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.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What to pack? (School snacks)

Our backyard has been a flurry of wild animal activity these past few days, and the boys and I have been especially amused watching the squirrels and chipmunks who frequent our deck. We have a very old, large black walnut tree at the back of our property, and everywhere we look there are little critters running with large green orbs in their mouths, looking for places to stash them for later. Yesterday we had a good laugh when we found this tucked in the corner of our kitchen window:

Despite the hider's best efforts, I'm not sure this snack is still going to be there when he comes back to find it!

Many parents' thoughts are probably turning to snacks this week as well, for no matter how much the kids don't want to admit it, school will be back in full swing next week. I don't love the thought of packing lunches and snacks for the next day every evening again, but I've found that advanced thinking and preparing always makes the task a little simpler.

The food industry has done quite a job of providing options for quick-to-pack, individually wrapped, snack-sized foods for kids, but in my opinion, many of the "foods" contained in those packages are lacking in nutritional value. We've come up with a collection of healthy, homemade options in our house (along with a few better-for-you packaged foods) that the boys both enjoy, and if you're looking for ideas, you may want to try some of them. (I've provided the links to recipes that are posted elsewhere on my site for easy reference.)

Homemade muffins made with whole grains and fruit (There are three recipes here, one of which is gluten, dairy, and egg-free.)

Banana oat bundles (These delicious cookies are dairy and egg-free, and can be made gluten-free as well if you use certified pure oats.)

Raw veggies with hummus or white bean dip and Mary's seed crackers (gluten, dairy, and egg-free)

Oatmeal apple cinnamon mini-muffins (gluten, dairy, and egg-free, and just the right size for small hands and appetites!)

Homemade granola bars (gluten, dairy, and egg-free, and bursting with nutritious ingredients!)

Homemade applesauce with toasted whole grain pita triangles, Pita Break lavash crackers, or gluten-free brown rice cakes.

Homemade chocolate granola bites  (These yummy snacks are gluten, dairy, and egg-free as well.  I make the heart shaped ones for Valentine's Day, but year round I use mini muffin tins as molds to create perfect little two-bite snacks.)

Fresh fruit kebabs with plain yogourt for dipping (You can sweeten the yogourt with a little bit of honey if your kids are used to the sweetened, flavoured varieties.)

Cranberry coconut granola cookies (gluten, dairy, and egg-free)

Babybel cheese with Triscuit Thins and an apple (I like Babybel because it is made with milk rather than modified milk ingredients, and it also has no added colouring. You can buy a giant bag of Babybel cheeses at Costco for a great price!)

Homemade trail mix using low-sugar dry cereal (like Cheerios, or Nature's Path Whole O's for a gluten-free option), multigrain mini pretzels (like PC Blue Menu Alphabet pretzels, or Mary's Sticks & Twigs for a gluten-free option), fruit-juice sweetened dried cranberries, unsweetened flakes of coconut, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and a little sprinkling of dark chocolate chips (at least 70% cocoa).  If your children's school doesn't have a no-nuts policy, then you can add a variety of nuts to the mixture as well; raw almonds, cashews, pecans and walnuts are all great additions.

Packing school snacks for Will became more of a challenge when we discovered his food sensitivities; cheese and yogourt were out, as were any foods containing gluten, and because the boys' school is completely nut-free, I am not able to send any of the baked goods I make for him out of almond flour. In addition to some of the options listed above, though, Will also really enjoys the little sandwiches I make from a piece of fresh-baked gluten-free bread, natural sunflower seed butter and a bit of fruit-juice sweetened jam. By slicing off the bread crusts and cutting the bread in half, I can make a perfect snack-sized sandwich with a healthy, school-safe protein and just a bit of sweetness.

It may be a little more work to bake and prepare your own snacks for your children, but their bodies and brains will thank you for it when they're well fuelled up for all of the activities they'll participate in through the course of a busy day. A few baking or food-prep sessions on a weekend can provide a nice freezer/fridge stash of healthy snack foods that can quickly be packed into lunch bags. (And unlike our little squirrel friend, you can be pretty sure that those snacks will still be there when you need them!)

If you're looking for durable and healthy containers in which to pack all of these yummy snack foods, you may want to check out these eco-friendly options. They're a great alternative to chemical-laden plastics, and after a year of daily use, the boys' sets are both still going strong! (Believe me, that says a lot about their quality -- have you seen the way young boys treat their belongings?!)

If you have some great healthy school snack or lunch ideas, please share them in the comments section below! Best wishes to all of your children as they return to school next week. I hope they have a year full of happy adventures!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Thoughts from two parking lots

The boys and I were out running some errands this morning, and in each of two separate parking lots I noticed a simple but significant detail that put a smile on my face.

While heading back out to our car from a store, I noticed a small boy, about five years old, walking with his siblings and a woman who appeared to be his grandmother. He was dressed in what you would expect a child to be wearing on a warm, sunny day: shorts, a t-shirt, a pair of sandals well-worn from months of carefree play outdoors. There was one exception though. Over his t-shirt, the boy was wearing a pressed, new-looking black suit jacket. It fit him perfectly and seemed to fit his mood perfectly, too; he walked with purpose and a confident smile, completely unaware that his fancy jacket seemed to most observers to be completely out of place.

In the next parking lot, I saw another little boy who was probably about two years old walking with his family. This spunky little fellow was also sporting shorts and a t-shirt, along with a pair of muddy green rain boots designed to look like frogs. There was not a cloud in the sky (and definitely no sign of rain), but it was clear that the boots had been the boy's preferred choice of footwear for the day, and the spring in his step told me they were making him feel happy.

At some point this morning, the grown-ups responsible for these two boys probably made a choice to just let these out-of-the-ordinary fashion choices go, to not concern themselves with making their boys change for the sake of appearance, to let them have a say in who they felt like being at that moment. I've found myself there, too, almost every afternoon this summer when Will put his t-shirt on inside out and backwards after swimming and left it that way for the rest of the day, no matter what else we had planned. As a parent who admits that she might be a teensy bit of a control freak, I know that sometimes it's hard to just let our kids do things that we think (or think others will think) are odd. I like to remember though, that while it's important for me to teach my children right from wrong in the many life situations where it matters, it's also important for my children to find their own way, to explore, when it's safe, what feels right to them.

There might come a day, soon, when that boy in the suit jacket looks around at the peers who will come to influence his self-impressions and decides that he needs to lose his unique sense of style to fit in more with the other kids around him. Maybe the boy in the rain boots will come to forget how much he loves frogs and jumping in puddles just like them, because the "cool kids" who only wear shoes will mock him for his "silly" choice. Perhaps, though, because these two young boys were given opportunities like this morning to express themselves, they just might have the self-confidence to realize that it doesn't always have to matter what other people think.

Hats (and suit jackets and rain boots!) off to the children of the world who are proudly discovering who they really are, and to the grown-ups in their lives who are giving them some breathing room to do so.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Bright son

The start of a new school year is still a week away, but already I can sense the anxiety building in my sensitive little boy's mind. Amidst the leisure and laughter of late summer days are outbursts and tears and quiet, heartfelt refrains of "Mom, I'm not ready to go back to school." As difficult as Will can be in these moments, my heart feels so sad for him. I really do appreciate how very deeply he thinks and feels about everything in his young life.

We have always known there is something different about Will; in many ways, he has never been quite like other children his age. I've thought deeply about this fact for years, and have expressed some of my impressions of my wonderful, challenging youngest boy before (especially in my favourite post here). It dawned on me about a year and a half ago, in a lightbulb kind of moment based on something I stumbled upon in a parenting book I was reading to help me relate to Will better, that he might be intellectually gifted. Anxious to uncover any information that might make raising Will easier, I began to read everything I could find about giftedness in children, and learned that in addition to thinking about and understanding the world in complex, creative, unique ways, gifted chidren also often have heightened emotional and physical sensitivities. The pieces were starting to fit together.

After helping Will manage some school anxiety last year, Matt and I decided to get a clear picture of his cognitive abilities by having him privately assessed by a psychologist this summer. Our hope was that with a detailed understanding of his special talents and abilities, we might be able to ensure a more stimulating and enjoyable school experience for him, especially since our board does not formally provide enrichment programming until grade 5. Will thoroughly enjoyed the testing process (he loved the mental challenge!), and while Matt and I were not surprised at all by the results we got back this week, we feel a strange sense of awe, and a great responsibility to help both of our gifted sons, now, find experiences and challenges that are exciting, novel, and useful in helping them grow into the amazing young men they have the great potential to become.

Many people have the impression that you don't have to worry about gifted kids; because they're "smart", they'll do well no matter what. What happens when gifted learners become increasingly bored and disillusioned with their school experiences, though, and lose their motivation to strive to be their best? How do you keep a seven year old boy whose language and math abilities are years ahead of his actual grade happily learning something new on a day-to-day basis? How do we, as parents, make sure that we provide our boys with enrichment activities in their life outside of school? These are all questions that I will need to answer in the coming weeks, months, years.... It is a responsibility that I do not take lightly at all.

Receiving these test results for Will has provided us with another piece in the puzzle to understanding our amazing young son. They don't change the challenges we face with him, but they've given us a new glimpse into who he is, one that allows us to see him a little more compassionately when we realize that the world must be an awfully frustrating place sometimes for a boy who has the life experiences of a seven year old and beautiful, complex, grown-up thoughts.

I am incredibly excited for both of my exceptionally bright boys.... and I hope I will be able to be an exceptional source of support and guidance for them as they navigate their ways forward from here. I hope, above all, that their journeys are happy ones.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Sticking to it (or how to use up all of your mom's Scotch tape)

Parents can invest a lot of time, energy, and money into ensuring their children aren't bored over the long weeks of summer holidays. Sometimes, despite summer camp sessions, family vacations, interesting outings, and plans with friends, kids can still find an opportunity to complain (to their parents' dismay), "But there's NOTHING to do!!". It is in precisely these times that a good ol' roll of Scotch tape comes in handy. I learned yesterday that the cost of a spool and a half of the sticky stuff, plus just a little help from me, equals one entire day of creative fun.

Noah has been talking for months about building a zipline from the roof of our house to the giant willow tree at the back of our yard. (And because I don't doubt his ability to actually accomplish this feat somehow, I am a little hesitant about the fact that he's old enough now to be left home alone for short periods of time!) Anyway, talk of the zipline resurfaced at the breakfast table yesterday, and before I knew it, the boys had dashed off to the family room and were pulling out craft supplies and empty cardboard boxes from storage in earnest. What resulted was a highly involved process of cutting, tying, and lots of taping, along with planning, measuring, hypothesizing, and trial runs. The boys managed not only to build a working model of a zipline complete with transport vehicle for moving Lego people from the top of our stairs to the front door (with padding at the bottom to prevent injury), but also a rock-climbing wall, a bouncy castle, and a bowling lane (Will's imaginative creations), and a carefully designed and well-tested ramp for daredevil dinky car runs.

(You can see clearly now where all of my Scotch tape went.)

With the exception of an hour or two for swimming and bike rides, and a couple of meals, the boys worked diligently and happily on this project all day! It was so nice to see them so engaged together in a cooperative project of their own devising.

I may not have had any Scotch tape left this morning when I needed to wrap some gifts for Matt's upcoming 40th birthday, and I may have had to try to avoid injuring myself on the zipline string stretched down our stairwell (because the boys begged me to PLEASE not make them take it all down yet when it was time for bed last night). These minor inconveniences didn't bother me, though -- they were well worth the boys' smiles and sense of accomplishment as they basked in the glow of their good day's work.

On a side note, I plan to start buying Scotch tape in bulk.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Turning ten

Ten years ago, as I gently cradled my brand new, beautiful first-born son in my arms, I was filled with a deep and instant love and an incredible sense of wonder. I marvelled at his ten tiny toes, his soft, sweet-smelling skin, the way his little baby fingers curled so snugly around mine. I wondered how this precious little being would change my life, and more importantly, where the coming years would take him as I helped him make his way through the big, wide world.

In the ten years that have passed since Noah was born, my life has become better in profoundly meaningful ways, and the path he has thus far taken through the big, wide world has been a source of delight for all of us. I've marvelled at Noah's endless curiosity and the way his mind so deeply ponders the many ideas that interest him. His gentle heart has made him a caring son, brother, and friend, and I've appreciated his calm, thoughtful approach to life's more difficult situations. I've laughed along with Noah and his marvelous sense of humour, shared in his enthusiasm for his many creative projects, and have been amazed by his great drive and determination to try new adventures and to succeed in whatever he puts his mind to. Ten years have been filled with tens of millions of moments where I've looked at this wonderful boy and felt as though I might burst with happiness. I never could have imagined ten years ago that I could ever feel so proud.

As Noah enters the double-digit numbers in age tomorrow, I marvel at the fact that it has already been ten years since I first held him in my arms, and my heart is once again filled with deep love and an incredible sense of wonder when I think about what a confident, bright, engaging, accomplished, and kind young man he has grown into. I am awed by the remarkable good fortune that smiled down on me the day he came into the world.

Happy tenth birthday, Noah! May the coming years return to you tenfold the joy you bring to all those who know and love you.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Summer evening

The crickets chirp softly in the background of a summer's evening as I swing gently back and forth on one of the boys' swings. Across the yard, my three favourite fellas are playing an after-dinner game of baseball; they are throwing, batting, catching, running, and laughing in the soft light, and I am caught in a moment of simple happiness that I wish would never end.

There is something bittersweet about a lovely evening in August. The relatively cooler temperatures make the after-dinner hours just perfect for enjoying outdoors, and life seems easy, relaxed, carefree in the tree-sheltered comfort of our backyard. The hours are ours to enjoy while they last, and there is no pressure to be anywhere else. The feeling of contentment that fills these times lulls me into believing summer will go on indefinitely... yet something about the feel of the August air and the look of the evening light wistfully reminds me that our sun-kissed days of leisure will soon be winding down.

Some parents arrive at this point in the summer and long for the return of school and routine, but I am not there yet. I drink up all these happy moments of freedom with my family like a tall, cool glass of lemonade. The memory of them will be a welcome refreshment when the summer sun sets and our swings once again sit empty in the evenings.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Kale salad

The four of us spent this past weekend up north, visiting and having fun with Matt's family at his parents' house on the lake. When we arrived, Matt's mom was keen to show me her vegetable garden with its enormous crop of kale. The hearty green leaves were growing enthusiastically along an entire row of the garden bed, and Matt's mom said they'd been eating it like crazy all summer long. I've decided I definitely need to plant some kale next year (and that I will definitely need a bigger vegetable garden to do so!)

Kale is a wonderfully healthy food to eat, so it's a good plant to have lots of! The leafy green is full of antioxidants, vitamins K, A, and C, and fibre, and can be enjoyed both raw or cooked. (We like to saute it with a little olive oil and fresh garlic, and then sqeeze a bit of lemon juice over top before serving.) This past weekend, I made a crunchy, raw kale salad (with a dressing recipe I found in Chatelaine magazine) that was a big hit with Matt's whole family.

Kale, Cabbage, and Carrot Salad

1 bunch of kale leaves, washed, dried, and thinly sliced
1/4 head of shredded red cabbage
2 carrots, peeled and grated
1/2 cup raw sunflower seeds (or an amount that's to your liking)

Add kale, cabbage, carrots, and sunflower seeds to a salad bowl.

In a small bowl, whisk together the following ingredients to make the dressing:
2 tbsp cider vinegar
3 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp honey

Pour dressing over salad and toss all ingredients until well mixed. Let salad stand in fridge for about an hour to blend flavours before serving.

With its vibrant colours, this kale salad is as visually appealing as it is delicious. What a tasty way to put more health-boosting greens on your dinner plate!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Making the switch

I often find myself getting compliments from people I know, and even from random strangers (like kind grocery store employees), about how healthy our family's diet is. Eating the way we do has been a work in progress for awhile now, a choice that was triggered by health issues, and then fuelled by an enthusiasm to learn more about food and about how what we eat impacts our lives and the planet. One of my favourite food bloggers, Alexa Croft of Lexie's Kitchen, has recently started a wonderful new series on her site called "Making the Switch", a collection of stories written by regular people about how they've changed the way they shop, cook for, and nourish themselves and their families. This week she is featuring my story! (You can read it here.) I hope that sharing my family's experiences with making the switch will somehow inspire others to make their own changes to improve their well-being.

Here's to real food and good health!