Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Decorating trends with young children

I swear our house was nice when we bought it. Nothing fancy, but it was a pretty nice place and we were proud of our first home. In the past decade we have made many upgrades, but we have also had two children and they have had some decorating ideas of their own. I thought I would give you a tour of some of the fabulous additions that they have brought to our decor.

One of the biggest trends we have embraced have been natural wall embellishments. Notice the fabulous chips in the paint of our living room wall, accented by Sharpie marker and a hint of crayon. Notice the red paint in the shade of 'zombie appocalypse'. This was a decorating trend for about 5 minutes when the previous owners lived here but we have been hesitant to let it go because new paint would be colored on 5 minutes later and also we're just too tired to even think of moving all our shit out of the way to repaint.

In the dining room we have featured a lovely scratch that spans the entire back wall where the chairs have been dragged repeatedly across the wall. We also showcase a random hole where a child has crashed into the wall at high speeds, probably on a plasma car.

Our real pride and joy is our dining room table, where people leave a gorgeous assortment of random shit for me to spend mind boggling amounts of time putting away on a daily basis. The beauty of it is that it's always changing. One day you might find a cutlass and a party hat, the next some Halloween bug antenna and an old kleenex box that has been converted into some sort of 'craft'. Also, no dining room table is complete without a wet balled up swim towel, which really ties the room together.

Here is a feature we are constantly adding on to. Stickers go with everything, from the dusty baseboards leading up the stairs to every piece of furniture in our house. Any time the girls get a pack of stickers they are diligent in sticking every single one on a window, wall or piece of wooden furniture. There is no doubting their dedication.

Along with stickers, you just can't go wrong with things scotched taped to every surface. If it can be scotch taped to the wall, it has.

While our bathroom may or may not boast globs of toothpaste in the sink and splattered on the mirror, we always feature a broken toilet paper dispenser. What makes this feature so versatile is that now the children can rip open the entire package of toilet paper and partially use every roll so we can have an assortment of different sized rolls peppered throughout the bathroom.

The bathroom also lacks any towel racks. There are some remaining holes in the wall to remind us of where they were before the children swung from them, but without them they are free to throw their towels on the floor every time they use one and can often manage to get 15 on the floor after washing their hands before my husband and I notice.

Directly under our bathroom we have several prominent water stains on the ceiling from all of the times the children have flooded the bathroom by stopping the sink and walking away with it running or trying to make ocean waves in our bathtub.

Our house always hosts an assortment of flies and other bugs. We managed this by having both the front and back screen doors ripped out by constant slamming and overuse. The empty hinges add a nice accent to our otherwise understated front door.

Our living room follows not only the latest loot bag sticker trends, but also accent pieces that change daily. Today we have various bits of rice on and under the coffee table, a piece of trash with a dirty sock on top and what room would be complete without a random plastic IKEA plate left on the floor for no reason.

This week we have the added bonus of play dough which was a recent birthday gift. Notice how every single tub and accessory have been dumped on the floor and the tiny bits of dried play dough surrounding it. It's an added bonus that they actually put the lids back on and haven't ground any bits into the floor yet for me to spend hours of fun scrubbing out. Give it time.

Here we have a custom hole on our staircase where the banister has been ripped out of the wall. I really enjoy this feature because it has removed the need to nag the children every 10 seconds to stop swinging from this particular banister before they rip it out of the wall. I do still get the opportunity to nag about the one on the lower half of the stairs which still remains attached (although just barely).

In the kitchen we have an impressive collection of clean dishes that nobody has had time to put away yet. Soon they will be replaced with dirty dishes, once the children are home for summer vacation and demanding snacks every few seconds. Notice the 12 pounds of cherries in our fridge, which I purchased because every time I went to eat some they would all be gone. This guarantees that my children will no longer like cherries and I will become sick from trying to eat all 12 pounds of them myself.

Here we have the latest in top of the fridge and pantry looks with a random assortment of contraband items that the children have been fighting over or are itching to break and tantrum inducing candy that other parents feel the need to send home with them from every birthday party they go to immediately after eating cake with frosting. This collection piles up until it all comes crashing down, then items are redistributed as needed.

Some of my favorites in furniture include mysterious upholstery punctures with gaping stuffing and cracked lamps that have been knocked over multiple times by yanking on the cords for reasons unknown. I am always amazed every time I pick up a lamp and it still works.

The piece de resistance in our home has definitely become the children's rooms themselves. While once considered 'the nursery' and done in a minimalist and careful style, the children have adopted a style more aptly named 'piles of shit everywhere' and 'I couldn't find it so I dumped out my entire dresser and all my shelves'. A very popular choice these days in children's decor when mothers realize their kids should be picking up after themselves already but don't have the energy to fully nag it through.

I hope you have enjoyed the tour of our home and look forward to hearing your own decorating tips. Also feel free to pipe up about your children who have never destroyed anything and were ironing their own socks by age 2. My friends and I can never get enough of sanctimonious comments of perfect parenting and are looking forward to hearing from you!

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Master of None: The Laments of a Part Time Working Mother.

I grew up a girl child in the 80's, both parents working full time and the expectation that I would do the same. Like most Xennials, I also came of age with a highly specialized degree in a collapsing and uncertain job market. I was forced to work thousands of miles from home just to pay off my student loans. By my late 20's I had admitted defeat, returned to school and switched to a career that my heart wasn't in but provided better job prospects. After graduating from university a second time even the market for stable jobs had collapsed, forcing me into random temp jobs just to get by. I was depressed by the expectation of where I would be by a certain age and how far I actually was from that point.

In my 30's the babies came.

We were poor and we were exhausted but oh, I was all in. My days were rich and full and without any expectation beyond the moment. There was still time I figured, to work more often, to earn more money, to travel. Everything would change when the kids were both in school, but for that incredibly short yet long stretch of years I threw myself into stay at home parenting, only working often enough at my substitute teaching job to keep my job security waiting for me. It was a choice where there was no contest.

I'm in my 40's now and for the past year and a half, both kids have been in full time school. We're free from the prohibitive daycare costs that made it senseless for me to work. And still? The far off future never looks the same up close.

Children aren't really in school all that much when you factor in all the holidays, PD days, snow days, illnesses and appointments. I know that double income families deal with this using holiday camps, extended day care, and juggling their paid leave, but in my case if my kids aren't at school, I don't work and I don't get paid. We're not paying child care costs anymore, but as those have disappeared, the kids have become more expensive. They do more sports and activities and need more equipment, footwear and clothing purchased new, as the well of hand me downs tends to dry up as they get older. So despite being here in the anticipated future, the money still really isn't here and won't be until they are old enough to be much more independent.

So what do I do all day while my children aren't here and I'm not working? I take the car in for repairs. I buy the groceries and prep the meals. I bake the stereotypical cookies for my kids lunches. I pull our daughter with autism out of school for therapy and mental health days. I take the kids to the dentist and doctor and the cat to the vet and load and unload the dishwasher 8 billion times. I do our taxes and pay our bills and email our children's teachers and buy gifts and food for all the holidays. I do all of the things that any parent with children has to do anyway if they are working or not, but I make sure I do most of them while everyone else is gone. Our evenings, weekends and holidays are free to spend on outings with the children, their sports or just playing with them. We don't need to run around during peak hours, stay up late or use up my husband's vacation time to get any of it done. His job pays in money, what I do buys us time.

The days I do work are shitty for everyone, because none of us are used to it. The night before I'm moody and anxious and stressed out, and in the morning the children have to be woken up an hour early and taken to the babysitter if I'm to work a full day. I have to do this disrupted routine by myself because my husband is already gone to work and then we come home to the leftover mess from breakfast and nothing even remotely ready for dinner, hangry and frustrated because we're used to eating soon after everyone gets home. It's even worse if my daughter has a swim practice the same evening. If you do it every day, or even on set days it becomes a routine. When it's sporadic it's jarring and mentally draining.

I work with children, so it's not a 'nice change' for me. The other teachers recognize my face and name but don't really know me because I'm not at either school often enough to form any sort of relationships the way you do working together daily. Sometimes it's interesting, sometimes it's really really hard and I mostly just go in, keep my head down and get the hell out in time to pick up my kids afterwards. It pays really well for the amount of time I'm there, so there is that.

Aside from freeing up family time, there are definitely perks to this way of life. I have friends who also stay home and we try to combine errands so we can spend time together and grab coffee or lunch while we're out. I consider these people my true colleagues, and they add so much joy to my life. We have a pool membership and I manage to fit in some lap swimming a few days a week, although I often feel strange to be the only able bodied adult there who is under the age of 70. It's a time of day when everyone else my age is generally at work or tending to small children, trying to fit exercise in before dawn or after dark (if at all), neither of which work for me.

My husband has recently advanced in his career. After years of slogging it out, he was promoted to do something he actually went to school for, and not even something that promised a plethora of secure jobs, but something that's his life passion. He is now an artist with a dental plan. His job is harder, and busier and more stressful, but it also pays more and offers more satisfaction.

What I do? Not so much. My paying job offers no advancement, no recognition, no pension, and no pay raises beyond basic inflation. The work I do at home, despite the ways that it vastly improves the lives of every member of our family, often feels embarrassing and empty. I've learned to bake really well. I've taught my kids to swim. I earn enough extra money that we can buy our kids better Christmas gifts or maybe even go on vacation, but not enough that our life has improved significantly. I'm in this strange limbo between those with full time careers and those who have accepted that they are just going to have a large family and stay home, surrounded by a boisterous and ever growing brood of chaos. I worry that I'm setting a bad example for our daughters, yet loving all the time we both get to spend with them making memories because I free up the time to do so. I wish I had the financial option of staying home fully, without the stress of trying to do both, without the constant mental budget calculations that keep us afloat, but I also like being able to tell both strangers and my own children that I do in fact have a paying job.

Over the years friends have claimed that I have the best of both worlds by working part time, but it feels more like a small sampling of each. These days I just feel jealous of those who live at either extreme without apology.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The storage tote on my porch: A Buy Nothing Project story

I passed a woman on the street this morning, each of us carrying random items in old grocery bags, our names written on them in sharpie. I had never met her, but we gave each other a friendly look and nod, knowing we were both up to the same thing. We had just taken something off of someone's porch, someone we quite possibly had never laid eyes on.

Two and a half years ago a friend sent me an invitation to a local Facebook group called Buy Nothing (our neighborhood name) and while I belonged to several local buy/sell groups, I had never heard of this before. The premise is that you post your unwanted items for offer to other neighbors in the group, people comment on them if they want them, and then you pick a recipient. You can also ask for items that you want, and if someone has one they don't need, they might offer it to you. After that, arrangements are made to pick up the item, either face to face, or often from a bin on their porch.

I was already several months into an ongoing massive purge of our belongings, in order to avoid the expensive prospect of upgrading to a larger house. I started posting items to give almost right away, and commenting on things I needed.

The group quickly spread like wildfire, everyone in love with the idea. While my basement slowly emptied of dusty items we hadn't touched in years, finding new love in other homes, I was being given countless items we wanted or needed without having to spend a cent. With me working part time our budget is always tight, but after joining Buy Nothing it started to seem a little less imposing, with so many items suddenly falling into our hands for free. Hand me down clothing and shoes for our children, partially finished bags of pull ups, excess garden produce, bedding, ice skates, soccer cleats, toys and books were available from sources reaching much farther than our inner circle. The more I received from Buy Nothing, the more money it left in our budget for the other things we needed to purchase.

Some of the most amazing things we have been given over the past years have been a wooden doll house, a private swimming lesson, a bicycle, a new mailbox, an IKEA loft bed, a dresser, fresh baked goods and fudge, an 18 inch doll, a hair cut, a Keurig machine, a children's gift basket full of treasures, and basement shelving. Half the toys under our Christmas tree this year came from the group, most of them still new in the package, and twice when families have moved to another city we have received the entire contents of their fridges, freezers and pantries, saving us money for months. Any time I need something, I know I just need to ask and 90% of the time, it will likely appear. Just this week when my fitbit band broke, I put up a request in the group. Within 5 minutes I had an offer for 2 new ones, just a few blocks away.

Knowing such generosity is available to me, it makes it really easy to give as well, and keep this house free of clutter. As soon as my youngest outgrows anything, out the door it goes without the time consuming hassle trying to nickle and dime some money back through consignment stores, selling sites or yard sales. I also don't need to deal with the guilty feeling about how much money might have been spent on it. I'm giving back to a giant communal pot of hand me downs, knowing that whatever I put in will come back to me in some way, and sentimental items are easier to part with knowing that another, younger child will love it the same way my children love the items that are passed to them, and another mom will feel the same ease in her budget when she doesn't need to pay for it.

But really, the very best part of the group have been the amazing friends I've made. When the Konmari method swept through the group (and with it the hilarious volume of clothing and books suddenly being offered) a little group of 6 of us formed to chat privately about it and have since become a tight knit group that talks multiple times a day. Another group formed to work on sewing projects together twice a month, where I work on a quilt made of old pajama scraps and eat treats at a friend's house. One summer we even formed a park tour, where members would meet up at a different local park for a play date each day, until we had visited every park in the entire area. There have been adult coloring nights, crafting nights, pot lucks and outings. One woman opens her house to members every Thursday morning to drop in for coffee, a chat and fresh baked cookies.

There is a dark side as well. I've lent out items that haven't been returned. I've had items sitting on my tiny porch getting destroyed by the rain when people don't show up to pick up, and food rotting and attracting bees when people haven't come to get it. There are people who comment on nearly every single item posted, either hoarding items or selling them for profit. There are people who ask and ask for things but never give back. There are people who dramatically overshare their every woe. There are rules that stifle people, like not being able to give advice, tell people where to find an item for sale cheaply, or banter about something without an admin deleting their comments or giving them a stern talking to.

Over time though you learn who to trust, to lend only what's replaceable, and who is reliable and punctual when it comes to pick things up. I have a long list of people I will no longer give things to, and an even longer list of people who I know will be there within hours of having their name picked. While some people prefer to give their most sought after items through a random number generator, I pick those who I know are going to come quickly. Most times I don't even need to post items anymore, but give them directly to people with daughters just a little younger than mine, the same way another woman gives bags of clothing directly for my oldest now, and another gives my children all her happy meal toys for their collections. We've developed a sort of efficiency for keeping our houses free of clutter, and a cunning at keeping our children provided for at very little cost.

Whenever the group reaches 1000 members, it needs to 'sprout' into two or more groups. The first time it happened, my friends and I were devastated. It was like being put in separate classes! There was a lot of drama and unrest in the group that led to online fighting, unfriending, and even a renegade spin-off group, of which I am still an admin. The group recently sprouted again with little fanfare, because what we learned the first time was that any friends we had already made were ours to keep, and there was still plenty available being given, it was just much easier to pick up now that the geographical boundaries were smaller.

I wish this had been around when my children were first born. While I was lucky to have been given so many hand me downs from my sister in law, many times I would run out to buy an item only to find out a friend or neighbor had just recently donated the same thing and vice versa. Had we been in the group, they would have known I needed it, or I would have known they were getting rid of exactly what I needed. My web was small back then, and now it's very large, and continues to grow.

If you don't already belong to a Buy Nothing group, I would highly advise that you do. You can find yours by typing Buy Nothing (your neighborhood name) in the search bar on Facebook, and most likely one will come up. Some groups are more active than others, but you can expand the membership by inviting nearby friends, the way my friend did years ago with me. Years later I'm still a proud member with a telltale storage tote on my porch to prove it.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Joining the cult: How Fitbit changed my life in unexpected ways.

I used to laugh at people in the FitBit cult.

I belong to a group of friends that is absolutely obsessed and constantly competing with each other. They jog on the spot at birthday parties, dance while they're cooking, walk to places any sane person will drive to and watch their stats all day long. My friend Nicole will run next to her bed until midnight to beat someone in a challenge, and Julia blindly does laps around the main floor of her house while her kids are in bed, texting us the entire time.

I laughed at them, but I never wanted a FitBit for fitness sake. I've always been an active person, with long distance running and gymnastics as a child and teen morphing into walking, biking and swimming as an adult. I like to move, and that is motivation enough. But I was curious for other reasons, because it seemed like the mere act of looking after my children was taking an awfully large number of steps. Sometimes I would count them in my head for short periods to get a general idea. I considered asking one of my friends to tear themselves away from a single challenge to borrow one and see.

One day a few months ago Julia showed up at my door (walking of course. The round trip between our houses is 7,000 steps). I was blown away by her incredibly kind gesture of buying me a FitBit so I could finally be included in the madness. She rushed it over so I could get it set up and compete in the Weekend Warrior starting the next morning. I stared at that thing for hours as it charged up, mentally willing that 5th dot to appear. The second I fastened it up, I was a changed woman.

There were some technical difficulties at first. There were some frantic calls and emails to their support team, some lamenting over lost steps and some friendly taunting about the whole thing before I was up and running.

Me before FitBit: I don't really care about competing. I just want to see how many steps I get naturally.

Me after FitBit: Galloping around my mother in law's tiny apartment during Easter dinner so I didn't fall behind the others.

It's never just about exercise. Sure that jog or walk will get you some steps, but in the grand scheme of things, even if you're training for a marathon, if you've got a desk job you're no match for a stay at home mom who walks her kids to school and back every day. A step is a step is a step and they add up around the clock. Everything counts, from that trip to the bathroom at 3 a.m. to loading your dishwasher before bed.

Right away I was hyper aware of my every movement, checking my stats every time I walked past my computer. I was always just ahead of or just behind someone, so I was extremely selective about when I sat down. FitBit graphs out your day in 15 minute increments, and it was rare during waking hours to ever see even one little block of time blank. I consciously chose my sitting time only when I deemed it worth it so that when I saw blank spaces I felt only joy at the memory of sitting and visiting with friends, rather than guilt at time wasted with mindless internet surfing.

Nothing seemed to beat a good solid walk, so I started walking multiple times a day. I would make plans with friends that required me to walk to their houses and back, and would take another long walk every evening when my husband got home from work. I started running errands on foot like I used to back when I had just one child. I noticed I was sleeping deeper at night, my sleep stats showing long patches of solid blue.

In the evenings, when it was too dark to walk and competition was close, I refused to waste precious energy jogging next to my bed or doing laps of my house. Instead, I got those extra steps in by frantically cleaning my house.

I've always been a terrible housekeeper, because there is just always something more worthwhile in my eyes than the never ending battle of trying to keep my house clean. In the past if I ever had a spare minute I would have rather spent it doing anything else in the world. But suddenly I was being compensated for this thankless and endless work. Running up and down stairs to put things back in their proper places, pacing back and forth across the room to put away laundry, bustling around sweeping? It suddenly counted for more than just simple adulting. Every time I picked up a broom or hung up a jacket, my steps went up, and unlike the chore, which would very soon be undone and forgotten, those steps were something I got to keep forever. My house got cleaner, yes. But what really improved was my attitude.

It's tiring to chase after children and it's depressing to be on your feet all day yet feel like you accomplish nothing. After Seven years in this parenting rodeo, I was starting to run on fumes, and earning steps for each ridiculous endeavor put new wind in my sails. Suddenly it was less soul crushing to jump up to clean the spilled milk or run up the stairs to grab a forgotten library book when in the back of my mind was always the thought 'this will give me extra steps'. I stopped cringing at the sound of random cries and demands and simply jumping up to deal with it because it no longer felt quite like drudgery.

My daughter thought it was hilarious that all us mothers were galloping around our houses frantically trying to win a digital trophy every week, but she was also strangely proud when I was winning.

Aside from all these wonderful perks of improved fitness, sleep and attitude, for me the best part of FitBit is the camaraderie. Even when we can't be there in person, my friends are there to cheer each other on, to jokingly curse when someone takes a really long walk, to worry when someone hasn't synced or taken their usual number of steps. It's a constant daily narrative that encourages us all to strive for better health, attitude and connection. So maybe I'm brainwashed now like the rest of them (even if I refuse to jog on the spot), but I can honestly say my life is much richer for admission into this twisted and fabulous cult.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

My child's brain has been infected by Paw Patrol

Six months ago my three year old gave up napping completely, a full year before she was scheduled to start school.

"Help me!" I begged my friends. "I've tried everything!"

"But have you tried Paw Patrol?"

After screening a few minutes of it myself and deeming it tolerable, I sat her down in front of an episode and enjoyed my very first uninterrupted coffee in months. 23 minutes later she was already hooked on the pups and I was hooked on the sweet sweet freedom.

From that moment on she was no longer going by her given name. "No, I'm Rubble."

But it didn't stop there. Everything she wore, ate or used suddenly needed to be yellow. Except aside from two pairs of underwear, a shovel and a sippy cup she really doesn't own anything yellow.

I need a Rubble dress. I need Rubble lego. I need Rubble potatoes.

I looked online to see if any of this stuff even existed.

1. In most cases, no.

2. Holy crap, this stuff is expensive!

Eventually I found the Paw Patrol busy book. It comes with figurines for Ryder and all six dogs, along with some of the vehicles. This would exempt us from buying any more action figures, lego sets, stuffed animals or other overpriced crap because she would have every major character to play with.

The Chapters by our house said it had four copies in stock. Perfect. I arrived and wandered the store. It was loaded with busy books from every movie and t.v. show possible, but no Paw Patrol. I enlisted the help of a store employee, who also couldn't find them.

"They must have been stolen during our Paw Patrol event. Things got a little out of hand."

I looked up at her and joked "All four copies? Too many obsessed three year olds?"

She looked traumatized "It was truly awful. They swarmed the store. There were just too many of them. We're still recovering."

I looked around at the obvious mess, misplaced items scattered everywhere. I had one obsessed three year old. I could picture a mob of them. I just didn't want to.

After trying Costco and two Walmarts, I found an Indigo across town that said it had 11 copies. 11 seemed safe. I just needed to find a way to justify driving to the other end of the city to buy a book full of plastic dogs, so I scheduled a visit with a friend living in that area and figured I would just stop in the store on my way there.

I arrived at the store as soon as they opened and raced to the children's section. There was a large display of busy books but not one Paw Patrol copy. I went to find an employee only to find her already helping a woman with two preschoolers. Feeling competitive and a little panicked, I asked the woman "Are you looking for Paw Patrol too?"

She looked at me with genuine terror in her eyes. "No. But please never mention those words in front of them." and she pointed down at her young sons. She quickly ushered them away.

The book was placed in my hands at last. I sighed with relief. My daughter squealed with excitement. I'm still enjoying a hot, uninterrupted beverage daily. Life is good.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Don't Push the Buttons on the Microwave: An Autism Social Story

I learned about social stories when my daughter was first diagnosed with autism. She had a difficult time learning to converse, and we finally clued in to the fact that it was hard for her to understand things that she couldn't see- including language. Once she learned to read she started to understand things like grammar and conversation a lot better, and I realized that if something wasn't making sense to her it would be easier for her to read about it than to talk about it.

Last year our daughter's teacher started to help us deal with some of the issues she was having at home and school by writing her little social stories using a sharpie and some scrap paper. They did an amazing job helping her make connections in a way that talking to her couldn't.

We approached our publisher with the idea of turning some of them into something that read more like a regular picture book than a textbook. Our daughter may be very literal, but she's still a child with a sense of humor who very much enjoys books. Why not write some books she could really relate to?

In the past year, with the help of our publisher and some fellow parents, a series was born. Each book features a specific, common issue that children on the spectrum and their families face, written from the child's point of view, but illustrated to show the real reactions of other people, both as comic relief for parents and siblings, but also to foster discussions about the feelings of other people. Also peppered throughout the book are little details that most people wouldn't notice, but jump right out at parents of children on the spectrum.

The first book in the series, "Don't Push the Buttons on the Microwave: An Autism Social Story" deals with the issue of obsessive, controlling behavior. It is available for purchase online from Another Chapter Publishing, and in honor of World Autism Awareness Day on April 2, we are donating $2 from the sale of every book during the month of April to the Autism Canada Foundation.

As parents of autistic children we understand the difference between a neurotypical child's 30 second tantrum after being denied more cookies and an autistic child's one hour meltdown because they don't like the way you folded their socks. We understand that it's frustrating, we understand that it's funny. We appreciate that there are books out there that raise awareness and acceptance, but wish they weren't all of the 'My brother is special but we should love him anyway' variety. Our children are unique, intelligent, funny and caring people. They shouldn't be patronized. They need books that are practical, and they need books that are fun. They need books that are FOR them and not just ABOUT them.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Create a Rice Bowl- cheap, easy, healthy and customized school lunch idea

I discovered 'The Tightwad Gazette'about 20 years ago, when I was a teenager living at home and really had no need for anything in it. Yet the contents of that book stayed with me and influenced me in a lot of ways over the years. It allowed me to pay off all my student loans quickly, save for our house and these days it allows our family to live on 1.2 incomes. Without the Tightwad Gazette and everything it taught me about frugal living I never would have been able to substitute teach one or two days a week and spend the rest of my time at home with my youngest.

One of my favorite things in her books were her 'universal recipes', which I still use to this day. They allow you to mix and match ingredients that you have on hand/want to use up to create many variations of the same meal or snack. This is where I got the idea to create my own universal recipe for my daughter's school lunches last month: Create a rice bowl.

My daughter has been on a gluten free diet for about 10 months now, and gluten free bread is both expensive and pretty gross. I was tired of spending 3 times as much money for bread that came home half eaten every day and was trying to think of an alternative to sandwiches. I wanted something that was going to be easy, cheap, nutritious and that would actually get eaten. Something that could taste different yet was generally the same to prepare so it could just become another routine to follow without thinking. And since my daughter loves rice, ADORES rice, I thought a rice bowl would fit all these criteria.

Universal Rice Bowl Recipe

1 cup uncooked rice
2 cups vegetables (any type)
1 can beans, drained and rinsed
2 1/2 cups water
2 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients in a pot and simmer until rice is cooked, or place everything in a microwave safe casserole dish and cook for up to 20 minutes in the microwave.

Here is the breakdown of ingredients variations:

Rice- I use either regular rice or basmati, but you can use any type

Vegetables- anything you have works. Cauliflower and carrots are nice for an Indian based dish, peas, carrots and broccoli for Chinese, while corn and peppers are good for Mexican. I usually use frozen mixed veggies (with the peas, green beans, corn, carrots and lima beans) because they're my daughter's favorite.

Beans- I use chickpeas for Indian, black beans for Mexican, ect. To cut the cost of the recipe even further you can substitute the can of beans with 1 cup dried lentils plus 1 extra cup of water. I do this about half the time. It does not add any more work or cooking time to the recipe and the kids seem to like it just as much. You can also throw in leftover cooked meat or eggs, but my daughter prefers the beans and I prefer the price of beans!

Oil- I use olive oil, but any oil will work. Sesame oil would add a nice touch to Chinese and plain vegetable oil is cheapest. You can also add as much oil as you want to make it more filling or tasty. I usually just pour the oil right in without measuring.

Seasoning- this is where I have the most variation. I use 2 teaspoons curry powder for an Indian inspired dish, or 2 teaspoons of chili powder for Mexican. You can simulate fried rice by adding 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 teaspoon onion powder and perhaps some dried ginger, chives and soy sauce (in lieu of salt) as well. Italian style rice can be made by adding tomato paste and basil or oregano. Feel free to experiment with different tastes your kids will like. The good thing about this is it's just rice, so any flavors that are too strong for them can be recycled into a side dish for the grown ups at dinner time.

Heating and packing:

I make about 2 pots of this a week, usually on Sunday and Wednesday nights. The whole pot will serve one child at least 5 lunches, but to offer variety and make sure it's fresh I make it twice as often and use the extras as lunch for my 2 year old when we're home, or for dinner. The kids even like eating it for breakfast.

In the morning I fill her thermos with boiling water to heat up the inside (I put the serving spoon inside too to make it nice and hot) and microwave a bowl of the rice mixture. I used to measure it out, but now I just heap it in the bowl and if any doesn't fit in the thermos the kids will gladly eat it at breakfast. Once the rice is heated I pour the boiling water out of the thermos and put the rice in right away. This ensures it's nice and hot at lunch time. I have 2 thermoses for her just in case I forget to unpack her bag and wash it so there is always a clean one available.

I pack her a spoon and cloth napkin, as well as 2 inexpensive healthy snacks. These are usually apples, bananas, carrot sticks, or any leftover fruit or vegetable we might have available. As an occasional 'treat' I might pack her air popped popcorn, a tiny container of chocolate chips or raisins or the rare baked good we might have left over from a special occasion. This seems to be the magic amount of food- if I pack a 3rd snack one comes home uneaten.

My kid isn't going to school with fancy lunches made to look like cartoon characters. She doesn't bring hand crafted snacks and home baked goods. She also doesn't bring packaged treats and lunch foods (which from what I've seen while teaching is the norm). Her lunches are simple, inexpensive, and made from real food. But every bite gets eaten, every day, so she can't be suffering too much.