FALL FAMILY LIVING A-Z

  It’s officially fall. Kids storm through the front door after school and toss their backpacks in the hallway; you’re just home from work, and there’s dinner to be made and maybe soccer practice or piano lessons to get to after the last bite. 

  Sounds like a busy routine. How do you choose which extra family fun stuff to fit in on your calendar along with a few must-dos? 

  I’ve discovered with my kids and friends that the basic ABC’s can provide a simple, creative framework for visually highlighting the essentials: family outings, household repairs, discoveries and activities.

  This year, my list includes not only must-do chores, but also fall excursions, new foods to try, service opportunities and family adventures. The only caveat is that you need to find an open alphabet letter to describe the event. That helps keep all the ideas and inspiration under control.

  Here’s how it works:

  I listed all 26 alphabet letters on a medium-size white board hanging in our kitchen. Engage your child to make the A-Z list. Events and activities are described by their corresponding letter. Friends who drop by add ideas they would like to do with us, too. For example, our 8-year-old neighbor was eager for me to teach him how to make applesauce with the new crop of Honeycrisp apples that had arrived at our farmer’s market last weekend. I brought out our peeler gadget for him to crank out slices for the kid friendly recipe. Check off “A.” 

  The “B” is noted with “build a berm around our foundation,” to prevent a wet basement during the continuing rainy season. “C” reminds us to gather clothes to take to Goodwill, and “D” to deliver “Meals on Wheels.” Scanning down the alphabet to “M,” I’ve already released the monarch butterfly my 16-month-old granddaughter and I observed pop out of its chrysalis. 

  Soon, I’ll be shifting attention to “Z,” a reminder to compose a colorful zinnia bouquet from our garden before the snow falls.

  No need to end a first round of A-Z activities when seasons change. Check off what has been accomplished and enjoyed, then erase or simply add a new event. Spelling out in detail from A-Z what has been done, and what is left to do, will continue to serve as a visual reminder to family of your active, giving and community-involved lifestyle.

  By the way, good luck finding ideas for  Q’s and U’s!

MAKE A “STAINED GLASS WINDOW’ WITH CRAYON BITS

 

  When life feels overscheduled, I try to remind myself to stop and take a breath. When I do, it’s the trips I’ve taken and recollections of places I’ve been to that often come to mind. The pause gives me another perspective.

  One such memory was a trip to Gothic Chartres cathedral. Situated on the outskirts of Paris, the stony cathedral, perhaps one of the most beautiful in France, is celebrated for its stained glass windows. When the sun streams through, colors seem suspended, glistening in the air. 

  You can create a striking “stained glass window” for your home, but you don’t need fancy bits of glass. Instead, devise a stunning look with a little creativity and simple supplies, like crayon bits. 

  Here’s the stuff you need:

  — crayons in assorted colors, peeled and sorted

  — cheese grater

  — newspaper 

  — waxed paper

  — old cloth napkin or hanky

  — iron

  — large dinner-size round plate for pattern

  — scissors

  — black construction paper

  — glue

  — ribbon or fishing line

  Here’s the fun:

  Use the grater to make crayon shavings from the peeled crayons. Sort them into piles by color and shade.

  Lay a large sheet of waxed paper, waxed side up, on a small stack of newspaper on an ironing board. Sprinkle the shavings evenly over the waxed paper, mixing or separating colors. The colors will seem to fall into their own delicate pattern. 

  Set a second sheet of waxed paper, waxed side down, on top. Cover with the lightweight cloth. With an iron set at warm, an adult should press very slowly along the cloth, stopping and starting. The crayon bits will melt almost instantly. Remove the cloth to see the beautiful “stained glass.” Let the crayons harden.

  Use the plate as a pattern and cut out a round shape from your “stained glass” sheet. To create an outer frame, (the “lead” of the “stained-glass window”) use the plate as a pattern again, and cut a 3/4-inch wide ring out of black construction paper. Set on the round shape crayon design and glue in place. 

  Cut two narrower (about 1/4 inch) rings of black paper (one larger in diameter than the other) and evenly place on the inside of the “window.” Arrange strips of black paper coming from the circles like spokes on a wheel. Glue and let dry

  Punch a hole at the top of the stained glass window, and string ribbon or fishing line though the “lead” frame. Then hang in front of a window and watch the sun stream through to brighten your home. 

RECYCLE AND SHAPE UP USED CRAYON

  When it comes to the annual back-to-school supply list for young students, crayons are still at the top. It’s no secret that kids love new boxes full of colorful crayons with sharp points, but what about last year’s stash? There’s no reason to throw out those worn-down stubs from school and a summer of coloring and art projects. 

  Instead of tossing them in the trash, collect them in a box and get going with this repurposing activity that turns old crayons into new shapes. You and your kids can make creative “designer” crayons — perfect for fall art activities or favors at your child’s next birthday party. 

  There are numerous techniques I’ve used over the years, including melting crayons in jars and pouring the liquid into plastic molds. But this year, I’ve landed on a simple, messless approach: melt crayon pieces in a silicone mold in the oven. There are different sizes and shapes of molds available to inspire you, such as fall leaves, animals and silly characters. Or, go basic like I did with a standard silicone ice-cube tray, which formed easy-to-handle chunky crayon squares.

  Here’s the stuff you need:

  — crayon stubs in your favorite colors

  — silicone muffin, candy or ice mold available at craft and discount stores and online in seasonal and geometric shapes 

  — baking sheet

  Here’s the fun:

  Remove the paper wrapper from crayons. Let kids break them into pieces and sort into stacks according to colors.

  Heat oven to 275 F. Pile the pieces according to color in the sections of the silicon mold. Toss in a piece in a contrasting color for a marbleized effect, if you wish. Place mold on a baking pan for easy handling. An adult should set it in the preheated oven for 20 minutes, or until crayons are completely melted. Check occasionally. 

  Remove and cool melted crayons until completely solid, about an hour. To hasten the process, put the tray in the freezer for 10 minutes. Pop newly shaped crayons out of the mold. 

  Try out a new crayon on a piece of paper and you’ll discover that it really works. If you still have extra crayons in the sorted piles, make another batch and enjoy sharing the remade crayons with family and friends.

  Note: Once you melt crayons in the silicone mold, plan on using it for nonedible crafts only.

PERSONAL PITA PIZZAS

I took an informal poll in my neighborhood with the question, “What do kids like to eat most?” I noted responses from both adults and kids, like mac and cheese, burgers, tacos and chicken fingers. But, to no surprise, pizza dominated. Maybe it’s because it offers something for all tastes.

  If pizza reigns in your house, throw an informal Halloween pizza party, or another get-together with family and friends this school year. Planning and hosting can be creative and easy to cater for all tastes when you keep it simple. 

  Instead of preparing and shaping pizza dough in advance, here’s the shortcut: Make personal pizzas together using pita bread available at a bakery or grocery store. Provide the toppings so guests can enjoy putting their pita pizzas together assembly-line fashion, letting everyone choose their favorites as they go for unique combos. It’s an ideal set-up for picky pizza eaters who prefer their favorite toppings.

  FAMILY-STYLE PERSONAL PITA PIZZAS 

  TOMATO SAUCE

  The pizza-making begins with a good tomato sauce. Purchase your favorite sauce, or make this homemade recipe that goes together in minutes. Enlist your school-age child to measure and stir the chunky sauce.

  For 2 1/2 cups, mix together in a bowl: a 14-ounce can diced tomatoes and a 6-ounce can tomato paste, 1 teaspoon dried oregano, 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil. (For a smooth sauce, whirl in a blender). 

  TOPPINGS

  Classic kid-pleasing toppings include bowls of shredded mozzarella cheese, sliced pepperoni, red onion thinly sliced into rings, sliced mushrooms, chopped bell pepper and pitted olives. For variety, and to accommodate adult tastes, you might include marinated artichoke hearts and drained oil-packed sun-dried tomato slices. 

  For a seasonal option, skip the tomato sauce and layer your pita pizza with Italian shredded cheeses, sauteed onion and slices of an apple or pear. Sprinkle with crumbled gorgonzola and fresh thyme.

  SET-UP 

  At one end of a counter or table, stack pita bread and small plates. Continue assembly-line fashion with the bowls of sauce, toppings and ending with baking sheets. 

  ASSEMBLE

  Invite guests to place a pita bread on a plate. Spread with sauce, if using, then add toppings according to taste. When complete, remove from plate and set on baking sheet. 

  BAKE

  Bake in a 400 F preheated oven for 10-15 minutes or until cheese is bubbly and pita is crisp. 

“SEND” IN-HOUSE VALENTINES

Who doesn’t like receiving a little compliment now and then? Positive, sincere words are an affirmation of actions and intent, and they give the recipient a boost, sometimes just when least expected. Blush! Face it — validation from others just makes us feel good and creates that internal glow.
Provide the good medicine of encouragement and positive vibes in a large dose with this decorative in-house family valentine box. All ages, even your preschoolers, can put pen to paper and compose simple heartfelt messages of love and appreciation to one another, day to day until Valentine’s Day, adding a hand-drawn emoji for that special touch.

Here’s how to make the box and share kind Valentine’s Day sentiments:

Cut a 3-inch slot down the middle of a shoebox lid. Cover the lid and the box separately with colorful paper, leaving the slot open. Decorate the lid and the box with valentine-themed materials, such as heart-shaped doilies, stickers and hearts cut from construction paper.
For extra writing fun, cut out letters or words from the newspaper to create simple Valentine’s Day sayings, and glue them on the box, too. Place the lid on the box and tape the sides together. Next, tape a small notepad and pencil or pen on a string to the top of the box.

Between now and Valentine’s Day, keep the box on your kitchen table. Encourage all family members, and even friends who stop by, to pull a piece of paper off the notepad and jot down a special Valentine’s note to each member of the family. Keep the comments coming, and encourage one another to be positive! Adults or older siblings might help the younger ones with the writing, or encourage them to draw a picture that expresses their feelings. Notes might include comments such as the following: “Katie, you bake great cookies! Love, Dad” or “Mom, Thanks for picking me up from volleyball practice every day. Jessie.”

On Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, gather together for a special meal. Open the box and take turns reading the big stack of “love” notes that have accumulated. Enthusiasm will have been building throughout the days preceding Valentine’s Day, so expect your kids to be quite excited!

BOW-OH-WOW! VALENTINE TREATS FOR YOUR PET


Middle-school English teacher Alex Eckroth calls herself the “queen of takeout.” It’s rare to find her scrolling through online recipes or thumbing through tattered pages of a cookbook. Unless, as she readily admits, she’s baking treats for her adorable pug, Bomba.
“Dogs have a sweet tooth, like me,” she says, “but when it comes to shopping for treats, it’s tricky to find dog biscuits with ingredients I want to feed Bomba. I like to bake treats for him using heart-healthy ingredients like whole wheat, rolled oats and peanut butter. It’s relaxing and fun to do, plus I enjoy sharing them with our neighborhood canine friends.”
If you’re fond of your fido, bake a batch of these crunchy dog biscuits with your kids for Valentine’s Day pet treats and gifts. This simple recipe comes together in minutes — no mixer needed, just a big wooden spoon and your kids’ energy to stir everything together.
Create shapes with heart-shaped cookie cutters. Small hearts, big hearts, and how about a few X’s and O’s?

DOG BISCUITS
1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/4 cup wheat germ
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup peanut butter                                                                                                                                                     1 cup evaporated milk or evaporated goat’s milk
1 tablespoon molasses
All-purpose flour for rolling dough
Makes about 5 dozen 2-inch heart-shaped biscuits.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease two cookie sheets, or line them with parchment paper. Set aside.
To make dough: In a large mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients. In a smaller bowl, combine peanut butter, milk and molasses. Slowly pour peanut butter mixture into dry ingredients. Stir until well-combined.

To shape biscuits: Sprinkle all-
purpose flour on the counter. Knead dough a few times, until it is easy to roll out into a rectangle that’s 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick with rolling pin. Using cookie cutters, cut dough into shapes. Transfer to prepared cookie sheets.

To bake biscuits: Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until edges are lightly browned. Place on cooling rack. Cool completely.

To wrap: Divide your pretty “doggone cool” biscuits into gift bags or heart-shaped paper pockets. Attach valentine tag and deliver to neighborhood dog friends on Valentine’s Day.

LIGHT WINTER NIGHTS WITH ICE LANTERNS MADE WITH BUNDT PANS


Ice is nice! Especially when you create a warm welcome to your home with a creative, icy greeting on a dark winter’s night. From popular snowball-size ice candles to large blocks, they all sparkle and glow to line a pathway to your front door.

Easy for me to say, I know, since I live in snow-covered Minnesota, where it’s usually below freezing all winter long. But I proved that I could light the night and create an ice luminary in a moderate climate when I invited friends to our California cabin a few weeks ago. Two days before the party, I rooted through cupboards in search of a Bundt pan. I then filled the mold with water and let it freeze in our freezer. Before friends arrived the next evening, I popped the beautifully shaped “ice lantern” out of the mold, set it on a rimmed tray (to catch melting ice) and placed it on the front porch step with a votive lit in the inside cavity. Once guests arrived, oohing and ahhing with “How did you make that?” queries, I brought it inside for a magical buffet centerpiece. Although it was partially melted by evening’s end, another luminary was prepping in the freezer for another night.

If you have a Bundt pan hiding in your cupboards, bring it out and make ice lanterns with your kids. The price is right with this enjoyable craft — your only cost is water and candles!

Here’s how:
BUNDT PAN ICE LANTERN
Here’s the stuff you need:
— one metal Bundt pan (plastic pans may crack)
— water
— votive or small pillar candle
— citrus slices, floral greens and sticks, etc. (optional)
— food coloring (optional)

1. Fill the pan with water to within an inch of the rim. Wedge in floral objects between the sides of the pan, if you wish. Small objects, such as plastic fish, add whimsy. Or, add a drop of food coloring.
2. Place pan in the freezer or outside if it is below freezing.
3. When frozen, turn upside-down in a sink. Let it thaw a bit, and slowly lift pan. Or, run water over pan to release.
4. Set a candle inside. At sunset, an adult can light the candle.
Note: An adult should always be present when burning candles.

Extra playtime “Happy Brrrrr-thday” idea:
If you live in snow country, make two Bundt pan ice lanterns to create an ice cake. Go outside and stack them on top of one another, with snow spread like icing in-between layers. Top with pretend candles nestled in snow. “A slice of ice, anyone?”

TASTY SLOW-COOKER GRANOLA

We’re a granola-eating family. When the tall jar in our pantry reads almost empty, it’s time to stir up and bake a new batch. It’s never a chore, because the fresh homemade taste of heart healthy oats with nuts and dried fruit always satisfies, whether combined with yogurt and berries at breakfast, or sprinkled over a scoop of ice cream for an evening dessert.

No wonder I was curious when a friend suggested I make granola in my slow cooker instead of baking it in the oven. Skeptical, I gave it a try and loved the results. In fact, it’s a game-changer.

I stick with my basic recipe that never disappoints. The hand-crafted, economical blend is open to variations, like substituting cashews for the almonds or pecans. When I buy a jug of fresh local maple syrup, I leave out the brown sugar entirely. For variety, I’ll cut up something unusual, like dried persimmons, to toss in at the end with the raisins.

Tasty Slow-Cooker Granola
Yield: About 6 cups.
Ingredients:
— Cooking spray or olive oil
— 4 cups old-fashioned rolled oats (not quick cooking)
— 1/2 cup brown sugar
— 1 teaspoon cinnamon
— 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
— 1/2 teaspoon salt
— 1/2 cup coarsely chopped whole almonds
— 1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans
— 1/2 cup canola oil
— 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
— 2 egg whites, slightly beaten
— 1/2 cup raisins

Prepare the slow cooker: Spray the cooking spray on the bottom and sides of a 3-quart or larger slow cooker or lightly coat with oil.
Combine the oats, brown sugar, cinnamon, baking powder, salt and nuts in a slow cooker.
Stir together the oil, vanilla and egg whites in a small bowl. Add to dry ingredients and toss well until fully coated.
Turn slow cooker to high. Set a wooden spoon under one side of the lid to hold the lid open, slightly ajar. Cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours until toasted, stirring mixture well every 30 minutes.
Stir in raisins and spread mixture on a baking sheet to cool. Store in jars or in an airtight container.

Note: Substitute brown sugar with 1/2 cup maple syrup, honey or agave syrup, and combine with liquid ingredients before tossing with dry ingredients.
In addition to (or instead of) raisins, use your favorite dried fruit, chopped.

Gift-giving tip: Let kids draw a label to glue to a mason jar. It might say “The Johnsons’ World’s Best Granola.” For a Valentine’s Day gift, tie a pink ribbon around the jar with a paper Valentine card.

KEEP FAMILY RESOLUTIONS IN 2019

Last month’s holiday celebrations have passed, but perhaps one tradition hangs on. How many of us have put into practice the resolutions we shared with others before the stroke of midnight New Year’s Eve? Hmmm, not as easy to accomplish as hoped?

With the flurry of family life, the days slip by, don’t they? But it’s still January, a fresh time to think about those resolutions, maybe reset them and talk with your kids about the possibilities that 2019 holds. Set realistic goals with action plans you can put in motion. Write them down, or encourage your kids to express them creatively in drawings.

I recently was inspired by my cousin’s 6-year-old grandson Gavin’s artwork hanging on her kitchen wall. He didn’t just say what his resolutions for 2019 were, he drew them. The “selfie” sketch depicted him guarding the goal for his youth hockey team with a background crowd cheering him on. He told me his “goalie goals” were to “be on time, skate well and do my best.”

This positive athletic boy motivated me to look at possibilities big and small for 2019. How about you, especially when it comes to family time?

EAT DINNER TOGETHER
Designate evenings for your family to sit down at the table and share a meal. Get the kids involved with age-appropriate tasks, and get cooking. Did you get a gadget or appliance for a holiday gift? Don’t stash it away for another day. Use it together. For example, if you got a spiralizer, look for recipes using fresh vegetables you can transform into fun pasta-like noodles for a healthy start to the year.

EXERCISE TOGETHER
Get ready to hop, skip and jump! Find common interests and commit time to movement — even spontaneously. Did it snow last night? Or is it raining today? Put on your boots and walk or snowshoe to your local store instead of driving when you need a few groceries.

PLAY TOGETHER                                                                                                     Make play a part of every day. Sounds easy and natural, and it is — especially when kids lead the way in finding playful moments. When you return from work and your child has a fun game for you to try, toss your to-do list aside for a bit, turn off your phone and take the opportunity to find silly or lighthearted ways to connect with your child.

 

 

MAKE FRESH RICOTTA CHEESE IN YOUR KITCHEN

When I hear “I made it from scratch!” at a gathering, my first instinct is to assume it must have taken a lot of time to prepare the tasty-looking dish coming my way down the table. But I also think, “Oh, it must be extra good!”
Here’s where I’m going. Do you love ricotta cheese in lasagna, or spread on crostini toasts and topped with a drizzle of olive oil and savory delights for a quick appetizer? Make ricotta yourself! You can prepare it in your kitchen from start to finish in less than an hour “from scratch.” And, it IS extra good!
This isn’t a true Italian-made ricotta, but it’s an easy, delicious version. Just heat milk, cream and salt to boiling, add lemon juice or vinegar, then gather ’round the pot with your kids and watch it curdle. Within a half-hour of draining away the whey in a separate bowl, you’ll have a lovely ricotta with a light consistency and mild, sweet flavor for using in a favorite Italian recipe like lasagna, or for spreading on crackers and toast sliced from a baguette — a sure winner at a Superbowl party.

Homemade Ricotta
Makes about 1 1/4 cups
4 cups whole milk (not ultra-pasteurized)
1 cup heavy cream (not ultra-pasteurized)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice or white wine vinegar

To prepare sieve for draining:
Set a fine sieve or colander lined with a double thickness of cheesecloth over a deep bowl.

To prepare ricotta mixture:
Combine milk, cream and salt in a large pot and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Watch carefully. Just as the mixture reaches a boil, turn off the heat, remove from burner and stir in the lemon juice. The mixture will separate and curdle. Let it set about a minute.
Pour into the cheesecloth-lined sieve and let the watery whey drain into the bowl.
Discard the liquid that drips through. Let the curds continue to drain for about 25 minutes, until cool. The longer it drains, the thicker the ricotta.
Spoon the ricotta out of the cheesecloth and use immediately, or refrigerate in a covered storage container until ready to use within five days.