Magpie Mail: Decorating a Studio Apartment, What to Do When Life Gives You Lemons, and Everyday Table Linens.

By: Jen Shoop

Q: Trying to distract myself from a sad breakup with decorating my first studio. Ideas? It’s hard to know what pieces to invest in for a small space! SOS!

A: Ahh! I’m so sorry to hear that — but what a wonderful project to focus your energy on. I would say invest in 1) your bed (specifically your mattress and bedding — you can find a reasonably-priced, fun headboard at OKL, like this) because you will spend so much of your time in it and you will almost certainly be able to use it anywhere else you move, and 2) good lighting. Lamps fit anywhere (well, almost all of them) and they completely transform a room — both art and function! I love this, this (similar to ones above), and this. And do yourself a favor and invest in Philips Hue bulbs for all lamps — I am obsessed. You can have bright white light for morning/work and a soft yellow light for reading/cocktail hour. All dimmable and pre-programmable in your phone.

For a lot of the rest, I would lean on AptDeco or The Real Real for gently-used, high-quality pieces, as you will be buying items on the small side that will likely not work in a future space. (For example, dining table, sofa, chairs, etc.) I mean, how great is this RH wingback chair or this outrageous ottoman or these modern-leaning dining chairs (would be pretty with a marble-top tulip table).

I also have found some incredible pieces at reasonable prices at Pier1 and World Market. We were actually very close to buying this traditional table from Pier1 for our dining room! I love it. (We ended up buying something else — more on that soon.) And how fantastic is this upholstered dining bench? Bonus: all of these brands have a decent secondary market, so you will probably be able to sell them all when the time comes versus splurging on something super idiosyncratic/custom that will be more niche and difficult to sell.

Try also to consider everything you buy from a multi-tasking standpoint. An ottoman or trunk for a coffee table can double as seating in a pinch. If you’re doing an upholstered bench, make sure it has storage inside. Dropleaf dining tables (or ones that come with leaves) are brilliant for the occasions you are hosting (or for repurposing in a future home). A friend of mine added a “skirt” to a side table to add pattern to her room — and also to hide bulky items with no closet space.

Finally, go slow. This is really hard because I am always chomping at the bit to have everything set up, but I have waited and waited on a few pieces for our home and things are finally coming together and I’m so happy I took the time.

Q: Do you have a daily prayer or meditation practice?

A: I say the Hail Mary whenever needed — and that’s usually at least three times a day. It is always at the tip of my tongue. I have a special devotion to Mary; she’s seen me through some tough times. My mom and I said the Hail Mary together over the phone when I was rushing to the hospital at 34 weeks pregnant by myself. And at the end, my mom said: “We’re right there with you. Mary and I.” I’ll never forget that — not as long as I live: these two mothers, lifting me up in prayer.

But I often say it when I need to compose myself as a mother, or when I hear a bit of bad news, or when a friend reaches out in a state of stress or agony or helplessness. And sometimes I say it while I’m sitting on the floor of micro’s nursery, feeding him the twelve-trillionth bottle I’ve fed him, because my arms are full and I am staring into the darkness of his room and I realize my heart is also very full and the moment deserves a prayer.

I love the structure of The Hail Mary and I find comfort in its rhythms. But it also appeals to me in the sense that I am saying dozens and dozens of decades of the rosary over the course of my life. This continuity brings me peace.

Q: How do you define success?

A: Making my family proud. Nothing in the world feels better than doing something well — except for doing something well while your loved ones are watching and cheering you on.

Q: Any recommendations for a nice men’s coat?

A: Mr. Magpie owns a Ralph Lauren wool topcoat similar to this in camel and it looks just as good with jeans as it does over a suit. It was the investment of a lifetime — intended to last him for decades! I love the look and you can get it for less with this elegant RL Ralph Lauren style (on sale) or this J. Crew variation. Also love this similar style from Mr. Porter’s house brand. Lobby for the camel color, though I feel like most men would gravitate towards black. It looks SO good with nearly any color and is more interesting and sophisticated.

Q: Any tips for starting babies on food? Did you start with rice milk?

A: I think most pediatricians say you can start with solids at four months but I waited until micro was able to hold his head up fairly well, which was at five and a half months. I started with lots of fork-smashed or pureed vegetables and fruits; the first thing I ever fed him was a mashed up banana. Conventional wisdom suggests you feed them one new food a day to check for allergies — they’ll be easier to isolate/diagnose that way. I made some of the purees myself, but I am a proponent of the pouch, too. (I especially like the new brand Cerebelly.) I also fed him yogurt and infant cereal because I liked to mix other things into them — peanut butter (which my pediatrician urged me to expose him to!), cinnamon, nutmeg, jam, etc. At around six months, I started feeding him two times a day, and now I feed him at every meal. I usually feed him yogurt, oatmeal, or fruit purees at breakfast, vegetable puree at lunch, and whatever we’re having for dinner (thrown in the food processor!) in the evening. Last night, he had leftover carnitas and rice pureed with some water, and the night before it was oven-roasted potatoes with gyro meet (also pureed)! He loved it. Both my mother and my pediatrician encouraged me not to shy away from feeding my babies flavor, so I try to give him everything we eat, with the exception of really spicy things and really salty things (though some of you have in the past encouraged me to try the spicy stuff!).

I also make handy use of pulp feeders, which keep him preoccupied for the second half of my own meal and enable him to try new flavors (I stuff them with grapes, berries, melon, orange wedges, etc). We are almost at the phase where I will start to let him self-feed with things like scrambled egg, pancakes, overcooked pasta, zucchini wedges cooked until really soft, etc. But not there yet!

My favorite feeding gear: Bumkins bibs, Boon spoons, Olababy spoons for self-feeding, and these tiny (microwave-safe!) tupperware. I also use this mini cuisinart daily!

Oh — and this is our high chair (full review here), though I do every now and then wish I’d bought a Tripp Trapp from an aesthetic point of view. (And I also like the intention of having your baby actually sit at the table with you from an early age.)

Q: What kind of table linens do you recommend for everyday? Napkins, placemats, tablecloth?

A: I love all of the tablecloths from India Amory (a Magpie woman of substance!), especially because they are machine-washable, but most days, we eat on a hard-wood table with this ivory runner down the middle because — with a toddler — it’s easier to just clean the table (we use this wood spray) than having to run linens through the wash on a daily basis. I also love that ivory runner because it goes with everything — no matter what I am using as a centerpiece! — which runs the gamut from cut flowers to our cake dome (love this because it can be inverted to create a punch bowl!) filled with cookies to a pedestal clustered with small votives to a big dish heaped full of citrus. I also always have mercury glass candlestick holders with Caspari taper candles in them on my dining table

In general, I have found buying table linens in neutrals and metallics has paid off, as they can be adapted to nearly any season or festive occasion with the addition of flowers and colorful napkins. We use paper napkins most nights but if we have guests, I use cotton or linen dinner napkins (machine washability is key) and I tend to have good luck buying them at Sur La Table of all places! They often run promotions and the quality is quite good. I love these but I own at least six or seven different sets/patterns of theirs! I also just used this set from Serena & Lily for a dinner party we hosted last weekend and one of the guests could not stop commenting on how soft they were! Ha! So those are going to be in heavy rotation as well.

The other thing I often use for everyday dining is a set of cork-backed placemats. I own this exact set, but I love all the patterns from this brand — these are chic! They are safe for toddler use because they wipe clean easily but are so elegant! Love. These personalized ones are also darling for littles.

P.S. Now is the time to buy seasonal table linens at a bargain — I love this turkey tablecloth and this plaid runner for next year’s holidays!

Q: Help — life just keepss giving me lemons! Will keep swimming but need perspective.

A: I am so sorry you’re going through a rough patch. In tough times, I like to re-read this:

“You may not see it today or tomorrow,

but you will look back in

a few years and be absolutely

perplexed and awed

by how every little thing

added up and brought

you somewhere wonderful — or

where you always wanted to be.

You will be grateful that things didn’t

work out the way you once wanted them to.”

(More musings on it here.)

If you’re a believer, I also like to think of a quote I saw on Instagram recently: “He’s just moving the pieces around.”

Hang in there!

Q: Any recommendations for a pair of comfortable, chic flats that are suitable for city walking?

Q: For travel, I have walked in these Chanel espadrilles for miles and miles and miles. I’ve never gotten a blister. They don’t have great arch support but it feels like you’re wearing nothing. I traipsed all over Spain in them. LOVE. Cannot recommend these enough if you’re traveling and if they fit your wardrobe/style. (I liked them with everything from white shirtdresses to olive green trousers to jeans to shorts.)

I have also always had good luck with Loeffler Randall flats — I own multiple pairs from past seasons. I like these — the “high neck” style is very in right now.

Finally, I have had these in my cart for over a year. People rave about their comfort and you can throw them in the wash?!

Q: Suggestions for transitioning out of the swaddle? When did you do it?

A: Mini loved the swaddle and so I waited until the absolute last possible minute (i.e., when she was rolling over, and she did this pretty late — five months?) to transition her because the swaddle made us all happy! But once a baby is consistently rolling over, a swaddle becomes a hazard. Micro started resisting the traditional swaddle (hands tucked down at sides) between two and three months and so we transitioned him to one of these Love to Dream sleep sacks (one of my favorite baby products this go around!) until he started rolling both ways, which was maybe around four months. I then tried the Merlin sleepsack but it didn’t work well for micro after the first night (a false positive, arg!) because he self-soothed with his fingers, and he couldn’t get his hands to his mouth wearing it. (With the Love to Dream swaddle, though the arms are “pinned” up, he could still work his little fabric-covered fist into his mouth.)

I ended up doing the same thing with both children: swaddling them with one arm free for about a week (with the Love to Dream swaddle, you just unzip one of the arms — genius! — but you can also swaddle with one arm in a traditional swaddling blanket) and then transitioning them to sleeping with both arms free. The first day or two are pretty rough as they tend to wake themselves with their newfound freedom, but hang in there — it doesn’t take too long for them to adjust. (Also, try letting them sleep on their tummies around this age/once they are rolling over! I found both children started sleeping better and longer when on their stomachs.)

Once this transition was complete, I started having them sleep in sleepsacks. I am obsessed with the quality of the Woolino ones (thanks for all of the recs from my readers!) They are so soft and warm and well-made, and they hold up beautifully in the wash.

Finally, if you have a harder time transitioning to one arm free / both arms free, consider the Merlin sleepsuit! Did not work for micro but MOST of my mom friends swear by it!

Q: Recommendations for a dress for my toddler daughter to wear to meet her new sibling?

A: I went with a super traditional smocked BIG SISTER dress I found at Cecil and Lou that they no longer carry. Here is a precious similar style; look for less here or here. If smocking isn’t to your taste, I love Jacadi for special-but-not-too-frou-frou styles, like this or this. We had mini bring a present for micro (one of these darling personalized De Buci bears) and vice versa (Bullseye for her Woody doll, which she LOVES and I thought the notion of companionship was cute), which was super special.

Q: Thoughts on division of labor at home? How do you do it? Major topic among my mom friends!

A: I’ve actually thought a lot about this topic and I think the key here is knowing that it’s never going to be perfectly equal, and that’s OK. (Or, if the balance is not OK for you, flagging that early and being vocal about it. I was pretty up front about things I did not want to do early in our marriage — taxes, yardwork, etc. I told Mr. Magpie I’d outsource or neglect those things if left to me and he’s handled them on his own without further comment since.) In our home and in our marriage, we both recognize that there are all kinds of labor that we perform, and much of it is invisible. (I wrote more on this topic here.) Though I currently manage a lot of the nuts and bolts of running our house and keeping our children fed, bathed, and dressed (with the giant exception of cooking, which Mr. Magpie does the majority of), I am at peace with the arrangement and in fact take pride and pleasure in it. (I hope that’s not setting our gender back a couple of decades, ha!) I recognize that Mr. Magpie handles a lot of things I am entirely uninterested in or ill-equipped at — finances, utilities, fixing things around the house, negotiating, vetting and hiring vendors, technology — and that this is the current season of life we’re in and that things can and probably will change in the future. We’ve gone through phases where Mr. Magpie has done more of the household management (pre-kids) and now I carry most of the burden because I am at home and have a more flexible schedule and it just makes sense. Like, why would I have him take off of work to coordinate schedules with the plumber? Sometimes practicality flies in the face of ideals, you know? (The old purist v pragmatist debate.)

Q: What to wear to a law school alum interview? Not sure how formal to go.

A: I always err on the side of over-dressing when there’s a question. I would probably wear a conservative dress and pointed toe flats or pumps. Some options for a dress:







For heels, cannot encourage you to buy yourself a pair of these more. Well-priced, the perfect heel height, and just beautifully proportioned. I wear the black and camel ones at least once a week.

For flats — eyeing a pair of these for myself!

Q: Vacations/travel destinations you are eyeing for 2020?

A: We will go to the Hamptons over the summer and then are hoping to get away just the two of us for our ten year (!) wedding anniversary in August, and are thinking of visiting Napa, the Adirondacks, or the Inn at Little Washington for the occasion. We also have weddings in Austin and Boston!

We aren’t big travelers anymore — we have friends who travel constantly, but it’s tough with two small children and parents who live out of town, and at this stage in our lives, we choose to use our money differently. (Different priorities!)

Q: Ideas for toddler meals? Your meals and recipes look amazing, but do your kids eat them?

A: Eh, sometimes. Mini has just emerged from a horribly picky phase where I swear she subsisted off of fruit and peanut butter sandwiches for months on end. It was exhausting and irritating, but she seems to have suddenly emerged on the other side and become much better about trying new foods. A reader made this suggestion and it helps: always include a few things that you know she likes on a plate. So if we’re eating shrimp scampi, I will also put a side I know she likes alongside it (cucumber, green beans, cheese, any fruit, bread and butter, etc.) . We’ve also noticed that a few things seem to help: first, when we all sit down together and eat the same things as a family. This has not always been practical for us given Mr. Magpie’s work schedule, but it really helps with her willingness to taste and enjoy new flavors. (Related: she ate very well when sitting alongside her cousins back in D.C. and whenever I blend up what she’s eating to feed her little brother! I thinks he likes the encouragement.) Second: I’m not above bribery. If she eats a good dinner (moving target as to what that means), she gets dessert. This is highly motivating to her and she will try things with the promise of a cookie afterward. I always told myself I wouldn’t be that type of parent (“my child will eat what we’re eating and like it!” “I will never force them to eat food!” etc.) but my mother once told me that she went to her pediatrician when one of my sisters was being particularly recalcitrant on the toilet-training front, and he said: “Elaine, it’s called B-R-I-B-E-R-Y. Some kids are highly motivated by it. Others aren’t. I guarantee you this one is.” Mini is one of those types. Take that advice or leave it — but we’ve gotten good results with eating and toileting by celebrating her achievement vocally and then rewarding with an M&M or cookie. Third, there is an episode of Daniel the Tiger where he talks about trying new foods and that really got through to mini (look it up!). She was talking about eating peppers and carrots “just like Daniel!” for days. Thank you, Daniel the Tiger.

All of these observations gesture at the obvious: that kids are highly impressionable and will model the behavior they seem around them! (Duh. I’m sure all of you are way ahead of me on this one.)

But, I know that’s not exactly what you were asking. I don’t have a ton of great and creative menus for toddlers as my ambition is to get her to eat whatever we are eating, though I do like this toddler cookbook when I’m feeling inspired (the recipes are just involved enough that they do require some time and planning). Things I make A LOT at home that she consistently enjoys:

Breakfast: overnight oats, cereal with milk, pancakes (she loves the Trader Joe’s pumpkin mix), yogurt, scrambled or fried egg, banana bread, toaster waffle with peanut butter or syrup, toast with peanut butter and banana.

Lunch: PBJ, vermicelli noodles with pork and cucumber (girl has always loved Vietnamese food), leftover fried rice, cinnamon raisin bread with cream cheese, deli meat and cheese cut out into shapes with these, chicken noodle soup (I drain a lot of the broth), bagel with cream cheese or peanut butter.

Dinner: Quesadilla, roast chicken/fish/pork, buttered noodles, meatballs, rice/couscous/orzo, pizza, steak (she loves loves loves steak — #chicagobaby), and breaded chicken cutlets, always with a vegetable or two on the side (cucumber, green beans, broccoli, carrots seem to go over well fairly consistently).

Q: Did you sleep train your babies? If so, when and what method?

A: No — it’s not for me. I have, however, learned to wait a few minutes before going in, as micro often shifts in his sleep and will cry for 2-3 minutes until he’s settled back down at least once a night. But if he cries for more minutes than his age in months, I will go in. That’s my general rule. (So, if he is five months, I’ll wait five minutes before going in. Now we’re up to seven. I think I picked this up from a Magpie reader!)

Realizing that every baby is different, I will share that the two best things I did to get micro to sleep through the night (which he has done most nights since he was about five months old) were:

1) Spacing feeds throughout the day. It is hard, but if you can push the baby to eat every 3-4 hours versus every 2-3, it really pays off at night.

2) Putting him in his own nursery. This was a stroke of good fortune in that we moved just after his five-month birthday and he got his own room out of the deal. Within days of moving, he was regularly sleeping from 10-6. I know pediatricians recommend babies sleep in their parents’ room until the age of one (!) but having micro in his own nursery worked wonders for us.

I want to add something important: mini did not sleep through the night until a year of age. I swore to myself that if I had a second baby, I would be “stronger-willed” and would employ the cry-it-out method as I am fully aware that I enabled her to hang on to one middle-of-the-night feed for way too long. But then micro arrived and that went out the window and — you know what? — that’s OK. It’s who I am! It’s how I feel most comfortable as a mom!

Q: How do you stay motivated (in work and just in life in general)?

A: I admire other successful people and think of my parents. I feel that I owe it to them in some way given all their generosity and love.

P.S. More Magpie mail here, here, and here.

P.P.S. Drive gently, dearie.

P.P.P.S. I don’t want anything to change.

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6 thoughts on “Magpie Mail: Decorating a Studio Apartment, What to Do When Life Gives You Lemons, and Everyday Table Linens.

  1. Love these posts! I always find nuggets of advice/inspiration/general goodness here.

    Division of labor — I so feel you on this! I have a differently-structured situation, as my partner & I both work full-time, but a lot of what you wrote resonated with me.

    Travel — I’ve heard such good things about the Inn at Little Washington! Napa is always fun, too. I am thinking about getting married in Austin or Boston when the time comes (haha) so that comment made me smile!

    Motivation — YES, I would have the same answer. I feel such a deep responsibility to “succeed” (whatever that means at the moment) in adulthood because my parents sacrificed so much to give me the life I have. I am greatly indebted to them for their love, care, and support.


    1. Per usual, on the same page!! SO intrigued by the division of labor discussion. Will be polling my mom friends…

  2. I have had the same high chair with my oldest and everyone always tripped over the legs! I was gifted the trip trapp with my second and I just adore it so much. Ours is forest green and my 2.5 year old easily climbs up into it (without the baby seat) totally worth the upgrade!

    1. Agree on the danger of those spindly legs! We have always kept the high chair on the far side of the table so we don’t need to negotiate around it often BUT they are definitely a hazard. AHHH you are making me jealous of your Tripp Trapp!

  3. Such a wealth of wonderful information!

    On a travel note, Kennebunkport, Maine is a magical place for an anniversary getaway.

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