Thursday, February 28, 2013

Toddler Activities: 18 Months Old

One of the challenges of being a stay at home mom is finding activities for your little one to keep them entertained throughout the day. These are a few of our current favorite activities:

Obstacle Course: With the snow piling up outside, I've been looking for activities that we can do to burn off some excess energy without having to get all bundled up. An indoor obstacle course will not only help develop gross motor skills, but also helps combat cabin fever! Just use your imagination as you set up an obstacle course for your toddler. You can use chairs, tables, boxes, cushions, pillows, (you name it!) to create a course that offers areas for walking, crawling, going under, going over, etc. Emma enjoyed camping out in a "tunnel" made with some pillows and a quilt.

String Path: Another great way to keep your child active indoors is to make a path for your child using string. I have an overabundance of yarn at my house, so we made a bright purple string path - very easy to follow! Tie one end of the string to a piece of furniture and continue creating a string path throughout your house. Have your child enjoy following the path, by walking along the string. It is especially fun to have a surprise treat waiting for your child at the end of the path!

And, of course...

Read: Reading is one of the best activities you can do with your child at any age!

A few of Emma's current favorites are:

My 3 good things for today are:
  1. The snow outside is beautiful, and we have a snow-blower for the driveway! Yay!
  2. Emma has a new tooth coming in. We dealt with teething yesterday, and now we just get to enjoy the tooth!
  3. We got our taxes done! Whew!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Sweet & Simple Valentine's Day

It boggles my mind to think that the cost of a dozen high-quality roses can skyrocket to more than $100 in the few days leading up to Valentine's Day. As commercial (not to mention expensive) as Valentine's Day has become, I am still a fan of the day. Even though I tell my family that I love them each day, it is still fun to have one special day filled with hearts and confessions of love and lots of pink. There are a lot of simple ways you can make your family's Valentine's Day sweet on a small budget.

Lunchtime Treats  

On the workdays leading up to Valentine's Day, I slipped little treats into my husband, Derek's, lunchbox. There are ideas and printables all over Pinterest, but I downloaded these printable tags from Six Sisters' Stuff, and printed them on some pretty card stock I had on hand.

One day I sent You are the apple of my eye! with a bag of apple slices, and the next he got I'm nuts about you! on a package of mixed nuts.

Some other treats were:
  • You are one hot tamale! ...with a spicy hot meat stick
  • I wouldn't chews anyone but you!  ...with a sour fruit chew
  • I think you are sodamazing! ...with a can of pop
  • We were mint to be together! ...on a tin of mints
  • I'm bananas for you! ...on a banana 
  • I would be so mixed up without you! ...with a bag of spicy trail mix
  •  Life would be unbearable without you! ...with a bag of gummy bears

He saved the tags from all his treats, and stuck them up all around his desk at work, so he is constantly reminded that he is loved!

Valentine's Day Cards

I stumbled across this idea on Pinterest and loved it so much, I used the concept to make our Valentine's Day cards for Emma's grandparents. Derek helped to distract Emma while I traced her hands on some pretty pink paper.

I cut out her hand-prints and wrote "I LOVE YOU..." on one and "THIS MUCH!" on the other. I wrote on the cards freehand, but you could use transfer letters if you'd prefer. I made an accordion fold with the remaining paper, and connected the two hands together.

Valentine's Day Breakfast

For breakfast on Valentine's Day, I made heart shaped cinnamon rolls. I found the idea over at Craft and Creativity and, although her recipe sounded amazing and I am a big proponent of cooking from scratch, mornings can be a little hectic around here. So I cheated and used refrigerated cinnamon rolls.

I simply unrolled the dough halfway, rolled up the other side, and pitched the middle to arrange them into a heart shape. They turned out fantastic!

I also made Derek a Valentine's Day Coupon Book. I downloaded the printable coupons from Elegance & Enchantment. It was really easy to make - not to mention, FREE!

I printed the coupons on the white back of some cardstock, and tied them all together with a pretty ribbon. I had a hard time coming up with my first few coupon ideas, but once I got started, the ideas came fairly easily. 

You control the remote: watch the TV show or game of your choice - no complaints!

One free car wash: I'll wash your car by hand or run it through the car wash for you!

Free ice cream run any time: I'll run out for a treat and bring it back to you!

Get out of trouble free: present this when you want to skip the fighting and get right to making up!

Hit the links or the slopes: an afternoon of snowboarding or a round of golf even though there are chores to do!

A few of your favorite things: I'll cook a meal of your choice in any outfit you choose!

One massage: any area of your body of your choosing!

The last few are a little too intimate to share publicly. I'll let you use your imagination.

Emma (with a little help from Mommy) made Daddy an adorable card inspired by In Lieu of Preschool. Emma colored on a piece of plain white paper, then I folded the paper in half like a card.

I traced a heart shaped cookie cutter on the front - because I am terrible at freehand drawing - and cut out the heart. Then I wrote "My" above the heart cutout, and "belongs to You!" under the heart. This is a wonderful way for a toddler to "make their own" valentines!

Valentine's Day Surprise!

Being a stay at home mom means that I may not always be able to buy everything I want. But, while I may not be able to afford to have a Valentine's Day gift delivered to my husband's work, my time is my own! Thankfully Derek's office is not far from our home. So after a morning play date, Emma and I swung by to deliver a Valentine's Day surprise!

Apart from fresh chocolate chip cookies, Girl Scout samoas cookies are probably Derek's favorite treat. So when I saw these knock-off cookies (let's be honest now, Keebler) on sale at Cub, I snagged a box. The pretty little potted plant was on sale for $1.99 at Aldi this week, and will brighten Derek's desk at work for months to come. The card was the real steal though. I got a coupon code for a free card from where we had ordered our Christmas cards. They were also running an offer for free shipping at the time, so the beautiful personalized card cost a grand total of zero dollars and zero cents!

Valentine's Day Dinner

Homemade pizza is in our regular dinner rotation, so it was no chore to prepare. I simply cut the pepperoni slices into heart shapes using a small cookie cutter before topping the pizza.

I also added little hearts to our breadsticks instead of plain sticks.

How did you make your family's Valentine's Day special this year?

My 3 good things for today are:
  1. I love God and am loved by God.
  2. I love Derek and am loved by Derek.
  3. I love Emma and our new baby boy, and am loved by them as well. The last one is still a little iffy as I have not officially met the little man yet, but I have high hopes :)

Happy Valentine's Day!

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Family Date: Snow Day

With snow falling all over the Twin Cities, people of all ages ventured out this weekend to go sledding, make snow angels, and have some winter weather fun. My family had a snowball fight with the fresh snow (Emma refereed), built a pair of snowmen in our front yard, and enjoyed some hot cocoa in front of the fireplace.

We had a special, relaxing day together and I wanted to share my Top 10 Ideas for Turning a Snow Day into a Family Date:

1. Make a family of snow angels, or build a snowman for each family member, and decorate them. 

2. Take a nature walk, in a nearby park or even your backyard. Look for tracks and try to identify what left them. Think of what each animal might be looking for in the snow.

3. SNOWBALL FIGHT!! Split into teams: adults vs. kids, boys vs. girls, or whatever works for your family. Then stock on up "ammo" and let the battle begin!

4. Decorate a tree with yummy treats for the neighborhood wildlife. One simple idea is to smear peanut butter over a pine cone, and roll it in bird seed. Hang it in a tree with a bit of yarn.

5. After sledding, come inside to warm up with some hot soup or warm cocoa!

6. Break out an old board game. Candyland or Chutes and Ladders can be fun whether you're 3 or 30.

7. Make music! Using an instrument or only voices, make up a song and let each child add a bit to it.

8. Get out the Legos or blocks and create something together. Depending on how many you have, this can be one structure or a whole "city" of creations.

9. Turn down the thermostat a couple degrees, crowd onto the couch under some cozy blankets, and watch a family movie together. Snuggle time!

10. Make a real SNOW cone. All you need is a bowl, spoon, a patch of fresh snow, and some flavoring. We used to simply top fresh snow with a drizzle of maple syrup when we were kids, but you could also use vanilla or root beer extract. Kool-Aid is also a fun choice. To use Kool-Aid flavoring, combine one Kool-Aid packet, 1 cup of water, and 1 1/2 cups of sugar and stir until the sugar is as dissolved as you can get it. Find some clean, white snow, and scoop some snow into your bowl. Spoon the flavoring of your choice over your snow cone and begin eating!

Snow days are the stuff of lasting childhood memories. Intentionally or not, families often develop snow day traditions, like sledding or playing board games or making hot chocolate.

What are your family's snow day traditions? 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

14 Quick (and Dirty) Freezer Meals in an Afternoon (under $80!)

One of my goals when I found out I was pregnant again was to fill up our freezer with dinners for when the new baby arrives. I had a number of meals prepared and frozen before Emma was born, and it was a HUGE help during those first few sleep-deprived weeks. This time around, knowing that I'll have a chatty, active toddler along with the new baby, freezer meals are a priority.

The way I figured it, if I could make a double batch of one meal each week of my pregnancy - and freeze half - I could have a whole month's worth of dinners tucked away in the freezer with minimal additional effort and little strain on our budget. Like all good-intentioned efforts, it started well, but I must admit that over the holidays and Derek's birthday, I fell behind on my "one extra meal per week" goal.

Now that things have settled down, I arranged to have my mom come out to watch Emma for the day, so I could do some cooking catch-up! I did all of my shopping in the morning, and started food prep a little after 1:00pm. I was completely done - including having dinner ready - when Derek got home at 6:00pm. Full disclosure: My mom did chop 2 onions and 2 bell peppers, and got pizza dough started in the bread machine while Emma was down for her nap. It was also a big help having her here to play with Emma while I was cooking. The whole process would have taken a lot longer if I'd had to keep stopping to change diapers and entertain Emma.

However, even if you don't have a helper for a big all-at-once cooking day, you could power through a number of these recipes during a single naptime. These are quick and dirty recipes and for a few of them, you're simply dumping ingredients into a freezer bag and you're done. Most of the recipes below are doubled (recipes with a 2) and then split into two containers, so you could also make a big batch in the evening and put half in the freezer, and continue on with the recipe to make the other half for dinner.

Pizza Stuffed Peppers (2) adapted from Diets In Review
8 medium bell peppers
3 cups whole grain bread cubes (I bought a loaf of whole grain bread, and cubed it myself)
5 links Italian sausage, casings removed
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cups pizza sauce
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
Dried oregano

Coat 2 baking dishes with nonstick cooking spray. Cut tops off peppers and pull out seeds. Put 4 peppers into each baking dish. Take stems off pepper tops, then coarsely chop tops (you should have about 2 cups) set aside to use in filling. Spread bread cubes on a baking sheet. Bake in a 425 degree oven for 5 minutes or until lightly toasted. Meanwhile, chop onion and cook sausage. In a large bowl, combine crumbled sausage, chopped onion, chopped pepper, and pizza sauce. Gently fold in toasted bread cubes. Then fill peppers with mixture. Top peppers with mozzarella and sprinkle with dried oregano if desired. At this point, you can cover with foil and freeze.

Day of Cooking: Defrost in refrigerator. Bake, covered with foil, in 425 degree oven for 35 minutes until peppers are tender and cheese melts.

Chicken Parmesan (2) 
4 large chicken breasts, each cut into 2 cutlets 2 eggs
1/2 cup Italian bread crumbs
3 cups tomato sauce
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

Coat chicken cutlets in egg. Dip chicken from egg into breadcrumbs and coat well. Pour 1/2 cup tomato sauce each into 2 baking dishes. Put 4 chicken cutlets into each baking dish. Using the remaining sauce, cover each chicken breast. Evenly sprinkle the shredded cheese over each chicken breast. At this point, you can cover with foil and freeze.

Day of Cooking: Defrost in refrigerator. Bake, covered with foil, in 375 degree oven for 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake an additional 15 minutes. Serve with pasta or your favorite vegetable.

Chicken Tacos (2)
4 chicken pieces
1 package taco seasoning
2 cans corn
2 cans black beans
2 cans diced tomatoes
1 small can green chilies

Split the above ingredients into 2 freezer bags, and mush together to mix. (If you prefer to have a full taco seasoning packet in each batch, you can certainly do so. I have found that 1/2 packet works fine for my family.)

Day of Cooking: Throw it in the crock pot, cook 6-8 hours on low. Serve in tortillas with sour cream, salsa, guacamole, etc!

Chili (2)
2 lbs ground beef or turkey
1 onion, chopped
2 bell peppers, chopped
2 cans stewed tomatoes
2 cans kidney beans, drained
2 cans pinto beans, drained
1 tsp garlic powder
1 Tbsp chili powder

Brown and drain the ground beef, then let cool. Chop onion and peppers, and drain canned ingredients. Split the above ingredients into 2 freezer bags, and mush together to mix.

Day of Cooking: Throw it in the crock pot, cook 6-8 hours on low. Top with cheese, sour cream & chives, etc.

Sweet & Sour Chicken (2) adapted from Joel & Kitty
1 bottle Catalina Dressing
2 envelopes of onion soup mix
2 cans of whole cranberries
6 chicken pieces

Split the above ingredients into 2 freezer bags, and mush together to mix.

Day of Cooking: Defrost fully. Bake at 400 degrees for 25-30 minutes, or grill! Serve over rice or with veggies.

Calzones (2)
1 package provolone
1 package frozen spinach, thawed completely & squeezed dry
1 package pepperoni (I used turkey pepperoni)
1/2 jar spaghetti sauce
1 bag (3 cups) shredded mozzarella
2 tubes of pizza dough (I actually made a large batch of pizza dough in my bread machine, but you could use store-bought pizza dough.)

Unroll one container or stretch out one ball of pizza dough on a greased cookie sheet. Layer half of the pepperoni, provolone, spinach, sauce and mozzarella over half of the dough. Fold the other half of the dough over the topping and pinch all the edges together.

Repeat with second ball or tube of dough and remaining half of the toppings. I put my two large calzones on a cookie sheet to freeze, then transferred them to freezer bags.

Day of Cooking: Defrost fully. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 45 minutes.

1 package frozen spinach, thawed completely & squeezed dry
15 oz ricotta cheese, or cottage cheese
1 bag (1 cup for filling, 2 cups for topping) shredded mozzarella
2 cups Parmesan cheese
2 large eggs
1 box (12 to 14 shells) manicotti noodles
3 to 4 cups marinara sauce (1 jar + a little more)

In a large bowl, mix spinach, cheeses, and eggs. Stir together until well blended. Place about 1 1/2 cups of marinara sauce in a 9x13-inch pan. Spread it around to cover the bottom. Place the mixed filling into a plastic bag. You can use either a frosting piping bag or a gallon zip bag. Snip the corner, gather the top and squeeze the filling into the corner. Hold an uncooked manicotti shell in your hand and squeeze the filling inside the shell. Let it overflow on both sides. Place the filled shell into the sauce-lined pan. Repeat with remaining manicotti and fill the pan with the stuffed shells, until you run out of shells and filling. You should be able to fill 12 to 14 shells. Cover the pasta with remaining marinara sauce. Sprinkle remaining Parmesan on top. At this point, you can cover with foil and freeze.

Day of Cooking: Defrost in refrigerator. Bake, covered with foil, in 350 degree oven for 50 minutes. Remove foil and bake an additional 10 minutes.
Hot Ham & Cheese Sandwiches  
1 12 pack of King's Hawaiian Original Rolls
1 lb. deli ham, shaved
1 lb. Swiss or provolone cheese, thinly sliced

Cut the entire pack of rolls in half, horizontally (keeping all top and bottom halves intact). In a greased 9x13 pan, place bottom half of rolls. Cover the bottom rolls with a layer of ham followed by the cheese. Replace the tops of the rolls. At this point, you can cover with foil and freeze.

Day of Cooking: Defrost in refrigerator. Cover and bake in 350 degree oven for 15-20 minutes and, once finished, separate for serving. 

The best part? The total for my shopping trip was $78.65. Granted, I did already have one 5 lb bag of frozen chicken at home, along with freezer bags and the tins that I used for the stuffed peppers, chicken parm, and ham & cheese sandwiches, as well as a few staple ingredients like onions and butter. BUT my shopping trip also included this week's essentials for my family like milk, eggs, bread, deli sandwich meat and cheese, yogurt, apples, bananas, oranges, etc. So I think $80 is a pretty accurate price - which comes out to about $5 per meal.

One other side note, in case you're thinking, "No way was this all $80!" is that I did all of my shopping at Aldi, and I am not very brand-loyal in most categories. That being said, if having a few meals in the freezer saves you from ordering take-out in a pinch, you'll still probably have more money in your pocket and healthier food in your tummy no matter where you shop!

Do you have any tried and true freezer meals that you like to keep on hand?

My 3 good things for today are:
  1. My nesting urges can take a break for a few days now that I am caught up on my freezer stash.
  2. I didn't break the bank grocery shopping.
  3. I only had to clean up the kitchen once, and I even had time to share a cup of tea with my mom.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A Family Date: Winter Festival

This past weekend we attended in the 22nd Annual Fire & Ice Festival in Plymouth, MN. It took us all a little while to get bundled up for the 10 degree weather, but Emma looked pretty cute in her cozy knitted hat. (Thanks Granna!) Thankfully the sun was shining, and the air felt more crisp than biting.

The annual festival includes hayrides, horse rides and sled dog rides, recycle bin races, miniature golf on the ice, snow bowling, youth ice fishing contest, recreational skating, a goofy hat contest, and even fireworks after dark. We raced around on a sled, enjoyed some hot chocolate and s'mores around a bonfire, and reveled in a tractor ride.

Emma enjoyed watching the older children play hockey and skate on the ice. She laughed and said they were, "Swimming!" (I don't think she has quite figured out the frozen lakes yet!)

We did have some tears when Emma's nose and fingers got too cold, but we all recovered in the warming house.

My 3 good things for today are:
  1. We had a fun-filled afternoon together as a family, for free!
  2. I got my exercise for the day by jogging next to Emma's sled.
  3. We got some great family photos to remember the day!

What winter activities do you like to do as a family?