Reversing the Polarity of Convenience Food: Be a junk food locavore

I will make no apologies: I enjoy junk food. Cookies, packaged and laden with sugar and/or salt?  Bring it on.

Just don’t leave it where I can see it. Seriously. An open sleeve of cookies left out on the counter is not just a temptation for me: It’s an invitation–no, it’s an order–to mindlessly stick one in my pie hole every time I walk into the kitchen. One cookie? Pretty harmless. But I work at home. I walk through the kitchen a lot.

I know there’s some gray area in terms of what’s junk and what’s not. But for my purposes, I’m thinking of anything highly processed, laden with chemicals, and labeled with an ingredients list that is as long as the Magna Carta. I had little of it in my house before I had kids; and even when my kids were small, I didn’t keep it in the house. But when we moved to our block, which is full of kids running in and out, some of them complaining that I had nothing for them to eat, I got in the habit of keeping snacks in the house: cookies, bags of sugar water passing as fruit “drink,” boxes of Kraft Mac & Cheese that I could toss on the stove and feed a brood on the fly. Boxes, and boxes of junk came into my house every time I headed to the warehouse store: It was easy. It was cheap. It was convenient.

I’ll not bore you with the details other than to say they involved a healthy-seeming husband teetering toward Type 2 diabetes, a mid-lifing self putting on 20 pounds in two years, and a pair of scrawny children who loved ate plenty of junk food and not enough real, actual food. Junk, from purchase to consumption, had just become a habit an our house. I don’t know that banning junk is the answer–sometimes we need something easy, cheap, and convenient (and in any event, I don’t believe in really “banning” anything), but clearly, it was too easy, too cheap,  too convenient.  And since I’m the one tasked with the food shopping, I was the enabler-in-chief.

So I made an executive decision: I stopped buying it. Can they eat it? Sure. But it’s not part of my food budget nor does it have space in my cabinets. If they want something junky, they can walk to the deli and buy it for themselves, or just bake some brownies. The point was not to make junk and sweets completely off limits, it was just to make them a little more difficult, more expensive, less convenient. Here’s how it works out:

  • Want a cookie? Walk to the store and buy some. With your own money.
  • Want a snack? See what’s in the fridge. There’s leftovers. There’s cheese. There’s cold cuts, There’s bread in the drawer, peanut butter in the cupboard.
  • Want dessert tonight? There is brownie mix in the cabinet. Hop to it.
  • Want mac & cheese? We replaced the box o’ crap with a simple variation we invented based on one of their favorite dinners that they’ve learned to make for themselves. It’s just as easy as boxed mac and cheese, and consists of just a real food ingredients that we always have in the house.
  • Soda was never allowed in our house, but they’re allowed to have it when we’re out, and on pizza night.
  • I keep ice cream in the freezer, by the quart. It’s fattening and has sugar, yes, but it’s also relatively wholesome (we avoid anything with weird ingredients) and fixing yourself a bowl requires a bit of effort.

I recognize that this approach makes little economic sense. We are spending more money on each individual snack, after all. But at the same time, what money we spend is being spent at small neighborhood store, rather than at a big warehouse chain several miles away, so at least it’s good for the local economy. We’re junk food locavores!

And of course, it makes great sense on a health metric. I can’t say much about the kids–they’ve never had weight issues and are rarely sick, so I guess they could have gone on eating crap until midlife comes and bites them in the ass. But the two household members for whom that bite has already taken place have certainly seen some benefit. For us, a key has been to make healthy food just as easy to eat as junk. The husband has a yogurt and fruit habit every morning; I’ve learned that I’ll pick just as mindlessly at a bowl of blueberries or carrots or pickled cauliflower that’s been left on the counter as I will at a sleeve of Oreos, and I’ll feel fuller afterward, without the inevitable post-Oreo craving for more Oreos. And don’t even get me started on the joys of the pre-washed, bagged salad, which makes eating a bowl of vegetables (granted, occasionally with some processed dressing, but still) easier than driving through McDonalds.

 

 

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The August Adjustment: Getting ready for back-to-school

I know many kids around the country are already back at school, but here in NYC, we do not surrender summertime until after Labor Day. And for the first time in a few years, my kids are more ready to go back than I am.  My summer was incredibly busy with work, and the corresponding non-attentiveness to childrens’ needs with which most work-at-home parents are probably familiar. I’m just coming up for air now, taking a few days to attend to school shopping (I totally missed all the sales) and helping them to finish off their summer work. Seems like a good time for an update on the Momentum Optimization Project.

The general takeaway for Summer 2014: Inconsistent enforcement, but nonetheless promising results. Here’s how it went.

Herself–age 11, entering middle school in the fall–is the night owl of the family. And yes, she stayed up too late every night and slept too late every day. I am not proud, but that’s our reality. I would lose billable work hours fighting to get her doing things in the morning, so we just adjust to her natural clock in the summertime. I work from 5:00 am until around 1 o’clock, at which time she’s just getting ready to join the living. Beginning in August, we set slightly firmer bedtime parameters (close-up screens off by 10, but she can stay up and watch tv after that), just to get her a tiny bit in tune with the non-vampire world.

Her operating on such opposite internal clock from the rest of the family is a real challenge. By the time she is ready to work, I’m fried from having spent 6 or 7 hours in front of my own computer thinking and sorting and editing. And so,  I didn’t stick to my guns on  The List as much as I would have liked. I certainly cannot claim that I adhered to it every day. BUT: Just doing it on some days made a huge difference. There was no fighting or whining over homework, other than occasional prods from me to “Just sit down and read (or write) for twenty minutes” or “Do your list” before I let her go play on the computer (or watch tv). A bunch of little spurts of energy devoted to it here and there, and at the end of the project she had put more time into each assignment than she would have had I insisted she get it all done the first week of July, or whenever. Oh, and she did clean the bathroom, walk the dog, and do her other chores almost every day.

If it weren’t for the fact that by the time she was awake enough to work, I was too mentally spent to work on school stuff (we’d usually just make lunch and then head to the beach), we probably would have been done with her summer work much sooner. But the weather was exceptional this summer, and the beach was beautiful, and what’s the point of living here if I can’t get my kids in the water most days.

3pm, Rockaway Beach, NY

So, yeah, we still have a lot to do this last week. But we don’t have to do everything. Even though I was not particularly good about leaning on her to spend the planned 15 minutes per day on homework, she did read quite a bit all summer long, and she completed two out of three written assignments over the past four days. (She’s read the third book and just needs to work on her essay this week). Her math assignment is something I put off–it involves making a Power Point presentation, something I haven’t had time to figure out. So, she’s doing the research this this, and her brother or dad will help her with the technical aspect of presentation before school starts.

So, end result: Not perfect, but promising. She had a fun summer, which should really be the first priority for an 11 year old. She spent her waking hours at the beach and nights playing Minecraft. And she did her work, and seems to have done it pretty well. I think that she’s finally starting to understand that projects are far less onerous when broken up into manageable chunks. That, hopefully, will lead to better habits all around.

That’s certainly been the case for my son. He’s 14 now, about to enter high school, (although his school goes from grade 6 through 12, so it won’t be the same kind of transition it is for many kids). He is an early riser like me, so when he wandered into our Room of Requirement (the basement is an open space that hosts both my home office and the family rec/computer area) each morning, I’d just remind him to do the list before he got started on the machines. He was pretty good about it, too. He’d do his chores, then read.

For the month of July, he was excused from school work at home because he was attending a full-day HS prep program at his school, during which he was working pretty intensely on math and reading his books during his free time. So, we devoted August to his English assignments. He had a choice of several non-fiction titles, one of which was The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers. Given my interest in habit building (I’m midway through The Power of Habit myself as I write this), that’s the one I picked for him. (The rule in my house is: If you don’t want to go shopping–and my kids HATE shopping–you take what mom gives you). I ordered the audio version for myself so I could discuss it with him, and whenever he finished a “habit,” we would have a little informal discussion about it while we did other things (making dinner, walking to the beach, etc).

Long story short: He really liked the book, despite his initial misgivings. He started his essay on it last week, and for the first time, stretched out the process of writing the essay over several days. My son is a great reader, but not a great writer, and he finds writing such a chore that he tends to rush through written assignments, and avoid revising at all costs (which can make his editor mom’s blood boil). So this time, we spent some time at the whiteboard and just worked on an outline for two days (by which I mean: two 15-minute sessions). He wrote his draft over the next two days, and then we worked together to finalize the draft on the fifth day. All told, he spent several hours on the essay, including discussing, outlining, writing, and revising, in addition to reading the book. In the end, he was really, really happy with his essay, and admitted that it hadn’t felt like all that much work because he’d broken it up into smaller bits. So, a win for me, and for the Momentum Optimization Project.

That’s not to say any of it is a “habit” yet. When he started on his second essay yesterday (this one in response to a fiction book), he tried to outline and write the essay on the same day. The result: Total meltdown. I had to practically smack him out of it, reminding him that the goal for the day was just to figure out the main point and maybe locate some evidence for his outline. (There was also a five minute argument over the fact that the Kindle edition of the book I bought him did not include page numbers, which he swore were the only appropriate way of referencing the text. My son and I are on opposite sides of the paper v. ebook divide). Clearly, the key will be consistency (never a strong point for me) and providing constant reminders that slow and steady is the best way to finish–if not necessarily win–the race.

The Momentum Optimization Project: Creating a self-sufficient teenager

So, an update on the Momentum Optimization Project, my counterintuitive plan to get my kids going on things that do not involve sitting in front of screens before they are allowed to sit in front of screens. While the whole concept is based on my desire to limit screentime, it dovetails nicely with my other personal goals, such as getting my kids to do their chores and getting my house in order. The kids have to complete a list of tasks before they are allowed to use a computer (or cell phone or tv or tablet). There are some things they are expected to do every day (tidy their room, make the bed) and then they must also complete one item on the chore list. I made it a point to put a mix of tasks on there, so some chores are really easy and some require more time and effort. The results have been promising, as noted previously, but of course not perfect. I’m going to start with my son (13 years old when we started, 14 now), for whom we’ve seen the biggest changes in habit. Looking at the Chore List, he immediately decided that the easiest thing to do was what I call (using language I picked up somewhere on the interweb, possibly flylady.com)  the “purging boogie,” in which I instructed him to, essentially, get rid of 5-10 things that belong to him. I kept an extra hamper in the upstairs hall, specifically for clothes they don’t want or that don’t fit, and a donate box in the basement for book, toys, whatever. Over a few months, he has weeded books, clothing, and clutter vigilantly. That, combined with a few tweaks we made in his bedroom (installing a row of coat hooks, and replacing and old, shoddy dresser with a new one from Ikea with properly functioning drawers) translated into less stuff, and no excuses for not putting the remaining stuff away. He makes his bed every day now, almost without thinking about it.

Tidy Enough.

Tidy Enough.

His bed isn’t always made perfectly, but it’s good enough for me. As he becomes more thoughtful about what he wants to keep and what can go, his room is nearing a monk-like state of spartan simplicity, to the point where he’s running out of things to get rid of, so he instead has moved on to keeping the basement play area (known as the Room of Requirement) in order as well. So, with his room in order, I decided it was time to up the ante. I changed the “chore chart” to a “chore schedule.” I’m starting out with seven tasks, written on cards, so each day he has an assignment (I use a hole punch and a binder ring to hang the on the cork board). Like so:

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Chore Schedule, Iteration 1

After a week, we’re down to repeating the tasks. So yesterday, when the card said “clear your dressers and dust them off,” he noted that they were already clear, because he did it last week. And I said, “that’s the point. Give them a quick dusting and your chore is done.” That, I hope, will make him less inclined to let crap pile up. He’s learning that cleaning up after oneself is a daily thing, and that if you actually do it daily, it’s less of a chore. My plan is to incorporate more tasks, so we’ll wind up with a 14- or even 28-day cycle, with some tasks repeating frequently and others just coming up once every week or once a month or whatever (so, “clean the bathroom” would come up a few times a week, while “change/launder your sheets” might come up every 2-3 weeks). Himself is really taking to this system, and I’m feeling much better about the fact that I didn’t do it sooner, because at least it’s working now, and it’s easy now, mostly because he’s old enough to do it (and also because he REALLY REALLY REALLY wants to get on that computer, so he gets his stuff done fast). My daughter’s journey has been a bit bumpier, for a variety of reasons, including her age. I’ll post on her progress separately. But for now, I’m really, really pleased with the progress my son has made.