Saturday, February 22, 2014

Soup! 13 Winter Warmer Recipes

My four-year-old keeps asking me if it's almost spring. Here in Philly we get more slush than snow that lays nicely on hills for sledding or that clumps easily into snowmen. My daughter is also quite the little fashionista and much prefers the pastel colors and lighter fabric of her spring and summer wardrobes to her winter one.

I, on the other hand, love winter. Hot cocoa by a warm fire, fleece and flannel sheets, the stark, solemn beauty of snow-covered evergreens and skeletal deciduous trees against a clear, blue sky - I can't get enough.

How can to get my kiddo to better appreciate the coldest season?

Maybe the quickest way for winter to get to my daughter's heart is through her stomach. She might not be into playing in freezing temperatures in a bulky snowsuit, but she sure enjoys a bowl of hot soup.

I present 13 of my family's favorite soup recipes discovered online and tested in my kitchen. They are mostly vegetarian or vegan for health reasons, but the list felt incomplete without chicken soup and beef stew. Also, tastiness was of prime concern and easiness a close second.

I chose 13 because that's roughly the number of weeks of true winter that we in the north must endure, and because I'm a skeptic who enjoys scoffing at superstition.

1.) I'm a huge fan of the recipes found on Susan Voisin's blog, Fat Free Vegan Kitchen, and have included two of her soup recipes in this post. The first is my new favorite, Ridiculously Easy Cream of Broccoli Soup. It is exactly what its name describes - super easy to make and quite delicious. You can see my daughter scarfing it up in the photograph above. With six common ingredients (plus salt and pepper), and requiring only a pot and blender to make, you can't go wrong.

2.) Also from Susan Voisin's blog, I present Stormy Black Bean Soup. This has been a favorite of mine for at least a couple years. It's great as a one-pot meal that you can throw together after work. I usually dress mine up with some hot sauce and slices of avocado.

3.) The magazine Chop Chop is a pretty good source for family-friendly recipes. The ingredients are all familiar to many kids, and these are recipes that even small children can help prepare. I discovered two soups that our family enjoys. The first is Super Tomato Soup, which of course pairs wonderfully with a grilled cheese sandwich (or quesadilla.)

4.) The second soup from Chop Chop is Butternut Squash and Apple Soup. Butternut squash is a pain in the butt to peel and chop, but I've noticed a lot of grocery stores starting to offer packages of pre-cut squash, and this is a great use for them.

5.) Dr. John McDougall is a food guru who advocates a plant-based diet to promote health. He's known for his best-selling books full of easy-to-make, appealing recipes. I'm rather enthusiastic about parsnips, having discovered them in my early adulthood. Not everyone is familiar with them, but they are sort of like a pale, yellow carrot with a more subtle, sweet flavor. Parsnips are truly fantastic either steamed or roasted. On Dr. McDougall's website I found another use for them, this wonderful Potato and Parsnip Soup. There are several recipes on the page, so you have to scroll down to find that soup recipe.

6.) Kale is a big food celebrity among the health-conscious these days, so how could I not include a soup with kale? I love well-prepared kale, and so do my kids. It pairs wonderfully with potatoes, as I found with this recipe for Potato and Kale Soup, also from Dr. McDougall. (Again you must scroll down a bit on the page to find the soup recipe.)

7.) I had some difficulty choosing just one lentil soup recipes for this post, and finally landed on this Curried Red Lentil Soup by chef Linda Lantos. It is a little more elaborate than the preceding recipes, but it is worth the effort if you have the time and patience.

8.) I recently discovered the food blog Bev Cooks, and this winter tried a couple of her truly tasty and exotic soups. The first is Thai Coconut Corn and Mushroom Soup. I'm just crazy about anything with coconut milk and mushrooms, and Thai cuisine is something I feel my children must learn to appreciate.

9.) The second from Bev Cooks is Smoky Corn Chowder with Shrimp. Getting enough iron is always a concern with my petite, little girls who eat mostly vegetarian. Shrimp is high in iron, and more importantly, very yummy. The inclusion of this recipe also satisfies the obligatory bacon requirement.

10.) I've made Beaker's Vegetable Barley Soup probably over a dozen times over the past ten years. It is an unpretentious, satisfying soup to eat with fresh bread on bitter cold days. Even better to eat while reading a good short story with some soothing guitar music in the background. This is the sort of meal that inspires me to appreciate life a little bit more.

11.) A few years ago a friend of mine turned me on to Pumpkin Black Bean Soup with Curry. Whenever I've made it for guests it's always a big hit. I've never kept to one version of the recipe (there are many online, including one from Rachel Ray), but this link does the job. I should also mention that I have always replaced the whipping cream with coconut milk.

12.) Now we come to the absolutely must-have chicken noodle soup. The soup we Americans eat when we're sick or otherwise need comfort. My maternal grandmother's chicken noodle soup recipe was so well-loved that it was served as part of the meal during her funeral's reception. I have tried many different chicken noodle recipes over the years, and it was again difficult to choose just one to include here. I landed on Easy Chicken Noodle Soup from a Leftover Roasted Chicken Recipe because I found it to be a practical recipe for busy parents.

13.) The final must-have (in my opinion) in any list of winter warmers is beef stew. My mother-in-law has several times made beef vegetable stew to serve us as soon as we arrive after the 9+ hour drive home for the holidays, and I consider it to be one of the most satisfying and comforting meals. I've tried a whole lot of those over the years, some more successful than others. This Beef Stew with Carrots and Potatoes found at Once Upon A Chef is the best I've found in recent memory.

Just a few more weeks of winter left. Stay warm!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

LEGO Jumps on the Princess Bandwagon

LEGO has just come out with its new line of building sets hoping to attract girl customers, and (no surprise here) the theme is none other than Disney princesses.

*Cue the groans of feminist parents everywhere*

Much has been written about the dangers of marketing separate toys to boys and girls. The concern is that by encouraging girls and boys to play with different toys, we are encouraging separate gender roles. Pushing gender roles can do all kinds of damage. It can stigmatize individuals who don't fit into those assumed roles.

One of the biggest, specific complaints today about the toy marketing directed at girls is that it can steer potential talent away from STEM fields, and this at a time when more talent is needed and men dominate those fields.

As a mother of two girls, I definitely share these concerns about assigned gender roles. However, I don't want to join the throng of people railing against all things pink and princess without looking at all the available evidence and carefully thinking it through. Especially when my young daughter (to disclose my personal bias) has become a huge clothes horse, refuses to wear anything other than a fancy dress and tights, and revels in calling herself a princess.

The most popular toys, as reported by the Washington Post, are Barbies for girls, and LEGOs for boys, and certainly that fact lends credence to the idea that toys aimed at boys encourage interest in STEM, while toys aimed at girls steer them away. Given this situation, aren't LEGO building sets aimed at girls a good thing? A way to bridge the gap?

Last year I wrote about LEGO's recent efforts to market their building sets to girls, with Appreciation for Pink and Purple Lego Bows. In that article I made the case that typical girls are turned off by traditional LEGO, and that with the new Friends line of sets, LEGO has found a way to draw typical girls to their products in droves.

The LEGO Friends minifigs are more naturalistic, having numerous accessories, some curves and more facial, clothing, and body details. The buildings in Heartlake City, too, put more emphasis on the decor than the architectural design.

Critics of the new LEGO products and marketing campaigns argue that the Friends sets are LEGO altered to the point where the drawbacks of promoting superficial and stereotypical femininity outweigh the benefits of girls playing with building sets. Basically that LEGO for girls is just another version of Barbie.

The new Disney Princess series of LEGO building sets are a continuation of this new marketing campaign targeting girls. The minifigs are based on the Friends minifigs, not the traditional yellow ones. That said, they are hardly Barbie.

Consider this side to side comparison of the LEGO version of Merida (from the film Brave) and a Barbie-like fashion doll version of Merida. Certainly LEGO Merida is pretty, but she's not nearly as glamorous as the (heavily criticized) fashion dolls. These new LEGO figures aimed at girls might be more curvy than the traditional figures, but they are still stylized in a non-sexual way. They don't depict unrealistic ideals of female beauty as super slim and busty, as do fashion dolls. The essential spirit of LEGO as toys generic enough to encourage kids to impose their own vision is still present.

I must add that I'm getting kind of tired about how much I see written against girl toys that obsess over physical beauty, yet how little I see criticizing boy toys that obsess over violence. The LEGO City series is marketing to boys the same age group that Friends is aimed at for girls, so as young as five years old. While LEGO City has many everyday happenings such as trash collection, logging, and surfing, it is apparently also a place full of criminal activity which requires a huge emphasis on law enforcement. Other LEGO lines that tend to attract boy consumers such as Chima and Ninjago are full of violent conflict, weapons, and warriors.

I am hesitant to say that all these toys for boys that glorify violence are a definite bad influence. Of course they might be. After all, they do promote dehumanizing stereotypes of "good guys" and "bad guys" and depict war and noble, exciting, and even entertaining. But is there any evidence that boys whose parents ban such toys grow up to be less violent and more compassionate because of it?

Likewise, is there any evidence that playing princess with makeup, accessories, and costumes will dissuade girls from entering STEM fields? Can girls not be interested in STEM and also glamour and glitz?

Jennifer Welsh wrote an article for Business Insider, saying These Are the 7 Things Keeping Women Out of Science Careers. Her list includes teasing of girls for studying science, and stereotypes of female scientists as weirdos. The argument is that the culture and perception of STEM fields is not friendly to typical girls and women, and so only a minority of outliers brave their way in. The only real solution is for STEM culture and perception to change.

If we apply this to toys, and consider LEGO as representative of toys which direct kids toward STEM, LEGO's marketing to girls is a step in the right direction. With these new products and marketing campaigns, they are changing the broader perception of the LEGO brand as for boys. Once girls feel that they have been invited in by Friends and Disney Princesses lines of LEGO, they are more likely to reach for the more challenging sets found in the totally gender-neutral Creator and Architecture series. Boys and girls who are friends will also be more likely to play LEGO together, as the bricks from all the sets are interchangeable.

While concerns about gender stereotypes will (and should) haunt me as a parent, at the end of the day, I must admit I'm impressed with any toy that gets my four-year-old daughter to spend several hours over a couple days following a 67 page construction manual (the result of her receiving the Friends Pet Salon for Christmas.) And when my daughter begs me for princess toys, I'm happy to have an alternative to the fashion doll.

As much as I previously hated all things Disney Princess, when I saw LEGO join the princess parade, I cheered.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Picture Books to Introduce the Young Naturalist to Winter

Back in December I read this article by Sara St. Antoine at The New Nature Movement, which discusses books as a powerful way of connecting children to nature and the outdoors. 

This passage especially caught my attention: 

This topic hit the news recently with the release of a study led by J. Allen Williams, Jr. of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He and his research team looked at 296 children’s books—all Caldecott award winners from 1938 to 2008—and found a significant decline in representations of natural places and animals over the last two decades. They concluded, “These findings suggest that today’s generation of children are not being socialized, at least through this source, toward an understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the place of humans within it." 
Last winter my children were given The Big Snow by Berta and Elmer Hader, winner of the 1949 Caldecott Award. The delicate illustrations of animals indigenous to the American Northeast seem to come right out of a nature journal. 

The first half of the text is more educational than driven by narrative, as all the various animals prepare for winter by either migrating south, gathering food, or hunkering down in burrows. 

A story does start to form when a big snowstorm hits, and afterward all the resident animals who forage for food all winter are hungry and cut off from their natural food supply. It is then that an elderly couple come out of their warm home to toss out feed for the animals. 

Though 64 years old, this book remains a clear explanation of various strategies animals apply to survive winter, and a poignant example of how humans can act with empathy toward our fellow creatures. 

Recently I discovered another Caldecott winning book that teaches about a different aspect of winter as a natural phenomena: Snowflake Bentley, written by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, and illustrated by Mary Azarian, and published in 1998. 

The book tells the story of Wilson Bentley, a Vermont farmer whose obsession with snow drove him to become a self-taught snow expert and the first to capture the exquisite and short-lived beauty of snowflakes on film. The text includes sidebars with additional facts about Bentley's work, while Azarian's hand-colored, folksy woodcuts boldly bring the story to life. 

Both of these books more than fit the bill for what Sara St. Antoine is calling for in her article. Specifically, she longs for "stories that delve deep into a natural kingdom and show ordinary people making their way there" to "get kids excited about actual nature." 

I'm very fond of fantasy, science fiction, and superheroes. But I also see St. Antoine's concern if there's little-to-no children's literature that invites us to experience the natural world in a more direct and down to earth manner. 

In addition to The Big Snow and Snowflake Bentley, I encourage parents to check out St. Antoine's extensive list of books about nature and the outdoors, categorized by age group, and found at the end of her article

And for more recommendations and reviews of picture books specific to winter, check out these lists: 

Children's Picture Books for Winter, 2013 by Caryn at Three Books A Night 

Little Lions: Best Kids' Books About Winter from the New York Public Library on Mommy Poppins

Best Children's Picture Books About Winter and Snow by Elizabeth Kennedy on

Books That Inspire A Little Snow Adventure by Keryn Means on Walking On Travels 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Risking Life and Limb to Birdwatch

The last thing the AAA guy said was, "I have no idea how you're going to get your car out of there." 

Let me back up. This past Saturday I attempted something very foolish for the sake of my child. I tried to drive my 2-wheel drive sedan up a quarter mile, curvy drive that was covered in a sheet of ice. Why did I do something so stupid? Because at the top of the drive was a local environmental center offering a free children's program about snow. 

The center had sent out an email that morning warning that the drive was icy, but that cars were making it up driving in low gear with a bit of speed. I figured if I didn't make it all the way up, I could always just back down in reverse. I made it most of the way up, but then slowed to a stop. In my attempt to go in reverse back down a sharp curve, I slipped and backed right into a giant rock and tree. 

Now the problem when my car is stuck nearly a quarter mile up a steep, icy drive was that no vehicle which could tow my car out could get up there and pull without the risk of sliding right into my car. Which is why two days and two AAA guys later my car was still stuck. 

Thankfully, Monday morning (after two more cars got stuck on the same drive) the city sent out a salt truck. A couple of city employees dug my car out, and I was able to get a tow to pull me out. The total cost was mostly a lot of worry, a day off work for my husband to watch the kids, and a backache and sore leg muscles from me shoveling and walking up and down an icy drive. Could have been much, much worse. 

Oh, the dumb things we do for our kids. 

After I first got stuck, while I was calling AAA and fretting about what to do about my car, my daughter was cutting out paper snowflakes, dropping salt and food coloring into blocks of ice for sun-catchers, and making maple icecream. Being only four years old, she had no concerns over the car or my anxiety. She was simply having a lovely time learning about snow. 

When she finished her suncatcher, we took it outside to hang up. An array of resident birds such as chickadees and cardinals congregated around bird feeders next to the environmental center. My daughter and I watched them flutter, hop, and peck with shared delight. I looked down at her wondrous expression, and said, "Even though the car got stuck, I'm glad we came." 

(Okay, I must admit, I wish we'd just parked at the bottom of the hill and walked up. Had things gone any worse, I'd really be kicking myself.) 

I'm glad for the mindset and habits I've developed as a parent regarding my kids' education and exposure to nature. With modern conveniences, and especially living in a city, it's easy to forget where we come from, and the environment that we're dependent on, ecologically speaking. 

Winter is the season that reminds us that nature is still in charge. It is the most inconvenient and violent of seasons. School is canceled. Colds and even life-threatening flu and pneumonia become more common. People break bones slipping on ice. Trees fall, weighted down by snow, damaging property. In these modern times it is still relatively easy to ignore the harshness of winter by staying indoors. But then the heating bill arrives. 

Garrison Keillor is known for the colorful stories about harsh winters in Minnesota he tells on his radio show A Prairie Home Companion. On one episode he remarked: 
Growing up in a place that has winter, you learn to avoid self-pity. Winter is not a personal experience, everybody else is as cold as you, so you shouldn't complain about it too much. You learn this as a kid, coming home crying from the cold, and Mother looks down and says, “It’s only a little frostbite. You’re okay.” And thus you learn to be okay. What’s done is done. Get over it. Drink your coffee. It’s not the best you’ll ever get but it’s good enough. 
I don't want to worship or idealize nature. The biosphere is neither good nor bad, but awe-inspiring in its complexity, and humbling in its enormity and power.

I hope to get my children interested in the scientific investigation and understanding of nature. I also hope to instill in them an appreciation for nature as it is experienced through both first-hand experience and artistic expression. This is no simple task, as I live in the developed world in the year 2014. My children could easily go their entire childhoods without ever seeing a forest or farm. 

This week we bought some bird seed, gathered a few pine-cones, and are making bird feeders in the hopes of attracting some resident birds to our own front yard. 

Nature education must be an educational priority, just like reading and math, history and science, art and movement. That's why I drove up a treacherous, ice-covered hill, so my kid could cut paper and play with ice, salt, and food dye.  

Addendum I: Here's a wonderfully informative website about snowflakes. 

Addendum II: Since I'm on the topic of nature education, Happy Darwin Day 2014! 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Why Michael Pollan's Advice Doesn't Work for Most Families

Which do you want to deal with after an 8-10 hour work day?
Michael Pollan is one of the biggest food gurus today. The journalist has authored several best-selling books on food, including The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. And like any intellectual guru worth his or her salt, he's given a stirring TED talk.

Pollan has a lot over many others offering advice on how to eat. First, his tone is friendly and casual, which can be refreshing in the face of so many more urgent voices that seem to cry, just follow this diet and you'll save the world and live to be 100. Otherwise we're all doomed! 

Second, he doesn't go to extremes (such as proponents of strict veganism, raw food, or the Paleo diet), so you don't feel like you have to stop going to restaurants or become religious about eating habits.

Third, his advice is simple and easy to remember. Pretty much everything he advocates is encapsulated in this short list of his 7 Rules for Eating on WebMD.

Michael Pollan's advise has even been boiled down to this single suggestion: just cook, as we see in this short animation narrated by Pollan:

Eat anything you want, just cook it yourself. Sounds simple enough. But is it?

I cook for a family of four almost every day. Here's what that involves:

The Shopping: I make a weekly menu, then make a list of ingredients to buy and make sure they fit within the budget. Sounds easy, but it requires usually about an hour of thinking and looking up recipes. If I forget anything, I'll have to return to the grocery store, which takes even more time. Then there's the couple of hours it takes to actually go out and get the stuff. Since I cook with fresh ingredients, I must even consider the order in which I cook meals, because certain foods won't last a week in the fridge.

Organization and Daily Mindfulness: Each day I must be aware what's for dinner, so I know what time to begin preparation. Most food prep must begin at least an hour and a half before dinner so there is time to clean, chop, saute, bake, roast, get interrupted by the kids, etc. Something in the crock pot needs to be started 6-10 hours in advance. A loaf of bread in the bread-maker at least 3.5 hours in a advance.

Mistakes: I can't say how many times I've screwed up the timing and ended up crying along with my hungry kids as dinner slides into the oven 30-45 minutes late. I can't say how many times I've under-cooked dishes because I was in too much of a hurry. I can't say how many time I've burned things because I was distracted by child care while cooking.

I once forgot to turn the oven off on a quiche while I took my daughter to ballet. After dropping her off, I had just enough time to rush back home, then rush back to pick her up. The quiche could not be saved and we ordered a pizza that night.

Large quantities of beans, pasta, and baked goods.
Cleanup: Obviously washing all those pots and pans, mixing bowls, food processors, blenders, mixers takes more time than just throwing out some packaging.

All in all, I spend about 20 hours per week on food prep, cooking, and cleanup. That's all time I don't spend working on my career, playing with my kids, spending quality time with my husband, volunteering, or just relaxing. If I had a full time job outside of the home, I would not cook every day.

To explain the difficulties with Pollan's advise another way, let's break down his 3-phrase mantra from In Defense of Food: Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants. 

Eat food: By this Pollan means don't eat processed food - that stuff that lasts forever on the shelf, that your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize, and which has all those unpronounceable ingredients. The problem? Real food generally costs more and takes more time to prepare. Whenever I find myself in a position where I must cut back on the grocery bill or get dinner on the table fast, I inevitably turn to store-bought bread products, cheap sauces, pre-made rotisserie chicken, etc.

Not too much: Life stress combined with easy access to high sugar and high fat foods makes overeating almost inevitable for most Americans. In the video above, Pollan mentions the term "cravability" used in the food industry. Yes, we're up against an entire industry set on making us crave products to which we have easy access. Will power alone isn't going to cut it, especially for busy, stressed-out parents.

I find that I'm most in danger of suddenly bingeing on hotdogs, pizza, ice cream, or gas station cheeseburgers (yeah, I do that, don't judge) if I've been really good about cooking wholesome meals at home for a while. All the cleaning, chopping, mixing, stirring, and timing is so much work (not to mention career duties, other housework, and child care), I feel like I need a break and deserve a treat. And since I haven't been eating that excessively fatty, sugary stuff all week, after the first bite my brain just goes Oh holy fuck that tastes good! And any plans of only eating 500 calories worth go right out the window.
The crock pot is our friend.

Mostly plants:  Here we run into a cost issue again. Plant based foods tend to be lower in calorie, so one has to eat more (and buy more) of them. Plant based foods also tend to be less flavorful on their own. I can add absolutely nothing to a well cooked piece of meat, fish, or an egg, and it's still pretty darn tasty. But beans and rice requires cumin, chili powder, salsa, avocado, and hot sauce to be just as palatable for me, and all those extras cost money.

Despite the title of this blog post, I'm a huge fan of Michael Pollan's advise about food. I probably think about his mantra at least a couple times a week. I do try to stick to the perimeter of the grocery store and avoid buying foods that have more than five ingredients.

But actually following Pollan's advice is a daily struggle, and one which has not become easier after years of attempts. The success I have had is possible because of the ample free time afforded to me by my position of economic privilege and as a work-from-home-parent.

Our  household income is almost 300% above poverty, and slightly higher than the 2013 median American household. On a good week we spend $150 per week on groceries. That's about $20 per day. Walking through the processed food isles at the Dollar Store, I know $20 a day can buy a lot more calories that take a lot less time to prepare than what I do spend it on. If I switched my kids to things like instant oatmeal packets for breakfast, grilled cheese for lunch, and canned ravioli for dinner, I could easily cut our grocery bill by a third. (And as added bonuses, I'd spend a lot less than 20 hours a week in food prep and my kids wouldn't complain as much.)

These are hard choices to live with when there's so much we parents want to do with our limited money and time. But I'm one of the lucky ones, because my family's income and my flexible career affords me a legitimate choice.

Some kids insist on separated foods. This can make cooking
even more difficult. This dinner took almost 2 hours to make.
Two thirds of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck (source.) Over a third of children are raised by single moms, and over 60% of mothers raising kids work. (source.) More than one in five American children live in households under the poverty line. Our problem with food in America isn't education. Even if we know what and how to eat to stay healthy, it simply isn't affordable and practical for most of us.

Our real problems with food in America are poverty, unemployment, under-employment, too long hours and too long commutes for so many working parents, government subsidies for the wrong kinds of food, and an under-regulated food industry that preys on our intrinsic desire for foods high in fat, sugar, and salt.

In the face of all this, knowledge and will power of the individual aren't a solution. Major changes would have to happen in our labor laws, social programs, and food industry regulations before Pollan's advise is really practical for most Americans.

In the meantime, given our current situation, I've come up with a list of tips for parents who want to attempt to follow Pollan's rules for eating:

  • Get a rice cooker and make a habit of cooking up a big pot of rice every other day. 
  • Buy as much fruit on sale as you can afford, and try to start each day eating some. 
  • Frozen veggies last long and are often cheaper than fresh. Plus, some kids will just eat frozen corn and peas as snacks. 
  • Canned veggies aren't as good as frozen, but better than no veggies. Except maybe canned asparagus. That shit is nasty. 
  • Butter and sprinkle Parmesan cheese can go a long way toward getting most kids to eat more vegetables and to making vegetables more satisfying. 
  • Don't buy snack foods. Ever. Saves money and the kids won't drive you nuts begging to eat crackers all the time.
  • Crock pots are awesome - just throw all the stuff in a pot in the morning and turn it on. (Some kids have a hard time with big chunks of different foods mixed together. One fix for that is using a hand mixer and making pureed soups such as potato.) I love this Crock Pot cook book. 
  • Bread makers are also awesome, and I'm always seeing cheap ones for sale in thrift stores. 
  • Buy less milk and cereal. Oatmeal is way cheaper than cereal and milk, and often healthier, too. The dairy industry has hyped the nutritional value of daily milk consumption. 
  • Put all the veggies in the pasta. If the kids complain about chunks of veggies, puree it into sauces. Cauliflower works great in cheese or cream based sauces, and pretty much any veggies will puree well into a tomato sauce.
  • Meat is expensive, full of fat, and lots of kids just want to eat that and then not veggies, so try to use it sparingly in rice or pasta dishes that stretch it further.
  • Use beans more as a protein. They are cheap, are already cooked in the can, and can be prepared a gazillion different ways to suit different tastes. If worried about the salt in canned, you can cook dried beans or just rinse the canned ones. 
  • Make a lot of potatoes. They are cheap and taste good. The easiest thing I've found to do with them is chopping them into wedges, spraying them with veggie oil, sprinkle with salt, and 25 minutes in the oven at 425 degrees. 
  • In general if you have the time to cut up all the veggies or the money to buy them already cut up, roasting veggies is the bomb. Most veggies will roast well at 400 degrees for 40 min-1 hour. Ones I've gotten my kids to eat regularly: butternut squash, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, turnips, red peppers, onions, and sweet potatoes.
  • Make refried bean quesadillas on corn tortillas. It's as quick and easy to prepare as a toasted cheese sanwich or box of mac-n-cheese, but healthier. Corn tortillas and refried beans are cheap, and a small amount of melted cheese gets most kids to gobble it up.

Most important tip: If none of the above tips or anything else anyone has suggested works for you, just shrug and do what you gotta do. Food isn't the end-all, be-all of existence. The perfect diet (if such a thing even exists) won't sick-proof your kids or make them grow up to be astrophysicists. A whole generation of working class Americans grew up on things like my Grandma Franny's "Blushing Bunny" (canned tomato soup over white bread) and did just fine.

If your kids are active and engaged with the world, if the pediatrician and dentist aren't freaking out, you've done good.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A More Grounded Winter Holiday

I didn't get around to doing (secular) Christmas cards in December. I was too overwhelmed with work and other holiday season activities. But I absolutely love the tradition of sending cards every year. It's a small but meaningful gesture to friends and family that says, you're important to us.

Cards are physical, and just as a hand-written letter tends to carry more meaning than an email, a card, even a simple photo card, tends to carry more weight than e-cards. Cards are more time consuming and costly than electronic gestures, so I understand why so many people have given it up.

I, however, refuse to totally surrender to the hectic nature of the holiday season, and so instead of just dropping the cards altogether, I pushed them back six weeks and am sending out Groundhog Day cards. Since I had now ample time and I'm a woodcut print-maker, I even made my own cards, one of which you see pictured here, and had my daughter help hand-color a bunch of them. (Inside the cards I'll include the obligatory cute pic of my kids.)

I love this idea, and plan to adopt it as a new family tradition. It's so secular humanist! Here's a fun, cute holiday explicitly connected to nature and the seasons. There are no religious or spiritual trappings. And who couldn't use a pick-me-up in mid-winter after the excess and vacation days of the holiday season are long gone?
Although Groundhog Day has its origins in mild superstition, few people literally believe that groundhogs possess supernatural powers to forecast the weather. There will be no billboards erected by the faithful, urging us to be more pious in our observations of this holiday. Just contradictions between the predictions of Punxatawney Phil and all the other furry prognosticators (Buckeye Chuck, Holtsville Hal, Malverne Mel, Wiarton Willie, etc.) Such disagreements only emphasizes the playful and democratic nature of the holiday. 

Modern Groundhog Day has its origins in my adopted state of Pennsylvania. However, its cultural evolution goes much farther back and across the Atlantic. German settlers originally celebrated February 2nd as Candlemas Day. Like Christmas, that's a Christian holiday, but which marks the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. Also like Christmas, it's clearly a Christianization of earlier, Pagan celebrations, specifically having striking similarities in its date and associated customs to the Celtic holiday Imbolc

Groundhog Day shares a parallel history to "Christmas", with the one exception being that it has a distinctly secular name. The term "Christmas" is stuck in a sort of linguistic limbo where it has both a Christian and secular meaning, depending on who uses (and celebrates) it.

In addition to cards, our family celebrated Groundhog Day by attending two winter festivals. On Saturday we went to the Wagner Free Institute for Science's Winter Wonderland, and heard a storyteller talk and sing about how animals cope with the coldest season. Today we attended the Briar Bush Nature Center's Winterfest, where we met many live animals, made groundhog stick puppets, and shadow puppets of local fauna.

In final praise of Groundhog Day, while I loved Bill Murray in Scrooged (actually I love Bill Murray in anything), his performance in Groundhog Day brought this once exclusively North American holiday to the world's attention.

All and all, Groundhog Day is pretty darn cool.