Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Menu Planning 101

Meal planning sounds like such a simple, straight-forward concept.  You sit down, you figure out what you're going to fix for the next week or so, make a shopping list, then execute the plan.  Am I the only person struggling with making this work?

Here are some of my struggles:
- Not knowing which nights to plan for - surprises pop up on the schedule at the last minute.
- Not knowing what my energy level will be like every night - when push comes to shove, I may be too tired to execute the plan.
- Entree planning - did I buy the right main dish ingredients?  are they in a mysterious crevasse of my freezer?  have I defrosted?
- Recipe overload - I want to try so many new recipes.  I buy the ingredients for new recipes.  I'm too tired to execute a new recipe.  The recipe doesn't work exactly like I thought it would and needs extra time.
- Kids with opinions of what to eat and when.

Here are some of my weapons:

1) Tool(s) for managing schedules, meal plans, and shopping lists.
You've got to think about what will work best for you and your family. It took us a while to find tools that worked for us.  We started with a magnetic shopping list on the fridge.  It was OK, except when we thought about things to add to the list when we were away from home and couldn't access the list.  Or when one of us would ask the other to add something to the list and we didn't.  Or when I would forget to take the list, or lose it in the cavern I call a purse.

In the mobile age, there are apps that can simplify the portability issues.  It's so much easier to go to the grocery store, pull out my phone, and get to my shopping list and calendar while I'm at the store. But since I'm not the best at typing on my phone (especially when my left hand numbs up), I needed to find an app that could be updated online as well. I'm a lot faster typist on my laptop than my phone.

When my family found Cozi ( - Boom, problems solved.  Hubby and I can both update the calendar and shopping list from our laptops or our phones.  If I forget to charge my phone before going to the store (which happens a time or two), he can pull up the list.  And when Cozi added a meal planner and recipe storage to the app, then it meant one-stop access to the info we needed.

2) Recipe management
I would love to have a neatly organized, easily accessible arsenal of recipes with which I felt comfortable to whip out gourmet meal after gourmet meal without a second thought.  Maybe I'll get there someday.  For now, I need to get myself comfortable with a few old reliables.

I'm a baseball fan, so I think of recipes like I think of pitchers.  On the day of a game, does the manager sort through bios of all active pitchers and call one up to see if he's available that day?  Nope.  A manager has a groups of 10 or so pitchers on his team.  He has 4 or 5 of them set up in a regular rotation to start for him.  When he needs to switch things up, he can bring in a reliever.  And a really good pitching staff has a closer, that go-to pitcher that can get things finished well.

So instead of spending hours pouring over books, magazines, and online databases every few days to pick the meal, I'm starting by building up a solid bunch of regulars.  I'm putting together a basic rotation of chicken, pork, beef, etc. recipes that I can rotate.  My kids won't be bummed because they know they liked the recipes before, and it keeps me in focus.

3) Bulking up
There are some people out there who cook once a month, label them with descriptions and cooking instructions, and then just pull things out as the month goes.  I don't have the energy or lifestyle to spend an entire day cooking, but there are still ways to bulk up even if you're not ready to go a month at a time.

- Buy meat in bulk to stock up the freezer.  I'll go to the nearby warehouse store and buy large packages of chicken breasts, pork chops, etc. and put some in the freezer when I get home.  This is also a good way to take advantage of really good sales at the grocery store, like when my grocery store will have a buy 1, get 2 free deal or a huge price discount on something we like.  I have a vacuum sealer, so I can split up big packs and make smaller portions to freeze.  Example: There are 4 people in my family, and I buy a pack of 8 pork chops, so I can pull 4 of them out and freeze them in my vacuum sealed bag.

- Try a make-ahead meal.  You may not be up to doing a whole month's cooking in a day, but there are plenty of easy make-ahead meals that you can prep and then freeze until you're ready to use them.  You can find recipes online by searching recipe databases for once-a-month or make ahead cooking.   There are also books that specialize in make-ahead recipes, like Make-Ahead Meals Made Healthy by Michele Borboa.

- Make a party-size recipe to divide and conquer.  My church cookbook has a recipe for spaghetti sauce that serves 25.  I rarely have enough folks around to use all of the sauce in one meal.  But it's an easy recipe that my kids love, so I make it, serve some on the day I make it, then freeze the remaining portions so I can pull them out as I need them. If you'd like to do this with regular recipes, you could just double the recipe and then freeze half of what you make.

4) Your freezer is not a black hole
My sister laughed at me when she found out I made a freezer inventory.  When I had the inventory, planning was a lot easier because I knew what I had and whether it was still good to serve.  When I stopped keeping up the inventory, I was buying stuff I didn't need and letting good food go bad because it had taken up permanent residence at the bottom of the freezer.

So when I finally cleaned out the freezer and saw how much I had wasted, I got back onto the freezer inventory train.  My previous inventory was on paper, which meant I didn't have it with me while I was shopping.  Now I'm keeping it on Cozi as a journal entry, so I can pull the list up while I'm shopping and not let the appeal of a discount price overload me with stuff I don't need.

In my freezer itself, I've bought two little clear plastic drawers to help me keep things sorted.  One of them holds chicken breasts, and one holds beef.  Those cheap drawers make it easy for me to keep the freezer in order and find what I need to find.  That means we won't waste as much and won't buy more than we need, which saves $$$$.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Random Thoughts

After the heavy tone of the last post, I thought it would be nice to have some random thoughts to lighten up the spirit here:

Kids do not know how to handle rhetorical questions
When my kids don't listen, we make the mistake of asking them, "How many times do we have to tell you something before you'll do it?"  The 7-year-old answers, "A hundred."

Remember when you said you wouldn't say to your kids the stuff your parents said to you?  You lied.
My children were complaining that they didn't get to play on the playground before choir practice like the other kids did.  I said, "If the other kids jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?"  Not understanding rhetorical questions (see my previous point), the kids didn't know how to respond, but the custodian standing nearby cracked up and said, "My mom used to say that to me."

One way to get kids to stop complaining about a boo-boo?  Kindly suggest amputation of the injured part.
"Mommy, my toe hurts."
"I'm so sorry to hear that, sweetie.  Would you like for me to cut it off?"

"OK sweetie, just go back and play, OK?"

Chicken leg quarters may be cheaper, but they are a nightmare to cut up for kids.
If you're making something that they can just pick up and eat, then all right, go for it.  But if there's a sticky sauce, it's worth just getting the split chicken breasts.  They're so much easier to cut that you'll save time and sanity.

My kids will eat anything with ranch dressing.
People are astonished when they see my kids eating salad.  I figured salad was worth a try after hearing them ask over and over for ranch dressing to go along with anything non-dessert-related that I tried to feed them.  Sure enough, they are more than willing to chow down on a salad as long as there's ranch dressing on top.

Bacon works well too.
When my 6-year-old found out you could put ranch dressing AND bacon on a salad, he was in heaven.

Parents with kids are quite understanding when you have to interrupt them to keep your children from killing themselves or others.
I was at a church dinner when I saw my children trying to climb a tree outside that was definitely NOT strong enough to hold their weight.  A couple of friends tried to say hi to me as I was walking toward my kids, but they were quite understanding when I kept walking and said, "Excuse me, I'll come back and talk to you after I chastise my children."  Both of them nodded profusely

Chocolate chip cookies are a key to successful negotiations.
We'd probably be a lot closer to world peace if a freshly baked batch of chocolate cookies was supplied for every United Nations session.  I'm able to get my kids to do amazing things (like eat vegetables or clean up) if there's a chocolate chip cookie at the end.  Luckily, my kids are both incredibly skinny and eat loads of healthy foods, so I can offer the occasional cookie bribe without feeling guilty.

When you're the mom of boys, be prepared for grossing out.
I have a good threshold for bathroom humor.  I'm like Fiona on Shrek and am not easily grossed out, but even I get tired of the burping, farting, and other topics of conversation that amuse young boys.  When my younger child was telling a story at his birthday party, the adults were enthralled by his creativity and level of detail.  The kids were won over when he used the word "underwear".

Saturday, April 28, 2012

When Mom Goes To The Hospital

There was a long lag between posts on my blog.  I've been dealing with two situations that made it very hard to write, and which were hard to write about while I was dealing with them.  But I do need to write about them now that I've had a chance to get detached from the situations, because they are unfortunately very real situations that can come up for many moms.  I'll start by looking at a health issue.

As a mom, I've always thought the worse thing that could happen is for one of my children to get sick.  My health has never been at the forefront of my thoughts.  Sure, there are things I can't do that other moms do, but there's so much I can do - most particularly, love them like crazy - that my health issues have never really gotten in the way.  Like other moms, I've been reminded that we need to take care of ourselves - like they say on the airplanes, get your oxygen mask on before you put one on your child - but like other moms, I've found that easier said than done on a day-to-day basis.

But I have realized that an unexpected health crisis for me can fall in a close second.  I went to the doctor one day because one leg was bigger than the other, and before my head could stop spinning, I was admitted to the hospital.  I was there for a week for treatment of a large blood clot in my leg.  As tough as that was, the worst part was worrying about my kids.  They left for school one morning, and when they got home, they found out that Mommy wasn't home and that no one knew when Mommy would be back.  And despite that unexpected situation, they still had to go to school and be taken care of amidst the chaos.

Even though I wasn't able to be with them, there were still some things I could do.

Hospital visits - This has got to be an individual decision.  I had decided that I didn't want the children to visit me, because I knew I looked like a mess, and I didn't want to scare them with all the tubes stuck in me and all of the other scary things about a hospital setting.  I was in the cardiac care unit for several days, and I was glad they had a rule that children under 12 were not allowed to visit.  One of the nurses told me she would bend the rule for me if I wanted to see my kids, but I knew they'd be absolutely terrified by what they saw if they did.  It was unnerving enough for me to see the setup when I was wheeled out of my room for procedures, and I was old enough to understand it better than they would.

But don't forget the phone - I had a chance to talk to the boys on the phone, and we had a terrific time talking.  I was as upbeat as I could be, given how bad I felt, because I didn't want them to worry about me any more than they already did.  I focused on trivial things that wouldn't scare them, like Mommy sitting in bed watching TV.  I made sure that they knew I had brought my pillow pet to the hospital with me (yes, I sleep with a stuffed animal!  It keeps me from contorting my arm and making my hand cramp during the night), and it did make them feel better to know that I wasn't completely alone.  They could relate to sleeping with a pillow pet, and it was definitely not scary for them to imagine me lying in a bed with a stuffed bunny rabbit.

Think about hubby - My husband is a fixer, and I knew it was driving him nuts that he couldn't be everywhere for everybody, and that he couldn't get me out of that hospital any faster.  But I insisted that he leave every night to pick up the kids from after-school care and not to visit me at night.  Even on the hardest nights in the hospital - including one where I couldn't stop sobbing until I had been brought quite a bit of lovely sedatives - I knew my husband was in the right place being there for the kids.  I had no doubt, even at my loneliest times, that his being home parenting our children was the place I needed for him to be.

Ask for and accept help - Thank goodness we had so much family in town.  With both sets of grandparents and an aunt around, the kids were surrounded by people who wanted to do anything they could for the boys.  The boys got to eat meals with adored relatives, so it didn't feel bad at all.  This help continued after I got home too, since people were nice enough to bring us meals.  Since my kids aren't picky eaters, they loved having people making yummy meals for them.  I owe a special thanks to the dear lady who introduced my kids to lasagna - I could never get them to try it, but they adored the ones she made for us!

When you've home - No matter how tired you are, or how much healing you still have to do when you get home from the hospital, the kids missed you terribly and need whatever you can give to them.  Luckily for me, my boys were at an age (6 and 7 years old) that they were content cuddling.  I couldn't get around much, but they could climb onto the sofa and curl up next to me, and that was all right for all of us.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Easter Bunny Doesn't Know Everything

The night before Easter...the boys are in bed, the baskets are prepared and waiting to be pounced upon the next morning.

Easter morning...the baskets are gleefully opened before going to church.  The coloring book goes into a bag to go to church, the rest to be appreciated once everyone got back home.

Easter afternoon...time to relax and unwind watching one of the movies from the Easter Bunny.  Should it be Muppets or Puss in Boots?  The vote was for Puss in Boots.  After we opened the DVD and popped it into the player, we learned an important lesson about the Easter Bunny.

Sometimes, the Easter Bunny gets it wrong.

You see, there are a few movies out there about the dashing cat.  But if you're not careful, instead of getting that one inspired by the Shrek character, you'll get The True Story of Puss and Boots.  Instead of listening to the dulcet tones of Antonio Banderas and Selma Hayek, we got...William Shatner.  So we parents hid our disappointment of listening to The Shat by excitedly complimenting the Easter Bunny for finding a new movie for us.

But there were a few eye rolls behind the kids' backs.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Santa Baby

Apparently, I am a bad parent and am depriving my children of an important part of their childhood because I am breaking the cardinal rule of the Christmas season: I have not taken my children to get their picture taken with Santa.

I've thought I've had some good reasons for not getting it done this year.  It's my husband's busiest time of the year.  I've thrown my back out twice and haven't been capable of standing in line at the mall.  Every member of my family has had their temperature exceed 101 degrees for at least part of the month, and I thought I was doing them - and the other families in the mall - a favor by not sending my kids out into the assembly line for a photo op.

Call me crazy.

And yet, when I think about it, I realize that I'm hearing this from the people who don't have small kids.  Who don't have dual income households.  The working parents are either enjoying a small moment of superiority for being able to cram the picture into their hectic schedules when I can't, or they're commiserating that they're in the same boat.

And they're all thanking me for keeping my germ-infested family away from theirs.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

School Days, School Days...

In many parts of the US, kids and adults are getting ready for the start of school. We have year-round schools here in North Carolina, so my boys have been in school for nearly a month. Last year, I had one son in kindergarten and one in preschool, but this year, they're both at the elementary school. We've had a chance to work through some of the challenges that come with the start of the school year. Since my illness makes my energy level unpredictable, it means that I need to plan, plan, plan to make sure that we're taking care of the kids regardless of how I feel each day. Some of the tricks that have made it easier for us...

Paper can be your family's friend - We started the year with a paper calendar that allowed us to see everything quickly at a glance. Each person had their own spot on the calendar for which we could write the specifics of their schedules. We could easily see who needed to wear tennis shoes for PE and who needed to take library books back to school.

But don't knock online options - I'm a big fan of Cozi ( I've played around with a few online calendars, and this one is the easiest one I've found for tracking and pulling up multiple schedules. Each family member has their own colors, so when I pull up my calendar on my phone, I can tell by the colored dots which family members are involved in which schedule items. It's easy to maintain on the computer and immediately syncs with my phone. In addition to calendars, I can put multiple shopping lists and To Do lists on the site and easily pull them up on my phone. It's great when I go shopping to just pull up my list on my phone...and if I forgot to charge my phone, then my husband can pull it up on his.

Don't take the weekends off - It's so easy to tune out over the weekend and not think about school (ask kids, they do it well). But a few minutes of planning on the weekends can make the week go so much more easily. Each weekend, I'll go over the school menu with my boys and find out which day they're packing lunches and which days they're buying. That way, I can plan my grocery list, and we don't have to argue about it each morning.

Speaking of buying lunch - Does your school offer an online option for paying for your kids' meals? If so, then I highly recommend taking advantage of this opportunity. My school uses an online account that alerts me when their balances fall below a preset level and offers me a quick and easy way to add money to the account whenever needed. It is so much easier than having to pull out cash in the mornings and have correct change or hoping they don't lose their money.

Get organized - It's so hard to keep up with all of the papers, etc. required for school. For us, a binder, a magazine rack and some file folders have been invaluable. We use the binder to keep the reference materials in one spot, so it's easy to find the school calendar, menus, handbooks, and classroom procedures. The magazine rack is the place we store the homework and projects that aren't due back the next day, library books, and homework supplies like pencils and crayons. Each child also has his own file folder so we can keep track of the classroom-specific information and papers.

Have extras in stock - Being the mom of two boys has taught me to accept that they will forget to bring things home every day. So we have a spare lunchbox, freezer packs, and water bottles on hand so that we aren't sidetracked by a child leaving lunch at school.

Follow a routine - There are certain things we need to do every day, and others that are done on particular days of the week. Documenting and following a routine makes it easier to keep up with all of those details.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Birthday!

My older son turned 7 recently. Since I have a chronic illness that contributes to unpredictable fatigue, the birthday party can be quite a challenge. After all, a birthday party can be an elaborate affair...which would blow up completely if I were too worn out to execute it. And a birthday party is way to special to the guest of honor to blow it. My children's birthday parties have been quite successful because I've kept my priorities straight and incorporated a few tips that have kept my fatigue level from ruining the day.

Consider having the party away from home - We've been doing this for the past several parties, and it's turned out to be a major stress reliever. Instead of running around like crazy the days before the party trying to clean everything, getting upset at the kids if they pull things out of place, and facing a huge mess to clean up after the party's over, we've opted for the party away from the house. We don't have to spend our energy being human tornadoes cleaning up the place. The kids can be kids without worrying about hearing "I just cleaned that!" And cleanup is minimal or nonexistent. I still remember the joy I felt at Dylan's 4th birthday party when the Monkey Joe's staff came into the birthday room with vacuum cleaners. And while my kids were running around at the party, I wasn't worried about anything getting broken. It is so relaxing to walk into the house after the birthday party and realizing that it looks the same way it did when you left to go to the party.

Plus, having the party somewhere else can open the door for some cool themes. Dylan loves to cook, so we held his birthday party at a cooking studio for kids called Lil' Chef. We had the party in the morning so the kids could show up in their pajamas to make chocolate chip pancakes (one of Dylan's favorite meals) and have fun. You can go for an elaborate theme by having the party at a museum - which paleontologist-to-be Dylan also debated - or as simple as a pool party. It's easier than you may think to get ideas - surfing the internet or checking out local magazines can help a lot. Here in Raleigh, we have a free periodical available called Carolina Parent, and their website had a wealth of birthday party provider suggestions.

Partying outside? Watch the weather! - We just had a pool party for my 7 year old son Jason. The week before, I was reading every weather report I could find, just in case we ended up having storms rain on our, party. Fortunately, there was no chance of rain (and given the drought we're in, our weather reports would have mentioned ANY chance of rain), so we didn't need to think about contingency plans. But if the party's planned for outside, keep an eye on the weather...and make alternate plans if necessary.

Don't go overboard - We held our pool party mid-afternoon, so we didn't have to feed partygoers a meal. We just had cake, ice cream, lemonade, and sweet tea, and that was enough. The kids didn't want to spend their time sitting at a table, they wanted to spend it in the pool. We had the food available during a pool-mandated break time, but then let the kids get back to swimming.

And we didn't even go overboard with the cake, even though it looked like it. One of the area grocery stores does an amazing job decorating cakes, and the kids love the cakes that come from there. There's a binder with available patterns, and we order the cake during our regular grocery store visit to pick up the next week. When we brought the most recent cake home, my son repeatedly said, "I did a great job picking my cake," and parents and kids alike raved about it at our party.

Party favors - For our most recent party, I hit our local party store and went to town putting together goodie bags. I found all sorts of silly fun things for the kids - plastic flying disks, Chinese yo-yos, monster finger puppets, cheap beads, pencils - nothing fancy, just silly fun. The one rule that I followed was not to pick anything that made noise, and the parents expressed their appreciation.

Don't forget the thank-you notes! Birthday parties are a great opportunity to teach kids about expressing gratitude. Thank you notes are a great chance to remind children to let others know when they've done something nice. And for younger kids, it's a great chance for writing practice. For really small kids, there are pre-made thank you notes that only require the gift name and signature to be completed. They're available in all sorts of patterns (no surprise that we got dinosaurs) and turn thank you notes into an easy exercise for little ones. Older kids can work on writing sentences by putting together a simple note in an empty card.

This also brings up a good reminder for the parents of the gift givers - let us know who you are. At our latest party, two of the gifts were in plain blue bags with no card. Luckily, in the age of email, it's easy to find out whose gift is whose. I just sent an email to both moms and asked, since I wanted my son to be able to properly thank folks. Both quickly wrote back to let me know, and it gave me a chance to add on a thank you from me.

Parties are a great chance to give kids a special day, and it doesn't have to take a Herculean effort to pull it off - just some planning and focusing on what really matters.