Friday, March 18, 2011

Family Dinners: Innovating with Kids

I believe very strongly in the family dinner table.  Easy for me to say, right?  I don't have teenagers with ball practice and dance recitals, my husband and I don't have long commutes for work, and I don't mind cooking.  How hard could it be for me?

Although family dinners at the table can be challenging, they are always worth it.  I remember in middle school one teacher had a poster that read: "What is easy is not always right; what is right is not always easy." 

Many of my family's holiday meals are hosted at my aunt and uncle's house, so I purchased an extra booster seat to keep at their house.  It is one less thing to pack up and drag along on busy holidays.  When I bought this booster seat, I neglected to notice one important piece: it didn't have a belt to buckle in the kiddo. 

Fast forward to Thanksgiving 2010...Anna was 10 months old.  She joined us at the dinner table as soon as she could reasonably sit in her high chair; however, she was ready to topple out of this booster seat.  This is the point when our innovation kicked in and we solved the problem...
Look closely.  Do you see it?  My scarf is anchoring Anna to the chair so she can enjoy some dinner too!  The first time we tried this trick was with Andrew at a wedding.  It was a belt that time and it worked perfectly.

Even if it takes some creative thinking, I urge you to sit down at the table for dinner as a family every chance you get.  

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Day 9: Sugar Free & Meat Free Challenge

We survived the first week.  As I suspected, following a strict vegetarian diet causes us to be deliberate about our food choices but it is very manageable.  We enjoy vegetables, experimenting with new recipes, and exploring new cuisines; vegetarianism fits in nicely.

Do you know what I don't like?  A sugar free life.  Well, that's not true.  Not that I have a week under my belt, I feel good.  Those first few days were pretty rough though. 

Tips I used to transition to a sugar free diet:

  • Avoid the grocery store at all cost.  One trip down those aisles (or past the bakery!) reminds you of everything that is on the "forbidden" list.  Stay out of the store until you have some strong willpower accumulated.
  • Hide the contraband.  Better yet, get rid of it completely.  When I open the pantry or refrigerator, I see wholesome foods without processed sugar.  (I also know where I can find some Girl Scout cookies on Easter Sunday!)  
  • Prepare your alternatives.  When you crave something sweet - and you will - be prepared with an alternative.  For me, dried fruit helped immensely in the first few days and it was very satisfying.  Be sure to select dried fruit that is not full of sugar; look for all natural products. Prunes, cranberries, apricots, and raisins helped me to get through some dark days  :) 
  • Move on.  Those sweet-tasting dried fruits helped my transition days, but I don't want to replace one sugar with another.  Sugar cravings are often a result of low blood sugar.  This can be corrected by adding some protein to your diet.
  • Feel the goodness. After a few days without processed sugar, you might feel a little lighter, less bloated in your tummy, and have fewer mood swings.  Enjoy that feeling of goodness and remember it!
Are you wondering why I am eliminating processed sugar?  Read about it here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Stone Soup

Yesterday I shared the fable of Stone Soup with the first grade class where I volunteer as part of Chefs Move to Schools.  We explored some healthy vegetables and learned that we can achieve a greater good when we all work together, contributing whatever we have to offer. 

I used this site for resources and inspiration including: felt board story templates and a copy of the fable.

Scroll on down for the recipe...

The Fable of Stone Soup

A kindly, old stranger was walking through the land when he came upon a village.  As he entered, the villagers moved towards their homes locking doors and windows.

The stranger smiled and asked, "Why are you all so frightened?  I am a simple traveler, looking for a soft place to stay for the night and a warm place for a meal."
"There's not a bite to eat in the whole province," they told him. "We are weak and our children are starving.  Better keep moving on."
"Oh, I have everything I need," he said. "In fact, I was thinking of making some stone soup to share with all of you." He pulled an iron cauldron from his cloak, filled it with water, and began to build a fire under it.
Then, with great ceremony, he drew an ordinary-looking stone from a silken bag and dropped it into the water.
By now, hearing the rumor of food, most of the villagers had come out of their homes or watched from their windows. As the stranger sniffed the "broth" and licked his lips in anticipation, hunger began to overcome their fear.
"Ahh," the stranger said to himself rather loudly. "I do like a tasty stone soup. Of course, stone soup with cabbage - that's hard to beat."
Soon a villager approached hesitantly, holding a small cabbage he'd retrieved from its hiding place, and added it to the pot.
"Wonderful!!" cried the stranger. "You know, I once had stone soup with cabbage and a bit of salt beef as well; it was fit for a king."
The village butcher managed to find some salt beef.  And so it went, through potatoes, onions, carrots, mushrooms, and so on, until there was indeed a delicious meal for everyone in the village to share.
The villager elder offered the stranger a great deal of money for the magic stone, but he refused to sell it and traveled on the next day. 
As he left, the stranger came upon a group of village children standing near the road.  He gave the silken bag containing the stone to the youngest child, whispering to the group, “It was not the stone, but the villagers that had performed the magic." 
Moral:  By working together, with everyone contributing what they can, a greater good is achieved.

How to Make Stone Soup
In my home, Stone Soup usually takes on the form of leftover veggies that I need to use before they turn bad.  It's a great place to dump a few stray lima beans or some fresh spinach that is hanging on for dear life.  All vegetables are welcome and all contribute in their own ways!

By its very nature, each pot of Stone Soup will take on its own character.  If you need a recipe to get started, here it is:

Stone Soup (6-8 servings)

  • 1 large, clean stone
  • 1 T vegetable oil or butter
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, trimmed and chopped small
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and cut into 1/2 moons
  • 3 medium red skin potatoes, chopped into bite-size pieces
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 medium zucchini, diced large
  • 1/2 cup corn kernels, fresh or frozen
  • 1/2 cup lima beans, fresh or frozen
  • 1 cup green beans, fresh or frozen
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 6 cups vegetable stock (or a mixture of stock and water)
  • Scrub the stone and set aside
  • Heat the oil in a large soup pot.  Saute the onions for 3 minutes.  Add the garlic and saute for another minute.
  • Pour in the vegetable stock (and water, if using).  Add the remainder of your ingredients, including the stone.
  • Allow the soup to come to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.  Continue to simmer the soup until the vegetable are tender, approximately 20-30 minutes. 
  • Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  • Remove the stone and serve the soup.
I hope you enjoy sharing the story and the soup with the special people in your life!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Day 1: Sugar Free & Meat Free Challenge

Part of our Lenten observation this year involves a big change for me and Mike: we are giving up sugar. 

We've been down the vegetarian road before and we generally eat very little meat, so the meat-free part of this challenge is not news worthy.  Sugar free, on the other hand, will be quite a change for us.  We tend to do a lot of snacking late at night, after the kids are in bed.  (Hey, that stuff isn't healthy for the kids!)

To prepare for the Lenten sacrifice, many people choose to pray for strength and discipline; others gently wean their bodies off of the forbidden food.  What did we do? WE ATE IT ALL!

Every chance we had (i.e. when the kids weren't looking!), we gobbled up a cheeseburger or a handful of Girl Scout cookies.  We ate more meat and sugar in the last two weeks than we have in a long time.  We were like bears preparing to hibernate. Ash Wednesday couldn't have come sooner.

At the end of these 40 days, I expect that we will have lost a few pounds, regained some energy, and generally feel better.  I'm looking forward to sharing some of our journey with you.

Wish us luck!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Red Beans and Rice: A Celebration of New Orleans for Ash Wednesday

New Orleans culture crept into our family when my cousin chose Tulane for her undergraduate studies.  She was excited to start her freshman year and move into her dorm in August 2005.  The school forced them to evacuate.  Hurricane Katrina came. Everything changed.

And so began our relationship with New Orleans.  I first visited two years ago on a trip with my mom and aunts to visit my cousin during her senior year.  The architecture, culture, food, and floodlines grabbed my attention. 

Unforgettable: beignets at Cafe Du Monde...
luscious bits of fried dough buried under a pile of powdered sugar.

By the time our flight landed in New Orleans, I had just read most of the book Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin.  The convergence of these two experiences - reading the book and visiting New Orleans - resulted in my recipe for Vegetarian Red Beans and Rice.

Don't you want to climb up to this balcony to watch the parades?

This is a hearty, wholesome, and delicious recipe to help you celebrate the culture of New Orleans as Mardi Gras ends and we enter Lent.  Enjoy!

Vegetarian Red Beans and Rice

  • 2 T olive oil
  • 1 Spanish onion, chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 yellow or orange bell pepper, chopped
  • 28 oz can crushed tomatoes, fire roasted
  • 16 oz can diced tomatoes, fire roasted
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 cups vegetable stock
  • 60 oz red beans
  • 1 T creole seasoning such as Tony Cachere's
  • 1 sprig of thyme, leaves stripped off the stem
  • Black pepper and Kosher salt, to taste
  • Brown rice
  • In a Dutch oven or large soup pot, heat the olive oil and add the onions.  Saute the onions for 3-5 minutes, allowing them to become transluscent but not brown.  Add the garlic and saute another minute.
  • Add the bell pepper, bay leaf, tomatoes, and vegetable stock.  Simmer until the vegetables are soft.
  • Add the beans and remaining seasoning.  Continue to simmer another 20-30 minutes, allowing the flavors to blend. 
  • Taste for seasoning and adjust according to your preferences.  For additional spice, add a few drops of Tabasco sauce.  (I prefer the Chipotle Tabasco because it adds a hint of smoky flavor with the spice.)
  • Remove the bay leaf and serve with brown rice that was prepared according to package directions.
To freeze:
  • Allow the food to cool to room temperature. 
  • For best results, package the rice separately from the red beans.  Use a plastic storage container, covered glass casserole dish, or plastic zip-top bag to store the food.
  • Label the outside of the package with the name of the dish and the date it was frozen.  I also add important notes such as "vegetarian, "vegan," or "dairy free" so I can remember how it was prepared.
  • When it is time to enjoy the frozen meals, allow it to thaw in the refrigerator overnight and then heat in a pan on the stove.  Add a few tablespoons of water to the rice; heat it slowly in a covered pot to restore its original fluffiness.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Pink Bunny Birthday Party

My baby girl celebrated her first birthday in January.  Can you believe how fast the time is going?  We were thrilled to gather our family and friends at a local museum to eat cake, play, learn, and spend time together. 

Anna loves her little pink bunny.  She chews its ears, carries it around, and hugs it with all of her strength.  We knew that her party needed to feature pink bunnies in honor of her little lovey. 

I planned and plotted for weeks; then I gathered all of my confidence to bake Anna's cakes. 
The bunny face is a strawberry cake with 7 minute frosting and tinted coconut.  I used the same directions that moms everywhere use to make Easter cakes.  The cupcakes are vanilla with pink buttercream frosting.

Each month, I take a picture of the kids on the date of their birth.  This is an easy way to look back on how much they are growing and changing during those first few years.  Check out the guest of honor posing by the cake...what a cutie!

 Pink, pink, pink everywhere!  We served bunny cracker snacks and pink juice boxes. 
The frames are displaying a quote I liked and a copy of the invitation. 
The quote is from Jane Austen: "Where shall we see a better daughter or a kinder sister or a truer friend."

Anna's smash cake (served at home on her actual birthday) was a giant cupcake!

She loved sticking her fingers into the cake and shoving big bites of frosting into her mouth!  The candle says "Baby's First Birthday" and was among my Nana's baking supplies.  Anna's middle name was chosen to honor my Nana, so I loved that a little bit of her was with us.

We cut snowflakes out of pink tissue paper to decorate the tables.  Each guest received a chocolate bunny sucker from Goumas Confections, our favorite local candy store. 

Anna had a lot of fun at her party and I loved planning all of those little pink bunny details for her! 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Vegetable Pizza: A Cool Snack for Kids

Last week I had the pleasure of making vegetable pizza snacks with the 2nd grade class where I volunteer with Chefs Move to Schools. 

The kids were skeptical at first about some of the raw vegetables I asked them to eat...mushrooms, zucchini, tomatoes, cauliflower.  However, I challenged each of them to try one tiny bite of something new or something they thought they wouldn't like.  And you know what?  They did it.  And they liked it. Sometimes just trying a new food is half the battle, so I was incredibly proud of these kids. 
How to involve kids in the kitchen:
  • Chop a variety of vegetables, put them into bowls, and set up a "vegetable bar" where kids can decorate their own pizzas with the colors, flavors, and designs that appeal to them. 
  • Shop together at the grocery store for vegetables that interest the children.  Look for a variety of colors, shapes, and textures to encourage their interest.
  • Use this opportunity to introduce a new vegetable.  None of the individual flavors stand out in this recipe, so it is a chance to ease kids into the idea of trying new foods.
  • Assemble the pizza on the weekend or in the evening when you have more time.  Cut it into squares and it will be ready to eat after school or added to your school lunch.
Vegetable Pizza
Crust: homemade pizza crust is preferred; alternatives: Pillsbury Crescent Rolls, refrigerated pizza dough, English muffins
16 oz cream cheese, softened
1 cup sour cream
2 T dry Ranch dressing mix (see recipe below to make your own)
2 1/2 cups chopped vegetables - choose the veggies you like the most!  I like to use carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, tomatoes, mushrooms, red bell pepper, and green onions

Bake and cool the crust according to recipe/package directions.  This is traditionally made on a cookie sheet, but it is also fun to make mini-pizzas but cutting the crust into squares or circles.

In a medium bowl, mix the cream cheese, sour cream, and dry Ranch dressing.

When the crust is cool, spread the cream cheese mixture evenly over the crust.  Top with the vegetables and chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

To make your own Ranch Dressing Mix:

Combine ingredients and store in an airtight container:
  • 1 1/2 T dried parsley
  • 1/2 T dried chives
  • 1/4 T dried tarragon
  • 1/2 T lemon pepper
  • 1 T salt
  • 1/4 T oregano
  • 1/2 T garlic powder

Chefs Move to Schools is a program within Let's Move! and is part of the First Lady's initiative to end childhood obesity within one generation.  Chefs from all over the country are working with schools to provide education, counseling, and support.  We want our kids to have healthy meals at school and to make healthy decisions at home. 

To learn more about Let's Move! and Chefs Move to Schools, please visit