Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Things I Never Knew I'd do as a Parent #1

My six-year-old got out of bed one night and came out to complain that his snake had a hole in it.  He was referring to a stuffed snake that Grandpa had bought for him at a sand castle and chainsaw carving festival not too long ago.  (I know, you're thinking, "chainsaw carving and sandcastles!?"  Believe me, you don't want to know.)  Anyhoo, this seemed to bother him for whatever reason and I assumed he was just trying to avoid going to sleep.  I sent him back to bed with a promise to fix the snake tomorrow.

The next day I remembered the incident and went looking for the snake in his bed.  I was not prepared for what I saw.  The entire bed was covered . . . in bird seed!  If there was ever a WTF!? moment, this was it.  Apparently, cheap carnival snakes are stuffed with bird seed.  Who knew?  I certainly never bothered to think about it.  Then, of course, I felt totally awful because I realized that I had made my son sleep an entire night rolling around in bird seed!  Granted, that's no reason to call CPS, but I still felt really awful. 

So, out comes the vacuum cleaner and after a few swipes it becomes painfully obvious that 1:  I am really short and 2:  the vacuum cleaner hose was designed by someone who never envisioned it being used to clean bird seed out of a loft bed.  Next time I will pay the extra money to get a vacuum with a really long hose attachment.

It took me nearly an hour to totally clean up the mess.  I had to vacuum the sheet, then remove it in order to vacuum the mattress.  Once that was done I had to remove the mattress and clean in-between all the slats of the bed.  When I finally got that done I had to move all the toys under the bed and clean up all the birdseed there.  This was not what I had planned for the afternoon.

When the time comes for us to finally move I imagine that we will find little reminders of this incident every where.  I also know that it will be highly unlikely that my husband will have a clue as to why there would be bird seed in our son's room.

Last weekend I finally got around to fixing said snake with a hole in his side.  As I sat there very patiently stitching up the snake (i.e. not very patiently at all since birdseed flowed continuously from the snake onto the floor) two thoughts came to mind.  One:  exactly how many little Tweety birds would a real snake have to eat in order to be stuffed to such an extreme with bird seed, and two: why in the world am I actually doing this?  Because you know that if this snake actually ends up back in my son's bed it won't take very long for the whole incident to repeat itself.  So, I consoled myself with this thought.  If the incident repeats itself I will at least have a topic for another blog post, and this title came to mind, Stupid Things I've Done More than Once.  Or how about, How Stupid am I?  Lessons I didn't Learn the First Time.  Yup, I bet there are TONS of things I could write on that subject.  

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mama's Meatball Soup

I'd love to tell you that this is my Mom's recipe or even my Grandma's recipe, but the truth is that when I was growing up, my mom hated to cook.  I remember on more than one occasion hearing her mumble, groan, and lament about making dinner.  It's not that my mom is a bad cook, in fact, quite the opposite, she just didn't enjoy doing it night after night.  She had so many other things that she wanted to do, or needed to do for that matter.

Dad on the other hand has always loved to cook and loves to make soups in particular.  I'm pretty sure that Dad does all the cooking now days.  He can, and very often does, take an entire day to cook one meal.  It's not just because he does things so slowly (which he does), but I think a lot of it is just the fact that he is having so much fun while doing it and therefore doesn't really worry about all the other things that he could be doing instead.  So, why isn't this called, "Dad's Meatball Soup"?  Well, because even though Dad makes a rockin' Albondigas, this is not his recipe.

This is my recipe, hence "Mama's" in the title.  I won't lie to you.  Originally, I did get this recipe from Rachael Ray during one of my Food Network obsessive periods.  (Just for clarification, I am not a big Rachael Ray fan, so you call all just take one step back.  I am an Alton Brown fan, but Alton is often a lot more technical than I need on a school night.)  I've changed the Rachel Ray recipe just slightly (it's definitely NOT a 30-minute meal).  However, if it peeves you enough that I "stole" this recipe, then by all means get the original recipe here.

Mama's Meatball Soup

Olive oil (use what tastes good to you, just enough to cook the veg in)
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1-14.5 ounce can petite diced tomatoes, with liquid
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper
1 pound ground beef
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
4 cups chicken stock + 2 cups water (The original recipe calls for 6 cups chicken stock, but I find that with the added tomatoes, that much liquid is unnecessary.  Use it if you need it though.
2 cups small dried pasta shapes (I like pipette)
Handful of fresh cilantro or flat leaf parsley (optional)

For the meatballs:  Combine the meat, egg, garlic powder, cheese, bread crumbs, and nutmeg.  Add salt and pepper to your taste.  Mix thoroughly with your hands making sure to get everything well incorporated without over-mixing it (I believe Alton once said that over-mixing leads to tough meatballs, but I could just be making that up.)  Roll meatballs into bite size pieces. (I'm not very precise about this, I just eyeball it, but I usually end up with about 35 meatballs.)  Refrigerate until needed.

For the soup:  Heat the olive oil in a big pot over medium heat.  Add the carrot, onion, and bay leaves.  Salt and pepper to your taste.  Stir to coat the vegetables in oil then cover and leave them to cook for 5 minutes.

Next, add the stock, water, and tomatoes (including the liquid) to the vegetables.  Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil.  Once the soup boils, slowly and very carefully, add the meatballs (don't dump them in all at once unless you want scalding hot soup everywhere).  Once all the meatballs are in the bath, add your pasta and give it a good, gentle stir.  Adjust your temperature to a gentle boil and simmer soup for about 10 minutes.  Check that the pasta is done then serve with a little fresh cilantro or parsley in each bowl.

I'll leave you with these last thoughts on why I like this soup so much.  Well, first for the most obvious reason, this is great comfort food and is especially good on chilly, wet, winter days.  Even the kids enjoy it.  More importantly, to me anyway, it's got meatballs in it!  I don't know what it is about meatballs, but I L-O-V-E them.  I want a t-shirt that says I meatballs.  If you take some meat, roll it up in a ball and give it to me, I will gladly eat it regardless of how you cooked it or what you serve it with.  As Alton has said, meatballs are good eats.

Finally, I think I like this soup so much because when I make it I feel that I'm channeling just a little bit of both my mom and dad.  Many times I just don't feel like making dinner yet again for my family.  I'm tired and uninspired and just a little bit whiny (for the record, my mom would never whine).  When I'm feeling that way I start to make this soup and suddenly I feel a little like my dad too.  I find myself enjoying making the meal and sometimes I get inspired to tweak the recipe just a bit.  I've made this soup with turkey and chicken instead of beef.  I've made it with different vegetables and different pasta (sometimes egg noodles).  I've made a small batch for just two people, and really big batches for a big family gathering.  And if I feel like I'm really tired of cooking, well I can just about make this soup in my sleep, which is how I imagine that Mom always felt when making Dad's favorite fried chicken.

So, get to it!  Make it, eat it, and enjoy it! 
(P.S. the above picture is for a version that I made with chicken, celery, rotini, and no tomatoes)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

I Can Make That! #1

Do you ever see something in the store and you think, "Wow, that's really cool, but there's no way I'm paying that much for it!"  I know I do all the time.  A lot of times I think, "I'll bet I could make that."  I know my limits of course and some of you are probably way more talented than I am.  For those of you who feel that you don't have much creative talent, this is the post for you.  It's my intention to show you that given the right idea and some simple instructions you can make all kinds of stuff on the cheap.  Or, maybe it's not that you lack creative talent, but that you just don't have the time to figure out how to make something.  That's where I aim to help too.  I've already taken the time to think this stuff through, research it, and experiment with it.  All you have to do is follow my direction.

I begin "I Can Make That! #1" with the simplest of simple things.  Soap.  I know you're thinking, "Huh, soap.  Yeah, I've got other places to be."  But, let me explain.  How many of you have kids who love foaming hand soap?   And how much do you hate paying what they want for soap of all things?  Did you ever stop to think about what foaming hand soap really is?  Well, I'll tell you.  It's watered down liquid hand soap.  Yup, that's all it is.  You pay more for the added color and scent, but you get much, much less.  How dumb is that!?  Really dumb.  So instead of buying more of this overpriced soap or the ridiculous refills, just make your own.  Here's the recipe.

To make 8 ounces of foaming hand soap you need:

2 oz. liquid hand soap (clear, lotion, antibacterial, whatever you have on hand)

6 oz. water
liquid food color

Mix the liquid soap and water together in a water tight container.  I generally just shake it to mix it.  Add enough liquid food color to make the desired color, (what a plus! you actually get the color you like instead of always just green!) usually about eight drops.  Add more if you'd like a darker color, but be careful that you don't add so much that you over-dilute your soap.  Pour your soap into the dispenser, making sure to leave some air space so the pump will work.  You will still need the special pump that is used for foaming hand soaps, so you'll need to buy the regular stuff at least once, but from then on the sky is the limit!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Creature Creators

I don't know about you, but my 6-year-old son loves creatures! He can spend hours drawing, shaping, and creating creatures of every imaginable size, shape, and color. I am amazed (and yes, sometimes startled) by the stuff that comes out of his head, but honestly it is so fantastic to see a little kid's imagination in full-blown create mode. So here is a list of some websites, products, and games that allow the inner creature creator in anyone to shine.

Spore by Electronic Arts - I begin here, because this is really where we as a family began creature creating. At the time we knew that our son loved monsters and weird animals of all kinds, but we had no idea of what exactly he was seeing in his head when he thought "creature". 

In the Creature Creator portion of Spore you can choose a body type then add body parts as you'd like.  Once you have your creature just the way you like him, you can paint him and then "Test Drive" him.  This means you get to use several different animations including dancing and inflicting emotions.  You can give your creature up to three babies, take pictures of them, change backgrounds . . . in short you could waste a whole Sunday afternoon with this program. 

The great thing about this game is that you can download a free trial version of just the create mode so that you can see what the program is like and whether or not it's worth it to your family to buy the full version. It is as much fun to the adults as it is to the kids, but my son could quite literally spend the entire day making creature after creature after creature. Fear not though, these image files take up very little space on your computer hard drive. 

Now, just to be clear, I am talking primarily about the computer game. The game also exists in several console versions including Nintendo DS and Wii. The computer version allows for much greater manipulation of the creature and all aspects of creating the creature are easier to control. If your child enjoys the Creature Creator portion of Spore a lot, consider also buying the "Creepy & Cute" parts pack. This expansion pack provides more parts for your creature that will make him either creepier looking or so cute you'll wish you could keep it for a pet. It also provides additional paint options and extra animations.

BuiLD YouR WiLD SeLF - This is part of the New York Zoos and Aquarium website. The neat thing about this site is that it allows your child to make an illustrated version of themselves and then add different creature parts to that drawing. Each part is from a real animal and is labeled with the animal name. You can also choose a background for your wild self. When you're done it gives you a wild name and tells you all about the animals that make up your creature. You can create over and over again and you can also email your picture to friends, use your picture for a desktop picture, and print out your picture to keep. The site is very kid friendly and even kids who don't know how to read can figure out how to use the site after a few clicks.

Alien: Assembly Required - This is part of the PBS Kids website for the Arthur show. Arthur's friend Buster imagines that his smoke alarm is an alien spaceship and challenges you to decide what aliens will be on the ship. The sound affects can be scary for some kids, so you might want to play with them the first time through. The site is pretty user friendly for little kids and requires minimal reading ability. Most kids will figure it out without any help. When you're through you can print a copy to keep.

Handy Manny's Toy Factory - This is part of the Playhouse Disney website and is not specifically a creature creator, but it's amazing how many weird things my son has created with this game. You choose what kind of toy body to use and then add as many bits and pieces as you'd like. There are tons of things to choose from and it will take your child a long time before they get board with this one. The best part is that when you are done you can click on the "animate" button and your toy comes to life with sound effects and movement! You can also print out a copy of your toy to keep. The site is designed with preschoolers in mind so there is no need to be able to read. Everything is explained the first time through by Handy Manny himself.

Mii Channel - If you've got a Wii you know all about Miis. Believe it or not this is one of my son's favorite ways to create creatures. And unlike trying to play an actual video game, it's something that is very easy and fun for him to do. He can of course create as many "creatures" as he'd like on his own, but for more fun try visiting the website This website gives detailed instructions on "How to Make Famous Miis for Your Wii". My husband likes the Star Wars Miis while my son and I prefer the "Toons" section.

Monsters Magnetic Action Figures by mudpuppy - For creature creating on the go this magnetic set is lots of fun. It comes in a metal box that includes 40 different body part magnets and 4 background scenes. The monsters are reminiscent of old horror movie monsters and some are pretty freaky looking. However, if your kid leans toward the bizarre this set will be a sure hit. A quick check of the mudpuppy website shows lots of other monster-related fun like stickers, a sticker set play scene, and puzzles. There's also a very similar robot version if your kids like robots better than monsters. Or, get them both for some really crazy creations!

Check out some of these really fun creature creators and let your creative side loose.  If you know of some other sites or products that are fun for creature creating, let me know in the comments! 

Update - Nickelodeon's page for The Troop has a new Monster Creator section that is pretty fun.  It was designed as part of a contest to create new monsters for the show.  The contest is now closed, but the monster creating continues.  There are lots of different body types, limbs, features, and colors to choose from.  Once you complete it you can enter all the stats on your monster, then you can print it or email it to your friends.  Go check it out, it's like the poor man's version of Spore.  Although, since you can download a free version of Spore, it's more like the lazy man's version.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

5 Favorite Baby Products

I know that there are many articles and blog posts out there, even Amazon lists, which detail the most important or best baby products to buy. However, this is my list and what's different about it is that it contains items which, believe it or not, many parents either are unaware of or don't bother to use. My question is, "why?" because these products have made my life so much easier. So, in no particular order, here are five of my favorite baby items:

1. Carter's Dribble Happy Bib (AKA Teether Bibs) - What makes this bib different than the regular cotton bibs you'll get a ton of at your baby shower is the fact that it has a polyester waterproof lining. Other companies make a similar product such as Gerber. These bibs are awesome when you've got a baby who drools constantly. You'll still need to change the bib several times a day because it's not water-absorbent, but the great part is that you won't need to change your baby's clothes several times a day. They also make great feeding bibs because you can simply toss them in the laundry once they're done eating. One draw-back, like all bibs now-days, it has a Velcro closure that doesn't always work that great. These bibs are also generally more expensive than the plain cotton bibs, but they're well worth it and have the added bonus of being reversible!

(Update:  Carter's now makes a snap-closure version called a "Keep Me-Clean" bib.)  Carter's Keep Me-Clean Bibs

2. Bumkins Super Bib - Speaking of bibs, I'm also a big fan of this bib. This is primarily a feeding bib and not really appropriate for all day use, but what a feeding bib it is! This is the only feeding bib I will use and I can't tell you how ecstatic I was when I finally found this bib. I was so frustrated with the usual cheap feeding bibs that were "hand-wash only". Ugh, that's the last thing I want to do when I'm done feeding a very messy baby. These bibs can be washed in the washing machine along with the regular laundry. They last a long time through regular washing and I've collected so many by now that I can give my son a freshly washed bib at each meal. They come in two sizes and some really fun patterns. Again, these bibs are more expensive than regular feeding bibs, but they last a long time (I've had some for about 5 years now and they still look great) and they are well worth the extra money.
Bumkins Waterproof Superbib

3. The Snack Trap - This is something that has made car rides and walks so much easier (especially when paired with the No Throw, see below). It's basically a two-handled cup with a flexible plastic lid that allows the child to reach in and grab a snack, but can't be dumped out when turned upside-down. I've used these cups through two kids now and they still work great. An added bonus is that they help kids learn fine motor control since it does take some dexterity to get the snack out of the cup. 3 Pack Snack Trap

4. No Throw bottle and sippy cup strap - I have mixed feelings about this product. On the one hand it is an absolutely super idea. On the other hand, it wasn't executed as well as I would have liked. Still, if you tried to take this product away from me, I'd put up a fight! I have seen similar products out there like No Throw (see BooginHead, below), but this is the only one I could find here in town. Here's the best thing about it, no more sippy cups on the floor! For this alone it is well worth investing in. It is machine washable and easy to use and I love that I can string a Snack Trap on the strap along with the sippy cup. There are several things that I don't like about it though. For one, the Velcro strap isn't quite long enough to accommodate all sippy cups. Also, it tends to slip off of odd shaped, tapered cups. I'm not real impressed with the patterns that the straps come in although, a quick look at the No Throw website shows that they come in a large variety of patterns so there is bound to be one that you'll like. The last thing is the overall look of the product. It looks like it was cheaply make, although I've had mine for about a year now and both are still in good condition. They've been used extensively and washed several times without falling apart so that's a bonus. They're also good for keeping teethers and toys off the ground.

5. BooginHead PaciGrip Pacifier Holder - This is one of the best binky clips I've seen, and let me tell you I've seen lots of binky clips. I've even made my own binky clips. Both of my kids are binky addicts, which means that the binky needs to be accessible 24-7. Binky clips are an essential whether your kid is an addict or just an occasional user. I can't tell you how many times I've seen kids drop binkies on the floor. I've seen the lone binky lying in peculiar places around town and I've seen the parent who picks the binky off the ground, pops it in their mouth to "clean" it and then pops it back in the kid's mouth. Both are sad and horribly disgusting. Both make me want to scream, "Where is your binky clip!?" Here's what I love about this particular model. For one, there is no plastic. Sure plastic is easy to clean, but after repeated uses, it breaks. Especially when it's been through the dishwasher several times. The BooginHead has a metal clip that is easy for Mom and Dad to remove, but more difficult for baby. Secondly, there is no Velcro! Sometimes Velcro is the bane of baby products. Sure it's baby safe, but once a baby learns how Velcro works, chaos ensues. This clip makes it as difficult as possible to lose a binky and that's the absolutely best thing about it. BooginHead also makes a sippy cup strap which has a no-slip grip on it. I'm thinking it might be worth looking into and might solve my issues with weird shaped sippy cups.  BooginHead PaciGrip Pacifier Holder and SippiGrip Toddler Cup/Bottle/Toy Straps

So that's my first list of five. There are of course many, many more products out there which I love and intend to write about in future posts. That's the great thing about baby and kid products. There is no end to the frustrating things that parents experience when it comes to taking care of their kids and there is always a new product out there that claims to make life easier.