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!


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