I spend a LOT of time digging up recipes that:

a) the kids might eat

b) involve ingredients I am likely to have on hand

c) can quickly be reheated for frantic weeknights

d) only require one pot.

So I may as well save you some time, right? Here’s what I’m loving this month.

Simple Chicken Soup

I try to bake a whole chicken every Sunday, either in the oven or the crock pot, so I can transform it into meals for the first half of the week.

Last week, I made a classic chicken soup by boiling a whole chicken. Here’s how:

Simple Chicken Soup (adapted from Domino magazine)

1 whole chicken cut in half (or save yourself the gross-out factor and buy a whole chicken already divided)

5 medium carrot, peeled and cut into 2″ lengths

4 celery stalks, cut into 2″ lengths

1 large yellow onion, cut into eighths

2 bay leaves

3 sprigs flat-leaf parsley

In a large pot, comine chicken, carrots, celery, onions, bay leaves and parsley with 8 cups of water. Place over high heat, uncovered, and after it comes to a boil, reduce to a simmer. Cook 1 hour or more, skimming the foam off the top every so often.

Remove as much of the big chicken pieces as you can and transfer to a cutting board. Shred or cut chicken into bite-size pieces. Set aside.

Strain the soup into another large pan (you can use the pasta boiler insert). Go through the chunky veggies and make sure there are no bones/misc. chicken parts. Remove the bay leaves and parsley.

Then reassemble everything, leaving out all the bones and chicken pieces you wouldn’t want to eat.

Mexican Chicken Soup

When some friends stopped by, I transformed the plain chicken soup into a Mexican Chicken Soup fiesta just by serving it with a “topping bar” (jalapeno, limes, sour cream, corn, blue corn tortilla chips, cilantro). The idea came straight out of vintage Domino magazine (Jan/Feb 2006), may she rest in peace.

Domino magazine Jan/Feb 2006

Chicken, Artichoke and Cannellini Bean Spezzatino

After the chicken soup fiesta, I had a ton of shredded chicken left, so I gave it a second life as Chicken, Artichoke and Cannellini Bean Spezzatino from the lovely Giada De Laurentiis.

The pancetta and artichoke gave the chicken soup an unexpected twist. I loved it and can’t wait to make it again.

40-Minute Cassoulet

I absolutely love Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything iPhone app. I pulled the 40-Minute Cassoulet recipe from Bittman’s “Casual New Year’s Eve” menu and it was fantastic. (It looks like you need to get the app to get the recipe–but it’s worth it, I promise!)

Serving a cassoulet (even if Bittman himself said it’s not a real cassoulet) made me feel like I’d graduated up a couple levels in my cooking know-how. And it didn’t hurt that my parents brought the pork and duck back from their day trip to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx (“the real Little Italy” according to Rachael Ray).

The next time I want to serve a hearty winter meal for a crowd, this will be my go-to recipe.

Cranberry Harvest Muffins

Snow days call for baking, and Ina Garten’s Cranberry Harvest Muffins were absolutely perfect. (I made them without figs and nuts, and I cut the sugar down by at least half.) The generous use of cinnamon and ground ginger gave them a spicy depth.

If I were a more confident baker, I would’ve cut the 1/2 pound (GULP) of butter way down and substituted it with something else. But the last time I did that (using olive oil in a “healthy” oatmeal raisin muffin), the result was horrendous–all I could taste was olive oil. If anyone has a trick to share, please do!

Your turn: What are your favorite recipes this month?

For the first time ever, I am responsible for the permanent imprints on two young people’s memories. And what bigger memory imprint is there than Christmas? This responsibility left me scrambling for holiday activities I could do with my little ones the entire month of December (and by scrambling I mean spending an inordinate amount of time reading blogs about what strangers were up to for the holidays).

Christmas foreplay, if you will.

So for the record, here’s what went not-so-right despite all that planning and 1st-basing:

1. Not having a clear Christmas budget for each person

This almost always leads to thinking you don’t have enough at the last minute. Which is when you discover Zappos.com’s Christmas Delivery Guarantee–on 12/23–you start ordering more and more.

  • Christmas 2011: As unsexy as it is, next year I’ll define a budget before I do any shopping. And I’ll make sure the Dad is on board.

2. Not having a good idea of what I’d already bought

I thought I was pretty crafty with my gift organization. I took over a drafting table in the basement and separated everyone’s stocking stuffers into separate gift bags. But the rest of it was piled up so high that by the time I went to wrap it all, I found gifts I had completely forgotten about. Even worse, my husband had no idea what I’d already bought for the kids, so he came home from his (1) day of shopping with bags full of cool-design-but-not-so-functional kid stuff to add to the pile.

  • Christmas 2011: Keep a Google Docs spreadsheet that tracks gifts per person, the cost, and the remaining $ left based on that unsexy budget.

3. Letting family members get away with not telling me what they really wanted

Forget this feigned humbleness. Everyone has some idea of what they want, and instead of me spending hours wandering around the mall trying to figure out what my mom, step-dad and brother really want, it would be better for us all if they just listed a few things.

Here’s where that will get you: My mom flew back to Florida today, and in her vacated room I found several of the gifts my brother and I gave to her and my step-dad. I guess she figured she’d get them the next time she’s here. In March. Meanwhile, I told her what I wanted (a Kindle) and wouldn’t dream of waiting until March to use it.

  • Christmas 2011: I’m enforcing a mandatory wish list policy, either via Amazon Wish Lists or Google Docs. If you don’t take the time to fill out 5-10 things you really want, you get a gift certificate. To the grocery store. That ought to get their attention.

4. Saving all Christmas-related to-do’s for the month of December

Doing any Christmas-related tasks before Thanksgiving has always seemed strange and excessive to me. But this year, for the first time ever, it occurred to me that since Christmas is on the 25th of the month, you don’t even have a full month to get everything done, on top of your regular old life to-do’s. I guess having two young children changes things.

Next year, I hope to tackle some of these time-consuming biggies before the thick of the season rolls around. Because when the thick of the season does roll around, I want to be in my Christmas jammies, in front of the fire, watching movies. Not at some crappy strip mall.

  • Now: Sort through the holiday decorations and get rid of anything you don’t love before you pack it away for next year. Organize the boxes better this year: Lights in one big box instead of crammed in with all the other stuff; a separate box for decorations you might put out earlier in December before you get your tree. Etc.
  • October/November: Update your Christmas card addresses and freshen up the group you send them to (so you’re not left with a box of unsent cards in January, like me).
  • November: Fill the pantry with fresh flour, sugar, vanilla extract, and whatever other staple baking supplies you use. That way you can whip up pretty much anything after some unexpected neighbors deliver bread, cookies and wine to you.
  • November: Buy/plan a couple of holiday outfits for you and your kids (and your spouse, too, if he’ll tolerate it). And holiday pajamas, if you do that sort of thing. That way you’ll be ready for any invitations that come your way, and you won’t be spending holiday-time evenings wandering around Kohl’s (because it’s the closest clothing store to your house), thinking “maybe this really isn’t that bad.” Plus, as I learned this year, apparently everyone else shops for their holiday outfits in October, which explains why I couldn’t find any Christmas sleeper pajamas in my kid’s sizes.

5. Not participating in any community holiday events

I’m going to give myself an out for this year. After all, I do have a 1-year-old and a 2-year-old. And a business to run. But next year, with all this stellarific planning of mine, I should have plenty of energy left to take my budding musicians to a holiday concert, or to see the lighting of our downtown Christmas tree, or to a church service. Or at least to their daycare’s Santa appearance, which, I confess, we missed this year.

  • Christmas 2011: Don’t be such a hermit.

Land of Nod Here Comes Santa Clause Advent Calendar

As much as I love Advent calendars, the idea of training my half-pints to expect a piece of candy or little plastic toy every day doesn’t seem like a great idea. After much searching, I came across the idea of filling the little pockets of an Advent calendar with simple holiday-themed activities. I chose the Here Comes Santa Clause calendar from Land of Nod for my toddlers because I thought they’d enjoy moving Santa from pocket to pocket.

On my first pass of coming up with activities, I realized it was more of a holiday to-do list. So I took another pass and came up with this list. Some “activities” like “welcome Nana” have a definitive date. Most of the others I will be stuffing into the calendar moments before one of the children pull it out. This way we won’t be selecting “decorate the Christmas tree” or “make cookies” on a day where that’s completely out of the question.

Here’s the list I’m working from:

  • Find Christmas books at the library
  • Make tree ornaments
  • Make wrapping paper (decorate white or brown paper gift bags)
  • Welcome Nana/Pop-Pop/Uncle Ben
  • Make red and green play doh
  • Select toys to donate
  • Go see Santa
  • Pick out gifts for teachers
  • Watch A Charlie Brown Christmas
  • Talk about the meaning of Christmas
  • Look at photos from last Christmas
  • Do a random act of kindness
  • Take a treat to a neighbor
  • Pick out our Christmas tree
  • Light a candle and say a prayer for a loved one far away
  • Take a picture of the kids in their Christmas pajamas
  • See the big tree and ice skaters in Rockefeller Center
  • Read A Night Before Christmas
  • Bake holiday treats

The beauty of this idea is that you remember to celebrate Christmas all month long–not just on one or two days. It’s participating in the event throughout instead of waiting for the event to come and go (and ultimately being disappointed because of all the buildup).

Check out this post from The Activity Mom for even more activity ideas.

And here’s more inspiration for those of you with enough time on your hands to make your own Advent calendar:

Baby Sock Advent Calendar Martha Stewart

Baby Sock Advent Calendar from Martha Stewart

Buckets of Joy Advent Calendar Garnet Hill

Buckets of Joy Advent Calendar from Garnet Hill (on sale for $24 but would be easy enough to make)

“Letting go of something is so much more beautiful than possessing it” via @zen_habits.

In anticipation of the holiday onslaught of new brightly-colored plastic toys adding to our collection of old brightly-colored plastic toys, I’m thinking about packing away all of my son’s toys. Or at least 90% of them.

I think it will be an interesting experiment to see if:

a) They ‘ll notice

b) They’ll mind

c) If they find new uses for old toys

d) If they’ll make toys out of other objects (i.e. wooden spoons)

Stay tuned for the before and after.

In the meantime, tell me, have you ever done a major toy cleansing? What were the results?