Holidays

A Busy Mom's Guide to Back to School Cleaning (+ Free Checklist!)

A Busy Mom's Guide to Back to School Cleaning | Writing Between Pauses

Back to School season is officially here! While I know many schools in the United States have already started, here in Oregon, school never starts before Labor Day. (And I am still thrown by those mid-August start dates from my friends!)

For many moms, back to school season is time to get everything back in order. The kids have a schedule again (that you don’t have to set yourself!), you have a little more free time or wiggle room in your schedule, and you’ll spend about 50% less on groceries now that you aren’t having to feed them 400 snacks a day. (I always thought that joke about kids snacking constantly in summer was a myth. Then I had a kid of my own and they really do snack more in summer.)

Even if you’re not a mom, there is just something about September, isn’t there? The weather is changing; summer is over; it feels like time to get serious again.

Every September or October, I do a massive deep clean on my house. I mean massive. Moving furniture. Shampooing carpets. Washing all my rugs. Organizing the closets that I’ve been throwing things into and closing the door on with my eyes closed. It makes a huge difference to how my home feels once the holidays roll around.

I wanted to share my tips for taking on a big, back-to-school (or just September!) deep clean. I know cleaning isn’t everyone’s forte. Some people hate it; some people just don’t think about it. But there is nothing like a clean, organized home for your mental health. Some people just are naturally messy or disorganized, but getting your house cleaned up can be great for feeling more productive or overcoming a mental health speed bump.

For me, cleaning is a stress release. It makes me feel better. An overly cluttered home makes me feel incredibly stressed. However, I’m also not perfect; sometimes I find it easier to take advice from people who are doing their best (and have a few messy rooms they let go because, why bother?! I’m busy!) and finding ways to be happy without it being 100% clean 100% of the time.

If this is the same for you, let me provide my guide for a big, massive deep clean to start your Fall and Winter right.

1. Start with a Game Plan

I’m a planner. I like to start everything with a list and a plan to make sure I have all my ducks in a row and everything in order. When it comes to my big back to school (or pre-holiday, if you will) deep clean, I like to have a specific plan in order to make sure I don’t have anything that could distract me from my purpose. Basically, here’s a rundown:

  • Schedule a week to spend deep cleaning. For me, this is either the second full week in September or the first week in December. Historically, that’s what it’s worked out to, because it’s when I have childcare & Danny is back at work. (Funny how Danny is a bigger distraction than Forrest!) Making sure I have a week off where I am not working has always been the most important part of my deep clean. Yes, I could probably cram it into a weekend… but it’s much more fun to have time off. Plus, scheduling it in advance means I’m more likely to do it.

  • Make arrangements to have a babysitter. If you have a child, then get that babysitter or childcare lined up! Paying for a babysitter for a week, if you’re a SAHM, or keeping your pre-existing childcare, if you work, is important for making sure you have no distractions. Plus, it’s so nice to have time for yourself to tidy your home. Maybe you can sneak in some self-care or trashy TV too.

  • Make a priority list. Usually, my deep clean has a focus. I want to get everything looking amazing for the holidays; I want to reorganize the living room; or I want to make sure our closets and garage are ready for a big clean out. Whatever it is, I make a list of my priority rooms and areas.

  • Download a few podcasts, audio books, tv shows, or movies. I like to have something playing while I clean. While I fold laundry and clean out my appliances, I often listen to podcasts or new music that I’ve been intending to. While I’m vacuuming or really getting into scrubbing, I like a movie or TV show that I don’t need to follow 100%. No matter what you like, get some media ready and lined up so you can listen and enjoy while you work.

2. Work in Order of Room

Everyone has a priority list (as discussed); now, make your list in order of those priorities. For me, I feel like my house is most clean when my kitchen and living room are in order, because those are our most used rooms. After that, it’s pretty much workspaces, bathrooms, and bedrooms. So, here’s the order I usually deep clean in:

  • Kitchen

  • Living room

  • Kitchen pantry & entryway closet

  • Office

  • Bedrooms & bathrooms

  • Garage

  • Other closets

This helps me, again, have a game plan. I might split it up into days. Say I have 3 days off from work to get it done. I’ll focus on the kitchen, living room, and pantry the first day. The second day, I’ll hit the office and bedrooms, as well as the bathrooms. Then on the third day, it’s time for the garage and closets, which often are the most tedious (because it’s just cleaning out). If I have an extra day, I’ll do all the laundry I cleaned out, bag up Goodwill stuff, and do Goodwill runs all day. Otherwise, that’s stuff I can do at home with Forrest.

To me, knowing the order I want to go in keeps me from getting distracted. Say I’m empty the dishwasher and putting stuff away, then remember we have some water glasses upstairs; I’ll run up and grab those, then remember I need to grab the dirty towels for the laundry; I’ll throw them in the washing machine, then notice a basket of clothes that need folded; I’ll carry those downstairs and start cleaning up the living room because I hate sitting in the living room when it’s messy; then I’ll notice how dusty the TV is and start dusting… and on and on until an hour later, I realize the dishwasher is still half emptied.

3. My Favorite Products

When it comes to cleaning products, I like to keep it simple. Yes, you can find some really good specialized products out there, but when it comes down to it, having a set of the basics is just so much easier than buying tons and tons of stuff and having to organize that as well. Here is everything I keep on hand for my day-to-day cleaning and my big deep cleans.

  • Mrs. Meyer’s Everyday Cleaner - I use this for everything. Instead of bleach or similar cleaners, I like this for my counters and appliances. We have stainless steel appliances, so once every few months, I might use a specialized stainless steel cleaner. But I have found that this works just as well for my cooktop, sink, and more.

  • Mrs. Meyer’s Lemon Verbena Window Cleaner - I love a good window cleaner and this one is my favorite, plus it smells amazing.

  • Lysol Toilet Bowl Cleaner - I have tried every all-natural cleaner (like Mrs. Meyers & Method) and none of them work quite as good as Lysol. I try not to clean my toilets more than once a week, as I try not to put too much chemical cleaner into the water table, but I also want stuff clean, you know? Plus, I found that sometimes the scented Mrs. Meyers toilet cleaners made me gag. I don’t know what that was about, but… better safe than sorry.

  • Method Foaming Bathroom Cleaner - For showers & tubs, this really can’t be beat. The Eucalyptus and Mint scent is so good. I also use it on my kitchen sink every once and a while.

  • Method Squirt & Mop in Eucalyptus Mint - This is one of my favorite cleaning products of all time. I hate mopping, but our entire downstairs is hardwood now, so I have to mop at least once and while. This makes it easy! No bucket, no heavy mop. I usually just wrap a towel around my usual Swiffer and spray this, then mop over. Easy as pie.

  • Swiffer Dusters - the best dusting device out there. I use the heavy duty ones, but the regular ones work great as well.

  • Swiffer Heavy Duty - since we have a large inside dog, we need to use a Swiffer a lot. I have found that a Swiffer is much more effective than vacuuming hardwood floors. The heavy duty ones pick up a ton of dog hair and make it so, so easy.

  • Mr. Clean Magic Eraser - We have hard water, so our sinks and showers often need extra scrubbing. Magic erasers are really the only thing that works without me having to break my back.

  • Scrub Daddy Sponge Daddy - These are the best spongers ever made. I don’t like the classic smiley Scrub Daddies. These ones are sponges with a scrub on the other side. I seriously love them.

That’s it! That’s my tried-and-true, every day arsenal, not including basics like laundry detergent, a vacuum, rags… you know, basic stuff.

4. Keeping It Clean

Once you’re done with your deep clean, here’s the thing: it is possible to keep it mostly clean. Here are a few of my tips

Establish a schedule throughout the week.

Every day, I try to do little things to keep my house clean. Daily, I wipe down my kitchen counters, wash dishes, and empty the dish strainer (put the dishes away, basically), as well as clean my living room and wipe down the bathroom sinks. Every weekend, I vacuum upstairs, Swiffer downstairs, vacuum the rugs, and run the dishwasher and do laundry.

Little cleaning, often, is more effective than waiting weeks to deep clean.

That bit about the schedule? Doing little cleaning tasks every week will keep deep cleans from being stressful, awful affairs. Cleaning toilets once a week, wiping down the shower when you get out, wiping down your appliances, and cleaning your fridge once a month means you won’t have a monster growing somewhere waiting for your next deep clean.

Find storage solutions that work for you.

I hate prescriptive storage blog posts; what works for me and my closets won’t necessarily work for you and your closets. My recommendation is to assess what you need to store in each closet, then find a solution for you. I typically buy all my organization stuff at the Dollar Store; no, it won’t be as cute as something from elsewhere, but ultimately, it’s not about how cute it is… it’s about it working in your space. Plus, it’s a closet; no one is even looking in there!

Decorate your space.

Having your space look exactly how you want it goes a long way towards you feeling proud about it. So, decorate! Really focus on making the space yours, even if it’s not trendy or what you see on Pinterest. As long as you love it, that’s what matters.

5. Download my cleaning checklist.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and need a place to start with cleaning, I’ve made a handy-dandy checklist for a few major rooms in your house. Click below to download!

How to Protect Your Eyes from UV Rays in the Winter

How to Protect Your Eyes from UV Rays in the Winter | Writing Between Pauses

I recently partnered with Visionworks to promote the new location at the Valley River Mall in Eugene, Oregon. That’s my hometown mall! I’ve been going to Valley River Center for as long as I can remember and having a handy place for all my vision care needs, alongside all my other favorite places to shop, is a huge bonus.

I’ve needed glasses since I was about 12. When I first got them, I refused to wear them for nearly two years—until I started driving and my mom agreed I could wear contacts. I wore contacts until around 2015, when my eyes became more sensitive while I was pregnant. I wear glasses all the time now, so keeping my prescription up to date and my eyes healthy is really important to me. As well, as a chronic migraine sufferer, keeping an eye on my, well, eyes is also hugely importance; how my glasses fit, how the lenses reflect light from my computer, and how tight they are can have a huge impact on my migraines!

One important aspect of eye health that we often forget is protecting our eyes from UV rays. We tend to think of sunglasses purely in terms of fashion or helping us see. I always wear sunglasses when I’m driving in the summer, but during the winter, I definitely lapse in that habit. The days can be so dark, we forget that UV rays can still damage our eyes and our skin. (Which is why you should wear SPF every day!)

I wanted to share a few tips for protecting your eyes from UV rays in the winter!

  • Even on cloudy or hazy days, UV rays can damage your eyes. If you’re going to be outside, wear UV blocking sunglasses and broad-brimmed hats (as well as SPF on your face and any visible skin).

  • Don’t forget your kids when wearing sunglasses and hats!

  • Snow and ice can reflect UV rays—which is why sometimes, even on cloudy days, it can still feel really bright! As well, these reflected UV rays can be even more harsh than usual. Wearing polarized sunglasses while driving in snowy & icy conditions, or while skiing or playing outside in the snow, can feel dangerous, but will help you protect your eyes and see more clearly.

You might be asking: why do my eyes need protection from UV rays? UV rays cause damage to your eye—just like your skin. This can cause cataracts to develop, as well as other degeneration issues.

And in terms of vanity, frequent squinting can contribute to both headaches and wrinkles. All that eye cream, just to squint while outside in the snow?!

Thankfully, there are lots of options for stylish and functional eyewear to protect your eyes. Different activities call for different protection. If you ski, a pair of polarized ski goggles can protect your eyes. If you travel frequently, a great pair of sunglasses fit the bill. Visit Visionworks to check out their selection—and visit your nearest location for an eye exam and to try on glasses and sunglasses!

Disclaimer: as indicated by the asterisk (*) in the title of this post, this is a sponsored post with Visionworks. All opinions, however, remain my own. To learn more about my disclosure policy, click here.

Is This the Perfect Autumn Palette? | TooFaced Gingerbread Spice Palette

Beauty Review: TooFaced Gingerbread Spice Palette | Writing Between Pauses

When the Gingerbread Spice palette was announced, I told myself I wasn’t going to buy it. I didn’t need it! I never buy holiday palettes! It probably wouldn’t be that good! I swore and swore to Danny that I wouldn’t get it. But then, I swatched it in Sephora a week ago and… I loved it. I loved it from the moment I saw the promo images, but I especially loved it when I swatched Gumdrop and Hot Toddy.

There was no way around it: I was getting this palette.

I’m a one-palette-a-year kind of girl. I don’t buy eyeshadow palettes super regularly, usually just as my favorites expire or as trends change. I might by some small single eyeshadows once and a while, but not super regularly. I’m not a makeup collector and I don’t want to be.

However, this is the first time I really spur of the moment decided to buy something. I had a 20% off prestige coupon for Ulta, as I mentioned in my Inspiration Sunday post, so I knew it was the ideal time to buy it.

Now, TooFaced has the reputation of making gorgeous palettes that can fall flat. A lot of people don’t love their eyeshadow formula. I own the Sweet Peach palette, as well as the Peach Velvet Mattes palette. I love both, but they are an eyeshadow formula that I like working with and that works for me.

So with that in mind (that makeup is a preference and what works for one person might not be what works for another), let’s jump into a review!

Gingerbread Spice Palette | Writing Between Pauses

First things first, yes I did accidentally stab Gingerbread Latte with my fingernail right off the bat!

How’s the matte formula?

The matte formula is almost exactly like the Peach Velvet Mattes palette. It is an easy-to-blend, slightly dry formula. This is the formula i prefer (as opposed to the very pigmented, almost buttery formula of something like Anastasia Beverly Hills) because you can easily build color. My favorite matte shades at Lookie At My Cookie, Gingerbread, and Gingerbread Latte; these are the 3 I can see myself using over and over throughout the fall and the holidays!

How are the shimmers?

There are almost two different styles of shimmer or glitter in this palette. Spiked Eggnog and Frostbite Me are more shimmery, whereas all the others are more thick with glitter. (Does that make sense?) Both Spiked Eggnog and Frostbite Me are lovely and very, very easy to use.

For me, the hit of this palette was Hot Toddy and then Bake It Till You Make It; both swatch beautifully, but on brushes, are difficult to apply. However, I found a spritz of setting spray or a just slightly moist brush made a huge difference. They also apply great using your fingers. For some people, that can be a major turnoff because they like to use brushes for everything. It’s not to me, as I find it easier to adapt my method depending on formula to get the best look! And almost everyone applying makeup has fingers.

How Wearable Are These Shadows?

This is the question I ask before I buy any new makeup: how wearable is this for every single day? If I’m buying a makeup palette, I want it to be something I use more than once a year.

Some of the shades are definitely less for everyday wear; the shimmers are so bold, they can be a bit overwhelming, but used sparingly, I think they can work. Most of the matte shades are perfect for everyday eye looks. The only shades I think are really more for special occasions, at least for me, are Gumdrop and Frostbite Me. Frostbite Me is so icy and shimmery, it is more for a standout look. And Gumdrop is gorgeous and so bright, but it’s not an everyday shadow for me. However, that’s only 2 out of 18 shadows.

What About the Scent?

One of my biggest critiques about both of TooFaced’s peach palettes (and honestly, most of TooFaced’s stuff) is the scent. The peach scent of the first Sweet Peach palette was extremely strong; the Velvet Mattes palette is better, but still quite strong. The Gingerbread Spice Palette is supposed to be scented, but I have trouble really… smelling it? It smells faintly sweet if I get really close, but it is not overwhelming like the peach scent is and I honestly can’t smell it unless I shove my nose in it. For me, that is a major improvement!

Is This Palette Worth It?

The cost of this palette is $49 at both Ulta and Sephora. I love this palette; I’ve used it every single day since I bought it. I’m on record saying I’m done with warm-toned shadows, but here I am, with warm-toned shadows again. But these are warm tones that work for me because they are brown-based (as opposed to orange- or pink-based).

However, is $49 really worth it? I think if you’re in the market for a palette like this for Autumn and Winter, absolutely, it’s worth it. It has a lot of product and you get a variety of shimmers and mattes. If you have that 20% Ulta coupon, it’s an even better deal.

Do you have the Gingerbread Spice palette? What do you think of it?

What's So Special About a Trip to the Pumpkin Patch?

What's So Special About a Trip to the Pumpkin Patch? | Writing Between Pauses

Every October, we do a traditional visit to the pumpkin patch with Danny’s parents. They only visit about twice a year, so this is a big occasion for us. Last year, Forrest could have easily spent about 2 or 3 hours in the pumpkin patch. This year, he wasn’t quite as obsessed with pumpkins, but he still had a lot of fun.

We went to Lone Pine Farms in Eugene, which is where we go every year. I suspect they did not have a great pumpkin harvest this year; a lot of the pumpkins were rotten, damaged, or just starting to turn already… and the patch has only been open 2 weeks! We still found quite a few great pumpkins, though, so we can’t complain.

Pumpkin Patch Visit
Say Pumpkins!
Batman and Pumpkins
Lone Pine Farms

It was one of those perfect Fall days that feels absolutely perfect. It wasn’t too hot (mid-60s, a little windy), but it was sunny. The patch was crowded, but not like last year, so crowded that it felt claustrophobic. There was room to take all the photos I wanted of Forrest. It was just a day that felt really perfect and special.

Some of my friends often ask why our trip to the pumpkin patch is such a big deal. Well, first of all, pumpkin patches are really only open for one month a year. October. That’s it! That’s all the pumpkin patch you get! As well, the farm stands attached to pumpkin patches really depend on the business, as they often close for the season on November 1, or shortly after. Visiting local farms during the summer to buy produce, and then buying pumpkins from them instead of from a grocery store, helps me to support a local business.

Second of all, pumpkin patches are fun. There is always a lot to do. Lone Pine even has a whole playground set up so kids can play for a little while as their parents pay or browse the farm stand. There are games. There are hayrides. A cow train. Horses and goats to pet and feed.

It’s a special trip we take every year and one we all look forward to. If you don’t regularly visit a local pumpkin patch, you’re really, really missing out on an opportunity to not just have fun, but support a local business.

Family Photo at Pumpkin Patch

What’s your October tradition?

What I Got for Christmas

What I Got For Christmas | Writing Between Pauses

A few days after Christmas, I ran a poll on Instagram about whether people like Christmas gift posts or not. The results were pretty much split in the middle: half said they hated them, half said they love them. I got quite a few messages asking that I still post. 

This is just going to be a fun little post, mostly a list. I'll be reviewing some of these things in separate posts, so if you see something you want more details either 1) let me know and 2) I'll either email you directly with info or tell you the date the post will be going up. See? Easy peasy! 

Let's get down to business! 

1. A fruit-themed box of Lush goodies

The gift set I got was the Bella Fruta, but from what I can tell, they change this set almost constantly. The set I got contains a Yuzu Bubbleroon, a Comforter Bubble bar, A Strawberry Feels Forever massage bar, an Avobath Bomb, Sympathy for the Skin lotion, and the Comforter shower cream. That's a lot of stuff! I was so excited to receive this because I've never really tried Lush products, but have always wanted to. And I love a nice, relaxing bath! 

2. A gift bag from Bath & Body Works

This is a gift I get regularly from my mother-in-law... it's one I come to expect and love! In this year's bag there was the bag itself (a large, sturdy tote), a Champagne Toast candle, a Winter Candy Apple hand sanitizer and lotion, a shea butter cream lotion in the Berry scent, an Aromatherapy Body Cream in Recharge (sage and mint), and an Aromatherapy Body Wash & Bubble Bath in Recharge. I've been obsessed with herb scents lately, so I'm very excited for the Aromatherapy products! 

3. More socks than I honestly know what to do with 

Last year while opening Christmas gifts, my husband and I had quite the crack up because everyone had gotten me socks. My mom got me socks; his mom got me socks; and Danny got me socks. In 2016, I got about 20 pairs of new socks alone. Danny was pretty worried that I would be mad because, seriously, who wants that many pairs of socks? But fortunately, I love socks. This year, he got me several pairs of new socks again (about 5 pairs) and I got two pairs from my mother in law... for a grand total of 7 pairs of socks. Needless to say, I have enough boot socks to last me an absolute lifetime. 

In case you think Danny only got me socks, he also got me a new heating pad (don't freak out, but I sleep with one) and a new pair of sweater leggings with pandas on them. 

4. Crossing a lot off my Christmas bucket list

I think the best gift I received (not to be an absolute cornball or anything) this year was the fact that I got to experience Christmas in a way I never have before. Going to Idaho to celebrate with Danny's family was hard because, obviously, I wish we could be with both our families every year! But it was really fun to have a new experience, something completely different, and to see how much fun Forrest had! As well, we had a white Christmas!! The first of my life! That's a great gift. 

What did you get for Christmas? 

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas! | Writing Between Pauses

I know most everyone will be too busy today, but it's the last official day of Blogmas and I needed to post something, surely! In terms of Christmas-y posts, I think I've written just about every type of post I've wanted to write for Christmas this month. Thank you all for following along. 

Christmas is such a special time of year. There is no month that captures the highs and lows of life quite like December: it feels like when things are good, they're extremely good; but when they're bad, they are devastatingly bad. I know many are having rough months so I want to take a moment, again, to say: it's easy for December to be a hard, dark month, where it's hard to feel joy, where you get bogged down.

You might be without family or away from family; you might have financial setbacks; you might not be able to do everything you've done before. But ultimately, Christmas is about what you make it. It doesn't have to be extravagant or expensive or like anyone else's Christmas. It can be a plain, simple Christmas, with the Santa Clause on Netflix and a box of pre-made cookies from the grocery store. It's what you want it to be. That's it. No need to get Christmas-y like everyone else. No need to do things you don't want to do. 

This is just a short way to say: Merry Christmas, thank you for following my blog, and if you need to chat, I'm always here. 

My Favorite Christmas Traditions

My Favorite Christmas Traditions | Writing Between Pauses

Christmas is my favorite time of year. 

Actually, scratch that: from October 1 to December 31 is my favorite time of year. Once January hits, I tend to fall into a bit of a... rut? Sadness rut? January and February are very difficult months for me, so it seems kind that I get my absolute favorite time of year right before that. 

I grew up with a lot of Christmas traditions that have fallen to the wayside. I think that is true of everyone's life: there are things you do as a kid that just aren't realistic for incorporating into your life as you get older. There are no more big family dinners on Christmas Eve; no more bright-and-early Christmas mornings (at least not until Forrest is able to get up on his own); and no more school programs or anything like that. 

No, there are other things that I associate with Christmas now. Things that I've done with Danny in the last 7 years (have we been together nearly 7 years now!?) that are special to us, that are our traditions, and things we are starting with Forrest to make into traditions of our own. 

I wanted to share some of my childhood traditions that I still keep up, some of our new traditions as a family, and a few things that we hope to incorporate into Christmas as the years go by. 

1. Baking Sugar Cookies

This is one of those traditions that everyone has. Almost everyone spends one day in December baking a ridiculous amount of sugar cookies--or maybe they're oatmeal cookies, or ginger cookies, or whatever cookie your family favors.

We make sugar cookies in my family; the recipe was my great-grandmother's, adapted from a recipe for Scottish shortbread (I think it's actually an Americanization, as my great-grandmother's side was Scottish). It's basically shortbread, plus eggs and baking powder and vanilla. That's it! They're delicious, easy to make, and so much fun.

I've been making these sugar cookies the exact same way with the exact same icing since I was little and whenever I make them for my office, everyone loves them. It's not Christmastime until I've made my sugar cookies!

2. Opening presents early

Danny and I have always been very bad at keeping secrets from each other. Mostly because I am incredibly intuitive and I know when Danny isn't telling me something. Presents are hard because, throughout the year, we save so much money that we rarely treat ourselves or each other to big purchases, so we tend to give each other gifts the moment we buy them. The last few years, we got into a bad habit of having most of our presents opened by Christmas day (oops). This year, we set a limit for ourselves: one present when Danny finished school for break and one before we left for Christmas. It worked marvelously. We got to enjoy our tradition of being absolutely cheeky about when we open presents, but we still have some to open with Forrest on Christmas morning. (And of course, like true parents, we're making Forrest wait until Christmas! Not that he knows the difference.) 

3. Watching Lord of the Rings

One of my favorite movies to watch around Christmas is the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Don't ask me why, but they are Christmas movies. I will argue about it. Danny and I started doing this the year where he wasn't working and I had quit my job to switch to another (digression: that job switch was absolutely a mistake, but that's another blog post!). We had a lot of spare time around Christmas as a result, so we watched the extended edition of the Trilogy... and loved it. We started doing it every year! 

Recently, we added the Hobbit trilogy to it. Those movies are also Christmas movies, I will argue, and fit right in. With Forrest, we don't have the attention spans (or time) we used to, so we tend to stick to the Hobbit and the Fellowship of the Ring, our two favorites. 

4. Advent Calendars

Advent calendars are a relatively new phenomena in the United States. Well, not "new." When I was little, I had an Advent calendar once or twice, but they weren't very popular and I firmly believe that the traditional ones sold in the US were all made in the same year. (Really, they all have the same waxy chocolates and exact same look. Since at least 1992.) 

I know Advent calendars are super popular outside the U.S. though, of all varieties... much better varieties than mass produced, waxy milk chocolates and a vaguely religious poem behind each door! This year, I started noticing Advent calendars popping up everywhere: Ulta had one, Sephora had one. Europe is gradually forcing a trend on the U.S. and I am into it! I got myself an Advent calendar this year and Forrest one as well, and we both enjoyed it. This is definitely something I want to keep up because they are so fun! 

5. Making Family Ornaments

This year, I bought a few ornament picture frames to put on our tree: they have the year on them, so I put two photos from our family vacation in them. It got me thinking... how nice, when Forrest is 18, to be able to decorate the tree with these photos of us and him. It's not something I can see myself doing every single year (some years we probably won't vacation or get a good photo), but something I do want to keep up for a while! 

What are your Christmas traditions? Tell me about them in the comments!

3 Dinner Ideas for Before Christmas

3 Dinner Ideas for Before Christmas | Writing Between Pauses

It's that time of year. 

Yes, Christmas. But also, the season of food. Of eating. Of being invited to brunches, lunches, parties, and get togethers. 

Especially when you have kids, you still need to make dinner--and you want it to be something fast and reasonably healthy (considering you have at least a dozen cookies in your house at all times, as well as any number of snacks, cakes, leftovers, and more). 

The past week (and actually, this week as well), I've been really struggling with cooking dinners. We are exhausted after long days at work topped with getting ready for Christmas, visiting friends and family, and making dishes for pot lucks. But Forrest has a pretty set schedule for his meals and trust me, the kid knows how to read a clock. 

Here are 3 recipes I'm turning to this week and next to help us eat well on the lead up to Christmas. 

1. One Pot Chicken Pasta

This is one of my tried-and-true, if I make this everyone will eat it and enjoy it dinners. I usually make extra veggies to go alongside it (usually roasted carrots and Brussel sprouts), but even on it's own, it's extremely tasty. 

I actually no longer follow the recipe anymore because I customize it so much. I cut out the bacon, keep the chicken, use milk instead of cream and veggie stock instead of chicken, add broccoli, and add the parmesan at the end of cooking (instead of at the beginning--I have found it gets separated and weird if I put it in at the beginning). This would be a really easy recipe to make vegan: use veggie stock and replace the milk with either almond milk or soy milk; no chicken, but stir in beans at the end of cooking (or use vegan crumbles); use a cheese substitute or nutritional yeast. 

2. Taco Bake

This is my own personal recipe. It's incredibly easy and can be made ahead. I actually made a few trays of it recently and put them in the freezer for quick dinners through the winter. Here's what you'll need: 

  • 1 pound of ground beef (or chicken if you prefer) 
  • 1 packet of taco seasoning OR about 1/2 cup of salsa or enchilada sauce
  • 1 can of refried beans OR 1 can of black beans to make your own (just cook in a pan and mash as you do so, add a little salt and pepper) 
  • Tortillas
  • Cheese
  • Carrots, peppers, spinach, corn, and broccoli 
  • About 1 cup of leftover rice (or cooked fresh) 

Start by preparing a baking dish; I use a 9x9 square pan, spray with nonstick cooking spray, then put down a layer of tortillas. Cook your ground beef or chicken in a pan, adding the taco seasoning or salsa (whatever you've chosen to use). If you need to, start cooking your refried beans and rice. (If you're using leftovers, it cuts out that step!) In the oven, roast your veggies of choice, then add a few dashes of hot sauce as you mix them up. Once you have everything cooked, it's time to layer. I usually do a layer of refried beans onto the tortillas in the prepared dish, then meat, then veggies, then a light sprinkle of cheese. Layer tortillas again and repeat until you run out of everything. Top with cheese and bake for about 20 minutes. 

It's so good, so easy, and can be made using almost entirely leftovers. 

3. A Cheese Plate

If it's just you and your partner (or just yourself!), the simplest dinners are sometimes the best. Recently, Danny and I, after Forrest has gone to bed at 3:30 because he hadn't napped all day, had a cheese plate dinner. We sliced up some nice cheese, made a few slices of toast, made a chocolate sauce for some strawberries, peeled a few mandarin oranges, and opened a bottle of wine. It was simple and super satisfying. Next time, we want to make some bruschetta and toast, as well as cheese and strawberries, to enjoy.