Thursday, October 1, 2015

PUMPKIN! 10 Great Recipes to Try this Fall

Fall is here!

Now I am a summer-loving gal through and through:  I love short sleeves and bare feet and long, sunshiny days.

But there's a certain magic, (for lack of a better word,) to autumn.  I start feeling it in the air somewhere around the middle of September, just the slightest sense of something beginning to change.  The air has a different smell.  The sun has a different cast.  The breeze is...different somehow.  And then there are a few cool mornings and I start to notice the slightest change in the colors of the trees and it becomes official...fall is upon us!

And fall means PUMPKINS!

My grandmother made the best pumpkin pie I've ever eaten.  Hers was not exactly traditional -- it was a large, flat pie, often baked in an iron skillet and thinly spread with a pumpkin mixture -- so you could pick it up and eat it with your fingers like a cookie.  Few things made me happier as a child than arriving at my grandparent's house to find Mammaw had made one of her pumpkin pies!

I still love a good pumpkin pie, but there are so many wonderful ways to use this autumn jewel!  Here are a few pumpkin recipes you might want to add to your cooking plans in the next few weeks...

I've made this Yummy Pumpkin Pie Dip from Handmade in the Heartland multiple times and it is super easy and SO GOOD.  Serve it with graham crackers or ginger snaps, or even with pear or apple slices   It goes a long way, so it's perfect for a fall get-together.

After years of gentle, (and sometimes not-so-gentle,) nudgings from my husband, I have FINALLY purchased a waffle maker, meaning I have to try these Pumpkin Waffles  from No. 2 Pencil.  I have a feeling they will be a huge success on an autumn breakfast table.  Or a supper one...whatever.

Confession:  I've never tried pumpkin butter.  People tell me I'm really missing out on something and so I'm intrigued.  This recipe from Tasty Yummies for Crock Pot Pumpkin Butter sounds like it couldn't be much easier.  And you can freeze it to enjoy all winter long!  I HAVE to try this this autumn.

Cheesecake has to be one of the most delectable sweet creations known to man.  Mix it with pumpkin and wow.  Just...WOW.  Check out this Pumpkin Cheesecake from Natasha's Kitchen.  Topped with the caramel sauce, it's sure to reduce your taste buds to happy tears.

If you're in the mood for a cookie, (describes me most of the time,) you might want to try these Pumpkin Snickerdoodles from Cooking Classy.  Snickerdoodles are fabulous cookies anyway.  Add pumpkin and they're sure to be amazing.

Quick, 3-4 ingredient homemade ice cream treats have become some of our favorite late-night snacks.  Now I'm ready to try this Clean Eating Pumpkin Ice Cream from The Gracious Pantry.  I have no doubt it will be a hit with my family!

Caramel is one of my favorite sweets and it pairs beautifully with pumpkin.  The Salted Caramel Pumpkin Parfaits from Love Grows Wild are pretty as well as delicious.  I love the idea of serving them in half-pint jars.

Pumpkin coffee drinks are all the rage in October.  If you prefer a cold drink, (particularly one without all the fat and calories,) try the Skinny Pumpkin Frappuccino from Sally's Baking Addiction.  If hot coffee is more your cup-of-tea, check out this Crock Pot Pumpkin Spiced Latte from Thriving Home.  It makes enough for a small crowd, but is super easy to prepare.

Maybe your taste for pumpkin is more savory than sweet.  I'm really anxious to try this Pumpkin Tortilla Soup from Mama Miss.  The creaminess of the pumpkin mixed with smooth avocado HAS TO BE delicious, besides the fact it contains all the other wonderful ingredients of a hearty Mexican soup.


So have you pulled out your old pumpkin recipes yet?  If not, maybe this will give you a new place to start.  The hardest part for me is deciding which recipe to go with first!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

3 Reasons to Spend MORE on Groceries

Yeah, I know:  Suggesting people spend MORE at the grocery store kind of goes against conventional thinking.  Just this week my inbox and social media feeds have been chock-full of things like this:

25 Ways to Slash Your Grocery Bill!  

Clip these Coupons and Start Saving BIG on Groceries Today!

Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half WITHOUT Clipping Coupons!

It's enough to make the world's most tightfisted woman feel like she's blowing money to the wind if she dares spend more than $30 a week to feed her family of four!

(Insert eye roll here.) Oh, please.

Now I am all for saving money, I believe in taking advantage of sales, and I have nothing (personal) against coupons.

But after 18 years of marriage and at least that many years of grocery shopping, I've come to learn a thing or two about the spending and eating habits of my family.  And I've come to realize, too, that there have been many times along the way when spending more money at the grocery store might have been better for my family than trying so desperately to spend less.

Most families experience at least occasional lean times where every nickel must be accounted for, but it's also true we can put a lot of time and effort and STRESS into money-saving strategies that really don't save money in the end.  Or if they do, the savings come with a pretty significant downside.

That's why evaluating our saving efforts from time to time is a GOOD IDEA.  For one thing, I'm not convinced the grocery budget is always the best place to start trimming expenses.  While it's usually the first area of spending that comes to mind when we decide to really buckle down on the budget, it's often because we're overspending in other areas that we begin stressing over the grocery bill.  Most of us want to save money without it actually hurting too much.  In other words, we can let go of ribeye steak for a while, but we don't want to downsize in house or trim back the vacations or sell the boat, in spite of the fact it's usually these more painful cuts that are the most effective.

I'm all for saving money!  But you might want to really consider the potential benefits of spending MORE money on groceries, and not less.

Consider this:

The better the variety and quality of the foods you have at home, the less likely you are to eat out.

The average American family eats out 4-5 times per week.  For many families I know, that's actually a lowball number.   Busy schedules and the need for convenience play a big part in that, but I know for myself that when I have a fridge-full of good, quality foods at home, it's easier to talk myself out of a restaurant stop or a run through the drive-thru, even on a busy night.  Why would I want to stop and pick up a pizza when I have all the fixin's for an amazing 3-cheese lasagna at home?

And if you make the extra effort to turn those better quality foods into freezer meals you can get on the table quickly, you make the decision to dine or snack at home even easier!

Which brings me to my other points...

Having better food at home encourages you to eat at home.  And eating at home generally means eating healthier.

Foods prepared at home, particularly whole foods, are far less likely to be packed with all the preservatives and mystery ingredients you'll find cram-packed in so much restaurant fare.

And while it's probably ease and convenience that drives people to eat out much of the time, natural food stores and many regular grocery stores are offering more and better quality quick foods that are worth the investment.  These may not be as good for you as a made-from-scratch whole food meal, but they're generally better than fast food and they are worlds above things like microwaveable pizza pockets and frozen corn dogs that have mile-long ingredient lists.

Healthy snacks are another worthy investment.  I love sugar snap peas, but I used to balk at the idea of paying nearly $3 for a bag.  But when I started considering what I was spending on crunchy snacks that were TERRIBLE for me, I suddenly felt...well.....dumb.  Of course it made better sense to spend more money on something that was so much healthier, especially when the healthy snacks I considered so expensive -- like fruits and nuts and certain vegetables -- were actually far more filling and satisfying than the cheap garbage I had been buying.

Having better food at home encourages you to eat at home.  And eating at home saves money! 

I read just recently that most Americans are now spending about HALF their monthly food budget eating out.  Depending of course on when and where you decide to eat, restaurant meals can easily cost two to four times what the same meal would cost to cook at home.

So how does it make sense to scrimp on groceries if it only drives me to eat out more often?

So consider:  Is the chintzy way I'm grocery shopping and the limited foods we have at home encouraging us to eat out more often than we need to?  If the answer is yes, then my "saving money" at the grocery store may not be saving me anything at all!  I might be better off in the long run paying more for groceries.


I'm not telling you to throw all caution to the wind and triple your grocery budget in the next week, but I AM encouraging you to reevaluate the way you think about both the money you spend and the foods you buy at the grocery.

It may be that spending MORE on groceries could be the key to spending less and living healthier.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Ideas for the Space-Themed Party or VBS

Space never really interested me.  I mean, I thought stars were pretty and all that, but I always viewed space as this vast black nothingness.  And what's so interesting about nothingness? 

But then I began studying it, both in our homeschool and in preparation for a kids' event at our church. I was blown away, to the point I will never view the wonders of space in the same way.

And I had so much fun decorating with a space theme for our annual kids' day!  Our kids' day is essentially a one-day VBS filled with songs and skits and lessons along a certain theme.  I desperately need to share creative ideas from each of the themes we've used over the years, but they've ranged from things like a farm theme to a jungle theme to a medieval prince and princess theme.

But for some reason the space theme scared me.  I wasn't sure just how to create a big impact without going so far as to blacken windows and pull out black lights, which would have taken a lot more work than I was ready to tackle.

But I think we pulled it off!  We called it, "A Saturday Space Odyssey," and here are just a few of our ideas...

A placard with one of my favorite scriptures seemed in order, and we made a board using this Solar System bulletin board set, just to add some basic information and sneak in a little reading/learning opportunity as kids came through the door.  The inflatable astronauts were a couple of my favorite touches.

Adding stars to the chandeliers seemed like a given.

But this was probably my favorite creation...

Yep.  I was pretty proud of my rocket.  Is it cute or what?

To make it I just used a 12 x 48-inch form tube.  (A form tube is a thick cardboard tube used for molding concrete.  You can find them at the big box hardware stores in various sizes for about $10 or less.  Just choose the size that works best for you!)

I covered my tube in white bulletin board paper.

Yes, you can use paint, but, trust me here, cardboard can absorb a lot of paint.  Usually covering with paper is lots faster and easier.

I'm afraid I don't have step-by-step pictures for the rest, but I can explain what I did from there.  I cut a cone-shape for the top from a piece of red poster board.  (Here are some instructions for how to do that.  Just remember, the bigger your form, the bigger your paper or poster board will have to be.)  Near the bottom I added two stripes with red duct tape...just because.  It looks more...rockety with the stripes, don't you think?

I printed the letters U S A vertically and glued them to the side of my rocket.  My wings I cut from cardboard...basically just a rectangle with one corner cut off, but you could make right triangles instead.  Again, no painting: I covered them in red duct tape and attached them on the backside with white duct tape.

My rocket blasters?  Those are large styrofoam McDonald's cups!  I painted them with silver spray paint and used duct tape to attach three of them inside the form tube.  For the exhaust plumes, I hot glued sheets of yellow and orange tissue paper around the insides of the cups.

And voila!  I had a rocket!

Suspending it would have been my first choice, but since I'm pretty sure the pastor wouldn't have appreciated me drilling holes in that lovely vaulted ceiling, instead we propped it up on a tall cocktail table, which was a good height for display in our church's foyer.  By the time I covered the table and some of the space behind my rocket with black plastic tablecloths, then added the black balloons with stars and a few white and silver mylar star balloons, I felt like we had set the scene pretty well for a rocket flying through space.

This was our stage...

Our "fortress", a.k.a. puppet stage, was a sturdy structure made of plywood and 2 x 4s.  The stars and planets were just cutouts we attached with a little tape.

Our memory verse was made of felt cut in simple shapes.

But you're no doubt wondering about the giant rocket...

It stood over 10 feet tall, which made for some good dramatic effect....

This rocket is actually 3 of these...

55-gallon plastic drums, stacked on top of one another and secured with lots of duct tape.  (Obviously duct tape is one of our favorite tools!)  My husband bought these for $20 apiece and he says you can usually find them priced somewhere between $15-$30 each.  Check out your local Craigslist.

After hubby had constructed our tower of barrels, I covered it with more white bulletin board paper and then the accents were added, just like with the smaller rocket.  Of course I added a flag to this one.  And keep in mind the cone for the top took multiple red poster boards because it had to be pretty big.

The rocket was positioned over some bricks, leaving some space open so we could place a fog machine beneath it, to help us simulate smoke from a take-off.  That part was semi-successful.  If you decide to try something like that, make sure to start your fog machine well before you want your smoke to appear:  It may not instantaneously produce an ample amount of smoke, so a few practice runs might be a good idea if you want to get your timing just right.  We covered the bricks with white poly-fill to look like little plumes of smoke as well.

Our Saturday Space Odyssey was a hit, and not nearly so difficult to decorate for as I had first imagined.  There are lots of ready-made items you can purchase, but with a little thought and creativity, you can create BIG impact with relatively little time and effort, and have a BLAST at your space-themed party or event!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

In Celebration of Constitution Day

Thursday is Constitution Day!  And I feel like never was it more important for us to spend time educating our kids about the document that defines our government and ensures our freedoms.

If you're looking for resources and ideas for ways to celebrate our constitution this week, check out the link below to my post at Hip Homeschool Moms...

"So did you know September 17th is Constitution Day?
If you didn’t, don’t feel too bad:  Most Americans have no idea this is the birthday of the U.S. Constitution.  Even more troubling: A frightening number of Americans can’t outline any of the seven articles of the Constitution, name a single freedom guaranteed us in the Bill of Rights, or identify any of the 39 delegates who signed the document.
Sigh.  That’s hardly encouraging.  There’s little question the U. S. Constitution is one of the longest neglected and therefore least understood documents in American history.
But more and more homeschoolers are trying to change that...."

To read more, click HERE.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

A Visit to the Historic Triangle -- Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown (Plus Monticello)

You might consider the greatest vacation destination to be someplace warm and sunny, maybe even tropical, with sandy beaches and saltwater waves.  Or maybe you prefer the majesty of the mountains and hiking and skiing.  Or maybe the hustle and bustle of the big city with its lights and landmarks and museums is more your taste.

But me?  If you want to grant me the vacation of my dreams, take me somewhere full of HISTORY. 

I love it.  Truly.  And early American/Revolution era history is my favorite.  Which is what made our recent family vacation so incredible.

I have always wanted to go to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, but only more recently did I learn just how close it is to other historical sites like Jamestown and Yorktown.  Talk about American history overload!  Then you cannot imagine my delight when I realized Thomas Jefferson's Monticello would be in our travel path as well.  Oh, what bliss!  

It is a 9 1/2-hour drive to Williamsburg from our neck of the woods in Kentucky, which is hardly a skip-and-a-jump, and yet when you've made a 14-hour drive in the opposite direction multiple times, a road trip less than 10 hours is a virtual breeze.  We still broke it up, however, just to make the drive a little easier on us all.


Like I said, in Charlottesville, Virginia we stopped in at Monticello, the home of our third president and writer of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson.  The house was amazing...

Lovely...minus the scaffolding, of course.  Naturally they would be in the
middle of restoration efforts.  Ah well.  It was still beautiful, even if it 
messed up my perfect photograph...

You can't take pictures inside, although I found the layout of the
interior a bit odd anyway.  Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant architect, 
but with strange tastes that included alcove beds and tiny, narrow
stairways because he thought grand staircases wasted too much space.  
Seriously, Mr. Jefferson? The huge windows and skylights were amazing, though...

It was really the gardens I loved most!

There were activities for the kids, too, which was great, since this trip was a week-long homeschool field trip as much as a vacation.  The kids got to try their hand at writing with a quill pen and iron ink as well as play with some 18th century toys and a code-maker like the wheel cipher Jefferson himself invented.

Williamsburg was about two hours beyond Charlottesville.  We settled into our lovely condo there and made plans to visit Jamestown the following day.

Now here's where we wish things had been a bit clearer for us:  Jamestown Settlement and Historic Jamestowne are two separate places, though they are often advertised as if they are part of the same attraction.  Getting through them both took more time than we had anticipated.  Basically Jamestown Settlement is a living history museum and a recreation of the original Jamestown while Historic Jamestowne is the actual site of the original settlement.  The two are close in proximity, but they are separate attractions with separate entrances and ticket fees.  Of course I really can't imagine visiting one without the other.

And just a couple of notes:
  • I loved the area with a passion, but if I had any complaint about our visit, it was the lack of clarity when it came to ticket options.  There are a lot of historic sites and attractions in the area, several with very similar-sounding names, and most of them requiring a ticket for entry.  There were dual-entry tickets and combo ticket options galore, not to mention all the tickets available for specific programs and specialized tours.  I may never have sorted it all out had I not played 20 questions with an employee at the Jamestown Settlement.  She confessed to me that many of the combo tickets save little to no money at all, so if you go, don't feel pressured to buy combo tickets, especially if you're not sure you'll have time to visit each attraction.  It may not be saving you money anyway.
  • But just so you know, a receipt from Historic Jamestowne will get you free admission to Yorktown Battlefield if you can visit within 7 days.


The Jamestown Settlement did much to bring Jamestown alive for us all.  We explored a native American village...

...Where the kids helped hollow out a canoe...

...And then we toured replicas of the 3 ships that brought the first settlers to Jamestown.  Just hearing how many people were squeezed on these ships made me queasy.

We walked around the replica of the fort itself, trying on 17th century armor and taking in a musket demonstration.

We explored a church, (with the most miserably uncomfortable pews EVER,) and walked through various homes and meeting houses.

Historic Jamestown was a short drive away.  While there aren't as many activities for the kids there, it's pretty amazing to walk on the actual site where English settlement began in America.

Of course if you're into archaeology, (or you have children who are,) you can check out some of the excavation sites there in the area of the original fort and beyond.  We just took the self-guided tour, but there are special tours available for adults and children focusing on archaeological discoveries in Jamestown.  We actually eavesdropped on one of these tours for a few minutes as they discussed remains that were recently discovered buried within the site of the original church.  I was pretty interested, since I had read about the discovery online just a few weeks ago.  

The crosses in the photo below show a couple of the graves they discovered.  The tower just behind it dates to the 17th century, though the church adjacent to that, the Jamestown Memorial Church, was built in 1907 on the foundations of other churches also dating back to the 1600s.  You can see the original foundations through glass panels in the floor inside.  

The following day we headed to the place I was most excited to see -- Colonial Williamsburg!

Colonial Williamsburg

Harvesting tobacco at the Great Hopes Plantation at Colonial Williamsburg 

Purchasing tickets can take a while here, primarily because they give you maps and a lot of information about events and special programs, so I recommend getting there early to avoid longer lines.  You can actually walk through Colonial Williamsburg for free, but you can't have access to any of the buildings without a ticket.  While admission is pricey, especially for a family, I think the access to various buildings and special programs is well worth it.  In fact, for just slightly more you can purchase a multi-day ticket, which is the best way to see everything.  While some buildings are open daily, not every building is open for tours every day.

Little Man looks genuinely miserable in this picture, but I promise
you he wasn't REALLY being punished. 
As it was, learning our way around and figuring out the shuttle bus system took the better part of our morning.  (The shuttle buses are very convenient, by the way, stopping at multiple points along the outside edges of the old town.  We never waited more than 5 minutes on a bus, so they are coming through constantly.  They're only available to ticketed passengers, however.)  There are several restaurants there at Colonial Williamsburg, but they aren't cheap and they warn you space is very limited.  Many even require reservations.  We opted to pack a lunch and left it in our vehicle, then caught the shuttle bus back to the parking lot and the picnic tables near the entrance.  I noticed other families toting food with them through town in backpacks or strollers.  It was a great way to save both time and money while still enjoying everything Colonial Williamsburg has to offer.

After lunch we caught the shuttle bus back to the point we had left off and began exploring more.  We stopped in at the tailor's, the silversmith's, and the shoemaker's shops where they explained and demonstrated their trades and answered questions.  

The "historical interpreters" are a big part of the fun at Colonial Williamsburg.  I think I would love the job!  While most of them will gladly come out of character long enough to answer a question or give directions, others like to keep up the 18th century performance.  We passed one man in waistcoat and breeches and a tricorn hat striking up conversations with passersby about "current" politics and some "recent" statements by Patrick Henry.  Others in period dress sat playing games together and at one point a man left a shop with a loaded handcart and started down the street, informing those who asked that he had to make a delivery to the blacksmith shop.

It was as if 18th century life was carrying on and we were just there to observe.  I loved that.

The military encampment was probably our favorite stop.

The sergeant put our family and about a dozen others through musket training, which was hilarious.  I really wish I had pictures, but I was having too much fun to put down my "gun" and pick up my camera.  Both my boys also got to be part of a cannon crew, which probably helped me really understand the operation of a cannon for the first time in my life.  We just thoroughly enjoyed this stop.

We were informed, too, that British General Cornwallis was surrounded at Yorktown and his surrender was imminent.  All kids, (big ones, too,) who wanted to join the march to Yorktown to join General Washington and his army were invited to meet at a nearby tavern just a couple of hours later.  My boys wouldn't have missed it for the world!

My little guys with their commanders.  Don't you love the non-smiles?  I'm telling ya...
some of these interpreters are serious about their job.  The one to the far right is Colonel
James Monroe, who would become our 5th president of course.  Don't look too closely
or you might notice our 18th century hero is wearing a very 21st century wireless mic.

The recruits were put through a few minutes of basic training, but we actually had no idea what to expect at this point.  When the fife and drum corps started up the street, it startled us.  And it was SO POWERFUL.  I cried.  Seriously:  In part because I've always wanted to come to Colonial Williamsburg and I was ACTUALLY THERE, and also because it was bringing the wonder of the time period to life for me in such an amazing way.  


 If you were as giddy about American Revolutionary history as I am, then you might be able to understand why I was so weepy.  It was just incredible.  Even my teenage daughter turned to me after they got past and said, "Mom!  That was SO AMAZING!"  

Agreed, honey.  Agreed.  

The march continued down the street to the courthouse lawn where General Henry Knox, (whose namesake fort is so close to our own home-sweet-home,) addressed his troops.  All the volunteer recruits got to join them on the green for a few military exercises and some musket and cannon demonstrations.  

We LOVED Colonial Williamsburg.  My biggest regret is that we didn't have at least two full days to spend there.  Sadly, we ran out of days!

It speaks truth.

While it has nothing to do with the Historic Triangle, Williamsburg is a mere 60 minutes from Virginia Beach.  And since 3/4 of my kids had never seen the ocean...

Virginia Beach

The main drag of Virginia Beach is crowded, but if you prefer fewer people, (like us!) drive away from the hotels as much as possible.  You can find public parking spots on some residential streets.  We found a little strip of beach we had all to ourselves for a few hours, which was really nice.  

Naturally my kids LOVED the beach.  In fact, it and Colonial Williamsburg ran neck-and-neck when it came to which part of the vacation was their favorite.  It's fun for a while, but you beach-lovers can keep it!  I'm STILL cleaning sand out of our stuff...


We spent our last full day in the Historic Triangle at Yorktown Battlefield.  While I'll confess to you there isn't a lot to do there, I also can't imagine not taking the time to visit the spot where such an important event as the Battle of Yorktown took place.  Three of my greatest heroes of the Revolution:  George Washington, Henry Knox, and the Marquis de Lafayette were all there!  How could I not go?

There's a small museum at the visitor's center and you can drive to various points of interest around the battlefield.  You can still see trenches dug by Patriot forces over 230 years ago and you can visit the Moore house where surrender negotiations took place.  There's also the Yorktown Monument where you'll find lists of both the American and French dead.  

The view from the Yorktown Monument out over the Chesapeake was just lovely...
The Thomas Nelson house is also nearby and open for self-guided tours.  It's said General Nelson asked George Washington to destroy his home when he learned Cornwallis had made it his headquarters.  Whether that story is true or not, you can still see holes from cannonballs in the side of the house.  Of course by this point my were kids were saying, "Oh, Mom, please!  Not another old house tour!"

If you get done at Yorktown Battlefield and still have some time, make your way down the hill to Yorktown Beach and the Riverwalk.  It's such a pretty, charming area.


We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the Historic Triangle area of Virginia.  We had actually learned our way around pretty well by the time we left and by then we knew things that might have saved us some time if not money, had we known them in the beginning.  But if I can pass along some of the things we learned to help someone else planning their own trip, then I'm satisfied!  

If you're considering a visit to the Jamestown, Williamsburg, Yorktown area in your future, by all means DO IT!  It was a perfect vacation.

And I'm ready to go back...

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