Thursday, June 20, 2019

On Books and Reading Aloud as a Family

I am writing these words from the library at this very moment. My husband is with the kids and I'm spending this time writing. About books. In a library. What a nerd.

You know that empty feeling you get when you realize that you have just spent thirty minutes trying to figure out what you're going watch on Netflix? And then you end up watching Parks & Rec or The Office for the umpteenth time? Book browsing does not have that same effect. One of my favorite of all favorites is to walk through a bookstore. Oh, the reading possibilities! The people to meet, places to go, time periods to explore. I love a library in the same way. If they allowed Starbucks inside, I would be perfectly content.

My Dad is a voracious reader. If I'm guessing, he has read several books a month since he could read chapter books. As kids, he took us to the library often. Even in the remembering, I'm transported back to our small town library and oddly enough the dank musty smell that comes to memory is comforting. Now that I look back, I realize how extraordinary it was to go to the library with my father. You don't see too many dads perusing the children's book shelves with their young kids. This could be for several reasons none of which I'll speculate on here, but what I know is that it was a gift.

Not too familiar with titles young girls might be interested in reading, my Dad went back to his own childhood and pointed me in the direction of The Hardy Boys series. I devoured them all and turned my nose up at Nancy Drew until I caved and read my mom's old copy of The Clue of the Tapping Heels. Don't you love the titles of those books? The Bungalow MysteryWhat Happened at Midnight, etc. To this day, I love a good mystery thanks to Frank and Joe Hardy and their "chum" Chet Morton along with Nancy, George and Bess. From there I met friends for life: Laura Ingalls, Anne with an "e", the March girls and eventually the Austen heroines.

It makes me laugh to think of my Dad pointing me to the Hardy Boys, but now that I'm a parent I totally understand. I long to share the books that I fell in love with as a child with my own kids. There's something special about the books and the characters discovered when the mind was fresh and the hard lines of experience had yet to cement. These books have a sticking quality. I want my children to experience getting lost in the same stories that had me from page one, to fall in love with the characters that are to me, like old friends.

There are many things that I have been sadly and terribly inconsistent with in parenting, but reading isn't one of them. My kids may not stay in their beds for nap time or consistently ask to be excused from the table, but by George we will be readers. (P.S. Don't worry, Mom, we're working on habits too) From board books to picture books to chapter books, it's been a joy to share the reading experience with my preschoolers. It's incredibly fulfilling to watch their little faces absorb the illustrations of Richard Scarry or delight in the antics of Amelia Bedelia. When I read to them, my own childhood comes alive and delight in the golden wonder that halos around the books of ones youth.

One of the best things we've done with our kiddo's reading life is to read "above level", meaning above what they can read.  Since my kids are not reading on their own yet, I take that to mean above their language level. If you're a fan of Sarah Mackenzie's Read Aloud Revival, you'll know that she talks about this concept often. I think if not exposed to this idea, we would yet to venture far beyond the picture book and short story category. Of course, we still read loads of picture books and even simple favorites like Brown Bear Brown Bear, but we've expanded to include a family read aloud that is usually a chapter book with a few pictures here and there.

We began experimenting with short stories like Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit and the tales of Winnie the Pooh when Claire was around three and Keaton was two. These stories are of course written for young children, however the language is much more deep than often found in children's literature today. Did they pay attention the whole time? Nope. Did they understand every single word and follow the entire plot line? Nope. Did they fall in love with the characters? Get the gist of the story? Stretch their vocabulary and knowledge of the world around them? Yes! As we've continued to work at it, I am truly amazed by what they pick up and how their attention span has grown. I can't believe the number of incredible books we've been able to enjoy together. It's definitely taken time and consistency, but it's been fun.

Our first "big read" was Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White. It was my first time to read it as well. We all fell in love with it! When we finally returned it to the library, Claire put it in the book slot and in a sad voice said "Mom, it feels like we're saying goodbye to a friend." Yes, baby, yes it does. My heart melted because she got out of it exactly what I hoped she would.

One of my concerns in introducing bigger content books to my littles was that they would not "get" everything in the book by reading it so young and would therefore, miss out on the complete experience. It's true that they're not going to get everything, but the beauty about books is that you can pick them up over and over again. They already want to read Trumpet of the Swan for a second time. I don't know if it will be together or on their own, but we will meet our friend again. We've listened to Little House in the Big Woods once on audio and have chipped away at reading it aloud a second time. Claire requests a chapter often and we chew on it for a week or more before it's requested again. Each time you read the same book in a different season of life you see what you didn't see before - at least with good books. The content of the book remains the same, but the person reading it has changed. My hope is that the favorites will surface again many times over and with each re-reading the discovery will be more rich.

Jim Trelease's Read Aloud Handbook is a great resource for book lists and the how-to's on reading with your kids. I've also heard Honey for A Child's Heart is great as well. These can be found at the library. If you want to follow someone who has extensive resources for families wanting to create a reading culture in their home, you absolutely must follow Sarah Mackenzie on all the internet places. She has book lists by age groups, gender, special interest, monthly, etc. Her monthly lists are so popular that you'll want to put them on hold at the library well in advance. She also has a podcast that is fantastic. Or get her book The Read Aloud Family. Most of the ideas that I've implemented at home around reading have been at her recommendation. There's a lot of "Sarah Mackenzie says..." in this post because she is awesome. Some of her best tips in practice are below:

Give the kids a busy activity

If you're thinking our kids sit in my lap for longer books, let me nix that idea. I'll pull out blocks, Legos, Perler beads, coloring books, etc. while we read. It keeps little hands busy while listening. When they were very little we read around the breakfast or lunch table. Even when it looks like they're not paying attention they're still absorbing a lot. In fact, if I stop reading they'll usually say "Mom, why did you stop reading?" or they'll ask questions to let me know they're still following the story. They're listening. Keep reading.

Read around food

One of my favorite tips from RAR is to make a pan of warm brownies and then invite everyone to listen as you read and they dig in. Who wouldn't want their kids to associate books with the smell and taste of brownies?! It's not often brownies specifically for us, but I'll simply put out a tray of animal cookies and lemonade. Who doesn't love a good snack? Also, in pursuit of keeping little hands AND mouths busy, I put out a bowl of peanuts with shells that must be cracked or cherries which require effort. My kids absolutely love a good "tea time". It feels special. We'll throw a blanket outside and bring the tea and books into the sunshine. Yes, fights break out around who gets the last cookie. "Tea" is spilled. Cups are chipped. Distractions abound and the reading pace is sometimes slow. But, these are some of my favorite memories with my kids.

Set out book invitations

I don't keep all of our books on the book shelf. I will pull out a few picture books and put them in stacks or face out in baskets around the house. Think about it...that's what all the book stores do and they've done their research on presentation that sells. I'm so glad Sarah Mackenzie pointed this out. Face out is key! Keaton especially cannot resist the temptation of a lonely book begging to be opened. These little reading invitations are now all over our house. This is something my parents did really well. We may not have had all the latest toys or video games, but book invitations were everywhere!

Let your children catch you reading

We haven't yet started academic schooling, but I want to make sure our kids don't associate reading with school assignments only. They take a note on this from us. I typically read for pleasure when my kids are asleep or preoccupied, however I've started taking a few minutes to let them see me read. Oh, and can I put a plug in for letting your kids see you read your Bible? This is so important! When they see you delighting in God's Word, they look at the Bible as a source of delight for themselves as well. I still remember waking up in the morning growing up and seeing my Mom's Bible open on the kitchen table alongside a cup of Constant Comment tea. I would venture to say that seeing my parents read their Bibles probably had the biggest impact on my faith because whenever I felt lost later in life I knew where to look for answers.

Introduce audio books

We started out with audio picture books from the library, expanding to chapter books last year. I'll set out colors and paper and the kids will listen while I'm working in the kitchen. Or we listen as we're running errands in the car. Some of our favorites are Little House in the Big Woods, Little House on the Prairie, The Adventures of Frog and Toad, Stuart Little and The Big Picture Story Bible. We get most of our audio books from the library. I'm sure there are a few more that I can't think of at the moment.

A note on audio books...choose wisely. One thing that has gotten me into trouble is hastily picking up favorites from my own childhood that call out to me from the library shelf and that I think I know pretty well. I can't resist them! I have now learned that the memories are not necessarily trustworthy in that they were filtered through the lens of my elementary-aged self. With audio books, you can't read ahead or edit as needed. For instance, although I read Little House on the Prairie several times growing up, I forgot that the theme that runs through the second half of the book is the relationship between settlers and Native Americans. Unlike Little House in the Big Woods on audio, I needed editing capability that comes with reading it aloud myself for topics that were beyond their capacity at this stage. The Little House books are also written with language that was acceptable in the 19th century, but not used today. I realized my mistake pretty quickly while washing dishes and I couldn't dry my hands off fast enough to hit the pause button. We skipped ahead as needed and I stayed close to the CD player for the rest of the book. When we re-read it, I'll edit as needed.

Another similar moment happened with The Wind and the Willows. First off, I even had a tough time understanding the older British language through the narrator's heavy accent. I was wondering how much the kids were understanding when one of the characters called the other "a complete ahhss". We didn't finish The Wind and the Willows. It will be a read aloud that I can edit as we go. If one of my kids calls someone "a complete ahhss", this is why. Rookie mistake. This will help you avoid being such one yourself. You're welcome.

When everyone's frustrated, read

This is direct advice from Sarah MacKenzie. She is a mother of six and says when everyone is fighting, start reading. If you've created a reading culture in your home, this trick is almost like magic. They can be at each other's throats and if I sit down, open a favorite book and begin to read the little people stop whatever it is they're doing and begin to listen. It works most of the time with the exception of The Great Lego Fight of 2018.

Here are some of the best things we've discovered thus far about creating a reading culture with our preschoolers:

Creating shared experience

There is something about reading a book together that bonds the readers to each other. You are gripped by the same characters and experience the emotions together. As Sarah Mackenzie says "It puts everyone on the same side of the fence.". One of the joys of raising readers is to hear your little ones conversing in the language of their favorite books. My kids have named the mischievous squirrel that visits our front garden "Nutkin" after Beatrix Potter's character of a similar nature. We all have a laugh over Nutkin's antics as if he were the exact same Nutkin of page 32. It's a little inside joke we can all share in. Or when Claire tells Keaton to come quickly to see the the papoose at the museum that looks just like the one described in Little House on the Prairie. These connections make my heart soar.

We live in a world that is now overflowing with consumption choices. Technology gives us the ability to bring any special interest to our fingertips on demand. Slowly, the opportunity for shared experience has diminished. There is much that we have gained and much that we have lost. We develop our own little worlds on our phones or social media circles and tune everything else out, experiencing and communicating in a tailored vacuum. It's an Everyone Has Their Earbuds In kind of culture. I'm an introvert and I love frequent alone time, but there are some things that blossom more fully when experienced together. You find someone who enjoyed the same book? It's immediate common ground, conversation, community. What better place to foster this than within the family? As they grow and begin to find their own personal interests and passions, I hope the shared scaffolding built in childhood is one they can always come back to together no matter where their own personal stories lead.

Seeing the world with perspective and possibility

Reading about different people, places, perspectives and periods of time is a way to open their eyes to this crazy idea that the world isn't all about them. It also introduces the concept of time and change, that everything has not always been as it is now, nor will it be in the future. That's a big concept for preschoolers and one that comes in layers. One of my favorite family experiences surrounding books was when we were reading the Little House series. We had breakfast at Cracker Barrel not just for the pancakes, but to see all the household items of the pioneer era. It was like watching a hundred light bulbs go off one after the other as they put together the actual object with what had been described to them in the book. They were especially fascinated to see an actual butter churner just like the one Ma used! It's the little things.

Because of reading, they know that we haven't always had electricity or cars or refrigerators. They know that people have gotten together over time to solve problems and make our world better in many ways. It opens up the world of possibility, expanding time and space without leaving our living room. I hope that in knowing that things have changed over time, they'll see their own potential to be problems solvers, a part of the story for the greater good.

Opening opportunities to learn

Often these "bigger kid" books, become a springboard to learn about many different subjects. It was also through the Little House series that our kids were introduced to Native American history and culture. As mentioned, I skipped much of the settler's point of view and kept the information regarding the people group as a whole. At their ages, these concepts are too weighty. We went to the library and checked out stacks of picture books on various Indian tribes and learned about their way of life. It brought up big questions about Native Americans now and we talked about how people have not always made the right decisions in the way in which we've treated others. I was so surprised with the other avenues for learning that came with each book. With Trumpet of the Swan, we looked up the musical pieces referenced on YouTube and they're familiar with Louis Armstrong. The kids checked out books on swans from the library. We also pull out our Map Book and find the locations mentioned in a book. If there are things we don't know, we look them up. I learn a lot too!

Seeing beyond the words on the page to the story

I share all this not just because it has been such a wonderful pursuit and experience for our family. I can't help but wonder if a love of story is ingrained within us all. There is an automatic response to lean in closer, whether it's around a campfire or curled up under blankets on the couch. Quite possibly it's part of a created and inward desire to know and understand the greatest and true narrative that is still unfolding, the original redemption story. He spoke the world into being through words. The written word is a gift from God to his people. Storytelling, an ability given by our Creator. Jesus revealed great truths to his followers through parables, stories. He chose to communicate his love to us in many ways, but chiefly through a book. If we have an urge to share a story with others, maybe it's out of an innate ability meant to share the greatest story ever told, the Gospel. If my kids learn to share beautiful messages told through books with others, maybe one day they'll share the only story that truly matters.

Aside from all the other positive reasons for raising children to be readers, this is the greatest one for us. It's not about just being well-read or academically prepared. It's about being well set up to read what matters and live in a way that matters. A love of reading can be a springboard to read the most important book of all. This is my ultimate hope for them in creating a reading culture within our home. May the love of the Greatest Story Ever Told point them to know its author. Tales that close with "They all lived happily ever after." don't hold a candle to the story that will go on for eternity. It opens with "In the beginning..." and ends with "Amen.".

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Our List of Summer Hopefuls

Last summer our family was finally settling into our newly rebuilt home after Hurricane Harvey. Our adrenaline had carried us through the previous fall and spring. With summer came the exhaustion that had built up over the previous 9 months. Last summer was a lazy hammock season for us. We just wanted "to be" for a while. Get used to our home and just be. We threw together a last minute get away to Galveston, but that was it. Otherwise it was swimming lessons and picking up all the things that had been left undone since Harvey.

This summer is the last one before we have a kid in full time school (kindergarten!) and will be tied to a serious five days a week school schedule. I want to soak it up! Now, my idea of soaking up a summer would be to read a million books by the pool. Note, I don't want to get in the pool. I just want to read by it. That's all I ask.

But with the carefree ability to read by the pool comes the passing of all the sweet pre-k kisses and innocent wonder and awe at the world, so I'm going to put aside the books and soak up this time instead. This summer I want to be intentional with our kids. It's not necessarily going to be about big vacations, but more about small and meaningful experiences. Some new to our kids and some just plain 'ol fun things that kids need to do as much as possible. And if I'm honest, there are a lot of things on this bucket list that will be good for mom and dad too. I don't know how many of these we will actually check off the list, but we're going to try our best! And don't worry, there will be plenty of space for summer reading!
  • Eat a really cold watermelon (Keats' request)
  • Make popsicles
  • Make ice cream
  • Hit all the Cinco pools
  • Participate in the Summer Reading Program
  • Chalk the driveway
  • Puddle jump in the rain wearing our rain boots
  • Go to the beach
  • Have a water balloon fight
  • Go to the zoo
  • Go to the museum (Keats' request to see the dino's)
  • Go to the movies
  • Family bike ride on the bayou (see below)
  • Learn how to ride bikes
  • Watch fireworks
  • Fly kites
  • Build a sandcastle
  • Go on individual kid dates
  • Run a lemonade stand (Claire has been begging to do this)
  • Family hike
  • Family game night
  • Craft Day (aka, Mommy Takes One for the Team Day)
  • Feed ducks
  • Go on a picnic
  • Make your own pizza night
  • Go fishing
  • Blow dandelion seeds and make a wish
  • Write a thank you note
  • Have a tea party
  • Visit the pet store (do not come home with pet)
  • Skip rocks
  • Learn a new helping skill
  • Popcorn and movie night
  • Do a science experiment
  • Try a new fruit
  • Try a new veggie
  • Puzzlemania (put together all the puzzles we own)
  • See how many new libraries we can visit
  • Go to a baseball game
  • Give away a toy
  • Family car wash
  • Bake cookies
  • Play in the sprinkler
  • Write a letter to a friend
  • Build a blanket fort
  • Eat corn on the cob
  • Memorize a Bible verse
  • Find a sunflower
  • Blow bubbles
  • Visit a water park
  • Climb a tree
  • Have a pillow fight
  • Go on a road trip
  • Make pickles
  • Watch the sunset
  • Jump over a wave
  • Press wildflowers and make leaf rubbings
  • Picture scavenger hunt (take pictures with their Kindles)
  • Spot a rainbow
  • Do something nice for someone else
  • Make a fairy garden
  • Visit grandparents
  • Go on a family walk
  • Collect seashells
  • Catch a bug (a lizard will do as well)
  • Dance party
  • Visit the rock shop
  • Make something for a friend
  • Visit a splash pad
  • Lots of playdates (My "I Live For the Social Life" Kid's specific request)
  • Two family read-aloud chapter books
My daughter loves a good fuss and drama. She also appreciates beauty, so practical me is trying to make more of an effort to reach that part of her. As such, the Summer Bucket List was revealed after the last day of school and rolled out with pomp and circumstance. I tend to be the practical type that would write a list on a piece of notebook paper, fold it a couple of times and put it in my bag. However, I've learned that delivery is everything with kids. I took a look online and like most things on Pinterest, the bucket lists were above my skill level. I put in a valiant effort anyway and even included drawings which I really regretted committing to halfway through the list. Also, halfway through the list I wished I had made a shorter list.

It was worth it! The kids were beyond excited. Claire especially appreciated the bright and varied Sharpie usage. They didn't care that my drawings are laughable or that the letter spacing poor. They didn't notice that I got the wrong kind of paper that is dry-erasable on the reverse side and will most likely roll up like a scroll in a day or two. They're not on Pinterest so they don't know that they could have had customized bucket list posters in their full-sized silhouettes with puff paint and jewels. Or that "Disney" was an option. They're just thrilled to make popsicles and puddle jump.

I'm also allowing space for "write-in's". Claire has already asked that hopscotch be put on the list. This sounds reasonable. I don't know how to play hopscotch so it's probably a good idea to add this skill to my repertoire as well.

Is this "50 Things to Do This Summer with your Preschoolers" or "100 Items for Your Kids' Summer Bucket List"? Wouldn't know, didn't count them. It's just a bunch of fun stuff that we can do together intentionally. Watermelon is on tap for the day one!

Friday, February 8, 2019

Our So Called Plant Based Life

Our weekly local veggie co-op haul

It has been four months since our family embraced a plant based lifestyle. The month prior to that we loosely followed Paleo/Whole 30 guidelines. As you know from my the previous post, the reasons were mostly due to my husband's recently diagnosed and urgent health concerns surrounding heart health. We have learned so much during this short period, yet I feel like we have so much more to learn. We're in that spot where we have now seen so many health benefits that unless something radically changes, we will continue forward in this lifestyle. Throw in that a plant based diet gut punches so many other risks for disease such as cancer and diabetes? We're pretty bought in.

I know there are those of you who have questions as we've both had many approach us asking about the details of this lifestyle, whether it's for personal reasons or just out of curiosity. I've tried to break down this post a bit to address these questions. Also, because reading about other's personal journeys in transitioning to a plant based diet was so helpful to me, I want to help others do the same. Although this may not be the eating lifestyle for everyone, if you're interested and are committed to learning and making changes, anyone can do it. I think it's important to realize this because so many blogs, books and social media accounts make it look like you have to already have an out of the box crunchy lifestyle to embrace plant based eating. You do not have to live in Hawaii or Bali. You don't have to be a yogi. You don't have to be an animal or environmental activist. You don't to have certain political views. I do have a fair bit of experience in health and wellness, but I'm learning new things every day. Our family of four lives in the Houston area suburbs. We're from small conservative towns in Texas and Louisiana. We're conservative Christians. We all struggle with the risk of diseases such as atherosclerosis, cancer and diabetes. You can add more fruits and veggies to your diet no matter your political, religious or porch view and cut your risk for disease. So if you're interested in this for health reasons, take heart, you don't have to have a certain background or interest to go plant based. If you want to follow our journey just because it seems so stinking weird? Go right ahead! This could be said about so many things that have happened in our life, but if you would have ever told me our family (specifically my husband) would be whole food plant based? No meat? I wouldn't have believed you and would've laughed my head off at the thought. And yet, here we are.  A meatless, eggless, dairyless household and enjoying it. Life's funny isn't it?

Enough with my musings, let's get to the stuff that you want to know.

The Results

Let's start with the noticeable benefits specifically related to my husband's health goals. Since September he is down 60 pounds (this has been a maintained weight), his triglycerides have dropped from six times over the norm to within the normal to lower range. His cholesterol, which was also insanely high, dropped to within the normal range as well as his blood pressure. He is not on any cholesterol lowering drugs or blood pressure medication. This is all without exercise and in fact, the suspension of most physical activity over the last four months. He will have another CT scan with calcium scoring in the near future to see if any of the previous damage has been reversed by this radical lifestyle change. We are hoping and praying for great things! His cardiologist, who promotes a plant based lifestyle and practices in Houston, is more than pleased with his results and will continue to monitor his progress.

I too have dropped a size and feel the healthiest I have felt in some time. We both added back in exercise almost four weeks ago, nervous for our first "plant based workouts". That sounds so silly, but truly our bodies have gone through a radical change and we were curious to see how we would handle a strenuous workout on a plant diet. Joey has a bit of a road before him to regain his strength back completely after such a bodily about face, but with three weeks under his belt he is beginning to get his gym legs back. I went to workout classes at our gym fully expecting to be weak, however I was surprised that I was able to hang throughout the workouts. This was a different result than I would have expected from a long period of physical inactivity, not to mention on a diet of plants.

In fact, both of us have noticed stamina, energy and a feeling of vitality that has truly taken us by surprise. Waking up in the morning isn't as much of a struggle. I honestly feel like I could go for a run each morning (note: I'm not a runner, nor have I taken advantage of this feeling). We both have quiet time before our kids get up and have found that focusing super early in the morning isn't as difficult as it normally is. I'm also not dead at 8:00 PM. That's a benefit, don't you think? Another strange thing is that we can easily miss our coffee and not realize it. We went off coffee for 28 days in October and I guess we broke the habit. We were excited to add it back in around December only to find that we often forget about it and look forward to our lemon water and smoothies instead. So weird. I love to love coffee.

Note: Joey and I have both had regular bloodwork done during this period and our numbers are great.

It's not like we've turned into unicorns, but there is definitely a vitality that we haven't felt on any other eating program.

The Food Stuff

Simple meal of quinoa, lentils, sweet potato, green beans & salad

You can read the previous post linked above for the details as to what a whole food plant based diet entails, but think no animal products and keeping food as close to its original form as possible. Also, Joey's heart healthy diet is limited to no oils along with a few other nuances. So no olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, etc. And of course, no butter. He stuck with a cleansing raw vegan diet for 28 days and finished up just after Thanksgiving. Not one bit of cooked or processed food for 28 days. The food was mostly provided by the medical facility as part of the plant based cardiology program he has subscribed to and he rocked it! He did not cheat once. I don't think I could have done it. 

I had really hoped to do more recipe experimenting while he was on this part of the program, but it was tough! He had his food and the kids and I would have our food. Our kids were getting used to things and I didn't know what would be a hit and what wouldn't so half the time I would end up eating alone and left with massive leftovers. We were also dealing with extra health issues during this time that compounded with all of the changes we were undergoing as a family. So I scrapped my grand plans and kept it pretty simple. By simple, I mean foods as they are such as whole sweet potatoes, lentils and steamed veggies. I didn't start too much experimenting until we were able to eat as a family again. This is something that I have discovered along the way: eating plant based can be as simple or as complex as you make it. You can eat the foods as they are in their whole form: steamed, baked, sautéed or raw. Or you can veganize beloved recipes and soak cashews and make your own apple butter. It's up to you.

I have mentioned that cooking plant based has been a learning curve for me. Namely, just the little tricks that I've needed to learn to cook without oil and eggs as well as ways to make our food as nutrient dense as possible. I've learned to make flax eggs, cashew cream, sauerkraut (still learning) and a million other vegan substitutions. Learning about nutrition has also been a camp out for me. I'm learning how much protein, fat and nutrients are in certain plant foods and being mindful of the day's nutrient density for all four of us. Google and I are companions and I'm constantly saying to myself "Huh, who would have thought?" or "Wait, what?" with 7 seven tabs open in my browser.

We do eat out occasionally and have our go-to restaurants where we know we can find options. Except for barbecue restaurants, we can often find something to eat at most restaurants (so don't be afraid to invite us out). It's helpful to know ahead of time so we can menu scan and be prepared. It's truly not the best option health-wise as we can't be as certain about the quality of the food and sodium, sugar, additives and oil can be hidden in the dishes, but it's nice for a bit of normalcy and convenience. Some of our favorites include Fadi's Mediterranean, Zoe's Kitchen, Chipotle and Nikko Nikko's. Imagine the waiter's surprise when my strapping husband orders lentil soup and a salad with no cheese and's priceless.

One thing I'm still working on is our grocery shopping rhythm. I need the equivalent of a milkman. A vegan milkman, who delivers speckled bananas and perfectly ripe avocados on my doorstep each morning. In the beginning, it seemed like I was going to the grocery store daily. A lot of this was just part of the learning curve, but I'm still trying to work out the details. I would have to go to several stores before I figured out which stores had which items and sometimes I would be looking for certain organic produce and the store where I was shopping would be randomly out of it that day. If I were on my own I wouldn't mind another store drop, but when you're toting two kids AND need to read labels and inspect's tough. We joined a CSA co-op a month ago and it's been awesome. We get organically and locally grown veggies on a weekly basis which ensure that it's both seasonal and picked when perfectly ripe. I get so excited when they announce the options for  next week's basket. This is all new, but I think we're slowly getting it.

Does plant based eating break the bank?

It can be as cheap or as expensive as you make it. Before I say much on this topic, it must be said that for our family and our budget we put a priority on the food that we consume. It was important to us before a heart disease diagnosis, but now it is of tantamount importance. The food you eat truly is an investment in your future health. It's worth it.

In the beginning, it may seem like it's more expensive because you do need to build your plant based pantry staples. Things like nutritional yeast, vinegars, spices, flours, etc. You may also make mistakes and need to prepare things twice (guilty!) or you may find that while every other plant based foodie loves "ingredient X", you're not a fan and you've wasted money. Once we figured out the basics of what we needed, expenses because much more predictable.

Here's the thing with plant based eating and specifically our lifestyle to reverse heart disease: we're not buying meat, dairy, eggs or oil which can be some of the most expensive line items on a grocery bill. Lentils, brown rice, oats, potatoes and other legumes are cheap and they are some of our meal staples. Also, and this is where there may be a difference between a whole food plant based diet and a vegan diet, we buy less processed and packaged foods. We do buy the best produce and cleanest products which are often more expensive than their standard counterparts. So it may be a wash in our case. I haven't analyzed the numbers in detail, but as I've mentioned this is a budget priority for us so even if it was more expensive we would continue to make concessions in other areas to make this lifestyle possible (except in the event of zombie apocalypse and then we'll eat Spam if we have to).

We try to eat in season as much as possible so that means we're buying produce when it's priced the lowest. Berries we buy frozen when not in season for this reason because I'm not paying $5.97 for a pint of blueberries in January.

We also tend to eat at home more often, which is a no brainer in the money-saving department. When we do eat out it's hit or miss on price. Sometimes it's cheaper because the items are meatless and then other times, they make you pay a premium for healthier or custom items. We also drink water always, so that helps! They kill you on the drinks.

One thing that may be an extra expense... if you have extra weight, you may need to buy new clothes!

Do you miss meat...and cheese...and butter...and BACON

The quick answer is no, neither one of us truly miss or crave it. But let me elaborate. I was never a huge meat person in the first place with the exception of bacon. I do like a lot of meat dishes, but truly I like them because they're fried in yummy batter, covered in a cream sauce or to be combined with cheese in some way. If it's grilled I don't get as excited about it, but I have always thought that I needed to eat meat for the protein. Now cheese on the other hand... I have learned that the casein in the cheese is highly addictive and it makes sense because the longer it's been since I've had cheese, the easier it gets. Cheese was always the tough thing to go without when we did Paleo or Whole 30. I could still easily go for a jalapeño popper with cream cheese, pizza or queso, but truly I don't crave it. I remain relatively unphased by the Domino's commercials which is something to be said of a cheese lover.

As surprising as it might seem, my carnivorous ribs lovin' husband also says that he doesn't miss meat much. This is shocking for a guy whose favorite pastime is grilling and smoking meat. He says that it's truly a gift from God. I am constantly amazed by his ability to morph into a plant based eater. His beloved grill and smokers on the back patio are probably developing a complex. Sometimes I got out and give them a pep talk. "It's not y'all, it's us." And yet, they continue to silently brood.

One thing we don't do much of is "mock meat". So far we have found that things get tough when you try to make something that's supposed to taste like meat or cheese. Comparison truly is the thief of joy. It's better that we don't compare the two or try to make a food into something it isn't. Maybe we just haven't found the secret recipes yet in this department or maybe my vegan cooking skills are subpar, but so far we aren't trying to veganize steak. We may do a Beyond Burger in the future out of curiosity and for a hat tip to past pleasures, but the processed piece of these kinds of products means that it can't be the norm when we're trying to reverse disease.

The thing that I miss is probably just the convenience when we're in a pinch of getting a meal out. We both keep waiting to really miss meat and we just don't. I keep checking in with Joey from time to time. Do you still want to do this? Maybe some of it is due to the fact that we are always pretty satisfied and rarely ravenously hungry. I can't say the same when I've eaten Paleo/Whole 30. A truckload of veggies fill up a tummy more than a piece of chicken. Our meals really fill us up. This has truly been surprising!

What about protein? What about fat?

This is probably the most common question I get from folks. Oh and I'll throw in there, the calcium question. First off, our country is obsessed with protein. We're probably eating a lot more than we truly need, not to mention that the protein often comes in the form of something fried or covered in sodium laden sauces or cheese. Secondly, and this was a surprise to me, you can get all the protein you need from plants. Shocker, right? It turns out that protein (and fat and calcium) isn't just found in the traditional American sources of meat and dairy. Many fruits and vegetables have various amounts of protein, not to mention whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. In the beginning I was concerned with monitoring the amount of protein in our food, but then I realized that we always got enough when we were eating for nutrient density and diversity of plants. But you don't have to take my word for it (I feel like I pirated that line from Reading Rainbow) and shouldn't. Here are two resources that sum it up, but you can find a zillion:

Dr. Neal Barnard on protein and a plant based diet
Ultra Athlete Rich Roll in Forks Over Knives on being an athlete and the protein question

We supplement B12 and vitamin D, which most omnivores are low in as well.

Are your kids plant based?

I would say our kids eat about 80% plant based. We do not have any animal products in our home so when we're home, they're eating plant based. When we are out, we allow them to eat for the most part as they normally would. If it's a birthday party or we're at someone else's house or a restaurant, we let them eat the snacks provided. They've been through a lot of changes the past couple of months. I don't want them to resent eating healthy because they feel left out or different. For instance, I made Claire a plant based lunch for school that I was really proud of (I have a tough time with nut-free plant based kid lunches). When she came home from school she told me all about her day and how they had the most delicious hot chocolate. She isn't a chocolate fan (I know, how is this possible?) so I was surprised she liked it. Then I discovered the recipe in her backpack. I laughed so hard!

 I mean, who wouldn't like this hot chocolate? You can't win 'em all! We have soul heart issues we're working on that are far more important than a perfect diet. I also will relax the rules for myself if I will be putting a host under too much stress. Case in point, a super kind and elderly Chinese friend made homemade cookies for my kids and brought chocolates to our house a few weeks ago. I let them eat both because our friendship with her is more important than a little dairy and eggs. With that being said, the early stages of heart disease can begin in kids as young as junior high. Just because you have the gene for something doesn't mean the switch has to get flipped. Our goal is to minimize the opportunities to flip this switch. These lifestyle changes aren't just for my husband's health. They're just as much for our kids who have our genes. It may not seem like it matters when they're so young and healthy, but our perspective is to focus on setting them up for good health when they're in their thirties and beyond.

We've started educating the kids on food. Not in an obsessive way, but in way that looks at food as fuel. We talk about where food comes from and how it's grown. When we're eating oranges we will talk about Vitamin C and how it helps our immune system. Eating guacamole, we may mention how it has healthy fats which are great for our brain. Drinking water we'll talk about how good it is for our body to keep hydrated. I'm hoping this will set them up for making wise decisions in the future about their own health. They may not choose to eat this way as teenagers when they're out of the house, but at least they'll be armed with information regarding how healthy food is fuel for their bodies.

Maybe forty year old Claire and Keaton will thank us? Who knows! Ooh, if they're forty then that will make us...I'm just going stop this train of thought right here.


Along our journey I have read many books and the resource from websites, listened to podcasts and watched YouTube videos. The books were helpful to provide the science behind eating plant based. The podcasts and YouTube videos have been invaluable for providing practical ideas, tips and tricks. Here are a few resources that have helped me along the way:

The China Study by T. Colin Campbell
Reversing Heart Disease by Dean Ornish
Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Caldwell Esselstyn
How Not to Die by Michael Greger

I still have so many plant based books on my list including Ornish's brand new book Undo It.

Podcasts have been a wonderful resource. I listen while I'm doing laundry or the dishes (which means there is plenty of opportunity) In the beginning I was trying get up to speed fast because we needed to know how to do this plant based thing well and quickly. My hands may have been tied up with loads of chores, but my brain was free to absorb information. If the kids were occupied and I was in the middle of household stuff, I listened. In the beginning, I would find podcasts such as those below and look for episodes that had physicians discussing plant based eating, specifically those specializing in cardiovascular disease. The more stable my footing became in plant based education, the more I branched out. In the process I learned way more about the benefits of plant based eating on numerous disease fronts, but also about the positive impact it has on our planet and sustainability. You may not agree with everyone's politics or may not be a fan of their personality, but if you're interested in plant based eating, these are filled with little nuggets:

Veggie MD
Rich Roll Podcast
Plant Proof
Lean Green Dad
Party in My Plants
The Plantiful Podcast

You can search for each one of these in Podcasts. Many doctors do not have podcasts themselves, but you can search for the doctor and find all the podcasts where he has been a guest. Cardiologist, Dr. Rob Ostfeld is an example. I follow many plant based doctors on Instagram, especially those with a cardiology focus. Just as with the podcasts, I also followed a bunch of whole food plant based influencers to learn about the day to day basics which has been invaluable in stepping our plant based game. So many of these influencers are incredibly knowledgeable and have done their research,  but it they don't have a medical or nutrition background, I give the medical info the side eye until I see it backed up by a medical professional with research. They provide wonderful tips for plant based cooking and can help to generate nutritional trails that you can research further. This is precisely the reason for this detailed post as well as setting up a separate Instagram, @plantedfamily. Hearing others' experience in making the change to a plant based lifestyle is encouraging when you're walking through it yourself!

The things that are tough

Is it all roses? The actual eating part of plant based eating is great. We truly enjoy it and the benefits that have come with it. Areas that are tough can be preparation, convenience and eating socially. The preparation difficulty can actually come from the latter two points.

Making a "flax egg"
If you have an active family with a routine that often changes, you have to be prepared ahead of time to eat on the run. Fast food and ordering pizza aren't on the table if you're really going after a change in health. You can still go to Taco Bell and order a bean burrito while being on the vegan train, but again we're looking for meals that are nutrient dense with veggies and with clean ingredients. You need to look at your calendar and find the areas that might put you in a bind for the week, then prepare accordingly. Winging it can get you into trouble. You've got to set yourself up for success and have your fridge stocked with all the good stuff, chopped and ready to go. If you're going out to dinner, you'll probably want to find the digital menu first and map out your choices. If there isn't anything on the menu, come with a tummy full of veggies and enjoy the conversation with friends. We're getting better at the preparation part and like anything it takes practice and practice turns into habit.

I'm in the kitchen a lot which I actually love, however the amount of dishes can be overwhelming. We cook or prepare most of our three meals a day at home plus snacks and smoothies. I've mentioned the grocery store runs. I wash dish towels every other day! This kind of stuff definitely can pile up but...

Is this extreme?

Any inconvenience has been worth it. Our experience so far has been pretty awesome. We don't feel deprived. We look forward to our smoothies and snacks and whole food plant based meals. We're not calorie counting and pretty much eat out of abundance. I want to be very clear about this point, this journey has not been about weight loss. It's about reversing disease. So many diets out there are just focusing on your waist line measurements as the determining factor as to whether an eating plan is successful. Yup, you're going to feel better when you're at a healthy weight, but our goal is this and some. How about your insides? How are your arteries looking? How's your gut health? Are you lowering your risk for disease? I feel good about what we're eating and where it comes from. I love that it's awesome for sustaining our planet and the people on it. We certainly still have a long way to go and a lot to learn, but like many pursuits it's about progress not perfection. This isn't a diet, it's a lifestyle. It's as complex or as simple as you want to make it.

In the beginning I thought, yup, this is extreme. Now I don't really feel that way. It doesn't feel like we're doing anything crazy. We're just eating plants. I like what cardiologist Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn says about plant based eating being labeled as extreme: "Some people think the 'plant-based, whole food diet' is extreme. Half a million people a year will have their chests opened up and a vein taken from their leg and sewn onto their coronary artery. Some people would call that extreme.

You can be so fearful of losing your life, that you don't live it. You can also know you need to change your lifestyle because your well-being and vitality are at risk, but decide that you're not going make changes because you don't want to live "in fear". These are extremes. It's not about what you give up. It's about what you gain. So far, we're living in the gain!

Monday, January 21, 2019

Girl, Jesus is Enough

This post has been a long time coming. Frankly, I'm thankful for a little meme going around social media right now, because it speaks so much truth. You know, this one?

It sums up conversations with girlfriends and my own thoughts on this subject. By subject, I mean self-help, personal development, self-improvement, New Year/New Me, this constant hum to be more...the labels go on. In the words of James Brown, "Papa's got a brand new bag". Why not leave it at the meme if it sums everything up? Oh, you know I can't do that. You're funny. I'm an explainer. I can't help it.

So let's unpack. My husband and I are not trendy people. If you know us, this is fairly obvious. I was eating kale in the professional world of alternative healthcare and nutrition many moons ago, way before kale was cool and people wore shirts saying "kale yeah". I've read stacks of personal development books for work and enjoyed many of them. We Marie Kondo'd our house three years ago before Facebook and Netflix introduced Marie to the masses. Now, we're plant-based for health reasons and I'm reading that 2019 has been dubbed by some as "The Year of the Vegan". Ha!

Many of these things have been awesome changes for our family, namely simplifying our possessions/life (hats off to Hurricane Harvey for speeding the process up) and going whole food plant-based. Kale is now practically a celebrated member of the family. I am also a goal-setter and can be be fairly driven when I've got my eye on a goal. This is part personality, but also part of the learning process brought to me by personal development books on setting goals and going after them. In fact, this blog was the result of a goal I pursued ten years ago.

All of these things can be awesome!

However, every one of these endeavors provide only temporal relief if you're trying to fill the gaping hole that can only be filled by Jesus. Over the years I've read books, articles and blog posts by thought leaders in each of these areas and learned much from them, but so often they fell flat. Why? Because most were missing the only thing that matters: Jesus.

Our hope can be placed in so many other places.

The guy or girl you're hoping to date. For that matter, your spouse. The house that has the perfect square footage, amount of possessions, all in beautiful order. The body and makeup that's magazine perfect. The ride or die friends and tribe. The successes of your children (ouch). The big career that you've been dreaming of, if you can only just get up one more rung on the ladder. Esteem and a reputation. Enough money to be comfortable, to take this or that vacation and provide a certain lifestyle for our kids. And then a little more just to be safe. Security. I can list a million different things that we interchangeably chase after depending on the season. Putting my hope in each one a little at a time. Gaining a little short-term happiness boost and then as it wanes, moving on to the next thing.

It seems like the current message when life gets hard is "Well you're just doing it wrong, try my way." or "try harder". Yet when it comes to the only thing that matters, it's not about working harder. Can we all just breathe with this? You're enough, because He is enough. Can I get a Braveheart cry of "Freedom!

I'll say it again, these can all be awesome endeavors! When they're used to know and serve Jesus. If they help you do the assignment that God has given you more wholeheartedly and effectively? Go for it! Does better nutrition and exercise make you more capable of being a better mom or dad and increase your ability to pour more energy out and into others? It's worth a little time! Does order and simplifying your life make you more efficient and less distracted? Free some time up to pour into Scripture? Yes? Marie Kondo it up, my friend.

But put your hope and trust in Jesus. Marie has a few great answers for tidying up your sock drawer, which trust me, is a beautiful thing. But Jesus? He has answers that bring you abundant LIFE. (see the Bible)

It's not about controlling our environment to the nth degree so that everything is perfect.With Jesus, we can have everlasting joy, no matter the circumstance. When our health is failing. When our people are being people and failing us. When we forget to drink 8 glasses of water because we were busy trying to clean up the 10 glasses our toddler spilled that morning. When we make mistakes. When we fail. When our efforts aren't noticed. When our efforts aren't working.

It's about being at peace in the chaos and disorder, not necessarily about removing the chaos and disorder. You might as well say being at peace in life. Life is the mess because it includes the world. "But take heart, I have overcome the world."

We can do all the right things, the good things...yet miss the only thing that matters. Jesus is enough.

And it's ok if you don't like kale. Girl, just wash the spinach.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Home for Christmas

It felt right to be in our little home for Christmas. Kids waking up to presents under the tree in the dining room. Reading the Luke account of Jesus' birth in the living room. Christmas breakfast and dinner around our table. Playing with new toys and games and reading books on the rug together.

Claire has always been a Santa Skeptic. In fact, last year she tricked us. She declared that she didn't believe in Santa and we thought, well there you go. No need to worry about Santa. Then on Christmas Eve at about 11 PM on the drive back to Houston from Louisiana she woke up briefly in the carseat and said something like "I can't wait to see what Santa brings tomorrow." Joey and I both looked at each other in a panic. I think I found some random items at the rent house at midnight that qualified as potential Santa gifts the next morning. This year she goes back and forth. Doesn't really think he's real and then goes through all the logical reasons why he doesn't exist while giving us the side eye.

Keats believes with all his little heart. He defends Santa vehemently against his sister's anti-Santa points.

His strong belief is precious. And also funny, because we really don't "do" the Santa thing. What they know about Santa comes from Christmas movies like the Santa Clause, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and snippets of Elf. Oh and the big one. He saw him in the flesh at the Mall. Joey told me that Keats tugged on his arm and said "Dad, look! It's Santa!" He was in complete awe. So for this reason, we followed Keats' lead on Christmas Eve night because he was so excited about it. He insisted we put out milk and cookies for Santa. Did you know that Santa likes vegan sugar cookies? He doesn't like almond milk though. He may have poured that one down the sink just to be kind.

We also made a Happy Birthday Jesus cake vegan style. Was it healthy? Nope, just no animal products. I used vegan butter for the first time. Did you know that that's a thing? Yup. Vegan butter, it exists. More real than Santa. We talked about the meaning of Christmas and and the kids and I ate cake. I'm pretty sure I ate half the cake one fork sized centimeter sliver at a time over the holiday.

The next morning, two unwrapped gifts were in bags with their names on it and both kids were Santa fans for at least an hour or so before Claire started to question the Santa fundamentals again. Keats asked me if we could ask Santa to come back again that night.


On the plant based eating front, holidays have been interesting. Joey is now finished with his raw vegan 28 day cleanse. He finished it a week or two after Thanksgiving. I'll share more about this at some point, but in summation...he rocked it. Didn't cheat once, not even on Thanksgiving and it is one of the strictest eating plans I've ever seen. For holidays we have decided that it is worth a "cheat day", but cheating looks really different. For us, it may mean that a little oil is in some of the dishes as we do not cook with oil at home. Or it may mean whole wheat flour or sugar may be in the food. But it's all still vegan even if it's a cheat.

Since we were going to be in our home for Christmas, I wanted to try a few plant based holiday dishes. Was it good? Yup, pretty good for the most part! Was I exhausted and did I cook all day? Also, a big fat yes.

For breakfast I made chocolate chip pancakes. Had to meet the following standards: high quality whole grain flour and no eggs, oil or butter. I know, it sounds like a sad pancake but truly they were a great treat. This was Joey's first baked good since October.

Christmas lunch turned into Christmas dinner. It became quite the undertaking. Between four burners, two oven racks, a blender, food processor and an Instant Pot, I still had trouble juggling all the cooking times. We had lentils, quinoa, Mac and "cheese", green bean casserole and sweet potato casserole. We were supposed to have a green salad, but I was done. Plant based cooking isn't necessarily hard, it's just different and standard cooking techniques don't always apply. Instead of using an egg, you may need to make a "flax egg" which means that once again I have to Google "how to make a flax egg". Google and I are close friends and we have 100 conversations going on at a time (which is probably killing my battery life, but ironically could be extending my real life....hmm).

By the time dinner was on the table I looked and felt like the crew from Apollo 13 following re-entry. However the ground crew wasn't quite getting the message. Someone get this lady a chair. And some water.

But it was finished and on the table.

The biggest hit was the sweet potato casserole. My kids are still asking for it. It had maple sugar in it, so not surprising! The only outlier was the Mac and cheese. I used chickpea flour noodles and I'm not a huge fan of their flavor.

Our first Christmas back home in our newly rebuilt home post flood. Our first Christmas after going plant based and gut punching heart disease. So thankful for God's continued provision for our family in all seasons. Hello 2019!