Sunday, April 26, 2009

Santa Monica Preschools: Oh, the Pain

As I've mentioned before, we live in Santa Monica. It's a nice area. The weather's pleasant, we tend to drive against traffic (people tend to drive to Santa Monica in the morning and vice versa in the evening), and the city has a lot of resources (it's a city independent of the behemoth City of Los Angeles). So MetaDaddy doesn't spend 3 hours commuting daily. And when there's a pothole or light out on our street, a quick call to the city gets the problem fixed within a week.

But I think a lot of people like Santa Monica. A lot of families, in fact. The real estate prices, even now, are a bit shocking. Some sellers are deluded. Did they not get the memo about the recession?

But I digress. My real point is: there are a lot of kids in Santa Monica. I found this out when I started looking for a preschool for MetaBoy. Knowing that I would be staying home to care for the kids, I didn't give it much thought early on. I'd get around to finding him a school when the time came. But when MetaGirl was on the way, we decided to find a place that would care for and stimulate MB earlier than I had anticipated. He was 1.5 at the time, and apparently, I was too late to find a school for him at the 2 year mark.

But there are few schools that allow kids to start at 2, which gave me solace. The number of schools from which to "choose" would vastly increase once he reached 3 years. So I didn't stress, and moved it to the back of my mind for a few months. After all, MetaGirl was my more pressing concern. Newborn! Eek!!

When I got back into the preschool groove, I refused to drive him very far, so I was really only interested in local options. I bought a guide with all of the local preschools listed; they weren't all there. I went to the library, but most of their resources were for K-12. I went online and found several websites promising me a comprehensive list of schools, but they didn't. Occasionally, I would drive by a place that had a sign: preschool. And of course, there's word of mouth. Essentially, I had to take all of these sources to find out which schools existed in our area. Then, the phone calls started.

I called dozens of schools, and I opted to tour the ones that seemed appropriate. I toured 13 schools. We submitted many applications, most requiring a fee. Ugh. One had an "admissions day," which required for the parents and child to show up for about an hour, play, and have a story read. Essentially, it was time to show pony. The only thing is...I think the parents were being judged, not the kids. "Are these the kind of people we want to deal with?" It was creepy, and we hated it.

When all was said and done, we were wait listed at 7 schools. I found a couple of schools that were acceptable and had space for MB, but at similar price points as others schools that had more bells and whistles (e.g., garden, music classes, fun art projects), we decided to wait and see if our position changed on any lists. I called the schools monthly for updates. Some appreciated my letting them know that we were still interested. Some were obviously annoyed by my persistence.

Finally, we were offered a spot in a sweet little school, and we're finally happy.

After this whole thing, I'm definitely annoyed at the mention of preschool admissions. Thoughts:
  • There are very, very few schools that care for kids beyond a few hours (e.g., 9-noon or 1-4). That is, they're not intended to function as a day care. So if you work, you're going to have a really hard time finding a school that will be able to care for your child for the full work day. That's tough, and I'm grateful to not be in that position.

  • Some of our local schools have a celebrity problem, in my opinion. There are a lot of parents who want to send their kids to the best schools, and if everyone's talking about a particular school, it must be the best. On that note, celebrities who live in Santa Monica send their kids to...preschools in Santa Monica! Everyone wants to send their little ones to the same school Ben & Jen sent their little Violet to. But really?!? I went on a couple of tours where you really got the impression that the director had some sort of superiority complex because of the power she wields.

  • Besides requiring fees just to apply to a school (I found they ranged from $50 to $125, but I heard one charged $200), the more popular ones have long, complicated wait lists. By long, I mean they pretty much tell you it's unlikely you'll ever be offered a spot. By complicated, I mean that some don't use the application date as the only deciding factor, but also take into consideration information the exact age, sex, and diversity of the child to make sure that s/he will fit into that spot just right (e.g., I need a boy who is 2 years, 7 months). Since there are a lot more boys than girls applying to start in 2009 in the area, this practice meant that it was harder to find a spot for MB than it would have been for a girl.

  • I went on several tours where the child to attend was in utero. That's right! The child had not been born!! The most impressive one, though, was the guy taking the tour who said that he and his wife were trying to conceive. The director told him to apply now, if possible. Application fee? Ya, $75.

  • The school that made us show pony was just wrong. We didn't know what to expect when we went, but in hindsight, it sounds like it's not far off from the experiences in this movie, which looks hilarious and I will have to see it...eventually.

  • As I understand it, preschools didn't used to be this expensive or elitist. When parents started hearing that attending preschool increases kids long term success, all bets were off. That movie mentions a preschool in New York City charging $20,000 per semester (does that mean twice a year for a $40,000 total?!?) for what I'm assuming is 3 hours in the morning. Whoa!?! At that rate, college is a bargain!

  • I had to remind myself to not get frustrated and keep the goal in perspective. I wanted MB to socialize, have fun, and learn some fun new things. Preferably, the school would provide him with projects and opportunities that we can't replicate at home due to a lack of space, materials, or experience. But at the end of the day, it's just preschool. If he learns to socialize and gets a head start on elementary school, then he'll be fine. All of the extra bells and whistles are more for the parents than for the kids; things to impress us and make us feel that our child needs these experiences. Some parents need to say "my kid goes to XYZ preschool." Some parents think that their kid will be missing out on too much if s/he doesn't get into the "best" school. It's important to sift out the child's needs...while trying to avoid putting yourself into debt for a 3 year old ;-)
I hope things are easier where you are, but I'd love to hear any stories! Oh, and if you can relate to this post at all, at least check out the trailer to Nursery University. It looks hilarious in an appalling sort of way.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Galante Strawberry at the Farmers' Market

I've been arriving to the farmers' market later than I'd like these days, which means I'm not getting some of the tasty treats I yearn for. Today, however, was a treat. I ran out of money before I ran out of wonderful options.

The best strawberries (in my humble opinion ;-) at the Wednesday market in Santa Monica are at Rutiz Farms. They're the only ones to sell the galante variety, and ... WOW! The difference between grocery store strawberries and farmers' market strawberries is dramatic. The word styrofoam comes to mind. And the difference between other strawberries and the galante? Ka-Pow!! Now don't get me wrong. The seascape and gaviota berries are nice, as are the other varieties that I'm sure are out there. But every time I taste the galante, I feel special. Like I've been let in on a delicate little secret. So shhhhh! But if you're in the neighborhood, do try them.

If you're wondering about it, I found an old article from Sage Restaurant that discusses the 'Galante.'
"Jerry Rutiz’s roadside strawberry stand attracts all the locals around his rural-residential corner of Arroyo Grande. That’s because he sells a variety called ‘Galante’ that a friend of his bred just for sweetness. It’s a garden variety without a long shelf life. It won’t last a week to ten days in a shipping container like commercial varieties, so it sells well in Europe, where markets are closer to the growers. It also yields less fruit, but since it was developed from older, more resistant varieties, it can be grown pesticide free—unlike commercial types, whose less disease-resistant roots only do well in fumigated soil. Chef Rich waited and waited to put strawberries on the menu until the sweetest, locally grown ones became available, and he buys them from Jerry at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market. When you taste Sage’s strawberry ice cream or strawberry rhubarb turnovers you’ll thank them both for taking a stand."

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Post Office: Stamp Out Hunger Donation & Postage Increases

Saturday, May 9, 2009 is the post office's annual Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive. Fun! Time to clean out the pantry of food you won't be using and donate it to those in need. As long as it's non-perishable, not in a glass jar and hasn't expired, it's suitable to include in your donation. If you're feeling generous, buy a little extra when your at the store and toss it in with your donation. Personally, I like to add a few basic staples like sugar, powdered milk, flour, and beans. And remember, if you get a separate receipt (i.e., just food to donate), save your receipt to write off your food donation at tax time.

Every little bit helps.

And of course, what's a year without a rate increase on postage? As of May 11, 2009, postage will be increasing from $0.42 to $0.44. Here are the details.

Sometimes I just wish they'd raise it by 10 or 15 cents and be done with these penny increases. Mail, even at 50+ cents, is still cheap. But hey, that's just me.

Friday, April 17, 2009

All Toddlers are Fussy Eaters

MetaBoy is a great eater, all things considered. He has a big appetite, which means he's on the end of the spectrum where I have a hard time finding enough food to feed him.

That said, even he becomes difficult sometimes. His favorite word is "no." Despite being hungry and liking the food in question, he'll reject it flat out if that's the mood he's in. We've found a few tricks to combat the "no" monster, but eh...nothing works 100% of the time.
  • Dips - I don't know why, but he loves dipping food. He calls it "dip dip." If we pour a sauce right on top of his meal, he might refuse it. If you put a dollop on his plate, he'll dip everything into it. We've used various sauces, hummus, yogurt, maple syrup (for pancakes), and jam. He might not eat bread, but he will if he can dip it!

  • Delivery - Sometimes, it's about changing up the delivery of a food. A food he might be bored with becomes more exciting if you change how it's eaten. Chicken and vegetables in a sandwich can be a lot more entertaining since MetaBoy doesn't get sandwiches often. A quiche with the same old food is another exciting escape. He also loves the occasional soup, which is loads of fun served in a small bowl with a small spoon. A little messy, but not too bad...especially if he's hungry ;-)

  • Challenging Food - Sometimes, a new food is a great treat, especially when it's a challenge to eat. Artichokes, for example, are easy to cook and delicious, but can be intimidating to eat for novices. To eat it, you tear a leaf from a cooked artichoke and scrape off the fleshy part with your teeth (the part that was attached to the artichoke). If you like, dip it first (e.g., salad dressing). Once you've eaten as many of the leaves as you can, take out the tough choke (should tear right out), and eat the heart. very good. But that's me. Here's someone else's take on it. If you get baby artichokes, which might be a better way to go for kids, the choke should be tender enough to eat in its entirety. Test it out before releasing the kids on it.

  • Seasoning - MetaBoy is much more inclined to eat if he gets to sprinkle even the smallest amount of salt on his food. Other sprinkles that rev up his appetite: paprika (fun color, mild flavor), lemon, and lime.

  • Mini Food - Maybe it's just me, but I love mini food. I've found loads of wonderful mini vegetables at the farmers' market (e.g., mini zucchini, mini potatoes, mini squash, micro small they make me wince with delight). I love to saute them all together and serve with something grilled (e.g., chicken, fish). But so many foods can be mini...pasta, sandwiches, cheese. If possible, just cut a larger food down to size and, depending on your kid, say (1) "isn't the food cute!!" or (2) "wow, you're a giant!!"
To be completely honest, these are just a few ideas to shake things up. Meals can get boring sometimes, so it's fun to introduce novelty. I've found the best tool with MetaBoy to be persistence. He may have a healthy appetite, but he's refused food in the past. My standard line is if you don't finish what's on your plate, I will assume you are not hungry, so you will not get anything else. I try to take his degree of hunger and level of cooperation into consideration, though. If he's eaten well at lunch, he doesn't necessarily have to eat that much at dinner to be full. In that case, as long as he eats a reasonable amount, I'm happy. He also has to try everything on his plate, even if he thinks he won't like it. He usually finds that he does like it. (We then stifle an "I told you so.") I might even chime in with "if you eat a bit, I'll eat a bite," which works for a couple of bites.

The biggest thing, in my book, is that I never make him a special meal just because he will not eat what we're eating. Once he started to eat non-mashed food, he ate the same food we ate. My take on it is that once he knows he can get a different meal out of me, he'll play that card every time. And if there's nothing wrong with our food, what's stopping him from eating it other than sheer stubbornness? They learn so fast, after all.

These days, he asks for a treat after every meal. Of course, that could be anything from fruit to a cookie. I think MetaDaddy's trying to convince him that leftover baby potatoes with a sprinkle of salt are just as good as a cookie. To be fair, to MetaDaddy, it is ;-)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Spring Cleaning at the MetaHome

I've been doing a bit of spring cleaning lately. Purging the old and unused from closets, cupboards, and bins. I guess you could say it's time to finish the nesting that I didn't have time for before MetaGirl came along.

Here's my basic to do list, but use your own judgment for your list:

  • Toss all old unused dry goods that are rarely used like certain flours and corn meal. As far as I'm concerned, food like dried pasta and beans have an infinite shelf life.
  • Check old nuts, which can get stale, and and dried fruit, which can lose freshness.
  • Toss anything that has expired or just plain looks funny.
  • As for replenishing, I won't bother getting more until I need it.
  • Pick out everything that's looking old and sad and either (1) toss or (2) save for messy jobs (e.g., painting or spring cleaning ;-)
  • Pick out clothes that don't get worn. We all have those things that we thought we'd wear, but never do. Why fool yourself? It's time to pass it on to someone who might actually get to use it.
  • The kids have clothes that no longer fit them. They went into one of 4 piles:
    • Pass on to someone who can use it
    • Hold on for sentimental value (I really want to make something like this blanket one day)
    • Hold on for MetaGirl
    • Toss - too worn or stained to pass on
As for passing on clothes, I'm in a situation where I don't have room to hold on to such clothes indefinitely, and I don't know of anyone who can use them now or in the near future. So at the advice of a friend to has done this a few times, I participated in a local consignment sale that's held twice a year. They require a minimum of 30 items, so it motivated me to clear out some big and bulky items (e.g., bouncie chairs, bumbo). The most important factor was that I wasn't donating something to the Salvation Army in hopes that someone would benefit from the items. I priced them very reasonably, and when they sold, I knew that someone would appreciate, and hopefully love the stuff as much as we did. I had a terrible time parting with some items (I can't tell you how many pictures we have with one of those bouncie chairs), so I really wanted to know they wouldn't end up in the dumpster.

  • Anything unopened can be donated to pretty much any shelter (e.g., homeless, domestic violence, teen shelter for runaways).
  • Opened products are much harder to find a home for. MetaDaddy says it's tacky, but if I have shampoo or lotion that I will never finish, I feel guilty throwing it away. It seems so wasteful! But if I could donate it, I would clear it out, thus leaving us with less chaos in our bathrooms. I called around, and domestic violence shelters seem to only accept unopened items (including sample and hotel sizes). However, homeless shelters are willing to take either (they really seemed to want lotion). Call first to be sure the shelter accepts your donation.
And when you're done, get out that label maker and put all the good stuff back. Stand back and behold your handiwork :-D

Update: More tips on Spring Cleaning from AP: A spring guide to help you clean out the clutter