Thursday, September 29, 2011

No clutter for Christmas

Christmas gifts for my kids have thankfully never been a problem. I'm blessed with pretty generous children who don't ask for much, and at home we've stuck with the three-gift rule from us. (Santa and siblings are the exceptions.)

This year, I have our "birthday-Christmas" gifts fairly well planned out, and truthfully they lean on the practical side this year. My son, who turns four five days before Christmas, will be getting more than his share of clothes, a "big boy" booster seat, a lunch box for all-day preschool next fall (he likes to pack a "lunch" for daycare too), and a few fun items, like a small stash of Cars toys. My crafty daughter is being blessed with jewelry-making supplies and a book, some books and clothes, and tickets to the princess Disney on Ice show in January. Santa, knowing the kids' interest in lacrosse, is splurging on a kid-size lacrosse set for the pair.

But when it comes to gifts for the kids from family members, I'm always searching for ideas. The truth is, we don't have a lot of room for large toys, or little things that clutter the space up, for that matter. We've worked hard to purge cuddle friends and other outgrown toys, and we're working on workable systems to store the rest when not out in use.

I'm thankful that my kids are more interested in experiences than stuff. I get fewer complaints about a friend having toy X than not getting to attend Girl Scout camporee or ice skating or trying out tae kwon do at the parks department, for example. But when you factor in a family of four, even going out adds up quickly. A $15 per person trip to the Children's Museum is suddenly a large chunk of your grocery budget.

Not that I'm one to say "no presents under the tree," but given high shipping costs and long distances, perhaps the gift of experiences is a far better deal than anything else. If you're looking for ideas this holiday season for your loved ones far away, you might consider giving gift certificates or memberhips for the family to experiences like:

  • art classes

  • a day at the zoo or aquarium (or a special event)

  • children's museums

  • sponsoring a scout or Camp Fire activity

  • contributing toward athletic activities like a class or team at the parks department (Great for burning off energy in the winter!)

  • tickets to a sporting event - even the "cheap seats" or the minor league team are thrilling to a kid!
What are your great ideas for clutter-free gifts for kids?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Fast food without the fast-food costs

Here is my confession: In four day’s time, my family ate three dinners of pizza. Blame it on one part laziness of a mom expecting company while getting ready for a business trip that same weekend, one part dealing with a sick husband, and one part $4 Papa Murphy’s pizzas. Toss in some veggies for a side dish, and we rode that pepperoni pizza wave.

On most days though, I’m hesitant at best about putting fast-food in my family’s mouth. It’s costly, often laden in salt and fat, and frankly isn’t nearly as good as what I can make at home.

Not that we don’t suffer from our chaos. The 30-minute window between getting the kids home and when we leave for soccer or scouts seems to fly quickly by. Sometimes, there doesn’t seem to be much time to even whip up spaghetti or quesadillas. But we do it anyway.

Taking the long route to putting food on the table may not be easy, but for almost all Americans it remains a choice, and if you can drive to McDonald’s you can drive to Safeway. It’s cooking that’s the real challenge. (The real challenge is not “I’m too busy to cook.” In 2010 the average American, regardless of weekly earnings, watched no less than an hour and a half of television per day. The time is there.)
- Mark Bittman, New York Times, Sept. 25, 2011
Yesterday’s New York Times asks “Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?” and answers a resounding no. Bittman cites the costliness of his local McDonald’s, where a meal for a family of four could easily top $28. Here in the Midwest, take the simplest of meals, the kids’ meal, for each of us, and I’m out $12 to $15. That buys me on the busiest of days a rotisserie chicken, a package of microwave rice, and veggies to steam, with room for a gallon of milk. (Cooking time: Five minutes.) And there's likely leftovers for lunch, as well as the makings of chicken broth later.

Sure, my children clamor for the thrill of Happy Meal toys, but they know that eating out is a treat, not a right. It’s reserved for special occasions, and we leave it there. As Bittman writes:

Children, after all, are born without bad habits. And yet it’s adults who must begin to tear down the food carnival.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Avalanche of apples, now what?

what to do with extra apples
Apple picking was on the agenda for Labor Day weekend. I pulled into the packed Anderson Orchard in Mooresville, and the children dutifully picked up their bags and a list of which varieties were ready.

I naively thought that the bags were the smaller size ones like the kids had received on their field trip to Apple Works last year, but I was wrong. As we tossed the first apple into the bag, I watched as the little bag unfolded into more than double in size. Whoops. And I figured we paid by the bag.

Watching my 3 year old go through four apples (and fisting two more as we walked to our car), I assumed we would still be done in no time. I was wrong.

Two weeks later, I'm down to about half, even with apples packed in the lunch box each day. Lesson learned.

Instead, we've been on the hunt for great apple recipes to race through this stash as quickly as possible. I've already been instructed not to make more applesauce by my husband (I had already made two batches a few weeks before.) I already have apples chopped and frozen for Christmas apple streudel making with my brother. I suppose I could make apple cobbler - or "apple priss" as my daughter colorfully called it last fall. Or apple ladybugs (though my kids are burnt out on the suggestion of raw apples at this point.)

But this is where my repertoire ends. I'm on the hunt for new ideas. This morning I tried a baked breakfast sausage and apple recipe, however, I still have plenty of apples to use up. So, post great links to your favorite recipes here. Thanks for your help!

Created a monster

What I thought was a great idea has meant more clutter in my household. How my mom's Happy Meal habit is leading to a pre-Halloween headache is my topic at today's Green Phone Booth. I do have to say, she means well...

Tuesday, September 20, 2011



Two escapees, last seen Saturday morning. Fat and dressed in green with black stripes. Apparently chewed their way out of their cage in a desperate attempt at freedom. May be hiding in a small brownish tubelike crysallis.

Here's hoping we find those caterpillars before they find their end! (Yuck!)

Monday, September 19, 2011

When hunger can't wait

It's so easy to dismiss news from across the globe as being a world away. But what if you could do something simple to make a difference in the lives of others? Today, guest blogger Sarah Lenssen from #Ask5for5 shares her ideas on how a few dollars and a few friends can make a big impact:

A hungry child in East Africa can't wait. Her hunger consumes her while we decide if we'll respond and save her life. In Somalia, children are stumbling along for days, even weeks, on dangerous roads and with empty stomachs in search of food and water. Their crops failed for the third year in a row. All their animals died. They lost everything. Thousands are dying along the road before they find help in refugee camps.

At my house, when my three children are hungry, they wait minutes for food, maybe an hour if dinner is approaching. Children affected by the food crisis in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia aren't so lucky. Did you know that the worst drought in 60 years is ravaging whole countries right now, as you read this? Famine, a term not used lightly, has been declared in Somalia. This is the world's first famine in 20 years.12.4 million people are in need of emergency assistance and over 29,000 children have died in the last three months alone. A child is dying every 5 minutes. It it estimated that 750,000 people could die before this famine is over. Take a moment and let that settle in.

The media plays a major role in disasters. They have the power to draw the attention of society to respond--or not. Unfortunately, this horrific disaster has become merely a footnote in most national media outlets. News of the U.S. national debt squabble and the latest celebrity's baby bump dominate headlines. That is why I am thrilled that nearly 150 bloggers from all over the world are joining together today to use the power of social media to make their own headlines; to share the urgent need of the almost forgotten with their blog readers. Humans have the capacity to care deeply for those who are suffering, but in a situation like this when the numbers are too huge to grasp and the people so far away, we often feel like the little we can do will be a drop in the ocean, and don't do anything at all.

When news of the famine first hit the news in late July, I selfishly avoided it. I didn't want to read about it or hear about it because I knew I would feel overwhelmed and uncomfortable. I wanted to protect myself. I knew I would need to do something if I knew what was really happening. You see, this food crisis is personal. I have a 4-year-old son and a 1 yr-old daughter who were adopted from Ethiopia and born in regions now affected by the drought. If my children still lived in their home villages, they would be two of the 12.4 million. My children: extremely hungry and malnourished? Gulp. I think any one of us would do anything we could for our hungry child. But would you do something for another mother's hungry child?

My friend and World Vision staffer, Jon Warren, was recently in Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya--the largest refugee camp in the world with over 400,000 people. He told me the story of Isnino Siyat, 22, a mother who walked for 10 days and nights with her husband, 1 yr-old-baby, Suleiman, and 4 yr.-old son Adan Hussein, fleeing the drought in Somalia. When she arrived at Dadaab, she built the family a shelter with borrowed materials while carrying her baby on her back. Even her dress is borrowed. As she sat in the shelter on her second night in camp she told Jon, "I left because of hunger. It is a very horrible drought which finished both our livestock and our farm." The family lost their 5 cows and 10 goats one by one over 3 months, as grazing lands dried up. "We don't have enough food now...our food is finished. I am really worried about the future of my children and myself if the situation continues."

Will you help a child like Baby Suleiman? Ask5for5 is a dream built upon the belief that you will.

That something I knew I would need to do became a campaign called #Ask5for5 to raise awareness and funds for famine and drought victims. The concept is simple, give $5 and ask five of your friends to give $5, and then they each ask five of their friends to give $5 and so on--in nine generations of 5x5x5...we could raise $2.4 Million! In one month, over 750 people have donated over $25,000! I set up a fundraiser at See Your Impact and 100% of the funds will go to World Vision, an organization that has been fighting hunger in the Horn of Africa for decades and will continue long after this famine has ended. Donations can multiply up to 5 times in impact by government grants to
help provide emergency food, clean water, agricultural support,
healthcare, and other vital assistance to children and families suffering in the Horn.

I need you to help me save lives. It's so so simple; here's what you need to do:

  1. Donate $5 or more on this page (

  2. Send an email to your friends and ask them to join us.

  3. Share #Ask5for5 on Facebook and Twitter!

I'm looking for another 100 bloggers to share this post on their blogs throughout Social Media Week. Email me at if you're interested in participating this week.

A hungry child doesn't wait. She doesn't wait for us to finish the other things on our to-do list, or get to it next month when we might have a little more money to give. She doesn't wait for us to decide if she's important enough to deserve a response. She will only wait as long as her weakened little body will hold on...please respond now and help save her life. Ask 5 for 5.

Thank you on behalf of all of those who will be helped--you are saving lives and changing history.

p.s. Please don't move on to the next website before you donate and email your friends right now. It only takes 5 minutes and just $5, and if you're life is busy like mine, you probably won't get back to it later. Let's not be a generation that ignores hundreds of thousands of starving people, instead let's leave a legacy of compassion. You have the opportunity to save a life today

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Derail the TRAIN Act

Imagine this scene: Some maniacs have tied your children to a train track–then hopped on the train, released the brakes, and sent a mighty engine roaring down the track. Right for your children.

That’s what’s going on in Washington DC right now.

The train is, literally, the TRAIN Act of 2011, and next week, the House will vote on a bill (HR 1705) that was designed to cripple Clean Air Act regulations and intimidate the Environmental Protection Agency. The TRAIN Act requires a committee of cabinet secretaries to re-analyze the costs of public health protections. That’s right: RE-analyze. For a third time. Because when a bill is introduced, its costs are analyzed during the comment period, and again by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Learn more about the TRAIN Act, and then write your legislators to help derail it!

Killer cantelope and arsenic in apple juice: What's a mom to do?

The news is depressing -- and it's not just from the political debate!

This week alone, I've come across three major news stories involving food-borne illnesses and health crisises in what's supposed to be "healthy" food. And that's with very little interaction with the media.

So how can you, as a parent, help prevent food-borne illnesses? Check out today's post at the Green Phone Booth for simple steps you can take to keep your families safe.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Cleaning out the fridge: Mac and cheese with cauliflower

Whoops. Carrying in two armloads worth of farmers market finds on Saturday, I realized I had no room to put anything - and worse, plenty of things I should have already fixed in the fridge.

That's where a little inspiratio n struck. I tweaked a recipe for Rachel Ray's Mac & Cheddar with Broccoli and came up with an acceptable surprise for lunch. It was not the originally planned sausage and portobello pizza, but the end result was a few less cauliflower and several half-used packages of cheese from the fridge.

Mac and cheese with cauliflower

1 lb. pasta shells
2 1/2 c. cauliflower (about 1/2 head)
1 T. olive oil
2 T. butter
1 small onion, chopped
3 T. wheat flour
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 t. smoke paprika
3 c. skim milk
1 c. chicken stock
3 c. grated cheese (used a mix of sharp cheddar, taco cheese and colby jack)
1 T. dijon mustard

Cook pasta in boiling water, 5 min. Add cauliflower and cook additional 3-4 min. or until cauliflower is just tender. Drain well and return to the pot.

Meanwhile, melt butter with olive oil in pan, at medium heat. Cook onions 3-5 minutes. Raise heat, whisk in flour and spices. Whisk until roux bubbles and cook 1 minute more. Add milk and stock and raise the heat a bit higher until it bubbles. (Be careful to continue stirring, or you may have it scald on the bottom.) Drop heat and simmer 3-5 minutes or until sauce thickens.

Add cheese and stir to melt; add mustard and salt and pepper. Pour over pasta and cauliflower; stir to combine.

Spicy but good!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Green Phone Booth: A Time of Need

As a parent of a first grader, I've struggled with a balance of staying informed with the news and opening my daughter to the reality of 9/11 and the questions I'm sure will follow. Rather than marking the 10th anniversary beyond what's said at our church on Sunday, we'll quietly remember it in our hearts and follow my child's lead if any questions arise.

One thing that has stuck with me this week is a comment I heard on the radio on turning 9/11 rememberances into a time of forgiveness. Others have talked about a time of prayer or a time of good works. All are remarkable ideas - turning our small sacrifices of a way to remember those who sacrificed their lives on that day.

Today at the Green Phone Booth, I'm reflecting on the anniversary and how it makes life's hassles seem so small. Join the conversation.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Today I was reminded again and again just how fragile life can be.

I turned on the news to see a good friend's town engulfed in flames. I wasn't able to reach anyone until nearly 10 p.m. my time, when I finally reached her sister. Thankfully she is well, and her home is located between two of the shelters in Bastrop, Texas, so it appears to be out of harm's way.

Then I arrived at work and learned that a priest I'd known for years had passed away unexpectedly during the weekend. Fr. Ruta was such a friendly soul, and such a good servant of God.

And finally I learned tonight that a friend's mother has been diagnosed with cancer.

No matter the good times or bad, they can change in an instant. And that is why we have to have hope that things work out, in this world or the next.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Organizing kids' clothes: A way to Excel at it

Garage sales, hand-me-downs, resale and other sources for kids' clothes have gotten us through the last few years. The challenge is keeping tabs on my finds.

Whether it's my daughter tearing apart diaper-size boxes of clothing in her closet out of boredom or my accidentally stockpiling 20 (yes, 20) short-sleeve T-shirts in a size for my son, remembering what you've acquired can be a challenge.

My solution? It's a simple one: Creating a spreadsheet to track numbers.

I track each kids' clothing pieces by size and type, and I have it uploaded so that family members who are Christmas shopping or hitting sales to splurge know what we have. My hope is it keeps us from wasting money and space, and freeing us from having more than we really need.

Want to start this simply? Create an Excel or Google Docs spreadsheet with a column for size and a row for each clothing type. For example:

uniform shirts
uniform skorts or pants
fall/winter weight PJ's
spring/summer weight PJ's
yoga/dance pants
t-shirts (long-sleeve and short-sleeve)
sweat pants/athletic pants
winter coat

I could expand this to include shoes I've picked up (such as at clearance or soccer cleats from garage sales), but those for now are much easier remembered.

I update the spreadsheets after purchases, and reprint the well-folded sheets as needed. It's an easy reference at a garage sale and has kept me from at least one unneeded purchase.