Blogmas 2017

What I Learned from 3 Months of Challenges: Blogmas, NaNoWriMo, & Blogtober

What I Learned from 3 Months of Challenges | Writing Between Pauses

Blogtober. NaNoWriMo. Blogmas. 

3 months, 3 writing challenges. 

I survived--and I completed each challenge. 

Sometimes, I feel like I can't finish anything. I start stories and never finish; I start projects and lose steam; I pick up hobbies and let them languish. It's embarrassing, especially when it feels like so many people I know are so capable of completely important, exciting passion projects. 

So when I decided to do Blogtober, in the lazy last days of September, I knew I was committing to a lot because I also knew that I would be doing NaNoWriMo, as I usually do. But then, midway through Blogtober, I hesitantly write "Blogmas" on the top of my December editorial calendar. But that simple writing was enough to make me feel committed. 

At the end, I was very, very tired--a little of blogging, but I also almost felt refreshed by it. It made me love blogging again. It made me love writing again! It gave me so many ideas for content that I have through April filled in my editorial calendar! 

I wanted to talk about everything I learned from 3 months of doing writing challenges, because I think it's important to always look back and reflect on what worked and what didn't. 

1. I know my limitations. 

I was about halfway through Blogtober when I realized that, no, I couldn't really keep up with other social media while I was doing so much writing and editing, as well as graphic design. I just wasn't capable of it! I wish I was. Knowing that I wasn't able to keep up, as well as I wanted to, in regards to Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest almost gave me freedom to keep going. It removed a lot of the pressure. Instead of trying to post every day, I focused on the weekends or doing what I was able to--which almost worked to my benefit because I had more time to dedicate to content and writing. 

2. Having a goal left me energized. 

I think most people feel this way when they have a goal and meet it. Getting to December 31 and realizing I had been writing, posting, editing, and more every single day for the past 3 months was monumental. I got so much done! I felt great! I had so many ideas! More than anything, I feel like both Blogtober and Blogmas gave me really good ideas of the kind of content that people want from this blog--what they connect with, what they don't, and how I can be better. 

3. I never really know what the best content will be. 

My most popular post of the last 3 months is about tea. I'm serious. I've gotten more traffic, and retweets, and mentions, about a post about tea than any other post I've ever written. Not my post about how we don't do Santa. Not my post about breastfeeding. Not any review I've ever written. Tea. Y'all love tea! I am still genuinely stunned when I see the analytics of that post! It shocks me! But I also love it because I feel like it gives me such insight into what people enjoy and the niche I can fill. 

Would I do it again? 

When I told my husband I was writing this post, he asked me, "Would you do it again?" 

That's a good question. 

The short answer is, yes, absolutely. I had my best months ever in December and October. I got emails about sponsorship and being added to PR lists. I made friends with bloggers. I got opportunities I never imagined! 

However, the longer answer is, perhaps, it really depends. In the next year, I plan to get pregnant again, maybe, definitely, no, actually... I'm very undecided and wishy-washy about the next year. Part of me wants to just have fun and see where the current success of Writing Between Pauses takes me! But another part of me likes having the structure of knowing what's coming. So hesitantly, I say, yes, absolutely. But another part of me wonders if I'll be pregnant then! 

Did you do any challenges in October, November or December? What did you learn? 

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas! | Writing Between Pauses

I know most everyone will be too busy today, but it's the last official day of Blogmas and I needed to post something, surely! In terms of Christmas-y posts, I think I've written just about every type of post I've wanted to write for Christmas this month. Thank you all for following along. 

Christmas is such a special time of year. There is no month that captures the highs and lows of life quite like December: it feels like when things are good, they're extremely good; but when they're bad, they are devastatingly bad. I know many are having rough months so I want to take a moment, again, to say: it's easy for December to be a hard, dark month, where it's hard to feel joy, where you get bogged down.

You might be without family or away from family; you might have financial setbacks; you might not be able to do everything you've done before. But ultimately, Christmas is about what you make it. It doesn't have to be extravagant or expensive or like anyone else's Christmas. It can be a plain, simple Christmas, with the Santa Clause on Netflix and a box of pre-made cookies from the grocery store. It's what you want it to be. That's it. No need to get Christmas-y like everyone else. No need to do things you don't want to do. 

This is just a short way to say: Merry Christmas, thank you for following my blog, and if you need to chat, I'm always here. 

The Best of Blogmas

The Best of Blogmas 2017 | Writing Between Pauses

Blogmas has been a real learning experience. As I wrote in both my Blogtober roundup post and my Blogtober reflection, it's easy to lose steam during a challenge like this--but ultimately I found it very rewarding. My traffic was astounding in October and I was hoping to replicate that in December. 

The results in December were... less than stellar. My traffic definitely flagged and didn't rise to the heights of October or even November, which I found equal parts frustrating and disappointing. So, Blogmas wasn't exactly the smash hit I expected it to be in terms of traffic. However, I did find Blogmas to be extremely fun and rewarding in terms of writing output and the content I put out there. Not every blog post I wrote felt like a hit (and absolutely, there are a few I want to redo in the future when I have time), but I wrote posts I wanted to write and I think I wrote some evergreen content that I can refer to throughout the year. 

Without further ado, here are my top 3 blog posts of Blogmas, followed by 3 blog posts I've loved from my fellow bloggers. 

My Top 3 Posts of Blogmas

  1. 5 Free iPhone Wallpapers for Christmas: This is the first blog post idea I had and the very first post of the year. Of course, it's gotten the most traffic from Pinterest because it has the phrase free iPhone wallpapers in it. (Insert laughing-crying emoji here.) I do love this post though because it is so simple. 
  2. A Busy Mom's Gift Guide for Toddlers: Gift guides, I love them and I hate them. I didn't expect this one to be quite the runaway success that it was, but alas, people never know what to buy for young toddlers. This post not only has gotten a lot of traction on both Twitter and Pinterest, but has gotten quite a few clicks over to Amazon. Interesting! 
  3. Why We Don't Believe in Santa: I knew this post would raise eyebrows. Hilariously, I did get asked in a DM on Twitter if I was raising my son to believe in God, if nothing else. (If you're wondering: it's none of your business.) It's something I'm really proud of having written because I know it's an alternative viewpoint on how to raise a child around Christmas, but I know I'm not alone. To my fellow parents who aren't doing Santa, or god forbid those awful elves-on-the-shelves, I have your back! 

My 3 Favorite Posts from Other Bloggers

  1. 20 Ways to Stay Calm At Christmas from Hello Bexa: Do you get anxious around the holidays? Being cooped up inside, with nowhere to go, often makes me feel very anxious. These tips from Bexa have been really helping in keeping me soothed and from getting too high strung. 
  2. Tips to Fight Off the Winter Blugs from Its Bethan's Blog: A similar post, but this one is all about warding off the winter blues. As someone who hates summer, but also has SAD, these tips are absolutely wonderful.
  3. Instant Download Christmas Cards from A Life of Charlotte: If you, like me, are permanently getting to around December 20 and realizing, "Oh, I haven't done Christmas cards...", well then, this post is for you! These instand downloadable cards are super gorgeous and perfect for those last minute moments when you're about to head to someone's house for a party. 

Do you have a favorite Blogmas post? Share with me in the comments!

Things I Love: December 23

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It's another Things I Love... but this time it's an "it's almost Christmas!" edition. 

Danny and I are currently in Idaho to celebrate Christmas with his family. We had an exciting trip getting here (3 inches of packed snow on the pass we have to drive to get here? Sure!), but we are glad to be here and we have plenty to celebrate and love this week. Considering we almost called it off, we are really excited and lucky to be here. (Getting home will be a different story!) 

I'm glad I planned to do another Things I Love today; I think it's the perfect time of year for it. So without further ado, here's everything I'm loving from this past week. 

1. Finishing my Advent Calendar

Have I put this on both of my TiL's this month? Yes. Do I regret it? No. As I mentioned in the review post I wrote about it, I'd never done an advent calendar that wasn't just waxy pieces of chocolate and the Night Before Christmas poem behind each door! So it's quite exciting and different for me. I posted each day's item on my Instagram as well, which was a fun series (even if a lot of people were totally bored by it)! 

2. Making new Christmas Traditions with Forrest

I'm very used to celebrating Christmas at my house with my family. Visiting Danny's family for Christmas is an entirely new experience and I realized it's made me actually have more fun than I thought I would. As well, Forrest is having a blast here in Idaho. It snowed yesterday evening; we decorated cookies our first night in town; and we spent Friday visiting friends, going shopping, and watching Christmas movies. (You can read my post about all my favorite Christmas traditions here.) 

3. My daily gratitude thread

I recently started challenging myself to post a short list of things I'm grateful for every single day on Twitter. I really enjoy doing it every day and while most people seem to ignore it (it's mainly for myself), it's something I want to try to keep up through the new year. 

My Top 5 Moments of 2017

My Top 5 Moments of 2017 | Writing Between Pauses

I genuinely can't believe 2017 is almost over. It feels like simultaneously the longest year ever and the shortest year on record. It's also a year of stunning personal highs and sweeping societal lows. But I'm not here to talk about that. 

Sometimes, after a rough year, it's best to talk about the good moments. A study I read in college said that those who list 10 good things about their day, even on bad days, are more positive than those who write about the negative parts of their day. (I'll talk more about this in my goals for 2018!) 

So, for one of my wrap up posts about 2017, I want to talk about my best moments of the year. 

1. Going to Disneyland

Despite being married nearly 5 years, Danny and I hadn't really planned a big family vacation together yet--and especially not with an almost-2-year-old toddler. But when we decided to go to Disneyland, we knew it was a pretty intense undertaking. It wasn't the absolute greatest trip at certain times (in fact, I cried at least 3 times), but at the end, I really enjoyed it and I'm glad we got to have the experience together as a family. Plus, Disneyland is my favorite place in the world and being able to experience it with my son (even if he wasn't especially a fan) was absolutely worth it. 

2. Quitting Dairy

It feels weird to include something like this, but it has to be said: giving up dairy this year really made a difference in my health and skin. I've mentioned about how jojoba oil improved my skin and I think part of that is thanks to quitting dairy. I'm still not 100% dairy free (butter and cheese are still weaknesses), but I no longer use cow's milk in cooking or my coffee, which is a big step forward! 

3. Rejoining the Gym 

I wanted 2017 to be my year of getting fit and while that didn't exactly go to plan (I look almost exactly the same as at the start of the year), I did rejoin the gym. Now, I relish the time I get to spend there: unlimited wifi, weights, and the cardio machines. I definitely use the time to think on everything I need to do and relieve some stress. 

4. Starting a New Job

I resisted talking about this publicly, but in November, the company I had been working at for my day job decided to cease marketing and sales operations. It wasn't a reflection on my skills; I was a one person marketing department, doing everything for a start up in 20 hours a week. The market just wasn't right and I needed more money to do what we needed to do. It was really unfortunate and while it was incredibly stressful for about 3 days, I also knew it was the right thing for my boss to do. Thankfully, I got hired on about 2 days after I found out--at his wife's company! I am happy to still be in the same line of work (content strategy, my favorite!), but it's definitely less stressful to have a team of people. 

5. Starting a Content Strategy for WBP!

You know how I just mentioned that by day, I work as a content strategist? I've always had a problem of being motivated for things for myself; when it comes to work or helping other people, I solve their problems and help them meet their goals... but I am unable to do things for myself (like lose weight or start freelancing full time).

However, in September, I sat down and decided I would give myself one more year of blogging and if I didn't make it work this year, I would quit for good. I'm going on 10 years of blogging now and I've never had a strategy for my work on the internet... but it's time. If I can strategize, plan, write, and implement a content strategy for a client, then why can't I do it for myself? Isn't that the greatest proof of my skills? So in 2018, I'm going to be continuing to work on this strategy, putting everything I know into practice, and I hope to see these skills continue to payoff. I've had the best year so far with Writing Between Pauses. So here's to another year! 

Beauty Review: The Ulta Beauty 12 Days of beauty Calendar

Beauty Review: The Ulta Beauty 12 Days of Beauty Calendar | Writing Between Pauses

When I purchased the Ulta Collection 12 Days of Beauty advent calendar, I did so with the strict intention of 1) treating myself to something I've never done before (a beauty advent calendar!) and 2) testing to see if everything in it was absolutely worth the price tag. 

Luckily, this calendar wasn't particularly expensive: full price, it cost $18, but I bought it on sale for $13.50. That's a right bargain, really, for 12 new beauty products! Even Ulta's collection, which is quite affordable, you couldn't buy that many products for that total. 

In this review, I want to answer the question: was this advent calendar worth it? I define worth in a few ways: firstly, is the value of the calendar the same as or more than what I paid for it? Secondly, are the products things the average person (or, in my case, a 29-year-old mother) would use? And thirdly, was it also fun

Let's jump right in! 

1. Metallic Lip Gloss ($9) 

This was an exciting first day surprise! Metallic lip gloss (and lipstick and liquid lips) are very popular this season, so this was a fun find. I wore it over my favorite liquid lip, Rebel Rose by Wet'n'Wild, and really loved it. It is definitely on the stickier side, but it's very pigmented and very metallic. 

I couldn't find any metallic lip glosses on Ulta's website, which is a little odd, but this gloss is a lot like the Color Rush lip glosses (which I have used before and really love). It is quite close to the color Carrie and so I have valued it at around $9 for a full size. 

2. Gel Bounce Eye Shadow ($8) 

I really love this eyeshadow. It's a bronzey-gold shade with a slightly greenish tint. It's not super pigmented, but great for packing on top of another eyeshadow to make it into a more glitzy night look. It's also something I would use during the day to highlight my inner corner. I did find it transferred quite a bit if I wore in on my eyeliner, but a better primer might be necessary. 

This is another product that I couldn't find an exact match for on Ulta's website, but it is very close in color and texture to the Glitter Eye Top Coat in the shade Bronze Bombshell

3. Glitter Tears Eyeliner ($10) 

This definitely falls into the "fun, but not something I would use category"! It's quite cool; it's a glittery gold eyeliner that is surprisingly easy to use. I could see myself putting it on top of black winged eyeliner for a party look, but not something I would reach for every day. 

So this eyeliner is actually the same as was in a kit, sold earlier in the year, and is the exact same as Ulta's Liquid Eyeliner in the color Gold Glitter. (The only difference is the bottle shape.) 

4. Face & Body Glitter in the color Holographic ($8) 

Just like the glitter eyeliner, this is something that is very fun (glitter!) but not super practical. As a mom, I just don't need to be covered in glitter all the time! It is quite fun though and if I was younger, I would mix it with lotion for a summer day out. This definitely went into my bin of things to donate to my husband's students (they will love it, honestly). 

This is one of the few things I found an exact match for on Ulta's website. 

5. Tinted Glossy Balm ($9)

After 2 days of mild disappointment, I was so excited to get something I genuinely love. I'm a lip balm freak and I love tinted balms; this one is on the glossy side, but still hydrating (and doesn't have peppermint oil, thank goodness). It is a pretty berry color: a little bright, but quite pretty. 

However, this was another product I couldn't find an exact match for on Ulta (making me incredibly suspicious that this calendar was just repackaged leftovers), but quite similar to the Butter Balm Lip Gloss in the shade Poppsy

5. Duo Chrome Illuminator in the shade Fairy ($10)

Aha, another exact match! Finally! I was so excited to see this. It's not a traditional highlighter, but rather an illuminator; it is like the Hourglass Afterlight powders that you put in for lowlight looks. More strobing than highlighting, really. This color is very pretty: icy pink that shifts blue-lavendar. I've been wearing it as highlighter over my blush and loving it. 

7. Matte Lip Cream ($9)

I love matte liquid lips and I quite like Ulta's matte lip creams, so this was an exciting day! This color is also lovely. Another exact match (we're on a roll!), although since the tube isn't labeled, I have to guess the color. My guess is either Artistic or Bombshell. However, the color is really, really lovely: right up my alley as a medium-toned, mauvey pink! 

8. Clear Brow Gel ($7)

I'm not typically a "brow girl", as I say, but I was excited to try this product. I have natural brows that can be quite unruly and I've been meaning to try a brow gel for ages... but just never bought one. Ulta pushed me into it! This brow gel is quite nice, keeping my brows in line without looking fake or feeling too stiff. 

9. Bouncy Blush ($9) 

I'm a sucker for blush! I love blush! And this one is no exception although it is quite sparkly, which is my only problem with it. Not for everyday use, but the color is lovely and it makes an excellent eyeshadow shade as well. 

Again, I couldn't find an exact match, but the Ulta Velvet Blushes look very close. The shade Pink Out is very, very close, although I feel like this blush is certainly a little sparklier. 

10. Brow Pencil ($10)

As I said, I'm not someone who typically does my brows, so brow products tend to be a waste on me. But this pencil is quite lovely and matches my hair perfectly, so maybe I'll morph into a brow person! 

As well, this is another not-exact match because in the calendar was a sample size without the spoolie on the end (so the value isn't exactly the same, of course). 

11. Eyeliner & Shadow Crayon ($8.50) 

This shadow crayon is lovely! It is quite thick though, so I can't imagine using it for eyeliner (except in my waterline), but as a shadow, it's lovely for a single color look or to cover the lid after doing a transition shade. The color is a bronzey color with a subtle shimmer. 

The closest I could find from the Ulta Collection were their Cream Eyeshadow and Liner Crayons, which are a twist up product (while this is a stick product you have to sharpen). The closest color is Mauve on Over

12. Body Jewels ($3-5) 

This is an item I couldn't find on Ulta at all; there are non-Ulta brands that had them, but not Ulta. I estimated the value of this item. This is another item I'll be donating to my husband's students because I genuinely can't see myself wearing body jewels anytime soon! 

Was It Worth It?

So the big question: was this calendar worth it in the end? Let's go through the factors. 

1. Was it worth it monetarilyYes! If you bought all of these items in the closest match possible in the store, it would cost $100.50. Yes, some aren't exact matches, but the closest thing. But still, for $13.50, you could not buy 12 items (especially these 12 items). That's an absolute win to me! 

2. Was it worth it in terms of wearability? Basically, are these items wearable? Yes. Mostly. There are 3-4 things I would most likely never use (the glitter, the glitter eyeliner, the body jewels, and the brow pencil) or buy myself. However, those items are still wearable for some people--just not for me! I will be donating anything I definitely don't see myself using. 

3. Was it worth it in terms of fun? Was opening the calendar each day fun? Absolutely! It was exciting and I only found myself disappointed 2 or 3 times (and you know which things that was for). I received quite a few things that I can see myself using over and over (the illuminator, the liquid lips, the eyeshadow crayon, and the eyeshadow especially), and possibly repurchasing. 

So, final answer, was this calendar worth the purchase? Absolutely. 

But I do want to talk about some downsides. 

The Downsides

I enjoyed this calendar. I had fun! I like almost everything!

But, Michelle, you wonder, we're talking downsides, here? Yes, we are. 

While researching each item to link here (because I want you guys to be able to purchase these items that I post about and talk about!), I found a lot of older blog posts featuring these exact items... that are no longer on the Ulta website. The main culprit is the Glitter Tears eyeliner, which was sold (in that exact bottle) in a kit.

I started to suspect, about halfway through my research, that a lot of these items are either:

  1. discontinued items from past collections
  2. items that have been discontinued in favor of a rebrand (such as the Bouncy Blush becoming Velvet Blush) 
  3. items from kits that didn't sell.

Basically, I started to wonder if this was a calendar of leftovers. 

Absolutely, I would prefer a brand to sell a calendar of discontinued products rather than putting them in dumpsters or landfills. But it makes it very difficult to link to those products or repurchase them if you like them. It feels like it lacks transparency. 

I'm still quite happy with the calendar and I'm glad I bought it. I just wanted to share what I found out (and what I'm mulling over!) 

Did you purchase a beauty calendar this year? I'm already keeping my eyes peeled for ones for next year! 

My Favorite Christmas Traditions

My Favorite Christmas Traditions | Writing Between Pauses

Christmas is my favorite time of year. 

Actually, scratch that: from October 1 to December 31 is my favorite time of year. Once January hits, I tend to fall into a bit of a... rut? Sadness rut? January and February are very difficult months for me, so it seems kind that I get my absolute favorite time of year right before that. 

I grew up with a lot of Christmas traditions that have fallen to the wayside. I think that is true of everyone's life: there are things you do as a kid that just aren't realistic for incorporating into your life as you get older. There are no more big family dinners on Christmas Eve; no more bright-and-early Christmas mornings (at least not until Forrest is able to get up on his own); and no more school programs or anything like that. 

No, there are other things that I associate with Christmas now. Things that I've done with Danny in the last 7 years (have we been together nearly 7 years now!?) that are special to us, that are our traditions, and things we are starting with Forrest to make into traditions of our own. 

I wanted to share some of my childhood traditions that I still keep up, some of our new traditions as a family, and a few things that we hope to incorporate into Christmas as the years go by. 

1. Baking Sugar Cookies

This is one of those traditions that everyone has. Almost everyone spends one day in December baking a ridiculous amount of sugar cookies--or maybe they're oatmeal cookies, or ginger cookies, or whatever cookie your family favors.

We make sugar cookies in my family; the recipe was my great-grandmother's, adapted from a recipe for Scottish shortbread (I think it's actually an Americanization, as my great-grandmother's side was Scottish). It's basically shortbread, plus eggs and baking powder and vanilla. That's it! They're delicious, easy to make, and so much fun.

I've been making these sugar cookies the exact same way with the exact same icing since I was little and whenever I make them for my office, everyone loves them. It's not Christmastime until I've made my sugar cookies!

2. Opening presents early

Danny and I have always been very bad at keeping secrets from each other. Mostly because I am incredibly intuitive and I know when Danny isn't telling me something. Presents are hard because, throughout the year, we save so much money that we rarely treat ourselves or each other to big purchases, so we tend to give each other gifts the moment we buy them. The last few years, we got into a bad habit of having most of our presents opened by Christmas day (oops). This year, we set a limit for ourselves: one present when Danny finished school for break and one before we left for Christmas. It worked marvelously. We got to enjoy our tradition of being absolutely cheeky about when we open presents, but we still have some to open with Forrest on Christmas morning. (And of course, like true parents, we're making Forrest wait until Christmas! Not that he knows the difference.) 

3. Watching Lord of the Rings

One of my favorite movies to watch around Christmas is the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Don't ask me why, but they are Christmas movies. I will argue about it. Danny and I started doing this the year where he wasn't working and I had quit my job to switch to another (digression: that job switch was absolutely a mistake, but that's another blog post!). We had a lot of spare time around Christmas as a result, so we watched the extended edition of the Trilogy... and loved it. We started doing it every year! 

Recently, we added the Hobbit trilogy to it. Those movies are also Christmas movies, I will argue, and fit right in. With Forrest, we don't have the attention spans (or time) we used to, so we tend to stick to the Hobbit and the Fellowship of the Ring, our two favorites. 

4. Advent Calendars

Advent calendars are a relatively new phenomena in the United States. Well, not "new." When I was little, I had an Advent calendar once or twice, but they weren't very popular and I firmly believe that the traditional ones sold in the US were all made in the same year. (Really, they all have the same waxy chocolates and exact same look. Since at least 1992.) 

I know Advent calendars are super popular outside the U.S. though, of all varieties... much better varieties than mass produced, waxy milk chocolates and a vaguely religious poem behind each door! This year, I started noticing Advent calendars popping up everywhere: Ulta had one, Sephora had one. Europe is gradually forcing a trend on the U.S. and I am into it! I got myself an Advent calendar this year and Forrest one as well, and we both enjoyed it. This is definitely something I want to keep up because they are so fun! 

5. Making Family Ornaments

This year, I bought a few ornament picture frames to put on our tree: they have the year on them, so I put two photos from our family vacation in them. It got me thinking... how nice, when Forrest is 18, to be able to decorate the tree with these photos of us and him. It's not something I can see myself doing every single year (some years we probably won't vacation or get a good photo), but something I do want to keep up for a while! 

What are your Christmas traditions? Tell me about them in the comments!

3 Dinner Ideas for Before Christmas

3 Dinner Ideas for Before Christmas | Writing Between Pauses

It's that time of year. 

Yes, Christmas. But also, the season of food. Of eating. Of being invited to brunches, lunches, parties, and get togethers. 

Especially when you have kids, you still need to make dinner--and you want it to be something fast and reasonably healthy (considering you have at least a dozen cookies in your house at all times, as well as any number of snacks, cakes, leftovers, and more). 

The past week (and actually, this week as well), I've been really struggling with cooking dinners. We are exhausted after long days at work topped with getting ready for Christmas, visiting friends and family, and making dishes for pot lucks. But Forrest has a pretty set schedule for his meals and trust me, the kid knows how to read a clock. 

Here are 3 recipes I'm turning to this week and next to help us eat well on the lead up to Christmas. 

1. One Pot Chicken Pasta

This is one of my tried-and-true, if I make this everyone will eat it and enjoy it dinners. I usually make extra veggies to go alongside it (usually roasted carrots and Brussel sprouts), but even on it's own, it's extremely tasty. 

I actually no longer follow the recipe anymore because I customize it so much. I cut out the bacon, keep the chicken, use milk instead of cream and veggie stock instead of chicken, add broccoli, and add the parmesan at the end of cooking (instead of at the beginning--I have found it gets separated and weird if I put it in at the beginning). This would be a really easy recipe to make vegan: use veggie stock and replace the milk with either almond milk or soy milk; no chicken, but stir in beans at the end of cooking (or use vegan crumbles); use a cheese substitute or nutritional yeast. 

2. Taco Bake

This is my own personal recipe. It's incredibly easy and can be made ahead. I actually made a few trays of it recently and put them in the freezer for quick dinners through the winter. Here's what you'll need: 

  • 1 pound of ground beef (or chicken if you prefer) 
  • 1 packet of taco seasoning OR about 1/2 cup of salsa or enchilada sauce
  • 1 can of refried beans OR 1 can of black beans to make your own (just cook in a pan and mash as you do so, add a little salt and pepper) 
  • Tortillas
  • Cheese
  • Carrots, peppers, spinach, corn, and broccoli 
  • About 1 cup of leftover rice (or cooked fresh) 

Start by preparing a baking dish; I use a 9x9 square pan, spray with nonstick cooking spray, then put down a layer of tortillas. Cook your ground beef or chicken in a pan, adding the taco seasoning or salsa (whatever you've chosen to use). If you need to, start cooking your refried beans and rice. (If you're using leftovers, it cuts out that step!) In the oven, roast your veggies of choice, then add a few dashes of hot sauce as you mix them up. Once you have everything cooked, it's time to layer. I usually do a layer of refried beans onto the tortillas in the prepared dish, then meat, then veggies, then a light sprinkle of cheese. Layer tortillas again and repeat until you run out of everything. Top with cheese and bake for about 20 minutes. 

It's so good, so easy, and can be made using almost entirely leftovers. 

3. A Cheese Plate

If it's just you and your partner (or just yourself!), the simplest dinners are sometimes the best. Recently, Danny and I, after Forrest has gone to bed at 3:30 because he hadn't napped all day, had a cheese plate dinner. We sliced up some nice cheese, made a few slices of toast, made a chocolate sauce for some strawberries, peeled a few mandarin oranges, and opened a bottle of wine. It was simple and super satisfying. Next time, we want to make some bruschetta and toast, as well as cheese and strawberries, to enjoy.