I could not be happier for fall to arrive this year, but still I was a little surprised when all my neighbors started putting out pumpkins and scarecrows and Halloween decorations. I mean, it was still 90° around here! Certainly didn’t feel like fall. [This is my first time living this far south – and I’m just in southern Illinois.] Appropriately, today is a beautiful fall day – cool, crisp, windy, rainy. I LOVE it!
Besides today’s weather, the local produce is also screaming fall, so I decided to make my favorite fall meal [or side dish], comprised of my favorite fall vegetables roasted to perfection and tossed together.
Roasted Sweet Potato, Butternut Squash, and Brussels Sprouts
[I need to work on the name of this meal…it’s quite lengthy…]
I make this every year as a side dish for our Thanksgiving meal, but I make it as a stand-alone for my family many times during the fall. This is the perfect fall meal, because these are perfect fall foods that are in abundance during this time of year.
It also couldn’t be easier.
Peel and chop some butternut squash.
Peel and chop some sweet potatoes. [I like the color contrast provided by these purple sweet potatoes, but I usually just use regular.]
De-stem and half some Brussels sprouts.
Toss them all with olive oil, salt and pepper and spread on a baking sheet. Roast for 25-30 minutes at 425°.
We ate it with a side of vegan Tofurky sausage, but these vegetables are hearty and filling and can be a stand-alone meal too, which we have done many times. [If you’re not used to eating only vegetables for dinner, this is a great place to start.]
Side note: Roasted Brussels sprouts are a family favorite in our home. Despite their terrible reputation, Brussels sprouts are SO DELICIOUS. If you haven’t tried them, or more importantly haven’t tried them roasted, this is the time to do it. Like, right now. I have converted many Brussels sprout skeptics with my roasted side dish using the same method as above.
For my family of six [four of which are young kids], I roasted one small squash, two sweet potatoes, and 12oz Brussels sprouts. We had a little squash leftover, but otherwise, everything was gone.
Last month was a bit of a shit show, if I’m being honest. I spent the first two weeks of the month scrambling to prepare for school to start: getting my kids registered at their new school [which I had to do twice because communication is not this school district’s strength], sorting out the confusing bus situation [in the end, I decided to screw it and walk my kids to school], making all the necessary doctor, dentist and eye appointments, buying school supplies, backpacks, and tennis shoes.
Yes, I admit, my brain was still so stuck in summer mode that I didn’t realize until two days before school started that my daughter didn’t have any tennis shoes and these are apparently required for gym class. 🤦♀️ And, if you’ve been around my blog long enough, you know that I don’t buy new footwear unless it is ethical and sustainable, so I couldn’t very well go out and buy tennis shoes at Walmart [the only store in this town that sells shoes]. Thankfully, before I descended into a full-on panic, I remembered that my sister-in-law was coming to visit and usually brings some hand-me-downs for Evangeline, and voila! New [to Eva] tennis shoes for school arrived right in time for school to start.
I also was scrambling to get myself registered to take some classes at the local community college. Turns out, having a bachelors degree and trying to return to college after fifteen years is a huge headache. I had to call every school I’ve ever been to, every testing center I’ve received credits from, and every person on the college staff to try to get registered in time for classes to start.
Somehow, miraculously, it all came together just in the nick of time and I am now taking two prerequisite classes for the nursing program at Southeastern Illinois College.
On top of that, we had family in town for a week [the first week of school for me and the kids, no less] which was fun, but exhausting.
Also, our cat [and by “our cat” I mean a stray that my kids fell in love with and we now feed and let live in our garage] had a litter of five kittens who are absolutely adorable, but began wreaking havoc in our garage and created an absolute infestation of fleas, which had to be treated, and then treated again, and then treated again. And now we have five kittens wreaking havoc in our kitchen.
And last, but not least, I’ve been sick for two weeks now with some sort of cold, cough, allergy thing that has me using my son’s nebulizer three times a day. We’ve ruled out Covid, though I never thought it was Covid because I never had a fever or any flu symptoms, just this frustrating and frightening inability to get oxygen into my lungs.
I think the kittens might be to blame.
So, anyway, I’ve been basically in survival mode. Each day is a desperate attempt to get my kids to school, my own school work done, my household chores managed, my pets [now totaling 9!!!] all fed and walked and let out and litter emptied, etc…and not hack up a lung or pass out from lack of oxygen in the process.
Sometimes, being the one who stays home all day really sucks. Sometimes, it’s nice. Or at least, sometimes it’s nice in theory. But in reality, I’m just taking it day-by-day. Just trying to hang on until we get into a rhythm…or the kids graduate from high school…or at least until we find homes for these kittens!
But, lest I sound ungrateful for my incredibly privileged existence on this earth, here are some of the photos of good times last month [more as a reminder for me than anything else]:
Anyway, I didn’t post much last month because I’ve had a lot going on, but I am going to be better this month.
Some things I plan to write about are:
My attempt at vegan carb-cycling
My new safety razor
My family’s unprocessed meals
My kids minimalist wardrobes [another post in my Simplifying Parenting series]
And anything else that strikes my fancy…
Thanks for letting me unload all that on you! I hope everyone else had a better August than I did!
Now that I’m a vegan, I have to face my own inconsistencies about how I feed my kids.
For years I was a moderate vegan or “vegan before six,” and I never changed my kids diet. We have always eaten a lot of vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes anyway. But my kids also got yogurt, cottage cheese, eggs, chicken nuggets, burgers, ice cream and even the occasional macaroni and cheese. It didn’t seem so bad.
Now, however, I’m fully vegan because of my own personal convictions about the healthful, ethical and environmental necessity of a fully plant-based diet – so how can I, with a clear conscience, feed my kids animal products?
[Side note to clarify my statement above: I believe it is unhealthy to eat meat in the large quantities that we do in America, and I believe that it is unethical because our demand for large quantities of cheap meat has caused significant suffering for the animals we consume, and I believe that meat and animal products are the leading cause of damage to our planet. I am not saying that any meat at any time ever is wrong or unhealthy, but rather that in this current time with our current systems in place and our current ecosystems at stake, it is best – even necessary – to be vegan. I wrote in more depth about my reasons for becoming vegan in my post Why I’m Going Vegan [and why you should too]]
I obviously want my kids to be healthy. In fact, I care even more about their health than my own [hence why I hide the junk food for after they are in bed…and maybe partly so I don’t have to share…], so if I believe that Veganism is the healthiest and most ethical way of eating, am I wrong for feeding my kids the traditional American diet of Mac and cheese, chicken nuggets, and go-gurt?
But on the other hand, is it right of me to force them into a vegan lifestyle [purely by omission of all animal products]? Will they feel like they are “missing out”? Will they resent me?
But then again, is it right to raise them to be carnivores? Will they later ask me why I forced them to eat poor butchered animals? Will they resent me?
Do you see my dilemma?!?
Reflecting on this made me think about my own upbringing. I was raised in an omnivorous [mostly carnivorous] family and no one bothered to ask me whether I wanted to eat animals or drink their fluid secretions or not. I was given cows milk from the moment I stopped nursing until…well, milk was a big staple in my childhood home. We consumed at least a gallon per week. Meat was the main component of every meal and ice cream was the dessert of choice after every meal.
So basically, we ate like typical Americans.
And I’m not mad at my parents in the least for feeding me animals. They fed me and I am immensely grateful. But now that I have a choice, I choose not to eat animals, which is different than my family, my partner’s family, and, quite frankly, every other human being I know on the planet […except one coworker once].
Maybe that’s what’s so tough about choosing veganism for my family – it is different, and different is a little scary. Honestly, I don’t mind making choices for myself that go against the grain [I rather enjoy it, in fact], but it’s harder to make those choices for my kids, knowing that my choices will greatly influence their worldviews and their lifelong habits. Even if I believe it’s the best thing to do, I know that it won’t always be received well. [So help me, if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me how I get enough protein…] I know that my kids will eventually realize that they are different and I don’t want to force them to be outsiders.
As parents, we make a lot of choices for our kids. I, personally, make a lot of controversial and unpopular choices for my kids [at least in my circles]. So maybe choosing to feed them only plant-based foods will not be any different than my decision to, say, not take them to church or not hit [aka “spank”] them or not circumcise my son or any of the other ways that we choose to do things differently than other families.
What is most important to me is that the choices I make for my kids are intentional, not merely the result of “going with the flow,” not just doing it because everyone else does or because that’s how it’s always been done, and not eating without considering why and where and how and how much and to what end.
I’ve come to discover that eating, like everything else in life, is a moral choice. And what I feed my kids is an even greater moral responsibility.
So, I am going to switch my family to a vegan diet when we are at home. I am not going to be the meat nazi at restaurants or the rude guests at dinner parties, I promise.
I am going to model healthy eating habits, including not binging on junk food, not snacking late at night, not starving myself, and not eating animal products. I am not going to force my kids to become vegans nor discourage them from eating a wide variety of foods.
I am going to make vegan food delicious and exciting by trying all the recipes and being creative. I am not going to be heartbroken if my kids don’t love being vegan and choose a carnivorous lifestyle for themselves.
I am going to be flexible and course-correct if this plan doesn’t serve my family best and I am not going to be upset about it.
Anyone else rethinking how they feed their kids????
As we all know, 2020 was a crazy year due to Covid-19, so two of my top goals couldn’t happen [travel out of the country and run a marathon], but I’m choosing to focus on all the things I DID accomplish as a result of my resolutions last year…
I have been studying Spanish every day for 353 days on Duolingo, I switched to buying milk in glass bottles, I swapped my plastic dish brushes for sustainable [and beautiful] bamboo, I got a mealtime routine down for the family, I signed up [and was approved] for kidney donation, I volunteered 24+ hours at my local food bank, and I donated $20k to organizations that are helping vulnerable children all over the world, and I began sponsoring a third child through Plan International.
So resolution-wise, it was a pretty good year.
Since it doesn’t appear that Covid is going away anytime soon, I have decided to really scale back my resolution list this year. In 2021, I want to focus on my family, my health and my efforts to end the water crisis.
That’s it. Just three things.
Of course, I have sub points within each of those things…and maybe some bullet points under each sub point. [What can I say? I’m goal-oriented!]
First, Brett and I have decided to start spending intentional one-on-one time with each of our kids. Since we have four kids and they are all close in age, it’s easy to always group them altogether, or allow some siblings to receive more attention. All of that is totally normal, but I want each of my kids [especially want my middle kids who are quieter and more emotive] to have my undivided attention at times.
The plan is to take turns enjoying special one-on-one time with one kid a week. That’s as far as I’ve planned at the moment.
Second, I am going to dedicate more time to walking my dog. Our new yard is not fenced in so she doesn’t have the space or freedom she used to enjoy, so she really needs regular exercise – and I need to get out of the house every day, for my sanity’s sake.
Third, I want to improve the health of my family by switching to mostly vegan but 100% vegetarian meals in our home. I don’t eat animal products in part because I am thoroughly convinced that they are not good for us [at least not in the quantities we eat them] and because I believe that the morality of our current meat industry is sketchy at the very best. And I’ve come to realize that if I won’t eat meat because of health and ethical issues, then I certainly can’t feel good about feeding them to my kids.
Now don’t go off on me just yet. I will write about this internal [and external] struggle I’ve been dealing with in a post later on to fully explain myself.
[As a side note, I – with the help of Darin Olien’s book SuperLife – have convinced Brett to eat vegetarian/vegan. This is a HUGE win and required quite a bit of coaxing and maybe some bribing but really allows me to change the eating habits of our entire family now that he is on board.]
As a health and fitness fanatic, healthy goals are always on the list – usually things like improve flexibility and run a marathon. This year, I want to tackle healthy eating. I am generally a very healthy eater, and now I’m also a relatively new vegan; however, I still tend to be an emotional eater and a late night snacker [even tho I’m snacking on healthy foods, it’s still a bad habit]. These two things have to stop. So my first order of business is to get a handle on these bad eating habits.
Second, I’m going to do more research on healthy eating. I want to read several books on nutrition that have been on my list for a while and research controversial health topics like organic produce and current trending diets [keto anyone?]. I’m also going to be studying the ethics of what we eat. I spent the last few years realizing that what I spend my money on is a moral issue, and what clothing I wear is a moral issue, and what I put in the trash is a moral issue, and now I realize that what I eat also has moral and ethical implications.
Third, I’m not going to drink anything but water for one year. Truthfully, I don’t usually drink a whole lot of other beverages – just a few cups of coffee every morning and mimosas on holiday mornings and a glass of wine on the weekends and sparkling waters when visiting friends and an occasional cocktail on dates with Brett – so this should be a breeze.
But I’m excited to see what it does to my health. After only a few days I can already tell that I am much more hydrated.
My reason for this water only year is not just for my health…which brings me to my last resolution for the year.
Ending the Water Crisis
One of the most impactful quotes I read last year was from Peter Singer’s book, The Life You Can Save, which says:
“If you are paying for something to drink when safe drinking water comes out of the tap, you have money to spend on things you don’t really need.”
I wonder how many times in my life I said I couldn’t afford to give money to a cause, while freely spending money on beverages that I don’t need [and are bad for my health to boot!].
So, this year, I’m only drinking water. Not only that, I’m only drinking free water. This water bottle is basically my new best friend. And all the money I save will go to help fund water projects around the world for the 700+ million people who don’t have access to clean water [through Charity:Water].
I’m also going to be researching water waste and trying to waste less water in my home by changing some of my habits [cutting back the shower time, running the washers less, catching rainwater for watering plants, etc].
Assuming we don’t have a repeat of 2020, this list seems totally doable [I’m going to go knock on wood].
I hope you all set goals for the year or at least are putting last year behind you and looking ahead with positivity! [Just don’t watch the news…]
I know this is the time to talk about resolutions and the year ahead, but I’m still basking in the glow of the holidays. Despite being an extremely strange month, December turned out to be pretty great. We managed to celebrate the holidays with our 25 days of Christmas activities AND have a low waste Christmas despite being in a new house, in a new town, and with only the clothes on our backs.
I haven’t written a single thing all month because I’ve been focused on my family and our transition to our new town [and quite frankly, I just didn’t feel like it]. But of course, we’ve been celebrating the Christmas season like every other year.
The Annual Carlson Countdown to Christmas
Our family Christmas tradition is to celebrate the whole month long with a holiday-themed activity every day from December 1st to December 25th – which I call the Carlson Countdown to Christmas. This is usually rather stressful for me, trying to plan and organize an activity for every day, which range from a simple paper craft with the kids to ice skating at a local rink. Because of Covid this year, I took a more laid back approach. We did something every day, but I didn’t stress it or plan in advance. I just let us go where the wind blew us each day. It was really great.
Some highlights from our Carlson Countdown to Christmas 2020 [or at least what I took pictures of]:
Tips for a [Nearly] Zero Waste Christmas
I have by no means written the book on zero waste living, [Several other people have written excellent books on it though like Zero Waste by Shia Su and 101 Ways to go Zero Waste by Kathryn Kellogg], but this is how we cut down on Waste at Christmastime.
Buy used gifts. I’ve written about this so much that everyone is probably sick of hearing it – but I’m trying really hard to normalize giving used gifts, so you’re going to hear about it again. The benefits of giving used gifts are numerous, but one of the best things about it [especially for kids] is that the toys don’t come wrapped in plastic with a million twist ties in a cardboard box that is taped so securely that it takes five whole minutes to open while your kid is whining to play with their new toy. My son was ecstatic when Brett drove his new remote control car into the living room on Christmas morning, and my daughter didn’t have to wait to put her American Girl doll right into the new bed we gave her. And there was no waste from these gifts.
Use reusable wrapping. At some point when I was growing up, my parents gave up on wrapping our individual gifts [there were five of us kids, after all], and instead gave us each a black trash bag with all of our gifts inside. Economical for sure, but here’s one better – reusable clothe Christmas bags. My friend MADE these beautiful bags for me and I love them so so so much! But if you don’t have a friend as awesome as mine [and you don’t have sewing skills yourself], then I’ve seen similar bags for sale around the holidays, and I’m sure Etsy would provide lots of options to buy them.
Use [and reuse] gift bags. Whenever possible, use gift bags for wrapping because, when treated carefully, they can be reused indefinitely. After the gifts were open, I gathered all the bags, neatly folded them, and even tucked the paper inside to use next year. I keep a small collection of gift bags for various occasions to use throughout the year, which keeps me from having to buy bags for awkward gifts that can’t be wrapped with my brown paper.
Recycle everything possible. Once all the gifts were opened, we went through all the packaging and paper and divided it into what could be recycled [cardboard, hard plastic, plain paper] and what was trash [ribbons, bows, paper with glitter or sparkles]. In our new small town, recycling consists of taking paper/cardboard, plastic, glass, and cans to “the dump” on Saturdays. [Can’t wait to expound on this process for you at a later date, but quite frankly, I’m just relieved that this town has a recycling system of any kind in place.]
More tips: Don’t use glittery or shiny wrapping paper, ribbons and bows, as these items cannot typically be recycled. I love to wrap gifts in simple brown paper and tie with twine. After all, “brown paper packages tied up with strings, these are a few of my favorite things.”
For my family, it’s important to have a happy Christmas where we celebrate love and time together and giving gifts – but without all the consumerism, expense, guilt and waste that typically accompany the holiday season.
December Shopping Audit
I’m done with this audit bullsh*t. Hallelujah!
Happy [Belated] Holidays and Happy New Year, ya’ll! Stay safe tonight and wear your masks!! ✌️
Well, due to a sudden change in Brett’s training schedule, we moved early!
Brett flew home from training in Florida on a Thursday and by Friday night we had packed everything we needed [or at least everything we needed that would fit into our two vehicles] and moved our family of six [plus Daisy the dog and Patty the python] to our new house six hours south. AND that same evening, we put our house back on the market and left it ready for showings to start Saturday morning.
What We Bought
Moving without all our belongings has been …challenging, but we haven’t bought anything to replace what we left behind other than a diaper sprayer [$30.00]. We have, though, borrowed quite a bit for the kitchen from my in-laws. I am so grateful that they are close by and so generous to us!
We did, however, have to set ourselves up with a new composter and I bought a countertop container as well [$110.00] – I’ll be introducing everyone to these zero waste beauties at a later date.
The rest of our expenditures for the month were mostly eco-friendly necessities like bamboo scrub brushes [$51.81], bar shampoo [$15.99], a cloth shower curtain liner [$10.99], a used stainless steel tea kettle [$50.00], and reusable cloth gift bags and utensil wraps a friend made.
Then there were the not-necessarily-eco-friendly necessities: ink cartridges for the printer [$16.70] and furnace filters [$33.00].
And, finally, the stuff we feel is necessary because we live in a wealthy, privileged society: headbands for Brett [$12.90], headphones for Brett [$42.99], and water bottle with alkaline filters – a surprise from Brett [$50.00].
[I blame a lot of our spending on Brett, which is not without warrant and he’s a perfect scapegoat because he doesn’t read my blog; however, I fully admit that my $50.00 tea kettle was a total splurge on my part, used one not.]
Now that we will have reliable income for the first full month since March, we are getting back to the budget [I know I’ve been saying that for months, but for real this time!]. Of course, December is the hardest time to stick to a budget. Does anyone stick to their budget in December???
As with every year, I am trying to focus my family on all the joys that money can’t buy, so we are once again doing our “25 Days of Christmas Activities” which have already begun with making our countdown-to-Christmas paper chains and coloring Christmas pictures to send in our Christmas cards.
Beyond that, we are just slowly adapting to small town life and this new house, which is not at all what we would have chosen, but is what the universe has provided and we are grateful.
I used to think that I handle stress well, but now I realize that I’ve actually never been really stressed out before. Come to think of it, I remember that sick-to-my-stomach stressed feeling when I was in junior high and had procrastinated a big project until the night before the due date – but I only experienced it once because I vowed to never do that again. I HATED that feeling so much that I did all of my school work weeks in advance for the rest of my education. I am not kidding.
So it turns out that I handle stress fantastically – if by “handle,” I mean “avoid.”
But when it comes to adulting – and especially mothering – some stressors are unavoidable. And the past five months, with a pandemic raging and lay-offs and new jobs and going back to college and homeschooling my kids and a death in the family, I have been SUPER STRESSED. I didn’t even realize it until I went all day long without eating anything and I started shaking [probably more due to the lack of food than the stress] and having what might be described as a nervous breakdown.
At that point I knew I had to do something.
So, I handed the reigns to my wonderful partner, Brett, who took over the dishes and the laundry and the baking and the grocery shopping and the cooking and…pretty much all of it.
It made me realize that sometimes the stress of motherhood and homemaking is a little bit self-imposed. I will be the first one to say that I don’t believe in any of that sexist bullshit about women being better caretakers and homemakers, but it didn’t at first occur to me to have him take over [ask him for help, sure, but I still had to be responsible for everything].
Well, all I had to do was let go and – turns out – Brett is AMAZING at doing all of these household tasks. He even brews my coffee and prepares breakfast for me to take to work every day [I leave the house at 3:30am]. He also bakes bread and makes OAT MILK. And for dinner one night last week, he made a mushroom galette [!!!] from scratch! I don’t know very many men who know what a galette IS let alone how to make one. And Brett doesn’t even like mushrooms.
[This is why I call our marriage a partnership – because it is not governed by the typical gender roles, but rather by what best serves the wholefamily. Right now, my family needs me to work and so Brett is doing the unpaid work of taking care of our home.]
So, what I’m basically saying is, Ladies, if you need some help, don’t be afraid to ask. And I know there are women out there without [romantic] partners, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask someone for help! Don’t be so stressed that you stop eating [or eat everything in sight], when help is available.
We don’t have to do it all. This is the 21st century and we women have earned the right to get some help with the kids and the house and the job and whatever else – we just can’t be afraid to ask for it.
As I’m writing this, my son is in surgery. It’s a common surgery for kids [tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy] but still requires a general anesthetic, an OR that I’m not allowed to enter, a two week recovery time, and a fair amount of fear.
I could go into all the reasons we decided to have this done – but the truth is, we are trusting our doctors. Theo was hospitalized twice before he turned one and has always struggled with breathing issues and chronic ear infections and mouth breathing. So there are reasons. But we didn’t have to have the surgery. We could have continued to treat his issues as we have been. We could have waited to see if he grows out of it. We could have told the doctors that we don’t think he should have this done because he’s so young and there are risks.
But I can’t pretend that I know more than the doctors who have recommended this procedure. And I know that they are recommending it because they are trying to do what is best for my son.
In the end, I’m not a doctor and I don’t know anything about tonsils or adenoids. I take my kids to see a pediatrician I trust regularly because I am not knowledgeable enough about healthcare. I need a professional’s help.
Like the first time I took Theo for a routine well visit and told the doctor that he was fine. Two breathing treatments later we were headed for the ER where he was hospitalized for a week. Or the time I took him into the pediatrician because I was worried about his hearing and it turned out that he had a double ear infection that required two rounds of antibiotics.
I clearly need doctors for my kids.
In the western world today, it is common to question the doctor, to look for advice on the internet and from friends, and to think that we know better than the professionals. And while I think it is important to advocate for yourself and make the best choices you can for yourself and especially your kids [I gave birth to my babies at home, you may recall], there comes a time when you have to trust your doctors.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently – even before this surgery came up – because I saw a rant on Instagram about doctors hiding lots of vital, black label information from patients. As if the entire medical world is out to get us. Trying to trick us into doing all these things [vaccinations, flu shots, epidurals, etc] that are really going to hurt us instead of help us.
I don’t believe that the medical world is out to get us and I think it’s a sad perspective to have of a profession that is trying to make [and keep] people healthy.
I, of course, realize that the issue is more complex than I’m making it out to be in this short post, but the main point is that we all need doctors eventually and all we can do is find the best doctors available and then trust them.
Theo is fine, by the way. And hopefully on his way to fewer encounters with doctors in the future.
Every year we do our “Carlson Countdown to Christmas” with twenty-five holiday-inspired activities. This year, we did some new things and revisited some of our favorites from previous years.
For those thinking of starting a similar tradition, here are the activities we did this year and [at the end] some tips for making this happen!
The Annual Carlson Countdown to Christmas
December 1: Santa’s Holiday Workshop. This year we kicked off the holiday season with a park district event where we watched Santa arrived pulled by sled dogs and the kids participated in a variety of holiday themed activities.
Tip: Check your park district guide or local event calendar for ideas of things to do with your community.
December 2: Put up the Christmas Tree and Make the Paper Chain. Every year, the kids and I make a Christmas paper chain so that we can countdown to Christmas. This is a helpful visual for them to see how far til Christmas AND cuts down on them asking a million times if today is the big day.
December 3: Shopping for Toys for Tots. This is an annual tradition. We take the kids shopping for toys to give to Toys for Tots then drop them off in a local collection bin. This activity reminds us to appreciate our many blessings and give back to other kids in our community. And, as an added bonus, it helps us to see what toys our kids really love.
December 4: Homemade Marshmallows and Hot Chocolate. This was my first time making marshmallows, but I make hot chocolate every year. The kids and I LOVE hot chocolate and it is so easy to make at home. I can’t believe I used to buy it in packets!
December 5: Christmas I-Spy Game. I wanted to create an activity that would get the kids outside, and since my kids are really into I-Spy and “Look and Find” books, I hid a bunch of Christmas items in the backyard for them to find. They played outside for several hours searching and then re-hiding the items. I wore the baby in a carrier and we got involved in the game too.
Tip: The activity for the day does not have to be a big event or time consuming trip out of the home. I always gather a few simple holiday games and craft ideas to use on occasional days when we just want to stay in [or I’m exhausted].
December 6: Geneva Christmas Walk. This is a tradition for us, even though it always means long lines and walking around outside in the freezing cold. This year we got hot chocolate at Kilwins and took photos with the Grinch. This event is a Christmas classic for us.
December 7: Clay Ornaments. Every year the kids and I make ornaments of some kind. We’ve done salt dough. Last year we did paper. This year, we rolled and cut and painted and glittered cornstarch clay ornaments. This is a great way to make gifts and to add some new ornaments to the tree.
December 8: Christmas Light Shows. This is another annual tradition that the kids LOVE. We have several big, fancy light shows in our area [one was even featured on The Great Christmas Light Fight a few years back]. This year we all got in our Christmas pajamas and drove to the displays.
Tip: Even if you don’t have a fancy light show in your area, there are usually neighborhoods to drive through where the lights are beautiful. I have also seen Christmas light bingo cards on Pinterest which would be a fun game to play!
December 9: Bake Christmas Cookies. Every year, I take one day to bake Christmas cookies because I know that I will eat an obscene amount of cookie dough, and my health [and blood sugar] can only handle it one day. Let me tell you – it’s a special day! The kids love to get involved. Thus far, we’ve been making different types of cookies each year, but I’m hoping that over the years we will settle on our favorites. I think the melted snowmen cookies we made this year might be my favorite cookie EVER.
December 10: Deliver Christmas Gifts to our Neighbors. The gift has been different each year [this year we gave away tins of the freshly baked cookies], but we always enjoy walking to our neighbors to wish them a merry Christmas. This year everyone was home!
December 11: Puffy Paint Snowmen and Christmas Shopping. One of my regular holiday crafts is puffy paint snowmen because the kids love it so much and all it requires is shaving cream and glue. The 11th is also our wedding anniversary so we went out to dinner with the whole family and then took the kids shopping for gifts for each other. It was so sweet to see how thoughtful they were in picking out gifts that their siblings [including the dog], would love.
December 12: Daisy’s Birthday Party. We brought Daisy home three years ago on December 12th as a Christmas present for our kids and every year we celebrate that day as her birthday [we don’t know the actual date]. We bake her a little “pup cake” [humans get banana muffins with cream cheese frosting] and wear party hats and sing to her and give her gifts – the whole deal. It is seriously great fun!
December 13: Christmas Movie. I LOVE Christmas movies. And I love the excuse to watch the cute kids Christmas movies like The Polar Express, The Grinch, and [my personal fave] Arthur Christmas.
December 14: Christmas Tree Waffles. These waffles are an annual breakfast tradition – one day a year only. I didn’t get a picture this year but they are just waffles colored green and decorated with mini M&Ms and powdered sugar.
December 15: Christmas Tree Cinnamon Rolls. I saw this on Pinterest and thought they were cute. They are harder to make into a tree shape than you would think…only half of them came close to resembling trees. Still delicious though!
December 16: Birdseed Ornaments. This is another annual tradition. We love to take care of our feathered friends – especially since we live in a very wooded area.
17. Gift for Peter Rabbit. This year for the first time, we bought and delivered a gift for the bunny who lives in our local nature center, Peter Rabbit. Then we played at the nature center for the afternoon.
18. Gingerbread Houses with Auntie Paula. Of course this is our FAVORITE annual tradition – with our favorite Auntie!
19. Frozen 2 with Judi. My kids are old enough to go to the movies!!!!!!! [At least, my two oldest are…] So we went to see Frozen 2 with my good friend and fellow movie lover, Judi.
20. Read Christmas books by the fire. We have a big collection of kids Christmas books that we bring out in December – and something about a warm fire in the fireplace makes reading the stories extra special for the kids.
21. Oreo ornaments. More treats! No wonder I gain five pounds every December!
22. Puppy Chow and other gifts. We love to give edible homemade gifts that go in mason jars! We make puppy chow every year because it is easy, delicious, and the kids can help. Only bummer is that I have to buy boxed cereal for it, which I ordinarily never do. Next year I think I’ll try making chocolate popcorn instead to avoid the waste since I can buy popcorn kernels and chocolate in bulk bins.
23. Polar Express and 2 Toots. Every year we do our own “Polar Express” train ride to a little train themed diner called 2 Toots Train Whistle Grill. This year, my parents and my sister and her family came up from Indiana to join us.
24. Christmas Scavenger Hunt. This is a new activity that I hope to turn into an annual tradition. When we had our first kid, Brett and I began the tradition of opening one gift on Christmas Eve – always one Christmas book and Christmas pajamas. Well, our sustainability values no longer include a) buying new books [because we use the library and already own too many books] or b) buying new pajamas when they aren’t needed. We needed to change the tradition, so this year I created a scavenger hunt for the kids to find one Christmas gift for them all to share. Because it was hidden, it didn’t need to be wrapped. And it was also a toy set that I bought used.
They were SO EXCITED.
25. Monkey Bread, Orange Julius, [MIMOSAS for the tired mama] and Christmas gift exchange. Every family has their own Christmas traditions, obviously. Ours include a very extravagant breakfast [compared to our usual oatmeal] and a gift exchange. [I like to use the phrase “gift exchange” as opposed to “opening presents” because the former implies that we are GIVING as well as RECEIVING.]
Tips for a Successful Christmas Countdown
1. Make a LONG list. I brainstorm a huge list of ideas of crafts to make, things to bake, places to go, community events to attend, etc. We don’t do all of it, but it helpsto have options.
2. Include LOTS of simple, stay-at-home activities. The activities don’t all have to be extravagant or costly. We do plenty of simple activities like reading Christmas stories together, dancing to Christmas music, or coloring Christmas pictures.
3. Be FLEXIBLE. I used to tryto plan out the entire month in advance, but it’s impossible to predict what will happen over twenty-five days and sometimes you’ll have to adjust the plan. In those instances, having plenty of simple ideas will be helpful.
PLEASE let me know if you start this tradition in your family! The holiday season is about so much more than just gifts. We have so much fun celebrating it all month long, spending time together, and remembering to real reason for the season.
Every December, we celebrate the holiday season with our Carlson Countdown to Christmas – which is basically an advent calendar of holiday-themed activities for us to do as a family like baking Christmas cookies, driving to local Christmas light shows, visiting Santa Claus, making Christmas ornaments, etc. Each year I come up with twenty-four of these activities [some old, some new] and then go through the process of planning and organizing and actually making all of it happen.
It is a lot of work. It is also a lot of fun, but with four little kids, at this point, it is mostly a lot of work.
So, why do I bother?
Well, I am hoping that it will result in a lot of cherished memories for my kids and holiday traditions that we can all look forward to around the holidays. I dream of my kids getting excited on Black Friday, not to go shopping, but to start prepping for our annual countdown which always begins on December 1st with decorating the house for the holidays.
But in these early years, the kids don’t really appreciate or understand the lengths to which I go to ensure that we get to decorate gingerbread houses with Auntie Paula, and go ice skating at our local outdoor rink on a night when it is not absolutely freezing, or coordinate with Brett’s work schedule to make sure we can take our annual train ride and read The Polar Express.
Ah, the things we do as parents…
So, for now, I’ve been using these days to build a foundation of gratitude and generosity in my children by intentionally turning their attention to ways we can give rather than things we can get.
Here are some ways that we celebrate the season of giving:
Last year, we had a “Gratitude Tree” in the month of November to count all of our blessings. This year, we are doing a holiday version. At breakfast time, we talk about the things we are grateful for and add some ornaments to our tree.
[I rather like how “Dr. Seuss” our tree looks, pieced together from all the random pieces of green paper I could find in my scrapbook stash.]
We encourage [read: “force”] our kids to give gifts in many different ways throughout the month:
1. We take them shopping to buy toys to donate to Toys for Tots. This is hard for the kids, but each year it gets easier. We always explain in advance that we are picking out toys for other kids to open at Christmas. We obviously foot the bill.
[Side note: this is very helpful for giving us gift ideas for them as well.]
The kids drop them off in a local collection box, and let me tell you, I am so proud every time my kids put toys they love into that box.
2. We take them shopping to buy gifts for each other. In my family growing up, all five of us kids always gave individual gifts to every other member of the family. I don’t know when or how this came to be, but honestly, it is still happening even though we are all adults. I want my kids to enjoy giving gifts to their siblings so we are starting young [and also paying at this point, of course]. The kids also pick out gifts for Daisy the Dog, of course.
I ask them what their siblings would like for Christmas to get them thinking about it and then take them shopping. They did really well this year [after my son stopped insisting that his big sister really wanted a paw patrol truck].
Later I wrap the gifts with each child. My 3-year-old son wanted to put a message on the gift tags so he dictated these sweet notes for his sisters.
This just melts my heart.
3. We hand deliver gifts to the neighbors. We’ve done this every year since we moved into this house because I resolved to be intentional in building good relationships with my neighbors. The first year, we gave store-bought boxes of chocolates. [We had just moved in so I didn’t know if people would accept hand-made goodies.] Last year the kids and I made chocolate covered pretzel rods with holiday molds. This year, we delivered a tin of freshly baked Christmas cookies to each neighbor. [I think they know us well enough now to eat them.] We also give a gift to our postwoman.
4. We make ornaments to give to friends and family. We’ve done different kinds of ornaments – salt dough, paper, clay, etc. We tried mailing clay ornaments to the cousins one year. That was a bad idea. The next year we sent Danish paper heart ornaments. This year we made corn starch ornaments and will give them to local friends and family.
5. We give to every bell ringer. I will write more about this some other time, but we have a lot of fun giving to the bell ringers outside of the stores during the holiday season. I always carry cash to make sure we can do this. This sets an example of generosity for my kids. I want them to grow up seeing us giving freely and generously as often as possible.
The rest of our holiday traditions revolve around spending time together as a family. The “Season of Giving” doesn’t have to be about buying stuff and stressing over what to give who and how much money to spend and all of that. Giving is as simple as spending time with friends and family. The gift of time and attention is worth so much more than anything we can find in a store – especially nowadays when everyone is so rushed and busy and families are spread across the country [or around the world]. Time is the greatest gift.
It is also zero waste. 😉 Just sayin’…
I try to find as many ways as I can to incorporate giving into our holiday traditions because I hope that someday this will balance out the emphasis on receiving gifts that is an inevitable part of Christmas.
When the kids are older, I look forward to volunteering as a family – all year round, but especially during the holidays – to expose my kids to the hardships that face many people even in this privileged country and to show them that the true joy of Christmas comes from giving not getting.