Sunday, July 19, 2015

What Not to Say to the Parent of a New College Student

Bubble Apron StringsIn 2013, preparing to send The Girl off to college for her first year, I found myself caught up in ridiculous conversations every time I bumped into someone who knows our family. Everyone I encountered, it seemed, had the exact same things to say. None of those things were very helpful.  Many of them, in fact, were pretty hurtful.  And while I knew in my heart that no one meant to be anything other than supportive of me and the Foodie family, that didn’t change the fact that I often felt insulted for daring to have an honest response to the fact of my daughter’s departure.

Now, with The Boy heading off to college as well, I find myself having a deja vu experience–the same conversations, the same hurt feelings. So I thought I’d share some of the more common Things People Say at this moment, explain why I find those things unhelpful, and offer some alternatives.  If you have friends who are preparing to send a kid off to college, they’ll appreciate hearing anything other than:

It’s time to cut the apron strings!

First of all, although I do cook, I rarely wear an apron.   And I have the stains to prove it.

Second: the practice of tying a kid to one’s apron strings was a method of keeping small children close by while a mother was occupied with cooking, which was a time- and labor-intensive activity for many years.  Having small children underfoot didn’t make that process easier, I’m sure, which means a mother would simply not attach a child to herself in the first place if she believed that child was old enough to roam free.  A rebellious child, not a mother, would be the one taking the scissors to the strings.

So before you think about saying this to a mom (because, let’s face it, no one says this to a dad), remind yourself that it makes no sense and think again.

This is your second time around, so it’s probably not as hard.

I never know what to say to this. Yes, my second child was never as special as my first, perhaps? I can’t imagine that would go over very well. Maybe It’s really no big deal at all–I’m sure we’ll hardly even notice that he’s missing. I don’t think I’d win any parenting prizes for that one, either.

Truth be told, sending my second child off to college feels more difficult, not less. In part, that’s because he’s the last one at home; The Hubs and I are preparing to make a big transition of our own here. But in larger part, it’s because The Boy is a unique person who will face unique challenges in college. He’s not going to have the exact same experience that his sister had, because he isn’t her. None of us know how this is going to go. So it’s actually really hard. And when you tell me it’s probably not, you make me feel like a whiner for admitting it is.

Aren’t you proud he/she’s going to college?

I assume that no one really believes my answer to this question will be “No, actually, I’m not proud at all.  I’m really pissed off.  How dare my child leave home and get an education?  What does he think he’s doing, preparing for the future or something?”

The fact that I miss my daughter since she moved out (and will miss my son this fall) has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not I’m pleased and proud that both of my children earned terrific scholarships at an excellent university where they’ll get a top-notch education.  I was, and am, incredibly proud of them.  But if your best friend gets a terrific job offer in a different city, it’s possible to miss your friend terribly while wishing her well, right?  In the same respect, it’s possible for parents to miss seeing their child every day while still taking great pride in their accomplishments.

He (or she) is going to be just fine.

I’m going to be blunt here: You don’t know that. And neither does the parent in question, or the student. Some 18-year-olds thrive in college, but many are not fine at all. Some have learning disabilities that make college a bigger challenge than the student can deal with successfully. Some are so homesick, they just can’t function in their current environment and need to switch schools. Some sink into a deep depression and need to leave school altogether for awhile, then try again later. There is no shame in any of these outcomes, because every 18-year-old person is different and some people simply aren’t ready for college until much later in life. (That’s why 30% of people over the age of 25 in the United States hold a bachelor’s degree, though 66% of high school students enroll in college immediately after graduation.)

When you refuse to acknowledge that there’s any possible outcome other than “just fine”, you make it impossible for a parent to confide any fears and concerns. You’re making it clear that you don’t want to hear them.  And in doing that, you’re making the world a pretty lonely place for a worried mom or dad.

Eventually, you have to let them go.

Here is something every parent knows all too well: the process of “letting go” begins when a child is born, when you have to trust that child to breathe with her own two lungs all night long and then wake up in the morning.  (Believe me when I say that it’s really hard to trust this will happen when you’re the post-partum first-time mother of a newborn.)  That process continues the first time you let your child climb a ladder and go down a slide by him or herself, and when you leave your child with a babysitter, a day care provider, a kindergarten teacher, etc., etc., etc.

By the time your kid is old enough to go to the movies with a group of friends, but without an adult chaperon—around the age of twelve or so—you have long since let go of the idea that you will be holding on to your child forever.  Their entire lives are devoted to becoming independent of you.  As a parent, your job is to stand there and watch it happen.  That’s a painful process, and it did not begin when my kid left home for college.  It began on the day she was born.

Everybody goes through this at some point.

This one is just not true. Not even a little bit.

I’m the only mother of my particular children.  My daughter is my only daughter. She is my only oldest child.  I went through sending my first child off to college exactly one time. My son is my only son. He is my only youngest child. I will go through sending my last child off to college exactly one time. This experience belongs to me alone.

Other people from other families will be sending off their children as well, of course and I’m sure there are common elements in our experience—but they are not me, and I am not them.  Our families are different.  Our children are different.  I am the only mom who knows how it feels to lose this particular member of my home team at this particular time.

Also: please keep in mind that some parents aren’t lucky enough to have a child long enough to send him or her off to college. Some parents lose their kids too young–some just a few weeks before college begins. Some kids run away from home before they graduate from high school.  Some kids don’t finish high school, for one reason or another.  Some parents encourage their kids to live at home while going to college, because university housing is a huge expense.  Everybody goes through this is not only a lie–it’s an incredibly insensitive thing to say.

So what do I say?

I’m glad you asked. Fortunately, there are many things the parent of a college student wants to hear:

 Is s/he excited?

This is a great question because 1.) it allows the parent to focus on the departing kid, which is all the parent really wants to talk about, and 2.) it allows that parent to be honest—to talk about both the hopes and fears involved with making a big transition.  It’s perfectly okay to answer this questions by saying “Yes and no.”

This is such an exciting time—there are so many adventures ahead!

It is!  There are!  That’s what keeps this from being a total sobfest.

You’re starting a whole new chapter of your life.

We are. All of us.  And even though this beginning part is a little sad, we’re very excited to find out what’s next.


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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Overnight Oats

Overnight Oats Crop

A few weeks ago, in my post about making your own milk kefir, I mentioned that one of my favorite uses for kefir is overnight oats for breakfast. I’ll be honest: I’d seen lots of posts on these oats, but I was not at all convinced that I’d like them. Cold oatmeal? It sounds disgusting, right? (Never mind that you can always heat them up in the microwave, if you want.) Actually, I’ve discovered that I love overnight oats as long as I follow a few simple rules.

First off, I recommend using steel-cut oats rather than regular oatmeal. These oats soak up liquid and soften overnight, but they don’t get mushy. Regular oatmeal, I’ve found, creates a more pasty texture, which just isn’t my thing. Given that steel-cut oats take a long time to cook, preparing them this way allows you to get all their fiber benefits without spending half an hour stirring a pot of oatmeal in the morning.

Secondly, combine kefir and oats in a 2:1 ratio. I’ve found that 1/4 cup of dry oats and 1/2 cup of kefir makes a very filling portion–especially if you’re adding nuts or fruit to the mix. (If you don’t have prepared kefir on hand, you can also use regular yogurt thinned with milk until it’s a drinkable consistency.) Stir well, store it away, and you’re done.

Lastly, save the extras for the morning: fruit, nuts, coconut, whatever.

Overnight Oats Close

Many recipes call for stirring fruit into your oats before letting them soak, but I prefer the firmer texture of fresh fruit added to prepared oats. If I’m using a fruit-flavored kefir, then the fruit that’s blended into the liquid is part of the bargain–but I still add fresh fruit to the top. Nuts, of course, will get soggy if you let them soak overnight, and coconut will suck up more than its share of the liquid, leaving you with oats that are unpleasantly mealy, not creamy.

Oats need to soak in a covered container in the fridge. Small jars are a good option for this, but if you don’t have jars on hand, a plastic storage container with a lid or a cereal bowl covered with plastic wrap will also work. Let your imagination be your guide, but these are some of my favorite flavor cominations:

Vanilla Almond: Vanilla kefir, sliced almonds added in the morning.

Coconut Pecan:  Coconut or vanilla kefir, sweetened coconut flakes and pecans added in the morning (pictured in this post.)

Maple Banana:  Maple kefir, chunks of fresh banana added in the morning.

Raspberry Zinger:  Raspberry kefir,sweetened coconut added in the morning.

Even if you’re pretty sure that overnight oats won’t be your thing, I challenge you to give them a shot! I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that I actually prefer them cold to warm. That means they’re super easy to grab eight out of the refrigerator when it’s time for breakfast–and they’ll keep you full straight through to lunch.


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Friday, May 1, 2015

Gluten-Free Snack Ideas

Gluten-Free Snacks

Well, it’s May 1st and my April blog challenge didn’t quite work out the way I’d planned. Still, I posted something on 19 out of 30 days, which is way more than I’ve posted in the last several months–and more importantly, I’m back in the habit of thinking about this blog. So April was its own kind of success, if not exactly the kind I had planned for. Onward!

I’ve spoken about the process of going gluten-free fairly often on this blog. To be certain, following a gluten-free diet involves a whole host of challenges–finding a good loaf of gluten-free bread, figuring out how to bake with gluten-free flours, learning to check the ingredient list for everything you eat. But one of the biggest challenges I faced, after my doctor suggested that I give up gluten, was figuring out how to snack between meals.

You wouldn’t think that could be such a big deal, right? But think about what you typically have for a snack. Cookies? Crackers? Ice cream–perhaps a variety with pieces of cookie, or cookie dough, mixed in? Some or all of these things are likely to include gluten. Yes, even ice cream. Wheat is used as a thickener in many places you wouldn’t expect. There are gluten-free versions of many of these things, of course, but in my experience they’re overpriced and really not worth the cost. Focusing on snack items that are naturally gluten-free will save you money in the long run and, most importantly, still let you enjoy eating a little something between meals.

I’ve put together this list of generally safe gluten-free snacks to make it easier for you to stock your kitchen with wheat-free options. I’m emphasizing generally because it’s always important to check the ingredient labels for the foods you buy–some tortilla chips are wheat-free, but that doesn’t mean all of them are.  Checking labels is just a good habit to develop, when you’re trying to keep gluten out of your diet.

In no particular order, then, my favorite gluten-free snacks:

1. Frozen fruit bars. I have yet to come across a variety of these that includes wheat as a thickener. Generally speaking, frozen fruit bars contain fruit, water, and sugar. You can make your own very easily, by blending together those three ingredients and pouring the puree into popsicle molds, but when you’re in the mood to grab a prepared snack, these are a nice option. And they’re sweet, so they take the edge off your sweet tooth. Speaking of which . . .

2. Rice Krispy Treats are another fantastic option when you’re craving a little something sweet.

3. Apple chips and peanut butter are a nice combination. Bare snacks offers several varieties of apple chips (my Costco is currently selling the Fuji apple variety, and my Target store carries individual bags of the Granny Smith chips, which are my favorite.) Dipped in natural peanut butter, these chips give you crunchy, creamy, sweet and salty all in one bite.

4. All varieties of nut butter, whether spread on a piece of gluten-free toast or apple chips, are a high-protein snack choice. My local Target store sells single-serving packets of Justin’s nut butters.   I love them all, but the chocolate-hazelnut variety is a little taste of heaven. The maple almond butter is also exceptionally tasty.

5. Whole nuts are also high in protein. They’re high in fat, too, so you’ll need to watch your portion sizes. But nuts are full of fiber, so they’re a good snack for helping you get through the hours between lunch and dinner.

6. String Cheese is another protein-rich snack option, and you won’t miss the crackers as you might with sliced cheese. However, if you’re really, really craving crackers . . .

7. Crunchmaster Cheese Crackers are worth seeking out.  (Yes, I’m breaking my own rules here and recommending a gluten-free product.) I bought a box of these on sale and was very pleased with both the flavor and texture.  If you really have to have a cracker, this is the one I’d recommend.

8. Popcorn is naturally gluten-free, when you’re craving something crunchy. If you choose a flavored popcorn, though, be sure to check the ingredients, since wheat is often used as a binder for seasoning mixes.

9. Tortilla chips and salsa or guacamole. Again, check those labels–not all corn chips are gluten-free. But this is one snack you can usually share with a group, and no one will feel like they’re missing anything.

10.  Hummus and carrots or celery sticks is another snack in that category–both those of us who leave gluten alone and those who don’t notice its presence can enjoy it in harmony.

Going gluten-free isn’t easy, but it doesn’t have to be painful, and you don’t have to feel like you’re going to starve to death. (I know I did, for the first few months, but that’s mostly because I didn’t know what I could eat–only what I couldn’t.) Following a gluten-free diet does require that you think about food in a whole different way than you’re probably accustomed to, and that you be more careful about the food you choose to eat. But if your body needs to be on the gluten-free wagon, you’ll know right away that it’s worth making the change.

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Saturday, April 25, 2015

First Harvest

Beans 2

I’ve been waiting for the green beans to plump up enough that I could justify picking them. The last few weeks of rainy weather seemed designed toward that goal. Then, last night, it rained like crazy. Tree branches down. Puddles of standing water all over the yard. I was sure the bean plants would be beaten to death before I could even gather a harvest.

But no. The beans were still there this morning. A little muddy, but really no worse for wear. Beans are tough. Also, tender and delicious.

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Friday, April 24, 2015

Cookbooks I Have Known and Loved


This post contains affiliate links. I”ll receive a small commission if you click through to the Amazon website.


People often ask where I come up with ideas for recipes. There’s no shortage of ideas on the Internet, of course, and I’ve found that just doing a Google search of the ingredients I have on hand generates an array of options that will, in all likelihood, lead to a new creation. In the old days, though–the pre-Internet days–I spent a lot of time flipping through cookbooks, searching for inspiration.

Whenever I’m asked to name my favorite cookbook, I say “That depends,” and I don’t mean it depends on the day or the mood I’m in at the moment. (Given the way I go about cooking, it’s logical that you might jump to this conclusion.) I mean, it depends on what you’re planning to cook. I have three favorites, but they’re most useful for completely different purposes.

On the “Useful For the Most Basic Purposes” end of the spectrum, I’m a big fan of the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook. That’s right, the red-plaid-cover book your mom/dad or grandmother/grandfather probably had tucked away somewhere.This is a great resource for fundamental questions like “How long does it take to make a hard-boiled egg?” and “How long do I cook chicken?” It’s true that you can find answers to those questions on the Internet, but my guess is that you’ll actually find a thousand answers and wonder which one is accurate. This cookbook puts the matter to rest quickly and definitively. Over the years, I’ve probably used this cookbook more than any other–not necessarily for its recipes (which are, I confess, a little boring), but for the basic information it provides. Also, its boring recipes are a good starting place for jazzing things up to your liking.

Moving on to the middle of the spectrum:  The American Country Inn Bed & Breakfast Cookbook is the one I’d keep if I were absolutely forced to choose a single cookbook from my stash. It’s never steered me wrong and has provided us with many great meals, treats, and ideas, though the recipes collected here are a little bit fancy and often high-calorie. They’re sometimes unusual (Souffle Pancakes), but they always make excellent use of the best ingredients of a particular season (Blackberry Tart). I stumbled upon this cookbook early in my marriage to The Hubs–I saw it advertised on the back of a box of cereal, of all things, and I sent away for it on a whim. It’s no longer in print, so you’ll have to score a used copy. Needless to say, my own copy is very, very used.

Lastly, my favorite cookbook for health-conscious cooking: Great Good Food by Julee Rosso, author of the Silver Palate Cookbook series. The thing I love about this cookbook is that it’s organized by seasons, so you can make use of the produce you’ll find at your local farmer’s market. Actually, it includes five seasons: the usual four, plus holiday season. The cookbook is based on the principle that flavor comes first: you won’t keep eating food that’s good for you if you don’t enjoy it. Rosso makes it her mission to teach you how to bring home the flavor.  The only drawbacks with this cookbook are that some recipes call for unusual ingredients (monkfish, venison sausage, various liqueurs), and its language can be a little precious–for instance, a recipe for peach pie calls for “perfectly ripened peaches.” I’m all for celebrating food, but fetishizing it is something else entirely. As far as I’m concerned, ugly peaches taste as good as their perfect kin.

Over the years, I’ve actually cut back on the number of cookbooks I own. Many people who love food collect cookbooks, and I can certainly understand the appeal, but the fact is that you’re likely to use only a few of those books on a regular basis–and I’m just not a big believer in accumulation.  If you have these three cookbooks on hand, you pretty much have your bases covered. You’ll have all the information you need to get through basic, everyday food preparation, make use of seasonal produce, and whip up something special for holiday celebrations and dinner guests.

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