Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Up to Scratch

The other day, I was making a quick batch of macaroni and cheese for dinner after church.  It occurred to me as I stirred the cheese sauce that I can't remember my mother ever making mac and cheese from scratch.  Her version came from the bright blue box with the yellow lettering.

My mom was part of a generation that was sold a whole new way of life.  Married in the mid-sixties, she came of age during the biggest convenience push of the twentieth century.  Every magazine, television commercial and grocery store sung the praises of boxed meals, two-step cakes and pre-packaged foods.

Consequently my mother would have been more likely to walk naked down Broadway than to make a meal from scratch.  She used condensed soups, packets and mixes, bottled sauces and pre-made dressings.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not criticizing my mom.  She made amazing meals for her family with love and with the best information she had, and she was a product of her time.  I also think she reacted to her own mother's practices of canning, baking bread and cooking for an army by taking advantage of the convenience food.

When I got married and began to run my own kitchen, I was amazed to learn how easy it was to cook from real and natural ingredients.  It's been a gradual process, and I am constantly educating myself on even better ways to feed my family. 

My way of cooking is probably closer to that of my grandmothers than that of my mom's, and I think that's been passed onto my daughters as well.  As my oldest daughter said recently, the pendulum has swung again. And we really have the best of both worlds: we can choose natural whole foods and cook them using more efficient tools than our grandmothers had. (After all, I don't relish the idea of cooking over an open fire or on a coal stove!)

A brave new world, indeed!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

It's a team effort!

I have a confession to make:  I intended to write a completely different post for this blog earlier in the week.  Sunday was a busy day for me (see my MOB blog!), and when I arrived home in the late afternoon, I was dismayed to find the sink and countered covered in dishes.  The kitchen was a mess.  The living room wasn't much better.

And when I opened the dishwasher, I didn't find clean dishes to unload; instead it was almost empty, with a few dirty dishes inside.  That's when I began writing (in my head) my original post, a tongue in cheek piece explaining that in fact it turns out that I have superhero powers, because clearly I am the only person in my house who is capable of opening the dishwasher to determine its state of cleanliness.  As I straightened different rooms,  the article wrote itself, each chore adding itself to the list of things that apparently only Mommy can accomplish.

But God is good and grace abounds.  I didn't actually sit down Sunday night to write that post, and I am very glad that I didn't--that in fact I didn't even say anything about how I felt.

On Monday morning, I was trying to sleep when I heard some unfamiliar sounds coming from the kitchen.  In my drowsy state it took more than a few moments for me to realize that I was hearing the dishwasher being unloaded by my wonderful husband who had gotten up, taken out the dog and the trash, made bacon and now was doing this chore.  Ahhhhh. . .

And then later in the day, the younger kids and I decided to make a quick trip down to a Disney water park today.  Without me even mentioning it, Catie offered to make sandwiches for us to eat there--and then she also made brownies from scratch for us to enjoy!  YUM!!  And this was after Haley and Catie both cleaned up from dinner so that their big sister could study for a test.

This afternoon, after the water park trip, I asked David to unload the dishwasher.  And truthfully, at first he was less than enthused.  But before long, I realized that he had not only emptied it, he had also reloaded it. . .and then he washed the counters, cleaned out the fridge and off the stove and set the table for dinner!  And he did it all with a smile on his face and a cheerful heart.

And not to be outdone, Devyn did the dinner dishes tonight, thanking her sisters for their help on Monday night.  She also helped her brother with some personal hygiene items, but we don't need to go into those details.

So I've been convicted.  Turns out that not only am I not a superhero, sometimes I don't even do a very good of realizing how blessed I am.  I'd forgotten how well my family works together as a team.  There are going to be times when no one can do the dishes or run a vacuum.  Everyone gets busy.  But when it's needed, we're also going to pull together and make it all happen.

Because I might not have superpowers, but I do in fact live in a family of amazing people.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Choosing Our Battlefronts

Are you ever overwhelmed by all the battles that we're supposed to be fighting?  I only have to look at my Facebook pages to see it.  I should be feeding my family only natural, whole foods.  I should be living completely green, recycling everything, using only non-harmful cleansers.  I should be cutting coupons and matching them to the weekly sale papers, and if I'm really good at it, pretty soon I won't be paying for any of our groceries-the coupons will!

I hate to break it to everyone, but it's impossible to live all these lifestyles at once, unless you have an extra twelve hours per day.

Unfortunately, many people who try to make improvements and find it too much give up completely.  They figure if they can't do it all one hundred percent, they might as well not do any of it.  And that's a shame, because there really are some ways to improve our lives, even if it only seems to be baby steps.

The key is to look at your life and figure out where you can take those baby steps.  For instance, taking reusable bags with you when you shop--not only at the grocery store, but also at your other stops--is easy to do and it really DOES make a big difference in keeping plastic bags out of the oceans and landfills.  And choosing to load your grocery cart with fewer processed foods and more natural, whole foods is a good first step in changing how you feed your family; it can also reduce your weekly food bill.

Rather than let all of the should-bes drag you down, take a look at some of the could-bes and decide which ones you can slowly implement in your day to day life.  It's amazing what taking even baby steps can do for your confidence, not to mention the improvements those steps make in your home front!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Homeschooling in the Cyber Age

Once upon a time, homeschooling was a homespun operation.  When people pictured homeschooling families, they saw mothers sitting by the fireplace, surrounded by beaming and attentive children.  Perhaps there was spinning, or sewing, or other such domestic activities.

And in the beginning, that might not have been so far off from reality.  Many homeschooling families did seek to recapture a certain lost era of togetherness and simplicity.

Things have changed.  Welcome to homeschooling in the cyber age.

When I began considering homeschooling, I read many books about those families who were pioneers in the homeschooling movement.  They talked about meeting together at churches and in homes, putting together co-ops and support groups.  There was still some of that in the early part of the 21st century, but it pretty quickly segued into a brave new world.

I found support not only in local groups who communicated via email but also with people from around the world.  I made friends from all across the USA and Canada, too.  We shared the triumphs and frustrations of our homeschooling journey.

Now I can't imagine having to homeschooling without my computer and the internet.  I order curriculum on line.  I ask questions of people who have used that curriculum, people I've never met.  Some of very best, closest friends I don't see regularly; if we're very blessed, we might see each other once a year.  So we adjust.  We chat on the computer, via Skype.  We text and we phone.  We gripe about kids with bad attitudes and the challenges of being homeschooling moms.

This year, we've taken it just a bit further:  Catie is doing a cyber co-op with two of our friends.  When we were together in May, we all bought the same geography curriculum, and now Shawn, Franklin and Catie 'meet' once a week on the computer--using their web cams--to review the lessons, check their answers and discuss vocabulary words.  It's pretty cool that our co-op spans three states:  California, Georgia and Florida.

Every day we hear about the dangers of the internet, and it's true that we have to take precautions.  But how wonderful is it that this incredible world wide web also offers us tremendous opportunities for learning, friendship and discovery!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Homeschooling: What our first day looks like

What do you remember from your first days of school?  I mean, the first day of each new school year. . what made those days special?

I remember having a new outfit each year.  Back to school shopping was part of our ritual!  And then of course there was the picture taking.  For me, at least in my high school years, there was the additional fun of the nerves that made me get sick each and every first day of school.  Memories. . .

Homeschooling families all have their own rituals for the first day of the new school year.  Some mark it very quietly, since they may have schooled all year around, and thus there may not be any real "first day". I know some families who try to recreate an actual school-type environment by having their kids leave the house and then return to their school at home.  Others eschew any connection to a traditional school idea at all, and they throw or attend NOT back to school picnics or parties.

We've established our own traditions.  First of all, we never begin school until the Wednesday after Labor Day.  That's the New Jersey rule, and we like to wring as much out of summer as possible.  We like to do some kind of little adventure the day before we officially begin school, which is something my mother always did with my sister and me.  It can be as simple as a beach day or a trip for ice cream!

On our first day, we always begin with going out to breakfast.  It's fun to talk about the upcoming year, our hopes and goals.  When we come home, we go into the school room, where I've set out their first day of school surprises.  These are just little goodies--new pens, notebooks, planners.  After the kids have oohed and ahhed over their new school supplies, we begin to go over our new books and classes; we talk about our new daily schedule and routine.

Our real school year will begin the following Monday, since we organize our curriculum by week.  But it's nice to have our day of celebration and ease into the new routine.

Homeschooling doesn't mean we lose our traditions. . .it just means we create new ones.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Cooking for the month

Several years ago, my oldest daughter and I embarked on an experimental adventure.  We bought several books about pre-cooking meals, and we decided to try it out.  We liked the idea of having all the meals for the month ready in our freezer.

This did not become a way of life for us, partly because of circumstances and partly because we hadn't found our cooking niche yet.  We've dabbled in it now and then since that time, but again, it hasn't stuck.

But we love the idea of this way of cooking.  Especially when we're homeschooling, it's wonderful not to have to worry about dinner every night, to have the biggest part of cooking out of the way.

So with this in mind, we decided to try it again.  However, this time we put our own twist on it.

What we loved about CFTM was the freedom it offers us from the daily grind of planning and cooking a meal.  What we didn't like was that most the food in the cookbooks weren't the kind of meals our family usually eats.  There were lots of heavy casseroles and processed foods.

So this time, we decided to adapt the idea to our own style.  Here's how I made it work for us:

First, I made a list of our favorite meals, by category.  We generally organize our meals by type.  On Mondays, which are our heaviest school days, we do some thing fast and easy, like roast beef sandwiches, sloppy joe, grilled cheese or hamburgers; Tuesdays are chicken days; Wednesdays are meatless days (soups or pasta); Thursdays are meat days (meatloaf, pork chops, ham steak); Fridays are homemade pizza or something along those lines; Saturdays are salad days, and Sundays are 'big' meal days--turkey breast, roast beef, homemade spaghetti sauce.

Next, I assigned each day of the month a corresponding meal from the list above.  I use my computer calendar to do this, so that I can see what else is going on each day.  This lets me choose the right meal for the right circumstances.

Then it was time to make a grocery list.  If you're only used to shopping for a week of food at a time, this can be a shock to your system.  I like to set aside an entire day if possible for this kind of shopping, and I like to use warehouse stores, like Sam's or BJ's, in addition to a regular grocery store for some items.  I also take the time to match what I need to my coupons on hand, and I paperclip each pile of coupons to the proper list.

I recommend that you never shop and cook on the same day.  This will exhaust you and make you less likely to continue the CFTM journey.  Shop one day; come home and sort your loot.  Then relax until the next day.

I like to keep the ingredients I know I'll be needing the next day out on my counter; no need to put everything in the pantry and have to pull it out again.  I put the meat we'll be using into the fridge so that we don't have to defrost anything.

On cooking day, there are a few little prep hints that can make the day go smoother.  First of all, counter space is vitally important.  If you have plenty, great. If not, you might consider moving all non-essential appliances and so on into another room.  Clean the counters so that you're starting off with a sanitary surface.  I also recommend having several rolls of paper towels on hand.  Even if you usually are a super-green, no paper using person, this might be a good time to make an exception.  If not, try to have as many clean dish towels available.  You'll need them!  Also, keep plenty of oven mitts and hot pads at the ready, for when you take hot dishes out of the oven.

I like to keep the kitchen table empty so that completed dishes can be set there to cool until they can be placed in the freezer.  I also like to begin the process with an empty dishwasher, so that we can load as we go.  You might want to have disposable pans and storage containers, although we use our own dishes to save on the waste.  I also keep a Sharpie marker, plastic wrap, aluminum foil and freezer bags on the table for packaging and labeling our meals.

The attractive thing about CFTM cook books is that they teach you how to make several dishes at one time.  For instance, if you need to brown ground meat for more than one dish, you can brown it all at once.  I try to look at our own list of meals in the same way.  I identify all the steps that can be combined and do them together.

I am blessed that my oldest daughter likes to cook this way with me.  Together, she and I can whip out a month's worth of food with relative ease.  My other daughters are kind enough to help us in the clean up!    And we try to make it fun by watching movies or catching up on TiVo'd shows while we cook.

We label the meals carefully so that on each appointed day,  I can simply pull the right meal out of the freezer and let it thaw for dinner that night.

I love that this month, we made all of our meals from non-processed, healthy foods.  The chicken pot pie sauce was made from scratch.  There were plenty of non-casserole type foods, too.  We're going to eat very well this month!

Cooking for the month is something I'd like to incorporate into our life year around. . .I'll let you know if it works!

Friday, August 27, 2010

My favorite time of year!

Not too many years ago, this was the most depressing time of the year for me.  While most of the other parents were rejoicing in the new school year, I was mourning.  I hated sending my kids back to school, hated having to get back into an artificial schedule dictated by the school. . hated losing my kids again after a summer of fun.

But now I love this time of year!  We've had a great summer, and we'll continue the fun as we segue into a new school year--together.  We'll build on what we learned over the summer,  and we'll read new books, begin new subjects. . .what could be better?

Yes, we'll be back on a schedule--but it's one that works for us.  There will be reading and writing and assignments and math and labs and the like, but think of the learning!

The best thing is that we get to do it together.

I love homeschooling.

A new year in the homeschool

If you're not a homechooler, you might be surprised to see what the house of a homeschooler looks like this time of year.

I'm making a sweeping generalization here.  I know lots of homeschoolers work year around, and there wouldn't be much difference between April and August.  But in our house, there sure is.

This year, I made a point to clean and organize our school room early.  Our sweet little room is ready for the students; new books are on the shelves.  I've been pulling all of my teachers manuals and poring over them, making plans for all the bright and shiny empty weeks of our school year!

We're tackling quite a few subjects this year.  Catie is studying World History, along with an accompanying literature course, Shakespeare, biology, French II, Geometry, Geography and English composition.  David is also doing World History, Shakespeare, general science, 5/6 grade math, grammar and writing, geography and Spanish--oh, and they're both doing some art history, too.

As a homeschooling mom, every year is a new canvas.  We'll start out strong, and some new things will work; others might not, or they might need to be tweaked.  We begin the year with high hopes.

A few weeks into the school year, our neat schoolroom will look different.  There'll be books laid out, writing on the white board, papers in the teacher's inbox.  Kids will be curled up in chairs reading or sitting at the kitchen table doing math pages.

That's what homeschooling looks like.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Language of Home

What language does your home speak?

I'm not talking about the people in your house. . .I'm talking about the house itself.

My sister and I were recently remembering one of my mom's friends.  When we were kids,  we'd visit this lady, and it wasn't a fun time.  Her home was a show place:  the carpets were pristine, the walls perfectly painted, the furniture like new.  It was very uncomfortable.

On the other hand, I recall the first time I went to my future in-law's house.  It too was a lovely home, but it was so welcoming that you couldn't help but feel comfortable there.  My mother-in-law had amazing taste, and her home could have graced the pages of any decorating magazine.  But whenever I visited, I only felt the love.

I know people who hesitate to invite friends over because they're not happy with their house.  They'd like it to be bigger, newer or brighter.  I understand that.  We've lived in more than one fixer-upper house, and there were times when projects weren't completed before a party or a room wasn't perfect for visitors.  It was a struggle for me.  I was house-insecure!  It took me years to relax and realize that if I was relaxed and comfortable as a hostess, my guests would enjoy themselves, too.

When we moved down here to Orlando, we had the opportunity to choose a home that would be perfect for our family--a new home for the first time in our married lives.  We tried to be very thoughtful and realistic about our needs.  We considered homes that I knew might look good for entertaining.  But in the end, we chose a house that would work for our family:  a large kitchen with room for lots of cooks and a table for our family meals, smaller bedrooms but a large family room, so that we can all hang out and watch movies together, a school room and lots of bathrooms!

I could spend time and money putting together a house that would look like a show room.  I could have sofas that my guests might be afraid to sit on and walls that are off-limits to little fingers.  But that wouldn't be fun or inviting.  Yes, I'm sitting a sofa that belonged to my mom and dad, and it's well-loved.  But I don't cringe when the kids leap over its back, or when it's accented with assorted cats and dog draped artfully around it.  Our house is our home, and it feels like it.

So what does your house say?  Does it say come on in and have a seat?  Does it make your guests want to linger?  Does your house say home?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Heart

When I was a newlywed, my husband and I lived in a one bedroom apartment on the west side of Richmond, Virginia.  It was perfect for us:  the bedroom was comfortably sized, the living room fairly large and our new table and hutch looked lovely in the dining room.  The only drawback was the kitchen.

It was tiny.  I have a closet now in which I could fit two of that kitchen.  The gas stove had two burners, and the oven had a pilot light that went out if I slammed the door too hard.  I don't remember the refrigerator, so I guess it must have been pretty normal.  There was a sink and a small counter, maybe a few cabinets.  

None of that is too terrible except that as I said, we were newly weds.  We had just had a beautiful wedding preceded by a shower wherein our families and friends had been most generous.  I had boxes of wonderful kitchen supplies and a kitchen that could barely accommodate a knife block.   

But I remember too that some of my first halting steps in my cooking journey took place in that little kitchen.  I made my first red gravy (also known as spaghetti sauce) as well as my first scrambled eggs.  (Seriously.  I don't eat eggs, so there was never any need to make them until one weekend I was called upon to make one for my father in law.  He's still alive so I guess it was a successful experiment.)

I've had quite a few kitchens since that one.  (Nine, if my count is correct.)  And right now I am blessed to have a lovely and large kitchen, with amazing amounts of counter space.  All of my beloved gadgets and tools have a home.  And it's a good thing we've got a fairly large kitchen, as I have lots of cooks in my family!  My favorite time of the day is right before dinner, when everyone is coming home and dinner is almost ready.  People are sitting at the table or the counter.  Some kids are setting the table while others are helping to prepare the meal.  Everyone is sharing about their day, telling funny stories.  

And the meal itself is only an extension of that feeling.  We sit around the table and conversation is rarely if ever dull.  (Consider that we have two college students and a seminary students in addition to two homeschooled kids and their homeschooling mama.  New ideas fly fast and furious!)

This is the heart of the home, because this is where we're fed, body and soul.   It's the homiest part of the home front.

I just came home from being away for a few days of writing, all by myself.  I found all three children (Dev was working) in the kitchen.  One was making lunch, another was prepping to make a cake, the third was looking for something to eat.  We settled down around the table, and within a few moments I was caught up on the happenings in my little household.  Such is the magic of the kitchen and the table.

It's important to protect the heart of the home just as it is to protect our own hearts.  I like to try to keep ours as clean and clutter free as possible (I said try!).  I try to be there without my computer at mealtimes.  As much as possible, we keep it a cell phone free zone.  

I don't miss my little Richmond kitchen, but I won't forget what I learned there.  

Come on into my kitchen any time.  We'll have some coffee or tea, and there's probably some of Haley's cake or Catie's cookies.  Be comfortable.  I'd love to share my heart with you.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Community

When I was a little girl, we lived in fairly large development in Modesto, California.  (If that name rings a bell, it might be because of Lacey Peterson or Chandra Levy, but when I lived there, it was still a sleepy little cow town.)  I remember that it was rather daunting for my mother to move there from our small home town in New Jersey as well as from the farm in Pennsylvania where we'd lived for a few years directly before the move.

Shortly after we'd moved into the new neighborhood, there was a power outage.  (I don't know why, but they seemed to be fairly regular.  We didn't have electrical storms, so it wasn't that. . .maybe out there in the wild west they were still working the kinks out of electric wires.)

Anyway, the power went out in the late afternoon.  I think my dad must have been on shift work at the time, because it was just my mother and I at home.  She was a little rattled, and then there was a knock at the door.

It was one of our new neighbors, and when we ventured outside, we realized that just about everyone who lived the houses around us was there.  Someone explained that they did this every time the power went out.  We children played on the sidewalks while our parents stood in the streets, chatting and catching up.

That was my first real experience with community.  Over our next five years in California, three thousand miles away from our extended family, those neighbors became our support system.  I can still tell you that Barbara Baker lived across the street with her husband Bill and  three daughters, Debbie, Lisa and Jean.  The Regesters lived next door.  These were people who came over and helped when my mom was sick, celebrated birthdays and mourned losses with us.

Years later, my own husband and I moved to our very first permanent duty station with the Army.  We lived off post until I was pregnant with our first child, and then we moved onto Wheeler Air Force Base. I was pregnant and going to college, and I barely knew any of our neighbors, all of whom were other officers in the Army or Air Force.

The summer after Devyn was born, my husband was sent to Australia for a six week deployment.  I was left alone with a six month old baby.  All of our neighbors had moved over a two month period, and I didn't know anyone who had replaced them in the houses around us.

All that changed late one afternoon when my sweet kitten slipped out of the house and climbed a tree in the playground behind our house.  I was beside myself.  I stood outside with the baby in a backpack, looking up into the tree, calling to Tigger and alternately threatening and cajoling her.  I had been out there for about twenty minutes when a little girl wandered over.  She asked me what I was doing, and I explained about the cat.

Within a few minutes, all of my neighbors had joined me at the tree.  Someone offered to take the baby so I could bring out some cat treats.  One of the husbands grabbed a ladder and propped it up against the tree to try to get the cat down.

I don't remember what ultimately got the cat down, but I do know that after that day, I didn't just have neighbors--I had a new community.  Three of us had babies around the same age, we discovered, and we formed an impromptu play group.  We were there for each other.

You might think community is hard to find these days.  Most of us don't know our neighbors very well.  But it's there for us.  For me, much of my community is found on line, with women I don't see very often if at all.  These ladies who live around the country and the world offer me support and love, and I do the same with them.  Four of my best friends are women I met online through a homeschool curriculum support group.  My online writing group is loyal and supportive.  I love all these girls!

Where's your community?  Who's your support group?

Welcome to the Home Front

Welcome!  Come on in, pull up a chair and sit down for a while or as my Nana from Virginia used to say, "Sit down for a spell."

This is the home front.  It has nothing to do with battles or politics; any wars we might talk about are squabbles between siblings, and the politics here involve the best chicken or chocolate chip cookie recipe.

The home front is some place to go when you just want to sit and visit.  Pour yourself a cup of cyber coffee or tea or whatever makes you happy.  Grab one of those cookies--they're fresh out of the oven.

Think you've stepped into a time warp?  Nope.  Despite what you might see on the television news or read about in magazines or newspaper, the home front is alive and well.

Here we can chat about what makes a home.  We can share joys, troubles and worries.

So put your feet up and let's have a real visit!