Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Pepper grinder happiness

Our house is where pepper grinders go to die. Maybe this is a sign that we cook so often that standard kitchen implements can't keep up with our volume. Or maybe it's a sign that we need to invest in a better pepper mill. We took it as a sign of the latter, and Matt did a little investigating an dug up this gem: the Oxo pepper grinder. He found it through, you know, the Wall Street Journal's Test Kitchen feature on pepper grinders. Because this is a thing that exists. WSJ rated our little Oxo love as the best value grinder.

I love Oxo products. They're inexpensive and they last. I am even starting to appreciate Oxo Tot products now that we've entered to world of baby solid food consumption. This pepper grinder represents everything good about Oxo products and then some.

At $21.99 this pepper grinder is cheaper than any others you'll find at Williams-Sonoma and better quality than any others in a similar price range. Even better, I love this little gadget for three more reasons:

1) There are five grinding settings to allow for more finely or coarsely ground pepper.

2) The pepper comes out of the top of the grinder rather than the bottom, eliminating that annoying pile of pepper that used to be sitting on our counter underneath the pepper grinders of yore.

I'll take some pepper flakes on top of the grinder if it keeps my counters clean.

3) The grinder makes this insanely satisfying clicking sound when in use. I don't know why, but I love that, perhaps because it indicates we finally have a pepper grinder that does its job well.

You could purchase this at Bed Bath and Beyond and use a coupon, but our local store doesn't appear to carry it so we went with our other favorite retailer, Amazon.

Oxo pepper grinder, I salute you.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

6 months with Nat

I cannot believe that as of today Natalie has been in our life for half a year, but I also cannot believe that on the eve of her six-month birthday, Natalie's first tooth erupted. For posterity's sake, it's her front bottom right tooth, her central incisor, and the left one is not far behind. I can't get photographic evidence of the tooth quite yet, but I can share today's 6-month photo shoot, in which at least I can tell the difference in her smile/the shape of her mouth (and the fact that she's holding her tongue differently).

(Sidenote: Her dress, which she's still growing into, is an adorable little number from Hanna Andersson. We received several gifts from this line when she was born. The clothes are painfully cute albeit fairly expensive for baby/kid's clothes, so they make a perfect gift.) 

Good news: Natalie's tooth erupted without a fuss from the little lady. Now I am convinced that we were, in fact, dealing with teething pain a couple weeks ago, but the actual eruption doesn't appear to have bothered her much.

A developmental milestone I've been happily anticipating is almost here. Natalie can almost sit up by herself. Right now she can support herself for upwards of 10 seconds. It will be so lovely when we can put her on her blanket with some toys and she can entertain herself for a longer period of time without face planting.

She might start crawling soon, but for now she seems to do best scooting backward. Is that considered crawling? Maybe we'll save that one for the seven-month mark.

A milestone I've just met is six months of exclusively breastfeeding Natalie. There is nothing easy about breastfeeding (a nurse told me that just because it's natural doesn't mean it's easy -- nicely stated!). Still, I am fortunate that my experience has been relatively easy in the scheme of things, and I hope to continue breastfeeding for a while.

Although I'm not trying to share every last detail of Natalie's development, this is a virtual baby book of sorts. And I will say that every milestone, however mundane, seems miraculous when it's happening to your child.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Entertaining a baby on a budget

One of the most common questions I get from friends, both those who have babies and those who don't (I have way more friends who do not have babies, FYI), is what do I do with Natalie all day. The answer is that I'm fortunate that my days go by quickly in several senses:

1) Matt's schedule makes it so that I am typically alone with Natalie for a maximum of 8 hours a day

2) when Natalie sleeps for 12 hours at night it means that she's only awake for 12 hours during the day, and that excludes her three naps in between

3) I try to have at least one excursion per day with Natalie to break up the monotony.

I've referenced these excursions on this blog in the past, but never quite elaborated on them, so I figured now would be a good time.

Here's my overall disclaimer:

It is  reasonably challenging to find free or inexpensive activities to do outside the house with a child who is under six months old. There appear to be a lot of opportunities that open up once a child hits the one-year mark, and even more for 18 months and up. It makes sense that there are few activities geared toward the six-month-and-under crowd, seeing as the babies can hardly do anything at this age, yet this is ironically when the greatest number of new parents are at home with their babies, itching to get out of the house, make new parent friends, and stimulate their babies by doing something more than making funny faces in the mirror for the 17th time that day.

Additionally, participating in any of these activities you may be lucky enough to find requires being organized, but it's something most new parents are up for once the baby is a few weeks old.

Here are some ideas that have worked for us.

Hospital-based New Moms Group
I'm fortunate that many of the major hospitals in my area offer free support groups for new mothers. They meet once a week at 11 a.m., which is a good time of day for most babies and moms, it seems. My hospital group is facilitated by a nurse, and the nurse facilitator rotates every one or two months in order for mothers to hear a variety of perspectives. We sit in a circle while our babies snooze in their car seats or play on the floor, and each mother gets a chance to share the good and the bad from her week and ask any questions on her mind. Breastfeeding and diaper changing are encouraged during the session. It's a low-stress environment where you don't have to worry if your baby cries or spits up (and you can feel free to cry, too). The room where we meet has a digital baby scale that was reassuring for me to use when we were worried about Natalie's weight, as well as a swap table where parents can trade baby coupons, unopened formula, clothes and gear. After a group meeting several moms like to go out to lunch together at a baby-friendly locale.

I started attending our group when Natalie was about two-and-a-half months old, but I wish I had gone sooner. Now that Natalie is almost six months old she's just about the oldest baby remaining, thanks to the fact that many moms are now back to work and the remaining non-working moms find themselves outgrowing the topics being discussed. When your primary concern is introducing your baby to solid food and everyone else is talking about when to transfer their six-week olds from their bassinets to their cribs, it's time to look for new entertainment. Our days are numbered.

Start your own Mom Group
This option works if you have a baby when you're 30 because, not surprisingly, a good number of your friends, or friends of friends, or general acquaintances, will also likely be having kids too. This is easiest to organize if people live relatively close together and they have babies who are relatively close together in age. Fortunately, the stars aligned for me on this one, and I was able to organize together a group of about eight ladies who are going to be home for a while with their babies who are all within about seven months of each other. Some of us will be going back to work sooner than others, and some ladies will be having babies in the coming months and hopefully joining us. Right now because the babies are little we're meeting around 10 a.m. once a week at each other's homes, and as the babies get older we will hopefully find a variety of activities to do together.

Because the babies can't interact too much quite yet, the group as it stands today is really for the benefit of the mothers as it gives us some daytime adult conversation. A bonus for our babies, though, comes in the form of getting to play with different toys. Natalie has now played under several activity gyms, inside several Exersaucers, and even tried her legs at a Jumperoo. The babies seem to show an increased level of interest in new toys, and while that interest level isn't life-altering, it is noteworthy to us moms.

Programs at the local library
We have a huge public library system in our county that offers seemingly countless free weekly activities for kids and adults alike. Although there are a limited number of activities for the one-and-under crowd, there are a few to choose from that tend to be offered at the baby-friendly times of 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. I've taken Natalie to programs by the names of Bouncin' Babies (for 11 months and under), Mother Goose (for 24 months and under), and Music Together (for four years and under, not to be confused with the corporate classes of the same name). All these programs, regardless of their names, are basically the same. There's a welcome song, where the librarian leads a song that involves singing the name of each baby. Then there are an additional 10-12 songs we sing that are interspersed with the occasional picture book.

These programs are great because, in addition to being free and at a great time of day, they are about 30 minutes long, which is perfect for a baby's attention span. Natalie stares in wonder for nearly the entire time as she listens to someone else's voice reading a story, and I get to sing new songs to her. The downside to these classes is that you have to sign up for them in advance and space is highly limited, but I've been putting a reminder in my Google calendar to sign up as soon as registration is available, and we've always gotten a spot. Also, different instructors have varying levels of quality, but most are able to keep the babies engaged, and the best instructors provide handouts to the parents with all the lyrics to the rhymes and songs, which is especially helpful for someone like me who apparently missed the Mother Goose unit in kindergarten.

This summer our libraries are offering several special programs, including a baby rock concert and a puppet show, both of which I'm excited to attend with Natalie because she seems especially entertained by music and fascinated by puppets.

Dog walks
Although you obviously do not need dogs to put your baby in a stroller and walk for miles, our dogs have never been as active as they have been since Natalie was born. Perhaps this is why both dogs were at their lightest weights of their adulthood at their annual exams last month. Nearly every day after Matt gets home from work we'll go for a giant family walk (and yes, our family is seemingly giant these days, too). But to mix things up during the day while Matt is at work I've arranged many walking dates with friends.

Retail therapy
This one is not particularly creative, but because the weather in the D.C. area has been so scorchingly hot lately and walks have been kept to a minimum, we've been taking Natalie into stores and carrying her around in our arms to show her bizarre gadgets and different environments. She is much more engaged when she is out of her stroller these days, so she enjoyed petting fluffy pillows at Bed Bath and Beyond and examining the board books and stuffed animals in the kids' section at Barnes and Noble. We even resorted to walking around the mall instead of walking outside one day when the temperatures were well over 100 degrees.

Worried you'll spend money while you're out? Leave your wallet (or the majority of it) at home or in your car to help you resist the temptation.

The pool
This is a new one for us, as I shared before our hope that it would help us contain Natalie during the witching hours (to no avail). Yesterday we reached a breakthrough moment as Natalie did not cry the entire time she was at the pool and actually smiled while playing with us in the big pool. We were there for a little over an hour, and we were in the pool with Natalie for the majority of that time.

I was really afraid of taking Natalie to the pool at first for a couple reasons:

1) The admonition to not put sunblock on babies under six months old -- Doctors and sunblock manufacturers will advise you against this because they don't want babies to spend long periods of time in the sun, not because the sunblock is going to kill them. I decided Natalie is old enough and we're smart enough about sun protection without going overboard that a little time in the sun would be good for her. I spent some time studying the Environmental Working Group's sunblock rankings, finally settling on the Babyganics line because it's got a high enough rating, a low enough cost, and can be easily found online or in stores. So far I've been totally pleased with the product -- easy enough to rub in, not much of a smell, and good coverage.

2) The fear of a dirty diaper -- It sounds like every parent is afraid of being that guy whose kid shuts down a pool thanks to a diaper that fails to contain a mess. I have a healthy fear of this myself and therefore did some investigating. First of all, I found out, thanks to the Cotton Babies blog (run by the makers of Bum Genius diapers, among other things), that Bum Genius 4.0 diaper covers without the inserts can be used as swim diapers. No need to buy yet another product! So I designated one diaper as Natalie's swim diaper, understanding that the chlorine could make the diaper less effective for daily use. Still, I feared that if the unexpected should happen we could have a mess on our hands, so I bought a three-pack of the Dappi Waterproof Vinyl Diaper Pants in size small. These offer an extra layer of protection that give me peace of mind, so they were worth the $4.49 spent.

Now that I've overcome these two fears, and we've taken Natalie to the pool three times, she is happy there and I am happy, too.

Besides these free-to-us activities, here are a few activities that come with a fee that offer different ways to entertain your baby and yourself:

1) Stroller Strides -- this is one of many mom-centric exercise programs aimed at helping new moms get back in shape while still caring for their babies. I went to a free introductory class but decided not to take any more, at least for the time being, because the classes are not particularly challenging and at $15 a pop they are reasonably expensive. They are, however, a great way to meet other moms.

2) Mommy and Me movies -- Have we talked about how much I hate the term "mommy"? Because I do. Various movie theater companies offer daytime movies at reduced prices once a month for parents and babies. The lights are dimmed, the sound is lowered, and breastfeeding and crying babies are tolerated. I haven't been to one of these events yet because none of the titles have appealed to me and I have mixed feelings about taking Natalie to a movie theater because it seems very much like watching TV, something she does not do (except when I'm trying to cut her nails, which is the only distraction that keeps her from screaming during this procedure).

3) Mommy and Me swim classes -- Our county offers indoor swim lessons for babies over the age of six months for a reasonable price. I hope to sign Natalie up for a class this fall once we can no longer use our neighborhood pool.

As Natalie enters the second half of the first year of her life, I know we'll discover other routine activities she can enjoy.

What do you do to entertain your babies outside the house? We're always looking for fun, inexpensive ideas.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Recipe tip: Coconut-curry mussels and Thai summer slaw

Mussels. So cheap. So easy to make. Here's the latest recipe we've been dishing up during my maternity leave. While it is, of course, from Everyday Food, we tried out a Cooking Light slaw recipe that we'd had for years but never used. See, before Everyday Food came to rule our house we took a lot of advice from Cooking Light. Maybe it's time to re-up that subscription.

You can find the coconut-curry mussels recipe over on Martha's site.

I recommend serving it up with a flaky fresh bread (to sop up all the coconutty goodness) and this Thai summer slaw recipe from Cooking Light.