Archives for August 2014

Life Skills Every Kid Should Know: How to Bake From a Box

In March I announced that we’d be starting a new series on The Risky Kids: Life Skills Every Kid Should Know. The response was wonderful – it turns out you agree that there are many things kids need to know beyond what they’re taught in school. You agreed with our suggestions for the series, and came up with many more life skills you’d like to see added to the list. You can find posts from the entire series on the Life Skills Every Kid Should Know page.

Rainbow cake

You know that in the past, I struggled with how to get my kids involved in the kitchen. You gave me some great ideas, which turned into inspiration for our Life Skills series. It was suggested that I let Elena pick out a box mix of a treat she likes. And so that’s what I ended up doing, in a roundabout sort of way.

She came to me one rainy afternoon asking if she could bake a rainbow cake. She’d seen one on Pinterest and followed the link to a very complicated recipe. The situation could’ve gone a few ways. I could’ve said yes, knowing ahead of time that one doesn’t just jump into a complicated layer cake recipe for their first solo baking experience without the likelihood that something along the 32 steps will go wrong. After all, isn’t failure a great teacher? I could’ve said no, let’s find something more manageable for a novice baker. Or I could say yes, but encourage an alternate plan to get the same result.

Had I said yes to the original recipe, and had she failed, we both would’ve ended up discouraged and mad. Me, for the waste of ingredients. Elena, for the realization that what looks easy on Pinterest isn’t always the case. In the future, I’d be wary of letting her try other recipes, and she might shy away from attempting any future baking projects for a long time. Had I said no, Elena would be less likely to ask again. And even if she did agree to something easier, it was a rainbow cake she wanted, not brownies or no-bake cookies.

Instead I said yes, but encouraged her to swap the actual cake recipe for a box mix. She was totally okay (and even relieved) with my suggestion. Box mixes, whether for cakes, brownies, bars or muffins, are the perfect intro to baking for every novice. They provide just enough practice for measuring to hone those skills. The directions are short and simple to follow, giving fledgling bakers experience reading recipes and making decisions. They’re also inexpensive, so if for whatever reason they don’t pan out (oh yes, I went there), you’re not quite as mad as you might be if you dropped $15 on ingredients. There’s such a huge variety of box mixes these days, for every taste and dietary restriction, that anyone can find something they’d want to bake.

Kids in the kitchen

On her first effort at baking from a box mix, I stayed in the kitchen – ready to help but keeping a respectful distance. She made the cake batter according to the directions on the box, and then customized  her white cake into a rainbow cake by following a tutorial on a baking blog. She made a bigger mess than I would make, she did things differently than I might do them, but the end result was the same: a delicious cake.

Now I realize you might balk at the idea of baking as a life skill you need to know. Plenty of people get by without ever turning on the oven. If you need something for the office pitch-in or you’re craving a brownie, you can just buy one, right? True, but like many “easy out” options in life, you miss something by not learning the hands-on way of doing the task. In attempting to bake, you’re paying attention to your food. You’re learning how to read a recipe and follow instructions. You learn how to use different tools in the kitchen.

There are other valuable lessons rolled up into baking from a box as well. Getting the kids involved in the shopping for the mix teaches budgeting and grocery shopping skills. How much does a box mix cost versus buying individual ingredients? Do they have all the ingredients they need, above and beyond what the box provides? What about equipment? Do they have the pans they’ll need? And then there’s the clean-up afterwards. Being proficient in the kitchen means cleaning up after yourself and leaving your workspace as you found it.

Maybe the kids try it, and realize baking just isn’t their thing. That’s okay! At least they can say they tried, and move on to other pursuits. I shared with Elena that I love baking from scratch, but cakes aren’t my forte. I started out with box mixes, spent a few years attempting to bake cakes from scratch and failing, and came back around to box mixes. It’s not failure – it’s realizing where your strengths are and where you should step back and find another way. Like the way to the local bakery when your kids’ birthdays roll around!

Apparently, baking rainbow cakes is Elena’s thing! The first one barely lasted through the day. Last week, she baked another, completely on her own. She entered this one in our neighborhood block party bake-off, and it took first place in the kids’ category. She was so proud of herself. Of course, I’m all about encouraging the kids to try new things, so I’m stocking up on a few kinds of brownie mixes next. I mean, they need to practice these valuable life skills that involve chocolate, right? I’m selfless like that!

Have you let your kids bake with box mixes yet? If so, what age did you start? And how about you? Did you start out on box mixes and graduate to baking from scratch?




The Unscheduled Summer: Putting the Break Back in Summer

Unscheduled summer

Well hello there {dusts cobwebs off keyboard}! It’s been awhile!

I had absolutely no intention of taking a break from blogging, but as I turned the calendar to August and the last days of summer vacation stared me in the face, I found the last place I wanted to be was in front of a glowing computer screen. It was both difficult and easy at the same time.

You see, I love a good routine. I love feeling productive. I love making lists (that are realistically too long to accomplish) and grand plans (that even with the best of intentions) are doomed to be derailed. And so there I was, fresh off the plane after being gone for a month, making detailed editorial calendars for this blog, dreaming up grand posts that would require hours of writing and editing, and trying to catch up on a month’s worth of emails. It sounded so doable in my head and on paper! But then I would think about sitting down at the computer and my chest would feel tight and all of the inspiration would drain out of me. It was just one more thing to do, in a summer that – while it was fun and amazing traveling the world – was begging me to stop and slow down.

In eight years of blogging, both here and on my personal blog, I’ve never just taken an unannounced break and walked away. I stressed about it a lot in the beginning and wondered if it was an okay thing to do. And then, once I’d spent a few days away, it was easy. I didn’t fill the time with anything else remotely productive. I just took each day as it came and enjoyed whatever came out of it.

Summer Reading Kids

The same could be said of my kids. They, too, took a break this summer. Normally my love of lists and grand plans spills over into our summer as well. We can’t be too idle! And so I sign them up for a few camps. I make plans for a few road trips and visits to local museums. We sign up for two or three reading programs. I set up detailed rules for screen use.

After spending the first half of the summer away, I decided the rest of the summer would be unscheduled. No camps, no reading lists, no bridge activities, no trips, and no screen time rules. I’ll be the first to admit it wasn’t always pretty. We spent many a morning still in our pajamas with unbrushed teeth and hair at 11 a.m. The pile of books the school sent home with Eli still sits by the fireplace, unread. The house was messy, we were lazy, and we spent more than enough time watching dumb TV or playing mindless games on the iPad.

But …

The kids also played a lot. Lazy mornings more often than not turned into creative, fun-filled afternoons with friends. Not having plans or anywhere to be meant we were free to go to the pool when we wanted, play when we wanted, be bored when we wanted, and to be creative when we wanted.

In short, an unscheduled summer gave us the freedom to dream, relax and recharge. Isn’t that what a break is all about?

lazy summers

Now, I’m not saying each and every summer from here on out should operate like this one. We spent 4 weeks of one summer completely unscheduled. Any more time than that would’ve gone from wonderful to disastrous. The sibling squabbling had picked up and the bad kind of boredom was setting in. By the time school started last week we were itching for a regular routine.

But what if we took a few days or a week out of our school breaks or vacations and allow them to be exactly that: breaks. I think so often we look at blank days or weekends with a sense of guilt or shame. We should be doing something. We confuse doing nothing with wasted time. True – doing nothing does start out as an empty slot of time. But when we give the empty space time to fill on its own, we allow ourselves to be filled with things that bring us joy, inspiration, and fun. We walk away full, not depleted.

Beyond this gift, I also see the valuable lesson that unscheduled time gives ourselves and our kids. We are living in a time when we could fill every second of every day with some kind of activity or connection. We are slowly but surely losing the ability to cope with down time. We don’t know what to do when we’re not doing something! I want my kids to grow up knowing the value of free time. More importantly, I want them to make it a routine part of their lives. In order to teach that lesson, like so many important life lessons, I realize I have to model it in my own life.

And so I took a break myself. I’m relaxed and recharged and ready to dive back into The Risky Kids again.

Do you build downtime into your days, weekends or vacations? If so, what benefits have you seen? And if not, what holds you back from doing so?