Friday, November 22, 2013

Holiday Meal Organization: A Three Day Plan

Oh how I love the holidays.

I love the baking, music, decorations, special dishes, being with family, and the general excitement that tends to overflow from even the youngest members of our family.

But, as much as I love the holidays, they can come with a unwanted stress level.

Come on, you know what I'm talking about.  The stress that returns to our faces right after smiling for that perfect family photo...yeah...that stress.  It can take the joy right out of the holidays.  So, as I am beginning the planning process for our celebration of Thanksgiving this year, I thought I would share how we organize holiday meals in our home.

I tend to do all the holiday cooking with the help of my hubby and kids because we have no family in town.  Family coming in town would have a hard time bringing holiday dishes to share so we just take care of the food.  This is okay by me because we have a unique blend of southern/southwestern dishes that are traditional for our family and it just wouldn't be the same without them.

Over the years, we have come up with a three day food prep system that seems to serve us well.  I thought I would post it here for anyone looking for planning ideas.

I do grocery shopping every two weeks so it does take some planning to make sure that I have everything that I will need on those three prep days.  Many people shop sales and stock up but I really just honestly don't have the time for that at this busy phase of life.  I make out the meal plan, list the ingredients, check my pantry for items I already have, and add any needed non-perishables to my normal grocery shopping list. I will run back out a few days before the holiday for the perishables.

Once I have all the ingredients, I plan to do three kitchen days.  On these days, we will eat very simple means for dinner or go out for pizza so that we can focus our attention and kitchen supplies on preparing for the holiday meal.  This year I doubled a few soup recipes the week before so that we could just warm up the homemade soup in a crockpot:)

Day 1 (This would be Tuesday for the Thanksgiving holiday.):  Early in the day, I will place the frozen turkey in the refrigerator to thaw.  Then, I will bake pies, sweet breads, cookies, rolls, and the spicy trail mix that we like.  All of these items could be frozen if space is an issue or I can just stick them in the refrigerator.  I try to remember to load and start the dishwasher before bed so that I have fresh supplies for day two.

Day 2: Day two is mostly veggie prep.  We are peeling, slicing, dicing, sauteing, baking, and steaming veggies.  This is a great place for little helpers to get involved.  My younger ones like to peel, the middles can slice and dice, and my older ones can saute.  I go ahead and prepare the veggies with all of the seasonings and then place them in gallon ziploc bags in the refrigerator.  For example, I will combine all of the ingredients for my green bean casserole except toppings and then seal it in the gallon ziploc bag.  I then prepare any toppings and place them in smaller ziploc bags.  Next, I bake my cornbread for our cornbread dressing, saute the onions and celery, and make the cranberry sauce.  If I have frozen any of the previous day's baking, I pull it out of the freezer and put it in the refrigerator or counter and...try to remember once again to load the dishwasher before bed:)

Day 3:  First thing on day three, I like to get some of our favorite music going.  This sets the mood and creates an atmosphere that everyone enjoys.  It's amazing how music produces a peaceful environment.  I prefer Christmas, classical, or worship music but some of my older kids like to dj so I better get started with what I like early because when they roll out of bed, the music will soon change.

Well, on this day, most of my food is prepared and in the refrigerator waiting to be warmed...ahhh.  I can now focus on the breakfast that my family has come to expect on Thanksgiving and Christmas. We traditionally have homemade monkey bread, a protein dish of some type, and a self-serve, hot drink station.  My older kids love helping with these things and each have their favorite places to work.  This year, I am going all out and picking up some petite quiches from Costco for the protein portion of breakfast...haha.  The easier the better!  We will also use paper plates for breakfast to keep the kitchen from becoming overloaded:)

As soon as breakfast is out of the oven, the turkey goes in.  We have just one oven in our current home so timing is important.  This is always my husband's job as he enjoys it.  He loves to try different seasonings, rubs, stuffings, etc..  I don't really enjoy pulling the gizzards from the turkey so this suits me just fine:)

While he gets the turkey in, I get the sides going.  I take the cornbread that I baked on day one, crumble it, and create the dressing.  The cornbread dressing goes into a large crockpot and I move on to start warming the other sides.  I like to utilize all my crockpots on this day.  We have two large ones and one three crockpot station.  I get out my three crockpot station, grab the prepped veggies in ziploc bags, and dump them each in their own pot.  I let them warm until about an hour before mealtime and then place the toppings on them.  This way I can stir them if needed without ruining the toppings.  Once the sides are all warming, I whip some cream to top the pie and place it back in the refrigerator.  Now, I can relax until the turkey comes out.

Most years we just serve up our plates buffet style and then head to the table.  I have transferred the sides to dishes and placed on the table before but it creates an enormous amount of dishes to be done and honestly, I'd rather take the frisbee and football to the park than scrub tons of extra dishes.

Well, I'm off to start making my list of dishes and ingredients.

How do you organize holiday meals?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Getting the Most out of Theme Parks...for the Large Family

As you may know, we just took our family of seven kids ages eight months to eleven years old on a trip to California. 

After the first (somewhat disappointing) day at Legoland we decided to be proactive on the two Disney days to make sure that the kids all felt like they were able to do the things or ride the rides that they really wanted.  We found that Legoland wasn't great for the large family as the older boys felt like it was for younger children.  The two babies couldn't ride anything and so were in the stroller most of the day which meant that I didn't really get to ride anything either.  Seth who was four and a half was too short for several rides as well.  These issues are probably unique to the large family but we didn't expect them and were a bit disappointed.  Here are a few pictures of the fun we had in spite of the challenges at Legoland.

Wanting to get the most out of the remaining days of our vacation, we decided to be intentional about how we spent out time.  We also wanted to know up front what the kids' expectations were so that we could fulfill them or give them a more realistic picture of what the day would be like.  Unlike Legoland, we had been to Disneyland several times and could better be prepared for how our days would go.  So here is what we did at Disney to get the most out of the time.

First, we had conversations with the older four kids to see what things were important to them (the littles had no idea what to expect and were happy with everything).  We asked about rides, shows, pictures they wanted to take, and where they wanted to have dinner.  As soon as we were in the gates, we would put in for the fast pass or two that the kids really wanted to ride.  The fast passes were incredibly helpful for saving time and making the most of our day.  Getting the the older kids' rides done first really made for a peaceful day.  They were then able to relax and enjoy the family rides like Peter Pan without worrying about getting to that ride that they just had to ride.  Peter and I took turns taking the older kids (whoever was tall enough and wanted to ride) on the big rides while the other one would focus on doing something fun that the littles wanted to do.  Here are some pictures of what the littles wanted to do.  You can tell that I spent most of my time with them as the baby would need to eat often. 



We would meet back up after an hour or so and plan the next thing.  In some of the between time, we were able to get plenty of fun pictures and attend a Star Wars of my top priorities.  I had tried on our last visit to get some of the kids to participate in the show and they wouldn't.  This time, I just knew that our little Sethy would jump right in.  And, he and Abby were both chosen to participate.  So, that really made my day.  Here are some pictures of that show.

Coupling this with the envelope system for souvenir money diffused so much of the whining and complaining that could have been part of the day. And, in putting their wants first, we spoke love to them in a way that they could understand.  Which really is what the trip was all about.

How do you make the most of your trips?

Check out my other tips for travel here.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Tips for Traveling Unplugged

If you have been following my blog for long, you know that we allow our kids to play video games, watch movies, etc.  But, I also feel that it can be a huge waste of time and doesn't usually cultivate deeper relationships. So, while we do allow it in our home, we carefully monitor and limit how much time the kids are wasting playing.  :)

Usually, when we are traveling, we take along a portable dvd player for the meltdown phase.  But, on our most recent trip we really wanted the focus to be spending time together and strengthening relationships.  Children learn how to entertain themselves and become creative after going through a stage...yes, it is just a stage...of boredom.  So, we decided to leave the dvd player (and all electronic devises except our phones) behind.  Scary, I know.  But, personally, I enjoyed this trip so much more since I wasn't having to compete with electronic devices for the attention of my family members.

So, here is how we intentionally helped our kids work through the bored stages and learn to appropriately entertain themselves.

*Map the Route.  We took a few minutes before starting out to show the kids a map and the route that we would take to drive from Phoenix to Anaheim.  We pointed out key cities along the way and then talked about them as we were passing through.  We brought the kids attention to the mile markers and the border crossing from Arizona to California.  This is the best kind of geography lesson! 

* Memory Book or Journal - I created a spiral notebook for the four older kids with a picture of a car the the words "road trip" on the front.  This functioned as a memory book/journal.  As we drove, they could draw pictures of what they saw and then write summaries of the days to remember later.  They could tape receipts, tickets, maps, etc into the book as well.

* Travel Games - Because we are studying US geography this year, I decided to get a US map window cling for the kids' viewing pleasure...haha.  And, gave each of the older four kids a state license plate game.  This was basically a page printed from the internet with all 50 states' license plates.  They would watch plates of vehicles around us and X out the ones that they found.  They they could find that state on the window cling and see how far that vehicle had traveled to be in Arizona or California.  It was fun to see how many they could find. 

* Art - Art in the car?  That really sounds like a disaster.  Yeah.  It was.  But it was super entertaining and we knew that our van was going to need a good deep cleaning after the trip anyway:)  Our kids love to draw.  So, we picked up some sketch books, pencils, pens, markers, crayons, etc. at the Dollar Store for each kid.  We also found a few 3D dot-to-dot books with cool glasses and spiral art projects that could easily be done in the car.

*Audio Books - We used our phones to stream a free version of Peter Pan during parts of the drive.  I have to admit that I had never read this book before and Peter and I both found it to be a delightful tale.  And, it kept the kids anticipation high for the ultimate Anaheim destination:)

* We would usually have snacks available for the kids but didn't find the need for that until the trip home when everyone was tired and the littles were just a bit more squirmy.  I did have some tootsie pops available for the meltdown and they came in handy for the two year old.

 (My son took one of those call-your-name-and-snap-a-picture shots.)

Here is a list of unplugged ways to entertain kids on the road that I put together when planning this trip.  I'll probably refer to this list on our next trip:)

audio books, books, view masters, crochet, knit, magnadoodle, etch-a-sketch, needlework, drawing, story telling (place your kids' names into familiar fairy tales), singing, word searches, bring hats and put on a seat play, naps (my personal favorite!), puppets, snacks, review math facts, read aloud, post it notes for sticking all over the car, make cheerio necklaces (messy but entertaining), play different license plate games (ABC, finding 50 states, etc), play slug bug, wiki stix, quiet books, paperclip creations, marshmallow and toothpick creations (definitely not for the preschool travelers), have the older kids calculate gas mileage, felt books, origami, magnetic games, journals, bring a few favorite toys from home, stickers, rubber band fights, lacing cards, picture taking, kaleidoscope, review memory work, and just talk about whatever the kids want to talk about:)

Here is a great website for making travel fun that could be easily adjusted to fit a family trip.  I used the license plate game from this blog.

Click here to see my other posts on travel ideas.

How do you entertain your kids on the road?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Exploring Tide Pools

Growing up along the Gulf Coast and then spending several years on the East Coast, I have spent many years falling in love with the beach.  Living the last decade in the deserts of Arizona has been an adjustment to say the least.  I have learned to appreciate the beauty of the desert but there is just something about the crashing of  waves upon the sand and the wide open spaces of the beach that is so peaceful.  Even in the midst of the crazy coastal thunderstorms, there is such beauty and peace in experiencing the awesome power of our Creator.

Because I am forever drawn to the ocean, I want to cultivate a curiosity, amazement, and love for the coast in my children.  So, on a recent family trip to California, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to take the family to explore and learn about the unique ecosystem found in the tide pools.  After doing quite a bit of research, I was convinced that Crystal Cove State Park would provide the best experience for our family.  And, boy was I right.  It is about a 30 minute drive from Anaheim, where we were staying, and proved to have fantastic ocean life. There was a toll road that cost $6.50 but we avoided that on the way back:)

Here are some pictures of the ocean view and the path to the beach.

If you are interested in visiting these tide pool, I would suggest parking in the northernmost (#1) parking lot at Crystal Cove State Park.  This parking lot has beach access that is more stroller friendly.  We initially went to the #2 parking lot and our stroller couldn't take the steep steps that led down to the beach.  There are restrooms and showers at each parking lot but nothing at the beach so take everyone by on your way down:)

We went in October and it was still around 80 degrees.  We were really wishing that we had let the kids come in their swimsuits and them shower off and put on clean clothes when we were done.  It would have been a much easier and thorough clean up.  Oh, well.  That will be something to remember for next time.

Here are a few pictures of the ocean life and tide pools that we were able to explore.

We were amazed as a seal swam right up and rested on a rock nearby.  That is not something that we get to see in the desert!

Here is the "stroller friendly" trail down to the beach.  My wonderful hubby brought the babies down to enjoy the ocean.  The other trail had steep steps and we didn't feel like it was doable with a stroller.

And this, my folks, is what pure joy looks like.  This was the first time that Seth was old enough to really enjoy the beach and he couldn't remember ever having been there before.  I think the best way to describe how he felt about the beach was "You had me at hello".  Haha.

This beach was perfect for our large family.  We are definitely marking this one for future trips:)

Monday, October 21, 2013

5 Ways to Save on a Disney Vacation

We just returned from a week long trip to Disneyland and I thought I would type up a quick post of money saving tips.  This way I will be able to find it the next time we go to Disney:)

Here are 5 ways to save on a Disney vacation:

1. Plan Ahead.  One great way to save money is to plan ahead for hotel reservations.  I made our reservations about 8 months before the trip and was able to score an amazing rate on a suite that had two rooms and a total of four queen size beds.  I found a hotel close enough to walk to Disney that offered free parking.  I was actually amazed that not all the hotels have free parking so check this out ahead of time.  Most hotels will let you cancel with no obligation within a few days of the trip if things don't work out.  I actually called and shortened our reservation a few weeks before the trip:) 

 (We were able to walk to Disney from our hotel.)

2. Pack a lunch.  Food on the road and in a theme park can be so very expensive...especially for a large family such as ours.  To save money on food, we ate the free hotel breakfast (basically pastries and coffee), packed our lunch and snacks, and then only purchased dinner in the park.  We bought all kinds of fruit and snacks along with gallon ziploc bags and sharpie markers.  We labeled a bag for each person.  Every morning they could choose several snacks to go in their bag along with the sandwich and fruit that I added.  You would have thought it was Christmas as they picked out their own food for the day.  Then, they were allowed get their snack whenever they were hungry during the day and when it was gone, it was gone:)  So, there was no whining about being hungry...ahhhh.  We also took water bottles and a gallon refill bottle into the park.  Drinks can add up fast if you are buying.

3. Pre-purchase preschool souvenirs and glow sticks.  We made a trip to the dollar store a few days before the trip and bought several Mickey Mouse themed toys for our little three boys and packed them in the stroller.  Then when the older kids were buying a souvenir we would hand the littles a new toy and they were thrilled.  We also bought all kinds of glow sticks/swords/twirly things at the dollar store and packed them in the stroller as well.  When darkness fell, our kids were transformed into a traveling firework show...haha.  People kept commenting on how cool their glow items were and I just kept smiling to myself as I saw the crazy prices of the glow items in the park.  Big win!  And, it helped us keep track of one another in the darkness.

(See how happy they are with their Dollar Store Disney toys...haha.)

4. Budget for food and put the kids in charge.  We are big Dave Ramsey people so we used the envelope system on this trip.  We budgeted what we would spend on meals each day (travel and park days) and labeled envelopes with the day and put the money inside.  When the money was gone, we were done eating...haha.  Because we were packing lunch and snacks, we found that we didn't really want to buy snacks inside the park and actually had money left over most days. Okay so we didn't put the kids in charge of the whole trip...just their own spending money.  We did the same envelope system for the older kids' souvenir money.  We told them what they had to spend and put it in an envelope with their names.  Then when a kid would ask for a $5 Mickey Mouse shaped ice cream bar, we would remind them that they were free to spend their money any way that they wanted.  Do you know that two of my kids came home with ALL of their money!  There was no way they were going to "waste" their money on such things as ice cream or toys:)  Dave Ramsey would be so proud...and so am I.

 (Dinner at Flo's V8 Cafe in Radiator Springs)

5. Take a day off.  We did one day at Legoland, one at California Adventure, and one at Disneyland.  We planned to take a day to go to the beach and explore tidepools right in the middle and it was perfect.  After two fast paced days everyone was ready to have a more restful day off and it was really cost effective.  Putting a "free day" in the trip can save a great deal.

Having a day to just run and explore really recharged all of our batteries and we were ready for another park day.

How do you save money on vacations with kids?