Emma Waverman writes about the chaos of modern family life. She is the co-author of the family cookbook Whining and Dining: Mealtime Survival for Picky Eaters and Families Who Love Them and is hoping to one day finish her certification as a parenting coach. She lives with her three kids, ranging from tween to grade schooler, and husband in Toronto. Emma has written for a variety of national parenting and lifestyle magazines and newspapers. When she's is not making typos, telling you what she thinks, and thinking about dinner, you can find her on Twitter at @emmawaverman. You can contact Emma at embracingchaos@hotmail.ca.

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Monday
Nov102014

Say Uncle

INFUSABLE

Fuse

Fun

Sun

Able

Use

Infusable is a long word, it must contain many anagrams. This word, these nine letters can distract me from the larger issues.

Like the sounds of my sister weeping. Or my Uncle's labored breath, and the green skin that would horrify the vain, proud man in the ICU bed with the IV bag hanging over his head. The one with the grammatically incorrect infusable written on it.

But the word isn’t long enough, and my mind can’t quite make it past the fact that each word seems to relate to my Uncle in some way: able, fun, sun, enuf (bad spelling is okay in crisis anagram-making situations).

And it was enough/enuf.

The life support was pulled and my Uncle died from complications of a stem cell transplant.

That’s the short version. The longer version is that he lived with MDS, a type of blood cancer, for years and tried different kinds of treatments, including a Hail Mary in the States. He was in remission when he checked in to the hospital but the only way to cure MDS is a stem cell transplant. So, my Uncle walked into Princess Margaret knowing it all, and he chose to do it anyways.

He opted to try the radical treatment with the idea that a “normal” or “near-normal” life was on the other side.  Instead, he leaves a widow and two sons and the rest of us. (The fact that it didn’t work, in no way diminishes the importance of cord blood donation and registering at onematch.ca.)

The even longer version is contained in binders, folders and file cabinets; and in the memories of doctors, nurses and countless attendants; it is in the thousands of discarded needles, face masks, tissues and vials of chemo drugs and in the one empty bag of stem cells of a nameless young man who tried to something good.

You won’t find me using the words: battle, victory or losses. My Uncle faced what he had to do with courage most days, with resigned fortitude some days, and with sheer self-pity on others. He didn’t lose a battle because that implies his mind could overcome his biology, or that the sides were somehow equally armed. It's a ridiculous idea that a strong mind can beat cells splitting at a rapid pace. He was determined, but that doesn’t mean anything when your bone marrow is failing, or your kidneys can’t function, or the infusable bag is hanging behind your head.

It’s trite to say he was a one of a kind, but he was. He was loving, and mercurial, he was moody and hilarious. He was outrageous and also shy. He loved luxury, his wife, his sons, his dog, my husband, family and his friends. He was unpredictable and had no filter that stopped the rush of his thoughts to the open air. That could be disconcerting or wonderful. Sometimes both. He loved love.

But now he is not here. I have become a cliché, driving around with boxes of his clothes in my trunk. I can’t drop them off at Goodwill, but no one wants them. The suits are beautiful but they don’t fit anyone, or it’s too weird to wear them, or they are too him -- and so they get put in my car and taken out again.

I am surprised by the irrationality of grief. My mind is at war -- I still expect I will open my door and see his car parked illegally out front. But that is the past, not the future.

Weekends are hard to manage without our standing Dim Sum date. Little things become minefields. I am overcome as I drive by his tailor, or his apartment, or Lake Ontario with its memories of summer days on his boat. My husband and I weep at movies where there is any loss at all.  I find myself defending myself to my friends -- explaining that he was more than an Uncle, he was a male figure in a fractured family, he was -- he was just him, and it's not really anyone's business to measure my grief against theirs (a lesson I  hope to hold on to as I become a bystander to other's losses).

I would like to be a good parenting writer and say that my kids have learned lessons; that they have said beautiful and deep things that have helped us all heal. But it’s not true. They go about their days and nights. They aren’t so keenly aware of the passage of time, of how missing someone is forever.

Once in a while, a small voice says to me – I miss Uncle David, and I just say me too. My husband whispered to me that life isn’t as good anymore. And it’s true.

Life will go on, Dim Sum will continue. Life is good. The waters of grief will recede, they already have slightly. But the hole can’t be fused. Anagrams can’t hold. This is growing up. There aren’t enough anagrams in the world to piece it back together. 

Monday
Nov032014

Brunch in a snap with one amazing easy recipe

Notice, I didn't say freshly-made croissants?

(BTW: this is sponsored by SHOP.CA)

Brunch may be for a**holes, as the New York Times is telling us, but for families it is an easy time of day to actually host people in your own home. They come at 11 a.m. and by 2p.m. you can kick them out for nap time, homework time or just get on with the cleanup, and your life.

Last weekend, I hosted a brunch for my mother-in-law’s birthday. In my family, birthdays come in clusters so we were at my Dad’s celebration the day before in Hamilton which made brunch prep a little terrifying.

But I conquered my panic with one dish; it’s the cheese strata AKA homemaker’s surprise AKA cheesy-bread thing to the rescue. I have been making this strata for over 20 years in many different forms. I made it for a pot luck in university and presented it with a very snobby name of “Brie and Cheddar Strata “ (Brie was very nouveau in those days), and my friend said: “Oh, that’s homemaker’s surprise!”. So much for snob appeal.

Whatever you call it, it’s really just a savoury bread pudding and it is delicious. The bread sort of disappears but gives the dish some structure and the cheese oozes it out. A lot of the prep work can be done a day ahead, you can even make parts of it two days ahead – but none of it takes much time. (The recipe is at the bottom of the post.)

My other secret weapon when it comes to brunch is oven-baked bacon. Seriously, this will change your life:

Line a baking sheet  with tin foil, lay out the strips of bacon so it’s close together but not touching. Turn on oven to 450 degrees F and place the bacon in the cold oven. When the oven is at about 300 turn the bacon over, when it is at 450, it is probably done, or very close. You can also sprinkle brown sugar on top before roasting it. The clean-up is a snap – no more bacon fat burns. Whether or not you dip some croissant in the bacon fat bits left on the tin foil is our little secret.

I also bought frozen croissants and pain au chocolats at my favourite local bakery. (If your favourite don’t have any frozen ones up front, they may sell you some from the back.) I baked those on my brilliant raspberry pizza stone that doubles as a serving dish. 

Of course, brunch must have bagels (from Bagel House, which I sliced and froze a few days before), smoked salmon, cream cheese, and salad. And homemade chocolate cake for dessert. Obviously, there was lots of coffee too, (with amazingly beautiful whipped milk from our Nespresso attachment. My father-in-law drank so many that I was happy that I didn’t have to deal with him later).

So I was the star daughter-in-law and had enough leftovers that I didn’t need to make dinner. A win-win.

RECIPE: Cheese Strata AKA Homemaker’s Surprise AKA Cheesy Bread thing

My mother’s original recipe in her 1991 book Fast and Fresh doesn’t call for any vegetables. But we have adjusted it over time and I love caramelized onions or leeks and spinach in it. Be creative with the cheeses and fillings, you can add in sausage, bacon and/or mushrooms too. In last week’s incarnation I added sliced tomatoes to the top but I wouldn’t add them in the middle because I’m afraid of what that would do to the texture.

For some reason I only make this for brunch but it would be a really good week-night dinner with a salad and crusty bread. It’s also a good snack straight out of the fridge.

Ingredients

8 t0 10 slices white bread, crusts removed

1/3 cup melted butter

1 tbsp olive oil

3 leeks, white parts and light green chopped

1 ½ cup spinach

8 oz soft goat cheese

1 and ½ cup grated cheese (I used cheddar and goat gouda.)

4 eggs

1 ½ cups milk

1 tbsp Dijon mustard

2 tbsp finely chopped green onion

1 tomato

Pinch salt, pepper, cayenne

Method

 Heat a medium skillet and add olive oil. Sauté leeks until softened, about 10 minutes, add in spinach and continue sautéing until spinach is soft. Add some salt and pepper to taste. This can be done one or two days ahead.

Line a buttered 11X17 baking dish with half the bread slices. Brush with melted butter.

Top the bread with the half the vegetables and half the grated cheese and dollop half the goat cheese on top randomly. Repeat with remaining bread, vegetables and cheeses. Top off with slices of tomatoes.

In a large bowl, mix eggs, milk, mustard, green onion, salt, pepper and cayenne. Pour over the bread. Let stand 30 minutes to 4 hours.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Bake the strata for 30 to 45 minutes or until puffed up and golden brown. If it is getting too brown, cover lightly with a piece of tin foil.  Allow to cool before serving.

Eat.

I know you are tempted to make this in a glass lasagna pan, but it is a teency bit nicer in a nice baking dish. I realize I have expensive tastes when it comes to kitchen equipment (my grandmother ran a kitchen store) but good equipment performs better for even the worst cook.  I am quite the shopper when it comes to my kitchen – but everything has to be beautiful, and useful.  

So I’m thrilled that SHOP.CA has the lines I already love and I can easily order a new roasting pan (lost somewhere during cottage season), and maybe a few more Emile Henri baking dishes, and have them delivered quickly before the next time I have people over. I don’t need to leave the house, and I get Aeroplan miles while I do it. SHOP.CA has free shipping and free returns everyday as well.

I’m just saying if you want super-frothed milk for the next time your in-laws come over, you should check out SHOP.CA

Tweet With Us! I'm co-hosting a Twitter party with @SHOPdotCA (and others) on Wednesday, November 5th from 8-9 PM EST. Follow along @emmawaverman and with the hashtag #ReInventTheMall and you could win some fantastic prizes for participating. (not just kitchen stuff --  gift certificates to buy whatever you want.)

Wednesday
Oct082014

OK, Sanctimommies Put Down the Lunch Box

Do you remember that sad kid in the 70s who had whole wheat noodles for lunch and carob chips as a treat? Now all are kids are that kid.

Or at least on Facebook they are. So, I am going to come clean and tell you that my kids are not those kids. My kids live on carbs from 9 to 3 and they are just fine. 

I take my kids health seriously. I encourage them to make healthy choices, I have lots of fruit and veggies in the house. We bake our own cookies and sometimes even use whole wheat flour.

I want my kids to be healthy but I also want them to be independent kids. So I don’t even know what goes in their lunchbox. I make their “main course” (sandwich with deli meat (egads!) or homemade mac and cheese with white noodles (yikes!). They get to choose their “sides” from the pantry and fridge. They are learning to make choices for themselves and that is far more important than whether or not they eat their cookie before their sandwich. 

I want to remind people that we grew up on lunches consisting of bologna and Wonder bread and we turned out fine. I even wrote a post on Today's Parent comparing the lunches we were packed as kids versus the gourmet selection we pack for our kids. (I happen to think I'm hilarious.)

The sanctimommies come out in full force over lunches. The ones who say they only pack homemade leftovers in a thermos; the ones who decry packaged cookies and who say they are shocked at a juice box. A harmless conversation on Facebook about jam sandwiches can turn into a battle for the most righteous parent. (Just ask my friend Alex about that.)

That’s nice for them – they must have the time to shop and lovingly place each fresh, organic fair trade item in a small square in their overpriced Bento Box lunchbox. They can judge another kid for eating a Bear Paw without knowing that the parent works shift work and doesn’t have time to craft nut-free, gluten-free, granola bars from home dried-fruit. Or maybe there is not excuse, maybe that parent just wants the kid to have something in their lunchbox that they will eat.

 I’m a realist.

I know that kids want lunches that are simple and that they like. I don’t sell myself on a fantasy that if I only give them one treat a week that they won’t crave treats. I don’t think that a granola bar is going to bring down their healthy immune system like a house of cards. I also don’t think that baby carrots everyday will improve their eyesight, or their disposition. If you ask a lunchroom supervisor, they will tell you that kids throw out or trade a lot of their lunch items. You may think your kids are treat-free, but their friends are probably taking pity on them and handing them cookies, or worse -- gummy bears.

Parents are scared of making their kids fat, of them not turning into the best they can be. That kind of fear can be more harmful than good – many studies have shown that banning foods often has the opposite result.

Perfection-seeking parents are being enabled by the media and Pinterest. Ugh. Pinterest. I blame the visual social media site for so many things. As if parents have time to make boiled eggs into shapes or think of new themes everyday.

 My house is stocked with fairly healthy treats – but once in a while a box of Bear Paws does enter the premises. And I know very well that there are cookies in their lunches every single day. I also know that they pack a couple extra to give to their friends.

 

 

Monday
Jul212014

Yes Land's End, Your T-Shirt Designs Do Matter To Girl's

My daughter really wanted the pillow shaped like nail polish that said OMG Pink on it to take to sleepaway camp.

I thought the pillow was tacky, and a little bit sexist – just some casual #everydaysexism for her bed, reminding her to keep her nails pretty and her brain empty.

I find that I am becoming increasingly humorless when I shop for my daughter – what with all the dodging between oversexualized clothing, and stupid sayings on the shirts. Which is why I wish I applauded this letter from a mom to utilitarian clothing company Land’s End.

In it, she writes:

Dear Lands’ End,

My nine year old daughter loves science; She especially enjoys learning about ocean life and outer space. She has read more books on sharks than I ever knew existed, follows NASA news, and hopes to be an astronaut one day. 

So you can imagine her reaction when she saw your company’s science-themed t-shirt designs for boys featured on page 26 of your latest catalog. The boys’ options include realistic images of planets and our solar system, labeled diagrams of sharks and dinosaurs, and a “NASA Crew” tee design that she immediately declared to be “the coolest shirt ever.”

We quickly flipped forward in your catalog to find the equivalent shirts in girls’ sizes. But when we got to the available t-shirt designs for girls on page 56, instead of science-themed art, we were treated to sparkly tees with rhinestones, non-realistic looking stars, and a design featuring a dog dressed like a princess and wearing a tutu.

My daughter was very confused. Lots of her friends that are girls love science, too. Why were there no cool science shirts for girls?

So, Lands’ End corporate, how should I respond to my daughter’s question? In 2014, why are you selling “mighty” tees for boys and “adorable” tees for girls? (Descriptions taken straight from your marketing copy.)

My daughter is mighty and she loves science. And until you recognize that it’s not only boys that can fit that description, our family will no longer be shopping in your stores.

Sincerely,
Lisa Ryder

I love that letter, we could redistribute it almost verbatim to every kid’s clothing manufacturer out there. Land’s End is hardly the worst – what about all the other kids’ stores I go to where my daughter is being peddled sparkly lipstick on a T-shirt, whereas my son gets skateboards? Why is there so much emphasis on princessess, beauty and BFF Forevah in girl's clothing?

Boys Shirts:

 

  

One T-shirt doesn’t make a difference, one pillow doesn’t make a difference either. But it is the constant bombardment of messages to girls that they should be pretty and sparkly, they are “BFFS Forevah!” and “Divas”. Boys get to be risk-takers and jokesters as well as paleontogists and scientists.

Land’s End did reply on their Facebook page.

A note to our fans:

Thank you for voicing your opinions and concerns regarding the assortment of girls’ graphic t-shirts we have introduced for the back-to-school season. Please know that Lands’ End would never intentionally discourage children from pursuing anything that they put their minds and hearts into, whether it’s music, art, sports or academics.

We value our customers and take your feedback very seriously.

We have shared your feedback with our Kids design and merchandising teams, and we will be offering more educational-based, gender-neutral graphics for back-to-school and throughout the fall season.

I have a lot of faith in Land's End. I hope that the other manufactureres hear this message and decide that enough is enough too. They won't do it because we ask, they will only do it because we stop spending. 

Monday
Jun092014

When it comes to dinner, get out of your own way

I am in a dinner slump. I don't want to be hot in my kitchen but I am sick of throwing a protein on the grill and then thinking about side dishes that my children will mostly not eat.

My husband said that I should get an expert in to motivate me. Oh wait, he said, you are an expert.

But I grudgingly have to admit that I do have some expertise in this area. I co-wrote a cookbook. I grew up in a cooking school (literally, my mother ran her school in my kitchen. Sometimes I had to assist if the assitant didn't show up.) I think, research, write and eat a lot of food. 

And I can cook. Really I can. 

So tonight I made chicken curry with a sweet potato, greens and chick pea in coconut milk side dish. The kids ate the rice noodles, and picked the chicken out of the sauce. I call that a win.

Cooking for a family can be really soul-destroying. But there are some ways to make it a little easier. 

Get Out of Your own Way: Throw away your assumptions, your desires for a fancy meals, your neurosis about food. Just put dinner on the table. Just do that. That is all. 

Give In Some Nights: Some nights suck. Those are the nights when one kid gets grilled cheese and the other kid gets fried rice. 

Have Some Fail Safe Recipes: You should have one recipe that works. And everyone likes it and it takes minimal amount of time to make. If you don't have that -- then find one. Just one. Mine is honey, mustard chicken, cous-cous on the side and green beans. (Recipe is equal parts honey and dijon mustard with slosh of soy sauce and a touch of siracha, pour over boneless chicken thighs and bake at 400 for a 45 minutes (ish))

When In Doubt, Go for Teryiaki: Leftover chicken? Saute it up with teriyaki sauce. Have meat that has been in the freezer too long? Pour over teriyaki sauce. Teriyaki sauce solves many problems.

Look for Inspiration: I like food sites such as Food52, Dinner A Love Story, Smitten Kitchen. You may like Pinterest. Look for things that make you go - yum. And then don't expect it to look like the picture. 

Call Your Mother: I know not everyone has a renowned cookbook author as a mother. But when I don't know what to make I ask her. Your mother (or father or grandmother) probably has some recipes that you loved as a kid. Try them. Even if they contain mushroom soup, (you can use chicken stock, real mushrooms and garlic with some butter as a substitute).

Order In: Thanks to my inherent laziness, my kids like all kinds of different flavours and textures. We eat thai, chinese, Indian and Japanese food at least once a week. Kids like it better in a takeout container. Fact of life. Use it for your own good.

Don't Grocery Shop: Nothing forces creativity  like panic. When my fridge is bare and I am forced to use pantry staples that are hiding at the back is when I really show my talent. 

Don't Piss Everyone Off: You should absolutely cook good food that everyone likes to eat. But if it is a "challenging" meal for some people at the table, they you should add something that they like. Like stale bread.

When I give seminars (as I am currently doing for Telus) I give lots of tips and tricks. But I'm much nicer about it. If you want to catch my last talk I will be at  the Telus Beaches store on Tuesday at 6:30. Check out the link (Attendees can win a Samsung 5, a phone that I'm loving).    

As for the picture at the top. I'm very proud of it. I took it with  my phone and then used PicMonkey to make it look pretty. Almost ready for Pinterest don't you think? It is a family dinner where everyone is eating the same components, just in slightly different formats. Works for us. But not every night is as perfectly colour-coordinated.