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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.

A lazy “yes” day

The JavaKids didn’t have school yesterday, but since JavaBoy had a bit of a cough, I curtailed any thoughts of taking a field trip, and instead gave us a lazy “yes” day.  I decided to go with the flow, and to say yes to most of their requests!

Yes, I will read every book you bring up to me.  Yes, I will immediately look up the answers to every one of the questions you have for me if I don’t already know the answer.  Yes, we will be silly!

It was a welcome relief from our often busy days.  At one point, I took a cue from JavaBoy’s school and we had DEAR time (drop everything and read!)  That meant EVERYONE had to read, including me.  JavaBoy is able to read on his own, and I asked JavaGirl to pick out some books she could look through, while I read a book about… reading aloud!  (The Read-Aloud Handbook)

At some point during this, JavaGirl asked me why the illustrated fly on the cover of her book (we’re talking a very, very tiny fly) had “squares on his eyes.”  I tried to explain to her how flies’ eyes work and then decided to look for images of “fly eyes” online.  From there we looked at all kinds of insect and animal eyes online and talked about why different animals need different kinds of eyes.

Once we tired of reading and exploring online, we got out wooden blocks.  I have many childhood memories of playing with my wooden blocks, but I find that today kids have so many toys, they don’t often play with the simplest ones.  We made towers and pyramids and discussed what makes one tower fall and the other not.  Being down on the floor with them, I realized it had been a while since I’d actually been down on the floor with them.  When they were younger, we were always rolling and playing on the floor, now we do a lot of things at a table.  I am resolving to spend more time on the floor in the New Year (or earlier!)

We took some time to do a little bit of math and JavaBoy delighted in using the entire family room floor to lay out tally sticks (popsicle sticks) to represent the numbers 1-10 and then matching them to cards I have with images of abacus beads for the numbers 1-10 as well as of fingers showing 1-10 and then finally cards with cardinal numbers. 

Prompted by JavaBoy’s Tiger Cub handbook, we spent some time looking at a local map and circling places we go to frequently.  We looked at the route I have to take to my Junior League meetings all those nights I tell them I have to go because “I have a meeting.”

As the kids got more engrossed in activities, I took advantage of an opportunity to stretch out on the sofa for a bit.  This immediately led to requests to snuggle in what JavaGirl calls my “triangle.”  Resting on my side, I put my back to the back of the sofa and bend my knees so my feet also touch the back of the sofa, making an empty “triangle” for her to sit in, resting her head on my hip.  More so than sitting on my lap, my kids love it when I make a “triangle” they can smoosh into and yesterday they decided to both get into the triangle at the same time — resulting in us looking like a pile of new puppies, limbs all over the place!

This was the position we were in when JavaDad came home and asked what we’d been up to all day.

“Oh, nothing much,” I replied.  “Just a lazy day.”
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Disclosure: This post includes a link to Amazon.com and I am an Amazon.com Affiliate.

Legos: Organizing the Obsession

Legos seem like they’d be the easiest thing to organize (they snap together, so modular, so neat!) and yet they are the cause of so much playroom clutter, both by my own informal visual inspection and according to online anecdotes.  Somehow they morph from the initial single bin or box into overflowing containers, toppling towers of boxes, or complex filing systems of kits or worse — a floor littered with teeny, tiny (and painful to step on!) Lego pieces.

Since JavaBoy had acquired several kits between Spring and Summer, in the grand back-to-school room cleaning, I sought advice via my personal Facebook page from friends about the One True Solution for organizing Legos, and found there really wasn’t one.  But there were several good ideas.

The Great Kit Debate

One of the first things to decide when organizing Legos is your kit philosophy.  Do you think those kits with their zillions of tiny pieces (perhaps I overstate) need to remain intact?  Or are they put together once and then disassembled and the pieces should join in with the rest of your Lego collection?  This is not a simple question.  My Facebook thread on this became quite heated.  There were those who felt it was essential to keep kits whole and even this group divided into those who believed in building once and never taking the piece apart and those who believed in building something and taking it apart but keeping the pieces in a single container together (the original box, a Ziploc bag with the instructions, etc.)  Then there were those who felt that the kits stifled creativity and that the whole point of Legos was to dream up your own creation.

After much thought and internal debate, I came to decide that I liked that the kits taught JavaBoy how to follow instructions, how to visualize both the small parts and the big picture, and even taught him the simple basics of construction and architecture and that by doing so, he was then learning valuable skills for planning and building his own creations with the “loose” Legos we kept in another container.  In other words, I see value in the structure of the kits and I see value in the freedom of unstructured play with Legos.  This means I’m going to be spending a lot of money on Legos.

Bins, Drawers, Cases, and Bags

sorting LegosNow that I had our philosophy down, just how was I going to organize all that stuff?  My friend Daisy had a beautiful system for the kits.  “Large freezer (like these because they are thicker) ziplock bags for individual sets with large numbers written in permanent marker on the bags. The large numbers correspond to a Lego 3-ring binder that has pages laminated with pictures from the cut up boxes for individual sets with each set page labeled to match number from ziplock bag. The ziplock bags in turn are combined together in larger clear rubbermaid storage boxes by similar themed sets. If sets get mixed up, I don’t fret as the kids can look at the pictures and simply find alternative pieces to make up sets. I like encouraging as much creativity as possible and my boys seem to prefer this too.”

Well, we haven’t quite gotten to that level of organization.  The kits were mostly still in their boxes with *most* of their pieces in the boxes, but the boxes were taking up too much space.  We spent some time putting them into plastic bags and trying to see if we had all the pieces but haven’t finished that project yet.  I would say it is about 85-90% done.    Other things like our beach trip, school starting, soccer starting and so on have taken over, but I consider it a good start!

We store our “loose” Legos in an Iris cart drawer, as I use Iris carts for Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs as well — no more stacked up bins to deal with, easy to open and close and they can roll out of the way if I need them to.  This works great for those regular brick pieces, but the itty-bitty pieces and specialty shape pieces tend to get lost in a big drawer.  Which is why I adore a tip from my friend Susan, “I use a few of those divided notion-sorters from the sewing aisle at Wal-Mart to sort all the tons of little pieces that you end up with… that way it’s super easy if you need to go back and find a specific piece. I use the same kind of divided container to sort lego figurine pieces (each piece in its own section: heads, hair, torsos, legs, accessories, etc). I found that the boys enjoyed playing with legos much more after doing this… they love making their own characters.” 

Brilliant! 

I immediately ran out to our closest Michaels art supply store and in the beading area I found that there were different sizes of divided containers (and different prices — the ones that were perfect for our needs were actually the really cheap ones) and we turned sorting the pieces into a family project.  JavaBoy LOVES having the little Lego bodies sorted.  He also liked having the small pieces sorted out such as the “one-bumps” and “two-bumps” and so on.  These boxes then fit into the Iris cart drawer, so it didn’t create any space issues, just made it easier to find the smaller pieces.

Why Does It Matter?

After I straightened out the Legos a bit, both kids had renewed interest in the Legos.  In fact, it reminded me that we had the large base plates and since JavaBoy has a Lego table in his room, I took those base plates and put them on the table in JavaGirl’s room so she now essentially has a Lego table in her room.

More importantly, Legos are the ultimate toy.  Both low-tech and yet highly-linked to generating interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), Legos are toys that turn grown-ups (notice I didn’t say just men) into kids again, and stimulate the logical and creative sides of the brain.

The only people I know who hate Legos are people who have to clean them up!

So I wanted an easy-to-maintain system so that JavaBoy (and as she gets more obsessed with them, JavaGirl) can pull them out and put them away as he wants to and I don’t have to worry about lost pieces or injured bare feet.  And most of all, I wanted to be able to encourage the kids to play with them instead of relegating the Legos to the basement because I was sick of dealing with them.  They are just too good of a toy to hide away.

A Few Fun Things to Know About….

  • Lego Stores Monthly Mini Model Build  Lego Stores have a time to when kids ages 6-14 can build mini-kits for free (these kits are not for sale).  The McLean store does this after 5pm on the first Tuesday of the month, check your local store for details.
  • You can have a birthday party at the Lego store — contact your local store for details, but it includes a little Lego kit for the attendees.
  • There are programs intended to get kids interested in science, technology, engineering and math that begin as early as age 6 and continue on through high school.  They begin at age 6 with Jr. FIRST Lego League and increasingly move from working with Legos to working toward serious robotics.
  • The National Building Museum in DC has a special exhibit (meaning you have to get tickets for it — and they sell out, so get tickets early) called Lego Architecture: Towering Ambition  featuring 15 world famous buildings recreated in Lego bricks by Lego Certified Professional Adam Reed Tucker.  Not only is it amazing to look at the buildings, but the room immediately following the buildings is a Lego free-play area where kids (and grown-ups) are invited to create their own masterpieces at what I can only describe as a Lego bar!  Our entire family enjoyed this, in fact it overshadowed seeing the rest of the museum.  Tickets are $5 each and the exhibit is here until September 5, 2011 (yes, NEXT year.)
  • There will be more Lego fun to be had at the Lego booth at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in DC October 23 and 24.  (If you happen to go there, please also stop by the booth for the Children’s Science Center!)

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Iris, Lego, Lincoln Logs, Michaels, Rubbermaid, Tinker Toys and Ziploc are trademarks and/or registered trademarks of their respective companies.  I am affiliated with the Junior League of Northern Virginia, a major contributor to the Children’s Science Center.

A Statistic Waiting to Happen

With the sun shining on our backs, my children and I were trying to grab a little bit of shade in the picnic table area of Lake Fairfax’s Water Mine as JavaDad stood in line to grab us an early dinner.  We were trying to squeeze in a little bit of summer fun — after a summer that felt swallowed up far too much by my two surgeries and recoveries.

At a table immediately across from us was a young family with a boy who looked to be about 3, and an 8-month-old baby who was so sleepy she kept nodding off, and yet apparently so hungry she kept waking up, trying to gnaw on a French fry she clutched tightly in her fingers.  My children and I were delighting in watching this scenario and I kept looking off to my right to monitor my husband’s progress in obtaining our food, so it took me a while to register that the heaving sobs coming from the left were not from a baby, but a boy.

A young boy, who I started to realize, appeared to be alone.

Although a sign clearly stated the area was for “Temporary dining only!  30 minutes maximum!” there were coolers and towels and other items abandoned by people enjoying the slides and lazy river of The Water Mine.  Another family had been eating at a table off to my left and I had thought the cries had been associated with them.  But now, there he sat, a boy bigger than JavaGirl and smaller than JavaBoy, crying his heart out.

And no parent to be seen.

No one was in line at the food area behind my husband.  No one else was hovering near the picnic area.  No one seemed to care about this boy crying.

Having exchanged friendly banter with the mother of Sleeping Baby, I asked, “Have you seen any adults around this boy?”  She realized she hadn’t either and she went over to talk to him as did I.  (Java Kids were mere feet away, in clear view.)

It was a little  hard to understand him, between sobs and a bit of a language difference, but the garbled tale was that he was five years old and he was crying because somehow his older brother had caused him to lose one of his swim shoes.  This caused a big problem and it “embarrassed” him (his words).  For some reason the entire family was swimming without him now.  It was unclear whether he was saying his father “kid” (kidded) him or “hit” him during the incident.  We asked if he was on time out and he said no.  But at this point, he had been sobbing his little  heart out sitting on his own for 20 minutes.  His father and brother were apparently riding the lazy river, a circuit that allowed only an obstructed view of the picnic area about every six minutes.  He said his mother was “with the baby.”  Apparently that was all the supervision his family felt a five-year-old needed in a crowded water park that was at or near its capacity of 760 patrons.

It just so happened that father of Sleeping Baby had seen a blue water shoe when they were getting out of the pool, and he ran over to find it — it was indeed Crying Boy’s.  Wow, I can tell how hard his family looked — you know, while gleefully tubing past on the lazy river.

At this point JavaDad came to our table with our food so he watched our kids while I took Crying Boy towards the lifeguard station with the idea of having them call out for his family on the loudspeaker.  This also happened to take us mere feet from the exit — imagine if I had been a pedophile instead of a concerned citizen.   Just before I reached the guard station, his father happened to get out of the pool and approached us.  I asked the boy, “Is this your father?” and he said yes and happily reached towards him.

Not once did the man ask me who I was or why I had his son by the hand.  Nor where the missing shoe had reappeared from.  No, he simply took his son by the hand and walked off.  I was frankly too stunned to speak, though I would’ve like to have given him a peace of my mind.

I later asked my husband, “If you ever saw a stranger holding one of our kids’ hands in public, how would you react?”  I’m not even certain his answer is publishable.  The fact is, he would first freak out, and then ask questions.  Crying Boy’s father did neither.

All night tonight I have thought about how easy it would have been for me to have walked out the door with that child if I had wanted to.  He talked to me.  He trusted me.  He held my hand.  Somewhere, out there, I hope his family is as restless about this as I am.  Playing the “what if” game.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, every 40 seconds, a child goes missing.  He so easily could’ve been one of those statistics.