From Empty Nest to Full Plate and Back Again
by Kathleen Y’Barbo
Nine years ago, I was a single mom of four grown kids who thought popcorn was a suitable meal—except for breakfast, of course—and that restaurants were a fine substitute for cooking at home. I hadn’t always been an absent chef. When my children were young, I loved making dinner for the family. Most mornings, they went off to school with a home-cooked breakfast, too. I was that mom. Cooking is what I did. It was my love language.
Then came the nearly empty nest years when all three of my sons had flown off to college and work, leaving only my daughter and me to fend for ourselves at mealtime. Between Hannah’s cheerleading and dance activities and my fulltime job as a paralegal, fussy dinner arrangements went by the wayside. Those nights when we didn’t go out were spent making salads or something quick on the grill. Other times, we ordered in and enjoyed the plethora of delivery options our Texas town offered. Boiling the water for tea became my biggest culinary achievement of the week.
With my daughter off at college, I moved from a home to a third-floor condo with no elevator and little incentive to purchase large quantities of groceries. This ushered in the popcorn years, happily interrupted in times of kid visits and summer vacations. But mostly, my cookbooks gathered dust, as did my stove. I will confess that I wasn’t as bad as my friend whose oven was used as storage for mail that needed sorting (true story). Until Thanksgiving morning when she attempted to cook turkey for her husband and immediate family, she had no idea the oven had never been properly installed when they built their dream home almost a year before.
But I digress…
Life as I know it changed on October 9, 2010, when I married my hero in combat boots and moved north of the Red River to where a fully stocked kitchen, a hard-working soldier, and several hungry teens awaited my cooking. Did I mention two of the teens were teenaged boys? In what felt like the blink of an eye, my empty nest was full again and so was my grocery list.
Now the issue wasn’t whether to cook, but how much? And when? I had to relearn what I had forgotten in the years since my boys were home. Males, especially those of the under-twenty variety, love to eat. And salad is not a suitable meal to them. Nor is popcorn. It took some experimenting, and more than a little trust on their parts, but well before my soldier and I celebrated our first anniversary, I had these Okie teens eating—gasp—Cajun food, among other delicacies.
Life bumped along quite nicely north of the border until deadline season hit. For non-writers, those are the weeks when the amount of words required to complete a book does not match up with the leisurely pace of time allotted for writing them. And thus I began to experiment with “deadline food.” The crockpot became my friend, and I began to create recipes around what I could toss into the pot without having to make a grocery store run.
One of my stand-by recipes that I still keep in often rotation is Crockpot BBQ Chicken. This is a great two-ingredient dish that is literally a throw-it-in-and-forget-it entrée. To make this, simply stack frozen chicken breasts into the crockpot and then dump barbecue sauce over them. Cover and cook on low all day. Serve with corn, beans, and a salad. Delish!
But what to do when plain chicken isn’t what you’re hungry for? Try my Black Bean and Mango Lime Chipotle Chicken. This dish begins by slicing fresh mango then tossing it into the freezer for a few hours or overnight before dumping it over a layer of frozen chicken breasts in the bottom of the crockpot. Top with black beans (I used canned but freshly cooked would be great too) and chipotle salsa. You could also use canned chipotle adjusted to take your taste level into consideration. Squeeze the juice of a lime over the dish and put the lid on. Don’t peek until suppertime, and then serve over rice with salt and pepper to taste. I promise, it’s worth the wait whether your nest is empty or full!
You might be wondering what any of this has to do with relationships. After all, this is a relationship column and not a recipe exchange. Simple. As I mentioned before, food is my love language.
Before you to take that the wrong way or jump to conclusions, please hear me when I say that I mean the celebration of cooking and offering that meal fills me in ways that eating that meal never does. Words of affirmation, physical touch, quality time, receiving gifts, and acts of service are, for me, all wrapped up in the making of a dinner for my family.
Don’t believe me?
When my nest was full, words of affirmation begin with taking requests for menu suggestions. Several meals come to mind that have become special to family members over the years. When I made that meal for the group, that family member always felt affirmed and loved because that person knew the meal was a gift just for him.
Physical touch and quality time? That can happen when you’re cooking with your family. I loved bringing my people into the kitchen with me to help or just to chat while I worked. Such wonderful conversations—meaningful, deep quality time—happened in my kitchens over the years. Sometimes the conversation would begin in the preparation stage, move through the meal, and not finish until hours after the kitchen clean up. Precious memories, and what child or adult doesn’t need the gift of your time?
But you have small children or a busy family? Guess what? Even a small child can be given simple tasks. Every one of mine loved to be the person who got chosen to break the egg when one was required. And the hugs and words of encouragement (affirmation!) after the egg was broken into the bowl—or even when it went all over the place? Priceless.
These days, my nest is empty again although popcorn and salad are still not considered meals by my soldier. My condo is south of the Red River in Texas, and this one has an elevator to accommodate the folding red wagon we use to haul up our groceries. For us, cooking is still going on even though the teens have all become twenty-somethings and are more likely to connect with us via Facetime than at the dinner table.
Next year my soldier and I will celebrate ten years of marriage. Yes, I have come full circle from empty nest to full and then back again. And yes, food still plays a big part in our love language.
Now my soldier does as much of the cooking as I do, often gifting me with a meal in progress and something cold to drink when I get home from work (or making reservations to our favorite restaurants!). His roasted sweet potatoes and sausage is one of my favorites, and there’s just something about seeing a man in the kitchen that makes my heart flutter. Quick recipe: chop any root veggies and dump onto a sheet pan then drizzle with olive oil and dust with salt, pepper, and preferred seasoning. Roast at 375 degrees for a half hour or so. Add your favorite link sausage and continue roasting until sausage is done.
Our favorite meal now, though? That’s any meal where we can be together. I know at our age—we’re north of the requirement for free coffee at Walmart by a few years—that sounds silly. And yet it is true. We rarely cook together but we always dine together. In fact, most nights we eat out. But during those meals, whether at home or in a restaurant, we talk about anything and everything, and sometimes nothing at all. We spend time together. We laugh. We make memories. Just last night at a catfish restaurant we got the giggles and could barely talk at all. Oh, but the memory! I’ll never look at another cast or arm brace without thinking of the parade of diners that walked past our table at the restaurant last night.
But I digress…
Cooking may not be what we do as much as we used to, but the gift of time together? That is definitely our love language. And whether your nest is filled to the brim, empty or somewhere in between, there’s nothing better than time spent in the leisurely conversation that happens over a meal.
Kathleen Y’Barbo is the bestselling author of over 100 novels and nonfiction books that have sold more than two million copies in the US and abroad. Find out more about her at www.kathleenybarbo.com.
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