Sunday, June 28, 2015

Get a Buddy and Get Running: My Road to Getting Into Shape

When I was in high school, I ran cross country. I actually only ran my senior year. Something about junior high trauma from being cut from sport teams prevented me from ever trying out for a high school sport in which I could be cut. Cross country was different. I just got out there and ran. Through college, I continued to run on a quazi-consistent basis.When I began teaching, I coached cross country for six years. And then I went cold turkey and completely stopped running.

Occasionally I would attempt to go on a run. After about half a mile I would feel my lungs beginning to explode. Fifty yards after that I would think I was going to throw up. I would walk home and decide that I was done running. It was kind of like Rocky, except instead of deciding to push through and run, I just decided that I would be done.

The day we got Kona in November 2014.
Last fall we got a dog. We were not looking for a dog, but the dog came to us. Kona was a 50 pound German Shepherd puppy rescued by the Phoenix Police Department. Yes, I just used the words “50 pound” and “puppy” in the same sentence. Kona is a little different than the Miniature Pinscher puppy that my wife and I had for 12 years (parenthetically, Beanie was a wedding present. While we loved Beanie, please don't ever consider giving a puppy as a wedding present. Many, many other things make better wedding presents than a puppy). We quickly realized that a massive, growing, working dog needs more exercise than just playing ball. So I dusted off my old, cheap running shoes, fired up my Map My Run app on my phone, and took Kona on a run.

I made it about a block before I needed a rest. And a nap. Kona looked back at me with her big puppy dog eyes, tail wagging, as if to say, "That wasn't nearly far enough, pal." I walked a little bit, ran a little bit, and ended up doing a little over a mile in 11 minutes. My body needed a break after that, so I took the weekend off. The next Monday I did my walk/run routine with Kona with a 13 minute/mile pace. And that's the way it worked for us for the next week or so.

"Take me running, PLEASE."
Some days I would get to 1.25 miles, but always with a slow pace. The difference between trying to get into running in the past compared with now was the big, black German Shepherd who continually urged me on. We would start off running, and when I felt like I was ready to walk, I would pick an object in the distance and decide to run until I got to that object. We would then walk for a spell, and I would pick another object, much closer, and commit to running when we got there. My out-of-shape body was trying to develop a rhythm, and Kona was there encouraging me (and sometimes dragging me). 

After about a month, I decided to try to run two miles. Kona and I made it two miles in a little over 20 minutes. This was no speed record, but I was very happy with the distance. I now knew that I could run two miles without needing to walk much. This was seven months ago, and Kona and I now run between 2 and 3.5 miles regularly. While I try not to pay much attention to our pace, we are averaging about 8:10 per mile. In seven months we have shaved about five minutes off our our average per mile pace. I use the Map My Run app, which is great for my competitive nature. I can see my progress, and almost always shove my sweaty phone in my wife's face after a run so she can see how I have done. This is a great app, and if you're not ready to get a large dog to help you run, this may be a good encouragement as well. 
She gets to flop down after the run...I have to go to work.

Aside from exercising the dog, I am feeling better. I have lost about 10 pounds, and my knees, which were not in great shape for many years, now feel fantastic (I did work with my chiropractor and wore a knee brace for about six months). Now that I'm feeling better, I've started biking to work once or twice per week, and I'm spending less on gas. These are all benefits that came just from trying to wear out my energetic, large enormous dog.

But the best thing has just started happening. Once school ended for the summer, my seven-year-old got up one morning and asked if she could go running with me and Kona. My initial thought was, "She's just going to slow us down. There's no way she could keep up with us." But I caught myself and asked myself what was more important - running fast with the dog or running with my daughter. She threw on her running shoes and came with us. We ran 1.2 miles, our pace was really slow, but we had a great morning. 

A few days later, my seven-year-old AND my four-year-old asked if they could run. It was a rainy morning, but I told them both to get their shoes on. We ran, we splashed in puddles, we talked, and we had a wonderful one mile run. I realized something that I almost missed. My running with the dog is not the most important thing. My faster pace, longer distances, or goal of completing a Disney half marathon at some point in the future are not the most important things. My relationship with my kids is more important than any of this, and I almost forgot that. That doesn't meant that I don't get frustrated or annoyed or short-tempered with them when I want to do something quickly. But the whole point of Renaissance Dad is engaging in life with my kids, and I almost missed this opportunity.
So thank you, Kona, for giving me another opportunity to spend time with my kids. Thank you for helping me get healthy so that I can hopefully have a long, happy life with all of my loved ones. And thank you, kids, for remembering to pick up the dog poop. Because after all, Kona is your dog.

Monday, June 15, 2015

7 No-Fighting, No-Crying Ways to Get Kids to Eat Vegetables

I am very happy to have a guest writer for Renaissance Dad. This is the Highly Driven, lovely wife of mine, here with some helpful advice on getting kids to eat their veggies. 

Actual phrases spoken at the Renaissance Dad home:

Dad to 7-year-old: “No more kale until you eat some of your pizza.”

4-year-old to Mom: “SALAD?! I LOVE Salad!! You’re the BEST mom!”

Dad to 7-year-old: “Hey, leave some artichokes for everybody else.”

3-year old to no one in particular: “I have strong eyes because I LOVE red pepper.”

Our kids don’t eat veggies. They devour them. So many other parents are mystified, impressed, even jealous, that I finally sat down and really thought about how we got here. So, without further ado, I offer you The List of how we got our kids excited about vegetables.

1) We started early. When our oldest was born, someone gave us a copy of the book Super Baby Food. I skimmed through it, panicked, and gave up. Who has the energy for all these gourmet pureed recipes? I was already sleep-deprived, half-starved, hormonal and scared. Six months later, I added up the prices of all the jars and pouches of commercial baby food, panicked, and decided to make homemade baby food work. I went back to the book and found helpful recommendations for what
ages to introduce various foods, although I never used a recipe. I never made food ahead and froze it. And I never spent more than a five minutes making food for any baby. I just fed them simple, easy stuff. Here are my two favorite baby food recipes: 

Sweet Potatoes
Prep time: 2 minutes
Total time: 1 hour-ish

Take sweet potatoes out of fridge. Stab them with a fork. Put them in the oven (no need to wash, because the peel is coming off later). Bake at any temperature for any amount of time (400 for 45-60 minutes works, but if you need to throw them in with something else, you can bake them at lower heat for longer). Let cool. Peel off skin. Blend inner sweet potato, adding water to desired consistency. Keeps in the fridge for several days.

Prep time: 2 minutes
Total time: 2 minutes

Cut avocado in half and remove pit. Scoop avocado flesh out with a spoon. Blend, adding water to desired consistency. Does not keep, so eat it all, baby. I wasn’t necessarily considering the long-term implications at the time (I could barely remember my own name). But looking back on it, I realize that by starting our kids out on fresh food from their very first bite, their pallets grew accustomed to
the more intense flavors of real food. Plus they were too young to argue. Score one for the parents!

To succeed in baby food making, you do need a good blending gizmo. My sister-in-law loves her Magic Bullet. I’ve been really happy with our Ninja. Both blenders have the MOST important feature: all their bits can be tossed in the dishwasher. And now that we are past baby food stage, we still use ours constantly for smoothies, homemade popsicles, gazpacho (or as Big A calls it, “God’s poncho”) and various food experiments. Pick one up today!

If your kids are already past baby food stage, it’s not too late to help them fall in love with veggies. But it won’t happen overnight. To win them over, be ready for a long haul. So on to tips for big kids…

2) We garden. There is something magical about being able to eat something from the yard, am I right? Kids want to put grass, dirt and rocks in their mouths. Of course, we follow them around saying, “No! Yucky!” and swiping stuff away. So when we actually say, “Go ahead! Pick that and pop it in your mouth,” it’s like Christmas came early.  Big E wasn’t born liking tomatoes. But the thing she’d throw on the floor from her highchair, she’d chow down straight from the vine. Once she
learned to like it in the garden, it eventually transferred back inside. Same thing happened with sugar-snap pees and Little E. Oh, and did I mention that veggies from the garden taste WAY better than grocery store produce? It’s easier to get kids to like something that actually is good.

Extreme Gardening has been our gardening guidebook for years, and I highly recommend it.

3) We fake it sometimes. Our kids take their cues from us. So we make sure they see mom and dad excited about veggies and not eating junk food. Do we pull out the ice cream, brownies and Halloween candy after they’re in bed? YES. And we destroy the evidence. No shame. But when they’re awake, we are boisterously excited about broccoli, Brussels sprouts, artichokes, and kale. We stage fights for the last bite. We cry fowl if someone got more veggies than us. We have dance parties to celebrate salad night. We make many yummy noises and comments like, “You’ve got to try
this! It’s like a party in my mouth!” And the kids have picked it up. If anyone at our house says they don’t want or can’t finish some vegetable, three or four other people yell, “DIBS!”

4) We tap into child psychology. Sibling rivalry is our friend. I have no problem saying, “Big A, you are eating so many vegetables! You’re going to get taller than your big sister someday!” That comment gets at least two kids cramming veggies in for the rest of the day. We also go for the good old fashioned eating competition. “I bet I can eat more spinach than you!” and “Let’s see who can take the biggest bite of beans. Ready, set, go!” Other prompts that have worked well for us:

Even dinosaurs need veggies!
“I’m sure you can’t eat that. Maybe when you’re bigger…”

“This is mommy’s salad. It’s ONLY for mommy…Oh ALL RIGHT, you can have ONE BITE.”

In response to, “I don’t like…” I often say, “You didn’t like it last time you tried it, when you were LITTLE. But you should try it again now that you’re big.”

5) We add salt, butter and silliness to season. I am not above coating Brussels sprouts in salt, butter and even a sprinkle of brown sugar if that’s what it takes to get them into my kids’ bodies. But even more important, I think, is that we try not to
be too serious about vegetables. Kids pick up on “serious,” and they’re allergic to it. One comment of “You’ll SIT THERE until you finish your vegetables” could set us back months. It’s not that we never tell them to eat their vegetables or bribe them
with a cookie, but we try to keep it to a minimum. We prefer to be gross, silly or juvenile to get the veggies down their throats. We sing the Popeye song, Captain Vegetable and the Beans Beans song.

We’ve also had success with:

The girls love their vegetables.
“Did you know your pee will smell really bad if you eat asparagus? I’m going to eat a LOT so mine will smell the worst!”

“You need to eat your carrots. They are full of orangeness and crunchiness and essence of carrot.”

“That cauliflower looks like a brain. Gross! You’re eating brains!”

6) Hunger is our Ally. I wait until our kids are famished. Then I strike. If they are whining while I’m making dinner, I let them eat as many vegetables as they want. They will typically eat more veggies between meals than at dinner, and that’s fine with me. Big A can demolish more servings of vegetables during snack times than most adults eat in a day. I also give them bowls of veggies if they ask for a snack while they’re watching TV (gasp, our kids watch TV).

7) We let them be in charge. Kind of. If a kid chooses something, they are more likely to eat it. So we give them options like:

“Do you want peas or green beans?”

“How many tomatoes do you want?” (If the answer is zero, we revert to #4)

“Do you want your salad separate or all mixed together?”

I also let them help make the veggies. If they make something, they are more likely  to at least try it. They especially love pumping the salad spinner (this one has stood up to three kids), cutting vegetables (I found some great kid-safe knives from Curious Chef that make this possible), and mixing things together.

With all that, there are certainly times when our kids don’t clean their plates. And times we go out for a burger. And lots of begging for candy and sugar. When little E was less than two, he coined the phrase, “Cake. My. Mouth.” We just don’t worry about it. We keep encouraging them to enjoy fruits and vegetables, and we let it be okay for them to have preferences, phases, and moods or to just not be hungry. Our reward has been incredibly healthy, smart and (generally) happy kids…and a
massive produce bill.

So, does anyone have any advice about how to get kids to pick up after themselves
or play more than 10 minutes without fighting?


High-D Mom (married to Renaissance Dad)

Friday, June 12, 2015

Organic Gardening in the Desert

When my wife and I were first married, we were living in Illinois. One spring we decided to stick some tomato plants in the ground. We never watered them, we never fertilized them, and we ended up with an abundant harvest from those two little plants. A few years later we moved to Arizona. We stuck two tomato plants in the ground, fertilized them, watered them, sang to them, and they fried in the Arizona sun. We quit gardening. A few years later, we tried again. Through trial and error, I have had some successful years and some less than successful years. This year is successful; check out those tomatoes. You may think that this is a stock photo with enhanced color and wax coating for that sheen. But I assure you that that is an undoctored photo taken of tomatoes picked from our garden this morning. We also had a bumper crop of artichokes, hot peppers, lemons, and our apricot tree blessed us with two apricots.

Based on our experiences, here are some of the things that we have learned along the way.

1) Patience is a must. It will help you through the failures, and will make the things that grow in your garden that much better. Read more about gardening patience here.

2) The theme of patience lends itself to the practice of weeding. I hate weeding, but it is a must when gardening organically. Read more about weeding here.

3) Mulch, manure, and compost are all fantastic tools in the tool belt of the organic gardener. You can read about the importance of poop, especially in growing melons, here. Likewise, you can read about the importance of fighting weeds with mulch here.

4) Gardening is a great way to spend time with kids outside. This morning my 4-year-old and I picked the tomatoes highlighted in this post, and we had a great time doing it. Her shrieks of "Look at this one daddy!" warmed my heart. Kids love picking, and digging, and playing, and spending time, and it makes gardening that much more enjoyable. Read more about gardening with kids here.

I have found that organic gardening can be easy, if you're willing to do a little work dealing with bugs, weeds, and the occasional plant that gets fried by the sun. So roll up your sleeves, put on your wide brimmed hat, and enjoy your gardening. And please let me know what successes you've had with your gardening!

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