Nov 292011

Maria Mendez (left) and Jilver Castillo (right), Arlington Food Services serve lunch of Baja Fish Taco wraps, Turkey Hot Dogs, Cherry Tomatoes w/dip, Baked Beans and Fresh Fruit for Washington-Lee High School students in Arlington, Virginia on Wednesday, October 19, 2011. The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service operating in public, nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day. USDA Photo by Bob Nichols. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

I owe you an update on my diet and exercise status but that will be coming on Thursday. I have been continuing my progress and have a lot to tell you.

Today, however, I thought it would be interesting to expand on our discussion of organizing healthier eating by extending our discussion from eating healthier in our own homes to looking at an example of how expanding healthy eating to the national level faces extreme challenges. Food is so personal and people have strong opinions when anyone tries to implement (rather than just “encourage” or “suggest”) healthy eating.

If you are concerned about obesity (and who isn’t?), then it would make sense that if you are a taxpayer and you see the government spending a lot of money on food through programs like the National School Lunch Program, you might want to see if you could make a difference in kids’ health by changing the food content of those programs to include healthier options. Simple, right? No way.

The main goal of the National School Lunch Program of course, is to make sure that poor (and often hungry) children in the public school system don’t starve and are getting at least one, if not more, meals each day. I would hope most of us can agree that that is a good idea. School lunch currently includes a variety of foods, some healthy and some not so healthy, that kids will eat, including things like burritos, hamburgers, pizza and French fries.

Healthy meal choices of Baja Fish Taco Wraps and Turkey Hot Dogs at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia for lunch service on Wednesday, October 19, 2011. USDA Photo by Bob Nichols. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

The U.S.D.A. seems to have a particular interest in school lunches when it comes to nutritional content.

“Because children in low socio-economic status households are more likely to have the lowest
intakes of fruits and vegetables (Dubowitz et al., 20082), increasing fruit and vegetable
intakes in this population even by small amounts is likely to confer a health benefit.”

–U.S.D.A., Evaluation of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program: Interim Report, September 2011

So what happens when you try to tinker with school lunch? The sparks start to fly. The Washington Post reported on the complex procedure of this legislation in a story on November 15.

Essentially, the U.S.D.A. was proposing to limit the amount of “starchy vegetables” to no more than 1 cup per week. These “bad” vegetables include:

“Bad” Vegetables

White potatoes
Lima beans

Healthy choices of fresh fruit, salads and vegetables at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia for lunch service on Wednesday, October 19, 2011. USDA Photo by Bob Nichols. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

The U.S.D.A. also wanted to change how tomato paste is counted as a vegetable for purposes of school lunch. (I am not exactly sure if they wanted to increase the amount or discard it altogether.) There were also proposals to limit sodium and increase whole grains in the lunches that were also discarded.

Why would anyone vote down these changes? While obviously some food businesses had interests in maintaining the status quo, there were also concerns about costs for these changes and also some common sense questions that intake of any vegetables “bad” or not would be better than nothing.

“[S]tudents would not be allowed to eat a baked potato one day and an ear of fresh corn later that week, an ‘absurd result.’”

–Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), quoted in “Obama administration loses effort to make school lunches healthier,” The Washington Post, November 15, 2011

One commenter on the article aptly stated, “It doesn’t do much good to serve kids food they won’t eat.” Some felt that each school should be able to make these decisions.

NPR did an interesting story about how difficult it is to make even small changes to school lunch programs, like eliminating chocolate milk in favor of plain milk. Here in Virginia, for example, a local lunch lady is quoted:

“‘When we eliminated chocolate milk’ explains Penny McConnell of the Fairfax County Schools, ‘we had as many parents upset as the ones who were pleased with it.’ Some worried their children would stop drinking milk and wouldn’t get enough calcium.”

“What’s To Love And Loathe About Chocolate Milk?,” NPR Morning Edition, November 21, 2011

Not all news is doom and gloom about the school lunch program, however. CBS News found Michelle Malm, a school lunch lady in California who transformed the nutritional content of her school lunch program by partnering with local farms to use fresh, local produce. While not every school is as lucky to have those types of farms nearby (or such an innovative lunch lady), it is an incredible example of how school lunch could be done right.

Clearly, healthy eating is something we need to continue to educate ourselves about throughout our lives. Food education in the school system has a lot of benefits, both for the kids who actually eat the food and the knowledge that these children will hopefully share with their parents and other people in their lives.

The other large food distribution program administered by the government is the food stamp or SNAP program, that essentially provides grocery money to those in need. A recent NBC Rock Center report indicates that a staggering 15% of the population is currently receiving SNAP benefits. Can the government dictate the types of foods that SNAP benefits can purchase?

Under current SNAP regulations, SNAP recipients can use their benefits to purchase most food items at the grocery store. They cannot purchase alcohol or tobacco or pet food with their benefits but they can purchase junk food, including soft drinks, candy, cookies, snack crackers, and ice cream. In the past, it has been too costly and administratively burdensome to attempt to limit the exact types of foods that can be purchased by SNAP familties.

However, under a test program in Hampden County, Massachusetts that started this month called the “Healthy Incentives Program” or HIP, 1,500 SNAP families can receive extra SNAP money if they choose to purchase certain kinds of fruits and vegetables in their monthly grocery shopping. You can read the restrictions here. In general, families can buy any fruits or vegetables that don’t have added sugar, salt or fat. But interestingly, there is a particular hostility to allowing these families to buy white potatoes, beans, “fruit-nut mixtures” and “mixed vegetables containing white potatoes.”

No program will ever be perfect in its design but I am pleased to see someone trying to encourage healthy eating in this vulnerable population. It will be interesting to see if it has the intended result.

In reading the transcript of a SNAP symposium on the HIP program, I was struck to read this quote:

“[I]f the kids want it, the parents buy it. That’s been pretty well borne out in the literature.”

–Debrah Palmer, Associate Extension Specialist and Director of the New Jersey Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program, speaking at a panel discussion for the HIP Symposium, October 16, 2008

So yet again, we see an emphasis on influencing children rather than adults to implement healthy eating initiatives among the poor.

I am sorry to see that the legislation improving school lunch did not pass. Did it perhaps go too far in its attempt to differentiate between good and bad vegetables and tomato paste? If those provisions were left out and instead we reduced sodium and increased whole grains might it have passed? Who knows? I hope this is a conversation that Congress will continue to have in the future or that school lunch professionals around the country can be incented by local school boards or parents to improve lunches on their own making this conversation unnecessary.

What are your thoughts on school lunch or SNAP legislation? What rules would you like to see to improve the health of school-age children and poor families? Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on November 29, 2011 General, Ruly Kids Tagged with: , ,
Oct 312011

I have this little daughter “Lola.”

She is small and very funny.

One year, we decided to make a Halloween costume.

We needed:

and ended up with:


Then we took

and created . . .


Next we found

and made

to create



But no story would be complete without an imaginary friend.

For this, we need:

Our Lola has an invisible, beautiful fairy who is her best friend . . .

Lauren Sorenson!


*If you are a Lauren Child fan, you absolutely get this. If you don’t, you must read, “I Will Not Ever, Never, Eat a Tomato.” Immediately. (Or check out the Charlie and Lola website.)

Thank you, Lauren Child! We love Lola who embodies all the imaginative exuberance of our girls and Charlie’s kind rationality trying to guide her in the right direction. We admire your deceptively simple, and extremely stylized art. Charlie and Lola will be the remembered classic books of my children’s childhood. Forever.

Happy Halloween!

 Posted by on October 31, 2011 General, Ruly Kids Tagged with: ,
Aug 092011

Last week was a huge event for our family. We welcomed a wonderful boy! Our son is tiny and cute and his arrival requires that my husband and I update our parenting skills to learn more about raising boys.

Ana Homayoun’s book, That Crumpled Paper was Due Last Week: Helping Disorganized and Distracted Boys Succeed in School and Life, was a timely read. Ms. Homayoun is a former financial analyst for a major Wall Street firm turned educational organizer. Her specialty is helping junior high and high school age children, particularly boys, organize their time and energy to do better in school.

Why the focus on boys? Certainly girls have many of the same organizational challenges when it comes to school. Ms. Homayoun gives a couple of data points here:

“Scientists have discovered in recent years that the brains of men and women seem to be wired differently; women can more easily handle language-based multi-tasking—writing notes while listening to someone speak, for instance—while men are superior at spatial-based multi-tasking, which comes in handy in sports and videogames, but is rarely any help in the classroom. . . .”

–Ana Homayoun, That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week

She also indicates that since boys end puberty as many as three years later than girls, differences in brain maturation rates also account for why boys struggle with school more often than girls. While the book focuses solely on the needs of pre-teen and teenage boys, the advice can be easily translated to girls or even adults.

First, a few things not to do . . .

1) Don’t take it personally. If your son is disorganized or not doing well in school, don’t assume that this is a reflection of your poor parenting or example.

“I meet a lot of parents who feel personally embarrassed and guilty about their son’s poor academic performance, detachment from school, and general malaise. Yet by complaining about their son’s shortcomings, they are actually (unwittingly) creating a more toxic environment. The parents who come into my office assuming the worst of their child (“He never gets it . . . he’s always doing this”) are often the ones digging their children—and themselves—a bigger hole, complete with the emotional baggage that makes it more difficult for their children to become organized, responsible and accountable.”

–Ana Homayoun, That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week

2) Don’t get too involved.

“Some moms who come into my office are terrifically organized—nearly perfectly so . . . and they wonder why their sons are so disorganized. Part of the problem is, of course, that with Mom so on top of it, these sons have never been forced to develop such skills on their own. When confronted with the need to organize themselves, they consequently react with frustration and, finally, give up on organization altogether.”

–Ana Homayoun, That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week

3) Don’t pay your child for grades.

“To help your child grow and develop as a student and a person, he needs to feel comfortable making mistakes and growing within his own abilities. By bribing him, you are setting the bar where you think it should be instead of allowing him to develop the intrinsic motivation that, who knows, could likely have him one day exceeding your wildest expectations.”

–Ana Homayoun, That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week

4) Don’t complain about your son’s shortcomings in his presence.

“By humiliating him, you’re telling him that mistakes and failure are synonymous; they’re not. If they were, we’d all be getting Fs every day of our lives.”

–Ana Homayoun, That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week

Ms. Homayoun then outlines 8 different personality types typically associated with disorganized boys. (Again, I think you can apply these personality types to just about anyone. I certainly found myself among the types.) The reasons for disorganization can vary from the “Over-Scheduled Procrastinator” to the “Sincere Slacker.” Different organizational techniques may be required to address each personality type.

Ms. Homayoun emphasizes the need to set goals with your student and gives child-appropriate questions to ask to help develop these goals. Ms. Homayoun encourages the whole family to get in on the act and post their goals in a public spot. Regularly, the family should check in with each other to see how everyone is doing with their goals.

“In coming up with these goals, students are taking two very important steps: They’re establishing a clear purpose and path for accomplishing what they want to accomplish, and they’re beginning to view being organized as an important part of finding their own personal pathway.”

–Ana Homayoun, That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week

For those excited about purchasing school supplies, Ms. Homayoun also has a chapter on specific organizational techniques. A few tips (and some examples from . . .

  • She prefers binders, one for each subject, including subjects that don’t generally have a lot of paperwork, like music or P.E. Her argument is that everything generates at least some paperwork and you need a slot to put that in. Within each binder, create five tabs: notes, homework, handouts, tests/quizzes and paper.
  • She prefers “reinforced binder paper” to prevent paper from tearing at the holes.
  • Since creating flash cards is one of her recommended techniques for studying, she recommends that you purchase recipe card or index card boxes to store the flash cards in for easy access.
  • All students need a planner and she recommends planners that provide one full page for each school day (surprisingly hard to find!).

Wilson Jones (W362-14W) 3-Hole View Binder, 1-Inch Rings, 11 Inch by 8 1/2 Inch, White at

Pendaflex Oxford Blank Index Cards, 3x5 Inches, White, 1000 cards at

Plastic Index Card File Box, 300 3"x5" Card Capacity at

Academic Year Daily Business Planners - July 2011 at

Avery WorkSaver Insertable Tab Dividers, 5-Tab Set, 1 Set at

Ms. Homayoun’s expertise in the school environment really shows. She has chapters on learning differences, separation/divorce and chronic illness. She discusses the impact of technology on this age group, including cell phones, Facebook and online learning management systems. She suggests ideal study areas in the home–notably not in the child’s bedroom– and homework and test strategies.

For more from Ms. Homayoun, see the video clip below:

This book was a great read both for parents who have children in middle and high school as well as those, like myself, who have many years until that time. It was helpful to get a preview of the organizational skills kids need as they progress in school and has challenged me to come up with simple ways to begin developing these skills in my children now.

Do you agree that boys struggle more with school organization than girls? What techniques have you found especially helpful for organizing boys? Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on August 9, 2011 Ruly Bookshelf, Ruly Kids Tagged with: , , , ,
Jun 212011

This month, as I am looking to inject a little personality into my garden, my daughter’s school art project provided some inspiration. Using a well-known material we all have free access to, you can create an endless number of imaginative creatures. The material, of course, is rocks!

As we scouted the yard for rocks, we found a variety of examples. While I was more focused on finding the more attractive rocks and pebbles, my daughter showed no such constraints. She even picked up several pieces of asphalt from the crumbling road.

We took the rocks inside to wash them, then painted them with a variety of all-purpose craft paints.

After the painting was done, we glued them together into sculptures with an outdoor superglue. It was a little tough getting the rocks to balance while they dried but the finished sculptures were solid.

When we were done we had monsters

a frog

a “duck”

and a fairy.

We tried posing them in various spots around the yard. Because we only had small rocks to work with, our creatures are pretty tiny in scale compared to the plants but they add a lot of whimsy and fun. They seem to show up best in bare spots, near smaller plants and on rocky surfaces. Here is a monster guarding the boxwood.

Two watchmen for a growing cedar.

and a fairy hiding out beneath the hosta.

These little creatures are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing, sparking imagination.

“Mom, do you think the fairy will get along with the monsters?”

My last step is to spray the creatures with a clear-coat sealer and hope the craft paint and sealer will stand up to the weather. The directions on the sealer advise not to spray in high humidity. We may have to cheat a bit on that instruction otherwise we will be waiting until fall!

Hope you enjoyed this free or cheap garden art project. You could even skip the paint and leave the rocks natural or stack them in piles instead of gluing them.

Would you try this rock art project? What other ideas do you have for using rocks in the garden? Please share in the comments.

 Posted by on June 21, 2011 General, Ruly Kids Tagged with: , ,
Apr 282011

The world awaits the wedding of the century (and to be sure an amazing feat of organization!) tomorrow, between Prince William and Kate Middleton. We are all getting quite an education on the royal family in the news of late, furthering our fascination with these people who seem half-real, half imagined.  Below are some of my favorite news articles on the royal wedding:

Of course, the knitting article pulled at my heart.   Vogue Knitting also posted a link on their Facebook page to a similar free William & Kate knitted pattern from Galt Toys.

I decided my little girls needed a prince and princess of their own and set to work.  The only changes I made to the pattern were to cut it down to half-size so that the dolls were more pocket-sized.

Making the toys more special to us was the fact that I made them out of odds and ends of yarn inherited from my Yiayia.  My Yiayia was an incredible knitter herself and the one who taught me how.  I knew she would love that her scraps were used to make a princess for her own little princesses.

I made Kate first.

I went for a romantic Kate with hair down and flowing with flowers in her hair and a long lace train.  You may recognize the lace fragment as leftover from our Halloween costumes last year.

This was my oldest daughter’s first intelligent exposure to a wedding (although she served adorably as a flower girl at 2).  She wanted to know why Kate’s train was so long and found it very magical.

“Can she fly?”

I knew my little girls would love the Kate doll. My oldest is at the age where she makes clear distinctions between boy things and girl things with boy things being clearly less desirable.

“Would you like me to make Prince William too?”

I was expecting a “no.”  In an encouraging sign to the young princes of the world, she consented.  As I was working on Prince William, I at one point referred to him as a doll, not realizing that he too was magical in my daughter’s eyes.

“He’s not a doll!  He’s a prince!”

My William came out a little more like a postman than a military officer but the general idea is right.  The faces on these knitted folk are tough to execute.  Clearly, I need a little more practice but we are having fun with them.

We have had many interesting play sessions about the wedding.

So far, this is my daughter’s current understanding of marriage:

“When you get married, you wear a pretty dress and a big hat in your hair.  Then people sit and clap for you.”

Congratulations to the new couple! May all my readers find their Princess/Prince Charming and live happily ever after!

Will you be up at 4 a.m. (or earlier) to watch the big event tomorrow?

 Posted by on April 28, 2011 General, Ruly Kids Tagged with: , ,