As an expat mom and wife, I've lived in three countries and traveled to a dozen, kiddos in tow. I write to help other travelers pack lighter, engage in community, and live well, wherever they call home.
This morning I read this. “Forget walking 10,000 steps a day”(1). Better to get your heart rate up a few times a day. Ten-minute intervals of focused, moderate exercise yields health benefits. Similarly, ten focused minutes with your kids can benefit your relationship and yield a calmer kid.
I practiced this years ago and then forgot. The article on exercise reminded me. (Most of our revelations are memories, aren’t they? But that is another post.)
Dr. Laura Markham “claimed that just ten minutes of focused time on a regular* basis would help your child feel secure and accepted and improve your relationship all day long.”(2)
Just ten minutes. This is not a “you need to spend more time with your kid” message. Not more time. Just more focused.
Quality over quantity.
Quality requires intention. You play with your child. You don’t sit nearby scrolling your Instagram feed. It’ll still be there in 11 minutes’ time.
Let your child direct the play. Play the game or role play of her choice. Just go with it. Your goal here is to be with your kid, see her, and share play that is important to her. (Kids take play very seriously. What happens to Chase and the Paw Patrol matters in her world.)
Pay attention, fully. Your posture engaged, turn to face your child. Make eye contact.
Follow her lead. And throw in some physical interaction before you return to your own duties. Roughhousing can help kids work out some of the stress that builds up over the course of the day. (2)
Your attention, your touch mean the world to your child.
This interaction will feel long at first but you are strengthening your bond while tangibly assuring your child of your presence and care. Ten minutes to a calmer, happier child sounds like an excellent return on investment.
As in so much of life – mindfulness, exercise, a quick nap – intentional focus matters more than duration. Ten minutes well spent can yield exponential returns.
*Regular could be once a week with each child. Three times per week is recommended for children in more difficult situations.
“Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” – Winston Churchill.
We nod knowingly at such wise words. Then we walk off and… fail again to meet our goals. We run up against the same relational difficulties. Churchill’s insight applies on a personal level, as on a global scale. When I fail to learn from my own unmet goals, I am doomed to fall short again this year. So, where to start? It’s not with goals. Read more
As kids activities have become active and child centered, our kids are rarely attend an event not focused on them. When they do, it goes badly. Parents are annoyed and embarrassed. Kids are upset and incapable of behaving as they should because they’ve had no practice. How did we get here and what can we do about it? Read more
All the experts say it, and my head knows they’re right. Multitasking isn’t faster. Sustained focus is the way to get things done. And still, I get sucked in. Especially in the kitchen. And it always ends the same.
When Blythe Hill learned about the international sex trade in 2005, she felt powerless to help. In 2009, she wore a dress every day in December. The following year, some friends joined her and since then, the Dressember movement has grown.
Last year, the campaign raised nearly $1,500,000 to fight slavery around the world!
Advocates commit to wearing a dress – or a tie or bow-tie for men – every day of December.
I heard about this campaign as I sweated through a workout back in January. (In Argentina, January means hot.)
As December approached, it kept coming to mind. As did the excuses. “I’m not used to Canadian winters anymore.” “I hardly own any dresses.” “I don’t want to.” (Not exactly an excuse, that one.)
I still couldn’t shake it. I need to do this. To not do so would be disobeying. I feel God’s putting me up to this.
I’ve always erred toward under dressed much to my mother’s dismay. More into basketball shorts that short skirts. I’m not a big fan of cold. I like comfortable.
Maybe that’s the point.
So many do not have the freedom to choose comfort. Or safety. Or nutrition. Or clothes they like.
So, like Jen Hatmaker’s 7, I’m doing this in the spirit of a fast. Giving up something. Reducing options and forgoing certain comforts remind me that many never have those options or comforts.
I’m sure there is much more to learn as I walk through this month, but for now it’s about advocating. Speaking up for those who have no voice. And supporting those who are on the ground, doing the work to rescue and restore victims of human trafficking and forced labor.
Want to get involved? Learn more about becoming an advocate here. You’d rather give than wear the dress? Give here. Share the word and tell a friend.
When a virus damaged Wayne Muller’s heart, the “crushing exhaustion” left him precious little energy between naps. He had to choose between reading or speaking, eating or going to the bathroom. While less dramatic, a new environment demands more cognitive and emotional energy than a familiar one. When you feel exhausted with little to show for your efforts, recognize that your load is heavier during this period of transition. This isn’t the time to bite off big new goals, it’s time to honor your own limits. Read more
What if our memory books said less about baby teeth and more about our child’s true self?
The transition to a new hometown or country can be a special time for reflection and family connection. We are abruptly freed from commitments, social and occupational labels that have long defined us. In their absence, we can sit with our kids and notice what makes them tick. We might also decide some of our own labels would best be left behind. Read more
Have you ever found yourself starting the same exercise program over and over again because this time you’ll stick with it? How about chore charts or budgets? Our best intentions are derailed in the execution phase because we forgot to check boxes or track spending this week. I have found something to help… in a most unexpected place! Read more
Feeding your family in a new land can feel daunting. What began as an adventure soon becomes a hassle. Shopping and cooking take so much time! You have no dish washer and tiny cupboards. You can’t read the grocery labels. You can’t bypass the learning curve entirely but you can make it less painful. Read on to learn how.
Begin with Mindset
I still recall the utter gratitude a newly arrived expat expressed over a simple pizza I served her. The food was not remarkable. She was simply thrilled to have one solid meal idea that she knew she could cook herself in the days to come!
Start out by focusing on a few meals that you can repeat frequently.
Instead of asking, “What can I make?” start with “What chicken and potato dish can I make?” or “What can I serve with pasta and beef?” Those questions are much easier to answer. Insert a couple vegetables and you’re good to go.
Save gourmet dishes for later, once you know your butcher, baker, and produce vendor. For now, forget cooking shows and Pinterest. They will only taunt you.
In shopping and cooking, you have a learning curve ahead of you. Be ready to spend more time feeding your brood than ever before. At first, grocery shopping will be an adventure. Some days, it will be slow and arduous. At least once, you’ll feel like bursting into tears of overwhelm and frustration.
Some days, it will feel like all you can do in a day is feed people. It will get better. Hang in there.
Be willing to adjust your diet. And your eating schedule.
Your new home may inspire visions of handmade pasta and lingering over home-cooked meals. Mediterranean, European, and South American mealtimes hold an allure to us North Americans. They are slower, family oriented, romantic affairs. And they happen late at night. You and your kids aren’t used to lengthy dinnertimes. Build up to it. Help kids understand what is allowed (when to leave the table and play) and what is expected during mealtimes. Don’t get discouraged if your first few visits are less than magical.
In Argentina, locals eat around 8:30 pm. Kids’ activities are scheduled at our dinnertime: 5:30 karate and 6:00 gymnastics are perfectly normal. Our kids went to bed by 7:30, so the whole local rhythm didn’t work for us. We gradually shifted to a late afternoon snack (a sit down affair with the whole family on the best days) with dinner being just before bedtime (7ish, not 8:30!)
Take Your Tutor Shopping
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The guessing game/ charades that is grocery shopping can be a learning opportunity. Move your next tutoring session to the market.
Observe your tutor’s interactions with the cashier. Write down what she says. Take notes as she explains what items are. Copy down translations. Record video with your phone if the cashier agrees. Then listen to the conversation, practise, and repeat.
Next time, write your grocery list and recipes in the local language.
Make it Social
It’s easy to feel you can’t leave your kitchen because you’re so behind. You’re becoming overwhelmed. And isolated. This is not good.
You have to cook, yes. So, reach out and do it together.
Some of my best memories of our time in South Korea are of mornings spent learning recipes in a friend’s kitchen. We made gimbap with our Korean friend, samosas with our African friend, pastries with a pastry chef turned stay-at-home-expat-mom, fried snacks with our Indian friends, Thai lunches.
Your local friends are probably curious about something you make. My Asian friends wanted to learn how I made pie crust. My Argentine friend wanted to know my salad recipes.
Get to know new friends by cooking together.
Your expat friends will have their own specialties and ethnicities. Your local friends can help expand your food related vocabulary. Any language barrier is less daunting while cooking than when you’re sitting, trying to keep a conversation going over coffee!
Cook in Batches
Soups, pasta sauces, browned ground beef, lasagne, uncooked pizza dough and pie crusts – these can all be made in large quantities and kept frozen. Cooking takes more time when nothing is pre-chopped, pre-washed, or prepared for you. Take a whole morning and make a lot. Better yet, do it with a friend and split the meals. Here are a few things you can cook in batches and freeze:
Parts of meals: pasta sauce, browned ground beef, uncooked pizza dough, cookie dough, broth
Sautéed onion, garlic, and ginger are the base for many things. Make as much as your pan will allow and freeze the excess one or half-cup portions.
Note:plastic IKEA cups are just about 8 oz (one cup). I freeze things in the cups. Once frozen, transfer to a freezer bag or container.
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You may use more fresh herbs in your new home. Some of these can also be frozen to save a trip to the shop when you need them in meat
Cilantro inevitably comes in a too-big bunch that rots before I can us it. Chopped fresh cilantro, basil, or oregano can be puréed with a bit of water to form a paste. (So can garlic or ginger). Freeze the paste in ice cube trays. Once frozen, move them to a container or freezer bag. Pull out a cube the next time you have meat to season. Great for samosas, empanadas, soups, rice, tacos, or pasta sauce. (Thanks, Zahhra!)
Fresh ginger can be frozen and grated as needed.
Toss orange peel in the freezer. No need to delay or go shopping when a recipe calls for zest. I haven’t tried this with lemon, but I expect it’d work. (Thanks, Pragna.)
A Word of Caution
The caveat to my reliance on the freezer is this: Your power may be less reliable than you are accustomed to. Use your freezer but… don’t stock weeks’ worth of food. You might have to eat it all in short order when the power is out.
Thankfully, gas stoves work independent from the grid, so you can keep cooking when the lights go out.
You have a craving for lasagne but can’t find ricotta? Grated cheddar or mozzarella plus beaten egg can replace ricotta or cottage cheese, as long as it gets baked. Stir in some garlic and, if desired, chopped spinach. Layer meat/ tomato sauce, noodles and your “cheesy blend” for a moist, yummy lasagna.
Stir your cheesy-egg mixture into any leftover noodles. Top with meat sauce and cheese and bake for a delicious, quick baked pasta.
Cooked, puréed squash can replace pumpkin in pies and cookies. Bake the squash days a day ahead (while something else is cooking). Scrape out the soft flesh, purée, and refrigerate or freeze in one-cup or half-cup quantities.
The flip side of batching is this: a big bi-weekly grocery run isn’t going to work. Let it go.
Buying produce in Costco-sized quantities will end in fruit flies and wasted food.
In Argentina, as in much of the world, produce is seasonal. It travels less distance than the California strawberries we find on eastern Canadian shelves. Produce is riper when picked. It doesn’t last more than two or three days.
You’ll want to buy bread and produce every second day, not every second week.
Bananas that start to go brown attract fruit flies like nothing else. Peel them and plop them in a freezer bag. Frozen bananas can be added to smoothies or baking. They make a refreshing (though unattractive) popsicle-like snack. If you’re really thinking ahead, stick a popsicle stick or toothpick in before it freezes. Make it gourmet by dipping in chocolate.
Plan Ahead and Invest
As much as possible, ask what appliances are included in your new home before you go. Toaster, coffee maker, blender, food processor, electric mixer, coffee grinder?
Decide on your priorities and invest. Don’t wait until you’re six months in to decide you should have bought that magic bullet during your first week.
Do you need the food processor but can live without the mixer? Will you purchase one or two items when you arrive? Will you bring a transformer and all your own gadgets to avoid buying more?
When you move to a new place, and are learning a new language, there will be a learning curve. Remember that you aren’t just cooking and buying groceries. You are getting your bearings in a new town, practicing a new language, and building relationships as you go.
Start with a hopeful mindset. Be patient with yourself. You are learning much. Engage your tutor. Make cooking social not isolating. That’s how I learned most of my tricks!
What suggestion here can you try this week? Let me know how it goes.