~Guest Blog Courtesy of Lt. Col. (Dr.) Amy Costello, MD, MPH, FAAP

Settling into a new school year can be hectic, especially for military families, as parents and children acclimate to new schedules and – for some – new living environments.

At such a busy and mentally stressful time of the year, planning out healthy meals – including school lunches – may not be easy or a top priority. Yet providing your children with well-balanced, nutritious meals and snacks during the school day can help boost their mental and physical performance, as well as avoid future problems with weight management and health complications like diabetes.

So how can you quickly and easily pack a lunch that’s both appealing and healthy for your children?

For starters, make sure it contains a balance of fruits, whole grains, vegetables, lean protein and low-fat dairy as shown in the USDA’s My Plate Kid’s Place. Besides fueling your children’s bodies with essential vitamins and minerals, you’ll be giving them plenty of healthy energy to perform well in the classroom and on the playground.

The more visually pleasing you can make the meal, the better the chances that your children will enjoy it. The National Institute of Health’s “We Can” Initiative has several helpful tips, such as choosing foods with a variety of colors like sweet peppers, carrots, cucumbers and apples with low-fat dips. Use whole wheat or multi-grain bread instead of white, and add mustard or hummus with low-fat cheeses and deli meats like turkey. Opt for water or no- or low-fat milk instead of sugary juices or soda. Finally, pack all of the items in a bento-style lunch box or an insulated lunch bag with containers in various shapes and sizes to make the meal look interesting.

Although taking your children grocery shopping to the commissary, supermarket or local farmer’s market may not be your idea of fun, it provides you with the opportunity to teach them to be healthy and learn to be self-sufficient. Try pointing out healthy foods to them, or, if they are old enough, send them on a hunt for the healthiest options of the foods they want to take in their lunches. Letting them help with selecting their foods also helps ensure they want to eat them or are willing to try them. And even younger children can start packing their own lunches under your supervision. You will appreciate their increasing independence as they begin to take responsibility for their own healthy choices!

Providing your children with money to purchase school lunches is okay as long as you study each week’s menu with them and decide together what healthy food choices they should make.

Following these simple rules of thumb can relieve some of the pressure of the back-to-school period while helping your children to develop healthy minds and bodies.

For additional information, DoD’s Operation Live Well initiative recommends the following resources for your back-to-school lunch planning:

Army and Air Force Exchange Service’s Operation Be Fit: Keep Summer Lunches Fun
Defense Commissary Agency:  Commissaries Offer “Back to School” Savings
Let’s Move’s Epicurious 2013 Healthy Lunchtime Challenge Cookbook
Let’s Move Healthy and Kid-Friendly Recipes to Try at Home
Military OneSource – Eating Healthy
National Institute of Health’s “We Can” Eat Right
Operation Live Well’s Recipes & Healthy Eating

Lt. Col. (Dr.) Amy Costello, MD, MPH, FAAP, serves as Pediatrician and Chief, Immunization Policy with the Air Force Medical Support Agency. She’s the mother of three children.

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SoilSoil fertility is the foundation for healthy grass.  If your lawn is already established, improving soil quality is more challenging than if you are growing a new lawn.  To boost the health and appearance of an existing lawn, follow these tips on how to improve soil quality.  A fertilization technique called top-dressing can increase your soil fertility without damaging your grass.  Early autumn is the best time to top-dress your lawn because it will allow your grass to grow before winter hits.

Dethatching

The first step to increasing soil fertility is to remove excess thatch, a layer of organic debris that can build up on top of the soil.  Thatch is considered excessive when it’s more than half an inch thick.  The layer can block air, water and sunlight from the grass and inhibit its growth.  It also can make your lawn more susceptible to disease and insect infestation.  You can use a dethatching rake or a power dethatcher to get rid of the debris.

Long grass is one of the main causes of thatch.  To help prevent thatch from accumulating, use a mulching lawn mower to trim your grass to the appropriate height.  Keeping your mower blades sharp will further protect your lawn against pests and disease.

Aeration

The next step to improving soil quality is core aeration, which involves removing plugs of soil from your lawn.  You should aerate your lawn every one to three years to reduce soil compaction, which makes it difficult for air, water and nutrients to reach grass roots.  Aerating also promotes deeper root growth, which makes your lawn thicker and less vulnerable to drought.

Early fall is an ideal time to aerate your lawn because the grass is still growing and the soil tends to be moist, making the plugs easier to remove.  To aerate your lawn, you can put an aerator attachment on your garden tiller.  Before you begin, you should mark off any sprinkler heads, invisible pet fencing, and shallow pipes and electrical lines in your yard.

Soil fertilization

After you’ve aerated your lawn, you’ll need to prepare a top-dressing. To determine what kind of top-dressing will maximize your soil fertility, you’ll need to test your soil. One of the easiest ways to do this is to perform a “squeeze test.”  Take a handful of soil from your lawn.  To get an accurate reading of your soil’s texture and composition, the sample should be moist but not wet.

If the soil retains its shape and crumbles when you poke it, it is loamy.  Loamy soil, which is a balanced combination of clay, silt and sand, provides the best environment for lawn growth.  If it retains its shape but does not crumble when you poke it, it is clay soil.  If it crumbles when you open your hand, it is sandy soil.

Once you’ve tested your soil, make top-dressing using a mixture of the following ingredients: sharp sand (not beach sand), loam or topsoil, and peat or compost.  The kind of soil you have will determine what proportion of ingredients will provide optimum soil fertilization.  For loamy soil, use an equal amount of each ingredient.  For clay soil, use little or no loam or topsoil.  For sandy soil, use little or no sand.  Make each top-dressing to spread a half-inch layer over your entire lawn.

Sift your mixture and make sure it is dry and free of large clumps.  Use a shovel to spread it over your lawn, filling aeration holes and covering thin or bare spots.  Rake the top-dressing into your lawn until you can see your grass through it.  To get the most out of your soil fertilization treatment, water your lawn thoroughly after you top-dress it.

*Content Courtesy of Troy-Bilt; find them on Facebook and Twitter. Look for Troy-Bilt products at your Exchange.

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by Christina, Army Spouse and Exchange Guest Blogger

Relationships are the ties that bind. They keep us connected to one another. More or less, they are the sticky glue in our lives! Maintaining that sticky glue can prove difficult when you add distance to the equation. 

Normality as you know it has been shattered in an instant. You now have to make adaptions to your new way of life. The means by which you communicate is one of the biggest adaptions you will make during this period. Since you can’t talk to your soldier in person, you will have to make do with what tools you have at your disposal.

Oftentimes your soldier can sign up when their unit does video conferencing. This provides loved ones with a face-to-face chat session. It doesn’t last very long, but any moment you get to see and hear your soldier is a cherished moment. I know when I had those video sessions I savored every minute of it!

Another means of communication is Skyping! This program is a wonderous thing to use when you have to. It lets you video/audio chat with your soldier for free. You can just audio chat if you choose to do so. What I think is neat is that you can call landline phones as well! This is a very useful program to use to keep in touch with your soldier if you are allowed to, and you can even keep in touch with family members!

I don’t care what anyone says, I love me some good ol’ snail mail! No matter how far technology advances, there is nothing like holding a piece of paper in your hand and knowing your soldier held it, too! I relished getting snail mail. Sometimes, my spouse would put cologne on it, which made me feel much closer to him. A smell can capture a precious moment in time and upon smelling that scent again, it can bring that very moment back. It’s in these depths that you can find your peace. Any sense of relief goes a long way in these types of situations.

It was essential for me to have some form of communication with my husband because it gave me some semblance of peace in my heart and mind. Nothing will ever take the pain away, but there are definite ways of dulling that heartache. Deployments of any kind are a definite hardship. There are going to be roller coasters of emotions throughout the duration of your soldier’s absence. The trick is finding your groove and in time, you will!

How do you keep in touch with loved ones far away? Post your tips below. To be an Exchange Guest Blogger, click here.

The opinions expressed in this guest blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Army & Air Force Exchange Service.

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Stay Fit Sweepstakes

August 9, 2013

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Who says you can’t exercise while having fun?

Whether it’s Zumba, playing a pick up game of football, or jogging with your best bud, there are countless ways to exercise and stay in shape. To us and our friends at Brooks, staying healthy isn’t just important–it’s a way of life. That’s why we’ve partnered to give 8 of you a $100 Exchange Gift Card each for telling us how you stay fit.

To enter for your chance to win, post how you like to stay fit as a comment to this blog post no later than 2359 hours CST on 30 August 2013. Your post must include your full name (including middle initial), mailing address, email address, and phone number to be eligible to win. Personal information in your entry will be kept to contact you if you are a winner; it will be removed before your entry is made public on this blog.

So go ahead–tell us how you stay fit…and we’ll tell you if you’ve won.

*Click here for full sweepstakes rules.

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by Michelle, Military Spouse and Exchange Guest Blogger

As a stay-at-home mom and military spouse living on one budget, I know how tough it can be budgeting for groceries and paying bills each month.  I’ve become quite the frugal shopper and have come up with a few tips to help ease the crunch and help you save money so you can splurge every once and a while.

Shop at the Commissary and Exchange
One of the greatest perks that military spouses have is getting great discounts on brand-name items at their base Exchange, tax-free. Plus, if you compare apples to apples, the Exchange has lower prices than their off-post competitors. Even if you do find a cheaper price at a retailer off-base, take the ad into your Exchange and they will price match! And as for grocery shopping, shopping at the Commissary actually saves you about 30% or more than the local grocery stores!

Military Discounts
This is definitely one perk of military life that you’ll want to take advantage of. Several stores, restaurants, car dealerships, and even insurance companies offer military discounts. Do some research online to see if your favorite store offers a military discount, and even email them or give them a call. It doesn’t hurt to ask.

Childcare Discounts
With monetary assistance from NACCRRA {the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies}, you’ll be able to save significantly on daycare expenses. They do participate with on-post childcare; however, you may want to have a backup, as there can be a waitlist for on-post care. For married soldiers, the spouse must be working, looking for work, or attending school in order to be eligible for this program.

Collecting Unemployment
If you are a working military spouse and your husband has received orders to transfer to another duty station, you may be eligible for unemployment benefits because your decision to leave your job was not any fault of your own. You will need to check with your state’s unemployment agency to see if you qualify. You’ll also need to apply and fill out a lengthy questionnaire as to why you quit and attach a copy of your notice-to-quit and spouse’s orders. If you are approved, depending on your state’s unemployment guidelines, you will need to show proof that you are looking for work each week.

What tips do you have for staying on a Military Budget? Post them below! To be an Exchange Guest Blogger, click here.

The opinions expressed in this guest blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Army & Air Force Exchange Service.

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GlycerinOrange2Running is a great way to stay in shape, but can lead to injuries if we aren’t careful. Keep these 5 things in mind to help yourself avoid running-related injuries:

Get to know your feet and how you run. In order to find the right shoe for you, your width, size, and arch type need to be accurately evaluated and understood.

Get the right shoes for your feet.  Taking the time to get properly fitted is essential to injury prevention.  Keep in mind that your foot size and shape can change over time.

Get started on the right foot. Have a strategy for running – here are some tips:

i.      Have a goal
ii.     Start a training log
iii.    Hydrate yourself
iv.     Pace yourself
v.      Be sure to cool down

GlycerinPink2

Be aware of your body and how it works. Correct movements are the key to safe and fast running.  Work on your running technique and try to avoid over-striding or striking heavily on your heels.

Listen to your feet, ankles, knees, etc. At the first sign of any foot injury, always ice the sore spots right away and consult a doctor.  Icing speeds recovery and helps you return to activity faster.

These are some ways you can help prevent running injuries; post any other tips you have as a comment below.

P.S. Stay tuned for the Stay Fit Sweepstakes where you’ll have a chance to win 1 of 8 $100 Exchange Gift Cards, sponsored by Brooks! Visit this site starting Friday (9 August) to enter.

*Content sponsored by Brooks.

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Summer is here and with it, stronger UV rays. The sun is one of the biggest culprits of skin damage–it’s been estimated it’s responsible for 90% of total damage to your skin. It’s also cumulative, which means every burn and tanning session contributes to an overall damage to your skin that is currently irreversible–wrinkles, brown spots, sagging, etc. How you protect your skin today plays a large role in how you look tomorrow and in years to come. Keep the following tips in mind to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays.

Wear Sunscreen. It’s recommended we wear a sunscreen every day that is SPF 30 or higher. Slather it on before you get dressed; this makes it easier for you to not miss spots. Remember it takes about 30 minutes for it to soak in and start its effect. It’s advisable to get a special one for your face to avoid clogged pores, etc. and to buy new sunscreen each year to avoid using expired ones. Keeping small bottles in key places like purses and cars will help you reapply as needed…don’t forget your ears and scalp (there are spray sunscreens for where your hair parts).

Beware of Sheer Materials. Sheer material on clothing, pop-up tents or canopies does not shield you as thoroughly from the sun as do solid materials. You can still get sunburned from sitting under a sheer canopy!

Put a Hat On. Cancer commonly forms on the scalp; an easy way to help avoid this is by wearing a hat. Check out the hat istock_Beach_000014274821largeassortment at your local Exchange or on our online site for a stylish one!

Wear sunglasses. Look for a pair that specifically state they block 100% UV radiation. Otherwise, they aren’t protecting your eyes. Not to mention, a good pair of shades adds style to your look.

Look for SPF Lip Balm. Many people often forget about their lips; wearing a lip balm that has at least SPF 15 helps protect lips against the sun, while keeping them moisturized during hot days.

Wear White. Sometimes, wearing a lightweight, white blouse is more refreshing than a black tank-top since the color reflects the sun (and heat) away from you while covering more of your skin (and therefore protecting against burns).

Ask about Sun-Protecting Contacts. There are now contact lenses that shield your eyes from UV radiation; ask about them at your next eye appointment if you wear contact lenses.

Avoid being in the Sun During Peak Times. The sun’s rays are the strongest from 10 AM to 3 PM; avoid being in the sun during those times when possible.

Understand the Risks of Tanning Beds. Understand that tanning beds do cause skin damage for many years to come. A great alternative is sunless tanning lotion–formulas have become so sophisticated your tan looks very natural. Visit our online site and type “St. Tropez” into the search bar. This is a new sunless tanning system recently added to our assortment.

Perform Self Exams. Watch for new or irregular moles and abnormal skin changes. Check with your dermatologist or doctor for more information and guidance on doing this.

These tips (and items) will help you protect against the sun’s damage and keep your skin healthy and youthful. Remember, it’s been estimated that 80% of a person’s lifetime sun exposure is acquired before age 18. If you’re a parent, be a good role model and foster skin cancer prevention habits in your child at an early age–they will thank you when they’re older!

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by Amanda, Military Spouse and Exchange Guest Blogger

We all hear about how soldiers coming back from a deployment are different. The things they endure, the things they see and participate in, through no fault of their own, changes who they are. But we hardly hear about how a deployment changes a spouse who is back home. I didn’t fight in a war, my life was never truly in danger, and I still had all the comforts of home. But being alone for 15 months, being both mom and dad, and doing everything on my own…that all changed who I am.

Deployments shake every aspect of your life to its very core. Things that you thought you could never do suddenly become second nature. I never thought I could raise my kids on my own, but I did it for 2 deployments. The first was 13 months, the second was almost 15. I’ve been rocked by random knocks on the door by men in uniform, only to open it and find it was an MP looking for a neighbor. I’ve been on the other end of a phone call where sirens suddenly go off, my husband yells, and the line goes dead. I’ve gone through periods of no phone calls, no emails, and I still had to wake up, take care of a house and several small children. I know the answer to questions I never wanted to have to ask. I know where he wants to be buried, who he wants to carry his casket, and what songs he wants played at his funeral. I’ve been to the airport to both welcome him home, and watch him walk away again. The joy and relief felt at welcome home ceremonies is overwhelming.

I’m not in the Army, but deployments changed who I am. I no longer take the little things for granted. It’s amazing how well you learn to communicate when sometimes you have to do it in a 15 minute phone call. I no longer complain when he kicks his feet to fall asleep–a habit that used to drive me nuts. And most nights, if I can do it without waking him up, I lay my hand on his chest just to feel it rise and fall with every breath, and to feel the steady heartbeat inside. Those are little things that I missed the most. No, I am not who I am before the deployments. I like to think that I’m wiser, more appreciative, and STRONGER.

Want to be an Exchange Guest Blogger? Find details here.

The opinions expressed in this guest blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Army & Air Force Exchange Service.

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lawn2

Avoid scalping the lawn.

Cutting your lawn too short may save you more time between cuttings, but you can burn out the grass, leaving ugly brown spots on the lawn.  Rule of thumb: never reduce the height of your grass by more than 1/3 when mowing.  The grass uses its extra length to absorb the sun to grow into a healthy plant.

Recycle the clippings.

Not only does this save time and energy (versus bagging), but leaving the clippings on the lawn after you mow adds vital nutrients back into the soil after it decomposes.  And, if you have the proper mowing height set, the clippings will quickly break down.

Sharpen your blades.

Roughly once a season, make sure to sharpen your mower blades to get the smoothest cut.  Dull blades tear at the grass, rather than slice, leaving jagged brown lines across the tip of cut grass.  If you are unsure if your blades are sharp enough, just take a look for that brown line after a fresh cut.

Get out the sprinkler.

Most grasses require 1″ to 1.5″ of water per week, which moistens the soil 4″ to 6″ below the surface.  Be careful not to over water beacuse flooding can cause major damage to your lawn.  And remember to water less often, more thoroughly for best results.

Invest in a well-balanced fertilizer.

A well-balanced fertilizer is one small step to help thicken and brighten your lawn.  Unlike watering, fertilizing is recommended only four times per year, but it does wonders for your lawn.  If you are concerned about the safety of kids or pets with fertilizer on the grass, look for an organic or organic-based fertilizer that is completely free from potentially harmful insecticides and pesticides.  Kids and pets can play immediately after application.

Follow up with your lawn.

Consistent, small maintenance is the best way to keep your lawn looking luscious. If you see a bare spot, throw some grass seed down to fill the spot. Spot treat for annoying weeds such as crab grass with a pre-emergent chemical or herbicide.  The good news is that most lawns don’t need a major overhaul to look beautiful.

*Content courtesy of Troy-Bilt; find them on Facebook and Twitter and look for Troy-Bilt products at your Exchange.

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