Six Things I’ve Learned: Fall 2018

Autumn is nearly over. The air outside is damp with the smell of the leaves beginning their return to the soil.


Just a few days ago, these bright orange leaves stopped me in my tracks. I didn't have long to pause, but I didn't want to miss this part of fall's slow finale.

I found myself returning to this snapshot yesterday as I pondered my next right thing. If you’ve been paying attention here, you might not be surprised to learn this happened while I listened to Emily P. Freeman’s latest podcast episode, Look Back – How Reflection Can Help You Make Better Decisions.

Although, I'm getting better at setting goals and working toward them, I'm still not great about regularly and intentionally pausing to consider where I've been and what I've learned there.

I want to change that.

I love Emily's idea of using an accessible daily practice (just a single line per day) along with a heftier seasonal list of what she's learned. I’ve read a few of these What We Learned lists before, but yesterday I knew it was time for me to start taking part.

I haven’t been keeping track for the past three months, but I’m not going to stress over that. Here are a few random things that come to mind as I reflect.


1. I need to pay attention to what drains me and what gives me life.

I can’t always avoid the things that drain me, but I can often make adjustments so they aren’t quite as exhausting. For instance, I love my adorable little Craigslist desk, but now that my workload is picking up, I’ve discovered it’s the wrong setup for my neck and back.

On the life-giving side, I love having early mornings to myself. For me, it’s worth missing a little sleep to start each day with peace and quiet.

2. I’m pretty sure I enjoy picture books just as much as my children do.

3. I’m a cozy minimalist at heart.

And I need more soft lines and natural shapes in my living room.

4. When DIYing a kid’s birthday party, spend time on one or two big things (that your kid will actually care about), and don’t stress about the details.

Jackson turned four earlier this month. When people asked what he wanted for his birthday, he repeatedly mentioned a rocket and planets, so we decided to surprise him with an outer space party.

I scavenged cardboard and asked Jonathan to build a rocket with it. Then I cut out and painted 2D cardboard planets to hang from the ceiling. We stayed up late the night before, but party prep was otherwise pretty simple. The cupcake frosting was a total rush job—sprinkles to the rescue!—and Jackson cared exactly 0%. But he was SO excited about the cardboard rocket ship. He and Caleb still play in it all the time.

5. A timer can be your prayer life’s BFF.

I just learned this a couple days ago, and it’s already been incredibly helpful. If you’re someone who wants to pray more but struggles to make the time, try setting a timer several times a day for just 1-5 minutes. Focus on a single topic and pray until your time is up.

6. I usually need plenty of time and space for creative work.

This overlaps a bit with #1. As I’m paying more attention and discovering the rhythms of life that work best for me, I’ve noticed I’m just not someone who can crank out a ton of my own content in a short amount of time. Maybe someday I’ll figure it out, but for now, accepting this reality helps me plan better and avoid feeling like a failure.

With advent about to begin, I’m looking forward to doing more of what author Shannan Martin calls “the ministry of paying attention.” I want to look for the beauty and the wisdom that are waiting if we simply have eyes to see and a willingness to reflect.

I’d love to hear some of what you’ve been learning too! Silly or serious, big or small, it’s worth sharing!

You’re welcome to leave a comment, or write your own post and join in the link up that Emily P. Freeman hosts here!

Lentil Stew Recipe + My Favorite Meal Planning Tool

This stew is just a tiny bit famous.

When my husband and I owned a gelato and coffee shop, this was one of our most popular lunch offerings.

I've always loved this stew. My mom got the recipe from Carolyn Leong, a sweet lady from the church we were part of while my dad worked on his doctorate. She recommended it because it's delicious but also easy and inexpensive to make.

The two keys are using the full tablespoon of salt and allowing plenty of time for the stew to simmer.

The original recipe also calls for sprinkling 1-2 tablespoons of flour over the onion and bell pepper while sautéing them. I got out of the habit of doing this because I wanted to offer several gluten-free options at our shop. But it works well if you like a thicker stew.

Lentil Stew Recipe

Lentil Stew


1 TB olive oil

1 large onion, diced

1 large green bell pepper, diced

(1-2 TB all purpose flour, optional)

3 large carrots, peeled and sliced

1 (15 oz.) can diced tomatoes, with juice

1 lb. (approx. 2 cups) brown lentils, picked through and rinsed

1 TB salt

8 c. water


  1. Heat oil on medium in a large pot. Add onions and bell pepper, and sauté until they begin to soften. If desired, sprinkle with flour, stir, and cook until edges just begin to brown.

  2. Add remaining ingredients and bring to a boil.

  3. Reduce heat to a low simmer, and cook until lentils are soft and liquid has reduced slightly, about 1 hour.

  4. Serve with crusty bread or herbed focaccia.

Plan to Eat

Finally, I want to give you a quick heads-up about my favorite shortcut for meal planning. Plan to Eat has a fantastic sale every year after Thanksgiving. This year the sale lasts from Monday, November 26 until Sunday, December 2.

I've subscribed to PTE for a few years, and I use it a lot, especially now that their mobile app is up and running beautifully! If you're someone who tends to use the internet as a cookbook, PTE provides a super convenient way to compile and organize your recipes AND automatically generate shopping lists based on the recipes you’ve planned.

Because the sale lasts a whole week, you could even use most of their free seven-day trial and still have time to get in on the discount.

You can find more information here!

Simple Meal Planning - Plan to Eat

This post contains affiliate links.

Library List: Thanksgiving Picture Books

Thanksgiving Day is nearly here! It’s not too late to make a quick trip to the library for some books your kids can read on the drive to Grandma’s. Here’s a short but sweet list of books that can help your family get ready for Thanksgiving Day—and cultivate a spirit of gratitude throughout the year.

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We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell and Frané Lessac

I love this book! It follows a Cherokee family and their practice of gratitude through all four seasons of the year. Each of the topics feature one or more Cherokee words written three ways: English transliteration, English phonetic spelling, and Cherokee syllabary. My four-year-old, Jackson, and I had fun practicing the new-to-us words together. The author, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, beautifully explains how this community embraces their dual citizenship by honoring their history, keeping their Native culture alive, and serving our country. This book provides a warm and lovely look at contemporary Native American culture and encourages year-round gratitude.

Squanto’s Journey by Joseph Bruchac and Greg Shed

This is a fascinating and beautiful account of the first Thanksgiving, told from Squanto’s perspective. There were too many words per picture for Caleb, my not-quite-two-year-old, but Jackson stayed interested during the whole story. The author worked hard to make it historically accurate, so it does mention heavy topics such as slavery and death. You’ll want to be ready with age-appropriate ways to answer questions that your children may have, but please don’t let that stop you from sharing this excellent book with the kids in your life. The overall message is still very hopeful.

Duck and Hippo Give Thanks by Jonathan London and Andrew Joyner

This is a silly and sweet story of a hippo who wants to have perfect “good old-fashioned Thanksgiving.” His quirky duck friend seems to be thwarting his plans, but [spoiler alert] she actually helps him see what’s most important about the day.

This is the Turkey by Abby Levine and Paige Billin-Frye

Here’s another sweet and fun book that centers around a Thanksgiving Day meal. It’s written with a rollicking rhyme scheme, and there’s a twist near the end that my boys thought was hilarious.

Giving Thanks: More Than 100 Ways to Say Thank You by Ellen Surrey

I was initially skeptical about this book. Reading 100 of anything in a single sitting seemed likely to be more than my boys’ attention spans could handle. I’m so glad I went ahead and brought it home. They both loved it! There’s a lot to look at in this bright and fun book, but it’s organized in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming.

I hope you and yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and may our hearts be filled with gratitude all year long!  

What are your favorite reads for Thanksgiving? Please share them in the comments!

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Writing Tip: Avoid Passive Voice--Usually

When I was a sophomore in high school, I had a fantastic English teacher. Mrs. Shirley was a former basketball player with a voice that hinted at Julia Child’s in the very best of ways. She simultaneously held her students to a high standard and lavished us with kindness.

She also had some quirky requirements for term papers. Most formidably, we weren’t allowed to use any form of the verb “to be.” “Am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been” were all off limits.

As challenging as this rule was at first, it taught me to look for and use a wider variety of words.

It also helped me break out of my passive voice habit.

(Although, you can write a passive sentence without “to be” and an active sentence with it.)

When left to our own devices, a lot of us tend toward writing in the passive voice, especially when trying to explain complex ideas. Passive voice isn’t incorrect (see below), but active voice is almost always clearer.

What are passive voice and active voice?

In active voice, you (or whoever) do the thing. In passive voice, the thing is done by you (or whomever).

Clear as mud?

Here’s another example. “My toddler wrecked the living room,” is active. “The living room was wrecked by my toddler,” is passive.

Notice that the subject of the first sentence, “my toddler,” does the action, “wrecked the living room.” The second sentence conveys the same information, but the subject is now “the living room,” which passively receives the action. We don’t find out who did the wrecking until the end of the sentence.

This more-info-at-the-end structure makes the passive voice a little—sometimes a lot—harder to follow. Active voice is more succinct and is thus easier for readers to understand.

But please note, passive voice isn’t wrong.

A passive sentence conveys a different tone than an active one. Sometimes that may be just what your writing needs. Writing coach Ann Kroeker says, “Write tight but add when you must.” She shares examples of how to do so in episode 168 of her podcast.

You can also use passive voice to emphasize an action, such as a research process, rather than the person who did it. Scientific texts often have more instances of passive voice because some writers believe it helps them maintain an objective tone. However, a sentence can be written both objectively and actively, so it's still best to use active voice as much as possible. (Did you notice that sentence used passive voice? :) )


  • To spot passive voice, look for a sentence's subject that receives rather than does.

  • Passive voice isn’t evil, but if you can use active voice, do.

Finally, here are two more things Mrs. Shirley made sure I’ll never forget: “Alot” is not a word, and don’t forget the second “O” in sophomore!

Avoid passive voice--usually (1).png

Related Resources

The Hemingway App is a fun way to analyze your writing, including how often you use passive voice. But take the evaluation with a grain of salt. As Ann Kroeker points out in the podcast episode I mentioned above, Hemingway himself doesn’t always win the app’s approval.

Check out this article from Yoast for information about how passive voice can affect search engine optimization (SEO).

As you may have guessed from many of the links above, I’m a big fan of Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty. I always check with her when I run into a sticky grammar issue or need a quick refresher.

Library List: Interactive Picture Books

Thanks to a fun client project, I recently searched our library for interactive picture books. Jackson and Caleb, my willing research assistants, enjoyed the process as much as I did. I thought it would be fun to share our favorites!   

Don't Push the Button by Bill Cotter

We have to start with Don’t Push the Button by Bill Cotter. Both three-year-old Jackson and twenty-month-old Caleb LOVED this book. Each spread features Larry, a lovable monster, and a big red button that is just begging to be pushed. Larry warns the reader not to push the button but then changes his mind. Hijinks ensue.

My one quibble with this book is that, after giving emphatic instructions not to push the button, Larry says, “No one is looking. You should give the button one little push.” I don’t know about the kids in your life, but mine do not need any encouragement to think like that. I usually skipped that line or changed that phrase as I read. This was hands-down my boys’ favorite.

Watercolor and collage are my favorite media, especially for picture books. Christie Matheson uses both to create adorable illustrations for each of these three books. 

Tap the Magic Tree follows a tree as it changes through the seasons. As you’ve likely guessed, Plant the Tiny Seed is about seeds growing into flowers, and Touch the Brightest Star explores the "magic [that] happens every night." I loved all of the creative ways the author invites her reader to interact with and “help” in the stories.

The hardcover editions of these books also include a final page that explains "how the magic happens" or how to grow your own zinnias from seeds. Tap the Magic Tree and Touch the Brightest Star are also available as board books. 

From Head to Toe by Eric Carle

Who doesn't like Eric Carle's depictions of animals? They're so fun! From Head to Toe is a perfect book for story time with a group. On each spread, children are encouraged to imitate a different animal. I accidentally requested an oversized version of this book from my local library. The huge pictures made it even more fun for my boys to participate. I couldn't find that option when I checked Amazon, but your library might have the giant edition too! 


Wiggle by Doreen Cronin is a cute book written with a lilting rhyme that keeps the wiggles--and resulting giggles--going strong. The illustrations perfectly capture the glee of a wiggly dog living his best life. It also mentions wiggling in your underwear, which my boys thought was HILARIOUS.

Open Very Carefully: A Book with Bite

Open Very Carefully: A Book with Bite by Nicola O'Byrne is an interactive picture book with some simple but clever novelty elements. It features the beautifully-illustrated calamity of a crocodile invading a copy of The Ugly Duckling. 

In both Press Here and Mix it Up, Herve Tullet takes interaction with the pages to the next level. As you can guess from the covers, this happens in different ways in each book. I couldn't resist pressing the dots and mixing the colors right along with my kids--and once when they weren't even around.

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I highly recommend looking for these books at your library and/or keeping them in mind for birthday and Christmas gifts! They'll be fun for you and your little readers!

Have you read any of these books to the littles in your life? Do you have a favorite interactive picture book that you would add to the list? Let me know in the comments!

This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking any of these links, your price stays exactly the same and I receive a small commission. I appreciate your support!


My Favorite Whole Wheat Bread: Bread Machine Version

My Favorite Whole Wheat Bread: Bread Machine Version

A quick note: I love food blogs, but I don't plan for this to become one. I DO want this to be a place where you can find encouragement with some practical help mixed in. So when I find a recipe or tip that makes it a bit easier to get tasty food on the table and gather people around it, I'll pass it along!

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