Home Is Where the Heart Is … and Classic Tuna Noodle Casserole

Above all else, guard your heart,
for everything you do flows from it.

Proverbs 4:23 (NIV)

Dear Joey,

After a couple weeks of onethingafterthenext busy, things slowed down a bit, and I feel like I’m sleeping better and catching my breath and able to be more in the moment instead of being so preoccupied with preparation: first for celebrating Addie’s birthday, and next for celebrating four of her friends’ birthdays, all within two short weeks. The clerks at Target probably have money riding on whether or not I’ll show up to grab that one last random thing I forgot (again) every single morning during the first two weeks of November. We literally  bounce our way through those first two weeks, fueled by all that sugar the neighbors so generously gave out to our children at the end of October, and then by cupcakes and pinatas and bounce houses and laughter. It’s fantastic. November is delightful madness, and even though it’s exhausting, it is fun.


But it’s also a little…hard. Watching Addie navigate social gatherings is eye-opening for me because she watches from the shadows as the party swirls around her. As I watch her, it’s as if I’m seeing myself at her age because she is me–a blonde-haired, greenish blue eyed version of the very bashful little girl who I was. She doesn’t mean to be antisocial. She wants to break out of her shell, and I imagine she doesn’t really understand why it’s there in the first place. She wishes it were easy for her to join in with the other kids, I think, the ones for whom talking and laughing and joining in the fun comes naturally, but it doesn’t come easily, and she ends up very stressed out by it all.


But her friends love her anyway, perhaps even because of those things. For some, she is a kindred spirit whose calm demeanor and quiet spirit speak safety to their own introverted selves. For others, she is a buried treasure, a challenge and a reward all in one cute little package. For others still, her laughter is a song in the soundtrack of life, and the album would be noticeably different without her around.


At home, she’s strong-willed and passion-driven, all while being tender at heart and gentle in spirit. This kid is complicated, I tell you, and I’m exhausted trying to figure her out. But her timidness pushes me out of my own similar nature and toward bravery, and I have her to thank for where I am today: in a place where social situations don’t make me want to run and hide. When Addie’s bashfulness started showing up, that’s when I fully understood being brave is about doing hard things even though–and especially when–you are scared. I overcame a lot of my own timidity because of her. The past six years of my own life propelled me forward into a new sort of confidence, one I pray I can pass on to her. This came up not long ago while I was talking to a friend, a newer one who didn’t know me when I was a child. I admitted that by nature, I am a slow-to-warm sort of person, super introverted and, well, shy. Genuinely confused, she said, “Really? I wouldn’t have guessed that about you.” When I look back on myself as a child, I want to tell her to be brave and jump in and open herself up to the truth that people actually want to hear her voice. I want her to run wild with the truth that she is welcome and wanted, to be the girl in Proverbs 31:25 who is “clothed with strength and dignity, and […] laughs without fear of the future.


Unencumbered laughter from a heart at rest is a beauty more breathtaking than much else, I think. That’s the beauty we see everyday from Addie here at home. For now, that’s as it should be, I think, because I would rather see her true self come alive only at home rather than not at all because if she cannot be free to be herself here–goofy and graceful, tender and fierce, loyal and loving and messy and imperfect–what does that say about our home? Home is where the heart is, right? Maybe it’s more than that. Maybe home is where the heart is most comfortable. Maybe home is where the heart is most fully alive. Maybe home is where the heart learns who it is, and whose it is, and finds a rhythm all its own and grows confident in dancing along with the beat. Where else can Addie’s heart possibly learn those things if not at home, where we guard and protect and encourage and grow that little girl, that sweet little piece of our own heart? Maybe home itself is a beating heart, fully alive, out of which everything else flows.


Every once in awhile, Addie surprises us. When she’s comfortable enough, she lets go of her inhibitions and gets downright loud and silly. Most folks wouldn’t recognize her if they saw her dancing in the freedom of who she really is. But I hope, I hope, she will gain the confidence she needs to do so sooner than I did. I hope our similarities are only a passing resemblance, in that regard, and that she breaks through her own shell far before I ever did. But until then, I’m giving her space to be who she is in the safety of our home. But I’m also helping her do hard things by encouraging her with my smile and holding her hand for a little while, letting go of it a bit sooner each time. I whisper in her ear “You’ve done this before. You know how to do it, and you can do it,” as I send her on her way. She smiles at me, sometimes through tears, and does the hard things. And when she’s done, she comes flying back to me, beaming, with arms flung wide and says, “I remembered that when I am afraid, I can trust in God. And I did it.” We hug, I try not to cry, and I feel like we’ve both won.



Classic Tuna Noodle Casserole (DF/GF/NF)


This meal tastes like home to me because my mom made it so often when I was growing up, and every time I make it I feel a little more at ease with life. I made it again this week when the pantry was looking a little bare, but we still needed a come-together sort of meal to help us all slow down and really see each other after the busyness of the past few weeks. This non-dairy version uses mayonnaise for creaminess, and I thought that was a pretty good idea. It’s feels a little strange to add mayonnaise to a casserole, it  transforms this dish into a dinner our whole family loves so much that we rarely have much left over. The cool thing about this recipe is you don’t have to be dairy free to enjoy it. The ingredients are simple, the flavor good, and it’s very pantry-friendly. No milk in the fridge? No worries. Out of cheese, too? Don’t stress. Dig out your chicken broth, a little bit of butter and flour, and a scoop of humble mayonnaise. All will be well (which is sort of what comfort food like Tuna Noodle Casserole speaks to the soul anyway, right?). I hope one day my own children will cook it for their own children and remember pulling up their chairs at our table, scooping out a big helpings of this very humble dish, and pretending not to munch on the stray potato chip crumbles as they wait for everyone to be served.

  • 4 T refined coconut oil (or Earth Balance, or Olive Oil, or…)
  • 3/4 cup chopped yellow onion
  • 1/4 cup brown rice flour (or use regular All Purpose Flour, for a non-GF version)
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise (not low fat!)
  • 1 teaspoon white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 pound brown rice noodles (we like Organic Brown Rice Fusilli from Trader Joe’s, or regular wheat noodles)
  • 2-7.5 oz cans albacore tuna, drained
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • a few handfuls of plain salted potato chips (like Kettle Brand), for topping

First, boil the noodles according to package directions. Cook al dente so they don’t turn to mush in the oven.

Meanwhile, saute the onion in the coconut oil. (Remember: refined coconut oil doesn’t taste like coconut. Use a different neutral tasting oil if you prefer.) When the onions have softened, sprinkle in the flour, salt and pepper and and whisk to combine. (You’re essentially making a rue here.) Next, pour in the chicken broth a little at a time, whisking until smooth with each addition. It will be clumpy at first, but don’t despair. Keep whisking and it will smooth out. Once you’ve added all the chicken broth, cook the sauce until it begins to thicken. Then, add the mayonnaise and vinegar and whisk again until it is fully combined. Finally, add the tuna to the sauce, then toss in the peas and pasta and mix well. Pour the mixture into a greased 9 x 11 glass pan and top with crumbled potato chips. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes or so, or until the chips have gotten even more crunchy than usual.

With Humility Came Wisdom, and BBQ Cornbread Pie

If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You’ll get his help, and won’t be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought.”

James 1:5 (MSG)

Dear Joey,

I ought to have a case of baby fever. Now that our youngest child has crossed over into toddler territory, you would think the heavenly scent of newborns swirling in the air would infect me like a virus. One faint whiff of the good stuff is dangerous for a mom like me because it paints those emotionally charged, bone-tired days of new mamahood with glitter and sunshine. And those early days were strikingly beautiful, warmed with the glow of a new kind of love for the sweet cherub nestled in the crook of my arm. Those days were hard too, in big ways and small ways, but the blessing of hindsight is that it blurs the rough edges and makes things appear much smoother and more idyllic than perhaps they actually were. Nevertheless, the new baby days are over for us now, and I am at once deeply relieved and also utterly heartbroken.


There are newborns everywhere except for in our own home (for a change)–three of them cousins to our own little brood, the newest of whom was born one week ago in a place too far from home to swing by and offer our congratulations. When I heard the news that baby Nolan had arrived, my heart swelled with joy and sadness because I was both over-the-moon excited our new little nephew was healthy and strong, and also hit with the reality that we won’t experience those first beautiful moments for ourselves again, and that made me sad. But in the midst of that sadness I realized I have something now I did not have then: the sort of wisdom that comes with experience, and I wished desperately for a way to pass that on to you sister. My sister. I wanted to just be there for her, to linger in the shadows and offer what little I could to help ease the burden of those first weary, bleary-eyed, love-struck days as they all settled into a new reality.

Strangely, all this happened as I cooked dinner for a different new, first-time mom, something I had planned to do before I heard news baby Nolan would be born soon. Even though it was a coincidence, cooking a meal for this other new mom on that same day helped soothe away the sadness I felt for being so far away from our own extended family. As I packed up that dinner and toted it over to her, memories from my own first days of motherhood flooded back. I was surprised and delighted when I realized this time around it was me  answering questions about the reality of adjusting to life with babies. I happily answered her with as much truth and encouragement as I could, marveling at the fact that not so long ago I was in her shoes, desperate for wisdom, company, and a hearty meal I didn’t have to cook.



I am in a different place now, feet set firmly in reality and fully awake to the good and the bad and the hard and the easy. When I first became a mother, I was filled with wide-eyed hope that was pure and good, but lacked experience. Motherhood changed me, heart and soul. It brought about something new and beautiful in me, but also revealed the parts of me that are self-centered and ugly. Before I became a mom, I imagined sacrifice would come easy. I thought laying down my own agenda would be a breeze because my baby was my agenda. In some ways, I was right. Instinct took over and the baby came first. But deep down, it wasn’t easy because while the baby’s needs came first, my needs came dead last. And I was ashamed of how that made me feel: jealous, selfish, and guilty because as it turned out, I still cared about what mattered to me.

When I was pregnant with Addie, a trusted friend gently warned me that kids really do change everything, and while it is a good change, it is not an easy one. Motherhood forces you to your knees, she said, and I assumed she meant having kids makes you to pray for your kids a lot. She’s right: it does. Certainly, it does. In hindsight, though, I wonder if she was trying to tell me something else: that motherhood is humbling in a way that strips you down bare, reveals the darkest parts of yourself, parts you either didn’t know were there or wished to keep hidden, and exposes you as you really are: desperate for a savior.


It all starts at delivery, in a very tactile, physical way. Bringing a baby into the world is messy and sticky and for me–humiliating. Spread wide, flayed open, and very much afraid–mothers cry out, desperate for relief. Remember how I cried through that last push that finally delivered Addie into your hands? It ripped me open and wrenched my heart out of its hiding place, finally letting the light of love into places that had never seen it before.

Then when I finally brought my new baby girl home, I wondered how to care for myself, bloody and broken as I was, while caring for my helpless little daughter. Suddenly, I realized how desperately I needed someone to take care of me. I had a child of my own, but I felt like the child who needed tending. I thought I was ready for motherhood: I had read books and talked to friends and stocked the nursery and been praying for this day since I was a little girl. I always wanted to be a mom, and naturally I believed I would be a good one when the time came, beautiful and capable and nurturing and selfless. I didn’t feel like any of those things at first because motherhood didn’t look the way I thought it would for awhile.


In those first few days, friends and family bustled in and out bringing flowers, cards, dinners and cookies, offering support and celebration in beautiful, generous ways. As they marveled at my baby girl, I remember thinking, “What about me?” Even the kindest words meant to build me up weren’t enough to soothe away the feeling that I was a shell of the woman I had been. I dressed my baby girl in pretty little outfits while I wore spit-up stained hand-me-down maternity clothes, my hair disheveled and my still-swollen face bare and stained with tears. I appreciated people coming over and asking how I was, and I also dreaded it. I wanted them to drop food off and I didn’t want them to see me because I still looked pregnant, and I didn’t know that was normal. I wanted to pile my plate high with warm, comforting casseroles and I didn’t want anyone to bring salad. I wanted people to hold the baby for awhile and I also never wanted to let them touch her. I was jealous for her and jealous of her at the same time because she was just so beautiful, and I was a wreck. I was afraid you loved her more than you loved me, and I was afraid your feelings about me had changed in the worst possible way. And in the midst of it all, I felt a sort of love I had never known before, the kind of love that kept me going when all I wanted to do was pull the covers over my head and cry.


Things got better, of course, and they weren’t so hard after Mia was born and were better still in the days after Emery arrived. Perhaps I had a bit of post-pardum depression the first time around, or maybe I was just wrestling with the surprising swirl of emotions that come with a new baby. But I suspect by the time I greeted my third baby, humility had done its work and brought about wisdom. In those first few days I felt lost, and so I sought refuge the one place I was certain to find rest. God had already lavished grace upon me, a truth to which we paid tribute in Addie’s middle name: Grace. I had asked specifically for grace when I prayed for this child–pleaded with him for it when I poured out my heart and told Him how desperately I wanted a baby of my own. He heard me then and I was certain He would hear me again. He did.

When Mia was born, I felt far more confident about my role as a mom. I wasn’t afraid of the taking-care-of-a-baby part of motherhood, but I still struggled with selfishness and a tattered self-image. I gained a lot of weight. I was swollen and tired and felt like a very different woman than the one you had married. I struggled to feel good about myself. It was an on-going process that just took time to figure out.



But by the time Emery was born, I knew my still-swollen belly would indeed recede as the weeks wore on. I knew my swollen face would regain its former shape and that the loathed maternity clothes would eventually be replaced with things that made me feel human again. I ate with abandon, not caring one bit what anyone thought about my appetite. I knew your love for me grew deeper and stronger as our family grew. I knew people cared very much about me and that they wouldn’t have come to visit us and see the baby if I didn’t matter to them too. And I knew how to eagerly accept help from people who offered it to me, of whom there were many.



Now, three babies later, I know this: any mother who offers to help a new mom knows how good and amazing and glory-filled and just plain hard these days are.We know how fiercely that baby is loved. We know how a post-delivery body is swollen and painful. We know that nursing takes painful practice, and we know it doesn’t always work out. We know how good a nap sounds. We know how hungry a nursing-mama’s own tummy is for a hearty meal, and we don’t expect her to eat like a bird. We know a slow, warm shower sounds like heaven. We know maternity clothes will continue be the staple of a post-delivery wardrobe for awhile, and we know how much new moms hate that. We know nothing compares to the way it feels to snuggle that precious baby close. We know how freeing it is to let someone else to hold that baby. We know how important it is to be left alone, and we also know how being left alone for too long is isolating. We know the laundry isn’t done and the dishes are dirty and the house is a mess. We know one woman alone cannot possibly be expected to care for herself, her baby, her husband, and her home perfectly (or at all) at the same time. We know a new woman was birthed right along with that baby, and getting to know her is confusing and strange. We know new moms need help. We know, because we were new moms once too.

Falling to my knees in submission to my new role as a mother was humbling, but in his kindness God lifted me up and gave me wisdom, just like he promises he will. And I’m so glad he did because the good stuff is so good. Motherhood is at once more complicated and beautiful than I imagined. The experience of it is unique to each woman, a one-of-a-kind gift to unwrap and enjoy.



BBQ Cornbread Pieimg_5117

This recipe was inspired by  Table for Two‘s BBQ Chicken Cornbread Pie. And ok, really–this is pretty much the same recipe, but I made a few changes based on the contents of my refrigerator and my family’s dietary needs and preferences. I stumbled upon it while looking for a gluten-free-and-dairy-free-but-still-hearty-and-comforting dinner to take to a brand new mom. I remember being hungry in those first weeks (because: nursing), and let’s face it: new moms want comfort food for dinner (right? Or am I alone?). This dish is sort of like Sloppy Joe’s piled high on a bed of cornbread (and drenched in gooey cheese), and it became a fast favorite in our house–especially with Addie, who loves meat (for the win: Mia doesn’t really like meat, but she ate this dinner without complaining, and said she actually enjoyed it). It’s really good with dairy free cheese melted on top (like Daiya cheddar style shreds), but clearly the real thing does the trick here too. If your family doesn’t like bell peppers, leave them out. If they only like red ones, don’t use the green. Add more meat or don’t. Use ground beef or ground turkey. Listen to your cravings and own it.


For the Cornbread layer

  • 1 cup gluten free yellow cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup gluten free all purpose flour blend
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • pinch kosher salt
  • 2 Tablespoons Vegan Buttery Spread (such as Earth Balance), melted and cooled
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup unsweetened original Almond Milk (or other non-dairy milk alternative)

For the BBQ layer

  • 3/4 pound ground turkey (or ground beef)
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1/2 green bell pepper, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 Tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 cup tomato sauce
  • 2 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 teaspoons hot sauce (such as Frank’s Red Hot)
  • 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

For the Topping

  • 2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese, non-dairy if necessary (depending on how gooey you prefer your cheese)
  • 3 green onions, sliced

First, preheat the oven to 375 degrees and grease a 9″ pie plate or baking dish.

Now, let’s talk cornbread. Measure the dry ingredients together in a large bowl and give them a good stir. Then, in a smaller bowl, whisk together the egg and almond milk and then add the melted buttery spread. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet, in about three additions, until the mixture is the consistency of cake batter. Pour the batter into the greased baking dish and put it into the preheated oven for 25-30 minutes, or until golden brown on top.

While the cornbread is baking, brown the meat in a glug or two of neutral tasting oil (like grapeseed oil or refined coconut oil). Break up the meat as you go so it gets nice and crumbly. Once cooked through (no pink!), remove the crumbles from the pan and set aside, leaving the drippings in the pan. Over medium heat, toss the onions and bell peppers into the pan and give them a good stir. Let them cook down until soft, about 5 minutes, and then add the minced garlic. Stir the veggies and let them cook until you start to smell the garlic, about two minutes. Add the meat back to the pan and start building the sauce. Pour in the spices and brown sugar and stir to coat the meat and veggie mixture evenly. Add the tomato sauce, Worcestershire sauce,  hot sauce, and red wine vinegar and stir again. Let the mixture simmer for a few minutes until the cornbread is done.

When the cornbread is golden on top, remove it from the oven and click the oven to a high broil. Spread the BBQ meat mixture on top of the still-hot cornbread, then pile it high with cheese. Put the dish under the broiler for a couple of minutes until the cheese is melted and bubbling. Pull it out of the oven before it burns and scatter the green onions on top.