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How long has it been since you’ve read this book?

Well it had been some time for me, until recently.  (And for those of you on Pinterest, you probably already know why.) But we’ll get to that in a minute.

I love this book.

Maybe as much as my all-time favorite Dr. Seuss book, The Lorax.

It’s positive and encouraging and has that you-can-do-anything-you-set-your-mind-to message….but it’s also realistic and talks about a wide variety of challenges and stumbling blocks along the way…

The Library of Congress summary for this book is: Advice in rhyme for proceeding in life; weathering fear, loneliness, and confusion; and being in charge of your own actions.

Sounds a little like parenting, no? Though it’s my husband who is usually in charge of the rhyming department.

So why am I talking about a decades-old children’s book?

Because this year I sent a copy of this book to my sons’ schools and asked their teachers to please write something in them. I planned to do a cute little instruction tag for them, but maybe next year. This year I just wrote on the envelope…

Do you have any idea what happens when you do this??  Well, for starters, you better be stocked up on Kleenex. Seriously.

They say the most amazing things…things I know I would have never heard, never known.  And definitely things no one would remember in 11 or 12 years. And also the book starts to look really cool…

different page choices…and handwriting…

and even stickers…

(Lincoln is in a Spanish immersion program…so I guess he better be able to still read Spanish when he’s 18 otherwise he’ll never know what his Kindergarten teacher had to say!)

Some were thoughtful about page choice, wrote on top of illustrations…

…but mostly they just made a mom cry.  The good kind.

I found myself thinking about my own lifetime of teachers…geez, I don’t even know how many that would be. Some of them I’m sure I couldn’t even remember. But I can hardly wait for the boys to get to see these books…to read these amazing, generous things people said about them. (I know, I know, I have to wait, like more than a decade…and I don’t really want it to go fast…and these books will just keep getting better and better…but still, I can hardly wait.)

“Kid, you’ll move mountains!”

I love that.

So, if you have kids in school…it doesn’t matter how old they are…I highly recommend this little project.

“Your mountain is waiting.”  (sigh)  Can you tell how much I’m going to cry at high school graduations?

Thank you, Pinterest, for this little gem. Such a great idea!

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Earlier this week our recently-turned-five-year-old announced that he wanted to ride his bike without his training wheels. He made this announcement while his dad was in the middle of trying to fix the leaf blower. I remember him saying something about tiny little parts being all over the place…so the answer was probably, “Yeah, OK…in just a little while when I finish this.”  Which is something the boys hear a lot because they like to ask for things when we are knee-deep in something else.

Not being terribly gifted with patience, our son decided to rummage around in the tools…found the appropriately-sized socket wrench…and tackled those wheels himself. By the time my husband was finished with the leaf blower, there was a two-wheeled bike in the garage next to a helmeted-padded-up little boy who was ready to hit the street!

And away they went. I think my husband was a little disappointed that he hardly needed any help at all…and practically no running-along-side-the-bike action. He lit off on that thing like he’d never had training wheels on it at all. So exciting!

Of course we had to have a little party.

Nothing really fancy at all…literally a last-minute idea just to reinforce how proud we were and a chance for some family to come over the next day and see a demonstration of the new skills! He was beside himself all afternoon. And he helped with decorations – made obvious by those crazy scissor lines.

I was reminded of a great idea I heard several years ago called the “honor candle.” A mom of several kids had a special candle she kept in a closet…it only came out for special events which merited “honor.” At some time during the day she would put it out on the dining room table – indicating that someone would be the honoree at dinner time – but she wouldn’t say anything else. And then, when it was time to eat the candle would be lit and she would announce who was being honored and why. The thing I liked about this wasn’t just the overall concept but more the examples she gave of when the candle might come out. A brother “caught” sharing a prized toy with a younger sibling when he thought no one was watching. A fifth grader with a B on a test…in a class where she had struggled to even get Cs. A son who was beyond nervous to play in the big championship soccer game…and they didn’t win…but he showed dedication and sportsmanship. Maybe not the typical events one thinks of for celebration, but teaching moments for sure…supporting children in times of struggle, persistence and disappointment…and reinforcing the most important family values. I think we will probably come up with an honor candle ritual fairly soon – maybe when Kindergarten starts – but in the meantime a flurry of silly little decorations was a good substitute.

And such a cute helper!

Dinner was fairly no-fuss…chicken breasts and angelhair pasta in a lemon-garlic-cream sauce and a big salad eaten on the back patio. We looked up what Tour de France racers most commonly eat and he was so delighted to discover that it was “noodles!!”

I will admit that several times over the past couple of days I’ve been aware of what a metaphor the whole experience is for parenthood in general. As we were at the park the next day practicing more bike riding, I was watching in disbelief as he rode farther and farther ahead of us on the trail…suddenly thinking, “I think there’s a pretty big dip up there and then a little hill, and maybe even a ditch to the side of the trail.” The only thing I could say to myself was, “It’s OK. He knows the rules and he’s so careful. And he’s wearing a helmet. He’ll be fine.” And about that time I saw him heading back toward me at full speed with the biggest smile on his face, yelling how he had turned around all by himself without stopping. I laughed at myself for my moment of worry and thought, “This will be much harder when it’s a car.”

 

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Gingerbread Houses!!

While we were at my in-laws’ house last weekend for a birthday celebration, a gingerbread village was constructed.

Complete with streets and cars, of course! Aren’t they all so cute?

I didn’t make one. But my four-year-old helped with one (which means he paid close attention to the construction of one house in particular while trying to steal as many pieces of candy as possible.)

I was just thrilled to have the cute little creations around without having to do all that tedious work. And it can be tedious.

And this was one of my favorites…a snow angel!!!

Gingerbread houses make me feel festive (even if it is nearly 80 degrees outside!) At least it’s snowing somewhere!!

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I was just thinking how nice it is going to be to have a little break from packing lunches over the Christmas holidays. Not very long ago, I was gearing up to start packing lunches and even having some creative lunchbox moments… that was approximately 96 lunches ago. It’s fair to say the lunches have found their rut.

My 15-month-old is pretty set with cheese and crackers, some kind of fruit, some kind of pasta and hard-boiled eggs. This lunch is grapes and fruit cocktail, mozzarella and turkey with whole wheat Ritz crackers, and pasta with pesto and sautéed tofu cubes. Still not a vegetable in sight. I can get him to eat broccoli on occasion and he likes cooked carrots and potatoes – but only at home. It seems pesto is the greenest thing he eats. I just keep trying.

The four-and-a-half year old is a little bit easier. He loves sandwiches and requests them regularly. Sometimes I send soup. Or spaghetti. Usually some kind of fruit and/or yogurt. And a protein bar or crackers. This particular day it was feta-stuffed olives (one of his favorite snacks,) grapes, peanut butter crackers and pasta with pesto and sautéed tofu and edamame.

I’m hoping over the break I’ll find time to experiment with some new items…perhaps the spring will see a refreshed perspective on the lunchbox chore. Happy Holidays!

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I have some friends who like to give me a hard time about my from-scratch baking and the sometimes-semi-gourmet nature of my kids’ lunchbox contents. This post is for them. This past weekend was my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday celebration. And there had to be cake. My husband wanted to decorate a cake with our four-year-old…so they just needed a canvas. I had a box full of decorations and some fondant…so I handed over three layers of blank chocolate frosting…and somehow a monster truck came to be. And yes, the first “N” is actually a “Z” turned on its side. We ran out of “N”s.  And the other “N” might or might not have gotten broken.   My husband placed the letters and our son did the rest. Fondant. Cookie cutters. Sprinkles.

Oh, except for the border on the bottom of the cake – I might have had something to do with that.   Now, some of these friends of mine might imagine I had a hard time with this being THE birthday cake. I did not. (OK, there might have been a brief flash of panic for just a few moments as those four-year-old little hands starting placing fondant…but it went away. Really.)

And there’s a good reason I wasn’t as concerned with the cake as I usually am.   I’ve been a little busy with something else…

This was so much fun to make. Easily one of my favorite gifts I’ve ever given.

"Kitchen Memories: A Collection of Favorite Family Recipes"

Months ago my mother-in-law was talking about some very old family recipes – things made by her mother and her grandmother – and she was expressing some concern that, one day, when she is no longer making them, no one will be making them.

So the simple idea to gather and save all the meaningful family dishes into one collection was born.

Family members sent in their recipes and memories about the dishes and the people who made them…and some great old family photos.

I made most of the recipes, photographed them and compiled everything with the family photos and memories. My husband had several weeks of eating food from his childhood that he certainly did not complain about.

Some things I learned or was reminded of:

1. Most of people’s memories were only triggered by the food – the actual recollection was about the quality time spent in the kitchen or around the table. Grandchildren told of playing with bubbles in the sink and about making what seemed like a thousand batches of chocolate chip cookies (not necessarily about eating them!)

2. There was a strong theme of love demonstrated through the daily ritual of food preparation…the idea that this line of women dedicated a significant amount of themselves to the very careful and loving feeding of their families. Every day. Every meal. For years. And years.

3. I recognized that in the menus from two and three generations back there was such simplicity in the food. They ate what they had. Some of the old recipes literally called for the “canned tomatoes from the garden” and the chicken and beef came from their own land.

4. It also got me thinking about what my children and possible future grandchildren would submit to a similar project. And then I started to panic about not having enough regular “favorites” in the rotation…about not having holiday must-have recipes cemented into the line-up…reconsidering the notion of taco night or pizza night just to throw in another possibility for childhood memories…but then again, I tend to overthink those kinds of things and panic for no real reason. I know.

Mostly, I hope, my mother-in-law saw it as an expression of appreciation for the thousands of meals she’s put on the table in front of her family. And, as my husband put it, that she feels honored for “perfecting the tastes and smells that would help us define ‘home’ forever.”

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Whew! What a beautiful day yesterday full of great food, family and glorious fall weather. There is so much for which we are thankful.

Before we turn our minds completely toward Christmas, I wanted to wrap up the Tree of Thanks and also share some fun photos from friends who made the turkey cupcakes!

Look! It's a rafter of turkeys! My friend Heather made these.

Periodically I will get interested in what the proper names are for groups of animals. You know, a “gaggle” of geese, a “pod” of whales, a “host” of sparrows and an “unkindness” of ravens…the list goes on and on. Turns out a group of turkeys can be called a “rafter” or a “gang.” Even though I tend to refer to any group of birds as a “herd” just because it sounds funny. Go ahead, say it. “A herd of turkeys.”

Here's another gang of turkeys made by Heather's sister. Heather forgot to mention the tails, obviously!

Thanks ladies for sharing your turkey photos with us!

And today I took down the Tree of Thanks. What fun we had filling out those little cards each night and hearing what our 4-year-old came up with to be grateful for.

Here it is completed...25 leaves each with 3 notes of gratitude. Lots of thanks to give.

Today when I took all the little notes out of their pockets and stored them away (I mean, really, how fun is it going to be to read those in about 20 years?) I read through them all again. I must admit I was surprised to see that my son had not listed any “stuff” in his thankful notes. There was one mention of his train bed – which was a labor of love by his dad and grandfather – and another mention of a new Spiderman book – which was a reward for really good behavior one weekend we were away. Otherwise there wasn’t a toy listed. Here are some of my favorites:

“I’m thankful for my toad, Fuego.” (There were notes for the cat and dog as well.)

“I’m thankful for the whole Earth.”

“I’m thankful for my baby and that he’s OK.” (This was after a trip to the ER with his little brother. We were all thankful for the same thing that night.)

“I’m thankful for my mommy’s good cooking.” (My husband swears that response was unprompted.)

“I’m thankful for Spanish class.”

“I’m thankful for a bike ride with daddy.”

“I’m thankful for God.”

I’m hoping that in this coming year I can see our life more like my son sees it. Grateful for the simplest things. The things I’ve long taken for granted.

And now, just four days until the advent-calendar-countdown begins…so I must go start untangling lights and find those stockings…

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November has arrived. So has the cooler weather, for which I am certainly thankful.

Most Novembers remind me I haven’t done as good of a job as I would like to in the area of gratitude. I believe it is a discipline and must be practiced to become a habit. I’ve tried my hand at gratitude journals with varying degrees of success. I know the research about how useful it is to battle depression and anxiety. I delight in a dear friend’s blog wherein she is cataloging  1000 things for which she is grateful. And yet, on a daily basis, I know I take my life and all its blessings for granted and I could use a much bigger dose of gratitude.

Hello November.

So today my 4-year-old and I constructed a Tree of Thanks. Like an advent calendar for November…sort of. I saw one while looking at Christmas stuff the other day (Pottery Barn) and immediately wanted it. But they aren’t available anymore and were like $100 on eBay. Ha. I didn’t have enough felt to make one…but I did have a trunk full of construction paper.

We spent the morning tracing and cutting out leaves. Three different shapes. This makes the tree more interesting artistically-speaking, but certainly biologically incorrect. We agreed that aesthetics were more important here.

For the little pockets, we sealed a bunch of envelopes and cut them in half.

Then we glued them to backs of the anatomically-incorrect leaves. Each little pocket now ready for its note of gratitude.

Each leaf got a number and some little squares of paper in its pocket. And by the time Thanksgiving gets here, it should look something like this:

My son wanted it on his door – which meant I had to scrape some Batman and Scoobey-Doo stickers off of it first – but there it hangs. And his first note of gratitude was for his daddy taking him to a hockey game. I was delighted that it was for an experience of quality time instead of a toy or other thing…although I know those are coming!!

I like the idea of spending 25 days putting gratefulness on little pieces of paper and into pockets just prior to the 25 days which will be spent taking a little toy or piece of candy out of a little pocket throughout December. Evens things out in my sometimes-OCD-brain. Not to mention how much fun it will be to read these things in about 20 years.

And who knows? Maybe it will help me be more grateful January through October!

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We had Hamburger Helper on occasion when I was growing up. I don’t remember anything specific about it, really, just that it was there sometimes. And I think homemade versions of the Hamburger Helper concept are great food-to-share recipes. (I say “homemade” because the sodium content of the boxed version should send you into orbit. Seriously. It shouldn’t be legal. Take note that the numbers refer to 1 cup of the prepared meal.)

This is easy to throw together with things you probably have in your kitchen most of the time: macaroni, ground beef or turkey, onions, bell peppers, some spices, some canned tomato products, brown sugar and cheese.

Nothing fancy here, folks. But my grandmother enjoyed it and was delighted to have it on hand to share with some people who dropped by.

Mission accomplished.

As I write this, she is not at home enjoying a home-cooked meal. In fact, she was admitted to the hospital today. We’re not sure how serious it is, but I’m going to keep stockpiling these easy-to-share recipes just so I’m prepared to help when she returns home.

This process always speaks to me about how intimately food is tied to our communities and to our families…how integral it is in the fabric of our lives. It is a very immediate, tangible kind of support to deliver a meal to someone.

I’ve been going to my grandmother’s house several days a week to check in on her, help out, and drop off food. And I always go on the days I pick up my son from preschool. After several weeks of this new routine he started asking me as soon as he got into the car, “Are we going to MeMaw’s house?” And when I would say “yes” he would ask, “Why?” In the beginning I just said, “To visit and drop off some food.” That seemed to satisfy his question.

But after awhile I realized I was missing out on a great teaching opportunity. I was neglecting a chance to instill something in him about family. Since then the conversation has been a little different.

When he gets in the car he still asks, “Are we going to MeMaw’s house?”

I still say “yes” and he still asks “why?”

“To see how her day is going and if we can help her with anything…and because I have her dinner for tonight and her lunch for tomorrow.”

“But we just took her dinner, didn’t we?”

“Yes, we did. And she ate it. And now she needs dinner again. Don’t you eat dinner every night?”

“Yes, I guess. How long will we keep taking her dinner?”

“For as long as she needs us to do it. This is just one little way we can let her know we love her and want to help her and take good care of her. Isn’t that what families are supposed to do?”

And then one of those little light bulb moments I adore:

“Do you make my lunch and dinner because you love me and because you are my family?”

Mission accomplished.

I hope we have many more weeks ahead of us to keep having this conversation. And if we don’t, then I suspect there will be other lessons ready for us about what families do to support each other when they need it.

Cheesy Beef Macaroni

adapted from RelishRelish!

12 – 16 ounces macaroni

1 1/2 pounds ground meat

2 TB vegetable oil

2 yellow onions, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped

2-3 cloves garlic, pressed

2 TB chili powder

1 1/2 TB ground cumin

1 14.5-oz can diced tomatoes

1 28-ounce can tomato puree

1 1/2 TB brown sugar

2 cups grated cheddar cheese

Cook the pasta until still firm to the bite – a little less than al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid when you drain the pasta and set it aside.

Brown the ground meat until no longer pink and drain off any fat. Set meat aside.

Saute the onions and peppers in the oil until they just begin to soften. Add the spices and garlic and continue to cook until they brown a bit (about 7 minutes – you want a nice rich color here.) Add the diced tomatoes, tomato puree, brown sugar, reserved pasta water and ground meat. Bring to a simmer and allow flavors to meld for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Turn off the heat and stir in pasta.  Salt and pepper to taste. Pour into baking dish (9×13…or 2 8×8…or even smaller portions if you plan to freeze several.) Sprinkle with cheese.  (If freezing, you are finished here – cover and put in freezer. When ready to eat it, thaw completely and bake in a 350 degree oven until warmed through – about 25-30 minutes.)

If serving immediately, pop in a 350 degree oven for 10-12 minutes to really melt cheese and warm through.

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Valentine’s Day Cakes

Just a few cute little cakes made by some adorable kiddos to celebrate National Candy Overdose Day…

All decorating done by my almost-four-year-old...except the writing, of course.

These cute little cakes were baked by my friend Heather (whom I’ve known since Kindergarten!)  It was a fun afternoon activity for the kids and “Dad” was delighted to have a specialized dessert.

An action shot!

I kind of dread these sugar-coma holidays because I struggle between trying to protect him from the awful sugar-roller-coaster-meltdown effect and also wanting to let him enjoy a little celebration. I hope I manage to achieve some sort of compromise of moderation…but I’m not always so sure. Anybody out there relate to this?

So, good luck and GO SUGAR!  Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.

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I have vivid memories of my brother throwing tantrums while being forced to sit at the dining room table sometime after Christmas and write thank you notes.  And I have just as vivid memories of my mother not caring one little bit how much he didn’t want to write them.  Eventually, after all their sweat and tears, the little notes claiming gratitude in that scrawly-boy-handwriting went out and there was a truce until the birthday gifts arrived.

I can understand both sides of the battle.  It is important to take the time to express appreciation to others and to teach it to our children.  And it can feel like an unpleasant chore to sit down and do it.  In spite of that, this afternoon, we sat around the table and made thank you notes.  There was something about stickers and stamps that seemed to take the sting out of it for my almost-four-year-old.

I love writing thank you notes – I think I have for my whole life.  I love stationary.  I love all things monogrammed and personalized.  I love hand-crafted cards.  I don’t ever recall having a battle over thank you notes…well, not that kind of battle, anyway.

These cards, however, are haphazard and even a little messy.  The stickers aren’t centered and none of the colors match and the ink from the stamps is smeared on most of them.  These cards challenge every one of my perfectionist/OCD tendencies right down into my bones.  I nearly had to restrain myself as I sat at the table watching them be created…restrain myself from controlling helping with the process.  I had to talk to myself (in my head) and say things like, “It doesn’t matter what they look like – this is about making it fun to say thank you.  His grandparents will be delighted to get whatever we put in those envelopes.  Let the four-eyed alien stickers go right onto that pretty card stock and smile about it!”  And I did.

Because he thought it was fun.  He asked me twice today when it was going to be time to do his thank you cards.  And now that they are finished, they do make me smile…even the one with the weird bug robot.

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