advent 2013

For the first time ever, I’m actually on top of Advent this year. In the past I’ve done small things, or parts of things, but this year I really wanted to get organized and have a good plan as we try to foster an atmosphere of building anticipation for the arrival of the Savior, Jesus.

This is probably also the first year Jackson is old enough to really “get it” and Taylor is his little shadow, so it seems like a good year to get it together. 🙂 A lot of the execution for this is going to fall to Kyle this year, since I’ll be recovering from birth here soon. But that works out since he will be off for most of the month on paternity leave – government job for the win! These are the things we are hoping to do throughout the 25 days before Christmas/Advent season.

Advent Wreath

advent centerpiece

Each Sunday before Christmas, we will light a candle on the table (I haven’t made an official wreath yet, but I put the five candles in a group on our dining room table each year) and read a verse:

1. Light the 1st candle.  It represents the HOPE of the promised Messiah.  Isaiah 9:1-3
2. Light the 2nd candle.  It reminds us that the coming Savior will be the Prince of PEACE.  Isaiah 9:6-7
3. Light the 3rd candle.  It reminds us the JOY we may have in Christ. Isaiah 35:1-2, 10
4. Light the 4th candle.  It reminds us that God LOVES us so much that He sent his only Son.  John 3:16
5. Christmas Day – Light the middle candle and the other four. The Savior is come!

Daily Readings

With the littles – Readings from the Jesus Storybook Bible 

For the bigger set – Good News of Great Joy 

Daily Advent Activities – great ideas from friends, this blog and this blog 

I’m using this Tin and Chalkboard Advent calendar from Starbucks this year. It says its not available online, but your local shop should have one. I’ll print out the activity on small pieces of paper and put it in the right numbered tin. Some year I’ll get all fancy and make my own pocket calendar. Or, more realistically, I’ll pay someone to make one for me. 🙂 

1. Make a Christmas countdown chain using the Names of Jesus chain and this poem for the top:
Christmas Day will soon be here and I can hardly wait.
I’ve made this little Christmas chain to help me celebrate.
Each day I will snip one loop from it to help me to remember.
To rejoice of Jesus birthday on the 25th of December!

2. Decorate the tree and the house and unwrap/read two new Christmas books

Christmas tree 3. Open and play with Little People Nativity Set. (This is a GREAT price for the set, even shipped.)
4. Gingerbread house or nativity. Read the Gingerbread Gospel while making.

gingerbread house 5. Watch a Charlie Brown Christmas with popcorn.
6. Pajama surprise – hot cocoa and Christmas light drive.
7. Snowman marshmallow craft (on Christmas Pinterest board)
8. Go caroling at the nursing home.
9. Make a borax snowflake.
10. Make/bake sugar cookie cut-outs.

cookies 11. Decorate cookies.
12. Christmas tree craft – (paper tree/hole punch/tissue paper/hang in window).
13. Hot chocolate with marshmallows and sprinkles w/ breakfast.
14. Bell ringing for Jack and Kyle and indoor dinner picnic by the tree/lights.
15. Reindeer pancakes for breakfast and Christmas Musicale at Fourth Baptist.
16. Unwrap and read two more new books.
17. Birthday Cake (or cupcakes) for Jesus (invite friends for a party?)
18. Buy presents for Toys for Tots or other charity, donate.
19. Service Project: Pack VoM action packs with small group.
20. Christmas music dance party (AM) & watch The Polar Express (PM).
21. Play the “count the snowball game”.
22. Make thumbprint snowmen cornstarch dough ornaments for grandparents.
23. Take cookies to neighbors.
24. Christmas Eve service and maybe new pajamas?
25. JESUS! Christmas morning: read Luke 2, special breakfast and open gifts.

Christmas breakfast

And if we don’t get to everything, no worries. 🙂 It’s far more important to love on the kids than do a million projects, like this wise mama reminds us. I’m not going to spaz out if we miss a day.

The Christmas books we got for this year are:
The Very First Christmas
Song of the Stars: A Christmas Story
Room for a Little One: A Christmas Tale
The Nativity
Christmas in the Manger 

That’s about everything, I think! I hope it is helpful for others who might want to create their own list of fun things to build excitement and anticipation for Christmas Day and the arrival of the Christ Child. 🙂 May your Christmas season be merry and bright as you celebrate all the gifts HE has given us, beginning with Himself.

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currently 11.0

current reading material: I’ve stalled out on my reading list from this year, but Kyle and I are reading Standing on the Promises by Doug and Nancy Wilson together and we’re reading Multiply by Francis Chan in our small group. I’m sure once the baby arrives in a week or two, I’ll plow through a few books again while nursing the little guy/girl. I have the next Ashtown Burials book, The Drowned Vault, by N.D. Wilson waiting on my Kindle app.

Any recently enjoyed recommendations?

current songs o’ delight: Last weekend at a wedding, some friends of ours sang this beautiful version of an old hymn. I’d heard it before, but it had been awhile. I’ve been singing it all week and then it was in the set list for our worship service this morning, much to my delight! I hope it covers you with the peace and assurance and joy that it did me.

And I’m in love with this new(ish) song from the Goo-Goo Dolls too. Seven years ago, their song “I’ll Stay with You” was “our song”, and this new one’s chorus is totally our love/life now. Kyle really is my sweetest friend.

current projects: Well, you know – I’m nesting. So there was Move Jack to a New Room two weeks ago, then the Epic Day of Freezer Meals this week. Thank you to my mom and mother-in-law for helping with childcare and preparation! Then there was Put Baby’s Crib Together, thanks to my dad, while Kyle took care of One Million Leaves on the Ground in our yard. This week I have a few last recipes to toss in the freezer, and I’d love to get a jump start on buying Christmas gifts (but that’s unlikely) and then I’m good and ready for this kid to make his/her appearance.

current recipes I’ve tried:
These pumpkin cookies were amazing and easy.
This hot cocoa popcorn was fun and different. My kids mostly picked out the marshmallows, haha.

current hair color: a mix of old reddish tones and my natural ashy blonde/brown, but I chopped off 6 inches and have a cute lob (long-bob) now! Needed something fresh, flippy and easy to care for without wanting to toss it in an ol’ ponytail every day with the new one arriving.

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current events: today we recognized Orphan Sunday at church, a week “late”. It was really encouraging, and makes me super grateful to be part of a church that supports the cause of the orphan so consistently.

And tonight, we spontaneously took the kids bowling and out for sundaes – $13 and priceless memories. 🙂 I really love these people God has given me.

upcoming events: I think having a baby would be awesome! Sometime before Thanksgiving, please and thank you. Then there’s Thanksgiving. And then it will be December! But my life in December is going to be pretty low-key, just snuggling that new baby and recovering from birth. I hope we can keep up with doing Advent readings and some special activities for the kids as we anticipate celebrating the Birth of Jesus, our Savior.

And I’m really looking forward to seeing my brothers and sister-in-law over Christmas. It will be the first time we’ve all been together for Christmas since 2010! There will be much joy and cheer. 🙂

freezer meals

I’m not a die-hard freezer-mealer. But I AM about to give birth to our third child, and have learned, with arrivals of our other two sweet bundles of joy, how essential it is to my less-stressful recovery to have meals ready and waiting for a quick thaw and a toss in the oven for most of the first month.

Helpful elements that make Freezer Meal Day a success for me:

  • kids gone to Grandma’s or a friend’s house for a day or two if I can swing it. This time they gleefully enjoyed time with my husband’s family for an overnight.
  • list all the meals I’d like to make.
  • make a comprehensive grocery list, including at which store to purchase the items. (I shopped at Aldi, Costco and Cub Foods, which is our local mainstream grocery chain in MN).
  • one day for shopping, one day-day and a half for cooking
  • FOIL PANS. Ziplock bags. Paper towels.
  • a willing, able and affable helper. The past two times I’ve done this, my wonderful mom has come up to help me. She is a great sous-chef and dishwasher!
  • Some fun treats/food to eat while we work, along with good music. Or a good movie or two on Netflix via the iPad. 🙂
  • Sturdy shoes. I’m on my feet almost all day, so no barefoot pregnant girl in the kitchen business. Save the tootsies!

With all these things in place, its time to start chopping. I’m sure there’s a more efficient way to do things, but I just cook a couple recipes at once, then move to the next ones. I don’t chop all my onions and carrots first or anything like that. I do make sure all the meat is thawed, and most of the chicken recipes call for cooked, diced chicken, so I toss a bunch of chicken breasts/thighs into the oven and cook them off first thing.

Here’s the list of recipes that I have found to work pretty well for our family. We don’t have any serious food sensitivities, so there is plenty of dairy, gluten and other sundry allergens in these recipes. I’ve seen great resources for allergen-free freezer meals – http://www.onceamonthmeals.com has some good meal plans. There are some kid-pleasers and some more grown-up friendly meals.

Freezer Bean Burritos – easy peasy for quick lunches!

Creamy Chicken Taquitos Bake at 425 for 20 minutes from frozen. (We LOVE these things.)

Swedish Meatballs – Freeze in ziploc bags with sauce, thaw and reheat in microwave, serve with egg noodles.

Ham and Beans – (favorite recipe) I do this in the crock pot all day with just great northern beans and a nice, meaty ham hock, following these great instructions. Then freeze in ziplocks, thaw and reheat on stove. Serve with cornbread.

Pulled Pork – (favorite recipe) Another crock pot wonder. Cook forever, shred and freeze. Use for sandwiches, burritos or carnitas tacos.

Empanadas – (I don’t put in jalapenos, ’cause we’re not so big on spicy here, nor is that easy for me when nursing.) Form the pies, freeze individually, wrap in plastic and then in freezer bags. Bake from frozen according to recipe instructions.

Chicken Broccoli Rice Casserole – Freeze flat in gallon ziplock bags. Thaw overnight (or for 8 hours) in the refrigerator. Dump into a greased casserole dish (each bag will fill an 8×8-inch pan; two bags will fill a 9×13-inch pan). Sprinkle with additional shredded cheese, if desired. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes, or until heated through and bubbly

Mac and Cheese – (or favorite recipe for baked mac and cheese) Freeze in foil pans before baking, thaw slightly, bake at 350 until bubbly and hot through.

Spaghetti Sauce – (favorite recipe) Freeze in ziploc bags. Thaw, reheat on the stove at dinner time. Serve with pasta.

Chicken or Turkey Tetrazzini – Freeze in foil pans before baking. Thaw overnight in refrigerator. Bake, covered with foil, at 400 degrees, until center is warm, about 30 minutes. Uncover, and bake until top is browned, about 20 minutes.

Butternut Bisque – freeze in containers or ziplocks, thaw, reheat in microwave or on stove.

Chicken or Turkey Pot Pie Freeze in foil pans before baking. Bake at 375 for 1-1.5 hours from frozen.

Chicken Curry Pot Pie – Freeze in foil pans before baking. Bake at 375 for 1-1.5 hours from frozen.

Pasta Fagioli SoupFreeze in containers or ziplocks. Thaw, reheat on stove. Serve with biscuits or bread.

Baked French Toast –  Freeze in foil pans before baking, thaw, and bake according to recipe directions.

Stir-Fry Packages

~celery
~squash/zucchini
~carrots
~peppers
~broccoli
~cauliflower
~pea pods

Blanch veggies in a pot of salted water. Cool, freeze in family size portions in ziplocs.
Here are some ideas for easy meals:

  1. Add to sauteed shrimp and serve over rice noodles.
  2. Add to marinaded chicken strips and serve over rice.
  3. Add to sauteed beef or pork strips and wrap into a tortilla for a quick veggie-lovers fajita.
  4. Toss with pasta, top with cheese and bake for a vegetarian casserole.
  5. Toss with lemon zest and melted butter and serve as a side dish to supper.
  6. Stir-fry with tofu and serve up with rice.

Other stuff:

  • Muffins – (favorite recipes) whole wheat apple muffins, pumpkin muffins, banana muffins, chocolate chip banana muffins, etc. Bake and freeze. 
  • Breakfast Sandwiches – Thaw in fridge over night.  Reheat in 350˚ oven for 5-10 minutes or until cheese is melted.
  • Pizza Dough pre-bake shells and keep in the freezer for quick thaw, toss on some sauce and cheese and bake at 450 until done.
  • Pizza Roll-ups – use pizza dough recipe for bread dough. Bake, then freeze (don’t overbake!). Thaw, reheat covered with foil in the oven. Serve with pizza sauce for dipping.
  • Cinnamon Rolls – freeze before baking, thaw overnight, rise, then bake according to recipe instructions.
  • Cookie Dough – (favorite recipes) oatmeal, chocolate chip, peanut butter, gingersnap, etc. Scoop dough into balls, freeze. Bake from frozen.

Items I buy prepared and put in the freezer/fridge/pantry to have on hand:

  • Frozen Waffles – giant box from Costco, Kirkland Signature brand
  • Frozen Pizzas – when they go on sale at our local grocery store, I stock up on 10-20.
  • Sausage – we really like the Jones Natural sausage links.
  • Eggs – two 7.5 dozen boxes from…Costco. Cheap, fast protein.
  • Bread – freeze extra loaves
  • Frozen fruit – for smoothies and snacks
  • Pancake mix – we really like the multi-grain mix from Trader Joe’s
  • Peanut butter and jelly. I’m really glad my kids don’t mind eating pb&J sandwiches so often. 🙂
  • Favorite chips/snacks/cold cereal.

Some easy places to find freezer meal ideas: http://www.onceamonthmeals.com, Pinterest, 50 Delicious Freezer Meals from Six Sisters Stuff.

I hope this little post can help you jump start a future Freezer Meal day for you and yours. Whether you’re expecting a baby, needing to recover from a planned surgery, or just want to make meal time a little less hectic for around a month, happy cooking!