Archive for January, 2010

10 Minute Snack Miracle – Banana Muffins

How would you feel if I told you, you could whip up a nutritious and tasty snack for school and have it in the oven in 10 minutes?  Isn’t that the same amount of time it takes to check your e-mail and make a quick response?  The same amount of time to break-up a squabble between siblings?  Ten minutes and you have 12 portions, or if you can invest a few more minutes, 24-36 snacks ready for the freezer.  Imagine the mommy feel good factor in having ultra nutritious snacks on hand that you only need to prepare every couple of weeks.  Oh yes, I forgot.  Your kids will like them!!

My current go to recipe for morning school snack is a banana bread recipe that I have adapted from the Fanny Farmer Cookbook.  What I love about this recipe is that it uses ripe bananas as a substitute for the oil or butter of a standard quick bread recipe. It is also a recipe you can add any number of flavour accents to and only takes 10 minutes to assemble.

Depending on my week, I either make this recipe on a Sunday afternoon in batches or on the fly between homework and bedtime on a weekday.  I always make it in muffin tins and freeze what I won’t use the next day. I know this recipe so well that I can effortlessly throw it together amidst any familial chaos and I can sneak all sorts of healthy ingredients into it.  I have one son that refuses to eat fruit so these muffins are a godsend to me.

My five year old son almost always helps me with this recipe which means there is often heavy negotiating for the extra additions to the batter.  A few chocolate chips are a given in our recipe and for me, it is a small price to pay for the other quality ingredients.  In this weeks batch we added dried blueberries and flax meal.  I also substituted Cocoa Camino organic cane sugar for your standard white variety.

Makes 12 standard muffins

3 ripe bananas

2 eggs

2 cups of flour

¾ cup sugar

1 tsp salt (I use fine sea salt)

1 tsp baking soda

Preheat oven to 350F.  Grease muffin tin.  Mash bananas until they are smooth or semi smooth. Add eggs and beat together.  Combine flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and stir into batter until just mixed.  If the batter is too stiff, simply add a small amount of water to thin.

Spoon into muffin tins and bake for 15-20 minutes.  Bake to a golden brown colour and until a knife or skewer can be inserted in the center and comes out clean.  Really, that’s it.

Banana Muffins

Additions: This is where you get to creative or just cater to the whims of your children.  The only thing to keep in mind is that you do not want to add too much.  I add a small handful of chocolate chips or dried fruit.  You can add a couple of tablespoons of flax meal or wheat germ.  Or substitute some of the flour for whole wheat flour. The beauty of having a go to recipe is that you get faster each time you make it and you also get to know the batter so intimately you can change things up and not think twice about it.  If you want to make several different kinds, double or triple the recipe and then split it up into separate bowls. Add flavour accents to each bowl so you can offer a different muffin everyday.

Prep hints: Store all of your baking ingredients in one area of your kitchen so you can quickly assemble your mise en place.  I always like to get my ingredients and equipment out in advance before starting a recipe.  Have you ingredients on one side of you and your equipment on the other.  It should only take moments to quickly measure your ingredients, place then in a bowl and stir.

You may find cooking takes a lot of time but in most cases it only requires a little more organization and hands that move twice as fast as they are used to.  If your movements are 50% faster or cover a shorter distance you cut your prep time in half.  Before you know it, you will have the ability to cook 3-4 recipes all at once.  If you were making cookies at the same time, I would make the batter while the butter and sugar were creaming in the mixer for the cookies.  Once the muffins are in the oven, you finish the cookie dough, portion and get it in the fridge to set-up while the oven is still in use.  Once the muffins are out, in go the cookies.

If you have confidence in the kitchen and like the idea of having a base recipe to tailor to your family’s tastes, I would highly recommend Michael Rhulman’s book Ratio.  In the book he gives the basic ratios of doughs, batters and quick breads and other preparations.  Not only do you learn why a specific ratio of ingredients works, and what the difference between a muffin, a pancake and a crepe is etc., you learn that you have the ability to change things up as you please within the framework of the base recipe.

Tracey is owner of Epicuria and mother of two young boys.  Watch for her lunchtime solutions here at Best Tools for Schools.

Uncle Gus’s Magic Box

Magic seems to be a big topic in our house lately. My 5-year old has been practicing a new trick, one I like to call the Emergency Room trick. If you have an promising magician in your house, they might enjoy Uncle Gus’s Magic Box (age 7-9), written by Ted van Lieshout and illustrated by Philip Hopman.

A young boy receives a large, heavy package from his recently deceased uncle, an uncle he didn’t know he had. Inside the package is a box, a magic box, a magician’s magic box. The boy is eager to try out his magic. He wants to practice so he can be a great magician someday but the only instructions included in the magician’s magic box is for the trick How to cut an Orphan Girl in Half. Unable to find an orphan girl he convinces his dad to volunteer (as his dad is an orphan and an orphan dad is better than no orphan at all).

The boy begins to saw. His dad says he feels a little weird. Ta daaaa, the trick is done, sort of. Now the boy and his dad are left with trying to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.

Uncle Gus’s Magic Box is an entertaining short story. The text is short, concise and a little repetitive but in a fun way. The banter between the boy and his dad is fun to read and full of sarcasm. The light-hearted black and white sketches do a wonderful job conveying the stories humour. I think even reluctant readers will enjoy a tale of a boy sawing his father in half.

Uncle Gus’s Magic Box

written by Ted van Lieshout, illustrated by Philip Hopman

age 7-9

60 pages

Annick Press

Uncle Gus cover.indd
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Recognize Excellence

We’ve all had a teacher or even two that left an indelible mark on us growing up.  Great teachers inspire us to reach higher and further than we thought possible. Does your child have a teacher who brings out the best in them? Recognize them by nominating them for the Premier’s Awards for Teaching Excellence

You can nominate educator’s in Ontario under the following categories: Teacher of the Year, New Teacher of the year, Excellent Support Staff, Excellence in Leadership, Team of the Year, Lifetime Achievement. The nomination deadline is February 1, 2010.

Why Don’t Students Like School?

I stumbled across the name of Daniel Willingham the other day.  He’s a cognitive psychologist and supporter of the idea that kids will become better readers if they learn more about the world through increased curricular focus on science and social studies.  That idea caught my attention, especially given Ontario’s plans to revisit curriculum – again.  A quick Google search and soon I was listening to a recorded radio interview and nodding my head to his brief comments about:

    • the importance of content knowledge in the ability to read
    • the challenge teachers face in trying to figure out where to “pitch” a concept to a group of students who have different abilities and background knowledge
    • the excessive load that’s placed on the educational system by kids who come from homes that don’t value education
    • the necessity of practice and the importance of rote knowledge in some areas (e.g., math facts)
    • the use of mentorship programmes for new teachers to improve both new teacher retention rates and the quality of their instruction

When I learned Willingham had written Why don’t students like school: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom, I decided it was a must read.  After all, we all like to spend time with people who think like we do, right?

Have a look at the chapter titles and see if the Willingham’s book doesn’t promise to be delicious.

1)    Why don’t students like school?

2)    How can I teach students the skills they need when standardized tests require only facts?

3)    Why do students remember everything that’s on television and forget everything I say?

4)    Why is it so hard for students to understand abstract ideas?

5)    Is drilling worth it? (Well I’ve already given away the easy answer – but let’s find out what he says about why – it IS a 16 page chapter.)

6)    What’s the secret to getting students to think like real scientists, mathematicians, and historians?

7)    How should I adjust my teaching for different types of learners (Given the current climate of debunking the idea of learning styles, I’m really interested in what he writes in this chapter.)

8)    How can I help slow learners (Is that term politically correct?)

9)    …last chapter is called “What about my mind?” (It’s anyone’s guess what will be in that chapter. Does Willingham discuss how the mind works generally, or how a teacher’s mind ought to work – what knowledge it should contain and what the optimal processing speed is for teaching…)

Intrigued?  I am, especially because I think it’s a pretty safe bet that the book isn’t preachy.  One of the cool things Willingham said in the interview was that researchers shouldn’t boss teachers around (okay, he didn’t use those words exactly). He says he knows the lab, but not the classroom.  No one, he says, knows the classroom better than teachers.  Now, doesn’t he sound like a very smart and cool man?

I’ve ordered the book (Chapters/Indigo and Amazon both carry the hardcover edition) and I’m wondering if any other teachers out there want to order it too – and read along with me.

I thought we could look at a chapter a week and talk about it. I’ll come back here on January 28th with my reaction to chapter one – “Why don’t students like school?” – and my hope that you’ll have read that chapter too and be ready to post a supportive comment or rebuttal.



Diane Duff, B. Ed., M. A., has been working with students and families for almost twenty years.   Her areas of expertise are literacy development, special education, reading disability/dyslexia, and teacher training.   At Aldridge-Duff, the private education business she founded ten years ago, Diane coordinates a highly experienced team of certified teachers  who provide in-home tutoring and academic support to students (all ages/grades/abilities) in both Ottawa and Toronto.
Contact Diane directly at

Three Cheers for Hilroy!

Best Tools for Schools is getting ‘greener’ by the minute.  Hilroy, one of our major suppliers, has announced all of their vinyl binders are PVC-free as of January 2010! (clapclapclapclapclapclapclapclap)

Students all across the country have been writing in Hilroy products for half a century.  We can only guess that Roy Hill, the founder of the original Hilroy Envelopes and Stationery company, could never have imagined the array of recycled papers, report covers and notebooks it now has to offer.  Many items from their Enviro Plus line are still made here in Canada.

We salute Hilroy, as well as our other suppliers like Fiskars, Buffalo and Staedtler, for their commitment to minimize their environmental impact without compromising on quality.  We at Best Tools are constantly looking for ways to lessen our ecological footprint, and partnering with suppliers who subscribe to the same philosophy makes sense to us.  Check in with us during the upcoming months for more ‘down-to-earth’ news from the world of school supplies.

Buckwheat Honey for a Cough and Your Health

It’s always fun to share something that is good for you and tastes good too. Buckwheat honey is a staple is our house and this is why.

From Good Housekeeping magazine “Buckwheat honey is a safe alternative to OTC cold meds, say Penn State researchers: It’s actually more effective than dextromethorphan, a common cough syrup ingredient.  Study leader, Ian Paul, M.D., recommends 1/2 teaspoon for ages 1 to 5, one teaspoon for 6 to 11, and two teaspoons for 12 and up every couple of hours as needed.”

I use buckwheat honey everyday in my tea as an alternative to sugar.  Maintaining optimal blood sugar levels has a positive effect on overall health, and honey seems to contribute to this goal. In a recent study of thirty-nine male and female athletes, following a workout, the participants ate a protein supplement blended with a sweetener. Those who ate the supplement sweetened with honey, as opposed to sugar or maltodextrin, enjoyed the best results. They maintained optimal blood sugar levels for two hours following the workout and enjoyed better muscle recuperation.

One of the main health benefits of buckwheat honey is related to the honey’s dark color. It has been established that dark honeys are generally richer in antioxidants than lighter colored honeys. This is because the antioxidants that are present in honey are one of the chemicals which give it color. Honey made from buckwheat flowers contains a type of antioxidant called polyphenol, which gives the honey its distinctive dark copper color.

Darker honeys such as buckwheat also tend to contain more vitamins and minerals in addition to antioxidants. Buckwheat honey is a minor source of eighteen amino acids. This type of honey also has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that can hasten wound healing and may even reduce scarring.

One of the factors that gives honey made from buckwheat some of its nutritional benefits is that it is a monofloral honey. This means that the honey is entirely made from buckwheat flowers, and is not blended with other types of honey that may contain fewer antioxidants or other nutrients. Raw honey may be even more beneficial, as some of the honey’s nutrients may be destroyed when it is heated during processing.

School Lunches – Some Ideas on How to Deal

There are those days or even weeks when school lunches pose such a logistical nightmare that flying to the moon would be easier to accomplish.  There are any numbers of factors that make this 5 minute task feel like the most difficult in the day.  Whether you have a fussy eater, crazy work obligations, missing food containers, busy evenings and very early mornings, or as in my life recently, a renovation (and no kitchen for 7 weeks),  we still need to get the food in the lunch bag and on time.

How do I deal?   In preparation for my renovation, which unfortunately coincided with a time of year that has me working 6 days a week, I filled my freezer with baked goods that I could quickly pop into my two son’s lunches.  It is not hard to see the appeal of grabbing packaged snack and drink items out of the pantry for quick assembly of school lunches, but it is possible to have the same convenience with healthier options. This is easy to do with home-made muffins, loaves, granola bars, cookies, whole fruits and re-fillable drink containers.  Not having to think in the morning about what to put in a lunch bag while reminding your children 20 times to eat their breakfast, get dressed and stop fighting will assist somewhat in keeping the tone and volume of your voice reasonable.  If I can get through this part of the day, the rest is a cake walk.

I had snacks covered until they ran out but what about a main lunch item with no means to cook?  My kids are not big fans of sandwiches unless they contain deli meats, which I try to restrict to once a week.  If your life is a little hectic, often take-out dinner is your lifeline and it conveniently doubles up as a lunch item.  Just be mindful of the sodium and fat content in choices like pizza and Chinese food.  Some grocery stores and independent fine food stores or personal chef services offer healthier pre-pared foods such as pastas, salads, soups and main courses.  These options are now more readily available and not much more expensive than cooking when you factor in time and waste.  Check to see that items are made in-house and not shipped from large manufacturers in buckets with a shelf life of 30 days.  Avoid frozen entrees, canned soups and pastas and anything with ingredients you cannot pronounce.  Having a few of these healthy pre-pared life savers to help you out will make all the difference to your day.

Another option and one that is growing in popularity is community cooking.  My neighbor was also starting a kitchen renovation just as mine was finishing, so we made a point of helping each other out with home cooked food by sharing extra baking and meals.  This strategy is easily transferred over to any meal and could easily be a fun evening with food conscious mom’s and a couple of bottles of zinfandel.

As a chef, I would have to say that advance organization, or mise en place, as we call it in the food business, is probably our best strategy for keeping things sane in the kitchen.  A pre-set grocery list, a repertoire of menu items and recipes, resources for extra help, and a couple of hours put aside for prep, will keep your family catering company from heading into the weeds.  I am looking forward to sharing some trade secrets and helping you keep it same in my upcoming posts.

Tracey is owner of Epicuria and mother of two young boys.  Watch for her lunchtime solutions here at Best Tools for Schools.

Book Review – Why Are Animals Purple?

Winter is definitely here. The ground is covered in white and most of the animals are in hibernation. But sometimes winter is the best time to discover animals, at least for my kids. It seems my kids develop an interest in animals when they notice them not around (or when they notice animal tracks in the snow or seeds on the ground).

This time of year we tend to get more nature books out from the library. One great book we discovered courtesy of the folks at Enslow Publishers is Why Are Animals Purple? written by Melissa Stewart.


Part of the Rainbow of Animals series, Why Are Animals Purple? uses full page photographic images of animals that are naturally purple. Each double page spread talks about one animal and explains how it uses it’s purple colouring. The copy is large and easy to read and the facts are informative without being too scientifically boring for young kids; kids will actually enjoy learning. All three of my kids enjoyed Why Are Animals Purple? My three-year old loved the pictures, my five-year old loved the ‘cool’ facts (did you know the California Sea Hare squirts purple ink), and my seven-year old loved the additional resources, especially the Internet sites.

At the end of Why are Animals Purple? you’ll find individual maps for each animal, showing where you might find them living in their natural habitat. There’s also a small list of books and websites that might interest kids who want to learn more. Enslow Publishers also includes a free educators guide for the Rainbow of Animals series on their site. It’s designed for teachers and librarians, but if you might find some ideas to extend your child’s interest at home.

Other animal colours available in the Rainbow of Animals series include: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green and Blue

Why Are Animals Purple? (part of the Rainbow of Animals series)
by Melissa Stewart
grade 1-3
32 pages
Enslow Publishers


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