Tuesday, November 11, 2014

My six-year-old is in charge of Mother Earth

My ears perked up when Clara came home from a kindergarten science class last year with the proud and earnest proclamation, "Guess what, Mama? I'm in charge of Mother Earth."

Clara comes from a long line of environmentalists, people who took care of the earth even before the term environmentalist was in vogue. 

For generations, members of my family worked the earth as farmers even as recently as my paternal grandmother's family, working a small farm in a small town in Illinois. While other members of our family didn't farm for a living, nearly everyone in the family kept a vegetable garden. They kept connected to the earth.

In high school, my sister was the president of the Environmental Club, and I was the vice-president. We were activists, changing school policy about frog dissection, organizing a city-wide Earth Day festival, educating others about factory farming, and at times probably too self-righteously advocating to others about the benefits of vegetarianism. 

One of my most memorable protests was picketing outside of a McDonald's urging passing cars to "honk for a McVeggie burger." Looking back on that high school photo, I think the short shorts my classmate and I were wearing might have been provoking more honks than our cause.

I admit with some sadness and regret that as an adult I never learned to set up a vegetable garden of my own, and my environmentalist activist days of high school seem far in the past. The closest connection I have to the environment these days is taking long walks through the woods and supporting a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) where we get farm vegetables once a week.

I am happy that Clara has a sense of urgency and caring for the environment even if the nudge in that direction came initially from school rather than home. 

Over this past summer, we explored Clara's interest in caring for Mother Earth in a few ways:

1. We started an herb garden. In the spring, we bought basil, thyme, and rosemary and planted it in a small container outdoors. We watched the herbs grow abundantly, using them occasionally in our cooking but mostly enjoying their exuberant smells. Inside, Clara planted a basil plant from seed that has grown steadily much to her delight.

2. After seven years of being a member of the CSA, and never actually seeing the farm, we finally visited the farm for garlic harvest day. We had a great time getting our hands dirty and seeing the beautiful land where our vegetables come from. 

Our experience at the farm indicated that Clara may be prone more towards entomology than gardening. She picked a few garlic bulbs, but she spent the majority of her day collecting worms and keeping them moist and happy in a pile of dirt!

3. Clara joined a camp called "It IS easy being green" where she learned about composting and growing things. One of her favorite activities was making pickles out of cucumbers.

4. I finally got Clara to join me for walks in the woods. I enticed her with descriptions of the wildlife we would find. However, this was a bit of a gamble on my part since many times I don't see much beyond a sparrow or squirrel. I felt a sense of victory when in our most recent journey, we spotted almost a dozen frogs, a snake, many friendly dragonflies, and a monarch butterfly.

How many frogs do you see?

We still have a long way to go to being the environmental family I dream we can be. I would like to grow an actual vegetable garden rather than just herbs. I would like to compost and keep our waste at a minimum. However, last summer did feel like a step in the right direction of re-connecting with Mother Earth.

I am proud to be the mama of a six-year-old who feels she is in charge of Mother Earth. Her enthusiasm is helping me to feel hope for the future of our planet and to re-energize the teenager environmentalist in me.


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Halloween Party

This past Sunday, we hosted our big Halloween bash. We had our first Halloween party when Lila was a little too young to go trick or treating. Since then it has become an annual tradition. It can be a lot of work, but knowing that Lila and her friends have a blast makes it all worth it. After 6 years of hosting, I think we got it down to a science. (Although this year the grilled cheese caught on fire, it was a minor hiccup that added to the chaotic excitement!) Here are a few highlights that may offer some "tricks and treats" for hosting a Halloween bash for kids.

Sarah, Clara, Elisa, and Lila-- ready to party!
If you really want those snacks, you have to get passed the giant spider.
Don't get caught in her web!
FOOD: The autumn season, for me, means hearty comfort food. Our lunch menu included chili, wings, rice, beans, grilled cheese, corn bread, and salad. We had a few Halloween-inspired snacks such as monster green guacamole and black tortilla chips, eyeball deviled eggs (use a sliced olive as the eye), and jack-o-lantern clementines with black grapes.

Decorate clementines with a marker to look like jack-o-lanterns.

PARTY GAMES & ACTIVITIES: Each table was stocked with Halloween crafts that included crayons, construction paper, stickers, coloring pages, activity books, and DIY Halloween decorations. The kids mostly enjoyed running around and playing with the balloons and hula hoops, but we also had a few organized games. 
  • Pin the heart on the skeleton: This is the same concept as pin the tail on the donkey. (Supplies needed: a large cut out skeleton, paper hearts, a blind fold.)
  • Donuts on a string: Children try to eat a donut on a string without using their hands. Whoever eats the entire donut without it falling on the floor wins. (Supplies needed: small donuts, string, a long pole or broom stick.)
  • Mummy wrap: The team that wraps their mummy the quickest wins! (Supplies needed: toilet paper or white streamers.)

Clara as a mummy.
Halloween crafts.
DESSERT: After the games, the kids settled down to watch a movie (It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown). This always gives us time to clean up lunch and put out the desserts. The spread included: pumpkin pie, sugar cookies, donuts, Halloween cupcakes, apples and caramel, and lots of Halloween candy, of course.

Apples and caramel are a classic Halloween treat.
Sugar cookies in Halloween shapes.
Worms in dirt and eyeball cupcakes.
The best part of Halloween is definitely enjoying the treats!


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"What did you say?": The Selective Hearing of Children

Clara's selective hearing:

Nearly every morning, there are a series of seemingly simple tasks that I ask Clara to complete: get dressed, eat breakfast, brush your hair, put on a headband, brush your teeth, and put on your shoes. 

Yet, somehow, nearly every morning, despite multiple reminders, with just five minutes left before we are late for school, one or sometimes all of these six tasks have not been completed.

Those remaining five minutes often become increasingly stressful, and I feel like some monolithic mom barking out orders. With little time left, the earlier requests that began with pleases and thank you's instead turn into "HAIR! HEADBAND! SHOES!" and sometimes details like brushing her teeth get dropped along the way and breakfast becomes toast in the car instead of a sit-down breakfast.

I would love for these mornings to feel more relaxing, and I would love to feel that I could communicate effectively rather than giving a bazillion reminders escalating in cavewoman talk.

What the experts suggest:

I did some Internet searches to see what other parenting experts recommend about selective hearing and getting children to listen.

1. I found the "Never Ask Twice" method by Noël Janis-Norton. The recommendation here is to stop what you are doing as the parent and basically stand next to the child until what you ask is completed. This method seems promising on a lazy weekend day, but on a busy workday morning, I, too, am struggling to get ready in time, and the idea of standing next to Clara while she completes each of her morning tasks feels like it would be too frustrating.

2. Another parenting expert, Jane Nelson, author of "Positive Discipline, suggests that the issue is that parents don't listen enough to their children, that they talk too much and tell them what to do instead of teaching the child to understand what to do. Again, the recommendation here takes extra time, but it seems to get to the core issue in a better way. Nelsen suggests that instead of saying, "put on your shoes", you instead ask, "What else do you need to have on before you go outside?" This method empowers the child to be thoughtful and responsible for herself. I think I will give this one a try.

My selective hearing: 

I have to admit that this topic of selective hearing hits a chord very close to home. When I was exactly Clara's age I pretended to not be able to hear for several months-- literally.
A photo of me when I was about Clara's age... at the time of my "hearing loss."

“Ellyn, it’s time to set the table,”… my six-year-old self heard these words coming out of my mother’s mouth, but I chose to ignore them. I was playing outside, and I wanted to keep playing outside.
When I returned later to the kitchen, my mom asked with an exasperated tone why I had not come inside when she had called me more than five times.

I weighed my options internally. I could say that I didn’t want to come inside because I was playing and didn't want to come inside. That didn’t seem like a good option. Or, I thought, with a certain amount of pride at the brilliance of my idea, I could say I did not hear her.
I was typically an obsessively honest child. I apologized if I said even a white lie. Given my truthful track record, my mom took my statement at face value and immediately became concerned about my hearing.

After a week of exhibiting my hearing loss at home, there happened to be the once per year routine hearing tests given at my school. I failed the hearing test at school, and my parents took me to a professional audiologist for more tests.

I went to another doctor, and another doctor. The test results were all over the place, and they were having trouble isolating my problem. Eventually, one of the audiologists, who happened to be a member of my church, put together the pieces and recognized what was happening.

I remember the audiologist kneeling down to my level and saying, "Ellyn, I know you can hear."

My ruse was up! She told my parents. We had just moved to a new house in a new state, and in retrospect, it seems that my actions were an attempt to get attention during a stressful time.

I guess I should be grateful that Clara has yet to make up any chronic health problems to get my attention. For now, I just have to work through the day-to-day stuff about how to communicate so that she will listen. 

Like Jane Nelsen suggests, I think every kid (and even every adult) wants to be listened to, and so I'm hopeful that one key to resolving Clara's selective hearing is for me to be more open to not just hearing Clara, but really listening to her. 


Thursday, October 9, 2014

Making time for Mama

Anyone who has been reading our blog for a while knows the gist: we are four moms who write about our "milestones, moments, and mishaps" as we raise our four vivacious daughters. Our entries tend to focus on the adventures of our fabulous four but behind all of the stories we share about them, there is US. We began our journey as new, inexperienced moms and over a short time we've developed a bond in supporting one another "as we go along." While our little girls have played, explored, giggled, and become BFFs, we have talked, vented, laughed, and developed our own sisterhood out of the shared experience of motherhood.

Being a mom is hard work. The hardest job I've had by far. Each time I think I've gotten over the learning curve, things switch up and I find myself trying to figure out the next stage and phase. It's exciting and I love experiencing each new development. However, at times it can be exhausting! When I think about what has kept me sane, it has mostly been the support of the wonderful women behind the blog: Ellyn, Annabelle, and Lisa.

Ellyn and I have supported each other's art and writing, by setting aside "artist dates." One of us will take the girls, while the other gets to have 2-3 hours of uninterrupted creative time for whatever project we are working on. Without this, my artistic interests would surely be neglected instead of nourished. It's a win-win-- the girls get to have a fun play date and we can totally indulge in "me" time without feeling guilty.

We celebrate each other's birthdays. Sometimes because of busy schedules it's a month after the fact, but we always eventually find a time to go out for a birthday dinner. We spend so much time and effort planning creatively themed birthday bashes for our little ones, why not set aside a night here and there to celebrate each other? Birthdays are the perfect excuse for a girls' night out. It's just the mamas while the little girls have daddy-daughter time at home.

We are each other's babysitters when needed. Days I've had to work when school is closed, both Lisa and Annabelle have been so generous to have Lila over for all day play dates. (I still owe you...You have childcare credits in the bank with me!) Ellyn and I have exchanged childcare so that we can have date nights with the hubbies. Clara and Lila are always thrilled with this arrangement because they get to have a sleepover!

Play dates are for the little girls and the big girls too. When we can, usually at the end of a busy week, we get together for dinner and a play date. Our girls play so nicely together that, while they run off, we get a moment to relax, eat, and chat.

I'm so thankful that our daughters' friendship has brought us together. Here's to more good times... as we go along. Cheers!


Friday, October 3, 2014

What's in Lila's Lunchbox? Healthy school lunches

Lila loves school. The school lunches, not so much. When a child has an aversion to cheese, you realize just how many "kids' meals" are made with cheese. At a glance, in a given week, the lunch menu consists of grilled cheese, mac and cheese, cheese burgers, cheese quesadillas, and cheese pizza. On the rare days that a non-cheese option is served, Lila still has difficulty stomaching items such as fried chicken fingers or corn dogs. But, it's not just school lunches. Most restaurant kids' meals consist of the same cheesy menu items. Lila, who since 3 years old has been wanting to be a chef when she grows up, has always rejected the kids' meal option. You can't take Lila out to dinner and expect she will be content with the $5.99 kids' burger, fries, and soft drink. She'll have what you're having. And why not?

My husband and I like to take credit for her healthy habits and wide-ranging palate, but we realize that we did luck out with Lila. We know parents who struggle with picky eaters despite their best efforts of exposing their children to a variety of healthy foods. However, a problem does exist in our country that the typical kids' food is fast food. We truly need a revolution to change the food that is being marketed and offered to our kids. Two moms started Revolution Foods "to transform the way America eats by providing access to healthy, affordable meals to schools." Fed up with lunch, children's food activists are popping up all over-- Mrs. Q, a teacher at an urban school, ate the school lunch with her students every day and documented it to show the reality of what makes up the majority of our kids' diets. I noticed a refreshing effort on our school's latest menu, highlighting that they are offering fresh, local fruit and veggies. YAY!

At a parent's night at school, a mom came up to me and said "I just love the lunches you pack for Lila." So, echoing Ellyn's school lunch post from 2012 (which gave great examples of colorful, healthy lunches), I thought I'd give a peak of what's in Lila's lunchbox. Perhaps it can provide some helpful examples of healthy options outside of the kids' meal norm.

As far as it being cheaper to order the kids' meal (which I often hear), each of the lunches below are made with mostly organic ingredients and are between $4.00-$8.00!

Happy eating! -Tara

Hard Boiled Egg Whites, Organic Peach,
Garden Salad made from Local Ingredients, Triscuit Crackers 

Organic Black Beans, Star Fruit, Stone Ground Corn Tortilla Chips,
Olives, Locally Grown Tomato and Green Peppers.
Organic Yogurt, Graham Crackers, Local Raw Veggies, Organic Blueberries
Brown Rice Cucumber Rolls, Local Raw Veggies, Roasted Seaweed Snack,
Unsweetened Pear Sauce, Miso Soup
Turkey Chili, Stone Ground Tortilla Chips, Oranges, and
Locally Grown Raw Cauliflower.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

First Day of First Grade

There's nothing like the first day of school. Everything is fresh and new and there is so much excitement that goes along with stepping up to the next grade. Here they are: Elisa, Lila, Clara and Sarah on their first day of first grade. Our girls are growing up so quickly! Check out last year's post to see just how much they've grown.

Here's to a fabulous year in first grade!

-Tara, Ellyn, Lisa, & Annabelle

Elisa: loving her new classroom.

Lila: a yummy, healthy lunch is one of the best parts of the school day.

Clara: with a bright smile for her first day!

Sarah: stylin' and ready to take the bus to school.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Shopping healthy on a budget

A few months ago, I decided to give couponing a try. Although I haven't gone "extreme" (yet) I am proud to say that I have been able to stock up on some extremely good deals. I think I've gotten into a good rhythm, with a simple organized system that doesn't consume all my time-- I spend about an hour each week clipping coupons and planning out my shopping trips. The result has been well-stocked shelves of paper goods, laundry detergent, shower gels etc. for about 80% off the retail price. I've also walked into the store twice and paid entirely with coupons for a bag of products. Pretty cool!

I will admit that a good majority of the coupons in the circulars go untouched. The reality is that there is a lot of junk that you could buy for pennies (but that you will pay for with your health). So, the big question is "How can one shop healthy (better yet, organic) on a coupon budget?" There is a misconception that you have pay more for quality food. Well, we have some great tips for buying good food for less.

Annabelle: Elisa is an eater (just like her momma) and I can't really fault her for being hungry constantly but it does get expensive!  These days, I've been getting quite friendly with the grocers in my area...visiting them 3-4 times a week at least.  What else can I do when two boxes of strawberries disappear in under three days or when I find an empty cereal box in two days? One might think I'm feeding a small country but it's just my 6 year old girl!

Inspired by Lisa's ability to keep her weekly grocery budget to $100 a week, Ellyn's commitment to serving her daughter only organic foods, and Tara's passion for couponing, I decided to reevaluate my grocery store approach. I'm quite talented at clothes shopping and finding a great bargain but never really paid attention to the cost of food since I figured we all have to eat right?! There had to be a way to find reasonably priced organic produce/foods while not having to take out a loan for the summer months.  Mrs. Green's, while usually astronomically priced for me, sells only organic produce and they tend to have great sales.  I've been keeping my eyes open for their circulars and I've found that for almost the entire month of July and into August, their strawberries have been priced at $3.99 which I think is really great.  Also blueberries, raspberries, grape tomatoes, grapes, plums, salad clamshells are often listed on sale. So, I've been stocking up! Another plus is if you sign up for their free rewards card, you get $5 towards free produce that will be applied to your account in about a week.  And then you get $5 in rewards when you accumulate points from purchases.  Their receipts will also have coupons on the back and on certain days, they will take 10% off for customer appreciation days.  Another budget breaker, Whole Foods, will often run sales as well. They also have special one day sales that they will advertise during the week for the coming Friday so make sure to sign up for email alerts. Additionally, you can print online coupons from their site.

Ellyn: Clara likes portable applesauce, and so for years, I purchased "Crushers" from Trader's Joe. These are great for on-the-road trips and easy to eat with no utensils. A visit from my environmentalist sister this summer taught me that apples are one of the most pesticide-heavy foods. This made me uneasy since Crushers are made with non-organic apples. I started looking for an organic solution and noticed that on the shelf right next to the Crushers that cost $2.99 was a pack of organic applesauce containers that cost $1.99. The amount of applesauce in the containers is significantly more than the Crushers so it feels like a win in savings, quality, and quantity.

Tara: One of the biggest money savers for our family was becoming members a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Technically, my mom is the member and splits the farm share with us. (Thanks, Mom!) For about $15 a week, you can get a generous amount of organic veggies—kale, collard greens, corn, beets, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes etc. Since we make green smoothies every day, nothing goes to waste. We put stems, wilted greens, and bruised fruit in the blender for a healthy drink to start the day.

I am also a member of the online “Driscoll Advisory Panel” (sounds really important, right?). Basically, every time I buy a Driscoll product (strawberries, blueberries etc.), I complete a quick online survey. For my time (about 1 minute) I get a coupon for my next purchase. I then stack the coupon with other store promotions and take home fresh berries at a deeply discounted price. For example, I have stocked up on packages of strawberries for $1.20 each!

Many of my family’s favorite healthy brands, like Kashi, Applegate, Chobani, and Stonyfield, will send me coupons on a regular basis since I am signed up for their e-newsletters and promotions. You can also print coupons from their websites and/or Facebook pages. Following the main rule of “couponing 101,”of course, wait until the product is on sale to maximize the deal!

Happy (and healthy) shopping!

-Tara, Annabelle, & Ellyn

Monday, August 4, 2014

We of the rosy cheeks

I looked at all of the kindergarten self-portraits on display, looking eagerly for my daughter's artwork. Quickly, I scanned past the brunettes and the redhead, my eyes moving back and forth amongst the blondes to see which one was Clara's.

I immediately blushed when I saw the identifying factor which definitively differentiated Clara's portrait from the others: two rosy red cheeks. "My name is Clara and I like cupcakes," she wrote underneath her artwork. 

Clara does not have particularly rosy red cheeks, and yet her artwork throughout the year was consistently punctuated by those same two unmistakable rosy cheeks.

I didn't have to look very far to realize why she identifies so strongly with red cheeks. I have rosacea.

What is rosacea?
Rosacea is a skin condition that causes redness of the face. It is common for people with light skin of European and Irish descent. About 14 million people have it, even well-known people like Bill Clinton and Prince Charles, and actresses such as Cynthia Nixon. 

Rosacea and me
No matter how many famous people I know who have it, having rosacea is embarrassing to me. My regular skin tone is pale and pink, but anytime I have an uncomfortable thought, my face broadcasts my discomfort with a blush ranging from flamingo pink to firehouse red. I feel exposed, like my emotions are constantly on display even though I am a very private person. 

Staring at my daughter's artwork so clearly displaying one of my most uncomfortable physical traits was quite a blush-worthy moment.

Finding beauty through my daughter's art
The final art project of Clara's school year was to make a "moveable me portrait" that featured life-size hands and feet. Clara worked hard to mix paints to match her exact skin tone. This project took weeks. I was excited to see the final artwork.

By this point in the year, I was not surprised to see the predictable rosy circles prominently attached to Clara's cheeks on her "movable me".

Clara could hardly wait to show me the project and how the arms and legs moved.

"Do you know what my favorite part of my movable me is, Mama?" Clara asked.

"No, what...?" I thought she might mention the details she put into the patchwork shirt and skirt or how each part could move individually.

Clara said, "My favorite part is... the rosy cheeks."


I lost my breath for a moment. How was it that the physical feature I dislike most became my daughter's favorite?

My daughter may indeed have rosy cheeks like her mama when she is a grown-up. Rosacea has a hereditary component although how it is passed down is not exactly known. It usually manifests after the age of 30 so she has a while to find out.

For now, even though Clara does not have my rosy cheeks, she sees what I view as an imperfection as a sign of beauty, as a mark of our tribe. 

I strive to cultivate the sense of acceptance she so clearly demonstrates in her artwork. And yes, I admit, Clara's rosy view of herself (and me) makes me blush with pride.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Top 10: Fun (almost free) things to do on staycation (Part 2)

Last summer, I wrote about this same topic—Top 10 (low cost) things to do on staycation. Well, I just recently had another glorious two weeks off with Lila. We, once again, had no fancy vacation plans, but we had the absolute best time together. Here are some highlights and suggestions for easy, fun and (practically) free things to do on staycation!

10) Outdoor public art. On our first day of staycation, we had absolutely nothing planned (exactly the way I like it). It was beautiful day, so we decided to just go for a stroll. On our walk, we made it our mission to take a pic on each and every painted bench, which is this summer's public art display in our city. We had a blast being silly and taking selfies! You can likely find outdoor public art exhibits own your town's or city's website such as "Art in the Parks" in NYC.

9) Art classes at Michaels Crafts. This summer, Michaels Crafts is hosting a series of children's art classes, Passport to Imagination, that correspond with museum exhibits across the US– including The Field Museum, the Georgia Aquarium, the Denver Art Museum and the Fashion Institute of Technology. Kids can participate in arts and craft sessions every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Michaels stores for just $2! Lila took a class each week (one with Clara and one with Elisa) while the moms had some much-needed "mommy time" over coffee/tea.

8) Beach time. No vacation (or staycation) would be complete without a day at the beach. We spent plenty of time relaxing with the summer essentials- sun, sand, and water. We are fortunate that Grandma has a condo at the beach.

7) Backyard fun. We had some HOT days this June. Phew! The type that drain you if you just try to walk for a few minutes. We don't have our own pool and our local Y was packed with summer campers (which means no family swim hours- Boo!), so what is there to do to stay cool??? The sprinkler! Yes!!!! Guaranteed to make any little one squeal with excitement, the sprinkler is easy, instant fun. And I have no shame running around in my bathing suit and acting a fool in my own backyard when it means lots of mommy-daughter giggles.
6) Play dates. The summer is the perfect time to get together with friends we don't see as often as we would like. Although we tried to stay unscheduled for the most part, we definitely wanted to get some long overdue play dates on the calendar. We are blessed to have great friends (old and new) and it was nice to spend some time catching up.
5) Free summer movies. I mentioned this in my previous post, but it is worth a slot on the top 10 list again this year. The summer kids movie series at Bowtie Cinemas is a staple in our staycation plans. You can catch a free movie at 10am on Tuesdays and Wednesdays throughout the summer.
4) Taco Tuesdays. We joke that Lila's favorite food is Mexican because that's what I was eating when I went into early labor. It seems she wanted to get out and join the party with some chips and salsa. Ha! Lila has coined "Taco Tuesdays" in our home to ensure that her favorite meal makes it on the menu each week, especially on staycation. Whether we are walking to our neighborhood taco joint or making tacos at home, Lila's Taco Tuesday is a hit. Check out Lila's delicious guacamole recipe. 
3) A day at the zoo. One of our best days on our staycation was going to the zoo with Annabelle and Elisa. It was so much fun to ride the monorail, carousel and a camel and to see all of the amazing animals and exhibits.  Our favorite was the butterfly garden.

2) Summer festivals. The summer season is full of many free (or low cost) festivals, fairs, carnivals, and outdoor concerts. We enjoyed an arts festival in one of our neighboring cities with friends where we saw live dance and music performances, had a picnic lunch, and toured one of the art museums. Just check your local newspaper or city/town's website and you are sure to find something fun.
1) A weekend sort of away. We ended our two week break with the absolute highlight of our trip-- the lake house! Annabelle invited us, and other friends, to spend the weekend together at a gorgeous lake home. It was only an hour away, but it was just far enough to feel like a special vacation outside of our city norm. We simply relaxed-- ordered in, cooked out, made s'mores, chilled at the beach, enjoyed the water view, and experienced a breathtaking fireworks show on the dock. It was an amazing finale to our lovely time together.

It was difficult to go back to our routine and Lila and I are already looking forward to our next non-vacation/do-nothing/stay-home/chill-out/quality-time-off together.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Top 10 Tuesday: Catching onto the coupon craze (a little late is better than never)

I've always been a sucker for a good deal. Rarely do I pay full price for anything. Just ask my husband. Practically every time we go out to eat as a family, I'm pulling out a Groupon, Living Social, or Restaurant.com deal. When clothes shopping, if the shoes fit and the price is right (meaning on sale plus a coupon) I'll take 'em! The deeper the discount the higher the high. After landing a good deal, I love going home and playing the "guess how much I paid for this" game with the hubby. I think he gets a kick out of it too, even though he shakes his head and goes back to watching Sports Center.

It's amazing that it's taken me this long to try grocery store couponing.

Occasionally, I'd stumble upon episodes of "Extreme Couponing" when channel surfing. I'd watch solely because of the shock value-- to me, these women seemed a bit out of their minds. Seriously, who really needs 30 bottles of mustard (even if they are 20 cents each)!? Couponing and stock piling didn't seem much different than hoarding. Who has the room for all that stuff? And the hours these women would spend obsessing about coupons... Who has time for all that?

Not me! Like most working moms, I am always busy. I have way too much going on, too much on my mind, too much to do, and never enough time for it all. When I leave the house in the morning, I am usually frantic, forgetting something every single time: my cell phone, my lunch, that check I supposed to mail a week ago... Most days, I'm a complete mess. My husband says "just make a list." He's the king of simple solutions. This annoys the hell out of me! I don't even have time to make the list and even if I do, I'll probably forget what I was supposed to put on the list anyways. "Thanks for the suggestion, hun, but that just adds yet another thing that I have to do that I don't have time for!"

When it comes to grocery shopping, I never have a plan. I am constantly running to the store for something. I get coupons sometimes in the mail, from the supermarket, off the back of a cereal box. I usually find myself in the check out line, telling Lila for the 5th time "No, you can't have another pack of gum" shifting through my purse (another mess, reflective of my daily life) looking for that one coupon I think I have. Got it! Oh... it expired last week... Damn it!

Recently, I received an email for a free "Extreme Couponing" workshop in my city. It kind of intrigued me but I was skeptical. I registered anyways. If anything I figured I'd go for chuckles to hear about these insane grocery store hauls for dozens of paper towels and boxed mac and cheese.

It turns out that this workshop was offered with the perfect timing for me and what has been going on in my life. While I was feeling crazed and disorganized, the workshop facilitators (moms like me) had an incredible sense of control. They were the ultimate planners and, if nothing else, had at least one aspect of their lives in order-- their homes were stocked, organized, and they were saving a surprising amount of money.

I know. I know. I totally fell for the bait and hook. For the record, I did not sign up for the four subscriptions of the Sunday paper as they suggested. That, of course, was the catch. But, I did decide that I would give this couponing thing one good try and see what happens. I am totally a newbie and I don't really have this thing figured out yet. I am happy to report that I still have my sanity at the moment, but please remember this post and schedule an intervention if you see me sharing pics of my stock pile of 200 rolls of toilet paper this time next year.

So this is what I know so far...
(Disclaimer: If you are completely new to couponing, like me, these tips are for you. If you already coupon, you will read this and think "Well, duh!")

Top 10 Tips for New Couponers:

1) Be patient. When you have a coupon for something you want or need, resist the urge to use it right away. Save it until that product goes on sale, then cash it in. Seems simple enough. (Just make sure it doesn't expire). Of course, you can stock up if you have a few coupons for the same product, which is why most couponers receive multiple Sunday papers.

2) Play the matching game. Plan your shopping trip by matching available coupons to what's on sale on a given week. This sounds incredibly time consuming, which is what initially deterred me from couponing in the first place. But, lo and behold, there are sites out there that do this for you. The one that was recommended at the workshop was grocerysmarts.com. A co-worker of mine also suggested livingrichwithcoupons.com. Each week, sale products are listed and you are told where to obtain the coupons for those products. Coupon sources are generally the Sunday paper, on-line coupon sites, or manufacturer websites.

3) Organize, but don't obsess. Apparently, there is really no need to clip coupons anymore (until you actually need them). When you receive your Sunday paper (or papers, if you are going for "extreme"), pull out the inserts, skim the pages, stick 'em in a file folder and write the date on the tab. Forget about them until the time is right. Each week, when you check your go-to match up website, you will be informed of the date of which circular you need for a particular sale item.

How to read match-up lists from grocerysmarts.com. 
4) Use on-line coupons. Besides the Sunday papers, the match-up sites will also direct you to on-line coupon sites. The two that I've started with are coupons.com and savingstar.com. On coupons.com, you select the coupons you need and then print them out. You have to install their coupon printer software, which is a little cumbersome. Also, I can't help but think about the amount of paper and ink that is needed for this printing. I've been selective about what I choose to print from this site-- only those few coupons for the products I am sure that I will buy. With savingstar.com, you register your grocery and/or drug store card on their site. The coupons you select are loaded on your card. No printing! When you buy the products, you do not get the savings immediately at the register. The amount of the coupons you use are loaded into your on-line account and you can then choose to transfer the money to you bank, Paypal account, or an Amazon gift card. This is pretty cool, because it's almost like having a little savings account from the coupons you use.

5) Become familiar with your store's policies. Knowing before you go will help you to maximize your coupon savings. For example, Stop and Shop will "double coupons" everyday. Any coupon under $1.00 is doubled, so that $.75 off coupon will actually get you a $1.50 off. This, I discovered, is how couponers take home products for free. Think about if a product that is normally $2.50 is on sale this week for $1.50 and you have a coupon (which will be doubled) for $.75 off-- that means it's free! And just think if you have 4 of these coupons... Get the picture?  Here's the catch, like most stores, Stop and Shop has a limit, they will only double up to 4 of the same coupons. However, up to an additional 12 coupons will still be accepted at the regular value, so you can stock up quite a bit with significant savings.

6) Shop during off hours. My mom gave me a great tip from when she used to coupon back in the day-- she would do her shopping at midnight. You definitely don't want to shop with coupons during busy store hours i.e. weekend afternoons or right after work. Choose a time of day (or night) that's calm and quiet at the store so that you can take your time and not feel guilty about potentially holding up the line with your stack of coupons.

7) Consider shopping at more than one store. While laundry detergent might be on sale at Stop and Shop, ShopRite might have a great deal on your favorite yogurt. Make your shopping lists based on which store has the best sale on your desired products. I know what you're thinking-- you don't have to go crazy driving around to multiple stores. I chose two. One night Stop and Shop, the next night ShopRite, and then I'm done with my shopping for the week.

8) Pay attention to additional perks to maximize your savings. On my last shopping trip, I discovered that I could earn $.50 off per gallon of gas with my rewards card if I buy $15 worth of a certain brand of shampoo, conditioner, or shower gel. These products were also on sale. So, I stocked up on these shower supplies and will be filling up my gas tank very soon!

9) Do not compromise your standards. Couponing might motivate you to experiment and buy an item you've never tried before. That could be a good thing, but it is okay to have a certain degree of brand loyalty. I am sensitive to most toothpastes and am usually restricted to buying the (IMO quite pricey) toothpaste Sensodine. I was teetering on crazy for a moment when, because it was a "great deal," I bought a different brand. By the end of the week I was paying for that "great deal" when the inside of my poor mouth was inflamed and sore! Never again. Along the same lines, healthy eating is extremely important to our family. For example, we do not eat products with high fructose corn syrup. Even though a food product is on sale, if it's full of artificial ingredients, I will pass. This goes back to being patient. Eventually, the product and brand that you prefer will go on sale and, if you're just a little organized, you will have the necessary coupons to go with it. And that's when you stock up and do a happy dance!

10) Even though it's "such a great deal" does NOT mean that you need it. Shopping smart means buying only the things that you need. Again, I know I don't need 20 bottles of mustard. (Maybe I'll take two if it's a really deep deal). Buying products that you wouldn't normally buy just because they are on sale is counterproductive. You will be spending money instead of saving. My personal goal with this little project of mine is to stock up on those things that I know my family needs and that we tend to run out of often-- paper products, laundry detergent, shower gels, deodorant... To pay it forward, I might leave a coupon next to an item in the store that I don't want for someone else who does. Perhaps this will inspire another shopper to discover the potential savings of couponing!

Last night, I did my first real shopping using coupons. With just a little extra time spent on the match-up sites, I wrote out my grocery list and headed to the store with my coupons. The result? The total before coupons was approximately $222.00. After coupons, it was $130.00, about a 40% savings. Some of the deals were pretty good-- Simply Orange Juice for $ .38; Honey Nut Cheerios for $ .88; Turkey Bacon for $ .17.  I know that real "extreme couponers" wouldn't be impressed, but for me it was a great start! I just might get hooked.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Magic show party with a taste of New York

Lila's 6th birthday was truly magical. Since Lila now is a budding magician herself, we arranged a top notch magic show with performer extraordinaire, Mario the Magician! Mario, who is in high demand in the kids' party circuit, was booked over two months in advance. My husband had seen him perform before and seemed even more excited than Lila. "He's no joke! Wait 'til you see him." The excitement was quite contagious as whispered "rumors" spread rapidly around Lila's kindergarten classroom-- "Lila's getting a magician for her party!" The party was set. We all were looking forward to the big day.

One important aspect of the party was left undetermined-- what food does one serve at a magic show party? Lila's previous parties had an easy food tie-in: Dora = Taco Bar; Pirate Party = a Caribbean Feast; Cowgirl & Cowboy Ho Down = Tex Mex Grub; Magic show = ?

So, we asked Lila. Her simple response was, "My friends love two types of food-- cheesy pizza and hot dogs." Pizza was out. Too common. Hot dogs??? Perhaps a hot dog bar? That could be fun!

The idea was simmering for a while, but it wasn't until the morning of the party that the overall theme finally clicked-- New York, New York! 

It made perfect sense. Mario, who had honed his craft as a street performer, enters with a classic vintage vagabond style-- a tattered suit and top hat and an old suitcase full of tricks. Although we had a small theater room available in the apartment building, he prefers the crowd to gather around and get up close to interact and see what he's got up his sleeve.  

The room was filled with those familiar New York food truck aromas-- kabobs, giant pretzels, popcorn, and, of course, hot dogs with loads of toppings! (To be somewhat healthy, we used nitrate-free Applegate hot dogs.)

For dessert, I made "rabbit in a magic hat cupcakes." For an added New York touch, we had black and white cookies.

On orientaltrading.com, I found old fashioned carnival treat bags which we used for popcorn as well as the goody bag/party favors. The goody bags were filled with a magic tattoos, carnival stampers, and a snack. 

To keep the kids entertained before and after the show, we set up activity stations around the room which included arts and crafts, hula hooping, ring toss, and Twister (although I found the kids mostly just wanted to run around and play with the balloons).

Overall, it was the best magic show and 6th birthday party. Mario was amazing! His slap stick comedic antics, self-made creative contraptions, and many "how-did-he-do-that?!" surprises were an absolute hit! And as easily as he breezed in, in a blink he was gone, leaving behind a magical memory that Lila will never forget.