Tuesday, February 9, 2016


We always mark the changing seasons of the Church calendar in our home.  I enjoy the rhythm of celebration counterpointed by contemplation, and acknowledging the seasons of spiritual, as well as physical, life helps me to refocus on God and my relationship with him with every turn of the calendar.

We are, however, not Catholic, nor involved in any kind of liturgical church, so we feel pretty free to shape the traditions to be meaningful to our current context.  We've done some notable "giving up" for lent in the past.  One year we ate vegetarian, which for my husband was a huge sacrifice, and for me took a fair amount of extra planning and work.  One year we gave up going to stores and spending money.  We didn't window shop for fun, and we didn't buy anything at all.  Although there were occasions where my parents bought something for us, and we sort of  cheated by using gas cards to fill our tank.  Two years ago we gave up our kitchen table.  During lent we ate sitting on the floor of our dining room.  That worked well with two preschool children, because it was a distinct change for them, but the loss of the table didn't feel like a sacrifice.

This year, I'm planning to participate the the #HolyLens project.  Each day of lent there will be a single word prompt based on the Catholic readings for the day, and the goal is to photograph something related to that prompt.  More than being about photography, or even the readings, the project is about looking at the world around us with spiritual eyes.  Being the non-conformist that I am, I am not taking this on as a visual arts project at all.  I plan to photograph, make, or write something every day, again, with the goal being to look at my ordinary life with spiritual eyes, and to be open to seeing God moving in the mundane moments.

Do you do anything for lent?  What's your plan for this year?

Monday, February 1, 2016

Meals for nights when you Just Can't Even

There are too many options here, really, for most people's ordinary lives.  If you have one or two emergency meals a month, you should probably just pick the one option you like best and stick with it.  This list may come in handy, however, for those stages of life when you can realistically anticipate eating an emergency meal three times a week for the next month because of  a new foster placement, new baby, out of state move, serious illness, death in the family, legal battle, or whatever disruption is currently running the show at your house.

Also, please note my use of the word premade to refer to food that you already have in your fridge or freezer.  "Leftover" sounds like nobody wanted to eat that food the first time around, so now it's on for a repeat.  "Premade" reminds you that you're smart and efficient.  Because everybody loves your delicious [chili, hummus, salsa, pulled pork, grilled chicken, whatever], you made extra and carefully stored it for just such a time as this.  You deserve a pat on the back from your future self!

The Assumptions

Despite the chaos, you have access to a reasonably functional kitchen, including a microwave, freezer, oven, and stove.
Even as you scramble, you have a few basic kitchen tools, including a skillet, pasta pot, and baking tray.
Under normal circumstances, you can cook a number of basic meals without panicking.

The Rules! 

Everything needed for the meal can be easily kept in the house for two weeks or longer.  Frozen items, pantry items, and long-lasting fruits and veggies are all fair game.
The entire meal takes 10 minutes maximum of hands-on preparation.
The foods are reasonably family friendly (including deconstructed preparations that allow picky eaters to skip things they don't want).

What's For Dinner?!?!

  1. Frozen Dinner.  If you've made a meal and frozen it in advance for a rainy day, you are ahead of the game.  You can feel smug.  You've got my permission.  Also, I'm sure your grocery store sells a variety of pizzas, entrees, and sides, all conveniently frozen for you to heat and eat.  Find a few of those you like and keep them in your freezer where they will save your sanity for a lot cheaper than ordering take-out.  You can feel smug about that, too.  No worries.
  2. Pasta.  Serve with a jar of sauce, frozen peas, and possibly even frozen meatballs.  Cook the pasta in boiling water.  Heat everything else on the stove top or in the microwave.  If you make meatballs, you can choose to heat them in the sauce to save a dish or heat them separately for meat or tomato haters.
  3. Baked potato bar.  Wash the potatoes, stab them a couple of times with a fork, put them in the oven at 400 degrees for about an hour.  (Yes, you have to start an hour before dinner, but if you hustle, you can wash and stab 10 lbs of potatoes in about 4 minutes)  Serve with any combination of sour cream, plain yogurt, frozen broccoli, bacon bits, pre-cooked bacon, store bought or premade chili, and/or olives.  If you've got herbs growing like weeds in your back yard, wash them and put them on the table with a pair of scissors to snip over individual potatoes.  So fancy!
  4. Tuna Salad.  Basic tuna salad for 3 to 5 sandwiches (depending how you spread it) is 1 can tuna, 1-3 tbsp mayonnaise, 1 tsp mustard, 1/4 cup each minced onions and celery if you've got time, salt and pepper to taste.  Make sandwiches on bread, wraps with flour tortillas, tuna melts (spread tuna salad on one slice of bread, top with cheese, toast under the broiler or in the toaster oven until hot and bubbly), or tuna noodles (mix a double batch of tuna salad with 1 lb of hot or cold pasta).  Serve with a raw vegetable.
  5. Quesadillas.  Put a flour tortilla on a griddle or skillet, top with pre-sliced or pre-shredded cheese, top with another flour tortilla.  When the cheese is melted, flip it over to make sure the whole thing is hot.  Serve with any combination of store bought or premade salsa, canned beans (black or refried), sour cream, plain yogurt, and/or premade meat shredded or sliced.  Lettuce or cilantro are nice, but don't fit rule #1.
  6. Taco Bowls, nachos, or taco salads.  This is almost exactly the same thing as quesadillas, only you get to skip the griddle or skillet part.  Assemble bowls or plates according to individual preferences.  Use any combination of corn tortillas cut in strips, tortilla chips, frozen corn, store bought or premade salsa, canned beans (black or refried), sour cream, plain yogurt, shredded or sliced meat heated through, premade sweet potatoes, and/or cheese.  Again, lettuce or cilantro are nice, but don't fit rule #1.
  7. Garlicky Greens and Sausage.  Put a tablespoon of oil in a hot skillet.  Smash one clove of garlic and toss it in the oil, or use the equivalent of jarred garlic, and cook just until it starts to smell good.  Add whole or sliced fully-cooked sausage (kielbasa, polish sausage, etc) and a package of frozen greens (every supermarket has spinach, but yours might also have kale, collards, turnip greens, or something else fancy).  Serve with bread, cornbread, or rice.
  8. Muffins, cheese, and fruit.  If you use a mix, muffins will take 3 minutes to assemble and 20 to bake.  If you refuse to use a package mix, muffins will take 10 minutes to assemble and 20 to bake.  My kids think fruit is fancier if you cut it up.
  9. Mediterranean Platter.  Serve any combination of olives, cheese, raw vegetables cut into spears or bite-sized pieces, store bought or premade hummus, pita bread, pita chips, sliced bread, premade grilled meat, boiled eggs, fully cooked sausage slices, or frozen meatballs heated in a skillet.
  10. Scrambled eggs.  For starch, serve toast or frozen hashbrowns browned in a skillet or heated in the oven.  Raw veggies or salsa are also good sides.
  11. French toast.  Serve with applesauce, canned peaches, or frozen berries.
  12. Fried eggs and Accouterments.  If you've got tiny bits left of delicious premade casserole, stew, soup, cooked vegetable, or grain-based dishes, heat them up and top with fried eggs.  Shirred eggs are a similar sort of thing: heat up dribs and drabs of whatever, put them in ramekins (or coffee cups), crack an egg into each cup, top with a smidge of butter and salt, and bake at 375 for 10 to 20 minutes (depending on how you like your eggs done).
  13. Ramen noodles.  Splurge on the dollar-a-package ones if that makes you happy.  Add any combination of frozen broccoli, frozen peas, hard boiled egg, nori, or premade meat.
  14. Nourish Bowls.  This is a concept, not a recipe.  A nourish bowl (also called a mighty bowl, Buddah bowl, power bowl, or rice bowl) is a scoop of grain, a vegetable or two, a protein source, and a sauce.  There are a billion combinations, so if you Google around you will either be inspired or overwhelmed.  Build around what you keep in your pantry.  White rice, quinoa, couscous, bulgur, buckwheat groats, teff, and amaranth are all quick cooking grains, but no grains really need babysitting.  If you've got time before dinner (or if you know tonight is going to be a disaster by 9 AM) throw your long-cooking whole grain in a pot ASAP, and you'll be most of the way to dinner before dinner time.  Five random ideas to get you started:
    1. Kraut Bowl- millet, shredded cabbage and carrot (or coleslaw mix without the dressing), kielbasa, honey-mustard dressing.
    2. Thai Curry Bowl- rice, frozen mixed veggies, premade or canned chicken, coconut milk, red curry paste.
    3. Peanut Bowl- quinoa, carrot coins, frozen bell peppers, chopped peanuts, peanut sauce.
    4. Pink and Green Bowl- bulgur, frozen greens, pickled beets, canned garbanzo beans, green goddess or yogurt dressing.
    5. Amore Bowl- teff, roasted red peppers, red onion, chopped almonds, pesto.
What am I missing?  What are your favorite ultra-fast dinners?  

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Ockham's Razor

In logic and scientific thought, Ockham's Razor is the principle that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.  We use it as the basis for a silly, creative talking game.  I usually do the set up, but sometimes the kids will volunteer.  We imagine together a situation and then brainstorm as many wild explanations as we can for why that situation might exist.  After we've exhausted our ideas, we use Ockham's Razor to determine which explanation is the most likely.

By way of an example:

Imagine V can't find her snow boots on the shoe mat.

Maybe she didn't put them away last time she wore them, so they're by the door instead of on the mat.
Maybe a terrible monster was sad that it didn't have any snow boots, and Dad felt bad, so he gave the monster V's boots.
Maybe malicious fairies stole them.
Maybe she walked home in the snow without her boots on, so they're actually still at church.
Maybe a hungry dog crept into our house and ate them all up.
Maybe they got so wet that drying out caused them to shrink.
Maybe there was a tornado while we were sleeping and it blew the boots away.
Maybe Dad was careless cleaning up, so he threw the boots into the recycling bin.
Maybe Z was vacuuming in his sleep, and he vacuumed the boots up.
Maybe they were biodegradable boots, so they just dissolved.

What do you think?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A list of jobs

These jobs only take 10 minutes each, or maybe 15 on a bad night, so I should just get them done after the kids are in bed.

  1. Empty and reload the dishwasher.
  2. Wash the pots and pans.
  3. Clear the dining table and kitchen counter work space.
  4. Sweep the kitchen and dining room floors.
  5. Take out the compost (this is less than 10 minutes, even, except when it's 30 below!).
  6. Tidy up the living room.
  7. Put away the hats, coats, gloves, shoes, boots, backpacks, and dirty laundry that somehow clutter around each entry way of our home despite near constant reminders to all occupants of our home to be responsible for their gear.
  8. Tidy up the music room (which is also a dumping ground for outer wear.  There is so much outerwear here!)
  9. Gather up and carry misplaced and out of place things upstairs, downstairs, and to the basement.  Put them where they belong.
  10. Tidy up the play room.
  11. Sort the dirty laundry, transfer the laundry in the washer to the dryer, and start a new load in the washer.
  12. Sort, fold, and put away a load of clean laundry.
  13. Wipe down the upstairs bathroom, just really quickly.
  14. Wipe down the downstairs bathroom, just really quickly.  
  15. Organize lunches, breakfast, coffee, whatever else for the next morning so it's not so chaotic.
Given that my kids are all in bed and quiet by 8:30 at the latest, I should be able to sleep when I'm dead.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

"All they need is love"

I get that a lot, especially from well-meaning older folks with grown kids of their own: "Foster kids just need the same thing as every kid needs: they just need love.  That's all."

Short answer: nope.

Think about it like this: if I had a child who fell out of a tree and broke his leg, and I decided that all he needed was love, I'd be a terrible parent.  A kid with a broken leg needs a visit to the doctor, an x-ray, a cast, and a pair of crutches at the minimum.  He might also need a visit with a specialist, some surgery, a wheelchair, or some physical therapy.  Yes, this child needs love.  He also needs specific interventions to address the damage to his leg.

Foster kids are not in the system because of some single tiny problem.  Especially where we live, there has to be clear threat of imminent harm to children before they are removed from their homes.  Because of this, any kid in the system had experienced some pretty terrible things.  Those terrible things, unfortunately, cause kids brains to develop in problematic ways.

For a comprehensive overview of how neglect and abuse influence child brain development, here's a brochure from the federal child welfare agency.  Briefly, though, inconsistent care giving, neglect, or abuse creates an environment of toxic stress.  Children can respond to this stress by becoming hyper-alert, easily upset, or over-sensitive to sensory or relationship stimuli.  Alternately, children can respond to this stress by withdrawing and becoming under-responsive to their environments.  They may not develop the ability to form strong relationships.  With inconsistent or inappropriate input, children develop unevenly, fall behind their peers, or fail to meet developmental milestones.

To put it bluntly, the situations that land kids in foster care are situations that cause brain damage.  Yes, a foster child needs love.  He also needs specific interventions to address the damage to his brain.

Love is necessary, but it is not sufficient.

Monday, January 11, 2016

How to Stay Home with Preschoolers and Stay Sane at the Same Time

Let me be totally, brutally honest about something for a second here: I love to watch my kids play, but I get very little out of playing their games myself.  With that, then, my number one tip for staying sane is to teach your kids to play independently.  I'm not exactly sure when in the last few decades "homemakers" became "stay-at-home moms," but I seriously think it's a disservice to our kids for us to entertain them like it's our job.

I'd like to suggest that the actual job of a stay-at-home parent (if that's how you'd like to style yourself) is to manage the home.  Part of that, certainly, is helping keep littles happily occupied.  I would argue, though, that I personally do that by setting up the structure that helps my littles learn, grow, and thrive as part of the larger institution of our home, rather than by actually spending hours every day on the floor playing.

That all said, here are my thoughts on how to set the structure so that you and your littles can stay happily occupied at home together, more often than not, anyway.

1) Cultivate interests that you find personally satisfying that are also related to or compatible with caring for your littles and home.  Personally, I like to cook made-from-scratch dinners, read books, make music, and take photos.  Some other options include organizing, cleaning, or decorating your home; arts or crafts that can be done with littles present; gardening, raising animals, or other homesteading activities; writing; or running a home-based business.

2) Organize your space and your day so that there is time for the things you find satisfying.  I don't mean just fitting in some blogging during nap time, either, although you certainly could do that, too.  Read Jane Austin aloud at the breakfast table, do a science project every day until you exhaust your library of experiments, make art together, or put the baby grand in the middle of your tiny living room.  Choose to reflect the fact that you are a whole person, and this shared time together is your life, too.

3) Have a routine.  Maybe the idea of a schedule is too constraining for you, but littles thrive on predictability.  Nobody says you have to watch the clock, but kids will be happier and the day will be smoother if everyone knows the general order of events for the day.

4) Schedule an activity during your biggest block of free time every day. I plan an errand, a messy project, a playground trip, art time, or something that will take a decent chunk of time after breakfast and before our morning walk every day.

5) Take a walk around the block.  Preschooler walks are endless.  Literally walking around our suburban block never takes my brood less than 30 minutes.  If you've got way too much time to kill, do it twice a day.  We take a walk before lunch in rain, shine, snow, or scorching heat.  It's just part of the routine.

6) Read books. We hit the library just about every week and get at least 10 unfamiliar picture books. You could start a blog or goodreads account and write reviews, if that makes you happy (see #1 above).  You can feel virtuous because everybody in education recommends reading aloud to little kids.  Moreover, you can relax a little, because as long as a paid author is developing entertaining plot-lines you don't have to think of any dialogue for Barbie.

7) Give littles the opportunity to help you with household work.  It will take longer if they help, but think of it as learning life skills.  They will also do a terrible job nine times out of ten.  Assign work you don't mind being done terribly.  My kids sweep, wash mirrors, put away laundry, and tidy up.  They are not allowed to help clean the bathroom.  Yuck.

8) Set up something fun for the kids, and then step back and let them play.  I'll put out the blocks, build a road with the littles, then excuse myself to get my camera. After that I can take pictures instead of playing blocks.  Similarly, I'll put out an invitation to play (toys or materials presented in a new way or in new combinations) and leave it for the kids to discover on their own.

9) Rotate toys. My kids will not play with anything if there are more than 10 choices. The research suggests there's a sweet spot for optimal engagement, and it's usually between 6 and 12 options.  I try to put out between 6 and 10 kinds of play items (sample 6: doctor kit, metal cars, farm puzzle, scissors/paper/glue/crayons, juggling balls, monkey puppet).  Every other toy and craft supply is stashed in the utility room. When we get something out of there, it's fresh and new. And nobody's overwhelmed. There's also the bonus of easier clean up when there are fewer toys to strew.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Family Math

I have always wanted what modern Americans count as a "big" family.  I grew up as one of four siblings and loved having that number of playmates and companions built into my life.  I used to joke that Husband wanted three kids, and I wanted four, so we were compromising with three and a half, rounded up, of course.

With the plan of four children firmly in my mind, I asked a lot of women with bigger families for their perspectives and experiences on raising four or more kids.  Each and every one agreed that the first child completely changed her life.  Probably 75% said the second child required another huge rearranging of family life, and the third child fit right into the new normal without much transition at all.  The remaining 25% said adding the second child wasn't much different from just having one, and the third child resulted in major upheaval.  Each and every one agreed, however, that after three children, her family's patterns were firmly established, and each new baby fit right into how they were already doing things without disrupting the general enterprise of family life.

I counted on that math all the way up until last month.  G and B went home the week of Christmas, and after I took a few days to breathe, I realized foster families don't add up the same way.

In retrospect, it seems silly to me that I never considered that my assumptions based on families with only biological kids might not apply to families with foster kids.  Moreover, how nearsighted that I didn't think to ask any foster parents in my initial conversations.

Of course I wouldn't change my decision to have my biological children.  I adore Z, V, and L, and am so glad to be blessed with each of them.  I also know that we will foster parent again.  It's such important work, and the fact that it's difficult only underscores for me how well equipped we are to handle it.

Clearly, we are still going to have a "big" family.  However, I have to make this just as clear: the words I have been saying for eight years now about family size are utterly wrong.

In a family with only bio-kids, three is the same as four is the same as seven is the same as twelve.  After you have three biological children, you might as well keep going.  In a family with foster kids, though, each set of children gets added separately.  Parenting G and B along with Z, V, and L was not like parenting five kids.  It was like parenting two kids and three kids.  G and B never fit right into how we were already doing things.  Because of their pre-existing patterns, needs, and behaviors, and because of the requirements of the state surrounding kids in foster care, G and B required a complete re-engineering of the general enterprise of family life.  So much of what required change, too, wasn't accountable for in advance, so there's no good way to plan ahead for the next set of kids to join our family.

In the end, though, I suppose I'm only surprised about how surprised I was that the math is just different for foster families.