Friday, October 23, 2015

Weekly Wrap-Up {From the Front Porch}

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Ah, the difference a week can make.

Last week, we were worrying about how my husband would survive if the Cubs ended up meeting the Royals in the World Series. I did mention the discussion was premature because there was still a lot of baseball to play. Premature, indeed. It just took four games and the Cubs were done for the season (ouch!). Oh, well. Cub fans agree: there's always next year.  : )


Meanwhile, we continue to cheer on the Royals!

Other than baseball, this week has been mostly about me getting caught up on everything. I've hardly made a dent, but it does feel good to be making progress.

I'm looking forward to a Monday morning when I'm not feeling completely guilty about Ryne not having done something for Classical Conversations. Last year, his community day was on Tuesday, giving us Monday to put the finishing touches on everything and get ready for class day. I didn't like having CC on Tuesdays because it's one of the days the girls are home from their 3-day-a-week school, but I didn't get to spend much time with them. So when our CC community switched to Mondays this year, I thought I would love it. Instead, I just never feel prepared and our weeks start out stressful. Part of it has been life circumstances, and part has been the increase in difficulty and workload. Apparently, you can't please me either way, so we'll just have to make the best of it. ; )

Monday afternoon, I met with Ryne's tutor for a sort of parent-tutor conference, and he had some very encouraging things to say about Ryne. He also confirmed some of our struggles, but overall I did feel better about things.  The most important thing is Ryne really likes CC, and that makes it worth it. We will hit our groove for the year -- it's just taking a little longer than last year.

Monday night I fell asleep as the Royals were losing. The score was high on both sides, and when my alarm went off in the morning, I was sure the game was still being played and the score was more like a basketball score than a baseball score. Thankfully, I always set the coffee maker to start 15 minutes before my alarm, so pretty soon all was well with my brain. The Royals' loss was confirmed, but the score was 8-11, not 88-111.

Wednesday afternoon, Anna and Ryne had a cross country meet. It was Anna's second-to-last cross country meet. I'm so not ready for all the last things we'll encounter this year.

Thursday was the day Anna completed two more college applications. Unlike the last things I was referring to in the previous paragraph, I think we'll all be very glad when she clicks 'submit' for the last application. We just want to move ahead to the part where they all accept her with tons of scholarship money and she gets to decide where she wants to go for the next phase of her life. Or at least that's how it should work. ; )

Friday morning brought a light rain. I think one of my favorite moments of the whole week was sitting on the front porch, drinking a hot cup of tea and listening to the rain and watching the deer eat grass across the street. I was only out there about 10 minutes, but it was heavenly. The afternoon was spent helping Ryne prepare for his debate on Monday, and trying to get caught up on all my school reading. We're reading Through the Gates of Splendor this week, which is one of my favorite books of all time.

While working on this weekly wrap-up, it suddenly occurred to me that it would be delightful to return to the front porch with my afternoon coffee and my favorite book, so that's where you'll find me for the next hour or so.

I also have a couple thousand cross country photos to sort through this weekend -- that should definitely help me cope with all those senior mom emotions. : (

Have a blessed weekend, and happy homeschooling!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Cross Country Team Lunch: Baked Potato Bar

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When I offered to host our kids' cross team for an after-meet lunch last year, I debated between a taco bar and a potato bar, knowing that it would be easy to have people help out by contributing ingredients. I can't remember exactly why I ended up choosing potatoes over tacos, but it was a real winner and we decided to do it again this year. It great for those athletes who just burned off their spaghetti dinners from the night before and works well for a large group of people. The potatoes are filling, so guests aren't having to repeatedly go back through the line for seconds (or thirds and fourths, if we're talking about my son). : )

A couple of weeks ago, I found my shopping list from last year, making the planning even easier. I thought it would be even more helpful to just record my lists and tips on the blog to make it even easier when I host again next year. I've already had several people ask me about ingredients and planning, so this might be the first "helpful" post I've had on this blog in a long, long time! ; ) I apologize in advance for how long it is -- I could never be a food blogger!


I do most of my shopping for the potato bar at Costco, just because we're a Costco family. There might be better deals at Sam's or elsewhere, so shop wherever you like the best. The 20-pound sacks of potatoes at Costco are particularly good because they are large potatoes -- about a pound apiece. This year I bought 3 sacks ($8.99 each) and ended up with 56 potatoes. You might think that people won't want to eat that much potato, but the kids really love it, and both years I've only seen a few people split a potato, and there's been very little food going in the trash.

Preparing the potatoes works best as a two-person job. Marc washed and I patted them dry, pricked them a few times with a knife, brushed on some butter, and wrapped them in foil. We used olive oil for a handful of the potatoes for our dairy-free guests. I found pre-cut foil sheets at the dollar store last year, and it really is a nice time saver. Not necessary, but helpful for a big project like this.

I have a double oven and was able to fit all the potatoes into the two ovens. Last year I bought 4 sacks of potatoes (way too many!) and used a roaster in addition to the ovens. I haven't got the cooking time down to an exact science yet -- this year I started cooking the potatoes about 5 hours before we ate, starting at 325, upping it to 350, and then decreasing the temperature to warm. The smaller, upper oven cooked the potatoes faster than the bottom. When wrapped in foil and stacked together, these large potatoes stay warm for hours -- seriously, we set the leftover potatoes on the counter to cool and they were still slightly warm by the evening! I've read that people cook them in batches and keep them in a large cooler to keep warm until serving time, which would help if you don't have a double oven or roaster.


That covers the potato cooking, so let's move on to the best part -- the toppings!

Here's the list of toppings I used to serve 50-60 people:

Large crockpot in photo; recipe below.

Small crockpot -- 1 block of Velveeta and a small jar of salsa.

Both years I've bought too much, so a small or medium sized jar is probably plenty.

Crumbled Bacon
I bought the 4-pound pack at Costco ($14.99) this year and we probably could have used two 4-packs; the bacon is very popular.

Sharp Shredded Cheddar Cheese
I bought the big 2-pound block from Costco ($4.79) and shredded myself.

Chopped Green Onion
2-3 bunches are plenty.

Sliced Black Olives
I used one small can I already had in my pantry but probably should have used two.

Sour Cream
Large 3-pound tub from Costco ($4.39), used almost all of it.

Grilled chicken, diced
I think we used about 2-3 pounds of chicken. I bought the multi-pack of chicken breasts at Costco ($19.52, but prices vary) -- can't remember how many pounds, but it was probably 4-5 and we knew we'd be able to use it for other stuff. 

Sauteed tricolor peppers, onions, and mushrooms
I bought these at my regular grocery store -- one small container of pre-chopped peppers (it was cheaper than buying the peppers whole), one large sweet onion, and a container of sliced mushrooms. I added some salt and pepper and sauteed in olive oil so our dairy-free guests could partake.

Steamed Broccoli
Barely steam the broccoli and it will stay nice and firm (I probably overcooked ours just a bit this time). It won't stay warm, but it won't be soggy, and the potato and other toppings will make it seem warmer than it is. : ) I bought the large bag of precut broccoli at Costco ($4.79) and used more than half of it -- the rest will go in a chicken casserole tonight. ; )

We used almost all of the 3 sticks I put out. I used another stick when preparing the potatoes.

Salt and Pepper

The first year we did this I had other families contribute toppings and desserts, but we ended up being short on desserts and it was a little difficult to coordinate who was bringing what toppings (an online sign-up would be the best way to handle that, but for various reasons we couldn't do that last year). This year I decided to just do the toppings myself and have others bring the desserts. This team and its coaches are very dear to us, so I really view this as my gift to the team. Nevertheless, if you want to divide up all the parts of the meal, it should be very easy if you just list out everything you need on a google doc or some other online form and have people plug their name in.


I'm not really a big chili fan, but it is one of the most popular toppings at the potato bar -- probably a toss-up between that and the bacon. First, a funny story: When I was in junior high and had to take a Texas history class, one of our assignments was to bring our favorite chili recipe and the best recipes would be chosen for a cook-off. Being a Michigan transplant, my mom didn't have a Texas style chili recipe for me to borrow. I copied down her one chili recipe and took it to school. My science teacher found it and promptly made fun of me for bring a recipe that had kidney beans in it -- "Kidney beans?! Texans don't put beans in their chili, just meat and heat!" I was so embarrassed.

Fast forward to adulthood, my husband loves to make hot, meaty, and beanless chili, but it requires half a day to make and several scoops of sour cream added for the more sensitive mouths to enjoy. When I need a quick and easy chili recipe, I turn to my trusty Southern Living cookbook. And guess what? Their Easy Texas Chili recipe has beans in it! Man, I wish I could show it to that mean science teacher. ; )

Yet, beans on potatoes always sounded like carb overkill to me, so I searched all over Pinterest for what kind of chili people use on potatoes. Every example I found used a bean chili; even Wendy's uses a bean chili on their potatoes, so I finally decided I was overthinking this and just made the Easy Texas Chili. The only problem is that when made in the crockpot, it turns out way too watery. So this year, I adapted the recipe and it turned out perfect. We only had about a cup left over out of a triple batch.

Easy Texas Crockpot Chili 

(fills a large crockpot)

4 pounds ground beef
1 large onion (or equivalent of 3 small onions)
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 (16-ounce) cans chili hot beans, undrained
1 (16-ounce) can mild chili beans, undrained
2 (12-ounce) cans tomato paste
3 cups of water
3 tablespoons chili powder
2-3 teaspoons salt to taste

Ingredient note: I use the two different kinds of beans because I like the variety. I use Bush's Best Chili Beans, Red Beans, Hot Chili Sauce and Bush's Best Chili Beans, Kidney Beans, Mild Chili Sauce (in honor of my science teacher). They are both gluten free. Or I really like the Westbrae Organic Chili Beans, which also has the different types of beans in one can, but it is not labeled gluten free.

Cook ground beef, onion, and garlic ahead of time in a Dutch oven; brown beef until it crumbles. Drain and store until day of the party. About four hours before the party, combine the ground beef mixture and all other ingredients in the crockpot and cook on high until bubbly. If it looks too thick you can add a little more water.

I feel like now I should, in the spirit of Pioneer Woman, say, "Here's the handy dandy printable," but I don't know how to make a printable version (another reason I could never be a food blogger). I guess you'll just have to cut and paste. : )


I bought cups, plates (buy sturdy ones!), and utensils at Costco last year and saved all the leftovers to use this year. I bought fall colored napkins at the dollar store last year and still had plenty for this year.

Keep your food stations spread apart if you have a big group of people. I had the line for the potato bar start in our living room and made sure nothing was in the way of the line. Drinks were served at the little kitchen desk. Desserts were on the kitchen counter. Trash was on the opposite end of the kitchen.

The drinks we serve are simple: chocolate milk (cross country team favorite), apple cider, and a beverage dispenser with water. We went though about 3 gallons of the chocolate milk and 2 gallons of the apple cider (Costco, $4.39).


Ha! Who knew that you needed a strategy to eat at a potato bar? Well, my darling husband wishes he had done things differently this year and had a helpful tip: Instead of just smothering your potato with your favorite topping, such as chili and cheese, top half your potato with your tried and true favorite and then use the other half to try something new. Thankfully, he got a second chance with leftovers. We both discovered this year that the grilled chicken with queso and sauteed veggies was our favorite! Just a little wisdom from the pros. ; )


I think that covers everything, but feel free to ask any questions or share your own favorite tips!

Oh, forgive me, but I have to share one more cute story. When I went to the regular grocery store to get the last of my supplies, a darling old man pushed his cart up to me in the produce section and asked, more as a statement than a question, "Have you seen the potatoes?!" Well, I certainly had potatoes on my mind, but since I bought those at Costco I couldn't imagine how he'd know about that. He then pointed at the potato section and showed me that the 10-pound bags of potatoes were on sale for a dollar! He was so excited about that amazing deal that he just had to show me. It was so cute! I felt so bad, but no matter how good a deal that was, I just couldn't make myself put another giant bag of potatoes in my cart. I'm sure I'll regret that in a week. : )

Happy potato eating!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Weekly Wrap-Up {Baseball & Potatoes}

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This was a good week. Insanely busy, but good. And, Lord willing, I think it was the last of the insanely busy weeks for awhile -- now it's just back to normal busy, which sounds so good right now. I feel like I've been in a never-ending sprint since the middle of June.

Monday was Classical Conversations day and I was 85% sure we should just quit for the semester since we continue to fall behind, but our tutor reassured me that it was all going to work out. We only have about a month left in the CC semester, so we do need to work hard this week, but I'm feeling a little better about it all. Except debate -- neither of us are liking that subject and it's the hardest to keep up with.  I'll try to write more on our CC experience next week.

Tuesday was the day our beloved Chicago Cubs won the National League Division Series.

Wednesday was the day our local, and also much-loved Kansas City Royals won the American League Division Series.

Thursday was the day everyone asked what my poor husband will do if they meet each other in the World Series. He's a third-generation Cubs fan and is about as devoted as you can get. Come on, we have a son named after the Hall of Fame Cubs second baseman, Ryne Sandberg.

Side Note: People generally assume it was Marc's idea to name our son Ryne, but it was actually my idea. Marc's initial suggestion for a boy's name was Addison Clark, for the cross streets of Wrigley Field. Thankfully for our then-future-son, Marc was quite pleased when I mentioned I really liked the name Ryne. ; )

Back to baseball. Although the Cubbies are our first love, it's really hard not to love the Royals too. And this town is so much fun to live in when they do well. So, of course, we want them to win! Unless . . .

Well, there's still a lot of baseball to play before we get to that point, so we'll just cross that bridge when we get there.

Thursday was also the day we finally got lab results back from Anna's tests to try to find a cause for her low iron levels. Negative. This puts us at a crossroads for deciding what's next, but no matter what we do, it looks like Anna will be regularly receiving IV iron infusions. While we would love for her to just be able to take iron pills and be okay, it is finally nice to know the long-term treatment plan and be able to plan accordingly.

Friday was the day Anna submitted her first college application. She should have had this one in weeks ago, but life has been stressful for her this fall, so it is what it is. Meanwhile, I'm trying to cope with the thought that she won't be around a year from now. Again, we'll cross that bridge when we get there. Sometimes denial is good. : )

In the midst of all of this excitement, I was busy preparing to host a baked potato bar party on Saturday for Anna and Ryne's cross country team. Every year, the team attends a meet that is not far from our house, so last year I decided it was a great opportunity to do something fun for the team. We had a great time and decided to do it again this year. Having done it before made planning and preparation so much easier, but it was still a big undertaking. It doesn't look like it in the above picture, but I made 56 potatoes and all the toppings! And I cleaned my house, which hasn't happened for ages! I'm going to try to do a post next week about the specifics, but I'll just finish by saying it was a wonderful day. Exhausting, but wonderful. I'm so glad Marc took this photo on his phone, or I'd have no proof we actually pulled it off again because I was too busy to get out my camera.

Oh, and our Baylor Bears also won today and are currently ranked #2 in the country! What kind of crazy sports world are Marc and I living in?!

Updated to add: Cubs lost their first game of the National League Championship series, so it's not a totally perfect sports world anymore. But, like I said earlier, still a lot of baseball left to play -- go Cubbies!

Enjoy the rest of your weekend!

Happy homeschooling!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Weekly Wrap-Up {From Rocky Mountain High to Ewww, Gross!}

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With a blog named Blue House Academy, you'd think these weekly wrap-ups would have a bit more school related updates than I've had lately. Sometimes life just takes over and homeschooling gets neglected, but hopefully this was our last week of major distractions and events. Ryne has, in fact, been working very hard every day and I have a stack of papers to look through. I'm glad one of us is doing our job! Unfortunately, there are many areas where he has needed my help and I have not been available, so we have much to catch up on.

What has kept me so busy and distracted?

After finishing last week's wrap-up, I hopped on a plane for a quick visit with my sister in Denver. We spent 12 glorious hours in the mountains on Saturday and then I caught a 6:00 a.m. flight back home Sunday morning. I didn't want to haul my camera bag, so I just have iPhone pics, but they are still lovely. I was about a week too late to see the really pretty fall colors, but the gorgeous weather couldn't be beat. Part of me felt guilty for leaving during such a busy time, but I had planned it back in August after my dad's funeral, before I knew September and October would be even more jam-packed that usual. But the other part of me was so grateful for a nice little break from the chaos.

Sunday, Anna and I drove to the St. Louis area and checked into a hotel so we could get up bright and early Monday morning for testing to try and determine the cause of her low iron levels. We were there all day, with a long break between appointments, and didn't get home until almost 10:00 Monday night. We were a bit exhausted! We're still waiting on some of those test results, so no answers yet.

Tuesday morning I attended parent-teacher conferences at the girls' school. Marc was getting ready to leave for the airport to go on a short business trip when he discovered evidence we had mice in the kitchen. Lovely!

He was able to set a couple of traps before he left and I started pulling everything out of the cabinets. In all our years in this house, we've only had a few mice, but they never got all in the cabinets like this mouse did. Yuck!

Normally I just clean with vinegar or baking soda, but I wanted something stronger for this mess, so I went to Target for cleaning supplies and a frozen lasagna (tearing apart my kitchen did give me a good excuse to not cook this week!). By evening, I was exhausted and went to bed without getting the kitchen clean.

Early Wednesday morning, I reminded myself I needed to pray about the mouse situation. Less than a minute later I heard a loud snap! come from downstairs. My stomach turned as I pleaded with God that I meant for the mouse problem to get fixed after Marc got back in the evening. I'm a big wimp about these things, so I just swept the mouse and trap into a cardboard box and put it out on the deck.

After Wednesday morning Bible study, I had lunch with a dear friend whom I hadn't seen much of for several months. That afternoon I alternated working on math with Ryne and cleaning the kitchen. I put Izzy (my dad's dog, who is now living with us) on her chain in the front yard. Sometimes she likes to stay out there and watch the world go by. While she was out there, I passed by the front door and noticed she was chewing on something. At first I thought it was a stick, but then I wasn't sure, so I went outside. She had crawled under the front porch and found a skeleton of some small creature!

Seeing that was about 10 million, trillion, gazillion times worse than sweeping up a dead mouse.

I finally finished cleaning the kitchen Friday night. I had to clean everything in all our bottom cabinets and drawers. I sealed gaps in the cabinets with steel wool and put peppermint oil soaked cotton balls in all the cabinets and drawers. Meanwhile, Marc has been pondering what to do to keep the dog from exploring underneath the front porch.

This is one of the grossest weeks I've ever experienced in the Blue House, so basically I'm just ready to move.

Or at least go back to Colorado for another mountain retreat.

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Hope you're enjoying your weekend!

Happy homeschooling!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Weekly Wrap-Up {Run With Endurance}

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Hanging out at the team tent during last Saturday's XC meet.

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so a great cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. ~ Hebrews 12:1-2 NKJV
It's one of those weeks where I just want to quit. Quit Classical Conversations because we're behind in everything. Quit trying to find answers to my daughter's low iron levels because we've been trying for almost three years and it's just too hard to keep getting our hopes up. Quit making dinners because I don't have the energy (I already quit cleaning the house months ago, so no worries there!). Quit the college application process because she's still trying to figure out what she wants to do. Quit every activity because it's just too much.

Yet, this week has been amazing in that God keeps interrupting my pity party with grace. Each day has had one of those powerful only-God-could-do-that moments to point me to His goodness, mercy, and sovereignty. I got a glimpse of just how hard God is working in other people's lives when He appears to be silent. I was reminded He's working just as hard in all my problems, but I was also given some much needed perspective and humility. I don't need to quit everything, but I do need to lay aside some of my attitudes.

So, I'm keeping this week's wrap-up super simple: just a reminder to myself, and maybe you too, that the call is to just keep running, with our eyes fixed on Jesus.

Happy homeschooling and have a blessed weekend!