Guiltless Pleasure

So there's a contest to share my favorite episode from "Olive Us," which I'm more than happy to share, because it's such a sweet project from a joyful, inspiring family. If you've ever wanted to have a ton of kids and move them all to a remote village in France, but just can't seem to get it done, I invite you to live vicariously through the videos of the Blair family: join Ralph, Maude, Betty, Olive, Oscar, and baby Flora June on their adventures. When I get a new episode in my inbox, I can't wait to share it with my kids because it's such a good reminder of how siblings can and should get along, and how much more fun is to be had when they do. Without further ado, I present just one (I can't really pick a favorite because I like them all..) video by Olive Us.

In this episode, the kids help their sister with her lemonade stand.


The Golden Rules of Parenting Toddlers

If you find, as most parents of toddlers do, that once in a while, or perhaps even - most of the time - things feel a little *out of control,* there's a simple reason: they are!  2-4 year olds are tiny insane people, who have very little control over their impulses, their emotions, and even their bodies. They can't be reasoned with, or trusted to make good decisions, and yet - we still have to try to reason with them so that they begin to understand WHY we say and do what we do in polite society. We still have to "trust" them to do things that will probably make a huge mess, just so they learn how. And we still have to explain to them exactly WHAT they are feeling - so that they learn to recognize it themselves and can begin to deal. It gets - exhausting to say the least, especially when you've repeated yourself calmly for what feels like the forty-seventh time and they're just not getting it. But! Take heart! I've discovered some golden rules to help you get on the best footing you can for dealing with crazy people all day long, and it's stupidly simple.

1) Both YOU and THEY need to make your absolute best effort to eat well - this means unprocessed,  not sugary or dyed natural foods. Actual fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein, and dairy. Lots of eggs, nuts, and beans in place of meat. Fish a couple times a week. Drink lots of water. It takes preparation and willpower, but BELIEVE ME (i know you want a treat during nap time - I FEEL YOU.) you will see a VERY POSITIVE behavior change in kids who are getting regular nutritious meals full of good fat, fiber, etc. I know you have a ton of rebuttals to this: it's expensive to eat well, my kid won't eat ____, I don't have time to cook. I say, you're the parent and you make the rules. Make it a priority and stick to it.

2) Both YOU and THEY need regular, healthy, uninterrupted sleep. Toddlers need 12-14 hours a night. If they are getting to the point where they "refuse to nap," make sure they're going to bed early enough to get 12 hours. Darker the room, the better. If you regularly hear snoring or them waking themselves up or sleeping fitfully, (and they're not going through a cold or respiritory illness) ask your pediatrician to look into it - poor sleep causes a TON of problems, including behavior issues and cognitive delays.

I know that when I eat and sleep well, my patience and energy increases tenfold. I know that when they eat and sleep well, we get A LOT less whining, fussiness, bad attitude, and just an increase in focused play and SWEETNESS. Which is what we all want, right? Yes, there's still the occasional meltdown or bad day, but there's so much less of that "end of the rope" feeling, for me and for them.

3) The third and last "golden rule" is to abide loosely to a schedule - it can be switched up when you need to, but kids really thrive on the structure of knowing what will happen - they have such little control over anything, it helps put their minds in order. Here's a sample of our typical schedule: We wake up between 6:30 and 7, cuddle and play, go potty, come downstairs and eat breakfast, then free play all morning (play dough, toys, help me cook, go to the park sometimes, have a play date, whatever floats their boat) until about 11:30, then we potty again, eat something and go upstairs for nap. I read them some stories, they go to sleep,(12:30 or 1:00) and when they wake up around 3, dad is home. Potty again, then often we'll go somewhere after nap - the grocery store or what have you, or play with dad or in the backyard. We typically have a little snack around 4 or 4:30 - a graham cracker with peanut butter or something. Then we make dinner and eat, potty, bath time, stories, and bed by 8. At this point it's mostly self-directed free play, but that's what is developmentally appropriate - we'll start incorporating structured crafts and science projects as they get older. Note: if the schedule will change significantly for the day, have a conversation and talk to them about it beforehand. {This works wonders for all kinds of behavior stuff - now that they are 2.5, I can go over things a few hours, then a few minutes before and let them know what I expect. Then a gentle reminder during the behavior is all it takes (usually.) Example: "We're going to Mommy's friend's house. If you see something you'd like to touch or play with, please ask first. Don't touch anything without asking." Then as they get in the door and run to play with a breakable display of some sort, "We need to ask before touching."}

Notice they don't constantly snack all day long - we did this before they turned 2, to curb fussiness, pretty much whenever they wanted. What happened was kids who ate poorly at mealtimes and who were constantly whining for snacks. Not to mention the kind of snacks that are easy to hand out 24/7 are usually preprocessed and packaged - cereal, squeeze pouches of stuff, etc. It was expensive, not really healthy, and was causing undesirable behavior. We cut the snacks to 1-2 a day and they know what to expect now.

We also try to nap at home in our beds. We've done naps in the car, sometimes I just can't face another round of putting them to sleep and the car is soooo easy. But the car naps are fitful, their little necks are flopped forward in this awkward way, and they never last more than 45 minutes. Results: crankiness in late afternoon :(

I'm not going to judge you for doing what works for you - trust me when I tell you I'm not at my best every day. But if you are having behavior problems and "bad days" that just keep multiplying, take a look at your schedule and try to figure it out. Is it you or them, or both? Are you taking care of yourself? Are you eating and sleeping well? You're still going to have to negotiate whether they can wear the Batman cape AND the sparkly shoes to the store, but hopefully it will feel more sane. Go forth and parent!


Fast Weeknight Dinners

Hi Everyone, Just wanted to share a couple of dinners that have turned out fabulously this last week - my definition of fabulous is CHEAP, FAST (under 20 mins) and moderately HEALTHY. Also, did it get eaten? Yes! If it hits all these marks, we have a winner! This week's winners I would love to share with you -

1. Linguine con vongole (pasta with clams)
This is an old family favorite, and it goes like this: Boil salted water for the linguine. You could use spaghetti, or fettucine, but it would not be the same. In another little pot, dump two cans of chopped clams AND their juice, a couple glugs of a cheap, dry white wine, (I used the Beringer Pino Grigio and it turned out great) about three tablespoons of butter, a smashed clove of garlic. Bring it up to a boil then let this simmer while the noodles boil, about 6 minutes. You're reducing it to concentrate flavor. When the noodles are al dente, scoop out about 1/4 cup of the pasta water, drain the noodles, and add them to the simmering sauce. Turn it off, and put the pasta water, a handful of chopped parsley, and a good 1/4 to 1/3 cup grated parmesan in the pot and stir it up. Done! It should be brothy - serve with crusty bread to soak up that good juice. Buon appetito!

2. Grilled Veggies with Farfalle and Herb Vinaigrette
Any veggies you have on hand will work, we had a little piece of chicken, some zucchini, an ear of corn, a couple orange peppers, and a tomato. I bet eggplant, onion, and mushroom would work great in this dish, and skip the chicken if you're going meatless (but add some pinenuts for protein.) Fire up your grill and char the veggies, (except the tomato). Meanwhile, boil some salted water and cook your bowtie pasta - 7 or 8 minutes should do it.  To make the dressing, mix the juice and zest of one lemon, a couple glugs of good olive oil, a couple glugs of balsamic vinegar, and a handful of chopped fresh herbs. I had basil, parsley, cilantro and mint. If you just have one, choose basil. Put some grinds of black pepper in the dressing if you like it, and whip it up with a fork. Chop the grilled meat and veggies, toss with the pasta, and drizzle the herb vinaigrette over.That's all! Enjoy with a little parmesan on top.

With this heat, we've been trying not to heat up the kitchen too much and these 15 minute meals are helping our cause. What's your go-to summertime weekday dinner?


Easy Toddler Meals

Tired of the mac-n-cheese and pbj merry-go-round that lunchtime turns into with picky little eaters? Even "good eaters" go through some picky stages during toddlerhood - there are tons of biological theories and reasons, but the consensus is to keep offering a variety of healthy foods, and try pairing new or not easily accepted foods with old favorites. Here are a couple healthy dishes that have worked their way into our repertoire because they are fast, easy, and almost always get eaten. The measurements aren't precise because I assume you're cooking for one or two and you're using leftovers - I trust you to adjust the recipes until the textures and flavors seem right to you.

Peanut Butter Noodles -
This is ridiculously easy. I use organic Soba noodles, (Japanese buckwheat noodles - found in the asian section of the grocery store.) which cook in about 3 minutes. They don't taste creepy like the whole-wheat versions of pasta one usually finds at the store- they are little and have a nice texture that is in between spaghetti and angel hair. So, boil the noodles, enough for the kids you're feeding and yourself (I use a nickel-sized bundle.) While it's boiling, scoop out 1/2 cup of the boiling water and plop a half-cube of bouillon in it. Beef works well, but I found all kinds of fancy flavors at my local international food store, so I have Pho, Roast Duck, Porcini, etc. If you don't have bouillon, just put a tablespoon of low-sodium soy sauce with the water. Then put a big spoonful or two of natural peanut butter (just peanuts and salt...they don't need all the other junk.) in the water and stir it. By this time the noodles are done, so drain them, pour on the sauce, and stir until you get a yummy sauce that should be the texture of mac-n-cheese. It's got more protein,good fat, and whole grain than the blue box, and it's just as fast or faster. Your kids will love this!

Avocado Mania -
Use avocado in place of mayo in some standby recipes and watch them gobble their greens. Spread on grilled cheese, smash it in an egg salad, or make a super-easy quesadilla by buttering a whole-wheat tortilla, sprinkling sliced avocado and shredded cheese, and top with another tortilla. when toasty, flip it and get it melty inside. cut this up and share - it's good dipped in mild salsa as well.

Fish Swap -
If your kids are good with tuna salad, switch it up with canned salmon or even - I'm not kidding - sardines. They are SO rich in omega 3's and calcium, as well as being lower in mercury than the big fish and way more sustainably fished - give it a try! My kids love sardines smashed with mayo and pickle relish and a little salt and pepper on a multigrain cracker.

Crazy Nuggets -
Kids like nuggets- it's a fact. The soft texture and hand-held nature is fun and appealing. But they don't have to be terribly unhealthy - in fact, using my formula, you can put so many things in nugget form. Start with your protein - ground turkey, canned salmon, any leftovers you have. Add a binder - usually an egg. Bulk it up with grains - breadcrumbs are standard, but you can get so much healthier. We love quinoa, whole-wheat cous cous, or lentils. Add finely chopped (or GRATED) veggies and herbs - I run  an onion, celery, carrot, or whatever's in the fridge over the microplane. Squish it all together until you have a "dough" that sticks together when you pinch off a little ball and roll it in your palms - like making meatballs. Now put a little olive oil in a pan (a tablespoon maybe) and cook your nuggets over medium high until they are cooked through and golden on the outside. This whole process takes less than ten minutes, so don't be daunted.

Happy cooking, and let me know if any of these healthy swaps worked for you or if you have suggestions of your own! 


J’aime’s Hearty Summer Italian Veggie Stew (Ciambotta, a.k.a. Chumby)

It's not quite summer yet, but I've been hankering for a dish I like to break out when it's almost too hot to cook - along the same lines as Salade Niçoise and Ratatouille, it's an Italian dish that is so satisfying. This works best after a particularly fruitful (or veg-ful) trip to the farmer’s market, or even better if you have a bountiful harvest from your own garden! What I mean is, this is a very simple dish that highlights the glory of summer produce at its peak, so use the freshest veggies you can find – even the carrots and garlic! The ingredient list is long and varied, and you can skip certain veggies and get the main idea. 

You can either use about 7 or eight nice big garden tomatoes, or two cans of crushed RedGold tomatoes.  (Or a combination – I do one can and about 3 big Heirlooms.)

For Garden-fresh tomatoes: Boil a pot of water. Plunge each tomato into the water about 3 minutes, until you see the skin start to crack. Remove from water, the skins will now easily peel right off.  When cooled, peel, seed, and chop tomatoes, then put them in a sieve over a bowl and salt them lightly. Let them drain while you prep the other veggies, about a half hour. Save the tomato water! – you might end up throwing it in if the stew looks too dry.

Peel and cube one medium-sized eggplant and put in a bowl with salted water to soak. (This is optional - some people claim it gets rid of a "bitterness" that I've personally never had a problem with.)

Take two big handfuls of fresh green beans. Snap off each end and then snap each green bean in half. Remove the strings from each bean if they are tough.

Scrub (no peeling necessary) and cut six or eight very small or 4-5 medium new potatoes into little chunks. 

Rinse and cut one or two zucchini – I use green, but you can use a combination of yellow squash and zukes if you want. 

Fry up 4-6 Mild (sweet) Italian Sausages (I use Johnsonville mostly) until just brown on the outside. Pull them out of the pan, slice into ½” thick coins, and return to the pan to brown evenly.

Meanwhile, put a nice big swirl of good olive oil in the bottom of a large, heavy stockpot that’s turned to medium-high. Have a mixture of finely chopped celery, carrot, onion, and garlic getting soft and browned for several minutes. I use about 2 big cloves of garlic, two ribs of celery, and an equal amount of carrot and onion.  Add a couple grinds of salt and a big pinch of red pepper flakes. There will be a yummy brown fond on the bottom of the pan – don’t stir too much. 

*the next steps should be done with a slow rythmn. Listening to music is helpful in getting the timing right. Pour a glass of wine if it helps you slow down.

Add potatoes and let them cook a few minutes. 
Add drained eggplant and zucchini/squash. Season with a little salt. Stir and wait another couple minutes – the stew should start getting wet. If the sausages are done, go ahead and add them.  Throw in the green beans. Add about two glugs of a nice dry red wine, such as Marsala or Sangiovese. Go ahead and put in the tomatoes. Stir it all up (now scrape the bottom and get that fond mixed up in there) and put the lid on. Throw in a few leaves of hand-torn basil and turn down the heat to medium low. Let everything simmer for awhile.  

You know it’s done when the zucchini is just transparent but not mushy, but the potatoes are quite tender. Make sure the beans are also cooked through but not mush. This takes about 20-30 minutes with the lid on. If it looks too dry, add the tomato water. If it’s too wet, leave the lid off and let it reduce a bit. Taste and see if it needs seasoning (salt or red pepper flakes.) If you used canned tomatoes, it could be pretty acidic, in which case, throw in a pinch of sugar. 

Finish with chiffonade of basil, a swirl of good olive oil, and freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Serve with crusty bread and red wine and pretend you're sitting on a balcony in the Gulf of Naples with a view of misty purple Mt. Vesuvius in the distance across the sea... This is a good dish to eat outside on the porch – it’s summer in a bowl! 


Easter Sweets

Easter was a blast - the kids were old enough to tenuously grasp the idea that a magic bunny brought them a basket of candy and toys. They were very good during the extra-long church service, and they had a great time with their older cousins, who got a REAL bunny - the undisputed star of the day. The aftermath of a day of candy-gorging for two-year-olds? Not so sweet.

My little-to-no sugar policy for the kids has come under fire before, and I've gotten the gamut of reactions from people who think it's draconian and borderline abusive to serve a birthday "cake" that's barely sweet (for their first birthday) to people who think it's just naïve and that as soon as they get to go to friends' houses, they'll glut themselves on sugar (or TV, or anything else I restrict.). SO let me expound a little bit on my carefully-considered sugar policy, and give you some food for thought if you haven't come up against the sweet white beast yet.

First, an admission - I have a sugar problem. If I could, everything I ate would be sweet - I enjoy sweet and sour, bittersweet, and sweet and salty as well - but I never met a baked good that disagreed with me. Growing up, we didn't have junk food in the house, and I learned to love veggies and got a good education on how to eat healthy, balanced meals. I feel like I'm up to speed with the nutritional recommendations and our family diet includes lots of whole grains, fiber, minimally processed foods including fruits and veggies, and healthy fats. But I can't. give. up. the. sugar. Remember that scene in Trainspotting where Ewan McGregor's character boards himself up into a room so he can go through heroin withdrawal? Well, it's not that bad, but shades of this happen to me when I try to give up, or even lower my sugar intake. I get the moodiness, the "sugar rages," the dizzying highs and energy crashes - I recognize that it's a problem, and I don't want my kids to have this unhealthy relationship with sweets, or the type-2 diabetes that's begun to plague the older generation on both sides of their family tree.

I recognize myself in my little girl, who attacked her basket with zest, and would've eaten it all in one sitting if I hadn't stopped her. As it was, this morning, by 9 am, they had dug out the little plastic baggies of candy and treats from the day before and were scarfing down the remaining chocolate and jellybeans. Full disclosure, the baskets had mostly non-candy treats: bubbles, stickers, lip balm, books, and stampers. Then we went with yogurt-covered raisins and rainbow goldfish - two lower-sugar treats that they love. Just a handful of jellybeans, a couple of peeps, some chocolate eggs and a small chocolate bunny topped it off because, hey - it's Easter. Candy IS a special-occasion treat, and Easter is a special occasion.

All the non-sweet items were tossed aside unceremoniously and they proceeded to wolf down the candy like little monsters. Could I get them to touch their breakfast? Not even a banana. When my daughter had finished hers, she started on her brother's candy. She was shocked at the time-out that occurred for boldly stealing his loot.  When she had calmed down and I got her to understand that she was only to eat her own, there was yet another meltdown when she realized she'd already finished hers and there was no more to be had. He was eating candy and running around and banging and destroying things - typical boy behavior that is very unusual for my own son.

I've read the studies that say sugar is not linked to hyperactivity- good for science! It may not be the sugar as a chemical compound to which their little brains become addicted. What I do know is that when my little sweeties have any of that stuff, they become totally different toddlers. They run around like crazy people, they can't concentrate on anything I say, or anything else for more than 3 seconds, they whine for more, and they are even more prone to collapsing on the floor in paroxysms of pathos. You may be thinking to yourself, "This sounds like completely typical toddler behavior." I agree! But knowing my own kids, I can tell you it's magnified. And totally unpleasant to deal with times two.

Basically, it makes my job easier to not have the temptations around for things that kids have a really hard time regulating. They already whine for more time to play with daddy's iPhone, even though they get maybe 15 minutes a week or less. Same with the computer - I play short YouTube clips of Sesame Street and similar kids' programs sometimes, and I always get requests for "More Cookie Monster!!" I'm trying to keep sweet treats as a special occasion food, not every meal or even every day, so that when they do get some, it will be special. The problem is, any amount I give them just makes them cry when I don't give them more. And more! AND MORE!!!!

There are definitely camps that posit not limiting sugar or snacks, having it available and within reach at all times, so the kid can snack as they see fit. They say this helps strengthen the kids' own internal willpower and since it isn't taboo or special, the kids don't care about it as much. I call BS! I know myself, and my kids, and they wouldn't stop until it was all gone. Then they would cry for more, and continue this process until we were all obese. They are kids with a genetic propensity for major sweet toothage - they aren't gulping down candy because it's novel or taboo, they're doing it because it's delicious, delicious candy. As a parent, I'm supposed to help them make good choices while simultaneously encouraging them to develop their own internal good-choice making abilities, and for us, it boils down to NO MORE SUGAR.

Until Mommy gets a hankering to bake cookies again, and then I probably have to share....


Going for Greens

Children who don't just eat, but relish, enjoy, and seek out vegetables. Isn't that the dream? More often than not, our hopes are dashed by little sour faces, picking warily at our carefully-crafted concoctions, announcing, "Yucky!" with such an air of finality that you'd imagine they had at least tasted it. I am an unashamed lover of veggies, and feel like I have been all my life - (my mother may disagree) so I introduced plenty of green, red, white, orange and purple early and often into my kids' diets. Most of the orange and red was eaten with zest. We started out fine with purple and white, but it slowed down a bit toward toddlerhood. But the green - oh, the green. Sure, they'll have an odd pea or edamame or lima bean if i steam and salt it liberally, and I'm not sure they know that scrambled eggs come without spinach and cheese - but try to get them to eat a broccoli, or a green bean, or - gasp!- kale? All of my attempts at serving leafy greens have been thwarted - UNTIL! I stumbled upon an answer last night, and I humbly share it with you - go forth and feed your little leprechauns, and if they are anything like mine, they will lick the platter clean!

Okay, here it comes - are you ready? Pesto! I usually make my own - basil, pine nuts, garlic, some freshly grated parmesan cheese and a little good olive oil in the food processor and you're good to go - but last night, I'm staring at this pizza dough. I've got some leftover roasted veggies, and a bit of shredded chicken and cheese - but it's looking pretty sparse, and there is a giant bag of shredded mixed greens that's been staring at me for the last week, daring me to use it. But I know they won't eat it, and I'm not sure greens cook alright on top of pizza in that way... then it hit me - grind it up into some pesto and it should work! Not having any pine nuts, I had to "play jazz"as my DH likes to say, but it was a total hit, and the kids were eating it by the fingerful out of the bowl. Here's how the recipe shook out:

1 big handful chopped mixed greens - collard, turnip, kale, and mustard
1 big pinch fresh basil
1 big pinch fresh cilantro
about 4 oz slivered almonds
4-5 oz shelled roasted pistachios (almost any nuts would work - pine nuts or even hazelnuts or walnuts would probably be good - this was what I had on hand.)
a couple of cloves of bruised, peeled, chopped garlic
about 1/3 of a cup of grated hard cheese (parmesan, pecorino, asiago....I think i put some caciocavallo in there...whatever you have. Grate it fresh if you can - the shake cheese has lots of cellulose powder and a different flavor.)
I put in a handful of dried "antioxident blend" mixed berries - in my normal pesto i will put a couple of sun dried tomatoes or sweetened dried cranberries - I like the sweet/tart note they add - this is optional.
a pinch of kosher salt and a spoon full of raw sugar

add these to the food processor and pulse a few times after each ingredient, and drizzle in a good 1/3 to 1/2 cup of good olive oil all the while- until you reach the consistency you like. Make sure you taste and adjust - that's why the measurements are so free.

I plopped it on pizza along with roasted veggies and cheese, but it would be good tossed with your kids' favorite shape of pasta, or scrambled into eggs, or mixed with a can of tuna and scooped on crackers. Who doesn't love crackers? Happy cooking, and I hope your kids like it! Leave out the garlic if they are very sensitive....