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Archive for February, 2012

From Ashes to Beauty

This week marks the beginning of the Lenten season, with ashes serving as an outward sign that “through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4:10 NLT).  This year, the symbolism of ashes has personal meaning as I reflect on the path God’s chosen for me over the last several years.  You see, like most people, I have desired comfort, acceptance, and security.  If we follow our human desires, most of us will probably spend our lives in pursuit of these things by default.  Who doesn’t want to be comfortable, accepted by others, and financially secure?

But this morning, God reminded me of the prayer of a desperate mother 5 years ago, begging God to do whatever he had to do in her life so that her 5-year-old, angry child would grow up following the Lord.  In brokenness, that mother decided that no pain would be worse than that of raising a rebellious child, and so she surrendered everything to the sovereign hands of the Almighty.  Of course, that mother was me.  At the time, I had no idea what lay ahead of me.  I had no idea that God was inviting me to a bonfire where I would be asked to surrender everything I held dear to the flames.  All I knew was that I had heard God whisper to me, “He’s going to be alright.  It’s not going to be easy, but I will be with you.”

Fast forward a few years to December of 2008.  My son, husband, and eventually my daughter were all diagnosed as gluten intolerant.  I knew that the change in diet would help my son with some of his issues – and it has!  But I also knew that it would cost me dearly in terms of the time I would spend relearning how to cook with new flours, giving up convenience foods, cutting back our expenses in other areas to make up for the more expensive gluten free products, and bearing the burden of providing our own food everywhere we go.  I stepped up to the bonfire and tossed in my comfort.

The following December of 2009, it became apparent that the most loving and merciful thing we could do for our son was to pull him out of school and begin the journey of homeschooling.  The next fall, my daughter joined us.  With fear and trembling, I stepped up to the bonfire and tossed in my desire for acceptance.  As the weirdos who homeschool and don’t eat wheat, how on earth would we ever have a “normal” life, much less one that was accepted by others?  My dreams of being like everyone else turned to ashes.

In the fall of 2010, my husband lost his job as a casualty of the economy.  We had already cut our expenses the year before so we could put money into savings in case he lost his job.  When his job ended, I knew in my heart that we were going to be unemployed for a long time, and carefully rationed out those savings over the next 16 months.  God miraculously provided a job for my husband that fits him perfectly – praise the Lord!  But taking that job meant a huge pay-cut from what he’d been making at his previous job.  I had pinched pennies for a year to fill our savings, and pinched pennies for another 16 months to make our savings last, but I’d always had in mind that God would restore us in a way that would allow us to get back on track with our financial goals and do responsible things like save for college and pay down our second mortgage.  I had to face the reality that penny pinching will be my lifestyle from now on, and God was not going to provide a paycheck for us until every last penny of our savings was gone.  With tears and groans, I crawled on my knees to the bonfire and tossed in my security.

Much of the last few months has been spent sitting in the ashes of that bonfire.  The enemy spent most of the holiday season rubbing them in my face.  (“Look at all the traditional holiday foods you can’t eat or afford.  Your kids are missing out on the parties that school kids have, and you can’t even afford to give them many presents.”)  But every time I opened my Bible and came to God during the last few months, he met me in a mighty way.  He revealed truths to me about himself, about myself and about my children.

Habakkuk 3:17-18 says, “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”  I finally came to the decision that if my only joy comes from Jesus, that is enough.  My version of the verse above could go something like this: Though our clothing may come from hand-me-downs and the thrift store, though my toil and effort to teach just 2 children brings me no prestige or paycheck, though our daily bread must be made from scratch by me, though our days of trips to Disneyland are but a faint memory and college is a fast-approaching terror, yet I will rejoice in the  LORD, I will be joyful in the knowledge that the God of the universe wants to be in relationship with me.  This time, I surrendered my whole body to the fire of the Holy Spirit, so that the ashes could be consumed as well.

Then something amazing happened.  I almost missed it until God brought it to mind during my devotional time this week.  Earlier in the week, my son announced, “Mom, when I grow up I hope I marry someone like you.”  Thinking back to a comment he’d made the night before about his concern over how he will eat as an adult, I asked him if it was because he wanted a wife who will cook gluten free food for him.  (My son often expresses gratitude for all the effort I put into finding ways to make gluten free versions of his favorite foods.)  He said that his comment wasn’t related to cooking, but rather to my character.  I laughed when he said, “It’s because, you know, you don’t care about things like fashion…”  I knew what he meant, because he and his sister had been watching a Veggie Tales earlier about being beautiful on the inside and not worrying about how you look on the outside.  He was saying that he was thankful I’m not trying to gain acceptance by looking a certain way (after all, acceptance went into the fire a long time ago).  But what he said next stopped me in my tracks.  He stumbled and stammered a bit over how to say it, but told me how he wants to marry someone like me who doesn’t leave when money is tight and life gets hard; someone who will always stand by him.

There, next to the grocery carts at Fred Meyer, Jesus gathered up the ashes I’d surrendered to him and made a crown of beauty.  To those who repent and turn to God, Jesus bestows on them “a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor” (Isaiah 61:3).  The ashes of my comfort were used to teach my son about loving others, even when it costs you dearly.  The ashes of my acceptance helped him see that seeking to be like God on the inside is more important than how we look to others on the outside.  The ashes of my security have taught my son to trust in God’s provision and tithe his own money, even when it hurts.  My now 10-year-old little boy has a tender heart toward God and a genuine desire to obey and do what’s right.  God answered that long ago prayer of a desperate mother through ashes turned to beauty when my son rose up to call me blessed (Prov. 31:28).

May we surrender completely to the all-consuming fire of the Holy Spirit, so that we may be a “planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.”

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Last year, I wrote about how my husband lost weight when we chose to break free from our sugar addiction (35 lbs. and counting, in addition to the 20 lbs. he lost after giving up gluten/processed foods).  In that post, I outlined our simple weight loss strategy that has helped us to stay healthy and slim – mainly by changing our breakfast habits and reducing the sugar content in foods.  Lately, I’ve seen more and more articles on the dangers of sugar, so I think it’s worth bringing up the subject again.  According to an article by the YOU Docs (Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Mike Roizen):

  1. “When you eat more sugar than your body can burn, it messes up your proteins – for instance, it stops one from delivering oxygen to your tissues.  Then your liver repackages excess sugar into fat and dumps it into your bloodstream, where it clogs up your arteries.”  (Say hello to heart disease.)
  2. “There’s growing evidence that frequent, large doses of sugar are toxic to certain cells, causing damage that leads to cancer.  One example: people who eat a sugar-heavy diet are 70 percent more likely to develop deadly pancreatic cancer than those who shun the sweet stuff.”  (So if you have a history of cancer in your family, like I do, it’s important to limit sugar intake since sugar also feeds cancer cells.)
  3. “Too many sweets accelerate skin aging because sugar is attracted to collagen proteins.  Normally, collagen keeps skin elastic, supple and well-supported.  But when collagen hooks up with sugar, it can’t do its job properly.  Your face ends up looking a bit like a pumpkin.”

So even if weight loss is not an issue for you, the increasing evidence that sugar is bad news for your health combined with the increasing amount of sugar that’s being poured into “low fat” processed foods, means we all need to pay attention to the amount of sugar in our diet.  But even if you have a desire to limit sugar, how do you curb your sweet tooth?

The first step is to cut out high fructose corn syrup.  In a previous post, I went into detail about how high fructose corn syrup is not only bad for us, it messes with our taste buds because it is super sweet and trains our taste buds to prefer foods containing this sweetener.  I also listed several suggestions for brands of foods that are sweetened with sugar instead.

Next, gradually replace sugary foods with ones that are naturally sugar free or low in sugar.  Start reading labels and look for brands with the lowest sugar content (under 5 g./serving is best).  In my post last month about why January diet resolutions fail, I mentioned some simple steps you can take to replace sugary foods with healthy, whole foods that are naturally sugar free.  I also provided several low sugar, healthy breakfast options in my post, Breaking Free from the Sugar Addiction.  Chances are, you already have favorite foods and recipes that don’t contain sugar.  Try to plan your weekly menus around those items.  Good choices for those who are gluten intolerant include Mexican dishes made with corn tortillas, meat and potato meals, herb-seasoned chicken and rice, and gluten free pasta favorites.  If you need more ideas, many of the recipes on this blog are tagged “low sugar,” and everything is gluten free!

Once your taste buds are free from the addiction to sweet foods (which may take a few weeks), begin cutting down on the amount of sugar you add to homemade baked goods.  I’ve discovered that I can usually cut 1/4 c. sugar from most recipes without noticing a difference.  For instance, muffin recipes often call for 1 c. sugar, but 3/4 c. sugar works just fine.  If a recipe has lots of flavor from pureed fruit, like the Banana Blueberry Muffin recipe below, you can cut back the sugar to 1/2 c.  You might also experiment with substituting brown sugar for some of the white sugar in recipes where the molasses in the brown sugar is complementary, since the added flavor of the molasses can make up for a lower amount of sugar.  I almost always add vanilla to muffin recipes and baked goods, since vanilla and spices like cinnamon trick your taste buds into tasting sweetness because you associate those flavors with sweet foods.  When you’re first starting out, cut out a little sugar at a time.

  • If a muffin recipe calls for 1 c. sugar, try using 1/2 c. white sugar and 1/4 c. brown sugar.
  • Then, try cutting back to 1/3 c. of each sugar, and adding a flavor enhancer like dried fruit.  (We love dried cranberries in muffins, pancakes, oatmeal, and cookies, but since they are coated with sugar, I only add them to recipes that are very low in sugar to begin with.)
  • Next, cut back to 1/4 c. each brown sugar and white sugar (for a total of 1/2 c. sugar) and sprinkle a little brown sugar, decorators sugar, or cinnamon and sugar on top.  This gives you a hint of sweetness with the topping, but allows you to try the recipe with less sugar to see if you could like it without the topping.  Again, cut back on the sugar gradually to give your taste buds a chance to adjust, especially if you’re new to the gluten free diet and are still used to commercial baking mixes.

This method works well for most quick breads and desserts, although I don’t tend to cut out a lot of sugar in desserts because we try to eat desserts as an occasional treat in small amounts.  Also, be careful when cutting back on sugar in yeast breads because some sugar is required to feed the yeast.  However, I recently discovered a great sandwich bread recipe in “The Gluten Free Bible” that only requires 1 T. honey.

Of course, a healthy diet has more to do with what you DO eat than what you don’t.  As long as you focus on filling your plate with nutritional powerhouse foods (like spinach, berries, sweet potatoes, beans, broccoli, red grapes, whole grains, and foods with Omega 3s like salmon and flax), the health benefits of these foods should counter any negative effects of small amounts of sugar.  The muffin recipe below contains antioxidant-rich blueberries, Omega 3s from flax, whole grain oats, and naturally sweet bananas and applesauce.  Serve them with some scrambled eggs made with fresh spinach, bacon crumbles, minced onion and topped with a little shredded Swiss cheese for a tasty, nutrition-packed, low sugar breakfast.  (As always, you can substitute regular wheat flour for the gluten free flours and omit the xanthan gum if you’re not on the gluten free diet.)

Gluten Free, Dairy Free, Banana Blueberry Muffins

Mix the following dry ingredients in a bowl:
1 1/4 c. *gluten free flour blend
1/4 c. sorghum or millet flour (or additional flour blend)
2 T. ground flax (optional)
1/4 c. white sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. xanthan gum (omit if using wheat flour)
3/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the wet ingredients:
1 small ripe banana, mashed in an electric mixer with the paddle attachment
1/4 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. unsweetened applesauce (1 single serving applesauce cup)
1/3 c. milk (I used almond milk, which is creamy and low in sugar)
1 egg
1/3 c. oil
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Optional additional ingredients:
3/4 c. fresh or frozen blueberries (if using frozen, do not thaw)
Gluten free oats (like Bob’s Red Mill brand)
Brown sugar
Butter or dairy free spread

Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and mix just until moistened.  Fold in blueberries.  Divide into 12 greased muffin cups.  If desired, sprinkle with oats and press lightly to adhere to muffins.  For extra flavor, sprinkle a little brown sugar (no more than 1/4 tsp.) on each muffin and dot with a sliver of butter or spread (I used a butter/canola oil spread on some muffins and left some plain with just the oats for the dairy free person in our home).

Bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

*Brenda’s Cheap & Awesome GF Flour Blend:
1 c. white rice flour
1 c. brown rice flour
1/3 c. tapioca flour/starch (it’s the same thing)
1/3 c. potato starch (not the same as potato flour)
1/3 c. corn starch
1 T. potato flour
1 T. sweet rice (also called sticky rice) flour

You could stop short of the last two ingredients and get by in most basic cooking, but if you want to have the best texture and be able to swap this for wheat flour in any recipe with confidence, I strongly suggest you add the last 2 ingredients.  You can store these flours in the freezer and they’ll last a long time.

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Just in time for Valentines Day, I’ve finished tweaking my latest creation – gluten free, dairy free brownies that are as cheap and tasty as any gluten-containing mix!  Although I love my brownie pie recipe, it’s fairly expensive and only makes a small amount, so it doesn’t work as a dessert to bring to a large gathering.  This recipe, however, makes a 9″x13″ pan – perfect for potlucks or dressing up with your favorite toppings.

I actually started with a brownie recipe from a “Gifts in a Jar” cookbook, and added a few ingredients I noticed in other brownie recipes.  For instance, my brownie pie recipe uses 1 tsp. vanilla extract, so I added that to this recipe.  Since I like the regular Betty Crocker brownie mixes with the Hershey’s Syrup pouch, I decided to add a little syrup for extra moisture and flavor.  I also noticed that the GF Betty Crocker brownie mixes are the only GF brownies I’ve had from a mix that have the proper crunchy edges.  (I don’t usually  like the crunchy edges, but a brownie without them just seems wrong.)  Since that mix has mini chocolate chips in it, I decided to throw some in my brownie mix, which worked to achieve the proper texture.  Although I add regular semi-sweet chocolate chips in addition to the mini chips, you could omit them or substitute peanut butter chips or milk chocolate chips.  Just be sure to use the mini chocolate chips for proper texture. 

For peanut butter and chocolate lovers like me, I’ve included a variation below with a peanut butter cookie crust.  If you’re looking for ideas for inexpensive valentine fun with kids or more dessert recipes, check out my Valentines links from last year.  Happy Valentines Day!

3/4 c. butter or dairy free margarine, softened
1 1/2 c. sugar
2 eggs (or 3, if you prefer cake-like brownies)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 c. gluten free flour blend
3/4 c. cocoa powder
1/2 tsp. xanthan gum
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
2 T. Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup (it’s dairy free)
1/4 c. semi-sweet mini chocolate chips (Enjoy Life brand is dairy free)
3/4 c. chocolate chips (semi-sweet and/or milk chocolate – Ghirardelli semi-sweet are DF)

In a large mixing bowl, cream butter or margarine and sugar.  Beat in eggs and vanilla.  Add flour, cocoa, xanthan gum, baking powder and salt.  Mix until combined and add syrup.  Stir in chocolate chips.

Spread batter in a greased 9″x13″ pan.  Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.  Cool and cut with a plastic knife for best results.

Peanut Butter Layer Brownies

1 c. creamy peanut butter
1/2 c. sugar
1 egg
Brownie recipe above with 3/4 c. peanut butter chips instead of chocolate chips

Combine peanut butter, sugar and egg in a small mixing bowl.  Press with fingers into a greased 9″x13″ pan.  Spread brownie batter over top.  Bake 30-35 minutes (it may take a little longer than plain brownies).

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My biggest challenge in homeschooling this year has been to adapt the materials I have (mainly workbooks from Costco, interesting books from the library, and games/materials I’ve picked up at used curriculum fairs or the dollar store) to fit my 4th grade and 2nd grade kinesthetic learners.

According to Cynthia Tobias, author of “The Way They Learn,” you might have a kinesthetic learner if your child:

  • Has difficulty sitting still for more than a few minutes at a time.
  • Learns best by physically participating in a task.
  • Almost always has some part of his/her body in motion.
  • Prefers to read books or hear stories that are full of action.
  • Remembers best when he/she can do something with the information.

It took me two frustrating years of homeschooling my son before I connected the dots and figured out that he is a kinesthetic learner because I had always associated that learning style with people who are athletic, which doesn’t fit my son.  However, every one of the bullet points above describes him perfectly!  What a relief it is to know that God created him with his wiggles, and if it’s okay with God, then it should be okay with me.  Now, instead of trying to make my kids adapt to the way I grew up learning (in public school, which is primarily geared toward auditory learners, like me), I’m adapting to the way they need to learn.

There’s no such thing as a “typical” day for us because we thrive on change and variety.  We don’t always cover every subject every day, but we do cover a variety of subjects throughout the week.  Our activities today are a good snapshot of what kinesthetic homeschooling looks like for us.

8 a.m. – I fix breakfast for my husband and make extra pancakes for later in the week.  The kids aren’t hungry yet, so they play while I clean up the kitchen and have my quiet time with God.  I ask/beg God to help me know how to teach my kids, and write down the ideas that come to mind.

9:30 (ish) – We get dressed and eat breakfast.  My son finishes eating first, so he reads our passage from the “Day By Day Kid’s Bible” by Karen Henley, which is divided into 1 year of scripture readings.  We love it because it’s written in chronological order and simplified for children.  Our kids usually take turns reading a section each day.  Today, my son reads two passages because he’s really interested in the story, and I’ll never tell my kids to stop reading the Bible!  We also recite the names of the first 20 books of the Bible together, as well as the Lord’s Prayer, which the kids are memorizing.

10:15 (ish) – The kids have grabbed the hula hoops to play with, so I decide to turn on some dance music for their hula-hooping.  Soon, they’re laughing and spinning their hoops to the beat of the music.  I give them about 5 minutes, then tell them it’s time for math.

We get out the multiplication/division puzzles we made last week, since kinesthetic learners “learn best by physically participating in a task.”  I bought several kinds of die-cut paper shapes (i.e. bells, space shuttles, rainbows) from the dollar store last week, and made number triangles with multipliers on the bottom and the answer on top.  I gave the kids stickers to apply next to the multipliers to help them visualize the numbers they are multiplying, and cut each shape into 3 parts so we can also use them for division.  Last week we made puzzles for the multiples of 3 and 4, so today the kids take turns with each set, matching the right answer with each problem puzzle.  We then pull out the bottom right number so they can practice division.  They have a short hula-hooping break before switching to the other set.  Since my daughter finishes first, I grab a clock wipe-off board and drill her on her multiples of 5, using the clock as a visual guide.

10:45 (ish) – The kids are hula-hooping to the music again while I set out the materials I need to make gluten free bread.  We pull out their Brain Quest workbooks from Costco (which the kids like because they’re colorful and often fun, and I like because each page has a Brain Box that teaches the concept).   Today, they have to circle the words that are incorrectly spelled in a list of frequently misspelled words.  I help my daughter, who is younger, figure out the correct spelling of each word so she can write them down.  My son comes into the kitchen where I’m making bread, and spells the words aloud.  Since he’s not a fan of writing, I only require him to write the words he misspells.

Bananagrams!  The kids love using the Bananagram tiles (like Scrabble tiles) to spell words in crossword form because it allows them to physically participate in spelling.  I tell them that they’ll get one Skittle for each of their spelling words that they can fit into their Bananagram.  My daughter needs some help figuring out where to build some of her words, and my son wants to add his own words.  They munch on their candy rewards, then take another exercise break.  I’m ready to move on to our next activity when my son notices a Short-Cuts for Kids from the newspaper on electricity and asks to read it.  Since we value interest-led learning more than following plans, I agree to let him read while my daughter dances to the music, and take advantage of the extra time to get our bread in the oven.

11:30 – It’s the kids’ turn to teach me about math!  We get out the My Path to Math book, “Comparing Fractions,” which we found at the library.  This series of books explains math concepts with stories, colorful illustrations, and short activities.  Although my kids have been using fractions in their computer games – a great way for kinesthetic learners to do math – we’ve been learning the terminology (like numerator and denominator) through the book.  Today, the kids get to read and teach me how to complete a number sentence comparing two fractions.  I ask them questions, and they tell me what to write.  Sometimes, I use a stuffed animal puppet to hold the pencil and write down what they tell me to do because, as my daughter said, “Everything is more fun with stuffed animals.”

Noon – The kids take turns doing a typing program on the computer and practicing the piano.  Since it’s Monday, they have some new material on the piano, so I stay close by to help them.

1 p.m. The kids play together until the bread is done cooling.  Since we didn’t get going very early today, lunch doesn’t happen until 1:30.  They make their own sandwiches and continue their imaginary story while eating.

2:00 – It’s a sunny, warmish day (for winter), so I send the kids outside to play.  This is my first chance to turn on the computer and check email, so I fix a cup of tea and take a break.

3:00 – The kids get a snack and take turns reading chapters from the Magic Treehouse book, “Civil War on Sunday,” which tells about the field hospitals during the war.  My kids are really into American history (because I’m a history buff, and tend to put a lot of effort into making history fun), and my son is learning about first aid in Cub Scouts, so it’s perfect timing to read this story.  Since kinesthetic learners prefer books that are full of action, my kids enjoy learning about history through books like the Magic Treehouse adventures.  It’s tradition that they read the Magic Treehouse books in either a play tent, our jungle gym in the backyard, or a fort made from chairs and pillows.  So today, while one child reads, the other builds a fort.  They finish the last 4 chapters of the book and happily play in the fort.  I ask them some questions about what they learned, and we go over a few unfamiliar vocabulary words.

5:00 – When my husband comes home from work, the kids clean up the fort and help me do dishes while dinner is cooking in the oven.  Since my husband and son love all things science-related, we decide to watch a pre-recorded episode of Mythbusters after dinner – science in action!   The kids then get ready for bed and read whatever they want until they’re ready to be tucked in.  It’s been a full day of learning and fun, and when it’s my daughter’s turn to say her prayers she adds, “And thank you for giving my brother such great building abilities so he could make that awesome fort.”

It takes some extra work to accommodate my kinesthetic learners, but my most exhausting day of creative teaching is still better than my most exhausting day of frustration over trying to force my kids into someone else’s mold.  Do you have a kinesthetic learner?  Leave a comment if you’d like to see more posts with ideas for teaching these fun, energetic kids.

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