The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

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Leave it to Christmas to bring me out of my silence.  I sat down today and realized it was November 29 and that we start our Advent calendar on Saturday.  I had nothing planned.  As most of you know, this is one of my favorite traditions.  I’ve written about it before here, here, here, and for a really honest account here.

Our hope as a family is to keep this season calm, special and focused on Jesus, family and friends.  It seems that the desire scale back and focus on those in need and what really matters grows each year.  This year, Jeff and I were really impacted by the election spending numbers.  Right on the tail of that, comes the projected holiday spending figures and they make me sad.  So, so much good for those who really need help could be done with that money and instead the figurative “we” find ourselves leaving the Thanksgiving table early to add to the abundance we already have.

Some of the post I’ve seen recently that have a variety of ideas are at Rage Against the Minivan and Tara Whitney’s Blog.  There are, of course, tons others.

There are so many people and organizations ready to help make this a truly impactful and meaningful Christmas.  Since the posts have already been written, I’ll simply link to them.  I’ve already signed up for Pure Charity and can’t believe how easy it is.  We’re also doing some different things gift wise around here.  Yes, our kids and the other littles in our family are still getting gifts (though they’ve always been limited) but we’re doing something new for everyone else (and we’ve asked them to do the same for us).

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Anyway, I really came here to share this year’s advent plan.  My hope is that it will give you ideas of ways you can make this season more about people and love and less about stuff.

  • Christmas Market and Tree Lighting in Spilimbergo
  • Read “The Legend of the Candy Cane” and make candy cane cookies
  • Make cards for family and friends
  • Make paper snowflake garland
  • Choose two toys to donate
  • Make gratitude garland
  • Watch “Polar Express” and eat Christmas cookies
  • Make gingerbread house
  • Gingerbread pancakes for breakfast
  • Bake sugar cookies
  • Decorate cookies
  • Leave anonymous encouraging notes
  • Make hand and foot reindeer
  • Write a letter to our Compassion kids
  • Go see the Nativities in Pofobro
  • Make teacher gifts
  • Watch “Rudolph”
  • Have a picnic dinner under the tree
  • Take goodies to school for friends (Rollo pretzels)
  • Make treats for the birds
  • Take an evening walk and have cocoa afterward
  • Go to the Christmas Market in Villach
  • FaceTime family and sing carols
  • Read the Christmas Story from Luke

Canned

Pear butter

This year, we decided to take our first steps into the world of canning.  Jeff’s mom and grandma passed on a huge love of, and tradition for, canning (My MIL’s pickled green beans are to die for as is her sauerkraut.)

While we’ve done some preserving in the past,  this year we’re stepping up.  Thankfully, Jeff is all in when it comes to this endeavor.  I even bought him a pressure canner for his birthday and he was thrilled.  In fact, if anything,  he might be even more into this than I am.

This past weekend was busy in our kitchen.

We have five pear trees in our yard and they were ready to be picked and processed.  This caught us a bit off guard as it seemed early but our Italian neighbors assured us that now was the time to get started.  Jeff started Saturday off with a batch of pear butter and then I wrapped it up with a double batch of pear sauce.

Basil for Tomato Basil Sauce

Prepping for Tomato Basil Sauce

I was so motivated to keep going that on Monday I hit our local market and bought 9 kilos of roma tomatoes (at .79 euro per kg!!).  I knocked out a double batch of Tomato Basil Sauce from Ashley English’s  “Canning and Preserving.”  I also got a batch of Pomodori al Forno into the oven.  Both are great but please, make the Pomodori al Forno immediately.  Jeff and I scheduled a mini date night at home with it, some crusty bread, goat cheese and  prosecco.  YUM!  I regretted not making up a double batch immediately.  (Though I did chop up the two remaining tomatoes and mix them with my scrambled egg the following morning.)

Done.

Up next, pickles and salsa.

Week in the Life {Wednesday}

After making tortillas

Our girls

About ready to climb in and call it a day.

Wednesday was much less exciting around here as it was just me, the chicks and a sleeping Jeff all day.  Most of the day was spent studying though we did run and grab lunch (was enjoying the sun and forgot to take a picture) and I made tortillas for our bean burrito dinner.  The kids came home and it was the usual routine of homework, dinner, showers, game and bed.

Just a normal day.

Bean Roasting

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We’re a DIY family when it comes to most things.  Especially things of the food and drink variety.  Jeff has home brewed beer since 2000(ish) so it shouldn’t be a surprise that he set his sights on other projects, including coffee.

In a recent beer supply order, he added a pound of green coffee beans.  He did a bit of reading, some Facebooking with my brother (I love how country crazy seems to run in the family!!) and he was on his way.

Bean roasting

It was so easy, done before before work, using our air popper (retired after our WhirleyPop acquisition) and finished off in a cast iron skillet over a camp stove.

Freshly roasted beans

The final result was delicious with no bitterness.

First product, home roasted beans

Is it worth the effort?  I think so.  The price per pound is about the same and the satisfaction of finishing it off just so is priceless.   Besides, how many people can say they roast their own coffee?

 

Family Dinner on Busy Nights

We are big believers in family dinners. Both Jeff and I grew up in families where gathering around the dinner table regularly was the rule rather than the exception. For us, it’s just what you do and we did so even before we had kids.

However, if you talk to other parents at school, soccer practice or work you’ll quickly learn that family dinner is not that common anymore. There’s a lot of information out about the benefits of family dinners, this article is one I stumbled on yesterday. It is full of great information and suggestions.

Yet it many ways, I know it isn’t that simple. American families live very busy lives. With both parents often working outside the home, nightly homework (often crazy amounts in my mind) and activities for the kids it is difficult to get everyone home at the same time.

Yes, we have chosen for me to be home full time for many reasons and I’m so thankful that has been possible for the last nearly nine years. It works for us. However, it can still difficult to ensure that we are regularly eating together. Part of this is due to Jeff’s crazy work schedule and part is due to afternoon and activities. Though we are very selective and deliberate about how many activities each of us is committed to. Yet, even if Jeff is working 15 hour days and gets home just before bed or while he was deployed, the kids and I sat at the table together most nights and ate. It wasn’t always gourmet but we connected.

That’s the key in all of this, that you are actually gathering at the table. The focus really isn’t on the food at all (as long as it’s mainly healthy, whole foods). There are tons of meal planning resources and suggestions for dinner. The struggle seems to come on the evenings when things are just a bit crazier than normal.

Here are some ideas to get you to the table even when there are three practices, scouts  and homework.

Use your crockpot. I’m a huge fan of the crockpot and use it year round. While most often used to slow cook meat, you can also do beans, soup, pasta and even cake in the slow cooker. Our house in Colorado didn’t have A/C so in the summer I used an outlet in the garage or on the deck.

Pasta. A simple marinara sauce can be made in the amount of time it takes to boil the water and cook the noodles. Saute some veggies or slice some fruit and you’re set.

Breakfast for dinner. Scrambled eggs, toast, fruit. Ten minutes. Done.

Popcorn. Make a batch of popcorn (the good stuff, please), slice some cheese or a grab a handful of almonds and add apples.

Freeze ahead or join a meal exchange. There are several ways to do freezer meals. The easiest is likely doubling a recipe, serving half and putting half in the freezer. Then on those busy days, pull a pan of enchiladas out of the freezer to thaw in the morning and reheat quickly to serve. I wrote a bit about the meal exchange I was part of here.

Clean out the fridge. There is nothing wrong with leftovers.

Sandwiches. Quick and easy. Round it out with some veggies or fruit.

Really the options are endless.

One other idea that I’ve seen several families do is to pack a picnic. It seems that when multiple children are playing the same sport their practice may be at the same place on the same day but there is a 30 minute gap between. So, take any of the options above and pack dinner to go. This also works well on Saturday when one child has a game at ten and the other at one.

The important thing is to gather your family (sans phones and tv, of course) and settle in. You never know what might happen any given evening.

Obviously, this picture isn’t from a busy day.  Just a Monday.  But it’s what I had.  Besides,  every Monday needs some flowers and candlelight. Right?

Also, there have been seasons for our family (we’re actually headed in to one soon) where all five of us aren’t home for dinner.  Ever.  During these times, we try to shift our main meal to breakfast.  The important thing is that we gather.


Tuesday

March 6

This week isn’t going as I’d planned.

Morgan has been home sick with a cold and mild fever. Connor joined her after throwing up at school. They both seem to be on the mend. Obviously, I feel horrible that they are sick. Yet, I’m struggling with adjusting my plans and expectations to reality. I’m trying to remind myself that these “divine interruptions” (as a dear mentor in San Antonio referred to them) are just what I need but the housework and studying and hopes of exercise and a few quiet moments are taunting me.

Making soup

While the kids rest with movies, I’ve been making soup and listening to the MAPP gathering interviews. This is such an inspiring project designed just for moms.

Today, I listened to Andrea Sher’s interview and something they talked about hit me like a ton of bricks. The main thing I walked away with is the reminder that as a mom and woman, I need nourishment (physical yes, but also spiritual) and to be cared for just as much as anyone else in my family. And yet, even with a wonderful husband who supports me fully, I feel guilty actually putting this into practice. (What is it with moms and guilt?!) That is the absolute worst thing I can do. If I don’t take, and make, the time to care for myself how can I possibly care for those I love or do the work that I hope to do? Andrea referred to her self-care activities (and these are not typical beauty type things or even physical but more “whole self” care) as non-negotiables and I think that’s a great name. It’s easy for me to justify letting self-care go because of Jeff’s crazy work schedule, our limited support system (lack of babysitters, grandparents, etc.), and a myriad of other reasons. But those are all excuses and in reality all I’m doing is compounding stress.  In this situation, no one wins.

Trust me, I know.

So do my kids.

And Jeff.

The other thing they touched on that really spoke to me was the amount of “static” we fill our lives with. I am horrible about this. Social media, radio, new, tv, and more. I’ll confess, I even checked in with Instagram while listening to the interview.  Nevermind that only two people I connect with were actually awake during that time.

When there is never any quiet you can’t really hear what your soul is saying, let alone God.

I can’t recommend these interviews highly enough. Check them out.  I’m looking forward to listening to the rest of them in the next few days.

May your Tuesday be a good one. Interruptions and all.

Snack Time

A sweet friend recently suggested that I do a post about what (unprocessed) snacks I offer the kiddos.  This can be such a challenge and even with the kids all in school all day (and thus, less snacking), I still struggle to put a good snack on the table at 3:15.

With a little preparation it really can be done quickly and easily.  Plus, if you include the kids in preparing the baked goods, you can teach kitchen skills, math, reading and attention to detail while you’re at it.  (And, let’s be honest, during those long days there is always room for another 30 minute activity.)

Here are some of our standbys when snack time rolls around:

Roasted Garbanzos I love these though the first few tries weren’t huge hits with the kids. I think mine are the exception because everyone else’s kids seem to love them. Give them a try!

Whole Wheat Muffins (Note: Lisa uses white whole wheat flour, we’ve had great success with plain ‘ole whole wheat. I even sent these to school as my monthly snack contribution and they were gobbled up.)

Apples/Peanut Butter (other nut butter or sun butter would be fine)

Popcorn Until we moved, we’d always used an air popper. Since we’ve been here in Italy, we’ve used a Whirley Pop (thanks for the rec, Dortch family!) with great success. I highly recommend it for quick, healthy popcorn. My usual recipe is 1 T coconut oil, 1/2 C popcorn and a bit of salt. Not only a great snack but I often send it as the “crunch” for the kids’ lunches.

Triscuits These are only crackers I’m buying these days.  With only three ingredients I think they’re a good choice. Pair them with a bit of cheese, some hummus or some fruit and you’re set.

Yogurt with berry sauce.   I’ve had great success with this recipe for homemade yogurt.  You can also make parfaits by layering them with fruit and granola.  (We’ve made our granola in the past but also enjoy the Bare Naked granola.)  This also makes a great breakfast.  And, the kids can make their own!

Hummus and veggies

Granola Bars

Graham Crackers

Nuts (especially almonds and pistachios)  Raw unsalted almonds are the best and watch the salt content on the pistachios though I must admit that the salt and pepper variety disappear very quickly around here.

We just found raw almonds for the first time here and the kids and I ate them like candy.  YUM!!  

Quinoa Patties with homemade ranch. We usually have this for dinner but it seems like it could be a delicious, satisfying snack as well (also a great lunch with salad).

Another thing I love is putting together a snack tray.  It seems kids are more likely to try new or different foods when they are presented in a fun way.  This is also something the kids could help with and the combinations are endless.

Of course, as warmer weather approaches there are all kinds of fruit-cicle options to explore.  The fun of a popsicle without the sugar and other junk.

Finally, I stumbled upon this list of ideas through my Whole Food Kitchen workshop and thought there were some great ideas.

How about you?  What do you offer between meals?