Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Homemade Watermelon Slush

When we moved into our "new" neighborhood over two years ago, I have to say a was a little disappointed to realize that the only non-sit-down restaurant within walking distance was a Sonic Drive-In. From our old house, I could stroll the kids to four or five fast food places, an Einstein Brother's Bagels, a post office, and two grocery stores (including Trader Joe's--heaven!) So our newly limited nearby choices came as a bit of a bummer…until I remembered Sonic's drink happy hour. From 2-4pm, those dear roller-skated souls will mix you up the sugariest drink creations on earth for only half price. I probably couldn't count the number of times I have strapped the kids in the car or stroller for a jaunt over to Sonic during that seemingly endless stretch between nap time and dinnertime. And while these little trips fill up some time for pocket change, the only problem is, well, the drinks themselves. I'm afraid to even look at the Sonic website to find out how much sugar is in a watermelon slush, the treat of choice for my kiddos. I guarantee you there ain't no watermelon in a Sonic watermelon slush.

Sooooo since it's now summertime and giant watermelons seem to be rolling off the shelves everywhere I go, I figured we would try our hand at making our own actual fruit version of Sonic's slush. It was relatively simple and turned out great! Adapting a recipe from Epicurious for a watermelon granita, I was able to make a concoction similar enough to Sonic's that my kids (and I) have been enjoying it the last several days. Now we'll just have to figure out somewhere else to go during those long summer afternoons…

Here is the recipe: 

Homemade Watermelon Slush

8 cups seedless watermelon, cut into chunks
1 scant cup sugar
2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice (about the juice of one lime)
Filtered water, for diluting

Puree the watermelon, sugar, and lime juice in a blender until smooth. (You may need to do two half batches if your blender is smallish like mine.) Pour into a 9x13 baking dish. Cover and freeze for at least 1 hour. Stir, mashing any frozen parts with the back of a fork. Cover again and freeze until firm, about 2 hours. Using a fork, scrape the surface to form icy flakes. Place in individual cups. Add water in small amounts to dilute and stir until slush consistency is reached.


Friday, May 10, 2013

41 Summer Activities for Kids

I have looked up lists like this many times. When a summer evening comes and I realize the the highlights of my agenda for the following day are GET MAIL and KEEP CHILDREN FROM KILLING EACH OTHER, I feel the need to make some plans, however minor. I know some stay-at-home parents who are totally content to spend most of their time without a specific plan, but I am just not one of them. So since I am no expert at keeping my kids occupied in positive ways when the long (and very hot) summer days descend upon the Phoenix Valley, I decided to compile a list of my own 40-ish activities (in addition to the many other 50, 100, 101, etc. blog posts out there) if only so I can keep in one place a set of ideas to fill our days. Keeping such a list reminds me that it is a privilege to determine the content of my family's time, and there really is a lot of fun to be had while I have this precious stretch with my kids. 

To mix it up a little (see? this is SO original and SO DIFFERENT from those other blogs, right??), I've organized them by room of the house. I've tried to make them a little more interesting than your basic hide-and-seek and lemonade stand…though sock puppets and popsicles did make the cut. Some of these are better for older kids, some for younger. My kids are 2, 4, and 6, so I tried to list a little for each of them.

Living Room:

1. Collect all of one type of toy or household object you can find--cars, Lego people, baby dolls--and arrange them in a long line to make a parade. 
2. Play zoo. My kids love choosing an animal to imitate and then having me be the zoo visitor who marvels at all their noises and behaviors. You may only get 5 minutes out of this, but hey, it's something.
3. There is nothing wrong with an Easter egg hunt in July. (My kids go crazy over this.) We sometimes also do it with these Munchkin letters and numbers for the bath (http://www.amazon.com/Munchkin-Bath-Letters-and-Numbers/dp/B000V98HCI/ref=sr_1_1?s=baby-products&ie=UTF8&qid=1368248241&sr=1-1&keywords=bath+letters), which is a cool, "educational" twist on the hunt idea. 
4. Go on a "color hunt": get colored baskets from the dollar store and have kids go around the house looking for objects of each color. 
5. Further thoughts on the hunt idea--if you have one child who reads and one who only recognizes letters, try this: write down a short message with letters on individual scraps of paper. Write a corresponding number in the top corner of each scrap to tell the order of the letters. Have the younger child hunt for the letters, then have the older child arrange them in numerical order to spell out the message. A bit complicated, but this kept us busy when our whole family was in a hotel room for two weeks on an extended business trip last summer.
6. Collect various jars with corresponding lids. Give them in a mixed-up jumble to your 2-3 year old and have him/her match them up.
7. Have a dance party. Make a playlist of your favorite tunes from high school to introduce your kids to your music, or make a Spotify playlist of kid-friendly songs. My kids love Dan Zanes, who makes great music for all ages, as well as the more typical Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Raffi, Dora the Explorer. You never know where this may lead--this afternoon at our house, a dance party involving Christmas music and the Chicken Dance song spun out into a whole play arc about The Christmas Chicken, who helps Santa when Rudolph sprains his ankle. 
8. While your kids sleep at night, cut out footprints of a mysterious creature (or something benign, like rabbit prints) and put them in a walking pattern on the floor. See how the kids react when they find them in the morning and what story they can concoct about the animal that tramped through your house last night.
9. Build a fort and pretend it's a cave on a snowy mountain (especially good for summer), a tent for camping, or a circus tent.
10. Have an indoor mini-field day. Use pillowcases for a sack race, race holding a small ball (instead of a raw egg--no, thanks!) on a serving spoon, have a roll-across-the-floor contest. Make silly prizes for winners.
11. Pretend the floor is hot lava. Make a trail of pillows for stepping stones.
12. Have friends over for a playdate. Choose a theme, like a colors of the rainbow potluck, Christmas in July, or kid-friendly science.
13. Practice tossing and catching a ball.
14. Blow up balloons and bat them around.

Computer/Craft Room:

15. If you have the means, choose to sponsor a child in the Third World through Compassion International (compassion.com)--future blog post coming about this wonderful experience. Allow your kids to be a part of the selection process, or choose a child with your child's birthday. Once you have selected a child, have your kids send him/her letters and pictures.
16. Write cards/letters to faraway aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, military personnel, or hospital/nursing home patients.
17. If you have a Mac, go nuts with Photo Booth (it's the program that lets you photograph yourself with silly funhouse-style distortions).
18. Make paper hats.
19. Make sock puppets.
20. Use a rectangular cardboard box to make a toy car carwash: Cut an entrance and exit in the shorter sides, tape colored paper strips on the "ceiling" to be the hanging sponges, decorate with stickers.
21. Color in coloring books. 
22. Make your own Melissa & Doug-style shapes puzzle with the side of a cardboard box: put stickers on the box, cut the cardboard around the sticker shapes (a knife works better than scissors), and keep the undecorated cardboard intact to be the puzzle base.
23. Make a countdown calendar to your summer vacation with paper rings. Every day, kids get to cut off one ring until the big day arrives.


24. Make popsicles.
25. Make a simple strawberry jam: http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Strawberry-Jam/Detail.aspx. Boys especially enjoying the strawberry mashing part.
26. Go on a "smelling adventure." Blindfold each kid and have them smell various foods--peanut butter, lemon juice, pickles--and see how many they guess right.
27. Make cereal necklaces.
28. If there are 9 weeks in your kids' summer break, choose 1 new (or familiar) fruit at the grocery store every week. Let each fruit represent one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Talk about it with your kids as you eat the fruit. It can be totally silly, like "This is the mango of peace," but you'll probably find it helps your kids memorize the fruits of the Spirit. (It's more or less how I learned, and I still remember the Banana of Self-Control, no joke). 
29. Have a snack time taste test. Purchase three varieties of something cheap (like granola bars or fruit leather), give small portions, and have kids rank them favorite to least favorite.
30. Make edible play dough: 1/2 cup honey, 1 cup peanut butter, 2 cups powdered sugar is one recipe. See if your kids will actually make anything with it before cramming it in their mouths. (Mine didn't.)
31. If you have tile/hardwood/other hard flooring, spell out a message with masking tape for Daddy to read when he comes home. Or just let your kids practice their letters and numbers with the tape.

Outside the house:

32. Go to the mall
33. Go to a coffee shop
34. Go to Ikea
35. Go to the library (here's a list of some awesome kids' books we love: http://justalittlesoapbox.blogspot.com/2012/04/my-top-tenokay-fifteen-childrens-books.html)
36. Go to a local pool/splash pad


37. Make a "poor man's pool": fill a cooler with water and ice cubes and have kids play with their toys in it--they can pretend it's the North Pole for their animals, etc.
38. Squirt gun fight.
39. Experiment with the sun's power: paint a picture with watercolors; then, over several days, leave it out in direct sunlight and take pictures of how it fades each day. Should be interesting after a week!
40. Draw with sidewalk chalk (in the morning before it gets too crazy hot!)
41. Blow bubbles.

Have a fantastic summer!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

I Hereby Dub Thee Sir Cookbook

Almost without my realizing it, in the last week I made three dinner recipes from the same cookbook. This is almost a personal faux pas, since I typically make my best effort to keep things interesting by selecting meal ideas from a wide variety of sources--food blogs, recipe websites, magazine clippings, old standards, and yes, of course, cookbooks. But this little revelation of my own predictability led me to a happy conclusion: that this particular cookbook is just really freaking awesome. I have consistently used it ever since I purchased it a year or so ago. So allow me to share it with you in all its foody glory. Yea, verily, it is……

Real Simple Easy, Delicious Meals
by the Editors of Real Simple Magazine

I wish I knew who the "Editors of Real Simple Magazine" are, because they really deserve a heartfelt thanks. This cookbook knocks it out of the park, and here's why:

--Simplicity, as the name implies. I don't subscribe to Real Simple magazine. Though I really like its content, I have (ironically) been annoyed by the overwhelming amount of ads in the magazine every time I've picked up a copy. The philosophy, though, bears repeating in a world of too much choice: simplicity is good. Granted, when I first think of "simple" food, the images are not particularly appealing--baked chicken, maybe, or a very plain pasta. Basically the stuff you'd feed your toddler or your highly sensitive Midwestern grandma. But the recipes in this cookbook are simple in the most flattering sense. More and more, I'm becoming the kind of cook who believes that simple, limited-number-of-ingredient recipes truly can be the best ones, especially when made with high-quality ingredients. Simple does not have to equal boring. Samosas, for example, or chicken souvlaki, or chocolate croissant bread pudding are dishes from this cookbook that may be simple but certainly seem interesting and different in my kitchen.

--Appealing pictures for every recipe. Must be a product of my technology-addled, information-overloaded generation, because I need a picture to make a recipe worth making. You can tell me "Potato and Leek Flatbread with Greens" all day long and I'm still not gonna get it (though this also has to do with forgetting what leeks actually are).

--Variety. Again, to me, cooking dinner is a game of keeping it interesting. I get it when people "cook by numbers" with Taco Tuesday, Pizza Friday, etc., but meal planning is (seriously) one of the highlights of my week because it gives me a sense of perpetual innovation. (Hey, it's the little things.) I want to be continually improving as a cook and expanding our family's palate. I love that this cookbook offers options of varying time/difficulty from the cuisine of various cultures. 

--Nutrition Information for every recipe. Always helpful.

--Beyond my expectations, this cookbook has taught me a lot. Though it doesn't have an instructional section and offers only a few charts, the recipes themselves, by nature of their simplicity and frequently overlapping ingredients, have taught me a lot about creating my own recipes. Don't get me wrong, I am not Giada-ing it up whipping up new inventions for ricotta or anything, just able (now that I understand some basics) to maybe make a decent salad dressing without a recipe, or a tasty chicken rub. I like being able to do that.

--Last, every recipe I have tried from this book has been delicious! I would (and have) make all of them again.

So now that I've shown you mine, you show me yours--what's your favorite cookbook, and why? Which one do you return to year after year? Which one has taught you the most? Which one would you run back for if your kitchen was burning down (not that you and your cooking had anything to do with starting the fire…)? Let's hear it!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

One Small Change: Why You Should Use Reusable Grocery Bags

Back in college at Wheaton, as part of my Gen Ed requirement, I had to take a public speaking class. I remember being surprised at how much I enjoyed and learned from the class (and I recall giving an especially kick-ass informative speech on Transylvania), but one speech I gave has always plagued me: the Persuasive Speech. At the wise--and childless--age of 20, I chose to give mine on Why You Should Spank Your Children, mostly based on the ever-popular "I-got-spanked-and-I-turned-out-just-fine" line of reasoning. Every time I think about it, I give myself a mental facepalm, for a variety of reasons. So putting all that aside, let's give me a second chance to exert my powers of persuasion. This time I'll choose something I've been wanting to blog about for awhile, something that might actually impact the daily lives of my listeners/readers (unlike turning loose the "spare the rod and spoil the child"  argument on a group of college students), namely….


I'm getting excited already.

Do you use reusable grocery bags? If not, why not? You've probably seen plenty of people toting their cloth or canvas into your local grocery store. You may have even noticed an increase in the practice in the last few years--I personally have noticed a major surge since I first started about five years ago. I used to feel like the poor kid who couldn't afford school lunch and had to bring a ratty old Care Bears lunchbox to school. Now I feel like I'm in the cool crowd. So what's the big deal? Why should you get your hands on some of this clothy green goodness?

Here are a few of my top reasons for making this one small change:

--The obvious: their impact (or comparative lack on impact) on the environment. There are some horrible statistics out there about plastic bags, such as these doozies: 
--One plastic bag takes anywhere from 15 to 1,000 years to decompose. 
--The U.S. alone uses approximately 100 billion new plastic bags a year. 
--Only 1% of plastic bags are recycled world-wide.
--An estimated 1 million birds and 100,000 whales, seals, turtles and other sea animals die of starvation each year after ingesting plastic bags that block their digestive tracts
--Public agencies in California alone spend over $300 million a year on coastal litter clean-up, at least 10% of which is washed-up plastic bags. Just think of how an extra $30 million could be redirected to, say, education. (All stats taken from http://www.reusethisbag.com/25-reasons-to-go-reusable.asp)

--Because plastic bags are made of petroleum, they use nonrenewable resources and ultimately drive up the price of fuel.

--On a (much) smaller scale, several grocery stores/retailers give you money back for bringing your own bag. My local Target and Sprouts give 5 cents a bag, which sounds like peanuts, but hey, over a year, if you use five bags each week, could net you $13. Go get yourself something nice.

--The cuteness factor. Ladies, there are a whole lot of adorable reusable bags out there to round out your commitment to fashion. How cute is this one that folds up into a strawberry? A freaking strawberry! http://www.amazon.com/Reusable-Shopping-Tote-Bag-Strawberry/dp/B002M22C96/ref=pd_sbs_misc_6

--You don't have to figure out where to put all those plastic bags with the vague promise that you'll recycle them someday. If you're like me, you stuff them in a cabinet for months on end until you have an untamed plastic bag beast that spills its guts on you every time you open that door. Then in a moment of weakness you end up just throwing them all in the regular trash.

--Cloth bags don't dig into your skin like plastic bags. Hate those plastic bag skin lacerations!

--Cloth bags (usually) don't break and allow your glass jar of spaghetti sauce to shatter in the parking lot, or that embarrassing box of extra absorbency tampons to roll away.

--You can get everything in the house in one trip with cloth bags. They hold more, so you use a fewer number of them, meaning your forearm can handle it all at one time.

I could go on and on, but they tell me people stop reading blog posts after 500 words. So ask yourself: is there really a good reason not to use reusable bags? Is it really the better choice to use plastic? Because the truth is, it is a choice, and there is a better one available. If you have good intentions but find yourself forgetting to bring your bags to the store, keep them in your car until it becomes habit. It's one small change that will add up to a big impact. Isn't it worth a try?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Doing and Flu-ing

For the last two days I've been sick with the flu. I'm talking about the hard-core, not-messing-around, oh-yeah-this-is-why-people-die-of-this flu. Since I foolishly did not get a flu shot this year, I have been in my bed for the majority of the last 48 hours. Like anyone else, I hate being sick, and in my particular case, my being sick seriously affects four other people: my husband and three small children. After a couple days of doing absolutely nothing (but watching movies and Magnum, P.I. episodes on my computer) I start to feel pretty guilty about not pulling my weight. Thankfully, my husband has the kind of job where he can work from home in situations like this, and has been faithfully doing laundry, making meals for the kids, etc., so I see that things are getting done that need to get done. But even after a relatively short period of absence from my usual wife-and-mother role, my thoughts begin to go down a dangerous path. I start to feel worthless. I start to think that if I can't be industrious and purposeful, I have no value. It reminds me of all the ways I already am not living up to my potential: Why don't I blog more? Why don't I create beautiful things out of household items and Mod Podge and put them on Etsy or Pinterest? Why don't I write songs? Why don't I serve the homeless? There are so many things I'm NOT DOING. When I die, will I have DONE enough with my life? 

I say this is a dangerous thought path not just because it turns into a spiral of shame and self-bullying, but also because I believe this is the kind of thinking that leads to a disrespect for human life. This morning as I was contemplating all my deficiencies, I felt the Lord remind me that my worth does not depend on my activities. Like every other human being on this planet, my worth is rooted in the fact that I am God's creation, made in His image. If I don't believe this--if I choose to believe that my worth comes from all I am doing--then what's to say I wouldn't apply that kind of thinking to others? Wouldn't that make the elderly worthless, or the infirm, or anyone who can't contribute to society? There are those who do believe this, and much evil has come of it. Believing my value lies in my intrinsic humanity, that I am creatura Dei, isn't an excuse to do nothing with my life or my gifts, but it is a deeply reassuring reminder that in those times I cannot participate in my regularly scheduled life, I'm okay. I have value--and so do you. And now back to season three of Magnum, P.I. :)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

30 and not 13

This afternoon the Thanksgiving and post-Thanksgiving indulgence was really getting to me, so I decided I needed a long bike ride. My toddler was napping and my older two told me they preferred to stay home playing than come with me, so I set off on my cruiser alone, noticing how shockingly, breezily light it is without the baby seat and trailer. It almost felt like I might rise into thin air with the slightest wind. I made up my mind to bike down to (and through) the neighborhood where I grew up, ages 12 to 18. Though now I only live three miles away, it's funny how I simply never have a need to drive through the old neighborhood, so I haven't been in years. As I pedaled closer, I thought about how for a long time I've spent more time there in dreams than in reality.

I turned down the once-familiar street that passes by my old junior high and through almost a mile of neighborhood before it reaches the turn for my old house, and memories began to surface. I passed houses where I spent sleepover nights and teenage birthday parties, the bench my husband and I would sneak off to to make out, the gated development that used to be a vacant lot I would walk home through. I thought of all those kids who once lived in this unremarkable pocket of Chandler, Arizona, and all they have gone on to do in far-flung places. I biked around our junior high that still looks like a penitentiary, trying my luck at a game of remembering which rooms were where--locker rooms here, nurse's office there, and there the track where I circuited so many forced, unenjoyable miles. Finally I came to the turn for my old neighborhood--a smallish loop of maybe 50 houses. The look of things has remained strikingly the same. Same pink tile roofs, same squat orange trees, same can't-tell-one-from-the-next uniformity so typical of Phoenix. But I know the house. I curbed my pace as I approached and cruised by as slowly as possible, trying to take in as many details of my old home as possible (without looking like I was casing the joint). The screen door was closed but the door behind it was open so that I could almost see inside. I half considered riding up and knocking, saying, "I grew up in this house. I remember when it was built. I stood right there when it was just a foundation and a few beams. My mom picked out those terrible blue laminate countertops. Want to see where I spent summers laid out by the pool? Want to see where our hammock used to be, and our trampoline? Want to hear the story of the time a SWAT team surrounded this place?" But I knew today was not the day for that, me sweaty on my bike with no ID and the signature uncoolness of helmet hair. Still, that cloudy, wistful sadness of nostalgia whispered and tugged at me and threatened to overwhelm my heart with images of all the good and wonderful, bad and terrible things that happened in that house.

I felt so strange and sad.

Exiting the neighborhood, I figured I would spend the rest of the long ride home turning over these many memories in my mind and dwelling in the bittersweetness of nostalgia. But then a funny thing happened. I started to think of all those fantastic '90s songs I used to sit in my bedroom listening to on my boom box. I remembered Dave Matthews Band and Duncan Sheik and this band called the Longpigs who had one really great song on the Mission Impossible soundtrack. And I started singing--feeling silly and free and totally uninhibited like I didn't care who saw me (helmet head be damned!) I pedaled as fast as I could to see if the speed limit detector signs would report my speed to passing cars. And the whole way home I felt so relieved to be 30 and not 13.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Confession Time

Allow me to just say a few words about why the sacrament of confession is a truly wonderful thing.

I went to confession today. I'm not the type of Catholic to go every six weeks, as I've heard prescribed by the Church, but I do try to make it a handful of times a year. Seeing as how I could throw a hamsteak out my window and hit my church with it, I really have no excuse for not going more often than that. But today I knew it was time. There were some particular sins on my heart that needed to see the light of day, so when 3:30 came around, instead of going to Target to buy black tights and a gallon of milk like I wanted to do, I headed on over to the church basement. Whenever I walk to confession, I feel nervous and (frankly, sometimes) a little bit resentful that this is something I "have" to do, and there suddenly seem to be a thousand reasons why I don't really need to go. But then of course I always do, and like everyone tells you, I always feel better afterwards.

Today was a little different, though. Because of my burdensome sins (and no, I'm not going to tell you what they were…but, you know, feel free to speculate) I felt extravagantly nervous. It's a good thing there were only two people in line ahead of me, because my heart was pounding like a jackhammer and instead of praying about my sin, I was praying that I wouldn't throw up all over the church basement carpet. Somehow I'm always afraid someone's going to hear what I've done and treat me ungraciously, despite all my prior experience to the contrary.

So thank God for Father Charlie, the pastor of our church, St. Timothy's. He was a key player in our journey into Catholicism, and it is a huge blessing to have him leading our congregation. Going to confession today, I was actually hoping he wouldn't be my confessor because he knows me fairly well. (There's something to be said for anonymity when you're exposing yourself at your worst.) Well, God knows best, and lo and behold, when I walked into the confession room, there he was. But the moment I saw him and recognized the grace in his face, I knew things would be okay and I wouldn't be vomiting all over his priest-y closed-toe shoes. It's a funny thing, but uncovering my most hard-core sins actually led to the best confession I've ever had. Father Charlie's response to my sin was compassionate and real, just like Jesus' response to our sin. He neither minimized nor came down too harshly on my wrongdoing, but talked to me fairly and honestly about it. He gave me practical counsel for resisting and overcoming these sins.

We all want to hear God's voice, especially in the midst of our own guilt, and God isn't always going to speak in an audible voice. So often I believe he uses humans as his mouthpieces, and that's why (when done well) confession is so helpful. It allows a seasoned counselor to speak words of wisdom and comfort that we might not otherwise hear, even in prayer. And in the end, it gives us the promise of hearing an audible voice assure us that we are forgiven, that God's grace is greater than any of our sins.   

I am always so sorry to hear about the negative experiences some people have had with confession. Stories of shaming and harsh, useless penances break my heart because, especially after today, I know what a comfort and a sweet relief confession can be. (Sort of like when you hear stories of terrible parenting and you think, "But these are the people who are supposed to love this child!") When I think of an experience of confession like today's, though, I am reminded of the definition of a sacrament: an outward sign instituted by Christ to impart grace. That's a pretty awesome gift.

Maybe you should give it a try. ;)