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Lunches My Kids Will Actually Eat
Oct 13th, 2010 by Chris

tuna-pitaEvery once in a while, we here at Lunchsense like to do, yeah, you guessed it—lunch.  Many adults hurry through, or dismiss it altogether; but, for our children, this noontime meal remains a treasured respite from the rigors of reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.

Most will tell you they really look forward to it.  Visit your school’s cafeteria sometime—you’ll likely be greeted by a swirling jangle of sliding, metal chair-legs, eager, chirping voices and a heart-quickening buzz of unleashed energy.  You’ll also find a ton of wasted food.  This is often the result of over-packing, but it’s just as frequently caused by fickle tastes or “bor-ing” options.

Many kids love lunch-time, but the food—not so much.  “Come on, Dad—ham and cheese again?”

In an effort to make sure my kids are properly refueled for their afternoon lessons, I try to mix-up the menu a little bit, and I enlist their help in deciding what’s sure to get eaten.  Here are a few of their (somewhat) surprising favorites:

  • Hummus, cheddar and fresh spinach wrap.  I didn’t discover hummus until I was in my early 30’s, and now it’s one of my favorite snacks.  My kids love it in wraps and with tortilla chips.  It’s a solid source of dietary fiber, folate and some essential minerals.  It’s also very low in cholesterol.  The nutritional value will increase significantly if you find a good recipe and make your own rather than purchasing the pre-made kind.  Be sure to read the label if you opt for store-bought.  I use whole-grain wraps, of course; and ever since I showed my sons some old Popeye cartoons, they’ve found spinach (fresh, not canned) more appealing.
  • I call it a “Yunch.”  It’s simply a cup of low-fat yogurt, granola and some mixed berries.  What’s not to like?  Works great for quick breakfasts too.  Protein, vitamin B-12 and riboflavin are among the vital nutrients found in yogurt.  Try to use “plain” and be careful of sugar content when selecting a brand-name.  The berries (one of the world’s healthiest foods) and maybe a smidge of honey should make it plenty sweet.
  • Tuna salad pita pocket.  This traditional standard gets the job done.  Some kids have an aversion to it (probably the smell of a freshly opened can), but my boys really enjoy my own special recipe.  I go light on the celery and add a couple of tablespoons of sweet pickle relish.  I use fresh chopped greens and a whole-grain pita when assembling.  There are healthier choices, but white albacore tuna is another great source of protein that is low in saturated fat.  It also packs a nice B-6/B-12 punch with a decent niacin kicker.  You should use your mayonnaise cautiously to limit the damage, and don’t add any salt.
  • Tofu pâté.  If you haven’t tried it, your kids probably haven’t either, and you’re all missing out.  Tofu, while nutritious, gets a bad rap from the meat-eaters of the world; and truthfully, it is a poor facsimile of meat (Tofurkey?!?), but the pâté tastes really good.  I buy the packaged, “Toby’s Mild Jalapeno” variety because they introduced me to the stuff.  It’s like a combination dip/spread that can be scooped up with tortilla chips, or spooned into pitas and wraps.  It also works great with a bagel, instead of cream cheese.  My sons gobble it up however it’s served.  The tofu itself is mostly flavorless, adhering to the spices used in preparation.  I’d recommend sampling some different combinations.  It may not taste anything like meat, but if used properly, tofu can offer an excellent, alternative protein.
  • “Ants on a log” and an apple.  I’m talking about celery sticks smeared with peanut butter and dotted with raisins (or craisins), of course.  It’s healthy, simple and fun—what could be better?  Unassuming celery does its nutritional job with plenty of dietary fiber, vitamins A, C, K, folate, potassium and some manganese for good measure.  The apple and raisins provide another vitamin boost and additional carbohydrates.  The peanut butter is the protein, but check the sugar and sodium contents; and utilize portion control to limit the unavoidable intake of fat.  Note also that if your kiddos take peanut butter in their lunches, they should steer towards the “peanut” tables in the cafeteria, and wash their hands thoroughly afterwards.

It’s easy to take a less involved approach to your kids’ lunches.  The creative energy isn’t always there, and neither is the time.  But, letting younglings fend entirely for themselves in the lunch-room can be nutritionally dangerous, and it misses a great opportunity to model healthier living.  They really need the midday nourishment, so put your heads together—find out what they like, teach them what’s good for them, and make sure their lunches are about more than just socializing.  The quicker you can get your kids eating right, the sooner they’ll start developing healthy habits that will last their whole (long) lives.  And, that’s just using your Lunchsense.

Lost in the Supermarket
Oct 6th, 2010 by Chris
Photo by Flickr user Lyzadanger.

Photo by Flickr user Lyzadanger.

The line of glaring shoppers gathering behind me has nearly snaked its way back to the meat department.  “No, I’m going to be late,” one of them relays via her cell-phone, “I got behind some idiot at the grocery store again.”  My items are beginning to form a small mound near the cashier because I can’t keep the conveyor moving fast enough as I struggle to bag the haul.  I realize I left an envelope of carefully clipped coupons somewhere behind me, probably near the paper products or maybe in the cereal aisle.  The beads of sweat forming on my scalp and streaking down my face are starting to fall on my groceries in audible “plops.”  The total is coming and I don’t have my bank-card ready.  I’m shuffling through the multi-colored plastic plates when I discover—I’m missing one—the one with the money—“$163.85, please”—and I’m without a single cash cent.  I look to my children for a sympathetic smile, or some indication of a greater good, and I notice only one of them is in visible range and he is choking down an unauthorized grab from the candy rack.

Grocery shopping sure ain’t for sissies, and until recently it was a task handled mainly by the super-moms of the world.  I don’t mean to suggest that men can’t buy groceries.  I realize there are millions of single guys out there, and at least half of them have moved out of their parents’ houses and now have places of their own.  But, generally speaking, outside of a few professional cooks I know, grocery shopping isn’t very highly regarded (or appreciated) among the dudes.  To underestimate the effectiveness of a well-honed shopper’s acumen is a fatal mistake however, that can lead to vein-popping stress-tests like the one described above.  As the traditional roles of “husbands” and “wives” become less defined by gender, more men are being pushed into unfamiliar territories (like “produce”), and it is advisable to get your game-face on.  Don’t be alarmed.  I’ve been there, and in my ongoing effort to discover my inner “House-Husband,” I’ve found some essential practices that are sure to ease the strain.

  • Treat it like a job.  Become the House Manager for your family and attack the assignment as if you were getting paid for it.  Make it a challenge.  See how much money you can save the family by kicking butt on aisle nine.  If you manage to save just $25 a month, you’ll have $300 by the end of the year, and then you can dust off your golf spikes and stroll confidently to the first tee knowing you’ve actually earned it.
  • Before you start your list, make a plan.  Every shopping expert says the same thing—“start with a list.”  This is a no-brainer, but men often forget to consider the end-product (a meal) when they shop.  A list comprised solely of individual items is a recipe for waste, money consuming return-trips and numerous pizza bail-outs.  If you want to shop like a real pro, you’ve got to start with a menu plan.  I know.  It sounds so Martha Stewart, but a menu plan is essential to any effective grocery list.  You don’t have to become a chef or anything.  I only plan dinners, and I try to have between six and eight before I write my list.  Think entre, veggie, and a side.  Maybe a couple of casserole dishes.  The internet is a limitless resource for recipes, and I’d recommend investing in a cook-book or two (with color photos) for inspiration.
  • Clean out your fridge.   Most guys tend to enter the ice-box with blinders on.  Their determination to quickly locate and acquire the one item they need (“cold beer”), conveniently permits them to disregard everything else.  Without a loving wife/mom, or conscientious House Manager on hand, a guy’s fridge can get out of hand in a hurry.  You should always clean your refrigerator before you go to the store.  It’ll help determine what you need, you’ll discover what’s not getting eaten, and it should clear some space for the new arrivals.
  • Consider cash only.  If you only take cash, you’re more likely to stay within your budget, and you get the immediate satisfaction of actually holding any excess loot you save.  Just don’t forget to bank it.
  • Timing is everything.  Don’t underestimate proper timing when planning a grocery run.  Avoid shopping on weekends, if at all possible, or during rush-hour, after work.  Crowds are stress-breeders that can undermine the savviest of shoppers.  It is never a good idea to “squeeze in” a shopping trip.  Only go when you have enough time and are focused on doing a thorough job.  Return-trips wreak havoc on budgets.  Don’t go when you’re tired (or hungry, duh), and shop by yourself, if you can.  On top of eliminating possible distractions, research suggests we spend less when shopping alone.
  • Choose your store(s) carefully.  Guys often go for the fancy ones with the free samples, awesome beer/wine selection and a café attached.  I like to hit one of these occasionally too, for the excellent deli meats, fine butcher and appealing selection of organically grown produce; but a can of beans is a can of beans.  You will save hundreds on all the basics like toilet paper, condiments, frozen foods, cereal, canned goods, etc., if you make use of a warehouse-style, bag-your-own store.  You can still explore specialty options like farmer’s or fisherman’s markets, but don’t overpay for a tube of toothpaste.
  • Learn how to read (a label).  Listen up gents—you may not care if your own waist-size has decided to race your age to 50, but if you are the primary food buyer for your family, you really need to give health and nutrition some consideration.  This can get tricky.  Food Inc. isn’t going to help you here.  They don’t want you to know exactly what you’re eating, because if you did, you might not buy it.  They will try to divert your attention from important nutritional info like “calories per serving” or sugar content with flashy terms like “low fat.”  The truth is—you could get fat eating “low fat” foods.  “Calories per serving” is a much better gauge when dieting.  Look for “whole” foods or grains for the highest nutritional content, and try to avoid things that are “processed,” or “prepared.”  Deciphering the terminology of modern food labels is the key to making intelligent, health-conscious choices.
  • Find the “real” price.  When comparison shopping, between stores or particularly between brands, always note the per item/serving cost.  Sometimes food companies get slippery with sizes or items per container and what initially looks like a good deal is actually a rip-off.
  • Be practical with produce.  Yes, you want to stock up on a colorful range of fresh fruit and veggies; but remember—it can spoil, if left unused.  Rely on your menu plan and only purchase fresh items you’re going to use.  Learn which items spoil quickest, so you’re sure to use them first.  Hearts of romaine, for instance, generally stay fresh longer than other leafy greens, so this is a good staple.  Pay attention to ripeness when making your selections.  Don’t overlook frozen fruit and vegetables.  The taste and texture isn’t that much different than fresh, and they work great in casseroles (veggies) and smoothies (fruit).
  • Organize your cart.  If you use a bag-your-own store, don’t just haphazardly toss your items into your shopping cart.  You will benefit later by situating most cans and boxes (bottom of the bag items) so they can be placed on the conveyor first when you check out.
  • Double check the checker.  Try to keep an eye on the register’s display as items are being totaled.   Sometimes scanners hiccup or incorrect codes are entered and you end up paying caviar prices for a can of chicken noodle.  This can be challenging while bagging your own, so give your receipt a quick perusal before you leave the store, paying particular attention to any high-cost items.

More and more men are starting to shoulder their way up and down the aisles of our supermarkets, and their inexperience causes them to underestimate the complexity of the job.  This often leads to a mismanaged household and worse still, reinforces a guy’s apprehension about doing it.  Do yourself a favor, get serious and get good.  Successful grocery shopping is an exercise in proper planning and refined technique.  Everyone develops their own routine and there are countless effective strategies.  I’ve only included basic practices aimed at assisting the novice shopper.  With a little preparation, anyone can determine a personalized approach that meets their family’s needs.  Most guys will puff-up at the slightest sign of an accomplishment, so roll-up those sleeves, unleash the “guns,” and show June Cleaver who’s the boss of the bulk bins.

Lunchsense always appreciates your comments and suggestions.  Don’t be shy.

Under Construction
May 15th, 2010 by Chris

under constructionThere’s a major renovation project going on at our house, and I’m the architect, contractor and primary recipient of this refurbishment.  That’s right; I‘ve decided to expand and rebuild myself.  The current floor-plan is simply not accommodating our family’s needs.  I‘m one of a growing number of men who has been thrust into a “house-husband” role, and I have to admit—I’m struggling with it.  I’m having trouble reconciling who I am with who I am.  In fact, there are times when it feels like I’m disappearing altogether.  What is required of me often conflicts with what is desired by me, and my current “position” (house-hubby/dad) has me feeling like the “Incredible Shrinking Man.”  My circumstances and domestic responsibilities have conspired to squeeze me into a corner closet with a box of old records and a fondue pot.  I’m doing a fair amount of kicking, screaming, stomping, moaning and groaning about it, and I’m not an easy person to ignore, but with the piston-driving engine of home, wife and children churning in the foreground, I’m always going to be outgunned.  It all adds up to an inefficient (and cranky) household, so we’re going to have to knock out a few walls and move some things around.

If I sound like a “typical man” with some “spoiled, only-child” issues, the shoe fits.  I see a problem and I want to fix it (with a home repair metaphor no less).  I also want to get mine.  Don’t worry moms; I understand (by now) that parenting (and husbanding) requires near-legendary levels of selflessness.  And, I realize that no person is above “grunt” labor.  But, remember that age-old question, “Whatever happened to the woman I married?”  She becomes a mother and a homemaker and her husband doesn’t recognize her anymore.  I’m facing that same kind of thing: an identity crisis and a little “stuck in the rut blues.”

I know plenty of dynamic moms who integrate their family responsibilities seamlessly with vibrant, unique personalities.  They are confident and interesting, and their kids and husbands are proud of them.  So, what’s my problem?  The number one issue I need to overcome is acceptance/denial.  I have not welcomed or embraced the “home-making” concept.  I have a soft, sensitive side and I’m pretty in touch with my feelings, but I’m still mostly a “dude.”  I don’t really think about this stuff much.  Most men are genetically hindered in their ability to process things like dust, grocery lists, shower-grime, or home-décor.  Even before I was laid-off, I was a stay-at-home dad because I worked nights.  Having a job meant I could guiltlessly slack-off housekeeping, and hold my head high, knowing my kids could say their dad worked in the sports department at the local newspaper.  I viewed our cluttered, undecorated home as a temporary condition.  We (i.e. my wife) would get around to fixing things up eventually, when we were more settled.  That was nine years ago, and I’ve been unemployed for the last nine months.  We don’t always choose what happens to us, and sometimes the choices we do make lead us to unexpected places.  Like it or not, I am the primary housekeeper, cook and child-care provider for our family.  Thus far I’ve resisted putting much of myself into these noble endeavors.  I’ve managed to get things done by just going through the motions.  I’ve been trying to tread water and survive until “something” changes, but just-getting-by on a day-to-day basis for nine years has taken a toll.

So, what can I do?  First thing, take a deep breath.  Look at my smiling, healthy children and pat myself and my wife on the back.  This is hard.  It’s okay if we don’t have it mastered.  Survival in this game is synonymous with success.

Next step, assume ownership over these responsibilities and begin to address the problems proactively.  I’m discouraged and grumpy because I’ve accepted mediocrity from myself.  I’ve been sleepwalking through the cascading to-do lists, and waiting for some special moment to shine again; however, an opportunity exists right now.  I simply need to apply myself.  I should put as much enthusiasm and determination into creating a more-efficient, nurturing home as I would any other personal project.  Just because I lack a little housekeeping acumen doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t have taste, style or a willingness to fight mildew.  I’ll admit I’ve held little regard for most domestic duties, instead viewing them as chores to be dreadfully endured.  This is a critical mistake.  I never visualized “house-husband” as a career choice, but I did see myself having a family.  And now, my wife and kids are counting on me to deliver as much (or more) than they ever did when I was bringing home a check.  I need to set a positive example for my kids and make the most of this fate.  It is time to officially “take the position” and begin applying more passion and ingenuity to the task at hand.

Once I’m committed to the project, I can begin to develop strategies for overcoming my deficiencies.  House-hubbies, like kids, require a lot of structure.  I can’t continue to apply a “take care of the basics and wing the rest” approach to my daily agenda, or I‘ll remain powerless over the fortunes of each new day.  A schedule reestablishes control.  Things are addressed when I determine.  Schedules eliminate uncertainty.  Does that shower really need to be cleaned? Yes, today I scheduled “bathroom scrub.” Most men function efficiently when they’re “on the clock.”  The successful house-husband mandates specific hours for specific tasks.  There are children involved, so the calendar should maintain some fluidity, and it might take a while to establish the authority of the household schedule because it has lapsed for so long.  It must be written down.  The commitment to writing is a tangible statement of intent and a personal contract.  When something exists on a family calendar, the entire family tends to acknowledge and respect its importance.  I’m not too comfortable with contracts or dictating structure, so I’ll have to convince myself of the benefits we all stand to gain from the concentrated effort.  Improved time-management increases efficiency which enables more productivity.  Ultimately this should create more quality “me” time.

Two other vital elements of my renovation project involve expansion and repair.  Life is a brutal contest that really requires top physical condition, especially when kids are present.  As my propensity to feel overwhelmed has increased through the years, my dedication to health and fitness has waned.  This is backward thinking.  Aging and added stress necessitate improved fitness.  I’m not just going to say I should get in shape while regretfully eyeing my paunch in the mirror.  I’m going to schedule it.  I’m also determined to get out of the house more on my own.  I need to plan and participate in activities that will provide intellectual stimulation (or physical fitness) and networking.  I shouldn’t isolate myself.  I have to broaden the range of my daily experiences.  In order to truly value myself, I must find ways to integrate who I am with what I do.  All those super-moms that I mentioned earlier find a way to incorporate elements of themselves into their homes, their meals, and the activities they share with their children.  If I lend more of myself to home-improvement and take pride in what I’m doing, I might find new means of expression.  Defining and discovering who I am outside the traditional work-place is an ongoing project, but I’m determined to reassert myself rather than just passively enduring my circumstance.  The blueprint has been sketched; it’s time to break-ground.

Lunchsense is always looking to become more sensible, so please share your experiences, suggestions, or shrieks of laughter below.  I’ll continue to post select moments from my misadventures, offering relevant insight when I can, and together, we might make some progress.

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