Showing posts with label Family Friendly. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Family Friendly. Show all posts

Thursday, September 18, 2014

{Part 2} How to let go and let your pre-teen redecorate...and be happy with the results.

In part one, I gave you four tips for letting go and letting your pre-teen redecorate her own room. I'd guess that those tips are applicable to kids of all ages with just a little adjusting for age (and maybe taste).

When we took on the job of redecorating Brynn's room, we knew we didn't want to do a huge overhaul. We'd already done that when she turned 8 and I ripped out her carpet in favor of a wood floor. I also built her a bunch of furniture. This re-do was just meant to be a tweak. A little change in style to suit her more grown-up tastes.

Here are the details.

Paint. Brynn was set on white walls. Her trim was already white (including the wainscoting that goes about 1/3 of the way up her walls), the same white that we use for all of our house trim, The Right White by Restoration Hardware, color matched in Sherwin-Williams paint. The Right White is my favorite trim white and that wasn't negotiable. It's not too warm, not too cool, and keeping it the same in Brynn's room meant one fewer can of paint in the garage and easier touch ups when she (inevitably) scuffs the trim in her room.

In order to work with Brynn's trim, I thought her wall color white should probably be a tad warmer and darker than The Right White, but it really wasn't up to me. Remember, this was our opportunity to let Brynn choose her own design. So, I gave her several white paint swatches from Sherwin-Williams, all of which were acceptable to me. She looked at Extra White, Pure White, Snowbound, and Marshmallow. Marshmallow probably would have been my choice, the warmest and darkest of the four. She, on the other hand, wanted the whitest possible walls. Like, the color of printer paper. She wanted (and actually pointed to) the white that is the border between the paint colors on the color strip. Extra White was the whitest of the options she had, so that is what she chose. It's not a color that most of us would choose, especially not when combined with trim that is a hair darker and warmer. But she's not most of us, and it's not our room.

After Brynn and Scott primed and the paint started to go up on the walls, it was obvious to Scott and me that Extra White was both too cool and too bright. We wondered if Brynn would have second thoughts. Scott even said something like, "I guess I'll be back in here painting with her again tomorrow." She never said a word. I didn't ask her what she thought because I didn't want to make her doubt her decision. Once we got the room put back together, the white faded away, just like she wanted it to. The moral of the story is...don't fuss over paint colors in a kid's room. They're easily pleased.


Desk. You may remember this reading loft/desk combo that I built for Brynn back when she was turning 8. It was awesome...awesome for an 8, 9, or 10 year old. But this summer Brynn was feeling like she'd outgrown the loft. She was starting middle school and expecting her homework load to increase. She wanted a real desk. So, I kept my eyes peeled for one we could re-do, and I found this one on VarageSale, one of my favorite sources for furniture to makeover. Here I am driving home with the new (old) desk.

If Brynn had a bigger budget (remember, she was originally budgeting only $155 for this re-do, which I told her I'd match, bringing us to a total budget of $310), she could have chosen any desk she wanted. But she didn't have a bigger budget, so it was up to me to find one that was in decent shape, sturdy enough to last her until she gets out of high school, and ready for a makeover. She really wanted something modern. And given a bigger budget, we could have dressed this old desk up with modern pulls. I think someday she might buy herself new pulls. But for now, the original pulls add a bit of eclectic elegance to what otherwise could have become a room so modern and contemporary, it felt cold. So...budgets. We love them.

Brynn gave herself a choice of three colors for her desk: yellow, navy, or coral. She chose navy. General Finishes Milk Paint, my go-to paint when I'm painting a piece of furniture and don't want a distressed finish, has a great navy called Coastal Blue. I left Brynn out of the labor for this part (one can only share SO much of the work when one is a control, painting furniture is kind of my thing). My dad and I gave the desk a light sanding, I primed it with dark brown primer that I had on hand, sprayed it with half a quart of the Coastal Blue milk paint, finished the insides of the drawers in a coral color that I mixed up from leftover paints in the garage, and sealed the whole thing with PolyWhey wipe-on in satin.

I soaked the old brass drawer pulls in a vinegar and baking soda solution and then used Brasso to clean them. I think it's pretty caustic stuff, but every once in a while that's what it takes.

If the top of the desk looks a little off to you...that's because it is. I'm doing a little desk blotter experiment. I'll report back once I have some results. 

Bedding. Brynn had her heart set on the yellow and white chevron duvet from the moment she set eyes on it, so I knew it would be the centerpiece of the room. She found a few sets of navy and white sheets at PBTeen, too, but her budget was more of a Target budget. So, off to we went. Together we picked out the navy Threshold sheets to sleep on and the navy and white sheets for her box spring and a pillow.

I've become a pretty serious devotee to the Threshold sheets in recent years. I first started buying them because they were organic cotton. Unfortunately the navy sheets weren't available in organic (I'm thinking that organic in a deep navy dye is pretty hard to achieve) so we ended up with the conventional version. The sheets are made in India which was encouraging -- India leads the world in organic cotton production (although it is falling) and is an established Better Cotton region. So even though these are conventional, I feel okay about supporting India's cotton industry. The quality of the sheets is fantastic and in this latest package there was a bonus...the head and foot of the fitted sheets are labeled! So you put them on the right way the first time! Genius.

For the box spring, we bought the navy and white scribbled-polka dot/ikat-ish sheets, also from Target. I remember once upon a time seeing a box spring cover that just went around the edges of the box spring? And then I remember almost passing out when I saw the price. A fitted bottom sheet seems to work just as well, plus then you've got the top sheet and a pillow case to play with in the room. Best of all, the quality really isn't all that important because the fitted sheet only gets washed every now and then, to get the dust off. It's a fun way to bring in another color or pattern. So that's what we did.

Curtains. This is the design element that Brynn was probably the least involved in. She didn't really seem to care what her curtains looked like (maybe her brain was on design overload). For her closet I suggested white with a blue ribbon trim and she shrugged her shoulders and said okay. Once her navy and white sheets came and we knew that she liked them, I suggested the flat sheet as a non-working curtain just to soften her window and she shrugged again. I took that as a yes. Thankfully, once they were up she was quite enthusiastic. I think there was some squealing and maybe even a little shouting.

This is another project where I took over all the labor. Like the desk, this was something I couldn't really bear to see screwed up. She can move furniture, she can paint walls, and with enough time she could sew a lovely set of curtains. But she's in school all day and I'm here and I knew I could whip them out pretty quickly and a lot less painfully. The white curtains were in the as-is bin at Ikea. I used the same kind here in our living room when my mother-in-law and I created 9ft tall bold striped curtains (which I still love). The panels were only $10 each which is a steal for that much heavy fabric. Brynn's closet has a curtain track system that I special ordered from our local fabric shop and installed back in 2006, I think. It has held up really well. The only problem is that there's no fudge room for your curtain length. I love to just make my curtains whatever length they end up being and then hang the rod in the right spot. You can't do that when you're working with a curtain track, but the clean look is great and it seems to be super durable.

The navy and white curtains around the window are lined with leftover white curtain fabric from our living room curtains, just to give them some extra weight and help them look finished. I like all of my windows to show the same color (white) when you look at them from the outside of the house so I always line my curtains with white, even these ones that you can barely see from outside.

For the curtain rod over the window, I used a 6' wooden rod from Lowe's (probably meant to be a closet rod), a pair of Martha Stewart finials from Home Depot, and some handrail hardware I had hanging around. I painted the rod and finials navy, waxed it to make sure the fabric on the curtains would slide easily, and then hung it with the handrail hardware.

Artwork, lighting, accessories, etc. Brynn already had the gigantic framed poster of Paris from Ikea. It was a birthday gift last year (by the way, artwork makes great gifts for girls this age, I think). She was hoping to put it at the head of her bed, but after discussing the width of her bed versus the width of her ballet barre, she agreed it should go over the ballet barre. The ballet barre has been in her room for a few years now and she uses it at least a few times a week for stretching and barre work. It's just a 1x4 screwed into the wall with a handrail on it. Simple, inexpensive, and a really useful element for her.

The artwork above Brynn's bed is four watercolors she did a few days before we moved back from Mexico when Brynn was seven years old. She sat in the backyard there, looked around at the trees and flowers growing around her, and painted those pieces. While they are really special to me, they make her feel too young, so they will go. I told her I'd surprise her with some replacement art made by me. Yikes. I think I'll also paint the frame coral.

The ballet photo in the corner of her room is one I took during her second year of ballet. It's been in her room for a long time and I'm thrilled that she still loves it as much as I do.

The only piece of artwork I bought was the inspirational canvas. I passed by it at Hobby Lobby and couldn't NOT grab it. I knew she'd love it. It was a fun surprise element to add to her room.

For the message board above Brynn's desk, I used her old cork board, wrapped it in batting that I already had, and then finished it off in the coral and white fabric with yellow ribbons and some sparkly upholstery tacks.

Both of Brynn's lamps and her schoolhouse fixture were already in the room and working well. She was happy with them as they were, so we left those. In truth, the schoolhouse fixture was non-negotiable, but I think she already knew that so she didn't even ask to replace it. Plus...the good old budget would have said no anyway.

One accessory that totally floored Brynn was her new iHome. It was in our kitchen for a few years before Scott installed speakers in our main living area. Since then, it's just been sitting in a closet, along with a first generation iPod Touch. We're not interested in letting Brynn have unlimited internet access or a phone of her own, but the old iPod Touch is great for iTunes, email, weather forecasts, an alarm clock, Pandora, and iTunes. And that's about all she can do with it. Scott disabled or removed everything else. Because while eleven-year-olds may be trustworthy when it comes to design decisions, we know better than to trust her with a super-connected device of her own.

Besides her new desk, all of the furniture in her room was there before the re-do. I did take it all out (cube bookcase, bedside table, and bed) to repaint. I gave them all a light sanding, a coat of clear shellac wherever knots were bleeding through, and a fresh coat of paint with my sprayer. Are your kids super destructive to their furniture? Mine are! Brynn's furniture was in desperate need of a new coat of paint.

For Brynn's furniture and all of the basic white furniture in our house, as well as some of our built-ins, I use the (discontinued) Martha Stewart Glass of Milk white color matched in Sherwin-Williams ProClassic semi-gloss. The color is very similar to General Finishes Milk Paint Antique White. It's a great creamy white, not too yellow, not to dark. I always have a gallon on hand, so I didn't have to buy any paint for those touch-ups.

Since the only accessories we purchased were the small canvas word art plus fabric and ribbon for the message board, our cost in this category was only about $25.

All together, that brings our total cost to $307. Under budget by three dollars!

I'm proud of Brynn for making some great design decisions in her room and for sticking to her budget. When she looks through PBTeen, she kind of salivates a bit. To get the look she saw in a catalog like that without buying everything from the catalog took both maturity and vision. It was so fun to watch her wrestle with her ideas and then work with her as she made decisions.

Now...any guesses as to how soon we'll have to go through this process again? I'm crossing my fingers that we can make it to college. Wishful thinking, I'm sure.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

{Part 1} How to let go and let your pre-teen redecorate...and be happy with the results.

When our 11-year-old daughter, Brynn, made the jump from elementary school to middle school this summer, it seemed like she matured overnight. We were (and are still) a little overwhelmed by how responsible she suddenly is. Does she still make dumb choices? Of course. She's human. But she also empties the dishwasher at 6:45 every morning (without being asked). I want to complain because the noise from the dishes wakes me up, but I don't want to put away the dishes myself so I cover my ears and contemplate whether I should get up and help her. We've given her more freedom and trusted her to take more control over her life. And that included letting her choose how to redecorate her room.

It was tough. I'm not gonna lie. For a mom (and dad) who are a little bit control-freaky, it's hard to give up the reins to a kid. It's my house. I want it the way I want it. That's why I do everything myself.

But this isn't my space. It's hers. And I reserve the right to take it back, but if she can ride her bike to 7:15am swim practice every morning of the summer and get straight A's in school and spend six hours a week at dance and do dishes and take care of her pet mouse and clean out the cat's litter box twice a week? She can handle making some decorating decisions.

Based on our experience, here are our four tips for letting go and letting your pre-teen redecorate:
  1. Help your pre-teen find inspiration. If she's not already using Pinterest, set up a board on your account for her. You can check out Brynn's board here. The times that she's been allowed to access it have been few and far between but, even so, it's fun to see the progression in her inspiration, from what was clearly going to be a turquoise-based room to a navy-based room. Somehow, she also discovered the existence of Pottery Barn Teen. She talked me into signing up to get their catalogs. (We don't, as a general rule, receive catalogs. Patagonia, High Country Gardens, and Ikea are the exceptions.) Her one copy of PBTeen is dog-eared, water-stained and starting to fall apart. She let it be her main guide in finding inspiration.
  2. After your pre-teen has seen what things cost, let her set a budget. Brynn knew that she wanted the yellow and white chevron duvet from PBTeen and she knew that it was going to cost her about $75. (Sidenote: why are duvets so ridiculously expensive? It's two flat sheets sewn together!) Based on that, she thought she could get new sheets and some paint for another $75. To give herself some breathing room, she added an additional $5 and ended up with a budget of $155. Clearly, she forgot a few things. Her new desk, for one, which I'd already bought but still had to refinish. I suppose that was my contribution. Curtains, to name another. So I matched her budget and told her we'd aim for $310 total.
  3. Give your pre-teen a range of choices but not a blank slate. If you're a Love & Logic parent, this will be familiar to you. "Give your child lots of choices, all of which are fine with you." Remember that? Do you want to wear your jacket or carry it? Do you want an orange or a banana? Same goes here. Once I was on board with her decorating inspiration (which included white walls) I gave her 6 white paint swatches from which to make her choice. I didn't care which one she chose, but she had the power to make the final decision. For her desk, she got to choose between navy blue, yellow, and coral (the three colors she'd chosen to build her room around). I didn't care which one, but that's a pretty impactful decision for her to make. I chose the exact hue because the paint I used (General Finishes Milk Paint) comes in a limited range of colors. I did the online shopping for her sheets (she wanted navy sheets) and gave her a few choices. We talked about the thread count, the softness, how well they would wear, whether one had more organic cotton than another, and the price. She decided which sheets to buy. She is, after all, the one who will be sleeping in them.
  4. Involve your pre-teen in the actual work. This is where Scott came in. Repainting a room isn't difficult work, but it is time-consuming and tiring. It's not photoshop. In a world where things seem to just appear on a whim, we wanted to be sure that Brynn knew how much actual work was going on behind the scenes. Day one was clean-out day. She actually took every single non-furniture item out of her room. All of it. She moved most of it into the hallway but also took a bunch to the basement and set up camp down there. She sorted all of her stuff and got rid of about a third of what she had. Scott helped her move the furniture to the center of the room and cover it in drop cloths. Day two was clean and prime day. She and Scott dusted and cleaned her walls and chair rail and then they got to work priming the ceiling and walls. I'm not sure whether Scott knew how hard it would be to let an 11-year-old help him paint a room. I knew -- I let two 10-year-olds and two 8-year-olds paint the inside of the Bunk-alow last fall. Using paint brushes. There is some skill involved in painting a room and it takes time to develop. In Brynn's room, the lack of skill meant that the roller tray got stepped in a few times and paint was dripped on the floor several times. By day three, painting day, Scott actually got up early and tried to start before Brynn woke up. The reality was, priming exhausted her and she didn't have much enthusiasm for painting. She helped with the painting but not quite like she did with priming. Lessons learned (and that was our goal).
I'll be back later this week with more photos of Brynn's new room and a source list. Until then, I'd love to hear your thoughts on your kids' roles in planning their own rooms!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

{business 101} 940 Saturdays.

My elbows were sore. I felt like someone smacked them both with a hammer. It's because I'd been on my computer all day long. On a Saturday. When I'm working, my elbows sit on the desk. It's not ergonomically correct, I know. It hurt.

And it was a reminder of how I'd spent my time that day. Not with my kids, but instead fixing website details and figuring out pricing for our new organic lawn care business, Whole Yards.

I knew going into this learning-on-the-fly-adventure that I'd make sacrifices in order to run a business. I knew that this time of year would be busy, especially this first year. Late winter is when the lawn care industry ramps up for spring. Add to that the fact that I'm slow. I'm overly-detail oriented. I check and double check and triple check. Math takes me a long time. I like things to work properly, like Sir James Dyson.

But ten hours on a Saturday? In front of a computer?

If there's anything I learned from our Advent Adventure this winter, it's that I love setting aside structured time to spend with my kids and husband.

You know the famous Ferris Bueller quote, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

That's not just for high-schoolers. That totally applies to raising kids. Maybe more to raising kids than to anything else.

I'm looking for balance. I'm ready to set some boundaries for myself. When my kids are around, I want to spend most of my time making eye contact with them. I want to know them deeply. I want to laugh with them and dance and hug and get into arguments about whose turn it is to clean out the cat's litter box and why there is trash all over the bathroom floor.

How does a person make that happen?  I'm not one for rules. I can't say, "No weekend work. Ever." Because there will be weekends. And there will be evenings.
But there shouldn't be hustle or ignoring each other or snapping at each other because we're tied up in work.

940 Saturdays from the time my kids are born until they're 18. I'm more than halfway done. I can make a business run 400 Saturdays from now. And maybe I can make it run now. I've got seven more months to figure that out. But my kids come first.

How do you balance your time? What's your strategy?

This post is part of a series called Business 101, where I share my experience taking over a business for 8 months while I figure out whether it's something I want to take on permanently.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Movin' on up: Adjusting our spaces to kids' changing needs

While all kids have different interests and enjoy different activities, one thing is true for every kid: as they grow up, the way they use their spaces is ever-changing. I've found that I can make my life easier (read: cleaner and less crazy) if I adjust their spaces to suit how they spend their time.

When we first moved into our house, a space behind our sofa in the family room was dedicated to the kids and their toys. It worked well because I could see and hear them playing while I was in the kitchen, which is where I spent most of my time back then. The kids' space wasn't immediately visible to visitors and it was an area that, if left messy, wouldn't disturb the adults in the house.

As the kids grew older, though, and they didn't need my eyes on them all the time, it was a relief to move their area upstairs to the loft. Our loft area, a 9'x12' space at the top of the stairs on the way to the kids' bedrooms, has been an invaluable area for our kids over the past six years. I have a partially obstructed view of it from my kitchen and I can hear activity in this area from any corner of my house.

Before: Little Kid Space

After: Big Kid Space

Until this Christmas, the loft was home to my kids' play kitchen. We built it when Brynn was three years old and even as a ten year old this summer, she and Callie were still playing in it. They used it as a restaurant, as a pretend classroom, and sometimes even as a kitchen. Even though the play kitchen was still usable for the girls, we sensed that they were starting to cross into an age where they would appreciate a more mature play space. They weren't as loud and boisterous anymore when they played in the kitchen. In fact, they were whispering – almost like they didn't want us to know that they were still using their little kitchen. But what really convinced me was their tendency to raid my craft closet and their inability to put anything away when they were finished.

One day I kind of exploded. No, I totally exploded. It was one of those mom moments you never forget even though you wish you could totally block it out. Callie had been in my craft closet, made a mess, and left it a total disaster. Glue stuck to the table, glitter and paper scraps all over the place. Cardboard scraps strewn on the table and floor. String and ribbon and stickers and sequins everywhere. I had wanted to do a specific task quickly but couldn't even get into the closet.

I took all of her craft supplies out of the closet and tossed them in her room and told her she could never come back. My closet was off limits to her.

Within seconds I realized how unfair it was. Crafting is what Callie does. Creating purses and houses and bracelets out of cardboard and tape and rubber bands and fabric is who she is. When she can't create, she starts to burst at the seams. It is who she is. A tinkerer. An artist. A creator.

So I took a deep breath and said, "Here's the deal. We cannot coexist in this space but you cannot exist without crafts. You need to choose: play kitchen or crafts." It took her a millisecond to respond, "Crafts!" Brynn agreed.

As much as it hurt to admit that they were growing up, I knew it had to happen. I took photos of their play kitchen and posted them on a local moms' Facebook page. The kitchen and its contents were gone within a day. We boxed up the little kid toys that we wanted to hang onto for visiting toddlers. We gave away everything else.

Starting with a clean slate, I built a simple divider to make the loft feel more separate from the hallway and to give me a wall to set a dresser against, so that we'd have plenty of storage. The divider is screwed into the floor, the adjacent wall, and the dresser it sits in front of. The dresser is a hand-me-down that I cleaned up and painted – it's perfect for holding fabric and craft supplies. I moved around some bookcases that were already in the space and I built a table out of bits and pieces in my garage (and a sheet of plywood I had to buy). I made curtains from fabric that I'd found in a pile of remnants a year or so ago. I had set the fabric aside for the next step in the evolution of this space and was glad to find it still sitting in my sewing closet. We stopped into Ikea for a few pieces to help us organize, and for a couple of stools to set at the table.

The divider is a 2x2 frame and 3/8" plywood leftover from other projects.

I scrubbed the brass pulls with Bar Keeper's Friend to make them shine!

Construction paper to roll over the table.

Buckets from the dollar aisle at Target and an Ikea BYGEL rail.

We also bought a new computer to put in this space. It wasn't something we'd planned to do right that very second, but our kids are using computers for more and more homework assignments, and the computer they'd been using was eight years old and running pretty slowly. (For the record, my four year old MacBook works fine...I just don't like to share it with my children.) We already had a computer cabinet in the loft – it was formerly a TV cabinet, that we converted to a computer cabinet – and it's been great for them to have an updated machine that I can see and hear from almost anywhere in the house. And I kind of love the giant 27" screen, even though it's hard for me to admit.

This TV cabinet was in my house as a kid. It's solid pine and really heavy! I painted it a few years ago and built the
platform for the computer. The keyboard sits on the pull-out tray that used to hold the TV. Our printer, printer paper,
ink, and camera accessories all fit into the bottom cabinet. And up top is our TV antenna for the whole house. Can
you see the beer cans on it? Classy.

If you don't count the new computer (ahem) changing this space cost us under $100. We already had almost all of the supplies and sold the old kitchen for $50. This has been, by far, the most impact-per-dollar change we've made in our house.

While it was sad to say goodbye to the little kitchen, watching the girls create in this space and knowing that it is a space we can use together has been a nice change for all four of us.

Here are some elements of this space that I think make it effective:
  • I can see and hear it from the kitchen. When the kids are using the computer, I can monitor it. 
  • I pass the loft while going to and from the girls' rooms at night, so I can stop in to clean up any supplies or scraps they leave behind. I'll never be surprised by a mess there because I have to pass it often.
  • The space may turn into a multi-use space for doing homework as well as crafting, but for now it's a place where they can leave an unfinished project to return to later, and in the meantime it doesn't bother anyone. It doesn't have to be moved out of the way for dinner or for guests.
  • The space is well-lit with lots of natural light and lamps as well as bright and cheery colors. It's an inspiring place to work.
  • Because the new computer is up there, the kids can turn a movie on Netflix or watch a how-to video on YouTube while they work.
  • The carpet is old, so I don't really care if they spill on it or screw it up in some other way, as I'm sure they will.
  • The table is finished with nearly bullet-proof PolyWhey floor finish, so it's easy to clean.
  • For super messy projects, I added a roll of construction paper to a dowel fastened under the table. Now we can roll paper over the table to make cleanup quick and easy.
  • There is plenty of storage. Storage in the hand-me-down dresser, storage in cans hanging from the walls, and storage in the two bookcases we've had in our house ever since we got married.
  • A whole wall is dedicated to inspiration and display. Right now a third of that wall is taken up by a Ugandan alphabet which was given to us by a friend who takes care of street kids in Uganda. I added some artwork with positive messages from The Handmade Home and we hung up the kids' favorite artwork to spur them on to more creativity.
Do you think you could carve out space in your house for a dedicated craft area? Or would a dedicated Lego space go over better in your house? How do you adjust your home to meet your kids' changing needs?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Cream of Tomato Soup

When I was a sophomore in high school, I visited Northwestern University with a friend and our moms. It was February so I wore a new navy blue pea coat with toggle buttons and a super cute floppy hood. My mom bought me that coat just for that trip – isn't it funny the things we remember? While in Evanston, we ate at a restaurant that had the best tomato soup any of us had ever tasted (I'm sure my palate was advanced for a 15-year-old). The soup was so good, in fact, that we asked the waiter if he could get us the recipe. And he did.

Do you ever ask for recipes in restaurants? This is the one and only time I've requested a restaurant's recipe, but maybe I should try it more often. It would cut down on the number of copycat failures my family has to endure.

I've altered the original recipe to fit how we eat now, meaning I've replaced the animal products with veggie alternatives. I promise it tastes great as a vegan version of cream of tomato (my kids say it's even better than Panera's cream of tomato, which speaks volumes coming from them), but I've included some dairy options in the recipe in case that's your preferance.

Northwestern Cream of Tomato Soup

  • 5 carrots, shredded
  • 5 stalks of celery, shredded
  • 1 medium white onion, shredded
  • 1/4 C water + 1/4 C olive oil OR 4 Tbsp butter + 4 Tbsp butter (I don't buy fake butter/margarine due to the palm oil it contains. Here's why.)
  • 3/4 - 1 C flour
  • 6 C water
  • 1 Tbsp veggie Better than Bouillon (OR replace water and bouillon with chicken or veggie stock)
  • 1 28oz can puréed tomatoes
  • 1 28oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tsp minced garlic
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/3 C cashew butter OR half and half
  • 1 C almond milk OR milk
In a very large stockpot or Dutch oven, sauté shredded carrots, celery, and onions with water for 7-10 minutes or until tender. Move to a bowl and set aside.

Warm olive oil over low heat. Add flour and cook 4-5 minutes. Increase heat to medium and add water (or broth), bouillon, tomato puree, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, bay leaf, garlic, pepper, salt, and cashew butter. Bring to a simmer and then add carrot mixture. Bring to a simmer again and reduce heat to low.

Simmer 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add almond milk and stir until well blended. Purée some or all of the mixture if desired. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with crusty bread and salad greens.

Makes 4 quarts.

Monday, December 16, 2013

How to build a kid-friendly gingerbread house

When I was a kid, I remember making gingerbread houses with my mom. Unfortunately what I remember the most clearly is our gingerbread houses collapsing. It seems like our roofs were always caving in! Maybe we made ten sturdy gingerbread houses and only one that collapsed, but all that withstood the test of time in my brain is the one that collapsed. Sorry, Mom!

Because of that, building a gingerbread house has always seemed a little daunting to me, but I've used the same process a few years in a row now and not a single house has collapsed (not even in the humidity of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where we built a few of these houses back in 2011).

My favorite recipe and template comes from Simply Recipes. I've added some ground pepper to the recipe to give the dough a bit more spice (we always make cookies out of the leftover dough) but other than that, I follow her recipe exactly.

Our Simply Recipes template cut out and ready to use.

Here are a few notes on what has worked for us:
  1. I double the recipe. One recipe will make two houses, but you have to use every single scrap and re-roll it a few times to get all of the pieces cut. Instead, I make a double batch and then use the scraps to make cookies. Unlike pie dough or a more delicate cookie dough, this dough doesn't get tough and inedible with multiple rollings.
  2. I use parchment paper under the house pieces while I cut and bake them, as Elise at Simply Recipes suggests. It's amazing how much more square a gingerbread house can be when the raw dough pieces don't shift and stretch as you move them from the cutting board to the baking sheet! When we cut the pieces, we do it on a cutting board and push down hard so that the knife can go through the parchment paper. Then we slide the parchment-backed walls and roof pieces right onto the baking sheets.
  3. Since the walls and roof pieces always get a little out of shape and rounded while baking, after they finish baking and while they're still hot, I lay the template on top of them and use a serrated knife to trim the edges. This gives me uniform, square pieces to work with. Then I let them cool, preferably overnight, before building the houses.
  4. For icing bags, I've had just as much success in the past using a ziplock bag filled with icing and a tiny bit of the corner cut off as I have with real icing bags. The ziplock bags are actually a little easier since my kids can't seem to keep from squeezing icing out of the top of a real icing bag. (If we're using real icing bags, I fold the tops over and secure them with a rubber band to keep them closed.)
  5. My kids like landscaping around their houses as much as they enjoy decorating the houses themselves, so I make sure to cut out cardboard pieces big enough to for a yard, then we wrap the cardboard in aluminum foil before gluing the walls to the foil as we build the houses. 
  6. As we put together the houses this year, I used a rubber band around the four walls to keep them together while the royal icing dried. I've used the melted sugar technique before, but prefer royal icing. Melted sugar is a bit too scary for me and my blood pressure rises as I stress out about whether or not I can put the pieces together before the sugar hardens. It does work, it's just not my favorite way to put together a house.
  7. Once the houses have their four walls up, I give them at least half an hour to set before putting on the roof. Finding a small jar or something similar to prop up the roof as it dries helps keep it in place.
  8. For the chimney, in the past I edge-glue all four pieces together, leaving a hollow center like a real chimney. This was never quick or easy. This year I figured out that I could sandwich together the two angled pieces and then glue the short and long pieces right along the edge of that sandwich. There's no need for the chimney to be hollow, and all of the seams end up covered in decorations anyway.
  9. For decorations, in the past we've used both leftover Halloween candy (stashed away just for the houses) and candy bought just for the houses. I also let my kids raid the pantry. They love to use nuts, dried beans, cereal, grains, lentils, and pretzels to decorate their houses.
  10. Lastly, gingerbread houses are time consuming and so I make the dough, bake, and build them over the course of a few days. I try to do most of the baking and cutting either by myself or with just one kid at a time. Once the decorating starts, they don't need my help anymore. They're pretty good at wrangling the icing bags without me. But if they tried to build the houses without me, it would be a disaster. I'm happy to do that for them – slowly and without them trying to rush the process.
Red lentils for the pathway.

Diagonal pretzels for siding.

Almond and marshmallow walkway, with a little pond out of blue sprinkles.

Almond chimney and Chex shingles.

Dried cannellini beans for stonework.

The gingerbread girl chilling outside her house!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

ADVENTure part 2: Enjoying the excitement!

I wondered, as I built our Advent calendar and created a million extra activities for us to do (because our life isn't hectic enough as it is) whether I was over-doing it. And maybe in a normal December it would have been too much. But, thankfully (did I just say that?) our weather has been super cold for the past week and we haven't been able to do much besides fun Advent activities.

I kind of feel like I dodged a bullet, actually.

And sometimes I look at the activities we (as in my kids and I) picked out and wonder if they're not holy enough? Not serious enough for something as special and as important as Advent. Are we turning the wait for the best gift in the world into something too lighthearted and silly?

But then I remember that when you're waiting for the best gift in the world, the one that gives you hope for our broken world, you should be giddy with excitement. You should be overflowing with joy. Any activity I can do with my kids that makes them laugh and makes their eyes sparkle fits that bill.

Our first nine days of Advent have been (mostly) joyful and giddy. They have been fun, silly, messy, creative, and occasionally a little bit frustrating, too. That's what happens when you ask kids to string popcorn using needles that are too big. Sigh. Every activity can't be perfect, right?

With fifteen days left until Christmas, thinking about our Advent adventure thus far makes me smile and I'm feeling excited about the days to come. And that's exactly what I was hoping for.

Psst...for more on our Advent adventure, check out the intro post here and the first ADVENTure post here.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

ADVENTure: Reminding us of the excitement of the season

The Christmas season is upon us and with just hours to spare, Scott and I got our advent calendar finished. Thanks to the activities in our calendar, so far we've decorated the house, played a few games of Jenga, enjoyed some family time on the floor with Callie's two guinea pigs and Brynn's mouse, and had a broccoli night (I made this broccoli crunch salad and this broccoli soup). The broccoli night was Callie's idea (especially interesting since she doesn't like broccoli). I've been documenting of all of our Advent fun so far on Instagram, using the hashtag AdventAdventure2013. I'd love it if you'd join in – post a photo of something fun your doing to celebrate the season and hashtag it so we can all see!

Here is a link to the document I made with our advent activities – please feel free to use it for your family. The ideas were mostly mine but I also had the girls make a list of their ideas and added those ideas to our activities. We ended up with many more than we needed and are keeping the extras in an envelope as "wild cards," for when we have time to add an additional activity or for activities that are weather dependent (ie: building a snowman doesn't work every day around here, but it might work tomorrow).

Scott was assigned the task of figuring out what activities could go on what days, so with our family calendar in hand he laid out all of the activities (which I'd printed and cut into cards), and slipped them into the right envelopes. Somehow he left out "decorate gingerbread houses" because apparently the man doesn't appreciate the joy of building a home only to eat it a few days later. That activity is a wild card now, which probably works out better so I'll have more time to plan for it.

For the calendar itself, I used an old cabinet door that came from the ReStore (you can buy them for a buck). I painted it with some barn red paint that I already had on hand and added 25 of the smallest cup hooks I could find at Home Depot. The cup hooks were $4 for 100 hooks. I found little 3x3 envelopes at Archivers (25 envelopes for $5) and punched holes into the top corners. We didn't seal them when we added the activity cards, so hopefully we'll be able to use them for a few years to come.

Are you doing anything special to remind you of the excitement of the Christmas season? Instagram it and hashtag it #AdventAdventure2013 so we can all see!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Homemade play dough with plant-based dyes

The last time I made play dough was about 8 years ago. I made a huge batch so that we could give some away as birthday gifts to my kids' friends. That dough lasted a good four or five years but it was kind of boring. Plain white. What fun is that?

It's a good thing kids have such great imaginations, right?

This time around I decided to try adding plant-based dyes to the dough. I've been wanting to experiment with plant-based dyes ever since we started juicing a few years ago. The intense colors of the juice made me want to do something fun with it...besides drinking it. I decided to try making plant-based dyes for this play dough without doing any research first...just to see how fool-proof it is. Or how smart I am?

I followed the basic play dough recipe with a few modifications to get the dyes to work. For each color, I made a separate batch of dough using the full dough recipe below.


Homemade Play Dough (makes almost two cups of dough)

For the dough:
1 C water/dye combined
1/2 C salt
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 C flour
2 tsp cream of tartar

I bought that giant cream of tartar from a restaurant supply
store about 10 years ago!

For three dye colors (purple, green, and orange):
1/2 C frozen blueberries, thawed
2 -3 C fresh baby spinach
1 small red beet + 2 Tbsp tumeric powder

  1. Juice your produce, cleaning your juicer between colors. If you don't own a juicer, chop up your produce and add a bit of water to it (just enough to cover your produce). Simmer it on the stove for a few hours. Strain.
  2. Using one empty jar per color, combine one color of juice with enough water to make 1 cup of liquid. 
  3. To each jar, add 1/2 C salt (and 2 Tbsp tumeric powder to the beet juice jar). Cover the jar and shake until the salt is dissolved or nearly dissolve. I was using coarse salt because it's all I had on hand. It never did dissolve completely, but the dough came out smooth despite the coarse salt.
  4. Add 1 Tbsp of vegetable oil to each jar and shake.
  5. In a pot that holds at least 1 quart, combine 1 C of flour and 2 tsp cream of tartar over medium heat. Add liquid (juice/salt/oil concoction) and stir vigorously with a flexible spatula until the mixture begins to look like play dough. This step took me about 2-3 minutes.
  6. Remove the dough from the pot and knead it until the color is uniform and the dough seems ready.
  7. Wash your pot and repeat the process with other colors, if you're making additional colors.
  8. Store dough in an air-tight container. If it starts to dry out, knead a bit more vegetable oil into it to bring it back to life.
Spinach juice, beet juice (right), and blueberry juice (left)

Juices combined with water and salt. Waiting for the salt to dissolve.

Making more than one color was a bit of a pain, to be honest, because of all of the containers and cleaning the juicer between colors. (Of course I did the research after I finished making my dough, and read here that you can knead your juice into the dough after making a big batch of plain dough. I also found out that carrot juice works to make orange dough. Duh.) But, I love the three colors I ended up with. And, while I think it's fun to be surrounded by neon colors like you find in the play dough you buy at the store, I love the earthiness of this dough and I really love that I don't have to wonder what's in it. 

If I were to do this again, I'd use carrot, spinach, and beet juice to make my three colors (that would give me green, orange, and pink instead of green, orange, and purple). The purple is beautiful, but blueberries are kind of pricey to be grinding up for play dough dye. I'd also try making one big batch with triple the recipe above and using pure water instead of water/dye mix for the dough. Then I'd knead the juice in at the end. The kneading would take more time, but the amount of time (and water) saved doing dishes and washing the juicer would probably be worth it!

Is this something you'd be willing to tackle at home? I loved experimenting with plant-based dyes. Next summer: plant-based tie-dye!