humorous and heartfelt stories ~ healthy recipes made without gluten, dairy, or eggs ~ ideas for living well

My youngest son Will has an endearing little habit of filling his pockets with the many "treasures" he encounters in his daily adventures. I don't always understand the value he sees in his chosen objects -- really, how many rocks and sticks can one boy keep? In his eyes, though, each one is beautiful and important. His habit got me thinking about how life is just like that on a larger scale; we gather up the precious bits of our many experiences and save them all to learn from and enjoy later. Perhaps you will find a little something among the stories and ideas here that you'd like to keep in your own pocket. Thanks for visiting!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Settling Into Summer

Now that we're well into the second week of summer holidays, I'm remembering that there's always a bit of an adjustment period involved in having the kids at home all day.  In an instant, I've gone from having regular hours of organized quiet during which I can get things done each day, to having regular hours of chaotic, noisy incidents that range from someone dropping peanut butter toast face down on the kitchen floor and making peanut butter soup in his attempt to mop it up with a sopping wet shred of paper towel, to someone picking arguments with me over nothing every three minutes as a way of keeping his mental activity at a comfortably intense level.  It takes something of a brain shift to settle into the real rhythm of summer once the giddy euphoria of the first few days of freedom wears off.

I really do love having Noah and Will home with me for the summer months, though.  Their conversations, interesting observations, and crazy antics keep me laughing when I'm not tearing my hair out.

Here's a little snapshot of the kinds of things that have been happening around here recently:

A fridge note from Will, just in case I hadn't heard him say it 6,327,904 times already since school got out. (This, despite the fact that the boy has already had a ridiculously full social calendar this summer -- the phone rings a dozen times a day for him!)

Just a few feet from the fridge, I found all of my bulletin board pushpins painstakingly arranged in the shape of Will's hand.  (Hey, look at that -- he found a way to alleviate his boredom!)

One day last week, Noah was using this net to skim the leaves and stuff out of the pool, and he absentmindedly left it right in front of the gate when he was finished.

The thing toppled over when someone arrived in our yard to visit, so Matt asked Noah to move the net away from the entrance to a better spot.  This is where we found it a little while later:

Because in front of the garage door is obviously a much better spot than in front of the gate.

A conversation I overheard between the boys, when Noah was complaining that Will follows him/imitates him/bothers him too much:

Noah:  "It's like I'm your superstar or something."

Will:  "You should be glad about that.  You should enjoy it while it lasts, before I change my mind."

This afternoon, I was moving from room to room upstairs gathering clothes and things to pack for a trip, and suddenly I heard a cat meow faintly.  A few seconds later I heard it again, and then another meow that didn't sound anything like our cat.  Worried that the neighbourhood roaming cat was terrorizing Maggie through the open kitchen window, I came downstairs but found no trace of any cats anywhere.  Suddenly the cat noises started up again, and this time it was a frantic yeowling.  I started panicking that Maggie had gone into an open closet or drawer somewhere during my packing efforts and was trapped, and I was looking everywhere for her until I heard Noah laughing hysterically in his room.  I peeked in and there was Maggie, sleeping in peaceful oblivion on his bed.  The noises were an app Noah was using to translate his own words into catspeak. (This is how twelve year old boys entertain themselves in the summer.  I try not to ask too many questions.)

There will likely not be many dull moments around here in the next two months (and as a result, you may not hear from me as often as usual), but honestly, I wouldn't have it any other way.  I'll gladly take the chaos, since it gives me the chance to have a good long look at the truly interesting people my boys are at ages ten and almost-thirteen. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Grilled Flank Steak Salad and Crispy Potatoes

I think summer is the absolute easiest season in which to enjoy simply delicious meals. There is such an abundance of good, fresh food available to choose from, and most of it doesn't require much cooking. Our family has settled into our warm weather habit of visiting the local farmers' market a couple of times a week, and the baskets of beautiful vegetables and fruit we come home with each time become the centrepiece of every breakfast, lunch, and dinner we make.   Salads often feature prominently as we turn our farmers' market finds into a feast.

The salad recipe I'm sharing with you today is one of our new easy summer favourites.  It combines fresh greens with grilled sweet peppers, zucchini, and flank steak and is drizzled with a simple balsamic vinaigrette. The potatoes we often pair with it are parboiled, then pan fried in a little olive oil and tossed with fresh parsley and chives.  The whole thing comes together in about 30 minutes and makes a really lovely dinner to enjoy out on the deck or patio.

Grilled Flank Steak Salad (serves 4)

Several handfuls of mixed salad greens and/or arugula
2 - 3 sweet bell peppers, in various colours (red, yellow, orange)
2 zucchini (I like to use one green and one yellow)
1 1/4 pounds of flank steak
olive oil
sea salt and pepper, to taste

For the dressing:

3 tablespoons of olive oil
3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
1 tsp raw honey
sea salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat the grill to medium-high.  Prepare the peppers by coring them and slicing them into 2 inch pieces, and slice the zucchini into rounds on a diagonal.  Toss the vegetables with a little olive oil and sea salt in a mixing bowl.

Prepare the salad dressing by combining the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, honey, sea salt and pepper in a jar with a tight-fitting lid, and shaking vigorously to mix all ingredients.

Season both sides of the flank steak with sea salt and pepper to taste. Once the grill is hot, place an empty grill basket on the grate to preheat and at the same time, place the flank steak on the grate, close the lid, and grill the steak for about 6 minutes.  Turn the grill down to low, flip the flank steak, and add the prepared peppers and zucchini to the hot grill basket.  Grill with the lid closed for another 6 minutes, stirring the vegetables every couple of minutes.

Remove the flank steak from the grill to a plate, and continue to grill the vegetables for another 4 to 5 minutes while the steak rests.  Remove the vegetables from the grill, and slice the flank steak into thin strips diagonally across the grain.

To assemble the salad, place a handful of mixed greens on a plate and arrange some grilled peppers, zucchini and steak strips on top.  Drizzle the salad with the balsamic vinaigrette.

Crispy Potatoes

6 to 8 new potatoes, scrubbed (leave the skins on) and cut into 1 1/2 inch chunks
2 tbsp olive oil
1 to 2 tbsp each chopped fresh parsley and chives
sea salt and pepper, to taste

Place the potatoes in a pot with enough water to cover them, and set them over high heat on the stove. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat slightly and cook the potatoes for about 10 minutes. (During the last few minutes that the potatoes are cooking, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.)

Drain the potatoes well once they've cooked for 10 minutes, then toss them into the hot frying pan with the oil.  Season them with sea salt and pepper to taste.  Fry the potatoes for about 10 minutes, stirring often and scraping up the crispy brown bits on the bottom of the pan.  During the last 2 minutes of frying, add the fresh parsley and chives and stir.

Serve the potatoes alongside the steak salad for a satisfying meal.

It's best if you have two people working to prepare this dinner, so that one person can manage the grill while the other is cooking the potatoes.  If you'd like to avoid turning the stove on at all, you can also enjoy this salad with a nice crusty roll instead of the potatoes.  (Organic Works Bakery makes a delicious roll that is free of gluten, dairy, egg, soy, and nuts.)

Here's to fresh, fantastic summer food!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Free as a Bird

I always love how easy it is to shift into summer gear once school and activities end for the boys.  All of the carefully orchestrated schedules we've known for the past ten months just end suddenly:  we have no more early mornings, no more lunches to pack in the evenings, no more homework or meetings or dropping people off here and picking them up there.  There is a noticeable change in everyone's mood at home; we do everything at a more leisurely pace, have more time to enjoy together, and laughter comes often and easily. This is definitely one of my very favourite times of the year.

Our first weekend of summer has been hot, sunny, and perfectly fun.  We've adopted full-time outdoor living, spending time in the pool and playing games in the backyard from morning until evening.  I went ahead and purchased a slackline kit after my sister-in-law Meg told me how much she and her family love the activity, and it has generated a huge amount of enthusiasm here so far!  We found a perfect spot to suspend the line between two shady trees in our yard, and Noah and Will have already spent many happy hours over the past two days balancing skillfully back and forth across it -- they think it's awesome. Matt and I have also tried it, and we agree; it's such a fun activity for everyone!

We've also made a tiny new friend since summer holidays began.  On Friday evening, Will was swinging quietly in the hammock chair, reading his new jumbo book of Archie comics, when he suddenly whisper-shouted to me that there was a little bird really close to his feet. I looked, and sure enough, a little grayish-brown bird was hopping right under his dangling toes, eating bugs.  Will carefully got up from the hammock to investigate the bird a little more closely, and surprisingly, the bird was not at all alarmed by Will's movements.  For almost half an hour afterwards, Will gently followed the little bird all around the yard, often coming close enough that he could have touched her, and the bird was not bothered by this at all -- she actually seemed to enjoy Will's company.  At first I was a little worried that the bird was young or injured and maybe physically unable to fly away, but she seemed perfectly healthy as she continued hopping around.  At one point she did fly over to the fence, and then she came back right close to Will again, as if she were specifically looking for her new buddy.  Will and I both marvelled at the strange but sweet friendliness of this wild little creature.

We have seen the bird in our yard every morning, afternoon, and evening since Will first discovered her on Friday.  She comes close to all of us, and when we walk off to somewhere else in the yard, we often find her following us so she can stay nearby.  When we crouch down low to the ground to talk to her (yes, we've started talking to her!), she hops right over to our faces and looks up at us with curiosity. This afternoon I was holding our bird book down low to the ground so that the boys and I could try to identify exactly what kind of bird she is, and the three of us cracked up when she hopped right over to the book as if to read it, and then flew at my hand and pecked at the diamond in my ring!  Our whole family is now completely fascinated by her.

We're pretty sure she's a young brown-headed cowbird, and the boys have discovered some really interesting details about her species online (including the fact that this little bird's mother, like all female cowbirds, did not build her own nest or raise her own young -- she laid her egg in the nest of another bird species and left that bird mother to feed and look out for her baby.)  It's amazing the lessons that can come at a time when you're least expecting to learn something....

We hope our new little "pet" will stay with us over these next glorious months of summer holidays, as we all savour the feeling of being as free as the birds.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Pride and Joy

It was a long time ago that I watched each of my boys take his very first steps across our family room floor. The days of soft, chubby legs teetering above tiny feet amidst smiling and clapping and cheering are nothing more than sweet memories in my mind now.

But what I've learned in the years that have followed since those initial exciting wobbly adventures is that a childhood is full of efforts and beautiful firsts.  Our wonder and pride and happiness for our young loves keeps growing exponentially as each of their personal accomplishments is layered over the ones that came before.  It is a wonderful thing to see them discover what makes their own hearts soar, to watch them strive with passion to achieve their goals, to smile and clap and cheer them on as their feet seem to grow wings before our very eyes.

Cool hip hop pose.

Cool hip hop pose. 

Cool hip hop pose.

True Will pose. (He couldn't resist.)

For me, the excitement of watching Noah and Will take their next brave steps forward as they chase their dreams is something that will never, ever grow old.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Shop Etsy: Beautiful Handmade and Vintage Items

If you've been around here for awhile, it will be no secret to you that I am a huge fan of Etsy, an online marketplace for beautiful, useful handmade and vintage items from around the world.  It's the first place I go to when I'm looking for special gifts for loved ones or something unique for myself or for our home (although I don't actually have to "go" anywhere to shop there!)  I love being able to find little treasures created by individual artisans who take great pride in their work, and it's always so exciting when the items I've ordered arrive in my mailbox and are even more lovely than they appeared in the descriptions and photos online.

You'll understand how delighted I was last week, then, when I was asked to join the Etsy Canada Brand Ambassador team and to encourage others to discover the Etsy experience.  You'll notice a new orange banner on the right-hand side of my blog; if you click on it at any time you'll be taken to the Etsy homepage where you can begin browsing for all kinds of wonderful things (and, as an Etsy Canada affiliate, I will receive a commission for every purchase made through the links on my site).

I spent some time browsing Etsy myself this weekend, and today I'm featuring some pretty things that caught my eye to give you an idea of the range of handmade and vintage items available there.  (Click on the highlighted text above any of the photos for more information about these products.)

If you're new to Etsy, then you're in for a real treat once you have a chance to take a look around!  If you're already an Etsy fan like I am, I'd love to hear about your fantastic finds in the comments section below. Thanks for considering making your future Etsy purchases through me!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Really Good Rocket Pops (a gluten-free, dairy-free frozen treat)

Tomorrow is the summer solstice, and even though there is still one more week of school left for the boys, I can sense them already shifting into holiday mode these past few days as all of their commitments have started winding down.  There have been after-school swims in the pool, evenings spent in the backyard soaking up the long-lasting sunshine while laughing and playing sports, and requests for frosty treats to help them cool off.

I love making my own freezer pops for our family to enjoy in the warmer weather, and it's become a fun project for me to come up with something new to try every year.  This summer's creation is inspired by a long-time favourite food among kids:  nut butter and banana and/or jam sandwiches.  I combined natural almond butter, almond milk, and bananas for one creamy frozen layer, and frozen cherries and berries with a bit of fruit juice for another.  Pouring these yummy mixtures, one on top of the other, into rocket-shaped molds results in a cheerful, no-sugar added freezer pop that kids (and grown-ups, too!) are sure to love.

I found the spaceship ice pop molds at Real Canadian Superstore (they're President's Choice brand, BPA-free, and super fun -- they even have a little astronaut molded into the stick!), but if you don't have President's Choice products near you, you can find a similar product made by Tovolo which is sold online on sites such as Amazon.

Really Good Rocket Pops

1 large frozen banana, broken into chunks
3 tbsp unsweetened almond milk
2 tbsp natural smooth almond butter
3/4 cup frozen PC Organics Power Fruit Blend
2 tbsp Kiju pomegranate cherry juice

Place the frozen banana chunks, almond milk, and almond butter in the jar of a blender (a Magic Bullet works well) and blend until smooth and creamy.  Carefully spoon this mixture into the rocket molds, dividing it evenly between the four of them.  Tap the bases of the rocket molds on the counter a few times to help the banana mixture settle nicely into them.

Wash out the blender jar, then add the frozen fruit and juice to it.  Blend to create a smooth and frosty fruit puree. Spoon the blended fruit over top of the banana mixture to fill up the rocket molds.  (Leave about a half an inch of empty space at the top of each mold to allow room for the handle.)  Set the handles in place, and place the rocket molds in the freezer for several hours, or until the pops are completely frozen. Pull the frozen rocket pops from the molds to serve.  (Running the molds very briefly under warm water helps to release the pops more easily if they seem stuck.)

If you aren't able to find the Power Fruit Blend and/or the Kiju pomegranate cherry juice in stores near you, you can easily substitute any frozen berry/cherry blend and/or apple juice in this recipe.  Either way, the combination of fruit and nut butter makes a healthy and delightful summer treat!

Are you looking for more delicious freezer pop recipes?  You might enjoy these banana split freezer pops, frosty fudge pops, or frosty fruit pops, too!  Happy summer.  :)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Summer Learning (Giveaway! : Books for Middle Graders)

The countdown is on -- only two more weeks left of school before the kids can delight in the fun, sunshine, and freedom that summer holidays bring. Noah and Will are certainly eager for the break from homework and classroom routines over the coming months, but their minds remain busy and curious year-round, and they both need and look forward to different kinds of learning experiences over the summer.  I've found that it's easy to help them discover new and exciting things even when school is out, simply by making good use of the resources we have at home, in our community, and in the places we travel to as a family.  These are some of our favourite summer learning activities:

Games  In addition to the physically active outside games we like to play in our yard in the warmer months, our family loves challenging each other to board, card, and puzzle games that keep our minds thinking. Anything that involves strategy, playing with words, deciphering patterns, or racing to complete a mental task combines fun and learning opportunities for all of us.  Some of our best-loved games for playing around the summer patio table include Qwirkle, Bananagrams, Q-Bitz, Rubik's Race, and Apples to Apples.  We also enjoy doing crossword and sudoku puzzles, and trying to solve riddles and logic puzzles that we find in books together.

Writing/Journalling  Summers can be full of wonderful moments that make great family memories, and encouraging kids to preserve their favourites through writing is a great way to encourage the development of the language skills they learn in school.  I often take the boys shopping to choose their own cool notebooks and pens or pencils at the beginning of the summer, and we make sure to pack them whenever we're hitting the road for a longer journey.  Journalling can take many forms for kids depending on their ages, abilities, and interests:  a combination of drawings and words (comic book style appeals to many Middle Graders), longer prose, poetry, newspaper-type reporting, etc.  Being able to write about what they love or find exciting, in whatever way they choose, can encourage even reluctant writers to practise their developing skills.

Summer Camp Programs/Educational Attractions  Our family spends a good part of our summer at home, swimming and hanging out in the yard, but we do have a week or two each summer set aside for the boys to participate in summer camp programs based on their personal interests, where they can dive into learning that they wouldn't usually have access to in a regular school setting.  Their camp experiences often spark further individual exploration at home once the scheduled program is over.  Our family also makes a point of finding fascinating attractions to visit (museum exhibits, science centres, university open houses, special community events, etc.) both locally and in the places we travel to on summer vacation, so that we all might have a chance to learn something new.

Free Play/Experimenting  I believe giving kids unstructured free time to imagine, create, and figure things out is a very valuable way to encourage learning any time of year.  Noah and Will are fortunate to have lots of this during the summer months, and I find that's when they both come up with the most innovative, intriguing projects and pastimes for themselves.  I am always finding contraptions built around the house and yard (traps, ziplines, Lego worlds, mould growing in a water-filled pencil sharpener in someone's closet as a science experiment, etc.) in the summer months, and most of them have involved much thought and trial-and-error to assemble.  (July and August are when I have to most closely guard things like the microwave and the water cooler, for fear that the boys might dismantle them to build something else with the parts!)

Reading  The world of books is one both boys love to escape to, especially during the summer months when there are many free hours and a wonderfully comfortable hammock chair to sit in under the shade of one of our backyard trees.  We visit our public library regularly, and the boys fill their book bags with whatever type of reading material interests them at the time:  non-fiction books on various topics, graphic novels and comic books, fantasy novels, humour writing, etc.)  Kids grow intellectually through the simple act of reading for pleasure (and I like to set a good example for my boys by spending some quality time reading what I love over the summer, too!)

To help families encourage learning during the break from school, Simon & Schuster Canada is running a Summer Slide Prevention Campaign, featuring education tips from teachers and librarians, book recommendations, and activity sheets for kids.  They are also offering a super prize pack of eight of their best books for 7 to 12 year olds for one lucky Pocketfuls reader to win.

To enter this giveaway:

1. You must log in in the giveaway box below.

2.  Leave me a comment here telling me about your family's favourite fun way to
     encourage summer learning


     Head over to my Pocketfuls page on Facebook and "Like" it.

(If you do both parts of #2, you'll receive two entries for the giveaway.)

This giveaway will run from now until Monday, June 30th at 6:00pm EDT, and is open only to residents of Canada.  One winner will be chosen randomly via Rafflecopter from all of the eligible entries.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Good luck, and I wish all of your families a summer filled with fun discoveries!


June 30th update:  Congratulations Tracy B D!  You are the winner of the summer slide prevention book pack from Simon & Schuster Canada. :)   I'll be contacting you via email to set you up with your prize.  Thank you to all of you who entered and shared your great ideas for summer learning with me!

Disclosure:  Simon & Schuster Canada provided my boys with some great books to read for my participation in their Summer Slide Prevention Campaign.  The ideas and opinions shared here are my own.