Sunday, February 7, 2016

Why I love to make soup

Whenever I'm in doubt as to what to make for dinner, the answer is usually soup. Do you wonder why?

Image: oil painting of soup pot and vegetables, by Pat Meier-Johnson. 

It's easy. All you have to do is chop up some vegetables and throw them into a pot - carrots, potatoes, onions, zucchini, whatever you have. I usually add a cup of red lentils for thick soup, or quinoa, or some pearl barley and the bony parts of a chicken (wings, back, neck).

It's economical. You get to use up all sorts of odds and ends you wouldn't know what to do with otherwise - a squishy tomato, the stem of a cauliflower, a slightly wilted sprig of celery, or, as I already mentioned, the bony parts of a chicken - and make a whole meal out of it. And usually you also get plenty of leftovers for tomorrow's lunch. 

It's efficient. Once you throw everything into the pot, you put it on the stove and let it simmer, stirring occasionally - and that's it. Minimal work, great outcome.

It's versatile. You don't need to follow any recipe. For me, soup is always some veggies, hardly matters which, and something to make it thicker - lentils, oats, barley, quinoa, rice, noodles or couscous. 

It makes for a cozy home. Soup cooking on the stove in winter makes the kitchen warmer and sends a delicious smell all over the house. 

It's healthful. Homemade soup is one of the most digestible foods there is. It's great at a time of the flu (especially chicken soup), upset stomachs, upset spirits or upset minds. 

So pull out a nice big pot and cook some healthy, delicious soup for all the family. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The eldest daughter

I see her in almost every large family that happens to have a daughter as their first-born child. She is mature and well-spoken for her age. She is kind and responsible, efficient and organized. She takes on the task of being her mother's helper, folding laundry, washing dishes and watching over younger siblings. 

She feels the importance of her position in the family, and enjoys the near-adult status this gives her, very early on. At the age of 12, she knows perfectly well how to clean a house, iron a shirt, diaper a baby and bake an excellent challah. 

This girl is a blessing to her parents, and doubtless she is acquiring many important skills that will help her in her future home. However, there is also a risk - a risk that the mother, especially the mother of an extra-large family with all its burdens and chores, will come to rely on the eldest daughter too much and too early. 

Now, I think it's excellent training for adulthood to give children age-appropriate responsibilities. My daughters know they are in charge of tidying up their room. They know they are responsible for keeping important art work stashed in appropriate files. They realize that if they take a book to read or look at, they have to return it to its proper place later. 

So what do I mean, exactly, when I talk of relying on the eldest daughter too much? How early is too early? Often the answer isn't clear-cut. But I believe it is undesirable when:

- an eldest daughter has very limited time for age-appropriate activities, such as playing, reading for pleasure, pursuing hobbies, or even simply quiet time for reflection and dreaming, because household chores and childcare are being heaped upon her. 

- household chores and taking care of younger siblings are hampering a girl's academic success (as in, an important math assignment goes undone because the young girl has to cook dinner for the family).

- a pattern is created when the eldest girl is expected to always act more mature and responsible than her siblings, even taking age difference into account. As in, when she was 10 she was expected to do the dishes every night, but when her younger sister reaches 10 years, no such responsibility is given her. 

- the eldest daughter is expected to take up the slack when her siblings shift away from responsibility  - as in, she picks up after her siblings, sorts their laundry, etc, even when they are developmentally capable of doing these things for themselves. 

A child is a child, and needs time to be a child, even if she is the eldest of numerous children. This is so very, very important to remember, even though it's incredibly tempting to allow a girl who is kind, obedient, and responsible to take up the lion's share of household chores. 

Note: I am specifically talking about girls, because it happens more often that a daughter becomes a mother's helper. However, I'm not saying it can't happen that an older boy is given a disproportionate number of chores compared to his older siblings. 

Naturally, the older children will pitch in and help more often and more efficiently than younger children. But in a well-functioning family, everyone does their share. Otherwise it's an unfair and unhealthy pattern. It is unfair to the child who gets heaped up with too many chores, and it's unfair to the other children, who grow up thinking it's OK to let others work for them. 

I have decided to write about it after observing several families who have (without even noticing it, I am sure) fallen into such a pattern, of heaping up too much responsibility on the eldest daughter (or daughters), as well as talking to several women who were elder daughters in large families, and report feeling overwhelmed, burdened, even taken advantage of, as they were growing up. This, later on, made them delay marriage and limit their number of children - that is, after growing up in a large family, they didn't want a large family for themselves.

In my own home, I feel I have the budding personality of just such a girl - mature, eager to help, responsible. That's fantastic, but when Shira (age 7) offers to pick up after her younger sister, or mop up somebody else's spills, I say no. No, because it isn't fair or just to have her do it, when everyone should do what they reasonably can to pitch in and keep the home running smoothly. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Lessons from our first home

We purchased our first home eight years ago, just before we were married (I can hardly believe I've really been married this long!). It was a small, modest two-bedroom house. The total space was 70 sq.m., and some of it was taken up by a corridor and a utility room, so the actual living space was a lot less. The kitchen was old and crumbling. The yard was a blanket-sized space in front of the house, and another such space at the back, most of it taken up by a clothesline. It was located in a street of other such houses all squeezed in close (too close) together.

Still, we were excited, because this was our own home, and we could afford to buy it outright, without a mortgage. It wasn't perfect, but we made the most of it. There were great big grape vines at the back of the house, and they produced the sweetest grapes I've ever tasted, with skins so thin they nearly popped in the mouth on their own. We planted things in the little garden. We even built a tiny chicken coop for our first-ever chicks.

A bird on that old grape vine. How I loved it.

Because we were operating on such a tight budget at first, we moved in without making any improvements to the house, thinking we'd do that later, when there's more money (it never happened; three years later, we moved to a different neighborhood). Usually I'm all for being frugal and doing without what you can't afford, but there are some things I wish we had splurged on, things that are a lot more convenient to do before you've moved in, and which cost very little, compared to buying a house, such as:

- Painting the walls - goes without explanation. The walls in our house were rather dark which, together with the little space, gave a feeling of being cramped.

- Changing the locks - again, doesn't cost much and provides a lot more security.

- Installing a fence - since our neighbors were so close to us, having a fence would have given us a lot more privacy.

- Changing the kitchen cabinet doors - they were really crummy, and this made me feel a little dejected every time I went into the kitchen.

- Fixing water damage - the house foundations weren't high enough to give protection from floods and rain, and there was quite a bit of damp and mold we figured we'd deal with later, but never have.

One thing we never compromised on, wherever we lived, is having a good security system. Since we live in the Shomron, we soberly face the fact that we must be concerned about more than robbers. Thankfully, through my husband's connections we were able to get excellent security cameras (for free), and in our last two homes we've had dogs as well. In the past we also got motion detectors, but these cause a lot of false alarms when you live in an area with roaming wild animals such as wild boar and deer. The combination of security cam + good guard dog is the best, I think. 

If and when we go to a new home again, I hope we remember these little lessons, and make our home as nice and comfortable for our family, with as little inconvenience as possible, before we move in. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

A quiet, simple life

My friend Leah shared this fabulous article with me. Judging from the number of comments, it's insanely popular, and for good reason. If you haven't read it yet, do, and I know you'll be blessed, as I have been.

Just like this lady, I have often anxiously asked myself: is this enough? Am I enough? And if you are asking yourself this question, know that the answer should be yes. Of course, we should all try and improve, especially as it concerns our relationship with G-d and with our loved ones. But on a very primary, basic, fundamental level it is important to remember that we were made by an Almighty G-d who made us, knows us, and loves us - just as we are, not as we can (maybe) be at some point in the future.

"What if I am not cut out for the frantic pace of this society and cannot even begin to keep up. And see so many others with what appears to be boundless energy and stamina but know that I need tons of solitude and calm, an abundance of rest, and swaths of unscheduled time in order to be healthy. Body, Spirit, Soul healthy. Am I enough?"

"What if I embrace my limitations and stop railing against them. Make peace with who I am and what I need and honor your right to do the same. Accept that all I really want is a small, slow, simple life. A mediocre life. A beautiful, quiet, gentle life. I think it is enough."

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Commitment to healthier cooking

When I graduated with a degree in nutrition from one of the best universities in the country, I knew a great deal about enzymes, hormones, and dietary regimes for various ailments, from diabetes to kidney dysfunction - but next to nothing on how to make healthier choices for simple homemade food cooked for basically healthy people.

Sure, I knew the basics - avoid over-processed junk, eat plenty of fruit and veggies, reduce sugar and salt. But I didn't internalize the importance of what comes into the process of making food: organic vs commercially grown produce, pasture-raised eggs and meat vs animals raised in crowded feedlots. I wasn't fully aware of the detrimental effects of commercially processed oils, or even sugar.

Fast forward a few years. I'm pregnant with my second child, and a friend sends me the wonderful book Nourishing Traditions. I gobble it up, fascinated. Some things I disagree with, but so many more make perfect sense. I discover a wealth of information about the diversity of diet and traditional food preparation techniques. My horizons are expanded, but I'm also discouraged. This is too much for a family who love their triple chocolate ice-cream and depend on the convenience of plastic white bread.

Slowly, bit by bit, I become convicted that health is a treasure in the sense that it makes everything else possible, and that it is my job, as the cook of the family, to make the most effort towards preserving and enhancing health. My means are ridiculously inadequate. I happen to be married to a man who isn't exactly on the same page; who doesn't just think that whole grains are nothing more than a nutritional fad, but who requests desserts, foods fried in large quantities of unhealthy oil, etc.

I yearn to exchange all the junk for an invigorating array of fruit and vegetables, for high-quality natural oils and whole flours, and excellent fresh meat, fish and dairy products. I yearn to remove all the temptations from us. I do so wish I could be the one who does the shopping, but unfortunately, this isn't practical.

More recently, reading Sugar Blues made me more mindful of the effect sugar has on people, especially children. It's actually chilling. Intelligent people lose all rational thought and consume foul junk like candy and soft drinks as if those were manna from heaven.

So, what do I do? I cook. I cook for my family. The ingredients are often inferior, but here's what I do:

I cut down on desserts. I've realized that I can spend hours working on a fancy layered cake, lovingly decorating it, and what I'm really doing is investing my time in a poison bomb that is detrimental to my family's health, because I don't have the whole flour, high-quality eggs (at this season), healthy oils and natural sweeteners that would make such a dessert even somewhat more nutritious than its store-bought equivalent. So, if I can't make a dessert or a treat that isn't an anti-nutrient, I don't make it at all. 

Of course, this has a downside, being that my husband, if he sees I've stopped making sweet treats, buys them at the store instead. Then he introduces something that is even more loaded with sugar and unhealthy oils than what I would have made at home. But my protest, in refusing to make such things, creates an echo that really serves to convince my family, bit by bit.

Same goes for white bread. Making bread from scratch is time-consuming, and I've repeatedly told my husband I don't see the sense in doing it if I end up with a product that, nutritionally speaking, is only slightly better than what I can buy at the store (though it does taste better). So, in the past weeks we've been experimenting with slow-rise breads made partially of whole grain (because my husband still claims that bread made entirely of whole grain is too dense for him). 

Of course, I'm doing my best in cooking a variety of real food - soups, stews, casseroles, quiches, meat, fish, and eggs-based stuff. In short, I'm doing the best I can with what I have, at this moment. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Shower power

My favorite time to have a shower is just before bedtime, so I can get into my cozy warm pajamas and thick socks at once. It's also practical to bathe kids after supper, once they've finished getting dirty for the day.  Lately, however, I was forced to re-evaluate this practice, due to us living in an area with plenty of power shortages in winter.

In Israel, most houses heat water using solar energy. Of course, for this to be efficient, you need to have plenty of sunlight. Israel is a sunny country, but there are those days/weeks in winter which are cloudy, rainy or even (in some areas) snowy. Also, days are shorter in winter so you have fewer hours of sunlight, and the water might get cold again before you shower. Then you need to turn on the water heater. Even if you don't mind the extra expense, it's not an option if there's a power shortage like we had this week.

So here's our new strategy: if there's a sunny day and our solar heating provides plenty of hot water, I take advantage of it while I can and we all take showers during the day or right after sunset, before the water gets cold.

An additional bonus of taking daytime showers or baths is that we don't need to waste electricity on heating the bathroom itself, or at least we don't need to heat it as much, because it's a lot warmer than it is in the evening.

I've also come to the conclusion that it's OK for kids not to take showers every day in winter. It's quite enough if their hands and faces are clean. For the baby, I prepare a pail of hot water (which can be heated on the gas stove) to wash his tushy as needed.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Educational attitudes

For a long time, I've felt that unschooling is the very thing for each and every child of every age; I've literally felt guilty every time I tried to teach reading or math, even if my children responded well, and doubly so if they bristled. After writing this post, and engaging in a very interesting discussion in the comments, I went through a process of in-depth introspection which convinced me that:

- It's quite alright and, in fact, advisable to actively teach children older than 6 to read, write and count.

- It's quite alright to gently but firmly enforce discipline in homeschooling, just as in other areas of home life (chores, meal times, times of visiting friends, etc).

- I'm not a bad parent if I sometimes make my children do things they don't like. I will occasionally encounter tears, tantrums, whining, and complaints, and my confidence as a parent should not be undermined by that. I don't need to be afraid that they will hate me for setting some rules, on the contrary (as long as it is all done with good intentions and a loving spirit). 

- I'm not destroying spontaneous learning or my children's interests/hobbies/curiosity if I introduce some structured learning into our day. The total of the basic subjects (spelling, reading, math) I aim to cover each day takes approximately two hours, spread through the morning: for example, an hour of math after breakfast, then a break and mid-morning snack, and another hour of writing/spelling before lunch. We don't have homework. So this still leaves plenty of time for the children to pursue their interests, do crafts, play outside, read, write, draw or look at picture books, meet friends, and so on.

I am still a big proponent of plenty of quiet free time, especially exposure to nature, for each child, every day. When I say "free time", I don't mean sitting in front of the TV or computer, naturally, but anything that stimulates curiosity, creativity and imagination: reading, crafts, dress-up, exploring the outdoors, etc. 

I have made a quiet resolution that I will correct my daughter's written work only during "school time", but not when she shows me a story she had written for her own and her sister's amusement (unless she specifically asks me to check her spelling). I believe that a child who perhaps struggles a little with spelling at this point, but who loves to write and does it all the time, eventually will become a better writer, with a richer language, than a child who does everything in a perfectly neat and orderly way, but only as a school exercise.  

This need for free time and unstructured play is felt by me especially strongly in the winter days, which are so short. I see school children coming home when the best part of the day is already gone - barely two hours left before sunset, when it gets too cold to be out. The children, as young as 6, are already so bogged down with homework that one of my daughters' friends told us last week she might not be able to attend the birthday party at our house because she has so much homework. This, I believe, is tragic. Surely little children deserve better balance.