Love in a time of NICU {Instapot Beef Barley Soup}

November 17, 2017

Sometimes when I want a good laugh, I think about everything that has happened in the last month.

Survive the end of a twin pregnancy.

Have a C-section.

Have twin boys (!)

Have a newborn with Down syndrome.

Have a newborn without Down syndrome, but with some considerable fussiness, especially when he gets his diaper changed or is not being held.

Have an emergency illness lower 6-day-old Ronan’s temperature to 94, and rush to get him admitted to Boston Children’s Hospital for hypothermia. Discover he has Hirschsprung’s Disease.

Heal from your 6 day old C-section while living in the sleeping suite (basically a dorm room) by rolling Michael around the halls of Boston Children’s in a clear plexiglass bassinet, which draws so much attention to your newborn that it takes you 20 minutes to get across the hospital.

Get terrified that you will lock yourself out of your sleep suite multiple times a day.

Get more terrified that you will lock your newborn in.

Leave your phone in the bathroom, discover it is gone and have a heart attack, then find someone took it to the Information desk.

Celebrate Halloween and a certain 10th Birthday with your big kids.

Commute into the big city. With a new born. Rush hour will double your time which makes you have to stop and nurse, which then triples it.

And finally, survive an overnight with twins at home. 

It’s quite a list, but it is also just one list. We are one of thousands of families who have sick children. And becoming aware of the hardships families have on top of sick children might be the best thing that came out of this. The first parent I met in the NICU was unemployed. The next parents were med flighted from Colorado through the night as their baby was born with half of an esophagus. When we moved to a room on a floor our roommate’s mom was such a good momma. Her love in her voice for her baby was like honey. She lived in a shelter before she brought her baby in for esophagus surgery – her four-year-old son had to stay with friends. Another father who was so patient and sweet with his 13-month-old son said they drove nine hours in a snow storm for their son to have the same surgery Ronan just had and were turned away because he had a cold. They were there to finally have it done almost a year later due to complications. As we were leaving, the family who was just admitted in the next bed over learned they would be there through Thanksgiving for their Down syndrome son’s surgery.

The thing that has made all this survivable – and in glimmering moments thriveable – is the love of others. The texts and prayers that poured in lifted us up. And of course, love showed up in food. It always does. Our neighborhood made a signup to bring us meals on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and wouldn’t you know it, we were struggling to make dinner every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Some of those days we were just coming home from the hospital. Some of them we were just being rushed back. Most of them we had just commuted home from seeing our baby sick, or having just had surgery. The days when your brain feels like it has been in a blender and your shoulders are clenched tight from not enough sleep, and nursing, and driving with a crying infant were so hard. To come home to a big pot of chili or Chicken Divan Casserole (It was so good, here is a similar recipe minus the curry and wine. Thanks, Kim!) was like a big, slow exhale.

The night we were discharged, it felt like I was leaving the scene of a battle as we left the hospital. I know every crevice and corner of Boston Children’s thanks to living there the better part of 3 weeks. I spotted all the places these difficult moments unfolded here.

Over there are the elevators I took to the sleeping spaces where I lived that first week. I came down all un-showered and sleep deprived, my maternity jeans too big and falling off of me. I got in line for coffee to get a Starbucks dark roast (aka, life-giving nectar). The person in line behind me noticed the state I was in – perhaps it was the newborn in the rolling plexiglass bassinet, or the falling down jeans, or spit up in my hair that tipped her off – and bought my coffee and croissant for me. Love shows up at the most amazing times.

Over there is where my husband and I ate pizza in a dazed silence the first night we were here, but we knew we would get through it. And there was where we took the kids to get gourmet cookies and muffins when they came down to visit. I bought gift cards for the mommas still facing surgery. I wasn’t going to receive all that love and not give some right back.

The whole time, all I craved was a postpartum with big down comforters and big pots of soup, maybe with a fire and a glass of wine. Whenever I would start to feel sorry for myself, which often happened when I ate the cold  quesadillas and french fries that the kitchen sent up to the NICU, I would remind myself of the bigger picture – Ronan was doing well, Michael got to stay with me, and we would all eventually go home.

Still, when I was tired of my jeans falling off and I went out to find some that fit, I stopped by Trader Joe’s. They had a display of barley + broth, and a craving for beef barley soup hit me. But there was no time to cook a big pot of soup all day. I had to be down at the hospital in a few hours. Then I saw their mirepoix mixture (pre-cut carrots, onions and celery), plus cubed beef, and I took a gamble that pre-cut ingredients and the Instapot could be fast and delicious.

It was.

Now I know what to make to pay all this kindness forward. And what to make now that I am finally snuggling my beautiful boys at home, under my down comforter, their milk-drunk faces in the crook of my arm.

Quick Beef Barley Soup (printer version here):


  • 1 ½ pounds stew meat
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 3 cups mirepoix (just a combination of chopped onion, celery, and carrots)
  • 6-8 cloves garlic, minced
  • 6 cups beef broth (or vegetable)
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 bay leaves
  • ½ teaspoon dried thyme, or 3 stems fresh
  • 2/3 cup pearl barley, rinsed


  1. Season the stew meat with a good pinch of salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large pot or in the instant pot over medium-high heat. Brown on all sides for about 2-3 minutes total. Remove meat to a plate and repeat with the second batch and the second tablespoon of oil. (To save time you  can brown half the stew meat in Instapot and half in a pan on stove.)
  2. If needed, add a little more oil to the pot and the mirepoix mix. Cook the veggies for 4-5 minutes or until the onions soften and become translucent. Add the garlic and cook for an additional 30 seconds.
  3. Instapot Version: Add the stew meat, mushrooms, bay leaves, dried thyme, water, and beef broth the to sautéed veggies in the instant pot, cover and pressure cook the meat for 13-16 minutes depending on the size of the stew meat. Allow the pressure to release before removing the lid. Cook on the high setting (for the instant pot you hit the slow cook button) for 1 hour or until the barley is cooked through. (For half that time, hit meat setting and cook for 30 min. Barley is still tasty but a little overcooked this way). Season to taste.
  4. Slow Cooker Version: Add the softened veggies, stew meat, mushrooms, bay leaves, dried thyme, water, and beef broth to the slow cooker and allow the soup to cook on the high setting for 3 hours or on the low setting for 6 hours. Season to taste. 

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  • Reply
    Darlene Philbrick
    November 27, 2017 at 9:23 pm

    So pleased to read the blog once again. Our thoughts and prayers have been with you and your family. The boys are handsome and pleased they are doing well. Wishing you Happy Holidays Darlene

  • Reply
    Mary McClellan
    December 11, 2017 at 8:41 pm

    Many blessings!
    God is great!
    We will be praying for you always and your whole family, naturally!
    You’re a blessing to this world!

  • Reply
    December 14, 2017 at 12:16 pm

    Lovely to read that your boys are doing well and everyone is home! May you continue to be blessed with the kindness of strangers as I know you will continue to bless them. Xx

  • Reply
    Quick Weeknight Pot Roast | The Humble Onion
    October 9, 2019 at 2:40 pm

    […] are going to be two on Sunday and I just found this post about making myself some comfort food Beef Barley Soup in the Instapot on one of the rare days I was home while Ronan was in the NICU. You’re not crying I’m […]

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