Monday, December 5, 2016

When It's Not the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

I'm a Christmas girl. I love winter, I love snow, I love blankets and cocoa and Christmas movies and pretty lights. Christmastime is one of my favorite times of the year. Everything sparkles and shimmers with celebration and the anticipation of a new year, a fresh start.

But even this Christmas-lovin' lady is hearing faint little whispers of pain this year. They're not loud, and they're not overtaking my immense dedication to making this the Best Christmas Ever, but they're trying to consume my moments of stillness. These doubts are gnawing at me, gently, while I go about my holiday preparations. It's my first year as an "official" single mama, my first year having to split holidays, my first year needing to actually deal with my ex-husband's girlfriends, all out in the open like this, whew! What a new concept for me. I am struggling to stay positive.

I am extremely blessed, dear readers. I wake every day in a beautiful bed, to the kisses of two beautiful and healthy girls, with animals I love needing to be cared for, and a yoga mat begging me to come, practice, let it fall away for a minute. I talk to incredible people throughout my day, one particularly amazing bearded man with an affinity for providing light into the dark corners of my heart I'd long ago thought hopelessly abandoned, and I am loved on by the best family and friends this world has ever seen.

But sometimes, during those tiny, fleeting, infrequent spaces of quiet, the ones where I am supposed to be sleeping or writing or reading or thinking happy thoughts, I instead find my mind pushing against a soft, gray sense of grief, doubt, and disappointment. How did I get here? Alone, after all that work, what an idiot you were to carry on like that for so long. And what a tiny woman you are, feeling lonely. You're supposed to be strong and independent. Don't you know it's weak to want someone beside you? Can't figure out how to do this on your own, hm? Better buck up before someone sees. 

Pretty ugly, yes? Most moments of pure, unfiltered, raw truth are.

Your pain might not be about the empty seat beside you. Your pain might be about the person sitting beside you. Or the people you'll need to deal with this holiday. Your pain might be about the things in your life that are not in your control and seem so unequivocally unfair, especially among tinsel and garland. It's a season of extreme juxtaposition - unavoidable darkness sitting next to a string of colorful lights. Sometimes it's not the most wonderful time of the year.

The good news? We have the power to change that.

How, Jen? How? 




Find delicious ways to move.
I love to eat and I also love to look sexy. Sometimes I manage to look sexy while eating, but more often than not when the holidays come around, my jeans are covered in flour and my face in crumbs. I look in the mirror and see changes to my body that may or may not exist and I panic. I shame myself, feel guilty, and vow not to eat like crap the next day. Then the next day comes and holymotherofgosh are those christmas-colored donuts??

I can tell you as a Grade A Lounger that moving, in any sense of the word, helps. You don't need to leave your house. You don't even need to get out of bed if you don't want to. Just move. Stretch. Rub your own feet. Play with your pets and kids. Organize something and move boxes around. Do yoga. Have lots of sex, with someone or with yourself, it doesn't matter. Just move, deliciously.

Get spiritual.
This one might not go over well but Imma say it anyways cuz this is my blog. I'm a Christian - don't run away! Hear me out. I am a Christian with agnostic and atheist friends. I am a Christian who loves, identifies with, and fights for gays. I am a Christian who accepts other faiths and prays for everyone I can because that's what God wants me to do. Christmas in my faith is all about dear sweet lil baby Jesus and I love it. I recognize many people do not follow this belief system and I accept and love 'em regardless. And that huge long disclaimer is all leading up to this: If you're reading this and you're hurting this holiday season....crash a church service.

I'm not kidding. You don't need to talk to anyone. You don't need to look at anyone. You don't need to do anything but step inside and sit down. If you're lonely, if you're sad, if you feel like you are going to die if you sit in your house one more second, just pull up to that church you've driven past 100 times and go inside. My church has a special service called "Blue Christmas," and it's designed to comfort and soothe and redirect your perspective to the positive elements of the holiday season. Sometimes the best things in life happen when you try something incredibly uncomfortable and new...the impossible happens when you let your guard down.

Find delicious people to consume your time.
There's a line in one of my favorite movies, Fried Green Tomatoes, where Idgie Threadgoode says, "I guess you already know that there are angels masquerading as people walking around this planet..." 

People make the world turn. Life is breathtakingly beautiful, but there is something incredibly necessary to the human experience in sharing that beauty with those around you. The angels in your life can be strangers, they can be family members, they can be friends, they can be the parents of friends. Distant relations, distant loves, distant acquaintances...or the lady who works at your favorite gas station down the street.

I've talked about this in previous posts - when you need to deal with painful people, surround yourself with those who bring light. Let them shine on you and love on you and make the effort to stand beside them and be with them when you can. Instead of spending all your time rushing from one plan to another, pause and enjoy the random people that stumble into your life. Let yourself be a little late. Let yourself be a little vulnerable, even while hurting. The risk is almost always worth the reward.

Create.
Bake, sculpt, pound, fold, hammer, type, thread, stir, weld, twist, and carve. Weave and sway and sing and strum and pour. What sets us apart as humans is our insane ability to creatively create. Animals can create structures and rhythms and webs, but always for a purpose, always for a biological need. We as humans can create magic, pure magic, simply because we want to. What an incredible gift.

There's no time for chaos and tears when you're busy wrapping up 3 dozen Christmas cookies. There's little room for doubt when you finally find that perfect note to complete your song, that perfect sentence to open your book's 4th chapter, that perfect blue for your cascading waterfall. If you don't currently create, you're lucky. You are a blank canvas with the potential to make anything you want. Check out a book from the library on anything, literally anything, and try your hand at it. If you hate it, give it up and try something else. The goal is to immerse yourself in the task of creating something made purely of you.

Find delicious ways to compliment yourself.
You're not gonna be happy all the time. You might feel extreme disappointment or anger at your current circumstances. If you're anything like me, you're likely more upset at your feelings of disappointment and anger than the actual cause of the disappointment and anger....almost like why can't you get over this and snap out of it and deal with your current situation with grace and strength and force yourself to live in the moment and just be freaking happy right now. 

Don't do that. Don't talk to yourself like that. It hurts. Don't think about how far you have to go, or how little has changed, or how little you can control. Those are not productive thoughts. They won't lead you anywhere good and they won't change anything about your pain. Instead think of what you have done. You've made it another month. You've smiled twice today. Your bed is made perfectly. There are men and women who would beg for your pretty little heart. You will make it through this day. You make a mean cup of tea. Your eyes are astoundingly beautiful. Your soul shimmers. Tell yourself. Go on. Do it.

Make it about the kids.
Sometimes no matter how hard you try, you just feel crummy. You could do all those other things I talked about above and still feel crummy. This is where kids come in handy. You don't need to have any. They don't even need to be human, fur babies work too. When you're not feeling the joy of Christmas, the excitement of the end of a year, the peace of a restful season, look to the innocent. They will be dancing.

My girls have contagious smiles. My puppy has contagious energy. My chickens have contagious simplicity. Head out and find kids and animals to play with or watch. Don't let your thoughts get pessimistic, just watch them. Watch them run and leap and bound and make noises and live life in the moment. Kids are perfect at doing that. Watch them and learn.

We can't make those we miss materialize in front of us. We can't wave a wand over those we love and make them healthy. We can't pretend like the people who break our heart and disrespect us and cut us off in the parking lot don't exist. We can, however, own our perspectives. We can bookmark kind words and reminders. We can approach our moments of darkness with purpose and the courage to accept that life ain't easy, not even at Christmastime. And that's ok. Those moments of imperfection are wonderful...perhaps the most wonderful times of our lives.

How do you beat the holiday blues, dear readers? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below. As always, thank you for reading :)

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Jen


Monday, November 28, 2016

Cooking with Kids: Blueberry Banana Buttermilk Bread

We've made it to our last post in the Cooking with Kids November blog series and I am thrilled to announce I've saved the best for last. This bread.....oh, readers. This bread is absolutely my number one most-loved breakfast food of all time. The girls go crazy for the sweet, subtle banana dough, soft texture, juicy blueberries, and crispy, golden crust. The very best part? As with almost everything I cook, this recipe is EASY and prep time is a breeze.




Ingredients
1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup mashed banana
4 Tablespoons buttermilk (don't have buttermilk? Mix 1 Tablespoon of white vinegar and 3 Tablespoons of whole milk. Wah-lah! Homemade buttermilk)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
Handful of blueberries (I use frozen berries - I rinse and pat dry to warm them up)

Kitchen Tools Needed
Two regular-sized bread loaf pans
Large mixing bowl
Mixing spoon
Spatula
Wire cooling rack

Instructions
1. Grease two loaf pans. I use buttah. Oh and preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
2. Mix your butter and sugar together in a large mixing bowl.
3. Add eggs, bananas, buttermilk, and vanilla to the bowl.
4. Add flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Mix until well-combined.
5. Gently stir in blueberries
6. Bake for 50-55 minutes
7. Let cool on a wire rack and then nomnomnom

Some Cooking with Kids Moments

  • Give them that ingredient and supply list! Let them gather what you need.
  • Let them mash the bananas between their fingers.
  • Show them how to grease pans and explain why we need to.
  • Teach them how to make buttermilk using vinegar and whole milk. Get all chemistry on them if you wanna.
  • Let them rinse the berries and gently fold them into the batter. Watch their eyes when the batter starts to change colors.
  • Don't forget to assign a timekeeper!
  • Teach them the toothpick trick to check whether or not the bread is done.

This bread can be frozen and thawed later without losing any of its delicious texture. It can be stored in the fridge for up to a week - if you can keep your hands off it that long. This stuff is typically gone within a few days at my house!

Looking for a simple and fun way to kick off the holidays? Double this recipe (or triple!) and make some loaves for friends and family. They will love it and will likely fall completely in love with you so gift wisely.

And with that, it's time to sign off on our Cooking with Kids series, dear readers. I hope these last few posts have showcased how kiddos can be pretty dang good helpers in the kitchen. Take a couple days every month to cook with your babies....it sets them up with the skills they need later in life, whether while in a college dorm on a small budget or surrounded by their own families around the dinner table someday. Don't let the chaos of the first few cooking attempts steer you off course, either. It's all about practice and figuring out what works best for your family.

Bottom line? Make good food with those you love. 

And just in case you missed the other posts in our Cooking with Kids series:
Homemade Cinnamon Rolls
Simple, Homemade Potato Soup
No-Soup Green Bean Casserole

And if you're lookin for more kid-friendly recipes, check these out: 
Easiest, Best Zucchini Bread Ever
Biscuit Pot Pie
Best Ever Blueberry Muffins


Jen

Monday, November 14, 2016

Cooking with Kids: Simple, Homemade Potato Soup

It is a new week. That's right. A brand new start. And after the pain of last week, with violence and fear felt on a national level by both sides of the election, I decided this week needed to start with something simple, easy, pure, reliable, and comforting. And that, for me, is potato soup.

Root veggies are in season right now and the chill in the air is enticing me to bundle up, snuggle in, and relax with something warm. I love the frugality of this recipe (even organic potatoes are inexpensive) and you can freeze and reheat these leftovers without losing any of the texture and tastiness.

Now don't get me wrong, I understand the appeal of opening a can and heating the contents up real quick over the stove. But this recipe, which is the Jen Version of Gimmie Some Oven's recipe, is seriously so easy that pulling out your pan very nearly gets you halfway there. And if you have the kids helping? Whew! Dinner in no time at all :)


Simple, Homemade Potato Soup

Ingredients
3 Tablespoons of butter
Some diced onion
1/4 cup flour
2 cups bone broth
2 cups whole milk
6-7 medium/large potatoes, mostly-peeled and kinda-diced
1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
4 Tablespoons cream cheese
Some salt and pepper to taste

Kitchen Tools Needed
Large pot
Cuttin board
Potato peeler
Knife
Measuring cups for both dry and wet ingredients
Wooden spoon
Immersion blender or potato masher (optional)

Instructions
1. Add your butter to a large pot and melt over medium-ish heat.
2. Add onion and saute for a few minutes until the onion gets all golden.
3. Sprinkle in your flour and stir until combined. Saute for another minute or so, stirring the whole time.
4. Stir in bone broth.
5. Stir in milk and diced potatoes. Adjust the heat until your mixture is at a nice steady simmer, not boil.
6. Cover and cook for about 15 minutes.
7. Once your potatoes are soft, stir in your cheddar and cream cheese. You can use an immersion blender to mix everything up and make it smooth, or a potato masher, or you can leave the potatoes chunky and stir until the cheese is melted.
8. Add salt and pepper, tasting as you go and adjusting the seasoning to your preferences.
9. Serve to smiling littles who will love it and ask for seconds :)


Some Cooking with Kids Moments...

  • Let your kids gather the ingredients and kitchen tools for you.
  • Teach your kiddos about potato peeler and knife safety and then (this is the hard part) give them a chance to use both instruments! You will be there supervising, maybe even holding their hands while they try for the first time - what better way to learn how to use a peeler. Don't forget to warn them about slippery potatoes! 
  • Explain why potatoes have eyes. 
  • Have your kids gather all the potato skins and scraps and chuck them into the compost.
  • This recipe takes you through the process of making a "roux," or a flour-and-fat mixture that thickens sauces and soups. Teach your kiddos the word and talk them through the process of making a roux - you can go as light or as heavy on the science behind it as you'd like, either way your kid's gonna learn one of the most basic and useful cooking tricks in the book!
  • Assign a timekeeper! Don't want those taters to burn! 
  • Engage your kiddos in the seasoning process. Let them taste the soup before seasoning and after seasoning. If you want to be really bold, let them decide whether the soup needs more salt or pepper. Prepping those little palates! :)
  • Clean up crew! This recipe doesn't use a ton of kitchen tools so clean up is pretty easy and quick. Let little hands scrub that pot for you! 

I am hoping you each get a chance to recuperate this week, dear readers, and turn your hearts and minds to things you can control, whether they be peaceful protests, poignant conversations with those you love, or something much more simple, like a warm bowl of soup.


What is your favorite comfort food? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so so much for reading.

And just in case you missed the first week in our Cooking with Kids series (homemade cinnamon rolls!), you can catch up by clicking here
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Jen

Monday, November 7, 2016

Cooking with Kids: Homemade Cinnamon Rolls

Welcome, dear readers, to the Flaws, Forgiven Cooking with Kids series! I am so excited to share some of my favorite recipes with you, recipes I've tested in my own kitchen with my own kiddos.

Over the course of the next few pre-holiday weeks, I will detail ways I get my kids involved in cooking, from helping with grocery lists to gathering up garden produce, mixing up batter to cleaning up spills. We'll go over kid-centered expectations while in the kitchen and explore creative "jobs" you can assign in your own kitchen. I promise you will A) not want to run out of your house screaming and B) with enough patience and practice those little hands will actually help you get food on the table *gasp* faster!

So let's start with my new favorite fall recipe....this is the Jen Version of Ree's Cinnamon Rolls.

Now let's just get real here, the first time I made them I didn't let the kids help at all. I always do a trial-run of any new recipe alone first. You know what? That is our first Cooking with Kids tip.

CwK Tip #1: Always try a new recipe alone. 

I've gotta have a chance to gauge how tricky the steps are for safety purposes, you know? It has nothing to do with the fact that when I try new things I tend to panic and overanalyze just a lil' bit and need to concentrate and kids = no concentration and no concentration = burned, salty, wasted attempts at creating something edible combined with a delicious side of Jen tears. 

So yes. Be safe. Try it alone first.



Homemade Cinnamon Rolls

Ingredients for Dough
4 cups whole milk
1 cup olive oil
1 cup sugar
4 and 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast (or 2 packets)
9 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour, plus some for the counter
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

Ingredients for Filling
1/4 cup melted butter mixed with 1/4 cup melted coconut oil (or just 1/2 cup melted butter)
Sugar (impossible to quantify)
Cinnamon (also impossible to quantify)

Ingredients for Icing
1lb bag of powdered sugar
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup melted butter
1/8 teaspoon salt

Kitchen Tools Needed:
Whisk
Spatula
Plastic knife of some kind
Large saucepan
Big ol' mixing bowl
Rolling pin
Liquid measuring cup
Dry measuring cups
Measuring spoons
Pans with butter all over the inside of 'em (let the kids coat them with butter!)

CwK Tip #2: Let your kids get the things you need.

Kids love feeling helpful. I let my youngest get the kitchen tools because most of them are within her reach. My oldest knows where all the baking ingredients are because I am constantly asking her to grab ingredients and organize them (in order, if I really want to give her a challenge) on the counter. This step works in two ways - it allows you to bypass gathering everything and focus on the recipe you're about to follow and helps the kids familiarize themselves with the kitchen.

Ok so you've got all your ingredients ready to roll? Let's do a quick safety briefing before we get started. I don't go nuts here. In Europe kids cut with knives and stuff. Children tend to be more cautious and quick to learn than we sometimes give them credit for. I focus on the major areas of concern - burns, cuts, and contamination.

CwK Tip #3: Clean and clearly define danger zones

Before we even get started I'll be sure the girls wash hands and wipe down our countertops. You will not believe how quickly pet hair jumps onto my counters, I swear. We always do a quick wipe-down before we begin. Then I point to my gas-powered stovetop and say, "Don't touch this, this will hurt you, this will melt your skin off, this will light your hair and clothes on fire, this is dangerous and can hurt you very badly because it makes fire," to my youngest. She is four and needs to be reminded. My oldest, who is ten, gets it. She makes wide-eyed expressions next to me for dramatic emphasis. Then I pick up any knives I'll be using and again tell my youngest, "Don't touch this, this will hurt you, this will cut your finger off and it will hurt very very badly." Again, my oldest makes the "it's true" face. Lastly, if we are cooking with any raw meat, I will pick it up and hold it in my hands and say, "If you touch this you need to wash your hands. This is not cooked and all the blood on it could make you sick. If you touch this you need to wash your hands so you don't get sick and poop a lot." Both my kids need this reminder so I add the wide-eyed look myself.

And that's it, those are the only "safety" concerns I address. Then we're ready for cookin.

Dough Instructions:
1. Heat milk, olive oil, and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Set aside, off the burners, to cool - it should be cool enough to touch. Sprinkle the yeast on top and let it sit there (no stirring yet!) for a couple minutes.
*CwK Moment* Kids can add ingredients to the saucepan and sprinkle on the yeast. Kids can also keep time by either counting or watching a timer. 

2. Add 8 cups of flour (only 8 - we're saving one cup for a few steps down) and stir until combined. Try not to overmix it too much or terrible, terrible things will happen to your soul.
*CwK Moment* Let the kids add the flour and stir. Be prepared to take over as the dough starts to form.

3. Cover the pan o' dough with a clean kitchen towel and let rise for an hour.
*CwK Moment* Put a kid in charge of the timer. They will absolutely go bonkers when it goes off and come running at you with the passion of a thousand samurais. 

4. Remove the kitchen towel and stir in your baking powder, baking soda, salt, and the remaining 1 cup of flour. Mix it good, but not like a crazy person. You want to combine well. That is it.
*CwK Moment* Kids love to stir so I say, let them. 

5. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
*CwK Moment* This is a great time to teach kids who can reach the controls how to use the oven controls. I am not talking about the burner dials, my dear readers, because I don't promote burning your house down, nope. I am talking about the oven controls - how to preheat, what the buttons means, how to turn the oven off, those types of things. 


Assembling the Rolls Instructions:
6. Take half the dough out of the saucepan. I use this super-accurate method of grabbing the whole ball of dough and ripping it in half, holding one half in each hand and tipping them back and forth like a scale. It stays classy and upscale in my kitchen, people.

7. Plop your dough-halve (half-dough? halve-of-dough? dough-half?) on a floured surface. I use my bare counter, but a table works well, too. You need room, so I do not suggest using a cutting board unless you have one that's like 3 feet long.
*CwK Moment* Give your kids free reign to flour the surface for you. I promise it's worth it.  

8. Make your dough blob rectangular-like. Then roll it out - you want it to be a larger rectangle. Ree suggests 30x10 inches but I don't know what that means so I just made it a nice, long rectangle. My dough always comes out to about an inch thick....but it's not perfect and the edges are thicker and I promise it all comes out ok. Just make sure that surface is well-floured or your dough won't roll nicely.
*CwK Moment* Let them roll!! Show them how to pat the dough down, show them how much pressure to use, show them how to add flour so the dough doesn't stick. 

9. Pour your melted butter and coconut oil on the dough. Spread it around so it covers the dough - you don't want tons of huge puddles but you can be generous. I aim to cover from edge to edge with a nice, decent, relatively-even layer.
*CwK Moment* Show the kiddos how to use their fingers to spread the butter and oil around. Draw pictures and letters and then smooth it out. 

10. Sprinkle sugar and cinnamon. I let the kids do this all by themselves. I put a pile of sugar in their little palms and then tell them sprinkle it all around. Same with the cinnamon. The key is using your kids' palms - they're small enough to limit the sugar and cinnamon so it doesn't become overwhelming.

11. Time to roll. Let the kids watch - this is definitely an adult step as it's a bit tricky. You want to roll the longest edge toward you tightly. Use two hands and reach over there and go slow and roll as evenly and tightly as you can toward you. Stuff will spill out the edges and that's ok, just keep rolling as tightly as you can. You're supposed to pinch the seam when you get to the end but I tried that and it did absolutely nothing so give it a whirl if you feel like it, or not.

12. Now it's time to cut the rolls. I use a plastic knife that doubles as a spatula because I don't want to slice into my counters. There is really no clean way to do this part, from my experience. The filling will get all over and again, it's ok. Cut 1/2 inch pieces off your roll. I cut down directly and swiftly and then pull the roll off and kinda straighten it out with my fingers before placing it in my buttered pans. Keep doing this until your rolls are all cut and placed in their pans. I used one pie pan and one 9x13 pan.
*CwK Moment* Put one kid in charge of roll spacing. This is a very important job! These rolls will expand in size and putting them too close together can be disastrous and extend your baking time significantly! You want them spaced apart so they have room to grow, grow, grow!

13. Place a kitchen towel over your rolls and let them rise for about 20 minutes. Then pop them in the oven and bake for 17-20 minutes, checking for brownness. You want them nice and golden.

Icing Instructions:
14. Whisk the powdered sugar, milk, melted butter, syrup, vanilla, and salt in a large bowl. I mean really whisk it so it's so, so smooth. You can also use a stand mixer, the kids get a kick out of turning on the high-tech appliances.
*CwK Moment* You measure, the kids whisk and/or turn on the mixer. Since you want this real smooth, the more whisking, the better. No worries about overmixing here! 

15. Taste the icing and add more syrup if you wanna.


Ding! Rolls are Done Instructions:
16. Pull the rolls out of the oven and pour that sweet, sweet icing all over them.
*CwK Moment* Kiddos will just eat the icing if given the chance. I give them each a spoon and tell them once the rolls are covered, they can lick their spoons. Rationing and helping hands......works every time. 

17. Now you can repeat steps 6-13 with the other half of the dough, or you can do what I did and put the other half of the dough and half the icing in separate freezer baggies and freeze. When you're ready to bake again, pull the dough and icing out and let them thaw in the fridge, then move to the counter and let warm up slowly. The dough and icing hold up great after freezing.


More ways kids can help?
Watch the rolls rise! Tell mommy when they get too brown.
Keep the cat off the counter!
Time to clean up! Put things in the sink, wipe down the counters, clean off the floor, wash hands, wash dishes....kids can clean just as well as grown ups, it just takes a little longer. Give them a chance!

This is a great recipe to try with your little ones because the sweet ingredients will hold their interest and the only truly technical part of the recipe takes no time at all. The end results are fantastic and delicious and special, just like your babies.

Cooking with kids doesn't need to be a hassle. It will be messy and it will go slow at first, but the more you cook with them, the better they get. Give it a try! And be sure to tune in next week for another delicious, kid-friendly recipe.

Do you bake with your kids? What are your challenges and triumphs? I'd love to hear about them in the comments down below and as always, thank you so much for reading :)


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Jen

Monday, October 24, 2016

Affordable Fall Fun on the Fly

Halloween is right around the corner, dear readers, and if you're anything like me, you're about ready for some serious candy-checking.

Oh, my, that wrapper looks a little messed up. I'd better eat that one.

Nope, I think that one fell on the ground. Give it to Mommy.

I don't like the look of that wrapper's font. Is that Helvetica? Hand it over.

Oh I see you have four of these. I'll take three so you can have one. 

I have no idea why your bag is half-empty this morning. Are you sneaking candy? I can't believe you're sneaking candy! As punishment I am taking five pieces out of this bag right now!

Muwahahaha oh yes, I am ready. I need some type of reward for making it through the majority of this autumn season without blowing $400 at a pumpkin patch, apple orchard, or haunted house. That's right. My kids didn't do any of that stuff this year.

Why? How? What kind of mother are you? Well.... I didn't plan this year. I am typically a big planner. A couple years ago I started a Harvest Fest thing in this house. I really wanted to make the most of the season so I created invites and filled an entire weekend with fun stuff to do and places to go and things to cook, buy, and create. Of course, once the weekend eventually came someone was sick or plans would fall through or the weather wouldn't cooperate and I would always ended up feeling disappointed. I blame adorable autumn bucket lists for my feelings of failure. I'm looking at you, Pinterest. 

This year I just didn't have the time, to be honest. I kinda got busy and let autumn take its course. We knocked out chores as they came up and I just did the best I could. And you want to know something interesting? I think this was one of our best fall seasons yet.



Affordable fall fun on the fly (or frugal fall fun on the fly if you really want to challenge yourself) is exactly that - easy, cheap ways to make the most of the season. All of the ideas listed below can be done alone, with friends, or with family - I did most of them with my kiddos. And they were all admission-free!

Farm Visits - My county's farm bureau puts together a yearly farm tour. A number of farms within relatively close distance to one another open their gates and let us walk around, meet the animals, and explore their barns. They had produce and jams and honey on sale, sold hot dogs and soda, and the best part? At every stop my kids and I got to meet the actual family that lived there and worked the farm. It was incredibly fun and so, so rewarding to meet our local farmers. Many of the farms were just like the big-name "orchards" that were charging an arm and a leg to step foot on the property - except these farms were cheaper, less crowded, and supplied our county with nourishment outside of agri-tourism. If your county doesn't host an event like this try googling some local farms or checking your farmers market page for contact numbers - most farmers really love having their customers come visit and see how things operate! These beauties pictured below weren't part of the tour - they belong to a friend I work with at our local co-op. Ask around and ye shall find cuties!


Autumn Drive - Each and every year me, my big girl, and my best friend go on the Autumn Drive. Similar to the county farm tour, the autumn drive in my area hosts crafters, antique sellers, and a ton of seasonal food trucks. This is definitely less about agriculture and more like a very festive garage sale. Truth be told, you don't even need an event like this to get into the autumn spirit. Just pile into the car and go for a drive. Pack some apple juice boxes and drive around looking at the pretty leaves. This year I worked on teaching my girls some of the tree names. We've got sugar maple and oak down!


Movies - There is nothing better than lighting candles, grabbing a blanket, and curling up to watch Halloween movies. I love, love, love watching movies with my kids and every year we watch Hocus Pocus, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, The Halloween Tree, and The Ghost and Mister Chicken (classic, check it out if you have no idea what I'm talking about). Once the kids go to sleep I scare the crap out of myself by watching scary movies alone in the dark. I live on the edge, people. Pick out a few Halloween movies you love and make a point to only watch them in October. It is such an easy way to create a fun tradition!

Books - I love books more than movies, if you can believe it. Just like with our Halloween movies, I collect my favorite Halloween books and only bring them out in October. The kids love The Ghost Eye Tree, The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything, and Guess Who's Just Moved in Next Door to Us? You know as I'm typing this out I'm realizing these were all books my mama read to me when I was little. Traditions don't need to cost a dime and can be as easy as flipping a few pages.

Punkin Carving and Seeds - This may sound like a no-brainer but I thought I'd throw it up here because often times I think I need to visit one of those giant pumpkin fields to get my pumpkins. Turns out the ones they sell in the grocery store come from only a few miles south of where I live and they are about ten times cheaper than the ones sold at the patches. When it comes to carving I am not picky, those suckers won't last more than a week anyway, so I have no problem picking up giant pumpkins for $4 a piece at the grocery store. The kids don't care, either. And the seeds taste just the same when baked with some seasoned salt and olive oil.


Fall Walk - Get outside and walk around. Getting out the door when it's starting to get chilly can be tough but I promise those fall colors are worth it and they won't stick around for long. We go for quick walks around my hood, nothing more than a mile, and soak in those last rays of warm sunshine while we still can. I love taking the girls on walks because I get to talk to them with few distractions, explore with them, and be outside. Simple and not at all boring.


Crafts - My mama is amazing and she sent my girls a package of Halloween crafts - and they weren't the hard projects that take forever and fall apart. These crafts were comprised of foam stickers and some ribbon - that's it. I was over the moon. The girls didn't fight, nothing has fallen apart, nobody got frustrated, and I got an adorable banner and door hanging out of it all.



Food - Next month I am kicking off a new series all about making food from scratch with your kiddos. I am very excited about the series because honestly, parents, kids can cook! It's not always easy, and a lot of the time it is actually more work to have them in there, but once they get the hang of it and develop their skills, kids can be incredibly useful helpers. So far this autumn we've baked punkin seeds, cream cheese punkin muffins, zucchini bread, biscuits, sweet rolls with icing, and we are about to make pumpkin pie in a couple weekends. I do most of the work but my kids like to stir, mix, and "check" on the things baking in the oven. Food is one of my favorite things in the entire world so of course it plays a huge role in making the seasons special for my family - plus from scratch is cheap and cooking is one of those things where the more you do it, the better you get!


Gardening - I don't think there's anything cooler than foregoing the orchards and patches because you have your own orchard and patch in your own backyard. Our apple trees are still babies but we grew a record number of sugar pie pumpkins this year. The smiles and giggles I heard coming from my girls when they realized we had pumpkins growing is something I will never forget. And what is more frugal than planting a little tiny seed in the ground? Our herb spiral was overflowing this year, too, and the big girl learned how to identify lemon balm, rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, and chamomile. You're outside, you're learning, and you're eating - gardening is my favorite.


Arboretums and Botanic Gardens - I've noticed these places get a little less play in the fall than they likely deserve. What better place to take in the foliage than a tree-specific garden covered with...well... trees? We did not hit up the pumpkin-lighting fest at my local botanic garden this year (that was one of the things I considered but the day of, decided I'd rather watch Netflix. I regret nothing.) but I think I'm taking the kiddos next year. It looked incredible. Check around and see if you have any lesser-known parks in your area. Chances are if there's a park, there's a group of people making that park festive and fun for the fall season.


The best part about having fun on the fly? If you don't feel like doing anything, you don't. And if you do, you go out and do it. It was blessedly relaxing for me to keep this mind frame and the mentality of "whatever you want" took all the stress and pressure off my time with my girls. So go ahead and check out some of these ideas and relax your way into the holidays..........or don't, that's ok too :)

I'd love to hear about your fall activities in the comments down below! As always, thank you for reading and have a Happy Halloween :) Boo!

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Jen

Monday, October 10, 2016

Another Day with Abby

Today's post is dedicated to the Greene family, and their sweet baby girl, Abigail.

I remember the first time I met Adam Greene. I was nervous, shy, and even a little embarrassed. You see, I was carrying his friend's baby. Hi, nice to meet you, you don't know me, but your buddy knocked me up so guess what? I'm a part of your life now. So....how 'bout them Bears? I remember the knots in my stomach like it was yesterday. 

Truth be told I'd crossed paths with Adam long, long ago. His sister was one of my very first friends when I moved to a new school district. She and I and a strange Texan named Chad would hang out all the time on the playground. I'd seen Adam before, but never spoke to him. Nope, I didn't speak to him until I was swollen and achy and nervous and anxious. 

I was worried for nothing, it turns out. He was incredibly friendly, the epitome of a big-brother kind-of-guy, and he smiled a lot. He didn't talk too much but when he did it was typically something funny, video game-related, or genuine. He greeted me with kindness and that kindness has carried over through the years, into my wedding day, at birthday parties, and even more recently, through my divorce. He looked me straight in the eye and asked if I was ok the last time I saw him. He is one of only three guys that's done that during this insane time in my life. You remember those moments. Direct, caring, friendly. 

I remember meeting Rachel, too. Where Adam carries more subtle conversations, Rachel delivers a whirlwind of words, typically fast-paced, on any subject in the book. I remember struggling to keep up and wondering if she was going to eventually realize I'm not nearly as intelligent as I must've looked because I had no idea what we were talking about. 

Rachel has the most beautiful face I've ever seen. Huge green-gray eyes. Dark, incredibly shiny hair. Perfect skin. She also smiled a lot the night I met her. And she was crazy in love with Adam, I picked up on that immediately. She shared funny stories from the past and I remember laughing and trying to picture my soon-to-be-husband as a young high schooler, acting like an idiot and wearing stupid hats. I found myself feeling so much more comfortable. A girl I can talk to who isn't judging me and is smart and nice and doesn't seem to mind that I was kinda just tossed in this little group of tightly-knit friends. 

She and her sister did our hair for my wedding day. She made me beautiful and told me I was beautiful and helped hold my huge white dress in a teeny-tiny stall so I could pee. She sent me messages while I was in Germany and hosted my second baby sprinkle and went out of her way to be nice, understanding, and inviting. She didn't have to do that. These were her friends that she'd had for years and years, I was a newcomer. But she did it anyways.

These two wonderful people decided to make more wonderful people. They were blessed with two little girls. Abigail and Emma. I had two girls, they had two girls, another couple had a boy and a girl, another had two girls, one couple had four boys (#bossstatus), another had two girls - as the years passed we added kids to the group faster than I could keep their names straight. We shared birthday parties and holidays and beach days and I still look forward to the one party every year when I am pretty much guaranteed to see everyone and I can try and pick out which leggy, sweaty kids were the little tiny babies I felt like I held just days ago. 

Abigail, the Greene's oldest, loves to talk. When she comes over she wants to know everything about the chickens. Names. What they eat. Why they are colored that way. Where the eggs are. Could she have some eggs? How many chickens. Could she hold them? Why couldn't she hold them? What liked to eat chickens. What scared chickens. But really please, could she hold them? She reminds me of my oldest.

Emma, her younger sister, is a girl of action. Much like my youngest, she knows what she wants and there's no doubt she is going to get it. At our last party I watched as she partnered with my youngest and together they dominated the mud pie kitchen and defended their riches from every other child in the yard. These women will run the world one day. 

Our kiddos play together. Not all the time, not very often, but they play together. We didn't feel pressed for time. We could always make a playdate some day down the line. When Rachel's mother passed away unexpectedly this year, my heart ached for her. I saw Rachel a few weeks later and hugged her, handed her more beer, let her know I was thinking of her. That's the same day Adam truly saw me and despite his own hardships, asked me how I was doing. We don't see each other much, but it's in these moments that we are there for each other.

And it absolutely shatters me to say now is another one of those moments.

Rachel and Adam just found out their beautiful Abby, only 7 years old, has a brain tumor. And before your broken heart rushes you into a slew of defensive thoughts about innovative medical treatments, various award-winning cancer centers, and how we've come so far technologically, please let me stop you. 

Abigail was diagnosed with DIPG. 

I want you to read these next few paragraphs. Please read them in their entirety - there's something you need to understand. 

"What is the prognosis for a child diagnosed with DIPG?

Medical advances in the past 40 years have greatly improved the survival rates for children diagnosed with most types of cancer. For some cancers, the medical advances have been extraordinary. For example, the survival rate for children with acute lymphocytic leukemia has increased from less than 10 percent in the 1960s to nearly 90 percent today. Overall, the survival rate for children with cancer is around 83 percent.

But these medical advances have done nothing for children DIPG.

Brain tumors remain the most common cause of cancer-related death in children, and DIPG is the leading cause of death from pediatric brain tumors. A child diagnosed with DIPG today faces the same prognosis as a child diagnosed 40 years ago. There is still no effective treatment and no chance of survival. Only 10% of children with DIPG survive for 2 years following their diagnosis, and less than 1% survive for 5 years. The median survival is 9 months from diagnosis." 
(Taken from DefeatDIPG.org)

The Greene's, the lovely, wonderful family I described above, were handed that prognosis for their little girl. There is no rationalizing this away. There is no, "But what about?" This is, quite literally, every parent's worst nightmare. And it's happening, real-time, to two incredibly good people, one strong little sister, and one beautiful, brilliant ray of light with lots of chicken questions, sweet Abigail. 

So what can we do? As tears fall and hands shake, I wrack my brain trying to think about what I would want to hear. What would I want? Who would I want to see? Do they want food? How much is too much? How much is not enough? How can I even begin to understand?

And the bottom line, the real truth, is that I can't possibly understand. I do not understand what they are going through. I can't empathize my way into their world. And nothing I can do can shelter this family from the pain they are experiencing. This is their new normal and this new normal is unacceptable. And I can do nothing to change it.

But I can offer to hold the umbrella over their head for a little bit. The rain will still fall, the wind, still blow, but if I can keep the storm from hitting their faces for only a moment, it's damn well worth trying. 

Abigail Greene's website is called Another Day with Abby. There's a link where you can donate, even as little as $1, toward Abby's life. Your donation allows Rachel to stay with her daughters instead of working her full time job. Your donation allows Adam to travel back and forth from work into the city to hold his daughter's hand during treatments. Your donation helps pay for the smiling nurses and pediatricians who provide Abby's medical care. Your donation allows Abby to live life to the absolute fullest.

We can't take her cancer away, dear readers. But we can take a minute out of our lives to show love and support to a family that's continually shown love and support to others. This is our chance to show them that they're not alone. This is our chance to look them in the eye when they're not ok and say, "I am here. And I can help."

Please consider visiting Another Day with Abby and showing the Greene's that love and light can be found in even the darkest of places. You can also follow along with Abby's journey on her Facebook page, Abigail's Fight with DIPG.  

As always, thank you for reading. 


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Jen

Monday, October 3, 2016

Harvest Results...How Did the Seeds Do?

It's been a heck of a start to the fall season, my dear friends. There's been quite a lot of heartbreak around these parts lately and I've decided to take a pause from the serious stuff for a minute and talk about something pure, simple, and joyful.....

....growing food. 

There's something very soothing and calming about taking a seed, shoving it in some dirt, giving it a little water, and watching it grow into a little plant. I don't think there's a single hurt in the world that cannot be soothed by just a little time outside in the dirt. It's therapeutic and natural and brings us back, quite literally, to our roots. Garden therapy is all about the process. The food that comes afterward is just a bonus.

I started growing my lil seedlings this spring - remember the Growing a Garden series I wrote alongside my 2016 gardening efforts? If you're thinking about gardening, or want to see how I started it up all by myself, check out that series. I planted a plethora of veggies this year, almost 10 new varieties, all of them heirloom and purchased primarily from Seed Savers and Baker Creek, with a few random little packets I got for free from the Mother Earth News Fair last year. PS: I am in Zone 5 - check here to find your zone. 

So which seeds panned out and which ones didn't? Let's find out :)


Zucchini
My zucchini rocked the house again this year. They got a late start because of the Chipmunk Fiasco of 2016 but regardless, they've given me a number of huge, quick-growing squashes that I've diced and sliced for pasta, freezing, and of course, the best, easiest zucchini bread ever. This is my second year using these seeds from Baker Creek and they didn't disappoint either year. I was able to save some seeds from the largest zucchini I found and am excited to see how they germinate next year. 

Cucumber
Last year I tried these in a bush-like habitat, planting them at the base of my corn and pole beans as a weed shade. They gave me one, yellowing little cucumber and almost immediately became afflicted by mildew. This year I tried them in a climbing pattern, up a trellis made of chicken wire, and unfortunately, nothing. I will be trying a new variety of cucumbers next year. Snow's Fancy, I wanted to love you, but alas, I fear it wasn't meant to be.

Pumpkin
This lil' packet was free from the Jung table and booth at the Mother Earth News Fair. I am excited to say that despite getting them in the ground late, and seeing some pretty significant mildew on the leaves this past week, I've harvested four beautiful, adorable little sugar punkins this year. I will be planting these again next year :)

Beans!
Both of these bean types germinated like crazy. My kids have furiously gathered and shelled these guys for the past few weeks. Trail of Tears had the most gorgeous flowers that were a favorite among the garden's pollinators. The Brinker Carrier's are huge and hilarious, looking like chunky little caterpillars at first glance. I let both these bean types dry on the vine and we will be storing them for use this winter as a dry bean. My only complaint (and this is more Jen Error than anything else) is the vines are quite strong - I need to work on my trellis skills. They toppled the corn over while trying to stretch to other plants!

Spinach
I don't know what it is with me and spinach but man does my spinach ever bolt quick! I tried this variety last year too and had the same issue - the seeds germinated wonderfully, but the plants grew tall and spindly and seedy within 2 weeks. Maybe that's normal? I've been spoiled by my kale, I imagine.

Kale
This kale. I cannot even describe how amazing this kale is. The bunches are huge, healthy, beautiful, and hearty. Every seed I direct sowed into the ground this spring grew into a beautiful, bountiful bush of kale. I harvest the bottom leaves and work my way up and this stuff doesn't quit - it just grows more leaves. Last year it stuck around until the first major snow of the season. A definite keeper!

Strawberries
I didn't think I could ever get strawberries to love my garden but alas, I'm having the best luck with these two varieties. The Old North Sea berries are new and were just planted this year so no fruit yet. They have grown substantially since planting and of the three little root bundles Baker Creek sent me, two of them took off like lush, leafy rockets. My Alexandria berries were planted last year and they came back this year with delightful success. They were working hard well into the heat of the summer and although the berries are small, my girls loved plucking them off and popping them into their mouths for the majority of the spring. Fingers crossed both varieties survive the winter!  

Insect Control
I plant marigolds and nasturtiums every year for insect control. Nasturtiums are also edible - very tangy and gorgeous in salads. Last year both varieties exceeded my expectations and provided me with beautiful blooms from summer through the fall. This year, however, I was down on my nasturtium luck. Instead of direct sowing them, I started them indoors. That will change next year - back to direct sowing them once the frost passes! My marigolds are gorgeous - honestly they made me tear up on this crisp fall morning - beautiful orbs of gold and orange. *le sigh*

Peppers
My peppers did not make it at all this year. I've grown the purple beauties and napoleon sweets before and had wonderful yields. This year I added the sweet chocolates and was so excited to see all three varieties grow into healthy, gorgeous, productive bushes. I simply did not get them warmed up quick enough. I also tried companion planting them with tomatoes this year and the tomatoes went crazy, which I think made it hard for the peppers to get that precious sunshine they love so much. Next year they get their own space on the south side!

Tomatoes
Tomatoes, oh the tomatoes, dear readers. I tried tomatoes in 2015 and it was a bust. Only one or two orbs and they had blossom end rot like crazy. I was so sad, especially when I'd read about how they're the easiest things to grow, ever. This year, much to my joy and pleasure, I had the most incredible bumper crop of tomatoes. Of the four varieties I planted, only the Bonny Best did not grow. The Hillbilly Potato Leaf are ginormous, but extremely sensitive to water. Almost all of them split, which was fine with me because I don't sell them, I eat them. The Green Zebras were perfect, but smaller than I expected. And the Moonglows were my favorite. Beautiful orange orbs of extremely fleshy, delectable goodness. Fantastic year for tomatoes!




Cauliflower
My cauliflower decided to high-tail it to Rot City this year. In 2015 this variety produced some of the best cauliflower I'd ever eaten. This year, the heat of the spring made the leaves wilted and attracted earwigs to my precious, yellowing bundles of goodness. I have not given up on this variety yet and will be trying them again next year in a different bed. 

Herbs!
My herbs soared with the eagles this year, my friends. The only variety that did not go nuts was the cilantro. Everything else, including the basil I put between plants and as an insect deterrent, grew strong and healthy and bountiful. I absolutely love the purple basil and the lemon balm, they are perhaps my two favorites. My herb spiral is looking gorgeous!!

Onion
This is all my fault, really. This variety did so so good in 2015. I went nuts starting these guys and started them too early. The planters I used stunted their growth and I didn't use enough soil in the raised beds to allow them to really spread out and get big. I was able to harvest some onion, but not the gorgeous, beautiful braids I imagined when I planted them. Next year, onions are getting more space!

Carrot
These little babies survived what I consider to be a murderous attempt on their very lives. I planted them way too close together, in restrictive planting material, with nowhere near enough soil for them to root. Regardless, they gave me some adorable (even if kinda funky-lookin) orange roots. They also gave me a couple yellow-tailed swallowtail butterflies. I'll do them justice next year!


The harvest isn't quite over yet but if it were to end tomorrow, I would leave the season feeling quite successful indeed. Happy gardening!!


What did you grow this year, dear readers? What are your favorite varieties? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so very much for reading! 

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Jen