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Archive for December, 2013

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!

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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.

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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!

 

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