March 28, 2011

Operation Regaining My Sanity...Ur, I Mean Operation Toy Organization

Boy, oh, boy if you could have seen my house before I created a toy organization system for my two year old son's toys, you would have looked at me like I was a crazy person.  Or you would have gone into sensory overload.  For those of you who did see it, I am sorry.  I'm glad that you didn't trip, fall, or have an anxiety attack from all the clutter closing in on you.  I swear, sometimes I felt like Sid from Toy Story when the toys were coming alive, closing in on him, and talking to him.

A few weekends ago, I just about had it with my son's toys being strewn everywhere around the house.  Our dog, Sadie, couldn't even run through the living room.  When I saw her slowly navigating her way through the maze of toys, I knew it was bad.  It was mad chaos, and my son was acting like it was mad chaos.  (Picture the kid from Home Alone aimlessly running through his house with his hands up in the air screaming, "Ahhhhhhhhh!")  

Proverbs 31:12 says regarding the wife of noble character's husband, "She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life."  Well, I also think this can be applied to the Proverbs 31 Woman's entire family as well, not just her husband.  The mad chaos of complete disorganization in our house was definitely not bringing good to our family.  Instead of bringing peace to our home, it was bringing a sense of chaos, stress, and anxiety--to everyone, even the dog for goodness sake!  I knew that if I was going to tackle this project of organizing the chaos, then I was going to need to do it well, with a grateful heart, and finish.  Proverbs 31:17 says about the wife of noble character, "She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks."  As a stay-at-home mom, maintaining a peaceful home IS my job.

So, I set out to tackle the chaos with vigor and strength!  I started an organization project, and I finished it.  The result?  A much happier little boy who has lots of different places to play in the house, a more creative little boy, a much calmer little boy while he's playing inside, a little boy who plays with a wider variety of toys because he can actually see what he has, a little boy who takes care of his toys better, and a house that doesn't look like a tornado went through it, which naturally leads to a MUCH happier and more sane mommy.

When I taught first grade, I had containers and organization boxes galore due to my obsession with having organized, neat, and functional learning centers for all my kiddos.  It was so much easier for them to learn and explore in functional and organized centers, and they seemed to enjoy learning when the learning centers were set up this way.  At the end of the 2008-2009 school year, which was my last year before becoming a stay-at-home mom, I packed up all my teaching stuff and just chunked it into the attic.  Well, the old saying is true:  out of sight, out of mind.  I started reading blogs about toy organization ideas, but I became easily frustrated because I didn't have the extra money to spend on organization tools.  Then I remembered I had organizational tools from my classroom already just sitting in my attic collecting dust!  They are all different colors, and they don't go with my house decor, but who cares.  The toys are organized now, clean-up time is going much better, my son plays better inside now, I got my house back, there is less stress in our house, and I have regained my sanity as a mom.

This is just a small glimpse of what my house looked like before Operation Regaining My Sanity began.  Oh, I meant to say Operation Toy Organization:

First I organized the toys that I wanted him to be able to get to on his own without permission into piles on the floor according to the following groups:

cars/trucks/air plane (smaller versions)
big cars/trucks/air plane (big enough to put action figures inside)
action figures
musical instruments
grocery store pretend play (cash register, play money, play groceries)
tools and toolbox
stacking train & parts
toy trains
train tracks
big train track items (signal house, bridges, etc.)
stuffed animals
Mr. & Mrs. Potato Heads and parts
magna doodles/leapfrog tablets
play technology (play computer/phone/flash light)
books that make noise or music
board games (memory cards, matching games, etc.)
tiny random toys (tops, small squishy baseballs, bouncy balls, etc.)
mega blocks and trio-blocks
math manipulatives (dominoes, counters, sorting items, dice)
literacy manipulatives (letter tiles, magnetic letters/cookie sheet)
empty containers and boxes to play with (my son loves to put things in and out of things)
pretend dress-up
race car ramps

Then I organized them into organization boxes/buckets/containers/bins, etc. that I got down from the attic.  For most of the bins, I took pictures of the toys that go inside in front of a white poster board.  I may print them out and tape them to the bins with clear packing tape.  I haven't decided yet.  My son already knows where the toys go, but this will help when we have other kids playing at our house, when we have a babysitter, or when any of the grandparents are here helping with clean-up time and my husband and I aren't around. We'll see.

I put some bins on the shelves in our living room.  There is a bin for:  books that make noise or music, cars, pretend grocery store stuff, action figures, stacking train and parts, and musical instruments overflow (the other instruments are in the big drum in front of the shelves).  His tool box is also on these shelves.  I put the bigger vehicles on their own shelf above those.  He can reach them all by himself.  My son calls this shelf "the parking lot".
I put some bins/baskets on the hearth of the fireplace in the living room.  There is one for magnadoodles/leapfrog tablet, trains, train tracks, and big train track items.  It looks like this:

I put some bins on the shelves in the sun room that is connected to our living room like this.  There are bins for math manipulatives, jenga blocks, legos, magnetic letters, and trio blocks.  His bag of megs blocks and his cookie sheet for playing with magnetic letters are also on these shelves.  I organized other toys in the sun room like this so that he can pull them in and out so that they are not in the walk way:

His play tent is also in the sunroom.

I put some toys in the dining room area as well.  Our dining room is not separate from our living room.  It's open, but there are definite areas.  The teacher in me just couldn't resist making a reading center or reading nook here.  My son always has had books in the living room and books in his room.  He loves, loves, loves to read (looking at the pictures and calling out the letters and sounds that he identifies, and saying the words by memory--not actually reading yet).  He has two book baskets by his dresser in his room that are full.  And he has always had the bottom bookshelf in the living room full of books.  But, the shelf in the living room was always a mess because it was hard for him to put the books back in the shelf once he got them off.  For example, this is what it used to look like when the books were on the shelf and before I put the books in baskets:

                   Books lined up on
                   the bottom shelf =
                   disaster ------------->

Since the book baskets work so well for him in his room, I found two old plastic crates that I used in my classroom to serve as book baskets for the dining room area to make it easier for him.  They're not attractive by any means, but they get the job done.  I moved the books to the backside of the couch (which is the divider to the living room and dining room area) and put his anywhere chair in between them (that he can pull out by himself and move to other places for other functions such as movie nights if he wants).  When he sits in the chair, he faces the big glass storm door to the front door and the windows in the dining room, so he gets lots of natural light.  He sits here and just reads and reads.  He loves it.  This is the reading center:

I made a puzzle center in the entry way near the dining room by the glass storm door.  Before organizing, we used to keep the puzzles stacked on the shelves in the living room, but they were not deep enough to hold them.  They fell a lot, and the pieces were always in different places because of this.  The result was that he just never played with his puzzles.  What a waste!

                       stacked  ------>
                       on shelf

When giving Operation Toy Organization a go, I first had the puzzles on their sides in a long wicker basket.   This did not work for us because every time my son tried to get a puzzle out of the basket, the pieces would tumble out.  Then he would have to take out every single puzzle to get to the pieces in the bottom of the basket, which meant even more pieces were tumbling out.  I decided he needed to be able to slide the puzzles in and out easily so that the pieces would stay in tact while getting to the puzzle that he wanted.  This has worked beautifully.  It has also made clean up time much easier since tiny puzzle pieces aren't all over the floor or loose in a basket.  Next to the puzzle center is a small drawer unit that holds small balls, spinning tops, garanimal chain links, and the pieces to a plastic puzzle.  Here's the puzzle center and small drawer unit for tiny things:

In February I visited my old college roommate, Sara, for the weekend.  I got the idea of an activity table from her.  She's also an elementary school teacher turned stay-at-home mom, so I'm always looking to her to see how she's organizing her home.  She told me that she got hers at IKEA, and I was able to find one with her at IKEA just like it for only $7.99!  It's actually called a side table, but it works great as a kid's activity table.  It's the perfect size and height.  I have a couple of folding camp chairs that are kid-sized from my reading center in my old classroom, and I keep one at the activity table.  When we have friends over to play, we pull out the second chair and put it at the table.
My son builds Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head here, works puzzles, reads books, colors, plays with play-dough, plays with his magna doodles, lines up his cars, stacks dominoes, sorts items, and much more at this activity table.  Basically, however he can think of to use it, he does.  I put some stacking bins from my old classroom next to it to hold his Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head parts and his play technology toys.

Operation Toy Organization complete!  AND it only cost me $7.99!

March 27, 2011

Meal Plans 2/7 Through 3/25/11

It's been a while since I've posted my family's home-cooked meals.  There is a week gap in between the last meal plan post and this one because I went out of town for a week. I'm still doing well in cooking 4 to 5 dinners a week for my family.  In February, I started preparing one dinner a week that was some sort of hot sandwich, wrap, or burger.  I have continued to do so since.  This has helped keep the cost down.  I'm always on the look out for new interesting hot sandwich recipes.

Here's a run down of what we've been eating.  You can click on the dishes, and it will take you to my recipe page if you want to try making any of these dishes. 

1.  BBQ chicken baked potatoes and a green salad

When I make BBQ chicken baked potatoes, I buy shredded BBQ chicken in a container from the grocery store that you just microwave (i.e. Loyd's brand).  They have chicken, pork, and beef that you can choose from.  Super easy weeknight meal?  Check.

2.  Crock pot Italian beef sandwiches and grilled eggplant

I'm not including a recipe for the eggplant.  Basically, you just cut up the eggplant into thin slices, sprinkle salt and pepper on it, drizzle it with olive oil, and then grill it on an indoor grill or grill pan.

3.  Indonesian chicken, Asian green beans, and quick Asian salad

4.  Poblano Florentine casserole and a green salad

5.  Fish tacos and cheesy polenta stuffed red bell peppers

The peppers were delicious, but by the end, I was starting to get tired of the red bell pepper.  My husband and I decided that we will adapt this recipe to a casserole the next time, using the same ingredients and measurements, but just less red bell pepper.

6.  Liz's Chili (and Frito pie for left-overs) and a green salad

I think I accidentally deleted this picture from my camera.  I'll upload a picture when I make it again.

I've tried many chili recipes, but none beat Liz's recipe.

7.  Grilled Ranch chicken & veggie sandwiches, easy potato pancake with sneaky vegetables, and a green salad

The grilled Ranch chicken can also be a dish on its own

8.  Smoky shrimp with creamy grits and a green salad

9.  Greek quesadillas and roasted winter vegetables

I am not posting the recipe for the Greek quesadillas on my recipe page.  They were not good, so I am going to spare you all.

10.  Mexican pizzas and home made easy mexicorn

11.  Italian burgers on wheat buns, roasted veggies, and a green salad

12.  Grilled sweet chili chicken, crispy Caribbean veggie wraps with salsa for dipping, and a green salad

13.  Grilled Cajun catfish fillets, sauteed spinach, and mashed cauliflower

14.  Breakfast tacos for dinner and a fresh fruit salad

15.  Crock pot chicken pot pie and a green salad

16.  Spicy chuck wagon soup and a green salad

We had an extra beef chuck roast in the freezer from a buy-one-get-one-free sale a couple of months ago.  Meats like roasts are great to have on hand in the freezer when you can buy them at a great price.

17.  Spaghetti with home made spaghetti sauce, garlic toast, and a green salad

Making my own spaghetti sauce is healthier than processed jarred spaghetti sauce.  It's also cheaper in the long run because it makes several batches, so I freeze what I don't use, and then pull it out a few months later for another spaghetti or lasagna meal.  My husband and I make this spaghetti sauce on the Senior High Mission trip with our church every year, and it's a hit.

18.  Salmon patty sandwiches and baked sweet potato fries

19.   Lentil-barley vegetable skillet and Germany-style salad

20.  Hamburger corn bread casserole and zucchini Santa Fe

21.  Pesto shrimp pasta toss and Germany-style salad

22.  Asian lettuce wraps (like Pei Wei's or P.F. Chang's) and spiced glazed carrots

I probably won't make the spiced glazed carrots again.  They were good, but the flavors were a bit bold for us to have a second time.

23.  Jalapeno-apricot pork tenderloin and roasted root vegetables

24.   BBQ sausage link sandwiches on toasted wheat bread, sweet potato fries, and a chef's salad

25.  Round steak with potatoes, German cauliflower, and a green salad

I love one pot dishes because of their simplicity.  My mother-in-law who is from Germany came over for dinner this night and brought her delicious German cauliflower.  She makes a rue and uses German seasonings.  It is crazy good.  It's actually the dish that got me to start eating cauliflower years ago.  Now, I love cauliflower lots of different ways thanks to her!

26.  Texan Ranch Chicken Casserole and a green salad

This has a Texan twist on the traditional King Ranch Chicken Casserole.

27.  Ground beef zucchini skillet and a green salad

28.  Mr. Roark's Beef and Sausage Jambalaya, cheddar biscuits, and a green salad

29.  Ham, egg, and cheese croissants for a Saturday breakfast

I love it when my husband makes us breakfast on the weekends!

30.  Grilled cheese sandwiches on wheat bread and ABC Vegetarian soup (from a can)

March 13, 2011

He says, "Money". She hears, "Glsnmicklboqgtaypvx"

Financial Peace University.  (Deeee-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-eeeep breath).  Okay, I'm going to be honest.  You're looking at the biggest sceptic when it comes to Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University.  Until now.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with Financial Peace University (FPU), it is a program taught by Dave Ramsey.  Who in the world is that?  He's the successful talk radio host of the nationally syndicated talk radio show, The Dave Ramsey Show, a New York Times best selling author, and a personal finance expert.  And better yet, he practices what he preaches.  With a degree in finance, and a family background in real estate, he started out of college with nothing. By the time he was 26 years old, he had become a millionaire and built a four million dollar real estate business.  Then he lost it all, filing bankruptcy, by the time he was thirty.  He has learned from his mistakes and has since built his wealth back up again, following the practices that he preaches.  He teaches not only his children, but millions of people how to manage their finances well.  He focuses on beating debt, saving, building wealth, and giving like you've never been able to give before, all the while building character and integrity.  FPU is a 13 week video and discussion based class designed by Dave Ramsey that is offered at many churches of all different denominations all over the country, workplaces,  military installations, non-profit organizations, and community centers.  The program teaches you how to achieve financial peace in your life with integrity and intensity by following seven baby steps:
1.)  $1000 in the bank for a starter emergency fund
2.)  Pay off all your debt, excluding the house (credit cards, student loans, car payments, and other loans) using the Debt Snowball
3.)  Build three to six months of savings in the bank set aside for emergencies only
4.)  Invest 15% of your household income into Roth IRAs and pre-tax retirement
5.)  College funds for your kids
6.)  Pay off the mortgage to your home early
7.)  Build wealth and start giving like you never even dreamed you could

It is Christian focused, and it always stresses setting aside your money to give or tithe before you work the rest of your budget for the month.   My husband and I started the 90 day class a few weeks ago.  In the four sessions that we have been on board, I have experienced all sorts of emotions:  excitement, fear, anxiety, happiness, understanding, freak-outs, sadness, hope, glimpses of peace, and excitement again.  Let me back up a bit...

I hate numbers.  I hate dealing with math.  I hate thinking analytically.  So, naturally, I hate budgets, the process of setting a budget, and talking about savings, 401Ks, mutual funds, and IRAs.  I'm what Dave Ramsey calls the "free spirit" when it comes to money.  In certain areas of my life I like to be organized and detail-oriented, but when it comes to money, ha!  I just kind of spend by how I feel and hope that it all magically turns out for the best.  Terrible, I know.

Now, let me introduce you to my husband, who is what Dave Ramsey calls the "nerd".  He has not one masters degree, but two.  One is in computer engineering, and the other is an MBA.  He loved his financial classes, and for him thinking about money is (gulp) fun.  For all you free spirits out there, yes, I'm serious.  I did say fun.  He's a computer software engineer who has just recently moved into software architecture, so he naturally loves numbers, math, and thinking analytically...everything that almost makes me break out into hives just thinking about.  When we took the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality inventory in pre-marital counselling getting ready for marriage, we were exact opposites in everything.  I am an INFJ, and my husband is an ESTP.

Me:  Introverted
My husband:  Extroverted

Me:  Intuition (concerned with the underlying meaning of things)
My husband:  Sensing (concerned with what is real, present, and the facts)

Me:  Feeling (concerned about other people's values and emotions when I make decisions, make decisions with my heart, prefer everyone to feel at peace, etc.) 
My husband:  Thinking (looks at a problem logically and finds the underlying principle to be applied, thinks with his head, looks at things analytically)

Me:  Judging (concerned with being planned and organized, like decisions to be made, feels better using lists for tasks)--except for when it comes to money, hence the free spirit!
My husband:  Perceiving (spontaneous, open, flexible, laid back)--except for when it comes to money, hence the nerd!

Opposites attract, right?  So, as you can see, we obviously would approach the subject of finances very differently.  Men and women are also different when it comes to thinking about finances, too.  So throw that into the mix, and well, you can see why we chose to go to FPU.  My husband looooooooooooves making spread sheets about our finances that include just about every possible scenario in our lives that could happen financially.  I on the other hand, hate Excel, and still can't quite understand how to use it even though I have sort of learned it many times.  My husband recently even wrote his own computer program from scratch to determine a bunch of different ways we could pay off our debt with time lines for each of them.  The programs available on the FPU website were not up to snuff for him, so he created his own.  The budget spreadsheets and net worth/assets pages he prints off for me are so complicated that I just start to cry when we sit down to talk about money.  "Money"....I cry.  I don't know why.  It's like a gag reflex or something.  My crying is like my reaction to mayo or Miracle Whip; it simply just makes me sick.  So, as you can guess, when we sit down and try to talk about money or budgets, I get extremely confused and overwhelmed (but don't misunderstand:  I am very appreciative and proud of my husband for being able to think about money so well and to do all these things analytically for our family.  I would be a total mess without my nerd.)  When I become overwhelmed, it stresses out my husband, he gets frustrated, and in turn he feels like it's his fault that I'm crying, which it's not.  It's like we're speaking different languages.  He says "money", and I hear "Glsnmicklboqgtaypvs." I just let him, and WANT him to deal with the finances since he's good at it, and I am not.  The problem is that I feel out of the loop and very dependent when I do this.  If something were to happen to him, God forbid, I would be lost.  The second session of FPU was called "Nerds and Free Spirits Unite", and I'm thankful to say that this free spirit and nerd have united indeed!  In just a few short weeks, we have learned a valuable and priceless life lesson:  how to communicate with each other about setting the budget, sticking to it, and paying off our debt.  (Deeeeeee-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-eeeeeeeep breath in a good way.)

FPU is big on using cash for everything, which we're so not there yet.  We're on our way.  For now we are using a virtual envelope system and sinking funds in our financial planning.  The goal:  beat down our debt, save for our family's future, and save for expenses.  Sounds easy enough, but we've just never been able to talk about these things without frustration.  We have detailed spreadsheets for the last seven years about where exactly we have spent our money.  We've just never made a budget before spending the money.  We were doing fine until we went from a two-income family to one-income family.  That's when it all changed, and living without a set budget each month finally caught up to us.  Being a stay-at-home mom is undoubtedly the path that our family is supposed to be on, but adjusting financially has been difficult.  I think just knowing that we had to think and plan more about money made me dread talking about it, but now we talk all the time.  I feel like I have learned so much, and I can feel myself being much more open than I used to be.  Approaching our finances from a united, godly perspective has been life-changing.  We are learning to live with some discipline and self-control.  As Dave would say, we're living like no one else, so that we can LIVE like no one else later.  We're being disciplined so that eventually we can have the things that we want and pay for them up front without accruing more debt.  Thank God for Dave Ramsey!

March 7, 2011


I know I've been MIA lately.  Most of my free time in the last month has been consumed by dealing with the theft of my identity.  Blaaaaaa.   I never knew that it could be so time-consuming, serious, stress-inducing, and laborious.  Sheesh!  I have spent hours upon hours on the phone with numerous government agencies, researching, downloading forms, filling out affidavits, writing letters to government agencies, removing my name and information from mailing lists and such, standing in line at the post office for certified mail, photocopying, documenting my conversations and actions, visiting the police department and talking with detectives, checking my credit, setting up fraud alerts on everything,........I could keep going, but it would bore you to death.  When I wasn't doing these things, I was obsessing over what I needed to do be doing to protect my personal information.  My mind and emotions were being high-jacked twenty-four/seven.  Needless to say, trying to protect and hang on to my identity has been consuming.

Spending so much time with this got me to thinking about identity on a deeper spiritual and theological level.  Here I am desperately trying to salvage my identity, who I am--at least who I am according to various government agencies, the DMV, the post office, the credit bureaus, the banks, and the authorities.  But, that's just who I am on paper.  Do my social security number, my driver license, my credit score, my tax record, etc. really define who I am as a person?  Do these things attribute any meaning to who I am?  No!  What makes me, me?  Who am I for real and what has shaped my life, my thoughts, and my actions?  So, I started to ponder...I am a woman, a wife, a mom, a daughter, a niece, a cousin, a friend, a godmother, a former church staffer, a former athlete, a church volunteer and youth volunteer, a teacher, a reader, a traveler, a cook, a crier, a laugher who likes to make other people laugh, a music lover but not a big concert goer, an Aggie, a people-pleaser, a worry wart, a corny punner like my folks, a planner who loves to be spontaneous, one who has experienced many deaths of people I love, a peacemaker, the girl who loves to have get-togethers, too sensitive and serious sometimes, loved and loving, grateful, discerning, encouraging, extremely family-oriented, educated, outdoorsy, sporty, anxiety-ridden if I'm not careful, super stubborn I'm sad to say, artistic, creative, right-brained, not a fan of public speaking, completely mountain obsessed, beach girl, swimming pool loving, competitive, technologically and math challenged, one who has a serious phobia of snakes (and I mean serious), too hard on myself and sometimes others, detail-oriented, compassionate, always taking pictures, really into making photo books, introverted but at the same time loves spending time with friends and family, a board game player, a home body at times, that person who checks her smartphone too much, a CNN online news fanatic, and a girl who loves her t.v. shows and movies, especially with her hubby after a long day.  But, above all else, the thing that defines me the most is that I a child of the living God! 

For a month now, I've been trying to hold on to my paper identity, to protect it so that it does not become compromised any more than it already has been.  As I was trying to do this, I thought, "Isn't this what I sometimes do to my real identity as well?"  I try so hard to hang on to it, to not change, to not let it slip from my fingers, but this is not what we're called to do as children of God.  Aren't we supposed to surrender more and more of ourselves each moment so that we become more and more like God?  Our fallen image is what Christ is restoring.  Moment by moment, if we just let go a bit, Christ is restoring us, making us more holy, more filled with love, and more like him.  But, I must admit, at times, I try to keep that from happening.  I want to be more me than Jesus, and that's not good!  What would happen if I spent as much time and effort into letting myself become reconciled to God through Christ as I did trying to protect and rectify my identity being stolen in the last month?  Well, I'd be a lot more holy that I am now, that's for dang sure!  A few weeks ago, one of the associate pastors at my church, Bryan, preached a sermon about how we as Christians should be viewed by others--what our legacy should be when it's all said and done.  What he said stuck with me.  He spoke about how when his life is over, he does not want people to remember him.  Rather, he wants people to remember seeing Christ in and through him.  That's what matters.  So, that's what I've been thinking about in the grander scheme of things while dealing with this whole identity theft mess--letting myself disappear more and more and letting Christ fill my heart and mind more and more!