chocolate + paper + scissors


Slow Cooker Baked Ziti, lightened.

As I sit here typing, relishing in my yummy leftovers from last night's dinner, I'm reminded of how much I love this recipe! And I love that it cooked all day yesterday.

A few years back, my friend Liz compiled a crockpot cookbook - an informal collection of slow cooker recipes that are tried and true. Today's recipe for Baked Ziti is one of my favorites! It comes from Liz's friend Amber (whom I don't know, but to whom I'm grateful for this recipe!).

I lightened up the recipe a bit - used a lighter ricotta, ground turkey (rather than beef - although the beef version is great, too) and added some veggies into the cheese mixture. It does make a large amount - but it freezes really well.

Slow Cooker Baked Ziti

1 container (15 oz.) part-skim ricotta cheese
1 pound ground turkey
2 cups (8 oz.) mozzarella cheese, divided
1 medium onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, 1 zucchini and 1 yellow squash, all chopped
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons dried Italian seasoning
1 box (16 oz.) ziti noodles
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 jars (approx. 25 oz. each) of tomato sauce (Newman's Own Sockarooni works well)

1. Cook ground turkey and onion in a large skillet over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until meat is no longer pink. Stir in seasonings to evenly coat meat; stir in pasta sauce. Set aside.

2. Mix chopped bell pepper, zucchini and squash with 1 cup mozzarella, the ricotta and parmesan in a medium bowl.

3. Spoon 2 cups of meat sauce into the lined cooker; top with 2 cups ziti. Drop half of the cheese/vegetable mixture, by rounded tablespoons, over ziti; carefully spread over ziti using back of spoon. Layer with 2 cups meat sauce, the remaining ziti and remaining cheese. Add remaining meat sauce, completely covering all the ziti and cheese.

4. Place lid on slow cooker. Cook on Low for 6 to 7 hours or on High for 4 to 5 hours or until noodles are tender.

5. Carefully remove lid to allow steam to escape. Sprinkle food with the remaining 1 cup mozzarella; let stand 10 minutes until melted.

Enjoy! Then, enjoy again...and again.


Work.Life: Blending home + work

This week, as I juggle the usual to-do, I'm adding some freelance deadlines and slowly getting the house back in order (as we're at the tail-end of our remodel) to the mix. Hence, I have a sweet and short post for you.

My March issue of Real Simple called to me from my passenger seat the other day (yes, it often rides shotgun with me so I can sneak some reading in at red stoplights...) and said, "Pick me up and read this article about secrets of a jugglng mom of three: 10 Secrets of One Unflappable Working Mother. You'll be glad you did."

Two other points:

1. All moms are working moms, and...

2. Thanks, Real Simple, for always sharing real stories about real people...and for always keepin' it real.


Comfort (us,) food: Shepherd's Pie

Have I mentioned we're in the middle of a kitchen remodel?

Since January, my husband has been plugging away, demolishing, building, rewiring, cabinet door-replacing...and we're getting closer to the end (painters come tomorrow morning at 8:30). We're both so eager to see our new digs - but most importantly, we're ready to have the house back to normal, with as much as order as possible with two young children. Most things right now are gently dusted with...well, dust (ugh), and although a place does exist for everything, not everything has seen its designated place in quite some time.

If you don't believe me, please see my workspace in the office I share with my husband:

I know. It's frightening.

When things get a bit chaotic around us (be it physical, mental or emotional chaos), I crave quiet, stability - and comfort. So, I thought the craving I've had lately would be perfect for today's recipe: Simply Delicious Shepherd's Pie. This version, created by Janice and Liz at Meal Makeover Moms, is a healthier version that will have you asking for a second helping. It's perfect for a Sunday dinner. And, it freezes well, if you'd like to freeze small portions for busy weeknights. Everyone in our family loved this = a new family classic.

Although I won't be able to make this until next week, I hope you'll be able to enjoy it sooner.

May this meal calm any chaos you're experiencing. And, just in case you need more soothing, just add brownies for dessert.

Happy weekend!


In honor of an Irish angel

Today is St. Patrick's Day. But there's someone else on my mind tonight - a very special soul - who has forever changed life for many of us. His name is Willis Daniel.

You see, Willis Daniel was born on the third of January of this year, with beautiful eyes, ten perfect fingers and ten tiny toes. He spent five weeks with his family, a mother and father and big sister so grateful to know him, see him, hold him, and love him. And on the sixth of February, Willis left this world and became an angel. In his very short life on earth, he showed many people how to be strong - and touched all those he met.

Willis is the son of a special friend of mine, a friend who embodies true strength and grace. Today, in honor of Willis and her Irish heritage, Willis's mother put together a lovely feast for the families staying in the Ronald McDonald House wing of Texas Children's Hospital. She, along with several friends, spent the day cooking a beautiful, soothing meal for families in need of some comfort during such an uncertain time.

In saying thank you to the Ronald McDonald House, her actions said to all those around her: give of yourself, think lovingly of others - and make the lives of those around you a little more beautiful. Especially those in need.

Willis's legacy lives on - and was shining brightly tonight, even brighter than the pink, purple, green and blue halls of Texas Children's Hospital.

So, little Willis, we love you. And, in my book, this day will forever be dedicated to you, sweet one.


Meal Planning: Purposeful Nutrition

Staying on top of nutrition - the fuel we give our bodies - is much easier, like many things, when you have a plan. Meal planning gives you control over what you feed yourself and your family - and helps prevent those let's-just-order-pizza-tonight nights.

One of the things I learned during my obession with Rachael Ray's 30-Minute Meals (five-ish years ago, pre-children) is that ordering in isn't always unhealthy. But: you can't control the ingredients you're eating, and you end up spending more than you would if you bought your own ingredients and made a recipe yourself. Cooking really doesn't have to be complicated to be good and healthy.

There are numerous resources online (just visit Google and give it a whirl) for getting tips on meal planning. And, depending on your lifestyle, you may find that planning tips you use may not work for someone else. It does take a bit of discipline, truth be told. But once you do it, you'll find it makes shopping much easier - and it makes for easier mealtimes.

Here are some of my meal-planning tips:

1. I try to pick an evening when I have some time to myself and sit down with my recipe notebooks and cookbooks.
2. I like to use one new recipe a week - and keep the other recipes tried and true.
3. To speed things along on choices, I try to choose a recipe that fits the following: a vegetarian night, a fish night, a poultry night, a lean beef night, a leftover night, a creative night (where everyone has something easy and different, or breakfast for dinner, etc.) That makes 6 nights. We usually eat out at least one night for dinner.
4. I like to make sure the meals are colorful: protein + whole grains + 1-2 veggies + 1 fruit.
5. If I have time, I usually bake a dessert on a weekend to munch on the next week.

Some great resources:

Cooking Light's online community. I've learned so much from this community! Members are constantly sharing recipes/tips and weekly menus on the message boards. I highly recommend a visit - it's really educational and entertaining. You won't want to leave!

Meal Makeover Moms. They have healthy, delish recipes and helpful planning tools on their site.

Raise Healthy Eaters. A blog dedicated to family nutrition with tons of helpful tips on meal planning - one of the best I've found.

Super Baby Food. Yes - it's a cookbook for making baby food, but it's also a crash course on good nutrition, with handy charts for good meal planning.

Meal planning = easier cooking = happier eating!



Spring is my favorite season in Texas: just-right temperatures, blue skies, bluebonnets, endless days in the backyard, hours at the park.

Happy Spring-breaking, everyone!


The Simple But Perfect Pancake

Early in our marriage, my husband and I informally established Saturday mornings as our pancake (or waffle) days. And I confess that the only way I knew how to make a pancake was to use a mix. Our old standby was a box of Reduced-Fat Bisquick, and I'll admit that that mix made some mean pancakes! (Or maybe it was the yummy chef, my husband.)

These days, I'm trying to restore our diet and serve our family the most natural foods that I can. (Remember, I'm no nutrition purist, but I am trying my best to give our family the healthiest foods I can, within reason and budget.) So, anything made from scratch is a better alternative.

Enter the non-storebought, made-from-scratch, simply perfect pancake, courtesy of the baking masters at King Arthur Flours. And when you view their recipe, you'll notice the photo where they've sprinkled on chocolate chips after pouring the batter onto the griddle = total breakfast heaven. We haven't tried this indulgence yet, but I have a feeling it's not too far off - perfect for a special occasion!

My only modification to the recipe is adding one tablespoon of ground flaxseed. (Not as sexy as chocolate chips, but adding a little Omega-3 never hurts!)

I eat them hot, right off the griddle. But the family likes butter and syrup.

...Yes. Simply perfect.


Work.Life Wednesdays

When I think of balancing - and enjoying - having a professional life in addition to being a mother of two young children at home, I see a beautiful, colorful puzzle.

While I feel like I'm always working to put the puzzle together, I've learned that the joy is in the process. But it's not easy. Some days, pieces snap together perfectly and neatly. Some days, I can't find any matching pieces. And other days, although I may try to force some pieces together, I just laugh when no pieces fit because these are the days I usually learn my biggest life lessons.

On Work.Life Wednesdays, I'm looking forward to sharing with you what I've learned about working from home over the past few years. And how to make it work well.

I look forward to sharing my journey with you.


Breastfeeding: The First Nutrition

This month, for part of my parenting focus, I'm spotlighting National Nutrition Month, a campaign implemented by the American Dietetic Association. Nutrition is the foundation of everything, regardless of our age! This year's theme is "From the Ground Up," so I thought I would kick things off by honoring breastfeeding, our first opportunity to provide our babies with wonderful nutrition. Breastfeeding not only has immense nutrition benefits for babies, but it has benefits for mothers, too!

I realize that breastfeeding is a personal choice, and not all mothers choose to or are able to do so. Regardless of the first nutrients we offer our babies, I firmly believe that we as mothers do so with tremendous love and the desire to provide the best for our babies...

If you are considering breastfeeding or have already embarked on your breastfeeding journey with a new baby, you’re well aware that a primary benefit of nursing is providing your baby with the ultimate gift: the best nutrition available.

Nothing can be better than this.

Also remember that along with feeding your milk to your new and tiny bundle, you are also selflessly giving your baby unlimited access to your body, your sleep, your hydration, your nutrition, your energy…and your time. So, taking care of yourself during the nursing stage of life is crucial. Helping the nursing mother rest and recharge should be a top priority in every breastfeeding household.

Crucial to a successful breastfeeding experience is natural, balanced nutrition, ample rest, and plenty of hydration. If your milk is to be the sole source nutrition for your infant for at least the first six months, your body must be treated like a temple. After all, the better you feel as a breastfeeding mother, the longer you’re more likely to have a successful breastfeeding experience. And, just like in other aspects of mothering, the better care your take of yourself, the more your baby will benefit.

Did you ever consider, though, that in choosing to nurse your baby, you’ve actually chosen a natural path that provides its own self care? Think of breastfeeding as Mother Nature’s gift that provides you with little added rewards for being the sole provider of nutrition for your baby.

After nursing my now 4 year-old daughter for 15 months and currently nursing my 13 month-old son, I’ve experienced many beautiful and powerful benefits of nursing, which have allowed the first year of feeding to fly by because of the ease and joy of what I like to call the “breastfeeding lifestyle.”

Although everyone’s bodies are different, a few things I’ve enjoyed while nursing are:

  • Clearer, softer, glowing skin
  • Extremely deep sleep and vivid dreams
  • Increased metabolism and appetite
  • Constant flow of oxytocin, resulting in a state of calm, rested alertness (even when sleep deprived!)
  • Priceless bonding with my babies - holding their soft hands and caressing their tiny heads…
  • Peace of mind in knowing I’m doing everything I can for my baby’s immune system and nutritional development
  • A budget-friendly and easy feeding solution, and
  • Precious pockets of quiet, mental relaxation time to sit and think or read, throughout the day and night.

As your babies get older and are on the go, and as your world gets busier, you’ll miss the restful moments of serenity that breastfeeding brings.

So, whether you’re a brand new traveler on the journey of breastfeeding with sore, achy nipples, or you’re a veteran who thinks it may be easier to switch to an alternative feeding source, be patient! Things will get easier – and you will begin to look forward to feeding times as much as your baby does. Remember all the good things that come to you and your family because of your decision to engage in nature’s most primitive feeding ritual.

Let us revel in God’s gift to mothers and babies! Always remember that breastfeeding mothers are beautiful! Lactating mamas are lovely!

And life is good.

This article originally appeared on The Motherhood Center blog, a nurturing resource for Houston mothers.


I heart hearty soups

As much as I love this time of year for our cold, crisp days and clear blue sky, it also means another thing: colds, coughs, sneezing, sore throats, repeat (three or four times!). Each time our family gets a cold, I want to do one thing: make a comforting pot of soup. Doing this usually takes some planning, but with this simple recipe for Hearty Pinto Bean-Rice Soup from The Old Farmer's Almanac, making a delicious, comforting and healthy meal was practically effortless...and made for a relaxing Sunday afternoon.

I've modified the recipe to make it heartier - the more protein, the better, with vegetarian dishes.

Hearty Pinto Bean-Rice Soup

2 T. canola oil
1 medium onion, diced
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
4 cups water + 4 cups chicken stock
3/4 cup brown rice
4 cups cooked pinto beans
1 large carrot, quartered and chopped
2 cups (1 jar) pasta sauce (I used a jarred Puttanesca sauce)
1/2 cup of each: frozen green beans, frozen (previously chopped) zucchini, frozen corn
2 T. low-sodium soy sauce
1 T. basil, dried
1 T. thyme, dried

Place oil into a large pot and add onion and garlic. Saute over medium heat about 5 minutes. Add rice; bring to a boil for 1 minute, then simmer for about 30 minutes.

Add the rest of the ingredients to the pot. Bring to a slow boil. Lower heat to simmer and cover pot. Simmer for 1 hour (or longer. Longer is better!).

We enjoyed ours topped with a sprinkle of shredded cheddar cheese and a dash of soy sauce (to add some yummy umami) and some homemade cornbread.

We were so hungry that I forgot to take photos...but it was a beautiful, hearty soup that kept the whole family coming back for more. Enjoy!