Today’s Tip: Prep Once, Eat Twice

This is a new series that I’m lamely calling “Today’s Tip.” I’m hoping to share little tips and tricks (or “life hacks” as the kids these days are saying) to make your life just a wee bit simpler. The topics will range from parenting to cleaning to green living to just general time savers…and anything else that pops into my brain. 

Happy Monday, guys! “Today’s Tip” has been a time-saver and an early morning stress-reducer at our house, so maybe it’ll do the same for you.

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With our food challenges lately, I’ve definitely been spending more time in the kitchen. It’s actually a good thing, because I’m starting to plan far better and actually end up getting a lot more accomplished in the time that I’m in there cooking. Because of this, our lunches have had a higher quality and have been, in fact, easier to throw together. 

And did I mention healthier? They’re healthier. Just thought I’d put that out there.

If I happen to be making a salad, either to go alongside dinner or as the main event, I’m sure to grab one or two of our glass containers (a lot like these ones) to make perfect lunch-sized salads. It hardly takes an extra 30 seconds per salad, and all I need to do is pour some oil/vinegar/seasonings into our small mason jars (unless I’m REALLY on top of things and do that while I’m prepping dinner, too) and grab a couple other lunch sides to round out the meal.

The same goes with dinners, in general. Most of the time, I try to make more than what we’ll eat in one dinner. (There are times that it backfires and the meal is so awesome that we attack the rest of it before making up lunches, but it’s not the end of the world.) So, if I make stir-fry, I make extra and toss it into containers. The next day, I just have to grab an apple, a granola bar, and maybe a handful of veggie sticks (which I also cut all at once in the beginning of the week and store in the fridge when I remember to) and — TADA! Quick lunch. 

Super simple, right? Do you already do this? Do you have any extra tips for making lunch a fast, easy process? Share in the comments!

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A Star for the Tree

It’s the height in hilarity at our house that the second Hadley saw our finally upright tree after his nap (after shouting “Christmas tree!!! Goody, goody!!!”), he insisted that it needed a star on top.

Huh. Yeah. We didn’t have one.

As kids, we had our own hilarious time making fun of our omni-drunk angel tree topper (um, she was always crooked, no matter what we did or shoved up her dress to straighten her out). I guess we weren’t a star family back then, and I didn’t think I was part of a star family now.

It’s even more ironic since we’re a pretty non-religious group. We feel that we’re spiritual and insightful, but don’t relate to one specific religion. We’re all baptized Catholics, and at times (usually around Christmas), I feel the pull of mass, but all-in-all, we’d like to educate our son about morality more than doctrine. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)

So, there he was, sweetly demanding a star topper, then again later that night, then again in the morning. After seeing some crappy store versions, I turned to Pinterest (clearly my real religion…that’s a joke, guys) to see if I could figure something out.

During my star search, I also heard a sweet story about my grandmother, who would annually cut out a star out of cardboard that came from my grandfather’s starched shirts, cover it in tin foil, and cut a hole in it. She’d stick it on top, pull a light up through the hole to let it “shine” and call it a day. Classic, sensible and creative. Apparently, everything my grandmother was.

So, I got to work. I cut a cereal box up to expose the two large sides. After printing off a star shape, I traced it onto each box and cut them out. Then, I creased inside each point for some dimension and glued each side together. (Before it was fully dry, I trimmed it further and pressed it together again.) Finally, I glued an empty toilet paper tube to the back.

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You could paint the star, cover it in glue and glitter, or put foil on it. I decided to keep it natural this time. I’m not sure if the best part is the fact that it was totally free, that it appeased the little guy’s craving for a star, or that it was a pretty old-school way to handle the issue. And not to mention eco-friendly up the wazoo!

Oh, and while I’m at it, I thought I’d share another tree that has taken up residence at our house. It’ll probably be up until Valentine’s Day, with how long it took me to finally toss it up.

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I just cut out a tree shape from a large piece of green felt, then a textured piece for the trunk and a “skirt” from red. Then, I cut out random shapes, including a little snowman and present, and of course a star for the top. I used Command strips (the poster kinds) on the back and the “ornaments” and such attach without any adhesive (one of the best parts of felt). I’ve also made a felt board for pretend play as a Christmas gift, a “piece of pie” to add to his collection of fake food, and may make another piece if I find the time before Christmas eve.

Felt = the perfect toddler plaything!

So, what type of tree topper do you use in your family? We’ve used bows in the past, and even a scarf last year (I’d LOVE to find an old antique top hat with holly berries!), but we’re always willing to change if the little guy dictates a better idea.

Holiday Cleaning

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Things may be fully holiday decorated at our house, but things seem more disheveled than usual. I’m pretty sure it’s because we a) have a super small house, b) bring so much additional “stuff” in (like gifts, Christmas cards, wrapping, etc) this time of year, and c) didn’t plan ahead and clean before the onslaught of the holidays. So, today’s just a brain dump of all the “unfun” stuff to do so that my brain isn’t swimming by Christmas. Let’s blame my mother; she always had the house quite clean for the holidays. I always assumed it was because we were having a special guest (Santa) come; it was probably actually because of the REAL guests (family) coming. Duh, Meg.

Anyhoo, some of this I’m sure I won’t get to, but I also have T-W-O whole weeks off for the holidays, so I foresee a “New Year project” or two here…

Kitchen walls/shelves. My open shelving area is a bit of a hot mess. The dishes we use all the time are perfectly clean, but the shelves themselves have a layer of grease (which attracts more than a little dust and probably cat fur) and need a good scrubbing and reorganizing.

Kitchen cabinets. Also in the kitchen and also in need of a good scrubbing are my cabinets. The insides are also SUPER disorganized (namely the bottom ones, which hold all cookware). Truth be told, a scrub + paint job are in order. Blah.

The damn “V.” Okay. So. Over Hadman’s crib, I applied papier-mache letters that spell out “LOVE” when he was a baby. They’ve worked perfectly up until this point. One day, while he was supposed to be napping (that’s a whole other issue lately), I hear over the monitor a weird clicking noise. Come to find out, he had pulled the “V” off of the wall and started using it as a clapper — tearing the middle of the letter so that he could “clap” the two sides together. I. Was. Livid. He got pretty upset, too. He’s still asking where the V is and I have a hard time not snarkily responding that he’s responsible for the death of the V. (sigh) I don’t say that. But I want to. :-\

 Office disorganization. This is an ongoing headache. For now we’ve just gotta pick the place up and make it look presentable, but ultimately we’ve gotta figure out our storage and do a total overhaul of how we use the space.

Gifts are messy. I love giving gifts, and even kind of enjoy wrapping them. But, keeping the joint somewhat picked up is a pain. I always end up with a bag containing tags, ribbons/bows, tape, and a pen that I use for the whole shebang, and generally keep a large box of boxes, bags, tissue paper, and gift wrap nearby, but I’m not one to schlep the whole thing down to the basement when done only to drag it back up later. Maybe I’m just lazy? We also have a HUGE gift that arrived, box in shambles, that’s giving me an eye twitch.

This is all aside from the fun “responsibilities” of the holiday, of course, and the usual upkeep of the joint. Can you say floor mopping? 🙁 I was hoping to get a chore or two (along with a fun “chore” or two!) out of the way today, thanks to some inclement weather, but that didn’t turn out to be very bad. Blah.

I didn’t really do a good fall cleaning this year, so if I had I’m sure I’d be less bummed about these jobs. So, please don’t take this as complaining as much as my own mental checklist of crap I have to do — and commiserating, if you will! 🙂

What about you guys? Any chores you dread doing but that you’re sick of having hanging over your heads this time of year? 


Free (Yes, Free) Holiday Gift Ideas

I’ve requested to Dave that we not only do a pretty sparse budget for each other (or, at least, it’s sparse to me!) this holiday season, but also to give each other one gift that costs nothing.

So, this could mean a lot of things. It could mean that you use something you’ve already got lying around that you haven’t gotten around to giving the person. It could mean making something by hand (whether you’ve got the materials lying around or had to buy them, it’s totally up to your standards of “strict” are). It could mean repurposing something around your house to give. Or, it could just be a huge act of kindness or unforgettable experience. The list goes on, really, but here are a few ideas…

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Artsy Fartsy Stuff

Wall Collage 

This is best if you live with the individual so that you can surprise them with it, already-done. I’ve had a stack of Instagram prints (had a coupon, I almost think they were free or darn near close to it), but don’t we all have SOME picture prints floating around that we don’t know what to do with? Well, I’ve fallen for the personal yet organized look of a wall collage of same-sized prints. Mine just happen to be 4″ x 4″ but even rectangular shots (or pictures cut down to squares) can look awesome grouped sweetly on the wall. You can use that sticky tack stuff or tape (or spend a little money and get Command strips; I won’t tell). 

Handmade Wall Art
Similar to the wall collage, look around and see if you have any art supplies that would help create some wall art. Maybe you have an old canvas (or an ugly one you can paint over). Or maybe you have an old embroidery ring that’s begging for one of those quirky embroidered quotes (or an inside joke!) that you can hang. If you’re stumped, look for simple art ideas on Etsy or Pinterest. You can keep it simple, or if you’re on the artsier side, paint a family portrait or pet portrait for your receiver.

Repurpose an Old T-Shirt
You know that ratty old t-shirt that just won’t go away? Or the perfect vintage shirt with an awesome logo that they can’t wear anymore because they splattered paint on the bottom? Stretch it in a frame or create a quilt, pillow or bag! You’ll not only give it new life, but the giftee will love that they don’t have to say goodbye to it forever.

Knit a Scarf  
Again, this totally depends on your ability level and whether or not you have the materials around the house, but a scarf seems far easier than mittens or a hat, right? Think of the person’s favorite color (or if you know what color their favorite winter coat is, be sure it won’t clash) and get a move on!

Reuse, Reuse, Reuse

Look around and see what doesn’t seem to have a life anymore. It’s perfectly fine to re-gift something, especially if you personalize it a bit first. Like, you have way too many mugs in your life, so that set of white plain ones sit totally unused? Use a Sharpie (or paint pen, if you have one) to draw a design or cute quote, then cure it (may not be dishwasher safe). Or go ahead and spend a buck at the Dollar Store if you want to get new ones; I won’t tell. 😉


Favorite Cookies
You’re probably making a buttload of cookies for the holidays, anyway, right? Grab a large, clean mason jar and fill ‘er up. If you’ve got the time, feel free to add a label with a cute holiday saying (check Pinterest, there are a million), or just tie some burlap or a festive ribbon on and call it a day.

Homemade Granola 
You may already have the makings of this in your cabinet as we speak, so why not make a super big batch to dole out to all your friends and neighbors? No extra shopping needed.

Mmm. Fudge. This pretty much goes hand-in-hand with the cookies, but I just wanted to make everyone aware: fudge. 

Favorite Meal
Make the recipient their absolute favorite meal, just be sure that it’s in your grocery budget (hence, y’know, practically free ;-)). Or, make a “gift certificate” to make the individual their favorite meal after the holidays. 

Chocolate-Dipped Strawberries
Okay, this may not be free, but all it really takes is the purchase of some strawberries (since we all have chocolate in our pantry, right? RIGHT??). And, I tell ya, they’re a show-stopper.

Keep It Simple

Create a “Thankful Jar”
This is a great gift for birthdays, Valentine’s Day, Father’s/Mother’s Day, and more, but I love the idea of gathering together the warm fuzzy feelings you have for a friend or family member and letting them know. I’ve done this for Dave (on Valentine’s Day), filling a mason jar with individual ideas of why he’s awesome and why we’re lucky to have him. You can fill it with 365 “favorite” things about the person for them to pick each day, or 52 (one for each week), or whatever! I just printed them off using Word and cut them out; easy peasy. 

Scavenger Hunt
This could be as simple as an indoor one at your house or as complicated as sending your friend or loved one around an entire city (think: your favorite haunts). The trick is to not make it too lengthy (especially if it involves schlepping all over town in holiday traffic) and to be as witty as your brain can possibly be. Oh, and don’t make the clues too hard or else you’ll get a tearful phone call. Maybe. It’s possible.

Homemade Coupons
This is a classic from our “we don’t earn an income, what can we give to Mom?” days, but you can modernize it for your current needs. Think of what you’re good at and see if you can give a “gift certificate” or book of coupons to help out. If you’re a budding photographer, offer free sessions. If you love organizing, offer up a day of helping to declutter one room. If you’re a cook, offer a free meal of their choosing (just wanted to see if you’re paying attention; this is a repeat from above, mwahaha).

Or, if it’s for someone you’re a bit closer to, make a booklet of kindnesses. If they have a little one at home, make one coupon of a homemade meal, another for an afternoon of babysitting, and still another a coupon for a girls’ (or boys’) night out. This is also your way to spend zero dollars at the holidays but offer a nice gift for later in the year, like taking a friend out to their favorite restaurant or your sweetie out to a movie (and popcorn, of course).

Movie Night at Home
Speaking of movies, this idea would honestly make my husband’s day. Gather together some popcorn (we use the loose organic kernels, so I’d put them in a simple brown paper bag with cute writing on it), a DVD or two that you already own (ours would probably involve “Citizen Kane,” a William Powell flick, or a fun ’80s rom-com), and anything else you like to enjoy at movies. If you drink soda, put a bottle or two in; if you snack on candy (and have some around the house), throw some in. You can bag this all up in a holiday gift bag or basket or popcorn bucket or, heck, whatever!  

Walk Down Memory Lane (Literally)
You can give a card saying that you’ll be (politely) kidnapping them for a day or half a day at the person’s convenience. Take them to some of the spots that have meant the most to you both over the years. For example, if I was going to kidnap my sister, we’d drive by our first home, walk the town, check out the schools, maybe “play” at the playground (although they’ve changed a ton over the years), and grab the makings for lunch at The Village Market (or junk food at the convenient store). For Dave, we’d probably walk around the town he used to live in, waste time at Barnes and Noble (and maybe Target), then I’d take us to lunch at one of the local places we used to eat a lot — like Raspberries Cafe. Or, feel free to do a nature walk or hike, if your giftee is into the outdoors.

The point of going these places is to trigger positive memories and meaningful conversation. So, be ready to chat and keep things upbeat. Our hometown is a bittersweet place, but by keeping the memories realistically light, it could help to reconnect with a shared, fond past.  

What do you guys think? Have any great (free) gift ideas to add? Are any of these doable for you?

Our Makeshift Kitchen

Given Hadley’s propensity for pretending to be a cook with his beloved play food, I’ve been jonesin’ to get him (or, more likely, make him) a play kitchen for, like, ever. But, it’s kind of useless in our house. We live in just shy of 1,000 square feet and, while it works now, there’s not a ton of “just his” play space. It’s one of the things we’ll be looking for when we eventually move, hopefully in 2015.

But, for now, we’ve gotten creative. We use bins and baskets to store most of his toys, but his “food” and anything he likes to use with it (like empty containers or spoons) has their very own makeshift home.

We have these cool but slightly crooked-door built-in cabinets between the living room and dining room. The living room side houses DVDs (perfect size) and one of the dining room ones holds decorative stuff. Awhile back, however, I cleaned out the final cabinet and decided it would be all Had’s.

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It isn’t much, but finding a space that’s his very own is awesome. Oh, and he’s also only getting into my cabinets a fraction as much as he used to and he hardly gets into those “no, don’t touch” places as much. And, yes. We sucked at toddler-proofing.

I still hope to create a mini kitchen area for him in some future playroom, but for now, this spot doubles as an oven, a pantry, a fridge, and more. Pretty much whatever his mind comes up with, which is incredible.

What are some tricks that you’ve used to contain the clutter or give your little one some space that’s his/her own? I love seeing alcoves and bedroom closets transformed into little nooks just for them to play in, too. So cool!

Holidays, the Simplified and Low-Stress Way

It’s probably no secret how excited I am about the holiday season this year. November is a crazy-arse month in our household, but we’re all really looking forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas (including the build-up to it). New Year’s maybe a little bit, but the whole holiday thing has us downright bouncy.

Last year, it was a different picture. I always enjoy listening to the Christmas carols, and seeing the magic through Hadman’s eyes last year was uplifting, but for some reason I just wasn’t super into it. We all have years like that, don’t we? It’s one of the reasons I wrote this little ditty about getting into the spirit of the thing.
The holiday season can clearly be a super stressful time. The gift that should’ve come a week ago that still hasn’t arrived. Trying to give that one impossible-to-shop-for person the best gift in the world. A million things to do and only this many days to do them. Traditions you want to uphold. Happiness you want to spread. Food you want to make.

I get it, I do. But, the last couple of years with a kiddo around have also helped me to take a few steps back and evaluate the situation. One lesson I did learn last year, especially since it was our first year with a very mobile child who was “getting” the idea of things more, was how to simplify. Since I wasn’t super into it and I was a pretty tired new-ish mama, I put in the bare minimum to get the most out of it. It was still a special, memorable, nice year, so this year I hope to maintain the simplicity, but with a touch more joy and magic.

Here today are the things I learned that perhaps you can try, too. 🙂

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Pick and choose.

This is the first step, and it’s a biggie. Make a list of all the things you do (or think you should do) for the holidays and give them a deep, hard look. How many of the things do you HAVE to do? Which ones do you and your family look forward to? Are there any things that you can do but on a much lesser scale? Which of the things are you doing out of obligation, either to just maintain a tradition or because you feel guilt-ridden to do it? Take a red pen to the list. Feel free to do this with your significant other or even bring your kids in on the conversation. You may be surprised at how much (or how little) attachment they have to certain things.

While you’re at it, lower your stress level by making one long (or short!) gift list to keep tabs on what you’ve gotten or still need to buy. I keep mine on Google Docs to avoid any inadvertent surprise-ruining moments, along with how much I’ve spent on each item (budget, people!).

Deck the halls!

Decorating for the holidays can be a super fun thing…or a major drag. This advice may sound like more work, but it really does help: pick a theme. Look at all your ornaments. Do they look like a mismatch of fun family interests and classic-looking ornaments? Embrace it by creating a 1950s-style of decor. Sprinkle your favorite ornaments around your home or on a plate/bowl as a centerpiece (add some greenery or a candle in the middle and it’ll look totally intentional), hang a festive pendant banner or wool ball garland (how fun!) and you’re done.

Or, do you have plenty of different colored ornaments floating around? Pick a two or three color theme and stick with it. Last year, we had an outdoorsy/winter wonderland sort of theme, along with extra branches of greenery from the tree, scarves to decorate the tree and along tables, and neutral and brown colors around the house. It was simple, yet warm, and helped me feel less overwhelmed, feeling like I didn’t need to use ALL the decorations in storage.

You can also throw all caution to the wind and pick out your absolute favorites. Who cares if things don’t totally match? Do what will make your heart sing every time you look around!

With Every Christmas Card I Write…
While evaluating your usual holiday to-do list, ask yourself if writing Christmas cards is a must-do. Aside from being eco-friendly to skip this task, it’s a huge task off your list. It’s never just writing the cards; it’s finding and buying them, buying stamps, tracking down updated addresses…you know the drill.

So, ask yourself: Do I feel totally weighed down by this task, or do I enjoy it? Do I feel guilty every time a Christmas card arrives from someone I didn’t write to, or does it just touch my heart that I was thought of fondly? Are there people on my list whom I’ve lost touch with; can I whittle down the list? Can I simplify the process with personalized pictures of our family with pre-written greetings? How many of my friends are online and could be forwarded a family photo and greeting instead of a card?

Now, don’t get me wrong. When we do cards (we always do them, but we strangely enjoy it), we always write a few sentences; we’re old school like that. I’m not a fan of just signing our names or sending a personalized family card with pre-typed messages, but there is nothing, NOTHING wrong with anyone who does it this way! It’s all about simplifying the tons of holiday tasks that weigh us down.

Even if you shave ten people off your list, it saves you some time. And, if all else fails, we like to do our cards over some hot tea or cocoa while watching our favorite Christmas movies after the little guy goes to bed. Making it a relaxing experience while getting in the holiday mood with Jimmy Stewart or Charlie Brown helps a lot.

Cookie Monster

Ohhhh, Christmas cookies. What a quandary this one is in our household. See, I was raised making tons of cookies (and pretty enjoyably so), eating them and sharing them with neighbors and…yeah. That was my thing. But, Dave (who thinks that chocolate chip is a holiday cookie, I kid you not) doesn’t really eat them and Hadley’s 50/50. And, wouldn’t ya know, all the batches create a million cookies each. Grr.

But, I don’t want to give it up. Instead, I make one type that I particularly like and one that I know the family will actually eat, including some form of cut-outs for Hadley to help with. This year, I may hook up with my mom so that we bake together and split the batches; she’s in a similar position.

So, my advice is to A) divide and conquer (hook up with friends/family to bake together and split the results – I way prefer this to a cookie exchange, but you can do that, too), B) simplify the amount of cookies you’ll be making down to your favorite, C) FREEZE what you can (frosting doesn’t always freeze well, so frost after, but if you bake some NOW and defrost some as you need them, it’ll save you time later), and D) gift what you make to letter carriers/teachers/neighbors/anyone!

Entertaining vs. Obligations

There’s a big difference between enjoyable entertaining and fulfilling obligations to hang out. Even before we were parents, we weren’t big goer-outers (formal term, yup) and cherished our down time to work on projects or just hang out watching a favorite holiday movie. We LOVE hanging out with our loved ones A LOT, but have long since figured out that we just need to stretch out the frequency of hang-outs, especially after the little guy came along. If that means saying ‘no, thanks’ to an invitation or two, so be it.

The idea of “entertaining” also needs to be analyzed. Are you going to do a huge rivals-Thanksgiving feast when a few friends are coming over just to hang out for awhile? Or can you do a simple meal or a few basic, delicious snacks with a festive beverage? Remember that your friends and family are coming for your company, not for your level of decoration or fanciness.   

Finding Inspiration

I love Pinterest, but between the fact that my family lovingly puts me in my “who do you think you are, Martha Stewart?” place if I go overboard and the fact that Pinterest Perfectionism is a real, honest-to-goodness disease that I’d prefer not to catch, I take it with a grain of salt. I think that’s the best way to do it, really.

So, I pick my bits of inspiration – maybe one new recipe to try out or a neat homemade gift idea that doesn’t contain too many steps – but I don’t try to Pinterest-ify an entire shindig (or an entire holiday, for that matter!). After all, that’s FAR too much pressure to put on a very average person like me, and it’s definitely not the reason for getting together in the first place. It’s just not. 😉


This is a big one for parents of little ones, but we can all stand to look at our gift-giving practices to see if they can be put on a little diet, too. People have been reeling in the toy-giving, which we appreciate (it still happens, of course, and we want folks to enjoy buying for the little guy, but his first Christmas was insanely overboard). This year, though, Dave and I set a smaller budget for ourselves (along with a “one free gift” idea), and a bit for Hadman, too.

My side of the family has also decided to stop our Secret Santa tradition and just get for the four grandkids and my parents. It already feels pretty weird not to get for someone (a sibling or in-law), so who knows? Maybe we’ll reinstate it. But, either way, it’s a good way to have your family cut back — do a Secret Santa where you’re only getting for one person rather than 8 or 10 (or more). It also adds a fun element to gift-opening, figuring out who got whom.

It truly is about the time spent together, or the exchange of experiences rather than stuff, stuff, stuff. Oh, and since you will inevitably be shopping, make it far simpler on yourself and do as much as you can online. Believe me. Isn’t shopping in PJs far more relaxed? (Please. Don’t shop publicly this way. That was my high school look; we don’t have to go there again.)

Traditions or Burdens?
There’s a long list of holiday activities that you and your family can join in when celebrating the holiday season. Lately, though, I’ve noticed that list growing ever longer and even more complicated. Elf on a Shelf? Complex advent calendar activities?  
Chat with your significant other to see which things matter most. We’ve finally settled between real and fake tree (our fake one bit the big one a couple of years ago, so the last two yes-with-a-baby-around years we bought real), so since it’s something we’ve decided to make into a tradition, we’ll stick with it. In other words, if it’s important to you, keep doing it. If it’s not (or you find that it’s not worth the time you put into it — like those eight types of cookies that no one eats, or the real tree that you have to vacuum up after twice a day, not that that happens #okaysometimes), make a concerted effort to purge it from your holiday routine. And don’t mourn the loss too much, it zaps valuable energy you could spend having fun.

Speaking of Which… Schedule fun!
Remember how I said that November is a wackadoo month at school for me? It goes far too quickly and is spent prepping for and putting on a Book Fair, in addition to getting ready for Thanksgiving and trying to get holiday shopping underway (luckily, I don’t host Thanksgiving, so that helps a lot right now, although I make an equivalent meal at a different time…mmmm, leftovers). So, at such a nutty time, my husband and I try to schedule in a couple of dates, or dinners/meet-ups with friends who recharge our batteries, whom we haven’t seen in awhile, and we truly look forward to our time with family at Thanksgiving.

After Thanksgiving, we also get a sitter so that Dave and I can spend about half (or more) of the day getting some shopping done together. We figure out our Christmas cards (still unsure about buying or having some family ones made up this year), do some shopping for the monkey and other folks on our lists, and grab a quiet bite to eat. It’s an awesome, calm tradition that lets us focus on ourselves and our little family and the happiness of the season ahead.

When December hits, we also put IN PEN certain events that we look forward to annually (like when he meets up with an old co-worker/friend to read “The Polar Express” to kids and our annual trek to see THE Santa). Simple things like a drive to a local Christmas light show on a random evening or remembering that cookie-baking with a toddler can be a fun activity rather than a “gotta get it done” chore. You can keep the fun times to a minimum or pile them on, depending on how you and your family are feeling.

Because, at the end of all the stressful times that the holidays bring, isn’t it really all about having fun with the ones you love, finding gratefulness for your blessings, and doing more for those who are lacking?

Learning + Toddlers = Fun

For those a bit late to the party, I’m an educator by trade. (Some might say that a school librarian isn’t an educator, but dudes…I educate.) While I have no idea whether this is my lifelong calling, it’s definitely something I strive to do on a daily basis, whether the kids are in my classes or under my own roof.

But, when you have a two-year-old (or any toddler or kiddo, for that matter), it’s not always practical or realistic to have nice sit-down lessons. At this age, it’s all about making things palatable, like hiding veggies in meals and smothering things with cheese. (We all do it, guys, there’s no shame here.) Life’s also all about fun (as it should be), and it can be surprising what simple things kids can deem as a good ol’ time.

So, today I’m here with a few tips on fitting some simple, fun learning into your little one’s day. Even if you just pick out one or two to try here and there, you can feel a little bit better about the amount of times he’s watched the same Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on repeat. (Or, in our house, Duck Tales and Mickey Christmas Carol. Yep. It is what it is.)

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Use toys as learning tools. We tend to over-think the early learning process. Simple is totally best at this stage. So, things like simple mathematical concepts are totally doable. “Let’s count how many farm animals you have!” (Depending on his/her stage, count along. Hadman’s great up until 13, but then repeats it several times and skips to 17. We’re working on it. ;-)) You could also line up four Legos, have him count them, then take one away and ask how many are left. Simple addition/subtraction like this will get his mind thinking in a different, problem-solving way than basic counting.

Magnet letters are my BFF. I need to buy another set since he’s used the crud out of these (read: half are missing), but our Melissa and Doug magnetic letters LIVE on the fridge. Recently while waiting to get packed up, Hadley had a bunny toy and a stuffed baby doll in his hands. We named what they were (“bunny” and “baby”) and while making the “B” sound several times, I asked him what letter they start with. He ran to the fridge and immediately started to search for the “B.” I’ve found my favorite new game, folks, and he LOVES getting claps and hugs for correct answers. Believe it or not, toddlers are people pleasers. 

Potty time is learning time. Let’s face it: waiting for potty to come out is a boring (sometimes excruciating) job. Turn it into a fun time by reading short board books together, doing a rhyming game, learning “patty cake” (Had can now do it all by himself. My proud mama heart bursts!), singing the alphabet, naming the parts of the body, and more. When I do the alphabet, I’ll pause for him to say the next letter, or lately we’ve even started trying to name things that start with the letter sound. Vowels are a challenge since they take on the sound of the letter following it (for example, “elephant” sounds like “L”), but moments like “What starts with an ‘M’?” “MAMA!!!” are awesome. (This tip goes for bath time and commutes, too.)

Never too early to read. Okay, so maybe you’re not like us. Maybe you don’t have a bedtime routine down yet. Maybe you thought your infant was too little to start reading to. It’s totally okay! Just know that it’s NEVER too early or late to read with your little one. There are so many studies touting the importance of early reading — that they feel love and security in the routine and one-on-one time, they learn the proper care and use of books (modeling how to turn the page properly and that we can’t turn the page until we’ve finished reading all the words), that books can teach AND entertain us…the list goes on. Establishing the routine also helps them settle down and learn expectations for each night; in other words, we have very little divergence from the regular routine (once in awhile I’ll bring him a sippy cup of water, but even that is pretty rare). Another awesome side effect? Seeing how their personal preferences and interests develop.

Give art meaning. I often draw a holiday symbol as a little coloring sheet to mix up our usual Sesame Street coloring activities, but you can take this a step further. Give your little one a sheet of white paper and ask them to draw something and describe it. (Sometimes it’s one word, sometimes it’s a full sentence.) Then, either write the sentence/phrase below the picture or post it on a piece of construction paper with a separate sentence strip below it. Show this to your child and read the sentence. You could also do the same with plenty of seasonal or concept-driven themes. For example, an apple stamping and write a fact from an apple book (or a basic fact like “Apples come from apple trees.”) to create a sense of importance to the art, but also teach a simple lesson.

Can’t say enough about independent play. I’ve heard that boys are better at this than girls, but I also feel that it depends on their environment. Hadley is, for the most part, an only child (aside from pets). He’s the only little one at his grandma’s house during the day. He’s the only little one at home, for now. While we do play with him often, he’s quite content to seek out his own time to play and pretend. I, however, was the fourth and youngest child in my family. I was used to having people play with me, so as I got older and they weren’t into my little kid games anymore, it stung and I had a very hard time playing independently. I truly believe that a greater imagination is developing in our little guy, as well as additional skills that I may not have been blessed with. People need to know how to be alone, how to occupy themselves happily, how to have an internal dialogue. I truly think it leads to deeper thinking and connecting, so I’m happy that our buddy is so happy doing this.

If you have more than one child, it’s AWESOME for them to play together – don’t get me wrong! They need that social interaction and to learn the ebb and flow of proper communication. However, trying out alone time (even if a couple times a week for a short period of time) will help them to develop this additional those imaginative, independent-thinking skills.

Kinetic play is just as important as the alphabet. We haven’t done a ton of this, but have just recently started to get into it. Let’s just say he LOVES it. We’ve been using traditional Play-Doh (I know! An eco-mama who doesn’t make her own flour-based solution?! Blasphemous!) and he adores squishing and poking his fingers in. He’s amazed by the rudimentary dinosaurs, heads, and other animals we make for him to play with — to think, he’s completely non-judgmental of poor artistic ability. (Dave’s awesome at it, though.) Getting hands-on gets neurons in his brain moving that haven’t hopped, skipped and danced before. I’m thinking of making a SIMPLE seasonal sensory box to up the fun (and brain activity).

Don’t be afraid to make a mess. This one can apply to the Play-Doh or any other artistic activity…or, heck, play, for that matter. It’s just not worth obsessing over a train track that takes over your entire living room floor or the fact that the paint project your kid’s mastering also includes painting every. single. finger. Besides, it’s not what life’s about. At any given moment, we have cat toys, random Little People and play food strewn about or stuck in unexpected storage spots. It is what it is. Visit anytime. 😉

That said, now’s a good time to teach responsibility. Yup, we can make a mess. It’s totally cool. But, we’re hitting on the “don’t play with the next thing until you pick up the last thing” rule in our house. We’re trying to keep it low-key and relatively fun, though, by making it a team effort. Sure, the kiddo is the one who made the mess in the first place, but by teaming up and helping him it seems like a) a more manageable task and b) almost FUN! “Let’s see how many puzzle pieces we can each put away!” or “Hadley, I forgot where the train pieces go. Can you show me, please?” can be a good starter.

Or, if your little one hasn’t started “helping out” yet, start by explaining the reasons. We already have, and he’s catching on a little at a time. Making them aware of a mess is the first step, stating that it’s okay but that it needs to be picked up is the next step, then just getting them to put ONE toy away is the final. Moving from this stage will happen gradually but surely, and the day that your child puts ONE toy away without argument seriously feels like you won the lottery. SIDE NOTE: Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood uses a great, short clean-up song that we sometimes sing to make it fun. Some moms hate these songs, but I’m a Daniel junky.  

What about you guys? Any tips to add to the list?

“We Need a Little Christmas”

Everyone has their own idea of when the Christmas/holiday season starts. Some say the day after Thanksgiving. Others don’t want to hear a single carol before December 1st. Still others are happy to deck the halls when the last Halloween treat is handed out. And none of these are wrong.

We all celebrate so differently, the bickering about it is unkind and rather silly. If you don’t want to hear the songs already, don’t listen to that radio station. If you don’t want to see the decorations being sold at your favorite store, veer that cart in another direction. No harm. But, ultimately, think about what’s being celebrated – good will on Earth! What’s wrong with folks getting into it when they’re not doing anything mean-spirited or hurtful? Nada. Do it when YOU want to and never mind the naysayers. (That said, my mood wanes depending on the year. I don’t like going nuts too early because it’s easy to get burnt out by it by, say, December 16th.)

So, what do you do if Thanksgiving has come and gone and you’re still not ready for jingling bells and Santa hats? Try one of my low-key ways to start getting into the holiday spirit.

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1. Go shopping. I don’t mean for your gifts; that’s oftentimes an express highway to stress. (See below for shopping ideas that don’t suck.) Nope! Grab a holiday latte or some such treat and go to your favorite discount shop to stock up on your gift wrap and bags. Slowly and thoughtfully select your Christmas cards. Maybe pick a fun new decoration or two.

I find that thinking about the theme I’ll be wrapping my goodies in helps, especially when there’s a little holiday music playing in the background. Making it a relaxing errand helps you focus on the joy of the task rather than the million items you need to get.

2. Make your lists. This one may also sound stressful, but if you start early, this can be relaxing and even a bit fun. See, you’re not under a time crunch, and lists often help us feel organized and can definitely provide a sense of calm. Keeping them on your phone or Google Docs/Drive can keep them at-hand (and keep people from accidentally “finding” them), too.

First, I made my own wishlist (I talked about how it can help reduce some stress here). Look through your closet, think about the things you truly need, and daydream about what it might be nice to get. Cozy up with some cocoa, a blankie, and your favorite website (for example, West Elm or Target for me) and jot down what you’d like. Don’t worry about making it too lengthy; your gifters can pick what they want to get you and leave the rest.

Then, I used the same relaxed method to start brainstorming for my friends and family. Whether I could think of something to give or not, I wrote their names down to avoid forgetting them. Some folks sat there for a week with nothing popping up — others, I came up with five things for! I won’t be buying all that stuff, but I wrote them down just in case I need a birthday or Mothers’ Day idea later on.

Oh, and for a couple of people I was absolutely stumped on, I sent out a quick email. I’d much rather give them something they’d like (that’s not the biggest surprise) rather than a bad gift.

3. Listen to your favorite Christmas song. Everyone – EVERYONE – has a favorite Christmas song. Heck, I’ve got a handful. But, it’s not the holiday season for me until I hear “Sleigh Ride” (Boston Pops version, please). See? Everyone has their trigger song. I can’t help but bounce in the seat like a 5-year-old when I hear it, especially at the jazzy section.

I don’t mean “turn on the radio and deal with the crappy songs you hate” (I’m talking to you, Mannheim Steamroller), but just listen to that one awesome song you already know you love, then stop there. I often find myself getting totally sick of the constant rotation of songs early, so I have to take it in small doses. In the meantime, my favorite tune brightens my heart and gets me excited about the whole thing. Every. Single. Time.

4. Watch a low-fat version of a Christmas movie. Some holiday movies hit you over the head with the meaning of the season or take place totally around Christmas. Others, however, can be deemed Christmas movies only because one scene takes place on the special day. Watching one of these “Christmas Lite” movies can be just enough to pick up your Christmas spirit.

This time of year, I often gravitate to “Holiday Inn” (it’s about most of the holidays, not just Christmas), “Little Women” (definitely not a holiday movie, but a couple important scenes occur on Christmas), “Home Alone,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and a handful of other classic flicks that just have one or two Christmas scenes. Make sure you pick one that you know you’ll enjoy.

Oh, and if you’re up for it, watch a “full-fat” Christmas movie to REALLY get your spirit going. For me, “Elf” and “The Polar Express” make me super jolly.

5. Bake cookies. Again, don’t go overboard. Pick one of your favorite recipes — one that’s come down from your beloved grandmother or that you look forward to tasting every year — and make a batch. If you make a super huge batch, freeze them. Boom. One less you’ll have to make when you get invited to a cookie exchange. But, be sure to treat yourself to one (or, ahem, five); that’s the point of the thing.

If you’re in the mood, get a couple of types done before the hectic holiday schedule hits. Taking them from the freezer next month is way less stressful than baking all of them at once!

6. Put out some neutral decorations. Sprinkle a bit of decor around that can double for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I find that deer, branches, pine cones, white candles, apples and oranges, and grapevine wreaths can help make the area feel super festive.

Then, as you get more excited, you can add some more greenery, lights, and ornaments (I even use some warm weather knit clothes like vintage mittens or scarves), do your tree, and it’s done. Simple! 

7. Follow your nose. Try filling the house with the smells of the season and see if your heart follows. For me, scent is the biggest mood enhancer, so it only makes sense to try this one out!

You can light a festive candle (we’re currently using a pumpkin one I received as a gift, so it’s not too Christmasy) or make your own homemade concoction to fill your house with the warm, cozy smell of the season. Try boiling some cinnamon sticks and clove (even include some apple and orange peels) in some water, then simmer on low. Grab a cup of cocoa and a book, and you’ll be in the Christmas mood in no time. 

8. Shop locally. Ease into your shopping responsibilities by starting at a local place, well before Black Friday. The crowds will be far thinner, the traffic will be a tad less dangerous (you know what I mean!), and you’ll breathe a deep sigh of relief at least checking one present off your list.

But, why do I suggest the local edge? It’s more emotional, in a good way. As you probably know, we’re not huge Wal-mart (or huge corporation) fans, so I do enjoy hitting up, say, our local toy shoppe before trying Toys ‘R Us. Plus, knowing that I’m supporting a local company definitely makes me feel much better about the money I’m spending. 

9. Shop online. Wait, didn’t I just say to shop locally? Why, yes. Yes, I did. But, if you’re still not ready to venture out into the crowds, this is the next best thing. And, guess what! I’ve already started this way.

PJs. A cozy blanket. Hot tea or cocoa. A favorite show or movie in the background. And getting some stuff crossed off your list? Perfect combination. Low-stress shopping, and you can get a head-start. I always open the package to check for damage (and to know what came), then put the whole thing directly in my closet until I have energy for wrapping.

10. Start giving early. This is something we should actually do year-round, but the holidays are a particularly difficult time for folks, families and even animals who find themselves in need. And, honestly, what warms your heart more than knowing you’re making a difference?

While you’re out grocery shopping, pick up some inexpensive (but healthy ;-)) canned goods to donate to a local shelter. Check the ads and grab some dog and/or cat food and cleaning supplies (I “follow” our local humane society to see what their immediate needs are — they almost always include bleach). Grab one or two of the latest toys so that you’re ready to “Stuff the Bus” when the time comes. Part prep, part goodwill, all fun.   

11. Last but not least, celebrate the “now.” If you’re still not ready to get into the Christmas spirit, don’t push it. It’s not a big deal. Some years go by and I find myself not feeling the magic at all. Not. One. Bit. It happens. Then, other years, I’m ready and raring to go.

But, I do suggest that you take time to celebrate SOMETHING. If it’s not the joy of Christmas, maybe it’s taking the time to give thanks – truly – for things both big and small. Maybe make a list of all you’re grateful for. Other times, just a reread (or rewatch) of A Christmas Story is enough to get us out of a Scroogy funk.

A Simple Tip to Get Less Stuff This Christmas

It’s officially November. While I can appreciate the wishes of folks to push Christmas off until after Thanksgiving, I’m determined and excited to start planning and preparing early, shopping and wrapping early, and ultimately enjoying the holiday season in a far less stressful, more meaningful way.

So, today’s little holiday simplification tip starts with me. Or you. In other words, this is as much for you as it is the people who will be buying for you.

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For the past *counts on fingers* um, several Christmases, I found myself looking under the tree at a couple piles of things I’d received. They were all purchased with a high level of love and thoughtfulness, I’m sure. A bunch were from my husband; others were from my mother and mother-in-law, and a couple were from other friends or family. And, admittedly, about 1/2 of it (sometimes less), I liked. Like, at all.

The guilt of unappreciativeness is rough. I’m always so grateful when I receive a gift, sometimes overly so, even if it’s something I’m not keen about. I’m a bit of a people-pleaser in that way; I hate hurting someone’s feelings, so why bring it up? But, so much ends up in the donate pile or just sitting, taking up precious space, going unused…and I feel horrible about it. 

So, this year, I made my Christmas list early. Or, at least, early by my standards. My mom probably would’ve preferred it in July. Heck, there was a time (when I clearly only shopped for a few people) when I got my shopping done before September. True story.

Anyhoo, yeah. On my list, Dave asked me to write down EVERYTHING I want, even if it’s a bit of a fantastic idea. I still feel like I have a couple of small, unimportant things to add to it, but for the most part, it’s solid. Tons of stuff I know I won’t get (too expensive), and secure knowing that I’ll probably get a couple. Or maybe I’ll at least get some money towards that more expensive stuff to save up for. Either way, all appreciated stuff. 

And, regardless, you can’t stop people from buying you random crap. You just can’t. I wish I could put out a big ol’ billboard on a local highway that says, “Seriously. I’d prefer a gift card to West Elm or Target. Love, Meg.” ‘Cause I really would.

By the way, I think one reason that I made a list with purpose this year is that the past few years I haven’t put much thought into what I wanted. I’ve truly only desired the, “All I want is everyone to be happy and healthy” and “just happy moments with the family” wishes for Christmas, so I’m sure this is why I’ve got unwanted stuff. With Hadman around, we’ve become even less materialistic (kid…crap…multiplies), and just time well spent with him is by far the best present I could have. It still is. I even jotted that down (along with Dave’s happiness, in all honesty) on the list. It’s true. And we both hate asking for ANY thing in the first place. If we all decided to buy a little less (both of our moms tend to get a lot), it would probably help the percentages, too. 😉

So, anyway, detailed list (even organized by clothes, entertainment (books/DVDs/etc), housewares, awesomeness “dream” items) + plenty of time for the giftee = far less crap to figure out where to go this Christmas. Hence the simplification. 😉 Otherwise, vague list (or no list at all) = too much stuff you don’t want.   

What about you guys? Do you know what you want? Are you keeping it simple this year? Have you already created your list? Are you still in a candy coma and would prefer I not even be talking about the “C” word yet? 😉

My next step is to finalize what I’m getting everyone else. Dave gave me his list, as did my mother, and Hadley’s is a constant work in progress. So, it’s the fun time where I have to truly figure out things for the people I’m clueless about. Any suggestions accepted and welcome!

4 Simple Fall Decor Ideas

I recently shared a teensy decor switcheroo to help autumn-ify the living room a bit. Since I finally had a nice day to take pictures, I thought I’d share a handful of the other super simple add-ins I used for this year’s fall decorating.

I’m not a big “spiders and skeletons” person. I’ve seen some awesome spookifications going on in the blogosphere, but this year I’m keeping it simple, stupid. Er. You’re not stupid. I’m keeping it stupid simple. Better? 🙂

While giving you guys a quick tour of our living room/dining room (I pretty much decorated the entry way from the living room into the dining room, so it hits the main living areas), I’ll give a few SUPER simple tips on bringing a little autumn inside.

This year, I took my hints from nature. The first way? Bringing in some nature, of course! See those twigs adorned with dried leaves? Free, from our backyard. Instant pops of rust, orange and yellow. You’ll also notice gourds and mini pumpkins placed throughout, along with some individual leaves strewn strategically.  

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(Pay no attention to the hideous rug.)

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This pretty lady has hung in this spot for years. I just can’t bring myself to switch her up. Her neutral colors and gorgeous frame, rocking sense of style, and clear adoration for books has made her a kindred spirit. So, she stays. Plus, she really fits any season or holiday, doesn’t she? I say yes.

That said, a tip here is to use stuff you LOVE. What else do we love? Stacks of books and magazines. I also love sneaking in an old script. 😉 

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Going hand-in-hand with my girlfriend up there and bringing in some nature, I love using neutrals and various textures. Hence the super easy-to-make twine and linen bunting (seriously, F-R-E-E), small dollar store wreath on the window, bundle of sticks on the sidebar, and various rattan balls (I got them on clearance at Pier 1 awhile back, wish I remembered how much they were…maybe $2 each? And you know I’ll use the crap out of them). And my favorite thing during fall is white pumpkins.

Plus, what’s more fun than buntings? I think nothing. When I first hung them, Hadley assumed every day was now his birthday.

Oh, yeah. More nature. A huge vase filled with apples. Had to keep it simple since the little guy uses the dining room table for tons of pretend play. 

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If you’re having a hard time freshening up your surroundings (believe me, I’m with ya), try the new-ish chalkboard trend. Think it’s too hard to find one? Too expensive? Nope. The one we have in the living room was Dave’s as a kid (free) and this small one (that reminds me of an old school tablet, which I’m searching for while antiquing) was a dollar store find. Yup, it was a BUCK. Can you believe that?!

And don’t worry about your artwork. You get graded on effort, not perfection. 😉 My favorite part of this trend is how interchangeable it is. Come Thanksgiving, this witch’s hat will probably be a turkey or a Pilgrim’s hat; come Christmas, who knows? Stocking? Elf? A snowflake? Endless options, really.

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On a final irrelevant note, we may not have a black cat, but we’ve got a drama queen king gray one. He’s pretty intense. Does that count?

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It just occurred to me that all these tips could also be eco-decor tips, too. Awesome!