Our weekend trip to Virginia-Highland in Atlanta

31 January 2022

One of my (informal) goals for 2022 is to post more promptly after we return from an adventure. The memories are fresher, the details are more crisp, and I’m better able to convey what we loved from our time away (and, if necessary, what could have used a little tweaking). That being said, I’ve still got a few 2021 trips to share before we dive into 2022 fare. Today’s recap: our weekend in Virginia-Highland, an adorable neighborhood of Atlanta!

Virginia-Highland was our stopover on the way home from our week in WaterColor, Florida. It’s about an 11-hour drive between 30A and the Triangle, and Atlanta is situated nicely in between, so we opted to stop over there both on the way down and on the way back. We chose Virginia-Highland because I had heard it had cute houses (can affirm: houses are very cute) and because it was centrally located to our main attraction: the Atlanta Aquarium!

We spent two nights in Virginia-Highland and absolutely loved it – John and I agreed it’s where we’d choose to live if we moved to Atlanta and money were no object, ha! Shall we take a look?

As with our stopover in Decatur, we hoped to live like locals during our time in VaHi, even if just for a short two days – and it did really feel that way! John carefully chose an Airbnb on a quiet street just a few blocks from the restaurants and shops in the center of town; we left the car parked for the most part and walked in on the sidewalks whenever we needed to. The house itself was adorable and sparkling clean – highly recommend! June and Shep shared a room with a bunkbed and they loved climbing all over it with various stuffed animals and vehicles in every spare moment. Here’s our Airbnb, complete with generous front porch:

We arrived on Friday afternoon and, after settling in, walked right over to VaHi Corner (as the center is known) for dinner at Farm Burger. The walk took about 10 minutes and stretching our legs was such a treat after the long drive from Florida! And Farm Burger was delicious! As the name suggests, the burgers are farm-to-table-esque, and they also have yummy fries, salads, and milkshakes (as you saw in Sheptember!). It was busy on a Friday night and filled with young families with strollers – we felt right at home :)

The next morning, we woke up and walked back downtown for sweet treats from Doughnut Dollies. Listen: I love donuts, but I am usually not here for the glamour variety (after a particularly poor experience at a Nashville institution that was all influencer good looks and no real substance). But these doughnuts, despite their excellent branding, were delicious. The four of us sampled several different varieties (they have monthly specials and some staples!) and each one felt special and thoughtfully-made.

After a quick walk back to the house, we hopped in the car and made the short drive to the Georgia Aquarium! We had hyped the aquarium big-time in the lead-up to the first iteration of this trip (scheduled for spring break 2020, whomp whomp), and months later, June was still talking about how we were supposed to go but didn’t, ha. Thankfully, we were able to transfer our spring 2020 tickets to fall 2021, and we were all excited to make our long-awaited visit!

The dolphin show alone was worth the price of admission to me – it was SO COOL, and very fun for the kids. The giant Ocean Voyager tank, filled with manta rays, whale sharks, and colorful fish, was also mesmerizing and beautiful. That being said, we only stayed about two hours – it was pretty crowded, and we had a grumpy two-month-old on our hands.

By the time we left the aquarium, we had not only a hungry baby on our hands, but an entire hungry family. Lest you think every moment of every trip in the Thomas family is perfectly planned – it is not :) We had left this part of our itinerary flexible, assuming that since we were in mid-town it would be easy to find something to eat… but it turns out the area around the aquarium is a bit of a restaurant desert.

After a quick walk through Centennial Park and turning the kids loose on the park playground while we Googled lunch options like mad, we eventually ended up driving to a Mexican restaurant near a BeltLine entrance. The food was fine, but we were mostly happy to have easy access to the iconic city-wide path. We walked for a half-mile or so near the Atlanta Botanical Garden, and though we didn’t pay the admission fee, were able to glimpse a gorgeous art installation through the trees and arching over the path. It was magical. On a return visit, I’d love to go in – I hear they have a great kids area!

After a long day exploring, we headed back to Virginia-Highland and picked up a pizza and pasta takeout dinner from Osteria 832 to eat at our Airbnb (yum!). The next morning, we grabbed bagel sandwiches, pastries, and smoothies from Press and Grind before hopping in the car for the last leg of our road trip. FYI, there’s a Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit location right next to Doughnut Dollies, but I was outvoted :)

There’s so much to explore in a city like Atlanta, but we were glad we kept our radius pretty tight. It made for a fun, easy, and memorable visit – and left plenty to see next time! :)

Our top ten meals of 2021

24 January 2022

By now, you are surely aware that I’m a person who likes data and information. I collect it almost without thought, whether it’s the number of tomatoes we harvest in a summer or the amount we spent on Chipotle in 2014 (thank you, budget record keeping for the last decade). Another prime example: as I was making our weekly menu on Saturday, I realized that I had inadvertently collected a record of our weekly menus for all of 2021. (I clear out the backlog in our recipe binder periodically, but hadn’t done so in a while, I guess!) Being the curious person I am, I immediately started tallying to figure out our most popular meals from the last year, just for fun. Want to see? :)

1. Chickpea, Kale, and Sausage Pasta | No surprises here! This is the favorite meal of pretty much everyone in our house (June chose it for her birthday dinner!). Turns out we made it 18 times in the last year, or about once every three weeks.

2. Spaghetti | This is a bit of a catch-all, as we rotate between spaghetti, bucatini, and linguine for our noodle of the day. For the sauce, I’ll usually brown ground beef and a diced onion then add in lots of Rao’s marinara and serve with garlic bread and a green salad (with Olive Garden dressing – did you know they sell it in grocery stores??). (16 times)

3. Chicken Tikka Masala | This has been a favorite for years – I can practically make it in my sleep! Making the masala paste is the most time-intensive part, but one batch yields enough for 4-6 meals (I measure out the amount needed per recipe and toss the bags in the freezer). We add frozen peas and serve with jasmati rice and naan. (13 times)

4. Grilled Chicken Shawarma | This is more of a warm-weather recipe, which makes it an impressive number four (11 times!). The marinade makes the most tender chicken. We serve it with the garlic yogurt sauce (in the recipe), rice pilaf, cut cucumbers and cherry tomatoes, mini naan, and hummus.

5. Pulled Pork Sandwiches | Super simple: put 3-5 pounds of boneless pork shoulder roast in the Instant Pot. Add a chopped onion and two cans of Coke, then pressure cook for 3 hours. Shred the pork in a stand mixer, pour out the onions and liquid, add the pork back to the cooker, then stir in your barbecue sauce of choice (we use a mixture of Sweet Baby Ray’s and a local Eastern NC vinegar sauce). Serve on Martin’s potato rolls with coleslaw and your sides of choice (highly recommend a catering tray of Chick-fil-a mac and cheese). This will make leftovers, which we like to put on pizza, make into tacos with guacamole, or freeze for an easy dinner later. (9 times)

6. Homemade Pizza | We use the dough from Publix and rotate between cheese, poblano and bell pepper, and buffalo chicken versions. (8 times)

We had a three-way tie for seventh place…

7. Hot Dog Cookout | This becomes an almost-weekly staple in the summer months: hot dogs and buns; cucumber, tomato, and balsamic vinaigrette salad; corn on the cob; and Bush’s baked beans. Ideally followed by s’mores or peach and blackberry cobbler. Perfection. (7 times)

7. Orzo Italiano | This is the only meal on the list that one member of our family doesn’t care for; if that wasn’t the case, I’d probably make it even more often! This is a go-to when we bring a meal to a friend. (7 times)

7. Chicken Pot Pie | My Dad and I share a deep love for chicken pot pie, a love I seem to be successfully passing on to my children. I use Pillsbury pie dough for a shortcut, and it’s easy enough to double the filling to freeze half for later. We serve with Honeycrisp apples! (7 times)

10. Beach Street Pasta | Thanks to the soy sauce in the marinade, this very-easy pasta has such a unique flavor! I add halved cherry tomatoes for more veggies and am considering adding spinach, too. (6 times)

Honorable mentions to…

Pizza Soup | We only found this recipe in the second half of the year, which again makes it an impressive member of this list! Another easy Instant Pot recipe that everyone loves – we add a salad and cheesy garlic bread to make it a meal. Also delicious as leftovers. (5 times)

Grilled Quesadillas | Have you ever made quesadillas on the grill? YUM! They get so melty and crispy – definitely my favorite way of making them. Our typical filling is a can of drained-and-rinsed pinto beans, sauteed green bell pepper and onion, and cheese. We serve with guacamole, tortilla chips, and boxed Mexican rice if I’m feeling fancy. (5 times)

And there you have it — our top 10+ meals from the last year! I share them not because they’re the most impressive recipes, but in the hopes that 1) they might give you some ideas for your own tables (they are our favorites, after all!) and 2) they might encourage you in what you already know: that dinners don’t have to be fancy to be delicious or beloved.

I’d love to hear what you think the most-made dinner in your home was last year! I’d particularly love to hear if you have a go-to, EASY vegetarian favorite: I would love for my top-ten list to include more vegetarian plates in 2022!

P.S. How I meal plan and an easy meal-planning hack.

Sheptember: Volume 3

21 January 2022

The way Shep careens into this video is the way he moves through life: joyfully, with big energy, and with his heart on his sleeve. It has been SO fun to watch our buddy’s personality grow (and grow!) over the last year, to watch him become the sweetest big brother, and to watch his relationship with his beloved big sister bloom. He’s curious, he’s clever, he’s opinionated, he’s extremely talkative, he’ll utterly exasperate you one minute and knock you over with his charm the next… we completely and totally treasure having him in our family and can’t WAIT to see what his next year brings. Enjoy this peek into the world of Shep! It’s a good one :)

P.S. Ages three and four have to be some of my favorites for these videos – the kids are old enough to do all kinds of fun things, but not yet very aware of the camera!

The password is SHEP. For a look back at his first video, here ya go (age two here). And if you want to make your own video, I’ve got you covered!

My 2022 Reading List

17 January 2022

For the last two years, I’ve pre-planned 24 books to read throughout the year – one fiction and one non-fiction each month – for my own personal book club. It’s a plan I’ve held loosely (I read 17 of my 24 picks in both 2020 and 2021), but one that’s been a bright spot. There are just so many incredible books to read (!!), and it’s nice to be thoughtful about how I’ll meander through my TBR list – carving out time for both new authors, subjects, and modes as well as old favorites.

Here’s what I have planned for 2022. I’m excited to read each one of these books, and if you’d like me to join me for any of them, I’d love to have you!

The Last Story of Mina Lee | Recommended by my friend Sam, this is the story of a Korean immigrant mother and her daughter, switching between their two perspectives decades apart, and the far-reaching impacts of the secrets they keep.
The Power of Fun | This book is brand new – it came out in December 2021! – and I’m reading it along with Janssen’s book club. For a naturally serious person who also places a high value on creating memorable and fun experiences for the people I love, reading a book about having fun sounds just about right :)

The Evening and the Morning | This is the prequel to Ken Follett’s epic, beloved Kingsbridge series. The books are fat and engrossing, and I’ve savored them by reading one per year over the last few years. This installment begins in 997 CE, the beginning of the Middle Ages (fascinating!), and is supposed to be just as good as the others.
Gentle and Lowly | I’ve never really read a book focusing just on who Jesus is, but The Book of Longings, which imagines his earlier life, made me want to learn even more about him. This one, which promises to “reflect on his words, diving deep into Bible passages that speak of his affections for sinners and encouraging believers as they journey, weary and faltering, toward heaven,” comes highly recommended.

Cloud Cuckoo Land | This was my friend Steph’s top pick of 2021, so it was an automatic add to this list! I loved All the Light We Cannot See by the same author and am intrigued by the premise: “Set in Constantinople in the fifteenth century, in a small town in present-day Idaho, and on an interstellar ship decades from now, Anthony Doerr’s gorgeous third novel is a triumph of imagination and compassion.”
The Weekday Vegetarians
| I snagged this book late last year and though technically a cookbook, it’s packed with anecdotes, advice, and Jenny’s warm, funny writing I love so much. Looking forward to having dedicated time to page through it!

Sisters in Arms | Yet another 2021 release! I’ll be reading this untold true story of the only all-black battalion of the Women’s Army Corps in World War II with Janssen.
I Guess I Haven’t Learned That Yet | I’ve never met a Shauna Niequist book I haven’t loved. This one comes out in April and I’ve preordered it.

The Great Circle | My literary agent/author brother-in-law and I were chatting about this list I was compiling over the Christmas holiday, and he mentioned The Great Circle as a book he read last year he thought I’d love. Also a 2021 release, this expansive story centers on Marian, whose dream is to circumnavigate the globe by flying over the North and South Poles, and Hadley, the actress cast to play her in a movie a century later. (Looking back at this post, I realized reader Abigail recommended it, too! Yay!)
Hunt, Gather, Parent | It’s not a good year of reading if I don’t intake several parenting books (I just can’t quit them!), and this one sounds right up my alley. It’s also the May pick for Janssen’s book club, which moved it to the top of my queue.

Between Two Kingdoms | This memoir was the one non-economics book Emily Oster mentioned in her newsletter last year (with effusive praise), and I was intrigued enough to add it to my list. “A searing, deeply moving memoir of illness and recovery that traces one young woman’s journey from diagnosis to remission to re-entry into ‘normal’ life—from the author of the Life, Interrupted column in The New York Times.”
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion | If you’re reading this blog, I assume you’re aware of my love for The Coddling of the American Mind (I push it on anyone I can at every opportunity). This book, by one of the authors, feels ever more relevant.

Crossing to Safety | This list skews heavily new (I don’t know if I’ve ever read so many recent releases!), so it’s fun to add one from the archives. This one was recommended by a friend and from the description sounds a bit like The Dearly Beloved, which I loved from last year’s list!
Foundations: 12 Biblical Truths to Shape a Family | I’ve enjoyed listening to Ruth and her husband on several podcasts recently and am excited to read their first combined book effort. Reading this one with my bud Nancy.

Piranesi | Heather raved about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel and Piranesi on this post, and Susanna Clarke has popped up several times since then as a rec! Plus, she has a fabulous name :)
Take Back Your Family | This book has my name written all over it. I will admit I am a little ambivalent on Jeff Bethke as a podcast host/guest (he talks so fast!!) but I think his ideas are solid and so I’m willing to give him a chance on the page.

A Long Petal of the Sea | Another Steph favorite! “One of the most richly imagined portrayals of the Spanish Civil War to date,” says the NY Times Book Review, “and one of the strongest and most affecting works in Isabel Allende’s long career.”
The Blessing of a Skinned Knee | Shauna Niequist highly recommended this parenting book on her episode of the Coffee & Crumbs podcast, and I always think it’s interesting to read what’s influenced the people influencing you.

The Rose Code | I’m currently number 659 on the holds list for this at my local library, so maybe it will be available by the time October rolls around?
A Testament of Hope | At 736 pages, this compendium of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches, writings, interviews, and reflections will be a feat to finish, but I’m up for the challenge. Dr. King seems to be a person that every agenda likes to twist to fit their own narrative, and so I’m looking forward to diving into his actual words!

The Snow Child | Based on the description, I’m not really sure what to expect from this Pulitzer Prize finalist, but it sounds appropriate to read as the weather gets colder.
The Art of Gathering | A final read with Janssen’s book club!

The Four Winds | Though I’ve loved Kristin Hannah’s other books (The Great Alone, The Nightingale), and despite it being the best-selling hardcover novel the year it released, I didn’t rush to read The Four Winds because I’d heard mixed reviews (mainly that it was depressing?). When Nancy put it on her list, though, it seemed like the time to jump in.
Four Thousand Weeks | Based on the premise that the average human life span is about four thousand weeks (or 80 years), this book – “time management for mortals” – this book “introduces readers to tools for constructing a meaningful life by embracing finitude, showing how many of the unhelpful ways we’ve come to think about time aren’t inescapable, unchanging truths, but choices we’ve made as individuals and as a society―and that we could do things differently.” I mean, yes. Sounds like the perfect read for the season of reflecting on the passing of another year.

I’d love to hear: Have you read any of these books? Would you like to read any alongside me in 2022? Let’s chat!

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