When he was small, my youngest son had a habit of filling his pockets with treasures he encountered in his daily adventures. I didn't always understand the value he saw in his chosen objects -- really, how many rocks and sticks could one boy keep? In his eyes, though, each one was beautiful and important. Life is just like that on a larger scale, isn't it? We gather up the precious bits of our experiences and save them all to learn from and enjoy later. Perhaps you'll find a little something here that you'd like to keep in your own pockets. Thanks for visiting.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Good-bye and Hello (12 Favourite Posts of 2012)

There was a time (much) earlier in my life where New Year's Eve meant dressing up and heading out for a night on the town with friends.  There would be music and dancing and lots of noise as a group of us rang in the new year at midnight in a room crammed full of people.  These days the evening of December 31st looks quite different for me, by choice.  My older self now recognizes that my introverted personality prefers a quieter goodbye to the year that has just passed, and I very much enjoy our tradition of welcoming the start of a new journey around the sun with just our little family, at home. Tonight Matt and the boys and I plan to make homemade pizzas for dinner and then head to a neighbourhood hill for some night-time sledding. There will be dancing later, in the form of crazy Just Dance 4 matches in front of the Wii, and we'll toast the new year early, with warm mugs of cider and fiery sparklers lit outdoors. I may or may not actually see the stroke of midnight.

More and more as I get older, I find myself feeling reflective on the last day of each year.  I love the fact that I have a record of the experiences that meant the most to me in the past 365 days right here on Pocketfuls, to remind me of where I've been and how I've changed in that time.  It has been lovely for me over the past few days to read back through all of my thoughts and feelings in those moments, to remember each one with gratitude for how it has helped me to grow in wisdom and strength and understanding.  I want to share my favourite posts of the year here again with you today; I hope you will enjoy taking another look through what has been a meaningful and wonderful year for me in many ways.

Favourite Musings as a Mom:

Talking with strangers
Letting go

Favourite Funny Family Stories:

Soap, shampoo, and a SPIDER!
Short-term memory

Favourite Food Creations:

Hearty oatmeal pancakes
Lemon strawberry shortcake
Chocolate cashew butter cups

Favourite Reflections on Life:

The swimmer
On turning 40
Struggling to breathe

And just for fun, let's make it a baker's dozen of favourite posts for 2012 with this last one:

The impossible dream

Today I send a heartfelt thank you to all of you who have come to share this space with me over the past year.   It has meant so much to me that you've thought my stories were worth reading, and I have loved reading your kind words, your insights, your suggestions, and your anecdotes in the comments you've left here and on Facebook and Twitter.  I hope you'll keep coming back in 2013; Pocketfuls wouldn't be the same without you.

I wish you all a very happy new year!  May you find joy, good health, inspiration, and adventure in 2013, and may you surround yourself with people who love and care for you well.   xo

New Year's Eve 2011

Friday, December 28, 2012

A wonderful Christmas week (and a recipe for a festive spinach and pomegranate salad)

There is so much for me to love about being on Christmas holidays with Matt and the boys.  After several bustling weeks of Christmas preparations and parties and swim meets and school concerts, it has been really wonderful these past several days to just slow down and enjoy spending time all together.  The break from a hectic schedule has already done all of our hearts, minds, and bodies a world of good.  We had a lovely Christmas filled with excitement and happiness in the early morning hours around our tree, and delightful food and company at the home of my aunt Christina and her family later in the day.  There have been lots of hours over the past week for sleeping in, for building gingerbread houses and new Lego sets, for playing board games and solving puzzles, for reading intriguing new books, and for laughing together out in the fresh snow that finally fell on Boxing Day evening.  We've had time to catch up with far away loved ones over the phone, and to share relaxed, cheerful holiday dinners with those who live close by.  It's so wonderful to think that next week will allow us more opportunities for the same!

As our family's activity level has slowed down this past week, so has my busy mind, which is a very good (and necessary every once in awhile) thing!  So today, I'm keeping things short and sweet here, and sharing a simple but well-loved recipe for a festive spinach salad tossed with fresh clementines, pomegranate seeds, and toasted pecans.  The idea for this salad came from a recipe for a similar one I found years ago in our local newspaper, and it has been one of our family favourites at holiday dinners over many Christmas seasons since.

Spinach Salad with Pomegranate and Clementines

For the salad:

6 cups baby spinach leaves
6 cups mixed greens
3 clementines, peeled and sectioned
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
1/4 cup toasted chopped pecans

For the dressing:

1 tbsp raw honey
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp dijon mustard
sea salt and pepper to taste

In a large bowl, combine the spinach leaves, mixed greens, clementines and pomegranate seeds.
In a glass jar, combine the honey, white wine vinegar, olive oil, dijon mustard, sea salt and pepper.  Close the jar with a tight fitting lid and shake vigorously to mix all ingredients well.
Pour the dressing over the greens and fruit and toss gently to coat.  Sprinkle toasted pecans on top of the salad and serve.

This pretty and healthy combination of red, orange and green makes a lovely accompaniment to roasted turkey, chicken, beef, or pork, or a delightful contribution to a holiday potluck dinner.

I hope you and your loved ones are also enjoying a wonderful Christmas week together!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

It feels like Christmas...

May your hearts and homes be filled with peace, love, and laughter this holiday season.  Merry Christmas to all of you! 

xo Lisa

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sweet holiday treats: 8 delicious gluten, dairy, and egg-free recipes

Baking sweet treats to enjoy and share at gatherings with family and friends over the Christmas season has always been a fun part of our holiday preparations.  In the first while after we learned about our family's food sensitivities, I was determined to find gluten, dairy, egg, and as refined sugar-free as possible cookie recipes so that Will and I could still participate in holiday dessert time (because isn't that one of the most wonderful times of the year?!).   There was a lot of experimenting, throughout which some recipes were huge hits and others were huge flops, and so for a couple of Christmases, I continued to bake mostly our traditional cookies and just a few allergy-friendly kinds so there would be something for everyone.  Over the past few years, though, I have either developed or found a really wonderful variety of delicious gluten, dairy, and egg-free holiday treat recipes, and so these days our Christmas cookie tray is filled only with goodies that everyone in our family can eat.  It makes me feel good to be able to tell Will he can choose whichever treat he would like, and all of us, food sensitivities or not, have new yummy favourites that are healthier versions of the sweets we used to bake before.

I thought I would share all of the recipes that I used for our holiday baking this year, in the hope that it might help other families with food sensitivities who are looking for delicious and safe Christmas-y treats.  I've provided a link to each recipe so you can find the ingredients and directions elsewhere on my site, or on other wonderful blogs that I visit often for inspiration. 

Chocolate Hazelnut Snowballs from Pocketfuls

Gingerbread Cookies from Elana's Pantry

I have made a few changes to this recipe to accommodate our food sensitivities and personal preferences.  To make the gingerbreads egg-free, I substitute two tablespoons of arrowroot powder added to the dry ingredients and six tablespoons of water added to the wet ingredients for the two eggs.  I omit the yacon syrup (because I've never been able to find it!) and use an additional 1/4 to 1/2 cup of agave nectar instead. I also omit the lemon zest.  I only use one generous teaspoon of ground ginger rather than a full tablespoon, and only 1/2 a teaspoon of baking soda rather than a full teaspoon.  The boys like to help decorate these cookies with fruit-juice sweetened dried cranberries.


Cranberry Almond Crumble Squares from Pocketfuls

Chocolate Candy Cane Cookies

For the dough, I use a Chewy Chocolate Cookie recipe from Elana Amsterdam's Gluten-Free Almond Flour Cookbook.  I roll about a tablespoonful of the dough into a ball for each cookie and place them all on a parchment paper lined baking sheet.  I flatten each ball of dough with the palm of my hand.  I bake the cookies for approximately 12 minutes, then I remove them from the oven and add a sprinkling of Enjoy Life allergy-friendly mini chocolate chips and crushed TruJoy Organic Candy Canes (which are gluten-free and contain no corn syrup or artificial colours or flavours) on top.  I put the cookies back in the oven and bake them for another 2 to 3 minutes.

Star Cookies from Elana's Pantry

Before baking these cookies, I add a little sprinkle of Let's Do... Sprinkels confetti (which is gluten-free and contains no artificial colours) to the centre of each cookie for fun.

Chocolate Cashew Butter Cups from Pocketfuls

Thumbprint Cookies based on this Linzer Heart Cookie recipe from Elana's Pantry

I follow Elana's recipe exactly for the cookie dough, but rather than rolling it and using cookie cutters to make hearts, I roll about a tablespoonful of the dough into a ball for each cookie and place them all on a parchment paper lined baking sheet.  I flatten the balls with the palm of my hand, make an indentation in each one with my thumb, and then carefully place a small spoonful of raspberry jam in each indentation.  These cookies melt in your mouth!

Chocolate Pomegranate Clusters from Lexie's Kitchen

These little treats are so pretty and so simple to make!  I use chopped dark chocolate (72% cocoa) rather than the chocolate chips Lexie uses; I melt it in a saucepan over low heat and use a spoon to drizzle the chocolate in the paper cups.

Photo credit:  Alexa Croft of Lexie's Kitchen

Happy baking!  I hope your family enjoys these sweet treats over the holidays as much as mine does.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Struggling to breathe

Will spent all of Friday lying on the couch in our family room; he was feverish, lethargic, and hoarse.  By bedtime he was complaining of an achy tightness in his throat, and when I went to check on him before I turned in for the night, his breathing was noisy and laboured.  I slept with one eye and one ear open, and when I heard footsteps walking the hallway to our room at midnight, I bolted out of bed before Will even told me in a panicked voice that he was having a hard time breathing.  I bundled him up in the blankets I had left by our front door earlier in the evening in anticipation of needing them, and he and I went out into the chilly night air in an effort to relieve his croup symptoms.  We both sat on our front step, him outwardly frightened, me inwardly so but remaining calm and reassuring on the outside for Will's sake, and we breathed together and waited.  Within a few minutes, Will's breathing came easier; he relaxed and drooped his tired little body against mine and I held him close with my arms wrapped around him under the stars and told him (and myself) that everything was going to be okay.


Sometimes it is terrifying being a parent.  Despite our fervent desires and efforts to keep our children safe from any kind of harm, there are times when we are forced to realize that not everything is under our control.  Never has this fact been more clear than with Friday's senseless and horrific tragedy in Newtown, Conneticut.  Like so many other people, I have cried many tears since hearing the news and am still struggling with how to accept that I live in a world where terrible things like this can happen. I look out my window at the same trees and houses and skyline I've looked at every day for years and somehow today they all seem different to me; there is a hardness and a stillness and a sadness there that I hadn't noticed before. It seems wrong to find any happiness in the twinkling lights and holiday scenes all around me when there are families who are newly missing sweet faces and voices from their midst. I don't know how these families can bear to continue on, knowing how their children were so brutally taken from them. And while our hearts feel only a small fraction of the sorrow the families whose loved ones were killed must be experiencing, I think many of us, so deeply moved by this tragedy, are also wondering how we go on trusting and hoping and finding joy in a world that suddenly seems dark and frightening.

Somehow we must learn to let ourselves breathe easily again, to live not in fear and anger in the wake of such a terrible tragedy, but with hearts that are still open to finding peace and to seeing the good that still exists all around us.  We do it by believing what we tell our children to reassure them in times like these:  that the world is full of gentle, kind, caring people who love and help one another, and that we should find and create examples of this fact daily to help us remember it.  We do it by continuing to reach out to others, building meaningful connections between us that allow us all to feel secure and accepted and supported. We do it by speaking up in an effort to make guns less accessible to hands that should never hold them, and help more accessible to individuals and families who are struggling and hurting. We all sit together in the chill of this dark moment with our arms wrapped around one another, and we have faith that even though life will sometimes be unpredictable and awful and shocking and heartbreakingly sad, together we can find a way to somehow be okay.

Sending heartfelt prayers and sympathies to all of the families of Newtown, Conneticut who have suffered such an enormous loss. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The pre-Christmas meltdown

There have been a few (er... a lot) of pre-Christmas emotional outbursts at our house this week.  At the risk of shattering the image I like to portray of myself as having it all together, I'm going to admit that it's been me who's been having the meltdowns, not the boys.  I never understood when I was a child why my mom would get upset over certain things as the holidays came nearer, but I really, really do now.  Now that I'm a grown-up and a mom who wants to make Christmas special for her family, every year I get to a point where I suddenly feel overwhelmed by all of the things I have left to do, a number which seems grossly disproportionate to how many days I have left before Christmas, and it turns me into a bit of an emotional wreck.  Someday I hope I'll learn to remember that so many of the things I get worked up about don't even really matter in the big picture of things.

Today I needed a reminder of the sentiments I shared in this post about the real joys of Christmas, which I wrote a year ago today.  I thought I would share it again here for anyone who also finds themselves feeling stressed out right now.  I hope it helps to bring a few moments of peace to your week.

The Real Joys of Christmas 

Despite the fact that no part of me wanted to enter through the store doors this time of year, I popped into Walmart today after my yoga class to pick up a few things we needed around the house. As I expected, the aisles were a dangerous labyrinth of carts and people, half of them frantic and running, and the other half seemingly lost as they wandered aimlessly, preventing others from getting by. I managed to get out of the store within fifteen minutes and only almost got run over once, but I was glad to return to the relative calm of my own home afterwards. (And let me reassure you that I'm not trying to be smug about the zen-like state of my home during the holiday season with that last comment -- it was only calm because I was the only one here. If you had been around this evening when the four of us were home, and Will was wailing over nothing in the family room while Noah simultaneously (accidentally) shattered a glass all over the kitchen floor, and then I lost it, you'd know that our house can be just as crazy a place as Walmart at Christmastime!)

I know firsthand how easy it is to get caught up in a hectic, emotional state this time of year. We feel we NEED to get all the right gifts, make all the right foods, decorate our house in just the right way, fit in all the right activities, and generally produce a Christmas that is Kodak moment-worthy. (Broken glass all over the kitchen floor somehow doesn't fit with that picture, I'm thinking.) In all of our complicated holiday rushing about, it's also very easy to forget that the most beautiful and true joys of Christmas are often the simplest things, things that don't require a trip to Walmart or a Martha Stewart-esque flair for perfection (and that won't be ruined by a broken glass or two!).

Real joy is sharing steaming mugs of hot cocoa with your family around the kitchen table after an afternoon of sledding or skating or road hockey together. It's reliving favourite old family stories with your parents and siblings and other relatives, laughing together and fondly remembering those dear souls who are now only with you in spirit. It's opening the mailbox and being greeted by the wonderful smell of anisette wafting through the box of homemade genettis that your grandma so thoughtfully sent you, and suddenly being brought back to the happy Christmas Eves of your youth spent at her kitchen table. It's taking a few moments late at night with your spouse to look at your beautiful sleeping children, their faces softly lit by the Christmas lights from the hallway, and to marvel together at how you ever got so lucky to have them. It's giving gifts of the heart, by sharing part of yourself with those who really need their spirits lifted this time of year.

When I think back to the Christmases of my childhood, I don't remember very clearly what I received as gifts, and I know that Christmas was never "perfect" (because I'm sure despite all of my parents' efforts, my brothers and I probably wailed over nothing and broke a few glasses, too). What I do remember with great fondness, though, is the feeling of being warm, and safe, and content at Christmas, feelings that came from being surrounded by a family I love and who showed me in the most meaningful ways that they love me, too. Whenever I start to feel frantic about getting ready for Christmas, I try to remember what I hope my boys will remember about their childhood Christmases when they grow up, and suddenly all of the other stuff seems less important.

During what can be a very hectic holiday season, I wish you and your family many moments of real and peaceful Christmas joy.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Chocolate cashew butter cups

Back when I was younger and didn't give as much thought to what I ate, I used to loooovvve Reese's Peanut Butter cups.  Every now and then I find myself craving that delicious combination of chocolate and nut butter, but I resist because I know my body would not be happy with me for indulging in such a sugary treat.  This week I was thrilled when my attempts to create a healthier version of nutty, chocolatey goodness resulted in these ridiculously delicious mini cashew butter cups.  Our family is really excited about this latest addition to our collection of homemade holiday sweets!

Chocolate Cashew Butter Cups
(inspired by this chocolate peanut butter and jelly cup recipe from With Style & Grace)

2 cups chopped dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa)
1 tsp coconut oil
1 cup natural cashew butter
6 pitted dates
finely chopped raw cashews, for garnish

Line a 24-cup mini-muffin tin with paper baking cups.  Add the cashew butter and dates to a food processor and process them on high speed, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl a few times, until these two ingredients are well-combined and smooth.  Place the mixture in the refrigerator to chill.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, melt the chopped dark chocolate over low heat, stirring often.  Add in the coconut oil and stir to combine it with the melted chocolate. 

Spoon about one teaspoon of the chocolate mixture into the bottom of each baking cup.  Gently tilt the cups so that the chocolate spreads out all over the bottom and slightly up the sides of each one.  Once all the cups have been coated with chocolate, place the muffin tin in the freezer for approximately 30 minutes.

After the 30 minutes, remove the muffin tin from the freezer and the cashew butter mixture from the fridge.  Carefully spoon about one teaspoonful of the cashew butter mixture into the centre of each chocolate cup.  Tap the muffin tin on the counter a few times to help level out the cashew butter mixture.  Place the muffin tin back in the freezer for another 30 minutes or so.

When these 30 minutes are up, remove the muffin tin from the freezer once again and spoon another teaspoonful of the melted chocolate mixture over the top of each cup.  Sprinkle a small amount of finely chopped raw cashews on top of the chocolate.  Place the muffin tin back in the freezer one last time until the chocolate is set. 

Remove the paper liners from the chocolate cashew butter cups and serve them.  Leftovers are best stored either in the refrigerator or the freezer.

These delightful little goodies are a bit on the messy side to eat, but no one in my family seemed to mind that at all!  If you prefer the cashew butter mixture to be contained within the cup, you can use a small, clean paintbrush to brush the chocolate all the way up the sides of the paper liners in the first step.  I personally like the visual interest of the layers in the version pictured here.

I will warn you, after the four of us taste-tested these yummy chocolate cashew treats, I had to put the rest of them out in our garage freezer in the interest of making sure we'd have any left for Christmas!  If you're popping by for a holiday visit, we just might share.  ;)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Christmas Pageant

Photo credit:  Bethany's Christmas Pageant
A couple of days ago, friends of ours told us about an outdoor Christmas pageant that takes place this weekend every year at a local church in our community, in which a large cast of people and live animals re-enact the story of the birth of Jesus.  Our friends mentioned that it's a really nice family evening out that they all look forward to attending, and so last night Matt and the boys and I decided to go and enjoy this pageant ourselves for the first time.

The evening was chilly but clear, and we gathered together with hundreds of others from our community to sit close together on benches under a starry sky.  Because Will was cold and he couldn't see very well over the heads of the people in front of us, he accepted my offer for him to sit on my lap, and I enjoyed a rare opportunity to hold my growing-up youngest boy close to me for awhile.  The pageant began with Roman soldiers, who were carrying shields and lit torches and marching in unison down the centre aisle, and from that point on the entire crowd was mesmerized by the powerful story that unfolded before us, the story that brought light into the world on the first Christmas so many years ago.  There was a young Mary riding on a real donkey led by a quiet Joseph, and we watched the heartbreak of them being turned away at inn after inn until one kind innkeeper offered them his stable for a place to rest.  There were angels singing beautifully from a high platform above the stable, and three wise men with a live camel who arrived from the east to bring gifts to the newborn baby Jesus.  Real sheep and chickens and rabbits and donkeys peacefully surrounded the Holy Family under the light of a bright, bright star, and we were all reminded to have hope in our hearts at Christmastime and always.   And then, in the middle of this very lovely scene, Will suddenly turned and looked at me with twinkling eyes and said to me in a whisper, "I just farted on you."

Ahhh, boys.  They sure bring their own special kind of joy to the world.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The mud. Oh, the mud.

The boys' school has a wonderful grassy field where all of the children can play soccer or girls chase the boys or whatever other game or sport it is kids play these days when they are outside for recess.  Well, I should say that the field is wonderful and grassy until this temperamental time of year, when it rains and then snows and then gets warm and the snow melts and then it freezes over when the temperatures drop and then melts again, and so on, after which the field becomes nothing but a huge pile of muck. This is the school field as it has been looking for the past several weeks:

Wait, let me give you a closer view for full effect:

You can imagine what my children look like after a day of playing on this field.  Every day I stand outside the school doors waiting for Noah and Will to emerge, and with every mud-caked child who comes out before them, I become more and more anxious about what I'm going to be dealing with.  Many of the children (swamp creatures?) are unrecognizable as they trickle out of the building.  Every article of clothing is the same uniform shade of earthy brown, and the shoes on the children's feet are oddly shaped because there are huge clumps of mud randomly stuck to various parts of them.  I'm guessing they could probably start teaching hands-on courses in agricultural practices in the school; with the amount of dirt that must get tracked in there daily, they could likely plant seeds in furrows down the lengths of the halls.

Most days, when Noah finally comes through the school doors, he, too is covered in a layer of muck from top to bottom, just like all of the boys in his class who came out before him.  He takes it upon himself to describe to me the various escapades that led to his mud-bath: how he slid in a puddle while he was catching a ball, or how he wiped out while he was running down a hill at the back of the field.  I try to be understanding of the boys' need to run and play hard despite the mucky field that wants to swallow them whole, but I have to admit that there is no part of my brain that can comprehend the joy they find in playing anything that involves wallowing in squishy gunk.

If you'll remember, I grew up in the more northern city of Sault Ste. Marie.  There was no mud on the ground by this time in December when I was a child.  We had three feet of snow under our boots as we played in our school yard a few weeks before Christmas; we were building snow people and forts and making pretty little snow angels on our field.   (Note:  it is possible that I might be exaggerating a little bit.  My mom is likely to tell me later that I am remembering things wrong, that there was plenty of mud in December when I was a child and that my two brothers found many ways to come home covered in it on a daily basis.  I may very well have just been a weird kid who didn't like getting muddy.  But real or imagined, I find myself longing for the snowy winters I remember from my youth, when kids wore boots because it was cold and snowpants because it was snowy, and they played in drifts taller than themselves and didn't come home looking like swamp creatures.)

Anyway, having been forced to accept that the muddy field is going nowhere soon and that my children do not have the good sense to stay away from it, I have decided to deal with the daily arrival of December swamp creatures at my front door in the best way my mess-intolerant self knows how:  with a carefully developed mud protocol.  The boys have now been diligently trained in how to remove their footwear outside when they are covered in mud, and to go directly to the laundry room (do not pass Go, do not collect $200) to remove any mud-coated articles of clothing and place them immediately in the washing machine.  On the plus side, I now have an 11 year old boy who can competently do his own laundry.  (His future wife can thank me later.)

The only other thing I can do is pray for snow.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

20+ Great Gift Ideas for Boys

I love choosing Christmas gifts for Noah and Will each year.  While I know that gifts like Lego sets and video games will always be a big hit with both of them, I really enjoy searching for other interesting ideas, too, ones that will give the boys opportunities to try new things and develop many sides of their personalities.  It's always a wonderful feeling when the boys are excited about and have a lot of fun with something new that I've found for them.

Today I thought I'd share a list of great toys, games, books, and other items with anyone else trying to find something special for boys this holiday season. Most of the items pictured below are ones that have been well-loved by Noah and Will over the years; a few are things that we've seen just recently that look really intriguing.  While I say this is a list of gift ideas for boys (because I've seen the positive reactions my two have given to these items), I'm sure many girls would also very much enjoy them!

For imagination and adventures

Hand-made personalized superhero cape

Real walkie-talkies

Lite Hawk II RC helicopter

For thinking and problem solving

Perplexus puzzle ball

Crazy Campers brainteaser puzzle

For constructing and experimenting

Lego Mindstorms

Electronic Snap Circuits


For outdoor fun

Zipfy sled

Ogosport mini disk pack

Z-Curve archery set

For reading enjoyment

The Templeton Twins Have an Idea by Ellis Weiner
(This excellent book was a recent favourite of Will's and mine.)

The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens
(Noah really enjoyed this book and has the recently-released sequel, The Fire Chronicle, on his wish list.)

Take a peek at previous posts in my "A bookworm's breakfast" section for many other great book suggestions.

For fun family game nights

Apples to Apples Jr.

Look here for titles and descriptions of several other games that our family loves.

For artistic creativity

Klutz Thumb Doodles Book

Hypotrochoid art set

Homemade Christmas crayons  (Find complete instructions for this easy craft here.)

For small surprises

Gingerbread or Chocolate Candy Cane Soap 

(These delightful soaps are all natural and handmade by Jenn [From The Blue House With Love], a fellow blogger whom I was very glad to meet at the Blissdom Canada conference I attended back in October.  Jenn makes a variety of gentle and wonderful smelling soaps that would make lovely gifts for everyone in the family.) 

Lego speech bubbles

Star Wars light-up toothbrushes  (available at Walmart)

If you choose any of these gifts for the boys you know and love, I hope they will bring them smiles and hours of enjoyment!  I'd also love to hear your ideas for cool gifts -- please let me know what your boys' favourite things are in the comments section below.  :)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Cranberry almond crumble squares (gluten, dairy, and egg-free)

The grocery store produce section is now lined with rows of beautiful, brightly coloured fruits that are special to this season.  Tart red cranberries, jewel-like pomegranates, and sweet, juicy clementines are all favourites of our family, and I like to incorporate these healthy treats into our meals and snacks in various ways this time of year.  Today I kicked off my holiday baking by creating these wonderful cranberry almond crumble squares.  With an almond flour crust, a homemade cranberry sauce filling flavoured with clementine zest and fragrant spices, and a oat-based crumble topping, these not-too-sweet but scrumptious bars make a perfect seasonal treat.

Cranberry Almond Crumble Squares

For the crust:

1 1/2 cups blanched almond flour
1/4 tsp sea salt
2 tbsp melted coconut oil
1 tbsp pure maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract

For the filling:

I used 3/4 cup of my homemade cranberry sauce  (I had a few extra jars from Thanksgiving that I had stored in the freezer), but I added a few pinches of clementine zest, and two teaspoons of ground chia seeds to thicken the sauce a little.

For the topping:

1 cup blanched almond flour
1 cup certified pure gluten-free oats
1/4 tsp sea salt
1 tsp cinnamon
3 tbsp melted coconut oil
1 tbsp pure maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Place 3/4 cup of homemade cranberry sauce in a small saucepan.  Add a few pinches of clementine zest and warm the mixture over medium-low heat.  Stir in two teaspoons of ground chia seeds, then remove the mixture from the heat and let it stand.

In a medium-sized bowl, combine 1 1/2 cups of blanched almond flour and 1/4 tsp sea salt to make the crust.  In a smaller bowl, whisk together the melted coconut oil, maple syrup, and vanilla extract.  Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir until well combined. 

Line an 8 x 8 inch square baking pan (I used a glass Pyrex one) with two pieces of parchment paper, with one piece going over top of the other in a perpendicular fashion.  Press the crust mixture evenly into the bottom of the baking pan.  Bake the crust for approximately 12 to 15 minutes, or until it is lightly golden. 

While the crust is baking, prepare the topping.  In a large bowl, stir together 1 cup of blanched almond flour, 1 cup of pure oats, 1/4 teaspoon of sea salt, and 1 teaspoon of cinnamon.  In a smaller bowl, whisk together the melted coconut oil, maple syrup, and vanilla extract.  Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix until they are well-combined.

Once the crust is baked, remove it from the oven.  Pour the cranberry filling over the hot crust and smooth it out evenly.  Sprinkle the topping over the filling, and press the topping down evenly with the back of a large spoon.  Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the top is lightly golden.

Let the baked goods cool in the pan for at least an hour.  Remove them from the pan very simply by lifting up the parchment paper and placing the whole thing on a large cutting board.  Cut into squares and serve.  Makes 16 squares.

It may seem that there are a lot of steps involved in making these treats, but they were actually quite simple.  The cranberry almond crumble squares were a big hit with our whole family.  I hope yours will enjoy them too!

Friday, November 30, 2012

The best gift

The morning papers lately have been stuffed full of flyers advertising every possible gift imaginable for Christmas giving.  The boys and I pore over these colourful, rustling sheaves intently every week, them happily pointing out items that they hope to find under the tree on Christmas morning, me carefully searching for items I'd like to give to our family members.  It's easy this time of year to get caught up in the excitement of holiday giving and receiving with our families and friends; it makes us feel good to share with our loved ones through thoughtful gifts chosen with care and wrapped with love.  But it feels good, too, to remember and act on the fact that our world is full of less fortunate people who would also welcome being the recipient of a gift from our hearts.

Today I was happy to find something special amidst the pages of the morning paper: a photograph and a story that allowed the boys and I to appreciate the difference between wanting things and truly needing them at Christmastime.  Earlier this month, a tourist visiting New York City had captured a photograph of a touching moment in which a NYC police officer gave a pair of brand new warm winter boots and socks to a barefoot homeless man on a frigid night.  If you haven't seen the photograph or heard the story, please take a moment to look at it here.  It will truly warm your heart.  Noah and Will and I were all very moved by this officer's spontaneous act of generosity.

The boys are old enough now to understand that for every bright smile and look of excitement on the faces close to them at Christmas, there are tears of suffering and lines of worry on other faces in our community and in our world.  As we prepare to celebrate a very comfortable holiday season where our family truly needs nothing, I so deeply appreciate this powerful reminder that the most valuable gift we can all give each other is kindness.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Smile! (Photo Christmas Cards)

When the Christmas holiday season draws near, my thoughts always turn to loved ones who live far away. My childhood years were filled with happy (and crazy-fun!) Christmas celebrations that involved many dear family members and friends (and wonderful food, wacky children's Christmas concerts, loud family games, and my good-natured Great Grandpa Charlie showing up smiling in a yellow rain suit to protect himself from other people's glasses of red wine that somehow always seemed to land on him during dinner!). Remembering those days always adds a special warmth and cheer to the current holiday season. Because so many of our closest relatives and friends now live great distances from us and from one another, it's impossible to see everyone at Christmastime like we used to, but I like to let them all know that we're thinking of them fondly.

For the past several years, we have sent out photo Christmas greeting cards to all of the special people in our lives. The hardest part of this process is taking a picture of Noah and Will to use for this project; it usually takes several attempts outdoors to capture one shot in which both boys are looking at the camera and smiling with their eyes open. (If you're not sure what I'm talking about, try taking an 8 and an 11 year old boy, one who finds it near impossible to stand still and not try to be a comedian, and one who squints violently in the slightest bit of sunshine and loathes wearing sweaters, and you'll quickly see what I mean.) 

A few jokes about me preferring not to send out a card on which the children look like grinning trolls usually gets the boys laughing and results in a more natural-looking picture.

Once I've captured the boys' true smiles, the rest of the photo card-making process is simple. From these many creative designs online, I choose one that suits our family's personality, upload the photo, add our own message, and place my order. What arrives in our mailbox a little while later is a package of cheerful holiday cards with a personal touch, ones that I can easily send to our family members and friends to let them know that they're in our hearts at Christmas and always.

Now that's something everyone can smile about.


This post is sponsored by Vistaprint Canada. I am being paid to write it, but the words, ideas, and opinions are all my own.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Awful and wonderful

This morning I woke up with a stuffed up nose and a gloopy throat, the remnants of a cold that's not quite ready to give up its grip on me yet.  Down the hall I could hear Noah, who is a few days behind me on this cold, coughing and blowing his nose.  The temperatures outside had dropped to below zero temperatures overnight, giving the morning a chilly feel to it even in the house, and when I stepped out into the hallway I was greeted by dozens of little fake red berries and artificial evergreen bits scattered everywhere, leftovers from the previous night's late-evening attempt to start decorating the house for the holidays.  Will's pre-Christmas excitement, which seems to have already kicked in this past week, was ramped up to very high levels; he was bouncing off the walls like a ping pong ball, loud, overly emotional, and annoying his brother every 1.5 seconds for the first few hours of the day.  The griddle broke while I was cooking our Saturday morning breakfast, and my efforts to take a nice photo of the boys outdoors to use for this year's Christmas card turned into a gong show of epic proportions, where all three of us ended up yelling and crying and saying things we didn't really mean.  It would have been very easy to simply write the day off as a "Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day".


This morning when I looked out my bedroom window there was snow on the ground, the first real snow of the season, and it was white and pretty and seemed to transform the world into a place of hope and promise.  There were snowman pancakes for breakfast, shared by four family members sitting close around a kitchen table wearing cozy jammies.  Christmas music, played for the very first time this season, filled the house with old familiar melodies, and hearts with fond memories of holiday seasons past and loved ones who live far away.  There was time spent outdoors in the winter wonderland that appeared overnight, and the sight of Will zipping down the little hill in our backyard on a sled for his inaugural ride of this winter, such a simple but delightful pleasure, made me smile.  There were quiet moments where we enjoyed the peaceful glow of the twinkling lights now strung throughout our home, and after the Christmas photo gong show, there were lots of I'm sorrys and promises from all of us to try to be better next time.

This is what real life looks like; the bad and the good, the moments of chaos and frustration and a sense that everything is wrong intricately woven with moments of calm and joy and a sense that things couldn't be more right.  In the same way that we so appreciate the cheerfully hung lights this time of year after weeks of gray skies and early evening darkness, sometimes the not-so-pretty moments in life make the truly lovely ones seem to twinkle all that more brightly.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Homemade sugar scrubs (for naturally beautiful skin)

If your hands are anything like mine, they take a bit of a beating once the chilly winter weather sets in.  Between cold outdoor winds, dry indoor air, and the frequent handwashing that comes along with cold and flu season, I often find the skin on my hands becoming dry, tight, and irritated.  I recently discovered a very simple and lovely solution to this problem:  homemade sugar scrubs.  Made with just a few basic ingredients I usually already have in my kitchen, sugar scrubs gently exfoliate dead skin cells and nourish hands with moisturizing oils (without any harmful chemicals), leaving hands feeling incredibly soft and soothed.

Orange Cinnamon Brown Sugar Scrub
(inspired by this recipe at Oh She Glows)

1 cup brown sugar (I used organic whole brown sugar)
1/2 cup sweet almond oil
the freshly squeezed juice of half an orange
1 tsp orange zest
several pinches of freshly grated cinnamon stick

Mix all ingredients together in a medium-sized bowl until they are well combined.  Spoon mixture into an airtight glass jar for storage, and keep it in the fridge between uses for maximum freshness.

Coconut Peppermint Sugar Scrub
(inspired by this recipe at Food For My Family)

1/4 cup coconut oil
1/4 cup sweet almond oil
1 cup sugar (I used organic golden cane sugar)
2 to 4 drops of 100% pure peppermint essential oil

In a small saucepan over low heat, melt the coconut oil.  Remove from heat and stir in the almond oil; let oils cool to room temperature.  Stir in the sugar and add the peppermint essential oil one drop at a time, stirring after each drop, until you're pleased with the scent of the mixture.  Spoon mixture into an airtight glass jar for storage.

To use either of these homemade sugar scrubs, simply wet your hands with warm water and add a small amount of the sugar scrub to them.  Gently rub the scrub all over your hands in a circular motion, and then rinse with warm water.  Use the scrub anytime your hands need a little extra love and care.  These scrubs smell wonderful and are also great to use on your whole body.

For my first attempts at making my own sugar scrubs, I chose orange cinnamon and coconut peppermint because they seemed fitting for the upcoming holiday season.  (Sugar scrubs packaged in cute little jars and tied with pretty ribbons also make lovely seasonal gifts!)  You can experiment with many different kinds of oils, sugars, and essential oils to make your own favourites -- please let me know in the comments section if you do!  I hope these sugar scrubs will help keep your hands happy throughout the winter season.

Monday, November 19, 2012

His best invention

Noah has forever been an inventor of sorts.  As a small child, he always found unique ways to play with his toys, developing intricate systems and rules and scenarios for blocks and figures and wheels.  At four, he created an imaginary vehicle based on a bicycle that he called his "motor park diesel", and in his mind he visualized all kinds of adventures for himself and his "crew" (a collection of real and fabricated friends) as they travelled about on this machine.  He would tell me silly jokes and fascinating, detailed stories that he invented in his head; he would draw up plans with pencils held in small fingers for futuristic cars and houses filled with devices to make life interesting.  The world was a huge and incredibly intriguing place for Noah right from the very beginning.

When he was small, I was very much a part of Noah's inventing.  I chose toys for him that I thought would allow him to continue exploring and books that would answer his many, many questions.  I wrote down his wonderful stories for him when he was too little to form the letters himself, and I explained how certain complicated things worked when he asked, so he could include them in his latest drawings.  I signed him up for activities that I believed would allow him to explore the many experiences life has to offer, in the hopes that he would find his own passions, which would then fuel his desire to keep on inventing, always.

Noah has indeed found his own passions, and every day I marvel at the amazing person he is becoming.  I watch him from a distance at his swim meets, see him staring intently ahead with focus and determination as he waits for the signal to dive into the water from the starting block, and I wonder what he's thinking and feeling in those moments, knowing that what happens next is completely up to him alone.  I see him burst excitedly through the door to home after a chance to listen to an accomplished teenaged Lego animator speak at a conference; he's got fire in his eyes and I can almost hear the wheels spinning in his brain as his newly-inspired mind thinks about his own animation projects, and his enthusiasm fills me with excitement, too.  I read the compelling and well-worded autobiographies and stories he writes for school with admiration for the voice that speaks so clearly to him from within, and I'm intrigued to hear him talk of the books and ideas with which he now chooses to fill his mind.  These things are all Noah's own; in many ways he has entered a world that I know very little about with his swimming and his interest in technology and the stories that he creates based on experiences I haven't been a part of.  He isn't driving his "motor park diesel" anymore; he is now taking the wheel to his own life and driving himself to new and exciting places.  I am so proud, so full of awe as I watch Noah creating himself through the power and intelligence and spirit he has deep inside.  I believe he will be his best invention yet.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Life among the branches

You would think that once the cold autumn winds blew away the last of the leaves clinging to the trees in the neighbourhood, there wouldn't be much to look up at and admire anymore.  I discovered this week that I was wrong to think that way when I noticed a collection of nests of various shapes and sizes scattered throughout the limbs of one particular tree just down the street from our house.  To examine one nest up close is always a thing of wonder.  Looking at the intricately woven patterns of sticks and grass, leaves and mud, it's incredible to imagine how such small creatures were able to create something so delicate-looking and beautiful, yet strong and safe, using only the things they could find in nature.  But seeing multiple nests made by various birds and rodents, all set so closely together in one tree, struck me as being remarkable and filled my mind with questions.  How were creatures who likely had different habits and preferences able to live harmoniously in such close proximity to one another?  Did they consider how their actions would impact the other creatures who shared their tree, and if there was conflict, did they somehow know how to compromise?  Was there an inherent trust between the critters who found themselves living in the same environment, and did they somehow understand that all of the tree's families deserved to seek shelter, eat, raise their babies, live day-to-day in the ways each of them knew were best for them?  Did the critters ignore each other for the most part, or did they offer a kind of support for each other when any of them were in need?

The experiences of the creatures who made their home in that tree were hidden from us all summer long by the lush green leaves that provided them with shade and security.  We can never know how exactly those birds and squirrels lived when they occupied their various, closely-knit nests. I like to imagine that in their own ways, the critters that shared the world of that tree existed peacefully, accepted and respected each other's differences, lived in mutually beneficial ways, and knew that ultimately, they all shared the same basic needs and desires. It gives me hope that we humans all have it in us to do the same.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bedtime stories with the President

When you have a child with as much imagination and as much uncontainable energy as Will, you learn very early on to allow lots of extra time for everything.  Simple tasks that should only take a few minutes, such as getting dressed or eating a snack or putting things away, inevitably end up taking much, much longer in our house because there is always something way more fascinating to attract Will's attention and enthusiasm.  As an example, I asked Will the other night to please go and give Maggie her cat treats, which he started walking towards the kitchen to do.  Less than a minute later I heard the cat wailing hysterically at him, because Will had already forgotten what he had set out for.  His eye had caught the magnetic letters on the side of the fridge as he walked by and he was so compelled to write a message in a secret language that he was completely oblivious to the screaming cat.

I do not know who Mr. Graham is, nor do I have any clue what the message means in Will's secret language.  I have not ruled out the possibility that he has somehow made contact with aliens and is communicating with them using a blue plastic alphabet.

A couple of nights ago, we sent Will upstairs a good hour before his bedtime to shower, put his pjs on, and brush his teeth, so he would have lots of time to do his creative thinking and still get to sleep when he should.  He seemed to move through the first two tasks at a good pace, but then he spent a long, long time standing in front of the bathroom mirror.  (I didn't ask him what he was doing, because honestly, after eight years of this kind of behaviour, you come to realize that as long as he's not doing any harm, sometimes it's just better not to ask.)  When Will finally emerged from the bathroom he was wearing a big grin and a very carefully coiffed damp hairdo.  He informed me quite matter-of-factly that he had styled his hair like Bill Clinton's, and then he sat down beside me on the couch so we could read together, without saying another word, as if it were the most normal thing in the world for an eight year old to style his hair like Bill Clinton's.

I treated this situation like the many other interesting (odd) ones I've found myself in as a result of Will's fascinating mind;  I told him he had done a really good job and secretly wondered what creative thing he would think to do next.  Apparently, though, he liked this presidential hairstyle idea so much that he wanted to stick with it for awhile.   Last night after Will had showered and put his pjs on, I heard him repeatedly running back and forth between his room and the bathroom, with a significant pause in each location.  When I went upstairs, I found Will's Scholastic Almanac open on his bed; he was dashing in to study a photo in the book, and then racing back to the bathroom to comb another section of his hair just so.  When he was pleased with what he saw in the mirror, he proudly looked at me and declared that he was...

Are you thinking maybe George Washington or Abraham Lincoln?  Perhaps Richard Nixon or John F. Kennedy, or maybe Ronald Reagan?  Nope.

Ulysses Simpson Grant!(?)!
I really wish I had thought also to take photo of his Bill Clinton do -- it was bang on!
Will happily told me last night that he is going to style his hair like a different American president every evening from now on.  The enthusiasm with which he's approaching this little project of his makes me smile.   For as many times as I've been frustrated with his inability to stay on task when we're trying to get something done, I've also loved the way Will shows me that the same old things don't always have to be done in the same old way; there is always potential for the unique and the entertaining in the day-to-day. 
I noticed earlier this afternoon that Will's almanac is once again on his bed; it is sitting open and upside-down with a page in it carefully marked.  I wonder which American president I'll be reading stories with tonight.... 
Update:  I couldn't leave you in suspense.  Shortly after I posted this, Will came downstairs as Theodore Roosevelt.  You're welcome.

This post about something that made me smile is linked to this week's Writer's Workshop over at Mama's Losin' It.