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What’s for Dinner Wednesday: Busy? Me too! Meals for on the go schedules

14 Jun

I feel like I must look like this by the end of the school year, every June. Most days, I barely know what day it is.

Happy Wednesday!

It’s finally stopped raining, at least temporarily, so we’re cancelling our plans to build an ark and have instead started the final countdown to the end of the school year. We have just about a week to go.

I always compare this time of year for teachers, students, parents and those of us in the education world to what I imagine the tax season to be like for accountants. It’s crazy-busy for all of us, and we’re spread thin, trying to put ourselves in several places at once. This year, I am especially thankful that we have a third driver, which has helped our situation when we aren’t able to clone ourselves to be two places at once.

Busy? Absolutely. Still need to cook and eat? Absolutely.

Normally during much of the year we plan our meals two weeks in advance and shop for them two weeks in advance as well. However, since after the April vacation week, we have only been able to manage to plan and shop a week at a time for much of May and June. It’s been working out, and this week I am particularly proud of our meal planning because we were able to prep so much of it in advance. It meant a lot of work, particularly on Sunday night, but we had the time to spend that evening, and it’s nice to know we’re set for this week, the final full week of the school year for all of us. Like everyone else, we’re battling with the culminating events for  sports and school and work and other extra-curriculars, but we get through it, just like everyone else does, just like all the other years, and then it will be summer and we can breathe again.

I told someone just the other day that during the rest of the year our schedules are busy, but doable because everything has a designated slot on the schedule and when left as is, it all works out. There may be a lot of it, with five schedules and only seven days in a week, but everything fits. November/December and May/June are the months that throw things off because all of the activities choose new, additional slots on the schedule in which to place their seasonal events. So our Saturday morning slot also goes into a slot on Monday and on Tuesday night, for example, but yet we already have something in that slot on Monday. And on Tuesday. Our Monday and Wednesday slots decide to put their event on a Saturday and on also a Sunday, and still on Monday and Wednesday too. Things that are normally contained within the school day curriculum, like band for one, or chorus for another, or theater for the other, or even recognition events for all, suddenly need night time slots for everyone. As adults we are also required to attend many of these same events at other schools for our school-related jobs as well as for our own three kids, so the chaos multiplies quickly for us here. It gets all mixed up for a good month and then it goes back to normal again, but for those weeks of the year, twice a year, we are definitely over-scheduled, over-worked and overwhelmed before normalcy and calm returns.

We use our summer to decompress. We don’t over-schedule and we don’t have to worry much about competing events because we don’t do a lot, and for both of us adults, work slows down to a more normal, regular pace. I take the time to evaluate what worked and what didn’t from the past year and make adjustments by August for the upcoming year. I also look at ways we can be more organized as a family, every summer. Last year I instituted the Cozi app, and have loved that and will definitely keep it going for the next year. The year before, I instituted a great allowance system, and have kept that going as well. Summer is always a great time for reflecting, making changes and improving our well-oiled machines.

So, in preparation for all of your upcoming busy weeks ahead, here is our one week of meals, instead of two, but they are great for making ahead, cooking once and eating twice, and for having to grab and go.

ONE WEEK OF MEALS

Sunday: Shepherd’s Pie: This was our plan ahead, shop ahead and cook ahead day, and even though the daytime hours were full of obligations, we cooked into the evening hours and ate our dinner late that night in order to be ready for the week ahead. The kids used the time wisely and played outside until well after the street lights came on. See the recipe here. Make a big batch, eat half the first night and save the rest for a leftovers night later in the week.

Monday: Quesadillas: This night we had a PT appointment for one, a dance class for another and a fashion show rehearsal for all three, all after school, so we needed a literal grab and go dinner. (Thankfully, no one had any homework.) As a shortcut, I used already cooked chicken strips as my chicken and cheese fillers for these. I made plain cheese, spicy chicken and cheese, and plain chicken and cheese, and I bagged them all up, labeled and ready to go. When made with corn tortillas, these are also gluten free. They’re better served hot, but they’re edible cold as well, and when you’re hungry, cold will do just fine. Find the recipe here. As an added bonus, these make a great lunch, so I was one step ahead Tuesday morning as well.

My bag of quesadillas, ready to conquer dinner and then lunches, in one fell swoop.

Tuesday: American Chopped Suey: This was a meal we made ahead on Sunday night as well. Sauteed peppers, onions, mushrooms and olives filled our kitchen with a delicious aroma as we cooked, and thanks to that little teaser, now everyone can’t wait for this meal. We need to be at the kids’ fashion show by 5:30, so this will be an early meal, but will fill everyone’s bellies sufficiently before we go. Additionally, this will be something that will leave leftovers for our leftovers night. I don’t have a recipe we follow for this, it’s just sauteed ground meat (we use turkey), veggies of your choice, cooked pasta and sauce topped and baked with cheese. Ours is gluten free.

Wednesday: French Toast: This is my favorite go-to meal: breakfast for dinner. It’s fast and French Toast is my favorite meal for breakfast, despite my love for other types of morning treats. We have an after school meeting for one, piano lessons for one, dance class for one, a band concert for another, plus a work event for one, all before 7pm so this time, everyone will eat when they can, before they need to go, or when they get back, or both. It’ll be ready to eat, gluten free and not, for whenever it’s needed.

Thursday: Leftovers: On this night, all the kids are home, and finals start in the morning for our highschooler, so it’s crunch time for sure, but now both adults have to work. Normally we try our hardest to avoid both being out simultaneously for work at night, especially since I can set my own schedule more easily, but this week is an exception. It is graduation week here in our city and I cover three of the four high school graduation events, so my being out can’t be avoided, and neither can his. So, we planned our leftover night for this night because everything can be reheated from earlier in the week. If no one likes that, there’s enough other choices that they can make on their own easily enough, but we’ve done what we consider to be our parental due diligence and provided good meal options.

Friday: Homemade Pizza: Only I have to work on this night, graduation event #2. So I’ll come home at the end of the night and enjoy some yummy homemade pizzas. We enjoy homemade more than the pizza we take out, Don makes the absolute best pizza around, so this is a treat we all look forward to.

Saturday: Dinner event: We have a birthday party for one child early on in the day, and the final graduation event during the day for me as well, and then we are all heading to a dinner event that night, so our final meal of the week is planned for us, thankfully.

We will (hopefully) have made it through the week unscathed and having our meals planned out and mostly ready to go will have allowed us to enjoy the moments as we get to them and through them, and to enjoy the end of the year as it comes. It was a relatively inexpensive set of meals too, so that has been a little bit of a break for our grocery budget as well, when all else is so much more costly at this time of year.

May you all survive the busy seasons in your own lives, families and occupations. If this isn’t your busy season, save this post for when you’ll need it most!

 

 

What’s for Dinner Wednesday: Make it a burger bar!

31 May

I was inspired by this new cookbook that had come in a fundraiser order.

Happy Wednesday, everyone!

We are in the home stretch. We have just 17 more days of school for our middle school kids and 15 for our high school kid and then we get a nice, long summer break.

We can’t wait. The days of no schedules, no homework and no pressure are just weeks away.

This past weekend was Memorial Day weekend. I spent a good portion of my Thursday and Friday honoring those who lost their lives in service to our country as I covered various ceremonies and events over the two days’ time. As the latter part of the weekend loomed near, I had to begin to focus on a menu of sorts for a Sunday evening get- together that was taking place at our house. It’s a regular get-together that we do several times a year with the same group of people, and this time it was our turn to host.

I was looking for something different or unique to do for our portion of the meal, which included the main dish and one dessert. We tossed around some ideas. There were going to be about 12 of us eating, and we wanted to keep the meal budget-friendly as well as schedule-friendly, something that didn’t take all day to prepare and cook. Everything we had thought of, we had done before or seemed too unexciting for what my mind was reaching for. Although I didn’t know what I wanted to serve, I seemed to know plenty of what I didn’t want to serve.

Suddenly, one afternoon, my eye caught on a pile of items that had arrived from my daughter Caroline’s high school fundraiser. Two of the items specifically called out to me: a burger stuffing tool and a gourmet burger cookbook. I knew we couldn’t use the new tool to sit and stuff a dozen people’s burgers individually and uniquely, but as I flipped through the cookbook and saw all the yummy different types of burgers and toppings, I came up with an idea: a burger bar.

We are fans of the taco bar, the baked potato bar, we’ve done a crepe buffet, and we often do DIY chicken and make-your-own pizzas, so why not set up a burger bar so everyone can have some fun, not-your-average burgers?! I thought it was a fabulous idea, and it checked off my boxes of being budget-friendly and schedule-friendly too. As it turns out, since there is a national day for everything, Sunday ended up being National Hamburger Day.
Even better.

When I ran it by the rest of my family, it got a thumbs up, so I made my list of toppings and condiments that I’d want to have available so that people could customize their burgers.

What would be at your burger bar? This was ours.

We had several kinds of cheeses: American, Provolone and Swiss. I added Bleu Cheese to the list.

We put out several condiments: relish, ketchup, mustard, mayo, and I added in BBQ sauce as well.

Next up, some fun items: French’s onions (similar to the onion straws I love at Smashburger and at Texas Roadhouse restaurants), avocado, red onion, sauteed mushrooms, bacon (Who doesn’t love bacon?? There wasn’t a crumb left.) Sliced lettuce and tomato topped the list, and we were ready to roll.

Just one of the burgers created this past weekend at our burger bar. Creation by: Liz.

People got in line, got their rolls, chose the burger with their favorite cheese and made their way down through their choices. On mine, I had bacon, French’s Onions, tomato, and mushrooms. Everyone’s burger was different.

It was a lot of fun and I’d do it again this way. It made a typical meal less than typical and let everyone have what they wanted to have, and maybe try something they didn’t know they wanted to have.

There were a couple of outliers…they had hotdogs. We aim to please.

That same day, we tried out two other new recipes which I will be sharing with you in my next couple of posts, but for now, I’d like to know, what would you put on the list for your own burger bar?

Leave a comment and let me know! What did I miss?

Fun Friday: Summer is here!

26 May

Ready to plan your summer?

Well, not officially, but it’s Memorial Day weekend, and that often signifies the un-official start of summer, while seasonally it doesn’t officially start until mid-June. Today, I wanted to share two exciting links with you from my work with The Providence Journal, which will help you plan your summer adventures, if you are local to Rhode Island, most especially your eating adventures.

The Providence Journal published its annual Summer Guide last weekend, providing readers with nearly 100 pages of summertime fun. I was asked to be a contributor to the guide, providing readers with a comprehensive roundup of great places to eat during the summer months and great food festivals to visit all summer long.

To create my lists of places to eat and festivals to visit, I polled my social media community. I asked them where they like to eat, and what their favorite festivals are each summer. I was amazed by the answers. My family and I tend to be creatures of habit, and we often visit our same favorites over and over again, forgetting that our littlest state packs quite a punch when it comes to delectable meals. I found myself saying, “We’ll have to remember this place, and that one, and that one….next time we want to eat out.”

And so, here are my two pieces for you so that as you sit down and with your calendar to plan out some summer fun, you have a place to start.

You too, might find a new place to eat that you never knew about!

To see the roundup of Rhode Islanders’ Favorite Restaurants, visit the link here.

To find some great new food festivals to visit (Swedish Meatballs anyone?) visit the link here.

Foodie festivals for everyone’s tastes and budgets!

And finally, to read the entire guide, visit this link here. You can find the best beaches, historic homes, fairs and more, to fill your summer months with fun and adventure.

Budget-friendly camping tips from The Penny Hoarder

24 May

Camping on a budget can make you a very happy camper!

It’s the end of May, Memorial Day weekend is just days away. I can almost taste the summertime…if it would just stop raining! We had some hot, 100 degree days last week, and the flip flops and tank tops were out, the sun shining, kids playing in the yard, I could see the lazy days of summer just ahead.

If summertime includes camping for you, as it does for us, you’ll be happy to read the most recent post from The Penny Hoarder’s site, “Get the Vacation You’ve Been Craving on a Budget: Go Camping.” The post contains six tips for budget-friendly travel through camping.

If you’ve been a fan of The Whole Bag of Chips recently, then you know that we purchased a new-to-us camper in 2015 and used it to travel in a budget-friendly manner over the past couple of years, touring the country in 2015 and touring NYC this past spring. We also traveled to Mystic, CT and to Meredith, NH as well as hanging out by the beaches here in the Ocean State in 2015, 2016 and again this coming summer in 2017. Having our own camper is thousands of dollars cheaper than renting a beach house in New England for a week every summer.

I was so thrilled when Lisa Rowan, writer for The Penny Hoarder, reached out to me for some tips to include in their camping post. The only thing that makes me happier than being able to do things because of the fact that we budget, is to be able to help others achieve their own goals by doing things on a budget as well. Stretching a dollar has helped us to achieve so many things, including all of the recent travel that we’ve been doing.

So if you are wishing you could do more traveling, but just don’t have the means, be sure to read the above post, or check out my travel pages #crosscountryadventure2015 and #thecowartstakemanhattan2017 for some tips and tricks for traveling and camping on a budget.

Fun Friday: “The Cowarts take Manhattan” and what was for dinner

5 May

April was incredibly busy, and here is the rest of why!

Last week in my What’s for Dinner Wednesday post, I promised you that I would share more of what had been keeping me from posting recently and I also promised you some weekly meal inspiration with a twist. Today’s Fun Friday post is all of those things wrapped in one.

As you’ll see in this week’s Cranston Herald feature article, we took a whirlwind trip to New York City and the surrounding areas, including Jersey City, Hoboken and Brooklyn, just to name a few. It started out as a college tours trip primarily, but because we had never taken any of the kids to NYC, and because they all wanted to visit so badly, we decided to try to make it a mini family vacation, on the cheap rather than one adult taking one child to New York and everyone else staying home.

Super cheap.

We accomplished that goal by using our camper, although very early in the camping season, and despite the fact that we wouldn’t have a ton of time for prepping for the trip due to work obligations and the Easter weekend. One of the ways that we made it work was by eating many of our meals in and only eating a few special things out, as we visited the city. We had extra money and we could’ve spent it all on eating out, but we didn’t want to. We opted instead to choose a couple of extra-special eating adventures and to choose a couple of extra-special sightseeing adventures too, giving ourselves the best of both worlds.

Our camper has a full kitchen with a microwave, oven and stove as well as a refrigerator, freezer and pantry. Therefore, we could plan meals as extensive or as simple as we wished. We decided to go simple. We knew we’d be out a great deal of the time and the last thing we wanted to do was come home and spend an hour and a half cooking. We also knew that simple meant cheap, and if our meals were inexpensive, that was more money we could throw into our travel budget from our normal grocery budget.

Because the weekend before the trip was Easter (an expensive, busy weekend in itself), we did have some leeway in our meals leading up to the trip and we were not eating at home on Easter Sunday. Therefore, my list of meals starts with Monday, the first night we arrived at Liberty Harbor RV Park and Marina. Here’s what we ate while we were away:

TWO WEEKS OF MEALS

Monday: Quesadillas (extras became lunch the next day) with Spanish rice and corn. We also had chips and salsa for appetizers when we arrived because it had been a five hour ride and we’d eaten lunch in the car earlier in the day.

Tuesday: Chicken burgers and hot dogs, fresh sugar snap peas, sauteed.

Wednesday: Macaroni with Chicken Parmesan, (chicken cooked in the cast iron skillet). Today we also used some of our spending money to have treats at Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, the original bake shop featured on the TV show, “Cake Boss.”

Breakfast on Wednesday morning: Carlo’s Bakery sweet treats

 

Very inexpensive, delicious and a fun end to our trip to NYC!

Thursday: We opted to eat out that night, experiencing NY Style Pizza, $1 a slice, in Times Square at 2 Bros. Pizza. DELICIOUS.

Friday: We were home again by Friday night and we had French Toast for dinner. Breakfast for dinner is fast and easy and a good meal to make when you get home. It was a breakfast option we never used on the trip so we had all the ingredients ready to go.

For the second week of our two week cycle, we tried to choose meals that were still inexpensive and that used some things we had at home already

Saturday: Homemade chicken and rice soup (perfect for what ended up being a cold, rainy, raw day)

Sunday: Pork Chops and homemade applesauce (I brought applesauce to dinner on Easter Sunday, so I made a triple batch that day, freezing one batch for our trip. We never used that meal on the trip, so we had it Sunday night instead.)

Monday: Zucchini shrimp Scampi (recently featured in this blog post)

Tuesday: Taco Bake (recipe here)

Wednesday: Chicken, Broccoli and Pasta

Thursday: Leftovers

Friday: Pizza

What’s for Dinner Wednesday: Looking to eat out?

26 Apr

Looking for some dining out adventures and recommendations?

Welcome to a slightly different version of What’s for Dinner Wednesday. Normally I provide you with a recipe or a two week menu plan to help inspire your home-cooked meals.

Not this week.

It’s been some time since I’ve done a blog post, and a big part of the reason why has been work-related. I have had several big projects that I have been working on for The Providence Journal, and I can now share two of those three projects with you!

Take some advice from those who have been there and visit some of our great local restaurants with your family!

The first is a piece that I did about dining out as a family in Rhode Island. If you are a Rhode Islander or live close to the state, or maybe you’ll be visiting the state, I have gathered together some family dining recommendations for you that are great for eating out as a family. You can find that link here.

Looking for meal deals when dining with kids? Check out a few ideas here.

In addition to that piece, I also compiled a list of restaurants both local and chain, that offer kids’ meal deals. Sometimes it’s on a certain day of the week, sometimes there is a required adult meal purchase, but every time there is some sort of deal for kids. Kids can often dine for free or at least dine for less, if you explore your options. This piece will start you off on the right foot, finding out who’s got great deals for kids.

Sharing their love for Syria, the owners of Mosaic hope to introduce many to the traditions and culture of their home country.

Locally, I’ve had the great fortune of being able to explore a wonderful Syrian restaurant that recently opened in Cranston, RI, and that is the second project that I’m sharing with you today. The name of the restaurant is Mosaic, and it’s located in a great part of our city with lots of international dining spots on the same street. Over time I’ve not only gotten to try some delicious new foods, but I’ve also gotten to learn a lot about the Syrian culture and traditions. For example, Ramadan is coming up, and I learned about many of the traditional foods and beverages that are used to break the fast, which takes place from sunrise to sunset.

The decor in Mosaic is stunning, and you feel as if you are there in Syria, enjoying your food among the lovely Syrian people.

Mosaic will be specializing in traditional Ramadan offerings during May and June, when the holiday will take place this year. I’ve truly enjoyed meeting the owners and family members at Mosaic and I am looking forward to visiting them again soon. You can read my dining review of Mosaic here, and learn more about the Syrian culture by reading my feature piece here. Thanks to my friend Shelley for the photos of the Mosaic pieces!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next project I was working on over the past few weeks’ time will be running at the end of May, and I will be sure to share it with you then. I’ve been busy, busy, busy and you won’t be disappointed!

Until that time however, be sure to be on the lookout for my next post. I promise to give you some meal inspiration for eating in, with a special twist.

How’s that for a teaser?!

 

Fun Friday: Ideas for a fun camping-themed birthday party

31 Mar

My daughter started planning her camping-themed party months ago and this shirt was a gift from one of her sisters to wear that night.

We are campers.

We have camped across the country for weeks on end, we are one Eagle Scout and four Girl Scouts. We definitely know camping and we love it. Therefore, many months ago during the winter, when my youngest daughter asked for a camping-themed birthday for her party this spring, I was excited. It was something we hadn’t done before as a birthday party theme, and although as our kids get older their parties get much smaller, it was a fun theme for any sized party, and one that was relatively easy and very inexpensive to plan, especially for a small group.

The Taco in a Bag meal even includes some veggies, if they choose to take the lettuce and tomatoes as their toppings.

This daughter also happens to be the daughter that has to follow a gluten free diet, so that makes planning meals somewhat more challenging, but for this party, it was relatively easy. As Girl Scouts, one of the favorite camping meals is Tacos in a Bag. As a family, we have a favorite summer taco salad which is similar to this one from Tasty Points. Tacos in a Bag is the best of both worlds if you’re a kid. To make them, you take individual packs of Doritos (which are now gluten free), the kids crush them up while they are in the bag, and then they layer their desired taco fixings in the order in which they want them, eating them right out of the bag. Be sure to either use a homemade taco seasoning mix or one that is gluten free. The brand we used was McCormick and was gluten free, and we prefer to use ground turkey rather than ground beef. To be on the safe side, I also grabbed a regular-sized bag of Doritos to have on hand for extras in case I needed them. I did not, so we have them to use here at home when needed.

I already had these on hand, so the recipe I found was perfect!

Initially, she thought of S’mores as her dessert of choice, but I hesitated, as I was recently having some trouble finding gluten-free graham crackers, even though I knew we’d had them before. I needed a different plan in case I couldn’t find them again in time for the party. Oddly enough, one afternoon, a recipe came across my Facebook newsfeed for this vegan, gluten free recipe for S’Mores cupcakes. Although we are not vegan, this recipe from Pickles and Honey provided me with just the inspiration I needed to formulate a plan to make my own S’Mores cupcakes for the party.

I already had graham cracker crumbs on hand that were gluten free and I had plenty left. To create my cupcakes, I filled two muffin trays with paper liners and sprayed the liners with nonstick cooking spray. I put about a teaspoon of the crumbs in the bottom of half the paper liners and left half without, in case anyone didn’t think they liked the graham cracker crumb idea. I used a gluten free Funfetti cake mix to fill the liners with batter and cooked them according to the package directions. To keep track of which were which, I used two different patterns of liners, one for each kind of cupcake. The white liners had crumbs at the bottom and the green did not.

My most favorite camping party idea. Thanks to Pickles and Honey for the initial inspiration!!

Although I normally make my own frosting, and I had one in mind that I had planned to use for the party, the day of the party came quickly and it was a busy one. When I was out picking up last minute things for that night, I saw a container of pre-made frosting, realized I could save myself some unnecessary stress and some time by just using that for the kids. I had planned on letting them frost their own cupcakes (sharing one little bowl of frosting between two kids) while I got ready to roast their marshmallows over my gas stove burner. The pre-made frosting would be just fine for our purposes.

When it came time for dessert, these cupcakes were a huge hit and I was so excited as to how they came out. I used a low, back burner and skewers to roast one marshmallow at a time, and I did them myself, rather than letting the kids do them for this first time around. The cupcakes went quickly, both varieties, and at the end of the night there were just a few left over and a little bit of frosting to keep in the fridge for them.

When your sister gives you glue, glue and more glue for your birthday, you have plenty to spare for a little party slime-making.

For the rest of the party, we had two crafts. First off, they made the currently very popular DIY slime, since my oldest daughter had given her sister several bottles of glue as part of her gift, and I’d been sure to restock all the food coloring, baking soda and corn starch we might need, depending on the DIY recipe they used.

I had also asked a summer camping friend who was going to be at the party if she wouldn’t mind teaching all of the kids to make friendship bracelets. While we were together this past summer at the local campground, she’d done a really great job teaching all our kids how to make the bracelets, and we had all the materials here. We just needed her expertise. I even picked up safety pins so that they could pin them to their sleeping bags or pillows and work on them while they were camped out in our living room watching a movie.

For our movie choice, we opted to show the old 1960’s version of “The Parent Trap,” which has some summer camp and family camping scenes in it. We had found it on Netflix ahead of time. We also had the remake recorded here at home, but we felt that the older version was one that the kids might not have seen before. We thought that if there was time the next morning, or if they wanted to at night, they could watch the newer version instead of or in addition to the older one, but they never did. They got a kick out of the older movie and had not seen it before.

All in all, it was a great night, with a fun group of kids and this is a party theme I’d highly recommend for those who are camping fans. It got us looking ahead to our camping days this coming summer, which will be here before we know it, and we’ll be having S’mores and campfires outside, and making friendship bracelets all summer long.