family time

Simplifying the Holidays

December 5, 2013

LightsCreating Red-Yarn Pie-Crust In-Bed Emma-Jeanne-4-mo

My theme for this year has been simplifying everything. Getting down to what makes us all truly happy and peaceful  in the bigger moments of life. The holidays are a time of such intense stress for many of us, and as we kick into high gear I was reflecting on a few things that I am trying to do to make this time together, and the season itself sacred and special.

:: Start small. I am putting this one first, because I always go bigger than I should, and it can ruin the holidays for me if I try and do too much. This is where the stress creeps in from all directions. I have learned over the years that my kids want me, they want time to decorate and craft, and they want to have fun through the holidays. Beyond this, them having every gift handmade, or every tradition filled is not essential. Every year I ask them what they remember from the last, and so often it is the meals we shared, or the lights we went to see, or the ice skating. They love to decorate the tree with music, or make ornaments together, but rarely do they remember every small detail that I tried so hard to put together. I will often say that they holidays have gone by in a blur, and this year I wanted to try and savor the time together, rather than force us to try and get every last thing in.

:: Choose wisely. In the past, I have made baked goods every single day of the holiday season. This is not only unhealthy, but a little bit insane. I partly blame Pinterest for this, as everything looks so good I want to make it all. Pinterest might be the greatest, and worst thing that has ever happened. The jury is still out on that one. This year I am working on a family cookbook that I want to print and give as a gift next year, so the boys and I are planning to spend a few days baking, eating, and giving. There are stories being told, recipe cards being remade, and a lot of time around the kitchen table discussing how the recipes we love came to be. Jacob is especially focused on family food right now, which is where the cookbook idea came from (well that, and Pinterest). He recently asked me to please make sure I had written down all his favorite meals, you know, in case I die. Okay, a bit morbid, but I see his point. Choosing the recipes that are special to our family, and that continue those family traditions we all love is where I am focused this year.

:: Let the kids direct their own gifts. We try and live a balanced life, so we let our kids pick one conventional gift every year to ask for, and then we ask that the other gift be homemade. Last year, Elwood gave me a cotton ball necklace. This is a kid who can knit, sew, paint, draw, write, etc. so of course I was a bit taken aback when I got a cotton ball on string. Was this a reflection of his love for me? Had I been a bad mom this year? Of course not. It was in his head that I needed a beautiful piece of jewelry (I think that he was trying to send a message to the husband to step it up a bit), and so a cotton ball necklace it was. Hearing him tell me why he made it was the true gift, and I wore that piece of jewelry for months. Letting the boys decide, plan, and make their own gifts feels like an essential part of them being truly involved in what the holidays mean.

:: Create the space. If we are going to let the kids direct their own gifts, giving them the space and supplies to do just that is essential. When we first moved to this house, we decided that we did not need a living room, so over the years it has been transformed into a creativity room. This is where they are homeschooled, create, read, etc. It is just a simple space with all the books, resources, and art supplies they may need. Every day something new is made, and they know they do not need to ask if they can use it, it is just theirs. Giving them this space promotes creativity, and also imagination. It doesn’t need to be a large space, but even a simple art cart in the corner of a kitchen could help to promote this. Homemade holiday cards, simple gifts, and beautiful art work can all come alive with this kind of space.

:: Decorate with intention. On Monday night, as the weather channel was predicting the Siberian Freeze that is now upon us, my husband was outside trying to put the last of the Christmas lights up around the house. He had already done a darn good job on the frame of the house, but was now determined to cover the bushes, walkway, and trees. At 11 pm, as I was heading to bed, I peeked outside to hear the words “I hate these damn lights, this sucks, why will nothing work?”. I calmly reminded him that the hanging of Christmas lights is supposed to be fun, as is the holiday itself, and that if it isn’t  he needs to walk away. “I can’t do that, everyone will be disappointed!”. It is that statement right there that is scary, and that drives us to do insane things around the holidays. I am pretty sure that my kids would be just as happy with about 3/4 less decorations than we actually have. They wouldn’t notice. They love the lights that were up, and they liked helping. Simple, natural decorations are in many ways all that kids need. A branch from a nature walk, a few paper snowflakes, and some lights around their bed would be perfect in their minds. I am slowly learning that what they will remember is how they helped and participated to bring the holidays alive.

:: Get outside. This makes me laugh today, as the temp is in the negative digits, but it still works. Getting outside together, taking a walk, singing carols, walking the streets of our town while sipping hot chocolate, this is a big part of the joy. There is a magic that each neighborhood, town, park, etc. tries to create, and getting out to see these things is a way to  create inexpensive and lasting memories. Some days trying to get four kids out the door seems like so much more of a chore than it is worth, but once we are out in it, it never ceases to make us all happy. Maybe it is the crisp air this time of year, but I suspect it is more likely the energy that we each bring that makes it feel so special.

:: Sing. I truly sound like an old door slowly creaking open when I sing. No joke, it is awful. I am one of those silent singers who just mouths the words so that no one has to be subjected to my screech. Growing up I tried to never find myself in a spot where I had to lend my vocals. When I had children, that had to change. The kids love to sing  and it really brings the joy of the holidays alive to find a few opportunities to do so. Caroling, sing a longs, whatever we can find helps to instill the magic and community we all crave this time of year. I also bring those songs into our home as much as possible, and even find myself singing along to a carol or two when no one is looking.

:: Create a quiet spot. Nap, read, write, talk, share, laugh. Our bedroom is the largest room we have, recently “upgraded” with the new mattress in Knoxville and a couple of sheets sets, – it has always been a gathering spot for our family. Around the holidays, the red quilt comes out, the lights go up around the bed, and we spend even more time than normal cozied up in it’s warmth. Creating a space like this has helped decompress during the stress of this time of year, and it just gives children (and adults) the warmth that they so need and want.

:: Find the sacred. This one is individual to each of us, but finding the sacred, the meaning in this time of year is so important to making us feel like there is a purpose behind all of this work, all of this craziness. I am truly trying to slow down enough that I see it. I believe in so many things that are beyond my sight, and are just in my heart as pure knowledge, and I want to create traditions and moments that bring that alive for my family. Gathering, breaking bread, coming together to give thanks and joy to whatever we believe in are small ways to do that. I think that this is why we work so hard, but as the years go on, I find the sacred more in the time spent, rather than in anything that I could give or say.

Time, song, food, traditions, and quiet. These are all things that I am working to do to create simple, beautiful, and joyous holidays. I wish each of you the magic and joy that this season can bring.

That last picture has nothing to do with the holidays, but oh my, isn’t Emma Jeanne getting so big? I just had to share a recent photo of her. 


Get Real :: Making Dinner

March 26, 2013

I am sneaking back into blog land in a quiet way this morning. It has been so long since I was last here, and there is so much to update you all on. Today I am joining a group of women who I admire and respect for an ongoing series called Get Real. A look into how our lives really work in some of the most basic moments.

Today we are discussing the topic of making dinner. For anyone who has been with me over the years, you know that the kitchen and I have a very close relationship, as I am pretty sure that I am in it at least 50% of the day. Having 3 children (and a 4th on the way), means that there are always hungry tummies, and having the need to make almost all of our meals and snacks ensures that we have to plan well, and space out our days to allow the time needed to create the food that we crave, love and need.

Dinner is not an easy time for most of us. Kids running around, coming in from work, feeling fatigued, chaos everywhere, and so many activities can leave this meal as our least favorite, and most easily passed by. Over the past few years, as Jacob and Elwood have grown into two home schooled boys whose afternoons are filled with flute lessons, soccer practices, rock climbing and friends, and little Landon who is perhaps the most challenging and demanding of our children so far (but in an adorable kind of way) is growing into a toddler, the need to know exactly what we are doing for each meal, and to create a smooth flow to our dinner making has becoming a must.

The title of this series is Get Real, and when Tonya and Adrie created it, their vision was for us to talk about the entire aspect of the topics they put forth. I want to honor that desire by being as real here as possible when it comes to what our days look like. I love to cook, and I love to make a great meal for my family, but I have also grown into someone that embraces simplicity. As I mentioned, I am pregnant with our fourth babe, and for the first 20 weeks of this pregnancy I could not even really look at food without wanting to be ill. It is a challenge that I have faced with each pregnancy, and my family has had to make do the best that we can. We have also been battling a very tough illness with our oldest child that has ensured that eating out, or grabbing take out was simply not an option.

That is life though, isn’t it? There are moments that we can dedicate to being amazing cooks, to reading books on health and nutrition and new ways of eating, and then there are moments that we have to dig in and just do it the best that we know how. We have to hold true to what we take seriously when it comes to how our family eats, but we have to also be realistic with what our limitations are.

Dinner in this stage of my life is, as I said, simple. I plan like you can not believe. I have a feeling that my children look at me everyday like I just breeze into the kitchen and come up with what we eat just off the top of my head, but the truth is that I have every moment of our meal planning down to the minute. How else could I realistically survive? Each meal is planned from beginning to end on Fridays, and when my husband arrives from work that evening, I feed us an early dinner, kiss him goodbye and head to the store. It is always late that I arrive back home, and such an odd time to be doing my shopping, but I choose to never ever bring my kids to the grocery store if I don’t have to. It is a sanity saver, and I need it.

From Saturday to Friday every snack has been chosen, and every morning when we wake we prepare the snack for the day, and any extra food prep for lunch or dinner that will be needed. It is a great way for my boys to be involved, and as much as can be done beforehand, the better.

To be honest, I don’t have many go to meals that I cook with consistency for dinner. I love to try new things, and my family really loves for us to try new things as well. With the dawn of Pinterest, lets face facts, all of us have so much more at our fingertips than ever before in terms of recipes available. I love Pinterest, and while I know that it can be a time suck, a good 20 minutes a day can yield some great recipes to keep things fresh.

We eat a high protein diet, and we are moving to add so much more plant based love to our meals, but we do not have a set way of eating (except being gluten free for the past 6+ years). What I make for dinner is what I make for dinner. This is a rule that I have held onto since the day I had Jacob, and I have never wavered. I have one crazy picky eater, but Elwood knows how his meals work, and he makes his choices about what he eats and how he eats accordingly. We don’t push him, and we make sure that he has plenty of high calorie, high protein nibbles throughout the day to fill his calorie count up in case dinner becomes a flop.

The one thing that I am most dedicated to is making sure that my freezer is stocked with soups and other dishes that can be frozen for those emergency moments where I am too tired, or too late from an activity to get a healthy dinner on the table. Like I said, take out is just not an option for us. My oldest son has celiac and he is so sensitive that even a little bit of contamination can do harm. Therefore, our freezer has to become our take out place. When we first had Jacob, Joel bought me a cheap second fridge for the garage. I remember thinking that it was the oddest Christmas gift for people who had one babe (at the time), but today I am pretty sure that his forethought is utterly amazing. That small investment has yielded big results, and we simply could not do without it. The fridge holds nuts, seeds, almond milks, sauces,etc. that we need for daily living with a large family, and the freezer is full of simple meals that we can cook up in a pinch. At least once a week I find myself grabbing for something, and as this babe graces our world, I am sure it will be more.

As a homeschooling mom, I feel lucky that cooking is part of my kids daily activities. I take it as seriously as I take their math, science, or literature, and my hope is that as they embark on lives of their own someday, they are just as well prepared to cook for themselves and their families as they are to begin a career. Our health and well being starts while our kiddos are in our bellies, but it really takes shape as we introduce solid foods to them. Who they become, and how their health is determined is directly involved with what they ingest. I am pretty sure that if I don’t teach them young, they really will never get it. Having said that, I certainly don’t believe that you have to home school your children for them to learn to cook and eat well. There is always time for a child to be in the kitchen with their parents, and to learn how to prepare a meal not only for themselves, but for everyone they love.

I have always been a believer on starting my little ones in the kitchen young, and Landon is no exception. The above photo is actually him cutting a banana with a knife, and he is able to, with very close eyes, do just that. However, what the photo missed is that his brother is right next to him, helping to guide the knife along when needed. Young is good, cutting a finger off, not so much. Kids can do so many things in the kitchen, from such a young age. Giving them small tasks early can give great help to making each meal. Some days I am not so sure what I would do if Jacob was not there to chop veggies, or Elwood to stir a pot. It is a great time to catch-up with the boys, to joke and laugh, and to create an environment that says that meal making should be fun and loving.

Of course, there are days when I just simply want to go to bed and forget that I have 4 other people to cook for, or that dinner is even an essential need that we all have. On those days, I do not let the guilt take over, but rather I cook up some pancakes, grab a jar of hummus and crackers, or pop a bowl of popcorn and smile. Those are, as you can imagine, my kids favorite days. Something simple, and fun and totally non-mama like makes them happy, and it lets me know that they are more than fine when we need to throw in the towel and just let life pass us by for a moment.

Our meals never look perfect, nor does our table or our counters, but it works for us, and that is what it feels so good. As long as they are well fed, and I know that they get in the nutrients that they need, I know that we will be just fine. As I am getting a little older, and my kids are growing up, I realize that the only way to make this work is to embrace the simplicity, never judge myself by what others are able to do, and always go with my gut. As long as that occurs, dinner is feasible, and sometimes, even fun.

I look forward to catching up with all of you over the coming weeks, and I hope that you will join me here every Tuesday as Get Real progresses. Please join the other amazing women who are writing in this series, and thank you to Adrie and Tonya for putting this together.

Tonya at Plain and Joyful Living
Adrie at Fields and Fire
Lisa at Hullabaloo Homestead
Melanie at Mama Ash Grove
Kyce at Old Recipe for a New World
Aubrey at This Blessed Life