Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I'm Dreaming of a Light Christmas

With the Christmas season gearing up, I'm taking a good hard look at our our schedule, budget and intentions. With those things in mind I'm hoping to enjoy a Christmas with our family that is rich in tradition and memories and lighter on our pocketbook and storage space. I've come up with a few tactics for making this possible.

1. We'll use what we have.
We won't be buying wrapping paper, cardstock or envelopes this year. We seem to have enough of these supplies and it would be nice to lighten the load on our storage areas instead of having each area/container/etc. packed to the brim. I did need to buy some tissue paper, but I think that'll be all. This has gone even deeper...into my fabric stash even! After all, what am I saving all those scraps for? I've made some simple bags from those scraps and used my pinking shears around the edges and cinched them up with pretty ribbons. This is a good option for our family as we need to ship gifts across the border. These gifts are completely accessible for examination by customs officials while still not being completely obvious to the recipient until the desired time for gift openings.

In the kitchen, we'll make homemade gifts from ingredients we mostly already have and using containers we have on hand.

For our children's homemade gifts this year (I try to make something homemade for each of them each Christmas), I'll be using fabric and supplies I have squirreled away in months and yes, years, past. No, the fabric may not be the perfect color or print, but who wants to go to the craft superstore in late November and December? Not me!

We won't be purchasing new decorations this year, though I'm still contemplating an ornament for each child. We'll need to repurpose some items that are not traditionally reserved for Christmas. I've got some ideas up my sleeve in this area so I'm hoping for the best.

2. We'll do our best to operate with the one item in, one item out principle. This is certainly a challenging area for us, especially when it comes to toys. But, without some kind of limits, our house which is extremely low on designated storage space becomes overrun with toys and the kids get overwhelmed and don't really play, but go from toy to toy to toy, not really enjoying any of them. I admit that this is one of those areas where I like to talk a good game, but seem to find it hard to part with things. I'll try to stay strong this year, though!

3. We'll slow down to enjoy the season. At least this is my hope. We're only planning on attending a couple of parties so this should not be too difficult. Somehow I have visions of sitting around in the evening sipping hot chocolate with the children, listening to Christmas music and just enjoying time together. To make this a reality I'll need to stay on top of my routines and be disciplined throughout the day to complete necessary tasks so that there is time to just enjoy being together as a family and to enjoy a few low-preparation activities. With the kids being 5, 3 and 1, I'm letting go of ideas of a perfectly decorated home or tree, perfectly decorated sugar cookies or even a wonderfully presented meal. I'll do my best and allow my children to do the same so we can relax and make happy memories together.

4. We'll give gifts to bless, not impress. Our aim will be to give gifts that will be sure to be enjoyed and used, not to "wow" anyone. We just as well adopt this approach since it is no surprise that it is beyond our means to be passing out cashmere sweaters and iPods. Hopefully the lovingly wrapped humble gifts we are able to give will communicate our love and care more than the use of our Visa card ever could.

4. We'll spend time teaching our children the real meaning of Christmas so that, hopefully, the above four items can all be kept in proper perspective.

Merry Christmas! What ideas do you have for joyfully managing the holidays?

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Daily Bread

Last weekend I happened to look on our Craig's List and found an amazing deal on something we had seriously been contemplating purchasing. I know it is just "stuff", but I'm still thanking God for these items....and imagine I will for years to come. So, what ARE these items? A Bosch mixer and a Nutrimill grain mill, used for less than 6 months by the original owner and sold to me for $100, a $500-600 savings!!!! I've been watching auctions for these items and even if they are well-used, the prices just don't go down that much. Can you tell I'm excited?!

I made my first batch of bread yesterday and it was so easy and tastes so good. And to know that it is so healthy is wonderful, too. And can I just say how good it feels to serve this to my kids and have them say, "Mom, this is the best bread ever"?
The Lord has provided our daily bread and we are thankful!

Around the Kitchen

Lately I've been more excited to try some new things in the kitchen. I don't know if it is because it's finally feeling like fall or because we've been needing to stretch our grocery budget farther. Whatever the reason, I'm pleased with the results.

Last week I found a sale on soon-expiring organic milk. Our kids go through A LOT of yogurt every week and that has not been helping the budget so much. I know we could reduce their yogurt consumption, but it is one of those foods they enjoy that is good for them and we don't have a battle about them eating. So when I saw half-gallons of this organic milk marked down to $1.34 I just had to bring it home and try my hand at making yogurt. I've read of a few different methods, but the method I tried was to heat the milk to nearly boiling on the stove, cool to a temperature of 110 degrees (I used a candy thermometer), then pour into containers, add a few tablespoons of plain yogurt to each container and place in the oven overnight with the oven light on for warmth. From a half-gallon of milk I filled 2-28oz. mason jars and one 4 1/2 cup pyrex dish. In the morning I put a lid on each container and refrigerated until use. One jar turned out great and the other two were a bit too runny, though they tasted great. Next time I will have the oven on warm before placing the containers inside and then shut the oven off. For the time it took and how quickly we consume yogurt, I think I will start with one gallon of milk next time. I may also experiment with a warm water bath process which you can do with a good cooler. Rest assured, none went to waste. I was able to mix the runny yogurt with baby cereal for Smiley and for smoothies for the older kids.

Last week I also tried making pumpkin puree. It worked great. I had a pie pumpkin I had purchased as a fall decoration. Unfortunately, we never got around to carving it with the kids so it was still sitting on the counter and I figured I should use it up before it went bad. I cut it in half, removed the seeds and fibers, placed it in a baking dish with a bit of water, covered and baked at 325 degrees for about 1 hour. When it was cool enough to handle I scooped the pumpkin away from the skin and put that in a blender. I now have about 5 cups of puree in the freezer for later use. The kids also enjoyed some smoothies that included the remnants left in the blender jar. This week I saw an episode of Martha Stewart and she recommended letting the puree sit over cheesecloth for an hour to remove excess moisture, but I think I'll just compensate with an extra quantity of dry ingredients when I use this for baking.

I know these are not revolutionary ideas, but I'm celebrating the small victory that comes in using what you have.

A Box for This, A Box for That

Over the last couple of weeks I've been getting the inspiration to get a bit more organized around here, especially in the little areas. You know, the areas that tend to annoy you because they are always a bit out of order or where you can't quickly find what you are looking for when you need it.

My accordion check file coupon organizer just wasn't working for me anymore. I needed more categories and more space to store the coupons, but didn't want to spend money on something that was supposed to be saving me money. We had a few spare baby wipes containers around the house so I gave it a shot. I took an empty clean container, drilled a hole on each end, strung a ribbon through the holes and knotted them on the inside of the box. For the dividers I typed up all the categories on the computer and spaced them according to how tall I wanted the dividers to stand in the box, printed them off on colored cardstock, cut them up and folded clear packing tape over the top edge to reinforce the card. So far it has been very handy and I've been able to locate coupons so much more quickly this way. Here is what it looks like.

Another area that needed to work better for me was my ribbon box. This is obvious from the "before" shot, ribbons thrown in there in a jumbled mess.

With the idea from this free magazine I put together a much more orderly box using a 6-quart plastic bin and a 3/8" dowel, cut to the appropriate length. I did not have the bin or dowel on hand, but in total this project was still under $2.50. And that's a small price to pay for so much order.
A business professor from my university days once made the statement, "Order creates energy." This idea has really stuck with me and I do believe it holds true, especially in regard to our home. When everything has a place and is in its place I do have more energy and am more enthusiastic about starting and completing whatever task is at hand.