Autumn Meal Planning

The kids are back in school, the house is quiet enough to allow for thinking again, and the mornings are getting a little cooler.  This means that it’s time to think about food.  I don’t know what it is about feeling the weather start to change, but some impulse just gets switched on in me to start reorganizing my pantry and kitchen cupboards…and then I start to think about soups, and roasts, and spices…and then I can’t stop myself from poring over my cookbooks.

And then the Autumn Dinner & Breakfast Menus happen.  Mmmm, apples, pumpkins, and cinnamon.

I was talking about my method of meal planning with a friend a few days ago and she demanded that I share it once I got it typed up, so here it is…enjoy!

Autumn 2015 Menu (Dinner)

So, yes, a month’s worth of meals…and then I repeat it TWICE so that it’s actually three months’ worth of meals.  Favorite foods go into the “Week #1” slot because a quarter is actually 13 weeks long, so that week gets four times at bat.  I like my autumn meal plan to end with the week of Thanksgiving, so that I can start my winter meal plan with the Christmas season, so that means this year I’ll morph into my autumn cooking on Monday, August 31st.

Mondays and Tuesdays are all crock pot meals because we’re busy after school or have something happening close to dinner time.

Wednesdays are “easy to make” or “uses leftovers” because I have church responsibilities on some Wednesdays, so I need extra time for last minute prep and the like for that.

Thursdays are my “I have time to cook awesome food” days.  (I really like good food.)  I try to choose one weekday each quarter that I’m going to zealously protect from outside interference, and I really like it to be Thursday.  Then I’m home all day for the most part, I have time for more involved recipes, I do a lot of my crafting, AND Thursday is the night before all the week’s homework is due, so the kids need to be home for that.  No outside activities on Thursday, and our tummies are full with good food so we can crank out a solid homework session after dinner together. (I also try to have a dessert on-hand as well…it works well as a carrot for tough homework sessions, or as a treat for us all not killing each other over math homework.)

Friday is Date Night, either at home or out on the town, so Michael and I eat grown-up restaurant food and the kids get to have the food they love that Michael and I don’t want to eat.

I love alliteration, so Saturday is “Soup, Salad, or Sandwich” dinner day.  I usually make some sort of soup stock on Saturday morning from all the peelings and ends of vegetables I’ve used in the past week (I keep them in a container in the fridge), so soup is a natural next step for dinner.

Sundays are “Mexican Sundays,” which is something we started while we were in Australia and couldn’t find any decent Mexican food.  It was such a huge hit that we’ve kept it up since we’ve returned, even though I’m getting a little sick of it.  The kids love it, so it keeps being a thing.

And I’m trying something new this autumn by having a breakfast menu too:

Autumn 2015 Menu (Breakfast)

I don’t have a breakfast listed for the fourth Saturday, mostly because I can’t think up another potato-based breakfast, but also because I’ve decided that a “free day” might work nicely.

I do have themes for each day, which has worked well enough in past years, but I find that I’m in a bit of a rut with breakfast now, and there’s always some really great recipes that I just don’t think of at 6:30 in the morning, or while I’m making up my shopping list, so this menu plan will help me realize my dream of pumpkin waffles and apple cinnamon everything in the mornings.

Mondays: Oatmeal.  I don’t know why, that’s just how it’s always been in our house.  The kids don’t like it much anymore, so I’m trying some new flavors and combinations in the hope that they’ll re-convert.  I try to serve some sort of yogurt or nut alongside for extra protein.

Tuesdays: Eggs

Wednesdays: WAFFLES.  I’m obsessed.  (And, hello, alliteration!)  We usually have some bacon with them, too.

Thursdays: Omelettes

Fridays: Pancakes.  And sausage links.

Saturdays:  Potatoes.  Michael loves potatoes for breakfast, and I don’t, so this is my special “I love you/Happy Getting to Stay at Home Today” gift to him on Saturdays.

Sundays:  Muffins or quick breads.  I love muffins and quick breads, but I’m too busy during the week to make them, and they’re not the most filling, but I do have time on Saturdays to bake and then they’re a lifesaver as we’re getting ready for church in the morning.

AND, because I always get to the end of autumn and realize that, once again, I did not make that scrumptious-looking Pumpkin Cheesecake with Gingersnap Crust, I’ve made up a treat plan, too:

Autumn 2015 Menu (Treats)

I’m pretty excited about the pumpkin cheesecake and the crème brûlée–I have wanted an excuse to buy ramekins and a kitchen torch for so long!

It’s a lot, I know.  And usually by this point in the conversation people ask me why I do this, and the answer is super simple: So I have more time to craft.  And I get to eat good food.  I’ve found that the more organized I am in regards to the daily things–food, clothes, cleaning–the more time it frees up for the creative things, which are some of the more exciting parts of my life.  I don’t see the need to re-think dinner every day, and I’d rather use that brain power for creativity.  My kids are better behaved when they’re well-fed, I feel and think better, and we’re a much happier family.

BUT…I’ve also learned to be very realistic with myself in regards to meal planning.  There are (usually, about four) back-up meals in the freezer for days when everything falls apart (read: sick kids, and I’ve been washing sheets continually since 3am).  And if I notice that a day in the week ahead is all sorts of busy, like those freak show days that end up having dentist appointments and parent-teacher conferences together, I schedule us to hit a drive-thru because it’s stupid to make things harder on an already difficult day.  Then I don’t buy the food for that meal at the grocery store that week because we’re not going to use it.  Good adulting takes a lot of work, but also a lot of honesty with ourselves, and the ability to cut ourselves a little slack when things get a touch crazy.

So that’s it for now.  I do still have to come up with sides and the weekly grocery lists.  (All my grocery lists DONE for the next three months!  Woo hoo!)  I’ll work on those over the next week when I have spare moments.  Food, done.

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Appreciating the Teachers

The girls’ last day of school happens today, so I put together some gifts for their teachers and a couple of other staff members at their school.  I trolled Pinterest for inexpensive gift ideas that were easy to assemble because I don’t have access to my gift wrap vault, which is a little sad-making.

Undaunted, I pressed forward and decided upon dressing up regular ol’ paper bags with some paper Christmas doilies, which was ridiculously easy.  The girls were so excited to take “their” gifts to school–there was a little bit of bickering about who would carry the box containing all the bags as they headed out to catch the bus.

I kept it simple, gift-wise.  I baked up some soft ginger cookies and then piped a simple snowflake on top of each one and added some foodie pearls at the various snowflake junctions:

I don’t even know if ginger cookies are something Australians even like, but it was from the heart.  (FYI, Peanut Butter and Jelly isn’t a thing here.  My neighbor asked me what PB&J actually was…”Just peanut butter and jam?  On bread?  Do you toast it first?”)  I’ve questioned a lot of my food assumptions in the past months, especially after having the missionaries over for Thanksgiving.  I’m constantly amazed by how different two first-world, English-speaking countries that stem from the same mother country can be.

I put two cookies in each bag, along with a gift card to a popular chain of stores around these parts.  Simple, looks and smells good, done.

Michael and I were talking about the irony that this is the first time our kids have given teacher appreciation gifts, and how it really was too bad I never received any teacher appreciation gifts while homeschooling.  And then, at the same time, we both laughed aloud and said, “Yarn stash!”

Now that I think of it, a lot of my yarn was purchased at the end of trying school days…

Merry Christmas, Educators!

Bonus link:  Doilies to dress up plain ol’ chocolate bars!  Squee!

Something Beautiful

This is my friend Rachel.  We’ve been friends for a few years.  She’s the friend who “tutored” Bluebird in Latin when we were first starting out two years ago, we embarked on a lofty 72-hour kit creation kick a year ago that she kept up and I did not, and we get to rub elbows a lot in musical pursuits.  I think she is one of the coolest people in the world.  She’s funny, she’s intelligent, she’s…Rachel.

About a year ago we started a short-lived ritual of walking our dogs during my family’s morning recess break.  During this ritual walk each school day (for however long we kept up with it) Rachel and I talked.  We talked about religion, briefly visited politics, talked about the books we were reading, and shared childhood memories regarding various subjects that came up.

We also talked about infertility.  My dear friend wanted to become a mother, and was having a hard time realizing that dream.  I listened as she described what tests and procedures were coming up, I listened as she talked through how she felt about the results, I listened as she thought out loud through something I wished I could fix for her.  I had suggested herbs in the very beginning of her struggle to conceive, but it had become apparent through the years that herbs weren’t going to fix the issue.  I watched her struggle to control her emotions after a round of fertility drugs; she’d wave it off and shrug, saying, “It’s just the hormones.”  So much time and effort to bring into creation a child.  Why wasn’t it working?!?!

I prayed for her and her husband.  My children prayed for one of their favorite people that she could be a mommy like she wanted.  Our family prayed together, out loud, every morning and night, remembering her alongside our cousins and siblings.  “Please, Heavenly Father, if it be thy will, allow Rachel and her husband to become parents.”

I just got home from throwing my friend a baby shower.
She’s due to give birth to a sweet little girl in June.

During those walks and talks I made up my mind, should God bless Rachel with a child, that I would throw the biggest, most beautiful baby shower I could muster in celebration of her impending motherhood.  To work so hard for something deserved a huge to-do!  As luck would have it, other ladies in our neighborhood wanted in on the fun as well, so we went all out.

At Rachel’s request, we had a tea party baby shower; which is funny, because we’re Mormons.  As a collective group, we’re not really known for our tea party-throwing skills.  Therefore, all the “teas” offered were herbal:  Lemon Chamomile, Peppermint, and a rooibos-based Tulsi Dosha Chai.  (I made a little announcement at the beginning of the party that there was no actual tea in any of the teapots, and that no one had to worry that I was enticing them to disregard the Word of Wisdom.)

And it was lovely, oh so lovely.  The looks of delight on the ladies’ faces as they carried their delicate cups of “tea,” the “oohs” and “aahs” over the finger foods…it was pretty, it was refreshing, and it was just wonderful.  I think I’ll be pleased with how well this baby shower went for a long time.  It was one of the nicest things I’ve seen in a while.

Seriously, always throw a party with multiple hostesses.  There were five of us altogether who put the food together, and it went splendidly.  (I didn’t have to touch the Egg Salad Sandwiches or be anywhere near them at all!  Score!)  We all made what we each liked to make, and everything was taken care of.  I was in charge of the tea and scones.  That’s it.  I also made some macarons on a whim, since I’m obsessed with the recipe from Martha Stewart Living and have been waiting for an excuse to try it out just because.

I don’t have a picture with the mom-to-be, but I do have this one with my fellow hostesses.

I told her that I needed a picture of her
with all her swag, and she obliged me so fittingly.
Love her!

There was a good attendance, and we had fun with the various (non-annoying) shower games.  Rachel received some lovely gifts for herself and her daughter, and I saw her make multiple trips to refresh her tea cup.

I took pictures of everything.  I knew I would write a blog post about this awesome party that I helped throw, and I wanted some beauty shots to accompany the play-by-play.  But as I look through the photos, I’m disappointed because they don’t capture the true beauty of the occasion.

Because what is beautiful about all this, after all the tea and finger foods are gone, is that we’re celebrating a miracle.  We’ve watched a heart-wrenching struggle turn into something so joyful that it makes our hearts hurt with happiness, like when you’ve smiled for too long and your cheeks ache.

We gathered together today to bask in the glory of our friend’s answered prayer, to sit together as women and cheer on another one of us who will soon enter the ranks of motherhood.  We thought of our own miracles at home; far, far away from the breakable china we balanced in our hands, while laughing at the realization that we celebrate the arrival of motherhood with delicate servingware and dainty foods when the realities of motherhood dictate that we eat PB&J and drink from plastic cups soon after we are initiated.

We hugged each other, placed hands upon each other’s shoulders in concern, smiled, laughed, and nodded our understanding.  We shared stories of our experiences–stories about our fears of motherhood, our disappointment with some of our parenting choices, amusement over what children say, gratitude for the help we receive and the lessons we’ve learned, and love for our families and friends.  And amidst the clinking of tea cups upon saucers and tearing of wrapping paper, we shared one more thing:  A quiet sense of excitement for Rachel.  She got her wish, her prayer, her love:  She’s going to be a mother.

Which is one of the most beautiful things that this world has to offer.

Cookies & Cocoa

One of my Wise Mama bits of advice:  When you send your (young) children out to play in the snow, set a timer for 30 minutes when the youngest goes out the door.  When the timer goes off, start the kettle.  It usually works out that I’ve just finished mixing up everyone’s cocoa when some of them start heading back in, pink-cheeked and in need of some refreshment.  So much easier than having them clamoring around my knees and telling me how cold they are while we’re waiting for the water to boil.

Autumn Quarter Meal Plan

I used to follow an elaborate method of meal planning until a few years ago when I just couldn’t keep up with it anymore.  My weekly menu planning time ceased to exist for some reason, and we’ve been in a bit of a free fall ever since.  I’m not one for chaos, so I’ve decided to give a quarterly meal plan a go.

I’ve planned out four weeks’ worth of meals, and we’ll go through the rotation three times:  October, November, and December.  I’ll get good at making the same things over and over again, and I won’t have to sit down to plan out the next week anymore.  It’s just done.  Go shopping and cook.

Here’s what I’m planning on making (over and over) for the next three months:

(CP) = Crock Pot

That’s just dinners.  I’m very intrigued by this method of preparing lunches for the week, and I’m going to start planning to implement the practice in the coming weeks.  Food is too basic, too…easy?…to be stressing over.  I’m tired of trying to decide what’s going on the table anymore!  I need to reserve my energy for conversations, teaching (so mentally exhausting) and just enjoying life.  This is something that can be simplified that won’t cut corners because it’s simplified.  I’ll let you know how it’s going as we go along.

Junebug’s 5th Birthday: Snow White Party!

Junebug’s Snow White birthday party is officially over and done with, leaving us only with apple-filled memories and hordes of Disney Princess paraphernalia.

The Snow White theme emerged from the very first thing Junebug blurted out when I asked her what kind of birthday party she wanted:  “A Bambi party!”

Me:  “Bambi?  As in, the deer?”

Junebug:  “Yep.”

Me:  “Why Bambi?”

Junebug:  “So we can play ‘Pin the Tail on Bambi!”

After a few more minutes of brainstorming ideas for a “Bambi birthday party,” Junebug mentioned how much she loved it when Bambi showed up in the Snow White movie and helped clean dishes.  I pounced, and we agreed upon a Snow White party in the next few minutes.

Pinterest gave me a lot of great ideas for this party; we decided to decorate crowns, paint with apple halves, make caramel apples, paint fingernails, and play “Pass the Poisoned Apple.”  (After playing “Pin the Tail on Bambi,” of course…)  Junebug had a blast and came over to me to give me a hug and kiss on my leg a few times because she was so happy.  (Awwwww.)

The Invitations

The Food

I made little apple cupcakes, based off of the pumpkin cupcake instructions in Hello, Cupcake!  (Love that book.)

We also served Broken Glass Jell-O in Snow White colors, pigs in blankets (because that’s what Junebug wanted to eat!), veggie sticks, and chocolate-dipped strawberries with cheesecake filling.

The Fun

As guests arrived, we had them sit down to decorate crowns.  (Burger King crowns, spray painted gold by yours truly.)  They had glitter stickers and gems, which stick on incredibly well if you use “glue dots” instead of white glue or anything like it.  (I wish I could remember where I found the glue dot idea because it is wonderful!  I found our glue dots in the scrapbooking section at Wal-Mart…yeah, that easy.)

Next, they used apple halves to paint apples onto tote bags:

We then played “Pin the Tail on Bambi,” and I have no pictures of it!  That might be a blessing for you, because my drawing of Bambi has been mocked by almost every family member as resembling either a:

A.  Fox
B.  Dog
C.  “What is that?

After “Pin the Tail on [Whatever That Is],” we herded the girls into the kitchen where we made caramel apples.

One of my trusty helpers returned for Birthday Party 2.0.

Then we had lunch, and opened presents, and ate some cupcakes, and painted nails.  And then we danced.  Because all the cool princesses dance at parties.  🙂

The End

Bluebird’s 9th Birthday: Baking Party!

It was during the week after Christmas–you know, when you’re fighting the urge to be sad that the big day is over, and you’re kind of euphoric with all the lofty New Year’s Resolutions to which you’re thinking about committing–that I found myself obsessed with the idea of throwing each of my kids their dream birthday parties in 2013.  We don’t do a lot of birthday partying in Brooketopia, mostly due to cost and logistics (newborn babies every two years will do that to you), but here we were going into a new year with no new babies…the idea sounded feasible.
 
Bluebird and I sat down to gorge ourselves do a little research on Pinterest birthday ideas, and we happened across a pin of a baking birthday party and she was awestruck.  Culinary celebration, commence!
 

First, we raided the fabric stash and picked out fabrics that somewhat coordinated with each other, and then I settled in for three weeks’ of sewing aprons for Bluebird and her guests:

Apron B from Little Retro Aprons by Cindy Taylor Oates
(Yes, you’ve seen this pattern on the blog before, both the child’s version AND the adult version–I’m totally in love with it.)

Then we hurried about with all the other preparations (amidst all the ear infection fun we were also dealing with at the time) and Bluebird bounced off the walls as she counted down the days until her party.

Finally, the Big Day of Baking Fun arrived…

…but first the girls had to stop and adore Baxter for a few minutes before I could entice them towards the birthday fun.  (After insisting they wash their hands after touching the dog.)

First, they made cupcake liner flower pins to adorn their new aprons, then we gathered in the kitchen to make mini pizzas for lunch.

While waiting for the pizzas to bake, the girls made fruit kabobs which they then drizzled with milk and white chocolate:

 

I had hired two of the young women in our ward to help me out, and they cleaned up the lunch mess while the party girls watched Bluebird open her presents in the living room.  Then, while the party girls decorated cake boxes, my helpers finished tinting batches of frosting for the finale of the party:

Man, a gang of 8-9 year old girls can pick up the basics of cake decorating pretty quick!  Candies, marshmallows, sprinkles…we had it all and they had a blast creating their own dream cakes.

After decorating cakes, we sat down to enjoy Bluebird’s actual birthday cake, complete with raucous singing and laughing:

Hardly anyone wanted any cake after the candles were blown out because they had just spent the past three hours stuffing their faces with candy, pizza and frosting.  No biggie, just more left over for the other Brookelets when they returned home!

Nine years old.  Bluebird, you’ve been with us for almost a decade!  You bring me so much joy, and I’m happy to indulge your lofty ideas.  You are such a creative spirit and I look forward to fleshing out more of your big birthday plans in the future.

Such a peach

Peaches were on sale for seventy-nine cents a pound on Monday, so I bought about ten pounds.  They were a little on the hard side, so I put them into a big paper grocery sack.  Tuesday found us stomping about the zoo, and Wednesday saw us vegging out due to a bad night’s sleep thanks to numerous Brookelets who would not leave me alone during the night.

I woke up today (late again, due to another night of bed-phobic Brookelets) and remembered that I had ten pounds of peaches sitting on the back counter and that I should go take a peek at them to see how the ripening process was coming along.  As I stepped near the bag, I could smell that beautiful ripe peach smell hanging in the air.  It was time to can ’em up.

Bluebird, my usual jam-making helper, had her piano lesson to get off to; so I asked Penguin if she wanted to help me out with making some peach butter.  She enthusiastically volunteered for the task, remarking that “I’m so glad that I’m six and can finally help make the jam!”  She skinned peaches, added the sugar and spices, and stirred until it started to spit.  Then she kept me company until it was all cooked up, jarred, and set into its water bath.

That’s one gallon (plus one half-pint) of peach butter!

We went big this year, and doubled our usual recipe so we could can up the peach butter in pint jars instead of half-pint jars (that little guy hiding in the middle back in the above picture).  A full batch of peach butter lasts about three weeks in Brooketopia, so I’m hoping this will be enough for 6-8 weeks.  The recipe is my usual, which I now read off of the blog because I’ve lost my paper copy.  (Yay Blog!)

Just look at the golden-spiced goodness.  It’s good on so many things–it’s a great sauce for various meats, a good base for any type of sweet sauce, and just good straight out of the jar on toast or pancakes…or a spoon.

When you walk into our house, you are greeted with the warm fragrance of peaches and spices, and you can hear the little plinkety-plinks of the lids popping.  Ah, the smells and sounds of late summer!

Makin’ Jam!

I am having so much fun with Bluebird as she gets older and is able to assist me in more and more tasks.  Yesterday we tackled some jam-making, preparing a batch of spiced peach butter and a batch of cherry jam.  She loved helping me out and proved to be quite valuable in her assistance.  Many hands make light work, even when the second set of hands measure about half the size of your own hands!

She can peel peaches, stir jam, ladle jam into jars and pit cherries like a pro!

Her favorite parts of making jam were peeling the peaches and pitting the cherries.

In between performing her jam-making duties, she did schoolwork at the kitchen table.  Win-win all around!



Peeling peaches…all I had to slice them up because she was so quick!



She pitted four pounds of cherries all by herself!
She’s the most conscientious cherry pitter I’ve ever met,
checking each individual cherry for residual pits.



Ladling the peach butter into jars.
It was such a nice way to spend time together!



Fourth of July Jell-O!

Bluebird is working on the requirements for the Brownie Girl Scout “Wave the Flag” badge, and one of the things she could do was hold a celebration for a patriotic holiday.  Naturally, she chose to throw an Independence Day party.  She kept herself and her sisters busy for the two weeks leading up to the 4th making decorations (which they never hung up) and decided on a menu (Cookies and Lemonade Water).

I stepped in to help with the menu, and while we were browsing for dessert ideas, we came across a recipe for Layered Jell-O, which I’ve been searching for for years!  A link at the end of the Layered Jell-O post led us to the recipe for “Broken Glass Jell-O,” which Bluebird thought would be smashing (hee hee) in Fourth of July colors.

Bluebird attended her dessert-making responsibilities well: she cut up the colors, mixed them together and supervised my pouring of the white liquid into the dish.

The Jell-O went into the refrigerator to set, and the dessert was met with rave reviews at our little holiday dinner:

Good job Bluebird!  Thanks for making our Fourth of July dinner extra special!