Why is this December different from the 15 previous holiday seasons I’ve experienced as a stay-at-home working mom?
This year, I actually have a client with ongoing needs and guaranteed pay. And I could probably give them 60 hours a week if I didn’t have all those piddly household chores, pets, family… and the holidays getting in my way.
Of course, I jest: My “piddly” family is the reason I get up in the morning. But balancing their needs with the need to “earn a crust” has become a little bit tougher this year. Once again, I’m finding it really difficult to re-calibrate myself as my situation has changed. What’s different this time is that the change is coming from ME, not from my husband or daughter.
So this year, I’ve declined most of the holiday party invitations that have come my way. I don’t have the time to attend, much less write a nice post about the gathering afterwards. But I made an exception last week for the one event I do look forward to each year: the annual bash produced by the folks at Fresh and Easy.
“I thought they were closing,” my husband said when I told him why I would not be home on Thursday night.
I explained — again — that even though the grocery chain’s new owners had sold a number of stores (mostly in Northern California), they had no intention of shutting down the whole thing. And I fervently hoped that our little neighborhood Fresh and Easy market would remain open, because I have come to rely on it for its range of delicious pre-made dinner options… especially now that my work day always manages to bleed into the time I would have normally started cooking.
“If anything, since the buyout, we’re going to become fresh-er and easier,” was the official word at the party from company spokesman Mike Evans. They will continue to market fresh, microwavable meals for busy people but will also have a new emphasis on local, organic produce and natural foods, including products from the natural grocery chain Wild Oats, which is also owned by F&E’s new corporate parent.
The party organizers then showed us exactly what is in store, with tray-passed goodies like Fresh & Easy stuffed mushrooms and sinful (and simple!) mac & cheese won tons (just spoon a little F&E macaroni & cheese into won ton skins and fry ‘em up in a wok. Delish!) There was a selection of cheese and antipasti and desserts too, but I couldn’t get enough of those won tons.
And of course, there was wine. Fresh and Easy’s wine buyers are going to continue snapping up inexpensive vintages that taste like they cost a whole lot more. Upon arrival, we were greeted by servers who handed us a champagne flute filled with Montcadi Cava sparkling wine ($8). That was good, but I was more in the mood for the Barrel Ranch Pinot Noir they were serving at the bar. ($13). If my husband had been there (instead of sending snarky texts back to me) he would have enjoyed the WineWright Chardonnay ($12).
But food and drink are not enough to make a party a success. You also need the right mix of people – and you need to make them comfortable.
The folks who plan the party for Fresh and Easy always seem to find these cute little funky venues that have a lot of possibility. This year’s event was held at The Holding Company, in the arts district east of Hollywood and the decorations were holiday chic. Best of all, I got to see some of my favorite members of the LA blogging community (many of whom I haven’t talked to since last year’s Fresh and Easy holiday party). The photo booth was especially busy because their photographer was so good – the best part of the party decorations was the continual and ever-growing slide show of happy guests clowning around with the holiday props. So we could not resist posing more than once :
As Liz Dwyer said: “In 10 years it’ll be a picture of all of us with our Google Glasses on.”
This is probably the last blogging event I’ll be able to make for a very long time, so it had to be a good one. And it was.
I received no compensation for this post. I am genuinely glad that Fresh and Easy is going to stick around a while, as I enjoy shopping there. All opinions are my own.
“Don’t forget – my friend’s mom is picking me up from school and taking us to that play tonight,” my daughter said this morning as she slammed my car door shut.
I had forgotten. And now that she mentioned it, I realized that with my husband out of town this week, I am going to be alone until late tonight. What should I do about dinner?
And then I remembered that I have a stash of Healthy Choice meals in my freezer. I’m kind of laughing about this: When I was young and single, I lived on this stuff for dinner most nights. (Maybe that’s why I didn’t have to worry as much about my weight back then.)
These meals have come a long way since the 1980′s: they’re tastier, feature more natural ingredients and make use of new materials and processes. For instance, Healthy Choice’s line of Baked Taste entrees are packaged in a tray that’s designed to cook more evenly in the microwave, meaning fewer burnt bits on the edges.
My favorite food is pasta, so I guess it’s no wonder that weight is an issue for me now that I’m at an age where my body has trouble metabolizing the carbs. I mean, there is nothing easier to cook — but I have a major problem with portion control, especially if I’m the only one eating it. That’s why heating up one of these Healthy Choice Baked meals works for me on a night like this.
I really like the Healthy Choice Italian Sausage Bake and the Ravioli Marinara Bake. I especially like the fact that the pasta in the former Baked Taste entree is the more nutritious and better-to-metabolize whole grain type, and the Ravioli Baked Taste entree is a vegetarian choice. Both weigh in at fewer than 300 calories.
Tonight, I am thinking I’d like to switch it up from the pasta. Maybe I’ll try the Healthy Choice Chicken and Rice Cheddar Bake, featuring a blend of brown and wild rice (which isn’t rice at all, but more of a grass — and so a cup will have way fewer carbs to digest). Or perhaps the Slow Roasted Turkey Bake, made with roasted potatoes, butternut squash and green beans (in a gravy, topped with crispy onions). That one sounds like a little Thanksgiving preview; perfect for this time of year.
Which ever meal I choose, I know it will be fast, easy — and nice to my waistline. Maybe I’ll engage in some of my other “single girl behavior,” like dancing – in front of the TV. Because I may be temporarily single, but I need a lot more motivation to leave the house on a cold night.
This post is a mushy love letter to the folks at Disneyland, whose kind invitation to their annual #Halloween Time Media Day allows me to bask in all my Disney dreams… despite the fact that my child is no longer a little kid. I am living proof that you don’t have to be a kid or have young children to have a good time at a Disney park. You can even be a woman in your 50′s and have a great time there. It’s just that the experience becomes a little different.
This giant Jack o’Mickey greets visitors to Disneyland ‘s main park at Halloween Time. And every year, I take its picture.
My sister, Linda, is also a Disneyland devotee. She dropped everything this weekend and drove down here from Sacramento so she could enjoy the Halloween festivities with me.
“I really want to spend some time at California Adventure,” she told me. The last time we visited the Disney parks together, California Adventure was torn up for its $1.1 billion renovation, and she didn’t get to see much of it at all. It’s gorgeous now and better than ever. But she wanted to see that for herself.
As it turned out, the Media Day event included a reception in a “soundstage” on the Hollywood Backlot area of the park, so that was our first stop. On the way, Linda got her first glimpse of what a billion dollars buys you these days.
I took this photo last year, the first time I got to see the new Buena Vista Street entrance to California Adventure.
“This is beautiful,” she said as we wandered down Buena Vista Street, Disney Imagineering’s re-creation of Los Angeles circa 1923, the year a young Walt Disney arrived in Southern California. Buena Vista Street is very similar to the original park’s Main Street: It greets visitors by setting the stage for all the magic that’s to come, with period buildings, shops, restaurants and transportation (in this case, a replica of the old Red Cars, which criss-crossed the region and enabled residents to travel from one end of the city to the other).
Saturday was the final day for high school seniors applying to college to take the SAT, and so it was already past lunch time when we arrived at the Park and once we had checked out the reception, my daughter and her friend went off on their own, promising to check in with me by text every couple of hours. My friend Marsha (who blogs at Sweatpants Mom) joined us in a quest for something good to eat. Our first stop was the Carthay Circle, a restaurant designed to look exactly like the movie theater where Disney’s Snow White premiered in 1939. I remember seeing that theater, and also remember it being torn down in the late 60′s. This is probably the most elegant dining establishment inside either of the Disneyland parks — it is also tough to get a reservation on as busy a day as Saturday (I know — I tried to get one two weeks ago and the only available time for dinner was 4:00 PM).
So I suggested we mosey over to the Wine Country Trattoria, where I’ve always had good luck being seated. I had tried to take my sister here on her ill-fated previous visit to California Adventure, and we simply could not find the entrance behind all the construction. We were ushered to a table right away, and that’s where we made our first California Adventure discovery: There were cocktails on the menu. Now, California Adventure has always differed from the original Disneyland Park by selling wine and beer… but it you wanted a real mojito or martini, you still had to go to one of the hotels or Downtown Disney.
“Do you really have a full bar here?” Marsha asked. Our waitress assured us they did, and in the spirit of “if you build it they will come,” she ordered a margarita with her lunch. I toyed with the idea of having a cocktail and decided I might fare better on a hot afternoon with something a little lighter, so Linda and I each had a glass of white wine. Either way, we decided that feeling free to order a drink was a major benefit of enjoying Disneyland without our kids.
Yes, when bloggers get together for lunch it is totally normal for them to Instagram their drinks.
With lunch out of the way, it was time to explore the Parks. Our first stop — as always — was Space Mountain, my all-time favorite Disneyland ride, which adds a fiery ghost for Halloween excitement this time of year. For the few of you reading this who do not know, Space Mountain is a high-speed, high-tech thrill ride — the kind of attraction women our age are thought to avoid. And I will be honest: I am not as hardy as I used to be, especially when it comes to things like motion sickness. That’s one reason why I stay away from the Tower of Terror attraction at California Adventure. I think it’s a great ride — but the only time I tried it, I thought it was going to give me a heart attack. (My daughter, however, loves it and rode it twice on this visit.)
“Uh, maybe this isn’t such a great idea right after lunch,” Linda noted as we climbed into our “rocket.” By that time, it was too late. Thankfully, we made it through the ride with no ill effect, and later rode the California Screamin’ roller coaster, complete with 360-degree loop. What can I say? We may be middle-aged but we’ve still got it.
From there, we journeyed to the other side of the Park, past Frontierland and New Orleans Square to the Haunted Mansion. I was fortunate on a previous Disney excursion to enjoy this ride beside Disney’s Michele Himmelberg, who offered up lots of background on this most appropriate Halloween time attraction. I love how they pay tribute each holiday season to Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Michele is the one who told me that the huge cake in the ride’s party scene is made of real gingerbread, baked by the Park’s pastry chef — and each year, he whips up something different. (This year it’s a Skellington-themed Advent Calendar.)
We did a few more rides in both parks and a bit of shopping before we met Marsha back for dinner at Catal’s UVA Bar in Downtown Disney, which is becoming a part of our new Disneyland tradition (this is my third year dining at either Catal restaurant or UVO). And this time, I did opt for an actual cocktail because the menu offerings all sounded yummy. (And they were.)
We finished by watching the spectacular Halloween fireworks show. This is another feature that is all-new every year: The one thing you can expect is that you will walk away saying it was the best fireworks you’ve ever seen.
The Park started to empty out after the fireworks, and we toyed with the idea of getting on at least one more ride. But my daughter and her friend put the kibosh on that plan: We found them sitting on a bench and looking really sleepy. They were tired and wanted to go home.
HAH! Score another one for the middle-aged moms, who were still up for more Disney fun. Then again, by the time we hit the freeway, we realized the girls’ wisdom in exiting when we did. We were tired, too. The Fitbit I wear reported that all in all, we had walked over six miles.
“You know, it really isn’t possible to do all of Disneyland in one day any longer,” my sister remarked.
She’s right. There is so much more to see than there was when we were kids, and the wait times for the “E-ticket” rides seem even longer. I’ve gotten used to leaving the Park still wanting more — which isn’t bad for an attraction that’s thought of as just a children’s place. I guess it just goes to show you that some kids never grow up.
DISCLOSURE: I received four park-hopper tickets from Disney to visit the park during their Family Media Day event, so I could experience this year’s Halloween Time. I was not compensated to do so and all opinions are my own. The print and broadcast media who were also invited don’t have to offer one of these disclosures — just those of us publishing on the Internet.
I’ve been even busier than usual this week: There have been conference calls and meetings and I have spent the last couple of days working on a new WordPress website. These are the kind of tasks that make me do the impossible: Forget to eat. I mean, almost forget to eat — because eventually, I realize I am hungry and that’s when my diet is in the most trouble, as I’m prone to go into a feeding frenzy. This would not be so bad if it meant grabbing slices of apples and cucumbers. But for me, deferred hunger usually translates into cookies and chips.
I’m pretty sure that’s why you find an aisle of junk food in the checkout line of techie supermart Fry’s: all those programmers and IT people who sit in front of a computer screen into the wee hours of the morning lose track of time and just want to munch on something they can grab with ease. This is a recipe for diet disaster, and it’s why I try to shop strategically for easy-to-prepare lunches that are healthy as well as convenient.
And so today, I managed to avoid one of those calorie-laden frenzies because I had filled my freezer with Healthy Choice’s new line of 100% Naturals Cafe Steamers.
These are different: For one thing, these entrees are vegetarian! (Although not vegan, so I don’t
have get to share them with my husband.)
They come packed with a separate little steamer tray that allows the vegetables and pasta to steam without getting bogged down in the cooking liquid, while ensuring that the pasta is cooked to a chewy al dente texture. And they are simply delicious!
Healthy Choice Cafe Steamers Cook in Their Own Steamer Basket.
So a half hour ago, I decided to take a few minutes away from the computer to cook up a lovely autumn dish of Pumpkin Squash Ravioli, with crunchy green beans, butternut squash, apples in just the right amount of yummy butter-sage sauce. It was as good as it looks.
Healthy Choice 100% Naturals Cafe Steamers Pumpkin Squash Ravioli. It tastes as good as it looks.
So far, the Pumpkin Squash Ravioli is my favorite. But yesterday, that title belonged to the Portabella Marsala Pasta (whole wheat pasta and mushrooms in a Marsala sauce, topped with fontina). And the day before, I was loving the Asian Potstickers, which are steamed in a sweet and spicy sauce with a kick of spice.
I haven’t yet tried the Portabella Spinach Parmesan or Tortellini Primavera Pasta — but I’ve got the weekend for those.
And because it’s Healthy Choice, I know it’s a lunch I can indulge in without feeling any guilt — unlike the cookies that are supposed to be for my daughter.
I have been on a self-improvement kick for… well, my entire adult life. And since I hit middle age, that has meant focusing on weight control and eating a healthy diet.
Those two directives are not always the same thing. I lost 56 pounds a few years ago on an extremely restrictive diet that may actually have resulted in doing more damage to my metabolism than it was already suffering through menopause. This is hard to explain to friends who have never had to struggle with their weight, so I’ve stopped trying. I just go about my business and like any other junkie (and yes, I think my love of good food makes me an addict), I try to take it one day … one meal… and one snack at a time. That means lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, fewer starchy carbs and a lot more cooking from scratch.
But there are days when that isn’t possible. And that’s why I also keep a stash on hand of healthy convenience foods.
#ad The Vanilla Bean was my favorite Healthy Choice Frozen Greek Yogurt flavor. But only because I couldn’t find any of the chocolate swirl!
During our recent heat wave, I discovered the new line of Greek Frozen Yogurt from Healthy Choice. Non-fat Greek yogurt has really taken off in the last few years, undoubtedly due to its protein content and thick, rich texture — which makes you think you’re eating something a lot more indulgent. It turns out that healthy frozen Greek yogurt desserts from Healthy Choice have the same affect. I discovered that any yen I might have for ice cream could be nipped in the bud with one of these babies.
And since I have a problem with portion control (especially if I’m eating something as luscious as a frozen dessert), I appreciated the fact that Healthy Choice’s Greek Frozen Yogurt comes in perfectly apportioned 100 calorie tubs, with 4g of protein in every serving. They look really small, but they pack a big punch — I found them really filling.
#ad Healthy Choice Greek Frozen Yogurt Flavors
My favorite grocery store stocked four flavors and I tried all of them: Strawberry, Raspberry, Blueberry (all blended with real fruit) and my favorite – Vanilla Bean (with real flecks of vanilla bean that you can actually see). But I have a feeling I would also like the Honey and Chocolate Swirl flavors, too (the latter was the winner of Shape magazine’s 2013 Snack Awards for “Best Night Bite,” as a healthy fix for a late night craving for chocolate).
My only complaint about Healthy Choice’s Greek Frozen Yogurt is that it is packaged with just three tubs in a box. Maybe they can come out with an assortment featuring two samples of each. I would definitely be up for that.
Healthy Choice wants you to try their new line of Greek Frozen Yogurt so badly that they’ve got an online offer for you on their website, which will get you $1.00 off on the flavor of your choice. Check it out.
We spent yesterday afternoon walking around downtown Los Angeles (DTLA). This is something my husband I do often, with cameras in tow so we can photograph the place, while admiring the vibrant community that has grown there over the last decade.
Even tap water is displayed nicely at DTLA’s Terroni restaurant, on Spring St.
We didn’t take many pictures yesterday. I wasn’t especially keen to go this weekend. It has been hotter than hell the last couple of weeks; a situation I’ve been dealing with by getting all my errands finished as early as possible in the morning (while the temp in only in the 80s), so I can spend the rest of the day holed up in front of the AC vent.
Needless to say, I’ve been watching a lot of television (yes, even more than usual). And amazingly (for me!) it was starting to get old. The reason I got off my butt in the Valley and ventured in to the city was my kid, who wanted to attend an arts event in Grand Park (the same place where we enjoyed the fireworks this July 4). She and her friend were originally going to use public transportation to get there — which makes sense, as there is a Red Line subway stop just across the street. But her dad and I are still kind of protective and her friend absolutely had to be back in the Valley by 6:00. So my husband and I offered to drive them there.
He actually had a destination in mind: He had heard of a place called The Last Bookstore, located in the old Crocker Bank building on Spring Street and 5th. This is the kind of place that’s heaven for people who want to physically hold a book and turn its pages. It’s also kind of a hipster paradise, with lots of old, funky couches and chairs scattered around the neat, organized stacks of gently used, reasonably priced books. We looked around the stacks and found way too many interesting titles to be able to pick just one. I have a feeling we will be back, especially so we can explore the upstairs area called the Labyrinth, which showcases the work of local artists.
Spring Street was once the site of LA’s financial district. Today, it is the epicenter of DTLA’s arts community, which sprung up around the Los Angeles Theater Center. When LATC opened in 1985, the neighborhood was kind of a vast wasteland. I remember, because at one time in the late 80′s I held season tickets and going down there at night was always a little bit scary. Now, the buildings have been renovated into lofts and galleries, with people milling about the street in little sidewalk cafes and bars. We even passed a pet store there (which makes a lot of sense, for all the folks we passed who were walking their dogs). And we ordinary Angelenos can experience the best of the community on the second Thursday of each month for the Downtown Art Walk.
On a normal day, I am energized by walking the streets of DTLA. But did I mention that yesterday was downright HOT? Even though downtown is about 10 degrees cooler than the Valley, that just meant we were dealing with 90+ degree weather instead of triple digits. By the time we left the bookstore, I was absolutely parched. And the huz was hungry. We set about looking for an air conditioned spot to refresh. That meant forgoing the cute little sidewalk cafes and looking for an actual full-service restaurant.
We found it in Terroni: A gorgeously appointed Italian restaurant in another renovated old bank building. Everything about this place said style (which made us feel a little bit self-conscious in our ratty walking-around clothes). But they let us in anyway. My husband enjoyed an order of fresh gnocchi. I wasn’t all that hungry, so I ordered an appetizer of grilled radicchio, prosciutto and fresh Burrata cheese. This is what they brought me:
Not as light a meal as I was expecting!
At $17 for an “appetizer,” I’m actually glad this turned out to be so substantial. I ended up skipping dinner because of it — and it was worth it!
My daughter’s art event in the park was just two hours long — so after getting our fill of nice, cold water and delicious Italian food, we headed back up to Grand. When we told her what we had been up to, she was dismayed. It turns out that she’s been wanting to visit The Last Bookstore for a while now (“It’s famous on the Internet!” she exclaimed) and we beat her to it. I guess she’s going to want to head back downtown. And I’m betting her dad and I will be happy to drive her there. Let’s just hope it’s on a cooler day.