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Archive for March, 2011

Every one of us goes through times of discouragement.  Blame it on the weather, hormones, finances, stress, kids – and some days, all of the above!  Whatever the cause, discouragement can creep up on you and rob you of joy.  If left unchecked, it can grow into depression and interfere with daily life.  We’ve been going through the early spring “blahs” lately, and feeling an overall lack of energy and enthusiasm.  It’s been constantly cloudy and rainy for the last month.  (I don’t know how you folks in the Pacific Northwest handle it!)  Plus, we’ve been stuck in a holding pattern for 6 months while we wait to see when my husband will get a job, which means perpetually tight finances with no relief in sight.  So what do we do when we feel “off,” or a little down, or just plain discouraged?

What do we do when these times coincide with church services when everyone around us seems emotionally moved and we don’t feel a thing?  (Ever been to a Christmas or Easter service and tried to will yourself to be moved emotionally, as if by sheer concentration you could conjure up a tear?)  I’m bringing up this last question because I think all of us know that we go through emotional ups and downs, but when our “downs” happen to coincide with others’ spiritual “ups,” it can cause us to question our relationship with God, and even our salvation.  While I don’t claim to be anyone’s spiritual guide or holy guru, I’ve gone through this experience enough to know that it happens to even the most spiritual person, and it is often a test to see if we will choose to obey God when we don’t feel the warm fuzzies, which is part of being a mature Christian.  But knowing that it happens to the best of us, still doesn’t answer the question: What do we do when we’ve got the blues or blahs?

I think the first step is to pray Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Sometimes we get too busy and neglect our spiritual walk, and that “off” feeling can be the Holy Spirit trying to get our attention.  When this is the case, if we quiet ourselves and open our hearts to examination by the Holy Spirit, I believe God is quick to reveal whatever area is in need of repentance or action.  (In my case last weekend, God called me to take action and deal with an area of my home that needed to be organized, and was going to drain energy from me as long as I avoided it.)  When God disciplines, it is always specific, beneficial, and for the purpose of restoring relationship. Any feeling or thought that is centered around notions of being a failure, an idiot, or some other form of self-loathing is a poison dart from the enemy.  The Holy Spirit brings conviction so that we may repent and be restored to a victorious life in Christ.  When the voice that we’re listening to is saying, “If you’re not experiencing the same spiritual high as those around you, there must be something wrong with you,” then carefully consider who might be speaking.  If we have asked God for forgiveness of any known sin, and have opened our lives for examination and not felt a specific conviction or call to action, then I believe our feelings of discouragement are a battleground where we can either choose to give in to despair or pick up the Sword of the Spirit and fight with the power of praise in God’s word. I addressed the issue of fear a while back, and I believe the antidote for fear is the same for that of discouragement: praise.  Particularly, praising by praying the scriptures.

When we lift up the name of Jesus the enemy must kneel, for “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil. 2:10).  When we praise God – regardless of our emotions at the time – we are affirming his lordship over our lives and over the earth, and reminding the enemy that Jesus is Lord.  When we pray the scriptures, we are calling on the same authority Jesus used when tempted by Satan in the desert.    I believe there is no greater weapon than the scriptures when under attack, which is why I believe every victorious stand against the enemy begins with kneeling in prayer and daily scripture reading. There are no shortcuts to a victorious walk with Christ.  Sure, you can be a Christian without reading the Bible much, but the only way I know to fight discouragement from the enemy requires knowledge of the scriptures. If you’ve never prayed the scriptures before, begin by reading a passage and:

  • affirm back to God your belief that it is true
  • give thanks for any promises
  • and state your desire to obey any commands.

Memorizing scriptures gives the Holy Spirit the opportunity to bring these to mind when confronting the enemy.  When Jesus promised his disciples that God would send the Holy Spirit, he told them that the Counselor would remind them of all the things Jesus had told them (John 14:26).  It’s like having a tutor standing next to you while you take a test, reminding you of the answers you learned.  But the Holy Spirit can’t remind you of something you never learned!  We don’t memorize scriptures so we can get candy at Sunday School or so we can appear pious by quoting scriptures to others.  We memorize scripture because it is how we battle against the enemy of our souls. To give you a picture of what this looks like, here is a sample of what I have prayed when under a cloud of discouragement.  By the time I finished praying this recently, the cloud had lifted and the attack was over – to God be the glory!

Lord, I praise you that I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14).  I thank you that I am your workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which you prepared in advance for me to do (Eph. 2:10).  I thank you for having a plan for my life, and that you cause everything to work together  for the good of those who love you and are called according to your purpose (Rom. 8:28).  Thank you for loving the world so much that you sent your only son, so that by believing in you I may not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).  I thank you that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).  If you are for us, who can be against us (Rom. 8:31)?  I acknowledge that you have not given me a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, and love, and self-discipline (2 Tim. 1:7).  I pray that you would give me power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is your love (Eph. 3:18).  I thank you for pouring out your love into my heart by the Holy Spirit, whom you have given me (Rom 5:5).  I thank you that you discipline those whom you love (Rev. 3:19).  Help me to love you with all my heart and soul and mind and strength, and show me how to love others (Mark 12:30).  I thank you that your perfect love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18).  I thank you that you promise to keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast because he trusts in you (Isaiah 26:3).  I trust in you with all my heart, and pray that as I acknowledge you in all my ways that you would direct my paths (Prov. 3:5-6).  I desire to seek first your kingdom and your righteousness, and I trust you to provide everything I need (Matt. 6:33).  Bless the LORD, oh my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name (Psalm 103:1)!

By the way, don’t worry if you don’t know the scripture reference or exact wording – trust me, the enemy does.  (While I know all these scriptures from memory, I had to look up many of the references to add to this post.  I’m not trying to impress anyone, but to simply demonstrate what scripture prayer looks like in my life.)  If you would like to join me in daily Bible reading through the New Testament and Proverbs this year, and begin the exciting journey of praying the scriptures, the current week’s Bible reading schedule is always available on the Faith tab above.

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My budget for homeschooling materials varies from month to month, but it is generally less than $10/month for my 2 kids.  We mostly rely on the library, dollar store or Costco materials, and Christmas/birthday gifts (like books, science experiments, and craft supplies).  So to keep learning fun without spending a lot of money, I like to turn games and household supplies into educational materials. My kids prefer to practice their math skills through games, so I figured out how to come up with a variety of games they could play using homemade flashcards and games we already have in our closet.  Chances are, you probably have some of these games, too.   Whether you homeschool or help your kids with homework, you can make learning fun without buying expensive educational supplies.  Here are the instructions for how I make flashcards, and ideas for a variety of ways you can use them.

Homemade Flashcards

  1. You can make these as big or as small as you like.  Simply cut some paper into rectangles that are all the same size.  These should be long enough to be equally divided into thirds: 2/3 for the problem, and 1/3 for the answer.
  2. Depending on what you’re working on, you may want to color code several sets.  For instance, when my son was working on learning his multiplication tables, we made each set a different color.  That way, it’s easier to put the sets back together when you mix them in games later on.  This also works well for addition/subtraction fact families (i.e. 5+8=13, 8+5=13, 13-8=5, 13-5=8), to help your child identify that there are groups of numbers that go together.  (Addition and subtraction are a cinch when your child knows his fact families.)
  3. To use these as a learning exercise initially, you can write the problem and have your child write the answer in the corresponding color.  Have a few extra back-up squares for answers that need to be corrected.
  4. Cut the answer squares so that you have problem rectangles and answer squares (preferably all the same size).

Games Using Homemade Flashcards

  • Matching – When first learning multiplication or fact families, it’s easiest to have the problem facing up in one column, and the answers facing up in another column.  Your child then tries put the right answer next to each problem.
  • Memory – Turn the answers and questions face down in a grid.  Turning over two at a time, your child tries to find a match.  Continue until all problems and answers are matched.  (This also works for any subject with questions that have similar answers, like matching states with state capitols.)
  • Bingo – Make a 4×4 or 5×5 grid with the answer squares (mixing different sets, if necessary) facing up.  Put the problem cards in a stack, facing up.    Using pennies, cover the answer as you solve each problem.  The first person to get 4 (or 5, depending on size of grid) in a row wins.  The great thing about this game is that you can have 2 kids working with separate cards based on their abilities, solving different problems but competing to see who gets Bingo first.  (We played this today with my son reviewing multiplication and my daughter reviewing subtraction.)
  • Race Car Math – All you need for this game is a set of flashcards (homemade or store bought), a board game with a path that leads from start to finish (like Candyland, Life, Mousetrap, or even a homemade loop divided into squares), dice or a spinner, and small matchbox cars or race cars that will fit inside the game spaces.  Players take turns rolling the dice (or spinning the spinner) to determine how many spaces their car will advance if their question is answered correctly.  If the answer is incorrect, they don’t get to move.  The first person to cross the finish wins.  Again, flashcards can be tailored to each child’s ability.  (I tend to prefer store-bought flashcards for this game – which we buy at the dollar store – since they usually have the answers on the back, which allows the kids to check their own answers and play independently.)

Other kids games you can modify as educational games:

  • Trouble – There’s something satisfying about pushing down on the bubble and having it pop the dice for you.  We first used this game with clock flashcards for practicing telling time.  You can play this as a flashcard game by simply requiring a correct answer before a player can advance (as in Race Car Math).  Or you can make a set of number flashcards from 1-20 to be used in reviewing addition (by adding a number card to the number displayed on the dice), subtraction (by subtracting the number displayed on the dice from the flashcard number), or multiplication (using numbers 1-10 to multiply by the number displayed on the dice).
  • Phase 10 Dice – This game has you rolling different sets of numbers for each round, and adding up your total.  So it’s great for practicing adding several numbers, and introduces the concept of multiplication when you have to add a set of 3 or 4 of the same number.  Since you’re also keeping a running total after each phase, you can practice double and triple-digit addition.
  • Scrabble – The first time we played this with the kids, my son said, “Hey Mom, we can play this for both spelling AND math!”  We put a twist on this game by changing the “double letter score” spaces to “multiply by 6 (or 7 or 8 or whatever multiplication set you’re reviewing).  Each child has their own score pad and is responsible for adding their points for each word to their overall total, which involves double and triple-digit addition.
  • Candyland – This game, like Trouble, can be used with any flashcards.  When my son was in kindergarten, we used his sight word cards.  Now we’re working on adding money, so I’m using cards with various dollar amounts that determine how much you earn for each square.  Each child takes the appropriate amount of coins to add up to the amount listed on the card drawn (i.e. $.22), using either play money or real money (I use real money, since we have a lot of change).  If you land on one of the special spaces (i.e. gumdrop), you have to go to that spot on the board and put back the amount of money on the card for that round.   The first person to reach the finish line gets a $1 bonus, but whoever has the most money in the end wins.  You can make the dollar or coin amount as high or low as you want, depending on the level of each child.  Or you can reverse the game and give each child a certain amount of money to begin with.  Each card drawn then determines how much they have to pay, with special spaces serving as a bonus that allows them to earn the amount of money on the card drawn.  The person with the most money left at the end wins.

Obviously, just about any game can be used with flashcards, but the key is to find out what your kids love to play and try to turn it into a learning opportunity.  What works for your family will probably be different from what works for mine.  For instance, I invented “tickle numbers” when my son was learning to recognize numbers 11-20.  If he identified the number correctly, he got to tickle Daddy.  If he was wrong, he got tickled.  It worked because our kids love to be tickled (and to tickle Daddy!), so they loved to play this game.

Games are a great way to learn and review just about anything, and any game can be used for educational purposes.  Games regularly go on sale, and can be purchased inexpensively at thrift stores or garage sales.  Of course, the best place to start is with whatever you already have that your kids enjoy playing.  Make a cheap set of flashcards, and let the learning fun begin!

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It all started with the “Around the World Cookbook” for kids by Abigail Dodge.  I had picked it up at the library when my son was reading the classic, “Around the World in 80 Days.”  I thought it would be fun to squeeze in a little geography and explore some of the countries the main character visited in the book.  This turned into a spring break staycation that we called, “Around the World in 8 Days.”

I chose some countries spread out over the globe, then found recipes from the children’s cookbook to try along with a few of our favorites to match each country’s cuisine.  I also scanned our home library and the public library for movies and books to go along with each country.  I had picked up a children’s atlas at a used book sale, so that provided our geography material.  I wanted to include music and crafts or games to go with each country, but some countries were easier to find materials for than others.  Since the emphasis was on having fun and creating a sense of adventure, we settled for whatever we could easily find, and let the kids’ interests determine how in depth our study went.

Some of the countries were a hit, like our Caribbean night when we discovered Jamaican Jerk Chicken – YUM!  (That was also the night we discovered that we can’t broil anything containing sugar without setting off the smoke alarm.)  Other countries weren’t quite as popular, like our Australian disaster when the kids hated watching “The Man From Snowy River” (set in Australia), and could care less about listing to Uluru music.  But by the end of the week, the general consensus was that we had fun and learned some things, and both kids were saying, “Can we do this again next year?”

So if you’d like to add an educational twist to your spring break staycation, and throw in a few countries to explore, here are some ideas for countries to “visit” based on what we did last year, as well as a few new ideas.  Also, be sure to check out my other post on cheap Spring Break Staycations for inexpensive places to visit and activities to do at home.

Caribbean Islands:

  • Food – Jamaican Jerk Chicken with Caribbean Sweet Potato Fries.  The seasonings for these sound really bizarre, but trust me, IT’S SO GOOD!  This recipe is not very spicy, because it came from a kids cookbook.  So if you’ve had super spicy jerk chicken before, don’t shy away from this recipe for fear of it being too hot.  We also tried making fried plantains, but it didn’t work very well.  Since mangoes are now in season, you can round out the meal with a tropical fruit salad served in a coconut half.
  • Movie – “Cool Runnings” or “Pirates of the Caribbean”
  • Activity – Play some steel drum music during dinner, and don’t forget to play a game of limbo!  If you’re going with a “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme, pull out some big empty boxes for the kids to turn into pirate ships.  We did this when my son was reading, “Treasure Island,” and the kids had a blast.  They decorated the outside with markers and named their ships.  (I can’t remember what my daughter called hers, but it was something ridiculous like “The Fluffy Bunny.”)  I gave them wrapping paper tubes for the mast, which were duct-taped to the inside of the box on one end.  Then we poked a chopstick through the tube for the yard arm, and hung a dish towel attached with safety pins for the sail.  I made a treasure map with various landmarks for the kids to find around the house (like “Mermaid Cove,” using my daughter’s Ariel doll), then sent them off with their ships to find the buried treasure (some fake gold coins buried beneath throw pillows on the couch).

Europe:

  • Food – We love Shepherd’s Pie, which works for England, Ireland, or Scotland.  Scottish shortbread cookies are a yummy way to round out your meal.  If you want to study England, you could go with fish and chips instead.  For a study of Germany or Austria, you could have sausages and mustard with hard rolls.
  • Movie – If you like musicals, this is a great opportunity to pull out a favorite musical from childhood.  “Brigadoon” works for Scotland.  “Mary Poppins” and “My Fair Lady” are set in England.  “The Sound of Music” is set in Austria.  Your kids might even pick up a history lesson from some of these movies!  There are lots of more contemporary films to chose from as well, so chances are you can find something in your DVD library at home.  (Even “Beauty and the Beast” would work for France, after a meal of French Toast, of course!)
  • Activity – If you’re studying England, you just have to have high tea with your little girl!  Practice your yodeling when studying Austria, or come up with some silly Highland Games for a Scottish theme.  Highland games, by nature, are pretty ridiculous, so anything goes!  Have a contest to see how many stacked pillows you can jump over, or who can toss a ball the farthest using a shovel.  Or go online to find ideas for Scottish kids games.  To listen to some bagpipe music, just google “bagpipe music.”  If you’re studying Germany, you could add a little music appreciation lesson and play music from famous composers born in Germany, like Bach and Beethoven.  Mozart was born in Austria.

Middle East/Africa:

  • Activity – Last year, spring break took place the week before Easter.  So we took advantage of this time to teach the kids about the Passover, since Christianity is rooted in Judaism, and Jesus’ Last Supper was a Passover meal.  I have a copy of the Haggadah (liturgy used in the traditional Passover celebration), by Joan Lipis, that I bought through Jews for Jesus.  It ties in both Jewish and Christian symbols.  I pared down the seder to fit my children’s attention spans, and tried to focus on the elements that involved the most participation.  For instance, they loved finding the hidden matzoh, or “afikoman.”  Since we don’t drink wine or eat gluten, we substituted grape juice and gluten free flatbread (for which you can find the recipe here).
  • Food – My Homemade Chicken Soup recipe is actually taken from an authentic Passover cookbook.  The potato dumplings are also from a Passover recipe.
  • Movie – Every year we watch “The Prince of Egypt” at Passover time.  And every year it moves me.

Asia:

  • Food – We love Stephanie O’Dea’s Crock Pot Fried Rice recipe, which is a hoot to read online.  Don’t have time to fix something in the crock pot?  Add some frozen peas and carrots with your Ramen noodles (or Thai Kitchen Spring Onion flavor rice noodle, for a gluten free soup), then stir in an egg with a fork once the noodles finish cooking.  Voila!  Chinese egg drop soup!
  • Movie – We love “Kung Fu Panda” and “Mulan”
  • Check online for instructions on how to make simple origami projects with scraps of wrapping paper or construction paper (then call it “recycling” and pat yourself on the back for being environmentally conscientious).  Or clear away the furniture, pad a baggy shirt with pillows in front and back, and have a sumo wrestling tournament.

North America:

  • U.S.A. – You could focus on a particular area of our country, like New Orleans (jazz music, jumbalaya, and “Princess and the Frog” for your little Disney princess).  Or watch the movie, “Bolt” (available on Netflix streaming), and give the kids U.S. maps they can draw on to follow Bolt’s journey across America (while you’re eating waffles, of course).  Last year, we watched the musical, “Oklahoma,” and had fried chicken with corn on the cob for dinner.  This was also the night we set up the half tent inside and let them sleep out under the (glow-in-the-dark) stars.
  • Mexico – Everyone likes some form of Mexican food, so this is an easy one!  Dance to a little mariachi music with the kids, then watch “The Three Amigos.”

These are just a few ideas to get you started.  Be sure to have an atlas or globe on hand for your “journey,” and let the kids pick a few places, too.  You can check out library books to make it educational, and probably find most resources you need online.  Whatever you do, remember to have fun, and share with us what you did in the comments section below!

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This is one of my favorite grilled chicken dishes.  The seasonings may seem strange, but trust me – it’s awesome!  The coating keeps the chicken moist and juicy, and it’s not too spicy.  If using chicken breasts, cut them into tender-sized strips so they’ll cook faster, since the sugar will make them brown quickly.  I actually prefer using thighs for this recipe.  The Caribbean sweet potato fries compliment the chicken really well, but if you’re not sure you’ll like it, just season half the fries and use salt on the other half – although you’ll wish you’d seasoned all of them!

2 T. canola oil
3 T. brown sugar
1½ tsp. salt
¾ tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. dried thyme
¼ tsp. ground allspice
1/8 tsp. ground cayenne
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts or skinless thighs

Stir together oil and seasonings in a medium bowl.  Add chicken to bowl and toss to coat.

Broil:
Heat broiler on high and broil chicken in foil-lined pan for 6 minutes on each side.  (Be aware that broiling sugar can cause smoke and, thus, set off your smoke alarm.  Ask me how I know this…)

Grill:
Grill covered, over medium heat for 6-10 minutes on each side, depending on size of chicken pieces.  Cook bone-in chicken longer.

*Serve with grilled pineapple, cooked over medium heat for 10-15 minutes.

Caribbean Sweet Potato Fries

1 T. brown sugar
1 tsp. cumin
½ tsp. cinnamon
Pinch of allspice
2 T. canola oil
3 medium sweet potatoes, peeled
Coarse salt (regular works, too)

Cut each potato in half (or quarters, if they are large).  Cut each half into 3 or 4 long wedges.

Combine oil and first 4 seasonings in a large bowl.  Add potatoes and toss to coat.  Spread in an even layer on foil-lined jellyroll pan.  Sprinkle with salt.

Bake at 450 degrees for 15-20 minutes.

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We love this recipe which can be frozen and reheated later for an all-in-one, satisfying meal.

2 T. butter or dairy free margarine
1/2 c. chopped onion
2 carrots, chopped
1 T. flour (or GF flour blend)
2 c. (16 oz.) beef broth (we like jarred “Better Than Bouillon,” which is GF)
1/2 c. tomato sauce
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1/4 tsp. oregano
salt and pepper to taste
2-1/2 c. (1 lb.) ground beef or turkey, cooked
2 c. leftover mashed potatoes (preferably made with cream cheese)
1 egg

Melt butter/margarine in a large saucepan and fry the onion and carrots until golden brown.  Stir in the flour and cook one minute.  Gradually stir in beef broth and bring to a boil, stirring constantly.  Add the tomato sauce, Worcestershire sauce, oregano and seasonings.  Cover the pan.  Reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes.  Remove from heat and add cooked ground meat.  Mix well.

Mix an egg into mashed potatoes.  Pour meat into greased 8″x8″ pan.  Top with potatoes.  Cover with foil and freeze.  Or bake, uncovered, at 400 degrees for 20-30 minutes or until topping is brown and meat is heated through.  To heat from frozen stage, add 10-15 minutes more baking time.

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In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I thought I’d share my secret for Reuben Sandwiches without the rye bread.  Long before we were a gluten free household, I decided to see if I could come up with a substitute for rye bread because it tore up the inside of my mouth.  Since I had a bottle of caraway seeds – the little seeds that give rye bread its distinct flavor –  I tried sprinkling them on the sauerkraut in a Reuben sandwich made with whole wheat bread instead.  It worked!  So here’s how I make my mom’s Reuben Sandwich recipe (which doesn’t use Russian dressing like some people use, but feel free to modify it according to your tastes).

A firm, multigrain bread works best because you don’t want the bread to get soggy from the sauerkraut.  Luckily, most GF breads are pretty dense, so your favorite bread should work.

  1. Butter one side of each slice of bread.
  2. Place one slice buttered-side-down on a warm griddle or frying pan, and top with thin slices of corned beef.
  3. Remove sauerkraut with a fork and press against the side of the jar to drain excess liquid before layering on top of meat.
  4. Sprinkle with a generous amount of caraway seeds (which you can probably find in a bulk spice section for pennies).
  5. Top with a slice of Swiss cheese and remaining piece of bread.
  6. When the bottom slice of bread is lightly browned, flip and cook on the other side until the bread is browned and cheese is melted.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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Joyful Faith: Be Still

It was a particularly busy day, with homeschool lessons flowing into laundry, assembling chili for the crock pot, a dentist appointment, blog post, then family devotions and a movie with the kids.  After saying prayers with my little girl, I finally had an opportunity to relax and enjoy a warm bath by candlelight.  While soaking and savoring the quiet, I discovered something I’d never noticed before.  In the stillness of the water, I saw an almost perfect reflection of the candle and wall above it.  It was then that this thought settled in my mind:

Only in stillness can you see the reflection of the light.  Only when I am still, will others see the light of Christ reflected in me.  For the only light I have is what I reflect from the One who said, “I am the Light of the World.”  No one will see it unless I am still.

“Be still and know that I am God.” – Psalm 46:10.

How can we be still in 2011?  Most of us who are raising kids and trying to juggle a variety of responsibilities barely have a moment to slow down, let alone be still.  We race from one activity to the next, and the technology that was supposed to give us more free time has simply allowed us to cram more activity into our days.  Have you ever gone through a particularly busy week, and once it was finally over found that you couldn’t seem to relax?  Sometimes it feels like we’re in a hamster wheel; always running but going nowhere.  So let me ask a very difficult question (for both you and me): Who is benefiting from our constant busyness, our inability to be still?

Our culture tells us that if our kids don’t start playing sports (or an instrument, etc.) when they’re 4-years-old, they won’t have what it takes to be successful later on, but sports and extracurricular activity schedules are common factors in stressed out families today.  Do our kids really benefit from schedules that don’t allow them (or us) to be still?  We keep up our frantic pace out of fear that our kids will suffer somehow by not being the best at everything by the age of 10.  (Ironically, most high school coaches will tell you that it generally doesn’t matter whether or not kids played the sport when they were 8.)  When my naturally athletic daughter (who sooooo doesn’t get it from me) started kindergarten, we made her choose between gymnastics and dance class, to keep our schedule from getting out of control.  She chose dance that year, and now she’s doing gymnastics in first grade and taking a year off from dance.  It was a hard decision for her, but she made it, and doesn’t seem to be devastated (nor is her future in dance somehow doomed).  When we give our kids opportunities to make tough choices and limit their activities, we are teaching them how to say no to our culture’s pressure to “do all, be all, have it all.” In order to be still, we need to figure out how to get our family off the hamster wheel.  It doesn’t mean we cut out all activities, but we carefully chose what will enhance our lives, and say no sometimes to good things if they interfere with what’s best for the family as a whole. For our family, whenever we add an activity, we also take one away or find a way to spread them out over the course of the year.

It’s not just our American culture that wants to define us by our accomplishments and activities, but the culture within the church can put the same amount of pressure on us to appear “holy” by being busy in the church.  Holiness and church involvement are not the same thing.  I noticed, when reading the passage of scripture from Matthew 3:16-17 describing Jesus’ baptism, that when God said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased,” it was BEFORE Jesus’ earthly ministry began.  God was pleased with Jesus before he performed a single miracle or preached a sermon. So why would I think I have to head up a committee, teach Sunday School, lead a Bible study, attend every church event and sing in the choir in order to please God?  Not that any of these are bad things, and I recognize that we are called to serve in the body of Christ, but if I sweetly teach Sunday School to the preschoolers on Sunday morning, and yell at my kids all week because I’m so busy that I snap at everything, is that really bringing glory to God?

If God is more concerned with my heart than my accomplishments, then I will have to make it a priority to “be still and know that [He is] God.”  I need to absorb his light before I can shine it.  I can’t just view my morning devotions as an item on my to-do list that gets checked off first thing in the morning.  I need to slow down and allow time for reflection.  Meditation.  Stillness.  The Bible lists several occasions when Jesus went off by himself to pray.  He had incredible demands on his time, with crowds following him everywhere he went, but he knew that he needed to rest and pray.  If the Son of God needed time to be still before God, what makes me think I can keep running on empty and be any kind of effective witness for Christ?

So back to the image of the candle reflecting on the still water.  When I’m constantly in motion, I’m a poor reflection of God’s light.  However, when I have been diligent about protecting our family’s schedule from too many outside commitments, and focus each morning on being still while meditating on God’s word:

  • I am much more likely to stop and comfort my frustrated child instead of yelling at her to stop whining.
  • I’m more likely to interrupt my children’s bickering to remind them that we should speak words of kindness that build each other up, as mentioned in Ephesians 4:29, instead of just yelling up the stairs for them to knock it off.
  • I’m more likely to be playful with my kids and creatively solve problems, instead of giving them an ultimatum or threatening them with punishment.
  • I’m more likely to listen to my husband and respond to his needs, instead of brushing him off because I’ve got too much on my to-do list.

Jesus was – and IS – all about relationships.  I need to be still so that the light and love of Christ can shine through me to those around me.  My activities and ministries are secondary to my primary calling: to love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind (Luke 10:27).  To love God with all my strength means that I can’t devote all my strength to keeping the perfect house, raising kids who are the best at every activity under the sun, and heading every committee at church. Only when I nurture that first relationship by being still, can I successfully fulfill my second calling: to love my neighbor.  And if the activities I’ve chosen – no matter how good they may be – interfere with my ability reflect Christ, then prayerful changes must be made.  I must follow Jesus’ example and find a quiet place to be still before God.  After all, what does my “holy busyness” gain me, if my children do not see Christ reflected in me?

If you don’t already have a daily devotional and quiet time, I’d encourage you to find a time to be still and join me in reading from the books of Mark, 1 Corinthians, and Proverbs.  This week’s Weekly Bible Reading Schedule (which will take us through the entire New Testament and book of Proverbs this year) is always available on the Faith tab above.

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If you have a school-age child who is gluten intolerant, you know how frustrating it can be to come up with lunch options that don’t rely on the traditional staple of bread.  (And even if you’re not gluten intolerant, sometimes it’s nice to break out of the sandwich rut.)  Yes, there are gluten free bread mixes that make a fine sandwich, but some weeks I don’t have time to bake bread, and really good breads that don’t require toasting – like $5/loaf Udi’s bread – are a treat rather than a staple for us.  So back in the days when my son attended public school, I had to get pretty creative with lunch ideas that didn’t revolve around bread.

These GF lunch ideas have come in handy when we travel, since we like to bring food from home as much as possible to keep costs down.  Last summer, we drove from Idaho to Tennessee, and spent 7 days traveling in the car.  Having a variety of gluten free cold lunch options kept us from relying on fast food (which isn’t healthy, and really isn’t a good deal when you have to forgo the bun on your burger).  So whether you’re preparing to take a trip or just need some new ideas to liven up your child’s (our your own) lunch bag, here are some ideas for “outside the sandwich” gluten free lunches.

  • “Food Should Taste Good” brand Multigrain chips with hummus and cucumber slices. (There’s a coupon in the Costco coupon book for the chips this month, so we stock up with enough for 1 bag/month through the expiration date month plus 2 extra for traveling, since these tasty, cracker-like chips are high in fiber and protein to keep you full.)
  • Crackers (we like any flavor of the Blue Diamond Nut Thins crackers – the almond ones have a buttery taste like popcorn, but my son prefers the cheese-flavored crackers), deli meat slices (we like Hormel Natural Choices for nitrate-free lunch meat), and cheese slices or cheese stick.  My son likes to wrap a few slices of lunch meat around a cheese stick.  My daughter prefers to make cracker sandwiches using spreadable cheese like Laughing Cow spreadable Swiss.  I found Ziplock containers that had a divided tray (similar to a frozen food tray but with a lid), and used these on our trip for assembling cracker-type lunches.
  • Peanut butter dipping lunch: Peanut butter or dip made with 2 parts peanut butter and 1 part vanilla yogurt in a small container, celery sticks (don’t forget the raisins for ants on a log), apple slices (toss with a little apple juice that has ascorbic acid added to keep them from turning brown) or banana, and crackers (“Back to Nature” brand Multi-Seed crackers and Crunchmaster Multigrain crackers are both higher in fiber than most rice crackers and taste good with peanut butter).  Be sure to throw in a plastic knife for spreading the peanut butter.
  • Tortilla chips (we like Mission tortilla strips) and bean dip made with a can of refried beans (we like Taco Bell fat-free refried beans) mixed with some salsa.  You can sprinkle cheese on top or melt it in the microwave ahead of time for a cheesy bean dip.  We wash and reuse the tiny Glad disposable containers for things like hummus and bean dip.
  • Ranch BLT Chicken Wrap made with “Food for Life” brand brown rice tortilla.  Spread ranch dressing on the tortilla and put thin slices of cooked chicken along one edge, then use lettuce, bacon slices, and thin slices of tomato to cover the rest of the tortilla.  Starting with the chicken edge, roll up and cut in halves or thirds.  Wrap in foil or skewer with a toothpick.
  • Gluten free beefstick, cubed ham or turkey, raw veggies with dip, and popcorn.
  • Pasta salad made with rice noodles (for kids, try Tinkyada’s Brown Rice Little Dreams in fun shapes), cubed ham, mozzarella cubes (just cut up a cheese stick), grape tomatoes or whatever raw veggies you like.  Drizzle with Italian dressing.
  • Pancake PBJ – Make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich using leftover pancakes, and serve with a cup of yogurt or yogurt smoothie drink.
  • Homemade trail mix with GF cereal (we’ve used Rice Chex, Corn Chex, Kix, Berry Kix, Gorilla Munch, and Panda Puffs), pretzels (we LOVE Glutino pretzels), dried fruit (raisins, dried cranberries, dried apples cut up with kitchen scissors, apricots, etc.), nuts or nut clusters (we love Kirkland/Costco brand cashew nut clusters), seeds like shelled sunflower seeds or pepitas (small, green pumpkin seeds), and a few M&Ms or chocolate chips thrown in for fun.  Round it out with a cheese stick for added protein.
  • Cold quesadilla made ahead of time with corn tortillas, Mexican cheese blend, and leftover cooked chicken mixed with black beans and salsa.  Cut into triangles and include extra salsa for dipping.

For school or work lunches, you can also bring soup or leftovers from home in thermos-type containers.  I found one for my son that was shaped like a bowl, and used it to send:

  • leftover chili with Fritos Scoops for dipping
  • soup (Progresso has several GF varieties)
  • spaghetti (we like Ancient Harvest corn/quinoa spaghetti)
  • cut-up enchiladas made with corn tortillas
  • fried rice made with GF soy sauce (like La Choy)
  • mac n’ cheese with cubed ham (we like Annie’s GF mac n’ cheese)

If you’re packing a GF lunch for your child, remember to throw in some fruit and a couple gummy vitamins (we like L’il Critters GF gummy bears and gummy fish) since fewer GF products are fortified with vitamins.  Also, I discovered that a piece of candy or GF treat thrown in helps our kids feel “normal,” when they feel like they can still have some of the same goodies their friends have.  Kinnickinnick makes good GF Oreo-type cookies, and these went a long way toward helping my son cope with having to be different (even though we hardly ever ate Oreos before!).

When my daughter was in kindergarten, I had to send GF snacks for her to school.  She loved the Glutino pretzels, Kinnickinnick S’morables graham cracker-type cookies, and Mi-Del’s Arrowroot animal cookies.  She’s never once complained about not getting what the other kids got (and often, it was the other kids who were wanting what she got).  Even now that she’s no longer in kindergarten, we still like having these snacks on hand because they’re delicious!

Hungry, anyone?

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“The Lord does not look at the things man looks at.  Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7b

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent – the period before Easter when many Christians choose to participate in the sufferings of Christ by fasting/giving up something until Easter.  Some people choose to give up sugar, caffeine, TV watching, or other favorite activities as a spiritual discipline.  Some continue to fast on Sundays, while others (depending on your church’s tradition) view Sundays as a day of celebration when fasting is not appropriate.  Whatever your background or tradition concerning Lent, I’d like to throw out a few thoughts.

Why fast?
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).  Let’s face it, most of us in North America do not tend to deny ourselves a whole lot.  If we feel like vegging out, we turn on the TV.  If we’re hungry for a snack, we grab some chips from the pantry.  All day long we feed our desires.  Sure, we may do some work and justify an hour zoning out in front of the computer after being productive for several hours, or feel like we’re disciplined when we buy the $20 shoes instead of the $50 shoes (to go with the 15 other pairs in our closet).  But most of us – me included – probably don’t have a clue what it means to really sacrifice.

Fasting takes my focus off of my selfish desires and forces me to say, “No!” to the flesh. When we practice this kind of daily discipline, it can open our eyes to how much of our lives are actually spent trying to save our lives  – or to put it another way, to save OUR WAY OF LIFE.  Jesus said if I want to save my life I will lose it.  To me, that means if I’m constantly focused on meeting my own needs, I’m going to lose out on the kind of relationships and experiences God has planned for me.  But if I surrender my “right” to do whatever I feel is in my best interest, and stop acting like the world revolves around me, I will finally find the life God ordained for me, which is way better than anything I could have planned.  Fasting – whatever it is we choose to fast – can be the first step toward acting on the knowledge that I’m not here on this earth to do whatever pleases me.

Outward vs. Inward
I put the verse from 1 Samuel at the top of this post as a reminder for myself that appearing “spiritual” on the outside doesn’t matter because God looks at the heart.  Maybe instead of giving up chocolate or Starbucks, what God really wants is for me to give up bitterness and envy.  What if instead of fasting from food, we gave up nagging or gossiping by disciplining ourselves to pray before we speak?  We may not look as pious on the outside, but Jesus promises that “your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).

Giving Up vs. Exchanging
Many of us view fasting in a negative light, and envision pious monks forgoing the pleasures of this life.  But it seems to me that when God asks us to give something, it is so he can bless us with something of greater value in return.  There are many “If…then” statements in scripture that promise what God will do if we will obey his commands: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you” (here comes the “then” promise), “ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you” (John 15:7).  Fasting is not just about letting go of something, but about gaining a deeper connection to God so we can fully receive every spiritual blessing.

In order to gain from the experience of fasting, I think it’s important to replace whatever is being given up with prayer or some other spiritual discipline.  This is a great time to develop the habit of prayer or scripture reading, since research shows that anything you repeat daily for 6 weeks becomes a habit.  So if you choose to fast your morning coffee, try spending the time you would have spent drinking it in prayer.  If you’re fasting TV watching in the evening, replace some of it with time spent in the Bible or another Christian book.  (A few years ago I read Max Lucado’s, “And The Angels Were Silent,” which is a book about the last week of Jesus’ life.  I highly recommend it for the Lenten season.)   Daily scripture readings from the New Testament and Proverbs are always available on the Faith tab above, and are included below for your convenience.  This week we’re reading in Matthew about the week leading up to the crucifixion, and being reminded of all Christ suffered for us.

There’s no sacrifice we can make that is greater than Christ’s sacrifice for us. Ultimately, the Lenten season is not about what I’m giving up for Christ.  It’s about humbling myself so I can better comprehend and appreciate all Christ sacrificed for me.

Daily Bible Reading Schedule for March 8 – 14:

  • Tuesday – Matthew 26:17-35; 1 Corinthians 6:13b-20; Proverbs 10:31-32
  • Wednesday – Matthew 26:36-56; 1 Corinthians 7:1-9; Proverbs 11:1-3
  • Thursday – Matthew 26:57-75; 1 Corinthians 7:10-17; Proverbs 11:4
  • Friday – Matthew 27:1-10; 1 Corinthians 7:18-24; Proverbs 11:5-6
  • Saturday – Matthew 27:11-30; 1 Corinthians 7:25-31 Proverbs 11:7
  • Sunday – Matthew 27:31-56; 1 Corinthians 7:32-40; Proverbs 11:8
  • Monday – Matthew 27:57-66; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Proverbs 11:9-11

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We love to travel, but with gas prices climbing it’s not always affordable to get away for spring break.  Luckily, there are tons of fun, inexpensive things to do in the Nampa/Boise area.  (If you don’t live around here, there are ideas at the bottom that anyone can do.)  A few years ago we decided to do a spring break staycation, and visit local attractions similar to the places we normally seek out when we’re on vacation.  We not only saved money on gas and avoided the headache of packing and unpacking, we had a lot of fun doing things that don’t normally fit into our regular routine.  So here is a list of some of our favorite family fun places listed by discount days, along with a few new places we haven’t yet tried but hope to soon.  All these activities take place indoors, which means you don’t have to worry about weather spoiling your plans.  A family of four (2 adults and 2 kids age 6 and up) could do 6 days of activities on this list for less than $65! So no matter what your vacation budget – I’m adding a few free activity suggestions at the bottom, too – a staycation can be both fun and affordable.

Monday – Jumpin’ Jungle in Nampa ($8 for 2 kids)

  • Monday is family night from 4-8 p.m.  Kids can jump for $4/person (parents can come and watch for free).  I haven’t personally been here, but my daughter went for a party and had a lot of fun jumping on the inflatables.  There are separate obstacle courses for ages 5 and under and for bigger kids.

Tuesday – Family Movie Day ($4/family of 4)

  • All movies at the Nampa Reel Theater are $1 all day.  There is a $2 surcharge for 3D movies (which beats the pants off of paying $13 for a 3D movie at Edwards).
  • Overland Park Cinemas in Boise also has $1 movies on Tuesday, but they don’t offer as many matinees.  Their 3D surcharge is only $1.  The Overland Park Cinema is also close to the McDonald’s on Overland, where you can get half-price Happy Meals for dinner after 5 p.m. on Tuesdays.  (You can do this in Nampa, too.)

Wednesday – Choose your activity (no discount days, $13.20 – $28)

  • Jabbers Indoor Playplace in Nampa (by the new Edwards 12 Theater).  I haven’t been there, but I’ve taken my children to similar places in other states and really enjoyed it.  They have a construction zone, roadway, giant playhouse, farmer’s market, 13′ climbing structure, and a comfy parent lounge with cafe.  We used to visit Planet Kid in Boise for their climbing structures, and have also tried Monkey Bizness in Boise, but these places are often packed during spring break (especially Planet Kid which provides day camps) and are purely physical.  I like having a variety of activities, besides just climbing, so that when my kids get pooped there are other things for them to do.  (I hate paying $7 and having my kids wanting to go after an hour or so because they’re tired.)  Jabbers costs $6.60 for ages 4 and up, and $5.66 for age 3 and under (no cost for parents). They also have a Wednesday special of $15/family, which is handy for larger families (for more info. go to jabbersplaydate.com).  They are open 10 a.m. – 7 p.m., Mon. through Sat.
  • Just Kid’n Around in Meridian (corner of Eagle and Overland).  This place just opened and sounds similar to Jabbers.  In addition to a comfy lounge area for parents and cafe, it has a large play structure, creative play areas such as an art room, kitchen set-up, farmer’s market, dress up closet and more, plus popular games such as air hockey and Wii.  They are open 10 a.m. – 7 p.m., Mon. – Sat.  Prices are $6.75 for ages 3 and up, and $5.75 for ages 1-2 (parents and babies under 12 months are free). This link will take you to an online coupon for $1 off.
  • Discovery Center in Boise (near the Boise zoo).  We can spend hours here engaging in hands-on science fun.  They even have activities that appealed to my daughter when she was a preschooler, like the play grocery store (with shopping carts and cash register) and veterinary clinic (with real x-rays and stuffed animals).  It costs $6.50/adult and $4/child age 3-17 (2 and under are free). They are open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., Tues. – Thurs. (closed Mon.), 9 – 7 p.m. on Fri., and 10 – 5 p.m. on Sat.
  • The Nampa Rec Center costs $6/child age 6-17, $8/adult, $2/child 5 and under. These are day pass prices, so you can really get your money’s worth here playing basketball, racquetball, swimming and rock-climbing.  The kids pools are open 5 a.m. – 9:45 p.m., Mon. – Fri. and 8 a.m. – 6:45 on Sat.  The water slide is open 4 – 8 p.m., Mon. – Fri. and 12 – 6 p.m. on Sat.  The Tarzan swinging rope and water tubes for floating are available 5 – 8 p.m., Mon. – Fri. and 1 – 4 p.m. on Sat.  The rock wall is open 4 – 9 p.m., Mon. – Fri. and 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. on Sat. (with a $3/person harness fee, although the boulders are free, which is where my kids like to climb).

Thursday – Nampa Bowl ($8-$12/family of 4)

  • On Thursdays, from 10 a.m. – midnight, each game, shoe rental, hot dog, fries, and soda cost just $1 each!  So one game for a family of four would cost only $8, or you could play 2 games for $12.  Plus, the Nampa Bowl is now a smoke-free establishment, making it even more family friendly.

Friday – Roller Drome in Nampa ($18/family of 4)

  • That’s right, it’s time to strap on those skates (or rollerblades, for an extra $1) and teach the kids how to “celebrate good times.”  Come on!  Every Friday, from 3-5:30, is cheap skate day, when skating is half-price ($14 for 4 people, plus $1/person skate rental).  But during spring break week, both Fridays have special skate hours and a “parents skate free” deal, which still makes the price $18/family of 4.  Spring break Friday skating sessions are 1-4 p.m., 4-7 p.m., and 7-9:30 p.m.

Saturday – PoJo’s Family Fun Center in Boise ($10-$20)

  • There are lots of options for fun in any price range here.  My kids love the bumper cars and carousel, so we like their $5/unlimited rides deal on Saturdays.  They also have great coupons, which you can view here, for deals on tokens, rides and food.  We went here recently to try out their gluten free pizza.  Since we got a rebate check in the mail and had a little money leftover in our entertainment budget, we combined several deals.  We used the “48 tokens plus 2 ride tickets for $10” online coupon, which gave us plenty of tokens for games (they have a variety of games for all ages).  We also got unlimited rides for the kids ($10), so my husband used the ride tickets to do the bumper cars with them, since the kids love nothing more than ramming Daddy.  We were able to also use the online coupon for a $5 medium gluten free pizza (or regular medium pizza) when you purchase a large pizza at regular price ($16.75).  You get an additional 12 tokens when you buy a large, so this ended up being a pretty good deal – and the pizza was good.  They also have a small, free climbing structure for kids 50″ and under.

If the weather cooperates and you have a sunny day, here are some free outdoor activity ideas, perfect for not-too-hot spring weather:

  • Settler’s Park in Meridian, on the corner of Meridian Rd. and Ustick.  They have the largest playground and most variety of any park in the area.  In addition to the mammoth climbing structure, there are musical chimes, boulders for climbing, a toddler jungle gym, and my kids’ favorite – the tire swing.  There are tennis courts nearby and a huge field.  In the summertime, they have water play areas and a snack shack, plus free family movies on an inflatable screen every Friday night.  Can you tell we love this park?!!
  • Frisbee Golf at West Park or Osborne Park in Nampa.  We end up with lots of frisbees from Smokey Mt. Pizza (frisbees come with the kids meals which are free on Sundays – plus they have gluten free options), so we have plenty for playing the course with the kids.  I’m not big on taking walks just for the sake of walking, so frisbee golf is a fun way to get some exercise as a family.  Plus, there’s a playground at both parks which can be a reward for finishing (or a place for little ones to play while older kids complete the course).

Other free ideas for indoor activities (that are especially fun when your kids invite friends for a sleepover) include:

  • Indoor camping – even more fun if you have a small tent you can set up.  My kids were thrilled last spring break when we set up a half-tent in the playroom and hauled every plant we could find (including evergreen garlands and trees from my Christmas decorations) into the room to make it look like a forest.  We also set out stuffed animals and pine cones, and draped a white blanket over the furniture to represent snow in the mountains.  Inside the tent we put 2 sleeping bags and flashlights.  We also put some glow-in-the-dark star stickers on the ceiling.  The kids couldn’t wait to have friends over to go “camping”.
  • Homemade carnival – check out my Valentines Day post on creating a fun carnival for kids.
  • Spa day – treat your little girl(s) to a makeover by mommy, complete with fancy hair-do, pedicure and manicure.  Even better, let her do the same for you!  (Be sure to take pictures.)

Of course, you don’t need to go somewhere or plan an activity for every day, since part of the fun of vacationing is just getting to relax.  We always try to include a “Jammies Day” in our vacation plans, and whip out some craft supplies or board games for when the kids are looking for something to do.  Dollar stores are a great place to pick up cheap craft supplies, and since vacations typically involve buying souvenirs, why not give the kids each $5 to pick out supplies for their spring break craft kit?  This is the time to pull out those craft ideas you’ve been tearing out of magazines and saving for a rainy day.

Pajama days are also a great time for movie-marathons (like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings for the boys, and Barbie Fairytopia movies for little girls).  Set out some easy snacks like beefstick, cubed ham, cheese slices, crackers, chips, nuts, fruit that won’t quickly brown (grapes, orange slices, strawberries), veggies with dip and, of course, popcorn.  Then curl up with the kiddos and enjoy those snuggles while you still can!

With all the money you save by doing a staycation, you can probably justify a little splurge like going out to eat at a favorite restaurant (since you’d probably be eating out on a trip anyway).  Moms deserve a vacation too, so give yourself permission to use paper plates and turn a blind eye to dirty areas of the house.  Whatever you do, I hope you have a fun time playing with the kids.  These are the years for making memories and celebrating the joy of being together as a family.  Happy spring!

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