Only time will tell if we can bring our crazy, hyperextended family together...BETTER! Come share our laughs and struggles as we test tips, tricks, and tools-of-the-trade in our quest for a more fabulous family life.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Family Activity--Sledding

Though it has been an unusually warm winter so far this year (knock on wood so I don't jinx us with a whopper of a storm now!), as soon as there was even a smidge of snow, we headed to our favorite sledding hill early this past week.  Everyone, young and old, gets into the act here as there are both steep and small hills.  The cold of winter, sometimes bitter in past years, tends to keep people in their homes.  But the snow brings many people out from isolation; they all come to sled at the best spot in town and visit with neighbors they haven't seen in a little while. 
We have a huge open area, with many good sledding hills, near our town.

As soon as the kids clamber back up the hill...

...they ready themselves...and sled right back down, laughing.

Of course, no outing in the cold would be complete without
hot chocolate and whipped cream! 

The best part about sledding, besides being FREE (Wa-hoo!), is all the great outdoor
physical activity (the kids sleep good that night), the visits with neighbors and friends, and all the smiles and laughter. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Chinese New Year

Happy Chinese New Year!  In honor of the Year of the (water) Dragon, we honored our many Chinese friends by celebrating with our own Chinese "feast".  Around the dinner table, we ate under lanterns, told riddles, learned about the holiday, tried eating with chopsticks, and shared fortune cookies.  I admit it, one of our guilty pleasures has been Chinese "take out" food every now and then, and not always the healthy choices at the restaurant either (it all tastes so good!).  So in keeping with our family challenge for more healthy eating, we tried our hand at making some of our Chinese food favorites at home.  We ate oranges, made noodles, made little egg rolls, a different version of sweet and sour chicken (the kids love that we had to try to make it ), and something absolutely new to commemorate healthy eating in the new year....
Chinese Chicken Lettuce Wraps:
(Recipe can be found in "Cooking With Meaning".)
We had a lot of fun cooking together, honoring and learning about the Chinese culture, and finding some new healthy foods.  We found the following web site very helpful in beginning our search for Chinese food recipes, learning about the Chinese culture, and learning about the significance of food on this day:

May 2012 be a lucky year for you!

(from Wikipedia)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Hugging for Health

This is actually my own son, as a toddler,
hugging his best buddy.
    Though National Hug Day was yesterday, January 21st, hugging, snuggling, and cuddling have all been shown to improve health and happiness when practiced regularly, throughout the year.  According to Andrew Weil, M.D., studies show that "physical touch to promote contentment and comfort... increases happiness" and "optimizes health for the body".  In his most recent book, Spontaneous Happiness, Weil also has several other suggestions that have been shown to improve, not only happiness, but also physical health.  As our weekly focus challenge, our family thought it might be fun to try out Dr. Weil's tips for physical health and happiness and evaluate it at the end of the week.  Though Weil discusses these actions as ones that individuals can do, I've added some information and suggestions geared just towards families:

Of course, number one on the list is to regularly hug, snuggle, and cuddle with your family members--I'd have to add "as much as is comfortable, not stressful, for each individual family member" as each person has his/her own comfort level with physical touch, even at certain times of the day or in certain situations, that needs to be respected.  I'm thinking especially of my middle-schoolers.  If I were to hug, say "I love you" or even look at my middle-schoolers when I take them down to the bus stop (in front of several of their peers), they would not be happy at all! LOL!  However, in addition to Weil's research, another study which promotes the physical benefits of hugging family members shows that hugging lowers stress, and therefore promotes heart health: .  So, this week, we will see what our family thinks of hugging regularly as a health and happiness promoter. 

Aim for some physical activity every day.  Again, my instinct is that if this can be done as a family by doing activities such as biking, hiking, ice skating, etc., not only are we helping our family's physical health and happiness, but we are connecting and bonding as a family and teaching a valuable life skill to our children about maintaining their own physical health as they get older.  We've already seen many of the benefits of family activities that involve physical activity together so it will be interesting to now hear everyone's evaluations on this suggestion.                                              

*Adopt a diet low in fast food, junk food, food made of highly-processed flour and sugar.  Add more fish, other non-red-meats such as chicken, fruits, vegetables, brown rice, and complex carbohydrates.  Weil mentions his Anti-Inflammatory Diet, which he also says is similar to the Meditteranean Diet but with several additions that he feels can improve health and therefore, happiness.  Basic information on the Anti-Inflammatory Diet can be found at Andrew Weil's website ( at: .  Information on the Meditteranean Diet can be found here: .  My husband and I have tried the Meditteranean diet, the DASH diet, the SouthBeach Diet, and we have not included our kids too well, I have to say.  It will be interesting to teach the kids about healthy eating through the Meditteranean diet and the Anti-Inflammatory Diet, with appropriate modifications for them, and see what we think. 

*Sleep--in total darkness, as much as possible.  Darkness at night and light exposure during the day, as shown in several studies, helps to set a healthy circadian rhythm--which then increases a person's happiness and health. These studies are valuable and do seem to have very helpful findings.  However, for a mother with children who are afraid of the dark, my instinct is that this suggestion would not increase their happiness, their sleep, or their health.  So, I have to say that it might be best to add, "as much as comfortably possible--and dim, strategically placed nightlights are okay!".  We'll see what everyone thinks...

* In conjunction with sleeping in the dark, Weil feels it is just as important to get out in the bright light when possible during the day.   I'm thinking that for family members, this could mean just getting outside to play.  As well, I'm betting that getting outside, better yet, getting active outside as much as possible can help family members to get fresh air, fresh oxygen, and sunlight--which has been shown to activate vitamin D in humans, a vitamin that has been shown to increase happiness and healthn in appropriate quantities.  As well, for some reason, when my own kids are able to play outside (with appropriate supervision, of course), they tend to be more calm when inside and tend to sleep better.  My own mother used to say that about myself and my own brothers and sisters as we grew up as well.  I don't have any research or studies, but it's like moms telling their kids to eat vegetables all those years and then researchers found out moms were right--playing outside as much as possible is healthy for ALL family members--including the adults!  Yet, as it is darker and colder outside right now, I'm wondering how my family will feel about getting outside, as much as possible, despite these obstacles...

So our plan the end of the week, we'll evaluate what suggestions seem to help us (as a family) to feel healthier and happier, what suggestions didn't work for us, and what adaptions we'd add--all in our journey towards a BETTER FAMILY!  (...yay...!)


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Wordless Wednesday--First "Real" Snow

The first "real" snow of the season, not that two to four inch stuff, was the best kind.  If it is too wet or icy, the snow brings down trees and power lines (like many regions last October), unfortunately something pretty regular around here.  If the snow is too light and fluffy, it can't be packed into snowballs, snow people or snow forts.  This snow was "just right" as Goldilocks would say.  It was perfect for sliding in, making snowballs, making tiny snow people, and for just plain playing. 

Making snow angels...

No one wanted to come inside even when light started to fade...

Just a little more and it would have been perfect for sledding, cross country skiing, snow shoeing and downhill skiing, and making forts.  Though I know we will be tired of it by the end of February and especially into March and April, it sure is fun for now.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

First Family Meeting of the New Year

“I have two hands but I cannot get you two fish,” said my youngest son in the middle of the year’s first family meeting.  We all stopped talking, wondering what he meant.  This is my youngest son’s trademark, his own little quirk, to say things, or do things, out of the blue. 
“What?” I said.  Though we had the “talking spoon” out, everyone was speaking out of turn until J.J. said this. 
“I have two hands but I cannot get you two fish,” he repeats.  Then he adds, “It’s a Vietnamese proverb.” 
“Where’d you hear that?” said my husband.
“From my teacher,” he said.  “It’s about multi-tasking.” 
“Do you know what multi-tasking is?” I said.
“Yes,” said J.J.  “It’s when you try to do a bunch of different things at one time.  And you can get frustrated.  Like right now.  Everybody’s talking at one time and I’m frustrated.  BACON!” 
It was true.  We hadn’t had a family meeting in over a month—and it sure felt like we were back at a point where we were all multi-tasking and we were all frustrated.  Everyone was talking out of turn and interrupting one another.  In the past month, rules slid.  Star charts had been put away and never brought back out.  We were retreating back into the old routines we had as busy people who ran in and out of the house we shared, not really connecting.  Even this meeting had to be broken into two smaller segments on separate days in order to allow for everyone to meet. It brought a realization for all of us; the family meetings had been doing something good for our family.  We needed them. 
It was hard to get back into our new routine.  We had to remember our “talking spoon” for taking turns in the meeting.  We had to remember the roles we created to take turns in the meeting (leader, scribe who writes about the events of the meeting, other note-taker for writing down our ideas rather than the scribe, mediator who calls out “BACON” when we all need to be quiet and calm down, timekeeper, and reader who reads back and reviews notes). We had to remember our guidelines that we had all created for our family life, such as the use of positive behaviors over negative behaviors (this time we decided to print them out and post them on the refrigerator).   But it was worth it. 
We created new chore charts for who does what chore each week (and decided we’d rotate it to allow everyone to learn and do different chores).  We created separate “star” charts which have only one box to “star” for chores, one box for academics, one box to “star” for self-organization, and then we discussed resolutions, goals, and action plans.  We made individual goals and put a box on the new star charts for those. For example, my daughter decided to face her fear and work towards being a goalie.  My oldest son wants to improve his swimming. My husband and I both chose to improve our health, but with our own action plans.  Then, we decided we wanted to do a family goal. The kids talked about the good things in our family, and the things they want to improve.  They decided they wanted to make our family even better…and on top of the action plan they started?  I’m not kidding…after all that “hemming”and “hawing” from the past, they decided we should continue family meetings.  Now we have a box on our star charts for working on our family goal.
 As usual, we finished with our favorite part--choosing who would get to pick a family activity for next week.  This time everyone had new ideas of what they’d like to do when it was his/her turn to pick.  Who was picked?  What did that person choose to do?  Well…I guess I’ll have to say… that’s for another post!  May you have a wonderful day with all the wonderful people in your life. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Book Review: Spontaneous Happiness by Andrew Weil, MD.

Dr. Andrew Weil presents information on the newest theory in health, integrative health care, in Spontaneous Happiness, published this past November 2011. I became interested in reading this book when Dr. Weil’s article on his belief that people suffer from “nature deprivation”, taken from Spontaneous Happiness (Newsweek, October 30, 2011), prompted our family to take a hike in the trails near our home. We found that we loved hiking! (See our blog post, “Trail Hiking—Family Activity”, November 2011). Dr. Weil’s recent book not only contains useful information for creating a healthy lifestyle to a wide audience, but also presents it in an accessible three-part format. Highlights of the book include an eight-week program for personal integrative health and the Anti-Inflammatory Diet. The book’s contents are also featured online at

Happiness, according to Weil in Part I of the book, is not “ceaseless bliss” but more like the Swedish term, lagom, which translated loosely “means something like ‘just right’ or ‘exactly enough’-- basically a balance point of “resilience, contentment, comfort, and serenity…your emotional safe harbor which you can leave but to which you should be able to return easily and naturally”. I don’t mind telling you that, as a “keeper of the family”, this also struck me as part of a definition of home. Part I continues on with Weil’s theory that an epidemic of depression abounds, that a new integrative approach is needed which addresses a person’s “physical, psychological, and spiritual needs” (which reminds me as more of an extension of the “mind-body” connection, so often quoted, to a “mind-body-soul” connection…and the “health triangle” approach of personal-physical-social realms), and that integrative health can benefit from the practices of both eastern and western health theories. As a reader looking to this book for further information on helping families, Part I of the book seems less intriguing than Parts II and III, but I do see the importance in Weil’s definition of happiness, and the background of health as well as the introduction of integrative health.

Part II and Part III include concrete suggestions for creating “happiness”…once again defined as “a balance point of resilience, contentment, comfort, and serenity”. Part II focuses on three areas: Body, Mind, and Secular Spirituality. For the body, Weil suggests adopting an anti-inflammatory diet (outlined in the appendix), exercising more, getting adequate sleep in darkness and quiet at night, as well as adequate light exposure during the day. For the mind, Weil focuses on “ruminating negative thought patterns” that he states are the “root of unhappiness”. He makes several suggestions for a healthy mind including interventions of the positive psychology movement, mindfulness training, meditation, reducing attachment to those items which are often associated with addictions in people, and practicing visualization and daily “breath work”. Weil is quick to define and explain the difference and the overlaps between spirituality and religion in the chapter on secular spirituality and its importance. Its here that Weil suggests that people need to be more aware of their connection, not only to the natural world, but also to animals, art, beauty, and communities of people in order to bring more fulfillment into their lives.

Part III, the final section of the book, consists of an eight-week step-by-step program to improve an individual’s happiness and two appendicies which include a general outline of the Anti-Inflammatory Diet and a list of further books to read as well as several online resources for readers on many of the Weil’s suggestions in the book. As well, he gives two of his own web sites, and , where readers can access even more information on integrative health.

It is important to note that throughout the book, Dr. Weil is careful to suggest and explain that for individuals with depressive disorders, his suggestions should be used in conjunction with their current therapies.

FINAL REVIEW: As a person first attracted to this book by Dr. Andrew Weil’s researched belief that we, as a people (especially kids), suffer from “nature deprivation” and his concrete suggestions on connecting more with nature in his Newsweek article, I read this book as a mom looking for more suggestions for my family. Though I didn’t need the extensive background on health theories or the treatment of depression at this reading, I did find several activities that I can do, teach, and adapt for my own family to improve their overall health in general. However, his suggestion to quit coffee and caffeine drinks (for overly dependent people) “cold turkey”, though well-intentioned, won’t “fly” in my family! I definitely don’t want to be any where near a person who is trying to cut a dependence on caffeine in that manner; I don’t think it will increase the family’s happiness quotient one bit (initially anyhow!). Otherwise, I found the concrete suggestions and resources to be a highly positive factor of the book, and very easily to adapt and implement. In fact, for the next two weeks, I’m Counting To Three…Okay, Four will be highlighting several of these suggestions, adapted for families, as our “Weekly Tips”. As well, our family will try these tips ourselves and give a full “Family Review” at the end of three weeks. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

What's Your New Year's Resolution?

So what’s your new year’s resolution?  I'd love to hear!  Are you planning to lose weight and get fit/healthy, lose bad habits, get your finances in order, learn something new, get organized, or my two favorites—enjoy life more and spend more time with family and friends?  Better yet, what is your plan for keeping those resolutions?  Resolutions are a favorite topic of January news and social media…as are the articles exclaiming that you are doomed to fail in your resolutions by February.  Don’t you dare listen to those naysayers! 

Creating goals--and revisiting them throughout the year--is healthy for you and for your family.  Making resolutions (i.e. goals) helps us create direction in our lives, define what we want to accomplish, reflect upon our own purpose in life and create meaning for ourselves. Instead of being a bystander going through daily motions, when we create goals, we become active participants in our own lives.  Says Sarah Ban Breathnach from her book, Simple Abundance, “The world needs dreamers and the world needs doers.  But above all, the world needs dreamers who do.”  Going through the process of creating resolutions and action plans is a way to “do” your “dream”-- and it’s a valuable life skill to teach your family.   To create goals that you and your family members can reach, try the following tips:

1)   Creating a goal requires some reflection:  What do I want to do? What do I want to be?  What do I want my life to be like?  Who do I want to become?  For

younger kids, you may want to ask them questions such as: what do I want to learn more about, what do I want to try that I’ve never tried before, what do I

want to work on to be better at doing?  Some people use the “Health Triangle” model to guide goal-creation.  This model holds that there are three basic areas of human health—physical, mental, and social.  Are there areas in your health triangle that you’d like to focus on to be a more healthy individual?  One point that I first became confused on when creating goals was the idea of chores being a goal.  Chores that help keep the family moving along, such as setting the table, etc. are not life-guiding goals; they’re chores. 

2)      Most experts advise focusing on only one or two main goals at a time.  For your family, each member could choose an individual goal and then you could all decide on a family goal.  Too many goals at one time can get confusing and stressful rather than helpful. 

3)      Make your goal flexible.   This is the part of resolution-making that can find a person dropping a resolution faster than a hot potato.  Make your goal flexible enough that you can definitely reach it and that you can change it as you go along in your journey towards it. A few years ago, a great friend and I decided that we would encourage one another to exercise an hour each morning, as many days as we could.  For busy moms, whether at home or working, sticking to any one consistent, daily task can be daunting.  I remember one particularly difficult time period when it seemed like everyone was catching the flu and it was difficult for the two of us to ever get together to exercise, but we kept contacting one another and waiting it out, sometimes doing some exercise on our own at odd times, knowing that eventually we’d be able to meet up again.  When we did meet up again, I remember saying to my friend how frustrating it is to try to do anything consistently each day.  She said to me, “Yes, but think of how we would be if we didn’t even try, if we didn’t keep our goal in sight, even when things happen.”  She was absolutely right.  If it weren’t for our acceptance of the unpredictability of life and the mentality that our goal is still there waiting for us each new day, despite life’s interruptions, we would never have run our first mile or completed our first 5K.  I never would have then chosen to start eating healthier as part of my goal. 

      Perhaps (and you need to tailor this to your own needs and your own family’s needs) you might start by trying to do something towards your individual goal three times a week for 30 minutes at a time.  Or if your goal is for your family to enjoy more activities together, you might want to start with one or two activities a month.  Start with an amount that you feel you could definitely accomplish.  From there, you may want to challenge yourself and add in another day or a little bit more time whenever you work on your goal.  You may find that as you move along, you need to adjust the goal a bit.  Maybe you decide that you’d like to change your goal from standing up and giving a speech to a group of people to trying out for drama club.  Allow for flexibility in achieving your goals.

4)      Create an action plan.  Think of each tiny step to take along the way towards your goal or your family’s goal.  Write them down.  Think of these as “sub-goals”.  Each of these “sub-goals” are your steps towards your overall-reaching main goal.  In your action plan, you need to focus on reaching each “sub-goal” along the way.  Again, these should be flexible and should be able to be changed if needed. 

5)      Assess your goal-achieving resolution at regular time periods.  For example, you may want to create a weekly chart (see the Star Chart examples) or even add a box to your own “Chore Chart” for “Working on Sub-Goal” or if it’s more of a tough thing to even get through the day doing, i.e. “staying away from high sugar sweets” (or for a child—“trying to sit on the potty once a day”).  Put a star in the box for each time you work towards your sub-goal.  If you are doing a family goal, have a chart for when you all work towards that family goal.  Again, to make this successful, remember to make the amount of time flexible for each week, i.e. not every day of the week or, on a daily chart, not every time each day.  When you assess how you did, decide if this is working for you or if you need to change it to help you be more successful the next day/week. 

6)      Decide if you want to add a reward.  Yes, I said it.  I know it’s controversial and it’s certainly something that is very personal and individual to each family.  It’s your decision.  If you achieve a particular sub-goal, maybe you can have a tiny reward.  Maybe if you do reach a set of sub-goals, you could give yourself a reward, then.  It works for some people; some people feel reaching the goal IS the reward.  Making a goal successful means tailoring it to your own beliefs and needs. 

     Yes, kiss those naysayers good-bye and make some New Year’s resolutions.  It’s healthy and it’s a life skill that will teach your own family how to work towards, and reach, a goal. So come on….what do you want to do with your life?  (Resist the urge to call out “I Wanna Rock” from Twisted Sister….okay, unless you really do wanna rock....maybe I’m aging myself here…).  You really can do it!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ice Skating

Ice skating was our first family activity of the new year.  It was a great way to get active during that "in-between season", when the weather is not cooperating outside for either bike riding, or sledding and ice skating outdoors. We even were able to visit with friends and other family members who showed up at the rink.  With the music pumping in on the sound system, we skated along talking, visiting, trying new tricks--and trying to hold onto the side rails(!), not even realizing that we were getting in some exercise.   There were even large industrial paint buckets that when, propped upside down, made great helpers for the young, new skaters.  The kids could put both hands on those and then skate around, or sit down upon them for a little break.   My kids used to use those when they were young.  It's a great way to include as many age groups as possible in a family ice skating outing.