When he was small, my youngest son had a habit of filling his pockets with treasures he encountered in his daily adventures. I didn't always understand the value he saw in his chosen objects -- really, how many rocks and sticks could one boy keep? In his eyes, though, each one was beautiful and important. Life is just like that on a larger scale, isn't it? We gather up the precious bits of our experiences and save them all to learn from and enjoy later. Perhaps you'll find a little something here that you'd like to keep in your own pockets. Thanks for visiting.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Chocolate Cherry Valentine Cupcakes (gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free)

When special occasions like Valentine's Day are near, I often enjoy using the time that I'm home alone to bake a surprise treat that my three guys and I can all enjoy together. This afternoon I had several hours free, so rather than turning to one of our old favourite chocolate recipes (cashew butter balls, mmmm!), I decided to play around a bit and come up with something new. Will was thrilled when he came home and discovered the heart-shaped silicone baking cups drying in the dish rack -- he went rushing around the house on an instant treasure hunt to find whatever it was I had made in them. His eyes lit up enthusiastically when he came across these chocolate cherry cupcakes in the fridge, and he wanted to know how soon he could eat one. With their delicious chocolate base and their toppings of a homemade cherry sauce, whipped coconut cream, and a sprinkling of dark chocolate, these cupcakes are making all of us eager for dessert this weekend!

Chocolate Cherry Valentine Cupcakes

For the cherry topping:

2 cups frozen pitted sweet cherries
1 tbsp water
1 tsp coconut palm sugar
1 tbsp ground chia seeds

Add the cherries, water, and coconut sugar to a saucepan over medium heat. Cook the cherry mixture for 10 to 15 minutes or until the cherries have softened, stirring often and using the spoon to break the cherries up a little.

Gradually add the ground chia seeds to the hot mixture, stirring continuously while adding them, then lower the heat and cook for another 10 minutes or until the cherry mixture has thickened. Remove the cherry sauce from the heat and let it cool slightly. Place it in a lidded glass container and put it in the fridge to set while you bake the cupcakes.

For the cupcakes:

3 cups blanched almond flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
3 tbsp arrowroot flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/4 cup melted coconut oil
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
3 tbsp unsweetened almond milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup mashed ripe bananas

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Arrange twelve heart-shaped silicone baking cups in rows on a baking sheet.

Combine the almond flour, cocoa powder, arrowroot flour, baking powder, and sea salt in a large mixing bowl. In a smaller bowl, whisk together the coconut oil, maple syrup, almond milk and vanilla extract. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir well. Add the mashed bananas to the mixture and stir until all ingredients are well combined.

Divide the cake batter between the twelve heart-shaped baking cups, using a spoon to make sure it's spread out smoothly to fill all parts of each heart. Place the baking sheet in the preheated oven and bake for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the centre of a cupcake comes out clean. Let the cupcakes cool. Once cooled, remove the cupcakes from the silicone cups.

For the whipped topping:

1 398ml can of chilled, unsweetened, full-fat coconut milk (I used Native Forest Organic brand)
1 tsp pure maple syrup
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

plus one square of dark chocolate, shaved, for garnish

Turn the can of coconut milk upside down and remove the lid. Drain the liquid out of the can, then scoop out the remaining solid coconut cream into a mixing bowl. Beat the cream with an electric mixer to soften it up a little. Add the maple syrup and vanilla extract and beat the cream again until it is smooth and fluffy. Spoon the whipped coconut cream into a piping bag fixed with a wide star tip.

To assemble the cupcakes:

Carefully spread a spoonful of the cherry sauce over the top of each cupcake, following the outline of the heart. Pipe a heart-shaped serving of whipped coconut cream in the centre of each cupcake, then sprinkle the shaved dark chocolate on top. If not serving immediately, store the cupcakes in the refrigerator.

Happy Valentine's Day! I hope your weekend finds you enjoying good times with loved ones.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A House With Character

I loved the character-filled house when we first went to look at it. It was older, and charming, with its cozy little rooms tucked into corners and its gently creaking wood floors. There was a large yard behind it, with a pretty, if overgrown, stone garden lining one side of the house, and we had family already living happily just a few doors down the street from where it stood. We would have work to do if we decided to make it our home, we knew -- the basement was creepy in its unfinished state, the kitchen and bathroom fixtures sagged tiredly, and the walls were faded and dingy from years of being bathed in dust and sunlight -- but we had never been afraid of working for what we wanted. We saw there was inherent promise in this well-worn house, so we hammered a For Sale sign into the lawn of our existing home and embarked on a new adventure.

For two weeks we owned both houses. We wanted to give ourselves time to tackle the most demanding renovation tasks, so that the place would feel comfortable before we uprooted our two small boys from the first home of their lives. In the evenings and on weekends, Matt and I took shifts, with one of us staying back to care for the boys, and the other going over to our newly purchased house to dive determindedly into our to-do list: stripping stubborn old wallpaper patterned with smiling bunnies and gaudy wildflowers from the walls, ripping out the kitchen cupboards and floor, painting, cleaning, assembling new furniture. Sometimes we were joined by generous family members who came along cheerfully to help out. Other times one of us worked alone for the evening in the empty, dimly-lit house, with only an old CD player and the cars rushing past on the street outside for company.

The trouble started before we even moved in. One night during the frantic two week work period, after a particularly heavy rain, I walked down the basement stairs and found a sizable puddle of water pooled on the concrete floor, with more trickling down the cold, gray wall above it. I called Matt with a panicked, sinking feeling, worried that this older home had more "character" than we had bargained for, and knowing that it was too late at that point to turn back. Indeed, the puddle was only the beginning of a veritable flood of unfortunate challenges we would face head-on.

Throughout the tumultuous year and a half we lived in that house, we paid the financial and emotional dues for a multitude of problems, none of which had been hinted at by a home inspection. The basement walls continued to weep during random rainfalls, without any sensible pattern to its frequency or location. The sewer pipe backed up into the laundry room, choked as it was by the roots of the beautiful old trees I had loved in the house's front yard. We suffered through a month-and-a-half long wasp infestation, in which hordes of the aggressive insects filled our bedroom every morning and we drove ourselves crazy trying to find the source of them. (They had a secret nest tucked away in the bedroom walls, in a tiny sub-closet off our main one.) The thick electrical wire that connected the house to the city power source on the street blew down in a storm one day; it lay threatening us from the driveway like a long, charged up snake. The roof started leaking. A few of the windows seized. Mice scurried in the plaster walls behind our bed while we tried to sleep at night. As each new problem surfaced, one after the other, and we paid yet another professional to come and set things right, I continued to work almost zealously on turning the rooms and the garden into the picture-perfect living spaces I had imagined when we first fell in love with the place. I thought if we could just get past whatever the most recent problem was, the house would finally become for us the quaint little family haven we had thought it could be.

The day we realized the chimney was crumbling was the day I finally ran out of energy. I felt that the house, with all of its flaws and demands, had succeeded in its mission to break me. We fixed the chimney, then hammered another For Sale sign into the front lawn and walked away from the house a few months later with great relief. For a long time afterwards, I considered the decision to move into that house a mistake, a choice that in hindsight, we probably never should have made.

I've driven by that old house often in the almost nine years since we moved out of it; it sits on a street that is on the way to many other places I frequent in town. Whether it's because time has dulled just how stressful living there felt for me, or because being away from its walls has given me perspective on its value, I have a different feeling about the house now.

The spirit of imagination the house inspired on first look never left it or me, I now realize; it was present in little signs everywhere even as we struggled to deal with the bigger problems. It was there in the pretty view from Noah's tiny bedroom, where we lined his bed up perfectly so that he could gaze out the window and dream while the sun rose off in the distance. It was there in the friendly neighbours all around us, whose kindnesses added warm colour to our grayest days. It was there in the surprise trilliums that bloomed quietly, beautifully in the side garden every spring, and in the old wood floors that squeaked and thunked genially as we played on them, adding our own lines to the stories already written on the long, golden boards. The house had made us feel something that initially encouraged us to take a giant leap and see what would happen. While living in it didn't turn out how we had envisioned, thinking of that choice as a mistake ignored all of the more complex benefits of our time there. We grew from our experiences in that house; we left there not actually broken, but changed in ways that made us wiser, closer to each other through shared challenges, more appreciative of easy times, more resilient.

Sometimes I glance inside the open front windows of our old house when I pass by it, trying to catch a glimpse of the people who live there now and the way that they're using the rooms we worked so hard to improve. I wonder what secrets the house has held for them that we didn't discover in our time there, what little bits of wisdom they might be gaining. I wonder often if they're happy.

Last week as I drove by the house, I noticed with delight an impressively tall, colourful, intricate structure built out of K'Nex standing in the old living room window; it looked very like something my boys would have built in the days when little bricks and rods and wheels were the chosen canvas for their imaginative endeavors. It's somehow comforting to me that the house seems now to be still what it was for us then, even if we didn't fully appreciate it: a hopeful, if flawed, home, heartily encouraging creativity and growing.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

"It's like sleeping, only worse."

Noah set off to catch his school bus early this morning, his backpack stuffed with new binders and a freshly printed copy of an unfamiliar timetable. It was the beginning of second semester for him today, following a first semester exam week he felt really good about and a couple of relaxing days off. He was eager to get started on a new round of classes and learning opportunities, and I felt happy for him and the many ways that his high school experiences are allowing him to thrive.

Will watched his brother depart with eyes full of longing, wishing that he was starting out on a new adventure this morning, too. He's been feeling disenchanted about school lately, having reached a point in the year where the curriculum is feeling very repetitive and meaningless to him. The advanced understanding he's always had, coupled with the fact that he was already exposed to the Grade 6 curriculum last year when he was a Grade 5 student in a 5/6 split, means he feels he's not learning anything he doesn't already know. "Being at school is like sleeping, only worse," he's told me sadly when I've tucked him into bed on recent evenings. "It's like being in a void. There's just nothing. There's no point to any of it."

It's unsettling to have your usually energetic, wildly curious, eager-to-learn child slowly become despondent about school. But it's not the first time this has happened around here. Noah, too, spent the second half of Grade 6 in a gloomy, unmotivated cloud, his spark for learning practically extinguished by being asked to sit in on lessons and complete assignments that offered him no new ideas to consider. Despite both boys having a wonderful, engaging, caring Grade 6 teacher who does all kinds of interesting things in her classroom, it still seemed, and seems, a real challenge to suitably meet their learning needs within the confines of the junior division. (It doesn't help, either, that the number of enrichment workshops, where kids like Noah and Will get to spend a day engaged in creative, higher level thinking activies with their intellectual peers, have been reduced in recent years from one workshop every month to only four workshops for the entire year. There are so few opportunities now for gifted elementary school kids in our board to have appropriately challenging learning opportunities together.)

I imagine that some parents, hearing my concern about my "bored" children, would roll their eyes and scoff that it's not a real worry to have kids whose advanced cognitive abilities make the classroom a challenging place for them. But it sure feels like a real worry to me. I lie awake at night considering what options we have available to prevent Will from becoming more frustrated and sad, and even less interested in going to school. In an education system where classes are organized by age and the curriculum is primarily geared towards the average student, most of our options involve arranging something for Will that is noticeably different from what usually happens in a Grade 6 classroom. And while we encourage the celebration of differences in schools, my eleven year old is keenly aware that doing something noticeably different will still invite questions and comments from his peers that he's not sure he's comfortable with.

Will craves freedom in his learning, the kind that he feels when he discovers something fascinating and wants to devote hours of his time and energy to understanding all he can about it. He wants to move at a faster pace, and go off on tangents, and create things that he's proud of because they involved hard work on his part and therefore have meaning for him. Staying with the current Grade 6 curriculum is not providing any of that for him right now. I feel that we need to do something, because there are still five months left in the school year and they will feel agonizingly long for Will if something doesn't change. But what exactly is that "something"? My mind is swirling with questions about single subject or full-grade acceleration, with the logistics of independent study projects, with the possibilities of educational opportunities outside of school itself. I worry that I won't be able to fulfill the promise I've made to Will to help him find or create a learning environment this year that feels good for him, both academically and socially, and my worry makes me flit nervously from idea to idea in my head, unsure of which ones to pursue.

I've started with an email to Will's teacher this afternoon, outlining our concerns and our willingness to work with her to provide some new learning opportunities for Will this term. I have great confidence that she will do whatever she can to help improve the situation for him. I'm also very aware, though, of the limitations of a public school classroom where one teacher is responsible for so many different learners, and it's possible that we might have to wait longer than we hope to find what Will is looking for.

Will is my youngest boy, and I am in no rush to see him come to the end of his elementary school years. I have to admit, though, that wanting what's best for him has me wishing just a little that he was happily heading off on a high school adventure this week, too....

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Worth Keeping In Your Pockets: January 2016

There is a surefire way to invite a bit of trouble into your life: announce on your blog that your January is going very well. I went into last weekend feeling buoyant, riding on the waves of the positive things happening for our family lately and looking forward to a Friday evening book club meeting, a Saturday morning writing session, and a Sunday afternoon skating party with friends. But by Saturday afternoon I was fretting and grumbling. I had fallen into the dangerous trap of mentally comparing my writing with other people's at the morning session and making myself feel inferior, and then I read the news and realized that over the past few months I had likely eaten dozens of containers of organic greens that may have been contaminated with listeria. (So much for salad being a healthy lunch choice!!) On Sunday evening, Will and I spent a couple of hours in the hospital ER, waiting for him to get his painful wrist looked at after he took a tumble on the ice at the skating party. Needless to say, the weekend looked quite a bit different than the one I had been anticipating.

I have a bad habit of getting sucked into an instant vortex of negativity when minor setbacks happen, and turning small problems into imaginary bigger ones. I often have to remind myself to step back and look at things from a more balanced perspective, to find the positives among life's typical challenges. Listening to other people's good writing is a pleasure and a valuable learning opportunity; eating recalled lettuce does not automatically lead to illness. A fall at the end of a skating party means everyone got to enjoy themselves for a good while first. A suspected broken bone can turn out to be only a sprain, and we can be thankful for good doctors and nurses who treated Will kindly and had us in and out of the ER in under two hours on a Sunday evening, feeling reassured that all was well.

In the spirit of focusing on good things, I'm sharing another edition of Worth Keeping in Your Pockets today. It feels like it hasn't been long since the last time I wrote one of these, but I've discovered several nice treats lately that I think you might enjoy, too!

Flavoured Honey:  We love using honey as a natural sweetener in our kitchen, so I was excited to learn that someone in our neighbourhood keeps bees in her backyard. Catherine Young, of the Backyard Honey Company, is running a lovely business selling a variety of locally made products using honey created by her bees. She also shares her extensive knowledge with school children and other community groups by giving educational Bee Talks. I was welcomed into Catherine's home to sample and learn more about her products, and I left with two jars of the most delicious flavoured creamed honey, one cinnamon and one cocoa. The boys savour a bit of these sweet spreads on their morning toast with nut butter, and I'm sure they'll be asking for more once our two jars run out. If you'd like to learn more about Catherine's beekeeping or would like to purchase some of her honey, you can find her here. It's so nice to support local small business people who are sharing something wonderful with their communities.

Happy Face Spoons: Need to add a little cheer to early, dark winter mornings? How about a happy face spoon for your cup of coffee or your bowl of oatmeal? I found these smiling utensils at Fenigo before Christmas and couldn't resist them. I gave Will the jam spreader in his stocking, which he now enjoys using every morning to make his toast just the way he likes it: with a generous dollop of cashew butter and a bit of jam or honey enthusiastically smushed beyond recognition into it. Happy Face Cutlery comes in all shapes and sizes (dessert forks, grapefruit spoons, vegetable peelers, butter knives, tea strainers, and more) and they make a fun addition to a utensil drawer, a lunch bag, or a food gift for a friend. 

Best Slippers Ever: When my sister-in-law Becca came to visit us with her family back in November, I was smitten with the slippers she was wearing. They were glerups felted wool ones and they looked so warm and comfortable on her feet. Matt took note and thoughtfully gifted me a pair for Christmas. My typically cold feet are deliriously happy now -- the slippers hug my feet nicely, cushion every step, and keep my toes feeling perfectly toasty. My husband knows just the way to my heart! These slippers were one of my favourite gifts and I will appreciate them every day this winter.

A Lovely Natural Face Cream:  I've mentioned the Rocky Mountain Soap Company here several times before, and it remains the place I return to again and again for gentle, natural skin care products. My latest discovery from their online shop is the Pomegranate Day Cream, which I am very happy with as a daily facial moisturizer. The cream is light and non-greasy, smells lovely without any chemical fragrances, and moisturizes skin beautifully, even in harsh winter conditions. I only need to use a little of the cream each morning, so a small jar lasts a long time to help give my skin a healthy glow.

A Favourite Laptop Sleeve: With Noah schlepping his laptop back and forth to school every day for course assignments now, he needed some kind of protective sleeve to prevent it from getting damaged. (A teenaged boy's backpack gets some pretty rough and tumble treatment over the course of a full day, I'm sure.) I found this sleeve by Herschel online and Noah has been really glad to have it. The design is classically simple, but the features are very nice; it has a sturdy zipper and super soft plush lining to offer good cushioning. There is also some stylishly fun red and white pinstripe detailing inside. I like this well-made product from a Canadian company so much that I'd like to get one for my own laptop next.

Chalkboards and Daily Riddles: I found a fun-shaped, small-sized chalkboard at HomeSense a few weeks ago that was just right for the empty wall space in our laundry room. The cheerful yellow frame brightened up the utilitarian room a little right away, but it's what I've been using the board for that has really made things livelier around here. Every day I write a new riddle on the board once everyone leaves for work and school -- a word wink, a jumble, a logic puzzle, or a math challenge of some kind -- and leave it there to see who can figure it out. I first presented a riddle as an experimental use of the chalkboard to see how it took, but this has quickly become a challenge everyone looks forward to each afternoon (and I've been kept on my toes trying to find new and more complicated puzzles to keep them thinking!) There are lots of online resources for riddles and puzzles if you do a quick Google search, and many good books available as well.

I keep hoping the fact that the boys are spending more time in the laundry room reading and solving puzzles will somehow encourage them to do more of the actual laundry, but so far no luck. Oh well, the daily riddles have been a fun family activity for all of us!

Here's to the small but good things that are all around us when we take the time to notice and be grateful for them.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

January Hues

January is not usually one of the most cheerful months of the year for me. The dark mornings and the endless sea of winter gray and white beyond my windows can seem achingly monotonous after the excitement of a new year wears off, and I find myself longing quietly for some kind of change to happen. Often by this time in the season, the winter blues begin to seep into my bones along with the chill of mid-winter's frigid air.

This January feels different though. Part of it may have to do with winter having arrived so late this year: we are just this week shovelling regular, significant snowfalls from our driveway in the evenings, all four of us awed by the new-again wonder of fresh flakes tumbling from smoky indigo skies. Instead of boredom or sadness, I feel an energetic hum within and an excitement usually reserved for spring, that optimistic season of fresh things bursting into the world .

This feeling has been helped along by me saying yes to new experiences and challenges this month, resisting the urge to let a slowly moving season lull me into a kind of sleep. I decided several weeks ago that I would enter a creative nonfiction writing contest, not because I actually have any hopes of winning it, but because having a lofty goal would encourage me to stretch and write better than I ever have before. I've been working hard to do justice in words to a touching family story that has occupied my mind and heart for months now, and the feeling of deep personal satisfaction I've experienced throughout the writing process has made me feel very much alive.

Also, last weekend, I began the writing adventure that I previously mentioned signing up for. I was definitely nervous but open to the experience as I walked into the room full of writers and other creators. Carrie was warm and welcoming as a guide; she encouraged us all to write without fear or self-criticism, keeping our pens constantly moving as she led us through a series of activities. Creating something completely unplanned, unencumbered, and unexpected was a liberating exercise for me, and made me aware of just how often my internal critic badgers me during my usual creative process. I was grateful for the sudden, exciting realization that I have many ideas and feelings within me waiting to be explored, and they're readily available to me when I'm willing to focus on the writing rather than the end result. I left the session feeling joyful, and eager to return the next Saturday. Now more than I've ever been, I'm sure that the time I spend writing is when I feel most like myself.

January has been an exciting month for Noah and Will so far as well. Noah has happily been spending many of his weekend and weekday evening hours at school these days as a member of a FIRST robotics team. He and his high school teammates are working hard to design, build, and program a robot that will meet the season's engineering challenge, with the guidance of some wonderful, dedicated university student mentors and adult professionals. The team has only six weeks to build the robot from scratch, and then they'll compete in several competitions to see how well it performs. I am thrilled for Noah to have this valuable learning opportunity that speaks to so many of his interests. We're very fortunate that there is such enthusiasm for large-scale, multi-faceted projects like this one at his high school and in our community as a whole.

Will is enthusiastic about his new role this month as a young ambassador. Our school's principal was to choose two students to be part of the Elementary Student Senate, which gives Grade 7/8 students "an opportunity to express their voice and opinions as leaders within their schools and communities". He decided to send our Grade 6 boy. Small but mighty; that's always been our Will! I dropped him off at our area high school for a senate orientation meeting this morning; he was keen to begin sharing his ideas about what is working well and what needs improvement at his own elementary school. He was also happy about the possibility of bumping into his big brother today in the high school hallways. I'm proud of Will's commitment and his eagerness to make a difference in his world.

There is much for me to be cheerful about in this first month of 2016. It's been a nice surprise to discover a different set of January hues.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Almond Cherry Orange Biscotti (gluten-free, vegan)

On Christmas Eve afternoon, I called my grandma in Sault Ste. Marie to tell her I was thinking about her and to wish her a Merry Christmas. I was feeling as I often do when special occasions approach, and I am here and so many of my extended family members are there: flooded with warm memories of the happy family gatherings of my childhood, and wishing a little wistfully that it was somehow easy to recreate them in the same way now.

My grandma and I chatted cheerfully about the preparations we'd each been making for the holidays. She told me about the dozens of genettis and pintas she had baked and given away, the cheese and meat ravioli she'd prepared for family dinners, and the most recent batch of biscotti to come out of her oven that week, which were orange flavoured and dotted with chopped almonds and dried cherries. (Have I mentioned before that my grandma is eighty-six years old? Eighty-six, and still finding joy in baking and cooking up wonderful foods to share with the people she loves. "What else am I going to do?", she asks me. "You've gotta keep busy." I hope I have half of the strength and enthusiasm she does when I'm her age.)

I told her I liked the sounds of her biscotti, and she asked me if I thought I could make them in such a way that I'd be able to eat them. I told her I was pretty sure I could. And then one day in early January, an envelope addressed to me in my grandma's handwriting showed up unexpectedly in my mailbox.

My grandma had thoughtfully written out her biscotti recipe for me, and included a series of photos from a magazine to illustrate the method for making them. I was especially eager then to try making a batch of my own. Having my grandma's encouraging handwritten instructions made me feel almost as though she were here with me in my kitchen.

I had to modify my grandma's recipe quite a bit to eliminate gluten, eggs, and refined sugar, but the almond flour version I came up with has the same delicious flavours hers did. The sweet orange flavour and tart cherries scattered through a crispy cookie were a big hit with my eager dessert eaters here at home.

Almond Cherry Orange Biscotti

2 1/2 cups blanched almond flour
2 tbsp coconut flour
1/4 cup coconut palm sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup dried cherries (I like Eden brand, with no added refined sugar)
the zest of one orange
1/4 cup melted coconut oil
1/4 cup fresh orange juice

Preheat the oven to 325 F. Combine the almond flour, coconut flour, coconut sugar, baking powder, sea salt, walnuts, dried cherries, and orange zest in a large mixing bowl.

Add the melted coconut oil and the orange juice to the almond flour mixture. Stir well, until a crumbly dough forms. Knead the dough with your hands until it all sticks together.

On a parchment paper lined baking sheet, form the dough into a long, flat oval with your hands. (See the example my grandma sent me in the first photograph above. I think my oval was a little too wide this first try; next time I'll try making it longer and a little taller to improve the shape of the finished biscotti.) Bake in the preheated oven for 30 minutes, then allow the baked dough to cool completely.

With a sharp knife, slice across the width of the cooled oval to create biscotti that are each about an inch wide. Place the biscotti cut side up on the baking sheet once more, and bake them for another 10 to 15 minutes at 325 F, keeping an eye on them so they don't brown too much. Allow the biscotti to cool again until they are crispy.

I was really pleased to be able to create a version of my grandma's biscotti that all of us can enjoy. They're a delicious accompaniment to a hot cup of coffee or tea and a good book on a winter afternoon. I've saved my grandma's letter along with my own recipe notes in my cookbook now -- I'll think very fondly of her every time I make this special treat.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Should kids be watching movies during school lunches?

It's Friday -- we've made it to the end of a full week back to school and routines and the painful act of having to get out of bed too early in the mornings! Despite our reluctance about the holidays being over last Sunday evening, the transition into a more bustling, productive lifestyle once again has been positive for all of us.

As Will was happily recounting to me the events of his school day over a snack one afternoon this week, I was reminded of an issue that has been bothering me for some time. It has become a daily practice over the past several years for at least some of the classrooms at his school to have a movie playing from the BrightLink projector onto the white board during the twenty minutes that the students are given to eat their lunch. The reason for the movie, according to my boys, is to get kids to eat quietly before they go outside to play for the remainder of the period. It seems harmless enough, I suppose, giving kids twenty minutes of screens to ensure a certain level of calm while they eat their lunch, but I'm not comfortable with a daily habit of meals with screens for my children, and here's why. 

According to a Common Sense Media 2015 national survey, tweens today spend just over four and a half hours on screens daily, not including the time they spend using media for school or homework. For teens, that number jumps to over six and a half hours of daily screen time for entertainment. Those numbers seemed shockingly high to me when I first read them, but they made sense when I thought some more about all of the ways our children come into contact with screens as they go through a typical day. It doesn't take long for the hour tally to climb when you add in texting, video games, movies and tv shows, YouTube, social media sites like Instagram, and surfing for cool stuff online. The easy portability of screens today means that media use has crept into many aspects of day-to-day life: kids are texting, watching movies, gaming, and using social media while they're eating, waiting for things, studying, or supposed to be sleeping.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has set out guidelines for families regarding screens, based on studies that show that "excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity". It recommends no more than one or two hours a day of entertainment media for children and teens, as well as the practice of setting "screen-free zones" at home in places like the bedroom and the dinner table. Because it is so easy for kids to exceed these daily recommendations, it requires a conscious effort on the part of parents (and school staff, when children are in their care), to ensure that kids are nudged away from screens and encouraged to participate in other activities that they enjoy.

We have always had a no-screens rule during meals in our home, because I want mealtimes to be about food and conversations that encourage connection between family members. It seems to me that watching a movie on a regular basis during a meal encourages mindless eating, where kids tune out the cues their body is giving them about what they're eating and when they've eaten enough. It also discourages children from sharing in the pleasures of the social, community aspects of a meal, and from learning how to behave appropriately during mealtimes in a group setting. How can we expect them to learn acceptable social behaviours if we miss out on the teaching opportunity by distracting them with constant passive entertainment?

I believe that electronic media can be a useful educational tool in schools; my boys have learned some fascinating things using computers and well-designed programs in their classrooms. It doesn't make sense to me, though, for them to spend twenty minutes each day mindlessly watching part of a movie that's not even that interesting to them during their lunchtime. If schools are setting in place nutrition policies for students and teaching them about healthy eating practices in their lessons, it follows that they should set a good example for kids during school mealtimes as well, by turning off the screens and allowing kids to focus on their food and reasonable friendly chatter with their classmates. We have to be careful as adults responsible for the well-being of children that we don't rely too much on screens simply to make things easier for ourselves.  Just because we can put on a movie to keep lunchtime quiet doesn't mean we should.

How do you feel about kids watching movies during lunch at school, or about other practices or policies your kids' schools have regarding screens? I'd love to hear your views and concerns.