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Family Matters: Life is Short, Eat Dessert First!

You can learn a lot about people by simply reading the words on their t-shirts. In an instant, you can know which teams they cheer for, how they vote, where they vacation, and which motorcycle they drive in their fantasy life.

One of my favorites was a shirt I saw on a darling white-haired lady one summer while we were in an ice cream shop in Florida. She was sitting at a picnic table in the shade, along with three or four of her grandchildren, happily enjoying huge scoops of melting ice cream. Her shirt read, “Life is Short, Eat Dessert First!”

I read the shirt quickly and thought, “yeah, yeah, cute saying on a cute lady” but didn’t think too much about it until a few weeks later when we were back home and I saw a car with the same saying on a bumper sticker. It reminded me of that day at the beach when my family was having such a good time together, away from the stresses of real life and our fast-paced routines.

Something triggered in my head and I thought how funny it would be if I served dessert first that night at the dinner table. I never let my children have sweets before dinner time, and I wondered what their reactions would be if we sat down, said the blessing, and then I pulled a pie out of the fridge.

The more I thought about it, the more I became certain I needed to make the idea a reality. I still had several hours before everyone got home from school and work, so I decided to make each of their favorite desserts: chocolate sheet cake for Ron, lemon icebox pie for Smith, and Will’s never-varying two scoops of lime sherbet.

Let me just tell you this: Do it. Do it tonight. The expression on their faces and the uncontrollable laughter and delight around our table that night is one of my favorite memories of all time.

I don’t know why I had never thought of serving dessert first before that night, and now that I’m writing this, I think it’s about time for me to do it again. I feel like I just blinked and suddenly those cute little boys wearing matching bathing suits have become huge teenagers well on their way out of our door once and for all.

Life really is short…painfully short at times. So tonight, I’ll do it if you will. Throw the good parent handbook out of the window, and dig in. Eat dessert first.

Smith’s Favorite Lemon Icebox Pie


1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs
2 Tablespoons sugar
5 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Whipped Cream:
3/4 cup chilled heavy cream
1 Tablespoon powdered sugar

For the crust, preheat oven to 350°F. Stir together graham cracker crumbs, sugar and butter in a bowl until combined, then press mixture evenly onto the bottom and up side of a 9-inch glass pie plate. Bake in middle of oven 10 minutes. Cool completely, leaving oven preheated.

For the pie, whisk together condensed milk and yolks until combined well. Add juice and whisk again until mixture is slightly thickened. Pour into crust and bake for 15 minutes. Cool completely, cover, and then chill in refrigerator for at least 6 hours.

For the whipped cream, just before serving, beat cream and powdered sugar in a bowl with an electric mixer until it just holds stiff peaks. Serve pie cold topped with whipped cream.

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Family Matters: Making cleaning a family project

If you’re like most of us, your house may start out clean and tidy at the beginning of the week, but after a few days, the clutter and dirt of daily life catches up with you. And, of course, this is multiplied by 10 if you have children in the house.

So why not make the kids part of the solution? A few minutes of work by every family member will make the cleanup go faster – and start teaching children the skills they’ll need to keep house when they finally move out. Plus, it means you’ll have less work to do come the weekend, and more time to spent together as a family, doing the things you’d really rather do.

Combat clutter: Even a clean house can start looking junky from the flotsam you accumulate during the week, like school papers, unopened mail, jackets and toys forgotten in the kitchen. Create a system for catching all this – a basket or drawer for junk mail, a folder for that week’s school papers (which you should clean our frequently).  Another mom I know has a “freebie bowl” – specifically designed to catch all those miniature toys collected from fast-food visits or venues like Chuck E. Cheese.

Conduct a “toy sweep:” In most houses, toys and games and books have a way of migrating from their “home” to other resting spots throughout the house. Some friends make each child do a mandatory “toy sweep” before dinner, by having each child search for dolls, action figures, crayons and games and return each to their room.

Five minute bursts: Create a list of tasks that can be done in five or ten minutes – sweeping the kitchen, wiping down the bathroom mirror and counters, dusting the furniture in just the living room or just the dining room. Then, if your kids are old enough to do the work, let everyone draw straws to see who has to do what.  Have everyone do their job at the same time, then meet back in the kitchen or living room for a family reward, like a favorite video or a quick game of cards.

Give assignments: For older kids, say, 8 and up, it’s time to start assigning a daily task that is their responsibility alone. It can be as simple as making the bed and making sure all their dirty clothes actually hit the hamper, taking out the trash, or for older kids, loading and unloading the dishwasher. If your kids balk at chores, like most do, gently remind them that everyone lives in the house, so everybody has to take some responsibility for keeping it clean and livable. (And if that doesn’t work alone – sweeten the deal with a small but non-monetary reward, like an extra 15 minutes of reading time before bedtime, or watching a favorite TV show together.)

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Family Matters: Taking care of your cat

Does your cat like to use your couch – or your drapes, or your favorite pillow – as a claw-sharpening device? If so, you may have considered declawing him or her. But before resorting to surgery, you should know that declawing a cat is somewhat of a controversial issue within the veterinary community, and you may be able to alter your cat’s behavior with a few simple purchases and/or behavior modifications.

The American Veterinary Medication Association, the non-profit association representing U.S. veterinarians, recommends that domestic cats should be declawed only after the owners have tried to keep the cat from using his or her claws destructively. Scratching is a way for cats to mark their territory, groom and stretch, and it’s normal behavior in a healthy kitty.

Some veterinarians feel that declawing is unnecessarily painful and may change a cat’s personality and behavior. They argue that declawed felines may feel defenseless and may be more likely to mark (urinate on) their territory, avoid contact with others or become aggressive and change their pattern of vocalization (growling, hissing, or increased crying).

On the other hand, other experts feel that declawing a young kitten will be less traumatic, because young animals are smaller and have less weight to carry on their feet after surgery. They’ll experience less pain and heal more quickly than full-grown animals, and seem to be less affected personality-wise by the surgery. And, some even feel that even adult cats can be declawed without a permanent change in personality.

If you have a cat with a destructive clawing problem, first consult your veterinarian for advice. But here are some steps to try:

  • Provide a few “safe” places for your cat to scratch. This might be a cardboard box, a carpet remnant, an old pillow or quilt, or a commercially produced scratching post. For best results, attach the scratchable material to a fixed object, like a wall or post.
  • Trim your cat’s claws every couple of weeks. This removes the urge in the cat to “groom” its claws, and prevents damage to furniture AND people. You can purchase clippers specially designed for cats.
  • Give your cats plenty of toys and affection, to keep them from being bored and looking for activity.
  • Make their favorite scratching spots unappealing. You can spray these spots with a scratch deterrent. These are often herbal- or citrus-scented, and cats don’t like the smell. Or place some double-sided tape or sticky contact paper over the spot your cat frequents.
  • Use behavior modification: Praise and treat your cat (with liver treats or another favorite goodie) when the cats uses an approved scratching spot. To prevent the cat from using the old favorites, some experts suggest keeping a spray bottle filled with water handy, and squirting it in the cat’s general direction when it appears headed toward a forbidden scratch spot.

Family Matters: Packing a healthier lunch

What’s in your child’s school lunch? More people – including British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver – have been asking that question lately, hoping to encourage parents and schools to give children a more nutritious mid-day meal.

The best way to influence your child’s lunchtime habits, of course, is to pack it yourself. But how do you pack a healthier lunch and end up with something they’ll actually eat, and not toss in the trash, so they’re ready for an afternoon of learning, playing and growing? Get started here:

Get kids involved in planning: If your children go along when you do the grocery shopping, let them select some or all of their lunch components. (This works best, obviously, if you narrow down their choices first to just a few choices, so you don’t spend all day in the store.) If they don’t accompany you, ask for their requests before you head to the store. Again, this works best if you have a list of good choices to start from.

Get the proper packaging: Since kids don’t have access to microwaves or refrigerators, a small investment in thermal containers and coldpacks is worth it. It will allow much more creativity in lunch-packing – soups, pastas, cool desserts – and more importantly, it will keep cold and hot foods safe and appetizing to eat.

Pack ahead: Mornings are a rush job in most households. If you only have two minutes to throw lunch together, it’s far too easy to rely on leftover pizza and a bag of chips. Instead, pack the night before, right after dinner, before you’ve cleaned up the kitchen. Make it a family project; older kids can make their own lunches while you load the dishwasher, or younger ones can help pull out lunch components  with your supervision.

Make simple substitutions, and phase them in gradually: You don’t have to make drastic changes, at least not right away. A few small substitutions will get you on the way to healthier lunches fast. For instance, substitute yogurt-covered raisins, trail mix, or plain dried fruit for candy. Use mustard or fat-free mayo instead of full-fat mayonnaise or sandwich spread. Send pretzels or carrots with ranch dressing instead of chips; lean turkey instead of fatty pepperoni or bologna on a sandwich.

Experiment a little: We all tend to end up in a lunch rut. Get away from the sandwich-chips-fruit combo. Why not hummus and pita chips, or bean dips and baked tortilla chips, or even a container of edamame? Make that sandwich on pita bread, a whole-wheat bagel, or a tortilla. Try a Greek yogurt cup instead of pudding.

Allow the occasional surprise treat: Nobody can be perfect all the time, so it’s fun for kids to discover the occasional unexpected treat. A fun-size candy bar, a small bag of chips, a cookie – anything that’s school-approved should be included at least once in a while, to mix things up and remind kids that moderation is the goal.

Family Matters: National Children’s Dental Health Month

According to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, as many as half of all children will be affected by tooth decay by the time they turn 5 years old. Tooth decay starts as soon as your baby’s teeth begin to appear – so it’s important to start proper dental hygiene as soon as your baby starts teething.

In fact, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry encourages parents to have a “dental home” by their baby’s first birthday. But there are things you can do at home to maintain your baby’s beautiful, healthy smile.

  • After feeding your baby, wipe his or her teeth with a soft damp towel or brush them with a soft toothbrush. When bacteria in your mouth comes in contact with sugar, it produces an acid that can produce tooth decay, so it’s especially important after any meal containing sugars, even “good” sugars like fruit.
  • One of the biggest causes of tooth decay is putting your baby to bed with a bottle. Don’t do it! The peace and quiet now could result in dental problems later on. Also, avoid giving your toddler sugary drinks, like juice, lemonade and soda, in his or her sippy cup.
  • Calcium, along with plenty of vitamin D, will help your children’s teeth stay strong and their gums stay healthy. The majority of Americans get most of their calcium from milk and milk products. Current dietary guidelines recommend consuming low-fat or fat-free milk and milk products to reach the proper levels of calcium. Children ages 2 to 4 should consume 2 cups of these products; children ages 4 to 8 should consume 2 1/2 cups; and children 8 and up should get 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products. Because our bodies need Vitamin D to properly absorb calcium, look for products that are Vitamin D enhanced, too. 
  • Fluoride plays an important role in keeping tooth enamel hard. Most Americans, including babies and toddlers, now get plenty of fluoride from fluoridated water. However, if your family’s water is not fluoridated, or you drink bottled water, talk with your pediatrician or dentist about fluoride treatments or supplements. 

February is National Children’s Dental Health Month, so there’s no better time than now to get on the right track with your baby’s dental care.

Family Matters: New Year’s resolutions

If your New Year’s resolutions to eat better and exercise more are already going by the wayside, here’s an idea: Enlist your family to help.

It will help you stay on track if everybody’s on the same routine. And chances are, they could use a little boost, too. About one-third of American children and teenagers are now overweight or obese, according to the American Heart Association. And even if your children do not have a weight problem now, the habits you help them learn in childhood will help them stay fit and healthy as adults.

Rethink meals:  An easy fix is to reduce fat where you can: Buy lean meats, more fresh fruits and vegetables, and low-fat milk. Cut back on fatty snacks. But that’s easier said than done, especially with kids in the house. Instead, look for healthier substitutes that everybody likes (“light” microwave popcorn instead of chips; yogurt instead of ice cream.) Try cutting the amount of meat you serve in half, replacing the empty space on the plate with whole grains, vegetables and fruit.

Revamp your cooking: Take the kids to the grocery store and let each one try one new “healthy” food – whole wheat pasta, maybe, or a different kind of apple. Rely on NuVal scores to make choosing healthier foods easier – these scores are listed right on the store shelves, and the closer the score is to 100, the better that food is for you. Make it a family mission to look for healthy recipes to try or ways to reduce fat and calories in family favorites. You can often reduce the amount of fat in a recipe by about ¼ without really noticing it at all. (This, however, does not apply to baking, where recipes are more precise.)

Cook together: It’s often stated that kids are more likely to try new foods that they have helped cook. But it’s also important for them to learn their way around in the kitchen, so they don’t rely on junk food and restaurants when they head off to college. It will also help them see just how much fat and sodium goes in some favorite dishes, and understand proper serving size. Since portion control is a big part of weight management, this is an important tool.

Get off the couch: Studies have shown that children tend to imitate their parents when it comes to exercise. So make it a family activity. Challenge them to an active video game – most kids will love beating their parents at Just Dance or Wii bowling. Dust off those bikes in the garage and go for a leisurely (or quick) spin. Look into family membership rates at the Y or another fitness facility; more gyms are now offering fitness classes even for younger children, to get them in the exercise habit early.

Get outside: Raking leaves, trimming hedges, mowing lawns, stacking firewood – all kinds of outdoors chores burn calories and give you a teachable moment about the value of hard work. (And you’ll save money if you’ve been paying a service to do these chores, too.) Or, even simpler: A simple walk around the block or in the neighborhood park costs nothing, and is a good time to catch up on everyone’s day.

Family Matters: Caring for kitty

Cats may seem like the perfect, low-maintenance pet. You give most cats plenty of fresh food and water, a clean litter box, and a couple cozy places to nap, and they are perfectly content.

But cats need health care too. Cats are somewhat less likely than dogs to be taken to the veterinarian annually, according to an poll, conducted last fall. So it’s even more important for owners to pay close attention to their cat’s weight, behavior and overall health, so you can catch any minor problems before they become bigger ones.

According to the experts at Nestle Purina Petcare, cats’ needs change over time faster than humans do. After all, since a cat’s average life expectancy is anywhere from 12-15 years, one human year translates into several cat years.

So they suggest owners pay attention to several facets of their cat’s health, to help maintain a long, happy life for your four-legged family member. (And, yes, if you’re a dog owner, these tips also apply to your canine friends!)

Weight-watching: Chubby kitties may look cute, but even an extra couple of pounds can create health problems for a cat. Ideally, a cat should have minimal abdominal fat and just a slight fat pad over their ribs.

Should your cat be a little pudgy, you can begin to control its weight by cutting back on any treats, especially if you have been slipping them forbidden people food, and making sure you are feeding the correct amount as directed by package instructions. If you’re already doing everything right, you might need to start feeding a cat food with less fat and/or fewer calories, such as Purina Cat Chow Indoor Formula or Purina ONE Healthy Weight Formula.

Energy level: Consider your cat’s daily routine. Yes, it may seem they sleep 23 hours out of 24, but the healthy cat also spends time playing. If yours seems sluggish, make sure you offer regular interaction. If the cat doesn’t have any interest in activity, especially those that it formerly enjoyed, consult a veterinarian.

Bad kitty: Cats that suddenly develop behavior problems, such as the occasional missed litter box incident, are most likely just bored. Add a new toy or two, and additional interaction, and see if that helps. However, behavioral problems can also be age-related or health-related.  Cats over age 7 should be switched over to a senior pet food formula, so they receive the nutrients they need for their age. Otherwise, you may want to consider a trip to the veterinarian, to rule out any health-related issues.

Family Matters: New Year…New You

As we celebrate the New Year, let us all take a few minutes to reflect on the past year and look ahead at what we want to accomplish this year.

Whether you focus on marriage, family, friends, work, or life in general, there are things we can do (without much effort) that would make a difference in all of areas of our lives.

Think about compassion, patience, generosity, respect, kindness, self-control, integrity, gratitude, faithfulness and, most importantly, love.

When is the last time you showed compassion, had patience, expressed generosity, practiced respect, acted out of kindness, used self-control and upheld integrity?  What about showing gratitude, faithfulness and expressing love to others?

Everyone likes to receive these types of things, but we ourselves often fall short of extending them to others on a daily basis.  There are no greater attributes we can teach our children or accomplish as a family than having a passion to make the world around us a better place to live.  We are all extended mercy and grace daily, and we receive blessings we never acknowledge.

My prayer, for you and your family, is that you to find joy, hope and the courage to be different and to make a difference, in the lives of others this year. Count your blessings daily and give thanks for the time you have to share with your family.

Family Matters: Beech-Nut Stage 2.5 baby foods

As every parent and grandparent knows, babies change so fast it’s hard to keep up, and it’s all completely on their own schedule. One week you’re elated when you catch a rare smile from your baby; then the next, she’s giving you belly laughs. One week, he can’t sit up on his own; in no time, he’s crawling and climbing. And you can never predict a baby’s development based on what his sister or brother achieved at the same age.

The same is true with your baby’s eating habits. Babies may seem to go almost instantly from breast milk or formula to solid foods, but as you probably know, learning to eat solid foods is a huge milestone for infants, best accomplished in small steps, and taken at the child’s own pace.

That is why Beech-Nut has expanded their “stages” of baby and toddler food, and has introduced a new “intermediate” stage of solids, Stage 2.5. The longtime baby-food maker now offers six stages, geared to the specific needs and likes/dislikes of babies and toddlers, from about 4-6 months to 24 months and up.

As you’d guess, Stage 2.5 foods are meant to be introduced after Stage 2 foods (fairly smooth foods, either single ingredient or simple combinations) and just before Stage 3 foods (more complex infant foods with slightly more texture.)

These Stage 2.5 foods are designed for babies who are ready for slightly more texture than the plainer Stage 1 and Stage 2 foods, and are intended to help babies explore more  complex, sophisticated flavors. The flavor combinations include a mixture of things your baby may have already tried and enjoyed, like apple and pears, with slightly more unusual flavors like zucchini and mango. To help babies’ sensitive palates adjust to the new flavors, Beech-Nut often combines the new flavor with at least one familiar one, so you get combos like apple, mango and carrot; banana and mixed berries; squash and apples; and sweet potato and zucchini.

Of course, exactly when and how you begin introducing solid foods to infants depends on their individual development, your feeding preferences, and your doctor’s advice. Beech-Nut recommends Stage 2 foods for babies 6 months and older, so they suggest you consider adding in the Stage 2.5 foods when your baby is about 8 months or so.

But aside from age, you can also judge your child’s readiness for Stage 2.5 by his or her behavior and development. You can give these foods a try when he or she eats most or all of the solid food offered at any given meal, and even indicates a desire for more; is beginning to have some success with self-feeding; is able to easily chew (or gum!) the foods you’ve already been feeding; and/or has begun sprouting teeth.

Family Matters: Tamales for Christmas!

One of my favorite Christmas memories is of a book my mother always read to us, Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto. Every year, my brother and I would look forward to hearing the story of Maria and the trouble she ran into when making tamales with her family for Christmas dinner.

Actually, what my brother and I really looked forward to were the tamales themselves! That night, we would always get to eat some delicious, steaming hot tamales.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but tamales have been a Christmas tradition in Mexico and in American families of Mexican descent for many years. And, many other American families, like mine, have now made them part of their holiday traditions as well.

Tamales are traditionally made of a corn meal, or masa, shell, holding a spicy meat filling. They are carefully wrapped up in a corn husk and then the whole thing is steamed, so the tamale comes out moist and hot. Traditionally, the filling is pork or chicken mixed with some chiles, but you can also find beef or even vegetarian versions.

Why they have become a holiday tradition is a little less clear. My best guess, and one I’ve heard from others, is that making tamales is so much work, people only want to go to all the trouble if they’re serving them for a special occasion. Many families have an annual tamale-making day, set aside for several generations to share the labor of making enough tamales for the whole extended family.

If you don’t have a family or friends to share the work, you can still enjoy this Christmas tradition. Just pick up a few dozen tamales at your neighborhood Brookshire’s. They’re already steamed and ready for you and your family to enjoy, so you don’t have to miss out on this wonderful Christmas tradition.

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