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November 15, 2017

Something about the cold weather makes me want to spend all my time in the kitchen. When the air gets chilly, all I want is to snuggle up with a good book and put yummy things in my belly. I recently found a new (old) favorite comfort food combo: grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup! And I can’t stop making it. I crave it daily and have never had so many large 28 oz cans of tomatoes in my pantry. Not only does this meal combo essentially require only six ingredients altogether, but they’re all things that keep pretty well so you can cook it up whenever it strikes your fancy.

I was inspired after thumbing through The Magnolia Journal, which encouraged readers to have simple soup gatherings. I could tell they were really trying to hammer in the message that it’s not so much about making a big fuss with lots of food, but just enjoying good company with a warm and comforting meal. Even if that meal is just a pot of soup. Comforting doesn’t have to mean fussy, and I tried to take that message in and allow myself the possibility of serving a one (!) course meal with friends over. Could I really do it? Just soup? Would people feel like it wasn’t worth the effort of coming over if it were… just soup? Hm.

I can’t really see myself doing it, but it wouldn’t be too hard to throw in a grilled cheese sandwich. And I’m pretty sure no one would be complaining if I did it the way the magazine recommended (in a different section)- literally grilling the cheese on the skillet first. Ohhh yeah. I tried it last week and just KNOWING my cheese got some of that crispy browned cheesy crust from my seasoned cast iron made me feel like I was eating something special. I also looked up an easy tomato soup recipe to go with it, and found a one of those awesome recipes that is not only easy (and essentially 3 ingredients!), but SO DELICIOUS. As one person had commented on that site,

…this is the best homemade tomato soup that I have ever had, at my age (old) I have a lot! Add to its simplicity and the reason for its winning nature, no flavor competing and muddying the pot, becomes clear. Simply delicious is pure decision. Thanks to you for this final and only recipe in my tomato soup ‘collection’.

That was the comment that made me commit to this recipe, and turns out it was so true! This soup wins because of the simplicity of the recipe- no sugar, spices, herbs or cream. This allows the tomato flavor to truly stand out! It’s delicious. I made it for my husband and left the house before he had a chance to eat. He wolfed it down and promptly texted me, “Lunch was amazing” followed by “!!”

That made my day!

So I have and will make this again and again. Who wants to come over? Sunday lunch anybody? 🙂

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November 6, 2017

Some of my favorite traditions take place in the fall: pumpkin patches, spiced cider, caramel apples, pumpkin pancakes, and pumpkin spice lattes. I’m looking forward to adding Dorie’s Chocolate Pecan Pie and the Fall Lantern Walk to that list this year! There is something warm and comforting about these traditions as the weather cools, especially since you can eat a lot of them :] YUM!

A couple years ago, I bought a donut pan, and for some reason I only ever feel like putting it to use in the autumn. I’ve made spiced cider donuts in the past, but picked up the 4-pack of canned pumpkins at Costco recently so I decided to try pumpkin donuts this time. I originally meant to keep it simple with this pumpkin doughnut recipe dipped in cinnamon sugar. I could just imagine biting into the sweet cinnamon sugar coating and the recipe seemed simple enough. When I coated my warm donuts in my own cinnamon sugar mixture, though, all I got was a very brown donut (not pretty and sugary like the photo!). I accidentally inhaled as I took my first bite and choked on cinnamon-sugar dust. Bleh. It was not an enjoyable eating experience, and I was not about to share that with friends.

Hmm… let’s do a glaze instead, I thought. What’s a good autumn glaze that would work with pumpkin? Apples… no. Maple syrup…? Yes. Maple is super autumny. Let’s do it. 

I looked up a maple glaze recipe, groaned inwardly as I poured 1.5 cups of maple syrup ($$$!) into the saucepan, and spent the early afternoon baking and glazing donuts. Thank goodness the kids were having one of those afternoons where they were playing nicely alone AND with each other… for the most part. Maybe they instinctively knew that when they gave Mommy space to bake, their kindness would later be rewarded *omnomnom*.

The donuts turned out pretty yummy and my friends seemed to like them! People kept asking where they were from and remarking that they looked and tasted professional :] Bonus points for being baked, not fried! I think we’ll do them again next year, so here’s the recipe for future me, and anyone else who might want to give these a go!

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October 29, 2017

One of the things I love about cooler weather is that it finally makes sense to bake dinners again. I love the ease of popping something in the oven and then relaxing until we’re ready to eat. I still do it sometimes in the summertime, and inevitably regret it as the house heats up on a 95 degree day. It ends up being a double whammy on the electricity bill- first the heat it takes to get the oven to 450 degrees, and then the AC to bring the house down to a reasonable temperature. Oops =P.

So now that it’s finally feeling like autumn, I have been busting out my oven favorites- roast chicken, succulent ribs, and this SUPER easy and very delicious chicken pot pie! I definitely go the “cheater” route here with pre-made ingredients, so if you’re looking for the homemade version with a legit roux and homemade filling, try something like this. It might take you a couple hours, but you can feel good that you know exactly what went into your pie.

If, however, you’re looking for a 10-minute prep before popping it in the oven, I’m here for ya. This recipe features pre-made sauce (ah-hem alfredo pasta sauce), pre-cooked chicken (hello Costco rotisserie chicken!), frozen veggies, whatever herbs and spices suit your fancy (salt, pepper, thyme), and a pre-made crust (I am also a fan of the 2-pk from Trader Joe’s!). Just heat the first four items up in a pot, pour into a pie pan, top with a crust, and boom. It’s ready for baking. It tastes great, is a wonderful comfort food on a chilly day, and is an easy way to get some veggies into your kiddos, too!

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October 22, 2017

It all started when we visited Theo’s house. I don’t really remember the specifics, but I guess my daughter was really enjoying his toy airplane because as we were leaving, his mom leaned down and quietly said to him, “Why don’t you ask her if she wants to borrow it?”

I saw hesitation cross his face and quickly cut in, “Oh, no, it’s okay! We’ll just play with it again next time.”

He was quiet for a moment, and his mom prompted him again, “Will you lend it to her for a few days?”

I remembered the feeling from childhood of another kid taking my toys all too well, and didn’t want to make him do it. Yet, I sensed there was a good learning moment here, and there was something about this whole idea that really resonated with me. So I waited and let him wrestle with the idea, until he slowly said, “Okay, you can borrow it for a few days, and then bring it back.”

My daughter was so surprised, “I can take it? Home?”

Borrow it,” I quickly said, sending him a reassuring look, “And we’ll bring it back on Sunday.”

His eyebrows were concentrated, and I felt for his little four-year old heart. It was very generous of him to let her take it, and I was very impressed that he was okay with it.

All the way home, I talked about how kind and generous it was for him to lend it to her, and posed various questions to help her appreciate the situation more. How did it make you feel when he said you could take it home? How do you think he felt when his mom asked him to lend it to you? How did you think he felt when you walked out the door with it? Do you think this toy is very special to him? Even if it’s not, it’s probably hard to let someone else walk away with something that belongs to you. How should you treat the airplane? What do you think about lending other kids your toys? 

It was a great conversation, and got us both thinking. The following Sunday, we returned the toy, but the toy-lending fun was just beginning. The more I thought about it, the more I felt this was such an excellent teaching opportunity! So the next time we had a friend over for a play date, I observed how much the little girl was enjoying dress-up and I asked my daughter, “What do you think about lending this dress to her?” 

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October 5, 2017

It’s not Valentine’s Day. We’re almost half a year away from our anniversary, and birthdays have passed. But it’s ALWAYS a good time to send little love notes to the special people in my life! I actually think about sending notes of encouragement to others pretty frequently, but I usually think of it when I’m in the middle of doing something else like driving or showering. By the time I get to my desk, I’ve forgotten all about it. One of the best ways to make it happen is to just buy a nice set of greeting cards to send! It not only sits there on your desk as a reminder to write up the cards, but also compels you to write something very meaningful and thoughtful, since you actually spent good money on the adorable cards.

When I bought a bunch of these gorgeous cards from my friend Dakota Midnyght a few years ago, I started writing down all these thoughtful notes to people with affirmations and encouragement that I had been meaning to say for years. After only thinking kind words for a long time, they finally all got written down and sent out. And it was GREAT! I’ve been meaning to do it again ever since, but again… it’s hard to remember and carve out that time.

So when Julissa sent me these adorable food pun cards, I felt like we were a matcha made in heaven. HEHE.

Ok, ok, that was their line, not mine. My artwork is never that good. But it’s so cute, isn’t it??

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September 20, 2017

Okay, you bought the book, you tried the program, and you did, indeed, Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. YAY!!!! HIGH FIVE!! WASN’T THAT FUN?!

But… that doesn’t mean they’re fluent readers just yet. Now what? How do I help my child build fluency, improve comprehension, and continue to nurture a confidence in and love of reading from here?

As I told Ben giddily the other day, “This is MY domain. I didn’t really know how to start teaching reading from scratch, but now that she’s got her foundation down, it’s time for guided reading. I know alllll about this!”

Okay maybe that was a little over-confident, but I definitely felt more comfortable moving forward with this than I initially did with teaching the basics.

Guided reading is a core component of the Reader’s Workshop model that I was trained in and used in my years teaching third and fourth grade. During guided reading, you basically have a running conversation with a child as you read through text together. Usually, the child reads the text out loud and you pause him along the way and coach him through his thinking by posing questions and practicing various reading strategies. Learn more about it here!

At the end of Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessonsthere is a suggested list of books for moving forward. The idea is that you can continue in the style of the last few lessons using these books as the reading text. Cool, I thought, they already found the perfect next-step books. So I logged into my library account to put them on hold. (By the way, did you know that you can go online, put books on hold, and SOMEBODY ELSE FINDS THEM AND PUTS THEM ALL IN A STACK AT THE FRONT OF THE LIBRARY FOR YOU TO PICK UP?! I discovered this a couple years ago and my mind was blown!!! Best. Service. EVER!!).

Of course some of the first books listed were not available at the library. Well, surely these must be just-right books since they only listed about twenty books, so… I will just spend the money and buy them on Amazon. And then Amazon only had a few “buy it used” options. What?? If these books were so perfect, then why were so few available? Where was my Prime, 2-day shipping option? I pushed away the voice of doubt and forged ahead.

So, for the first time in longer than I remember, I bought it used through Amazon. The last time I remember doing that was in college. And that was a long, long time ago. I even had to pay shipping. These books had better be GREAT.

They were not. Here is the COMPLETE TEXT of one of these books:

Let’s play. We hide and you seek.

We’ll play too.

Ready or not, here I come!

<9 pages of only illustrations>

Now I want my turn to hide.

Where are you? 

…WHAT?! I went through ALL THAT TROUBLE and waited SO MANY DAYS (okay, eleven days- please excuse the impatient millennial in me) for THAT?!

Here is the other one I purchased used and paid shipping for (!!) on Amazon:

Look what I can do!

I can do it too!

<lots of illustrations>

Look what I can do!

That was it.

Three sentences. Or two, if you’re looking for unique sentences.

-_-

I’m fine with books that focus on pictures, but when the entire point of buying the book is to practice reading, then I’m not so pleased when there are only SEVEN unique words in the entire book. The other book suggestions were slightly more helpful, but not by a lot. One book even has a theme of two kids trying to out-do each other with their beach toy, to the point where one is pulling down the other’s pants and they are both completely not noticing a boy who falls into the water and needs help getting back up. Even worse, the story concludes when they see a girl who has a cooler beach toy that sticks her tongue out at them, and one shouts, “I hate her!” and the boys bond over their shared dislike of this girl.

This is really not the kind of stuff I want my daughter to be reading.

So I decided it was time for me to figure out the best “just right” books myself. After a couple of library trips, I have now compiled a great list of books that are just right for the child who has completed this reading program. They are books that my daughter can mostly read independently. I found two series so far that are just right for her, and each day,

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September 12, 2017

There’s nothing like getting a present when you’re a kid. I still remember the anticipation as my birthday or Christmas approached. For the most part, I was never really hoping for any one item in particular. I was just excited that I was going to get SOMETHING. I couldn’t wait to tear apart the paper and discover what gift awaited me!

In all those years, it never occurred to me how challenging it would be to think of a cool gift to get kids someday when I became an old grown up. But here I’ve been, futzing around the last ten years trying to think of what my little cousins, goddaughter, and friends’ kids would enjoy as gifts. I feel like it’s been easier the last couple years for people with kids around the same age as my kids. I use my own experience and my own children’s interest as reference, but I’m always a loss for kids who are a bit older than my own. So when Sierra from Gifts.com shared this fantastic guide to age appropriate toys with me, I knew I had to share it with you! Not only are there great, gender neutral gift ideas, but they promote growth and are developmentally appropriate!

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August 28, 2017

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I have a new favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe. Coffee toffee chocolate chip cookies will always have a special place in my heart, but if I’m going to take the time to triple a cookie recipe and freeze it, it’s gonna be this one. It’s not just a passing crush; this one’s here to stay. I know this, because even though I posted my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe two years ago, something in me kept searching for The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe. I was trying to satisfy a very, very specific cookie spot in my tummy: Crisp outer edges giving way to a soft inside, with gooey melty chocolate chunks and a hit of nuts for texture and balance of flavors. Not too sweet, big, chunky, and soft.

I was baking up a new chocolate chip cookie recipe almost every week for a while. Ben couldn’t understand my incessant experimenting, because I already had my favorite… right? I mean, it was official on my blog and everything. Favorite.

But I couldn’t stop.

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August 15, 2017

We threw a bridal shower for my friend this past weekend, and one of the activities I was excited to set up was this tower of blocks:

It was pretty easy to put together, and offered a nice twist from the usual pen and paper version of this station I usually see at bridal showers. I searched for some blocks (that didn’t have “Jenga” written all over them), lettered some instructions, and that was all it took to put this station together. It was a fun opportunity to practice my lettering, bust out some watercolors, and put my collection of Sharpies to use.

I especially liked this idea because it would not only serve as an activity for guests to participate in during the shower, but would make a nice, personalized keepsake for the bride afterward, too! I can just imagine her playing this game with her kids someday, smiling at the ideas and words written on the blocks and remembering this special day when we showered her with love! If you’ve got a bridal shower to plan in the future, keep this idea bookmarked!

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July 28, 2017

I have a confession to make. Despite teaching for over eight years, I had actually never taught a kid to read from the very beginning. I would always get a handful of kids, even in fourth grade (and in sixth grade…) who were still hovering around the first grade reading level, but they already knew their ABC’s and the general idea of piecing sounds together. I usually focused more on building fluency and developing comprehension. So when my daughter started asking me to teach her to read, I would smile and assure her that someday, yes, someday, I’d teach her.

Let me be clear, I was NOT planning to tiger-mom this, and I was never planning to teach her to read at age three. But I do try to be supportive of her interests, and I do love teaching. So when she kept on asking me to teach her and she seemed ready to learn, it wasn’t in me to say no.

But I definitely tried to put it off. As her love for books grew, her persistence in asking grew, and soon I started wondering when was too soon, and I began the rabbit hole of research that is when and how to teach your child to read. I was hesitant to introduce the alphabet to her, because I had read somewhere that the names of the letters will just confuse a learning child who should first learn the sounds they make. I read up on different philosophies, which left me feeling paralyzed and even less confident about starting anywhere. I asked my teacher friends who taught younger grades, and got a lot of great ideas, but still felt like I needed a program to guide me. I thought about buying a home-school kit or something, which is how I stumbled upon How to Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.

Honestly, it sounded like an unrealistic stretch, and I got the same feeling I have when I watch TV infomercials: If it sounds too good to be true…

If it weren’t for Amazon and the 2,000+ glowing reviews of this, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But it piqued my interest enough for me to read several reviews and I even took a “Look inside!” the book. I saw strangely scripted words and antiquated cartoons. I wasn’t sure about this.

A few weeks later, my friend put up a video of his young daughter writing and he mentioned this very book. HMMM. I asked him what he thought, and he also had glowing reviews! Still, there was a lot I was skeptical of. The “100 days” part. The “easy lessons” part. The “just 20 minutes a day” part. The “love, care, and joy only a parent and child can share” part, because if this were so effective, wouldn’t teachers have adopted this into their programs long ago? Well, I thought, I guess for $13, I can just buy it and see what it’s all about. 

When it arrived, I did the nerdy thing I do and I read the entire Introduction and Parents’ Guide from start to finish. It was no small feat, with its 20 small-fonted textbook sized pages. It didn’t take long for me to get totally absorbed in it, nodding my head and learning new things the way I did in teaching school. I appreciated the introduction. Their methodology was clearly laid out, thorough, and thoughtful. I appreciated the strategies they offered for teaching, including how to keep kids on track, pacing, and the hurdles they predicted would happen (and what to do about it). These guys knew what they were talking about, and it was clear they had a lot of successful experiences with this program. I was sold.

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