Thursday, April 9, 2015

Easy toddler craft: A windsock to welcome spring

Spring is finally here! Being a bit of a sun-worshiper, I am always happy when the spring equinox arrives and brings with it longer and warmer days. Signs of the new season in our backyard include apple & peach tree blossoms, new seedlings in the greenhouse, asparagus pushing up in the garden, and an abundance of eggs. Inside our home, I love how the extra light streaming through the windows makes our tiny house feel larger and warms the floors under our feet.

With a three-year-old in our home, I'm quickly learning that everything - and I mean everything - provides an opportunity to teach. Spring is no exception. Each week we've been talking about different topics that relate to spring and the outdoors, from birds to trees to light/rainbows to the wind. In regards to the latter, to help him visualize what he cannot see - the movement of air - we made a windsock. What started as a fun project to fill an afternoon has resulted in a permanent addition to our patio that hangs outside our kitchen window. From his seat at our breakfast table our toddler sees the windsock "capture" the wind and reports his findings with glee.

This project is pretty self-explanatory. All you need is a cleaned can (use tape to cover any sharp edges inside), paint, and 20+ pieces of approximately 14'' length ribbon (the number will depend upon the size of your can and the width of your ribbon). Have your child paint the can and once it is dry help him/her glue the ribbons to the inside of the can. Punch holes in the top with a screwdriver and add string and, voila! Your windsock is born.

Though my toddler is typically not very interested in doing crafts, whenever we work on a particularly fun or interesting project he really gets into it. This definitely qualified! He spent over 30 minutes painting the can - both inside and out. He then couldn't wait to add the ribbons. Once we hung it up he was beaming. It warms my heart to know that the small projects that we do (especially those that require planning and prep on my part) add meaning and joy to his day.

What do you like to do with your family to welcome spring into your home? Please share in the comments!



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Sunday, March 15, 2015

8 fun ways to use Easter eggs with kids

As a mom of two little boys, there is little more satisfying then coming up with fun, free projects that result in big smiles and busy kids.

Enter the plastic Easter egg. With it being Easter season, you can hardly walk into a grocery or big-box shopping store without tripping over a holiday display with bags and bags of them. At my house, we already have oodles of these colorful little containers collecting dust in the garage. While they might seem rather useless for eleven months of the year, there are actually quite a few fun and even educational things you can do with plastic Easter eggs. Here are some ideas to make the most of your Easter egg collection all year round.

  1. Have your child "cook" with them with their pots and pans. Put them in an egg carton to add to the fun.
  2. Choose one of every color and separate the two halves. Have your preschooler match the halves by color.
  3. Create a Montessori-inspired sensory activity by choosing various small items (popcorn, coins, rice, beans, paperclips, etc.) to put inside the eggs. Close the eggs but do not seal them. Have your preschooler shake the eggs and try to identify which sound goes with each item.
  4. Do the same as in #3, but use a hot glue gun to seal the eggs and turn them into maracas. My 11-month old LOVES these. (Popcorn makes the best shaker.)
  5. Take one half of an egg and use it to make circles with paint.
  6. Take a handful of eggs to your sandbox. Enough said.
  7. Practice counting and recognizing numbers by writing a number on the outside of each egg and putting the corresponding number of pompoms inside.
  8. Make a list of fun activities to do with your child and place one inside each egg. Do a hunt around the house and complete the activities as you find each egg.
Have another way to repurpose Easter eggs? Please share in the comments.

Cheers and Happy Easter!


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Thursday, February 19, 2015

The incredible, edible oat

Growing up one of my favorite breakfast foods was Quaker Instant Oatmeal. I loved picking out my own individually-sized packet from the box of assorted flavors and "making it" myself (aka. adding hot water or milk). My favorite flavor was strawberries and cream, because the freeze-dried strawberry pieces (really, strawberry-flavored and sugar-infused milk sponges of questionable origin would be a more appropriate description) turned the milk pink. Those were the days when I thought pink milk was perfectly normal. Sweet tooth? Oh my, you betcha.

Fast forward thirty years. While my sweet tooth is still going strong, since moving to California eight years ago I've developed a passion for eating simple, whole foods. Foods with ingredients that, as Michael Pollan would say, your great-grandma would recognize (sorry, Instant Oatmeal - you don't qualify). Being a new mom has taken this interest to the next level as I'm now not only eating healthy for myself but want our kids to grow up loving wholesome, nutritious food. (Mom, if you're reading this, I want to let you know I place the blame for those Instant Oatmeal packages  - and the Pop Tarts, Toaster Streusel, and unlimited Entenmenn's Coffee Cake - on Dad and thank you for all of the nourishing, delicious food you cooked for us as kids. P.S. Dad, thank you for the sweet tooth.)

Enter the oat. I'm talking about the real deal, which comes in 32 ounce round cardboard containers (or the bulk bin) from the grocery store. It wasn't until our oldest son was born that I discovered these beauties sitting quietly on the bottom shelf of the cereal aisle. It started with baby steps - buying one container and making fresh oatmeal and a batch or two of granola - and now it's to the point where whenever we walk into Target my son tells me we need to get more oats. Last week we bought four containers because they were on sale. I'm now so familiar with purchasing oats that I can even tell you, down to the penny, the cost of 32 ounces of oats at Trader Joe's, Target, and Walmart.  The best deal? Target at $2.99 for 32 ounces (or $2.69 when on sale).

Oats are not only an inexpensive, healthy whole grain to feed your family, but are simple and fun to cook. It's easy to involve kids in making things like oatmeal or granola as the ingredients are straightforward, typically on-hand and easy to mix together. In our home we make oatmeal a few times a week (which is just about as instant as Instant Oatmeal), use leftovers to make oatmeal pancakes, and every Sunday my three-year-old helps me make a big batch of granola. He loves mixing (and eating) it so much that I think he wishes we made it every morning. Bonus? When baking in the oven it makes our house smell heavenly.

Below are our weekly go-to oat-inspired recipes. Have one of your own? Please share in the comments. I hope you enjoy!



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(Almost-instant) Oatmeal
Makes 2-3 servings.

1 cup regular (or quick) oats
2 1/4 cup milk
Extras: Pinch of cinnamon, handful of raisins or cranberries, honey or maple syrup to sweeten

Add the oats and milk together in a saucepan and place on a medium heat burner. Once the mixture begins to simmer turn down to low. The oatmeal will be ready to eat in approximately 5 minutes, once the oats soften. Add additional ingredients or sweeteners to taste.

Easy Granola
Makes 4-6 servings.

Solid Ingredients

3 cups whole oats
1/2 cup nuts
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
1/2 cup sunflower or pumpkin seeds
1 tablespoon brown sugar

Liquid Ingredients

1/4 cup butter or olive oil
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup maple syrup

Preheat oven to 350.

Mix together the solid ingredients in a large bowl. Melt the butter if using. Add the other liquid ingredients to the butter or oil and blend well. You should have about 3/4 cup fat/liquid mix to every 3 cups oats. Mix the liquids into the solid ingredients.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Put the granola on top and pat into a single layer. The granola will bake for 20-30 minutes, depending upon if you used butter or olive oil as the fat. You can either stir the granola at about 15 minutes when it starts to brown on top, or leave it in the oven undisturbed the whole time (if you do,  keep a close eye on it so it does not burn). Remove from oven when the top of the granola has a golden brown color. The parchment paper on the bottom of the tray will have browned it from below.

When cool, mix in the dried fruit of your choice (cranberries, blueberries, raisins, etc.). Store in an air tight container.

This recipe doubles easily.

Oatmeal Pancakes
Makes about 20 3 inch pancakes.
From the Joy of Cooking.

Whisk together in a large bowl:
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt

Beat in a separate bowl:
2 eggs

Stir in:
1 1/2 cup cooked oatmeal
1/2 cup milk or buttermilk
2 tablespoons melted butter
1 mashed banana (our family's favorite addition)

Quickly stir this mixture into the dry ingredients. The batter may appear lumpy. Use 1/4 cup batter for each pancake.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

My first New Year's resolutions

I've never been one for New Year's resolutions. Perhaps the hustle and bustle of the holiday season left me wanting to trash every to-do-list, not make a new one. More likely, I was so caught up in school or work-related goal setting that I thought I had it covered.

This year feels different. Why? I'm kicking off 2015 as a new stay-at-home mom. And one of the things I've realized in the few months I've been in this role is that the success of my time at home with the kids is entirely up to me. Obvious? Perhaps. Difficult to embrace when you feel like tearing your hair out on a daily basis? Definitely.

Being a stay-at-home-mom is everything people say about it. It's an absolute gift to be with my children and help them grow into happy and healthy human beings. At the same time being a 24/7 mom has tested every fiber of my being. I didn't realize I was lacking in patience and compassion. I didn't know that when I was working after my first son was born, my work time was my "me" time. I had no idea my own inner two-year-old could throw an adult tantrum. I didn't know that being a good stay-at-home mom requires an incredible amount of personal discipline, everything from getting up in the morning (when you are SO TIRED) to setting a schedule for yourself and your family to understanding and controlling your moods.

One thing I really miss? Feedback. When you're a full-time mom, often no one tells you if you're doing a good job. There is no formal review structure. No boss to give you a pat on the back (or constructive criticism - which I desperately need now). No meetings in which to be recognized for your work. No one to say things like, "You're doing a great job in the creativity department - I like the artwork on the fridge - but I'd really like to see you develop your silly side."

Feedback aside - because there's nothing I can do to fix that problem - in a recent moment of (rare) quiet I realized that something I can do for myself in this new role is set goals. Things to get me energized and force me to grow as a person. With a new year upon us, I feel excited. I feel like jumping on this opportunity to better myself and my family and - gasp - set New Year's resolutions.

What's on my list? On the family side, I'd like to work on my patience, develop a mission statement for our family (cheesy, perhaps - but I think it will force us to think deeply about our values), do monthly or weekly learning themes for our kids and incorporate more prayer into our daily life. When it comes to personal development/care, I want do yoga at least once a week and take a music class (I took piano lessons for 13 years and directed an acapella group in college - I feel as if a part of me is missing without music in my life). Finally, to keep up with my professional skills I plan to take a photography and/or Photoshop class and blog at least twice a month. (I'm not off to the best start here in January with only one post, but this fresh start in the New Year also includes being kind and forgiving to myself!)

Do you have any goals you're taking on for 2015? I'd love to hear about them! Please share in the comments.

Cheers to a fabulous 2015!


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Saturday, December 27, 2014

A Simple Christmas

For the first time in a long time, I finally feel like I got it right this Christmas. No frantic last-minute gift shopping, no calendar packed with parties, no elaborate decorations and, perhaps most importantly, no (well, at least very little) stress. 

How did I go from secretly dreading the holiday season to rekindling my love for Christmas? It started with a book I picked up from the library - The Simple Living Guide - which has an entire chapter devoted to simplifying the holidays. The author, Janet Luhrs, encourages readers to forgo the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping and parties and instead keep the entire month of December open for time with the family. She also extols keeping the materialism of the season at bay and thinking creatively when it comes to gifts. Make things, shop at thrift or consignment stores, give experiences, etc. No matter what you do, she recommends removing yourself mentally from the frenetic nature of holiday gift-giving and instead focusing on the true meaning of the season: celebrating family, friends and faith.

Inspired, I set out to simplify our Christmas. It started with limits on gifts. We decided to get each of our boys two gifts. We set a $50 limit on gifts for spouses. We talked to our respective families, both of which decided to do no gifts for adults. We told grandparents to please only get one gift for each child (no easy task!). In addition to making for a less crazy shopping experience, limiting the extravagance of the season helped us bring back the focus of the holiday season to giving vs. receiving. Our hope is that on Christmas morning we'll be more thankful for - and not overwhelmed by - presents. (As I'm finally getting this post up after Christmas - so it goes with two kids - I'll share that one of my favorite things that morning was watching my two-year-old spend five minutes reading the first gift he opened from Santa, a book about fire trucks. His presents from grandparents, wooden blocks and a wooden train set, have been played with constantly since Christmas morning. It's wonderful to see him truly appreciate his gifts, and I believe that's because he's not buried by them.)

Probably the biggest change we made this year was adopting a family for Christmas. In November I called local charities and found a single mom and her son that were in need. This project brought special meaning to the season, as we carefully chose gifts that would be helpful to her in a new job and I used my now-honed-mom-of-two-boys skills to find things for her son. Even my hairdresser donated a haircut and style, which left me speechless. The process of putting together gifts and food for this family warmed my heart and reminded me of the true meaning of Christmas.

Finally, to simplify our holiday calendar we limited our engagements to a max of one per week. Instead we spent a lot more time with our family, enabling us to do things like cut down a Christmas tree for the first time with our kids (so fun!), drive around Napa looking at Christmas lights (live locally? Don't miss Paradise Drive), watch the original Rudolph movie with our two-year-old, bake lots of cookies, do an Nativity-themed Advent Calendar every day, and celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas with the tradition of treats and small presents in shoes.

Limiting commitments also gave us ample time to teach our two-year-old about the story of Jesus' birth so that he understands why we celebrate with cookies, parties, presents, a visit from Santa Claus, etc. The Advent calendar was a big part of this, as were books including The Little Drummer Boy, The First Christmas and the Usborne Nativity Flap Book. It has been such a blessing to watch our little guy really get Christmas this year. The joy on his face throughout the season has been a constant reminder to cherish this time of year.

I know that what's "right" for our family in celebrating Christmas may not be "right" for everyone, but I hope our process of getting to a truly happy holiday encourages other families that may also be overwhelmed by the season. We took time to think deliberately about what we wanted Christmas to mean to our family - the traditions we wanted to create and what we wanted to teach our children - and we tried to let the rest of it go. The result was a month of celebrating and giving that filled our souls and hearts with joy.

A very Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays to all!



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