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6 Ways to Stay Happy and Healthy This Winter

AS THE JOYS and excitement of Christmas and New Year’s pass by, in rolls January, a long and notoriously cold month. Add in the extraordinary darkness of winter in Alaska and you have a recipe for the mid-winter blues. Cheer up! We’re gaining daylight already and soon summer will be here in all her glory. Until then here are 6 ways to help smooth over the winter blues and perhaps even avoid them. These ideas are for kids and parents alike. Well, I guess just about anybody who needs a gentle boost through this time of the year.

Keep those blues away with oranges and reds and greens.

1. Sleep on It Get plenty of rest. Adults need a MINIMUM of 8 hours but try for 9—you’ll feel great. Kids should be getting between 10-12 hours a night. Don’t turn on the TV at night, either—it makes for bad sleep. Instead read a book, do some stretches and relax into sleep.

2. Drink It Drink up your water. How much?? Eight 8-ounce glasses is the suggested amount. For kids, the suggested amount is 5-8 glasses a day. Why drink water? Well being dehydrated can leave you cranky, feeling tired and give you a headache. Hard to feel good when you feel bad.

3. Laugh Yeah this one is hard, when someone says laugh it makes it really hard to, right? But grab a joke book from the library and have your kids read it to you while you’re cooking dinner and you’ll all be laughing soon enough. We have a family wrestling night in our house. We push back the chairs and such and wrestle each other. We always end up laughing at the end. Make life fun, even if you don’t want to, your kids will appreciate it.

4. GET OUT Even if it’s cold out, bundle up and get out there. You need to change up your surroundings and breathe fresh air every day. Got a dog? Grab the leash and off you go. If it’s too slick, put on some ice walkers. If it’s too windy, throw on a windbreaker. Your body will thank you for this.

Let the games begin. Become a bunch of gamers. Board gamers.

5. Game Time We thrive on games. We play something every night in the winter. Games help us laugh, seek revenge on an annoying brother, teach us to take turns and, most of all, spend good quality time together.

6. EAT Eat right or as well as you can. Make sure your meals include lots of fruits and vegetables, as many as a miserable winter in Alaska will provide anyway. Mix it up, try new recipes, make family favorites, get your kids involved and their grandparents. Host small dinner parties or potlucks for fun and diversity. Make sure to take a multivitamin OR other supplements your body needs.

If you feel the blues sneaking up on you, go back through the checklist. Already checked everything off the list and you're not feeling any better? You’re not the only one feeling SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder); let the experts help. Don’t spend another miserable cranky winter in Alaska; make it great!

Snow Ice Cream

I'VE BEEN WANTING to do this post since winter began, but it takes one special ingredient that has strangely been lacking this year: SNOW. Only once this season have we been able to make this long-awaited treat. We put out a bowl to collect the sparkling white flecks, hoping the weather report would be correct and the snow would come. The snow never came. We got nothing. Nada. No snow. We kept our bowl out there for days. Then, slowly, we saw snow dancing from the sky, and our bowl began to fill. It was unlike snow that we usually receive. It was wet and heavy. Not soft and fluffy. We didn’t care. We took what we could get. It was time to make SNOW ICE CREAM!

We always made snow ice cream growing up, and have continued the tradition in my own family. It’s exciting for young and old; eating something that had fallen from the sky. You have to gobble it up quickly, though, before it turns into snow soup. But that’s just part of the fun.

I’ve made some changes over the years, but it’s basically made just like regular ice cream, sans eggs. Typical ice cream is made with milk and/or heavy cream, sugar and flavorings. It needs to be churned, then frozen. In this case, we eliminate the need for churning and freezing as we start with "cream" (snow) that’s already frozen.

To prepare for the excitement of making snow ice cream, lay a large bowl outside when there’s a chance of snow. It’s fun for kids to watch and keep checking to see how full the bowl becomes. Collect the rest of your ingredients so you’re ready when the snow comes inside; powdered sugar, evaporated milk and desired flavorings and toppings. I use powdered sugar instead of granulated sugar, as it dissolves quickly and easily, leaving behind no hint of graininess. Evaporated milk can be kept cold in the fridge, or used straight out of the can at room temperature. You can use regular milk, too, but evaporated milk provides some thickness and richness to the ice cream. For flavorings, you can use vanilla or almond extract. Also, we like to add jams and jellies for flavor and toppings. Just like regular ice cream, the topping possibilities are endless.

I confess, I never use a recipe, but for the sake of this post, I’ll provide one just for a guideline.

Snow Ice Cream

8 cups fresh snow*
¾ cup powdered sugar
½ cup evaporated milk
1 tsp. vanilla or almond extract

Add powdered sugar to bowl of snow, and stir well. Start with ½ cup of powdered sugar, adding more if you desire more sweetness. Slowly add evaporated milk until you achieve the consistency you desire. Keep it relatively thick, as it will melt faster than you can eat it! Add desired flavorings, and continue to mix. Quickly spoon into bowls, and top with your favorite ice cream treats.

*Keep in mind, this was measured with wet, heavy snow. This is best made with our traditional fluffy, dry snow. Only Alaskans will understand the term “dry snow.” It’s best to catch the snow in a bowl left outside, but you can also collect it carefully by shoveling it into a bowl with your hands. Try to avoid any yellow or dirty snow, of course!

New Year's Resolutions

MANY NEW YEAR'S ago I made a resolution not to make New Year’s resolutions. I am a firm believer that if I want or need to do something, I should do it and not wait for a new year to set a specific goal. With children in my life, I have now softened my New Year’s resolution approach.

This year I'm going to brush my teeth without being asked.

Resolutions are difficult concept for young children, but “fun size” resolutions in the form of goals are much easier. Teaching children how to set simple goals is an important aspect to their life growth. They can be quite simple: Being helpful with the morning routine and on time for school, being helpful around the house, not whining and using words instead. As the father of two children under 5 years old, these are not lofty goals, but realistic to their current developmental stages and attainable. Some days. Hopefully this is establishing the practice of making bigger goals and working toward the success of more difficult achievements.

This year we're gonna make it to the ceiling!

This frequent goal setting happening at our household makes me recognize that having bigger goals—resolutions, really--may be beneficial to my partner and me and instructional to our young family members.

In the hopes of maybe inspiring some thoughtful resolutions for your family in the coming year, here are some that I have for our family in the new year, in no particular order after numbers 1 through 3:

  1. Value one another every day.
  2. Find times and ways to prioritize my partner and her livelihood.
  3. Spend some quality time with my parents outside of their grandchildren.
  4. Take one lengthier family trip before August when we will need to pay for four airline tickets.
  5. Go fishing whenever possible with our sons in the coming season.
  6. Plan one overnight trip in a tent or cabin during the summer months.
  7. Get our oldest son off the “bunny” hill at our local ski area.
  8. Successful completion of swim lessons for our oldest son and introductory swim lessons for or youngest.
  9. Make one weekly commute with our sons via bicycle May through August; specifically me on the bike and them in the bike trailer.
  10. More berry picking than this past year.
  11. Participate in an outside Father’s Day event.
  12. Organize a family Summer Solstice event.

Who are those cute kids on your blog, Dad?

Happy New Year’s to you and your family. It is my hope that you value every day with one another in the coming year and beyond.

6 Fun Thank You Card Ideas

YES, IT'S THAT time of year again--time to force small children into writing those thank you cards. And if you’re wondering, YES, they are important. If not to thank the appropriate people for the gifts of the season, then for a lesson in persistence and proper manners. I have dug around and come up with six fun card ideas your kids will WANT to make and send. No, really, they’re fun and think of how wonderful the friends and family will feel who receive them.

You’ll want an array of crafty things, depending on which cards you plan to make. Blank paper cards are nice but not a necessary thing to have as you’ll see soon enough. Depending on the ages of your kids, your involvement will be all, nothing or somewhere in between. We’re in the somewhere-in-between area, where we have to ride them hard to make it happen, but once it gets going, the creativity just flows. Don’t push it too hard, but don’t let it slide away either, being thankful is important and it is also a learned behavior.

1. Get Out The Paints: Have your kids paint a picture of the gift OR them playing with the gift or using it. FUN and creatively exciting.

2. Grab a Photo: Take a picture of your kids playing with OR using the gift. Better yet, have your kids use the camera to take a picture of the gift in their room. Be sure to monitor camera use and get the photos printed in a timely manner.

3. Hire Them: We once hired our middle son to make our Christmas cards. He worked for days painting and touching the up with glitter. They were beautiful and we loved sending them, and we got the cards for very little.

4. Get Online: Lots of places like Shutterfly and Walgreens and Costco have templates for making cards online. Upload a picture, choose the text, send in the order and pick up your cards in your mailbox or in the store. Then it is simply signing a name and mailing them off.

5. Write in Hidden Ink: Better known as white crayon! Write the message in white crayon and paint over it. This one is FUN!

6. Black Out: Cover an entire blank white card with crayon, then paint over with black tempura paint. Scratch your thank yous in the black paint and let the colors shine through.

Cinnamon-Apple French Toast Casserole

I WISH I could experience Christmas morning as a child again. There’s no better day for a child than Christmas day. The anticipation is excruciating. The time goes by so slowly; it seems like it will NEVER be here. Then it happens, the sleepless night on Christmas Eve, waking early to the delight of parents everywhere (NOT!), sitting on the stairs waiting to see what Santa stuffed in our stockings. Ripping up presents as fast as our parents can hand them to us. Then the euphoria afterward, sitting in an ocean of presents, wrapping paper, boxes and ribbons. Bliss.

If Santa had known you were making this, he might've stayed!

Finally, we realize we’re hungry. For my family, we didn’t have a big Christmas dinner. Instead, we had a large breakfast. Cheesy scrambled eggs, mandarin oranges, sausage links and butterhorns loaded with frosting and nuts. Bliss, round two.

The only thing better than being a child at Christmas is experiencing it through your own children. As a child, you don’t realize how much effort it takes for parents to pull off a perfect Christmas morning. The preparation it takes is exhausting sometimes, but so worth it. The look in their eyes is priceless. The smiles of surprise, the joy and squeals of delight that can’t be captured in a photograph, but are forever etched in your heart.

To make Christmas morning easier, I’m offering a French toast casserole. French toast has always been my favorite breakfast, but it’s time consuming to make. I don’t want to spend much time in the kitchen on Christmas morning. I don’t want to miss a moment. This casserole can be prepared the night before and placed in the oven the following morning. An added bonus; it has the wonderful surprise of apples on the bottom.

I recommend using challah bread. You could make if from scratch if you’re so inclined, but it’s available in most grocery stores this time of year. I purchased mine at Fire Island Bakery, which I highly recommend. My children love going there with me and nibbling on their tasty samples. The staff is so friendly and helpful. If you don’t have challah, use your favorite bread. I think the cinnamon chip bread at Great Harvest would be incredible also.

Make-Ahead Cinnamon-Apple French Toast Casserole

1/3 cup melted butter
3/4 cup brown sugar, divided
1 tsp. cinnamon, divided
3 apples, cored and sliced thin (if not organic, peel the apples)
1 loaf of challah, about 1 ½ pounds
8 eggs
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
½ cup pecans (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 (unless baking it the following day). Mix together melted butter and ½ cup brown sugar. Spread the mixture in the bottom of a 9X13 pan. As you slice the apples, place them in a bowl with ¼ cup brown sugar and ½ tsp. cinnamon. Mix well, and place an even layer of apples on top of the melted butter mixture. Slice the challah into 1-inch slices, then into cubes. In a bowl, mix eggs, milk, cinnamon and vanilla. Add challah and let soak in the milk mixture before adding entire mixture to the pan on top of the apples. Sprinkle pecans on top, if using. Bake right away, or cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator overnight. When ready to bake, remove the plastic wrap and let it sit on the counter for 20-30 minutes before placing in a 350 oven for about 50 minutes.

Serve with maple syrup and powdered sugar.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Enjoy it through the eyes of a child!

Curl Up with a Good Book

LIKE MANY OTHER parents, I’ve been doing a lot of hugging and holding this week, trying the mitigate the effects of a tragedy, if only through my own children. I’ve found myself shifting back to simple things that bring our family joy; long treks in the woods, a little bit of sledding and time spent in front of the woodstove, hands curled around steaming cups of hot chocolate. And reading, lots and lots of reading.

Owen works up his appetite for cocoa with some treeside activity.

Occasionally I get requests to review outdoor-themed gear or books related to our activities in Alaska, so I wasn’t too surprised when an agent from Sasquatch Books in Seattle sent two new books along with a note asking if I’d kindly read and offer my thoughts. Both books, I Would Tuck You In and Larry Gets Lost in Alaska, are great representations of our state, with engaging stories, interesting facts and beautiful illustrations. They were also just what we needed.

I Would Tuck You In is the perfect parent-child love story, with a variety of Alaska creatures making their little ones safe and secure in dens, kelp beds, on tundra trails and in the wide Arctic sky. Perfect for kids birth to five, this charming book by Juneau residents Sarah Asper-Smith and Mitchell Watley provides bedtime-story comfort, any time of the day or night. What I like, though, are the explanatory notes at the bottom of each page to engage the older reader, too. Learn about caribou, brown bears, bowhead whales or owls as you smoothly navigate the pages, and calmly assure youngsters you will indeed, love them always.

Pete is a boy, Larry his pup and the two find adventures together all over the world. The Larry Gets Lost series is a new one for us and while the book outwardly looks appropriate for a younger crowd, the pages are full of cool Alaska facts and funny mishaps shaped into a rhythmic prose kids will love. Larry Gets Lost in Alaska starts on an Alaska Marine Highway ferry and ends in Nome and, rest assured, Larry finds some new friends along the way. Authors John Skewes and Michael Mullin are spot-on with their Alaska trivia and any family with kids under 10 who is planning on traveling around the state should buy this book before hitting the road, water or air.

Available via Amazon.com, these delightful books would make the perfect present for kids in Alaska or Outside. Resident families might learn something new about their home and Lower 48 friends or relatives will enjoy the diversity of Alaska’s animals and environment.

Cozy up with your precious ones this holiday season and read together. Start a new tradition of giving books for Christmas and create your own unique album of memories.

Erin Kirkland is a freelance writer and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to Alaska family travel and outdoor recreation. She lives in Anchorage with her family.

Thoughtful Gifts for the Last-Minute Shopper

THE MOMENTS LEFT before Christmas are speeding by. The time to think about giving a thoughtful gift is now!

My parents always told me that "it's the thought that counts" which never made me happier to receive socks or underwear for Christmas but it is a valuable lesson I learned with warm feet. I am passing this lesson on to our offspring, hopefully. In the hopes of inspiring your last minute gift purchases here are gifts that I am giving this year:

1. EXPERIENCE. Give the gift of an experience! This year I gifted tickets to our local performance of The Nutcracker to my partner and oldest son. Our family also gifted a holiday miniature gold experience to our son’s daycare class. Give a ski lift ticket, admission to the ice rink, a pool pass or a ticket to a once-a-year event. As a parent, this could be a win-win, providing a great gift that is not stuff and an opportunity to have a special experience with your child.

Your kids will be easy to spot outside with flashy accessories.

2. LIGHT. At this time of year, all Alaskans know about the surplus of darkness. Kids do not glow, so give them the gift of a zipper light, head lamp, a flashing light or reflective clothing that will make them more noticeable at the bus stop or walking around the neighborhood enjoying sleds or holiday lights.

Alaska book and gift shops all stock works by local writers/artists.

3. BOOKS. Give books with Alaska themes. We want to create readers in our family so there is no better way to get kids motivated to read and gravitate to books than purchasing books with subjects that they know. Alaska has many great topics that kids enjoy and there is no shortage of literary works for all age levels. Also consider a subscription to a magazine that ties in with a child's interest such as National Geographic Kids, Highlights, which I remember from my youth, and Ranger Rick.

Get kids ready for Iditarod or Fur Rondy with some storytelling.

4. GEAR. Getting outside this time of year can be challenging. Updating jackets, gloves, goggles, ice skates, skis or even the plastic sled that has been in-use for a couple of years can be a great gift.

Clothes. They'll thank you later.

5. CLOTHING. The gift of clothing. I am fortunate that our sons have no input on what they wear because of their ages. Holidays and birthdays are a great opportunity to give them something special to add to their clothing collection. For our oldest, a shirt with an NFL or college logo is something he really appreciates. With older children I would suggest you go on a shopping trip with him or her and take notes.

"Clang! Swish!" Don't forget the wrapping paper tube swords!

With the main gift-giving day looming it can be easy to just grab something quick and easy such as a gift card but a little thought can go a long ways in giving something that will be enjoyed for many days and maybe years into the future! I hope you and your family have a great holiday together.

5 Worry-Free Cookies to Make with Little Ones

LAST WEEK I brought you a post on how to loosen up and let kids help make cookies for the holiday season. This week I’m really making it easy to get little ones IN the kitchen. They are nibblers and tasters and stuff-it-in-their-mouths-when-mom’s-back-is-turned-ers and well you certainly don’t want to be yelling NO at them while making cookies and memories. And you don’t want them possibly getting salmonella from eating raw eggs either. These recipes are all egg free and perfectly okay for little hands to get into and nibble if needed. An added bonus is they taste great! Imagine the pride your little one will feel when they can give someone they love a treat they made. Good times are coming up, hold on!

1. Cookie Dough Truffles: Heck yes! Chocolate chip cookie dough you can eat, no sneaking required. I like to make my own recipe as I go along, but you're basically making a regular chocolate chip cookie dough recipe without adding the eggs. I thought going solo on a recipe might scare some folks so I've linked to one on the Food Network for you.

It's snowing powdered sugar!

2. Russian Tea Cakes: An absolute family favorite! Covered TWICE in fun-to-use powdered sugar, your little ones will love to get messy with these cookies. I use an approximation of the linked recipe from AllRecipes. If you want, you can add one cup mini chocolate chips to the dough after it’s mixed completely, then you’re making butter babies and yum oh yum.

3. Gingerbread Men: When I was thinking up this post, I was making gingerbread men and musing how fun they are as well as being egg free. I guess I was planning this as I was baking and I didn’t even realize it! The frosting for these uses raw eggs but if you follow Elise’s directions for heating the eggs for the frosting to 160˚ you will kill any bacteria and they’ll be safe to eat.

Gingerbread people make great tree ornaments, too.

4. Rice Krispies Treats: Of course these are fun to make, lots of scooping, measuring and counting work to do. My kids love these and they love to make them, too. The original recipe is the best and always use real butter!

5. Peanut Butter Snow Balls: When my boys were very little, 2 and 3, they used to make these for the Alaska State Fair. We dipped them in melted chocolate and called them wrecking balls. They won every year with their wrecking balls. This is the recipe we used and still use today. We love them and you will, too.

There you go. That’s 5 recipes to get your little ones in the kitchen and cooking with you. Have fun!

Christmas Tree Salad

MY CHILDREN ARE getting into the holiday spirit. The holiday season is full of parties, sweets and cookies, which are enjoyable and appropriate, but I was finding that my children were turning up their noses at anything healthy. Their lunches were being returned with their fruit and vegetables intact and untouched. I’ve been nagging them to finish the veggies on their plates. Then my kids started getting ill; coughing, hacking and bellyaching. I have no proof that their sickness was a result of their poor eating habits as of late, but I know it certainly didn’t improve their immune system’s ability to fight off all the germs being passed around.

I’ll do just about anything to get my children to eat healthy. I’ve been known to nag, threaten and bribe to make sure they eat right. What I’ve found that works the best though is FUN! If my children are having fun with their food, they’re more likely to eat it WITHOUT their well-intentioned mom pulling her hair out (good thing I have lots of hair). Which is why I decided it was time to have fun with our veggies that have been so lacking lately.

We got our creative juices flowing with our sugar cookies last week, and transferred that energy into making a Christmas tree with our favorite veggies. I’ve seen pictures of a broccoli “tree” made and cherry tomato “garland” to use as a veggie tray for appetizers, but I wanted to make a salad that we could serve at a meal. There’s really no “recipe,” but try to include as many colorful fruits and vegetables as possible, which will not only make your tree more beautiful, but also ensure that they’re getting a wide variety of immune-boosting vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. The kids should be involved in the entire process (age appropriate of course), from picking out the salad fixings to slicing and dicing and, most importantly, the decorating!

CHRISTMAS TREE SALAD Here’s how our family did it, but feel free to change it up to suit your family’s tastes and creativity.

  • Bag of spring mix lettuce
  • Cucumbers, sliced thinly
  • Broccoli, cut into florets
  • Brussels sprouts, sliced thinly
  • Cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
  • Red, yellow and orange peppers, diced small
  • Cauliflower, cut into florets
  • Fresh blackberries (other ideas: frozen or fresh strawberries, raspberries or blueberries, dried cranberries or cherries)
  • Goat cheese or feta, crumbled
  • Pecans or almonds

Make the tree as big as you like. You can also make individual trees, or one large tree served “family-style” (my favorite).

We lined a tray with parchment paper, and fit our tree to the tray. Make a tree shape with spring mix lettuce. Outline the shape with overlapping cucumber slices. Top spring mix with broccoli (stems down) and Brussels sprouts. Decorate your tree with colored pepper “lights”, cherry tomato “garlands”, and fruit “ornaments”. We used Cauliflower at the bottom of tree for “snow”, pecans for the “trunk”, and crumbled goat cheese for fresh “snow” on the tree. Top it with a star made with a yellow pepper, cut with a cookie cutter.

The best thing is that my children grazed on veggies during the entire decorating process. Like licking their fingers while frosting cookies, but healthier! During serving, my kids were saying things like “Can I have more snow?” or “I want some of the trunk.” and “I want the star!” Yep. They were demanding more vegetables. No nagging required.

"Wait, Your Kid Does That, Too?": Connecting with Other Dads

THE HOLIDAY SEASON and last month of the year present unique opportunities for people to get together and connect. Families travel outside for that once-a-year chance to be with extended family and friends. Friends who are usually too busy to connect meet for their annual gathering. Monthly events like gallery walks take on a holiday flavor that entices families to get in the spirit of the season. Oh, and there is the office party that many people feel obligated to attend, even if they find it uncomfortable.

Some Dad Bonding

This week I am away from my family which seems to get harder and harder, especially in the middle of this holiday season. I am traveling with a co-worker who has children of a similar age to our boys. In our first moments outside of our workdays, the topic that immediately comes to the forefront of our conversations is our children and our families. Over the past week of being together inside and outside of our job duties, we have talked about many family issues: discipline, the sensitivity of young children and respecting and preserving their innocence. We talk about the humorous moments. I love humor and I know it is what keeps me relatively sane as a parent.

"Is it funny if I stick this in my hair?"

We talk about those moments where our children surprise us with their observations, our intense love for them and the relationship they have with their siblings. Our discussions have also addressed the powerful connections, biological and emotional, our children have with their mothers. We talk about the differences between our reactions and dealings with our children and how that differs from mom’s reaction and often leniency we sometimes find frustrating. We also celebrate mom’s selflessness and dedication to the kids’ growth and well-being. We voice the fact that fathers and mothers contribute different things to the life and growth of children.

"Let's get together more often. Whaddaya say?"

Yes, the holidays can create some warm and lasting memories and also some uncomfortable social situations. Dads (especially) and moms, make the most of these opportunities to connect with other parents. It is amazing how quickly walls come down when I start to talk about my children. It is also comforting and empowering to know that I am not alone on this journey and my thoughts and feelings are similar to many fathers around me, but I need that little push to connect!

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