Friday, August 26, 2011


I feel that at this point I MUST make a public and official Thank You to the greatest internet idea and my favorite website.  YELP. Yelp has changed my life.  Our family is better because of Yelp -- and I can't stop from humming the Beatles song every time I say it.

I love to support small business; I don't like chains and corporations.  I've known people who struggle to make their small business feed their family.  They have an incredible work ethic.  Their food/service/product is WAY better than the over-processed chains but in the past, one went to a chain (especially out of town) because it was safe, you knew what you were going to get and you could be reasonably sure that it would be held to a certain standard.  We were all very leery to try unknown places for fear of how really awful it could be (and we've all had more than enough really awful experiences).  The only way a non-chain could make it is by person to person word of mouth or possibly curb appeal.

Yelp has changed that FOREVER.  As we drive, especially on our road trips, we look at the map and decide where our next stop will be on our route.  I pull up Yelp on my iPhone (they have a wonderful free user friendly ap with great maps) and then start reading aloud reviews and we decide, as a family, what new restaurant (usually one $, at the most $$) sounds the most interesting.  You can decide how much you want to spend as well as the kind of atmosphere and the type of food or experience.

Warning - you may never go back to Ruby Tuesday Again
We ate great food our entire trip (this trip west, Atlanta last winter, DC last summer, and Florida the year before).  It was local and authentic and nothing we could have ever gotten back home.  We now make it a goal to rarely go to a chain-- we do make an exception for local chains:  i.e., Portillos in Chicago or In and Out Burger in CA.  We even Yelp our activities and places we stay.  Our Yelp comrades give us genuinely good advice.  I reciprocate as well, after we leave, I give a little run down of the place and our family's opinion.

Yelping has made traveling so much more fun.  No longer do we need to guess, we Yelp.  Our experiences are so much better, cheaper, and more complete because of Yelp.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Lunch that Broke the Camel's Back

When looking for ways to save, I decided that I could easily start making lunches for my family. Word on the street is that most kids hate school lunches.  That is not the case with my family, my daughter especially; she LOVES the school lunch.  On most days it is the highlight and she comes home singing the praises of "Penne Pasta Dippers" and brags that because she is so nice to the grumpy lunch ladies, they know her name and give her extra peaches (marinated in sugary syrup).  The joke around our house:  I could simply open a jar of ragu, microwave chicken nuggets, and she would give it 5 stars.

Up until now, I have mostly appeared very on-the-ball and the master of frugality (at least in my own mind).  It is now time to come clean about a not so successful moment.  Last week was the first day of school.  I had shopped to find the best deals on school supplies and assumed we could make do with what we had in the well stocked (ant free) pantry and freezer for meals.  I grabbed their lunch boxes from 3 years ago (since we rarely use them, I never updated them) and packed their lunch:

peanut butter and jelly sandwich
pretzel rods
cranberries that are like raisins
a fresh banana
and a reusable bottle of lemonade

Now some of you seasoned lunch makers are cringing already, but I actually smugly smiled at myself and thought about what a huge success it was that I "threw this all together" in just minutes.  It is healthier because I buy natural / whole grain products with no preservatives and cost effective to boot!!

After school, I could see from 20 feet away that, my normally very happy and well adjusted little girl was welled up with tears.  As soon as she sees me, the tears spill over.  She talks about how she doesn't like being upstairs for 3rd grade.  She wants to be back downstairs and with her really nice 2nd grade teacher.  She talks about the awful game the girls play at recess (where one girl spins the jump rope in a circle and everyone on the outer circle needs to jump over it - but since she is so short it keeps hitting her above the knees and her other group of friends are using sticks to get cobwebs from around the playground-- yuck).  She talks about how thanks to her last name, she sits in the back row and can't see and is near last in every line and how she is the only kid upstairs (3rd, 4th & 5th) to not have lost a tooth... and by now, the tears start to REALLY flow... "and my LUNCH!!!  While everyone else was eating the most delicious Galaxy Pizza, I am eating a sandwich that is all smashed and wet because the lemonade spilled all over it.  My banana was brown and bruised and mushy and gross.  I hate cranberries and pretzels!  How are you my own mother and don't know that I HATE cranberries and pretzels??"
Freshly Waxed Floors, Clean Lockers, & a Terrible Lunch

Now with most kids, one might tell them to buck up, but all of those grievances resonated with me.  She is normally a good-natured child, rarely complains, and was actually very articulate between her gasping sobs.  My heart wanted to pull her out of school and teach her at home but I know that my family is not home-school material so instead I thought about the only real parts that I had control over.  It's too late for her to adopt my maiden name, I can't really help the crazy games played in elementary school, and I certainly can't help move along how fast her body develops (I can only imagine how frustrating it will be in HS)... I did rush her to the grocery store and had her help pick out what is a good lunch for an 8 year old-- including a sandwich box so her sandwich doesn't get smooshed, veggie straws (they look weird to me but apparently all the rage as a healthy chip alternative), an apple or grapes in a container and a lunch box where the reusable bottle hangs on the outside in an insulated pouch.

We threw out the plan, had her favorite pizza delivered for dinner, rented a Red Box, and spent the evening snuggling in the family room.

Now 5 days into making school lunches, I'm pretty sure that this bit of frugality will not last. I really don't like making them and frankly the family doesn't really like eating them -- and I'm not even sure it actually saves money.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Livin' Lean

I'm over my funk; my allotted annual mourning period for summer is over; I'm ready to press on with my school year mission.

This isn’t baby weight.  I've been thin post babies, not like I was on my wedding day or in college, but acceptable for a woman in her 30’s with a couple of kids.  Whenever I’m not paying attention, I go up a couple of sizes, my face starts to closely resemble the shape of a pumpkin, and before I know it, I’m living in drawstring pants.  Somehow, the Chihuahua Mexican cheese on my fajitas is just too hard to refuse, those glasses of sangria go down REALLY smooth, and did I mention that I detest exercise (especially cardio)?   My goal is not the cover of Fit Magazine or even to revive a two-piece but practically speaking, I don't want to spend the money on a new wardrobe and fitting in my clothes like sausage casing is frankly uncomfortable.

The 3rd Jack-o' Lantern is a near perfect match to my head right now
My DH and I have attempted to varying degrees all sorts of things over the years:  
--Walked 10,000 steps a day, worked out like crazy, worn a HR monitor, done Tae Bo, Denise Austin (seems like a dear woman but her optimism makes me want to throw my fist through the TV),  joined good gyms, joined crappy gyms, bought a home gym;
--We have done South Beach, green tea pills, a variation of the cabbage soup diet, gone vegetarian, whole body cleanses, juiced our meals, had liquid lunches, sworn off sugar, salt, & carbs;
--We have tried every health app out there (Lose-it, iMap fitness, the calorie counter, etc).

In the end, nothing works better for us in the long run than a balance of good old-fashioned exercise and diet (tracking calories, carbs, protein, fiber & lots of water).  Everyone has their own theory and I am not licensed in anyway, but after trying all of this stuff and talking to all sorts of people, dietitians, and trainers, this is what I have found works (for us):

DIET:  I download a good calorie counting program, install it on my iPhone, and make my initial goals.  Basically, it is a bit of a pain in the arse, but I enter EVERYTHING that I put in my mouth, even that bite of cheese left on the pizza cutter. When I run out of calories, I need to earn the rest with dreaded cardio.  (I will say that we adhere to a “cheat meal”.  Once a week, we don’t track a meal.  We eat whatever the heck we want.  It is usually Friday but we will adjust it for a special event if necessary - it helps us not fall off the wagon entirely and gives us something to live for). 

I’m currently loving the Health app My Fitness Pal:
  1. It is free, has very few ads, and a clean easy to understand interface.  
  2. You can SCAN BARCODES to enter food (GENIUS)! I make a lot of food at home but we still eat: nuts, tuna, milk, coffee, bagels, granola bars, yogurt… ALL of it is just a quick bar-code scan away. 
  3. Food & Exercise can be entered online on the computer or on the iPhone (it automatically syncs).  When I’m making dinner, sometimes I like to be a helpful wife and add my DH’s food when I add mine.  
  4. Adjustments can be made in the program to have up to 6 meals a day (I like 3 small meals and 3 snacks; My DH likes one section of "beverages" that is different from snacks)
EXERCISE:  I like 2-3 days of yoga (60 minutes) and 2-3 days of a 5k.  I map out the 5k and it motivates me to try to get it over with faster and faster every day, that and I can't work-out in my house.  I have too many distractions, like the laundry or the phone or the room that needs to be painted or the fact that I hate exercising.  We also work in a family activity, like a bike ride or a long walk through the arboretum each week.

I know that the exercise part is tricky if you still have kids at home but it is manageable.  For awhile we were at a gym that had the best childcare ever.  My kids BEGGED to go to the gym (I will admit to sitting in the foyer with a latte and a good book from time to time).  As they got older, I would sneak out for quick walks/runs when I was waiting for them at gymnastics/soccer/baseball or on my lunch break at work instead of reading or my DH would watch them while I ran out for an hour. I have friends who get out before everyone wakes up (that takes a special kind of person).  I have another friend (take this with an ocean of salt because she also does Boot Camp as "me-time") who can hop on her treadmill or do P90X while her kids (x4) nap/play.  Some people can even put their child in a stroller and have another ride their bike beside them (yeh, not with my kids).  The point is, it works, it isn't easy, but it can happen. 
The First Step
This method isn't complicated but it does take a level of dedication.  It isn't a quick fix.  That said, it is rewarding to live lean.  It is empowering to eat only what my body needs and to do it cost-effectively.  It makes every bite, every sip, and every moment of down-time something genuinely appreciated and savored. Within a couple of weeks, I have a routine and realize very quickly how I got to where I was.  It takes A LONG time to forget these new habits and I tend to stay healthy for a good chunk of time --Basically, until life gets busy, there are too many parties (how can that be true?!), not enough self-discipline, and then, I’m accidentally in draw-string pants again.

So... Anybody ready to start 
livin' lean with me
for the school year?! 
or at least until the holidays :0)

Cost - $0 (honestly-- and eating less is cheaper)
Time - entering food is about 20 min a day & add some exercise 
Difficulty – a huge pain at first but very worth it

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Pathetically Sentimental

Summer's end and the start of school make me uncontrollably sentimental.  One would think that with the event packed summer and over-abundance of family time this year, I would be able to embrace the shift to an empty house and a schedule resumed but I am still being ridiculously and pathetically sentimental. I love the care-free days and the long evenings that are summer.  I am nostalgic for when school started after Labor Day.  I am continually sighing (only in my head because I would never want the kids to take on this insanity), "This is the last... BBQ or lake house visit or week without a bed-time or trip to the pool (on closing day, regardless of the weather, we wait in the water to hear the final loud speaker announcement, "The pool is officially closed for the season; We'll see you Memorial Day.").

A couple of years ago, just after school started, I was trying desperately to figure out a way to make the relaxed nature of summer carry through the very long and cold and dark and trapping winter.  After hours of designing and budgeting, the dream living room came clear.  It was simple but had a warm gas fireplace, flocked in bookshelves, and engulfed by a soft shag rug.  There are no electronics and never a mess; No legos, no stuffed animals, no art supplies, no laundry to fold, no pokemon cards. Only books and board games and music and a couple of huge pillow cushions.

and now... as I sit here... silently lamenting the end of summer and organizing the shiny fresh school supplies for next week... the kids are giggling with friends while they play Apples to Apples on the rug in front of the fireplace and I'm (thankfully and gently) reminded... 

The Next Season of Life Isn't so Bad...

Friday, August 5, 2011

National Park Nomads

Three weeks on the road as what I am coining “National Park Nomads” is not even close to a vacation but it was a trip, in every sense of the word.  My definition of "vacation" is vague and unstructured but involves:

1)  No Cooking while still consuming wonderful food (and wine) - often resulting in weight gain
2)  Reading 5+ Books just for fun, that don't make me a better person - often embarrassing to admit reading
3)  Sans Kiddos -- although this one is negotiable if the DH & I have a suite with a separate bedroom
4)  Come home a rested, inspired, world beater who is ready to take on anything from reworking the budget to starting graduate school.

Given this vague definition, our 3 week voyage was nothing close to a vacation but it was a life changing and terrifically crazy experience that I wouldn't trade for the most vacation-y 3 weeks in Fiji (okay- not true, but still).

For quite some time, my slightly granola DH and I have been concerned that we are raising soft suburban kids.  Kids who have no idea what it means to live without; who can’t entertain themselves without electronics; who think “hiking” is the three blocks they travel to our neighborhood school.  Our family needed a real grounding experience, not an all-inclusive resort. We needed a genuine camping trip, with the work and reward that the DH & I both had growing up.  Not to mention that we had very little money and a lot of time.  

My DH has about a month off in the summer.  In the past, my job has been keeping us from taking total advantage of that time, so we would go on mini trips or fly.  This year, with that not the case, we decided it was time to start making some lasting memories.  Our kids are plenty old enough to be in the car for hours as long as they have their pacifiers (at 8 & 10, their pacifier is a DS or ipod or some other electronic device). 
My parents live in the mountains between Seattle and Vancouver, I’m sure you don’t need a map to see that is exactly as far as one can possibly go from our house yet stay in the states.   But it gave us a goal.  We packed our 8 year-old Odyssey to the hilt with everything one needs to live in 95 degree days and 28 degree nights.  On the road we stopped at every National Site including (but not limited to):  Sioux Falls, The Corn Palace, Wall Drug, Badlands, Black Hills, Custer, Rushmore, Yellowstone, North Cascades, Vancouver, Whitefish, Glacier, Teddy Roosevelt, and the Mall of America (if that is not a bastion of US life, what is?)  We stayed in a sizable tent with air-mattresses at state or federal run campsites with no electricity and often no running water but were wonderfully primitive (mixed in with a couple hotels when I could no longer take it).

We woke up in the fresh cool air, met interesting people, cleaned up in nearby lakes, hiked the best trails, ate local food, drank local wine/beer, gazed at the Milky Way, ignited lots of fires, and really embraced what was around us.  My DH grew a mini-beard / hobo beard (depending on which kid you ask).  We laughed and listened to all sorts of music.  I read books aloud in the car.  We played road games.  We saw TONS of wild-life (including one very mean little squirrel who threw stuff from trees at us because we wouldn’t feed him marshmallows).  

I was afraid that our sweet girl would break down the first time she needed to use the outhouse, complete with spiders and flies; that she would beg to go home.  But she didn’t.  She didn’t mention missing her friends because she met new ones everywhere we went.  Every night she would “nest” our tent, setting each persons bed perfectly and neatly, just like home.

I was afraid that our active son would be bored and difficult with only rocks and sticks so we brought a soccer ball, football, Frisbee, hacky sack… none of which ever left the van.  He found it a very fast 3 weeks and was shocked when it was over.  He tirelessly hiked and helped gather for the fires and swam in 40 degree water straight from snow melt.

They didn’t complain when allergies were up because we were tenting in the middle of a sage field.  They barely noticed when it rained every day. They calmly ate the fire-roasted mac and cheese for dinner.  That is not to say that they became avid campers.  Rather than embracing the wonder and beauty of the geysers, they serenaded the entire walk with Ke$ha "This Place is 'bout to BLOW".  Our son couldn’t wait to get in the car again because that is the only time electronics were allowed and our daughter basically did the hikes and saw the sights to get to the gift shop at the end.  They were normal kids but as kids often do, they pulled through, and admittedly better than I was.  

In the end, I was more home-sick than anyone.  I excitedly checked my iPhone whenever we had internet, just so I could get a glimpse into the lives of my friends comfortably back in civilization.  I found myself dying to make dinner the easy way (with an actual stove and dishwasher and fridge); and a shower!  How I longed for a nice hot shower in my small but wonderful master bath (alone, without a line of people waiting outside for me to finish).  To my utter horror, I was the soft suburbanite who needed a reminder of how vacation-like my real life is.  How easy I really have it.  Mark my words, you will not hear me complain about making dinner or laundry or weeding or the craziness of my life for a very long time.

There will be more about our trip later, once the house (and my thoughts) are back in order... 
Badlands National Park, South Dakota - just after a severe thunderstorm blew through - our tent held strong.

Glacier National Park - hiking 1 mile level then 2.6 miles up following a gorgeous waterfall, to this snow melted lake (called Avalanche Lake).  Nearly the entire hike was in a cloud - which is very cold and wet but totally worth every minute.
Thankfully the walk back was MUCH easier (although slippery).