Notes From the Cookie Jar

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

My Experience with Coke's PR and Marketing Pop As a Healthy Snack

It has been a long time since I've been fired up about something so much that it drives me to my computer to write, but as I sat curled up on the couch with a huge box of tissues nursing a terrible cold this morning a story came on the news and my head exploded.

Well, not really, although my head kinda feels like it's going to explode, but that's besides the point. See, a few years ago I had an email exchange with a PR company regarding Coke mini cans that left me completely appalled. When I later met Chef Michael Smith, we had a conversation about it and he asked if I had written about it. At the time I said no. I didn't want to appear to be outing a company, but now that this story is in the news I think my experience should be shared.

According to recent news stories, Coke is working with bloggers, nutritionists, and dieticians to say that Coke is a healthy snack. Normally I'd just roll my eyes at this, but back in 2011 I received an email in my inbox, where a PR company working with Coke was talking about Laurie Gelman and how she was the host of Slice's The Mom Show. She was going to do a segment re: healthy snacks, and she was going to mention the Coke mini cans.They wanted me to write a story. There was no discussion of compensation.

Below is part of that email:

"Maintaining a balanced diet is key to leading a healthy lifestyle. For any lifestyle and family features you may be compiling, we have an interesting interview opportunity available.

Laurie Gelman, host of Slice’s The Mom Show and mother of two, is available for interview. She can speak to maintaining a healthy balanced diet both for yourself and for your children, specifically including topics such as:
  • Yummy and nutritious snacks for kids that Mom can prepare
  • How to keep kids energized and active
  • How to keep Mom energized during her busy day and overcome daily hurdles such as the 3pm slump

Laurie will mention the launch of the new Coca Cola mini can (a smaller-sized, 100-calorie can) as one snack idea. This portion size option gives consumers power to choose the beverage size that best meets their dietary and lifestyle needs. Dietary experts say that controlling portion sizes and subsequent calorie intake is important to maintaining a balanced lifestyle. Laurie of course has plenty of other suggestions that she can share with your readers which will perfectly compliment the subject of busy Moms and how they can ensure that their kids, and themselves, have a balanced diet."

The email went on to a press release where Coke was announcing their new mini cans and saying they were a good option to have a Coke with a smaller portion size.

First off, I have no issue with Coke. Like any other soda, it can be a nice treat on a hot day. We have it occasionally in the summer or on a holiday. Honestly, it's rare that I can drink a whole can-when I was a kid, my Mom and I would sometimes share a can.  The important distinction is that in our house, pop is viewed as an occasional TREAT. It's like a bag of chips, bar of chocolate, or other sweet/salty nutritionally bankrupt item that we may occasionally indulge in.

If we were to be perfectly honest about things, Coke is composed of water, sugar, caffeine, phosphoric acid,  caramel color and natural flavourings. There is no nutritional value to a a can of Coke, no matter the portion size. There is sugar, carbs, sodium. That is it.  My definition of a "healthy snack" is one that offers nutrition to my body. One that contains vitamins, minerals, or things my body needs to function. Coke does not offer any of these things. 

Now, I know that some people have pointed to the soda industry as responsible for the rise in obesity over the past decade and Coke has probably taken a hit in their sales. I don't think the soda industry is totally to blame, there are a lot of factors at play that need to be taken into consideration. But what makes me crazy is when companies try to market a product that is so obviously NOT healthy as healthy. Let's be honest here, people, it's POP.  (or soda, depending on where you're from).

This was my response to the PR company: 

" Thank you for your interest in Notes from the Cookie Jar.  I must admit I'm appalled by the idea that Coke mini cans are being pitched in a press release about an interview with someone as a healthy lifestyle choice.   Coke is full of sugar or high fructose corn syrup, caffeine, and is not (in my opinion) a healthy choice by any stretch of the imagination.  In fact,  I do not believe that children need soda of any kind in their diets (whether by 100 calorie can or not). For Mrs. Gelman to be suggesting this is completely ridiculous.  Children need to be hydrating with water or plain milk, not sugary substances filled with artificial flavors, preservatives, and caffeine. 

I cannot endorse, support, or write about someone who is suggesting that mini cans of Coke are part of a healthy lifestyle for children, no matter what the size is. "

 Healthy snacks are things like whole fruit, raw veggies, nuts, hummus and whole grain crackers. Even 100% juice offers some nutrition. Coke offers sugar and caffeine. 

There was a response to my mail:

"We are following up on our email regarding the new Coca-Cola mini can. The language used in the email sent to you was ambiguous and this was not our intention. 

The Coca-Cola mini can media launch is targeted at Moms and is intended to communicate increased product choices for consumers, providing more options in the beverage aisle for those looking to enjoy a favorite beverage while being conscious of portion size and calories. 

As host of the Mom Show and a mother herself, Laurie Gelman can offer views on making lifestyle choices for herself and her family.  The aim was to provide information that Moms would be interested in – including new portion packages for Moms and appropriate family members, since Mom is the primary gatekeeper to most grocery purchases.

Coca-Cola has a strict policy against marketing to children under age 12.  We include our regulations on not marketing to children on our website, here: and we encourage you to contact us if you have any questions."

Wait. Did I say anything about marketing to kids? Nope. I said that I didn't believe kids should have soda, and that suggesting it was healthy was.. "completely ridiculous". Marketing it to Moms as a healthy snack, when Moms don't snack that much but make snacks for kids is just skirting around the issue. Weren't two of those points about healthy snacks to do with snacks for kids?

Now Coke has found nutritionists who have written pieces where it's not very clear if they were paid for their articles, if they were sponsored or not by Coke, and some don't even remember if they were paid. Seriously? It certainly makes me wary of nutritional advice from so-called "experts" if this is the case. Kids are already influenced by marketing offered by companies about "healthy" choices, whether the advertising is directed at them or not. I work with kids, and talk to them about food every single day. They are swayed by colorful packaging, and repeat messages they have heard. 

Moms may be the gatekeepers, but it's naive to think that advertising doesn't filter down to children.

Coke is not, in my opinion,  a healthy snack for anyone. Period. End of story. I believe that anyone who tells you otherwise either is being paid to do so or doesn't know what a healthy snack is.

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Thursday, March 05, 2015

Kids Are Always Full of Surprises

cara cara orange

For the longest time, I've been aching to get back into the kitchen with kids, teaching them about food and cooking. This really is my happy place; above all else that I do, it's what I love most. Since we moved from the Sunshine Coast to Chilliwack, it was the one part of my job that I missed most.

Yesterday was day one of diving back in the kitchen again with a group of elementary school students. This time, it's more challenging; I have a group of students who all have their own needs and challenges, so presenting food and cooking in a way they understand is going to be interesting. We didn't cook yesterday, instead we talked about the "Rules of the Kitchen", how things were going to work, what we were going to make, and then I brought some oranges for them to taste.

They weren't just any oranges. They were cara cara oranges, a delightful variety that's in season between December and April, and one of my very favourite kind of orange. Not only are they super sweet, but they are gorgeous. I wanted to see what the kids knew-where the oranges might come from, how they grow, the different parts such as the peel, pith, flesh... would they figure this out?

Tasting things is a huge part of how I teach kids to cook. At home, most kids come from the "Just one bite" or "finish your plate" camps.  They are used to food being associated with something emotional-mostly pleasing adults but in my class, I tell them I'm not the food police. I won't make them eat ANYTHING. Or try anything. They may look at, smell, lick, touch, and even eat something if they wish but there will be no pressure from anyone at any time.The point is to just make them aware of different kinds of food, and one day when they are ready, they may try it.

"YOU are in charge of your body," I tell them. "YOU are the one who decides if you want to taste. If you don't, that's okay. I'm not going to make you or feel sad if you don't."

The oranges were a surprise. At first, the kids seemed disappointed and even a bit upset that I bought "just" fruit and not some fantastic packaged item.

"Just oranges? Really?"
 "I  HATE oranges"

I'm a little evil. There are NO sweet baked goods on our menu until the very last day in June, when I plan to have them make homemade ice cream. Even then, it will be topped with fruit. They don't know this, and I have no plans to tell them.

I smiled and set the oranges on the table, said it was fine if they didn't want any, and kept going.  We talked about the oranges, and with fat, colorful markers I began drawing a mind map on a huge piece of paper. The adults helping had a few orange slices. Another teacher walked in and commented that those kind of oranges were her favorite. Finally, one of the kids tried one..and then another, and before you knew it, they were nibbling on the sweet fruit, leaving a pile of half moon peels behind on paper towels in front of them.

Then, we got to the topic of citrus fruit and I brought out a Meyer lemon. I sliced it in half, and the kids got to smell and touch it.

"Can we taste the lemon?" 

I almost fell over. Lemon? The oranges were suspect but they wanted LEMON? I shaved off thin slices, saying it was okay if they didn't want it after they tasted, that it would be sour. I explained that the peel is very good, and how chefs use it in muffins and other treats.

Down went the slices of lemon and soon they were eying the lime I brought as well. Gone were the pleas of having a cookie or piece of chocolate, they were intensely focused on the fruit and how interesting it was. This was a completely different turn of events-I had expected they may eat the oranges, but never for a minute thought they'd want to try the lemon and lime, too!

Later I ran into one of the kids and asked her,

"Are you a sweet orange or a sour lemon today?"

She grinned at me happily.

"I'm a sweet orange!"  (Note to self: I think I may need to bring Meyer lemons in again for the kids to cook with because they obviously LOVED them)

Next up? We're making pancakes that are full of oatmeal and whole wheat flour, topped with a strawberry compote instead of syrup. They are used to only having syrup. Let's see how THAT goes over!

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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Who You Calling Crazy?

Right from the get go, I knew Kevin was different. While his friends played with age appropriate toys at 3 years old, he intently watched "Bob Villa's Home Again." and almost removed the oil pan from one of our cars when he was helping his Dad.

At 4 he took apart every toy he owned, and then put them all back together and fixed some. When he was 7, he was so into engines that he taught himself how they work-by 8 he learned the entire periodic table. To say that sometimes this drive to know things scared us is an understatement; I ceased being able to answer his questions when he was around five.

This inner drive to know has propelled Kevin through life in ways that have never been conventional. While his friends played video games, he was building them on his laptop. He has never, ever, had the same interests as his peers or been into the fads that permeate childhood.  Through it all, we always have wanted him to just BE. Be happy. Be himself. Anything else was gravy, really.

The thing is, society has some pretty defined perimeters. To be successful, you need to graduate from high school, find a traditional job in a building that provides a regular paycheck, and go to post secondary education.  That's the road. That is how you are judged by peers on the ladder to success.

Like anything he has ever done, Kevin is turning that on it's head. His peers call him crazy. Some have outright said he is a loser.

"You live in your parent's office with no job or post secondary plans," they say. "Your dream is a fantasy," they sneer.

Just like the kids in the school yard, they mock what they just don't know or understand.

Kevin still lives with us, yes; like most people his age because it would be crazy to move out to your own apartment when your parents have room and are willing to allow you to stay. Why not save money? Free food, hydro, internet connection? With the cost of housing so high it only makes sense and we specifically moved to Chilliwack so that he could live with us once he graduated. Why not? Of course, he's paying rent now but still-even at that, it's far cheaper.

University is a good option, but not the only one. A degree doesn't automatically mean a job, and you end up with huge student loans to pay. One can take courses online from universities now, and some job prospects actually like to have students who are fresh and teachable, rather than filled with years of education and no experience. School is always an option; it doesn't mean you must do it immediately when you are 19. Not everyone is ready or even able to hit university straight out of high school, and there is nothing wrong with that. I didn't go until I was 20, and John didn't until he was in his 20s as well. The trades are also not a second choice or something that should be looked at as 'lesser' than other more academic careers, either. Mike Rowe wrote about this in Popular Mechanics magazine and I like the article so much I brought it home and showed it to Kevin.

So if you aren't going to school, then you should obviously be working and being productive, right? This is where Kevin turned things on it's head because he's nothing like other kids his age. In Sechelt, it was hard to get a job because the town was so small there were few jobs available. In Chilliwack, it's different-but unsatisfied with the kind of jobs he could get, Kevin went ahead and created his own. He watched me over the years, dreaming of writing and unsatisfied with the jobs available in my field. I worked hard to forge my own path with writing and did fairly well so he took that example and then forged ahead in his own path; not with writing, but instead in the world of finance and bitcoin.

Kevin owns Paradox BTC. We've watched him work countless hours trading, networking with banks and businesses, and getting his name out there. He's been quite successful and his ideas have captured the interest of some pretty important people. He has a deep entrepreneurial spirit, much like his Dad, who has also been a small business owner. Kevin has forged ahead with something that he has created, in a field that he can excel at.  I won't lie; there have been times where we have wondered what he is doing or where this is taking him, but we're seeing that he is doing well. Success is an interesting thing; is making loads of money successful? To some, maybe. Success can also be defined in loving what you do and personal satisfaction. If you are an educational assistant (which is what I do), you may not make a pile of money but be very happy with your job so that is enough. Is that success? I think so.

Is working in the bitcoin field traditional? Not in the slightest. You should see me trying to explain this to people who ask, and then assume that I have a man-child hiding out in my darkened basement, playing with computers. Yes, he spends hours in our home office. You need to in order to run a business. Do I think he should be out slinging fries at a fast food place, or being a cashier? No. It's not for everyone and to think that everyone has to take the same path to success is narrow minded. Both John and I look back at those days when we were young and the dreams that we gave up because they seemed too crazy, too impossible, with a tinge of regret. Neither of us had the support to chase what really made our soul fly; money and logistics were in the way.

Now is the time to chase the dream, when you are young and able to, rather than leave it and then look back when you are 40, wishing you had. Sure, it might be a crazy dream. It may not turn out to be anything more than a learning experience.  The interesting thing is, while I dreamed of writing, nobody told me I was crazy. They didn't insist that I go back to university and study English or get a journalism degree. Nobody once told me that my dream was far fetched, even though these days there are millions of blogs and competition is fierce. Even though in the end, I decided that writing was more of a hobby for me than a job.

Perhaps my peers know the sting of a dream never explored and how crazy it is not to chase one when you have the opportunity, unlike the shortsighted young peers who sneer at Kevin. Sure, it's quite possible that bitcoin could go nowhere.  On the other hand, what if his dream turns into something big?

Either way, he has some pretty proud parents. Go get 'em, Kev. xo

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Monday, December 29, 2014

New Year's Goal: Getting My Inner Writer On

My Christmas tree, dry and a little forlorn looking, is dropping needles on the hardwood. In the dining room, there are three half decorated gingerbread houses waiting to be finished, and I've somehow lost the remote control to my television this morning.  If my internet name "Scatteredmom" ever fit me, it does now more than ever. I chose the name years ago not to say that I think I'm unorganized, but that I felt pulled in all directions. I guess that I do now more than ever.

When I began blogging years ago, I vowed to take it seriously. To always be 'on', and never promise things I didn't plan to follow through on. For awhile I did really well with it, until life upended itself and I found myself scrambling. At first, I wanted blogging to be a job, and then after awhile I discovered that I really hated turning that which I loved into a job. It felt like I worked 24 hours a day. I felt chained to my computer and the constant barrage of email, tweets, and facebook posts.

2014 was my year to just live, despite the fact that I didn't want to give up blogging entirely. I dropped all sorts of balls. I realized that writing all the time for a job made me feel overworked and anxious. I found another job where I can be with people, and when I leave it, I don't think about it. While I do enjoy doing some writing work, I don't think I could make it a career and be happy. A part time hobby, absolutely.

Do you make resolutions? I've written before that I don't, that I chose to make goals instead. What would your goals be? I don't have a lot of them, but I'm thinking of a few.

1. Write every day, publish at LEAST once a week

The only thing that really got me blogging was that I committed to writing, and like an exercise program, made myself do it all the time. When my friend Anne died, I stopped. I had nothing to say. There were no words in my head aching to get out and I didn't think there would be again.

Now the words are back, but I'm out of the habit. Time to get back into it and like an exercise program, make myself write even if I don't want to. Not everything needs to be published though, so I think committing to once a week is a good idea.

2. Stop procrastinating

There are some things that I've gotten much better at the last few years, but there are still others that are woefully bad. Being better organized and dealing with things immediately would serve me far better. Putting things away immediately, answering emails right away, etc would be a good place to start.

Do you procrastinate? Any tips?

2.  Either say no, or do a kick ass job of it

At a blogging conference I remember being told that you always need to bring your A game, every single time. For awhile there, I did-until things fell apart and I didn't quite recover.

I often have such great ideas and want to do things (just like those gingerbread houses), but something gets in the way. This year it was the fact that I was sick and overworked, so any spare time I had was eaten up by sleep or the fact that it was too dark and ugly out to get any good photos. They are still sitting on my dining room table.

Which leads up to #3....

3. Take good care of myself

For a long time, I took care of everyone BUT myself-which resulted in me crashing and burning in a spectacular fashion and then not recovering for a very long time. There's a lot going on here offline, and I'm busier than ever. Sometimes I need to just sleep rather than DO stuff, especially if I was at work at 4 am. I need to say no sometimes. Instead of making sure everyone else is okay, I need to be okay too.

4. Take time for my family and friends offline

Anne taught me this. She taught me that time with your friends or family is never wasted, and that making time to spend with people you care about or cultivating friendships enriches your life beyond anything you can imagine. I need to remember to plan things with friends, and go. 

5. Remember that I do this because I enjoy it and finding the balance

I started blogging because I thought maybe it was a job I'd enjoy, and then I found as it became one that I didn't love it as much as I thought. Being at home all day writing felt isolated and lonely, and I eventually burned out.  Having to produce piles of content sucked the joy out of me. I love writing, but marketing my own content feels fake to me-and always has.

I want to be like chef Michael Smith, on that day we had dinner in Saskatoon, where he told me that he's a good writer and does it because he loves it.

THAT is the kind of writer I want to be. Maybe balance is elusive, or even non existent, but  I intend to start right here. I know you're probably rolling your eyes because I've had a bunch of false starts, and that's okay. I understand. I'd be rolling mine too.

Some people this January are lacing up runners and vowing to go to the gym. I'm here, flexing my fingers, getting my inner writer on.

What are YOUR goals for 2015? Care to share them? If you are wanting to get your inner writer on too, let me know. Maybe we need to start a group of our own.

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Friday, December 05, 2014

Share Your Fave Holiday Movie and Win!

Remember when I told you all about that awesome Roku 3 streaming box that I had from Staples? Well, we've been watching movies here and there, gearing up for the holidays. We haven't watched a lot of the usual Christmas movies; much of what we normally would watch wasn't on Netflix, so we settled for some that we hadn't seen yet. That month went so fast! I was stunned that before we knew it, December had arrived. Hadn't we just started? What do you mean there's only that many days before Christmas?

I have two guys in my house who love action and adventure, and with no little kids there was no clamoring for anything animated. We're a tried and true adventure crowd, with pure escapism  ranking high on our wish list and not necessarily traditional holiday themed movies on our minds.

When Kevin was young and The Lord of the Rings trilogy began coming out in theaters, John and I would make a movie date. In the midst of all the holiday craziness, we'd book a babysitter, get dressed up, an spend a night out together. Sometimes, the smallest things become tradition-even though Kevin was too young to join us at the time, as the years passed he grew and we eventually watched the videos together.

When the Hobbit movies began being released in theaters, there was no question; instead of making the movies a date night, Kevin began joining us for a really special evening out to see the movies we had loved so much in theaters.  With his birthday on December 21st our date night tradition evolved into a family birthday one where we would find our way to a theater to see our beloved Middle Earth characters once again. Elves, orcs, hobbits, a dragon; what's not to love? It seems very fitting that this Christmas, when the very last Middle Earth movie of the series is in theaters, Kevin turns 19.

If we had to crown our ultimate holiday movie, I'd have to say any of the Lord of the Rings or Hobbit movies, because they have a special place for us. We have been known to watch all three in a trilogy over the course of a holiday, curled up on the couch nibbling snacks and enjoying our fantasy trip to Middle Earth.

What's YOUR favourite holiday movie? It doesn't have to be a holiday themed one, just movies that your family enjoys. Let me know below and guess what? YOU can win yourself Roku 3!

This giveaway is open only to Canadian residents who are the age of majority.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Tuesday, December 02, 2014

How to Make a Gingerbread House Without Losing Your Mind (part 1)


For years, gingerbread houses were my nemesis. After the trauma of the gingerbread incident, I decided that kits were the way to go and that anyone who made gingerbread creations from scratch was crazy. What I neglected to tell you is that the very next day after gingerbread went airborne in my house, I went to work and was asked to help a class construct a village from gingerbread.

For a week straight, I surrounded by children and gingerbread and went home covered in icing sugar. I was in gingerbread hell.

A few years after that, I worked in a high school Foods class where I finally got over my fear of gingerbread house building when we built mini gingerbread houses from scratch. Finally, I learned a bunch of tips and tricks that made gingerbread house building easy, which I want to share with you!

Before we get started, I want you to let go of expectations that you are going to end up with something that looks like it belongs on Pinterest. Forget perfection and embrace the process of doing this project with your kids for maximum fun factor; THAT is the secret to successful gingerbread house constructing, and exactly what I had forgotten one Christmas when Kevin was little.

This recipe makes one small gingerbread house that goes with this pattern. (that link should take you to Google Docs, where my pattern is in a shared folder. You should be able to download and print it!)  If doubled, the recipe will make 3-4 houses depending on how thick you roll the dough. Don't make them too thin, they'll break easily! These houses are small, but I find small is the key to manageable. Make a bunch and the kids can each decorate their own for a village! Don't get stressed out over this project, you can do it over a period of days so it's not so daunting. The dough can be mixed and then frozen or left in the fridge overnight, and you can bake it one day and construct another. Or, put the houses together one day and let the kids decorate another.

Mini Gingerbread House (pattern here!)

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cloves or allspice
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup margarine or butter
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup molasses
1 tsp water


1. In a medium sized bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and salt.

2. In another bowl with an electric mixer, cream the butter and the brown sugar until fluffy. Add the egg, molasses, and water and continue to beat until smooth.

3. Beat half of the flour mixture into the butter mixture until well blended, and then stir in the remaining flour mixture. If the dough is really sticky, stir in a bit more flour until a little more manageable but be careful, you don't want it dry. The dough should be soft and easy to work with, but not so sticky it's all over the place.

4. Turn out onto a counter and knead 2 or 3 times for it to all come together. Shape into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap, and put in the fridge for about 2 hours. You can also freeze the dough at this point for another day. Thaw the dough before you are going to use it.

5. When you are ready to bake, pre heat oven to 350 F. Take your dough out of the fridge and allow to warm slightly. Then divide the disc in half.


6. Roll out 1/2 disc on parchment paper (important!) until it's about 1/4 of an inch thick. Brush lightly with flour to keep the pattern pieces from sticking. Lay your pattern pieces on the dough and cut them out using a sharp knife. Do not put the pieces flush with each other, they need at least 1/2 inch between them. (also important!)


7. When you have cut as many pieces as you can, remove the excess dough. Then, using scissors, cut the wax paper around the gingerbread pieces, leaving a slight border around each one. Do NOT remove the gingerbread pieces from the parchment paper. This ensures that your pieces will remain perfectly straight, and not warp, which means the house will be easier to construct. (and you will preserve your sanity)


8. Put pieces on a cookie sheet. Continue until you've used all your dough. If you have leftovers, you can make some gingerbread cookies, or ginger snaps by rolling the dough into walnut sized balls, rolling them again in granulated sugar, set them on a cookie sheet and press them down slightly.

9. Bake your gingerbread pieces about 10-12 minutes, until they are set and slightly browned.


10. Remove the pan from the oven and allow the cookie pieces to cool on the sheets for about 5 minutes before removing to the counter or a cooling rack to cool completely. Once they are cooled, set the pieces aside in a sealed container until you are ready to build!

Need to watch me do this? I have a handy dandy video for you, even!

In my next post, we'll move on to different kinds of icing, construction, and decorating tips!

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Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Simple Christmas: Make a Strategy

Christmas hike
Every Christmas Day, if weather permits we go for a hike

I have found that the secret to keeping your Christmas simple is to figure out a strategy before December. This may seem like a bit of a killjoy to some who like to just go with the flow, but hear me out on this one.

1. Decide what's important

First, sit down with your family. It's their holiday season too, right? You may need a calendar and/or some paper if you have a lot of events happening. Ask each person what is important to them. Do the kids love your annual drive to look at Christmas lights? Is dinner at Grandma's house high on your list? Write them down. This is your chance to be a little selfish and state what makes Christmas special for you. Our favourite things have changed through the years and as we moved to different communities, but here's a taste of some:

1. Annual drive to look at Christmas lights: we would load up the car with hot chocolate and treats, then drive around and marvel at the pretty houses, with Christmas music playing in the car.
2. Dinner out at a local hotel on Christmas Day (when Kevin was really small). We called it our gift to ourselves because there was only 3 of us. Kevin still remembers it.
3. Movies and a huge appetizer spread on Christmas Eve
4. Trip to the city for a big day of Christmas shopping
5. Movie 'date' for me and John (Lord of the Rings Movies) which evolved into Kevin coming and it being a birthday evening out for Kevin.
6. The Santa Claus parade!
7. Reading a special story on Christmas Eve

As I wrote this I've noticed something. Each and every thing has to do with time spent together, not things. Nobody cares about the perfect tree, whether Christmas crackers are homemade or store bought (or there at all), if the Christmas cake was bought or handmade at midnight. (for the record, I buy the stuff). We've had a few Christmases where things were less than ideal; friends were dying; family members were seriously ill, money was tight, etc. It taught all of us that Christmas is all about loving each other and being together, not the trappings that seem to invade.

2. Identify what stresses you out

Next, look at the things that you could do without. This can be a bit trickier, because it involves things that you may feel obligated to do and you have to steel yourself into saying no. You CAN say no to things, you know. You don't have to do Christmas cards if you ultimately don't enjoy it. The kids don't HAVE to go to the Christmas concert. You don't HAVE to go to your office party. You don't HAVE to buy a gift for every extended family member and overspend your budget. The key is to identify what causes you the greatest amount of stress.

For us, the biggest stressors were:

1. Travel (tried it, hated it, vowed not to do it again)
2. Obligation to do loads of little things; gifts for co-workers, cards, parties, etc.
3. Not setting a budget and then overspending
4. Too many events
5. My own perceived notion that I had to do everything by hand and from scratch (making loads of homemade gifts)

Once you've identified what stresses you out, give yourself permission to either cease doing them altogether, pare them back, or find a way to do them that works for you. I used to make all sorts of things by hand, and then wouldn't finish them in time and be up late desperately trying to get them done. I understand that sometimes family obligations such as the 3 Christmas dinners in various houses aren't things you can always get out of, but maybe there are other areas that can be tweaked. Remember, holidays also change over time as your kids grow so maybe you can't change things now, but in years to come the stress will lessen.

The biggest lesson here is that if you have small kids, they are small only for a handful of Christmases. It's your only opportunity to make them very special family times, so guard them fiercely.

3. Set a budget and stick to it

Now that you've figured out what is important, set a budget for gifts and things. We tend to save some money throughout the year specifically for Christmas so that we can pay things outright and don't put extra on credit or mess up our monthly budget. Keep it reasonable. Children don't need to have the very latest or most expensive item, nor do they need a gigantic pile of presents under the tree. Commercials and media will tell you that you NEED TO BUY THIS TO MAKE YOUR CHILD HAPPY, but you don't need to succumb to the messaging. How do you avoid the overwhelming Christmas hype? Well, you strategize your shopping as well.

4. Plan your shopping and gift giving

Once you have your budget, figure out what you want to buy for gifts. John and I used to sit down and plan what we were getting for Kevin, and then set a budget for what we were going to spend on each other. Our approach to Christmas shopping is unusual; we would make a plan, then spend a day together shopping and enjoy lunch together. We also shopped for our gifts together, mostly because I couldn't figure out what kind of tools he wanted and he couldn't find clothes that fit me properly. We then wrapped the gifts and they went under the tree.

Most people gasp when they hear this. What about the surprise? Well, stockings were still fair game to fill with all kinds of small things, but there were never any returns when it came to bigger gifts.

To keep the shopping stress down, try these strategies:

-shop during the week early in the day. Avoid the mall on weekends at all costs, especially closer to the date.
-make a list!
-shop online
-get things like tape, wrapping paper, ribbon, etc early.
-pick up stocking stuffers as you go. I get mine on days when I'm grocery shopping or out and about
-watch the sales. If something is important for you to get, you may want or need to brave the crowds to get it.
-wrap items when you bring them home and label them so that if they are found, you're still safe. This also saves you from the hours of wrapping on Christmas Eve.

Lastly, there's one more thing to plan....

5. Plan the food

This can depend on your family. Is food important? Do you bake a lot? Are you planning to bake as gifts, for friends and family? If the answer to these questions is yes, then planning will help keep you from being stressed in the kitchen. About a month before the holidays, I sit down and have a conversation with my family; what would you love to have for Christmas dinner? What cookies and treats do you love best? Do we need to bake for teachers, friends, or family?

A word, here. DO NOT think that you must make everything from scratch. Shortcuts are okay. Eating at a hotel for Christmas dinner is okay (you saw that we once did that, right?). Buying your Christmas baking is okay. Whatever works for you and your family IS OKAY.

Once you have this information, it's a good idea to pull together the recipes you need and take a look in your pantry. I like to make a list of the things I'm going to need; cocoa, flour, sugar, butter, etc and head out to Costco to stock up. Costco is by far my go-to place for getting baking supplies, since I've found them cheaper than anywhere else. If you don't have the funds to buy everything at once, you could take the strategy of buying a few things here and there as you do your grocery shopping and just tuck it away. This saves you last minute trips to the store and the stress of getting everything done at once.

If you're baking for friends and family, it's a good idea to pick up containers or bags to tuck treats into early. I love to go to the Dollar store for this; clear plastic goodie bags are great for cookies, and you can find inexpensive boxes or tins to make gift giving easy. I love the clear goodie bags because they can be used for other holidays too, if I have leftovers. If you have time, you can get kids to decorate brown paper lunch bags instead. This might make a fun afternoon project.

Holiday baking really deserves it's own post, so we're going to end here. Next week I'm going to show you how I organize all my holiday baking and get it done so that it's actually fun! There are ways, my friends. First I just need to run to Costco....

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