Friday, July 29, 2011

No Grocery Store Challenge - Be a Localvore/Locavore!

The Guidelines:


1. All grocery (read: food) purchases must be made via Farmer’s market, roadside stand, small shop or  private purchase.

2. $30USD (before tax) is allotted – for the entire 28 days – to purchase various items that cannot be found at aforementioned venues.  All food purchased with this $30 should be organic/bio, if possible.

I am now in my third week of my NGSC and I have no intention of slowing down.  I’ve been to the store only once to pick up some organic coffee creamer, cereal and sunflower seeds.  Pleasantly surprised is too light of a term to describe how I have felt about this experience so far.  Here are a few of the things I’ve learned:

1.  I had more food packed away in my pantry than I thought.  This challenge has prompted me to dig into the corners of my “pantry” – which is really a bereft bookcase in the office because my house does not have an actual pantry – and I’ve discovered some treasures.  I’ve also been working through all of the frozen items I had stockpiled.

2. Preparing and freezing food isn’t as hard as I’d imagined.  My freezer is now stuffed with 30-ears-worth of corn, rhubarb, homemade spaghetti sauce, walnuts, beans, pureed carrots & cauliflower, breads, lemon & lime cubes, peas, and homemade raspberry-basil sorbet.

3.  I have learned how to make things that had never occurred to me to make from scratch.  Along with the aforementioned spaghetti sauce (Never had I made it from fresh tomatoes – so easy, who knew?!) and raspberry-basil sorbet, I also made my own nut butter for the first time.  I used almonds, cashew, pecans and a dash of organic pumpkin oil.  And I will NEVER purchase peanut butter again.  My 4 year old gives it two sticky thumbs up and would eat it for every meal if I let her.  Score! I also blanched and froze vegetables for the first time.   

I swear this is not ALL mine!
4. I discovered a local wine shop.  Wine – grown locally and sold in reusable bottles – for $2.  Seriously. 

5.  I have saved a LOT of money.  I mean, a LOT.  I make no claims that this will happen to you because every town and market is different.  But for me, in Hungary, the savings have been incredible.  Well over 50%.  Keep in mind that we pay a 25% VAT on all grocery here.  At the Farmers’ Market, you don’t.  And now my impulse buys are an additional flat of raspberries or a bag of fresh-ground paprika. 

Which means:

6.  I have lost 10 lbs.  Now I know this is mostly reduced water retention.  HOWEVER, the reason I don’t have water retention is because I’m not porking out on bags of chips.  I’m cooking fresh, whole foods with herbs as seasoning.  I also have a lot more energy thanks to eating non-processed foods & sugar. I was not doing the NGSC to lose weight, but I. WILL. TAKE. IT.

7.  After trolling the internet for other NGSC participants – I am not the first and I am happy to say I am not the last – I stumbled upon the word, “Localvore or Locavore.”  What a delightful term.  I now dub myself a Localvore.  May I live up to it!

Since I joined the challenge and it was graciously mentioned by both TakePart & Food, Inc (and, seriously, what an honor!!!), I have been contacted by two individuals who have either started or will be starting their own NGSC.  So wonderful!  And if you’re still skeptical about going full-on, check out Sara’s NGSC Lite.  Even if you skip just one grocery store trip to visit your local Farmer’s Market, you have made a difference.  Kudos!

If you missed it, check out my Farmers' Market & Food Storage tips.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sane Couponing



There are a few TV shows that I watch despite the fact that they make me yell at the TV. One of them is TLC's "Extreme Couponing." In case you haven't caught an episode yet, I'll sum it up.

It might be more aptly titled "Stupid Coupon Tricks." In this show, people spend 40 or even 60 hours per week clipping coupons, scanning grocery store ads, printing online coupons, making spreadsheets and planning in order to get a ton of groceries for nothing or next to nothing. They sit in the checkout line for hours with smug looks on their faces while the poor cashier scans and scans and sometimes they buy so much stuff in one transaction that the cash register runs out of memory and crashes and the order has to be split into multiple transactions. They then take their loot home to their "stockpiles," which take up their entire basement or in some cases, a bedroom or two of their house. But these things aren't what makes me yell at the TV. It's what they buy.

"No one needs 66 candy bars!!" I'll yell, or "You don't need a basement full of Cheez-Its!" Even better, "You only need 30 bottles of Maalox because of the 40 packages of hot dogs you just bought!" It's appalling.

I don't see the point in amassing a huge stockpile of stuff that you don't need just because you can. Don't they have better things to do with their time? I know I do, so I practice what I call "sane couponing."

Despite the "extreme" nature of the show, you can learn the basics of effective couponing from it. Basically, if you can combine a manufacturer's coupon with a sale, a store coupon, or both, you can really save a lot of money. You can get some stuff for free or nearly free. I do this all the time, and regularly save $50-$100 off of a week's groceries. But I do it on a small scale, and I don't spend much time on it.

In our suburb, we have three big grocery stores. Between the three of them, they have the stuff that we actually eat on sale every week. With the repertoire of recipes that I've amassed over the years, I can look at the stores' weekly ads while I eat lunch one day and put together a breakfast, lunch and dinner menu for the week based only on what's on sale. Doing this, I hardly ever even need manufacturer's coupons to really save a lot of money. However, I do clip manufacturer's coupons every week, but only for things that my family actually uses. I hold onto these coupons and try to match them with sales or store coupons whenever possible. If they never get used, oh well, there wasn't much effort wasted in clipping them. I don't get sucked into buying things that I don't need just because they're on sale or because I can. I stick to only buying the things we actually use.

As my favorite coupon blog, Frugal Living NW, has pointed out, it's not a good deal if you never use it.

Coupon blogs are another part of my strategy. I read Frugal Living NW and one or two others. I'm subscribed, so new posts show up in my e-mail, and I read them while I drink my coffee. In these posts, I'll see that something I use is on sale at Safeway, for example, and if I have the right coupon, it's really cheap or free. It's pretty effortless.

I don't buy 600 of anything, I don't have a creepy stockpile, I don't feed my family a bunch of junk, I don't spend much time on it, I don't have to piss off the cashier or the people in line behind me and I do save a lot of money using coupons with minimal effort. If I just look at the weekly ads, am willing to visit all three local grocery stores during a given week, clip a few coupons and read a few coupon blogs, that's all I need to do.

I will keep watching "Extreme Couponing," though, even if it does drive me a bit crazy. I am secretly hoping that one of these days, someone's stockpile will be so out of hand that "Extreme Couponing" will have to be merged with another of my favorite shows, "Hoarders." Now that would be good TV!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Dance! Dance! Dance! Favorite Family Dance Party Tunes

I have no doubt that at some point in their lives, my kids will be dancing on tables. I just pray I don't have to hear about it. For now, I love dancing around the (kitchen) table with them. Family Dance Party is my current favorite form of exercise and here are some of our favorite tunes to dance to. What are your faves?



1. Forget You - Cee Lo Green



I'm just going to assume this is already on your playlist.







2.Say Hey (I Love You) - Michael Franti & Spearhead




Every time I hear this song, I smile. I smile and I dance. If I'm driving, I smile and I bounce around in my seat a lot. If you don't own it already, go to iTunes and download it immediately. I'll wait.







3. YMCA - Village People




Not only is it great for kids to learn how to turn themselves into letters, but it's a mandatory social skill that wedding guests be able to participate in this song. So, if you don't teach them this song, you're putting them at a distinct disadvantage and I know you don't want to do that. (I leave the Chicken Dance, the Macarena and the Bunny Hop to your discretion, however).







4. Mambo Italiano - Rosemary Clooney




I love to sing along while I dance and this song is perfect for that. At two years old, my daughter knew to end this song by saying, "That'sa Nice!" It was one of my proudest mommy moments.







5. Grease re-mix - Olivia Newton John & John Travolta




Not only does this bring back wonderful college memories of being sloppy drunk off cheap keg beer and dancing with your girlfriends but it's just fun for everyone.







6. Car Wash - Rose Royce




I kinda love disco (shh!) and this one's great because little kids can have lots of fun pretending to wash cars while they dance.







7. Hips Don't Lie - Shakira




Go ahead and shake those hips like you've got rhythm.







8. Celebration - Kool & The Gang




Again, Wedding Guest 101.







9. Philadelphia Freedom - Elton John




Perfect for running around the house, while alternating fist pumps in the air. If you have short shorts and knee-high tube socks, even better. How much do you love Elton?! He's the best and he's the best in concert. I once won tickets to see him at Madison Square Garden - I died. To quote Rachel Zoe, Literally, I died.







10. Dancing Queen - ABBA




Trust me - nothing will make your heart happier than watching your daughter dance around the house, singing "I'm a dancing queen."







11. Mamma Mia - ABBA




This is a great way to reinforce the message that Mamma's are awesome and that kids should never let them go. Little ones don't listen to the verses, so all they'll get out of this is the important message that kids should love their mamma's forever - and what's not to love about that?!







12. Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It) - Beyonce




There are enough viral videos out there of kids jamming to this song that I don't need to elaborate.







13. Dancing in the Dark - Bruce Springsteen




Get your 80's on with the decade's famous head bob going and side, step together action. Swing your hands, snap your fingers and you're all set.







14. Friday - Glee Cast




Hate on it all you like, this song begs to be danced to. Plus, you're dancing with your kids in the kitchen, you're well past the point of trying to impress anyone.







15. Proud Mary - Ike & Tina Turner




You've got the hand-rolling motion, followed by the jogging in place, then throwing your hands up in the air, action. It's all good.







16. Let Me Entertain You - Robbie Williams




As is evidenced by my love of the Grease re-mix, I love it when I can point my finger in sweeping gestures while dancing and this song is perfect for that. Plus, Robbie Williams just doesn't get the love here that he deserves. He is pop-tastic.





Thursday, July 21, 2011

Baby Steps to the No Grocery Store Challenge

As the work-at-home mom of two toddlers, I feel like if I take on one more thing, I'll spontaneously combust. So despite already mostly being on board with the No Grocery Store Challenge, I'm not joining Kelly in trying it yet. I have been thinking about the challenge, though, and I realized that I am already doing quite a few things that require little to no extra effort. If you, like me, can't sign on for the whole enchilada yet, here are some things that you can do that still make a difference and keep you out of the grocery store.

1) Bake your own bread. I wrote a whole blog post a while back about baking my own bread. Using the wonderful book Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day, you can mix up enough dough for four loaves of artisan bread in less time than it takes to get to the grocery store and back, and when it's time to bake, the prep takes about 5 minutes. What results is wonderful, fresh-baked bread, WAY better than the dessicated loaves found at the grocery store bakery.

2) Grow your own herbs. This summer has been notoriously unsummer-like here in the Seattle area, but nonetheless, the herbs in my garden are thriving. I've got an abundance of mint, sage, oregano, thyme and lavender outside, and to keep it from icky, herbicidal, basil-loving slugs, I am growing basil inside, in my kitchen window. There's something romantic about stepping out onto your back deck or reaching over to the windowsill to gather herbs with which to season dinner. They are unbelievably easy to grow and growing your own saves a lot of money, especially when you consider the teensy amount that you get in those clamshell containers in the produce department.

3) Bake your own goodies. Since the first time I had cake made from scratch, I have never been able to consider making cake from a mix again. Same with cookies, brownies and cupcakes. There is nothing worse than a disappointing baked good. You're craving it, you eat all those calories, and then it wasn't even good! It's a total rip-off. So I avoid the bland, mass-produced baked goods in the grocery store and bake my own at home. Here's my favorite chocolate cake recipe, which is amazing with homemade buttercream icing. Also, here's a recent discovery, awesome sugar cookies that go together from scratch as fast as a mix would.

4) Get your produce for the week from the farmer's market or the produce stand. I love our local farmer's market so much, I'm sad when its season ends in the fall. I love all the super-fresh, local produce, but I love it even more for the human connections that my family makes there. We know our favorite farmers and bakers. They have become friends. My fruits and vegetables don't come from some faceless rack that sprays water every few minutes, they are handed to me by the smiling human being that grew them. They weren't grown a world away, they were grown a few miles away. That is priceless.

To do the entire No Grocery Store Challenge right now would cause me to have to do more errands than I am currently willing to do. But three out of the four things that I listed above don't even require me to leave the house, unless I run out of ingredients! That I can handle. Are there bits and pieces of the No Grocery Store Challenge that you're already doing, too?

Monday, July 18, 2011

For the Love of Consumerism

I have a love/hate relationship with Pottery Barn Kids. For me, it symbolizes my internal battle with consumerism. On the one hand, I'm repulsed by the $89 doll buggy my three-year-old asks for every time the catalog arrives at our house. On the other hand, that little pram is so stinking cute that I kinda want to get it for her. So it goes with most everything at that store. All of the Pottery Barn catalogs draw me in like nothing else (except those red, Starbucks Christmas cups, which I pathetically adore). Looking at those catalogs, you just know that if your house looked like that, you'd have not just a more well-appointed home but a more well-appointed life as well. Your Saturdays would start off with the New York Times and a cup of coffee in bed before the whole family trekked off in a vintage Jeep Wagoneer to pick up pastries at the nearby French bakery. Then, it'd be on to a morning of perusing the local farmer's market, where you'd carry the perfect woven tote. Your children would be well-behaved and adorable throughout the entire expedition, never once whining that the farmer's market was boring. You'd come home and listen to jazz or cool indie pop while you cooked a delicious, gourmet meal from scratch, while your children played happily nearby, never once raising a ruckus or making a mess. Later, some friends would come over for dinner and you'd regale each other with stories about your latest trips to Croatia or Turkey... Deep down, I know it doesn't work that way, but I get sucked in every time.

It seems that for most of the 90's and the early 2000's, the vast majority of us began to believe and embrace the Sex & The City-style consumerism that now seems somewhat dated. As we watched shows like S&TC, it began to seem reasonable that an average, middle-class woman should buy (and could afford) a pair of $500 Manolo Blahniks. Watching shows like Flip that House, it seemed that we could all make a mint buying, renovating and selling real estate. Financial prosperity was here and everybody was riding high. Even if we weren't riding all that high, it seemed like we should be and likely would be very soon.

When I graduated from college in 2000, I moved to New York. I set up an appointment with a head hunter and arrived at her office wearing my first suit. She told me how glad she was to have a candidate come in who was poised and had a proper resume put together. Before I left her office, she'd arranged a temp job for me and within two weeks, I had three job offers. One college degree and one internship to my name and I had my choice of jobs. How could I not believe the good times would never end?! Everyone else seemed to believe it too.

I was hired at a law firm as a paralegal along with a couple of other recent college grads. Within just a few months, we all received raises. Life was good and would only get better. While I never lived beyond my means, I certainly dreamed beyond them. I dreamed that I'd somehow save up and "invest" in an Hermes Kelly bag, for a cool $15,000. This never happened given how ridiculously far out of reach that purchase was, but given the popularity of the "Confessions of a Shopaholic" series, I know I wasn't alone in my dreams of being a young gal in a big city, donning designer duds.

11 years and a Great Recession later and this all seems so -- gross. Last weekend, my husband and I finally watched The Company Men, starring Ben Affleck. While it was a bit trite at the end, it clearly represented what's gone on in our country. We were all advised to buy the most house we could afford, based on the idea that housing values would always rise and we'd likely continue to make increasingly higher salaries. In the opening scenes of the movie, it showed perfectly appointed homes, stocked with every stainless steel appliance and electronic toy its owner could (or perhaps, couldn't) afford. Of course, like many Americans, he got laid off and lost everything from his house to his golf club membership.

While I've contemplated my relationship with consumerism before, somehow this movie has really made me re-examine not just my individual motives as a consumer, but our society's relationship with consumerism as well. While I recognize that our economy's largely dependent on our consumeristic habits, I can't help but wonder how we all got so off-course. How did we come to a place where everything has a brand-name version of it that we all aspire to? From jeans to candles, from Sub-Zero to Wolf appliances, things that were once reasonably-priced and fairly generic have gone designer. 20 years ago, most Americans just wanted a dishwasher from Sears that worked, now it seems like it has to be Bosch or it's bad.

Clearly our spending and over-spending has gotten us in the predicament we're in today. Aside from our aspirations to expensive goods, there's the more common problem of consumption for consumption's sake. Most of us are guilty of buying things we don't really need and maybe don't even really want all that much just because they're there and we're bored.

The question is, how do we get out of this retail approach to life? Where do we draw the line between wanting and having nice things and not going overboard with it all? How do we re-capture more of a balance between our purchases and our incomes? I certainly don't have the answer. One moment, I'll be rational, wanting to sock money away for a rainy day, only buying the things my family absolutely needs. The next, I'll be coveting a new sweater or something out of that darn Pottery Barn catalog again.

A while back, my husband and I got the book, Smart Couples Finish Rich, and in it, the author suggests people evaluate their values and then make sure their purchases are in line with those values. For instance, if you want to spend more time at home with your kids, don't buy an expensive car that you have to work that much harder to pay off, thus preventing you from spending that time with your kids. Sounds easy and logical enough, but I've found the reality can be a lot harder.

While I think people are quieter and less blatant about consumerism now than we were a few years ago, it's still running rampant. At the height of the recession, I read about wealthy women shopping on Fifth Avenue in New York and asking the designer stores for plain, non-branded bags, as they didn't want to be so ostentatious about their purchases during a time when people were struggling so hard to make ends meet. So, while they didn't want to be so in-your-face with it, they were still buying it.

In 2008, I had hoped the one positive thing to come out of this recession would be a collective shift in values away from so much consumerism. Despite periodic reports of Americans moving away from McMansions and the like, it doesn't really seem like anything's changed too much. Watching House Hunters, it seems we're all still wanting the biggest house with granite countertops as much as we ever were.

Wall Street bankers are still taking home insane bonuses and the rest of us are still coveting, well, everything. I certainly can't point fingers as I'm guilty of this as much as the next guy but still, I wish we'd somehow, collectively agree to forego some of this stuff and turn our attention elsewhere.

It's been proven time and again that our collection of things hasn't made us happier -- on the contrary, we're less satisfied with our lives than we used to be. In general, we have so many things they've largely lost their value, yet we continue to pursue them. We all see it with our kids, who generally have so many toys they don't really know what to do with them and don't enjoy them all that much. I know these aren't the values I want to instill in my kids -- what I'm less sure of is how to prevent it.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Sex.

I was going to write about something else entirely today, until I saw this article on CafeMom, about parents allowing their teenagers to have sex at home, because it's "safer." Obviously this is a terrible idea, but there's much more to say about it than that.

As I commented on Facebook, being the mother of a 3-and-a-half year old and a 19-month-old, this whole topic makes me want to shut my eyes, plug my ears and sing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and block it out for a few more years. Nonetheless, this article got me thinking against my will. How will I handle the topic of sex when my daughters are teenagers?

My master plan for making my kids successful, fulfilled and happy in life will also hopefully prevent them from having sex as teenagers. I plan to instill such self-esteem, self-worth and self-confidence in them that they simply will not feel the need to have sex at that age. If I had had any self-esteem or self-confidence as a teenager, I would not have dated either of the losers that I dated in high school.

Yeah, I had sex as a teenager. And when it's time to talk to my teenage kids about sex, I'll tell them that. I went to an all-girl Catholic high school in which, naturally, we were expected to be abstinent until marriage. Knowing that this was unlikely, the nuns did provide sex education, but the message of it was, in a nutshell, "If you have sex, you will get a disease that will permanently disfigure you, then you'll die. Oh, and you'll get pregnant, too." This wasn't enough of a deterrent for me or anyone else I knew at my school, and in fact, I think by totally demonizing sex, they made us want to have it that much more.

At home, sex was a totally forbidden topic. I never had "The Talk" with either of my parents. It was just not discussed. The topic was so surrounded by shame and fear, thanks to what we were all taught as Roman Catholics, there was no broaching the topic. So I didn't talk, and I did have sex (albeit infrequently and badly).

Aside from instilling my daughters with high self-esteems that will make them prize themselves too much to want to have sex at such an early age, I will also have an open-door policy about any topic on Earth. Sex? Come talk to me. Drugs? Talk to me. Ask me anything you want. No fear, no shame, no embarrassment. I want them to have all the facts so they can make the most informed decision possible.

I also want them to know that, from personal experience, sex had while you're a teenager is extremely unlikely to be any good. In fact, the memory of it is likely to make you cringe for the rest of your life. It's not what you're picturing, or what you've seen in the movies. Sex had as a teenager is awkward, icky and embarrassing and if you're like me, you'll wish aliens would abduct you and delete those dorky memories from your brain. If you absolutely must have sex, make sure it is with someone that you are in love with and who is also in love with you. Then it might actually be good. Since teenagers are highly unlikely to be in a deep, mutually loving relationship, this alone will hopefully make them wait until later.

I don't plan to use fear as a tactic, and my daughters, being Jewish (I converted to Judaism 9 years ago and married a nice Jewish boy), will not be going to an all-girl Catholic school, so hopefully no educator will use horror stories and terrifying slide images projected onto a wall that they will never be able to get out of their heads to prevent them from having sex. Hopefully love, logic and open communication will be all that's necessary. That and making sure any boys they date know that their great, big daddy is always close by with a shotgun.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

No Grocery Store Challenge - Tips for Farmers' Markets & Easy Storage of the Healthy Foods You Bring Home


The Guidelines:

1. All grocery (read: food) purchases must be made via Farmer’s market, roadside stand, small shop or  private purchase.

2. $30USD (before tax) is allotted – for the entire 28 days – to purchase various items that cannot be found at aforementioned venues.  All food purchased with this $30 should be organic/bio, if possible.
So here we are – midway through my first week of the “No Grocery Store Challenge” (which will be referred to as NGSC henceforth because typing that repeatedly drives me to drink).  I’ve been amazed and flattered by all the positive attention my undertaking has received.  I wish I could tell you that I’m toiling away trying to figure out how to feed my family without the use of the Tesco (think European Walmart), but I can’t.  So far it’s been really easy.  Starting it in the summer has given me access to amazing fruits and veggies and these healthy foods have served as inspiration.  Since I’m only 4 days in, I’m not going to attempt to convince you to try this for yourself (because, who knows, week 2 may not be so rosy).  Instead I’d like to share some of the tips I employ to make this process a lot easier on myself.  Hopefully, when you’re done reading, you’ll be willing to share some tips with me.  I’m already knee-deep in this, people, and I’ll take all the help I can get!

Vienna Naschmarkt
The first place to start is your Farmers' Market.  Most towns have them, usually at least once a week.  Here in Pápa, we are fortunate to have access 3x/weekly – year round.  It’s awesome.  Here are a few things I’ve learned that should be applicable worldwide. 

1.  Bring small bills – these folks don’t have a ton of cash on-hand, so make sure your paper money is in small denominations.  Markets are also a great way to offload some of the coin you’ve accrued.  When you can get a head of lettuce for $.60 the easiest way IS to pay with coin.  That way the vendor doesn’t have to make change.

2.  Bring your own bags.  Often vendors will have small plastic bags to contain your green beans and tomatoes, but it’s handy to have a large bag to put all of your goodies in.  It’s also helpful to invest in a rolling cart.

3.  Get your heavy items first.  My first instinct is to head to the pretty flowers and bright tomatoes and peppers.  If you’re getting them from different vendors (and why not spread around the love), go for the carrots, celery, potatoes – things that won’t squish – first so they can sit at the bottom of the bag.  This saves you from frustrating rearranging which almost always ends with a popped tomato or unintentionally pureed raspberries. 

4.  Don’t go to the market for the first time with the idea you will get all your fruits and veggies for the week.  If you do – great.  However, if you start with that intention, you will most likely leave feeling overwhelmed.  Many vendors peddle the same wares and not all are equal.  I suggest taking a field trip the first time.  Get one or two of whatever catches your eye.  Get to know the vendor, or at least take note of where you bought each item.  That way when you get home and realize the carrots you got from the adorable lady in the corner stall taste more like candy than health food, you can head back (to her first – no squished fruit!) and get some more.  I promise you will get more comfortable with each visit. 

In areas that don’t have Farmer’s Markets, or distance makes travelling impossible, you can look into Produce Delivery.  Many local farms offer regular delivery schedules for fresh fruits & vegetables.  Google your local area farms to see what they have to offer.  Or, in the States, check out this link.  If they don’t already have a program in place – ask!

At Home:

1.  Put your fruits and vegetable on the shelves in your refrigerator and store meats, cheeses and other items in the produce drawers.  When you open the fridge looking for a snack, you will be greeted by the bright colors of produce.  Make your refrigerator like a grocery store – put all the top-shelf (read: Healthy) items at eye level.

2. Pre-cut carrots, celery & peppers and store them in Gladware with some water (only a little for the peppers).  When your kids (or yourself) are looking for a snack, it’s ready to go.  And Your fridge will look like art. (Post Note 7/17: Several people have mentioned, in various internet threads, that glass is a MUCH better storage receptacle.  I agree! Obtaining glass storage containers is now at the top of my To Do list.  Thank you to everyone for pointing that out!)

3.  Freeze any produce you don’t think you’ll use right away.  I toss fresh peas, corn, strawberries & pre-chopped onions (Thanks Sara for the suggestion!) into freezer bags and put them on ice.  Raspberries are also a great fruit to freeze.  I spread them out in a 9x13 baking dish on a piece of parchment paper and slip them in the freezer.  After they’re frozen (it doesn’t take long), I move them to a freezer bag - but they never last long – they’re a fan-favorite around our house. 

4.  You can also freeze bread.  Currently, I purchase loaves of bread from the baker (It is SO MUCH CHEAPER, but I will go into that at a later date).  At home, I slice the loaf and put it in a freezer bag.  SIDE NOTE: It’s a proven fact (well, in my house, at least) that frozen bread makes better grilled cheese.  Don’t defrost, just butter and put directly into the pan.  It will come out crispy and delicious!

5.  Finally – my favorite thing to freeze – Purees.  When my daughter began eating solids I LOVED making her baby food.  Then I got hooked on the ideas presented in The Sneaky Chef.  Now, I buy additional produce to steam, puree, freeze and then add to almost all my meals.  My most commonly used purees are Cauliflower (add to Mac & Cheese or anything creamy), Carrots (great added to tomato-based dishes), and Sweet Potatoes (no pancake could be complete without some).

I should note that this isn’t a vegetarian endeavor for us.  So far, I’ve been able to get my meat from the local butcher.  You probably have one, too.  Most can order just about anything for you or suggest an alternative.

Ok, your turn!  What suggestions do you have?  How do you save time in the kitchen? What do you freeze or pre-prepare?  Do you want more info on anything I mentioned?  Let’s start a dialogue and help each other out!

Thanks again to TakePart & The Hippest Housewife for inspiring this journey. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Feeling Like a Kid Again

I'd been thinking of writing this blog post for a while, then Scary Mommy over at The Stir, beat me to it. But, I'm going to do it anyway. Parenthood is often described as being a chance to relive your childhood through your kids. This is so true. It also gives you an excuse to go to some of those family-oriented events that you kinda wanted to go to in your childless days but would have felt a wee bit creepy showing up at without a purpose (i.e., child). Here are some of the best "bringing out the kid in you" things and experiences I'm now reliving and re-loving via my kids.

As Good as I Remembered It

1. Coloring. I don't know what it is, but there is something so satisfying about taking crayon to paper that thrills me just the way it used to as a kid. Alas, my skills and subject matters have not improved since the second grade. I still draw stick figure people, which might be cool and ironic, if they weren't surrounded by my lame attempts at rainbows, trees and houses, just as they were in elementary school. I'm certain you could show someone a drawing I made this week and one I made 25 years ago and the only way they'd be able to tell which was older would be by the yellow-tinge to the paper.

2. Swinging. No, not that kind of swinging. Minds out of the gutter, please. Holding those chain link handles and seeing how high you can get is every bit as wonderful now as it was when I was nine. It's just hands-down, one of the simplest and happiest sensations a person can have.

3. Boxed Macaroni & Cheese. Yes, I often lament my kids' addiction to it, but the thing is, I understand it. One summer in elementary school, my BFF at the time and I spent the night, rotating back and forth between our two houses, for the better part of a month. We ate as much of the boxed goodness as our parents would allow. My dad eventually forced us to put tuna fish, peas or hot dog into it to give it a little substance. Hmm, and I wonder why I'm back on Weight Watchers...

4. The Fourth of July. This has long been one of my favorite holidays. It's low-key and embodies all that is wonderful about summer. It is summer, wrapped up into one day. Summer has that timeless feel to it, and feels like it could go on forever, but in a good way. (Unlike winter, which also feels like it could go on forever but in a get me somewhere tropical before I lose my ever-lasting mind way.) From the parades to the potlucks to the fireworks, there's just something about the 4th, where you feel like you could be living in 1942, 1972 or present day and I love that about it. Somehow, I always feel like I'm 17 (in the best way possible) on the 4th.

Good Again. Thanks to the Kids.

Then, there are those experiences that become good again, once you have kids, simply because it's wonderful watching your kids enjoy them.

1. Christmas. As an adult, Christmas can lose its luster -- becoming nothing more than five weeks of errands, baking, shopping and mandatory office holiday parties. However, with kids, it becomes great again. Decorating cookies, going to see Santa, singing carols, having kids brings back that magical feeling. This year, I actually got so into it, that on Christmas Eve, I started worrying that my husband and I needed to hurry to bed so Santa could come. Yeah, I thought this as I was filling the stockings. You dope, you are Santa I had to remind myself. I'm actually not sure whether this shows how into the festivities I was or how much my brain function has decreased in recent years...

2. New Year's Eve. Okay, kids don't actually make New Year's all that great but they do take a lot of pressure off to have a wild, fun night. When I was single, and even married, pre-kids, it always seemed like I should be doing something monumental and absolutely fantastic on New Year's and it often just came up short. Now that I'm a parent, it's okay. Who wants to pay a sitter New Year's rates? Assuming you can even find one, that is. So, getting together for a low-key, multi-family dinner at a kid-friendly restaurant, then playing games, is fine by me.

3. Family Functions. One of the biggest reliefs of having kids is that you're no longer bombarded by the question, "So, when are you two gonna have kids?" What is it with people?! If you're single they ask when you're gonna get a boyfriend. When you do get a boyfriend they ask when you're getting married. The second you say "I do," they start asking when you're going to have kids. Actually, sometimes this starts even earlier -- we actually had someone ask us this question six months before our wedding! I figure I have a good 20 years left before people start asking me when I'm going to die (as that seems to be the only major milestone left), so now family functions are much less-stressful. Plus, if you get stuck talking to someone and you want to get away, you can "notice" your kid doing something bad or needing something and run off to help them. Children are ideal at getting you out of uncomfortable conversations in a group setting.

Things About Childhood I Didn't Even Know Were Good.

1. Costco-Receipt-Checker Who Draws a Smiley Face. I don't remember this much as a kid but when the person checking our receipt as we leave the store draws a smiley-face (or even better, a smiley-face balloon) on our receipt (as opposed to a wiggly line down the paper), before giving it back to my daughter, it makes me so grateful to that person, who took the extra five seconds to make my children so happy. Tiny little thing that brightens my day.

2. Garbage Day. As the mother of a two-year-old boy, who is fascinated by all things garbage, garbage day is an exciting day in our house. The garbage man who waves at us as we stand on our porch, in our jammies, makes me very happy. I often find myself listening for the garbage truck, then yelling to the kids that he's here before scooping them up and running outside with them to wave at the garbage man. I wonder if it makes him feel like a rock star, having people run out of their house to catch a glimpse of him in action, or if he just bemoans the fact that he has to collect trash from such a crazy family.

3. Bubbles. I don't remember being that excited by bubbles though maybe it's something I've just forgotten over time but man, are they fun. When you can get a ton of bubbles out of one blow, what a sense of accomplishment. I love watching the kids (and the dog) chase and pop them. I also love trying to catch bubbles on my bubble wand so I can blow it off again.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Friday Show & Tell: The Big Kid Chart


As Sara mentioned recently, she and I are both dealing with the Terrible Three & a Halfs. A couple of months ago, I was ready to tear my hair out. I too, got the book, Your Three Year Old: Friend or Enemy. It's short, more of a pamphlet, really. However, it was so depressing I couldn't get past the third chapter.

Then, a friend mentioned to me that she'd started a "Big Girl Chart" for her daughter. For every kind, considerate thing she noticed her daughter doing, she gave her a sticker. I loved the idea and immediately made one of my own. Every time my daughter does something the first time I ask her to do it - sticker. Every time I notice her do something nice for her brother or a friend - sticker. Every time she does what she's supposed to without being asked - sticker. I used to have a "sleep chart" but I've now incorporated that into her Big Girl Chart. So, now all of those rewards show up on the big girl chart as well. Every time she earns $100 stickers, she earns a prize. A trip to Target where she can pick out a toy, under $10, which we buy her.

While we still have our moments, things in our house are a lot better these days and I think the Big Girl Chart's had a lot to do with that. Not only is there more incentive there for her to do "the right thing" but it's helped me change my perspective a bit. When a kid's on a bit of a naughty tear, it can be easy to forget or not notice all of the little things they do right. Having the chart's helped me pay more attention to those things. Like the times she waits on the sidewalk for me while I get her brother out of his car seat. It's made me praise her in the moment and also give her a sticker later on. I have to say, it's nice for both of us to look at the chart and watch it fill up and think of all the good, big girl, things she's done and remember that while this age can be trying, it's also filled with a lot of goodness.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

In praise of silliness


Being a parent requires a lot of seriousness. There's a ton of responsibility, a lot of scheduling and routine and a lot of hard work. You also have to keep a straight face when telling your kids not to hit each other and you have to be somewhat stern when telling them not to do something dangerous.

There is also, thankfully, ample opportunity for being silly and I have found humor to be an incredibly important, helpful tool for getting through all of it and remaining sane. There's been more than one time where my husband and I have just looked at each other and laughed because our kids are deliberately trying to make noise so we can't talk to each other. There have been times where I've laughed because it's literally all I can do at the time, like when they're both screaming and fighting all morning and it's either laugh or go insane, or when I've been vomited on or peed on for the umpteenth time.

I am fortunate to have married an extremely funny man. One of my favorite things that he does, something that is often the highlight of my morning, is that he plays with our kids' bathtub letters while in the shower. My kids must think I'm insane because I walk into his bathroom to retrieve some towels for the laundry or to do some cleaning and I walk out laughing hysterically. You would be amazed what a man in his 40's can do with 26 foam letters and 10 foam numbers while taking a shower. Every day, I find things like "Chairman Mao's Funk Dojo."

That one was an instant classic. Here's another recent favorite of mine:


He did that one on a weekend day, and after finding it, I stumbled out of the bathroom practically crying with laughter, gasping, "Why Clive Owen?!" I seriously have no idea how he does this or where it comes from.

Most of his surreal shower messages are not for mixed company, but I did find one other G-rated one that I captured for posterity.


Silliness like this breaks up the monotony of every day routines, and I love it. I hope our kids inherit this natural, seemingly effortless creativity. They can't read their daddy's shower poetry yet, but hopefully they know that their bathtub letters are being put to an excellent and unexpected use: a creative outlet for daddy and endless enjoyment for mommy!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

No Grocery Store Challenge

As a kid, while everyone was enjoying their Pizza Hut pizza, I was “tortured” with homemade pizza.  You know, crust made from scratch, ingredients sliced by hand.  On picnics, while everyone else was reveling in the processed cheese and meats of Lunchables, I was the loser eating a sandwich with homemade, thick-sliced bread.  Yeah – poor little me.  I grew up with home-canned peaches, pears & pickles.  Freezer jam made from strawberries we picked.  I never got sugar cereals.  I remember longingly staring at boxes of Cookie Crisp at the grocery store.  I thought my parents were just stingy.  I had no idea that homemade bread IS better than store bought (“Scientific” Fact!)  The grass is always greener, right?

I ate like crap as a teenager.  I treated my body like a trashcan.  The newly acquired freedom of mall visits and measly teenager income allowed me to eat as many chips (darn you, Doritos – why you so tasty?!), drink as many Dr. Peppers, and stuff as much fast food in my mouth as I could.  And thank goodness I was blessed with a FANTASTIC metabolism (Sidebar: Dear Metabolism, I miss you.  Please come back!).  I never worried about what I was eating and I’m sure my parents thought that all of the Food Knowledge they’d shared with me was lost forever. 

But it wasn’t.  It was in there.  And when my daughter was born it came flooding back militant-style.  I made my own baby food (so much easier than I would have imagined).  I became organic and locally-grown OBSESSED.  Sure, I still ate like poo on occasion.  But my daughter didn’t.  She didn’t even get to taste the sweet delicousness of candy until Halloween – when she was 2 ½.  Mean, mean mommy. 

So, a week ago, when Food, Inc’s link to a TakePart article popped up on my Facebook News Feed, I was intrigued.  It talked about a family of three (Hey, like me!) and their pledge to not use grocery stores for a year.  Now, a year is a little more than I’m mentally able to get behind at the moment.  But there is NO reason why I can’t try it for 28 days.  That’s how long it takes to form a habit, right?  Like leasing with an option to buy. 

Here are my guidelines (basically lifted, with a few tweaks, from The Hippest Housewife’s blog chronicling her year-long expedition into Grocery Store Free living):

1. All grocery (read: food) purchases must be made via Farmer’s market, roadside stand, or through private   purchase.
2. $30USD (before tax) is allotted – for the entire 28 days – to purchase various items that cannot be found at aforementioned venues.  All food purchased with this $30 should be organic/bio, if possible.

I am incredibly optimistic that this will not be overly challenging.  And, keep in mind, I live in HUNGARY.  My local Farmer’s Market is WONDERFUL, but it’s also all in Hungarian.  Here’s what I hope to get out of this entire process:

1. Immerse myself even more in the local culture.  It’s easy to breeze in and out of our grocery stores here with minimal interaction.  That has not done my Hungarian Language Skills any favors.  I’ve been here a year already and I CAN DO BETTER.
2. Healthier eating.  We already eat almost entirely organic/bio, but it’s difficult to stay away from all the little temptations at the grocery store.
3. Reduced food bill.  Because nearly everything I’ll be purchasing to eat is fresh, I will be forced to buy smaller quantities more often.  I will be attending our local market 3 days a week.  My hope is that less food will be wasted and less money will be spent replacing it. 

So, today, I’m putting it out there on the INTERNETS.

Starting Sunday, July 10, 2011, I pledge that I WILL NOT purchase anything further from any grocery store, aside from my allotted $30USD, until August 7, 2011.  Bring. It. On.

Want to join me? Link up?  I would love to hear your plans and progress.  Can’t stomach the month? Try it for a week.  Shop local and shop fresh.  Summer is a great time to start.  



Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Losing the Toddler Weight

While much has been made of women's struggles to lose the "baby weight," for me, it's been all about the "toddler weight." After my daughter was born, I simply ate fairly healthily and walked every day. Being home with a tiny baby all day, I found the walks to be a treat and often the only chance I'd have to get outside. I knew our poor dog, who was used to being the focus of our parental attention pre-baby, must be feeling a bit left out as well, so I did my best to make it up to him by giving him some extra exercise. Lo and behold, by the time I went back to work, the baby weight was gone. (The 10 lbs. I'd gained the year I was trying to get pregnant was another story...)

So, when I found myself pregnant again, I thought nothing of indulging in nightly hot fudge sundaes (I don't enjoy being pregnant - at all, and found my highly caloric nightly treat to be the one saving grace of the experience. Aside from being blessed with a ridiculously cute and lovable baby afterwards, that is). After all, a little exercise, a little breastfeeding and voila! What's the problem?

The problem was that this time around, I had a toddler and a newborn on my hands. As I've mentioned before, my kids are picky eaters and mainly partake in typical toddler fare. Trying to juggle a newborn, breastfeeding, keeping an 18-month-old occupied and fed, left me little time and zero brain capacity to focus on my own food intake. So, I did what many a mom has done. I started the "toddler diet" myself. Macaroni & cheese, pb&j's, grilled cheese sandwiches, etc. Plus, getting a newborn and a dog ready to go for a walk is one thing. Getting a newborn, young toddler AND a dog ready for a walk, is something else entirely. Before we got out the door, I was often exhausted. While I didn't give up on exercise entirely, I didn't have nearly the dedication that I did the first go-round. Neither kid was sleeping through the night yet and I was exhausted and frankly, didn't feel like I had the brain capacity to think about what I was putting into my mouth.

You're going to be totally shocked when I tell you that two years later, the baby weight's still there. Here and there, I'd attempt to fix things but mainly just went along feeling rotten about my appearance. Half of my clothes didn't fit and the other half weren't flattering. Buying clothes is depressing when you're not buying the size you want to be in and when you just have to select the item that looks the least bad on you, rather than which is the most adorable.

A few months ago, my kids started sleeping through the night. I finally started feeling like I had both the energy and the brain capacity to think about my extra weight (all 18 lbs of it). We got an elliptical machine and I started waking up at 5:45 to get a half hour in (which also happens to be the exact amount of time of one Sex & the City episode). I was feeling more energized throughout the day and even though I was waking up earlier, I was doing it on my terms, rather than whatever demands I was greeted with when the kids woke me up. By the time they got up, I'd done something good for myself, had some time to clear my head and felt ready to greet them and the day with a smile.

Then, my son got very ill and spent the better part of the month vomiting on me. Exercise: by the wayside. Since then, I've tried to keep up with it but have been sporadic at best. My son's taken to waking up at 5:30 or so, which means my designated workout time's gone. And, the weight remains...

A couple of weeks ago, I decided I'd had it. I found a Weight Watchers meeting nearby that met early on Saturday mornings. My husband could watch the kids while I went to the meeting. I've done the program twice in the past and it worked tremendously well. Until I hit "Lifetime"/goal and started getting cocky, thinking I didn't need to go to the meetings and track my Points every day that is... So, I went back, yet again. I stayed afterwards to learn about how the program had changed since the last time I was on it and left feeling optimistic and thrilled to be taking control of the situation again. I tracked my Points carefully and entered in everything I ate that week. The next Saturday, I went in there, feeling proud, ready to be told I'd lost two pounds. Down .8. I was so depressed, I started bawling on the way home. I'd been so careful, I'd tracked everything and hadn't even lost a full pound. I felt discouraged but kept at it the following week. I'll admit, I wasn't as conscientious as I'd been the week before, but still pretty darn good. Another .8. This time I was prepared and it was okay.

I've realized that I can't compare my experiences with past weight loss with this time around. Before, I hadn't given birth to (and breastfed) two kids. I had ample time to both exercise regularly and focus on meal-planning and food preparation. That's just not my life now. However, even if it's just losing a sad little .8 per week, it's better than nothing and better than .8 in the other direction. I'm now partway into week three and I'm feeling optimistic. I'm committed to sticking with this and now I'll be happy and proud when I get to my goal weight, whenever that may be.

As a mom, I want to do this not just for myself but for my kids. I want to model good eating behavior for them, as, more than anything else, that will influence their eating behavior as adults. So for me, for my kids, for my hopes of once again taking a picture I'm not horrified by, I'm sticking with it and hoping I have what it takes to go the long haul with this.

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