Large family eating: the breakfast edition


You know, routines are against nature for me so telling you over and over again what we ate this week already feels weird. On the other hand, you the readers seem to really enjoy this so let’s try to reach a mutually agreeable agreement: I’ll keep telling you what we ate but I’ll try to give it a new twist every week. Just so no one gets bored.

This week, I decided to share how we do breakfast. The important thing you need to know about breakfast is that there is never anything good to eat in the house. Namely, we do not buy breakfast cereals, yummy spreads or juice. Yeah, you read that right. These things do not exist in our house. They render our children completely psycho and prevents them from eating anything else. I’m sure you know the drill: teen gets up, teen eats cereals and milk. One hour later, teen is still hungry, teen snacks on cereals and milk. At lunch time, teen is not hungry, teen nibbles some lunch food. One hour later, teen is hungry, teen lunches on cereals and milk. Teen comes home from school and snacks on cereals and milk. Half-an-hour later, teen is not-so-hungry for supper anymore. After supper, teen sneaks in the kitchen for a bowl or cereals and milk. Teen watches TV and eats cereals and milk before going to bed. You can imagine the same day and replace “cereals and milk” by “Nutella and toast” and you have my family. It’s not so bad when they are little and you control the means of production (or, in my case, the they keys to the pantry). But it’s a lot harder to enforce a strict snack routine on teenagers. If you don’t believe me, just wait a few years. I’ll be the one laughing at you in my corner saying “Told you so…”

(It always amazes me how easy raising teenagers is to people who don’t have them. I just read through an entire Facebook convo about teens dating where most of the comments and suggestions came from people who were, by their own admission, “years away from that stuff, Thank God!”)

My point in all this is: cheap carbs and my kids don’t go well together. Or rather, it’s like a bad relationship: can’t be together, can’t stay apart.

So we tried saying “just for the weekend”. But that made it worst. As long as the food was in the house, as long as there was even the faintest hope of getting the food, they would just hold off eating until they could eat the food. And they got hangrier and hangrier, and threw bigger and bigger fits, in the hope of wearing us down. Others just got sneaky. Cheap carbs really bring out the best in my kids. Not.

So we just stopped buying the stuff. And they got hungry, and eventually they got over it. So what do we eat for breakfast?

Collage_Bacon

Overnight slow-cooker oatmeal. About once a week I make slow-cooker oatmeal with apples and cinnamon. I know that you would love to have the recipe but I eyeball the whole thing and I can’t tell you. I tried to give the recipe to a friend off the top of my head, she made it and it was a bust. In other words, just go foraging on the Internet for slow-cooker oatmeal and you should come across something that will suit your fancy. A little tip: don’t cook it all night, it makes the clean-up really difficult. It’s much better to grease the slow-cooker generously and cook it for 2-3h on the timer. It will keep warm in the crock-pot until morning.

Bagels and cream cheese. I don’t think too much description is required here, is there? We love Kettleman bagels in Ottawa. That’s about as close to a bagel as Ottawa gets.

Peanut butter toast. Once again, self-explanatory. My family loves PBJ, honestly, I don’t get it. I think that my French genes prevent me from developing any appreciation whatsoever for PBJ. I can’t even use PB in my house for all the J stuck around the rim. These people are animals.

Smoothies. We keep it simple: frozen fruits, a drop of maple syrup and milk. Some people like to add peanut butter too. Some people are weird.

Bacon and eggs. Three times are week — or more if we run out of bagels — we make bacon and eggs for breakfast. The children have much better concentration and sustained energy when they start the day with a good wad of protein.

Yogourt and maple syrup. Just plain yogourt with maple syrup.

Sometimes the children will have all of the above in one breakfast. Often two.

12096337_10153581844201278_6481882513675667886_n

 

Large Family Eating: The Thanksgiving Edition Cont’d


Last week’s post was all about our favorite Thanksgiving Recipes and this week’s post will not be too much different: we literally ate leftovers all week. Instead of showing you the warmed-over version of what I cooked, I’m giving you the pictures from the day it was served. It looks a lot better that way.

I am still blown-away by how generous people were to our family after my miscarriage a month ago. I’m emphasising it because we’ve had meals prepared for our family for a month now and… How can I say this… It’s been eye-opening and humbling. I have never brought a meal to someone who has miscarried. I remember once dropping something off at the house of an acquaintance who had recently miscarried. It was on recycling day and her curb was covered,I mean covered, with empty pizza boxes. It was as if my family had kept all the pizza boxes for two years in the garage and suddenly put them out to the curb. I remember thinking (yes, I am that aweful of a person) “Really?” It just seemed so extreme to me. In the back of my head, the thought that maybe someone was taking advantage of the situation might have reared it’s ugly head. Now I can tell you: yes, really. A dear friend who sent us a gift card for M&M wrote in her card to expect a complicated miscarriage to have the same footprint as a full term pregnancy. I’m starting to believe it. Long story to say: people have been feeding us, people are absolutely amazing, it is as appreciated as it is needed.

Thanksgiving has marked the end of my post-traumatic love fest with comfort foods. Now is the time to get serious with health and wellness, starting with cleaning-up my eating. My eating is pretty clean already and I am researching to what extent claims that gluten and dairy can worsten a thyroid condition may be trusted. Separting the wheat (ha!) from the pseudo-science is an extreme sport, let me tell you. I’d love to read your experiences with food elimination and if you were successful in turning-off the little voice in your head telling you that there is no medical basis to gluten sensitivity. I’m so eager to feel good again and I’ve received such confusing and inappropriate care from my doctor that I feel like any twerp on Facebook with a made-up degree could sign me up for a kool-aid retreat if it promised results.

Collage_Thanksgiving Bread

I made Artisan Bread. I’m not very good at it, especially at getting the crust just right. I love how the kids all made turkey sandwiches right off the bat. As they say, leftovers are the best part.

Collage_Thanksgiving veggies

For veggies we had lettuce, cranberry apple orange sauce and boozy squash. Oh and sinful Brussel Sprouts, with cheese, bacon and onions. My husband made mashed potatoes and we researched on Google why mashed potatoes get gluey. Answer: overcooked and overworked. Turns out potatoes are fragile little things. You need to gently coax the starch out lest it comes out galloping and turn your mash to glue.

Collage_Thanksgiving squash

Collage_Thanksgiving turkey

Once we were all turkeyed out, we went for a walk. You know the nice thing about being completely wiped-out-of-shape? You can take a 4km slow walk and you’ll feel like you just run 12km.

Isn’t my country road absolutely stunning?

Collage_Walk in Middleville

Large Family Eating: The Thanksgiving Edition


When it comes to traditional meals, I’m of the school of “If in ain’t broke, don’t fix it” Every year in September or October, Canadian lifestyle and cooking magazines release their Thanksgiving issues where re-inventing the wheel seems to be the key concept. Here’s some inconvenient truth for you: if you can’t stand your mother-in-law’s turkey and fixin’ , chances are that her cooking talents are lacking. Next year, don’t try to stuff guinea fowl with some fusion South Asian mixture. Just get a good cookbook and give MIL a break. Here, tradition is Queen.

I am not a naturally good cook. My husband and I were laughing at our early days as a couple because we had a rotation of two meals: tortellinis with tomato sauce (from a can) and tuna sandwiches. I grew-up surrounded by my mother’s excellent cuisine so it didn’t take long for me to put on my try-hard pants and broaden my horizons.  My mother-in-law (who is a good cook, wave!) gave me a subscription to Canadian Living Magazine, my mother gave me a few good cookbooks and I learned by trial and error. I don’t consider myself a good cook yet — I’m way to distracted and rushed to do a good job of anything — but I can follow a recipe. Here are a few of our family favorite Thanksgiving recipes (with pictures from 2 years ago because Thanksgiving lunch is tomorrow in this family. But hey, a turkey’s a turkey…)

THE TURKEY AND THE STUFFING: Sage Butter Turkey with Shallot Sausage Stuffing. We need to breed turkeys with bigger cavities because there is never enough of that stuffing. I usually double the stuffing recipe, stuff the turkey, beat a few eggs into the leftover stuffing, pour it into a loaf pan and bake it into a “stuffing loaf”. I usually make a whole pound of sage butter and keep some for the bread. Food poisoning tip: take the butter you will need for the bread out before you start playing with the turkey so you don’t cross contaminate your butter by repeatedly putting your raw-meated hands in it. Buttering the turkey is a highlight of Thanksgiving and the children fight for it. We cook the bird on the BBQ (you’re welcome, neighbourhood). I don’t have a recipe for roasting a turkey on the BBQ. All you need to remember is: indirect heat for a long time. If you can use an aluminum pan to catch the drippings, you can baste away but not until the turkey is somewhat cooked: you don’t want too much heat variations by opening and closing the BBQ repeatedly.

Collage_Turkey 2012

THE CRANBERRY SAUCE: I always make the cranberry apple sauce from Canadian Living.

THE BRUSSELS SPROUTS: Where I manage to make Brussels Sprouts (a) totally edible, and (b) bad for you (sorry, can’t have one without the other). Here’s how: first I pare the sprouts and blanch them for 4 minutes (maybe?); then I cut them in two (because surface matters for what is about to follow); then I fry some bacon and set it aside; I pour out most of the fat but leave what is coating the pan; then I add some butter (yes!!! I absolutely do); then I add some finely sliced onions and cook them until golden but not too much yet; then I add the sprouts and brown them in the butter; wait, we’re not done here; then I put them in a baking dish, add the bacon and — believe it or not — COVER IT WITH CHEESE. Then I bake the whole sinful thing. Then I pray that my kids won’t want to eat any.

THE SQUASH: My favorite squash recipe comes from a tattered printed email I received after after a youth group pot luck where it was served. You take dried fruits (I like to use a mix of cranberries and currant but anything goes, even raisins) and throw them in a pot with booze. Yes you do. Cover the berries in booze (Sherry comes to mind) and bring to a simmer. Let it simmer until the fruits are plump and the booze is mostly evaporated. I can’t remember if I cover it or not but you’ll figure it out. Meanwhile, roast the butternut squash according to your favorite method. Scoop the flesh into a bowl, add the booze-soaked berries, a generous serving of butter, salt and pepper, et voila.

THE GRAVY: by now, I am totally exhausted and my mother-in-law, who is a pearl, remembers the gravy which I have completely overlooked. She makes it using the turkey drippings, some chicken broth and a thickening agent such as flour, cornstarch or Bisto stuff, depending on what I have on hand.

THE DESSERTS: My mother-in-law usually brings the desserts and the selection is Thanksgiving themed. If you want a good pumpkin pie recipe, check this one out from Smitten Kitchen.

That’s the Thanksgiving Dinner with the English side of the family. On the French side, we celebrate everything with my favorite dish of all time, the traditional “tourtiere-that-is-not-a-meat-pie”. I promise to write a post about it but I need to find some pictures and a recipe that corresponds more-or-less to what my mother makes to share with you. Just to tell you how much I adore this traditional French Canadian dish, when I was pregnant with my first child and very sick, my mother made a tourtiere for my birthday and I remember throwing-up and coming back to the table to start again. Now that’s commitment.

Tomorrow I might get adventurous and try some kind of scalloped sweet potatoes. Anyone knows of a good recipe?

Leaving you with my favorite quote this Thanksgiving, in memory of Paul Prud’homme:

Anderson: So how to you cut the turkey to be able to stuff it with a duck stuffed with a chicken?

Paul Prud’homme: Very carefully so you don’t hurt yourself!

Large Family Eating: Meal planning edition


I’m not back to my normal level of cooking and photographing yet so this week I thought I would bore you with my high tech meal planning tool and how I use it.

First, a few ground rules.

  • I do not shop specials. We live in the country and the mileage involved in shopping specials makes it moot. My time is valuable.
  • I buy all my meat from Costco. Costco’s regular prices usually match grocery store’s sale prices. Someday I will buy ethically produced, grass fed, local meat. I just don’t have the enough cycles to submit to the waiting-lists-suddenly-buy-a-whole-hog game. Someday.
  • My husband does the Costco. He always buys the same things and I figured out how to use them. It’s a modern version of the hunter/gatherer gig: he brings home the mammoth and I cook it. We buy meat, dairy, eggs and bread at Costco, among other things.
  • I do the produce and grocery runs two or three times a week.
  • I’m not sharing how much we pay in groceries every month because (a) it’s obscene, and (b) it increases every week these days.

My meal planning tool is called a clipboard. By that, I mean an actual board with a clip on top where I can affix paper and tuck a writing implement. On the piece of paper, I write the days of the week and I leave room for notes. Notes are usually events or activities that have an incidence on meal preparation. For instance, if we are going to a party or if I need to have supper ready earlier than usual or if I am coming home from an afternoon activity later than 3pm, etc. (because if dinner hasn’t started by 3:00, it’s not happening.) On the right hand side  is a grocery list column, to write…. The grocery list! I know: high tech doesn’t even begin to describe it.

(If you think that Excel would do all this for me, (a) you are probably right, (b) you have never seen me use Excel, it’s stand-up comedy; and (c) some teenager stole my mouse and I’m using the track pad on my lap top 100% of the time. Using Excel with a track pad is prohibited by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms under  “cruel and unusual punishment.” I don’t get paid enough for that shtuff.)

 

There’s always song lyrics on my lists. This one is from Taylor Swift ‘s All Too Well. That song is superbly written. I have a songwriting hobby that is mostly limited to listening to other people’s work and wishing I could write like that.

Once my little spreadsheet is written, I take the clipboard with me for a walk. We have a pantry and two freezers, both of which contain things I can’t remember. I make a menu based of the mammoth parts my husband has hunted down from Costco. Then I check the grocery items I will need to accompany said pieces of meat. I write everything down on the paper with a pen. At that point, I might also ask the family for input since, you know, there is never anything good to eat here. At that point, my entire family might answer: “I don’t know. Food?” And this is how I end-up with hundreds of dollars’ worth of nothing good.

Fries for Friday’s dinner? Check.

(Normally it would be written in French but I made this one just for you).

And there you have it. Large family, high tech, meal planning. The clipboard lives in my purse afterwards.

Before I let you go, I just wanted to share our Sunday meal. My friend Sue’s amazing pulled pork (which I took from the freezer) and beer bread. I had never made beer bread, I didn’t even know what it was, but I got the idea from one of Simcha Fisher’s “What’s for supper?” blog posts. Since I want to be as awesome as Simcha, I decided to give it a try. It’s seriously amazingly good, especially with pulled pork. I used this recipe: http://www.food.com/recipe/beer-bread-73440 and yes, I sifted the flour and it turned out perfectly.

This will definitely make you as awesome as Simcha in the kitchen. As for the becoming a gifted writer and successful blogger,  I’m still working on it.

What’s for supper vol. 5: The generosity of others


This week’s dinner round-up was delegated to the generosity of others. I bring meals to others in their time of need, that’s my shtick, and it has been a singular blessing to have my family fed by others as I recover from last week’s health crisis. Feeding the hungry is at the top of the list of corporal works of mercy in the Catholic Church, it shouldn’t be surprising that a hot meal in a time of need feeds the body as well as the soul. Still it’s one thing to bring a meal to a friend in need and another one to receive it. Words cannot express the gratitude felt when someone takes-on the intimidating task of feeding a family of 11.

The days of the week have all been mixed-up and I can’t really remember what we ate when. I also wasn’t home for 3 days and goodness knows what happened then, food-wise. All I know is that some pizza was ordered and when I came home from the hospital one of my children exclaimed: “We were like orphans! It was AWESOME!”

ON THE FIRST DAY

(Which might have been Monday? Or was it Sunday? Yes it was Sunday because I missed Mass.)

When I came home from the hospital, I could barely put one foot in front of the other. My oldest daughter had been to Mass that morning and asked our parish priest if he would come to our house to give me the anointing of the sick. It was the first time in my life that I was sick enough to receive the anointing of the sick and it deeply moved me. He also brought me Communion and pizza for the kids. Corporal and spiritual works of mercy in one fell swoop, he’s an awesome guy.

ON THE SECOND DAY

My mother came to spend the day with me. Sometimes a girl just needs her mama. My husband made me some liver and onions. Of course, the kids were not too eager to share so we still have leftovers. Anyone? Sadly, 3 meals of liver and some pretty hardcore iron supplements didn’t impress my hemoglobin much. It went down further and I was back in hospital on the third day.

ON THE THIRD DAY

IMG_4205The children ate at the IKEA cafeteria while I went back  to the hospital for a blood transfusion.

IMG_4114
If canned yellow beans don’t pump you back up, what will? *Big Wink*

IMG_4307 I wanted to post a picture of my hand and my IV pump but I thought that the sight of blood and a big needle might make some of you squeamish. Instead, here is the picture of me before the transfusion and after the first unit.  That’s just the difference it made on the outside. I was also given some delicious hospital food. A friend came to pick me up at the hospital and drove me home. I felt like a blood-doped athlete and joked about starting my marathon training that evening.

ON THE FOURTH DAY

A friend who always has a lot of common sense wisdom to share suggested that I eat ice cream 3 meals a day until my heart felt better. I might have done that on the fourth day. I might need to find a way to do that without needing to wear maternity clothes because that ain’t helping much. See “marathon training” above. Training starts with “waking and talking at the same time.” The things we take for granted, I’m telling you…

ON THE FIFTH DAY

Collage_Sue soup

I received a visit from two dear friends who brought me soup, casseroles and chicken broth. In case the first 4 volumes of “What’s for Dinner” have not made that point clear, feeding a family of 11 day after day after day is hard work. It looms really large in my daily horizon. It’s more work than homeschooling, it’s more work than breastfeeding, it’s more work than laundry, it’s probably 50% of my daily effort expenditure, 365 day a year except for that blessed week at Family Camp when we hire a camp cook. If I were to leave for a weekend away (*snort* like that ever happened), I would need to make or plan all the meals in advance. When I give birth, I make sure I have a month’s worth of dinners in the freezer, make that three months for twins (we bought a second deep freeze for the occasion, if you are expecting twins do it, it will be worth every penny and you’ll make it up in savings on pizza and take-out, take my word for it.) When friends bring me meals, it is the single most helpful thing they can do to keep me off my feet. Because even when I’m supposed to be resting — as I am now — the question “What’s for supper?” invariably lands on my desk every day around 4 pm. It’s just the way the world goes round.

ON THE SIXTH DAY

Collage_cake twins bd

It was the twins’ 4th birthday. There’s always a party here to keep your mind off what ails ya.

Collage_Birthday twins

No hair was burned in the making of this collage.

ON THE SEVENTH DAY

My mother will be back to make some meals to get me ready for next week. Because that’s the beautiful thing about feeding your children: IT NEVER ENDS! Not only is my mother still feeding me, she is feeding me times 11! Except that now it’s different. I know because I have children and someday they will still need me. And I will still be there.

What’s for supper? Vol. 4: More muffins and spaghetti sauce


What did we eat this week?

MONDAY


Monday was Labour Day. My husband took the children to visit family but it was David’s turn to process our family’s friendly virus. I took a pass and stayed home with the sick and the underage. We had chips and ice cream for supper. Yes we did.

TUESDAY

Remember the Thai squash soup with coconut and shrimp I made last week? I usually buy a second bag of shrimps to add to the leftover (because there is soup leftovers but never shrimps). Then we have a second round of squash soup.

WEDNESDAY

Collage_Spicy peanut pork

Last weekend I mentioned making Spicy Peanut Chicken (with pork) in the slow cooker. I warmed it up on Wednesday and we ate it with fresh corn. My 9 year-old son announced that he was thirsty so I asked him to go get the water jug for the family. Without missing a beat he told me, very matter-of-factly: “No, I’m just going to get water for myself.” Err, no buddy, please bring back the water jug for the family, said I. “Ok then, I’m not thirsty.” he replied. “You can still get the water jug please. Which led to him saying no, me taking away his plate until he came back with the water jug, and he stomping away to get said water. Friends, if you wonder how we can raise such self-centered children in a family of 11, imagine if we had stopped at 2! Believe me, the world is a better place because we have 9 and it’s not because we are superior human beings. Pride runs strong in that gene line.

THURSDAY

collage_spaghetti sauce

Spaghetti sauce day. My children and I are not fond of chunks in our spaghetti sauce. I like to put all the veggies and herbs in the food processor and give them a whirl. I don’t puree them to soup level but I find that along not having chunks, it mixes-up the flavours nicely. This specimen has red bell pepper, cremini mushrooms, onions, carrots, celery, garlic, fresh herbs from my potted garden (basil, chive and parsley), dried oregano and sage. I saute the veggie mash in olive oil, add an entire Costco pallet of tomato sauce and 3kg of ground beef. I stir until the meat is all separated and let it simmer forever. Add salt and pepper to taste et voila. That day, I also made orange cranberry muffins and oatmeal chocolate chip muffins. Our homeschool had to be on auto-pilot and we didn’t get around to do history and science. Note to self: you can’t cook up a storm and homeschool at the same time. I use this recipe for the cranberry orange muffins. I use frozen cranberries instead of fresh and it works fine. Just a note about the streusel topping: it’s a simple mix of sugar and orange rind. I prefer to put the orange rind in the muffin batter. The streusel falls apart when freezing anyway. On a more positive note, sugar mixed-up with orange rind and left to sit on the counter for a day can be eaten with a spoon or melted over a candle and shot-up your arm, oh my goodness, someone make it stop!!

STILL THURSDAY

Collage_znoodles

When I did a Whole 30 back in January I had to stop eating pasta. I discovered zucchini noodles and I actually prefer them now to pasta. I don’t have a veggie spiralizer so I use my veggie peeler and peel the zucchinis until I am almost peeling the tip of my fingers (sometimes I do.). Lucas enjoys chopping the leftover zucchinis with a big knife. As an aside, I used to pay a whole lot of money so my kids could do just that at a Montessori preschool. Which brings me to homeschooling preschool: stop worrying already!! If I got a dime every time a stressed out mom asks about a preschool curriculum, I could retire happy. Preschools need a curriculum because they are accountable to their clients. Preschool is just life. You need to live with your children and engage with them positively. Read to them, snuggle with them, let them help with cooking if you have the patience to do so. Take them outside and show them the dirt: here’s your preschool curriculum.

Back to the zucchini noodles… I slice an onion or two in very thin slices, smash some garlic and saute everything in olive oil with salt, pepper and dried oregano, then I cover for a while to let it steam a little. Zucchinis lose their water like nothing else so 6 zucchinis is barely enough for two adults. Unless they are the giant ones that neighbours leave on your doorstep.

Collage_znoodles with sauce

 

 

 

 

 

FRIDAY

Collage_crepes

My teenage daughter announced that she would make crepes for supper. I said: “Fine!” She used the recipe from Ricardo but I prefer Josee di Stasio’s recipe. I usually quadruple it — that would be 4 cups of flour and a whole dozen of eggs — add beer to the milk and keep it in the fridge in an air tight container. The kids will make crepes for breakfast, snack or lunch using the batter all week.

Et voila, this is it for this week. I’m sparing you the weekend because it ended-up in take-out pizza.

 

Homeschooling Questions: Working with different ages, grades and interests


The second question that appeared in my homeschooling questions post on Facebook was how to teach multiple children, with different ages, needs and interests. Just like everything homeschooling, my answer will reflect my family’s dynamic, attitudes and hopes with regard to homeschooling. I think that it also reflects my family’s situation: we have 9 children aged 19 all the way down to 17 months. Day-to-day, our homeschooled children are in grades 10, 9, 4 and 1 and we have 3 preschoolers aged almost 4 — the twins — and 1.

 

As a parent, your “education” personality matters to how you will handle different children with different interests. What is your vision for your homeschool? When you think about your homeschooling do you envision yourself reading to your children in a field of yellow flowers? Do you see yourself in a modern classroom? Do you see yourself in a one-room schoolhouse in 1930?

 

My friend Lindsay just started homeschooling and blogs about it at http://www.myfourcrowns.wordpress.com In one of her recent posts, she shared a tour of her new homeschool room, you can see it in all its awesomeness here. Other than Lindsay’s impeccable taste, what can you tell about her homeschooling personality from reading her post? Well, for one, she has a dedicated homeschool room in her house. She has desks in it, and a map and a whiteboard. It’s well organized, it looks crisp and inviting. I know from chatting with Lindsay that she toyed with the idea of having a homeschool uniform. And the picture of her desk shows printed copies of the Ontario curriculum. Whether she ends-up sticking to the curriculum or not is irrelevant: the presence of the documents on her desk suggests that she likes rules, structure and direction. Heck, being able to paint navy horizontal stripes suggests some serious ability to plan, focus and follow through. All these details point to a very distinctive homeschooling personality. We all have one. I also have friends whose house shows no outward signs of homeschooling, other than children. Their children learned to read around age 8, several have not seen anything resembling a math course manual before they were 14. Their learning is happening organically and creatively, at the rhythm of the family’s life. How you handle teaching multiple children will also be rooted in your homeschooling personality.

 

My homeschool and my laptop reside on my kitchen table. We designed our house with a view to have the kitchen table serve as the nerve centre of the whole homeschool operation. My vision of the homeschool is something akin to a one-room schoolhouse where children of different ages, abilities and interests work more or less on the same topics at their own levels. If you look at my homeschool book shelf you’ll see “The Well-Trained Mind”, “Designing your Own Classical Curriculum” and “The Charlotte Mason Companion.” I find that the classical curriculum lends itself well to working with children of different ages and stages as long as you approach it with flexibility.

 

In practical terms, I gather all the children at the table in the morning at 8:30am. We are Catholics so we always start the day in prayer. We say a prayer to our Guardian Angels for guidance and a morning offering. I check-in with the teenagers who are mostly working on their own via online classes and assignments. We iron-out kinks, they tell me if they need help with this or that and off they go. After the teens are off, I set-out to work with the elementary school aged children. I compare our groove to a ping pong match where I will give David some work, then help Sarah while David does his work, then give Sarah some work, then help David, and so on. While I am doing that, I’m also making sure that the twins are not destroying anything. I can reasonably expect about one hour of sit-down, written work in the morning. That’s when I stack-up writing-intensive work such as French, English and math. Because my children struggle with writing and are almost exclusively auditory learners, we can learn a lot by reading on the couch. We do history, science and religion on the couch through reading and retelling. I am also adding a literature reading of a book related to our history subject (currently Ancient Egypt). In terms of academics, I do not follow my children’s interests. For instance, we are all learning about Ancient Egypt in history, natural science in science and going through the credo (what we believe) in religion.

 

Here is a bullet-point list of things to consider when teaching multiple grades. The take-home message of these bullets is “transitions may and probably will kill you.”

  1. Be ready. Children don’t wait. In the evening, I like to prepare the books and notebooks the children will be using the next day. I talked about using spiral bound notebooks to keep track of the children’s work. The notebook are ready. This way, if David is ready to start and I have to go change a diaper, he can start on his own. Having our books ready on the table minimizes the time wasted looking for things.
  2. Be predictable. Having predictable routines help the children know what’s coming. I find that it helps with focus and continuity. As a parent, it also helps me remember what’s coming next and minimizes the time spent thinking “Ok, now what?” Because that’s all the time the children need to start a fight or set something on fire.
  3. Feed the children. Regular snacks and body breaks ensure that I don’t lose whatever small attention-span my children have. If I stay ahead of the curve foodwise I can minimize inattentiveness and tantrums.
  4. Stack transitions. Since transitions can and will kill you, try to keep them to a minimum by doubling-up. Try to work on one subject until snack time for instance, so the subject transition and the snack transition happen together.
  5. Be focused. It took me a while to understand that I couldn’t write a blog post or check Facebook while homeschooling. Any inattentiveness on my part multiplies with the children.
  6. Don’t squander your best work time. My children work in the morning. It takes a really big deal for me to schedule an activity or running errands in the morning. Try to adapt your schedule to your children as opposed to adapting the children to the schedule. Trying to homeschool after lunch is always a disaster.
  7. Know your limits. I couldn’t homeschool four different grades. We registered the high schoolers with Mother of Divine Grace School so I could focus on the little kids. Whether you seek help by getting a cleaning service, tutoring or a babysitter, realize that housekeeping, schooling and childcare are all jobs that people get paid full time salaries to perform. If you can’t cram it all in a 24h period by yourself, give yourself a pat on the back: you’re normal.

What they ate (or didn’t) this week and some thoughts about keeping Fridays


One of my favorite bloggers, Simcha Fisher, started a recurring — or not — feature on her blog I have to Sit Down called “What’s for Supper?”. Because I also feed a crowd every day and because I’m not one to miss a good link-up (I like having a topic picked for me, I’m that kind of lazy), here is my contribution.

The ground rules as far as our family of 11 is concerned are simple:

  • The meals must be simple and contain easily identifiable ingredients. Casseroles rarely fly here, unless they are a simple gratin.
  • My husband and I try to avoid grains during weekdays. Fresh corn doesn’t count as grain.
  • We don’t eat dessert on weekdays.
  • Normally I make a meal plan on Saturday, shop for food on Sunday and will often need another produce run midweek. For the last 9 months, I’ve been out of meal planning and our grocery budget is running amok.
  • Supper needs to be figured out and started by 3:30pm if we want to eat by 5:30pm, clean-up the supper dishes and have the five younger kids in bed between 7:00 and 8:00 pm. Lately — because of absentee planning — supper gets going around 5:30pm, we eat at 7:00 and we’re lucky if the kids are in bed by 9:00pm. We are still in “summer mode” but we’re fraying at the edges. Chaos and exhaustion are threatening our entire livelihood and we hope to return to normal as soon as we can find the energy to turn this boat around.
  • My husband is often gone from home from 7 am until close to 7 pm. We live in a rural community so we avoid evening engagements such as extracurricular activities as much as possible: driving into town at supper/bedtime was in fashion in 2010-2012, now we’re traumatized.

MONDAY

Blog post_What they ate this week mon I

Eye of round roast (this one has to be started in the afternoon)

Roasted potatoes: I just quarter a whole bag of baby potatoes from Costco, lay them on parchment paper, drizzle with oil, salt and pepper, and bake at 415F for about 20 mn.

Red cabbage slaw. Or as we are expected to call it “red-but-should-be-purple-cabbage”, with vinaigrette (1/3 red vinegar, 2/3 olive oil and a splotch of Dijon proportional to what you used as a basic measurement. I do 1 cup red vinegar, 2 cups of oil and a heaping tablespoon of Dijon. There’s leftovers.)

Broccoli . Because everyone here eats broccoli but red cabbage slaw is touch and go. I like giving the kids a chance to win.

TUESDAY

Blog post_WHat they ate this week tue I
Tuesday, we received our school books. Yay?

Fish and fries. That’s what I make when I forget to take meat out of the freezer. I don’t consider cucumbers to be a real vegetable, it’s mostly water and seeds, but I just can’t sleep unless there is something green on offer. And cucumber is green.

WEDNESDAY

Blog post_What they ate this week wed I

Roasted chickens and fresh corn on the cob. I use the organic chickens from Costco, throw them on a roasting sheet with salt, pepper, onion flakes and smoked paprika and roast them at 415F for 45mn or something. Two chickens and 12 corns fed my “small” family: the three oldest were out of the house.

When I cut the chickens, I throw the carcasses and drippings straight into a large Dutch oven. Add a splash of apple cider vinegar, fill with water and make broth right away. I used to keep the bones in a ziploc bag in the fridge until I had the optimal broth ingredients, also known as “until the carcasses turned moldy and my husband threw them out.” Water, bones, vinegar, boil forever.

THURSDAY

Blog post_What they ate this week Thu I

We had friends for lunch and I made quesadillas with the leftover chicken and corn.

For dinner, I roasted sweet peppers, carrots, garlic and a Lego wheel — just kidding! I removed the wheel before roasting. Then I had afterthoughts and checked the oven again. Phew! I did remove the wheel… — and made some orange soup with the chicken broth.

I also made a tomato salad with cherry tomatoes from my sister’s garden and basil from our garden. I used the same dressing as earlier this week.

FRIDAY

Here comes Friday. I follow a few Catholic bloggers from the United States and was curious as to why they seemed to universally abstain from meat on Friday. It picked my curiosity because I know some very legit Canadian Catholics who do not abstain from meat on Friday. Recently, I spoke about it with my spiritual director, as I was really struggling with the concept of abstaining from meat on Friday. The problem seemed to be twofold. First, meatless dishes in my family are mostly party food. They are also really easy to make for me. I felt like pancakes were too much fun for a Friday observance of the death of Jesus, fish is too good, soup and bread are comfort foods, sandwiches are a get-out-of-jail-free card for me, and so on. I came to the conclusion that the only sort of meal that would look like a universal family sacrifice would be a dish that is really complicated to make for me and that the kids don’t like, like vegan moussaka or lasagna. But making food that everyone hates is wasteful. Back to square one. Making an elaborated, suitably mortifying, vegan dish also prevented me from going to Mass and Adoration on Friday evening, the only weekday Mass offered in my Parish at a time later than 8:00 am. My spiritual adviser wisely noted that in Canada, the Conference of Catholic Bishops did not require the faithful to abstain from meat on Fridays outside of Lent but encouraged us to keep Friday through some kind of penance, prayer or act of charity. Maybe, she added, organizing your day and your evening meal so that you are able and ready to leave home at 6:00pm to go to Mass and Adoration is all the penance you need to keep Friday? Well… Now that you mention it yes, having supper ready, served, eaten and cleaned-up by 6:00 pm requires my entire day to shift 2h early.

So we had hamburgers. And Mass was cancelled that night. Oh well.

Blog post_What they ate this week frid I

 

 

 

 

 

 

I make hamburgers using an entire pallet of ground beef from Costco. That’s in the vicinity of 3-4 lbs I think. I season the meat with my usual suspects (onion flakes, salt, sage and smoked paprika) and beat it into large but thin patties. As you can see from the picture above, they fluff-up as they cook. If you make them small and thick, you’ll end-up with a meatball on your bun. Know what I mean?

SATURDAY

Collage_Saturday picnic Kingston

On Saturday, we traveled to Kingston, Ontario to attend our son’s entrance ceremony to the Royal Military College. We called-up some old and dear friends and asked if we could stop at their house with our burgers and sausages for a last minute BBQ. We left home with a cooler full of meat and ice packs for the supper and a picnic lunch. When picnicking with van full of little kids, simple is key. I bought a big bag of round buns from Costco, some ham, celery sticks, apples and go-go-squeeze tool of the devil and a big jug of lemonade. The picnic by Lake Ontario quickly degenerated into underage skinny dipping and we made it to the ceremony well-fed, bathed and relatively dry.

Collage_RMC Arch Ceremony

For the history buffs amongst you, the middle picture in the collage above is the parade square at Royal Military College. In the very background on the left hand side of the picture is Fort Henry, a National Historic Site of Canada. The building immediately behind the parade square is HMCS Stone Frigate. Yes! The building is a boat! It’s Colin’s dorm and it’s called affectionately “the boat”. It’s the oldest building at RMC and it even has its own Wikipedia page. Can your dorm say as much??

After the ceremony, we headed to our friends’ house for an impromptu BBQ. There are a few things I enjoy more than seeing old friends, especially when our children get along well. Feeding 4 adults, their 9 children and the 6 children we had with us in one sitting was impossible so we took turns. First thing children, then the teenagers and eventually the moms and dads got to have a seat. Their 4 year-old twins Binh and Phuoc ate through all three sittings, a wonderful sight when you think of everything these girls have been through. ← (The article linked there is excellent. You should really read it.)

Collage_Supper at the Wagners

And there you have it my friends, what we ate last week. Now I must hang-up and run make supper. Another week awaits.

So you want to pull your kids out of school


Our decision to homeschool coincided with the introduction of full-day kindergarten in Ontario’s public schools. I am not familiar with the details of the recent changes occurring in Ontario kindergarten classrooms but parents are telling me that the increase in school population brought-on by full day kindergarten has bumped-up class sizes across the board as other classes are combined to make room for the additional kindergarten classes. A field of portables – complete with graffiti – sprouted beside a shiny new neighbourhood’s public school (begging the question “how did you not see this coming and couldn’t you have built the school the right size in the first place?”) and a large extension to another new school was built in the schoolyard. In the land of “play-based learning” space to run around doing nothing is at a premium.

From full day kindergarten, to poor academic placement, to special needs, parents express a growing concern that while the school system is staffed by dedicated teachers and well-meaning principals, it is not serving the needs of their individual children very well. And so they ask about homeschooling. A lot.

A friend recently inquired about homeschooling and my reply inspired this blog post. Her question was not so much “why homeschool?” or even “how to homeschool?” but “what can I expect after pulling children out of school?” and “How will I stay sane?”

The sanity question is very much undetermined at this point. Homeschooling is hard and we are still negotiating the learning curve. My days are long and the nights are short. I remain sane by remembering why we are doing this. Thankfully, having five children older than the four youngest gives me perspective on how quickly this season will pass. I keep simple goals in mind on an hourly basis (don’t get angry, don’t yell, breathe) and the big picture in sight whenever I feel like quitting.

At this point in our homeschool journey – we started 2 months ago with 3 school-age children and will be adding a fourth in January – we are mostly learning to learn in different ways. The Internet calls it “deschooling” but I prefer using “deprogramming” to describe the process of bringing children home. We often assume (at least I did) that homeschooling is “doing school at home” – and for some that’s exactly what it is – but in reality, homeschooling is a paradigm shift. You will notice this paradigm shift in the comments you receive from people who do not support homeschooling: you can’t teach unless you are a teacher, you need to isolate children from their home environment for learning to occur, you need a lot of material support, you need a curriculum telling you exactly what needs to be learned when, you need a large group of same-age peers for socialization to happen. We are conditioned from a very young age to believe that schooling happens in a box. The physical act of removing the children from the box does not necessary change our thinking. There is a lot to learn in homeschooling and curriculum is only part of it. Here are a few unwritten lessons from my first two months of homeschooling after 14 years of school:

1. You will need to teach your children to trust you as a teacher. I had an interesting exchange with one of my daughters during the summer prior to the start of our homeschooling journey. We were talking about menstrual cycles – well, I was doing the talking — and I said: “When your periods start, they may not be regular for a while. You may skip weeks or even months.” And she looked at me with the kind of look you would give a lost puppy and said “I know mom, I’ve been to health class.” And this sums it up: your children, after years of conventional schooling, may love you and even respect you but their learning has been compartmentalized between the “home stuff” and the “school stuff”. You don’t understand their “new math” and “modern grammar”, you are no longer welcome to help in the classroom and your children don’t expect you to know jack squat. Don’t expect to jump into pre-algebra and traditional logic and think that your children will suddenly trust your superior brain. As far as they’re concerned, this homeschooling thing might just be another one of your “phases”, like that vegetarian kick of 2002. By the way, your mom and their teachers think the same way.

2. You will have to learn to learn at home. After years in school, your children are used to learning at school and flopping at home. The proximity to the kitchen, the toy room and the TV/computer can challenge academic work. I spent the entire month of September guarding the fridge. I’m not sure how they coped with fixed snack-times in school when I see how much fuel they need to keep their concentration.

3. You will learn to smooth the kinks in your relationship and discipline before learning can occur. Regardless of how good your relationship is, you can only teach so much if you don’t get along well with your children. And I mean this in the most loving way possible: we all love our children on the inside but the day-to-day grind often gets in the way of a cordial rapport on the outside. Parents of teenagers and toddlers, you know what I mean. To homeschool, you need to get along with your children on the inside AND the outside. It doesn’t mean that they become compliant little Stepford Kids but you need a basis of genuine compliance to move ahead with homeschooling. Learning to obtain compliance from your children without damaging your relationship – yelling, nagging or generally getting fed-up – may take weeks or even months but it needs to be done first. If you can’t get your children to clean-up their rooms without a fight, you have a taste of what homeschooling will look like day after day, hour after hour, until you quit in despair. Character before curriculum. I repeat this to myself about 2000 times a week.

4. Your children will have to learn to live with each other in close quarters. Your children may get along well at home or they may fight like cats and dogs, either way they will learn to work and live with each other. At school, they have been socialized to play strictly with children their own age. They have also been socialized into “girl play” and “boy play”. Boys and girls who play well together are often told they are in love with each other. Boys who enjoy “girl play” are often told they are gay. We all have stories of children who play well all summer with a younger neighbour only to royally ignore their best friend on school ground. We all have stories of older siblings who will not be seen with their younger siblings at school or on the school bus. Your children need to unlearn all this wonderful socialization to get along well in the context of the homeschool, especially if they are boys and girls. It may sound far-fetched but for our first month of home schooling, my biggest obstacle to teaching was the constant fighting between my 5 year-old and my 8 year-old. And I have 3 year-old twins and an infant, it says a lot.

5. You will learn to walk in confidence to the beat of your own drum. You will face opposition, criticism and soul-crushing doubt. The biggest failure predictor for homeschooling families (other than obvious challenges such as income loss, death and mental illness) is lack of confidence. If you doubt your ability to homeschool, there are good chances that you will prove yourself right. A few days ago, I heard a beloved family member explain to me how she didn’t think I could raise forward-thinking, engaging and open-minded teenagers in the context of the homeschool. A friend later suggested that she doubted my ability to teach advanced academics on the topics I did not master myself. Both are valid concerns coming from people I respect and care about, even though they show a lack of research on the ins and outs of homeschooling. I went to bed reeling, first thinking I would ruin my children forever, and then thinking I would prove everybody wrong. I got up this morning with a bone to pick and lined-up my little circus monkeys for a full day of academics. By lunchtime, I had to bitch-slap myself a few times to regain focus: I am not training circus monkeys, I am raising people. I will prove everybody wrong, all in good time. The proof will be in the fruit but I have to let the fruit ripen. Whenever I feel like I need to prove something to someone, I repeat to myself “Let the fruit ripen.”

Homeschooling is a journey of discovery, about yourself, about your children, and about the world around you. Whenever I feel wobbly and unsure, I remind myself that I am only taking my first steps. We will learn, we will grow and we will become stronger.