Thursday, June 5, 2014

Culinary adventures - and Potato Beef Bake recipe

June has been an adventurous month for our family so far - in the culinary department, that is. After one of Joe's co-workers had great success with the Whole30 diet, he borrowed the book and got all excited about trying it ourselves. I thought it sounded like a good idea, too, as we both would like to lose some weight and just have better health in general. In a nutshell, the plan involves a complete avoidance of dairy, sugar, grains/gluten, alcohol, legumes, and a few vegetables like white potatoes and corn. What's left? Meat, vegetables, fruit, and some nuts are pretty much it.

Our few days on the diet have gone quite well. I've had almost no cravings for off-plan foods, and aside from a light headache the first couple days (probably because I wasn't eating enough), I'm feeling great. And the food has been surprisingly tasty! Joe has been a huge help in picking out recipes (the part that overwhelms me the most), going grocery shopping (the part that depresses me the most, since it's so much more expensive than our usual shopping), and with the cooking itself (the part that takes the most time, with primarily all-new recipes).

For anyone interested, Joe is blogging daily about our Whole30 adventure over on his health/fitness blog, One Man's Journey. Many of the posts include pictures of our meals as well as links to recipes.

On a semi-related note: I recently had a friend request a potato casserole recipe from me. It's one of the things I made this last weekend, in an effort to use up some of the potatoes and dairy I knew we wouldn't be using this month. My mom has made this casserole for years, and it's a family favorite: easy to put together (aside from all the peeling and chopping of potatoes), and a very frugal way to fill up a large crowd. My apologies for not having a photo to go along with this: maybe I'll snap one next time I make this recipe. After we're done with Whole30. ;)

Potato Beef Bake 
  • 6 Tb. butter or oil
  • 6 Tb. all-pupose flour
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp. dry mustard
  • 1/2 tsp. pepper (I usually leave this out)
  • 3 c. milk
  • 1 1/2 c. mayonaise (Miracle Whip also works)
  • 12 medium potatoes, cubed (or however many it takes to fill a 4-qt casserole to about 3/4 inch from the top)
  • 3 c. hamburger, cooked and seasoned as you like (other meats also work; I used chopped ham this time)
  • 2 onions, chopped (I use more like 1/2 an onion)
  • buttered bread crumbs 
Melt butter/oil in a saucepan and blend in flour, salt, mustard, and pepper. Add milk and cook, stirring constantly until smooth. Boil 1 minute, still stirring. 
Remove from heat and stir in mayo. Pour over beef, potatoes, and onion in a 4-qt casserole dish. Sprinkle with bread crumbs. 
Bake at 350 for 45-50 minutes, likely longer - potatoes should be fully cooked and soft. 
Serves 6-8.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

18 Months With Our Favorite Little Guy

See the mischievousness in that grin? :)

Our little man is now 18 months old, and we definitely have a full-fledged toddler on our hands! Many times over the past six months I've intended to post an update here, but daily life with this little guy is so full and so fun that I haven't gotten around to it. 

Here are some of the new things Lukas has been doing:

~ Communicating! Not so much verbally, though he babbles a fair bit and will usually repeat after us if we ask him to say "Ma-ma," "Da-da," "Truck," or "Hot." But he thoroughly enjoys "talking" to us with sign language. We've taught him a few basic signs - airplane, more, food, night-night, help, and milk - and it is pretty special to watch his eyes light up when he realizes we understand what he's telling us. :) We've found the signs to be really useful in church (since they're silent), and they were so handy on our recent road trip. Instead of just fussing and screaming, he was usually able to tell us what he wanted. Made the trip a lot more fun for all of us! We're planning on gradually teaching him more signs, while also continuing to work on practicing talking.

~ Exploring! In typical toddler fashion, Lukas is Mr. Independent these days. He has no fears of running away from us, or climbing up/down stairs, or poking his fingers into things. It's so fun to watch him discovering new things, but it sure keeps us on our toes! I have resorted to using a backpack leash in busy public settings a couple times - one of those things I always said I'd never do to my child, but hey, safety comes first. :) We are still working on learning how to "come" when Mama or Daddy calls, and on always holding hands when we're walking in public areas. Overall, though, he does pretty good and it is a delight to see our ordinary world through his unjaded eyes.

Happy little man!

~ Experimenting and playing! Buttons, levers, doors, switches - anything that moves is fascinating, especially if it produces some sort of reaction like noise or lights. He tries to figure out buckles and straps, tape measures and flashlights, door knobs and drawers. And of course any kind of technology is the absolute most amazing thing! :) We have to be sure to keep our cameras and phones out of his reach, and he's learned pretty well that the computer keyboards are off limits. He's been able to unlock my iPod for months now - scary! We did get a couple simple toy telephones for him to play with, and they see near-constant use. He's always wandering around with one in his hand, frequently holding it up to his ear and engaging in very serious "conversation," complete with fake laughter and lots of emotional grunting. ;) 

He also thoroughly enjoys any kind of repetitive activity, like bouncing balls across the room, popping bubble wrap, pushing pom-poms through a paper towel tube, taking lids on and off containers, playing peek-a-boo games, and so on. He's getting pretty good at imitating, whether it be laying on the floor to do exercises with mama, helping daddy put his shoes on, or waving his arms like the song director at church. It's so much fun to see his goofy sense of humor developing (wonder where he got that from?!), and he sure brings a lot of laughter to our home!

~ New experiences! We've taken a couple trips in recent months, and Lukas has gotten to meet lots of new people, including many relatives at Joe's Grandma's funeral. He tends to be shy for the first little bit, but warms up to people pretty quickly - especially if they get down on his level and play with him. He doesn't sleep the best away from home, which isn't surprising, but overall has been surprisingly well-behaved and adaptable. We're thankful he's such an easy-going guy most of the time! 

Other new experiences recently have been playing in a hotel swimming pool (a huge hit!), going to the zoo (running around was more interesting than the animals), interacting with a puppy (not as intimidated as I expected), checking out a real playground (the slide is his favorite), and playing with bubbles (he mostly wanted to sit and admire them as I kept blowing, continually signing "more!"). Fun times. :)

Mother's Day 2014

~ Eating and sleeping! He's been going through picky phases in recent months, and it's hard to guess from one day to the next what foods he will choose to deem acceptable. I'm really hoping he gets through this stage soon, as finding something he'll eat can be difficult. Breads and sweets are always a favorite, but we don't want him eating only those. :) Thankfully he does like avocado most of the time, along with eggs, bananas, and pears. Some days running around is just a lot more fun than sitting still to eat, and then he tries to fill up on milk at naptime and through the night. Oh, well - we'll keep working on keeping that tummy full. :) He has plenty of toothies now: all the incisors and canines, plus the first set of molars. It's been nice to have a break from teething the last several months.

As far as sleeping, he's adapted really well to our new day-shift schedule. We were on evenings until mid-March, and he'd almost never gone to bed earlier than 11-12:00 in his whole life. But now we generally get him in bed by 9-9:30, and - with one or two brief wakings for a bottle - he will sleep until 8-9:00 a.m., sometimes until closer to 10. With the longer night and his 2+ hour nap most days, I am feeling much more rested. It's been great to squeeze in more design work and other projects again, while still being able to focus on Lukas when he is awake.

We're so thankful Lukas has been such a healthy little guy! After enjoying perfect health for his first 15 months, he had his first minor cold in February and we watched a lot of the Olympics while snuggling. He caught another case of the sniffles in April, followed by a week dealing with thrush and then a one-day stomach bug. I enjoyed the extra snuggle time, but it was no fun to see him feeling poorly. After all that we're sure grateful he's back to normal and feeling great again. 

Those eyes!


We love you so much, little man, and can still hardly believe God has chosen to entrust us with the privilege of caring for and raising you. Each day with you is a fun new adventure, and we wouldn't trade this journey for anything. <3

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. :)

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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.


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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!