Mary Beth Lagerborg, co-creator of Once-A-Month-Cooking, discusses the importance of hospitality and how families can prioritize dinner time by cooking a month's worth of healthy meals in one session.
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John Fuller: What's for dinner? Well, those words bring dread to my wife and it might be something that you hear a lot in your home. If so, we have some help for you and this is "Focus on the Family" with Focus president, Jim Daly. I'm John Fuller and Jim, sometimes on television commercials or even the programs themselves, you know, we see mom cooking the evening meal. And even though many mothers enjoy preparing meals for their families, things are busy and that image could be rather stereotypical.
Jim Daly: Yeah, you know, John, every parent, especially moms, I think, they want dinner to be fun, to be a time for the family to relax, but they just don't know how to get there. That's true. Jean is, in our home, she's so busy most of the time and we're rushing to get to dinner. But we have carved out the dinner time as the time. We'll spend a good hour--
Jim: --together with our two young boys and we'll talk about things during the day. And we'll get into that a little later. But we are so glad to have someone who is an expert in this area and John, I want you to introduce her.
John: Okay, our guest is Mary Beth Lagerborg and she's the author of the book, Once-A-Month Cooking Family Favorites. Now she's been a guest on numerous media outlets, including this broadcast, as well as Martha Stewart's "Morning Living" radio to talk about this approach toward getting a handle on the cooking chores in the home. And Mary Beth lives just up the road here from Focus on the Family in Littleton, Colorado with her husband Alex and they have three grown sons. And we're very glad to have you with us, Mary Beth.
Mary Beth Lagerborg: I'm delighted to be here.
John: I have fond memories of dinner-time conversations and fun at our house, but I think you're right. There's a lot of angst about uh--
Jim: Oh, yeah.
John: --gettin' there, isn't there?
Jim: Hey, there is, John. And Mary Beth, before we talk about cooking, let's talk about why we cook.
Mary Beth: Sure.
Jim: Food, it's interesting that God wired us the way He did, isn't it? That He created hunger in us so that we have this need to get together, cooperate and to eat, hopefully together.
Mary Beth: Yes and then food is so often associated with people gathering together, whether it's a family meal or you want to get together with a friend, so you go out to coffee, you go out for dinner, you have them into your home. It's just a real connecting place, as well as something we have to do regularly.
Jim: Mow you started many years ago with this concept of once-a-month cooking, which for those of you who are not familiar with it, that means one day, you cook 30 meals or more.
Mary Beth: Well, or more or less (Laughter), because some people don't want to cook the whole 30.
Jim: Yeah, some would be--
Mary Beth: But--
Mary Beth: --you could cook two weeks' worth.
Mary Beth: You could cook a week's worth. But the point is, that you're preparing several entrees at once and freezing them to save your time then on several days ahead in the late afternoon.
Jim: Now your co-author, Mimi Wilson, who couldn't be with us today, how did you get started? Where did you get the idea? (Laughter) Were you guys just frantic about this? How were you talking about--
Mary Beth: No--
Jim: --the problem?
Mary Beth: --Mimi and I have been good friends for many years. We've been doing some freelance writing together in the early '80s. We each had three young children. Mimi has a gift for hospitality and I can't overstate that. But she called me one day and she said, "I just prepared 30 entrees and [have] frozen them. Would you like to call The Denver Post and see if they want an article? And I thought she was crazy. I really did. (Laughter) I said, "Mimi, why don't you call The Denver Post?" (Laughter) And she did and they sent a reporter and a photographer to her home to do a food feature on what we called "the method." And that got us started, because it was publicized and then people would call her to learn how to do it. And so, we eventually wrote it up and one thing led to another.
Jim: Wow! And so, what is the benefit of once-a-month cooking?
Mary Beth: The benefit is to use the time and make the mess and prepare several entrees at once.
Mary Beth: And then, your time is freed up in the late afternoon for several days after that to car pool the kids or do any number of things. In fact, Mimi called me this week. She's now in Kigali, Rwanda and it was a thrill to get a phone call from her before this. I said, "Mimi, what do I need to be sure to say?" (Laughter) And she said, "From the vantage point of many years into this, I'm so thankful for all the time that we had around the table and also all the time that I saved to do so many other things--
Mary Beth: --instead of cooking from scratch every day."
Jim: Have you ever looked at that comparison, if you look at the traditional way of, a meal is prepared over a month for 30 days, how many hours go into that, the prep--
Jim: --the shopping for it? And then when you do it all in one day or maybe two days, how much time do you really save?
Mary Beth: You know, we have never done that and it would vary a lot from person to person. However, I think as well as the time saving, there's the stress saving. I mean, you were saying John, that terrible nagging, what are we gonna have for dinner? You know, to do away with that, so that you can get up in the morning. You decide what you're gonna thaw. You prepare something to go with it and it's such a stress saver. So, it's time, plus the stress and actually, plus the money, because you can save a lot of money buying in quantity and preparing that way.
John: And Jim, I would think if it were me cooking, it would save hundreds of hours, because I'm just so inefficient in the kitchen.
Jim: Freezing hot dogs (Laughter), is that what you're talking about? (Laughter) You cook a hot dog, freeze it.
John: Yeah, totally. (Laughter)
Jim: You might be a good cook, John. I don't know.
John: You'll never know, I guess.
Jim: That's right. Mary Beth, when you look at that, of course, you have the cost savings, You're "efficient," is the word that comes to my mind.
Mary Beth: Right.
Jim: You just become efficient, so would a person--a man or a woman or a couple--do this on a Saturday? Do you just pull together and say. "Okay, today is cooking day."
Mary Beth: Oh, boy, they can do it whenever it works, but it's really important to carve out that time on the schedule, because it's easy to not face it and have it go by. Of course, once you purchase the food, you need to get on with it and do it. But it's important to look ahead and carve out whatever time works on the calendar. And I think it's interesting you mentioned a husband and wife. It's a great thing to do with a spouse, with a friend, with a child. It's good to have a companion. It goes a lot quicker. You have someone to talk to. It just flows better when you're doing it with someone.
Jim: Describe it for us so we can get our hands around it.
Mary Beth: Sure.
Jim: What would it look like typically? You go shopping. You're getting a lot of bulk items.
Mary Beth: You're getting a lot of bulk items. You would not shop on the same day. That's an energy issue and time. You would shop the day before or the evening before. If you do use the book, Once-A-Month Cooking Family Favorites, there's a well-prepared shopping list--
Mary Beth: --for you. And you would choose which menu from there you wanted to use. You'd do your shopping and then, the next day, there's an assembly order that takes you step by step. You don't have to be well-organized to do this. And you also don't have to be a good cook, because we'll take you by the hand and say, "Okay, do this and then this and then this." And the secret of it is, that you're gonna be doing all similar processes at once. You're gonna brown the ground beef all at once. You're going to do a lot of cooking the chicken and dicing it at the same time. You're gonna chop all those onions at once. And if you think about it, how many times do you do that sort of thing over a course of a month? You're gonna get that over with at once.
And then you assemble the dishes one after another after another, the chicken dishes one after another, the beef dishes. There will be some meatless dishes and label 'em and put 'em in your freezer.
John: Now these are entrees only?
Mary Beth: Yes, these are the entrees only and our thought is, that if you do that, if you have the entree ready, which is the bulk of the work--
Mary Beth: --then you have a little more time to maybe do a fresh vegetable. Perhaps you want to do a dessert, bake some bread, make a salad, but you have a little more time for that.
Jim: Mary Beth, as you have done this for many years now, I would think, especially with a two-income family, that this methodology is extremely helpful for them, because it does allow them more time around the table, takes the stress out. Mom or Dad can actually relax and be with the family and not be preoccupied.
Mary Beth: Absolutely, absolutely and also, it's easy for someone, maybe even a little older child, to take whatever it is out of the freezer and have it ready when Mom and Dad get home from work. But the point is, to gather the family for some significant time together for dinner.
Mary Beth: I mean, that's the bottom line there. And so, for a working couple, that'd be very helpful.
John: And Jim, that's something that we're really encouraging families to do here at Focus on the Family, as part of our Make Every Day Count campaign. Of the five things that we recommend you do as a family, every day to really make an impact on your family dynamic and improve your family relationships, having dinner together is one of 'em. That's something that a lot of families have just sort of let slide away.
Jim: Oh, John, they really have and it's something we need to put an exclamation point on, because so many people write to Focus on the Family saying, "My family seems to be falling apart. What can I do?" And there's no silver bullet, we know that, but one of the things research is telling us and has shown is, that when you eat together, children particularly are at far less risk for dangerous behavior--getting involved with drugs and alcohol and--
Jim: --other things that will really cripple their development. It seems that closeness at the dinner table brings kids particularly, into a relationship with their parents where they can talk about the issues of the day and it allows the parent to really mentor the child and help them in their behavioral development. I'm sure it's not the cheeseburgers or the pizza or whatever you're eating. It's the conversation and--
Jim: --the closeness. And it is fascinating research, John. And if there's one thing you can do to minimize those at-risk behaviors for your kids, it's eat dinner together four or five times a week. You'll be amazed at the closeness that, that develops in your family. And today, we're talking with Mary Beth, of course, about how to make that simple with once-a-month cooking. Mary Beth, if you're preparing 30 meals for a month, that's a lot of cooking. How many hours would you put into getting 30 meals prepared?
Mary Beth: I would put probably eight hours. I would put the whole day into it, but those are 30 entrees, 30 meals and it will be, if you space it out over the month, you're still gonna save a lot of time.
Mary Beth: But it's important to plan on it taking the whole day, so you're not frustrated by it. Because you could be in the middle of something and if you've committed to run a car pool or something and have to stop and start again, that's difficult. So, it's important to commit the whole day. Of course, it'd be less if you're cooking a couple of weeks' worth rather than--
Mary Beth: --the whole month.
Jim: You mentioned to me that you wish you had your kids' involvement back when you began this. Your kids grew up, I'm sure, pretty quickly, but you would encourage people to involve their kids, probably 10-, 11-year-olds.
Mary Beth: I would. We have three sons. They're adults now, but I was the sort of mom who wanted to keep those boys out of the kitchen (Laughter), so that I could get the work done. And I regret that now. And two of the three now enjoy cooking and I wish that they had taken that on earlier and come into their married lives with some more cooking skills. And there's also the relational component of doing the actual cooking with someone. And I think that would've been beneficial time with--
Jim and John: Hm.
Mary Beth: --maybe one of them at a time. I'm not sure I would've had all three of them come in.
Jim: What about that John? (Laughter)
Mary Beth: Yeah.
John: Well, my kids are in the kitchen all the time. If they're not making something for the family, they're more likely just getting a snack or taking care of an immediate need that they have. You make pancakes for your boys with some frequency on Saturdays.
Jim: Just about every Saturday morning.
John: Do you invite them into that process? Or do you just make it for them, because you know, it's just easier?
Jim: Yeah, it's kind of a mixed thing. Sometimes we'll do it together, but that's becoming rarer and rarer. (Laughing) So, it's just easier for me to go in and whip it up. And you know, we're not crackin' eggs. This is kind of like--
Jim: --[a] quick kind of pancake batter.
John: And no recipe and stuff, yeah.
Jim: And that usually ends up all over the counter (Laughing), so after a few of those episodes, I thought, "Rather than that happening, why don't you sit over there and you take the lid off the syrup?" (Laughter)
John: Without spilling it all over. (Laughter)
Jim: Exactly. (Laughter)
John: So, you're talkin' about somethin' that I care about, Mary Beth. I don't want involvement alongside me that's gonna cause a mess and slow me down.
Mary Beth: Yeah, yeah.
John: I'm not terribly proficient in the kitchen, and so, I'm tryin' to follow the directions and a smaller child asking me questions while I'm tryin' to figure out, now is a teaspoon the same as a tablespoon or what? So, speak (Laughter) to the person who is not particularly confident about their kitchen skills and talk to some of those barriers--kids, a lack of confidence. What can they do here?
Mary Beth: Well, one thing to do is, to do it with a friend, because you can raise your confidence level and also not take yourself too seriously, (Laughing), I think and have fun with it. You might not want to do it with a young child the first time out of the chute with this method (Laughter), if you're not very confident about it.
Jim: Could be some conflict there.
Mary Beth: Well, yeah and a lot of frustration, but maybe a second or third time.
John: After you get it down.
Mary Beth: And I don't think I would tackle the whole months' worth if I was doing it with a child. I think maybe a week's worth or two weeks, kind of hone it down a little bit.
Mary Beth: And I think, too, that you can't get discouraged with the process. Going back to the importance of that regular meal time together, we all know that not every night is golden. I mean, we all have dinners that just fall apart. There's an argument or nobody likes what you've prepared or everybody's in a bad mood. And you can't let those times get you down, because the thing is, if you're intentional about the importance of a regular dinner time, over the course of time, it's gonna be a positive.
John and Jim: Hm.
Mary Beth: It's gonna be important.
Jim: Talk about some of the meals that you would prepare, because obviously, as an eater of those meals (Laughter), I don't know about you, John--
Jim: --but how's the quality and what would you make?
Mary Beth: Oh, in once-a-month cooking?
Mary Beth: Well, first of all, we do not do only casseroles. I think (Laughter) people could have that misconception and my family would not just eat casseroles. So, there's a lot of variety. We have a beef pot roast. We have Texas lasagna, chicken packets. That's a real popular one with kids. We have a marinated flank steak. Each cycle has an egg casserole that could be a Sunday morning breakfast or brunch kind of thing. There's just a wide variety of dishes, Asian dishes, Mexican.
Jim: So, you don't have to -give up your palate to do this.
Mary Beth: Oh, no, not at all. We really have worked on getting a wide variety of recipes in these books, but also ones that a family would eat. Because there's no sense buying this quantity of food and then not having a family perhaps with some picky eaters, someone--
Mary Beth: --who does not like it.
Jim: Yeah. Mary Beth, I'm thinking also of perhaps even a single mom or a single dad and maybe they're stretched financially. Is it hard to do this if you don't have a little bit extra?
Mary Beth: Well, you do--
Jim: Can you get it done?
Mary Beth: --you do need to plan for that cooking day, because you're going to be spending a good portion of your grocery money at one time--
Mary Beth: --to buy the food for the entrees. There'd be very little waste to it. You're gonna save money by not having to resort to eating out, getting fast food--
Mary Beth: --ordering in pizza. All those events are more expensive.
Mary Beth: So, you are going to save money. It takes a little planning up front to have a little extra set aside in one lump to do your cooking.
Jim: Right, so again, you could start smaller, start with a week or two weeks--
Mary Beth: Right.
Jim: --before you get to a month.
John: And I'm wondering if you need to go out and buy a deep freeze for all this. I mean, it sounds like I'm gonna come home with, well, we have a lot of kids, so I'm gonna come home with you know, five or six chickens and a bunch, you know, a bunch of ground beef. Where am I gonna put all this?
Mary Beth: Well, I have never had a big freezer myself, never. And you can do it with just your refrigerator freezer, if you clean it out before your cooking day--
John: All right.
Mary Beth: --if you throw away those hard little knots of things that you threw in there and neglected.
John: Yeah, the ice cream and all that stuff.
Mary Beth: You don't have room for ice cream and all at first, but over the course of the month as you're using up the entrees, you do. I have an old, what was our old refrigerator-freezer combination in our laundry room.
Mary Beth: So, I will use that, but it is possible.
Jim: You don't need a deep freeze.
Mary Beth: You don't need a deep freeze, no. And you know, it's because a lot of the packaging is done in freezer bags as well, that you can smash flat and put on the door and that sort of thing.
Jim and John: Hm.
John: We're hearing some great advice from Mary Beth Lagerborg, the author, co-author actually with Mimi Wilson of the book, Once-A-Month Cooking Family Favorites. And I'm intrigued, Jim, by this whole concept here. This is something, as we said earlier, that Focus on the Family has a real interest in, as we try to promote the sense of family's having dinner together. This seems like a great tool to be able to lean on, so you can be prepared for having a meaningful dinner time together.
Jim: Well, and John, good ideas don't grow old and this is something, Mary Beth, we had you here at Focus on the Family back in the early '90s to talk about this concept. And I think thousands of people have taken advantage of this and have especially when you have kids at home. I mean, obviously, that's a time when time pressure is especially tense. So, to be able to cook your meals all in one day for a month is a very good way to save your time and to be able to spend it in a way that you want to.
Mary Beth: Mimi and I have been delighted to see how many different applications there are for this, as well. For example, if you are doing once-a-month-cooking and you have an elderly parent, you could package a portion of each of the dishes and take it to that parent's home and have it in the freezer.
Mary Beth: You have meals on hand to give to people--
Mary Beth: --friends or family who are in need. It's an easy thing to provide a meal.
Jim: Mary Beth, let me also ask you a question about people with special diets.
Jim: You know, our country, there seems to be a lot of dietary needs for different reasons we have restrictions--diabetes, other kinds of things. Do people that have special dietary needs, is this still an easy approach for them?
Mary Beth: What we've found is, that it works very well for a family where perhaps one family member has a special dietary need, so that you're not preparing two different meals at the same time every evening. For example, you would do once-a-month cooking for the rest of the family if you will. And then it's a much easier thing to prepare for the person on the special diet.
And in the book, Once-A-Month Cooking Family Favorites, we do have one two-week cycle that's entire gluten-free recipes--
Jim: Oh, great.
Mary Beth: --because that was the greatest request that we had for a specialty menu-would be gluten-free.
Jim: Now I'm kind of down to the practicality, so Jean and I, maybe we've spent this day. We've had our boys helping us and we've chopped up all the chicken and we've cooked all the ground beef and we've mixed in the onions and done everything. And I guess in little small kinda Tupperware packets or--
Mary Beth: (Chuckling)
Jim: --Ziplocs? I don't even know what that looks like.
Mary Beth: Ziplocs.
Jim: But we've thrown it into the freezer very carefully.
Mary Beth: Yes.
Jim: (Laughing) And now it's frozen. Tell me what it's like [at] mealtime. I get home tonight. What am I gonna do with Jean? I'm gonna pull that out of the freezer? What happens next?
Mary Beth: Well, you're probably (Laughter) gonna pull it out this morning or somehow, you need to thaw it--
Jim: (Chuckling) Okay.
Mary Beth: --before you--
Jim: This is basic, John.
Mary Beth: --heat it up. Yeah. But you could have like the Texas lasagna. You could have that in the oven then this evening for probably 35 minutes and meanwhile, throw together a salad, perhaps a vegetable and you have dinner ready to go.
John: You throw a lot of salads together, don't you, Jim?
Jim: I can actually do that.
Jim: Yeah, you laugh--
John: Salads and pancakes.
Jim: --but can do that.
John: Okay. We're unpacking your portfolio of recipes and kitchen skills.
Jim: Now I'm thinking Jean and I often will have special occasions at the house or something like that. Do you have a whole section of special occasion meals to feed 10?
Mary Beth: We don't have (Laughter) a special section, but in each of the menu plans, there are some dishes that serve between 8 and 12 people--
Mary Beth: --because we just assume that people are either going to be having some company [or] if they're not, they can divide it in half and freeze it in two containers and do it that way. But we do allow for the eventuality or the hope--
Mary Beth: --that people will be having company.
Jim: Now with all of the hope that we've been giving people that this'll save you time; it'll save you money; it'll allow you more time with the family at the dinner table, what are the reasons that failure occurs here? Over the years that you've done this when women have written in to you or men saying, "I just couldn't stick with it," what would they say?
Mary Beth: They may try to do too much. It does take a lot of energy. If you think about it, cooking is a lot of standing on your feet at a counter and that can be exhausting. And sometimes people will think, they might do a month's worth, whereas, really their energy level would be to do one of the two-week plans. And so, they've gotten too tired and they think, "Oh, I don't have the energy to do that again." Or it's easy to let time slip away from us. It really is. And that's why I said at the beginning, it's important to get that time on the calendar to cook. You're always glad you've done that, but if you don't, it becomes difficult to take that slice of time--
Mary Beth: --and set it aside and do the cooking.
Jim: Mary Beth, another thing that I caught was the way that you use once-a-month cooking to teach your kids about hospitality. Tell us a bit about that, because I think every parent wants their children to learn that, to be gracious toward others and to express hospitality. But how does this help in that?
Mary Beth: You know, to me that is so important and I think that it's crucial to keep it on a level as simple as this; just the idea that a warm meal and good conversation are simple, valuable gifts that anybody enjoys.
Mary Beth: If you don't try to make it a big production, if you don't think the house has to be clean and the meal has to be just right. If I can tell you a little story, when our oldest son was living at home, he was going to school and on the weekends in the winter he taught snowboarding up in the mountains.
One Saturday morning early, he's going out the door to go up the mountains and I'm standing at the coffee pot in my bathrobe, having the first cup. And as he leaves, he says, "Oh, Mom, can I bring Joe, a skiing instructor, home for dinner tonight?" And I'm, "Oh, sure, no problem." As he goes out the door he says, "Oh, did I tell you, Joe used to be a chef" and the door slams.
John: Oh, my goodness. Oh. (Laughing)
Mary Beth: So, I'm standing there, having my coffee and I know that dinner that night is gonna be meat loaf, green beans and mashed potatoes and I was pretty proud. I don't make mashed potatoes very often. And suddenly, it didn't seem good enough. But I had a busy day. Oh, well! We're gonna have to go with this.
So, that evening, I hear the two of 'em come in the back door and this young man, Joe, who is single, probably in his 30s, he goes, (Sniff) "Wow! It smells like a family."
Jim: Oh, wow!
Mary Beth: It didn't matter what we're having for dinner.
Mary Beth: And I think that families, particularly with young children, need to remember that it's actually an asset to smell like a family, to sound like a family, to look like a family. Don't worry about gettin' it all perfect.
Mary Beth: Lots of people love being embraced in that "familiness." It's not perfect, but there's something to that that's special.
Jim: That's good. Mary Beth, that is so well said and I think I'm gonna try to go home tonight and say to Jean, "Let's try this. Let's give this a go, once-a-month cooking." And we're gonna pick up your book, Once-A-Month Cooking Family Favorites and apply it. So, if we get in trouble, can we just e-mail you or call you? (Laughter)
Mary Beth: Sure! (Laughter) I have had some of those calls (Laughing) over the years.
John: Do you make house calls, 'cause we're not that far away?
Mary Beth: For you, I would make a house call, yes.
Jim: And in fact, John, I think on the website are we gonna put a little cooking? We're gonna go do a little cooking right now.
John: That's the plan, Jim.
Jim: So, that's gonna be on the website, as well, we hope, if it comes out right. Is that right?
John: Uh-hm (Laughter). Yeah, it depends if you'd carry your weigh on this thing or not.
Jim: Oh, thank you. (Laughter) I can chop onions without crying.
John: Okay, I can't wait to see that.
Jim: But it's been great to have you with us, Mary Beth. Thank you so much and we'll look forward to having you back on, so we can tell you how good it was.
Mary Beth: Thank you. I look forward to it, too.
John: Well, what a fun conversation we had with Mary Beth Lagerborg as recorded a couple of years ago and we do have that video. You can find out how Jim chops onions and see some of Mary Beth's favorite family recipes, all at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
And we have Mary Beth's book, Once-A-Month Cooking Family Favorites, available here at Focus on the Family. It's full of delicious family-friendly recipes and three specialty areas of cooking--gourmet, summertime and gluten-free. And for your donation of any amount today, we'll send you a copy of Once-A-Month Cooking Family Favorites as our way of saying thanks for supporting the ministry efforts here of Focus on the Family. More details about the book, ways you can donate and that video of the Jim and John cooking show at www.focusonthefamiy.com/radio or call 1-800-232-6459; 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.
Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I'm John Fuller, inviting you back tomorrow, as we take a look at youth sports and how you can be more intentional as a parent.
Ms. Margot Starbuck: In the minivan on the way home, parents need to dial it back, not analyze the game. One of the best things you can say to your kids is, "I loved watching you play."
End of Excerpt
John: You'll hear practical tips on making the most of your relationship with your child in the midst of a busy sports season, next time on "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly.
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Mary Beth LagerborgView Bio
Mary Beth Lagerborg is a personal historian, writing personal, family or organizational memoirs for her clients. She served as the Director of Media for MOPS International and helped shape more than 70 books on mothering and parenting. Mary Beth herself as authored nine books including Turquoise Summer, Dwelling and In the Wee Hours. She and Mimi Williams are co-authors of the book Once-a-Month Cooking, and co-creators of the organization Once-a-Month Cooking, which offers resources to help families eat healthier and save time and money with meal planning. Mary Beth and her husband, Alex, reside in Colorado and have three grown sons.