Make Use of That Bike Share!

If you haven’t ridden a bike in what seems like forever, this fall could be the perfect time to go for a ride and feel the wind in your hair.

Bike shares are becoming available in cities all over the state, making biking more accessible to communities. These programs typically have bike racks placed around the city. You can use an app to pay and unlock a bike for a desired amount of time.

New and existing bike shares

Two examples of cities in upstate N.Y. with bike shares are Rochester and Syracuse. Rochester has an established bike share that boasts 16,900 users and an increasing number of rides each year. Syracuse recently launched Gotcha’s Syracuse Sync bike share system. This new bike share program makes e-bikes available. E-bikes, or electric bikes, give you a little help with electronic pedal-assist technology. E-bikes may be useful for the hilly terrain in Syracuse.

Though there are many benefits to commuting to work on a bike, this just isn’t an option for many people. But, this fall you can get active on days off or in the evening by renting a bike through your local bike share.

How can we make the most of the bike share program during our warmer weather months? I have a few ideas…

Safety first!

First, don’t forget your helmet. Research shows that helmets can reduce your risk of serious head injury by more than 50 percent.  You can also make yourself more visible by wearing reflective clothing and adding a light to your bike.

Next, know the rules of the road and be confident! Cities are working to become more bike-friendly by adding signage, bike lanes and increasing awareness of bicycles on the road. Both Syracuse and Rochester have been adding bike lanes and shared-use lane markings, or “sharrows,” over the past few years to make the cities more bike-friendly.

Plan your route

Using the bike share is a great way to explore. It’s also helpful to have a plan before you take off, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the roads.

Fun fact: Google Maps will make you a biking-specific route from point A to point B. You can turn on biking under “map details” to see where the bike lanes and trails are in your area. You can also “tour” your route by using the “street view” function. This helps you see any potential areas you may way to avoid on your bike route. It can even help you plan to make a stop into a local restaurant.

Going Off-road

Make use of biking paths and trails. This is especially good for those who are not yet confident riding on the road with traffic. Riding on paths and trails is a great way to enjoy places like the Genesee River or Onondaga Lake.

A short bike ride is better than no bike ride

You can easily bike a few miles in a short amount of time, which can benefit your health. Biking is a great way to get aerobic exercise, which is good for your heart. It is also much easier on your joints than running or jumping.

Check out more bike sharing tips at 12 Things to Know Before Using a Bike Share.

Interested in commuting to work on a bicycle? Check out: How to Skip Traffic and Get a Workout, All Before 8 a.m..

Disclaimer: Excellus BlueCross BlueShield is a sponsor of the Rochester Pace bike share and the Syracuse Sync bike share. 

A Healthier Take on Takeout Food

Takeout food.

Greasy, delicious and convenient. Americans love getting takeout, whether picking it up or having it delivered. And it’s a $30+ billion industry. We all have our go-to options —pizza, subs, burritos and Asian food are among the traditional favorites. Is your mouth watering yet?

We all know takeout isn’t the healthiest food. Enjoying it every now and then is okay, but eating it too often could hurt your wallet and your waistline.

Let’s transform Takeout

Instead of getting takeout, try healthier dishes that you can make at home . It’s a change that can improve your health and may save you money. And the best part? You can satisfy still your takeout cravings while maintaining a healthy diet.

I spoke with Pat Salzer, Registered Dietitian and Workplace Wellness Support Coordinator with Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, about tips and tricks to make it happen.

photo of Pat Salzer

Pat Salzer, Registered Dietitian and Workplace Wellness Support Coordinator with Excellus BCBS

Be Prepared

Why do we love takeout food so much? It’s easy. Instead of having to worry about making food, it’s already done for you. Want to make home-cooked meals easier? Get prepped.

The first step is meal planning. Salzer suggests planning meals for the week during the weekend and stocking your kitchen with the right ingredients. Meal planning helps  you make sure you have what you need ahead of time.

When it comes time to cook, you will already have all the ingredients you need to get started. I even prefer to cook two or three meals at once to save time. That’s called batch cooking.

Looking for some great recipes to get started? Here are some of our personal favorites:

Change the Norm

For many people, getting takeout at the end of the day is simply a habit. People become so used to ordering food that it becomes part of their routine.

Salzer said that making cooking at home the norm will make it much easier to avoid getting takeout. This goes back to the idea of planning your meals ahead and having the winning ingredients ready to go. Start small by planning to eat home-cooked meals most days of the week.

Get the Family on Board

Change is much easier with the support of those around you. Instead of going at it alone, Salzer suggests getting other members of your household to eat home-cooked meals with you. Ask others to help with planning meals for the week,and keep each other accountable with sticking to the plan to eat what you cook. Whether you’re cooking for yourself, your significant other or the whole family, making meals at home that everyone will enjoy is a fun way to start a new healthy habit.

Easy swaps and additions for your favorite takeout food

Want to cook more at home but not ready to give up your beloved pizza or subs? Some simple swaps and additions can help you enjoy the food you love at home, in a healthier way.

If you’re a lover of subs and sandwiches, try making a sandwich at home on whole grain bread. If you can’t imagine a Friday night without pizza, try a homemade pizza with a side salad to help fill you up with veggies. You can also try adding greens or fruit as a side to make-your-own tacos or burritos. Salzer recommends that fruits and vegetables make up half of our plate at any meal.

For more tips on finding healthy meal alternatives, check out our guide on how to avoid drive thrus, which features much of the same greasy fare as takeout.

Hidden Gems: 10 Must-Stops Along I-390

How many times have you used the I-390 to get to work? It seems like nothing but mileage markers and exit signs.

When driving on I-390, most folks are only concerned with getting from point A to point B. But if you look closely, you’ll see that this route is surrounded by fun and unique destinations for the whole family.

Exit 27: Braddock Bay State Park, Greece

Braddock Bay State Park (photo by Town of Greece)

Just off the northern tip of I-390, this expansive park and wildlife management area is home to many species of birds and ducks. On top of the hiking and fishing opportunities, you get a great view of Lake Ontario.

Exit 10: Vintage Drive-In, Avon

Vintage Drive-In (photo by Vintage Drive-In)

Located just 1.4 miles from the expressway, this old-school movie venue features four screens and can hold about 500 cars. It’s the closest drive-in to Rochester, and since it plays double features, you get two movies for the price of one!

Exit 9: Minnehan’s Fun Center, Lakeville

Minnehan’s Fun Center (photo by Minnehan’s)

If you’re looking for a fun spot for the family, Minnehan’s has you covered. Featuring three go-kart tracks, miniature golf, outdoor laser tag, a video arcade, batting cages and more, this is a great place for adults and kids to let loose. Not to mention, they have a full restaurant and irresistible ice cream menu.

Exit 8: Main Street, Geneseo

Main Street, Geneseo (photo by Jeff Uveino)

Anchored by the SUNY college that bears its name, Geneseo is home to one of the nicest small-town Main streets in the area. If you’re hungry, you can stop in to University Hots for a garbage plate, or Mama Mia’s for a huge slice of pizza. Shops, restaurants, a movie theater and more complete the scenery. Just make sure you don’t hit the street’s famous “Bear Fountain” when you drive by!

Exit 7: Letchworth State Park, Mount Morris

Middle Falls (photo by Larry Tetamore)

The “Grand Canyon of the East” is just an eight-minute drive from I-390. You’ll need to drive a bit farther through the park to see its three mighty waterfalls, but trust me—the view is worth it. While you’re there, check out the 1,000 step trail.

Exit 5: Castle on the Hill, Dansville

The mysterious structure has been abandoned since 1971. Sometimes referred to as “Jackson Sanatorium,” it was once operated by hydropathist Dr. Caleb Jackson, and then later by fitness enthusiast Bernarr McFadden. You can get a pretty good view of it driving through Dansville, but don’t try to beat the “no trespass” signs that surround it.

Exit 4: Stony Brook State Park, Dansville

Stony Brook State Park (photo by New York State Parks)

Just two miles from the expressway, Stony Brook features three hiking trails and three waterfalls along the park’s gorge. If you’re a serious hiker, the number of stairs along some of the trails make them difficult. Trying to beat the heat? The park has a stream-fed swimming pool to cool you off. It’s a great picnic spot too!

Exit 2: Grimes Glen Park, Naples

Grimes Glen (photo by Joy Auch)

About 11 miles northeast of the expressway, Grimes Glen is another one of the beautiful parks hiding in the foothills. After parking in the Village of Naples, a half-mile hike will take you to two waterfalls that you don’t want to miss. Beware: locals warn that you’re probably going to get wet!

Exit 1: Caboose Motel, Avoca

Caboose Motel (photo by Caboose Motel)

Looking for a place to stay the night? How about a caboose? This motel features five caboose cars that have been turned into family sized rooms. They also have regular rooms and RV hookup sites, if you’re not into the whole train thing.

Bonus: Corning Museum of Glass

If you’re willing to drive an extra 30 minutes past the end of I-390 in Avoca, this museum is sure to make the extra miles worth it. It offers an expansive gallery, glass making demonstrations, and you can even make your own glass!

Ins and Outs of a Volunteer Vacation

Planning a summer vacation? Why not  take a trip that makes a difference and lets you explore the world? Consider taking a volunteer vacation.

What’s a volunteer vacation? While you are off exploring the world, you could also be living with a host family, working in the community, and getting to know the local people.

If you’re on the fence on this travel trend, check out some more reasons to try it out.

The Best Way to Experience the Culture

Dr. Gregory Carnevale, a Chief Medical Officer at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, went to Haiti for a volunteer vacation. He said it was amazing “to see a different part of the world and to be able to help a population that has nothing compared to what we have here in the US.” Carnevale and the volunteer team were deeply immersed in the Haitian culture through their work in a local orphanage.

Dr. Gregory Carnevale on his volunteer vacation

You can also enjoy authentic home-cooked meals from local villages, while becoming immersed in the local language. Learn the rich history of the culture around you by attending traditional festivals and holiday celebrations with your host family or fellow volunteers.

Carnevale adds that,”volunteer vacations give not only meaningful perspectives on difficult issues in other parts of the world, but also how different people live their daily lives.”

Explore the World and Give Back

Pat Salzer,  a Registered Dietitian and Workplace Wellness Support Coordinator with Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, visited Thailand on her volunteer vacation. The experience gave her the opportunity to explore a beautiful location with breathtaking views while she was working for the community there.

Salzer and husband on their volunteer vacation

Not only can you explore picturesque places, but you can contribute to a meaningful cause. By having this sense of purpose in your travel, you can opens the doors for learning about the people in the communities you serve.

Friendships

During these programs, you’ll likely create life-long friendships with host families and other volunteers. Salzer stresses that this was her favorite part of her volunteer vacation. She knows that, “the bonds that are made with the family who we help build their home are lasting memories.” Salzer adds “even if language is a barrier, we are able to communicate and learn about other.”

Salzer and her husband on their volunteer vacation

Life Changing

Many people who choose a volunteer vacation are forever impacted by the experience. The lessons learned through the immersion into another culture are often something that become  integrated into daily life when the trip is over. There’s also the opportunity to teach others from those lessons and encourage more acceptance of the culture you experienced.

Where to begin

Here are some possible programs to choose from:

  • International Volunteer HQ is the most widely-used provider of volunteer travel, and works with local organizations so that costs stay low and go directly towards community projects and jobs.
  • Volunteering Solutions offers multiple excursions that you can pick while volunteering. Some include Safari tours, bungee jumping, and language courses.
  • WWOOF pairs those who want to learn about organic farms with farm-owners that want to share their skills and lifestyles.
  • UN Volunteers assignments generally run for six to 12 months, with the possibility of extending for one to two years. If you are looking for a long-time commitment, this program would be a great fit.
  • Transitions Abroad can help you search through the many programs throughout the world to find your perfect match. Just put in the country or region and it will provide the programs!
  • REI Volunteer Adventures combines outdoor adventuring with volunteering. Programs are one to two weeks, and range from relocating sea turtle nests to helping rangers renovate trails.

Important Tips:

  • Decide the type of work before hand by researching the destination. Making sure your program is a good match for you will make the trip most memorable. Carnevale says that advance planning is critical to avoid unnecessary worries. A lot of people forget to consider time-off, necessary immunizations, travel documents, travel arrangements, currency, language barriers, etc.
  • Contacting the organization and asking a lot of questions will ensure that you know all the details of your program before you leave. Even asking people that have done the program previously will give you good background information.
  • By working with certain local organizations, fees are low and usually go towards community projects or employment. You can save money, and do good.
  • Creating a budget before the trip will help you plan out your extra activities throughout the entirety of the program, while also keeping you on track for your spending goal.

11 Places to Picnic in Upstate NY

Summer is a short season in upstate NY. That’s why it’s the perfect time to exchange your usual lunch out with a meal “al-fresco” at one of these picnic spots in upstate NY.

1. Porter Park, Youngstown, Niagara County

There is no better place to have a picnic than on Lake Ontario. You can see Niagara on the Lake, and on a clear day, you have a full view of Canada! The beach is rocky but there is always plenty of driftwood to sit on and enjoy the view. There is a large grassy area, picnic tables and pavilions as well. This hidden gem is set back from the road and most people drive right by it.

2. Hamlin Beach State Park, Hamlin, Monroe county

Further east on Lake Ontario is Hamlin Beach State Park. This park also offers sweeping views of the lake,  beach swimming (when it is warm enough!) and great picnic facilities including pavilions. While you’re there, explore the self-guided trail of the Yanty Creek Marsh.

3. Highland Park, Rochester, Monroe County

Highland Park may be known for the Lilac Festival in the spring, but there’s plenty to see all summer long in this park. Not only does it have plenty of places to sit in the grass or at a picnic table, but in the early summer, the trees are still flowering and bringing in a wonderful smell. Also, within the park is Lamberton Conservatory, which is full of large palms and ferns, as well as little button quails that run around your feet.

Lamberton Conservatory in Highland Park (photo by Rachel Dowling)

Lamberton Conservatory in Highland Park (photo by Rachel Dowling)

 

4. Stony Brook State Park, Dansville, Livingston County

Head south to visit Stony Brook State Park. Enjoy a day in the park with a picnic and an adventure on the hiking trails. You can also go swimming in the natural pool, fed by the stream that is always refreshing.

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5. Harriet Hollister Park, Springwater, Livingston County

Less than an hour from Stony Brook State Park, Harriet Hollister Park is another beautiful spot with picnic tables, biking trials and a pavilion. This park comes with a breathtaking view of Honeoye Lake and the Rochester skyline in the distance. Sixteen miles of hiking, biking and even cross-country ski trails are available.

6. Onanda Park, Canandaigua, Ontario county

Located on the western shores of Canandaigua Lake, Onanda Park park offers picnic tables, a small beach, a swimming area, and a lake view. The park also features numerous hiking trails across the street. Trails can be found that are close to the stream, as well as more challenging hills that give you views of the multiple waterfalls upstream.

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7. Watkins Glen State Park, Watkins Glen, Schuyler County

At the southern end of Seneca Lake, Watkins Glen State Park is a perfect place for a relatively flat hike. You may get a little wet from the spray from the absolutely gorgeous waterfalls, but it is well worth it. They also have ample picnic tables to use after your hike.

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8. Clift Park, Skaneateles, Onondaga County

A short drive from Syracuse, this park offers an incredible view of Skaneateles Lake. Make it an even better trip by stopping at Doug’s Fish Fry for take-out to eat on the benches in the park. After your picnic, you can walk down the pier that stretches out into the water. The park also has a public beach that is open during the summer.

Skaneateles Lake (photo by Erika Gruszewski)

Skaneateles Lake (photo by Erika Gruszewski)

 

9. Green Lakes State Park, Fayetteville, Onondaga County

Named for its two glacial lakes, Green Lakes State Park has plenty of pavilions and picnic tables throughout the park, offering sun or shade depending on what you like best. After your picnic, enjoy a leisurely walk around the lakes or enjoy a swim in the blue-green waters.

 

10.  Southwick Beach State Park, Henderson, Jefferson County

It’s the closest thing you can get to being at the ocean within an hour’s drive from Syracuse. The sand dunes and miles of beach are beautiful with good sized waves for jumping or boogie boarding. There are plenty of picnic tables to use and a nice new playground. You can get ice cream at the pavilion after a long day at the beach.

11. Verona Beach State Park, Verona, Oneida County

This park has a large picnic and cookout area with a lot of tall shady trees. You can feel the breeze coming off Oneida Lake, which makes it a very pleasant place to spend a summer afternoon. Plus, there’s the beach!

5 Ways to Be Healthier with a Plant-Based Diet

I ate healthy. But I knew I could do better.

I ate a lot of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meats and reduced-fat dairy. Could I, however, reach the next level of healthy eating? Could I ditch processed foods, most animal products and oil?

Challenge accepted. I tried a whole-foods, plant-based diet. The diet is linked to health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes.

What is a plant-based diet?

A whole-foods, plant-based diet focuses on choosing mostly whole, minimally processed foods that come from plant-based sources. This includes fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans and legumes. It also excludes added sugars, white flour, and processed oils. Many view this way of eating as a lifestyle, rather than a diet.

When I tried a plant-based diet, I didn’t radically alter what I ate. Rather, I just made some simple tweaks.

Make it easy

First, I stocked up on beans, vegetable broth, unsweetened almond coconut milk, sweet potatoes and whole grains such as quinoa. Keeping a supply of plant-based options at home helped make healthy choices easy choices.

Mental Prep

Next, I didn’t focus on what I couldn’t eat. Instead, I focused on the new delicious meals I got to try. Looking for some inspiration? Check out this recipe for grilled tofu skewers with a pineapple teriyaki sauce.

Ease into change

Making changes to what you eat can be a daunting task. So each week, I decided to cut back on one meat-based feast. I also gradually introduced replacements, like drinking almond milk instead of cow’s milk.

Keep Grandma’s Recipe

Eating a plant-based diet doesn’t mean saying goodbye to your comfort foods. Instead, I made small tweaks to favorite family recipes by adding veggies, beans or different grains.

Self-help

Finally, I checked out online resources for help and ideas. Check out USDA.gov for a list of plant-based resources.

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As a bonus, I fell in love with this recipe. Try it. I hope you like it, too!

Cooking light salad

Print Recipe
Cooking Light Salad
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 40 minutes
Servings
Ingredients
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 40 minutes
Servings
Ingredients
Instructions
  1. Combined the bulgur and boiling water in a large bowl. Cover and let stand for 30 minutes. Stir in the figs and remaining ingredients. Cover salad and chill thoroughly. Serving size: 1 cup

How to Add a Little Adventure To Your Life

If you’re looking to add a little adventure to your life, Meetup may be the app for you.

The Meetup app led Jane Vangelov to two great adventures last year. Neither are activities she would have pursued on her own. But experiencing them with a Meetup group opened her up to a bold new activity that she never would have tried otherwise.

Syracuse Area Outdoor Adventures Club Meetup

It was through the Syracuse Area Outdoor Adventures Club Meetup group that Jane participated in two hikes in 2018. The first was a 6-mile hike in April of the hilly area behind the office of Green Lakes State Park. Her second foray was a 10.4-miles hike in Highland Forest in May.

Being a novice, Jane undertook her first hike with the Meetup group clad in a pair of ordinary sneakers, jeans and a light jacket one weekday after work. When she arrived at the designated gathering area, she found nine people had assembled. She started out strong, but quickly joined the few picking up the rear as other, more experienced hikers moved to the front of the group.

“I felt spent afterward,” she admitted, “but I still went to work the next day.” She also signed up for another, longer and more challenging hike a month later.

The second time, she came prepared. She had newly purchased hiking boots, along with a packed lunch, long-sleeved shirt, bug spray and other necessities for a day out on the trails.

But even with the new footwear, Jane confessed that she was ready to quit five miles in. “There was no mistake that my body was telling me that I was doing things I’d never done before,” she said.

A conviction that she could complete the hike kept her going. This knowledge, paired with encouragement from the group, propelled her ahead in spite of the tough conditions.

“I needed the challenge,” she said, “and the momentum of the group pushed me to go the distance.”

Syracuse Adult Beach Volleyball Meetup

The Syracuse Area Outdoor Adventures Club Meetup group isn’t the only Meetup with which Jane’s involved. Her favorite one is the Syracuse Adult Beach Volleyball Meetup group, which usually gathers on Sundays during the summer months to play at Pine Grove Health & Country Club in Camillus or the North Area Family YMCA in Liverpool.

On one Sunday in July, 18 people showed up to play beach volleyball, said Jane. “Some weeks, we have more players, while other weeks, we have fewer,” she said. When there are fewer players, they play three-on-three or four-on-four, with several games usually going on at once.

“Everyone gets along well,” she said, “and the group is not cliquey.” They switch players throughout the  three to four hours of play. “We accommodate everyone and make everyone feel welcome.”

Meetup groups for meditation and dance

Jane also has tried Meetup groups for meditation and dance. She quickly realized that the meditation group wasn’t for her and dropped out. Jane also belongs to the Dance Meetup group, which she said hasn’t been as active in recent years as it once was.

Each Meetup group is highly dependent on an organizer, notes Jane. “Someone has to take the initiative to get a group going and keep it going by organizing events,” she said. The organizer generally organizes and posts events to Meetup, where group participants can get information regarding upcoming events.

Meet a Meetup organizer

Ryan Kelly is organizer of the Syracuse Hanging With New Friends and Hanging With New Friends of Rochester Meetup groups. He took on both roles when the previous organizers stepped down.

The bimonthly events he organizes have ranged from singing at Singers Karaoke Club in Syracuse to apple picking and visiting the MOST and the Rosamond Gifford Zoo. He also arranges weekly Trivia Night events at such locations as the Yellow Brick Road Casino, Movie Tavern and the American Legion in Manlius.

While the Syracuse group is open to any age group, the Rochester group is specifically for those in their 20s and 30s. “I wanted to meet younger people in the Rochester area,” said Ryan, who works in Claims at Excellus BlueCross BlueShlield. “I thought it would be a good way to connect with people.”

With activities scheduled for every weekend, the Rochester group is very active.  Activities have included visiting a haunted house last fall, attending a comedy show, having a picnic, going rock climbing and playing laser tag.

“It’s not for everybody,” Ryan admitted. “But I’ve met some of my best friends through Meetup.” For him, scheduling and attending activities helps him break out of his shell and assume a leadership role of an organization. He finds that people who are a bit on the quiet side, as he sometimes is, are eager to use Meetup to break their own barriers.

“What you put into Meetup is what you get out of it,” he said. After years of going to events by himself, Ryan now much prefers going out and doing things with others as part of a group.

Making friends through Meetup

When you download the Meetup app, you first provide some basic information about yourself and your interests. Then you’ll receive notifications regarding upcoming events. You can elect to join – or not join – events, based on your interests and availability.

“There’s a lot of flexibility,” said Jane. “You don’t necessarily have to be friends with the people in the group that ends up going.” The people who get together for an event inevitably do get to know each other during the event, leading to new friendships and an ever-broadening array of connections.

Jane feels as if her social network has expanded through her involvement with various Meetup groups. “If you’re single, you quickly realize that you don’t have to stay home alone, doing nothing,” she said. “Meetup gives you the opportunity to do something by yourself, but still be part of a group.”

It offers the chance to do something you’re totally comfortable doing. At the same time, Meetup also provides opportunities for doing something you normally wouldn’t try on your own, but in the safety of a group. “There’s something for everyone,” said Jane, noting that it can fill your recreational, social and spiritual needs.

A nationwide Meetup network

Meetup is also nationwide. So if you’re visiting New York City, for example, and find yourself with a free afternoon, a quick check of the Meetup app will provide a variety of options to choose from for any events that conform to your chosen interests happening in the New York City area.

Binghamton, Elmira, Buffalo, Rochester and Utica all have Meetup groups of their own. There are Meetup groups for single people, married couples, those who are older and those who are younger. In Syracuse, they include ethnic dining groups, foreign language groups and professional networking groups. New Meetup groups are always being started, Jane said.

Unwritten rules

Jane cautioned that there are some unwritten rules for Meetup participants. “You have to show up on time for an event,” she said. Arriving consistently late for events, being inconsiderate of others in the group, turning up unprepared for the event and failing to cancel a reservation to attend can all result in you being kicked out of the group.

More than anything, Jane finds her involvement with various Meetup groups is great way to get off her smartphone.  “When you’re at a Meetup event, the purpose is to be there with other people,” she said. “It’s considered rude to constantly be checking your phone for alerts and messages while you’re at a Meetup event.”

Take control of your life

“Meetup is especially good for anyone who feels as if their handheld device is taking control of their life, instead of the individual being in control of his or her life,” remarked Jane. “You get to meet a lot of people and learn something new while participating in an activity that you may not join on your own.”

Ryan echoed Jane’s sentiments. “There are Meetup groups for just about every interest,” he said, “and if there’s not one already available, you can create one of your own.” He recommends trying it at least once to see how you like it.

“That requires you to take that first step and branch out of your comfort zone,” he admitted, “But it could well be worth your time and effort.”

Disclaimer: Excellus BlueCross BlueShield does not endorse or have any business relationship with Meetup. 

Bunny Tales: The Squirrels Ate my Eggs and Other Easter Stories

As with most holidays, there are favorite (and unusual) stories – and plenty of bloopers. Here are some of our favorites that we hope will make you chuckle or learn from our many mistakes!  Share your favorite Easter story – or bloopers – in the comments below.

The squirrels ate my Easter egg

One big lesson that Joy Auch of Ontario County learned early on as a young mother is to avoid hiding eggs in the yard the night before Easter.

“I was downstairs when I heard my hubby and 4-year-old son yelling from the upstairs window. Crazy squirrels were running away with the eggs. They only left a few of the 20 eggs we hid,” said Joy.

Her son took it well, rationalizing that there were still a few eggs left for him to enjoy.

“We found candy wrappers and pieces of plastic eggs all over the yard for weeks to come,” Joy added.


You light up my life

A self-professed Pinterest fanatic, Kelly Engert used an idea she found on the social media site last year. She put small tea lights, along with small trinkets, in plastic eggs and hid them outside. When dusk fell, her kids had fun finding the brightly shining eggs. Kelly, who lives in Wayne County, said that her family also uses Kool Aid and vinegar to dye their eggs. It makes for a more natural dye and is something the kids can make on their own instead of buying at the store.

“The colors are pretty cool and it even smells good!” she said.

Glowing Easter eggs


Better than candy?

Although most of Brittany Brownyard’s family members aren’t kids anymore, they still have that Easter egg hunt spirit.

“Once, my aunt hid eggs with numbers in them. After everyone found an egg, she told us the significance of the numbers,” said Brittany of Monroe County.

“Each one represented the dollar amount of a lottery ticket. So if you found an egg with a 5 in it, you received a $5 lottery ticket.”

So you can imagine the mad dash when Brittany’s’ aunt announced there was one egg missing.

“Everyone went nuts looking for it,” said Brittany. “The prospect of becoming the next millionaire made us all super competitive. Good thing there weren’t any small kids around, because they would have been shoved aside!”

When the last egg was finally found, it contained the number 1. And, no, nobody became the millionaire next door.


A true “hunt” for an egg

Elmer Smith of Monroe County offers this unique twist to the traditional Easter egg hunt: create clever clues to reveal the egg’s location.

On Easter morning, his son would pull pieces of paper from a basket. The papers contained clues to help his son find his Easter eggs. One favorite clue: “Go from Westminster to St. Michael’s, Lord Whittington.”

The clue wasn’t meant to confuse. Instead, it represented the three chimes on their triple chime mantel clock. (The egg was by the clock.)

His son had a lot of fun figuring out the somewhat quirky clues, which also helped to teach him about ways to think outside of the box.


The burnt Easter basket

As a young girl, Alicia Sherk of Erie County launched into her annual sisterly competition to find their baskets on Easter morning.

Her older sister found hers first. “Ha-ha! Born first, get the basket first!” she cried.

Alice’s younger sister found hers shortly after. “Choc-iittt!” said the little one, who was still learning to talk, but understood she won something fantastic.

Frantic and terrified, Alicia panicked. Did the Easter bunny forget a third basket? Her mom, meanwhile, began preheating the oven for their traditional cinnamon roll and chocolate Easter Sunday breakfast.

In minutes, the scent of chocolate wafted to their noses.  Alicia’s heart dropped. She ran into the kitchen, just in time to see her mom opening the oven door. There was Alicia’s basket, burnt on the edges and dripping chocolate onto the oven floor.

She cried. However, her sisters came to the rescue.

Each gave her pieces of their precious chocolate. Suddenly, Alicia was grateful for not being forgotten by the Easter Bunny. She was even more grateful to sit with her sisters and enjoy some chocolate with the cinnamon rolls.

(Yes, the Easter bunny that year did put the basket in the oven and then forgot about it!)


In your Easter bonnet with green grass growing on it

The family Easter bonnet parade started in Linnea Coyne’s family 25 years ago when her daughters were toddlers. Over the years, the bonnets have evolved from the simple to the sublime. The Dollar Store is the best place for supplies and you can use what you already have at home, such as tissue paper, old buttons, yarn, construction paper and old Easter decorations, said Linnea. A glue gun is a must.

“We’ve exhausted the peep populations, Easter basket grass and jelly beans with many of our creations,” said Linnea of Onondaga County.

Hat #1: The Daisy Hat

The first hat was a paper plate that was in the shape of a daisy for daughter Kelly. Coyne made two slits in the center of a paper plate and then threaded a piece of pink material through the cuts so she could tie it under Kelly’s chin.

“It was adorable,” Linnea recalled.

Hat #2: The Lawn Hat

Dylan, her son, started his hat a month before Easter by making a paste with grass seeds, spreading it on an old baseball hat and watering it religiously for four weeks. He topped the “lawn” with gummy worms and Easter eggs glued to golf tees.

Hat #3: The Picnic Hat

Linnea’s brother Marc completed an ensemble of a bonnet crowned with plastic dinnerware and a plastic tablecloth serving as his cloak.

“It’s become part of his spring picnic collection,” said Linnea.

“My kids love to see who comes up with most creative bonnet,” she said. “It was and is still a great way for them to use their imaginations.”

More relevant, however, is that the Easter bonnet parade always brings the family together, including newcomers such as Linnea’s new son-in-law, and makes for memorable holiday memories.

The kicker, however, is that Linnea’s mother “always manages to choose one of the creations to wear to church on Easter!”


Special eggs for a special bunny

Every year for Easter, Debbie Breinlinger of Erie County and her granddaughters create elaborately decorated eggs to be displayed next to a very special stuffed animal.

Debbie bought the stuffed bunny at the Steiff Museum in southern Germany. The museum is the birthplace of the teddy bear. One year, around Easter, Debbie was in Germany accompanying her husband when he met his brother for the first time. (The brothers had been separated early in life.) During the trip, she bought the bunny.

Want to make eggs like Debbie’s? Here’s the recipe:

  1. Wrap an egg in silk. Debbie uses 100 percent silk ties and scarfs she’s collected throughout the year.
  2. Place the silk-wrapped raw egg in a piece of white sheet, pillowcase or old tablecloth. Secure tightly with a twist-tie.
  3. Place the egg(s) in an enamel or glass pot.
  4. Fill pot with water to cover eggs completely.
  5. Add three tablespoons of white vinegar and cook for 25 minutes.
  6. Unwrap and enjoy!

“Watching the looks on my granddaughters’ faces when they see the egg designs for the first time every year is priceless,” she said.

 

A Sweet Family Activity: NY Maple Weekends are Here!

It’s just about time for my favorite family activity. As we anticipate our annual tradition of visiting a local maple farm, I can’t help but recall a favorite childhood memory.

I remember adding maple sugar to fresh snow to make a sweet treat (don’t worry, scientists say eating small amounts of snow usually isn’t harmful). Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House in the Big Woods” was a childhood favorite of mine and I copied this trick that Laura’s grandmother taught her. My daughter recently read the story and it will be great to re-enact the experience with her–especially given our upcoming trip to a “sugar house.”

With New York’s Maple Weekends starting soon, upstate New Yorkers can visit a maple farm and start their own family traditions.

Packard Valley Farms

Shevah (r) and her daughter making memories at a local maple farm.

Every spring, New York State Maple Producers Association coordinates events at the “sugar houses” at about 160 farms and museums. This year it will be March 23-24 and 30-31, 2019. Find a place near you!

Most places have hands-on demonstrations of how syrup is made, fresh syrup tastings, and experts on hand to answer questions. Many also have pancake breakfasts complete with—you guessed it— local syrup.

My family loves these maple weekends. This fun family activity signals the beginning of spring, even if there’s still snow on the ground. The highlight for my daughter is sampling fresh syrup, maple butter, and, of course, maple candy.

Making maple syrup

I also love seeing how syrup is made and how natural the process is. While upgrades have been made over time, the basic process has remained the same for centuries. Native Americans in the northeastern United States and Canada were known to make syrup, and today New York is a top syrup producer.

Really, anyone can do it. The process involves very simple, classic steps:

Phase One: Find a sugar, black or red maple tree, drill a hole for a tap, add a bucket under the tap and let gravity work its magic.

Phase Two: Boil! It takes about ten gallons of sap to make 1 quart of syrup. Farms have huge vats for this process. And don’t forget to filter the syrup once boiled to remove sediment.

Phase Three: Pour into a sterile bottle and cap. Keep unopened containers in a cool place for up to two years. Once opened, store in the refrigerator for up to a year.

Phase Four: Enjoy!

You may notice syrup comes in different colors. Some have rich hues of brown or amber or gold. There’s a reason for this! A syrup’s color and flavor correlates to when the syrup was made; sap from later in the season is often darker in color and typically has a stronger flavor.

More than Pancakes

Maple syrup isn’t just for breakfast.

You can bake with it, using syrup in place of the sugar.

If you’re replacing sugar with maple syrup, you’ll want to use about ¾ cup of syrup for every cup of sugar and decrease the amount of liquid in your recipe by about three tablespoons.

Maple syrup can also be added to ice cream, BBQ sauce, fudge and kettle corn. Some of my favorite food magazines, such as Epicurious  and Food and Wine , are full of inspiration.

Visit the Excellus BlueCross BlueShield Pinterest page for other tasty recipes for baking with maple syrup. (Don’t forget to view the recipes at the end of this story!)

“Just remember, maple syrup is basically sugar so enjoy it in moderation,” said Patricia Salzer, registered dietitian, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield.

A local tradition

If you’re a Maple Weekend newbie, here are some of my favorite places to consider:

  • Cumming Nature Center in Ontario County. Part of the Rochester Museum and Science Center (RMSC), the tour focuses on the science of syrup making. This is a big place, so leave time to explore the extensive trails after breakfast.
  • Genesee Country Village and Museum in Monroe County. I’m a sucker for period costumes. You can experience syrup making in the 19th century. During maple sugar weekends, the museum is an especially attractive family activity with free admission for kids 18 and under.
  • Packard Valley Farms in Wayne County. This has been a favorite family activity for the past few years. There is a petting zoo and a hay ride up the road to a restaurant serving breakfast all day!
  • Schoff’s Sugar Shack in Ontario County. This family business uses modern techniques for making syrup. Instead of a tap and bucket, they use tubing to carry the sap into a pipeline.

Other farms to consider include:

Enjoying a Family Activity at Packard Valley Farms

Enjoying a fun family activity at Packard Valley Farms.

Try these (syrup-y) recipes

Print Recipe
Smoky Maple Marinade
Servings
Ingredients
Servings
Ingredients
Instructions
  1. Whisk all the ingredients together.
  2. Use the mix to coat your favorite protein. For chicken, pork or beef, marinate one to four hours. For tofu or seafood, marinate for up to one hour.
Print Recipe
Maple Hash
Servings
Ingredients
Servings
Ingredients
Instructions
  1. Brown the meat in butter or olive oil. Once browned, remove the meat from the pan.
  2. Stir in the sweet potato and onion, scraping up the meaty bits off the bottom of the pan. A splash of water, apple cider or apple juice on the bottom of the hot pan will help this process and add a nice flavor.
  3. Saute the sweet potato and onion until soft, about 10 minutes. (Speed trick - you can soften your sweet potatoes by throwing them into boiling water on the stove or in a microwave safe dish until fork tender).
  4. Once your sweet potatoes are fork tender, stir in the diced apple. Stir this around until the apples get soft, about four to five minutes.
  5. Once your veggies are fork tender, stir the sausage back in. Add the cinnamon, maple syrup and salt and pepper to taste. Cook together about three to five minutes or until everything looks happily married.
  6. Enjoy! It’s delicious on its own or with a fried or poached egg on top.

Operation Puppy Rescue: Bringing Noah Home

When my daughter showed me a picture of a little pup found under a storage container in Afghanistan last fall, I was hooked. This puppy was beyond cute. It was a little ball of blond fur with these sad, brown eyes.

Inauspicious beginnings

Luna was one of nine puppies born among the dirt and rocks of a military base in Afghanistan. My daughter’s fiancé, Jake, and his Army unit stationed there believe it was the mother’s third litter, and that only one pup had survived from her previous litters.

Jake and one of the puppies

According to Jake, the puppies in this litter were docile, sweet and loving. Luna was the one little pup that boldly approached him and nuzzled in under his feet. It wasn’t long before Jake and my daughter, Mary, agreed to adopt her.

Move to Nowzad Animal Rescue Hospital

The contractors who worked with Jake on the Army base were equally taken with the litter. Thinking that the pups had little or no chance of surviving, they summoned all of their patience in coaxing and rounding up the pups and their mother for a trip to Nowzad Animal Rescue Hospital in the Afghan capital of Kabul.

Meanwhile, back in the states, the wife of a contractor connected with “This Is The Dog,” a nonprofit animal rescue in Miami. It took some planning, a great deal of collaboration and incredible generosity on the part of people involved with this wonderful organization for the first steps in what seemed like a nearly impossible rescue operation to take shape.

Mary and I started making plans of our own for a trip to Florida to retrieve little Luna. Because she would arrive just before Christmas, flights and rental cars proved too costly, so we decided to take a road trip and drive to Miami instead.

Devastating news

While these details were being worked out, the puppies received their first round of vaccinations. Everything seemed to be falling into place, and things were going well, when we received some devastating news.

Luna, the little pup that bonded with Jake, had contracted parvovirus, a dangerous and deadly virus that is extremely contagious. Luna was the first puppy to die, and all of her siblings became very sick. We were crushed; we thought they’d be safe at the animal hospital.

Nowzad bravely treated all of them for parvo, but four more puppies died, and the remaining four were gravely ill. We were all heartbroken, but Jake was devastated.

Waiting for a miracle

“Unless a miracle happens, they most likely will all die,” Jake dejectedly told us via Facetime. He seemed to have lost all hope and faith.

Not really knowing what to say, I reassured him that everything would be all right, even though I knew he was probably right. Mary and I cancelled our plans to drive to Miami.

It was just about a week before Christmas, when I received a text from Mary. The four remaining puppies were getting better. The plans were back on to bring them home, and would I still be willing to drive to Miami so we could rescue Noah, one of the four remaining puppies.

Coming home

The pups were granted visas and passports from the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Determined to be healthy for travel by the Nowzad veterinarian, the pups left their early life in Afghanistan behind on December 17, 2018, and arrived safely at the Miami airport late on the night of December 19, 2018.

Four This Is The Dog volunteers were at the airport to greet them. One positive outcome from this sad situation was that there was room for the mother dog (since named Rosabella) to make the journey with her puppies. All five were placed in foster homes until their owners were able to get them.

Just like that, Mary and I left our home in Syracuse, N.Y., on Thursday, December 20, 2018, and arrived in Miami late Friday night. While we had excitedly had made plans to meet with Noah’s foster mother on Saturday morning, we were a little apprehensive that day, not really knowing what he would be like.

All of our anxiety vanished soon after we glimpsed Noah and his brother in front of the house when we pulled in the driveway. He was very scared at first, but allowed Mary to pick him up and hold him.

The author with her daughter, Mary, and Noah

We settled him into our car, equipped with a cage, food, water, blankets and toys, for the trip home. Noah cried a little in the car, but then lied down and really seemed to rest peacefully.

He had been through so much already in his short little life. During the long, 24-hour ride home, he mostly slept and came out of the cage for a treat or water every once in a while. We returned home on Sunday December 23, 2018.

Settling in

Since then, Noah has been adapting to his new life very well. Eager to investigate his surroundings, he tried to chew on everything at first. Now, he loves to play and run along the fence with the neighbor’s dog. He’s also very affectionate and really loves to snuggle.

Noah!

He has some trouble listening (maybe he doesn’t know English yet LOL). We plan to enroll him for training in the Clear Path for Veterans Canine Program.

I am honored and humbled to have been involved in this puppy rescue operation.

It was an unforgettable Christmas. Noah is home.

Postscript

The three remaining pups have been adopted. A family from Key West adopted Ezekiel “Zeke,” and one of the contractors and his wife from Alabama adopted two puppies, Whidbey and Baker. Rosabella is currently being fostered and thriving in her new home.