Revolving Focus

IMG_6110 recipe planning

If I had a job outside the home there would be an expectation that I continue to hone and improve my skills. I would attend training to keep me abreast of current findings and research, look for opportunities to develop skills in new areas or advance the skills I already have and be continually working to progress across the board. There would be a budget set aside for training and development and a certain number of hours nominated for this purpose.

Mothering and educating my children and running a household is my full-time occupation and as such I need to set aside the time and resources needed to improve myself in these areas. What does this look like? Reading and researching from bought books, books borrowed from friends or the library, scouring blogs, web sites and picking the brains of like-minded friends, praying, thinking and planning.

I do not have large blocks of time available so I use the time that I do have. I choose one area that will be my focus for the next week or even several weeks. Usually the area that I like the least at the moment is the one that I need to focus on. Hate cooking? Get out the recipe books and get inspired. Search Pinterest, blogs and websites for great ideas and print out a stack of new recipes. Write a weekly menu. Set up a shopping list. Sort out the pantry. List the contents of the freezer and the weird ingredients that are moldering in the back of the cupboard. Buy a new tool that will help you get organised. Take a class. Set up a recipe swap with friends. Research the latest health research and try some foods you’ve never made before. Make the changes to your own diet that you have meant to do but never got around to.

I find that after a period of time of focusing, organising and up-skilling in an area I get excited about it. I look forward to implementing all the new ideas I have found and no longer dread it. I don’t want to sit around resigned to the fact that I’m just not that good at …… (fill in the blank.) If I’m not good at it, I want to get better!

After a couple of weeks fully focused on cooking for example, other areas start to scream out for my attention. The kitchen is now running well, the pantry is organised, the shopping systems are in place, the freezer is stocked with meals and snacks and I have a menu for the next week or two. Time to change the focus to the next area and use all my little minutes to make progress there.

In the business world there is a phrase “eat that frog” – from the book of the same name. The basic premise being that the tyranny of the urgent will always crowd out that large long-term project that needs doing (the frog!) and it just never seems to get started. If we spend a little time each day focused on our goal we will see progress and the frog will eventually be eaten! Now go eat that frog!!

Healthy Christmas day snack idea.

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I just wanted to show you all our healthy snack alternative for Christmas day nibblies. Just point the children at the “Christmas tree” table and let them snack away. Even if they are full before the big feast, at least it’s healthy food. Plus it looks cool too!

Hospitality V’s Entertaining

Are you hospitable or do you like to entertain? At first glance it seems like the same thing but it really isn’t at all. There is a difference between showing hospitality and entertaining.

Setting out to impress others, to have everything perfectly presented, to give a favourable impression – that is entertaining. Showing hospitality is bringing others into your home, making them feel welcome, comfortable and relaxed. Hospitality is sharing what you have willingly and joyfully. It doesn’t necessarily mean fancy or spectacular, but it does mean loving.

I have read several life stories from people who grew up with a crowd of visitors around the table for Sunday lunch. Their parents made it a habit to invite friends, family,  missionaries or travelling speakers, the new family at church, someone living away from family or an elderly person without transport into their home each week. I love the idea of my children being exposed to many different people and experiences within the safe environment of our home and having the opportunity to serve and show hospitality themselves to the extent that they are able. To hear the stories and experiences of a missionary at home on leave, to listen to a pastor talk about his experiences, or show friendliness to children from another family – what valuable and inspiring life experiences they would gain.

With a new baby and 5 other young children, I have to face the fact that having a mob of people around every weekend is difficult right now. Getting the house tidy and preparing a nice meal is not always easy to do. Especially if I am trying to entertain. But I can show hospitality. We can invite a family to stay for dinner after bumping into them while we are out, call someone for an afternoon drop-in and simply sharing what we already have prepared or have friends come back after church for a slap together lunch or even take-away pizzas to share at the park together. We can all show hospitality regardless of our situation and it is biblical that we do so – God tells us to do it!

When I really get down to it, most of the reasons why I do not show hospitality is because I am actually aiming to entertain. I feel the need to make sure the house is perfectly spotless, the dinner is fancier than usual (and complete with entrée and dessert) and the table-ware is coordinated. The children must look and act perfectly and for that matter, eat with wonderful manners. If I can take a step back and get past my pride, most of the reasons why I don’t go ahead and ask someone around can be quickly overcome when I simply seek to share life with others, rather than impress them.

Here are a couple of practical tips to help make hospitality more doable.

  • Plan ahead I try to have meals, desserts and fancy bread cooked and frozen that can be reheated when I want them. With the quick addition of a fresh salad, dinner is on the table.
  • Train the children to set up All the children can play a part in helping to set up. If they regularly do the same job for visitors you can train them to do it well and then simply ask them to do it with out supervision once they know how. Many hands make light work.
  • Have a house cleaning system Whether it’s a little bit each day or all at once on Saturday morning, everyone pitches in to get the house looking clean and tidy so that an overwhelming job is not ahead of you when you decide to ask people around.
  • “Visitors Coming” Scramble. Assign quick tidy-up the house jobs and practice doing them regularly so that when someone calls to tell you they are in the neighbourhood and want to drop around you can muster the troops and tell them it’s scramble time! Everyone dashes off to do the most important surface tidy jobs that make the house look vaguely presentable in the 10 minutes it takes for the visitors to arrive. That might be checking the condition of the toilet, cleaning off the kitchen table and bench, floor tidy-up or whatever else is likely to most need attention in your house. Even if the visitors are in the driveway before you know about them, you can have an emergency scramble. It’s amazing what can be done in the one minute it takes for people to get from the driveway to entering the front door if the children know what they are trying to achieve.
  • Train children to be hospitable. Teach them to ask visitors what they would like to drink, to carry a tray of nibblies and offer it around, write down tea and coffee orders, offer to take coats and bags etc.
  • Feed young children ahead. While we usually try to have everyone eating together, if the meal is going to be much later than usual it often works better to feed the younger children at their usual time. When the adults sit down to eat they can then choose a couple of extra fingerfood items or perhaps eat their dessert. Hungry, demanding toddlers do not make showing hospitality easy. If the meal I am serving to the guests is likely to be unpopular with the little ones, I simply have something else in reserve for them, even if it’s just toast. I try to make sure that the whole meal is child-friendly so that we can all enjoy it, but there are times we want to serve those spicy curries that I know the kids will not eat happily. I am not going to have a battle over food in front of company if I can help it.
  • Ask your visitors to help. In almost all occasions visitors are more than happy to help while you are getting the meal sorted out. Holding a baby, chopping up the carrots or any other small task is easily done and for someone who may be feeling a little bit unsure of themselves, it gives them something to do,  takes off the pressure and makes them feel at home.
  • Accept visitors’ offer to contribute to the meal. When we have a slap together occasion and people ask what they can bring, we usually say bread or softdrink or something similar, knowing that they can easily swing past the bakery or corner shop on the way over. With more advance warning, I might ask them to bring a salad, knowing that it’s the last minute preparation that can be difficult for me to do.
  • Visitor menu. Make a list of quick and easy meals (complete with sides and desserts) that you can throw together quickly and easily from ingredients you usually have on hand. That self-saucing pudding that takes 5 minutes to throw together goes on the visitor menu list and can be prepared without fuss at the last minute.
  • Have a visitor rotation. Perhaps designate one weekend a fortnight for family, the following weekend for friends, new people from church etc. We find family very easy because they are extremely relaxed, will help out when here and are happy to share whatever we would normally have. I still try to make it a little special, but when we’ve organised nothing ahead, I can still have family stay at the last minute with no idea what we are going to have and not find it a big deal. We’ve all made it clear that eggs on toast will do if that’s all there is! Asking people over every weekend (other than family) is too big a load for us right now.
  • Don’t forget date nights. Your husband should be your priority so don’t forget to plan special nights with him (See stay at home date night ideas here.)
  • Picnics. In fine weather, meeting other families at a park takes off the pressure of needing to get the house respectable. Picking up a couple of hot chickens on the way and making salad and rolls or many other very simple picnic ideas makes this an easy option.
  • Pot luck dinners. Having everyone bring a part of the meal is an easy way to have large groups around without the expense or hassle of cooking huge meals. Everyone contributes and all you have to do is provide the meeting place and accessories.
  • BBQ’s. An Aussie cliché but so easy. Everyone brings their own meat and we provide the salads. If many large families are coming, we ask them to bring a salad or dessert to share as well. I can prepare the nibblies, salads or whatever we need ahead and the men are happy to stand around chatting while they cook it on the day, leaving me free to feed a baby or look after the guests.
  • Small children timing. We find it easier right now to get together for breakfasts, morning & afternoon teas, or in the afternoon followed by an early dinner. Avoiding nap times and getting the children to bed at a reasonable time stops us having to suffer through over-tired children who are unable to get their responsibilities and school work done for the next 3 days.
  • Theme meals are easy to put together. A bring a pie night is fun (sweet or savoury),  soup and rolls lunch (I do soup, everyone else brings fancy bread and stir-ins for the soups), fondue (I do the sauce – including dessert fondue – and everyone brings a plate of food to dip), salad and rolls, make-your-own pizza, hamburgers, gourmet hot-dogs,  or whatever else suits your fancy and is easy to prepare.

Getting dinner on the table

Highchair time at our house – 3 in a row!

I like to cook for fun. It’s enjoyable to potter around testing new recipes and trying them out on friends and family. I don’t so much enjoy having to get dinner on the table at short notice, with a bunch of hungry, cranky children getting on each other’s nerves as we battle through “arsenic hour” as I have heard it termed. So, how do I get a nutritious and delicious meal on the table on time every day that will please everyone from the baby, right up to Dad? Well, to tell the truth, that’s almost impossible – with 8 people sharing a meal on a nightly basis, someone is bound to disagree with the delicious part! However, let’s concentrate on the nutritious and “on time” part. We haven’t eaten cereal for dinner yet, although baked beans on toast is the equivalent as far as I’m concerned and we’ve had that a few times!

There are some practical ways that I have gone about structuring my days and time so as to make this touchy time of the day run smoothly and happily for all of us and still have a nice meal on the table. Strategies have changed over time, depending on the ages of the children and what time my husband is due home, but here are some of the ways we have structured the late afternoon period that have worked for us in the past.

Flexible routine. Having a routine running throughout the day makes a big difference at the end of the afternoon. If the children have spent too much time together, especially unstructured time, they will invariably be at each other by the end of the day. A good balance of time with me, with each other, time alone and indoor and outdoor time, all work together for a smooth afternoon. More on routines here.

Feeding toddlers and/or babies early. I prefer it when we all eat together, but there are seasons when that is just not viable. The was a time when 4.45pm was like a “switch” for my toddlers. Happy before, exceedingly cranky afterwards. My options were either to feed them a large afternoon tea earlier (and have problems at dinner with them not wanting to eat well) or to simply give them their main meal earlier. When the rest of the family came to the table they were given some finger food or perhaps fruit or dessert to enjoy with us before moving on to a highchair activity while we finished up. This allowed them to still be a part of the family, I could focus on feeding them and training table manners away from the family mealtime and enjoy my meal relatively peacefully later on.

Baths. Everyone preschool aged and under (i.e. all those who require my assistance during bath time) are all bathed around 4.30pm rather than after dinner when everyone is tired and likely to be fractious and uncooperative. Bath time is then an enjoyable experience for all and bedtimes are not held up if I am caught up feeding a baby or dealing with unexpected circumstances.

Table activities. For around half an hour before dinner, all the children do highchair activities (some ideas here, here, here and here ), table activities (some ideas here, here and here), mat time (some ideas here, here and here), puzzles or books. There is nobody roving about getting into trouble and plenty of interesting activities to do. I am then free to get the last-minute dinner preparations done.

Sibling time. Sometimes the youngest children are unable to play independently at this time and need someone with them. This is when I assign an older sibling to spend some time with the little ones, reading them a story, playing on the mat with them, helping them with a simple puzzle or something similar. The eldest enjoy the responsibility and it helps build positive sibling relationships. They do not resent this time because it is not something they are required to do throughout the day in a random way or for large blocks of time.

Menu plan. Having a plan of which meals I will be making throughout the week is so important. Getting to dinner time and realising the meat is still in the freezer and trying to come up with plan B on the spur of the moment is never a great way to have a smooth afternoon period. Knowing what I am going to cook means I am prepared and can plan ahead, often using a few spare minutes here and there throughout the day to get some prep work towards dinner done. More on menu planning here.

Night time preparation. While I am caring for babies, homeschooling and looking after several older siblings, trying to fit cooking in during the day can be very difficult. There are usually several months after the birth of a new child when I do all my meal preparation in the evenings. And I do mean all. I set out breakfast dishes and ingredients and cut up fruit, bake or pull out frozen or pantry snacks for morning tea. I do all the peeling, chopping, grating, salad making or whatever other prep is needed for lunch. Dinner meals are pulled out of the freezer, ingredients are put in the slow cooker and veggies are washed and chopped – even to the point of putting the veggies in a saucepan of water in the fridge. It sounds over the top but, especially with the twins, I just didn’t have a moment to spare during the day. Being able to pull the crock pot out of the fridge and flick it on at morning tea time, knowing there would be a hot meal ready by dinner, was such a blessing. Even when things were going pear-shaped, I could throw a saucepan full of veggies on the stove as I walked past. Older children could set out prepared lunch or morning tea for everyone to help themselves if I was caught up feeding.

At other times, I didn’t have to cook at night, I used the time immediately after breakfast to get the dinner made. Everyone is fresh in the morning and it was a good time to get the household chores and dinner preparations under way. Now that I have older children to homeschool, this time is used for our more difficult subjects that require the most concentration, so dinner making is not a possibility.

Instant meals. For days when, menu plan or not, I have nothing ready for dinner, all supplies are frozen solid and my mind is blank, I am endeavouring to build up a collection of meals that are very quick and easy, that use ingredients I can keep on hand in the pantry or freezer without them going off and throw together in a matter of minutes. My rice cooker fried rice is a family favourite and assuming I have prepared my ingredients earlier, can be thrown together in literally 3 minutes. I haven’t timed it yet but I’m going to!! Ideas for nearly instant meals and pantry mixes are here and here.

Shopping lists. As an extra tip, shopping lists are a must to make life run smoothly around here. I have a shopping list pad with a magnet back that lives on the fridge. As I notice we are running low on an item, I immediately jot it down on the list. When I make out the menu for the following week, or check through the monthly menu, I add the items we will need to the shopping list too, after checking through the pantry first to see if we have what I think we have. It stops the random buying of stuff we don’t need and the irritating need to continually run to the shops to pick up one or two items here and there because they have just run out or I thought we had some.

Now the kids are older, they often come and tell me if something has run out or ask for small items like lead refills for a click pencil that we would never in a million years remember to get when actually at the shops. I also have multiple copies of a printed shopping list hanging inside the pantry. This list is all the items I buy on a weekly basis. When we are actually ready to go to the shops, a quick look down the list to cross off what we don’t need and to add the odd ingredients from the fridge list saves time and means we should get everything we need.

More pantry mixes; almost instant meals and snacks

Our latest blessing is 3 weeks old today and while my husband is still on holidays and the children are having a break from school for Easter I have been making up and trying out some more pantry mix recipes. I am loving being able to get a meal ready in a matter of minutes, especially when I’ve left it all too late to put anything fancy together.

My absolute favourite so far is the onion soup mix. I love dip made from a packet of French onion soup mixed with sour cream but I don’t like the additives and nasties that come with the shop bought product. This home-made mix tastes the same as the commercial version and I know exactly what’s in it. There are so many quick and easy recipes that use dry French onion soup in a packet as a base that I had previously crossed off my list that I can now go back and add to my weekly menus. VERY pleased with this one!

Another base that is used in a lot of quick recipes is cream of chicken (mushroom etc.) soup in a can. Another selection of easy meal ideas that I love for the convenience but haven’t been using because of the additives in commercial soup products.  I’ll have to play with the amount of water to add to the mix for cooking because I didn’t factor in the thin soup noodles I added to the mix (I wanted chicken noodle soup in a cup) and they soaked up a lot of the liquid and by the time I served it it was too thick. Taste was still good but a bit gluggy. Still a keeper though as I’m sure with a better water ratio it will be fine.

Layered soup mix in a jar (Friendship soup mix) was next on the list. Again, 5 minutes to put together and pop into the slow cooker. Taste is great but it’s more like a thick casserole than soup. We are going to use it to make stuffed potatoes, put on top of rice and in tacos.

We tried the butterscotch pudding mix and I was disappointed to find that it tasted like a bland custard mix. The kids still liked it though. The chocolate pudding mix is still a favourite but I won’t bother with the butterscotch mix again.

The last one I’ve tried is corn bread mix. So quick and easy; 3 minutes total! Add oil, egg and water to the mix and tip into a cake pan. 15 minutes later fluffy cornbread is ready to eat. This will be great in winter to have with hot soup for lunch. We had it buttered fresh from the oven and it was delicious.

There are many more ideas out there and I will explore some in the future, but I’m done for now. I have several containers of nearly instant meals and snacks just sitting in the pantry and I’m sure these will be well used in the busy weeks ahead.

No (or low) sugar snacks for kids: Morning and afternoon tea snack ideas

I do not remember why the children are eating cereal in their PJ's on the floor! There must have been a reason at the time!

My children have bottomless stomachs in the morning. It seems like the last bite of breakfast has only just disappeared when someone will be asking me “What’s for morning tea, Mum?” By the time I have planned breakfast, lunch and dinner meals, It’s a real stretch to think of snack ideas on top of that. They are however, very important to the short people I live with and they have failed to catch on to my preferred method of simply having an early lunch. Besides that, the general happiness level drops dramatically and seems to be inversely related to the hunger levels, particularly with the toddlers and girls in the family.

So, this brings me to today’s quest to make a list of healthy, low sugar snacks that don’t fill them up too much and take very little time and effort to prepare. I don’t mind putting in a little preparation ahead of time if they can be kept in the fridge or pantry and simply dished out as the children head outside to play. Even better if one of the older children can get them out for me as I am usually feeding a baby at this time. Otherwise, it’s got to be nothing more taxing than spreading a little peanut butter or it just won’t happen.

I would love to hear your ideas so please leave a comment. Fresh inspiration from other Mothers is always appreciated. Here’s my list so far:

  • savoury cheese crackers (recipe below)
  • celery boats (celery with peanut/nut butter and sultana sailors or cream cheese)
  • apple slices spread with peanut/nut butter and pressed into sesame (or other) seeds
  • juice pops
  • pikelets (I make a huge batch and freeze them in packs of 6. They heat up beautifully in the toaster if I’ve forgotten to defrost them. Nan’s recipe below.)
  • mini muffins (fruit based or savoury cheese and chives etc. I try to have a stash in the freezer already sorted into bags of 6 to whip out on the spot.)
  • mini cheese, pumpkin or plain  scones from bisquick mixture. (Baked ahead and frozen.)
  • banana and apricot bliss bombs (recipe below)
  • bliss balls (I haven’t tried these yet but they are on my “to do” list. They seem very healthy and it says they can be frozen.)
  • lettuce leaves spread with peanut butter, sprinkled with sultanas and rolled up. (Tastes better than it sounds!)
  • crackers with nut butter, cheese, Vegemite etc.
  • sugar free 4 ingredient banana oat bars
  • fruit salad, fruit kebabs or just plain ol’ fruit
  • veggie sticks (crudites) and dip (I love this and so do the older children but the toddlers don’t do carrot and celery sticks so well just yet! I refuse to serve 2 different snacks so this is out for now.)
  • trail mix (We can’t serve this as the toddlers can’t eat the whole nuts and certain other children’s tummies can’t handle too much dried fruit.)
  • air popped popcorn (We were given a popcorn maker as a wedding gift and at the time thought it a very strange present. It mouldered away in the back of the cupboards for many a year until we had a gang of children who loved to scoff popcorn. All of a sudden it became one of our favourite machines. Glad we kept it!)
  • plain rice cakes with avocado, Vegemite, nut butters, cream cheese, cheddar cheese etc.
  • toothpick with cheese and pineapple or olives and cheese
  • milk shakes
  • yoghurt (I use natural with fruit puree stirred through and maybe a dash of honey.)

Savoury Cheese Crackers
250gms tasty cheese
¼ cup butter
1 ½ cups sifted flour
Optional: (In dough) ¼ tspn pepper or chili powder, taco seasoning, pizza herbs, vinegar (salt and vinegar) plain or seasoning salt to sprinkle

 Cream cheese and butter in food processor.
 Add flour gradually and optional flavours.
 Pack dough into a ball (it will be crumbly)
 Divide dough into 3 parts and shape into logs about 3 cm in diameter.
 Wrap each log in waxed paper and refrigerate for at least 3 hours.
 Slice into very thin wafers, sprinkle with seasoning if using and bake at 180 degrees for 12 minutes or until golden.

Source: adapted from Recipe Zaar #108486

Banana & Apricot bliss bombs
2 soft bananas – mashed
8 dried apricots – chopped
1 cup coconut
2 tblspns ricotta/cottage cheese.
 Mix all ingredients.
 Roll into balls and coat in coconut.
 Refrigerate until firm.

Nan’s Pikelets
1 c SR flour (or plain flour plus baking powder)
½ cup soured milk (add 1 tblspn lemon juice and let sit for 15 mins)
3 tblspns sugar
1 egg
1 rounded tblspn melted butter

 Sift dry ingredients and mix wet.
 Slowly add the wet ingredients to the dry, beating with a wooden spoon as you go.
 Cook spoonfuls in buttered frypan over med heat.


Quick food for busy families: Pantry mixes and (nearly) instant meals

With an 11 day old baby in the house, time for leisurely cooking just doesn’t exist. As part of my quest to prepare for our new baby ahead of time, I have a fully stocked freezer full of meals. As much as possible however,  I am saving them for when my wonderful husband goes back to work and I have to face the reality of homeschooling and running a household of 8 with a newborn in the mix.

My latest find to assist with menu planning and being able to throw a meal together in minutes has been pantry mixes. This is a totally new concept to me but I love them. There are so many mix recipes that can be made up in bulk ahead of time and either stored in the pantry, fridge or freezer. When you are ready to prepare the recipe, the addition of just a couple of simple ingredients in no time at all creates a freshly cooked meal or snack.

Today’s lunch (in the photo above) literally took 10 minutes and that includes getting everything out of the fridge, making the cheese scones, cutting up the fruit and cleaning up the mess. My kind of cooking! Not to mention that they are super tasty hot from the oven. As I try each new bulk mix I will blog about the successes so today here is the link for baking mix (bisquick) which takes 10 minutes to put together and sits in the fridge waiting to be made into all manner of yummy things. So far I’ve only used it for scones (biscuits) but there are numerous recipes that use it as a base. (Scone instructions under the basic mix recipe at the “baking mix” link above.)

My other new favourite is a pantry mix for brownies. In less than 5 minutes I can whip up a batch of delicious brownies and have them ready for unexpected visitors, take them for supper when I remember an hour before I am supposed to leave or just make them for the fun of it. The mix itself again takes about 10 minutes to mix up and sits in the pantry waiting for the addition of 3 wet ingredients to turn it into fresh brownies.

Another great benefit of these recipes other than the time-saving factor is that my 8 1/2 year old is quite capable of mixing them up independently. The first time through I keep an eye on proceedings and from then on he is on his own. I slide them into the oven and 20 minutes later we have hot brownies.

I have a huge list of recipes to try that I am slowly working through. Last night I used one of my pre-prepared bags of seasoned rice mix. I had already diced and browned bags of sausages, bacon and chicken and put them in the freezer and stocked up the frozen mixed vegetable supply. We were out in the afternoon and arrived home with no meal ready, a hungry baby and 5 children who needed to get through the shower. All I had to do was dump the pre-measured seasoned rice into the rice cooker, fill with water, add a bag of cooked diced meat and a cup or two of mixed frozen veg and it was  done. Dinner was ready 20 minutes later with less than 5 minutes of preparation required.

We followed it up with some chocolate pudding from our pantry which looked and tasted almost exactly like Yogo from the supermarket “only better” according to the children who raved about it. This one required about 10 minutes to actually cook it (it requires stirring) and a little while in the fridge to cool it down and set but we went off and did our family devotions while we were waiting and came back for dessert. Delicious and definitely a keeper. It could easily be done earlier in the day and served whenever you need it.

I am definitely hooked on the pantry mix idea and will be seeking to have a store of breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack foods sitting at my fingertips for days when I just don’t want to cook can’t do anything else or my older helpers want to prepare a meal to bless us all (and get the rave reviews and pats on the back that always accompany their efforts!)