26 December 2013

Number Matching Craft

I decided a few years ago we weren't going to be an Elf on the Shelf family each year the holidays rolled around. But with Nerd having turned 2 in October, I wanted to try to start some kind of fun holiday tradition (sans badly-behaved elf), so I gave the advent calendar a try. I looked up all kinds of activity ideas--baking cookies, making crafts, donating old clothes and toys--for each day of the month leading up to Christmas Eve. Then I cut and pasted pretty number print outs to card stock and hung them neatly for Nerd to pull off each day. I was psyched. 

The month started out strong. Nerd reminded me it was "time to pick a number" whenever I brought her home from the sitter. She also tried pulling down 3 or 4 at a time or skipped the search for the correct number and would pull one at random. It made for fun teachable moments, including Nerd learning what patience is all about.

 But between my hours at work, being a mommy, and then falling ill with a stomach virus (which was almost immediately followed by the flu), most of the advent actictivities were ignored. I didn't have it in me to carry my own child up the stairs, much less set up a painting activity for Day #10 when I'm hugging the toilet and fearing an ER visit.


When I was finally out of at-home quarantine and allowed to touch my kid without having to wear rubber gloves and a surgical mask, I began to wing it with the activities. Candlelit bubble bath in the master bath. Go out to dinner as a family. Call Nana on FaceTime.

There was one activity, though, that we both ended up liking. It was so stinking easy, and it tested Nerd's number recognition, making it a craft that was educational. Here's what I used:
•one sheet of green construction paper
•one black Sharpie marker
•10 or more brightly-colored circle stickers

Then in my very best 6-year-old-level freehand, I drew an outline of a Christmas tree. I numbered 10 of the stickers 1-10, followed by writing the same numbers all over the tree, but out of order.

I told Nerd to match the numbered stickers to the same number on the tree. We did go in order, and even though I helped, she really did most of the work. She even read the numbers out loud to me and told me, "These go together!" And most of her matches were correct! The stickers on the "tree" looked like decorative ball ornaments, and Nerd kept adding blank circles to the tree once she completed the task.

I could see this educational craft done a number of ways. You could change the numbers to letters, shapes, animals, or sight words, depending on the age of your child. You also wouldn't have to make the background a Christmas tree. It could be just a blank sheet of paper, or all you parents with actual art skills (the ones I lack) could go wild and make a detailed scene at the aquarium or in the woods.

As for next year, I might cop out and get Nerd a store-bought advent calendar with punch-out doors and tiny chocolates. The daily activities can be pared down to the weekends and days Mommy isn't ralphing hot wings.

06 December 2013

Kids and Their Epic Lack of Age Awarness

Most of you know I went back to my career in education this fall after 15 months of being a stay-at-home mom. Minus all the bureaucratic and political bullhonk surrounding the profession, I really love teaching. The level of excitement I reach when kids learn something because of me borders on unhealthy, but I live for those "lightbulb moments". Obviously, it wasn't too difficult to make the decision to go back to the classroom.

And, of course, you work with kids, and they are going to say some pretty darn hilarious things.

A few weeks ago, a student (let's call him "JC") asked an innocent question that had me busting a gut.

Our schedule for rotating classes was a little unusual, so our class segments were cut short. We took the opportunity to create flash cards for vocabulary words in animal classification. The end of class was approaching, and several students were already quizzing each other with their cards.

As I walked around to check in on their progress, one boy studied my face and asked, "So you're like 20?"

Yes, this is the question that had me falling apart with laughter. Not just 9 years ago when I started my career, a student had taken me for 50...and I was fresh out of college at a mere 22. Obviously, kids in elementary school have an epic lack of age awareness.

After I regained my composure, I told JC that 20-year-olds aren't legally old enough to teach in the state.

JC wanted to try again, "25?"

"Nope. Keep going."



"There's no way you're in your 30's! You're way too fun to be older than that." (OK, maybe he was sucking up a little bit.)

"Well, I hate to disappoint you, but this fun teacher is definitely in her 30's," I answered seriously. But I couldn't help myself when I jokingly said, "But now you are my favorite student. You think I look younger than I really am."

Not wanting to be beat out by JC, the girl sitting next to him piped up, "Yeah, well, I thought you were 18!"

It's cute when they suck up. Sometimes.

So what I have learned from such conversations with kiddos is that I'm aging backwards. This means by the time I hit 40, I should pass for the neighborhood babysitter, and by 50, I'll be ready for juice boxes and light-up velcro sneakers. Who needs wrinkle cream when you've got students who will unknowingly flatter you with their misconceptions in aging?

24 July 2013

The Minivan Text Messenger vs. My Inner Mama Bear

Between the day I got my driver's license at 17 and my current ripe ol' age of 31, I can confidently say that I have never been in a car accident. *knock on wood*

But I've come pretty darn close, and each close call was due to another driver's ignorance or impatience.

There was the time a guy in a Jeep realized he was getting off at the wrong exit, made a sharp left back onto the highway, and almost pushed me into a car coming up on my left in the fast lane. (I still have flashbacks each time I pass the exit.)

Then there have been countless red light runners who would rather take out your front bumper than wait another 2 minutes for the next green light. And there are those who hesitate before they pull out in front of you.

Let's not forget the tailpipe kissers, the without-a-blinker lane changers, and the "I'm late for work and need my mascara" rearview mirror make-up applicators.

Seriously. Get off my bumper. Wave your "I'm in asshat" banner before you cut me off in traffic. Apply your mascara in the bathroom mirror at the office because we all know that's where you're going to take the day's selfie anyway.

But there is nothing--and I mean NOTHING--that aggravates my road rage and inner mama bear like those who text and drive.

A few weeks ago, someone's impatience caused a near-accident with my car. But this time, my toddler was asleep in the back. I was taking our usual route home from swim lessons on the 4-lane divided highway between Athens and our home in Jefferson. I came up behind a minivan who was driving roughly 15 under the speed limit in the right lane, so I decided to pass her on the left. This isn't anything out of the ordinary for any driver. Don't want to drive 40 in a 55? Pass on the left. Done.

Or so I thought. As I came up alongside the minivan, it began to drift into my lane. Not just an inch or so. It came over far enough that the dotted white line was nearly at the middle of the van's front axle. And I had to veer left toward the median to avoid having my front right quarter panel being hit.

The right side of our station wagon is also the side where our toddler's car seat is installed. You want to know panic? My child's life flashed before my eyes as I prepared for the possibility of metal-to-metal impact.

There are roughly 2-3 seconds of heavy assessment blowing wildly through your mind as this is happening. Do I lay on the horn? It'll wake up my sleeping child. Maybe the driver has fallen asleep at the wheel after pulling the night shift as a NICU nurse and I need to blow the horn. But then my child will cry. Or maybe the driver is out cold from a narcoleptic episode. [I actually saw this once at a traffic light when I was 18--still can't shake the image of that guy simply passing out, slumping over, and then just coming to and driving off.] Maybe she's having an out-of-the-blue medical emergency, like a stroke or a seizure, so horn honking won't help.

Basically, I was giving the driver the benefit of the doubt.

I slowed, and the minivan moved back into its lane. After righting our car in our lane, I pulled up alongside the van to see what caused our almost-accident.

My jaw hit the floorboard.

The woman had both hands on her cell phone--as in, her elbows were doing the "driving"--typing intently with her eyes on the screen and not at all on the road.

There was instant teeth grinding and dashboard pounding and lots of colorful words blowing up in my skull.

My eyes bore a hole through her window, and eventually she felt my gaze. I wanted her to look back at me. She had to be witness to the outrage on my face. She had to see the questioning in my eyes as to why she thought her text message was so much more important than my life or the one that slept so snugly with her stuffed penguin tucked under her arm.

The look on her face revealed instant mortification. It was obvious she was imagining how her apathy toward driving laws could have caused more than just a trip to the body shop. I'm going to guess that texting while driving is something the woman does all the time, thinking that if she drives slowly enough, she won't cause a wreck. Maybe she thought texting while driving was one of those tasks you simply master over time, like sipping a soda or changing the radio station.

Or maybe it was her first time and she thought, "Just this once..."

But whether she was an habitual texter or a first-timer doesn't mean squat to me. She had been caught in the act, and it was by someone who was driving with her child. And all I wanted to ask her:
Was your message worth it? Was it worth risking a 19-month-old's life?
So here's my soapbox stance on texting while driving:

Don't do it. Ever. Not with one hand on the wheel. Not while you're backing out of a parking spot. Not even while you wait at a stop light or in line at the drive-through for your daily Starbucks. There is no "exception to the rule". Do you think on those occasions when I'm driving sans toddler it suddenly means I have the freedom to text? Um, no. It's about as dumb an argument as saying that a child-free car is less of a threat with an intoxicated driver.

When you are behind the wheel, you have accepted a very serious responsibility to move your being from one location to the next via a machine that weighs a few THOUSAND pounds. You have to multi-task like you've never multi-tasked before: Read road signs. Check your speed. Check your mirrors. Check your "check engine" light. Press the clutch at just the right moment. Yield when drivers way less intelligent than yourself drive the wrong way in a one-way aisle of the grocery store parking lot. Slow down when someone passes you on the left. Change the radio station when Nickelback comes on. Speed up when you pull onto the interstate. Run your lights and wipers in the rain. Avoid hitting squirrels. Avoid hitting moose. Don't get lost. Don't get stuck in the mud. Call AAA when you get a flat tire.

So why would you want to throw in one more distraction? I have enough to worry about while I'm driving, and I'd rather not have to spend my energy trying to play Frogger with highway texters.

Maybe I'm the only one in this country who is emotionally affected by the Don't Text and Drive campaign ads. Someone dies or is gravely injured because they were texting while behind the wheel or as a result of being struck by someone doing it. Then they show the text message and ask, "Was it worth it?"

Or how about this BMW ad from the summer of 2011? The irony of the ad rings truer today than 2 years ago.

We are a culture where we are more obsessed with survival tactics for a zombie apocalypse or keeping up with the Crapdashians than we are about driving safety. I've listened to friends as they complain about the mom who "should be breastfeeding" or about the rude old man who cut in front of them in line for ice cream.

I'd much rather get into a heated debate over bottle feeding vs. breastfeeding or an encounter with some dodgy old guy over encountering an idiot who is texting while driving.

And while I'm at it, driving safety doesn't just stop at texting while driving. People take photos of all kinds of stuff while they're driving--vanity plates, misspellings on billboards, rainbows--and then take the time to post it on Instagram or Facebook.

Why is it so friggin' difficult to WAIT until you're out of the car? Or at the very least, in park?

I don't care if you're a surgeon and you are sending a message to a patient to let them know they are finally getting a heart transplant. Don't send that message when you're driving. Do it when you're getting a pedicure or reeling in a marlin or climbing up Everest. But not when you are behind the wheel because you better believe that if your texting behaviors cause any harm to my child, you will rue the day you bought a smartphone.
 On average, texting causes drivers to look away from the road for 4.6 seconds. At 55 mph, the vehicle travels the length of an entire football field - including both end zones - while the driver isn’t looking. (http://www.focusdriven.org/texting)

09 July 2013

The Tomato Hornworm: Enemy to Your Garden

This is the tomato hornworm:

"I must eat your pepper plant! Nom nom nom..."
I found this guy in our garden this morning, and I never invited him.

Every year, our tomato and pepper plants suffer limb-stripping from the hornworm. Do you know how frustrating it is to go on a garden walk a notice tomato stems completely void of their leaves? Hornworm be damned for messing up our tomatoes' chances at proper photosynthesis!

And when you follow the stripped limbs to find the culprit, they are a booger to find against the remaining foliage, especially if they're still small. As you can see from the photo, this morning's hornworm find wasn't terribly difficult because he's obviously been feasting on a smorgasbord of veggie leaves. Sure, they grow into cool-looking moths, but this isn't your typical cuddly caterpillar. Hornworms will buck at you when you try to pluck them off, and they have a nasty red hook on their tails (hence, their name). They don't even leave behind tiny caterpillar poos. They will crap all over your garden with giant hornworm poop called frass.

Yes, you read that right. There is an official name for hornworm poop.

This guy is out to destroy your crop. You must seek and destroy, but try to avoid insecticide if at all possible. They can kill the pollinating bees and butterflies you actually need. So when you come across a hornworm, pluck him off the plant and kill him. If you try to be nice to him and toss him in the woods, he will just come back. But he'll be pissed that you made him walk all that way and he'll be hungrier than before. So stomp on him with your boot. Cut him in half with your garden sheers. Impale him with a stick.

13 June 2013

Baby Bites: Squash and Zucchini Quinoa

We harvested squash, zucchini, and red onion recently from our garden, so I wanted to come up with a recipe for Nerd that included it all. And the squash and zucchini will be producing boatloads all summer. This will probably be one of many ways we prepare it this year!

Both squash and zucchini are good sources of potassium and dietary fiber. Quinoa is also a great source of fiber, but it also contains iron, manganese (great for bone health), folate, and protein. Onions supply vitamin C. Together, these ingredients make a great balanced main dish for your tot (or side dish for yourself...because I totally ate spoonful after spoonful straight from the pan). Nerd asked for thirds.

Fresh, homegrown zucchini and yellow squash with quinoa.

  • 1 yellow squash, diced
  • 1 zucchini, diced
  • 1 small onion, sliced in half moons
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2-2/3 cup low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1/4-1/3 cup quinoa (I used red quinoa from Trader Joe's)
  • freshly-cracked pepper, to taste
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
***Note: The reason why there are variances in the amounts of chicken broth and quinoa is due to the fact that I had to add more chicken broth during cooking. The quinoa will differ depending upon how much you want. I think I'll be adding more next time.


Heat the oil in a large skillet on medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, allowing it to cook only long enough to release the aromatics (1-2 minutes). Then dump in the diced squash and zucchini. Sauté for 5-7 minutes, or until the squashes become soft and lightly translucent.

Add the chicken broth, quinoa, and pepper. Bring to a boil, throw back the heat, cover, and allow to simmer for roughly 20-25 minutes. You'll know it's done when the quinoa is tender.

Finally, take a potato masher and squish everything in the skillet. This isn't required, but I did it because it reminds me of the texture of my mom's cooked squash when I was a child.

  • If you want to make this meal for a child under 12 months, throw it all into a blender for a tasty puree.
  • Use a micro-zester to grate a little fresh Parmesan on top. (Anyone notice a pattern in my recipes? I love Parm as an option for topping so many dishes!)
  • Want a little more spice? Add 1/2 to 1 tsp of ground cayenne pepper.
  • Don't have zucchini? Double up on yellow squash. Or vice versa if you don't have yellow squash.
  • Have the grill fired up? Throw your veggies on the grill for an added smoky flavor before simmering in the broth.

Let me know if you try a recipe! I'd like to hear feedback or any tweaks in ingredients or methods you try. Enjoy!

11 June 2013

Update: Nerd Changed her Tune about the Pool

So remember this post from a few days ago? Yeah, Nerd hasn't liked the water since we started swim lessons this summer, despite her affinity for it last year. But since that post was a rather long read, here's the Reader's Digest version: four lessons in, Nerd cries like she's having bamboo shoved under her fingernails; I ask for a refund; jackmuffin employee tells me I'm giving up on my kid; new instructor swoops in and offers me private lessons; I accept and schedule another lesson; I promise to take Nerd to a pool in the meantime.

Upon hearing my desire to find a pool for Nerd, our neighbor recommended an aquatic center in Gainesville where she has taken her kids before. She tells me the place is super-duper kid friendly. Slides. Fountains. Splash pad. Zero-entry pool. Water buckets and guns.

In other words, it's Stimulation City. Water every-flippin'-where, and it would be noisier than a dryer full of quarters. It sounds perfect. If Nerd cried, we wouldn't have a room of judgy parents staring and wondering why we won't leave. No one would care that water makes her cry because they'd be wrapped up in their own kids having fun.

So we drove Nerd out to Gainesville last Saturday to give this place a chance. Aside from the fact it's being run by a bunch of overly-tan teenagers who know everything about puka shell anklets and jack about swim diapers, the place is amazing. It's clean and appealing. I wanted to be 10 again.

We get Nerd in her swim diaper and take her to the splash pad. She's not having it. We try the zero-entry pool. She starts the "bye pool" screaming fits. We push and encourage and show her she's safe. There's no convincing her.

We take a popcorn break, and all is right in the world.

But of course we didn't plunk down $20 to leave after 15 minutes. She's going to cry, but we're going to keep pushing.

Back in the water we go. We put our hands in the mini-geysers and splash in the water, smiling hard enough to lock our jaws and singing every song we can think of that makes Nerd happy. Still nothing. Happy songs in water does not equal happy Nerd in water.

We take another popcorn break.

We're still not done. We take her back to the fountains, where this time, two other toddler girls are playing happily. One is roly poly with black curly hair in a single ponytail. She is straight up shoving her little face into one of the geysers and running away squealing to her mom. The other is very tall for her 21 months and practically bald. Her geyser play included stepping on them and waving her hands through them.

Nerd takes notice.

And then this happened:

And this:

Happiness. Pure joy. "Let ME put my face in it!" I almost exploded from the amount of pride I was experiencing.

This happiness continued even in the zero-entry pool where she repeatedly squatted to dunk her belly (on command), blew bubbles, and played Humpty Dumpty from the pool wall.

The only tears Nerd shed after that were when we had to go home.

Now who wants to say I give up on my child?

04 June 2013

Acting on a Gut Instinct at My Toddler's Swim Lesson

A friend of mine posted this Infant Swimming Resource video on Facebook a few months back.

Holy toddler survival swimming! The child in the video has to be 12 months, maybe 13? Whatever the child's age, he looks younger than Nerd--and he knows how to save himself if he accidentally entered a body of water.

Formal swimming lessons for our toddler had never really entered my mind. I was the overly-confident parent who thought I could teach her to blow bubbles and then put her in water wings until she was four. We'd get around to lessons when she was in preschool. But who has two thumbs and a fear of drowning? This mom. I was researching swimming programs in our area as soon as the video was over. I was not going to raise a child who shared my fear.

So I talked to a few of my friends about my interest in classes. Another couple, Ben and Krissy, shared the interest for their two young children, and we used lessons as an excuse to spend time together. We narrowed down swimming venues and eventually joined Mommy and Me classes together at an aquatic center between where each of us lives. Turns out the commute from our house is 30 miles one direction. To me, Nerd learning life-saving swim techniques would be worth the distance.

We arrived to our first class with a handful of other parents and their toddlers. Nerd was intrigued, but cautious. Once in the water, we formed a circle and sang along to "The Hokey Pokey". Nerd cried at times, looking to me for reassurance. While other tots tried blowing bubbles or kicking their legs behind them, I was distracting Nerd with lots of smiles and clapping and words of praise. Anything to keep her positive for the 30 minutes we were in the water. There were still some tears, but I figured she'd cry less with repeated exposure.

One thing you should understand: Nerd L-O-V-E-D the water last summer. I had her in the pool roughly once a week, and she took to it like a champ. In her floaty or splashing water while in my arms, she was a happy child in the pool. I asked Lauren, our instructor, if Nerd's behavior was normal. She told me that because it had been so long since Nerd's last pool experience, she had forgotten how fun it was. If Nerd had never been in the pool, the lesson would have been much worse--inconsolable crying and obvious fear. We had seven more lessons. Lauren put my mind at ease by telling me it would get better.

We attended the second and third lessons, and by a stroke of good luck, Ben, Krissy, me, and our children were the only ones in the class. But even with the small teacher-to-student ratio, Nerd's resistance to the lesson wasn't just growing, it was becoming downright uncomfortable. Not so much that she was howling in front of my friends. They were sympathetic and supportive. It was Nerd's distrust of Lauren. She was making a connection: pool meant lesson, lesson meant Lauren, Lauren meant bad.

This sucks for Lauren because she is a great instructor. She obviously knows what she's doing. She approaches Nerd with a calm and positive demeanor, walking away if Nerd really starts to lose it and banking on the moments when her crying is, um, less intense. There was even one "tough love" moment that I appreciated being a former educator. Lauren took Nerd in her arms, saying, "If you're going to cry with Momma, you're going to cry with me, and that's OK." My tot was only a foot away from me, wailing of course, but getting a moment of much-needed instruction.

Then the aquatic center changed the lesson schedule before the fourth lesson. They moved it to half an hour later so that they could combine us with other Mommy and Me classes, which were held in the same pool at the same time as another class for slightly older tots. This meant a lot of extra people in the pool room.

Nerd was as happy as could be, watching the lesson ahead of us and making friends with a little boy who shared our bench. She let me put on her swim diaper. She ate cheddar bunnies. She beamed when she made attempts at saying the word "pool". She even tried walking right up to the edge a few times.

When it was our turn, I scooped her up and started toward the water. Nerd saw Lauren and started crying. Out of instinct, I grabbed her stuffed penguin and brought it with us into the water. Hey, that's what washing machines are for, right? We were only on the second step, and Nerd started screaming, "Bye, pool! Bye, pool!" through her tears and snot. Lauren came over to us to gently ask about her penguin, and Mal screamed harder. She buckled her body and clawed at mine. If her penguin had been a real animal, she surely would have squeezed it to death.

I tried to move her hands and feet to the appropriate sections of "The Hokey Pokey". It was like trying to separate industrial-strength velcro. Krissy gave me a look of wanting to help, but the other mothers in the water were obviously disturbed by my child. We moved the class in a circle to encourage belly floating and kicking. Again, Nerd couldn't be pulled from my torso. And every time Lauren came near, Nerd would only shriek.

Eyes of parents from all around the room were watching the momma of the screaming child. Whether they were judging on the fact that I was pushing my child to her limit or that I allowed her plush binky in the water, I couldn't tell. But now I was every parent who ever had a child pitch a fit in public, and they were waiting for me to handle it.

So I did. Ten minutes into the lesson with all attempts at comforting my child having been exhausted, I removed my child from the pool. My gut told me this wasn't working, that Nerd needed time to forget Lauren and the chance to love the water--without an instructor. All three of us were dripping (penguin included) when I sat down with Nerd on the bench. I held her while she recovered, and we created an impressive puddle that ended up soaking our diaper bag. It took another ten excruciating minutes to change her into dry clothes, and our audience continued to glance over at us.

I walked out of the pool room, frustrated and confused. I was promised progress, and the opposite was happening. I asked the girl at the front desk for a refund for the remaining classes that we would not be attending. She could only guarantee a phone call from the instructor.

Out at our car, I strapped Nerd into her car seat, threw the wet diaper bag into the floorboard, and cried. I turned around in my seat to look at my daughter and told her how much I loved her.

Lauren left me a voicemail during our drive to ask us to keep coming to lessons. I appreciated her desire to push through, but my gut kept telling me we needed time.

Unfortunately, the frustration didn't end with me getting a refund. When I called the aquatic center back to speak with Lauren, she had already left for the day and I ended up speaking to a gentleman. I forget his name, but he must have been some sort of manager or owner. He listened to my concern about how my child was only putting up more and more of a fight, that I didn't think the instructor was a match for my child, that I felt we needed separation and the chance to come back when I felt she was ready, and he went on the defense:

Maybe she can sense your fear of water and she's reacting to it. Sometimes, you just have to be told things you don't want to hear. You're not doing your child any favors giving up on her now. I've been in this business long enough to know that you do a child this way, and they'll go off to kindergarten with serious separation anxiety issues.
Who in the hell did this guy think he was talking to? Had I spoken to one of my students' parents the way he was speaking to me, I would have been taken before the board and fired. But we weren't in a government-funded classroom, and I was the customer instead of the service provider. If he was going to play the "it's my profession" card, then I was going to throw down mine:
I think I know a little something about encouraging children to persevere and issues with separation anxiety. I was an educator for almost a decade before I decided to stay at home with my child!

This ass waffle would never know that I used to spend an hour trying to encourage a child on the autism spectrum to sit still in her chair or bubble in her scantron during CRCT, despite bouts of screaming, biting, and pencil-breaking. He would never know how I lost sleep over trying to figure out ways to teach my ELL students how to divide in a way that made sense or that I stayed after work every Friday afternoon to tutor kids who needed it.

But upon hearing "educator", he backpedaled a bit. No refund could be offered, nor any promise of a solution if the next four classes were only met with uncontrollable crying and koala-level clinging. The best they could do was offer private lesson conversions with a different instructor. I was more open to that idea, but the way the guy was handling the conversation had me fuming. He doesn't know my child. He hadn't been the one holding her in the water through four unbearable classes.

The conversation ended with him taking my name and number, promising a returned call from an instructor. No one called. I tried them this morning, again being told they would get an instructor in touch with me as soon as they came in for morning classes. Still no call.

I acted on instinct, and I stand by my decision to leave the class. It's hard enough to be a mom, and even harder when you are trying to enjoy a class that's meant to be learning masked by fun, like water safety instruction. If that guy thinks I'm giving up on my child, then he can just continue to think that way and be a jerk. I am staying open to other options they want to offer me, as long as they uphold their end to treat me as a customer who isn't satisfied with the results I was promised. It looks like we'll get private lessons, or the Better Business Bureau will be getting a phone call.

28 May 2013

5 Steps to Better Tomatoes

I didn't always like tomatoes. In fact, I grew up hating them.

Y'all (insert overly Southern accent here), I was born and raised in Georgia where every roadside stand sells tomatoes and every old lady between Valdosta and Ellijay grows them in her garden.

And I spent most of my life having feelings of disgust toward this regional staple.

So one day not long after graduating college, I was bored and got lost in a long train of thought relating to food (yeah, I'm that kind of dork). I had been picky long enough, and I decided I was a dumbass for not liking tomatoes. I walked to the grocery store behind the apartment I shared with my friend, bought a tomato, took it back to our kitchen table, and ate it. The twenty-two years of hatred between woman and fruit ended right there in apartment A17. And every week on my grocery run, I bought another tomato and found a way to put it in my diet: salad topping, sandwich layer, chunked on pasta.

I didn't know whether to call my mom to brag that I was no longer as picky as my 8-year-old self, or call Italy and ask forgiveness for my prior stupidity.

Tomatoes are not only one of our favorite foods to cook with and eat, they are also one of our favorite crops to grow. Even though you can buy a tomato plant at any feed and seed store, they do require more than a hole in the ground to produce the gigantic, bright red fruit you see in the produce department. Here are some of our personal practices that help us harvest tomatoes worthy of anything from a burger to homemade pasta sauce.
  1. Give them nutrients. This goes way beyond planting them in well-conditioned soil (BTW--we condition with homemade compost and/or composted cow manure). Create a fertilizing schedule and do your best to stick to it. Aim for fertilizing once per week with veggie-friendly fertilizer. Fertilizers with 10-10-10 and 3-4-6 ratios (ratio of nitrogen-phosphate-potash) are a great place to start. If you are going the truly organic route, use banana peels, epsom salt, and fireplace/wood ash in your soil. Banana peels add potassium. A couple of tablespoons of epsom salt to the base of each plant every two weeks give a magnesium boost. Wood ash contains potassium and lime.
  2. Water the RIGHT way. It's easy to get into the habit of broadcasting the spray from your hose. It's what you see folks doing on TV. But when you garden is small scale like ours, this kind of watering really isn't the most effective way to hydrate your tomatoes (or most other plants, for that matter). Broadcast watering is more waste than help. Water gets "lost" in the atmosphere, and you're making the leaves and stems of your plants susceptible to mold, mildew, and certain pests. So remember these three things when watering your tomatoes:
    • Water at the soil line (see photo).
    • Water regularly. 2-3 times per week is ideal if your summers are hot and dry like the ones we have in Georgia. Skip watering when it rains.
    • Water slowly. Use drip irrigation or deep-ground watering systems. We inverted milk jugs with small holes poked in the sides to send water slowly and directly to the roots (also in photo behind the tomato plant).
    • Aim for the base of the plant.
  3. Prune the plants. Let a tomato plant grow willy-nilly, and you'll grow lots of lovely leaves and not a whole lot of fruit. So aim to spend at least once a week pruning your indeterminate tomatoes to encourage each plant's energy into growing fruit.
  4. Identify a sucker before removing.
    • Start by removing the suckers. These are the shoots that grow between the main stem of the plant and an offshoot (see photo). When they are small, they are easy to remove with your fingers. If they happen to get rather large, use snips to remove.
    • You don't want leaves touching the ground (this encourages disease), so remove the leaves/offshoots from around the base of the plant.
    • If your tomatoes are determinate, just remove the suckers from the lower third of the plant.
  5. Mulch. Pine straw, cypress, wheat straw, pine bark, whatever. Laying mulch is one of those steps that should never be forgotten in gardening. It helps trap moisture in the soil around your plants on those hot days.
  6. Weed. Duh. There is a battle for nutrients between good plants and the evil ones. Don't let your tomatoes get cheated. Pull up those weeds, though. Spraying herbicide on weeds can kill your vegetables, and it can leach into future edible plants, which you would rather not consume.
There are many other tips and tricks you can use in your garden to produce bigger, juicier tomatoes, but I feel that these are a good place to start. Enjoy your harvest, and share your gardening successes in the comments section below!

04 May 2013

We Were Supposed to Move This Week

Have you ever attended a funeral where the sun was shining and birds were chirping? Or attended a local fair and fireworks show, only to have the summer's worst thunderstorm blow over the funnel cake stand and soak the Roman candles to utter uselessness?

In other words, have you ever felt that the weather didn't quite match up with the spirit of an event or your own personal mood?

Yeah. Me, too.

Except, this week, the weather has been a perfect match. The forecast called for sun and temperatures near 80. Instead, Mother Nature sent cool, cloudy days with drizzle and chilling winds. Great for our budding garden, and even better for our melancholic state of mind.

This is the week we would have moved 3,000 miles...to Vancouver, Washington. You can blame us for the sunless, Northwest-like weather we've had all week here in Georgia, but we won't feel a bit of guilt. We have welcomed the unusual change in the climate. It reminds me of what drew us to the Northwest in the first place. And it's perfect weather for sulking.

You see, ever since we visited Seattle and British Columbia a few years ago, we were determined to go back. Whether it be through travels or taking up permanent residence, we didn't care. We wanted milder winters and cooler summers. We wanted a longer growing season (hence, the weather--hello, deliciously fat tomatoes). We wanted access to the Pacific and countless national parks and open-air markets.

And I wanted to live amongst the hippies and tree huggers.

Then on the day we delivered Nerd, we decided to come up with a 7-year plan to start saving money for a down payment on a house and move our entire lives to the West Coast. (No joke--we were still in the mother and baby wing when this conversation began.) So when a hospital job opened in the tiny logging town of Longview, WA right before Christmas of 2012, we threw the 7-year plan out the window. Michael had been searching for jobs for months, and this one felt like the perfect fit. The job description was exactly what he does now. It was a drivable distance to both Seattle up north and the beach to the west. And the pay? Well, it would have been worth moving 3,000 miles with a toddler who hates her car seat and a dog who barfs on any car ride over 15 minutes. A call to the vet, and we could have a pack of potent tranquilizers for the road.

Without hesitation, Michael submitted his resume to the hospital. They gave him a phone interview. They loved him and wanted to meet face-to-face. The HR rep (stupidly) gave us a flicker of hope, telling Michael that the position had been open since the summer and that he was the first qualified candidate to apply.

So we started shopping for houses online. With the job in a town so small and...limiting...we turned our sights to Vancouver, right across the Columbia from the progressive city of Portland. I started scouting school districts and job openings in education. Hell, I even looked for jobs outside my career. I envisioned selling souvenirs in the Mt. Rainier gift shop or learning beer brewing techniques in Portland. I was pumped at the mere idea of new opportunity and experience.

Then it was time for the real interview. The hospital flew Michael through Portland for a long weekend, set him up with a rental car and hotel in Longview, and had him meet with a real estate agent who used to serve on the hospital board.

She drove him around town and showed him houses.


When he wasn't touring with locals, he was finding random coffee houses so he could write papers for his class and drive under the grey-veiled skies from riverside to oceanside. He texted photos. I pined.

Then the day of the interview came. I was a wreck just thinking about it. When I hadn't heard any news by the time I was bathing Nerd that evening, I was downright panicky. My husband was on the other side of the country, and I just knew he was laid up in a hospital bed with amnesia in some remote town, eating green Jell-O and being treated by a nurse who resembles Miranda Kerr. And of course, his phone had been left in a coffee shop in Astoria, so his doctors didn't know how to reach his next of kin.

After a dozen texts and as many phone calls, I finally heard from him. No amnesia. And no Miranda Kerr look-alikes. *phew*

He had been in the interview ALL DAY. Over six hours. He pretty much met everyone on staff and was treated to lunch. We knew it was a done deal. It would come down to numbers and finding a date in our crazy schedule to move. We told a handful of friends and family. Some were sad at the idea. Others couldn't bear it. We were silly with excitement.

I called a real estate agent. She came to our house the morning he got home from his return flight. She told me what walls to paint and that the spring was the best time to put a house on the market. How could everything feel so...right?

That was a Tuesday. The HR rep from the hospital called on Wednesday.

She told Michael they weren't offering him the position. Michael expressed surprise. She was just as surprised, having thought he was perfect for the job, especially since they had been searching for the right candidate for months.

And there it went. Our dream of being West Coasters. Poof, gone. I am one of those who believes everything happens for a reason, but I'm convinced the reason here was more about politics and resistance to outsiders.

So listen up, Washington (and Oregon and California, too, just in case): we'd make awesome residents on your side of the Lower 48. We drive an eco-friendly car, use green bags and cloth diapers, and recycle everything from beer bottles to toothpaste boxes. We promise to cut our grass on a regular basis and buy bicycles. Yeah, yeah, we'll pay our taxes and do our civic duty when asked to serve on a jury, but I assume you figured that out.

Yes, this would have been the week our lives would have changed dramatically. Thirty-one years in Georgia traded in for new years in Washington. And the chance to raise Nerd among West Coast hippies and hipsters.

For now, we'll just wallow in our gloom while the rainfall waxes and the daylight wanes. Mother Nature really delivered on this mood-matching game.

24 April 2013

Garden of Wynne 2013

You know it's spring at our house when we bring
our station wagon home full of seedlings.

This year's vegetable garden is (mostly) planted, and I have the itch to write about our gardening experience as the season unfolds. And with many of our friends having started their own gardens, calling us up for suggestions for anything from fertilizing to plant placement, I figured I could write a few posts about what is working/has worked for us.

Even when the husband and I had a humble apartment together, we were planting veggies. We weren't exactly replacing the pounds of tomatoes we were buying at Kroger, but we had to start somewhere. We utilized our concrete slab of a patio to raise 6 planters of the red fruit.

Things have changed a lot since then. Now we have 8 raised beds in the front yard, an herb bed in the back, and a wide variety of ornamental plants, including a crapload of bulb flowers (my favorite) and hostas that look like they're on steroids. We raise enough tomatoes and peppers to can sauces, salsa, and jelly to last through the next growing season.

(Which canning, by the way, isn't just for old Southern ladies who want to preserve peaches or pickle okra. Try it, and you'll never want to buy spaghetti sauce from the store ever again.)

And herbs? Some grow so prolifically (oregano, mint, lemon balm, chives), we have to give them away in bunches. Mint is delectable herb to add to tea or lemonade in the summer.

First tomato we ever grew. (2008)

Garden of Wynne today.
Space for turning cartwheels between the squash and peas. (2013)

It's been several weeks since I even sat down to write on the blog (stupid virus), but now it's time to get back into the habit and use my little blog to share what we do, know, and grow. Be warned: unrelated posts will undoubtedly pop up. Just be on the lookout for those related to gardening.

With all that said, this post will focus on the changes that we've made for this year's veggie patch in attempt to make up for the apathy we had in last summer's garden. Sure, we had success last year. I obviously had to have enough produce to make my garlicky tomato sauce. We just had an infant who took front and center, so we let some things slide (or die) when Nerd was busy entertaining us.

Here's what we're working on this year. Changes tend to be time- and money-savers. And with me being a tree-hugger, they're also green.

1. Make-shift deep ground irrigation. Summers here in the foothills of north Georgia are hot and very dry. This takes a toll on any plant. After doing some research, we found that funneling water to the roots was the answer. Other blogging farmers suggested using PVC pipe to do this, but we weren't interested in buying supplies. So we started saving milk jugs and soda bottles. Cut off the bottom, poke a bunch of small holes in the sides with a tiny screwdriver, and invert into the soil between plants (caps removed). Whether you fill them up with the hose or they fill with rain water, they are meant to be a direct line to those roots.

Recycle those plastic jugs--in the dirt.
2. Move the 'taters. We used to plant them in 2 full beds. This year, they are in a clearing beside the beds. It may have taken time to clear out the weeds, but it would have taken more time (and money) to build new beds. They get great filtered sunlight as they slowly mound. The path that cuts through is lined by fallen branches from our woods and covered in wheat straw we were already using for mulching in the beds. I wrote a post about growing potatoes 2 years ago that you can find here if you'd like to check it out.

Roughly 8 weeks of growth (weeds included).
I can already taste the hash browns.
Potato patch right after planting in early March 2013.

3. Netted trellis. I don't have a photo of this, but we are using grid-style nylon netting for training peas and climbing cucumbers. They were cheap at Home Depot, and I'm assuming with them being made of nylon, we will be able to use them again.

4. Soil conditioning with homemade compost. We've always had a compost pile, but we haven't really put it to use until this growing season. It has its pros (rich in nutrients) and cons (will grow anything, including lots of weeds!), but it saves the budget from having to condition with store-bought supplements. This is a topic on which I can write a separate post.

5.  Gardening with a toddler. We load up her wagon and spend quality time in the yard. She already knows what the watering can is for and insists on wearing her cap every time we go out. It's not always easy, but it's worth it. I just can't wait for harvest days. Nerd is sure to point and shout "BALL!" for every tomato on the vine she helps pick. I'll write a separate post about gardening with children. 

Nerd helping her momma.
6. Growing tomatoes with really cool names. I get it. It's not really "new" thing for the garden. But c'mon. Mortgage Lifter? Black Prince? Sun Sugar? Give me colors and sizes (seriously--who wouldn't want to see how big the Mortgage Lifter will get?), not the same ol' red orbs time and time again.

Happy gardening!

07 March 2013

Baby Bites: Thai Noodles

I'm addicted to researching recipes on Pinterest. It gives our rotation of family meals better variety, and it gives me the chance to try my hand at different cuisines. We were instant fans of the spicy Thai noodles recipe I pinned and made last week. And with as much as Nerd loves meals that include pasta, I took an already-easy recipe and made it even easier. I took out the heat component (seriously, guys, the original recipe very spicy) and dialed back the sodium.

Flavors galore.

  • 2 tbsp sesame oil
  • 2-3 tbsp honey
  • splash soy sauce or tamari sauce
  • 1 1/2 cups cut spaghetti
  • 2 large carrots, scrubbed and grated
  • 2 stalks green onion, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
  • bean sprouts and crushed peanuts (optional, for topping)
Cook the cut spaghetti in boiling water until al dente. Drain and set aside. Meanwhile, combine and whisk the sesame oil, honey, and splash of soy sauce in a small bowl. Pour over cooked pasta and toss until coated. Stir in the grated carrot, cilantro, and green onion. Serve warm. Top with bean sprouts and/or crushed peanuts if your toddler likes the texture.

Notes about this recipe:
  • Someone out there is freaking out about the inclusion of soy sauce in this recipe. Yes, I get it. It's packed with sodium, which is why I say to add only a splash of it. It gives the Thai sauce a hint of color and compliments the sweetness from the honey. If you're uncomfortable with even a trace amount of this stuff (or if you're allergic to soy-based foods), I'm sure the meal would taste fine without it.
  • Remember that recipes including honey are for children OVER the age of 1 year!
  • Onions can make babies and toddlers gassy. They're easy to omit if this is the case with your little one.
  • This meal is still amazing without the spice. I found myself eating spoonfuls of it whenever I prepared her a plate of it.

23 February 2013

Toddler Activity: Water Color Painting the High Chair Tray

Being a stay-at-home mom might be fun, but it can be tough coming up with ideas to keep Nerd entertained when she has a 5-minute attention span. This idea was inspired by a friend who is the mother of twin boys. She posted photos on Facebook of her sons using water colors to paint the inside of their bathtub. The boys were stripped down to their diapers, wielding their brushes proudly as they summoned their inner Picasso. It looked like so much fun.

As much as I loved the photos, I couldn't see Nerd painting the inside of the tub quite yet. If she climbed out of the tub, I'd have to chase a slick and smudgy child down the newly-painted hallway where she'd surely leave purple footprints and finger streaks.

Not happening. So after finishing her breakfast one morning, I set her up with a new case of Crayola watercolors and a cup of rinse water--to paint on her high chair tray. She was "locked in" to her seat, so she wasn't able to make a getaway. And she was already smocked in her waterproof bib. Once I showed her how to wet her brush, apply color to the bristles, and smear it across her tray, she was sold. We spent roughly 20 minutes "painting" her tray.

Playing in the cup of the "rinse water" was more about watching the smoky clouds of color seep off the brush than the importance of cleaning in between colors. They'll "get it" one day. Today, they'll squeal each time the water changes color.

This activity will be easier for toddlers who have learned how to hold eating utensils.

Dipping the brush in each color was pure toddler entertainment.

Now, toddler activities aren't always the smiley-happy-fun-times that some mom bloggers make them out to be. Every lesson teaches a child limits. Mommy's limits, mostly, but children learn their own limits, too. Nerd likes to grab everything and put it in her mouth, so I had to use a lot of "no ma'am" when the brush/water cup/paint tray made it up to her lips. It frustrates Nerd when I draw that line in the sand, but it's better to start now than wait until she's 10. But overall, it was a fun activity with my daughter and one that required minimal cleaning. We've had high chair art class twice more since the first one earlier this week, and each time is a little more fun.

Here are a few things I'd recommend if you do this activity:

  • Use masking tape or suction cups to secure the water cup to the tray. Once Nerd felt resistance in trying to pick up the cup, she quit trying. That means it didn't end up near her mouth, and she couldn't knock it over.
  • Also use masking tape to secure the paint tray to the inside of the case it came in. Nerd wanted to go Incredible Hulk on the flimsy strip of paint pots, bending it this way and that. Again, having to say "no" to her when she did this was not her favorite, so I didn't give her the chance to do it with subsequent painting sessions when I taped the strip down inside the case. That means less frustration for her!
  • Keep a wet rag nearby. I used it to wipe up each masterpiece once the tray was covered in paint. And since the paint is water-based, it will come out of your rag (just in case you're emotionally attached to it). It's also handy to wipe your toddler's hands and face when you're all finished with the fun.
  • Offer multiple ways to transfer the paint. The paint brush is cool, but there are other options to get the paint from pot to portrait. I showed Nerd how to use her fingertips to make prints--both on the tray and on the backs of my hands. Q-tips, cotton balls, and sponges would be awesome alternatives.
  • End the activity when they're over it. Don't force it. They're only toddlers, and once they've mentally checked out, it's in everyone's best interest to just clean up and move on to the next thing...outside of the high chair. :)

17 February 2013

Baby Bites: Chicken Noodle Soup

Nerd is pretty easy to please with most of the soup recipes I make for her, but chicken noodle seems to be a favorite. I made this on the fly one dreary, cold day since I had time, vegetables, and leftover garlic roasted chicken from a previous meal. This meal was quicker to make than I anticipated. It made enough to require some of it be stored in the freezer. I'd like to think it was the addition of zucchini that made it a winner in Nerd's book, but it was probably all those noodles that made her love it.

Good for the toddler soul.

  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 large carrots, scrubbed and chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 small zucchini, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 cup roasted chicken (I used breast meat), chopped or shredded
  • 4 cups homemade chicken stock (if you don't have homemade, use low-sodium chicken stock)
  • 1 1/2 cups uncooked cut spaghetti
  • 1-2 cups water
  • a hearty pinch of each: black pepper, dried thyme, dried basil

Heat the olive oil in the bottom of an enameled cast-iron pot on medium-high. Add the onion, carrot, celery, zucchini, and garlic, and allow to sauté until translucent (3-5 minutes). Carefully pour in the stock. If you feel it looks a little low in liquid (depending on how well it covers your sautéed veggies), add 1-2 cups water. Not only will this help stretch the recipe, it will also cut the already-low sodium content. Your baby doesn't need a super salty soup!

Add your roasted chicken, spaghetti, and herbs/pepper. Bring to a boil for roughly one minute, and then throw back the heat to low. Give it time to simmer until the pasta is just past al dente. Serve warm. Goes really well with crackers. We serve Nerd the Ritz Hint of Salt crackers with hers.


  • For my vegetarian moms: Use low-sodium veggie stock and substitute the chicken with another protein, like tofu or a favorite legume. I can see lentils or navy beans being a tasty choice.
  • Don't have time to roast a chicken? Pick one up at your local grocery store that has already been roasted for you. Stick with the chickens that aren't marinated in lots of overpowering flavors. They will throw off the flavors in your soup and could possibly add extra sodium or MSG (check those labels!). A simple, plain roasted chicken will do.
  • Can't find cut spaghetti? Use another small pasta variety, like alphabets, ditalini, or stars. That, or buy regular spaghetti and break them into smithereens!
  • On a gluten-free diet? Swap out the spaghetti for a gluten-free pasta or sub with brown rice. Then you can change the name to chicken and rice soup. ;)

30 January 2013

Baby Bites: Raspberry Mint Puree with Yogurt and Quinoa

When I started introducing solids to Nerd, I couldn't wait to make her purees that featured herbs from our garden. So once we were in the "all clear" zone in testing for allergies with berries, I turned to my most proliferative herb: mint. I like putting fresh mint in my tea or water in the summer. But I quickly discovered how perfectly its flavor compliments dishes featuring berries. Before Nerd turned one, her purees of berries and mint were quite simple. Only two ingredients and served over yogurt or rice cereal. Now that she's a toddler, I've added the wonder grain quinoa. It's packed with calcium, iron, and even lysine. Nerd will eat quinoa straight up, but in case your little one isn't a fan, this combo will hide the ingredient well.

Ready to be swirled together.

  • roughly 1 cup cooked quinoa, refrigerated
  • 1 package (roughly 14 oz.) frozen raspberries, thawed (blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, and/or cherries would work, too--I'm just partial to raspberries)
  • 10-15 fresh mint leaves, washed
  • 1-2 tbsp honey (ONLY if your child is over 1!!!)
  • natural yogurt (I used Stonyfield's whole milk vanilla yogurt)
Dump the thawed berries, mint leaves, and honey into your blender or food processor. Either chop or blend, depending on how smooth you want your puree to be for your little one. It's ready to serve.

Note: If your baby happens to be early in the stages of food introduction, you could add the quinoa to the ingredients in the blender and run it altogether. The photo above shows it being added in its whole cooked form added separately from the puree.

Grab the 4-6 oz. storage containers you use to hold baby food. Start scooping a couple of spoonfuls or yogurt into each container, followed by similar amounts of quinoa and berry puree until you run out of something. I ran out of puree first and stored the remaining quinoa for lunches and yogurt for breakfasts. Because I liked the puree so much myself, I ended up portioning a few containers of this combo for my own eating so I wouldn't have to freeze any of these for later use. Yeah, Nerd and I have had this for breakfast together for the past couple of mornings.

The puree is good enough to serve on its own, but remember to omit the honey if your child hasn't hit the age of one yet. It would also be a great spread on bread or crackers or as an alternative to syrup if you're serving pancakes or waffles.

23 January 2013

Write-A-Caption Wednesday

So when the hubs called to say he wouldn't be home for dinner (stupid meetings), I had to put away all the ingredients I had just laid out on the counter. I heard splashing, and this is what I found:

Exhibit A.

The super intelligent Mommy Nerd that I am gave her a paper towel to wipe herself up (because she knows how to "wipe her face"). And then this happened:

Exhibit B.

Can't wait to read the captions for Exhibits A & B. :)

16 January 2013

Baby Bites: Couscous with Tilapia and Veggies

It's been a few months since I last attempted making a couscous dish for Nerd. She liked it before, but I just keep trying Italian pasta dishes instead of giving couscous a fighting chance. Why? I think it's because the traditional version is so small, it can give your toddler couscous butt. What the bib doesn't catch ends up in the high chair and stuck here:

Hey, it's better than getting tomato sauce on their pants, right?

Aside from the potential mess, couscous is such a great food! It's the fastest pasta you'll ever cook (no joke--5 minutes from turning on the heat to fully cooked). I made this recipe while Nerd ate her breakfast and played with stacking cups in her high chair. Couscous also serves as a great base for whatever floats your flavor boat. For the grown-ups around here, we love it with sautéed asparagus and red bell pepper. In this on-the-fly recipe, I go for the bright aromatics of mirepoix (yeah, I'm going French on ya today) with a mild whitefish to satisfy the body's need for omega-3s.


  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, chopped
  • 1 green onion or small sweet onion, chopped
  • 1/3 cup frozen sweet peas
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup uncooked, unflavored couscous (pearl couscous isn't as messy, but as you'll see by my photos, it's not what I had in my cabinets...)
  • 1 1/4 cup water
  • 1 filet tilapia or mild whitefish (NO BONES!)
  • tiny pinches of dried thyme, basil, black ground pepper, and parsley (fresh will work, too, but it's currently winter and they're not growing in our garden...and I hate paying for them in the grocery store...)
Boil the water in a pot and add the couscous. I always cut the heat and remove the pot from the eye as soon as I add the couscous. It doesn't really need to "cook", just soak up all the water. If you find it on the dry side, add more water or even a little bit of flavored broth.

Heat half of the oil in a small skillet on medium/medium high and add the chopped fresh veggies. Allow to sauté to release their aromatics, and then add the frozen peas. The veggies should cook until they are soft enough for your baby's bite. (Note: Toddlers will be able to handle chopped veggies. If your baby is younger than 12 months, you always have the option of putting them in the blender after removing them from the heat.)

This combo of veggies is great for any season.
Add the veggies to the cooked couscous. Using the same skillet for the veggies, pour in the remaining olive oil and throw on the tilapia filet. Cook it through, maybe 2-3 minutes on each side. Flake it with a fork (I did this on my cutting board) and mix in with the veggies and couscous. Stir in the dried herbs. Serve warm.

A little golden oil left from sautéing the vegetables will give the fish a beautiful color.

Aaaaannnnnddddd LUNCH!

Store up to 3 days in the fridge. I'm a little unsure about freezer storage (I just made this today, so we'll see if couscous stands up to the challenge). We've never had leftover couscous before, and making this recipe obviously planned for several meals for Nerd. Here's to hoping it can live on ice.

Nerd thoroughly enjoyed this meal at lunch today. For every pea she saw in her bowl, she excitedly exclaimed, "Ball!" and either shoved it in her mouth or smushed it with her thumb. Lunch and a show for this mom. Taste-wise? Nerd believes that this meal was worth getting couscous butt. ;)

  • Other combos your toddler may like atop their bed of couscous: asparagus, red bell pepper, and garlic; carrot, edamame, and leeks; chickpeas, cucumber, Kalamata olives, and feta cheese; shredded chicken, roasted tomatoes, and Parmesan.
  • Try using pearl couscous for a food that's easier for toddler fingers to grab if they like eating off of their tray. Each "piece" of pearl couscous is larger and therefore easier to get on a fork or spoon.

Write-A-Caption Wednesday

10 January 2013

Baby Bites: Stracciatella

We love preparing soups in the winter for a little soul-warming. Come to find, Nerd loves soups, too, which inspires me to get creative with recipe experimentation to meet her nutritional needs. One recipe that the hubs and I truly enjoy is straight from my Giada de Laurentiis cookbook: stracciatella. It's similar to egg drop soup in the way beaten eggs are carefully poured into hot stock to form silky strings. The recipe for stracciatella is simple and basic, opening up a world of possibilities in how the final product will look and taste. In this post, I share the combo of ingredients I used for a veggie-packed, toddler-friendly version of this grown-up soup. The edamame is the perfect addition to this soup with its protein power, and it's a great way to vary the fiber intake in your child's diet. And, as usual, I featured an ingredient from our garden. This time, it was Swiss chard!

Nutritious and colorful, just the way Nerd likes it.

  • 1-2 cloves of fresh garlic, minced
  • 1 large carrot, chopped finely
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large handful of Swiss chard, washed well and finely chopped
  • 2/3 cup shelled edamame
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 6 cups veggie stock (I used my homemade veggie stock--very tasty and low in sodium)
  • fresh thyme, leaves plucked from 5-6 strands
  • pepper, to taste

Heat the olive oil in a small skillet or sauté pan. Add the garlic and carrots, sautéing them until they are soft and slightly golden. This brings out the sweetness of these aromatics. Meanwhile, bring the stock to a boil in a large pot. Add the edamame. Allow to boil on high for roughly one minute, and then cut back the heat to medium-low to allow the edamame to simmer for the next 10-15 minutes. I left the pot uncovered while it simmered. Check the firmness of the edamame before the next steps, making sure they are soft enough for your toddler's bite.

Once the edamame has reached the desired softness, add in the sautéed garlic and carrot. Give it a minute or two before adding in the Swiss chard and fresh thyme. Stir well. The chard will wilt almost instantly. Throw in a dash of pepper. Finally, get the stock spinning in the pot by stirring forcefully. When you let go of your stirring spoon and the stock spins on its own, slowly add the beaten egg. It will cook as soon as it makes contact with the stock, forming those silky strands I mentioned earlier. Remove the pot from the heat and pour into a bowl for your little one. I let Nerd's bowl sit for a few minutes so that it was served to her warm, not right-from-the-stove hot. She liked her soup with a Ritz cracker crumbled into it.

This soup will keep in the fridge for 3 days. It freezes well, too. Don't keep it longer than 3 months in the freezer. And remember to thaw carefully in the fridge before heating up for your toddler's consumption.

Nerd shows us how much she loves a dish when she leans over her tray for the next bite.
With this soup, she grabbed the bowl and tried to drink it down.

  • Don't make your own stock? No worries. Opt for a low-sodium stock, preferably chicken or veggie in nature. If you don't have low-sodium stock in the house, use 3 cups stock and 3 cups water.
  • Have your toddler on a vegan diet? Then go for the veggie stock and leave out the egg. Tofu sautéed along with the garlic and carrot would be a great alternative to the egg, even though it won't have the same stringy effect.
  • Not sure about edamame? Or Swiss chard? Try using veggies with which you are more comfortable, like peas and spinach. Or lima beans and broccoli florets. You could even add a small chopped onion and celery stalk to the sauté pan with the garlic and carrot.
  • Don't let herbs limit your recipe. I used thyme because I had it from a previous recipe I made earlier in the week. Basil, oregano, and parsley would be great alternatives or would taste great in combination with one another. Fresh herbs usually taste better, in my opinion, but dried herbs will work, too. You usually have to use more when cooking with dry herbs.

04 January 2013

Baby Bites: Avocado and Cream Cheese Rollups

Nerd used to be an eater of all-things-made-by-Mommy. Now, all she wants are crackers. Morning. Noon. Night. In the back seat of the station wagon. *sigh*

So I tried making this ridiculously easy meal for her a few days ago. Even though she wouldn't eat it without me smushing it across the top of a Ritz, it still made it into her belly. Mommy wins.

  • a flour tortilla
  • cream cheese
  • avocado slices

Seriously, this might be the easiest thing I've ever made for the Nerd. I smeared a light layer of cream cheese across the entire flour tortilla. Then I arranged some avocado slices on about a third of the cream cheese layer. Finally, I rolled it up sushi-style and wrapped it tightly in plastic wrap. After a few minutes, I unwrapped it to reveal a nicely-set avocado roll that was easy enough to slice.

And like I said, the Nerd wouldn't eat it straight up, but it is easy to mold and manipulate with your fingers once cut into slices. It was perfect for topping those dern crackers!


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