Healthy Halloween School Snacks - Juice Box Ghost

Monday, October 9, 2017

In recent years, school policies regarding the kind of treats that parents send in for parties have required they either be healthy snacks or not food at all. I am fully on board with this, because the first couple of years of having a kid in school were spent incredulous at the sheer volume of treat bags my kid brought home.

Since Halloween is basically synonymous with candy, it felt important to do something good enough to distract the kids from the fact they're not getting any candy at their class's Halloween party.

I spent a lot of time at my place of worship on Pinterest, rolling my eyes at the complex, time consuming, super cute and crafty ideas from moms who either have far more time on their hands or, like me, sometimes forget to take their meds.

But I still wanted to do something for my son's preschool class, and the Mommy Who's Psycho Notably Enthusiastic About Halloween needs to deliver.

So I looked poked around the pantry and came up with this half-assed adorable idea for juice box ghosts that you can throw together in minutes. Enjoy!

Juice Boxes
Coffee Filters
Glue Gun
Small Child (optional)
Coffee (optional... Who are we kidding. This should be the first item on every project supply list.)

He was super helpful. Super. Helpful.


Step 1 - Draw The Ghost Faces
Ask the small child to help because he wants to help and drawing ghost faces on coffee filters seems pretty harmless. Immediately realize putting a Sharpie in the hands of said small child was a mistake.

Bonus Round: Realize after you've already done half of them that the Sharpie is seeping through the coffee filters and your countertop now features a series of little ghost faces.

Step 2 - Glue The Ghosts On
Plug in the glue gun to heat up. Sip coffee. Leap into action every time the small child tries to touch the hot glue gun.

Put a dollop of glue on two edges of the sides of the each box.

Bucket List Item: do a glue gun project and not burn my fingers

Important: Don't use too much glue, or the poor teacher will be cursing your name while 17 small humans ask her for help getting the coffee filters off so they can then ask for help putting the straws in.

More or less center the ghost face on the front of the box and lightly press the coffee filter into the glue. Burn your fingers and drop the juice box. Repeat as necessary.

I knocked out enough of these for a preschool classroom in about 10 minutes, managed to drop it off at school just in time for the class's Halloween celebration, and the teacher gushed like it was the coolest thing she'd ever seen.

Next time you're scrambling for a tribute to maintain your spot in the Cool Mommy Brigade, give this a shot.

Do you have any ideas for your own super simple Halloween themed healthy classroom snacks? I'm all ears!

Cutest ever army of the undead

I pinned this post to my Halloween Party Foods board.
I tweeted this post because I can't help myself. The Twitter, it's shiny.

Halloween Burlap Bubble Wreath

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

As I mentioned already, I ended up hosting a wreath making party.

You can see the obsessively planned and agonized over burlap and ribbon wrapped Halloween themed wreath I made that day in this other post.

What I hadn't planned on, though in hindsight I should have expected, was that just like after any party where guests bring things... people left their leftovers.

Since wreath making supplies can get expensive they didn't leave the big stuff. But, I was left with a good bit of mismatched floral flotsam.

Cut to the week or so before said estrogen drenched gathering... I was helping my good friend and neighbor (and instigator of said wreath gathering) do her yard for Halloween. There was a little styrofoam skull and hands that had fallen off something else; she said I could take it or throw it away. I knew it was perfect for... some project I hadn't yet conceived.

Needless to say, I had my peanut butter meets chocolate moment and... voila! Between a square frame I'd found on clearance but didn't know what to do with, a random sampling of wreath party leavings, a little freaky fabric I pulled from my stash, and the rescued body parts, I ended up with one of my most favorite wreaths I've made.

Moral of the story... hoard other people's trash and you can make pretty things! Wait, no.... that can't be right. Anyway. Poing being: WREATH! Skulls! Halloween! HAPPEE!

I pinned this post to my Halloween wreath board and my crafts board.

Halloween Themed Burlap & Ribbon Wrapped Wreath

Monday, October 2, 2017

So I ended up hosting a wreath making party. (I know, you're totally shocked!).

I bought the printed ribbon you see above quite some time before. I fell instantly in love with it and I'm pretty sure the world would have ended if I didn't take it home.

I agonized over this project because I wanted to make sure I was absolutely certain how to deploy my special ribbon. I knew it wouldn't survive my incompetent fumbling and having to be redone several times like my much sturdier first wreath project with burlap and felt rosettes.

I got so busy hostessing at the wreath party, plus ended up sharing my glue gun with basically everyone, that I didn't manage to finish it until after everyone left. Which was probably for the best, because my frustration levels with the natural tendency of wrapped wreaths to come out unevenly is not really suitable for public consumption.

But finish it I did, and I am so so so happy with how it turned out! 

It's deceptively simple. This project is really about patience. I should probably get some of that before I attempt another wreath like this. But, totally worth it. Because it's. so. pretty!! Morticia Adams would be proud.

Oh, and I totally made another Halloween wreath with the party leftovers. Because of course I did.

I pinned this post to my Halloween wreath board and my crafts board.

Pirate Theme Birthday Party - DIY Water Bottle Labels

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

When my first one turned 6 and wanted a pirate themed birthday party I took plenty of pictures of all the projects with every intention of turning them into a series of DIY pirate party blog posts.

That kiddo is about to turn 10 and my second is about to turn 6... and wants a pirate themed birthday party. 

So this is me, finally putting it all together for you and for me. I'll add links and make a master collection once I get enough up.

Custom Labeled Birthday Party Water Bottles
For reasons that escape me, making your own labels for water bottles is one of the easiest ways to impress people with your party planning prowess.

I love them because they're a quick, cute and kid friendly project.

Flat(s) of bottled water (I get the little 8 oz bottles, I find there's less wasted)
Scotch tape

Printed labels (download a free PDF printable of the water bottle label pictured above)

There are 7 bottle labels per page, so just do the math for how many pages to print based on the number of water bottles you're doing.

1) Cut out the labels. 

If your kiddos are old enough, they can do this with scissors. If you're lazy like me, a paper cutter will make quick work of this, but that's decidedly not a kid friendly option.

2) Tear the existing labels off the water bottles. I highly recommend letting the kiddos do this. It's fun and easy.

3) Tape the new labels on. This is pretty kid friendly, though if precision matters to you then your mileage may vary.

That's it. That's the project. It's so self explanatory I thought about just throwing up the picture and the printable download, but for the sake of search engines and all I figured I should include some words.

Learn From My Mistakes
These labels won't survive being dunked in a cooler full of melting ice at a party. Which should go with out saying... yet here we are.

I pinned this post to my Pirate Theme Birthday Party board, which mostly consists of mind blowing cakes made by incredibly talented people (read: not me).

I shared this post to my obligatory blog Facebook page.

I tweeted this post from my ShesAlwaysWrite tweeter thingy.

Other Pirate Theme Birthday Party Posts
Pirate Theme Birthday Cake

Mixed Messages

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

There's no doubt about the kind of negative messaging women get about their bodies from fashion. I have learned that goes double for fitness gear.

I thought the problem was that I was really, really overweight. Turns out that wasn't it at all.

Now that I've lost 140 pounds and am eyeing my first Half Ironman, I realized I need a new wetsuit.
2015 Chicago Triathlon ~ size 14

The one I wore 80 pounds ago is simply too big now. I passed it on to an awesome woman in my running group. She's a far better swimmer than I will ever be and races more often, so I'm happy to see it get used like nature intended.

My old suit is a size Large/Athena ("Athena" is code for "fat" in triathlon world) only because it was the largest size available anywhere, from anyone. I really needed one a few sizes bigger. Many women who need suits that much bigger go for men's suits. I'm very short and very curvy - men's cut suits simply aren't an option for me.

Imma be honest, the suit baaaaaaarely fit when I was size 22. That alone was depressing, because I'd lost 50 pounds at that point. But it's stretchy enough it got the job done, with the caveat I could only sort of breathe, on account of even women's cut wetsuits aren't intended for my pre-mastopexy 40J girls.

That said, it saved me in several races, and made the biggest race of my life so far possible because hello, Lake Michigan was 59 degrees. It was all I had and I was grateful it got me in the (really fucking cold) water.

Cut to present day. Based on my shiny new weight, I figured I'd need a Small. That's my regular size now in most things, and they're stretchy.

To my dismay, based on my measurements (a muscular 5' 2" and 135-140, which is somehow both a size 4/6 and technically overweight) I discovered I need either a size Medium/Athena or a size Large.

This is from the size chart of the wetsuit company that was the first (and may still be the only) brand to offer designs in Athena sizes and with designs that account for things like hips and boobs.

I like this company a lot. They made it possible for me to have a wetsuit at all. But... damn. Way to make a girl feel like crap.

I shouldn't be surprised, I routinely have to size up to Medium or even Large in running gear. It all tends to run small. But it pisses me off to no end. I shouldn't have had to spend the last decade feeling grateful I was able to force something to sorta work when I spent just as much money as everyone else.

It was far worse when I started out at a size 26/28 - finding fitness clothing was my biggest barrier to becoming fit.  With exception of the Danskin brand, which will have my loyalty forever for clothing me in accurate sizes when no one else would, the "plus size" offerings out there all run just as ridiculously small as their regular sized options. (Case in point... I bought a size 3X Garneau bike jersey that finally fit when got down to about an XL, a real world size difference of 22/24 to 14/16.)

Let me be clear, this isn't about how I feel about my body. I've done a lot of physical and mental work to make peace with my body. What upset me so much is that the average woman is not a size 4. And I will always identify with the women who are not a size 4 because I spent the last couple of decades being just about every size a woman can be.

No woman who is motivated enough to be out there, doing the hard work it takes to race, should be made to feel like she is regarded by equipment makers with disdain simply for existing in a normal, human sized, age grouper body.

The average beautiful, healthy woman is a size 14. And she should not be made to feel like an outcast when searching for something like an expensive piece of equipment to facilitate participation in an endurance event she is doing to feel good about herself and her health and her body.

Women are constantly criticized for our bodies and told to fix them. But fitness gear is cut for anorexic, flat chested pixies. There is little available to comfortably fit most normal, average sized, everyday women with hips and breasts. It's patently absurd that even someone like me, who has gotten down to wearing XS and S in clothing sizes, is forced to be looking at the uppermost size range of what's available on the fitness gear market. And even then, it often doesn't fit because they aren't cut for any sort of real bust.

I can deal with what that does to my dysphoria in therapy. But it doesn't change what it does to the vast majority of us when we are out there sweating in the training trenches, actively doing the right thing for our health, yet are faced with size charts saying we aren't even invited to the party.

No wonder we all hate ourselves.

DIY End of Year Teacher / Therapist Appreciation: Gift Card Bouquet

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Once again I found myself at the end of a school year with half a dozen teachers, classroom aids, therapists and drivers to thank for all the wonderful work they do supporting my special needs kiddos.

I poked around Pinterest for weeks, but was having a hard time finding something that made sense to give to all the different types of professionals, 4 of whom work inside the same classroom.

This adorable concept caught my eye, and a teacher friend confirmed it's something she would like to receive. But at that point I had less than 24 hours left to sort it out and the store I had time to go to didn't have the kind of mini plants I needed.

My backup plan was Starbucks gift cards and and using my savior Tagxedo to make personalized word cloud cards to put them in like I did for the classroom supply teacher appreciation gift basket a few years ago. But it didn't seem nice enough after having my heart set on the floral idea.

This bright, pretty pot of begonias caught my eye as I was doing one last desperate wander through the grocery store. I thought about the little sticks that hold cards in bouquets. And voila! Idea mashup.

The store didn't have any floral card holders, but the craft section had little dowels and  mini clothes pins. The flowers and crafty bits were only about $11 total. I already had card stock at home. Problem solved.

Not officially a project until there's
a reason to break out the glue gun!

I made the word cloud cards half the size of the ones I made last time to make sure they weren't too heavy for the little clothes pins. That allowed me to print two at once on the same piece of card stock. (Free printable card templates below).

This is what you're going for on the front/back of the card stock.

You'd think that would save time and paper, but if your spatial relationship skills are anything like mine then correctly flipping the paper to print the back results in a lot of headdesking and cursing and this...
My incompetence is flexible.
I also managed to get some with upside down text.

I used a ruler to find the center point and my scrapbook cutter to separate the halves because my scissor work leaves something to be desired.

Almost never actually use it to scrapbook but
I've found a hundred other uses for this little gadget.

This is the point at which I enlist the child whose academic and therapeutic team is being appreciated. They've spent the last two years teaching him stuff like how to interact with other humans, and have made impressive progress in getting him to write his name.

The Sharpie was a calculated risk.
Also? When did my baby get so big?!

I think the flowers and cards are just fine on their own. Or possibly paired with something cute and handmade by the kiddo like these hand painted bookmarks we made for the teaching team when my first son was growing out of this same early childhood program.

I had already bought a pile of Starbucks gift cards because I'd given up on finding the right floral solution when I stumbled across the begonias. Since the gift cards were already on hand, I taped one inside each of the personalized teacher cards.

It took longer for the glue gun to heat up than it did to make the card holders.

It would be lovely to give one to each individual team member. I was on a tight timeline, had already spent $100 on Starbucks gift cards and didn't want to figure out how to carry so many full size flower pots into the school. The whole team works out of the same classroom, so in this case I put all four gift cards into the same flower pot. You may want to go with the individual approach, depending on your school team's configuration.

Teachers + Therapists = Appreciated!

Free Printable PDF Templates
Here is a variety of templates with a couple of generic teacher friendly word cloud pictures and thank you messages. If you don't have the time or patience to tinker with custom word clouds and Photoshop, you can mix and match these to whip up homemade cards in less than a minute.

Two Smaller Cards on One Page

Word Cloud Teacher Appreciation Dual 4.25x5.5 Cards - Outside
Image: General Teacher Word Cloud, Flower

Word Cloud Teacher Appreciation Dual 4.25x5.5 Cards - Outside
Image: General Teacher Word Cloud, Apple

Word Cloud Teacher Appreciation Dual 4.25x5.5 Cards - Inside
Message: Thank you for helping me grow!

Word Cloud Teacher Appreciation Dual 4.25x5.5 Cards - Inside
Message: Thank you for helping me learn!

Word Cloud Teacher Appreciation Dual 4.25x5.5 Cards - Inside
Message: Thank you for being my teacher!

One Larger Card on One Page

Word Cloud Teacher Appreciation Single 5.5x8.5 Card - Outside
Image: General Teacher Word Cloud, Flower

Word Cloud Teacher Appreciation Single 5.5x8.5 Card - Outside
Image: General Teacher Word Cloud, Apple

Word Cloud Teacher Appreciation Single 5.5x8.5 Card - Inside
Message: Thank you for helping me grow!

Word Cloud Teacher Appreciation Single 5.5x8.5 Card - Inside
Message: Thank you for helping me learn!

Word Cloud Teacher Appreciation Single 5.5x8.5 Card - Inside
Message: Thank you for being my teacher!

I pinned this post to my teacher gift ideas board.
I shared this post to my Facebook page.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Other: On Tater Tots and OCD

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

I've been prepping big batches of freezer meals lately because my sweet, beautiful, kind, generous cousin has Stage IV metastatic breast cancer. Since I live half a state away, this is one of the only ways I can do something concrete to help.

(If you're so inclined, you can donate here to help with living and medical expenses for her and her 10 yr old daughter.)

Since I'm staring down marathon training, I've also been prepping them in multiples because I'll be happy to have some easy freezer meals on hand once those long runs get reaaaaaally long.

Both of us being down to earth Midwestern girls with a foodie side, I've made a variety wide range of dishes for her freezer and mine. A recent week of chilly rain had me craving something warm and homey, which of course meant comfort food hall of fame contender Tater Tot Casserole.

I had about half the stuff on hand for a single batch. I hit the store to get stuff for a triple batch.

I ended up with far more than the triple batch I was aiming for, so winning!


As I started with the tot layer, I noticed a problem.

Yes. I had to rearrange them for symmetry and retake the photo.
Because if I didn't, the world would end. Obviously.

If your brain is wired like mine, you will spot the problem right away.

If your brain is not wired like mine, you are rolling your eyes right now.

And let's be real, if you're not a Midwesterner or raised in a church social atmosphere you're probably wondering what the hell this and why anyone would want to eat it.

Figured it out yet?  No? Here's a hint...

Houston, we have a problem.

If your brain is wired like mine, you are now filing away the fact that these two distinct products exist so you will not find yourself trapped in the same OCD hell at some future date.

If your brain is not wired like mine, you are wondering how I survived this long and putting me on your mental list of easy targets in the zombies apocalypse.

It is exhausting living with a brain that turns something like this into a heart pounding, short of breath, paralyzed with indecision problem.

But it also makes us creative and resourceful. We do what we've gotta do. Even if that means an impromptu jigsaw puzzle session with frozen tater tots so the crazy people who live in our heads will shut up for a while.

It may be hard to live with, but at least we have the comfort of  knowing when the zombies come, we OCD folk will be the ones with generators and a freezer full of casseroles.

The Follweiler Cycle
This is how an OCD brain works, y'all.
And knowing is half the battle.

This post is pinned to my board Eavesdropping on the Party in my Head
This post is shared on my Facebook page ShesAlwaysWrite

Kid Friendly Upcycled Paper Bag Easter Basket Craft

Monday, April 3, 2017

When the stores fill with plastic eggs, chocolate bunnies and overpriced baskets emblazoned with the latest Disney characters, I cringe and imagine what a pastel nightmare next month's landfill layer is going to look like. I just can't bring myself to buy single use items like that.

I'm always looking for hands-on crafty stuff to do with the kids, and I compulsively hoard sturdy paper shopping bags with handles. It occurred to me therein lies the two birds / one stone solution to the Easter basket problem. I'm sharing it with y'all, because I can't be the only one who would happily slip a forgotten Easter basket into the recycling bin after hiding in the garage to eat the last of the Jelly Bellies.

Kid Friendly Upcycled Paper Bag Easter Basket Craft

1) Rummage around in the back of your pantry for some paper bags. Hopefully ones that don't smell like old Chinese takeout.

2) Prep the kids to paint. Take autism break to allow plenty of time for crucial paint bottle arranging.

3) Have the kids cut top of the bags off at the crease. Save upper sections for the handle step.

4) Nope, still not quite right...

5) Distract boychild from lack of access to paint with a cookie while explaining that his brother is autistic just like he is, and we will wait for little brother to arrange the paint bottles because it makes him happy, just like we wait for big brother arrange the kitchen stools because it makes him happy.

6) Finally start painting... *sigh* That's ok little Dude, the Easter Bunny doesn't really care if your basket is painted. You do you.

7) Try not to cry as you think about how far your sweet little guy has come and how much hard work and occupational therapy and social coaching it took for him to get to a point where he spontaneously painted a picture of his family next to a house.

8) Let the painted bags dry, preferable overnight. Try not to forget that you sat them on top of the fridge and drop another pile of stuff you needed out of the way on the wet paint.

9) Cut the handle sections so the width is just slightly smaller than the interior width of the painted bag.

10) Cut the height of the handle section so it's just shorter than the depth of the painted bag.

11) Glue time! AKA stealth squeezy sensory break time!

12) Glue the crap out of 'em so they'll hopefully hold the weight of the Easter stuff. I set the glue covered pieces in place for the kids because I'd rather not be scraping dried glue off my counter through Memorial Day. Then I have them press it all over to get good contact. I recommend letting it dry on its side overnight so they don't slide around.

13) Voila! Adorable, guilt free, customized Easter baskets! If you're feeling ambitious and looking for another sensory activity, instead of buying Easter grass you can have the kids make their own.  I always have scraps of construction paper in the craft bin and the little one loves to play with scissors. (Fine motor skills!)  You could also have them crumple or tear up tissue paper.

Any Size
The great thing is that this craft can be done with any size paper bag that suits your family's Easter traditions. A standard brown paper lunch bag is the perfect size for a reasonable amount of candy. For bags without built in handles, simply hole punch and use ribbon or yarn to create the handle. They'll still achieve a basket look, though probably won't be sturdy enough to carry it once filled.

I use fairly big bags because our Easter bunny doesn't bring much candy. He doesn't need to - we've still got at least a bag or two still left over from Halloween. What he does bring is a moderate size toy, maybe a DVD, with some token "bunny beans" (adorably dubbed so by Dude last Easter, and not an error we're keen to correct) and a Reese's egg (because I'm only human).

The things is, spring is when work starts going nuts for me after the typically quiet winter. So I go from a near total focus on the kids to spending tons of time in the office. Easter has become an opportunity to assuage some of the Working Mommy Guilt associated with my seasonal disappearance, so until I'm able to level up in my career I'll probably continue using the big bags.

I wasn't kidding about the Working Mommy guilt. Wonderful Husband has requested that I ask the Easter Bunny to take his enthusiasm down a notch next year...


2015 Paper Bag Easter Baskets

We really enjoy this project, and made them again!



2016 Paper Bag Easter Baskets

And again!  This year was extra fun, Dude really got into it. He had a whole story about how the Easter eggs he painted were secretly bombs. 

I also enjoyed seeing the evolution of Bear's bunny. It's great to compare things like this year to year when your kids are developmentally delayed, it helps me visualize the progress all the hard work and therapy has helped them make.

This paper bag Easter Basket craft is pinned to my crafting board.

Nevertheless, She Persisted

Monday, February 27, 2017

When I'm not trying to do right by my spectrum kiddos or training for the next race or pouring my dream of published authorship into Scrivener, I'm writing for my clients.

I'm looking at you, Ikea.
©2014 Jeff Stahler
As a natural born writer and a geek with half an engineering degree, a technical communications degree and a biology degree, it isn't hard to guess which writing niche I fell into. Since most copywriters come from English, marketing or journalism type backgrounds, writers who can, for example, converse with a product design engineer and translate what she said into functional marketing copy, just aren't all that common.

I've been called "the best technical writer I ever met" by a senior marketing manager at an enormous global industrial firm. I am often sent resume referrals for C level executives, by C level executives. I know I'm good at my job. It took me almost 20 years of repeatedly being told that to catch on, but I know it now in a way the anxiety can't penetrate.


Every time a new medical or industrial client comes my way with a project, I hesitate.

Even after 20+ years of always understanding the material, and generally knocking it out of the park, I hesitate.

It just happened again.  I was offered a project writing a case study on a successful custom solution to a highly technical industrial process. And I hesitated. Because no matter how skilled I am, I can't stop wondering...what if this is the time it's too complicated for me to learn enough on the fly about a technology I haven't heard of and I can't do my job?

And, as happens every. single. time.... I opened the background materials and grasped the crux of the piece in less time than it takes to reheat my forgotten coffee.

I have thought about this at length.

I do think my anxiety disorder plays a part in this.  It plays a part in everything.

But after so many years being a woman in a technical job, I have become certain there is more going on here. Recent conversations with several women executives have reinforced my theory. (Real talk... we commiserated and had a good laugh at the male ego stroking and elevated performance level we have to maintain as a matter of basic professional survival.)

One the commercial side of my business, I work with mostly technical material from industrial firms.

On the resume side of my business, I work with mostly IT professionals, mid-upper level corporate managers, directors and C-suite executives.

Which is to say, I work with mostly men.

Tina the Technical Writer is my spirit animal
© 2012 Scott Adams, Inc.
As such, I have become accustomed to spending the early stages of any project convincing them I am qualified to even be speaking to them on the topic at hand. And to having them argue with many of my suggestions and decisions as projects go on, even on details squarely within my area of expertise.

It only recently occurred to me... after a rare and wonderful meeting with a group of all women managers in which we got right to work and everyone's professional competence was assumed up front...  that the average male consultant, having been referred by a mutual colleague as a subject matter expert who can solve the problem at hand, would not have to exert the kind of effort I do to establish credibility.

Several recent experiences also made me realize that men probably don't have to defend every decision they make when they were hired to make those decisions in the first place.

In contrast, my most recent experiences with women executives include being told they appreciate my professionalism, being told they were reassured by my obvious skill and competence, and being thanked for the great work I did.

I don't know why I'm only seeing the pattern now. Maybe because the landscape has changed enough over 20 years I've been able to work with more women. Maybe because I just watched an incompetent, narcissistic Twitter troll be elected over the most qualified candidate in history. Maybe because I just watched a woman get shut down trying to speak in the Senate when four men were allowed to read the exact. same. thing.

What I do know is that I need to stop reflexively questioning my own expertise simply because society has conditioned my clients to do so. I need to stop engaging in the emotionally undermining exercise of re-convincing myself I'm qualified to do my own job when it was never a real question to begin with.

I thought about it a lot, and decided how I'm going to move forward since having this epiphany.

I will keep on supporting every girls and women in STEM program I can find. Because the world can only benefit from more women working with each other at this level.

I will keep on supporting my peers as we roll our eyes at the systemic professional barriers we have to climb for less money and less recognition. Because we may know our own strength, but it sure is nice to share the burden once in a while with someone else who sees it for what it is.

I will keep on  having the audacity to be a woman who is really goddamn good at my job in a male dominated field.

Sensory Friendly Banana Bread Hack

Sunday, February 12, 2017

One of the most enduring lessons I learned in my Grandma's farm kitchen is that brown bananas = banana bread. Period. You don't waste them. You make them into something delicious.

I personally have expanded that to include scones and smoothies. But yeah, no. You don't throw away brown bananas. (And I secretly judge people who do.)

But. The problem with banana bread... especially my Grandma's banana bread... are the gooey chunks of banana throughout the bread, and the slimy wet ridge along the top.  (The woman could fry the hell out of a squirrel, but her baking left something to be desired.)

The old way.

I remember loving the bread's taste, yet trying not to gag on the bits that made the texture so very wrong.

Another issue is that a day later, quick breads start to get kind of wet and weird on the top crust and I just can't.

Flash forward a couple of decades, and I'm making banana bread for my kiddos. And my food texture sensory issues combined with their food texture sensory issues... something had to give.

I summoned my inner Alton Brown. I lit a candle at my shrine to Cook's Illustrated. I got to work.

There were three problems to solve. The first was easy. The second took some tinkering. The third was just application of an established concept. All solutions were simple and transferable to pretty much any quick bread recipe.

(Worth noting I have yet to sort out a gluten free banana bread my textural issues can choke down, but the first hack will work the same regardless of your recipe.  The second is generally addressed by most GF recipes due to the challenges inherent to that kind of baking. The third came from a GF recipe to begin with.)


After trying a few, I settled on an old school recipe from a solid, baseline source that's done me right since I first had my culinary monkey-touch-monolith moment. I even had to buy the cookbook again, the first one fell apart from use.

I found the same *recipe online here: BHG Banana Bread
*I find their suggestion of 5 bananas to get that quantity is insane. I rarely need more than 3.

Pretty much any recipe will do. They all seem to have the same general textural problems.

PROBLEM 1: Gooey Chunks

I don't know if I've ever seen a banana bread recipe that didn't suggest mashing the banana with a fork. The resulting texture is uneven, and affects the bread.

My first attempting at fixing this was a potato masher. Little to no improvement.

The solution? Stick blender! (AKA How did I ever survive without this miraculous tool?)

Just chuck all the wet ingredients (remember, sugar counts) into a bowl...

Seriously. Chuck 'em in whole.

...and blitz!
Noise reduction headphones optional

The resulting emulsion is perfectly smooth, and gives the bread a uniform texture devoid of those nasty, slimy, chunky bits.

I also find this emulsion easier to incorporate in general, which means less risk of overmixing the batter, which means less gluten development, which means less random air bubbles, which means more uniform overall texture... all good things.

PROBLEM 2: Unbaked Ridge

I think the extent of this is affected by individual ovens. But in all the ovens I've used, I've yet to see a loaf of quick bread bake up without it being at least a minor factor.

Simply extending the baking time didn't work - the edges of the bread burned before the top cooked through. I thought about the pan, but I already used Pyrex instead of metal so that wouldn't help.

But, that got me thinking... having been reluctantly, medically gluten free for a few years now, I've had plenty of time for some epic gluten free baking fails. And time to do some reading to figure out why.

What I learned is that proteins in GF baked goods take longer to set, which is why they need to be baked in ceramic dishes at lower temps for longer, so the edges are protected while the centers have a chance to coast to completion.

I decided to apply a version of this technique to the unbaked top problem. It worked like a charm.

1) Bake the bread at the usual temp (generally 350) for 5-10 minutes shy of the bake time specified in the recipe.

2) Reduce the oven temp by 10 degrees. At this point I check in 10 minutes, then in 5-10 min intervals, depending on how it's doing. It rarely takes more than an additional 20ish minutes past the recipe time.  Once it gets close to done the toothpicks comes out to start checking for doneness. Before it's close you can still see how wet it is.

3) Sometimes, if the top is really being stubborn but the edges are going past done, I turn off the oven and let it coast a little while longer. That does the trick.

In for ~20 extra minutes at a lower temp - the top finished and the crust did not burn

One thing I particularly like about this technique is that it addresses the x factor of variable moisture content and slight differences in banana quantity from loaf to loaf. If there's a little too much moisture from the fruit in a particular batch, finishing the baking off this way has a much greater chance of baking off the excess and giving you a good result.

PROBLEM 3: Damp, Sticky Top Crust

Once a loaf of quick bread has cooled, the top goes from delightful to damp and sticky in a hurry.  I noticed this is especially true of GF bakes, and one day mused that must be why a particular muffin recipe called for what seemed to me an incongruous sugar topping.

Cut to me making my next batch of banana bread... light bulb moment. Gave it a shot.

Just sprinkle the top of the loaf with a raw sugar (I've used turbinado and demerara). I do a generous sprinkling, it makes for a nice crisp top.

Much more than this and it becomes tricky to slice.

Yes, I know sugar is hygroscopic and of course it doesn't stay as shatteringly crisp as when it's fresh from the oven. But the next day (a loaf of banana bread rarely lasts more than 24 hours around here), the top is still reliably pleasant, often still on the crisp side.

These simple hacks have become routine when I bake any quick bread. (Though, the stick blitz step isn't necessary for something like pumpkin or applesauce bread.) I no longer have to throw away leftover bread. It's better from the start and stays better until it's gone... which is faster than ever.

Do you have any sensory friendly recipe hacks that help your family? I would love to learn about them!

On a Scale of 1 to Me: Super Bowl Edition

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

An illustration of the range of human responses to hosting half a dozen friends for the Super Bowl.

I think we can all agree that the fact I can laugh at myself is what's important here : D

The Secret to My Success

Monday, January 23, 2017

© Winterling | Dreamstime Stock Photos
When people learn I lost 140 pounds, the next words out of their mouth are almost invariably "What's your secret?!"

The thing is, as I noted here, we all know there's no secret.

This being the number one thing I hear has made me notice who is asking. It has made me ponder their motivations for asking when they already know the answer.

If they want me to be real, I will absolutely be real. But most of them don't.

After hearing this hundreds of times and noting clear differences in intent, I have found  that people tend to be looking for one of three things.

Small Talk
Most people ask the secret to my weight loss as casually as remarking on the weather. They don't want or expect a real answer.

I could go on for some time about the fact body weight is considered a topic subject to casual discussion, but that's a rant for another day. Suffice it to say I recognize it is a factor and respond accordingly.

These insincere inquiries are easy. I can smile and say "old fashioned hard work" and they're satisfied. The generic social obligation has been met.

Studies indicate up to 50% of women are dieting at any given time. Which means pretty much everyone knows it's hard to lose weight.

These folks are seeking reassurance they are not alone. They seem comforted to hear it was - and is - incredibly difficult, their experience is universal, and there is nothing special about me.

Some of them need to hear this level of success is accessible to anyone who wants it badly enough. They need to know the intensity of their desire can pull them through.

But most seem to take a different tack. Hearing how hard it is, the kind of time and effort it requires, and that biology has put the odds firmly against success, removes an emotional burden.

It helps them accept a lack of progress isn't necessarily their fault.

It helps them to hear from someone who lived it that it is perfectly reasonable to put off their desire to tackle this while health or family or job pressures are too great.

And, it helps some accept there is nothing wrong with not choosing this path at all.

Whether my story helps shine a light on possibility or absolves someone of their misplaced guilt, I am glad my willingness to be honest about how hard this is helps others feel better about themselves.

The third group is special. I can usually spot them, because they were me. They are scared, they are determined, they are uncertain. They need help believing they can do it.
August 2004
253 lbs / 22 lbs lost

With these, whenever possible, I take my time. To these, I tell the emotional truth.

Sometimes they look at me, in my current incarnation, with skepticism. I show them the closest thing I have to a "before" picture to reassure them I'm not some skinny bitch blowing smoke up their ass.

They tell me they are exhausted. I tell them I was too. They tell me they are overwhelmed. I tell them I was too.

Then I tell them the real secrets to getting here. I give them the tools they need to keep hope alive.

Baby steps.
No change is too small. The smaller the change, the easier it is to assimilate. Once it feels easy, once it is no longer a change but a normal part of your life, decide what the next change will be. Keep doing that.

Forget deadlines.
Sustainable changes made in incremental steps take time to show results. Creating a new normal takes time. Don't hold yourself to arbitrary deadlines. You're working on a better forever.

Forgive yourself for being human.
One bad day doesn't mean give up. It doesn't even mean begin again. It just means we had one bad day. Don't beat yourself up. Look head. Move on.

Be kind to yourself.
This is the foundational secret that holds up all the rest. Changing how we think about ourselves is the hardest thing to do. Especially when immersed a society constantly telling us being overweight makes us less than.

You are not weak. You are not lazy. You are not failing.
You are strong. You are determined. You are valuable. You are worth it.

Most people are surprised. And intrigued. They expect me to talk about nuts and bolts. They expect a list of external factors like calorie counting apps and gym memberships.

But those aren't the secrets to success. They are merely tools we use to help us leverage the real secrets.

If there's one thing I want people to know, it's that this journey doesn't start with a fad diet and a FitBit.

It starts with believing you're worth taking care of. It starts with believing you deserve to feel good in your own skin. It starts with you believing in you.

That is the secret to my success. Changing how I felt about me. Giving myself permission to stumble. Believing that no step is too small, as long as it keeps me moving forward.

Part 2 in a (TBD, we'll see where the brain dump takes me) Part weight loss series
Read Part 1: 5 Things Never to Say To Someone Who Lost a Lot of Weight