Monday, April 14, 2014

Yes, I'm "Still" Breastfeeding My Toddler

My third son, G, is now 31 months (that's 2 years and 7 months for those less month-county than I am). I had originally thought I would nurse him until he was two, as I had his older brother. However, during my fourth pregnancy, my milk dried up for the most part, several months before G turned two. I allowed him to continue to comfort-nurse and drink any colostrum he could extract, but I knew he wasn't getting all the benefits of breastmilk I had hoped to keep providing.

After Baby Y was born, when G was around 25 months, my breasts sprang back to life, overflowing with milk once again. I hadn't planned to "tandem nurse" - breastfeed more than one child at a time - but it sort of just happened that way. I hadn't stopped G from comfort nursing, and when he was actually getting milk again, he loved nursing even more.

In the early days, when Y was very little and needed to nurse often, I tried a few times to nurse the baby and G simultaneously. It was awkward and uncomfortable for me, but it was also the easiest way to please both of them.

Now, though, five months on, I don't try to nurse them simultaneously anymore. I leave the baby somewhere safe and happy, and I take G to his bed or mine. I find I don't mind nursing G by himself once in a while. It's a wholly different experience from nursing the baby. G only nurses once a day, at naptime, and not even every day. It's so easy to get him to lie down in bed and try to take a nap if I offer to let him nurse! It's incredibly cute how excited he gets when I agree to nurse him. He races down the hallway exclaiming, "I gonna nurse! You gonna nurse me! I gonna nurse! I gonna nurse in my bed!"

I've asked him what the milk tastes like, but all I get in response is "milk." Which is hard to argue with.

For those who are concerned about having enough milk for a toddler and a baby, you can absolutely nurse two children. Remember that your body makes milk based on the demand, so if you have a toddler and a newborn both demanding milk, your breasts will produce enough milk for both. See my series on nursing through pregnancy for more information about tandem-nursing a toddler and a newborn. My milk supply this time around is copious, partly because of my daily pumping in the first few weeks postpartum and partly because I nurse my toddler several times a week in addition to the baby's exclusive breastfeeding.

I never set out to be nursing a 2-1/2-year-old. I didn't have a specific plan for how or when to wean him completely. When his baby brother was born relatively close to his second birthday, I didn't think it was fair to G for Y to usurp his place at the breast at the same time he usurped his place as "the baby." We had long since night-weaned, so I didn't have the stress of trying to nurse two kids through the night. That might have affected how I felt about continuing to nurse him. Now, I would rather just nurse him once every couple of days than to deal with the tantrum and tears when I refuse. I'm sure if I refused enough times in a row, he would stop asking, but I don't see a reason to put us both through that stress right now.

I think when we talk about nursing an older toddler, one who speaks in complete sentences and has a mouthful of teeth and eats plenty of healthy foods and drinks water and juice and other milks, it's hard for people who haven't been there to understand that we're not just walking down the street, picking up a random toddler, and nursing him. We don't start out nursing a toddler. In fact, many women don't plan to nurse a toddler. Some mothers can barely look beyond the next day or the next week when they begin nursing their newborns. The progression from newborn to infant to toddler is so gradual that it seems natural once we're doing it. There's no switch that flips at one year or two years or 27 months or 33 months or September 4th or July 17th when it is suddenly no longer appropriate, necessary, or reasonable to be nursing a child. Most children will gradually wean on their own between two and four years of age, too busy with life to stop to nurse. But those children who continue to ask for it obviously still have a deep-seated need for the closeness of Mom, the sweetness of milk, the comfort of suckling, their first memories of shelter from the big, bad, scary world.

I think there's also a perception that when we say we're "still" nursing our two-year-old, or 27-month-old, or 34-month-old, that we mean we are nursing him like we would an infant, that he's coming to us six or eight or 12 times a day to feed, but it's not so. Most older toddlers nurse maybe once or twice a day, perhaps to help them fall asleep, or to go back to sleep at a night-waking. They may nurse more when they're sick, and it is a wonderful gift to give your sick child, the warm, disease-fighting, easy-to-digest milk tailored to his needs. But it's not the same as a newborn nursing for his sole source of nutrition, or an infant who only supplements his milk diet with solid foods.

How old is too old to still be nursing? Some would say once a baby has teeth, he should stop breastfeeding. Some say when the baby can ask for it, she should be weaned. Some say once he can ask for it in a complete sentence, he's too old. I think there's no rule. A child is too old to nurse when his own mother decides she is no longer happy or comfortable nursing him. A child is too old to nurse when he decides he doesn't need it anymore.

There was a wonderful research article written by anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler almost 20 years ago in which she set out to determine when a human child would naturally wean absent social constructs and societal pressure. Using several different methods based on other primates' weaning ages, she concluded that humans would naturally wean between 2.5 and 7 years of age, probably closer to the 4-6-year range. This is when the first permanent teeth start to come in (six-year-old molars erupt and baby teeth start falling out). She also examined other factors such as weight, length of gestation, and immune system development. All methods agree on that range.

I did not expect to continue to nurse G this long, but now I understand how it happens. You just... don't wean. Allowing a child to decide when he is finished nursing is called "child-led weaning" and is the most gentle and biologically normal way to slowly back away from breastfeeding. I don't think it will be long before I'm back to nursing just one baby. Often, G pops off and says he's done without falling asleep and without prompting. Many times, he tells me that "it's the baby's turn now" and sends me on my way. Interspersed are the days when he peacefully drifts off to sleep, one hand holding his blanket-lovey, the other resting gently on my breast. On those days, I unlatch him carefully (mindful of that mouthful of teeth), with a finger between his molars. Sometimes, he wakes up and runs off. Other times, he smacks his lips and re-settles, then sleeps for an hour or two on his own.

Will I still be nursing him when he's three? I don't know. I don't think so. I don't have a plan for when he has to stop breastfeeding. I'm sure he doesn't either. But the day will come, probably sooner than later, when Y gets all the milk to himself, and then some day, a few years down the line, my milk will dry up for good and I'll be done nursing forever. I see no reason to rush toward that day, and neither do my babies.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Let's Not Let Any More Babies Die in Hot Cars

It's (finally) spring, and some parts of the country and world are starting to warm up quickly. With the sun coming out come the reminders about the dangers of leaving kids (and pets) in the car. Cars warm up very quickly in direct sunlight, even when the temperature is fairly mild, and a child or animal trapped in a hot car can suffer dehydration, heat stroke, hyperthermia, and even death if left long enough.

Every year in the U.S., more than 30 children die from being left in hot cars. Most of these incidents are unintentional. That is, the parent or caregiver didn't mean to leave the baby in the car. Rather, they forgot the child was there and only upon returning to the car discovered that they had made a tragic error.

When news of such horrendous events gets out, two responses typically emerge. The comments start off with some type of judgment against the parent, such as, "He must be an abusive parent" or "She was obviously neglectful," or "If she can't remember her kids, she probably shouldn't have them." It is assumed that a parent who would leave a child in the car long enough to die in the hot sun must by definition be a "bad" parent. Next, you'll find a series of sanctimonious declarations that, "My children are always the first thing on my mind. I would never do that" and "How could anyone forget their kids? That would never happen to me!"

Five years ago, Gene Weingarten wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece for the Washington Post on this subject. He tells the terrible stories of parents from all walks of life who returned to their cars to find their babies dead in their car seats. Some forgot they were supposed to drop the baby off at daycare and continued on to work. Some thought they had made the drop off only to show up at daycare for pickup with the child still in the back seat of the car. Every year, there are dozens of stories like this.

Weingarten interviewed a memory expert who explains that, " situations involving familiar, routine motor skills, the human animal presses the basal ganglia into service as a sort of auxiliary autopilot. When our prefrontal cortex and hippocampus are planning our day on the way to work, the ignorant but efficient basal ganglia is operating the car; that's why you'll sometimes find yourself having driven from point A to point B without a clear recollection of the route you took, the turns you made or the scenery you saw." 

In other words, when we're preoccupied with other things, we go on autopilot for the routine things. I'm sure we've all had the experience of getting in the car and starting to drive to work when we really meant to go the opposite direction to the grocery store, or of setting the table for the usual four people when only three are home that night, and so on. We do things without thinking about them while our conscious mind is busy with something else, like planning the meal we're about to make or thinking about tomorrow's schedule or making a phone call.

Weingarten's expert explains that when we are stressed, "What happens is that the memory circuits in a vulnerable hippocampus literally get overwritten, like with a computer program. Unless the memory circuit is rebooted -- such as if the child cries, or, you know, if the wife mentions the child in the back -- it can entirely disappear." 

So something that is not routine - like the fourth person not being home for dinner, or not going to work on a weekday - can be easily forgotten by the conscious memory if it's not reinforced, and the autopilot takes over.

The article is wonderful, for its excellent writing (as anyone would expect from Gene Weingarten), its sensitive handling of a delicate subject, and its exploration of how and why these tragedies happen. It is not, as Weingarten point out, because the parents are "bad" or "neglectful." It's not because they don't love their children. There's usually a perfect storm of stress, preoccupation, distraction, and change of routine that leads to a parent doing the unimaginable and leaving their child to die in the car.

We, the public, of course, hear about this happening when a child dies, but I wonder how often it happens that the child is forgotten but found and rescued before overheating, or that the baby is discovered or remembered by the parent before anything terrible happens. How often does it happen on a cold, cloudy day where the child might be hungry and upset but thankfully not overheat? How many times have parents left for just a few minutes before something reminds them to go back to the car and get the baby? I'm sure it's not as uncommon as we'd hope.

The trouble with the assumption that only neglectful, abusive, unloving parents would forget their baby in the car is that it means that those of us who know we are good, loving, attentive parents may not take precautionary measures. After all, if it's not going to happen, why bother worrying about it? The problem with knowing it wouldn't happen to us means that we are just as susceptible.

But what can we do to prevent it?

It's important to remember that these "forgetting" incidents usually happen when we are doing something outside our normal routine. If Mom usually takes the baby to daycare but today Dad is doing it, Dad's routine is disrupted. If Mom doesn't usually take the baby to the store with her but today she does, then Mom's routine is disrupted. If there is usually a baby-sitter at home but today the baby was going to Grandma's house, then the parents' routine is disrupted by dropping the baby off somewhere instead of going straight to work. Also, the typical scenario seems to be that not only is the routine disrupted, but that there are additional distractions, especially stress, that prevent the hippocampus from recording the memory that the baby is in the car. 

I suggest a two-pronged approach. 

First, we need to inform and educate. People need to know that this happens to wealthy parents and poor parents, working parents and stay-at-home parents, white parents and minority parents, adoptive parents and birth parents, parents of many children and parents of one child. Be aware that it could happen, and the circumstances under which it is more likely to happen. Rethink your judgment of others when you read about it in the news. Don't let your knee-jerk reaction be, "I wouldn't let that happen to my child," but rather, "How can I make sure I don't make the same mistake?" 

Also on the subject of education, many people don't realize just how hot a car can get and how fast it can get there. The interior of a parked car on a sunny, mild day can reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit in about 90 minutes even with the windows cracked open. Within 15 minutes, the temperature will already be uncomfortably warm. Think about how it feels to get into your car after it's been sitting in the sun for a few hours. It's hot! You open the windows to cool it off, blast the A/C, try to bring the temperature down to a comfortable zone. Well, imagine that you had been sitting in that car for an hour or two. You'd be very, very hot. Now, remember that babies are not as efficient at regulating their own body temperature as adults are. Plus, they tend to be overdressed for the weather (we don't want them to be cold!) and are cocooned in their bucket-style car seats. They can't unbuckle themselves and open a door to cool off. They can't take off an outer layer of clothing or fan themselves. They'll just keep getting hotter and hotter with no way to get relief. Many well-intentioned parents simply are not aware of the danger they are placing their babies in by leaving them in a car for any length of time (even 10 minutes) on even a mild day.

Second, we need to devise strategies for ourselves to prevent this memory blip from happening in the first place, or to recover the memory before anything terrible happens. Keeping in mind that these events often happen when you are out of your routine, come up with something you do as part of your normal routine and try to disrupt that as well, to jog your conscious memory into thinking about the baby. Once you've decided that you are going to take preventative measures, it's simply a matter of taking steps to minimize the risk. Some suggestions I have are:

  • When the baby is in the car, put something you'll have to take with you when you get out of the car beside, under, or near the baby's car seat in the back, for example, your briefcase, purse, cell phone, work badge, or office key. This way, when you reach for said item and it's not where you'd expect it to be, you'll remember it's in the back with the baby.
  • Leave yourself some kind of visual reminder, such as a brightly-colored Post-It note on the steering wheel or dashboard when you start driving. Maybe write on it "BABY".
  • Give yourself a visual cue for when you glance in the rear-view mirror and see the baby's car seat that will remind you that the baby is in the seat. Perhaps a red ribbon around the handle, or something else that will catch your eye that is only there if the baby is.
  • Keep a teddy bear in the car seat when it's empty. When you put the baby in the car seat, put the teddy bear in the front seat with you. If the teddy is in the front seat, then check the back for the baby!
  • Talk to yourself about the baby and the fact that you are taking the baby somewhere as you drive to reinforce the memory. Better yet, talk to the baby!
  • Have a plan with your partner that whenever you take the baby somewhere s/he will call to check in. For example, if Mom takes the baby to daycare, Dad should call Mom in the morning and ask how drop-off went, or if the baby did anything cute, just to jog the memory.
For resources and information about kids' safety in and around cars, see For more on vehicular hyperthermia/heatstroke specifically, see

Thursday, April 3, 2014

What Did I Make Tonight? Stir-Fry Noodles and Vegetables

When you need a very fast meal from prep to table, try this one on for size. I watched the clock while I prepared this, and it was about 20 minutes, certainly less than 30. And it's a crowd-pleaser, too.

As all my dishes, this one is very versatile. I'll offer suggestions for substitutions or variations as I go along. Some of the variations or substitutions may make this take a bit longer, but it's still a very quick meal.

  • 2 tbsp. oil - I used a combination of sesame oil and canola. Olive would also be fine. Or whatever you have.
  • 2 or 3 packages Yakisoba Stir-Fry Noodles - I find them in my supermarket's produce section with the tofu products. They were on sale 3/$5 so I picked up a bunch.
  • 2-3 carrots
  • 2-3 ribs of celery
  • Half a small head of purple cabbage or 1/4 of a large head of purple cabbage (Or use any other cabbage you have on hand, or if you have bagged shredded cabbage, so much the better. Napa cabbage is fantastic in this if you want to get fancy.)
  • 1 small onion or 1/2 a large onion (I used a white onion, but yellow or purple would be fine. Even a few green onions instead would be fine!)
  • 1 16oz. bag of frozen peas
  • 1 bag of MorningStar Farms Grillers Recipe Crumbles (or other veggie meat, or a block of tofu diced, or real ground beef, or ground turkey, or diced chicken breast or thigh - if you're doing tofu or meat, you'll need to brown it first)
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp. lemon, lime, or orange juice (I used a small blood orange we got from our CSA. It gave it a slightly tart-sweet flavor that I really enjoyed)
  • 1 tbsp. rice vinegar (or more citrus juice, or other kind of vinegar, whatever you have on hand)
  • 2 tbsp. brown sugar (or honey, or white sugar, or whatever other sweetener you like to use)
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • black pepper
  • salt

  • Knife
  • Cutting board
  • Juice glass or measuring cup
  • Skillet
  • Stirring spoon
  • Fork
  • Put your skillet on the stove, add the oil to the skillet, and turn the burner to MEDIUM

  • Chop your veggies. The smaller the pieces, the faster they'll cook and the faster your meal will be ready.

  • Add the veggies to the pan

  • Add a pinch of salt and stir everything around to make sure everything gets exposed to the hot oil.
  • Make your sauce: mix together the soy sauce, citrus juice and/or vinegar, brown sugar, garlic powder, a grind or two (or shake or two) of black pepper, and about half a cup of water in a measuring cup or juice glass or whatever. Stir it up so the sugar dissolves. Set aside.

  • Allow the veggies in the pan to cook for about 7-10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent and the carrots are softened.

  • Add the bag of peas and the veggie meat
  • Stir.
  • Now prep your noodles. The directions on the package should give you two ways to soften the noodles. Typically, you remove them from the outer package but leave them in their plastic bag and either run them under hot water for a few minutes or pop them in the microwave for a few seconds. Do whatever your package says. (If yours came with a seasoning packet, we're not using that in this recipe. Keep it to use some other time or just toss it out.)
  • When noodles are softened, add them to the pan and break them apart with a fork as best you can. As they heat and cook, they'll separate more.

  • Add the sauce to the pan and turn the heat up on the burner to HIGH to bring the sauce to a boil. Mix everything around so the noodles get into the sauce so they can cook. Once the sauce is simmering, turn the burner back down to MEDIUM.
  • Let everything cook for another 3 or 4 minutes until the noodles are ready, stirring occasionally.
  • Serve!
I tried to include the oven clock in a few pictures so you could see how much time really passed while I made this. The first picture shows the time as 4:47, and the final picture shows 5:09. I served it just a few minutes later.

As always, this is a method not a firm recipe. Add or subtract vegetables according to what you have and what you like. Add in bell peppers, for example, or asparagus, or broccoli, or green beans. Use rice or pasta or quinoa instead of the yakisoba noodles (if you do this, you'll have to cook your starch separately and then add it in at the end. I'd use about a cup of rice or quinoa or half a pound of angel hair pasta. See my Basics article for tips on making pasta and rice.). If you want to use meat, brown it in the pan first, then remove it, cook the veggies as above, and then add it back in after the veggies have cooked. If you want to use tofu, cube the tofu and brown it first, maybe tossed in some cornstarch before browning, remove it from the pan, do the veggies, and then add the tofu back in before the sauce.

You can do a lot with this basic dish, and the idea is to kind of use up vegetables you have in your fridge and make a quick meal on a busy night. You could even prep the veggies earlier in the day or week and just throw them in the pan once the oil is hot to speed up the process even more!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Raising Independent Kids: Treading the Line Between Safety and Self-Sufficiency

A recent article in The Atlantic by Hanna Rosin really got me thinking. In it, she talks about how children in generations past (my childhood, my parents' childhood) spent a lot more time out and about alone. I'm sure we all have stories about how we used to go out riding our bikes for hours in the afternoons, went exploring in local woods and open spaces, had secret lairs with our friends, walked ourselves to and from school, and so on. I know I did, and I know you did, if you're my age or older. (I'm 32.) Ms. Rosin mentions that children these days spend considerably more time with their parents than in years past. She discusses the attitude that if we do not take our kids to activities, schedule time with them and for them, hover over them protectively at playgrounds, and police their interactions with peers, then we are not "parenting." It has become a parent's job to direct every step of our children's paths, watch every move they make, jump in to stop fights, and solve their disagreements as well as to provide and be entertainment.

My instinct as a parent has been opposite to this modern standard of parenting. I generally leave my kids to end their own arguments, assuming no one is getting hurt or breaking any house rules. I tell them to go play. I keep an eye out but don't interfere when they're playing with friends, unless, again, someone is getting hurt or they are breaking rules. I don't allow my kids to seriously endanger themselves, but I also don't follow them around paving the way for them and smoothing bumps.

Furthermore, I get bored sitting on the floor and playing with trains for an hour. I don't want to do toddler puzzles over and over again. I detest Candyland and Chutes and Ladders. I like to read them a book or two, but not the same book six times in a row. I don't craft, and I don't do crafts. I don't do Playdoh and paints. They have washable markers, scrap paper, and the occasional coloring book. They have TV and tablets where they watch kids' shows and play Minecraft, puzzles, and toddler games (according to age and interest). They have books and Lego and blocks and train tracks and puzzles and card games and electronics kits and more cars and trucks than I can count. And they find things to do.

I enjoy spending time with my kids. I enjoy watching them play and seeing them come up with new ideas. I like being nearby while they explore their world, but I don't feel the need to direct them in their explorations. I assist, but I won't do it all for them. I'll join them to help build a train track, teach them the rules to a new game, draw a picture, help them find something interesting to play on their tablets, or introduce them to a new movie I think they'll like. I talk to them, answer knowledge questions and ethics questions as they come up. I explain concepts and define words. I tell them about my own memories of childhood, give them new things to think about, and push them a little when they ask a question I think they can answer for themselves, like spelling a phonetic word or solving an addition problem.

But I get stuck when it comes to outdoor play. I feel like I should be able to send them outside with their scooters and bikes and say "come back in time for dinner" like my parents did with me, and their parents with them. I have this idea that, left to their own devices, they'd come up with all sorts of wild fantasies in the hiking trails behind our house. I'd love to be able to send my oldest (when he's a bit older than now) to walk to the coffee shop or the mini-mart in our neighborhood to pick up a snack or some dinner ingredient I need. There's pride and growth in knowing your way around, in discovering shortcuts, in getting lost and finding your way back, in having private time with a friend to walk and talk without adult interruption, to learn to read maps and street signs and negotiate crosswalks, to explore your physical limits and push your boundaries. Kids need those challenges as much as the need the challenge of learning to play the piano or solve math problems.

I have a distinct memory of being about nine years old and spending weeks saving up $11 of allowance money so I could buy a stuffed cat I liked at a nearby store. When I had the money, I walked to the store and bought it myself. Such pride I took in being able to do all that by myself! I remember walking with my friend to the 7/11 in her neighborhood and buying candy with our own money when we were maybe nine or 10 years old. I remember playing in our "canyon" at the end of my street, complete with secret hideout. I remember riding my bike all by myself up the hill at the top of our block and falling into a cactus, then sitting in the bathroom while my mom painstakingly picked spines out of my abdomen. I remember my mom sending my brother and me off with parts of the grocery list to find items and bring them back to her when we all went shopping together.

My kids will have no memories like those if I don't find a way for them to make them. What stymies me is this modern perception that the world is so much more dangerous than it used to be. It isn't. We just think it is because we get to read or see every single news report about every single family who has some horrible tragedy. Not that we'd want our kids or our families to be that news story, but the risks are actually quite low compared to, say, driving them to school every morning.

I think many of today's parents would be aghast at the idea of children wandering supermarket aisles alone, of riding their bikes to the park and playing without supervision, of walking to the corner store for candy or a stuffed animal they saved so carefully for, of walking home to a friend's house after school to play without making a prior arrangement with the friend's parents (which I and my friends did all the time!). And we didn't even have cell phones or GPS watches or any modern devices which make keeping track of each other so much easier!

Ms. Rosin's article points out that kids don't learn what to be afraid of if they aren't exposed to potentially scary situations. They don't learn the dangers of fire if they don't learn to use fire. They don't learn to negotiate heights if they don't climb. They don't learn how to scrape their knees and get up and keep going if they're coddled every time they fall down.

On top of that, they don't learn to solidify friendships and navigate social situations if they don't experiment with what works and what doesn't. They'll learn pretty quickly if hitting and yelling mean people won't play with them, while negotiation and kind words help them make friends. I'm not saying we should stay out of things completely: I like to supply the script when I can, or give them ideas of how to word things or a different tone they might try, but we don't need to pop in every time kids start to argue and end the fight for them.

The conclusion I came to, for myself, was that I want to be able to send my older kids out to play, maybe in a year or two when I feel they have the maturity to do so. I want to be able to say, "Hey, guys, why don't you walk up to the park for a bit," or "Why don't you go down to the convenience store and get some juice," or "Go knock on your friend's door and see if he's available to play." But I feel like I can't, because society has made it somehow wrong to not be within eye-sight of your children all the time. It's no longer acceptable for kids to go out and just play, to be kids, to navigate life without an adult peeking over their shoulders all the time. And I, too, suffer from this inability to just let them go out and do what comes to mind. I don't want them to get dirty or hurt. I don't want them to make a mess. I don't want them to dig holes or play in mud or get their hands and clothes covered in sidewalk chalk. And that's a failing on my part, too, for not wanting my kids to just go be kids.

I needed to find a balance. I decided I needed to find something for them that would give them an opportunity for growth while still keeping them safe. If they had something to do in the backyard, I thought, they might be more inclined to go out and do it. And I hit upon the idea of gardening. Now, I know very little about gardening, beyond, "You put a seed in some soil and water it." I thought, what if I buy them some pots and soil and seeds and give them the supplies and then get the heck out of their way. Let them experiment. Let them read the instructions on the seed packets, figure it out, and hopefully see the fruits of their labors. I figure they can learn a lot from planting seeds: following directions, watching nature do its thing, delayed gratification (an important lesson in today's world of instant fulfillment), seeing the hard work that goes into growing their food, the beauty of a flower as it blooms, the consequences of weather and wildlife on growing plants. They planted broccoli, green onions, watermelon, and carrots. I'm very, very interested to see what happens over the next few weeks and months. Will we end up with edible vegetables? Will the raccoons and gophers get them before we do? Will the kids enjoy the process and the result and want to try it again?

The idea of letting them "have at it" with the soil and pots and seeds appealed to me, but it was also difficult for me not to step in and do it for them. My oldest kept running in and out of the house, asking me how much a quarter-inch is, how much a half-inch is, so he'd know how deep to plant the seeds. I showed him how to estimate using his knuckles and fingers. I made a few suggestions, like finding a way to label which pot held which type of plant, figuring out where to put them in the yard so they'd get sunlight, remembering to water them. So far they've been enthusiastic, but it's only been a few days and we don't even see sprouts yet. It's hard to wait, even for me, a grown adult! They're doing very well so far, and they seem to understand the waiting game, which is very encouraging for me.

There will also be a lesson in it if the seeds don't grow, or if we end up with tiny carrots or golf-ball-sized watermelon. Failure is its own lesson, that sometimes we put in effort and the effort doesn't pay off. But, that doesn't mean the effort wasn't worthwhile; we just need to figure out where we went wrong and try again. Maybe they planted the seeds too deep in the soil. Maybe a raccoon knocked over the pot and the seeds were eaten. Maybe they gave them too much water, or not enough, or the weather just wasn't quite right for planting yet.

I strongly believe kids need independence. They need our trust. They need our belief in their own ability to problem-solve and face new challenges. I don't want to hover, but I don't want them to get hurt. It's a fine line to tread. Now that this gardening idea came to me and seems to have been successful, I'm trying to think of other ways to encourage them to get out and just be without putting them in danger or overstepping the bounds of what society today says is an acceptable level of independence.

In what ways do you encourage independence in your children? How do you keep them safe while still pushing them out of the nest a bit?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

What Did I Make Tonight? Some Basics

I want to start with the nitty-gritty basics. If you rarely cook at all for your family, if you find yourself mostly serving frozen dinners and takeout, and you want to change that, it may seem intimidating to alter your routine to make time for cooking. If you know how to cook and are looking for new ideas, you can probably skip this post, but if you are new to cooking and need some tips, this is a good place to start.

First of all, some basic kitchen equipment. Don't get the cheapest stuff you can find. You don't need the most expensive, either, but a good set of pots and pans and a quality knife or two will go a long way toward easier cooking and better tasting food.

I don't mean to talk down to anyone, but this is targeted at the extreme novice, so I'm going to explain everything in as much detail as I can so you know exactly what I'm talking about. I hate when I'm reading instructions or a recipe and I don't understand a word or action; I don't know what I'm supposed to do, and there's no explanation! So I don't want to write recipes like that, either.

Here are the bare minimums for kitchen supplies you'll probably want to have:

Pots and Pans:
6-quart pot with lid
2 and/or 3-quart pot with lid
10" frying pan
Large skillet with lid - a skillet is like a frying pan but with higher sides

8" frying pan
12" frying pan - this is good if you're cooking larger quantities
Stovetop griddle

Solid stirring spoon
Slotted spoon
Pancake turner/spatula

Sharp chef's knife (7 or 8-inch, probably)
Paring knife
Serrated knife

Set of measuring cups and spoons
At least one, preferably at least two cutting boards - not teeny tiny ones!
Set of mixing bowls
Baking sheets (aluminum or stainless steel 1/2-sheet pans are great)
Aluminum foil
Paper towels

If you have those basics, you can cook most of the meals I will be describing. Sometimes I'll use a food processor or an immersion blender. Sometimes I'll use the slow cooker. But usually it's a couple of pans on the stovetop.

Now, two staples to get you started.

This is my never-fails-me pasta method. Pasta is a fabulous "I don't feel like cooking" meal to make. It takes about 30 minutes from "I need to make dinner" to "Dinner's ready," and you can keep pasta and jarred sauce on hand at all times for whenever you need it. These are definitely non-perishables that you should have in your pantry for dinner on the fly! To make it healthier, use whole wheat pasta instead of white pasta. You can also easily toss in frozen or canned veggies to up the vitamin and fiber content, or a protein such as cubed tofu, beans, or browned ground beef or vegetarian "beef" to round out this easy meal.

The great thing about pasta is you can make a lot or a little and it takes about the same amount of time. I usually make a package plus half another package for my family of five good eaters. Pasta saves well to use for lunch or leftovers, and you can set aside some plain cooked pasta to use another time for a pasta salad, for example.
  • Take your 6-quart pot and fill with water to within about 2" of the brim. Put the lid on and put it on a burner on HIGH. 

  • When it comes to a rolling boil (bubbling a lot) add a healthy pinch of salt (say, a tablespoon) and pour in your dry pasta. Stir. 

  • Let it boil UNCOVERED for the amount of time specified on the package, usually around 7 or 8 minutes for smaller shapes (elbows, small shells) and 10 to 12 for bigger or thicker shapes (spaghetti, bowties). You should stir the pasta a few times while it cooks to make sure all of it gets cooked evenly and so it doesn't clump together.

  • After the specified time for the pasta is up, take a fork and taste one piece of the pasta to see if it seems cooked through. It should be soft but not mushy, crunchy, or chewy. 
  • Put your colander in an (empty) sink and pour the whole pot slowly into the colander. 

  • Now, here's my method: Put the pot back on the stove while the water drains from the pasta. Turn OFF the burner (you don't want an empty pot sitting on a hot burner). Shake the colander a little to get off most of the water, then put the pasta back in the empty pot. Now you'd add in your sauce, or toss in a pat or two of butter and some Parmesan cheese. 

  • OR: If you want to use the pasta for a cold dish, instead of putting it back in the hot pot, run cold water over it in the colander in the sink, mixing it around, until it's cooled.
To make sauce: 
  • At the same time that the pasta is cooking, take your smaller pot (2 or 3 quart) and empty your jar of pasta sauce into it. (I like Barilla and Trader Joe's marinaras, for a relatively inexpensive suggestion.)
  • Put it on a second burner on MEDIUM to medium-high heat (not all the way up or it will burn). 
  • COVER the sauce pot (tomato sauce splatters) and let it warm up while the pasta cooks, stirring occasionally (every few minutes) so it doesn't burn on the bottom. (Pro-tip, you can use the same stirring spoon for the pasta and the sauce!) 
  • At this point, you can also add in some frozen or canned veggies (frozen peas always work well, for example, or carrots). Another trick is to add in a jar of pureed baby food, like sweet potatoes or carrots. It will blend in with the sauce but still provide some extra nutrients. You can also add white beans or chick peas, tofu, or cooked meat of some kind (we'll talk about meat in another post). 
  • If you want a creamy sauce, you can stir in some half-and-half or milk until the color looks nice, say a quarter to a half a cup. 
  • When the pasta is done and drained, empty the sauce into the pasta in the pot you cooked the pasta in and mix it all together. 
  • Dinner's ready! (If you have picky eaters who don't like sauce on their pasta, obviously you can serve the pasta and sauce separately, but I like to mix it up so the flavor of the sauce gets cooked into the pasta a bit.) 
  • Serve with grated Parmesan cheese for extra yum.

Many people are intimidated by rice. I'm here to take away the mystery. Rice is EASY, and you don't need a rice cooker. Quinoa can be made exactly the same way, incidentally. This method is for plain white rice. You need to know the basic technique to make many of the rice dishes I'll be describing in the future.
  • Take your large pot (6-quart) and put a tablespoon or two of canola, olive, or vegetable oil in the bottom. Turn on the burner to high. Let the oil get hot - wait three or four minutes. 
  • Measure out your rice. One cup is usually enough for three to four people if served alongside additional food. If you're just making rice and serving more people, do 1-1/2 or even 2 cups. Remember, leftover rice is useful, so don't worry if you make more than gets eaten! (Protip: You don't have to use an actual measuring cup for this. You can even just use a juice glass!)
  • When the oil is hot, add the rice to the pot. Season with a couple pinches of salt. Let the rice toast for a couple of minutes, stirring often so it doesn't burn. 
  • When the grains start to turn white (as opposed to pearly or translucent), it's time to add water or broth. You need twice as much liquid as rice. So if you're making one cup of rice, you need two cups of water or broth. If you're making 1-1/2 cups of rice, you need 3 cups of liquid (not that complicated, right?). 
  • Pour in your water or broth and cover the pot. DON'T LEAVE the stove. 
  • As soon as the liquid is bubbling, stir the rice briefly, then put the cover back on and turn the burner down to LOW. 
  • WALK AWAY. Resist the urge to open the pot to check on it. Don't add anything. Don't stir. WALK AWAY for 20 minutes
  • Come back in 20 minutes, open the pot, and you should see that there is no more liquid in the pot and the rice is moist. If there's still liquid, re-cover and leave it for another five minutes. If it's still wet after that long, you may need to turn up the heat a little to boil off the rest of the water.
  • Turn OFF the burner, take a fork and mix the rice up a bit (this is "fluffing" the rice), put the cover back on, and leave it for another three to five minutes. That's it. 
  • (Brown rice is made the same way, but you'll need to leave it for 50 to 60 minutes instead of 20.)

With a plain pot of rice, you can then serve something over it, add stuff to it, fry it, or put it in an airtight container in the fridge to be added to another dish later in the week. Rice has a tendency to dry out in the fridge, so you may need to add some liquid when you rewarm it.

And that's all I have for you for now. We'll get into some other techniques and methods as we go along, such as chopping and sauteing onions, browning tofu, and roasting chicken (one of my favorites).

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Milk Donation: A Personal Story

A couple of days ago, a woman reached out on Facebook to a group I'm a part of. She recently gave birth by c-section and was doing okay until she came down with a MRSA infection in her incision. Her OB tried hard to find a treatment that would be compatible with breastfeeding, but it finally came down to her having to stop breastfeeding for a week so she could take some powerful antibiotics to knock out the infection. She made a plea to our group for help getting her donor milk to feed her baby for the week.

I had been pumping and storing milk here and there and had 24 ounces in my freezer that was on the edge of needing to be thrown away. Milk is good in the freezer for about 4 to 6 months, depending on how cold the freezer is, and most of the milk was pumped in December and January. It is now mid-March. I told her, if she wanted, I could ship her the 24 ounces. Better her son drinks it than I throw it away!! And my son doesn't want or need it. That amount should be enough for a day, or most of a day, and several other women local to her also immediately offered what they had. Another friend offered to go pick up all the milk that was offered and bring it to this woman's house. I hope she was able to gather enough donated milk to cover her for the week. I wish I had more to give. I did try to pump some more yesterday but was only able to produce 2 additional ounces with such short notice.

I'm 500 miles away, so I had to ship my milk to her. I've shipped milk once before, when my second son was a baby, across country from California to Florida. The key to shipping milk is that you get it there as quickly as possible, within 24 hours of leaving the freezer, so even if it defrosts on the way, it can still be used at its destination as long as it's been kept cold. Now, you can go all out and use dry ice to really keep it frozen, much they way steaks are shipped, but if you don't have access to dry ice or it's too much hassle, it can be done with stuff you have at home.

Milk donation is an informal arrangement, but you can make certain agreements with your recipient if you want. It's common courtesy for the recipient to ship back any supplies that are reusable (cooler, ice pack) or to pay for anything consumable you need to purchase (if you want them to, such as storage bags and the cost of shipping), but you can make that arrangement with your donee however you see fit and depending on the amount you're shipping, whether it's a recurring agreement (i.e., you'll send milk every month or whatever), and what your and their financial situation is like.

For packing and shipping, you can purchase an inexpensive foam cooler (about $6 - usually either in the freezer section or beverage section of your grocery store) and a few blue-ice packs, like what you'd use to keep a lunch cold. If you'll be doing this regularly, you may want to invest in something sturdier and more insulated, but for a one-time donation, a cheap one will do just fine. Make sure everything is frozen solid and pack it up just when you're ready to leave for the Post Office or UPS store or wherever you're shipping it from. I am shipping such a small amount this time that I didn't want to buy a big 28-gallon cooler, so I found a smaller insulated bag ($4, meant for keeping beer or soda cans cold) to use instead. As long as it closes up all the way around, it should be fine. Remember that most cooler bags are designed to keep food cold for 18 to 24 hours with ice packs, and since the milk is starting out frozen, it should still be cold when it arrives the next day. I also stuck the cooler bag in the freezer for an hour or so before I packed everything so the air inside the bag would start out cold. Cold cold cold!

 Put the ice packs at the bottom, sides, and top of the cooler and the milk in the middle. Remember heat transfer will be highest at the outside, while the inner-most parts will stay coldest; you want the ice packs to melt before the milk! Fill in any empty space with newspaper for additional insulation - you want as little air as possible to minimize heat transfer. Find a box that the cooler fits inside with just a little room around it. Pack the space between the cooler and the box with more newspaper.

Then, take it to the shipping location and ship it OVERNIGHT, not two-day. It needs to get there as fast as possible. Make sure the recipient knows it's coming so she can bring it inside and get it on ice again as soon as possible. When I shipped my milk to Florida, the UPS guy didn't ring her bell and it sat on her front porch for several hours in the Florida sun. The milk was still cold and usable, but the milk at the outside of the pile was defrosted and needed to be used immediately. She was able to refreeze the rest, thankfully. I felt terrible that she didn't know right away that it had been delivered!

My attempt this time around was a bit of an improvisation, because despite visiting three stores with my kids in tow the day before sending the milk, I couldn't find appropriate ice packs (?!?!), so I didn't have time to freeze any additional ones before I shipped the milk. I did have ice in the freezer, so I packed that in Ziploc bags along with the two ice packs I did find, and I prayed that it would stay cold enough. I'd rather overdo it with the ice than have the milk spoil on the way!

I shipped it UPS overnight. They have options for end-of-day, 10:30a.m., and 8:00a.m. I wanted to make sure it got there by the 24-hour mark, but the 8:00a.m. delivery was very expensive, so I chose the 10:30. You can also do USPS next day, which is generally less pricey than UPS or FedEx, but I also wanted them to pack the box securely for me, and it was easier for me to use the UPS Store than the Post Office.

I let my recipient know that the package was on its way and gave her the tracking number so she can keep a lookout for it. After delivery, I nervously messaged her on Facebook to find out if it had arrived safely, and she responded that it had. What a relief!

I'm so happy that my milk found a good home. I was unhappy about having to throw it away, but despite my intent when he was born, I was not good about offering a bottle to Baby Y often, and he won't drink from one. Donating milk is a wonderful way to help another family out, and it was very fulfilling for me to be able to do that again. Of course, donating to someone local, where you just have to drive the milk over to them or have them come pick it up, is much more convenient and better for long-term donation agreements or one-time bulk donations, but if you know someone in need who is far away, it's great to be able to ship milk.

Have you ever donated milk or nursed someone else's baby? Have you been the recipient of donor milk? Tell us about your experience in the comments!

Friday, March 21, 2014

New Feature on the Blog: Quick Weeknight Dinners, or What Did I Make Tonight?

Let's face it, getting a good meal on the table on a weekday evening is hard. Coming up with new and interesting dishes to make, finding the time and inclination to cook, serving dinner at a reasonable hour so the kids can get to bed, and making food that everyone is willing to eat are constant challenges.

I take some pride in my ability to put a tasty, home-cooked dinner on the table several nights a week. It usually takes me under an hour to prepare and serve a weeknight meal, and it's usually cooked on the fly, without planning ahead and without a recipe. I have a few basic techniques and styles that I then spin out variations on, depending on my mood and what's available in the house.

In order for this to work, I make sure I always have certain ingredients available so that I can whip up a quick dinner. These may include (but are not limited to):

Israeli couscous

Boneless, skinless chicken breast
Cut up whole chicken and/or leg quarters and breasts
Fake (vegetarian) ground beef
Canned beans
Canned tuna

Frozen corn
Frozen peas
Canned tomatoes
Fresh tomatoes

Sauces and Condiments:
Soy sauce
Marinara/tomato sauce
Salad dressing
Barbecue sauce

Spices, etc.:
Rice vinegar
Curry powder
Garlic powder
Ground ginger
Smoked paprika
White sugar
Brown sugar
Vegetarian powdered soup base

Olive oil
Canola oil
Sesame oil
Corn starch
Shredded cheese

The way I'd describe this list is, "If I run out of this, I absolutely must refill or restock it as soon as possible," as opposed to "Things that are nice to have around if I'm making something specific." If I have most of the things above, I can put something together without much difficulty. (This is not all I have in my kitchen - we also have breakfast and lunch stuff, snacks, fruit, etc., but we're talking about dinner staples specifically here, so this list is specific to that topic.)

I should note that we do in fact eat vegetables other than what's on this list (we belong to a CSA and get a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits every week), that I acknowledge that some of these dishes may not be extremely healthy, but they're all home cooked and use as few processed ingredients as possible, and I do my best to include a starch, vegetable, and protein in every dinner.

I also want to reiterate that these are styles and techniques that I play around with. You don't have to stick to my "recipe." Rather, I hope to give you some ideas about how to use the foods you have lying around, ways to get dinner for you and your family on the table quickly, and some confidence in the kitchen cooking without a recipe. I rarely actually measure how much of anything I'm using, unless I'm trying out a new seasoning mix or flavor combination. I also rarely end up making exactly the same thing twice! Feel free to substitute your own proteins for mine, add or subtract to your taste, and put new twists on my tried-and-true basics. Many of these dishes can probably easily be modified to fit certain dietary restrictions. All of them are kosher, often dairy, and many are vegetarian or even vegan (or easily modified to be vegetarian/vegan).