Wednesday, March 26, 2014

What I've been reading- Food Edition

I am a fiction reader. I like to read young adult fantasy, hard sci-fi, time travel, steam-punk, or pretty much anything that isn't modern-day, normal life Earth. But when I do get in the frame of mind to read non-fiction, I tend to do so obsessively. I'll get every book by an author, or binge on a specific subject. Most recently, I've been on a real food kick.

For Christmas, Guy and I received a copy of Cooked, by Michael Pollan. I read through it cover to cover in about a week. There are some fascinating tidbits in Cooked; the theory that cooking food was the development that allowed us to grow our big brains and become what we are today, for one. Pollan takes the reader through different methods of preparing food using key recipes intermingled with stories of how he learned them, the people he met in the course of his research, and a liberal amount of philosophy. His main theme seems to be that it is worth the time and effort to cook and eat together- he makes several mentions of how his Sunday afternoon cooking time became a way to bond with his teenage son.

I enjoyed reading Cooked enough that I downloaded two more of Pollan's books from the library- The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food. It's been a few weeks since I read those, and they are mixed up in my mind, partly because there's a lot of territory covered by both books. In Defense of Food is where Pollan sets out a "diet" that I would actually follow (and usually do): Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants. He talks in both books about the difference between food and the food-like substances that most Americans live off of; the hundreds of products made from industrial corn and soy, including the meat we eat (corn and soy diet), the calories we drink (soda), and the unpronouncables in all of our processed food. He talks about the damage that industrial farming is doing to the farming economy, the environment, and our health. Both interesting reads, and I did learn some things I hadn't known.

While reading through those, I also read through the archives of 100 Days of Real Food, a blog about one family's challenge to remove all processed food from their lives for, well, 100 days. It has some great recipes and tips for those trying to make similar changes, and the author, Lisa, is humble and honest about how little she knew starting out. She does have her soapbox moments, though!

Finally, I looked up another book I'd seen on my locavore parents' bookshelf- Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. The author and her family (who also contributed to the book) spent a year eating only food they could get locally (with a few exceptions. Coffee- I get it.) It may be because I was reaching the end of my food-related reading binge, but this one dragged for me. My loan from the library expired before I finished it, and I had to download it again. I did enjoy the book, on the whole, though I got pretty bored during the long explanation of the evils of Big Corn (which I had just read in The Omnivore's Dilemma). I finished the book with a sense of relief and am currently deeply ensconced in- what else- a young adult fantasy.

So, to the meat of it (Hah! Food pun!) Did what I read in any of these books change how I eat and feed my family? Not a whole lot. Fact is, these authors were preaching to the choir. I already try to avoid processed foods, cook as much as I can, and eat lots of plants. We eat together as a family every night that Guy is home- four or five nights a week- and I'm not going to make him feel guilty for the nights he's not here because he needs to make money so we can buy food.

As far as eating locally, I would love to. As soon as the Farmer's Markets open up, I'll make a point to go there for the bulk of our produce if I can. But milk and meat are a little trickier. Our current dairy is local, but not organic. I've looked for an organic alternative, but not much is out there. Meat is just out of our price range. According to Michael Pollan, Americans on average spend about nine percent of their income on food. Ours is more like thirteen percent, which still doesn't sound like a lot, but we don't have any wiggle room in the budget right now.

What changes have I made? Well, I'm not quite ready to give up Costco Taquito night, but I have eliminated my emergency canned soups pretty much entirely. I use even less refined sugar than I used to, swapping for honey or maple syrup or eliminating it all together from some recipes (We put sugar on top of the pancakes! do they need it inside, too?) I've started bringing lunch to school every day, and packing for Kai as well. The school provides free lunch but I want better control over what we eat, and I was underwhelmed with their menu. And that's probably about as far as I'll take it for a while.

Thanks for reading all the way through! Here's a picture of Kai learning to sew.  He stuck with it for about three minutes and then decided cutting up the fabric and making designs was way more fun.

This post contains affiliate links. If you follow the links you will be taken to an IndieBound page where you can buy the book. It won't cost you any more, but I will earn a small commission.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Pattern Reading Tutorial- New Pajama Pants for a Kitty-boy (Part 1)

I rarely use patterns for my sewing. I buy them, sure, especially the beautiful period costumes that tend to come out around Halloween. Then I put them in my pattern drawer and ogle them occasionally.

When I do use a pattern, I tend to use it the same way I use a recipe- I make sure I have the amounts roughly right and get an idea of the shapes of the fabric I need, then improvise. I know how to follow a pattern. I just usually don't. But when Kai recently asked for a new pair of pants with kitties on them, I decided to follow a pattern and take pictures of the process so I could blog about it. This tutorial is very detailed, intended for the person who has never used a pattern before. It's detailed enough that I'm splitting it into two parts because my fingers are starting to hurt from typing.

The pattern I am using is McCall's 6237. I chose it because it is pretty simple, the pants have pockets ( a must for Kai), and most of all because I already have it. It's actually meant for daytime pants, but I am using it for pajamas.

Before purchasing the fabric for a pattern, start by measuring the intended wearer. Patterns have their own sizing system that doesn't match up well with standard pre-made garment sizes. I looked at a pattern I'd purchased for myself, and I would need to make it in a size 12- in clothing I wear a 4. The opposite happened with Kai. When I measured him (and he stood surprisingly still for it!) I came up with a size 2 on the pattern, where he normally wears size 3 or 4 pants. However, I decided to make the pants in a size 4 anyway, on the theory that kids grow. They do- I've seen it. 

Side note- I measured Kai using a measuring tape which, like many of my sewing supplies, came from Guy's late grandmother. I didn't realize how old it was until Guy pointed out that it had been made in West Germany!

So- now that I know what size I'm making, I can look at the pattern package and see that for a pair of pants in size 4, I will need one yard of 45 inch wide fabric. Since I'm making pajama pants, I'm using flannel, which happened to be on sale that day at Joann. Yay! Kai chose two different flannels, one with cats and one with paw prints. I'm making two pairs of pants for him, one with each print.

I always buy more fabric than I think I will need for a project. That way I'm prepared for mistakes, and I can make little extras to go with the final product. For this one, I might use some of the extra to make a patch on a tee-shirt so Kai has a full set of pajamas. 

So, on to the cutting, right? Not so fast. Fabric needs to be washed and ironed before it is ready to cut out. (My mama would be so proud of me.) Fabric shrinks, as we all know, and it shrinks more or less in certain directions. If you get all that shrinking out of the way before you sew, you don't have to worry about weird puckers and wrinkles from different parts of the garment shrinking unevenly. And ironing the fabric before you cut out the pattern pieces gives you much neater, more accurate pieces to work with.

Here is what I will be using for this project, including washed and ironed fabric but not including the velcro (more on that later).

Friday, March 14, 2014

How to Have a Healthy Breakfast. Every Single Day.

The pattern tutorial isn't quite (at all) ready, so here is something I hope will be helpful to the internet at large.

Working with preschoolers, I have learned that if I don't have a good breakfast in the morning, I can't do my job well. I lose my temper when I'm hungry, and there is no one like a preschooler to push all the wrong buttons when they know you're on the edge. I can sacrifice a shower in the morning, but I am not allowed to leave the house without breakfast.

Then there's Kai. He is a preschooler, and he wakes up ravenous. He's never been much of a dinner eater- he gets most of his daily calories from breakfast, lunch, and snacks, so I try to be sure they're good ones.

I need fuel to power my Lego marathon!

The modern lifestyle pushes us more and more towards convenience foods, and it is hard to push back, especially when I work full time and have never been much of a morning person. It seems like life, and especially parenting, is a constant series of decisions about what principles you are going to stand firm on, and what you are willing to let go of. I've let go of the battle against the television, at least somewhat, but I haven't yet given up on trying to make sure we eat a healthy diet that is also somewhat friendlier towards the planet than the norm. I consider breakfast one of my big successes- every day, Kai and I eat a balanced meal made of fresh, nutritious foods, and I don't spend more than five minutes in the morning prepping it. Here's how I do it.

1. I have a pattern. 

Mornings are much easier if I don't have to think. So breakfast has a set pattern- whole grain carbohydrate, fruit, protein. That way, the questions I have to ask aren't huge- What am I making?- but simple- banana or blackberries? Here are some of the meals I serve regularly, and mix and match.

- Whole grain pancake with sunflower seed butter, banana. (This is Kai's very favorite breakfast and what he eats most days.)
- Plain yogurt with homemade granola, berries
- Whole grain French toast with all-fruit jelly, pear slices. 
- Oatmeal with raisins and applesauce, glass of milk.
- Homemade muffin, yogurt, apple slices.
- Whole grain toast with nut butter and bananas.

2. I plan ahead

You probably noticed the word "homemade" a few times up there. And no, I am not making a batch of muffins or pancakes on a school morning! Every weekend, I try to make at least one think that I can serve for breakfast during the week. A double batch of Sunday morning pancakes, an entire loaf of bread into French toast, or a batch of the banana muffins that Kai loves to help me make. I freeze these on cookie sheets and then bag them up, and I know by now exactly how long it takes to thaw them out. (One minute and fifteen seconds for one pancake). I always make sure to have fresh fruit on hand, and some frozen back ups too. 
Pancakes frozen and ready for bagging up.

I know a lot of what I serve for breakfast has a reputation for being unhealthy. I mean, we have pancakes, French toast, and muffins almost every day! The truth is, though, that these foods aren't by their nature actually unhealthy. It's the restaurant and pre-made versions that have ruined their reputation. I use only whole grain flour and bread, limited sweetener, limited fats, and almost always include fruits and vegetables in the recipes. I rarely serve them with syrup, but when I do, it's the real thing and the portions are small. I would much rather eat these than the alternatives- pop tarts, instant flavored oatmeal, granola bars, sugary cereal, etc.

I will add the recipes I use for weekend baking as I make them over the next few weeks- check back for links. 

3. I have a Plan B

I know me. Even five minutes is too much on that morning when I sleep through my alarm and spill coffee on the floor, and there's sometimes a Friday when the fruit has run out and I didn't make it to the store. For those days, I have a packaged alternative which I can feel okay about Kai eating every once in a while. Right now, my emergency backup breakfast is Kashi cereal bars and an applesauce pouch. A little more sugar than I like, a little more processed than I would want, but not a pop tart! And that's what really matters, right?

Some of you might be wondering what Guy eats- I haven't said much about him here. The fact is, I'm not home when he eats, so I don't really know!

So there it is! My plan for an easy, healthy breakfast, every day.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Here we go again!

I am rethinking what I would like to do with this blog. When I started, it was going to be a sewing blog, based solely on the fact that I had come up with a really fun name. Then I decided that was too much work and I was going to post book reviews and general parenting advice. I want to be a blogger who posts things that are important to me, that will help other people, and maybe bring in a little bit of income, and to do that, I need to be posting regularly. So here's what I will be doing, I think- I will post about once a week, on topics that are important to me- Sewing, nutrition, education, books. If I can't manage a big post, I'll put up a little something about what I've been reading.

Right now, I have an idea for a tutorial that I hope will be useful for a lot of beginner seamsters- how to read a pattern. I've started putting together the ideas and I'm hoping to post it next weekend. Stay tuned!