February 19, 2014

Simple Steps: Make your own vanilla

Over the course of the last year, I've had to really prioritize my real food efforts. There's been times when I just couldn't handle the demands of four kids, household tasks, school commitments, work and Meili's medical & therapy appointments well enough to continue to do things like make my own ketchup. One of the toughest things about eating the way we do is the lack of quick, easy foods. For example, to have ranch dip for our veggies, I have to make my own mayonnaise (because the only ones available at the store are made with canola oil), combine it with sour cream (which thankfully I can get at the store), measure out all the spices, mix it together and let it chill for an hour.

Almost everything we eat requires a multi-step preparation process.
It's a lot of work, though overall, it's worth it most of the time. When something's gotta give, it's usually the ketchup, or the mayo, or homemade cereal. However, there are a few things that are SO easy and cost effective, it would be crazy NOT to do them. 

Making your own vanilla is nothing novel. There are a thousand other bloggers who have written about how to do this. Still, I'm going to share how I do it because it's working so well, and because if you're eating real food, chances are you use a LOT of vanilla since the foods you eat don't have added flavoring, so having a large amount on hand is a must.

First, let's look at what this helps us AVOID: 
(Definitely avoid artificial flavoring - it's exactly that - artificial! Don't eat it. Period.)

Tones "pure" vanilla extract - the cheapest one. $2.50/oz

See anything in there that seems out of place? 
Yep! Corn syrup. Someone please tell me why on earth you need corn syrup in vanilla?!? It's likely made with genetically modified corn, so now you've got added sugar and GMOs. 

Watkins brand "pure" vanilla extract - $2.65/oz

Glucose syrup = added sugar. Again, unnecessary.

Morton & Basset Pure vanilla extract - $3.40/oz

This one touts no added sugar, non-irradiated and gluten free - awesome!
But kind of pricey.

Moving on to the health food section….

Simply Organic - $2.50/oz
Singing Dog - $3.37/oz
Frontier - $2.25/oz

All the ingredients in these are easy. Water, alcohol, vanilla bean extractives. Nothing wrong with that. It really surprised me that the Simply Organic was the same price per ounce as the Tones. If I was going to buy this at the store, Simply Organic or Frontier would probably be my first choice. The only thing I'm curious about is that the alcohol content is not listed in either of these. Thirty-five percent alcohol is standard in most extracts (like all the ones I found) and it should not be less than that. Hopefully it isn't in these two. Premium vanillas typically have a higher alcohol content because alcohol extracts the flavor better than water. 

SO…..to make high quality vanilla, you just need some alcohol!

And vanilla beans, of course :)

My ingredients were: 
Bottom shelf vodka. You don't need to be fancy here. This was $11 on sale.
Vanilla beans. Purchased 1 pound of organically grown (though not certified organic) from a very reputable seller on ebay for $25 and split it with a friend = $12.50


I intended to make two quarts, so while you can do this all in one container, I wanted to try two different methods so I used two jars, which I already had.

You want to expose the inside of the bean to the alcohol to get maximum extraction. For the first jar, I took half the beans and sliced them down the center, lengthwise. A good knife is helpful here!

I added these to one jar.

They were a little bit tall, but I just smashed them down.

For the second jar, I sliced all the beans crosswise into smaller, one-inch segments.

They definitely fit better this way.

Next step is to add the vodka. You can also use rum, but Vodka was cheaper and seems to be the alcohol of choice for this project.

And that's it!
Put the lids on tightly and shake them up well.
Now the key is TIME.
For the vanilla to be properly extracted, I waited four months. Many people wait six, but since I had smaller jars I didn't need to wait as long. Store them in a cool, dry place and shake them up once a week or so. I kept them in my laundry room and shook them up when I did a load.

After four months, a visual comparison showed that the jar with the cut up pieces was much darker, so I started using that one first. 

At this point, we've made 64 ounces of vanilla for $23.50. That's about 37 cents per ounce!

New vodka added to the first jar
It's already crazy cheap, but it gets better.
After using half of the first jar, you can add more vodka.
Then put that one back to age and start on jar 2. When jar 2 is half empty, you can add more vodka, let it age, and bring jar 1 back out again. I've done this successfully with the rest of the second bottle of vodka (another $11), bringing my total cost to $34.50 for 128 oz = 27 cents/oz! (since the beans take up some space, the total useable vanilla is slightly less than 128 ounces, but it's still an amazing deal!)

Doing this, you should be able to have a continuous source of vanilla after the initial extraction period. When it seems like the vanilla is getting weak, simply start over with new beans.

You could even use fancy vodka if you feel like that would give you super-premium vanilla and it would still be a significantly better deal than anything you can buy in the store.

Simple, easy, high-quality and no additives. That's the best way to do real food!

February 8, 2014

The first fix!

Disclaimer: This is not now, nor will it EVER be, a blog about fashion. There are a lot of people who are gifted at making themselves and others look fabulous and I am NOT one of them!

So, have ya'll heard about this interesting little thing called "Stitch Fix?"

I hadn't, until a couple weeks ago. A mom who was in China the same time we were was raving about it, and she always looks adorable, so I thought I would check it out.

Here's how it works:
1. You fill out a comprehensive style profile - what you like, what you don't like, your sizes, your preferred price point, etc. You can even link a pinterest board of your favorite styles, if you have one.

2. A personal stylist evaluates your preferences and hand-selects five pieces specifically for you.

3. It's all sent directly to your doorstep. You can try on all the pieces at home, with other clothes you already have, and you send back what you don't want.

4. There's a $20 "styling fee" for the services but it counts as credit toward any purchases you make.

I was intrigued. If nothing else, it sounded like something fun to try, and it's still way cheaper than the gas it takes to get to my nearest mall.

I have 5 goals when it comes to picking out clothes:
1. Not look TERRIBLE.
Easier said than done. You'd be surprised at the amount of effort it takes me to find something that makes it look like I have even a hint of fashion knowledge. I really am almost completely clueless.

2. Not be cold.
For 6 months out of the year, my home is a tundra. Icy cold. I hate being cold. Hate it. Hate it.

3. Look semi-decent for my husband.
I mean, the poor guy does have to claim me and all. It's nice for him if I'm not still wearing a robe and slippers when he comes home.

4. Spend as little money as possible.
Seriously, I would buy all my clothes at Goodwill or our local consignment store if I could. But….

Here's the BIG problem: I am almost 6 feet tall.

5. Find something that fits.
My legs, arms and torso are crazy long. 99.9% of items in any given store will NOT fit me.
So, I figured if I gave Stitch Fix a shot and they were able to produce items that actually fit, it might really be worth it.

Here's what they sent me:
Pardon my awkwardness in front of a camera. Even if your hubby is taking the pics, it's still weird.

The first shirt was thermal henley by Tart. You can't tell in the picture, but it has a shimmery gold look all over. It was actually quite gorgeous, for a henley.

They also send you with this handy little card, to show a couple ways you can wear your items:

I actually had enough in my closet to almost replicate the one on the left:

Nevertheless, even though the sleeves were long enough, the rest of it was not. It barely touched the top of my jeans. Goal # 5 FAIL. It went back.

Next was a really great pair of jeans:

I actually loved these - Sold Design Lab Sara jeans. They were made out of a super-stretchy, jegging-like denim material, but you couldn't tell at all, and they were a very dark denim, which I love. They also had a 34" inseam, which is the minimum I can wear. Sadly, they were $118. Goal #4 FAIL. I'm pretty sure I didn't choose that price point for jeans, but maybe the options were limited in long inseams. Either way, unless they are the world's most amazing jeans, that's too much.

The next item was my favorite:

The Under Skies chevron tunic. Perfect solution for us tall girls. Seriously, I don't know why I don't own any tunics! It was long enough, came with a belt to make it look more fitted, and was a gorgeous fun print and color. I don't know if I would have picked it out for myself, but I'm glad Stitch Fix did - this one was a keeper. Plus, I'd had this fun ring for along time but don't have much to wear it with:

I also liked how the sides came up a little. Kind of made it feel like the length of my legs flowed upward rather than being "chopped off" by a straight hemline.

Jon approved and although it wasn't super-cheap, I think it will be a versatile piece I can wear a lot. WIN.

The RD Style drape front cardigan:

Ugh. I do NOT like this drape-front cardigan craze. I like the color and fabric, and the sleeves were long enough. I even like the style! But these just.do.not. look good on me. They make me look totally shapeless. Goal #1 FAIL.

Nope. Not a fan.
It went back.

Last was a cute pair of earrings:

I didn't even try these on because I knew they'd be going back. They were $28, and when it comes to jewelry, I'm a cheap-as-it-gets kind of girl. Like more than $5 on anything (except maybe a huge statement necklace) is too much. I will request no more jewelry if I do another Stitch Fix.

All-in-all, it was a really fun thing to try, and absolutely love the chevron tunic. I've heard from others that they get better and better at determining your style as you give them feedback about each Fix.

Would I do it again? Yes, I definitely would, but it might be more of a "special occasion" kind of treat for me. Maybe once a season? They also have a great referral program, so if any of your friends try, you get a little credit for your next fix :)

Are you ready to try? Get your stitch fix HERE!

Have fun!

February 5, 2014

How to get your kids to READ!

We had our three biological children all in the short span of three and a half years. Our oldest two are just over 16 months apart and our second child was a bit….difficult. Or, a lot difficult. I often wondered how someone so small could conspire to so perfectly interrupt my sleep the very minute after I drifted off. I honestly don't even remember much about her childhood because I was a total zombie for the first 18 months of it. Then magically, at 18 months, she started sleeping. All night. Every night.

And right about then, I found out I was pregnant. 

Needless to say, there were lots of things I didn't get accomplished during those years. One of them, one of my biggest regrets as a parent, is that I didn't read them more books. Don't get me wrong, we did read books, but it was all too often interrupted by a diaper that needed to be changed, a toddler who was hungry, or me falling asleep because I hadn't slept more than 2 hours in a row for months. I remember my mom reading piles and piles of books to us as kids, but that just didn't seem to happen much for my children.

I honestly thought I was doomed to have kids who hate to read.

When our oldest, in second grade, showed pretty much zero interest in reading, we decided we needed to take some action. And now, he's a crazy, reading machine!

Here's what worked for us:

1. Find the right books
I listed this one first because I think it's the most important. Just like adults, kids don't want to read about something they aren't interested in. We started out with shorter books - mostly about animals they liked. Luckily, our library has a pretty good collection of animal books and you usually find a book about specific ones. When they get a little older and move on to chapter books they read on their own, we search online for a series about topics they're interested in, or ask our local children's librarian, who has given me some great suggestions.

Once we find a book or a series we like, we often visit this site:

You can enter which books you like and it will make suggestions for other good reads!

2. Make reading time special
We tried to make reading time a "treat" by allowing our kids to read instead of going to bed. It's a great way for them to wind down for the evening and gives us more quiet time as well. We set them up with good reading lights by their beds and they will happily go to bed by 8:00 if it means they can stay up reading until 9:00. (You don't have to tell them that you adjust their bedtime to account for the hour of reading ;) )

3. Create the right environment
Homes that constantly have a TV on will constantly have kids watching it. We have fought the battle and waged a major war against the screens! I will be the first to stay that it doesn't work all the time, but significant progress has been made. We could not stay on top of who had how many minutes of screen time on which device and whose got taken away as punishment and so and so was playing the iPad but so and so was just watching, and can I play this? can I play that? We were DONE. We now have no screens on in our house Monday - Thursday. None. No TV, no computer, iPad, iPod, DS, whatever. When they know it's not an option, they gravitate toward other things - like their books.

We also don't allow them to watch endless movies in car trips. They alternate between movies and listening to a book on CD. It's not exactly like reading, but it does get their imaginations going.

4. Set a good example
You knew this was coming, didn't you? Mom's and Dad's who have their faces buried in their smartphones all day can't expect their kids not to want to do the same. If I'm honest with myself, I have to admit this is probably the hardest one to do. But just do it. Just put the iPhone down!

This is a little bit harder if you read on your tablet. But kids are pretty smart - let them see what you're doing - they'll quickly figure out the difference between reading a good book and thumbing around on Facebook. Or, just go old-school like me and use the ones made from real paper.

Our current reads: mine are the paperbacks, Jon's is the digital (written by a high school classmate of his!)

5. Make it fun
There are a lot of ways this could be accomplished, but for us, the AR (accelerated reader) system they use at school has been perfectly adequate. Our kids LOVE trying to rack up AR points and hit their next goal, get their next prize, or help earn the next classroom party. Reward charts at home would make an easy substitute if your child isn't inspired by the AR program, just cater the rewards to your individual child.

Honestly, writing a parenting post is a little out of my element. I have teacher friends and super-mom friends who are WAY more qualified to suggest tips than I am. But, this is one thing that has actually worked for us, so take that for what's it's worth and get those kiddos reading!

February 1, 2014

Just a small setback...

When we met Meili in China, she weighed a mere 19 pounds. 
Nineteen pounds...at 33 months old. 

Of course, there were about a million things to do and a million emotions to go with them on that first day, but high on the priority list was getting some nutrition into her and start working on weight gain. I felt like if anyone knew how to put weight on a child, I would. Even in China, where we were extremely limited by her inability to chew and our lack of access to healthy foods, I was stirring butter packets into oatmeal and picking the soft, shredded meat out of all the steam buns in the hotel restaurant. 

By the time we came home, she was up to 20 pounds.

Back in the US, I was sure her weight would skyrocket when I was able to add coconut oil, avocados, fresh meat, whole milk yogurt, eggs and such to the equation. Unfortunately, for a child who was never able to move farther than 3 feet across her crib, it turns out running around all day burns a LOT of calories! Putting on weight was harder than we thought.

Since then, we've visited with a dietician (who amazingly approved of everything I was doing and promoted REAL foods and did NOT try to make me use PediaSure (Thank goodness! Have you ever looked at the ingredients in there?!?)) and did a daily calorie count. It turns out that if I do everything I can possibly do in a given day to push healthy fat, protein, fruits and vegetables, and I actually get her to eat it all (which means I am feeding her constantly almost all day), we just barely get the required 1200 calories in her. 

The problem is, most days, she just will not eat that much. She had been used to being hungry all.the.time. She swallowed air constantly for the first three months we were home (we think) to fill her tummy. Now that she can eat, she doesn't know how to fill herself up. A lot of adopted kids go to the opposite extreme and eat anything they can find. Meili just eats until she's bored or not starving anymore. 

Despite this, we had managed to get her up to 24 pounds. 
That is, until this happened:

She had had a cough that seemed to be getting worse. Of course, on a Friday at 4:55PM, I thought it was starting to sound bad enough that we should take her in. Our city has urgent care every evening except Friday.

We held off until Sunday night when after several solid hours of coughing and no sleep for three nights, we decided that an ER visit was inevitable. Since her twice-yearly heart check visits cause us to spend our insurance max-out-of-pocket anyway, we might as well start off the new insurance year with a bang, right? ;)

We knew she was pretty sick, but we were pretty surprised when they admitted her with a severe case of RSV. 

She hadn't eaten anything in the previous 3+ days and I had been everything I could to keep her drinking. Apparently, it wasn't enough. She was very dehydrated.

And, at admission, she weighed in at just over 21 pounds :(
All that hard work, down the drain! We knew she wasn't in any shape to start eating any time soon either.

Two full days later, on Tuesday afternoon, her appetite came back. Well, her appetite for steak fries. Normally, I wouldn't make a meal out of that type of food, but she kept eating so I kept feeding!

Steak fries, french fries and a few mandarin oranges are all she ate that day, but it was enough for them to decide she functioning well enough to go home.

The effects of the RSV lasted a good two weeks. Just five days ago I noticed her appetite was back to "normal" for the first time since the hospital visit. And four days ago a post-hospital check-up with her doctor confirmed we were back up to 24 pounds. 

Unfortunately, 24 pounds is still not a great weight for an almost four year old. And we're still adding as much fat and protein as we can sneak into her food. She's even been known to eat spoonfuls of coconut oil! In order to be in the 1st percentile on the growth chart, she needs to weigh 27 pounds by her fourth birthday.

Now, I'm not one to care about charts, especially one that lumps every child on the planet into one set of measurements, but I do think it's a good goal. She needs to grow, and we'd really like to see some accelerated growth soon, especially to make up for the month we lost with the RSV. So if, after almost one year, you're still following our story and still praying for Meili, please pray that she will continue to eat well and learn how to eat as much as she needs, not just enough to get rid of the empty feeling. 

Food issues can be tough, really tough, for many, many adopted kids. The sooner we can get her on the right track now, the better chance we'll have for healthy food relationships in the future.