Sunday, August 7, 2011

Little Monsters

Somewhere around May or early June, I begin a planning session that could rival a small military operation.  School's on its way out, and I'll have a 3 year old and a 6 year old on my hands for three long months.  Many of you may be familiar with my calendar that lists every free activity in a 20-mile radius.  Any given week, we've got a variety of options.  I plan out our week on Sunday night, noting the activities we MIGHT want to attend if we get ourselves out of bed in time.  Needless to say, it's a very fluid agenda.  We have room for fun and room for being lazy.

So why are my kids such ungrateful little monsters?

Yeah, I know it's the age.  But last week, we played BINGO at the local library, which was generous enough to provide prizes for everyone.  We went to the pool with friends.  We had lunch out twice.  We went bowling.  We had a playdate at a friend's house.  I think they acknowledged that they had fun, but I also battled: "Can we go to Sonic for slushies?" (immediately after lunch at Jimmy John's); "I only won ONCE and that girl won THREE times" (at the totally rigged BINGO game).  "Can we go to the pool agaiiin?"

I had decided against enrolling them in any camps this summer.  But now, I think we could all use the space.  At least, I could use some space.  And let a paid counselor deal with the whining.

I almost sold our copy of "1-2-3 Magic" at our yard sale, but something told me to hang on to it.  Maybe it was the blurb that mentioned badgering.  The book comes highly recommended by our friend Aidan up the street.  When I was scolding Bug during carpool one day last Spring, Aidan told me to count to three, like that book his mom uses when he doesn't behave.  He offered to let me borrow it.  Thanks, Aidan, we'll just dig up our copy.

I don't think we spare OR spoil our kids.  They don't get the latest and greatest, and we often tell them no.  But we'll also take them out for a spur of the moment ice cream cone, or get them a DVD they might like when it's not a birthday or holiday.  Do we continue the little treats every once in awhile or strip everything back completely?  Does it make a difference?

Has summer been rough on you, too?  How have you handled your little monsters? 

"You can't be serious."
"Is that all I get?"

Friday, July 8, 2011

She Sells Sea Shells...

A recent trip to Myrtle Beach yielded a bag full of gorgeous sea shells.  We were pulling up handfuls of these perfect shells, and all I could think was, "These would make some pretty awesome crafts."  So if you have your own collection of seaside souvenirs, take a look at what the girls and I put together, and you might find inspiration for a rainy afternoon craft of your own.

Many shells we found had a small hole in the end, just nature taking its course, I suppose.  But nature's imperfections made me think that we could make some cool necklaces for the girls.

First, I wanted to make sure the shells were properly cleaned.  I've read that if you don't remove the residue from the ocean (and the little critter that once lived in the shell), it could start to smell.  I took a pan, filled it with water and shells, and poured some bleach in there.  The ratio of water to bleach is supposed to be 50/50, but that seemed a lot to me.  I just poured maybe a 1/4 cup in the large roasting pan that held the shells.  Let it sit overnight, and then rinse with some dish soap and water.  I've also read you can brighten the shell up by rubbing a little mineral or baby oil on it.

We bought some plastic rope at the craft store, the kind that's used to make braided lanyards.  You can use leather or suede cording from the jewelry section, too, which would look nicer.  The lanyard cost $0.99 for 10 yards and the jewelry cording cost $3.50 for 3 yards.  We were aiming for cheap!

Measure the lanyard around your child's neck, leaving room for extra.  We measured about half a yard.  Thread the shell onto the lanyard - the kids have a lot of fun with this!  After your shell is secure on the lanyard, tie a slip knot on each end.  This allows you to easily adjust the necklace and means you don't need any special clasp.

Depending on the cording you choose, you could have a really pretty piece of jewelry, or something quick and fun for the kids to add to their dress up costumes.  Either way, it's a nice way to remember a fun family vacation!

We're finishing up another shell project, which I'll feature in a few days.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

"Give Me a Museum and I'll Fill It"

I'm going to try to get through this post while the events of the day are still fresh on my mind, but it's going to be tough.  I've consumed mass quantities of food today and I feel kind of green at the moment.  To gloss over the morning and early afternoon, let's just say that the new Belgian waffle maker made an appearance and we hit up a barbecue shack called Phat Boyz.  Moving on.

This is a post about art.   We're really excited about what's been going on at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts the past few years.  In 2009, the museum completed a $100 million expansion, a beautiful addition that has resulted in some stunning exhibits.  We saw a collection of Tiffany work last year - stained glass, sculpture and painting.

The highlight this spring is Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris.  The exhibit features works from the artist's personal collection, on loan from the Paris museum during its renovation.  There are only three U.S. stops on the tour, and this is the only exhibition on the East Coast.  One month in, 75,000 people had seen the exhibit.  It's only here until May 15, so get crackin'.   

To make it easier, here are our tips from today's experience:

Dummy's Guide to Picasso

Go even if you're not an art-lover.  Let me explain that I'm not well-educated about art.  Most of the time I look at it, head cocked to one side, trying to figure out what the heck is going on.  I can't understand why some choices are called "bold" or "provocative" when I just see a bit of a mess.  If you feel the same way, I'd still encourage you to give it a go.  It's the opportunity to see some work normally living in a Paris museum that was hand-selected by a legendary artist to define his legacy.

Get the audio tour.  We didn't, and it would have been helpful.  There's not much explanation of the work beyond the notation next to the piece.  You will get a booklet that explains his different periods, but if you're not familiar with the work, you'll get less out of it.  Or, download a free tour (thank to our friend Roger for pointing this out).

Appreciate the genius, even if it doesn't make much sense!  We were struck by Picasso's wide-ranging techniques and styles.  On one hand, you have finely drawn portraits, and on the other hand, less realistic images with weird, uh, hands.  All from the same guy.


Go with a friend.  I feel pretty dense about art.  Bobby does, too, but he's able to see more in depth than I am, and ask questions that make you think about what's really going on.  We try to talk quietly, though, because we don't want anyone else thinking we're idiots.  Because we're the first to make our own comments about that idiot over there waxing on about the Blue Period.

Be prepared for delays.  Now, we walked in at 4 pm on a Saturday.  It was a mad house.  The earliest tickets we could score were for 6:30.  That actually worked out great, because we walked over to Strawberry Street Cafe for a fantastic dinner.  The staff does well monitoring the flow of the group, but if you don't purchase your tickets online, don't expect that you'll walk right in.

Tickets are $20 each.  There are extended hours all this week.  Check the website for more details and to order online.  

Some of our favorites...

I really loved this sketch.  It's not pleasing or pretty.  It's supposed to indirectly represent the Spanish Civil War, but really it addresses more suffering in general.  All it made me think is that when I'm at a sobbing, gut-wrenching low, I feel exactly what he's sketched.  So if you get one "a-ha" moment like this, I guess you've experienced art?

We thought this one was particularly powerful, and had a discussion over coffee about the effects of war.  What's going on in the minds of the victims, and in the eyes of the soldiers.

And this one is still totally serious.  Still talking about suffering.  But all we could think of was Bug yelling, "I don't KNOW where my shoes are, mom!"

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Only Thing We Got Out of the Royal Wedding Was a Hankering for Scones

I've got a fun kid activity post idea, but it's going to take some preparation.  In the meantime, since things got busy after Spring Break and I haven't posted in awhile, I share with you one of my favorite recipes.  It's Teacher Appreciation Week, and we sent in some goodies to the kind ladies who manage my children a couple days a week.  I hope they enjoyed!

We love scones here.  We're not British (well, maybe way back down the line).  We weren't enthralled by the royal wedding.  But we do love a good tea party.  We've made scones from mixes, from Bisquick, and from fancy Food Network recipes.  We buy them from shops.  The very best we've had come from Market Salamander in Middleburg, VA (Resisting temptation to diverge into a road trip post.  Another time.  I promise it'll be good).  Anyway, scones: Butterscotch pecan.  Out of this world.  We also love 'em from Ukrops' (oh, ok, fine.  Martin's).  And this recipe tastes a lot like those.  Better than the mixes and the Alton Brown scientific scone-making method.

The original recipe calls for apricots, but I always throw in craisins instead because we have them on hand. I also cut them in eighths instead of sixths, because really, it's a lot of scone for one serving.  For the first time, I noticed the chocolate/almond variation, and I'm going to try that next.  With perhaps toffee chips.  Yum.  Anyway, I've made these before and been asked for the recipe, so I guess it's a keeper.  They're moist and cake-y and all sorts of good.

Cranberry Orange Cream Scones

2  cups all-purpose flour
3  tablespoons granulated sugar
3  teaspoons baking powder
2  teaspoons grated orange peel
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped dried apricots
1/2 cup white vanilla baking chips
1 1/3 cups whipping cream
1 cup powdered sugar
2 to 3 tablespoons orange juice
Heat oven to 400°F. Lightly grease cookie sheet. In large bowl, mix flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, orange peel and salt until well blended. Stir in apricots and baking chips. Add whipping cream all at once; stir just until dry ingredients are moistened.
On lightly floured surface, knead dough 6 or 7 times until smooth. Divide dough in half. Pat each half into 6-inch round; cut each into 6 wedges. Place 2 inches apart on cookie sheet.
Bake 10 to 13 minutes or until light golden brown. Cool 5 minutes. Meanwhile, in small bowl, mix powdered sugar and enough orange juice for desired drizzling consistency. Drizzle icing over warm scones. Serve warm.
Cranberry-Pecan Scones: Substitute dried sweetened cranberries for the apricots and add 1/2 cup chopped pecans with the cranberries. Double Chocolate-Almond Scones: Omit orange peel and apricots. Stir in 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips with the white baking chips. Add 1/4 teaspoon almond extract with the whipping cream. For the icing, substitute water for the orange juice and stir in 1/4 teaspoon almond extract. Sprinkle tops of iced scones with 2 tablespoons sliced almonds.
For the lightest, most tender scones, quickly mix and shape the dough, handling it as little as possible. Use only a sprinkle of flour on the work surface.
Using whipping cream in this recipe eliminates the need for butter and eggs. The high fat content in the cream makes them very tender and rich.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Woo-hoo! Wild & Crazy Spring Break '11

The girls and I were fortunate to spend Spring Break with my sister in law and her family at the beach.  There are a couple of places that we always have to hit here in Myrtle - the buffet, the pizza arcade, the burger joint right on the beach.  We try to cook dinner at the house a couple of times since it's better for the waist line and the wallet.  But I don't like to put too much effort into it, because who wants to spend their time in the kitchen on vacation?

Our solution is the slow cooker.  Luckily, the condo here has one.  But I think it might be worthwhile to stick one in the car if you don't think your vacation home has one.  It's a little effort to pack, but gives you more time at the beach.  And isn't that why you're there in the first place?

So here's what we made this week:

Crock Pot Shredded BBQ Chicken

4-5 Chicken breasts (fresh or frozen are fine)
12 oz BBQ sauce
1/2 c. Italian dressing
1/4 c. brown sugar
2 Tbsp Worcestershire
2-3 Tbsp dried minced onions
dash of Liquid Smoke--optional

Spray Crock Pot with Pam. Put chicken in and top with other ingredients. Cook 3-4 hours on high (6-8 on low). Shred chicken and return to pot. Sauce appears watery until you put the shredded chicken back in and then it thickens up.

My friend Meg sent this to me and I make it regularly.  My husband is a BBQ snob and prefers to spend all weekend smoking a pig out in the driveway.  But popping this in at 9 am for a quick meal at 5 has a LOT of value.  And it's really tasty, too.  We're cooking up some mac & cheese and slicing up a cantaloupe to go with it.  I use this for "helping hands" meals, too.

1 to 2 tablespoons chipotle chili pepper powder
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 boneless pork loin roast (2 1/2 lb), trimmed of fat
1 poblano chile, chopped
1 jar (16 oz) Old El Paso® Thick 'n Chunky green chile salsa (I use 2 cans of salsa verde, which is cheaper)
Spray 4- to 5-quart slow cooker with cooking spray. In small bowl, mix chili pepper powder, oil and salt. Rub mixture over pork; place in cooker. Sprinkle with poblano chile. Pour salsa over top.
Cover; cook on Low heat setting 8 to 10 hours.
Remove pork from cooker; place on cutting board. Shred pork with 2 forks; return to cooker and mix well.  (I shred it directly in the cooker).
Use regular chili powder in place of chipotle chili pepper powder for less heat.
The poblano chile is triangle- or heart-shaped, about 2 1/2 to 3 inches across at its widest part and 4 to 5 inches long. It's dark green in color—sometimes almost black—and ranges from mild to hot in flavor.
We LOVE LOVE LOVE this recipe.  Serve it with chips and salsa.
I omitted a few ingredients for ease of packing.  For the chicken, I skipped the Worcestershire sauce because it wasn't easy to pack and I didn't need a lot.  For the tacos, I didn't have a pepper so I skipped that.  For both recipes, I brought a bottle of dressing, BBQ sauce, 2 cans of salsa verde, brown sugar (in a plastic bag) and the spices with me.  

Cook it up in a plastic slow cooker liner and the clean up is a non-factor, giving you plenty of time to hit the beach after dinner!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hoppin' Down the Bunny Trail...

I'm the room mom for Bug's class, and I find the craft portion of the holiday parties sometimes perplexing.  I want to do something that is fun for the kids, somewhat lasting, but easy to prepare, which was especially important after a painfully long pre-assembly process for the Christmas craft (the party was postponed until January because of snow, but after DAYS of pre-assembling the Holy Family, we were doing that Nativity craft come heck or high water).

After some searching, I found a kit online but decided that the shipping cost and delivery time were a bit outrageous.  Armed with a Michael's coupon, I was able to buy the supplies cheaply and found it pretty easy to recreate!

The kids made a cute Easter Bunny magnet.  It's made of craft foam, and several "daisies" stack together to create a fluffy white bunny.  You could also use yellow foam and an orange foam triangle to construct a chick.  These look adorable on the refrigerator, and are easy for the kids to make themselves!

Easter Bunny Magnet

1 sheet white craft foam
1 sheet pink craft foam
2 googly eyes
1 pink pom pom
1 pink pipe cleaner
magnet tape

To start, you will need to trace and cut out:
2 small daisies
1 large daisy
1 white bunny ear set
2 pink bunny ear "liners"

Cut 2 pieces of pipe cleaner approximately 2 inches long each.
Cut 1 piece of magnet tape approximately 1 inch long.

The supplies (magnet tape not shown)

Start by gluing the googly eyes on the smaller daisy.

Next, glue on the pipe cleaner whiskers.  Use lots of glue!  Pipe cleaners require a lot of persuasion to stick properly.

Pom pom nose comes next.

Glue the pink portion of the ears to the larger white ears.

Glue one small daisy to the top of another small daisy, stacked so that the bottom daisy peeks through.  Glue the two small daisies to the large daisy the same way. 

Glue the bunny's face to the ears

After the bunny is assembled, peel the backing from the magnet strip and stick to the back of the bunny ears.  Wait a few hours until the bunny is completely dry, and then hang it proudly on the refrigerator!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

From the Files of Mrs. Clean

Someone recently asked me how I keep my house clean.  First of all, "clean" is a relative word.  When I think "clean," I'm thinking of the scent of almond Endust on the furniture and orange Mr. Clean on the floor in addition to putting most things (because really, most is all we can hope for) in their places.  Other people in this house have different ideas about clean.  Very different ideas.  We'll get to that later.

I'll freely admit we have too much stuff.  Toys are just the latest addition, joining the love affair that we have with books, music, and movies.  We just can't throw that stuff out, and at this point we could compete with the local library.  We already have patrons (you know who you are).  Our house isn't that big, which makes the disinfecting part of cleaning easy.  However, it's kind of tough to find a place for everything when there aren't that many places to be had.

At some point, I hope my kids note my efforts to maintain a clean environment.  Instead, when we should all merrily be singing "the clean up song," they whine, "I didn't make that mess!"  Which is my cue to stand in the middle of the room and bellow, "Well, I didn't make ANY of this mess, yet I clean up after ALL of you people ALL THE TIME!!"  I know the parenting books recommend starting the kids in on household chores.  Trust me, they'll get there.  We're just not ready to play with chemicals yet.

So while everyone in our house appreciates a fresh-smelling, dust-free home, the main issue is what to do with our extraneous stuff.  I try to put away; Bobby arranges in neat piles (neat = clean).  These theories are sometimes at odds.  I remember an article I saw posted from Family Circle, 18 Things You Can Get Rid of Today.  We are in violation of everything on this list - EVERYTHING! - except vases.  And that's only because my husband stopped buying me flowers, ever since I yelled at him for not realizing that "cut" flowers are DIY and don't come pre-arranged (a big deal when you're a week overdue with your first kid and are trimming 3 dozen roses at the kitchen sink). 

AFTER I tossed out the old magazines

Anyway, our biggest violation on the list is MAIL.  We have a mail basket on our kitchen island that functions as our junk drawer, containing: spare keys to unknown places, library cards, list of neighborhood home sales from 2002, old Christmas cards, pictures without frames, pens, tape, car title, old bills, new bills...the list goes on.  Basically, it's stuff that doesn't have a logical home and it drives Bobby absolutely nuts. 

In a nutshell, here's what the article tells you to do:
  • Don't sit down.  STAND with your mail in hand by the trash can.
  • Put bills in a pretty basket.
  • Take magazines to where you read them.
  • Scan and toss newspapers and newsletters.

I'm not sure how I feel about this.  Here's why:
  • What do you do with the bills when you've paid them?  Toss them out?  Keep them in the basket until they breed more bills? (And sadly, doesn't that always seem to happen?)
  • What about those items that you don't know how to handle?  The coupon that you may or may not use?  That letter from somewhere semi-important addressed to your husband that doesn't require immediate attention, yet can't be thrown away, and still never gets read?
  • And isn't moving magazines to where you read them just creating a pile somewhere else?  We're a literate family.  We get something like 10 magazines a month.
  • Where do you put the stuff when the basket gets full?  We've been down that road before, and it's not a vacation destination, believe me.
As I said, this mail basket drove Bobby bonkers, so he came up with a solution.  One day, he brings in a clear plastic file box and spends an hour or two furiously sorting mail in the kitchen (possibly the first and only time).  I eyed him suspiciously, but kept quiet.  When he was finished, he brought me in to show me his handiwork.

You know something is not going to go well when you hear, "Now, admittedly, it's going to be up to you to make sure this system works."

He showed me the carefully marked folders for coupons and bills (paid and unpaid).  Even one for memories!  I protested that I didn't want that ugly thing sitting in my kitchen, and that I wanted to hide it away somewhere, which in his mind, completely negated the "Stand and Scan" principle that Family Circle recommends.

So where does this leave us, about a month later?

All of the junk that had a quasi-home in the mail basket, but was not welcome in the file box, is now sitting on the dining room table.

All of the mail that has a special file folder in the file box is sitting in a pile just outside the file box.  Actually, two piles.  Old stuff and new stuff.  It transitions from one pile to another.

The file box is still in place on the island.

The mail basket is on the dining room table.

The other day, I got sick of it and dramatically reduced one of the piles on the island, and filed some of the mail in the file box.  No one noticed. 

The File Box

When I first read the Family Circle article, I was skeptical.  But noticing in review that we hang on to all of this stuff, I have to take a serious second look, books and movies aside.  Why do I need to keep all that kitchen stuff?  Why do we need so many tools and so much gardening equipment in the garage?  Why does EVERY old t-shirt end up in the linen closet as a dust rag?  Why can't we all realize that not everything is going to be of use "someday?"

I'm inspired to look again and give some of the tips a try.  The file box is not a bad idea.  But it's not up to one person to make it work, and we've got to work out a few of the aesthetic kinks. I'll let you know if we have any success.

In the meantime, does anyone have any good ideas on how to organize my mail?!

Disclaimer:  I have the best husband in the world.  We share the load.  He spent the day cleaning up the yard, including the presents left by the dog.  If I appear a little critical of his role in housekeeping, it's for comedic effect, I SWEAR :)

How Much Mayhem Can a Toddler Cause in 5 Minutes?

A Breathe-Right Nasal Strip commercial last night immediately brought to mind the most creative, destructive, and hysterical mayhem we've seen from our children yet.  In under 5 minutes, no less.

This story goes back a few years, and it involves our older child, Bug.  I'm firmly convinced a mother can sense the personality of her child in the womb.  Pie is our sunshine girl who rarely upsets the apple cart.  She curled up peacefully in a little ball for nine months and arrive a few days early with little commotion.  Bug stretched and kicked and punched and resisted every step of the way, until the doctor had to yank her out.  She still goes through life fighting.

So when Pie was a few months old, my mom came over to watch the girls so that Bobby and I could get out for awhile.  When we returned home, Mom told us that she put the baby down first, so that she could spend a little time with Bug.

"Um, what was Bug doing while you were rocking the baby to sleep?"

"Oh, I told her to play quietly."

"You mean you didn't find something for her to do?  Turn the TV on?"

"Oh, no.  It only took about 5 minutes.  But she did say that she needed a Band-aid, so she got one for herself."

Bobby and I looked at each other.  We keep the Band-aids on the top shelf of the linen closet.  Something wasn't right.  We thanked mom, and sent her home.

Upstairs, we found a trail of nose strip wrappers leading to Bug's room.  We checked her leg, which reportedly had the boo-boo.  It was covered, and I mean COVERED, in nose strips.  Now remember, these things are supposed to be strong enough to hold your nasal passages open.  And at that moment, there were about 10 of them gripping the soft, fine, hair on a 2 year old's leg.

So we headed back to our bathroom to check out the vanity, where we were pretty sure she obtained the "Band-Aids."  There was something odd...

She had applied foaming facial cleansing cream to the door jamb, and in each spot, stuck an emery board, so that it jutted out into the bedroom.  And a tube of pink Orajel was opened on the floor.

I think we collapsed in tears at that point.

But the fun didn't stop there.  You see, (and this might be too much information), Bug had some problems when she was little that required the use of suppositories.  Not a pleasant production.  She was not a fan of the "poopy cream."  While we were examining her leg, we noticed her stuffed animals were suspiciously tousled.

She had applied "poopy cream" - in this case, the pink Orajel - to all of her stuff animals in the derierre region, and covered each spot with a Breathe-Right nasal strip.

Bobby said Cookie Monster never looked the same after that.

And THAT'S how much mayhem a toddler can create in 5 minutes.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Registering for Kindergarten, or: Three Years of Indecision Put to Rest

Today was a big day.  We registered Bug for kindergarten!  I'm not completely falling apart, although I did take it kind of hard when Pie, having newly reached the ripe old age of 3, told me this morning that she was going to be a grown-up soon, and that (with hands thrown up in the air) she wouldn't be living here anymore.  After careful consideration, she did promise to visit.

Back to my kindergartner, and why I'm not falling apart (yet).  Bug turned 5 in the fall, 2 weeks before this year's registration cut-off.  That means she could be in kindergarten now, and we'd be preparing for first grade next year.  Now that I'm a mom, I hear of other moms planning births so that their kids have a leg up in school.  The thought never entered my mind with either of my kids, but I soon figured out that with my oldest, we had some decisions to make.

Had I sent her this year, she'd be the youngest in the class.  We had constant communication with her preschool teacher last year on Bug's progress.  In the beginning of the year, her fine motor skills were behind.  Toward the middle of the year, she was having some socialization issues with kids that were up to 10 months older.  At the end of the year, the prognosis changed and her teacher suggested that she might be ready by fall after all.

We researched.  A lot.  We heard the cliche, "You never regret holding them back, but sometimes regret sending them ahead."  Bobby read Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, and had visions of Bug playing pro hockey (not really, but most pro hockey players were born in January because those players were the oldest - and often biggest - in their youth leagues).  I talked to a trusted friend, a former kindergarten teacher, who told me she thought kids should be at least 5 before getting on that bus.  And that we'd see the difference in the middle and high school years. 

But while we can hope for more maturity in middle and high school, she's likely to be taller than everyone else for quite some time (her mother certainly was).  That's tough.  And she IS ready academically.  So we considered the other side of the story.  We heard success stories from friends that sent their kids ahead early.  I listened to other moms who were contemplating the same issue, except a year behind us.  I often heard, "Well, my kid is READY,"  and felt a little put out, because I wasn't really considering holding Bug back for academic reasons.  She started reading when she was 4, without any help from us.  Comments like those made me feel that my kid was inferior somehow, when I knew she wasn't.  I had to put those feelings aside and try to figure out what was the best option for her.

Finally, after a long and arduous decision-making process, we decided to keep her back.  It's not because we want to give her an advantage academically.  What tipped the scales in favor of her being the oldest?  I looked at her set of friends that are in kindergarten this year, and those that will go next year, and determined that although she adores both sets, ultimately, she's more of a confident leader among those a few months younger versus a few months older.  And perhaps promoting that confidence is the best thing we can do for her.

So today we filled out our forms, and then toured the school, checking out the art room, the cafeteria, and the kindergarten classrooms.  We looked for her friends' names on the wall, those that started kindergarten this year, and talked about all the kids she knows that will be going to school with her next year.  She's sad about leaving her preschool, but I explained that her preschool doesn't have a class that will teach all she needs to learn next year, and that her teachers have worked hard to get her ready to learn more and more.

I couldn't imagine putting her on the bus at 4 years old last year, and having her away from me all day.  But the separation isn't going to be as difficult this fall, I think.  She's truly ready now - her teachers say she's a different kid this year - and I couldn't be more proud of her.

Some points for those of you struggling with the same question:

The metro area's kindergarten registration information brochure lists the following milestones for kindergarten readiness:

  • A variety of quality learning experiences
  • Comfortable with children their own age and get along with them
  • Able to communicate and interact effectively with adults
  • Have basic life needs met so they can put their energy into learning
I remember reading recently that most parents expect kids to know letters and numbers before kindergarten, while most teachers just want the kids to be able to behave socially, sit quietly, pay attention and have an interest in learning.

An article from Richmond Magazine presents different angles, too.

So there are lots of advantages and disadvantages to the debate.  I guess I'm seeing the advantages of waiting, but really, it's an individual choice for each individual kid.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Basketball is my favorite sport...

I love the way they dribble up and down the court.

Remember that gem?  I seem to recall it playing on a bus during a field trip, probably in 5th or 6th grade.  I guess some things are best left in the '80's.

We support a few teams here in our household.  (Go Hoos! We're still waiting for that breakout season!)  This year we've had a thrill with the University of Richmond Spiders reaching the Sweet 16, and the VCU Rams playing in the Final Four.  We're planning on watching the VCU game tomorrow night with our extended family, many of whom received advanced degrees from the university.  As usual, this means fantastic snacks are in order.  I have a few favorites that meet a few important criteria:  fast, cheap and delicious.

Warm and Creamy Bacon Dip is so easy to put together!  Just throw some dairy in a bowl, mix it up, and put it in the oven.  I serve it with crackers, veggies, and Beer Bread.

I love Beer Bread.  I was introduced to it at a Tastefully Simple party, and then discovered that Target sold the mix for considerably less.  It was a sad day when I found that my Target no longer carried the mix.  A simple search turned up a recipe that contains only flour, sugar and beer.  Are you kidding?  After paying $6 for a package of Tastefully Simple mix, you mean I could pay $2 for a bag of flour that would give me 3 or 4 loaves?  And thanks to my father in law, there is always a case of Miller Lite in the garage fridge.  I prefer the lighter beer, Bobby likes it darker.  The bread does seem heavier with a darker beer.

The final recipe, Artichoke and Spinach Dip, is a little more expensive to make.  But you throw it all in the crock pot!  You need one of those cute little slow cookers meant for dips.  Cut up your ingredients, throw them in, and let them cook for a few hours.

We love watching big sporting events for the food as much as the athletics.  If you all are watching some basketball this weekend and want to nibble on something tasty, try one of these out.  And if you have a suggestion of your own, please share!  GO RAMS!

Warm and Creamy Bacon Dip

8 ounces cream cheese, softened
2 cups Daisy Brand Sour Cream
3 ounces bacon bits
2 cups Cheddar cheese, shredded
1 cup green onion, chopped

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a bowl, combine all ingredients. Place the mixture in a 1-quart baking dish. Cover. Heat the dip for 25-30 minutes or until hot. Serve with assorted fresh vegetables, crackers and/or chips. *Serving option: Dip may also be placed in hollowed round sourdough loaf, wrapped in foil and heated in 400 degree oven for 30 minutes.

Note: I use 2% cheese, low fat sour cream, and neufchatel cheese (light cream cheese) and it turns out great.

Serve with veggies, crackers and Beer Bread

Beer Bread
1 (12 fluid ounce) can or bottle beer
3 cups self-rising flour
3 tablespoons white sugar
In a large bowl, mix together the sugar and flour. Add beer and continue to mix, first using a wooden spoon, then your hands. Batter will be sticky. Pour into a 9 x 5 inch greased loaf pan.  Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees ) for 50 for 60 minutes. The top will be crunchy, and the insides will be soft. Serve topped with butter or cheese spread. 
Note: I add 1/4 stick melted butter to the top of the bread BEFORE baking.

With this recipe, the finished bread actually has a slight beer flavor


Cube it up for spreading and dipping

Slow Cooker Southwest Artichoke and Spinach Dip
1  can (14 oz) artichoke hearts, drained, coarsely chopped
1  box (9 oz) Green Giant® frozen spinach, thawed, squeezed to drain
1  package (8 oz) cream cheese, cubed, softened
1  can (4.5 oz) Old El Paso® chopped green chiles, undrained
1/2  medium red bell pepper, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1/2  cup shredded pepper Jack cheese (2 oz)
1  bag (14 oz) round tortilla chips

Spray 1- to 1 1/2-quart slow cooker with cooking spray. In medium bowl, mix all ingredients except pepper Jack cheese and tortilla chips; spoon into cooker.
Cover; cook on Low heat setting 2 to 3 hours.
Stir pepper Jack cheese into artichoke mixture. Cover; cook on Low heat setting about 5 minutes longer or until cheese is melted. Serve with tortilla chips.

Remember, share your favorites, too!  I'm always looking for a great new recipe!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Embracing the Muffin Top

I realized sometime over the weekend that it was MY turn to host Pie's playgroup.  Normally, we like to have a little something for the moms and kids to snack on.  But I was a solo parent this weekend and was not about to take two children grocery shopping.  What did I have in my pantry and refrigerator that I could put together quickly?  Not much.  Bisquick.  At least two eggs.  Some oil.  Lots of jambalaya mix (it was on sale).  No milk, but my mom helped me out there (thanks, Mom!)  I went to Bisquick's website to see what I could dig up.

The ironic thing is that I collect cookbooks.  I own so many that I've weeded them out and sold them at yard sales on occasion.  Do I consult these books when I need to try something new?  No!  I go to the internet!   I especially love product sites because the ideas are simple with ingredients already on hand.  I "like" these companies on Facebook and get yummy recipes posted on my wall daily (see Betty Crocker, Taste of Home, Pillsbury, Southern Living).  My favorite cookbook is my 3 ring binder stuffed with print outs, hand written family recipes, and magazine clippings - contained in plastic sheet protectors, one of the best ideas I've ever had.  Perhaps that's not saying much.  Anyway, I bet you a dollar that I already have the recipe I printed out online in my Bisquick cookbook.

Here's the thing: It's really not much more effort to find a simple recipe rather than opening up a box of muffin mix from the store, and the results are SO MUCH BETTER.  Don't be afraid.  Give it a try!  It doesn't take long - chopping up one apple took the most time here.

Apple Cheddar Muffins
1 egg
2 cups Original Bisquick® mix
3/4 cup coarsely chopped peeled cooking apple (1 med. apple, I used Braeburn)
2/3 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
1/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup milk
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 
Heat oven to 400°F. Grease bottoms only of 12 regular-size muffin cups with shortening, or line with paper baking cups. 
In medium bowl, beat egg slightly. Stir in remaining ingredients just until moistened. Divide batter evenly among cups. 
Bake 17 to 19 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm.

Everyone seemed to like the muffins, but the most important thing is that I didn't need to make a special trip to the grocery store or spend hours in the kitchen to put something warm and delicious on the table.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

I'm Lovin' It!

"Virginia is for Lovers" linked to a CNN article on its Facebook page highlighting 15 places kids should see by age 15. Big news for Virginia, because two locations are mentioned along with Washington, D.C., which is just in our backyard.

I've been to 7 of the hot spots, thanks to a trip out West when I was a teenager and a recent trek out to San Francisco with my husband.

Monticello and Williamsburg are included as must-see visits, and I gotta say, I have a certain amount of expertise in these areas. As a grad of "Mr. Jefferson's University," I've had more than one trip to his home at Monticello. And I grew up in a family of Williamsburg freaks. Of course, you have to see Monticello and Williamsburg themselves, but there's so much more to see than just that. So here's a look at what the natives do:


Bobby and I visited Monticello recently after the U2 concert in Charlottesville. So much fun! The visitors' center up there is relatively new and a welcome addition. What's more, the cafe inside is really pretty good. On the way to Monticello, you might see signs for Michie Tavern. My mom loves the place, but I say keep on going. The tavern promises and authentic colonial experience, but from what I can remember, you're really only paying for plain old fried chicken on a pewter plate. Go for the gourmet fare further up the hill at the visitors' center.

On your way back down the mountain, stop at Jefferson Vineyards. Winemaking was an interest of Jefferson's, and the vineyards today grow in the same location as the originals. I'm a big fan of the Vin Blanc.

Speaking of wineries, if you have extra time, head out Rt 29 to Barboursville Vineyards. This winery is one of the best in the state. We have a bottle of its prize-winning Octagon, waiting for a super special occasion. There are ruins of the original home nearby, and an acclaimed restaurant on site.

If you resisted Michie Tavern and the cafe at Monticello and still find yourself hungry, head to UVA and hang out on the Corner. You can try a legendary Gusburger at The White Spot (it's the fried egg that makes it special). We were always fans of littlejohns and Take It Away (try the house dressing). Other friends would argue that you have to trek out to Crozet and have a slice at Crozet Pizza. Also a great recommendation, and that brings me to the final suggestion for your C'ville road trip:

If you're traveling in the summer, check out Chiles Peach Orchard, not far from Crozet. If it's fall, go to Carter Mountain Orchard. Picking peaches or apples couldn't be easier, and the kids had a blast. The shop is stocked full of baked goods, and at Chiles you can order a peach milkshake.

Obviously, some of these activities are geared more toward adults. And Monticello tours might be tough for younger kids, although the older ones will probably find Jefferson's gadgets and other inventions fascinating. But taking the kids down to the University or out for pizza and peach picking is a great way to spend a weekend afternoon.


I can't count how often I've been to Colonial Williamsburg. We even had Thanksgiving dinner in a tavern there one year (lots of fun, but not an all-you-can-eat affair). I grew up going there, and we love taking our kids there today.

For a full day, you can always go to Busch Gardens or Great Wolf Lodge. Busch Gardens offers a preschool pass to Virginia residents, with free admission for kids 5 and under. You do have to go online to register. We've never been to the Lodge, but hear great things about it from friends, so I feel safe recommending it.

If you don't want to spend major cash at the amusement parks, try some of these other options:

I can't say enough good things about Jamestown. A few years ago, Bobby and I spent our anniversary in Williamsburg and decided to check out Jamestown for something different. The visitors' center is incredible - we spent HOURS wandering through exhibits that start with pre-historic Virginia. I took the girls this past fall, and although I was worried about their attention span, they loved it. There are short film strips and some interactive displays along the way, and if that gets too tough for them, there are replicas of Powhatan villages where they can play Native American games and grind their own corn. A short trip down the path, you'll find the colonial fort with costumed interpreters, and beyond that, they can board three replica ships docked nearby. We've brought our own picnic and enjoyed lunch out front while looking at flags for every state in the nation. Really, if you head down to Williamsburg, a trip to Jamestown is a must-see.

After you have your fill of history, check out Prime Outlets on Rt 60. They've expanded in recent years and feature shops for all interests. You can find our family here right before school starts, taking advantage of Tax Free deals (first weekend in August)! Also on Rt 60 is the Yankee Candle flagship store. I love going here to find my favorite, rare scents. There's also a Christmas village, a performing clock tower, and kids' shop. Last time we were there, Bug created her own candle.

If you're hungry, you may decide you want to eat in the Colonial area. That's fine, but I warn you that I think the taverns have gone downhill in recent years. I'd recommend The Cheese Shop in Merchant's Square (gourmet sandwiches), Christiana Campbell's Tavern for dinner, and a new favorite, Food For Thought, on Rt 60 (yummy crab cakes). For dessert, go to the Peanut Shop and buy a tin of Chocolate Covered Peanut Brittle. It's addictive.

Honestly, we haven't paid for admission to Williamsburg exhibits in years. I think Jamestown is much more informative. However, there are a few Williamsburg things we don't ever miss: Soap from the gift shop, gingerbread cakes from the bakery, root beer and ginger ale! And if we're feeling festive, we'll do the Sunday brunch at the Williamsburg Lodge. It's pricey, but well worth it.

Last time, we ended our trip with a visit to Williamsburg Winery. Note: Although not impossible, this is best done without kids!

So, my friends that are from Williamsburg or Charlottesville, or attended W&M or UVA, what are your suggestions?

For the rest of you out there, hit the road and let me know how it goes!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hey! I Want My Hour Back!

Normally I disregard most e-mails I receive from Baby Center. It's not a bad resource, especially if you're a first-time mom. I remember eagerly checking out what my baby looked like at 8 weeks (a shrimp), then 20 weeks (an alien), etc. I loved lurking on the Girls' Names message board because so many of the ladies there shared my taste, and there was always the occasional laugh at someone who was floating something outrageous by for review. But as I became more confident in my parenting ability, I stopped looking up when to introduce what foods and just went with what worked.

Landing in my in-box this week, though: How to Get an Hour Back Everyday. Yes! Sign me up! What would I do with that hour? Read a book? Indulge in a home-made spa remedy? Paint my nails? Eh, more likely waste it on Facebook or feeling guilty for not channeling it into work.

So here's what I find particularly helpful:
  • Make sandwiches for the week on Sunday and take them out each morning (or the night before).
  • Keep a freezer inventory taped to your refrigerator door, with all of the items currently living in your freezer. Check them off as you use them. I might have to try this as I think we still have a bag of scallops that expired last year lurking in the back, out of sight.
And helpful ... at first glance:
  • Keep a clothes box handy for outgrown clothes. I actually do this, as I downgrade from Bug's closet to Pie's. The problem is that I'm too lazy to take it up to the attic so it has a permanent place on the floor in Bug's room. And it often collects laundry that I fail to put away. So if you have easily accessible storage space and the willpower to stick the tub there, go for it.
  • Keep a "to-do" bag that you take with you. This seemed like a brilliant idea until I tried to think of what to put in a to-do bag. Everything is done electronically these days, so wouldn't this just be your iPhone or a laptop?
Thanks, but I think I'll skip:
  • Bagging up my kids' clothes by outfit to make clothing selections easy in the morning
  • Assigning each kid a color so that all of their belongings are easily identifiable
  • Just not putting away the laundry at all
Yeah, no kidding:
  • Take a nap
  • Make your spouse pull his weight
  • Get up early
Here's my contribution:

I create a weekly menu on Sundays, and sync it with a weekly calendar. Both of these are magnetized and hang on the refrigerator door. When I go to the grocery store on Sunday or Monday, I make sure I have all the ingredients for the meals. Don't be too impressed, though. If I didn't do this, I'd forget to take my kids to school and we'd never have anything to eat. And we still sometimes chuck it all for kids' night at Chick Fil A.

Finally, love your crock pot/slow cooker. There's always enough for a second meal. And sometimes, if dinner isn't on by 9 am, it's not getting made.

Any other ideas out there? I could use a few extra minutes to dry my hair in the morning...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

My Favorite Fruit is a Maraschino Cherry

We discovered Whole Foods Half-Pint Kids Club last summer, when I was desperate for free kid-focused activities. Somehow, going to Whole Foods is a lot cooler than an activity at, say, Food Lion. I really can't imagine taking the kids to the Lion for fun. Yet both are grocery stores. Go figure.

So the Half-Pint kids club goes something like this: There's an activity (we've made planters, bird puppets, window hangings), sometimes a story, and ALWAYS a snack. Normally some organic juice or milk and store brand snacks. A lot of times, though, the nice lady who runs the show can't help bringing out a hunk of gingerbread from the bakery. Everybody wins.

After unsuccessfully attempting to parallel park the mini-van and mostly successfully dodging hipsters, I found a space in the lot and took the kids inside for today's activity: Playing with Yummy Food. The girls each received a "cutting board" (parchment paper), a plastic knife, a generous slice of pound cake, half a banana and a pile of strawberries and blueberries. After slicing them up, ("Hey! It's like Iron Chef!") they decorated the cake with a dollop of whipped cream, and then chowed down.

Slicin' and Dicin'

Composting the Scraps (this IS Whole Foods, after all)

Creating a Masterpiece


Oh, and about the maraschino of the helpers asked the kids about their favorite fruits, after explaining how wonderful fresh, healthy fruit is for you. And how there's no need for adding sugar to sweet strawberries, etc. MY daughter says cherries are her favorite fruit. Which is puzzling because we don't eat cherries much. And when the helper asks her about the pits, Bug looks confused. Then I realize that her favorite fruit is that which tops her ice cream sundae. Why I explained to the all-natural, organic helper, I don't know. I fielded a disapproving stare, and I should have just kept my mouth shut.

Go to your local Whole Foods page and check the calendar. If you're lucky, they do this free event in your town. There are also fun grown-up activities, too, like beer and wine tastings and tours of the store that come with swag.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Here We Are

The past year or two I've cluttered up a Facebook page with recipes, subjecting friends to my virtual cookbook, plans for road trips, some fun kid craft that I never get around to doing, or a random tidbit I've reposted from the History Channel. Oh, I'll probably continue to do that, but I thought it would be fun to expand on some of those topics. So here second foray into the blogosphere.

That's right. I've blogged before. Way back in 2006, when I chronicled the pattering footsteps of my first child for friends and relatives. This blog is more practical, though, and available to everyone. Yes, there will be some random rantings of a mom reaching her wits' end (usually about 2 pm on a Tuesday). Most likely, you'll find some interesting baked goodie that the kids and I have made, or our review of a new activity around town, a recent road trip that we've planned, or some craft that we've managed not to screw up. Who am I kidding? I'll include our disasters, too, because that's way more fun.

We're not perfect. Mostly we're impatient, kinda whiny, somewhat messy, and spend our days in jeans and Myrtle Beach t-shirts. But people seem to think that's fun. So enjoy!