Crockpot Meals and the Clean Plate Club

Like many working moms, it can be very difficult to make healthy meals for my family during the work week.  Between after-school activities and late nights at work, it is rare that we sit down to eat dinner before seven o’clock in the evening.  For a long time, it seemed like I was making the same old meals every week, simply because they were quick and easy: spaghetti, fish fillets and french fries, baked chicken and frozen veggies that I could throw in the microwave.  On the nights when dinnertime was closer to eight p.m., we would often just run out and get a pizza.  I was glad that with our busy schedules we didn’t give up on having dinner as a family and catching up on daily events, but I felt like I wasn’t teaching my kids to have variety in what they ate.

Along Came the Crockpot

To change this pattern, I decided to pull out a kitchen appliance that had been collecting dust in my pantry—my crockpot. I’ve always thought crockpot meals took too much time to prepare.  Crockpot meals are great on the weekends when there’s time to prepare one, but when you leave for work at seven a.m. during the week, an extra half hour of sleep is much more important than getting up early and getting the crockpot ready.  Then my cousin posted a comment on social media about putting together ten crockpot meals that she could freeze and cook later.  Why didn’t I think of that?!? She also included a link to a site that had multiple freezer recipes, so I opted to give them a try.

The first thing you need to know about making a bunch of crockpot freezer meals all at once is that you need to prepare ahead of time.  Go shopping ahead of time to make sure you have all the ingredients and you don’t have to make an emergency run to the grocery store in the middle of cooking.  Make sure you have freezer bags, a sharpie to write the name of the meal and the cooking time on the outside of the bag, and something to hold the freezer bag while you fill it.  They have these cool little stands you can buy for this purpose (Jokari Hands-Free Baggy Rack), but I just balanced the bag inside a bowl.  Finally, if you’re like me, plan on having a good chunk of time designated for putting your freezer meals together.  Many recipe sites state that the meals can be completed in an hour or so.  It takes me at least twice as long.  But remember that the time you spend on a weekend putting these together will be worth it when you come home from work during the week and dinner is ready and waiting for you!

The Clean Plate Club

Some of the sites that specialize in crockpot freezer meals are Eating on a Dime and New Leaf Wellness, but I’ve also found quite a few recipes on Pinterest.  You can find recipes for every taste and style of food.  I asked my family to list the recipes they liked the best.  Here they are with the recipe links included:

The all-time favorite is the chicken alfredo.  I cook up frozen broccoli with the linguine noodles to add a vegetable to the meal.  Everyone loved it!  I was worried the cream cheese would separate and not blend well, but this was easy, creamy, and delicious.  Even my picky eater had a second helping.  We give this a five clean plates rating!

Second place goes to slow cooker cheesy tortellini.  The recipe calls for ground beef, but I modified it so my oldest daughter, who is a vegetarian, would eat it.  I swapped the ground beef for a “beef crumbles” meat substitute.  Because of this the recipe was a little quicker to make because I didn’t have to brown up ground beef; I just threw the frozen crumbles into the freezer bag.  I also added several cups of fresh baby spinach to get that extra healthy boost.  The important thing with this recipe is you need to add the tortellini towards the end of the cooking time, so they don’t get mushy.  My husband normally doesn’t like tortellini, but he asked me to make this recipe again, so I know it’s good.  I also was able to get two meals for a family of four out of this recipe, which was a nice bonus.  We give this a four clean plates rating!

The third place award goes to the Hawaiian chicken recipe. This one was so easy to put together — only four ingredients.  The one change I made to this recipe is I shredded the chicken instead of cooking it in chunks.  It was great over rice.  Everyone loves the sweetness of the pineapple too.  We give this a four clean plates rating!

The key with crockpot recipes is you can’t be afraid to play around with them.  If there’s an ingredient you know your family doesn’t like, leave it out or substitute something else.  Also remember that not every recipe will turn out the way you want.  I have learned the hard way that there is no good recipe for crock pot mac and cheese (at least there’s not one that my family likes).  The important thing is that with each new recipe I make, my family tries eating something new, and I have less stress when it comes to cooking dinners during the week– less stress is always a good thing!  Good luck with your crockpot cooking, and enjoy!

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A sampling of some of the freezer crockpot meals I have made.

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Teenager for Sale: Make an Offer

“For Sale: Teenager, comes equipped with rolling eyes, deep sighs, and sarcastic comments. Plays video games and texts 200 wpm. No reasonable offer will be refused.” I laughed out loud when I saw this meme, because as a mother of two teenage daughters, I get it! When my girls became teenagers, it was as though a switch was thrown and they instantly believed they were all-knowing.  Correction: if they don’t think they know everything, they definitely think they know way more than Mom and Dad.  No matter what the issue– overscheduling activities, the importance of middle/high school, or settling conflicts between friends– Mom and Dad don’t have a clue.  My husband and I have tried giving them advice and guiding them through these struggles, but often to no avail. After all, how could we possibly understand their situations when we’re so old?!?  We don’t know what it’s like to be a teenager in this day and age.  We didn’t have these pressures when we were young.  We didn’t have the same kinds of problems when we were growing up.   When I hear these things from them and I’m ready to go ballistic, my husband reminds me, “They’re teenagers.  We behaved this way too.” I know he’s right; I listen to his advice and don’t fire back.  So when the tears start flowing from Daughter #1 because three of the four clubs she joined are meeting on the same day at the same time and she can’t possibly go to all of them simultaneously, I hold my tongue.  When Daughter #2 complains of insomnia but won’t put her electronics away in the evening to let her brain relax, I bite my lip.  When high drama ensues for Daughter #1 because two close friends are fighting over some perceived slight and she feels the need to either take sides or fix the situation, I keep my mouth shut.  However, when both girls give me attitude about helping with the household chores, that’s when I lose my mind and start screaming like a banshee. “I ask so little of you and do so much for you, and this is how you treat me when I ask for help!?!”  Everyone with teenagers has uttered words like these, or maybe something worse, at one point or another.  We all have our breaking points.

Years ago, after one of many curfew arguments with my parents, I remember my mom telling my teenage self, “You’ll get payback when you have kids.”  Sure enough, she was right. Yes, I know I also behaved this way as a teenager, but why? Is this an inherited trait? Does this mean my kids got their “always right” attitude from me? Maybe they picked it up from their friends?  Or, the scariest possibility, is this attitude caused by bad parenting on my part? I needed to uncover the reason for this teenage viewpoint, not just so I could learn how to deal with my daughters better, but so I could figure out if the situation was my fault to begin with.

I did the first thing that every parent does when they’re faced with a problem in this day and age– I did an internet search. The first link that popped up was a website called EmpoweringParents.com. It had an article titled “Why Your Teen Thinks They Know Everything” written by Colleen O’Grady.  Within the first few lines O’Grady states that there is a clear reason teens all over the world behave this way.  “A significant part of your teenager’s brain, the prefrontal cortex, is undeveloped,” she proclaims.  She goes on to compare the prefrontal cortex to the brakes on a car. “The thing with teens is that they get the gas (the impulses), but they have a faulty brake system (an undeveloped prefrontal cortex).” This simple analogy explained so much about my kids! The brakes in their brain haven’t been installed yet! This is the reason my girls struggle with things such as planning ahead, managing emotions and delaying responses, showing empathy, and understanding the big picture. Here’s the really scary part: the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until age 25!  This means that for the next decade or so, I will need to keep guiding my kids in the right direction and giving them advice in the hopes of preventing them from making decisions that could have serious consequences.  With any luck they will listen to me most of the time.  Some of the time they won’t.  But that is what life is about. Every decision you make, whether you are the parent or the child, is a learning experience.

I now understand why so many people with teens have gray hair. But hopefully my kids will weather all this teen angst and become successful adults.  Then, if I’m lucky enough to have grandkids, one thing is certain.  My children will have teenagers just like them!  When my kids become the parents on the receiving end, they will ask the same question to my husband and me: “Why do teenagers think they know everything?” We can watch everything come full circle!

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With a Little Help From My Friends

As I’ve grown older, some of my memories have faded with time.  Others remain just as vibrant as the day they occurred. I can’t remember my first day of high school, but on my first day of middle school I remember the “cool kids” on the bus teased me about my outfit.  I have a vivid mental picture of my brother accidentally hitting me in the face with a snow shovel when I was in second grade. As I ran into the house with blood gushing from my lip he kept saying, “I’m sorry!  Please don’t tell mom!”  However, I cannot recall a much more important event, the day my little sister was born. These lapses cause me to wonder why we hang on to more trivial memories, when others which seem much more important fade like colored paper that’s been left in the sun.  One would assume our childhood friendships would suffer a similar fate. I’m talking about the friendships made from elementary school through college that time and distance should have altered.  As we grow older, it’s these friendships that by all accounts we should have long forgotten. Yet many times these people seem to know us best, even though we may seem very different than we were twenty or thirty years ago.

I read an article by Lindsay Holmes in The Huffington Post titled “10 Things Only Your Childhood Best Friend Understands.” One of the first lines of the article states that “Research suggests that strong social connectedness with best friends when we’re young could lead to more happiness and increased well-being as adults.”  I agree, but I don’t think it’s the connections that we make when we’re young that make us happy.  I think it’s the reconnections we make with those friends when we are adults that keep us going.

Many women (myself included) hit a time in their lives when they become so absorbed with career/children/marriage that the bonds they formed with childhood or college friends start to fray.  We stop getting together for coffee, then the phone calls are fewer, and before you know it months or in some cases years have gone by and we’ve lost track of the people who used to be our touchstones for true friendship. It’s not intentional—life and the needs and wants of others always seem to absorb all of our time.  Then one day, while putting together the kids’ lunches or getting ready for work, an old song will come on the radio, bringing memories flooding back to the surface.  Memories of driving around town in your best friend’s Chevette and singing Steve Miller’s “The Joker” as it blasts from the cassette player. Reciting all of the words to The Pixies “Gigantic” while drinking pots and pots of coffee with your roommate.  Sloshing through puddles of beer with your friends while dancing to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” in a college town bar.  What happened to these wonderful souls who were the staples of your life? As the day marches on, your mind keeps drifting back to these memories; your coworkers ask why you’re smiling, and you realize that although you’re sitting at your desk at work, you’re reliving days gone by on your mental movie screen.

At this point, you have a decision to make.  You need to decide if you’re satisfied with just reminiscing about “the good old days,” or if you want to make the effort to contact your old pals through social media searches or the old-fashioned telephone.  When I was faced with this choice, I decided to do the later, and I’m forever thankful.  Over the past ten years, I’ve reconnected with my closest friends from both high school and college.  I even got together with my college roommate whom I hadn’t seen in 25 years!  The amazing thing I’ve learned from these reunions is that although we are older and wiser, the original connections that caused us to become friends in the first place still remain today.  With these people by our sides we overcame our teenage insecurities.  Together we struggled through homesickness when we first went away to college.  Armed with a box of tissues (and a pint or two of ice cream) we helped each other pick up the pieces after painful break ups.  Childhood friends know us in ways others do not.  They have seen us at our worst and most vulnerable, and stood by us.  Sharing these formative experiences creates a different type of bond.

Our childhood pals often understand our family dynamic and our emotional weaknesses better than many others we see on a daily basis in our adult lives.  Now that our lives have come full circle, what better people to have in our corner while we face raising teenagers and caring for our aging parents.   Our old high school dramas have been replaced with career pressures and the daily offenses of the adult world. But on my worst days as a grown up, no one can make me laugh as long and as hard as my friends from my youth!  Those laughs are by far the best part of reconnecting with my oldest and dearest friends. So if you’ve heard an old song on the radio that’s made you remember those friends from long ago, take the next step and look them up.  I promise you won’t regret it!