Weighty issues (oh, and slow cooker thyme pork roast)


I think I set a record on Sunday.

The very first person — ever, in the history of kitchens — to call out, “Oh, don’t even TELL me we’re out of caraway seed.”

Because … who uses caraway seed? And who uses caraway seed so often that they actually fear running out of it?

(Well, my delightful grandmother, who made the Polish-inspired dishes from her own youth that I devoured in mine. But, you know.)

Never fear: our jar of caraway seed was more than halfway full, so I could stifle the panic building in my chest as I prepared this slow cooker meal for Monday. That’s right, friends: I officially got my act together and prepared a meal a day in advance, refrigerated it and pulled it out Monday morning to simmer for that evening’s dinner. (Just let the crock warm up to room temperature first, of course.)

And it was delicious.

Like, oh, much of the adult population, January finds me thinking about goals and priorities and all that adult-ish stuff. Now that I’m also a mother, a working mother and an often stressed working mother, I really want to get back to writing out a serious meal plan on weekends, sticking to it, grocery shopping on Sunday and placing an emphasis on healthy eats.

Despite my hesitancy in my last post, I went ahead and jumped back into Weight Watchers (affiliate link). It’s been three years since I nervously attended my first meeting and two since I hit my goal weight, dropping 35 pounds, but I’m now — post-Oliver — heavier than I was when I started in 2013.

I just wasn’t sure I was ready for that level of commitment. Last summer, when I was an exhausted new parent who had just returned to work, I got it into my head that I needed to get “me” back. Now. If I let myself slack off with my eating, I thought, I’ll never lose the weight again. I’ll roll right back into old habits. That will be the end of the person I used to know.

Well, I was right — and wrong.

I’m not my pre-baby self again, of course. Everything that happened in 2015 — the beautiful, the scary, the overwhelming, the miraculous — changed me forever. Becoming a parent changes you forever . . . and I’m extremely grateful for that! I mean, it should.

But I did go back to old habits. It’s tough to come out of a pregnancy — unexpectedly early, too — and go right back to tracking every single thing you put in your mouth: something I was not in the habit of doing. Like, at all. For the last few weeks of my pregnancy, I pretty much lived off Chick-Fil-A’s frozen lemonade milkshakes.

When Oliver remained in the hospital for a month, Spencer and I ate whatever was quick and convenient. This translated to many lackluster cafeteria meals a few floors down from his NICU, as well as Wendy’s and Chick-Fil-A runs at odd hours driving back from Baltimore.

When he finally came home, it was just about stuffing something in your face between feedings, and diapers, and screeching.

Prepping enough to prepare healthy, quick meals with a newborn in the house? It just didn’t happen. I had grand ambitions of getting freezer meals ready before the baby came, trying to make our lives a little easier, but . . . well. That obviously didn’t happen.

After I went back to work in mid-June, I thought: it’s time. I now have nine uninterrupted hours in which I can focus on my job and control what I’m eating at ye ol’ desk.

That didn’t happen, either.

I was tired. And sick. Our company was sold over the summer and everyone’s duties changed quickly. Many of my friends were laid off, and I was staring down an extreme amount of change in a short time. It was the final straw in a very stressful season.

Quite honestly, I was depressed.

Though I haven’t discussed it publicly, I’ve been struggling with PTSD and postpartum anxiety since last spring — and there are times it was all I could do to get through the day. I finally sought help in the fall and feel about 1,879,986 times better than I did in October. The pressing weight of worry has lifted.

Through all that? I wasn’t obsessing about eating pumpkin pie, I can assure you.


But I’m out of excuses now.

Oliver has been sleeping through the night — with the occasional hiccup, of course — for months . . . which means Spencer and I have, too. That early haze of dead exhaustion, which clouded absolutely everything, is gone.

Work has settled down. I’m happy and excited with my new responsibilities, and enjoying the new challenges. I’m still writing my column, but also working on projects and articles about different, interesting things. It’s really . . . fun. I miss my friends, of course, but we’ve kept in touch through the holidays.

The holidays are over. They were beautiful, but there’s something refreshing about vacuuming up all that rogue tinsel. It was sad hauling out the Christmas tree, but let’s be honest: the holidays have their own pressures that can’t be denied. Choosing perfect gifts, paying for said gifts, trying to see family and friends in a short time, traveling. It’s . . . a lot.

But January is bare. January is clean. January is scrubbed fresh, a calendar waiting to be filled with whatever we choose, and I’m ready again.

So I’m choosing my health.

It’s been a whole four days since I got back on track with Weight Watchers, so the aroma of my enthusiasm is still quite strong, I know! But honestly, there’s comfort in getting back to a familiar program that helped me so much before. It taught me to control my eating — and gave me such confidence — for the first time in my adult life.

Weight Watchers has been revamped for 2016, and I love the changes. LOVE. (They are not paying me to say this, by the way; my subscription is paid for by yours truly, along with generous affiliate referrals.) With their new “Beyond the Scale” approach, there’s a much greater emphasis on physical activity — not just your pants size. Obviously we’re all joining Weight Watchers to learn healthier habits and drop pounds, but everything begins and ends with overall health.

They’ve revamped how points for foods and drinks are calculated, and the new method makes much more sense. Under the old system, fats were fats; it didn’t matter if they were saturated, “bad” fats or good, healthy fats, ones we need and should eat. For example, a tablespoon of olive oil and tablespoon of butter could have the same points value. So what’s the incentive to go with the healthier option?

Many things haven’t changed, thankfully: fresh fruits and vegetables are still zero points, so you can — and should! — eat as much as you want. That was my saving grace the first go ’round. If I’d overindulged earlier in the day and was out of points for that after-dinner snack, I could always reach for a clementine and not feel deprived. There was always something to eat — as long as I’d made the effort to stock up on healthy food for the house. (But that’s another post.)

The first time I joined WW, I wanted to feel better: physically, mentally, emotionally. And I absolutely did. But I’ve come back to WW because I want to get my blood pressure down, return to a much healthier relationship with food and start showing my son — right now — that how we treat our bodies matters. And I know WW works.

So: there it is. My current weighty issues. It feels good to just . . . get all that out.

And I swear, this started out as a recipe post!

So, um, did you want to talk about pork tenderloin? Sure. Okay. Let’s do this.

This recipe is a WW recipe, actually: from the Weight Watchers New Complete Cookbook, which is ringbound and glossy and pretty. Some of the recipes I’ve made from it have been hits, others misses, but this one? Definite hit.

If you don’t like sauerkraut, you won’t like this. But if you do? You will. So much that you’ll want to make it again immediately. The apples lend a delicious sweetness to the dish, while the sauerkraut, caraway seed and onion — which mellows through slow cooking — give it punch.

It’s the perfect blend of sweet/sour. Dig in!


Slow cooker pork roast
with sauerkraut and apples

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 (1 1/2-pound) boneless pork loin roast, trimmed of fat
2 teaspoons canola oil
1 (2-pound) package of sauerkraut, rinsed and drained
1 large red or white onion, sliced
1 McIntosh or Cortland apple, peeled, cored and diced
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
1/2 cup dry white wine
Chopped fresh parsley

1. Sprinkle thyme, pepper and salt over pork. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add pork and cook until browned on all sides, about 6 minutes.

2. Combine sauerkraut, onion, apple and caraway seeds in 5- or 6-quart slow cooker. Place pork on top of vegetables; pour wine over. Cover and cook until pork and vegetables are fork-tender, about 4-5 hours on high or 8-10 hours on low.

3. Transfer pork to platter and cut into 6 slices. Spoon sauerkraut mixture around pork and sprinkle with parsley. Serves 6.

Creamy chicken and wild rice soup in the slow cooker

Creamy chicken soup

There aren’t too many slow cooker recipes we eat every. drop. of.

Every Crock Pot meal produces leftovers — especially for just two people (and a toothless infant who has just started eyeing “real food”). But more often than not, we get tired of the food before the food tires of us.

Or something like that.

But this? On the night we came home to that lovely aroma filling the house, it fed us both with seconds — plus a guest. We still had five (!) huge servings left over, so we packaged them up for a lunch (mine) and two more dinners (for both of us). In a given week, we ate this soup three separate times . . . and still weren’t sick of it.

That’s how delicious it was.

My husband is always appreciative of my slow cooker creations, but never have I heard him go so crazy over dinner. The only way it would have been better was if it were actually not 95 degrees outside . . . because, yeah.

This is warm, comforting, tasty soup that really sticks to your ribs and will be perfect for the chilly fall days to come. Serve with a little shaved Parmesan cheese and a hunk of bread to officially enter slow cooker heaven.

Creamy Chicken and Wild Rice Soup

1 cup uncooked wild rice
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 cup onions, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
1 cup carrots, chopped
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
6 cups low sodium chicken broth
2 cups water
2 tablespoons salt-free poultry seasoning
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil (or substitute more butter)
1/2 cup all purpose flour
2 cups milk
Salt and pepper to taste

Rinse wild rice under running water. Place the uncooked rice, chicken breast, onions, celery, carrots, garlic, bay leaves, chicken broth, water and poultry seasoning in a slow cooker. Cover and cook on the high setting for 3-4 hours or on the low setting for 7-8.

In the last half hour of cooking, remove the chicken from the slow cooker. Allow to cool slightly before shredding using two forks, then add back into the slow cooker. Melt butter and oil in a saucepan. Add the flour and let the mixture cook for 1 minute. Whisk the mixture slowly while adding in the milk. Continue to whisk until all lumps have dissolved. Allow the mixture to thicken and become creamy.

Add this creamy mixture to the slow cooker and stir to combine. Add additional water or milk to your preference if the consistency is too thick. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serves 6-8.

When reheating leftovers, add 1-2 tablespoons additional milk or water before heating. Enjoy!

Recipe from Little Spice Jar

Slow cooker steak and veggie soup


We’re all about quick, filling eats around here.

Preparing for the big move this weekend has meant our dinners are a little . . . unusual here at the Johnson residence. We spend most after-work evenings taking carloads of stuff to the new house, where we scrub and sand and shuffle before eventually pouring ourselves home around 10 p.m. Sometimes we meet at the apartment, eat first and head over. Other times we go straight to the house . . . where we lack food. Unless you count Fig Newtons and diet soda, which I don’t.

So all that has translated to oddball concoctions, like boxed mac and cheese with a ham steak added in, or take-out. Not great for the waistline, but definitely helpful for a tired couple trying to bring order to their universe. It’s so much easier to grab Chick-Fil-A than it is to dirty pots and pans and labor over a hot stove. (I haven’t packed up the kitchen yet, by the way. Just don’t have the stomach for it.) (See what I did there?!) (Okay, sorry. Sorry.)

But we’re trying to stay healthy. When our home isn’t in an uproar, Spence and I have gotten into the habit of cooking big meals on Monday evenings so we have leftovers for lunch throughout the week. The slow cooker has been our best buddy.

Regardless of the weather, I’m a big soup girl — filling, inexpensive, made in bulk. On our list of meals that provide ample leftovers for two hungry adults is this steak and vegetable soup, concocted from a recipe shared by my good friend Sandy. Bonus? It ain’t bad for you. And that’s important, too.


It’s one of the first recipes of our young marriage happily added “into the rotation,” and we usually make it once a month. Thrown in a slow cooker before work, it requires about 10-15 minutes of prep for a gigantic serving of soup ready when you get home. It’s simple, flavorful and built largely by ingredients you may already have — and even uses canned vegetables! Especially fantastic when you’re moving the contents of your pantry. Six less cans to haul is a good thing.

You can add to this, take away from it, throw in some other veggies, add spices to your heart’s content. My favorite recipes are becoming ones I can play with, and this steak and veggie soup? It’s where it’s at, friends. Totally buildable.

Could you use fresh vegetables instead of canned? Maybe. I’ve added fresh celery to supplement the canned veggies, but I think the texture of the canned vegetables actually works well in this soup. Because it’s cooking all day, you’d think they get extra mushy — but they don’t! Soup magic? I don’t know.

Whatever it is, it’s good.

(P.S. Do not drain your canned vegetables before adding them to the pot; the water makes up part of your liquid. If you like your soup soupier, add an additional 1/2 cup of water. If you prefer more of a stew, prepare as follows.)


Slow cooker steak and veggie soup

1 lb. stew beef (or chuck roast)
1 large can (28 oz.) tomatoes, crushed
1 can (14.5 oz.) cut green beans
1 can (14.5 oz.) sliced carrots
1 can (14.5 oz.) sliced potatoes
1 can (14.5 oz.) of corn
1 can (4 oz.) mushrooms
1 packet of onion soup mix
1 cube of beef bouillon, dissolved in 1 cup of hot water
1 bay leaf
2 tbsp chopped onion, dried
2 tbsp Italian seasoning
Salt and pepper to taste

Chop beef into bite-sized pieces and layer in the bottom of a slow cooker. Add crushed tomatoes, covering the beef. Add green beans, carrots, potatoes, corn and mushrooms WITH liquids, stirring gently. Add beef bouillon dissolved in water with onion soup mix and bay leaf. Flavor with Italian seasoning and chopped onion, plus salt and pepper to taste. Stir. Cook in slow cooker on low for 8-9 hours, then remove bay leaf. Serve and enjoy!

When the box just ain’t working: homemade Hamburger Helper

Homemade Hamburger Helper

Hamburger Helper. Who’d have ever thought we’d have a craving for Hamburger Helper?

But it struck without warning on a Thursday night: one hungry pair of newlyweds with a package of ground beef, some dried pasta and a dream.

After pawing through our messy pantry for a good five minutes yielded nothing akin to the salty, savory, weirdo Hamburger Helper mixes of my youth, we turned to our trusty friend: the Internet. A quick search for a homemade version led Spencer here, and what a glorious find it was.

This recipe is fairly quick, very easy and customizable. Because we’re apparently into spicy food now, we couldn’t resist adding fire-roasted tomatoes and green chiles. The fun thing about this recipe? You can move the flavor profile into anything that suits you, though I have to say this version tasted similar to — but better than, perhaps — the original.

Whether you’re simply lacking the box or prefer to cook from scratch, any lover of Hamburger Helper will heartily dig into this dinner. And if you don’t have ground beef on hand? Use ground turkey or ground chicken . . . anything you have, really. You’ll make it work — and everyone will love you for it.

Homemade Hamburger Helper

Homemade Hamburger Helper
(with a kick)

Adapted from farmgirl gourmet


1 lb ground beef (I used a 90/10 mixture)
Cooking spray
2 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 cups hot water
2 cups elbow macaroni
1 can fire-roasted tomatoes (optional)
2 green chiles, diced (optional)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
A pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese, or 4-6 slices American cheese


Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Spray with cooking spray and add the ground beef. Brown until cooked through and no longer pink. Discard any fat. Add the pasta, tomatoes, milk, water and spices and stir to combine. Bring to a boil and turn the heat down to simmer. Cover and cook for 10-12 minutes, or until the pasta is al dente. Add the cheese and stir to combine. Serves 4-6.










Buffalo chicken chili for a cold day

Buffalo chicken chili

This recipe has nothing to do with turkey or stuffing or what to do with all that leftover pumpkin pie (and anyway, here’s an idea).

As we all recover from last week’s Thanksgiving festivities and look forward to continued cookie gluttony later in the month, I’d like to share a delectable creation that lit a fire in my bland little soul. Though I’m not one who typically tolerates spice well, I happen to have pledged my life to a man obsessed with green chiles. Spence has a growing interest in spicy food . . . and I’m trying to expand beyond the chicken, fish and Brussels sprouts I usually have for dinner.

Enter this Buffalo chicken chili, a Weight Watchers-friendly recipe shared by a friend. With just the right amount of heat balanced by the Gorgonzola cheese (seriously, don’t skip out on the cheese), I gobbled this up for dinner and actually looked forward to lunch the next day. And the next. In fact, this recipe fed the pair of us off and on for a week.

And I didn’t mind a bit.

Chili 2

Buffalo chicken chili

Recipe from Weight Watchers Magazine

2 tsp canola oil
1 lb ground skinless chicken breast
1 onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, sliced
2 carrots, sliced
1 (12-oz) bottle light beer (I actually used pumpkin ale. Oops?)
1 c low-sodium chicken broth
1 (14.5-oz) can diced tomatoes
1 c black beans, drained and rinsed
1/3 c mild cayenne pepper sauce (We used Frank’s RedHot)
1/4 c crumbled Gorgonzola cheese
1/4 c light sour cream


Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add chicken and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 8 minutes. Add onion, celery and carrots; cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 5 minutes.

Add beer, broth, tomatoes, black beans and pepper sauce; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 15 minutes.

Garnish each serving of chili with 1 tbsp Gorgonzola cheese and 1 tbsp sour cream.

Chicken cooking

Chicken and veggies


Chili 1

Chili 3

If you’re a Weight Watchers devotee like yours truly, each serving of chili (1 3/4 cups with garnishes) comes to a PointsPlus value of 9. And well worth it! For muggles, each serving is 293 calories with 11 g total fat, 4 g saturated fat, 16 g carb, 8 g sugar, 3 g fiber and 29 g protein.

Green chile chili


Everybody has a chili recipe.

Our family version — the one I grew up spooning into bowls with cheddar cheese — was passed to my mom from my grandmother. It’s morphed a bit over the years, ingredients added or discarded, but at its core? Well, it’s still the same hearty meal all set to cure what ails you.

Though it’s definitely not chili weather yet (90 degrees and climbing in Maryland’s end of summer!), Spencer and I got a craving for this dish Wednesday night. It’s simple, quick, filling . . . and even better, relatively low in calories when enjoyed in moderation.

Since my fiance returned from business out in New Mexico in May, he’s been obsessed with flavors of the Southwest . . . especially green chiles. We can find canned versions here on the East Coast but, unsurprisingly, I’m assured they’re not as good as the real thing.  When we were setting our chili to simmer on the stove, we threw in two — or three — little cans of these babies.

So what goes in ours?

Ground turkey, browned;
1 large onion, chopped;
1 can tomatoes, with liquid;
1 can red kidney beans, drained and rinsed;
1 can navy beans, drained and rinsed;
1 can baked beans;
3 small cans green chiles (or fresh!), if desired;
approx. 1 tbsp oregano (or to taste);
approx. 1 tbsp black pepper (or to taste);
approx. 1 tsp chili powder.

Everything goes in a stock pot, a Crockpot or, well, any pot you have handy. The longer it cooks, the better it tastes — but since we were starving on a weeknight, our “slow cooking” time totaled about, oh, an hour. Once the clock chimed 7 p.m., I couldn’t take it any longer . . . had to dive in. Just bring me a bowl.

Much like my grandma’s original, there’s nothing scientific about this. One of the best things about chili is that everyone has a favorite way of preparing it . . . and I don’t think there’s really a wrong way, you know? We browned the ground turkey in a dutch oven before adding the chopped onion, cooked together until the onions were soft. Then all the other ingredients were unceremoniously dumped in and stirred together, then baked in a 350-degree oven for about 45 minutes.

The results? A piping hot, filling and not-too-spicy green chile chili! I’m a lady with a tender stomach who gets nervous when her guy starts dumping in peppers, but the green chiles add a tangy flavor and interesting heat without burning my taste buds to shreds.

Can’t wait to make it again when there’s a nip in the air!


So what’s your recipe for chile success? What do y’all do differently? I’m always up for some fresh variations! I think we’ll add some chopped celery next time . . . I dig the crunch.

A healthy burger?

A better burger

When I transitioned to a healthier diet this year, I figured I’d never touch a cheeseburger again.

It was just one of many misconceptions I had before joining Weight Watchers — and figuring out how to balance the delicious, oh-my-God-I-need-“real”-food urges I have with building flavorful, better-for-me meals.

After stumbling across WW’s recipe for pepperoni pizza burgers online, I almost wept with relief. Red meat! Pepperoni! A real bun! And it was only 8 points? Well, then.

Spence and I made these last night and added a few of our favorite spices (like crushed red pepper and black pepper), plus added yellow peppers because . . . well, you don’t need a reason to add peppers, do you? Grilling the tomatoes, as instructed, lends some of the “pizza” quality to the recipe, though it’s really like a delicious Italian-style burger.

I’m leaving the recipe as-is, so as not to alter the Points content for anyone following Weight Watchers, but we lightened it up further with turkey pepperoni instead of regular. And we totally splurged with potato rolls instead of light wheat ones. And it was so good.

Mmm, burgers. I’ve missed you so. And we’ll never be parted again.

Pepperoni Pizza Burgers

Recipe from Weight Watchers

4 sprays cooking spray
1 pound uncooked 93% lean ground beef
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes, optional
2 medium plum tomatoes, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 1/2 oz Parmesan cheese, thinly sliced
4 light hamburger rolls or buns, toasted
1 oz pepperoni, thinly sliced
4 leaf/leaves basil

Coat a large griddle, outdoor grill rack or stovetop grill pan with cooking spray; preheat to medium-high.

In a large bowl, combine beef, salt, garlic powder, oregano and crushed red pepper; divide mixture into four balls and then gently press each one into a 4-inch patty.

Place sliced tomatoes on grill; cook until grill marks appear, about 2 minutes per side. Remove from grill; set aside.

Off heat, recoat griddle or grill pan with cooking spray. Place burgers on hot griddle or grill; cook 5 minutes per side for medium (or to desired degree of doneness). Sprinkle each burger with 1/4 of cheese about 2 minutes before fully finished cooking on second side; cook until cheese melts.

Serve each burger on a toasted bun, topped with 1 basil leaf and 1/4 ounce pepperoni. Yields 1 burger per serving.