The Heartbreak of Success, and A Healthy, Easy, and Cheesy Chicken and Brown Rice Enchilada Casserole

Healthy, Easy, and Cheesy Chicken and Brown Rice Casserole on

Sometimes, everything hinges on a simple chicken enchilada casserole.
I’m doing good right now. In fact, many would look at my current circumstances and think I’m doing really well. I’ve got a handful of amazing friends, a stable job with benefits, a book that just came out, a cozy apartment all to myself, and a little money set aside for a longtime dream that’s about to be realized. I’m relatively healthy and I’ve got big plans for the future. I’m living the goddamn dream, right?

Why, then, does it feel so… icky? And what does this have to do with an enchilada casserole? Bear with me.

I first noticed this feeling of nebulous, bile-flavored guilt when I was in my early twenties. I was in a similar place: good job, living alone in San Francisco, with a whole crew of friends to keep me occupied. I was young and perky. I was actively engaged in city life and there was no inkling of the health or nuptial drama to come later that same decade.

Overall I was doing well but something was dragging me down, making me feel tossed about on the waves of my nice little life. Only I couldn’t seem to articulate that sensation, so I just felt depressed and anxious all the time, looking for vague ways to “improve my life.” This included bike riding, photography school, roasting a metric fuck-ton of chickens, quitting my job, moving out of state, getting my BA, a bouquet of bad boyfriends and fair-weather friends, and countless all-night underground dance parties with requisite extracurricular activities. But nothing quelled the festering ick.

Healthy, Easy, and Cheesy Chicken and Brown Rice Casserole on

For a while I wrote it off as depression, but as I grew older and got to know myself better, that assessment didn’t feel right. It was getting worse, though. The more I succeeded in my life, the heavier I felt. When I did make mistakes or experience failure, I noticed I’d sometimes feel better.

I slept better at night when my life turned to a turbulent, drama-infused tornado. How messed up is that?

After much digging, it turned out I had a seriously fractured idea about what it means to be happy and successful. Or unhappy and not successful, as it were. In coaching and therapy circles, this is referred to as an “Upper Limit Problem.” Upper limit problems arise when you start to feel good about something in your life – a good job, a happy relationship, financial success – and then you sabotage the goodness with any number of bummer events. This can be as simple as a series of unwelcome negative thoughts popping into your head, or as severe as a full-blown chemical bender. The end result is the same: you were feeling good, and now you’re not.

My first thought when learning about upper limit problems was a defensive, “Well, that’s a crock if I’ve ever heard one.” But on some level it resonated with me, so I started to pay more attention to my behavior and that of others. It started when I walked into a restaurant to meet a friend, feeling great about the day I’d had, yet the first words to escape my lips were, “Freakin’ hell, I’m exhausted.” In reality I wasn’t even remotely tired – until I said that I was, and then *poof* I wanted nothing more than a nap.


Healthy, Easy, and Cheesy Chicken and Brown Rice Casserole on

Then I started to see it in other people. I’d watch folks get a new job and instantly get sick or injure themselves – and keep repeating this cycle. Friends settled into a relationship with their dream guy or girl, then flush it down the toilet within a few months. I watched more than one person suddenly come into a chunk of cash and blow it all on absolutely nothing, easily making the transition back to a life of financial struggle. Ouch.

I’ve got my own long history of self-sabotage, but on an everyday level, my personal upper limit problem arises when I continually downplay the good things in my life with friends and family. When explaining what’s going on with me, I find it incredibly difficult to dwell on the good stuff, instead going on and on about how tired I am, how broke I am, or how some situation isn’t quite where I want it to be. Everything sucks. I have so much more work to do. There’s not enough time in the day or money in my account. One symptom is that I’ve cornered the market on the “scarcity mindset,” preferring to flail helplessly in a riptide of not enough instead of floating calmly on the surface of my life, grateful for the things I do have.

I am very, very blessed in life, but it’s difficult to accept those blessings when the struggle is far more familiar than success and comfort. In case you were wondering, this is not a fun thing to realize about yourself.

But knowing is half the battle, right?

I also know that I’m done feeling like I don’t deserve every single one of my blessings, and I’m going to start with packing up the tent I’ve pitched in my permanent scarcity mindset. But even as I let the concept of “enough” simmer in my head, a little piece of my heart claws at my insides in a panic. Clearly I have a lot of work to do.

Instead of brute force or self flagellation, which is how I’ve historically dealt with things I don’t like about myself, I’m going to be gentle and feel my way through this ponderous question of scarcity versus self worth. I’m trying to lean into the sensation, letting the bummerness of it all churn before dissipating, while poking around for the other end of the tunnel. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that hiding from this crap means it will just find you again later. I’m halfway through my life. I’m done hiding.


Dealing with emotional baggage takes an insane amount of energy. How many of you out there have started processing something not-so-great about yourself and been left feeling like you ran a marathon with a hangover? We all have periods of introspection, weeks or months where we work on our stuff, digesting the experiences that ultimately mold us into our future selves. These are the most important times to be good to your body. Give it what it needs: regular exercise, lots of sleep, and good food.

When I’m wandering through the twilight, what I put in my body can mean the difference between healthy self-examination and deciding to crawl under the bed for a month-long nap. My first instinct is to hit the donut shop, the ice cream stand, and every burger place within a 10-mile radius; but instead I look for recipes that are both healthy and comforting. This recipe – an easy-to-put-together chicken enchilada casserole made with brown rice and pumpkin seeds – is exactly what I’m craving. Protein and fiber-packed, it’s comfort food that loves you back.

I’ve recently posted two different recipes for enchilada sauce, both of which will work great for casseroles: one super easy sauce, and one somewhat traditional sauce. Use whichever of these you like best, or feel free to used a non-processed brand of the canned stuff – with no preservatives. As long as you enjoy yourself, I’m happy!

And did I mention that it’s totally, completely, and naturally gluten-free? :)


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Tweet this: I’m loving this healthy chicken and brown rice enchilada casserole recipe. And it’s even #gfree! from @sstiavetti

4.8 from 18 reviews
Healthy, Easy, and Cheesy Chicken and Brown Rice Casserole
Nutrition Information
  • Serves: 4
  • Calories: 1184
  • Fat: 60g
  • Saturated fat: 33g
  • Unsaturated fat: 26g
  • Carbohydrates: 98g
  • Sodium: 2242mg
  • Fiber: 15g
  • Protein: 66g
  • Cholesterol: 229mg
Recipe type: Entree
Cuisine: Mexican
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
This easy chicken enchilada casserole is very flexible and will happily accept whatever ingredients you have on-hand. Don't have refried beans? Use black beans instead. Trying to cut down on your grocery bill? Chicken thighs will work instead of breasts. This protein and fiber-packed dish will cure what ails you. It's comfort food that loves you back. I've recently posted two different recipes for enchilada sauce: one super easy sauce, and one somewhat traditional sauce. Use whichever of these you like best, or feel free to use a non-processed canned sauce with no preservatives. As long as you enjoy yourself, I'm happy! And did I mention that it's totally, completely, and naturally gluten-free?
  • 6 cups water
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs
  • 1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
  • 2 cups cooked brown rice (about 1 1/4 cup in its uncooked state)
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
  • 4 cups enchilada sauce (links above)
  • 12 corn tortillas
  • 1 can re-fried beans, warmed on the stove
  • 3 cups shredded cheese
  1. Fill a large pot with 6 cups of water. Bring to a boil and add lemon juice, salt, and cayenne. Stir well, then add chicken. Allow to poach for 12 minutes.
  2. Reserve 1/3 cup of the cooking water and drain the chicken. Shred the chicken with two forks. Pour cooking water into the chicken, stir well, and set aside.
  3. Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C).
  4. Heat pumpkin seeds in a small frying pan over medium-high heat, watching carefully so they don't burn. Agitate the pumpkin seeds every 30 seconds as they cook, and remove them from the heat when they start to turn brown and smell fragrant. Allow to cool. Pulse to a coarse texture in a food processor.
  5. Add brown rice, sea salt, pepper, and pumpkin seeds to the pot with the chicken and stir well.
  6. Place 1/2 cup of enchilada sauce in the bottom of an 8x8-inch baking dish. Place four tortillas in the bottom of the baking dish, overlapping to make sure the bottom of the dish is covered.
  7. Add a layer of half the refried beans, then a layer of half the chicken, then a layer of 3/4 cup of cheese. Spread 1 cup enchilada sauce over the layer and then cover with another 4 tortilla. Create another layer with the remaining beans, chicken, another 3/4 cup of cheese, and 1 cup enchilada sauce. Cover the top with one more layer of 4 tortillas, then cover with remaining sauce and cheese.
  8. Cover the baking dish with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 10 minutes, or until the casserole is bubbling and the cheese is well browned. Remove from oven and let sit for 15 minutes to solidify.
Nutritional analysis is based on using chicken breasts and cheddar cheese.


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Comments from other ninjas:

  1. Melissa Druitt says

    Can’t help but wonder why your post about Google+ is on my current newsfeed, but not this. Nor the 5 or 6 other posts in between. That looks good, btw. Now I’m hungry.

  2. Jeny Riordan says

    1) Very insightful and I used to do the same thing. Till I had more people in my life with much shittier experiences than mine and I learned to try to suck it up. Not always easy or successful, but I try.

  3. says

    Not your fault, but you lost me at ‘casserole’. Yah, there’s something about the concept that makes me skip over these things…not sure why.

    But your words about sabotage and such…hit home. I, too, have had successes and drops in my life, and maybe it was the upper limit problem you mention. Right now, as I consider things, I’m at a pretty good weight, well-ensconced into a 2nd career (which started in 2008 at age 55) having been a barista, wine seller, and currently the cheesemonger manager of Berkeley Bowl. It’s going well, but…but…so many aches and pains! Arthritic hip, leg cramps, but I continue to bike everyday to work, stay on my feet for most of 8 hours selling cheese, and moving closer to retirement where I hopefully will become a successful cheesemaker and raise ducks (yah, go figure) for eggs and dinners.

    I don’t let my physical discomforts get in my way, but I also recognize how strong the mind is at screwing with the body to, as you say, sabotage happiness. My mom died last year and I was literally a physical wreck for 2-3 months, barely able to walk for more than 100 meters before I had to sit down.

    A powerful tool to help you–or screw with you!

    • Stephanie Stiavetti says

      Ha, exactly. Why is it so hard to feel good, to dwell in a good place? My health totally went to hell with I was in a miserable marriage, and there were a few occasions where I really thought it was going to kill me. I got out of that relationship and my health has been MUCH better. Crazy how much stress breaks down healthy tissue. :/

      I’m sorry to hear about your mom. That’s probably one of the toughest things we have to endure in life. I’m glad you’re feeling better, Chris!

  4. Sarah Olson says

    You are right, it is very easy in our world to get caught up with thinking about everything you don’t have. It is challenging to sit quietly in gratitude, and I’m glad you are making your way there.

  5. Reiko Riley says

    Love this post – resonates with me more than I would like it too as well but half of the battle is understanding that we do it!

  6. C McCown says

    Love your columns. You writing invokes a broad range of emotions and your recipes are awesome. And I can only hope and strive one day to be able to use “a metric fuck-ton of chickens” in the right context. Thanks for the *huge* LOL on that one!

  7. Jeff @ says

    Hi Steph! Good luck in your journey of identifing and transcending those self-imposed upper limits.

    The enchilada casserole is great by the way.

  8. robin says

    good post Everyone loves discovering delicious new recipes, and an event this is a perfect opportunity to do so.

  9. Leesie says

    Beautiful essay, Stephanie! Your courage, wit and soul-baring honesty shines in your writing and your dishes. Although I’m not a huge fan of corn tortillas (I’ve always suspected some sort of sensitivity to corn products) I am going to give this one a try. Curious to know which tortilla brand(s) you like? I’m looking forward to making your homemade enchilada sauces!

    • Stephanie Stiavetti says

      Thanks so much, Leesie. :) I don’t really have a preference of brands. If I had to say, it would be the fresh corn tortillas from the local Mexican market. But barring that, I usually just buy what’s at Whole Foods!


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