Last week, I emailed out our family newsletter and was pleasantly surprised with all the responses we got. Not only did we hear back from a lot more people than usual, but they actually responded with personal updates of their own! I was delighted to have “real conversations” with old friends and connect with them in a meaningful way despite the miles and years between us.
In my newsletter I broke from my usual goal of keeping everything short and concise, and decided to share real stories about real things that happened this year. One of the stories was a marriage story, and gave a glimpse at my efforts to love Ben better this year:
About halfway through 2017, I (JoEllen) had a realization: Ben did not seem very happy. He was loving and self-sacrificial and as much a family guy as anyone could hope for, but the spark of laughter and happiness seemed far off and hard to find. He always insisted he was fine- just tired- whenever I asked and probed again and again… yet the bits and pieces of extra sleep I gave him did not seem to do the trick. So I decided to start my own personal mission, which I called The Ben Happiness Project.
In the end, the solution was simple. The problem was me, and I had to exercise more self-control, hold my tongue, vent at him less, and be generally less selfish. It was not easy to admit or fight against, but I was determined. A few weeks later, the happy man I knew was inside began to peer out from behind the distancing walls of safety and the sun began to shine on our marriage again. It’s been a game changer. Still a work in progress, but there has been progress!! Feel free to ask me for the long version haha.
It wasn’t easy to pull back on all the selfishness and self-centeredness I had grown accustomed to throwing his way, but it was a good exercise in putting someone else’s interests before my own, and praying for and receiving the strength from God to be a better wife to Ben. And, of course, this has made me immeasurably happier, too.
I guess this resonated with people, because several people asked me for the long version and now I have several coffee and Skype dates in my future.
I am always on the hunt for meaningful, fun, and well-loved family traditions. I’d love to hear your favorites! I think ours will be ever-evolving, with some that are already becoming fast staples and others on deck to try for next year. A couple years ago, I shared one of our favorite Christmas traditions:
This fun advent calendar (it’s gone down by about $20 since I bought it three years ago!). It’s been two years and my daughter is STILL DELIGHTED to open the door each day! Except she has to take turns now, since she’s got a little brother eager to get in on the fun, too. The kids are so excited about this calendar and discovering the surprise behind the doors that I was rather hesitant to introduce the chocolate advent calendars to them. Surely they would be less impressed with Cow #2 when they knew other calendars had chocolate Christmas trees for eating, right?
Nope. They both love it, and they see it as a daily treat to open doors and play with it together. My daughter has been into wings and fairies lately, so I wonder if that influenced today’s modified nativity scene (above). Either way, this calendar continues to be a Christmas tradition winner!
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!
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!
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!
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?”
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??
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 Lessons, there 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,
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!
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.