Bullet Journaling 101

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Raise your hand if you have some combination of a planner, a phone with notes x10, a digital calendar, a grocery list app, a meal planning notepad, a family calendar on the wall, and post-its in various spots around your house?

That was me a year ago. Everything was silo’d and organized, but there was no central spot for it. I was drawn to my iphone resources (calendar, notes) because my phone is always with me, but also feeling a draw to be on my screen less (especially around my kids), and feeling like all the tools I was using were disparate. I never felt like I had what I needed when I needed it. I would be reading a magazine, and it would have a meal plan idea, a new book I want to read, and a Netflix line up for Fall — and I wanted to record all of that information in addition to the great quote I heard on NPR while driving.

It was around then that I learned about Bullet Journaling through an Atomic Moms podcast interview with Ryder Carroll. The minimalist in me loved the idea of using any blank journal — who doesn’t have a drawer of them? And the wanting-to-be-more-mindful mama in me loved the mindfulness aspect of Bullet Journaling.

I have wanted to write about this for a long time, but it took me a long time to find my own groove, and I want to encourage you to find your own groove if you feel a draw toward this type of planning.

Reasons why I have grown to love BuJo:

  • I can curl up with my journal and my pen anywhere, anytime, and everything I need is at my fingertips; this includes when I am with my kids at the park or the pool, where I don’t want to be on my phone, but I do have a few minutes (or planning thoughts that need to be recorded)
  • It allows me to be creative with pens and lettering, which is something I feel drawn toward but in a more private sense (don’t love my lettering enough to do it as a side-hustle)
  • I no longer have decision fatigue- when I want to record a gift idea, a future event date, a meal plan idea, I know exactly where to go; I make a new page, index it and move on
  • I have a record of my life – I can look back at how my weeks looked, at my notes from a particularly great speaker I attended, at which meals I have made and loved in October, and at my summer planner
  • I have recognized the mindfulness aspect of carrying forward tasks, re-writing them, re-committing to them
  • I have a perfect view of my week every week that serves me (I got here via trial and error)
  • I didn’t need to spend any money or do anything extra to do this habit so it fits in line with my minimalism journey

The basics of bullet journaling are:

  • Buy or find a blank notebook and a pen you really like
  • Start out with an index – number your pages as such, add to your index anytime (e.g. Christmas Lists, Future Blog Post ideas, shows to watch on Netflix)
  • Figure out your best page layout – I did this through trial and error – I’ll show you where I started below and where I have ended up
  • Don’t get too bogged down in the beautiful symbols and watercolors of others who do #bujo – I let that make me feel bad for a while, but now I’m back just reveling in the simplicity and productivity of this habit
  • Change it up when it doesn’t work for you (for example, I used to record when I was going to work out in every day; I later realized, my workout is daily, and the time changes, and there is no point in writing it on my schedule)
  • Resist the urge to use other tools, but instead think about how you can use your BuJo to fit that same need
  • Check out resources below for help

My Bullet Journal

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The format that I have found that works for me is a little different than what is initially recommended by Ryder. When I started, I was making a section for each day as the week went along – this is what Ryder suggests so you don’t take up too much space in the Journal – so the idea is that some days are short, and some days are long (with notes) so you shouldn’t draw it all out in advance. This worked for me for a bit, but I realized that I usually plan my whole week out on Sunday or Monday so I needed to see a full vision of the week to make it fit together – and I usually have enough space for notes since my life is not full of a lot of meetings (at this point).  In my original style, I used Ryder’s suggested bullets (circles for appointments, bullets for tasks and arrows for things you are carrying forward, an X to x through a completed task, and strike-through if it wasn’t being carried forward. My current style uses circles for appointments but allocates tasks broadly thoroughout the week. If you are using your BuJo for work and you have more notes, I could see why that style could work for you. We are all such unique creatures!

Original Style:

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Current Style:

Every week I use an index card to draw these lines:

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Then I fill in the dates and section headers:

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In addition to drawing out the week in advance using a ruler, I also learned that I needed a spot for my “dinner plan” and a spot for overall to-dos. I am not at the point where I can assign my weekly to-dos to a certain day of the week, so when I did that, I was having to move my bullets forward a lot, vs. just having an overall vision of what I want to accomplish during the week which I look at throughout the week.

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Last, I found that I like to look ahead and know what is coming down the pike. I added a section for upcoming that helps me look ahead without having to flip the page. And, because I had room, I added a spot for my shoppping list which I later assign to each store on my OurGroceries App.

Overall, 9 months into this habit, and I continue to learn about myself, my habits, intentions and planning style. If you have been thinking about doing this, I would encourage you to use a notebook you have hanging around and just get started! It is freeing to have everything in one place and has streamlined life planning, meal planning and weekly planning.

Do you BuJo? Let me know in the comments what layout works for you!

Resources

Quiet Time (a work in progress)

Well, it’s been a minute hasn’t it. My kid turned four, we sent some thank you notes, and then we kind of went underground like the daffodil bulbs and we’re just now emerging. I’ve been wanting to write this post for a long time, but I wanted it to have a perfect bow on it.

Earlier this week I was sitting at my MOPS meeting and listening to the speaker of the day and I was introduced to the concept of the “Nobow” — it’s a gift, a story, or a life with “no bow” on it. There is no perfect ending to this story, but I wanted to share with you where our family is at with naps, and a few of the things we’ve found that work.

Right now, you might be pinned under a napping baby, or maybe you’re doing a big cook up in your kitchen and rocking out to Atomic Moms while your toddler is sacked out. Perhaps you have a stroller napper, or a swing napper, or a napper who only goes to sleep to the tunes of Motown and a heavy sway.  For a long time, you build your little world around naps. Everything revolves around naps, and in fact, friendships can make or break due to nap match-ups.

You can tell someone is not a parent if they just don’t understand the nap schedule. They will innocently send out an invite for a party at 2 pm when 97.2% of the under 4 population is napping. It’s amazing, they see days in long, stretching swaths. You see them in chunks. Before nap. After nap. Bam.

Some of you have already experienced the death. Some of you wear your black armbands like badges of courage. You’ve experienced true loss: the loss of the nap, but the advent of earlier bedtime, and the time in your evening that opens up to you like open road in Summer.

For those of you who are still approaching this stage, and want to make sure you’re ready, this post is for you.. Here are my totally Nobow unofficial quiet time tips.

  1. Be ready: Like a mic drop, it comes when you least expect it. You probably have a sense that it’s coming, but if your kid is still napping as they approach four, you better get ready quick. Have your plan. Map out what hours you are going to try to achieve “quiet time”, what spaces you are going to use in your house, and what your overall rules will be. Get your equipment in order.
  2. Equipment: Don’t go into battle without supplies. For us, the transition to quiet time has included three main items – an OK to wake clock – we have the Hatch rest, that I can program daily to turn green when quiet time is over, a CD player which can play quiet time CDs, and a door monkey for securing the door.
  3. Game plan:  Before Marilyn dropped her nap, I had thought about what I wanted quiet time to look like. I talked to moms about what works (shout out to Molly and her brilliant CD player idea with CDs from the library (we love the Magical Tree House series), and I had decided against the use of screen time. Screen time is for mama showers and mama meetings, but quiet time for us was going to be about quiet play, puzzles, creativity, and stories. Having a plan made me feel more prepared, and I was able to shop consignment for puzzles and some quiet time activities. Every kid is different but try to identify what your kid likes to do independently. I also chose things that she normally can’t play with if George is around (because he will destroy).
  4. Space plan: I had a hard time determining if Marilyn should be allowed to be anywhere in the house, or confined to her room. In the end, I decided that I needed some physical separation from her during quiet time, and that could only be achieved with a door. She can come out to use the potty, of course, and because #toddlers, she does pop out to ask for help or questions, but we go over the rules before quiet time and she understands that quiet time is for mama and her. I put George down to nap in a different room so that Marilyn can have full access to the toys in her room. When I am working my office, we do the reverse, and I’m behind the door and I let her have the run of the house. It helps that we have cameras downstairs so I can check in on her occasionally.
  5. Make it work: In the immortal words of Tim Gunn, make it work for you. Perhaps you want to use or approach quiet time differently. I struggled the most with accepting quiet time and not darkening the room , giving her the lovey, and hoping she would nap. Our quiet time is about 2 hours a day, and so far it’s working pretty well for us.

If you have any other tried and true strategies unique to your family for quiet time or this challenging transition, I would love to hear them. As your kid drops his nap, just remember, you may now get those few extra hours you were searching for at night, and those, I can say are pretty priceless.

Thanks for being patient with my pregant pause! More soon. xo

 

 

 

Kids’ Thank You Notes

For as long as I can remember, I have had an encyclopedic version of Emily Post’s Etiquette on my book shelf. It, along with Strunk & White, and my falling apart copy of The World According to Garp, are some of my mainstays. The version I have of Post allows you to tab quickly through sections devoted to invitations, entertaining, condolences, and weddings.

So, it should come as no surprise to you dear readers that I’m a real devotee of the Thank You note. Friends know me as the person who will write a thank you note for a thank you note. “Now you really shouldn’t have, but I’m so glad you did!” lives on hard in the South, as does the simple act of an acknowledgement.

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How you will know that you and I have really made it as friends, is when we actually agree to stop sending each other Thank you notes. I reached that little moment with my friend Kaki in Alabama before we moved- when we had thank you’d each other’s thank yous about eleven times, and so we agreed we would put a thank you truce on things, save some trees. But we both still  know that in our minds’ eyes- thank yous are still flying.

Still, I am a woman of reason, and a woman of not infinite time and means (see: childcare, 9 scant hours per week). I recognize, and appreciate, the texted photo that says “we love this gift- we’re using it!” and I adore the Paperless Post thank you note because it tells me that you were able to write them and cross them off your list while watching the Bachelor. I have no judgement for the way and style in which you choose to acknowledge a gift or a kindness, I just ask so kindly that you do it eventually, and that you teach your children well.

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All that being said, it is has been tough for me to accept the fact that I am now responsible for the gratitude-giving for 3 out of the 4, or let’s be honest, 4 out of the 4 members of my family (not actually completely true: my husband has the most delicious stationary and he writes a mean thank you note). I have struggled for years with how to appropriately give thanks and gratitude on behalf of my children and myself.

Well, this year, I came up with a solution and I really wanted to share it with you in the hopes it makes you as happy as it makes me. In my constant pursuit of the hobbies-that-don’t-require-scrolling, I have taken up hand lettering and watercolor. For a few dollars at Michael’s, I bought a watercolor paper book and a set of paints. I enjoy listening to my 1970s folk americana at night before Zac gets home (give me all the Joni Mitchell) and watercoloring, and Marilyn has taken to it, too, sharing a water cup with me and asking me to draw her favorite things.

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Last month, she asked me to draw a unicorn, and then she painted it, and an idea was born. I would hand letter Thank You, and sign it from her, and commission some thank you notes with her original artwork. This was the first part of the aha moment. The second part came when I had done my research and selected Vistaprint as my vendor. They were simply the easiest by far, and most affordable, and allowed me the most options to customize my card type. I looked into others like Costco, Shutterfly, etc, but they didn’t fit the bill. Once I had selected Vistaprint, I realized I could also fill in the text. So, I sat down with Marilyn and asked her what she wanted to thank her adoring fans for- and she came forth with this little adorable novella of sorts that started out with, “turning four was the best day of my life.” I cleaned it up a bit, and clicked order.

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Readers, dear readers, these customized little works of art come time capsules were 30 cards for $18.98 ($6.99 of which was shipping and handling) including the envelopes, and they arrived at my doorstep 5 days later. The next part of the fun of a four year old was that she spent an entire “Quiet Time” (more coming on that later) writing her letter “M” on each one, and then stuffing the envelopes, sealing them, and adding the stamp.

The project took us a few days to finish, but I’m really proud of the results. So far, everyone loves them, and I think her spirit really shines through. She is really proud of having contributed to the entire project, and I feel like it was actually one of those projects that I had more of an Adam Smith hand in, instead of a heavy “I did your Science Fair Project” kind of hand in.

I hope she never loses her sense of gratitude. And I hope you enjoy this little mom hack!

xo

The Minimalist Birthday Party

When you first have a baby, you’re like omgggg I get to celebrate another human’s birthday. Along the way, you celebrate every single week, and month. They make stickers that you just slap on your kid to help with this task. It’s loads of fun. Then, when the first birthday of your firstborn arrives, it feels like a national holiday! You take the day off, you plan for months, there are photo shoots involved, Etsy printables, themes off the chain.

Then you have more kids, and you sleep a little less, and sticker a little less, and track a little less (what day is it?) and some seasons it starts to feel like every other month is someone else’s birthday. And it can get, well, fatiguing and let’s be honest, bank-breaking.  And man, not to mention the emotional labor, how about Birthday Party labor, mamas? Show me a man who has done anything to make his kid’s birthday magical and I’ll cook him dinner. (I’m sure they exist, but not in my house).

I love birthdays, I truly do. I am that mom who fills her kids room with balloons and makes ombre pancakes. But in light of life, and the fact that our birthdays will all keep trekking on for the 50 or so years, if we’re lucky, I needed a more sustainable, manageable solution that still feels magical.

Enter: the magical, minimal, at-home birthday party. Mamas, I’m here to take some stuff of your plate. There will be years when your kids don’t want a birthday party, don’t mention it,  and don’t care. This at home stash of stuff will fly for your husband, your mother-in-law and your 3 year old. You make it special and you make it yours, and you never have to spend money again. I have chosen a primary color scheme because it’s gender neutral, age neutral and works for everything and maximizes the use of these items. I keep everything in a birthday tub, so it’s easy to unpack the bday celebration and pack it righttttt backkkkk up.

The staples:

A birthday placemat: this is the one we have and we love it and it matches the color scheme.

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A hand-painted birthday plate (or buy one!): I did a whole post on this over here, but this has been a staple in our house and I love that it’s handmade. If you aren’t feeling it, you can buy one. Try to make it gender neutral.

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Birthday hats: the key here is that you buy them once, collect them, and reuse them. These hats have been worn 147 times. I’m only slightly exaggerating. I use them all the time for little kid things and adult things, I schlep them to restaurants, and parks, but you better believe I collect them back and re-use them. Yes, you can buy anything these days for $5, but should you?

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Banner: this banner has also been used so many times. I recycle it and spell whatever I need. It holds up well, and comes with waxed string to insert and I can attest to the fact that it will hold up for you and spell everything you need to spell from Byeeeeeee, Bandi (Like I did for my Sister-in-law’s going away party) to Happy Fortieth (for my husband) and Lovefest (for Valentines Day).

 

Cake bunting and candles: I collect candles that I find at the Dollar Store, Target, and occasionally at other birthday parties when people are just going to toss them. I have a little ziplock I keep of candle selections and some toppers for cakes like this one from Target. This one is similar and I love it. Resist the urge to over personalize this stuff- stay primary colors/golds! You can pick up a cake from the grocery store and personalize it quite easily.

Number balloons: this is not an item that I would normally buy, but I had the giant 4 leftover from when my husband turned 40. I am in support of getting these because they can be reused and repaired together to form different numbers. Just be sure to carefully deflate them so you can re-inflate them for the next birthday. So, now I have a 4 which I will use again in a few years for the next kiddo.

Other than the decor, the rest of the at home birthday party should fit your style – we always make our kids’ favorite meal or breakfast and play the Happy Birthday mix on Spotify.

I hope that this helps you build up your at-home birthday closet and keeps decision-fatigue low for you, mama, as you encounter many more happy birthdays with your family. What are your tried and true minimalist at-home birthday closet items?  xo

 

 

 

These Clothes Aren’t My Friends Anymore

A trail of milk runs from her heart-shaped mouth, over her cheek and down the folds of her neck. She still has the pinkish tint, curled up feet and hands of a newborn. Her half-dressed mama and I are sunk deep into the couch, coffees in hand, chatting easily, the way you can with a good friend who comes from the same place of the world that you do. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were knocking on the door, but we ignore them;  we’ve found our little bit of heaven inside.

“And, I need to start losing weight.”

We are passing a newborn baby back and forth; one who hasn’t been in the world long enough to see a new month on the calendar, and her words hang between us. “No, I really do. And really soon.”

Oh, mama. I don’t have the words to tell her that she will get there eventually, but not today, sweet girl, and not fast, and it will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done aside from pushing that baby out. We pick up and carry the weight with such an effortless sense of purpose; shedding it is a whole different story.

***

It sucks and takes forever to feel like yourself physically, but at least you will know that this is totally normal.” I’ve received an email from a friend of a friend after having a sobbing breakdown during our monthly phone date. The email comes to try to rescue me from my self-hatred, and talk me back down from thoughts I’ve been having: maybe I’ll just starve myself; maybe I’ll only eat foods that start with the letter K; maybe I’ll start pumping more to burn more calories; maybe I’ll never be in a photograph again.  The breakdown comes on the heels of an incident in my closet. I am trying to find a green shirt to wear for St. Patrick’s Day. My daughter is 5 weeks old, and I end up stealing a Guinness t-shirt from my husband and trying to pawn it off as a tunic over white jeans. He comes into the closet and gives me a look that lets me know that my borrowed-giant-tee-come-tunic isn’t working, and I burst into fitful, hysterical tears because nothing, green-or-not, is working on my new body.

The email from the friend-of-a-friend convinces me that I should go shopping, ignore the sizes, and buy a few things that I feel great in so that I can leave the house. About a week later, I buy a “capsule” wardrobe at the Loft. This later becomes a hip new term for dressing yourself for a season in only 10-25 pieces of clothing. I live on my 10 items of clothing for an entire summer because my old clothes don’t just not-fit, they look like they belong to a different species.

During that summer, I live in my post-partum summer capsule wardrobe while we cross the country with our new baby. This is a season of life that I will later remember as the one where my thighs rubbed together nonstop under the punishing heat of Summer. At night, lying under scratchy bedspreads in hotels, I dream of burning the wardrobe when we get to our final destination. When we arrive in California, I’m reunited with our belongings after 3 months of travel. Standing in my new walk-in closet, hanging up my items of clothing on their hangers, I start to cry. There is no joy in being reunited with this wall of used-to-be. These clothes aren’t my friends anymore.

***

It’s 5:40 am. For two years, four months, and one week, I have been rising on my own terms to do the hard work of shedding. Shedding the pounds. Shedding the self-loathing. It’s unglamorous and painful. Sometimes, as I tiptoe through the house in the early hours, I can hear them stirring. My gift from the universe is when I come home and the house is still quiet. I should shower, make lunches, fold laundry, but instead, I pour myself a cup of hot coffee and drink it in peace, savoring the feeling of reclamation. Today my coffee cup says #iwokeuplikethis; no, I didn’t. This awakening was slow and steady and uncomfortable, and sometimes it moved so slowly, it was practically moving backwards, but move, it did.

I reclaimed my body, which had been heavily on loan to the two tiny humans, just sixteen months part, for the better part of my marriage. By reclaiming my body, I don’t mean that I woke up one day and realized that I had the body of my dreams. By reclaiming, I mean that I took back ownership and control, and in small ways, I saw change.

***

Last Saturday, I was on the circle of our street with the kids at dusk trying to kill time until dinner. We had tied a silver balloon from a birthday party to the back of my daughter’s tricycle. She flew around the circle faster and faster until it became untied – slipping away. We stood watching it fly away. First, it was close, and then very quickly it was high in the sky. We stood for what seemed like forever watching it get smaller and smaller in the sky. Every time we thought it was gone, we would squint and realize it was still there, even higher in the sky. Eventually, we stopped squinting.

That was how it went with my self-loathing. Even while my body changed, and I made new friends with mom jeans, fit and flare dresses and black v-necks, I could still hear my negative thoughts in my head. Over time, I would think they were totally gone, but I would realize that if I still squinted they were there, floating over my head, getting further and further away, but still out there.

***

“Let’s go on a walk, when you’re ready.” My urge is to hug her and say “you don’t need to worry about that for a long time, just worry about loving that sweet little baby.” But I see her. And I was her. And you’ve been her, or you’ve known her. Your kids will love you, no matter what. Your husband will want you, no matter what. Your friends have been there, so they understand, but you won’t love yourself again until you reclaim yourself. It would be easy to tell her to dismiss the thoughts, but instead, I say, make friends with them. They’ll be around for a while, so you may as well get comfortable. They’ll be over your shoulder, and later up in the sky, they’ll float far away, and the may ebb back toward you. They’ll sneak up on you when you least expect them. But, someday, in the not too distant future, on a beautiful day, you’ll look up in the sky, and all you’ll see are the clouds.

***

 

To My Beautiful Daughter, on her 4th Birthday

Dear Marilyn,

In three days, you will turn four years old. To be clear, you don’t understand the days yet. Every single day, you ask me what we’re doing after “nap” – you are like me, an anticipation junkie. You always want to know what you should be excited for next. Yes, it’s almost your birthday, but you keep asking me, mama, how many days until Summer?

Your growing up has been like watching someone pull away in a car. One moment, you’re standing leaning inside their rolled down window, and the next, the car is so small you can’t even see what color it is, and then it’s gone. Even as I write that, I recognize that one day you’ll actually pull away from me in a car, and I’ll look back on this moment as the closest we ever were to understanding each other.

When I was pregnant with you, I didn’t know how motherhood would transform me; rip me open, turn me inside out, and remake me anew. I thought we would be buddies at Target – you riding in the up front of the cart holding a sippy cup, and me pushing you along in stride and all of our days would feel as effortless as hanging out with a best girlfriend. I imagined we would be the kind of mother and daughter who would wear matching outfits, and I hoped we would have the uncomplicated relationship I always dreamt of with my own mother, but really only ever had with other people’s mothers.

Motherhood is actually more like a passionate love affair than a friendship, at least so far. Our relationship rides the ridge. I pull your face close to mine and kiss your lips a thousand times at night, and I hug you like you’re the last person on earth. I study the shape of your head. I smell your clothes, and run my finger over your initials and draw your name in my notebooks. I also yell, and scream and threaten and slam doors and brood. I am consumed with self-doubt. I need breaks from you. I need releases from you. I struggle to understand you. I feel so challenged and immensely tired because of you.

You. My beautiful daughter.

You love giving compliments – you realized early on that you can make someone’s day with your words- and you tell someone daily that you love their scarf, their jeans or the way they do their hair. I love how you see the beauty in my mundane blue jeans. Everyone should have you in their room when they get ready in the morning.

You have the resilience of a bouncy ball – I try to take things away that you love, as consequences when you misbehave, and you tell yourself, and me, so proudly, “that’s ok. I don’t need [that thing]. I had another plan anyway.” You say it so confidently and proudly, that I don’t know whether to be upset that I can’t get to you, or ridiculously proud at the way you bounce back from even the smallest disappointments.

You would run across a football field to embrace your brother. When you walk into a room, the first thing you do is look for him or call for him. You talk about marrying him. When we shop, which is rarely, you are totally focused on how to find him something wonderful. You run so hard and fast to him at the end of the preschool day, one would think it had been weeks since you last saw each other. You protect him hard. You advise him. You go to him to offer him comfort even when he’s sitting on the stairs in time out for hurting you. My most earnest prayer at night is that you will always feel this way about him.

You love helping. This age has been all about your helpfulness — you will fetch me things, help me organize and sort, and you help me cook every day. My life is so much easier with you by my side.

Marilyn, you have put on the same pink sparkly star dress every single day for almost a solid year. I bought it for you for your third birthday, and you come downstairs daily with it over your pajamas. You find it in the dark like you have dress radar. I hate the dress (although I started out loving it). Yes, you could do worse with some awful polyester Disney princess dress, but I buy you the sweetest clothes, and all you want to wear is this dress. I’m worried that you’ll want to wear it to college, but I admire how you know your true North. You know I disapprove, but you never doubt yourself. You know that dress makes you feel great, and so you go for it. Someday, someone will try to make you feel bad for your style, or your way, and I hope you can always remember how that dress made you feel, but more than that, how you chose that dress no matter what anyone thought about it.

You think your name is Marilyn Monroe. I blame myself. You have to listen to me make endless appointments for you, and you have internalized the “like Marilyn Monroe” part. You say, “my name is Marilyn Wallace Morford Marilyn Monroe” and some day I’ll have to break it to you that it’s not your actual name. In the meantime, your blonde bob looks like you had it set in the 60s at a salon, and you really do channel her effortless beauty and grace.

The pride I feel when I look at you is like a Care Bear Stare — like a ray that leaves my belly and shines on you, and I want the world to see how incredible you are. When I watch early videos of you now, I realize you have always had a clear voice, have always known who you were.

This is our last year together. In a little over a year, you’ll start Kindergarten, and our days in the Sun will be over. I know it will be great. It will be the first step in you becoming anything you want to be, but man I’m going to miss you. You have been by my side every single day for the last 1400 odd days. We have rarely spent more than a few days apart, and I’m not sure I’m ready for that to change. You set the rhythm for my life and you are the music (literally, you belt out songs constantly with the worst off-key voice but the most fierce confidence; you, too, don’t know the lyrics to anything and you get that from me).

I wish I had written you letters like this sooner, crystallizing these details in my memory, but the last four years have been something wild. I’m only now regaining the mental clarity and sanity to be able to write to you. I promise to do it more. I hope my writing will speak for me someday when I don’t have the words. When understanding comes harder for us.

Today, when I got home from the doctor’s office to pick you up for school you were sitting on the front steps of our house wearing unicorn tights, jelly shoes, the pink star dress, a pink fur jacket, a sequin bow headband, and holding a unicorn wand. You had a key around your neck on a chain. You waved at me and beamed. I looked at you, waiting for me on the porch, and thought- has there ever been a more confident, innocent soul?

Marilyn, here’s to four amazing years together. I can’t wait to see how a little girl in a pink star dress and unicorn tights changes the world. I’ll get to say I knew her way back when.

Love,

Mama

 

Feeding Toddlers: Toppings Bar

God, please don’t strike me down for saying this, but recently, I’ve been doing a little happy dance after every single meal at my house. After three agonizing years of meal struggles (and endless self-doubt) and battles to stay at the table, finish dinner, eat the same meal as the family, it feels like we’ve reached the promised land. Our kids are trying (and for the most part eating) every single thing we put in front of them, not complaining, and giving compliments.

I’d like to thank Janet Lansbury for the words, “when you leave the table, you’re telling me you’re done” and my friend Erica for sharing the words “if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it.” My own phrase, “if you try one bite and don’t like it, you can spit it out,” has also gotten us really far. But mostly, I credit my dogged determination to only make one meal per night, no matter what. Many children have gone to bed hungry, but we’ve reinforced what is important and tenable for us, and it has worked.

One of the ways I’ve gotten away with that, is what I’m going to coin a “toppings bar.” In How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen, the authors suggest that you let a child put their own food on their plate – serve themselves. I tried this starting about a year ago, and it didn’t really work. I wanted it to work, but it didn’t – it resulted in my 3 year old destroying the dish of food with a serving spoon, spilling half of it on the table, putting a too large serving on her plate, and eating it at the same rate she would have if I had served her.

Still, I struggled to find a way to give my kids autonomy over their meals, both portions but also textures and flavors. Hence, the topping bar was born.

So, without ado, here are my top five meals that I serve “toppings bar” style. I hope you can incorporate these into your repertoire, and you have as much success as we have. I’ve learned a lot about my kids this way, and found it also allows us each to have a meal that fits our needs for the day.  I am sure there are tons of other ideas, and I think you can incorporate these tenets into almost every meal by leaving off a few things and letting your kids opt-in or out.

“Taco” Night

You make: salsa chicken. For me, that’s one jar of my favorite Aldi garlic salsa, and 3 lbs of chicken thighs, in the Instant Pot on high for 25 minutes. You can also do this in the slow cooker, or with breasts if you prefer. This is a favorite recipe if you like a spicier flavor profile.

Toppings: you provide some combination of whole wheat tortillas, tortilla chips, brown rice (the frozen trader joes kind), cauliflower rice (same, Trader Joes), shredded lettuce/slaw, chopped avocado, shredded cheese, sour cream, corn (frozen- microwaved for 30 seconds with a few tablespoons of water), chopped tomatoes, canned olives.

Note: this is one of our easiest dinners that we make when we are all getting back from swim lessons and it’s already dinner and we’re all exhausted. I prep the chicken during naptime and just open when it’s time, and I put all the other toppings on a platter earlier that day, so all I have to do is microwave the rice/corn and supper is ready.

Chili night

This is a tried and true way to feed a crowd; it’s my go-to.

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You make: your favorite chili. For me, that’s the Skinnytaste Two Bean Chili in Fast and Slow, or this Smitten Kitchen favorite in which you literally just dump everything in the crockpot or IP and walk away.

Toppings: you provide some combination of tortilla chips, cornbread (always Jiffy, always doctored up with some white cheddar and frozen corn), chopped onion, chopped avocado, chopped cucumber, shredded cheese, sour cream, chopped tomatoes, chopped jalapeno, canned olives.

Oatmeal bar

This is a favorite for my kids during the winter months.

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You make: steel cut oats in the Instant Pot. I just started using Melissa Clark’s method, where you toast 1 cup of steel cut oats in 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of maple syrup – toasting til fragrant. Add 3 1/4 cups of water and set for 11 minutes and natural release- I think they need about an hour to thicken up. Then you can portion them out or serve them.

Toppings: you provide some combination of chopped fresh fruit, dried fruit or raisins, toasted nuts, brown sugar, maple syrup and/or honey, cinnamon and/or cream or milk.

Greek night

You make: Trader Joe’s chicken schwarma which comes pre-marinated with a stellar blend of yogurt and spices. It’s sold right near the fresh meats.

Toppings: you provide some combination of garlic naan toasted and cut into triangles, chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, marinated chickpeas (evoo, red wine vinegar, herbs and spices) or just rinsed ones from a can, feta cheese, hummus, and lettuce or slaw

Note: I love to eat mine as a huge salad, where my kids love to make pita sandwiches

Steak & Potato night

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You make: grilled steaks or the super easy balsamic rosemary Steak Tips from Trader Joe’s and twice-baked potatoes, lightened up with greek yogurt.

Toppings: you provide some combination of cooked crumbled bacon, shredded cheese, chopped chives, sour cream, and salsa.

Note: I love this for a Friday night with kids

Pizza night

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You make: your favorite dough- or my favorite, the pre-made Cali’Flour foods crusts.

Toppings: you provide whatever is in your fridge! We love Trader Joes meatballs which are easy to thaw, turkey pepperoni, fresh mozzarella, fresh arugula, olives, mushrooms, red peppers.

Last, my friend Amaree introduced me to this adorable idea years ago of serving snacks in an ice cube tray. I still pack snacks this way for the kids sometimes when I have a bunch of little random things.

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Whatever works for you and your family, I hope you’ll enjoy these ideas and modify them and make them your own!

Happy eating with toddlers!

Advent(ures)

I’ve been searching for meaning. Meaning in a season that seems to revolve around Santa, elves that do the parenting for you for a few weeks, spending money you may or may not have, stress, weight gain, zero downtime, and a lot of musts and shoulds and expectations. I know that it’s supposed to be magical, but it hasn’t felt that way for me for a long time. Christmas seems less about Christ’s birth than ever. Ask my husband and he’ll give you a spiel about Paganism, Saturnalia, fire hazards and lying to your kids about a fat man breaking into your house. Sorry for anyone who has been to a Christmas cocktail party with him in the last, er, lifetime, he can be a bit of a (historically accurate) buzz kill.

When I had children, I resolved to resolve some of the inner turmoil I was feeling. I felt that, in order to be a good parent, I had to really believe in the season, and strive to create traditions for them that would feel like…home. I wanted to be able to explain to my kids why we celebrate the way we do, and why we are celebrating in the first place.

Whether you eat braised short rib lasagna on Christmas Eve (looking at you Gina, and wow was that a Christmas Eve to remember), or Chinese food after Mass, or whether your traditions revolve around Santa, cookies, Jesus, elaborate gifts or more, your traditions must mean something to you. You must be able to defend them.

Why are those traditions important to you?

Growing up, Advent was synonymous with a chocolate calendar with little perforated doors. My sister and I alternated days of putting that little wafer of molded milk chocolate on our tongues. When I started my own my family, I identified Advent as a season of anticipation, and I have always been an anticipation-junkie.

For me, waiting for a vacation, or anticipating a reunion has always been as sweet to me as the actual event, so it makes sense that Zac and I have centered our traditions around Advent, as a way to reconnect around the values that matter most to us: togetherness, undivided attention, quality experiences, memory making and giving back to the people who hold up our little family.

The Medium

 

Your calendar can be elaborate, it can be virtual, or it can be a small DIY project that you put together during a naptime. My friend Starr has an Advent calendar that is an elaborate wood structure, hand-painted, a work of art. My friend Katharina has a gold and white inspired tree with sachets attached that glitters in the way only German Chirstmas decor can do. My friend Megan made one herself that matches her stunning winter white and gold decor scheme. My sister-in-law Carey made one from solo cups once that inspired me before I even had kids. Mine is from Pottery Barn kids, and takes two seconds to hang and fill with paper. Because our advent season centers around experiences, I don’t need for it to hold much.

What follows is a template for advent, should you choose to take on this tradition with your family.  You can mix and match these to create a calendar that works for you and your family, and I’ll let you in on a secret, you can switch up the papers/days as the month goes along – the key is being flexible. This is not meant to be something that adds a lot of extra work to your plate – if it does, it shouldn’t be a tradition in your family. I want you to revel in your traditions, question them, reform them so they constantly work for you, and include your family in them as much as you can as they grow. As a mama, it can feel like the work of the holidays falls straight onto your shoulders alone, and that can be really lonely.

The Mix

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The mix that I’ve come up with has 6 categories. Use these 6 categories to choose your activities, and assign them to days. If you are working parents with kids in school, the bulk of your experiences will fall during the weekends, where the weekday activities will be light. If you are home with kids all day and looking for ideas, you may center more of your experiences during the week and keep the weekends light, as holiday month weekends are always busy on their own. As the month goes on, you can always adjust these. In our home, the majority of our celebrating will be done in the days leading up to Christmas, and the day itself will be mostly lazy, with 1-2 gifts, and a lot of snuggling and eating, playing and FaceTiming with family.

  • Making Things: clove oranges, popcorn garlands, cotton ball snowmen, homemade snow globes, cutting snowflakes, signing Christmas cards, coloring wrapping paper, painting ornaments, watercolor place card settings, or any number of crafty crafts you can find – this is not my forte, but I can google stuff and if it’s not too messy, I can roll with it. I love to host these as play dates so there are more adults around and the supplies can cover multiple kiddos
  • Baking Things: holiday appetizers (to be frozen and popped in the oven for impromptu guests), your family’s favorite cookie, classic sugar cookies, instant pot lemon curd, freezer biscuits, monkey bread for Christmas morning, rolling pigs in a blanket, making egg nog, making a gingerbread house or scene
  • Giving Things: cookies for the mailman, goodies for the UPS/FedEx delivery men, teacher gifts, assembling kits for the homeless, shopping for kids for the Angel Tree, sending care packages to the military stationed abroad, delivering gifts to those in need, volunteering at a local shelter
  • Dollar Store Things: dollar store, dollar section at Target – I’m talking stickers, window decals, light up necklaces, gold chocolate coins, coloring books,
  • Big Days Out: tickets to see the Nutcracker, plans to see a Christmas parade, attending a Christmas concert, caroling, a wagon stroll to see Christmas lights, visiting Santa, attending a live Nativity, ice skating
  • Chill Nights In: decorating the Christmas tree, unwrapping and setting up the Nativity, opening up the box of Christmas books, reading Twas the Night Before Christmas, watching a Christmas movie with popcorn, dancing in the house to Christmas movie

Here are a few of our Advent highlights from last year:

Opening new ornaments

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Making a Christmas appetizer together

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Holiday cookie baking (peppernuts!)

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Wrapping for military kids

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Caroling at a Nursing Home

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Seeing Madeline’s Christmas

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Making pine cone ornaments

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Hot Chocolate for breakfast

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Holiday Light Stroll

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Ornament Making with friends

 

Seeing the Nutcracker

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If you’ve read this far, hopefully you’re thinking about the traditions that are important to you, and if Advent is the one that resonates with you, I hope you’re inspired by these ideas. I’d love to hear how you anticipate Christmas in a meaningful way – let me know in the comments or on the Facebook Page.

Cheers,

Sarah

 

 

Byeeeee November (hello, Nut-ville, er December)

I swear it was just yesterday that I was trashing 15 lbs of my kids’ Halloween candy. Where the H did November go? We survived Thanksgiving mostly intact, although a bug swept through our household and pushed us over like dominoes one-by-one. This led to an exorbitant amount of down time. Lazy time is not something I am really good at, but it did leave me restored and slightly ready to face Cyber Monday and the onslaught of December antics headed our way.

Before we’re hit full on with December, I thought I’d take a few minutes to re-cap what I did in November that worked and preview what I’m thinking I can wedge into my life for December. My goal is to make you feel like you can take things off of your list, change the paradigm for something in your family, or make your life more simple and joyful during this season of musts/shoulds!

What worked:

  • Cooking Thanksgiving in advance was a hit. We enjoyed the day with pigs-in-a-blanket and the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade. Everyone who wanted one took a nap. There was a lot of champagne consumed. The day was very low stress (although significantly more work for my mom who cooked the turkey while I curled up in the fetal position with the stomach bug)
  • After dinner, I put the turkey carcass directly into the Slow Cooker covered with water and added the remainder of herbs and set it for 20 hours – it yielded 3 lbs of additional meat and an unctuous turkey stock which became the basis of meals for days.
  • We ziplocked all leftovers in gallon bags. This made it way easier to pitch them when we were sick of them and made stacking easy in the fridge
  • We resisted the urge to decorate for Christmas, and spent a few extra days enjoying our Fall decor. It made the weekend feel a little longer and more indulgent.
  • I made the following meals with our leftover turkey meat and bones: turkey pot pie (from Ina’s recipe – makes enough for two, so half the filling is frozen and will make a great December meal), turkey soup (filtered stock, all of the meat that came off of the turkey carcass, celery, carrots and egg noodles; plussed up the broth with a little better than bouillon); split pea soup with a smoked turkey leg was divine and perfect (from the new One and Done cookbook); and the remainder of the turkey is going in turkey tetrazzini (my grandmother’s recipe gets a fresh makeover).
  • I made potato cakes for breakfast using leftover mashed potatoes – added a cup of flour to two cups of mashed potatoes and one egg and some salt – fried up in olive oil and served topped with fried eggs
  • I ditched the corn pudding and stuffing – I’m not even sure I’ll make these sides next year- roasted veggies and mashed potatoes were perfect.
  • I sent an email to our families about gifts – posing the question – is the tradition of buying gifts important to you? I suggested a few things – pooling our money and donating to charity, setting a limit and picking a name, or focusing on a family experience together. I sent another email about experiences > things letting grandparents know that if gifts were important to them, we’d love museum memberships and gymnastics and swim lessons. I feel like every year I wait too long to send this message, and then it’s off to the races. I feel like a huge weight has been lifted just starting the conversation.
  • I solidified our “No Santa” plan with the husband — we need to be careful about the way we talk to the kids this year, and what we say and how we ensure that the kids are respectful to other kids. Even after telling our almost 4 year old that Santa doesn’t come to our house and that he’s a fictional character, she was still excited to see him at the Ice Rink Opening last week. The magic can still be there, folks, even if he’s a character. Food for thought.
  • I ordered gift cards for teachers using credit card rewards points. That is $500 I won’t have to shell out this holiday season and my points were sitting there doing nothing! Score.
  • We made our famous family bread – gruyere popovers – two days after Thanksgiving and served them with turkey soup. We have always made them with the Thanksgiving meal but they have to be served hot straight from the oven and they’re quite filling, so they kind of add stress – two days later they were bliss with soup.

Looking forward:

  • Look for an Advent post on Friday of a full list of experiences /ideas for your advent calendar. It’s not too late to celebrate advent and infuse the whole month with quality time with your family.
  • We’re planning to adopt a family and shop together for kids the same age as our kids
  • We’ll do a toy purge/donation before Christmas to emphasize the needs of others and make way for new things
  • We’re planning to stick to this rule of thumb for our kids: 4 things: something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read
  • I’ll have a post on teacher gifts- I like to combine something tangible (gift cards) with something homemade
  • I’ll post about our family cookie recipe which uses an entire 5 lb bag of flour – scared?
  • I’ll share some of our favorite traditions around the holiday menu
  • I’m planning a post about what toys we are eyeing for our kids this year for Christmas with a focus on imaginative play and family/evening games
  • I’ll do a post on easy apps to have on hand for impromptu gatherings
  • I’ll share my thoughts on Bullet Journaling– I’m a month into the practice and finding it is helping me organize for the holidays in a really fantastic way

What else would you like to see? Let me know in the comments here or on the Facebook page!

Stoking the Home Fires

It’s officially my anniversary month. In a few weeks, I’ll have been married for five whole years.  This seems at the same time to be totally normal and obvious, and yet completely implausible. I made a good choice. Of all the things I’m proud of, I’m proudest of my marriage.

So, in honor of five years, I’m sharing five things that I do to work on my marriage every week (er, month?). I’m human, y’all.

  1. Kiss Every Day: The Gottman Institute on marriage calls it the 6 second kiss. It’s the kiss that you want to come home to. The kiss that goes long enough to make your hairs stand up. It’s not a chaste peck. It is a powerful connection. We kiss every single day. We kiss hello, and we kiss goodbye, and on really good days we make out in between. When the kiss doesn’t last six seconds, I know something is wrong. I measure the weather by this daily ritual.
  2. Go to bed together (mostly): This is a hard one. I know what you’ll say, but I’ll come back with this: when you don’t go to bed together, you miss out on a large part of intimacy with your partner. Particularly during the early parenting days, when there seems to be so little time to slow down for a beat and just touch, I think that going to bed together, canoodling, snuggling, spooning, whatever you want to call it, before you go to sleep, is very important. It won’t work every night, but we try to prioritize going to bed together, particularly during busy weeks.
  3. You are who you’re friends with: Another hard one. Spend time with people with bad habits, bad attitudes toward each other, different attitudes toward marriage or love, and/or destructive behaviors like infidelity, and you are putting your marriage at risk. We make a concerted effort to be friends with couples like us- who plan to stay married forever, fight fair, forgive easily, and don’t tear each other down.
  4. Daily acts of service:  I plan to be married for my lifetime to the same man, so I’d like it to be great. Not just good. Greatness doesn’t just happen.  Marriages don’t wait for kids to be gone, and life to be free and easy. You have to nurture your marriage daily, so that it is there for you when you need it to be. This looks like lots of acts of service in the day-to-day. This year, I surprised my husband on the first day of college football season with a basket of things for Game Days (a smoker cookbook, growlers of his favorite beer, a new t-shirt.) Yesterday, I made his favorite breakfast. I carve out time for him to work out on the weekends because I know he won’t take that time for himself. I surprise him with a new and perfect bourbon cocktail.  It doesn’t have to be grand, but it adds up. Find out what love language you each speak, and become fluent.
  5. Commit to quality time alone: In the day to day, this means that I always make sure we talk about our days and check-in with each other. We have a date night out of the house about every two weeks. Annually, we take a trip away, just us, no matter what (on our anniversary). I have heard every excuse in the book for why people don’t have babysitters, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: your marriage won’t wait for your kids to grow up and leave the house. Budget concerns? Trade sleep sitting with another family. Caregiver concerns? Care.com has made those almost obsolete. Always putting it off? I’ve met you 10,000 times. Your partner misses you and wishes you’d plan a “playdate” for him. Trust me. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Bump in the road? Cluster feeding infant? Health or money problems? Carve out time in the evening – take a bath, open a bottle of wine, burn a candle, play a board game, put down your phone, agree on something to watch, talk about the things you used to talk about. Stop making excuses.

Ok, I’m off to make-out with my husband. Stay tuned for more marriage musings this month. xo