Casseroles are like McDonald’s: they get a bad wrap, but secretly everyone loves them.
Well okay, I don’t love McDonald’s–anymore. But gracious me, how I adored their french fries until I learned gluten’s evil reach extends to even them. French fries don’t need wheat to be wonderful.
The same is true for casserole. I know I’m not the only one with childhood memories of noodles and meat tucked into a sumptuous sauce, layered thick with gooey cheese and baked until golden and glorious, right? Casserole was pretty much my favorite, but now gluten is ornery and unwelcome at my table. Ditto for dairy, so clearly, casserole complicates my kitchen. I bet it complicates yours, too.
Allergy life handed us a whole bunch of adversity. Shoot, it’s just plain bananas sometimes, but I have learned to leverage the crazy and bake banana bread. In other words, I’m good at making the best of bad situations, but casserole creates a crummy conundrum. No matter how you slice it, alternative ingredients just don’t swap out the same way in savory dishes.
Even so, when cooler weather compels me to click on the oven and cook something cozy, casserole calls my name. I usually argue with the voice, saying things like “Dairy free cheese is disgusting” and “Gluten free noodles get gummy.” Casserole patiently nods its understanding, then nudges me to try again anyway, saying “I’m problematic, but possible.”
Over the years I have tried to prove my beloved food friend right. Try after disappointing try simply confirmed my opinion until I realized this: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is just plain crazy. Daiya does not–will not— taste like dairy Mozzarella no matter how much I wish it did.
That’s the problem: I’m expecting my taste buds to adjust to something I just plain don’t like. Many alternatives are frankly unpalatable. Others are acceptable, but some really are inspired. Sorting out the bad from the good is an exercise in patience and fortitude.
Once upon a time Mia asked me to make lasagna for dinner. Rarely one to deny a request for comfort food, I hesitated, and it surprised her. I mean, lasagna is all about the cheese. The marriage of ricotta and mozzarella is a match made in comfort food heaven, so I panicked. But something switched that night and instead of asking How can I make that? , I asked myself How will I make that? Saying yes to her simple request taught me to re-imagine casserole instead of trying to recreate it.
Does gluten have to be involved at all? Does dairy? The simple answer is, of course, no. A casserole is really just “food cooked and served in a casserole [dish]” (According to Merriam-Webster, that is), which essentially means anything goes.
So I looked my girl in the eye and said “Let’s do it!” and we rolled out sheets of homemade cassava flour noodles and stirred together a filling of garlic-studded meat and spinach, and layered them together with a simple marinara sauce. Then in a fit of inspiration, I got out a can of black olives. As I sliced them, Mia asked if she could put them on by herself. I laughed as I watched her arrange them into a smiley face.
I can’t redefine casserole, but I can re-imagine it. Food allergy life taught me that. My kids don’t know the difference between a lasagna covered with cheese and one simply slathered with sauce. All they see is lasagna served with a smile. Isn’t that the point? Food doesn’t have to be fancy or familiar to feed my family well. If it’s served with a smile, it’s enough.
Yes, it means letting go of what I know. But it frees my heart from stress and burnout and gives me the gift of saying yes.
Casserole isn’t comfort food because it’s layered with cream or cheese: it’s comfort food because it’s home food, made with all kinds of creativity and love. Experimenting with alternative ingredients yields all sorts of casseroles with character, and cultivated a cuisine unique to our table and taste buds. We top them with olives or thinly sliced tomatoes, seasoned rice-crumbs or crushed potato chips or savory streusel or even gluten free crispy french-fried onions, and then cheer when it comes out crispy and golden. We even argue over who gets the corner piece.
I’m sure the same will be true for you, too, because casserole is a framework, an idea, a canvas for a culinary masterpiece.
This Bacon Ranch Chicken Casserole is top 14 allergen free proof that comfort food of my childhood is possible after all.
It’s not comfort food the way your Grandma would have made it, unless of course your Grandma was cooking for gluten free, dairy free folks, but my family thinks it’s every bit as comforting — and way better than McDonald’s.
Good grief I’m tired. Summer can’t come soon enough.
It’s weird to say that because last summer stretched on forever, and when it was finally over I swore up and down I never wanted the hot, sticky season to come again. Summer is supposed to be slow, but it was more sluggish than a snail last year. The lack of momentum made it feel static, not serene. And that was tiring. I feel like I only just started recovering from it, yet here I am ready for another one? It’s a strange tension.
Today I’m tired in a different sort of way–the best sort of way. The weekend swept me up in a swirl of food and family and fun, and the whirlwind wore me out. I fell asleep on the couch last night recovering. Remembering, too: the smile on Mia’s face as she turned nine. The way she laughed and played and drank it all in–the swimming, the silly jokes, the small cans of Dr. Pepper that are special treat indeed. It almost didn’t matter what I served; the people surrounding her made it the most special, especially after last year’s lockdown.
Her birthday last year was different. We celebrated, but separately. Reality got skewed and our circle got smaller and eventually summer stretched on for days on end. We grilled our way through the long, hot months, trying to enjoy the low pressure days, but secretly stressed out with waiting and wondering what would happen next. This recipe was born out of the lonesome days of lockdown, a time when life was slow and sweet in its own way, even though the world seemed to burn around us.
The days at home were good, but the strife outside our doors made it hard to guess what would come next. This recipe for sweet & smoky chicken reminds me of those days. It gave me hope for a day when we would fill our table with family and friends again–and that day came right along with Mia’s birthday. They remind me of last year when we couldn’t share meals together like this–and why it’s so important we do so again.
A shared meal is never just about the food: it is always about fellowship with the faces that share the food with us. It’s about acknowledging our need for fuel and friendship at the same time; it’s about feeding people’s stomachs and souls by giving them a reason to slow down and savor. Food is so much more meaningful when it’s shared.
And so, as a new summer knocks on our doors and asks to stay for awhile, let’s invite it in with open arms–and along with it, let’s welcome each other again. Let’s find a reason to celebrate and gather around tables together, laughing alongside each other as we pass platters filled to the brim with good things. Let’s feed each other with the sort of welcome that says “I’m so glad you’re here.”
Let’s remember the way it was for awhile and be grateful it wasn’t forever, because eating together is something sacred indeed.
It’s no secret I’ve been sick. Or at least, I don’t think it’s a secret. I’ve shared a lot about it on Instagram (are you following me there yet? Come say hi @rachel.maier.writes!), but haven’t filled you all in here because the truth is, I have been very, very tired. Even thinking about writing posts with recipes wiped me out. And so, silence ensued.
But I’m feeling better now–or at least, I’m improving. I talked with my mom the other day and laughed because saying “I’m feeling better” suggests I am better, which of course by now you probably realize I am not. I am improving though. Minute by blessed minute, my body is responding to the miracle of having the right medicine for the right diagnosis–and Lord help us all, when you don’t have a complete picture of what’s wrong, it’s hard to know how to make it right.
It all started on my 40th birthday. Well that’s not true–it all started the summer before my senior year of high school. This particular flare up started on my 40th birthday. Instead of lighting candles on my birthday cake, my body flared up hot and angry. I got plenty mad about it too because I had just gotten over a nasty flare up last fall. Last time I evaded going to a GI doctor (I had yet to establish care with a new once since relocating here a couple years ago), but this time around I knew I had to finally go.
I sat in his office nervous, knowing the severity of my symptoms warranted a colonoscopy, so you can imagine how surprised I was when the doctor dubiously said, “It’s IBS, I think. Not Ulcerative Colitis.”
“Even with the bleeding?” I asked.
“Even with the bleeding,” he replied.
I wanted to shout BS at him. (But I didn’t. I have more self-control than that.) I bit my tongue and left that day, trying to wrap my head around the possibility that he was right. I tried to trust my gut, but I entertained the idea that perhaps I had overreacted to gut distress for all these years, and maybe, just maybe, God was giving me the answer for which I asked him repeatedly: a name for the crazy gut issues that stumped countless doctors for years.
I was so tired of hearing “You have Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).” When I was almost 20 years old my family doctor diagnosed me with IBS and showed me to the door with a smile, telling me to eat plenty of yogurt as he waved goodbye. I heard that same story again in my early 30’s when wheat and gluten triggered similar responses, but that doctor scolded me for inquiring about Celiac Disease and shooed me out the door with an IBS diagnosis (again) along with strict orders to take a daily fiber supplement. Here I was 40 years old hearing IBS again. It threw me for a loop.
In all these years, only one doctor gave me an opinion with grace and insight. He guided my decisions and oversaw my gut health until we relocated three years ago, but his words still rang in my ears that day, nagging me and making everything even more confusing. That doctor specifically told me he suspected I had undiagnosed Celiac Disease, but recommended against testing for it because I had been gluten free for several years at that point, and I already knew what I really needed to know: that gluten wreaks havoc on my system, and my symptoms improved dramatically without it in my diet. In his words, adding gluten back into my diet to confirm the diagnosis is “just too dangerous.” After ordering a colonoscopy, he diagnosed me with proctitis and advised me to stay gluten free to control my symptoms of colitis, and that there was a high likelihood all the bleeding in my colon was related to my gut issues, despite the fact that the test didn’t show it yet.
But here I was hearing IBS again. In this doctor’s opinion, the results from my previous colonoscopy were inconclusive. He just wasn’t convinced I had Inflammatory Bowel Disease at all. So he ordered a colonoscopy to investigate and confirm his theory.
And this, friends, is why tests are so important: the colonoscopy settled once and for all that I do, in fact, have Ulcerative Colitis.
After the procedure he very matter-of-factly reported I do have ulcerations in my colon, which means I do in fact have a form of Ulcerative Colitis, and the condition will likely progress and it puts me at a significantly higher risk for colon cancer.
The weight of his words fell softly on my shoulders because I already knew all this. Somehow, deep down in my bone-tired gut, I knew.
I wasn’t sad about it, exactly, but wrapping my head around the facts that finally prove IBS does not capture the whole of what’s wrong stung. I felt like I wasted twenty years. If I had gottenbetter insight earlier, would things be any different than they are now?
The whole ordeal got me thinking back to the glory days before any of this started, back when gluten wasn’t off the table and disease wasn’t something I dealt with and food was just food. It was a friend, not a foe, and a source of joy and fun and comfort–not hurt or hardship or pain. I recalled the days when sharing a booth and a burger at Red Robin was a pleasure, not a pain. My best friend Molly would order the the Banzai Burger and convince me to do the same, and we would eat basket after basket of seasoned fries while we mapped out our route through the mall, hitting up Bath & Body Works and Express first; then on to Macy’s and the Disney Store before swinging by the Dairy Queen for Blizzards on our way out the door. It never crossed my mind that one day grabbing burgers with my best friend would be a distant memory, or that I would spend more time mapping out the mall for bathrooms instead of boutiques.
Clearly, things changed.
Twenty years later I know the truth: my gut isn’t just finicky; it’s inflamed. It’s not just distressed; it’s diseased. This condition is life-long, but shoot–it has already been life-long, hasn’t it? It’s ugly and uncomfortable and embarrassing too–but it’s my story, nevertheless, and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s valuable in its own way.
I was chopping up leftover pineapple a few nights ago as I wrestled with all this, frustrated again that all this transpired because of a flare up on my 40th birthday–and then it hit me: the timing was a gift, because truth be told I would not have gone to the doctor or had this procedure or gotten the diagnosis I desperately need to move forward had I not had a flare up that day.
I whisked together sticky, syrupy coconut aminos with sharp and biting vinegar, and I remembered again that life is sweet and sour at the same time. The good things and the hard things work together to build a life we can truly savor. Today’s heartbreak is soothed by the sweetness of the memories I brought with me from the time before things changed. I wouldn’t know how to make a dinner like this without a recipe to guide me had I not treasured the memory of munching on Banzai Burgers with my best friend all those years ago. I browned the beef and sautéed garlic and transformed leftover pineapple into a midweek meal that made me miss her like crazy. Then I sat down to the table and scooped out big portions to my girls who ate it up with the sort of gusto that reminded me of the way Molly always did. Banzai Burger Bowls redeemed the memory of those untouched days when gluten and allergies were yet unknown and made it a beautiful moment to treasure instead of a memory to bemoan, and suddenly, surprisingly, I was thankful for all of it.
God does that, you know? When we hand him all the smashed up, broken pieces of our disappointed hearts and let him make them into something new, he does–and what he does with it is good, because he’s good. All the messed up, unfair, heartbreaking circumstances of our lives transform into something beautiful, when we love him and trust his heart for us (Romans 8:28).
And because of that, nothing is ever wasted.
So here I am still recovering from the worst flare up of my life that turns out to be the biggest blessing I could have asked for. The results of the test are not what I had hoped for, but they handed me the answers I need to move forward from here, and friends, that is an invaluable gift indeed. I don’t have to wonder anymore, and I’m thankful for that against all the insufferable odds.
Blessed relief, the medicine is beginning to work. My body is responding to treatment and I see light flickering on the other side of the dark tunnel through which I have walked through for over 20 years.
I’m not well yet, but I’m on my way there. The irrepressible love of food isn’t wasted in my upside down kitchen. Good things happen here too–like Banzai Burger Bowls.
Last night we discovered the groundhog saw his shadow, so we’re hunkering down for another six weeks of winter around here.
More snow and bitter cold is coming for us this weekend, so today’s sunshine and mild temperature feels like a glorious gift. I flung open the windows just now to invite an almost-warm breeze inside. Kansas winds are usually awful in the winter. I can deal with the snow when it comes, but the wind is the worst. But today is almost warm: the sun is shining crisp and clear; the birds are chattering wildly; and the wind is teasing me as it flutters through the kitchen curtains. A miserable weekend just doesn’t feel possible.
But if I’ve learned one thing these past couple years, it’s this: Kansas City weather is absolutely unpredictable, so prepare for every scenario.
When we first moved here, I had a lot to learn: how to gauge the severity of a storm; the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning; the art of dressing in layers; how to drive in the snow; how to manage icy roads; how to hunker down and stay put when things outside got dicey. Thank God I already knew how to feed us well in the winter.
I tackled warm, comfort food classics early in our food allergy journey. I couldn’t tell you why, exactly, other than figuring out how to make hamburger gravy like my mom always made was high on my priority list when I got started. This particular recipe gave me a challenge: will it taste good without milk? (Yes.) Will a grain free thickener make it weird? (No.) For a girl who loves potatoes and gravy, nailing a recipe like this one lifted my spirits and helped me to believe all was not lost in the kitchen. One spoonful and I’m taken back to my own mom’s kitchen and the way its aroma welcomed us to the table: warm and cozy, like a hug. This recipe reminds me of all the good things I still have and the promise of better days ahead, all in one comforting meal.
Six more weeks of winter are waiting, unless the weather decides to change on a whim, which of course it sure could around here. Luckily this recipe will keep us warm, cozy, and well fed regardless of what the weather does in the days to come.
31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” — Mark 6:31 (NIV)
One of my blogging pet peeves is this: a post that starts with a line that goes something like this: “YOU GUYS–I’m SO sorry I haven’t written for, like, ever, but things have been crazy around here–I mean, like, CRAZY. I’ve been so busy I haven’t been able to breathe, let alone update anything here. But whatevs–I’m baa-aack!” What’s with the apology? Do bloggers really think readers need that? We’re all busy: readers and writers alike, because we’re living in a culture that is frenetic. So often busy is a badge we pin on to prove our worth–to ourselves more than to anybody else, I think. But Jesus himself shows us that right there, in the middle of those busy seasons, we need to pull back, take a break, rest. Let’s all give ourselves a little grace, shall we?
In this season, living my actual life has mattered more than writing about it all, and so the words haven’t been presenting themselves to me. Emery started potty training; Addie had a hard time adjusting to new people and surroundings; Mia cried and whined and clung to me after school every day; and I visited the doctor more times in the past few months than probably my whole adulthood combined. Project after home-improvement project began in full force around here we’re praying for direction to determine where our family’s future will be. House hunting started again, and then there was homework and more homework and sisters learning the hard way how to coexist peaceably, and a little boy who is very good at being two years old. And through it all, everyone wanted to eat something other than mixed greens with salmon.
Going through the motions leaves me wrung out though, and while others may paint or sing or play the guitar, I write to recharge. And so, without further ado, here’s my attempt to give myself a break and write a short update on what’s been going on around the Love, Scratch kitchen:
The Autoimmune Protocol (AIP). One word: yikes. Another three: difficult, but doable. Whole30 claims it is not hard to do, and after you completed your own Whole30, you confirmed that it wasn’t hard at all. But guess what? The AIP is hard to do. No, it’s not fighting cancer difficult, it’s not dealing with the death of a loved one difficult, but it is a different sort of difficult. The AIP is far more restrictive than Whole30, so the logistics of doing the shopping and preparing the food made the whole thing time consuming and exhausting. I imagine if I were a single, unattached female with plenty of cash to spare and no one else to think about or care for, the AIP might be easier. I’m not any of those things though, so the AIP made me tired and took away the fun of cooking and eating. But it was doable. The food was yummy, monotonous as it was. Sweet potatoes with coconut oil and sea salt, or mixed greens topped with lean protein and a drizzle of red wine vinegar and olive oil became my go-to meals. What helped was knowing it wasn’t forever–well, that and your resounding cry of “Solidarity, Rach.”
Even so, sometimes it was easier not to eat at all. Toward the end, you munched on your salt and pepper pistachios as I sat silently sipping my sparkling water, turning my nose up at an evening snack of coconut chips because coconut as a food group could disappear, for as much as I cared by the time the first 30 days were over. (I really think I may have killed my taste for coconut and avocado, too–and I’m waiting with bated breath to see if I will ever enjoy them the way I used to.) By the end of those first 30 days, my appreciation for you and your support reached new heights, and you have no idea how much hearing it over and over lifted my spirits and kept me from sneaking bits of dark chocolate into my mouth when your back was turned.
After 30 days, I added restricted foods back in quicker than recommended. It was a desperate time because the stress of other aspects of life swirled and threatened to take me down and I swear if I had to drizzle honey and coconut milk into weak black tea one more time I was going to lose it. I learned I enjoy coffee for its actual flavor and not just the hit of cream and sugar that typically comes along with it, and I use chocolate as a coping mechanism. I also learned I’m 100% ok with that. Neither bothers my system, as it turns out, and they were among the first foods that found their way back into daily life. Since then, I have added eggs and spices and nightshades and nuts and even small amounts of dairy–everything except copious amounts of gluten free grains and legumes, really–and I’m doing great.
I was still in the process of slowly adding things back into my diet when we went to ATT Park to watch Matt Cain pitch his final game in the major leagues, though, so instead of snacking on popcorn or nachos or even a hot dog on a gluten free bun, I opted for peanut M&M’s because somehow those seemed like a better choice. The rare treat tasted fantastic for about a half a second, until the box was empty and I felt yucky. Faint dizziness was my companion for well over week after that. I’m still not sure whether it was the surge of sugar or the peanuts or just sheer coincidence (dizziness can be a symptom of food sensitivity during the reintroduction phase), and really, I may never know. Either way, the experience certainly did not make me eager to snack on the usually off-limits snack any time soon. (Mia-bug, you are not missing out on anything.)
The good that came out of the AIP experiment is this: I can do hard things, even when it comes to food. Also, I have a newfound appreciation for the convenience of a jar of marinara sauce. Mostly, though, I’m thankful to know my digestive troubles really are linked mostly to grain–glutenous ones, mainly (though I’m not completely certain because I have not reintroduced all grains, yet. Rice seems to be ok, but I’ve only really tried very small amounts in things like a sample bite of a new banana oat muffin recipe I’m working on for the Goobies. And about two gluten free Joe-Joe’s. But I digress.) I also realized, again, how fantastic my body feels when I stick to foods that don’t contain grains at all. We tended to cook and eat grain free in our pre-AIP/Whole30 days anyway, and the fact that we didn’t dive into big bowls piled high with gluten free pasta as soon as that month was over tells me we will continue to eat mostly grain free. (I suspect I will seek out the gluten free hot dogs at ATT park and skip the peanut M&M’s from now on, though.)
And so, I’ll keep coming up with grain free foods that feed us well. Gluten free goodies will be part of our lives too, because they can be, thank you Lord–and peanuts will continue to stay far, far away from our kitchen until the day Mia’s prayer for healing is answered the way we all hope it will be. I may write about the recipes, because it recharges me, but I might not get around to it as quickly as I’d like, because I’m allowing myself to rest. But I promise to keep the kitchen humming along in real life, feeding the frenzied brood we call Goobies as best I can. I bet I’ll even enjoy it again in the days and weeks to come.
Shrimp Fried Cauli-Rice
This dish was borne out of a craving for Chinese food well into my AIP adventure. Chinese food is a hard one for my anyway (because soy sauce has gluten in it, which renders Chinese takeout a mere memory, for the most part), but with the additional restrictions of the AIP, Chinese food seemed like a lost cause. Coconut aminos are a good substitute for soy sauce, but its sweetness demands to be offset with an acid–like lime juice. Lime juice and shrimp are match made in heaven anyway, and so this version of shrimp fried cauliflower rice was born (but of course, use chicken instead of shrimp if you’re allergic to shellfish). It’s AIP (when prepared without scrambled eggs or red chili flakes), Paleo, Whole30, gluten free, grain free, dairy free, nut free, you know–all the things–but don’t let that convince you it’s anything but delicious. This one made it to the top ten list of Joey’s most requested dinners fast, and it was the AIP dish I made when I was just plain tired of sweet potatoes and salad.
a couple dollops of refined coconut oil (refined = no coconut flavor)
First, dice the carrots and par-cook them (I put the diced carrots in a microwave safe bowl and cover them with water, then microwave them for about three minutes to soften. This speeds up the whole affair, but feel free to saute them in the oil before tossing in the frozen cauliflower rice.) Drain them when they are tender (not mushy), and set aside.
Next, in whisk together the coconut aminos, lime juice, ginger and sea salt and it set aside as well.
Then, if you’re going to toss scrambled eggs into your finished dish, go ahead and scramble them now in a separate pan. When they’re done, set them aside too.
On to the main event: plunk a couple dollops of coconut oil into a saute pan and warm it up over medium high heat. Toss in the frozen cauliflower rice and toss to coat in oil, then crank up the heat to high. Add the par-cooked carrots, green onions and minced garlic and stir. Next, pour in the sauce and stir and cook and stir and cook–it won’t take long for the sauce to start to coat the veggies and evaporate. Add the shrimp next and stir and cook some more, and finally add the scrambled eggs (if desired) and toss to coat them in sauce too. Top the whole thing with a few more sliced green onions (and red chili flakes, if you like things spicy–and aren’t AIP.)
28-30 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
We started taking the kids camping this summer. Equipped with a new-to-us pop up camper and fueled by your adventurous spirit, camping sounded fun to all of us until the reality of doing so with three small children slapped us both in the face. I dreaded going because it sounded anything but easy, and while being outdoors and drinking in the warm, sweet scent of the redwoods is up my alley, the whole roughing-it-with-three-kids-in-tow part fills me with dread.
I come by it honestly: the family vacations of my childhood involved running water, actual beds, and corner diners where kids eat free on Sundays. Roughing it for us meant five people sharing one bathroom and trying in vain to get a decent night’s sleep (which was challenging, since my dad and brothers all snored). Camping just wasn’t something our family did together, so the weight of your expectations for it all to go smoothly made me nervous before we even left the driveway.
But the promise of an overnight camping trip practically made Emery come unglued. He shrieks with hysterical glee at the mention of the word camper, so the idea of actually going out in the camper overnight, with you? Talk about excitement. That kid is happiest just being near to you, and watching him watch you reminds me of how thrilling it must have been for the disciples to walk with Jesus all those years ago, living with him, learning from him. And your patient, nearly wordless interaction with Emery helps me understand what Jesus must have meant when He said, “walk with me and work with me–watch how I do it.” As soon as we ease the camper into its spot, he pops out of the Durango with one thing on his mind: being at your side as you crank and secure and connect and make ready. You hardly have to say a word: being with you is enough for him.
The Goobie girls learn by watching too, of course, but we’ve slipped into the habit of doing things for them because it’s easier to keep them out of the way until suddenly we remember we ought to be teaching them life skills and we end up barking orders left and right in the name of proactive training (and retraining) that elicit tears, not results. They end up trying to follow a stringent set of rules they don’t fully understand, and we get angry when they break those rules or when our instructions are met with blank, confused stares.
We end up sitting them down to have a lengthy discussion about the do’s & don’ts and how’s & why’s of this that or the other. It’s forced, and the girls couldn’t care less about whether we think it’s important for them to follow those rules or not. They are burned out. Why do we think we’ve got to sit them down and lecture them about rule following instead of letting example be their teacher? Jesus didn’t go around checking off a what-not-to-do list with His disciples; He showed them how to live by living that way Himself and inviting them to join him. Shouldn’t we do the same?
We’re trying, of course. At least we know this about ourselves (right?). But it’s extra challenging when it comes to camping because the onus falls on you to take the lead because you are the one who actually knows what he’s doing, and it’s a tall order for you. Your patience runs thin against your will, like that last time we took the camper out for a quick over night trip when those Goobies tested your patience before they even got out of the car, for goodness sake. They didn’t know campsite etiquette or decorum; they didn’t know their boundaries or even what to do, really. They wanted to help, but didn’t know how to help, and I didn’t know how to have them help either. So they played in the dirt and complained and cried and I tried to keep them quiet (ha!) as you tackled setting up camp on your own.
The hard truth is that your fuse for little people who still didn’t know a thing about how to camp was short, and you spent the evening fighting the urge to lose it with the kids. At breakfast the next morning, after one too many cereal spills and too-loud early-morning giggles, your stern face betrayed the fact that you were frustrated, upset, and not having fun at all. I quietly put my hand on your arm and whispered, “If you want the kids to enjoy this, you’re going to have to change your attitude.”
In that moment, you realized this: the kids don’t know how to camp, and they won’t know how to camp unless someone teaches them. Of course kids run and jump and scream and shout, laugh and giggle and chase and zoom this way and that, gathering sticks, making dirt roads, balancing on old logs and flinging piles of leaves toward each other. They run down hills and shine their flashlights in each other’s eyes and sing at the top of their lungs and exclaim at the beauty of the forest without feeling sorry about it (and is that really a bad thing?). They don’t know how to help or what not to touch or what leaves are ok to touch and which ones are poison oak; they don’t know how close is too close to a campfire or how to roast marshmallows; they don’t know the value of sitting quietly to appreciate the echo of chirping birds–they don’t know because, well, how could they? When you realized this something clicked, breaking down the idea that the kids instinctively should know how to do things you’ve known how to do for decades. You realized the only way they’ll learn is if we teach them. I imagine that’s why Christ came and taught the way he taught. Clearly the rules and regulations of religion weren’t cultivating relationship, and so He came to teach a better way of living by example.
That trip shifted something inside you, and armed with the promise to do better and be better for the sake of all our sanity, we set out for another camping trip, and oh, what a difference. We all worked together to set up camp; the kids jumped in and found ways to be helpful almost without any instruction from us at all. Mia swept; Addie decorated; Emery turned the crank. We went exploring and found white fallow deer and a shady bench beneath an ancient redwood tree and sat, quietly watching the Goobies relish the wide, unrestricted space of the mountaintop and all the dirt that went with it, digging, drawing, and dancing in the stuff. Dirty faces and dusty clothes in tow, we came back to build a campfire and cook dinner. You situated the Goobies’ chairs, taught them how to respect the fire, and set about showing them how to roast hot dogs and marshmallows right along with them instead of doing it for them. And the evening was sweet, fairly stress free, and promising.
The kids walked away from that trip wishing it wasn’t over so soon and begging for another camping trip to be in the near future. It wasn’t perfect, exactly, but it was wonderful. We showed up and worked hard and exercised patience–and we enjoyed each other. By the grace of God, and with His help, the kids learned so much more this time because we taught them–you taught them–with so much more than words.
Hobo dinners are a new-to-us camp food experiment that will certainly turn into traditional fare around our campfire. Root vegetables, onions, meat, fire–these are the simple things that kept fed families for generations, and making them in the crisp September twilight made camping seem totally doable–and enjoyable, too. I love how easy they are to throw on the grill–fussing around with dinner prep was one of my biggest objections to taking our food allergy family camping. As if feeding the five of us isn’t complicated enough, throwing camping into the mix made my head spin. This time around was even harder, what with me on the Autoimmune Protocol and Joey on the Whole30, dinner at a campsite made me want to cry. But then in a moment of inspiration, I thought, “Oh yeah! Hobo Dinners! I’ll try those.” I saw the idea for them earlier this summer when we first got the pop up camper, but just hadn’t tried them yet (hot dogs were just easier the last couple of times). But this time, Hobo Dinners came to my rescue and they were a hit. Use stew meat instead, or add some potatoes or mushrooms, and throw in whatever seasonings sound good to you. This recipe yields 4 portions, so multiply as needed. You’ll see the recipe is more of a method, so don’t fret too much about quantities. (In fact, you can cook two burgers in one packet if you want to.) Follow your gut.
1 1/2 pounds ground beef
1 1/2 teaspoons onion powder
3/4 teaspoon garlic powder
3/4 teaspoon sea salt, plus more for seasoning the veggies
1/2 cup sliced onions (red, white, yellow–use what you like)
a few glugs extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil
salt and pepper to taste
First, mix seasonings into the ground beef–mush it all together and form into four patties. Set aside.
Peel and slice the root veggies. Toss them in a couple of glugs of olive oil and sprinkle with salt (and pepper, if you you like; I omitted this for AIP).
Assemble the packets:
Arrange two 2′ lengths of aluminum foil in a cross. Place the root vegetables in the center, top with an uncooked patty and drizzle some more oil on top. Fold the first layer of foil up over the burger and crimp, as if you were rolling up a paper bag. Then do the same with the bottom layer of foil, enclosing the first packet in an outer layer of foil and crimping tightly, so that the foil is sealed.
Place the packets on top of the campfire (use the grate provided!) and let cook directly over the flame for 15 minutes. Remove, and let rest for a minute or two (they’ll be hot!). Unwrap foil and enjoy.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”
2 Corinthians 5:17
It is fitting that school starts in the Fall: the classic symbol of change that is both beautiful and terrifying. Fall is death put on glorious display, isn’t it?
Ok so fine—a new school term doesn’t bring death, exactly. Forgive me for being dramatic. Most folks probably think of it as a fresh start, a reset button that puts things back to normal in an instant. But it does put an end to the carefree days of summer, and there is mourning for the loss of the freedom summer represents, isn’t there?
The words of Paul are ringing in my ears this week: the old has gone and the new is here indeed. Death and life and renewal and starting over—all these things are vying for my attention these days, and all of them from a whole host of places, not the least of which is watching Mia put the final dividing line between herself and her babyhood while Addie insists on losing more teeth and inching her way toward my own height. This day has been a long time coming, and last fall brought with it a sense that life as we loved it was dying a slow death, and I wasn’t ready to face it. But life changed anyway, didn’t it? And here we are back at the start of another school year, saying hello to a new chapter in the life of our family. I feel more prepared for it this time because I know this fall season really is a fresh start.
The girls seemed to feel the same way. Waving goodbye to us on the first day didn’t pose a problem for either of them. We walked them to the playground and helped them line up and followed them to their classrooms because we were sure they needed us. Mia tromped off with the rest of her Kindergarten class without so much as a backward glance at us. Addie saw tears glaze my eyes and bent down to hug me, saying “Don’t worry Mama, I’ll come home after school. I promise.” Saying goodbye to each other on the second day of school was harder. The girls’ pained eyes poked holes in my heart as I eased my fingers from their grip and urged them forward into the unfamiliar, terrifying reality of change. The idea of going to a new school this year seemed exciting right up until the moment they actually had to let go of my hands and walk themselves to the playground without us. In a flurry of tears and tentative hearts, they walked away from me, seemingly unsure of themselves. I waved goodbye to them as bravely as I could, wishing I could nestle myself in a corner somewhere, watching and waiting, ready to intervene on their behalf the moment trouble comes.
I couldn’t help feeling this way, of course. I am a normal mother with a natural need to protect, nurture, and sustain her children. They couldn’t help feeling insecure any more than I could help wishing I could make everything better in an instant. Of course they felt timid and unsure: everything was new. The people, the buildings, the rules, the uniforms—even their backpacks and lunch boxes and shoes were new. Why would I ever expect them to feel completely confident to take on all the newness by themselves? In that moment of goodbye, I couldn’t do much else but smile through my tears and hope it helped them understand that new isn’t necessarily bad, and is often, in fact, actually good.
We forget that new isn’t always bad, don’t we? I sure do, especially because it seems that when something is new, it renders something else old. Old things pass away, and death is difficult, so managing our feelings about losing the things we love gets tricky. We learn this lesson every year when summer ends and the leaves turn color and quietly settle into their final resting place. Soon fall slips into a quiet winter, a time of mourning that does eventually melt away, waking to the brilliant bloom of spring. The point? The promise of new life hinges on old things passing away, but saying goodbye isn’t the end. New life lingers just around the corner. Don’t you think we ought to say hello?
This is happening in other places in my life this season, too. It is in the reality of living in this new place, of course, and the reality of how it feels to know that part of our story has ended. It’s showing up in friendships and projects and plans and food and any semblance of normalcy that I had before my health issues took an uncomfortable turn over the summer. Admittedly, it felt like this season held the end of life as I knew it. Control over my health slipped even further from my grip, I spent the summer sequestered at home managing my symptoms and squeezing in appointments and going in for blood draws and scopes and ultrasounds—and came out the other end with a few more questions to answer, as well as the relief that comes with a doctor who confirms my suspicions: that colitis is casting its sickly spell on my insides. It came as no surprise that I have a disease that needs my attention, and walking away from his office this summer, prescription in hand, left me wondering how to manage it in the long term. Clearly, gluten is a known problem. But it’s not the only problem these days, and the best way I know how to deal with the unpleasant reality is to say goodbye to simple gluten freedom. Embracing a new way of living isn’t easy or fun, exactly–but I’m encouraged, because the promise of renewal lingers just around the corner, sad as I may be about the reality I face.
So this season, I’m doing my best to lift my eyes above my circumstance and say, “What’s next?” with the sort of grace that only comes from acknowledging loss and greeting a new reality with hope. What other choice do I have? Modeling this for the Goobies helps me believe things will get better: I leave the girls with a kiss and a smile as they skip off into a new school day without the support system to whom they are accustomed, but I assure them they’re going to be alright. This is new, but this is good, I say as I give them one last squeeze. And when I wave goodbye to those smiling little darlings as they head off to their day, it reminds me that we can’t bask in the beauty of anywhere new if we dig in our feet, refusing to leave familiarity behind. So by the grace of God, and with His help, we walk, together, waving goodbye to the old and hello to the new in one hope-filled gesture.
Chorizo Spiced Pork Roast
This is one of my go-to meals, meaning this: when I run out of creative steam to keep dinner new and exciting, I give myself a break, pull out my crock pot, and get a batch of this pork going.It’s fast, easy, and versatile (and inexpensive, to boot!). Plus (and this could be the most compelling reason why I love it so much)everyone around my kitchen table cheers for it. I make it for friends more often than they appreciate, I’m sure, but no one ever seems to mind. (In fact, most of them end up asking for the recipe, so if that is you? Here you go.) I’m especially fond of it now because as I transition to a Paleo lifestyle, I am thankful to have so many well-loved recipes that work within that framework. Shred it and fold it into corn tortillas (if you aren’t Paleo), lay it atop a baked sweet potato, or pile it high on top of a bed of cauliflower rice. Drizzle with some hot sauce and sprinkle on some cilantro and you’re golden. (Add more spice blend if you want a little bit more heat, but as written, this recipe does not wallop your tongue with a punch of heat.) The picture above shows a double recipe, which is just as easy as a single recipe (which is written below). Just double the ingredients–the cook time remains the same. And don’t skip the red wine vinegar! It makes the other flavors come alive.
One 2 pound pork loin roast
2 Tablespoons Chorizo Spice Blend (recipe below)
1 medium onion–any color you choose, but I tend to use yellow
1/4 cup water
1 Tablespoon red wine vinegar
Spray Crock Pot with non-stick cooking spray (such as Trader Joe’s Coconut Oil Spray). Slice the onion and lay it on the bottom of the crock pot. Then, wash the pork roast, pat it dry, and lay it on top of the bed of onions. Sprinkle a thick layer of the Chorizo Spice Blend on top of the roast, then pat it to cover as much of the roast as you can. Carefully pour 1/4 cup of water into the bottom of the crock pot, around the perimeter of the roast. Do the same for the red wine vinegar, then put the lid on.
Cook on high for 4 hours; then turn to low and cook for an additional 2 hours (alternatively, cook it for 8 hours on low). Once the meat is fall-apart-tender, shred and toss it with its own juices and the onions and serve.
Chorizo Spice Blend
This recipe is based on Diane Sanfilippo’s recipe in Practical Paleo, 1st Edition, which is super informative and helps make taking the plunge into Paleo not quite so daunting (Thank you Diane! You’re a life saver, kinda in the literal sense.) I keep a jar of this spice mix in the pantry at all times because I love it so very much. I’m sure you will too.
4 Tablespoons chili powder
2 Tablespoons paprika
2 Tablespoons onion powder
1 Tablespoon garlic powder
1 Tablespoon sea salt
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
Measure all spices into a jar with a lid and shake until evenly distributed.
After I so rudely introduced a new favorite chocolate chip cookie to our household, I’m cutting us off for awhile. Into the freezer they went, ready to give to the Goobies as a treat every once in awhile, but out of reach enough to not be tempting anymore.
I admire your willpower, Josef. You make up your mind about something and ding! It’s done. Over. No wavering. Me? I’m easier to sway, particularly when it comes to food.
Maybe that’s why when I first suggested trying out that Trim Healthy Mama plan, you were confident while I was resistant. Giving up sugar? Really? I think it was the lure of bacon that convinced you this diet plan might be worth a try. Bacon doesn’t move me the same way it moves you. Give me big bowl of buttery popcorn or a bar of dark chocolate and I’m your girl, but bacon? Meh.
Nearly two years ago, I latched on to the idea that the Trim Healthy Mama plan would be the ticket to ridding my body of the dreaded baby weight–four weeks after giving birth. I presented the idea to you, mainly because if I was going to start the plan, I needed your support because otherwise I’d cave in to my buttery popcorn cravings far too often if I didn’t have you keeping me accountable. Lucky me, you were so supportive that you even wanted to start the plan yourself.
A week into the thing I was snippy, ravenous, and mean. It might have had something to do with cutting out sugar, true: but I think it may have had something to do with being five weeks postpartum, nursing, and sleep deprived. Trying to figure out this new diet plan pushed my already emotional self into an even deeper level of desperation.
But I started to shrink. You did too.
Maybe it had something to do with having just delivered a baby (because bodies have a tendency to shrink after that…), or maybe it had something to do with nursing around the clock (because bodies have a tendency to shrink because of that…), or maybe it had to do with choosing to feed myself in a new way. To be honest, I’m still not sure.
What I do know for sure, though, is that once the ball got rolling, the baby weight (and then some) did indeed come off–for both of us, actually. Pretty soon this new way of feeding ourselves was all you could talk about. I remember watching people’s faces as you tried very hard to explain exactly what we were doing to cause such a shift in our food life and pant size: their eyebrows would furrow with disbelief even as their lips twisted into a bemused smile when you admitted both healthy fats and good carbs were central tenets to this particular way of eating. The Hot Mama Diet, you called it, a name both playful and totally wrong. I’d laugh and correct you: Trim Healthy Mama (THM). And others would go on their way with real information to look up on their own time.
Since then–almost two years ago–I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the plan, and so have you. The lingo of THM bothers you (which is part of why you started calling it the Hot Mama Diet–that, at least, makes you chuckle). You also love the way the food tastes, the way it fills you up, and how you leave the table satisfied and well-nourished. I love the way THM promotes whole, unprocessed, real deal superfoods. I don’t love the way it relies heavily on very processed supplements (like glucomannan and psyllium husks) to make low-carb renditions of foods that in my own opinion aren’t exactly “bad” in the first place (like pudding. And bread.) I love that it encourages us to fuel our bodies with both healthy fats and good carbs, both. I don’t love that it makes us separate them to be able to lose weight (but…it really does work). I love that once weight loss is achieved, a smear of butter (or Earth Balance, these days) melting into a sweet potato doesn’t do any harm at all.
For the most part, we’re pretty devoted to this way of eating. We don’t freak out about having a few grams of sugar here and there in our regular every day diets (like the little bit that’s in our almond milk coffee creamer), and we most certainly eat nachos piled high with cheese and sour cream late at night on weekends while the kids are sleeping and the Warriors are playing, because that’s just how it goes around here sometimes.
Our tenets of the Hot Mama Diet are easy: eat healthy, real, not scientifically fabricated foods instead of junk. Use alternative flours (like almond flour and coconut flour) when we can, but don’t stress out to much about using gluten free whole grain flour blends for baking (because really, the kids eat most of the muffins around here anyway). Limit sugar (and use stevia or stevia blends instead). Go easy on good fats in a carb-heavy meal (like this super light Herbed Chicken and Quinoa Salad and Cucumber Ribbons), and vice versa for richer, more decadent meals, like that Cilantro Lime Ground Turkey with Cauliflower Rice that swims in thick, creamy coconut milk.
Our “diet plan” isn’t really so much of a set of rules as it is a way of thinking about food and choosing to feed ourselves well. And so, in celebration of a new year and renewed commitment (and your success this week), I’m going to keep your favorites coming. It’s an easy way for me to stay motivated because let’s face it: food is my love language. Well, that and words of affirmation, and when I make food that makes you lavish praise upon me? I’m smitten.
Cilantro Lime Ground Turkey (GF/DF/NF/THM S)
One of Joey’s Top 5 Favorite Meals Ever, this is a simple dish that is, again, very quick to throw together. The possibilities here are endless, because these flavors–while fantastic just as they are–could also act as a canvas against which you can add your own finishing touches. Toss in some snow peas and carrots if you want to. Sprinkle in a little ginger and see what happens. Have some curry paste? Sure, throw it in. Serve it over cauliflower rice to be THM approved, or lavish it over brown rice and don’t beat yourself up about it. If you want to lighten it up a bit, use light coconut milk instead of full fat. Either works just fine, of course–but we prefer the full fat version.
1 Tablespoon coconut oil
6 green onions, sliced (diagonally, if you’re feeling fancy)
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound ground turkey
1-13.5 oz. can full fat coconut milk
1/4 cup fresh lime juice (the juice of 2-3 limes, depending on size)
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
zest of one lime
red chili flakes
Melt the coconut oil over medium heat, then add the green onions and saute for two minutes or so, until you start smelling the onions and they begin to soften. Add the garlic and cook for another minute or two, again–until they’re soft and fragrant, but not golden.
Next, turn up the heat to high and immediately crumble in the ground turkey. Sprinkle in the salt and cook, tossing together with the onions and garlic until the meat is no longer pink. Lower the heat to medium high and pour in the coconut milk, lime juice, and cilantro. Stir it all together, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom of the pan as you go. Once combined, toss in the lime zest and red chili flakes (about 1/2 teaspoon or so, more or less depending on how much heat you like). Turn the heat back up to high and cook the sauce for a few minutes–maybe three or so, so that it begins to reduce and thicken slightly.
You may stop here, if you like, and ladle the sauce over steamed rice, cauliflower rice, or even rice noodles–but you may want to thicken the sauce a bit before you do. If that’s you, read on.
You have a couple of choices about which way to thicken the sauce. If you want to use what I will call the “approved” THM method (meaning, a method of thickening a sauce without adding any carbohydrates), sprinkle glucommanan little by little directly over the sauce while it’s still warm and in the pan, and whisk well after each addition. But, if you’re like me and think glucomannan makes food just a little too slimy, go the Hot Mama route and use a little bit of corn starch, for goodness sake. Mix 1 Tablespoon of corn starch* with cold water, pour it right into the pan, and whisk quickly until the sauce thickens (it will go fast!). Cook another minute or two, and then serve.
*There are only 7 carbs in one tablespoon of cornstarch, and if that’s all I’m using in the whole recipe? I don’t stress about it. Neither should you.
I remember the first time I made this dish for dinner so clearly. That’s how it usually is with a keeper: my very favorite recipes tend to be cemented in my memory by the story of how they earned their spot there in the first place. So it is with this recipe, which satisfies my need for eating really good Chinese while loafing on the couch with you. Chinese take out isn’t really a viable option for us anymore (because gluten), but this recipe has become one of my favorites, at least–and I’m pretty sure you agree (because you eat bowl after bowl of it…).
I didn’t know it would turn out to be such a hit the night I first made it, of course. That was sort of a fluke. I hadn’t gone shopping in awhile and the fridge was pretty bare, so ground turkey and frozen green beans were what I had to work with that night. I had no idea how I would sell those two fairly lackluster foods to hungry kids, but as it turns out, I didn’t have to. I didn’t even cook dinner at all for the kids that night anyway.
What happened was this: we took the kids to the park after feeding them an early dinner. It was a Saturday, and we promised those kids all day long if they would just play nicely together for a little while longer so we could get some work done around the house, we would take them to the park in a little while. The afternoon raced by and dinnertime was upon us before we made good on our word. But the girls practically boycotted the idea of dinner that night, rightly arguing with us because we hadn’t been to the park yet, and we had made them a promise. As a compromise, we scrounged around to find something that could pass as an acceptable meal for them and scooted off to the park before it got too dark to play. Neither you nor I had eaten a thing yet, a habit that gets us into trouble when bedtime comes around (because if we would just feed ourselves at the same time, well then, we wouldn’t be so ill-tempered and impatient with kids who beg for “Just one more story?” at bedtime, would we?).
But alas, we didn’t eat dinner with the kids and by the time we left the park that evening all I could think about was that pound of ground turkey I thawed earlier. By the time I gave any thought to what to do with it, I was tired and very much wished I could send you out to grab Chinese take out. Instead, I snooped around Pinterest as you drove us home and saw an idea for Chinese Green Beans with Ground Turkey over rice from The Weary Chef. Fitting, I thought. Chinese food for tired cooks? Sign me up. The ingredients were minimal, and luckily I had most of them on hand. The recipe wasn’t gluten free exactly, but that was easy enough to fix by swapping out regular soy sauce for Tamari (gluten free soy sauce) and leaving out the hoisin sauce altogether (I didn’t have a gluten free version on hand anyway because, well, I’ve never kept hoisin sauce on hand).
When we got home, we tucked those Goobies into bed, kissed them goodnight, and I set to work on what became an instant favorite. A bowl piled high with quinoa and ginger-infused ground turkey with chili-and-garlic-studded green beans, along with a chilled glass of Chardonnay (and you, of course) is enough to create a truly delicious quick-to-throw-together dinner at home that satisfies my need for Chinese take out–once the Goobies are in bed, of course.
Chili-Garlic Ground Turkey and Green Beans
So ok, ground turkey and frozen green beans aren’t exactly ingredients that I would put together in just any context, but I promise the the flavors here are out-of-this-world. Ginger, garlic and chili paste mingle with soy sauce to create a savory, just-spicy-enough stir fry that I swear I would think came straight from a restaurant if it were served in a traditional Chinese takeout box. The original recipe called for hoisin sauce, as I mentioned, but I left it out and changed the quantities of everything else to make up the difference. The result? Well, what I said above. This is a keeper. (THM friends, this recipe is an FP. When served with quinoa or rice as pictured above, it’s an E. Turn it into an S by using regular ground turkey (not lean) and serving it over cauliflower rice.)
First, make sure you’ve sliced the onions and minced the garlic. Keep them close by because you’ll need them soon. Next, mix the sauce: add the Tamari (or soy sauce, if you’re not gluten free), chili paste, vinegar and ginger into a small bowl and whisk together until well combined. Set aside and keep it handy.
Once your veggies are prepped and the sauce is ready to go, set a skillet over medium heat and pour in the sesame oil. Add the garlic and onions and saute slightly to soften them, about two minutes or until they begin to smell fantastic. Crank up the heat to high and add the ground turkey, crumbling it in your hands as you go. Sprinkle on a little kosher salt (about 1/2 teaspoon) and cook until the meat is no longer pink. Pour in the sauce as well as the (still frozen) green beans. Toss everything together and cook over high heat (or medium high if your stove top gets scorching) until the beans are warmed through and tender. Pile high on top of a bed of quinoa or rice (but my favorite? Quinoa.)
“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)
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 Pie
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 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.