Posted in family life

picky eating, oral stims, and anxiety

Rondel is not exactly a stereotypical picky eater, but he is quite particular when it comes to food, for clear sensory-related reasons. Texture and temperature are probably the most important aspect of a food for him – his favorite foods tend to be either frozen or in the dry-to-crunchy range. So he can be quite happy eating some tortilla chips (sometimes he’ll tolerate them with melted cheese) alongside a bowl of frozen mixed veggies, he loves toast and frozen blueberries for breakfast, he prefers crackers to fig bars, he only enjoys chicken nuggets if the outer coating isn’t at all “mushy”, and he won’t eat any fresh fruit at all (except perhaps melon in the summer or pear in the fall) after having decided his primary previously acceptable fruit (apple) made his mouth feel funny. He will eat noodles and potatoes in moderation, but not consistently. Mexican refried beans and rice are acceptable, but runnier beans and rice dishes (I have a few really good ones) are not. I don’t think he has ever consented to eat soup or oatmeal, and the thought of sweet potato or avocado is enough to make him emotionally upset. Also, having a favorite food to accompany a merely tolerable one seems to help by resetting or calming the tactile receptors in his mouth.

I had never really given much thought to picky eating prior to having kids, because I tend to be a more adventurous eater, but I am realizing now that I have my own sensory quirks. I heavily prefer foods where each bite will have a variety of textures, or where the level of spiciness is enough to leave a burn, or where dedicated chewing may be required – so in a peanut butter sandwich I will use crunchy peanut butter and orange marmalade and toast the bread if at all possible; I attempt to make even normal bland foods more bold by adding extra seasonings (cayenne in the mac and cheese, double the recipe’s amount of every single spice for spice cookies); and I enjoy fairly tough meat but can only rarely handle creamy soup.

The appearance or smell of a food can also cause an overwhelming or challenging sensory reaction. Rondel reacts quite strongly to anything that looks mushy or gooey (like yogurt or banana); I recoil from unevenly bumpy foods (I avoided looking at peeled bananas for at least a year as a child). Rondel can be bothered by the smell of the food other people are eating or even by food that he enjoys eating (which I have only observed in myself during pregnancy – I notice smells quite well but am not usually bothered by them), but we’ve found that lighting a candle on the table makes things significantly better for him.

Interestingly enough, I have also recently noticed that eating painfully spicy food actually helps lower my anxiety levels, and temporarily decreases my reliance on other stims. I’m guessing it is similar for Rondel, and may be part of why he’s been a bit pickier and more wild lately as we are out of both tortilla chips and frozen blueberries. It makes me wish some of his earlier oral stims were still helpful for him – he had been able to translate overt licking of his hands and arms into chewing a wooden necklace, and it made a big difference for him in more stimulating environments especially – but he hasn’t shown much interest in them since this summer. I was beginning to think he would take after my grandmother, who still surreptitiously chews on her hands to stim! And who knows, maybe he will 🙂 in my experience, stims can ebb and flow over time, even if some are more enduring or central.

In the meantime, we’ll keep on freezing our yogurt into creamy cold dots, stocking our house with plenty of whole-grain bread for toast, lighting our candle at dinner, and continuing to try new foods in hope that some of them will cooperate with his unique blend of sensory cravings and aversions!

Posted in wwlw

what we’re learning wednesday: episode 3

Today we went to the grocery store and learned about the way peaches smell when they’re ripe and good to eat (and also plums). I learned that Limerick will pull the leaves off of strawberries before he eats them, while Aubade will eat them leaves and all.

We learned about the strength of the wind in a storm when we saw huge branches torn off of trees by the monsoon that came through last night.

We learned about the hiddenness of the wind, how it can only be inferred by the consequences of its presence, last night as we watched that storm crash down the street and read Christina Rosetti’s poem about the wind:

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.

Rondel wondered at how we can feel the wind when it presses against us even though we can’t see it coming with our eyes.

Today, we talked about how scary things can be when they are new and unfamiliar and unknown, when really they are good and beautiful things, because we discovered some books on that theme at the library: Tiny’s Big Adventure by Martin Waddell, What Do You Do With a Chance? by Kobi Yamada, and Little Frog and the Scary Autumn Thing by Jane Yolen.

Earlier this week we made a 10×10 number chart and discovered that if we covered up all the odd numbers with flakes (all the numbers that can’t be split into two groups, as the boys say), the even numbers that were left all lined up in neat columns and had 2, 4, 6, 8, or 0 in their ones place. We also spent a lot of time figuring out which numbers would be visible if we covered up the ones that couldn’t be split into three groups, but we didn’t discover a reliable pattern yet for those numbers. (Limerick loved figuring it out for each number though, so I’m sure he’ll find the pattern pretty soon).

Rondel watched a documentary about the Galapagos islands and learned about an iguana that laid its eggs in nests of volcanic ash and so couldn’t leave the volcano summit of one of the islands, and also learned about the blue-footed booby for the first time and was impressed by how blue its feet really are!

And I learned that the best way to turn around a bad day is to apologize directly for my irritability and impatience, instead of just hoping it will go away and be forgotten.

Those are our recent highlights! What have you all been learning and discovering in your lives lately? What riches of knowledge and adventure have your curiosity and hunger to learn unearthed for you?

Posted in recipes

Mac and Cheese!

One of my consistent pregnancy cravings is Kraft macaroni and cheese – it’s not a particularly appealing food to me most of the time, but I really really want it in that first trimester! It probably helps that it is quick and easy to make if I’m feeling worn out from the hormones and just need something fast to feed the boys for dinner… but I feel somewhat guilty every time I make it, and I wanted to find an alternative that would be healthier for the boys as they’re growing and for me as I’m helping a new baby grow. I’ve had a great baked mac and cheese recipe for a few years now, but it is a labor of love and a misery in the summer (three burners and the oven on all at once in a tiny heat-trapping kitchen – not enjoyable).

Well, somewhat on a whim a couple weeks ago, I wondered if I could adapt that baked mac and cheese recipe to a stovetop recipe and still retain that rich, smooth, cheesy texture and flavor. I was doubtful, remembering many grainy cheese sauces from my mom’s attempt to replace the Kraft mac, but I decided it was worth a try. And to my great surprise and the boys’ great delight, it worked! We’ve made it at least four times since and Rondel’s asked for it for dinner, lunch, and even breakfast many more times than that.

Essentially, I make a simple roux with butter, flour, and milk – about half the milk I needed for the baked mac – add some shredded cheddar, cayenne pepper, black pepper, and maybe a touch of salt, and then mix the drained noodles with the sauce after the cheese has mostly melted. Some keys are:

  • make sure the flour cooks sufficiently before adding the milk
  • avoid over-browning or burning the flour
  • stir thoroughly while adding the milk so no grainy floury pockets are left unmixed
  • keep the heat low so the dairy doesn’t scald or develop a skin
  • use a noodle with lots of texture to hold the sauce
  • don’t skimp on the cayenne! The dairy mitigates the spice, but the pepper still manages to make the cheese taste sharper than it otherwise would, and enhances the cheese flavor that might otherwise be dulled by the milk, flour, and pasta.

I think high heat and insufficient whisking of the milk into the flour-butter mixture were at fault the one time our noodles were a bit on the grainy side.

We’ve been using a tri-color rotini noodle we found that apparently will provide about half a serving of vegetables in a normal child-sized amount of pasta – so the colors make the boys excited, and the added health benefits make me excited!

Anyway, for 8 ounces of pasta, here is the recipe I’ve settled on:

  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/3 lb shredded sharp cheddar cheese (approximately – I just fill a bowl)
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
  • pepper and salt to taste (I usually omit the salt)

If you know how to make a roux, this will be a piece of cake. If you don’t, the technique is pretty simply to learn. Start by melting the butter at low to medium-low heat, then mix in the flour. Let the flour and butter mixture cook at low heat for at least 5-6 minutes, until the flour starts to brown (if it browns more quickly, turn down the heat!). Slowly, stirring constantly, add the milk to the browned flour-butter mixture, making sure to fully incorporate all the milk as you go. Finally, add the cheese and spices!

The whole sauce is then stirred into the cooked pasta and everyone can enjoy! If I make the sauce while the pasta is cooking (and the water coming to a boil), I find it doesn’t take much more time than the boxed mac and cheese, although the clean up is a bit worse – and the taste and nutrition are far better.

Posted in family life, recipes

breakfast for dinner – real life on a regular day

I’ve honestly been too tired to get out my camera and aim for the beautiful or cute shots of the boys for a while now, and it’s been compounded by the fact that our only real outdoor play options (where the lighting is ideal for pictures of toddlers who rarely hold still) involve water, which is decidedly camera-unfriendly!

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Lately, however, I’ve been inspired by Jennie’s Real Life series of black-and-white shots over at Where My Heart Lies, and I thought, you know, black-and-white pictures are much more forgiving in low-light settings, and if the bar is set low enough so that even the mess is considered valid subject matter, then maybe I can still take pictures even in this season of life. The floor may more often than not be a colorful canvas of crayon art, and the sink may typically be full of dishes, but we’re still playing together, reading together, eating together, and surviving each day together, so it’s worth capturing the truly everyday moments no matter how inglorious and small they might be.

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Yesterday, as has been the case for the majority of days in the past few weeks, my queasiness peaked in the afternoon, making dinner prep the absolute last thing I wanted to do. I didn’t have a plan and nothing sounded remotely edible but I knew that if I postponed dinner any longer I would have two ravenous toddlers at their emotional breaking points over a lack of food, so I went to a standby that I actually hadn’t made in a while: whole-grain pancakes!

This recipe is from the book Hearth and Home, which my mom owns; I recall the book as being a collection of recipes, thoughts, and short anecdotes, and I don’t really use anything from it aside from this recipe – but it is definitely a good pancake recipe! The unique element of it is that you start with whole unground grains: wheat berries, rolled oats, cornmeal (I don’t trust my blender with whole popcorn kernels!), or whatever else you have around. My current favorite is 1 1/4 cups of wheat berries and 1/2 cups of rolled oats; different combinations don’t affect the taste so much as the texture of the finished pancake. The blender does the work of grinding up the wheat berries and other grains or flours, so that you are working with and eating the freshest possible whole grains. Despite having no added sugar, some warming spices make the pancakes feel sweet, and they are thick, hearty, and filling. You might have noticed in the picture above that I added some fresh blueberries to one of the pancakes, too!

Blueberry pancakes with butter and a drizzle of maple syrup – mmm 🙂

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the first batch, catching the sunlight through the kitchen window – aren’t they lovely?

And now for the recipe, short and simple. Make sure you have a heavy-duty blender; otherwise, just use 2 cups of the flours of your choosing instead of the whole grains.

Blend 1 1/4 cups whole wheat kernels and 1/2 cup rolled oats with 2 cups milk, for 4 minutes on high, until smooth.

In a separate bowl, beat an egg with 1/4 cup of oil (I like coconut best but I used vegetable tonight because I’m all out of coconut oil, sniff). Pour the blended mixture into the bowl and whisk together. The blender just doesn’t seem effective at this when the egg and oil are added on top of the flour mixture, for some reason.

Whisk in 1 tablespoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1 heaping teaspoon of some warming spice mix (pumpkin pie spice blend, or just straight cinnamon, or something along those lines. I have a blend called “sweet spice” from a local baking store and I have no clue what is in it in what proportions but it’s good!)

Then just pour onto a griddle to bake! You may need to adjust the thickness of the batter to get it just right for you, but with this specific grain mixture I haven’t needed to.

After you pour a pancake out, before it cooks very much on that first side, you can add customized add-ins like walnuts, bananas, blueberries, or even chocolate chips. I’m a huge fan of these specialty pancakes but everyone else in my family prefers them plain, so I can’t mix the add-ins directly to the batter; this is a good hack to work around it.

So there you have it, breakfast for dinner and I’m completely unashamed 🙂 When you’re pregnant, exhausted, and queasy, just getting relatively healthy food on the table is an unqualified success, I think! Realistic expectations for myself, that’s what I need 🙂

Posted in family life, musings, recipes

meal-planning for the creative and spontaneous mom

I think cooking and grocery shopping are two of my favorite housekeeping activities 🙂 It’s fun imagining different ways to use the fruits and vegetables that are seasonal and on sale, or figuring out how to use up the remnants of a leftover or the last bits of produce in the fridge before they go bad without making an emergency trip to the store, or balancing all the different food groups throughout the day to make sure the boys are eating a well-rounded diet. In a way, it’s like a puzzle that never gets old because so many of the variables are always changing! (And I must confess that I would get bored pretty quickly if the variables didn’t change – I could never work off a strict rotation of menus because I get tired of cooking the same things and like to mix it up and experiment with new ideas fairly regularly).

Most of my inspiration comes from the produce sale list… I see, for instance, that red bell peppers are only 50 cents each this week and I wonder what I could make with them that my bell-pepper-disdaining family would eat (I love peppers so I’m always attempting to convert the rest of them). Maybe on top of a bruschetta with some sort of cheese – something with feta and ricotta, perhaps… I call those “little toasties” to the kids because they sometimes will outright refuse a food just because it has a strange name and I’d rather not have to deal with that if I can avoid it! And there’s one meal down: I would throw together a quick pasta or veggie to accompany it, depending on what leftovers we have and what’s in the pantry, and let the bruschetta be the main star of the meal.

I think one of the factors that makes this sort of meal-planning easier for me is that I don’t think every dinner has to include a meat. I was a vegetarian for eleven years, so as long as there is some sort of cheese or bean in the main meal I feel like it is complete, and especially if we had a high-protein breakfast or lunch I don’t think it necessary to emphasize the protein at dinner. Instead, dinner ends up being the most vegetable-heavy meal of the day most of the time. We’ll see if this needs to change as the boys get older, of course 🙂 Meats are just harder for me to be creative with because I lost those eleven years of experimentation, so I get more easily bored by the options I can reliably cook.

Right now we’re entering into one of my favorite meal-planning seasons because there is so much seasonal fresh fruit! Fruit is an easy side dish to round out a meal, a healthy dessert if I’m feeling nibbly after dinner, a no-guilt snack to pull out if the boys are hungry an hour before dinner, and a quick breakfast if I’m running late to work. It significantly reduces the amount of prep and forethought I have to put into meals… and the hot weather in general lends itself to quick, light foods instead of the heavier meals that require thawing time, prep time, and cooking time (as delicious as those meals are in the colder weather!).

What are some of your tips and tricks for feeding your family every day?

Posted in family life

time together: sensory baking

a cloudy rainy Sunday calls for baking and naps! So Rondel and I made some cardamom-spiced pear bread and wintry oatmeal cookies together while Limerick took a nap with Daddy. It is hard to make time to spend one-on-one with Rondel and this hour or so was really special for both of us.

I brought all the ingredients, utensils, and bowls down to the kitchen floor and together we poured, stirred, cracked eggs, and explored with all our senses! Rondel noticed the difference between how brown sugar and white sugar felt on his hands, and between how they poured out into the mixing bowl. (I measured the sugar out into bowls and let him dump them into the big bowl – my “little” bowls were probably too heavy, though, as he ended up dropping them into the butter.) He felt the difference between the fine powdery baking soda and the coarse grainy salt – and liked the feel of the baking soda so much that he put his whole hand in the box to feel more! He felt the cool smooth pool of vanilla and the cloudy soft pillow of flour. He felt the firm unbroken shell of the eggs, heard the crack as he hit them against the bowl, felt the sharp fragmented edges and the slippery egg white as he tried to pry them open from his little starter hole.

He tasted the oats, dry and chewy, texturally pleasant but rather bland; he tasted the walnuts, cold and crunchy from the freezer; he tasted the cranberries, tart and bright on the tongue; and he tasted the white chocolate chips and didn’t want to stop tasting them! He observed the funny folds and crevices of the walnuts, and used his imagination to see silly cars and trucks and animals in their fantastic shapes. He saw how the white flour disappeared and was absorbed into the dough as we stirred.

And what he didn’t do faded into the background, and we ignored it. Some other day he’ll want to feel the butter, help grease the bread pans, taste the creamy-grainy mix of butter and sugar, and lick the bowl with me. He can grow in his experiences in his own way, and at his own speed, and we can still have one of the best afternoons we’ve had together in a long time.

(I didn’t take any pictures because I didn’t want to step out of the moment with Rondel, so you’ll just have to imagine the cuteness and the mess! Sorry about that!)

Posted in family life

when dinner plans and personalities collide

Does anyone else struggle with making daily dinners because you just get so tired of making the same things over and over again?

I’ve made so many good recipes in the past – recipes that were healthy, frugal, filling, and family-approved – but after making them every couple weeks for a few months, I get tired of them and want to move on. It’s really hard for me to repeat recipes unless they’re both easy and amazing…

Fortunately, I don’t usually have trouble being creative and improvising in the kitchen! That is one of my favorite things about cooking – taking some random ingredients and assembling them into a unified meal. I’ve had my flops but overall the meals turn out well and my family is happy, which is what counts!

The problem is that sometimes I just don’t have any ideas, and because I planned on creating and improvising instead of making a set schedule of tried-and-true recipes, I don’t always have ingredients on hand to make one of those “fall-back” recipes. Or, on the other hand, the thought of one of those meals just seems so boring and repetitive because I’ve made it so many times before (even if it’s been years since I actually made it). We have some pretty strange dinners when I’m stuck in a rut like this, or we eat up the odds and ends of leftover soups and pizzas in the freezer…

Anyway, this way of winging it is working now with only a toddler and baby but it won’t work forever! Any tips on how to combine my love of kitchen improvisation with the need for a schedule that I can grocery shop for and follow through on?