is shining brightly, and the temperature has warmed enough that the snow has been quickly melting throughout the afternoon.

If North Carolina weather holds true, we’ll be going for a swim next weekend.

Homemade Taco Seasoning

Make your own taco seasoning

*Note: This recipe is a repeat of one previously published on this site. I am using a new recipe plugin to present recipes in a print-friendly format, and am re-publishing old recipes to make this feature available.

This “make your own” version of taco seasoning takes just a few minutes of mixing and measuring some everyday spices that are probably already in your cupboard. It’s tastier than what you’d find in a packet, and one recipe will make quite a few tacos (and it makes a great seasoning base for many other recipes).

Make your own taco seasoning
Homemade Taco Seasoning
Print Recipe
Servings Prep Time
10 pounds of taco meat 5 minutes
Cook Time
Servings Prep Time
10 pounds of taco meat 5 minutes
Cook Time
Make your own taco seasoning
Homemade Taco Seasoning
Print Recipe
Servings Prep Time
10 pounds of taco meat 5 minutes
Cook Time
Servings Prep Time
10 pounds of taco meat 5 minutes
Cook Time
Servings: pounds of taco meat
  1. Combine all spices in an airtight plastic storage container (if you have an empty used spice bottle, that would work great). Seal your container and shake until everything is well-blended. Add one to two tablespoons of seasoning blend, depending on your taste preference, to one pound of cooked ground beef and 1/2 cup water and simmer until thickened. This mix makes up to 10 pounds of taco meat, and you can easily scale the recipe up or down, depending on how frequently you make tacos. This makes a fairly mild seasoning mix, so if you like some extra kick, turn the dial up a bit on the cayenne pepper.
Recipe Notes

Cornstarch is listed as optional because it provides thickening to the taco sauce. If you plan to use this seasoning for other recipes that don't require thickening, you may prefer to leave it out and simply stir in a bit of cornstarch when you are using it specifically for tacos.

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Time to Weed

The weeds are pretty  high right now.  So high, you probably thought I’d disappeared, right? After all, it’s been 18 months since my last post.

18 months. Hard to believe it’s been that long since my whole world was turned on it head. In a good way. In a good, but extraordinarily challenging, sorry-but-there’s-no-time-for-blogging way.

On August 26, 2013, the Guy was awarded emergency custody of the Kiddo, and I went from being a part-time stepmom to a full-time one. Since the change in custody was completely unexpected, we were both thrilled and overwhelmed at the same time–especially since it happened on the first day of school and two weeks before moving to a new home. Clearly, there were a lot of adjustments to be made, and I now have a new appreciation for working moms everywhere–especially those with more than one child. I really don’t know how they manage it.

The Kiddo is 12 at this point, so he’s fairly self-sufficient in many respects, but he’s also had a lot of emotional needs that the Guy and I have been trying to help him work through (with professional assistance, of course). And then there’s getting him to baseball, karate, football–whatever the sport of the week is. Luckily he tends to stick to one activity at a time.

Our little family has gone through a lot of transition in the past year and half, and not just because of the Kiddo coming to live with us full-time. There is no way you’d read this entire post if I bored you with all the details, but I will say that since that day in August, we moved a second time (last August, after buying our first home), added a dog and a cat to our household (we already had one dog), suffered some personal losses and pushed through some personal challenges.

I’m almost afraid to say it, but it seems as if, for the moment, things have settled down. At least as much as they can settle down, with this new life we have. So I’m trying to bring this blog back to life. I’m starting out by weeding, of course–going through old comments, trying to update some of the technical things that need addressed on the back end and working to find a better look.

I’m not a professional web designer/techie in way. I have just enough understanding of this kind of stuff to be dangerous, and that’s about all, so it takes me awhile to experiment with WordPress templates, plugins, etc., to get this site looking in a way I’m okay with, and functioning in a way that’s useful to both me and my readers.

Right before I disappeared amid all the weeds, I discovered a plugin that will simplify how any recipes I share are presented, and will make it easier for you to print and save those recipes that interest you. Over the next month or two, I’ll be working to re-publish some of my old recipes in this new format, so forgive me if you see some repeats. I’ll try to throw some new material in there from time to time.

I’ll be honest that I’m not sure what direction this blog will go from here. I started it with somewhat of a vague premise to start with–finding balance in this messy life, and sharing some of things I enjoy along the way–mainly cooking and photography. It will still be that, but as my family has grown and changed, I’m sure there will be other things of interest to me that I’ll choose to share–perhaps items related to emotional health, parenting, etc. I’ll just keep meandering my way along life’s path, seeing what it brings me, and trying to keep the weeds in check enough that I can always find some zen.

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Ice, Ice Baby: Making the Most of Your Ice Cube Tray

Frozen lemon juice

Frozen soy milk

It’s not just for ice anymore. The simple ice cube tray offers a brilliant way to preserve fresh ingredients for later use. If you’re like me and cooking for just two (three when the Kiddo is here), using up fresh ingredients before they spoil can be a challenge. I try to plan my meals so that they share common ingredients, which helps. But I’m quickly learning the ice cube tray can be a great “fresh saver.”

Here are a few examples:

  • Lemons or limes on sale? Buy a bag, juice ’em, and freeze the juice in your trays. Once frozen, dump them in a freezer bag, label them (frozen lime and lemon juice look a lot alike!), and you’ll have perfectly portioned “real” juice on hand when you need it for a recipe, instead of having to use those little lime/lemon-shaped squeeze bottles with all the extra preservatives.
  • Preserve extra fresh herbs or garlic by chopping and mixing with a bit of garlic oil, then freeze in your trays.
  • Frozen cubes of soy/almond milk or Greek yogurt are great for adding to smoothies if you like them icey, but don’t want to water them down with extra ice.

  • Freeze leftover coffee to add to iced coffee–again, it will keep your iced coffee from getting watered down when the ice melts.

There have to a thousand other creative ways to use your ice cube trays for more than just ice. What goes in your trays besides water?

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Friday Favorites: Journey to Real Food

eating real food

“Friday Favorites” features my favorite great ideas/recipes/etc., from across the giant world wide webs.

eating real food

When you start really trying to ditch processed foods, you start having to think a lot more about everything you put in your body. As I’ve evaluated what we’re eating now and what we need to cut out, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about food in general–where our food comes from and what it means to eat “real” food.

I find myself looking at “food” items in the grocery store and thinking about what they really “are.” Because food, essentially, as it works according to the food chain we all learned back in fourth grade science, should be something that was once living. So, I stand in line at the grocery store checkout and I look at the candy bar rack and wonder, what was once living in a pack of Mentos? Looking at the ingredients list, the only “once living” items on the list are sugar and coconut oil. That’s not enough to count as “food” for me any more. It’s shocking to me now how totally oblivious I have been to the fact that much of what I put in my body isn’t really food.

Or wasn’t food. That’s all changing now. It’s a learning process, and it definitely takes planning to make this transition happen, simply because “real” food is not as readily available as the pretend kind. Fortunately, I’ve quickly learned that the “real food” movement (sad that there has to be a movement in support of “real” food, right? Shouldn’t that be a given?) is growing quickly, and there are lots of online resources out there to help navigate the waters of eating naturally in a too-processed, too-busy world.

One of my favorite new websites is 100DaysofRealFood. What I like most about it is that the tips/recipes/ingredients are very realistic and doable for the average person or family. I live in a small town–there’s no Whole Foods right around the corner, so exotic, hard-to-find ingredients aren’t helpful for me. And I work full-time, so I need recipes that are realistic to be able to come home after work and cook. This site offers a workable approach to real food.

At this point, I’m not completely cutting out refined sugar and flour, but I am trying to significantly reduce the amount we eat. The Natural Sweet Recipes blog caters to my inner sweet tooth with recipes that are free of refined sugar. Be aware, though, many of the recipes do have some of those hard-to-find ingredients I referred to earlier.

Since we are cutting back on white flour, we’re experimenting with some new whole grains. Quinoa has been a hit in our house, particularly in these quinoa pancakes from Martha Stewart, which are deliciously hearty, but at the same time have a wonderful light, airy texture (tip–soy milk works fine in these, and whether you use dairy milk or a substitute, you’ll probably need to add a little more than what the recipes calls for). The Whole Grains Council offers lots of resources for learning to cook with whole grains, from recipes to this A-to-Z guide to understand the many different types of whole grains, including those funny-sounding ingredients in recipes that you don’t recognize (think amaranth). The Kitchn online magazine also has great resources to help you enjoy whole grains.

Where are you on the processed food/real food spectrum? Are you trying to swing over to the real foods side? What challenges do you face in eating “real” foods? What are your favorite natural food resources?

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Balance!!! Where’s my $^@*% balance?!?1?

Yep, there are definitely some weeds growing in the zen garden. Which is why I’ve been negligent about posting. Here’s the quick synopsis:

  • I’ve been working slowly to eliminate as many highly-processed foods from our diet as possible (ya know, balancing the desire not to have chemicals I can’t pronounce going through my digestive system with the fact that I live in a small town with no Whole Foods and the fact that the Kiddo is a bit of a picky eater with an affection for boxed macaroni and cheese). That whole effort got fast-forwarded pretty quickly, though, when the Guy finally went to see a headache specialist for his migraines, and was ordered on a diet that restricts pretty much all processed foods. So, we’ve been adjusting, so to speak.
  • While I’d love for this blog to be my full-time job, it’s not. I have an actual, real, 40-hour-a-week (or more) job to pay the bills. And, for family reasons, the Guy and I are looking to move about two hours from our current home, so I’m job hunting. Which is like a full-time job in and of itself. A really depressing full-time job, in this economy. And I actually had an interview a couple weeks ago. An all-freakin’-day-long interview, which took lots of prep. And got me exactly zero job offers (woo-hoo for the internal candidate who did get it–please insert sarcasm).
  • A few days after my interview, the Guy, Kiddo and I took off for a week-long vacation to visit family. And we all know vacations are anything but restful. So we got back five days ago and I just now have the energy to do anything productive. Ok, not true–I did quite a bit of job hunting the past two days, after learning I didn’t get the other job.

Oh, and mixed in to all of that were several other chaotic incidents that I won’t bore you with by sharing the details. Ok, so I’m a little grumpy. I’m a little off my zen. And I’m a very slack blogger. But I’m getting back to the center. I promise. I went running this morning for the first time in months, and it felt great. I am pledging to go at least two more times this week. And, I promise, I will be posting again. Because I have lots of stuff I want to share! Believe it or not, I even have several draft of posts that are half or nearly complete that I just need to wrap up and hit the magical “publish” button, and then, sha-zam! New post!

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a quick recipe I whipped up for a Fourth of July potluck while we were on vacay. It was a spur of the moment thing, so I didn’t think to take photos, but here you go. This makes for a great dessert, and it’s low in fat and sugar.

Star-Spangled Fruit Tart
(makes 2)

  • 2 graham cracker pie crusts (here’s a recipe if you’d like to make your own)
  • 2 cups fat-free Greek yogurt
  • 8 oz. fat-free cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2-3 ripe bananas, sliced
  • 1 cup strawberries, cut into small pieces, or 1 cup red raspberries
  • 1 cup blueberries

Blend yogurt, cream cheese, honey, lemon juice and vanilla in a medium mixing bowl. Arrange banana slices in a single layer along bottom of pie crust. Pour half of yogurt/cream cheese mixture into each crust. Use a spatula to smooth out the yogurt mixture. Arrange blueberries and strawberries or red raspberries in single layer on top of yogurt mixture. If you want to get extra fancy/patriotic, lay out blueberries in the shape of a star and fill in the remaining space with strawberries.