Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday Favorite: Cheesy Beef Bake

Today Caleb is 8 months old, so it's no surprise I'm reminiscing about those early weeks after we brought him home from the hospital. During her visit to meet her new grandson, my mother-in-law threw this dish together from my (woefully) understocked pantry. Since then, it's become a household favorite. It's also a good opportunity for everyone to see that despite my high ideals, I still use some convenience foods!

Cheesy Beef Bake

1lb(ish) ground beef
1 green bell pepper
½ of a medium/large red onion
2 cans cream of mushroom soup
1 ½ cups of shred cheddar
1 ½ cups of brown rice
2 cups of water

Dice pepper and onion
Brown beef in skillet until halfway cooked, drain.
add pepper and onion until beef is fully browned, set aside
In a seperate bowl mix water, rice, soup, and cheese
Add beef/veggie mixture and stir
pour into 13x9 pan and bake at 375 for 45 mins
remove from oven, sprinkle bread crumbs over the top
bake an additional 10 minutes

There are two swaps that would make this a much healthier dish. If you are feeling adventurous you could try making your own cream of mushroom soup. Basic recipe here and/or for a less time consuming substitute you could make your own bread crumbs. Recipe here.

I haven't tried either yet, but I'm really excited about the bread crumb recipe- finally a use for the butt-end of the bread!

I love this recipe because it takes no time to throw together, it really stretches a pound of meat and it sneaks a decent number of veggies in there. If presentation is important to you, I wouldn't recommend serving this to company since it kind of comes out looking tan colored and uninteresting, but it's a great comfort-food dish.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Caleb: 8 Months

Tomorrow Caleb turns 8 months old and I'm reminded of a famous Navy Seal quote, "The only easy day was yesterday." Well, parenting an infant must be more challenging than the Seals because I'm so glad those yesterdays are behind us! (I am of course, kidding, I know our service men and women make sacrifices I can't even dream of.)

Crawling has brought a huge change to our home. Now Caleb can explore whatever he's interested in without having to hope we understand his desires correctly, which means a lot less frustration for him. Best of all, all that moving around is wearing. him. out. He sleeps like a champ. Naps longer than 45 minutes have been a rarity until this point. Now he takes 2 hour and a half naps each day! He's even starting only waking for one feeding some nights and sleeping in past 6:30am some mornings.

He's multi-tasking in this one- crawling and blowing a raspberry : )

He's also spitting up a lot less so I think his esophageal valve is finally doing it's job. I'm sure not having stomach acid coming up all the time is making him a much happier camper as well. Looking back, I do feel he probably could have benefited from reflux meds. However, I really didn't want to medicate him, so I'm glad that choice is behind me. It's so hard to know what is and isn't normal on baby #1. His happiness brings me so much joy and I am loving every day of this new season in his life.

We haven't gone in for an official weight check this month and we still don't have a scale, but based on photos from last month and the way his tummy finally hangs over his diaper a little, I'm sure he's gained some weight. Whether or not it's enough to bring him up out of the 3rd percentile remains to be seen. Either way, I feel fairly confident that he's healthy, especially now that he's also happy! Here's a pic where you can kind of see his itty bitty tummy:

For being such a skinny guy he certainly loves to eat. He happily devours everything I've given him and eats 4oz of food (or more) 3 times a day, plus nursing. New introductions this month have included: Peas, Carrots, Green Beans, Sweet Potato, Oats, Apples and Bananas. He went through a day or two where he'd make a terrible face whenever I gave him something green, but he seems to be over it now and loves his peas and avocado again.

He is definitely more of a handful to feed now. You'd think with him spitting up less my clothes would stay cleaner, but now that he's attempting to use the spoon (which usually ends with him throwing the spoon on me, the floor, etc.), taking his bib off and smearing food everywhere his hands can find...we both end up pretty messy. It's totally worth it to see him so happy and engaged in his environment. I got this super cute splat mat (also known as a folded vinyl table cloth) for $2.50 in the after Valentines sale. Not a moment too soon I might add.

Speaking of decor that Caleb is a master crawler I found myself spending this Tuesday rearranging the living room. Note the pack and play blocking the tempting TV gadgets (thanks for that idea Nya Nya Beth!) and blanket over the sliding door track.

The coffee table of death, as I not-so affectionately call it (I've never seen another coffee table with so many sharp edges!) also got a make over thanks to David.



We've tried to keep modifications to the house in the "keep him out of the ER" category and not the "maybe we should just bubble wrap the baby" extreme. I think we must be doing a good job because he certainly has plenty of bruises decorating that poor little head of his. Of course, the worse is from his big tumble off the bed in St. Augustine (insert deep feelings of mom guilt here), but the rest are from more minor altrications. Head meets wall, floor, toy, etc. type events. Mama C was right to tell me to take a picture when he got that first bruise because now, I can't even keep track of where each one came from!

Even better than all these more easily quantifiable changes is the little personality we see emerging everyday. Caleb is so much more aware of his environment. He laughs when we do silly things, he has opinions about what he wants to do and where he wants to go, he looks to us when there's a scary noise or he takes a tiny tumble, he babbles and coos conversationally and grunts for things he wants.

David and I feel so blessed to be his parents. It's been an adventure with lots of ups and downs and has grown us in ways we couldn't have imagined before becoming parents. I'm also thankful that we still feel just as close (if not closer) as a couple than we did before Caleb arrived. He still goes to bed at 5:30/6ish and that time in the evening to just be together is so wonderful. The date and family vacation we took this month definitely were the icing on the cake.

This coming month I'm looking forward to soaking in the last of our time near the grandparents and continuing to watch our little guy grow up. Every month is my new favorite : )

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Our Family Vacation: St. Augustine, FL

We lead and incredibly blessed life. Through David's job, we've visited the Pocono mountains, DC, Baltimore, and Las Vegas. Traveling alone, David has been to even more places including Hawaii, New Mexico, and others I can't remember! We've been temporarily relocated to live within an afternoon's drive of both our families. I can certainly never claim we haven't gotten to travel! However, in between getting married, moving 1000 miles (twice), giving birth to the greatest blessing of our lives and buying a home- we found ourselves craving some time to just be us.

Not sharing a special trip with work, friends or even beloved family members is something we haven't done since our honeymoon. So when our plans for the 3 day weekend fell through we decided to take a mini vacation.

St. Augustine is some place I've been wanting to share with David for a while. He's never been and my last visit was sometime in middle school. I knew he'd love all the castle-like structures and long history of the town. Plus, despite living in FL all his life he'd only ever seen the Atlantic in Maine!

Finding a hotel turned out to be trickier than I'd anticipated. The Daytona 500 was Sunday so places were booked and some refused to even accept our AAA discount! I finally found this room in our price range:

It was perfect. We were able to put Caleb to bed in his pack and play with a blanket blocking his view of us and stay up reading, playing games and talking in the living room area without disturbing him.

Although we reserved the weekend as "just for us" time. We did make one stop on the way up to see my Granny Doris and Grandpa Doc. Sadly, none of my biological grandparents lived to meet David or Caleb, but Granny and Grandpa have always been my 3rd set of grandparents and I was determined that we get to see them while in FL. Since we were passing right by, it seemed like the perfect time. They were of course, delighted with Caleb and I enjoyed getting to sit in their house, visit with them and drink Granny's tea which I felt so grown up getting to drink as a child.

Once we arrived in St. Augustine, things got interesting. We checked into the hotel and the headed back to the car to go find some dinner. This is when we discovered the car wouldn't start. No big deal, we'd get delivery and call AAA. While we were waiting for AAA to arrive, Caleb's bed time rolled around so I was giving him his final feeding of the day. With all the excitement, he hadn't eaten much and spent a looong time nursing to make up for it. Unfortunately, this led to a big spit up. David came over to clean off the bed and I reached for a fresh burp rag for Caleb's face.

We were both within 2 feet of him when out of the corner of my eye I saw him crawling toward something he wanted on the nightstand. In seconds that seemed like an eternity, I saw his hand land on thin air and his tiny body plummet to the ground. I was able to break his fall at the very end, but not before his head hit the nightstand shelf. A bruise was already forming, but fortunately no blood. I called the pediatrician in tears, who assured me I was not the first mom to have a 7-9 month old go careening off a high surface. They are fearless at this age. She felt the height of his fall was not bad enough to be concerned, but gave us things to watch for the next 6-12 hours, just in case. Thankfully, there were no complications and while he has a nice bruise, it didn't swell up at all. I've recovered too, though I'm almost positive I have more gray hair than I started the weekend with! After all that was over, AAA came, replaced the battery and the car was cured.

Here's a photo that shows off his bruised area:

So, despite that inauspicious beginning, the rest of the weekend proceeded to go wonderfully. I decided in my heart early on that I wanted this trip to be about making a few really special memories, not a bunch of rushed ones and I think we did a great job at making that happen. We started every morning by taking turns getting ready for the day while Caleb played and then letting him take his big 1.5 hour nap before ever leaving the hotel room. This means most days didn't start until 10, but it almost meant we left with a happy baby. David and I enjoyed having this time to relax and be together with no other agenda.

Since we were lugging an almost 8 month old and a rather heavy diaper bag/backpack we decided to get trolley tickets to get around the city. The tickets are good for 3 days and I highly recommend it. We were able to get from place to place pretty easily and it was a nice break.

On the trolley. Caleb is trying to look at the world upside down, a new favorite activity.

Our first stop was the fort (also known as the Castillo de San Marcos). Caleb stayed awake throughout this one and wasn't even fazed by the cannon firing!

The next stop was lunch, for Caleb and us. After eating, Caleb promptly fell asleep on his daddy's chest.

That afternoon we went to the Spanish Quarter Museum and toured a house from the early 1700's.

The next morning we toured the Old Jail. It was built in the late 1800's and prisoners lived in appalling conditions- no mattresses on the bunks, bugs in the food and monthly baths in shared bath water. With all that to look forward to, I'm surprised anyone ever committed a crime!

Lunch time again, this time we ate at Gyro House and had the best gyro's we'd ever eaten! The price was also wonderful so if you're ever in St. Augustine, look them up.

Our last stop in the historic district was Flagler College. I was awed by how beautiful everything was.

We ended the day at St. Augustine Beach. Caleb thought the ocean was the best thing he'd ever seen. He started wiggling and kicking with excitement as soon as he saw the water.

Afterward, he offered to drive us home, we told him he'd have to wait a few years.

It was a wonderful vacation with my two favorite people in the world.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Friday Favorites

I get tired of cooking and eating the same things over and over and am always excited to find a new recipe, especially if it's tasty, frugal and healthy. Bonus points if it does all those things while remaining vegetarian. Finding meatless recipes my husband gets excited about is one of my most challenging goals- fortunately he's a good sport about my sometimes less-than-stellar attempts : )

I can't guarantee my Friday recipes will live up to such a high calling, but I will try. In return, if you read this, I'd love for you to leave a comment with a favorite of yours or a link up to a recipe on your blog (again, don't feel like it has to fit all the categories above.)

I look forward to reading your recipes!

This week's favorite comes from a website I turn to for inspiration quite often:

black bean burritos

This recipe can be put together in less than 20 minutes and is frugal, healthy and vegetarian. Oh, and did I mention it tastes so good my husband looks forward to it?

My tweaks:

I use frozen corn and saute it up with the zucchini. This recipe is really flexible about what you can add/omit. I rarely have red peppers on hand so I've never used them in the recipe. I also don't take the time to fry the tortilla's, but I bet that would be yummy.

I also recently learned that making my own beans is as simple adding 1 cup of dry beans to 4 cups of water and putting it all in the crock pot on high for 3 hours. I tried it this week and it worked great. Next time I will double the batch so I have some left to freeze.

And in the interest of full disclosure, we add sour cream to ours. It makes them even more delicious, if slightly less healthy!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How I Tame the Grocery Beast

Instead of just giving you and update on how I'm doing with my grocery budget, I thought I'd share a little bit about how I (try) and stay under our "magic number".

Taming the grocery budget beast is a constant challenge for me. Every family has priorities about where to spend and where to save. For us, we've chosen to eat as many whole foods a possible, eat only organic meat, milk and eggs, and try to buy organic produce as well. If you're in the same boat you've probably already noticed that most coupons/great deals are for processed foods and name brand items, which means getting a little more creative to find savings.

-I plan my weekly menu ahead of time: first based on what's in my freezer and pantry and second what's on sale that week. My average savings using just this method? At least 30%. As a bonus, I always know what we're eating for lunch/dinner and don't have to scramble at the last minute. I can also easily switch things around to accommodate guests. When I don't do this, I find dinner time much more stressful.

-I clip coupons for anything we regularly use and try to combine using the coupon with the product being on sale. Typically, for reasons I already mentioned, this doesn't end up saving me much, but still, even getting an extra 10% off isn't bad.

-I use store brand products unless the coupon/sale combo is cheaper or, rarely, because I've tried the store brand and know it's gross so I buy the name brand. This savings is hard to track, but I once read an article where a woman bought everything store brand one trip and the exact same things name brand w/ coupons the next and just subbing the store brand saved more money.

-I buy organic meat only when it is on the deepest sale the store offers. Then I stock my freezer and use my supply until the next sale. If we run out before then, we eat vegetarian, which is something we do 2-3 nights a week anyway.

-When I do cook with meat, I tend to make recipes like stews, casseroles, stir frys, etc. that allow me to stretch the meat by mixing it with lots of other ingredients. 2 chicken breast halves can last us 4 meals instead of 2 and still leave everyone nice and full.

So how am I doing on meeting my goal this month? Eh, I'd like to be doing better. We are just over half way through the month, but I am way more than half way through my grocery budget. My freezer is however, full of meat, so I still think staying under is totally do-able.

Part of the reason I'm struggling to stay under more this year than last is I've been trying to buy the produce that made the "dirty dozen" list organically( In the past I've only bought organic produce if it was on deep sale. I'm still only buying the least expensive and most seasonal fruits and veggies, but it does add up! I'm definitely looking forward to a back yard garden in summer 2012.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Date Night Recap

Ok, so it wasn't quite our first date since Caleb was born. We've gone out for coffee twice, gone to see a play at church (after his bed time), looked at Christmas lights (after bed time) and been treated to a game night with David's brother and sister in law (also after bed time). Insert BIG thank you to all the grandparents who made those nights possible! Today however, was a first on many levels:

first date during Caleb's "awake" hours

first time being babysat by a non-family member (exception: Jen, my awesome pediatric nurse friend, who lovingly held my colicky baby then entire hour I was at the doctors office)

first meal in a restaurant without having to worry about juggling a baby too

first date getting back into jeans I wore when we were dating

There were so many other things that made the day special too. First, I should tell you the family we left Caleb with we met at our church here less than a month ago, though we know them by reputation through one of our dearest friends, Mama C. Not only did they agree to entertain our sweet, but needy little guy during our date, they refused to let us compensate them in any way. I was able to walk out the door feeling totally confident that he'd have a wonderful time and that made mommy able to have a great time too!

Next we went to eat at Red Robin. It was on the way and David has been really wanting to try their Bailey's Milkshake (made with Haagan Daas Bailey's flavored ice cream...or so we supposed).

After ordering I took a sip of his shake. It tasted icey rather than creamy like I expected. "David, I think this is an actual drink, not a milkshake". Sure enough, a quick check in with the waitress confirmed my suspicions. Good thing this nursing mamma noticed before I split the "milk shake" with him!

I asked the waitress to take this picture of us and explained it was our first big date since our son was born.

She asked how old he was and I told her. After our meal she brings a HUGE dessert to the table and says, "It's on me and I won't hear one word about it." We of course, thank her profusely. It's like getting a trophy for surviving all those colicky days and sleepless nights (a delicious, edible trophy no less.) A few minutes later the manager comes by and says he heard about us from the waitress and he remembers those days, and that dessert is on the house. I felt so glad it wasn't going to come out of our sweet waitresses pocket and amazed by how giving and friendly the entire staff was. I can't imagine a better way to start our date.



And no, we did not eat dinner that night!

Afterward we drove over to our intended destination, the museum of science and industry or, as it's affectionately known to the locals- MOSI. Although we didn't have time to see a movie we enjoyed walking around and trying out the informative (if sometimes corny) exhibits. My favorites included the wind tunnel that let you experience hurricane force winds (in my head I pretended to be one of those weather women reporting from the "eye of the storm") and an amazing exhibit on human growth and development.

There was also a creative 9/11 memorial that used fire hydrants as art. And of course, who doesn't love a giant dinosaur skeleton?

It was a wonderful time to connect as a couple. I definitely feel refreshed in my role as "mom" after dedicating some time to being "wife".

Next weekend: First Family Vacation (weather permitting)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Little Month, Big Challenge

February may be short, but it's an ambitious month in the Gainey household. On top of continuing January's goal of routine (specifically: exercise, quiet time and showering in the morning- yes, I was showering before, just often after David got home!) I've added a few others.

February's goals are to update the budget weekly, stay under my grocery budget and (the one I'm really scared about) stop criticizing and boasting.

My final Feb goal (which David is working on too) is something I've been convicted of quite recently. Both David and I have noticed over the last year our conversations too often center on what "we do right" and what "others do wrong". I'm ashamed to admit that. How do these conversations happen? Well, I think a big part of it is there's a fine line between sharing your heart with your spouse and tearing someone else down in the process.

The advent of social media like facebook, blogs and even the easy accessibility of mass media at any time of the day or night makes it easier than ever for us to compare ourselves to others. And, in the words of John Acuff, "Our internal dialogue has two modes: extreme criticism or extreme flattery." Whether I'm down in the dumps because another mom appears to have her life all together or feeling unreasonably proud of the fact that I cooked while another family went out to eat ('cause you know, we never do that...) it all stems from the same wrong heart: that I can ever evaluate my worth based on another human being.

I've met so many families, many of them Christian unfortunately, who seemed to have an air of superiority about themselves. You could hear it in their disdain for the choices others around them were making and in their bragging about their own morality. This is not the Gospel. And this is not how I want conversations in our family to sound. We are all made in the image of God and therefore each carry unique value and worth, but we are also all broken by sin, often manifesting in very different ways in our lives, but broken none-the-less. This is how I want to view people. It's how I want our children to view people. To be able to see beauty and inherent worth in each person, while still being able to forgive individual failings. Tearing others down extinguishes this truth in our hearts.

How does that look in real life?
Here are some verses I'm praying will make their way from my head to my heart:

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." (Phillipians 4:8)

"For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23)

"A man's wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense" (Prov. 19:11)

"My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry..." (James 1:19)

"Forgive as the Lord forgave you" (Col. 3:13)

I think it's important that we can be open with one another about what is on our heart, but not at someone else's expense.

I know this won't be an easy habit to build, but I hope by approaching it intentionally and with prayer that February will be a month I get better at showing love in my speech. Isn't love what this month is supposed to be about anyway?

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs." -1st Corinthians 13:4-5

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

From Scratch

One of my goals for this year is to eat more whole foods and fewer "food like substances" (for more on this topic, I highly recommend Michael Pollan's book: In Defense of Food). This means there will be more cooking from scratch.

I love to make food from scratch. It always tastes better and I enjoy the process of cooking it more. However, like everyone else, my time is finite so sometimes I compromise. I've often wondered how difficult it would really be to eat whole foods for an entire month. When we get back to PA and I have access to a good farmers market again, I plan to take that challenge.

For now, small changes. This week I tried two new things (new things intimidate me, so two in one week is a big deal!)

I've been making my own chicken broth for a while (aka freezing what's left in the crockpot after cooking a whole chicken) but I'd yet to do anything with it. There were weird floating bits of carrot and potato that I didn't necessarily want flavoring my tortilla soup!

Recently, however, I purchased a very sophisticated, expensive piece of kitchen equipment that allows me to deal with this: a strainer (also known as a metal colander). It was about $3. I originally purchased it to strain Caleb's baby food (which it does nicely in combination with a rubber spatula and some pressure. But I'm also finding lots of other little uses for it like steaming veggies and of course, straining weird bits out of my broth! I love multi-purpose items.

So this week, I used my nicely strained broth to make a big pot of tortilla soup. Since I have a nice case of the sore throat/ sniffles right now (hence the increased couch time and # of blog posts) it really hit the spot.

My next adventure was one I've also been meaning to try for sometime: making my own salad dressing. Most store dressings are full of things I don't really want to be eating, but what actually drove me to make my own was the fact I couldn't stand the idea of buying a special flavor of dressing for one salad (being cheap frugal often drives my efforts to eat healthier...)

Strawberries are in season here in Florida so I decided to make strawberry salad (spinach, red onions, strawberries and feta). I usually pour a poppy seed dressing or balsamic vinaigrette over this. Since I wasn't feeling creative enough to try the poppy seed, I went with the balsamic dressing.

My basic recipe was:

1/2 cup Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Honey

Adjust measurements to taste
Shake well in tupperware

It turned our great. Even David thought it was a winner. I'm looking forward to trying other combinations!

January Budget Update

Monday marked the end of my personal grocery budget challenge. Did I manage to stay under? In a word: Nope.

The good news: we did successfully eat all our meals for a week based on what was in our pantry though, including one meal with an friend from college (Crock Pot Lasagna) and another meal with David's Dad and two younger brothers. It wasn't all pasta and red sauce though we also ate salmon with green beans and rice, black bean burritos and beans and rice. We ate pretty well, although there was a new recipe I tried that flopped : ( but, fortunately was still edible (cheese makes everything better!)

So what did I blow my budget on? For the most part, non-essentials: Yankee Candles that were 75% off ($6.50 for the largest size!), chocolate chips for cookies we gave to David's brother and friend who moved to New York this past weekend, 50% off Target brand holiday frappe-chinos, which are a special treat for David, and a plunger...we'll let you guess why we needed that...

The items here plus a gallon of organic milk and 2 bags of Dove dark chocolates (our favorite sweet end to the day) on BOGO at Publix are what put me over.

Looking back at the month, I feel conflicted. While $25 doesn't seem like a lot, if I over spend by just that much every month this year it will total: $300, which is a nice chunk of money we could be putting to use elsewhere (say, paying off our mortgage?)

However, I feel like I put the money towards things my family regularly uses that were on deep sale or gifts to brighten someone else's day (which I could technically put under our "gifts" budget, but I don't itemize receipts. It just gets too complicated. Would I have spent the money the same way if the numbers we have set in our budget already stretched us to our limits? (they don't, but they do allow us to give and save, which are both very important to us.) Absolutely not. But do I regret how I spent this month? Not really.

What's your take? Do you stick to the budget no matter what or are exceptions once-and-a-while ok? I know one thing, next month I want to stay under. Those are nice words, but I'm going to start tracking my numbers every week this month to make sure I don't get a "you're almost out" surprise on the last week of the month again. So stay tuned for February's Goal: updating the budget weekly (and of course, staying under).

Note: David showed me how I miscategorized something, which meant I actually ended up coming in under budget after all. However, since I made all these choices thinking it was putting me over I still think the post is relevant. Plus I have a 7 month old, like I have time to rewrite a post lol!

And in the interest of full disclosure I also did our first grocery shop of February on 1/31