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.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A bookworm's breakfast - 1

It's no secret that we love books in our family. Almost every room in our house has a bookshelf or two, lined with rows and rows of colourful, well-loved volumes, and you can almost always find someone with his or her nose buried in a book whenever we're at home. I spend hours, either alone or with the boys, browsing libraries and bookstores to discover intriguing reads that are new to us, and people who know this sometimes ask me for recommendations when they are looking for books for the children in their own lives.

I decided it would be exciting to start a regular feature here on my blog, where I share information about children's books that my family has loved over the years. Many of the books I'll write about will have a special appeal for boys, since that's the focus at our house, but girls will certainly find something to enjoy among the suggestions, too. With each edition of A bookworm's breakfast, I will feature three different titles, one for each of the 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12 year old age groups. I'm proud to say that my own resident bookworm, Noah, will be writing the recommendations for 9-12 year olds, since he is a current expert on books from that category. Without further ado, here are this week's suggestions for some excellent reading for kids of all ages!

3-5 year olds: Owen by Kevin Henkes

Young children who have ever loved a special comfort object will relate wonderfully to the story of a little mouse who simply cannot part with his fuzzy yellow blanket. Owen's parents try many tactics, without success, to get him to give up his beloved Fuzzy before he starts school, but eventually his mom finds a solution that makes everyone happy. Henkes' mouse characters are sweet and endearing; children will recognize many feelings and experiences from their own daily life in the adventures of Owen and his parents. It is also well worth checking out Henkes' other mouse books, such as Lily's Purple Plastic Purse, Chester's Way, Julius, the Baby of the World, and Wemberly Worried for more touching portrayals of life and relationships that will be very real to young readers.

6-8 year olds: Adopt a Glurb! by Elise Gravel

This book is a fun combination of simpler text and engaging illustrations that appeals to recently independent readers, as well as to any children who like to beg their parents for new pets! Readers can follow the cartoon-format pages to learn the ups and downs of caring for "glurbs", cute little nonsensical creatures that hatch from hairy, smelly eggs. (They may even recognize parts of their own personalities as they read the humorous descriptions of glurbs' habits and preferences!) Adopt a Glurb! is one of several books in the "Balloon Toons" collection, which also includes titles such as The Super Crazy Cat Dance and Rick & Rack and the Great Outdoors; they are all visually interesting and highly entertaining books for kids who are gaining confidence in their own reading abilities.

9-12 year olds: Guys Read: Funny Business, edited by John Scieszka

From a turkey wanting to kill its owner, to a game involving chucking a stuffed lion around, this collection of short stories is probably the most hilarious book I've ever read! In this book you will also encounter a kid who rips the skin on his shoulder off, a normal kid defeating a giant robot, the inside story of the original Artemis Fowl, and much more. I liked how imaginative the authors could be to create something fabulously funny. A couple of the stories were probably based on real experiences and it was hilarious to read what the authors may have done with their siblings as kids. This book is an absolute work of art and will encourage even the most discouraged non-reader to read it and enjoy it tremendously. (Thanks for the review, Noah!)

I'd love it if you'd share your own experiences with these three books or give your suggestions for other great reads for children in the comments section below. Spreading the word is a wonderful way to entice kids to read more often, which can only be a good thing (unless your children are so absorbed in good books that you can hardly tear them away from the pages long enough to eat or get dressed or sleep or.... Well, never mind that part. That's a subject for a whole other post!) I hope your family makes some wonderful new reading discoveries this week.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Fish + fruit = fantastic!

Surprisingly enough, even with all of the other perfectly healthy and tasty foods my boys turn their noses up at, they do both enjoy eating fish. It's a fact I'm very happy about, since fish are a low-fat, good quality protein source containing significant amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for brain development and heart health. We regularly enjoy fish for our evening meal, and one of our favourite fish dishes is roasted halibut with mango salsa. This recipe, inspired by the good food book for families, pairs a colourful serving of fruit with a meaty white fish to achieve delicious results.

To make the salsa:

1 cup diced mango
1 avocado, diced
1/4 cup finely diced red onion
a pinch of salt
the juice of one freshly squeezed lime

Combine mango, avocado, onion and salt in a bowl. Pour lime juice over all ingredients and stir gently.

I like to make the salsa before I cook the fish so that the flavours blend together nicely. The lime juice prevents the avocado from browning even if it is left to sit for a little while.

To cook the halibut:

Preheat oven to 400 F. Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat on the stove. Squeeze the juice of half a lime over halibut fillets. Sear the fish fillets in the oil, one minute per side. Transfer fish to a baking dish and bake in the oven for approximately 10 minutes or until fillets are moist, opaque throughout, and flake easily with a fork.
Remove halibut from oven and top with mango salsa to serve.

The fruit salsa over the fish adds a nice flavour and sweetness that reminds me of summer, which is always appreciated this time of year! Perhaps the addition of a healthy fruit topping might entice the non-fish eaters in your family to try it a little more often. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

No time like the present

A few days ago, Noah received a birthday party invitation for the first of his buddies to be turning ten. (TEN!?) Reading the number on paper made me keenly aware that my own wonderful oldest son will be turning ten this year too, a fact that at times hardly seems possible. How can it have been that many years already since he came into our world and changed it in a myriad of happy ways forever?

For some parents, noticing the subtle passing of their young ones' childhood phases brings feelings of sadness, with thoughts that they will never again hold a warm, sleeping baby in their arms, or watch a curious, clumsy toddler make exciting discoveries about the world for the first time. I rarely think about my growing boys in a wistful way, though. While I look back with a sweet fondness on their baby, toddler, and preschool years, I don't really wish to return to them, because knowing my boys as they are now is a marvellous experience itself. At nine years old, Noah is still very much the same kind-hearted, ingenious little boy I loved in his early years. My delightful toddler has grown into an incredibly wonderful older boy, and with each year that passes, I realize more profoundly how fortunate I am to be his mom.

My toddler Noah who so sweetly tended to his stuffed animals, feeding them breakfast and dressing them in warm little outfits, is now a caring fourth grader who shows genuine concern for other people. He often kindly considers his sensitive younger brother's feelings, and takes classmates who have been hurt by others in the school yard under his wing, getting them help and making sure they know they have a friend. My charming little five year old entertainer, who loved captivating crowds with incomprehensible knock-knock jokes, now delights in making funny movies with his camera, and keeps us all laughing (or shaking our heads!) with the ludicrous scenes he dreams up. (He recently had me in stitches when he decided to put his socks on the cat and film the comedic results. The cat, however, did not appreciate his sense of humour!) My little bookworm Noah, who was always so very inquisitive and amazed people with his in-depth knowledge about dinosaurs and space at a young age, has grown into a thoughtful scholar who never stops seeking information about fascinating subjects. He dreams up intelligent inventions and is wonderful to engage in very adult-like conversations. In ways that I couldn't have even imagined in his earlier years, Noah, at almost ten years old, has become a truly fascinating, endearing, admirable young man. My heart seems to grow deeper with love for him with every day that passes.

Sometimes, I'll admit, I don't feel old enough to be the mom of a boy nearing ten years of age. Those early years seem to have flown by, taking with them all traces of chubby cheeks, tiny toes, and little arms wrapped around my legs. They have left in their place, though, a beautiful boy who is mature beyond his years and who never ceases to amaze me. He's a very compelling reason to celebrate the present.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Good-bye, french fry

French fries -- those golden, salty sticks of crispy potato -- are an infamously popular meal and snack item for many North Americans. At least one quarter of Canadian children and adolescents eat fries two or more times a week, and in the United States, french fries are the most common type of vegetable children eat, accounting for approximately one quarter of their veggie intake. When you consider that a regular order of fast food fries is loaded with salt, empty calories, and up to 22 grams of unhealthy fat, plus the fact that the number of overweight children in North America is increasing, we would do well to seek out alternatives to this unfriendly fried food.

This recipe for roasted potato and yam chips, from the good food book for families by Brenda Bradshaw and Cheryl Mutch, provides a tasty and healthier way to prepare potatoes at home. My highly selective resident taste-testers give them two thumbs up, and the use of sweet potatoes gives all of us nutritional benefits in the form of complex carbohydrates, fibre, beta carotene, vitamin C and vitamin B6.

2 unpeeled yams, sliced into 1/4 inch medallions (the skin provides extra fibre and vitamins)
1 unpeeled russet (baking) potato, sliced into 1/4 inch medallions
2 tbsp canola oil
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 375 F. Toss vegetables in oil, salt and pepper.

Spread vegetables out in a shallow baking pan and bake for approximately 50 to 60 minutes, or until potatoes are crispy and golden on the outside and yams are tender.

By preparing your own "chips" at home, you can provide your children with the crispy potatoes they love, while using small quantities of heart-healthy oils and controlling the amount of salt you use. This is a wise practice for everyone in the family to lower the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. Good-bye, french fry!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Out of the ordinary

I find it too easy sometimes to get caught up in the lull of a weekday routine that seems to run of its own accord, like a well-oiled machine. The alarm goes off at 6am Monday morning and the gears start turning, not to be stopped until sometime Friday evening (assuming there's no overtime necessary). Get up. Get everybody ready and hustle out the door. Work or volunteer. Run errands and complete various household tasks. Pick kids up. Do homework. Make dinner. Clean up. Go to evening extra-curricular activities. Help kids get to bed. Make lunches. Read or watch tv for a bit. Go to bed. Repeat it all beginning at 6am the next morning. The other day, however, I remembered over a fondue pot that it's so very important to stop that machine regularly, to take much needed breaks that recharge and reconnect everyone and ultimately make family life run much more smoothly.

Because Monday was Valentine's Day, I made an extra-special effort to spend some out-of-the-ordinary moments with each of my favourite boys. Noah, Will and I had some happy conversation over heart-shaped toast at breakfast. Matt and I enjoyed a lovely, leisurely lunch at one of our favourite restaurants, and while we are generally fond of the barely contained chaos of regular family meals, it was really wonderful to enjoy good food, just the two of us, without having to ensure somebody's wildly gesturing arms didn't send a glass of milk flying. I shared time with the boys after school, sprawled across the family room floor looking over all of the fun valentines they'd received from friends. We ate a dinner that everyone liked, and finished it off with a special treat: chocolate fondue (which I made by melting one cup of coarsely chopped dark chocolate with half a cup of unsweetened almond milk and cutting up colourful fresh fruit to dip in it -- delicious!).

We all relished the slower pace of the evening meal and had a wonderful chance to talk while we dipped our fruit and savoured every bite. Finally, we all relaxed and spent time together enjoying the new books we'd given each other as Valentine gifts. Everyone went to bed smiling that night, and while you could argue it was the chocolate that did it, I'm more inclined to think it was the welcome break from the everyday routine, and the meaningful time we shared as a family.

I'm not so naive as to think that every day can be like Valentine's Day, but weekday life shouldn't read like a more complicated version of the instructions on a shampoo bottle either. (Apply shampoo. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.) Even a regular old Monday deserves to be delighted in, and never seen as something we have to simply "get through". I want to make a conscious effort to shake us all out of the routine more often, to make extraordinary moments out of ordinary ones, so that I never take for granted the incredible people I've chosen to spend my everyday with.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sweet treats for Valentine's Day

With Valentine's Day just around the corner, love is in the air... and so is the scent of the chocolate and bakery goodies we associate with this special day. I like to share homemade sweet treats with my favourite boys on February 14th, so I've been busy lately melting and molding chocolate and baking cookies that all of us can enjoy. The smiles on my taste testers' faces this afternoon showed they were very pleased with my labours of love (even though these goodies are free of the large quantities of refined sugars and white flours usually found in heart-shaped sweets).

Today I made little chocolate hearts and heart-shaped lollipops for the chocolate lovers in our house, since Valentine's Day just wouldn't seem right without a taste of the rich, melt-in-your mouth indulgence. The trick with chocolate is to choose a dark variety that is at least 70% cocoa solids; "cocoa mass", not sugar, should be its first ingredient. Dark chocolate has a high concentration of flavonoids, natural compounds that have been found to lower the risk of heart disease.

To make your own heart chocolates, you will need:

2 85g bars of dark chocolate (I buy fair-trade bars with 72% cocoa at my local health food store)
heart shaped chocolate molds
lollipop sticks (if desired)

Coarsely chop chocolate and melt pieces in a saucepan over very low heat, stirring frequently. Spoon chocolate into molds, making sure to fill each heart completely.
For lollipops, place sticks into stick channels of molds, with at least one inch of the stick embedded in the melted chocolate. Rotate each stick to completely cover its end in chocolate.
Lightly tap molds on a flat surface to release any air bubbles. Refrigerate molds for approximately 20 minutes.

When chocolates are solid, turn molds over onto a flat surface and gently tap them to remove the finished treats.

The boys love these smooth chocolate hearts, even though their flavour is more intense than the highly-processed chocolates kids are generally accustomed to. I'm really glad they've developed a taste for the good stuff!

I also baked heart-shaped cookies to share with my sweeties on Valentine's Day. I used a wonderful recipe for gluten-free linzer hearts from Elana Amsterdam, but rather than rolling out dough and cutting out heart shapes, I made thumbprint cookies with a jam-filled heart in their centres. The end results are pretty and delicious!

2 1/2 cups blanched almond flour
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 cup grapeseed oil
1/4 cup agave nectar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
raspberry jam (I use Crofter's Organic Just Fruit Spread -- it's sweetened with fruit juice rather than refined sugar)

In a large bowl, combine almond flour and salt. In a smaller bowl, combine grapeseed oil, agave, and vanilla.
Stir wet ingredients into dry and mix until well combined. Chill dough in freezer for 30 minutes.
Roll dough into 1 1/2 inch diameter balls and place them on parchment lined baking sheets. Flatten each ball to about a half inch thickness with the palm of your hand.
Using your pinky finger, make a heart-shaped indentation in each cookie using the method shown below.

Carefully fill each heart with raspberry jam.
Bake cookies at 350 F for 5-7 minutes, until golden brown around the edges. Cool and serve.

The almond flour in these cookies makes them a protein- and nutrient-rich treat for a special occasion. They never last long in our house!

Sharing healthier, homemade, heart-shaped goodies is a sweet way to show your favourite people you care about them. I hope you and your loved ones have a very happy Valentine's Day!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Special delivery

Finding something to treasure in your mailbox -- a thoughtful card or letter, a lovingly wrapped package, or a happy, unexpected surprise -- is a day-brightening event for most people. Children love this little life pleasure too, a fact I've observed many times over when the boys have beamed excitedly and raced to open something addressed to them from the day's mail pile. There's no need to wait for Canada Post to make a delivery to get young ones smiling, though. With some basic craft supplies and your children's imaginations, they can make their own mailboxes and you can have fun playing postal carrier.

We first started making mailboxes when Noah and Will were quite small. I noticed how much they enjoyed poring over the Valentines Noah had brought home in the special mail bag he had made at school, and decided we should make that joy last for longer than the February holiday. The boys have made many creative mailbox variations over the years, but they've always begun quite simply with a couple of paper plates.

To make your own hanging mailbox, you will need:

2 paper plates (the sturdier the better)
scissors, stapler, glue, single hole punch
yarn or string or ribbon
makers or crayons or paint and brushes (depending on how adventurous you're feeling!)
various craft embellishments (stickers, buttons, pom poms, feathers, sequins, felt shapes, or anything else your children like gluing to things)

Cut one paper plate in half. Flip the half plate so the bottom of it faces up.

Line the half plate up with the bottom half of the full plate, then staple the two plates together at one inch intervals all along their connected edges.

Punch two holes, about two inches apart, at the top of the full plate. Thread yarn or string or ribbon through the two holes and tie the ends together at the top.

Now for the fun part: let your child go wild decorating the mailbox to his or her heart's content!

When the mailbox is complete (and dry), hang it in a location that's convenient for your child to check for mail regularly. (We've always hung ours on the closet door handles or on the doorknobs in the boys' rooms.)

I really enjoy thinking up creative little surprises to deliver to the boys' mailboxes, either while they're sleeping or when they're at school. Sometimes I put in objects that I think they'll enjoy -- cool pencils, tiny puzzles, Lego guys, hockey cards and such. More often, though, I simply deliver a colourful handwritten note telling them how wonderful I think they are, or a homemade "coupon" for something special, like fresh-baked cookies or uninterrupted time with their mom to do something of their choosing. I find it especially sweet that the boys like to write little notes to each other, too, and tuck them into the mailboxes. Hopefully, in a small way, these kinds of "mail" let the boys feel how very much they are loved.

The next time your kids are feeling crafty and you're stuck for a project to do with them, you might want to try making mailboxes of your own. It's a simple, fun way to encourage happy communication amongst the people nearest and dearest to you.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Keeping a happy heart

Ahh, February: a month of hearts and love and sweetness... and of thinking you're going to lose it if you see one more gray, minus a gazillion degree winter day outside! I sense that February is difficult for many people in our part of the country, where winter seems to have had a hold forever by this time in the season. It sometimes takes a little extra work on our part to feel energized and happy, and not to let the last months of winter suck the life out of us. I have a few secrets that I try to keep in mind to prevent me from falling into a winter funk; perhaps me sharing them will help you remember what it is that makes your heart happiest.

Get outside. I know, I know -- it's cold out there, and we're all sick of the rigamarole involved in repeatedly putting on and taking off winter coats and hats and scarves and gloves -- but making myself go outside always makes me glad I did. Take a winter walk, go snowshoeing or skiing on trails in your area, or make some exhilarating runs up and down a sledding hill with some kids you love. The fresh air and exercise can do wonders for your heart and your mood.

Laugh. I read somewhere recently that children laugh more than 300 times a day, while adults laugh fewer than 20 times. It's easy as adults to get caught up in the seriousness of life; we have busy schedules and weighty responsibilities. Remembering every so often to let ourselves go, to be silly and laugh at the lighter moments in our daily lives is sometimes just what it takes to turn a stressful day into a better one. I know, too, that the boys love when I do something ridiculous on purpose and we all have a great laugh -- happiness is contagious!

Call your mom (dad, brother, sister, grandparents, friends... ). Keeping in touch with the people I love always makes me feel happy. Though most of my family lives far away, sharing bits of daily life, struggles, successes, and smiles over phone calls or email makes me feel closely connected to them. Winter can feel isolating when everyone is huddled up in their homes; reaching out to those closest to our hearts makes us remember we're not alone.

Carry less baggage. I mean this in two senses: first, get rid of the objects you have lying around that you don't need, use, or want. You'll be amazed at how clearing physical disorganization can lead to a sense of mental well-being. Second, free your heart and mind of "clutter" by letting go of grudges, hurts, worries, and friendships that are not serving a positive purpose in your life. Sometimes it's difficult to let go of any of these things, physical or emotional, but "housekeeping" of all kinds can be extremely liberating. Unloading just a few things always makes my heart feel refreshingly lighter.

Help others. I think it's impossible not to feel a sense of warmth and joy in our hearts when we willingly give something of ourselves to others. There are always community organizations in need of volunteers, elderly or ill neighbours who could use help shovelling, families who are struggling in some way. By helping them, we help ourselves to feel good, too, and we remember the ways in which our lives are truly fortunate. Somehow our own troubles seem less significant in the shadow of those whose needs are greater.

Make a small but significant change in your dietary habits. Many of us eat or drink things regularly that we know we shouldn't or wish we wouldn't, for various reasons. Major, multiple dietary changes all at once can be overwhelming and frustrating and are often less likely to be enduring. If you can choose one area to work on (stop drinking pop, eat more fruits and vegetables, cook at home more often, or whatever you'd like to try) and give it your best attempt, being successful in that one area may encourage you, in time, to make another change for the better. Your heart (and your whole body) will thank you for your efforts.

Take time for yourself. I have a hard time with this one; if there's work to be done (and there always is!), I usually feel it needs to get accomplished first, before I can enjoy my free time. (We all know how that ends: free time never seems to come with this approach.) It's important to set aside significant periods of time for doing something you really love, even if it means leaving some responsibilities for later. I find if I am good to myself in this way, I feel calmer, happier, and more energetic, instead of feeling frazzled and that I've lost myself along the way. Being true to your heart makes life more enjoyable any time of the year.

Appreciate beauty. Sometimes we get so caught up in the mundane that we fail to notice the exquisite loveliness that exists in small things all around us. My favourite winter sight is that of a stunning red cardinal who comes to sit and sing in the tree outside my kitchen window every day around 11am. The striking contrast of his red feathers against the crystal white snow almost takes my breath away each morning, and my heart wants to sing along with him.

Photo courtesy of my mom

It's true that February can be a difficult month with its cold, often dreary weather. Maybe you'll find it helpful to notice now that the days are slowly getting brighter and longer. I think what's more important, though, is to realize that you have the ability to make your own sunshine, by remembering the good things in life that matter most to you. That's a feeling that will make your heart happy long past Valentine's Day.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Don't... er, do play with your food

I'm not usually one to encourage my two boys to toy with their food. Honestly, it's hard enough getting them to stop talking long enough to eat something; they really don't need any additional distractions at the table! When I saw these Fred food face plates, though, I just couldn't resist getting them for Noah and Will. They're a simple but highly entertaining idea that has provided the boys with oodles of creative mealtime fun.

Since Fred arrived, the boys have been busy making moustaches out of green beans, wild hair out of noodles, and glasses out of grapes. Their works of art make everyone at the table smile:

I worried at first that having these plates would make meals that already last painfully long even longer, but Fred has actually had the opposite effect on the boys' eating habits. They start choosing things to eat immediately when they sit down at the table, because they want to have the space and just the right items left for making their next food masterpiece. As an added bonus, Fred has encouraged Will to try foods he previously wouldn't touch -- he actually ate a piece of broccoli last night after asking for a couple of stems to use for Fred's ears! (Noah is still not quite that adventurous. Fred's going to keep trying, though.)

If you think you'd like to invite Fred to your family's table and see what imaginative fun your children can have with food, the food face plates are available in Canada at Mastermind Toys (http://www.mastermindtoys.com). If you're in the U.S., Amazon.com carries both a boy and a girl version of the plate (http://www.amazon.com). Once your young ones have had a chance to try their hand at food art, I bet your whole family will have a hard time keeping a straight face in the kitchen.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Soup for a snow day

The biggest storm of the winter so far is headed our way this evening, and in my mind, this is a situation that calls for soup! The recipe I'm using this afternoon, from Daina Kalnins and Joanne Saab's Better Baby Food cookbook, pairs hearty butternut squash with tart apples to make a delicious bowl of warmth that's perfect for lunch on a blustery day.

Butternut Squash and Apple Soup

4 cups chicken stock
1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 2-inch cubes
2 medium tart apples, peeled, cored and sliced
1 1/4 cups chopped onions
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp dried rosemary
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/4 cup light cream

In a large pot, combine stock, squash, apples, onions, salt, pepper, rosemary and thyme.

Bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Remove from heat and stir in cream. Allow soup to cool slightly.

In a food processor or blender, puree soup in batches until smooth, transferring each batch to a saucepan. Bring to a boil before serving.

If you have a hand blender, you can simply use that to puree the soup right in your large pot rather than transferring it back and forth between food processor and saucepan. I make this soup without the cream, and it is delicious that way, too!

The boys have big plans to build a fort tomorrow with the 20 to 30 centimetres of snow we're supposed to get overnight. When they come inside afterwards, all red-cheeked and frosty, they'll be able to enjoy a steaming bowl or mug of this lovely soup. What a healthy and enjoyable way to warm up!