My body has changed. I have, too.

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I met with a dietitian at work.

For a story, that is — about mindful eating, purposeful choices … eating with intention. But like any writer, I capture little pieces of the journey for myself along the way.

Everything she was saying made perfect sense … and the story/conversation did not go in the direction I’d anticipated. I had the idea of doing an “Eating Well at the Holidays!”-style piece that would probably include tips like “load up half your plate with vegetables first!” and “eat a light snack so you’re less likely to nosh on apps!”

I opened our conversation this way with Wendy, who is so reassuring and non-judgmental.

“I was thinking back to my Weight Watcher days,” I said, “and remembering how, anytime I was headed for a party, I would try to eat all my boring food beforehand so I was less likely to eat all the delicious things.”

Wendy was nonplussed. Neutral. “And how did that work for you?”

“Well, at the time? It worked great. I was so regimented and basically ate when I absolutely had to,” I said. “I lost tons of weight. But now …”

But now.

But now, I don’t want to live my life counting cauliflower crackers and berating myself for grabbing a cookie in the break room.

But now, I care less about fitting into size-10 pants than being able to run after my kids.

But now, I don’t want to worry about every photo someone is snapping from a sideline, wondering if I look “fat.”

But now, “weight” is not a dirty word. I don’t cringe when my son pokes at my soft belly (which, he believes, makes an excellent pillow). We talk about bodies, how everyone has a body, and all bodies are OK. I really do believe this. I want my daughter and son to know this. And yet …

The altar of thin is so deeply-rooted, and I am human.

But I am exhausted.

There is so much more to life.

And you know what? It makes me angry, too. Diet culture, impossible beauty standards for women, obsession and worshiping “thin” bodies while vilifying larger bodies … this is all a total mess. I mean, how much time do we have?

So yeah, I guess I am angry.

I have been thin — a size 4. A size so impossibly small that I was even tinier than my middle-school self. I liked being thin, because everyone else liked me being thin. I felt like I’d “won.” I’d done something seemingly impossible. Everyone was so impressed!

It came at a cost. I justified it. I was tiny for our wedding in 2013, and small going into my pregnancy with Oliver. But “thin” is not a direct path to “healthy,” and I was physically and emotionally all over the place. “Thin” didn’t protect me from preeclampsia, which ultimately forced Ollie’s premature delivery and set off a series of health concerns for me.

I’m not a doctor. I know I need to exercise regularly, eat well more often than not, try to get adequate rest, etc. etc. etc. I’m not denying those facts. I am taking care of other health issues and working to be in better shape — for myself and my loved ones.

But this? This is something else. Something more. This is body image. Perceptions. Bias. This is about #goals and diet culture and the collective obsession with thin, particularly female thinness, which is what is so insidious.

Because here is a thing I know: today, after two babies in two years, I am heavier than I’ve ever been.

I’m also happier.

I appreciate my body. It’s been through so much. It’s done amazing things. It grew humans. That’s cliche, I know, but it’s true: women are amazing.

So I cut myself slack. Parenthood has taught me that there is beauty in the trying — that showing up and working hard is sometimes enough. I have to show up for myself, too.

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After talking with Wendy, I looked up the concepts we were discussing: intuitive eating, which has to do with physical vs. emotional hunger, accepting our bodies, and making peace with food. It has nothing to do with restricting calorie intake or figuring out ways to reach an “ideal.” I found Isabel Foxen Duke (great name, btw), particularly this post, and Health At Every Size.

It addresses everything I’ve felt since having children, but didn’t know how to express: I want to feel healthy and be physically healthy, but not at the expense of my emotional health.

And restricting food? Creating impossible limits on what I’m eating, and when, and why? Constantly “getting back on the wagon,” then “falling off the wagon,” and dealing with the guilt associated with “failure”? Entering a cycle of self-loathing because I dared to eat a scone in front of my coworkers? That impacts my emotional health.

I’m … tired. And really just done with it.

A few weeks after learning about intuitive eating from Wendy, I’m still in the research phase. Just reading about all these people who have changed their outlooks (and lives) has been reassuring. I like what I’m finding, and want to dig deep to move in this direction: eating and living well for its inherent benefits, not because I need to conform to outside expectations of my body.

Life is too short. We all want to find what makes us feel well … mentally and physically.

So I’m setting off.

I’m going to try.

Not clean eating: Peanut butter chocolate chip cookie dough balls

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I know, I know — it’s the New Year and everyone is like, “Let’s join a gym! Let’s get back on Weight Watchers! Let’s start eating clean!”

And I’m like . . . here are some fake cookie dough balls. Enjoy?

I say “fake” because they contain no egg, so it’s safe to eat them straight out of the fridge. Or the mixing bowl. They really do taste like cookie dough, but with none of the residual guilt/rebellion I usually feel from eating the real stuff against medical orders.

If you also enjoy eating your feelings, these are portable and very pop-able. With the kids and I dealing with back-to-back illnesses since November, I definitely need sugar therapy.

And so, behold: peanut butter chocolate chip cookie dough balls from Mary Younkin of Barefeet in the Kitchen, who is my recipe guru. I live by her cookbooks, which are the basis for my weekly meal plans. Seriously: Mary is it.

This has been adapted just slightly to add peanut butter chips, because … why not?

Also: hi! Miss you guys. Think about you often. Try to scrape together energy to blog again and usually come up empty, but always plan to return.

 

Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip
Cookie Dough Balls

Ingredients:
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup light brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup quick oats
2 tbsp milk, as needed (I used half and half)
1 cup mini chocolate chips
1/2 cup peanut butter chips

In a bowl, beat the butter, peanut butter, brown sugar, and vanilla until smooth and creamy. Add the baking soda, flour, and oats. Stir to combine. If the mixture is too dry to roll into balls, add the milk. Stir in chocolate chips and peanut butter chips.

Scoop out the dough and roll with hands into 1-inch balls. Store covered in the refrigerator until ready to eat. Will keep three days in the fridge, or up to two months in the freezer.

 

 

Why I’ve converted to the Aldi way of life

I used to be a grocery store snob.

Here in the suburbs, chain groceries are everywhere. Giant, Safeway, Weis, Food Lion — not to mention the expansive grocery areas of Target and Walmart, where I find myself at least once (OK, twice) a week.

I loved Giant best. It was close to our first apartment and, after I took over grocery duties early in our marriage, I felt grown-up and responsible inspecting apples for blemishes and acting like I knew the difference between different cuts of steak.

(Ha! I used to buy steak. That’s cute.)

Spencer and I shopped together, making it our Monday after-work ritual. My husband loves trying new things, so all sorts of international items would wind up with our order. We were impulsive. I didn’t make a list. Didn’t meal plan. We wandered freely like the newlyweds we were, looking at each other by the deli counter. “I don’t know,” we’d say. “What do you feel like?”

The variety was captivating. Standing in front of the dairy case, 50 — heck, 100? — varieties of yogurt were at our disposal. Did we want toasted coconut or Key lime? Greek or plain? Dannon or Oikos?

I’d stare at the flavors and brands and prices. I’d cross-reference which was cheapest with my personal preferences. I’d think about what we liked in the past. Was coffee-flavored yogurt actually … gross? Did Spencer hate the mango? Should I stock up now, or wait until it went on sale?

Decisions. So many decisions.

Grocery shopping today — with a 2-year-old and 6-week-old — is … well, it’s a production. One we don’t make, given I go alone. I typically run out on Sundays, known to be the worst day to hit the grocery store with the rest of town, with Spence holding down the fort. I’m always a woman on a mission.

And I never leave the house until I’ve created a plan for the week. That’s how you overspend, you know? Wind up with all sorts of stuff you forget about, forgotten on a dusty pantry shelf. I sit down with recipe books and jot down what I’ll need to pick up versus what we have already to use up. Once that list is done, I rewrite a new list organized by department: the meats together, the veggies together, etc. So I don’t forget anything.

Have I mentioned I’m a little OCD?

This takes a half hour. I often write all this down while hiding in the corner of the kitchen that Oliver can’t see from the living room, thus granting me time to sip my long-cold coffee and put two thoughts together without toddler interference.

Up until recently, I was still darkening Giant’s door. I love Giant. The store is new and clean and rarely crowded. The parking lot is a pleasure to get in and out of. The selection — oh, the selection! — of produce is awesome, and every aisle is well-stocked. I don’t have to worry about Giant being “out” of … well, anything. It’s reliable. Predictable. And 10 minutes away.

So why the heck am I now schlepping up to an Aldi?

And … liking it?

My sister told me about Aldi years ago. Newly opened in a neighboring town, it’s tucked off the highway in an inconvenient and insanely busy location. From our current house, it’s easily a 35-minute drive. Always in traffic.

But I go. Because it’s cheap. And with two working parents and two kiddos soon to be in day care (don’t end, maternity leave!), affordability is important.

But even more than that?

It’s simple.

My brain is fried. We get very little sleep. I make what feels like endless decisions a day for my children and my husband and myself. When I go back to work in two weeks, that stress will multiply tenfold. (I’m trying not to think about it, really.)

At Aldi, if you want chicken, here are breasts and tenderloins. If you want ground beef, you grab the 93/7 split — ’cause that’s what they have. If you want milk, here’s a gallon of milk. Apples? Take a bag. You have to buy the bag. No debating Gala versus Pink Lady, you know? And how many of each?

When I first went into Aldi with Spencer, I was … well, I was a snob. Seriously. Where were my 10 kinds of shredded cheese? My super-specific favorite coffee creamer? My whole wheat sandwich thins?

It’s true that Aldi does not have everything. But you know what? They have most things. Many things. Enough for us.

And something strange happened. The simplicity, the lack of variety …

It’s been a balm on my frazzled soul.

There is something very zen about Aldi. I think it stems from the relief of knowing I’m getting out of there with my weekly order for less than $80 — absolutely, totally impossible for my family at any other grocery chain. I don’t always come home with everything on my list (fresh ginger was a no-go yesterday), but you know what? I improvise. We can manage. Or occasionally stop by the other chains for those unique finds.

If you’d told me last year that I’d be dragging my behind all the way to Brandywine to go to Aldi, where the parking lot is always full and the carts must be unlocked with a quarter (and I never have a freakin’ quarter!), I would have sipped from an overpriced latte and sneered.

Sneered, I tell you.

But I get it now. Megan Johnson, mom of two (!), harried wife and employee and daughter and sister and friend with a thinning bank account … she’s a convert.

I like easy and I cannot lie. It takes longer to get there, yes, and traffic is awful, but once I’m there? It’s easy, breezy, lemon-squeeze-y.

Now, if only I could find a quarter.


Creamy bacon bow-tie pasta with Brussels sprouts

You know what’s weird? My lack of bizarre pregnancy cravings.

Where I spent last time constantly fantasizing about Coke Slurpees, chips and spicy salsa, frosted lemonades from Chick-Fil-A and jalapeno poppers (something I rarely eat in “real” life, by the way), this pregnancy has been strangely devoid of oddball snacks.

I mean, I’m eating fish. And vegetables. And salad. With the help of my anti-nausea medication (which I’m still taking at 30 weeks), nothing feels disgusting or off-limits.

Even Brussels sprouts.

I love these leafy greens when I’m not expecting, and they’re something Spencer and I have in weekly meal rotation. But vegetables while I was pregnant with Oliver were . . . a no-go. Like, at all. I think I subsisted on processed carbs the whole nine months, favoring bagels and potato chips over anything that could be even vaguely considered healthy.

I mean, I’m not complaining. By keeping these cravings in check, I’ve only gained half the weight so far that I did with Oliver. Though I started 30 pounds heavier, so . . . I’m pretty much breaking even?

Still.

weeknightI haven’t been the best about making home-cooked meals lately, but I requested a new cookbook for Christmas and Santa obliged. The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook by Mary Younkin (of BarefeetInTheKitchen.com) is inspiring, and each of the five meals I’ve made so far have been big hits. I love that it features easy-to-find, familiar ingredients used in new ways, and it is — true to its title — all about quick, from-scratching cooking on busy nights.

That’s what we need. Desperately.

Meals are categorized according to how long you’ll need before having them ready: 15 to 25-minute meals; 30 to 45-minute meals; 5 to 10-minute prep (slow cooker meals, for example, or meals you just throw in the oven); plus quick desserts, simple sides and condiments/spices. I’ve found Younkin’s timing to be very accurate, unlike the “30 minutes to the table!” nonsense recipes that don’t account for the hour it takes you to slice, dice and prep everything. Big pet peeve.

The variety of meals is pretty awesome. There are plenty of Mexican-inspired dishes (Younkin lives in Arizona), complete with green chiles, but Italian, Asian and good ol’ American meals pop in there, too. The offerings are a good mix of seafood, pork, chicken and beef, as well as vegetarian sides and pastas. A little something for everyone.

The Bow-tie Pasta with Bacon and Brussels Sprouts is easy and awesome. You could throw in some onions and mushrooms, too, but we made this one as instructed and loved it. The caramelized Brussels sprouts — cooked down with the bacon fat — made my mouth water. The author notes that you could substitute asparagus for the sprouts, if your family favors one over the other.

Full disclosure? I used an entire pack of bacon here (about 12 strips), double what the recipe calls for. But I think this is acceptable because the leftovers were amazing and protein-packed, especially since I went ahead and boiled the entire box of pasta. So did I double this recipe? Informally, yes. But you’ll want to double it. Trust me.

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Creamy Bow-Tie Pasta with Bacon and Brussels Sprouts

Recipe from The Weeknight Dinner Cookbook by Mary Younkin

 

6 strips bacon, cut in 1/2-inch-wide strips, about 1/3 lb
1 lb Brussels sprouts, ends trimmed and halved
8 oz bow-tie pasta
1/2 cup cream (or half-and-half)
3/4 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
1/2 cup shredded Asiago or Parmesan cheese (optional)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. While the water is heating, prep the bacon and Brussels sprouts. Cook the pasta until it is tender but still a bit firm, about 12 minutes.

While the pasta is cooking, warm a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and let it cook for 2 minutes, then add the Brussels sprouts. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 8-10 minutes, until the bacon is cooked through and the Brussels sprouts have browned. Transfer the bacon and Brussels sprouts to a plate. Drain the grease, leaving a teaspoon or so of grease in the skillet.

Place the skillet back over medium-high heat. Scoop 1/2 cup of pasta water out of the boiling pasta pot and carefully pour into the hot skillet. Use a flat spatula to scrape up the brown bits and deglaze the pan. Add the cream, salt and pepper to the skillet and stir to combine. Lower the heat to medium and let the sauce simmer for 1-2 minutes, until it thickens slightly. If the pasta hasn’t finished cooking yet, move the sauce off the heat until the pasta finishes.

Drain pasta well and add it to the skillet with the sauce, stirring to coat well. Add the Brussels sprouts and bacon to the skillet with pasta and stir to combine. Taste and adjust salt, if needed. Sprinkle with cheese before serving, if desired. Enjoy!

 

 

Mushroom asparagus quiche — all it’s ‘cracked’ up to be

Quiche

Something about quiche used to really weird me out.

I’m far from a picky eater, but I’ve never liked eggs. It’s weird, I know — especially given I’ll try just about anything. But no matter the style — scrambled, sunny-side-up, in an omelette — or flavor, I’d prefer to skip breakfast completely. I’ve been known to make a sandwich.

When we hosted friends for brunch after Oliver was born, I was looking for a quick vegetarian recipe that might look vaguely impressive to a well-traveled foodie couple (what? It’s the truth). I had that “new mom” sheen of greasy hair, half-closed eyes and unbrushed teeth, so . . . it couldn’t be complicated. I mean, just getting to the grocery store was a feat unto itself.

In my internet wanderings, I stumbled upon this mushroom asparagus quiche recipe from Taste of Home. Its base is a store-bought can of crescent rolls, friends. I can get down with that.

It’s filling, hearty and incredibly tasty — so much so that Spencer and I have made it many times since, usually doubling the mushrooms because mushrooms are life. It’s a great dish to make on a Sunday and slice up for breakfast leftovers during the week. It reheats beautifully and holds together well.

This quiche? It’s just really delicious. Good enough for me to have reevaluated my hatred of eggs as a whole . . . though, to date, this is the only acceptable vessel I’ve found for them.

But who knows. A few more bites and I just might come around.


Quiche

Mushroom Asparagus Quiche

1 tube (8 ounces) refrigerated crescent rolls
2 teaspoons prepared mustard
1 1/2 pounds fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 cup sliced fresh mushrooms
1/4 cup butter, cubed
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups (8 ounces) shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon each dried basil, oregano and rubbed sage

Separate crescent dough into eight triangles; place in an ungreased 9-in. pie plate with points toward the center. Press onto the bottom and up the sides to form a crust; seal perforations. Spread with mustard; set aside.

In a large skillet, saute the asparagus, onion and mushrooms in butter until asparagus is crisp-tender. In a large bowl, combine the remaining ingredients; stir in asparagus mixture. Pour into crust.

Bake at 375° for 25-30 minutes or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. Let stand for 10 minutes before cutting. Enjoy!

Recipe by Taste of Home


Hands to help on a Monday night

Bread

As a writer, I’m used to asking the questions.

I inquire. Follow up. Probe, maybe — just a little! — to get to the core of a story in a way I hope will do the subject justice.

After seven years of writing a column, I’m still getting used to being “in the field” writing features — but am enjoying the heck out of it. I rarely get nervous these days because stories are stories, and that’s my job: to tell stories. Mine. Yours. His. Hers. Theirs.

I’ve started spending Monday evenings at a local soup kitchen. I couldn’t tell you why, exactly, other than I felt an extreme pull — a need, really — to go. I heard about the need for volunteers at work and, before I knew it, I’d signed up for the next shift. The spiritual part of me thinks that was God, and maybe it was. After sitting behind a desk most of the day, I guess I wanted to get my hands a little dirty.

I’m not saying this to pat myself on the back. In fact, it feels strange to write about it at all — but in a short time, these Monday dinners have become an important part of my life. They matter to me. These people, my neighbors, matter to me.

When I interviewed Angela Mitchell last month, she inspired me so much with her dedication to the Chesapeake Bay and its inhabitants. We talked about how some folks would love to get involved in volunteer work, but it seems daunting.

“Many people say, ‘I don’t know where to start, but I have these two hands and a Saturday morning,’” Mitchell said.

Two hands and a Saturday morning.

Two hands . . . and a Monday night.

And so I’ve started signing up to help at dinners, using an office restroom to change into faded jeans after work. The first time I came to serve anyone who needed a hot meal, at least 20 volunteers crowded the church hall. Everyone was bubbly, eager to help; so many people were there to cook and clean that I wasn’t really needed.

But I stayed. Tried to make myself useful. And at a dinner designed to unite the community and feed the hungry — older people; younger people; homeless people; people coming straight from work in faded uniforms — I looked into faces and listened to stories.

A young girl took a shine to me, lingering around the table of donated goods I was periodically manning. It was her sixth birthday, and she looked eagerly through stacks of school supplies. In her hands was a birthday card, and she asked me to read it aloud several times. “It had $10 in it,” she said.

“Are you going to save your money or spend it?” I asked.

“Spend it!” she said eagerly, as any child would.

I asked her if she had something in mind, and the look she gave me nearly burned.

“Food,” she said. “Duh.”


Eating in America


I have never wanted for food. Never had to fall asleep hungry or go to school hungry or watch others eat with nothing for lunch. My biggest food-related challenge has been to eat less of it — and the idea of a 6-year-old wanting (needing?) to spend birthday money not on toys or clothes, but lunch? Well.

I was not there to pity anyone, and they don’t want our pity. I wasn’t looking for a “thank you.” This was not for a story.

At least . . . not that kind of story.

In sharp contrast to my first time volunteering, when the hall was bursting with eager assistants, I walked in Monday to find two women struggling to pull down chairs and set up tables with just 30 minutes before guests would start arriving. Nothing was cooked, and the room was quiet. There were five of us to feed 40-plus people: serving, assisting, seating, helping, cleaning.

I panicked.

I assumed every night at the soup kitchen would be like my first: all hustle-and-bustle, laughter and ease, many people gathered to help many other people. Someone else in charge. Someone else with authority.

But this wasn’t the other volunteers’ first rodeo. As guests filtered in, I was amazed at the speed with which meatloaf, mashed potatoes, vegetables and rolls sprang from the kitchen. The women in charge were quick, kind and completely in control. After the room was set up for diners, I helped greet everyone and got them situated before we began serving. Many were lined up outside in the sun.

As we rushed to fill drink orders, bring out full plates and track down pats of butter, a young man reached out a hand. “Hi,” he said. “What’s your name?”

If I’m being honest, honest to the bone, well . . . I expected a leer. A come-on. A flirtation. Being asked my name has almost always preceded an unwelcome remark — though at 30, I rarely deal with that sort of thing anymore.

But I told him.

“Nice to meet you, Megan,” he said, and the two men with him also looked up with tired eyes. I smiled before grabbing plates and moving on.

A few minutes later, I passed by again — and the man put out a hand to catch my attention. “I’m sorry — what’s your name again?”

I told him, stifling a snap of impatience. A family was waiting on sweet tea.

“Megan,” he said, “can I ask you something?”

Here it comes, I thought. But I said, “Sure.”

“Megan . . . why do you . . .” He paused to take a slug of his water. Then he glanced at his friends, seemingly for help to pull the words he wanted from the meaty-scented air between us. Finally he asked, “Why do you do what you do?”

And I stood there, rooted to the sticky floor, used cups in my hands and sweaty hair in my face.

What I do?


Veggies


I was not the one who built this nonprofit from the ground up. I hadn’t cooked or organized this dinner. I had not donated meals, goodies or much-needed funds. I was just a worker bee: running plates, scrubbing gravy bowls, crafting Arnold Palmers from the iced tea and lemonade dispensers for delighted children.

I’m not doing much of anything, I thought. I’m just here. I showed up.

“I . . . don’t know,” I said. “I just heard about it and . . . felt like I needed to come.”

And that was the truth. The plain truth.

I don’t like to think about others being hungry — especially children. There are so many causes to care about, so much that can leave us inspired and heartbroken and eager to help. The more I volunteer to serve dinners, the more I feel the need to serve dinners.

I don’t want to talk about helping or plan to help. I just want to do it.

Maybe your cause, like Angela, is to work to preserve your home for future generations. Maybe it’s to encourage others to vote or help rebuild communities or encourage sustainable living or raise funds for cancer research.

Whatever it is, you can start small. Wade in. Commit to a few hours, then a few hours more. Get others involved. Give the gift of your attention.

Sometimes the simplest questions have the hardest answers. And even if we can’t do much, we can do something.

We can show up.


Oliver’s first Easter with easy French toast casserole

Easter was fun.

Really, truly fun.

In sharp contrast to Christmas, when I was stressed and overworked and dead exhausted and so completely overwhelmed I wanted to just get the whole thing over with already (sad, but true), Easter was . . . enjoyable.

It helped that we weren’t all sick. December was nothing but colds, coughs and croup, and it was awful. Now the weather is beautiful, the trees are in bloom, flowers dot lawns and the sun is shining . . . ahhh. I feel better just typing all that!

It was Oliver’s first, given he was born the Sunday after Easter last year. Because he’s four months older than he was at the holidays, he also seemed to better “get it.” He’s much more interactive now, more mobile and vocal. Though the nuances of a religious holiday were certainly lost on him, he looked darn cute in pastels — and even cuter with vibrant eggs. And bunny ears.

Blackmail for when he’s mouthing off at 16, eh?

Easter

Easter eggs

I was my better self on Sunday. The self that is in the moment, happy to be doing whatever she’s doing, wherever she is . . . running around and maybe anxious, but still aware of it all. Because it was Oliver’s last “first” holiday, I wanted to document it — but even more, I wanted to live in it.

This has been, for sure, the longest shortest time.

In two weeks, my baby will turn 1. He’s already practically a toddler, scrambling to keep up with his friends at day care and older cousins, not yet moving but definitely taking everything in. It won’t be long before it “clicks,” and then we’ll have a new problem: a child who runs faster than we do.

In that vein, I’ve given myself permission to . . . well, to let things go. Just a bit. A bit! Because we often welcome friends and family, sometimes without notice, I’ve had to fight down this … this urge to scrub, tidy and organize. To seem like a family with two working parents who still keep a spotless home.

But our home is not spotless. Even during those first few months at home, I felt like I had to keep the house impeccable even with a few scratched-together hours of sleep. It was hard to let go of those old insecurities about others not seeing you “at your best,” but I eventually accepted something had to change. That something was me.

In the last year, I have cried and I have laughed and I have welcomed friends into my living room with matted hair, smudged eyeliner and dirty diapers forgotten on the floor. When we volunteered to host an Easter brunch last Sunday, I had to fight — almost physically — an urge to clean and tidy like no tomorrow, panicking in the hours before my parents, grandparents and aunt arrived because I was worried everything was not . . . up to snuff.

But it was fine. And if it wasn’t, they would never have said anything — and surely cut us some slack. So does it really matter?

We served this French toast casserole on Easter morning, and it’s the epitome of what I love in a recipe these days: delicious, filling and quick. It can — and should! — be partially prepared the night before, meaning your work in the morning is minimal. It involves sprinkling on some brown sugar, popping it in the oven and going on your merry way.

Until you return with a fork.

Which you will do — and very quickly. Its aroma can’t be denied. Plus, the leftovers reheat beautifully for breakfasts later on . . . you know, if you have any left.

After our brunch, we had a really nice afternoon visiting with my grandmother, cousins and family in Virginia — complete with Ollie’s first Easter egg hunt! He was more concerned with beating any surface like a drum than actually seeking eggs, but he did realize they make excellent maracas.

I’ll listen to his beats any day.


French toast casserole 1

Easy Apple French Toast Casserole

1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 (8 ounce) loaf of French bread, cut into bite-sized pieces and slightly dried out
2 cups milk
6 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 pinch ground cinnamon, or to taste
1 jar (15 ounces) scalloped cinnamon apples
1 tablespoon brown sugar, or more as desired

1. Grease a 9×12-inch baking dish.

2. In a medium saucepan, stir together 1 cup brown sugar and butter together over medium-low heat until butter melts and sugar dissolves into butter, about 2-4 minutes. Pour into prepared baking dish and spread 2-inch layer of bread pieces over the top, lightly pressing bread into mixture to soak it up.

3. Beat milk, eggs and vanilla extract together in a bowl. Pour milk mixture over bread into the baking dish, moving bread as needed to make sure all bread absorbs liquid. Spoon scalloped apples over bread, spreading between pieces as desired. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Cover dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate, 8 hours to overnight.

4. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Remove and discard plastic wrap from dish, then sprinkle with remaining brown sugar over the bread mixture.

5. Bake in the preheated oven until browned and bubbling, about 30 minutes. Serve and enjoy, refrigerating any leftovers to enjoy later!

Recipe slightly adapted from AllRecipes


French toast casserole 2