Got apples?  Here’s a simple recipe that has been a family favorite since I was a kid.  It’s perfect in the fall when apples are abundant and even better in the winter on a cold snowy night.  I serve it unsweetened as a side dish (it’s especially good with pork) or drizzled with a little honey for the boy’s dessert.   You can peel the apples if you want, or leave the peels on if you’ve got fresh apples without too many blemishes or pesky pesticides.

We’ve been making fried apples a lot this month to use up our U-Pick apples, especially the ones that looked great when we picked them, but have since gotten spotty and bruised.  Aidan loves this dish.  We’ve never had left-overs and I often pass up seconds, so Aidan can have thirds!  Enjoy.

Fried Apples

6 – 8 medium-sized cooking apples (such as Granny Smith or Jonathon)
2 tablespoons butter or coconut oil
1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (adjust to taste)
A drizzle of honey (optional)

Peel the apples if desired, then core them and cut them into thin slices.  Melt the butter over medium heat.  Add the apples and saute until tender, allowing at least some of the apples to become golden brown.  Sprinkle the cinnamon over the top and add a drizzle of honey if desired.  Stir just enough to coat the apples and serve warm.

Makes 6- 8 servings.

Serving Suggestions: Fried apples are especially good as a dinner-time side dish with pork chops or pork roast.  You can also serve them for breakfast with ham or sausage, as a topper for  cottage cheese pancakes, or sprinkled with granola.  Serve over ice cream for a lovely fall dessert.

Picky Eater Pleaser:  Peel the apples and leave out (or reduce) the cinnamon.  If your kids like that, experiment with adding more cinnamon or leaving on the peels next time.

I’m not sure how it started but my sons and and their grandmother  have a running joke about eyeballs.  The boys will throw the word “eyeball” into a conversation and Grammy pretends to be totally grossed out (although sometimes it’s not an act!).

Eyeball (un) Appetizers (lesson learned: use a black or red plate if you want your eyeballs to really stand out!)

The boys love this joke so much, I thought it would be fun to really gross Grammy out with some creepy Halloween appetizers.  So here’s your warning:  If the thought of eating an eyeball makes your stomach turn, this is not the post for you.  But if you crave a little  fun with your food, here’s a sure-fire Halloween party hit for your little ghouls and goblins.  Eyeball (un)Appletizers!

My boys thought these were fabulous!  They had a lot of fun making the eyeballs and even more fun serving them.  They chopped the crab with plastic knifes, made the salad, stuffed a few egg while mommy stuffed the rest, and added the sliced olive pupils.  We served the eyeballs on a plate with a lid, so when Grammy lifted the lid she would see two eyes staring back at her.  Success!  Grammy was totally grossed out by these!  She managed to choke down one before she gagged and couldn’t continue, but the  boys (and their Papa) laughed like crazy and ate a lot! I had two and they weren’t bad (although I admit I took the black olive off the second one–very cool looking but not the best taste combination!).

Hope you have fun making and eating your own disgusting Halloween (un)appetizers!

Eyeball (un)Appetizers

8 – 12 hardboiled eggs
4 – 6 ounces crab or chicken salad (see salad suggestions below)
Sliced black olives or raisins

Shell the eggs and slice them in half.  Remove the egg yolks and save them for something else (egg salad is a yummy low oxalate lunch).  Arrange the egg halves on a serving plate.  Spoon 1 – 2 teaspoons of crab salad into the hollow of each egg half.  Top each egg with a slice of black olive.  Enjoy!

Makes 16 – 24 appetizers.


Salad Suggestions:  I wanted my eyeballs to really be gross with a somewhat realistic texture and a blood-shot appearance.  The easiest way to do this is to use real or imitation crab, separated or cut into chunks.  Add enough mayonnaise to hold it together and maybe a dash of salt and pepper or Old Bay seasoning, and Voila!  You have a crab salad that will make your eyeballs look bloodshot (and really gross!).  Another way to do this is to use shredded or finely chopped chicken or turkey.  Again add a little mayo, pepper, and salt, but this time you might want to add some thin strips of red bell pepper to achieve the blood-shot look.  I used 8 ounces of crab meat to make my salad and had at least a third of it left over after stuffing the eyeballs (which my sons ate as their snack that day without any add-ins).  You can always make a bigger batch of salad than you need.  After stuffing your eggs, add your favorite veggies, fruits, or seasonings and lunch is served!

If your kids complain and pick at their chili because of the “yucky” vegetables, this chili is for you!  My sons used to love my chili.  They ate big chunks of red bell pepper and onion with smiles on their faces.  Then the picky “threes” started, and suddenly my good eaters wouldn’t eat anything.  My solution–puree, puree, puree!

Super Picky Eaters' Chili BEFORE . . .

This mild, yet satisfying, chili is very versatile.  It can be made low carbohydrate or Paleo-style without beans or corn.  You may also add other vegetables, such as pumpkin or butternut squash to sweeten the chili and give it more vegetable nutrition.  The key with my picky eaters right now is to puree the vegetables they don’t like (such as onions and red peppers) and to leave the vegetables they do like whole (such as corn and butternut squash), so they recognize the yummy chunks in their food and are more likely to eat it.

. . . and AFTER! (okay, I did help him get the last bite)

I made this chili last night and my boys chowed it down.  I used a can of corn and added the beans to the boys’ bowls right before serving, skipping my own bowl.  This way my boys got the kidney beans they love and I was able to eat a double portion without worrying about my various health concerns.

Yum!  Aren’t you glad it’s soup weather again?

Super Picky Eaters’ Chili

2 1/2 pounds ground beef (or ground turkey)
2 cups water
1 cup onion, roughly chopped
1 cup red bell pepper, roughly chopped
6-8 cloves garlic
4 cups tomato juice
1  can kidney beans (about 1.5 cups) (optional)
1 can corn (or veggies of your choice – see variations)
1 tablespoon chili powder (add more if your kids like spicy foods)

Brown the beef in a dutch oven or stew pot over medium heat.  Pour off the grease and return the beef to the stove. Meanwhile, put the water, onion, red pepper and garlic in a small saucepan and bring to a boil.  Boil until the peppers and onions are soft.  Use a soup wand (stick blender) to puree the vegetables or put them into a blender or food processor and blend until the onions and red peppers are well pureed.  Add the pureed vegetables and tomato juice to the beef and simmer for about 45 minutes to an hour.  Add the beans, corn and spices (no need to drain the beans and corn unless you want to) and continue to simmer until the flavors have melded and the chili has cooked down to your desired thickness (drain the corn before adding for a thicker chili). Serve with shredded cheese or a dollop of yogurt if desired.

Makes about 12 cups of soup depending on how much you let it cook down

Variations: Add 1/2 – 1 cup pumpkin, butternut squash or carrots to the puree for a sweeter chili.

You may also add any other vegetable your kids like to eat, such as green beans or broccoli.  I once made a “chili vegetable soup,” using ground turkey, corn, broccoli, cauliflower, and green beans along with the onion, red pepper and tomato juice.  My kids ate it, so I consider it a success even though I thought it was only so-so tasting. Just remember, you want to puree anything they might “get picky” about and leave whole anything that will temp them to eat it.

Meal Planner:  I keep things simple by serving this chili with sliced apples and crackers or cornbread.

With the beginning of a new school year, I am crazy busy again.  It’s getting harder to carve out time to make and eat family meals with my boys.  Often it is easier, more convenient or necessary to eat on the go or to eat separate meals.  Yet, as I get busier and more distracted with outside concerns, I believe the need for family meals grows.  Family meals are one of the ways my family stays connected.  They are a constant, reliable part of my children’s lives.  My boys know that even if mommy is busy, I still will sit down with them to eat most of our meals together.  I will give them my undivided and hopefully positive attention as they talk about concrete mixers again (and again and again . . .).  This need for consistency grows even stronger as we are pulled in so many directions.

Aidan enjoys family meals.

As I try to align my busy life with my values, here are some things I am learning.

1.) If we skip a family dinner, it’s extra important to have time to talk about our days and our dreams during our bedtime rituals.  I try to start getting ready for bed earlier so we have plenty of time to talk about the things we saw or did during the day while we have our nightly thanksgiving and good nights.

2.) There’s nothing sacred about dinners when it comes to family meals.  If I know we won’t be eating together in the evening because the boys will be having a picnic dinner out of their lunch boxes at the Cub Hub while I study next door in the computer room, then that is the perfect day to make cottage cheese pancakes together for breakfast.  It might involve getting up a little earlier, but it’s a special time to connect before heading out the door, and that’s a real treat in our house!

3.) I can re-invent what a family meal looks like. Yes, most days I want the more traditional sit-down dinner with meat loaf, green beans and mashed potatoes, but if I can’t put this together because we have gotten home too late, I can still shun take-out and opt for cold cereal and bananas, yogurt, or pineapple and cottage cheese.  As long as we eat together and the food choices are healthy, adding real flexibility to my meal choices reduces stress!

4.)  A snack together is better than nothing.  This summer I always took peanut butter sandwiches to the pool because my boys would be famished when we got out of the water and because it made showering and dressing much easier. When we got home, I pulled out a pre-made salad for myself, plus some cut-up fruit and milk.  The boys would finish their dinner while I ate mine – a satisfying, if not short, compromise to not having a full meal together.

5.) Keep it simple and ask the boys to help.  One of the reasons I like cooking with my kids so much is that we really bond and enjoy each other during this time.  Adding more ways to have fun together in the kitchen and at the dinner table, makes it easier to stay committed to family meals.  Hopefully, as they grow more skilled in cooking, setting the table and washing the dishes, it will also lighten my load and make it easier for me to keep family meals a priority.

Do you have other ways you stay committed to family meals when your schedule heats up?  Please share in the comment section.  I’d love to have more ideas!

In honor of the new school year I’ve been experimenting with granola bar and energy bar recipes for back-to-school lunchboxes and nutritious breakfasts on the go.  Here’s a high fiber, nutritious granola bar that’s not only fun for kids to eat, it’s fun for kids to make!  The bars resemble oatmeal bar cookies more than traditional granola bars because I chose to use milk instead of carmelized butter and sugar as my binder, but that’s what keeps these easy enough for young children to make on their own (or for busy parents to make quickly!).

Cameron mixes his granola bars.

 My boys were able to measure, pour and mix these granola bars with only a little assistance.  I had to do the final spreading and baking, but the boys did most of the work themselves.  Unfortunately I timed things wrong the first time we made these bars and they were almost cooled and ready to cut at 5:15 when my boys and I came inside from playing.  I hadn’t made dinner yet and the boys “needed one” right then, so I cut a couple bars and we had them with milk.  Then I cut a couple more bars, added some apple slices, fresh veges and cottage cheese and called it dinner.  The hamburgers thawing in the refridgerator could wait for the next night, but enjoying the boys’ fresh-baked granola bars could not.  After all, it’s the daily ritual of sitting down at the dinner table and enjoying each other’s company that’s important to me.

Easy Granola Bars

2 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup ground flax seeds
3/4 cup raisins
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds or peanuts
3/4 cup unsweetened flaked or coursely shredded coconut
1/4 cup isolated protein powder (soy, whey, rice or pea), optional
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 15 ounce can condensed milk
1/2 cup honey or sweetener of your choice*

Pre-heat your oven to 325 degrees and grease a 9 x9 inch baking pan.  Combine the oats, flax seeds, raisins, pumpkin seeds, coconut, protein powder and salt in a bowl.  In a separate bowl, mix the milk and sweetener.  Pour the milk mixture over the oat mixture and stir until just moistened.  Press the granola into the prepared pan, then bake for about 30 minutes until the top is golden brown.  (If you do not have a 9 x 9 inch pan, you may press the granola into about 9 or 10  inches  of a 13 x 9 inch pan and leave the rest empty).

Let the granola cool completely, then cut it into 14-18 bars (about 1 inch by 4.5 inch each).  Store the bars in an air-tight container for up to one week.

* A Note about Sweeteners: Honey, maple syrup, white sugar, brown sugar, Splenda and stevia (1/2 teaspoon stevia powder or 1 teaspoon liquid) all work in this recipe, but honey and maple syrup add the best flavor.  If you use stevia, these bars will not brown.  You may want to add a teaspoon of honey to help the bars brown or rely on a timer for doneness.  You may also want to experiment with different levels of sweetness.  When I make these bars with dried cranberries, chocolate chips or extra raisins, I reduce the sweetener. 

Variations:  Try any combination of dried apples, dried bananas, dried cranberries, peanuts, slivered almonds, sunflower seeds,  or chocolate chips instead of the raisins, pumpkin seeds and coconut.  One yummy combination is 3/4 cup dried apple pieces, 3/4  cup raisins, 1/2 cup walnuts and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. (Your total add-ins should equal about 1.5 – 2 cups.) For a dairy-free version of this recipe, visit my blog, low oxalte family cooking

Traditional Granola Bars: You may also wish to make a more traditional granola bar or granola.  Do this by omiting the milk.  Start by toasting the oats and pumpkin seeds on a cookie sheet at 300 degrees for about 15 minutes until golden brown.  Meanwhile, put 3 tablespoons butter (or coconut oil) in a skillet on low heat.  When the butter melts, add 1/2 cup brown sugar, honey or maple syrup and stir until the mixture carmalizes (stevia and Splenda will not work). Pour all the other ingredients (except the milk) in a bowl, add the carmel mixture and the toasted oat mixture, and stir until just combined. Press the granola into a greased 9 x 9 inch pan and bake for about 30 minutes for traditional granola bars OR spoon the mixture onto a greased cookie sheet and bake at 325 degrees for about 25 -30 minutes, stopping and stirring the mixture every 8-10 minutes during the cooking for traditional granola.  Cool completely before cutting the bars or storing.

I got creative this year and made a train cake for Cameron and Aidan’s third birthday.  It was a huge hit!  In fact, a bunch of older kids circled around us as I was putting on the final touches at the swimming pool before the party.  One boy said it was the coolest cake he’d ever seen, and another said he wished he had a train cake for his birthday.  I was glowing in the praise of small boys (and girls), but the best reward was the smile on Cameron and Aidan’s faces when they saw the finished product.  They loved their birthday train cake!

Train Cake

The Boys' Cool Birthday Train Cake

This cake wasn’t too hard to make, and it was a lot yummier and moister than most store-bought birthday cakes where they tend to sacrifice taste for decorating ease.  This is only the second birthday cake I’ve made, and even with a few icing mistakes and a seriously lopsided engine, the cake was still fabulous.  I used two boxes of extra moist yellow cake mix and five loaf pans of various sizes filled half-way.  I used one “loaf” for the engine and two loaves, cut in half, for the freight cars and caboose.  I cut the other two loaves to use for parts, such as the cab on the caboose and the boiler on the engine, plus I had a little left over to munch on while I worked.  Alternately, you could use pre-made Sara Lee pound cakes and save yourself a step.

The assembled train cake engine.

The assembled train cake engine.

After I made the cake, I cut the pieces and assembled them to look like an engine and freight cars. Then I stuck them in the freezer.   Frozen cake is much easier to decorate (freezing helps you avoid getting crumbs in the icing), and you can make your cake in advance if you know you’ll be pressed for time the day before the party. I chose to decorate with cream cheese party icing (see recipe below), but if you want a really fancy cake with elaborate decorations then opt for the traditional buttercream icing.  I mixed my colors in separate bowls and iced each car on a sheet of wax paper.  I went ahead and did the white piping and lettering (you can use a store bought decorating pen for this, a well-washed syringe, or a plastic sandwich bag with the tip cut out—my usual method).  I then stuck everything back in the freezer, which may or may not work in your situation.  We had the party at a swim pool and I needed the cake to survive transfer and not melt too much until we ate it three hours later. Also, the frozen train cars were very easy to move from the waxed paper to the train tracks, where a room temperature cake might not have been.

Blowing out the caboose candles.

Blowing out the caboose candles.

I assembled my cake a few minutes before my guests arrived at the pool.  I used chocolate Twizlers for the track and the connectors between the cars.  The coal is made of crumbled Oreos, the wheels are Oreos, the circus animals are animal crackers and the logs are Pirouline rolled wafers.  You could also use pretzel sticks for logs and M&Ms for headlights or other decoration (it would have been cool to attach one to the middle of each wheel).  In fact, the possibilities are endless (check out Coolest Homemade Birthday Cakes for other cake ideas.)   To me this was the really fun part!

My total hands on time commitment was about three and a half hours:  a half hour of mixing cake batter, pouring it into pans and directing excited soon-to-be-three-year-olds (don’t forget to grease AND flour your pans!); another half hour cutting the loafs in half and “building” the caboose and engine (no helpers here); two hours mixing the icing, icing the cakes, preparing the foil cardboard holder and trying to fix a few minor engineering problems (luckily no helpers . . .); and finally, a half hour assembling the cake and adding the wheels, coal, circus animals, logs and tracks (while unsuccessfully trying to keep two excited birthday boys from poking it).  I also spent time thinking and dreaming about my construction project, how I would transport it, what I would use for the various decorations, and where I would store it.  All in all, this train cake was a lot of fun and a fabulous way to “up” my cool factor.

Have fun making your own birthday surprise!

Cream Cheese Party Icing

8 oz. cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 cups powdered sugar

Put the cream cheese, butter and vanilla in a small bowl and mix until creamy.  Slowly add sugar, mixing after each 1/2-3/4 cup until the sugar is fully mixed in.  This recipe makes enough to ice one 9 x13 sheet cake, and freezes easily.  It also keeps well in the refrigerator and can be made in advance (it’s easiest to work with room temperature icing when decorating).

My boys have a new favorite food–Jamaican Rice and Peas!  This is a staple from my vegetarian days that I haven’t made in years, but I had one of those crazy cravings and gave in.  It also seemed like a good learning opportunity for the boys.  What better way to introduce new cultures than through their food?

Yummy Jamaican Rice and Peas

Aidan loves his rice and peas (here made with kidney beans)

Rice and peas is an everyday staple in Jamaica.  Its subtle coconut flavor and creamy texture are a perfect complement to Jamaican Jerk Chicken and other spicy island treats (try it with salsa chicken and pineapple for an easy, Caribbean-inspired family meal).  It is traditionally made with pigeon peas, but black-eyed peas or kidney beans are often substituted.  I make it with canned peas because it’s so easy, but you can prepare  the raw peas yourself if you can’t find canned pigeon peas and want to make the traditional dish (use one cup raw peas with three cups water).  I sometimes use the  pepper and sometimes don’t.  Since you use a whole pepper and remove it before cooking, it doesn’t make the rice hot, but adds a nice, subtle pepper flavor.

The night I introduced Jamaican Rice and Peas to my boys, I talked with them about Jamaica and tropical islands.  They were fascinated and asked lots of questions and repeated the things I was telling them over and over.  I think it was the first time it had started to make sense to them that people live in many different places, and that people in different places eat different foods than we do.  It was fun watching them learn, and  it was a very pleasant way to make dinner conversation with soon-t0-be-three-year-olds.  I plan to buy a good map to keep in the kitchen, so as we cook and learn together I can point out where the different foods we eat come from.  I hope this will also make cooking and eating together as a family more fun.  It sure was fun last week.  And it was even more fun when Aidan requested “Island rice and beans” again for dinner a few nights later (we ate it as our main meal the second night since I already knew they liked it).

Jamaican Rice and Peas

1 can kidney beans, pigeon peas or black-eyed peas (15 ounces) (see note)
1 can unsweetened coconut milk (13.5 ounces)
1 cup water
2 cups brown rice (or substitute long or short grain white rice–not instant!)
1 habanero pepper (can substitute a Scotch bonnet or chili pepper or omit)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2-4 cloves garlic, crushed
salt to taste (start with 1/4 teaspoon)

Put all of the ingredients into a saucepan, including the liquid from the beans.  Bring to a boil, then simmer until most of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender (about 50 minutes for brown rice or 30 minutes for white rice).  Remove the habanero pepper and serve.

Makes 4 main dish or 8 side dish servings.

Note:  Most Jamaican chefs cook raw beans first (which are soupy like non-drained canned beans) which is why I use the canned bean “juice” in my recipe. It keeps things easy and more authentic tasting.  You may like the texture of this dish better, however, if you drain and rinse the beans first, then add an extra 1/2 -3/4 cup water to dish.  (I find that I need more water when I use white rice instead of brown rice.)

Picky Eater Pleaser:  Try leaving out the pepper, thyme, garlic and beans at first, so you just have coconut rice (you will have to add 1/2-3/4 cup water).  If your picky eater likes this, try adding back in the beans first, then add each “spice” one at a time each time you make the dish.  Alternately, make “coconut rice” and let family members add their own beans at the table.  You can also use 2-3 fresh thyme sprigs instead of the dried thyme and remove them before serving.

Menu Planner:  Rice and beans makes a filling vegetarian meal by itself, but it is also really good with spicy meat dishes like jerk chicken.  Try it as a side dish with salsa chicken and pineapple or as a main dish with a tropical fruit salad on the side (mango, banana and pineapple with coconut sprinkles-yum!).