Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Long Weekend in Illinois

We packed up our things for a quick road trip this past weekend. I wanted to give my kids and nieces and nephew a chance to play together (and to see my sister and brother-in-law) before we threw a fourth Spencer child into the mix. Since we road trip every 4-6 months, I know that traveling with weaned, potty-trained children is about as easy as it gets, and thought we would have our last hurrah before rest stops took 20 more minutes to accommodate a breastfeeding child.

A walk on the paved old railroad bed trail, and a bump picture. Photo credit my sister "M".
It was the kind of weekend where you stay up way too late talking to people you don't see very often, and the kids stay up late and wake up too early. And if you are 34 weeks pregnant, it takes a good 36 hours to recover energy after you arrive home, but you are satisfied with a good visit and happy you got to see family.

I was a little bit nervous about rest stops, since F is potty trained and I can't leave her to have her diaper changed in the car. However, I had the brilliant idea to send the four and six year old into the stall together and to take the two year old with me. The older girls were great. They helped each other reach the toilet paper and washed their hands before F and I were finished. This parenting thing is getting to be a little smoother now that our kids are more capable of taking care of their basic needs.

I am not a huge fan of using gas station bathrooms, but sometimes it just makes sense. So, we look for ones that have multiple stalls and will hopefully be clean. We managed to find them each way, and on top of that, in the middle of rural Wisconsin no one even blinked an eye at a hugely pregnant mom with three little girls parading through the gas station. We only got smiles, and I had the typical friendly conversation about whether our next baby was a boy with a cashier (when I really needed a snickers bar...could that be why I gained that extra pound since my last prenatal exam?).

My BIL is pushing 3 kids in a double stroller and giving a piggy back ride. My brother is just giving the ride. Photo credit my sister "M".
Besides the driving, we had a lovely, laid back, and very loud visit with the cousins. I know people think that boys are loud, but put an 8 year old girl, two 6 year old girls, a 4 year old girl, a 3 year old girl, and a 2 year old girl together plus a 1 year old boy and it is pretty hectic. The thing is, girls like to talk and scream, a lot.

Here we are on Skype, way too late (for us that is 11:30pm), and with our Lebanese eye bags.
 My brother came up from St. Louis to see us (since he is willing to do a 2.5 hour drive as opposed to an 8.5 hour). I guess he likes being attacked by screaming little girls and being made into a chocolate pie by a two year old.

It was pretty fun chatting with two siblings that I only see for a few days each year. And to top things off, we were all together (staying up way too late) when my other sister and her fiance called us to announce their engagement. Then we decided that we had to Skype so that we could see the engagement ring. And video chatting with four siblings plus M and my future BIL meant more silliness and staying up late. We tried to plan the whole wedding for them right there and then, but they were not having it. It is always nice to spend time with my siblings, if only we did not all live so far apart...

When we arrived home Monday evening, it hit me that I only have 6 weeks until my due date. I am banking on at least 4 more weeks since my earliest baby was at 38 weeks 3 days. But... that is not a lot of time people. My nesting, despite my third trimester laziness/exhaustion, is kicking in...however, I would really appreciate it if someone could run out to Ikea for me...

Thursday, April 16, 2015

13+ Freezer Meal Ideas

My friend Jacqui, who is due in four weeks, asked me to give some freezer meal ideas, so here they are! At 33 weeks pregnant, I have not put one meal in the freezer for when baby comes, but I plan on getting the freezer stocked by the time I am 37 weeks. I usually have one or two things in the freezer, but Lent was an emptying things out of the freezer phase.

While I do some freezer cooking, I am not an expert, like my sister who has whole cookbooks devoted to it. I probably should have her write a guest post with her favorite ideas. She does things like freeze whole casseroles, while I am a bit lazier initially and am satisfied with thawing and heating a sauce and throwing it on noodles I cook the day we eat the meal (also, pasta is something that my husband is expert at cooking).

A note on freezing:
You should never freeze warm or hot foods, wait until they are room temperature or stick them in the refrigerator overnight. My favorite way to freeze things is in freezer quart bags in stacks. Like this:

Some meat dishes I precook and freeze the meat, while other meat dishes I throw the raw, cut meat into a marinade and it is all ready for cooking when it thaws. So, without further ado, I give you the dishes I plan to cook/prep in the next four weeks. I will probably make at least 2 dinners worth of each dish to make my efforts more productive.

1. Tomato Sauce. I used a modified recipe from this edition of the Joy of Cooking:
Some people buy this canned, but my husband is a sauce snob. He actually prefers home canned tomatoes made into a sauce as opposed to store-bought canned tomatoes.

I love having tomato sauce in my freezer, because I can use it on all sorts of things like meatless cheesey pasta, pizza, "pizzadillas" (cheese, sauce, and toppings baked between two tortillas), spaghetti and meatballs, etc. I only make the sauce in huge batches, so I will probably make four dinners worth, and maybe serve it for dinner the night I make it.

2. Meat Sauce. I used the recipe from the Joy of Cooking.
I also make this in huge batches. I plan to use 2 lbs of meat for 16 cups of sauce.

This will last us about 8 spaghetti dinners, or maybe I will get adventurous and freeze a lasagna. I also love St. Louis style "mostaccioli" which is layered sauce, tube noodles, and lots of cheese.

3. Chicken and Biscuits. I use my mom's recipe.
This is basically chicken pot-pie filling baked in a 9x13 pan with biscuits on top. I will make my favorite freezer biscuits (I use half whole wheat flour) and freeze the filling cooked in it's entirety.

On the day of cooking I simply thaw the sauce and raw biscuits, and bake them all at 400°F for 15-20 minutes.

4. Bow tie chicken. Another recipe from my mother.
I have never freezer cooked this before, but I am going to do it this time. The sauce is diced chicken cooked in garlic, then added chicken stock with peas and shredded carrots, and the sauce is thickened with cream cheese and finished off with Parmesan. It is served with farfelle/ bow tie pasta. I am going to freeze everything but the cooked pasta.

On the day we eat the meal, I will simply thaw and reheat the sauce and cook the pasta.

5. Fajita chicken. I use the marinade from the Joy of Cooking.
I know I am supposed to use strip steak for real fajitas, but the chicken is soooo good and much more affordable. For this meal I will simply cut my chicken breasts into grillable size pieces and freeze it in the marinade.

On the day of eating, we will thaw the chicken, cut up sweet peppers and onions for our grill basket, and gather other toppings. The hardest part of the meal is prepping the chicken.

6. Marinated chicken for salad or rice.I am not sure which marinades I will use at this point, but I am going to find a few that look good and prep them in the same way I did the fajitas. If you have any favorite marinades, I am up for suggestions!

On the day of cooking, my husband can thaw and grill and decide if he wants to do grilled veggies with rice or a green salad.

7. Brown sauce stir fry chicken. A recipe from my MIL.
This recipe involves coating the chicken in a cornstarch-soy sauce mixture and letting it sit, so I am going to throw the diced raw chicken into this mixture and freeze it. Then I am going to pre-make the brown sauce that goes with the recipe and freeze it adjacent to the chicken.

The day of cooking we will simply have to thaw the sauce and the meat, prep and cook whatever veggies we want, make rice and cook the chicken. Once again the labor intensive step of prepping chicken and washing raw chicken dishes will be skipped.

8. Sesame chicken. I found this sauce online and we really love it.
I will prep the chicken and freeze it raw and make the sesame sauce and freeze that separately.

On the day of cooking, I will thaw the chicken and cook it, prep a veggie to stir-fry (I always add veggies to this), and cook rice. This meal is already really quick and easy to begin with.

9. Steak kebobs with pita. Not sure what recipe yet.
My plan here is to find a good steak marinade, and cut the steak into kebob size chunks and freeze it in the marinade. If I am feeling motivated I will make my favorite homemade pita from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, and freeze them in family size portions.

On the day of eating, we will thaw the steak, and cook it with mushrooms, grape tomatoes, peppers, and onions. And eat it on thawed pitas or rice.

10. Beef Stroganoff. A recipe from my MIL.
This recipe has two steps. The first is cooking mushrooms, onions, and browning the beef and mixing them with the sauce. The second step is baking it for 40 minutes. I am going to prep it up to the point of baking.

On the day of, we simply thaw the sauce, bake it, and cook egg noodles.

11. Blackbean chili. I use an adaption of this recipe I found online. I add diced tomatoes and frozen corn (my husband loves corn).
If I have ever brought you a meal post-partum (and on a Friday), there is a good chance that it has been this. What make it even better is that it is gluten free and dairy is optional as toppings. This I will cook mostly, but probably cut back on the flavor combining simmering, since the freezer will add to that.

On the day of we will thaw and reheat. We do at least the cheese and sour cream toppings and like to eat it with corn chips or on macaroni noodles.

12. Alfredo sauce. I found this one online. It may not be authentic, but it is sooooo good.
This sauce takes literally 10 minutes to make. I am going to make a whole bunch and freeze it in dinner sized portions.

On the day of, my husband might grill meat or shrimp or do veggies in the grill pan, and we will eat it over pasta. Or we will use it as pizza sauce, because we love white sauce pizzas.

13. Macaroni and cheese. I use a recipe that I got from a friend.
This is a stove top sauce that is mixed with cooked noodles and baked to brown the topping. I am going to make the sauce and freeze it into portions enough for an 8x8 dish, which still serves our family of five.

On the day of, I simply thaw the sauce in a bowl of water while cooking the pasta, combine, top, and bake.


And that's it! I would love to hear of other easy freezer meals, especially hot weather friendly ones. If you really want a recipe, send an email and I will see about typing it up!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Seven Quick Takes: Saturday, April 11

 1. Happy Easter! We survived all three long liturgies of the Triduum! We were ready early, so it was the perfect time to take a family photo. Some children even fell asleep. I, however, spent the Easter vigil being kicked from the inside and squirmed on from the outside. Fortunately, after six years of little children, I have learned how to pray at Mass despite being bombarded with continuous motion. We had a nice time with our house guests, and a had a large group on Easter Sunday for dinner.

Our empty tomb awaiting the Easter egg hunt. We did inside, because Minnesota.
 2. Also, Happy Feast of St. Gemma Galgani!  She is my confirmation saint, so I made a chocolate cake (which I have been craving for a month) to celebrate. We decided the Easter egg sprinkles would be appropriate for the occasion. Her feast often falls during Lent, but not this year!
 We have an icon I purchased at the church where she is buried in Lucca, Italy during my semester abroad, and a cousin gave us this first class relic of St. Gemma which he acquired in Rome. It is weird and cool to have a tiny piece of St. Gemma's body in our home.
3. After we drove my sister to the airport on Tuesday, I took the children to get some seeds for the garden. I have never started seeds inside, but we thought we would give it a try. I hope this container I found works.
We are trying to grow yellow pear tomatoes, sweet peppers of various colors (hopefully we planted a seed for the purple variety--that is what they wanted), transplanted some basil seedlings, petunia seeds (I am planning on flowers for the yard this year!), and some sunflower seeds that came in Easter baskets.

4. And now that is is April, I am going to be updating about the garden. M got the garden all ready for me this week, and today I planted seeds outside that are supposed to be safe to plant in Minnesota in April. As long as we don't get a hard freeze again, all these should grow nicely. The lettuce and peas of these varieties we had great success with last year, but the chard, colorful carrots, and green cabbages are all new for us. I am always nervous starting things from seeds. It is pretty neat that the tiny little seeds can make big tasty plants. (I actually planted the peas earlier than recommended, but I really want to eat them! If they fail to grow, I will try again in May). I am hoping that this early Minnesota spring sticks around.

5. Tomorrow is Divine Mercy Sunday, and we managed to pray the whole novena as a family. Since my retreat, I have been renewing my devotion to Divine Mercy. The chaplet is such a simple and powerful prayer. The kids picked up all the prayers within one time of praying it. G and L both were leading decades by the end of the novena. 

6. In case you are wondering about how I am doing after my post about dreading a newborn earlier this week, I am feeling a lot better about it after processing my feelings. The best comment from a friend was, "You can do hard things!" And she is right; I do hard things everyday. I will adjust to having a newborn and the hard things will become easier. And this baby is not for me, but is for everyone, and is a unique human being created to be united with God. Anything I have to do for this baby will not be too much.

7. Lastly, M and I wrote our first article together, and it was published on ChurchPOP this week. We spent all of the Autumn and a lot of the Winter watching films from the Vatican's Film list "values" category, and finally got to reviewing and ranking them. We will be writing two more articles about the list soon! Check it out, if you have not done so yet!

Once, again, I am linking up with Kelly @ This Ain't the Lyceum and her Quick Take hosting.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

How I am Really Feeling About Having Another Baby

This is one of those posts that my friend Anna would call a "Mom Confession." I have one to make, and probably I just need a pep talk. It has some content that may not be familiar to those who have never been post-partum or around a post-partum woman from day one until the baby is one.

I have been struggling against a dread of the newborn phase for the entire pregnancy, actually since I first got my cycles back after F was born. I was visiting Buffalo, NY at the time, and discussed my unreadiness while using a hot pack to battle a small bout of mastitis/clogged duct. I had a rough first year with F. She was a great baby, my easiest yet, but I spent 9 months dealing with infections that only women can get, 4 months dealing with post-partum depression, and barely knew anybody in the Twin Cities. On top of that I was dealing with my first Minnesota winter.

The three girls.
The first two months with F were actually really pleasant. She was born in early November, so I took some walks with her as a newborn. We had grandparents helping for two weeks, people we knew brought us meals, so I actually saw people without much effort, Thanksgiving was brought to us by our Wisconsin relatives, Advent was lovely, and we traveled over Christmas. Then we came home in early January, and the PPD and isolated stay at home mom loneliness set in. The only way to see people and attempt to make friends was to venture out into the Minnesota cold with 3 children under 4. Then infections.

Since F has been 18 months, things have been really nice. I feel like I am finally used to having this many kids. I remember last summer just enjoying the kids and our family, not really wanting it to change. But we also felt like we needed to be open to having more children, we wanted more children, we still want more children. And here we are about to have another child in our arms. The newest child is squirming inside me as a write this. I feel like this year of being content with three kids has been really good for me, like an amazing retreat. I have not been night nursing for almost a year now. I have not been nursing at all for five months. But I am feeling afraid of the change before us. I am not looking forward to sleepless nights. I am not looking forward to being post-partum, especially the physical recovery.

32 weeks along and counting.
What I am looking forward to is the baby having a regular nap schedule, and a bedtime, and being able to be put to sleep easily. All of our children have gotten to that point, and that is when I feel the most relaxed with a baby. I crave a loose schedule, ie. morning nap around 9, afternoon nap around 2, bedtime around 8. But I dislike the in between time, when baby is too little for structure.

This is the point when you should tell me that it is just for a short time. Or you could tell me that I don't need to feel guilty about not being a huge fan of the newborn-6 month stage. You could say it really is a hard time. I know some people love the stage, and I recognize the perks. I just love my routine. Being more flexible is something I need to work on, so I guess baby is going to help me with that.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Holy Week at Our House: Family Traditions and Memories

This year we have a new tradition in the Spencer house:
The grass really took off this week in our miniature tomb and Calvary scene. Last Friday in my quick takes, there was no growth at all.

But besides this one new tradition, we have been sticking with our normal Holy Week things. Since M and I are both cradle Catholics, Holy Week traditions have been ingrained in us from our first years of life. We mostly have preserved the traditions from M's side of the family. I started going to his house for Easter nine years ago in college and Holy Week just does not seem like Holy Week without certain things, like Greek kurulaikia and my mother-in-laws chocolate eggs. For Holy Thursday we always have manestra, a greek dish with orzo and lamb, that his mom taught us how to make. I went to the Triduum at M's charismatic home parish in Ann Arbor, MI all through college and we made it back almost every year that we lived in Buffalo as well. Since we have been in Minnesota we have been going to our parish, St. Agnes, for the Triduum liturgies, which are beautiful as St. Agnes liturgies always are.

Palm Sunrise.
 This year, Holy Week started off with a gorgeous Palm Sunday Sunrise, and me remembering to take the palms away from the children once we got through the procession, which meant normal Mass behavior instead of worse behavior.

Today, M helped me with the kurulaikia and the chocolate eggs, while our Triduum guests, my sister and her boyfriend, played with the children and colored in Stations of the Cross coloring sheets.

This years batch. A couple years ago I made a bread "nest."
Tomorrow our plans are for my mom's lentil soup for dinner, and Saturday is for coloring eggs. I am trying to keep all the important traditions but not overexert myself, because, well, third trimester plus guests, plus late nights for the children is a lot in itself. Sunday we are hosting the Wisconsin relatives, which should be lots of fun, because they are really awesome people.

My grandmother and grandfather (both deceased) in Rome early in their marriage. I love this picture of them.
To add to the rambling post, if you recall, today is the 10 year anniversary of Pope Saint John Paul II's death. My grandmother also passed away on April 2 ten years ago, but she died in the morning. It is a somewhat bittersweet day today. And further, Good Friday is the liturgical anniversary of us finding out about our 7 week old unborn baby's, John Paul, passing last Spring. But the great thing about the Triduum is that we celebrate the Resurrection every year as well. And remembering those who passed away this week, reminds us also of our Hope in the Resurrection.  Oh, happy fault.
Our family altar the day we buried our little JP.

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