Music - First Instrument Exposures

You don't need to sign up for music classes to expose your child to the wonderful world of instruments, rhythms and melodies!

Pretend Play - Snack Stand

Pretend play is essential for young children! Props like this snack stand are easy to make and can fit a variety of play themes.

Early Language and Literacy Development - Listening and Speaking

Think beyond the alphabet to develop early language and literacy skills; sharing books are having family conversations are powerful tools!

Recipe - Mama Bear's Chili

Let's get cooking! A warm bowl of chili will make everyone's bellies happy this fall!

DIY Toys - Pizza Playset

We love making our own toys like this pizza playset. It saves a lot of money and we can make exactly what we want and nothing more!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Our Favorite Fall & Halloween Books

I'm sorry it took til the end of the month to put this list together, but here are some of our favorite fall and Halloween books!

*Stay tuned for a full post on my Spooky Wheels on the Bus playset...it's almost finished!

  1. Leaves by David Ezra Stein
  2. The Silly Scarecrow (Clifford's Puppy Days) by Danielle Denega
  3. Under the Apple Tree by Steve Metzger
  4. Little Critter: The Fall Festival by Mercer Mayer
  5. Let it Fall by Maryann Cocca-Leffler
  6. Mouse's First Fall by Lauren Thompson
  7. The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams
  8. The Night Before Halloween by Natasha Wing
  9. Five Little Pumpkins by Dan Yaccarino
  10. Halloween Faces by Nancy Davis
  11. Mouse's First Halloween by Lauren Thompson
  12. The Spooky Wheels on the Bus by J. Elizabeth Mills
  13. Skeleton Hiccups by Margery Cuyler
  14. If You're a Monster and You Know It by Rebecca & Ed Emberley
  15. Go Away, Big Green Monster! by Ed Emberley
  16. Glad Monster, Sad Monster by Ed Emberley

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Homemade KFC Mashed Potato Bowl

Have you ever had the mashed potato bowl from KFC? Or its brother, the biscuit bowl? If you haven't, let me tell you about it. They put mashed potatoes at the bottom of the bowl and then add corn, crispy chicken pieces, cheese and brown gravy. The biscuit bowl is identical except the gravy is white and a biscuit is placed on top. It is incredibly delicious, however...one bowl racks up 680 calories, 31 grams of fat and 2130 mg sodium! Yikes! The sodium is the worst part for me, although getting all the numbers down would be ideal.

Here's the good news: mashed potato bowls are pretty simple to make at home! I know they're not the healthiest thing out there, but I keep a box of instant mashed potatoes on hand for mashed potato bowl nights. If I happen to have leftover mashed or baked potatoes I will definitely use them but for those times that I don't, I bust out the instant. I also like adding some extra nutrition (and color!) to my potatoes by substituting vegetable puree for half of the milk - carrots, cauliflower, spinach and peas make good additions without really altering the flavor. Then I add frozen vegetables, leftover chicken or whole grain all natural chicken tenders/nuggets, shredded cheddar and homemade gravy (sometimes brown, sometimes white!).

Mashed potato bowls are also a great way to use up Thanksgiving leftovers. Throw some green beans or cranberry sauce in there too and call it a night!

Mashed Potato Bowl
Ingredients (scale all the ingredients depending on how many servings you'd like to make):
  • Mashed potatoes (instant or from scratch)
  • Frozen vegetables - corn, peas, diced cooked carrots and/or broccoli
  • Leftover chicken or all-natural chicken tenders/nuggets
  • Shredded cheddar
  • Brown or white gravy - see recipe below
  • Biscuits (optional)
Directions:
  1. Cook gravy and warm up all ingredients. If necessary, cut chicken into bite-size pieces. Layer in a bowl and enjoy!
  2. Feel free to experiment with other vegetables, meats and cheeses!
Brown or White Gravy
In a medium saucepan, melt 4 tbsp unsalted butter. Add 4 tbsp flour and stir to incorporate all the flour. Cook the roux over medium-low heat, stirring often, until it is medium brown in color. Slowly whisk in a 10-3/4oz can of beef broth for brown gravy or 2 1/2 cups of milk for white. Cook, stirring often, until gravy has thickened. Add black pepper to taste.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Tour of our DIY Play Kitchen

There it is, Little C's diaper box kitchen! Left to right we have the sink, a cabinet and the oven. The cabinet and oven were made pretty much the same way as the sink (see sink tutorial), only the cabinet has a shelf inside (shown below) and the oven has 4 squeeze fruit caps screwed onto the front for stove knobs. I had originally glued foam paper circles to the top of the oven to make burners but Little C quickly pulled them off. So now there are simply 4 outlined circles. The dish drying rack on the cabinet is actually a real one meant for camping, but it was a great price and the perfect size!

Here is the inside of the cabinet. For the shelf, first you need to make supports on either side. Cut 4 rectangles to fit the depth of your box and your preferred shelf height. Tape 2 rectangles together and then tape them against the side of your box. Repeat with the remaining 2 rectangles for the other side. Then cut 2 rectangles to fit the width and depth of your box. Tape those together and slide them onto the supports. As long as your shelf fits snugly you shouldn't need to do anything to hold it in place.  As you can see, this cabinet houses all the dishes and utensils.

And here is the inside of the oven. The oven door has additional cardboard supports taped on because Little C quickly uncovered a design flaw in my oven. Because of the handle, the door can't lay flat on the floor even if you hinge it all the way at the bottom of the box. Therefore, when Little C puts things into her oven and takes things out, she ends up leaning/standing on the door and bending it. The handle does look nice, but for practical purposes I'd skip the handle and either make a cutout handle or a cardboard handle which can fold flat against the floor if I were to do it again.

The oven rack is a wire cooling rack I picked up at the dollar store; they came in a 2-pack so I have another left over to maybe make a grill one of these days :-) The wire rack happened to fit into the box just perfectly and so it rests on the inner flaps of the box. If your box is bigger you can always make a shelf for the rack to sit on. Inside the oven we also have a mini muffin pan and a square cake pan for all our baking needs!

Little C also has a fridge which was surprisingly not made from cardboard boxes. It's actually the wooden fridge I had when I was her age! I had spray painted it and used it as a dollhouse when I was a little older and it had sat in my parents' attic for years. Finally that old fridge could be dusted off and used again. Here's a brief look at the fridge's contents:
  • On top of fridge: rainbow bottles (not really related to the kitchen, they just ended up there); pizza playset
  • Top shelf: Country Crock tub filled with dry ziti; gelato container filled with chocolate play dough; Melissa & Doug Bake and Decorate Cupcake Set
  • Middle shelf: half an egg carton filled with plastic Easter eggs; various empty bottles and containers such as chocolate syrup, coffee creamer and bbq sauce
  • Bottom shelf: foam board shelf to divide the space; sandwich making materials; hot dogs; plastic fruits and vegetables
And there you have it! I'll have more details on some of the food and storage bins I made for her kitchen soon.

Monday, October 13, 2014

DIY Toy Kitchen - Sink Tutorial

I may be crazy, but I don't like most of the toy kitchens out there. There was really only one I had considered purchasing and it was the DUKTIG from Ikea. The main reason I don't like all the usual play kitchens are because they are too detailed and specific. By that I mean that there's a door for the microwave with number buttons on it and the fridge door has a drink dispenser painted on and etc, etc. I wanted a toy kitchen that could be used as the sink/cabinets in a doctor's office or at the hair salon as well without the problem of "you can't put doctor tools in there, that's the microwave!" To me, the simpler and less decorated the better. That's why I liked the one from Ikea, very simplistic.

But I didn't buy it. And here's why. I knew I could make one with a MUCH smaller budget so I figured I'd save my money for things that were more difficult or labor intensive for me to make (such as anything that involves a lot of sewing...). I honestly only spent $1 to make this sink, but even if you don't have as many random bits and pieces hanging around the house as we do, I doubt you'd spend more than $10 on everything, if that. The jumbo boxes of diapers we were buying so often were the perfect size for my kitchen cabinets and so I set aside 3 and got started. Here's a breakdown with detailed pictures of the sink. The following materials list may seem intimidating, but keep in mind the sink with its faucet is the most complicated of the 3 pieces.

Materials used:
  • large diaper box
  • clear packing tape or glue
  • ruler & pencil
  • box cutter
  • duct tape
  • white contact paper (or whatever color you prefer)
  • large rectangular tupperware container
  • screwdriver
  • drawer pull handle with bolts
  • small bolts, nuts and washers
  • hot glue gun
  • red & blue caps from squeeze fruits
  • PVC pipe
  • foam board
  • box from a bar of soap
  • scraps of cardboard
1. Tape or glue the flaps shut on the box. Draw a door on the front of the box, leaving a 1-2" space around the door. Using the box cutter, cut out 3 sides of the door.

2. Reinforce the hinge with some duct tape on the inside and outside.

3. Cover box with contact paper.

4. Measure the distance between screw holes in your drawer handle; with your screwdriver, make holes in your door where you'd like the handle to go. I think I made my top hole 1" from the top of the door and 1.5" from the side.

5. From your cardboard scraps, cut one or two rectangles and make holes in these for the handle's bolts as well. These will help strengthen the door, making sure your child can't rip the handle out of the door! You'll have to find small bolts to attach the handle, the ones that come with the handle will be too long - but don't get rid of them! We'll use them later :-) You don't need to glue the cardboard rectangles to the door, the bolts will hold it all in place!

6. Now the tricky part, the sink and faucet. First, cut a hole in the top of the box so you can slip a rectangular tupperware container into it. I traced around the top of my tupperware and cut a little smaller than the outline. Tip: a hole that's too small can be cut bigger but a hole that's too big can't be fixed!
For the faucet, my sister in law happened to have a couple small unused pieces of PVC pipe and 2 corner pieces. So my husband cut them to size, I painted them and set about attaching it to my cabinet. For a little top support, I cut 4 circles from foam board then cut out the middles so the pipe could slide in. For bottom support, I used a box from a bar of soap glued under the cabinet; that way the pipe could just sit in the box. I stuffed some cardboard scraps to fill in the space between the soap box and the back wall of the cabinet. If you don't happen to have random bits of pvc around or don't want to bother with cutting and painting and creating a weird support system (and I wouldn't blame you!), this faucet from Childhood101 is perfect. I was planning on doing that until my sister in law gave me the pipes and then I was just stubborn enough to want to complete the sink without spending another cent.
Finally, the faucet knobs. I love using the squeeze fruit caps because 1. I didn't have to buy anything and 2. they're color coded for teaching hot water on the left and cold water on the right! To attach them, my husband drilled holes in the middle of the caps and I used my trusty screwdriver to make holes in the box. The bolts that came with the drawer handle were the perfect length to go through the cap. I secured the bolts with a washer and nut, leaving it loose enough to be able to turn the knobs. I did, however, hot glue the washer and nut to the bolt (but not to the cabinet! Then it won't spin!) so they wouldn't loosen and fall off.

This is what the completed sink looks like! Complete with tupperware sink basin, small empty soap bottle and a piece of scrub sponge to wash all those dishes. I swear it's not as much work as it seems, especially if you spend a couple bucks on extra parts and make your faucet the way Childhood101 did. I'm sure you're also wondering how well a cardboard box kitchen will stand up to a toddler. Well, I often call Little C "Destructo Junior" because she manages to disassemble or break most things, much like her dad. And yet the above photo was taken today, 11 months after the sink was first made! The top is a little sunk in and the corners of contact paper don't look as perfect as they used to, but it is still definitely in one piece and functioning just as well as it did almost a year ago!

There won't be any more full tutorials on the rest of the kitchen, but the other 2 pieces were made using most of the same methods as the sink so you'll be able to recreate those as well if you'd like. Click here for a full tour of our play kitchen!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Chocolate Cake for One (or Two)

The other day I wasn't feeling fantastic and the thought of chocolate was very enticing. We were also celebrating a potty training achievement of Little C's and so I wanted to make a special snack for her. Enter: Chocolate Cake for One (or two in this case!). It's quick to mix up and even faster to cook if you throw it in the microwave! And unbelievably, it can be made with all whole food ingredients and definitely contains nothing artificial (in itself...the marshmallows we decided to toss on top may be another story...)

As always, my little sous chef was ready to bake! Especially since there was chocolate cake involved! We mixed up all the ingredients in a small bowl and then divided the batter among two small greased ramekins (1.5-2 cup capacity). Just a side note, when I make just one cake I mix all the ingredients in a larger ramekin and cook it right in there. The batter sticks a little so it's better to eat out of the dish but it doesn't stick so bad that it's miserable to wash.

Since we were feeling a little extra naughty, we tossed a few chocolate chips (Kirkland brand from Costco - they're actually amazingly tasty, all natural and vegan) and marshmallows on top. Then we threw them in the microwave, one at a time, and cooked them for 30 seconds. That's it!

And there you have Little C's personal chocolate cake.

C'mon, you know you want to make one ;-)

Chocolate Cake for One (or Two)
Ingredients:
  • 1 tbsp plus 2 tsp cocoa powder
  • 3 tbsp flour (white, white wheat, oat...)
  • pinch of sea salt
  • 1/4 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 2 tsp olive oil (or coconut or vegetable or you could even try applesauce or mashed banana)
  • 3 tbsp milk
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • optional toppings such as chocolate chips, nuts or frosting
Directions:
  1. Mix all dry ingredients together. 
  2. Add wet ingredients and stir thoroughly. If you'd like, sprinkle chips, nuts, etc over top of the batter.
  3. Pour into microwave-safe bowl or mug and microwave for 30-40 seconds. Let it cool a bit before devouring.
  4. Optional: If you'd prefer, you can bake this cake in the oven at 350 degrees F for about 12-15 minutes.
Recipe adapted from Chocolate Covered Katie

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Garlic & Herb Roasted Chickpeas

Chickpeas are found in SO many vegetarian recipes, but my favorites are definitely hummus and falafels (which Little C confuses with waffles!). Here's a brief rundown of why chickpeas are so popular:
  1. 1 cup of cooked chickpeas has 12g of fiber - half your daily recommended amount!
  2. Chickpeas also contain 15g of protein per cup, hence all the vegetarian recipes.
  3. Chickpeas are a source of thiamin, B6, folate and vitamins E, K, A and C.
Little C loves hummus as much as we do and likes plain and roasted chickpeas as well (more than we do!). So for a snack today I decided to have Little C help me make Garlic & Herb Roasted Chickpeas.

Apparently I didn't really need a recipe at all since Little C was content with eating all the plain cooked chickpeas. "Mommy can I try 1? Mommy can I try 2 more? Mommy can I try 11?" But I insisted we follow through with my original plan!

Little C added olive oil, oregano, basil, salt and pepper to her bowl of chickpeas. Then she ate some more...I finally got her to stop eating them by adding the grated fresh garlic! Too bad I didn't get a picture of her face when she got a mouthful of garlic...finally we added some Parmesan cheese and mixed it all together.

Scoop all your chickpeas onto a baking sheet (you can line with parchment paper but it doesn't stick too badly if you don't, especially if you stir once or twice while baking). Don't forget to scoop out all the herbs and cheese that get left behind in the bowl!

While the chickpeas bake, have your sous chef help with the clean up. Be forewarned that she will climb on the counter to try and clean those hard to reach places!

When the chickpeas are nice and browned and crispy, scoop them off the pan with a spatula and give your sous chef a little bowl all to herself. Then get the vacuum ready because there will be crumbs.

Garlic & Herb Roasted Chickpeas
Ingredients:
  • 3-4 cups cooked chickpeas (or 2 cans)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, grated
  • 1 1/2 tsp dried basil
  • 1 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan
Directions:
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. If using canned chickpeas, drain and rinse and then pour onto paper towels and pat dry. (If you have time you can let them air dry for 30 minutes or so but mine were already getting eaten at this point!)
  3. Dump the chickpeas into a large bowl and add the oil, garlic, herbs, salt & pepper and cheese. Stir until all the chickpeas are evenly coated.
  4. Spread chickpeas onto a baking sheet in a single layer. Bake for about 45 minutes or until chickpeas are browned and crispy, stirring once or twice while baking.
Recipe adapted from mama.papa.bubba
Nutrition source: LiveStrong



Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Whole Chicken in the Crock Pot

When it comes to cooking meat, I'm honestly a bit of a baby. I hate the feel and look of raw meat and I hate the drippiness of it. Before I had Little C, Papa Bear and I cooked together most of the time and I usually deferred meat prepping to him. However, now that I'm home and do weeknight cooking on my own, I've had to suck it up and deal with the meat.

And for the most part I've kept it safe and simple up til now - chicken breasts, pork loins, ground meat and sausages, with a stray pork shoulder thrown in once or twice. But when I saw whole chickens on sale for $0.99/lb again, I decided to be brave and tackle a whole chicken! The task didn't seem as intimidating because I'd found this recipe for whole chicken in the crock pot which seemed...well, simple! As a bonus, I could use the cooking liquid and chicken carcass to make my homemade chicken stock. And so I took out my crock pot and off I went!


Whole Chicken in the Crock Pot
Ingredients:
  • 2 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp onion powder
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/8 tsp chipotle or cayenne (add more if you like spice!)
  • 1/2 tsp chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • sprinkle of sea salt
  • 1 onion
  • Whole chicken (I used a 9-lb chicken and it just fit in the crock pot, feel free to use a smaller bird!)
Directions:
  1. Coarsely chop the onion and place in the bottom of your slow cooker.
  2. Mix seasonings in a small bowl.
  3. Remove giblets from chicken (and pop-up timer if your chicken has one). Rub the seasoning mix all over the outside of the chicken, and inside the cavity and under the skin if you'd like. Place chicken on top of onions in slow cooker.*
  4. Cook for 4-8 hours on HIGH (cook time will depend on the size of the chicken, mine was perfect in about 7 hours) or until the chicken falls off the bone.
  5. Separate all the meat from the bones and use in your favorite recipes. We used some to make quesadillas for dinner.
  6. If you'd like to continue on to make chicken stock, put all the bones and skin back into the slow cooker. Add any or all of the following: another chopped onion, a roughly chopped carrot and celery stalk, a couple bay leaves and a sprig each of fresh thyme and parsley. Cook on LOW for 8-10 hours. (I set my crock pot for 8 hours after which it will automatically switch to Keep Warm for the rest of the night until I turn it off in the morning - keeping my fingers crossed!)

*No liquid is needed to cook the chicken but you will be amazed at the amount of liquid that comes out of the chicken!)

Recipe adapted from 100 Days of Real Food

Other recipes which can use the cooked chicken:
Chicken Cornbread Casserole
Chunky Cream of Chicken Soup