Monday, July 21, 2014

Full Hands and Heavy Hearts

As the mother of three young boys, I've started receiving comments about the size of my family.  Generally, the comments have been good-natured--
  • "Wow, you have your hands full"
  • "You must be busy"
  • "Are you going to try for a girl?"
And others along the same lines.  It's usually pretty obvious that the comments are meant well, but they can be hard to take.  I've lost four pregnancies.  I'm lucky to have the three children I have, but sometimes it's hard to look at those three and not notice the absence of others.  For many other women, family size is restricted by other circumstances:  fertility or health problems, loss or absence of a husband, late marriage, poor decisions earlier in life, or even the loss of a child.  Some circumstances are more traumatic than others, but all are very personal.

Likewise, it must be hard for women who struggle with infertility to overhear comments about the number of children other women have. And comments to young parents can be terribly hurtful, especially for those who work hard to make the best of an unexpected situation under adverse circumstances.  When it comes to comments about a parent's children, you never know when you might be bringing up heartache.

I've seen a lot of lovely platitudes about families coming in all shapes and sizes and about all families being beautiful. Let's keep our comments, especially to strangers along those lines.  I think the world would be a happier, friendlier place if we did.

This post has been linked to WFMW, Hip Homeschool Hop, Busy Monday, and MYHSM.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Tale of Two Lunches

Lunch 1:

Perhaps you've heard of, read about, or experienced the revamped school lunch program.  These lunches are available free to low-income children who may not otherwise get a full meal during the day or at a low price to better off students.

For years, schools have drawn students into the program by offering junk food--hamburgers, corn dogs, pizza.  The accompanying milk and apples have always found their way, disproportionately to the rest of the meal, in the trash.  During that time parents have complained endlessly about the lack of nutritional quality.  Now, a new set of guidelines requires that these meals include something resembling a vegetable, other than french fries, limits on the amount of fat, and limits on the sodium and sugar found in the lunches.  

Children, like most people, love junk food and hate sudden changes--especially changes that involve removing junk food.  So can anyone really claim to be surprised that school children do not want to eat the new lunches?  What does surprise me is that, while schools complain that the new, more expensive lunches are winding up in the trash, PARENTS are complaining the their children are coming home hungry after refusing to eat their lunch.  Far too many parents, it seems, lack the intestinal fortitude to enforce on their children the fact that throwing away perfectly good food is not acceptable!  Instead, they are calling for the schools to change back to the old system!  Exactly how spoiled are we?!

Lunch 2:

Meanwhile in India, the Indian parliament runs a lunch program for its neediest students.  Students who may not otherwise have food, are provided with a small, protein-rich meal at mid-day in a country where two meals a day (morning and evening) is customary for most of the population (at least, from what I've read).  

Unfortunately, the corruption and prejudice have been serious problems in this program, resulting in an unsafe food supply and multiple problems, many of which have harmed school children.  In 2013, 47 students in a northern Indian school were hospitalized after being exposed to contaminated cooking oil.  Twenty-three of those children died.  Riots ensued.

The school cook, who said she was told to use the oil after complaining that it smelled bad, along with the headmistress, who ordered the oil be used because there was nothing else face criminal charges.

And the 47 sick and dead students?  They were hungry enough to eat food that smelled bad.  These were children placed by their parents in a program known for unsafe food.  This was not the first, nor has it been the last incident, just the worst.  Presumably, these parents only did so because the risk of hunger was believed to be greater than the risk of poisoning.

This latter case--this tragedy--is what real want and hunger and desperation look like.  And India is a relatively prosperous country.  We are not talking about Niger--one of the poorest nations on the globe. People who are actually hungry do not put perfectly good food in the trash, and people who really face hunger don't even throw away marginally or potentially good food.

I am fortunate that my family has never been so desperate, but we have been in the position of eating less than ideal meals and smaller portions than we desired because I didn't know when we would next be able to shop.  I have been in the position of insisting my children eat the food they've been given because we could not afford to waste anything.  My children have been denied snacks, because I could not afford to waste food on non-meals.

We, in the US, have been pummeled with the notion that a fifth of our children do not have adequate access to food, based on the number of children who benefit from SNAP--which, incidentally, provides funds that are triple my monthly grocery budget for a family the size of mine.  The number of children who benefit from the lunch program is used as evidence of the claim of widespread hunger.  Now schools are complaining of the expense of wasted food, that a million children have dropped out of the program, and over a million and a half children are no longer buying lunches at school.

I do not pretend that the new standards are perfect.  I think they leave a lot to be desired.  But they have been, in effect, an impromptu audit of the program--one that was, it seems, much needed.  And that audit has exposed the old system as a means of hooking children on fast food and prepackaged junk, rather than one of providing critical nutrition to the needy.

The parents in the first scenario have clearly not been so hard up as I have, and my situation, while not rosy, has been far from real poverty (as demonstrated in the second scenario). It's time to reevaluate the qualifying criteria for the school lunch program, and our attitudes about food in the United States.  It's time for parents to refuse to allow school cafeterias to serve as indoctrination camps for future patrons of the fast food industry.  And it's more than time to bring back home economics (for all students), so that the next generation of adults will be prepared to feed themselves nutritious food on a budget.

In the beginning of the original story of Pinocchio, shortly after the puppet gains consciousness, he complains to Geppetto of hunger.  Geppetto, being a good father, provides his young charge with an apple, which Pinocchio insists his father both core and peel.  After eating the flesh, Pinocchio is still hungry.  Geppetto insists that Pinocchio eat the peels.  When those are gone, and Pinocchio is still hungry, he insists that Pinocchio eat the pips.  Once everything but the stem is consumed, Pinocchio finds that he is no longer hungry, and learns not to be ungrateful for his food. Where are the Geppettos in this country?  It would seem that we have far too many Pinocchios.

Foolishness may be wrapped up in the heart of a child, but adults should know better.

This post has been linked to WFMW, Hip Homeschool Hop, Busy Monday, and MYHSM.

Soap is Soap

For the last few weeks I've needed to buy dish soap.  Somehow, it never made it on my shopping list, and a few days ago, I really ran out.  I couldn't go to the store that day, and I really needed to do dishes.  What's a girl to do?

I buy bulk hand soap, because dh likes the liquid stuff.  Being desperate, I combined hand soap and water in approximately equal amounts, and did the dishes. The soap went further than dish soap does, cut through dirt and grease more easily, and was far gentler on my hands.

I have now been using this combination for about a week, and I am still very pleased with the results.  I've written before about the lengths to which I go to try to avoid dishwater hands (frequently with limited success).  Using diluted hand soap on my dishes has eliminated my need for dish gloves.  And of course, I can't complain about having fewer products to buy or track.

This post has been linked to Busy Monday and MYHSM.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Cheap Eats: Eggplant Parmesan

If you read this blog with any frequency or are interested in frugality, you know that keeping food expenses down is a big concern.  It's easy for the cost of groceries to get out of hand, and the solution, put simply, is to cook from scratch.  Scratch cooking, though, can be costly, too.  But inexpensive cookery isn't all rice and beans--or at least, it doesn't have to be, so I've decided to share inexpensive meal ideas as I come across them, with approximate per serving costs.

Eggplant Parmesan

1 can tomato paste, 6 oz ($0.50)
1 onion, chopped ($0.15)
2 cloves garlic, chopped or crushed
1 green bell pepper ($0.50)--optional
Salt and pepper to taste

1 eggplant, cut into 1cm slices ($1)
1 T salt ($0.02)
1 egg ($0.17)
1/4 cup flour ($0.03)
1/4 cup oil ($0.23)

1 lb pasta ($1.00)

  • First, set a pot of water boiling for the pasta, and cook the pasta to the texture you prefer, drain, and set aside.
  • Meanwhile, put the eggplant slices in a colander and dust them generously with salt (I estimated about a tablespoon in the ingredient list). Put the colander on a plate, and set aside for about 20 minutes to sweat the excess water out of the eggplant.
  • While the eggplant slices are sweating, heat a pan with some oil in it, and saute the onion, bell pepper, and garlic until the onion is translucent.  Add in the tomato paste and combine (carefully) with two can-fulls of water until all the ingredients are incorporated.  Season to taste, and allow to reduce to the desired thickness, stirring frequently.  Pour into a bowl, and set aside.
  • Crack the egg into a shallow bowl and beat thoroughly.  Scoop the flour onto a saucer.  
  • Pour the oil in the pan and heat until the oil bubbles if water is dripped into it. 
  • Dip the eggplant slices in the egg, and dredge them in the flour.  Drop them carefully into the hot oil, and allow them to cook until each side turns golden.  Remove them from the pan to a cloth or paper towel to drain.
  • Serve each of eggplant slice on top of pasta and topped with tomato sauce.  Use larger eggplant slices for adults and smaller ones for children. You may garnish the dish with grated cheese, but it is not necessary. 
You may also season the tomato sauce and the dredging flour with any herbs or spices you like.  A squirt of mustard is a welcome addition to the beaten egg.  When cooking the pasta, you may use vegetable stock in lieu of water, which will flavor the pasta and thicken the stock for future use.  If using water for the pasta, save the water as the basis for soup stock later.

The prices given above are based on the maximum price I am willing to pay for each ingredient, and appear to be reasonable in multiple parts of the country.  The last time I made this for dinner, we got two full meals out of it.  My husband and I are not light eaters, and all three of our sons eat about the same amount in a sitting, so I feel comfortable saying this recipe makes two meals for a family of five with young kids.  A family with older children might need to add a salad or some garlic bread to round it out.  Both my oldest and youngest ate this dinner with gusto.  The Eel had his reservations.

That said, the total cost of the recipe comes in under $3.50, which amounts to less than  $0.35 per serving.

This post has been linked to Thrifty Thursday, WFMWHip Homeschool Hop, MYHSM, and Busy Monday.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Entitlement: Us and Them

I read a post at We Are THAT Family last week about fighting an attitude of entitlement in our children during summer vacation.  I enjoy most of Kristen's posts, and I admire her willingness to jump into a huge nonprofit project to help people on the other side of the planet.  I do not know the Welch family at all in real life, so the comments that follow are based entirely on the account portrayed on the blog.

I have especially enjoyed Kristen's posts documenting her journey to understanding how incredibly privileged those of us who live in the postindustrial world are and her efforts to impress that appreciation on her children.  Her most recent post, though, I found flawed.

She begins by describing an afternoon when she picked her youngest (6) up from vacation Bible school--a day of fun, organized by adults, which the girl's parents have paid for her to attend. In short order, the young lady starts to whine an complain, and the dreaded "B" word (bored) rears its head. That is the mother's clue that a sense of entitlement has cropped up and needs to be nipped in the bud.   Thus begins an explanation of the necessity of children learning to entertain themselves and that it's not a parent's job to be an entertainer or event coordinator.  And she's right...for the most part.

I am all for letting kids be bored and figure it out for themselves.

My objection is to her example. And here's why:

  • She and her husband have, through sending their child to VBS, demonstrated their willingness to pay a whole crew of adults to entertain their child.  Why should this 6yo then expect something different at home?
  • Whining and boredom after an exciting, activity-filled day sounds more to me like exhaustion than entitlement.  Perhaps some down-time would be an appropriate response?
  • Something that often goes hand-in-hand with exhaustion is overwhelm.  When overwhelmed or recently overwhelmed, we often lack the mental energy or ability to think critically, be observant, or weigh options.  Just as a person carrying groceries might seek help to open a door, the overwhelmed mind will seek help from a mind presumed to be better equipped or less burdened.  A child who lacks the words or understanding to describe this state may well resort to words like "bored".
  • If I've learned anything from parenting or from working with kids in special ed, it's that children often have trouble with transitions.  Moving from one context to another is a learned skill, and the learning curve is often steep and unpleasant.  I would expect most young children to make a less-than-smooth transition between the two (contrasting) environments described.  This is part of why many households offer a snack to children recently returned home from school.
  • This is a child who attends the classroom during the school year.  She is accustomed to having her day set out for her. Indeed, the expectation that she is not the mistress of her own schedule is one that benefits her most of the time, both at school and at home, where homework defines part of her daily life.  This not about the rightness or wrongness of the classroom environment, just a reality of it that often goes unacknowledged. 
  • The ability to identify possible tasks independently requires a level of abstraction young children simply do not possess.  Up until a certain point in neurological development, children require someone to point out for them possibilities that are not immediately in front of them or that were not already on their mind.  As parents, it is our job to help that ability develop and strengthen it.
  • Finally, sometimes our kids whine because they need us.

Let me elaborate on that last point.  One of the hardest lessons I have learned as a parent, and one that I struggle to enact, is that what can seem like a bad attitude from a child can easily be an indicator of my own bad attitude and sense of entitlement. If I refuse to meet my child's need for me, he will almost certainly protest that refusal.  If my child needs my time and attention, he will seek it, not by explaining something sufficiently abstract that he doesn't fully understand it, but by asking (and then demanding) that I do something for him.

This 6yo just spent several hours completely separated from her family.  Is it not reasonable that she would seek some time to reconnect?  That she would desire some reassurance from her mother? And that her technique might be less than perfect?  I know my sons need to reconnect when separated from me for as little as half an hour.  They are part of a family unit, and they expect that unity to be expressed through action.

Does that mean we should expect or tolerate bad behavior?  Hardly!  But it is the parent's job to anticipate the needs of the child and understand them, so that the child does not develop a sense of entitlement as a coping mechanism. It is also our job to do the thinking they are not equipped to do as we teach them to think for themselves.

Beyond all that, though, is the fact that we, as adults, need to recognize that the word "entitlement" is frequently euphemistic short hand.  If you live in a post-industrial society, you have a sense of entitlement in absolute terms.  You don't have to worry about crop failures or a clean water supply.  You can expect to have some sort of roof over your head and access to indoor plumbing.  You don't have to worry about being displaced by epidemic, drought, or war.  Your children have access to an education of some sort, and dinner is a question of what, not if.  You can count access to mechanized  transportation (mass or personal) as a necessity, rather than a luxury. You have a reasonable expectation of being outlived by all your children and of living long enough to know your grandchildren.  These are, in historical terms, and compared to a good chunk of the world's current population, all luxuries and privileges.

When we, as parents, discuss preventing our children from developing a sense of entitlement, we don't mean we want them to stop expecting or considering as normal any of the items listed above.  We mean that we want our children to learn that, while all their needs and many of their wants will be met, they must limit their expectations to desires that fit a certain set of parameters defined by place, culture, immediate context, and their parents' socioeconomic status.  In short, we want our children to "know their place".  That is a very nuanced and subtle task with which many level-headed adults struggle.   Moreover, it is not politically correct, and something often derided in American culture.  Knowing one's place while simultaneously developing an entrepreneurial, rebellious spirit that is creative and assertive is a monumental balancing act, and most people err to one side or the other of that equation.

As parents, yes, it is our job to teach and encourage reasonable expectations in children.  It is also our task to teach, demonstrate, and expect civilized behavior.  But we are also guides, and we help our children learn, in part, by being aware of where the are coming from and understanding their motivations and our own.  A bad attitude might sometimes reflect a sense of entitlement or a spoiled attitude, but it may also reflect any number of other possibilities--including a reflection of our own bad attitude.  Our responses should be based on what is actual, rather than what is assumed.

This post has been linked to Hip Homeschool Hop, Thrifty Thursday, Busy Monday, WFMW, and MYHSM.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Don't Cook

Saving energy during the heat of summer can be a challenge, especially in the kitchen.  The fans and air conditioner are already working overtime, and the stove only adds to the burden.  Moreover, many energy companies increase the cost of electricity during the summer months, and most already apply a higher rate to energy consumed during "peak" hours.

There are lots of ways to reduce the burden on the kitchen equipment and your utility bills:
Cook in the crock pot
  • Use the grill outside
  • Use the microwave
  • Use the crockpot
  • Use a toaster oven
  • Make a solar oven
  • Cook during off-peak hours and reheat at dinner time
My preference is for traditionalism.  Traditionally, both Christians and Jews abstain from cooking on their respective Sabbaths, and many Jews are still strict in their observance of this practice.  Not only does it keep the kitchen cool for 24 hours every week, but it reduces dishes, and frees up the cooks in the family for more enjoyable pursuits.

For anyone who really prefers a hot meal on their sabbath, or anyone who is secular, I would recommend setting a no-cook day every week, either on the busiest day of the week, to reduce the work load a little, or during the weekend, to promote family time.

What do meals look like when cooking is off the schedule?
(Some of these ideas are meals, and others are menu items)

  • Baked goods prepared the previous day or bought at the bakery
  • A buffet of fruit or fruit salad, hard boiled eggs, perhaps some cold fish, and bread
  • Yoghurt
  • Cold milk and cereal
  • Bagels with a variety of options for spreads
  • Dried fruit and nuts with milk
  • Bread spread with cream cheese and topped with fresh or canned fruit
  • Sandwiches
  • Egg or tuna salad with crackers
  • Cheese and crackers with fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Pita bread with hummus served with olives or bell pepper slices
  • A bowl full of salad with boiled egg on top
  • Fresh vegetables and pasta salad
  • Peeled and sectioned grapefruit with a little sugar for dipping
  • Canned fruit and cottage cheese
  • Cheese crackers, horseradish sauce, and a can of sardines or herring
  • Pasta or potato salad
  • Cold fishfish
  • Cold fried chicken
  • Cold cuts
  • Lettuce wraps
  • Cold quiche prepared earlier in the week
  • Fresh, raw vegetables, either as a salad or as a platted with dip
  • Pickled vegetables
  • Bean salad
  • Stop Light salad
  • Waldorf salad
A no-cook day lends itself very well to a picnic at the park or in the back yard.  Better still, many cold foods are also finger foods.  Serve them on large trays, so that no one needs large plates.  They can simply gather around a common plate and eat over nnapkins or saucers.  And if the food is arranged neatly, no one will complain about its being cold.  

The absence of hot surfaces in the kitchen also creates the perfect opportunity for young children to learn the beginnings of food preparation.  Since foods that don't need cooking are generally  a matter of assembly more than anything else, they also make a good opportunity for older children to take responsibility for an entire meal.

Cold meals used to be a common occurrence in American cuisine, and cold recipes may be found in abundance in vintage cookbooks.  They are economical, because they use no fuel or energy for heating, are an opportunity to use leftovers, and require minimal preparation time (especially in an era when food was much more labor intensive than it is now).  In other countries, cold meals are still fairly common.  They are a valuable tool in any homemaker's repertoire, and, with regular practice, are easy and enjoyable, as well as frugal.

This post has been linked to Anything GoesThrifty Thursday, WFMW, The Mommy Club, Hip Homeschool Hop, Busy Monday, and MYHSM.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Just in Time in the Kitchen

Menu planning is a valuable tool for any home cook.  It saves time and money and the confusion of starting a meal only to discover a necessary ingredient is missing.  Generally, effective meal planning starts with surveying at regular intervals what you have on hand and what is at a good price at the grocery store and using those data to outline the meals you will prepare for the time from one meal plan to the next.  When employed habitually, a meal plan reduces excess spending at the store, prevents unplanned trips for groceries, and reduces food spoilage.  It also, because it is a plan, reduces the likelihood of spending money on meals out due to a lack of planning.  Ideally, it will also be coordinated with your calendar such that labor or time intensive meals will not be planned for busy or stressful days.  It is the basis of the grocery shopping list.

However, the application of a technique from the world of commerce can make menu planning an even more effective tool: just-in-time delivery.

Just-in-time delivery is a technique used by retail and wholesale businesses for efficient inventory management. Businesses track the sales of each product they carry and combine that information with the cost of reorder and the time required from order to delivery.  They also take into consideration how much shelf and storage space they have to dedicate to each item.  Based on all those factors, when inventory reaches a certain level, they automatically place a reorder of the item in question, knowing that in all probability the new shipment will arrive just before they run out of what is already in stock--just in time.  Businesses also frequently apply a similar technique to the purchase of consumable tools of the trade, such as paper or ink.  The result is that such companies rarely run out of items, reorders can be anticipated and planned for, and they rarely wind up with more of an item than they can store or sell.  Just-in-time can be applied to many regular purchases made for the home.

As I've discussed before, I employ a regular schedule for breakfasts in my menu plan.  I know right now what breakfast will be every day of the week every week.  I know that we have eggs for breakfast twice a week.  We also usually have pancakes and french toast once a week each.  I use five eggs when I cook eggs for my family.  A batch of pancakes uses two eggs, and french toast uses three.  Therefore, I know with some certainty that my family will go through at least 15 eggs every week.  I can also plan on us having an egg-based lunch or dinner at least once  every week, usually twice, just because that's how I usually cook.  Based on that information, I can plan on going through about two dozen eggs in a week.  Sometimes I'll use more or less, but I can always plan on having two dozen eggs on my weekly shopping list before I every write anything down on my weekly menu plan.

I can do something similar with most baking goods.  For example, a five pound bag of flour contains about 18 cups of flour.  I generally use three cups of flour every week to make bread, four cups for a double batch of biscuits, and two cups for a batch of pancakes--nine cups total. Again, that's an approximation, but it's a pretty reliable one.  If I use nine cups of flour every week, then I can plan on buying a five pound bag of flour every two weeks or a ten pound bag every four weeks before I star my grocery lists.

Knowing my cooking habits and my family's eating habits allows me to make similar plans for any number of other frequently used goods, including baking powder (this one really sneaks up on me if I don't plan ahead!), milk, buttermilk, rice, beans, chicken, canned tuna, tomato paste, pasta, apples, and bananas. By knowing how frequently and in what quantities to buy various items, I can save a lot of time in writing my shopping list.  I also avoid thoughtlessly leaving important things off my list, because certain items can go on the list before I start meal planning.  This knowledge helps me budget my grocery trips too, since I can anticipate my needs and their costs.  I can time certain regularly scheduled purchases so that the bulk of the cost is spread out or occurs at a certain point in the month.  If I plan to stock up on ten dollars worth of flour one week, for example, I might decide to put off buying chicken until the following week to even out my weekly grocery expenses.

Right now, I also know that I do not have shelving that easily accommodates ten pound bags, which means I can plan on buying five pound bags for the time being, or I can buy larger quantities and break them down into smaller containers.  Either way, I can include what I know about my space in planning my shopping.  That means that, with some items, I don't have to spend time at the store comparing unit prices and deciding what quantities to buy.  I already know exactly what I need and can plan accordingly.

Outside of menu planning, the same technique applies to personal hygeine products and cleaning supplies.  I know the rate at which we use toilet paper, and I purchase the stuff based on that rate (barring the presence of a stomach virus).  Generally, I don't need to check how much we have on hand before going to the store, because I already know when we need to purchase it.  I can make similar plans for soap and bathing supplies.

We housewives frequently like to point out that ours is a career, that we are executives of our homes.  While that comparison may help us gain acceptance from those who are critical of our choices, we can take it to heart as well.  I've written before about the usefulness of applying inventory management techniques to grocery shopping.  The world of business has many concepts and techniques that can be applied to the home to make our lives and our work more efficient, more effective, and more pleasant.

This post has been linked to Thrifty ThursdayAnything Goes, WFMW, The Mommy Club, Hip Homeschool Hop, MYHSM, and Busy Monday.