Thursday, March 29, 2012

Organization Tip: Meal Baskets

Welcome Pinterest fans! It appears that my meal basket pin has become quite popular. I hope that you love this idea as much as I do. Please leave me a comment and let me know if you try this one out. :)

I am excited to share a great meal-planning organization tip with you today! Even though I'm not normally in a big rush in the evenings to get dinner to the table, I am sure that most working moms are, along with SAHMs with busy schedules who run kids here, there and everywhere. I know that will be me a few years from now when the boys are in school and involved in extracurricular activities too, so I will be happy that I started this organization system for myself. It's super easy, cheap and can save you precious minutes when the kids are whining that they are hungry and you need to get dinner to the table fast! :)

For as long as I can remember, I have always planned my weekly menu on Sunday afternoons, followed by a trip to the grocery store to get the food we will need for the entire week. I guess this was something I learned from my mom, because it was rare we had to make an extra run to the store to get something in a pinch, aside from our weekly trip. It definitely saves time during the week when you don't need to stop at the store, even if it's just to pick up a few items.

I have now added another step to my weekly meal planning process. I purchased four baskets; one for each night of the week that I cook (Monday through Thursday). We dine out on Friday and Saturday evenings and usually have leftovers or something easy and light, like sandwiches, on Sunday nights. I found these baskets at Walmart and I love the handle on the front that makes them easy to pick up. With limited pantry room at the apartment, I store my baskets on top of the cabinets in the kitchen for now, so the handle makes them easier to grab from way up there. :) Next, I labeled the basket with the day of the week. Yes, I have a label maker and I love it dearly. I am a self-proclaimed geek, and I'm ok with that. ;)

To organize for the week, I place the recipe(s) (Since I have been cooking a lot via Pinterest lately, I have tons of printed recipes floating around the kitchen. Next up will be a re-haul of my recipe book!) that I need for each day in their respective basket, along with all of the dry ingredients I will need for the meal, including everything down to salt & pepper or other seasonings. Then when it comes time to make dinner, I can just grab the basket I need and go! For someone in a rush, this could save valuable minutes if you tend to be the type that scrounges through the pantry searching for an ingredient that may have gotten shoved to the back, or is hiding behind something else. In the cramped pantry I am currently using, I have found it harder to get to things sometimes because I have to stack way more than I am used to stacking. :( After this first week, I am considering getting baskets for the refrigerator too, to hold all of the perishable ingredients, but I fear they will take up too much space in our current refrigerator. Perhaps when we finally settle into a house I will revisit that idea?

Below is a pic of this week's baskets. I tried a couple new recipes this week (coming soon! - Baked Brown Rice Balls and Blackened Cajun Chicken with Cilantro Lime Quinoa), and made a couple of our new favorites too (Tomato and Mozzarella Pasta al Forno and Taco Pasta).

The basket for the Tomato and Mozzarella Pasta was a bit cramped with 3 cans of diced tomatoes, a box of pasta, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper, but the ingredients fit well for all of the other meals. I am excited to try making my own taco seasoning tonight for the taco pasta. I just found the recipe this morning and I already have all of the spices I need, so I will give it a try. I feel better about that versus the contents of prepackaged taco seasoning, so I hope I love it just as much!

If you try out this tip, let me know what you think and if it works well for you. If you have any other additional tips, I would love to hear them too! Happy planning! :)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Garlic Chicken Spinach Pasta

I'm excited about this recipe because I created it on my own by using components of two separate recipes I had found to come up with a new dish! :) I call it Garlic Chicken Spinach Pasta because those are the main ingredients. ;)

  • 4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
  • 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 1 box of angel hair pasta (I used a 14.5 oz pkg of Barilla Plus)
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 lb chicken strips (I used a bag of pre-cooked, seasoned strips, but you could use strips of boneless chicken breast)
  • 1 bag baby spinach (I used a 5 oz bag)

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the bread crumbs to skillet and cook for 2 minutes, stirring often, or until lightly browned. Add half of the garlic and 1/8 teaspoon of the red pepper flakes to the skillet. Cook this for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Set this mixture aside and wipe the skillet clean.

Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, bring the chicken stock, salt and pepper to a boil. Add the pasta and cook for as long as the box's directions indicate.

Reduce the stove to medium heat and mix in the Parmesan cheese until it is completely melted and combined. Turn off the heat and stir in the cream.

Back in the skillet, reduce the heat to low and add the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil, garlic and 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes to the skillet. Cook this for about 2 minutes, or until garlic is golden.

Add the chicken strips and cook until they are heated well throughout, about 3 to 5 minutes.

Add the spinach to the skillet and toss until wilted, about 2 to 4 minutes.

Stir the chicken-spinach mixture into the pasta mixture.

Sprinkle with the bread crumbs and serve while hot. Enjoy!


I have mentioned in the past that I prefer pasta dishes that aren't sauce heavy (i.e. Tag Pic Pac at Carrabba's and Capellini Pomodoro at Macaroni Grill). This dish is great in that it is mostly pasta lightly coated with the cheese and cream mixture and enhanced with all of the other flavors. I love the contrasting crunch that the panko crumbs add on top. Perfection! This would actually be great as a finishing topping on lots of dishes!

I hope that you enjoy this dish if you try it. It will definitely find a spot in our rotation. :)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Cajun Eats and Sweet Treats

I have a few more yummy recipes to share today. The past two nights we have enjoyed some Cajun-inspired dinners and I also finally got around to baking some cookies that I have been wanting to test.

The first recipe is for Cajun Chicken Pasta. You can find the pin here. The recipe originated from Though I wasn't looking for "lighter" recipes when I was pinning, that is just an added bonus to this meal! This was an excellent pasta dish. So excellent, that I would pay money for it at a restaurant. Yep, it was that good. It's packed with so many yummy veggies and with the right spices, it packs the perfect amount of heat.

  • 8 ounces uncooked linguine (I used Barilla's whole grain)
  • 1 pound chicken breast, cut into strips
  • 1-2 tsp Cajun seasoning
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium red bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 1 medium yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 8 oz fresh mushrooms, sliced (I used Baby Bella mushrooms)
  • 1/2 red onion, sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 medium tomatoes, diced
  • 1 cup fat free low sodium chicken broth
  • 1/3 cup skim milk
  • 1 Tbsp flour
  • 3 Tbsp light cream cheese (I used Philadelphia's 1/3 less fat)
  • Fresh cracked pepper
  • 2 scallions, chopped
  • Salt, to taste
  • Cooking spray

Prep all of your vegetables. In a small blender, make a slurry by combining milk, flour and cream cheese. (I didn't use a blender, but instead mixed them in a bowl, heating the mixture in the microwave at 50% power to melt the cream cheese, so that it would mix easier). Set this mixture aside.

Season the chicken generously with Cajun seasoning, garlic powder and salt. Prepare the pasta in salted water according to the package directions. Heat a large, heavy nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Spray with cooking spray and add the chicken. Saute the chicken for 5 to 6 minutes or until done.

Set the chicken aside on a plate. Add olive oil to the skillet and reduce the heat to medium. Add the bell peppers, onions, and garlic to the skillet and saute for 3 to 4 minutes.

Add the mushrooms and tomatoes and saute for 3 to 4 more minutes or until vegetables are tender. (I also went ahead and added the scallions too at this point instead of leaving them just as a garnish). Season with 1/4 tsp salt, garlic powder and fresh cracked pepper to taste.

Reduce the heat to medium-low. Add the chicken broth and pour in the slurry, stirring about 2 minutes. Return the chicken to the skillet.

Adjust the salt and Cajun seasoning to taste, cook another minute or two until hot, then add linguine. Toss well to coat. Enjoy!

I definitely think that the Cajun seasoning that you use for this dish could either make or break it. I had one in my spice cabinet that I decided not to use because I wasn't a huge fan of it. I bought another (Cajun Blackening Seasoning) while I was at the Fresh Market (it was in a baggie with their fresh spices). It was awesome! It has the perfect amount of heat and it gives this dish a nice kick. Perfect!

I made a loaf of French Bread in the bread machine to serve with this dish. I am so glad that I did because it was the perfect addition. We used it to help soak up the tasty sauce that was left in the bowl after we had eaten everything else! Delicious.

The next dish is Cajun Stuffed Peppers. You can find the pin here. This recipe originated from the Food Network. I will admit, I was a bit skeptical of this one as I was cooking it, but the end result was quite tasty. I do wish I had read the reviews of this one before I made it though, as I would have altered a few things. I like that this dish uses two grains instead of just rice; it is a nice change from my usual stuffed peppers recipe. The addition of the kale helps add more nutrients to the stuffing as well.

  • 1 cup long-grain brown rice
  • 1/3 cup quinoa
  • 2 large green bell peppers, halved lengthwise and seeded (I used 3 peppers)
  • 1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1/4 pound andouille sausage, finely chopped (I used one link, it was 1/3 pound)
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped (I used 4 cloves)
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • Large pinch of allspice (optional) - I did not use this ingredient
  • Kosher salt
  • 1-14 oz can low-sodium diced tomatoes
  • 1 small bunch kale, stems removed, leaves chopped
  • Chopped fresh parsley, for topping (optional) - I did not use this ingredient

Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil. Add the brown rice and boil for 10 minutes. Stir in the quinoa and cook until both grains are tender, about 15 more minutes. (I wish they had given an amount of water here. I did not use enough initially and had to continue to add water to the saucepan as both grains were cooking because the water was being absorbed too quickly. I ended up using probably ~3 cups total I think?). Drain well and set aside.

Meanwhile, drizzle the bell peppers with 1 tablespoon of water in a microwave-safe bowl.

Cover with plastic wrap and microwave for 10 minutes. (Had I read the reviews, I would not have nuked the peppers this long. They may have needed just 5 minutes, max. They definitely were pretty mushy after an entire 10 minutes. As one other reviewer suggested, I will probably broil them for a bit too next time I make this dish).

Heat the olive oil in a wide saucepan (I used a large skillet) over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until golden, about 5 minutes.

Add the sausage, garlic, thyme, allspice and 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring, until the sausage is brown and crisp, about 3 more minutes.

Add the tomatoes and 1 cup water to the pan.

Pile the kale on top, cover and cook until the kale wilts, about 2 minutes. (Unfortunately, I didn't know what a "small bunch of kale" was, and I felt that the bunch I had bought was pretty big, so I just used 2 stems from the bunch. After seeing how much it cooked down, I probably would have cooked at least 2 more stems too).

Stir the kale into the sauce and bring to a simmer. Arrange the bell peppers on top, cover and simmer until the kale is just tender, about 8 minutes. Divide the peppers among plates. Stir the grains into the kale mixture and season with salt.

Spoon into the peppers. Top with parsley if you would like. We also found it tasty to sprinkle a little Cajun seasoning on top too. :)

I was excited because Ethan did a great job with eating this dish! He loved the rice and the "broccoli," as he called the kale. Haha! This was a great nutrient-dense dish that I will make again. I loved the idea of using the sausage instead of just ground beef, which is what I usually use for my stuffed peppers. As I mentioned before, I liked using both the rice and quinoa too. As another reviewer mentioned, it did take quite a bit longer to prepare and cook this dish than they say it will, but I think it was worth it in the end. I now have quite a bit of leftover kale, so I am going to try my hand at making some kale chips this weekend, as I have been wanting to do that for awhile now anyway. I'll let you know how that goes! :)

Update: The next time I made this dish, I used red peppers instead of green. I like the flavor of them better. I also increased the meat content by using 1/2 pound lean ground beef in addition to the 1/3 pound andouille sausage. With 3 hungry guys to feed, the increased meat was nice. :) I also used an additional can of tomatoes too. We were very happy with the results.

One more recipe tonight to satisfy your sweet tooth. This one is for Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Lactation Cookies. This recipe originated from No worries guys, this recipe does not contain breast milk, as my husband first feared when he heard what they were called. And I'm pretty sure they aren't going to make you start lactating (haha), but due to the yeast, they are said to help breastfeeding moms increase or keep up their milk supply! So, for Noah's benefit, I thought I would give them a try. ;)

  • 1 cup butter (I used Blue Bonnet Light)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 4 Tbsp water
  • 2 Tbsp flax seed meal
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 cups flour (next time I want to try 1/2 whole wheat)
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 cups oats
  • 1 cup chocolate chips (I used 2 cups of Toll House semi-sweet chips)
  • 2-4 Tbsp brewer's yeast (I used 3 Tbsp, but will use 4 next time)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix the flaxseed meal and water and let it sit for 3-5 minutes. 

Beat the butter, sugar and brown sugar well. 

Add the eggs and mix well. 

Add the flaxseed mix and vanilla and beat well. 

Sift together the flour, brewer's yeast, baking soda, and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mix. (I actually just added these right to the bowl instead of sifting them first). 

Stir in the oats and chips. 

Scoop (I use a small cookie scoop to try to keep them uniform in size) onto a baking sheet (I line mine with parchment paper to keep the sheets clean and easy to use over and over). 

Bake for 12 minutes. Let set for a couple of minutes, then remove from the tray. Yuuuummmm...

This recipe makes a TON of cookies! I would consider halving it next time because, unfortunately, I don't really need that many cookies hanging out just waiting for me to eat them. :( Again, I do wish I had read the reviews before making these as instructed. As others found, the dough really spread out when baked, even using small amounts for each cookie, and the cookies ran into each other.

Since I just made them for us, it wasn't a big deal, but I would keep that in mind for the future if making them for someone else. Although the dough spread out so much like it was too moist/runny, the cookies themselves kind of fell apart easily and were a bit dry from all of the oats once baked. They may have also turned out kind of flat for me since I wasn't using a fresh box of baking soda. I need to start remembering to buy a fresh box before baking something! Next time, I would consider using less oats (maybe just 2 cups) and maybe substituting raisins for the chocolate chips and also adding some cinnamon. I think those would be tasty and a little "healthier," if that's possible with a cookie. ;)

So, although they don't look perfect, they are still a pretty tasty little cookie. Hubby wasn't a huge fan of them due to the texture of the oatmeal, which is odd given I am usually the one with texture issues. I like them and my cute little helper really does too! :)

I think that making up a mix of these for new moms would be a wonderful gift idea and something I would like to start doing. I've only been eating them for one day, so I can't attest to whether they are successful or not yet, but I am hoping that they are. :)

As always, enjoy, and let me know what you think if you try any of these recipes!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Noah is 8 Months Old!

Time for another Noah update! First up, his stats. He weighed in this month at 17 lbs, 13 oz (down again to the 10th to 25th percentile), but up 10 ounces from last month! And once again, he didn't grow any taller because he was still measuring up at 27 inches (down again to 25th to 50th percentile). But, go figure his head is still getting bigger as its measured circumference was 46 cm (up to the 75th to 90th percentile). Oh yeah, that's a Frank head! ;)

Below is the pic of Noah at eight months, wearing the 12-month onesie. So angelic. :)

So I guess I jinxed myself by saying last month that Noah was sleep trained. He's not now. Sigh. But, at least there is a reason for it...his first tooth! It cut through the gums this past Friday, so just shy of turning 8 months old. I am hoping that it will stop bothering him soon and he will stop waking up, but only time will tell. I looked back at when Ethan got his first couple of teeth (~ 6.5 to 8 months) to discover that he started waking at night again for an entire month when he started teething! Yikes! :(

He has settled into a solid two-nap routine, continuing to take a longer morning/early afternoon nap of 1 to 2 hours, then a late afternoon nap of another 1 to 2 hours. Unfortunately, this schedule makes it a bit hard for us to get out and do anything during the day. He wakes up between 8 and 8:30 most days, then Ethan doesn't get up until 9 or 10, then Noah is going back to sleep around 10:30. By the time Noah wakes back up, it's time to eat lunch and take a walk, then another hour later around 2:30 or 3, both boys are ready to nap again! Whew! It am fortunate that they normally sleep at the same time in the afternoon, so I can get things done around the apartment.

New foods tried this month:
  • Green beans
  • Avocados
  • Brown rice cereal
  • Yogurt
  • Snacks! (Mum Mums, Puffs)
He is still doing really well with the food introductions. He did great with the green beans, a much different scenario than when we introduced them to Ethan, if you remember some of those pics! Haha! He gobbled up the avocado the first time he had it, but wasn't so into it the next time. I have started trying to add cereal to his fruits and veggies at breakfast and dinner as a way to get him to eat the cereal. It has worked pretty well. I have also added in a third meal at lunchtime when he eats yogurt and works on feeding himself a snack, like the Mum Mums or Puffs. He continues to nurse every 2-3 hours throughout the day, so I know that is where he is still getting the majority of his nutrition.

New accomplishments this month:
  • First doctor's appointment on February 16th (for something besides a well-checkup)
  • His first playdate on February 29th (Leap Day!) with a local moms group. There is another little boy, Ben, just a week younger than him! :)
  • His first dip in the pool at his big brother's 3rd birthday party at Great Wolf Lodge in Mason, OH
  • His first tooth! It broke the surface on March 9th.
  • Started babbling, trying to say "da da" I think!
After I came down with something at the beginning of February, the boys both managed to catch it too and both suffered high fevers, runny noses and congestion. :( It hung on forever. I was hoping it would just run its course, but when it didn't seem to want to go away, I finally gave in and took them both to see the doctor. They won a round of antibiotics as a prize. Lovely. It seemed to do the trick quickly, so that was a relief.

Once we were finally all feeling well, I decided to check out one of the local moms groups. I went to a moms night out first, then shortly after that, the boys and I checkout out a playdate at one of the houses. Everyone was very nice and Noah even found a buddy his age! Of course they weren't interested in playing with each other yet, but I'm sure it won't be long before they are. :)

Though he wasn't a big fan of the water at the Great Wolf Lodge, he did enjoy a couple naps on his comfy Grandpas! :) haha! I don't think the water was warm enough for him, so he just wasn't into all that! Hopefully he will change his mind this summer so we can enjoy some time at the pool if we are still living in the apartment. It looks so inviting already, but I am guessing it's still a tad bit cool at this point. ;)

Ah, teething. Oh how I loathe it. :( Noah's first tooth was like a little ninja. It totally snuck up on us and one day it wasn't there and the next it was! His gums never got white or swollen, so there was no indication that it was coming. Funny thing was that just two days prior to its arrival, I had been complaining about the fact that he had woken me up three times the night before and wondered what was wrong with him. People mentioned teething and I thought maybe it could be true, but that I checked and there definitely didn't look like any teeth were coming in. Oh how wrong I was!

He is trying hard now to mimic the sounds I make for him and it really sounds like he is trying to say "da da," but he can't quite get it out. He is definitely babbling though, and starting to use that mouth for more than just eating! ;)

I like to call him my little Magellan. He LOVES exploring anything and everything. The little booger has figured out how to escape the barricade I made for him to keep him contained in our living room and now quickly makes his way out into the rest of the apartment. One of his favorite thing to explore are Daisy's food and water bowls. Major bummer. So, he has definitely been keeping me on my toes anytime he is awake lately! That was definitely a major advantage to our GA house layout. Ethan could roam the upstairs as much as he wanted to without any fear of him getting into something he shouldn't. I could close off the doors to keep him out of some rooms and the safety gate kept him from going down the stairs. The apartment set-up here is much trickier and there is no great way to keep Noah away from some things. I guess that just means more exercise for Mommy, which is probably a good thing! ;)

So I think I totally jinxed myself again from last month. I made the mistake of saying how fortunate we were that the boys were great diners and that we could still go nice places to eat. Um yeah. Noah totally blew that one this past weekend. :( I will chalk it up to the teething that put him in such a foul mood, but he made our dinner out an absolutely miserable experience. It was so bad, in fact, that I finally just took him out to the car and let Josh and Ethan finish up. He wasn't happy sitting in his seat, being held, being fed, eating food by himself. Nothing. And he was not being shy about letting everyone there know how unhappy he was. Sigh. I really hope he will return to normal once the tooth is in!

Here is the pic of both Ethan and Noah at 8 months. It still amuses me to compare and contrast their pics each month! I think that Noah definitely has a better chance of keeping his blue eyes because it looks like Ethan's had turned brown by this point now and Noah's are still holding on to the blue. I don't want to jinx it though, so I better not say anything! ;)

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Fiesta Time!

So I have a couple super tasty Mexican/Tex-Mex dishes for you tonight. Cinco de Mayo is still a couple months away, but either of these dishes would be a tasty way to celebrate! ;) I tried the first recipe a couple of weeks ago, but threw it together so quickly that I failed to take pics. I made it again tonight, so now it is time to share the goodness!

Both recipes were found, of course, on Pinterest. I have concluded that my weekly menus were boring and repetitive before the recent explosion of Pinterest! haha! The first recipe is for Slow Cooker Salsa Chicken. You can find the pin here. This recipe originated with Chef in Training. It is delicious, plain and simple. If you love easy and tasty Mexican food, this dish is for you! It is so quick and easy, that I picked it specifically for dinner tonight because I was going out for a Moms' Night Out and wanted something that could be ready to eat as soon as I walked back in the door. :)

  • 4 boneless chicken breasts (I use 2 large breasts - total weight 1 to 1 1/4 pounds)
  • 1 cup salsa (I use an entire 16 oz jar - Fresh Market's medium is my favorite, but Newman's Own is good too)
  • 1 package taco seasoning (I use Taco Bell because I like it)
  • 1 can cream of chicken soup
  • 1/2 cup sour cream (I use a bit more of this as well)

Add chicken to the slow cooker. Sprinkle the taco seasoning on the chicken. 

Mix the salsa and cream of chicken soup in a separate bowl and pour over the chicken. 

Cook on low for 6 hours until chicken is done. I actually start it on high for 1 hour, then drop it back to low for an additional 4 to 5 hours. Remove from heat and stir in the sour cream. 

Shred the chicken and serve in a wrap or over rice. I serve the chicken in a whole wheat tortilla with a generous helping of shredded cheddar cheese sprinkled on top. :) Yum.

The next recipe is for Taco Pasta. You can find the pin here. This recipe originated with Plain Chicken. If you recall, this is where I also got the recipe for those tasty pizza pancakes. :) This recipe was also incredibly tasty and pretty quick to throw together as well. Because of my weakness for pasta, I think I may like it even more than the previous one!

  • 1 pound ground beef (I used extra lean chopped sirloin)
  • 8 ounces small dry pasta shapes (I used whole grain shells)
  • 1 small onion, chopped (I used a large one)
  • 1 clove garlic, minced (I used 3 cloves)
  • 1 cup salsa
  • 1 packet taco seasoning
  • 3 ounces cream cheese
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • Salt and pepper, to taste (I actually didn't add any for once! I don't think it needed any.)
  • Shredded cheese for topping (I used cheddar)

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Cook pasta according to the package directions. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of pasta water. Set aside. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, cook the ground meat and onion over medium-high heat until no longer pink.

Once the meat is cooked through, drain off the excess fat and mix in the garlic. Cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Mix in the salsa and taco seasoning and let simmer over medium heat for about 5 minutes.

Stir in the cooked pasta, cream cheese, sour cream and reserved pasta water, and continue stirring until the cream cheese is melted and the sauce is well blended. 

Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Top with shredded cheese and more sour cream and salsa if desired.

This little cutie wanted to share his yummy plate for a pic. How could I say no? ;)