Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Product review: Annie's Homegrown

From time to time I get a chance to test a product for free, in exchange for filling out surveys or posting on social media. This past month I had such an opportunity, thanks to the Influenster site. If you enjoy surveys and free stuff, this is a great site to sign up with! They don't send a ton of emails, and I was easily accepted for the free sample program.

The product they gave me to try was an Annie's Homegrown Frozen Entree. I've heard of the Annie's brand for a while now, but hadn't tried it yet myself. We easily found the entrees in Target's frozen section, and the hard part was choosing which variety to go with - they all looked delicious! We ended up with the Lasagna with Meat Sauce, as pictured above.

A few days after our shopping trip we had an extra busy day with work and appointments. It was great to come home and just pop the lasagna in the oven. By the time I'd put together a salad and a vegetable to eat with it, the lasagna was baked and ready to eat.

At first I thought the dish looked quite small and I doubted it would be enough to fill up my husband and I, as well as our remarkably ravenous toddler. However, it was very filling and my serving actually ended up being a little more than I needed.

We were impressed with the delicious flavor and texture of the lasagna. It tasted very fresh and homemade, not at all cheap or kinda icky like other freezer meals I've had (not that I've had many, as we usually cook from scratch). There is absolutely nothing we could think of to complain about the dish, and we thoroughly enjoyed the meal. It was great to not feel guilty about eating it, and to know that it was made with organic pasta and tomatoes.

Though I don't think we will be buying Annie's Frozen Entrees any time soon - largely because the price is more than our budget can handle - it is good to know that there are healthy-ish options like this out there. If and when we are in a pinch and really need a hearty, home-style meal quick, Annie's is a great option. You can get a $2/1 coupon here, and I also saw some Annie's products on the Ibotta app recently - deals like that help make it more affordable!

We recommend the brand, and are grateful to Influenster for the chance to give it a try.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Favorite recipes: Chicken Pilaf Saute and Mediterranean Quinoa

I've had some requests from friends for a few of my favorite recipes lately, and am finally getting around to typing them out. Figured I'd post them here for easy sharing later on, too. Maybe I'll get around to taking pictures next time I make these recipes. :)


This first one is my most common way to fix chicken and rice: it's easy, healthy, frugal, and gluten free to boot. I've made it often for company because it's easy to get it going and then turn my attention to preparing the rest of the meal. It feeds a large group very economically, and most people seem to like it.

Chicken Pilaf Saute
8 c. cubed, cooked chicken (I always use half or less)
4 c. uncooked rice (I always use brown rice)
1/2 c. chopped onion
3/4 c. butter or oil of some kind
10 c. broth (can also use water in a pinch)
2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. thyme
2 c. slivered, toasted almonds (optional)

In a large soup-sized pan, saute chicken, rice, onion, and butter 10 minutes. Add broth, salt, and thyme. Bring to a boil, reduce heat. Cover and simmer 'til rice is done.

Mixing in the almonds. Can add a little cheese on the top, or save the almonds to sprinkle on top. If serving for company, it looks nicer to transfer to a casserole dish before adding the almonds/cheese.

Makes 8-10 servings.


And this is my favorite quinoa recipe. Again, super fast and easy, like all my most-used recipes. :) It comes out soft and creamy, almost with melt-in-your-mouth smoothness. It's great as a vegetarian main dish, or you can easily toss in a cup of ground beef or sausage (pre-cooked) if you like. I think I initially found this on recipes.com, but have made a number of tweaks.

Mediterranean Quinoa
1/4 c. butter or oil of your choice
1/4 c. chopped onion (or more, if you like onions)
1 bell pepper, chopped (can use more, and it's pretty if you have both red and green peppers)
1 1/2 c. uncooked quinoa (half regular quinoa and half red is my favorite)
5 c. broth (can use water)
1 tsp. Italian seasoning
2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped (or 1 can diced tomatoes)
3/4 c. pizza or pasta sauce
Salt to taste
Sharp cheddar cheese

Saute onions and peppers in a large skillet for 7 minutes or so. Add quinoa, broth, and Italian seasoning; bring to a boil. Cover and turn down heat, simmering for 20 minutes or until quinoa is soft and most of the liquid is absorbed. Stir in tomatoes, pasta sauce, and salt.

Smooth mixture out in the pan and sprinkle a little cheese (or a lot, hehe) over the top. Replace lid and let cheese melt just a bit before serving. (Obviously you could also transfer it to a casserole dish before adding the cheese in, then let it warm in the oven until serving; I just usually don't bother.)

Makes 6 servings.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Our little monkey's first birthday party

Well, we made through our first year as a family of three! What an incredible year it has been - so many sleepless nights, frustrating moments, learning experiences, hilarious memories...and so much joy. Definitely something worth celebrating. :D

Because Lukas' birthday, November 27, was the day before Thanksgiving this year, we decided to postpone his birthday celebration until that weekend, fitting in a small "party" between other family activities. We kept it low-key, with just my parents and immediate family there, not knowing how Lukas would respond to having too much attention. He did pretty good though - smashed the cupcake in his own cautious, methodical way, then asked to be washed off. Hmmm...we may have something of a neat nick on our hands. ;)

Lukas has had some sugar before, but only in small quantities. Call me an overly paranoid first-time mom, but I didn't want him to get too much sugar at once. I found a relatively healthy cupcake recipe on this blog, and made some adaptations. Then I tweaked an old family favorite for the frosting recipe. The cupcakes turned out surprisingly good, and everyone seemed to enjoy them. Here's what I ended up doing:

Healthified First Birthday Cupcakes 
5 ripe bananas (mine were frozen)
3/4 c. applesauce (I didn't have any sugar-free or plain on hand, so used some with cinnamon added)
3 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 1/2 c. whole wheat flour
3/4 c. butterscotch baking chips (could use chocolate, carob, or raisins) 
Mash bananas in mixer, then add remaining ingredients in the order listed, mixing each one in well. Pour into cupcake liners placed in a muffin pan, dividing into 12. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean.
Healthified Banana Frosting 
1 stick butter, softened
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1 ripe banana (don't use a frozen one for this!)
Powdered sugar to taste (normally I'd use honey, but that's not supposed to be good for little ones either, so... :P The banana adds quite a bit of sweetening so less is needed than normal frostings.)
Carob powder (optional - I mostly used it because I wanted brown-colored frosting) 
Beat first 3 ingredients together well, then add sugar to taste, followed by carob powder. Don't over-mix it like I did! It won't fluff up, so just mix until ingredients are thoroughly combined and the mixture is smooth and creamy. 
Note: This makes a LOT of frosting, so if you are only doing the dozen cupcakes you may want to halve the frosting recipe. We ended up making a banana sheet cake, too, and putting the extra frosting on that.

I found some decorating ideas on Pinterest and had a lot of fun turning the cupcakes into little monkeys. :D A cheap cookie decorating kit from Big Lots supplied the eyeball candies and the red frosting, and generic vanilla wafers from Aldi made the muzzles and ears. It all tied in perfectly with some matching birthday hats, blow-thingys, and banner I found at Dollar Tree last summer. Just perfect for our little monkey. :D

More snapshots from the party:

Enjoying the singing!

"Am I really allowed to touch this, Mama?"

Isn't his shirt perfect? I was tickled to find it at the thrift store this summer, for half off $0.60. Couldn't pass that up. ;)

So solemn, almost guilty-looking...

There's a smile! Must taste yummy. :)

Ready to be cleaned up - no fun being this sticky!

One of Lukas' gifts was a little bubble wand. He had a lot of fun watching and "catching" the bubbles.

A chair his own size! Happy birthday, little man!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Lukas Paul Valour: one year old!

A cute but fake little smile for the camera. ;)

Twelve whole months! I can't believe our little man is already a year old. Our easy-going baby has morphed into a wiggly, emotional toddler with a stubborn streak clearly inherited from his parent (which parent that is depends on who you ask, lol).

This past month has been so exciting in terms of locomotion. Around the first week of November he (finally!) learned how to crawl properly, and he was a real pro right off the bat. This means we must be sure to go through the baby gate quickly, keep the bathroom door closed, and grab things out of the fridge in a matter of seconds - otherwise a little shadow is suddenly beside us, not wanting to miss out on any of the fun. :)

This is what most of our photo shoot looked like...no sitting still here!

Even more exciting than crawling has been the progress made towards walking. Though not quite to the point of walking by himself, Lukas cruises around furniture at amazing speeds, has a grand time pushing his little push-cart around the living room, and is delighted whenever anyone holds both his hands and lets him run wherever he pleases. He can almost walk with just one hand being held, but after a few steps he gets nervous. I'm just glad he hasn't yet figured out how to climb up on the furniture, haha! Soon enough...

All this activity obviously wears Lukas out every day, and he has been napping longer than ever in his life - sometimes as much as 2-3 hours a day. I know that's not much compared to some children, but after him napping only 20-30 minutes most days for months, I'm finding it amazing to have a little longer margin of quiet time for getting computer work done. It's a good thing, too, since he needs a lot more attention when he is awake. He has an unending fascination for my computer keyboard (I can't blame him, really, since he sees me giving it so much attention while I'm working), and we're still learning the meaning of "No." Ah, toddlerhood....so many lessons in patience! :)

Mr. Solemn. He wasn't in a very smiley mood the day we took these pictures.

Speaking of sleeping, Lukas has been in his own room for almost a month now. The transition has been surprisingly easy, and he went from waking 3-5 times most nights to only once, sometimes not at all. Generally he sleeps from around midnight to 8, has a bottle and diaper change, then sleeps another hour or two. Joe and I usually manage to snag 7-8 hours in there somewhere, which has been lovely. Joe has been the one to most often get up and help Lukas if he wakes up in the night - after wrestling a 20-pound boy all day in addition to all the usual housework, cooking, and my design jobs, I sleep pretty hard. ;)

Our little man has quite the voracious appetite these days, usually eating two large meals of solid food plus snacks and bottles of milk and diluted juice through the day. Oatmeal, cheerios, pears, and avocado (no, not mixed together, ha) are his favorite foods, but he usually eats pretty much anything we give him. He's a pro at feeding himself now and can really gobble food up by the handful. He's usually pretty good about not throwing food on the floor, which we're very thankful for - our dining area is carpeted and our linoleum-floored kitchen is too tiny to hold his chair.

With Daddy's help we got some genuine grins and giggles. And look at that wild hair!

With all the focus on movement this month communication hasn't been a top priority. But he has definitely become more emotional and vocally expressive, and it's usually pretty easy to tell if his cry is caused by hunger, fear, pain, tiredness, or frustration. He has a shockingly loud scream that makes an appearance too often on grumpy days, especially if he's teething at the time. Often he'll make soft little whimpering sounds, like he's trying to tell a sad story or make us feel sorry for him - it's adorable! The most fun thing, though, is that he sometimes imitates various sounds we make. If we use a growly voice or a sing-song tone or a whisper, he'll often try to copy us. And if we repeat back the sounds he is making, we can have a little "conversation", usually ending in giggles. Apparently he knows what we're "talking" about, at least. ;)

Lukas' birthday was the day before Thanksgiving, so we had a small celebration with my family while we were together for the weekend. I'll write a separate post with details and photos of our little party. It was really special to have our first Thanksgiving with him, and to introduce him to all the out-of-state relatives who gathered for the holiday. We have so, so much to be thankful for, and right up at the top of the list is this precious little person that God has entrusted to us. What a treasure and privilege!

Monday, December 2, 2013

A contest!

Hello friends!

If you're connected to me on Facebook, you might be sick of seeing this by now, but there is a giveaway in progress through December 14th. The main prize is a complete set of The Truth Chronicles, all autographed by Tim and me. Follow the link to my Facebook Author Page and click on the "Giveaway" tab to get started. http://tinyurl.com/ongwalm Be sure to share with your friends, too.

Also, just so you're aware, my main website/blog, www.jwexperience.com, now has an active store where you can purchase the books individually or in sets (the set option will be active this week) directly from me. They make great gifts for children ages 8-12 in particular, though many younger and older children as well as adults have enjoyed them, too. Read what one mother had to say:

"My 9-year-old was sent to bed at 7pm and instead stayed awake reading by flashlight until midnight, finishing the first two books of The Truth Chronicles series in one night! He came to me saying they are some of the best books he's ever read. I made him get some sleep before starting on the 3rd book in the series. We'll be sure to leave book reviews soon! Thank you soooo much for the books!!" ~ Tammy from Washington

If you get a chance to read these books, be sure to let me know what you think.

God bless, and have a wonderful day!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Lukas: the 11th month

It's hard to believe that our little man has already been with us almost a year! His ready smile and giggle, his sweet snuggles and silly games - all have brought so much joy to our formerly quiet home, and we are unspeakably blessed and grateful. Even in the middle of teething, when it seems he only communicates by ear-splitting screaming. And yes, even when it comes to explosive, nasty diapers. ;)

October has been a full month for us. We took a road trip out to the Cincinnati area for a week, spending time with friends and doing some sight-seeing. We tried to limit most days to no more than 5-6 hours on the road, and Lukas did really well for the most part. I will say that we definitely learned the value of a snack-catcher full of cheerios! ;) He was a trooper the days we carried him around the Creation Museum and other sites, and he especially had fun meeting a new little friend, Drew, there at the Museum.

Four teeth are easily seen now, and the other two on top will be showing soon!

Coming back home was a bit of an adjustment for all of us. Lukas had a week or so of fussiness, likely brought on in part by teething. He had his 5th tooth pop through the last day of our trip, and his 6th one made its appearance last week (both on top, beside his front two). They're sharp little toofies, and he sure likes to use them to chomp down on anything he can stick in his mouth (watch your fingers!).

The latest and greatest thing around here is that Lukas is now pulling himself up to standing on pretty much anything that holds still long enough (and he's fast now!). It's a scary thing for this mama to watch, seeing his shaky legs and knowing how easily he could tumble - and often does. But he's finally learning that he needs to keep hanging on to things instead of trying to jump around in his excitement...and he's also getting a lot better at catching himself when he loses his balance. Cruising around the furniture has started happening just in the past week, and he's one excited little man!

Most of our photo session consisted of him "talking and/or moving towards me, LOL.
The ball provided a bit of distraction to keep him in one place.

Scooting around the floor still happens, especially in the kitchen where there's nothing he can really hang on to for standing up. Sometimes he sits down and hitches himself along with his arms, other times he does a funny sort of three-legged crawl, like a lame puppy. :) I know he'll learn to crawl for real at some point, and I'm curious to see if it happens before or after he takes off walking. So much fun to see him learning new things!

Oh, and his absolute favorite game right now is "peek-a-boo". He's started grabbing at any kind of cloth - clothing, a blanket, a diaper, my skirt - and holding it over his face, just quietly waiting for us to notice and say, "Where's Lukas?" Then he pops out with a grin and a giggle, only to repeat it a dozen times. So fun! :D

Emptying cupboards and shelves is another favorite activity. Most of the lower cupboards in the kitchen are fine for him to play in, and he has a grand time pulling out all the pans and banging them around while I'm cooking. Makes for a little bit of work cleaning up after him, but it won't be too much longer before he can start learning how to put them back, too.

Our sweet little man. <3

Several of our friends, including a couple at church, have little boys around Lukas' age. We've seen them several times in the past month, and it's amusing to see how excited Lukas gets when he sees someone close to his size. He starts up a happy, friendly babble, wants to feel their clothes and faces and fingers, and has no qualms about sharing toys or even his beloved Cheerio container. Definitely no shyness here! We're thankful for these little "friends" God has provided already, and it'll be fun to see how he continues to interact as they get older.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Lukas: Our little man at 10 months

"Little man" does seem to be the perfect name for Lukas these days, as he has grown up so much in the past month. Not only has he had a physical growth spurt, gaining 1 lb. 4 oz. and growing an inch taller, but he's acting a lot more grown up in other ways, too. Suddenly our cuddly baby has been replaced by a wiggly almost-toddler who must look and feel and taste everything in sight, until he drops from exhaustion. :)

Lukas is very gradually making strides (almost literally) in mobility. He's not very fast at it yet, but he's figured out how to scoot around on his bottom. Once in a while he'll try scooting on his tummy, usually backwards, but generally he prefers the sitting position. This has allowed him to check out all the kitchen cupboards, explore under the dining table and under Mommy's desk, and find all kinds of fun things to play with. :) It's exciting to see him checking out our home in new ways, and we are gradually baby-proofing so he can explore more freely. We feel spoiled to have gone 10 months without doing any baby-proofing at all!

Standing up is the latest and greatest when it comes to excitement. Oh-so-thrilling! He still needs a lot of support, but enjoys walking around the house while we hold his hands. Lately he's been pulling himself up to his knees on any available objects (Mommy's legs, a footstool, the toilet...), so it likely won't be that much longer before he makes it all the way to his feet and starts cruising in earnest. The days of pretty stuff on the coffee table are numbered! :)

All this increased activity has made naptimes more essential. The last couple weeks I've been making a point to lay him in his bed with a bottle around the same time each afternoon. Though that never satisfied him before, now he will usually go to sleep very quickly and easily, often sleeping 60-90 minutes at a time. Since he has never napped regularly before, and rarely napped more than 30 minutes at a stretch even when little, this is amazing! I've been really grateful for the chance to get a few more things done around the house in that window of time. He's still waking 2-3+ times a night for food, but as long as it's not every hour or more as it has been a few nights we can live with that. For now. :)

Communication has been an exciting area of development again. In last month's update I wrote about Lukas' fascination with the neighborhood dogs and imitating their barking. We can now ask him, "What does the puppy say?" and 90% of the time he promptly answers with his soft little "Woof-woof". So adorable! He still hasn't made the visual-audio connection yet, but we recently got several board books with lots of puppy illustrations and I'm sure he'll be enjoying them.

Toys continue to be a lot of fun. His favorites are a tractor and a truck - spinning the wheels occupies a lot of time! He also enjoys flipping through board books, and rolling/throwing avocado pits (clean, large ones) across the kitchen floor. :) Pretty much anything new is interesting and must be examined closely. Sure would be fascinating to know what's going on in his little mind! Oh, and he now clearly recognizes himself and both Joe and I in photos or video, which is a lot of fun. I suspect the photo books I put together for him on Shutterfly are going to be very popular reading material. :)

Lukas is enjoying his solid food a lot more these days. Oatmeal is a new favorite, along with peaches, pears, and avocado. He's especially been enjoying the miniature peaches and pears from Grandpa and Grandma's farm! We try to give him two meals most days, and he's getting more consistent about eating a fair amount each time. He's very clear when he's done, though: the lips are locked shut and he shakes his head in a definite "no". ;) Nursing is gradually tapering off as my supply continues to dwindle...an emotional thing for me, but I'm thankful we had as many months as we did.

This month's challenge was a couple weeks or so when Lukas was apparently testing out his lungs, subjecting us to large amounts of ear-splitting SCREAMING at the tiniest frustration or for no reason at all. This wore Mama out pretty quickly! To our relief, this past week has been much better in this regard, the turning point being...

...two new teeth popped through! He now has 2 on top and 2 on bottom, so much chomping is in order. ;) We hadn't realized they were so close to coming through, but it does definitely provide an explanation for those extra difficult two weeks! Since then he has been practically angelic, the sweet little easy-going fellow we've come to love so much. We're hoping this continues for our upcoming road trip early next month!