Wintertime Adventures with Flat Stanley!

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We love to host Flat Stanley (or Flat other people, too!), so we were glad that a friend of ours, second grader S., recently sent him our way for a visit. We live in northeastern Utah. The state is the ancestral home of the Ute, Dine (Navajo), Paiute, Goshute, and Shoshone nations. Today, about 60,000 indigenous people live in Utah, about half of them on reservations in the southern part of the state. Outside of the reservations, our county has some of the most Native American people.

Here are some highlights of our time together in the Beehive State.

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On the campus of Weber State University, home of the Wildcats. WSU has more than 27,111 students and just celebrated its 120th birthday while Flat Stanley was here.

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Purple and white are the colors of Weber State. Since Stanley went to college for a day, we thought he might like a Weber State Wildcats sweatshirt–and a cup of hot cocoa. He like our dog Sonny so much we thought he might enjoy a pet or two of his own, so we helped him adopt a puppy and a kitten.

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Enjoy chocolate-chip-peanut-butter-banana pancakes. I guess it makes sense that Flat Stanley’s favorite breakfast food would be something flat.

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Out to dinner for Indian. He was very polite and didn’t pick out all the paneer for himself.

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Stanley forgot his boots back in Maryland, so we made him a pair. On average, Utah gets 60 inches of snow per year at the capital, Salt Lake City, which is about 30 minutes away from us. That is about three times as much snow as Baltimore gets. But snowfall in Utah is very uneven. Our climate includes a wide range of ecosystems, including the Mojave Desert, the driest desert in north America, in the Southwest corner, and the high peaks of the western edge of the Rocky Mountains. Our house is at 4,300 feet above sea level. (When you go to Ocean City, Maryland, you are at sea level–so we are more than 4,000 feet higher than you!) But other parts of our town are much higher since our town is built into a mountain. That also means some places get a lot of snow. One of our area mountains had more than 25 feet of snow this year so far–and it will get more before winter is over!

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We took Stanley to Crystal Hot Springs in nearby Honeyville, Utah. These hot springs  have a higher mineral content than any hot springs in the world–9,000 pounds every 24 hours! 450 generations of indigenous people used the area for their winter camping grounds. Very close to here, the Golden Spike joined the eastern and western parts of the transcontinental railroad, joining one end of the US to the other by rail. Many Chinese immigrants helped build the railroad. They build wooden tubs in Honeyville to capture the hot water so they could soak in them after a long day of hard work. Later, after World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent wounded soldiers by bus to the hot springs so that they could relax in the water. We took Flat Stanley swimming there in the middle of a snowstorm! You can’t see it in the photo, but snowflakes were falling all around us. No matter what the temperature outside, though, in the water, it is always 120-134 degrees F in the hot springs. And just a few feet away, there is a cold spring that is always 65-75 degrees F. If you get to warm in the swimming pool fed by the hot springs, you can jump in the cold water pool–or jump out and roll around in the snow, then jump back in!

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Utah has “the greatest snow on Earth,” as our license plates say. (Get it? Like the greatest show on earth!). On cold and snowy nights, we like to settle down in front of the fireplace with a book. And when you are flat, you can be your own bookmark!

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Thanks for joining us, Flat Stanley! We’d love to see you again!

Seriously, if there is a Flat Stanley in your life, send him our way! We love to send postcards, too, so if you or a child you know is in need of one, just ask. 

 

Soup’s On: Straightforward Chili

We host a sometimes-annual chili cookoff that involves secret judges and prizes both silly and substantial as a fundraiser for the local food pantry. One benefit of hosting is that you get to try a lot of chili recipes (Lorna H.’s Floribbean Chili remains one of my favorites!) and find inspiration to tweak your own. We eat a lot of chili at our house in the winter. Here’s our favorite relatively straightforward (We won’t call it “traditional” because I have no desire to lose that fight with my Texan friends.) chili.

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Straightforward Chili

1-2 lbs ground beef

3 Tbs garlic powder or a head of garlic, chopped

3 Tbs onion powder or 2 onions chopped (We often use onion powder if we are serving kids who think they dislike onions but who won’t notice complain if there is onion flavor but not texture in a dish)

1-2 tsp cayenne powder

2-3 Tbs chili powder

2 tsp cumin

2 tsp oregano

6 oz. tomato paste (one small can)

12-16 oz can crushed or diced tomatoes, or whole tomatoes cut up

5-6 15-16 oz cans beans, unrinsed. We use a mix of what we have, but this typically includes dark and light kidney beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans, and black beans.

  1. In a Dutch oven, brown ground beef. If using chopped onions, add to the meat partway through the browning process; add raw garlic, if using, toward the end. Then, follow one of these two steps, depending on how ambitious you are:
  2. Dump the meat into a metal strainer set over a metal bow, then dip out a few spoonfuls of fat to return to the pot. Heat fat on medium-low, then add remaining spices and herbs, including onion powder and garlic powder, if using.
  3. Drain fat however you prefer and simply add the remaining spices and herbs, including onion and garlic powder, to meat.
  4. Add tomato paste and crushed or diced tomatoes. Cook over low while you open all those cans of beans. We unapologetically use canned beans. If we ever master dried beans, we’ll let you know.
  5. Add beans. If the consistency isn’t what you like, add water.
  6. Cook on low on stove, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes or longer. Alternatively, cook in the oven on 250 or 300 or 350 (depending on whether you are making some baked mac and cheese or some cornbread or baked potatoes to go with it). This will burn, so don’t ignore it.

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We eat ours with cornbread, which is just some combination of a basic cornbread recipe plus either a little honey or green chilis or canned or frozen sweet corn or sour cream or creamed corn or half a cut-up bar of cream cheese, depending on what kind of leftovers we’re trying to get rid of and how deeply I want to horrify my Southern relatives.

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Not-a-Meal-Plan: Chopped, the Pantry Version

Hate meal planning? Us too. That’s why we skip it in favor of a not-a-meal-plan, which involves figuring out where you want to turn to find dinner (pantry, fridge, freezer). As long as these are well-stocked, you can make a meal. In this short blog series, we describe what we do when we look in each of those places. 

We also aim for a once-a-month pantry audit. Sometimes things end up in the pantry that just don’t make sense. (I said to buy “chilis,” but someone buys a can of beans in chili sauce. I convince myself I’m going to love lentils this time but bring them home and can’t persuade myself to actually cook them.) These inspire our Chopped nights. No, no one is allowed to make dinner out of stinky tofu, finger limes, smoked pork tails, and raspberry Toaster Strudels. Instead, a child works with a parent to make a meal out of what we have, working with flavor profiles we know that our family likes. Yes, this means a lot of variations of chili (because we have a lot of beans), grain bowls (Why did I buy millet?), and curry (because we almost always have coconut milk).

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For some reason, Chopped and The Amazing World of Gumball are our go-to choices for watching TV in hotels. Anyone else reserve food-related TV for travel?

 

Popcorn Time! Movie Theater Floor Snack Mix

Popcorn is the perfect snack because it’s an actual whole, unprocessed grain. And since you should make half your grains whole, the more popcorn you eat, the more non-whole grains you get to eat.

Okay, that part isn’t quite true. I mean, you can’t eat a pound of pasta just because you ate a pound of popcorn. And, anyway, popcorn is so filling that you wouldn’t want to. Scientifically, it’s perhaps the perfect snack. 

Today, Mr. Prickles shares with us his recipe for Movie Theater Floor Snack Mix, which has to be the most unhealthy way to eat popcorn but is a lot of fun to shop for and make.

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Hi, this is me, here, now, explaining how to make this popcorn.

Step 1: Use the power of radiation and science to microwave an 11.5 oz bag of white chocolate.

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Step 2: Throw a 17 to 20 oz bunch of candy into a bowl along with 5 oz of Fritos and 10 oz of mixed nuts.

Step 3: Throw the white chocolate onto the candy, violently.

Step 4: Mix it.

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step 5: Put it on 4 cups of popcorn.

Step 6: Wait 15 minutes.

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Step 6: Eat it, or give it to a pigeon, or an old friend trying to sell you mlms, or the CEO of Fritos. Just beware: anyone who eats it will become your best friend.

Foxhole Advice: I want to watch scary movies. And I also DON’T want to watch scary movies.

Dear Family Foxhole,

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’m twelve and do not like to watch the scary movies that my friends enjoy. Right now, if I go to a friend’s house and they want to watch something scary, I just say that I’m not allowed to watch PG-13 movies (which isn’t quite true; my parents let me watch some PG-13 movies but not others) and then we all roll our eyes and say that my parents ruin all our fun, then watch something else. But I’ll be 13 soon, so this lie isn’t going to work anymore!

How can I overcome my fear of scary movies so I’m not left out?

Scaredy-Cat

Dear Scaredy-Cat,

Before the party, suggest a list of movies for the party that provide your friends with enough choices that they don’t even realize that there’s nothing scary on the list. You could include some PG-13 movies that aren’t scary (comedies, romantic comedies, superhero movies).

Plan a party yourself! Pick a theme that is upbeat (“Surf’s Up!” or “Dinner is Served!”) and organize the food, decoration, games, and movie around that theme. You can set the expectation among your friends that parties will be fun and positive. If, later on, someone plans a party around a scary theme, just go for the first part (before the movie starts) and then tell them you have a super-important meeting in the morning (Be mysterious!) and need to get your beauty rest.  You won’t be missing out on the fun since you wouldn’t be having fun anyway.

Lamb

Lamb

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Dear Scaredy-Cat,

Creep out your friends by saying, “I can’t watch [whatever movie it is]. It brings back too many memories.” Then get a faraway look in your eye, then shake your head, like you’re trying to forget about that time a creepy girl crawled out of your TV to eat your face off.

Also, always bring a book wherever you go. Once the scary movie starts, just sneak away to read. If anyone catches you, just say that you thought that movie was boring. Be disdainful and give a big yawn. Try something like: “Once you’ve seen as many horror movies as I have, it’s hard to be surprised.” Be the stereotype of the disinterested, bored teen. Use it to your advantage, then get back to your book.

Mr. Prickles

Mr. Prickles

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Dear Scaredy-Cat

You don’t have to overcome your fear. Some adults don’t like scary movies. It’s not a sign of maturity. In fact, that you know yourself this well is a sign of maturity!

However, if you do want to join in, ask the title of the movie they’ll be watching before the party. Ask a parent to watch it for you and tell you about all the scary parts. If there is a certain kind of scary activity that you can’t stand (jump scares, gore, monsters, scary children, meanness to animals, etc.), be sure to tell them to be on the lookout for these things. Then watch it together. As a scary part approaches, stop the video and ask them to tell you what is going to happen. You might even watch it in fast forward to see what happens without the sound on.

I’m a grown-up, and I still watch any movies this way!

Honey

Honey

 

 

Not-a-Meal-Plan: COTR Night

Hate meal planning? Us too. That’s why we skip it in favor of a not-a-meal-plan, which involves figuring out where you want to turn to find dinner (pantry, fridge, freezer). As long as these are well-stocked, you can make a meal. In this short blog series, we describe what we do when we look in each of those places. 

Which night do you take the garbage to the curb? That’s what we call COTR Night (pronounced like Ry Cooder’s surname. We do try to refrain from saying “COTR Night” in front of company.) That’s the night we Clean Out The Refrigerator. This night anchors our week, because by this night, anything that isn’t looking a limp gets eaten that night. Meals that help you COTR are quiche and egg casseroles (for cheeses and vegetables on the edge), grain bowls or winter salads (for vegetables you can roast in fun spice mixes), and soups (for those vegetables, plus any small amounts of meat leftover from other meals).
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I’m Ry Cooder, and I approve this not-a-meal-plan. 

Foxhole Advice: I hate babysitting!

Dear Family Foxhole,

My mom is a single mom, and she asks me to do a lot of babysitting of my younger brother. I am 12 and he is 8. I really don’t want to do this job, but I feel bad telling her that. She works four days each week until 5:30, which means I have to babysit for two hours after school, plus on Saturday mornings from when I wake up until noon.

How do I get out of this?

Reluctant Sitter

Dear Reluctant,

You probably can’t get out of helping your mom in some way, but maybe babysitting isn’t the only way to do it. Can you ask her if there is some other chore you can do that would get you out of this one? But beware: you could end up doing something you like even less!

Mr. Prickles

Mr. Prickles

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Dear Reluctant,

Would you like babysitting more if it were a job? Ask your mom to pay you. After all, in just two years, you’ll be old enough to get a job as a dishwasher or bagger at a grocery store and that will take up your time and force your mom to pay someone else to do this job.

But it could be that she can’t pay you. If you ask her, she might feel embarrassed if her answer has to be “no.” Are you ready to hear that? If you suspect that is the case, ask her to pay you in something other than money, like pushing your bedtime back a bit or buying your favorite cereal or tea or something else that she’d already be buying.

Lamb

Lamb

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Dear Reluctant,

There may not be much that either you or your mother can do to change the situation. If your mother has to work, she needs childcare. And if she doesn’t have the money to pay you, then she doesn’t.

But a family isn’t a business. We care for each other because we are family, not because it’s our job. Your mom cares for you for free, and I’ll bet that there are even ways that your younger brother contributes to your happiness and care, too. Try to reframe this from being a chore to being a responsibility that you take on as a contributing part of your family. It’s a lesson in maturity. Most of adulthood is doing stuff like this, and those adults who embrace these tasks as part of their life, rather than a disruption to it, are happier.

Experiment with ways to make this more fun. Can you take your brother out of the house to the library or playground? Can you work with him to set some homework goals that can help him improve his grades? Forget for a bit that you are 12 and go enjoy the things you did when you were 8–playing with action figures or playing imagination games. No one else is watching, so get silly, And pass along the things you like to him.  Teach him wiffle ball or how to make a frosting rose or whatever it is you do. Give him time on his own, too, to play or read or watch some TV, but if you can see this time together as precious (You’ll be working an after school job before you know it!), you might just come to enjoy it!

Honey

Honey

Not-a-Meal Plan: Whatever Soup

Hate meal planning? Us too. That’s why we skip it in favor of a not-a-meal-plan, which involves figuring out where you want to turn to find dinner (pantry, fridge, freezer). As long as these are well-stocked, you can make a meal. In this short blog series, we describe what we do when we look in each of those places. 

As we clean up leftovers each night, we put anything soup-worthy into a gallon freezer bag. If we have a large amount of something leftover (say, two entire ears of corn), they can go into their own bag, but, otherwise, celery, onions, carrots, peas, green beans, and okra, plus any leftover rosemary or basil or other fresh herbs go into a single freezer bag. When it gets about halfway full, these form the base of a vegetable or beef vegetable soup. Don’t add cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage etc.), which can be great in soup but make everything near them taste like they do.  And don’t freeze potatoes, which turn mealy in texture.

 

Foxhole Advice: Worries about Mom and Baby’s Health

Dear Family Foxhole,

I’ve been an only child for 12 years now but that will all end this summer when my mother has a baby. I’m excited for her because she and my stepdad have been wanting to have a child for a few years now but weren’t able to get pregnant. Now that my mom is pregnant, I’m worried that the baby will be sick or have some other health problem or that my mom will die during pregnancy or childbirth. I know that these aren’t realistic concerns in the modern day USA, but I’m still worried and now I feel guilty about being worried because I don’t want to make my mom worried.

Worried

Dear Worried,

Trust me, your mom is already thinking about how to make sure that she and your new sibling are healthy! She is eating healthy, taking prenatal vitamins, and seeing her doctor regularly to monitor her and the baby’s health.

But you are right to be concerned. Even with modern medicine, people get sick, and accidents happen that affect our bodies. I say this not to scare you but to affirm that it’s both common and reasonable to have some worries about pregnancy.

You might not get over your worries between now and the arrival of the baby, but you can minimize them. Some ideas:

Talk to your health teacher, tour the hospital, or interview a midwife (who delivers babies), doula (who assists in the delivery, focusing on the mother), or obstetric (baby-delivery) nurse. You probably have some school project that you could use as an excuse to do this.

Ask your mom and stepdad to sign you up for a babycare/babysitting/child first aid class. The Red Cross in many towns offers these classes, and if you take them, you can charge people more for your babysitting services in the future!

Spend some time with people who have disabilities and people who love people with disabilities. Often times our worry with pregnancy is that something will be “wrong” with the baby and the baby will be born with an unusual physical feature, like cleft palate or spina bifida. Even though some of these physical features make life more challenging, there is no “wrong” way to have a human body!

Honey

Honey

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Dear Worried,

I’ll be blunt: If you are worried about what would happen in the worst case scenario, ask your mother and stepdad what their plan would be in that case. It is not “bad luck” to think about how our lives would change if our loved ones died. In fact, your mom and stepdad have probably already thought about it and maybe just didn’t tell you. Ask them directly:

  • Who would you live with if your mother died?
  • Would your biological father take custody of you, or would you keep living with your stepdad?
  • If your biological father took custody, would you still be able to see your stepdad and his side of the family?
  • If the plan is that you would stay with your stepdad, has your mother done the paperwork to make sure that would happen?
  • Would you keep living in this house and going to the same school, or would your stepdad want to move you closer to other members of your family?
  • Would a grandparent or aunt or uncle come to live in your house to help take care of the baby? If your stepfather remarried, would you still get to live with him?
  • What kind of person would your mother want to your stepdad to remarry if she died?

Ask them if they have all this in writing (a will), who their lawyer is, where the will is located, and who is the executor (the person who makes sure it is being carried out). If they tell you that you are being nosy, tell them that you are just being responsible. Maybe find some horrible cases of child custody battles on the internet to prove that they need to be prepared.

Mr. Prickles

Mr. Prickles

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Dear Worried,

I like to drive my worries away with crafting. When you are focusing on something fun and positive, it’s harder to worry. Here are some fun ones:

Get the baby’s room ready! Paint the walls, the ceilings, the trim. Make a stencil or a stamper and go to town!

Make a baby quilt or crochet a baby blanket.

Give one of your favorite stuffed animals a makeover (wash, brush, fluff, stuff, and repair any holes) for the baby.

Once you know the name of the baby, make a collage of items for each letter. (If his name is “Tiger,” you’d make a collage of items starting with T, one starting with I, one starting with G, etc.) THEN cut each collage into the shape of that letter and paste it to a canvas. Hang it on the baby’s door.

Keep a diary of your own feelings that you can share with the baby one day.

Write letters to the baby, each with a different focus. (“Our family history,” “The town where you were born,” “What I think life will be like when you are 12”). Seal them in envelopes and write a future date on them when you think the baby should open them.

Make the pages of a baby book. Make a page where you can record his birthday, weight, and length. Make a page where you mom and stepdad can write down the story of his birth (when she went into labor, how long it took, etc.), Make pages where you will stick pictures of the baby’s first bath, first haircut, first tooth, etc.

Eek! All of these ideas make me so excited for you! Crafting for babies is so fun!

Lamb

Lamb

The Not-A-Meal Plan

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The Dutch oven, the workhorse of our kitchen.

I love to cook. Like, twice a week and on Sundays. The rest of the time, it’s mostly a way to remind myself of what life was like before children. Slower. Tidier. Cheaper.

Recognizing that maintaining my love of cooking requires me feel less hassled by the fact that this family must be fed every single day, we’ve moved to a not-a-meal-plan system.  Meal planning that requires me to make decisions about what we are going to eat a week in advance simply don’t work for us. Like most families, we’re busy and our schedule varies. Sometimes someone has an evening meeting. Some semesters, a parent is going one night a week teaching; in the summer, it might be two. Girl Scouts meets three times a month from 6-7, right over our usual dinner time. We want friends to join us at the last minute, or we forgot about the school’s spaghetti supper until the day of.

And my biggest complaint: meal planning is one more thing to plan.

So instead of a system that locks us into particular meals, we wanted a system that:

  1. Lets us mostly work with what we have, which is what is one sale, rather than telling us what to buy. See below for our list of things we always or almost always buy–the things that make up our pantry, fridge, and freezer staples.
  2. Lets us change our mind on any given night, so that we can eat leftovers, go out, order in, try out a new recipe they saw online that day, or eat a bowl of cereal if that’s what we want. To allow for the fact that we’re going to make some bad nutritional decisions sometimes, most meals have to have vegetables (or sometimes on quiche night a fruit salad), and most of them have to be mostly plant-based.
  3. Allows who cooks to change over the course of the week so that everyone over 4 feet tall can make at least some meals.
  4. Includes at least one healthy food that each person likes, so we can tell a child who is suddenly averse to tomatoes that he can eat his pasta sauceless and enjoy as many green beans as he likes.

The final rule for our family not-a-meal-plan is that we can drop any night we want (except COTR night, described in a forthcoming post, which insures that we aren’t wasting food). If it’s chili night and we want quiche, we can. The point is that if we get stuck not being able to make a decision  (which is often the hardest part), we have a not-a-meal-plan to help us.