Posted in Adventures

Dreher Island State Park

We took a family staycation to Dreher Island State Park just outside of Columbia, SC. The park is 3 islands on the 50,000 acre Lake Murray. We rented a small cabin along the shoreline a few weeks prior, packed the car, and set out on our adventure. Annabeth went on her first sleepover all by herself the night before we left at the neighbor’s house! T.J. and I were able to pack while she was having the time of her life keeping her friends on their toes. Bless them. We picked her up from their house and headed straight for Columbia, only stopping at Bojangles for some biscuits.

As we crossed over the water leading into the State Park, Annabeth exclaimed: This is my dream come true! We checked in at the visitor’s center that doubled as a small convenience store and tackle shop. That island also offered a marina, boat ramps, docks, 3 fishing tournament shelters, bathrooms, and a playground. We made our way to the cabins, which had recently started allowing dogs. We were happy to have Cooper with us for this one! The loop with 10 camper cabins had a private bath house with toilets and showers. Every cabin faced the water and were close to a group picnic pavilion. The cabin was furnished with electricity, an air conditioner/heater, a double bed, and twin bunk beds. A generous front porch with a bench looked through the trees down into the water. Next to each cabin was an outdoor kitchen with a picnic table, fire ring, a bench, and a water spigot. We had more than we needed to make a handful of sweet memories.

Annabeth woke up and wiggled into a swimsuit before T.J. and I could focus. Good thing her energy is contagious. We took a trail out to a cove where you could walk across a sandbar to a tiny island. I enjoyed it but Annabeth was quick to get back to the red clay she’d found and indulge in a spa treatment. One rainy afternoon we went to Little Mountain to check out a two story antique store with a café. Annabeth scarfed down half a BLT, which she proudly carried the remainder in her to-go box but slipped and the LT half fell on the ground. I tried to cheer her up by pointing out that the B had survived but I was informed that a BLT is useless when separated. I enjoyed a PB&J- Pimento Cheese, Jalapeno Bacon, and Raspberry jelly. Back at the cabin, I was able to get some Wi-Fi long enough to download Annabeth’s favorite movie: Isn’t It Romantic with Rebel Wilson and Adam Devine. She finds Liam Hemsworth’s hair mesmerizing and begs Dad to grow his out so it will blow in the wind.

We cannot wait to go back! The park was immaculate. Park Rangers were never far away- buzzing around cleaning bathrooms daily, maintaining the greenery, and tending to the trash/recycle stations. Waking up to the waves and watching the sunset over the water is new to us. TJ was leery to step into the water that first day as I laughed and insisted he get in. He winced expecting ice cold Rocky Mountain water. The expression of awe on his face captured his first experience with warm, as if you just peed your pants, bodies of water. On the drive home, we made plans to rent a villa next time and look into getting a pontoon boat. It was a simple few days but exactly the infusion of energy we were craving.

Posted in Eats

Salsa Shredded Chicken Meals

  1. Chicken Bacon Taquitos
  2. Verde Chicken White Bean Soup
  3. Zesty Chicken Spaghetti
  4. BLT with Avocado – Throw Together Meal
  5. Sweet Potato Hash – Busy Night Meal

Grocery List

  • 3# Boneless, Skinless Chicken Thighs and/or Breasts (I prefer thighs)
  • 2# Bacon
  • 8 large eggs- additional if you want a fried egg on your B.L.T.
  • 16 oz spinach
  • 8 oz mushrooms
  • 2 large tomatoes
  • 1 red onion
  • 2 avocados
  • 1 lime
  • 1 bunch cilantro
  • 2 head of romaine lettuce or precut bag of romaine
  • 1 head garlic or try paste, jarred minced, or frozen cubes
  • 1 head of cauliflower or precut fresh or frozen
  • 32 oz precut sweet potatoes, frozen or fresh -or- 4 large sweet potatoes
  • 8 oz cream cheese
  • 4 oz Mexican cheese, shredded
  • 8 oz Sharp Cheddar Cheese, shredded
  • 8 oz Muenster Cheese, sliced
  • 1 oz Parmesan Cheese, fresh or from the shaker
  • 2 c frozen corn or 28 oz hominy
  • 2 c frozen lima beans or canned
  • 1# dry white beans of choice -or- 4 cans of white beans
  • 28 oz whole or diced tomatoes (use one can of tomatoes with green chiles for a kick)
  • Cauliflower or Frozen vegetable blend (to be added to white beans)
  • 5c frozen onion and bell pepper blend -or- 3 onions and 3 bell peppers
  • Caesar Salad dressing
  • 16 oz Salsa of choice- check ingredients for added sugar or preservatives
  • 16 oz Salsa Verde- look for salsa without added sugar or preservatives
  • Diced Green Chiles, optional for shredded chicken
  • 1T taco seasoning
  • 2.5 c chicken broth or Better Than Bouillon
  • 16 oz spaghetti noodles
  • 12 corn tortillas
  • 1 loaf rustic multigrain bread
  • 1 loaf of bread- your choice for B.L.T.
  • Mayonnaise- try recipe for homemade below
  • 1 c chopped mix of olives, jalapenos, jarred roasted red bell peppers, green onion, parsley
  • Optional for Chicken Bacon Taquitos: Diced jalapenos, 1 oz Ranch dressing mix, salsa, sour cream, toppings for white beans- choice of taco seasoning, taco sauce, pico de gallo, hot sauce, diced onion/tomatoes
  • Optional for Chicken Spaghetti: Croutons, or sub a Caesar Salad Kit for the Romaine, Caesar dressing, and parmesan cheese.
  • Optional for Sweet Potato Hash: Raisin bread, Cinnamon toast, or English muffins and sausage links or patties; -or- frozen biscuits and gravy mix

Prep Work

  • Dump all chicken into a slow cooker, Instant Pot, or stockpot. Add the 16oz jar of salsa + diced green chiles (if using) + 1c water. Slow cooker for 6-8 hours on low. Instant Pot for 7 minutes on high, natural release. Stovetop simmer for 10-12 minutes. Shred chicken in pot and store with liquids in 3 equal containers. You can also shred using your mixer with the paddle attachment. I think I’m going to steal my husband’s claws for pulled pork next time. Rotisserie chickens or packaged pulled chicken (I buy it from Costco) is also an option, if you want to skip this step entirely.
  • Put white beans and 2c broth in Instant Pot. You can add 2 sage leaves and some no salt seasoning. Cook large white beans on high for 16 minutes and small white beans on high for 12 minutes. Natural release. Divide in half and store in fridge or freezer.
  • Optional:
    • Red onion- dice 1/2 onion and slice 1/2
    • Dice onions and bell peppers. Mix well and store in fridge.
    • Shred cheese. We prefer shredding our own. My husband uses an attachment on my Kitchenaid mixer. We keep it in a gallon bag in the freezer.
    • Cook bacon. I do this in my air fryer. You can also put it on cooling rack placed inside a sheet pan and cook at 400° until crisp. Undercook it slightly if you will be reheating in strips. Crumble when cooled before storing.
    • Make homemade mayonnaise. See recipe below. It sounds intimidating, but it’s easy and well worth it!
    • Spinach- Always freeze spinach before it goes bad. Use in recipes like the Chicken Bacon Taquitos and Chicken Spaghetti. You can also use Power Greens: Kale, Swiss Chard, and Spinach. Smash into bits after it freezes, if you’ve got picky eaters.
    • Cauliflower- If using a head of cauliflower, cut it into small florets. Do not throw away the stalk! Slice it up and add it to the florets.

#1 Chicken Bacon Taquito Meal

  • 1/3 of the shredded chicken
  • 8 oz spinach
  • 8 oz crumbled bacon
  • 1/c red onion, diced
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 4 oz cream cheese
  • 4 oz Mexican cheese, shredded
  • 12 corn tortillas
  • Spray oil- look for one with oil listed as the only ingredient
  • 1/2 pot of white beans -or- 2 cans of white beans (28 oz total)
  • 1/2 head of cauliflower florets or frozen
  • Optional: Diced jalapenos, 1 oz Ranch dressing mix, salsa, sour cream, toppings for white beans- taco seasoning, taco sauce, pico de gallo, hot sauce, diced onion/tomatoes
    • Sauté onion until translucent . Add garlic and jalapenos, if using. Stir in spinach and 1/3 shredded chicken. Heat through until liquid evaporates and spinach wilts.
    • Remove from heat and add cream cheese + ranch dressing powder, if using. Stir until cream cheese melts.
    • Add shredded cheese and bacon crumbles.
    • Spray cooling rack placed inside of a sheet pan or air fryer tray with oil. Preheat oven to 425°.
    • Heat skillet on medium and lightly spray both sides of a tortilla with oil. Place in hot skillet and flip until the tortilla begins to bubble. You should see the oil sizzle and the tortilla will turn a golden brown.
    • Put 2 heaping spoonfuls of chicken mixture into center of tortilla and roll tightly. Place seam down. Repeat until no more filling remains.
    • Spray each taquito completely. It will only crisp if it is covered in oil, so be thorough.
    • Bake for 15 minutes in oven or 8 minutes in air fryer on 400°. Flip halfway through. Meanwhile, reheat white beans. Add cauliflower or vegetable blend and 1/4c water- you could cook separately but why, if you can just add it to the beans. Drizzle in some taco sauce or a scoop of pico de gallo or a dusting of taco seasoning.
    • Serve with salsa and sour cream for dipping. Top white beans with hot sauce and diced onion and/or tomatoes.

You can see the taquitos, from right to left, cracking less. That is because I left them in the skillet for progressively longer periods of time. The taquito on the left is smoothest because the tortilla was the most pliable after being in the heat for the longest- until bubbles began to form and the oil sizzled.

#2 Verde Chicken & Bean Soup Meal

  • 1c frozen onion and bell pepper blend
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 16 oz salsa verde
  • 2 c corn or 28 oz hominy
  • 1/2 pot of white beans -or- 2 cans of white beans (28 oz total)
  • 1 lime
  • 2 1/2c chicken broth
  • 1/3 of the shredded chicken
  • Loaf of rustic multigrain bread
  • 1/2 c mayonnaise- try homemade recipe below
  • 1 c chopped mix of olives, jalapenos, jarred roasted red bell peppers, green onion, parsley
  • 8 oz muenster cheese, slices
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chopped
  • 1 avocado, diced
    • Sauté onion in oil until translucent. Add garlic and stir well.
    • Add salsa verde, corn or hominy, white beans, broth, and chicken.
    • Simmer for 15 minutes.
    • Meanwhile preheat oven to 350°, slice loaf of bread in half lengthwise. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with garlic powder and salt. Toast until golden brown.
    • Mix together mayo and chopped olive mix. Layer mayo olive mix onto toasted bread. Top with slices of cheese. Return to oven until cheese begins to bubble.
    • Serve soup with chopped cilantro, lime wedges, and avocado.
      • Tip for cilantro: Don’t bother removing all the leaves. Cut off the bottom couple inches of the stems but chop up the rest with the leaves. You can also freeze the bunch of cilantro with bottom of the stems removed then smash to crush. I love cilantro and prefer it fresh but will freeze unused amount for later use.

#3 Zesty Chicken Spaghetti Meal

  • 2 c onion and pepper blend
  • 6-8 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 8 oz mushrooms, sliced or minced as your family prefers
  • 8 oz spinach
  • 1 T taco seasoning
  • 4 oz cream cheese, cubed
  • 8 oz sharp cheddar cheese, grated
  • 16 oz spaghetti (I only use 8 oz for my small family)
  • 28 oz tomatoes, whole or diced
  • 1/3 of the shredded chicken
  • Cauliflower ,1/2 head or bag of frozen
  • Romaine Lettuce
  • Caesar Dressing
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Croutons or leftover olive cheese bread, cubed and toasted
    • Sauté onions and peppers until translucent. Add garlic, mushrooms, spinach, and taco seasoning. Cook until spinach wilts.
    • Mix in cauliflower and shredded chicken.
      • Stovetop- Cook noodles according to package al dente directions. Add noodles and tomatoes. Turn heat to low/medium.
      • Instant Pot- Spread tomatoes over noodles. Cook in Instant Pot on High pressure for 5 minutes. Quick release pressure.
    • Stir in cream cheese until melted. Top with cheddar cheese. Cover until cheese melts.
    • Caesar Salad: Toss Romaine lettuce in Caesar dressing. Top with Parmesan cheese and croutons. Add fresh ground pepper according to taste.

#4 Throw Together Meal: B.L.T. with Avocado

  • 2 Large Tomatoes, sliced
  • Loaf of bread
  • Mayonnaise- try homemade recipe below!
  • 1# bacon, reheated
  • Optional: Avocado, sliced red onion, fried eggs
    • Prepare a cutting board or serving platter. Lay out sliced tomato, lettuce leaves, avocado (sliced or mashed), red onion slices, fried eggs, bacon, toasted bread, and plenty of mayo.
    • Let everyone dig in and build their own B.L.T.
    • Serve on leftover night with additional Chicken Spaghetti, Verde Chicken & Bean Soup, and Chicken Bacon Taquitos.

Homemade Mayonnaise

  • Chill 1 c light olive oil or avocado oil (my preference) in the fridge. I just put the whole jar in the fridge.
  • Crack one large egg in a mason jar or glass that snuggly fits the immersion blender. Use the measured cup that came with your immersion blender, if you can find it.
  • Add 2 t lemon juice, 1 t vinegar, small squirt of Dijon mustard, and a pinch of salt.
  • Gently pour in 1 c chilled oil. Allow ingredients to settle for a couple minutes. Be careful to ensure the egg remains intact.
  • Place immersion blender straight to the bottom of the container. Turn on High and keep the blender pressed to the bottom until you begin to see thick white mayonnaise form.
  • Slowly move the immersion blender upward to incorporate the remainder of the oil.
  • Refrigerate and store up to one week.

#5 Busy Night Meal: Sweet Potato Hash

  • 2 c onion and pepper frozen blend -or- 1 onion + 1 bell pepper, diced
  • 32 oz precut sweet potatoes, fresh or frozen -or- 4 sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
  • 2 c lima beans, canned (drained and rinsed) or frozen
  • 8 eggs, scrambled or fried
  • Optional: Raisin bread, Cinnamon toast, or English muffins and sausage links or patties; -or- frozen biscuits and gravy mix
    • Heat large skillet on medium-high heat. Coat with oil.
    • Spread diced potatoes evenly and season according to taste. I use garlic powder, smoked paprika, tumeric, salt, and pepper. Do not disturb for 5 minutes.
    • Flip and let cook for 5 minutes.
    • Add onion and bell pepper. Add lima beans, if using frozen. Drizzle with additional oil, if needed. Stirring occasionally, cook until onion is translucent.
    • Add lima beans, if using canned. Heat through.
    • Serve with eggs cooked to your liking and bread/toast, sausage, or biscuits and gravy.
Lima bean and sweet potato hash with eggs


  • Roll extra Sweet Potato Hash and eggs in tortillas and wrap in foil. Save for a snack at work or grab-and-go breakfast. Can be frozen for later! You could also prepare this meal early in the week and double the recipe. Make burritos or turn into a casserole and eat throughout the week.
  • Sweet Potato Hash is a great meal to always have on hand. Make sure to keep the ingredients in the freezer and on hand for a quick fix weeknight meal or weekend brunch.
  • Make a double batch of Chicken Bacon Taquitos and freeze. If you don’t have much chicken mixture left, add a can of corn + a drained and rinsed can of black or pinto beans.
  • Freeze half of the olive cheese bread or make a double loaf to freeze the extra.
  • Corn tortillas freeze well. Separate by the dozen with plastic wrap or foil and seal in a zip top bag.
Posted in Eats

Ground Meat Weekly Meals

  1. Beef and Bean Quesadillas
  2. Shepherd’s Pie
  3. Chili Mac
  4. Stir Fry Noodles – Throw Together Meal
  5. Naan Pizzas – Busy Night Meal

Grocery List

  • 3 # Ground Meat (create your own mix with beef, chicken, turkey, chopped mushrooms, shredded zucchini)
  • 4c Onion and Bell Pepper Mix: fresh pre-cut or frozen or 3 onions + 2 red peppers
  • 1 Avocado
  • 8 oz mushrooms
  • Fresh vegetables to dip in ranch- cucumbers and carrot + celery sticks or bag of assorted vegetables
  • 1 head of garlic or try paste tubes, jarred minced, or frozen cubes
  • Brussel Sprouts, fresh or frozen
  • Southwest-style Salad Kit
  • 16 oz kale or power green blend with kale, spinach, and swiss chard
  • Bag of coleslaw or broccoli slaw mix
  • 14 oz can diced tomatoes or tomatoes with chiles
  • 28 oz can diced tomatoes
  • 8 oz tomato sauce
  • Tomato paste, can or look for the tube
  • Marinara sauce or pizza sauce
  • 14 oz can black beans
  • 14 oz can kidney, white, or trio of beans
  • 16 oz elbow macaroni
  • Asian noodle of choice- chow mein, lo mein, udon, spaghetti or fettucine
  • Tortillas (Xtreme Wellness tortillas)
  • Naan Bread
  • 8 oz Mexican cheese, shredded
  • 8 oz Cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 16 oz Pizza cheese, shredded
  • Instant rice mix or quinoa blend- look in the frozen section
  • Taco Seasoning packet (or make your own salt-free)
  • Chili powder
  • Stir Fry Seasoning packet or bottle of sauce
  • Mashed Potatoes- Frozen, pouch, deli, or homemade (look for cauliflower or sweet potato)
  • Frozen Mixed Vegetables
  • Frozen Corn
  • Frozen Lima Beans
  • Cauliflower. frozen or fresh
  • Frozen Stir Fry or Asian Blend veggies
  • Optional for Busy Night: Frozen fish fillets, fish sticks, or chicken nuggets and egg rolls or wontons; chili garlic sauce or sriracha
  • Optional for Quesadillas: Sour Cream or plain Greek yogurt, salsa
  • Optional for Pizza Night: Toppings of choice

Prep Work

  • Sauté mushrooms, onion and bell pepper blend- 3c of mix or 2 onions + 1 bell pepper
  • Add 3# ground meat/veggie mix and cook through. Add kale or power greens, cover and cook for 20 minutes or until stems are tender.
    • Instant Pot: Cook on high for 7 minutes. Natural release for 10 minutes.
  • Separate into 3 equal amounts and store 2 of them in the fridge or freezer.
  • Optional:
    • Mashed Potatoes: Try using half cauliflower or half sweet potatoes (cubed sweet potatoes can be found in the freezer section or pre-cut in the produce department) If using flaked mashed potatoes, throw in cauliflower or sweet potatoes when bringing water to a boil. Simmer until fork tender and mash. Then add flakes, butter, and milk. Off heat, add one beaten egg. Store in a ziptop bag.
    • Extra Mushrooms: Slice or mince as your family prefers. I use a Cuisinart Slap Chopper. Can be frozen in portioned bags for later use.
    • Extra Kale or Power greens: Stick the whole bag straight into the freezer. When frozen, smash into tiny pieces. This can be added to anything! You can also shove a couple handfuls into ziptop bags, squeeze all of the air out, and place in the freezer.
    • Onion and Bell Pepper blend: If using fresh, dice up and mix well.
    • Tomato Paste: If using canned, drop tablespoons of paste into plastic wrap in a row. Roll up the row of paste and twist between each drop. Put in a ziptop bag and save in the freezer.

#1 Beef & Bean Quesadilla Meal

  • 1/3 cooked ground meat mixture
  • 14 oz can diced tomatoes or tomatoes and chiles
  • 2-4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 14 oz can black beans
  • 1 T taco seasoning (or half a packet)
  • 8 oz shredded cheese
  • Tortillas
  • Avocado, sliced or diced
  • Salsa and sour cream or Greek yogurt
  • Southwest-style Salad Kit, prepared as directed
    • Add garlic, tomatoes, taco seasoning, and beans to ground meat mixture. Stir well and simmer covered for at least 10 minutes. Uncover and simmer until liquid evaporates.
    • Cover tortilla with shredded cheese and spread mixture over half the tortilla. Fold and bake (do this for making several at once) or heat in a skillet.
    • Serve quesadillas with avocado, salsa, and sour cream or Greek yogurt.

Spanish Rice

  • Rice blend
  • 8 oz tomato sauce
  • 1 c corn kernels
  • 1T taco seasoning (or half a packet)
  • 1/4 c onion and bell pepper blend
    • Combine all ingredients (plus 1/2 c water per bag, if using Boil in Bag rice). Simmer for 15 minutes.
    • Fluff and serve with quesadillas and salad.

#2 Shepherd’s Pie Meal

  • Brussel Sprouts
  • 1T tomato paste
  • 4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 1/2 c mixed vegetables
  • 1/3 prepared meat mixture
  • 1/4 c flour
  • 1 c beef broth
  • 1 c lima beans
  • 2t thyme
  • 2t Worcestershire sauce
  • Mashed potatoes, see notes above under “Prep Work: Optional”
    • Preheat oven to 400°.
      • Cut Brussel sprouts in half and toss in olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 35 minutes or until lightly charred.
    • Sauté garlic and tomato paste until tomato paste darkens.
    • Add mixed vegetables, lima beans, and meat mixture. Stir well. Sprinkle flour over mixture and stir until flour turns golden.
    • Add broth while scraping the bits off the bottom of the skillet.
    • Add thyme and Worcestershire sauce. Simmer until gravy thickens.
    • Cut corner off ziptop bag of mashed potatoes and cover evenly.
    • Broil for 10-15 minutes or until potatoes begin to brown.

#3 Chili Mac Meal

  • 1/4 c Chili Powder
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 c onion and bell pepper mix
  • 28 oz diced tomatoes
  • 1T soy sauce or liquid amino acids
  • 14 oz can kidney, white, or trio of beans
  • 3 c water or beef broth
  • 16 oz elbow macaroni
  • Cauliflower, frozen or fresh
  • 8 oz cheddar cheese, shredded
    • Sauté onion and pepper blend in oil on medium heat in a Dutch oven until onions are translucent. Add garlic and chili powder. Stir well until chili powder is fragrant.
    • Add soy sauce, beans, and broth to the pot. Stir to combine well scraping the bits off the bottom of the pot.
    • Add tomatoes, macaroni and stir into mix. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes. Add cauliflower and simmer for 10 minutes or until pasta is tender. Remove lid to allow liquid to evaporate, as needed.
      • Instant Pot: Do not add tomatoes to filling mix. Pour pasta over mix evenly. Press into broth. Cover with tomatoes. High pressure for 5 minutes. Quick release.
    • Sprinkle cheese over chili mac and broil until cheese bubbles. Or just put the lid back on the pot until melted, if you don’t want to turn the oven on!

#4 Throw Together Meal: Stir Fry Noodles

  • Asian noodles of choice, cooked according to package directions
  • Coleslaw mix
  • Asian veggie or stir fry mix
  • Stir Fry seasoning or sauce mix
  • Soy Sauce or liquid amino acids
    • Sauté coleslaw mix and Asian veggie blend on medium-high heat until cooked crisp.
    • Add seasoning or sauce and noodles.

If using fish fillets, fish sticks, or chicken nuggets, cook according to package directions. Cook egg rolls and/or wontons too. Serve with soy sauce or liquid amino acids. Try some chili garlic sauce or Sriracha, if you like spice!

#5 Busy Night Meal: Individual Pizzas

  • Naan Bread
  • Marinara or pizza sauce
  • 16 oz Pizza cheese, shredded
  • Toppings
  • Fresh vegetables and ranch
    • Preheat oven for 350°. Toast Naan breads for 5 minutes or until crispy.
    • Flip Naan breads, so crispy side is face down. Top with marinara and cheese. Let everyone top their own pizza. I don’t give mine access to the cheese because they get out of control but let your crew control their cheese, if you dare.
    • Bake for 10 minutes or until cheese begins to bubble.
    • Serve with vegetables and ranch dip.


  • Divide Shepherd’s Pie, Chili Mac, and Asian noodles in half. Freeze for dinner later. Or separate into individual servings and freeze for lunches.
  • Prepare remaining Beef + Bean quesadillas and Naan pizzas. Par-cook then freeze with foil to separate.
  • Breakfast: Use excess onions, bell pepper, mushrooms, greens, and pizza toppings for frittata or 2-minute microwave mug omelets. -OR- Roll this into meal prep for next week. Make a scramble or casserole with extra meat + veggies for breakfast burritos.
Posted in Eats

Veggie Stuffed Shells

We were feeling silly and ran to grab some chips and dip for Girl’s Movie Night. T.J. works swing shifts and we take full advantage our free reign over the remote! A box of jumbo shells caught Annabeth’s eye and I was buzzing from some cookies we shared earlier, so I bought them. I looked up a couple recipes on Pinterest but decided to create my own version loaded with the vegetables I had on hand.

Boil a box of jumbo shells to al dente or a couple minutes less than directed.

  • 1 onion, diced
  • Healthy drizzle of olive oil

Saute onion in oil over medium heat until translucent.

My new trick to keep mushrooms on hand for sneaking into nearly all dishes. I think at this point, I’m not really tricking anyone plus Annabeth loves mushrooms.

I mince bella mushrooms finely then smooth them in a gallon zip top bag and fold into quarters. I put the folded bag of mushrooms into the freezer. When I pull it out, I flatten the bag out so it breaks into 4 squares of mushroom.

  • 1 1/2 c frozen spinach
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 c mushrooms, minced

Add spinach, garlic, bell pepper, and mushroom to the skillet. Stir well and cook until moisture is evaporated. Take off burner to cool.

  • 16 oz ricotta
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2c mozzarella, shredded
  • 1T parsley, minced

Mix ricotta, eggs, mozzarella, and parsley well.

Add spinach mixture to the bowl of ricotta and cheese. Stir well.

  • 8oz can tomato sauce

Spread tomato sauce on bottom of 9″ x 13″ pan. I mixed in some garlic powder and Italian seasoning to the can of tomato sauce first. Drizzle with olive oil.

Preheat oven to 350°

Stuff each shell, then place in the prepared pan like you’re playing a game of Tetris trying to keep the opening facing up. Make sure not to over stuff them like I did. Otherwise, you have to go back and steal stuffing from the extra plump ones for the remaining empty ones.

  • 24 oz marinara sauce

Pour marinara sauce over shells evenly. Bake for 30 minutes or until sauce bubbles.

Sprinkle with some fresh basil and grated Pecorino Romano.

You will notice that I do not add salt, except to the boiling water for the noodles. I find that there is enough salt in the ricotta and marinara. I figure that you can add salt to taste after you take your first bite. There is so much salt in foods already, it’s better to not make a habit of adding extra unless you know you truly need it. Sprinkle on some red pepper flakes or fresh ground black pepper instead.

Serve with some steamed broccoli or cauliflower and a nice salad. Annabeth made one for us all by herself! She has a special set of knives that are safe for kiddos. She cut up cucumber, red bell pepper, tomatoes, lettuce, and squeezed on some Ranch dressing. I forgot to take a picture of her creation though. Oops. Her salad was the perfect compliment to a heavier main dish. Never miss a chance to let your little ones help in the kitchen. They will surprise you!

Posted in Our Story

Time to speak up

My Mom was fiercely passionate about being a friend to all of God’s children without discrimination. She was born to an American father and a Japanese mother 14 years after World War II ended. 14 years after Japanese Americans were released from concentration camps in the United States. Her eyes would shift to the floor, as her jaw clenched, when she would recall the out lashings of hate she experienced as a child. Bless her for choosing to mold that pain into a steadfast mission of passing on a perspective of inclusion. Recalling my colorful childhood, I never would have imagined my narrow impression of race was naive. Until I moved to Louisiana.

I made a friend the year before I left Baton Rouge who left an imprint on my heart that has yet to fade. She is to blame for my self-confidence and inclination to fight. I insisted she come over to my house and get ready for an evening out. This took days of convincing her that she was welcome in my parent’s home, which I found comical knowing my Mom’s opinions. But when I saw her in her car giving herself a pep talk before walking up the driveway to my house… She was terrified to knock on the door. She was filled with fear to even be stepping foot in my yard. When my Mom reached out to embrace her, I swear the color drained from her face. She told me that her instincts kicked in and she braced herself for my Mom to hit her. And that is why Black Lives Matter to me. Her friendship went beyond any other relationship I have ever had. I regret one thing about leaving Louisiana and it is missing out on being a part of her life.

I worked for community corrections in Denver before I started my current career path as a jester in Annabeth’s court. The inmates of color never seemed to relax in the chair and accept the care being provided. Knuckles wrapped around the arm rest and eyes analyzing each movement, as if anticipating an ambush. Now that’s not to say that white people didn’t get nervous too. The minority inmates had a gentleness that reminded me of a child longing to be loved by someone who causes them immense pain. There was an expectation that they would receive lesser quality or even harmful care. I would talk to them and look them in the eyes. Smile and ask what their children’s names were when tears streamed down their faces because they missed their families. Yes, all lives matter but black lives are hurting. They are scared because they run into people who treat them less than human on a regular basis.

In Colorado, I saw this translate to the Hispanic community too. So. Much. Racism. Here’s where I start to deviate. The “All Lives Matter” slogan is ignorant and redundant, in my opinion. All Lives Matter is EXACTLY the point that the protestors are trying to make. You certainly cannot sum up an entire explanation in a catchy phrase but they are voicing their discontent for people of color being treated as if they DO NOT matter. I’m going to put this in the best way that my white privilege status allows: I hate nothing more than when a mother scoffs at my struggle as an exclusive pumper. She breastfed and her circumstance protected her from the reality I survived for 14 months. Maybe there were extenuating circumstances. Maybe pumping came easily for others. Maybe I used drugs. Maybe I had an arrest record. But why think less of me? Should my trauma be marginalized because you can relate on one aspect of my story? Try a little empathy. Nothing should matter except the fact that I endured something difficult. Give me a hug! What if you were in countless situations when someone put you in a box with a single glance and proceeded to act on hate? Whether it be because of skin color, gender, orientation, status, or even that guy who keeps cooking fish in the microwave, we should all be banding together to support every single person who encounters discrimination.

Racism exists across the board on varying levels for every single one of us. If you claim to see past skin color, then let’s get fired up when we see injustice and take a stand. Keep a color-coded chart of each incident and let me know how lopsided that rainbow looks. Regardless of the murderer or victim’s race, we should be outraged. If you aren’t comfortable speaking up for Black Lives Matter, start a campaign to enforce stricter repercussions for our community defenders who have a history of abusing their power. (By the way, this entire situation should make you uncomfortable.) Speak out against the unions that protect officers who prove time and time again that they are not dedicated to protecting the citizens they serve. Be aware of local events and commit to being perceptive when you are in public. Showing support can be as simple as witnessing a nasty comment and offering an unsolicited kind word. Be human. We are here to love and be loved. Give the rest to God.

Posted in Our Story

Time Flies

Quarantine started the week of St Patrick’s Day for us here in South Carolina. I greeted the stay at home order with a list of projects. I pulled out my can of paint and finished painting my exterior doors that were abruptly abandoned when summer came early last year. The screened in porch has been redecorated with a comfy new lounge area. Yard cleanup was in full force back in March. I pruned my hydrangeas and watch with pride as they are now blooming fabulously. Walking out in my pajamas to empty coffee grounds on the bare branches has been rewarded with rich periwinkle blossoms. We even accepted the challenge of pool maintenance by installing a small above ground pool for Annabeth. The neighbors brought the Easter Bunny to life by filling and hiding eggs for Annabeth twice! We shared a social distancing Easter dinner by setting up tables on either side of the fence and feasting. My birthday was so special! Fresh picked strawberries from a neighbor in the morning, a driveway donut surprise in the afternoon, and a fish taco carport dinner next door.

But I lost my steam a couple weeks ago. I spent the first few weeks supporting local restaurants but as the scale crept up, I started May out by committing to cooking meals again. I feel glued to the cutting board and buried under the repeating dirty dishes. T.J. works 2pm-midnight, so I pack 2 meals for him in the morning to get him through the long shift. We eat a late breakfast together, then Annabeth and I eat lunch and dinner without him. Annabeth may be a challenging kid but she is an excellent eater. Grilled fish, steamed broccoli, cherry tomatoes, and salad are her favorite foods at the moment. Fresh fruit of any kind is a treat for her. I dream of ordering a cheese pizza while mindlessly chopping every vegetable in the kitchen for her meal like deja vu. “Mom, do we have any brussel sprouts? You never make brussel sprouts any more!” I know, my struggle is real. I would much rather be playing outside with her waiting on delivery than in the kitchen for hours alone! I wish we were busy with flag football, reading & painting with the hog at Charles Towne (an active excavation site), yoga at the library, storytime at the local indoor play place, discovery beach walks, and scouting antique stores. Instead, I glare at the cans of paint in my bedroom as I defy all opportunities to be productive. I am throwing an adult sized tantrum. It’s time to pull out the paint brushes and get back to it, I guess. But first, I’m off to slice and roast some zuchinni for Annabeth’s lunch.

Posted in Adventures

Beach Refresh

What do you do when you have a few free days in the coldest month of the year? Go to the beach, of course! That honestly had more to do with hotel prices and unexpected time off. We twisted the need for some family time before Dad starts his new job into an early celebration for Annabeth’s upcoming birthday. I found a hotel for $52/night and we were off to explore Myrtle Beach for our first time.

T.J. gave his 2 week notice to Cummins at the end of January. They do not allow employees on their way out to perform repairs in fear of sabotage or subpar work. His district manager even told him that this is “going to be a very long 2 weeks” for him. Instead of letting him go, he worked as a janitor for an entire week while the remaining techs sat around without a single truck in the shop. He contacted HR on the Monday following and was informed that they have no knowledge of his termination of employment. So, he sat down and insisted that the paperwork be filed before he continue to paint lines on the shop floor. I hate to use the phrase but that place truly is a shit show. They had no Branch Manager and no Shop Manager. The truck shop was run solely by a Foreman who had been reluctantly promoted a few months prior, just before the Shop Manager was fired. Once the paperwork was completed, HR informed them that common practice is to let the employee go but his Foreman and District Manager would not. T.J. walked out on Tuesday after an 8 hour day of waiting on them to give him instruction and did not return. When he stopped by to pick up his toolbox, he found out that corporate fired all but one employee in the parts department without notice and gave them one week’s pay. The remaining employee was immediately required to work 10-12 hour days and cover the duties of 5 employees by herself. Cummins has taken a nose dive from their esteemed perch in T.J.’s realm of respect. This is not only a result of his experience as an employee but the refusal to support their pickup truck engines in any aspect.

I had already been peeking at hotels along the coast to surprise Annabeth and T.J. and take advantage of the off season. Recognizing his deflated posture, I jumped to book a well deserved mini escape. We woke up Wednesday morning, packed our bags, and followed Hwy 17 to Myrtle Beach. Check in wasn’t until 4pm, so we made a stop at an Irish Pub for lunch. Best. Food. Ever. Just passing by, it looks like an unassuming biker bar connected to a bright blue tattoo parlor. I’ve always found it strange that there’s a billboard above advertising the best Irish food around. Now I know why. We pulled in and the front of the bar actually faces the parking lot, so from the street all you see is the smoking deck. T.J. had the prime rib sandwich with an addicting horseradish sauce and I shared a corned beef, cabbage, and mashed potato plate with Annabeth. Perfect beginning to our little refresh.

We arrived at the hotel promptly for check in. The excitement began with a goodie bag for Cooper with treats and poop bags, a coupon book, and our room key gave us access to a movie rental box. Dad wanted to rest for a bit but Annabeth was naked before he had the chance to close his eyes. I wiggled her into her swimsuit and we corralled her towards the dunes as she greeted each and every stranger, “I am going to the beach!” She jumped with joyous anticipation and did not slow down until she reached the water. At which point, she pulled me into the ocean approaching the freezing cold waves with a willingness to be drawn into them. She took breaks on her belly imitating a mermaid as the water lapped around her singing giggles. Attempts to lure her away from the water with a search for seashells was a fail, so our path back to the hotel was tearful.

T.J. and I have never been able to envision ourselves as regulars at the beach but this trip pushed us over the edge. We had genuine fun. Even in the off season, there were plenty of restaurants and entertainment options open. We went on the Sky Wheel right on the boardwalk along the beach. Our hotel even offered us a coupon for one free admission! The attendants gave us an extra go-round since we were the only ones on the ride. Wonder Works Museum was a gigantic hit for all three of us. We are eager to go back there. I was expecting the food to be average due to it being a tourist town with few visitors but we enjoyed every meal. We had the most authentic Mexican food since we’ve been here at the cutest Taqueria in downtown Georgetown while browsing a listing for a house built in 1775 on land once owned by a signer of the Declaration of Independence. We may have also tossed around the idea of investing in a condo at one of the adorable beach resorts.

I spent the drive back home babbling about how our 3 night stay transformed my detest for sand&sea into a glimmer of the serenity we formerly sought in the Rocky Mountains. Buckets of memories were made in that short trip. T.J. taught himself how to swim- from flailing to a nearly smooth glide. Annabeth (with a life vest on) swam unassisted across the entire pool! Typically, I spend the entire trip agonizing over how each grain of sand goes that extra mile to find its way into items I didn’t even bring with us to the beach! Instead, I was making a list to prepare a grab-and-go beach gear bag for future exploration. What an interesting parallel to Dad’s return to Penske. A dreaded experience turned refreshingly hopeful.

As I recall the defeating emotions of our transition from Colorado to South Carolina, I am thankful for the resilience we’ve acquired through that painful process. Our leaps of faith have since been taken blindly with open arms. The reward is an immeasurable sense of comfort in the most uncertain situations. We believe this approach sets you up for a future filled with wonder and wander. May you stray from the predictable and catch yourself with a grin that oozes from a joyful heart.

Posted in Adventures

New Year New/Old Job

T.J. is making a comeback as a Maintenance Supervisor for Penske Truck Lease. I am less than enthusiastic about this but T.J. is hopeful. Annabeth’s first years on this planet were tough for me. T.J.’s shop manager was injured a couple of months after Annabeth was born and he was thrown into the position. Zero recognition. Zero compensation. They even demanded that he account for his time repairing trucks to cover the time he spent managing the shop. This meant that he had to do 8 hours worth of repairs plus his management responsibilities every single day in a max of 8 hours! Depending on weather, he would spend up to 2 hours on his commute each way. He was announced as the next Maintenance Supervisor with no consent from him and told that they did not even expect him to be able to fulfill the responsibilities. This also meant 10 hour work days that turned into 16 hour days during the month of December. When I say that he nearly missed Annabeth’s first Christmas, I am not exaggerating. He was coming home at 5pm, going to sleep at 7pm, and waking up at 3am on a good day. I was an exclusive pumping new Mom isolated in a 794 square foot house in a rural town of about 1,500 residents.

Here we are in a new circumstance and T.J. is ready to put back on the Penske hat. I pray this will not be a repeat of the past. Those were the darkest years of my life and one of the main reasons we moved to South Carolina. We are in a different world now. The shop is 5 miles away from our house and T.J. has a fresh perspective to address some of the issues that were within his control. Fingers crossed that the new management makes this job nothing like it was back in Colorado.

January was busy for Annabeth too! We took her to the Pirate and Mermaid event at Magnolia Gardens after swim lessons one Saturday. Dad even made her a pirate hat to complete her requested “Bad Guy Pirate Mermaid” costume. She even got to make her own sea shell necklace. We had a great time and plan on getting a membership the next time we go. They have regular events that are perfect for Annabeth plus it’s a must see place for visitors! Come on down to see America’s Oldest Formal Gardens, a plantation, and a swamp.

The flowers are blooming and we are going to get up to 81° today for the first time since Fall. Bugs come with the warmer weather and Annabeth’s shrieks of terror can be heard down the block. That doesn’t stop me from pushing her outside with a water bottle and insisting she play outside. Maybe I should convince her that I hate when she plays outside… I bet I wouldn’t be able to keep her away from the backdoor.

Posted in Eats

Crispy Chicken with Quinoa & Greens

T.J.’s Dad has been in a tough spot recovering from back surgery in November. Then he suffered a heart attack and had a stent placed last month. Needless to say, the doctor ordered a complete diet overhaul. We decided to hop on board and start following the Mediterranean style of eating that my doctor recommended for me. I sifted through some cookbooks on Amazon and settled on The Mediterranean Prescription by Angelo Acquista, M.D. It’s more book than cook but there are several recipes in the last section. In the 2 weeks we’ve been shifting to the plan, we are surprised by the effects. I have spoken to my inner old lady and she craves oatmeal in the morning. If I skip breakfast, specifically oatmeal, I will not be able to resist munching after Annabeth goes to sleep. One night I ate chips and guacamole plus 9 pizza rolls!

I threw together this recipe and it reminds me of the Campbell’s Soup chicken and rice my Mom used to make. I loved that stuff. She would reassure us that she didn’t use mushrooms and pick out the large chunks to hide her lie. Now I’m over here mincing mushrooms and stashing them in the freezer to add to everything! Same goes for Power Greens, I buy a Costco bag and throw it in the freezer just before it starts to turn bad. Once frozen, you can use your fist to smash them into tiny bits and sneak into nearly any dish. I use fresh versions for this meal but the leftovers will find their way to the freezer in a few days.

  • 5 oz Power Greens or Spinach or Kale

Heat skillet to medium. When hot, drizzle lightly with oil and add greens. Stir for a few minutes until wilted. Remove and set aside in a strainer. Prep:

  • 1 large shallot or small onion, diced
  • 6 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 3-4 chicken thighs, bone in skin optional

Marinate or season chicken thighs as desired. Heat skillet to medium. When hot, drizzle with oil and brown on both sides. This takes about 7 minutes per side. Do not flip until chicken lifts easily from pan. Remove and set aside.

I prefer avocado oil for this step. It has a high smoke point, usually between 460° and 500°. Extra Virgin Olive Oil has a low smoke point, so do not use it here.

While your chicken browns, go pick some fresh herbs and get them ready to be added to the vegetables. I have thyme flourishing right now, so that’s what I added but I would have liked some rosemary too. He’s just too small right now.

Add a couple teaspoons of oil to the pan the chicken was in and saute the onion or shallot for a few minutes until translucent. Add a tiny bit of water if needed to keep from browning. Add garlic and herbs, scraping the bottom of the pan to lift chicken bits.

  • 8 baby bella or white button mushrooms, sliced or demolished
  • 8 oz jarred roasted red bell pepper, rinsed and drained
  • 1c quinoa, rinsed and drained
  • 1 1/2c chicken broth or Better Than Bouillon

Add mushrooms, bell pepper, quinoa, and broth to the skillet. Stir until mixed well. You could also add some black pepper, smoked paprika, or even tumeric here.

Pour quinoa mixture into an oven safe pan and arrange chicken thighs on top, smashing them down until they’re submerged.

Bake at 350° for 30-40 minutes or until the quinoa has unraveled.

I tried to bake this in my air fryer and I will use my oven next time. The quinoa was not done in the middle of the dish, so I removed the chicken, added a little half & half and put it back in to finish cooking.

Here’s where I messed up. I didn’t take a picture of it plated. Oops. I was frazzled because we were eating later than intended and already tearing into the chicken while the quinoa finished cooking. I did sprinkle some Pecorino Romano and red pepper flakes on the quinoa just before serving. I also do not add salt to most of my foods until served. We are not big on salt and most of the time we end up adding a tiny bit, if any salt.

I cut some small tomatoes in half, drizzled with olive oil, and sprinkled with salt and pepper. I served these as our side.

Dessert has been pears, apples, strawberries, or mango lately. I sneak a piece of dark chocolate every once in a while.

I do not cook special things for Annabeth. She eats what we eat. She does pick at some stuff but that’s mostly because she does not like mushy foods. We’ve just barely been able to convince her to eat mashed potatoes. I can’t complain. Salad is one of her favorite foods and she prefers her produce raw. I used to cook according to T.J.’s preferences but I saw how unhealthy that was, so I stopped. I made small switches, like whole grain pasta and chicken sausage a long time ago. Now he snacks on nuts and dried or fresh fruit. His breakfast is plain Greek yogurt drizzled with honey and topped with granola. He was less than thrilled when I started enforcing these habits but he has since complimented the changes. I think replacing some of the worst offenders one at a time primed him for the complete change. Now he grumbles after we go out to eat and offers to lend a hand when I’m struggling to get dinner prepared. Grabbing fast food is actually a threat these days. We don’t eat sugar much but we still enjoy a scoop of ice cream a couple times a month.

Posted in Adventures

December Cruisin’

We spent the week after Thanksgiving packing for our first cruise. I read a cruise tip to pack all of your summer clothes and swimsuits instead of storing them for the winter. I never got the chance to do that! Annabeth was splashing around in her pool while Dad washed his car a couple weeks ago. We left for Cocoa Beach the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Annabeth had her first swim lesson at 9:30am. We stopped at Bojangle’s for breakfast biscuits and drove 6 hours to our hotel for the night. Parking was included in our hotel stay, so we took a shuttle to port and boarded the Harmony of the Seas Sunday morning.

We had some fun but 7 nights was a little too much for first-timers. It would have been much more enjoyable if Annabeth were older or if we were traveling with family and/or friends. The weather was gorgeous and we loved the white tablecloth dining. Annabeth could have spent every waking moment in the hot tub or saltwater pool.

We disembarked on Sunday and drove straight home. Cooper was being taken care of by a neighbor and he was ready for us to come back. We felt like Christmas came and went too quickly, so we’ll try to skip December vacations unless they include Christmas. We didn’t even have a tree up until a week before Christmas. Annabeth didn’t mind and that’s really all that matters. We had friends over the Sunday before Christmas to paint pajama shirts and decorate cookies. In Colorado, we got the kids together and painted Christmas morning shirts. The people you thought had zero artistic ability seemed to decorate with surprise talent. The messy paint party has become my favorite newer Christmas tradition and we were happy to have some friends here to share in the fun. Plus, who can pass up wings and sugar cookies?

T.J. had some leftover vacation days and ended up being off for 5 days for Christmas. Honestly, I was ready for him to go back to work and get Annabeth back into our regular routine. Sorry, Dad. We love you but you sure do mess things up! I spent the week of New Year’s programming the “Dad” out of Annabeth and catching a whole lot of mumbling, “Dad lets me.”

Annabeth’s belief in Santa for the first time was a bunch of fun. It was also ammunition to keep her on the straight and narrow. Santa brought small trinkets every night if she behaved for that day. He left a few notes in place of treats encouraging Annabeth to follow instructions for a change. She was genuinely saddened by disappointing Santa but Mom was pleased to see the refreshed motivation to listen. That back-fired on us when it was Christmas Eve and she ran to us in tears realizing that she had not yet sat on Santa’s lap to share her Christmas wishes. Thanks Miracle on 34th Street. I was too busy baking so T.J. brought her to the mall to meet Santa. He arrived just as they placed a sign after the last kid in line that Santa was taking a break in an hour. The line was that long! They ate pizza, went shopping for Mom’s Christmas gift, and snagged a spot at the front of the line. Christmas was a lot of playing with Barbies, a new obsession with Polly Pocket, and a conversation with Santa about those Crayola Glitter Dots in Annabeth’s stocking. Now on to 2020!