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, January 28, 2011

Seeing in mirrors

I always find it fascinating to observe how children can resemble their parents, not just physically, but in personality too. How many of us as adults now see and hear echoes of our parents in our actions and words, and suddenly realize that we have "become" our moms or dads? How many times have we caught a glimpse of ourselves in our children's ways of speaking, thinking, and acting? Of course, our children are not us -- they are their own complexly unique selves -- but sometimes seeing a part of us in them can lead to some interesting self-realizations.

It's easy to swell with pride and feel wonderfully happy when our children exhibit personality traits that we value in ourselves. I am thrilled with Noah's love of and aptitude for language, and I delight in sharing books and writing with him. I love how confident he is and admire his ability to plan and problem solve. When Will shows his sensitivity and deep caring for others, I smile inwardly at what a kind soul he has. I treasure the times I spend with him nurturing his very creative thinking and his love for music, rhythm and movement. It feels good to know that it is in part because of me that these wonderful boys came to be, and it's easy for me to encourage them to develop these traits as they grow.

The story changes somewhat when we recognize that our children also share with us some of the characteristics we wrestle with in ourselves. I get frustrated with Noah's need to be right all the time and his frequent habit of correcting people. Will's struggles with anxiety and his perfectionistic tendencies make me worry and cringe sometimes. It's as though our children are a kind of mirror for us to look into, and seeing ourselves reflected back in that light is uncomfortable, to say the least. I know I can't help but feel guilty that I may have passed on a genetic code for these traits to my boys, or worse, that I somehow taught them to be these things by modelling them in my own day-to-day life.

The thing is, we love our children, beyond measure, for ALL of who they are. We accept that they have parts of themselves that will make life difficult for them sometimes, and we offer them understanding and guidance to help them work through their challenges. I wonder why it's so hard sometimes for us as adults to have the same feelings of understanding about ourselves. Maybe when we gaze into the mirrors of our children, we should look harder for an acceptance of our own challenges, and for the realization that there is still room for us to grow and work through them, too. Maybe, in seeing the inner beauty, strength, and potential of our children shining back on us, we can remember to be gentler on ourselves.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Good game!

It's been downright frigid outside lately, and while our family loves to skate, sled, and play in the snow, eventually we get, well, cold, and need to find something to do indoors. This is where a good collection of games (board, card, strategy, word, and others) comes in handy; we need to look no further than the shelves in our family room to discover an instant source of fun. Playing games together gives us a chance to talk, laugh, think, and spend real time together. It also helps Matt and I teach the boys the important life lesson that winning isn't everything.

Over the years, we have discovered a wide variety of amusing and challenging games to meet the needs and interests of the boys' ages. These are the ones that have stood out as our family's favourites.

Cariboo by Cranium (ages 3+) This exciting treasure hunt game encourages a team approach, and is perfect for young ones who are learning letters, numbers, shapes and colours. Players match objects from their cards with those on doors on the game board to try and find colourful hidden balls. Finding all of the balls unlocks a special treasure box!

Honey Bee Tree by iplay (ages 3+) In this cute game, players carefully remove "leaves" from the bees' tree, trying not to "wake" the bees. If any bees pop out of the hive while a player removes a leaf, that player must keep them. The little bees in this game are irresistably adorable -- the boys always loved making up adventures with them after the game was over!

Balloon Lagoon by Cranium (ages 5+) This is a game with a lot of variety and activity. Players try their hand at different carnival style mini-games that let them practise spelling (at a fish pond), picture completion (at a spinning puzzle), matching (at a dice-rolling snack hut), and fine motor skills (at a frog flipping pond). Playing this game is almost as much fun as going to the fair!

Slamwich by Gamewright (ages 6+) In this fast flipping card game, players try to get cards from their opponents by making crazy card sandwiches and then slamming their hand down first when certain combinations of cards turn up. Players also have to watch out for sandwich thieves, slip slaps, and munchers! We've had many hours of silly sandwich making fun with this game, and it's great for travel, too.

Lego Games (ages 6+) These new games were a popular gift for the boys this Christmas, and a very big hit with both of them! When pairing the building appeal of Lego with the strategy and luck of a board game, how could anyone go wrong? The game themes vary from robots to race cars to pirates to monsters and more; there is definitely something for all kinds of Lego fans to enjoy.

Qwirkle by Mindware (ages 6+) An excellent strategy game, Qwirkle involves building lines with wooden tiles that are either all the same colour or all the same shape. Players need to plan carefully to maximize the points they earn for each turn. This game takes close to an hour to complete, but we find the time flies by because we're all so absorbed in playing it!

Bananagrams (ages 7+) Scrabble fans out there will likely love this game! Players try to use up all of the letter tiles in their pile to make connecting and intersecting words. Each person plays individually, but players are constantly drawing letters from a large central pile, and the speedy word-making actions of one player affect all of the other players in the race to be the first one finished. No children are required for the enjoyment of this game (though the kids love it too!). My parents and Matt and I have spent many hilarious evening hours Bananagramming together and accusing each other of being rotten bananas!

RushHour by Thinkfun (ages 8+; junior edition also available for ages 6+) While this is essentially a single player game, our family likes to work on it together sometimes to see if we can solve the really difficult challenges. Players set up a traffic jam with toy vehicles on a grid according to the directions on one of many varied-level cards; they then try to get the red car out of the jam using allowed moves. This is a super game for anyone who likes to challenge his or her thinking.

Our family has had hours of fun playing many of the old standby games I remember from my childhood, too: Candyland, Trouble, Connect 4, Mastermind, Checkers, and the like. If we ever tire of the games we have, we can arrange a swap with relatives or friends for a few weeks in order to discover different ones. There is always a new game out there to try!

In my eyes, family game time is as valuable as family meal time -- it's a chance to connect with the ones you love (with the added bonus of not having to do dishes afterwards!). Taking an hour or two to enjoy a game and each other's company in a spirit of fun leaves all players smiling and saying, "Good game!" afterwards. In this sense, everybody wins.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Odd (wo)man out

With the exception of Maggie the cat, who is far too much of a drama queen to be any good to me as a female companion, I am the only girl living in my house. Usually I don't give this fact a second thought; I love all my boys and there is something very sweet about their kindness towards me. I will admit, however, that there are certain times when I feel like an alien in my own home, a visitor to a strange land where the behaviours of the male inhabitants are bizarre, unexpected, and incomprehensible.

From the moment our little family was complete with the birth of our second son, I expected the general direction of family life to head far into the male domain. I have since sat through endless talk about baseball, hockey, and video games without batting an eyelash, and have good-naturedly spent hours sitting on the floor re-enacting battles with Playmobil knights and pirates. For the most part, I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of what makes the boys tick. There is no part of my female mind, though, that could comprehend what I recently witnessed Noah and Will doing.

The boys were entertaining themselves in the basement rec room one weekend afternoon, playing mini stick hockey and the like. At one point, the sound effects turned to a series of thumps followed by crazy laughter. (Now, if you're a female, you know already that those sounds mean things aren't going to end well.) Before I could get downstairs to investigate, the sounds changed to Will screaming in agony and Noah alternating between "I'm sorry"s and "Are you okay?"s. (See, I told you.) I noticed, while trying to sort things out, that the boys each had a throw pillow stuffed up the front of his shirt, and (silly me) I dared ask them why. Apparently they had thought it would be great fun to run and smash into each other, figuring that the pillows would offer them an immunity to injury. Now, these are two very intelligent young boys I have; what on earth would possess them to think this was a good idea? Even Matt was chuckling about the boys' unfortunate event once he was out of their earshot. I think it appealed to the long ago little boy within him (who incidentally once smashed himself through a glass door in his house growing up while amusing himself by running in socks and sliding on a smooth floor.)

There is something about the way a boy's mind works that I may never be able to understand. I will accept and even embrace that fact, because sometimes my boys' minds work in wonderful ways: Noah spent a long time last night explaining inventions he had thought of for taking care of household tasks for me, and Will thinks often to make me pretty flowers and jewellery out of paper and beads and things. My boys may almost give me heart failure at times with their crazy antics, but more importantly, they fill my heart with so much joy. I can't imagine my life any other way.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Taking lentils to lunch

Unlike my boys, who would happily eat the same things for lunch every single day, I get bored easily with food, so lately I've been searching for some different healthy ideas for my mid-day meal. I haven't had to look any further than the jar of lentils in my cupboard for inspiration: these simple little seeds are mightily packed full of protein, fiber, folate, vitamin B1, iron, and minerals, and when prepared in a tasty salad or soup, they make a very satisfying (and interesting!) lunch.

My sister-in-law Rebecca first introduced me to lentils several years ago when she made the lentil salad recipe I'll share below for a party. While I'll admit that lentils don't look all that exciting on their own, I was very pleasantly surprised at how delicious they were in this salad, and I've been hooked ever since. This salad recipe was originally published in Canadian Living Magazine, and both Becca and I have made it many times to rave reviews!

Lentil Feta Salad

1/2 cup slivered almonds
1 cup dried green lentils
2 cloves garlic
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh oregano
1/4 tsp each sea salt and pepper
1 1/2 cups diced cucumber
1 cup halved cherry tomatoes
1/2 cup diced sweet or red onion
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
3/4 cup crumbled feta cheese

In a small dry skillet, toast almonds over medium heat, stirring often, until golden, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add lentils and garlic; reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain and rinse in cold water; drain again. Discard garlic.
In a large bowl, whisk together oil, vinegar, oregano, salt and pepper. Add lentils, cucumber, tomatoes, onion and parsley; toss to coat.
Stir in almonds and all but 1/4 cup of the feta; sprinkle with remaining feta. Makes 6 servings.

I omit the feta cheese when I make this recipe since I can't tolerate dairy, but the salad is still wonderful even without it. If you plan to eat this salad over a couple of lunches, you can prepare it in advance up to the last step, and add the almonds and feta to each portion just before you plan to eat it. Lentil salad packs nicely to take to work or school (if you have better luck than I do at convincing your kids that they really do want to eat this!)

The next time you're stuck in a food rut, maybe you'll think about taking some lentils to lunch. They're modest, but strong and smart -- just the kind of lunch date anyone can feel good about!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Thinking... outside the box

Those of you who have ever had children in your life may be familiar with this scenario: you carefully choose the perfect toy as a gift for a special young boy or girl and are sure it will be an instant favourite... and the child ends up being more fascinated with the box that the toy came in. To be fair to boxes, they are pretty spectacular playthings. Pair a box with a big imagination and you have many hours of fun and adventure!

We came to have several wonderfully large boxes at our disposal this past weekend, and the boys were completely thrilled! As soon as they saw the vast cardboard canvases, they excitedly began talking big plans with one another. I had to quickly redirect Noah's first brainwave; he was figuring how he could get his hands on a massive, strong rubber band so that he and Will, while sitting in one of the boxes, could somehow launch themselves into flight. It sounded, well, dangerous, and I honestly didn't put it past Noah to actually find a way to make it work! Thankfully, they settled for designing less life-endangering machines: Will made a rocket and Noah a "transmogrifier/duplicator". (Don't ask. I have no clue.) They busied themselves for a good part of the weekend drawing control panels and fashioning joysticks out of straws and styrofoam balls, and then acting out wild escapades using their newly built contraptions.

Some of the boxes we had were so large that Will needed help getting in and out of his. He would quietly colour away inside the box for awhile, and then we'd hear a muffled little voice calling, "Can someone please get me out of here?". Matt and I laughed at the time about our energetic son being contained in his cardboard box (and had an old Corey Hart song going through our heads for hours afterwards!), but really, what a perfect secret hideaway for a boy to do some thinking and dreaming! That box was Will's alone; he was as happy as anything tucked away in his little piece of "real estate", with no one to tell him how to decorate it or how tidy it had to be kept.

In an age where there are so many complicated, expensive gadgets for kids to play with, the humble box still easily manages to claim its spot on the A-list of toys. The next time you hear children complaining of boredom, go ahead and bring them to a toy store -- just don't buy them anything new. Ask a sales associate instead if they have extra boxes to give away. It might very well be the best money you never spent.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The best kind of thanks

I often think as a mom that parenting is one of the best and most difficult things I've ever done. Like any endeavour worth pursuing in life, raising two boys presents me with moments of immeasurable joy, daunting challenges, and countless opportunities to learn as I try to help Noah and Will grow into confident, kind, happy young men. Sometimes it seems to be a pretty thankless job. The boys aren't thrilled when I suggest they eat a variety of vegetables or wear rain boots to keep their feet dry. They don't sing my praises when I say "no" for their own good or have them fix their mistakes so they can learn from them. I'm okay with that, though; I usually just imagine that one day my grown boys will come to understand and appreciate the love and guidance I gave them when they were small.

The other evening, Will and I were having a really nice conversation about birthdays and about when he was born. He became quietly thoughtful for a moment, and then asked me, "Mom, did you appreciate it when you knew you were having me?". I told him that oh yes, I was so very happy he was coming, and that I loved him from the moment I knew about him. "That's good," he said, "because I'm really glad I'm your kid." He then hugged me tight around my waist, looked up at me with his oh-so-deep brown eyes and said, "You're the best mom ever."

That kind of unexpected and sincere moment with my sweet boy is all the thanks I'll ever need.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

What's for dinner, Mom?

Anyone who knows me knows that I like to be organized. You would be hard-pressed to find a notepad in my house that doesn't have some kind of list inscribed on it somewhere: to do lists, shopping lists, gift idea lists, lists of what I might write about next, lists of important dates, lists of what to do if I ever lose my lists.... Okay, that last one is ridiculous, but I think you get the idea! Strangely, though, despite all of my many notebooks and carefully organized life details, I have never been really good about planning meals for the week ahead. We eat a healthy dinner together as a family each evening, but I'm not particularly fond of the decision-making task involved in that every.single.morning, especially when the boys have such strong opinions about (usually against!) what I make.

With a new year ahead of me, I've decided to make more of an effort to take a bit of time on the weekends and plan out our family dinner menu for each day of the coming week. I found a handy magnetic days-of-the-week notepad at a Target store last time I was in the U.S. that is perfect for this task. One week into the project, I am loving it, and am already finding planning meals ahead makes life easier in several ways. I know exactly what I need at the grocery store when I do my major shopping trip, and I think there will be less unused food in the fridge at the end of the week as a result. I'm also making fewer, if any, impromptu runs to the supermarket to pick up something I've realized I need last minute. We're likely to eat a wider variety of foods over a month when I plan ahead, because I'm deciding what we'll eat when I have time to look through recipes instead of when I'm trying to herd two easily side-tracked boys out the door to school. Most importantly, with a list of what's for dinner posted on the side of the fridge every week, the boys have time to brace themselves for those meals they may not enjoy very much, which generally results in less grumbling and ugly face-making at the dinner table!

If you're interested in having a regular, healthy evening meal with your family with less stress, perhaps you'd like to give weekly food planning a whirl! I'll leave you with one of my favourite slow-cooker chicken recipes (slightly modified from its original version in Canadian Living's Slowcooker Cookbook Special) to help start you off.

Chicken Braised with Sweet Peppers

12 boneless chicken thighs
sea salt and pepper, to taste
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 sweet peppers (red, yellow, orange), chopped
1 can (796mL) diced tomatoes
2 tsp dried thyme (or a few sprigs of fresh thyme)
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 tbsp tomato paste

Sprinkle chicken thighs with sea salt and pepper. In a skillet, heat oil over medium heat; brown chicken in batches. Transfer to slow cooker.
Drain any fat from pan. Fry onion, garlic and peppers, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Scrape into slow-cooker.
Add tomatoes, thyme, and additional salt and pepper to slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 5 hours or until chicken and peppers are tender.
Stir in parsley and tomato paste. Cover and cook on high for 20 minutes or until slightly thickened. Makes 6 - 8 servings.

I usually serve this chicken and sauce over brown rice spaghetti, with a side dish of steamed broccoli or a mixed green salad. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Off to a good start

I was waiting in a long line at the grocery store yesterday and a caption on a magazine cover caught my eye. It asked readers, "What's your next chapter?". The phrase seemed to me a fitting question for the weekend; as we enter into a brand new year, many of us are probably pondering what direction our lives will take in the coming months, what choices we will make that will have a meaningful impact on how we shape ourselves and the world.

According to the local newspaper, my horoscope for 2011 involves a surging creativity, a new-found uniqueness that will make life exciting, and an evolving depth and wisdom that comes from seeking insight, which will draw people to me. I don't put much stock in horoscopes, mind you, but it's fun to think about what those predictions might mean for me, and certainly all of those things are possible if I choose them. With such big plans ahead of me, I decided it would be wise to start the new year off with a hearty, great-tasting breakfast today!

We are big pancake lovers in our family, and we have always made them from scratch, using an old, simple family recipe that I have modified somewhat to make it a little healthier. It is well worth the extra few minutes it takes to make these pancakes instead of ones from a mix -- the end results are really delicious!

1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
3 tblsp grapeseed oil
1 tsp vanilla
1 egg
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 tblsp sugar
1 1/2 cups milk

Combine flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar in a mixing bowl. Add grapeseed oil, vanilla, egg, and milk and whisk until well mixed.
Heat a small amount of grapeseed oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Pour enough batter onto skillet to make a 4-inch diameter circle. Repeat this process for each pancake until the skillet is full. Cook batter until bubbles form on the top of each pancake. Flip pancakes and cook them until the second side is golden brown.
Serve pancakes warm, with syrup or your favourite fruit topping.

We whipped up stacks of these pancakes this morning and Matt and Noah enjoyed them piled high on their plates drizzled with real Canadian maple syrup. Yum!

Over the past couple of years I have made many attempts at making gluten-free, dairy-free pancakes for Will and I using various recipes; my early results either tasted unappealingly like grass, or were rock solid enough to be used as weapons. About a year ago, I discovered Elana Amsterdam's pancake recipe in her Gluten-Free Almond Flour Cookbook, and since then Will and I have been thoroughly enjoying pancake mornings again! I have made a few modifications to Elana's original recipe to make it work best for us.

2 large eggs (if eggs are a problem, you can substitute 2 tblsp arrowroot powder plus 8 tblsp water, or 2/3 cup of either applesauce or mashed banana for the eggs)
1/8 cup agave nectar
1 tblsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups blanched almond flour
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
2 tblsp grapeseed oil

In a blender or food processor, combine eggs, agave nectar, and vanilla; process on high for about one minute, until smooth. Add almond flour, salt, and baking soda and blend until thoroughly combined.
Heat the grapeseed oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Ladle two heaping tablespoons onto the skillet for each pancake. Cook until small bubbles form on the top of each pancake; when the bubbles begin to open, flip each pancake. Cook until pancakes are golden brown on the second side. Transfer to a plate and serve warm.

These pancakes are healthy, high in protein and they taste divine served with real maple syrup or your favourite fruit topping!

We rounded out our pancake breakfast this morning with a colourful, fresh fruit salad and some warm slices of bacon. (Bacon is not usually a word in my food vocabulary, but we received a small package of bacon from naturally raised pigs in our organic farm meat order this fall; this particular bacon seemed like a perfect treat for a new year's breakfast!) You can see from the boys' happy faces this morning that the first meal of the year was a hit!

I'm optimistic that 2011 will bring us many reasons to smile just like that.

I hope that the year ahead is a happy, healthy one for all of you, whatever your next chapter may be.