Looking at ourselves and the world through the lens of the 21st century.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

S.M.A.R.T. Start to the Year

 Hi everyone, I hope that this post finds you feeling amazing vibes for the new year and excited for a fresh start! I am super stoked about 2022. In April of 2020 many people were already anxious to move on past 2020 and into 2021, so they could have a fresh start. Don’t get me wrong, I was really digging the collective desire to upgrade our lives, and I know that was just the beginning as we enter a new age! 2022 just feels like it is bursting with opportunities. So what better time to discuss S.M.A.R.T. goals than the beginning of the year? At this moment I wish I could tell you to close your eyes so that I can take you on a quick visualization, but I can’t if you are reading, so bear with me, and maybe try it out for yourself once you are done reading.

“If you start your year the same way that you start your morning, with purpose and clear intentions,  you will find that so much can be accomplished.”

Since January 1st is our recognized “beginning of the year” we are going to start with Day 1.  This exercise could be altered for other calendars or traditions that do not consider 1/1 the beginning of the year. Additionally, someone who is in recovery may consider their Day 1 to be their first day of sobriety etc. Regardless, let’s consider that a 365 year is a larger scale representation of your regular calendar 24 hour day.  If that were the case, Day 1 would be considered your morning. On your regular calendar day, you would wake up, get ready for the day, “eat the frog” (I will explain that here in a moment), and then tackle other action items and proceed through your day. You might check in throughout the day to ensure that you are meeting your daily expectations, and once the day starts to come to an end, you will adjust the following day’s schedule as needed, reflect on your accomplishments for the day, and determine what was a win, or what could have been improved. If you are like me, then you might have a day planner to keep you in check with your daily tasks.  Many life coaches, and self improvement books will tell you to start your day off with making your bed as it will get you into the habit of action oriented tasks, which in turn, makes it easier to transition into that more complicated or daunting task that must be completed aka “the frog”. It also gives you a good feeling when you see your bed nicely made. If you start your year the same way that you start your morning, with purpose and clear intentions,  you will find that so much can be accomplished.

“A goal without a plan is like attempting to bake a cake without knowing what goes in it or how long to bake it.“

How do you get that clear intention though? I am positive that every single person has started a New Year's resolution that ended up being a complete flop. Why was that? It was most likely due to lack of planning. I could imagine that many people start off with a goal, verbalize it, and then leave it to the wind. In order to achieve your goal, there must be a clear instruction list for yourself and a method to hold yourself accountable. S.M.A.R.T. goals are the best way to do this because the goal is like a recipe to help get you on your way to completion. All you have to add to the recipe is desire and action and you will succeed! 

If you consider a S.M.A.R.T. goal like a cake recipe, you’ll see that there is a clear indication of what the cake is,  a list of the ingredients, the time needed to bake, the serving amount, and the instructions on how to actually bake it. A goal without a plan is like attempting to bake a cake without knowing what goes in it or how long to bake it. 

Another great analogy that comes to mind is Mt. Everest., If your goal for the year is to climb the summit, you simply cannot just waltz over there and start climbing;, you need to research gear, determine travel time, get a Sherpa to take you...there is also a huge investment of time for all of this, and all of it requires planning. But if you know how, it can be mapped out using the S.M.A.R.T. goals method. 

There is not much need to go over what S.M.A.R.T. goals are, you can find lots of material online, but I will just briefly describe what the acronym stands for. There are several instances where the words have been interchangeable. I put an asterisk next to my favorite.

S - Specific
M - Measurable
A - *Actionable, Assignable, Attainable, Achievable, 
R - *Relevant, Realistic
T - *Time-Bound, Timely, Time-Based

I have an awesome success story that I want to share with you all. In this story, my husband and I turned a vague goal into a reality! In the fall of 2019, when Travis and Reyna moved in with me, we decided that having the two of them wait for me to come home from work and cook dinner was too late. It was a tough change and adjustment for all 3 of us. Travis, my then fiancé, was struggling to come up with ideas for dinner. He suddenly became the main meal provider in our family and had very little skills in the kitchen. We had many bizarre dinners, mostly canned and frozen foods, and I was really starting to get filled to the gills; I had grown up in a home where mom cooked dinner, and there was homemade meatloaf and mashed potatoes from scratch, chicken and dumpling soup, and I could just go on. I was also raised at a young age to know my way around the kitchen - so I can cook on the fly. I then realized that Travis was going to need a lot more guidance.

When January 2020 rolled around, I turned to him one day and asked him what his goal for 2020 was going to be. He had no clue, he wasn’t the type to set goals or New Year's resolutions. So I said, in kind sweet words, that if he was planning on marrying me, he better set some goals. After some laughs and some thought, he came up with “I want to be a better cook,” and I thought that was a fantastic idea. His goal was vague, and I knew immediately that he was going to need some coaching on what to do next. He really was stumped. I helped him rephrase his goal that came without a game plan into a S.M.A.R.T. goal. 

We started off by changing the language! I am a firm believer that this is a crucial step in achieving the goal. This falls into the “Specific” guideline. Take out phrases like “I want” or “I need” or “I will be”. I want to climb Mt. Everest is not a goal, it is a statement, and one of lacking. When working through the details with him, I said “Hey, how am I going to know that you are a better cook then?” He said “I guess you will taste it?” I explained to him that the word better is a good starting point but it is not specific enough, so he suggested “good cook” So I asked him what makes a good cook. He was really getting frustrated with me by now, but the gears were turning. He thought about it and came back with “they know how to cook things without a recipe and what spices to add and stuff.” I left it at this, and knew we would circle back at the end to create the final wording for the goal. We were heading in the right direction.

I then asked him when he was going to be “a good cook.” We decided on the end of the year. That was an easy one for “Time” which led me right into my next question for him. 

How are we going to “Measure” the progress? Once he started to think about it a little bit more it dawned on him that he could cook recipes until he was “a good cook.” We decided that since he cooked every single day of the week now, he should be able to try 100 recipes. That’s really only 3 a week, and they could be anything. It’s not outside of the scope of his day to day life, therefore it is “Relevant”. 

You will see that one of the words for A is Achievable. I do not use that one, because it is redundant in my opinion. I believe that if a goal is relevant to you, then it is achievable. I much prefer to use the term “Actionable”. This is the part of the goal that is all you -- making effort to achieve the goal. The rest is just the padding around you, kind of like insurance. In order for Travis to meet his goal by the end of the year he determined that he would need to do research, planning and implementation. Assignable is also a good word for this, as you have to assign tasks to be completed in order to achieve the goal, it doesn’t just fall into your lap. Travis developed a routine for looking up recipes, meal planning and grocery shopping to ensure that he had everything he needed. He even had to plan out his time as well. 

I bet you are wondering how it turned out? After we took the phrasing of “I want to be a better cook” and reprogrammed the goal to be “I will cook 100 different recipes in 2020,” I can definitely say that he is a better cook. Not only is he a good cook, but a damn good cook. Did he cook all 100? We actually lost count - it was well over 100 by the time August rolled around. I am very proud of him for his great accomplishment and it is a story that I love to share. If you have a goal in mind and are needing help rephrasing it into a S.M.A.R.T. goal, send me a message! I would love to help you out with some ideas!


Sunday, December 26, 2021

SMART Goals for Everyone

This week on our podcast we are continuing our discussion about goals. Having goals, I think, is an important aspect of life. My goal setting and organizing can be attributed to my mother and my best friend Christen, who pushes me to broaden my goal horizons. I also believe goal setting is an important aspect of teaching and I try to convey that to my students as much as possible. 

I started implementing this in the classroom back when I taught seniors because I believe you have to have goals when you exit high school. I always tell the kids that goals and plans change. Most kids get overwhelmed because they think they have to know what they want RIGHT NOW but that’s not the case. In high school, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I loved (and still love) animals and science. However, as I took journalism and English classes in college, my plans changed and I knew I wanted to be a writer, and later an English teacher. So, what you want right now, will change as life experiences set in. 

At the beginning of the year, I ask the students to tell me what their future goals are and ask them how they plan to achieve them. Since I teach 8th and 9th graders, most of them don’t know how to set goals or have never been asked what their goals are at this age. There is a strategy called SMART goals that I like to teach my students every January after we pick our One Little Word for the year. 

What are SMART Goals?

SMART is an acronym that you can use to guide your goal setting. Its criteria are commonly attributed to Peter Drucker's Management by Objectives concept. The first known use of the term occurs in the November 1981 issue of Management Review by George T. Doran. Since then, Professor Robert S. Rubin (Saint Louis University) wrote about SMART in an article for The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Doran explained that SMART has come to mean different things to different people.

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound

How can we use this?


Write down a clear and SPECIFIC goal that you want to achieve. When thinking about this, answer the five “W” questions:

  • What do I want to accomplish?
  • Why is this important?
  • Who is involved?
  • Where is it located?
  • When do I need this goal accomplished?


Your goal must have some data/statistics to track it. For example, you can use your PowerSheets to track your goals. You can make a goal-setting notebook. In my classes, students have goal charts glued in their class notebooks. Ask yourself these questions:

  • How much?
  • How many?
  • How will I know when my goal is accomplished?


Your goal must be achievable, for example, drink 44 ounces of water per day, or, n a student’s case, make an “A” in English class. Your goal should stretch your abilities but also be something that you can easily work toward. Ask yourself these questions:

  • How can I accomplish this goal?
  • How realistic is this goal?


Your smart goal must have a relevant purpose to advance your quality of life. Your goal should be realistic. This is a goal that matters to you and no one else. Ask yourself these questions to figure out if your goal is relevant:

  • Is it the right time for this?
  • Does this goal seem worthwhile?

(T)ime bound

This should be a goal that you can achieve in a certain amount of time. You don’t want to set a SMART goal twenty years in the future. You will need a workable target date for your goal. Ask yourself these questions?

  • When will this be accomplished?
  • Where will I be six weeks from now?
  • Where will I be six months from now?
  • What can I do today to work towards my goal?

How do I apply this in my classroom? 

At the beginning of the semester, as I stated before, students pick their One Little Word to drive their year. Next, students think of one goal they want to achieve by the end of the school year. The goal can be, make all “A’s” for the semester, get better at a certain sport, or even get up the courage to resolve a problem they have with a friend. They have a goal worksheet that they put in their notebooks that tracks their progress. First, they have to answer a series of questions like I mentioned above that follows the SMART guidelines. I like to check in with my students periodically throughout the year and let them reflect on how they are reaching their goals. Do they need to take a step back and reevaluate?

How do I apply this in my life?

I have long-term and short-term goals like everyone else. For example, I want to finish grad school. That is a long-term goal, and it will take me a few years to complete. A short term goal I recently had was to get my cholesterol down. My doctor contacted me and told me it was on the high side. I thought to myself, “okay, how can I accomplish this?”

  • Specific: Get my cholesterol down within six months.
  • Measurable: Incorporate more servings of fruits and vegetables each meal.
  • Achievable: Hold myself accountable and keep track of the food that I consume.
  • Relevant: This is relevant because I want to be healthy.
  • Time bound: The doctor wanted to see me again in six months.

One way I accomplished this SMART goal was by doing research on the calorie counts of certain foods that I like and lower calorie substitutes. For example, I replaced my milk consumption with almond milk and oat milk and I began to eat less red meat and more chicken. I began meal prep and measured out my fruit and vegetable consumption. I kept a daily log of what I ate and I did all of this for six months. My doctor recently called me and congratulated me on the significant amount I lowered my cholesterol in six months by setting measurable goals, making smart choices, and sticking to those choices. Did I have a cheat day in the last six months? Of course, I did but those days became few and far between when I rediscovered my love for vegetables.

Using SMART goals works for my students and it helped me lower my cholesterol. What is one measurable goal that you wish to set for yourself in the future? Let me know below. Also, head on over to our Facebook page to continue the conversation in our Facebook group.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Christen's Fan Girl Crushes

Merry Christmas everyone, Christen here.  If you haven’t found out yet, I am a huge fangirl for Syfy and Fantasy books, movies, art, and games, you name it! This will not be the only time I go on gushing about my favorite fictional characters - I just know it. Although there are some really hunky actors and spicy actresses out there, I find myself crushing on the fictional characters themselves more than the real life people. I just couldn't resist sharing my all time favorite Hollywood Fantasy Hunks. I mean, I literally have two Pinterest boards dedicated to my favorite movie males. Disclaimer, one of these is not a true “hall pass” for obvious reasons. 

My very first fantasy movie crush was Atreyu from Never Ending Story, portrayed by Noah Hathaway. He was just so cute in that movie, and I kind of wanted to be him too! I even got the Auryn tattoo as an adult! Yes, I am obsessed. The Never Ending Story was, is, and always will be my favorite book and movie. I am fairly positive that it shined the light on my interest in the fantasy genre. He is not a hall pass by any means, but was too important not to mention.

Captain Malcom Reynolds, talk about steamy! Firefly the TV series was short lived, but long reigns in my household as one of the greatest TV shows of all time. I just can’t get enough of Nathan Fillion and his devilish grin. I have watched this series over and over and never tire of him. He portrays the captain of Serenity in this syfy western by Joss Whedon.

Ronon Dex, of Stargate Atlantis, most popularly known as Jason Momoa. I just have to say, I had the hots for this guy way before all you other chicks did, so he is mine, back off! If there ever was a hall pass, this guy is for sure the one. I think that the reason I like this character so much is because he is gruff, burly and even though he has a sour attitude at times, his character is really sensitive at the core.  I have joked with my husband about this yummy man-meat before and he knows, oh he knows, that he is a hall pass. Anytime he sees something online or on the TV about Jason Momoa, he will let me know; it’s like he is egging me on.

Uhtred, son of Uhtred...that man may have a fiery temper, but hot damn - he is delicious. He falls into the category of Dirty Hot as my mom and I call it. He looks like he needs a bath, but for some reason that is sexy to me. The actor, Alexander Draymon actually has a very sweet face and looks quite different outside of his role on The Last Kingdom.  If I could go back in time to 1006 AD I would totally be his shield maiden.

And lastly, my most recent hunk…shocker… he also has long hair, Geralt of Rivia in
The Witcher. Henry Cavill plays the main character in this fantasy action thriller based on a video game, and he is a chiseled beast I would like to grab ahold of. Now this actor is handsome, whether he is Superman, Charles Brandon 1st Duke of Suffolk, or Sherlock Holmes. I have had the pleasure of watching him grow older from his soft pudgy cheeks to his well defined jawbones. He doesn’t need a costume or fantasy role to be a hottie in my book. I have been a fan for a while, and was thrilled when I saw that The Witcher was coming out on Netflix. If you have not seen any of those movies, or shows, you gotta check them out. 

Well, I could go on and on about my favorite celebs, or movie characters. I want to end my list with just a few honorable mentions: Dean Winchester of Supernatural (Jensen Ackles), Batman (Christian Bale’s version), Matt Smith as the Doctor in Doctor Who, and Madmardigan in Willow (Val Kilmer). I would love to know who some of your favorite Syfy hotties are in the comments and what makes them worthy of being a hall pass. 

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Are Celebrity Crushes Realistic?

“I’ll never cheat on you unless (insert celebrity here) walks in…”

I’m sure you’ve heard something like that before. If you haven’t heard it in your personal life, I’m sure you’ve heard it in pop culture to some extent. It’s the concept of “celebrity hall pass.”

A “celebrity hall pass” for couples is defined as an agreement between couples that if they ever get the chance to be with (sexually) their favorite celebrity or “hall pass” they can do so without any consequences from their relationship. Why do they call it a “hall pass?” It is a metaphor from our school days when roaming the hallways was forbidden unless you had a pass from the teacher to be in the hall. The concept is fun to think about. It allows some fantasy into your relationship to dream about which celebrities you would cheat with if you had the opportunity.

But why fantasize about cheating even if it’s with a celebrity? This is a double-edged sword. It is said that healthy couples should be able to watch a movie together or sit in a restaurant and look comfortably at the opposite (or same) sex while still being secure in their relationship, but doesn’t it always leave some unrealistic expectation that your partner is lacking compared to your celebrity crush? Really, it depends on how you feel. I have read many articles including this one by the website SheKnows.

The author, Kacie McCoy, discusses the pros and cons of celebrity hall passes. McCoy states that couples shouldn’t take hall passes seriously, and they should discuss the boundaries of what is considered cheating as a couple. She also reminds her readers that they would not want their significant other fantasizing about a certain celebrity during sex. Cheating of the mind is still cheating, so discuss this with your partner.

I wanted to know what other women thought about this topic, so I posted a poll in my Girl Talk group on Facebook. Fifty-one women voted in my poll, and forty-three of them said that they openly talk about celebrity crushes and hall passes in their relationships, six women said they had no opinion either way, and two women thought that thinking about another person in their relationship was cheating even if it was a celebrity. This also sparked a lively debate in the comments of my poll. The consensus from these women (the ones that voted yes) was that the idea of a “hall pass” with their significant other was a joke because (as I stated above), in what world would that happen?

The poll I posted in my GirlTalk group.

I believe in looking but not fantasizing because, as mentioned by Christen in our Podcast, in real-world Texas, it is unlikely that we would run across our fantasy crushes in real life. It’s a nice daydream though. Honestly, if I ran into a celebrity on the street, I wouldn’t even recognize them unless I was actively looking for celebrities. While we are talking about it, though, my celebrity crush will always be Leonardo DiCaprio from Romeo and Juliet, because I teach high school English. My students hear enough about him leading up to the reading of Shakespeare. Essentially, I like the idea of Leo (Romeo) at that moment in time from the 90’s Romeo and Juliet movie and probably not the real-life DiCaprio.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes

I want to hear from my readers. Please, tell me in the comments what you think of the “celebrity hall pass” idea. Also, tell me your celebrity crushes!

Monday, December 20, 2021

Celebrity Hall Pass

Since we’ve been talking so much about the holidays and planning for 2022, I thought it might be fun to change things up a bit with a fun little discussion about celebrities…specifically celebrity crushes.

A long while back, I was watching an episode of “This is Us” (I love that show!), when one of the characters, Kevin, went on a fun and adventurous date only to find out that he was his date’s “Celebrity Hall Pass.” Kevin had never heard of that phrase, and neither had I, but we both knew what it was...it’s the one celebrity that your spouse or significant other will give you a “pass” to date or sleep with if the opportunity ever arises. 

Shocking as that may sound to some people, it actually is a real thing, and no, I am not condoning extramarital dalliances with your celebrity crush. In fact (spoiler alert), Kevin’s date comes clean and admits she can’t go through with it, and I feel like that’s probably the case with most people who have celebrity crushes. I know it is for me.

For the podcast this week, we’ll be talking more about celebrity crushes and whether we think a “Hall Pass” is good, bad, or irrelevant. I’ll also be revealing who I would choose for my “Hall Pass”. Tell us yours, or join in the discussion in the comments below, or in the Facebook Group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/281022473463978

Thanks for reading,


Saturday, December 18, 2021

Secret Santa Stocking Stuffers

Hey, it’s Cindy again, and I’m here to wrap up our talk about holiday traditions. I think we’ve already established that I like Christmas...a lot. I love giving gifts, something I got from my Dad, who was always giving surprise gifts to my mom. I think he really loved the part of Santa --  those secret gifts stuffed into stockings and piled up under the tree to be discovered on Christmas morning. It’s one of the reasons he was still leaving things for my sister and me long after we were grown and had children of our own. 

One of the things I loved was that there was usually a Santa gift for my mom, too. It wasn’t necessarily something big, just a token of his affection stuffed in her stocking or stacked neatly where she’d be sure to find it. I carried on that tradition with my own family, filling their stockings every year, even after the kids were grown and there was no reason to be secretive about any of it. But one thing always bothered me -- I loved the giving, but I missed being surprised. 

A few years ago, at a board meeting with my Aggie Moms group (that’s a whole podcast of its own!), the president asked us to share a fun Christmas tradition. So as we went around the table, one of the other moms told us how her family had an unusual gift-giving routine. Someone in the family would pick a store and everyone in the family had to buy a gift from that store. The store changed every year, and sometimes it could be a real challenge because it might be a unique specialty store, or even a gas station!

This sounded like great fun, and wound up being the perfect solution to my stocking surprise dilemma. I told my family about my idea, and we all agreed to give it a try. For that first year, we agreed to Dollar Tree as our store, and the challenge was for everyone in the family to buy one gift for each person in the family (we didn’t have any kids then). There was no price limit because...well, it was Dollar Tree. On Christmas Eve, we all stuffed each other’s stockings before we went to bed, and then we sat around the breakfast table the next morning, exploring what we got. We had a lot of great laughs and wound up with some fun little goodies that we might never have bought for each other or ourselves. After that, it was a tradition.

Over the years, we’ve shopped at Always 99¢, Daiso, Five Below, Dollar Tree (again), and others. Sometimes it’s easy to find gifts, and sometimes it’s a real challenge, but it’s always fun, and everyone looks forward to both giving and receiving the fun little trinkets we find. Notably, it never fails that someone buys me something with a llama on it, and I always find something for one of the girls that has a mermaid. Now if only I can remember what store we picked for this year….

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Christen's Favorite Holiday Tradition

Back a couple weeks ago I was talking about my December bucket list, and some of the holiday traditions that I love. One of the newer traditions that I have stated recently is really just an old tradition that has evolved over the years, and it’s one that I seem to look forward to the most. It has kind of formed its own bucket list of sorts. Mom and I have been compiling a list of Christmas themed movies over the past couple of years, and we select certain ones we want to watch; we literally take a vote each year and plan movie nights together. Please tell me other families are as neurotic as mine? So far we have watched the traditional movies everyone knows and remembers as well as some not-so traditional holiday movies. The debate is still up about some of them like Diehard and So I Married an Axe Murderer. In addition to those holiday movies, there has been a binge fest of Terminator, Harry Potter, and Star Wars. This  year I am thinking Marvel is a good idea, as my mom hasn't even seen Aquaman yet!

This nonsense all started with those old Christmas movies that I grew up watching, like the stop motion The Year Without a Santa Claus or the animation Frosty the Snowman, both of which were produced by Rankin/Bass Productions. Anyone my age can recall watching these films growing up. They originally aired on TV, and still do if you keep an eye out for them. We even watched them in school countless times.

As I got older, I wanted to watch more and more of the holiday films and I discovered Hallmark one lazy afternoon. My best friend and I sat at her mom's house one day from morning till night watching back to back movies. The three of us snuggled up on the couch just lazing the day away, each dozing off into tiny naps. I have to have my snuggle days in the winter time, I guess the combination of the weather and warm drinks and food that just make me want to hibernate. What’s more enjoyable than cuddling up on the weekend and watching some cheesy holiday movies? Once I discovered the ridiculousness of Hallmark Christmas movies I was hooked! 

I try to watch as many Christmas themed movies as humanly possible during the holiday season. It does take some planning if you need to include the kids or want to have a holiday watch party. If you are flying solo, Hallmark takes the guesswork out of it. There is basically a new movie every two hours all day every day. If you have a DVR you can record the ones you miss while at work. If you ditched cable or can’t seem to get in sync with the network channel and you need your movie fix ASAP, Netflix has been really pulling out the stops for their holiday movies. Last year, we enjoyed Klaus, Jingle Jangle and Christmas Chronicles 2 as a family. I also enjoyed watching all of the Princess Switch movies. If you have children in your watch party, I recommend spending about 10 minutes on Netflix adding all the holiday movies to the watch list on the kids profile. This will keep the movies streaming for hours. I especially like to have these on while I am doing my holiday baking, because I have seen them all a thousand times and don’t have to be 100 % engaged. I can sit down, watch a few minutes of Home Alone in between cookie batches while I rest my feet.

This year, I am also excited to bring out all of the old Christmas classics from the 70’s that my husband and I enjoyed growing up that I mentioned earlier. My mom recently cleaned out her movie collection and gave us all of the VHS tapes, and she had all those favorites. We plan on blowing the dust off of the VHS player soon and popping those babies in for some throwbacks!  If you are interested in looking up the old animated films that we all loved to watch growing up, here is a great list of holiday themed movies; just scroll down to the 'Television Specials' graph and you will see all your favorites and more. 

What is your favorite holiday movie? Do you think Die Hard is a Christmas movie? Let me know of any little gems that aren't as mainstream because I have the desire to watch them all and want to add them to my Ultimate Holiday Movie List – Coming soon!

Monday, December 13, 2021

Traditions: Cookies and a Smile

When I think of traditions I think of consistency. I think of something that you can rely on every year that does not change. As I’ve talked about before in an earlier blog, I am still exploring holiday traditions as a newly solitary orphan (meaning I live alone) and I spend the holidays in different places exploring what I want to do in my life. Before all of that, my family life was pretty traditional as I’ve stated before. One tradition that has been passed down generations in my family is holiday baking.

I love to bake. I started baking with my grandma when I was a little kid, and then with my mom as I got older. Every holiday, especially Christmas, my mom and I had a cookie day in the kitchen. We made other items such as candy and pies, but cookies were our big thing. My mom had a list of extended family and friends that we would bake for. The list included her best friends, coworkers, and distant cousins. We would bake shortbread, dip Oreos in chocolate, make caramel corn, and yogurt-covered pretzels. We then filled tin after tin and wrapped/labeled them. That weekend (usually the weekend before Christmas), we would have a “Santa day” as my mom would call it, and we would fill our car full of baked goods and drive around town and drop them off. 

My favorite person to visit was my mom’s old boss and his wife, Jack, and Liz. Their house was a magical, enchanted house full of musical instruments and music boxes because Liz was a former music teacher. Jack was a former owner of a restaurant and my mom was his manager when I was really little. My mom and Jack would talk and I would turn on every one of Liz’s music boxes while Liz played me songs on the piano. We did this every year until Jack passed away when I was in middle school and Liz went to live with their son out of state. 

Over the years, as life gets busy, my mom started a new career and slowed down on holiday baking. However, in high school, I picked it up when my grandma taught me how to make cake cookies. Cake cookies are not traditional cookies. They are done by using cake mix instead of cookie batter, oil, and eggs. When they are cooked, they have a fluffy, cake-like consistency that is appealing. Smaller than a muffin top but larger than a traditional cookie. My grandmother traditionally used the strawberry batter to make strawberry cookies because those were her favorite.

As I grew older, I began to experiment with different combinations of cake batter, toppings, and colors such as lemon cake with vanilla chips and red velvet cake and sprinkles. For events and holidays, I typically like to use this method to make cookies in bulk because I can knock out 200-300 cookies in a weekend and begin to package them up to distribute. It is a process that I have been doing for years. I make a lot of different flavor combinations and distribute them between different containers of various different sizes. Who do I give these cookies to? Everyone, of course!

Since I am a teacher, I make a small container for each of my bosses and coworkers. I make a large container for my classes (one cookie per student). Then, I make medium containers for my friends and extended family that I don’t individually buy gifts for. When it’s all said and done, I typically make around 300 cake cookies every Christmas for friends and family.

Why cake cookies and not more traditional cookies? They are a great time saver when it comes to making cookies because it typically only takes eight minutes to make a batch. Also, they are not cookies that you can typically go to a store and buy unless you know a baker that makes cake cookies. Since I have been making these for years, my friends, family, and coworkers expect me to bring them a container of cookies or bring them to family dinners. If I don’t bring them, I get asked, “where are the cookies?”

The recipe is simple enough to make:

Print Recipe Here:

*I typically don’t measure add-ins. I just put what I think looks good but this is for those that need a measurement.

My Favorite flavor combinations (they are endless):

  • Red Velvet + vanilla chips
  • Red Velvet + chocolate chips
  • Lemon + vanilla chips
  • Strawberry + sprinkles
  • Strawberry + vanilla chips
  • Classic butter + peanut butter
  • Classic butter + butterscotch chips
  • Fudge + sprinkles
  • Fudge + chocolate chips
  • German Chocolate + German Chocolate Frosting

This past Thanksgiving, I whipped up a batch to take to dinner with my boyfriend’s family and they were well received. Jason told me when I brought them over that he didn’t think he’d ever had a cake mix cookie. So, I was able to share my family tradition with his family this year and introduce them to the love of cake mix cookies. That is what holiday traditions are all about.

Jason and I at Thanksgiving

Saturday, December 11, 2021

A Sugar-Free Twist on a Classic Cookie

In our podcast this week we talked about sugar-free recipes for the holidays. This is a subject that hits close to home in numerous ways. When I was in middle school, my dad was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes and when I was in high school, my mom was diagnosed as well. For most of my life, I tried to remain conscious of that fact. My family does not have the best genetics. We have a lot of health problems, but I’ve always considered myself lucky that I don’t have many health problems. The doctors always told me that it wasn’t a matter of if I have diabetes, but a matter of when. I don’t believe that to be true. I may not be able to stump genetics forever, but I can slow down the inevitable outcome.

In high school, I actually stopped drinking sugary drinks and switched to sugar-free sweeteners. While I wasn’t gaining weight, I wasn’t losing weight either. In fact, sugar substitutes can sometimes do more harm than good if they are not consumed in moderation.

In general, I avoid sugar substitutes because I just can’t stand the taste. However, a couple of years ago, I started cutting the carbohydrates from my life, which included refined sugars. It’s hard to cut sweets if you have a sweet tooth like I do. So, I went on a mental and spiritual journey to find a great-tasting sugar substitute to appease my sweet tooth. In the end, I found Swerve.

My favorite candy is a Reese’s Cup. In fact, peanut butter is what I crave most. My ex-husband used to make the best three-ingredient peanut butter cookies, but they were incredibly high in sugar. Last year, I resolved to find a keto-friendly recipe so I could enjoy my favorite cookies while eating low-carb. I wanted something sweet(er) that I could eat that was more than just peanut butter out of the jar with semi-sweet dark chocolate chips mixed in. I found a keto twist on the classic peanut butter recipe on the blog The Big Man's World.

The cookies came out great! With all sugar-free sweeteners, the taste is not going to be exactly the same. I’ve found that Swerve does not taste as artificial to me as other sweeteners. The taste is very similar to real sugar. Check out the recipe conversions below.

Unfortunately, cutting sugar and trying to make it taste the same is not going to be an exact science. I am still working it out. Swerve has been a life-saver. I use the brand in most of my low-sugar recipes. It even tastes great in my tea! I took these cookies to a birthday party thrown by a friend on the keto diet and they were well-received. If you love peanut butter as much as I do and you want a cookie or two, don’t feel guilty about this recipe.

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Let me know what you think in the comments below if you’ve tried this recipe. Also, if you have any sugar-free recipes to share, e-mail us at info@modernmusings.net.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Sugar-Free Baking: Converting a Family Favorite

If there’s anything I’ve learned about trying new recipes, it’s that it is always a good idea to have a backup plan. Especially when you are experimenting with sugar-free baking. Especially when I am the one doing the baking. Because I can never be satisfied with just finding some tried-and-true sugar-free recipe...I have this insane desire to make all the recipes I love into a sugar-free version. And sometimes it just doesn’t work.

I remember well the early days of sugar-free baking. My younger sister, Patsy, was a Type 1 diabetic and dependent on insulin. This was back in the days when we called it “Juvenile Diabetes”, and doctors thought the main difference was the age at which you developed it. It was a lot harder to control back then, and there weren’t a lot of options for diabetics with a sweet tooth. Almost everything had a chemical aftertaste, and it was always either way too sweet, or not sweet enough. I almost gag every time I think about that pie my mom made one time using a can of sugar-free pineapple pie filling. It was so gross.

These days, there are lots of sugar-free products out on the market, and you can find hundreds of recipes on the internet, but so many of them still lack that special “umph” that a well-seasoned family recipe brings to the table. Store-bought sweets are dull by comparison, and when you’ve enjoyed every Christmas eating a big pile of cinnamon oatmeal cookies, well...Voortman’s brand of hard, dry, oatmeal wafers just don’t cut it.

It wasn’t long after I found out I, too, was diabetic, that I started playing with my family recipes in hopes that I could still eat them. I’ve dabbled with quite a few, and some have turned out much better than others.  Take, for instance, the age-old “Jell-o Cake” that I’ve been trying to perfect. It’s never just a matter of swapping sugar for artificial sugar...sometimes it changes the recipe completely. A sugar-free apple pie will wind up too watery because the artificial sweetener doesn’t caramelize while it bakes, and a sugar-free glaze on top of a cake will turn back into crystals when it cools, rather than stay moist and syrupy. So you have to have a bit of knowledge about the chemistry of baking before you begin, and backup options are always a good plan.

And that’s exactly where we’re going with today’s blog post. So, I had a plan to remake my mom’s moist and delicious Jell-O cake using sugar-free Jell-O and the newly discovered, Duncan Hines Keto Yellow Cake Mix. It sounded like it would be easy. The original recipe called for “any” yellow cake mix, combined with the ingredients listed on the box, plus one small box of Jell-O, one extra egg, and an extra ⅓ cup of cooking oil. A sugar-free/Keto version should work pretty much the same, right? Not so much.

If you want to see all my mistakes, and the numerous variations I’ve tried when I made this recipe, head on over to our YouTube channel, but for the sake of brevity, let’s just say there were way too many variables, but I did finally figure it out. In the mean time I had to come up with a backup plan….

Since I promised a sugar-free recipe for the holidays, I thought I’d take a step back and talk about a really yummy sugar-free dessert I made for another holiday...Easter. One of our favorite desserts at Easter has always been my mom’s Banana Pudding, and I never dreamed I would be able to make it sugar-free because it contains a key ingredient that is absolutely not sugar-free -- Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk. It’s nothing but milk and sugar, right? And I have never seen a sugar-free version of it in any store, so I just assumed it couldn’t be done. That is until I ran across this recipe from Arman Liew at The Big Man’s World. This simple recipe has changed my sugar-free baking forever and has allowed me to cook up many of our family favorites without the worry of too much sugar or carbs. It uses just 3 ingredients and has only 1 net gram of carbs per serving. We’ve tried it with ice cream recipes, Magic Cookie Bar recipes, and, of course, Mom’s delicious banana pudding. 

The first time I made this recipe, I had to swap out several ingredients to keep it sugar-free, but they were easy swaps, and did not affect the flavor or consistency of the dessert, so it worked very well for our needs. However, once I sat down to write this blog, I found that one of the key ingredients, Murray brand Sugar-free Nilla Wafers, was no longer available for purchase. There are some sugar-free and/or Keto Nilla Wafers on the market, but I haven’t tried them yet, so I cannot make a recommendation. I also found this simple-looking recipe for homemade Keto Vanilla Wafers that looks like it might be worth trying. In the meantime, if you’re okay with a little sugar (less than 10g per ½ cup serving), you could make the recipe as written above and use the regular Nilla wafers. You could even substitute another type of sugar-free cookie or skip the wafers altogether…the cookies were never my favorite part anyway….

But conquering the sugar in a recipe isn’t the end-all of making our family desserts healthy. A more thorough examination of the nutrition facts revealed that it still wasn’t quite as low-carb as I thought it would be. And that’s one of the hard facts about sugar-free baking -- just because it’s sugar-free, doesn’t mean it’s low carb or even healthy at all. When made to Mom’s specs, I estimate that a ½ cup serving contains about 7g fat, 26g carbs, 195 calories, and almost 3g protein, but when I made it sugar-free, I wound up with 13g fat, 13g carbs, 188 calories, and less than 1g protein. Yes, it was ½ the carbs, but it was still almost the same calories and it had twice the fat. The extra fat came from the homemade condensed milk, and, unfortunately, after the condensed milk, the banana itself was the biggest contributor to the calories and carbs, and what would banana pudding be without the bananas? 

At any rate, I’ve included the recipe below. Make it sugar-free, make it fat free, make it the normal way, I think it will still be delicious no matter what you do. Just keep in mind that often when you swap out sugar, something else, like fats are added to make it still taste good, and it’s best to keep a close eye on the nutrition facts before you decide to chow down on the whole bowl. 

So the point of all this is to say, sometimes cooking sugar-free is an easy swap that tastes great, and sometimes, it’s more trouble than it’s worth. I will say it was totally worth making the sugar-free version of Mom’s pudding because it was delicious and in the process I discovered the Keto condensed milk recipe, which has made it possible to bake a lot of other things. So my advice is to give experimentation a try. Calculate the time, the expense, the carbs and all the other details to see if it’s worth it and go for it! You never know whether you’ve found the next great family recipe until you try it. And if not, well, hopefully, you made that backup plan….

And now, without further ado, here is Mimi’s Banana Pudding (the almost sugar free version), and I hope you enjoy it as much as we do!

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* For the record, I do not know the origin of this recipe. My mom got it from my Aunt Dena, who has long since passed, and we have no idea where she got it from. If you know the original source of this recipe, please send an email with links so I can give credit where credit is due!


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