Can You Juice Without a Juicer?

Carrot cake juice shotsWhy am I asking this question? It’s the night before Halloween. Surely there are more important things for me to be thinking about – especially since I have very little interest, generally, in “juicing.” I’ve tried it once or twice, and it’s not necessarily something that has amazed me to the point of wanting an actual juicer so I can do it all the time. So what’s got me thinking about juice tonight?

Well….when the people at Williams-Sonoma ask you to juice something, you juice.

I got an email a few days ago from the team over at Williams-Sonoma, which — by the way — is one of my favorite unattainable guilty pleasure stores in the culinary universe. I drool over their catalogs, especially during the holiday season. I sometimes take a leisurely, wistful stroll through their beautiful store, which is very close to my house….and yet, for my budget, so far away. So an email from the Williams-Sonoma people was a delightful little thrill for me. While OBVIOUSLY I was hoping they’d be offering me an all-expenses paid trip to Tuscany for cooking classes, or a shopping spree in their store, this is reality. Instead, they were asking me to participate in a challenge. A juice challenge.

The concept was to draw inspiration from a favorite dessert, then turn that into a sweet but healthy juice recipe. I worked up the nerve to ask whether I needed a juicer to, um, juice something….but fortunately, the answer was no. Figuring that it couldn’t be a total disaster, I thought that if I could come up with an idea, then why not go for it?

An idea, as it turns out, was not the hard part. Hence, this recipe for Carrot Cake Juice Shots, which I topped with a thickened cinnamon yogurt in order to represent what we all know to be the very best part of a carrot cake: the icing.

You know, it’s not ACTUALLY carrot cake, but it’s a pretty good little drink if you want to toss back something on the sweet side. If you’re up for a juicer-less juice project, give it a shot (pun totally intended).

Get the recipe:
“Carrot Cake” Juice Shots

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Help for the Holidays: More Joy, Less Stress is Back!

morejoylessstressGood morning!

It’s a Friday in October and it’s not even Halloween. Heck, right now it’s not even cold in New England – we’re at the end of a four-day heat wave that has me opening windows and donning T-shirts when I should be wearing slippers and cozying up to a hot cocoa. But still, despite the fickle weather and the date on the calendar, I’m thinking about the holidays!

I know it seems early….and believe me, I’m just as annoyed as the next person at retailers who have decked their halls already. The thing is, though, as J. said the other day: “The reason I think I love Halloween so much is that once it’s over, all the good stuff starts!” He’s right. Halloween rushes into Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving rushes into the winter holidays, and before you know it, it’s hello, New Year. That’s why it’s so important to be organized and to plan well for every aspect of what’s coming, from easy entertaining menus to keeping decorations organized, figuring out practical homemade gifts, and preparing for out of town guests (or your own travel) without losing your mind.

Last year, I teamed up with my friend Bonnie from The Joyful Organizer to create a 12-week newsletter series with online support for all of these holiday prep issues, and more. We got wonderful feedback from the participants and are excited to announce that this year, we’re offering “More Joy, Less Stress: A Holiday Survival Guide” as a single, downloadable e-guide. You’ll still get the same great tips, tricks, recipes, and gift guides we offered with our personal support last year, but in a streamlined single-volume format.

The chapters in “More Joy, Less Stress” include:
Holiday Budgeting
Preparing Your Home
Party Planning
Time Management
Holiday Cards
A Clutter-Free Gift Guide
Cookie Swaps
Holiday Houseguests
Decoration Organization
Dealing with Holiday Stress
Holiday Travel
DIY Gifts

The guide also includes a full menu that’s perfect for Christmas Day, from a crowd-pleasing brunch to a simple but elegant dinner, with tips to help you take advantage of advance prep so you spend less of the day in the kitchen and more of it enjoying family and friends.

This year, the single-download version of the guide is available at the Early Bird rate of $5. Enjoy!



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Monday Menus: Sunday Dinner on an Anyday Budget

Budget-Friendly Sunday DinnerSunday dinner is sort of a thing in our house.

It’s not a tablecloth-and-wedding-china kind of thing, though years ago when J. and I were first married, I did make an effort to bring out the nicer stuff once a week just so all those pretty wedding gifts could see the light of day for a change. Having kids sort of changed that particular rhythm, but still, I try to stick to the principle that a Sunday dinner is a slightly different animal than its six siblings. Gathering for a meal on the last night of the precious weekend is my chance to transition us all well from the fun (and often hectic) “days off” we’ve had, back into the weekday routines of school and work. It’s the meal I have usually had the most time to prepare, the one where I can offer myself the luxury of a lengthy braise or a multi-step recipe. It’s the one that sets the tone for the week ahead.

For us, it’s generally a positive experience – this gathering around the worn oak table with the prospect of early wake-up times and homework folders and work deadlines looming in the back of our minds while we try to ignore all those realities and cling to the last precious moments of the weekend. But it may not be so for every family. For some people I know, the mere words “Sunday dinner” conjure sweaty palms. Sunday dinner feels, to them, like a lot of PRESSURE. Dinner that just happens to be on Sunday? No big thing. SUNDAY DINNER? Panic. The images that come to mind are often elaborate, multi-course meals, lots of family, starched tablecloths, big roasts. It can all seem so unattainable, so hard.

And yet Sunday dinner doesn’t have to be that way. It can just be a re-settling, a moment of calm before the storm of the week. It doesn’t have to be fancy; any old thing your family likes to eat is fine. But if, like me, you want to serve something a little more “traditionally” Sunday-ish, it also doesn’t have to be incredibly gourmet or incredibly expensive. As much as I loved my grandmother’s crown roast of pork when I was a kid at her Sunday table, I’m not serving crown roast on the average day to my family!

Fortunately, it’s easier than you might think to make a budget-friendly Sunday dinner with those special, homey touches that help it to stand out from the regular weekday fare. The extra time many of us have on the weekends means we can roast meats on the bone, tenderize cheaper cuts with long cooking times, give casseroles and baked dishes their lingering due in the oven, or devote some patience and attention to layering flavors step-by-step in a proper stew. You can even, on a Sunday, use a typically “weeknight” ingredient like cost-effective ground meat to make something with a little extra flair.

That’s what this menu is all about: Taking ground meat and the most humble of basic vegetables – potatoes and carrots – and making them into a dinner that’s worthy of a special place in the meal rotation. This riff on the classic Salisbury steak and potatoes is a homey throwback to the old idyllic family dinner, with just a few updates to keep it from feeling full-on 1950s. The concept is family-friendly, while the flavors have just enough pizazz to be appropriate for guests, too. And since the whole meal is naturally gluten-and-nut-free, it’s a safe choice for many with food allergies, too.

The menu:
“Salisbury” Lamb Patties with Balsamic Gravy
Crispy Parmesan Smashed Potatoes
Glazed Carrots

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October 2014 Meal Plan: The Heat is On

No, really, the heat is on. Or it could have been, but I restrained myself from touching the dial. It is COLD today in Rhode Island.

Funny how this happens almost every year, and yet I’m never really quite prepared for it — we’ll have some crazy couple of days where the temperature spikes up into the 80′s, a last gasp of summer, and then all of a sudden the whole thing comes plummeting down into a wet, chilly, windy, shivery mess. Fall has arrived in New England with a vengeance. There are still those last tomatoes on the farmstands, sharing space with the pumpkins. Apples and peaches and raspberries enjoy a brief few weeks of cohabitation before it’s all cider and MacIntoshes and farmers talking about “wintering over.” Soon every vegetable on our table will be white, dark orange, or dark and leafy green. The next time I write a meal plan, we’ll all be thinking about our Thanksgiving tables. Too fast. It’s all too fast.

So as I sit here with my cold hands, fuzzy slippers on, resisting the urge to touch the thermostat, the meal plan is taking its own decidedly fall-ish turn. I would love to still be thinking of salads and cold suppers and things we can eat with our hands while we’re still wrapped in towels from the beach, but This Is Not That Meal Plan. It’s the one where I admit it’s time for soup and comfort food, and I get on with it already.

WEEK ONE:

10/1: Lemon-butter chicken cutlets, mashed potatoes, carrots
10/2: Spaghetti with peas and pancetta
Make it GF :Use your favorite gluten-free pasta
10/3: Fend night/Kids Cook
10/4: Apple cider braised chicken with greens
Basic meatballs10/5: Spaghetti and meatballs
Make it GF :Use your favorite gluten-free pasta or serve the meatballs in sauce alongside roasted vegetables
10/6: Slow cooker: Chicken and lentil soup, apple soda bread
Make it GF: Omit the bread and serve with sliced apples and cheese instead
10/7: Fajitas
Make it GF: Use corn tortillas or make fajita salads

WEEK TWO:

10/8: Sesame chicken skillet with root vegetables, rice
10/9: Breakfast for dinner
10/10: Fend night/Kids cook
10/11: Chicken nuggets and vegetables
10/12: Roast lamb, pita and vegetables
Make it GF: Omit the pita and serve with crisp potatoes instead
10/13: Butternut squash soup and grilled cheese sandwichesButternut Squash Soup
Make it GF: Serve cheese quesadillas on corn tortillas, or serve salads or deli meat roll-ups
10/14: Autumn stir-fry with “cheater” scallion pancakes
Make it GF: Toss the stir-fry with rice or rice noodles instead of using the scallion pancakes

WEEK THREE:

10/15: Chicken nugget parmigiana and pasta
Make it GF: Use your favorite gluten-free pasta or omit the pasta and serve with roasted broccoli
10/16: Baked rice with sausage and eggplant, salad
10/17: We’ll be enjoying a dinner with friends!
10/18: Steak and potatoes, salad
10/19: Sunday roast chicken dinner
10/20: Meatball subs
Make it GF: Serve the meatballs over spaghetti squash, or make stuffed baked potatoes
10/21: Spaghetti with beets and goat cheese
Make it GF: Use your favorite gluten-free pasta

spaghetti with beets

WEEK FOUR:

10/22: Chicken pot pie with pumpkin biscuits
Make it GF: Omit the biscuits and serve the pot pie filling over rice
10/23: Slow cooker – Maple turkey breast
10/24: Fend night/kids cook
10/25: Chicken enchiladas
10/26: Pappardelle with classic bolognese ragu
Make it GF: Use your favorite gluten-free pasta
10/27: Tortellini and vegetable soup and garlic bread
Make it GF: Omit the tortellini from the soup and add lentils or beans instead; serve cheese fricos instead of garlic bread
cheeseburger10/28: Cheeseburgers, sweet potato fries, and fruit
Make it GF: Serve the burgers without buns

WEEK FIVE:

10/29: Balsamic chicken and rice
10/30: Slow cooker — ribs and cornbread
Make it GF: Use masa harina in place of any flour in the cornbread recipe
10/31: Halloween! The boys have requested their usual pre-trick-or-treat dinner: “Mummy dogs” and pumpkin soup.

 

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What Matters

First day of school photoToday I had ample opportunity to think about the things that matter.

Yesterday felt like The Day of Crap News About Feeding Families. There was the ongoing internet dust-up over whether home cooking and family dinner really are soul-sucking drudgery that serve little purpose other than to oppress women. There was the news that Annie’s Organics has sold out to General Mills. Food people everywhere were grouchy. I was grouchy along with them.

This morning I woke up and I thought, well, today we’ll continue discussing how feminism and cooking don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and how sometimes things are hard but you do them anyway. Then we’ll move on to gnaw the bones of the old “Big Food Organics” carcass and lament how snacktime salvation in the guise of bunny-shaped everything will no longer be an option for many families who prefer to vote with their food dollars. Some opposing viewpoints will be raised. We’ll debate and discuss. The sun will shine. It will all feel very weighty and important and it will matter.

I carried that impression of how today would go, while I was pouring waffle batter into the hot iron, rousing sleepy kids, pre-heating thermos containers, packing lunches. I slipped soup and muffins and classroom snacks into soft-sided lunchboxes emblazoned with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Rabbids from “Rabbids Invasion.” I filled the new water bottles I had to hastily pick up at CVS last night, after the boys had lost their old stainless ones, and I inwardly gnashed my teeth over the fact that CVS only had plastic ones and was BPA-free really reassurance enough for me? I slipped backpack straps over little shoulders clad in matching navy-blue cotton gym T-shirts. I walked my boys to school.

We met a neighbor at the crosswalk down the street, walking her kindergartener, too. She waited for us before she pressed the button for the light. While our three little boys ran ahead, she asked if I’d seen the email. I’m not tech-functional before 8 a.m., so no, I hadn’t. When she passed me her phone I saw the word “police.”

They were at the school. Our school. Someone had threatened something terrible, and our kids would be kept safe today by a police presence. At our school. Somebody had made a list of all the people he wanted to shoot and kill. At our school.

“It’s probably just a disgruntled teenager playing a prank,” I said, or something like it. My neighbor nodded. We made reassuring noises to each other as we called ahead to the sprinting five-year-olds whose big, big backpacks rattled against their little pumping legs. Slow down, we said. Wait for us, we said. Watch for cars, we said. Safety first.

The eight-year-old bounced along beside us, too cool to run with the little boys, not too cool to occasionally and quietly reach for my hand. We talked about his teacher and how much he likes second grade. Walking our boys to school.

When we dropped them off in the schoolyard we couldn’t see the cops at the front of the building. The kids had no idea that anything was different. They didn’t understand why we hugged them a little more tightly than usual, why we called them back for one more, why we showered their faces with kisses and kept them next to us for just a few extra seconds while they squirmed, eager to get back in line with their friends. I watched them walk away from me, shouldering their backpacks, and I had a moment where I thought about the things inside those bags and what if today was the last day that I would sign their homework folders, slip their water bottles into the side carry pouches, and pack those carefully chosen lunches? If today’s lunches were the last ones I’d ever pack, were they good enough?

It’s a stupid thought. I packed the lunches; that’s good enough. Of course. But something about thinking that this might be the last one, and you went about your business blissfully unaware, something about that thought makes the lunch far more important. I think it’s because the lunch is the thing that you can control.

When L. was in Pre-K, he did a Valentine’s Day project that required him to talk about the ways he knew that various people in his life loved him. He said, “My Mommy really loves me because she always packs me a healthy lunch.” It’s not that in our house Food Is Love, per se, as in “I love you so much, here’s another cookie.” But is food – lunch, dinner, whatever – a tool in my love kit? Sure it is. I put a lot of thought and sometimes a decent amount of effort into feeding my family, not because I want to be THAT MOM or because I feel morally superior to anybody else or because, as someone once intimated, I enjoy putting photos on the internet so that I can feel good about myself. No, I think about these things because I love my family and feeding them well so they can stay healthy is one of the ways that I show that love.

In those backpacks there were thermoses of homemade soup, muffins in the shape of Mickey Mouse, crackers with sunbutter and jam. There were homework assignments I’d supervised and water bottles I’d worried over. There was love, tangible and intangible, stuffed into folders and containers and strapped to the backs of my two hearts walking around outside of my body.

Going to school.

I am not cranky about Annie’s Organics or about home cooking and feminism anymore.

These things matter, yes. They matter because our love for our families is shown through the care that we take, and sometimes our best efforts to buy the “right” cheese crackers or pack the “best” lunch are the only way that we have to send our loved ones out into the world with a mark of our feelings for them, as if bento containers of Mickey Mouse muffins are like ashes on the forehead or lipstick kisses on the cheek – a mark of something sacred and protective to watch over them when we can’t be there. Sometimes welcoming them home with a warm dinner on the old chipped plates they’ll remember when they’re grown is the only way to tell them that we are here for them when their ears aren’t ready to receive the affectionate words of tiresome grown-ups. So, because sometimes food is part of the vocabulary of our love languages, we assign it import and we let it matter. And it does.
But it matters only, and properly, in context.

Tomorrow I will wake up and have the privilege of packing another day’s worth of lunches, and deciding what items I will pack and which companies I will support with my dollars. I will end the day with a meal around the table with my children, who may very well complain that they don’t like what I’ve served, and I may be tired and annoyed by the whole process of cooking and serving and child-wrangling and cleaning up. I will have those experiences. I will be honored with another day, more meals to prepare, to do with as I choose.

Which matters. And it’s really the only thing.

 

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Monday Menus: Fake-Out Fried Chicken

Oven fried chickenFried chicken is a quintessential picnic food, isn’t it?

And yet….picnics make me think of summer (though a nice autumn picnic is nothing to sneeze at). Summer makes me think of heat, at least on a day like today, when the mercury was well into the upper 80s here in Rhode Island and the humidity was about as oppressive as having a huge wet sheepdog lying across your back. And the last thing I want to be doing, when it’s hot outside, is standing over a vat of oil frying ANYTHING.

Of course, it’s not just the frying and the heat that are issues when it comes to fried chicken; it’s the fussiness of it all. Most recipes call for dipping in egg washes, rolling in flours, sometimes doing two or three different coatings…by the end of it I usually feel like there isn’t a piece of chicken in the world that’s worth the aggravation. Yes, fried chicken is good, but somehow it’s never quite good enough, if you know what I mean. I hate to be left with piles of dishes and an oil-splattered kitchen for something that doesn’t completely knock my socks off. So if I could come up with a way to re-make fried chicken that would be less of a hassle, more appealing to make on a hot day, and still deliver some crunchy tastiness to the table, I was determined to find it.

This method isn’t technically “frying,” but J. and the boys agreed that if I hadn’t told them I was baking the chicken, they wouldn’t have known the difference. Using a well-oiled baking sheet in a hot oven still gives you that nice crunchy crust to sink your teeth into, without the fuss of standing over a hot stove and dealing with spatters of oil careening all over the place. It’s also a much easier way to deal with the question of breading, since the marinade that tenderizes the chicken doubles as the “glue” to hold the coating onto the drumsticks. I added the tiny special touch of rosemary lemon salt at the end just to give the chicken a little more personality; for me, fried chicken always needs a little something to boost the flavor. You could leave it off, but it’s an easy flourish that makes a big difference.

The end result is chicken that’s easy enough to make even on a weeknight, but still delivers the same tender, crispy experience you expect out of fried chicken. I’m sure for some people, nothing but the “real” thing will do, but for us, this is a fake-out that works just as well as the original concept. Try it and see what you think; if you’ve never oven-fried chicken before, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Get the Recipe: Oven-Fried Chicken with Rosemary Lemon Salt

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September 2014 Meal Plan: We Now Return to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

Seriously. You guys. It’s September. (Well, ALMOST.) And I never even posted the meal plan for August!

I had one. You know I had one. I can’t function without a meal plan. But, well, AUGUST. It was a month of constant revisions. Plans cropping up at the last minute. Things changing from day to day. Getting one camp schedule nailed and conquered by Wednesday, only to have it change with a new camp and a new routine the next Monday. Comings and goings and bonfires and beach trips and fairs and picnics and parties and….!

But now it’s September (almost), and the boys are back in school — have been for three days now. Aside from the unusual exhaustion that comes with those first few days back, when their little bodies and brains are adjusting to long days filled with rules and expectations and academics again, they’re thriving in Kindergarten and 2nd grade. I’m getting used to the school-year schedule again, and thriving on that, too — the predictability of knowing that this is how things will be for quite some time now, and being able to plot things out on the calendar weeks or months ahead with relative certainty. Phew. Routine.

Which, of course, brings us to the meal plan! It’s done. It’s firm, as much as any meal plan ever can be. And it’s just what I needed after a whirlwind of a summer!

WEEK ONE:
9/1: Labor Day! Oven-fried chicken, tahini coleslaw, and whatever delights come in our CSA basket.
Make it GF: Crust chicken with almond, cashew, or pistachio meal, or use crushed organic cornflakes!
9/2: First night back to choral rehearsals for the upcoming season. Slow cooker — Mom’s Meat Sauce over pasta, salad
Make it GF: Use your favorite gluten-free pasta brand (we like Jovial and Tinkyada)
9/3: Dinner crepes with a variety of fillings
Make it GF: Use my gluten-free crepe recipe!
Grilled Citrus Chicken
9/4: Grilled citrus chicken, vegetables
9/5: Fend night/Kids cook
9/6: Fresh seafood from the farmer’s market
9/7: Sunday roast chicken dinner

 

 

 

WEEK TWO:
9/8: Roasted tomato and pepper soupRoasted red pepper soup
9/9: Buffalo-style lettuce wraps
9/10: Open House night at the kids’ school! I’ll have chicken spring rolls made ahead of time so we can stay on schedule.
Make it GF: If you can’t get your hands on gluten-free wrappers, use rice paper wraps instead and make summer rolls
9/11: Having dinner with family!
9/12: Fend night/Kids cook
9/13: Dinner out!
9/14: Italian Wedding Soup

WEEK THREE:

9/15: Spaghetti with pesto, salad
Make it GF: Use your favorite gluten-free pasta brand
9/16: Slow cooker — Sticky chicken, rice and vegetables
Pepperoni-Spinach Calzones9/17: Pepperoni and spinach calzones
Make it GF: If you don’t have a favorite gluten-free pizza dough substitute, use the filling to stuff portobello mushroom caps or zucchini, cover with sauce, and bake
9/18: Cobb Casserole
9/19: Fend night/Kids cook
9/20: No-Fuss Chicken, vegetables
9/21: Lasagna
Make it GF: Use gluten-free lasagna noodles, or substitute slices of eggplant or zucchini

WEEK FOUR:

9/22: Vegetable fried rice and miso soup
9/23: Monte Cristo sandwiches, fruit
Make it GF:
Use the same ingredients, but make them into an omelet or egg scramble instead!
9/24: Skillet honey-mustard chicken, vegetables
9/25: School fundraiser night, catered by a local restaurant
9/26: Fend night/Kids cook
9/27: Local seafood from the farmer’s market
9/28: Baked spaghetti with chicken and peppersbaked spaghetti with chicken
Make it GF: You could either use GF pasta, or omit the pasta and bake the chicken with peppers, capers, and marinara sauce

WEEK FIVE:

9/29: Baked eggs with tomato and cheese, zucchini-rye biscuits
Make it GF: Use almond flour and cornmeal in a 50-50 blend in place of rye flour
9/30: Slow cooker — Sloppy joes, sweet potato fries, fruit
Make it GF: Ladle the sloppy joe filling over the sweet potato fries for a fun twist on chili fries (cheese optional!)

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Flash Sale! 50% off “Back to School the Organized Way”

Don't these look good?  Get the recipe!

Don’t these look good? Get the recipe!

Big News!

You’ve probably already heard about the fantastic back-to-school organizing guide I put together with my friend Bonnie from The Joyful Organizer.  To recap, it’s a downloadable e-guide with over 100 pages of amazingly helpful content.  In its pages, you’ll find a complete guide to getting your family super-organized for the school year, including:

  • Tips and tricks for organizing back-to-school shopping and kids’ closets
  • Chore charts and ideas for getting the kids involved in staying organized throughout the year
  • Recipes and plans to make 60 school lunches and 14 family dinners — all freezer-friendly, easy to make, and ready when you are!
  • 12 weeks’ worth of school lunch packing menus
  • AND…every recipe and idea in the guide is easily customizable for both vegetarian and gluten-free diets (and we’ll tell you how)!

For a limited time only, we’re offering you 50% off the guide.  That means you get all that content for only $5!  The offer will be good until noon Eastern time on Monday, August 18, so don’t wait!  Use the button below to get your guide now.

Please note: This promotion is no longer valid. However, you can still purchase the “Back to School, The Organized Way” guide for its original price of $10, using the button below.





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Book Review: “Larvie Learns a Lesson”

larvieI was recently approached by a clinic called BMI of Texas, asking if I’d read and review a children’s book the doctors in the practice had written to help young patients and their families. The entire idea of a doctor’s office having written their own children’s book was, I have to say, somewhat intriguing to me. I’ve heard of many pediatricians and medical specialists recommending various books to their younger patients and their parents, but it’s not often that I hear about a medical practice actually taking matters into their own hands to write one themselves. I was intrigued enough to say yes, and “Larvie Learns a Lesson” arrived at my front door.

Before I can review the book, I think it’s important to give you a little bit of background on the practice itself and how the project came to be; in this case, context is everything. BMI of Texas is a medical weight-management practice. They specialize in bariatric surgery, but they have a strong focus on nutrition and health counseling – in other words, they’d prefer to help patients adopt healthy habits and help them manage their weight non-surgically, and try to provide resources to that end. In what I can only guess was a move geared towards preventing future surgical patients, the doctors in the group decided to write a children’s book that they could distribute, giving kids a simple framework for healthy habits.

“Larvie Learns a Lesson” is a short, colorful, direct read — and kid-approved by my five-year-old, which is certainly as important as anything else I might have to say about it! There’s no doubt, when you flip through its pages, that this is a children’s story written through the lens of doctors who see the troubling effects of obesity – at every age – on a daily basis. It’s the story of a young caterpillar whose parents feed him healthy fruits and vegetables at mealtimes to help him grow strong, so he’ll one day be able to spin his cocoon. However, as Larvie grows up, he starts to see lots of advertisements on television for foods that his parents haven’t given him. Assuming that the chips, crackers, cookies, sodas, and other junk items are good for him because he sees them advertised during his favorite shows, Larvie begins to eat these commercial foods, and soon grows fat and unhealthy. The book tells us that he’s short of breath and he can’t run and play as well as he used to. Larvie worries that he won’t be able to spin his cocoon.

At this point, Larvie’s parents take him to the doctor, who finds that Larvie is obese and has diabetes. The doctor tells Larvie that he needs to stop eating junk food and start exercising more. Larvie does, and soon he’s thin and fit again. He spins his cocoon and emerges from it a strong, beautiful butterfly.

Where “Larvie Learns a Lesson” succeeds is in its simplicity and focus on the way certain events impact Larvie himself – for example, Larvie’s worries begin when he feels that he can’t keep up with his friends at school while he’s playing. That’s a much more concrete way to explain the effects of obesity to kids than talking about blood sugar. It also gets a gold star from me for tackling the concept of direct junk food marketing to kids. As a basic educational tool that shows simple correlations between eating too much junk food and not being fully healthy, “Larvie” is fairly effective.

My feeling, though, is that “Larvie” probably belongs within its proper context: As a tool for children and families who are struggling with severe weight issues or are at a high risk for such issues, delivered with clinical or educational support. Outside of that context, I think it’s a story that may be right for some families, but not for all.

One thing I worry about: If kids who are struggling with their weight read “Larvie,” they may feel that it’s normal – expected, even – to drop a significant number of pounds by making healthier choices. In reality, that may not happen for every child, and certainly not as quickly as it does for Larvie. Would a child expecting a perfect, happy ending become discouraged or feel that there’s something wrong with them if they failed to realize their weight loss dreams? On the flip side of the issue, while the book gives a nod to diabetes at Larvie’s checkup, it seems to imply that obesity is the major danger in eating a diet heavy in junk food. That, to me, is a bit worrisome, as it plays right into the hands of a major challenge faced by parents and activists who lobby for healthier diets for children: “But my kid’s not fat!” seems to be a rallying cry for many adults, and “Larvie” does little to dispel the myth that thin = healthy and overweight by any measure = unhealthy, no matter what your habits.

Overall, though, I applaud the efforts of the BMI of Texas group. They saw a need in their immediate community, and they addressed it; whether it’s as nuanced as I think it could be or not, it’s clearly a timely and relevant tale for the population they’re working with, and has the sort of simple and straightforward messaging that appeals to very young children. What I’d like to see next is more doctors, and more people who work directly with kids and families, expanding on the initiative that “Larvie” has started to bring more balance, nuance, and greater educational value to the conversation for all families – obese or not.

If you’re curious to read “Larvie Learns a Lesson” for yourself, you can get a copy, either in paperback or Kindle format, through Amazon.

Thanks to the folks at BMI of Texas for providing me with a complimentary copy for review!

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Five Quick Ways to Stay Organized for School Lunch

Turkey rollup lunch v.4It’s back-to-school season! I know some people around the country already have kids back in school; others are starting this week; and others, like my boys, will be going back in a couple of weeks’ time (major jealousy, by the way, for those lucky enough to wait for a post-Labor-Day start). Whether you’re in full-on organizing mode right now, just getting started (maybe, ahem, with the help of my handy back to school guide?), or already in the swing of things and hoping you can keep it up, the task of staying on top of school lunches and snacks probably looks something like this for most people:

Step One: Get your game face on. This year, snacks and lunches are going to be AWESOME. And effortless. You laugh in the face of lunch ruts.
Step Two: Stock up on some stuff. Plan for amazing first-day (or first-week) lunches. Buy or make all the kids’ favorites for snacktime. Congratulate self on being so darned organized.
Step Three: Complete first few days of packing. Rest on laurels. Feel smugly “together.”
Step Four: Life happens. Kids complain. Coffee goes cold while you scramble for sanity in the mornings. Evenings fill up with activities and homework. Somebody eats all the granola. The turkey goes bad. Your inspiration sags. Lunch packing becomes a drag.
Step Five: Pray for summer. Only 162 days to go.

I’m kidding, sort of. But I know as well as anyone that no matter how well-organized you get for back-to-school, there’s a certain amount of MAINTAINING that organization that needs to happen in order to ward off a total lunch-packing slump. Here are some of my favorite easy tips to keep the ball rolling after that first-day triumph:

  1. Be a snack squirrel.  Whenever I see fabulous sale prices on items that make good snacks or lunchbox additions, I buy 2 or more of them at a time.  One goes into the pantry for general use; the others go into a secret location where the children won’t find them, and I won’t be tempted to use them up unless I really need them.  Right now, I’ve got several bags of whole wheat mini-bagels, which were on major sale at Whole Foods for a few weeks in a row, stashed in the chest freezer in the garage.  There are two boxes of Annie’s bunny crackers, a box of Trader Joe’s cereal bars, and a couple of packages of unsweetened applesauce cups shelved in the basement.  I’ll keep adding to these stashes, little by little, one small purchase at a time — and that way, when I start to feel myself reaching the desperation point, I’ll have a well of reserves I can turn to that will help me pull it all back together.
  2. Keep a fallback lunch ready to go.  The fallback lunch is the one you pack when you’re just too tired or stressed to think about anything.  It will not be nutritionally perfect, but it will be better than panic.  I recommend putting the ingredients for the fallback lunch in a box or bag and stashing it on the top shelf of the pantry.  An example might be a box of your family’s favorite approved mac and cheese, a fruit leather or box of raisins, and a granola bar or similar item.  Or you might keep a single-serve pack of crackers, a can of tuna, a cup of applesauce, and trail mix on hand.  On a tough lunch-packing day, you can grab the kit and just follow where it leads.  Bonus points for adding some fruits and vegetables from the fridge, if you’ve got them.
  3. Try an “approved add-ins” bin.  This is an especially good trick for families with multiple children, and for families that want to foster more independence in lunch-packing (and who among us doesn’t?).  In a large bin of your choosing, pack your family’s favorite shelf-stable, nutritious snacks and lunchbox add-ons.  Fruit cups packed in juice or water, nut and seed butters, whole-grain cereals and crackers, fruit leathers, the makings for trail mix, popcorn, and rice cakes are all good choices.  Each day, once the main lunch (and any fresh items you want to add) is packed, the kids can choose from the add-ins bin to round out their meals and pack their own snacks.  Just by keeping an eye on the level in the add-in bin, you’ll know how much grocery shopping you need to do for the week.
  4. Do a “20 minute tune-up” once a week.  Pick a time and schedule it.  This is your moment: Set a timer and get chopping and packaging.  Slice vegetables, portion fruits, make single-serve containers of yogurt with frozen berries or jam or maple syrup stirred in (just not honey — honey left in yogurt makes the yogurt separate. Sad but true).  Cube your cheeses, portion your dips and hummus and salsas.  Whatever you can get done in 20 minutes is FINE.  Don’t push yourself to do more unless you’re dying to.  The point is, you’ll be that much farther ahead for every lunch-packing session during the week, and you’ll know that it’s only 20 minutes of your time that needs to be committed to the effort.  We can all find 20 minutes — even if it’s during commercial breaks.
  5. Set a snack list.  The hardest part of lunch-packing for me is invariably the snacks. I pack a great lunch, feel good about it, and then realize that I’ve forgotten to throw in a snack — and I don’t feel inspired.  The snack list should ideally contain five items in each of three categories: Fresh foods, Freezer foods, and Fair Game foods.  Fresh foods are things like apples or bananas with nut or seed butter, yogurt parfaits, fruit and cheese, veggies with dip, etc.  Freezer foods are make-ahead items that you keep at the ready: Banana bread, mini-muffins, mini-bagels, frozen smoothies.  Fair Game foods are the pantry items you can grab and toss into backpacks, like granola bars, crackers, and popcorn.  Fill out the lists with accepted items in your household, and keep it handy.  Each week when you do the grocery shopping, consult your snack sheet and do a quick check of your inventory to make sure that you have at least three of those snacks on hand, in enough quantity to keep you going for the week.  If not, stock up.  The fifteen snacks you’ve written down, packed in rotation, will be enough variety to keep the kids from getting too bored with their choices, but provide enough structure for you to keep things easy.

Packing a healthy and kid-approved school lunch every day can feel like a huge feat, but with the right organization, some advance planning, and a few simple tips like these, it doesn’t have to be a totally thankless chore.  Try one or two of these ideas this school year, and let me know if they’re a help to you and the lunch-packing routine in your house!

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