Monday, February 28, 2011

Birthday Party Series- Pinata on the Cheap

With three boys in the house, we try to celebrate their birthdays with a lot of panache and hoopla. However, being on a budget can easily put a kink in my plans. I love to make the boys feel special and we celebrate their days to the best of our abilities.

I tend to go "old school" on the parties. We don't host the entire class or rent out Chuck E. Cheese's. We tend to invite all the boys in the class or stick to just the neighbor kids. I try to host it in our house or the backyard. I might let the kids swim in the pool, have water fights, camp in the yard, sleepover, go fishing, etc. BUT it doesn't cost me anything except some sanity.

I think the kids enjoy having their friends over and I try to schedule games, cake and ice cream, and plenty of free play. I stick with games that don't require specialty items. I have found that two or three games are ideal and then I let the boys play on their own. They seem to prefer that over another round of "pin the tail on the donkey". I hate the sticker shock of store bought pinatas and all the party favors.

I have learned how to make a mean "gringo" pinata. If the kids ask for one, I make our own. I use a large balloon, strips from the Sunday paper, and a lot of flour mixed with water. I dip the strips into the goo and wrap them around a hanging balloon. Then we let it hang dry. I tend to put several layers of paper around it and for the older boys I wrap some duck tape just to make it interesting.

When it is dry, you pop the balloon with a knife and cut a small door near the top. I fill it with dollar store goodies like pixie sticks, gum, army men, tootsie rolls, pennies, etc. I have even reused parade and Easter candy if I have it sitting around. After it's filled, I tie strings around the middle to make a hanger. I prefer to have 6 strings tied together to use at the top, but it doesn't matter. I like to make the pinata a bit more difficult for the older boys and I don't want them batting it across the room and breaking a window.

After it's filled and hung, I take crepe paper streamers and cut slits 3/4 the way up the strip to make it fringed. I take a little school glue and start at the bottom and glue it around and around. Soon it looks pretty cool. I do use different colors that fit our themes and I attach a few loose hanging ones on the bottom. Then I let it dry.

There is a lot of drying time, so it takes about a week before you will have a complete pinata. I tend to make several at a time so I don't have to freak out two days before a birthday. One year I made all the daycare kids pinatas for their birthdays and they loved them. It doesn't matter what you put in them or make them look like, because the best part is hitting something with a stick and not getting into trouble.

I know this is a plain jane pinata, nothing fancy, but it is a lot cheaper than a $30 Optimus Prime pinata who is already fated for a pile of rubble. It's not a traditional pinata that you would see at Cinco De Mayo celebration, but you can get fancy and add shapes to the pinata by using paper cones and toilet paper tubes, but I don't bother. It's fun to make with your children and they feel special, because Mom or Dad made it just for them. In the end, a homemade pinata is a lot more valuable than the mass produced one from Wally World.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Birthday Party Series- Being a Guest on the Cheap

Our house is a little lighter tonight. Two of our boys are at a sleep over party for a mutual friend. While I scrounged up their pajamas, pillows, sleeping bags, and nerf guns; I thought of all the parties we have been to in the last few years. Some families spend a lot of money on these affairs with parties at Chuck E. Cheese or paintball soirees. Some families, like us, tend to lean toward old fashioned parties at our home or a park. I thought I would share a few tips that have helped us deal with multiple invites over the years.

Gift giving is a bit tricky. My children love attending parties for their friends and I enjoy seeing their excitement. I think choosing, wrapping, and carrying in a present for their friend is the highlight of the day. It is a little daunting to buy presents for these parties on a budget. You don't want to be the cheapest party goer, but you can't bust your monthly allowances either.

Sometimes, all the kids in my sons' classes are invited and that means 30 or more presents for the birthday kid. We give bigger presents when two or more of my sons are invited to the same party. I don't know why I feel the urge to compensate, but I personally feel it's better to give a better present than three small ones that will probably be broken in a day or two. I tend to stock up on clearance sales or go for the $5 bill wrapped on a candy bar. Kids love candy and money, plus I don't have to worry about getting the same thing someone else did. So far we haven't had a disappointed recipient.

Gift wrap is vital to a good birthday present, but I hate spending money on gift bags or cards that just get trashed. I recycle the gift bags that we have received and I reuse wrapping paper just like my Grandmother does. I honestly think the Superman paper from Christmas of '84 has been wrapped around a package every year since the Regan administration. I save the funnies from our Sunday papers and use them as wrapping paper. I have flipped Christmas paper, bought on after-Christmas clearance sales, over to a plain side or used butcher paper the kids have colored or painted. For special gifts, I might use table cloths or baby blankets to wrap my presents in so they get two gifts in one.

I don't usually buy bows. They get tossed along with the rest and I don't want to waste my time or money on something very few people appreciate. Why contribute to a landfill if we don't need to? I tend to buy small candies, gum, trinkets, or ornaments to attach with a label. I personally feel this adds to the present and is even more fun than a boring old bow. On occasion, I am able to score free candy or gum with coupons. At the Dollar Store or Dollar Tree I can find very cute seasonal items or treats for very little money.

I know that there are two kinds of people: card givers or card throwers. The price of greeting cards are outrageous so I don't give cards to the younger crowd. Kids don't really care about a card, unless there is a little green inside. So why put a lot of effort into it? I usually have my son create a card to attach on the gift. It's cheap and makes my son focus on the giving aspect a little more. I have even just wrote the name on the package with a marker. The only thing that matters is being able to tell who it goes to and who gave it.

I may sound like the cheapest birthday guest ever, but you can find meaningful and special presents on the cheap. You just need to look around and think about your friend. I think a party is a celebration that means more than hosting an event to acquire presents. It's a time to get together, eat cake, drink kool-aid, and play some games. As long as the guests mind their P's and Q's, no one will notice who purchased a present on a budget.

I hope my sons' are behaving as we speak. You can imagine the chaos that unfolds when you have 8 boys ranging from 8-12 years old wrestling through your house. I feel for my neighbor, but I know my time is fast approaching when I get to host. Acknowledging the child's special day is what's important, not how much money you spent on their gift.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Big Foot in Nebraska

I grew up in a small Nebraska town in the middle of nowhere. I know you think I made that up, but literally they celebrate "Middle of Nowhere Days". It's the kind of town where everyone knows each other and they don't forget what you or your parents did, even if it was pre-circa 1965. We had a main street with a dime store, a pharmacy, a little cafe, a western boot store, and the thrift store ran by the Hospital Auxiliary completed our little piece of Americana. Red, white, and blue flags flew and old Chevy pickups lined the store fronts.

Every town has "that" house where children are warned not to linger. Parents may be concerned about a dangerous dog, hidden cisterns, or a resident of questionable character. Children, on the other hand, have the imagination and available audiences to create their own mini urban legends surrounding these houses. My hometown was not immune to this, and the neighbor girl who lived at the end of our gravel road was a wonderful source for us.

In a time when "kick the can" was king and Google was only a number, Crystal reigned supreme over the neighbor kids. She was a few years older than the rest of us. She had braces and a boom box. Her mother let her watch rated R movies and listen to Cyndi Lauper. She wore lip gloss along with mascara and always smelled like fruit rollups. Crystal was pretty cool and so were her stories.

One of my favorite stories that she told was about the family of Bigfoot that lived near the creek behind our homes. This creek was nothing special or noteworthy. It didn't resemble Laura Ingalls Wilder's creek in her LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE books. It was dirty and cluttered with broken glass and old plates. If you were lucky, you could catch bullfrog tadpoles and minnows. The best part of the creek was all the trees that shielded you from your parents eyes and gave you a sense of wild adventure.

In our little wilderness it seemed very possible that a family of Bigfoot could be lurking. Especially, when they had an abandoned hunting shack and an old well to hide in. It was common knowledge, Crystal pointed out, that our parents only told us stories of the well to keep us away from the smelly predators who blended in with the shadows of the cotton wood trees. The tall prairie grasses helped hide their massive foot prints and the coyotes howled at the moon to mask the Bigfoot noises while they hunted the hills for their dinner.

According to our primary source, the Bigfoot were tall, hairy, and smelly. Their eyes glowed a color of red blood, but they didn't eat children very often. Unless- you looked them in the eye. They despised pigs and were afraid of their squeals. I don't know how she conjured up these facts, but I still recall them today.

Being the young impressionable sort, we gulped in all this information and took it to heart. We no longer played on that side of the creek with the old shack. We made sure to look at the dirt when we walked past the trees. On occasion, we wore pig masks made from paper plates to disguise us as we rode our banana seat bikes down the hill by the creek. At night, I refused to look out the windows, because I just knew I would see a set of red eyes glaring back at me.

Bigfoot was a hot topic for a few years growing up. We researched yetis, yowies, skunk apes, and any other name we came across. I think I was probably in the Sixth grade before I realized we had been duped. Crystal had gotten us good and now it was our turn. I managed to "share" this vital information with my younger brother and his friends.

Bigfoot is still a fun topic. I tell the stories to my sons and we play the "Bigfoot" game which entails a makeshift fort under the dining room table. I masquerade as Bigfoot, stomping around, grunting, and kidnapping children to put in a cave. Bigfoot may be a fictional character who was brought to life by the neighbor girl, but he is a fun and intriguing part of my past and present.

Nothing is as nostalgic and captivating as a good Bigfoot story. Somehow, this character unites me with my children and the place I grew up. It's timeless. I may not live in the Middle of Nowhere anymore or have a creek running through my backyard, but on a hot summer night when the coyotes howl I close my eyes and listen for hidden grunts or twigs snapping under a giant foot.

Peak and Off Peak Hours

I am sitting in the dark using the glow of my computer screen trying to save money. I don't know how much money I am actually saving, since my computer is drawing energy, but I am trying. We switched our family over to a plan that our Public Power District has implemented to encourage people to use off peak hours. So here we sit in the dark.

Can you tell it is a peak time? Our daily routines now revolve around 7-10 am and 4-10 pm. I am hoping this venture will work for us. Our electric rates have steadily increased over the years and in this past year they have raised them twice! I understand why, but my bills keep going up even though we have cut our usage. It is a little irritating, but I decided to try this strategy before I build my own wind turbine.

I tried getting the kids and the husband on board with conserving electricity in the past. However, a family of 5 and running a daycare make it very difficult to keep an electric bill low. I implemented an idea that really motivates the boys, but it is impossible to meet. My husband and I made a deal with the boys that if they can keep our electric bill under $150.00, then they could split the remainder between them. Out of 8 months, we only met this goal once.

I have done everything. I shut things down and unplug appliances and televisions. This makes for a very grumpy hubby, but I tried it. I hung our laundry outside and had the boys make me a clothesline in our basement for the winter and rainy days. We barely ran the air conditioner and I drained our pool so I wouldn't need to pay for the filter's electricity.

I googled ideas on how to save more. I caulked and insulated. I covered every window with plastic. I read some crazy idea that candles generate enough heat to raise a room's temperature by a few degrees, so we enjoyed candle lit meals and ambiance. I don't think it made too much of a difference. I had begged and pleaded with the husband to let me install a wood burner or fireplace, but that fell on deaf ears. We were stuck with no other option than to pay an outrageous electric bill.

I think the power company heard me begging and complaining to the hubby, because that is when I read about this new plan. The peak hour rate is a little over 10 cents a Kilowatt. Off peak is at about 4 cents. On our regular plan I was paying around 8 cents an hour. Granted, we will pay more during those peak hours, but I am hoping to use the off peak to our advantage. We also get Sunday at the off peak rate. Woohoo!

I try to wash dishes and laundry around our new schedule. I vacuum, charge the phones, and let the kids watch TV on the off hours. I only let them take baths or hot showers when it works for us- not the power company. We have programmed the water softener to run at midnight and our heaters get turned down for a little break during the day.

I am hoping this saves us money. I am not committed to a contract, but the power company suggested we try it for at least a few months. I hope we can. Even if we don't save a lot of green in our wallet, we are watching a lot less television and playing a lot less computer games. We even broke out the board games on Saturday. The boys are more conscious of the lights and how much hot water they use in the bathroom. Hopefully, I will be seeing more green next month and it better not be just the new Spring grass.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Disappointed House

Tonight is supposed to be "date" night in our house. David, my husband, has been planning on a night out for weeks and I think cabin fever is an understatement. He does deserve a night out, especially after last weekend when he basically watched our 3 boys and the 3 neighbor boys alone while I was at class and dress shopping with my Mother and Grandmother. I am not sure what he wants to do. He's talked about going bowling, playing pool, or attempting to play some slots at the casino. Those were okay until he mentioned helping a friend this afternoon.

His friend is in the process of remodeling his kitchen, but the cabinets he wants to use are in an old abandoned farmhouse. They have gotten permission to tear out the cabinets and anything else we want from it. My husband should have known not to mention this, because now all I want to do is go explore the forgotten house.

I want to look at all the light fixtures and old outlets. I want to see what kind of windows are on the house. I want to dig through dust and cobwebs for little treasures. I want to knock down plaster walls!

Date night suddenly seems to take on a whole new excitement for me. I enjoy getting out and having David dote on me, plus I get to take a break from always being the caregiver and referee for a few hours. BUT, now I want to go play in the old disappointed house.

I love old disappointed houses.

You see their gray skeletons dot the landscape- neglected and leaning. I can't help to wonder what hopes and dreams those houses represented for the people who built them. Nobody pictures their homes or dreams crumbled amongst dried cornstalks or the poster child for a Ghost Hunters episode.

Now they stand year after year, as the only evidence of the people who once dared to plow the earth and dream about a better life. Every time we drive past one of these remnants, I tend to clammer on and on about them until I drive my boys nuts. One of my favorite authors, Lucy Maud Montgomery, wrote a series called EMILY OF NEW MOON. I can't recall if the "disappointed house" came from the book or the television series, but that is the best description of these houses.

Disappointment is what these houses represent.

No one would build a house with no plans to live there. All those farmers' hopes and dreams were built into those houses. Each nail driven was a step closer to the farmer's goal.

I can imagine a man being energetic and positive as he squared the corners and pieced the frame. He may have boasted about his parcel of children playing, running, and squealing inside those now empty walls. Neighbors, in good Nebraska fashion, would surely have been there helping and sweating alongside the farmer in his efforts. They poured their sweat, tears, and efforts into their land and buildings.

What celebrations and trials unfolded in those dwellings? I wish I knew. The history each house has is beautiful, but soon they won't even be standing here to remind us of what has been. I may not know the names of the families who lived in them or when they were built, but they do have a purpose. They are a testimony to time and the past. People may come and go, leaving their imprint on the Earth, but the Earth will always win.

We strive as Americans to build our fortunes and holdings, but sometimes fate has different ideas.

In this current economy we hear about foreclosures and bankruptcies. Those may be the future disappointed houses. We need to strive in building strong families and relationships, because those who house our ideals will carry them on. I don't want to put all my energy into a disappointed house. I want to pass on a legacy that will grow and weather time. My children, family, and friends are the first place I will start.

The next time you drive past one of these disappointed houses, evaluate your goals and dreams.

I will have fun this afternoon scrounging in the dilapidated house and, hopefully, I will bring some piece of it back with me. I can clean it, paint it, and give it a second chance in my home. That's the nice thing, each day is a new day with no mistakes in it. (I took that bit from Montgomery, too.) We can dust ourselves off and try again.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Valentine's- Where's the Love?

I have decided Valentine's Day is not for the weak of heart. The wimpy, "lovey dovey" reputation this holiday has been branded with is completely misleading. Pink hearts, lacey doilies, baby cupids, and floral arrangements hide Valentine's dark side. I am not lobbying for single awareness or anything of that sort, but I survived two Valentine parties and the sugar rush aftermath yesterday. Wooohoo.

I feel that there should be a boot camp for mothers and fathers who have to endure classroom parties and the like. You need to build up an endurance for these classroom parties. About fifteen minutes before party time, the parking lot is bombarded with minivans and an assault of mothers armed with balloons, treats, and games who are ready to invade the school. The whole escapade is quite intriguing to watch. What ensues afterward, is an hour of insanity and excitement that only those who have been there can relate to. Games, sugar, and cupcakes mixed with little cards create a formula for one tired momma.

Ethan and I made homemade "Hostess" cupcakes and he was proud to show off his treats. My Grandmother reminded me that all my work will be rewarded when he's older and fondly remembers the year his mother made 60 little cupcakes with filling for his second grade class. I really hope he does! The kitchen was sweltering and the filling was starting to run, but we did finish them. They tasted great, but a few looked a little lopsided. However, I don't think the kids noticed.

Back at home, the chocolate candy in the Valentine containers we had made were melting in the sunlight. I am SO thankful for the heat, that I won't complain. I had to put the cups out of the rays and I hoped that the candy would firm up before I let the little ones get them. Could you imagine that mess?

Needless to say, I have swept up wrappers and half eaten candy hearts several times yesterday and today. The cupcakes are gone and that means no more crumbs to wipe up. Everyone slept good last night and I didn't even finish the whole Conan episode. All I remember is Justin Bieber getting pelted with peeps.

Valentine's Day takes a certain kind of person to be able to pull off all the hoopla for the younger set. I hope one day they have a cupid with some muscle to represent this aspect moms face. Frilly and romantic notions quickly take flight when you have a house full of children and a list of parties to oversee.

Next year, I will work on lobbying for Valentine's Day to be observed on the second Friday of February. Having Valentine's Day parties on a Monday is taxing for the mothers and teachers. I am sure the restraunts and stores would enjoy having a whole weekend to milk all those sweethearts. We'll see... In the meantime, enjoy some cupcakes.

Make small chocolate cupcakes using a box mix or your favorite recipe. Let cool completely before filling.

Hostess Cupcake Filling
1/2 c. sugar
2/3 c. shortening
1/3 c. evaporated milk or water
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 c. powdered sugar

Combing sugar, shortening, milk, vanilla, and salt. Beat 10 minutes. Add powdered sugar and beat 2 more minutes.

Hostess Cupcake Frosting
1 package semi-sweet or dark chocolate chips
1/4 c. butter
1/2 tsp. vanilla

Microwave until chips are melted and butter is blended in. Frost with a spoon and then pipe remaining filling in design over the chocolate.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

On Pins and Noodles

It's late Thursday night and I am listening to two of my boys play the wii. They are playing some crazy game that involves balancing weird shapes on floating blocks in water. The premise of the game is fine, but the music sounds like the soundtrack to an X-rated Seventies movie. What are these wii people thinking? Or better yet,what do they watch?

We've had a hectic day. All the kids were ornery. That may be an understatement. I am taking it all in with hopes that this is a sign the weather may finally be changing. I will gladly enjoy a temperature above 10 degrees. The snow is melting, the ice is pooling into puddles, and the kids are growly and craving the outdoors. I pray that the groundhog is right and spring IS around the corner.

With all this indoor time, we've had to make our own fun and entertainment. The kids enjoy racing around the dining table, but I can only take so much of their thumping little feet on the hardwood floor. I dusted off the rolling pin and brought them all in the kitchen for some good old fashioned noodle rolling.

This has become a favorite activity among the children. Like a cat who hears a tuna can being opened, they come running when the rolling pin starts creaking. Smiles and screams of glee meet my ears as they crowd around the table. They pull out the benches and sit down for about 15 minutes of infatuation with flour and a rolling pin.

Very few items are as timeless as a rolling pin. Families for centuries have relied upon this simple tool. In a world full of gadgets, gizmos, and downloads it still has an allure that is comparable to SpongeBob. There is something amazing about rolling and pressing a lump of dough into a thin sheet.

Rolling and rolling is repetitive, but it's therapeutic and hypnotizing. My own Grandmother would roll noodles during the early stages of labor to keep her mind off the pains. I roll noodles to gain peace of mind and to have a connection to the simple life.

In a world where we can buy everything and anything on the Internet or in the freezer aisle of the grocery store it seems a little odd for someone to roll out noodles. I've even had people tell me that they didn't know you could make noodles at home, let alone use a rolling pin. I guess the best way to get soup involves a bag of dried noodles that has been processed, shipped, and ripened on a store shelf. I do buy macaroni and spaghetti this way.

However, there is something soothing and satisfying when you do it yourself. It ties you to your heritage and saves you a bit of "dough" in your wallet. I can imagine a lot of our Grandmother's spent plenty of hours cutting and drying noodles. Whether they were waiting for a threshing crew or their father to come home from work, they stood at the table fighting the dough just like I do now.

The kids are poised and ready. We measure and count three cups of flour. Then we make a well or indention in the middle of the dough and add two eggs. Of course we need to count each egg as I crack it on the edge of the bowl. We sprinkle a bit of salt and take our fork to the mess. When it begins to stick, we add enough milk to make a ball of dough.

Now, it's time to get our hands dirty and begin kneading. It may take a little umph, but in a minute or so you will be ready to roll. The kids pour a cup of flour onto the table and help spread it out. I thump the dough down and press it a little with my hands. Then we dust the rolling pin and set it to work. Rhythmic rolling and squeaking keep the kids glued to the table. Soon, we have a large round circle about 1/4 inch thick.

I cheat and use a pizza cutter to slice the rows of noodle into the dough. This even fascinates the kids. I get a lot of questions concerning pizza and noodles, but it keeps them engaged. They know the funnest part is yet to come. I scoop up all the noodles and place them in a pile to dry for later when the broth is boiling.

The kids seize the chance to play in the flour left behind on the table. They write their names, numbers, draw pictures, and play with the white stuff. I let them. Technically I am allowing them to play with their food, but It's a wonderful way for them to practice writing and developing their fine motor skills.

In about an hour they will tire of the mess and return to their crazy cooped up selves. It was a sweet reprieve while it lasted and soon we will feast on our labors. Nothing beats hot chicken noodle soup on a cold February day! Happy Rolling.

Homemade Noodles
3 c. flour
1 tsp. salt
2 eggs
1/4 to 1/2 c. milk (depends on the flour, temp, humidity, etc.)

Mix flour with salt and eggs. Add milk, mix, and kneed. Turnout on a floored board and roll until 1/4 inch thick. Slice into narrow or thick noodles and let dry for about an hour before adding to a rolling boiling broth or water. Let them cook for about 30 minutes.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Plain Graces

I want to see the intricate details of life and the simple graces that God has blessed me with. I want to look at things differently and see more than a pile of dirty laundry or a yard that is an inch to tall. My soul longs to savor all the moments when I tend to get swept up in the hectic race of activities and work; leaving me frazzled and unable to appreciate the goodness in these moments.

I revamped my blog to include tidbits on faith, family, and food. You may think I really like the letter F, but I strongly believe that they go hand-in-hand. What is the point if you make a chocolate cake, but can't enjoy it? My posts will vary from week to week, but whatever decides to spring forth will be something I find interesting.

I will throwback to the good ole' days. Homemade isn't really that much work and I want to recapture the simplicity and quality of life that it has to offer. I promise not to make you forage for black walnuts. I only make my sons fight the squirrels for those, but I will encourage you to try making bread, soap, and maybe even "put up" some tomatoes from the garden.

God created all these fascinating facets of life and sometimes we just need to slow down or adjust our line of vision to appreciate the PLAIN GRACES.