Sunday, September 14, 2014

Given' it a Go

For months, I have struggled with creating a healthier menu for our family. Since we have been so budget-conscious for the past three years, we have been living on foods that consist of the coupon-worthy/last until the end of time variety. Although I know we are trying to do the best we can with what we have, I think that there has got to be a way to do better! That is why Joe and I are giving a natural, non-processed, non-boxed meal plan a try. Due to our budget constraints, this will take some planning and preparation, but we are committed to giving it our best, beginning Oct.1st.

Our goal is not to be on a "diet", nor is it to put restrictions on our boys, it is to make sure that what we eat is the most simple, healthiest food available. Get back to the basics, as it were. We are a very active family, and we want our food to work with that lifestyle. We have always tried to instill a love of "real" food in our children. We have a garden, which we plant, water, harvest, and create meals from as a family. This has become a cherished part of our time together.

The gist of our game plan:
1. Cut out packaged foods
2. Focus on fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean meats
3. Make and/or bake all our meals from the purest ingredients possible

Plantin' some corn
Based on our own family needs, there will be some exceptions to the rules:
1. Baking ingredients are fair game. I see them as essentials, and refuse to drop them from our diet.
2. If at a restaurant or are guests in someone's home, we eat what is offered. Our goal is not to be rude or impose our experiment on others, but if friends/family come our way, we will make the meal based on our new guidelines. GUESTS BEWARE!

I know this will not be easy, could be quite time-consuming, will probably be budget-strenuous, and could require a great deal of imagination, but I think it will be totally worth it!

Stay tuned for our weekly menus, the ups and downs of our foodie adventure, and how it all pans out (pun intended)!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Creating a Home We Love

My husband and I are always on the lookout for thrifty ways to make our home beautiful. When we were looking at our current home, we almost walked away from it, because it was so plain, whitish, and dingy, it made us think that it would need a lot of work to get it in tip top shape. I'm so glad we looked past our initial reactions, because after just a few short months of living in our new home, and minimal expenses, we have transformed it into the beautiful home we have always wanted.

We have big plans for actual renovations, updates, and personal touches, but for now, with the need for a budget-friendly fix, we are so happy with the changes we have made. When we moved it, our first order of business was to repaint the main living spaces to take care of the dingy feeling of a home that had not been lived in for over two years. This went a long way, but we had even bigger plans for a couple choice rooms.

First, we focused on our son's new bedroom. It was very hard for him to leave our first home. To help him get excited about the new house, we let him choose the colors/theme of his new bedroom, which we would have up and ready by the time we moved in. Little did we know, that he would choose two, lets say interesting, color choices. Red and golden (he also threw black in there, but that's where we drew the line). It took us weeks to figure out a way to give him what he wanted, while still making his room tasteful and doable for us. A friend made an awesome suggestion, and we went with it. We painted the top of the room white, the bottom red, and added a golden stripe between them. We all loved the outcome, especially our little man.
Before                                             After  
Next up was our spacious but blah loft. We have always planned for this area to be a playroom for our boys, but the whitish walls made the room seem boring and dirty. So, we found a kid friendly color pallet and chose two colors that would look well together. We painted the top two thirds of the room the lighter of the two, and the bottom third the darker. We then added a chair-rail to tie it all together. I LOVE this room! I have always wanted an older home with character, and I think that our remodel gives it just that. Character!
Before                                                After 
Last, was our half bath. Once again, the room was dirty and white. This time, we had to worry about it about the size of the room when considering colors. Since the bath is quite small, we wanted a light, neutral, yet interesting color. We chose a light blue/green. We also switched out the boring, plain mirror for one with lots of character. These two small fixes, have given the room a huge improvement.
Before                                             After
As I said earlier, we still have some BIG plans for the rest of the house, but these easy, inexpensive changes will help to tide us over until we are ready to make bigger updates. The fact that this will be our home for many years to come, makes each of the projects we complete, all that more satisfying and exciting. We can finally make our home, ours!

Happy Day

Pancake Picnic '13
It is extremely fitting that this post will be #200. Today, my boys and I had our second annual Pancake Picnic in our backyard. When comparing the pictures from our first P.P., I realized just how much our lives have changed. Obviously, we are all a year older.

Nolan has his own plate this time, he's using a fork, and sitting on his own. Where last year, he was pretty much an observer, who spent his time in my lap. Liam is the same silly, happy pancake muncher as he was last year, with one exception, he has grown into the greatest big brother Nolan could have ever asked for. I have changed too. I'm happier, healthier, and am feeling a sense of peace within our situation.

Pancake Picnic '14
Even the background of the pictures have changed. A year ago, we were living in our first home. This time around, we are enjoying a lovely meal in the shade of an Asian Pear tree that grows in the yard of our forever home. Life has changed so much in the past year. It's difficult to remember what life was like at the time that last year's picnic occurred.

 I love the changes that we have gone through, the progress we have made, the little men that my sons are becoming, and the love that is growing. Happy day!  

Silly boys!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Crockpot Korean Fusion Pulled Pork Tacos with Spicy Slaw

Our family has been working on a pretty tight budget for the past couple years. As part of our budget, I do the grocery shopping with special focus on coupons and sales. One item that tends to go on sale often and has coupons in the Sunday paper regularly, is the Campbell's Crockpot sauce. Since we are not fans of eating the same three dinners, over and over again, we try very hard to come up with creative recipes that will use the items we have already purchased (based on sales and coupons). 

This is one of my proudest recipes to date. It is healthy, delicious, inexpensive, easy, our whole family loves it (even the 4 year old and the 18 month old), it makes a ton of food, and it even better as leftovers, which is HUGE for me to say. I HATE leftovers! 

The delicious outcome
Boneless Pork Shoulder
Korean BBQ Campbell's Crockpot Sauce
2 Cups Shredded Cabbage
1 Cup Red Onion
3/4 Cup Cilantro
Corn Tortillas

2 Tbls Soy Sauce
3 Tbls Vinegar
1 Tbls Sugar 
1/2 tsp Ginger
1/2 tsp Black Pepper

Optional (for spicy):
Diced Cyrano Pepper or Diced Jalapeno Pepper to taste

1. Put the Pork shoulder into a crockpot with the Korean BBQ sauce as directed on the package  (until the meat falls apart easily) 
2. Shred the pork.
3. Make the sauce, adding the pepper(s) if wanted.
4. Mix all remaining ingredients to make the slaw, then mix in the sauce.
5. Put the tacos together, adding as much of the slaw as you would like.
6. ENJOY!!

*My husband and I love spice, so we split the slaw into two batches and only add the peppers to one of them. That way we can have spice, and out boys can enjoy their meal without a burning tongue and watering eyes.

We hope you love this recipe as much as we do!!! Please, give it a try and leave a comment about how it turned out. I would love to hear about variations and/or issues that you come across.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Super Hero Party

My son is a huge super hero fan. He loves them all, but his favorites are Flash and Hulk. When it came time to choose a theme for his party, he couldn't decide between the two. So, he didn't! 

I love to be creative with parties. I find nothing but pleasure in planning and throwing them. I try to be creative with theme, decorations, party favors, food, etc. Once again, I scoured my brain for ways to make sure that this Super Hero party wouldn't be a generic, cookie cutter version. My first assignment, was the food. There is an amazing bakery, here in Sherwood, that creates beautiful, yummy treats. We used them a few years back for another one of Liam's birthday parties. We asked them to create Hulk hands and Flash lightening cookies. They turned out awesome, and were a huge hit!

The next order of business was themed (yet, not canned) decorations. I went simplistic this time around. Putting out colored table clothes, napkins, plates, and silverware and pairing them with a few of Liam's toys. I put together a themed table for each of the heroes, and moved on to more important favors!

I have to say, that this is one of my proudest party ideas. I'm a reading teacher. My boys love books. Normal party favors tend to be cheap toys, candy, and nick knacks that are thrown away. I wanted to make Liam's party favors useful, memorable, and worth taking home. So I went with books!

I searched local book stores, Facebook buy/sell pages, and garage sales, for new/like new children's books. I was able to come up with quite a stash for less money than the normal goodie bags would require. I displayed the book options in a decorative basket, near the front door, so as not to forget them. This also allowed the children, to flip through and choose the book that they wanted, while heading out.

To personalize the gift for Liam and his guests, I typed up and printed a little note on address labels and stuck them on the front cover of each book. Once again, our guests loved the idea! I have received more compliments on this idea, than any other. I'm so happy that everyone liked it, and I love that it promotes reading!

The last hurtle to get the party started, was an activity for the kiddos. I hate party games. Especially, for infant/toddler parties. Kids just want to play. Party games are complicated, can be difficult to organize, and they require that someone who is throwing the party, be taken away from their guests to facilitate. I'm just not a fan. In past parties, I set up a cookie decorating station, homemade playdough, Mr. Potato Head felt game, and created a punch for the prize game, You can check out these ideas at Teddy Bear Picnic Birthday Party and To Infinity and Beyond!

This time, I created bookmarks that went along with the Hulk/Flash theme. I printed them in black and white, and put markers and crayons on the same table. This way, each kiddo would leave the party with a book and bookmark that they colored, and would have a fun, calm activity to do, while at the party.

This was a super easy and simple way to throw a birthday party, and I got nothing but compliments for how it turned out. I learned that parties don't need to be fancy, expensive, and super-structured to be a hit. They just need to be well thought out and creative!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

We're Broke

I've been considering writing this post for some time now, but always decide against it for various reasons. I have gotten to the point where, I just can't wait any longer. Our friends and family need to know why they hear "No." so often.

The Brooks family is broke. Sort of. We are not broke in the sense that we don't have money that could be dispensable, we do. We are broke in the sense, that it is gone, used, has a purpose. My husband and I, chose to go down the debt-free future path, about two years ago. We have worked hard, and paid off a lot of debt. But selling our house, renting, then purchasing our forever home, put our debt-pay-off-plan on hold for about 9 months. We are finally getting back to it, and have set a pretty lofty goal for ourselves. We want to pay off one of our student loans by this time next year. It is doable, if we stick to our budget......if we say, "No."

Smart Advice from Mr. Dave Ramsey
I hate to disappoint people, especially the people I care about. So when we are asked to go out to dinner, go to a movie, take a trip etc., it's very hard to always say the same two letters: N. O. It's also hard to feel as though we are skimping on things. When we give gifts, they are small, simple, basic. When Christmas or birthdays are approaching, it takes months of planning ahead, and a great deal of budgeting to get the job done. Although it seems counter-intuitive, this a major reason for putting our family on a budget. We want to send our parents on that trip they have been dreaming about. We want to pick a gift, based on the interests of the person, not the price tag. We want to be able to be the generous, thoughtful people, that we wish we could afford to be. We want to travel as a family. We want a future free of the stress associated with debt.

We don't want our friends and family to stop including us (or trying to), we don't want to be thought of as "cheap" or "stingy". It's quite the opposite. We want to give ourselves the opportunity to be the "yes" people in the future. With debt hanging over our heads, we would never truly feel comfortable with larger purchases, family/friend vacations, dinners out without reading every price on the menu, or shopping for ourselves without feeling guilty. Becoming debt-free will help us do all of these things and more, while still being responsible and thoughtful about our money.

Joe and I, own our choice. We stand by it. It doesn't bother us to miss out on these situations for the time being, because the goal is that we will be able to enjoy them in the future. We want to instill smart finances, and financial responsibility in our boys.

I don't feel sorry for us. I'm proud of our choices. My goal is for the people around us to understand WHY we say, "No.", WHY this is important to us, WHY we make the choices we make.

Our Debt-Free Future Inspiration

Monday, June 9, 2014

Judge and Jury

We have all been there. You're at a party, playdate, the park, a grocery store, and your little one throws a tantrum, is "the bossy one", takes things from others, says something inappropriate, etc. You chose the scenario, but we've all been there. It's hard enough, that our job as parents is to be able to decipher this behavior, pull out the mommy/daddy trick that will defuse the situation, and do it all without breaking a sweat. Now, add on the pressure of doing this in front of dozens of judging eyes. We have all felt it.

I had a conversation with an older mommy, over the weekend, when she made the statement that, "she could just start interacting with other moms (now that her children are grown, and have their own babies), because the competitiveness is finally gone." Sad. Our best resource, as parents, are other parents, yet we feel so judged that we sever these ties. Later in the weekend, I was able to have a very insightful conversation with a long-time friend and mama, where we discussed the pressure associated with the prying eyes of other parents.

Being a parent shouldn't be about doing it "best", it shouldn't be about having the "perfect" kiddos, it should be about doing the best we can to raise happy, mindful, caring human beings. But, for many of us, we worry too much about what others think about how we deal with sticky situations. Having the experiences of this past weekend, have put me in a very thoughtful mode. In reflecting on my sons' behavior, my responses to it, my concerns about how others see me, comments that have been thrown my way, etc., I have devised some advise for myself. Reminders, if you will. Things to keep in mind, when I find myself being judged........or.......judging.

1. We've all been there!: We all want to pretend that we haven't, but we have all felt the heat, head-rush, panic, and embarrassment, of tough parenting situations. We have all been blindsided by unexpected behavior. We have all given ourselves the, "In _________ situation, I will do _________......" pep talk. So, get over it. Stop blaming the parent.

2. The judgment you feel is in your head: We all let our minds run wild with, "I bet she thinks I am a horrible parent!", "No one is going to let my son/daughter play with their kids.", "I'm sure, they are running home to complain about how I handled that situation." In many of these situations, what we believe is being thought/said behind closed doors, is probably far worse than reality. Stop worrying about what others think. Do what's best for you and your kids.

3. The judgement you feel is real: We all do it. We see a tantrum, or a grabby kid, and we think "Why isn't she/he doing this?" It's normal. Really, it's an important part of our development as parents. "Judging" a parenting situation, where you are a bystander with a front row seat, but none of the embarrassment, is the perfect time to re-evaluate your possible responses. Unfortunately, most parents don't use this opportunity to hone their own skills, they use it to belittle the parent who is "screwing it up". Judge the situation, not the parent.

4. We all do what is best for our kids, and us: If I have learned anything, since having two children, it's that there is no manual for being an effective parent. There is no "perfect" game plan. What works for one sibling, doesn't work for the other. So why would we ever think, that what works for one of OUR kids, would work for someone else and theirs??

5. Don't offer advise, unless asked: For the same reason, as #4, offering unsolicited parenting advise is a load of crap. It is a mommy or daddy's way of feeling as though they know what they are doing. Don't do it. It's not helpful. I will be honest. When someone tries to give me unsolicited advise, I instantly recount every one of their parenting "mistakes". If I'm asked, awesome, advice away! Otherwise, parents will see it as pure judgement and will tune you out anyway.

6. Train wrecks are normal: Before becoming a parent, I always thought....."My kids won't act that way!", "I wouldn't let my son/daughter get away with that.", "What are those parents doing?!" In reality, these situations are normal, unavoidable (to a certain extent). Kids learn what appropriate behavior is through parental modeling, shared interactions, and yes, misbehavior. Tantrums are a way for kids to process their feelings, before they have learned how to process them appropriately. The fact that these situations exist, is not a testament to the horrible standards/teachings of the parent, but to the normal development of a child. It is our job as parents to teach the coping, social, emotional skills needed for our babies to grow into productive, reasonable, caring adults, but it is a process, it takes time, it takes trial and error.

7. Making mistakes is part of the process: We have all reflected on a parenting faux pas and thought, "I should have handled it this way, or that way." Good! Try it next time. Stop beating yourself up, for not doing it last time. If you keep trying, eventually, you will find the response that works for you and your child. As I tell my students, the only true mistake, is not learning from them, when they occur.

I will try my hardest to be a reflecting, not judging, parent. To be a comrade, not a teacher. To be here for my friends, without feeling the need to "fix" or "change". I will take pride in my parenting philosophy, not shame in my mistakes. I will not judge others or myself, only support and encourage.