Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Another Year Has Gone By: Life Lessons From the Year

As yet another year draws to a close, I can't help but find truth in the saying, "The days are long, but the years are short."  Seven years ago, I was very pregnant with our first child and the anticipation for what changes the New Year would bring was at an all-time high.  Fast-forward seven years:  as I sit here with my husband and four children I find myself wondering, "How did time pass so quickly?"

Each year after Christmas I find myself reflecting on all that has happened over the course of the year. I'm sure many of you do as well.  It always amazes me how slowly the year starts out but is seems to pick up speed like a big snowball as the days go on.  Before I know it summer is here and over, the kids are back to school, and all of the fun holidays fly by.  It brings me to this point:  the final day of the year.

2013 was a big year for me.  We welcomed our fourth child, I began my adventure with From Cover to Cover with my dear friend, and made the decision to open my own business, The Busy Bee Early Childhood Center, in 2014.  I have watched my kids grow like weeds, master new skills, and continue to explore all that the world has to offer.  We took a few vacations, tackled a summer bucket list, and made many lasting memories.  All-in-all it was a great year!

While there were many positives, there were also many moments, days, or weeks that were a struggle. Life ebbs and flows and in those challenging moments I do my best to learn from them.  I am far from perfect, and while my intentions may be good, I don't always get it right the first, second, or even tenth time.  The best I can offer is that I will try again until I get it right (or as close to it as possible).  I love the ideas of "imperfect progress" (borrowed from the book Unglued) and practicing grace, both to ourselves and others.  We all hit bumps in the road, if only we can remind ourselves of that instead of beating ourselves or others up about it.

So onto 2014 we go.  I do not make resolutions:  instead I set goals.  This year I have a found some inspiration from many great resources to help prepare those goals.  As I age (yes, I realize I'm not that old) I am beginning to look at life a little differently.  For years, I fell prey to the "fitting in" game and in the end it was neither successful or fulfilling.  I've read many non-fiction books in the past year, many by Christian-based authors, about looking inside to find your authentic self and to find God's purpose for us.  I've read many quotes suggesting the only way to find happiness is to stop looking to outside sources and instead search inside and be happy with yourself. One of the latest that I've seen surfacing is this and I like it:

While I feel that for the most part the goals we set for ourselves are a private matter, I'll share the mantra, if you will, of my hopes for the New Year.  I'm going to continue to work on being my authentic self.  To not always say "yes," but prioritize and focus on what is important to me and best for our family ("no is the new yes").  To grow some of the new friendships that I have gained since our move and strengthen those with the people who have been by my side for years. To be vulnerable and focus on the positive instead of the negative.  To pray more, be slower to anger, and to appreciate the simplicity and wonder of the little things.  And most of all, to "dare greatly" (from my favorite book!)...
Onto 2014 we go.  This has the potential to be a big year for our family and full of many changes.  I pray that we all stay safe, healthy, and have a wonderful year full of blessings, big and small.  I wish this for you and yours as well.  Happy New Year!  Bring on 2014!  "Dare greatly", put yourself out there, and go for it!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Cookies for Santa

There is simply not enough time in the day for me to accomplish even half of what I'd like to do! Unfortunately, my blog (which I really enjoy doing) has taken a back seat the past few months to the other demands in my life.  I wanted to quickly share with you this fun cut-out cookie project that you could do with your children this weekend.  They make great "cookies for Santa!"
I have found a yummy cookie dough recipe that I have been using for the past few years.  Initially I started using it when I made cookies on a stick, but it works well to roll it out thinner for regular cut-outs as well.  Mix up the dough and let it chill for awhile.  Once it's firm, grab some cookie cutters and get to work!  Once they are cooled, give your kids some paint brushes (wide is best) and let them paint their cookies with some icing.  I'll include both recipes!  

Our kiddos love this project.  They love to select what cookie cutter to use and decorating their cookies especially for Santa!  Once they're dry, I throw them in the freezer and we pull them out on Christmas Eve so they're nice and fresh for Santa!  Enjoy!

Sugar Cookies
Adapted from Sweet Sista'

3 c. all-purpose flour
1 t. baking powder
1 c. unsalted butter, softened
1 c. sugar
1 large egg
1/2 t. salt
1 tsp. vanilla

Sift together flour and baking powder.  In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Stir in the egg, salt, and vanilla.  Slowly add the flour mixture (1 c. at a time) and stir until incorporated.  Form the dough into a disc and refrigerate for one hour.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Cut the cookies into shapes and place on parchment paper lined cookie sheet.  Bake 8-10 minutes or until the edges begin to turn golden brown.  Remove from oven and allow to cool.  Place on a cookie rack to fully cool.  


1 c. powdered sugar
2 t. milk
2 t. light corn syrup
1/4 t. vanilla

Warm milk.  Stir in powdered sugar and stir until smooth.  Mix in corn syrup and vanilla and mix until smooth and glossy.  If it's too thick, add more corn syrup.  Divide into bowls and add coloring.  Paint on with paintbrushes.

Painting away! 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

I've Been Holding Out...

Okay, I have a little secret...I've been holding out on you.  Last year I did not share my favorite fall recipe with you:  pumpkin bars.  These bars are so delicious you can't just stop with one.  We've made them in my family for years.  I won't hold out any longer!  Here's the recipe!

Pumpkin Bars

4 eggs
2 c. sugar
2 c. pumpkin (small can)
3/4 c. butter
2 c. flour
2 t. baking powder
1 t. baking soda
1/2 t. cinnamon

Cream sugar and margarine, add eggs and pumpkin and mix.  Add dry ingredients and mix well.  Pour into greased and floured jellyroll pan.  Bake for 25 minutes at 325 degrees.  Top with cream cheese frosting.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Creating Traditions, Making Memories

Wow, it's been awhile since I've been able to post!  Finding the time these days is a little challenging, but I'll pop in and out with some new recipes for the holidays and fun kid activities as well!  I have been working hard on getting my shopping done so that I can spend time making some fun memories with the kiddos during this most very busy and special time of year!  What can I say, it's my favorite time of year!

This really is the theme of today's post:  tradition and memories.  I find it hard to believe at times that my oldest son is approaching 7.  It seems like yesterday we were anxiously awaiting his arrival and now we're about to celebrate our seventh Christmas as a family.  Throughout that period of time we've added three more kids and will be celebrating what is likely to be our last "baby's first Christmas" this year.  (Ugh, that makes me teary just thinking about it!).  This will, however, only be the second year that we will wake up in our own home on that magical Christmas morning and the first time we've ever had "baby's first Christmas" in our own home as well.  When we lived in the suburbs of Chicago, we had our own little family Christmas before we took off on our rounds, but it was always before the big day and while it was very special, nothing can compare to what we experienced last year.    

Let's back up a bit.  I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a mother someday.  I grew up in a family of four and while it was fun, I always wanted at least one little brother or sister.  When that didn't happen, I began to dream of having a big family one day.  Well, fast-forward to that day:  here we are!  I always said I wanted to have five kids, but I think that four may just be the magic number for us.  I love my not-so-little family and one of the greatest gifts that I feel we, as parents, can give them is creating traditions that will lead to lasting memories.  I have many fond memories of my childhood traditions, and while a few still remain, most of them have gone to the wayside now that I am an adult.  Now it is our turn to create traditions for our family, some we may carry over from our childhood and others we may initiate ourselves.  For someone who is incredibly sentimental, these are the gifts I treasure and I put a lot of thought into them.  Let's be honest, my life pretty much revolves around my kids so this is really a big deal to me.    

Since we made the big move last year and are much closer to both of our families, we have been given the gift of being able to create our own Christmas Day traditions.  While my husband and I are regular church-goers and value our faith, I am ashamed to admit that for years we did not go to church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day because we couldn't fit it into our schedule of Christmas celebrations we had to attend.  Last year we made it a priority to go and we went Christmas morning.  It was wonderful.  I want my children to realize that Christmas isn't all about Santa, but more importantly Jesus' birth and I feel like while we talked about it with them and read stories, we were missing the most important piece:  celebrating at church.  This year we may try to attend a Christmas Eve mass, but if not, we'll go Christmas morning.  

Each year we spend Christmas Eve and my grandmother's house.  Last year after the celebration, we put the kiddos in their Christmas pajamas for the ride home and tucked them into their own beds.  After days of counting down, they were so excited for Santa to come!  In years past, we had sent the kids a note from Santa letting them know that he was going to be making an early appearance because he knew we wouldn't be home.  The countdown was always a little bit off.  It was our tradition to celebrate our own family Christmas the Sunday before the 25th.  Some years it was nearly a week in advance and it just never felt like the real deal.  I began to feel like our kids thought that Christmas wasn't just a day, but a week-long event of receiving gifts.  This was something that didn't sit well with me.  While we still don't fit it all into one day, it is nice to be able to condense it a bit and have Santa appear when he's supposed to instead of expecting him multiple times.

All right.  Back to the topic at hand:  let's talk traditions!  Last week I asked parents what they do on Christmas Day.  Many of those that responded said that they spend the day at home with their kids and enjoy a relaxing day.  Some start off the day with fudge or pancakes with vanilla ice cream for breakfast (I want to be in those houses!) or incorporate traditions from other countries to celebrate the diversity of their families.  Some put stockings outside the kids' doors to slow them down and others give one gift on Christmas Eve (usually Christmas pajamas) to ease into it.  Everyone mentioned food, either breakfast or a special dinner that they eat, so clearly that is an important part of people's traditions.  Some families invite grandparents or relatives over, while others reserve the day just for their family.  I loved reading through these comments!  It was so interesting to learn how people spend the day and about different cultural traditions.

What will our day look like?  We'll be woken up early by the kids (I'm sure!), turn on some Christmas music and the fireplace, and start the day off by checking to see if Santa ate his cookies and drank his milk.  We're usually very generous, so if Santa didn't eat all of his cookies, the kids each get one to eat.  We also check outside to see if the reindeer ate their carrots.  We set out plenty of food because we want to make sure Santa finds our house!  When the kids go to bed their stockings are hung neatly on the fireplace mantle, but that sneaky Santa hides them throughout the main floor of our house for the kids to find.  Usually the kiddos try to find them right away, as they are so curious about their whereabouts!  Candy is not the only thing they will find inside.  We also include snacks we don't usually have, socks, or special treasures (cars, baseball cards, hair accessories, etc.)  Once we're through with that, we have the kids sit in front of the tree with the gifts and take some pictures.  Once that is complete it's time to open presents.  We take our time with this and only one person opens a gift at a time.  In years past, the kids have had no desire to tear through their gifts.  Instead they usually take the time to test it out, especially if it's a toy or book.  I love that we don't rush through it all.  We get to see everyone's reactions and they all get the "spotlight" for a bit.  We've even taken breaks from opening gifts (and no, they don't get a ton of presents!), because they wanted to stop and play.  It warms my heart that they appreciate what they get and the "one at a time rule" is a tradition that I love.  We'll have a nice breakfast of waffles, scrambled eggs, sausage and fruit and then pack our van to head south to gather with my husband's family. 

I truly can't describe how much it means to me, as a mother, to share these special moments with my children.  They are only young once and in a blink of an eye they'll be too big for Santa and we'll have to drag them out of bed instead of rising early with excitement.  I spend a lot of time preparing for the holidays and coming up with activities for our family to do throughout Advent to get into the holiday spirit and have fun because it is important to me.  I know that I cherish the memories of Christmas morning with my family growing up and I hope my kiddos will cherish the time we spent as a family on Christmas Day as well when they are grown and with their own families.  

Oh how I can't wait to cozy up around the fire and see my kids' faces light up with excitement.  These memories are priceless! 

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care...

The kids leave their wish list and cookies by the fireplace and Santa leaves a thank you!

Mandatory photo

Friday, November 8, 2013

What a Week!

Well, I would say this has been one of the most exciting weeks I've had in awhile!  For several months I have been hinting around that something big was in the works and a few days ago I finally revealed my big plan:  a preschool!  For quite some time now I've felt that our little town really needed this, so I have been working on plans to start a preschool.  I have spent a lot of time discussing this idea with my husband, family, and a few close friends.  I've prayed about it and tried to figure out if it's a good time to do this or not and all of the signs seem to be pointing to yes.  All except one:  I can't find a stinking location!  I'm working hard on that part of it and I know that if this is meant to be, I'll find one soon.

In addition to that, I finally signed up to be a consultant with Usborne Books and More.  This is another decision I've been mulling around for months and feel like now is the perfect time.  I love their books (we have a ton of them!) and I would love to be able to build my library for the preschool and to help our charity, From Cover to Cover.  There are many parts of my life that just naturally overlap, so I really couldn't find one good reason why this wouldn't be a good option for me and my family.

We have a lot to be thankful for these days!  It's my goal to spend the month of November really focusing on this with the kids.  They are trying so hard to just fast forward to Christmas, but I think it is so important to spend some time being grateful for what we have before we slip into the "I want, I want" phase.  In my last post, I shared how we showed our neighbors we were thankful for them.  Our next "group" we are thanking are the kids' teachers.  On Monday, my daughter made each of her teachers an adorable picture and gave them some Ghirardelli chocolates she picked out at the store.  Who doesn't love chocolate, right?!

Still with a Halloween flair!

Today for a fun activity, we made name turkeys.  All it took was a small paper plate, construction paper, and googley eyes.  The Princess had to figure out how many letters were in her name, pick her feathers, make a pattern, and write a letter on each feather.  She thought it was great fun and drew a cute face on it and some legs, too.  My little guy had to count the letters in his name, choose what color feathers he wanted, and then I helped him write the letters of his name.  We glued on some eyes and once they're dry they will make a cute addition to our "masterpiece wall!"  

The cute little turkey
What a week it's been for sure!  More good things to come!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Understanding Peanut Allergies: This is Our Life

Today I am mentally and emotionally drained.  I have these days from time to time and the causes usually vary.  Today, though, I feel this way because of a familiar struggle:  our son's peanut allergy.  To those who are fortunate enough to not have to worry about this, you may not understand how taxing this is on a parent.  We all worry about our kids, it's human nature, but the anxiety, stress, and worry a parent of a child with a life-threatening food allergy experiences is at a whole other level.

I can attest to this, because I am a mother of four.  To my knowledge, three of my children do not suffer from life-threatening food allergies.  I worry about them, yes, but life is just so much easier when you aren't navigating what feels like a mine-field.  Play date, birthday party, school, church, restaurant, sporting events....the list goes on.  No problem.  Off you go, have a great time!  These events with our oldest son, not so much.  Do we have the Epipen?  The Benadryl?  The wipes?  Safe food?  What will be served?  Have we checked the menu?  Should we let him go?  What if...  This is just a small sample of what goes through my mind on a daily basis.  It's tiring.  It makes me feel sad, angry, anxious, stressed.  We do our best to internalize these feelings and not outwardly show our struggles with these situations.  Our son realizes the dangers of peanuts and his exposure to them, but we do our best to live a normal life while taking the necessary precautions to make it "safe" for him.  

We struggle.  It is hard for those who do not live this life to understand how complex it is.  For the most part we have encountered people willing to do what's best for our son; to keep him safe and minimize his exposure.  But don't be fooled.  We experience resistance, anger, and questioning.  I'm sure we are viewed as overcautious, overbearing, high-maintenance, and difficult at times.  We advocate, we fight, we educate some more.  I am always willing to answer questions, be the classroom mom, and look over whatever is in question to help try to make it easier on others.

It's not as simple as making sure that he avoids peanuts.  That's the easy part.  It's the foods and products that they're hidden in that's difficult.  It's reading labels, researching restaurants and calling them, sifting through Halloween candy, finding safe treats for holidays, having a stash of homemade cupcakes in the freezer for birthday parties.  It's assessing the situation when traveling, attending social events, school, and extracurricular activities.  All of these things have become habit for us.  We can't afford to be lenient and "let it slide" just this once.  Once is all it takes.

My son is so much more than his peanut allergy.  He is kind, creative, smart, athletic, caring, and passionate about all things sports.  He is a wonderful big brother and a loving son.  He loves to write sweet notes to me and is quick to thank us when we do something special for him.  Unfortunately, he just has to be super careful to avoid peanuts and other nuts.  While it greatly impacts our lives and causes a lot of stress and anxiety, I know that God only gives us what we can handle.  Most days I feel like part of me "handling" this is by being vocal and trying to help people understand the severity of life-threatening food allergies.

They are an inconvenience, no doubt about it, but isn't keeping a child safe worth the inconvenience?  Please keep this in mind when precautions are put into place in schools, on airplanes, and other public places.  Do not take offense to them.  No one is trying to deprive you or your child out of spite.  These precautions are put into place to try (important word being try, we know nothing is fool-proof) to keep a child from having an anaphylactic reaction.  Epi-pens are not guaranteed to work.  People die from severe food allergies.  Those stories are not made up.  Please find it in your heart to be kind and empathetic to the children and their families that live with this daily.  We would love to be able to eat whatever we want and go wherever we want without worry.

The reality?  People won't die from not eating a peanut butter sandwich or snacking on peanuts on a plane, but my son could.  It's really that simple.  It's the little things that make the greatest difference.  When you encounter a situation where precautions are put into place, please take the time to consider how you would feel if the shoe were on the other foot.  From all of us with family members who have food allergies, we thank you!


Saturday, November 2, 2013

Lessons of Giving Thanks

Now that Halloween is over, my kiddos would love to fast forward to Christmas.  Mom has other ideas, though!  We are going to spend some time reflecting on what we are thankful for this month and come up with some good deeds we can do for others.  I feel like we do a decent job of incorporating this into our everyday lives, but lately it seems that our kiddos are becoming so focused on their own wants that we need to shift the focus a bit.  I fully understand that kids are egocentric at times, but that doesn't mean that I won't do my best to teach them to think of others, too.  

To start of the month of giving thanks, I pulled out some books to read to the kids before bed.  Tonight my oldest guy snapped up Thank You, God and read it to me.  We haven't read it in such a long time and it used to be one of his favorites when he was a toddler.  Amazing how much he's changed since then!  Our collection is a bit small and I'd love to add some more books about giving thanks and doing good deeds.

Some reading material
Since it was a pretty quiet Saturday, I decided it would be fun to bake some treats for our neighbors.  Our kiddos always love to share things with their friends that live around us.  I made some caramel corn and pumpkin muffins and mini bread loaves.  (I tried a new recipe for the muffins and bread and think I like my old one better so I won't share that today!).  My older two assisted with making today's activity and the whole family delivered the goods this afternoon.  It was a fun way to spend some time together.  When I asked the older kids about our day at bedtime they both were able to explain why we made treats for our neighbors.  I am hoping that it is something they are proud of. 

We'll be sharing more of our activities as the month goes on so stay tuned!

Working hard creating our cards

The finished product

Mixing up those muffins!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween Dinner and Homemade Costumes

Tonight is the much-anticipated trick-or-treating night.  It's rainy, but not cold, so we'll see how we do!  We've started a little tradition to have a Halloween-themed meal before we head out.  I make the kids mummy-dogs and we have some "witch's fingers" (carrot sticks), "eyes" (grapes), and this year we'll be adding some jack-o-lantern mandarin oranges.  We've already had a ghost cheese stick for a snack and some mummy juice boxes, too.  Halloween all around today!

Pumpkin orange cups

The spread

This year two of my kids needed homemade costumes.  My little guy wanted to be a firetruck, so I made that one afternoon and my mom worked on my oldest guy's ghost.  We were pretty pleased with how they turned out considering we only had a few hours to work on them before we needed to head to a party!

The whole crew!
Mr. Fire truck
Mr. Ghost

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Halloween Fun

Today we are prepping for my daughter's preschool Halloween party tomorrow and thought we'd have a little fun of our own, too.  Awhile back I had searched Halloween ideas on Pinterest and saved a few for later.  Some I plan to use for the party and others I thought my kiddos would enjoy (and doing them with 16 little kiddos sounded like way too much of a task!).  Here's what we came up with:

Jack-o-lantern oranges

Frankenstein Pudding Cups

We'll fill these with green pudding and crushed Oreos

Body Part Wall Art (just a sneak peak!)

A ghost

This will be a bat.

Monster Cups

We're going to glue on some googley eyes and poke some pipe cleaners in for arms/legs

The kiddos are so excited for Halloween.  Though the weather looks like it's going to be wet, we hope to make the best of it!  Tomorrow I'll share our trick-or-treat night menu and the homemade costumes we made!  

Monday, October 28, 2013

Making My Way Through the Clutter

A few weeks ago I wrote about my goal to de-clutter and organize our house.  Let me tell you-this is a slow-going process with four little people in the house.  I've come to the conclusion that our house is going to get a whole lot messier before it appears to be cleaned up and organized.  I have wonderful ideas pinned, images of what I want it to look like in my head, and all I have to show for any of it is a large pile of clothes thrown on the couch downstairs and some put in boxes and bins.  Someday we'll get there...someday.

One of the most difficult parts of this process is parting with the outgrown clothes.  I know it is just "stuff," but I have so many memories of my kids in those clothes.  I have a real problem with being sentimental and my photographic memory is a fault in this case.  I can remember who gave us the clothes, when my kiddos got them, and several occasions when they were worn.  I really don't think it's the "stuff" so much that's the problem:  it's the reality that my kiddos are growing up (a little too quickly for my liking) and it is quite unlikely that there will be any other little kiddos to where those clothes again.  Ugh, just typing those words makes me teary.  While I am sorting them into bins to sell, I am not quite ready to part with everything just yet.  Someday I'll get there...someday.

Purging is a liberating feeling, but it's an emotional process, too.  There are a lot of little memories tied up in the "stuff" we have lying around this house.  I know that we have years of great memories to make, but parting with those little outfits and accessories is proving to be an emotional ride for me.  I'm thinking I may need to take a break from that and go through some of the stuff in this house that I won't even give a second thought to:  magazines, old papers, items from our move that are still in the boxes.  There's so much to do and not enough time in a day!  Someday I'll have more time on my hands...someday (but I probably won't like it much, because that means all my kiddos will be in school!).  

Are you having success with organizing and de-cluttering your house?!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Budgeting for the Holidays

I can hardly believe that I'm going to write a post about the holidays in October, but I am actually a big believer in shopping well in advance for Christmas, so this isn't really too far out of my comfort zone to be talking about this already!  In a day and age where financial ease seems rare, it is my hope to be able to share some tips that will save you money and keep you on or under budget!

Did you see that word that ended that first paragraph?  BUDGET!  Really, that's the best thing you can do for yourself.  Look at your finances and figure out what you can afford!  You don't need to go into serious debt during the holidays.  Spend what you can afford, not to keep up with the Jones'.  The holidays should be about spending time with family, not competing to see who can buy the best gift or giving your children everything they want.  In the end, it's all just "stuff."  The memories that you make as a family will long outlive the $400 IPAD Mini that your son/daughter HAD to have.  

Okay, you've created your budget.  Now what?  Start looking online now.  Today while I was at the gym, I saw a segment on the Today Show about www.poachit.com.  Admittedly I haven't tried it out yet, but it looks intriguing.  You can add items that you are interested in purchasing and then receive an email when the price drops.  Coupon codes are also listed on the site and at first glance it looks like it could saves hours of surfing for deals.

I do the majority of my shopping online and have saved hundreds of dollars using Ebates.  It may seem like it will take you longer to do your shopping, but it's really just one extra click.  Go to the website, search for your store, and enter their website through Ebates to receives a percentage of your purchase as cash back.  Often times the cash back percentage will double or even triple during the holidays and it really adds up!  You can choose to receive a check or receive instant Amazon credit (which is my new favorite thing to do!) every three months.  As a bonus, you can choose a $10 gift card once you make a purchase.  I love this site and have not had any trouble with it in the three years I've participated.

If you like to shop in the store, there is an awesome app I use called The Coupons App.  This app has deals at restaurants, stores, and other entertainment venues.  Just click on the offer you want and the code will come up.  It uses your location and provides the offers in your area.  It's really awesome for vacations, too, to save some money on meals or entertainment.  There are usually discounts for Old Navy, Kohl's, Hobby Lobby, Michael's, and Ulta just to name a few!

One last tip for the day!  Check your area for a half price deals or other discount site.  I frequently use QCUPickem and get some great deals on gift cards.  Generally you pay half of the value of the gift card and the restrictions are fairly limited if any.  I've begun to give these as gifts to teachers and family.  It's a great deal!

Stay tuned for some more holiday posts to come!  We'll be trying out some new crafts and recipes this year and be passing them along before you know it!



Friday, October 11, 2013

Peanut-Free Halloween Treats for Classroom Parties or Home

As the time of year draws near where treats and snacks abound, I'd like to just touch quickly on addressing the seriousness of peanut and tree nut allergies.  Many children, like my son, have life-threatening allergies to these foods.  While we thoroughly enjoy our holidays, this is the time of the year where our stress level increases significantly because treats abound and we have to be very diligent about keeping our little guy safe.  If your child does not suffer from food allergies, please find it in your heart to respect those who do and be kind, especially if you are assisting with classroom parties.  I can assure you that we, as parents of a child with a food allergy, are not being over-protective or difficult by advocating for nut-free classrooms.  We understand that your child may not be able to celebrate with some of their favorite foods. The reason we are vigilant is really quite simple:  our children can die from a nut.  Yes, my son has an Epi-Pen, but the goal is to not have to use it and it is not a way to "cure" a reaction.  It just buys time until medical professionals can get to him.  Even then, there is no guarantee.  Speaking from personal experience, anaphylactic reactions are very scary and dangerous.  I have had two myself (I suffer from a bee sting allergy).  Please remember that these children did not choose this path.  Be kind, be empathetic, and teach your children to be the same.  We thank you.

Okay, now that my PSA is over let's get to it!  With Halloween just three weeks away, it's time to start planning those classroom parties!  This year I have two to plan for and am looking forward to helping in both of my kid's classrooms.  Given that many classrooms are now nut-free, I thought I'd share some fun treats that are peanut/tree nut safe since we have a lot of practice with this!  Many schools require you to bring pre-packaged food and all of these ideas will accommodate those rules.  You will notice that I have suggested brands with each idea.  These are brands that I have found to be peanut/tree nut safe.  Please double check the labels, however, as there are times that the manufacturing lines have been compromised and there may be a warning present!

Ghost Pudding

This one is quick and easy!  Draw round ghost eyes and mouth on a cup of Hunts Vanilla Snack Pack pudding.  

Scary, right?

Jack-o-lantern Cookies

Purchase Pillsbury sugar cookie dough.  Cut out in pumpkin shapes.  Spread with Betty Crocker Halloween frosting.  Make a face using Hershey Chocolate Chips.

4-year-old made independently!

Halloween Sandwiches

 For this you will need Sara Lee Soft and Smooth Whole Wheat or Whole Grain White bread, Kraft or Borden Cheese Slices, and 20 deli turkey slices.  Assemble a sandwich and cut out with an assortment of Halloween cookie cutters.

Ghost sandwich

Witch's Brew

In a witch's cauldron, create a mix of Honey Teddy Grahams, Rold Gold Pretzel Sticks, and Kraft marshmallows.  


Place Betty Crocker vanilla frosting between two Nabisco Nilla Wafers.  Break Rold Gold Pretzel Sticks in half and stick in frosting.  Or place Sunbutter between two Ritz Crackers and place Rold Gold Pretzel Sticks in the Sunbutter.  

Nilla Wafer Spider 

Jack-o-lantern Mandarin Orange Cups and Mummy Juice Boxes

Draw a face on the lid of a Dole Mandarin Orange Cup.  Remove straw from a juice box and wrap with white crepe paper (make sure to leave top open for straw) and tape.  Draw on eyes with a sharpie or glue on googly eyes. 

Mummy juice box

Ghost Cheese

Using Borden or Kraft string cheese, draw a ghost face on the package.

Great for the lunch box, too!

Witch's Hats

Place a dab of frosting on top of an Oreo cookie and place a Hershey Kiss on top.  (Make sure to double check Hershey Kiss package as their seasonal items may be different than the regular!)

You can remove the frosting and just use the top/bottom, but they taste better this way!  

Halloween Fruit

Draw a Jack-o-lantern face on a clementine, peel some grapes to make squishy eyes, cut a banana in half and poke some Hershey Chocolate Chips in where the eyes and mouth should be.

Mummy Dogs

If you have an oven handy, wrap an Oscar Meier turkey dog in a Pillsbury Crescent Roll.  You can also place a half slice of Market Pantry cheese on the crescent roll before adding the hot dog.  Bake per Crescent Roll directions on a parchment paper lined pan for easy clean up!

Mummy dogs all ready to cook

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Too Much Stuff (and a Stuffed Cookie Recipe!)

For quite some time now I have found myself looking around our house thinking, "We have way too much stuff!"  Clothes, toys, movies, magazines...stuff!  Perhaps it is due to my lack of proper organization, but I feel like there are always piles of stuff everywhere!  I know that we are a society that believes that we never have enough, but really, my house has more than enough and then some.  

What am I to do about this problem?  Well, I'm going to devote the next month (or maybe two!) to going through our stuff room by room.  Once I've cleared out the unnecessary stuff, I will sort it into donation, sell, or trash piles and then figure out the best way to organize that room.  I have been on the hunt for some good treasures online that I can turn into nice looking storage for very little cost.  My first score was a $10 bookshelf with some character and nice rectangular shelves for baskets.  We plan to refinish or paint it and hopefully it will be useful by the end of the month!

As I progress with this project, I hope to show my before and after pictures.  Currently I am focusing on clothes.  Mostly it is the children's clothing store we have housed downstairs, but our closet is getting a good cleaning out as well!  Do you have too much stuff, too?!  Join in the fun and share your progress!

In the spirit of "stuff," I thought I'd share this awesome cookie recipe with you:  S'Mores Stuffed Chocolate Chip Cookies  Healthy?  Not one little bit.  Delicious (yes) and they're monstrous, so be prepared to share!

S'Mores Stuffed Chocolate Chip Cookies
From Picky Palate

2 sticks butter, softened
1 c. sugar
3/4 c. brown sugar
2 eggs
1 T. vanilla
3 1/2 c. flour
1 t. kosher salt (don't cheat, buy this!)
1 t. baking soda
2 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips
24 graham cracker squares
12 large marshmallows (cut in half lengthwise, use a wet scissors to help with stickiness)
3 Hershey bars, broken into rows of 3 bars

Using a mixer, beat the butter and sugars until light and fluffy.  Add eggs and vanilla and continue to beat until well combined.  Place flour, salt, and baking soda into a bowl and mix until blended.  Slowly add wet ingredients along with the chocolate chips.  (Use your muscles as this dough is stiff!).

Layer graham cracker with a marshmallow and chocolate row.  Top with other graham cracker.  Top s'more with a large scoop of cookie dough.  Place in hands and put another scoop of dough on the bottom then front and back sides as needed.  Form dough around the s'more.  It's messy, but you can do it!  Place 4 large cookies onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and bake at 350 for 15-17 minutes or until edges are golden and centers are cooked through.  Repeat until done.  Let cool for 10 minutes before transferring to cooling rack.  YUMMMMM!!!!

Makes 12 large cookies.

*You can also make these into bars!  Line square pan with parchment paper.  Layer the bottom of the with cookie dough.  Build s'mores on top and cover with the rest of the dough.  Bake at 350 for 30-35 minutes or until dough no longer looks raw.  Best served warm!

Just bake 4 at a time.  6 was too many!



Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Being Vulnerable and Owning My Story...To Be a Better Mom

I've completed Daring Greatly by Brene Brown for the second time and made a commitment to really do some self-reflection and work through some tough issues that have bothered me for years.  To start, I have challenged myself to being vulnerable and owning my story.  While reading the book this time around, I found myself thinking, "This is how I feel" so many times when she talked about shame in different environments in our lives.  Typically I would push my feelings under the rug, but I feel like I need to work through some of these uncomfortable parts of my life to not only be more comfortable with who I am, but to be a better mother.  

So, today I'm going to be vulnerable and I'm going to begin the process of owning my story. (And no, I don't plan to document it all on here!  This particular part just happens to tie in with being a mom).  Last night on Facebook I posted this status, "Tonight I am opening myself to the feelings that come with being on the "outside" looking in and feeling left out. I have always tried to bury these emotions, but to be a better mother, I feel like I have to work through them for myself and be at peace in order to help guide my kids."  

This is a part of my story that has been difficult.  There have been many periods in my life where I have struggled to figure out where I belong.  From middle school to college, I was always part of a "group," but never quite felt like I belonged.  I experienced rejection, felt misunderstood, and had my feelings hurt on many occasions. I felt embarrassed, ashamed, and insecure and had a hard time understanding how people could change so quickly, but I never really talked about any of it with anyone.  Instead, I stored those feelings inside and the shame that came with them.

As an adult, those experiences and feelings have stuck with me, but I like to think I have learned from them.  It seems that when we are younger, we think that having a ton of friends is important and somehow makes us worthier.  I have realized that it isn't the quantity of friends but the quality.  I have lived in several different places since graduating from college and have developed some wonderful friendships with some fantastic women, but it took me some time to develop these relationships.  I find that those earlier life experiences have made me cautious, but it has not prevented me from meeting some wonderful people along the way.

So how does this pertain to being a mom?  With one child already in elementary school and others to follow, I know that as issues arise, I want to be able to help guide my children without my feelings of hurt and shame getting in the way.  To some it may sound silly that events that occurred years ago still affect me, but if you really look within yourself, I'm sure you can still feel the pain and hurt of certain events that occurred in your lives dating back to your school years, too.  I know that experiencing rejection, insult, and being picked on are all a part of life and growing as a person, but it doesn't make it any easier.  

Yesterday one of my kiddos had a case of hurt feelings and it broke my heart to hear him explain the problems he was having.  I listened and tried to offer encouragement.  I also made a mental note to find time to discuss it with my husband (out of earshot of my son) before he went to bed.  My husband is good at having the father/son talks at bedtime and I wanted him to be able to sit down with our son and talk while it was all still fresh.  The incident was a typical childhood experience, but we still felt it was important to talk through it with him.  

When I look back on my childhood, I feel like either I wasn't encouraged to talk about my feelings about incidents like these or I chose not to.  This is not what I want for my children.  I hope that we, as parents, will encourage our children to talk about the problems they are having and the feelings that go along with them so that they can work through these experiences, learn from them, and move on.  While it was difficult to feel this way as a child, I have a feeling it is going to be even more difficult as a parent!

In the end, we all want to feel a sense of belonging and be accepted for who we are.  One of my favorite excerpts by Brene Brown about belonging is this, "There are so many terms we use every day whose meanings are gauzy, if not downright imprecise -- which makes it hard to get your head around what's really going on in your life. For example, contrary to what most of us think: Belonging is not fitting in. In fact, fitting in is the greatest barrier to belonging. Fitting in, I've discovered during the past decade of research, is assessing situations and groups of people, then twisting yourself into a human pretzel in order to get them to let you hang out with them. Belonging is something else entirely -- it's showing up and letting yourself be seen and known as you really are -- love of gourd painting, intense fear of public speaking and all.

Many us suffer from this split between who we are and who we present to the world in order to be accepted, (Take it from me: I'm an expert fitter-inner!) But we're not letting ourselves be known, and this kind of incongruent living is soul-sucking.

The truth is: Belonging starts with self-acceptance. Your level of belonging, in fact, can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance, because believing that you're enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect. When we don't have that, we shape-shift and turn into chameleons; we hustle for the worthiness we already possess."

I want to teach my kids that they are enough.  I want them to stay true to who they are and not change to try to fit in.  We will make it a priority in our home to accept each other for our strengths and our weaknesses, talk about our feelings, and create an environment where everyone knows, without a doubt, that they are important and belong.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

200th Post?! I Stuck With It!

Today I was checking out my blog stats and noticed that today will be my 200th post.  This seems like quite a milestone to me, as when I started this I had no idea how long I'd stick with it.  This was supposed to be an outlet for creative ideas, the ups and downs of parenting, and of course, keeping track of the recipes that we've tried and liked.  I have no idea if I'll make it to 200 more, but it's been fun!

"Sticking with it" seems like a great theme for today!  Yesterday I posted on FB that I was bummed that I let my running routine go.  I had several excuses (don't we all!), but know that in the end it boils down to one thing:  me.  I completed my 5K (which I later learned was actually 3.9 miles-explains why I wanted to die!) and then let up...a lot.  Today I decided enough was enough and hit the pavement on this unseasonably warm morning and ran a mile.  Far from what I was doing before, but at least a step in the right direction.  In June I would have never been able to go out and run a mile without stopping.  Today it was with relative ease.  Progress is progress.  I hope to continue to build my distance back up and add some new elements to my routine.  I'm saying it here:  I AM going to stick with this.  There, now you can hold me accountable!

A few months back we committed to cleaning up our diet.  I am happy to say that we have stuck with that plan.  Adding organic food and other healthier options costs more money.  I get that, I really do.  We are on a budget and for the most part, I have been successful keeping us on track with our goal even while purchasing as much organic food as I can.  Do you know how?  We cut out all of the crap!  If you avoid stocking your pantry with "filler" snacks, you'd be amazed at how much cost is cut out of your monthly grocery budget.  I've also been diligent about planning meals, so I can adjust as needed.  Some meals are just more cost-efficient than others!

Today I thought I'd share with you all of the wonderful products I've found in my local grocery stores.  Target continues to stock more and more organic food and it has been a true gift.  Not only for the money, but for the convenience.  Someday when you have the time, check out how many options they have!  While we are doing much better, we are still working on stocking our freezer with healthier meat and poultry and I'd like to find some farm fresh eggs, too.  Baby steps!   Here's what you will find on a regular basis in our home (of course all of these items are peanut and tree nut free!):

Found at Target:  Tortilla chips, Cascadian Farms granola bars (MOST are peanut safe-double check), apple juice, pizza sauce, Cascadian Farms cereal and granola (once again double check for peanut/tree nut), soy sauce, spaghetti sauce, butter, lactose-free milk, and spices.  I usually also purchase macaroni and cheese and yogurt here, too!

Found at Hy-Vee Ketchup, crescent rolls (part of the NON-GMO project, grapes, jelly, milk, cheese slices, string cheese, and yogurt  Generally we have a pile of apples, and a bag of carrots too, but we were out.  Hy-Vee has A TON of options for produce, as well as an entire health market devoted to healthier and/or organic food.  Call and find out what days they have a discount on their health market products!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Crocking Monday (Wednesday?!)

I have been MIA for a few weeks!  My life was busier than normal, as we completed our first donation for our organization From Cover to Cover last Friday and the preparation took a long time!  On top of that, we put on a fundraiser for the organization on Saturday, so needless to say I was busy, busy!  Both events were amazing and we are looking forward to a bright future!

This meal is perfect for a busy schedule.  Of course I found it on Pinterest and we tried it out a few weekends ago.  Olive Garden Pasta Fagioli sound good?  It was delicious and healthy!  Here's the recipe:

Olive Garden Pasta Fagioli

 2 lbs. gound beef, cooked and drained
1 onion, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
4 stalks celery, chopped
2 (28 oz) cans diced tomatoes, undrained
1 (16 oz) can red kidney beans, drained
1 (16 oz) can white kidney beans, drained
3 (10 oz) cans beef stock
3 t. oregano
2 t. pepper
5 t. parsley
1 t. Tabisco (optional, we omitted)
1 (20 oz) jar spaghetti sauce
8 oz. rotini pasta

Add all ingredients except pasta to the crockpot.  Cook on low 7-8 hours or high 3-4 hours.  Add pasta in last hour on low or 30 minutes on high.  DO NOT ADD MORE PASTA THAN CALLED FOR!  (It will lose it's liquid.  Trust me, I know!).

Friday, September 20, 2013

You Can Turn Anything into Pie!

A few nights ago, I made Taco Pie for dinner.  My mom had made it for the kiddos when they stayed there one night and they all loved it.  I figured I'd give it a shot and added my own "cleaner eating" spin on it.  Success once again!

While we were eating dinner, my oldest guy said, "Hey, Mom!  Adding peas to it makes this like 'Special Pie!'"  (That's what I call Chicken Pot Pie to get them to eat it!).  This began a conversation about all of the different "pies" we could make for dinner.  Here's the list we came up with:  Spaghetti Pie, Shepherd's Pie, Chicken Pot Pie, Cheeseburger Pie, and of course, Taco Pie.  I'm sure there are plenty more, but the conversation made me feel like I was on some family sitcom or Forrest Gump! 

Today I'll share with you the recipe we used for Taco Pie.  It's certainly nothing fancy, but a nice little twist on "Mexican Food Night" at home!  I mentioned that I added a "cleaner eating" spin to it.  In lieu of the prepackaged taco seasoning, I made my own.  We also used Organic Blue Corn Chips and crescent rolls made by Immaculate Baking (found at Hy-Vee and cheaper than the regular kind!) that are part of the Non-GMO project.  We're also a plain-Jane family, so you may want to add some toppings like lettuce, tomatoes, salsa, etc.

Taco Pie

1 lb. ground beef
2 T. homemade taco seasoning (or a packet from the store)
1 tube crescent rolls
Shredded cheese
Crushed tortilla chips

Brown ground beef and drain.  Add taco seasoning and water (1/2 c. if using the homemade seasoning).  In a pie pan, place triangles of crescent rolls and knead together to make the crust.  Place meat on top of crescent rolls.  Top with crushed tortilla chips and cheese.  Bake at 375 degrees for 12-15 minutes.  Top with favorite taco toppings.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Taking the Plunge

As the seasons begin to change, I am reminded once again how quickly time goes.  It seems like just yesterday we were excited about the warmer temperatures and the fun that summer would bring.  We made our summer bucket list and began to plan how we would spend those summer days.  While we did accomplish a sizable chunk of that long list, I'm left with the thought of, "where did the time go?"  

I can't help but feel that we didn't make the most of our summer this year.  Juggling a new baby and three other kiddos proved to be a bit much for me some days.  Solo outings with the whole crew were difficult, but we made the most of it.  Looking back I think we had fun, but we had plenty of "un-fun" moments as well.  I am trying to re-energize myself, though it's difficult these days with the lack of sleep I am getting.  We generally don't make a "fall bucket list," but I think this year we may just start a new tradition.  Most of our activities will probably be indoors, but I really want to hear what ideas my kiddos have.  I'm trying to stop saying, "No" so often and be open to things that may be a bit out of my comfort zone.  

As I had mentioned a few posts back, I am re-reading Daring Greatly by Brene Brown and spending a lot of time reflecting on where I am at in my life and where I would like to be.  I think we all have goals, dreams, and ideas that we are afraid to go after.  Perhaps we think someone will laugh at us, that we'll fail, or we'll simply be disappointed.  Maybe there are people in our lives who tell us we can't, criticize our decisions, "kill" our dreams before they ever come to fruition, or just hold us back.  

There are a few dreams I have for myself that I am no longer going to put off on the back burner and ignore.  I'm going to step out of my "safe" little zone and go for it.  I want to teach my kids that it's okay to go after what you want, even if it doesn't turn out quite the way you had hoped.  And if it fails?  Then it will be a great life lesson for us all.  This is also something I want to keep in mind when they present an idea or express an interest in trying something new.  Instead of being so quick to say, "No," I think they deserve the chance to try.  In an age where there is less time for  creativity and independent exploration of ideas at school, I think it is important to provide an environment at home where it's encouraged and valued.

So, what are you waiting for?  Do you have a big dream for yourself that you've been afraid to go after?  What's holding you back?  Are you ready to take the first step and see what comes of it?  Let's stop being afraid to try and believe in ourselves and our ideas.  What a great opportunity for us and a great example for our kiddos!  Who's in?!    

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Life Lessons

Today we delivered our treats to our local fire station and a fire department in the "big city."  Our local fire department is volunteer, so we had to find one where firefighters were present!  The kids did a wonderful job thanking these heroes and they even got something special in return:  sitting in the police car and fire trucks!  They asked plenty or questions and the men graciously answered.  On the way home, they said that they had fun and they really enjoyed doing it.  I'm so glad my husband suggested we do this.

Fire Station Visit

Police Station Visit

If you saw yesterday's post, we made some sugar cookies and rolled them in red sugar.  We tried a new recipe and they were delicious (but definitely not high on the health meter!).

Sugar Cookies
Source:  Taste of Home

1/2 c. butter, softened
1/2 c. shortening
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/4 c. flour
1/2 t. baking soda
1/2 t. baking powder
extra sugar

In a large bowl, cream together butter, shortening, and sugar until light and fluffy.  Add egg and vanilla; mix well.  Combine flour, baking soda, and baking powder; gradually add to creamed mixture.  Shape into 1 inch balls.  Roll in sugar.  Place on parchment paper lined cookie sheet and flatten with a glass or fork.  Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes or until set.  Place on wire racks to cool completely.