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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Enjoying the Season

How is your Christmas season going?

A. Overwhelming
B. Cozy
C. Worshipful
D. Stressed Out

If you said "A" or "D" or "A and D" could you possibly just take the evening off to make it B or C tonight? Come on, this is supposed to be a happy, loving, joyful time of year. Pull back a little. Turn off the Martha Stewart recording in your head. Close down Pinterest. Put your to-do list aside for a few hours. I have some fun ideas for you.

Let's Be Tired Together
A few years ago my husband was traveling the beginning of December. My daughter was involved in a Friday night ministry and I was going to spend another December Friday night alone. 

So I decided not to. 

I wrote in my Facebook status "If you are reading this, you are invited over tonight to watch A Christmas Carol with me." I had some expected guests and some I wouldn't have guessed would come. We were a small group. I made popcorn and we just relaxed together and got into the season.

Cookie Baking Night

Are you and your friends behind on your baking?
What's that? You can't face the work and mess?
Besides you want some accountability on cookie dough snitching?

Whip up 2 double batches of sugar cookie dough, wrap them well and stick them in the fridge. Get a hold of some friends and ask them to come over and bake cookies with you. Bribe them by telling them they can take 2 dozen they choose home with them.

Play Christmas carols and cut, bake, and decorate. Your friends will help you wash the pans and wipe the counters I'm sure. If you don't have disposable plates, tell them to bring their own dish to take their cookies home in.

(Cheat: Buy ready made cookie dough at the grocery store!)

Carol Sing

Our brother-in-law started this. There was a very musical college student attending our church whom our brother-in-law invited over along with anyone who could come for a carol sing. But even if you don't have a musician handy, you just need someone who's not afraid to start the song and can basically carry a tune. Get copies of the words from somewhere (we sometimes borrow hymn books from church) or only sing first verse. 

Ask everyone to bring along some plate of snacks to share if they can, but come even if they can't. Provide coffee, tea and water if you can. Remember, we are trying to relax here!

And sing yourself into the joy of the season!

Do you find yourself saying, "But my family..." Get into the spirit yourself, get some other people over who enjoy it, too, and you'll be surprised what your family will do.

You might not be around the table, but you'll be connecting in a great way!

Have a very Merry Christmas!

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Home Depot (DIY) Meals: The Panini Episode

Over Thanksgiving we had three of my children, two of my in-law children, and my two grandchildren with us for almost all meals. What's not to love?!!

Whenever we get together we have one meal where we can each make our own. This year's suggestion came from my younger son and his wife and they also contributed some of the goodies including the bacon. What's not to love?!!

Panini sandwiches go for big bucks in restaurants...and do you ever really get the combination you want? It's easy to do at home and everyone enjoys making their own, wandering around the kitchen, puttering, examining what others are putting together, and, of course, eating!

This could be a great, relaxing way for you to get together with family or friends over the holidays.

For added fun, you can ask everyone to come up with a creative name for the sandwich they are making. That ought to be a conversation starter!

It's really easy, too. Just set up all the possible ingredients you have in your fridge and pantry on an island or peninsula counter top or on a table people can walk around. Have a couple of panini makers, sandwich makers, or indoor electric grills set up and hot. (Make sure you won't be blowing a fuse with a trial run. If they do, find out which outlet is on a separate fuse and plug the second one in there.) Then call your guests to the kitchen and let them go to work!

Panini Bar Suggestions (but not limited to these)

  • White bread
  • Sourdough bread
  • Whole wheat bread
  • Rye bread
  • Cranberry artisan bread
  • Your favorite bread
  • Yellow mustard
  • Spicy mustard
  • Horseradish
  • Chili sauce
  • Mayo
  • Butter
  • Plain yogurt
  • Barbecue sauce
  • Italian dressing
  • Balsamic vinegar dressing
  • Olive oil
  • Ranch dressing
  • Thousand island dressing
  • Your favorite dressing
  • Minced garlic
  • Black olives
  • Green olives
  • Banana peppers
  • Jalapeño peppers
  • Dill pickles
  • Bread and butter pickles
  • Fresh sliced peppers
  • Lettuce
  • Tomatoes
  • Avocados 
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Fresh or dried oregano
  • Fresh or dried basil
  • Garlic salt
  • Salt and pepper
  • A variety of lunch meats
  • Cooked bacon!
  • Lots and lots of cheese slices--these make the sandwich gooey and stick together!
We had a great time. My son called his sriracha sauce, garlic, and banana pepper combo "Hot, Hot Garlic!" I called mine "Aristotle Gomez" for it's Greek (black olives) and south of the border (peppers) combination. What's not to love?!!

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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Five Tricks I Learned in China!

Last month my husband and I had the enormous privilege of traveling around a large part of eastern China on a ministry trip.

I have to confess that I didn't expect to like China...the crowds, the pollution, the food. I thought that the food would be strange and extremely spicy. Well, I did see some strange food...

but most of what I saw, and all of what I ate, was delicious! 

I certainly didn't expect to learn anything from China about family mealtimes. The government requires that visiting foreigners stay in hotels, so we didn't have any time in Chinese homes. But I still got some great ideas to help families connect at mealtime. So here are--

Five Tricks I Learned about Meals While Traveling in China

1. Soup is fun to eat... if you get to tear bread into your bowl first! We ate paomo, a Muslim soup of rice noodles, chopped greens, and beef or lamb. First, though, you have to tear up a dense piece of pita bread into the bowl. Then the server whisks it away to the kitchen with a number on the bowl and a number for you. About 5 minutes later it reappears full of broth and other goodies. It was fun to sit around the table and "break our bread" into the bowl before we ate. I think even the kids who dislike soup the most would have fun with this and there's something about wanting to eat something one had a part in making. On way to do this would be a "mexican" flavored soup that they break corn tortillas or tortilla chips into.

2. Ethnic experiences can mean easy clean up. With stir-fry there's no need for lots of different courses. Rice and the veggie-meat stir fry can be served at the table in two simple bowls. Add to the experience by learning to eat with chopsticks out of a rice bowl. The Chinese and Japanese bring their bowls close to their mouths to avoid dropping. What kid wouldn't love to try that?

3. Small plates and shared serving bowls make a meal intimate. Often we were brought multiple serving dishes and a little "side plate" sized plate for ourselves. We used one color pair of chopsticks for serving ourselves and a second for eating. (I admit that sometimes I got it mixed up.) Somehow having to sit close enough to reach the serving dishes to repeatedly serve yourself and eating little bits at a time off your plate make it easier to get to know the people around you.

4. A lazy Susan can make the meal an opportunity to build cooperation. At round tables, all the serving dishes were placed on lazy Susans so when you wanted something you didn't have to ask, you just starting moving it along toward you. But you had to look around first, because someone else might be in the process of serving themselves and you needed to wait until they were done to move your choice toward you. Kids might have too much fun with this!

5. Letting someone else choose the menu will get you to try new foods. We can't read Chinese, and even if we could, we wouldn't have known what the various foods were. We always told our companions to choose the dishes--"We eat anything...so long as it's dead!" That way we had the opportunity to try a whole lot of different foods that we never would have known about. How can you do this in a family? Perhaps have a "choice" night once a week when one member gets to ask for the menu. Or invite someone over and ask them to teach you to cook one of their favorites. Extra points if you ask someone from a different culture or ethnicity!

We had some fascinating non-food experiences in China as well, that I wish I could tell you about, but the Internet is not the place. (That's why some people's faces are blurred, too.) I'd love to tell your ladies' group about some of what God is doing there. Just invite me!

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Cooking is Better Together!

My good friend and fellow writer, Laura Gomez, is a guest poster today on my blog. I really enjoyed tossing writing ideas back and forth with her when our children were in the same class in elementary, and again recently. I hope we hear more from her again soon!

The Christmas tree lights were on, the sound of carols drifted through the house, and I was so happy just to be at home and spending time with my boys for the holidays.  Life really doesn’t get much better than that!  

 I was in the kitchen starting on our dinner to be eaten Christmas Eve, Colombian style. The boys - my husband, Mauricio, and two sons, Eric and David - were hanging out in the living room. I love cooking, especially on the holidays, so I was enjoying my work in the kitchen, but I realized I also longed to spend the time WITH my boys.

So, I went and told them I was lonely, and asked them whether they might help me make the dinner. It sounds easy, but those types of requests never seem to come out of my mouth right, and I was afraid I would ruin the holiday atmosphere.

They came, perhaps somewhat begrudgingly, to the kitchen to help, but as we continued preparing the meal together they began to enjoy themselves.

That was years ago. Now it has become a tradition. They all help with our big holiday meals. And since they like to eat the same food each holiday--they love their traditions--they have traditional jobs now with meals.

Mauricio and Eric are in charge of "french cutting" the green beans. We can't buy them frozen in a bag here in Colombia, so my guys lovingly slice a huge pile of green beans the old fashioned way! I always tell them they don't have to slice the whole pile if they don't want to, only as much as they want to eat, but they love our holiday French cut green beans with slivered almonds toasted in butter so they insist on taking the time and effort to slice them all!

Some years I can’t find slivered almonds either, so we sliver them ourselves!
David is in charge of inventing a centerpiece, and keeping the Christmas carols going.  Mauricio is the master turkey carver. 
There is another job they actually fight over! They take turns putting the hot potatoes through the potato ricer. It’s a bit more manly of a job, since it takes some strength to squeeze the potatoes through the ricer, especially since they always fill the basket full. It brings back memories of playdough to see potato come oozing out the holes and into a bowl where butter and milk are waiting to make them into scrumptious mashed potatoes.
Cooking together has made the holidays more fun for me.  And I think it has also increased the rest of the family’s enjoyment of the day.

I believe that children should help out around the house, including duties involved with the meals.  But this story isn’t about children helping around the house.

I also believe that boys should learn to cook, and mine will often get in the kitchen and bake brownies or even cook a meal for the family. But this story isn't about teaching boys to cook.

This story is really about how I learned how much fun it is to prepare the meal together on the holidays. Sharon is always reminding us how valuable mealtimes are for the family. And on the holidays, when the meal and its foods are a big event, and everyone is at home, cooking together can also be a great time for interacting as a family, involving everyone, girls and boys, cooks and non-cooks. Then when everyone sits down to eat, not only does the food taste delicious, but we have the satisfaction of having made such a wonderful feast together.

Laura and her family live in Bogota, Colombia, where they work with the Navigators.  Her biggest thrill comes from interacting over God’s Word with other women.  The meals at her table are typically a true mish-mash of California Cuisine and Colombian fare, with a scattering of international dishes just to keep everyone on their toes! Her latest moderately successful experiment was with homemade potstickers or gyoza.

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

15+ Quick Tips to Have More Family Meals

Don't have time to linger at the table?
Don't have the schedules that allow you sit together at a meal?
Don't have the energy to cook?

I don't have all the solutions here, but here are 15+ quick tips to designed to get your family all together at meals more often.

* Resolve to eat together. Decide with your spouse that this is something you want to do and are willing to work to make it happen.

* Talk it up with the kids. Reminisce about family meals when you were growing up. Watch some old Waltons, Brady Bunch, or even Leave it to Beaver shows where they have fun eating together. 

* Don't over-schedule. No one has to be in every activity that comes along. "No" is a word. A very important word.

* Ask your kids what kind of food they like when it's made at home. Get a list of ideas. Hopefully some will be quick and easy.

* Lists, lists, lists. Make a menu list. Make a grocery store list. Then take the time, make the time, to actually browse in the grocery store and buy everything you need. (Remind yourself how much money you will be saving over restaurants, carry-out, and even fast food!)

* Cook for two, meals that is. If you are making meatloaf, lasagna, soup, stew, or so much more, make enough for two meals. It's not that much more work and you can freeze one for a night next week when you are busy or tired.

* Find shortcuts. When I lived overseas everything had to be "from scratch." Now that I live in the states I find things like jars of minced garlic to be one of the best inventions around! When bagged salads are on sale, I go ahead and use them--especially coleslaw that takes so long to chop. 

* Don't let others look down on your unorganic sugar coated meals. Those voices are probably just in your head. But even if it's not, repeat after me: grilled cheese on white bread, canned tomato soup, and Oreos® at home are better than burgers and fries in the car. Any day.

* Enlist help. In the kitchen put on the kids favorite music and put them all to work while they dance and sing. Preschoolers can do way more than you think, but if you are skeptical, let them wash the lettuce. Older kids can cut, chop, combine, and even stir-fry. Most anyone can help set the table.

* House rules: you eat what I serve. I have one daughter who is a vegetarian so she didn't have to eat the meat, but she ate the veggies and other things I made. No one (unless they are sick) gets a special separate meal.

* Save labor-intensive meals like a roast, curried anything, and enchiladas, for weekends when you might have more time.

Quick Kid-Friendly Meals
* Macaroni and Cheese with chopped turkey hot dogs in it. Serve with microwave-steamed green peas.

* "Gourmet" frozen pizza. Take a hint from the fancy pizza restaurants and add some sautéed spinach and/or red, green, yellow, or orange peppers. That way you don't even need a side of salad to get some veggies inside your family. 

* While you are baking chicken nuggets or fish sticks cut up some red pepper strips, add some grape tomatoes and baby carrots. Give everyone their own little bowl of their favorite low fat dressing and let them have "hors d'oeuvres" while they wait.

* Hot dogs and baked beans. Maybe it's not the healthiest food they've ever eaten, but if it's only once in a while and if it's instead of a bacon cheese burger, it's fine!

* Pancakes! I love breakfast for supper. Serve it with berries and bananas and orange juice to pack in the vitamins!

Now just do it!

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Thursday, November 6, 2014

5 Sure-fire Ways to Teach Thankfulness

I just read in Reader's Digest that grateful people make better decisions!  (RD, November 2014, p. 58)

Who knew?!

We teach our children to be thankful for a variety of reasons:

  • To be nice people to be around
  • To not listen to grumbling all the time
  • So they can make friends easily
  • So they will appreciate us and all we do for them
  • Because thankful people are happier people
  • And did I say, so we don't have to hear them constantly complain about, well, everything?
So maybe there are other reasons, too: Grateful people are less likely to be depressed, more likely to have a good marriage, will have better self-esteem and improved health, have more friends and be less self-centered. 

But the best reason to be grateful is:

Always giving thanks
for all things
in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ
to God, even the Father.
Ephesians 5:20

Being grateful is a command of God. Even if there were no other benefits, I should be thankful to be obedient to God. But of course it does profit us to give thanks, that's why God commanded it. He is looking out for our good!

Here are five ways to instill thankfulness in our children:
  1. Good manners and gratefulness fit together like puzzle pieces. If I had a penny for every time I reminded my children to say, "Thank you." I would have a lot of very heavy jars serving as door stops around my house! While it may seem like the "thank you" is perfunctory, this is the start to teaching children to recognize kindness and generosity in others.
  2. Be an example. We know that as parents our kids are watching us. What is our attitude? I'm an introvert and so I am often just focusing on not making a stupid mistake when I'm out in public, but lately I have been pushing myself to notice when people do something for me--even those who are "supposed to" like servers in restaurants--and looking at them to say, "Thank you." Which leads to the next point...
  3. Look beyond the gift to the giver. When someone hands you a present, naturally you look at it, ooh and ahh appropriately, try it out or hold it up, but then you should look at the person who gave you the gift and express your appreciation to them. In Colombia, when a friend gives a gift, the recipient stands up and hugs the giver. Whether the gift is a dollar store trinket that made them think of you, or diamond earrings, the giver wants to be appreciated for giving the gift. 
  4. Make them work. Remember how much more you realized all that mom or dad did when you got your own place, started your own family, had to pay your own bills? Yeah, that's the idea. If they see how much is involved in making a meal, from deciding on a menu and making a list, to getting it all on the table at the same time and cleaning up the kitchen afterwards, they will be more grateful for what you do, and what others do. How about deciding together to give someone something and have them help you go to several stores to find just the right thing, buy wrapping paper, wrap it, package it, stand in line at the post office to mail it, and letting them see how little effort saying, or writing, thank you is in comparison?
  5. Join the Attitude of Gratitude club. Yes, posting or tweeting about what you are thankful for every day in November is a cliche. But it's also a good exercise. Focus on people and the non-tangibles and not just "la casa, el carro, y la beca" (the house, the car, and the scholarship--a Colombian cliche). Maybe we could start something new, "No Grump November."

Every year since our children were young we have have decorated the wall of our eating area with a multicolored turkey or fall tree with feathers or leaves listing what we are grateful for. Each night after dinner, whoever is at our table gets a feather or leaf, depending on what version we are doing that year, to write one thing they are thankful for and to tell us all what that is. It's a good tradition and one I intend to keep up, even without kids at home.

We end with prayer, looking at the One who is truly the source of all we have. Sometimes each of us gives thanks for our own item, sometimes one person does for us all. Either way, we recognize the generosity and mercy of our God and say, "Thank you."

How do you instill gratefulness in your children?

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