I’m back. Or at least, I’m here for now? If the past year and a half have shown us anything, it’s that we can’t really predict what will happen.

I’ve let this blog go for all that time while we’ve navigated the uncertainties of life during a global pandemic along with all the rest of you; now I’m ready to give it another try, I think, but who knows? For the moment I’ll just be glad to be here and feeling almost normal, ish.

I should say straight out, right up front, that we were luckier in many ways during this time than a lot of other people. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard. It just means we didn’t lose any loved ones to COVID, none of us tested positive, and we had enough privilege in our lives to be able to make the (difficult) choice to keep all four of us home almost all the time for virtually all of 2020 and a good portion of 2021. After weighing all the available information and choices, we transitioned both of our boys to full time distance learning in March 2020 and did not reverse that decision, even though it meant that the kids spent their first and last years of middle school, respectively, sitting at home on laptops. We didn’t go out much, not even to do our own shopping; I didn’t start regularly going back to grocery stores and so forth until this spring. And we didn’t see family or friends, even at the holidays.

One exception to that is my father, who, since my mom’s unexpected death 3 ½ years ago, has been living alone a few hours from us. We realized pretty quickly that total isolation wasn’t going to be good for him either mentally or physically, and that given the fact he has a fairly significant and complex case of narcolepsy on top of everything else, months of unending solitude also weren’t a super smart idea. So part of what happened with us during this whole mess was basically opening our home to Dad as a part-time household member. He spends a few weeks or a month at a time with us, to be extra cautious about quarantine protocols and so forth. Then he heads home for a couple of weeks to make sure nothing is falling down around the place; then back to us. It’s been that way since April 2020 and while it’s easing off a bit now, as Dad has more freedom to move around and do things in his own town again, due to a number of factors he’s becoming more of a fixture here than pre-COVID. It’s great having him around. It’s also one more family member in the house, one more personality, one more set of food preferences, one more bed to make up, one more routine to fold into ours. So it’s not a hardship BY ANY MEANS, but still a bit complex at times.

But also, Dad’s a good handyman, and did I mention that the pandemic pretty neatly exposed all the ways in which the five of us (plus two dogs) were NOT going to fit comfortably into this house if no one could ever leave and these walls were going to have to hold every possible daily activity for all of us? So another part of our upheaval, with upsides and downsides, has been totally redoing — thriftily and DIY-style, mostly — our house. Like, almost the whole thing.

It started innocently enough. Right before COVID hit, we’d scheduled a contractor to come help with our first floor half-bath because of some water damage from an old roof leak. He showed up to do the work right around the time people were starting to get alarmed about the possibility of a pandemic, in late February. We ended up with a total gut and rebuild, and got it done just under the wire, before the schools locked everything down and no one could go anywhere. However, a friend who was lending her design-oriented eye to the bathroom project for me noted that there were other things about our first floor living spaces that could use an upgrade for both aesthetics and functionality. Thank God she did, because by the time March 13 hit and we were all at home “for two weeks” — haha — we’d made our big main living/dining space extra cozy and usable. And by the time those two weeks had ended and the school district realized that the kids couldn’t go back, so they’d need to start logging in online every day instead, we’d created a brand new functional study zone for the boys that has come in handy every darned day since. And then Dad started hanging around, and he needed something to keep him busy…so he offered to help with the bedroom redo I’ve wanted for 15 years, since we bought this house. We spent months in disarray getting it done slowly, but now J. and I have a functional closet for the first time in all these years (old houses for the win!) and our bedroom is actually BIGGER than before, plus I thrifted some amazing stuff and learned how to hang wallpaper and now it’s beautiful on the cheap, too.

This was yet another lucky turn of events, because with the kids doing school on the first floor of the house for over a year, I needed someplace else to work when peace and quiet were essential (not to mention the wallpaper makes a fabulous Zoom background, a thing I would never have thought of AT ALL until 2020). And I couldn’t go to the third floor office space because…. Have you heard of those companies that let everyone go to remote work during the pandemic, and then realized they didn’t need them back in the office, ever? Yeah, J. works for one of those. We created a makeshift space for his multiple-monitor computer setup and files in the third floor office at first, then learned that the company was closing all physical buildings to save on the overhead costs and keeping their employees remote FOREVER. So the third floor became another redo priority, which now — after much decluttering, cleaning, painting, rearranging, etc., etc., houses a comfortable room for Dad on one side, and a comfortable permanent office for J. on the other side complete with a reading/hideout nook for me if I can ever get a little time to use the space to escape from the world, call a friend, and pretend no one knows where I am.

Of course, that left the challenge of what we were going to do with P.’s Lego and model building setup, which was on the third floor until Dad moved in, and also the additional challenge of what we were going to do about L.’s violin and viola practice because the kid is a GREAT player but having him set up his stand in the front room of the first floor and play for hours on end every day was killing everyone’s ability to share space and stay sane. So Dad got ambitious again, and the result is that we now have a mostly finished basement, with a large room for the kids on one side — Lego/model table, video game zone, and a dedicated practice studio space — and a big laundry/utility room, still a work in progress, on the other. Whew.

As you may have guessed by now, my house is SO much more awesome than it was, but also, we have been living in some form of moderate chaos for the majority of the time that we’ve been confined to the house together and trying to work, school, Zoom socialize, and all the rest of it. Oh, and a long-neglected renovation of our only full bath starts…tomorrow. Yeah. Chaos, redux. Because obviously, now that the boys have started in-person school again, we definitely need to rip out our only available shower and disrupt pretty much everything around here for another little while.

And what about food, and meal planning, and all of that? Well, it’s been complicated. I’ve been much more “by the seat of my pants” during this whole time than I prefer to be — at first, because of the uncertainty of being able to get certain ingredients from the stores, and then, because I could never be quite sure when Dad was going to show up again for a long stay, and our menu choices are far different (and more limited) when he’s here than when he’s not. Also, let me just point out again that this whole period of life has been HARD and my kids are amazing, but keeping everyone and everything going and feeling relatively mentally healthy during a total upheaval in the universe has been a whole other job. Plus, in the category of “we fared better than a lot of people and yet there are complications to that,” both J. and I actually flourished work-wise throughout the pandemic — he received a great promotion, and I picked up more opportunities to work on great projects — but while we are truly blessed to be in that group of employment-secure people, actually doing all that work at home in the midst of all the other things has been a challenge unto itself.

And. AND. I’m fine now, or mostly, I think, but for the majority of 2020 I was battling some as-yet-undiagnosed strange chronic illness that caused me bouts of pain and vertigo for up to two weeks at a time. Again: Fine now, mostly. Medical mystery-ish, though we do have some very plausible theories. Still, a lengthy and uncomfortable turn of events that I’m glad to be able to pretend didn’t happen, at least as long as I stay feeling well.

All of this to say: I couldn’t do a great job meal planning. I did okay, a week or two at a time, not with great enthusiasm or creativity. We ate. In a lot of ways we gave up on some things, and the boys ate far too many boxes of mac and cheese and frozen chicken tenders this year. Some days I had the time to cook and bake elaborately, but not the energy; many other days, I had neither. We survived. We did okay. But I’m having to push myself now to come out the other side and, in some ways, re-learn old habits and processes for running this household while there are real schedules to keep, appointments to make, places to go…and yet, still safety to prioritize, and concerns to be reckoned with.

So that’s, believe it or not, the short version of what happened to keep me away for so long. There’s a lot more I’ll leave unsaid for now, but the important stuff is this: We’re okay, we’re readjusting (as I’m sure many of you are), and we’re trying to move forward in hope and positivity. And with that, I’m going to stop and give you what you’re really here for: The September Meal Plan, only a few days late.

September 2021 Meal Plan

Wednesday, 9/1: Chicken boti kebabs (Epicurious)
Thursday, 9/2: Sheet pan pork and sweet potato satay with broccoli and jasmine rice
Friday, 9/3: Things got super busy and we honestly gave up and ordered pizza, turned on a movie, and crashed.
Saturday, 9/4: Spicy shrimp skillet with cheese and green onion quesadillas
Sunday, 9/5: Spaghetti and meatballs, salad
Monday, 9/6: Grilled chicken sandwiches, fruit and onion rings
Tuesday, 9/7: Beef and broccolini bowls with rice (The Family Dinner Project)
Wednesday, 9/8: Skillet pork chops with peppers and arugula, cornmeal potatoes
Thursday, 9/9: Buffalo style lettuce wraps, sweet potato fries
Friday, 9/10: Pasta with pancetta, goat cheese and peas, salad
Saturday, 9/11: Chicken schnitzel, egg noodles, sweet and sour cabbage
Sunday, 9/12: Veggie curries — chana masala and saag feta, with garlic naan and rice (Epicurious)
Monday, 9/13: Creamy mushroom pasta, caprese salad and asparagus
Tuesday, 9/14: Tacos Nortenos, rice and beans (Bon Appetit)
Wednesday, 9/15: Candied rosemary chicken and vegetables, cous cous
Thursday, 9/16: Smoky beans and greens on toast, roasted vegetables (Epicurious)
Friday, 9/17: Homemade pizzas
Saturday, 9/18: Fresh seafood
Sunday, 9/19: Sunday Roast Chicken, roasted potatoes and vegetables
Monday. 9/20: Pasta e ceci, bread and salad (Smitten Kitchen)
Tuesday, 9/21: Sheet pan chicken nachos
Wednesday, 9/22: Simplest stuffed peppers and rice
Thursday, 9/23: Miso chicken salad (Bon Appetit)
Friday, 9/24: Breakfast for dinner
Saturday, 9/25: Linguine with clams, salad
Sunday, 9/26: Char siu pork, bok choy and rice (Recipe Tin Eats)
Monday, 9/27: Singapore noodles with leftover pork (Bon Appetit)
Tuesday, 9/28: Turkey taco burgers, corn and fruit (The Family Dinner Project)
Wednesday, 9/29: French onion meatballs, egg noodles, green beans
Thursday, 9/30: Chicken Caesar Salad