Thursday, November 12, 2015

Pastitzio - aka, What I Am Making ASAP

When I was 4 years old, my family moved to Athens, Greece. I was raised to be a good eater, and wasn't a picky child (as long as you weren't feeding me raw onions, sweet potatoes, stuffing, or pumpkin pie). There was quite a bit of Greek food, though, that takes getting used to, especially if you have all the culinary sophistication of an American 4 year old.

The recipe I'm posting today is a bit complicated, but worth every bit of effort. It's the one Greek food I loved instantly, and it's the one I make periodically for friends. I think it's very acceptable for the American palate, but is still authentically Greek.


1 lb penne pasta
2 egg whites, lightly beaten (save yolks for Bechamel sauce)
1.5 lb ground beef
8.5 oz parmesan cheese
1 C butter, melted
Half C of white wine
1 med onion, chopped
1 small can tomato paste diluted in 1.5 C of water
salt, pepper, cinnamon (all to taste)
1 portion of Bechamel sauce
crushed bread crumbs

Partially cook pasta in salted water. Put pasta in large bowl and pour half of melted butter over the pasta. Mix beaten egg whites with pasta. Sprinkle with half the parmesan. Set aside.

Use other half of melted butter to brown ground beef and onion. Add the wine, tomato paste diluted with water, salt, pepper, cinnamon. Simmer until liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat and add the remaining parmesan and 1/2 cup of the bread crumbs. Stir well.

Prepare Bechamel Sauce:
6T butter
8T Flour
4C Milk
2 egg yolks, beaten
salt and pepper

Melt butter in skillet. Pour in flour. Stir until creamy and mixture is very slightly brown. Slowly add warm to milk, stirring constantly to make a gravy. Add salt and pepper. Spoon small amount of gravy into beaten egg yolks, stirring quickly to prevent eggs from scrambling. Add more gravy, stirring constantly. Add egg mixture to the rest of the gravy and stir in.

To assemble Pastitzio:

Butter 9x13 pan. Sprinkle bottom with bread crumbs. Spread half of pasta evenly. Spread evenly with meat mixture. Spread rest of pasta mixture over meat. Pour bechamel sauce over all. Sprinkle with parmesan, then crushed bread crumbs. Pour 2T melted butter over all. Bake in 350 oven - 30-40 minutes or until golden brown.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Tackle-It Tuesday: Kids' Morning Routines

Last week, I talked about Mom's Morning Routine, things I try to do every morning to get my day off to a better start. Today I'll talk about the companion to that, my kids' morning routine. A few disclaimers before we get started: my kids are homeschooled, and always have been. We have our Classical Conversations community meeting on Tuesdays, but that is the only weekday that we really need to get up and out the door by a certain time.

My kids are almost-9 years old, 6 years old, and 2 1/2 years old. With that age spread, I have early risers AND a night owl...which means this ol' Mama is constantly dragging. While I try to get out of bed before them, I don't always make it. If they are all up before me, they will turn on Netflix and peacefully watch show after show after show, even after I'm up. If/when that happens, our morning slips away without the necessary household and school tasks being done.

We have a simple rule that we try to stick to: 
No electronics until after the morning routine!

My two older kids have very similar morning routines. My toddler...well. She is a typical toddler, and she does toddler things like randomly changing clothes (or stripping down altogether!), refusing breakfast and then needing lunch at 11 a.m., and going around behind everyone messing up whatever they just tidied. My "big kids" know to start their routine and follow it, and that the sooner they get through the list the better our day will be. When they show initiative and diligence, they are rewarded by having more free time or being able to participate in fun outings like the library. If they dawdle or whine or refuse to comply, well...the opposite happens. No fun, no outings, no free time. It doesn't take long for these natural consequences to make a positive difference in attitudes and behavior.

I have the kids' morning routines printed, laminated, and hung on their bedroom walls right by the light switch. They know where to start, and they know if they just tackle the simple tasks in order, they will be well on their way to being done with their responsibilities for the morning.

Kids' Morning Routine
1. Go potty. (I think this one should go without saying, but apparently not always.)
2. Wash hands, wash face, brush hair.
3. Get dressed.
4. Make bed.
5. Have breakfast, clear place.
6. Brush teeth.
7. Morning chores (a separate list; feed pets, sweep kitchen, start laundry, etc.)
8. Read independently for 30 minutes.
9. Start on school work.

Right now, my kids are able to do much of their school work independently, so they are able to start on a simple subject (like handwriting) while I finish up my chores or deal with the Toddlerzilla. Then we can work on school together off & on throughout the morning, and finish up by lunchtime. This simple morning routine, along with our "no electronics" rule, have really made our mornings better.

What kind of morning routine do your kids have? Did it develop naturally, or is it something you designed for them?

Monday, August 10, 2015

Lightning Bug Nights

Certain summer nights, regardless of where I am in the world, bring back poignant memories of childhood. There's a certain something in the air - high humidity, the way the leftover storm clouds hang in the sky, the smell of earthworms on the sidewalk, and the music of cicadas filling the sky.

Some of my strongest memories involve summer nights at my grandparents' house in southeastern Ohio. Earlier in the afternoon, the family would have feasted on corn-on-the-cob, baked beans, cottage cheese, sliced tomatoes, and hamburgers, all eaten at the old picnic table on the back porch.

When the meal was finished, the adults would retire to lawn chairs in the shade to talk, or to sleep, or to avoid Great-Aunt Margaret. The kids would raid the shed for the wiffle ball and bat, the giant plastic boats, and all kinds of intriguing antique toys that were hidden in the depths of the dark shed, which always smelled like warm wood and turpentine.

Eventually, Grandpa would get up from his chair and start breaking apart the ice for the ice cream maker. (For some reason, this was always a big production, involving the bag of ice, a heavy canvas bag, and a small hammer.) Grandma would be in the kitchen mixing up the world's best vanilla ice cream (I'm not even kidding) and the sounds of gossip would come drifting out the kitchen window, as all of the female relatives took care of the cleaning up.

The taste of the fresh, not-quite-solid vanilla ice cream was enough to dispel the lingering taste of Deep Woods Off, and you could hear everyone give a little sigh of contentment with that first bite. Homemade vanilla ice cream, made with pure Mexican vanilla and my grandma's loving hands, needed no additions - it was a perfect delight.

After the ice cream, after the toys were put away, after the wiffle ball and frisbee were retrieved from the roof, came our favorite time - the lightning bugs were starting to come out. (Some of you might call them fireflies, but they've always been lightning bugs to us.) Grandma would hand out old baby food jars with holes in the lids - they always stood ready on the wooden cabinet on the porch - and my brother, my cousins, and I would begin to hunt.

It's not hard to catch lightning bugs, so we'd fill our jars pretty quickly. Then we'd go find our parents sitting by the campfire that Grandpa had built in his fire ring, and watch the fire and our lightning bugs while we listened to our favorite grown-ups talk about everything and nothing. When the yawns started taking over I'd be shuttled inside, and put to bed in my Dad's old bedroom, in the twin bed with the strawberry-patterned sheets - Grandma knew those were my favorites.

With the window open, I could hear the gentle sound of conversation continuing in the backyard, even over the window fan. My lightning bugs flashed on the bedside table. I scratched a mosquito bite, and then drifted off in perfect comfort and security.

I am glad my kids have had a chance to do some of these same things in my grandparents' backyard, and to build wonderful, lifelong memories in my parents' backyard, too.

*Post originally published 2008; updated 8/9/15*

Friday, August 7, 2015

Family Friday: Board Games

Like many families, we make a conscious effort to spend time with each other and enjoy each other's company. One of our favorite things to do together is play a good family game. It brings out our competitiveness, teaches us to play fair, and helps the kids learn to experience victory and defeat gracefully. (Trust me, that last bit is a work in progress!) The games we play most often take from 20-30 minutes; none of them are over an hour. I expect that will change a bit as our kids mature, but right now we know our limits. At ages 6 and almost-9, they are capable of a lot, but are still working on patience. The toddler just sits on our laps and plays with the extra pieces.

In no particular order, here are some of our favorite games to play as a family:

  1. Carcassonne - my kids refer to this as "the map-building game." They really enjoy laying out the tiles to make roads and cities. We started playing this in teams, so that they could participate before they really understood all the rules. 
  2. Forbidden Desert - I purchased this game on a whim based on the ratings on Amazon. It has become one of our favorites! It is a cooperative game; all of the players work together to make it out of the desert after a plane crash. There is strategy involved as well as a degree of luck; the rules are pretty simple but the task is quite difficult! Because it is a cooperative game, we make sure that everyone in the family gets to express their opinions of what our strategy should be.
  3. Qwirkle - this game is rated for ages 6 and up, but I know my kids enjoyed it when younger than 6. It involves matching attributes of blocks and lining them up to score points. In addition to being fun, it helps the kids learn how to reason through and eliminate options that won't work.
  4. Uno - a classic, quick pick-up game; we love Uno when we want to play for fifteen minutes or so without a lot of fuss. The kids know the rules pretty well. We never keep score; actually, I have never learned to keep score in Uno!
  5. Ticket to Ride - the longest game on our list, it is also the most challenging. Our 6 year old can't quite handle it on his own yet, but he can work with Mom or Dad and enjoy it. We have the original U.S. version as a board game, but I have my eye on some of the different versions. The Heart of Africa expansion pack would be perfect for this year, since we will be studying the geography of Africa in Classical Conversations this year!
What games are favorites at your house?

*All Amazon links are affiliate links, which means I get a small percentage of each order placed through those links. :-)

Thursday, August 6, 2015

How to Own Your Life!

For the past several months, I have been slowly working my way through Sally Clarkson's Own Your Life. To be honest, when I ordered the book I thought I'd have it done within the week; the writing is very engaging and the subject matter is interesting. It's not strictly a Bible study, nor is it truly a self-improvement book. It's filled with encouragement, scripture, anecdotes, and challenging questions. I read through the book (with my pink highlighter at the ready!) and then write the questions and my answers in my journal.

I have been working through the study with my long-distance BFF, and we have both gotten so much out of reading and then journaling the questions. However, the questions are not easy. They make me think, and make me reason, and make me reconsider my priorities, my relationships, my routines...many, many aspects of my life. Sally addresses everything from managing mundane chores to motherhood to finding the big purpose(s) God has for your life.

I sit down in the morning with my coffee, my Bible, my Own Your Life, my journal, my pink highlighter, and my pen. (Ideally, this happens without children present. In reality, my toddler is probably watching a show and chowing down on dry Cheerios. This is how my life works.) I read the chapter fairly quickly, pausing often to reread and highlight passages that really speak to me. For an example, I randomly opened my book & found the first highlighted section, from page 34:

     "When I affirm that I am a creation of God's hands, given significance by His own design, I move toward loving who He has created me to be."

How many of us could use that kind of encouragement everyday? I know I do! This book has really ministered to me, and working through the journaling questions has helped me in countless ways. The tagline for the book is, "Living with deep intention, bold faith, and generous love." I definitely want to embody that and model it for my children.

Does this sound like a book that would benefit you or someone you love?
What are you reading and learning from right now?
Do you journal?

*All Amazon links are affiliate links, which means I would get a small percentage of any purchases made through the link. :-)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Allen Family Homeschool 2015-2016

4th grade.
1st grade.

That's what our homeschool looks like this year! It's hard for me to believe that we're starting our fifth year homeschooling, but that seems to be the case. We learned a lot by trial and error those first few years, and I think we are in a pretty good place right now with our curriculum choices and lesson plans and activities.

I prefer to start school when the summer weather is at its worst; the kids can't play outside much anyway, and being inside with no structure or routine is just a recipe for bad tempers, at least for my kids. We are in the middle of our third week of school! We started off with a rather light schedule, since our Classical Conversations community doesn't begin meeting until the end of August. (More on Classical Conversations, and our love for the program, in a future post!)

Wendy, at almost 9 years old, is becoming more independent in her school work. This year I have started having her copy her assignments from my lesson plan into a dedicated "planner" section of a 3-subject spiral notebook. She can then work on her list in whatever order she chooses, and having control of that aspect of her schooling makes things much easier for her. She works through her books and lessons with frequent input from me, and I check all of her work at the end of the day.

Fourth Grade:
  1. Handwriting Without Tears: Cursive Success*
  2. Wordly Wise 3000, book 3 and book 4
  3. Saxon Math 5/4
  4. Abeka Language 3 (finishing up from last year)
  5. Abeka Trails to Explore reading comprehension
  6. Free spelling words list
In addition to those subjects, she is also studying to participate in our local Bible Bowl in September. She reads a lot, does art projects, participates in Girl Scouts, and spends a lot of time playing outside. Once our Classical Conversations community starts meeting again, she will participate in the Foundations and Essentials programs. I'll dedicate a post to CC later, but for now just know that she will gain a lot of knowledge in history, science, Latin, grammar, writing, art, music...we love it.

David, at 6 years old, is tackling 1st grade with gusto! He will participate in the Classical Conversations community as well, enjoying the Foundations program. He is very motivated to learn right now, so we are trying to capitalize on that to help him get a great start.

First Grade:
  1. Horizons Math 1
  2. Handwriting Without Tears: Letters & Numbers For Me
  3. All About Spelling, Level 1
  4. Abeka Language 1
  5. Lots of reading, both independent and with Mama
  6. XtraMath - math facts practice
David will also be participating in Boy Scouts for the first time this fall, and he is very excited! He enjoys reading, playing outside, and making fantastic creations with his Legos.

That's what our homeschool looks like this year. So far it is going well, and we are already learning a lot. We get our schoolwork finished before lunch on most days, so we can rest or play or run errands in the afternoon. 

What are you teaching and learning this school year?

*Disclaimer: all Amazon links are affiliate links, meaning I will get a small percentage for any purchases made through those links. :-)

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Tackle-It Tuesday: Mom's Morning Routine

One of my favorite movies of childhood - of my whole life, really - is Mary Poppins. She was the original SuperNanny. With a fabulous imagination, excellent people skills, and a hint of magic, Mary Poppins was welcome wherever she went. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when they all tidy up the nursery; before they get started, Mary Poppins quotes an old Greek proverb:

"Well begun is half done."

Like most of the adages we use in conversation, it is short, simple, and easy to remember. What isn't quite so easy is the application: getting a good start on a task means you are well on your way to success.

I have been thinking about that concept regarding my time management, specifically how I begin my days. I am not a terribly self-disciplined person; if you know me in real life that is not new information. Given free rein, with no obligations in the form of appointments or hungry little people, I would happily wake around 7 a.m., stay in bed and read until 8 a.m., get up and enjoy a cup of coffee while goofing around on the internet, eat breakfast around 10:30 a.m., and decide what to do with my day around lunchtime. Sounds nice, right?

Real life doesn't work like that. Especially not if you are a semi-responsible adult. If you are a homeschooling mother of three with additional outside obligations? That is just plain dumb. You can't start your day - waste half of your day - in that manner and expect to keep up any semblance of order.

My "Mom's Morning Routine" was designed in an effort to begin my day in a peaceful and productive manner. It helped me to prioritize what I needed to do in order to avoid the lackadaisical time-wasting rut that I fall into so easily. Following my list, even loosely, keeps me on track and helps me be more focused in the morning, thus making the whole day better! 

A simplified version of my morning routine is below. Any listed routine like this is very personal; your situation is not identical to mine, and so your list won't be the same as mine. I would love to hear how your list would differ from mine. We'll help each other streamline our mornings!

Mom's Morning Routine:
1. Wake at a regular time. (6:30 a.m. is my goal.)
2. Spend time in prayer and Bible study.
3. Make coffee & enjoy while catching up online, reviewing plan for the day.
4. Eat breakfast with the kids, take vitamins.
5. Unload dishwasher, reload with breakfast dishes.
6. Start laundry.
7. Get kids started on school work.
8. Shower & get dressed for the day.

This list is for days when we are at home, which is generally for four days per week. Following through these tasks gives me a huge head start on the day and allows me to focus on whatever special tasks need my attention while not falling behind in the daily necessities.

What kind of morning routine do you have?