Thursday, June 30, 2011

Because Owning Home is a Pain

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Over the past few months, I've grown weary of home ownership and its attendant hassles.  I'm tired of refinishing, refurbishing, repairing, and replacing - all just to keep our home in livable condition.  Even worse, every few weeks something new seems to break.  It's becoming a nightmare.

The latest disaster to befall us took place yesterday afternoon.  Our utility closet leaked fiercely, gushing water all over the laundry room floor, and pouring down into the entryway below.  Poor Donnie had to single-handedly move our washing machine, dryer, and full-sized, upright freezer to reach the source of the leak and assess the damage.

And what he found wasn't pretty.

The closet must have been leaking lightly for months, because we actually had mushrooms growing behind the washing machine.  The carpet was ruined, and when Donnie pulled part of it up, he discovered that the wooden floor beneath was also destroyed.  So now my husband, who already works far harder than any one human being should, gets to spend his holiday weekend tearing up carpet, laying a new floor, and possibly even replacing parts of the laundry room wall.

This is just the latest in a string of emergency household repairs we've had to undertake, and, frankly, I'm sick of it.  In fact, I'm fairly certain our next residence will be a rental.  Pride of ownership can't compete with complete and total freedom from costly DIY home improvement projects.

For now, we're stuck as property owners.  But the next time we move, I want at least a year or two without any responsibility for making repairs to my residence.  Just call me Rosie the Renter.  Or something.  Whatever floats your boat.

Just don't ask me to set foot in a Home Depot, and I'll be a happy woman.   

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Gentle Books: When I'm as Big as Freddie

When I'm as Big as Freddie is a sweet celebration of the adoration children feel for their older brothers and sisters.  Unlike many books, which offer polite solutions to the more rivalrous aspects of sibling relationships, When I'm as Big as Freddie portrays the Big Sibling/Little Sibling hero-worship dynamic as loving and healthy - the most natural thing in the world.

The unnamed protagonist of When I'm as Big as Freddie wants to be just like his older brother.  He talks proudly of the day when he, too, will do homework, ride the bus, open a bank account, and care for his own pet mouse named Squeak.  He also can't wait to be a role model for his little sister; he assumes she will want to be just like him, and that he will teach her how to be a "big kid."

When I'm as Big as Freddie is a classic Sesame Street storybook, so the artwork features lots of Anything Muppets, as well as Grover and the Count in cameo roles (as a librarian and a bank teller, respectively).  The warm, vivid pictures are gently funny in their portrayal of a young boy who wants to be just like his big brother. 

When I'm as Big as Freddie would be a great gift for a child who is about to become an older brother or sister for the first time.  Kids will love reading about the important role they play in their younger siblings' lives, and talking with parents about different ways to set a good example.   

(Full disclosure - if you click the link in this post to purchase When I'm as Big as Freddie (or other items), from Amazon, I will receive a small payment.  If you're not comfortable with that, but still want to buy the book, please open a new browser window to make your purchases.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Why I Don't Drive

If Trey can do it...
I'm so proud of my seventeen-year-old brother, Mike.  Today, he passed his PA State Driver's License Test with flying colors.  It's quite an accomplishment - and one that I, at nearly 30, have yet to achieve.

For as long as I can remember, I've been afraid to drive.  As a teenager, when all my friends were getting licensed and saving up for cars, I never even sought my learner's permit.  I was perfectly happy to take the bus everywhere, or beg rides off family and friends.  I couldn't quite explain why I was so apprehensive, I just knew in my gut that I wasn't ready to operate a big, scary machine.  A machine that, if handled incorrectly, could kill people.

I've continued to fear driving well into adulthood.  In fact, I've never even taken the test to obtain a learner's permit (although I've read the driver's manual a million times, and had my doctor fill out the appropriate physical forms - year after year after year).  The closest I ever came was in late 2006, when I actually went to the DMV to take my permit test - and failed the eye exam! 

Shortly thereafter, I visited my eye doctor.  He told me I had a detached retina, and had lost most of the vision in my left eye.  I had surgery to repair my retina, and the vision in my left eye is somewhat improved (although still far from perfect).  I am legally allowed to obtain a license, but my lifelong fear of driving, coupled with my extremely distorted left-eye vision, has prevented me from trying again. 

Now, at 29, I feel almost ready to learn.  I live in a very rural area of Pennsylvania, where public transportation is scarce, and I'm tired of never being able to take Trey anywhere during the day.  Even more importantly, I'm tired of being scared.  This is a fear I want to conquer.

So I've made a promise to myself.  Before I turn 31, in August of 2012, I will be a licensed driver in the state of Pennsylvania.  I will go to the grocery store without my husband.  I will take my son to the library whenever I wish  I will be independent, and mobile, and not afraid.

And if I falter, I will remind myself: if my little brother, whose diapers I've changed and boo-boos I've kissed and vomit I've cleaned up, can operate a vehicle, so can I. 

Even if my hands are shaking, just a tiny bit.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Cheesy Spinach Pasta Bake

This easy and delicious baked pasta dish is packed with nutrition, yet still appeals to the pickiest of eaters.  Even better, it's a cinch to prepare, and freezes well.  I like to serve it with Buttery Texas Toast and steamed broccoli.

Cheesy Spinach Pasta Bake

2 cups fresh ricotta cheese
1 egg
8-10 fresh basil leaves, torn
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2-4 cloves of garlic
1-2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 lb fresh baby spinach
crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
1 lb rigatoni (or other short, chunky noodle)
4 cups of your favorite red pasta sauce
2 cups shredded low-moisture mozzarella cheese

Combine the ricotta cheese, egg, basil, and black pepper in a small bowl, mixing until thoroughly combined.  Set aside.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Add the garlic and cook 2-3 minutes, or until fragrant.  Add the spinach and cook, stirring occasionally, until it's wilted (4-5 minutes).  Season with the crushed red pepper flakes, and set aside.

Prepare the pasta according to package directions.  In a large bowl, combine it with the red sauce and mozzarella cheese.  Spread half the pasta in a large casserole dish.

Top the pasta with the ricotta, smoothing with the back of a spoon to create a solid layer of cheese.  Top with the spinach leaves, and the remaining pasta.

Bake at 400 degrees for 45-60 minutes, or until heated through.

This recipe is proudly shared at Menu Plan Monday and What's on Your Plate?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Frugal Fridays: How to Become a Stay-at-Home Mom, Part 1: Creating a Single-Income Budget

Note: this post is Part One in an ongoing series.  You can read the introduction here.

If you want to become a stay-at-home mom, the first thing you will need to do is create a budget based solely on your partner's income.  Sticking to this budget will be your key to staying afloat as a one-income family.

The process of crafting a single-income budget is not difficult.  Open an Excel spreadsheet (or simply grab a pen and paper), and list all your monthly expenses.  Include everything - housing, utilities, insurance, transportation, entertainment, groceries, household items, even clothing.  If you don't currently have a monthly budget for some categories (such as clothing), try to estimate how much you spend each year, then divide by twelve. 

Once you've written down all your monthly budget categories, add them up. How do your expenses compare with your partner's income?  Do you already spend less than he makes?

I didn't think so.

The good news is, you're not done!  Now comes the part of budgeting that is the most difficult, but somehow also the most fun.  It's time to cut costs so that your partner's income alone will cover your monthly expenses.  It's a challenge, but (for most people), it's also possible.

Here are some of the easiest ways to put a big dent in your monthly spending.  These changes alone could make the difference between an insufficient income, and one that meets all your needs.  If not, don't worry.  More money-saving tips will be coming over the next few weeks!
Eliminate entertainment spending.  You can save thousands of dollars a year by getting rid of cable (or satellite), Netflix, iTunes, Napster, magazine subscriptions, and other money wasters.  But that doesn't mean you have to be bored.  There are plenty of free or low-cost alternatives out there!

Sit down with a licensed insurance agent.  These professionals can help you dramatically reduce your out-of-pocket insurance expenses, while still remaining well-protected.  You may be paying for endorsements you don't need, carrying deductibles that don't make sense for your financial situation, or even missing out on great discounts.  By tailoring your coverages to your specific needs, your insurance agent can save you some serious cash.

Reevaluate your transportation situation.  Depending on where you live, it may be cheaper for your family to take advantage of public transportation than to have multiple cars - or any cars, for that matter!  Even if you decide that every driver needs a vehicle, you may want to consider replacing your current cars with cheaper, more fuel-efficient options.

Eat at home.  Going out to dinner - or even just ordering takeout - can be ridiculously expensive.  Save yourself hundreds of dollars a month by preparing your own meals instead.  Pack lunches for family members who are out of the house in the middle of the day, and make sure they have plenty of snacks on hand, to ward off the lure of the vending machine.  (Don't panic if you don't think you can cook.  In the coming weeks, I'll be sharing tons of tips for eating well on a dime - even if you're a complete kitchen novice!)

Shop smarter.  Obviously, the best way to curb spending is to only buy things you truly need.  The most effective way to do this is to stop shopping recreationally - no more going to the mall on a Saturday afternoon, just to look around.  Believe me, it's much easier to pass on that new handbag (or fancy cell phone or kitchen gadget or expensive lipstick) if you're just not looking at it.  As far as necessities are concerned, you can save hundreds of dollars a month by clipping coupons, buying sale items, stocking up on great deals, creating a menu, shopping with a list, and planning carefully.  I'll discuss these strategies in further detail over the next few weeks.

Spend less on utilities.  Some states allow for open competition among utility providers, meaning you can actually choose the companies that supply you with water, heat, and energy.  Once you've found the least expensive options, lower your bills even further by going on each company's budget plan, and also implementing energy saving measures (like these) around your home.   

Renegotiate monthly payments.  Many creditors will offer you a reduced interest rate if you ask nicely (it helps if you've been a good customer for at least a few months).  If you're struggling financially, mention that you're trying to avoid bankrupcy.  Most lenders would rather work with you now than risk having some (or all) of your debt written off by a judge.  And don't forget to call your student loan providers.  You may be able to get forebearance for most of your student loan debt, once your income decreases.

Move.  Extreme?  Maybe.  Effective?  Absolutely.  You can save tens of thousands of dollars a year by relocating to cheaper digs, particularly if you settle in a lower cost of living area.  If you choose a smaller home, you'll also save on heat, electricity, and insurance costs.
Implementing some or all of these suggestions should bring you much closer to your goal of surviving on only one income.  If you're still coming up short, don't worry - my tips for lowering your grocery bill, reducing clothing costs, and earning extra income from home should help you make up the difference.

In the meantime, the best thing you can do is to start behaving like a one income family today.  Not only will you get used to living on less, but you'll also have the opportunity to do some useful things with your current income before you give it up. 

Next week, I'll share some tips for making the most of your salary now, while you still have it!

For more money saving tips, visit Life as Mom.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ask The Gentle Mom: Avocado Recipes

Photo credit
A few weeks ago, a Facebook follower asked me if I had any avocado recipes to share.  Unfortunately, although I like avocado, I don't cook with it much (Donnie's not a fan).

The good news is, I follow lots of amazing cooking blogs - and most of them have featured delicious-looking avocado recipes at one time or another.  I've compiled a few of them here for your perusing pleasure. 

Please note that I haven't prepared these recipes myself.  Nevertheless, I'm comfortable recommending them because they come from sources that I trust completely.
Brie, Avocado, and Mango Quesadillas from More than Mundane

Turkey Avocado Baguette Sandwich with Chipotle Mayonnaise from Good (Cheap) Eats

Cilantro Chicken with Avocado Salsa from Tammy's Recipes

Smoky Mushroom Avocado Wrap from The Family Kitchen

B.E.A.L.T. Sandwich from The Naptime Chef

Texas Caviar from Food for My Family

Grilled Corn and Avocado Salad with Lime and Basil from Simple Bites
If you make any of these recipes, please let me know how they turn out.  They all sound so delicious that I'm hoping Donnie will be willing to try at least one of them!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: Because Swimming is More Fun than Writing

Today we're enjoying time at the pool with Trey's cousin Melissa.  Trey has been having a blast kicking his legs, learning to float, and even escaping from the baby pool a few times! 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Kitchen Tip: Measuring Muffin Batter

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Muffins are a staple food in our house.  I bake a dozen every Tuesday and Saturday, and we eat them for breakfast or as snacks throughout the week.  I love experimenting with different recipes and trying new ingredient combinations.

Over the years, I've discovered that the quickest, easiest way to divide muffin batter evenly amongst twelve muffin cups is to use the 1/3 cup dry measure as a scoop.  Filling the measuring cup to almost the very top gives you just enough batter to fill a standard muffin tin. 

This tip eliminates guesswork from the process of dividing batter, making it quick and easy to fill your tins and get your muffins in the oven. 

This post is shared at Kitchen Tip Tuesday.  Stop by for lots of great cooking and baking advice!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Baby Cereal Brown Sugar Muffins

Trey outgrew baby cereal long ago, but I still have several containers of organic baby oatmeal in my cupboard.  Over the past few weeks, I've been including it in a variety of new muffin recipes, with varied results.  Baby Cereal Banana Muffins were unquestionably delicious and moist.  These hearty Baby Cereal Brown Sugar Muffins are good, but may not be to everyone's taste.  Donnie and I enjoyed the chewy, dense texture and slightly nutty flavor, but they may be a bit heavy for those who prefer a more delicate muffin. 

Baby Cereal Brown Sugar Muffins

1 cup baby cereal
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup white flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup chocolate chips

Mix together the baby cereal and yogurt, and set aside.   

In a large bowl, cream together the brown sugar and butter.  Beat in the egg, vanilla, and baby cereal/yogurt mixture.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon.  Stir into the wet ingredients until just combined.  Fold in the chocolate chips.

Divide evenly among twelve greased or lined muffin cups.  Bake at 400 degrees for 18-20 minutes, or until golden brown. 

This recipe is proudly shared at Menu Plan Monday and What's On Your Plate?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Frugal Fridays: Introducing: How to Become a Stay-at-Home Mom

When other moms hear I'm a SAHM, they tend to have the same reaction: "You're so lucky.  I wish I could stay home, but we can't afford it."

Here's the thing: neither can we!  Since I quit my job, our household income has decreased by more than half.  Donnie's salary is currently below the median household income in this country .  And yet we not only survive; in many ways, we thrive. 

We couldn't do it without help, of course.  My mom in particular has been a tremendous source of support for us - buying me a diaper subscription from Amazon as a Mother's Day gift, taking us to Cape May when we otherwise couldn't afford a vacation, and just being generally generous with her time and money.  So please don't get the impression that Donnie and I are doing this All By Ourselves.  We have a strong safety net, and we're thankful for it.

That doesn't mean our journey has been easy.  We've made dozens of changes to our lifestyle and finances, and yet still there are months when we're not sure how we're going to pay our bills.  Living on one income is difficult, and sometimes scary.  But for us, it's worth every sacrifice.  I love being a SAHM.  If you think you would love it, too, then I want to help you make it happen.

And so, over the next few weeks, I'll be sharing our experiences in a Frugal Friday series called How to Become a Stay-at-Home Mom.  If you've ever wished you could stay home with your kids, or even if you're just looking for some tips to stretch your income farther, you'll want to check this series out.

I'm not saying every mom can afford to stay home with her kids - or that every mom should stay home with her kids, if that isn't what she wants.  But if you're one of the people thinking, "You're so lucky.  I wish I could stay home, but we can't afford it," then take heart.  Transitioning to one income isn't easy.  It isn't fun.  But it is (generally) possible.  And if it's what you want to do with your life, then I'll show you how.

Next Week: Part One, Creating a Single-Income Budget.

For money-saving tips, visit Life as Mom.  

Thursday, June 16, 2011

When the Going Gets Tough

Today is Day Four of Trey's campaign to rupture my ear drums through the sheer force of nonstop whining.  For the first few hours of the day, I skulked around the house, clutching him to my hip, ready to go mad.  And then I realized there was only one thing for us to do.

And so we went outside.

We never take our walk in the middle of the day, but today, we did.  We looked at flowers, touched prickly evergreen trees, and became fairly drenched in the chilly spring rain, all the while alternating between happy chatter, mindless singing, and contemplative quiet.  Trey soaked it all in as he lounged in his stroller, sometimes waving his arms and delivering soliloquies, sometimes calmly surveying his surroundings in blessed silence.

He did many things.  But he did not whine.

After more than an hour of exploration, we returned home for a snack, a snuggle, and a nap.  And, oh, how good it feels to look back over the past ninety minutes and realize there was no whining.

I don't know what it is about taking walks, but Trey loves to do it.  Whether he is actively engaged with his surroundings, grabbing at bushes and pointing at cars, or relaxing quietly with a dreamy expression, he is always happy.  Always cheerful.

And it is so, so good.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Gentle Books: One Hungry Baby

One Hungry Baby is a very rare type of book indeed: a rollicking, funny bedtime poem that also teaches numbers.  It's a unique, delightful change of pace from the hushed tones and muted pastels that characterize most books about going to sleep.  In fact, it's so much fun, you and your kids will want to read it all day long.

One of my favorite things about One Hungry Baby is the silly, giggly way it celebrates the classic "bedtime routine."  Having dinner, taking a bath, and snuggling up with a teddy bear are portrayed as irresistible fun for the animal babies, parents, and older siblings taking part.  As the poem progresses, more and more furry families join the party, until at last "ten good babies (are) tucked up tight."  And in a nod to the exhausting reality of parenting a little one, at the end of the book, the very "tired parents (wave) goodnight!"

The art in One Hungry Baby isn't exceptional, but it is funny.  The featured families are all animals engaging in human activities, and looking very silly while doing so.  The layout is simple and extremely clean, making it easy for young readers to count the babies on each page.  And who doesn't love a goofy picture of an alligator baby eating in a high chair?

One Hungry Baby is a fun, funny, and very different type of bedtime book.  I highly recommend it to any parents who want their kids to have fun getting ready for bed.

(Full disclosure - if you click the link in this post to purchase One Hungry Baby (or other items), from Amazon, I will receive a small payment.  If you're not comfortable with that, but still want to buy the book, please open a new browser window to make your purchases.)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Because Toddlers Are Difficult

Quiet at last
At this very second, my home is quiet and calm.  There are beans simmering on the stove, tomatoes roasting in the oven, and dough rising in the bread machine for buttery Texas toast.  The house is cool, the air is sweet, and Trey is asleep beside me, his tiny chest rising and falling in a soft staccato.  Life is good.

For the first time all day.

From the moment Trey awoke this morning, until he fell asleep after lunch, things have been chaotic-verging-on-unbearable.  He has clung to my side like a baby orangutan, intermittently arching his back into a nursing position, whining and clawing at my chest.  When I put him down, he doesn't just protest; he sobs. 

Trey's sobbing endures for as long as he is out of my arms, even as I narrate my actions and assure him that all is well.  I do what I must - brush my teeth, feed the dog, take a pot off the stove - then scoop him back up for a cuddle.  He buries himself in my neck, mewling piteously.  A few more soft whines and then suddenly, miraculously, he is content, babbling merrily in my ear.  I carry him around for a minute or two, working left-handed magic to get the dishes in the dishwasher and the laundry in the hamper.  And then he remembers he likes to nurse, thrusts himself into the breastfeeding position, and wails until I settle down to feed him.

Oh, these trying toddler days.  I am on edge from morning to night, smiling through gritted teeth, bracing myself against the manic whine that is the soundtrack of my life.  I offer books, puzzles, homemade play doh, and all of it is rejected.  I want my mommy.  I want to be held.  Nothing else matters. 

I want to scream.  All the time.

And yet when I gaze upon my son's beautiful face, relaxed in sweet repose, all I can do is smile.  All I can feel is love.  And all I can think is, "God, I'm lucky."  Because he is my baby.  My heart.  My life.  His mere existence makes me happier than I have ever been before. 

And nothing else matters.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Easy Oven Roasted Tomatoes

I love oven roasted tomatoes.  The edges are crispy, the insides are chewy, and the centers are a soft explosion of delicious flavor.  They're also healthy, easy to make, and versatile.  I add them to all kinds of recipes, whenever I want a touch of rich flavor.  Last week I served them with homemade pesto; this week, I'll be including them in a homemade vegetable soup.

Easy Oven Roasted Tomatoes

tomatoes, any variety
olive oil
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

Cut the tomatoes into large chunks.  Exactly how you do this depends on the size and shape of the fruit you're using.  Just make sure each piece contains a large, fairly flat slice of skin.

Toss the tomatoes with the olive oil.  Sprinkle them with salt and pepper to taste.  Lay them on a baking sheet, skin sides down and not touching. 

Bake at 325 degrees 2-3 hours, or until the edges are crispy and the tomatoes are browned.  (Start checking them after two hours, and every 15 minutes or so after that.) 

This recipe is proudly shared at Menu Plan Monday and What's On Your Plate?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Frugal Fridays: How I Decide What to Buy

Image credit
Yesterday, I received a free sample of Pantene hair products in the mail.  I was pretty excited, because I haven't been able to get a good deal on high quality conditioner for quite some time.  Instead, I've been using the cheap stuff, which is honestly only a tiny bit better than using nothing at all.  My hair has been tangled and dry for months.  Not exactly a crisis, but overall a rather unpleasant experience.

Using the Pantene made me feel better about myself and my hair, but it also got me thinking about the relationship between cost and value.  When bargain shopping, it's very easy to get caught up in one of two extremes.  I've met some people who never pay more for a brand-name product, even when they know first-hand that it will provide better quality.  Other folks only buy the best of everything, arguing that superior products provide superior value, even if the initial cost is higher. 

For me, choosing what to buy and how much to spend is much more complicated than just picking a philosophy and sticking with it.  Every purchase I make involves a complicated mental song-and-dance of calculation, justification, and prioritization.  Product price is only one of a myriad of deciding factors, including how much I need a particular item, how well I need it to work, and how much wiggle room I have in my budget at any given time.

Take conditioner.  Maybe I can't get a good bottle of conditioner for free, but I can get it for $3.  Meanwhile, the cheap stuff costs less than a dollar.  Is it worth it to buy the better product?  Well, that depends.  Do I really need to buy conditioner at all this week?  How much is left in the old bottle?  Can I possibly stretch it out until a better bargain comes along?  How badly do I need "good hair"?  Am I doing any major socializing in the next month, or will Donnie and Trey be the only ones looking at me?  Will I need to use so much more of the cheap stuff that I'll run through the bottle twice as fast?  How much have I already spent on personal care items this month?  Did Donnie work any overtime last week?  Am I anticipating any bills to be higher than usual?

Carefully considering these questions helps me decide just how worthwhile it is to fork over a couple extra bucks for a higher quality product.  Yes, it's a headache, but it's also a necessity.  Right now, we don't have money to burn.  I need to stretch my dollars as far as they will go, every time I go to the store.  And so I think before I buy.  I think, and think, and think, until I can't possibly think any more.  And then I decide.

And somehow we scrape by for another week.

How do you decide what to buy?  Do you always buy the cheap stuff?  Do you feel brand names offer more value?  Or do you have your own mental gymnastics routine?

For more money saving tips, visit Life as Mom.     

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Ask The Gentle Mom: Teaching Toddlers

Learning about the rainforest at the National Aquarium in Baltimore
I liked your post on home education, but I have a question.  What are you doing now to get your son ready for homeschool?  Do you use flashcards, the baby reading programs, Baby Einstein?  -Luci

Thank you so much for writing, Luci!  I'm glad you enjoyed my post on different homeschool philosophies.  And I'm really happy you asked this question, because it's something I've been meaning to address for quite some time on this blog.

We don't use any formal instructional programs with Trey.  But that doesn't mean he isn't learning!  We use a variety of different toys and activities to help teach him new things and prepare him for school. 

Books, books, books.  Studies show that reading just three picture books a week gives kids a huge advantage in developing language skills.  But that isn't why we read between ten and fifteen books a day - we do it because we want Trey to learn that books are fun!  So far, our strategy seems to be working.  Trey loves being read to, and has even started requesting his favorites over and over again.  He also "reads" aloud to us, and even spends time sitting quietly with his books, turning the pages and looking at pictures. 

Puzzles.  At fourteen-months-old, Trey can only complete very simple puzzles, but he loves doing it - and we love how much he learns from the experience.  Putting puzzles together helps children develop eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills.  It teaches them to match shapes and colors.  Plus, the entire process encourages problem solving and logical thinking.

Counting.  Children who are exposed to numbers from an early age generally have an easier time acquiring math skills.  The good news is, its easy and fun to teach toddlers about numbers.  We count fingers and toes, sing songs about numbers, and read lots of counting books. 

Music.  We sing a LOT in our house.  We also listen to good music (not all of it specifically geared towards kids) and play with instruments from around the world.  Trey thinks it's all fun and games, but it's actually helping him develop his memory skills and his attention span.

Time outside.  Trey and I take "nature walks" every day.  We also spend time at the playground, the zoo, and my mom's backyard.  Not only does he enjoy much-needed fresh air and sunshine, but he also learns about the world around us.  We talk about the temperature ("Boy, is it hot today!"), the time ("It's getting darker now because it's after eight o'clock"), and the general environment ("Look at those pretty red flowers!")  Plus, he's learning to love spending physically active time outside, which is so vital for his future health and well-being.

Cultural and recreational experiences.  Donnie and I love taking Trey on all sorts of adventures.  In his short life he's been to three different zoos, the beach, several baseball games, a historical village, a pumpkin patch, the apple orchard, the aquarium, and Sesame Place - to name just a few!  He's ridden a pony, watched a parade, touched a manta ray, and splashed in the ocean.  And every time he engages in one of these activities, he learns a little bit more about the big, wide world around him.
Donnie's and my ultimate goal is simple: for Trey to have a fun, enriching childhood, filled with interesting life experiences.  As we go about the business of making that happen, we're also preparing him for more formal education down the road.  Plus, we're all having a great time, together.

Do you favor formal or informal education for toddlers?  What are your favorite toys and activities for little ones?  How do you teach your kids to love learning?     

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Gentle Books: Come Over to My House

Come Over to My House is not a perfect book - but it is a good one.  Even more importantly, its very imperfections are a huge part of what make it worth reading.

The author of Come Over to My House is Theo LeSieg (aka, Dr. Seuss), so it goes without saying that the writing style is nearly perfect.  The content is a bit more problematic.  The overall message is a good one: that children the world over can be friends in spite of their differences.  Unfortunately, many of the examples used to illustrate this fact are rife with well-intentioned stereotypes and cheerful misrepresentations of diverse cultures. 

The art in Come Over to My House presents a similar dilemma.  The illustrator's purpose was clearly to depict children of various nationalities in a friendly, appealing light.  However, his pictures occasionally cross the line into "unintentionally offensive" territory.  The portrayal of non-Western children, half-naked and bedecked in feathers, is particularly discomfiting.

And yet I cannot help but recommend Come Over to My House.  The rhyming text is unsurprisingly superb, and the theme of universal friendship is an important one.  Even better, the book's many flaws create a perfect opportunity to discuss ignorance, prejudice, and stereotypes with preschool-aged kids.  I think it would be particularly interesting to read this work alongside books that portray non-Western cultures thoughtfully and accurately, then discuss the differences between the two.

Have you read Come Over to My House?  Do you think it's an appropriate book to discuss with preschoolers?  Or is it simply too flawed in its portrayal of non-Western children?  Is there value in exposing kids to stereotypes, as long as we deconstruct them?  Or is it best to steer clear of works that misrepresent different cultures?  I really would love to hear your thoughts on this topic!   

(Full disclosure - if you click the link in this post to purchase Come Over to My House (or other items), from Amazon, I will receive a small payment.  If you're not comfortable with that, but still want to buy the book, please open a new browser window to make your purchases.)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The New Florida Welfare Law Hurts Children

Over the past few days, my personal Facebook page has been lighting up with discussion of a new Florida law requiring all welfare recipients to undergo drug testing.  People feel pretty passionately about this legislation, and so do I.  So much so, that I simply must address it on this blog, even if it is a tiny bit off-topic. 

I do not support this law.  The people who will suffer most from its enforcement are the children of drug addicts, kids who are currently fed and clothed by the welfare system.  And let me stop you before you tell me how substance abusers sell their benefits to buy drugs, how their children never see a dime of the welfare money that's supposed to help them.  Because it simply isn't true.  I know quite a few people whose parents were addicted to drugs, but still managed to put food on the table - thanks to welfare.  If these people had been denied assistance because of their drug habits, their children would have starved. 

Some would argue that, while it's a shame these kids won't be able to eat, it's still more important to "do something" about rampant welfare abuse in this country.  I disagree.  From a purely human standpoint, it's wrong to withold aid from those who need it most, including drug users.  And it doesn't make good economic sense, either.

Assistance to needy families makes up an infinitesimally tiny portion of government spending, at the federal, state, and local level.  Our economy is far more crippled by irresponsible programs like farm subsidies, corporate welfare policies, tax cuts for the rich, and an out-of-control defense budget.  Changing those laws would have a far greater impact on the federal deficit, without hurting people who are already barely scraping by. 

I don't have much more to say on the topic.  The Florida welfare law hurts kids; therefore, I am against it.  It really is as simple as that.  I will never support legislation that sacrifices children's well-being at the altar of "fiscal responsibility." 

And to those who would: shame on you.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Baby Cereal Banana Muffins

These scrumptious muffins are moist, flavorful, and relatively nutritious.  This recipe is a great way to use any baby cereal you still have on hand after your toddler transitions to finger foods.  For best results, choose bananas whose peel has turned completely black.

Baby Cereal Banana Muffins

1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup baby cereal
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1/3 cup butter, melted
3/4 cup white sugar
3 very ripe bananas
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

In a large bowl, mix together the flours, cereal, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and ginger.  Set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk the sugar into the melted butter.  Stir in the banana, vanilla, and egg. 

Stir the banana mixture into the dry ingredients until just combined.  Fold in the chocolate chips.  Divide evenly among 12 greased or paper-lined muffin tins.  Bake at 375 degrees for 18-20 minutes, or until golden.

This recipe is proudly shared at Menu Plan Monday and What's On Your Plate?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Frugal Fridays: Homemade Convenience Foods

Another drawback to cooking from scratch: a perpetually messy kitchen!
As most of you know, I cook and bake everything we eat from scratch.  I firmly believe it's the healthiest, tastiest, most frugal way to feed my family, but there's a HUGE downside: it's not very convenient.

Last Wednesday, we needed to take Trey to the pediatrician at a moment's notice.  As a result, I wasn't able to make the meal I had planned for that night - roast turkey and mashed sweet potatoes - and I didn't have any "quick" foods in the house.  The only ingredients in my fridge were for the equally time-consuming meals I had planned for Thursday and Friday night's dinners.  We were stuck.  We ordered pizza.

I was pretty frustrated with myself for not being better prepared.  Even worse, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this happens far too frequently for my taste: I plan an elaborate menu for the week, then something comes up, and we end up ordering takeout.

I realized I needed a plan.  I didn't want to buy frozen meals or cans of soup, even for "emergency" meals - they're full of artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, and chemicals.  Instead, I decided to start stocking my freezer with healthy, homemade convenience foods.

This weekend, I'll be making 24 burritos for the freezer: eight with black beans and sweet potatoes, eight with ground turkey and refried beans, eight with a mixture of refried beans, black beans, and cheese.  That will give me twelve "instant meals" to be eaten the next time my regularly scheduled menu plan falls through (we usually have sour cream, salsa, and fresh fruit or veggies on hand, to make it a "real" dinner).

Over the next few weekends, I'm going to spend at least a few hours cooking and freezing other foods that just need to be heated and served.  I'm thinking of doing English muffin pizzas, quesadillas, baked pasta casseroles, and maybe even single servings of homemade soup.  Having these quick and easy meals on-hand should eliminate the need to order takeout almost entirely.

I'm pretty excited about  my plan, and I look forward to sharing the results on this blog.  Hopefully, I'll soon have a nice stash of "frozen dinners," ready to be eaten at a moment's notice.

Do you cook for the freezer?  Do you buy prepared convenience foods?  Or do you just get takeout when there's no time to cook?  Are you happy with your decision?

For more money saving tips, visit Life as Mom.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Ask The Gentle Mom: Choosing a Homeschooling Philosophy

I'm so happy Trey loves books!
I know you plan to homeschool your son.  What method are you going to use?  We're researching homeschooling now, and there are so many different philosophies.  It's completely overwhelming.  -Sarabeth

Hi, Sarabeth!  Yes, I agree, selecting a homeschool method can be daunting.  There are so many options to choose from, and they all seem to have different strengths and weaknesses.

I'm not fully committed to any one homeschooling philosophy at this time, and I doubt I ever will be.  I'm drawn to different aspects of different educational approaches, and I hope to incorporate many of them into Trey's curriculum.

I've been drawn to Classical Education models since I first considered homeschooling, many years ago.  I believe young children require rigorous, challenging, systematic educational experiences to cultivate their critical thinking skills.  Phonics instruction, mathematical drills, and memorization of facts all play an important role in teaching children to use their minds methodically and logically.  And the Classical Education Trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric makes perfect sense to me.  I doubt there's a better way to understand important material than to gather facts about it (What happened?), then study it from an analytical perspective (Why did it happen?), then finally develop arguments and draw conclusions about it (Why did it matter?)

But I also think hours of classroom-style instruction can be too much for young children.  I agree with Charlotte Mason practitioners who believe kids should be exposed to quality literature, spend lots of time outdoors, and engage in character-building activities.  I'm also quite fond of the Waldorf philosophy, which teaches that young children learn best through experience: exploring their environment independently, helping their parents around the house, and playing with simple toys.

And, finally, the libertarian hippy in me loves the idea of unschooling, or allowing kids to direct their own education. Unschooling gives children time to think, dream, learn and play without adult interference.  I do believe that children placed in charge of their own education will usually rise to the occasion - that treating them like responsible young people will inspire them to actually become responsible young people.  And there's something truly wonderful about the idea of a child studying something not because he must, but because he wants to - because it's his passion.

So keeping all this in mind, I have a very specific vision for our homeschool life.  I plan to spend part of each day on formal instruction - structured, language-based lessons in traditional school subjects.  We'll follow those up with lots of free play, both indoors and out, and time spent reading for pleasure.  Finally, we'll tackle thematic activities that reinforce the topics we're studying, such as science experiments and cooking projects.  In the evenings, we'll relax, play games, watch good movies, read together, or do other family activities.  On the weekends, we'll take advantage of the cultural opportunities available to us in the city of Philadelphia, by going on lots of field trips.

Naturally, none of this is set in stone.  My plan will certainly change based on Trey's learning style, temperament, and personal preferences.  I can already tell that he's not much of a morning person, making me wonder if we shouldn't do the more mentally taxing work in the afternoons (but of course I have no way of knowing until we actually try!)  My goal isn't to stick with any set curriculum, but to find what works best for our family, then make it happen every day.

Home education is a daunting task, but I believe almost anyone can do it, and do it well.  Choosing a homeschool method is an important step on your teaching journey, but it's not the be-all and end-all.  You get as many do-overs as you need, I promise.  Just listen to your kids, do your research, and don't be afraid to think outside the box.  And don't forget to have fun!

Do you homeschool?  How did you choose a curriculum?  Have you stuck with your initial plans, or have things changed along the way?  Sarabeth and I (plus any other homeschool newbies reading along!) would love to hear any home education tips you can share!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Gentle Books: How Are You Peeling?

How Are You Peeling?: Foods with Moods is one of the most unusual children's books I've ever encountered - which is probably why I love it!  This delightfully different drama will fascinate, inspire, and amuse kids of all ages, including those who've outgrown traditional picture books.

How Are You Peeling? is a tale of emotions.  The simple, rhymed text encourages kids to talk about their feelings in a variety of situations, many of which are not typically addressed in children's books.  But the story is only half the story of this unique work.

How Are You Peeling? features some of the most wonderfully strange art I've ever seen.  The text is illustrated with photographs of produce carved to look like human faces.  And, as unlikely as it may seem, the fruits and veggies in this book are some of the most expressive characters you'll ever meet.

Little ones will laugh out loud at the grumpy grapefruit, shy cantaloupe, jealous tomato, and dozens of other playfully emotive pieces of produce.  Older kids will be inspired to create their own "Foods with Moods," making How Are You Peeling? the perfect book to beat the summer blahs.  And parents will love reading a story that not only entertains, but also engages children in a thoughtful discussion of human emotions.

How Are You Peeling? is everything a parent could want: an amazing work of literature that can be used as a jumping off point for both important discussions and engrossing craft projects.  This warm, funny, fabulous book should be on every family's summer reading list. 

(Full disclosure - if you click the link in this post to purchase How Are You Peeling? (or other items), from Amazon, I will receive a small payment.  If you're not comfortable with that, but still want to buy the book, please open a new browser window to make your purchases.)
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