Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Pantry Re-org! (I can hardly contain myself?)

I was lucky enough recently to have my mother-in-law come visit for a few days, keeping Will very entertained and giving me time to tackle some of the projects that I think about daily and make progress on never.

This included a complete cleansing and re-organization of our pantry, complete with a trip to the container store. Sure, I could have done it while taking care of Will, but we would have had cluttered countertops and dirty laundry for a week. (It's definitely one of those projects that gets far worse before it gets better.) So when an Angel of Baby Entertaining descended, it was pantry time!

I pulled everything out, sorted it into categories, and THEN made a list of what containers to purchase. (I was so impressed with myself for doing it in that order.) I would like to say I then measured the pantry and wrote down the dimensions, but actually I got incredibly lucky.

When I got home, I put my grouped items into bins, pulled out the label maker and went to town. Some of the boxes were easy to label - pasta, desserts. Pretty logical if you're looking for spaghetti or brownie mix. But the box with bread crumbs, corn meal, and oats? I almost labeled it "grains" and called it a day. But that wouldn't really help me if I was looking for one of those items or trying to remember where to put it back. So I typed out an individual label for each item in the bin rather than categorizing, and now I can actually find things without trying to guess whether bread crumbs should be in a bin labeled grains, flours, or cooking. As a sidenote, after trying to logically group all the items in my pantry, I have a little less anger at the seemingly illogical placement of many grocery items. (Maraschino cherries: baking needs, drinks aisle, or iced cream display?) It's harder than you'd think.

My only downer was Greg's lack of enthusiasm when I told him the project was in progress. "Haven't you done this before?" He asked. "It didn't last."

And that's the thing - it doesn't. It can't. A pantry has a constantly changing inventory, so it requires constant reorganization. It will never be maintenance free. But I think having bins where similar items can be pulled out all together and rummaged through will help, especially with enough labels to actually steer pantry raiders in the right direction.

I'm also hoping that by organizing it so I can pull out a bin and see everything in the back of the deep shelves that I will buy fewer duplicate items. Planning meals before I go to the grocery store and then checking my pantry inventory could prevent overcrowding, save money, and waste less food.

Who knows, maybe I'll read this post in five years and laugh hysterically at my optimism, but I think it is possible to stock a pantry wisely, keep it from being overly full, and use it to always have a few meals or snacks on hand for the days that the grocery store just isn't in the cards.

By the way, Greg fully redeemed himself by showing interest and enthusiasm when he came home and the project was completed, and by being nice about my love affair with the container store. It won't last forever, but it'll keep us more organized until next time. :)

Bonus: I also sorted all Will's outgrown clothing by size and type to put away for future use! Oh label maker meets container store meets Nana visiting, how I love you.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

I love libraries.

Maybe my love affair began I had my first library card at the age of five, or perhaps even before I could walk, when Mom started bringing me to Baxter Memorial Library for story hour. Growing up, the library was one of my favorite places. I remember sitting on the floor in front of the card catalogues when I was in elementary school, systematically looking up every book filed under magic, dragons, or castles. (Yes, card catalogues. Remember those?) It was close enough for me to walk to, and by the age of 8 or 9 I loved the independent thrill of walking into a place where anything I wanted I could borrow and bring home.

I still love the library, and for even more reasons now. We were lucky enough to buy a house within walking distance of our town's main branch, and now I get to take my turn following in my mother's footsteps by placing Will in the stroller every Tuesday morning and going to "Book Babies". Twenty minutes of songs and stories, a nice walk through town, and an opportunity to watch Will observe other children and the librarian with wide eyes and big smiles. I look forward to the outing every week.

While I'm there, I browse the aisles for picture books to bring home and read to Will. I even return the ones I borrowed last week. Usually. But if I don't, I love knowing that any library fines go towards helping my library continue to offer free programs and lots of books to anyone in the community. (Most libraries also have a "friends" program where you can become a supporting member.)

I've had a ton of fun picking out titles to read to Will, especially since in his pre-verbal stage I am the one who gets to pick what we read. I'm taking full advantage of that, and it's been so much fun. Kids books are awesome! They're funny, happy, short, and have lots of pictures.

For example, check out Dragon Stew by Steve Smallman, a rhyming book about Vikings who decide to search for a dragon to make into stew. It's hilarious. Or Smile if You're Human by Neal Layton, where alien tourists come to earth hoping to see humans. I even found a book called The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish. I'm not sure Will's even listening, but I'm having a blast!

I love owning the classics that will become favorites, but I also love freely exploring five or six new titles a week. With the library, I can read Will a new book every day. It's free, it's environmental, and I don't end up with an extra 365 books a year fighting for space on the shelves.

The library is great for adults, too.

I've subscribed to receive booklists summarizing the latest fiction, fantasy, and most requested books. They've got a whole page dedicated to book lists to help you decide what to read next.

I can request books or pay fines online, and with their interlibrary loan system I can usually get anything I'm looking for. Plus, when I request them I can pick them up at the front desk in under five minutes instead of searching the shelves with a baby in tow. I love checking out books of knitting patterns instead of buying expensive pattern books because I want to knit one thing, or reading a few chapters of popular parenting books before I decide which ones are worth buying to have in the house as a reference.

My library even offers museum passes that you can check out for one day to get into area museums free or for a minimal co-pay.

Libraries are awesome. Are you using yours?

I love the huge windows in the circular story hour room at my local library!

Will does too. Really.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Lecture Review: Dr. Harvey Karp "The Happiest Toddler on the Block"

I first encountered Dr. Harvey Karp's work by reading the phenomenally popular book "Happiest Baby on the Block", which teaches caregivers to calm crying newborns by replicating the environment of the womb and activating a calming reflex. Dr. Karp believes that humans are born a trimester early because we evolved to a brain (and therefore skull) size that prevented us from safely maturing in the womb prior to birth. Therefore, screaming newborns whose immediate needs have been met can often be very quickly calmed by using some combination of "The five S's": swaddling, sucking, side/stomach position, shushing, and swinging. I read the book and then Greg and I both watched the DVD, and using it with Will worked amazingly well. I liked the DVD better than the book, it took less time, and I found it more helpful to actually see the techniques in practice before Will was born. It was one of the best parenting tools we used in those first three months.

So when I heard Dr. Karp was coming to speak to the Mother's Forum about "Happiest Toddler on the Block", and that spouses were invited, I called my babysitter and got ready to learn about his recommendations for toddlers. He promised to teach us how to drastically reduce the length and number of our toddlers tantrums. Sounds good to me.

The Happiest Toddler on the Block strategies focus on teaching parents how to effectively communicate with and respond to their toddlers, which in turn drastically reduces tantrums. One of his main points is that when toddlers are upset, we tend to speak to them as calmly as possible, and this actually upsets them more.

Here's how he gets there:

Dr. Karp compares toddlers to cave-men; they're primitive. Literally. A clip he showed from his DVD had toddlers running around in cavemen outfits, and it is a compelling analogy when you watch their behavior. Their right brain function is more developed than their left, meaning they understand non-verbal cues and emotions far better than language, logic and patience. If you say one thing but your facial expressions imply something else, they will receive the second message and might not even process the actual words coming out of your mouth.

So you are dealing with a cave-man. You have a partial language barrier, and they're very emotional. Also, it stinks being a toddler because they are bad at everything and they almost never get their way if there's a struggle.

Not only that, but when something isn't going their way and they're upset, adults often become overly calm and void of emotion in response, trying to get them to calm down. Picture telling a friend that something upsetting has happened to you: someone rear-ended you in the parking lot, you ruined your favorite cashmere sweater in the dryer, whatever it is. How would you then feel if they told you in their calmest, happiest voice, that everything was ok and it would be fine? And the more upset you got, the calmer they acted?

I would feel pretty downright irritated. It might even escalate things. And Dr. Karp's argument is that that's how our children feel. And that while they can learn to deal with the fact that there will be many things in life that they want but can't have or won't get, they can't deal with having the people who matter most to them not understand how they feel.

His recommendation is that we express understanding of toddlers' emotions by mirroring back 1/3 of their emotion to them while we restate their problem. Simply using words to show our understanding won't work: cavemen, left-brain deficit, remember? We need to meet them partway by mirroring what they're feeling using tone, facial expressions, and gestures. This might sound crazy, but as Dr. Karp pointed out, most of us do it already. We do it with other adults ("Argh, that is so annoying, I HATE waiting at the DMV!!!") and we do it with our children when they are happy (Yay!!! Honey, you did it!! That is WONDERFUL!!!"). But because our first instinct with a screaming toddler is to calm them down, we react differently to their anger or distress than we do their positive emotions. Instead of mirroring back part of what they're feeling, we display the emotion we want them to feel. And because they're not being heard, they scream louder, and they get more frustrated. I might too.

The clips he showed from his DVD were pretty compelling.

Dr. Karp also suggested other ways you can help your toddler be less frustrated, like speaking toddler-ese and avoiding complex sentence structures and vocabulary, or by playing silly games with them where they get to win, teach you something, or watch you make a fool of yourself. He also had some great tricks for teaching your children to wait and delay gratification, something that greatly predicts academic and career success. So even if you're not sure about mirroring back your child's emotions, the DVD might be worth checking out.

We enjoyed the lecture, and we bought the DVD on the way out. I thought his ideas made sense, and the video clips showing them in practice were quite compelling. Yes, I realize that there were probably hundreds of hours of footage before he chose these examples, but given my success with Happiest Baby on the Block, and how much I liked his ideas, I am definitely going to give it a shot!

It really has me thinking about how to communicate and interact with Will in the future. Dr. Karp suggests that these techniques may be useful as early as eight months old, so that could be soon!

Caveman? This guy? Nah...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Mango & Bean Salad

I know it's not summer yet, but as warmer weather approaches I start thinking about fresh tasting meals that are more refreshing than savory, include a lot of produce, and limit oven time.

I especially love one bowl wonders that travel well to picnics or store for a week in the fridge, providing me with plenty of lunch and snacktime fodder. Potato salads, pasta salads, and bean salads are great. Chop fresh produce, combine it with your favorite dressing (better yet make your own), add fresh herbs from the garden, and you've got a side dish or maybe even a meal. They are fun opportunities for creativity and flexibility.

I love going through the grocery store aisle, grabbing whatever produce catches my eye, and chopping it and throwing it in a bowl with something substantial to make it a meal.

Lots of Produce + Dressing + Starch = One Bowl Awesome Summer Mealness

Tonight I made a fun mango bean salad inspired by something I saw on television. We had it with feta stuffed tomatoes, toasted rye bread with fig jam, and slice cucumber and salami. Ecclectic, but tasty and fun!

Mango & Bean Salad:

1 can of black beans, rinsed and drained
1 can of cannelloni beans, rinsed and drained
1 bag of frozen mango, thawed
1 chopped orange bell pepper
1 chopped green bell pepper
1 T dried tarragon (we have it in the house, substitute any favorite herb if you don't)
1/8 cup white vinegar
1/8 cup olive oil
dash of black pepper

Combine the white vinegar, olive oil, pepper and about 1/4 cup of the mango chunks and blend with an immersion blender. Mix dressing together the rest of the ingredients in a bowl that has a lid so you can store leftovers.

It was tasty, very healthy, had enough protein and fiber to be filling, and it's totally adaptable. Add cucumbers, raw green beans, or red onion. Spice it up with some dried red pepper flakes, whatever you like. Based on how much we both enjoyed it and how easy and healthy it was, I'm sure I'll be making variations in the future.

I also hope to be doing more with my immersion blender, because the mango tarragon dressing turned out great in seconds! With frozen fruit, it would be pretty easy to make a blueberry or raspberry vinaigrette for a fabulous summer salad. I plan to try it soon!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Baby Food!

Ok, I admit it. For the first few weeks of solids, I had zero time or energy to make my own baby food. And you know what? That's ok. It's not that jarred baby food is all bad - it's not. It's just that I've always wanted to be one of the moms that makes their own. Homemade baby food doesn't have to be overcooked to meet safety and preservation standards, so it theoretically retains more nutrients. You control the additives, or lack thereof. And you can make foods for your baby that might not traditionally come in jars, exposing them to new flavors at an early age which can set their taste buds up to be more accepting later. (Zucchini? Peas with mint? Anyone?) All cool stuff. Not to mention how AWESOME I feel feeding Will homemade baby food, despite the fact that it was easier than most of the stuff I make for our dinners.

I mean, it's easy. Steam or roast the fruit or vegetable until you can pierce it with a fork, and then run it through a food processor (if it doesn't have skins, seeds or strings that need to be removed) or a food mill (if it does) adding water if needed to create a consistency your baby can handle. That's it. I bought all kinds of baby cook books, and, well, I sort of feel silly reading the "recipes" that tell me how big to cut the carrot chunks before I steam and puree them. Hey, there's some good information about which foods to introduce when and common allergens, plus some creative combinations I might not have come up with.

It's also cheaper. Ok, it was cheaper. Until I had to buy the super cute, silicone, BPA and phosphate free (I am pretty sure those aren't things that are ever in silicone...) freezing trays in every color they make. Hey, you might as well make baby food in big batches, right? Now that I've sunk #$(*(@ dollars into baby food freezing and storing cuteness, it'll take a little bit to recoup that cost. Still, a few dollars in organic produce at whole foods turned out significantly more servings than the same price in jars would have. Overall, it's still a huge saver. And I already had a food mill that I make apple sauce with every year, and a steaming device for veggies, so those weren't required investments.

After an hour of fun this afternoon, I now have about three weeks worth of zucchini and sweet potato in my freezer. Tomorrow I've got carrots and apples to make. And with a baby who's so not impressed with solids, I might be good for months!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Plant update!

My basil seedlings have sprouted! I was surprised to find that I have a one hundred percent germination rate, that's amazing! Except that I might have to thin them out, so that they have room to grow enough to be transplanted. Something I'm seriously considering having Greg do (hey, he offered) because I don't have the stomach for it.

Here they are... so cute!