Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On Breastfeeding Fatigue

I love breastfeeding, and I consider myself a fairly strong advocate for the practice.  If you follow me on Twitter, you've probably seen me called, among other things, a "boob Nazi"- and I'm kind of okay with that.  I think nursing is an incredible bonding experience, and I know it's the healthiest way to nourish babies.

So why am I so tired of breastfeeding my son?

I fantasize about scooping Trey into a giant hug without him immediately trying to rip my shirt off.  I long for a time when holding my baby close doesn't immediately segue into him arching his back and nuzzling my chest.  I pray that someday we'll be able to play together on his bedroom floor, without stopping six times for him to have a little snack.

Of course I'm wracked with guilt for feeling this way.  I know how lucky I am that, at 14-months-old, my son still wants to nurse.  And I'm hyper aware that someday I'll mourn the passing of his babyhood with an aching that is unfathomably desperate.

Yet right now, I just want a relationship with my son that doesn't revolve around the giving and receiving of food.

As of this writing, I have no plans to wean.  My intention has always been to allow Trey to decide when he wants to stop nursing.  And although my personal goal is to keep breastfeeding until his second birthday, I'm well aware that my son may have different ideas.  Whether he stops earlier than I would like, or keeps going strong well into his third year of life, I'm going to follow his lead.

Still, some days I wish I could touch Trey without his mommyfoodcomfortyum radar going off immediately.  It would be nice to just snuggle, to just be, without always having to breastfeed.

Have any of you ever struggled with breastfeeding fatigue?  How did you cope?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Black Bean and Sweet Potato Burritos


Today I'm sharing one of my all time favorite meals: Black Bean and Sweet Potato Burritos.  Calling this a "recipe" almost feels like cheating; it's one of the quickest, simplest dinners I make.  Plus it's cheap, healthy, and delicious.  Not too shabby, huh?

Black Bean and Sweet Potato Burritos

3-4 medium sized sweet potatoes
2 cans of black beans, unrinsed (or 4 cups of cooked black beans)
4 tortillas
olive oil
salt, pepper, granulated garlic, granulated onion, and cumin to taste

Peel and dice the sweet potatoes.  Drizzle them (lightly!) with olive oil.  Season them with salt, pepper, and granulated garlic to taste.  Spread them in a single layer on a cookie sheet.  Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, flipping them with a metal spatula about halfway through the cooking time.

While the potatoes are roasting, dump the beans into a large skillet.  Season with cumin and granulated onion to taste.  Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently and occasionally mashing the beans with the back of the spoon, until thickened (about 10-15 minutes).

When the potatoes and beans are both ready, spoon some into the center of each tortilla (Generally, you will use about a fourth of each, but exercise your judgment with this one.  If it looks like the burritos will burst, then use less!)  Fold the tortillas over the beans and potatoes, and they're ready to serve.  Or, if you prefer your burritos crispy (more like chimichangas), place them on a cookie sheet and bake them at 400 degrees for 4-5 minutes, or until golden brown.

This recipe is proudly shared at  Menu Plan Monday and Life as Mom.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Frugal Friday: Free Kids' Activities in All 50 States

Ready to hit the road with Traveling Mom
I just discovered a great website called Traveling Mom.  It links to fun, FREE activities for kids in all 50 states.  If you're planning a trip, or just looking for some boredom busters in your own backyard, you'll definitely want to check this site out!

For more money-saving tips, visit Life as Mom.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ask the Gentle Mom: Easy Poultry Recipes

Easy Greek Chicken Wraps
Do you have a few really easy dishes I can make with chicken or turkey products?  I'm trying to make sure I eat right, but I'm having trouble.  Thanks!  -Alexia

Thank you so much for asking this question.  I love sharing easy, healthy meal ideas!

Over the past few months, I've featured a few simple, healthful poultry recipes on this blog.  I definitely recommend checking them out.  Easy Greek Chicken Wraps are light, delicious, and almost effortless to prepare.  Pizza-Style Pasta is a simple dish packed with the flavors of fresh garlic and turkey pepperoni.  Chicken Parmigiana with Three-Cheese Cappellini offers a modern twist on a classic Italian recipe.  You could even try From-Scratch Tuna Casserole, substituting two cups of cooked chicken for the tuna.

If you're looking for even simpler supper ideas, try any of the following:
Salsa Chicken.  Place 1-2 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken parts (breasts or thighs) in the crock pot.  Cover with a large jar of good-quality salsa.  Add a can of unrinsed black beans, if you like.  Cook on low for 6-8 hours.  About 20 minutes before eating, stir in a cup each of frozen corn and shredded cheese.  Serve over rice or as a filling for burritos.

Cheesy Chicken Pasta.  Brown a pound of ground chicken or turkey in a little olive oil over medium heat.  Season with basil, oregano, and rosemary.  Stir in three cups of your favorite tomato sauce, and one cup of shredded mozzarella cheese.  Mix until the cheese is melted.  Serve over a short, chunky pasta, like penne or rigatoni.

Easy Quesadillas.  Warm a large tortilla in a skillet over medium heat.  Sprinkle with about a half cup of shredded cheese (cheddar jack is a good choice).  Cover and cook until cheese is almost melted.  Add a few toppings - cooked chicken, black beans, diced tomatoes, crumbled turkey bacon, and green peppers are all good choices - then fold the tortilla in half.  Keep cooking, flipping every few minutes, until the tortilla is lightly browned and crisp.

Pasta with Parmesan Tomato Cream Sauce.  Over medium heat, saute in olive oil one diced boneless, skinless chicken breast, half a pint of cherry tomatoes, and a cup of fresh spinach.  Stir in three cups of tomato sauce, a block of cream cheese, and a quarter cup of grated Parmesan cheese.  Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the sauce is smooth and pink.  Serve over any shape of pasta.

Fajitas.  Cut an onion, a green pepper, and two boneless, skinless chicken breasts into strips.  Saute the chicken in olive oil over medium heat.  Season lightly with cumin, chili powder, and hot red pepper flakes.  When the chicken is almost done, add the pepper and onion.  Continue cooking 3-4 minutes more, or until the vegetables are tender.  Serve with shredded cheese, sour cream, and small (fajita-style) tortillas.
You may also want to take time this weekend to bake a few pounds of boneless, skinless chicken breasts in the oven.  Cut the cooked breasts into bite-sized pieces, then freeze in one-cup portions.  That way, you're all set to add lean protein to soups, salads, pasta dishes, or even English muffin pizzas at a moments' notice.

Readers, what are your favorite quick, healthy poultry dishes?  Share them with Alexia (and the rest of us) in the comments!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: Because Trey is Still Sick

The last 18 hours have been incredibly difficult.  Trey was awake the entire night, tossing and turning, crying and coughing.  Between 7:00 and 10:15 this morning, he screamed almost continuously, even when I took him in the shower with me.

Now he's finally napping quietly, and I'm ready to join him.  So today's post will be a simple Wordless Wednesday.  Here's the happy face I'm longing to see again.  Hopefully by tonight Trey will be feeling better and ready to smile!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sick


Today, my baby is ill.  And I can think or write of little else.

Around 1:00 AM, Trey began coughing - a deep, hacking, rattling sound, mucusy and painful.  Every time he coughed, he cried.  His sleep was fitful and unrestorative.  He spent several hours simply lying in my arms, staring into my eyes as he drifted in and out of his meager slumber.

He did not get out of bed until noon (which isn't as late as it sounds, I promise; he usually sleeps until 10:30).  Now he's awake, fairly pleasant, but still intermittently wracked with thick, raspy, hollow-sounding coughs.  He does not cry, but he does look confused, unsure what strange force has commandeered his fragile little body.

We'll take Trey to his pediatrician tonight, even though I'm sure nothing is seriously wrong.  I doubt the doctor will recommend any treatment other than fluids and rest, but I will feel better just knowing my son has been seen by a professional - someone who can tell me "He'll be fine," and back it up with an advanced degree. 

And even then, I will be consumed by the feelings of helplessness that haunt me every time my sweet baby falls ill.  It happens so infrequently that I always feel completely out of my depth, like I'm drowning in fear and incompetence.  I want to make it all better for my son.  But I can't.

And it kills me.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Chicken Parmigiana with Three-Cheese Cappellini


Until recently, Donnie and I never made chicken parmigiana at home.  We both liked it well enough, but it wasn't one of our favorites, so we never bothered to cook it for ourselves.

Then, one night, we were hungry and unsure what to have for dinner.  We realized we had all the ingredients for a basic chicken parmigiana, plus cappellini pasta and lots of cheese.  Thus was born a new favorite in our household: Chicken Parmigiana with Three-Cheese Cappellini.  It's simple, healthful, and full of delicious flavors.  What could be better?

Chicken Parmigiana with Three-Cheese Cappellini

1 cup panko bread crumbs
3/4 cup freshly grated  Parmesan cheese, divided
dried basil, dried oregano, and granulated garlic to taste
1/4 cup milk
1 egg
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed of fat and tendons
1 pound cooked cappellini pasta
3/4 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese, divided
1/4 cup grated extra sharp white cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons butter
8-10 fresh basil leaves, torn
3 cups of your favorite red sauce (I use homemade)

In a wide, shallow bowl, combine the panko bread crumbs and 1/2 cup of the Parmesan cheese.  Season with dried basil, dried oregano, and granulated garlic to taste.  Set aside.

Whisk together the egg and milk, and set aside.

Fillet the chicken breasts and pound them thin.  Dip them in the egg mixture, then press them into the bread crumbs.  Place them on a baking sheet (if they're not well coated, press additional bread crumbs onto them now).  Bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes (flip them with a metal spatula at the halfway point).  Sprinkle with 1/4 cup of the mozzarella cheese, and bake an additional 3 minutes.

While the chicken is cooking, toss the cappellini with the butter, basil leaves, cheddar cheese, 1/2 cup of mozzarella cheese, and 1/4 cup of Parmesan cheese.

Top the pasta with the chicken and sauce.  Serve with homemade Texas toast and a green vegetable.

This recipe is proudly shared at Menu Plan Monday.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Frugal Fridays: We Give Books


I received this email from a reader named Cathy, and I couldn't wait to share it for Frugal Friday:
I was at the International Reading Association Conference last week and found a great resource which encourages literacy while giving to charity.  The website www.wegivebooks.org is sponsored by The Pearson Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization which has established the goal of encouraging reading while donating books to national or international literacy organizations.  You can set up an account on this free site which contains a library of great children's books.  Everytime you read a book online, a book will be donated to an organization of your choice (from a list of organizations with whom they work).  It is intended for both personal and school use.  It is a great way to have access to great children's books while giving to charity.  They have set a goal of donating one million books this year so spread the word and help them achieve it!
Thanks,
Cathy
I am so excited about this organization!  Not only can you and your kids enjoy free books online, but you can also help those in need without spending a dime.  I checked out the site, and there are lots of great kids' titles available, including Corduroy, Spot, and Madeline books.
 
For more money-saving tips, visit Life as Mom.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sign the Petition to Repeal Breastfeeding Restrictions in Forest Park, GA

Photo credit
On Tuesday, I wrote about the town of Forest Park, GA, where a new law makes it illegal to publicly breastfeed children over the age of two. 

Today, I am asking you to take a stand against this outrage by signing this petition.

Only a mom can decide when, where, and how to feed her baby.  The government has no business restricting her right to do so.  I think this is something all parents, both breast-feeders and bottle-feeders, can agree on.

If you value your right to raise your child as you see fit, without the government imposing arbitrary restrictions, then make your voice heard!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Gentle Books: Quiet Time with Cassatt


Quiet Time with Cassatt is a gorgeous introduction to the paintings of Mary Cassatt, appropriate for even the smallest child.  The featured artwork carefully reflects the book's central theme: a celebration of quiet, intimate times shared between loved ones.

Many art books for young children lean too heavily on the brilliance of the paintings, neglecting good writing in favor of prose that is clunky, cutesy, or simply careless.  This is not the case in Quiet Time with Cassatt.  The rhyming text is sweetly enchanting, and well-matched with the artwork in its simplicity.  As poetry, it is merely "good," but paired with Mary Cassatt's exquisite paintings it becomes something more - a love letter to a gifted artist and the timeless beauty of her work.

Quiet Time with Cassatt is both a wonderful bedtime book for little ones, and a gentle introduction to the work of a great American artist.  I highly recommend it for any parents who want their children to appreciate and engage with the visual arts.

(Full disclosure - if you click the link in this post to purchase Quiet Time with Cassatt (or other items), from Amazon, I will receive a small payment.  If you're not comfortable with that, but still want to buy the book, please open a new browser window to make your purchases.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Outrage: Forest Park, GA, Limits Breastfeeding Rights


These people do not have the right to dictate how long I can feed my child!
Last night, the town of Forest Park, GA, passed a law which makes it illegal to publicly breastfeed children over the age of two.  City manager John Parker stated, "It sets up a process whereby we can try to control nudity throughout the entire city."

This is astonishingly offensive on so many levels, I don't even know where to begin.  For one thing, just referring to the act of breastfeeding as "nudity" is remarkably ignorant.  A nursing mother isn't some kind of crazy exhibitionist; she's feeding her child.  Furthermore, how dare the government declare that it's fine to breastfeed babies, but breastfeeding older toddlers is inappropriate?  Only a mom can decide how long to nurse her children.  No government should attempt to apply arbitrary limits on what should be a personal choice.

I am continually mystified by this country's attitudes toward nursing.  We tell women to breastfeed their babies, then make it nearly impossible for them to do so.  Working women receive little to no paid maternity leave.  Businesses make it difficult (if not impossible) for moms to pump at work.  And society continues to treat public nursing as an indecent - or at the very least, embarrassing - act, by shaming women into hiding the way they feed their babies.

These attitudes toward breastfeeding are not just backwards.  They are degrading, disgusting, and offensive.  And they must not be tolerated.

Right now, there doesn't seem to be a petition to repeal this law.  I'm checking with the most prolific breastfeeding advocacy sites to see if they'll be starting one; if not, I'll do it myself.  I'm also sharing the story on Twitter and Facebook.  I hope you'll help me spread the word about this outrage throughout the social media world.

Only a mom can decide when, where, and how long to breastfeed her child.  The government has no right to limit her choices in any way.  If you agree, then please, please, make your voice heard.  This isn't just about Forest Park, GA.  It's about every woman's right to feed her babies, without interference or contempt from outside forces.

Monday, May 16, 2011

From-Scratch Tuna Casserole


Until recently, I hadn't eaten tuna casserole in over ten years.  For one thing, Donnie isn't a huge fan of seafood.  For another, the tuna casserole recipe of my childhood contains canned cream of mushroom soup, which isn't an ingredient I would ever use. 

But sometimes, you just crave the comfort foods of your childhood, and that happened to me with tuna casserole.  I wanted a creamy bowl of noodley goodness, without the nasty canned soup.  So I whipped up this from-scratch version, which features healthier ingredients and slightly more modern flavors.

From-Scratch Tuna Casserole

4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
3 cups milk (I used skim)
2 heaping tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 cans tuna, drained
1 pound rotini pasta, cooked very al dente
salt, pepper, onion powder, and garlic powder to taste*
1 heaping tablespoon shredded Parmesan cheese
1 heaping tablespoon shredded pecorino romano cheese
2 heaping tablespoons panko bread crumbs

Melt the butter in a large saucepan, over medium heat.  Whisk in the flour all at once.  Add the milk a little at a time, whisking continuously until a thick sauce is formed (approximately ten minutes).  Remove from heat.

Stir in the grated Parmesan cheese and seasonings, whisking until well combined.  Add the pasta and tuna.  Mix well, and spread in a buttered casserole dish.

Top with Parmesan cheese, pecorino romano cheese, and panko bread crumbs.  Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes, then broil on low for 2-3 minutes, or until the topping is golden brown.

*If you don't want to use onion and garlic powder, add some diced fresh onion and garlic to the melted butter, before whisking in the flour.  That's my preferred method for most recipes, but I like my tuna casserole free of vegetable chunks (probably due to being traumatized by fake mushrooms as a kid!)

This recipe is proudly shared at Menu Plan Monday, Ask Ms. Recipe, and The Ultimate Recipe Swap.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Frugal Friday: No Money for Entertainment

Photo credit
Right now, Donnie and I don't have an entertainment budget.  We don't go to the movies, subscribe to cable or satellite TV, belong to Netflix, buy music on iTunes, or even rent from Redbox.  But amazingly enough, we still watch movies, read books, and listen to music on a regular basis.  Here's how:
The library.  Libraries are an amazing resource for books, movies, music, and even video games - all available for free!  And libraries have become much more convenient over the past decade or so.  Most will allow you to request resources not just from other branches in your county, but from all over the state.  Some will even purchase items that aren't available in your state's library system, if you ask nicely.

Internet television.  I'm not just talking about watching last night's 30 Rock on Hulu (although, yes, you should be doing that!)  There are also dozens of very cool shows you can only watch on the internet (see the full list here).  And many popular shows (most notably The Office) offer original web content on their official show sites. 

Internet radio.  What's not to love about Pandora?  Not only can you listen to your favorite artists and genres, but now they'll even create a personalized radio station based upon songs and artists you like.  Very cool, and did I mention free?  (I'm sure there are better resources for free music online, but I'm not a big music junkie, so if you know of any, please share in the comments!)
With all the free online resources available these days, I'm honestly amazed that anyone still pays for entertainment!

How do you cut entertainment costs?

For more money-saving tips, visit Life as Mom!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Ask The Gentle Mom: Buying Organic?


Since I launched The Gentle Mom, I've received quite a few emails from readers who want to know more about my life, family, parenting philosophy, and so on.  I thought it would be fun to answer some of those questions right on the blog, particularly if they're of interest to a broad range of readers.  If you have a burning question for me, please email me, and I'll do my best to provide a useful answer.

And now, on with the show!

I've noticed you mention cooking from scratch a lot on your blog.  Do you buy organic groceries?  Everything, or just a few things?

-Carrie

Hi Carrie.  First of all, thanks for emailing The Gentle Mom!  Now, to answer your question: Yes, we buy organic.  No, it's not as simple as that.  :)

When buying produce, we choose organic for those fruits and veggies that contain extremely high pesticide levels when grown conventionally: apples and pears, berries and cherries, leafy greens, potatoes, peaches and other stone fruits, celery, grapes, peppers, and rice.  We're pretty comfortable buying conventionally grown produce that has thick skin, or has been shown to contain low pesticide levels: kiwi, melons, peas and corn, avocados, mangoes, asparagus, broccoli, citrus fruits, pineapple, eggplant, cabbage, and onions.

We purchase organic, grass fed meat at the local farmers' market.  It's pretty pricey, which has forced us to reconsider the use of meat in our diet.  We eat much less than we used to, choosing alternative proteins (such as beans), or meals that contain small amounts of meat alongside lots of veggies and grains.  We're also considering buying a side of grass fed organic beef (yes, it will be butchered!) and storing it in the freezer.  The long term cost per pound will be much lower, although obviously the initial expense will be pretty high (which is why we haven't done it yet).

Milk is a slightly more complicated issue for our family.  We buy Trey pasteurized, organic whole milk from local grass-fed cows at the farmers' market.  I buy organic skim milk at the grocery store to use in my tea, and for baking.  It's not local or grass-fed, but it's cheaper.  Donnie has elected to continue drinking conventionally produced milk at this time.  I'm not thrilled with his decision, but I respect his desire to save money, so for now that's what he's doing.  For the record, I've read extensively about the benefits and drawbacks of raw milk, and at this time we choose not to purchase it.

I buy cage-free, organic eggs at the local supermarket.  I would prefer they come from local, grass-fed hens, but right now the price for those eggs is far too prohibitive for someone who bakes as much as I do.  Over the next few months, I hope to start making more vegan baked goods, which should stretch a dozen eggs much farther, and allow me to buy the higher quality variety.

Butter and cheese are a real challenge for me.  Pastured organic butter is far too expensive for someone who bakes as much as I do, so for now I buy conventional.  I buy pasteurized organic white cheddar cheese for Trey, but Donnie and I stick with conventional.  Organic cheese products are notoriously pricey, plus most varieties for sale are also "raw," which we don't want.  I would love to purchase some good quality pasteurized organic cheese from grass-fed cows to give Trey, but so far I haven't been able to find anything that meets all those criteria.

I don't buy packaged organic snacks or other processed foods (granola bars, crackers, cookies, etc.)  For one thing, we're not big snackers around here.  But more importantly, I don't consider those foods to be part of a healthy diet (organic sugar is still sugar, after all!)  So instead I serve cheese, produce, homemade muffins, smoothies, and other healthy whole foods as snacks.  I also bake something more decadent - usually cookies, brownies, or Rice Krispie treats - a couple times a month, using the healthiest ingredients possible.  I would also like to start making my own ice cream, since I have serious concerns about the use of antifreeze in commercially available ice cream (including organic).

One more very important point about our diet: as a rule, we don't consume vegetable oil, shortening, or margarine.  I cook and bake with coconut oil, butter, or cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil (I haven't jumped on the lard bandwagon just yet!).  If you're more interested in the science behind this decision, I strongly recommend you read Nourishing Traditions, which explains in detail why these natural fats are much healthier than popular vegetable-based alternatives.     

Who would have thought the answer to "Do you buy organic groceries?" would be so complicated?  Unfortunately, the more I read and learn about healthy eating, the more I realize that conventional agricultural methods don't provide us with healthy options for our children.  Pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and other artificial ingredients are poisoning our food supply.  I'm just trying my best to keep my family safe and healthy, even if it sounds a little crazy to most people!

(Full disclosure - if you click the link in this post to purchase Nourishing Traditions (or other items), from Amazon, I will receive a small payment.  If you're not comfortable with that, but still want to buy the book, please open a new browser window to make your purchases.)

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Gentle Books: Jamberry


Jamberry is a whimsical, rollicking poem all about the joys of berry picking - in other words, the perfect book to read your little ones as we head into the summer season!

Jamberry is one of the catchiest books I've ever encountered.  The silly, unforgettable rhymes start out simply enough ("One berry, Two berry, Pick me a blueberry"), then gradually increase in both complexity and absurdity until the story becomes almost magical in nature ("Raspberry rabbits, Brassberry band, Elephants skating on raspberry jam.").  The art is detailed and surprisingly subtle, featuring hidden jokes (including a sign that implores "Please do not pick the jelly rolls"), and silly substitutions (marshmallows growing in place of flowers, fruit vines dripping with slices of sandwich bread).  Kids of all ages will want to dance along as you read aloud, then pore over the pictures in search of all the wacky incongruities Jamberry has to offer.

We're reading Jamberry almost every day as we prepare for our own summer berry-picking adventures.  If you plan to do any type of "pick your own" fruit activities in the coming months, then this is definitely the book for you.  It introduces kids to the idea that food comes from nature, not grocery stores, and makes gathering berries look like the most fun any family could possibly have.  In other words, Jamberry is the perfect picture book for summer!   

(Full disclosure - if you click the link in this post to purchase Jamberry (or other items), from Amazon, I will receive a small payment.  If you're not comfortable with that, but still want to buy the book, please open a new browser window to make your purchases.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Our Silly Squirrel Adventure

The furry interloper.
When Donnie came home for lunch today, he had quite a surprise waiting for him: a critter of some sort was trapped behind our dining room wall, desperately trying to claw its way out.  The melancholy sound of scritch scritch scratch, followed by a pathetic mewl, came from behind the wall, over and over again.  Clearly, whatever was back there was miserable and scared.  The only way to free it would be to cut the wall open.

My handy husband quickly carved away a piece of sheet rock, to discover a baby squirrel huddled behind the wall.  It was plainly terrified, making noises that alternated between plaintive bleats and meant-to-be-intimidating growls.  Its body was shaking, and it had wrapped its tail around itself for protection.  Also, it wouldn't move.

First Donnie tried cajoling the poor thing, encouraging it to "Get out, go, you're free!"  He opened our sliding glass doors, hoping the sweet smell of freedom would coax our visitor from its hiding place.  No such luck.  Next my husband decided to force the critter out, poking it with various objects, but all it did was hunker down further within the wall's cozy confines.  So then Donnie decided to bribe the little guy, smearing peanut butter on the inside of a cardboard box, and placing it right next to the squirrel's hiding place.  Again, the terrified creature refused to move.  It just stayed in its corner, making its various noises, waiting for us to leave it alone.

Finally, Donnie did the only thing he could think: he used my (former) kitchen tongs to pick the poor little guy up by its tail, and carry it outside.  As you can imagine, our furry friend wasn't thrilled.  It thrashed about as it dangled from the tongs, and increased its "threatening" noises tenfold.  It didn't stop until Donnie had carted it across the room and safely out the sliding glass doors.

The second Donnie placed the squirrel down outside, it took a flying leap off our balcony and disappeared into the grass, presumably never to be heard from again.  Donnie patched the sheet rock and headed back to work.  I was fairly sure our wildlife adventures had ended for the day.

But now as I sit at the dining room table, writing, I hear a noise behind me.  A scritch scritch scratch coming from inside the wall, just above the patched area.  There's no mewling yet, but I imagine that sorry sound will start up any second, now.

Apparently, there were two of them in there.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Cheesy Ham and Bean Soup


This thick, flavorful soup is a great way to use the Easter ham bone languishing in your freezer.

Cheesy Ham and Bean Soup

1 lb Great Northern beans
6 cups water
1 onion, cut in half
3-4 cloves of garlic
1 large ham bone
1 lb fresh broccoli, steamed
1 lb cooked pasta
2 cups shredded white cheddar cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Place the beans, water, onion, and garlic in a large pot.  Bring to a boil over high heat, boil for two minutes, remove from heat, cover, and set aside for an hour.

After an hour,  add the ham bone to the pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil over high heat.  Reduce heat to medium, cover, and allow to simmer for 2 hours, or until beans are tender, and the onion and garlic are completely broken down.

Remove the ham bone from the pot and set aside to cool.  Drain the beans (save the broth!) and return them to the pot.  Cook over medium heat, mashing with a potato masher, 3-5 minute or until a thick paste has formed.  Stir in the reserved bean broth, and allow to cook for 5-10 minutes more, or until smooth.  Remove the pot from the heat.

Trim all usable meat from the ham bone, and add it to the bean mixture.  Stir in the pasta, broccoli, and white cheddar cheese.  Mix until all ingredients are well combined, and the cheese is melted.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

This recipe is proudly shared at Menu Plan Monday, Ask Ms. Recipe, and What's On Your Plate?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Frugal Fridays: Take Me Out to the (Inexpensive) Ballgame

Two months old at the Reading Phillies game!
Spring is here, and I can't wait to take Trey to a baseball game.  Donnie and I love everything about live sporting events - the game, the fans, the food - and we can't wait to share that with our son.  We took him to the ballpark twice last summer, and he seemed to enjoy himself, but this year will be a whole new experience.  He'll get to meet the mascots, sing and dance along with the crowd, and even taste some water ice.  I think it's going to be a blast, and I can't wait to take him.

But let's face it, going to games can be pretty pricey.  The cost of admission, parking, food, and souvenirs can add up quickly, making a live sporting event a prohibitively expensive experience for most families.  The good news is, there are some cheaper alternatives that are still just as much fun.

Go minor league.  There are minor or developmental leagues for many major sports, including basketball, baseball, and hockey.  Donnie and I particularly love going to minor league baseball games.  Ticket prices for our local team, the Reading Phillies, start at $7.  Food prices are a fraction of the cost you would pay at a bigger ballpark.  The atmosphere at the games is fun, and extremely family friendly.  Plus, we get to watch future Philadelphia Phillies begin their careers!

Head back to school.  The price of admission at high school or small college sporting events is usually minuscule, but the action can still be big.  If you don’t already have a favorite school, check your local sports page to find out which teams are playing well, then pick up a schedule at the school’s athletic office.

Bask in obscurity.  Have you ever heard of the American Indoor Football League?  How about the National Lacrosse League?  Or the Major Indoor Soccer League?  Believe it or not, these leagues all exist (and they all have passionate fans!)  Learning about a new sport is fun for the whole family, and the prices can’t be beat.  Tickets to see our local AIFL team, the Reading Express, start at $8.  Even the most popular “obscure” sports league, the Arena Football League, caters to frugal fans by offering $13 tickets!

Get the cheap seats.  If you plan well in advance, you can usually snag $15-$20 tickets to most major league sporting events (except football, unfortunately).  Your seats won’t be the greatest, but you’ll still get to enjoy the experience of a major league game.  The key is to order tickets through team websites as far in advance as possible.  Wait too long, and ticket brokers will have purchased all the seats.

Exploit mediocrity.  Some professional teams are just terrible - so terrible that even their season ticket holders don't want to watch them play.  So they sell their tickets on StubHub for a fraction of the face value.  A few years ago, Donnie, my brother and I took bought tickets to see the 76ers play the atrociously bad New Jersey Nets at the Izod Center in New Jersey.  Our tickets cost $6 each, less than a third of what we would have paid to see the Sixers play at home in Philly.

Take public transportation.  If you life in a major metropolitan area, chances are you have access to buses and trains that will take you directly to most stadiums.  Not only is public transportation cheaper than paying to park, it can also be fun.  I promise you haven't lived until you've spent some time on a train packed with fans celebrating their team's victory.

Skip the souvenirs.  Team apparel is always expensive, but never more so than at the ballpark.  If you really want a shirt to commemorate your outing, buy it at Walmart.  Or the mall.  Or online.  Or any of the million other places that offer licensed merchandise for a fraction of the cost at those shiny stadium shops.
These are just a few of my favorite ways to save money on sporting events.  What are some of yours?

For more great money-saving tips, visit Life as Mom.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Chores for Toddlers

 
Putting away clean laundry.
Trey is thirteen months old.  He doesn't walk, barely talks, and still gets most of his caloric intake from breastfeeding.

But he does chores.

Yes, that's right: my thirteen-month-old son does chores. 

At this point, you're probably writing me off as completely insane.  A glutton for punishment.  After all, don't toddlers make everything messier?  More time consuming?  More difficult? 

Well, yes.  But the rewards are well worth the extra effort.  Doing chores teaches Trey how to follow simple instructions, and work alongside his parents to complete important tasks.  It allows him to experience the pride and satisfaction that comes from a job well done.  It shows him that maintaining a household requires a great deal of effort, and that everybody has to pitch in.  Plus, working together is just plain fun! 

So what exactly constitutes appropriate work for a thirteen-month-old?  Here are some of the jobs Trey has completed around our house:
Whenever I sweep the floors, I also give Trey his child-sized broom to push around beside me.

I hand Trey clean, folded laundry and show him where to put it.  He even closes the dresser drawers when he's done.

When Donnie is fixing things around the house, he asks Trey to hold his supplies.  He also shows Trey the correct way to use various tools, and lets him "take a turn" whenever its safe.

There are a million things for Trey to do in the kitchen: kneading dough, sprinkling cheese, dumping dry ingredients, and stirring batter, to name just a few.

Trey gets his own rag whenever I dust, wipe down appliances, or clean the sink.

After Donnie or I finish vacuuming, Trey takes a turn using the attachment (and, yes, it is turned on!)

When it's time to straighten up, I show Trey how to gather his toys and place them neatly in a laundry basket.
I'm sure there are a million other ways Trey could be helping around the house.  I just haven't thought of them yet.  Which is where you, dear readers, come in.

What chores have you assigned your littlest little ones?  Are there any other simple tasks Trey could be handling?  Please share your wisdom in the comments!  

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Gentle Books: On the Day You Were Born



On the Day You Were Born is the first book I ever read to Trey.  I remember breaking down into happy tears when I reached the final line, "We are so glad you've come!" because the precious baby curled up in my lap made me happier than I had ever been.

This book is still one of our favorites to read together.  The text is sweet and celebratory, deftly invoking a family's feelings of excited anticipation before a much loved baby's birth.  The simple, evocative art effortlessly portrays such abstract concepts as "gravity," and "the wind" for even the youngest readers.  And the message is one your child will want to hear again and again: that the day of his birth was the most wonderful day in your entire life, because you and the universe couldn't wait to meet him.

On the Day You Were Born is the perfect book for parents who want their children to know just how very cherished they are.  It is a love letter from the universe to a single, beloved baby - yours.  And it is, quite possibly, the sweetest book you will ever read.

(Full disclosure - if you click the link in this post to purchase On the Day You Were Born (or other items), from Amazon, I will receive a small payment.  If you're not comfortable with that, but still want to buy the book, please open a new browser window to make your purchases.)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

How to Make Perfect Cookies


I  make good cookies.  Very, very good cookies.  Some people have even called them "perfect."

And I'm hard-pressed to disagree with those folks.

Here are my techniques for achieving Cookie Nirvana, developed after years of tinkering in the kitchen.  The results are well worth the effort, I promise!
Use butter and eggs that are at room temperature.  I take mine out of the fridge at least 30 minutes before I plan to start baking.  This prevents your cookies from flattening in the oven.

Measure your dry ingredients correctly.  Spoon your flour, sugar, etc., into your measuring cup until it's overflowing, then level the top off with a knife.  Don't ever scoop dry ingredients directly into your measuring cup. 

Use your mixer super-sparingly.  I never beat my cookie dough for more than 45-60 seconds.  Heavy mixing whips air into the batter, which can make your cookies unpleasantly spongey.

Choose aluminized steel baking sheets. They conduct heat more evenly than other metals, giving all your baked goods a nice even texture.

Experiment to determine the best time and temperature for your oven. I bake chewy cookie recipes for 9 minutes at 375 degrees.  You may find that you need a little more or less time, depending on your oven.

Don't be fooled when your cookies look underdone. They should appear raw, gooey, and a little "puffed up" when you first take them out of the oven.

Let your cookies sit.  I leave mine on the hot baking sheet for four minutes before transferring them to a cooling rack..  This allows the cookies time to firm up, without becoming dark or crunchy (as they would with additional baking time).
Following these tips allows me to produce perfect batches of cookies time and again.  Give them a try and let me know what you think!

Do you have any fool-proof kitchen strategies?

This post was proudly shared at Kitchen Tip Tuesday.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Easy Homemade Refried Beans


These homemade refried beans are tasty, nutritious, frugal, and ridiculously easy to make.  They're the perfect accompaniment to any Mexican meal, from tacos to tamales.  I prepare a double batch every few weeks, then freeze them in two-cup portions.

Easy Homemade Refried Beans
4 cups water
1 pound dried black or pinto beans, sorted and rinsed
1 large onion, peeled and cut in half
2 cloves chopped garlic
salt, cumin, and chili powder to taste (about a teaspoon each)

Place the water, beans, and onion in a large pot.  Cover, bring to a boil over medium-high heat, and boil two minutes.  Remove from the heat and let stand an hour.

After an hour, stir in the garlic, and cover the beans with water.  Heat the mixture to a full boil over medium-high heat, then reduce to medium and cover the pot. Let the beans boil gently for about two hours, stirring occasionally. You may need to add additional water during cooking.

Once the beans are tender, transfer the contents of the pot to a frying pan or skillet (the onion should be completely broken down).  Cook over medium heat for about ten minutes, mashing the beans with a potato masher or fork. Season with salt, cumin, and chili powder to taste.

This recipe is proudly shared at Menu Plan Monday, Ask Ms. Recipe, and What's On Your Plate?
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