Creamy Roasted Garlic Tomato Soup

Growing up I hated loathed tomato soup. Of course, I’m talking about the good ‘ol canned stuff. Bright red and flavorless, nothing about it ever interested me. No one was more surprised than me when I had a craving for tomato soup and grilled cheese. Not just any soup would do, I craved something delicious and creamy. Something healthy I could feel good about serving my family that is also tasty enough for them to WANT to eat it. So, I took to the kitchen to try my hand at something that I never thought I would like, and ended up making one of the best tasting lunches I’ve ever made. Creamy, flavorful, and hearty enough to keep my family full. This soup will have you coming back for more!

Here’s what you’ll need:
*2 shallots
*5 garlic cloves (you can use more, this is all I had on hand)
*12 tomatoes
*1/4 C olive oil, divided
*1 Tbsp fresh parsley
*1 tsp fresh thyme
*1 1/2 tsp dried basil
*1/2 C cream
*1 tsp salt
*1/2 tsp pepper

Halve your tomatoes and put them in a large bowl. Drizzle them with some oil and give them a good mix with your hands to evenly coat them. Place the tomatoes face down on a baking sheet that’s been lined with parchment and sprinkle some salt on top. For the roasted garlic, peel the cloves and place them in some tin foil. Drizzle some oil on them and wrap them up. Place the baking sheets in a 4oo° oven for 45 minutes.

Peel and slice your shallots. In a dutch oven, heat your oil over medium high. Add your shallots and cook them until tender. Dump your roasted tomatoes, garlic, and spices into the dutch oven and give it a good stir. Make sure to get all those juices that cooked out of your tomatoes in the oven, that is extra flavor and you want every bit of that to get into your soup!

Now use your immersion blender and blend your soup until smooth. If you don’t have an immersion blender, you can always put the soup mixture in blender and blend until smooth. Or if you want to avoid splattering yourself and your kitchen with tomato juices….not that I know from experience or anything…cough cough.

Add your cream and stir it well. Now you can serve it up or keep it on low while you make some grilled cheese sandwiches to pair with it. This is optional, of course, but I’m not about to turn down carbs covered in melted cheese.

And there you have it. The tomato soup recipe that turned a life-long tomato soup hater into a believer. It is so good you will lick your bowl clean.

Proof. It’s just that good.

Carne Asada Tacos

The end of 2019 was a hectic one for our family. We packed up and moved across the country from California to North Carolina. Coupled with traveling to Indiana to spend Christmas with our families, celebrating our sons 9th birthday, moving into our new house, starting the kids in a new school, and just learning our way around a new military base….whew, it’s been a lot! Now that we are settling back into a routine, I have really found myself in the kitchen a lot more. Which means great meals for my family, and great new recipes for you all!

This recipe idea is not revolutionary, by any means. I mean, tacos are a dinner staple in our house and we have them at least twice a month. They are the perfect meal! Delicious, easy to prep, customizable. You really can’t go wrong. So what makes this recipe so blog worthy? MARINATED.CARNE.ASADA.

Yes. It’s all in the marinade! It’s easy to just brown up some beef or turkey and make that your taco base, but using flank steak and marinating it for just a few hours really knocks this one out of the park. Don’t believe me? After dinner last night my husband did all the dishes AND I got a backrub before bed. Coincidence? Or the magic of Carne Asada? I think you know the answer!

First, gather your ingredients to marinate your steaks.
*2 flank steaks
*1 lemon
*1/4 C olive oil
*3 cloves garlic
*1Tbsp cilantro, chopped
*1 tsp cumin
*1 tsp chili powder
*1/2 tsp salt
*1/4 tsp pepper

Chop your garlic and cilantro and mix it into your spice mixture.

Squeeze in your lemon juice. Next add your olive oil and give it a good stir. The smells….*sigh* so good!

I cut my steaks in half so they would better fit my skillet, and then I placed all 4 pieces into a large Ziploc bag.

Pour your marinade over your steaks and seal the bag. Give it a good mix and rub that mixture into every nook and cranny of your steaks. At this point, place the bag in your fridge and let it marinade for about 4 hours. You can probably get away with a little less time, but I’d be sure at least give it a good 30 minutes to really help seal those flavors in.

Time to cook! Place your skillet over medium high heat and oil the bottom. These steaks are nice and thin, so they take no time at all to cook up. Just keep it in long enough to get a nice brown crust on each side, maybe 1-2 minutes a side.

Remove the steaks from the pan and let them rest on a cutting board for 5-10 minutes. This helps keep those juices in so you don’t lose that flavor when you slice it up. Trust me, it’s worth the wait. Use this time to make my chunky guacamole and fresh pico de gallo, you won’t be disappointed!

Fresh Pico de Gallo

  • 1 1/2 roma tomatoes, diced
  • 1/4 red onion, diced
  • juice from 1/2 lemon
  • 1 tsp cilantro, diced
  • pinch of salt and pepper
    Add all of your diced ingredients to a small bowl. Sprinkle in your salt and pepper, and squeeze your lemon juice over the top. Stir gently to combine. That’s it! So simple and so fresh. Put this on EVERYTHING!

Chunky Guacamole

  • 1-2 avocados, diced
  • 1/4 red onion, diced
  • 1 tsp cilantro, diced
  • pinch of salt and pepper
  • 1/2 lemon, juiced
  • 1/2 roma tomato, diced
    Halve your avocado, remove the pit (carefully), then dice. Add all your diced ingredients to a small bowl. Sprinkle in your spices and squeeze you lemon over the top. Give it a gentle stir, just enough to combine and coat every bit of the avocado, but leave the chunks. Or don’t. But you should!

Corn tortillas, flour tortillas-it’s amazing on either one. We like to do spring mix, my Fresh Pico de Gallo, sour cream, shredded cheese, and black olives, with a side of chips and Chunky Guacamole. Serve these up however you like your tacos! It’s so easy to customize, just lay everything out and let your family go to town. Flavortown, as Guy Fieri would say. Boom.

Elf Breakfast (Elf on the Shelf)

Every year on December 1st our family gets a visit from Wally, our Elf. If you haven’t started an Elf on the Shelf for your family, it is equal parts pain in the you-know-what and magic. Every morning my kids jump up searching for Wally and hoping he has brought some sort of fun and shenanigans with him. The best day, however, is that first morning. Because that is the morning that Wally always welcomes us into another holiday season with his traditional Elf Breakfast. It also the most work I put into the Elf all year, and it has become a labor of love.

Every year the breakfast includes Wally’s traditional Elf Pancakes and a letter from Santa. He also always brings other items like chocolate chips, marshmallows, powdered donuts, peppermint sticks, and our advent calendar. Below are pictures of the last 5 years we’ve had our Elf Breakfast and the ways we switched it up.

Our first Elf Breakfast in 2014. Wally introduced us to Elf Pancakes! Just make your favorite pancake batter and use your Tbsp to cook them. I will make them all the night before and put the plate in the fridge. Wally also brought Reindeer Poop (chocolate cereal), mini chocolate chips, and Snowmen (powdered donuts).

Elf Breakfast 2015; Elf Pancakes, Snowman Stacks (donuts), peppermint balls, M&M’s, and strawberries.

Elf Breakfast 2016; Elf Pancakes, Snow Balls (donut holes), candy canes, peppermint pretzels, and grapes.

Elf Breakfast 2017; Elf Pancakes, marshmallows, and Reindeer Poop (chocolate cereal).

Elf Breakfast 2018; Elf Pancakes, raspberries, marshmallows on a stick (festive paper straws for the win!), and mini chocolate chips. The presents are Lego advent calendars for the kids and their annual tree ornament.

This year is a little different, since we sold our old dining table before our big move. We still had Elf Pancakes, as well as Snow Balls (donut holes), peppermint Milano’s (my 8 year old said those are his new favorite part!), strawberries, pop rocks, chocolate Santa’s, and peppermint sticks for stirring our hot cocoa. Obviously this year December 1st was on a weekend so we were more lax on the sugar intake!

Every year my kids start wondering out loud around Thanksgiving if Wally is going to bring them breakfast soon, and they will start talking about the favorite things they remember he has done. I’m not going to lie, as I’m in the kitchen at 11 pm making dozens of teeny tiny pancakes I always question why I do this to myself. But the next morning when I wake to the sounds of them giggling and gasping as they see that once again Wally has come to visit us makes it totally worth it.

Homemade Biscuits and Sausage Gravy

Most weekdays our mornings are hectic. Kids everywhere, me scrambling to get everyone dressed and hair brushed and PLEASE JUST EAT YOUR BREAKFAST! I love making my family a nice, warm breakfast to help start their day off right…but on weekdays, we’re all just trying to get out the door on time since it takes my kids no less than 30 minutes to eat a bowl of cereal on a school morning, so I don’t even try to push it with anything fancier than that. So, once the weekend hits, I’m all about doing breakfast the right way. Ask my 5 year old what her favorite weekend breakfast is and she will say ‘biscuits and milky-meat sauce’ AKA Biscuits and Sausage Gravy.

Now, there is nothing wrong with canned biscuits. They are a huge time saver, and even a brick would taste great under this gravy, but there is just something about the homemade version that is SO.DANG.GOOD. Our favorite biscuit recipe is actually from the Magnolia Table cookbook. Is there anything that Joanna Gaines can’t do?! Her biscuits are phenomenal. But the real star here though is the Sausage Gravy. I could (and have) eaten it with a spoon straight from the skillet. Yep. No shame here. My dad has always been the breakfast maker in the family, and his biscuits and gravy set the bar pretty high! I must say though, mine is right up there in flavor! Flavorful and hearty, it’s sure to please your breakfast enthusiast!

For the Magnolia Table Jojo’s Biscuits recipe, you’ll need:
*4 C flour (she calls for self-rising, but I use AP with no problems)
*2 Tbsp baking powder
*1 tsp baking soda
*3 sticks salted butter, COLD, cubed or grated
*2 eggs, beaten (plus 1 for brushing)
*1½ C buttermilk ***

***Now, I rarely have buttermilk on hand when I want this recipe. And by rarely, I mean never. Quick tip- you can put 1½ Tbsp white vinegar in your measuring cup, then fill to the 1½ C mark with regular milk. Stir and viola! Much easier than remember to actually write ‘buttermilk’ on my shopping list.

In a large bowl, whisk your four, baking powder, and baking soda. Add the cold butter (I just grate it right into the bowl as you an see above). A pastry cutter would come in handy right now, or you can use your hands like I do and crumple the flour and butter into pea sized bits. Don’t over work it with your hands, you want the dough to have little butter chunks throughout and warm hands can be a detriment to keeping that butter cold. Next stir in your eggs with a wooden spoon until combined. Now stir in your milk. The dough will be a sticky mess, but it’s ok! Cover the bowl and place in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. You can also do this part the night before!

Scrape your dough onto a floured surface and work it with your hands into a ½ inch thick round. Use a biscuit cutter (or a well floured round glass) and start cutting our your biscuits. Place them touching on a sheet pan that has been oiled or lined with parchment paper. Be sure to combine the dough scraps into more rounds and cut more biscuits as you go…you don’t want to waste it!

Brush the tops with an egg wash and then bake in a 400° oven for 15-20 minutes, or until golden on top. Resist the urge to eat them all before your gravy is finished.

Now for the gravy! You’ll need:
*1lb sausage
*4Tbsp butter
*4 Tbsp flour
*4 C milk
*salt and pepper to taste

Start with browning your sausage. Once it’s cooked through, remove to a paper towel lined plate. Don’t wipe out the pan! Those little bits are free flavor!

Melt your butter over medium low heat. Add in your flour and start to whisk it together to make a roux. Keep it moving so your roux doesn’t burn or clump up.

Now add your milk and keep whisking. Turn the heat up to a medium/ medium high. Continue to stir it and let it cook until it starts to thicken up. You want a nice bubble, but not quite a boil.

Now add your sausage back into the gravy and let it start to combine. Keep stirring it!

Add your salt and pepper. We usually go heavy on the pepper in our gravy, but you can tailor it to your families tastes. Trust me though, when you think there’s enough pepper…go ahead and add one more dash. By now, you should start seeing it really thicken up.

My dad calls this the Red Sea effect…when you can part it with your spoon and it doesn’t come back together right away, you know it’s ready!

Serve this warm and watch as the hungry masses devour it right before your very eyes.

Frisco Melt

Back in our younger days, my husband and I spent many nights partying with our friends. We were young and carefree and it was glorious. More times than I can count, we would end up at our local Steak N’ Shake at 3 am craving a Frisco Melt to fill us up before we went home to crash for the night (morning?). *Insert drunk driving PSA here…always have a DD, and if you can’t find one then BE one! I always say I’d rather be a DD because I can trust my ability to say no. Okay, stepping down from my soapbox now…* Now we are old and boring and have kids (what happens when you turn 30?!), but I still get a strong craving for a Frisco Melt every now and again! I scoured Pinterest for the sauce recipe, and was lucky enough to stumble upon this one from thecompletesavorist.com that really hit the spot! Check out her page for her take on the delicious sandwich.

Time to gather your ingredients. You’ll need:
*Frisco sauce (recipe below)
*Sourdough bread
*sliced cheese
*2 lbs beef (this made 8 burgers)
*butter
*1/2 onion diced
*salt and pepper to taste

First, the most important part of this recipe…the sauce! Mix 1/2 C Thousand Island dressing, 1/4 C French dressing, 1/4 tsp Worcestershire, and 3 Tbsp ketchup in a small bowl.

That.is.it

Why didn’t anyone ever tell me how easy it was to make? It will look like a lot for just a few burgers, but you’ll end up dipping your fries in it too. Trust me.

#Bloggerfail…I took all of 2 pictures of my burger making process. Fortunately, making the burgers probably isn’t what you’re here for anyway. You really just wanted that sauce. I feel ya. But for the sake of the blog, I’ll at least talk you through it. I seasoned my beef with the salt and pepper and added the diced onion. Then pattied them all up. I shaped them into long ovals instead of the usual round burger, just so it helped cover the sourdough bread from end to end. Cook til brown and crispy on both sides, pushing down with your spatula to get that nice crisp coating.

Picture #2. I’m really knocking this one out of the park, huh? After your burgers are done, wipe out the pan and then melt a pat of butter in it. Use this to toast your bread on each side-trust me….EACH side- I only did one side on the first burger and it just didn’t get that crispy bread that I remembered. Plus my husband, who used to work at Steak N’ Shake, was quick to tell me I did it wrong. He was right, but let’s keep that between us, okay?

Once your bread is toasted and your burgers are all cooked, it’s time to assemble. We kept it simple with cheese and lettuce and loads of sauce. Served with, of course, shoe string fries (because it would be blasphemous to serve with anything else). These were a huge hit! My husband said they were, and I quote, ‘really good babe!’ which is high praise around here! I even made a salad the next day with a chopped up burger and Frisco Sauce as dressing and it was divine. I guarantee this will not disappoint!

Shrimp & Sausage Gumbo

My family is by no means from the south. We are from the very southern tip of Indiana, so close to Kentucky that we can see it as we drive down the Ohio river front. We are as midwestern as they come-we dip our food in ranch, apologize when other people bump into us, and I’ve slipped and said ‘warsh cloth’ more times than I’d like to admit. All this being said, where my husband got his love for Southern food is beyond me. When I meal plan he will always throw me a curveball and ask for recipes that are decidedly outside of my wheelhouse. In the last 2 months I’ve made crawfish AND gumbo for that man, and I had never had either one in my life before! So how does a midwestern girl take on gumbo? By finding several recipes and tweaking them to fit what her Hoosier born palate enjoys. And resisting the urge to put a little ranch on it.

First I prepped my ingredients. I knew the roux would need my attention once I started it, so I wanted all my ingredients ready to go. I used:
*2 carrots, peeled and diced
*1 green bell pepper, diced (I know there’s 2 here…I just used one)
*1 small onion, diced
*kielbasa sausage, sliced (I bought a family pack and used half for this recipe)
*1 container beef broth (you could use chicken, but this is what I had on hand and it was delish!)
*1 bag frozen cooked shrimp
*4 Tbsp butter
*4 Tbsp flour
*1/2 tsp garlic powder
*1/2 tsp onion powder
*1 tsp Cajun seasoning (you can add more for more spice, but my kids won’t do spicy so we keep it mild)
*Salt & Pepper to taste
**I know there’s mined garlic in this photo, but I ended up not using it. Clearly I’m winging it as I go!**

Once your prep work is done, start your roux. Over medium low heat melt your butter in a stock pot. Once melted, add your four and start stirring! Keep stirring until you get a nice smooth texture. Once smooth, it will be a very pale tan color. Be sure to keep stirring and letting it cook until you get a soft brown. You can cook this until you get a deep chocolate color, but it can be time consuming! Also, this can burn easily so watch your heat and keep the roux moving.

So this picture doesn’t do the color justice, but I was able to get it to a nice soft peanut butter brown. Like I said, you can take it further, but keep in mind your gumbo will cook for an hour or so, so keep an eye on how much time you have to work with.

Once my roux was a nice color, I threw in my chopped veggies. I turned the heat up to medium and allowed them to cook until soft, stirring fairly often.

Add in your sausage! You can also brown up the sausage in a separate pan and then add it to the veggie mixture, but that’s just another pan to clean in my book. We all know how I feel about dishes. Let this cook together for a few minutes.

Now add your broth and turn it down to a simmer. Give it a good stir and let it cook for about 10 minutes.

Now it’s time to add in your spices. The smells you are going to have in your kitchen will probably have your kids and husband asking you every 5 minutes if dinner is ready yet.

Now put in your shrimp. Bring the pot to a boil for about a minute or 2, then reduce to simmer and cover. Simmer for an hour (or longer if you’ve got the time!) This is prime time to clean the kitchen, start kid bathes, drink a glass of wine….whatever floats your boat.

Serve over rice and you’ve got yourself a meal! Be sure to get lots of that brothy goodness in your bowl. This picture is staged for the ‘gram, but you better believe I added more broth before diving in! The kids devoured it as is and my husband and I added a few dashes of hot sauce. I think the fact that he ate 2 bowls that night and had it for leftovers 2 more times is proof enough that this midwestern girl did the damn thing!

Loaded Potato Soup

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Tis the season! I’m not talking about turkey or candy canes…I’m talking school germs and sick kids. Both our kids have taken turns spreading germs to one another over the last 2 weeks, and I swear I’ve only had 2 days with BOTH of them in school at the same time. With all of the coughing, fevers, and yuckiness I have been trying to make more hearty comfort meals to keep everyone feeling warm from the inside out. Now, I love a good brothy soup. Something I can eat and then drink up the warm broth out of my nearly empty bowl. My husband however, he wants something more stick-to-your-ribs and thick. That’s where this Loaded Potato Soup comes in. It’s thick and cheesy with chunks of potato and bacon in each bite, and it just warms your soul when you eat it. It is great for picky husbands and sick kids alike!

Before I start my mise en place, I make the bacon. I used to loathe making bacon-yes, it is delicious but cleaning the grease mess off my stove top every time made me crazy. I use one of these broiler pans and it is a game changer! No more greasy mess, and crispy perfect bacon every time. Put the bacon in the oven cold and then set to 400°. After 15-20 minutes you have perfect bacon!­

Now that you have your bacon started, you can work on getting everything else in place. You will need:
*1 carrot, grated
*3C cubed potatoes
*1/2C chopped onion
*1/2 tsp celery seed
*salt and pepper to taste
*1 container chicken broth
*3C milk
*3 Tbsp flour
*8 oz cheese (shredded or Velveeta, both have worked for me!)
*1 package crispy bacon, chopped and divided
*optional-sour cream, chives for garnish

Add your chicken broth to a large stock pot.

Add your potatoes, onion, carrot, and spices to the broth. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender.

Once your potatoes are fork tender, add your 3 Tbsp of flour to your 3 C milk. Wisk until combined.

Carefully add your milk and flour mixture to your pot.

Stir to combine and bring your soup back to a boil. Boil and stir for 2 minutes to thicken. Be sure to stir the bottom of the pot often so the milk doesn’t stick or clump. Add in your shredded cheese and stir until melted. You should really notice your soup has thickened up!

Chop your crispy bacon. Stir half into the soup now and reserve the other half for garnish. Try to keep your husband from eating it all off of the cutting board. I put that in because it is a necessary step around here.

You can serve this as is (which is how my husband likes it) or you can garnish with some sour cream and chives (how I like it) and it tastes like a creamy baked potato. Pair it with my 6 Ingredient Sandwich Bread and it is DIVINE! Honestly though, you can’t disappoint with this one no matter how you serve it!

Creamy Shrimp & Tomato Pasta

Usually I try to stick to an easy menu for my family. We have dozens of tried and true recipes that I generally rotate through each week, the kind of meals I could make in my sleep because we have had them so many times over the years. A nice way to describe them is ‘Oldies but goodies’. But I had a craving this weekend for something new….different from our usual repertoire of meals. I wanted something that would look and taste like something you’d find at a 5 star restaurant, but with a budget of take out (is that so much to ask?). Now, what can I work with that is inexpensive but can really step up my dinner game? Shrimp. Even better than just shrimp, is shrimp and bowtie pasta covered in a creamy tomato-ey sauce (tomato-ey is totally a word. I am declaring it as of now). Bonus, most of the ingredients I already had on hand, I just had to buy the shrimp! Done and done.

Here’s what you will need:
*shrimp (I bought the pre-cooked, but you can absolutely use raw)
*Vegetable broth (if you’re using raw)
*1 can petite diced tomatoes
*1 box farfalle pasta
*half an onion, diced
*1/2 C heavy cream
*1 tsp minced garlic
*1/2 C shredded parmesan (plus more for garnish)
*Salt and pepper
*fresh parsley (for garnish…unless you forget to buy it like I did)

First, prepare your farfalle (bowties) according to package directions. I like to do this first so the noodles will be done cooking at the same time as my shrimp sauce.

Toss a couple TBSP of butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add your onion and cook until tender and translucent.

Once tender, add your minced garlic and give it a good stir. Cook for another 1-2 minutes (reducing the heat if you need to) until the garlic is fragrant. It can burn easily so watch it….as you can see, I let mine get a little dark. Still totally edible, just not as pretty for blog post pictures!

Now add your shrimp. Mine was thawed pre-cooked shrimp, so they really just needed to heat through. If you are using raw shrimp, be sure you cook them until they are pink on both sides.

If you are using precooked shrimp like me, you may notice a lot of water and juices released into the pan. This is great! If you use raw shrimp, or you don’t have this shrimp-juice goodness (I know that doesn’t sound good…shrimp juiceshutter) then you will want to add about 1/2 C of your veggie stock. Reduce the heat to medium low.

Open your can of petite diced tomatoes and drain them. I just put them in my colander and give them a good stir.

Add your tomatoes to the shrimp mixture and stir to combine.

Add your 1/2 C of heavy cream and turn your heat up to medium. Continue to stir as the sauce thickens up.

Once your sauce has thickened to where it coats the back of a spoon, add 1/2 C of your shredded parmesan. Stir until the cheese is completely incorporated in your sauce. Add your cooked and drained pasta to the skillet and mix well, coating each farfalle with the creamy sauce.

Serve the pasta with an extra sprinkle of parmesan and fresh parsley (unless you forget your list in the car like I did). I’m telling you, this recipe is so good and easy! Easy enough for an every day dinner, but looks and tastes like a splurge.

Road Trip With Kids

As a military family, it feels like we are constantly loading up the car for a road trip. Whether it is traveling home for a visit, a few hours away for a weekend trip, or one of our big PCS (permanent change of station) moves that happen every few years, we have picked up a trick or two that really helps us feel like we have the chaos under control.

Travel Bag

We have traveled from California to Indiana and back again no less than 5 times since our 8 year old was born. Between moving from California to Missouri and back, and all our visits to Indiana just to visit family, we have pretty much memorized the route (it is long and boring, just in case you were wondering). I pack a big bag with entertainment/survival things for my kids. With having such long stretches of nothing to look out the window at, I put together travel binders for my kids to help keep them occupied. I always tailor them to what is age appropriate to hold their interest at the time, and they are so easy to customize!

The current contents of our travel bag look like this. I have a zipper ‘travel binder’ for each kid, with a lap tray, and snack bucket. I prefer the zipper binders because I can keep all the pieces contained, but we have used the open sided binders previously and they worked fine.

Here’s a peak inside my 8 year olds binder. He has a workbook, a few card games, a small deck of cards (from Halloween), some Wikki Stix, chapstick (my kids have CONSTANT chapped lips), a tick tac toe game, a small lap tray, markers, and paper. I always scour the Dollar Spot at Target before a big trip because they always have a great (and cheap!) selection of things for the kids. The Wikki Stix, card games, workbook, lap tray, and tic tac toe game all came from Target!

Here’s the inside of my 5 year olds binder. It’s a lot of the same stuff, but she has her own set of card games (I’m sure both kids will be playing them together anyway). She also has a sticker face book in lieu of a workbook, she is absolutely obsessed with these books and it will entertain her for HOURS.

I found these large lap trays at Target (the Dollar Spot is my happy place) last year when they had their back to school things out. They were $3 each and we have used them dozens of times! They are great for holding drawing materials for coloring, building Legos, doing Wikki Stix…they are so great. And they are a really sturdy plastic so they don’t bend and they are so easy to wipe clean.

I bought these containers from our local dollar store probably 3 years ago. They have 3 compartments in them (1 large and 2 smaller). I usually use them for road trips (they fit a Happy Meal and drink perfectly!), but we have also taken them to the movie theater to help contain kid drinks and snacks.

Here’s how I load it up in my big ThirtyOne bag. In the past we did all of our traveling in my husbands truck or my tiny hybrid, so the bag would sit either on the floor at their feet or in the seat between the kids. We just traded my car in for a van this year (I love it) so my kids might actually have leg room for this upcoming road trip! That small round thing in the snack container is an inflatable solar light. We put it in the window while we drive for the day, and then we let the kids use it either as a car light at night, or as a hotel room nightlight. It has come in so handy so many times! We will also have the kids tablets and headphones in there. We don’t limit screen time as much when we’re traveling, but without any internet available in the car they’d rather color or do an activity anyway.

Here’s some old travel bag things from our PCS back in 2015 when my son was 4 and my daughter was almost 2. You can see Finn with his travel binder in the top left. I went to the dollar store and bought 2 sheet pans, various magnets (these I made from wal mart), window clings, and sticker activities. We also had the portable dvd player, which is a lifesaver on long distance trips! (I think we watched Mighty Machines on repeat for 5 days)

Car Emergency Kit

One thing you learn quickly as a mom, is that they are unpredictable. The one time you load up your kids for a quick trip and you forget the diaper bag, is always the day they decide to have a blowout. It’s like they can sense it. So, I have started keeping an emergency kit in my van. I keep things like chapstick, toothpicks, sunscreen, baby wipes…anything I can think of that my family will save us a stop at CVS along the way.

Here’s a quick inside view of our car kit. I have antacids, feminine products, floss, q tips, throat lozenges, baby wipes, chapstick, sunscreen, tissues, antibacterial wash, adult Tylenol, children’s cough n cold, bandaids, and these amazing things my good friend (who is an avid hiker) gave me that help women pee standing up. I figured the only chance I’d get to use it would be a side of the road emergency! Everything fits nicely in this small container and I keep it in between the front seats.

Organize, Organize, Organize!

I am a stickler for organization. When our house is messy, it makes me feel like I can’t function properly. Clutter instantly makes me uptight and cranky. So for me, when we’ve got the whole family of 4 (5 if we bring the dog!) practically living in our car, organization can make all the difference between success and chaos. I always have containers to sort and store everything, from the kids car entertainment to separating our suitcases, I need it to be in order to take one less stress off my plate. Organize your hotel clothes in a separate suitcase to minimize how much you are loading and unloading each night. In fact, we like to bring an empty bag or suitcase with us to keep our dirty clothes separate from the clean ones. This also helps when we reach our destination to make laundry so much easier. Store snacks in a designated container that is easily accessible. If you are traveling with pets, keep their water/food bowls and leash somewhere where you grab them quickly (the car door works perfectly if you have a cubby in it!). Bring a handheld vacuum to help clear away any messes or spills easily. I promise that taking a few minutes to organize as you go, it will make your trip will feel less chaotic!

Each kid has one of these seat organizers at their seat. The tray can Velcro up to save space, and there are so.many.pockets! We keep them in the van for every day, and I love that they can put their mess in the pockets and close it up to help keep the floor uncluttered.

My husband found someone giving away this hand held vacuum a few weeks ago and I am a little too excited to bring it with us when we travel across the country next month! A quick vacuum each evening as we unload for the night will help keep the crumb mess to a minimum and my sanity in tact.

Plan ahead

I am the kind of person who needs a set game plan before we travel. With our PCS moves, we like to have everything laid out before we leave. That means planning our route, picking the fun stops along the way, and booking our hotel stays. We also like to plan ahead for meals. We will book hotels that offer breakfast, pack a large cooler with sandwich materials for our lunches, and eat dinner at a restaurant before we hit up our hotel for the night. This helps us keep the cost down, and we use our lunch break as a time to let the kids run for a bit. There are lots of great rest stops that have small playgrounds for the kids, or we will stop at an attraction we want to see and have our picnic in the parking lot. This way we can bust some boredom, load up on lunch, use the restrooms, and (sometimes) fill up the tank before we start the next stretch of driving. Another tip for planning ahead, is our gas stops! Now, I don’t mean you should map out your gas stops ahead of time, that would be exhausting. What our family does as a general rule of thumb is never let our gas get below a quarter tank. Once we notice we are close to the 3/4 mark, we start scouting for gas stops. I ran out of gas ONCE when I was in college and I vowed to never let it happen again, so a quarter tank is always when I fill back up. Another part of planning ahead is planning for emergencies! During our last cross country PCS, I made small ID kit for each kid. There was a picture of each kid on one side and their personal information on the back (allergies, emergency contact numbers, height/weight, notable scars or birthmarks) that I laminated together. I even made one for our dog! I was not about to lose anyone along the way (I know…anxiety). But having that information just in case we needed it made me feel much better!

Here we are, stopping at Bedrock City outside of the Grand Canyon back in 2015. I’ve heard it has since closed down, but it was a fun spot to spend a few hours!

We were given these ID kits at a back to school event, and I held onto them for our upcoming PCS! It has a spot for fingerprints, a photo, medical information…even dental records! It may seem like overkill, but I truly feel it is one of those things that only takes a few minutes to put together and would be invaluable if I were to find myself needing it. If it’s not your jam, then don’t sweat it.

Do you have any tips or tricks that you have picked up while traveling with kids? I’d love to hear them! We are almost exactly one month away from our next big road trip (moving from California to North Carolina!) so I’m going to be pulling out all of these tricks and then some to help ensure my sanity survives the trip!

Turkey & Bean Chili

There is just something about a bowl of hot chili that always feels like home. It is so versatile, and nearly impossible to screw up. I know people may think this recipe seems a little blasphemous to die hard chili enthusiasts, but around here we are all about getting the most bang for our buck, and that means adding things to make it as filling as possible while offering a little oomph to the flavor. For me, the beans and carrots are such a hearty filler and I love the softness they add to each bite. The carrots offer a subtle sweetness when they get all soft and cooked down and my family can’t get enough of it. Seriously, my husband has brought leftover chili to work for breakfast every day this week and we are having some on chili dogs for dinner tonight! That’s 2 dinners and 3 breakfasts from one pot!

Here’s what we used:
*2 lb ground turkey ( I know this is a 3lb pack, I’ll get to that later)
*1 can tomato paste
*2 cans diced tomatoes
*2 cans kidney beans (I do light and dark red, one of each)
*1 large can tomato puree
*1 onion, diced
*1 green bell pepper, diced
*3 carrots, diced
*1 tsp minced garlic
*Cumin
*paprika
*garlic powder
*onion powder
*salt/pepper
*chili powder
*shredded cheddar, hot sauce, and sour cream to finish at the end (optional)

First, give your veggies a nice dice. This cooks down for quite a while so I try to keep it from being chopped too small. I don’t want to lose all those little bits in the pot.

Heat up some oil over medium heat in a large stock pot. Toss in your diced veggies and give them a good stir. I let these cook down for a bit, until they are nice and soft. A couple of my smaller pieces started to brown, but it’s ok you can save it! All of those brown bits on the bottom will add to the flavor later. When you notice the veggies getting nice and soft, add your minced garlic and continue cooking for 1-2 minutes.

Once my veggies tender and the garlic is nice and fragrant, add the small can of tomato paste. I like to stir it around and get the veggies nice and coated in it. Cook for 1-2 minutes longer, making sure to mix it and not let the tomato paste burn to the bottom of your pot.

While that is cooking down, I start browning my turkey meat. I went ahead and browned the whole 3 lb package, and reserved about a pound to put in the fridge for an easy spaghetti sauce filler later in the week. Anything I can do to make life easier on myself later, I’m all about that!

You will also want to give your beans a good rinse. I just dump them into my colander with the cold water running over them and give them a good swish with my hands until the water runs clear off of them.

Once your meat is browned and your beans are rinsed, you can go ahead and add them both to the pot. Give it a good stir and make sure it all gets coated with that veggie/tomato paste mixture. It should start smelling REALLY amazing in your kitchen about now.

Now add in your 2 cans of diced tomatoes and your large can of tomato puree. I always add my seasoning at this point, and I would love to tell you how much that is. Honestly though, I just sprinkle-sprinkle-sprinkle until the Chili Gods tell me ‘that’s good, just like that’.

Now you have some time on your hands! I let my chili cook over medium low for at least 2 hours. Keep coming back to stir it and waft in that warm chili smell, but mostly you can leave it covered and let it do it’s thing while you scroll Instagram and decide to make some homemade chocolate pudding for desert (Does anyone else LOVE Jennifer Garners #PretendCookingShow?!)

And there you have it. A hearty bowl of happiness. I love to top mine with shredded cheddar, sour cream, and some dashes of hot sauce. And it is heavenly. Let me know how you love yours!