In the Details

Happiness is found in the little details of an ordinary life.

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Big questions from little kids.

My boys are off kindergarten this week as it is March break. They’re doing a couple of hours of Sport Play camp each morning and loving it. Yesterday when I picked them up from camp, Evan greeted me with a pretty big question:

Are you and Daddy and James and me and Noelle going to die?

Hmm…what have they been teaching my boys at Sport Play camp?! Knowing Evan, he has been considering this question for days. I’m glad he asked, but this was another one of those moments when I kind of wish I was PVRing my life and could just press “pause” while I took a moment to think. My boys have been full of big questions lately. They want to know important things like whether it’s okay for secret agents to lie sometimes, as long as they’re doing it to save good people from bad guys. And they want to know tricky things like how the first dandelion started to grow if there were no other dandelions to spread seeds. And yesterday Evan wanted to know about death.

So, I thought for about two seconds, and then I just spoke openly and matter of factly (I hope). Here’s what I said:

“Well, the way the world works is that all living things one day die. Human beings are living things, so they die, but we’re fortunate because our species lives a long time. A flower might only live one season and a bee might only live a year. But humans can live many, many years. We keep our selves healthy and we plan to live a very long time.”

And then I paused and waited for more questions…

Turns out that was enough for the moment. Putting a positive spin on death (hey, at least we live longer than bees!) seemed to make Evan feel okay about the whole thing, for the time being anyway. We talked a little more about how when living things die they go back to the earth so that more living things may grow (which got a little confusing when James asked if he was dirt before he was a baby in my tummy)…but then both boys seemed more interested in talking about how long tortoises live.

Do your kids ask about death? What do you tell them?

Filed under parenting kids death evan james

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Homemade Birthday Cakes for People Who Don’t “Do” Icing

My twin boys are turning five next week so today I bought all of the supplies for their cakes. I always make their cakes. I know store-bought cakes are fancy and you can do exciting things like get your photo on top, but for some reason I feel really strongly that I always want to make my kids’ birthday cakes (and I don’t feel strongly about much!). They don’t have to be organic, they don’t even have to be from scratch, but I really, really want to make them myself. The only problem is…I can’t do icing. So how does one fulfill their kids’ ridiculous cake requests without any icing ability? I could take a class (cake decorating is pretty trendy right now and there are lots of classes around Toronto), or I could just use CANDY! Kids love it, it’s easier than icing, it’s delicious and it looks very cute (I think). This year Evan has requested a medieval knight’s castle and James is set on a dinosaur cake. I googled both of these and saw amazing creations. Supermoms have made cakes that were actually in the shape of these things and done up in multi-coloured layers royal icing and handmade details! What the hell is fondant anyway? I promptly shut my laptop and headed to the grocery store to buy marshmallows, chocolate buttons, wine gums, skittles, sprinkles and every kind of green candy I could find (for James’ giganotosaurus, obviously). After the boys’ big day next week I’ll post pics of whatever I come up with. James asked for a lemon cake and Evan asked for “chocolate…I mean vanilla…I mean rainbow…oh, just a layer of each with icing in between” — so wish me luck on that!

In the mean time, I’d like to post some cakes from years past. Aren’t they cute (even if I do say so myself!)? And not fancy at all. So next time you have a family birthday resist the urge to BUY a cake and try making one yourself! I’ve never had a complaint yet. And think of how proud and amazing you’ll feel at your kids’ weddings when all of their birthday pics come up in the slideshow with HOMEMADE cakes in each frame. People will know how much you truly love your children and how you really are “doing it all”. (bah ha ha)

Here’s Noelle’s first birthday cake, some sweet flowers for my sweet little flower:

And here’s Evan’s aquarium cake from last year and James’ complimentary fishy cupcakes (not as impressive as the cake, but they were exactly to James’ specifications):

And then there’s always just cupcakes with sprinkles and fancy candles for babies/toddlers. You can’t go wrong with cupcakes for babies:

P.S. If you are worried about all of the sugar and preservatives in candy, then you can always do what I do — add something super healthy to the batter to cancel out the ill effects of the sugar! Did you know you can’t taste pureed beets in chocolate cake? In fact, they make everything extra moist and they are so healthy that all of the sugar is completely canceled out (right?). Same with flax seed meal! So many omega fatty acids in that stuff that they completely cancel all of those toxic sprinkles. So enjoy! It’s only once a year!

Filed under cake homemade supermom

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Vintage Dresser Makeover

We have been needing a sideboard/console for our dining room for ages. We have five people stuffed into a small house and every inch of space around here counts, so it needed to be something that really worked for us. We are in sort of a transitional phase — our Ikea furniture is showing signs of wear and tear, but we can’t afford to replace it with the kind of stuff we like. Every time we need something new I swear we won’t end up at Ikea…and then three weeks later I’m there. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ikea. Their stuff is interesting and functional. I know our home will always include some Ikea. But sometimes I crave a piece of furniture that is unique, solid, does not require assembly and is built to truly last. No MDF, no allen key. But what stands in our way most is budget. The kind of furniture Mike and I like is way too expensive for us. A solid wood sideboard at Restoration Hardware is at least $2700 and a French inspired dresser at Au Lit here in Toronto can cost twice that. And even if I had that kind of money, I’m not sure I’d spend it on a piece of furniture that will undoubtedly have Hot Wheels cars running over it several times a day. So, after browsing Pinterest for some inspiration, I thought I’d try my hand at beautifying a Craig’s List dresser.

The piece I found was built in Strathroy, Ontario in the 1960’s and it is really solid. So solid in fact that Mike and I got stuck on our back stairs and had to call in a neighbour to help us haul it into our house! The Craig’s List seller was asking $300 for the dresser and mirror pictured below, plus two bedside tables. I spent many hours looking for a piece that I thought would work, so when I found this one I was really happy and managed to talk the seller into selling me just the dresser for $150. I liked the middle cupboard that opens onto three drawers and thought it gave it more of a “sideboard” feel than a dresser feel. Mike helped me cart the beast home and was encouraging when I told him about my plans to sand, prime and paint it. I had never refinished a piece of furniture in my life so I’m not sure what he was actually thinking behind that smile! Brace yourself, here’s a pic from the Craig’s List ad:

 

Can you see the potential?! No, neither could Mike.

Once we got the dresser home, I realized that it was going to need more work than I had anticipated (and would require help from Mike!). The drawers got stuck and didn’t slide as well as they should and all of the old fashioned hardware was a strange size so I’d have to fill the holes and drill new ones to replace it. I tried not to get overwhelmed by these little details and instead set to work. There are so many DIY blogs and YouTube videos online that I had almost unlimited access to “experts” on painting furniture. The people at The Paint Depot not too far from my house were also very helpful. I took some photos along the way so hopefully I can explain a bit of what Mike and I did to turn the dresser into something pretty special (just wait for the big reveal below!).

Here’s a closer shot of the dresser before I did anything to it. My ultimate goal was to have something that looked vintage and sort of French. Think “shabby chic” (but not too shabby).

I began by removing all of the hardware and sanding the entire piece. Thankfully the weather was great so I could work outside. I used a sanding block and sand paper for some areas, but also an electric sander (such an awesome tool!). My goal was not to completely strip the finish, but just to really rough it up so that the primer had something to stick to and I had some nice wood shining through at the end when I did my “shabby chic” effect. Here’s Mike lending a hand:

The drawers had to be sanded on the top and bottom of their faces to help them open and close without sticking and I also used wax to help them slide more easily. Then I had to fill all of the holes left by the original hardware. I used a generous amount of wood filler and then left it to dry over night. I sanded again the next day and then filled the holes again, since the wood filler kind of shrinks. After the second round of wood filler was dry and sanded the drawers felt smooth to the touch, but I was still nervous that the old holes would show after painting. For this and many other reasons, I knew a good primer was key for this project.

Below is a pic of the dresser during the priming process. The primer didn’t go on very smoothly — it looked pretty awful to be honest. But the primer’s only job is to give the paint something to stick to so it didn’t really matter what it looked like.

All of the grooves, column details and little carved flowers on this dresser made it a pain to prime and paint and way too ambitious for a first-ever furniture project, but once we got started we just tried to be patient and positive. We don’t have any spare space in our house so I was mostly working in our dining room, which is where we eat, work and play. For this reason I worked evenings when the kids were asleep, usually from about 9 p.m. until midnight. Thankfully I had lots and lots of help from Mike or I’d still be painting this damn dresser today!

Here’s a pic of all the drawers being primed, and taking up all of our dining space!

The woman at the paint shop predicted I’d do one coat of primer and two coats of paint so this is about what I expected (and prepared Mike for!). I knew that it was better to do more thin coats than fewer thick coats, so that the brush strokes would be camouflaged (I used a smaller roller on big areas but there were a lot of areas where only a brush would do). But after two coats we knew that there was no way we could call the sideboard done. Here’s the sideboard beginning to take shape after about four coats (I was starting to get excited!):

I did a light sanding between coats to improve the finish. I wanted it to look and feel really smooth. In the end we had to do one coat of primer and five to six coats of paint to get a finish we liked. That part of the reason this week-long project took well over a month!

Once we were satisfied with our paintwork, I started working to get that “shabby chic” look. I used sand paper to rough up some edges on the dresser. I did a bit of reading and browsing around at fancy shops like Au Lit and Crate and Barrel and realized that the nicest pieces were distressed in a sort of symmetrical way. Even though I wanted the wear to look authentic (i.e. on places that really would wear over time, like the edges of the drawers and top), the eyes like symmetry. I was really nervous to start sanding after all of that painting, but right away the piece started to look alive. It is a vintage piece after all, and we wanted it to look that way. Here’s my daughter Noelle lending a hand just after we started adding the hardware:


I bought three different sets of hardware at Home Depot before I finally gave up and realized I was going to have a spend a little more money than I had budgeted. It seemed a shame to spend so much time and energy on sanding, priming, fixing and priming this piece and then use cheap hardware. A friend recommended Upper Canada Hardware here in Toronto and of course I checked Restoration Hardware, but both places were way too pricey (although their stuff is gorgeous!). Eventually, I found something I liked at Lee Valley Tools. Their “spa” hardware is really pretty and is sort of “mid-range” in terms of price (I think we paid about $120 for everything, including the hinges and taxes). Mike drilled the holes for me in the drawers and hung the middle door for me too. I have to get over my phobia of drills. Getting new hinges for the door turned out to be lots of trouble as nothing was available in the same size as the old hinges. But wood filler and new hinges to the rescue!

Here’s the dresser with just a few finishing touches to go:

Oh, I almost forgot to show you my favourite detail of all! I really wanted the three drawers in the centre cupboard to be a special spots for each of the kids. I found a wonderful seller on Etsy who makes custom monogram decals. I thought of painting them myself or having Mike create something for me on the computer (he’s a graphic designer) but SingleStory's designs and prices were too good to pass up. Three decals (one for each child: Evan, James and Noelle) cost $9 plus shipping and arrived within a week. Now everybody has a spot for their special items and I have somewhere to stick all of the little treasures I find all over the main floor! Don't they look cute?

So after the painting was done, the hardware was in place, the door hung with new hinges and the decals were stuck, the only thing left to do was order a piece of glass to protect the top. While the sideboard looked great without glass on top, I just wanted to be free to serve food from it, put a cup of tea on top and do whatever else we pleased without worrying about the finish. I had a piece of glass cut at Gerrard Glass for about $75 and it does the trick.

Are you ready for the AFTER?! Here you go…

Oh, I wish I was a better photographer! Here’s another one just because I’m excited:


Of course having a new piece in our dining room motivated us to do some styling. We put together a gallery wall with pics of the kids and a few sentimental pieces (the invitations Mike designed for our wedding in 2003, my paternal grandma’s necklace, some stonework from our year in Korea, etc.) and unified them all with white frames (thank you Ikea and Indigo!). We got some inspiration from one of my favourite blogs, Young House Love. Having a graphic designer for a husband is a wonderful thing — I commissioned Mike to do a monogram of our initials for above the sideboard and I love the way it turned out. The plan is to add more pieces to the wall over time (as a matter of fact I already have quite a few but doing a gallery wall with your spouse can be hard on the marriage…lots of measuring, assessing, hammering, reassessing…so I thought it better to take a month or so off!).

And so that’s the story of my first-ever vintage furniture makeover! I hope you like it. Feel free to ask questions — if I can do it, you can do it!

Here’s one final BEFORE and AFTER shot:

Filed under furniture painting vintage shabby chic dresser refinishing DIY

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A Letter to Evan, age 4 years and 10 months.

January 23, 2012

Dear Evan,

As I write this letter you are nearly five years old. You are upstairs in bed, chatting with your brother about paper airplanes and being a knight when you grow up. You are growing and changing so much lately. I love and hate it at the same time! It makes me realize I should capture some of the spirit of your childhood in words. And so I am writing you a proper letter for the first time.

Evan, you are such a magical boy. Your dad and I spend a lot of time smiling and chatting in the evenings about things you have said and done throughout the day. You have such an interesting perspective on life. Your artwork captures a little of the way you see the world around you – bright colours, interesting lines and lots of creativity. You are not interested in colouring books or prescribed activities. You love to do your own thing – creating mazes, building suits of armor from old cardboard boxes, folding intricate paper airplanes and drawing stories from your life. When you finish a drawing we never ask, “What is it?” because that question tends to leave you tongue-tied. Instead we say, “Tell me about it.” and then we usually hear something amazing. After your dad and I read you Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, you drew some incredible pictures. They are so interesting and unique that I don’t want to show you the movie – your imagination is much better. In fact your ideas are sometimes so incredible that you get frustrated when you can’t get them to work – like making a castle out of blocks that’s so big and tall you can live in it (we only have so many blocks!).

You have liked music since you were a little baby. When you were very tiny you used to have a hard time and cry a lot so I used to cuddle you up in my arms and dance around the house with you to loud pop music. This almost always made you feel better. You started dancing in your exersaucer when you were just seven months old and you have not stopped! You often request a “dance party” and love it when we turn up the music and clear the toys away so we can all dance around the dining room. Noelle takes after you in this way. Sometimes your dad plays the guitar or piano for you, which you love. You often accompany him with your harmonica or some homemade percussion instrument. I have a feeling you’ll play the guitar one day or maybe the piano. We’ll wait and see. The first week of kindergarten you came home and taught us all a song called “Let the Merry Sunshine In”. You knew all the words and although I am not sure if you got the tune right, we have adopted it and we sing this song together all the time. Your Dad and I love to hear your little singing voice. It’s actually very beautiful.

In September you started kindergarten. It was an emotional time for me as your mum. On one hand I was so proud of you and very exited about you starting school. I used to be a kindergarten teacher and I adore everything about this special time of life, so I had really high hopes that you would fall in love with school. But at the same time I was a little sad that you were growing up. Even though you are four years old, tall and strong, talkative and smart, you are still my six-pound-two-ounce baby boy. Sometimes when I look at you I can’t believe you’ve been with me nearly five years already, but other times I can’t imagine that there was a time before you arrived! It’s as if you just got here, yet you’ve always been here. It’s hard for me to explain and if you’re reading this before you have your own children you may not understand.

You love going to school each day and do wonderful art projects there. Your teacher is a kind person and tells me cute stories about graphs you make (you seem to love graphing!) and “writer’s workshop” pieces you create. We thought long and hard about whether we should request separate classes for you and James and in the end we decided we’d try each of you in your own class. You seem to be thriving and it’s wonderful to hear you sharing stories of your morning. In a way, being apart has brought you two closer together. You have a couple of hours each day to do your own thing and recharge your batteries, and when you get back together you are refreshed and glad to see each other and you get along well. Noelle spends the whole morning waiting for you and runs to hug and kiss you when we come to school to pick you up. Evan, she idolizes you.

Your connection with James is something special to see. As a parent, it’s wonderful to see the similarities and differences between two boys the exact same age, going through all the phases of life together. You have some things in common, but also your own unique talents, preferences, opinions and strengths. You seem to be more competitive than James. Sometimes this motivates you and sometimes it frustrates you. Being a twin has been beneficial to you in many ways. You share well, you negotiate and reason, you try to compromise and you think of others’ feelings – I think it has a lot to do with sharing time, space, things and attention with James. Your dad and I decided before you were born that we would not push any special responsibilities or expectations on you just because you were a twin. We hoped a bond would form between you and your brother, but we try very hard to let it evolve naturally. In fact, for the first few years of your life you didn’t even realize you were a twin! I remember one lady on the subway asking you and James if you were twins. You replied, “James is, but I’m not.” We laughed about that! Fortunately for us, you and James care about each other deeply and naturally. Of course you argue and sometimes you feel jealous or frustrated about something James is doing. But your brother adores you and goes out his way to make sure you are happy. We love to see you two sharing a secret or laughing about something funny in a book or on TV. In a lot of ways, you have a serious, intense personality, Evan. But when you laugh, you really laugh. You light up the whole house with your giggle! It is probably my favourite sound in the whole world.

I’d like to tell you some of the things you enjoy doing, aside from art and music. You go to gymnastics class once a week with James. You smile the whole time so I guess you love it! Noelle and I go too, to a kinderclass that happens at the same time. Whenever you see me across the gym you call my name and send me a wave and sometimes blow me a kiss. You took skating lessons earlier this winter and you made great progress in a really short time. Your dad took you and James to a local arena the other night and he said you’re getting really confident! Next winter I am going to get some skates and learn so I can skate with you. I can’t wait! Noelle will be old enough to try by then so we’ll all learn together. You like swimming and I hope you can take lessons again in the spring. You are hilarious when you swim at the cottage because you like to wear a life jacket, water wings AND a ring around your middle. There is no chance you’ll sink! You spend most of your time drawing, running, imagining, building with blocks (you love these connecting blocks called Trio), and listening to stories. In the spring and summer, you spend every moment you can on your bike. Your dad and I think you’re a great athlete and a particularly good cyclist.

As often as we can, your dad and I try to spend a little time alone with you. You’re very cute because you always say, “Mum, isn’t this nice? Just the two of us?” even if we’re just going to the grocery store. Although we love spending time with you, James and Noelle together, both your dad and I realize that you’re your own person and you need to connect with us individually. Every day we share cuddles, stories and whispers, but once in a while we get to do something special without your brother or sister. I think I should plan an activity for you and I again soon.

Well, Evan this is just a little glimpse into your life at age four years and ten months. There is so much to tell about you – about how you can’t decide whether to be an astronaut or a knight or a secret agent when you grow up, about how you love honey so much I think you must be part bear, about how you have the loveliest brown eyes with little flecks of green…I could go on forever. Mostly I’d like to say how fortunate I feel to be your mom. The other day you gave me a big hug and said, “Mum, aren’t you so lucky to have me?” I laughed and squeezed you tight. It’s true. I am very lucky.

Love,

Mum

P.S. I hope by the time you read this you like tomatoes and cooked green vegetables.

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All the glory of homemade…without the hard work.

My history with small appliances is hit and miss. Our food processor moved in with my mum a couple of years ago. The juicer found a new home on Craig’s List. But my breadmaker? It’s here to stay.

Last spring I bought a Sunbeam breadmaker on amazon.ca. It was an inexpensive model (about $80) with decent reviews and seemed like a good “starter” machine. I was reluctant to spend too much, just in case making bread at home wasn’t as easy and delicious as I hoped it would be. My Aunt in Yorkshire inspired me to get started with a breadmaker. I had some fresh bread at her house and loved it. It was nothing like the white, white bread I remember from the breadmakers that were briefly popular when I was a little girl.

My kids eat quite a lot of bread and making my own is a nice way to make sure they’re getting great quality stuff. I can buy organic flour, add extras like flax and wheat germ and skip preservatives all together. I find making my own bread economical too.

Here are some of the features I love about my breadmaker:

  • It has a timer function so you can set it up to start baking while you are asleep or out of the house and then when you wake up/get home you have freshly made bread. Very efficient.
  • It’s incredibly easy to use. It takes about 3 minutes to put everything together for a loaf and then anywhere from 2 hours and 40 minutes to 3 hours and 40 minutes to bake a good loaf (there is a quick-bread setting but I have not had success with it).
  • I love playing with the recipes, adding extra healthy ingredients like flax and wheat germ and replacing some of the flour with whole wheat or corn meal or other interesting flours.
  • My kids love the bread. It is delicious! So even if they shun the rest of their dinner, I know the bread was full of good stuff.
  • If I time it right I can put some frozen homemade soup or chili in the crock pot and then set the timer on the breadmaker and come home from an afternoon out to DINNER COMPLETELY READY, making me look like a total super star with very little effort.
  • It is so simple to clean — as a matter of fact sometimes the bread comes out of the pan so well that it doesn’t seem as though I need to clean it at all.

So if you’re like me and you love the glory of homemade stuff (“Who me? Yes, I bake my own bread.”) but not necessarily the hard work, I highly recommend getting yourself a breadmaker! Here’s a link to the model I purchased on amazon.ca (it’s on sale for $69 right now!): http://tinyurl.com/6qvpzcu

Filed under bread homemade organic baking breadmaker sunbeam

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Dinner at Our House (Tonight: One-Pan Baked Italian Sausage and Veggies)

Sometimes I feel inspired when it comes to dinner and sometimes I really don’t. It depends on my mood, the contents of my fridge, my kids’ crankiness/happiness level and how busy I am during the day. Once in a while I get really organized. I make a plan for the week and shop accordingly, even doubling recipes to stock the freezer. And by “once in a while”, I mean one week last year. But mostly I fly by the seat of my pants, and cycle through a bunch of favourite recipes. I often wonder what other people are eating for dinner, how long it took them to prepare the food and whether their kids complain as much as mine do.

Evan and James eat healthily but they are really unwilling to experiment with anything new. Among other things, they detest tomatoes and potatoes, which I find incredibly inconvenient. Evan doesn’t eat any cooked vegetables other than steamed soy beans and he eats almost no meat (he eats several raw veggies though). James eats very few cooked veggies, but likes meat. Noelle has been a pretty daring eater and until a couple of months ago I described her as eating just about anything. But lately she’s become picky — I think it’s partially developmental and partially just wanting to be a part of Evan and James’ gang. So making a dinner that suits everyone can be complicated. I don’t make individual dinners however. I make what I make, and I supplement the kids’ meals with things they like, but I try not to make it seem like I’m giving them a different dinner than anyone else. We just have some odd side dishes to make sure there is something on the table that each person likes. Pasta with carrot sticks anyone? I usually give them some steamed edamame or pepper slices during that half an hour before dinner when everyone is sooooooooo hungry (and cranky) and then I put some cucumber, raw carrots, etc. on the side of their dinner plates just to round things out.

As for Mike and I, we like all different kinds of foods cooked all different ways. We don’t tend to eat meat more than once or twice a week and I like to buy organic/local/ethically raised foods (when availability and our budget permit).

Anyway, I just thought I’d share what we had for dinner tonight: baked Italian sausage with potatoes, peppers and tomatoes. It’s a one-pan dish, which I love. One-pan/pot dishes work really well for me, but kids often don’t like things all mixed together (like stews in a crock pot for example) so they can cause some frowns at the dinner table (“frowns” can mean anything from an actual frown to full-blown tears, of course). This meal was a big hit with Mike and I, and a partial hit with the kids. I modeled it on something I had at my Italian neighbour’s place (but which had a lot more ingredients and some delicious spices). Anyway, let me know if you think your family might enjoy this baked Italian sausage dish.

Baked Italian Sausage with Vegetables (prep time: about 50 minutes)

  • 1 package of Italian sausage (I used the PC Free-From pork sausages available at Loblaws and No Frills — no hormones, no antibiotics and grain-fed pigs)
  • potatoes (I used those small roasting ones that you hardly have to peel, cut in half)
  • cherry tomatoes
  • one yellow pepper
  • garlic (I love the PC frozen fresh garlic!)
  • olive oil (and grape seed oil if you have it — I love the stuff)
  • sea salt and black pepper
  • basil if you have it (again, I love the PC frozen fresh stuff from Loblaws/No Frills)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a pan with aluminum foil. Use a pastry brush or piece of paper towel to put a bit of grape seed oil on the bottom of the pan where the sausages are going to lay. Lay your sausages in the pan, pierce them a little with a knife so they don’t explode while they’re baking. Wash and cut your potatoes in half (peel if you like). Put them in a bowl and drizzle with olive oil (and/or grape seed oil), sea salt, garlic and black pepper. Shake around until covered — include a little dance to entertain your children if needed. Place potatoes around sausages and put whole pan in the over. Set timer for 25 minutes.

Slice one yellow pepper into chunks and put into same bowl you used for potatoes (now oily and garlicky). Add some cherry tomatoes and shake the pan to make sure everything is coated (add some more garlic and oil if needed). I also like to shake on some PC frozen fresh basil but that’s just a bonus.

When the timer goes off at 25 minutes, flip the sausages and potatoes (now nice and golden on one side), add the peppers and tomatoes to the pan and turn the oven up to 400 degrees. Set the timer for another 25 minutes.

This is your chance to set the table, steam some green veggies, make a salad or have a white-wine spritzer. I steamed broccoli and warmed a little cheese sauce I had left over from the kids’ lunch the day before. I also put some garlic, butter and Parmesan cheese on some bread and covered it with foil and added that to the oven too. Since my kids don’t eat really potatoes, I often serve some bread as a side with meals. I bought a bread maker for this exact purpose and it does a beautiful job.

Anyway, after 50 minutes and not too many dirty dishes, your one-pan baked Italian sausage dinner should be done (slice open one of those little beauties just to be sure). I hope all of this made sense. I left home for university at 19 without knowing how to cook at all and have been learning through trial and error since I got married. My husband never complains about dinner but that might be simply because he’s grateful that he doesn’t have to do the cooking!

And just in case you were wondering, here’s Noelle’s review of our dinner: “I like the totatoes but not all those. You have kiwi for dessert? I love you all the time, Mummy.” Good enough for me.

Filed under dinner recipe sausage Italian cooking meals eating vegetables

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My All-Purpose Cleaner Recipe

I started making my own all-purpose cleaner almost five years ago. I like the idea of getting things clean without harsh chemicals. Having kids has made me much more aware of our family’s impact on the environment and having thyroid cancer has made me more conscious of toxins and potential carcinogens. My friends know me as someone who keeps her house pretty clean (right guys?) and I do it all without a drop of Mr. Clean, Windex, Pinesol, Lysol, Comet or any of the products I used to use regularly. Instead I use: lemon juice, baking soda, biodegradable dishwashing soap, white vinegar, tea tree oil, walnut oil and water.

I came up with my all-purpose cleaner after chatting with my mother and grandmother about what a great cleaner vinegar can be. At the time I was already beginning to use it to whiten whites when I did laundry, to remove musty smells, to clean my iron and kettle (nothing removes mineral stains like it!) and to remove soap scum. I thought I should start making an all-purpose cleaner that I could mix up and keep in a spray bottle to use on counters, table tops, the stove, the microwave, cupboard doors, garbage containers and pretty much anything else around the house. Companies like Method were making all-purpose cleaners which they promoted as non-toxic, but they were pricey and often the list of ingredients was kept secret. After a little research and some experimenting I found a good combination of ingredients. Vinegar has antibacterial qualities and also helps to make hard surfaces shine (like counter tops and wood floors). But just to make sure my all-purpose cleaner really was highly effective I wanted to add some other cleaning agents (remember, I’m someone who used to use harsh cleaners like Scrub Free that would literally burn my lungs as I cleaned the bathroom — I like things clean!). This is where a bit of biodegradable dishwashing soap and a few drops of tea tree oil come in handy. Tea tree oil is antibacterial/antiseptic, anti-fungal, has antiviral properties and smells great. Dishwashing soap simply helps to degrease and deodorize. I’ve been using this all-purpose cleaner for years around the house — even on soft furnishing and carpets when my boys were toilet training. I think it’s great!

My Homemade All-Purpose Cleaner Recipe

  • 1 part pure white vinegar
  • 3 parts tap water (or distilled water if you are really keen)
  • 2 squirts of biodegradable dishwashing soap (I like ECOVER but there are several options)
  • 10-15 drops of tea tree oil

Put all of the above into a spray bottle. Add the soap last so that I can add the tap water without foaming. Shake well and keep handy for cleaning almost anything around your house: counter tops, kids’ plastic toys, the oven and stove, the microwave, the fridge, highchairs and potties, the bathroom sink and toilet in between major cleanings (i.e. when people drop by with 4 minutes notice!)…the list goes on and on. I do not rinse after cleaning — tea tree oil should not be ingested in its pure form but in this recipe it is highly diluted so a tiny bit of residue is not dangerous.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on my all-purpose cleaner.

Filed under cleaning cleaner vinegar tea tree oil detergent soap

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The most perfect, easy brownies you’ll ever make…dressed up for any occasion.

A former neighbour of mine, Tammy, shared her best brownie recipe with me a few years ago. It is amazing and so simple. No eggs, no flour, no fuss. I like to dress these brownies up for special occasions — a dusting of icing sugar, a drizzle of melted chocolate and for Christmas I decided to do a layer of white chocolate and crushed candy cane pieces on top. I baked these with the kids and gave them as gifts in pretty packages to teachers, family and friends. I think they were a hit because I’ve had a lot of requests for the recipe. So here you go!

Best Brownies (dressed up for Christmas)

  • Grease a 8 x 8 or 9 x 9 pan and then cover the bottom entirely with overlapping sheets of alumininum foil. Grease foil. This is so that you can just lift the aluminum foil out after baking and slice the brownies easily.
  • Melt 6 oz of semi-sweet chocolate over low heat in a pan on the stove. (I like to melt the chocolate in a small pot placed inside a larger pot of water — sort of a homemade double boiler.) Add 1 can of sweetened condensed milk, 2 cups of graham cracker crumbs and a teaspoon of real vanilla extract. Mix together and pour into your pan. Bake for just 20 minutes at 350 degrees.
  • Allow to cool (refrigerate if needed). Remove brownies from pan and rest on a cutting board. Melt one bag of pure white chocolate chips on the stove top or microwave (you can add about 1/2 a tsp of grape seed oil at the end and mix in to give the chocolate a nice sheen). Pour white chocolate on brownies, add crushed candy canes while the white chocolate is still melty. Refrigerate and then cut into squares. These brownies freeze very well.

Filed under baking brownies Christmas chocolate sweets dessert

5 notes &

Great Novels to Read Aloud to Young Children

I remember reading somewhere that I child can comprehend books read aloud to them that are about five grade levels above their actual reading ability. Well, my twin boys are in JK and can’t read yet, but they have been listening to novels read aloud since they were three and they love it! As a former kindergarten teacher with a special interest in early literacy, reading has been a big part of parenting for me. I started truly reading to my boys when they were 12 weeks old (with them propped up in their bouncy chairs and me sitting in front of them holding up a book) and have never stopped! Of course we love picture books and poetry, but “chapter books” as my boys call them are very special to us. At the end of the day, after we have done baths, teeth, picture books and cuddles, my husband Mike or I sit in a comfy chair in the boys’ room, turn down the lights and read a chapter or two to our boys, snug in their beds. For Mike and I, this is a way to connect with the boys, share something special, impart our love of reading, help improve their vocabulary and build their knowledge of the world and just enjoy some really nice books. The boys look forward to this part of every evening and no matter how overexcited they have been in the previous hours, they always settle down for a novel.

I encourage any parent to read novels aloud to their children from about the age of three. You may have to change the words sometimes (simplify, explain or omit) and you may have to do it in the dark with a tiny reading light to help the kids keep focused the first few times. But I guarantee you and your kids will benefit. Teachers of young children will tell you that one of the biggest indicators of future success in school is whether a child derives enjoyment from reading. And being read a novel aloud is pretty great — in fact I wish someone would do it for me!

Here’s a list of some of the novels we have enjoyed together over the past couple of years (I know I have missed many but these are the ones I can think of!):

  • The first 20 or so books from the Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne (the boys love these books and have been inspired to learn about space, vikings, knights, ancient Rome and so many other things as a result of reading these books)
  • James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (the boys absolutely loved this one!)
  • My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
  • Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
  • Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne
  • Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (an abridged children’s version)
  • Stuart Little by E. B. White
  • The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden

The boys received many of novels for Christmas so we have lots to look forward to this year and soon my toddler will be old enough to enjoy them too. Can’t wait!

Here’s a drawing one of my sons did of Charlie’s chocolate factory after hearing Roald Dahl’s famous novel. He was so inspired that I really don’t want to show him the movie — I think his imagination is probably more exciting!

Filed under early literacy novels reading children books read read aloud

7 notes &

Homemade Laundry Soap
A few months ago my friend Heather inspired me to try making my own laundry detergent. I’d become increasingly frustrated with the high price of HE detergents and increasingly aware that their ingredients weren’t good for my family or our water supply. Guess what? Within a few loads, I was hooked. No more Tide for me - I love homemade laundry soap. I decided to make a special “lavender-infused” batch and package it up in pretty glass canning jars with fancy labels to give to my girlfriends for Christmas. Here’s my recipe (essentially the same as one provided by Eco Pioneer, although I find I use much less than the 1/2 cup per load they recommend).
1 part pure Borax
1 part washing soda
2 parts pure soap flakes (plus a touch of organic, biodegradable lavender bar soap grated by hand)
Before commercial cleaners became widely available in the 1940s, household cleaning was accomplished by combining basic ingredients such as soap flakes, borax, washing soda and baking soda. Ask your grandmother how she accomplished her chores as a young woman and you’re likely to hear about vinegar, baking soda, lemon juice and other non-toxic cleaners that went out of fashion a generation later (and are slowly coming back into fashion thanks to the environmental movement). Homemade laundry soap is economical, environmentally friendly, effective, gentle on the skin, free from dangerous toxins and a pleasure to use. It is safe for HE washing machines as it does not contain SLS or other chemicals to increase suds.
I hope you enjoy this laundry detergent. I would never go back to commercially available detergents now (and that means a lot coming from someone who does 10+ loads of laundry per week!).
Instructions for Use
Pretreat stubborn stains as usual. Add 2 heaping tablespoons of Homemade Laundry Soap to your wash (directly into the machine with the clothing). Use any temperature of water (I prefer cold but often run the hot for a minute to get the soap started). For heavily soiled loads, add another tablespoon or so of soap. Safe for baby clothes.

Homemade Laundry Soap

A few months ago my friend Heather inspired me to try making my own laundry detergent. I’d become increasingly frustrated with the high price of HE detergents and increasingly aware that their ingredients weren’t good for my family or our water supply. Guess what? Within a few loads, I was hooked. No more Tide for me - I love homemade laundry soap. I decided to make a special “lavender-infused” batch and package it up in pretty glass canning jars with fancy labels to give to my girlfriends for Christmas. Here’s my recipe (essentially the same as one provided by Eco Pioneer, although I find I use much less than the 1/2 cup per load they recommend).

  • 1 part pure Borax
  • 1 part washing soda
  • 2 parts pure soap flakes (plus a touch of organic, biodegradable lavender bar soap grated by hand)

Before commercial cleaners became widely available in the 1940s, household cleaning was accomplished by combining basic ingredients such as soap flakes, borax, washing soda and baking soda. Ask your grandmother how she accomplished her chores as a young woman and you’re likely to hear about vinegar, baking soda, lemon juice and other non-toxic cleaners that went out of fashion a generation later (and are slowly coming back into fashion thanks to the environmental movement). Homemade laundry soap is economical, environmentally friendly, effective, gentle on the skin, free from dangerous toxins and a pleasure to use. It is safe for HE washing machines as it does not contain SLS or other chemicals to increase suds.

I hope you enjoy this laundry detergent. I would never go back to commercially available detergents now (and that means a lot coming from someone who does 10+ loads of laundry per week!).

Instructions for Use

Pretreat stubborn stains as usual. Add 2 heaping tablespoons of Homemade Laundry Soap to your wash (directly into the machine with the clothing). Use any temperature of water (I prefer cold but often run the hot for a minute to get the soap started). For heavily soiled loads, add another tablespoon or so of soap. Safe for baby clothes.

Filed under laundry soap laundry detergent laundry housekeeping homemade