Get outside, Family!

Get outside, Family!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Take time to climb a snow mountain

We’ve been really busy with holiday chores and errand running lately, and not always having time to get my little guy outside to play. I’ve been hurrying him a lot, too; to the car, from the car, from store to one-more-stop to home. He’s been dying to climb the giant snow piles the plows make around the parking lots. So when I picked him up from school one day this week I made sure we both had boots, mittens and hats. I let him go at it.
There were mountains and caves. The Evil Snow Queen’s lair. A snow bridge that had to be collapsed in order to stop her army. We tossed snow chunks down a hill to make an avalanche. We also visited a puddle that has frozen and melted into mud and refrozen repeatedly over the past month. He was fascinated to find it had frozen solid and we could see a metal washer and scrap of paper suspended in it. It was as slick and smooth as an ice rink, which is what it became for a while. Air bubbles were trapped in spheres and swirls. It was beautiful. I’m so glad we didn’t miss it.

Things in nature change every single day, if you look closely enough. It is always worth stopping to take a look. I want to always remember this, especially when I’m in a hurry.

Monday, December 16, 2013

My Get-Outside Gift List

If I were Santa and wanted to get kids outdoors on Christmas day, this is what I’d give them. Whadaya know, Santa has given my kids all of these things (or will be, so I hear)!
1.       Handheld GPS device. For geocaching, watching our progress on a hiking trail, and other fun.
2.       Rope ladders. Attach to a tree or swing set. Great for any weather.
3.       Snow molds, snowball maker, snow paint.
4.       Totally awesome sled.
5.       Rockets. Explosives aren’t necessary. We like the ones you can stomp into the air or set off with baking soda and vinegar.
6.      Remote-controlled vehicles.
7.     Bike stuff.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Train platform time!

We haven't baked Christmas cookies yet, but the boys have rebuilt the world multiple times on our miniature railroad display. The Chef has some special decorative trees and buildings that are set up in an off-limits part of the platform, kind of like a gated community. The rest of it we build with toys and stuff from the wooden train set, and that part gets rearranged almost daily. The Sous Chef and I thought we needed some “natural features.” So we collected rocks, moss and sticks, whipped up some homemade play dough, and created a miniature wilderness. At the moment it is populated by a plastic monkey and pink frog, but that will change tomorrow.

Small natural items, like sticks, stones, dried flowers, dried weeds, herbs, pinecones, bits of pine branches, moss, etc.
Play dough (recipe for homemade is below)
Cardboard pieces (such as from a cracker box)
Any clean paper, foil, plastic or arts and craft scraps

1.      Let anything wet or muddy dry out overnight.
2.       Cut cardboard into shapes for mounting. Small pieces can be the base for trees. Larger pieces can hold entire natural scenes.
3.       Mold play dough into hillsides or river banks. Make small balls to support the trees.
4.       Add the natural items. Moss makes wonderful grass. Pinecones and twigs look just like mini replicas of the “real” thing.
5.       Use whatever else you have on hand to create rivers, ponds, animals, tiny cabins, etc.

Homemade Play Dough – This recipe comes courtesy of the wonderful teachers at the HeartPrints Center for Early EducationCombine 2 cups of flour, 1 cup of salt, 1 TB cream of tartar. Heat 2 cups of water, 2 TB of oil and a food coloring until it boils. Then combine wet and dry ingredients, mixing with a spoon until it cools enough to knead with your hands. Store in an airtight container.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Kids outside while grownups cook

Thanksgiving is just about everyone’s favorite holiday, if you’re an adult. For kids, it’s a lot of waiting around for the adults to finish cooking. With the anticipation and pre-Christmas excitement, my boys are going to need to be running around outside as much as possible. So as I’ve been planning our turkey and sides, I’ve been thinking of ways to keep the kids busy outdoors.
(We’re in the middle of a snow storm here, so some of these ideas might get dropped in favor of plain old snow play.)
1.       Table decorations. One of the kids’ chores will be to collect natural items to display on the table and/or decorate the place cards. As motivation, I may need to make it a contest of who collects the most, with a reward of early dessert or something like that.
2.       Geocaching around the grandparents’ homes, each of whom we’ll be visiting over the coming days.
3.       Nature scavenger hunt. We’ve done this before with cousins of different ages working as a team, and it worked great. We’ll make the list together on our way to grandma’s house.
4.       Outdoor obstacle course.  Here’s a way to do it with leaves. We may try snow. 
5.       Traditional games played by Pilgrim and Wampanoag children. We could listen to this audio for inspiration. I’m guessing our crowd would like Blind Man’s Bluff.
6.       Toy bows and arrows. When I read that Wampanoag children played with these, I thought, “Hah! This is the answer! My boys will be out for hours!” I saw some very cute and safe bow-and-arrow toys with a foam “arrow” at a craft show last summer, but didn’t buy them. We don’t have time to make our own, but it may be worth a quick stop at the toy store. 
7.       Football. We’re not a huge football family, but a pick-up game can be a lot of fun with teams mixed of hard-core fans (like my husband or father) and others (like me) who don’t know a running back from a running game.

Have a happy holiday!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Turkey "hunting"

The Sous Chef and I “went hunting” for our turkey at Eichner’s Family Farm. They were sold out of holiday turkeys, so we had to order elsewhere. But we had fun checking out the birds in their pens while we were there. White feathery fluffs bunched together, sticking out their pink, bumpy heads to have a better look at us. When we make gobble-gobble sounds ourselves, it’s kind of a hard gob-bull, but coming from the turkeys altogether it seemed soft and melodious. One pen of fat ones was ready for Thanksgiving, a pen of smaller birds had more growing to do for Christmas. There was a time when seeing someone's future dinner still walking around would've turned my stomach. Now with a decade of sticking my hand in the cavities of turkeys and chickens to cook for my family, pulling out guts for gravy, and realizing how much we get from that animal in a meal, leftovers, soup stock and sandwiches, I felt appreciative, respectful even.
The smell was “yucky” to Sous Chef, but I told him that’s just because we aren’t used to it. Not sure I would ever get used to turkey poop. But we could take it for a little while, to pay our respects.
(The photo is of a turkey from the Knob Farm, owned by our relatives, which we visited last summer. I imagine that turkey is not having a good week.)
For a cute read about the fate of a turkey, check out "Run, Turkey, Run!" By Diane Mayr.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Eating in the car

Is it really eating while driving, if what I’m eating is a homemade potato taquito?


Car eating bugs me – I link it to fast food, too busy schedules, food dribbled down my front and a car that smells like restaurant carpeting. I mean really, we can’t just sit at a table somewhere with a napkin and plate? To me, it’s worse than eating at a keyboard or walking around the mall with a sandwich – and those gross me out, too. So when I was gobbling my taquitos behind the steering wheel – at a stop light, from a plate, with a napkin – I tried to hide my shame by slouching down in my seat and drifting past the drivers next to me.


And then I snapped out of it. Because the truth is my family snacks, drinks and dribbles in our vehicle almost every day. And I’m prepared to defend it. One of the biggest challenges I have to feeding my family well is having enough time to do it. If I eat my lunch on my way to picking up my son from school, maybe I can take a few minutes at home to boil potatoes for taquitos, or get one other thing done that needs doing. And I’m not cranky from hunger when I pick up my kid. Well, maybe a little cranky but not from hunger.


We spend a lot of time in our car. We don’t live in a walkable community or on a farm. We drive to the grocery, to school, to the playground, to the farmer’s market. Eating can make those dull, repetitive trips so much more productive. And interesting. There’s nothing like a package of crackers and drink box for passing 15 minutes of stop-and-go traffic.  Lately, I’ve been keeping wax lips and candy in the car to bribe/I mean reward my kids for not fighting on the way home. It’s always that last 10 minutes of a 25 or 30 minute trip where they go bananas. There are mints and gum (if there aren’t any left in the wrappers look on the floor) for real emergencies. And of course several days of coffee cups.


Many families I know like us, with kids involved in activities within a 20-mile radius from home, live out of their car in a similar way. We also keep brain "treats": game, books, building blocks, costume accessories, Bandaids, toy cars, dinosaurs, crayons, pens, window markers, notebooks, binoculars and balls. There’s back-up clothing. Lots of CDs (but no DVDs). We have one of those recorded-joke toys, too, but it needs new batteries. We talk. The kids make up songs about farting. Good times.


So my point to myself is that, we’re doing the best we can. It would be nice to walk or ride our bikes to the store, but at least we are spending time together. At least sometimes I am able to prepare homemade potato taquitos, and they are balanced on the steering wheel instead of a greasy sandwich.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Chef Zi Spice Dip

A little snack Chef Zi whipped up for himself. Cream cheese and a bunch of spices (a little cinnamon, paprika, garlic, cardamom...I think that covers it.) Great with celery.

Time for a change

It’s been so cold this week in Western Pennsylvania, after a beautiful October of sunny, mild days. It’s a shock to feel so uncomfortable outdoors; the internal heater needs a good kick. The kids complain that their hands are cold. Their winter coats from last year are too tight, hats feel itchy. It’s all I can do to get them outside for 20 minutes, when a week ago they were out for hours.
Without a doubt, being outdoors eases the stress in our household. Bad moods evaporate, arguments crumble. Fall days, with an intense blue sky and brilliant red and orange leaves, are like magic. I caught my eldest teaching his younger brother how to pump his legs on the swing. No bossing, teasing or belittling. And the younger one listened! No whining, teasing or kicking. The smiles on their faces were gold. Now that we’re suddenly indoors a lot more, the tension is high. The TV is on too much, they aren’t getting as much exercise. What I would give for another day to run around without our coats on.
The good times between them seem to happen in small windows when the younger one catches up to the older one just enough to get what his big brother is doing, and the older one is feeling confident in himself and comfortable in his skin enough to reach down to his little brother without seeing it as being a baby himself. And then everything changes; one grows some more, the other changes, too, and they have to re-figure out how to deal with each other again. So it’s kinda like the seasons changing, right? It takes weeks of being outside in summer sun to build a tan, tolerate sweat and pull out the right summer wear from the storage boxes. We acclimate. We get used to the heat and the bugs, and grow callouses on our bare feet. For winter we have to do it all over again. Figure out games and projects that keep us moving so we stay warm. Buy new coats. Remember the things we like to do outside in winter and find new ones (I’m thinking about geocaching this year). And we’ll love being out there again.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Scoot to school

Squeezing in a few precious minutes outdoors between car and school. I park at far end of lot to maximize the scoot.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Who wants old apples from New Zealand?

September is here, and we’ve got sapphire skies, new notebooks, fresh school shirts and orchards full of apples. But our local super market, Giant Eagle, is still carrying apples from New Zealand and Chile, instead of Pennsylvania. How can this be, when an apple tree in my neighborhood is so loaded with apples it looks like it’s dripping, and I was eating apples right off my great uncle’s tree in Central PA back in July? How could it possibly make sense that our grocery store apples come from the Southern Hemisphere in September? I was so stunned I contacted Giant Eagle and also the Pennsylvania Apple Marketing Program, an apple growers group. Both responded by e-mail right away. Julie Bancroft, Executive Director, PA Apple Marketing Program, clued me in that it actually is a tad early to be finding local apples at the grocery store. (They are, however, available at Whole Foods and Soergel Orchards in Wexford.) “We are very early into the apple season and are really only picking about three varieties that you would find at your local retailer (Ginger Gold, Gala and Honeycrisp, and just starting on McIntosh). Farmers markets may have a few more varieties available. Most PA varieties are harvested in late September and even more so through October. “Consumers have come to expect year-round availability of their favorite varieties. The reality is that even with cold storage, not all local varieties are available year round. So, while a retailer may prefer to be able to locally source apples and other produce for that matter, they will source based on availability in order to meet consumer demand.” Of course she’s right about customers being spoiled by year-round fresh produce; I’ve certainly enjoyed my share of juicy melons on snowy January mornings, all of them from tropical climes a plane ride away. But gosh, it’s hard to buy local and in-season when you can’t find what is in season. Fortunately, Giant Eagle tells me that PA apples will appear very soon. From Giant Eagle: “This time of year, we are transitioning into new crop apples. Right now, we have McIntosh, Paula Red and Gold Delicious apples from Pennsylvania. As new varieties become available such as red delicious, jonathans, galas and Red Rome apples, we will be sure to have them at all locations.” Julie added this helpful tip for knowing that what you buy is from PA: “If you are unable to identify apples as being from Pennsylvania, I would encourage you to select apples labeled "Eastern Apples" as they are from family-owned and operated farms on the Eastern Seaboard including Pennsylvania. “ Good to know. Here's an article about how it's supposed to be a great apple year.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Check out this edible model of the skeletal and muscular systems Chef Zi made for science camp! Well done!

Eat green beans!

They are never better than right now.

Our experiential garden

One good thing about waiting until July to plant a vegetable garden is that the veggies are dirt cheap. (Less than dirt, if you are actually buying dirt.) If we get one vegetable out of it, it will have paid for itself. And that may be all we get. While the pepper plants came with bitty peppers on them, they haven't grown much. The sun has already shifted so that shade falls on our garden plot in early morning and late afternoon. Now the asparagus, lettuce and cucumber plants, they are doing just fine -- so fine that something has been dining on them. But it's all good because this garden gives us something to new to see every day. We'll learn for future efforts.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Horror in farm fields

As I was blog-whining about having to drive around running errands and baking quiche, PBS Frontline came on with a piece about migrant workers in American produce fields being assaulted. I had never, ever heard of that happening before. When we buy inexpensive food, someone is paying. Here is the link.

Can't hit 'em all out of the ballpark

One of my goals this summer is to not let any CSA vegetables go to waste. That means cooking every bit of kale and collard greens that come our way. Time was short. My family likes eggs, Bisquick and Romano cheese. And they usually will eat greens like swiss chard and spinach. So I made a quick and easy “quiche”, tossing in some chopped and blanched kale and chard for the green. My husband was a good sport about it. The kids wouldn’t touch it.

CSA and Walmart on same day

These are the contradictions of my small, somewhat thoughtful suburban life: On the same day that I picked up our first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share box of the season, filled to the brim with fresh, local produce, I shopped at Wal-mart. I hardly ever go there; I took an entire class in college about how Walmart was bulldozing mom-and-pop stores out of existence. Plus, I feel completely stressed by the number of deals and bargains everywhere I look. Everything is screaming at me, buy, buy, buy. Anyway, I went in there for just one thing, I swear. It was a water gun just like the ones the neighbors have so my son could join in the fun. I walked out with $100 worth of stuff. I’m not sure my Wal-Mart excursion was really something to feel guilty about. Every item was on my mental list of things that I needed to buy. Instead of driving around and making six stops, I took care of it all in one stop. And I saved a lot of money, for real. All good, right? Well, the really cheap organic top soil was kind of sludgy. The shorts I bought the kids didn't fit right, had to go back. So much for saving time. Now the CSA box... that was a dream. Plump strawberries that taste so much like strawberries they remind me of strawberry-flavored bubble gum. And a whole lot of green. Just right!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Try, try, try again

It’s hard to write a blog. Just like it’s hard to make dinner. And shop local. And do anything outside of what is right in front of you, in a box, already chopped, and squeezed through a machine into the shape of chicken nuggets and frozen French fries. But we’re going to try again. It’s summer and the local strawberries and asparagus are in. The farmer’s markets are opening. Our first CSA box will be ready next week. It is the easiest peasiest time of the year to put together something good to eat. Plus there’s no more homework, and a little less running around (although summer is still busy for us). So there should be no problem getting decent dinners to our table. Right? As for blogging, we’re going to give that another try, too. The Chef has promised to help. Today, the first day of the rest of our summer, includes a stop at a nearby farm market for their strawberries and asparagus. Beautiful.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

We did end up skipping swimming (the Chef has a bad cold), which took the pressure off. So we altered the plan a bit and made super simple soup, which was chopping carrots and celery and simmering in beef stock. All started off relaxed and under control. Then I started trying to help the Chef with his homework while cooking, and things got crazy. The broth boiled over and I forgot to add the pasta. Through it all, though, Baby Zi proved that he is way past the "baby" title and a full-fledged Chef Zi. We'll have to come up with a name for him soon. Anyway, he stood beside me on his chair sawing celery with a dulled steak knife, which was pretty helpful. He ate about half of it then. The kids always seem to snack on the veggies they cut. Raw potato, broccoli, green beans. They won't always eat them cooked, or even if I try to serve them raw at the table. But when they are working with them, they eat them. Interesting.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Back in the apron

We took a long coffee break here at Chef Zi and are glad to be back. Our silence didn't mean we had nothing to say. Just no time to say it, and also make dinner! But we've missed our blog. And I just got a new smart phone and figured out how to use it to blog while sitting in line waiting to pick up the Chef at school.So here we go... Tonight is one of those nights, where I have absolutely nothing planned and very limited time. Here are the calculations running through my head: We’re trying to use the Mediterranean diet as a model, so that means something with beans and veggies would be great. There’s swim practice tonight, so we have to eat dinner early. I’m working, and then I take the Chef from school to music class and then a doctor’s appointment. By the time we get home, we basically should be eating as soon as we walk in the door. Gee, I wish I would’ve thought this through five hours ago and gotten the slow cooker going. We had pizza last night, so I don’t really want to pay for and/or eat salty take- out tonight. The “healthy” gourmet take-out from a deli or Whole Foods isn’t usually a good option for us because of the risk of cross-contamination with nuts and the other things to which my son is allergic. I realize now we don’t even have time for frozen fish sticks or hotdogs. Panic is setting in. We may have to skip swimming tonight in order to eat…. We could do sandwiches (I did make bread this week). And fruit. And bean salad. Does that count as dinner?