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We’re supposed to go to the water park today.  The forecast is partly cloudy with a 20% chance of rain.  Immediately, I start weighing whether or not it’s worth the risk to go, if there’s a possibility of rain.  But then I realize that a 20% chance of rain also means an 80% chance of no rain.  I’m no math wizard, but I do know that 80 is greater than 20, yet that 20% chance still makes me nervous.

And so it goes with parenting.  All of us parents are keenly aware of our children’s weaknesses.  They may have a boatload of strengths and wonderful qualities – 80% – but we can so easily become fixated on their weaknesses – the 20%.  I speak from experience because I just got whacked upside the head with the reality that my fears over the 20% have been robbing me of my joy as a parent, and sometimes blinding me to the 80% good in my kids.

One child, in particular, has struggled in many areas, and at times it felt like the ratios were flipped, with an 80% chance of rain all the time.  But the truth is, this child is not the same kid he was back then.  He’s growing into a thoughtful, more responsible, funny, articulate, sweet young man who loves God and wants to please others.  And yet, when he went on a recent 6-day choir and missions trip, I waited in anticipation for the rain.  I knew what his past struggles were, and assumed they were here to stay, not believing that all my years of discipling, teaching, training, praying for God to help him and me, exposing him to uncomfortable experiences so he could grow, had actually made a difference.  But then one of the adult sponsors told us what a great job he did and how much he’s matured this year.  My son also blew us away by telling us what a great time he’d had doing all the activities that were centered around…sports.  Sports?  Really?!!  The kid who previously hated all things sports-related had a good time?  And he wasn’t even with his good buddies?  How could this be?

Listen up, moms – yes, I’m talking to you, mom who’s apologizing to everyone at the playground for her preschooler who is throwing bark dust – our kids have a greater capacity to change and grow than we give them credit for.  We pour out all our energies on trying to prevent that 20% chance of rain, but the truth is, childhood is full of moments of sunshine and rain for all kids.  Every child will have ups and downs, but we will miss the joy of the ups if we live in constant fear of the downs.  So much of what we obsess over either never happens, or if it does, we realize it’s just another opportunity to learn from mistakes and grow.  We tend to project their current weaknesses and struggles far into the future, ignoring the reality that time and maturity – and all that love we pour into them on a daily basis – can soften, and sometimes erase, the jagged edges of their personalities.

Instead of seeing our kids as they are now, we often cling to painful memories of the past, and overlook all the growth that’s taken place.  It took being away from my kid for 6 days for me to realize that I still see him as that struggling 2nd grader who was drowning in public school and needed me to rescue him.  The truth is, he’s no longer that same kid.  Yes, he has areas of weakness that we still work to address, but so does every other kid his age.  (What 12-year-old boy is not awkward or weird in some way?)  I have a good friend with a Mary Poppins child – “practically perfect in every way” – and it blesses me every time she starts listing all her fears for him.  Why?  Because it reminds me that no mother is immune to the 20% dilemma.  We ALL can get so fixated on what might go wrong, that we miss out on enjoying all the is going right!

Not only do we risk missing out on the joy of parenting when we live in fear of the rain, we demonstrate a lack of faith.  If I have given my child to God and asked for God to help me be the parent my kids need, am I really trusting in God’s provision when I worry and fret over those aspects of his personality that God may just have given him on purpose?  I have heard “worry” defined as planning for the future without God.  Raise your hand if you’re not guilty of this.  (Mine is down, by the way.)  I would go a step further to define worry over a child as making assumptions about your child’s future based on the absolute worst case scenarios regarding all his or her weaknesses being magnified to the degree that they crowd out any possible good.  I’m not saying that if we all would just chillax, everything will come out sunshine and roses.  Parenting is hard work and not always rewarding.  Some kids make really bad choices and suffer tough consequences, and we can’t (and sometimes shouldn’t) always prevent that.  But neither should we live in fear of that day from the time they are 2 years old!  It’s tough when kids don’t live up to our expectations, and we can beat ourselves up and train ourselves to be on the lookout for clouds as a result.  But where’s the joy in that?  Where’s the faith and hope in that?  Who wins?  To quote the Song That Shall Not Be Named, it’s time to “let it go.”  We can trust God to give us wisdom.  We can trust God to help us love our kids, even when they’re going through tough phases.  And we can trust God to shelter us under his wing when the rain comes.

So today, I’m resolving to let go of my past images and assumptions of my child so I can see him for who he really is, “God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for [him] to do” (Eph. 2:10).  Today, I’m going to the water park.  It might rain or be too cold and cause us to leave early, in which case we’ll have a funny story to recall together later.  Or it just might be awesome.  I’m putting my hope in the 80% chance of sun because I know Who created the sun, and he works all things together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).  All things.  100%.  I like those odds.

Whether you’re planning a “staycation” this summer, or just looking for some fun day trip ideas to stave off summer boredom, Southwest Idaho’s Treasure Valley has some fantastic, family-friendly attractions like Roaring Springs Water Park and Wahooz. But for those of us who don’t have wads of cash lying around, there are plenty of less expensive destinations for family fun.  Last summer, I made a point of visiting several of these hidden gems and discovered that there’s really no place like home!  Here are some of our favorite summer activities that are either free or cost a fraction of what you’d pay at the usual summer hangouts.

Instead of an Expensive Water Park, Try…

Eagle Island State Park
Eagle Island State Park – Located on a curve of the Boise River in Eagle, this “island” has a playground and long length of beach that’s perfect for building sand castles and cooling off in the water.  The swimming area has boundary ropes to keep kids from going too deep, and there are several shady trees where parents can watch kids play, since there are no lifeguards on duty.  (However, I’d suggest bringing a beach umbrella or free-standing shade if you can, since the park can get busy on the weekends.)  If you want your kids to enjoy the thrill of a water slide without gouging your wallet, the park has an old school water slide on the weekends that costs $1/slide, $8/10 slides, or $12/day.  When we go, I spend $8 on the 10-slide band which comes with tear-off tickets my kids can share, since after 5 slides they’re usually ready to go back to the beach.  We bring our own float tubes, which you can air up at the park for $.50.  I found 38-in. tubes with handles for $6 at Target, and these last for years.  If you spent $10 on the State Parks Passport when you registered your vehicle (since this pass is tied to vehicle registration), you can get into the park for free.  If not, it’s only $5/vehicle.

Lucky Peak

Sandy Point Beach at Lucky Peak Reservoir – Another beach lies just outside of Boise, and is also free with the State Parks Passport (or $5/vehicle).  The swimming area is much larger, but remains shallow all the way out to the water fountain in the middle.  There are lots of great shade trees that are closer to the beach, so this is a good park for families with toddlers who need to stay a little closer to parents.  The downside of this beach is that there can be a lot of geese in the area, but it didn’t bother us when we visited.  They’ve recently installed a Frisbee golf course, which we look forward to checking out.

Floating the Boise River – For some kid-friendly thrills, try taking older kids floating down the Boise River (and by “older,” I mean kids you will enjoy being stuck with in the middle of a river for 1 1/2 – 2 hrs.).  It’s best to do this mid-summer when the river has warmed up and the water level is a little lower and slower.  (A 90 degree day is perfect for rafting, although you may prefer a warmer temperature if you’re tubing.)  If you’re like me and have inherited a raft from parents who are willing to drop you off at Barber Park (where you can air up your raft for free), then wait for you at the exit point in Ann Morrison Park, then this activity is free.  If not, you can take 2 vehicles and drop one off in Ann Morrison before continuing on to Barber Park or take advantage of the $3/person shuttle available at Barber Park.  They also have raft and tube rentals there.  We enjoy a raft and tube combo by tying one of our tubes to the raft so kids can take turns floating in the tube, but then hop back in the raft when we get to the “rapids” (which are just a few very mild waterfalls, but add to the excitement for kids).  A word to the wise, though: Stay away from the edges, and when you get to a fork in the river, take the path everyone else is taking, unless you want to get out and carry your raft back to the river.  And don’t forget the sunscreen!

Parks with Splash Pads – If your kids are too young to float the river, Kleiner Memorial Park (near The Village) and Settlers Park in Meridian are two fabulous parks for little ones with splash pads for water play when kids get too hot on the jungle gym.  They also both have concession stands.  Kleiner, with its unique playground equipment, is a nice size for toddlers because it’s smaller and easier for parents to keep an eye on kids.  Settlers Park has a huge playground and splash pad that can keep my kids entertained for hours.  There’s not a whole lot of shade, though, so you may need to bring your own if you have a large group.  Settlers also has a music play area, climbing area, tennis courts and more, so bring flip flops or water shoes that will allow your kids to go back and forth between activities and water play.

Instead of Expensive Fun Parks for Mini-Golf, Arcade Games, and Bowling, Try…

Ridgecrest Wee 9

9-hole Golf at Ridgecrest - Ridgecrest Golf Course in Nampa has a great deal for families on their Wee 9 course every Saturday and Sunday after 4 p.m.  As long as you have at least one child golfing with you, the cost is only $5/person for 9 holes – cheaper than mini-golfing at Wahooz!  (They have some clubs available to use, if you don’t have children’s clubs.)  This is an annual activity for us because it’s a nice course with a beautiful view of the mountains, there are special kids tees (in yellow) so the kids can start closer to the hole, and it’s great exercise.

Frisbee Golf – No golf clubs?  No problem!  There are lots of Frisbee golf courses in the area, including a nice one in Boise’s Ann Morrison Park.  Settlers Park and Eagle Island State Park have courses set up in the winter.  Our favorite course is at West Park in Nampa, which ends at a playground.  Any old Frisbee will do, but it is easier if you use the smaller discs (found in any sporting goods store) designed for Frisbee golf.  You can find a decent putter for $10, and that’s all most of us need.  To play, simply find the tee marked #1 and aim for the metal basket.  When you reach the “hole,” you should be able to see the next tee.  (You can often find course maps online, which takes away some of the guesswork.)  We don’t keep score in our family, but we do have the kids practice proper etiquette by waiting for the person farthest from the hole to throw first before they throw their disc (which also prevents kids from getting whacked in the head by a Frisbee thrown behind them).  This is also great exercise, and even little kids can have fun throwing a Frisbee as they walk along the course.

Celebration Park Atlatl Range

Celebration Park - Instead of playing the same old arcade games in a dark, noisy room, take a short drive to Idaho’s only archaeological park, situated on the scenic Snake River.  You can throw an atlatl/prehistoric spear in the atlatl range and walk among petroglyphs that are 100 to 10,000 years old.  The visitor’s center is open from 10 – 2 p.m., and there’s a $2 entrance fee.  (This is a county park, not a state park, so the state passport doesn’t apply here.)  Bring a picnic to enjoy down by the river, and be sure to take the kids across the historic Guffey Railroad Bridge.

Dollar Days Bowling – When you’re tired of getting baked in the sun, bowling can be an inexpensive way to beat the heat.  Through the Kids Bowl Free program, kids can bowl 2 free games every day all summer long (although you still pay for shoe rental).  This is a national program and all you have to do is register online.  If you go to Nampa Bowl on Dollar Days (Tuesdays, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. or Fridays, 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.), shoe rental and games – as well as hot dogs, fries, and drinks – are only $1 for all ages.  So a family of 4 can bowl for the price of 1 person at one of the arcadepalooza bowling alleys.  It is a smoke-free facility, and they have bumpers to make bowling more enjoyable for kids (and…um…moms).

Looking For Free Educational Activities to Stop The Summer Brain Drain?  Try…

MK Nature Center & Municipal Park – Tucked away in a corner of downtown Boise is a lovely stream-walk nature path where kids can view and learn about native fish, as well as enjoy some beautiful scenery.  The visitor’s center has some hands-on learning activities for kids, and it’s all free!  Bring a picnic and enjoy the afternoon at nearby Municipal Park which is on the Greenbelt path that winds along the banks of the Boise River, and part of the Idaho Birding Trail for bird viewing.  Don’t forget your binoculars and bird identification book!

Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology & Quarry View Park – Not far away from Municipal Park is Quarry View park, to the left of the entrance to the Old Penitentiary.  While the playground will mostly appeal to younger kids, there’s a large block of sandstone nearby with plaques that outline the area’s fascinating geological history.  (I’m not a geology nut, but I found it to be very interesting, and my kids enjoyed climbing on the rock.)  We stumbled upon this park on a visit to the Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology, which sits next to the Old Penitentiary.  While the Old Penitentiary and nearby Idaho Botanical Garden cost money, this museum is free and quite interesting.  (It does not have air-conditioning, however, so go in the morning!)  The Botanical Garden is definitely worth a visit, and has a lovely picnic area.  But if you want to picnic for free, check out Quarry View Park after you visit the museum.

The "Haunted Wastewater Tour" was...um...haunting.

The “Haunted Wastewater Tour” was…um…haunting.

Boise WaterShed Environmental Education Center – From 10 a.m. to noon each Wednesday during the summer, all ages can participate in interactive exhibits, do arts and crafts, and enjoy scientific demonstrations as well as hands-on presentations relating to environmental issues and conservation.  At 11 a.m., you can go on a tour of the wastewater treatment plant – a perfect educational activity for the tween boys in your life.  (Closed-toe shoes are required because ew.)  We went on the “Haunted Wastewater Tour” that’s offered in October.  It was literally the crappiest family outing ever, but lots of fun.  Please enjoy the above picture of my husband and son during this tour, as there will be no pictures of me in a hard hat on this blog.  Ever.

Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park & Observatory – Who needs snow when you can sled down the largest single-structure sand dune in North America!  About an hour east of Boise is Bruneau Dunes State Park, where you can climb the sand dunes and sled down, then cool off in the lake – although it’s not the greatest swimming spot, in my opinion.  (Be sure to bring bug spray and sun screen, and don’t forget your sled!)  The sand gets hot in the summer, so I’d recommend visiting in the morning if you’re planning on climbing the dunes.  However, if you prefer the evening, there is an observatory where you can gaze at the night sky on Friday and Saturday nights.  (Please visit the website for times and check the weather report before you go, to make sure your view won’t be obstructed by clouds.)  Although the observatory tour and orientation program are free, it costs $3/person to look through the telescopes (5 and under are free).  Entrance to the park is free with your State Parks Passport or $5/vehicle.

Instead of Blowing Your Budget on Babysitters and Summer Blockbusters at the Megaplex, Try…

Drive-In Movie – If you’ve never gone to a drive-in movie, you’re missing out!  It’s so much fun to hang out under the stars with other families and their pajama-clad kiddos.  This is an annual activity for our family, usually in May or September when the showtimes are earlier and the weather is cool.  The Terrace Drive-In is on the edge of Nampa in Caldwell, and you can’t beat the price for a double feature: $8/adult, kids under 12 are free.  You can bring your own food there, so I usually pop some popcorn at home and bring cookies and water bottles.  If it’s going to be cold, I’ll put hot chocolate in a thermos.  We throw tons of pillows and a couple sleeping bags in the back of the van with the back seats folded down so we can open the hatch and let the kids get cozy for the movie(s).  Typically, the first movie is a family-friendly feature.  Then little ones can crash while Mom and Dad (and older kids) watch their flick.  (My youngest usually poops out before the second movie, so we give her earplugs and let her go to sleep up front with the sound in the rear speakers for us.)  My husband and I bring camping chairs and sit outside under the stars – a great date when you can’t find (or afford) a babysitter!

$.50 Kids Movie Matinees - Another cheap summer treat is the “Family Days in the Summer” program at the Reel Theater.  Every Monday and Wednesday, the 10 a.m. showing of the kids movies that are rated G or PG costs only $.50/person or $2.50 for 3D movies (including adults).  With so many fun movies coming out this summer, if you have the patience to wait for a month or so, you’ll save a bundle on movie tickets.  (If you haven’t been there in a while, they have new leather reclining seats and all digital screens – not bad for $.50!)

Free Movies in the Park – Several communities show free family movies on an inflatable screen at dusk (around 9 p.m.), like Settlers Park in Meridian.  This year, Nampa is joining in the fun and showing family movies (like Frozen and The Lego Movie) on select dates at Nampa’s Optimist park.  Bring your blankets and lawn chairs for some free fun with your community.

So what are you waiting for!

You can write some of these activities on your calendar before the summer fills up, or jot down items from the list to place in a “Summer Fun Bucket” that you draw from when the kids start saying, “I’m booooooored.”  If you want to be able to spontaneously hop in the car and just go, I recommend keeping a backpack stocked and ready to grab on your way out the door.  Here’s what I keep in mine:

  • Camera (because my phone only makes phone calls)
  • Hats and sunglasses
  • Waterproof Sunscreen – I like the spray on kind for quick application
  • Bug spray
  • Antibacterial wipes – for cleaning dirty hands or other messes
  • Paper towels to eat off of and for clean-up – roll up several of the half-size towels, secure with a rubber band and store it in a ziplock bag (since sometimes you need an emergency ziplock bag to contain a mess, make an ice pack, etc.)
  • Magnifying glass, binoculars and bird identification book
  • Local parks/trails maps
  • Granola bars, fruit leather, etc.
  • Plastic grocery store sack for storing “treasures” the kids find (which you can throw away when you get home)

We always fill up water bottles on our way out the door, and usually fill our small cooler with easy picnic items like turkey breast cubes, cheese sticks, crackers or multigrain chips, carrots, and grapes or dried fruit.  I also like to keep the following items in our trunk:

  • Picnic blanket
  • Camping chairs (usually just 2 for my husband and me to sit on while the kids explore)
  • Magazine (for the aforementioned sitting)
  • Frisbees, playground ball and bases (for kickball)

Have a fabulous, inexpensive, fun-filled summer!  (Just don’t forget to “schedule” some lazy days, too.)

What are your favorite summer family activities?

This moist, delicious chocolate cake is the only dessert recipe you need to serve all your loved ones with food allergies – unless they’re allergic to awesomeness!  It is not only free of the top allergens – wheat/gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, nuts – it is super cheap and easy to make.  But most importantly, your guests won’t know what they’re missing.  When my gluten-eating family members come to a birthday party, they eagerly ask, “Is this THE chocolate cake?”  When I served this at a party with gluten-eating friends, one of the teenagers – a TEENAGER, people – said, “This is gluten free and dairy free?  It tastes better than regular cake!”  She is wise beyond her years.

The secret to the moist crumb is vinegar and baking soda for leavening instead of eggs.  I know, it sounds weird, but I promise you won’t taste the vinegar.  This cake is inexpensive, and doesn’t need refrigeration because it contains no milk or eggs.  Like most GF chocolate baked goods, it tastes better the second day, so it’s a perfect make-ahead dessert.  For a finer crumb to make cakes in molds, just omit the extra tablespoon of water and beat on medium speed for 2-3 minutes.  To keep it from sticking to the pan, grease the pan and dust with cocoa.  The cake won’t be as moist and dark, but it will hold its shape for fancy cakes like my son’s Lord of The Rings, ring-shaped cake (a.k.a. One Cake To Rule Them All), which I baked in a tube pan.

Ring Cake

I substitute cornstarch for 2 T. of GF flour because that’s how you make cake flour.  However, if you have a corn allergy, you can substitute potato starch.  If you don’t have sorghum flour, or are using a flour blend that contains sorghum, just substitute 2 more tablespoons of your flour blend for the sorghum.  I’ve made this with both my flour blend (below) and Pamela’s Artisan Flour Blend (in which case I don’t use sorghum or add xanthan gum since this blend contains both).

For frosting, I have yet to come up with a chocolate frosting that tastes better than Pillsbury’s Fudge Frosting.  It is dairy free, but contains soy, so if you have a soy allergy you’ll need to make homemade frosting.  However, the original recipe I modified calls for a dusting of cocoa on top, so you could also try that instead of frosting.  If you want a white frosting that’s allergen-free for a birthday cake, I’ve made one using canned coconut milk that tastes really good (recipe below).

Moist Chocolate Cake

Allergy Friendly Chocolate Cake
Makes one 8″x8″ pan or 8″ round, or 12 cupcakes

1 c. sugar
3 T. cocoa powder (I use Hershey’s cocoa, found in the baking aisle)
1 1/4 c. GF flour blend*
2 T. sorghum flour (or use additional flour blend if yours contains sorghum)
2 T. cornstarch (or potato starch)
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. xanthan gum (omit if it’s in your flour blend already)
1/2 tsp. salt
6 T. canola oil
1 T. GF vanilla extract (we get ours from Costco)
1 T. apple cider vinegar
1 c. + 1T. warm water (or more, if needed to get a loose batter)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  It’s important that the oven is ready to go and the cake goes into the oven as soon as the vinegar and soda are mixed, otherwise the cake will be flat.  For this same reason, be sure to grease your pan or muffin tin ahead of time.  If you’re planning on making a molded cake or removing it from the pan to frost, dust the greased pan with cocoa powder, as well.

Use a whisk or the whisk attachment from your mixer to combine the cocoa and sugar in your mixing bowl.  (I just hold the whisk attachment from the mixer to blend the dry ingredients, then attach it when I’m ready to mix in the wet ingredients.)  Once the cocoa is thoroughly blended with the sugar, to keep it from clumping, add the remaining dry ingredients and whisk to combine.

Fill your 1 c. liquid measuring cup with hot water, then set it aside while you add the wet ingredients, starting with the oil.  Add the water last and mix on medium low for about 30 seconds, scraping the bowl occasionally and adding the additional tablespoon of water to get a thin batter.  Do not overmix.  If you use a different flour blend that absorbs water more, you may need to add another tablespoon of water to thin it.  The loose batter guarantees a moist crumb.  (See notes above if you want to make a molded cake that requires a finer crumb.)

Fill greased pan or muffin cups and immediately place in oven.  Bake square or round pan 25-30 min., or 20-22 minutes for cupcakes until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  (Use the shorter time if using a dark, nonstick pan.)  Cupcakes should rise to the top of the pan, but a square cake will not rise all the way up, so don’t worry that it didn’t turn out!  What it lacks in height can be made up with frosting…

Cool completely and frost or dust with cocoa powder.  Store tightly covered at room temperature.  Serve with vanilla ice cream – for a dairy free option, we like So Delicious brand coconut milk ice cream – drizzled with Hershey’s chocolate syrup, which is also dairy free!

Allergy Friendly Frosting:

1/2 c. dairy free margarine (I imagine coconut oil would work, with a dash of salt)
4 c. powdered sugar (this contains cornstarch, so do not use this recipe for corn allergies)
1/3 c. full-fat canned coconut milk (in the Asian food aisle, NOT the kind in the carton)
1 tsp. vanilla extract

In a large mixer bowl, cream margarine and half the powdered sugar until light and creamy.  Add coconut milk and vanilla.  Gradually add remaining powdered sugar, beating until smooth.  Add a little more coconut milk if frosting is too stiff, or a little more powdered sugar if too thin.  This will have a mild coconut flavor that complements the cake well.

Chocolate Variation: I haven’t tried this, but according to my cookbook, you can replace 1/2 c. of the powdered sugar with 1/2 c. cocoa, sifted together with the remaining powdered sugar for a chocolate frosting.  For a mocha frosting, blend 1 T. instant coffee powder into the margarine.

*Brenda’s GF Flour Blend – I triple this and store it in a gallon freezer bag in the fridge:

1 c. rice flour
1 c. brown rice flour
1/3 c. cornstarch
1/3 c. potato starch
1/3 c. tapioca starch/flour
1 T. potato flour
1 T. sweet rice flour (also called sticky rice flour)

I hear you.  Your holiday checklist is not even close to being checked off.  Christmas is right around the corner and you’re just sure you’re letting everyone down this year.  There is so much to be done and so little time.  Having a “simple” Christmas sounds so alluring, but in reality, makes you feel like you’re just being lazy.

Can I respectfully enter your guilt trip for a moment and whisper a word of grace to you?  May I suggest that, perhaps, instead of a Pinterest Perfect Christmas, your family just wants you? I know that this time of year, Mom is the one who makes the “magic” happen, and it feels like a huge responsibility – because it is.  Perhaps, unrealistically so.  But the warmth that makes us fondly remember Christmases past comes from the feelings we felt with our loved ones – not the decorations, the food, nor even the presents.

This year I resolved to have a simplified, more joyful Christmas, and I can tell you that it’s worth it to say NO to the guilt monster.  Here is how I am having the most un-Pinterest-worthy and BEST Christmas ever, and my letter to “future stressed-out me” (which, perhaps, might encourage you, too):

Let Go Of Feeling Responsible For Everyone’s Merry Christmas
This year, for the first time in 17 years, we’re not writing a Christmas letter or printing family photo cards to send out.  Will some people be disappointed?  Probably.  But I am not responsible for their happiness.  Say it with me, moms: I am not responsible for everyone else’s happiness.  I realized that because of social media, we’re connected to the people on our list already.  If they want to know what’s going on in our family or see pictures of my kids, it’s all right there on my timeline.  However, I’ve also chosen to hand-write Christmas cards in response to those who took the time to send me one, and I respond to their letter with a much more personal note than the generic “Merry Christmas from our house to yours,” printed on a card that will likely end up in the trash.  Whether you’re stressed about cards, the gifts you’re giving (or not giving), or are just feeling guilty that you don’t have the energy to do all the things that please your family, give yourself permission to give what you can, not what you can’t.

“Good Enough” Can Be Best
One of our traditions that’s developed over the years is the observance of Saint Lucia Day, a Swedish holiday that we discovered one year when I was teaching my kids about the holiday customs of countries where we have ancestors.  In the past, I would go all out with a fancy breakfast for my daughter to serve, which is why she loves this holiday.  This year, I felt like I “should” get up early and make cinnamon rolls for the celebration, but decided instead to spend my morning sipping coffee and reflecting on scripture by the Christmas tree (which fills my bucket), and grabbed some gluten free doughnuts from the freezer for my daughter to serve instead.  Guess what?  It was just as special, and because I didn’t spend the morning in the kitchen, I offered to braid my daughter’s hair like her Swedish “Kirsten, an American Girl” doll.  She loved it!

St. Lucia Day

This time of year, it can be tempting to think that all our family needs from us is a feast of all their favorite foods, but taking a short-cut or two so you can offer your time instead can be so much more rewarding for all of you.  Why decorate every square inch of the house when a Christmas tree and a few clusters of decorations will do?  Maybe you have gorgeous Christmas china, but maybe your family would be fine with dinner served on festive paper plates so you can play games with them after dinner instead of doing dishes.  Because I had made time for self-care in the morning on St. Lucia Day, I had the energy to join my family at the Christmas Chemistry Show that night, which I usually delegate to my husband so I can stay home and wrap gifts.  I can’t tell you how excited my kids were to finally share this experience with Mom.  While they enjoy the things I do “for” them, what they really want is to do things “with” me.

Speaking of Gift Wrapping…
I am, perhaps, the laziest gift wrapper on the planet.  (See how “simple” makes us feel “lazy”?)  I reuse the same gift bags every year, and don’t even label them.  I simply assign a different color of tissue paper to each person, and it drives my children crazy because they don’t know which gifts are theirs.  <insert maniacal laugh>  Unfortunately, I usually forget whose gifts are whose by Christmas day, and end up peaking at all the gifts before I hand them out.  But still, it takes me less than a half-hour to wrap everyone’s gifts, which frees me up to do the holiday activities I enjoy, like reading with my kids by the Christmas tree.  This is perhaps my most freeing discovery: If I take advantage of time savers on the stuff that’s not meaningful for me, it gives me more time to focus on the things that are.

Do Crafts With Your Kids Only If You Enjoy It
Some years, I’ve given the kids plain gift bags or paper to decorate with stickers or stamps for extended family members, and the result is definitely not like the pictures of hand-made wrapping paper you see in Family Fun magazine (which, I’m pretty sure, were not actually decorated by children).  If you enjoy doing craftsy things with your kids, then go for it!  (Just stick the ugly packages under the back of the tree.)  If you’re like me and an afternoon of frosting a gingerbread house with your kids makes you borderline homicidal, then just say no.  If you do not enjoy making ornaments with your kids, find something to do with them that you DO enjoy instead (like baking, ice skating, playing games, putting together puzzles, etc.).  Just because there are women out there who love to decorate ornate packages with their children’s drawings and make fancy shmancy decorations with their kids out of stuff you and I put in the trash can, doesn’t mean we all have to do this.  Can I get an amen?

You Don’t Have To Leave Home To Make Memories
This year, because of my husband’s insanely busy work schedule, we’ve passed on a lot of community activities – and it’s been great!  Some years, you just can’t do it all, and that can be a wonderful thing.  My daughter was disappointed that we stayed home from the church Christmas party because my husband was sick and we’d had activities the previous two nights in a row.  So I decided to have an impromptu Family Fun Night.  My daughter got to pick a family game, my husband chose a holiday movie, I chose a holiday book for us to read together, and my son got to choose the dessert from a list of already made goodies (that included Reese’s Peanut Butter Trees because I don’t do marathon baking days).  We had a great time together and it took zero work.  The best thing about leaving white space on your calendar (or crossing some things off) is that it makes room for spontaneity which, I’ve discovered, is essential to my enjoyment of the holidays.  If the holiday “script” stresses you out, then make room on your calendar for some unscripted fun.  (And remember our mantra: I am not responsible for everyone’s Merry Christmas.)

But Do Leave Home If That’s What Energizes You
Holiday busyness can also take a toll on us and leave us feeling lonely and isolated.  However, you don’t have to clean your house from top to bottom and throw fancy parties to connect with friends and loved ones at Christmas.  Sometimes, the simplest get-togethers are the most enjoyable for everyone.  This year, we met up with a couple families at a theater to see a movie together, then went to a nearby family fun center for (gluten free!) pizza and burgers while the kids played arcade games with their friends.  We had a great time connecting with friends, and it energized us instead of exhausting us.  Especially if you are an extrovert, make time for people.  But you can do it while walking through a pretty area with Christmas lights or sipping eggnog lattes at your favorite coffee shop.  Have little ones?  Meet friends at a McDonald’s playplace and let the kids run around while you enjoy a $1 coffee.  Joy to the budget!

Remember That Jesus Is Not A Baby; He’s Your Savior
To be honest, some years it’s felt like the Baby Jesus was just one more child I had to serve at Christmas.  Can you relate?  However, Jesus didn’t come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28).  Have you let him minister to you recently?  This year, instead of trying to wring every ounce of meaning out of Luke 2 for a month, my family is finishing reading the Old Testament.  It’s been fun to play “Where’s Waldo” with the prophecies of Christ as they pop up in our readings.  Not only that, by avoiding reading the Christmas story until Christmas day, it’s creating a sense of anticipation and longing for the promised Messiah – exactly what Advent is all about!  Sometimes, we need to remember amid the hustle and bustle of Christmas, that God didn’t just send us a baby; he sent his only Son to fulfill his promise to save all who turn to him.

What do you need from Jesus today?  Joy, peace, patience?  Do you need him to whisper, “Be still and know that I am God” to remind you that you don’t have to be?  Hear the kindness and gentleness in his voice as he offers you this invitation:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” – Matthew 11:28-30 (The Message)

He is our joy this Christmas.  Let him lift the heavy burdens of false guilt and expectations from your shoulders.  Rest in him.  Christ is not interested in giving us a Pinterest-worthy Christmas; he wants to give us himself.  Likewise, when we work alongside our Savior to bless our families, Jesus helps us to let go of “ill-fitting” burdens so we can simply give the gift of our ourselves.  O come let us adore him, for in Christ we find freedom, rest, and joy!

I came up with this recipe after scoring a reduced-price Udi’s gluten free raisin bread loaf from the day-old bakery cart at the grocery store.  This is a great way to use up GF bread that is past its prime, since it’s too expensive to waste!  However, we were low on milk, so I searched the internet for recipes that use evaporated milk and found an easy one on the Carnation site that I modified by adding extra butter and substituting some rum extract, one of my husband’s favorite flavorings.  I used 9 slices of bread for a “cakey” bread pudding, so if you prefer a more traditional pudding texture, use 8 slices.

Substitutions
The original recipe called for bread and raisins, not raisin bread, so if you don’t have raisin bread you can substitute 8 slices of GF bread and 1/2 c. raisins.  I used a little less sugar than the original recipe called for, since the bread was already sweetened, so add another tablespoon of brown sugar if using plain bread.  If you’re not a fan of rum flavoring, or don’t have it on hand, just substitute additional vanilla extract for the rum extract.  To make this dairy free, substitute 1 1/2 c. original almond milk for the evaporated milk, since I have found that they both have the same creamy texture and have successfully substituted that in the past.

Raisin Bread Pudding

Gluten Free, Buttery Rum Raisin Bread Pudding

8 or 9 slices gluten free raisin bread, cut into 1/2 in. cubes
2 eggs, beaten
1 12-oz. can evaporated milk (NOT fat free) or 1 1/2 c. almond milk
1/3 c. brown sugar
5 T. butter or DF margarine, divided (if subbing unsalted oil, like coconut oil, add 1/8 tsp. salt)
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. rum extract

Cube bread and set aside.  In a large mixing bowl combine beaten eggs, brown sugar, and 1/2 of the evaporated milk.  Melt 3 T. butter and add to mixing bowl with remaining ingredients and milk.  Stir until combined.  Add bread cubes and stir until coated.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  While oven is heating, set a timer for 5 min. and grease an 8″ x 8″ pan.  When the timer goes off, stir bread and transfer to prepared pan, pressing down on the mixture with a spatula.  Set timer for 5 min. again.  Cut remaining 2 T. butter into 8 cubes and place on top of bread mixture.

Butter-topped Bread Pudding

When the timer goes off, place pan in the oven and bake for 35-40 min. or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.  (Mine took 35 min.)  Serve warm with whipped cream or, for a sweeter bread pudding, drizzle with caramel or butterscotch sauce.  For a dairy free topping, I’d suggest a powdered sugar glaze with almond milk and vanilla.

Making gluten free frozen meals doesn’t have to take extra time, just extra planning, and it can save you a bundle on expensive GF convenience food for those nights when you just don’t have time to cook.  The most economical way to freezer cook is to stock up on meat and ingredients for side dishes that freeze well when they’re on sale, and plan to cook enough for 2 or 3 freezer meals in addition to your dinner that week.  If you do this only twice a week, you’ll have a treasure trove of quick meals for busy nights in no time!  I did this for three weeks last month, and was able to take the week before Thanksgiving off of cooking as a result.  It was awesome!  If you’re having company come to visit, then you’ll definitely be glad you took the time to make a few meals in advance so you don’t have to spend precious visiting time slaving in the kitchen.

Tips on Freezer Cooking
The key to successful freezer cooking is to get rid of as much air as you can in your bag or container.  I have a fancy vacuum-sealer that I never use because it’s cheaper to just use a Ziplock freezer bag (I use generic brands).  Just place your completely cooled food items into the smallest size bag that will work, press out the air, close the bag almost all the way and, if it’s not raw meat, use a straw to suck out the rest of the air.  You’ll see the bag shrink around your food.  Then just pull out the straw and quickly seal.  Your food will last for months this way with nary an ice crystal to cause freezer burn!  For casseroles or side dishes like mashed potatoes, I like to place them in a disposable tin pan (from the dollar store) with a layer of plastic wrap against the potatoes and heavy duty foil over that.

If you’re new to freezer cooking, avoid dishes with rice or pasta, as these can be tricky to freeze without them turning to mush – especially rice pasta, which gets mushy easily.  However, corn tortillas freeze well, as do potato side dishes.  Most GF breads freeze well, as do cupcakes and cookie dough.  (I prefer to freeze the dough, rather than cookies which can crumble after thawing, since freshly baked cookies are the best!)  Homemade meatballs and chicken strips freeze well and go with side dishes that are quick to heat, like pasta or frozen GF French fries (always read labels on fries, since some contain wheat).  When making a homemade sauce or cream soup for casseroles, be sure to add a pinch of xanthan gum to keep the ingredients from separating.  (This miracle ingredient is in just about every commercial sauce or convenience food, and it’s already in your pantry.  Use it!)  It’s best to freeze sauces or crunchy toppings (like the onions for my Green Bean Casserole) separately and assemble thawed ingredients just prior to baking.

Some of my favorite freezer meals are right on this blog:

Crock Pot Pork Taco meat can be frozen in serving sizes for tacos or nacho meat. You can also make the tacos ahead of time and freeze them in a bag.  These make great enchiladas, too, but freeze the sauce for enchiladas separately.  This is a very versatile meat that is on the menu regularly because it’s easy to throw together, makes a lot, and pork roasts often cost less than $2/lb.

  • If you don’t have enough green chilies, you can substitute chopped onion.  Or if you’re not a fan of pork, just freeze your favorite meat with GF taco seasoning!
  • If you’re new to cooking with corn tortillas, heat 3 or 4 at a time over low heat on a griddle sprayed with oil.  Flip after a few seconds, and immediately top with shredded cheese (we use cheddar or co-jack).  Put a 1-in. stripe of meat down the center.  When cheese is melted, lift one side of the tortilla over the meat, then roll the whole thing over to seal.  The heat makes them more pliable for rolling, and the cheese will keep the tortilla from popping open.

Lasagna – Okay, I know I said to not do pasta, but this is the exception since you don’t cook the noodles in advance.  Just layer the ingredients and freeze for later, or make a double batch so you can cook one and freeze one.

Mashed Potatoes – I tried the recipe from the Pioneer Woman blog for Thanksgiving and loved it!  I mashed a 5 lb. bag of potatoes the week before and had some for dinner, then froze the rest in a gallon-size freezer bag.  Then, on turkey day, I thawed it in the microwave and plopped it in a greased crock pot on high for a few hours, stirring occasionally to heat evenly.  At first, it was really soupy, but it thickened as it heated up – and tasted amazing!

  • For dairy free potatoes, skip the cream cheese and just use dairy free margarine and rice milk.
  • For a one dish meal, set aside some mashed potatoes for Shepherd’s Pie, which can also be frozen.

Fried Chicken Strips - These are a great way to use tenderloins trimmed from chicken breasts, or you can slice chicken breasts into strips.  I’ve linked my Mandarin Chicken recipe, but these work with any dipping sauce.

  • To freeze, cool cooked chicken at room temperature on plates lined with paper towels, then transfer to a freezer safe baking tray to freeze for a few hours.  Once frozen, transfer to a freezer bag and press out (or suck out) the air.  Cook from frozen in a 400 degree oven for about 20 min.
  • Recently, I’ve been using/loving the Hodgson Mill GF Seasoned Coating Mix (dairy, soy and corn free, and available at our Wal-Mart).  I follow the directions on the back for Country Fried Beef (which you can also make and freeze), and skip the messy egg wash by just applying a liberal amount of coating mix and frying in oil until golden brown.  (I coat all the chicken once, then do it a second time.)  The recipe on the box for Country White Gravy is easy and awesome, so make sure you freeze some potatoes to go with your chicken strips!  However, these also taste great with barbecue sauce or honey mustard.

Meatballs or Mini Meatloaves – You can grind oats in a food processor as a healthy substitute for bread crumbs in your favorite meatball recipe, or grind the heals from GF bread (I save mine in the freezer for making bread crumbs) and combine with your favorite seasonings.  Recently, I’ve begun adding shredded potato and grated onion to my meatballs for moist meatballs that somewhat resemble my Grandma’s Swedish meatballs (only I’m too lazy to roll them in flour and fry them, like we do with Swedish meatballs).

  •  I like to heat up frozen meatballs in spaghetti sauce while the pasta boils, but we sometimes eat them like mini meatloaves or as meatball subs in toasted Udi’s hot dog buns with some spaghetti sauce and melted mozzarella or provolone.

Ham and Cheese Sandwiches on Onion Poppy Seed Cheese Rolls/Buns – My mother-in-law made these for get-togethers with family and friends because you can make these in advance and pop the wrapped sandwiches in the oven for a quick meal.  I like to make cheese rolls from a Pamela’s bread mix for these, but you could use your favorite hamburger bun/hot dog bun/roll for these.

Also, don’t forget to freeze leftover turkey or roast chicken to make Turkey or Chicken Pot Pie Pizza or Biscuit Pot Pies!

Some of our favorite gluten free breads and desserts to freeze include:

With some quick meal items in the freezer this month, you’ll have time to bake yummy goodies like Sour Cream Sugar Cookies or these Easy Holiday Goodies to Make with Kids.  Throw some Wassail in the crock pot, and you’re set for the holidays!

 

After nearly 5 years of disappointing attempts to make soft, delicious, gluten free rolls, I finally found a keeper!  The softness comes from sour cream, and for the flour I just tweaked my cookie flour blend by substituting 1 T. cornmeal for 1 1/2 T. of the flour blend.  I’ve discovered that adding a tiny bit of cornmeal to yeast breads gives your taste buds something to latch onto without tasting “corny.”

I almost discarded the recipe when my first attempt yielded tasty, but tiny, little dough nuggets, until I fished the yeast packet out of the trash and discovered that my yeast had expired.  With good yeast, these rolls still aren’t huge – about the size of a biscuit – but they taste heavenly fresh out of the oven with a little honey butter.  This recipe only took me a half hour to assemble, plus one hour to rise and less than 20 minutes to bake.  The dough itself is easy to work with, and would probably work well for cinnamon rolls.  (When I get around to trying that, I’ll let you know!)

For other Thanksgiving recipe ideas, check out my GF Green Bean Casserole and Pumpkin Pie Crunch.  And as long as you’re assembling my all-purpose GF flour blend (at the bottom of this post, with tips on how to use it for everything), make a large batch to have on hand for baking holiday goodies like my grandma’s Sour Cream Sugar Cookies or our favorite “I Can’t Believe These Are Gluten Free!” Chocolate Chip Cookies.  Happy Gluten Free Holidays!

Gluten Free Rolls

Gluten Free Sour Cream Rolls

Step 1 in Large Bowl of Mixer:
1 c. Brenda’s all-purpose flour blend* (see recipe below)
2 T. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 package rapid rise or instant yeast (check expiration date!)

Step 2 in Separate Small Bowl:
1/2 c. tapioca starch/flour (they’re the same thing)
1/2 c. potato starch (NOT flour)
1 1/2 T. additional all-purpose flour blend
1 T. cornmeal
1 T. sweet rice flour (also called “sticky rice” flour)
1 tsp. xanthan gum

Step 3 in Sauce Pan:
2 T. butter
1/4 c. water
3/4 c. sour cream (I used regular, NOT reduced fat)

Step 4:
1 egg

Preheat oven to 200 degrees and keep it on for about 5 min.  Turn off oven for at least 10 minutes, so you’ll have a warm place for your rolls to rise.

Combine step 1 flour blend, sugar, salt, and undissolved yeast in a large mixer bowl.  Set aside.  In a separate bowl, whisk together the step 2 ingredients.  Set aside.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt butter.  Add water, and stir in sour cream.  Turn off heat and continue stirring until sour cream is thoroughly incorporated.  If you have a thermometer, test to make sure the temperature of the liquid is between 120 – 130 degrees.  If it’s too hot, set it aside to cool for a minute.  (You don’t want to kill the yeast.)

Add the warm liquid mixture to the step 1 dry ingredients in the mixer bowl and beat 2 minutes at medium speed, scraping bowl occasionally.  Beat in egg.  Beat in step 2 flour mixture just until combined.  You should have a soft dough like cookie dough.

Grease or spray a muffin pan with nonstick spray.  (I use a silicone pan, so if you have dark, nonstick pans, you may need to lower the temperature or shorten the baking time.)  Spray a little oil on one hand and rub your hands together to keep the dough from sticking to your fingers.  Pull off about 1/4 c. of dough and roll into a ball.  Place 12 dough balls in the muffin cups.  (You’ll want to smooth the outside of the balls as much as possible, since gluten free rolls keep the shape of the dough when they rise.) Cover muffin pan with a dish towel and place in warm oven to rise for 45 min.

Remove rolls from oven, keeping covered, and heat oven to 375 degrees.  Bake rolls for 15 – 18 minutes, until golden brown.  Immediately brush warm rolls with butter or gently rub a stick of butter over the tops (my preferred method). Store rolls in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

For best results, serve fresh from the oven – or reheat, if making these ahead of time – with butter and honey.  To make honey butter, blend 2 parts softened butter and 1 part honey with a fork.

*Brenda’s All-Purpose GF Flour Blend:
3 c. white rice flour
3 c. brown rice flour
1 c. tapioca flour/starch
1 c. cornstarch
1 c. potato starch
3 T. sweet rice flour (also called sticky rice flour)
3 T. potato flour

Whisk together flours/starches in a large bowl and store in a gallon-size freezer bag in the fridge.  Always store anything containing brown rice flour in the fridge because it can go rancid.  I also store my sweet rice flour and potato flour in the freezer.  (If you can’t find these flours in the store, you can order them online through Vitacost.)

A note on substituting a GF flour blend for wheat flour in recipes: There are lots of “all-purpose” GF flour blends out there, but a good rule of thumb is that it should look like regular wheat flour when you measure it, which mine does.  (If it looks more like cornstarch, then it has a high starch content.)  This flour can be substituted cup for cup of wheat flour in most recipes.  However, you’ll want to add some additional starches for rolls or delicate cookie flour, like I did in the recipe and links above.  For cake flour, substitute 2 T. cornstarch for 2 T. of the flour blend.  For yeast breads like pizza dough, substitute 1 to 2 T. cornmeal or corn flour for some of the flour blend.  With my all-purpose blend you can substitute sorghum and/or millet for 1/4 c. of flour when making “whole grain” muffins/sweet breads, or add more starches for things like biscuits.  The point is, you don’t need a bunch of different flour blends.  I use mine as the base flour and lighten it with starches for delicate baked goods or mix it with high fiber flour in the same way you would add whole wheat to regular flour.  No need to have a different blend for every recipe!  

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