Graham cracker houses

It’s ten on a Wednesday morning, and six kids and I drive into the church parking lot with our big old van. We unlock the church and head into the fellowship hall with baskets and bags and packages. We’ve got graham crackers and frosting and red hots and gummy bears and smarties and licorice and almost anything else you can think of that’s colorful and sugar-laden. The kids set down their goodies and start lining long tables together. Soon other friends stream in, similarly sugar-laden. After everyone trickles in, there are 27 kids. Our homeschool craft co-op gets together every month, but candy houses at Christmas are the kids’ favorite, no contest.

Once the tables and chairs are lined up, paper bowls are set down the whole length of the mega-table, then filled with candy, candy, and more candy. Some moms scurry around handing out graham crackers and frosting, while others whip royal icing, the glue-like frosting used to construct the graham cracker houses.

Kids choose foil-cover rectangles of cardboard for the bases of their houses. Most are the size of a sheet of paper, but one of my 14yo sons, planning a castle, chooses one twice that size.  House construction is done with royal icing piped onto graham cracker edges from ziplocks with holes snipped in one corner. Candy is glued on with regular frosting from tubs.

Little ones get construction help from parents and older siblings. Once the base of each house is constructed and given 5 minutes or so to set, the houses will be sturdy. But the initial bits of construction take more hands and more skill than most younger kids possess. This year my 10 year old puts hers together on her own. My 8 year old still needs lots of help.

Chaos builds as houses get to the candy stage. Fingers are sticky. Kids call for more royal icing and more of favorite sweets.  Moms scurry around helping here and there as needed.

Houses begin to take shape. There’s a happy sugar-hum in the room.

Once the little kids have the most complicated building done, moms sit back and relax a bit. There’s a round ‘mom’ table set next to the long one, and a coffee pot brews on another table. Visiting happens in between hopping up to help kids. I’m not sure if all the moms were seated at the same time ever, but as always, we enjoy our stolen moments of visiting in the midst of the chaos.

Graham crackers disappear and my son asks for more and more and more.  His building is bigger than I’ve ever seen a graham cracker house to be.  I wonder if it will stand, or if he will use all the crackers in the place and run out before finishing. But other kids seem to have enough, and are busy adding candy, not walls.  So I hand him one of the last packs of crackers, and he builds on.

Others aim for more modest houses, just as charming.

My youngest pours sprinkles on the roof of her creation, all concentration and sticky fingers.

The row of houses is truly impressive.

My son, one of the last to be done, smiles in victory behind his castle. The construction took so long that he got less candy on it than is typical for him. But the scale of his creation more than makes up for the lack of decor. Even more amazing is the fact that he later got it home without it falling apart.

Finished projects are carried carefully to the ‘done’ table, and end up looking like a bright crazy little village, each house as unique as its owner. We moms may end up doubting the wisdom of so much candy consumption in a day. But somehow I think that this morning and others like it will be in their memory banks when they’re grown and have kids of their own. Maybe they’ll make similar memories with their own children.

Come to think of it, some of them already are. Here’s my daughter and her little guy with the house ‘they’ did this year.

Kitchen tools I adore

Do you have newlyweds or new grads on your Christmas list, or maybe just folks who love kitchen gadgets? Here are some cool tools I absolutely adore and wouldn’t want to be without. The best part? Every single one costs less than $20.

1. Every cook needs a good garlic press.  Here’s one that works beautifully, is easy to clean, and doesn’t take too much arm muscle.  Combine this press with a bunch of garlic in a tiny burlap bag and you’ve got a sweet gift.

 

2.  Here’s a reusable Solofill Cup, Keurig K-Cupthat lets you brew any type of coffee for much less expense than the prefilled one-use cups.  I use mine every single day and love it because it lets me brew my favorite Ethiopian coffee a cup at a time.  Pair this one with a pound of your favorite coffee and you’ve got a winner of a gift.

 

3. I have an absolute love affair with cast iron.  I have a 12 inch Lodge skillet exactly like the one shown below and a mammoth 16-inch skillet that I have a hard time lifting when it’s full of food.  In my opinion there’s nothing like cast iron for getting a good sear on meat and for holding heat.   I also love being able to begin cooking on the stovetop and then moving the pan to the oven to finish cooking, like for this chicken pot pie.  I’d load this skillet with some taco seasoning packs and maybe a couple of new hot pads for a really fun gift.

4. I’ve told you before about these delightful Swiss peelers.  I teach my kids to begin peeling veggies as preschoolers, and these great peelers are easy and very safe to use.  Tie a set of these peelers with a ribbon atop a new cookbook –maybe Family Feasts for $75 a Week? :)  — for a fun gift.

Do you have a kitchen gadget you love that cost less than $20?  Do you combine it with something else to make it extra fun?  Tell us about it!

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Things I’m mulling over…opinions?

Something about the Christmas season always gets lots of projects aswirl in my brain. Here’s some of what’s been going on around here.

  1. I’ve been working on a really fun bathroom cabinet project that I’ll show you soon. After doing a bit of hunting online, today I bought what I hope will be just the right drawer pulls to jazz up the project. So much fun to see something new coming together in a space that has looked tired for awhile.
  2. I’m in the midst of my yearly struggle to keep gift-giving moderate, to not go overboard on spending.  But it’s really hard.  Gift-giving is one of my love languages, and when I see things kids would enjoy, I just want to buy them all the moon, hang the cost. I do try to keep to a dollar limit.  But just today I found a great price on an item that I KNOW one of my big kids would use and use and use.  After some discussion, John and I decided to go for it even tho it was over the budget for that kid, and maybe do a bit less when that one’s birthday comes around.  If I remember.  Ha.
  3. I’ve also been gradually collecting little stocking-stuffer items.  Actually, I started this summer, and am almost done.  Things I’ve done in past years include chapstick, stretchy gloves, toothbrushes, mechanical pencils, peanuts, Hershey’s kisses, and flashlights.  What do you like to put in kids’ stockings?
  4. This year Erika and her husband and baby will be with Israel’s family over Christmas.  So we’re planning a before-Christmas mini-celebration so that we can all enjoy watching the babies open gifts together.  Erika and Israel will be getting their gifts from us then.  All the kids will be doing a gift exchange that day too.  When they were small, John and I brought them to the dollar store to choose one gift for each sibling.  A couple years ago, after some discussion, they decided to go with the name-drawing system and buy one larger gift for one sibling each instead of tiny ones for everyone.  It seems to be going well.  Much excitement is buzzing here among the kids at the idea that they’ll be getting to open at least one item each before Christmas.  I imagine this will all get more complicated as our family grows and more of the kids get married. What do you do to get together with family when some of them are traveling?
  5. Christmas always gets me thinking lots about traditions.  I want traditions and warm memories more at this time of year more than any other. Teenagers don’t always appreciate my efforts to do the same things over and over each Christmas.  They look cranky when I suggest the yearly viewing of  ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’  They’re not so thrilled about helping with cookie-baking. They’re bored with puzzles. They do tend to enthuse over our annual gingerbread houses– but that’s mostly because of the candy and the fact that we do that activity with friends, not just family.  I’ve just decided to ignore their resistance, and gently require their presence during family times.  Our grown kids like the traditions just fine– in fact, they seem to appreciate them more the older they get.  So we’ll hope that this current batch eventually gets over their boredom and come to appreciate what I’m trying to do with these little routines.  But still, I’d love to hear your hints for encouraging teenagers  (especially 14 year olds– heaven help me, I have three!) to appreciate traditions and time spend with family during the holidays.

Christmas books for teens, preteens and reluctant readers

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Is there a preteen or a teenager on your Christmas list? Have you thought of giving them books but wonder what they’d enjoy? I’ve found it can be especially challenging to pick books for kids who don’t enjoy reading much in the first place.   Here are some books that my preteens and teens have loved, both the avid readers, and the ones who’d rather be playing video games.  These books are lively, interesting page-turners that appeal to both boys and girls.

 

 

1. Inheritance 4-Book Set (Eragon, Eldest, Brisingr, Inheritance) by Christopher Paolini is about a farm boy who discovers he is really a dragon rider.

 

 

2.Percy Jackson and the Olympians (5 books) by Rick Riordan is a story about a boy who has adventures with Greek gods and sea monsters.

 

 

3. Shadow Children series by Margaret Peterson Haddix is based on the premise of a society where each family is allowed only two children, forcing any subsequent children to live in hiding.

 

4. Inkheart Trilogy by Cornelia Funke is about a girl catapulted into peril when a story read by her father surprisingly comes to life. These books have some bad language, but the storyline is utterly intriguing.

 

5.  The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins, the author of The Hunger Games. This series is about a boy who discovers a world under New York City where he is forced to fight giant rats, spiders, and bats, and in the process becomes an unexpected hero.

I hope some of these book ideas help you with your Christmas shopping.  If you know of books that are inspiring and interesting for teens, I’d love for you to tell me about them in comments, below.  As always, I encourage you to do some research and don’t be afraid to trust your instincts when deciding  what is appropriate for your kids to read at various ages.

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Related: Why we skipped The Hunger Games 

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Black Friday shopping tips

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Black Friday. Do you know it? Do you love it? Maybe not as much as I do. I look forward to this day all year. Every year on the day after Thanksgiving, I peel myself out of bed around 4am, and head off to find those bargains! Here’s how I make the most of the day:

1. Check out BlackFridayAds.com a few days ahead of time. That way you’ll have a little more time to plan your approach, think about the people you need to buy for, and then only buy what you need. Black Friday is only a frugal event if you plan carefully, stick within your budget, and don’t get carried away.

2. Pay close attention to which stores open first, and plan where you’ll go first, second and third. Figure driving time and map out the most efficient route.

3. Write out a list for every store, with the highest priority items at the top of the list. Include name brands and even a photo of items (cut apart your ads and tape pictures to your lists.) This makes it much easier to spot items on shelves.

4. Plan to bring another adult or teen with you and arm both people with a cell phone.  Communication is essential when you’re separated in the midst of a crowd of people.

5. Bring a couple of big mesh bags. Without a cart, you’ll be able to move more quickly through the stores–sometimes there are huge traffic jams, and you will be just standing still if you’re trying to maneuver a cart. I usually leave my coat in the car, and stick my credit card/checkbook/ID in my FRONT jeans pocket so I don’t have to carry a purse.

6. Divide the list for each store into two parts– you and your shopping partner can each shop and then meet at the checkout. Have one person just grab a few things, then go stand in the checkout line while the other person finishes shopping. If you can hit the checkout line within 15 minutes of the store’s opening time, the line won’t be too long yet.

7. If your partner gets to the head of the line before you get done shopping, he/she should call you and just let the next person in the checkout line check out first. Whatever happens, your partner shouldn’t step out of the line– just wait at the front, letting people by, until the partner arrives.

I know lots of people just prefer to avoid the chaos and sleep in that morning. But shopping the day after Thanksgiving helps my stretch my Christmas dollars, which is really important with 10 kids to shop for. I wouldn’t want to shop like that every day. But once a year is fun. I love working out an efficient plan and seeing just how much I can get for my money. It’s also fun to sneak the loot in the house when I finally get home around 11 am. If I’m really energetic, I’ll even get a gift or two wrapped before I collapse for a nap in the early afternoon.

(This article reposted from a previous year.)

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More tips

My 2007 Black Friday shopping trip

Walmart 2008 Black Friday Deals

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20 focused minutes

Sometimes with the holidays coming on, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed with everything you want or need to do along with all the normal stuff.  I’ve found that if I focus on it 20-minute segments, I can stay positioned atop the heap of to-do’s instead of buried underneath.

Start by making a list to pin down that swirl in your brain.  It calms your mind and helps you establish your priorities. I try to make a list at least once a week.  Then I go down that list and designate days to work on each item, aiming to do no more than 3 ‘extra’ things each day.

Then I divide the to-do’s into 20 minute tasks.  It might look something like:

1. Spend 20 minutes brainstorming gifts for three people on my list.

2. Look for two gift ideas online.  (I try to support local businesses when I can, but I adore online shopping too.)

3. Wrap 3 gifts. (I think my new gift wrap station will make this even easier!)

4. Make one double batch of cookie dough.  Bake 1/3 and freeze 2/3 0f the recipe for later.

5.  Spend 20 minutes decorating one small corner of the house.

 

This kind of thing works really well for longer projects too. For example, if I’m making a bunch of jeans potholders, I’ll divide the job into 20-minute tasks like this:

1. Gather old jeans and cut into squares.

2. Cut quilt batting and backer fabric into squares.

3. Sew 2 potholders. (Repeat for several days til I’ve made as many as I’d like to make.)

The down side of doing projects in short bursts is that I’ll probably leave my sewing machine out during those 5 days to save time, and sometimes the mess gets aggravating.  But doing a project a little each day is way better than never getting the project out in the first place because you know you don’t have 2 hours to devote to the project.

This approach works for planning a big holiday meal too.  In fact, any big job broken down into smaller tasks will feel more doable.

Do you have more holiday organizing hints?  Please share below.  I’m always eager to find more ways to streamline and simplify this busy time of year.

5 Christmas Gifts You Can Make

Wondering if you could make some of the gifts that you’ll be giving this Christmas?  Here are some things that I’ve done over the years, and that folks have seemed to enjoy receiving. You can click on each photo to go to the instructions for that project.

1.  Pot Holders from Old Jeans

 

2. Candied Almonds

 

3. Cloth Gift Bags

 

4. T-Shirt Headbands

 

5. Peppermint Bark

Have a favorite project or recipe you like to make and give  at Christmas time? Tell me about it in comments, or better yet, share a link to a post describing it.  I’d love to hear your favorite homemade gift ideas.  And if you found this post helpful, please feel free to pin it.

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Getting a jump on Christmas prep

One thing about having a big family is that Christmas preparation tends to take a chunk of time, even when you give and celebrate in a moderate way. My parents, brothers and sisters, and nieces and nephews get together at my mom’s house on Christmas Eve for dinner, singing, and gifts.  I think we numbered more than 50 people last year, which fills my parents’ home to the gills. We always do a gift exchange, and the last couple years I’ve been the one to draw the names a few months before Christmas, then tell everyone who they have.   Last year I used this website. The first screen lets you plug in names, and then the second lets you specify who can’t give to each other.  (For example, my kids can’t get their own siblings, and my sister’s kids can’t get THEIR own siblings, because they are probably already buying gifts for ones in their own smaller family unit, and we want them to end up with a cousin or an aunt or something along those lines.)

This year when I typed in the names and plugged in the names of who each person couldn’t get, I got an error message saying that our group had too many exceptions and parameters.  Basically we baffled the internetz.  Hm.  I knew that if I just tossed all the names in a hat and did it the old-fashioned way, I’d also be constantly getting names that wouldn’t work.

So finally I lined up bowls on the table, each one representing a smaller subfamily of the big group:  ie, John and me and my kids in one bowl, my sister’s family in the next bowl, etc.  Then I could draw for each family member out of any bowl OTHER THAN their own immediate family’s bowl.

I also tried to make sure each sub-family ended up with one adult guy and at least one little kid, since it seems like the adult men are the hardest, and the teeny kids are the easiest to buy for.  I figured that would make the shopping more fun for everyone.  Not quite random— far from it, actually.  But it worked pretty well, and it could be our family is just too big to be truly random.  However, I’d love to hear if anyone knows of a website that actually works to draw names for a family like ours!

It’s nice to know who we have a couple months in advance– that gives us time to think about shopping or crafting ideas.  I’m hoping to do a bit of crafting as one component of some of our gifts.  One of the things I’ve been working on is these kitchen towels.  In our kitchen, I’m constantly finding hand towels that have fallen off the bar onto the floor.   Apparently I’m not a big enough nag, because few people besides mom actually think of picking UP what hits the ground.  (Either that, or the pick-it-up gene doesn’t mature til kids hit their 20’s.)

In any case, I decided that some of these towels would be a good addition to my own kitchen, and I figured they might make a fun gift as well.  I’m making some from terrycloth towels with patterned cotton as the loop fabric at the top.  Others are made from microfiber towels with terrycloth at the top.

I’m pleased with the way my first towels turned out and have already claimed one for my own kitchen.  I am looking forward to making more in the next few days as well!  (Update: here’s how I did it!)

How about you?  What early preparations are you doing so that your December won’t feel too frantic?

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a peek at our Christmas morning

In a weekend full of family and celebration, the happiest moments were right in our own living room, surrounded by our kids. Christmas Eve morning I was awake at 6:30, puttering around drinking coffee, and setting out coffee and cocoa fixings for our kids. They would soon be waking up and wandering into the living room, either via sleepy feet or in the case of our married daughters, in cars with their husbands.

John and I had done the hurry-scurrying the evening before, setting out gifts and filling stockings, and now we were ready to sit and enjoy. The little girls were awake in their beds for a good half-hour before we finally went in and told them it was okay to get up. Older kids came out a little slower, but just about everyone wore sleepy smiles of anticipation. Kids’ eyes tended to be on gifts. We parents were watching our kids, savoring their enjoyment of the day.

As always we began with the reading of the Christmas story in Luke 2. Then it was time for the singing. This year we had help from this Christmas carol collection
which was a nice addition to our tradition. Everyone got to pick a song for us to sing a verse of, and we had a really nice sing-along.  We tortured the kids a little bit longer by asking everyone to share a favorite Christmas memory.  We talked about Jesus, the real gift of the season.  And then, finally, it was time for gifts.  (Click on pictures to enlarge.)

After the gift opening, it was time for a leisurely breakfast, then games. The boys spent the majority of the day on Republic Commmando. Others of us played  Dutch Blitz
and Wits And Wagers, both games that I’d requested for Christmas.  Dutch Blitz is usually a 4-person game.  But marking a second set of cards allowed us to play with eight people– a sure way for wild chaos to ensue.

Later in the day we all went over to my mom’s for clam chowder and more gifts and lots of visiting. (ALL my siblings were there– lovely!)  And the next day we visited John’s family and had a lovely prime rib dinner there.   Every bit of those two days was good.  But none of it was better than sitting in our living room with our own kids, watching happy faces, savoring their happiness over the day, and celebrating the Greatest Gift, Jesus, who was the one to begin all this gift-giving in the first place.

Rejoice

Rejoice, in a manger lay
The promise of God’s love for us
For everyone

Heaven and angels sing
The coming of the King
The only son of God most high
His name is Jesus Christ