Five Tips For Simpler Holidays

It is the season of excess, but it doesn’t have to mean excess stress! Here are 5 things I have started doing to make my life (and the lives of those who live with me) easier around the holidays. Plus our recipe for crock pot hot chocolate, which is sure to become a holiday favorite with your family, too!

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Apple pie

1. Make pie dough ahead of time, when you actually have time to do it. I like to make four batches of pie dough, shape them into balls, wrap them in plastic wrap, and freeze them in a freezer bag until I need them. Just get them out to thaw in the fridge the night before you need to bake a pie. They are ready to be rolled, filled, and baked, and you don’t have to worry about cleaning up extra dishes.  Another thing you can do to eliminate pie pressure during the holidays is to can your own pie filling during the season; then all you have to do is dump it in and bake it according to your recipes directions.

pie filling dough
Pie filling and frozen pie dough

2. Homemade gifts. You, sir or ma’am, have worked your tail off this year preserving the finest fruit, vegetables, meats, and herbs from your homestead. Why not share the bounty? In the process, you will showcase all of your hard work. I personally love a homemade gift, especially if I can eat it. Think about it — not everyone gets to have homemade apple sauce, preserves, peaches, spaghetti sauce, or canned green beans just like Granny used to make. I also like to attach recipes to my jars; for instance, if I send someone a can of beef, I like to share my recipe for crock-pot vegetable beef soup. If I give a jar of apple pie filling, it’s nice to give them the recipe for crumble topping for an easy apple crisp. Maple syrup, honey, and even eggs make lovely gifts, too. Your life is already abundant — share it!

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Frozen cookie dough

3. Make double batches of cookies. You’re already making a mess; why not go the extra mile? If you make cookies occasionally throughout the year, you may want to consider doubling the batch. I like to make double batches when I make any kind of drop cookie or cookie you roll into a ball. I bake one batch, and the second batch I scoop with a medium sized melon baller onto a lined baking sheet and pop into the freezer. Peanut butter or molasses cookies can be rolled into balls and rolled in sugar before placing on the sheet to be frozen. I then put the frozen cookie dough into freezer bags with the type of cookie, bake temp, and time written on it. If you have an unexpected party (or one you forgot), you can bake up a batch of homemade cookies quicker than quick, and you wont have any mess to contend with other than the cookie sheet! They also make great gifts around the holidays when people get lots of goodies. Frozen cookie dough allows folks to enjoy your treats well after the sugar surge of the holidays is over.

4. Chop peel and prepare … check! One thing I have found that eliminates stress at crunch time is to have all of the little things taken care of. The night before, I chop and peel my veggies. While that seems pretty straightforward, it is a time saver. As I go along, I check things off of the list I have created to make sure I don’t forget anything. I also like to measure all my spices and other dry ingredients for each dish and combine in small glass bowls. All I have to do is grab a bowl and dump it in as I go.

5. Simplify. Do we really need to have three meats? Six different kinds of pie? Maybe settle on brunch this year! And don’t let your guests slack off, either; have them bring one of their favorite dishes. Since we will be running around trying to hit every Christmas party like crazy people in the time leading up to Christmas, our plan for Christmas Day consists of waking up, watching our boys open their gifts, sipping some coffee, and enjoying a potluck brunch with our family (and maybe some mimosas!), all from the comfort of our cozy flannel jammies! This means that there will be a crock pot full of our most favorite winter time treat … crock pot hot chocolate!!

Here is the recipe. I hope your family enjoys it as much as we do.

Crock Pot Hot Chocolate

Cook time: 2 hours

Ingredients:

• 1-1/2 quarts whole milk (if you have your own it’s even better!)
• 12 oz. whipping cream
• 14 oz. sweetened condensed milk (see recipe below, or use canned)
• Vanilla to taste (I never ever measure vanilla)
• 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
• 1 cup milk chocolate chips
• Cinnamon to taste (optional)

Instructions:

1. Turn crock pot on low and combine whipping cream and sweetened condensed milk. Add vanilla and chocolate chips, stir in whole milk.

2. Place the lid on and let cook for 2 hours, stir with whisk occasionally, until all chocolate is melted.

3. Ladle into mugs and enjoy with a marshmallow or a shot of whipped cream! This stuff is dessert in and of itself!

Homemade Sweetened Condensed Milk:

Yield: 2 cups

• 1 cup whole milk
• 2/3 cup sugar
• 3 tablespoons butter, melted
• 1/3 cup boiling water
• pinch of salt

1. Mix all ingredients in a medium pan. Heat until sugar is dissolved. Stir constantly with whisk.

Jake with a mug

Making Christmas About Memories Not Stuff

 

Dog

This is the first Christmas for our twin boys. They will be a few days short of a year old when the big day rolls around. It is hard to believe that we have survived a year. There have been a lot of changes in our lives since our little nuggets arrived, but the biggest one is me staying at home with them. It is not something I regret at all, in fact I know many mommas out there would love to be able to do it and I am lucky that we can make it work. Its a blessing. I also started with the delusion that I would be able to do all kinds of things that I have been wanting to do in my “spare time.” Veteran moms, feel free to laugh now.

We have also noticed a large influx of “Stuff.” The bouncy things, the walkers, stuffed toys, balls, clothes, accessories, that spooky camera toy that talks when no one is near it … and any number of other things. Our once tidy home looks like a ball pit at Chucky Cheese. And it’s not just baby stuff; it seems like every time we go out we get another pile of things that we somehow have to make our home absorb. Bottom line — we have too much STUFF.

 

Our first new family tradition started the day after Thanksgiving. We loaded up the four wheel drive sleigh and headed to Frankenmuth, Michigan. In hindsight we didn’t really pick the best day to go, the place was swarming with people, but it was so much fun. Bronners was our first stop; if you have never been it is worth checking out. It is the world’s largest Christmas store. The boys loved the shiny things on the ceiling, no one cried, and nothing got broken. A+ Yoders! We then proceeded to Zehnders, a family style restaurant featuring fried chicken, mashed potatoes and homemade bread. The boys ate all the squash and loved the butter noodles. A side note: not all the restrooms have changing tables. Matt was gone so long searching and waiting for a bathroom with a changing table that I almost thought me and O got abandoned.
We checked out all the cool shops on the main drag while we waited for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony to begin. There is a really neat toy shop downtown and I really liked my German chocolate latte from the little coffee shop a few doors away. The Christmas tree lighting ceremony was really neat! They had a German band that sang carols in German and a candlelight walk that we didn’t get to participate in like we had hoped, it started snowing and the boys had had enough so we packed up and went home.

The next day we focused on putting up our tree and decorating it. A much slower process now, since every ornament must be inspected and approved by two tiny boys. We cannot put up the tree without watching “Christmas Vacation.” It’s something that me and my family did for years and it feels funny without it.

I also made a point to get down to see my grandmother. My mom and I got the boys around and spent the evening making two batches of molasses cookies while she visited with her great grandchildren. That’s magic right there.

Homemade Gifting And Skill Building Gifts
A few years ago we started frowning upon purchased gifts in favor of homemade ones. Homemade gifts mean more than anything bought from a store. My sister knits a mean scarf, my husband can whip out gorgeous picture frames, and I make birdseed wreaths. We are a crafty family and we all have our talents. My dad loves to cook and always makes an amazing restaurant quality feast. Every. Single. Holiday. And my mom might as well be a Christmas interior decorator, the house is always stunning. Sharing your talents with your family and friends is a great way to keep costs down and spirits up. Also gifts that encourage interests or ones that make a memory are amazing. Does your kid need the latest (annoying) Tickle Me Elmo? Maybe that birdhouse kit that she can put together with her dad would mean more in the end. Go to a ball game, show them how to change a tire, take them to a museum, or the zoo. Skills and interests last a lifetime. Do I remember what I got Christmas morning when I was 9? Heck no! I DO, however, remember helping my dad and grandpa build the sugar shack and learning about making maple syrup. I remember picking out one new ornament every year at Christmas Manor with my mom and sister after our school’s Halloween parade. I remember drawing dinosaurs on the floor with my uncle while we waited for the turkey to get carved. I remember sleeping with my sister in her room Christmas Eve and swearing we could hear bells and tiny hooves on our roof. Little things that hardly cost much are the things that stuck with me all these years.

I have so many fond memories of Christmas. My parents really made it a magical time of the year. I just hope we can continue that for our children. It was never about “getting” so much as the feeling surrounding the whole month of December. We baked, made gingerbread houses, made ornaments and read stories,wrote letters to Santa, strung popcorn and cranberries, played games … and all the love, it was amazing. I wish for our children to be content with a few gifts and happy to spend time with their family and play games, drink cocoa and build snowmen. That’s what Christmas is all about for me.