Chopped: Frost Family Edition (Or, I Made Chocolate Curls)

I made homemade chocolate curls last weekend and it wasn’t a big deal (so easy, who knew?!). But still, I MADE chocolate curls. Gold star?


Several years ago we went through a period of watching The Food Network as a family. Abby, in particular, couldn’t get enough of Beat Bobby Flay and The Pioneer Woman. But her favourite show was Chopped.

The premise is simple: four competitors start by making an appetizer. The catch? Their workstation contains a basket with secret ingredients which have to be incorporated/highlighted in their dish. And these secret ingredients can be downright strange. Gummy bears and chicken in an entrée, hotdogs and pecans in a dessert. After each course, one chef is eliminated until two people remain to battle it out over dessert.

Abby loved this show (every iteration, but especially Chopped Junior).

At some point, we introduced a few elements into special cooking challenges at home. Abby and I would choose a “secret ingredient” for dessert and allow 15 minutes to prepare something for John and Levi. Other times we had informal judging – no winner, but an elaborate meal for which family members were invited to offer critiques and compliments.

Then, in early 2020, just before COVID shut down the world, we jumped in with two feet. My parents were overwintering locally and offered to serve as judges. We paired off into teams (John + Levi; Elisabeth + Abby) and printed off scoring cards. We planned for weeks, shopped covertly so the opposing team didn’t catch wind of our menu, and covered the French door to our dining room with butcher paper (so my parents couldn’t spy on the kitchen prep).

From start to finish it was a lot of work, but Abby was in rapture and my parents couldn’t stop raving about the food. I’ll admit – it was delicious food. But did I mention all the work?


For several years we had a reward system in our house called “Warm Fuzzies” – a glass jar filled with (fuzzy) multi-coloured pom-poms. If someone did or said something encouraging or kind, we would add a warm fuzzy. If someone was deliberately unkind or rude, we would take one away. The kids worked steadily toward a goal – most recently, to host another Chopped competition.

They reached that goal over a year ago by accruing 40 Warm Fuzzies…and we only got around to fulfilling our promise last Saturday. #PandemicLife. But, better late than never.


We invited a neighbour couple (the ones who bake the kids cookies, offer us fresh produce from their garden, and bought the whole neighbourhood a basketball hoop and set it up in our driveway; for long-time readers, this is also the couple who leave Christmas lights up for our benefit, help shovel our driveway, and have PB & Banana sandwiches each Friday so, basically the sweetest neighbours ever) to assign the secret ingredients and judge the resulting dishes. (We made things a bit easier with just a single ingredient set for each course.)

John and Abby teamed up, which left me paired with Levi.

I tend to be the killjoy in this sort of event as I find it exhausting to juggle so many dishes while worrying about presentation (Oh, and did I remember to clean the bathroom for our guests?), all while working as a team with a CHILD who has very strong opinions about what they want to do (and, if I’m being completely honest here, I just want to do it all myself and win the competition). The prep, the shopping, the execution, the managing expectations. It’s a lot.

But I survived and it was great.

The secret ingredient selections were: cheese in the appetizer, bacon in the entrée, and chocolate in the dessert.

We had the table set with score cards (again, judged blind – they didn’t know who was paired with whom) and menus.

We weren’t judged on the drinks, but each team made a punch that was similar in taste and appearance, so here’s a representative picture.

How do people make their hands not look weird in pictures? Does anyone else feel self-conscious of their hands in pictures? I never think about my hands in real life, but “picture hands” just always feel…strange looking to me.

And here’s how it all played out:

John + Abby’s Menu (Abby designed/coloured their menu; gold star to her):

Oops. I only took a picture of the front page of their menu…

Appetizer: Tomato bisque + a trifecta of grilled cheese

Appetizer; this was one of the best tomato soups I have EVER had. And each strip of grilled cheese had a different flavour/cheese profile. Also, didn’t they nail the presentation?

Entrée: Beef tenderloin, bacon-wrapped scallops, garlic/onion/bacon mashed potatoes, grilled red pepper, and green beans with hollandaise.

We don’t eat much red meat, but John got an incredible cut of local beef tenderloin from the butcher and it was…delicious.

Dessert: A layered ice-cream cake.

Sadly you can’t see the layers in this homemade ice-cream cake; a chocolate crumb base, peanut butter cups, Skor bits, homemade chocolate sauce and lots of ice-cream. It was so good!

Levi + Elisabeth’s Menu:

Giving credit where credit is due – Abby coloured the flowers.

Appetizer: A three-cheese buttermilk biscuit topped with smoked paprika and dill cream cheese, smoked salmon and Parmesan crisps.

This was our weakest dish; everything tasted great, but the presentation was lacking colour, and – I’ll talk about this tomorrow – 15 minutes before this picture was taken I was cleaning up a torrent of water on the kitchen floor on my hands and knees, so was rather distracted). Maybe the monochromatic look is in?

Entrée: Bacon-wrapped asparagus, bacon cornbread bites, and bacon/chicken alfredo. The homemade alfredo sauce was the bomb.

This was so good!

Dessert: A chocolate panda (Nutella + PB filled) lava cake, with an ice cream head, and chocolate curl limbs.

This panda won the competition. Literally. Levi and I ended up winning by several points and it was all due to the panda dessert which was, I’m the first to admit, entirely Levi’s idea. He has been working for WEEKS on a panda project in school and this was the one thing he insisted on incorporating into our meal. It turned out about 100 times better than I imagined. I was going to do the ice cream head off to the side of the lava cake as an afterthought. But as we were plating, Abby (gold star to her for so generously helping her opponents) suggested we make a complete panda. Levi was so, so proud. And, it was delicious (though, I ask, could a chocolate lava cake NOT be delicious?)!

The raspberry was an afterthought as the peanut butter filling was leaking and made a hole at the top of the cake which we covered with a raspberry, forming a very adorable “belly button.”

Prepping the ice cream heads the day before!

And that’s enough Chopped for a few years. Lots of fun (and delicious leftovers), but also…exhausting!

Three cheers to the kids for being such great sports. Three cheers to John for loving to cook so much and encouraging and organizing so much of this event. And three cheers to our neighbours who were genuinely delighted by the whole experience and the most enthusiastic participants we could have hoped for (they very sweetly brought us a long thank-you note the next day and actually showed up to the “competition” with a plate of their famous cookies).


Anyone hungry? (Aside from vegan/vegetarian readers – sorry!).

Header photo by Sara Cervera on Unsplash

Birthday Recap + Notes from a (Reluctant) Party Host

I know there are people who get their thrills from hosting (or attending parties). These are surely lovely people but I. cannot. relate.

Unfortunately/fortunately, when you have tiny humans living in your house, they tend to enjoy birthday celebrations.

For YEARS I dreaded these parties. Not because I didn’t want my kids to have a great time, but because it just doesn’t feel like something in my sphere of competency and hosting has a tendency to fill me with dread. That said, I’ve now successfully organized a fair number of pint-sized parties (around 15 combined between two children – um, Wow), have survived, and actually find myself tolerating/border-on-enjoying the experience more and more with each successive year.

If you are one of those love-to-plan-all-the-parties people, you’re welcome to stick around, but my suggestions will likely seem rather pitiful for your tastes. If, on the other hand, you’re like me and get the cold sweats a month before a 3-person birthday party, you’re not alone!

I thought I’d share a bit about how I manage kid birthday parties – a topic that is top of mind with a newly-minted 11-year-old in the house.

PARTY SIZE

This was a “little” year. What’s a little year you ask? Once the kids hit ~5 we started alternating “big” (6-8 guests) and “little” (2-3 guests) parties. I plan differently for big vs little parties and I’ve really enjoyed having this routine in place. Levi had a little party in November, and Abby had a little party this March. Friends actually know this fact and it is not unusual to have some ask: “So, is it a big or little birthday this year?”

location

This year, and recently, I have hosted parties at our house. When Abby was younger and we were living in a tiny apartment, we tended to host things in other venues because it just wasn’t feasible to have people in our space (and with November and March birthdays, the weather isn’t exactly ideal for outdoor activities). Levi has never had a party outside our home but we did: paint-your-own-pottery, skating, and a hotel pool rental for Abby over various years.

food

A party without a cake is just a meeting.

Julia Child

I’m not going to lie – there is little nutritional value at these events. (I did serve fruit kebabs one year, but most guests opted for the cake).

If it is a big year, I serve snacks + cake. If it is a little year, I serve a meal. Levi requested three close friends from the neighbourhood for meatballs, rice, and peas and I set out popcorn as a mid-party snack.

This year Abby asked for homemade mini pizzas, strawberries (I ended up setting out a fruit and veggie selection which was met with lukewarm enthusiasm), popcorn, and Dorito’s.

My cakes are relatively simple. I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a cake but that’s mostly because I usually hide money inside (this was a tradition in my house when I was growing up); I will wrap coins in “packets” of tinfoil – and drop them into the cake before baking. Last year Abby asked for a giant cookie cake, which required the bare minimum in terms of preparation.

One year (the “8”) Abby and I made chocolate flowers from a mold someone had passed on to us (which I have since decluttered to a thrift store) + a few pre-fab decorations from the Bulk Barn; the “6” was the year we watched How The Grinch Stole Christmas for Levi’s “big” party. I just iced a bundt cake and topped it with some m&m’s…pretty boring. But when you cut into it it was multi-coloured which is such an easy – but exciting – effect to achieve!

This year one of Abby’s requested activities was TO BAKE THE BIRTHDAY CAKE. As in, bake her birthday cake with her friends after they arrived at the party. Um, sure?! I bought my first jarred frosting to streamline the process and it was…wonderful. It’s so hard to make the right amount of homemade frosting and this way kids got to pick what they wanted. They were so proud of having made the cake + it was still slightly warm when we ate it which was delish.

To make this a little more special, I cut out all the steps in the cake-baking process, put them into a bag and had each guest draw 5 steps at random. One girl cracked the eggs, another added the sugar, etc. It was very fun (though I would never want to attempt this with kids under 10).

games

These have gotten simpler with age. If you have a destination, these tend to be no-brainers. A pool party, painting pottery – these have built-in entertainment.

Balloons – these are always a hit and kids seem to gravitate to wherever they can find a loose balloon to bat around a room.

A candy hunt – this was a tradition for me growing up and I always do a candy hunt for the kids. One year, when Abby had a “little” party we actually hid clues all around the neighbourhood until they ended up reaching their treat bags. That same year I gave each guest (at a “little” party) a different coloured Hershey Kiss to find (I went to the bulk barn and picked out the same number of pink, blue and green Kisses!). That way everyone had the same number and just because you spotted something didn’t mean it was yours since you had to be looking for your individual colour only!

This year’s items (spread out between 4 girls) for their “treat” bags.
And all wrapped up!

Left-Right – this is a family favourite (we’ve done this at Christmas as a gift exchange with friends) and how I have distributed treat bags lately. Everyone sits in a circle and picks out a wrapped package. The bags are all different, so the kids have nothing to go on but the size/shape of the bag.

Then I start reading a prepared script full of LEFT and RIGHT instructions.

For example, I could write something like: You would be RIGHT if you remembered that Harry Potter LEFT Privet Drive RIGHT when Uncle Vernon opened the door to his room. Whether it was RIGHT of Ron to pull the bars off Harry’s window will be LEFT up to the reader.

Each time the command is given you pass the parcel in the appropriate direction. Whatever parcel you end up with is yours to keep. I LOVE this activity as it combines the fun of a game with the treat bag (which isn’t my favourite thing at a party as they tend to be full of…little plastic junk that gets thrown out; I’d skip treat bags entirely but they seem so ubiquitous, and I try to make them fun and include tangible things the kids will use). This year I spent 5-10 minutes typing up a script about all the girls attending; there were probably 50+ LEFT/RIGHT commands and it was hilarious to watch them scramble to keep up.

Just One – This is a new game in our repertoire. You pick a word (say: birthday) and all but one person writes a one-word descriptor of that word (e.g. celebrate, candle, baby, balloon, party). But if there are repeat clues, they cancel out. So if two people said “candle” it wouldn’t be in play anymore. The one player remaining (who goes to a separate room at the start of the round) comes back and has to guess the word based on the descriptors. I describe this in more detail in an earlier post which discusses my father-in-law’s hilarious use of words such as insular (for island), hosiery (for stocking), and cylindrical (for candle).

Chair surprise – last year I put little star stickers on the bottom of a few plates and chairs. At one point I told people to look under their plates/chairs and the people with the stars won a small prize. This time I actually hide the items on the cross braces of the table.

For any international readers, the silver/gold coin is our Canadian “Toonie” – worth $2

Abby wanted to do some traditional games as well – like Pictionary, Charades, and Twister which they all played independent of me! The older the kids get, the easier the party becomes as they are more self-directed.

I’m not complaining about this development.

traditions

The kids usually wake up to a helium balloon with a full-sized chocolate bar tied to the end… except I never got around to it this year and Abby never mentioned my oversight so perhaps that tradition has run its course.

They have also traditionally gotten pancakes in bed, but this year Abby (having a sleepover with one friend after her small party) wanted me to make our Christmas morning Cinnamon Coffee Cake. I was happy to oblige.

gifts

We’re pretty practical here. I try to get something they want, something they need, and a treat of some sort.

We’ve given both kids desks for their birthdays. Two years ago Abby wanted Blundstones. We buy 90% of the kids clothes second-hand, but these shoes have been worth every penny. And, guess what her big present was this year – another set of Blundstones.

Something she wanted was a hamster wheel (found new with tags at a thrift store for several dollars) as she is set to get a hamster – though the hamster is unrelated to her birthday.

Her treat was a small block of Kerrygold Dubliner cheese (I hid it in the fridge and wrote a little clue to help her find it). She loves fancy cheese. (I’m pretty sure cheese wouldn’t have been a treat to me a kid – and I would have turned my nose up at anything that didn’t include Cheddar or Mozerella in the tagline – but live and let live.)

Sometimes the gifts become a game, too. When COVID hit right before Abby’s birthday in 2020 and everything was canceled, I opted to wrap 9 gifts (most of them very small) and hid them. She got one new clue each hour for 9 hours. Again, most things were tiny like a notebook or new set of pencils or a package of gum but ANYTHING is more fun when it involves clues.

decorations

Balloons and the gifts for Left/Right at this year’s party. That was literally it. No signs or banners or tableclothes.

I don’t do ’em. I even forgot to blow up balloons for Levi’s party in November (but one of his friends actually used balloons to cover up his gift instead of tissue paper and saved the day).


One last memory to share: when COVID hit right before Abby’s 9th birthday, everything was canceled, so I tried extra hard to make it a special day in the middle of scary, uncertain days. One of the highlights was when our neighbour texted John a picture of this snowman he had made on his back deck. When we went over to take a picture in front of the snowman he passed Abby some chocolates out through a window. It was a crazy time, but that snowman was such a bright point while navigating a birthday at the start of pandemic life.

And that’s a wrap on parties at the Frost Ranch. Maybe this sounds pretty lame – or, maybe it sounds like I am a party-planner extraordinaire.

I want the kids to have a fun time, so I do put a certain amount of effort into the events, but I’m always relieved when parties are over. That said, I will admit I find them a lot less anxiety-producing as the kids get older. My kids + their guests are so much more independent and their parents don’t hang around anymore either which I always found awkward and stressful.

Maybe I’m also realizing just because it’s relatively simple doesn’t mean it can’t be fun!


Your turn. Do you like to plan parties? Any great ideas for simple games or other ways to make these events extra memorable?

Header photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash

The Satisfaction of Finding The Right Tool

I’ve talked a few times about how little changes can have a disproportionate impact; relocating our CO detector made play with the kids easier and moving deodorant to a different drawer streamlined my morning routine.

Implementing both of these (tiny, seemingly insignificant) tweaks was also deeply satisfying.

And the other day I realized another common source of satisfaction: identifying the right tool for the job. Or, in this case, the right tote for the toys.


Levi loves action figures. As toys go he has low expectations; some LEGO, some mini-sticks, some IKEA balls, some action figures and he is content.

The action figures are the cream of his toy crop, and he plays with them daily.

(Yes, he “needs” all the ones pictured below and has specific roles for every single character. Regarding all that plastic: two were gifted and the rest – you guessed it – were thrifted. So, eventually, they will return from whence they came.)

For years we stored action figures in an adorable wicker basket we had inherited from dear knows where.

This basket was the worst tool for the job.

It was small. It had very wide weaving, leaving a lot of holes for the hard plastic limbs of action figures to get stuck through in ways that might, perchance, elicit some wash-your-mouth-out-with-soap language (from me – not from Levi, who was quite content to leave said action figures strewn about his room in a festive manner and avoid the pitfalls of said wicker basket).

A few months ago, when a friend asked me to pick up an IKEA TORKIS tote, on a whim I added one to my own cart (without any evaluation – how rebellious).

This tote is $8 of pure genius. It is sturdy, yet flexible. It fits every single action figure easily (so a certain someone has no excuse for not picking up) and it fits neatly under his bedside table (IKEA, $10).

I can’t tell you how often I have walked into his room over the last few months and sighed contentedly to see how easy toy cleanup has become.


Identify the problem – and then get to work identifying the right tool for the job. It might be as simple as an $8 tote.

Your turn. Any satisfying changes lately that have made life easier? Anyone else have experience trying to fit too many toys into a too-small container?

P.S. I mention IKEA numerous times in this post, but this is #NotAnAd. IKEA has no idea who I am…though our house is basically one giant IKEA building project.

Header photo by Vanessa Bucceri on Unsplash

Parenting Hack: The Would You Rather Game

Life is full of choices. I, for one, tend to get overwhelmed quickly with the array on offer. For starters, do we really need 40 different shades of white to choose from at the paint store? (I’m sure I’m grossly underestimating that number.)

While in many contexts, choice can elicit anxiety (like an overwhelming paint display), choice is also critical for development and positive growth.


In the realm of parenting, choice can feel like a double-edged sword. We want our children to feel autonomy when appropriate, but how and where to fit that in can be challenging to determine. It’s also a moving target as kids age and their sphere expands.

I’m not claiming to have done this perfectly (or even well) when my kiddos were younger, but a bit like my thoughts last week about giving choices that are mutually agreeable, I tried to make that a reality even when they were little. Instead of open-ended questions like: “What colour plate do you want at breakfast?” – which would surely have taken a month of Sundays for them to reach a decision on – I might ask: “Do you want the blue plate or the red plate?”

I find myself still doing this as they age, though now they get their own plates – which are an unknown shade of white – from the cupboard themselves.

An iteration of this idea materializes in the form of one of our favourite family games.


I have a low tolerance for board games; I can manage Sorry, UNO, Codenames, Crokinole (and Mastermind if I’m in a particularly good mood), and that’s enough for me. But because we walk so much as a family – and it’s not really easy to play UNO on the go – we’ve had to come up with some verbal games, too.

Our “Would-You-Rather Game” is a very popular choice; in fact last Saturday Abby and I played this for 52 minutes (yes, I timed it) while walking.

We came up with questions like:

  • Would you rather be sprayed by a skunk or would you rather hug a porcupine?
  • Would you rather be able to read people’s thoughts or would you rather be able to teleport?
  • Would you rather cycle through wearing your favourite 2 outfits for a year (and nothing else) or would you rather have someone else pick a new outfit each day but, love it or hate it, you’d have to wear it?
  • Would you rather skip the Christmas holiday or would you rather skip all the other holidays – including your birthday – but be able to celebrate Christmas.
  • Would you rather meet Hermoine from Harry Potter or would you rather meet Galadriel from The Lord of the Rings?

We’ve done this game in different ways; sharing the same questions or, on this most recent walk, I spent about 25 minutes asking questions and then Abby reciprocated for the same amount of time asking a whole other set of questions. While it can be relatively mindless (I can just ask dessert Would You Rather’s and the kids are happy), it doesn’t have to be and we’ve posed some tough philosophical questions this way too. I’m able to stay engaged and I find it tolerable/bordering on fun.

Mileage may vary by family but, for us, it has been a great way to fill many, many miles.

P.S. If you’re interested in reading more about “choice” Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice is an interesting deep-dive into this topic.

P.P.S. I blogged about another way to help with decisions: Parenting Hack: Flip a Coin


What about you – skunk or porcupine (I was team skunk; pain is not. my. thing)? And clearly teleporting is the only right answer because reading people’s thoughts sounds like torture…Abby chose Christmas, Hermione, and 2 favourite outfits.

Also, anyone else get anxious when browsing the white paint options? I gave up in despair and told our painter to choose – I think we ended up with the decidedly basic (and unmistakably white) “Decorator’s White.” If you are someone who understands and appreciates all the “undertone” talk, good on ya’…but I cannot relate.

Header photo by Ana Municio on Unsplash

Sourcing Books + Getting Kids to Read

Given my penchant for reading, I suspect I’m a bit of an anomaly in that I buy very few books.

Two shelves on Abby’s bedroom built-ins are filled with books, and we have a small bookshelf in the family room with under 100 books (a combination of adult + picture). Of the books we own, almost all have been handed down, gifted, purchased for a university course, or thrifted.


Some of it is economics – I’m a naturally frugal person and books aren’t an area where I generally want to spend money. (I’ve told this story before, but I think of it often: one of my best friends in college did a major budgeting session with her husband right after their wedding which resulted in strict spending guidelines but, she told me, “We both agreed there would be no limit on buying books!”)

I also don’t like clutter, and books can quickly become a major source of clutter.

So where do I get my books?

My number one source is the library (~95% of all the books I read). I visit our library – nestled inside a repurposed railway station – on a weekly basis. I also spend time every few weeks ordering books through their online portal (while I love wandering and browsing the shelves, since COVID, I order 80%+ of my books) and always have a stack on my bedside table.

I also regularly visit one of the many take-a-book/leave-a-book libraries that have cropped up around our little town, but this is pretty hit-and-miss and tends to house mostly thrillers and other fiction.

I occasionally source books second-hand at used book stores or thrift shops – or borrow them from friends – but the library is my happy place.

I have started to buy a few more books in recent years, but only after I’ve already read them (I am a big re-reader); I have most of Gretchen Rubin’s books, I asked for (and received) a boxset of the Harry Potter series a few Christmases ago, and started working on a James Herriot collection this year. In a shock decision, I ordered Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet within a day of finishing because I wanted it on my shelf (second-hand via Amazon).

How do you get your kids to read?

Growing up my Dad was always reading (my Mom enjoyed reading, but said she didn’t have the time for it, which I 100% understand now, but her statement flummoxed me at the time).

I tend to be a fast reader/like to skim and tend toward nonfiction which I think lends itself better to being picked up/put down frequently. So I read a lot of books (100+/year)

Our library picture-book stash

The kids see me reading regularly and, since the time they were infants, I’ve also been reading to them.

Picture books are still in steady rotation at our house, though I can feel this phase slowly slipping past me. I adore picture books and find there are often profound messages waiting for both parent and child.

During their early years, I would read to them multiple times a day. As they’ve gotten older, I’ve had to be more deliberate about carving out time for this. For a while I was splitting up bedtime by reading chapter books with Abby (in her room) and picture books with Levi (in his room). Now that both kids can comprehend the same reading level and go to bed at the same time, I tend to read almost exclusively at the table. I often finish eating first and will grab a book and start reading, especially at breakfast; on Saturday and Sunday nights they eat before John and I, so I read to them for the duration of their supper meal.

Once a week or so, we’ll cuddle on the couch at bedtime and read a chapter of whatever book we’re working on (currently: The Mysterious Benedict Society) or a handful of picture books.

I do miss reading to them each night. It was a nice wind-down ritual but I haven’t found a great way of reinstituting this routine now that the kids are more independent and bedtime is more streamlined; they dress themselves, brush their own teeth and, in a bittersweet development, sometimes want to just read on their own. Yet another example this This too shall pass.

P.S. Parenting Hack: Read Books With Accompanying Movies – I blogged about how we’ve been reading chapter books with accompanying movies; there were also some great suggestions in the comment section we haven’t gotten to yet! The kids watched a Pippi Longstocking movie this weekend, and we finally got around to watching Anne of Green Gables + another version of Heidi over March Break.

P.P.S Confessions of A Picture Book Addict (There Are Worse Things…) – I love picture books and will try to find a way to keep reading them forever, if only to myself.


Your turn. Are you a borrower or a buyer? If you have young kiddos at home, how do you incorporate reading into your family routine?

Header photo by Mariia Zakatiura on Unsplash

Giving Choices I Don’t Hate + Other Parenting Hacks

I’ve already confided that it can sometimes feel like there are just too many parenting hours to fill. Maybe this is because I have high expectations of those hours – I want them to be meaningful and I want to enjoy them?

I can simultaneously realize that my littles are growing up faster than I want them to while acknowledging that they can (often) drive me absolutely crazy.

A few weeks ago I was reminded of the importance of offering choices that are acceptable to me, along with a few other little hacks that make my role as a parent just a tiny bit easier.

give choices i don’t hate

I am not a get-on-the-floor-and-play-action-figures sort of Mom. I’ve struggled with feeling a lot of guilt over this. I think the women who are those sort of mothers tend to genuinely enjoy those activities. I don’t. Time doesn’t just slow for me, I’d swear it starts running in reverse.

I also don’t like “crafting” – specifically anything that involves glue, paint, glitter, or rolling out dough of any sort. Or playing dressup. Or most activities that require imagination, silly voices, or hiding and seeking.

But I do like reading, taking long nature walks, colouring, doing Wordle, exploring beaches, boating out to isolated lighthouses, tapping maple trees, and playing Codenames…among other things. I can be fun, in my own way.

About a month ago I glanced out the window to see Abby slumping home and looking like she had lost her best friend (in reality she had gone to see if a neighbouring friend could play and no one was home, so basically the same thing to a 10-year-old). Before she walked through the door I decided to give her three options of things I would enjoy/tolerate:

  • Go for a walk (she really likes walking alone with me and, since her birthday is fast approaching, I figured she’d love the chance to plan every detail of her little party).
  • Play a few rounds of Codenames (I was 95% certain this would be the option she would choose).
  • Organize her room.

I was shocked when she said – immediately – that she wanted to work on her room.

While I have both kids pick up their rooms almost daily, I have to manage my expectations and respect the fact that the contents of their room are very sentimental and give them an element of independence and control they don’t yet have in other areas of their life.

So Abby’s room feels…overwhelming to me. One wall is covered in papers with homemade drawings. Another area by her desk has a “mask” station where she took little balls of sticky tack and affixed marbles and other colourful items to the wall to create hooks (2019 Elisabeth didn’t see 2020’s “mask wall” coming). It’s very creative but very, very cluttered (to me)!

But together we pared down her closet (two bags for consignment/hand-me-downs); we straightened and dusted her shelves, we rescued stray socks and papers from the vortex under her bed. And we talked the whole time.

It was certifiably enjoyable.

In fact, when we finished her room, Abby was so enthusiastic she insisted on organizing our (already organized) stash of dry/canned goods in the basement storage room.

It felt good to offer a range of choices – it made her feel like she had a real say in the itinerary of her day, but I also didn’t feel crushed by the weight of having to play school with a dozen Calico Critters with rhyming names that I’m supposed to remember.

And sometimes as a parent I have to remind myself: it’s okay to offer choices that make me happy too. I knew any of those three would be fun for Abby. But I was also stacking the deck in my favour. Instead of an open-ended “What do you want to do?” I was able to offer mutually agreeable options while allowing her a degree of independence with the final choice.

reset the mood with a comforting ritual

Recently, both kids arrived home from school grumpy. One child had bumped into a table right before getting on the bus rendering them tender in body and spirit. Another child had a soul-sucking Math test that had encroached on recess. It was cold and wet and…just one of those days.

Instead of trying to cheer everyone up with positive affirmations and a “let’s look on the bright side” pep talk – my natural inclination – I set right to work at making a batch of hot chocolate (unusual for an ordinary school day). While they sipped and decompressed I read a few books – I could sense they needed their space to lick literal and proverbial wounds. And then I gave them each 1 minute to share details about the worst part of their day. They had the floor for a limited period of time (negativity can spiral without boundaries) but got the primary grievances with teachers and immovable objects off their chests. Then I gave them another minute – each – to let us know about the best moment(s) of their day. By the time the final mini-marshmallow had been consumed, everyone seemed content and ready to move on with the afternoon.

Normally my tendency would be to ask about details immediately and try to help them solve their problem. But this time (and I suspect most days), hot chocolate, some read-aloud time, and then short stints where each child “had the floor” was a far better solution.

make life easier for future ME

I’ve heard a lot of self-help gurus preach the message of doing things now to improve our future reality. This could be prepping workout clothes the night before or setting out multivitamins by the coffee pot.

I had a very specific “What would make this easier for future me?” moment recently.

One Wednesday I had a very tight turnaround. I had promised the kids we’d go to the after-school skate at a local arena – our first time skating inside since the start of the pandemic (I used to do this twice weekly and “2022 Elisabeth” can’t believe this was such a regular part of our former routine). I had back-to-back work calls leading right up to our departure. I also knew with the timing of the bus, we were going to arrive late for the one-hour skating slot. Since I wanted to maximize their time on the ice, I thought: What can I do now to expedite the process later?

The best answer? Get their skates fully loosened.

If you’ve ever laced up kid’s skates, you know how long it can take to get the skates loose enough to get them on. So I took 2 minutes and loosened the laces such that the kids could simply slip on their skates independently when we arrived at the rink.

This felt like such a life coup.

And while I couldn’t volunteer with Levi’s class when they went skating (his FIRST extracurricular since starting school in the middle of a pandemic; both sad and exciting!), I made sure to fully loosen his skates. I hope it made some poor parent volunteer’s day to have one child fully ready to have their laces tied!


Lest you think I have this whole parenting thing figured out, I don’t. I have adult temper tantrums, raise my voice, apologize and then proceed to rant some more, and find parenting downright hard (because it is!).


Your turn. Any great parenting hacks to report? Any routine things you do to make life easier for your future self?

Header photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The Animals At The Zoo Must Be Fed (Or, Kid Lunchboxes)

I really, really, really like my kids. I also really, really, really like when my kids are in school.

But know the one thing that makes me most excited about in-service days or extended school breaks?

NOT HAVING TO MAKE LUNCHBOXES. Can I get an Amen?

I think I have a pretty minimal approach to packing lunchboxes (shocking), but it still takes time and effort every day.

After over 6 years of packing school lunches (the kids had hot meals provided for them at preschool), here is my current system.

I Stick to specific categories

Lunches include:

VEGGIES | (almost always raw, but if I send something like hot vegetable soup in a Thermos, I won’t include raw veggies on the side).

  • carrot sticks, broccoli, cucumber, green beans, baby tomatoes. I almost always have baby carrots on hand. One child prefers broccoli; the other tomatoes. I try to balance out preferences based on what’s on sale/seasonality (our neighbours, for example, give us loads of delicious tiny tomatoes each fall, so tomatoes feature heavily in September lunchboxes). Neither child likes snap peas, so those don’t end up in lunchboxes.

FRUIT | (75% of the time this is fresh; the rest of the time it is an unsweetened applesauce cup).

  • kiwi (the kids prefer kiwi with the peel left on, so this is so easy), apple slices, grapes (one child’s favourite), fresh berries (another child’s favourite, but they don’t always travel well), orange slices.

MAIN” COURSE | 9 days out of 10 this is a sandwich. Either ham/cheese/spinach, tuna/spinach, egg salad, or butter and jam. Sometimes I’ll send hummus and pita wedges. A few times a month I’ll send hot food in a Thermos. Originally I was aiming to do this once a week but the Thermos’ can be tricky to open, the food is never fully hot by the time they get to it, and leftovers can make a mess of their lunchbox if the lids don’t get secured properly. So I’ve mostly stopped trying, especially with soup. If we have leftover pasta or something that really holds together I sometimes send it along, but the kids prefer a small sandwich and hodge-podge of other items and it’s easier for me.

I used to send hard-boiled eggs regularly, but these tend to get quite messy if the kids take a bite at snack and then don’t finish it until lunch and egg yolk gets mixed up with carrots sticks and rice crackers. Yuck.

DESSERT | this is usually a small cookie. I used to make seed-and-date energy balls…but they’re just not as good as the nut-butter variety (we have a peanut-free school, which I think is mostly standard these days). Sometimes I send our go-to muffins. I never send anything overtly messy (i.e. no slices of cake with frosting)!

When Abby started school, I used to only send dessert on Fridays but I’ve mellowed with age and it’s a nice little boost in their lunchbox.

MISC | popcorn or crackers; sunflower or pumpkin seeds; individual packets of Nori, dried fruit (figs, dates, raisins), a granola bar.

WATER | Each child takes a full water bottle (insulated stainless steel so the water stays cold). No juice (ever) or milk (ever). Just water. They’re able to refill their water bottles at school as needed.

how do you package the lunches?

We have reusable (BPA-free) bags that are both adorable and functional and of a unique firmness. They can stand upright and are quite tricky to seal, but really protect the food within; I’ll use these for apple slices, popcorn, or other things that are hard to fit in a small container.

Carrot sticks, applesauce, sunflower seeds, a ham, cheese and spinach Brioche sandwich, popcorn and a chocolate cookie.
Tuna and spinach sandwich, grapes, clementine, carrot sticks, green beans, and tomatoes. There would have been some sort of cookie or muffin as well, and maybe a dish of rice crackers.

I use the bento-boxes from IKEA. I have two sets of these and they are one of my favourite things ever. They’re a bit of a nuisance to wash (and I wash them by hand), but they’re worth it. It is just so handy to have the separation for different items.

buying lunches

Abby did this a few times in earlier grades (typically on pizza day). It was a hassle; I had to send in money (the exact change) and it was never enough food. So I still had to pack a water bottle and snacks.

Then a few years ago our school switched to an online payment system so I have to log on and…I don’t know…sign over my soul to the school board? For someone that works on computers all day and has helped develop custom software…I tried to figure out the system once, failed miserably, and decided we just won’t buy lunches. I’m sure it’s not rocket science, but it felt akin to that level of complexity.

So Levi has never had a school lunch and I suspect he will continue to learn and survive. It would be convenient sometimes, but even school lunches require thought and effort (and snacks)…

*I’m sure there are lots of schools where the process is more streamlined. If I could just send my kids in with $5.50 to pick a sandwich off the menu, I’d be tempted. This is exactly how my high school cafeteria was set up; no pre-ordering. You just walked through the lunchline and picked out what you wanted. But even pre-COVID this wasn’t the way our school operated (I suspect this is GREAT for reducing food waste, so I’m not complaining).


And that’s it. When the kids come home from school they’re responsible for unpacking their bookbags, including taking all their lunch dishes out of lunchboxes. For a while we had things organized so the kids made their lunches one day a week but, honestly, I found it more work. I still had to make sure we had the right things in the right places and after a few times of siblings coming home complaining they hadn’t had enough food to eat…I was happy to reassume full responsibility. While I am all for independence, this just hasn’t been an area where I really want them taking the lead (yet). Laundry and emptying garbage cans on the other hand…


Your turn! Are you still packing lunchboxes for school-age kiddos? If so, any suggestions on how to kick things up a notch?

Header photo by S’well on Unsplash

Hard Days Can Have Happy Endings

The last Friday in February was an especially tough one.

John was out of the country, his return delayed by weather. Again (the same thing happened two weeks previous).

I was home. It was a snow day. Thus the kids were also home. Again. (I love my kids, really and truly, but they have been home SO, SO, SO much these last two years and there can be too much of a good thing.)

We did laundry and ate breakfast and put out the garbage and read books and generally set ourselves up for a good day. But I was not in the right headspace.

I’d had a migraine on Thursday. I woke up tired and grumpy. I had some difficult work calls looming that were going to require my full attention. I simply didn’t want to put on my “Mom” cap for another long day home alone (the kids had been off on Monday, too).

At 9:15 am I told the kids to go play quietly and promised videos around 10:00 am because I needed to prep for those meetings. I made the mistake of adding the disclaimer that I might put on a video as early as 9:45 am.

At precisely 9:45 am, a knock came on my door and the kids came in very enthusiastically (not even waiting for an Enter, which they are usually good at pausing for) looking for those videos I had promised.

My response was not pretty. I wanted – and needed – those extra 10 minutes in silence. I apologized for yelling (but then tacked on another little rant about needing alone time).

My boundaries were all justified and necessary, but my approach was flawed. I texted a friend and told her “I just need to get to bedtime.”


But really, I just needed to get to supper. I lit candles. I turned on twinkle lights. I heated up leftovers – Mac N’ Cheese and savory soup (comfort food at its best). We ate slowly. I spent time quizzing the kids on “big” words – a favourite new mealtime activity. We lingered after the food was gone.

At 7:15 pm my friend texted to congratulate me on reaching the bedtime hour; by this point the kids had made their way outside to sled on our little side hill with a friend.

I sat on my bed reading a book, listening to them laugh hysterically; the snow was still falling and the moon was full. I couldn’t have scripted a better ending to our day. They came in cold and wet and very happy and we made hot cocoa and lit the candles again. They hit balloons around the living room and I pumped music through the speakers. There was more laughing.


It was an idyllic evening if ever I saw one. But it took wading through a lot of rather unpleasant stuff to get there.

Hard days don’t always have happy endings. I know this. I’ve had lots of hard nights too…but sometimes what can feel like a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (thanks, Alexander), can end up being alright or even great.

And that’s a win in my books.

What about you; any recent days that started with a bad morning but morphed into a “happy-ending” sort of day?

Header photo by freestocks on Unsplash