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3 Things Great School Lunches Have in Common

I don’t know about you, but now that it’s back-to-school time, I find myself on lunch duty. It’s the least I can do. I mean, my kids have been cleaning up after themselves, doing their own laundry, dishes, and general household chores since they were seven. Yes, you read that right. My daughter was nine, but my son was tasked with the job of doing his own laundry at seven. Not only did it make me proud to watch him, it made me chuckle to see him leap up onto the washing machine to turn the dials. Such an athlete!

Now some of you are probably wondering how I managed this feat, or why I’d even try. I’m a stay-at-home Mom. I have the time. Eh, maybe I should do all the chores, maybe I shouldn’t. That’s a discussion for another day. (Way, way into the future!)

According to my kids, it’s my lifelong quest to become known as the Meanest Mom Ever. I beg to differ. I look at it as my job to teach them independence. One day they’ll be out on their own and must be able to do things for themselves. That, and they went through a wholly “ungrateful” spell treating me like I was put on this earth to do their bidding.

Not. But now that we’ve worked through that period of time, we’re on good terms. I make their lunch for them every morning, and they say “thank you.” Wunderbar. And it’s off to school you go!

With that settled, what makes for a great school lunch?

#1 ~ Enviability. (Is that even a word?)

Kids want to be the envy of their friends when it comes to their lunch offerings, because at some point, they invariably become just that: offerings.

“Hey, I’ll trade you my bag of trail mix for that blueberry muffin.”

“Wanna trade my blackberries for your peanut butter sandwich?”

While I’m thinking my kids want food that tastes great, they’re thinking value, as in, What can I get for the stuff my mom packed me?

#2 ~ The “Cool” Factor.

I’ll never forget the day my kids took carrots from our garden to school for lunch, then were amazed by the curious stares they received.

“What’s that?”

“Duh. It’s a carrot.”

“No, I mean, what’s that green stuff on the end of it?”

“The leaves.”

Had these children never seen a carrot in its natural state?

Sadly, the answer was no. Many of them had not. But how would they? While we gardeners enjoy gardens in our backyard, our patios and window sills, others don’t. They only enjoy what the grocery store stocks for them to enjoy. On the bright side, the discussion did serve as the catalyst for their first school garden!

#3 ~ Variety

With a backyard garden bursting with bounty fall through spring, we never lack for variety. From blueberries to tomatoes, broccoli to zucchini, there’s something for everyone to eat. My son prefers carrots. My daughter prefers broccoli. Both pack well into a lunch and combine deliciously with peanut butter or ranch dressing. But my kids get bored easily, so I’ve learned to rotate the offerings. Some days it’s fruit and yogurt, other days it’s veggies and dip. Sometimes we go with a sandwich, other days they prefer a salad. But always, always, always, I pack enough to eat and share and keep it interesting.

Because like it or not, I’ve found their friends to be very interested in “tasting” what my kids bring to school for lunch. I’ve even garnered a few compliments over the years.

“Mom, Sarah loved your oatmeal-carrot cookies.”

“Awesome!” I replied, knowing full-well that my daughter does not prefer these delicacies due to the raisins I include in the mix. But she knows that others do and like the smart cookie that she is, she requests them to be included in her lunch. And anything else I might like to experiment with, because for her there’s no downside. Someone will eat it, even if it’s not her. (We gardeners do love to share–it’s half the fun!)

In fact, my neighbor just called me to deliver a bucket full of limes. Yep. She has too many to eat for herself and hates to see them go to waste. I concur. And in the rare instance when my kids do bring home lunch leftovers, they summarily toss them into the compost bin. Leftovers make excellent dirt.

Waste not, want not!

Let’s Can Peppers!

Wahoo~my Hungarian Wax peppers are ready to be canned!!  It’s the moment my son has been waiting for.  He can’t wait to get started harvesting–well, in between entertaining the neighbor girl peering at him through the chain link fence, that is.  In between introducing him to all 100 of her imaginary brothers and sisters, her fleet of horses, her real life dogs…

Well, you get the picture.  The boy was distracted, but still managed to snip this bounty of peppers.

Beautiful.  From red to yellow (and a few green we’ll chalk up to the distraction factor), my son has given me quite the beginning for a canning fiesta.  Mind you, he didn’t lug this basket up to the house himself.  I did.  He was busy impressing the young girl with his digging abilities, creating a hole deep enough to step in clear up to his thighs!  Needless to say, she was thrilled. More

Skillet Potatoes and Onions

If you live in the South, you’re probably harvesting potatoes and onions right about now. Okay, you probably have harvested your potatoes, but apparently I missed a few on the first go round of my harvest session. And the second.

Well, to be fair, my son was part of this process so it’s anyone’s guess how these babies were missed. But here they are, gorgeous and sumptuous as ever.

Potatoes and onions are good friends when it comes to cooking. These two root veggies blend well together morning, noon and night. I prefer mine layered with cheese–as does my family–so I decided to combine them for a side dish at dinnertime. I also prefer cast iron when skillet-cooking in the oven. Adds to flavor, I think. And the dish is definitely a crowd-pleaser. The applause you’ll receive when you pull the skillet out of the oven is wonderful. And well-deserved.

Skillet Potatoes and Onions

2 1/4 lb. potatoes, sliced

2 onions, chopped

2 cloves garlic

1/4 cup butter

1/4 tsp. paprika

8 oz. shredded cheddar

salt and pepper to taste

2 TBSP bacon bits, optional

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Melt butter in a 9″ cast iron skillet and sauté onions until translucent, about 4-5 minutes.  Add garlic and sauté 1 minute longer. Sprinkle with paprika and remove from heat.

Remove onions to a plate and wipe down skillet. Brush bottom and sides of skillet with shortening or butter. Arrange enough potato slices to cover bottom of skillet, overlapping slices. More

A Model For School Gardens

Ever wanted to start a school garden and didn’t know where to begin?

Then you must check out the incredible work being done by Millennia Gardens Elementary in Orlando, Florida. In collaboration with Mayor Buddy Dyer’s Green Works Initiative and the help of countless dedicated volunteers (and of course, enthusiastic students!), this school is paving the way for future school gardens everywhere. Education is at the heart of their mission, with an emphasis on environmental stewardship and healthy living.

These students are learning to recycle, beginning with tires. Have you ever seen an old rubber tire look so good?

I haven’t. They’re simply beautiful–and the butterflies are flocking to these flowers in droves. In a touching tribute to the victims of the Pulse Nightclub attack, rocks were painted with the names of each victim and placed in the garden for all to visit and reflect upon.

An education board placed near the butterfly garden explains the life cycle of the butterfly, labels the parts of plants and flowers and even discusses the value of other important pollinators. Where was this classroom when I was growing up?

But the fun doesn’t stop here. These students have established an impressive hydroponic garden, pictured here with an abundance of strawberries. If that wasn’t enough, these budding humanitarians grow lettuce and donate it to Sea World to feed rescued manatees.

They have also established a lovely raised bed garden.

Sound expensive to maintain? Not really. These ingenious youngsters have employed a “pedal-a-watt” system where they actually power the pumps and timers to keep their garden growing green and lush by cycling. Yep, you heard me right! These kids pedal to their heart’s content and deliver the much needed energy to their garden equipment. Now that’s what I call saving money on electricity. And, expending youthful excess energy and calories!

However, the “awesome” factor doesn’t stop there. Check out these wind-turbines…

They’re just one more way the kids are practicing sustainable methods of living. Notice that black pile of dirt in the background? Millennia Gardens Elementary is one of the only schools in the county to recycle their food waste, allowing the city to convert it to a rich, organic compost that will feed their garden.

Wow. Talk about a bright future–these kids are setting a stellar example for schools nationwide. For more information on what they’re doing and planning for the future, visit their website:  www.ecoclubfl.com

Vacation Woes & Garden Envy

Two aspects of gardening we don’t often discuss, but I know exist. At least they do for me.

Recently I helped out a fellow gardener by harvesting some of their crop while they were out of town. Didn’t have to ask me twice. Free bounty? Count me in! However, I was reminded of what it means to be a gardener on vacation.

Weeds. And lots of them. The longer you enjoy your time away, the worse your garden woes at home. Especially after a big rain. Yikes. My back hurts just looking at all the weeding that needs to be done! Every summer the same thing happens to my garden. I’ve resorted to covering most of my beds with heavy black paper to ease the burden, but invariably there are weeds. Usually in my peanuts–about the only crop I grow over the summertime, due to the heat.

But the good news? The bounty was some of the best I’ve seen in a while.

Look at the size of these eggplant plants! They were over three feet high. And take a gander at all that bounty! If you recall, my eggplants were a measly 18 in. tall. “Shrimps” by comparison.

But my envy didn’t stop there. The jalapenos were also amazing and abundant. And tall. Way taller than my plants. In fact, all of the plants were bigger than mine. I’m not sure if his plants are organic or not, however I do know one thing. I’m jealous!

However, looking on the bright side. I do get to enjoy the fruits of his labor–literally. The eggplant was delicious, as were the peppers!

Homemade Sun-dried Tomatoes

Ever wondered how to sun dry a tomato? I mean, the flavor of sun-dried tomatoes is exquisitely intense, wonderfully versatile–and I learned–the perfect addition to any raw diet.  It makes an awesome base for uncooked tomato sauce.

But I digress. Personally I never wondered about sun-dried tomatoes and how they were created. I figured the name said it all, right?  I imagined them splayed out across specialty terra-cotta baking stones in Italy or California, sunning until they reached crispy, crunchy chewy perfection (depending on how you like them!).

It wasn’t until I witnessed Mother Nature’s first sun-dried tomatoes in my garden that it dawned on me.  (Actually, it was the scorch of summer and my lack of attention that did it, but who’s checking?) I planted these gorgeous Romas in spring and they dried by summertime, all by themselves.  Don’t you love an independent vegetable?

Nothing I like better than a vegetable that will grow itself or a child that will do his or her own laundry. It’s heaven!  But seriously, are these not feats to be coveted? At least respected, admired?  In my house they are and when my tomatoes began to sun dry themselves well, I celebrated.  Hip-hip-hooray!  We have sun-dried tomatoes!

For all of you cringing right now thinking, please no, tell me you didn’t actually eat those rotten things.  Rest assured, I didn’t. Who knows what may have tainted those shriveled beauties? Not me and I don’t eat anything from my garden without full certainty of its “wholesome goodness” prior to ingestion.  I have kids watching my every move. Never know which “moves” they may wish to emulate and trust me–rushing them to the ER is not on my list of things to do!

So how does one sun-dry tomatoes?

Easy. Same way you dry those herbs in your garden–set the oven to low (150-200) and bake them for about 4-5 hours, depending on the size of your tomatoes and the heat strength of your oven.  Cut them into quarters and push the seeds out (or not).

These are a mix of Roma style and regular.  (Is there such a thing as regular tomatoes?)  Next, spread them across a baking sheet.  I used this vented one for more even “drying.”

At this point, your best course of action is to monitor them throughout the process, turning when necessary. If this seems like too much work, you can always lay them out in the sunshine for a hot couple of days.  Mother Nature does know what she’s doing!

After about 4 hours, my small batch was ready; crispy-crunchy-ready.

I imagine if I immerse these in olive oil they’ll return to a more palatable texture (like mine chewy), but these would still be great as a salad sprinkle.  The raw diet recipes we used during our challenge called for soaking the sun-dried tomatoes in water prior to use.  Good idea.

Tasty, toasty and easy, you’ll want to try this one for yourself!

Earth Day for Kids!

Earth Day began back in April of 1979 coinciding with the birth of the environmental movement. Poor air and water quality were fundamental to the movement, along with protecting endangered species, a push that drew support from all sides of the political spectrum in an effort to save the earth we inhabit. (Could you imagine such an agreement in today’s tumultuous political times?) We’ve come a long way since those first days but we’re not there yet. While many of us yearn for a gas and oil free lifestyle, our technology is not quite there. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make real differences in our everyday lives.

Most of us recycle our plastics and glass, newspaper and cardboard. Many of us conserve water with every flush, every faucet turn, but how about moving our conservation efforts into the hearts of our children? From composting to gardening, to recycling and thinking futuristically, kids relish the opportunity to be part of a cause and the health of our planet is certainly a good one. One way to encourage kids in the garden is to make it fun.

From insects and worms to wild critters and mysterious finds, there’s never a dull moment between the rows of a garden and D.S. Venetta proves it with her series of chapter books, Wild Tales & Garden Thrills. Not only will kids be engaged by the stories, they’ll learn the basic tenets of organic gardening and why it’s so important for healthy living habits—including the health of our planet. Composting, companion planting, crop rotation, seed-saving–it’s all there. As a bonus, each book includes vocabulary words, fresh recipes & organic gardening lessons in the back!

CAUTION: by the time the kids finish the first book, they’ll be insisting you start your very own garden and compost pile (if you haven’t already!). Next, they’ll be convincing their teachers at school.

It’s not hard. None of it’s hard. But it does require effort. Thought. Intent. And that’s what the annual Earth Day celebration means to me and my family: we are the custodians of the planet. If we each do our part, we can live in harmony with nature. Animals, too, but that’s another post for another day. 🙂

Here’s to wishing you joy and good health on this Earth Day, and hope you reap abundance from this beautiful earth.

Books available from your favorite indie bookstore, as well as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million. Do your kids love their ereader as much as mine? Perfect! These books are also available for Kindle, iBooks, Nook, and Kobo with full-color illustrations.  Coloring books featuring all of the illustrations from the books are also available–perfect for engaging the younger set! Visit author D.S. Venetta’s website for more information.

Time to Plant Your Sweet Potato Slips

Summer is fast approaching (in Florida, anyway) which means it’s time to get your slips in the ground and growing.  They require a long growing season and they require warmth.  But they don’t grow from seed potatoes, rather the “slips” created from your sweet potatoes.  How does one create a sweet potato slip?

The technique is easy.  You simply cut your sweet potato in half, perch it upon the mouth of a jar or glass (suspended by toothpicks works well) submerging the bottom half in water.  Voila!

creating slips

Place in a sunny location and keep the water level high enough so that the bottom half remains wet and then watch your potato sprout.

After a while—times vary, but you can expect to wait days, even weeks in some cases—shoots (leaves) will form on the top of your potato.  You can gently remove these and place them in water, again half-submersed, and a tangle of roots will develop.

slip roots

When they reach a couple of inches in length, you simply transplant them to your garden and water them in.

Sweet potatoes like loose sandy soil and don’t need a lot of fertilizer or water, which makes them especially kind to the novice Florida gardener, such as myself.   You can amend the soil with some compost to add nutrients, but don’t worry if you can’t.  These girls are pretty hardy.

Depending on the variety, potatoes can be harvested from 100 – 140 days.   I planted my first crop in June and began harvesting in October but continued through December.  They don’t like the cold, so we cleared the remainder out and collected them for storage before the temps dipped too low.

As with any tender transplant, take care with your new rootings and they will grow fast and furious.   Wonderful news, because sweet potatoes are not only easy to grow, but they’re as healthy as it gets.  Roasted, mashed, baked or broiled, these babies will keep you healthy and happy and hoppin’ ready for a new crop come fall!

sweet potato slips ready for sprouts

Mine are on the shelf and ready for action.  The colorful one in the middle was a gift from my daughter. 🙂  She made it at one of those clay-fire-glaze studios.  Cute, isn’t it?

Protect Your Tomato Transplants

And believe me, your tender tomato transplants need protection–from all kinds of harmful factors! I garden in Central Florida where spring begins in February and the heat quickly follows. So for me, an important consideration when transplanting my tomato seedling from patio to garden is the sun, and how much my babies can tolerate. Another consideration is bugs. Bugs love warm weather and open spaces, and I have both.

The solution?

Screen. Similar to my screen patio, I use screen to protect my plants in the garden. At least for the first month, anyway. It’s a pretty basic proposition. You can purchase screen material in rolls from your local hardware store–maybe even cut sheets–and the rest is obvious. Measure your length, cut your fabric and cover your plants. My setup is similar to a “pup tent.” I use posts with twine/cable strung between them for my tomato support. I also use the posts as support for my screen. I do love a multi-tasker!

Next, I stabilize my “tent” with anchor pins. These poke through the screen material quite easily and keep the screen in place and away from my plants. Caution: Heavy spring winds can rip the anchor pins from the soil, so check frequently and stabilize as necessary. We had a big windstorm last week and some of my babies were battered.  Not good!

My plants are happy. And when they’re happy, mama’s happy.

Get Your Blueberries Early!

I love blueberries, plain, on yogurt, in a pie or straight from the bush…

Blueberries are magnificent in every way. And best of all, they’re easy to grow. Seriously. Sun, pine (acid), water, done. That’s it. (That’s pine mulch around the base of the plant.)

All you do is dig a hole, add water and pine bark mulch (acid), and they’re good to go. Oh, and twine. I’m not the only one who loves blueberries. Birds love blueberries and are usually out and about at the crack of dawn dive-bombing the plump ripe berries before you’ll ever get a chance to stop them. Sheesh! If you run twine over the bushes, it’s “problem solved.” I used to use netting until I learned it keeps the bees out, too. Not good. Blueberry blossoms need bees.

Blueberry bushes will begin showing up in your local plant stores soon and if I were you, I’d grab a few. A few—because they need other blueberry bushes for pollination. You do want some, don’t you? Of course you do! And now is the time to find blueberry plants at your local garden center. Just remember, blueberries need to cross-pollinate, so make sure you purchase at least two different varieties for your garden. I have several, including Southern Highbush Sharp Blue, Windsor, Jubilee, Jewel and Gulf Coast. If you can get your hands on some Highbush Misty, they are supposed to get along well with Highbush Sharp Blue. I also have some Rabbit Eye varieties to round out my berry garden.

Special note: Blueberries require a certain amount of “chillng hours” to produce fruit. Chill hours are considered between 32 degrees F and 45 degrees F. I chose these varieties because in Florida we don’t get a lot of cold weather and these bushes require the least amount of chilling hours, ranging from 200-500 hours. So choose wisely according to your growing region.

Plant in organic-rich slightly acidic soil (4.0 — 5.0 pH) and mulch well. Feed with a 12-4-8 fertilizer and prune during the summer months after harvest for more vigorous growth.

Best results = tons of berries. Look at those beauties!

Quick fun facts about blueberries:

July is National Blueberry month.

Blueberry muffins are the most popular muffin in America.

Blueberry muffins are the state muffin of Minnesota. (Who knew muffins had state status?)

Maine produces more blueberries than any place in the world. (I’ve actually visited some blueberry orchards in Maine and was quite frankly, surprised to find them there!)

Blueberries are relatives to the rhododendron and azalea bushes.

Not only interesting and beautiful, blueberries are FULL of antioxidants. So get shopping! The early bird gets the best bush.