Napping … With No Regrets!

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by Nicole

It’s taken me years to publicly admit this but here goes: I’m a napper. That’s right. Almost every day, at some point between 1 and 3 p.m., I sneak off and lie down for an hour of delicious, refreshing sleep.

In our go-go culture, where busyness is often viewed as a badge of honor, my nap habit sometimes feels like a moral failing. I have had friends and acquaintances who–upon hearing of my snoozes–offer remarks such as, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly rest during the day, I just have too much going on,” or “You’re so fortunate that you can find time to relax.” As if I’m lying around dozing and eating bon-bons all day.

True, I don’t work a full-time office job. But I get up before five a.m. and with work, kids, pets, husband, volunteering at school and keeping my household running, I barely sit down. Fast forward to three p.m., and I’m on the go again, supervising homework, more volunteering at school and church, and feeding and chauffeuring children ‘til well past 9 o’clock at night. Suffice it say, I’m no slacker. And I need to nap…with no apologies.

It turns out I’m not alone. Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bill Clinton and Salvador Dali (imagine his dreams!) were all devoted nappers. And study after study extols the benefits of a brief nap. (more…)

A Valentine for Your Heart: Popcorn, Plain or Fancy White Chocolate Peppermint Popcorn Crunch

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Over the years, Valentine’s Day has had lots of different meanings for me: stacks of colorful cards in tiny envelopes from my elementary school classmates; pink and red carnations sent back and forth among my high school friends; flowers and chocolate from my hubby in the pre-kid years; and, later, family dinners where the five of us exchange cards before settling down to a movie or board game.

Three years ago, however, February 14th took on an entirely different significance; I spent the day in the hospital with my Dad, who was recovering from a quintuple bypass. Every time I tell his story, I always note that he’s always eaten healthfully, exercised every day and maintained a weight that would make a high-school athlete envious. But a routine EKG and subsequent catheterization showed that he’d experienced a heart attack and not even realized it, and was walking around with five mostly blocked arteries and one that had failed altogether.

Surgery was his best option, and despite a rough recovery he came through it like a champ, probably largely due to his excellent health habits. That’s when Valentine’s Day changed for me–again–to become a day to remember not only my dad’s close call, but to think about heart health in general.

I’m not alone in thinking February is a most fitting time to focus on the heart. That’s why, by order of presidential proclamation, it has been named American Heart Month. It’s an opportunity to learn more about heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States, and—most importantly—how to recognize and prevent it. February 6 is also National Wear Red Day, which focuses specifically on heart disease in women, the symptoms of which are often overlooked.

The Centers for Disease Control offers a basic plan for prevention of heart disease on its web site, outlining simple steps and changes that can lower risk. These include managing blood pressure and cholesterol; exercising; limiting alcohol and salt; and eating a healthy diet low in saturated and trans fats and high in fiber.

As I learned from my dad, genetics also plays a big role in heart disease. However, I’m doing everything I can to reduce my risk. And while that may mean limiting the Valentine’s Day chocolate, I don’t have to give up one of my favorite snacks: popcorn. That’s because popcorn is a whole grain that contains fiber and is naturally low in fat and cholesterol. And air-poppped popcorn contains only 31 calories a cup.

I also use popcorn in my recipes on those special occasions when I’m ready to indulge in something sweet. This White Chocolate Popcorn Crunch is easy to make, with a satisfying bite that does justice to its name.

White Chocolate Popcorn Crunch
Yield: 1 pound

Ingredients
5 cups popped popcorn
1/2 cup dried sweetened cranberries
1/2 cup sliced almonds
12 ounces white chocolate baking chips, chopped white chocolate or white candy coating
1-2 tablespoons vegetable shortening

Directions:

  1. Cover a baking pan with foil or wax paper; set aside. Place popcorn, cranberries and almonds in a large bowl; set aside.
  2. Melt chocolate in a double boiler over barely simmering water, stirring until smooth OR melt according to package directions. (If chocolate is not smooth after melting, , stir in 1-2 tablespoons shortening until mixture is smooth and loose enough to coat popcorn.)
  3. Pour chocolate mixture over popcorn mixture and stir to coat.
  4. Spread onto prepared pan; allow to cool completely.
  5. When chocolate is cooled and set, break into chunks for serving.
  6. Store in an air-tight container at room temperature.

 

Variation:

White Chocolate Peppermint Popcorn Crunch:
• Omit cranberries and almonds.
• Stir in 1 cup crushed hard candy peppermints after chocolate is melted.

Big Snacks for the Big Game (on a Big TV): Blazing Buffalo Ranch Popcorn & Sweet and Salty Popcorn Party Mix

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We try to avoid gender stereotypes in our family…boys and girls of all ages play with building toys, love science, compete in sports, make crafts and bake. That said, there’s one area where my hubby exhibits some stereotypically male behavior: love for his big-screen television.

To be fair, the guy spends almost no money on himself. He wears his sneakers until they have holes in them (ditto for his jeans); drives at ten-year-old car; and has been known to duct tape a broken snow shovel. And it’s not that he’s cheap…in fact, he’s one of the most generous people I know. He’s just largely immune to the lure of material goods.

Except for the TV.

I have to give him credit. When flat-panel plasma TVs burst onto the scene more than a decade ago, he held off. The technology was new and the sets were heavy. With the advent of LCD, his resolve was tested even further, particularly because he’s a die-hard football fan who faithfully watches three games every Sunday and one each on Monday and Thursday nights.

Finally, about seven years ago, he relented and treated himself to a 40-inch state-of-the-art TV. I’ll never forget the first year we had it: on the Sunday of the Big Game, our three-year-old daughter flounced into the room just before the coin toss, grabbed the remote and changed the channel, saying, “Daddy, now let’s watch ponies!” My poor husband. That may have been the last time I heard him tell that girl “No.”

Our set has served us well over time but lately it’s seemed…kind of small. And I don’t think our family room is expanding. I’ve also noticed that whenever there’s a big sporting event, my husband tends to go to one of his friends’ houses to watch on their (much bigger) TV.

So this time, I relented. Last week, I accompanied him to the big box electronics store where he and a passel of other men stood in front of a wall of LED’s, agog at the offerings. My only requirement was a price cap (easy because the costs have plummeted), and the stipulation that the TV not be larger than our eighth grader (a challenge).

I have to say, the new set looks pretty great. It’s vivid, simple to use and nice and big. Even a movie theater purist such as I can see that it will do justice to some of my favorite silver screen epics. Best of all, this year, my hubby will be firmly planted on his own couch for the Big Game, hosting his friends for a change. Now if I can only get him to spring for a new pair of jeans….

Feeding a gang for the Big Game can be easy and economical with these tasty, crowd-pleasing popcorn recipes.

Blazing Buffalo Ranch Seasoning Mix for Popcorn
Yield: about 2 tablespoons seasoning mix

Ingredients
1 tablespoon ranch dressing or dip mix (from a 1 ounce package)
1 tablespoon seafood spice mix (or celery salt)
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon powdered sugar (or sugar)
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon vegetable oil
6 quarts popped popcorn
Cooking spray, optional

Directions:

  1. In a small bowl, blend ranch dressing mix, spice mix, garlic powder, powdered sugar and cayenne pepper. Sprinkle with vegetable oil and blend until well incorporated.
  2. Place popcorn in a serving bowl and spray lightly with cooking spray. Sprinkle seasoning mix over popcorn to taste and toss. Store leftover seasoning mix in an airtight container for future use.

Sweet and Salty Popcorn Party Mix
Yield: 14 cups

Ingredients:
10 cups popped popcorn
2 cups miniature pretzel twists (or another small pretzel shape)
1 cup pecans
1 cup peanuts
2 cups rice, wheat or corn cereal squares
1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Place popcorn, pretzels, pecans, peanuts and cereal in a very large bowl; set aside.
  2. Heat butter, brown sugar and corn syrup in a medium saucepan. Stir mixture over medium heat until it begins to boil. Boil 3 minutes without stirring. Remove from heat and stir in baking soda (mixture will foam).
  3. Pour syrup over popcorn mixture in bowl and stir until evenly coated. Pour mixture onto a large, rimmed baking sheet or roasting pan. Bake 30 minutes, stirring twice during baking time. Stir mixture a few times as it cools on baking sheet. Store in an airtight container.

Shaking up the Lunch Routine: Popcorn with Toppings

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My daughter is a pretty low-maintenance kid. As the baby of our family and younger sister to two brothers, she’s developed a fine knack for going with the flow.

Except when it comes to school lunch–for which she is unusually demanding.

A little background: For years, we were a “hot lunch” family. Our oldest son was a picky eater who declined almost any food with texture. School lunch, offered to him as a form of therapy in preschool, was a fantastic way to expand his palate. The positive experience of trying new foods with peers made him far more willing to try them at home. By the time this guy hit elementary school he was a hot lunch pro, so we kept it up for him and, in turn, his little brother. Our school district served relatively healthful lunches and, with younger children at home, I was only too happy to be relieved of the chore of packing lunch.

When my daughter started kindergarten, however, I noticed a few things. First, paying for three school lunches was getting pricey. I knew I could do it more affordably myself. Moreover, a few visits to the school cafeteria showed me that the children in the lunch line were often rushing to eat and sometimes not finishing their food. I wanted my kids to be able to eat slowly, enjoy their lunches and socialize with their friends.

So I switched to packing lunches. My offerings may have been a bit routine–sandwiches, fruit, carrots, pretzels, yogurts, cheese sticks and the like—but there were no major complaints. Until my daughter started declining sandwiches and asking for a variety of cut up veggies and hummus in separate containers; soups, pastas or macaroni and cheese in her brother’s Boy Scout thermos with the spoon in the lid; five-layer Mexican dip with warm tortillas; smoothies; and elaborate salads with dressing on the side to prevent sogginess. Of course, I was happy that my girl had found a taste for different kinds of foods, but keeping the hot foods hot and the cold foods cold and everything separated and packed appropriately was a LOT of work.

And then I realized: it wasn’t about the food. It was about the accessories. The girl is obsessed with thermoses, assorted, plastic containers, hot and cold packs, bento boxes and lunch totes of all varieties. She collects them the way other girls collect headbands or shoes. She adores the ritual of bringing lunch in multiple containers, assembling it at the table, and nesting the empty boxes together afterwards. Last week she had so many containers that she carried her lunch in a shopping bag.

Time being tight—and with three lunches to make—I can’t always accommodate her requests. Happily she’s started to make her own lunches, and a couple times a week I’ll indulge her with something that requires special prep. There’s one simple favorite that makes a regular appearance on her lunch menu: popcorn with toppings. We fill a big container with plain, air popped popcorn and a smaller one with the topping of her choice. Come lunch, all she has to do is combine and shake for the perfect, fun treat.

Her favorite toppings, lovingly packed in tiny containers, include:
• Grated cheese—parmesan or pecorino
• Cinnamon/brown sugar/nutmeg combo
• Chocolate chips
• Dried fruit (raisins, cranberries, apricots)

…and no refrigeration needed!

We’d love to hear from you: What’s your top lunch box challenge with your kids? Do you send popcorn? Plain or fancy?

Warm Treats for a Cold Kid: Cocoa Popcorn Crunch

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While I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, I have learned a bit about the care and feeding of 13-year-old boys over the years. My current insights:

  1. The statement “everything is fine,” can mean anything from things really ARE fine to their world is about to implode.
  2. They almost never stop eating. At minimum, it’s breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner, dessert, snack and late-night snack. They’ve also been known to drink a gallon of milk in a day.
  3. They will wear shorts in any weather. ANY weather.

I’ve pretty much figured out how to manage numbers 1 and 2 (rely on mother’s intuition/probe more when warranted and keep running to the grocery store) but number 3 is really a head scratcher. For the absolute life of me, I cannot fathom what is going on with the shorts thing.

Let me clarify: we don’t live in a tropical climate. We aren’t even close to the Mason-Dixon Line. We live in New England (okay, southern New England, but still). Most winters, it gets REALY cold…bitterly cold…normal-people-dress-in-layers-and-bundle-up-cold.

And yet, every morning, there goes my son…off to school in shorts. He’s not alone; I see dozens of his classmates similarly outfitted as they dash from their parents’ cars at drop off. A bit of research revealed that this trend is not confined to our little corner of the world. Indeed, kids everywhere are sporting shorts year-round, much to the bafflement of parents and school officials.

My son echoes the sentiments of the boy profiled in the article: he doesn’t like the “feel” of long pants, especially jeans. In his case, I also suspect that his middle school may be excessively warm and shorts keep him more comfortable. Of course, there’s also the benefit that he’s perpetually ready for gym class, which means one less transition in his busy day.

Every so often, though, he gets a look or a question from a well-meaning stranger or grandparent. They’ll ask him, “Aren’t you cold?” then stare at me while they wait for him to answer. This reminds me of the era when my kids were little and would rip off their shoes and socks and fling them out of their strollers; (more…)

Make Popcorn an Appetizer to Your Thanksgiving Feast!

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It’s no surprise that Americans rank Thanksgiving among one of their favorite holidays. Steeped in history and tradition, Thanksgiving marks a time to bring your closest family and friends together and celebrate with a bountiful feast.

And while most people relish the traditional Thanksgiving meal, they also enjoy a guilt-free day of grazing on tasty treats leading up to the main event. When hosting a large crowd for Thanksgiving or any occasion, it’s always a good idea to serve a variety of snacks to please the many palates in the room. That’s why popcorn is a great option.

Plain or buttered, sweetened or spiced, popcorn can be flavored or even combined with other foods like nuts, fruit or cheese to create a delicious and nutritious snack. As a whole grain food, popcorn is a quality carbohydrate source that is not only low in calories, but also a good source of fiber. It’s an ideal in-between meals snack because it satisfies, but doesn’t spoil your appetite.

To satisfy your crowd this holiday season, try these simple popcorn ideas. For kids, mix popcorn with toasted pumpkin seeds, raisins and other diced dried fruit and watch how fast the bowl empties. A little butter, brown sugar and cinnamon will satisfy sweet lovers. For those who like a little spice in their lives, try this delicious Spicy Cajun Popcorn and Nut mix – it’s sure to be a crowd pleaser.

Spicy Cajun Popcorn and Nuts
Yield: 9 servings

Ingredients:
8 cups popped popcorn
1/2 cup toasted, coarsely chopped pecans
1/2 cup peanuts
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter or margarine, melted
1/4 teaspoon each: dry mustard, garlic powder
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Directions:
Place popcorn and nuts in large bowl.
In small microwave-safe bowl, microwave butter on HIGH until melted, about 30 seconds. Stir in dry mustard, garlic powder and cayenne pepper.
Drizzle over popcorn mixture and toss well.

The options for mixing and flavoring popcorn are truly endless. And you can make these recipes for popcorn ahead of time leaving you with one less thing to worry about on the big day. Just keep it fresh in an air-tight container or bag, then pop it open, pour it into a bowl and watch the crowd gobble it up.

And remember, popcorn is also steeped in history and facts. Try to stump “know-it-all” Aunt Betsy with some popcorn trivia while you’re munching away:

  • The oldest ears of popcorn ever were dis- covered in the Bat Caves of west central New Mexico in 1948 and 1950. They turned out to be about 4,000 years old.
  • There are six different types of corn: sweet, dent, flour, flint, pod and popcorn. Only popcorn pops.
  • What makes popcorn pop? Water. As the kernel is heated, the water inside the kernel turns into steam. The pressure builds until the kernel finally explodes and the insides turn out.
  • The average American consumes 54 quarts of popcorn a year!

For more fun facts about popcorn and other great-tasting popcorn recipes, visit www.popcorn.org

Scaring up Some Fun: Green Halloween Zombies

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zombies

It’s no secret how much we dig Halloween around here. In this family, October comes with a giant helping of family fun and tradition. All month long, it’s hayrides to the pumpkin patch; jack o’ lantern carving with the neighbors, costumes galore, scary decorations, spooky stories by the fire pit and, of course, monster movies.

Now that my kids are a little older (read: past the age where a scary movie means they’ll be sleeping in my bed until January) we’re enjoying some great monster movies together…both silly and scary. The “so bad they’re good” B-movie classics always get a laugh out of my teenage sons; I’ve even managed to get them to sit through some of my favorite modern vampire and werewolf flicks.

But for these guys, all my best monsters and maniacs—including that perennial bogeyman Michael Myers—pale before one species of creature that has completely captured their imaginations: Zombies!

Apart from being completely terrified by the original “dead” movie when I saw it in college, I never really gave zombies much thought. But evidently I’m in the minority because we are in the midst of a true zombie renaissance. Over the past decade or so, zombies have clawed right out of their graves and into books, TV shows, and movies like never before.

Zombies are, indeed, a “thing.” Even the Centers for Disease Control has jumped on the bandwagon, using the fictional threat of a zombie apocalypse as an entertaining tool to teach people how to prepare for actual emergencies. The agency has a zombie website, posters and everything. From a marketing and social media perspective, I think it’s brilliant.

There are plenty of theories floating around the Internet and in academic circles as to why zombies are so popular. Yes, they may represent technological alienation, or perhaps they’re a means to deal with our collective anxiety, but I have a theory of my own: the make-up artists did it. Zombies are probably really, really fun for make-up artists and, let’s face it, kind of cool in their own right. I know I’ve had a blast doing zombie makeup on my kids the past few Halloweens, and I’m a complete amateur.

So this October, I’m embracing the zombie: zombie movies, zombie costumes, zombie decorations, and even zombie snacks. My hollow-eyed ghouls will be shuffling around while noshing on these Green Halloween Zombies. Made with whole-grain popcorn, they’re simple make, delicious and—almost—too scary to eat.

Green Halloween Zombies
Yield: About 7 pieces (4 ½ x 3 ½ inches each)

Ingredients
• 2 ½ quarts popped popcorn
• 6 tablespoons butter or margarine
• 3 cups mini marshmallows
• 4 tablespoons lime gelatin powder
• Red gum balls, candy corn, flat green candy strips (or fruit leather), green sugar sprinkles

Directions
1. Place popcorn in a large bowl; set aside.
2. Melt butter over medium heat in a medium saucepan. Stir marshmallows into butter until melted. Stir in gelatin powder until evenly colored. Pour over popcorn and stir until evenly coated. With buttered hands, shape popcorn into 7 oval shapes.
3. Flatten one oval shape slightly and squeeze one end to form a ‘skull’ shape. Place onto parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat with remaining shapes.
4. To decorate: Press two gumballs into each skull to form ‘eyes’. Press candy corn into skull to from ‘teeth’. Use scissors to trim candy strips and press into top for ‘hair’. Sprinkle with sugar sprinkles.
5. Allow ‘zombies’ to set for about 20 minutes before wrapping individually in plastic wrap (or serve immediately).

Celebrating the Wonder and Hard Work of Leaf Season: Cranberry-Orange Caramel Corn

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cranberry orange caramel corn

There are a lot of things us New England folks put up with that can make life a little trying…bumper-to-bumper traffic for states on end, high gas prices, outrageous taxes, hurricanes, blizzards and a very weak sun for at least three months of the year. And oh…did I mention traffic?

But every fall, Mother Nature serves up a little something that makes it all worthwhile: the foliage.

The fall color in these parts was something I took for granted until well into my 20s. I visited Colorado one October, leaving while the vistas here were still mostly green. I spent two weeks soaking in the beauty of the Rockies and the aspen trees, which were a lovely gold in their own right. Beautiful as it was, the Colorado palette paled in comparison to what I saw when I got off the plane back at home: a riot of red, orange and gold leaves that literally took my breath away.

With all due respect to the rest of our country, for my money there’s no substitute for the views of a New England autumn. Around here, we’re fortunate to have an assortment of maples, oaks and dogwoods that almost never disappoint when it comes to fall color. Leaf peeping is more than an activity; it’s an industry. Locals and tourists alike watch the fall foliage maps and plan day and weekend road trips timed to drink in peak scenery.

As with most beautiful things, however, there’s a downside to our gorgeous leaves. (more…)

Popcorn and a Movie: Mom’s Motivator to Tackle New Technology

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nacho cheese popcorn

As I sit down at my computer to write, I’m filled with trepidation. And it’s not writer’s block. Today’s bugaboo is technophobia.

A few weeks ago, after ten years and two failed hard drives (restored at $300 each), I finally gave my computer the heave ho. It wasn’t even broken; we ditched it because the software company stopped supporting the operating system, and my machine wouldn’t accommodate the upgrade. I coasted along for a few months, relying on anti-virus programs to keep me safe, but the warnings were becoming increasingly dire. My computer was vulnerable to viruses and attack, and visions of data breaches, identity theft and financial ruin started keeping me up at night. It was time.

One reason I delayed buying a new computer was my family’s desire to switch platforms. My husband and kids wanted to move to a different operating system that integrated more seamlessly with our music libraries and offered more creative photo, video and music software. I’d been watching the commercials for years between the two factions in the PC wars, blissfully at a remove because I felt like I had no dog in the fight. I wasn’t a photographer or an accountant, and I was getting by just fine.

Indeed, contemplating this switch forced me to examine my relationship with technology as a whole, and personal computers in particular. I operate under what I like to call “efficient utilitarianism,” which is a nice way of saying that while I use computers all the time, I’m too impatient and/or lazy to learn how said computers actually work. Instead, I just want the shortcuts I need to get in, do what I need to do, and get out. I know…it’s lame. (more…)

Back to School for Moms: Celebrating with Peachy Keen Popcorn Snack

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Most years, I enjoy having my kids around during the summer. We have a nice mix of day camp, play dates, free time, family outings, vacation and just plain old relaxation. Even better, I’ve truly come to enjoy spending time with each one of them. They’re fun people.

This summer, however, didn’t feel quite so enjoyable, as our happy balance of structured and free time went off-kilter. My husband and middle child were on the Little League field almost every night for an entire month; my oldest and go-to babysitter was out more often than not rehearsing for a show; and my youngest sustained two minor injuries that sidelined her from camp and gymnastics. Our schedules were turned upside down. I was scrambling to find a bit of company for my daughter, and I logged countless late nights in the laundry room, scrubbing post-game uniform stains.

In the grand scheme, this is not a big deal. I know things could have been much worse—a topsy-turvy schedule is what my 15-year-old calls a “first world problem.” However, by the time mid-August rolled around, we needed some structure. After all, how many nights could my boys stay up watching disaster movies about sharks being strewn about LA and New York? It was time to head back to school.

So, here we are. Give me a month or so and I’ll miss having them around, but we do better with a regular routine. And, with everyone returning to the same schools this year, our transitions have been fairly predictable. All of which means I am now getting back to my “regularly scheduled programming” of early rising, a quick class at the gym, kids off to school then a morning of work at my computer.

But first, a little mom time. (more…)