A Word About My Reviews

With all the fuss currently going on about reviews, I thought I should put this out there. When I say I like something and I’m talking about it here. I’m talking about things that I have either personally purchased or received as a gift (as in birthday or Christmas or anniversary gift) from a well-meaning family member or friend. I do not have the following to interest PR people and if I did, well, I would disclose what I had received and from whom with the review that I did. Because, to quote many people, that’s how I roll.

You might note the blogging with integrity badge on my blog now. I think I always have, but it’s a good idea to just put it out there. I’ve signed the pledge. I agree, totally, with what it says, and I think it’s appropriate to have on the blog. If I’m going to change the way I do something, I’ll say so because I am honest and I want people to know where I’m coming from with this stuff.

At this time, I don’t do giveaways because, frankly, the logistics of that enterprise overwhelm me. I’m perfectly happy being a small-time blogger who just talks about things that I love because I love them.

Oh, and speaking of things I love? I LOVE my car/truck/whatever the heck you want to call it. My son refers to it as the “big car.”

Not too long after Katie was born, we had to take Sam to the vet for her senior wellness exam. After strapping children into car seats, we realized there wasn’t actually a spot for Sam in the truck. She ended up riding there and back in the footwell under/beside my feet. She let us all know that this was not an acceptable arrangement and she did not believe she would be back in that truck again until we did something about the accommodations (imagine a combination snarl-growl, with a slight flounce and then two days unable to move because her arthritic parts hurt so much).

I began hunting in earnest. I’m specifically anti-minivan, so that cut a number of contenders right out. We also understood that we needed space not only to accommodate two dogs, but also, potentially, one set of older parents (his), plus the two car seats. I was also opposed to driving something that looked like a bus.

As you can imagine, this limited our choices — A LOT.

We settled on a Saturn Outlook. I rented one from one of our local rental places, and drove it for the weekend. I determined that it was the right vehicle. We started looking. Not two weeks later, we found one.

Having driven it for a bit now, I’m convinced that it’s the right vehicle. Two weeks ago we had to take both dogs to the vet at the same time. Logistically, this is a bit of a nightmare, but it worked out just fine.

I know there are risks to the whole GM product situation, but I’m convinced that there will be parts if we need them and I’m married to a car guy. It’ll be all right and I’m a happy woman with plenty of room to transport my kids and my dogs without destruction to any of them.

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Menu Planning for the Time Challenged

I don’t know how anyone else’s household runs, but mine is on equal parts planning and chaos. P and I are time challenged at the best of times and down right run off our feet at the worst. The one chore that has caused the most difficulties over fifteen years of marriage is meal planning/cooking. P tends to be the one to cook dinner. I know, I’m home all day and it should be me, but for whatever reasons we fell into this pattern years ago and have never shifted out of it. At any rate, menu planning has always meant hours sitting with cookbooks, the weekly grocery circulars, and pounds of attitude to figure out what we might want to eat, what we can afford to eat, and what we have recipes for that won’t take all day.

We’ve tried menu planning services before and have not been happy with them. Most have a set five day menu that you can’t customize or make adjustments to. But the “new kid” on the block has changed that and we are converts. This amazing “new kid” is Relish!. They can also be found on Twitter: @relishrelish.

People who know P know that he is a skeptic’s skeptic. To convince him to give this a try took every ounce of persuasive muscle I have plus Babytoolkit’s review (one of the only bloggers he trusts) to convince him to try a three month subscription.

Obviously, we started this experiment with low expectations and it took me a bit to sort out how the system works and how to make it work best for us, but we did and we love it. To the point that, P asked for a year’s subscription to the service for his birthday, which he received.

What do we like?

The weekly menu comes out on Thursday, the same day as the grocery circulars for our preferred grocery store. P likes to do the shopping on Friday, so this coordinates well with his schedule.

The menu has fifteen options on it. There are usually a few chicken, a few beef, a couple of pork and seafood, as well as several vegetarian options. They also have a dessert of the week. So far, we’ve been able to find menu options that appeal to us every week.

The recipes are easy to follow. This is a huge thing with P. He gets very irritated with certain cookbook authors who call for ingredients and then forget to include them in the actual recipe. The instructions are logical and he can follow them without requiring interpretation.

The cooking times are mostly accurate. I’ve found them to be completely accurate. Phil is a slower cook, so he needs to add time to the prep time estimates, but otherwise he finds them to be accurate, which is another big thing with him.

The recipes do not require every pot in the kitchen or hours of our time. A lot of the time, we can do it all in one to two pots with one or two knives and a cutting board. Most recipes cook and serve in a reasonable amount of time for a busy family trying to eat by the dinner hour (30 to 45 minutes; some do have additional marinating times, but this is noted in the cook times).

The recipes are scalable and we can choose how many recipes we want to use in a week. We’re a leftover type family, so we like having meals we can serve twice during the week. This works out really well with Relish! because we can choose two or three recipes for the week, get a shopping list based on those recipes, and with additions for breakfast and lunch, go shopping.

The shopping list is well organized. The shopping list is organized in two ways: 1) by category and 2) by recipe. So, for example, you will find all the meats for the week together and all the baking goods required together. There is also a list for the items that you might already have, so you can run through that and circle what you need. The genius bit, though, is that each item on the buy list has a letter by it that is keyed to a recipe. So, if you want to make the main item but the side doesn’t work for your family, you can quickly find the items that are for the side and eliminate them.

Many recipes include sides. This has always been one of our biggest problems. We’re great with figuring out the entree, but sides stump us every time. Relish! Solves that problem by providing sides with many of their recipes. Admittedly, we don’t use all of the sides, or even many of them, but they help jump start us when we get stuck, so it ends up working out regardless.

While your subscription is running, you have access to the backlist of recipes from every week since you became a member. This is invaluable when you hit that one week where you just don’t find any of the recipes appealing, or there’s an amazing special on roast, but there isn’t a roast on this week’s menu list.

They also include myriad extras that are just great. Right now there are picnic menus, camping menus, and so forth. They also have dinner and a movie menus that are intriguing, though I think the representation of real kid movies is a bit thin right now.

Also included in the monthly subscription rate are “freezer meals.” These are five recipes that you can make and store in the freezer for times when cooking from start to finish seems like a really bad idea (say, like when your daughter is having major surgery, for example). These recipes vary from marinating foods that then need cooking to breakfasts to completely cooked meals that simply need cooking to be eaten.

What don’t we like?

There are a few things that could stand some improvement or that we’d love to see that relish can’t do, though I understand some of these are in the works.

We can’t add in family favorites that aren’t part of Relish!’s recipe. However, this is an application that’s coming. We’re very much looking forward to this.

The dessert recipes are sometimes a little strange and sometimes rely a bit too much on convenience foods. Now, anyone who knows me and reads this is going, this is hardly fair, and it’s true my baking standards are super, super high, so it would have been really surprising to find them able to meet that part. That said, this is the one thing we don’t experiment with as much, relying instead on tried and true adjunctmom favorites instead. Though, I will say the Chocolate Valencia Pie was out of this world good.

It doesn’t really offer the option of telling them food issues or preferences. So, for example, someone keeping Kosher might find this website more challenging to deal with. My personal dislike of olives has to be worked around. For some this would be a deal breaker, but for me it’s something I can work with. It’s not a true negative, but it means there are friends I cannot recommend them to because I know their dietary issues are far more challenging than mine.

And really? That’s it. Basically, we’re super happy with the service and strongly recommend it to anyone who is looking for ways to simplify their lives and free up time for things other than grocery shopping and cooking.

They’re coming out with an iPhone app for this service that I’m eager to see, but so far it hasn’t appeared yet.

Rainy Days

We are having what we euphemistically call weather. The fact that it has a circular motion and the appearance of an eye? Nah, that’s just a storm ’cause it’s not hurricane season yet. At any rate, we have rain. Lots and lots of rain.

And Ben is three heading to four fast.

I’m sure you can see the problem here; I know I can. Add to that my academic institution had server problems over the weekend and we have a recipe for a stressed out mom and a hyper kid. We made a valiant attempt to harness some of that drive and energy to the whole potty training experience. That was a bust.

So, now I’m working on what I’m going to do with him for the rest of the week assuming the rain continues at its current pace. My hope is to be caught up from server issues tonight so that I can concentrate on finding things for him to do tomorrow.

Currently, I’m leaning toward some sort of painting project. Maybe a banner for P’s upcoming birthday.

I’m also thinking as many games of Hullabaloo as we can both stand.

Since the weather isn’t knocking out the power we might also do movies and popcorn, which is always a favorite.

He’s dying to learn how to play checkers, so maybe I’ll take some time tomorrow to teach him how to do that.

We’re also looking at as many games of hide and seek and tag as the dogs will let us play. Peyton imagines herself a pointer, so it’s rather challenging for me to hide what with her sitting right where she can be seen at all times and pointing straight at me.

Tonight was capped by reading him A Visitor for Bear recommended by BabyToolKit here. Ben loved it, which I kind of figured that he would. He is big on visitors and people (mice) who are persistent.

The only other thing going on here is that Katie is cutting her first tooth, making her fussy, difficult baby, which is weird because that is totally unlike her personality.

Children’s Book Week

Children’s Book Week is this week. There’s no doubt that we’re a family where books reign supreme. We have tons of books of all types for both Ben and Katie. We have books from both of our childhoods (boxes of them) that we’ve been slowly introducing our children to. We started Ben on his first chapter book this week. I decided on Stuart Little in part based on chapter length and in part based on the fact that I think E.B. White rocks.

Ben also loves Amy Hest’s books: Kiss Good Night. This is one of the books that we’ve read to him since he was a baby. He loves the fact that the Mama is forgetful, and that the young bear has to remind her about the “best” part of the bedtime ritual. Ben’s whole bedtime ritual is built around this book and it thrills him that it fits him and he fits it.

We also love: Mama’s Day. There are so many reasons to love this book. It shows a million different babies doing different things and gives attention to all the different things that mothers do. It shows a very simple, natural picture of a mother breastfeeding a baby. I love it because it reminds Ben how much MomMom does for him in a day and he loves picking out different things. One day, we’ll look for the babies sleeping; another day we’ll look for babies fussing, and so forth.

My last unusual book that we love: Z is for Zamboni. P is a hockey fan. P doesn’t expect Ben to play hockey, but he does want him to have an appreciation for it. Ben LOVES this book, so the appreciation that he was looking for seems to have worked out. It’s a different sort of alphabet that focuses on the interesting and the unusual. And the “sound effects” that we do for Lord Stanley’s Cup always crack Ben up.

There are a lot of people discussing books . A few of them are:

BabyToolKit. This is a review of a favorite that they have that we’re waiting for from the library.

No Time For Flash Cards You’ll find a lot of interesting ideas here for craft projects, but what makes this a standout is how she links books to the craft projects. So, for example, the Letter Pizza post gives instructions for creating a letter pizza craft project, but also follows up with three books that involve pizzas as part of the story.

Simple Kids At Simple Kids, Megan is exploring the unsung classics. The books that we love that aren’t part of the traditional canon of children’s literature. So P’s favorite book, Petey the Penguin and the Pink Pajamas would fit in quite well on this list, though it can be frustrating because some favorites are out of print like this one of P’s.

Review Wednesday

What probably surprises people is that it’s taken me this long to get around to a favorite books post. This one, though, is pretty much dictated by the short man. He has decided preferences in his bedtime reading, so without further ado, Ben’s favorite books (plus, one for Katie).

1. The I Love You Book by Todd Parr. We love this book because it affirms that we love Ben just the way he is, no matter what that way is. We like the gentle rhythm of the statements and Ben loves Parr’s work. He’s been a fan since The Family Book which he can practically recite, but this is the new favorite.

2. I Took The Moon For A Walk by Carolyn Curtis and Alison Jay. We’ve been reading this one since Ben was a baby. We picked it up from Chinaberry Books (and if you don’t know them, then go here without delay and check them out. I rarely miss when I buy books from them. This one is a sweet, gentle story of a young boy who dreams of making friends with the moon and going for a walk.

3. Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney. If you need a link for this one, then you haven’t been reading much children’s literature in the last decade. Some folks object to this one as it does make it seem like the little nut brown hare is always outdone by the big nut brown hare, but you know what, I’m about convinced that kids don’t hear things the way we do. At any rate, it’s a good story about the unconditional love a parent feels for a child.

4. The Amazing Machines: A Truckload of Fun by Tony Mitton. This is a collection of books that each focus on a specific type of machine. Ben is big into rockets, boats, trucks, and racing cars, so these books are right up his alley. He likes the rhymes and the fact that the last page of each book has a bunch of specific items that need to be identified from the vehicle under discussion. These are a great addition to his collection and much loved.

5. The Spot books by Eric Hill. Again, these probably don’t need a URL as they’re fairly well known. He loves these books because a) they feature dogs and b) he can predict based on the pictures what is happening in the story. He has a number of them including the baby sister book which really helped make the transition to being a big brother much easier. He almost always wants to take a Spot book to his room during quiet time and he can be heard “reading” them to his “friends.”

And, as mentioned, one for Katie:

Blueberry Girl by Neil Gaiman. We read this one to Katie every night before bed. It’s her Time For Bed and Prayer for a Child bundled into one book. She currently adores the illustrations. They are full of so many different things and at almost five months she likes to see all the different animals on the “Words Written on a Wall” page best of all. We like to read it. Granted, we both have a bit of difficulty with the proximate rhyme in one spot (fifteen/been — works if you’re British, not so much if you live in the south), but otherwise these are the kinds of wishes that we want for our daughter and we expect this will be her most favorite book the way that Parr’s books are for Ben. There’s a mix of wonder and reality in the blessings that Gaiman calls down for the blueberry girl and that mix is precisely what I think little girls need more than the prince charmings and the unrealistic views that other “for girls” stories offer.

Edited to add: This was supposed to be finished yesterday, but I was felled by a migraine, so it’s truly review Wednesday on Thursday this week.

Day 2: My Favorite Parenting Blogs

Day 2 of the challenge feeds into my usual Wednesday post as I usually do review/list posts on Wednesday. I think Darren does a nice job of explaining why lists are so popular for blog posts, so make sure you click the link at the bottom and read his thoughts on the subject!

Today, I thought I’d identify my favorite parenting blogs. Some of them are strictly about the act of parenting itself and some are more about the logistics of parenting — as in, what stuff do you need or how do you find materials and so forth. So, my favorites:

Cool Mom Picks. This is an outstanding website that provides a minimum of three reviews a day of new products that could be useful to parents or kids or both. Recent reviews covered things like Chocolate covered Matzo for Passover, an Etsy shop selling cute barrettes, and cool boys clothes. It was through them that I found the Sara Bear basket that I reviewed here a couple of months ago, the camera that my husband used to take my profile picture, and my son’s shoes.

Pioneer Woman. Ree Drummond’s blog. This blog covers a variety of different topics from decorating to cooking to photography to homeschooling. She’s been my inspiration to try homeschooling my children and her recipes are to die for. Not everyone can live on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, but everyone can benefit from her ideas about how to approach life and her sense of humor. She’s a good reality check for me when I think I’m in over my head on just about anything.

Parent Hacks This site has saved my life more times than I can count. Some of the great ideas that I seemingly come up with out of thin air that impress my husband so much? Come from here. I am always amazed at the endless creativity that people exercise and exhibit when it comes to doing things with kids. Some of these are ingenious and clever, some are just plain common sense, and some are really wacky, but all are useful. Features a good google search to help you find out how to do just about anything you can think of.

Motherhood Later . . . Than Sooner. This is a really cool blog for those of us who came to motherhood after the age of 35. Sometimes it can be a bit, um, overwhelming to realize that everyone around you is getting ready to graduate their kids while you’re still changing diapers. These women can relate and they share their experiences and feelings on the subject. There are a range of voices here so one is sure to resonate.

A Little Pregnant. This started as a blog of a woman’s experiences pursuing fertility treatments. It has become both an advocacy blog for infertile women and a parenting blog for a woman with two adorable children. It gives me a lot of hope to read this and realize that everyone has challenges to overcome on their way to becoming parents and it gives lots of interesting ideas about parenting and validation over the voices in our heads that tell us we have to be more permissive because it was harder for us to have children.

Baby Toolkit. This is my other favorite product recommendation blog. The authors combine product recommendations with advocacy for key parenting issues (BPA-free, for one). It is from them that we got the idea for Ben’s tent. We also finally decided to try Relish because of them. The key difference between Baby Toolkit and Cool Mom Picks, I think, is that Baby Tool Kit focuses on a lower price point in most cases. I really appreciate that aspect of their reviews. I also really appreciate the follow through. A product that they really liked had some issues and they pursued it as well as documented it for the reader, so that we all could see how the company in question responded to their concerns. A very honest and upfront blog that is really helpful for readers.

So, that’s it. My favorite parenting blogs. Hope you find something useful and if you have a favorite I didn’t mention, please feel free to leave a link in the comments. I’d love to see some more useful blogs!

Darren’s challenge post