Don’t tell mom

Versions of the fast-food scene and the one of the three kids eating giant sundaes in the back seat have certainly appeared in our family timeline. I’m not proud, but the kids providing a mouth-full mumble of “OK” cracks me up each time I watch this video.

McDonald’s trots out fresh-baked breakfast treats

I got to know the Muffin Man ;a little bit today. Turns out he is a she.

Kimberly Shelton of Crestone Group Baking Companies led 14 bloggers through a tasting of McDonald’s new bakery offerings this morning at the Seaport Hotel in Boston. She was joined by Sylvia Becker, marketing manager for McDonald’s, the purveyor of five of Shelton’s creations: Banana bread, cheese croissant, blueberry muffin, multi-grain berry muffin and miniature vanilla scones.

In typical Commuter Daddy fashion, the day started before the sun was up this morning as I departed Middletown, NY, at 5 a.m. My goal was to blow through Hartford before that city’s rush hour and hopefully catch a break as I neared Boston during the peak morning traffic, all in an effort to make it to the tasting by 10.

I must have made the correct ;sacrifices ;to the commuting gods this week. Even with some traffic on the Mass Pike at the Newton and Allston tolls, I made the trip in under four hours, gaining me an hour to do some day-job work. Score one for productivity!

Most of the 14 bloggers in attendance were women, but it didn’t feel like a mom-specific event and therefore I didn’t feel out of place. We’ve all got to eat, right? We’re all looking for variety in ours and our kids’ diets. If we can sneak some fruit into a baked good, that smells like victory to me.

When I first arrived, I set myself up at a table near the rear of the suite. I wanted some room to spread out, take some photos, do some writing, sip some coffee, etc. Soon, I was joined by two moms and their children. I had established the kids table! It turned out to be fortuitous. One measure of culinary success can be accomplished via the mouths of toddlers. Would the kids like the baked goods?

A 19-month-old daughter of one blogger tried playing peek-a-boo with me, but her hands were occupied by the banana bread, so she simply turned her head side to side in a modified version of the game. Her mouth was occupied too, seeming to savor every bite of the banana bread. I had to agree with her. It was pretty tasty, with just the right amount of crunch on the crust surrounding an otherwise moist bread. Shelton said they used as little flour as possible among the 12 ingredients, which at times meant the bread would barely hold together during testing. The banana taste was faint, but it still was my favorite among the five offerings.

It didn’t taste nearly as sinful as the cheese croissant. ;”It’s butter,” Shelton said about the croissant. “It’s a lot of butter.” It was fabulous, but it couldn’t possibly be in my regular breakfast rotation, in much the same way the beloved sausage biscuit is not on my personal menu regularly. My daily fight against cholesterol would surely be lost if the cheese croissant was in my commuting breakfast repetoire. It has 14 grams of saturated fat, which is 70 percent of the recommended daily allowance, according to the nutritional labels that were shared with us. Be still, my clogging heart. The way Shelton described the ingredients — a “big block” of croissant dough, a “big block” of butter and sweetened cream cheese — made my LDL dance with joy. Don’t get me wrong. Each bite was a dreamy mouthful. Even before Shelton described the care that went into making the croissant light and airy, I could tell this was no ordinary fast-food croissant. It will be interesting to see how airy they are at the restaurants when I do get around to indulging in such breakfast decadence once in a long while.

The aforementioned 19-month-old also appeared to like the miniature vanilla scones. They were a shade too sweet for my taste. Nevertheless, I know our small army of boys will love the scones when they have a chance to try them. I will describe them to the boys as iced Munchkins — two words that go very well with their palettes. One bite, and they will be hooked and learn to connote the word scone with other breakfast treats they like. The 3-scone serving size packs a caloric whallop, though. They make the cheese croissant seem light by comparison: 420 calories for the scones serving, 380 for the croissant. I am already feeling as if I can increase my croissant allowance.

The lightest item among the offerings is the 280-calorie multi-grain berry muffin. It also has only 6 grams of fat total, with 1 gram being saturated — a much better fit for my diet. It would be impossible to eat cleanly while driving, though. As it was, I got a small berry stain on my pants while sampling in a much more controlled setting than my driver’s seat. No wonder I was at the kids’ table! That said, this muffin ran a close second to my banana bread favorite. Anytime you can mix crunchy grains with a moist breakfast food, I am all in. One bite and I was immediately ;nostalgic ;as my culinary imagination whisked me to Fog Island Cafe on Nantucket for my favorite “Trail Cakes.”

I have to bet the McDonald’s multi-grain muffin and its simpler blueberry sibling are much better for me than the Fog Island breakfast, and more cost effective too. Becker said McDonald’s restaurant operators have been advised to price the bakery items between $1.59 and $1.89. Bundle it with a small coffee (Newman’s Own Organic, of course, already a regular staple in the Commuter Daddy road diet), and you’ve got breakfast for under $3.

The better news? The bakery items are available all day, unlike most of the rest of the McDonald’s breakfast menu, which is unavailable after 10 or 11 a.m., depending on where you are and whether it is a weekday or weekend.

One blogger pointed out that the items being showcased were akin to offerings at Panera, with the added bonus of the McDonald’s drive-thru. No longer is a sports parent required to shepherd some or all of the family from vehicle to restaurant and back again to get some something other than Pop Tarts and sugary cereals into the kids’ gullets. Drive up, place order, get served, distribute food, and voila! Multi-tasking zen achieved with at least twenty minutes gained. Becker said 60 percent of McDonald’s business is conducted via its drive-through window. We parents and commuters can vouch for that.

One of the bloggers in attendance asked the McDonald’s representative whether the company has added the baked goods as part of a strategy to compete more directly against Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts. Becker deftly side-stepped the question twice, bringing focus back to the McDonald’s variety, affordability and all-natural ingredients, without explicitly stating against whom those value propositions should be applied.

But make no mistake. The breakfast and freshness race is on. Certainly Starbucks perceives McDonald’s as infringing on its market share. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that similar feelings are held by McDonald’s executives.

Bad news for those outside of New England, though. These baked goods are strictly a Northeast offering for the moment. Becker said breakfast tastes vary greatly by region, and while McDonald’s would like to test something in Chicago based on their New England success to-date, they are proceeding slowly and cautiously. It’s not often that McDonald’s offers regional products (plus or minus a ;McLobster), so there seems to be an extra dose of caution being applied.

From the commuter perspective, these offerings are not ideal drive-and-eat fodder. They won’t score well on the Commuter Snack Index that is in the works (more to come), but not many baked goods will score highly, no matter the origin. So that’s not a knock on McDonald’s. These latest offerings are, however, ideal grab-and-go food for everyone else in the car. There’s sure to be something that finnecky kids will like and can pair with a smoothie for a pretty well balanced meal when contrasted against other McDonald’s breakfast options.

Sure, they look and are delicious, but for my long-term health give me the multi-gran berry muffin any day.

Also in attendance today:
As Cape Cod Turns
Being Loopy
Capability : Mom
Charlene Chronicles
Don’t Mind the Mess
Natick Patch: Weekly Bites
Pragmatic Mom
Providence Journal Food Blog
Stowed Stuff
The Coupon Goddess
The Frugalette

Disclosures: I was not paid to attend today. Our hosts, SHIFT Communications, did pay for parking, and ;food and coffee were supplied for free. Each of us was also presented with a thank-you basket, containing a McCafe apron, small spiral-bound notebook and coupons. I would like to give away the coupons to the first 9 new people to like our Commuter Daddy Facebook page. Please send an email to to let me know you’ve added yourself among the Facebook fandom, and whether you’d like a free smoothie (2 available) or a free bakery item coupon (7 available).

Commuter Daddy Face Off: Austin vs. Middletown, NY

Monday morning commute
on the first full day
of Spring, 2011.

Looks like I got out of Dodge (a.k.a. Middletown, NY) just in time last night. More than half of a foot of snow is falling there today, on the heels of a couple of inches that accumulated (and swiftly melted) there, in the Poconos and beyond on Monday.

I’d like to blame the Supermoon. The full moon was so close to Earth over the weekend, its effects are lasting well into this week. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. It makes me feel better to chalk up our extended winter weather to episodic astrological events, rather than admit this is a normal spring in the Northeast.

The weather and other circumstances this week are a far cry from my road trip a week prior, when I was galavanting about Austin for SXSW Interactive. So in the spirit of Nick Bakay‘s “Tale of the Tape“, let’s pit March road trips to Austin versus those to the Hudson Valley. I think you can safely predict Austin will win, but let’s give it a go, shall we?

1. Gas prices:

  • This week I paid $63.62 to fill up the Commuterdaddymobile. I don’t recall ever spending that much on a tank of gas for my VW Passat. Heck, the pizza delivery for the family dinner the night before as about $10 cheaper.
  • Last week I rented a sweet Specialized Roubaix road bike instead of a car. Cycled to and from the Austin Convention Center from my Hampton Inn, just shy of five miles each way. In between sessions, I rode to a variety of eateries such as Juan Pelota Café at Mellow Johnny’s, or to far-flung panels at the Sheraton and University of Texas. There was one afternoon I had to race the sunset back to the hotel, but Daylight Savings Time saved me, extending the potential evening cycling time by an hour on Sunday. In the evenings, I was either hanging out with friends, or was hopping the SXSW hotel shuttles. The shuttle drivers were among the most interesting people I met at the conference. One was in the middle of securing investors for a neat sounding music app for mobile devices (there was an implied NDA in our conversation, so I will say no more than that). Another was putting her boys through college, and was moonlighting from her law enforcement day job by ferrying us SXSW revelers around town. We were in good hands.
  • Advantage: Austin.
2. Weather:
Enjoying the early spring scenery
in Austin prior to a  SXSW Interactive
session at the Hyatt.
  • Last week, I was wearing shorts daily. I managed to find some pairs of mountain bike shorts at REI that worked both for my bike commute and were sufficiently tasteful attire for the SXSW sessions. I did have to don rain pants and a light jack briefly one morning, but as soon as I started riding away from the hotel, the rain had stopped and the extra layer was no longer necessary.
  • This week the winter coat is still in heavy rotation. This morning, I was still wearing a hat to cover my ears for the early-morning dog walk. The 30- and 40-degree temperatures the last few weeks are not preventing me from riding my bike, but the snow predicted for Cape Cod tonight certainly mean there is a good chance I will not be riding tomorrow — at least not in the morning.
  • Advantage: Austin
3. Food:
Exerted will power
not to eat dessert
before the main course
at Annies Café & Bar
4. Hours:
  • Middletown: On the Monday mornings of my treks to Middletown, the alarm is typically set for 4:30 a.m. I hit the road by 5, and ideally arrive at the office around 10 a.m. The snow this past Monday made the arrival a little later, but otherwise everything was according to pattern. Tuesdays of my Middletown trips translate to sleeping in a bit. The alarm was set for 7:30 yesterday morning.
  • Austin: I stayed at the Doubletree Club in Boston the night before departing for Austin, in part to avoid getting up so early to make the drive from Cape Cod to Boston in time for my 6 a.m. flight. The other motivation is the parking included in the room rate, making it cheaper than parking for several days at the airport. Usually I stay either at the Embassy Suites or the Hilton at the airport, but this time I elected to stay off the airport property to get a bit of a break on the rate. One problem: The shuttles from the Doubletree depart at the top of the hour. To allow myself enough time to check my bag, waiting until 5 a.m. would have been cutting it close. So I chose the 4 a.m. shuttle. Alarm time? 3:45 a.m., which was roughly the same time I would have had to get up if I had stayed home.
  • Advantage: Middletown
5. Technology
  • For the Austin trip, I ditched the laptop. SXSW advice I read (or watched) prior to the trip advocated traveling as light as possible. So I decided this was an opportune time to travel with only my iPad and iPhone — especially given that I was carrying my bike helmet and shoes onto the plane. There was only once that I missed the laptop as I tried to do work in between or during conference sessions, and even then I was able to work around not having the laptop.
  • As soon as I arrived at the office in Middletown on Monday, I picked up the phone to call home to let the family know I had made it to my destination safely. I was immediately prompted for my long distance code. I rarely use my office phone for anything other than conference calls to a toll-free number, so I have not yet memorized my long distance code. I needed to look it up on my laptop. But when I awoke my laptop from sleep mode, it still thought it was conenected to the monitor at home, and therefore the start menu from which I usually fire up my password program was not visible. I had to reboot. While I did so, I tried using my mobile phone. How is it that the only time Verizon’s signal is not strong enough for my phone is when I am at either my home office or the Middletown office? All other places, I rarely experience dropped calls. In the two places I frequent the most? Dropped calls. Sure enough, as soon as my wife picked up the phone, the line went dead, causing her to worry slightly. She called me back, and the network again dropped the call. Sigh. Finally, laptop restarted and password program accessed, I could successfully dial out from my desk phone. All worry finally subsided.
  • Advantage: Austin, though it is not really Middletown’s fault that I haven’t yet put a password app on my phone. I have since memorized my long distance code too.
So there you have it. Austin wins 4-1. Sorry, Middletown. Better luck in August and September, when you’ll at least have a weather advantage.

Wrestling our kids in the nutrition ring

Just before leaving the house at god-awful-o-clock this morning, I filled my travel mug with timer-brewed coffee (bless that timer) and looked around quickly for something to eat while on the drive to Providence.

We were out of trail mix, and nothing was going to be open in town at that hour for me to pop in and grab a bag quickly. Homemade granola would be too messy, and there was no spare time for me to slather peanut butter on a couple of slices of bread, Dinner With Dad-style.

Enter the Pop Tart.

We always have a plentiful supply, because it is Mason’s breakfast staple. When there is no coffee cake, pancakes or cinnamon rolls to be had, he falls back to the Brown Sugar and Cinnamon variety of the breakfast pastry.

This morning, there were two unopened boxes in the cupboard, so I knew one package would not be missed. Out the door I went, coffee mug, Pop Tart, and car keys in hand.

Fast forward two hours. I am southbound on the Acela, and wondering why I am starving before the clock has even struck 7 a.m.

Now I understand why Pop Tarts are not on Harvard Medical School’s list of essential foods. They are more snack than breakfast. That led me to wonder how Mason functions at school with Pop Tarts as his daily breakfast. His metabolism is clearly faster than mine based on age alone, never mind how active he is. He must be hungry by the time he gets on the bus, never mind mid-morning in his classroom.

Brandy and I have been talking a lot lately about the food choices we make for our boys, and empowering them to make healthy choices for themselves when they get older. It’s a tough balance to strike. With Mason in particular, just getting him to eat is the challenge. For lunch, all he wants are Ritz crackers with peanut butter. For dinner? He’d choose chicken nuggets or hot dogs on alternating nights if left to his devices.

We’re actually doing OK on the dinner front. We persevere through a certain amount of grousing on some nights, but for the most part we’ve been successful with alternating chicken, steak, pork, hamburgers and sausage, with only occasional reliance on pizza, grilled cheese and frozen, prepackaged foods. Only one of the boys likes pasta or rice, so side dishes alternate between fresh peppers, carrots and celery; cooked broccoli, green beans or peapods; or fruit. Sometimes we’ll add crescent rolls or freshly baked bread to the mix.

Breakfasts and lunches are entirely different challenges, though, especially during the school year. Mornings are chaotic, and efficiency and conflict minimization probably dictate our choices most often. For lunches, we’re steering more toward packing the kids’ lunches rather than relying on them to fend for themselves in the cafeteria. With Mason in particular, though, that’s daunting. How do we get enough protein in him when he won’t eat sandwiches with deli meat and loathes the thought of tuna or egg salad?

It’s a constant wrestling match, and some days you can’t win. For example, Sam came home on the first day of school with a full lunch box. He decided to eat the chicken patty on the cafeteria menu instead. We sent that lunch box back to school with him the next day, reminding him to eat the packed lunch when provided and not to be tempted by the cafeteria offerings.

It’s enough to make us want to tear out our hair and empty out the school lunch accounts. That doesn’t feel right to us, but it would be effective.

And therein lies the parental nutrition conundrum: What’s right, versus what’s effective. That’s the balance we need to strike.

Easter’s aftermath leads to comfort food

You know what I love most about the days following Easter? Egg salad.

Don’t get me wrong. The cornucopia of candy meets with my sweet tooth’s approval. For example, this year Mason decided that he no longer likes Jelly Belly. That’s OK. More for me! That’s one of my roles at Easter: Mayor of Misfit Confection Island. I do it willingly, and I do it well.

It’s the egg salad, though, that is my primary source of Easter culinary joy. Egg salad has long been one of my favorite comfort foods, and there is no better time to indulge than after Easter, when something must be done with all of the colored eggs.

There are two egg salad camps in our family: Love and no way. Sam and Mason are not interested. Never had it. Never will. Brandy is with them. The mere sight of the mayonnaise abundance that goes into making egg salad turns her stomach.

So Benjamin and I comprise Team Egg Salad, and yesterday he even contributed to whipping up our lunch — with gusto. I cracked and peeled the eggs, and got the chopping started. Benjamin squeezed in the mayo, while I added a dollop of mustard. Benjamin paused to scoop a little bit of the mayo into his mouth, because even the youngest chefs taste-test along the way. Brandy averted her eyes.

While Benjamin stirred, I added liberal grinds of sea salt and pepper, and dropped a couple of slices of homemade bread into the toaster for me and did the same with a plain bagel for Benjamin. When the bread was ready, I spread the salad for my sandwich. Benjamin opted for an open-faced treatment, dropping a little bit of salad on his bagel in lieu of butter.

I’ve also been known to throw in some onions, and layer on some lettuce and sliced tomato, but honestly I prefer just egg salad on my sandwich, especially if the eggs or bread are warm. It takes me back to when my grandmother used to let me make egg salad in her kitchen using freshly boiled eggs (partially cooled, of course). My sister, Kimberly, and I would stay with our grandparents for weeks at a time during summer vacations, and while I certainly ate other kinds of sandwiches, my memory is flooded with egg salad and its association with good times on Cape Cod.

Lunch after swimming lessons at Pilgrim Lake? Egg salad was there. Nauset Beach picnic in the back of the Scout? Enter egg salad. Working lunch while selling blackberries/lemonade/pot holders at the end of the driveway? Egg salad.

That is the essence of comfort food: The memories that the meal inspires. As Benjamin took a bite of his slathered bagel, I could only hope his future egg salad lunches would spark fond memories of our shared home-office lunch hours.