Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Real Tips for Road Trips with Kids (Part 2)


     
Don't forget to check out the first post in this series: Real Tips for Road Trips with Kids Part 1

       I love a road trip! I realized that with the thousands and thousands of miles that I've driven, I've learned a thing or two along the way. I'm constantly surprised when people say they hate traveling by car with their kids. There are so many wonderful things about a family road trip-I think you just have to know a few good tricks and tips. I started sharing mine in this post, and realized I had so many, it really deserved a second post. So without further ado: more real life tips for road trips with kids.

8. Individually bag clothes. One of the best tricks I know I learned from my mom, who used it long before Pinterest was around. She would bag our clothes in outfits: pants, shirt, underwear, socks, all in a gallon zippered bag. Genius! When my kids were little, that is how I packed everything for them. It keeps things much neater in the suitcase, allows multiple kids to share a single bag, keeps you from forgetting pieces (Oh no! I brought the hot pink plaid shorts, but forgot the only shirt that matches them!), makes dressing a toddler so much easier (no digging around in a giant duffel to find the other sock), helps you keep track of outfits (I know I brought eight outfits, so I need to bring eight home.), and gives you an easy place to put dirty things (or wet swimsuits!). Now that my kids are bigger, I don't pack all their clothes this way, just the ones I put in the "overnight bag".

9. Bring an "overnight bag". When we are traveling extensively, we know we will have at least two or three hotel stays before we reach our destination. It is SO much easier to pack one bag to take in for all four of us. We simply put enough clothes and our toiletries in (Don't forget the swimsuits!) for the two or three changes we will need to make. One set of pajamas and two changes of clothes per person is usually sufficient. We know if we need extras then all of the rest of our things are available right outside in the trunk. But only having to carry in one (or two, if there are a lot of us) bag every night (along with all the electronics that will need to be charged for the next day!) makes things so much easier.

10. Pack your atlas. Road trips are a golden opportunity to teach the kids a little geography. Everyone, even in this modern age, can benefit from learning to read a map, and you will be much better off if for some reason you find yourself without service for your much-referenced phone GPS. (Not that I would know anything about traveling through most of all Montana and much of South Dakota without mine! 😜) If you think getting lost sounds less-than-fun, add in a couple of crabby, tired, crying kids! Barring direction-related issues, there are still plenty of reasons to bring an old-fashioned paper atlas. Even fairly young kids can appreciate looking at the U.S. map and seeing all the states they've traveled through. Older kids can help to look up routes, and they will love seeing how far they've gone. We make a game out of figuring out our mileage just by measuring with our fingers and the mileage equivalent scale for each state. You can also look up capitals, and most atlases contain fun facts about each state. Buy a children's atlas for kids from 4-8 years old, but also have your actual road atlas handy for reference, too.

11. Use the clock to your advantage. Say, "In fifteen minutes we will all turn off our electronics and take a rest for twenty minutes." Or, tell your kids that they can have five minutes of electronic time for every minute that they read. For younger kids, use a rough schedule. Tell them they can listen to music until snack time, then they can have a new item from your surprise bag after. Or, that after lunch everyone will take a rest and have quiet time. When I traveled with my sister we had a rule that the kids could not use electronics until after lunch. Even with my two-year old that worked surprisingly well! If they asked we would just remind them that electronics were after lunch. The DVD player (She had one in her van, my kids loved it, since we've never owned a car with one.) didn't come on until after dinner because it is hard to do much when you are traveling after dark and everyone is tired, and crabby! By setting up a routine and giving them a set point to look forward to, it makes it a little easier on everyone.

12. Bring a trip bag. I mentioned this in #4, but I didn't really explain it. The trip bag is my kids' favorite part of a road trip. The photo at the top shows what I packed in our trip bag for our recent trip to Tennessee. It has the fun things, the new things, the stuff I pull out when I'm desperate for the whining/fighting/talking to stop. When my kids were little, it was a lot of Dollar Tree stuff: coloring books, magnetic letters, board books, stickers, basically anything I thought might entertain them for five minutes! Great ideas for toddlers/preschoolers can also include things like these "busy bag" items I made for my friend's son. I've used these things since then, and preschoolers love them!

    For older kids, I bring dry erase markers (They love to use these on the windows, especially for games like "slug bug"-we do tally marks instead of punches-or just generally drawing!), new reading books, puzzle books with new fun pens, CDs, cheap DVDs (We also have been known to rent a Redbox, since they can be returned to any kiosk we drag them across state lines!), and power packs for the Nintendo DS, or iPod. I usually buy a couple of cheap little toys, this time it was the crazy-popular "fidget spinners", but things like Squinkies or Littlest Pet Shop type things work well. You can also pack things that are less "structured"-bring pipe cleaners to twist into shapes, origami paper (look up tutorials on YouTube), and plain old paper (yes, kids still enjoy playing Hangman and Tic-Tac-Toe!), string (Teach them Jacob's ladder, or how to finger-knit), all kinds of things can be really entertaining when they are the only things available.

    The "trip bag" shouldn't be overflowing. I establish a time in the future when they will get something, (at 2:00 pm, at the next rest stop) and I do the choosing. I pack a beach tote size bag, and I do try to have an equal number of things for each child. If I'm not doing the driving, I will often pack a book or two to read out loud. I also put the "junk" snacks in there, and gum, which is usually forbidden at our house. Sometimes I also use the bag contents for "prizes"-whoever can name the most state capitals, recite a certain Scripture, or wins a game.

13. Pack a smart snack bag. Junk food aside, don't go overboard in the opposite direction, and only pack kale chips. Kids (and adults!) love to eat when they are bored, so don't let what you packed be a free-for-all, no matter how healthy it is! Plan a few snack times during the day, and limit the choices to two or three items at a time.Try to avoid messy foods, or things that need to be peeled, or cut, or need cutlery. I try to bring things that won't cause blood-sugar issues, usually that aren't totally sugary and have a little protein in them. I like to bring: jerky, nuts, applesauce pouches, snack crackers (like Goldfish), trail mix, corn nuts (my favorite!), and granola bars. Fresh fruit is dicey, in my opinion, as it is very delicate for the most part, and can be a little messy (apple cores, banana peels, orange skins), so we try to get our fruits and veggies in at mealtimes. Anything that isn't in single-serve pouches should be packed in a zip-top bag, so that it can be closed up once it has been opened. It's also wise to throw in a couple of napkins, and a few plastic grocery bags for collecting trash. I don't personally pack a cooler, our car is too small. Instead we bring water bottles, no one seems to mind drinking room temperature water. Juice and soda are disasters if they get spilled, so we try to limit those to meals.

14. Share stories and games. Don't think of it as being trapped in a car, think of it as having a captive audience! My kids love to hear stories from my childhood-and theirs. We talk about all the places we've visited, and where we are headed next. We discuss what we would do with a million dollars, or where we would eat if we were only allowed three restaurants for the rest of our lives. Print off a sheet of "this or that" questions from Pinterest: would you rather be able to fly like a bird or hop like a kangaroo? Would you want to be a famous actor or sports star? See a road trip as an opportunity to really get to know your kids! And share a little about yourself with them, too.

    I would love to hear if there is anything that works for your family when you take a road trip-short or long. Planning to travel by car with kids doesn't have to be daunting-with a little preparation, and a good attitude, you can go anywhere! No pun intended. 😉


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Practically Perfect French Bread Pizza Sticks


     It's fairly obvious I like easy recipes. I have confessed before my distaste (ha!) for cooking. However, there are some things that are so simple, so easy, that they don't even seem to require any real work. This recipe is one of them.

    I've shared my "Practically Perfect Smoothies" and my "Practically Perfect Rice Krispy Treats". The reason I've christened these recipes "practically perfect" is because, though they are so simple even a kid can make them, I've honed the tricks, techniques and ingredients to make them better than average-practically perfect!

   My mom made French bread pizzas for my siblings and me when I was a child, and I have very fond memories of them. Now that I homeschool my own kids, we love to have "hot lunch", but after schooling all morning, my usual dislike of cooking is definitely greater than normal. But throwing easy, fast French bread pizza into the oven is pretty much just as easy as microwaving a frozen dinner! And my kids like this sooo much better?

   And who doesn't? The last time my husband heard I made these, he complained that he didn't get any. Cheesy, crispy, saucy... these definitely qualify as a "super simple supper"-and yet it is a dinner that gets no complaints! Since you don't have to have your oven on for long, I don't even mind making them during these blazing hot days of summer.

   I have a some little tips that make my French bread pizza a step above the rest. This time I also cut it into easy to handle and eat sticks, which makes it even more fun, and also would make it a yummy hot appetizer, too! Perfect for a Super Bowl party, or kids' birthday bash, or New Year's Eve. However, they are still my favorite for lunch!
 You only need a few ingredients for these. They are actually super frugal and a terrific way to use up "headed towards stale" French bread. I can pick up a loaf of day-old French bread at my local Walmart for $0.50. Add a dollar's worth of sauce and $2 worth of mozzerella, and lunch for under $4 for my whole family? Done deal!

You'll need:
-a loaf of French bread. When it is just the three of us, I only use half a loaf
-pizza or marinara sauce (Trader Joe's marinara is good, or I like Ragu's pizza sauce)
-2 cups of shredded mozzarella cheese
-Parmesan cheese
Optional: any pizza toppings you like. We always do pepperoni. My son loves mushrooms. I also do onion, bell pepper or black olives if I have them handy. But delicious even if you just top with cheese.
 1. Cut your French bread into roughly two-inch chunks. Slice each chunk in half down the middle. Place the cut sides of the bread face down onto a metal baking sheet. Pop into the oven at 450 degrees-there is no need to preheat your oven. You just want to crisp the bread up before you top it. I usually bake mine for 6-8 minutes, depending on how brown you want it. Don't overdo it, as you will put the bread back in the oven and you don't want to burn it!
 2. While your bread is toasting, heat up your sauce. I usually put mine in the microwave for two minutes, but you could do it on the stovetop. Once your bread is nice and toasty, flip all the pieces over, and apply a tablespoon or so of sauce to each slice.

3. Next, sprinkle all the slices with Parmesan cheese. This is one of those steps you don't want to skip! Applying the Parmesan cheese here is one of those little tricks that makes it so much better. You can add some to the top, too, if you like.

4. Sprinkle every slice with a little mozzarella. You will add some more later, so don't go overboard.

5. Add your toppings. I just added a couple of slices of pepperoni to each piece.

6. Top with more mozzarella.

7. Place in the oven, and turn it to broil. You simply need to melt the cheese at this point, and get your edges a little more brown. This step won't take more than a minute or two, so stay nearby and keep checking it!
   That's it! The whole process takes maybe 10 minutes from start to finish. Your work (or lack thereof) is rewarded with hot, cheesy, toasty goodness. Actually, you could just have your kids make it, and that would be even better. I decided I really love the sticks, because it gets the bread even more crisp, which I love.

   Sure, you can slap some cold sauce on some un-toasted bread, throw on some cheese and stick it under the broiler for a few minutes. That will definitely be edible. But by taking literally two minutes more you will have not just French Bread pizza, but Practically Perfect French Bread Pizza Sticks. Trust me, it's worth it! Easy lunch, quick and simple dinner, fun appetizer...just yum!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Real Tips for Road Trips with Kids (Part 1)

      
     I'm an avid reader-including blogs and magazines. Every year around this time you get the same old tired lists of tips for taking road trips with kids. Make frequent stops, let them run around, pack cutesy boxes of snacks. Yawn. And I usually laugh because somewhere near the end you will find that the author has two kids and a "road trip"  is a four or six hour journey across the state or to a neighboring state. Seriously?!

   Since I have had my own family we have traveled from Colorado to Illinois, North Carolina and Tennessee. I have trekked with my sister and her kids, for a total combined number of five kids, to Washington from Colorado several times. And I am not even counting the time I drove with my best friend and a 10 month-old from Washington to Illinois! Since moving to Washington, we have made many trips across the state and driven to Tennessee twice. I have spent countless hours in the car-as a kid, and now with my own kids.

   And, no, it hasn't soured me on car trips! I actually love traveling by car, and definitely prefer it to flying (and especially to the train, but that's a story for another time). My own kids love a road trip, too. So I thought I would share my top tips with you!

1. Don't let it scare you!
This may seem ridiculous, but kids are like dogs-they can sense your fear! Seriously, you need to approach this confidently. If you are fearful that things will go badly, they probably will. Your kids can tell if you are apprehensive, even if you don't say anything.

2. Don't make promises you can't keep. It may seem like the best idea to have every minute accounted for-especially if you like schedules and routines. However, you absolutely need to bring your flexibility to really have a good road trip experience. What I tell my kids is that we have things we will do (for example: stay at a hotel) but there are things I can't make promises about (that they can swim in the pool). If I have promised them that they can swim and then the pool is closed, they are disappointed. But if they know that I will make my best effort, but there is a possibility it might not happen, we are all happier. Being totally honest with your kids that you can't control everything but you are interested in everyone having a good time helps everyone to keep their expectations in check.

3. Show your excitement. I love to talk to my kids about how much I appreciate the "mundane" parts of traveling: staring at the clouds, spending time chatting in the car, taking a nap whenever you want. We make a big deal over little things: how fun it is to pick out a dollar's worth of snacks at the gas station, pointing out silly street names, switching who rides in which seat. One of my best "car trip" memories was when my sister and I were traveling with our four young kids. Carson was two years-old and he was tired of riding (This was in the days before we had hand-held video devices in our family!). We began to point out the cows in the fields we were passing through, mooing, of course! He questioned us as to why he could not see any horses. My sister told him it was because the cows were dumb and didn't know how to hide, but the horses were sneaky, so we couldn't spot them. We still laugh about dumb cows and sneaky horses to this day and try to spot as many as we can along the way!

4. Let them make some choices. I let my kids each pick something from the Dollar Spot for the trip bag. They can look forward to getting that. We also let them have chances to pick the CD playing, or offer them two or three choices for a lunch spot. When we have snacks, I offer them a few different ones at a time, not a free-for-all of everything in the bag. Giving kids (of any age) too many choices overwhelms them, but allowing them to have a couple of things to choose from makes them feel like they have a say.

5. Keep the car clean! We drive a tiny car. It fills up with trash *very* quickly. Every time we stop I try to have a "re-set". Trash is collected when shoes go on, and everything is put back in travel bags. Ideally. I can tell you this doesn't always happen. But at least when we make an effort everyone is happier.

6. Don't go too slow. One of the biggest "tips" I hear is to limit your travel time. Even when my kids were little this was bad advice for our family. They were just as ready to be there as we were! We frequently took 14 hour trips when they were as young as 1 and 3 years-old and we took it all in one day. If you think putting your little one back in the car after dinner takes superhuman strength, picture doing that the next day after a not-so-great night's sleep at a hotel, knowing you still have 4 or 5 hours (and possibly a couple of bathroom and food stops) to go. Not fun! You have to know your limits, but don't underestimate. In my opinion, you are better off to try to "go the distance" and stop if you must then plan to break up a 12 or 14 hour trip into two days to realize everyone would rather just push through. This especially applies to older kids. If you are traveling to your destination rather than sight-seeing along the way, my kids would always rather just keep going.

  Sooo, I just realized I have so many more things to tell you. I am not the "road trip with kids" expert, but I do have a whole lot of real life advice about traveling with children by car! I'm going to pause here for now, and label this "Part 1". Making a cross-country trip (or just one across your state) with little people doesn't have to be overwhelming or frightening. It can even be fun if you know what to expect and how to handle it!


Thursday, June 8, 2017

Make Your Own Sweet Cream for Cold Brew Coffee

    If you are someone who is very intuitive, and figures things out quickly, just skip this post, will you? However, if you are at all like me, and not able to deduce things at first glance, then you might just find this post helpful!

    I love coffee. Especially what I consider to be "summer coffee". Summer coffee is always cold, and comes in many forms: iced, blended, cold brew, affogatos, and my new favorite calorie bomb: an iced coffee float made with carbonated coffee from my local coffee shop. However, neither my wallet nor my waistline appreciate having those often so I stick to my other favorite: sweet cream cold brew from my not-so-local place. (You know the one with ubiquitous green logo?). However, even though that drink may be a little cheaper and more calorie conscious it still isn't something I can afford to indulge in every day!

    I usually have a cup of Trader Joe's Cold Brew most afternoons. Last summer I was content with throwing some of my average coffee creamer in it and calling it good. Then, one day when I was treating myself to some Starbuck's they unknowingly revealed a secret to me. I watched as a hurried employee dumped generous quantities of flavoring syrup into a pitcher of milk. And the lightbulb turned on: this was the magical "sweet cream" that makes their cold brew so delicious!
  

      So, while I certainly have no trouble having Starbucks on occasion, I am more than happy to treat myself to some homemade sweet cream every day. And the really great thing is that I can have far more flavors than just vanilla. You might ask (as you are well-entitled to): why is it better to make the cream rather than just adding coffee syrup and milk to my cold brew? Well, I discovered a few  things: the flavoring melds with the cream when mixed separately, and it truly tastes different. Secondly, it makes it much easier to whip a cup up every day. Third, the syrup seems to mix better with the cream than it does when I added them to my coffee individually. Overall, it gave me a result that was much more like Starbucks than when I tried it other ways. And trust me, I tried a lot! 

   And it is definitely a massive improvement over my regular creamer. Because I used half-and-half the fat content is higher and it gives the coffee a much more creamy and rich flavor. Also, the flavor of the syrup is more concentrated than the flavors in many creamers so it makes it taste more "coffee shop". 


     So if you are interested in trying it for yourself it only takes a few simple ingredients. I faithfully use Trader Joe's Cold Brew Coffee Concentrate, because while it isn't the cheapest it is my favorite. Use whatever your favorite brand is, or make your own!

To make the sweet cream:
Add 1/4 c. Torani syrup (for a traditional Starbucks flavor use vanilla syrup, but I had Creme Caramel on hand so I used that. If you have never tried it it is amazing!) to 2 c. half-and-half. I store mine in a mason jar. Stir thoroughly and refrigerate overnight before using.

To use:
   Add 1/2 c. coffee concentrate to a large glass filled with ice. Add 1 c. milk I actually love to use coconut beverage or almond milk instead of dairy milk, as it reduces the calories and I like the flavor, especially of the coconut milk. Stir thoroughly. Stir your sweet cream (I found out that if you shake it it becomes very foamy and hard to measure.) and drizzle 2 tbsp. of the cream over your coffee. Mix with a spoon or straw and enjoy!

  Your cream should keep in your refrigerator as long as the half-and-half would by itself. (I like to write the expiration date on the lid of my mason jar.) You can add more cream to taste, but I thought that 2 tbsp was just about perfect without being too sweet. The calorie count is about 60 calories per serving, which is actually less than the creamers I normally use. 

   Anyway, I've been using this for several weeks now and I am loving it. It makes my coffee seem a little more decadent, and it comes together in a snap! I should probably make it my next goal to learn to make my own cold brew, but for right now I will just take the easy way out and stick with TJ's. One thing at a time!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Garden Gloves Appreciation Gift


   I promised you more gratitude gifts, so I'm back! This idea has been percolating for a while. I actually purchased the gardening gloves back in March! I saw a nine pack of gardening gloves at Costco and they kind of demanded that I buy them-and definitely not for myself. This apartment-dweller has limited use for one pair of gardening gloves, much less nine! I knew they would be the basis of a great thank-you gift, and since I had a couple of months to figure it out I snatched them up.

    I have done gloves before, so I had an inkling of what I wanted to do, and if you have read that post you will already recognize my favorite hand cream. (I've also done a garden/plant gift, too, if you are looking for something different!) I knew that I wanted to do that again-and I felt like it fit well with the theme, although not the color scheme. (The gloves came in purple, turquoise and green.) 



       I finally decided that I wanted to put in trail mix. It seemed seasonally appropriate, and I know several of the women who I was gifting these to would be more appreciate of something slightly more "healthy" than my usual candy. I was thrilled to find trail mix that didn't include peanuts (I try to stay away from such a severe allergen.) It was providential that they were purple to boot! Thank you, Target.

     I rounded out the gift with a little pack of seeds. It seemed more than fitting! I bought an easy to plant and care for flower variety.

Everything was relatively inexpensive:
-Garden gloves, $1 each (The package of nine pairs from Costco was $9)
-Nivea Creme, $1 (from Target)
-Trail mix, $0.70 each (package of 10 from Target-always check for a Cartwheel to save a little more!)
-Seeds, $0.20 (from Walmart. I wanted this particular package because I liked how it looked. You could definitely spend more!)

Not shown: cello bags (I keep these on hand from the Dollar Tree because I use them. All. The. Time.) and ribbon  and paper from Hobby Lobby. The ribbon was $1.50 and the single sheet of paper I needed was $0.50.
   These literally came together in minutes. I used a 2 inch (ish) scallop punch to cut the paper and then stuck it to the hand cream with a glue dot. I skipped printing on those, I thought the patterned paper was pretty enough. I popped that, the trail mix and the seeds in the bag. I printed off the cards, trimmed them with my paper cutter (I decided against lines, as I have trouble cutting them off neatly. This way I didn't have to worry about that.) and put them in. I laid the bag on the gloves and gathered the top of the bag and wrists of the gloves all together and tied them with a simple bow. Voila! So simple, but fun.

 Find the printable here: "Garden Gloves Printable from Clare's Contemplations"

The cards say:
"You had a big hand in cultivating my love of learning this year!"
"We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing." 2 Thessalonians 1:3

   They were a huge hit! This is such a great gift for this time of year-even for someone who isn't an avid gardener. Even I can make use of a pair of gardening gloves-and I don't have a yard! If the recipient doesn't actually garden, they most likely have a yard, or at least or a plant or two. It would be so easy to increase the value of this gift by adding it to a plant, or putting in a gift card to a home improvement store or local nursery.

      I'm not finished with thank-yous yet! I have one more left to post here. I totaled it up and I have put together more than twenty gifts in the last few weeks. It's a busy time of year! I'm glad we homeschool-that means I am almost done. But if you have school teachers to thank (and you're with me on the west coast, where school still has a few more weeks left) stay tuned!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Tea-rrific Appreciation Gift for Teachers and Volunteers


    I debated sharing this, because it isn't an "original" idea, but let's face it: often things that I think I am the first one to do I find someone else has already done, because as Solomon said, "There is nothing new under the sun!". I know I do enjoy seeing others' interpretations of things, though, so I decided I would share mine!

    This is that time of year when there are so many people to thank. Honestly, anytime someone willingly volunteers their time and energy I feel that it is worthy of a thank-you gift, even if it is only a very small one. Even if someone doesn't value the "thing" they will most likely recognize the thoughtfulness behind it and appreciate it. I was once given an angel-shaped pin as a thank-you gift for volunteering in Awana. I don't really "do" angels, and I never wore pins, but I was so honored by the gesture. It still remains as the only thank-you gift I ever received from a parent for working in Awana. (I have been privileged to work with wonderful directors and commanders who have given me many lovely gestures of appreciation, so don't feel too sorry for me!). 

   Another time, when I was directing Vacation Bible School, I was given some wildflowers stuffed in a mason jar and tied with twine. So lovely!  I hadn't directly taught that woman's child, or lead them in music, or crafted with them, but the mom realized that I had still played an important part. Even I am guilty of forgetting to recognize the "leadership" in many situations-the steering committees, directors, commanders, and all the higher-level leadership that make so many wonderful things "go".

   Anyway, this time there is no fancy printable tag, but I didn't have to make a million of these, so I didn't mind hand-writing them. Both of my kids were in the same part of the program so I only had a few leaders and the director to thank. I usually try to stick to a $5 limit for year-long programs (co-op, Awana) because I usually have between 12-18 people who I give gifts to in May. I bought myself one of these insulated cups earlier (they had a version with cacti on it, which I am totally obsessed with at the moment) and I liked it so well I thought they would make a great gift!



   These came together quickly, and would have been even easier if I had made them all the same. I made them individual to each teacher and filled them with:

-tea bags. The blue cup had chai and Earl Grey tea, the yellow cup had orange and lemon ginger. I bought a box of the chai because I wanted to try it myself, but the others were purchased individually in the bulk bins at WinCo. $0.15 each makes them a bargain! I put four bags in each cup.

-candy. The blue cup had salt water taffy (huckleberry and raspberry) from the bulk bins.I bought less than a half a pound so it was super cheap, about $0.75. The yellow one had Sweet and Sour Starburst, which were $2 from Walmart, but I did not put the whole bag in.  


   I also put in a few things you can't see. The yellow cup had two packs of Juicy Fruit gum, and the blue one had Ghiradelli chocolates in it. The total for those things was about $1 each.

  I had the ribbon on hand, as well as the kraft tags.On the tags I wrote, "Thanks for being a "tea-rrific" leader!".  I wrapped those with a little washi, tied them with some plain white ribbon  and then slipped them over the straws. I tied a decorative bow on in coordinating ribbon (I was so pleased that I already had pineapple washi AND ribbon for the yellow cup!) and they were done! I could have easily purchased everything at Walmart, but I couldn't decide what I wanted while I was there, and I wanted to mix and match tea bags without having six or eight different boxes of tea!

   Isn't it amazing how I can find *so* many words to describe something so simple? Essentially boiled down: buy cup, tea bags and candy. Write tag. Put tag on. Tie ribbon. Gift! They were well received- I would have liked one myself!

    So, who are you "thanking" during this ending of things? We still have soccer coaches, dance instructors, and co-op teachers to go. Summer brings swim lessons and VBS, too! I have at least one more gift I will be sharing, but not until it's been gifted. I know school is ending for many of you, but it won't be done here until mid-June, so I have some time yet!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Black Friday

        
    My first "real" job (read: one where I had to fill out a W-2 form and all that jazz) was working retail. I worked at a boutique clothing store that sold pricey, trendy clothes. Which was a little bit odd, because I myself was not very trendy, and I would have said my preference was definitely more towards the frugal side of things. However, I soon realized I loved clothes and didn't mind paying a bit more for higher quality and really unique items. Thankfully, we had many customers who felt the same way. I say that because it was a commission position, so my paycheck depended on how much product I could move. It was much easier when people were on board with paying $100 for a pair of jeans, rather than $10. 
 
    But anyway, it was while working retail that I fell in love with Black Friday. I know that sounds like an odd thing to say, but when you work commission there is no better day than when customers flock to you in droves, desperate to get the deals and steals they are convinced exist. There is so much energy, and excitement when you know all your hard work is going to result in a big fat paycheck. Plus, we generally had pretty decent customers. When the average total was usually in hundreds (or even, on very rare occasions, over a thousand) you are just dealing with a different type of person. They aren't your average "pick a fight over the bargain bin DVDs" sort of shopper. So, I learned quickly to enjoy Black Friday and the big fat commission checks it brought.

   I did wonder why it was called Black Friday, though. I asked around and heard from various sources that supposedly it gained that title after the Great Depression when the Friday after Thanksgiving was considered the opening to the Christmas shopping season, and due to the massive increase in sales thanks to holiday shoppers, retailers would go from being "in the red" to "in the black", accounting-wise. So I while I still thought that was a little odd, as usually "black" has a more negative connotation, I was satisfied.

    I have maintained my fondness for Black Friday since then, although the reason I like it now has more to do with spending time with my family (we all love to shop) and getting good deals. So that might be part of the reason that I slip up, and when referencing Good Friday (as in the day we commemorate Jesus' death on the cross) accidentally call it "Black Friday". (I know you thought I had lost my mind talking about Thanksgiving shopping at Easter! Don't worry, I do have a point.) I wondered if maybe there was anything in common between the two days so I decided to look up the history of Black Friday, as I am already fairly familiar with the history of Good Friday (Thank you, Jesus!).

    I was interested to find that I had been given bad information. The term "Black Friday" was first used in the sixties, and *not* for positive reasons. It was used by the Philadelphia Police Department to describe the chaos and confusion caused by the masses of shoppers, and was perceived by the PD to be a rather dismal day indeed. As the term continued to gain popularity, it was not highly favored by retailers, and for good reason. When you think of "black" it doesn't really incite positive vibes. Also, it is hard to not to think of things like "Black Thursday"-the name for the day when the bottom fell out of the economy in the U.S. and the Great Depression started. Or, that when we are mourning someone's passing we wear black. It is a color devoid of hope.

   However, with the upbeat-ness that usually accompanies the ability to run a successful retail operation, stores decided to turn things around, and that is where the explanation of the phrase "Black Friday" in terms of financial gains came from. Why not use whatever you can to your advantage? So, they perpetuated the rumor that the moniker came from the profitability of the day, going from being "in the red" to being "in the black".

   And I don't think it is too far of a stretch to say that there are definite similarities between those Fridays-Good and Black. Good Friday-taken alone, without the joy of Sunday, had to feel black. The blackest of any Friday, ever, actually. I cannot begin to fathom the despair that those who had followed Jesus felt. However, before any religious group applied the term, to the enemies of Christ it had to seem like the most good of any Friday. They had won! Or so they thought.

    But just like Black Friday, it seems Good Friday experienced a little bit of an image overhaul. And the turn-around was pretty darn quick. To those who had sought Jesus death, dreaming of the day the would be rid of that trouble-maker, rabble-rouser who turned so many of their carefully protected religious rules on their heads, their victory was short-lived. Good Friday had a black eye by Sunday in their minds. But for those who loved Jesus, Sunday was the day that turned that black day into something Good.

   And now, to me, this day is a day that can be fairly represented by both adjectives. Black, because we should recognize the severity of the price our sin-my sin-exacted on our precious, perfect Savior. A day to remember and mourn the cost of my unworthiness, my unrighteousness.

" ...He poured out His life unto death,    and was numbered with the transgressors.
For He bore the sin of many,    and made intercession for the transgressors." Isaiah 53:12 NIV
   His pure, holy, blemish-free life. For my worthless, ragged, wretched one. It was the most unfair of trades. But, like Black Friday, it took my account from debt to riches. From reddest red of His righteous blood, my glaring hell-red debt was paid, and name added to the "paid" column, from the "owed" line to the "saved" one.

" And when you were dead in trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive with Him and forgave us all our trespasses. He erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it out of the way by nailing it to the cross." Colossians 2:13-14 HCSB (emphasis mine)
  Good Friday is good because it was a black Friday, too. Black from the sin, the doubt, the heaviness that cost Christ His life. So, so, good because I was reprieved from the death I was owed as the wages of my sin, what I had worked for and earned was eternal separation. But my debt was paid in full. From red to black.

"For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." Romans 6:23 NIV 
  I don't need to shop around, the deal of any lifetime was given on Good Friday. His sacrifice is all I need, no cost-comparisons are necessary, I will never find a better offer. Nothing for everything. Death for life. Friday's blackness for Sunday's light. Filthy as night rags for the whiteness of robes of purity.

   I love this Good Black Friday. It is my favorite Friday to celebrate for certain. So, even when I slip up and call it Black Friday, it doesn't really matter because the significance is the same. Today, I stop, I sit, I ponder the wonder of the day that Jesus *willingly* suffered death for me!

"[Jesus]  Who, being in very nature God,    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man,    he humbled himself    by becoming obedient to death        even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place    and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,    in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Philippians 2:6-11 NIV
   Those who  plotted and planned Christ's death thought they had a good Friday and got a black Friday. But I got all the best parts of both when I asked Christ to be my Savior. Accepting His gift of salvation erased my debts and made every day good-worth living to His glory. I am thankful for all of that day, the black and the good.





Monday, April 10, 2017

To Carson, On Your 9th Birthday


Dear Carson,
          So this year you got an early gift: your little cousin arrived a few days before your birthday! You were so excited that "Hedgie" was here and you couldn't wait to "squish" him. You have always loved a baby ever since you pushed your doll around in your little stroller. You especially love one that is related to you.

    "Hedgie" will have such an excellent example in you of what a godly man looks like. You are still so young, but you already show great maturity in so many areas. You are a fierce and loyal protector of those you love and you have continued to grow in your generous and thoughtful ways. You love to play the host and invite friends and family to our home. You want to take care of those around you. Even today at lunch, you wanted to make sure that you could share your special birthday dessert with everyone. I don't know how many things I would forget without you! You are willing to help me, offering frequently to vacuum for me and take care of other chores. You are really interested in learning to cook-I think you are going to be a real "catch" when you are older! Ha!

     You are doing such a great job overcoming anxieties and learning to try new things. You ran cross-country this fall, and you finished the season strong! Now that you have started soccer you are really in your element. You thought a long time before you chose a sport, and I wouldn't be surprised if you don't stick with it for quite a while! You love to be active, and outside, which makes me glad. You love to show us your "six pack"-we may have a little work to do on modesty and humility. ;)

    You aren't just growing physically strong, though. You are working hard to grow in the Lord, too. You have been my biggest cheerleader as we have worked through the Awana book together this year. I have struggled, but you haven't let me quit. You put a considerable amount of time and effort into learning your sections, and you recite them flawlessly, which makes my heart so happy. You pitch in at church to help without complaining, which considering the amount of time our family spends there is really saying something.

    Moms often say that they wish their kids would stop growing, or at least slow down, but I don't usually think that. I sometimes get sad when I remember what a cute baby or adorable toddler you were, but I am so thankful for who you are now. You are still the same Carson in so many ways, just taller and smarter! I don't just love you, I like you. I don't want to rush your growing up, but I am so glad that you are doing just that. I know the Lord doesn't just have amazing plans for your future-that you are living those plans right now. I am constantly in awe that I get to be a part of that. And so, so thankful. I love you more than I can say.

                                                                               Love,
                                                                                     Mom (aka Simone)

Friday, April 7, 2017

Simple Solutions to Update Your Seasonal Decor (Part 3)

    Simple Solutions to Update Your Seasonal Decor
Part 1
Part 2

     All caught up? Now I will show you a sample setting that I created. The idea here is to show you how to truly implement these ideas in your own home-no matter your style or color scheme.

   For this mock setting, I went with simple colors that will work in almost any home. As a matter of fact, you probably have similar items already! I chose to act as though this person has black and white as part of their color scheme. So I started with those two colors and to make it "Easter" appropriate, I added the third seasonal color: yellow.

     So this person is starting with:
-a chalkboard ($3 Dollar Spot at Target. You could also choose a hanging version)
-small pitcher ($3, again from Target. You could also choose a clear version_
-small black "tray" (this is actually a planter base I got from Ikea for $1. You could substitute a plate or small tray of any type, even a shallow bowl will work)
-small white bowl (this was a gift from Anthropologie, I have no idea what it cost, but you could find a similar item at Target for $2 or so) To elevate it in this photo I have it turned upside down on a small votive holder
Total cost for "base" items- approximately $10. And don't forget, all these things can find uses elsewhere in your home. My tray lives on my bedside table, I can use both the pitcher and bowl as actual dishes, and the chalkboard could have schedules or menu plans on it if it isn't serving as seasonal decor.

   Then I add my "seasonal" touches.
-$3 worth of daffodils (Trader Joe's)
-$1 worth of plastic eggs (I think a dozen is $2 before Easter, I purchased mine on clearance after)
-$3 Dove chocolates (you can definitely choose cheaper candy!)
Total for seasonal touches: $7

   I would not purchase a candle and consider it seasonal decor. I would use a candle that fit into my decor elsewhere. I would not consider that to be something you would want to purchase as a "base" item, though, because color will limit its use. So, consider what accents you have around your home that are colorful, but not single-use.

   I "nested" the eggs in a piece of yellow tissue paper. We are just going to consider that "free", as well as the yellow chalk I used to write on the chalkboard.

   But, you might say, that's easy! Spring is simple, because of flowers, and Easter candy, and eggs! How do I transition this stuff to some other seasons?

Well, I have some examples! Remember-it's April, so I am working with spring colors all around. But I have taken these same pieces and transitioned them to a set-up for Valentine's Day!

   I keep all my decorations for Easter, Valentine's and St.Patrick's together, so I happened to have a few things I could pull out. However, I really limited myself, so you could see you don't have to buy a bunch of stuff to make it work! Same pitcher, same chalkboard, same bowl, same black tray. But I added some tea lights and a small jar candle. I put some washi on the jar candle, I probably should have put some on the tea lights, too. I put a few felt hearts in the bowl, with a little clothespin I bought. I filled the pitcher with straws from the Dollar Spot and changed the art on the chalkboard. I attached the paper hearts (I used a punch, but you could easily just cut some out) with glue dots-but I don't recommend that! It was too sticky and pulled some of the paint off. I would probably just use scotch tape the next time. Or make a tiny garland. So, let's break down cost for this grouping.

-jar candle $2 at Walmart
-tea lights. I bought a huge pack at Ikea for $2, but you could get a smaller pack for around $1
-straws $1 at the Dollar Spot
-clothespin came in a five pack for $1
Total cost for seasonal accents: $5-$6

     So, we've covered Valentine's Day and Easter. I wanted to show you one more switch. If you don't "do" Halloween, it would only take one or two little changes to make this feel perfectly "fall".

     So, still the same things: pitcher, tray, bowl, chalkboard. But now I've changed the red for orange. I pulled in my framed skull-it would be easy to find a similar printable online. Since it isn't exactly Halloween time, I "borrowed" my carrot cake Kisses-can you tell they aren't seasonally appropriate? Nope! I filled a small jar with goldfish, added a little jar with paper flags (actually from New Year's) and turned my Valentine's straws upside down and added some orange ones. I placed some little glassine sacks on the tray-to kind of imply that you should fill them with treats! I used glue dots to hold the ribbon on the underside of the chalkboard-no peeling paint this time, and of course, changed the Scripture. (Sorry-definitely not my best work!) So, if I can decorate for Halloween in April and make it passable, it should be easy to come up with a cute set-up when it is actually the appropriate time of year!

Cost breakdown:
-candy $3
-glassine sacks $1 at Michael's
-straws. I buy these in a huge pack from our local restaurant supply and picked out the orange ones. This many probably cost me less than $0.50
Total seasonal accents $4-$5

   I am not going to price the goldfish, flags or straws, as those were purchased for other reasons. This is what I am getting at-when you start by using what you have you drastically cut costs! Look around for things that are the right colors and figure out how to make them work for you. As you begin to develop colors that you prefer for certain holidays, you will know what colors of paper,washi tape and ribbon to keep on hand.

   So there you have it: easy seasonal decorations three ways. I didn't do Christmas because people don't usually struggle with that. Summer decorations are really open-ended, other than 4th of July you could do just about anything! I often take summer "off" other than 4th of July, because between decorating for graduations and birthdays there isn't much time. But you could add a hot pink or a neon green to these items and have a really fun display.

  I've realized that creativity for many does not come naturally-myself included! It is a muscle I have to exercise-the more I use it, the stronger it gets. I recognized after getting frustrated early on when things weren't perfect it requires a lot of grace, too. My efforts aren't being judged for a prize ribbon. In my home it is about bringing a smile to my family and guests, about finding the beauty in each season, and about celebrating even the small things. By surrounding myself with things I enjoy, it encourages contentment and gratitude. I don't have to spend a fortune to do that!

   So here's my challenge to you: see if you can set up a small display in your own home with *only* things you have around your house. What can you make or re-purpose? What can you mix up to add a festive touch? Then, go to my Facebook page and share a photo with me! I love inspiration. Already do something similar with your holiday decorations? Share that, too! Let me know what your best tips are! There's always something new to learn-I definitely don't have it all figure out.



Thursday, April 6, 2017

Simple Solutions to Update Your Seasonal Decor (Part 2)

 
 Find Part 1 to this series here!
     I'm excited to share some more ideas on updating your seasonal decorations! These are pretty photo-heavy posts, but I think the concepts are easier to understand when you can see what I'm saying. Seasonal decorating doesn't have to be expensive, time-consuming or clutter-y. I'm eager to show you how adding one or two things to what you already have in your home will help to create a festive atmosphere without making you crazy!

4. Add one or two things that are distinctively seasonal.

     My kitchen colors are red, and I keep a red felt wreath in there and when it matches my holiday colors I just find something to stick on it that pulls it all together. For Christmas, I add an ornament or two in turquoise, usually a snowflake or Christmas tree. For 4th of July, I added this little bunting and anchor (Dollar Spot at Target) to make it go with my theme.

    Look again at the photo from my Easter decorations this year.
  The only item in this picture that I have to store is the eggs. (I'll tell you more about my system for printables in a minute.) I often use candy as one of my elements because it is consumable, so I don't have to store it! The Peeps never get eaten, but at around $1 (I get them on sale at Target) I don't feel guilty about tossing them at the end of the month. They shouldn't be eaten anyway, in my mind!
 I chose plain white eggs. The eggs are meant to be dye-able, but I leave them plain white because then they go with any color scheme!

5. Go "disposable"!
   If you have every paid any attention to my posts about decorating I use two things fairly frequently: candy and fresh flowers. In the Easter photo above, those are $4 bouquet from Trader Joe's. They will most likely last the week and a half until Easter, so definitely worth the money, in my opinion. And I don't have to store them!
    This is a great example of using candy. I bought a dollar's worth of red and white gummy bears from Winco, picked all the red Sour Patch kids out of a clearance bag of Christmas ones, and bought Sixlets at the Dollar Tree. I shamelessly pulled the skull sketch my cousin did for me because I loved the funky vibe it gave this vignette. Candy is also "disposable"-as in, if my family doesn't eat it (Over the span of time that I usually have decor up they will munch on it, and then once I pull everything down I put it in a designated spot where they know they can go whole-hog!) I have no problem tossing it-although I can often find friends who are willing to take it off my hands. 

   People will ask about the temptation of having all that candy around, and I have a few things that help in that department: I will often buy candy I personally won't eat (Sixlets? Peeps? GROSS!). I also use really small quantities (the Sour Patch kids, for example) so I'm not tempted because I don't want to ruin my display. Also, constantly having candy available actually encourages me personally *not* to eat it, as I know I can always have some later. I can usually keep putting it off so "later" never comes! Ha! 

6. Change up your chalkboards and frames!

 If you haven't noticed yet, I get my money's worth from this little chalkboard. It gets a makeover for every season. I paid $3 for it from Target's Dollar Spot. Best decorating purchase-EVER! I look up ideas on Pinterest and do my best "third grader imitating professional" art on them. The handmade look is in, right? Scripture is always my go-to choice for what to write on them. 

 I spent a little bit of time (a couple of hours on Pinterest looking at tutorials) and realized the easiest thing to making your chalk art look better is to emphasize the "down" strokes of your letter. Just that simple thing makes all your work look more artistic! Two tips: first ALWAYS season your new chalkboards by completely covering them with plain white chalk-actual chalk, not chalk markers or pencils! This will keep them from being ruined by having whatever you first write on them permanently stuck on them. I made that mistake with this one and I had to buy chalk paint to cover it and fix that. Now that I have seasoned it, I don't have that problem. Second recommendation: use real chalk on actual chalkboards. It gives it the most authentic look and erases better. I have a multi-colored pack of chalk from Target that was less than $2 and I use that all the time. If you have a metal chalkboard like the tiny one in the photo with the green books chalk markers are a better pic for that type. Also, if you don't plan on erasing it, chalk markers are more precise and long-lasting. I used those on the hanging chalkboard in the Valentine set-up. 


  The frame above is the equivalent of the chalkboard. It gets a new printable or something each season. That costs almost nothing-just the cost of ink. If you aren't into creating your own, I have lots available here on the blog (search "printable") or Pinterest has tons! The two sizes I use most frequently are 8x10 and 5x7. Here is my best tip for frames: keep your prints stored in them! I keep the cardboard insert that comes with most frames, or even just the stock photo that comes in them, and I file whatever isn't being "presented" behind that. In some frames I have as many as 4 or 5 different photos or printables in there at any given time.

Side note: The set-up above was a great example of using what I had on hand. I wanted a "back-to-school" theme so I just arranged my kids' school supplies in a cute way!

7. Use paper or washi tape to get your desired effect. 
       The garland above (from "The Grinch Christmas Party") is one of my favorites, but it was also one of the easiest. I simply used strips of paper, cut in a matter of minutes with my tiny little paper cutter, and chopped them to different lengths and then I hot glued them to the back of a ribbon. The whole thing took maybe 15 minutes but was so gratifying! No talent necessary. I have a whole post on how to whip up easy paper garlands you should check out if you need more ideas. 

    This entire wreath was made out of paper. I hoped to day share the tutorial, but suffice it to say it was practically free, as I backed it with cardboard I cut from a box, and used a few sheets of paper and some hot glue to put it together. Paper is one of the least expensive things, but it makes a big impact! (Side note: here are some more books, but this time they are contributing to a "back-to-school" theme! "Free" decor! And what is more appropriate for that then my old-fashioned school bell?) 
      I limit myself to the amount of paper that will fit in a 12x12 storage container from Michael's that is about 4 inches deep. It holds all my paper and felt, and I usually can dig through to find what I want. Otherwise, it is a good excuse to run to Hobby Lobby and buy a dollar's worth of paper to match! I try to stick with paper that is one or two colors and patterned, but not specifically holiday. The ones above were from a pack and I had them leftover from a wreath I made, so they are kind of an exception. 
   
   Washi tape is another easy way to make seasonal decorations. The piece above was all washi. (Find the tutorial here.)I don't keep 500 rolls, but I do keep a small shoebox full and trust me, it's totally worth it.
 I made the shamrock in the photo with the succulent out of washi, too. I did that one a little differently, I laid strips on cardstock and then cut them out with a paper punch. And see, the washi helped me out here, too. 
  This "tree" is a great example of how handy washi can be! This is actually decorator masking tape, but same idea. This was so cheap, but made such great impact!



8. When in doubt go with white (or glass).
    I've shared this tip in regards to party-planning, but it bears repeating here, too. When you are purchasing decorative elements or dishware, you can't really go wrong with buying classic white or glass. I don't have a huge amount of space to store things, but I get my money's worth out of a small collection of items. This isn't an exhaustive list, but it gives you an idea of my most used pieces. Amusingly, many of them are in the photo above!

They are:
-2 olive trays, one small and one larger
-several assorted (one cup volume or less) plastic and ceramic white dishes. I have a square one I am particularly fond of.
-cylindrical glass vases. Two sizes. I bought the 7 inch one at the dollar store. That's the one in the photo above filled with the eggs. I also have a larger one for bigger arrangements.
-small white cake plate. Mine is actually plastic and it is hilariously from the Halloween decor at Target. It was on mega clearance and I only paid like $0.50 for it. Pick one up at a yard sale or in the Dollar Spot for $3-$5.
-larger white cake plate. Having two coordinating cake plates allows me to stack them onto each other for a tiered effect. They don't have to match perfectly! My big one is square and ceramic, the smaller one round and plastic.
-various jars. I keep mason jars in both pint and quart sizes. I use these for food storage when they aren't serving decorative purposes. The container in the photo above with the silver lid is a favorite. You can get that style at Hobby Lobby for around $3. Choose things you can use for storage year-round so you aren't making space for empty containers for months! That defeats the purpose. Most of mine live in my pantry filled with boring things like fruit snacks and granola bars. When I want them for decorating, I unceremoniously dump them in a bowl or basket, wash them out and they are ready to go!

   Obviously, you can adjust these to suit your own decor style and colors. You could easily substitute metals (silver, gold, etc.) as those will go with most any color scheme. You can be a little more flexible with frames-I have a variety in both metal and black. I also have a couple of colored ones.

   This is such a tiny amount of stuff that if you *had* to store it it would all fit in a small storage container. However, find a place for it in your everyday decorating and you've made it work double duty!


    So that pretty much finishes up my broad-stroke tips for the best ways to decorate seasonally without spending a ton of time or money, or having a garage full of decorations. However, sometimes it is still hard to figure out to put those things into practice, so I have one final post in this series where I will break down the steps and show you a mock set-up. It may seem like I have the "right" colors or items to make these tips work, and you have different colors and you don't collect weird things like glass skulls, hand-held school bells and garden gnomes. But my tips will still work! I promise-you can do it.
 
Looking for the last post in this series? Find it here:
Part 3

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