Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Families That Eat Together....

What time is dinner? Used to be my kids could count on a 6pm dinner hour every night. If they were home. Some days all five of us ate together, but most days we ate in shifts. Whoever was home at 6 ate then, and everyone else warmed something up later. But then this year I messed everything up. At least for my daughter who prefers that we eat between 5 and 7 (when her computer is shut down by the computer gods). These days dinner might be at 5:30 and it might be at 7:30, it’s even ended up being 8pm (“think of it as European…”).

What’s brought this change? Possibly my middle-age panic that I’m missing out on what’s left of my kids’ time at my table. And possibly the fact that there are too many people going in too many directions every afternoon and it’s become difficult to figure out what I can cook in 15 minutes between car pools that will still be good 90 minutes later. 

Now we eat together. Except for Thursdays. Thursdays are “Fend for yourself nights”. That evening was just too complicated to find a common dinner hour. Mondays mean band rehearsals and drum lessons, so we eat at 7:30pm. On Tuesdays we eat early at 5:20 before soccer and bass lessons. Wednesdays is an after-practice meal at 7:15. Fridays we have to follow practice with Pizza Night at 8 (cocktails at 6:30). Saturday and Sunday nights are the only days we come close to our habitual 6pm feeding. The kids are adapting. And amazingly, it’s working. 

And now a recent study has revealed what I must have instinctively known all along. Family meals make your family healthier. Rutgers University recently evaluated nearly 70 studies to gather information about the benefits of families eating together at home. The studies revealed that families who eat together have a healthier diet and consume less junk food. Plus teens who eat at home with their families show fewer signs of depression. And all family members are more likely to have a healthy weight.  

40% of the typical American food budget is spent on eating out which makes me wonder how many of us are eating together as a family around our dinner table. This is a no-brainer. You can save money, be healthier, and help your kids by cooking and eating at home. Okay, I hear you now. But how do we get a healthy meal on the table when we’re busy with work, volunteer commitments, and shuttling kids to and from all of their activities?  

No, I don’t have an easy answer. But I have a few helpful suggestions.

  1. Create a family meal book. Ours is a looseleaf binder with menus and recipes that most everyone likes. Half the time (at least for me) it’s the challenge of thinking of something to eat that slows me down. Two of my kids prepare a meal each week, so they consult this book when they do their meal planning. I regularly add new recipes I discover in my travels to prevent it from getting too boring.
  2. Keep staples in stock. Our freezer will always have ground beef, homemade broth, fish, veggies, fruits, meatballs, and chicken tenders in it. These are the ingredients that the kids need to make meals. You will also find fish sticks, French fries, hot dogs, and flour tortillas for nights when dinner has to be quick and easy. Our pantry is always stocked with pasta sauce, olive oil, good vinegar, applesauce, soup, crackers, beans, ketchup, pasta of every shape and size, rice, potatoes, garlic, and onions. Because I know these things are there, I can cook confidently and the kids have what they need when it’s their turn to cook. Your pantry would probably look different – take your cue from your recipe binder.
  3. Keep a good shopping list posted where everyone can add to it. Ours is on the side of the fridge. The system is – if you open the last one, add it to the list. That goes for anything – can of beans, bottle of ketchup, jar of jelly, clove of garlic, paper towel roll. This system makes my life easier. I don’t have to try to remember everything we need. The only time it fails is when I forget the list when I go to the store.
  4. Keep meals simple. You don’t have to have a fancy meal for it to be healthy. For us it’s typically – some kind of protein, one carbohydrate, and two veggies or fruit. Done. I can get a healthy meal on the table in five minutes or two hours, depending on my day’s options. Cheese & bean burritos, corn, and applesauce is a five minute meal.
  5. Utilize your crockpot. Everyone’s got one. At least everyone who ever gets married. I got three for my wedding. Nothing reduces stress like knowing dinner is ready to go the moment you walk in the door. A few of my favorite crock pot meals (e-mail me for recipes or check the recipe link on the blog) – Beef Stew, Meatloaf, and Lasagna. I can get all of these ready in the morning and come home to dinner ready to go. The internet is bustin’ with crockpot recipes, blogs, even websites so get your pot on!
  6. Get everyone involved in making the meal happen. Every day my kids have either “set, clear, or dish”. This makes getting a meal on the table much more feasible. It also underlines their investment in our meal. We have a chalkboard mounted on the wall near the table which lists who has which job. I recreate the board each week based on who will be home to set the table and whose schedule would make dishes a better option.
  7. Make eating together a priority. My kids fussed when I initiated this new practice. I ignored them. If they were hungry and dinner wasn’t for two hours, I pointed them towards the baby carrots and dip or I opened a jar of applesauce. I did not cave. It only took a few weeks for them to get the message. Remember – You’re the adult here. You get to make the rules.
  8. I’m sure this is implied, but when you gather for a family meal, turn off the TV and leave the electronic habits elsewhere. Focus on being together.
  9. One last idea here – once you’ve got them all sitting round the table, encourage the conversation. I have a friend that asks her kids to tell them one good and one bad thing that happened that day. My kids like to ask if anyone has new jokes (there seems to be an endless supply if you attend a middle or high school). I like to ask them one thing they learned today. At first it garnered sarcastic comments like, “the corn dogs in the cafeteria are gross”, but now I get much better answers. If necessary make a few rules like “No talking about minecraft at the table” (they would have conversations that lasted the entire meal and my husband and I had no idea what they were talking about.)
Like any change, it takes awhile to make this happen. But it’s worth it. Don’t take my word for it, take Rutgers’. Here are a few comments from the newsletter highlighting their findings: 

A study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University showed that teens who take part in regular family meals are less likely to smoke, drink alcohol, or use marijuana and other drugs. 
Studies have also shown that children and teenagers tend to have better grades when their families have dinners together at least five times a week. The Columbia University study showed that frequent family dinners were associated with better school performance, with teens 40 percent more likely to get As and Bs. 
Kathleen Morgan, chair of Rutgers Family and Community Health Sciences, states that having healthful meals during the transition from early to middle adolescence impacts the development of healthy eating behaviors for youths. Morgan claims that the period from 12 years to the late teens is "one of the most dynamic development periods in a person's lifetime, and habits established in this time frame are more likely to last." 
Miriam Weinstein, author of The Surprising Power of Family Meals, reflects that "family supper is important because it gives children reliable access to their parents. It provides anchoring for everyone's day. It emphasizes the importance of the family." 

I think that last comment is the one that most resonates with me personally. Our family meal anchors our day. All five of us are going in many directions all day long. We’re encountering people, teachings, and media that offer conflicting messages about life, values, and the choices we make. It’s good to come together near the end of each day so that we can process what we’ve heard, seen, and experienced with people who love us and support us no matter what. After being disconnected all day, it’s a few precious minutes to reconnect.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

WANTED: Frustrated Beekeeper

Again this year I was crushed when my beautifully blooming fruit trees fail to produce more than a handful of fully grown fruit. The hillside is resplendent in the spring as the nectarine, apple, plum, pear, and peach trees blossom. But the only fruit produced are a few meager strugglers who are subsequently the only available target for the birds and bugs that summer brings. And yet we mulch and feed and prune and hope.  

For several years I’ve been convinced it’s the bees that are doing it, or not doing it, as is the case. A neighboring farm had busy bee hives just over the hill from us when we first planted our trees nearly ten years ago, but those hives disappeared like so many others did and since then it’s my hypothesis that my trees are blooming but no one’s doing the pollinating. Beautiful blossoms, plenty of leaves, but no fruit. 

Bees are what we need, but while I’m game for most any agricultural endeavor, I draw the line at bees. I don’t have the time, the energy, or the courage to keep bees. And ask any member of my family – I haven’t got time for any more hobbies! So for the past few years I’ve been searching for a frustrated bee keeper. Surely there is someone out there living in an apartment or townhouse or neighborhood association-regulated home who has a life long dream of keeping bees but no where to do it. I’ve asked every honey vendor I’ve encountered at craft shows only to be given a curious stare and then a sales pitch on how I should do it myself. I’ve e-mailed beekeeping associations and gotten no response. 

Finally, a few weeks ago at our farmer’s market a new honey vendor showed up. I approached him like all the others and low and behold he said – “You’re just the kind of person we’re looking for!” I was ready to do a snoopy dance of joy, but calmly listened to him tell me about the Honey Bee RestorationProject. If your property is suitable, they’ll install hives, maintain them, and split the honey with you! Wow – what a sweet deal! We’re currently waiting for our site inspection and ever hopeful that new hives will arrive in the spring. 

Honey bees have been struggling to make a comeback from the mysterious hive collapses that have effected up to 90% of feral bees and 35% of domesticated hives all over the world. Honey bees are responsible for 80% of all insect pollination, so their loss could mean devastating effects for the world’s food supply. Even without keeping bees yourself or inviting someone to keep bees on your property, there are things you can do to help the bees. Here are just a few suggestions: 

  1. Buy local honey. This supports the small beekeepers so that they can continue to care for local hives and make a profit. I’ve always heard that eating honey grown close to your home helps you to develop a strong immunity to local allergens. Makes sense. Besides that, local honey is fresh and tastes amazing. I just tried some local raw alfalfa honey that blew me away. Such a treat!
  2. Plant bee-friendly plants like allums, mints, beans, any kind of daisy-like flower, asters, hollyhocks, sunflowers. The bees just love our raspberries which is probably why they are always our most prolific crop.
  3. Teach your children about the importance of the honey bee. My kids know better than to swat at a honey bee. They are welcome guests here. Learn about honeybees yourself and then help your kids to identify them. I personally think they are the cutest of the bees, with their fuzziness and delicate size.
  4. And you know I’m going to tell you to not use pesticides. This especially includes Chemlawn and the like. This broad spectrum pesticide use kills not only weeds, but honey bees and the plants they survive on. Dandelions and clover are a favorite delicacy for the bees. I look across our yard and don’t see a weed-ridden expanse, but a bio-diverse honey bee smorgasbord. One boon of such inclusive attitude is that when drought strikes and all the beautiful lawns turn brown, my yard (truly you can’t call it a lawn) remains green, native grasses and “weeds” being much tougher than the exotic chemically-dependent grasses.
  5. The Apex Bee Company is a local company that lets you foster a hive for a small fee. What a great investment in local agriculture and a life lesson for your children about the importance of honey bees.
My husband’s new favorite joke is that our pony, Shoebee, is going to get very tired of hearing his name yelled all day throughout the summer. Not me, I won’t shoo any honeybee here to work. I’ll gladly trade a few inadvertent stings for a homegrown golden delicious!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

One Potato, Two Potato, Sweet Potato, VOLE!

All summer long I raved about my sweet potatoes. I’d put more in this year than ever and they look vibrant and healthy, sprawling over the garden edges in a gorgeous show of green with hints of purple. This past week, I decided to dig a few and make sweet potato fries on the grill. The presence of both cats, sitting like vultures on the border of the garden as I began to dig should have been my first clue that something was amiss. As soon as I began to dig, they began to pace and prowl. The first potato I dug looked gorgeous! From one side. The other side was completely eaten away by some underground thief. After a few more turns of the shovel, the older cat pounced and quickly darted away carrying a limp brownish-gray figure. Voles. Ugh. The rest of the dig went much the same way. Great day for the cats, not such a great day for me. 

I salvaged what I could because sweet potatoes are one of the nutritional powerhouses that I try to pack in to as many meals as I can. They contain beta carotene, vitamin C, iron, potassium, fiber and complex carbohydrates, to name a few of their benefits. My children shrink from their oddly sweet taste, just as I did when I was a child. Vegetables aren’t supposed to taste sweet, or so I thought. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I discovered what a boon they are – yummy, sweet, healthy, and relatively low in calories. I tricked my own children in to eating sweet potato fries by growing white sweet potatoes one year. I sliced them up, tossed them with grapeseed oil and flaked salt, and grilled them to perfection. The kids thought they were especially delicious fries. I clued them in after two or three meals and now they’ll eat sweet potato fries even if they’re orange. 

One of the challenges of growing sweet potatoes for me (besides the new challenge of a resident vole colony), is figuring out how to cure them. They need hot, humid temperatures for a few weeks to cure so that they’ll last through the winter. Heating with wood makes our house relatively warm, but not at all humid. Last year’s sweet potatoes lasted until January. This year I’m trying a new trick, suggested by the sweet potato queen and king who live just around the corner (more about them later). I’ve double wrapped them in newspaper and have them nestled in a warm corner. We’ll see what happens.

The vole-damaged potatoes, I’ll cook up and make in to a mash to freeze. Then I can use them for sweet potato pie, bread, and the favorite in this house – sweet potato pancakes. 

The chickens are currently digging up my sweet potato bed eating grubs and ruining any of the remaining vole tunnels. I’ve yet to decide on a battle plan for next year’s voles, but would welcome your ideas. 

Lucky for me, the Pennsylvania Sweet Potato festival is held just down the road. My daughter is a regular volunteer, working for sweet potato pancakes. I joined her this year and tasted a few of the sweet potato pies (vanilla, chocolate, blueberry). Bev and Jack Osman host the sweet potato festival on their beautiful farm in Stewartstown PA. You can dig your own sweet potatoes or buy them already dug. The sweet potato theme carries through the day with music, crafts, and lots of sweet potato food. I should have written this post a month ago to remind everyone, but be sure to watch for the festival next year.  

Locals can learn about sweet potatoes and many other wellness topics by attending classes led by Bev and Jack this fall at the Wellness Center at the farm this fall.
Stopping by their stand at the farmer’s market this weekend, I picked up a brochure entitled, “Sweet Taters for Your Little Tots” full of ideas to help you raise sweet potato lovers from an early age. I wish I’d tried a few of these tricks when mine were still malleable. Here’s a few of the suggestions: 

  1. You can easily make sweet potato baby food by baking a sweet potato at 450 for 25-30 minutes and then scooping out the potatoes and pureeing them.
  2. Sweet potatoes can be diced in to finger food, microwaved a few minutes and served with a side of yogurt for dipping.
  3. Add sweet potato puree to the cheese sauce in mac n cheese.
  4. And of course, make fries out of them.
Now’s the time to stock up on local sweet potatoes in season to eat all winter long. Just be sure to buy cured sweet potatoes, or cure them yourself in a warm bathroom. 

I’ll be experimenting with adding sweet potato mash to many meals this winter, since I’ve got a freezer full. If I stumble upon any masterpieces, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Yes, My Darlings, I CAN Make Pop-Tarts!

Poptarts! I made pop-tarts! (Actually they’re “Toaster Pastries” my helpful hubby informed me. “Pop-Tarts are trademarked.”) Either way, this week I made delicious blueberry toaster pastries! The holy grail of my organic life with kids!  

As a child, I remember the yummy taste of pop-tarts, and when I had my own kids they were one of the first treats granted to them as toddlers. They loved the cinnamon ones best, just like I did, even burned. When we “went organic” as the kids call it in tones reminiscent of the phrase, “when we were strapped to the rack and tortured daily before being forced to eat things only a rabbit could love,” I discovered what a pop-tart is made of and that was the end of the pop-tart era at our house. 

Not long after, we discovered organic toaster pastries, but they were expensive and mean ole’ mom wouldn’t buy them except for special occasions (eternal car rides, weekends that mommy and daddy went away with out them, shots at the doctors). Since then my kids make a point of telling me about the Pop-tarts they eat at their friend’s houses. Another of their subtle reminders of how hard they have it. I’ve managed to make bagels, ice cream, and cookies that are better than the brand names, and my homemade cheezits are getting better with each attempt, but pop-tarts – I never thought they were possible. 

I discovered this recipe for Toaster Pastries at the library. I was perusing the new nonfiction while my son agonized over which Garfield books he would take out this week, and saw a cookbook with a picture of pop-tarts on the cover. Hmmm… It was titled the Homemade Pantry:101 foods you can stop buying and start making. The friendly text and plentiful pictures assured the reader she could do this, saving money and increasing the nutritional value in the process.  

My first thought was not a pleasant one. Damn! I could have written this book! Why didn’t I think of it, I’d be published! Still, I picked up the book looking for more tricks and treats. The pop-tart recipe looked simple and I could make it healthier by using whole wheat flour. The cheez-it recipe was different from the one I keep tinkering with, so I dog-eared the page and checked the book out.  

Homemade Pantry is a delightful read full of quirky sub-titles and stories of the author’s family. I grumbled quietly as I read, impressed and intimidated by the author’s clever format. Many of the recipes are very similar to my own. Great cookbook though, I do admit. 

I know you’re dying for me to tell you how to make your very own toaster pastries, so here it is (with pictures!) 

Make a basic pie crust. There is a recipe in the book, but I used MarkBittman’s recipe and substitute half whole wheat flour because it’s super easy and absolutely delicious.

Basic Pie Crust
1 cup, plus 2 Tablespoons flour

8 Tablespoons butter, cut in to pieces

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

3 Tablespoons Ice water

Place flour, salt, and sugar in food processor. Pulse several times to mix. Add butter and process long enough for it to begin to look crumbly. Place flour mixture in bowl and add ice water. Use your hands to work it in to a ball, don’t over work it or your crust won’t be flaky and light. Wrap in plastic wrap and place in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

I doubled the recipe and ended up with twelve toaster pastries.  So I would assume that one pie crust recipe equals six toaster pastries.
Toaster Pastries
When your crust has been chilled long enough to make it workable, roll it out in to large sheets and cut out rectangles the size of a toaster pastry ( I might try making them a bit smaller next time). Use flour to keep the dough from sticking to the surface or roller (or your fingers). Place pastries on nonstick or well-greased baking pan.

Paint the pastries with egg mixture (one egg plus one tablespoon water mixed together).

This amount of filling was a little too generous!
It made for lumpy toaster pastries, but if you're
not interested in toasting them, lumpy is good.

Place one tablespoon of filling in a thin line down the center of the pastry. I used blueberry jam, but you could choose anything you like in your toaster pastry. I think it would be really great to make a savory version with spinach and cheese or tomato, feta, and black olives!

 Roll out the rest of the dough and cut in to rectangles for the tops. Paint with egg mixture. Seal the edges of the pastry using a fork and then poke the top two or three times.

Bake at 375 for 15 minutes. Total yum.

After they have cooled, sprinkle with confectioner's sugar or top with icing. I went for the sugar instead of icing, much to my children's dismay, but there's already plenty of sugar in these babies!

See the delight in my child's face as he reaches for a pastry! (Actually he already ate the pastry, I just made him pose for this picture, promising him future toaster pastries)

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Battle for Your Health

There’s a war going on in your house. Well, at least within your body. Your immune system is much like the armed forces. Without it, your body could be invaded on a regular basis and taken over or even destroyed by enemy invaders.

I’ve learned more than I want to know about immune systems thanks to the unwelcomed invasion of Alopecia Areata in my youngest son’s body. Since that time, I’ve been building up the defense systems of everyone in the house. The result? We’re still hosting Alopecia, but beyond that we rarely get sick. I have an opportunity to reflect on this each fall when we go to our “well” check ups and the doctor comments on how he/she hasn’t seen this child since the last “well” visit. 

Just recently I watched as an enemy invader germ tried to take down each of my kids in succession. Happily, it failed. Each child complained briefly of a slightly sore throat and general tiredness which lasted a day or so. I loaded them up with vitamin C and gave Tylenol to the biggest complainers, even allowing one of them to spend a day at home “resting” (actually watching nonstop TV and eating). Their immune systems were victorious. None of them ever sported a fever.
Their strong fortified systems fended off the worst of it and it’s a distant memory already. I remember the day when a passing virus would have leveled my children, spiking their fevers and requiring a desperate run to the pediatrician’s office where we would be told it just has to run its course. The “course” would include a few days of really sick, followed by a cold that would hang around for a week or longer. Their immune systems made short work of this latest virus.

 Beyond following an organic diet, here’s my advice for beefing up your and your child’s immune system: 

  1. Eat real food. Fruits, veggies, whole grains. If you don’t recognize everything in the ingredients list – don’t eat it or feed it to your kids. Avoid excessive sugar. Cut out the food dyes and artificial sweeteners. Give your body the right ingredients to defend itself. When you load it up with artificial ingredients, it is weakened simply by the effort of trying to process things not meant to be eaten by people. That weakened state leaves it vulnerable, while whole food fortifies it with plenty of good nutrition.
  2. Drink lots (and lots and lots) of water. Offer water with every meal. Encourage water drinking all day long. I try to drink a glass when I get up and one before each meal. Water helps keep your system running smoothly, flushing out toxins and giving you energy. Dehydrated people (most people are) are tired and not equipped to fight off enemy germs.
  3. Get enough sleep. This is the hardest one for our family. My kids are teenagers (or almost) and their bodies are adopting nocturnal leanings that make it hard for them to go to sleep early. Sadly, the school district doesn’t seem to be concerned with these teenage tendencies and requires them to be on a school bus by 7am. I don’t have any answers for this one. I’ve been trying to let the natural consequences of gong to bed at midnight and being forced out of bed by a parental unit at 6am do the teaching, but it is a slow process. One child (the girl child of course!) has begun to figure this out.
  4. Exercise! I swear by this. I know for a fact that a good run can knock out the first wave of a cold or virus much quicker than any medicine I can take. Get your kids moving somehow, some way. If they aren’t in sports, find another way. I used to let my youngest trade 30 minutes on the treadmill for 30 minutes of TV time. I know it’s bribery, but hopefully it’s also a lesson. Model exercise and invite your kids to join you.
  5. Find some alone time. Stress has a big impact on your immune system. Stressed out people get sick. Find ways to counter that in your kids by making sure they get time to do their own thing. They don’t need constant stimulation. One of my kids makes music, another takes walks and writes, and the third spends solitary time with his legos. I know that when they aren’t getting these opportunities their stress level goes up. Try to create spaces in your kids days for quiet time. Sometimes this requires a little manipulation. My kids computers automatically shut down for several hours each day, effectively forcing them to find something else to do. Nine times out of ten it leads to quality down time. 
These days you can’t walk down the grocery aisle without being blasted by products claiming to boost your immune system. I’m here to tell you that there is no processed food or multi-vitamin that can even compete with the five things listed above. In fact, I’d wager to guess that most “immune boosting” products cancel themselves out by containing artificial ingredients, preservatives, and dyes. 

If you’re a vitamin taker, consider adding Vitamin D to the line up. Research continues to reveal that most of us are deficient in it, especially in the darker months. 

As winter approaches, take the time to access and reinforce your kids’ defense systems. Who knows what’s coming down the pike this year in terms of colds and flus. Be prepared.