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).

If you’ve been wanting to make cookies with your kids but are nervous about your kids eating the dough, try egg-free cookies.  You can find lots of recipes on-line, but be fore-warned: eggs are an important chemical component of baking, and most egg-free cookies and cakes have a slightly weird or crumbly consistency.  That said, you can find some really yummy egg-free cookies that are worth experimenting with.

Donovan loves licking the spoon after making egg-free cookies!

My sister-in-law, Katie, and nephew, Donovan, recently sent me a recipe for Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies from Feeding the Whole Family: Cooking with Whole Foods by Cynthia Lair.  Katie loves this cookbook–both the author’s philosophy about introducing healthy foods to young children (the author doesn’t make separate meals!) AND the recipes.  Katie has loved almost every recipe she’s tried.  If you’re new to whole foods cooking, it simply means using unprocessed or minimally-processed foods whenever possible, such as whole grains, raw nuts, vegetables, fruits, and legumes.  It means keeping your food as healthy and as natural as possible.  If this seems a little “too healthy” for you, you might try adding more whole foods to your menus as a way to add extra nutrition, not necessarily as an entire lifestyle change.  Katie is a regular mom who succumbs to boxed macaroni and cheese and fish sticks on the nights she needs to get out of the house early for her book club meeting (and feels guilty later . . .).  Luckily, Cynthia Lair’s cookbook allows Katie to “balance out” her son’s nutrition and to feel good that on average she’s doing just fine.

Donovan mixes the dough all by himself.

Donovan made Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies for his play date friends last  week–a fun, self-esteem building activity that he could do (mostly) by himself.  He measured, poured and mixed all the ingredients.  He even spooned a few cookies onto the cookie sheets himself.  Best of all, Donovan got to lick the spoon when they were finished because the dough was egg-free.  The only problem: he and his friends ate all the cookies in one day!  My boys and I had the same problem, but for a very different reason.  I foolishly announced that these cookies were special because they could eat some of the dough at the end, and my boys took this as an invitation to eat all the dough they wanted (silly mommy).  In fact, they were really upset when I took enough dough to make three measly cookies just so I could see how the finished product turned out (I have to admit the dough was really good . . .).   Our verdict: a yummy, easy recipe that parents can feel good about!

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

(from Feeding the Whole Family: Cooking with Whole Foodsby Cynthia Lair)

Look at me!

1 1/2  cups rolled oats
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
1/3 cup chocolate chips
Preheat the oven to 350. Combine the oats, flour, and salt  in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, mix the maple syrup, butter, and vanilla. Add the wet ingredients to dry mixture and mix well. Stir in the nuts and chocolate chips. With moist hands form dough into 3 inch cookies and place them on lightly oiled cookie sheet or one lined with parchment paper. Bake the cookies for 15 to 20 minutes until edges are brown. Enjoy!
Makes 1 dozen 3 inch cookies

Want to beat the heat and have a little fun with the kids?  Make popsicles! It’s been at least 96 degrees every day in Missouri for over two weeks (107 last Tuesday!) and my entire yard, plus the garden and the kids are drooping.  I can’t bring myself to cook much or to eat hot foods, so my boys and I have been slurping breakfast smoothies and making frozen pops instead.

Boy eating popsicle.

Aidan loves his apple juice popsicles!

The easiest way to make a popsicle is to put your favorite juice in a plastic popsicle mold and freeze it at least 6 hours or overnight.  Alternatively, you may use ANY small, food safe container with any kind of wood or plastic stick as your popsicle mold (put saran wrap over the container to keep the stick in place until it freezes).  Be creative for some fun!

If you want to experiment with popsicles, keep a few things in mind.

  • Most popsicle recipes can double as a slushie or a smoothie.
  • Conversely, most smoothie or slushie recipes can double as popsicles (omit the ice cubes from slushie recipes).
  • Most things don’t taste as sweet when you freeze them, so you might want to add slightly more sweetener than you think you need.
  • Coconut milk can be substituted for milk or yogurt in most popsicle recipes if you want a dairy-free alternative.
  • You can also use water or juice as a substitute for milk.
  • Use honey, maple syrup, liquid Stevia, Splenda or confectioners sugar to sweeten pops instead of regular sugar or your pop will be grainy.  Be sure to blend the sweeteners well!
  • You can use whole, “chunky” or fully pureed fresh fruit.
  • Liquid expands when freezing so leave a little room at the top.
  • If you use milk or yogurt, partially freezing the pop in an ice cream maker first will give you a creamier pop.
  • Using Greek yogurt in place of regular yogurt gives a creamier, higher protein pop.
  • Using condensed milk instead of regular milk gives a creamier pop (although I personally don’t like the taste as much.)
  • Hand wash plastic molds!  The heat from dishwashers can release toxins from the plastic which will get into your food the next time you use them.
  • Hold the popsicle mold in your hand (or run under warm, not hot, water) until the popsicle slides out easily.

Here’s a couple fabulous popsicle recipes to get you started.  You may want to add more sugar if you aren’t on a controlled carbohydrate diet.  I tend to go really light on the sugar or sweetener because I don’t enjoy overly sweet desserts.

Coconut Cream Pops

1 14 oz. can coconut milk
1 cup milk or water (or go crazy and add more coconut milk . . .)
1/2 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut (not flaked!)
3 tablespoons honey OR 1/4 cup powdered sugar OR 1/2 tsp. liquid Stevia (see note)
1 teaspoon coconut extract
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Mix all ingredients until well blended.  Pour into popsicle molds and freeze overnight (at least 6 hours.)

Yeild: about 3 cups popsicle mix (This makes 12-14 pops with my molds)

Note: You may want to use up to 3/4 cup powdered sugar in this recipe if you like things really sweet.

Melon Pops

4 cups cantaloupe, watermelon, or honeydew melon
1/2 cup plain yogurt (optional)
1 cup orange juice (or apple juice or pineapple juice)

Put all of the ingredients in the blender and mix until well-pureed.  Pour the mix into popsicle molds and freeze overnight or at least 6 hours.  Alternatively, make different layers using watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew for a pastel-striped fun pop.  Let each layer set (about 3 hours) before adding the next layer.  My favorite combinations are cantaloupe with orange juice and honeydew with pineapple juice.

Yeild: About 3 1/2 cups mix

Strawberry Lemonade Pops

8 ounces strawberries
1 1/2 cups water
1/4 cup lemon juice (juice from 1 good-sized lemon or two smaller lemons)
3 tablespoons honey OR 1/4 cup confectioners sugar or 1/2 teaspoon liquid Stevia*

Put all of the ingredients in the blender and blend until well mixed.  Put into popsicle molds and freeze overnight or at least 6 hours.

Yeild: about 3 cups popsicle mix

Note:  Again, you may want to increase the sugar in this recipe.

Time Saver: To save time, use 1 1/2 cups lemonade from concentrate in place of the water, lemon, and sugar.

Get the Kids to Help:  My boys love measuring and putting all the ingredients in the blender and pushing the button.  They also love putting the sticks into the popsicle molds.  Most young children, however, don’t have the patience to wait for the popsicles to be done six hours later.  If you know you’re going to make special popsicles, you might want to freeze some plain juice ones the night before to have as a snack when the coconut cream ones are setting.  Alternatively, add a little ice to some of the stawberry lemonade mix and blend it in the blender for about 15 seconds to make a slushee.  Having a slushee now keeps kids from being upset that they have to wait until tomorrow for their popsicles.

We’re two weeks into the beastly hot weather in Missouri and my boys and I have the crabby fussies.  We don’t want to eat.  We don’t want to cook.  We want to go outside and play without passing out. . .

Luckily, cantaloupe and watermelon are starting to ripen in my garden and it’s time to make cold, melon slushees.  In fact, I just finished sipping one, and it was so refreshing that I had to share.  The following recipe is for cantaloupe slushies, but keep in mind that you can substitute watermelon, honeydew or casaba melon for the cantaloupe.  You might also like lemon juice in place of the lime.  Even better, if you have any slushie left over, pour it into popsicle molds and freeze for at least 8 hours.  My boys gobble these popsicles up!

Cantaloupe Slushies

4 cups cantaloupe, refrigerator cold or slightly frozen
2 tablespoons lime juice
2  tablespoons honey or sugar*
8 ice cubes

Put the melon, lime juice and sugar in the blender and  blend until combined (If your melon isn’t quite ripe you may have to add a little water).  Add the ice and blend until “slushie” (about 10 – 15 seconds.) Pour into serving glasses and enjoy!

Yeild: About 4 cups of slushie.

Note: Adjust the sugar and lime juice in this recipe based on the sweetness of the melon and your own tastes.  (Usually it’s best if you keep the ratio even). I’m getting fresh cantaloupe from my garden right now and it’s so sweet, I  don’t think it needs more than half a tablespoon of sugar.  Of course, my boys would prefer that I halve the lime juice and double the sugar . . .

Popsicles: If you plan to freeze slushies into popsicles, use confectioners sugar or honey or you’ll end up with a grainy consistency.

Variation 1:  Add 1/2 cup plain yogurt to the cantaloupe for a creamier slushie.  Yogurt is especially good in the popsicles!

Variation 2:  Substitute watermelon or honeydew melon in place of the cantaloupe.   Also try lemon juice in place of the lime.

Variation 3:  Substitute 1/2 cup orange juice for the lime juice and sugar.