Homemade Granola Bars (With Low Refined Sugars!)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

I've been on a mission to make healthy(-ish) granola bars for our family.  My daughter has a passion for chocolate (like her mama!) and also loves granola bars.  And as I mentioned in my post yesterday, her appetite rose astronomically a few months ago and I could not keep up on the granola bars!  Plus, I read the ingredients one day on the organic brand we had been getting from Costco and it had as much sugar as a candy bar.  I'm all about moderation, but I really don't want or need her to crash an hour after eating her "healthy" granola bar.  Plus, I wanted to save some dough.

I've made probably 10 different granola bar recipes (from every recipe on Mel's Kitchen Cafe, Everyday Reading, and other products of google searches that I can't remember), but still felt like the products were akin to eating a cookie. Don't get me wrong--they were delightful!  But I wanted a granola bar that was more hearty than sugary.  I also wanted them thin, but chewy; and to hold their shape. (The bars pictured here were before I lowered the sugar a little more, so these are thicker than mine now turn out.)

After a lot of experimentation, I've nailed down a new go-to recipe for our little family that is based on this one more than all the others I tried.  My recipe has no refined sugar besides the M&M's and shredded coconut, but it has other forms of natural sweeteners instead and less of that, overall, than other recipes.  How's that for balance!   (PS: I discovered that every time I tried using chocolate chips, they melted all over the recipe and that's not what I was going for.  I loved it with cashews, but my kids picked them out.  Feel free to add a cup or more if you love them like I do!)

Finally, this recipe makes a big batch (it's cooked on a cookie sheet), so I cut the bars up and freeze most of them.  One recipe lasts at least a month around here.  If I'm going to take some time to make granola bars, I'm going to make a lot of them so I'm not cooking them up every few days.  Because that's just not going to happen!

Three tips: 1) Use parchment paper or a silmat liner; 2) Take the granola bars out just as the edges are browning.  Otherwise, you'll cry when you cut up your bars and they're all burnt on the bottom; 3) When ready to eat, store these in the fridge so they hold their shape better!  (I freeze up three separate containers of these and just take out one container at a time.)

Feel free to substitute things if you like!  And please, let me know how yours turn out.

Truth: The bars pictured here are cut thicker than I make mine now.
Homemade Granola Bars, with low refined sugars
6 cups old fashioned oats
1-2 cups shredded coconut (I usually use sweetened, as that's what my store carries)
(Optional 1 cup of chopped nuts)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 cup coconut oil
1 cup peanut butter
1 cup honey
3/4 cup maple syrup
3 Tablespoons water
1 Tablespoon vanilla
2 cups of M&M's

Turn on oven to 350 degrees, F.  Place oats in a blender.  Pulse a few times so the oats are partly blended, partly whole.  (Having both helps keep the granola bars together.)  Place oats in large bowl with shredded coconut, optional nuts, and salt.

In a saucepan, put coconut oil, peanut butter, honey, maple syrup, and water.  On medium high heat, stir until these ingredients have blended together nicely.  No need to boil--just dissolve those ingredients together.  Take off heat, then add vanilla.

Pour liquid ingredients over the large bowl of dry ingredients. Fold it in partway.  Add M&M's.  Finish folding in the wet to the dry.  Spread onto a cookie sheet, preferably lined with parchment paper or a silmat.  Bake for 15-25 minutes, depending on your oven.  Take out as soon as edges are browning.  Allow the bars to cool completely before lifting out of the cookie sheet (by grabbing on to the parchment paper).  Slice into preferable sizes.  Freeze most of the bars in bags or tupperware containers, and refrigerate the ones you want to eat within the next week.  Store in fridge!

Three Tips to Cultivating Healthy, Happy Little Eaters

Monday, September 26, 2016

Up until around six months ago, I felt like feeding our kids didn't necessitate us buying much more food from the store than Brad and I needed for ourselves.  But then my children started eating us out of the house.

Bella, who was by all accounts (too) skinny for her age for most of her life, is lately always, always hungry.  She's finally catching up!  She downs three or four bowl of cereal in the morning, eats a home-prepared snack while in kindergarten, eats a good lunch when she's back home, and wants a large snack an hour later.  Granted, she eats the least at dinner while RG pounds his plate away.  (He's my little foodie: "Mmmm!  It's good.  I like it!")

Lately, I've been treating Costco like my normal grocery store and I go there once a week.  And every Friday, my fridge is empty and ready to be filled again.

Because I'm curious and would love this information myself, here's what our typical meal combinations are around here for three kids ages 5, 3, and 1.  I'd love to hear what works for your kids!

* Cereal: Honey Nut Cheerios or Honey Bunches of Oats
(Sidenote: usually, cereal is our go-to.  Honestly, I don't love cereal (they're so sugary and hard to fill up on!), so I typically do my own thing.  But cereal is easiest and my husband has been most often getting breakfast for the kids while I'm rushing home from my workout or getting things packed around the house.  "Special Cereal" like cinnamon toast crunch, is saved for the weekend...)
* Whole Milk
* Banana
* Scrambled Eggs or Hardboiled Egg (we go through phases of eating lots of eggs instead of cereal, or alongside it)
* Green smoothies

* Toast, with either a little jam or agave nectar
* Carrots or baby tomatoes
* Diced Cheese
* Deli Turkey, rolled up
* Craisins
(Sidenote: the above foods are their lunch 80% of the time.  My oldest needs routines.)
* Turkey Sandwich
* Leftovers from last night's dinner
* Scrambled eggs (leftover from breakfast!)
* Green smoothies (leftover from breakfast!)

* Apples/Bananas
* Applesauce
* "Applegurt:" plain full-fat yogurt mixed with sugar-free applesauce
* Yogurt: plain with some jam or agave mixed in
* Homemade granola bars (I'm sharing a recipe later this week!)
* Homemade muffins (wheat with banana/zucchini/pumpkin--always with chocolate chips!)
* Toast
* Baby tomatoes
* Cheese
(Sidenote: My kids know they get a fruit or yogurt choice before a grain choice.  They almost always have both!)

* Whole Milk
* Whatever I make!  I don't do short-orders.  We do lots of fresh-mex, chicken and rice, salads, pastas, and the like.
* Dessert: handful of chocolate chips, something I baked recently, or a little ice cream.

Beyond WHAT we feed our kids, I thinks it's more important to focus on HOW we teach our kids about healthy eating.  Here are some more thoughts on our family's attitude about food that we continue to work on:

1) Keep an ATTITUDE of Gratitude:  I want my kids to love a salad and taste some eggplant or mushrooms.  I do my best to encourage fruits and veggies first.  I tend to buy organic when I can. I rarely purchase fruit snacks, goldfish, granola bars, or kid snacks from the store, even the organic ones. One reason is because I want my kids to have fresh food where I know the ingredients; but the bigger reason is that I'm too cheap and prefer to either make the snacks myself, or just hand them a ready-to-go whole apple instead. I love encouraging healthy food and healthy habits.

BUT!  I also try my best to never label foods as "bad" or "good"  I don't buy into the "cheat day," or "cheat meal" talk, either.  I don't even label foods as "unhealthy" to my children, instead we try to teach that all food is OK to eat, but some make us much stronger than others. If my kids beg for fruit snacks at the store, I say something like, "In our house, snacks are usually apples and granola bars!" but never, "Those are bad for you!"  And guess what?  Sometimes, I happily throw the fruit snacks into the cart and say, "Sure!  We can get that this time."

Because of my history with eating disorders, I realllllllly want to instill in my kids a happy, but balanced, relationship with food.  I think there SHOULD be joy in what we eat (broccoli, included) and that some chocolate really can make us a little happier.  Simultaneously, I think that food is also fuel, and we shouldn't eat-without-abandon in order to fill up our emotional voids.  (I am admittedly still working on this myself!)

Ultimately, my husband and I try to portray a happy-neutral attitude about food, and carry that same attitude behind how we teach our children about healthy, moderation-based eating.  I never EVER bring up how many calories, carbs, micro-nutrient numbers are in a meal I just ate, even if I'm personally well-aware of those numbers.  I never vocalize when I'm ashamed of how much I just ate. We talk about eating fruits and veggies so we can be strong and healthy.  We make and eat our regular treats with cheerful, but not guilty attitudes; and balance it by responding to requests for more servings with, "Too much of that makes your tummy a little sick! We can have more tomorrow," but not, "YOU'RE GOING TO GET FAT AND EVIL IF YOU EAT UNHEALTHY FOODS!"  (Not that anyone would ever say that... That's just cruel!)

You can be healthy, you can encourage moderate treats, you can instruct your kids on the values of eating in a way that makes them feel good and their bodies perform well; but you can do it in a NEUTRAL way that enables them to eventually make their own choices without the little angel and devil on their shoulders.

2) Go with Your Gut Instinct: My kids are never forced to finish food or even eat all their vegetables (gasp!).  I  believe that my children should honor their gut and eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.  The studies I've read on this show that kids are naturally born with this ability to regulate when and how much they eat based off of what their body needs; but they can easily be pushed out of it with the mixed messages they receive (such as "You can't leave this table until every single carrot and potato is gone from your plate!" or, "You just ate your entire lunch!  You can't possibly need another snack...") I do my best to respond happily (or neutrally!) when my children ask for a snack even an hour after eating a good meal, and equally happy when they stop with food on their plate and announce, "My tummy is full!"  I do my best to put my frustration aside if they don't finish something and put it back in the fridge for later. Doing so calms my cheapskate heart, so food is rarely wasted without my kids' tummies being unnecessarily stuffed. And I usually offer the veggies first when they are at their hungriest so at least they get something extra nutritious right away!

3) Create "Policies" that Take Away the Fear and Punishment: While dessert can sometimes be a reward (I'm not perfect!!), it is NEVER ever a punishment tool in our house!  Our after-dinner treat doesn't get taken away unless they really haven't taken a single bite at dinner. Treats and/or desserts are never used in a different punishment context, such as, "If you don't clean up your room, you don't get a treat!"  (That's why I bribe them with their daily show instead!)

One of our policies for dinner time is, "You don't have to like it, but you do have to try it."   That means they sometimes only taste a little bit of the main dish (which of course, breaks my heart when I've slaved over dinner), but there's usually something else on the plate that they like.   In the rare case where they haven't had a tiny bit of dinner, we talk about another one of our policies, in another NEUTRAL voice: "In our family, we eat some dinner before we eat a treat."  We then move on with eating our own dinner instead of staring them down.  Even stating our little policies-as-life-facts makes my kids perk up a bit and consider the food on their plate.  9.5 times out of 10, they willingly taste a little bit of whatever they are worried about; if they don't like it, no big deal. Maybe two times, my daughter has decided her fear outweighs the chocolate chips and declares, "I'm OK not having a treat tonight!" and I respond, "OK!  That's fine with me." I know she'll eat more at breakfast and lunch the next day instead of whatever dinner she deemed undesirable. And no one leaves the dinner table crying.

Having some family policies about food helps take away the fear and punishment in moderating what and when kids eat.  "I'm sorry!  But we eat our treat after dinner, not after breakfast!" or "We can have fruit snacks another time, but for lunch we eat X, Y, and Z."  That way you're just the messenger, enacting set family policies.

I'm hoping my kids view treats as a regular, enjoyable, but still moderate parts of their every day lives. They sometimes have a cookie or fruit snack with lunch, or an ice cream cone in the afternoon if we've gone somewhere fun, they've been extra well-behaved, or we've had a stinking long day.  However, usually if they ask for a treat during the day I say, "You can absolutely have a treat, after we eat dinner!"  This works most of the time, I believe, because (see tip #1!) I try to keep my emotion out of it (especially the shame and punishment!)--and I maintain the attitude that these are just our family "policies" I'm forced to enact, and not about good vs. evil.

And just in case you think we've got it all together, we don't!  My family is not particularly eager to eat lots of vegetables, and dinner often has the most food left behind.  My husband is actually the pickiest of us all! Bella struggles with dinner as she is suspicious of foods that don't meet her love of ROUTINE! My 3-year old, RG, will try anything, but he doesn't love tomatoes.  And Bean, honestly, I think is the most suspicious of foods of all my babies and tosses a ton of food right off the high chair without even tasting it.  But, I continue to offer everything to him with the hopes he'll get the hang of it. (I do the same with my husband too, ha!)  We still have fits over a child reallllly wanting that oreo they spotted at the top of the pantry before they've even had breakfast.

We don't have this down perfectly, we slip up in our positive attitudes about food, or we occasionally forget to not make dessert a reward or a punishment; but we really, really try! I truly can already see that our children are on their way to developing healthy, HAPPY relationships with food that they'll carry the rest of their lives!

(No pressure, or anything...)

I'm participating in a series today where moms are sharing what they feed to their little ones.  If you'd like some more ideas please check them out, and be sure to sign up for the next series at Madeline or Kiana's blogs:

Kiana at Glitter & Donuts // Madeline at CaseyLand // Bekah at These Are The Days // 
Britt at My Little Sunshine // Beverly at What a Day  // 
Chelsea at Tessa Marie // Erica at Good Job Momma

What about you?!  What tricks, routines, and "policies" do you have up your sleeves?  What are your go-to foods? How do you maintain a healthy attitude about food in your families?

My Morbid Fear

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Are you ready for a morbid post?

Lately--more than usual--I've been a little obsessed with my kids potentially dying.

I know that no parent is immune from this fear.  We are all worried about it on a daily basis, if not minute-by-minute.  (Or is that just me?)

However, my fear has run into an obsession of sorts.   One that keeps me up at night, or comes as thoughts to me at random moments through the day.  Such as, "This might be the last time I comb my daughter's hair...."  Or, "You're going to regret losing your temper when he dies."

The Mormon in me is confused: is this anxiety, or is it the Spirit warning me to be prepared?

Admittedly, my fear has been fed because there has been a lot of death in both of my parents' lives. My dad lost a 9 year old brother, and my mom lost two young-adult brothers and two young nieces, one who was 6 years old and one who was 16.  My family tends to think about more morbid things as a result... As in, I have a plan in place for if Brad suddenly passes away.

It also doesn't help that I've recently discovered a few blogs and Instagram accounts of mothers who have lost little children.  They are so devastating to read, but I can't seem to stop.  Remarkably, these mothers have incredible strength, perspective, and hope alongside their deep grief. And that's what scares me, as I know I am no where near strong enough.  

One morning after sobbing over another story, I went on a walk.  I had to think about this.  In the advice of one of my fiends who has suffered with anxiety, I had to "go there."  I had to imagine what would happen if one of my children were to die: What emotions would I go through?  How would I grieve? How would I get my family to more forward?  How would our faith guide our recovery?

I faced that on top of my debilitating sorrow, I would have two main emotions: regret and anger.  Regret that I didn't do more with my children, love them more, hug them tighter, spend more quality time with them, and take more pictures.  Regret that I lost my temper, ignored them, or punished them more harshly than they deserved.  And anger--anger at God that my child would be taken from me, anger at others for having perfect lives, and anger at myself for being a less-than-perfect mother.

Obviously, I'm not proud of these two potential reactions.

So, on this walk I also thought a lot about what I can do now to prepare for if this were to happen.  What can I work on now so that if this terrible tragedy were to happen, I would allow myself to grieve--yes--but not turn into a bitter, angry woman full of regret.

Here's some of my resolutions:

1) Improve my faith.  I chose to stick with it, after all, I really need to work on my beliefs--that this life on earth is not the end-all, be-all; that there is more to all of this; that I will see my loved ones again; that God is aware of us intimately and would guide me through the darkest of days.  That leads me to...

2) Improve my relationship with my Heavenly Parents.  I have struggled with this, admittedly, for many many years.  Mainly because it has felt like a one-sided relationship as I trudged through eating disorders, depressions, anxieties, many many unanswered prayers about my questions, etc.  I have learned the past year that many who struggle with similar issues also face difficulty feeling spiritually close to God.  Despite that, I want to open my heart again.  While I have always, always consistently prayed and studied my scriptures, for some time my heart hasn't believed I'll actually receive an answer, acknowledgment, or guidance.  I want to do those same practices, but with more hope in my heart.

3) Value my time better with my children.  That means not being annoyed when they want to read a book when I'm in the middle of something.  That means looking at them in the eye when they are talking.  That means laughing when they do something naughty but totally age-appropriate, instead of becoming exasperated.  That means counting to ten more often than responding rashly in anger.  Ultimately, it means valuing their learning and our quality time as a family above my to-do list.

4) Own my love of being a mother.  I do love being a mom--I do.  But I get really easily wrapped up in the stress of it.  Stress tends to be my most prevalent emotion; not just logistical stress--as being a stay-at-home mom is a very physical job--but emotional stress, too.  I want to really have a more prevailing feeling in my heart throughout my busy days, that I am so grateful that this is what I get to do, and a love of my "job."  I believe this is something I can cultivate, and I know from experience it starts by being aware of my thoughts.  And I guess, I just want to be a lot sillier with my kids.

My final thought was for my husband and I to continue in doing our best to make our marriage strong and resilient.

I know this way of facing demons might make people queasy, but it actually helped me a lot.  I was able to come home from my walk with more hope and more empowerment in my heart.  And I'm not obsessing near as much, thankfully!

Do you have any thoughts or suggestions on how you have dealt with similar anxieties?

WOT: Re-committing

Monday, September 19, 2016

Hello, friends!

This summer was all over the place for me, both literally and figuratively.  Especially with this blog.

Some days, I really wanted to do it; some others I completely forgot about it.  In between, I wrestled with the reasoning behind whether or not I should continue, what my purpose is, my end-goal, etc.

I had the opportunity to reflect some more when we were on some long road trips this past week.  I'm ready to Work on Things with this blog, ready to refocus and recommit.  The key for me though, is that I want to do better in being try to my roots in starting this in the first place: 1) to be a positive sources on social media; 2) to build a community that works towards becoming better people, but not at the sake of losing our sanity, nor losing our perspective on what really matters. In other words, motivated people who know that perfectionism is over-rated!

While I think that I still have to blog some about myself--my goals, my progress, and my "deep thoughts"--I'd like to also spend more time on YOU.  I want to share what others are doing out there to challenge themselves, to improve their lives, to try something new, and to get over their fears.

I plan on doing this in two ways:

1) Having a bi-weekly round-up on people (read, you!) who are trying things that scare them--big, small, and in-between. That means we are going to see a lot more of Do Something! (Speaking of which, if you'd like to share or nominate someone for my round-ups, please email me at packerprogress@gmail.com)

2) A secret project...

Sorry to leave you hanging there, but there is a big learning curve for what I have planned for #2.  It's something I have thought about for a long time.  I have BIG fears about it and it could potentially be a giant flop.  But might as well practice what I preach, right?

So stay tuned!  And keep in touch!

What's for Dinner: Pizza Braid

Thursday, September 8, 2016

I don't think anyone will be surprised if I profess my love for pizza.  Who doesn't love pizza?!! Maybe Hitler.  That's my only guess.

However, I have made many a failed homemade pizza (read: gooey, undercooked, over cooked, thick-crusted, thin-crusted, too much sauce or cheese, too little, etc.).  They are fairly easy to mess up if you don't have a pizza stone.  I finally invested in one a few years ago and it's made a big difference for our homemade pizzas.  Sadly, I still am not prepared to share homemade pizza tips with you, because they're still a work in progress.

Pizza braids, though?  This is for YOU--those of you who don't have a pizza stone, or just keep making terrible homemade pizzas.

I've made several versions of pizza braids over the past almost-9 years.  My mom used to make it regularly growing up, so the idea came from her.  I usually do a homemade dough (usually this recipe, but recently I've tried this with good success), but you can EASILY use a store-bought dough, especially the Trader Joe's ones.  And I also tend to make my dough whole (or almost whole) wheat.  But that's optional, too.  When I use homemade dough, I can make two pizza braids and freeze the second one, wrapped up snuggly in a lot of foil so it doesn't get freezer burned.  I've done this with the second one cooked and uncooked, and either way works well!

As for the filling, they're really versatile!  Here's some of our favorite combinations:
* Marinara sauce, ground beef, shredded cheddar
* BBQ sauce, pulled rotisserie chicken (Costco, duh!), cut up pineapple (canned or fresh), diced fresh mozzarella cheese (I usually have some fresh, sliced mozzarella cheese from Costco on hand) and shredded cheddar
* Pesto sauce, pulled chicken, spinach or mixed lettuce, diced mozzarella cheese
* Marinara sauce, pulled chicken, diced ham (I'm thinking Easter ham, but you could also try lunch meat), diced mozzarella, shredded cheddar cheese (The pictures here are from this combination--our family was a big fan.)
Any combination usually involves about a cup or so of sauce, 1-2 cups of meat, and 1-2 cups of cheese.  I know that's not very specific, but that's the beauty of this recipe.  You can make it with what you have on hand and how it meets your family's preferences.

Here's how I make a pizza braid, regardless of filling combination:

After you let your dough do one full raise, punch it down.  Divide it into two balls.  Let your dough rest for about five minutes.  (Or just get your store-bought dough to room temperature.)  Turn oven on to 400 degrees.  Roll dough out on your cookie sheet into a long rectangle that practically fills the pan.

(Sidenote: I LOVE my Silpat liners--and these were even cheaper ones from, you guessed it, Costco. If you don't have one, you can always use parchment paper, or roll out your dough on your table, and once braided, you can transfer it to a well-sprayed cookie sheet).

Using a round pizza cutter, make one-inch wide, diagonal slices on each of the long sides of the the dough, leaving about a hand-width (~5 inches) of un-cut dough in the center.

Layer your filling combinations: thin coating of sauce, meat, another thin layer of sauce, then cheese.  Alternatively, you can mix sauce into meat, then layer it on dough with cheese on the bottom and the top.

Starting at one end, fold up the edge and pinch it together.  Then, take one-inch strip from one side and fold it over the center.  Alternate strips from either side, forming a "braid."  When you get to the other end, fold over that flap and pinch the dough together.  Let your braid rest and raise a bit for another 10-15 minutes.  (If making a second one, you can work on it while the first raises.)

Bake your braid for 10-15 minutes, until the dough is golden and the cheese is bubbly.  Let it rest for 5 minutes before slicing and serving with your veggies of choice.

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