Thursday, October 29, 2009

Here Comes the Sun..... (and Vitamin D!)

It’s sunny today and I spent some time outside working on my latest project – a Quarter Horse-Thoroughbred gelding named True who is 4 years old and “unbroken”. It’s been a lot of years since I’ve “broken” a horse. Broken is a horrible term, I’ve always hated it. Hopefully, I won’t be breaking True, I’ll be making him, but we shall see, huh? Anyway, 30 minutes spent teaching him the finer points of paying attention to me and respecting my personal space accomplishes two things. One, True is a tiny bit closer to allowing me to put a saddle on his back and two, I got my Vitamin D for the day.

Vitamin D has been all over the news lately. “New” scientific breakthroughs have revealed that there is much more at stake in our daily intake of Vitamin D. Are we getting enough? What happens if you are deficient? How do you get enough? What happens if you get too much?

Here’s the quick and dirty – Americans (probably most first-world nations) are spending more and more time inside. We are no longer farmers, but computer watchers. Most people’s work doesn’t allow them a whole lot of time outside their cubicle or classroom or factory. And when we are home we tend to spend a good part of our free time in front of computers, TV’s, and video games. Our yards are smaller and in some cases, not safe. When we do go outside, we are covered up with technically advanced clothing that blocks UVB rays and slathered in sunscreen (which prohibits our body from absorbing the sunshine necessary to make Vitamin D). Consequently, we aren’t getting our Vitamin D on a daily basis. And this includes kids. Huge numbers of people are Vitamin D deficient.

Let me back up, first of all what do we know about Vitamin D. You probably remember that milk is fortified with Vitamin D and it’s necessary to build strong bones. This process was developed years ago to prevent kids from getting rickets. A deficiency in Vitamin D can cause rickets in children and osteoporosis in adults. Vitamin D isn’t technically a vitamin because it’s produced in the human body. And it’s not found in any natural source except fish and egg yolks, and even then it requires the body to make it in to vitamin D. The body can also use sunshine to create vitamin D. It then stores the extra Vitamin D in the fat cells to use for, literally, a rainy day.

But how much do we need? The first government recommended allowances said 200IU of Vitamin D daily. In 1997, it was up to 400 for kids and 600 for adults. New research is indicating that we need even more, perhaps 800 or 1000. This research is also showing that Vitamin D is more essential than at first thought. Scientists believe that Vitamin D is critical to the brain, prostate, breast, colon, heart, lung, muscles and our immune cells. Much of this research has been around, but is only getting attention of late. The auto-immune “community” has been touting its benefits for years. Many people who suffer from Alopecia Areata (the autoimmune condition my youngest son has) buy “happy lights” to get more UVB light. Vitamin D is powerful, helping normal cells grow, but also helping abnormal ones (cancer cells come to mind) die. It has been proven to destroy infectious agents, such as TB.
People with low levels of Vitamin D are at a 30-50% increased risk of developing Hodgkin’s lymphoma, as well as prostate, ovarian, and breast cancer. They are at a higher risk for diabetes, cardio-vascular disease, schizophrenia, depression, and muscle weakness.

Does this news make you want to grab your beach towel? It should. Being a person of incredibly fair skin, I am also aware of the dangers of too much sun. I have the freckles to prove it. I’m fairly sure that Vitamin D is not one of my deficiencies. Actually, all you need to get your vitamin D is 5-10 minutes of direct sunlight between the hours of 10am and 3pm. So maybe your plan could be to put the sunscreen on after you’ve set up your chair and had your snack.

Here’s an interesting tidbit I found in my research this morning. If you live above 37 degrees north of the equator (draw a line from Philadelphia to San Francisco) or 37 degrees south of the equator, it’s not quite as easy to get your Vitamin D from the sunshine during the winter. The research didn’t say if you just need more time or if there isn’t enough sunshine altogether. That said, you can get Vitamin D from supplements and fortified products like milk and orange juice. Some doctors, who worry about skin cancers, recommend you do that, but be aware that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. While you can’t overdose on Vitamin D from the sun, you can from supplements resulting in grogginess, constipation, and even death. But you’d have to really work to get that much vitamin D in to you. Experts at Harvard say up to 2000IU a day is safe.

Vitamin D aside, I know that sunshine is a real pick-me-up for me and for my kids. Sometimes it’s tempting to stay inside, especially when it’s really hot, but 10 minutes won’t kill anyone, and it just might save your life.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Last year one of my children came home from a party with a large pumpkin painted sparingly on one side (he’s not one for arts and crafts). I waited the appropriate time for him to forget about the pumpkin and the party (about two weeks) and then washed the pumpkin and cooked it. Cooking a pumpkin is very simple. It’s a little more involved than blanching, but it’s the same basic premise.

Cut the pumpkin in to sections and remove the pulp and seeds (save for roasting). Place the pumpkin skin side up in a baking pan (or pans) filled with about one inch of water. Place in oven and cook at 375 for 45 minutes. When it is finished, the pumpkin just scoops right out of the shell. From there, puree the pumpkin in a food processor and freeze. I filled large yogurt containers with about 2 cups each because that’s how much my favorite pumpkin bread recipe calls for. That average size pumpkin my son brought home made 18 cups of pureed pumpkin and it didn’t cost me a thing. Our pumpkin pie was delicious at Thanksgiving and no one but I was the wiser. Why would you ever buy canned pumpkin? Fresh pumpkin tastes better, hands down. And it costs only a fraction of the price even if you have to buy one.

This year no one has come home with a painted pumpkin and we just might be beyond the age of birthday parties and painted pumpkins. Sad. Along with tomatoes, our pumpkins were a bust this year in the garden. They were attacked by squash bugs and I was so distracted by the tomato disaster and life in general that I didn’t realize it was happening. Next year…

The other great thing to do with pumpkins is make roasted pumpkin seeds. It’s a delicious, healthy snack. My daughter says she knows it’s fall when she gets pumpkin seeds in her lunch. She loves them. Roasting pumpkin seeds is simple. When you carve your pumpkin separate out the seeds as best you can. They will probably still have some pumpkin guts clinging to them. Don’t worry they will wash off or roast off and even if they don’t, they won’t hurt you. It’s generally recommended that you soak the seeds overnight.

The next day, spread the seeds out on a towel to dry. Most directions say spread them out on a paper towel, which you can do, but then you’ll be eating roasted pumpkin seeds with paper towel bits. Just use a towel and pat them dry. You can also use a colander, but this takes much longer and the seeds don’t really get very dry. They roast better if they are dry when you put them in the oven. Preheat the oven to 300. Spread the pumpkin seeds out on cookie sheets in a single layer. I like to spray them with olive oil so that the salt will cling to them. Salt them to taste. Bake for about 45 minutes depending on how crispy you want them and how big your seeds are. Easy, easy, easy. You should teach your kids to do this.

There are lots of recipes out there for flavored pumpkin seeds. My kids won’t let me try them because they don’t want me messing with their seeds, but I do envision a day when I will make the recipe that follows. If you’re kids are less possessive of their seeds and you get to try it, please let me know how it turns out!

Spicy Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

1 large egg white
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1¼ teaspoons celtic sea salt
1¼ teaspoons paprika
¾ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups pumpkin seeds

1. Heat oven to 300°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and coat with cooking spray.

2. Whisk egg white in a medium bowl until very foamy. Add sugar, salt, paprika, cayenne and cinnamon; whisk well. Stir in seeds to coat.

3. Lift them up with a slotted spoon, allowing them to drain, and spread in a single layer on baking sheet. Discard leftover liquid.

4. Roast seeds, tossing them several times until puffed and edged with brown, about 25 minutes.
5. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack to cool completely. Gently pry the seeds from the sheet and break up any large clumps into smaller shards. Seeds last two weeks in an airtight container.
Serves 8

A friend sent me the following link that allows you to cyber-carve a pumpkin. Very fun. Check it out:

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Are You Gluten Free?

Everywhere I go these days I see the words “gluten free”. I thought maybe it was just a crunchy-granola-people phrase, but I’ve been seeing it in lots of other places besides the natural foods store. And then this weekend I was testing out my new bread maker and decided to actually follow the recipe. I have a problem with following recipes and tend to free hand things. But since this machine seemed pretty different from my old one, I decided to follow the directions and recipes that came with it. (I found this new beauty at the goodwill in pristine condition for $6.97!) The recipe called for a cup of gluten. This kind of shocked me. My old machine’s original recipe (which I looked up to be sure I wasn’t imagining things) called for 1 ½ tablespoons of gluten. At the time I didn’t have any gluten, so in my first attempts at bread with my old bread maker I just left it out figuring the whole wheat bread flour I was using had some gluten in it. My bread turned out fine, so I never got in the habit of using gluten in my recipes. But this recipe wanted me to put in a whole cup! This seemed crazy, so since as I told you I have a recipe-following problem, I just put in 1 1 /2 tablespoons of gluten. Bread turned out fine, but it got me wondering. What the heck is gluten anyway? And why do so many people pay lots of money for “gluten free” foods? Here’s what I discovered.

Gluten is actually a protein found in wheat, rhy, and barley. So it’s in just about everything we eat in the States – cereal, bread, cookies, most processed foods. Its primary purpose is to give flour elasticity and strength, which is why my bread isn’t as soft and flexible as store bought bread. I couldn’t find any information about how it affects taste, so I’ll assume it doesn’t.

Now comes the interesting part. There were skads of websites about gluten free products and the dangers of gluten. Literally tens of thousands of hits. So I tried to stick to the sites that seemed more mainstream. Celiac disease, which has just about every horrible symptom know to mankind, is basically an allergy to gluten. A person suffering from celiac disease has damage to the gut wall which results in difficulties absorbing certain nutriets like iron, calcium and vitamin D. Consequently patients develop conditions like osteoporosis and anemia, in addition to a whole host of gastrointestinal issues. Children with Celiac disease do not develop normally. Celiac disease shows up as gut damage in a biopsy. The treatment is very successful and includes removing gluten from the patient’s diet.

The estimates of how many people it effects are wide ranging - from 1 to 146 in 1000. But judging by the amount of webspace dedicated to celiac disease and the dangers of gluten combined with the number of gluten free products on the market, I’d say it’s affecting plenty of people in one way or another. Here’s a partial list of the symptoms. Some are things everyone experiences on an off day and some are really gross and horrible.

Change in mood
Pale, foul smelling or fatty stools
Bone or joint pain
Unexplained anemia
Skin rash
Muscle cramps
Tingling numbness in legs
Pale sores in mouth
Tooth discoloration or loss of enamel
Failure to thrive in infants
Delayed growth

It appears as though pretty much any complaint you can come up with could be tracked back to gluten. I’ve heard a fair amount about celiac disease. My son has alopecia areata ( or and a loud group of people in the alopecia areata circles I run in see a connection between their hair loss and celiac disease. It seems to be pretty common among people with autoimmune disorders, allergies, and eczema.

One of the websites I discovered was based on a book by two American doctors, James Braly and Ron Hoggan. The book is titled Dangerous Grains. Their research has led them to believe the gluten intolerance is much more widespread effecting 2-3% of the population. The book purports that “gluten sensitivity” is the root cause of some cancer, auto-immune disorders, neurological and psychiatric conditions and liver disease. The authors imply that the heavily wheat-based western diet – bread, cereals, pasta, cookies – is making people sick. Interesting theory, huh?

I’ve long believed that our lifestyles have created the rise in so many auto-immune disorders, cancers, and other diseases. I’m not saying it’s due to over-consuming gluten; there’s still too much research that needs to be done, but I do think we need to pay attention to what we are putting in our bodies and especially what we are putting in our children’s bodies. It’s not as hard as you’d think to cut out gluten and if you or your children are suffering from any of the symptoms listed above, it might be worth a shot.

There are lots of grains that don’t contain gluten – rice, corn, buckwheat, millet, quinoa (comes in a yummy flour form), oats, soybeans, and sunflower seeds. I love to use quinoa flour or garbanzo bean flours in my breads, and almost always add whole or crushed sunflower seeds. That’s the beauty of making your own food instead of relying on processed food – you can control what goes in to the food you put on the table.

Seems like the key here is much like other questionable foods – moderation. We really do eat too much bread and pasta. And most of us don’t feel well when we do. I’d be curious to hear from any of you who are more informed than I when it comes to gluten.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Whining About Swine Flu

I’m sick of hearing about the swine flu. I’m sick of trying to sort out whether or not to force my kids (who adamantly don’t want it) to be vaccinated. I’m tired of hearing statistics that don’t mean anything floating out there all alone and tired of the relentless fear-mongering going on in the press. I can see both sides. Clearly. Probably too clearly, that’s what’s making it all so confusing for me. I hope you are safely in the land of decision, knowing exactly what you must do for yourself and your kids. Me, I’m still in limbo land changing my mind moment by moment.

I wish there weren’t kids involved, because then this would be easy. I’ve never gotten a flu vaccination and haven’t gotten the flu since I was a kid. Plus, I don’t like needles. Easy call. But then there’re the kids. They’ve never gotten the flu either, but one of the kids has asthma. So I have recurring nightmares of standing in the ER as he gasps for breath and the nurse says incredulously, “You didn’t have him vaccinated for the swine flu?”

I’m not going to tell you what you should do. And I’m not going to tell you what I’m going to do (and not just because I don’t know). But I am going to share with you some of the information I’ve gathered from reading the NIH and CDC websites, Natural Health websites, conversations with MD’s, and conversations with people who have much more information and solid opinions on the matter.

But first I have to say that the fear and panic being ramped up by the media and encouraged by the school districts makes me nuts. I realize there are lives at stake here, but we’re talking about the flu. I wish the media would get as whipped up about poverty, AIDS, cancer, or malaria, since more kids die of that daily than will die from this flu all year. Today in the paper there was an article about the danger of alcohol poisoning killing children because we are pushing them to use antibacterial hand soap twenty times a day. Apparently, these soaps are 60% alcohol, making them a serious threat to children who ingest them. Something else to worry about. And the New York Times reported that college students are being asked to refrain from playing “beer pong” so they don’t spread germs. Call me stupid, but if alcohol kills germs, won’t a germ laden ping pong ball landing in your beer be rendered benign instantly? Or how about the churches telling everyone to stop passing the peace through handshakes – too dangerous. This whole thing is getting out of hand – literally.

Back to the facts and opinions I have gathered. Here’s one not so comforting tidbit about the swine flu vaccine itself –

FDA licensure means that the government has certified the vaccine is made properly and meets specific manufacturing and quality standards. Separately, the National Institutes of Health is studying the vaccine dosage and safety. Last week, the NIH announced that one dose appears to protect adults — and that that protection kicks in eight to 10 days after the shot.Studies in children and pregnant women are continuing.
(as reported in national press September 15, 2009)

I’m a little alarmed by the fact that certifying a vaccine only involves how it is made and not how it works, or more importantly if it has ill effects. Add to that the language that “one dose appears to protect” – my kids appear to have brushed their teeth and taken a shower when most mornings that is not the case. If the studies in children and pregnant women are continuing, does that mean our children part of that study?

The side effects from the shot aren’t too bad –

Soreness, redness, or swelling where the shot was given
Fever (low grade)

It’s the side effects from the nasal spray that worry me –
runny nose
muscle aches

That sounds a little like the flu, so if my kids get vaccinated, I’m opting for the shot. After quizzing several doc friends about this, that was their recommendation also. My kids didn’t appreciate their recommendation.

OK, and about this word, “pandemic” that seems to be freaking people out -

The World Health Organization has declared swine flu to be a pandemic. That means that all nations can expect to see swine flu infections -- and should prepare for them -- but does not mean the virus has become more severe. The word "pandemic" refers to the geography of a disease, not to the severity of a disease.

Just so we’re clear on this. It’s not an epidemic, it’s pandemic.

And Consumer Reports sighted one of the best reasons I’ve found to get vaccinated:
The most important aspect of immunization is that everyone who gets vaccinated is less likely to spread the disease. "That may not be a benefit to you directly," says Santa from Consumer Reports, "but it is to your family and your community. And if you're a health worker, a teacher, or a child-care worker, your immunity could save children and families a lot of hardship, serious illnesses, and possibly lives."

Web MD had some other information about the swine flu:
Flu bugs can survive for hours on surfaces. One study showed that flu viruses can live for up to 48 hours on hard, nonporous surfaces such as stainless steel and for up to 12 hours on cloth and tissues. The virus seems to survive for only minutes on your hands -- but that's plenty of time for you to transfer it to your mouth, nose, or eyes.
Studies of the swine flu virus show that it is more infectious to lung cells than are seasonal flu viruses. But studies also suggest that the swine flu virus is less well adapted to humans and may be harder to inhale deep into the lungs.

I have found a silver lining to all this hysteria about the swine flu. It’s an excellent opportunity to educate our children about our immune systems and why it’s so important to practice healthy living. The natural health websites may be full of righteous anger about the pressure to immunize our children, but they are also a wealth of information on how to keep our children healthy whether or not we choose to vaccinate.

I’ve taken advantage of my children’s campaign to avoid the flu shot by talking to them about preventative measures like:

Get plenty of sleep – lack of sleep wears down your immune system

Eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, probiotics – all of these foods will boost your immune system

A couple other foods I will work hard to incorporate in to our diets more over the next few months are coconut oil which is one of the best foods for your immune system (see my post of July 8, 2009) and garlic which was sited again and again as a preventative against the flu. Of course, I love coconut oil and garlic, so this won’t be a stretch for me.

Exercise every day, even if there isn’t soccer practice.

Take vitamins, particularly extra vitamin C and getting plenty of vitamin D by getting out in the sunshine (even if there isn’t soccer practice)

Wash your hands frequently (and properly) and keep your hands (and fingers) out of your noses, mouths, and eyes.

Drink lots of hot beverages and/or gargling with warm salt water – this is a recommendation on several natural health websites. The hot liquid helps to kill flu germs that are taking up residence in your mouth and throat. My husband also tells me this is something the Chinese practice – they drink hot water regularly to protect their health. I drink hot tea all day long and while I worry about what it might be doing to my teeth, I do think it helps me stay healthy.

Reduce your stress level – Emotional and psychological stress can wear down your immune system, as can a negative attitude.

In the end this decision belongs firmly in the hands of the parent. Don’t let helpful neighbors, family, or friends (or bloggers) tell you want to do. All my surfing and questioning has led me to believe that you can find plenty of support for vaccinating and plenty of support for not vaccinating. Someone once told me that if you’re having trouble making a decision you should write both possibilities on slips of paper and mix them up and choose one. When you read the one you selected you will either be relieved or upset and that is your answer. You already know what you want to do, so trust yourself.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

What Are You Going To Be This Year?

Americans spend 5 billion on Halloween. Does that seem a little crazy to you, too? And what is it spent on? Costumes and candy - two items that have little meaning the next day. Now, contrary to what my children would have you believe, I like Halloween. It’s a wonderful opportunity for creativity and play. It’s the only chance you have to dress up once you become an adult, unless you work at Disneyworld. And dressing up is fun. Even people who say it isn’t, secretly like to. I have a great flapper costume, but it’s not entirely appropriate for trick of treating, so on Halloween I am traditionally a witch. But not this year because my daughter has appropriated my witches’ hat, the one with a spider dangling from the rim.

Halloween costumes can break the bank. But they don’t need to. I admit I’ve spent my share of fortune on the perfect costumes for my children, painstakingly choosing them from the elaborate catalogs that start arriving in late July. I justified this expense because my kids used the costumes year round – they liked to dress up on an almost daily basis. Now that they’re older they do occasionally indulge their alter egos with a pirate patch or Egyptian head covering. The costumes are getting a bit long in the tooth, but they can still inspire an adventure or two.

My oldest has been crafting his own costumes since he was old enough to explain his plans to me. He’s been Harry Potter playing Quidditch, a crazy scientist, a winged dragon with “real bird wings”, and a faceless ghost. Last year he was an “enigma”, which looks strangely like a bank robber to me (sweatshirt hood pulled tight to hide face, dark clothes, dark shoes, dark gloves, and a colorful scarf. OK that last detail might be the one that gives you away on the police tape, but still.) The younger two have been a little harder to convince. They think the store bought costumes will truly transform them. And many years I’ve been too weak to fight the onslaught. But after all those years of wimping out, we’ve accumulated literally hundreds of costumes. Certainly there are plenty of options in our costume bins.

This year I was determined that we would not be like most Americans and spend too much on Halloween, so I started recycling the catalogs before the kids got home from school. A few still squeaked by, but they mysteriously disappeared later that night. I told the kids that this year we were going to make their costumes. My youngest was relentless in his wish to BUY a costume and my talk of the crowded landfills and working conditions in China fell on deaf ears. So finally I caved and agreed to take him to the store. But only to look for ideas. I stressed to the kids that we weren’t there to buy a costume per say, just to “look”. What we needed was inspiration, not a polyester masterpiece for $29.99.

So we headed to the store to see all the new costumes on display this year. I must say that many of the costumes seemed a little too adult for me. We cruised the aisles admiring and wondering over all that we saw. In the end we left with a pair of fake eyelashes which inspired a fancy witch with big orange lashes costume and a plastic sword for the “knight-deatheater-with-a-sword” costume my youngest has planned. Either way, I’m happy because I only spent $10.

If my kids hadn’t gotten on board and become agreeable and then excited about the idea of creating “their own costumes”, I was prepared to bribe them. I figured I’d rather spend money on something of value, like a trip to Borders, than more over-packaged, fake looking costumes from China. In the end, that wasn’t necessary because my children trust their own creative capabilities.

This year, I challenge you to come up with your own costumes from what you have. Purchasing a prop or two is fine, but try to stay away from the “all in one bag” costumes. Homemade costumes always win at the costume contests anyway. Plus this is a wonderful chance for your kids to use their imagination and learn a great lesson being resourceful.

Another idea for an ecologically responsible costume is to rent one. Local theaters typically rent costumes as a fund raiser. It’s a great way to get an authentic costume and support the arts. These can be pricey and most are for adults, so this might only work for your older teens or your own fantasies, but it’s a great idea and a true win-win.

Children’s magazines are full of homemade costumes. If you’re crafty, this might be the way to go; although even these can get pricey depending on how particular you are about materials. The key is to not only be creative, but reasonable.

We live on a rural road and have never had a trick or treater dare our driveway, so I haven’t got any great words of wisdom on healthy treats that won’t make kids turn up their noses. As much as I believe in organic, whole food, Halloween is a whole nother ballgame. All bets are off. Kids want candy. They want the processed, colorful, additive filled kind. And I’m not going to stand in their way. At least not for one night.

If you’re feeling wealthy, there are a few organic treats out there. We’ve had the organic lollipops and the flavors are unique and yummy. Here are a few brands, mentioned in Kiwi magazine –

Yummy Earth Organic Lollipops – about $7.99 for 60 pops.

Equal Exchange Organic Dark Chocolate Minis - $20 for 76 mini chocolate bars,

Endangered Species Bug Bites - $32 for 64,

Surf Sweet Gummy Bears are made with natural colors, flavors, and organic fruit juices. $7.49 for 10 packs,

Annie’s Organic Bunny Fruit Snacks - $4.59 for 5 packets, (you can find these in a lot of grocery stores, my kids like them but I avoid them because the dentist says so)

I wish it were still acceptable to make Halloween snacks, because homemade popcorn balls, caramel apples, and my awesome cookies would be great to hand out. Sometimes progress is not a good thing. I guess you save those for your own kids.

Each year on Halloween we tag along with friends who live in traditional neighborhoods. This does have the added advantage of enabling us to select a neighborhood that isn’t so big the kids end up with a lifetime supply of candy. But still I wrestle with the question of – do you let them eat it all in one night or dole it out? I haven’t got the answer.

Since this year Halloween falls on a Saturday night, I’m tempted to let them pig out so they can regret it the next day. But that might hurt me too much, so it’s likely I’ll resort to the plan I always use – a hearty helping on Halloween night and then several treats for lunch dessert and after school snack for a few days. I keep their stash out of sight and pull it out so they can choose their favorites first and in just 2 or 3 days, the “unchosen” candy loses its appeal and without the brightly colored plastic pumpkin staring them in the face, they forget about it. When they stop asking for the candy, I put the remains in a ziplock bag and place it in a high cupboard (“just in case” someone remembers), but soon none of us remember it’s there. I come across a hard lump of stale candy from time to time when I’m rooting around looking for my cheesecake pan, but by then I can throw it out with no one the wiser. It’s not a very organized plan, but it’s all I’ve got. If you know a better way to handle Halloween candy – I’d love to hear about it!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Marshmallows, Lasagna, and Cover Crops

We cooked marshmallows over the tomato vines last night. After fighting, and losing, our battle with the tomato blight, I was tired of walking past the withered, sick brown vines each day on my way to the barn. We’ve never had the tomato blight like we did this year. Every time I looked at those vines I worried that we’d never grow a healthy tomato again. I don’t know if burning them will help kill all the spores they left behind, but it felt right. Plus my kids love any excuse for a bonfire (that includes the biggest kid who lives here and still loves to play with fire). Have a marshmallow - it’s time to start next year’s garden.

Nobody’s garden looks good this time of year. Everything is brown, withered, and dotted with weeds. A few things are still growing. I was careful to keep the fire away from the lettuce, spinach, and peppers that are still doing their best in our garden. The peppers we are getting this time of year are small and funny-shaped. The hot peppers have all turned bright red – even the jalapeƱos. I know that any morning now I will walk outside and find them all shriveled from the cold and liquid inside. Before the fire yesterday, I picked every pepper I could find. I washed them, cut them in half, and seeded them. Then I filled Ziploc bags with them and put them in the freezer. According to the book, Stocking Up, the classic preservation guide by Carol Hupping, it isn’t even necessary to blanche peppers before you freeze them. The book does say you can blanche them if you feel compelled. I’m all for easy, so I’m taking my chances and freezing them without the blanching. I’ve also roasted peppers before freezing and they’ve worked out fine. I’ll let you know how the naked peppers turn out.

Besides burning the garden, there are other things to be done to prepare for next year. It’s very tempting to leave the skeleton of the garden lying until spring. After all, nothing’s going to grow there, right? Wrong. With a small effort this fall, you can have luscious, rich soil in your garden next year. Here are two options.

Lasagna gardening. Ever since learning about lasagna gardening about eight years ago, we’ve been using it each fall to enrich our current beds and to add new ones. It’s a great way to re-purpose all kinds of yard waste and works like a charm. Lasagna gardening is simple. You select a new spot for a garden (or cover the current garden space. This is how I secretly enlarge my garden a foot or two each year. Slowly I’m taking over the entire yard and no one notices!). Cover the space with a thick layer of newspaper. Don’t use the glossy circulars, stick with plain newspaper. It’s best to do this on a calm day. Wind makes this task pretty difficult (although it does make it an amusing spectacle for your neighbors and terrifying one for the cats).

After the paper is down, wet it thoroughly with a hose. Next, layer on whatever you want – compost, pine needles (unless your soil is already pretty acidic), leaves, grass clippings, wood ash, horse manure, more paper, peat moss, etc.) Basically, you want to layer “brown” (dry dead stuff or paper) and “green” (compost, fertilizer like stuff – you can even use liquid fertilizer). We keep adding layers right up until Christmas and then leave it alone until spring. The winter cooks the lasagna garden and creates rich wonderful soil by spring.

The best part about starting new gardens with lasagna gardening is you don’t have to dig up the grass to begin a garden. Just put down the paper and start layering. I’ll never “dig” a new garden bed again. Lasagna gardening is great on an existing beds because it kills off any weeds and continues to keep them down in to the summer. You just dig right down through any layers still visible to plant. But the best thing about lasagna gardening is it’s free – you (or your neighbors) already have everything you need to make a rich, organic garden bed by spring.

The other option for the winter is to plant a cover crop. We’ve never done this, but after reading about it, I think that’s been a mistake. In my quest to figure out how to rid our ground of the blight and how to make our soil healthy, I learned all about cover crops. Leaving your garden bare is a huge loss. By planting complimentary winter crops in your garden you can improve your soil, adding nutrients lost from summer crops. It also keeps out the weeds, and, maybe best of all, it looks good all winter. It’s inspiring to drive by a field of winter wheat – all emerald green against the barren landscape around it. That will be my garden this winter. After we till up the burned ground, I’m going to plant cereal rye grass.

You can solve a whole host of soil problems by planting the right thing in winter. Plants that have long root systems help to aerate your soil and loosen it up for the plants to come, creating tunnels for the next crop to follow. In the spring when you till or harvest your winter crop, the root system will die off and create soft porous soil for the plants that follow. I’m hoping that will help my carrots to grow straight – they are normally forked or bent, we even get perfect right angled carrots due to the rocks and hard ground down below the surface. It’s a great freak show, but they’re difficult to peel. Check with the extension service in your area or a good seed/feed store to find out which cover crops work well for your zone.

When it’s time to take down a cover crop it’s easiest to till it under, but you can also hoe it or pull it up for your compost pile. If planting a cover crop makes you nervous, try a small one first. You can and should plant cover crops on your empty areas in the summer too for all the same reasons. I hadn’t thought of it as a cover crop, but I always try to plant something in every bare spot, even if it’s just gourds. Barren garden left alone is a haven for weeds and that doesn’t do you or your garden any good. Marigolds and sunflowers are also excellent quick growing cover crops. I stick marigolds in any empty spots for their color and bug repelling properties, but they also get big and crowd out any weeds that try to infiltrate.

I know you thought you were finished with your garden, but do this one last thing and then you can be done. (Unless you want to plant garlic –more about that later) Plant a cover crop to enrich your soil or lasagna garden it. Do one or the other and the pay off will be rich. As always, get your kids involved in this process. They can learn a lot if you explain why you’re planting something for the winter and they’ll love the idea of planting a lasagna garden!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

My Hens Lay Golden Eggs!

My hens lay golden eggs! I hadn’t appreciated this fact before, but now I do. The eggs that I collect each night are free range, cage free, hormone-free, organic (albeit not certified), humane (again, not certified), free-roaming, vegetarian-fed, natural, fertile, and even Omega-3 Enriched! So how much do you think they might go for in a grocery store?? See? They’re golden. This picture is a collection of some of the variations we've collected. The tiny eggs are from chickens just starting to lay eggs and the jumbo one is from our over-acheiver hen.

Egg cartons have a lot of terms on them. A friend sent me an e-mail with some definitions and as I read it, I thought two things – 1) my eggs are valuable and 2) my hens have it good. I do remember the days of standing in front of the egg selection at the grocery store contemplating the labels. It was really hard to decide what was worth paying more for. Certified Humane seemed like a good thing, but Free-Roaming might be better. Are Fertile eggs better for you? And of course I was looking for organic. Well, here are some definitions that might help clear it up or just might confuse you more.

Certified Organic: The birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, and are required to have outdoor access (although there have been concerns about lax enforcement, with some large-scale producers not providing birds meaningful access to the outdoors). They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program. Debeaking and forced molting through starvation are permitted. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.

Although it sounds like some less-savory characters could game this system, certified organic is probably a good thing, unless you’re a hen. While, I don’t really know what forced molting through starvation is, I’m guessing it means withholding food so that your birds lose all their feathers. I’m not sure why you’d want to do this, unless it’s to keep the molting to a schedule. Hens don’t lay eggs while they are molting. My hens seem to be taking turns with the molting thing, so it’s not an issue for us. My neighbor’s hens all molted at once, so we gave her eggs. Debeaking means to cut off the sharp end of the hen’s beak so she can’t hurt anyone else. When birds are crammed together in close quarters they may fight, just like my kids do in the car. Debeaking keeps them from drawing blood. If your hen is bleeding it’s a really bad thing. I’ve never seen it, but all the books say that the other hens will attack her and eventually kill her. Chickens don’t have any morals, apparently. So organic is all well and good if you don’t mind your chickens beakless and subjected to starvation from time to time.

Free-Range: While the USDA has defined the meaning of "free-range" for some poultry products, there are no standards in "free-range" egg production. Typically, free-range egg-laying hens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses and have some degree of outdoor access – it might be a concrete slab or a grassy pasture. They can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging. However, there is no information on stocking density, the frequency or duration of outdoor access, or the quality of the land accessible to the birds. There is no information regarding what the birds can be fed. Because of their more relaxed living conditions, these hens produce fewer eggs, making those eggs more costly. Debeaking and forced molting through starvation may be permitted. There is no third-party auditing. Free range eggs generally have the same nutritional content as other eggs.

I used to think my girls (and boys) are only considered free-ranged part of the year (the non-vegetable garden season), but apparently because they have access to their outdoor pen they qualify as free-ranged all year, even when they aren’t pooping on my porch and digging up my mulch. Seems to me, free-range could mean a lot of things and you shouldn’t take the carton’s word for it. It would be helpful if you could talk to the farmer or if there was more information offered beyond the label. At my natural grocery store, there are pictures of the hens pinned up along the coolers where the eggs are, so you can see from whence they came. The hens are outside in the grass and look very happy.

Certified Humane: The birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but may be kept indoors at all times. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, and dust bathing. There are requirements for stocking density and number of perches and nesting boxes. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but debeaking is allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Certified Humane is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care.

Debeaking doesn’t seem very humane to me. Maybe it’s humane to the birds around you, but if you’re the one having her beak cut off, that just doesn’t sound very pleasant. Again, this seems like a fuzzy definition. There are very few animals, and pretty much no farm animals, I can think of who are happy living inside all the time. But at least they must be able to nest and perch and take their dust baths. For those of you who are curious, chickens have this crazy need to roll in dirt. They actually seek it out, dig a hole and then lay in it and roll around. Then they stand up and shake out their tail feathers (ha! Another chicken phrase!) to get the dust out. The first time one of my hens did this I thought she was dying or grievously injured. I called my chicken-expert neighbor in alarm and she assured me this was a natural thing chickens do. Now I just mutter curses at them when I trip over freshly dug dust bathtubs in my run-in shed.

Cage-Free: As the term implies, hens laying eggs labeled as "cage-free" are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but generally do not have access to the outdoors. They have the ability to engage in many of their natural behaviors such as walking, nesting, and spreading their wings. Debeaking and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no third-party auditing.

It’s good to be cage-free, but again without the blue sky up above you, what’s the point? And if you read carefully, they aren’t crammed in so tight they can’t spread their wings – lucky birds. But I didn’t see anything about dust baths, so cage-free girls might be a little nutso with no fresh air and no bathing. Plus, again with the debeaking and forced molting, not the life for me. My hens just don’t know how good they have it.

Free-Roaming: Also known as "free-range," the USDA has defined this claim for some poultry products, but there are no standards in "free-roaming" egg production. This essentially means the hens are cage-free. There is no third-party auditing.

Ditto, above notes on free-range.

United Egg Producers Certified: The overwhelming majority of the U.S. egg industry complies with this voluntary program, which permits routine cruel and inhumane factory farm practices. By 2008, hens laying these eggs will be afforded 67 square inches of cage space per bird, less area than a sheet of paper. The hens may be confined in restrictive, barren cages and limiting their ability to perform many of their natural behaviors, including perching, nesting, foraging or even spreading their wings. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but debeaking is allowed. This is a program of the United Egg Producers.

Wow. I’m glad my eggs aren’t certified by the United Egg Producers. This might be a certification to avoid. It’s like Wal-Mart stamping a Mass Market Producers certification on their own products. The official certification makes you think it’s a good thing, but when the people doing the certifying are also making the profit it’s meaningless. No living thing should have to live the way most chickens do on traditional poultry farms. You can read about it in Omnivores Dilemma or watch it in Food, Inc. I know first-hand how stupid chickens are, but I also know they have personalities and display emotions like fear and anger. I even think they display joy when I arrive with a box of stale cereal or uneaten popcorn. I’m not a vegetarian and I plan to raise some chickens for meat this year. Still, I believe all living things are entitled to dignity and decency even if their ultimate purpose is to end up on my dinner table. (hmm – that should prompt some e-mail from a few vegetarians!)

Vegetarian-Fed: These birds are provided a more natural feed than that received by most laying hens. This term, like grass-fed, is not regulated by the USDA, so unless you know your supplier’s farming practices this label is largely meaningless.

OK, here’s my issue with this. My hens are fed a vegetarian diet. The feed I buy does not contain animal byproducts and I don’t feed them bacon, but they do eat bugs. Lots of them. And I’m sure that even a caged chicken reaches out and snags a fly or a gnat or a mosquitoe from time to time, so really, how can any chicken be a vegetarian??

Natural: Currently there is no legal definition of “natural” as it relates to food products. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture any food that contains “no artificial ingredients or added color and are no more than minimally processed,” may be considered “natural.”

I’m sure you’re smart enough not to be fooled by that “natural” label by now.

Fertile: These are eggs that, when incubated, will develop into chicks. They are no more nutritious than other eggs and usually cost more. Usually fertile eggs are cage-free and come from hen houses where roosters roam as well, which some consumers believe is a more natural habitat. As for taste, it's negligible—once cooked, only a true egg aficionado would taste any difference.

What is a true egg aficionado? I think my eggs all taste great and I certainly couldn’t tell you which ones are fertile and which ones aren’t. There’s no visible difference, so don’t worry that you’re going to crack open a fertile egg and find a half-formed baby chick.

Omega-3 Enriched: Eggs carrying this label have a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids than other eggs. This is achieved by mixing flaxseed, a grain high in omega-3s, into the hen’s feed. Omega-3s are a type of unsaturated fatty acid essential for healthy human metabolism that the body cannot produce. This type of fatty acid is thought to benefit the cardiovascular system, reduce inflammation in the body, and reduce risk factors for chronic diseases, such as cancer, arthritis, and heart disease.

These eggs are probably worth paying more for. I buy flaxseed, which is expensive, and mix it in with my chicken feed. I’m always looking for more ways to get Omega-3’s in to my family.

Hormone-free: It may as well read "rip-off"! Because the use of hormones in poultry has been banned since the 1960s, all eggs are by law hormone-free. If a carton offers this claim alone, you're wasting your money if you pay extra for it.

Good to know, huh? We consumers sure are gullible.

Here’s a few more tidbits about eggs that were passed along to me:

Does Size Matter?Generally, egg size reflects the age of the hen: the older she is, the larger her egg. Breed, weight, and living conditions (such as heat, stress, overcrowding, or poor nutrition) can also affect size. Extra-large, large, and medium are the most common varieties, but you can also find jumbo, small, and peewee.
Egg grades—which include AA, A, and B—refer to the ratio and quality of white to yolk and to the condition of the shell. Grade AA and A eggs have thicker whites; firmer, more round yolks; and cleaner shells than Grade Bs. Nutritionally speaking, however, eggs are the same regardless of grade. So if you're paying up for a bigger egg, you're buying size and nothing more.

Store Smart—and Save!Properly refrigerated, eggs can keep up to one month beyond the "best before" date printed on carton. Keep them stored inside the carton, securely fastened. Eggshells have thousands of tiny pores; never store eggs in an open basket or box, as they will absorb odors from other foods. Also, though it may sound counterintuitive, don't keep your eggs in the special egg unit on the inside door of your refrigerator. Though it may be handy, it actually prevents proper airflow to your eggs.

Here’s what I know about size and storage –
The really big eggs are sometimes double yokers, which is cool. Egg comes in all kinds of colors other than white and brown. Our Aracana chickens lay green and blue eggs. Really, they do. Our Bard Rock chickens lay light brown eggs just like you see in the grocery store, and our Rhode Island Reds lay beautiful deep brown eggs that are sometimes speckled. But the shades of the eggs vary day to day and I don’t know if that has to do with diet, temperature, or just their mood that day. It is amazing to see the variety.

I’ve kept fresh eggs in the refrigerator for 3-4 months and they are still fine. If an egg goes bad you will know it before you crack it. Remember all those pores mentioned above, a rotten egg will stink up your entire fridge, so don’t ever throw away an egg because it might be bad – take a whiff. Other chicken farmers have taught me that a fresh egg just plucked from the nest will keep on my counter for three weeks. Unless it’s really hot, I leave our family eggs in a bowl on my counter – they look nice and truly they’ve never gone bad.

I know you’re thinking – it’s not the rotten egg I’m worried about, it’s the one with salmonella. Very few (I couldn’t find any) cases of salmonella poisoning come from a person eating a homegrown egg. Here’s what Consumer Reports had to say about homegrown eggs:

While eggs are indeed a leading cause of salmonella poisoning, the bacteria that causes the infection may be more likely to breed in the cramped confines of factory farms than in free-range, backyard chicken runs. And people tend to eat home grown eggs when they’re fresher, and thus less likely to be contaminated….

And here’s some information from Consumer Reports for those of you concerned about eggs and your health. (I have to take this moment to note that my husband has genetically high cholesterol and in the past year while he’s eaten more eggs than ever before, his cholesterol has actually gone down! My money’s on the huge amounts of flax seed meal I’m sneaking in to his food, but still!)
But in truth, all eggs can be good nutritional choices, containing not only protein but also vitamin D and choline, a nutrient recently linked to a reduced risk of birth defects and possibly breast cancer. While eggs are relatively high in dietary cholesterol, most people can eat about six a week without worry. Even those of us with high cholesterol levels can safely consume them in moderation, as long as they watch out for other sources of cholesterol. And in early July, the Food and Drug Administration announced new rules aimed at reducing salmonella contamination in store-bought eggs.
Eggs can become contaminated when a laying hen is infected with
salmonella enteritidis and passes the bacteria to the egg before it is laid. If the egg is not refrigerated, the bacteria can grow inside the uncracked, whole egg. So the new rules place greater restrictions on large farms—those with 3,000 or more laying hens—to ensure the hens are raised in environs free of pests that can spread the bacteria, and that eggs are refrigerated when they’re stored and transported, to prevent the bacteria from growing.

Back to those pores – here’s something you should know. When an egg is laid it has a protective coating on it, called the “bloom”. The protective coating keeps bacteria from getting inside the egg while it is sitting in the hen house or on the counter. All eggs have it unless they have been scrubbed clean to look pretty at the grocery store. Some store bought eggs that have been cleaned are then given a sheer spray of mineral oil to protect them. That’s why they sometimes appear shiny. So next time you buy some eggs at the farmer’s market, you might ask if they’ve been washed off.

See why my eggs are golden?? You can have golden eggs too. Just about anyone can keep chickens, even those of you who live in suburbia or even the city. All you need is a large dog run and a “house” of some kind. Chickens are cheap and easy to keep and they pay for themselves. And you don’t need a noisy rooster to have eggs. (Just in case you were wondering. People ask me that all the time.) You only need roosters if you want to hatch more chickens. I wrote a whole week of posts during Chicken Week, March 2-6, 2009. Check out those posts or pick up a book on Chicken Keeping if you’re curious. One other reason to keep chickens – they make great pets. I don’t believe they are a common allergen. Kids have great fun with chickens. My daughter trained one of ours to walk on a leash (with a small dog harness). They can become very docile and friendly. And did I mention they are cheap? Our original chicks were just $3 a piece, but now they cost nothing to produce!

The Humane Society of the United States. A Brief Guide to Egg Carton Labels and Their Relevance to Animal Welfare. March 2007.
E-mail forwarded to me from the AARP Buyer’s Guide
Consumer, July 24, 2009
My own wealth of experience (or lack there of)

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

My Seven Year Old Ate Squid

My 7 year old ate squid on Saturday. As a matter of fact, so did my 10 year old and my 12 year old. Maybe that doesn’t seem amazing to you, but to me it is a milestone. My kids, like most kids, prefer all their food to be familiar, something they’ve eaten before and preferably not touching any other food. This eliminates all manner of exotic food, casseroles, sauces, and stir-fries. Amazingly, that cardinal rule gets thrown out the window when it comes to ice cream – the more stuff mixed in the better. My oldest son did a school project on the Giant Squid a few years ago, so my kids had some preconceived notions about squid. Up until this past Saturday evening their only other experience with squid was when my husband ordered it just to gross them all out. But the times they are a changin’. All it took was the youngest to open his mind and his palate and his siblings were forced to rise to the challenge. Nevermind that the calamari was deep fried in to oblivion and could just as easily have been fried squirrel for anyone knew (I’d point this out, but I just get called a spoil sport). The verdict – “It’s OK.” The older two smothered theirs in ketchup and can now say that they’ve eaten squid, but the youngest had seconds and thirds with no ketchup!

How do we get our kids to eat new foods? Or more importantly, how do we get them to eat healthy foods? That’s one of the biggest challenges parents have, and sadly, most of us are not up to it. Because it is a huge challenge and it’s much easier to just order the nuggets and fries or to cook spaghetti again. I’m with ya, I feel your frustration. Sometimes it’s not even just the fight, it’s designing the menu. It’s exhausting always trying to figure out what to feed them. You have to balance nutritional needs, fussy preferences, the work involved, the ingredients on hand, and what they’ll actually eat. I know it’s very efficient to write out a menu a week in advance, but some of us are lucky to figure it out 30 minutes in advance.

I’m a firm believer in persistence. I think it is the backbone of good parenting. We must just keep trying. We can’t give up. If we give up, who will make these children in to good citizen, considerate members or society, and healthy individuals? Who else will care enough? We are the only ones without an agenda or something to sell trying to influence our children. So we have to persist with our kids. I know it’s exhausting, but we have to do it. Besides, as every older parent constantly tells me – it’ll be over before you know it. Right.

So here are some things to remember when trying to widen your child’s culinary horizons:

Make it easily available. If my kids walk through the kitchen and say they’re hungry, I might suggest an apple and more times than not, they’ll make a face. If my kids walk through the kitchen and see a big bowl of beautiful apples on the table, they’ll pick one up. They might not even have been thinking of a snack, but the apple is so easily accessible and red and shiny - it’s irresistible. This works for all kinds of snacks. If you suggest an orange, your child thinks of the labor involved in peeling an orange, but if the orange is already sliced up and waiting on a plate to be eaten – who can resist? Especially when you smile at them with a slice in your own mouth substituting as teeth. They might roll their eyes at you, but they’ll be pulling the same orange grin on their sibling. So instead of suggesting a healthy snack, prepare it and they will come. Just like the Kevin Costner movie (whose title escapes me).

Here’s some other ideas for healthy snacks to leave laying about:
Unshelled nuts (peanuts, pistachios, or for the holidays – assorted nuts with several crackers) – just be sure to also put out a shell bowl and leave a few shells in there for demonstration purposes
Shelled nuts
Dried fruit of any kind (apricots, cranberries, cherries, raisins)
Frozen grapes
Orange slices
Celery & carrots (and dip if you must)
Pickle tray (assorted pickles, olives, and the very important toothpicks)
Cut fruit of any kind that doesn’t turn brown when left out (Watermelon, cantelope, pineapple)
Cheese and crackers
Pretzel sticks and mustard
PB&J tortilla rollups (sliced up in small colorful sections)
Cheese tortilla rollups (sliced up)
Ants on a log (celery or banana with peanut butter and raisins)
Hard-boiled eggs in “egg cups” (great thing to look for at garage sales)

Trust me. It’s all about availability. And pretty much right up there with availability is presentation. Your kids will eat lots of things you never imagined they’d eat if it’s presented right. (And served with a toothpick) An overripe banana may taste wonderful, but it looks horrible so don’t serve it – mash it up and make banana bread or a smoothie or something. Get creative with your presentation. I know, I know, I don’t want to work that hard either, but back to my earlier point – who else will? I’ll tell you who – the snack food companies! Why do you think kids love those lunchables (aside from the sugar and salt and fat)? Presentation! All those cute little compartments and bright packaging. If you don’t make eating healthy exciting, who will?

Just keep putting it out there. A year ago, my daughter would never even consider eating a grilled chicken breast. A chicken nugget? Sure, pass the ketchup. But a marinated chicken breast grilled to perfection? No thank you. We had chicken the other night and my husband and I both swallowed our comments when she asked for seconds. How many pieces of chicken has the dog had in the interim? Too many to count. But she’s seen the last of it! Plan a healthy meal and serve it up. Don’t consider who will eat what. Just serve it up. We have a sign on the wall in our kitchen that reads:

1. Take It
2. Leave It

Plan some healthy meals and just do it again and again. They’ll come around. Either that or they’ll eventually move out. Don’t sacrifice your own healthy eating for your kids.

Involve your kids in the growing, picking, and cooking. I’ve written lots about the benefits of getting your kids in to the garden or the fruit orchard, but getting them in the kitchen is just as important. It is easier to do it yourself, but taking the time to involve your kids will give them incentive to eat what they cook. Start with the things you know they like – cookies, bread, macaroni and cheese and move on to things they don’t necessarily enjoy yet. Most kids love to cook – it’s messy, smelly, exciting, kind of like a science experiment. Embrace the mess and the chaos and accept ahead of time that it may not turn out just like the picture. But let them really do the cooking.

There’s so much to teach them in the kitchen. You might not think you’re much of a cook, but get a 10 year old behind the apron and she’ll look to you as the expert. You know how to crack an egg, measure a liquid, preheat an oven –such skill! Share it. Find out what they’d like to make and learn how to cook it together. Bagels are fun (check out my post from March 13, 2009 for an easy recipe). You can’t really mess up scrambled eggs and they make a great snack too. Another great snack (and an assumed cooking ability) is hard-boiled eggs. If you don’t teach them now, they’ll be frantically searching the internet someday when their own children want to color Easter eggs.

Another idea is to let them plan the menu. I haven’t used this much, but it makes sense to me. Tell them they need to balance the meal and include things like protein, veggies, fruit, dairy, and whole grains. Get them thinking. Everyone is more enthusiastic when it’s their own idea. So far, I only let me kids choose the menu when it’s their birthday. One of my children chose pancakes with a side of peas. Another chose noodles with NOTHING on them. We have a ways to go. But I like the idea of negotiating with them over a menu. “You can choose anything you want, as long as it’s….” I have all the power in this relationship because I control the kitchen and the shopping. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I know I make feeding your kids healthy food and getting them to try new things sound easy, but I do know it’s not. I struggle too. My kids might have eaten calamari last Saturday, but just last night they turned their noses up at homemade (healthy) macaroni and cheese made with quinoa noodles. It’s a constant struggle. My daughter recently proclaimed to a group of friends (in my presence, no less) that “My mom makes all this disgusting healthy food.” She further informed them that “If it’s organic or my mom made it, it’s gross.” I made a mental note to remind her of her comments the next time I serve my organic homemade ice cream for dessert or she wants a warm fresh homemade bagel just baked.

So maybe challenging your kids to eat squid, isn’t the place to start (especially deep fried squid!), but start somewhere. Your kids are getting messages about food all the time, whether it’s the food pyramid at school (unbelievably boring) or from the Television (Cheese curls that will turn your whole mouth blue? Cool!). This is not a lesson to delegate to others. What we eat affects our physical and mental health and our future. It’s way too important to ignore or leave in the hands of people who don’t love our kids like we do.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

What If?

On Sunday I was talking with a group of teenagers about a Habitat for Humanity project we are planning on undertaking next summer. We aren’t completely sure what we’re getting in to it, but so far, everyone is game. We pondered the question, What if? What if we did this? What if we are able to help someone besides ourselves? What if we can make a difference in one community? One family? It creates exciting possibilities.

Too often we get bogged down in the What Is. Adults, especially are guilty of this. The younger a soul is the more they seem able to indulge the What Ifs. My kids are full of What Ifs. What if I made a house by gluing together six thousand popsicle sticks – would it be big enough for me to live in? What if I shut the cat in the hamper and rolled it down the steps? What if I put a marshmallow in the microwave? The what ifs are endless.

But us adults, we get so stuck in What Is. What’s the point in recycling – there so much waste already. Why buy a greener car – there’s already a million gas guzzlers on the road. Or maybe our what is revolves around somebody else taking care of it. The government is working on that problem, I can’t solve it. It’s the school’s job to teach my kids. The media is everywhere, what’s one more hour in front of the television. All kids watch TV. They all have cell phones. They all eat processed food. Besides I’m no cook. We don’t have any extra money right now. I’m too busy. They’re too picky. We hide behind What Is. But it isn’t what has to be.

What if we turned off our TVs? What if the stupid thing broke and we never replaced it? What if you read a book with your kid (even if that kid can read it for themselves)? What if you wrote a book together? What if you tried canning food? What if you learned to bake bread? What if you taught your kids to eat healthy? What if you started a garden, or a window box, or even a pot of basil? Sure you don’t have time or money or your kids’ interest – that’s What Is. But if you want to change your life, you have to start asking What If. What if I took that course? What if I volunteered to help? What if I got involved in local politics? What if my kids and I start a project together? What if I eliminated just one processed food from my diet? What if I started making one basic staple of our diet – bread, yogurt, ice cream, granola, whatever. What if we did something differently or tried something new?

I don’t know what will happen if you change a habit or try something new, but I can tell you one thing, it won’t be a What Is anymore. The only way this world or our lives will change is if we start to think in terms of What Ifs and we don’t let the What Is get in the way. What if more people shopped with their conscience? What if we gave our time, money, ideas more freely? What if consumers demanded organic produce and supported local farmers? What if we cut our trash output in half? I read somewhere that a butterfly on the far reaches of the earth flaps its wings and there are consequences worldwide. Any small change you make will affect the planet, your community, and the people around you. Even if you’re only making a tiny dent in your health, your carbon footprint, or your children’s education, your actions might be an example others follow. And then there’s that whole snowball effect.

I won’t lie to you, What Ifs are risky. They can even be dangerous. They can be embarrassing, painful, time-consuming, and frustrating. But they make life so much more exciting. And they give us the opportunity to make a difference. People who change the world or their community or even their lives, are people who ask What if? For just today, try not accepting What Is and consider What If…..