Friday, December 11, 2009

Five Dollar Friday: Lentil Soup

Here is my first "Five Dollar Friday"

We came across this recipe when we were studying about the monks who lived in Medieval Europe. Making this soup was a suggested activity and has now become a family favorite. It was my first time to ever cook or even eat lentils. I hope someone else enjoys it!

Lentil Soup
(adapted from Story of the World, Activity Book 2: The Middle Ages)

1 large onion chopped
3 carrots diced
3 stalks celery chopped
2-4 garlic cloves minced (approx. 2 tsp of garlic but adjust to your taste)
1 bay leaf
1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
6 cups of water
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. dried basil
1 cup dried lentils (My store only carries one type, brown with a greenish tint, so that's what I use)
1 cup fresh spinach finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste

1. In a large soup pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add onions and cook for 5 minutes. Add carrots and celery and cook until tender. Stir in garlic, bay leaf, oregano and basil. Cook for 1-2 minutes being sure not to burn garlic.
2. Add water and tomatoes then stir in lentils. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about an hour to an hour and a half until lentils are tender. When ready to serve stir in spinach and add seasonings to taste.

Serve with a loaf of homemade whole wheat bread if you wish!

* This soup is wonderful as is but if you have a little extra in your grocery budget you can jazz it up in several different ways. You can add shredded Parmesan cheese on top. Or, if mild Italian Sausage links (pork or turkey are both great) are on sale they can be grilled, cut up and added in the last 30 minutes of cooking. If you want to keep it vegetarian the original recipe said to serve it with wedges of cheese and sharp cheddar is wonderful with the flavor of the soup. Any of these will raise your overall price but if you catch some good sales, they are yummy additions.

Cost breakdown: $4.65

$ .50 lentils - 1/2 of a 1 lb bag bought for $1.
$ .50 onion - sweet yellow onion on sale for $.77 per lb
$ .66 carrots - 3 carrots out from a 2lb bag I bought for $2.00
$ .33 celery - 3 ribs out of a $1 bundle
$ .10 garlic - a few cloves from a head that cost $.33
$ 1.06 28 oz can tomatoes - I actually bought 2-14.5 oz cans because it was cheaper that way!
$1.50 spinach - 1/2 of a 10 oz bag that cost $3 spinach


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

An Idea from my Student Teaching Days

I student taught in a PPCD (Preschool Program for Children with Disabilities) setting for 12 weeks during my senior year of college. And just because I've never shared this on my blog and they are going to the Rose Bowl to try and win another National Championship - I am a proud Texas Longhorn! :) Back on topic: the lead teacher in that room was an amazing woman named Melanie. During one of my first days in her class she took me out to the playground and had me pick up 20 little rocks and place them in my right pocket. She explained that it is simple human nature to see the bad and miss the good. Of our 15 students we could have 14 doing the right thing and one the wrong but it's the one that you see, not the fourteen. Sad but true.

Melanie wanted her classroom to always have an uplifting and encouraging atmosphere and for that to happen her student teachers and aides had to learn to elicit desired behaviors in positive ways. If little Suzy wasn't listening during circle time she said to compliment Johnny sitting right next to her. Once she saw that Johnny was getting attention for doing the right thing and she was getting none doing the wrong, nine times out of ten Suzy would sit up and listen. Or she encouraged me to simply say, "I'm looking for friends who are following directions so I can tell them, 'Way to go!" The amazing thing was, it worked!!! I could usually get the behavior I needed to run the classroom without nagging or fussing.

Now where did the rocks come in? Well, anytime I wanted to get a child to do X then I had to phrase it in a positive way. I could say, "I love how Sammy and Jan are keeping their hands to themselves as we walk to the cafeteria. Great job!" when I was really trying to get Mike to quit poking the kid in front of him. If I was successful then I could move a rock to the other pocket. I could also move a rock to the other pocket for catching a child being good at anytime and praised them for it. Sometimes the reality is that all the positive hints in the world won't work and you have to say, "Ted, sit up and listen please," but then I had to take a pebble out of the left pocket and move it back to the right. Or there were times when physical well being was a concern so you intervened immediately with a stern, "No!". But the goal was to have all rocks in the left pocket by end of the day. When that got easy, I had to have all 20 in my left pocket before lunch and start all over in the afternoon. :)

She was training me to be positive, to see the good in the kids and to verbally praise, praise and praise some more. And to effectively and creatively get the behaviors I needed from my students using as little negativity as possible. And remember we were working with special needs preschoolers and they could be a tough little group at times! ;)

Fast forward to my teaching days. I was teaching first grade in an at-risk school with 22 kiddos. Melanie's training served me well as I worked with a very demanding bunch. But by the holidays my steam was running out. I found myself crabby and snappy way too often. The holidays were always a rough time for me in public school. Kids were more tired than usual because of late nights out shopping and holiday parties. All they could think and talk about were presents and Santa; the last place they wanted to be was in a classroom sitting behind a desk. Actually, I was a little distracted by the same things. :) And Melanie's rocks came back to me.

I went out to the playground and got a handful of rocks to stick in my pocket. Have you ever had 20 rocks in your pocket? You can feel them each time you move. They are a constant physical reminder of the thing I was trying to accomplish. Be Positive! It made such a difference in not only how the kids received the message but in how I felt at the end of the day. If I was working hard to constantly be positive, it was hard to be in a crummy mood at 4:00. On the flip side if I just nagged and fussed at kids all day long, I was a complete bear at the end of the day. The kids' behavior was often the same either way; it was just my mental state that changed! What a valuable lesson and wonderful gift Melanie gave me.

For the next seven years of my public school teaching you would often see a bulge in my pockets. If I needed a serious reminder, I would stuff my pockets with marbles. Talk about uncomfortable. You can't forget about 20 marbles in your pocket. Each time they moved around it was like they were saying, "Praise someone! Find someone to uplift! Say something kind to that kid who just melts into the background because they are always doing the right thing!" Really that is what those marbles were saying. ;)

And now as a parent-teacher you can still find rocks in my pockets. Or most days now it's pennies. On days when one or all of my children is being especially trying. Or days when I got two hours of sleep (lovely insomnia) or on Friday when we are all tired and would just rather not do school. I put pennies in my pocket and hug my boys tight and we trudge on. And in the month of December when we just want to forget school, play, wrap presents and bake cookies they are in my pockets almost every day.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Introducing Five Dollar Friday

I want to start something new and I am hoping others will join me. I'm calling it "Five Dollar Fridays". In an attempt to be healthful as well as frugal I have challenged myself to try and feed our family of five for as close to $5 as I possibly can for our main meals. For us that means seven dinners a week as well as lunches on Friday (Dh's day off), Saturday and Sunday. Breakfast and other lunches should be even less. I will use Five Dollar Fridays to share one recipe each week that we are using to accomplish this goal. I have been pleasantly surprised how many I have found and we have not felt like we were missing out at all...well maybe a little bit, but not much!

I am still avoiding additives, preservatives, dyes, other chemicals and pre-packaged foods. I could use Hamburger Helper and stay under my five dollar goal, but white flour pasta, MSG, dye, and sugar (maltodextrin in the Hamburger Helper ingredient list is a form of sugar; see this list for many of the other ways manufacturers can hide the sweet stuff in your food) are not in our meal plan. ;)

I am not counting seasonings or oil/butter into the cost but everything else I will include in the final price. And some of the meals I include may be $5 meals one week but not another because I snagged items at great sale. For example I bought a pork shoulder roast a few weeks ago at $.88 a pound, so I was able to get a roast that fed our family twice for $4! The first time we had pulled pork sandwiches and a few nights later we had barbeque stuffed potatoes with the leftovers. Normally a roast that size would have been almost triple that price. We don't often eat pork but for that price I couldn't pass it up.

Many of the meals I'll share have meat as the accompaniment rather than the star of the meal and several are vegetarian. There was a time when dh would have looked at a plate of food that didn't include at least 8 ounces of meat and said it wasn't a "real meal" but times change. ;) He lost 30 pounds by learning to eat following a modified Mediterranean diet (see the Mediterranean food guide pyramid) and has kept it off for six months now. One of the keys was learning to eat meat in moderation.

Why am I doing this? Well it started out that in an attempt to pay off some bills we decided to cut our grocery budget in half to free up extra money. I appealed to some ladies for help in brainstorming how to do this and found that many of them were routinely feeding their families (some larger than mine) healthful meals on what was now my weekly grocery budget. They shared great ideas and advice to teach me how to get started and one even said that I shouldn't be surprised if never went back to shopping the way I used to. Well I have learned so much in the past months. It has been challenging and even...(should I admit it?) Now don't get me wrong I am looking forward to a time when I will regain my old food budget so that all our meals don't have to be $5 meals but I am confident that many will!

I would love to have many bloggers start their own version of Five Dollar Fridays so that we can learn from each other. You can make your own rules; you certainly aren't obligated to follow mine. Adapt Five Dollar Fridays to fit your needs any way you wish. And leave a comment so we'll all know where to look!


Thursday, December 3, 2009


Well my last post was really just setting up this one. About the time I was pondering these schedule/time-management issues, I read a comment from a mom I've come to respect on the Well Trained Mind Message Board who said (and this is my paraphrase) that is a red flag to her when a mom spends a lot of time researching the perfect curriculum (as if there really was such a thing ;) instead of self-educating to fill in the gaps of her own schooling and becoming an expert in certain areas. Choosing the right curriculum for your child will then be much simpler because you know exactly what you are looking for after having done your due diligence.

As I really looked at my schedule I realized that so much of my time is/was spent researching each tiny step along the way and then looking back and examining every tiny bit of progression - or lack thereof. Now before I start getting cyber tomatoes thrown at me, what I am not saying is that research and evaluation have no value. Not at all. It's just that I have come to believe that what we are doing in the elementary years is small potatoes compared to what's coming in the higher grades. Do I want to spend the limited time I have researching every minute what we are doing now or spend the time filling in the gaps of my own education to be better prepared for those years that are fast approaching? Years when I won't be able to spend 30 minutes each evening to prepare for the next day but will need hours. Years when I will be teaching subject areas where my own schooling barely even scratched the surface of what I want for my own children. Literature analysis, advanced grammar, languages, higher level math, science and more are all areas where my own public schooling did not adequately prepare me to teach my children.

Here is a (modified) post I put on the Well Trained Mind Board as I struggled through these issues:

For quite some time now I have known that I needed to embark on a journey of self-education. I even posted about it a few times and received great encouragement, ideas and support. I purchased The Well Educated Mind, read the first section and bought Don Quixote (the first book recommended by Susan Wise-Bauer, the author of TWEM) and then haven't done much else other than wait for a good time.

I have come to realize that there will never be a "good time". Life will always be busy and there will always be things to compete for my time. For me it has got to be a choice of my choosing between good and better. The things that are occupying my time are good (for the most part) but often not the best.

To be honest, I think it's partly fear that has held me back, too. I am fearful of taking a risk and failing. I have come to realize that while I always made great grades in school I am one of those who validated the system. And the system I was in wasn't great. I, to this day, don't know how to really read a book and engage it well. I am not a good thinker; I am a good doer. College wasn't really that much better - except for one philosophy class my sophomore year. I was never challenged to think and still graduated with high honors.

As far as homeschool is concerned I searched "self education" on the boards and read a post by one of the board members I really respect saying that self education is a much more important endeavor than constantly worrying about making future plans that may or may work, researching curriculum and such. Guilty, guilty, guilty. I am a planner and researcher to the max - sometimes to the exclusion of doing because I am so busy researching! The best thing I can do in preparing for the future of our homeschool is grow myself in the areas where I am weakest. This is not a condemnation of how anyone else is doing things. I just knew there was truth in her post that really hit me just where I am.

Okay, therapy session over...

Here is where I think I am going to start:

I am going to start Don Quixote and work through the other recommendations in TWEM.

I am going to learn how to play chess because it's not just books that I need to work on. I have always shied away from strategy games because of the thinking factor, too. Dh loves chess and I know he'll be happy to teach me. It will be something fun we can do together.

I also am going to work on geography. This is not a thinking thing but honestly I am tired of reading news stories and wondering, "Now where is that country again?" Ds8 has a puzzle map and I am going to work on one continent at a time until I can fill in an empty map with all the country names.

I know that there is much more I will need to do in the coming years but this seems doable for now. I don't want to start too big and then feel frustrated that I am trying to do too much. I know that in the not so distant future I need to study an advanced grammar program and start my own in depth study of history as well.

So where am I now? I am 270 pages into Don Quixote and enjoying it. I feel like I am taking part of the "Great Conversation" that has been going on for centuries between writers and their readers. And Cervantes was a great place to start since it is considered the first novel having been written in 1604!

Has anyone else had these thoughts about self-educating or started on their own journey?


Saturday, November 28, 2009

We're Getting There! :)

The final line of my last post stated, "the last thing I've learned is that I need to keep looking ahead and stop incessantly and unnecessarily looking back."

Here is what I mean by that. I am realizing more and more that each person comes to this homeschool thing - and really to all life - with a certain "bag of tricks". Our educational background, personality strengths and weaknesses, energy level, family support system (or lack thereof), financial resources and a million other factors all play into what we do and how we do it when it comes to homeschooling our children.

Throughout life one of my strongest tools in my trick bag has always been a really high energy level. Friends referred to me as the Energizer Bunny who just keep "going and going and going". Right now that is not so much the case as I have struggled with decreasing energy for a few years now. I am confronted by my personal limitations each and every day. I don't have the time to do it all and even if I had the time I just don't have the energy. And truth be told, even when I could do so much more, it wasn't necessarily the healthiest rhythm for my life. A rhythm of regular rest, fun and mental downtime is critical to a healthy soul - at least for me anyway.

Back to homeschooling. The increasing realization that I just cannot do it all had me asking some hard (hard for me anyway ;) questions. If I can't do it all, how do I prioritize? What gets done and what doesn't? And am I going to take control of my schedule or will I let "the tyranny of the urgent" rule my day?

Let me quote from the above linked article by leadership guru, Jim Clemmer, because even though his application is in the business world, there is much truth to be applied to homeschool moms and managers of our households (emphasis mine):
R. Alec Mackenzie once observed, "Urgency engulfs the manager; yet the most urgent task is not always the most important. The tyranny of the urgent lies in its distortion of priorities. One of the measures of a manager is the ability to distinguish the important from the urgent, to refuse to be tyrannized by the urgent, to refuse to manage by crisis."

Unsuccessful organizations are often beehives of activity and hard work. Reflecting on the performance of his struggling company a departmental manager observed, "We have lots of projects, goals, and priorities. We're constantly making lists and setting action plans. But we seldom see anything through to completion before some urgent new priority is pushed at us.

In the midst of tumultuous change, many managers are confusing "busywork" activity with results. Missing what's really important to long-term growth and development, they allow themselves to be tyrannized by short-term urgencies. But we just can't do it all. The list of dreams we could pursue to realize is a lengthy one. The number of improvements we could make to our performance gaps are countless.

So we've got to choose. From all our long-range options, alternatives, and possibilities we've got to establish short-term goals and priorities. There are as many things we've got to stop doing, as there are actions we've got to start taking. Some actions will drive us forward, many will hold us back, and some won't matter much either way. But without clear targets and a strong sense of what's most important, I — and everyone on my team or in my organization — won't be able to tell the difference.

Effectively establishing goals and priorities has both strategic and tactical components. The strategic decisions are what goals and priorities we choose to pursue. Tactics are how we get organized and manage our time to reach those goals.

The "busywork" part really stuck out to me. I am constantly busy, oh so busy. But is any of that busyness a road to somewhere I want to go? Now don't get me wrong, as moms we have a million jobs that could be seen as busywork because they are somewhat mindless, but are really vital to running our homes effectively - housework, cooking, meal planning and preparation, laundry (my nemesis) and so on. I am not talking about those things primarily - although they can be a source of unnecessary busyness if we are obsessive or inefficient. There is much more to it than that. It's the other things that can suck up my time and none are necessarily bad in and of themselves. It's just a matter of choosing between the "good and the better".

And as this post has gotten really long, I'll have to finish in my next post.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

I am Not the Homeschool Mom I Was

No secret, I am a detail kinda the max. ;) But that has been changing - slowly, but it's changing. And that's a good thing. For me. In this season of life. It is so easy for me to lose the proverbial forest for those doggone trees. Sticking with that analogy, I am so busy making sure that my journey through the forest is "just right" that I tend to not see the beauty that is all around me. I am constantly checking the map so that I sometimes forget to enjoy the hike.

Well God is thankfully doing a work in me but old habits die hard. I like formulas (okay I love formulas) but He is constantly reminding me that life is about relationships. Relationships involve people. And people are not formulas. Life is more like a dance and I am trying to embrace that metaphor. Sometimes you dance fast and sometimes slow. At times you lead; at times you follow. The dance can even get messy at times when things are just not in sync. And if you've ever watched Dancing With the Stars you've seen that the dance can be fun...or wild...or romantic...or even silly. In formulas there is no room for messy, or fast and slow, or fun or wild or romantic or silly. There is just black and white - one right answer and a bunch of wrong ones.

How has this affected me in my homeschool endeavors? Well, first off I didn't make one of these this year. Now I am not saying that I will never again make a "Year at a Glance", but for me in this season of therapy it just wasn't a priority. I know myself well enough to know that when I get something down on paper like that, it just stresses me out to the max if I get a few days off here and there. Didn't I tell you that I am a little freaky about minutiae? :) Right now our priority is to get therapy done each day. Academics are still important but they are not center stage. Honestly I am looking very forward to a time when academics will be preeminent and I hope that time comes sooner rather than later. Still I am committed to completing the full course of this therapy, and so there is not a place for hyper-detailed plans this year.

I do have a plan about what I want to accomplish though. I know how many math lessons we need to complete each week and when we get behind what we need to do to catch up. The same with history, Spanish, spelling, reading and handwriting. But it's all in my head and not on paper. When it comes to school this year I don't have one single checklist...and the most exciting thing is I am okay with that. :)

Our story is therapy but it would be the same if we had a new baby in the house, were dealing with a major illness, if we had just moved across country or any other myriad of life changes that can derail the best laid plans for a productive homeschool year (as I define productive anyway!).

Another thing I've learned is that a simple lesson done is better than perfect lesson plans that never leave the paper (or become reality way later than need be) because I don't have all the details worked out: I haven't tracked down that exact book or researched this one aspect just enough. Right now some of you think I am kidding but sadly this has rung true more than once in our school. Others of you so completely get it, don't you?! Just admit it. You're as nutty as me, aren't ya? :)

The last thing I've learned is that I need to keep looking ahead and stop incessantly and unnecessarily looking back. And I'll blog more on that next time.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Curriculum Updated

Tonight I updated my sidebar to show our 2009-2010 curriculum choices for both Thatcher and Haddon. Have I even mentioned that I am now doing school with two of my sweet boys?

Thatcher's school load is light compared to other years because what is not listed is that we are also doing Neurodevelopmental Therapy (NDT) two to three hours each day. We began this therapy six months ago but I have been hesitant to post about it for a few reasons. First, I know that anytime you put something in cyberspace you are opening yourself up for all sorts of feedback - good or bad. This is a type of therapy (like many in the realm of Autism) that is mostly shunned by the official medical world as being completely unscientific. Case in point, our developmental pediatrician told me, "There is absolutely no medical/scientific evidence to support this type of therapy but only anecdotal evidence." Well, stories of changed lives are a powerful thing and this therapy has given us hope for not only dealing with the day to day symptoms we deal with but actually fixing the root causes. On the flip side, the medical community we have access to has not offered any treatment options other than a handful of prescriptions.

I feel I need to digress here and say that we still may be going that medication route in the near future as Thatcher's ADHD continues to rage out of control and the emotional manifestations grow more severe as well. But before we go there we want to feel that we have exhausted all other possibilities of correcting the root issues and not just putting a band-aid on the symptoms. That is why we did the gluten-free/casein-free (GFCF) diet last year for eight months as well. If there is a dietary cause, a bio-medical explanation or anything else...we want to address that first before jumping to medications.

The second reason I have been hesitant to post about our experience with NDT is that I am not yet willing to endorse it. This therapy takes from one-and-a-half to two years to see lasting results and we are not even half-way there. This therapy is inexpensive when compared to some others but it is still a big chunk of change. It is one thing for a mom to come to my blog and see a phonics book we're using and order it for $5.95 only to find two months later it's the wrong fit for her child. It's another to post a therapy that costs a great deal more both in time and money.

Well there it is...the post that has taken me six months to write.


Friday, October 30, 2009

Heeelllloooooo.....Anyone Still Out There??? :)

My unintentional blog hiatus started when I thought I would take a few weeks to finish preparing for and begin a new school year; I wanted to get the semester off to a good start without extraneous distractions. I pared down my schedule and my blog was a necessary casualty. Oops! A few weeks turned into two and a half months.

Some days I missed blogging like crazy and other days...well, not so much. Now that I have been blogging for more than two years, I have come to realize a few things. First, the shiny newness of the blog-o-sphere has finally worn off. Second, blogging is hard work. There are links to fix and pictures to update and emails to return. There are posts to write and then rewrite because you just can't find the right words for what you want to say. Heck, sometimes it's just getting a thought that you even want to write about in the first place. Lol!

Still I know that I need a place to "think out loud". I need a place that is mine all mine during this stage of life where not even a trip to the restroom is mine all mine ;) . I need a place to chronicle this crazy, wonderful, challenging journey called homeschooling.

My sweet dh calls homeschooling my "labor of love". It is a lot of hard work but I do love it. Blogging is another labor of love, too. And I'm looking forward to writing about what has been going on at Smooth Stones Academy.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Birthday Moments

Friendship is not necessary, like philosophy, like art....
It has no survival value; rather it is one of those
things that give value to survival.
~C.S. Lewis
My birthday was this past Sunday. Dh and I are not huge birthday celebrators in our home. Sure for the kids we do the cakes and the party but for us it's much more low-key - special time with the kids and a dinner out for the two of us if we can secure a sitter.

Well this year my sweet husband surprised me and invited all my closest girlfriends to my favorite wine bar/coffee house. Friends of ours volunteered to keep the kids; they were in on his little secret and knew we were having a hard time finding a sitter. Dh took me to a new restaurant I had been wanting to try, and then we walked around looking at the bay. Very casually he asked if I wanted to go to C... for dessert before we picked up the boys and I said, "Sure!"

I walked in to find many of my closest girlfriends waiting for me! It turns out he had sent out invitations and had been planning this for a few weeks. Dh took a few pictures and then left to go pick up our boys leaving me to spend some wonderful time with these special ladies. We talked for hours and laughed so hard I cried. And then we talked some more. And more. And more. It was so very needed!

I am very lucky to know all of you. Each of you blesses me in a very special way by your grace, your encouragement, your love for Christ and your sweet friendship. Thank you for making my birthday one I will always remember...even if it's not my 53rd! ;)

Background info: That afternoon Haddon was sad because he hadn't made me a card. I told him that the best part of a card was what it said inside so I pulled him into my lap and asked him to tell me what his card would have said. His response:
Dear Mommy,

You are a joy to have around. You are a great Mommy. I love you very much. Happy 53rd birthday!


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Hello Hill Country

I am in the amazing Texas Hill Country...and actually have been for the past week! The last few posts you've read were written several days prior and I simply scheduled them to publish after I was gone. I'll be back soon.

In addition to hiking, sitting on the porch and watching the hummingbirds whiz by, swimming in the beautiful Guadalupe River and so on, I am hoping to finish Volume 6 of Charlotte Mason's Home Education series as well as read Educating the Wholehearted Child by Clay and Sally Clarkson.

I am looking forward to coming back and seeing what you all have been up to as well.


Monday, July 27, 2009

Gospel-Centered Resources for Discipleship

There is something very exciting happening at many a local church. It started after Dr. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian, gave a talk at the Gospel Coalition Conference (see abbreviated notes here) about what it looks like to have a truly gospel-centered ministry. Like ripples that flow through an entire pond when just one rock has been dropped in, this talk has begun to change how churches do what they do. And it's a good thing.

So many "Bible studies" and "Bible curriculum" for children are no more than morality teachings lightly dusted with Bible verses to make it palatable for a Christian crowd. You could find these exact teachings in any culture, in any religion, anywhere in the world; just change the details of the story a bit. David and Goliath is about having courage; Jonah is about obedience; Esther - bravery; Ruth - faithfulness; Abraham and Isaac - trust. Even when Bible stories haven't been watered down into a type of Biblical Aesop, the mark is still too often missed. Moses was a patriarch and the leader of God's people. John the Baptist wore clothes made of camel's hair and ate locusts and honey. Adam was the one who brought sin into the world. Is that really all these stories are about?

In Gospel-centered ministry the focus of every lesson is on Jesus. Period. It is all about Him; it is not about us. In Luke 24:7, 44-45 Jesus even showed how all Scripture pointed to Himself!

Is it true that David showed great courage when he faced Goliath. Absolutely! Did Ruth show sweet faithfulness to Naomi? Most certainly. Would Jonah have spared himself a lot of trouble if he had just been obedient? Yep. Do I want my children to exhibit these same characteristics in their own lives? Without a doubt. But the question becomes is that the real reason God wanted these stories in the Bible or are these things we often focus on secondary truths: supporting details but not the main idea?

Consider this from Dr. Keller:

Jesus is the true and better Adam who passed the test in the garden and whose obedience is imputed to us.

Jesus is the true and better Abel who, though innocently slain, has blood now that cries out, not for our condemnation, but for acquittal.

Jesus is the true and better Abraham who answered the call of God to leave all the comfortable and familiar and go out into the void not knowing wither he went to create a new people of God.

Jesus is the true and better Isaac who was not just offered up by his father on the mount but was truly sacrificed for us. And when God said to Abraham, "Now I know you love me because you did not withhold your son, your only son whom you love from me," now we can look at God taking his son up the mountain and sacrificing him and say, "Now we know that you love us because you did not withhold your son, your only son, whom you love from us."

Jesus is the true and better Jacob who wrestled and took the blow of justice we deserved, so we, like Jacob, only receive the wounds of grace to wake us up and discipline us.

Jesus is the true and better Joseph who, at the right hand of the king, forgives those who betrayed and sold him and uses his new power to save them.

Jesus is the true and better Moses who stands in the gap between the people and the Lord and who mediates a new covenant.

Jesus is the true and better Rock of Moses who, struck with the rod of God's justice, now gives us water in the desert.

Jesus is the true and better Job, the truly innocent sufferer, who then intercedes for and saves his stupid friends.

Jesus is the true and better David whose victory becomes his people's victory, though they never lifted a stone to accomplish it themselves.

Jesus is the true and better Esther who didn't just risk leaving an earthly palace but lost the ultimate and heavenly one, who didn't just risk his life, but gave his life to save his people.

Jesus is the true and better Jonah who was cast out into the storm so that we could be brought in.

Jesus is the real Rock of Moses, the real Passover Lamb, innocent, perfect, helpless, slain so the angel of death will pass over us. He's the true temple, the true prophet, the true priest, the true king, the true sacrifice, the true lamb, the true light, the true bread.

The Bible's really not about you – it's about him.

In researching what to use in the discipleship of our boys, we have kept in mind that we want to use resources that reflect a gospel-centered paradigm. In that vein, we've come across a great site that has provided for us tremendous support. It is the website for the childrens' ministry of Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky called SojournKids! I love this post titled, "9 Reasons Not To "Ask Jesus Into Your Heart" and this one titled, "The Gospel and Children's Ministry". We will be using their Family Worship Guide as one of the key elements in our own family worship. The pdf is worth downloading if only to see the resources they have listed. They have truly gathered some of the best that is currently available for children and families - and they have them conveniently listed by the age for which they are appropriate.

Another gospel-centered resource we will be using is Sovereign Grace's new childrens' worship CD titled, To Be Like Jesus. At this site you can listen to samples of the songs and puchase the CD. And as of this past week, it is also available on iTunes! :) We have this CD in our vehicle and they boys love it! It highlights what we want for our children to be in character and virtue but it doesn't leave out the most important thing...Jesus! On a scale of 1 to 10 I would give this CD a 20! ;)

I hope some of these resources bless someone else in the way they have blessed us!


Saturday, July 25, 2009

Book Review: Grace Based Parenting

I'll confess, I have read 20 books on parenting. No kidding. I have searched and searched for the right book to fix my kids. ;) What I didn't realize was that I was the one in need of being fixed! If you haven't read my post, "My Journey to Grace" you can read about why I say this there as well as more specifics about Grace-Based Parenting.

Thank you Mr. Kimmel for writing such a beautiful book. I am truly indebted to you as is my entire family. As I, by the power of Christ, become a grace-based person and therefore a grace-based parent, I am confident it will not only affect my boys but generations to come.

There are times when the best way to review a work is simply let it speak for itself. Here are just a few of my favorite passages from Grace-Based Parenting.

Grace-based parents spend their time entrusting themselves to Christ. They live to know God more. Their children are the daily recipients of the grace these parents are enjoying form the Lord. If you watch them in action, they appear to be peaceful and very much in love with God. They are especially graceful when their children are hardest to love. Their advice to their children would be a mixture of:
  • " You are a gift from God ; go make a difference."
  • "You may struggle doing the right thing sometimes but you're forgiven." ~ p. 19
[If you operate from a standpoint of grace] Your children will be the daily recipients of the number one characteristic of God that has drawn people to Him since the Creation. ~p. 22

If God our heavenly Father is the perfect Father, and the primary way that He deals with us as humans is through the power of His grace, it stands to reason that grace forms the best template for bringing out the best in our own children. ~p. 28

The reason grace makes the most sense as a bottom line for parenting is because of grace's eternal appeal to the human heart. ~p. 29

Let's define what we mean by secure love. This is a steady and sure love that is written on the hard drive of children's souls. It's a complete love that they default to when their hearts are under attack. It's the kind of love that children can confidently carry with them into the future. ~p. 46

Grace can't be some abstract concept that you talk about in your home. It has to be a real-time action that ultimately imprints itself on your children's hearts. ~p. 140

They [children] need parents who remain calm, spend time on their knees, and maintain an open forum where their children can work through their faith out loud. ~ p. 186

Grace provides equilibrium for a family. Where too many parents are concerned with how others view their children, grace-based parents are more excited with how God views their children. Grace-based parents avoid the silly preoccupations with arbitrary standards devised by evangelical busybodies. They keep their eye on the bubble in the level, which is their children's character. To them, keeping their children balanced when it comes to their faith, integrity, poise, discipline, endurance and courage makes more sense than worrying about whether others thing their children look spiritual enough (whatever that means). They don't make it a crime for their children to be different, to be oddballs, or to boogie to a different drumbeat. In the process, they encourage their children to find the unique individual that God designed them to be through an intimate and authentic relationship with Christ...These families are overseen by shrewd mothers and fathers who see their children's fragile features as opportunities for God's power to shine through them. ~p. 212

Grace-based parenting is not a checklist for parenting; it's a lifestyle. It's a clear attempt to retrofit your minds to respond to your children in the same way God responds to you. ~p. 213

The grace-based home assumes kids will struggle with sin and helps them learn how to tap into God's power to help them get stronger...When their children do sin, grace-based parents don't get surprised. They expect it. They assume sin is an ongoing dilemma that their children must constantly contend with. ~p. 216

I can't wait to read this book again...and again...and again!


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sharing Our Whole Grain Homemade Bread Recipe - Update

Well, that will teach me to jump the gun! I posted this original recipe back in May right after I started making our own bread. I posted too soon. It was yummy but dense, very dense. I just thought that the "fluffy bread" my boys kept asking for would have to be sacrificed on the altar of "homemade and 100% whole grain." But I didn't give up. I continued to research and tweak the recipe and you know what? Homemade, whole grain and fluffy can happen! :)

I started learning about dough enhancers, ingredients that improve the texture and taste of your bread. You can buy these pre-made but I wanted to create a recipe with ingredients I could purchase at my local grocery store. First I added ginger to my recipe after learning that yeast love, love, love the stuff. The ginger alone, even in its tiny amount, helped my bread rise higher. Next I found several recipes that called for much higher amounts of gluten. This helped too. Then I found Darcy's recipe for her boys' bread. It included vinegar and I remembered reading that vinegar would help activate the yeast and boy did it! My bread now rises high out of the pan and is that fluffy texture the boys were asking for.

Now one thing I have learned is that just because this recipe works for me, with my bread maker and in my climate it doesn't mean it will work for you. I have tried recipes from other blogs that are the "perfect" recipe but they don't work at all in my machine and in Houston's humidity. Be ready to tweak your recipe until you get it just like you like it!

100% Whole Grain Bread Machine Bread

1 1/4 cups milk
1 egg
2 Tbsp canola oil
4 Tbsp honey
2 Tbsp molasses
2 Tbsp white vinegar
1/4 tsp ground ginger
2 Tbsp ground flax seed
2 tsp salt
2 3/4 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup oat flour
1/4 cup gluten
1 Tbsp yeast

Put everything into the bread machine in the order given. Chose the "Whole Wheat" setting and start. This recipe makes a 2 lb loaf. At first, I was putting all the ingredients in at night before bed and using the delay cycle in order to have fresh bread each morning. I started getting worried about milk and eggs sitting in the bread maker for several hours though. Also, now that I am using vinegar, I don't want the vinegar to have time to sour the milk. Now, I usually throw the ingredients in right before breakfast so that we have fresh bread for our sandwiches at lunch or right before lunch so we can have a fresh loaf to go with dinner. For breakfast we usually toast it anyway, so day-old bread works just as well.

A few tips:
  • never let the salt touch the yeast. It can prematurely activate it.
  • when you measure the oil, use the same spoon for the honey and molasses and they will slide right out!
  • I make my own oat flour by processing old fashioned oats in the food processor. It's much cheaper than buying oat flour.
Enjoy. I know we have! :)


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

My Journey to Grace

If you Google, "There are two kinds of people," you will immediately find 100's of quotes dividing the world's population into neat little categories: Conservatives and Liberals, "haves" and "have- nots", givers and takers, those who make the messes and those who clean them, and on and on it goes.

Theologians and the famous are not exempt from these declarations either:

There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, "Thy will be done,"
and those to whom God says, "All right, then, have it your way."
~ C.S. Lewis

There are two kinds of people: some willing to work
and the rest willing to let them.
~Robert Frost

There are two kinds of people: those who walk into a room and say,
"There you are" -- and those who say, "Here I am!"
~ Abigail Van Buren

and even this one:
There are two kinds of people in the world,
those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don't.
~ Robert Benchley
Well, I am jumping on the "There are two kinds of people," bandwagon and declaring that when it comes to matters of faith there are two kinds of people: those with a bent for law and those with a bent for grace. I, unfortunately, am the former. Growing up in a tradition that viewed spiritual maturity as a checklist of things done, or all too often things not done (drinking, swearing, dancing...) only served to strengthen what was my personality leaning already. I have been a believer since the age of eleven and it didn't take me long to figure this out. I am bent for the law.

Now theologians have written books on what I am about to say, and certainly they say it much more eloquently than I. Yet I have learned that writing something out is the very best way for me to really understand it and that is why I am making this attempt, feeble as it may be, to chronicle my learnings in the past year or so.

Three books have really challenged me to consider this issue of law vs. grace. Each has come into my hands by different means and at different times. Yet the three have worked together to help me come to know my Creator in a new and different and more intimate way.

First, back in 2007 The Jesus Storybook Bible found its way into our library and quickly into our hearts setting me on what I now call, "My Journey to Grace". You see what I have come to learn is the problem with law is that it's all about me, but with grace it's all about God. Law says that there is something I can do to merit God's favor. Grace says that all I need to do is rest in the assurance that Jesus did it once for all on the cross because of his great love for me and all humanity. Law is easy; it's a formula. Grace is hard; it's a relationship. This Bible was the first time in my twenty-five years as a believer that I truly got that - and all from a children's Bible!

Not realizing yet I was on a journey, just that I had read a great book in the Jesus Storybook Bible, dh handed me Tim Keller's book, Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. It is Keller's teachings on one of Jesus' most famous parables, The Prodigal Son. Amazing. Life changing. Defining. I loved this book.

In reading this parable growing up, I always identified with the older brother. I was the compliant, obedient child. My younger sister was the rebellious prodigal. I can remember feeling some of the indignation the older brother expressed when he said to his father upon seeing his brother welcomed home in the style of a king, "Look, these many years I have served you and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a goat that I might celebrate with my friends," (Luke 15:29) because I felt some of that same frustration when my sister would come home (again) having broken just about every rule put before her by my parents. Here is a quote from Prodigal God that sums up what the book meant for me:
The hearts of the two brothers were the same. Both sons resented their father's authority [Keller makes the case for this earlier in the book] and sought ways of getting out from under it. They each wanted to get into a position in which they could tell the father what to do. Each one, in other words, rebelled - but one did so by being very bad and the other by being extremely good. Both were alienated from the father's heart; both were lost sons. ~ p. 36
The older brother followed the law. He thought all his good deeds should have earned him some brownie points with his father. It didn't. He thought all his younger brother's carousing should have alienated this son from their father. He was wrong there, too. And so was I.

Now don't get me wrong. If anyone were to ask me, then or now, what I put my faith in, I would immediately say it was in Jesus' saving work on the cross. Yet if someone studied my life they would most likely come to another conclusion. How a person lives day to day bears out what they really believe, no matter what they say. And there were the footprints of law all over my soul, all over my actions and all over my words.

And I have come to see I am not alone in the realization I have trusted in the wrong thing for far too long. While it is true that our hearts have been wired for a relationship with God, it is equally true that the fall has so affected humanity that everything we do is tainted by it, including how we seek to meet this inborn need for relationship. The fall was all about control, who had it (God) and who wanted it (Adam and Eve by the serpent's deception). And it's still about control today, thus the allure of the law: law = control. It puts us in the driver's seat and removes God from his rightful place as king of our soul. Law is our attempt to dictate to God how He should view us. When the reality is that grace provides a way for God to see us that we could never earn ourselves no matter how good we ever managed to be.

The third book on this journey, was Graced-Based Parenting by Tim Kimmel. I ordered it off Amazon and it sat on the shelf until something a few months ago caused me to pick it up. Honestly I am not 100% sure what it was except to say a leading by the Holy Spirit. This book, oh this book. It is officially my favorite parenting book and I am committed to re-reading it, in its entirety, every.single.year. Yes, it's that good. I will write a complete review in a coming post but this book has brought everything together for me. It has painted a picture of the kind of parent I want to be with God's help. But you can't give what you don't yourself own. And I needed a new heart when it came to the issue of law vs. grace.

If the first two books were the skeleton of grace then this book became the muscle and skin. The first two were the "what" and this book was, for me, the "how". Earlier I said that grace is hard because it's about a relationship. If you are not wired for relationship then this sort of transformation does not come naturally, or at least it hasn't for me. Why? Read on.

Most people find themselves typically energized by people or drained by them (we're back to the "there are two kinds of people" thing again ;) ). There are times when I can be very energized by people but more often I am drained by them. Tasks on the other hand energize me. I can clean closets, plan and organize for hours on end and still have energy at the end of the day. That's fun for me. Weird, I know. So you see, I am not wired as much for relationship as I am for tasks. I do need people. Very much. It's just that I don't need that many people, especially in this phase of life where I have three little monkeys sucking just about every bit of life out of me. ;) ;) ;) Ready for a really cheesy analogy? Imagine with me that we all have 2 tanks: a tank for tasks and tank for relationships. My relationship tank only holds about 10 gallons and the car that uses this tank is a real gas guzzler! It gets sucked dry pretty quickly. Now my task tank, it holds 50 gallons and the car that uses this tank gets 75 miles to the gallon. It can go forever in between fill-ups. Hey, I warned you it was cheesy!

Back to Grace-Based Parenting. This book helped me see what it looks like to operate from a vantage point of grace and what the true dangers of the law can be as it relates to parenting, and really all of life in general. It's a truly remarkable book.

I wish I could tell you I am now this person full of grace. I wish I could say that the transformation has been a beautiful one, like the transformation of the butterflies in my garden. It hasn't. It has been painful and humbling and downright hard. I am at the point where I see the ugliness and putridity of law, yet it is still my default as I have lived in the land of the Law for almost 37 years now. The land of Grace is still like a foreign country to me. I see the beauty of it. I have read the travel guides and studied the language and customs of those who live there. I even pop in for visits now and then. Yet the land that has been my home for far too long beckons me away. Not for long though, I pray. With God's help I will be operating from a new address soon.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Special Treasure

Awhile back my husband was preaching on how the Bible we use today came to be - the formation of the cannon in the first few centuries all the way to the English translations you and I hold today. A gentleman from our church approached him and said he had a very special Bible given to him as a wedding gift from his mother-in-law years before.

It was a Geneva Bible! This Bible was first produced in Switzerland in 1560 by Puritan refugees fleeing persecution from Queen Mary. It was the household Bible of English-speaking Protestants due to being smaller and more affordable. It even contained “study notes” for commentary on biblical text . It was also the first complete English Bible to use chapter breaks and numbered verses. It was the Bible Shakespeare used and the Bible brought to America by the pilgrims on the Mayflower. The copy this gentleman owned was printed in 1602 (see photo on right).

Dh brought it home one evening and we spent time carefully looking though this very special treasure. I was so incredibly nervous because I felt like this book should be in a museum somewhere under glass and not sitting on my counter top. I just kept thinking, "This book is older than our very nation! And just a 100 years (plus a few) after Columbus sailed the ocean blue ." It was such a privilege to spend time with this wonderful book. I am still amazed thinking back.

I thumbed through and found some of my favorite passages. Can you tell what they are? Leave a comment if you know!


Friday, July 17, 2009

Thoughts on Frugality and Being "Green" - Part 2

In my last post on frugality I talked mostly about our switch to "green" and enviro-friendly cleaners in our home. I also mentioned our grocery budget and its considerable ascent as we have tried to get chemicals out of our diet. I thought for this post I would blog about some changes we are making to try and be more frugal and green in all areas, not just our grocery budget. Hopefully these changes will create wiggle room for more fun, more freedom and allow for a little higher grocery bill for some products. These changes will also be good for the environment as we work to be good stewards of all God has granted to us.

Conserving boys and I are trying to be hyper-diligent in this area. Trying to save money on our water bill and save one of earth's most precious resources at the same time!
  • We have added a filled water bottle to the tank of each potty in our home. I remembered learning you can save water by adding a brick in the tank but this article mentions that a water bottle is better. Bricks can disintegrate over time causing future plumbing problems. You can save up to 1/2 a gallon per flush by doing this!
  • I have a "water bowl" by my kitchen sink. Each time I need hot water for something I catch the cold water in a bowl until it starts heating up and use that to water the planters in our butterfly garden. I rarely need to use additional water now that I have started this. I have found extra water for all sorts of places, too. For example, last week when we went to the beach, instead of dumping the ice out of our cooler, I set it out to melt in the sun. Once it got warm I used that to water the garden. When we finally got rain, I put out several buckets on the patio and caught enough rain to water my planters for the rest of the week.
  • I am being extra diligent about every drop of water we use. Instead of putting the plates in the right sink and rinsing one at a time on the left, I just pile all of them on the left side. I find as I wash one the run off water gets the others 80% clean. Then I can just turn off the water, give the others a gentle rinse and throw them in the dishwasher. I have also been filling the sink with an inch of water instead of keeping the water running when I am rinsing dishes at times.
  • Our boys are taking baths rather than showers to conserve water and I am trying to really limit my time in the shower to under 10 minutes. While the weather is so warm I am even turning off the water in those moments when I don't need it. Now come winter, this cold-natured girl may not feel so inclined to do this! ;)
  • We are also turning off the water while brushing our teeth.
  • Any other ideas?
Conserving Gasoline...
  • We are filling up in the mornings to get more gas per fill up. You can read here exactly how this helps. Basically though, gas expands in heat. If you fill up at 4:00 PM when the temperature is at it's hottest you are getting less gas than if you fill up when the gas is at a cooler temperature.
  • Accelerating more slowly and coasting more. After reading this tip on a blog, I googled, "accelerating slowly to save gas" and came up with pages and pages of documented research that saying you can dramatically increase your mpg just by taking it easy on the gas pedal. I had no idea! Read this article from the Wall Street Journal if you want to learn more.
  • Only getting out a few times a week and grouping as many errands together as possible. This has been a hard one for this mommy because I like to get out almost every day. I love my home but I start to feel like the walls are closing in if I don't get out at some point each day. I am trying to just spend some time in the back yard or sitting under a tree reading while the boys are at rest time to fill this need.
Conserving Energy...
  • We hardly ever turn lights on during the day anyway, but we are trying to be even more careful now. The boys are great about turning lights out as soon as they leave a room in the evening as well.
  • We have turned our AC up to 80 degrees. With Houston's humidity this means our house feels several degrees hotter than that but we have adjusted and it doesn't bother us anymore. Plus, a little sweat never hurt anyone! ;) I am eager to see changes in our bill as the hottest months are about to be upon us in July-September. I have read that for each degree you turn up your thermostat you can save anywhere from 2-4% on your electric bill - every source says something a little different. We may go a degree or two higher in August and September, our hottest months.
  • I am washing almost all our clothes in cold water and I have always been one to run the dishwasher only once a day, too.
  • Dh has turned the thermostat down on our water heater as well, too. It had been set higher than it should be b/c I am somewhat of a germ-o-phob; I love to have crazy hot water to wash my hands. I am hoping to see changes in our bill from these things, too.
More ideas to come later!


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What the '09-'10 School Year Holds for Haddon and Beckett

Most of the focus for the past two years on this blog have been on Thatcher and our academic endeavors with him. That will be changing as his brothers are getting older and starting their own scholastic pursuits. Expect to being seeing more posts relating to preschool in coming months!

Starting in September, Beckett (3) will attend preschool at our church two days a week from 9-2. It will so good for him and me! Let me explain. I have not shared much about this little guy in the past so let me introduce you to him. He is my Jekyll and Hyde. He is either completely endearing and adorable, full of hugs, kisses and smiles...or he is completely ticked off and often yelling and screaming. He is 100% happy or 100% angry, no in-between with this little guy. And 100% personality to boot. He is the most demonstrative child I have ever seen, constantly talking with his hands and so incredibly expressive. He is a complete hoot, a complete joy and a complete challenge. The most demanding of my three (at this stage) by far, even with Thatcher's ADHD and Asperger's in the mix. He is incredibly strong-willed and will go 100 rounds and then 10 more if it means he thinks he will finally wear me down. ;) He challenges me each and every day and in the midst of it all, I love this kid to pieces.

In addition to preschool, next year he will be tagging along with many of Haddon's readings (listed below) and school videos. We will be working hard on learning to play independently, completing simple games and activities and lots of character building ala CM "Laying Down the Rails". We will be doing lots of play dough and tactile activities as well. He already knows his colors, numbers, letters and letter sounds. More pre-reading games and activities, if he shows interest, may pop up as well.

Next year I will be starting K-4 with Haddon. K-4, as I define it, means that we will start our Kindergarten curriculum but take our time getting through. If we finish next year, great. If it takes us a full two years, that's okay too. We will most likely still be doing 2-3 hours of daily therapy with Thatcher in addition to his school load (lightened somewhat) so some videos and media time will be needed to help fill his day.

Now I get to tell you about Haddon. He is my compliant middle child. Peace-maker and tender-hearted, but he is no push-over. He can stand up to big brother - and little brother for that matter, too. ;) He is very much a pleaser and is always looking for and needing affirmation. He adores his big brother, is our dog, Wrigley's, best friend and loves animals and critters of all sorts. He currently is wanting a kitten of his very own. He can't wait to start school with Mommy.

Here is what he will be doing for K-4:


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

We Have a Winner!

Thank you to each of you who entered my first give-a-way! It was so much fun. Twenty comments were left on this post and I used to choose a winner.

And the winner is......number 14!

The 14th comment was left by Pam. Congratulations, Pam! Email me your address as well as which book you would like and Amazon will be delivering a package to your door very shortly!

Happy Tuesday everyone! :)

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Monkey Cake

It has become a tradition to share the "how-to" for each of our birthday cakes so here are directions for the monkey cake. This turned out to be a really fun one for me, and Beckett just loved it! Here is what I did...

Before beginning I wanted to add that if you are new to my blog, I am not a professional cake decorator; I have never even taken a cake decorating class. I have learned mostly from friends, viewed YouTube videos and of course, watched Ace of Cakes on Food Network! I make no claims that I do things "by the book". I just love doing these very special cakes for my boys birthdays. I hope my experience can help someone else along the way!

Monkey Cake

You will need:
  • Wilton's Animal Crackers Pan. This pan was one of the best investments I have made in the cake decorating department. I used it to make the cow and pig for Beckett's first birthday, the frog for Beckett's second birthday and now the monkey for his third. Gosh, I didn't realize until I typed that that this child has only had animal-themed parties. ;)
  • Directions from Wilton site on how to turn the cake into a monkey. You can see I left out the pink on the face and made the nose differently as well.
  • a 16 inch round pan (same one I used to make the pizza cake) for the belly. If I had it over to do again I would probably consider using my 14 inch round pan instead. I wanted a fat monkey but this one bordered on obese. ;)
  • extra cake pans of any size large enough to cut out your monkey's arms and legs. You will use the scraps from this to support his head as well. I used a 10x10 and a 13x9 I already have in my pan collection.
  • two larges piece of cardboard free from framing department at local arts and crafts store to use as cake board. I got mine at Michael's. Cover with regular foil or Wilton's fanci-foil. Here is a video that will show you how to do this. If you make your monkey as large as mine you will want to tape the two cardboard pieces on top of each other before covering with foil b/c it's a heavy cake, especially if you are going to transport it for the party. My neighbor, who helped me move mine, said I should've used plywood! :)
  • extra cardboard or cardstock to make template for arms and legs- any shape and size you like. You can see mine were very simple! I only made one arm and one leg and just flipped them around the opposite way for the other side.
  • two 24 oz packages of pre-made fondant. You can make your own but I haven't gone there yet. You will want to tint one whole package brown for the tail. For the second package you will tint some yellow for banana and polka dots, some blue and red for polka dots and don't foget to leave some white for the banana and the cover for the mini-cake.
  • latex-gloves to use when you are adding dye to fondant. Here are directions on Wilton's site for how to color fondant. It is really very, very easy.
  • Wilton icing colors in brown, lemon yellow, red and royal blue - or whichever colors you prefer.
  • Foam pieces from floral department at Wal-Mart or any craft store to make the little cake. I chose not to make this from real cake because I already had enough to feed all our guests, their families and the entire neighborhood. ;)
  • Bake all cakes you will need using your favorite recipe. I use Duncan Hines Classic White and prepare according to package directions except I add 1 tsp of almond extra for each box. Let's see...that means you will 1 box of cake mix for the animal crackers pan. I think it took 3 mixes to have enough batter for the 16 inch pan, one more mix for the 13x9 and 2 more for the 10x10. That's a total of 7 cake mixes. You might consider buying an extra one or two just in case.
  • Wilton's Ready-To-Use Icing in black. This is much easier than trying to make your own black frosting. Trust me!
  • a batch of Wilton's buttercream frosting x 6 (give or take). I make the variation that says "For pure white icing" so I can make it way ahead of time and my cake won't require refrigeration due to all the butter. In addition to the butter extract and the vanilla extract (I usually use more vanilla and butter flavorings than the recipe calls for) I again add a few tsp of almond extract to compliment the flavor in the cake. You may need more or less icing depending on how thick you ice your cake. Leave a tiny bit white for the eyes. Tint enough of the icing light brown for the middle of the tummy and face as well as the crumb coat. Most of it will need to be dark brown for the remainder of the body.
  • Icing bags, couplers (here is a video that will show you how to use couplers with your icing bags) and a #21 star tip. I usually use a #16 star tip to ice all my cakes but I knew I would be up until 4AM icing this guy if I used one that small. #21 did the trick for me, but you can use any star tip you like. You will also need a #3 tip or any of the round decorating tips to outline and then fill in the eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Make the banana from fondant. I actually bought a real banana to look at while doing this. The inside, white part of the fruit it is basically a long fondant roll (remember playdough snakes?) slightly narrowed at the end. The yellow peel started out as a large circle I cut into a tear drop shape just large enough to wrap around the the white part I just made. I cut the tear drop starting at the top middle point and cut down a few inches then "peeled" it back. Add some water to your white part to act as the glue then wrap the peeling around. The underside won't show so it's okay if it's not a perfect fit. Tweak until it looks like what you want. The fondant will set up and harden so get it just right and leave alone to dry.
  • Make fondant polka dots, enough to decorate the mini-cake and extras to affix to the board.
  • Make the mini-cake. I just used a tiny coating of icing right on the foam circles and laid the rolled out fondant on top. Then I trimmed off the excess with a sharp knife and set to adding polka dots. Again use water as "glue" to hold the dots in place. Too much water and they will slide right off leaving a streak right down your pretty white fondant. Believe me, I know. ;) I used dots of white frosting on top to hold the candles in place.
  • After cakes are baked and cooled you will use the cardboard template you made to cut out two arms and legs. I just lay the template on top of the cake and "trace" around it with a toothpick. Then I carefully cut the pieces out with a good serrated knife.
  • Assemble cake on prepared cake board. Start by placing belly down first. Then use scraps left over from the cake(s) you used to make arms and legs. Place scraps at the top of the belly where the head will rest. These scraps will support the head. Place the head made from the animal crackers pan on the belly with the top of the head resting on the scraps. Using your serrated knife follow the shape of the monkey's head around top edge and cut off the scraps below so they follow the exact shape of the head. When you ice it all, no one will know this part was formed from left-overs.
  • Once all pieces are in place you will do a crumb coat over entire cake. Make sure your icing is super-thin (put small amount of icing in a separate bowl; add a T or water or so to thin out. I used the lt. brown frosting for my crumb coat but you could use white or even the dark brown) or it will take you forever, use too much icing and essentially be a nightmare. A crumb coat is essentially a very thin layer of buttercream frosting that goes over the cake before the final layer of frosting. The buttercream will "crust" slightly and keep all crumbs out of your final cake. This step is especially important since the arms and legs have been cut out from a larger cake and will covered in messy crumbs.
  • Draw circle in middle of monkey's tummy with toothpick. This will be the area you ice light brown. Since I used a 16 inch pan, I simply laid my 14 inch pan on top of his tummy and traced around with a toothpick. You could certainly free-hand this, use a lightweight plate or mixing bowl or any other circular object that is about 2 inches smaller in diameter than the original circle. Fill in circle with light brown stars.
  • Ice remainder of tummy as well as arms and legs. Ice white part of eyes, and then add black of eyes as well as nose and mouth. First outline with #3 tip and then fill in. Smooth out by dipping your finger in very hot water and gently patting out icing. Add light brown section of face and ears and finish with dark brown.
  • Add fondant polka dots to board by again using water as the glue.
What you can do two weeks (or more) ahead of time...
  1. Purchase all supplies: icing colors, items for icing including all flavorings, cake mixes, eggs, oil, fondant, foil/fanci-foil...
  2. Pick up cardboard for cake board.
  3. Make template for arms and legs.
  4. Sketch monkey out on your cardbord to make sure you are happy with how the legs and arms look with the size of the animal crackers pan and the tummy you have chosen. Adjust if necessary.
What you can do a week (or more) ahead of time...
  1. Make the icing. Tint the different colors and store in airtight containers.
  2. Get cake board ready. You will need to know what size your belly, legs and arms are going to be so that you don't make your board too large or small. Cover with foil and set in safe place where foil won't get torn.
  3. Color fondant and make tail, banana, mini-cake and polka dots. Don't tint your fondant if you are not going to go ahead and make these items because it will dry out once the package has been opened. You can store it for a short time by tightly wrapping in a few layers of saran wrap and placing in baggie with all air removed.
Happy cake making!

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Two Fun Sites to Share

Thatcher and I have come across two great sites we use almost daily between our therapy and schooling. is a great site with all sorts of timers and stopwatches that make "beat-the-clock" a much more fun game! Thatcher loves trying to beat the bomb countdown when doing his math and I love the egg timer best. We use the stopwatch for his math drills and there is a great online calculator as well.

We also have found This is a site with 100's if not 1000's of puzzles you can solve online. First choose your desired puzzle from that week's options or go back in the archives for many more. Next, choose how many pieces you want and what cut you desire. We prefer "classic cut" so it's most like a traditional puzzle but there are tons of other options. We use this site daily. Haddon has become very proficient at solving 20 piece puzzles and Thatcher has worked up to 64 piece puzzles in under 10 minutes. This would be a great reward as part of school if you are looking for some quasi-educational but still fun treats!

P.S. Don't forget to become a follower of SSA and leave a comment on this post before midnight on 7/13/09 to enter my very first giveaway! :)


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Thoughts on Frugality and Being "Green" - Part 1

I have blogged much about our journey to healthier eating. I am truly thankful I have been able to initiate positive change in this area, (not that we have "arrived" at any sort of official destination; we are still very much on a journey) yet in recent months I have begun to ponder what many of these changes have meant to our grocery budget. A very few have reduced our budget, like making our own bread, but most have increased our budget - in some cases dramatically. It's happened slowly over time. A few cents for this product, a dollar for that one. It all adds up...really quickly.

Our grocery budget is definitely higher than I want it to be but I just haven't been able to reduce our expenditures enough to really make a difference. I've always tried to be careful with money. I've cut coupons for years. I try to stock up on items when there is a good sale. I make a monthly trip to Wal-Mart to get items that never have coupons and are significantly cheaper there. I have switched to generic products for 80% of what we buy. I even did Grocery Game for 18 months. Still our grocery bill has risen over the years. Then I saw a thread on the message board I frequent that talked about frugality and I was intrigued. There is a whole world out there of others on this quest to be frugal who are sharing their insight and wisdom - websites, message board and blogs. Who knew?! ;) This is a new area of learning for me. I'll blog more about changes we've made in Part 2.

Another area I have been noodling on (love that expression - lol!) is living "green". Eliminating chemicals from our diet has been very expensive so when I began researching how to get rid of them from the rest of our lives - at least the ones in my control - I have been delighted to find that these changes can be much more budget friendly. You can go two routes here. There is a huge market for enviro-friendly cleaning products, and at my local grocery store I see new items each and every week. Most of these are considerably more expensive than their "non-green" counter-parts. Or you can go the homemade route. I chose the latter having replaced all the cleaners in our home with four simple ingredients: white vinegar, baking soda, lemons/lemon juice and borax. In my research, you can pretty much clean every single spot in your home with some combination of these four products. A gallon of white vinegar cost me $1.50, a box of baking soda was $1.00, three large lemons were $1 and a box of Borax was $4. I also made a one-time purchase of spray bottles at Home Depot for $.96 each. One I filled with pure vinegar and the other with 50-50 vinegar/water. Not bad considering I won't need to buy another item, other than lemons, for several months.

Here a few links I have found helpful in learning how to clean "green" on a budget:
The New Homemaker
3 Homemade Natural Cleaning Products
Non-Toxic Bathroom Cleaners and Homemade Cleaning Solutions

This is still all very new for me so I am learning as I go. For every person the exact formulas that will work for them varies depending on the surfaces in your home (I have white linoleum, white laminate counter tops, and very light beige carpet...and lots of each - ICK!), the type water you have (ours is hard) and the types of stains/grime/dirt you are likely to be fighting (with three boys and a dog it's any and everything in this department- grin) . At first I was very daunted by this try-and-see process, but I finally realized it's no different than my trying several store-bought products until I found just the right ones that did the job - some work and some don't. This is no different. I will soon be trying homemade laundry detergent and dishwasher powder as well.

It's been nice to make some changes that are good for my family's health, the environment and our pocketbook. How refreshing!

P.S. Don't forget to become a follower of SSA and leave a comment on this post before midnight on 7/13/09 to enter my very first giveaway! :)


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Happy 3rd Birthday, Beckett!

My littlest man turned three just a few short weeks ago. Here are some photos from his special day...

Each of my boys has celebrated their 3rd birthdays at Chuck E. Cheese. This photo turned out over-exposed but I still had to include it; he doesn't look like a baby anymore. :(

What do they say about boys always love their mommies?!

This child is passionate about a few things...Thomas the Train, GeoTrax and Cars. He hit the jackpot on this birthday in all three departments. He was one happy child. :)

The baby of the family. He truly relished this moment when all eyes were on him. ;)

Blowing out the candles on Year 2 and hello Year 3.

One of the loving nicknames we use for our boys is, "monkeys", as in, "The monkeys are awake for the day," or "Okay monkeys, it's time for dinner." Not exactly sure how that came about or why, but it has definitely stuck. About a month before B's birthday, as I was looking through cake decorating magazines for inspiration, I jokingly said, "I think I'll make you a monkey cake, you little monkey!" Well he thought it was hilarious and began talking about his monkey cake to anyone who would listen. I had no choice at that point...a monkey it was. Then I just had to figure out how.

This was my second time playing with fondant after the Lego man on Thatcher's cake.
It was so much fun! It's just like playing with play dough.

The idea was that the monkey was supposed to be holding a banana in one hand and a birthday cake in the other. It was a lot easier than trying to form some sort of monkey hand for sure!

Happy Birthday, my sweet Beckett.

P.S. Don't forget to become a follower of SSA and leave a comment on this post before midnight on 7/13/09 to enter my very first giveaway! :)