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S’mores Represent Everything Great About Camping #CampBondFire #smores

Mention going camping and JavaGirl will inevitably ask, “Will there be s’mores?” The two are inextricably intertwined in her mind and I fear the day when she encounters a camping trip without that marvelous, gooey treat. The disappointment is sure to involve tears brimming in her big, brown eyes while trying to put on a brave face — a look so pitiful that it breaks the heart of any grown man within a 50-foot radius.

Her association is not unique. I, too, can’t imagine a campfire without s’mores. In fact, I love all campfire cooking. S’mores were essentially the gateway to teaching me all about the joys of harnessing the raw power of fire to produce cooked food out in the wilderness.

Don’t get me wrong. I covet my air conditioning and California King pillowtop bed as much as the next girl, but I appreciate how empowering camping feels and I am dismayed at how often I see families shy away from it. Both JavaKids are in scouts and when their organizations have family camping trips, I’m astonished and disheartened by the number of  families who choose to come for the day and not stay overnight. We switched JavaGirl from one troop to another and one deciding factor was an insistence of one of the organizer that camping trips be catered. What?!

Most of my camping growing up was done as a Girl Scout, with my church youth group, or at summer camps. Through these experiences I learned:

  •  everything from how to pitch a tent to how to make an emergency lean-to;
  • not to be afraid of spiders (okay, sometimes I still am, but not as much);
  • that I can cope with scorpions, leeches and ticks (not that I want to, but I can);
  • a little bit of rain isn’t going to kill me;
  • going to the bathroom in the woods is also not going to kill me (even if the cow who snuck up on me and mooed almost gave me a heart attack);
  • I am capable of paddling a canoe for 20 miles;
  • I can build a fire;
  • I can use a pocketknife without ending up in the ER;
  • you can wrap just about anything in tin foil or put it on a stick and it will taste terrific when cooked on a campfire;
  • and most importantly — you don’t need electronic gadgets to have a good time and nothing is as beautiful as a starry sky on a cloudless night when you are far away from city lights.

As parents, we hear so much about self-esteem. We are bombarded with media reports with interviews of “experts” telling us what we should be doing to build up our kids’ self-esteem, what tears it down. What causes bullies, what is media doing to this generation’s self-esteem? Are we eating dinner together enough as a family? Are they watching the right shows, the wrong shows? In the right sports? Are we praising them correctly?

And then we refuse to spend a night outdoors with them? And teach them some basic life skills? Really?

It may not seem like much, but give a kid a stick and a marshmallow and watch his face. Why is he so delighted? Do you think it is really just the sugary snack? I mean, yes, I think s’mores are a slice of heaven — the honey-crunchy goodness of the graham cracker and just-right softly melted chocolate with the ooey-gooey marshmallow. Pure bliss! But what your kid is thinking is, “My mom just handed me something pointy! And she is letting me step next to a FIRE! And wow, I can transform this marshmallow! COOL!” Watch how your kid experiments with the different ways to cook the marshmallow — holding it close to the fire, further away from the fire, actually setting it on fire. Call it science if you want to (and indeed, it is!) But part of it is also esteem-building. A sense of control. No, the cavemen didn’t have s’mores, but imagine how they felt, experimenting with fire.

When I’m in charge of the s’mores supplies (and I usually am, because I don’t want to disappoint JavaGirl!) I like to mix things up a bit and prepare a s’mores buffet. For the last camping trip, I brought chocolate marshmallows, jumbo marshmallows as well as the standard ones. I provided chocolate graham crackers and the usual honey ones. Because kids often dive into s’mores like locusts on a fresh crop, I like to prepare plates with the crackers already broken into half (s’mores sized — although now you can also buy some already in squares), the marshmallows in bowls, and the chocolates already portioned in bowls. A trick I’ve learned is that you can also use the snack-sized Hershey’s chocolate bars rather than breaking the large ones — I go with whatever is the best price at the time.

We have amassed a collection of telescoping campfire forks over the years. It began with our wedding registry when I saw some for the first time at Crate & Barrel and just had to have them. People thought we were crazy and they were one of our most remarked-upon registry items (but we received them!) Since then, we’ve managed to acquire more and now bring extras with us to every camping event. For some reason, this “civilized” way of making s’mores appeals to the non-campers and we’ve noticed that the adults are willing to jump in on the s’mores making if handed a telescoping fork.

When everyone is nestled into their seats, munching on their s’mores, I try to engage them in conversation about other campfire foods. Banana boats, hobo hamburgers, hobo omlettes. Recently I’ve acquired some pie irons and am itching to make some mountain pies. My kids started with s’mores, but have now learned to cook other foods as well.  It was the food that lured JavaGirl into being willing to try camping even though she wasn’t sure if she wanted to stay in a tent overnight. And now she’s a tent-sleeping, frog-catching, s’mores-cooking camper, just like her brother. Looking forward to the day when she’ll get her own pocketknife so she can try her hand at whittling like he does. It is my hope that by getting other families to see that campfire cooking is fun, they will then be willing to give up a night of air-conditioning to try out sleeping in a tent and discover what else camping has to offer. Frankly, s’mores are the universal lures of campfire cooking — not everyone likes hot dogs!

Yes, we can make s’mores on forks or in foil packets on the grill. We have an indoor s’mores maker with a sterno pot. Now you can even make them in the microwave. But there’s something to be said about instilling the love of the old-fashioned way – around a campfire with your friends, just before retiring to your tent filled with the memories of a day spent outdoors and the confidence that can only be gained by doing things yourself and knowing that if you ever really did have to rely only on yourself, you could.

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Disclosure: National S’mores Day was Friday, August 10. But who needs a special day to enjoy this awesome treat? My kids’ first experience with s’mores was not on a camping trip, though I highly reccommend that if you can!  Find a time this summer or fall to spend some time outdoors with your family around a campfire roasting some marshmallows. I had the pleasure of riding the Hershey’s #CampBondfire sponsored bus home from BlogHer ’12, which inspired this post.  Hershey’s and Walmart  provided me with a ride home from BlogHer, two scrumptious s’mores kits, and some “welcome home” goodies from Walmart.

Things I Love: E-Mealz.com Menu Planner

Things I Love logoI am the opposite of a domestic goddess — does that make me a domestic demon? I have tried to put together weekly and monthly menu plans and I’m just terrible at it. There comes a time when you have to admit defeat and outsource! My neighbor “M” is a relatively new stay-at-home mom (SAHM) and yet seems to have her act far more together than I do as a veteran SAHM so I asked her about her menu planning and she pointed to her oh-so-organized bulletin board in her kitchen and a print out from E-mealz.com. “They plan everything out, it usually has five ingredients or less, and it has the shopping list all organized for you,” she told me as our children played chaotically in the background.

It took me a while to get around to it — I mean I have literally shelves and shelves of cookbooks and two recipe boxes, surely I could manage to do this on my own?! But finally I caved in and signed up. And now I’m kicking myself for not doing it sooner. JavaBoy has always been a challenge when it has come to non-dairy proteins, and yet, he has loved every recipe from E-Mealz. I have him review the week’s recipes beforehand to see if there is anything he won’t like and so far he’s approved every option, even the ones I was certain he wouldn’t like, and he’s eagerly gobbled them down. JavaGirl, who is going through an I’m-five-so-my-tastes-change-by-the-hour phase, has also enjoyed all the meals. Whenever possible, I involve them in the cooking because I always find that helps them get more excited about the meals.  The service has different selections of plans: standard, portion-controlled, budget-friendly, low-carb, gluten-free, natural/organic, and vegetarian.  Because I am diabetic, we are using the low-carb version.

We have been trying some recipes that I probably wouldn’t have picked out myself and yet my family really enjoyed, so this has been a good way to push ourselves. Although we aren’t doing the “budget” plan, I’ve found it to be economical and we are certainly wasting less food because I’m not buying stuff with the intention to cook it and never getting around to it. Because I tend to cook the larger size of the range of the recipe (i.e. if it says 1.5 – 2.25 pounds of meat, I choose 2.25 pounds) we have plenty of leftovers to use for lunch for myself and my husband (and sometimes the kids ask if they can take the leftovers for lunch for school!) or even to have a second night of dinner. Often there is a crockpot night or two, which I love, especially for the nights when my kids have choir practice. Though it kills me to smell that wonderful food when I’m home during the day.

I cannot tell you how much stress this has alleviated for us as a family. No trying to figure out what’s for dinner.  Grocery shopping is easier because we know what we’re going to eat and everything is listed for us. I go through the list and all the non-perishables that are needed for the week, I put into a clear storage box in the butler’s pantry so that it doesn’t accidentally get used for something else and is also easy to find for that night’s meal (not only for myself but in case my husband ends up cooking that night — he doesn’t have to hunt up various spices and canned goods.)

I loved it when I explained to the kids we were having Hamburger Soup (really a variation of a beef and barley with vegetables) and JavaGirl said “show me the box” and I said, “No, Mommy made this from SCRATCH! It’s been simmering on the stove for two hours!” It really didn’t take long to put together and yet it was yummy and gave me a great sense of satisfaction to provide homemade soup for the family. Granted, “scratch” might have been a stretch as it did involve some canned tomatoes and canned broth, but there were fresh vegetables, barley, fresh spices, and of course, ground beef.

There are several meal planning services out there, I checked quite a few out and asked friends for recommendations and ultimately decided on this one because I liked the format, the sample menus they showed, the low cost and because my neighbor was so happy with it. If you are interested in researching them, enter the phrase “meal planning” in your favorite search engine. 

Things I Love will be an occasional series on Caffeine and a Prayer where I highlight items or services that make life in the Java household a little easier or just make me happy and I hope will delight you as well. Other than being a paid subscriber, I have no relationship with E-Mealz.com and they have no idea I’m writing about them — I’m just a really happy customer.

 

Lunch Planner Doc: Simple Tool to Reduce Chaos

I’m a list maker, a binder gal, an iPhone app junkie.  I own not one, not two, but THREE label makers. (One for home, one for the office, and one simply because I liked the fonts better). Yes, I have a problem. I like to organize things. Alas, I was far better organized before I had a family. My loving JavaKids and JavaHusband are the antithesis of Organization. The are the personification of Chaos. I love them any way… but my constant battle to maintain order is much akin to the battle between good vs. evil in the many episodes of Star Wars my son likes to recount endlessly over dinner. 

And so, when I stumble upon a system that makes all four members of the JavaFamily happy for more than a week, I consider it a success.  When I find something that works, I like to share it with YOU!

Food PyramidI would love to say that we have fantastic, creative school lunches around here, but the fact of the matter is, my kids don’t really like creative lunches.  They insist that I follow the Food Pyramid (no, seriously, they check the magnet on our fridge…) and they don’t like for me to get fancy with presentation. No fru-fru Bento box meals for them (though I’m going to keep trying to jazz things up). Also, JavaGirl is going through an impossible stage where she’ll inexplicably turn her nose up at a food she loved just three days earlier. Since becoming a Kindergartner, she’s become quite opinionated about everything. Both kids love fruits and vegetables, but my son dislikes most proteins and anything his sister likes, he is certain not to like (she likes chicken, he does not.)  He likes mayo on his sandwiches, she only likes mustard. She likes peanut butter, he only likes soynut butter.

This has made packing lunches a challenge. Even more so if JavaDad has to do it.

Finally I decided to make the kids part of the process. I created a simple matrix and now each week we go through and plan out their lunches and morning snack and post it on the fridge — one sheet for each kid. Because they are so tied to the food pyramid, I help them see how their lunches correspond to the food groups. To make life easier for absent-minded JavaDad, who often helps pack the lunches, I painstakingly detail out everything such as including ice packs and napkins. This way, no matter who packs the lunches, every single item is included, every preference is remembered, and if a kid complains about not liking a lunch, I can point out that he/she personally chose that lunch, quickly quelling any grievances.

Miracle of miracles — lunches come home eaten. Lunch-packing is faster. No more “oh wait, we’re out of ___” panics because we have planned lunches for the entire week and make sure anything we need is stocked or on the Sunday shopping list. It’s not rocket science, but with the whole family being involved, it’s no longer just another one of Mom’s harebrained ideas.

Some additional changes that have helped:

  • I’ve put a bin on the lower shelf of our kitchen island that holds all of our lunch-making items including Posh Pouches, reusable water bottles and thermos cups, plastic containers, etc. instead of constantly moving them from the dishwasher to the different “appropriate” spots in our kitchen cabinets (i.e. glasses cabinet, “plastic containers” cabinet, etc.) only to have to retrieve them every morning. Now it’s a mere arm’s reach from the dishwasher to the bin, and from the bin to the counter where the lunches get packed — everything is in one place and my cabinets are less cluttered.  Why didn’t we think of this sooner?
  • The kids know that the first thing they need to do when they come home from school is empty out their lunch boxes and snack sacks, putting ice packs in the freezers, emptying out containers, and setting everything that needs to be washed by the sink.
  • I don’t like packing up sandwiches the night before as I feel they get a little soggy, but I do try to prep anything that can be, the night before (i.e. slicing tomatoes, putting carrots into a Posh Pouch, pre-filling cups and keeping in the fridge).

You can download the lunch planner form as a Microsoft® Word document or a PDF document.

Microsoft is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation. Photo credit: Microsoft Image Gallery (lunch bag).

Raw Milk – Stirring Up Memories and Controversey

jar of raw milkI love to tell people that one of the blessings of living in Northern Virginia is that we drive to the east to find museums and drive to the west to find farms.  I’ve blogged before about our membership in the CSA (community supported agriculture) program with Great Country Farms, but last week we joined our friends to visit their cow from their “cowshare” at another farm and try some raw milk!

Raw milk has been in the news a lot lately, in fact, if you are NoVA local, you may have read or heard a story on WTOP about cowpooling.  Raw milk is fresh milk, straight from the cow and refrigerated without being pasteurized.  It is not legal to sell raw milk in the Commonwealth of Virginia, but a share program is legal in Virginia — essentially people can buy into a herd of cows, paying into the costs of boarding a cow and in return receiving a quantity of the milk from the herd.  This is what my friend does and each week she drives out to the farm to pick up her glass jars of fresh, raw milk.

The JavaKids have always enjoyed our CSA program and making the connection between where food comes from and how it gets to our table, so this field trip out to the dairy farm was a natural extension.  We went to the store and saw all the jars lined up in the fridge, ready for pickup.  I showed the kids the jars of milk and then we walked outside and saw the three cows from which the milk came!  Since the cows had made a bit extra, our friend allowed us to take a jar home to try — and I showed the children how the cream rose to the top and gave them the option of shaking it up so the milk would be whole, or skimming the cream to make butter and turn the milk into skim.  (They opted to shake.)

They couldn’t wait to try it, and immediately declared it delicious.  Since we often buy organic, I can’t really say I noticed a huge difference in taste (except that I usually drink skim, so of course it was more full-bodied), but they loved it.  Later, when we allowed it to separate again, I gave each child a spoon of just the cream, which JavaGirl loved and JavaBoy wrinkled his nose and called, “disgusting!”

Eager to share their discovery with their grandparents, we made the usual round of phone calls.  Most were surprised that we were able to access raw milk, but my grandmother and mother both said, “Well, it used to be that was the only kind of milk we drank.”  My father was amused, but not surprised as my kids are always adventurous.  My mother-in-law’s immediate reaction was, “Why?  Isn’t there a reason we pasteurize milk?” 

Mixed reactions like these are exactly why drinking raw milk feels like participating in making moonshine during the Prohibition, even though unlike moonshine, raw milk is legal and many think, actually good for you.  Farmers who provide raw milk, whether through cow shares or other programs (methods vary by state) fear government raids like ones that have happened in California (see Jessica Haney’s post on The DC Moms) and that’s why the owner of the farm we went to last week asked that I not name her farm when blogging about this experience, though she is very careful to follow the local laws and cites them on all her materials.

Cow

Part of the cow share herd.

I do not claim to have enough of a science background nor any medical background to be able to argue either side of the pros and cons of the raw milk vs. pasteurized milk debate.  Pasteurization kills of certain pathogens in order to minimize disease.  Raw milk proponents say that it also kills of valuable nutrients and microbes that bring health benefits and that when under proper management, farms that produce raw milk can produce just as safe if not safer milk.  My friend feels confident about her choice to purchase from this farm because it is a very small operation and she has personally seen the many precautions in place to ensure that the cows are healthy and that the milking and storage is conducted in a sanitary manner. 

For some pro-raw-milk arguments see http://www.westonaprice.org and http://www.realmilk.com.   Some pro-pasteurized-milk arguments are at the FDA site and Centers for Disease Control site. 

I’m not ready for our family to become full-time raw milk drinkers, but I’m glad we had the opportunity to visit the farm, try the milk from our friend’s cowshare, and that my kids got a chance to get an even better understanding of how milk looks straight from the source.

Delayed Gratification

 

Look what I the kids got for Christmas!  I’ve waited a long time to get for the kids to be old enough to get an Easy Bake Oven!  I remember how much I loved mine as a little girl, foisting impossibly tiny cakes on my parents.

Now that I’m the Mommy, I realize just how awful those little cakes really taste when you aren’t bursting with that I-made-it-myself pride.