Mom Life · Real Talk · Uncategorized

Finding Balance

I heard an analogy recently that essentially equated a mother’s (or primary caregiver’s) work/life balance as juggling 55 balls at any given time. Between house stuff and kid stuff and life stuff and woman stuff and work stuff – sometimes it feels like you have WAY too much stuff on your plate (and you probably do).

The analogy suggested that some of those 55 balls are glass and you shouldn’t drop those balls – they will smash into a million pieces and cut you and cause a huge mess for you to clean up.

But, some of those 55 balls are plastic and can be dropped without repercussions. They simply bounce and roll across the room, not harming anything and ready to be picked up when you’re ready.

The trick is finding out for yourself which balls are plastic, and which ones are glass.

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Claydough Keepsake Ornaments

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I was searching for handprint ornaments (for myself as keepsakes, as well as for family gifts) but I didn’t want to use flour/salt dough. Flour dough is typically grainy, beige (I wanted bright white), and raw flour isn’t something that I wanted to mess around with due to the risks of e-coli contamination. Enter – clay dough. Here’s how I made them:

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So – We Bought A Smoker!

I wanted to surprise my husband with a smoker for an early birthday present. Yeah, you can make good food on a charcoal or gas grill, but the best smoked meat is going to come from a smoker. My husband is a meat lover and a hunter – this would be totally up his alley. There are SO many on the market though and what I learned is that I needed to figure out what kind of fuel we wanted first, as that would guide my decision-making.

  • Charcoal: Charcoal smokers use a combination of wood and charcoal that is easy to understand, affordable and customizable with combinations of wood chips for your own smoky flavor. The masters tend to use charcoal, but it also presents its own difficulties. Charcoal smokers rarely have precise temperatures, require a lot of experience in positioning and lighting and make the cleaning process really rough. If you don’t mind spending a lot of time on your smoking project, think about this option.
  • Electric: Electric smokers use a lot of energy, but have high-tech sensors and controls that allow for careful programming and temperature balance which ensures even flavouring. However, they tend to produce less smokey flavors out of all the fuel options.
  • Gas: Propane smokers are faster and easier to control than charcoal and produce decent flavours, but temperature is wildly difficult to maintain – still a very popular choice for beginners.
  • Pellet: We’re also seeing a lot more pellet smokers these days, which use electricity or gas to burn wood pellets—essentially adding modern tech to the charcoal approach. These have become more popular by the Traeger line of products, which are basically grill hybrids that can be used for a variety of purposes, including smoking. The all-in-one approach has a lot to offer buyers. Because of their small size and composition, food-grade wood pellets burn cleanly, producing a light smoky flavor. Wood pellet varieties include oak, maple, apple, alder, mesquite, cherry, maple, hickory, and pecan.

Lots of things to consider – what was my budget? What fuel did I think was best? Would it be for home use, or would we want portability? How big did it need to be? Would we want a horizontal, egg, or vertical smoker? Wi-fi or no wi-fi? What temperature range would we need? What brands brought the best reviews most consistently?

It didn’t take me long to settle on an electric wood pellet smoker. An electric smoker brought the stability of high end temperature balance, but wood pellets would bring the rich smokey flavour we would expect to achieve in a smoker. Because my husband hunts, I knew smoked sausages and racks of ribs would be at the top of his “must smoke” list – and vertical smokers offer so many options for these particular meats. Because you can “hang” meat in a vertical smoker (but also use the horizontal racks for standard smoking), I knew he would most likely prefer this to style. I had narrowed it down to an electric wood pellet vertical smoker.

During my research, I learned that Traeger (long considered the biggest name in smokers) had an exclusive patent on electric pellet grills for 20 years making them the best in the business, but it expired in 2006 – and since then, other manufacturers have been able to replicate and expand upon the Traeger technology. It’s name still commands a lot of authority, but I read a lot about them being overpriced. Traeger also does not make vertical smokers.

I had read a TON of amazing things about Green Mountain Grills – but the price tag was a hindrance. They are packed to the gills with amazing electronic features including high end wi-fi, an app, electronic alerts and timers and cooking profiles – very fancy, but not sure what I thought my husband would want. Where was the fun in setting it and forgetting it? While I knew he wouldn’t want to be outside tinkering with a smoker for hours and hours on end, I knew he would want more control over it that the fancy wi-fi smokers offered.

I finally settled on Pit Boss (this isn’t sponsored, by the way – I wish). They had a LONG history of quality workmanship and a reputation for a good reliable line of smokers, millions of amazing reviews – and they had an entire line of vertical smokers (and accessories including winter covers – a necessity – grill tools, their own line of wood pellets, and much more).

So, the Pit Boss Series 5 Vertical Electric Smoker was ours. From the Pit Boss website: “Innovation meets the outdoors with Pit Boss’ all new 5 Series Vertical Pellet Smoker. Never before has smoking been this versatile. The double walled insulation lets you smoke from 150°F to temperatures reaching 450°F, unlike any other smoker on the market today. The large front window eliminates the need for peek-a-boo cooking and its elevated frame makes transferring your meal from the smoker to the table a breeze. With the PB 5 Series Pellet Smoker there is no need to fret about cooking lengths – its 40 pound plus hopper allows you to cook for up to 24 hours! Its sleek design is not only unique, it is also functional. The PB 5 Series Pellet Smoker features 1,659 square inches of porcelain coated cooking racks, locking caster wheels, an easy to read digital controller and a notable hammer tone copper finish. The multiple position racking system ensures you’ll have enough room to smoke anything your heart (or stomach) desires“.

The difference in price between the 3 series and the 5 series was only $100 more, but the surface area inside DOUBLED. The additional upgrade in price to the 7 series didn’t bring enough features for us to feel it was worth it. The 5 series would allow us to do ribs, sausages, wings, brisket – almost any meat we wanted – as well as fit a full-size turkey for holiday smoking. We could smoke long and slow, or jack the temp right up if needed. Being vertical, it gave us a ton of space to smoke without a giant footprint on our back deck. It was an easy sell for me after that. Probably most importantly – they ship to Canada and their website was in Canadian dollars, so I didn’t have to worry about additional duties or taxes or charges when it arrived. It also showed up 12 days after I ordered it!

So far, we have done wings (probably 5 times now – and we’ll never go for another wing night again because we can do them better ourselves at home), brisket, and ribs – and we’re trying beef jerky, spatchcock chicken, and pork belly burnt ends this week. For Thanksgiving, we’re doing our very first smoked turkey!

I thought there would be a steep learning curve, but there is SO much info on the internet with a million recipes, and an electric pellet grill is a HUGELY popular option so tons of online support. If you have been on the fence about getting one – I can now attest to it and highly recommend it!


The Great Thermos Debate

One of the questions I am asked most often is about how to send hot food with children to school. Most of you won’t like my answer – because there simply aren’t really any great hot food vessels on the market. Some of the big names Thermos’ on the market include:

  • S’Well Eats
  • Hydroflask Insulated Food Flask
  • Yumbox Zuppa
  • Thermos Foogo
  • Thermos Funtainer
  • Zojirushi Food Jar
  • Yeti Thermos
  • Klean Kanteen
  • Skip Hop
  • And the much discussed, Omie Box Bento Box

The questions I am asked most often include – what are the easiest to open thermos’ for kids, what thermos’ keep food the hottest. and are there any flatter thermos’ for things like pizza?

Which ones are “easy” for small kids to open? None. Heat retention is due in part to super tight fitting seals and screw lids. If children could open them willy nilly, they’d spill hot food on themselves, and that would be a liability for the manufacturer. For this reason, most children cannot open them solo.

What thermos’ keep food the hottest? Honestly – not many. All thermos’ require you to “charge” them, aka preheat them with boiling water for at least 5 mins prior to putting your food in to warm the thermos. However, this is rarely enough to keep your food out of the “danger zone” of bacteria growth. According to every healthy authority, food hits the danger zone between 4 °C and 60 °C. Most thermos’ CANNOT sustain that high of a temperature in the length of time between packing lunch and eating lunch in a day. Lukewarm food is almost certainly spoiled and should NOT be eaten unless you can confirm it hasn’t dropped below 60 °C.

Are there any flat thermos’ for pizza or foods that kids don’t want to mix around? No. No there isn’t.

Lots of people ask me about the Omie Box Bento Box too – it is marketed with a thermos bowl inside a bento box so cold food and hot food can go together. My opinion? It is TERRIBLE. Even with preheating or “charging” the thermal bowl, the hot food is lukewarm at best by lunch time. The cold food also heats up, and it’s all within the food safety danger zone. A bacteria breeding ground – bad news. Food safety requires food to stay at a specific temperature. This can be achieved for chilled foods with ice packs – but not for hot foods without a microwave (most schools have removed microwaves due to covid-19). The Omie Box Bento Box is also a super heavy box (3 to 4 pounds when willed with food) and is priced high at approximately $65-$70 CDN.

The advice I have to give – teach your kids, as EARLY as possible, to eat chilled foods or open any vessel you need to send their heated food to school in. Teachers cannot (and SHOULD NOT) be touching and opening 30 different lunches. This means bento boxes, lunch kits, thermos’, water bottles, and packaged food like fruit cups, yogurt tubes, cheese strings ( all of which exist in a teacher’s personal version of HELL). Teach them to open it all themselves – if they can’t open it, don’t send it. If they won’t consider eating cold food, they have to learn to open a thermos properly. (*this applies to neurotypical children – I recognize and empathize with the vast array of feeding difficulties that arise in neurodivergent children and I ALWAYS advocate for a parent to do the best they can with what they can*)

See? I told you this wouldn’t be a super fun conversation. A thermos for kids comes with a ton of challenges – if it’s easy to open, a kid could burn themselves and no manufacturer wants that liability. But most other thermos’ don’t keep food hot enough to ensure bacteria isn’t growing. Do people risk it? Sure. I just won’t sit in front of everyone and advocate for their usage (unless you can confirm the hot food vessel you use never dips below 60 °C before consumption. If you’re going to just send macaroni & cheese, or pasta with butter and parm, it’s “probably find” and you can buy whatever since they all kinda suck the same. Skip Hop ones are cute and go on sale often. Thermos FOOGO can be bought at Superstore. Amazon has tons.

I am definitely not the food police – but if you wouldn’t eat chicken nuggets out in a stainless steel container on a hot summer’s day and eat them after 4 hours – why would you send them in a thermos that won’t even stay as hot? Did you know most gastro symptoms in school aged kids are due to improperly stored/stored food? It’s food poisoning! Here are some helpful links:

Teach your kids to eat chilled food. Start now, even if your baby is only 9 months old. Start as soon as possible, and don’t get them accustomed to hot soups and pastas (or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches) because you’re in for a world of hurt when grade school starts.