7 foods to try with kids in northern Sweden

I grew up in northern Sweden, and since my kids were born, I go back there with them at least once a year to visit my parents and other friends and family. It's a beautiful part of the world, and though it might not be known for its cooking, there is some great food to try if you're in this part of the world.

This list is all fairly simple, even rustic, stuff, since much of it is old-school, traditional home-cooking. Depending on your child, most of of it is also quite kid-friendly.

My grandmother holding a plate of home-made palt.
1. Palt - Palt is the northern Swedish version of a boiled potato dumpling. It is made with grated raw potato, and flour, and is filled with diced, salted port. Traditionally it is served with butter and lingonberry jam. My son, often a picky eater, loves this dish. It is hearty, heavy food for sure, but definitely one of those dishes I miss from home.

Baking mjukkaka in a traditional oven.
2. Mjukkaka - There's nothing quite like fresh baked bread, and if you want to try a local bread, this is the one to go for in my opinion. Some enthusiasts still bake this bread themselves, the old-school way, by renting a "bagarstuga" "baker's house" with a brick oven, to prepare this traditional bread. It's a soft, round bread made from rye and wheat flour, and it is one of the most delicious things you can eat with nothing but butter on it. You can find this bread at any grocery store, but it tastes best if bought straight from the bakery. Visit the bakery in Kåge, buy it at the bakery house in Rismyrliden in the summer, or look for mjukkaka at the various craft markets around northern Sweden.

3. Filmjölk - The Swedish version of yogurt, this is one of the most common breakfast foods in all of Sweden. A bowl of filmjölk with cereal or muesli is how many Swedes start the day. Look for it in the grocery store, or at most buffet breakfasts at the hotels.

4. Hjortronsylt/cloudberry jam - Hjortron, AKA "the gold of the forest", AKA cloudberries, grow mainly in the marshy areas of the northern Swedish forests. They are one of my daughter's favorite berries, ever. (And that's saying something!) They have a slightly tart and very particular flavor, and they are delicious raw, when made into jam, or simply eaten with a bit of sugar. Many Swedes think they are especially good served warm over vanilla ice-cream.

5. Fläskpannkaka - This thick, oven-baked pancake (usually made with fried, salted pork) is a common dish in many homes in northern Sweden. You can also buy it ready-to-serve in many grocery stores. Swedes eat it with butter and jam. My favorite way of enjoying it is to cut up day-old pancake and fry it with some butter. Delicious. A recipe in English is available at the website Gretchen Cooks.

6. Renskav - Not all kids will take kindly to eating reindeer, but it really is delicious when cooked the right way. Renskav is thin-sliced reindeer meat that is usually sold frozen, and used to make stews. One simple way to prepare it is to fry the meat with some onions and mushrooms, salt and pepper to taste, and then pour in some heavy cream to make a gravy. Season with soy sauce if you like, and you have a wonderful dish. Boiled potatoes and lingonberries make a great accompaniment, and your kids might even like it (if they don't know they're eating Rudolph...)

7. Surströmming - No, your kids probably will not enjoy eating this canned, fermented herring, but they will certainly have a story to tell their friends when they get home! Surströmming smells so bad you will not believe people actually eat it, but they do. It is traditionally eaten on white crispbread with boiled potatoes and raw, chopped onions. This is not a dish for the faint of heart, but you will earn bragging rights if you can eat a couple of fillets!

Cloudberry jam photo thanks to user Ankara, at Wikimedia. Photo of renskav thanks to user Wikbigidy, at Wikimedia.

Flying with kids - dealing with anxiety & boredom

It will come as no surprise to most parents that different kids, even siblings, may handle airplane travel very differently. Just like with adults, their personalities and temperaments influence how they deal with air travel.

In my experience, the two main issues a parent ends up having to deal with is boredom (long flights are quite boring after all), and various levels of anxiety. Most kids will experience a combination of these two while on a long flight, but which of those two issues dominates, will depend on your child.

Like many people, both adults and children, my son was once a fearful air-traveller. He still is to some extent. At times when he was younger (he's 9 years old now), he was sometimes so fearful on the plane that he refused to put his seat-belt on (not a good thing), and insisted on curling up with his head on my lap for most of our flights (more manageable).

Any slight bump or shift in the plane, any little noise, would make him grip my hand so tight it almost hurt. At the same time, he has also always been extremely fascinated by aircraft and what is going on during the flight. He pays attention to every little sound and movement the plane makes: wheels going up, engine noise changing, wing flaps moving, and so on.

Since he was a baby he has travelled at least once a year by plane, often more than once, and often on very long flights between our home in western Canada and Sweden. Several things have helped reduce his anxiety over the years, and here are some of the things I've found especially useful:
  • Practice - Obviously, going on airplanes a lot has helped him get used to it which is often helpful when it comes to reducing fearfulness.
  • Preparation - Talking about our trip ahead of time, and going through the various steps of it (check-in, security, waiting at the gate, boarding, and so on) so that he knows what to expect, really helps him get ready for travel. Knowing what is going to happen helps him deal with the anxiety.
  • Learning about planes & airports - This has also been helpful. Reading books about airports and airplanes has made him more knowledgeable, which also helps reduce his fears. Knowing why the wing-flaps move, and what the strange noises are when the wheels come up, has really helped him. Now when he's on the plane, he might still grip my hand when he hears the strange noises, but he will also tell me what that noise probably is. Knowledge really is power in this case.
  • Having a routine on board - My son loves his routine, and we now sort of have a routine for what we do at the airport before boarding, and what we do on the plane. Once we're in our seats, there's a whole ritual of taking shoes off, stowing hand-luggage, finding a blanket and pillow for everyone, and so on. This has also helped him feel more in control and less anxious.

The website Stress Free Kids has some great tips and resources for anxious children.

My daughter, now 5 years old, has never seemed particularly anxious about air-travel. Unless there's turbulence, she displays little to no interest in what the airplane is up to. She's more interested in what goodies she might find in her seat pocket, what movies are playing on her entertainment screen, and if the airline will hand out any "activity packs" to the children on the flight.

The main challenge with her is usually not anxiety, but overcoming the boredom of a long flight.

For my son, I don't worry so much about bringing toys and activities along (though I do bring some). He's so interested in what is going on with the plane, or watching what is going on the tarmac if we're at the airport, that he doesn't really need any other entertainment. The movies and TV-shows available on the plane are usually enough for him. For my daughter however, I know I need to come well prepared.

Here are some strategies I've found that work for her:
  • Bringing activities she doesn't know about - I always let her pack some toys for herself on the plane, and that usually ends up being a LOT of stuffed animals. However, I also always pack some things for her without telling her what they are before the trip. That way, I can break down the boredom by popping out a new sticker book, or a pack of crayons she hasn't seen before.
  • Playing simple games - Right now, her new fascination is rock, paper, scissors, and this will make quite an excellent on-board game. Other simple games like tic-tac-toe, 20 questions, or rhyming or storytelling games are excellent too.
  • Packing some treats - Unexpected treats can also help break up the tedium of a long flight. Yes, this does sometime involve feeding her candy, but it's worth it if it takes the edge of her restlessness for a little bit.
  • Reinforcing rules ahead of time - When my daughter is bored and tired, she does not always behave like an exemplary child (shocking, I know...). That's to be expected on a very long flight involving cramped seats and jet-lag. But to make our travels easier, I always go through the basic rules of behavior on board before we get on the plane: don't kick the seat, don't play with the tray-table, and don't scream. I go through them with my son as well, but she is the one (partly because of her age) who might need that special reminder about what goes and what doesn't.
As for myself, I try to prepare for long flights too. I remind myself that it's not just an ordeal: it can be exciting too, and we're going on that long trip because we're going somewhere fun. It's sometimes easy to lose sight of that fact that a long trip can be an adventure as well as a trial of endurance!

And I always remind myself that whatever happens with the kids, it's probably something that will eventually pass, and that eventually we will arrive at our destination, and eventually that long flight will be over and done with. "This too shall pass" is a good traveling mantra!

Traveling with kids: 5 useful items for our next trip

I am traveling with my kids again this summer, heading over to Sweden to stay with family and friends. As always, travel fever does set in early at my house. That comes from being a big fan of planning ahead I think: so many to-do and to-pack lists right now!

Here are 5 very useful things I just bought to bring along on our next plane-trip to Sweden:

Sunscreen spray
We go through a lot of sunscreen this time of year, and I really like this brand. It's easy to use on the kids even at the beach since it requires no rubbing, only spraying, and the bottle even works if held upside down. It's also very water- and rub-proof. I wish this particular one was also unscented, but you can't always get everything you want. For more of my sunscreen tips, you can read Sun protection for traveling (and non-traveling) kids.

Antibacterial wipes
These are a must on flights with kids. Airplanes and airports are dirty, and it is very easy to pick up a cold or stomach bug when you're traveling with so many people in such a small space. I use these on all of our hands after any bathroom visits, and before any meals. And every now and then in-between! The wipes are also handy to use to wipe down a tray table, or other small area.

Voice & text package
International travel means it can cost a lot to use your cellphone. I've bought a text and voice pack from my provider, that will give me a much better rate than I would otherwise get. Definitely an important thing to think of if you're traveling abroad. For more tips on cellphone usage abroad, you can read my post from earlier this year about how to use your cellphone while traveling, without paying a fortune: Cell-phone tips & apps.

Some nice luggage tags
All our luggage now have some nice, durable luggage tags with our contact information printed on a piece of paper slipped inside the tag. If our luggage ends up where it shouldn't be, this will hopefully make it easier for people to return it to us. The flashy Canadian flag on the tags also makes it easy to identify our luggage on the luggage carousel.

A pack of ziploc bags
Readers of this blog might already be aware that I love ziploc bags for travel (you can read my post 8 uses for zip-loc bags when traveling with kids for a refresher!). And yes, I have picked up some for our next trip. The main use for these is to hold any and all liquids in my on-board miniature pharmacy, but they have many other uses as well: holding coins and bills of various currencies, and organizing passports and travel documents for example.

Fun with kids in Sweden: celebrating Midsummer

The actual summer solstice, also known as the longest day of the year, occurred on June 20th in the northern hemisphere this year. However, in Sweden the real Midsummer celebrations are happening today, June 22nd. Officially, the day of Swedish Midsummer's Eve is always the Friday that falls between June 19th and June 26th in any given year.

In Sweden, Midsummer's Eve almost rivals Christmas as the most popular and celebrated holiday of the year. It's a huge, nation-wide, party, and if you're visiting the country during this time, you should absolutely try to attend a Midsummer's Eve event if you can. Fair warning: there is excessive drinking at some Midsummer celebrations (especially any parties involving young adults...), but as long as you find a family-oriented event it is a lot of fun for kids.

Midsummer at Skansen in Stockholm, Sweden.

Many visitors to Sweden end up in Stockholm, and if you're there, you can always head to Skansen for a taste of Swedish Midsummer.

For most Swedes, the ideal Midsummer celebration would include warm, sunny weather (this does not always happen: I've celebrated Midsummer's Eve in a winter-coat), and heading out in the countryside, preferably to a summer-house or cabin. Not everyone celebrates it exactly the same way, but there are some things that are usually present:
  • A midsummer's pole or may-pole - Essentially a tall pole that is dressed up with green leaves and flowers, sometimes ribbons and other decorations too. Often people will dance around the pole.
  • Special songs and dances - There are lots of traditional games and dances that are performed at big events, and even small family get-togethers. Usually "Små grodorna" ("Little Frogs") is part of the dancing and singing. This dance involves a lot of jumping around pretending to be a frog, while singing about how frogs have no ears or tails. Yes, it's silly, but kids love it.
  • Food and drink - Pickled herring, fresh strawberries, new potatoes, and Swedish "snaps" (very strong alcoholic beverage) for the adults is usually present. These days, many people also include a barbecue as part of the celebration.
  • Picking wild flowers - You can pick flowers to decorate the pole, and to make wreaths for your hair. You can also get right into some old folklore and pick seven kinds of flowers (while being absolutely silent) and then put them under your pillow when you go to bed. This is supposed to make you dream of the person you will marry.
  • Staying up late - If you're north of the Arctic circle, you might experience the midnight sun, but even south of that the nights are very short this time of the year, and not all that dark. Staying up really late and just experiencing the magic light of that twilight between dusk and dawn is a pretty special thing.
Visit Sweden has lots of great tips and information about Swedish midsummer and where and how to celebrate it if you're in Sweden. For some general information about this holiday, you can also read this Wikipedia entry.

Photo thanks to Skansen's website.

Flying with my kids: inside a child's carry-on

What to bring in your own carry-on is one challenge when flying with kids. Another challenge when flying with kids that are old enough to bring their own carry-ons, is supervising what exactly is going into those bags.

What not to bring & what to definitely bring
My kids are now 5 and 9, and each brings a wheeled backpack as hand-luggage. They're old enough now that I can allow them to bring pick out some favorite toys and books to bring, but I still have absolute mommy veto-power. I will remove any items that are:
  • messy
  • noisy
  • have tiny parts that can go missing
  • too big or heavy
  • pointy or sharp
I always make sure any can't-live-without comfort items come along as well. For my son, this means any hand-puppet that can help him overcome any anxiety and boredom on board. In my daughter's case this means her blue blanket: she still can't sleep without it. When she was younger it also included her soother and her soother-strap.

Carry-on challenges
It is wise to pay attention to what they pack. My kids once managed to sneak a very large plastic triceratops with very sharp horns into my son's carry-on. The security screener manning the x-ray machine did remove it to inspect it, but he allowed them to keep it. Since then, I do a thorough check of the backpacks before we go to the airport!

Another challenge I face with my daughter is limiting how many toys she brings. She loves stuffed animals, and would like to bring about 30 or 40 on each trip. I usually tell her 5 is the limit, and then we end up carting along 10 or so...

One thing I did find helpful to control this over-zealous packing, was to read Too Much Stuff! by Robert Munsch. The main character does pack so many toys she can barely carry her backpack, and I can now reference that story when I joke around with my daughter about bringing too many toys on board.

Mommy's picks
For long flights, I also pack some things into their carry-ons myself, to lighten my own hand-luggage load. These items usually include:
  • snack foods
  • a change of clothes for each child
  • litterless juice boxes
  • some parent-chosen books and activities that the kids might not think they want, but that I know from experience they'll miss if they're not there
Right now, I'm putting together some activity bags for the kids for our next trip. Here are a few things I will definitely be including:

Traveling with kids: educational & fun activity books

Like most parents, I really love toys, books and activities for my kids that combine fun and some educational value. And if it's something that my kids love, is easy to pack, and can keep them entertained for long periods of time, then it's perfect to bring along on a flight.

My daughter (who is five), has recently fallen in love with a puzzle-book called The Great Dinosaur Search. It is part of a series of books called Great Searches, by Usborne books. We have only checked out the dinosaur version so far, but other titles are  The Big Bug Search, The Great Undersea Search, Great Planet Earth Search, and I'm pretty sure we will be looking at all of them at one point or another.

The idea of these books is to find various items on each page. There are about 100 things to look for on every page, and around the picture are descriptions of each creature, plant, or whatever else you have to find. This also tells you how many of each thing you are supposed to find in the picture.

In the dinosaur books, there is also a short paragraph on each page with general information about a certain prehistoric era. My daughter loves the book. She loves learning about dinosaurs, and she loves trying to find all the creatures in all the pictures. At the very end of the book there is also a short quiz related to things you've learned from the book, and she also loves that part of it.

This book is definitely coming along on our next flight. It's easy to carry, and it can keep her occupied for a long time. All in all, a highly recommended travel activity book!

Return journeys - when one place is enough

I love traveling and seeing new places. It's an adventure to get off a plane or a train or out of your car, and look around to explore a place where you've never been.

This photo was taken at midnight, in July.
But there are also places that you just love to return to. Places where you feel at home, or happy, or just plain good. My parents' summer house in northern Sweden is one of those places for me.

It's a beautiful place on the Bay of Bothnia. It has its own small beach and you can swim in the water, which is brackish rather than salty. There are neighbors along the shoreline, but it's still private and secluded.

The kids love it because they get to go swimming and fishing, they can play in the sand, pick blueberries in the woods, find frogs in the pond and see the hare grazing in the morning.

In the winter, the place is not as inviting perhaps, but it's still beautiful in it's own way.

Much of northern Sweden is like that in the winter months: foreboding, dark, often cold, and with a sense that nature has shut down operations until the sun returns.

And when the sun eventually does come back, so do the kids. They're already asking about when it's time to go there again.

So many places to go in the world, so many destinations to see and experience, yet some places are good enough to revisit again and again.
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