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.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Muffin mania

High heat, humidity, and ragweed pollen levels (darn allergies!) have got the boys and I spending more time indoors this week, so I thought we would pass a few hours doing some back-to-school baking. There's something very satisfying about mixing up big batches of hearty muffins and freezing them so that they are readily available for nutritious school day snacks.

This Oat Bran Applesauce Muffin recipe from the Better Baby Food cookbook by Daina Kalnins and Joanne Saab has been a favourite at our house for years. The muffins' apple-cinnamon sweetness combined with whole wheat flour and oat bran make them both nourishing and appealing to kids.

1 1/3 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup oat bran
1/2 cup loosely packed brown sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup applesauce
1 egg, beaten

Preheat oven to 350 F. In a large bowl, combine flour, oat bran, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and spices.
In another bowl, stir together oil, applesauce, and egg. Add applesauce mixture to dry ingredients; stir just until moistened.
Spoon batter into greased or paper-lined muffin cups. Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes, or until muffins are firm to the touch. Cool 10 minutes before removing from pan to wire rack to cool completely. Makes 12 muffins.

Last week I found this recipe for Carrot Bran Muffins in our local newspaper and we baked up a delicious-smelling batch today. They will be a great source of energy when the mid-morning munchies hit in the coming weeks at school.

1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups natural bran
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup ground flaxseed
2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1 cup finely grated carrot
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups 2% milk
1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/4 cup canola oil
2 tbsp lemon juice

Preheat oven to 400 F.
In a mixing bowl, combine whole wheat flour, bran, brown sugar, flaxseed, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, cloves, and nutmeg.
Toss grated carrot into this dry mixture.
In a separate bowl, beat eggs thoroughly. Add milk, applesauce, oil, and lemon juice to beaten eggs. Continue beating until thoroughly combined.
Combine mixtures until just mixed. Do not overmix.
Spoon batter into greased or paper-lined muffin pan, dividing evenly. Bake for 20 minutes. Let cool slightly in pan before lifting muffins to a cooling rack. Makes 12 muffins.

Will is unable to eat muffins made from wheat flour due to food sensitivities, so for him I bake these tasty, gluten-free Banana Quinoa Muffins using a recipe I got from a friend.

1/2 cup quinoa flour
1/2 cup quinoa flakes
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
2 tbsp honey
2 very ripe mashed bananas
2 eggs*

*In the case of an egg sensitivity, like Will has, each egg can be replaced with a mixture of 1 tbsp ground flaxseed and 3 tbsp water. Allow this mixture to stand for a few minutes before using it to allow it to acquire an egg-like consistency.

Preheat oven to 400 F. Mix flour and flakes with dry ingredients.
In a separate bowl, mix together bananas, eggs, and honey. Add to dry ingredients and mix until combined.
Pour into greased or paper-lined muffin tins. Bake for approximately 20 minutes, or until muffins are nicely browned and a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean.
Cool in pan for 10 minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool completely. Makes 6 or 7 muffins.

Quinoa flour is an excellent and perfectly balanced protein source, as it contains all 9 essential amino acids. With these muffins, I usually add a fun sprinkling of chopped dark chocolate (73% cacao) to the mix before baking; the banana and chocolate flavours together are a perfect pair!

Having muffins like these three kinds on hand makes it easy to pack a wholesome snack in the kids' school bags at the beginning of the day. Because they are made from nutritious ingredients, they could also be part of a great quick breakfast on those mornings when everyone is rushing to get out the door. I'm glad to have had a little bit of muffin mania at our house this week; it will help keep the whole family happy and well-fed in the busy weeks ahead!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

This little piggie

I grew up in what a good family friend jokingly referred to as "the zoo". Over the years, my brothers and I had the pleasure of loving many different pets thanks to the good-heartedness of my mom and dad. Dogs, cats, fish, hamsters, guinea pigs, a rabbit, and birds all came to be a part of our family at some time, and through caring for them we kids learned how to be kind to animals and to be responsible for the well-being of other living creatures. These are valuable lessons for anyone to carry with them through life.

My home now is not a zoo by any stretch of the imagination (though I'll admit some days it feels like it as the parent of two busy boys!), but I wanted Noah and Will to experience the joys of having pets the same way I did as a child. Matt and I have had our cat Maggie since just after we were married, so the boys have loved their feline companion since they were babies, but in recent years they've asked to add other furry friends to the mix. Last August we went on an excursion to the pet store and came home with a guinea pig, now named Butterscotch, or Piggie for short. She has been a perfect pet for a 6 and a 9 year old; she is gentle, friendly, cuddly, and entertaining, and the boys are easily able to help with her care.

Keeping a guinea pig happy and healthy is a fairly simple task. These creatures, when living alone, need an enclosure that measures 2 feet by 2 feet at a minimum, and a shelter within the enclosure for hiding in, to help them feel secure. The cage needs to be lined with a suitable bedding material (we use Natural Critter Care made from cellulose fibres) that gets changed regularly to keep it clean and dry. Guinea pigs eat pellets enriched with vitamin C, hay, and an assortment of fresh fruits and veggies daily. (Ours especially loves carrots and will "wheek" enthusiastically if she thinks there are any coming her way!) Because guinea pigs' front teeth grow continuously, it is also important to provide them with items such as apple branches or wooden toys to chew, which are readily available at pet stores.

Guinea pigs are social creatures and like to live in pairs, but a piggie will also be happy living alone provided she gets lots of interaction time with her human "family". We let ours run around in our family room for exercise, and the boys get a real kick out of seeing her trying to stuff herself under the couch or hopping around like popcorn. They also love imagining what she's saying to us when she makes her many different rumbling, squeaking, and singing sounds. Butterscotch loves to have her head and back scratched and will sit purring happily in our laps. Even Maggie, who hisses like a maniac at other cats or dogs, loves our little pig and is often seen lying contentedly alongside her cage or trying to give her a bath.

Guinea pigs are wonderful pets for those who are looking for a clean, smaller-sized furry, friendly animal. With a life span of approximately 4 to 7 years, a guinea pig can be a source of many happy moments in a child's growing up years. I know our boys are enjoying their little piggie friend and the many good lessons having her is teaching them.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Kid-friendly, eco-friendly lunch packing

The long, lazy, endless-possibility days of summer vacation are winding down, and that means thoughts and energy are turning to back-to-school around our house. Soon the boys will be donning backpacks filled with new supplies and happily reuniting with their school chums, and I'll be back to the routine of packing their lunches every night. This is not a task I particularly love, but it's one I take seriously, and I spend a lot of time preparing healthy sandwiches and snacks that will properly fuel their busy bodies and minds throughout their day at school.

I've done some reading recently that has me convinced I should be putting just as much thought into choosing containers to pack these healthy foods in. There is growing concern about the potentially harmful effects of chemicals found in certain kinds of plastic, particularly for children, whose little bodies are in important stages of growth and development and are more susceptible to the impact of hormone-disrupting compounds. I'm very concerned about the combined, cumulative effects of the many toxins we encounter in our daily life, and it seemed to me that food storage would be an easy and important place to avoid some of them.

When I started looking for safer lunch containers, I was pleased to find there is a wide variety of options available. The boys and I chose these Dabbawalla bags for carrying their lunches this year.

They are made from naturally insulating, stain-resistant neoprene and have earned the Oeko-Tex 100 standard of safety after being tested for over one hundred harmful substances. Noah and Will love the cool designs, and I love that they're free of PVC, lead, and other worrisome materials.

For packing sandwiches, fruit, veggies, and snacks, I purchased several Lunchbot stainless steel lidded containers, as well as some zippered cotton pouches made by Itzy Ritzy.

These containers and bags are also free of suspicious chemicals and they are easily washed and reused, making them an eco-friendly choice. While the lunch packing supplies I've shown here cost more initially than many plastic versions, their durable materials should allow them to last longer, and I think their value from a health perspective makes them a very worthwhile investment.

If you're looking for lunch storage solutions that are kind to your young ones' bodies and to the environment, Fenigo is an excellent Canadian online store with lots of options.

To read more about how toxins in our everyday lives affect our health and our planet, and to learn ways to protect your family, visit the Environmental Working Group website.

We're all set for packing school lunches over here this year; now I just have to convince the boys to actually eat the food I send in their new containers and bags. That may prove to be a more challenging task....

Happy back-to-school to all of the kids, parents, and teachers out there! I hope the year is filled with fun and new discoveries for everyone.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Saving summer in a jar

There are still several weeks of lovely summer weather to enjoy, but as the night sky tiptoes in a little earlier each evening and the maple leaves begin to show the first faint signs of their brilliant autumn colour, I'm reminded that it's time to store away some of summer's harvest for the colder months ahead. It's a project I enjoy immensely; the farmers' market feels so vibrant with its appealing bushels full of ripe, juicy produce, and it's comforting to know that we will have a little bit of August to eat when winter makes great-tasting fresh food hard to come by.

Last August my sister-in-law Rebecca and I took on the ambitious task of canning our own tomatoes. We hit the market early one Saturday morning, two determined girls on a half-crazy mission, and we left with bushels full of beautiful red Roma tomatoes, some fragrant fresh basil, and a whole lot of enthusiasm. Rebecca and I spent the entire rest of the day in her basement kitchen, scoring, boiling, peeling, dicing, and jarring tomatoes until we just couldn't do any more. It was exhausting but deeply satisfying work; we each took away a couple of dozen large jars of diced and crushed tomatoes that we enjoyed for months afterwards in all of our cold weather soups and sauces. Rebecca and her family have since moved out of town, and I'm not quite keen enough to undertake the tomato project alone this year, so I'm focussing my energy on some simpler tasks that will also make for happy eating in winter.

The incredible aroma and flavour of locally grown basil is one of my summertime favourites, and it's easy to store this herb for later use with a method my mom taught me. Place four cups of packed basil leaves, two large minced fresh garlic cloves, and three tablespoons of olive oil in a food processor and mix until combined. Spoon the basil mixture into ice cube trays and freeze for several hours. Once frozen, these cubes can be stored in an airtight container in the freezer, and are delicious used in stir fries, pasta dishes, and sauces that call for basil.

I also like to bring home large baskets of colourful, nutrient-rich berries when they're in season. I freeze them, unwashed, in a single layer on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. When the berries are frozen solid, I pile them into small lidded glass jars and place them back in the freezer, where they'll be ready for making smoothies, muffins, and fruit crisps whenever the mood strikes us.

In the coming days I'll be searching the market for other fresh foods that can be saved and enjoyed during colder months. Home-canned peaches and pears would make a lovely change from imported apples and oranges mid-winter, and I've often been tempted by the baskets of cute little cucumbers to try my hand at pickle-making. I'm realizing as I write this that I'm probably going to need some more glass jars....

I'll be sorry in some ways to see the end of what has been a wonderful summer, but by doing a little bit of work in the kitchen now, we'll all be able to savour the tastes and the memories of these warm, relaxing days many months from now. In my mind, it's well worth the effort.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Cool treats for kids (and kids at heart)

With the long stretches of very hot days we've been having this season, popsicles have been a favourite snack among the younger set at our house. I'm not thrilled, though, about the high sugar levels and the artificial colours and flavours found in many commercially prepared varieties. As a result, the boys and I have been having fun making our own frozen treats this summer using a few molds, some fresh fruits and juices, and a little experimenting.

We started with this recipe from the good food book for families by Brenda Bradshaw and Cheryl Mutch, M.D., one of my current favourite resources for healthy, kid-friendly fare:

1 lb fresh or thawed frozen strawberries
3/4 cup orange juice
approximately 1 tsp liquid honey (optional)

Place strawberries in food processor, add orange juice, and puree until smooth.
Add just enough honey (if using) to sweeten the fruit.
Pour into popsicle molds and freeze.
Yield: 2 cups popsicle mix (approximately 12 popsicles)

Once we saw how easy and entertaining it was to make these popsicles (because really, what kid doesn't love watching berries go crazy in a blender?!), we started changing up the fruits and juices to make our own cool creations. Noah and Will's favourite mix so far has been blueberries with mango juice -- mmmm! With these real fruit popsicles on hand for snacks, the boys can always have a frosty treat on a hot afternoon, and I can be happy knowing they're enjoying something that's good for them too. Everybody wins!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Taking a moment

The boys and I spend a lot of time at home in the summer, and this year Matt and I decided to put one of those above-ground, soft-sided, steel-framed pools in our backyard. It was a perfect choice; Noah and Will have been splashing and swimming happily in it virtually every day, and I've rarely heard them complain that they're bored these past couple of months. My parents put a pool in at our home when I was young, and I have many fond memories of the summers I passed there with my brothers, enjoying the same kind of water fun that the boys have been loving recently.

Today I had had a frustrating morning, trying to do some school supply shopping with the boys (who were less than thrilled), at a crowded store that didn't have all of the stuff we needed in stock. I decided this afternoon to give up on getting anything productive done, and jumped in our pool with my two happy fish. Something made me remember how we used to make "whirlpools" many years ago at my mom and dad's, all of us running crazily along the outer edge of the pool in the same direction to get a good current going, and then laughing while we tried to swim against it. I proposed the idea to my guys, who immediately jumped on board. They started swimming and jogging furiously with me to get the water moving, and then marvelled at how effortlessly the spinning water carried us along. The time we spent doing this simple activity was pure joy; all three of us laughed and encouraged each other, forgetting about everything except having a good time together.

I'm thankful for these kinds of moments that remind me how glad I am to be home with Noah and Will while they're young and so very full of life. Sometimes it's too easy to get caught up in the never-ending tasks that need doing in a day, to always be looking ahead to what's coming next, not noticing that right now could be a meaningful moment if we would only let it. This afternoon I quickly realized that the school supplies, among other things, could wait. I might not have pencil crayons for the boys yet, but I have a wonderful memory of a sunny summer afternoon spent whole-heartedly engaged with my two amazing sons. Somehow the pencil crayons just don't seem that important anymore.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Easy Summer Salads

Let's be honest -- when summer temperatures outside are sweltering, no one really wants to be inside cooking dinner. The thought of turning on a stove or oven is highly unappealing when you've already been roasting for hours in the heat of a sunny afternoon! For those kinds of days, I've got a plan for getting a healthy meal on the table without breaking a sweat in the kitchen. Enter the simple supper salad:

Crisp leafy greens combined with handfuls of whatever crunchy veggies you have on hand, some lean protein, and a simple homemade dressing make a refreshing and satisfying supper. Best of all, prep and clean-up are minimal so you can quickly get to enjoying the outdoor activities summer evenings have to offer.

For the salad pictured above, I used romaine and red leaf lettuces, carrots, red peppers, green and yellow beans, cucumber, grape tomatoes, peas in the pod, chunks of grilled chicken, and slices of hard-boiled egg. The dressing was a simple mix of olive oil and freshly-squeezed lemon juice with sea salt and pepper. We added a crusty loaf of multi-grain bread and voila -- dinner was served!

For me, the trick to being able to whip up dinner easily is to do a little planning ahead. When cutting up vegetables for one meal, I always cut up extras to store in the fridge for handy snacks and salads later. If we are grilling meat for dinner, I'll often add a few extra pieces so that we can make another meal by simply slicing up the leftovers and thinking of something interesting to do with them. Having boiled eggs ready to use later in the day is easy when I think to cook a half-dozen in the morning during breakfast. It's not an earth-shattering revelation, nor is it much extra work, but each of these little things makes it possible to avoid labouring for an hour in the evening when there are other things I'd rather be doing. I can feel good on those hot summer days that even without a huge effort, my family is eating an enjoyable meal that didn't have to come from a take-out container.

The next time a hot, sunny day makes salad for supper seem like a bright idea, get creative with colour and stay cool in the kitchen! The possibilities are endless and the results are virtually always good.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Books for boys

When I was a child, I passed many happy hours with my nose buried in the pages of good books. I loved getting lost for awhile in other lives and other places, and I remember often hanging off the end of my bed, straining to read just a few more pages by the dim hallway light outside my room long past my bedtime. This passion for reading has stayed with me, resulting in a university degree in English and a career teaching highschool literature. As a mom, I'm thrilled to have two boys who share my love of words and who also delight in a good story!

Some of the best times I spend with my boys are the hours we pass cozied up on the couch together, reading. Noah has been able to read on his own since he was very young and spends much of his free time doing just that, but even at nine years old, he still looks forward to hearing me read to him from a book of his choosing each night before bed. Most recently we've been captivated by the Harry Potter series, and I've been reprimanded seriously more than once when I've been caught trying to read ahead on my own! Sharing these books together opens up great opportunities for Noah and I to talk about all sorts of things, and now that he is getting older (and sometimes too cool for his mom!), I'm glad for the chance to connect with him at the end of every day.

Will is at the wonderful age where the world of books is opening up for him. His ability to read on his own is developing at a furious pace, and it's a joy to see how excited he gets when he figures out new words for the first time. He is fascinated by both fiction and non-fiction, and is often in the middle of several books at once. There's nothing better than sharing a big laugh or an "a-ha!" moment with him over a book, his warm head resting on my shoulder as he stares intently at the scenes unfolding on the pages before him.

The boys and I have spent countless hours at local bookstores and libraries, browsing and reading, and we've found many excellent stories to enjoy. If you have school-aged boys in your life with whom you'd like to share a good read, perhaps you might like to check out some of our recent favourites. (Of course, many girls might enjoy these books as well!)

For 9-12 year olds:

the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling ~ the How to Train Your Dragon series by Cressida Cowell ~ boom! by Mark Haddon ~ the Guardians of Ga'Hoole series by Kathryn Lasky ~ the A Series of Unfortunate Events series by Lemony Snicket ~ the Screech Owls books by Roy MacGregor ~ the Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan ~ the And Then It Happened books by Michael Wade ~ the The Time Warp Trio books by Jon Scieszka ~ Frindle and other books by Andrew Clements

For 6-8 year olds (early readers and easier chapter books):

The Cat on the Mat is Flat by Andy Griffiths ~ the Stink series by Megan MacDonald ~ the Horrid Henry books by Francesca Simon ~ the Henry and Mudge and High Rise Private Eyes books by Cynthia Rylant ~ the Mercy Watson series by Kate DiCamillo ~ the Mr. Gum series by Andy Stanton ~ the The Pain and the Great One books by Judy Blume ~ the Jacob Two-Two books by Mordecai Richler and Gary Fagan ~ Stuart's Cape by Sara Pennypacker

In an age where boys have endless distractions with which to fill their free time, I still think reading is one of the most valuable to encourage. I have a feeling that, like me, my boys will carry their love for the written word with them wherever they go in life. I hope it will take them far.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Name that squash

These lovely little yellow fellas showed up in our veggie box the past two weeks, and I wondered what they were and what exactly I was supposed to do with them. I was intrigued by their varied shapes and sizes and their interesting scalloped edges. A few minutes of internet research revealed that they are pattypan squash and can be used in the same way one would use zucchini. Matt and I decided to do up some veggie skewers on the bbq for dinner tonight, using the pattypan squash, zucchini, sweet peppers, red onion, and grape tomatoes. The results were absolutely delicious! If you can find these pretty little squashes, try enjoying a bit of sunshine on your plate sometime soon!

Grilled Vegetable Skewers

Load up several skewers with an assortment of your favourite vegetables, cut into chunks. (Peppers, zucchini, mushrooms, onion, small tomatoes, pattypan squash, eggplant, and sections of corn on the cob would all work well.) If you are using wooden skewers, be sure to soak them in water for at least 20 minutes before threading the veggies onto them.
Brush the vegetables with a mixture of olive oil, minced garlic, and chopped fresh herbs.
Grill the vegetable skewers for approximately 12 minutes on medium-high heat, turning them every few minutes and brushing the olive oil mixture over the vegetables each time you turn them.

These veggies are a great accompaniment to any lean grilled meat, poultry, or fish. I hope you enjoy them as much as we did!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Meet the family

The seeds of our little family started back in 1988, when my husband Matt and I were just a couple of high school kids. We met at a school function (a big-haired 1980's-style Band-o-rama, to be exact!), hit it off, and the rest is history.  Many years later we find ourselves here, happily married and raising two wonderful boys. We've had our share of obstacles along the road: years of long-distance dating while we pursued our post-secondary educations, work stress, interesting moves and real-estate escapades, and the many challenges that come with parenthood. Through it all, we've grown both as individuals and together, always sharing ideas with each other, truly caring for one another, and remembering to have fun. We're proud of having made a joyful, fulfilling life for ourselves. I also heartily thank my parents for showing me through their love for each other and their children that family is what matters most.

Our world is never dull as the parents of two energetic and inquisitive boys! Noah, our oldest son, is confident, articulate, thoughtful and even-keeled. He's an incredibly avid reader who devours any book he can get his hands on, a creative writer, and he approaches everything in life with maturity, sensitivity, and a positive attitude. Our youngest son Will is a firecracker, bursting with intense feelings (and a very big heart), insatiable curiosity, and a great sense of humour. He can make an ingenious craft out of anything, can argue better than a lawyer, and asks myriad meaningful questions about the complexities of life. Our house is teeming with Lego, books, collections, and ideas, and while their unbridled enthusiasm sometimes drives me crazy, I love that the boys are so motivated to learn and to talk about anything and everything. Someday I might even get a chance to get a word in edge-wise at our dinner table!

In addition to Matt, Noah, Will and I, there are two furry members of our crew who should be mentioned: Maggie is our affectionate, quirky old cat and self-proclaimed queen of the house, and Butterscotch is our guinea-pig, a cute, social, carrot-loving little critter. Both of them have added great fun and happiness to our home.

These are the characters behind the stories that unfold day by day in our little world. I hope you'll enjoy turning the pages with me as we find out what comes next!