Monthly Archives: March 2011

Kids in the Kitchen

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My daughter started middle school this past year. I went through parochial schools myself, with a K-8 elementary school followed by a traditional four year high school, and was not used to the idea of middle school. It seemed a bit scary to me, but she seems to be enjoying it, and she wasn’t nearly as worried about it as I was. One of the things she was really excited about was the chance to take two electives. Full year Spanish was a given (she loves Spanish), but then there were many choices for the other elective. I could see her choosing most of the choices (drama, art, chorus, orchestra, etc.), so we were glad to see that she could do shorter classes and take three choices over the year. I was surprised at her choices, though: Drama, FACS (Family and Consumer Science), and Shop. FACS and shop? These were not even options at my extremely small elementary school. We did English (which they now call Communication Arts, another weird thing for me), Math, Science, Social Studies, Religion, P.E, and once per week, Music and Art. My high school was all girls, college preparatory, and very small again, so the electives were limited to arts, advanced languages, or additional science type classes.

The feminist in me was pleased to see that my daughter signed up for both FACS and Shop. No feminine limitations on that girl! But, since I know how much she wants to attend college, and her insistence, so far, on an Ivy League school (“I want to go to Harvard, like our president”), her great enthusiasm for these classes is a bit disconcerting to me.

“Did you know that in high school, you can take semester long FACS classes? Sewing, or cooking or child development,” she told me excitedly soon after the second trimester began. No, I didn’t know, but surely she wouldn’t want to take these classes in high school! I suppose it makes sense in a way—she is a smart girl; her academic classes often seem very easy to her, and these classes are challenging in a different way. Other than the cooking section, where they made things that she had already made at home many times (pizza, cookies, scrambled eggs, tacos), she was actually picking up some new skills she hadn’t practiced before. Still, she could get all of these skills outside of school, and save her school time for more challenging coursework, coursework that will look good on a transcript being sent along with a college application. So, I told her that she could take a semester long FACS class in eighth grade, but no high school classes, and we would look into doing some of these things at home.

The easiest thing to implement was the cooking. I have done real cooking all of her life, so she is not a stranger to concepts like menu planning, grocery lists, and planning out your cooking tasks, but this has been very much on the edges of her awareness until now. She was a somewhat active participant in the menu planning, as I asked her and her brother what they would like me to make during the week, but mostly she was just aware that I was doing the planning. Now, though, she is responsible for dinner on Thursday nights. I consult her on the menu, reminding her to include plenty of veggies, and have her look in the pantry to see which ingredients we have, and which we need to buy for her dishes. Before she starts cooking, we go over everything and discuss the order that she should do the work. Sometimes I do step in and remind her to do certain things, or help her with the vegetable chopping, but as time goes on, I have to do less and less of that. She is still working on the concept of having everything ready at the same time, even with my reminders, but there is no substitute for experience in learning this sort of thing. She just needs to keep doing it until it becomes more natural to her.

The boy has been helping in the kitchen more, too. At 8, he is still too young to be cooking entire meals on his own, but he seems to like helping with the cooking, so I am encouraging him in that. He is very excited that I am letting him do some chopping. So far I am only letting him cut up soft things (no carrot slices or onion chopping), but it is all exciting to him. He is proud to be trusted with a knife, even if I am watching him closely, and I figure he’ll never learn how to use a knife safely if he doesn’t get to practice. I have him taste the food with me and judge the seasoning levels. It is so cute to see how seriously he takes this! He takes a bite and holds it in his mouth thoughtfully, usually pronouncing it could use a bit more spice. He even helped me make a Dijon mustard sauce, tasting and expressing an opinion, despite the fact that he did not use the sauce on his own dinner. “I like it,” he said, “but I want plain mustard tonight.” He is an adventurous eater already, but he is even more likely to try unusual things when he helps me cook them.

All in all, this is such a great idea, I don’t know why I didn’t do it earlier. Well, I do know—the girl wasn’t interested, and it is easier to just get in there and get it done. However, I know adults who were never allowed in the kitchen while their mothers cooked when they were children, and they are completely helpless now. They can barely feed themselves the most basic foods, and certainly cannot put together balanced meals for a week. Like all skills, cooking takes practice. I feel good about doing my part to make sure my children grow up to be self-sufficient adults who don’t rely on fast food and heat and serve convenience foods for most of their meals. We do occasionally use the convenience foods, because some nights are just that hectic (or I am totally not in the mood!), but most of our meals start with whole food ingredients, and I want my children to learn how to do that when they are on their own, too.

Some lists

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Things I would like to do with my free time

  1. Read a lot
  2. Write a lot more (than I do now)
  3. Spend time with my children
  4. Spend time with my friends and extended family
  5. Keep up with all my social media (Twitter, Facebook, email)
  6. Learn to crochet and really start to make things
  7. Learn to draw and paint 
  8. Learn to preserve my garden produce 

Things I actually do with my free time

  1. Read a lot, less than at some (obsessional) times, but more than when I was trying to stay current with Twitter
  2. Try to skim through my social media and not miss the big stuff (lately–I used to try to keep up all the time)
  3. Spend time with children, friends, family
  4. Watch TV
  5. Think about the garden 

What I can do to change my second list to more closely align with the first

  1. Realize I cannot do everything I want and prioritize
  2. Keep reading
  3. Plan ahead with friends and family, and fun outings for the children
  4. Keep with the skimming of the social media
  5. Make a regular time to write, and stick to it
  6. Carry a notebook in my purse so that I could write at any time when I unexpectedly have some down time
  7. Consider getting a small notebook computer for myself
  8. See if the girl would like to learn crocheting with me (bonus, crocheting can be done while watching TV!)
  9. Consider taping all tv shows during the week for watching on the weekends

Not Really Vegan, Again

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I have been thinking about absolutism, community, and perfection lately. This applies to many things, but most pertinently here, it applies to my diet and the diet I feed my family. On the one hand, there is the horrible, cruel factory farming/livestock industry, plus all the health issues associated with the consumption of animal products, not to mention the allure of a sub-culture. Who doesn’t want to be a part of a club, especially when you really do agree with club members? On the other hand, there is the isolation of disagreeing with so many people that take an absolute stance as an affront, and the difficulty of social occasions, plus the risk of what my Catholic background calls the error of scrupulosity: focusing so much on the details that you forget the big picture, why you are doing what you do.

I have gone back and forth between strict veganism and a nearly totally Standard American Diet all of my adult years. The fact that I am allergic to cow’s milk has always made vegan choices safer for me anyway, and I do feel better when I don’t eat meat. The main thing that draws me out of a vegan diet and straight back into a standard diet is the community aspect, or what I have called the problem of eating at other people’s houses (and restaurants, come to that). I would slip out of my vegan diet for a meal or two, and then feel so guilty about abandoning my principles that I would just dive back in to the standard diet, not making any effort to moderate the health or humane-ness of my food choices. It was all or nothing—if I couldn’t be a real vegan, why even try? I would still make the occasional meatless meal with a recipe I particularly enjoyed, but I would eat lots of meat, buy my eggs from the grocery store, and even eat the occasional dairy product, although I knew I would pay for it later due to my allergy.

Lately, I have been trying veganism all the way once again, and once again, it really isn’t working for me. My kids are used to me being all about the vegetables and healthy foods, but they aren’t vegetarians, and they have been missing what I had cut out. They like fish and eggs and goat cheese. The like several of the vegan dishes that I make, but they missed the other things. Truth to tell, so did I. So, I am backing off the full vegan thing again, but this time I am doing it more thoughtfully. I am thinking about my reasons for my diet choices, and what I am going to keep from the vegan experiment, and what I am going to get rid of.

I really like that being a vegan helped me to focus on eating a lot of fruits and vegetables. Not all vegans or vegetarians do this, actually, but I had health benefits as one of my major motivators, so I really make the effort to include as many fruits and vegetables in my diet as possible. There is no reason this needs to change because I am adding in a few more animal products, we will still be eating a lot of produce.

The environmental benefits of eating low on the food chain were a big benefit of veganism for me. It started out as a nice little extra, and moved into greater focus as I started thinking about environmental issues in general more and more. My backyard garden was a great way to address both the desire to get more fresh produce in my diet and the environmental impacts. There is nothing that reduces food impact like being able to go out your back door and pick dinner ingredients. I have had the garden for two years now, and I am loving it! The first year I didn’t use as much as I could, and I still bought a lot of supplemental produce, but the second year I used a lot more of what I grew. I feel so good about what I did last summer that this year I am doubling the size of the garden, and moving my herbs up to a dedicated herb garden by my patio. I am also planting more fruit trees (fig and peach this year, and maybe apple and plum next year), and I am planning to learn to can my output. I am very excited about this! Again, there is no reason that this will not continue, and continue to grow in impact in my diet, no matter what else I eat.

The biggest reason I went to the stricter diet this most recent time was animal cruelty. I still hate what animals go through to give us meat or eggs or dairy, but I am just not there yet on completely abandoning the animal products. I did find several places where I can get eggs from chickens that are truly free-range, which makes me feel much better about that. When I read Eating Animals, Foer decided to forego the truly free-range chickens, because he believes driving down the total demand for eggs would reduce the factory chicken farms more effectively. At first, this made a lot of sense to me, and in some ways it still does, but on thinking further, I find that I want to encourage the people who do raise chickens humanely by showing that there is a market for that. The thing is, I am finding a local source for my eggs, and that takes me outside of the industrial farming system, which I like.

In fact, a lot of the things that I like about the vegan diet—the environmental benefits and anti cruelty aspects especially, but the health benefits to some extent, too—are also benefited by moving to a more local economy. I like to support my local community as much as possible in everything, not just food, but it is nice to see how it fits into my diet as well. By growing a lot of my own food in my yard and supplementing as much as possible with foods from local farmers, I reap environmental benefits from the reduced travelling of my food, I reduce animal cruelty by buying from small farmers who treat their animals well, and I get the health benefits from food that is very fresh. Plus, I support my local community rather than some rich corporation.

Part of me feels very good about all of this, and like I am continuing to live my life in a way that supports principles that I feel strongly about. Part of me feels like this is all a cop out, and if I really cared, I would be 100% vegan all the time. However, I need to be realistic about what I want to do, and what I can do, and not beat myself up for not being perfect. So many times, we think of issues in extremes, as if any decision is all or nothing, and that there are no benefits to going partway. I don’t think this is a healthy way to approach life, though. Eating vegan 75% of the time and being conscious about finding more humane sources for the animal products I do eat reduces animal cruelty quite a bit over eating a standard diet. Similarly, sourcing my foods locally as much as possible and eating fewer animal products (and less of them) reduces my environmental impacts, even if I keep buying oranges and coffee and avocadoes and other produce that won’t grow locally, and continue to eat some animal products.

Forgiving myself for not being perfect is a healthier way to live, and one that allows me to continue to do a lot to promote local economies, animal welfare, the good of the environment and good health without the danger that I will give it all up as being too difficult. American culture has a strong puritan streak that often causes us to view large sacrifices as good for us, and people who cannot make those sacrifices (especially if they just don’t want to) as weak. I do agree that self-discipline and training myself to do without everything that I want right when I want it is important for a healthy lifestyle in so many ways. At the same time, making myself miserable by trying to make such sacrifices permanent isn’t healthy either, and just sets me up for failure. For me, being a strict vegan is too much self-flagellation. I know, that is a strong word, and it definitely does not apply to all vegans. Many people are perfectly happy to be vegans, and I say more power to them. But that isn’t true for me, and I don’t think it makes me any crueler or less dedicated to the environment or my health than people who go all the way. I’d even go so far as to say that if a majority of people changed their eating habits to be more like mine—with a big reduction in animal products (even if they ate meat other than fish, which I don’t plan to do), and an attempt to eat locally whenever possible—a lot of the problems with our modern food production systems would be reduced, if not eliminated, without people having to entirely give up the things that they enjoy. It seems to me to be a much more sustainable choice for society as a whole, and one that I can feel good about supporting.

Getting back to the point about community, I have been writing this post for over a week now. Part of the reason for that is that I wanted to think this through thoroughly, and really articulate what I am thinking. Part of it, though, is that I strongly suspect that many people who look at this blog for vegan ideas will consider this a total copout. I feel like I am totally on the edge of the vegan community, and this won’t help. I know that I do not participate in vegan groups as much as some, because I have many other interests that take up my very limited online time, too. But I do love reading the vegan blogs and talking to the people I have met online through veganism. I suspect that I am writing this blog mostly for myself anyway; although sitemeter tells me that I get a steady stream of visitors, most of them seem to be looking for a vegan African peanut stew recipe or vegan camping ideas. So, this won’t likely change much, and all the people I like to read seem like nice people who won’t care anyway. This probably gets back to my feelings about perfectionism more than anything.