Saturday, February 20, 2016

In praise of the good-enough home chef

I love cooking.  Let me rephrase.  I love cooking when it's peaceful.  Not so much when I've got the toddler screaming "UP!  UP!  UP!!!" and melting down at my feet, the dog is underfoot every time I turn around, and I'm trying to find that onion that, I swear, was in the bin this afternoon, where could it have gone?!
Like most home cooks, I have my easy, go-to recipes which I can basically do with my eyes shut and with only one hand, which is good because that's how many I often have to cook with these days.  Just tonight the Munchkin broke a glass, burned her arm and then ran into a table while I was making dinner.  (She was warned that the pot was hot, and the table thing was just dumb, frankly.  She gets stumbly when she's tired.)  BUT, I got a delicious dinner on the table, enough for five adults and a (hangry) toddler, plus leftovers.  It wasn't pretty to look at (is chili ever pretty?) but it was tasty.  And healthy.  And cheap.  In other words, the perfect meal.
I'm betting your household is like mine most nights.  Maybe not with the burning and the broken glass and the dog who trips you every other step, but the chaos.  Most of us home cooks don't spend hours slaving over the stove each night.  Who has the time for that?  Yes, HusbandX and I do have a few occasions on which we like to treat ourselves/each other and spend a couple of hours creating something miraculous and new.  (He made homemade pasta for me one time, even without a pasta roller.  That's true love, folks.)  But for the most part, our meals are hurried and harried and ever-changing.  We like to make big batches of stuff so that we have leftovers for a day or two, just to give ourselves a break.
I hear so many people whining that cooking is hard, or takes too much time, or they're just not good at it, but here's the thing: knowing how to feed yourself/your family, without resorting to boxes, is a life skill that I think everyone should have.  It's good for you, and it's great for your wallet no matter how you figure it.  (Fast food might be cheap in the moment, not so much when you're dealing with the associated health problems down the line.)  
Here in this house we have a fantastic resource called The Internet, with all kinds of amazing tips on how to be a better home cook, and with literally billions of recipes to try.  It's amazing.  If you think cooking is too hard, you should look at it sometime.  Learning to cook might take some work in the beginning, but knowing how to cook saves massive amounts of time.  (How much time do non-cooks spend waiting in restaurants?  Browsing menus?  Getting to/from the restaurant?)  Even when conditions aren't perfect, such as tonight, getting food together does not have to be a complex thing.  I was able to take time away from the (still on) stove to put ice on the burn and kiss the bonked forehead, and I didn't burn down the kitchen OR ruin dinner.  I must have skillz.  Or, you know, I deliberately chose a low-key meal in deference to the fact that I have a wild toddler running free in my house.
As for the people who claim that they're not good at it, so what if you're not going to get a Michelin star?  I bet you can make something edible if you really try.  Cooking is not rocket science.  I mean, it could be that convoluted, but it doesn't have to be at all.  My dad is probably one of the worst cooks I know (barring that one friend who got drunk and decided to make "stew" while his wife was out of town) but even he has a few go-to recipes which he can do quite well.
Lest you think that I'm an amazing cook, it's actually HusbandX who's the better chef in our house.  I'm a better baker than I am a cook.  I am also not one of those people who tastes something and knows just how it could be slightly better, or how to take a few random ingredients and make a 5-star meal out of them.  (That would be my cousin.)  I don't really make up my own recipes.  At best, I can tweak recipes a tiny bit, adding maybe some of this or a little of that, or making them slightly less complicated.   Have I ever let that stop me though?  No.  I don't need to be super creative in the kitchen to know what works well.  I don't need to spend tons of time preparing one small meal.  I don't need to plate things for maximum effect, with artful little dabs of sauce in the rim.  I am an adequate cook, and that's good enough.
So for all of the home cooks whose meals aren't worthy of social media picture posts, who deal with children fighting or screaming or causing trouble while they desperately try to get palatable food together, who use cheese sauce to cover any number of cooking sins, or who know that making a smoothie and toast for dinner totally counts as cooking, I salute you.  You (and I) will never write a cookbook.  You won't have a blog dedicated to your love of putting together "simple" meals that take an hour and involve $45 of special ingredients.  You won't open restaurants, but you still manage to feed yourself and your family.  Most nights, that's an accomplishment worthy of an award.  Way to go, you.
Leo: someone else who has not gotten a
much-deserved award...yet.

Friday, February 19, 2016

The lazy person's guide to plants

I've heard so many people say that they can't keep houseplants alive, at all, ever.  That's a real shame because houseplants have some amazing benefits, from helping to ward off depression to cleaning the air.  They're also easier than taking care of pets, and most landlords don't care if you have houseplants.
I am both lazy and easily distracted.  And yet, I have quite a number of houseplants, many of which I've managed to keep alive for years.  (I think my longest is going on eight years now, although I worried for a bit last summer that our move had killed it.  It didn't.  Disaster averted.)  I'm not special and I don't have a particular green thumb.  I mean, I love plants, but come on.  Plants need care and I am forgetful.  However, my secret to success is actually in my laziness.
We have pets.  They drink water.  But sometimes, the bowl gets nasty and needs to be cleaned out.  And the cat, of course, hates water if it's been in his bowl for longer than about ten seconds.  So I found myself dumping out quite a bit of water and it was annoying until I decided to keep some of my plants near their water dishes.  Now when I toss out the old water, it's into the plants instead of down the drain.  The plants don't care if it's nasty and maybe has a little bit of dog hair in it.  In fact, I kind of think that they end up pulling in some extra nutrients that way because my plants only get fertilized about once a year when I think, "Oh, I should probably feed them," and then it takes another month or two before I actually get around to doing it.

The plants nearest the cat's dishes.  They're both safe for him to eat.
In fact, one is catnip, but he doesn't seem to have realized that yet.
Of course, our pets don't leave enough water that even a bit daily will keep alive the houseplants I have.  But that's where water glasses come in.  You see, the Munchkin will drink some of her water and then stick her grubby fingers into it, then leave it behind when she runs off.  No one else wants to drink it, and I don't want her drinking it anymore, especially when it's cloudy with whatever was on her fingers.  Ew.  Into the plants it goes.
We all like to have water by the bed at night in case we get thirsty.  But it only gets fully drunk maybe 1/3 of the time so most days, whatever is left goes into the plants before the glasses get washed.
This is, hands down, the easiest thing to way I've found to care for plants.  It takes about zero time out of my day (particularly if the plants are near the water source, like near the pet water bowls or on the way to the dishwasher) and it saves a bit of money on water, since I'm not tossing perfectly good water down the drain and instead using it for a secondary purpose.  The only part to remember is which plants have gotten water recently, but that's easy enough that even my scatterbrain can do it.  And if you're not sure, as I'm frequently not, testing the soil with your finger will tell you which ones could really use the water.
Very rarely do I have to specifically go around watering my plants.  I used to try to keep it on a schedule, watering them all once each week, and that was horrid.  I kept forgetting and sometimes they'd go two or three weeks before getting watered, looking wilty and losing leaves.  This way, not only are they getting watered often enough but it also forces me to check on my plants about once each day, making sure there are no diseases, pests, or other problems to contend with.  There never have been, but it's also nice to say hello to the plants and breathe on them a little extra.  Sounds crazy, but I swear they love it and studies have borne this out.  (I know, Mythbusters is not exactly peer-reviewed science, but that one's just for fun.  If you want real research, look it up yourself.  It's fascinating.)
Watering my plants this way has become so routine that I barely think about it anymore, and I never worry if my plants haven't been watered enough.  So if you, too, can barely keep a plant alive, get one and try my way.  If it doesn't work you're out a few bucks.  If it does, you get all those wonderful benefits from the plants.  Just please, don't be like my friend who once said, "It's a cactus.  It doesn't need to be watered every month.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Agnostic about fitness

I have a confession: I don't really like "exercise".  Let me explain.  I do a lot of fitness activities, and get more than the recommended daily exercise, but I don't like doing the same thing day after day after day and trying to "get fit" or healthy or thin or whatever.  It's just so...boring.  So, I decided a long time ago to stop exercising.
The only thing I do each and every day which technically counts as exercise is walking.  I don't do it because it's healthy, I do it because it's something really fun which the Munchkin and I can do together.  Some days it's long walks, like down to the creek (probably about 4 miles round trip--not that the Munchkin walks the whole thing, it's a mixture of me carrying her in the Ergo and her walking/running) and other days it's short walks, like just to the park at the end of our street.  (We did that one twice yesterday, with a long time at the playground both times of course.)

My munchkin puddle stomping on one of our walks.
Why would we let the rain keep us indoors?
I love biking.  Love it!  But if I had to do it for the sake of exercise, I would stop almost immediately.  There are days and times when I have loved going for long rides all by myself.  I used to have a 15 mile loop in Fairbanks that I did on the regular during the summer.  But that wasn't "for exercise", it was for fun.  I love biking as a group, with friends, or to get places I want to go anyway.  When I'm biking that way, any fitness I get out of it is purely a side benefit, waaay down on my list of reasons to bike.
In the last month or so, I've started weight lifting a bit.  I've had a kettlebell for a while and used it off and on, wanting to do more but not wanting to pay for the gym or spend the money to get my own weights.  When my brother left for parts unknown he gave us his free weights to use while he's away, just two adjustable dumbbells.  And I'm really enjoying it.  It might be the only thing I do purely for fitness, although again I have a larger goal that's not about the fitness per se.  I want to be strong enough to keep up with what my child needs.  She still wants to be picked up about 45 million times each day, and I need to be strong enough that that doesn't break down my body.
Also, I want to be strong enough to keep up with her in the coming years.
Also, the results be damn girl, like whoa.  Even after a month-ish, I can see and feel a difference in myself, and so can HusbandX.  The fact that I get to eat more now?  Gravy.
I do yoga occasionally, because stretching is good, it's light enough that I can make myself do it even when I'm sick or tired, and I can do it while doing something else, like watching a movie or show with HusbandX.  Also, it's relaxing and I could really use that right now.  But most days, yoga is not what I want or need.  It's nice to know it's in my arsenal, but I'm never going to become a yogi and do a daily practice.
I also run.  Again, I'm not at all regular or religious about it.  There are times when I've gone out five days a week to run and loved it, and times when I've done it once or twice in a month and hated it both times so I stopped for a while.  The times when I've most needed running, it tends to be mostly about my mental health, about needing to get away and do something meditative, something positive for myself.
Today was a running day.  I broke down this morning over the fact that my tea had been moved and I couldn't find it.  Things are being put away in the kitchen in increasingly random places, and I'm the one who tends to quietly go about putting them back where they belong so everyone can find them.  But it's hard to see one more symptom of my mom's illness, to deal with it on a daily basis.
I need about a month of good sleep, but I'm not going to get it anytime soon.  The book "Go the Fuck to Sleep" was written for and about kids like mine.  Last night, though she was so exhausted that she was melting down by five, she was still awake at 9:30, stubbornly determined that she wasn't going to give in to sleep EVER!  Then she woke up before eight this morning, and then my caffeine source was missing.  I haven't slept well in days, and if I take a nap in the afternoon it just means that I lay awake at night, unable to sleep.
So today was a running day.  Not because I'm super healthy or because it helps my brain, but simply because that's what I needed today just like I needed the brownies I made last night.  (I was skeptical--black bean brownies?--but we're almost out of flour.  These turned out to be both easy to make and delicious.  Good enough that I'll make them again even when we're fully stocked with flour.)  I often wonder how people who shun exercise can possibly be mentally healthy, and then I remember that not everyone is made as active as I am.  (I have sometimes wondered if I have ADHD, and much of the recent press about girls being under-diagnosed has brought up symptoms which fit with my childhood, but which I thought were just problems with ME.)
The last few times I've run, I've been plagued by knee problems.  This is something which only flares up with running--not a single one of my other activities hurts.  (Apparently I should try foam rolling, because advocates of it speak up the same way CrossFit-ers and vegans do, and attribute the same number of miraculous health benefits to it as the other groups do.)  But I think that this is one of the benefits of being an agnostic when it comes to fitness: I can move on to any of my other activities and I'll be all right.  Today was a running day, but tomorrow probably won't be.
So for others out there who are easily bored by one fitness routine: try them all.  Find the ones you like best and mix them up.  I've tried doing some of those 30 day challenges and get bored or distracted around day 5.  If you're like that, don't force it!  You'll hate it and then think it's because you hate exercise in general.  You don't, you just haven't found the right thing yet.  And before you think I'm trying to advocate that everyone suddenly become as active as I am, stop right there.  I don't, but I do think that most people could benefit from being a bit more active, in whatever capacity.  My old boss does belly dancing, and I think that's awesome.  Her girls do roller derby, and that's just as awesome.  I know boxers and bikers and runners and walkers and I think it's fantastic.  The important thing, in so many ways, is simply to be active.  Get out there and move, even if it's not your usual fitness routine.  If you're too tired for one thing, try another.  You'll thank yourself later on.
Also, eat brownies without shame.  Because NOM!

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Sticker Chart

We began potty training our Munchkin at about 6 months.  I'd read a bunch of stuff about EC (elimination communication) and the benefits of potty training early, such as a lower rate of UTIs in kids who are potty trained young.  Having experienced the misery of UTIs myself, since both my mom and I are prone to them, I did not want the Munchkin to have to go through that.  Plus, since we cloth diaper I figured that not having to clean out poopy diapers would be a huge benefit.
A lot of people who do EC will rave about how wonderful it is.  We are not those people.  In fact, if we ever have a second kid, I'm not sure I'd start potty training that soon again.  It would still be on the table, but it would be something we'd need to seriously discuss, the pros and cons and what we'd do differently.  
For the details: it took about a week for her to pee on the potty for the first time.  It was first thing in the morning and she was sort of wake-up crying.  When she started peeing she looked at me like, "Uh-oh," but I started praising her and she smiled like, "Oh, that's what you want me to do here!"  It was pretty incredible to be able to read her thought process on her face.  The next morning when I sat her on the potty she peed almost immediately, checking to see if I would react in the same positive way, which of course I did.  From then on I had to guess when she needed to pee, but we had frequent successes.  There were even days when we'd have only a few wet diapers.  Considering how frequently our child pees, that was a huge deal.
It took about a month before we got the first poop on the potty, but it met with the same success that peeing had.  When she realized that she didn't have to be sitting in her own feces, telling us that she had to poop (usually by pointing at the potty or crawling to it) before she went became her preference.
And then, when she was a little over a year, she stopped doing that.  We don't know why, but she stopped pooping on the potty.  It became a game with her, to withhold it.  And then, I think, the game overtook her and became something else, so that she couldn't make herself go on the potty.  In the past year, we've gotten her to poop on the potty once.  It was, to say the least, freaking annoying.
Even worse, recently she's gone to having daily potty accidents, then several times a day.  When we first put her in big-girl underwear, she'd be dry unless she was super tired.  Now we were having to deal with potty accidents more than once a day and we were at a loss.
So I started researching what to do for potty regression.  It tends to be something kids do when they're stressed out, and we suspect that our living situation (the constant chaos) is the source of stress.  Not much we can do about that beyond what we're already doing.  
But I came across the idea of sticker charts as an incentive for kids when potty training.  It's something fun and rewarding, a visual thing, and a reminder tool.  It's not quite a bribe, since those can be either wildly successful or can backfire intensely, but it's something she likes.
However, the most common iteration I've seen of this is a sticker for every time a kid either sits on the potty or goes potty.  That was right out, because our kid is smart enough that she would have gamed that system immediately, forcing herself to pee as often as possible for more stickers.
Instead, we made a chart basted on sections of the day: morning, nap, afternoon, and then a special one for going poop on the potty.
Glorious, isn't it?  There should be more stickers, but it was
originally down where the Munchkin could pull them off.
You know what?  It worked immediately.  She even pooped on the potty that first day!  If we think she needs to use the potty but doesn't want to, we remind her of her stickers and she usually goes potty without fuss.  Getting to put the stickers on the chart is such a success that she brings it up herself.  When she goes potty right before her nap she tells me, "Sticker!  My sticker!" and runs off to find the stickers, because she knows it's time.
The only thing I would say as a caution about sticker charts are the fact that it can also be its own source of anxiety.  We think that, when she did have an accident the other day, she got upset about the loss of her sticker.  So we've been careful to tell her that it's not a punishment to have the stickers taken away, and that accidents sometimes happen and that's all right.
Since we started the chart this week, she's only had two three accidents, one of which was my fault.  She went potty before nap time, then told me later that she had to go potty and I thought she was just trying to delay nap time.  Turns out she had to poop.  I let her know that it was all my fault, and thanked her for trying to tell me.  She didn't get a sticker, but she knows that that wasn't her fault and that's important.
Since I know plenty of parents who are facing potty training in the near future, I hope this helps.  For more experienced parents, any other words of wisdom about what helped your kids the most?  Did you try EC, and if so what was your success?