Nov 21, 2015

Weekend Links

In which I share my favorite posts from this blog's Facebook page.

* Find out why I'm so thankful for The Jesus Storybook Bible.

* Want to give away Christmas cookies next month? Start making them NOW

* My newest cookbook, Easy As Pie, is now available in paperback! I received my proof last week and it looks SO pretty. And if you buy the paperback you can get the full color digital version for the super low price!

* If you don't donate to Operation Underground Railroad, please start! This charity sends former special ops guys in to rescue children and women trapped in sexual slavery. They also catch the bad guys. They do amazing work!

* GMO salmon coming your way.

* If you go to the library at all (and I hope you do!), you know that sometimes disorganization can cost you. Here are some tips that really WORK for getting all your library books in on time!

* FREE printable Names of Jesus Advent ornaments over at The Crafty Classroom.

Nov 20, 2015

12 Ways to Help Kids Find Christ in Christmas

It can be truly difficult for children to remember what Christmas is all about. Those pretty Christmas lights and fun presents and jingle bells are pretty darn exciting. I'm not going to suggest you stop making cookies or handing out gifts come Christmastime, but I do encourage you to steer your children toward Christ all this Christmas season. Now - before the hustle and bustle of other holiday planning takes over - is the perfect time to take just a few minutes to plan some simple ways to do that. Here are my favorite dozen.

1. Put up a nativity scene - preferably one the kids can play with. It doesn't have to be expensive. For example, you might try this free printable "paper doll" nativity set, or this toilet paper roll set kids can color themselves. And why not read the Biblical Christmas story to the children while they work on it?

2. Learn the lyrics and meaning behind famous Christmas carols. (And while you're at it, play all - or mostly - Christmas music about Jesus.)

3. Bake (and eat) a birthday cake for Jesus. Hint: It doesn't have to be a typical birthday cake. At my house, we've used everything from gingerbread to monkey bread. But we always put a candle on it and sang "Happy Birthday" to Jesus.

4. Find somebody to serve as a family. Maybe an elderly neighbor needs yard work done or a dinner cooked. Maybe there's a local shelter where your family could volunteer. Maybe your kids could do extra chores or find jobs with neighbors in order to raise money to give a needy family livestock. It doesn't really matter what service you choose - just that your children understand you're doing it because Jesus told us to serve others. You can also explain that being born and dying on the cross was Jesus' service to us.

5. Select a few good Christ-centered Christmas picture books. (Here are some of our favorites.)

6. Pick a few activities to go with those Christmas books. They don't have to be complicated, but any hands on activity will help your kids remember the books better.

7. Download Thriving Family's free Advent calendar. This magazine, published by Focus on the Family, creates a new Advent calendar each year, so if you don't love this year's, go ahead and search the site for previous year's calendars.

8. Make a paper chain - and on each chain, write one of the names of Jesus. Explain to your children why Jesus has each name.

9. Use this free Advent plan to go along with The Jesus Storybook Bible (a children's Bible that, in my opinion, every family should own).

10. Select Christmas movies that are about the Biblical Christmas story or the spirit of Christmas. For example: Why Do We Call it Christmas?, The Little Drummer Boy, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and The Crippled Lamb.

 Courtesy of  James Petts and Wikipedia Commons.
11. If possible, make your Christmas decorations reflect the real meaning of Christmas: Think angels, bells, and lights.

12. Teach your children why we use certain Christmas symbols. For example, The Legend of the Christmas Tree is a good resource explaining why we have Christmas trees. There are even picture books that use common Christmas imagery, like  stockings and candy canes, to point to Jesus. I also recommend you explain why we give each other gifts on Christmas. (Because the Wise Men gave them to Jesus shortly after his birth.)

Now it's your turn: What are some of your favorite ways to help your children find Christ in Christmas? Share your ideas in the comments below!

Nov 17, 2015

Garden Like a Pilgrim

I'm a lover of history. And as I tend my garden, I often find myself wondering what I'd be doing differently if I lived in the Victorian era, or the Revolutionary era, or - especially at this time of year - the colonial era. How would I garden if I were a Pilgrim? Well, despite the fact that early Pilgrims struggled to feed themselves, it turns out a lot of their gardening techniques were excellent - and are quite applicable in the 21st century.

Vintage postcard of Plymouth Plantation.

1. Pilgrims grew what was easy to grow and store. You think you're busy, but Pilgrims spent all day just trying to survive. They didn't have time to while away in the garden. So they chose crops that were filling and easier to grow. This included corn (which they ate as a grain), onions, leeks, carrots, turnips, fava beans (then called "broad beans"), cabbage, winter squash, and kale. All of these foods could easily be stored for the months without refrigerators, freezers, or canning.

2. They grew flowers and herbs among their veggies. The idea of edible landscaping really isn't new. Unless they were wealthy, Pilgrims couldn't spend a lot of time on separate garden or herb beds. They grew them among their vegetables. Not only did this save labor and time, but it attracted pollinators - and looked pretty, too.

3. They used raised beds and berms. Berms - or rows of dirt hoed at least several inches above the soil line - kept the garden warmer and made tending crops easier. So did raised beds, which measured 4 feet wide - an ideal width to be able to reach to the middle from either side. Most of the Pilgrim's raised beds were 12 feet long.

4. They sometimes used hotbeds and cold frames. To get a jump start on the spring garden, wealthy Pilgrims used hotbeds. This time honored technique involves putting fresh (not composted) horse manure in a pile, then covering it with a tarp (in those days, made of cloth) until it reaches approximately 160 degrees F. Then the manure is shoveled into a pit about 2 feet deep. A cold frame (a bottomless wooden box) is placed on top and about 4 inches of good garden soil shoveled over the manure. When the soil is about 70 degrees F., seeds are planted in it and straw is used as mulch. The resulting hot bed stays warm about 3 - 4 weeks. Cold frames were also used without manure. They were whitewashed so they'd reflect the sun's heat better, and a glass top was set on top to warm the frames even further.

5. They used garden tunnels. We tend to think of low garden tunnels as a modern invention, but they aren't! Pilgrims made their hoops out of cypress limbs and glued linseed oil-covered paper to them. These hoops were used mostly by the wealthy to grow coveted melons.

6. They used floating row covers. Seedlings were often covered with cheesecloth to protect them from bugs, but still let the sunshine in.

7. They used organic methods. Though the Victorians were quick to put all manner of chemicals on their food, the Pilgrims didn't. Of course, many of the pests we have today weren't yet in the New World. They had cucumber beets, cabbage loopers, and squash-vine borers, but cabbage worms, snails, slugs, potato beetles, and flea beetles had yet to be brought over on ships.

8. They made compost. Animal manure was placed in a pile to age and make garden beds fantastic growing mediums. Leaves and other garden clippings were composted, too. And what plant-based food not given to livestock like pigs and chickens was also thrown in the compost heap.


Other Fun Facts:

* Gardening was mostly a female affair. Men grew the grains, but women tended the herbs, vegetables, and flowers.

* The Pilgrims grew some easy veggies we are no longer familiar with, like skirrets and scorzoners. They might be fun for us to try!

* Not all Pilgrims kept a garden. Raising pigs, for example, required a lot less time and energy, so they might be chosen over vegetables. In those days, meat was considered the most important part of the diet. Plus, eating lots of meat was a sign of freedom, since only the rich ate that way in Europe. (The rich had land to hunt on. It was illegal for the poor to hunt the land, and so they ate mostly vegetables.)

* The corn the Pilgrims ate was different than the sweet corn we eat today. It was native to the New World, and the Pilgrims called it "Indian corn." It was red, yellow, white, and black, all on the same ear. It was dried, then pounded into flour. This was the main source of nutrition in the Pilgrim diet and was eaten at nearly every meal.

* The Pilgrims originally tried to keep a community garden of sorts. They thought it would be best to have one garden that everyone contributed to. This idea failed so badly, the Pilgrims nearly starved. After this experiment, the Pilgrims kept their own gardens and each family was responsible for it's own food. This lead to far better times for the Pilgrims.

* While doing research for this post, I bumped into the book Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th-Century Methods for Today's Organic Gardeners. It looks fascinating; check it out!

Nov 14, 2015

Weekend Links

In which I share my favorite posts from this blog's Facebook page.

* My pie cookbook Easy as Pie is FREE for several days. Grab it while you can! (And if you like it, please consider leaving a review; reviews make a huge difference!)

* An MD just told my husband he shouldn't eat eggs, due to the cholesterol in them. He also told him to add margarine to his diet. Um, yeah, my hubby needs a new doctor. (But the fact is, MDs have no real training in what makes a healthy diet, and are one of the worst places to get good information about healthy eating.) Anyway, here's a good article on why eggs really are good for you. (Oh, and backyard, free range eggs are even better for you than store bought.)

* My friend Tanya is in the middle of raising a tween girl. My daughter is 10, and already beginning to act like a teen, so I'm lovin' Tanya's list of helpful tween girl resources!

* Have you considered sending a Thanksgiving or Christmas care package to a solider

* I don't have a smart phone, so I can't test this out, but this mobile app that allows you to scan product codes and find out if they have GMO ingredients looks handy.

* World's largest spice company will be organic (and GMO-free) by 2016!

* Lots of people think vegetable oil is healthy. It's not! It's highly processed, usually has GMO ingredients, and clogs up your liver. And now a study shows it may cause cancer.

* If you feel chronically fatigued, have fibromyalgia, thyroid issues or similar medical problems, this is a MUST read.

* Make cranberry sauce from scratch - without a recipe.

Nov 11, 2015

Chocolate Peanut Butter Banana Bites Recipe

In my never ending quest to fill up my 7 year old son's tummy, I ran across a scrumptious snack: Banana chunks covered in dark chocolate and peanut butter. The whole family loves them. Best of all, these Chocolate Peanut Butter Banana Bites are SUPER easy to make and you can easily customize them.

First, a few notes about the recipe. The bananas should not be ripe; that is to say, they shouldn't have brown spots on the peel. I use yellow bananas that are still slightly green at the stem. They should be firm when you slice them. Ripe (browned) bananas may lead to mushy, brown bites.

For the chocolate, you can really use whatever type you like. Dark chocolate is healthier, and we like it with the sweetness of the banana. I recommend choosing a brand of chocolate that doesn't use child slave labor. (You can see a list of the offenders here.)

With the peanut butter, you can use any type you like. I use "natural" style because it contains less sugar. I also use smooth peanut butter, but I think you could use chunky, if you wish.

At the end of the recipe, I discuss ways to customize the recipe, too.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Banana Bites Recipe

2 large bananas
1/4 cup dark chocolate chips
1/4 - 1/3 cup natural peanut butter (I use 1/3 cup)

1. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. If you don't have any, I think you could use wax paper or maybe even aluminum foil. Measure out the chocolate chips and peanut butter and put them in a microwave safe bowl.

2. Peel the bananas and cut into chunks. The size is up to you. Mine are about an inch long or so.

3. Place the bowel of chocolate and peanut butter in the microwave and heat for 30 seconds on high. Remove from the microwave and stir. Continue heating for 30 seconds, then stirring, until the chocolate chips are nearly melted. Then continue stirring until there are no more chocolate lumps. (If you don't want to use a microwave, just put the chocolate and peanut butter into a small, heavy saucepan and place over low heat, stirring frequently until nearly melted. Then remove from the heat and continue stirring until fully melted.)

4. One at a time, dip the banana chunks in the chocolate mixture, coating all sides. Don't worry if there are spots where the banana shows through. Place the chocolate covered chunk on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat until all the banana chunks are covered. Spoon the remaining chocolate mixture over the banana chunks, covering any areas where the banana was showing through the chocolate.

5. Pop the baking sheet in the freezer and freeze until the banana chunks are hard. Transfer to a freezer bag.
To serve, I prefer to remove servings from the freezer and place them in a dish or bowl to sit for perhaps a minute before eating. (This way, the banana chunk isn't so hard.) But it's totally a matter of preference!

Customizing the Recipe

You can add so many things to this recipe!

 * A tablespoon of coconut oil, for health and flavor. (Add during the melting phase.)
* Coconut flakes. (Sprinkle on just after covering the bananas in chocolate.)
* A different type of nut butter in place of peanut butter.
* Finely chopped peanuts, walnuts, or any other type of nut. (Added immediately after covering the bananas in chocolate.)
* Chocolate or candy sprinkles. (Added immediately after covering the bananas in chocolate.)

Thanks to The View From Great Island and Never Homemaker for giving me the idea - and a recipe to work from - for this yummy snack!

Nov 9, 2015

No Fail Healthy Pie Crust Recipe

Years ago, I posted a "no fail" pie crust recipe on this blog, but recently I removed it. Yes, it really was "no fail," and yes, it tasted great, and yes it was the recipe my mother used and that I used, also, for many years. But it included vegetable shortening (like Crisco), which I have since learned is terrible for our bodies. Even so, I thought that as rarely as my family eats pie, it was probably okay for us to eat once in a while. But in fact, I've come to believe this attitude is probably what that caused me to develop non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. (No fun!) So many of the fats that are popular in the U.S. are really hard on our livers.

So, I experimented with a number of other pie crust recipes, and eventually landed on one that I'd used years ago, but had forgotten about. It's made with real butter - which not only is healthier, but makes a flakier pie crust. It's also the flour based pastry crust recipe featured in my cookbook Easy As Pie, and it really is easy! There are just a few little tricks you need to know in order to make this truly a "no fail" recipe:

1. All the ingredients must be cold before you start. It's most important to have ice water and thoroughly chilled butter, but I recommend chilling the flour, too. And if you use a pastry blender, chill it, also! For the butter, cut it into chunks (see the photo on the right) and wrap in a single sheet of plastic wrap. Place this package in the fridge or the freezer until thoroughly chilled (but not frozen). For the water, start with cold tap water, then add a few ice cubes to the measuring cup.

2. Never use your hands to mix the dough. Your hands will warm the butter, and result in a tough crust. Instead, use a pastry blender or - my favorite "no fail" tool - a food processor.

No Fail Healthy Pie Crust Recipe

Makes one crust for a 9 in. pie plate. For a double crust pie, simply double the recipe.

1. Put the flour, salt, and butter into a food processor and pulse until it looks like coarse crumbs. (Or, in a large bowl, stir together the flour and salt. Using a pastry blender, cut in the butter until the mixture looks like coarse crumbs.)

2. Add the very cold water a tablespoon at a time until the dough sticks together. (You may not need all the water.) Shape dough into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours, or overnight. (If you're doubling the recipe, divide the dough in half and place each piece in its own piece of plastic wrap.)

3. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough until it’s about 1/8 inch thick. To check that it’s the right size, set the pie plate on top of the rolled out dough. The dough should be 2 – 3 inches wider all the way around the pie plate. Carefully transfer the dough to the pie plate. (One popular way to do this is to wrap the dough around the rolling pin and carefully unwrap it over the pie plate.) Press the dough against the sides and bottom of the pie plate. If the crust tears, simply take a small amount of dough from the edges and press into the tear, creating a patch.

4. Refrigerate. (This helps the dough relax so it doesn't shrink when it's baked.)

To pre-bake: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Keep the pie plate in the refrigerator for at least 10 minutes. Using the tines of a fork, prick the bottom and sides of the crust all over. Place a piece of parchment paper over the crust and line the pie plate with pie weights, uncooked rice, or dried beans. This step helps the crust retain its shape. Place the pie plate in the preheated oven and bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and very carefully remove the paper and weights. (They will be hot!) Reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees F. and bake another 15 minutes, or until golden. Cool completely on a wire rack before filling the crust.

Nov 7, 2015

Weekend Links

Courtesy  Mgmoscatello and Wikipedia Commons.
In which I share my favorite posts from this blog's Facebook page.

* A gratitude garland...Such a great idea for everyone in the family! (And it's a free printable, too.)

* Looking for excellent Thanksgiving books for kids? Check out my other blog for reviews written by moms.

* 7 Make Ahead Thanksgiving Ideas make Thanksgiving day easier.

* New study shows ginger kills cancer more effectively than chemo.

* "Who Is WHO kidding? An Analysis Of The Silliness In The Press Over The Recent Warnings About Eating Meat." An excellent read.

* Is your favorite chocolate available to you only because of child slaves?

* Recall on beef.

* Have a squash that's too tough to cut with a knife? Try this super simple solution. (You will have to bake really large squash for longer, though)

* Use a heat lamp for your hens? Be sure to check out these important tips!

Nov 5, 2015

Blue Light: It's Everywhere - and It May Cause Blindness

Last week, I took my children to a routine eye exam. I was in for a shock. Not only did both my kids need glasses, but I learned something else that made me say, "How did I not know this? Why have I never heard of this before?" And I'm betting you don't know about it, either, even though it may put your family at risk for blindness.

The Danger

Our society is inundated with electronic devices, and more and more of us are using them for more and more hours of the day. As a parent, you may know that limiting your child's use of electronic devices is better for their social well being and brain health, but you may not realize that many modern conveniences are actually causing eye damage.

Televisions, computers, laptops, tablets, cell phones, fluorescent and compact fluorescent light bulbs, and LED light bulbs. What do they all have in common? They all emit something called blue light - the most intense form of light the human eye sees. Blue light is troublesome for at least two reasons. One is that it tells the brain to decrease melatonin in our bodies - a hormone that regulates our sleep. (And this, in turn, may cause depression and cancer.) The second is that it's linked to macular degeneration.
A scene as it might be viewed by someone with macular degeneration. Courtesy of the National Eye Institute.
What is Macular Degeneration?

According to the American Macular Degeneration Foundation, macular degeneration is the leading cause of vision loss. This incurable disease causes blindness as the retina degenerates. In the past, macular degeneration was something seen almost exclusively in the elderly, but more and more doctors are seeing it in young people - including those in their 20s and 30s.

While the causes of macular degeneration aren't completely understood, increasingly, studies show that blue light damages retinal cells. And since children are spending more of their lives exposed to high levels of blue light, they are considered at highest risk for developing macular degeneration - perhaps at a young age.

What You Can Do
  • The best thing to do is avoid LED and fluorescent light bulbs and reduce screen time. Most experts seem to recommend only one hour of screen time a day for children. Others think that it's most important to limit tablet and cell phone use to that amount of time. 
  •  Use the "20/20/20 Rule." Screens that are held closer to the face (like tablets and cell phones) put us at higher risk of eye problems. When you do use tablets and cell phones, experts recommend that for every 20 minutes of use, take a 20 second break looking at something 20 feet away. This can be a very difficult rule for children to follow, so I recommend giving the child a kitchen timer. Set it for 20 minutes, and make sure you've given your child a specific thing to look at when he or she looks up. Have the child sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" or count to 30 (for good measure) before they go back to staring at their screen.
  • Get regular eye exams. Experts recommend children get an exam by an ophthalmologist or optometrist (not just a pediatrician) once a year. It's smart for adults to do this, too.

If you or your child already wears glasses, ask your optometrist about putting a filter on the lenses that reduces blue light exposure.

If you don't wear glasses, but have significant exposure to blue light, you might consider what my neighbor (who works for our ophthalmologist ) recommends: Getting eye glasses without a prescription, but with a blue light filter on them. She believes in this so strongly, she had her niece (who uses a tablet at school) get some.