Thursday, November 20, 2014

Operation Nashville Surprise

Three weeks ago, we had a surprise trip planned for our fab five.

I have three brain cells left this week, so I'm just gonna caption the iPhone photos I took like I did as they unfolded and let them tell the story.

(Once upon a time, I lugged a BIG FAT CAMERA around with me everywhere we went. Now? Capture it with the phone. Move on.)

But, let me just say this: There is VERY LITTLE that I love more than surprising our kids with a trip to ANYWHERE. I mean, yes we could tell them in advance. Yes, that would leave time for them to get excited with us.

But, when we surprise them? THEY FLIP OUT LIKE CRAZY PEOPLE. And we get high off of that and we're in charge and it's totally self-serving, but sue us. So, Jason and I typically don't tell them about any of our vacations until we're pulling out of the driveway.

This trip to Nashville?

They were SO excited.

So. Here we go. Come with us as the week unfolded.


Jason sat the kids down in the family room this morning and told them he had to leave right away for a business trip and he'd be back on Friday. The entire room deflated. BUT then he asked them if they might wanna come with him.

For the whole week.

To Nashville.

Operation Go On Dad's Week-Long Business Trip Surprise:

Success. #herewego

Oh, hey Gatlinburg, heeeeeey. #doyouwannabuildasnowman #ONNOVEMBER1ST #WHA?

We stayed at The Park Vista and went to Waterslide Baptist for church.

Gatlinburg really is beautiful. Gorgeous scenery. Not-so-gorgeous parents. #sleepwho

"Mom, remember that time we went to Tennessee and you made us all climb on that fake bear for a picture?"

Yes, I do. Now go get me my dentures. And a glass of wine.

{After arriving in Nashville...}

I've learned so much about love from Jason.

It's a million little things and even more big things and I miss so many of them because he never expects ANY praise from me or anyone else for the quiet way that he loves us.

Today - that quiet love cut up waffles and poured milk and passed out bananas while dressed in business attire, never eating anything himself, and surrounded by people peacefully enjoying a cup of coffee before work. And then he picked up a briefcase and handed out hugs and kisses to five little faces that know not that he's made any sacrifice at all, but that he simply loves them.

On his business trip.

Just like every day before.

Downtown Nashville.

No. We're not tourists.

Why do you ask?

#meetDolly #ournewfamilypuppy

After successfully terrorizing the city for a spell, Jason took us all to Puckett's for dinner.

Fried pickles, fried green beans, sweet potato fries, chicken fried chicken - we tried it all. Tomorrow, we'll eat through a nice green leaf.

But tonight, just two Southern belles LIVIN' IT UP.

Breakfast at the golden arches.

"They're lovin' it." #imnot

Attempting to culture them with something other than Bluegrass and fried everything, we saddled up to the Frist Center for Visual Arts - an interactive art museum with over 30 stations where they could create different kinds of art.

It. was. amazing.

*Kandinsky station - "Listen to the music. Paint what you hear."

Have I ever told you that my kids aren't rule followers?

Four masterpieces. *So is their art. #hollyphotobomb

Dear hotel pool,

In the name of all that is holy and sleep-deprived, PLEASE wear them out.

While the kids and I spent the day swimming and hanging out at the hotel, Jen Hatmaker was hanging out with this guy.

Lucky girl.

President, Pool So Hard University. #myRAVENSpeepsgetit

We took them to dinner and the LEGO store one evening at Opry Mills.

(Where I did some serious financial damage because BEST.SHOPPING.EVER and Jason corralled them for me for an hour BECAUSE HE KNOWS MY LOVE LANGUAGE.)

Oh, Lincoln. There were two...princes here before you, but you - my sweet middle - are straight up joy in my heart.

These littles.

They spent all week living in a hotel.

They handled a one-hour time change PLUS the end of Daylight Savings Time like absolute rock stars. And more than anything, they heaped loads of undeserved grace on me even though I was a RAGING lunatic at times trying to manage it all.

I'm so proud of them.
For the way they love.
For the kids they are.

For giving their mama 10,000 reasons to thank God for them every day.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Company's Comin': 12 Make-Ahead Recipes for the Holidays

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Thanksgiving is just around the corner.

So, company's comin' to visit. Or, you're headed to Grandma's house.

For the one big meal, everyone will pitch in and Grandma and aunts and sisters and cousins will all gather in and 'round the kitchen to help prepare the biggest meal of the year.

But, what about the other meals for the days surrounding Thanksgiving?

The late-night snacks during game night?
The breakfasts?
The post-shopping get-togethers?

Bring on the leftovers, but after about five open-faced turkey sandwiches, I'm ready for somethin' else.

But, does anyone really wanna cook at the stovetop after spending an entire day (or two or three or four) in the kitchen? I sure don't.

Here is a collection of recipes to keep you out of the kitchen and enjoying time with your family. All of these recipes can be assembled or made ahead of time. Some more ahead of time than others. I've included a bit of everything - appetizer, main dishes, side dishes, desserts, and of course, breakfasts!

Because I know some of you will be up and at 'em at the crack of dawn on Black Friday and that means there is no time for slaving over the stove that morning.

I really love each of these recipes. They're all tried-and-true and I have made all of them many, many times. I know some of you have tried them, and I'd LOVE to hear which ones you've made!

So, here are 12 Make-Ahead Recipes that will help you feed the family, and not miss a thing!

Overnight Sticky Buns. Oh, how I love these. Assemble in 5 minutes before you hit the sack. Bake for 25 the next morning. These are evil. So incredibly good. A delicious oxymoron.

Savory Croissant Breakfast Pudding. A delicious breakfast casserole. It's enough to feed a huge crowd, and can be assembled the night before and baked in the morning! (I finally tried making it the night before - turned out perfectly!)

Banana Nut Crumb Muffins. These are my favorite muffins. Make today. Freeze. Eat for breakfast the day after Thanksgiving. Perfect with a cup o' joe and a chat with Mom!

Chicken Empanadas. A great appetizer or game night snack. You can make these this week, and freeze them until you're ready to get your game on.

Chicken Tetrazzini. One of my favorite dishes on this blog. I make this dish every month at my house, and make two or three pans and freeze them. This is the best casserole on earth. Prove me wrong and I'll send you $50.

Date Night Fajita Nachos. Grill the chicken and sauté the onions in advance. Assemble and broil for 5 minutes when you're ready to eat. Great crowd pleaser and perfect for dinner OR game night!

Spicy Black Bean and Corn Chicken Chili. My favorite chili. You can assemble and freeze this chili, then cook it in the crockpot or on the stovetop. Everyone raves about this chili. Especially new Mommas. (Make it as a layered dip - see the recipe for instructions!)

Broccoli Casserole. Getting steamed veggies done perfectly is tough when you're trying to manage the rest of a meal AND a crowd. Make this casserole ahead and freeze it. Pull it out and bake for an easy, savory side dish.

Cheesy Mashed Potato Bake. Who wants to peel more potatoes after peeling 10 pounds at Thanksgiving? Make these mashed potatoes covered in cheese ahead of time and freeze, if needed. Thaw and bake. (For a complete meal, make Broccoli Casserole and these potatoes ahead of time. Serve with a rotisserie chicken!)

Oatmeal Crisps. After eating pies and heavy desserts for a few days, a light, crisp cookie is the perfect, sweet after dinner snack. Make these ahead and store in your favorite cookie tin.

Pine Bark. Easiest dessert ever. And, perfect for munching on a piece here and there when you (or your company) have a hankering for something to satisfy that sweet/salty combo.

Chocolate Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Frosting. OK, so some of us want a rich dessert even after consuming pies and cakes. Freeze these cupcakes and refrigerate the frosting. Assemble when you need them . Chocolate and peanut butter are simply amazing together in these cupcakes. Then again, when are they not?

I'm so hungry now.

I would love to have one of those sticky buns sittin' on a plate in front of me.

There you have it: 12 Make-Ahead Recipes that I know you (and your company) will love. And, if you need to take something with you to Grandma's house, any of these will travel and you can contribute to feeding the crowd and won't have to cook when you get there.

I'm so excited to see my family over Thanksgiving. And, I love that we get to spend time together - even after the big holiday - snacking and sharing meals and game and movie nights together.

I hope these recipes give you some ideas for how to feed your family in the days before and after Thanksgiving - and help keep you out of the kitchen and enjoying every minute with the ones you love!

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Family Schedule: Are We Blocking Our Kids' View of God?

I carry a card in my daily planner.

It's tucked in the back pocket - where I reach for my pens every day - so that I will see it.

Every time I reach to plan for our life.

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Why this card?

What's so special about it?

Several weeks ago, we visited some dear friends at their church. Throughout the sermon, I looked over at Jack and noticed that he was taking notes. Which he does regularly when he's sitting in church at home with us.

After church, as we were leaving, I looked down at what he'd written.

And, I was instantly brought to tears.

"You will be [generous] when you live around [generous] people."

Yes, yes, and yes!

"We have a loving and [generous] heavenly father."

YES. We do.

"We should be loving and [generous neighbors].


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But, it was the end of his notes that left me totally undone.

"Some fathers block the view of God."

And, then Jack added his own thought:

"But, not mine."

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(I cried ugly, y'all. UGLY.) Because Jason - he leads and loves them (and me) right to Jesus.

{He would tell you otherwise - that he is royally screwing all of us up which makes him even more annoyingly lovable, dang it.}

I now keep this in my planner - where I see it EVERY DAY - because when I plan and dream and schedule what our family life will look like, I want to NOT block their view of God.

With hurriedness.
With impatience.

And, that is SO easy for me to do.

We need family space and margin - to live and love each other well. We need quiet, we need dinner together, we need time to talk and share. We need to NOT overschedule so that we can pour the Gospel into them. Every day.

God has been so good to us. He's the very breath we breathe. But, can they see Him in all the busy?

I struggle to find balance here - to live good life with them and LIVE BIG and FULL.

So now, I carry a reminder. That card up there. So that in the midst of life and schedules and appointments and sports and play dates and vacations and fun times together...

I am ALWAYS planning with purpose - thinking, and asking:

Can they see Him today?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Sweet Potato Casserole. My Favorite Thanksgiving Side Dish.

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This is my FAVORITE Thanksgiving side dish. Period.

It is a staple on our Thanksgiving table every year, whether I'm with my family or at my in-laws. My mother-in-law makes a similar version to this, and it's the first thing I reach for.

But, I don't just make it at Thanksgiving. I make this dish to serve next to all kinds of main dishes all fall and winter long: chicken, beef, fish - it goes with just about any meat dish. It's sweet and savory and everyone I make it for raves about it.

If you're taking a dessert to a Thanksgiving get-together this year, you can't go wrong with Streusel-Filled Pumpkin Roll.

If you need to take a side dish, this Sweet Potato Casserole is a great choice. It's so simple, completely homemade, and absolutely divine. And, you can make it ahead and freeze it. I'll include the directions for freezing in the recipe!

Also, if you don't like nuts, I've included a nut-free version as well!

Here's how I make it. (full recipe below)

First, you'll need 4 large (or 6 medium) sweet potatoes.

Peel and cut them into small cubes.

Place in a medium pot and cover with water. Boil for 20 minutes, or until soft.

While the sweet potatoes are boiling, make the topping.

Combine butter, brown sugar, flour, and chopped pecans (or oatmeal - for a nut-free version or if you don't like nuts.) Crumble together with your hands or a fork. Set aside.

When potatoes are finished, drain and place them in a mixing bowl. Add butter, sugar, cinnamon and vanilla. Beat with an electric mixer (a hand mixer is fine) until fluffy.

Add 1/3 cup of heavy cream (You can use half-and-half if you prefer.) Beat on low speed until combined.

Place sweet potato mixture into a buttered pie plate or medium-sized baking dish.

Smooth to edges.

Place topping evenly over sweet potato mixture.

Bake at 350 degrees, uncovered, for 30 minutes.

It comes out looking about the same as it did going in - except that it's heated all the way through, the pecans are toasted, and the topping has formed into a delicious "crust".

I immediately served some up into a small bowl for myself and dug in. It's an awesome snack. But, for dinner, I serve it right on our dinner plates next to a main dish.

Man, I love this stuff.

So, if you've never made a dish with sweet potatoes, this is a delicious and simple one to try!

And, again, it is a perfect dish to take to a Thanksgiving or other holiday dinner this year!


Sweet Potato Casserole

4 large (or 6 medium) sweet potatoes
4 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup heavy cream


1 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup flour
4 tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 cup pecans, chopped (OR 1/2 cup quick oats)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Peel and cube sweet potatoes. Place in medium pot and fill with water to cover sweet potatoes. Bring to a boil, covered, and cook until soft - about 20 minutes.

While sweet potatoes are cooking, in a small bowl, combine brown sugar, flour, and butter. Combine with fork until crumbly. Add pecans (or oatmeal). Stir to combine.

When potatoes are finished, drain and place in a large mixing bowl. Beat sweet potatoes, butter, sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla until thoroughly combined. Add heavy cream. Beat until smooth.

Pour sweet potato mixture into a lightly greased pie plate or medium baking dish. Top with brown sugar topping.

Bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees for 30 minutes, or until top is golden brown.

*Double if using a 9" x 13" for a large gathering.

*To freeze ahead, make casserole, but do not bake. Cover with plastic wrap then cover with foil. When ready to bake, thaw in refrigerator overnight. Increase baking time to 45 minutes - 1 hour.