Pragmatic Mom

January 21, 2010

Favorite Baby Parenting Books

I remember when my first was born and both my husband and I were panicked at the daunting task of keeping her alive.  I thought the key would be to educate myself and I read every baby parenting book I could get my hands on including books from friends that were 10-years-old and out of print.  I made myself crazy.  I read, like, 15 books.  The books gave conflicting advice.  Advice from “experts” also flip-flopped from decade to decade.  I almost made up a spreadsheet to track the different opinions on the issues.  OK, I’m anal-retentive, but not that anal-retentive.  But only by a hair.

Finally, the theory that set me free.  I realized that I am the parent of this infant and that my husband and I know her better than any of these experts.  I decided to just match up the baby advice books to my own inclinations and opinions and go with that.  “Oh, you don’t think I should co-sleep with my infant? … well, just following the advice of my baby-whisperer-guru Dr. Sears. ”  That’s right, folks.  JUST PICK THE BOOK THAT SUPPORTS ALL YOUR BELIEFS.  This is a good strategy for anyone prone to giving you unsolicited baby advice.  I’m not targeting in-laws here at all.  Really!  It’s a constructive way to say, “Butt out.  I know what I’m doing.  Read this book, too, so you can get with the program.”

These are my favorite parenting books but I also include some books other parent friends swore by, even if I didn’t agree with the advice.

The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby from Birth to Age 2 (Revised and Updated Edition) by Sears and Sears.  This is my go-to guru.  But that is because I am a “family bed” proponent which is not for everyone.  He writes this with his wife who is a nurse and they have 6 kids, including one with special needs.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting (series) by Heidi Eisenberg Murkoff.  This is a classic series and very good.  I bought this through age 5, I think.  It’s wonderful!  You can probably find this used somewhere so look around, particularly at yard sales held at preschools!

Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems by Dr. Richard Ferber.  Other parents swear by it.  If you MUST have your baby sleep through the night, this is a method that is difficult to implement, but once implemented, really does work.  A caveat, you must duplicate the “method” 24/7 even when you are on vacation or it’s back to square one.  It’s you vs. baby and if you have a strong willed baby, it might take up to two weeks to kick in, I’m told.  “Ferberize” is now an actual word!  Of course, it’s not your child who is necessarily having sleep problems, it’s you who has issue that your child’s sleeping patterns do you mimic your own.

Here’s an interesting link pitting my favorite Dr. Sears against Dr. Ferber on their sleep theories!:

The Portable Pediatrician by Dr. Nathanson. My baby parenting books are long gone but I still have this one.  It’s a keeper!  I wish she could be my pediatrician!

Expectant Father.  This is the book that first-time dads always seem to get as a present.  There’s not much meat to it, but it’s better than nothing,  I suppose.  I wouldn’t buy it, though.

Girlfriends’ Guides by Vicki Iovine.  These are the best; you need these to keep your sanity and sense of humor intact!  Who knew a Playboy Bunny could be this funny?!

Touchpoints by Dr. Brazelton.  10 years ago, this was the well-known baby book.  I do really like Dr. Brazelton and I wished my pediatrician made house calls like he seems to, but I have to say that I found it difficult to translate his book into advice to follow.  If I recall correctly, his book is mostly made up of case studies, and while interesting, did not relate to me or my situation.   And when sleep is scarce, I probably should have been doing other things like sleeping rather than reading this book.  But it was a book that I kept in my library for all three kids.

Dr. Spock.  He’s Dr. Old-School.  I bought a copy and tried to plough through it, but I just couldn’t.  Too long and boring.


January 20, 2010

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

Grace Lin is the children’s literature version of Amy Tan. Her latest book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is her best yet.  She weaves Chinese folk tales into a tapestry of stories where the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.   There is always a  sweetness and  innocence to her writing; there are always loving parents and children learning to believe in themselves and their culture.

This could be Grace Lin’s own story. A RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) graduate, she dreamed as a child to become a children’s author and illustrator. And, it turns out, she did this with her best friend from childhood…the one who moves away to California just like her book The Year of the Rat.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is an Asian-American version of the Percy Jackson series starting with The Lightening Thief. Where Riordan weaves in Greek Mythology into his plot, Grace Lin uses Chinese Folk Tales into a wonderful, inspiring and heart-warming story that teaches all of us to just… BELIEVE.

My kids’ friends in 5th grade all voted this book the best book they’ve read this year. It is age appropriate for 8-12-year-olds, but frankly I enjoyed it too. Grace LIn gives a wonderful bibliography of Chinese Folk Tales that she used in the writing of the tale. She has beautifully illustrated this book to resemble Chinese paper cut-out art mixed in with 4 color paintings.  I’ll be shocked and surprised if she doesn’t win a slew of awards for this book!

If you are interested in a book discussion comparing Where the Mountain Meets the Moon to The Lightening Thief, I came up with some open-ended questions.  Some might require outside research.

1)  How old are the Chinese Folk Tales approximately?  How old are the Greek Myths?

2) Do you see any similarities in any of the stories?  Why do you think there might be similar stories?

3) What causes rain?  How do Chinese Folk Tales explain rain?  How about Greek Mythology?  Why do you think they have these stories?  What makes rain so important to the ancient Chinese?  ancient Greeks?

4) What causes death?  How do Chinese Folk Tales explain death?  How about Greek Mythology?  Which story do you like better?

5) Do we have any myths or beliefs that we can portent the future?  What about fortune tellers or psychics?  Who do you go to in Chinese Folk Tales to get your future told?  How about in Greek Mythology?  Why is knowing the future so important to people?  Are we so different than ancient Greeks or ancient Chinese?

Favorite Books For Reluctant Boy Readers

Filed under: Age: Grade 3-5,Age: Grade K-2 — Pragmatic Mom @ 4:21 pm
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I  love to find books that excite reluctant readers.  The key is to find that magic intersection that marries your child’s just-right level with content that matches their interest and a layout that is visually appealing (small chunks of text broken by pictures, larger font size, etc.).  Alas, this is a moving target.  I have an actual person that I select these books for, my youngest son’s best friend’s older brother who is a 4th grader with my oldest. 

My mom friends have had success with these books for their reluctant boy readers and suggests you try them.  If you want to purchase a book, click on the image of the book to buy at

The Secret of Droon Series by Tony Abbott. If your son is interested in the world of wizards, but Harry Potter is too dense, this is a great series.  The type is large.  [ages 6-9].


The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander.  Alexander’s epic Prydain series has 5 books:  The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer and The High KingThe Black Cauldron won a Newbery Honor Award and the The High King won the Newbery Medal.   Similar to The Hobbit series but not as intimindating to read, The Foundling is a “prequal” composed of 6 short stories with illustrations throughout and just 86 pages with decent sized type.  If your child likes The Foundling, try the first book of the series called The Book of Three

If your child likes the Beast Quest series and is ready to take the next level up, try this series. 


Beast Quest series by Adam Blade.  A great series for a newly independent reader about beasts who threaten a kingdom and a boy who can save them. Here are a few of them. [ages 6-9]


The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs by Betty G. Birney.  When Eben McAllister is challenged by his pa to discover wonders in his small farming community, he finds the extraordinary in a doll, a bookcase, a saw, a table, a ship in a bottle, a woven cloth, and more.  [ages 7-12]

If your child liked The Enormous Egg or How to Eat Fried Worms, this is a good choice.

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume. [ages 8-11]


The Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth.  Twelve-year-old Nate Twitchell hatches a strange egg laid by one of the hens on his family farm that turns out to be a baby Triceratops.  If you can imagine The Mysterious Tadpole by Stephen Kellogg made into a novel in the vein of Homer Price by Robert McCloskey then that would be The Enormous Egg.  [ages 8-12]


How To Train Your Dragon series by Cressida Cowell.  A hilarious book in the vein of Diary of a Wimpy Kid about an young wimpy Viking boy named Hiccup who, like all Viking boys, must capture and train a dragon as a rite of passage.  Hiccup emerges as a hero when his forbidden “dragon whispering” ability and wits saves his village from two gigantic dragons. [ages 6-10]

 The BFG by Roald Dahl. [ages 8-11]


 26 Fairmont Avenue by Tomie DePaola.  Beloved author of Strega Nona fame has an autobiographical series covering 1938 through WWII.  Not all the books are in print but you can find them at your public library in the biography section.  [ages 7-11]

Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.  This is probably one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life.  When I read it with my daughter, I finished after she went to bed because it’s that good…a page turner you can’t put down.  When I asked older siblings of my kids’ friends about what books they read over the summer, we’d both swoon with fond remembrance about how good this book is.  Although the main character is a girl who’s adjusting to moving to a new small town after her mother leaves her and her father, the story will appeal to boys as well.   Please read this book, it’s fantastic!  This won a Newbery Award but if there were an all-time Newbery Award Winner, this book would win it!  [ages 8-12]

The Trouble with Lemons by David Hayes.  My daugher’s flute teacher said this was her son’s all time favorite book in 3rd grade.  She said he was also a reluctant reader in 3rd grade.

The Year of Miss Agnes by Kirkpatrick Hill.  Historical fiction about a teacher who comes to rural Alaska and changes the lives of her students.  This book is pretty short with decent sized text.  I’d try it as young as reluctant 3rd grade readers but really great for 4th or 5th grade boys as well.  [ages 7-10]

Diary of a Wimpy Kid Series by Jeff Kinney.   Both boys and girls can relate to this humorous “novel in cartoons” series about a boy coping with the social issues of middle school.  [ages 7-10]

If your child liked Diary of a Wimpy Kid, try How to Train a Dragon by Cressida Cowell.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Diary of a Wimpy Kid:  Rodrick Rules. 


 Diary of a Wimpy Kid:  Dog Days

Diary of a Wimpy Kid:  The Last Straw


Diary of a Wimpy Kid:  Do-It-Yourself-Book (To create your own comic book)

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg.  I loved this book as a child and it’s being made into a movie which might prompt reluctant readers to seek this out.  Claudia convinces her little brother, Jamie, to run away with her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with her, not so much as she’s mad, but just for an adventure…to be different.  They discover a mystery at the museum and end up at New York social fixture Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’s house to solve it.  It’s a great read.  It’s about the same level as the Ramona The Pest series. 

I just tried this book out with my 10-year-old and she had difficulty getting into the book.  The plot was confusing to her because it’s told from Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler point of view as a letter she writes  to her attorney, who has ties to the Claudia and Jamie Kincaid.  [ages 9-14]

The EarthSea  series by Ursula LeGuin.  A reader suggested this series; see her comment below.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin.  Grace Lin is the Amy Tan for the elementary school set.  Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is an Asian-American version of the Percy Jackson series starting with The Lightening Thief. Where Riordan weaves in Greek Mythology into his plot, Grace Lin uses Chinese Folk Tales into a wonderful, inspiring and heart-warming story that teaches all of us to just… BELIEVE.   This book was listed twice as a favorite book on my kids’ elementary school newspaper.  [ages 8-12]

Rules by Cynthia Lord.  A really wonderful story about a girl whose special needs brother and special needs friend help her to discover the courage to just be herself.  Because the book is set in the present day and deals with topics that public school kids are familiar with such as fitting in, being embarrassed about people you love, and accepting special needs children, it’s very appealing and relatable.  It’s a Newbery Medalist.  [ages 8-12]

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry. A funny tale of a dysfunctional family in which both the parents and children plot to get rid of each other.  The kids, naturally, emerge victorious.  Add in a loving nanny, an abandoned baby, a candy billionaire neighbor with a long-lost son and a happy ending.  This book has largish type and illustrations scattered throughout so it’s a great read at the level of Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  [ages 7-11]

The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Basil by Wiley Miller.  A completely delightful story of a boy who finds adventure when a man in a hot air balloon passes by his window.  The book has large print and illustrations so it’s perfect for reluctant boy readers.  If he enjoys this book, there is a sequel, Attack of the Volcano Monkeys.   [ages 7-10]


Shiloh series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  This was a book that my oldest daughter’s entire grade was assigned to read.  Pragmatic Mom polled the play date kids that hang out at her house and it got a big thumbs up.  [ages 8-12]

The Kite Fighters by Linda Sue Park.  Set in 15th century Korea, Korea’s Golden Age, two brothers — one  skilled in kite making and the other skilled in  kite flying — combine their skills to compete in a kite flying contest on behalf of the king.  [ages 7-12]

If your child liked The Kite Fighters, try A Single Shard by the same author which won the Newbery Medal.


A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park.  Set in 12th century Korea during the Koryo era, an orphan who ends up working for a celebrated celadon potter is able to realize his own potential.  [ages 8-12]

If your child liked The Kite Fighters or The Rickshaw Girl, this is a good choice.

Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins.  Set in Bangladesh, a daughter of a sick rickshaw driver strives to earn money for her family.  The length of this book is not intimidating and there are small illustrations scattered throughout to break up the chapters.  If your child can read Diary of a Wimpy Kid, this is a great book to read independently with a smidge of help.   [ages 7-12] 

If your child liked Rickshaw Girl, try The Kite Fighters or A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park.

A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck.  I have just discovered this Newbery Award-winning author and I have to say he’s an amazing story teller.  A Year Down Yonder is the Newbery Award winning book, and it’s the sequel to A Long Way From Chicago.  While this book is set in a small country bumpkin town during the Great Depression, it’s a hilarious story about fifteen-year-old Mary Alice who is sent to live with her Grandma for a year during the Great Depression while her parents get situated.  Grandma Dowdel is a force to be reckoned with; her resourcefulness is matched by her heart of gold and Mary Alice’s year is filled with enough drama to fill a newspaper.   A Long Way from Chicago is from Mary Alice’s older brother’s perspective during their eight summers at  Grandma Dowel’s farm and the antics they got into.  It also gives a gentle history on how the Great Depression impacted their community.   [ages 8-12]


Fair Weather by Richard Peck.   Thirteen-year-old Rosie Beckett and her siblings’ lives are about to change forever when a distant aunt sends them tickets to visit her in Chicago to visit the 1893 World Fair.  Not only are their adventures hilarious, butyou feel like you are stepping back in time  and visiting the World Fair which would be ten times more amazing than our modern day equivalent of visiting Disney World & Epcot Center.  [ages 8-12]

The Lightening Thief by Rick Riodan.  This is “Harry Potter meets Greek Mythology” and it’s a fantastic read!  It’s such a page-turner that I stayed up to 2 a.m. to finish it!  This is a MUST READ before the movie comes out!

Percy Jackson is an ADD, dyslexic 6th grade hero who has trouble staying in school because, as it turns out, he’s no ordinary human but a half-blood related to one of the big three in Greek Mythology.  He must find and return Zeus’ lost lightening bolt to prevent WWIII.  This series makes Greek Mythology come alive so I’ve included a Greek Mythology book as well.  The level of difficulty is slightly easier than Book 1 of Harry Potter; this book is 375 pages long, normal sized type.  [ages 8-14]

(boxed set of first three books, $11.69)

(boxed set of all 5 books, $51.97)

 How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell.  Can Billy win the bet by eating a worm a day for fifteen days?  
This book has very short chapters with illustrations.  The story is really appealing to boys.   [ages 8-12]

If your child liked How to Eat Fried Worms, try The Enormous Egg  by Oliver Butterworth or The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs by Betty G. Birney.

Holes by Louis Sacar.  Every boy who has read this book seems to love it.  It’s on my list to read.  I’ve read a bunch of other titles by Sacar and his weird, quirky characters seem to really appeal to children.  [ages 8-11]

The Light at Tern Rock by Julia Sauer.  A boy and his aunt are stranded tending the Tern Rock lighthouse .  What will happen with Christmas right around the corner?  [ages 7-10]

A Series of Unfortunate Events:  The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket.  This is a series about three very unlucky children, the Baudelaire siblings, who are magnets for misfortune.  In the first book,  The Bad Beginning, their family home burns to the ground with their parents inside rendering them orphans.  It goes from bad to worse when they are left in the care of an evil distant relative, Count Olaf.  Fortunately, the children are clever and resilient and their misadventures have a comic book-like appeal.  [ages 6-10]

If your child likes this series, try The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry. 

Riding Freedom by Pam Munoz Ryan.  An orphan girl who lives in an orphanage for boys rides a horse named Freedom to safety.  [ages 7-10] 

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.   This book is deceptively thick because it’s 250+ pages of illustrations that tell part of the story that I call “The Phantom of the Opera” of children’s literature.  Set in 1930’s Paris, Hugo Cabret is an orphan with a talent for all things mechanical.  The key to his future, he believes, is unlocking the secret of an automaton “wonder.”  With other interlocking stories that weave together, this is a riveting story about the power of friendships, magic and perseverance.  [ages 8-12]


 Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli.  Jeffrey “Maniac” Magee, an orphan and an athlete of legendary acclaim, breaks the racial barrier existing between two neighboring towns. If your child is a reluctant reader, this might be a 4th grade or 5th grade read.  It’s about the same difficulty level as the Ramona the Pest series. [ages 10-15]


Invaders from Outer Space by Phillip Brookes.   (Level 3:  Reading Alone) 

Secrets of the Mummies by Harriet Griffey.  (Level 4:  Proficient Readers). 

Ice Mummy, The Discovery of a 5,000-Year-Old-Man by Mark Dubowski and Cathy East Dubowski.  Step 4, Reading Paragraphs, Grades 2-3. 

The Titantic:  Lost and Found by Judy Donnelly.  Step into Reading, Level 4.  Grades 2-3.

Tut’s Mummy, Lost…and Found by Judy Donnelly.  Step 4, Reading Paragraphs, Grades 2-3. 

Owen and Mzee:  The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship by Craig Hatkoff. [ages 6-10]

Owen and Mzee:  The Language of Friendship by Craig Hatkoff.  [ages 6-10]

The website, The Art of Manliness, has posted a list of 50 Best Books for Boys and Young Men:

January 16, 2010

Haiti and Teaching My Kids About Charity

A mom in my yoga class made a nice plea for donations yesterday.  Her cleaning lady is Haitian and her family in Haiti is, of course, personally devastated by the earthquake.  Yoga mom offered to run over and pick up any clothing and shoe donations from any of us and ship to Haiti.  She said that UPS was shipping free of charge for a while so she was rounding up donations all week.

I’ve been struggling with how to teach the concept of charity to my children.  We delivered a Thanksgiving meal this year, for the first time, to someone who needed it, and it was a really wonderful experience for us to appreciate all that we have.  I know I could be heartfelt at the dinner table that night to count our blessings.  My older girls seemed to get it and enjoy helping, but my 5-year-old boy mostly provided entertainment by zipping around their house and asking endless questions.  They didn’t seem to mind but I think he thought of this as a kind of adult playdate.  But his preschool has a Giving Tree each year and they ask us to teach our children by buying an item — this year shoes — and putting it on the tree.  Because the item must be new and money is an abstract idea to my son, I’ve never been quite comfortable with this.  I mean,  what does it mean for me to buy a pair of shoes and have him hang it?  Or take him to a store to pick out a pair of shoes to give and maybe experience a public meltdown if I don’t buy a matching pair for him (which he doesn’t need).  That doesn’t really work for me.  And why does the item HAVE to be new; if someone is really in need, why can’t gently used be ok?

So, my husband and I have been inundated with news of Haiti like everyone, and feeling pretty depressed about the whole thing.  We decided to talk to the kids to say that there is a this country that needs help because everyone has lost their home and everything in it.  If each person can take a brown paper grocery bag and fill it with clothes and shoes they don’t need or like, we can help a family just like us with our things.  The oldest who has a generous and sensitive heart had her bag filled in minutes.  The middle, who is our Material Girl, said that she had previously cleaned out her closet a few months ago to give stuff to her little cousin which is true.    She didn’t think she had any more to give.  I had to sweeten the deal by saying that I will take her shopping for a new shirt or two if she can clean out again.  The youngest took his bag and said that he could make it into clothes.  He did, just like the Paper Bag Princess, and wore it over his pajamas.  He went to his room to get started but  Prehistorica books on the top of his dresser distracted him and he started playing with then instead by having the pop-up dinosaurs battle the pop-up sea creatures.  Meanwhile, my Material Girl, was on her third bag. He did end up donating a bag of shoes and clothes because my husband and I cleaned out his room, but as we were loading the car, he tried to do a rescue mission for a pair of shoes that don’t even fit him.  Hmmm… he did not get it at all.  Material Girl was generous but had to be bribed; not sure if this was the lesson I wanted to teach.  Oh well!

We did have five full bags of  clothes, shoes and light jackets.  We had been holding on to some things for sentimental reasons … 3 matching light rain coats for mommy and kids, hand-knit sweaters, etc.  It was a good excuse to purge and purge hard and it felt really good to give.  We dropped off the stuff and received a really nice note from Yoga Mom who said that today her cleaning lady came and that she cried, moved by the generosity,  when she saw the 5 bags.  And yet, it really was nothing to us.

That Giving Tree will be up all month.  Every year I struggle with it … I want to help as much as the next person, but it never felt quite right.  I think I am right that 2-, 3-, and even 5-year-olds have difficulty relating to an abstract concept as charity.  This is after all, the years, when it is ALL ABOUT ME, ME, ME.   And having mom hand over money to buy something doesn’t reinforce the right message; in fact, it’s the wrong message:  Mom is a bank.  If my son had his own money to buy the shoes that would work for me.  But he’s struggling to dress himself every morning to earn a dollar  so that after 15 days he can buy that Ultimate Spy Watch he spied on my blog.  And so, maybe we expect too much, too early.   Maybe a child should be able to consistently dress themselves every morning before we expect him or her to understand what giving truly is.  I ask you, readers, what do you think?  What is the right age to teach charity and how did you do it?

And for anyone who heard about the wildly successful  text campaign to give $  to Haiti, I found the information at the Boston College Bookstore today.  To donate $10 to the American Red Cross towards relief for Haiti:

Text:  Haiti

Input:  90999

Here is a short-list, by no means exhaustive, of 4 organizations that are accepting donations; all of these groups have long-established development projects on the ground in Haiti.

Partners In Health

Partners In Health (, has been operating in the country since 1987, originally to deliver health care to the residents of Haiti’s mountainous Central Plateau region. PIH now also operates clinics in Port au Prince and other major Haitian cities. With hospitals and a highly trained medical staff in place,Partners In Health is already mobilizing resources and preparing plans to bring medical assistance and supplies to areas that have been hardest hit. Donations to help earthquake relief efforts will be quickly routed to the disaster.


MADRE ( has also worked in Haiti for many years, supporting community-based organizations, and has activated an emergency response through its partner organization, Zanmi Lasante Clinic. The doctors, nurses and community health workers there are working to bring medical assistance and supplies to areas that have been hardest hit. MADRE’s partners are expert at reaching those in crisis and stretching resources to meet the myriad needs facing Haitian women and families.

Doctors Without Borders

Teams from the group Doctors Without Borders ( were already working on medical projects in Haiti and have been treating victims of the quake since yesterday. Gifts to to the group’s new Haiti Earthquake Response (link below) will support emergency medical care for the men, women, and children affected by the earthquake in Haiti.


Despite heavy damages to its own offices in Port-au- Prince, the UN relief organization UNICEF is coordinating donations of things like blankets, toothpaste, canned food and other basic staples. Call 1-800-4UNICEF or go to for information.

January 15, 2010

Mind Your Manners! (Please…)

My husband grew up in a military family so manners was a really big deal and he has beautiful manners.  He’s not from the South, but he’s even got the Sir/Ma’am thing down.  Manner are so important to him, or rather, bad manners are so offensive to him, that I refer to him as the Manners Nazi.

I, on the other hand, was raised by parents a generation older than my peer’s parents.  My husband thinks I was raised by wolves.  Naturally, manners responsibility fell in his lap.  After he stayed home with our first, the outcome was so positive that I tried to emulate what he did.  And, as our children have venture off on independent play dates, sleepovers, and dinners at other people’s houses and country clubs, it become to us how important instilling manners at a VERY YOUNG age is.

We, as parents, notice when play dates come over and 1) say  “please,” “thank you” and “no, thank you” and 2) clear their dishes without being asked, and 3) make eye contact.  We also notice when play dates come over and 1) touch all the food on the communal platter before selecting their choice, 2) leave their dishes, 3) forget the “thank you” part of “no”.  We really want the former group hanging out at our house and we want our children to be close friends with those guys!

But, how does that happen?  What parenting did or did not happen in group two?  I’m not sure, but here’s what worked for us.

From birth through forever, although by 4-5 years old seems to penetrate the inner recesses of their brains:

  • Model polite language.  Talk to your baby before s/he is talking and ALWAYS say “please”, “thank you” and “no, thank you.”
  • As you child begins to talk, correct EVERY SINGLE INSTANCE that s/he fails to say “please”, “thank you” and “no, thank you.”
  • Give recognition every time your child says please, thank you and no, thank you.
  • Notice how others will give positive reinforcement for “please”, “thank you” and “no, thank you” because no one expects it in a 2, 3 or 4- year-old.
  • By age 5, this will become automatic.  Yay!  First phase is completed!

From age 3-5, teach your children to:

  • Clear their plate and utensils after every meal.  First to the general vicinity of the kitchen.  Then to the sink.  Finally, scrape plate and put in dishwasher.  (big help for mom!)
  • Make eye contact when you greet or thank someone.  Make eye contact in general when you converse.
  • If you have a son, teach him to hold the door for the ladies.
  • By age 5-7, this will become automatic.  Yay!  Second phase is completed!

From 2-10, talk about gratitude…

  • Thank the cook for every meal.  “Thank you Dad for this nice meal.”
  • Thank the mom, dad and birthday child for the nice party.  “Thank you for the nice party.”  “Goodbye and happy birthday.”
  • Say what you are thankful for…we don’t do this every meal, but we sometimes hold hands and go around the table.  The kids will sometimes say the funniest things so for comedy value alone, this is very worthwhile.  Yay!  Third phase is completed!  Your child has all the basics to function independently.  Sit back and let the parents tell you how wonderfully polite your child was at their house.  You deserve it.  Your work is not done (when is it ever done?), but the foundation has been laid and it’s a solid one!

Honestly, good manners is a simple as a consistent, please, thank you and no, thank you.  Isn’t that the first words we learn when we arrive in a foreign country?  Even before, “Where is the bathroom?”  It makes the world a nicer place and lubricates social interactions.  But the key is early education and consistency.

Thank you for reading!

P.S.  One unfortunate outcome of this training is that you will find that you will be unable to stop correcting anyone who fails to say, “please,” “thank you” and “no, thank you.”  You will correct your child’s play date friends.  You will correct your spouse.  You will correct complete strangers.  You have become…a Manners Nazi.

Here are some fun books about manners.  If you click on the book
, you can purchase at
.  Thank you!

January 13, 2010

Picking a Preschool – A Jaded View

I was at a playdate today and I ended up ranting and raving about my frustrations with my cooperative preschool.  Don’t get me wrong, my child is having a wonderful experience, but a cooperative preschool is an entire family experience and my piece of it, a.k.a. “administrative position” has been rather annoying.  I could just be me.  I think that I tend to get annoyed as I exit a preschool, and this is my last year of preschool…EVER!  And, maybe I’m just jaded.

There is something about preschool that makes you feel a little like a hostage because you are handing off your very small child into the great unknown.  This feeling is especially acute if you have to peel your crying child off your leg every morning and their favorite part of school is pick up.  So, I readily admit that I am a Jaded Preschool Parent.  Maybe that explains why I went through 4 preschools over the past  10 years.

If you are getting ready to pick a preschool for your darling, heed my advice.  Do not solely rely on word-of-mouth endorsements from moms you meet in the park or at mommy-and-me music class! Why?  Because it’s an unwritten mommy rule somewhere that everyone LOVES their preschool. I’m not sure why.  I think it’s partly based on anxiety… that this must be a great place because I’m dropping off my precious child for x many hours and I have no real idea of how it’s going because my child can’t articulate their feelings and thoughts that well yet.  Case in point, I moved my middle child because I suspected she was miserable.  It wasn’t just the difficult drop off that clued me in.  Yet the teachers and directors insisted that she was fine and happen even all day.  I did sneak around early to spy on her or peer in through a window but I just wasn’t sure.  It wasn’t until we hired an assistant teacher as an occasional babysitter who said that my daughter was COMPLETELY a different person at school versus home and not in a good way.  And yet, even a year or two later, we would drive by the old preschool and my daughter would say, “There’s my old school.  I love my old school.”  REALLY? But now, at age 7, she is able to articulate her experience and she told me the other night that she did NOT like it there and then listed all the reasons why.  It was surprising to me that it would take 4 or 5 years, like a victim of trama, to really get to the truth.

So…here’s my jaded view:

Daycare Pros:  great hours for working moms.  they will take infants.  the staff-to-child ratio can be low.

Daycare Cons:  Incredibly high staff turnover.  I experienced 50% staff turnover in my child’s classroom every 4 months!  And it was always the teacher she bonded with that left.  That was not acceptable to me so we switched to a preschool when she turned 2.9 years old  because that is when the preschool is licensed to take kids.

Nugget of Advice:  Yes, get on the waitlist early but don’t confuse a really, really long waitlist with an incredibly wonderful daycare.  And why you ask about staff turnover and the director tells you the length of time of a few of the staffers, ask about how many hires this past year. How old is the staff?  Do they have degrees in early child education?  Really young, just-out-of-college staff + low wages = high staff turnover.  Drop by unannounced to “make an appointment.”  Observe carefully before you ask for help…this is what really goes on.  Also, how soon until they notice you, a stranger, in their midst?

Preschool Pros:  The hours are more suited for what a child’s exposure to chaos should be so the day is shorter and the staff is not working incredibly long hours (ie underpaid & burnt out).  They tend to do annual contract with their staff so staff turnover is significantly lower.

Preschool Cons:  You generally have many, many options about how many days you want to attend.  This is great for spending one-on-one time with your child plus helps with the cost but you will find that your kids will not know some of the kids in their class. As in, I have no idea who you are.  I have never seen you before in my life.  This is because they might have one day of overlap.  Also, because the kids are not together on all the same days, the school can’t plan a structured academic curriculum.

Nuggest of Advice :  Ask about staff to child ratio.  Just because the school doesn’t go through a formal interviewing/rejecting process doesn’t mean you don’t have to make a good first impression!  Ask if any of the lead teachers are certified teachers for K-2.  Ask if the staff signs an annual contract.  Is there a summer program?  Do you need one?  Do you occasionally need an early drop off or late pick up? Can they accommodate that?  Have them explain their academic curriculum; there is no one right answer but understand if it’s play based or child-led or whatever the latest theory is? Is their foreign language exposure?  (Ok, maybe I am way into that but no one else cares).

Montesori Pros:  Now I confess that I have never attended Montessori so I am speaking for my many friends who have.  Generally, they all LOVE Montessori.  The families also tend to be more international.  The curriculum IS impressive.  Your darling will generally learn to read at age 3 and get exposure to a foreign language, typically Spanish.

Montessori Cons:  Tends to be expensive.  High staff to child ratio because of their education model.  Not a lot of interaction with kids of their own age and sex…maybe 2-3 in their class.  Must go every day at 8:30 a.m.; are you really ready for this schedule at age 2???  There are years ahead of you when you will have to do this.  Preschool of choice for high-powered moms…do you really need that kind of stress in your life?

Nugget of Advice:  If your child can not sit still on a very small square of carpet for at least 15 minutes at a stretch, then Montessori is not for you!  Don’t take the rejection personally “that the school regrets there is no space for your child.”  And also don’t read false hope in that message also!

Cooperative Preschool Pros:   You know exactly what happens every second of your child’s school day.  If you are not the parent helper, then your mom friend is.  You know who they play with, who cried, and who will likes what for snack.  The teacher are tip top…they have to be as they are supervised by the most critical of bosses (i.e. moms) during their work day.

Cooperative Preschool Cons:  You will volunteer umpteen hours to the school.  Your administrative job might not match your skills or worse the parent in charge of your committee  has no business being in charge…literally, no prior business experience being in charge but now they are.  Not always a good thing!  After several years of this, you will realize why Socialism was doomed to fail.  You will feel sucked dry.

Nugget of Advice:  In the beginning you will LOVE, LOVE, LOVE your school.  Do not think that your child’s wonderful experience is commensurate with the amount of time you volunteer.  It’s a long ride and YOU MUST PACE YOURSELF!  Do not undertake too much responsibility.  Under that kumbaya exterior lies the same snarky, sharky politics as any other organization.  Don’t drink too much of the Kool-Aide!

My final piece of advice is remembering my work friend, Diligent Mom, who LOVED, LOVED, LOVED her preschool.  She actually visited 22 of them.  I am sure there are 22 preschool options in my neck of the woods within a 20 minute commute, but I didn’t visit even half that– a 5 minute commute and good parking were items on my must-have list.  Well…that is why she LOVED, LOVED, LOVED her preschools and I do not.

January 12, 2010

Visiting the Nutritionist Deja Vu

Is it me or is it weird to visit two different nutritionists for the same child — at age 2 because she is underweight and then at age 8 because she is overweight?  The first visit to the nutritionist, we were skeptical parents:  show me a growth chart for an Asian girl and THEN tell me she’s underweight.  We could be a little haughty … “she’s not underweight and we’re NOT adding oil back to her food!”   Instead, we  fed her more pasta.  She always well when it was spaghetti.

Time travel forward six years.  Now we are getting sent to a nutritionist by the same pediatrician whom we love.
When we refused to go to the first nutritionist again, he sent us to the nutritionist he used when his daughter drank a bad carton of milk at McDonalds and then went on an extended milk strike.  “How could this happen?”, we asked.  We eat exactly the same, if anything, we are eating healthier.  He says, “Well, maybe you overfed her because she used to be underweight.”  Ouch!  Nothing like setting off some mommy guilt.

But with the help of a food diary and those years of pre-med training to clinically observe and study my child’s behavior, I figured it out:  we are serving the same food, but she’s just not eating the same food she used to.  My daughter, over the past two years,  has systematically eliminated foods until basically only carbs remained.  Help was needed and help came the way of a great nutritionist.

Read on if you want $85 worth of great nutritionist advice  that is not reimbursed by your medical insurance! company.  But note that some of my own, unproven ideas are thrown in.

There were many impressive things about our nutritionist.  She looks  10 years younger than she actually is.  She had the most beautiful glowing skin I have ever seen.  She was leading researcher at Children’s Hospital on studies for underweight and overweight children and…ta da…they have the same issues:  too much screen time.  She is a mom and isn’t going to give crazy, advice no sane parent can actually execute.  She’s truly a testament for you are what you eat!

She gave some simple rules of thumb that had almost immediate results:

— Always pair a carbohydrate with a protein.

–3 dairies a day:  milk, cheese, yogurt

–3 fruits a day; more if you can’t get them to eat enough veggies

–1 flintstone vitamin a day

–After school snack should be a mini-meal; junk  foods don’t fill you up.  Her suggestions:  smoothies, soup, 1/2 grilled cheese sandwich, pizza, chicken sausage, warm applesauce.  These foods are satiating.  You can not starve a child; it simply won’t work.

— Increase veggies at dinner but not all in raw form.  Raw veggies throw off so much water they don’t make you feel full.  1 veggie needs to be cooked; portion size to shoot for is 1/2 cup.  She was totally flexible when I said, That ain’t gonna happen with this one here.  She won’t eat green stuff.”  She said the next best thing was to increase the fruit then.

— Have a no thank you plate which means you have to try it but you can reject after one bite.  Most children need food introduced 25 times before they will accept it.  One try should equal 1 tablespoon.

— A serving of carbs equals one fist (kid size not mama sized)

Eat Less:  sugary cereal, bagels (too dense), ice cream[especially at night as dessert], no Nutella [trans fats].


Sugary cereal:  try Barbara’s Puffins (they are not bad but my kids hate it), Kix, or put a handful of sugary cereal on top of good cereal.

Bagels:  try English muffins [Thomas Light Whole Grain].  That didn’t go over too well, but we did cut back on bagels.  Multi-grain toast.

Ice Cream:  try Tofutti cuties.  My kids like the vanilla flavor ice cream with chocolate cookie outside not the graham cracker one.

Snack food: try Kashi TLC Rule of 5 bars.  For bars, you want 5 grams of fiber and also check out the protein and sugar amount.  High protein/low sugar = good.  Try chips with mild salsa.  Popped pop corn is good; it’s a whole grain but watch the fat content.  Try hummus as a dip.

Realize that these foods are veggies with lots of starch:  peas, potatoes, corn, sweet potatoes so go easy on these plus go easy on rice and pasta.  Bananas also are not a fruit your child should eat regularly.

Smoothies:  make with 2% greek yogurt [try vanilla flavored].  Freeze leftovers to make smoothie pops.

Oatmeal:  make steel-cut oats and keep in fridge.  Microwave a portion as needed.

Brown rice:  soak overnight in water and then add to white rice  so it cooks at the same rate– I mix 50% each.  My mother-in-law taught me that trick. She also adds pressed barley which is a Korean thing and the kids will hardly notice.  You can get the pressed barley at an Asian store or at

Pasta:  switch white pasta for whole wheat, or try Barilla high protein/multigrain.  Overcook the whole wheat and the kids will barely notice the difference.  Use red sauce for the Barilla and the kids will not notice.  Try soba noodles made from buckwheat (recipe in Easy Dinners is child friendly).  Try Asian clear noodles, made from mung beans, so it must be higher in protein although I can’t read the label; it’s in Chinese!

Finally, little by little, try to eliminate unhealthy habits such as sodas, juice or chocolate milk .  Substitute 2% milk (more satiating than 1% or skim) or water.  It is ok to use Ovaltine to flavor milk [the creamy chocolate tastes great!  my kids love it]  Drinkable yogurt is also good, but my IFF mom friend says to buy organic yogurt as the other stuff has scary additives that are not listed on the label for flavor and texture and she would know because that is her job!

And so, we embark on the world of healthy choices.  We talk about making healthy choices and recognize good choices but allow for treats.  It’s an ongoing educational process for the entire family and we all fall off the wagon like anyone,  but it’s nice to see the ownership shift from parent to child.  Note to self:  I need to call my pediatrician to tell him it’s not my fault!  I am now officially turning my mom guilt meter OFF!

Here’s a link  for food substitutions from less healthy to more healthy:

My go-to Pediatrician guru author has always been Dr. Sears.  I am reading his book on Lean Kids and find it to be very helpful.  Dr. Sears’ Lean Kids:  A Total Health Program for Children Ages 6-12 by Dr. William Sears, Dr. Peter Sears, and Sean Foy.

January 2, 2010

Introducing Foreign Languages to Your Kids (Spanish and Mandarin Chinese)

I  find that learning a foreign language is very similar to dieting.  Changing my family’s lifestyle was key to successfully incorporating foreign language into my children’s hearts and minds.  Like dieting, crash diets (a.k.a. immersion) is wonderful in jump-starting foreign language acquisition however, without proper maintainance, it’s back to square one.  Again like dieting, there are times when I notice that great strides are being made, but there are also discouraging plateaus in which it seems like my children seem to be forgetting large chucks of what they used to know.  Fear not, just like the tortoise and the hare, perseverance will eventually win the race.

For my kids, I introduced Spanish very early in their lives.  We don’t speak a foreign language at home, so I started by creating  an after-school Spanish class at my first preschool by hiring an outside company to teach a class after school.  Then I found this great tutor from Berklee School of Music who was a native speaker and taught part-time .  My tutor who came to my house was much easier than recruiting a class full of kids!  Alas, my tutor didn’t want to commute to the suburbs when we moved.  My neighbor had spent years in Mexico and had a tutor which I promptly hired.  But, she was not confortable teaching small children and suddenly went AWOL.  Finally, we found a great tutor and have been with her for years and she’s become part of our family.  Yet, after many years of Spanish, I can’t say that my kids chatter amongst themselves in Spanish.  I have to coerce them to speak to the waiter at a Mexican restaurant and nudge them at the checkout line at the grocery store.  Still, the other night, the kids thought it would be fun to test their dad on his Spanish knowledge.  (He has never studied Spanish but knows a lot of words from growing up in California, and sadly, he is the only one in our family who can roll his r’s).  So, they fired off one word after another asking him to say it in Spanish and triumphantly correcting him.  It’s a start, I suppose.

Because we don’t speak a foreign language at home, I set modest goals for my children and my tutors:  focus on their accent.  They started so young (my oldest at 3, my middle at 1 and my youngest at birth) and have a native speaker that they are capable of acquiring a decent accent.  Their tutor speaks only Spanish to them, and only recently has grammar been introduced.

To increase their exposure to Spanish since their lesson is just once a week, I found a useful trick.  I only play DVDs in the car in a foreign language.  I figure that they watch plenty of TV at home, so when I got a new car with a built-in DVD player, I only stocked the car with foreign language DVDs.  Given the choice of no screen time, my kids usually opt for Plaza Sesamo which they don’t consider to be babyish because there is no Elmo.  I also found a great 3 DVD series of Spanish Language instruction for kids called Hola Amigos.  My youngest will request it.  We tried other methods;  Muzzy was a brain-overload.  It was entertaining for about 10 viewings but they didn’t seem to get anything out of it because there is just too much information.  But in order to absorb it, they would need to watch it a hundred more times but after 10 times they are sick of the storyline.   I noticed it’s now $24 on Amazon.  I think I paid close to $200.  For $24, I would say it’s worth it, but not for a penny more.

In terms of a class versus a tutor, I have to say that we have always had more success with a tutor AND we have even more success when each kid goes separately.  It’s more expensive that way, but it works better for us because my kids learn at different rates.  We had the same experience with Chinese; each of my kids has a separate turn with their tutor.  We tried to combine the two girls because they had been at the same Chineese school class for three years, but it just didn’t work.  The younger one got frustrated and was miserable.  Once they all had their own slots, they started to enjoy Chinese.  Imagine that!  They used to say that their favorite part of Chinese class was when they were picked up!  One day, when my children are world travelers, I have this fantasy that my kids will tell me how happy they are that they were forced to learn Spanish and Chinese when they were young.  I’ll keep you posted on that one when it happens!

These are the language DVDS that have worked for us.  If you are interested in purchasing them, click on the image to buy at

Plaza Sesamo series.  You can also check out at your local library, rent at Netflix, or DVR .  Other children’s TV shows are too advanced for beginners but these are perfect for beginners!

My kids actually enjoy this language DVD series:  Hola Amigos. The lessons are geared towards children and are the perfect length.

This was also a good DVD that my son loved when he was about 2 to 4 years old.  The DVD has familiar songs that captivate small children.  You can set it to play in Spanish with English subtitles.  The English is for the adult, but music is a great way to get small children to hear Spanish.  Because they know all the songs in English, I have a feeling they comprehend the Spanish is a magical, osmosis kind of way.

We also found that playing board games in Spanish was a fun way to practice Spanish.

My kids don’t play this DS game ($24.98) a ton, but my oldest said it was fun and she plays it on her own.

Zingo is a good one for beginners, preschool or elementary school age.

I bought a few of these DVDs, The Standard Deviants,  and they will be perfect for middle school students who study grammar.  They are fun to watch but too advanced for beginners or little kids.

I also tried out Professor Toto Spanish Language Kit.  At $199.00, it’s pricey and I don’t think it’s worth the full amount.  My youngest liked the vocabulary builder DVD that just has a bunch of nouns and verbs put into form sentences.  I’d recommend borrowing it from a friend or buying it used on ebay, but there are other DVDs are just as effective and much less expensive.  This was a little dry for my older two.

I know this sounds insane, but once my kids were on their way with Spanish, I figured that if I didn’t start Chinese soon, they’d have no hope in hell of getting the accent down.  My kids are a quarter Chinese so everyone always asks me why I started them in Spanish rather than an Asian language.  My answer is that Spanish is much easier than Chinese and easier to practice in the real world.  My oldest started Chinese at 5, my middle (off and on because she’d strike) at 3, and my youngest at around 4.  They actually like learning Chinese now because they love their tutor.  Sometimes it takes a few iterations to get it right, but it’s worth it!

I found these DVDs to be very useful.  The PBS show Ni Hao Kailan also has a little Chinese language built into each show.

We also have these DVDs.  My son likes them but the animation is very basic.  It was hard to find Mandarin Chinese DVDs for kids; if I had access to Sesame Street in Chinese I would not have purchased these but I use these to mix it up.

Here’s a DS game that we have not tried yet, but we plan to.  My kids occasionally play the Spanish version.

I have not tried Rosetta Stone but I’ve heard great things about it for adults who want to learn a foreign language but at $299 it’s pricey.  Here’s an article on Rosetta Stone, free online learning and iphone apps from


January 1, 2010

Favorite Counting Books

I trolled through a 4 foot stack of counting books to find these treasures.  Enjoy!

I Know Two Who Said Moo by Judith Barrett.  A counting and rhyming book with great vocabulary!  [ages 2-5]


Seashells by the Sea Shore by Marianne Collins Berkes.  A counting book that identifies different sea shells.  A must for anyone who regularly goes to the beach or for a little one that loves to collect shells.  [ages 2-7]

Doggies by Sandra Boynton.  If you love dogs, you’ll love this counting and barking book; emphasis on barking!  [ages 1-4]

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.  A wonderful, enduring classic!  [ages 0-6]

Eight Animals on the Town by Susan Middleton Elya.  A counting book with Spanish mixed in!  [ages 1-5]

Pigs from 1-10 by Arthur Geisert.  Numbers are hidden in beautiful black and white illustrations.  [ages 205]

 Ten Little Ladybugs by Melanie Gerth.  All my kids loved the 3-D ladybugs that appear on every page. [ages 0-4]

1 2 3 Moose by Andrea Helman.  A beautiful photographic counting book of the Pacific Northwest with great factoids.  [ages 2-5]

We All Went on Safari by Laura Krebs.  As you count through Tanzania with Maasai friends, you will also learn to Swahili!  [ages 3-6]

Come Out and Play:  Count Around the World in 5 Languages by Diane Law.  [ages 0-5]

Ten Apples Up on Top by Theo LeSieg.  Because this book rhymes and has a very limited word vocabulary of about 90 words, it’s also great for literacy!  [ages 2-5]

One Watermelon Seed by Celia Barker Lottridge.  A gardening counting book that is great because it also counts by 10’s to 100.  [ages 3-6]

Chicka, Chicka 123 by Bill Jr. Martin, Michael Sampson and Lois Ehlert.  Sequel to Chicka Chicka ABC, this book is perfect for a child learning to count to 100.  W use the front and back inside covers to count to 100, count by 10’s, and count by 5’s.  It’s also fun to point out patterns because the numbers are wonderfully color coded as in, hey look how all the numbers in this column end in the number 2!  [ages 2-7]

I Spy Two Eyes by Lucy Micklethwait.  You and your child will enjoy finding things in famous paintings.  [ages 3-5]

Icky Bugs Numbers 1 2 3 by Jerry Pallota.  Wonderful realistic bug illustrations plus counting 1 through 20 and even skip counting by 2’s.  [ages 3-6] 

The Handmade Counting Book by Laura Rankin.  Learn to count and sign!  [ages 2-5]

100 School Days by Anne Rockwell.  When my kids were in Kindergarten, their teacher tracked the 100th day of school and everyone brought in 100 objects in a bag to celebrate just like in this book.  It’s also a great book to count by 10’s to 100.  [ages 4-6]

Tails by Matthew Van Fleet.  My kids all loved this touch and feel book.  [ages 1-4]

Bunny Party by Rosemary Wells.  Max and Ruby have a party and the guest list keeps expanding.  This is a great book that sneaks in counting with a story.  It’s also fun to match the numbers with the guests.  [ages 1-5]

Max Counts His Chickens by Rosemary Wells.  Max and Ruby search for marshmallow chicks but Max is having trouble finding any.  Count the chicks as Ruby finds with and then match them to the number.  [ages 1-5]

Teeth, Tails and Tentacles by Christopher Wormell.  Gorgeously illustrated and, finally!, the number as a symbol and word!  [ages 0-4]

Easy Dinners

I confess to reading cookbooks like some people read good novels.  I like simple home cooking from different countries; as long as it has a lot of flavor, it will be a hit in my family.  Recently I tracked the career goals my children mentioned over the past year.  Two of them mentioned chef and the other, my little gourmand, said she wanted to be a food critic.  You can bet it’s difficult to cook a meal that pleases everyone!  These recipes have passed the test and I have included the cookbooks that were the inspiration behind the dish.  Enjoy and please share your favorite meals!

I have a few cookbook author favorites but Nigella Lawson is probably my favorite cookbook author of all time.  She can cook ANYTHING and she’s also a mom so her expectations are reasonable.  She has cooking show on Style network that is worth taping. 

I love her cookbook Nigella Express, 130 Recipes for Good Food, Fast.  Now, she’s English, so she have a fondness for English mustard and peas that I don’t share but that is not to say that there aren’t great recipes that are easy and delicious.  To buy any book, click on the image of the book to purchase at

Steak with Lemon

1 1/2 pounds of steak, London Broil is great or Sirloin but any kind of steak is fine

1 lemon squeezed

1/3 cup olive oil

2 cloves garlic, bruised and minced.

Cook the steak on a grill pan on the stove until medium rare (or more if that is what you prefer.)  Let the steak rest for 10 minutes in the marinade made of remaining ingredients.  Slice the steak thinly and serve with marinade over white rice that you’ve made in a rice cooker. 

TIP:  If you want to mix brown rice with white rice, soak the brown rice overnight.  It will cook at the same rate as the white rice in the rice cooker.

Serve with fruit for the kids or sliced cucumbers and tomatoes.  Or a mozzarella, tomato salad would be nice too.  Just slice the mozzarella cheese and tomatoes and alternate slices on a plate.  Drizzle with aged balsamic vinegar (the best you can afford) and sea salt (Maldon is my favorite).

My kids have asked me to make this chicken pasta dish for them again and again. It’s just chicken piccata served with pasta.  I’ve modified a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated The New Best Recipe.  This is a great reference cookbook.  The good folks at Cook’s Illustrated have tried every variation to come up with the best, tastiest and easiest recipes.  Just follow the recipe to a T to get the same results.  Cook’s Illustrated has a great monthly magazine my husband and I love that we call the anal-retentive cooking magazine.

Chicken Piccata Pasta

1 package chicken breasts, boneless & skinless.  Organic is best.

1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil to fry chicken in

2 lemons, slice one into thin circles and squeeze the other

1 cup chicken broth; 2 garlic cloves, minced; 1 teaspoon corn starch

1 package whole wheat linguine

First boil water for the pasta.  Cook the pasta while attending to the chicken.  Fry the chicken breast in a little butter (about 1 tablespoon) and a little olive oil (about 1 tablespoon) on medium-high heat.  Remove when done, flipping once; about 5 minutes in total or 2 1/2 minutes on each side.  Remove to a plate and rest for a few minutes.  Add the chicken stock, garlic, the lemon slices and juice and a teaspoon of corn starch, and cook down until thickened.  Cut the chicken up into bite size pieces and add back to the pan with the sauce.  Serve over whole wheat pasta such as linguine. 

My husband created this easy and delicious teriyaki sauce recipe by combining a few different recipes.  You can store the leftover sauce in the refrigerator for a very long time and it’s great for chicken or salmon.  We frequently have play dates over for this dinner and everyone seems to like it.

Teriyaki Sauce

1/2 cup sake

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup soy sauce (we use Kikkoman brand, low sodium)

1/4 cup mirin (a sweet sake; available at

Put the sake in a small sauce pan on medium-high heat and cook until the liquid is reduced by half. (you are burning off the alcohol).  Add the remaining ingredients and stir to dissolve the sugar.  Simmer for 5 minutes and it’s ready to use.

Chicken Teriyaki

This meal idea came from the Bento Box cookbook.  It’s very simple:   to one package of chicken thighs (bone-in or boneless, skinless), add 1/2 cup of the teriyaki sauce , two handfuls of baby carrots and 1/4 inch slices of potato into a skillet and cook on medium heat, flipping a few times, until the chicken is done and the sauce has reduced to a nice, glossy consistency.  Boneless chicken thighs will take about 10-12 minutes and bone-in will take an extra five minutes or so.  Serve with rice. 

Salmon Teriyaki

1 pound salmon steaks or fillets

Lightly salt the salmon and cook in a 350 degree oven for about 7-10 minutes for a thin fillet or about 15 minutes for a thicker salmon steak.  Remove from oven and pour about 1/4 cup of teriyaki sauce as the fish cools.  Serve with rice or, if you want to get fancy, try this soba noodle salad.  The soba salad is perfect for warm weather.  My kids love it but they remove most of the veggies.  No matter, soba noodles are made from buckwheat and are a good source of fiber.

Soba Noodle Salad

12 ounces soba noodles

Julienne (cut into match sticks) the following:  1/2 English cucumber, 1 red bell pepper, 1 or 2 carrots

sauce:  1/4 cup soy sauce, 2 tablespoons sesame oil (toasted Asian kind NOT clear kind), 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar.

Follow the package directions and cook the noodles.  Drain and run under cold water.  Add to bowl with the julienned vegetables.  When you are ready to eat, toss everything with dressing and eat immediately.


One of my closest mom friends is Cuban and we’ve been enjoying Cuban food since we’ve met her.  We both cook from In a Cuban Kitchen, by Alex Garcia, a well-known food channel chef and host.  Everyone in my family loves it when it’s sandwich night.  These are no ordinary sandwiches…they are Cubano style.  The reason why this is an easy dinner is that you can marinade several pork  loins on the weekend and freeze them.  For a weeknight dinner, simply remove from freezer before you go to work and roast in the oven for an hour.  Pick up a few baguettes on the way home (our family of 5 needs two), and dinner is a snap.  I have added some fancy condiments that you can either make in advance, buy a jarred version or forego.  This particular recipe is inspired by the Pernil Asado recipe.  This recipe is for one pork loin, so double or triple if you want to make ahead and freeze.  I usually make three at a time; one for now, two for later.

 Cubano Sandwiches

1 pork loin (I buy them from Trader Joe’s because they are the right size)

marinade:  1 teaspoon dried oregano or 1 tablespoon fresh oregano, 1 large orange (or substitute three or four clementines if you have them lying around going bad), 1 lemon, 1 lime (or use 2 lemons or 2 limes if that is what you have in your fridge), 5 cloves garlic minced fine, two pinches of cumin,  1 tablespoon salt and freshly ground pepper, 1 bay leaf crumbled.

Rinse and dry the pork loin and put in a large zip lock bag.  Add the marinade and leave in the refrigerator overnight.  RESERVE the marinade, drain the roast and place on a baking sheet covered in foil.  Roast in a 350 degree oven for about an hour.  Rest for 10 minutes then slice thinly.  Put the marinade in a small sauce pan and bring to a boil.  Cook for a few minutes then pour over the sliced meat.  Serve with a baguette, cut into “subway” sandwich lengths.  Condiments include Dijon mustard, roasted & marinated red bell peppers, and carmelized red onions. 

 I do love Suzanne Goin’s cook book, Sunday Suppers at Lucques.  The recipes are not easy dinners but they are delicious.  This is a riff off her Roasted Bell Peppers.  My version is easier.

3 red bell peppers, broil until charred on all sides (keep flipping).  Put in a covered bowl, then remove seeds and skin but reserve juices.

Put roasted bell pepper slices in a glass container with the reserved juices, 2 thinly sliced cloves of garlic, a slug of good, aged balsamic vinegar and about 2 tablespoons of rice wine vinegar.  You want enough liquid to cover the peppers.  Add salt to taste.  Keeps in the refrigerator for a week or so.

Carmelized Red Onions

Slice a large red onion into fine circles and place in a saute pan.  Add about a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and cook over medium heat until the onions soften.  Add the juice of a lime and lower the heat until the onions are a carmelized brownish color.  This takes about 12-15 minutes. 


Carne Picada Burritos

This recipe is from my all-time favorite magazine, Saveur.  I think I clipped this recipe more than 10 years ago.  It’s from the H & H Coffee Shop in El Paso.  My kids love meals where they can make it themselves.  Getting good tortillas is difficult in the North-East where we live.  Try the handmade flour tortillas at Whole Foods.

Heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add 1 diced peeled yellow onion and cook until translucent, about 15 minutes.  Trim 1 pound of tri-tip steak and cut into 1/2 inch dice.  Add to onions.  Increase heat to high and brown meat for 2 minutes.  Add 2 diced tomatoes (canned is fine; freeze remainder for another use), and add 1-3 cloves of minced garlic (we like it garlicy).  Crumble in 2 cubes of beef bouillon (secret ingredient!), and season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Serve with warm flour tortillas.  Makes 4-6 burritos.

Here are some Saveur Cookbooks.  I don’t have these cookbooks because Saveur is the only magazine I save so I already have all the recipes.



 Marinated Rib Eye Roast

This will be our Christmas dinner.  It’s from an out-of-print Junior League California cookbook; I think from the Los Angeles area.  Our holiday cards are little recipe books and this recipe was in our first one about 10 years ago.  We still have friends that will call, years after receiving our card, and say they are making this recipe.  It’s easy because most of the time is not active time, but sooo delish!

1 5-pound boneless rib eye roast; we also like bone-in, we get 3 bones to have yummy leftovers

1/2 cup coarsely cracked pepper (sadly, you must crush in mortar and pestle; we tried other methods but it’s not the same)

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamon

1 cup soy sauce (Kikkoman brand, low sodium is fine)

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon paprika

4 cloves garlic, minced

Place roast in a large zip lock bag.  Combine pepper and cardamon and press firmly all around roast.  Combine soy sauce, vinegar, tomato paste, paprika and garlic. Pour over roast and marinade overnight, turning occasionally.

Remove roast from marinade and discard marinade.  Be sure to scrape off the pepper.  Place roast in a roasting pan.  Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Roast for 1 hour & 15 miutes  for the 5 pound roast or until meat thermometer registers 140 degrees for rare or 160 degrees for medium.  Rest for 15 minutes and then carve.


 Vietnamese Grilled Chicken or Beef (a.k.a.  Vietnamese Burritos)

This is another kid pleaser.  We had playdates who are a little picky try this and they all loved it.  I think it’s because it’s a do-it-yourself meal so it’s fun for kids to make their own wraps.  I clipped this recipe a long time ago, but I suspect it’s from Bon Appetit Magazine. It’s actually a riff off Lemongrass Beef or Lemongrass Chicken, but I never seem to have fresh lemongrass.  No one seems to notice it’s missing either.

2  tablespoons sugar

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3/4 teaspoon corn starch

1 pound flank steak, thinly cut OR 1 package chicken breasts, thinly cut into strips

1/4 cup Vietnamese fish sauce

Combine everything and refrigerate overnight, turning occasionally.  Discard marinade and fry in a saute pan on medium-high heat, about 1-2 minutes per side.

Serve with:  1/2 head bib lettuce; 1 English cucumber, julienned; 2 carrots, julienned; sprigs of fresh mint leaves; sprigs of fresh cilantro; and 16 rond rice-paper wrappers, 6 inches in diameter.

To make:  put a large bowl of warm water on the table.  Take the rice-paper wrapper which will be still like card board and dip into the water making sure the wrapper gets completely covered in water.  Drain excess water and put on your plate.  In a few minutes, it will be soft and pliable.  Add whatever combo of things you want to eat.  Roll up like a burrito and eat. 

If you would like a Vietnamese dipping sauce, then combine 1 tablespoons of sugar, juice of a lime, and 1/4 cup fish sauce.  Stir to dissolve.

This is a great reference for Vietnamese cooking; the  cookbook author is an editor for Saveur Magazine






Panko-Breaded Pork Chops or Chicken Tenders

A mom friend gave me this recipe and the spinach lasagna recipe; both are easy and delicious.

1 large egg

1 cup Japanese bread crumbs (panko), in the Asian section or

2-3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese.  A wonderful source of the best Parmesano Reggiano is

1/2 tsp salt and freshly grated pepper

1 teaspoon minced sage (if your kids don’t freak out about green stuff) for pork; 1 teaspoon minced thyme for the chicken

Four 3/4 inch-thick pork chops; about 1/2 pound each and pounded flat to about 3/8 inch thick. 


Beat the egg in a shallow dish.  Mix the panko, Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, and herbs in another shallow dish.  Dip the pork or chicken first into the egg and then coat with panko mixture.  Bake in an oven, preheated to 350 degrees, for about 15-17 minutes until golden.  Serve with a wedge of lemon for adults and ketchup for kids.

To make this a fun dipping dinner, serve with sliced English cucumbers, baby carrots and ranch dressing.  My kids also like sliced apples that they dip into a mixture of cinnamon & sugar.


Easiest Spinach Lasagna

Barilla brand baking sauce, one jar

No cook lasagna noodles

1 package pre-washed baby spinach leaves, uncooked

1 tub marscapone cheese

1 tub cottage cheese


In a large baking dish, pour a generous layer of baking sauce and add a layer of lasagna noodles.  Add another layer of sauce, and spread a thin layer of both the cottage cheese and marscapone cheese.  Squish down a layer of the spinach.  Do this again until everything is used up ending with lasagna noodles with sauce on top.  I get 3 layers of lasagna noodles.  Cover with foil and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for about an hour.


Pork Chops with Roasted Parsnips, Pears and Potatoes

I clipped this recipe from Vogue a long time ago.  It’s a Jaime Oliver recipe, a.k.a. The Naked Chef.  If I recall correctly, he made this for Tony Blair, then the Prime Minister.  The original  recipe is for 8 so I’ve halved it for 4.  I haven’t read Jaime Oliver’s recent cookbooks, but I used to watch The Naked Chef religiously.  He’s a disciple of  The River Cafe, so I’ve included their cookbook as well because I believe they are the “grounding” behind Jamie’s stripped down but amped up Italian style.  I tend to like the first cookbook that each chef puts out the most — I have a feeling the first cookbook is the hardest to get published so it tends to be their best effort —  so  I’ve included The Naked Chef even though this recipe is not in here.  I’ve also included The River Cafe’s Italian Easy Cookbook; it’s not their first cookbook but unlike their other cookbooks, you don’t need a wood-fired oven to make some of their recipes.

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

6 garlic cloves, lightly smashed

2 large branches of rosemary, cut into 2-inch length sprigs

zest and juice of a lemon

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

four 8- to 10-ounce pork rib chops, 3/4 to 1 inch thick

3 parsnips, quartered lengthwise

3 firm but ripe Bartlett pears, quartered lengthwise and cored

1 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, sliced into  1/3 inch thick wedges

 Combine olive oil with garlic, rosemary, lemon zest and juice, and pepper in large roasting pan.  Marinate pork chops for 1 hour at room temperature or overnight in the fridge.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.   Scrape marinade off chops and set aside on a platter but return marinade to roasting pan.  Add parsnips, pears and potatoes to roasting pan and turn with hands until everything is covered in the marinade.  Season with salt, about 1/2 teaspoon sea salt.  Roast for 40 minutes, stirring occassionally until the vegetables are tender.

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a saute pan, and season the pork chops with salt on both sides.  Cook over high heat until golden, about 5 minutes total, then return to roasting pan, setting on top of the vegetables and roast an additional 5-8 minutes until pork is cooked through.


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