Posts Tagged ‘Entertainment’

Frugal Tips for Throwing a Fabulous Birthday Party On a Budget

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

It is hard to believe that my little guy turned nine this year!  When people told me that the years would go by quickly, I did not believe them. It has seemed though that I blinked my eyes and he has grown up. As we do each year, I look forward to celebrating him and wanted to share with you the results of another fun patriotic party that we threw to celebrate Ethan and his awesomeness.

This year’s Walmart Moms challenge was to embrace the 4th of July using supplies from their store and I hope you will love these inexpensive additions that I added to our party this year.

I am lucky to have one child who has a 4th of July party every year and one child who has a Christmas birthday.  I always pick anything that is red for these parties because I know that they will serve double duty for our birthday bashes.

I hate to waste any money on paper products and decided this year I would make an investment into napkins for outdoor party. These bandanas in navy and red were the perfect solution for outdoor entertaining and a steal for just $1. I grabbed these over in the Women’s department by the purses and accessories for women. Honestly, if you have any party theme, they had everything from zebra print, to camouflage, to hot pink designs. I picked up sixteen (a $16 investment)  of these and rolled silverware sets in each one and put them in the glasses for easy grabbing.

Last year, I got these silverware sets for very little money at the wholesale club.  They aren’t the best quality, but they work so wonderfully for occasions like this. Thrift stores also sell silverware and you can often find bags of it very inexpensively. Rolling these into sets made it easier for everyone to grab what they needed and kept the line for the food moving a little quicker. When you are serving a large group, taking an hour to get everything set up like this will really pay off!

Our burger baskets from last year are still going strong and are always a hit at parties. I found these at our local restaurant supply store ($14.99 for 12) and I purchased one package of delicatessen paper ($4.99 for 500 sheets) for my family celebrations. These are not only used for our parties, but for pretty much any cookout our family does.  I couple these with small plates for appetizers or sides that just won’t fit in the baskets and an additional plate for the dessert table. These really have paid for themselves over and over again and I love a nod to anything retro.

Tissue paper pom poms are my new favorite thing to make. I made these in shades of pink for Emily’s Barbie birthday party this year and thought it would be fun to have these on hand for our patriotic parties too.  These cost $1 in tissue paper to make (I grabbed the tissue paper over by the Hallmark displays at our Walmart store) and can all be done in about thirty minutes.

Visit this tutorial to get the scoop on how to make these.  I did the same thing as I did with that tutorial, but cut the corners to a point instead of the rounded, more feminine corners that I did for my daughter’s party. I have packed these away to be brought out for next year’s party or (minus the blue) these could be added for a Valentine’s Day celebration with the addition of one of my pink pom poms from my daughter’s party.

I love a good red, white, and blue theme, but you have to appeal to what your kids desire too. Each year I let my children pick their own cake out of my stack of cookbooks and then I ask them what character they would like to go with for the year. This year, Ethan said he wanted a Bakugan cake. I visited the  toy section of our store and found these little guys for $10 to put on top. Whatever tops the cake, doubles as part of their birthday gift so these little guys were rinsed after their cake debut, and are now performing Bakugan battles in my son’s room.

The cake itself was a melted ice cream cake created from a cake mix and a pint of the birthday boy’s favorite ice cream. Tune in on Monday for that recipe and for the homemade chocolate marshmallow ganache that frosted the top. The Wilton sprinkles were leftover from last year’s party and worked perfectly again to add a little nod to the 4th of July theme.

Last year’s star garland was hung (free), a red tablecloth that I have had for about eight years was placed on the table (free), three flags from our party two years ago were nestled in red tissue paper and a glass apothecary jar that I had in our family room (free), and a navy bandana was angled beneath the cake for to add a little bit of color to the display ($1), with the three tissue paper pom poms hung from white ribbon above ($3).

The trifle that I shared with you is a new family favorite and I couldn’t wait to make it. This glass trifle bowl was only $6.97  at the store and will be used over and over again in our house. Everyone must have had the same idea as me because they were all out of these at our store. Thankfully, my girlfriend happened to be at another Walmart when I called, and she snagged one at her store and saved the day for me!  I can’t wait to try other desserts in this and even use this bowl for decorating in our house. Be sure to check out the recipe for the red, white, & blueberry trifle!

Two summers ago we bought one of those atrociously large water slides to put up in our backyard to keep the kids entertained. Bought on clearance towards the end of the summer, it has paid for itself in party entertainment and for days when I just want the kids to entertain themselves.  The past couple of parties the weather has not cooperated with this form of entertainment for our guests, but this year proved to be just the right amount of humidity and sun that we could put this up for lots of slides and fun with our cousins.  I hate putting it up, I hate taking it down…but anything that can keep the kids happy and entertained for hours on end seems like a fantastic idea for a party.

There is nothing catered at this party and I try to mix in a few old favorites with new recipes each year to our party menu. I work hard to make the party planning process as painless as possible. Everything is done in stages during the week so the last day is just a matter of pulling everything together.  The cake is baked and frozen until the big day, all ingredients are chopped in bags and ready to go, the decorations are hung the day before, I try to incorporate one recipe that can be thrown into our slow cooker, and I do my best to make the last day as fun as possible for me too!

A few of the standby recipes we used this year were our Perfectly Pulled Pork Sandwiches, our Pesto Pasta Salad, and our Birthday Party Punch. More recipes will be coming in the next two weeks!

Of course, no party would be complete without the birthday announcement on the door. The kids have really come to love this tradition of hanging our birthday balloon wreath so everyone knows that their special day has arrived. It isn’t a party without a wreath.. at least that is my philosophy. There is nothing that makes me happier than these simple traditions of fun, food, and family.

happy 9th birthday, ethan alexander!

I hope this gives you a few ideas for your own parties and would love to hear how you keep your parties fabulous and frugal!

I am a part of the Walmart Moms program, and Walmart has provided me with compensation for these posts. My participation is voluntary and opinions are always my own.

Apple Picking & Apple Potpourri

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

It is that time of year again and I couldn’t wait for fall to arrive. This year we took a trip to Jollay Orchards to go apple picking as family for the first time and the kids absolutely loved it! What a beautiful day it was! We splurged for the admission into the petting zoo and rides for a fun family day together. We also picked a ton of apples this year and I will be creating a lot of apple dishes in our kitchen to use up the apples we have on hand! The kids enjoyed every minute of this activity and we all enjoyed our cider and donuts treat at the end of the day.

Some ideas of fun were better than others. Apple picking, hay rides, and corn mazes…a blast. Haunted house… super bad idea. Poor kids-  that picture speaks a thousand words!

We also can’t wait to do a little pumpkin picking next month. I have to say,  personally, the pumpkin picking is my favorite kind of picking. You know why? No obligation to do kitchen duty with a pumpkin and I get to just enjoy the pumpkin out on my front step and time spent with my husband & kids. A lot of the other picking translates into lots of work for me!

With apples though, there is a no apples go to waste policy in our house! While I have been creating those apple dishes in the kitchen, I throw all of the cores, peel, and leftover apple bits into a pot. With a generous sprinkle of  cinnamon and filled to the top with water, I simmer these leftovers on the stove. This creates a delicious apple pie smell throughout the house with items that would go in the trash.

What fall activity do you look forward to with your family? Please share!

Creating Beautiful & Frugal Treasure Chests

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

When I was a little girl, I had a beautiful musical jewelry box with a twirling ballerina where I would store all of my little treasures. I wanted to create a little box just like that for my son and daughter so I headed to Michael’s and picked up the supplies to create their very own boxes to store all of the important treasures in their lives.

These wooden boxes were $4.99 over by the wooden crafts and paint supplies. I also selected two bottles of spray paint in the clearance section of the store. You just want to make sure to select a spray paint that says that it will work on wood so that your paint will adhere to your project.

When I got home, I spray painted the boxes evenly and then cut out the images that I wanted to decoupage on my treasure chests out of heavy card stock.  I used my Silhouette craft cutter (remember to get those entries in!) to cut out the images, but you could also stencil your images on heavy card stock and then cut them out with scissors.

If you do have  a craft cutter, I chose the princess set, a pirate flag, and a treasure map as my images. Each set was printed and then cut in two different colors that would look nice with my painted boxes and could be layered upon one another to create the images. The treasure map printed out without a “map” within it, so my husband added his art with a Sharpie to the map.

Now comes the fun part! It is time to get your decoupage on! If you have never decoupaged before, it is the coolest craft ever, requires no skills at all, and makes everything look fabulous. Just pour Mod Podge (I used a bottle of the matte finish I had in my craft supplies) into a plastic cup and then use a small sponge brush to glue each cut-out on to your boxes. Once you have glued all of the pieces on, do a light layering of glue over the entire surface, being careful to not shift or cause bubbling around your images. Allow it to dry, do another layer, allow it to dry, do another layer. Two to three layers should be plenty, but you be the judge!

If you want to add a little antiquing to it, just use a little sandpaper to rough it up. Oh, look at that vintage map on top of that little treasure chest. Don’t you just love it?

Once they are dry, they are all ready for treasure filling. Just imagine what could be stored in here. I see my son’s filling with rocks and Pokemon cards & my daughters will be stuffed with glittering plastic jewels or tiny little doll accessories. Whatever is in them,  I have a feeling that these treasure boxes will be loved for a long time.

These would make fantastic birthday gifts and are right within a frugal gal’s gift allowance (a mere $6 in supplies each!) and would be a gift that would be long- remembered!

An Old-Fashioned Birthday BBQ Bash

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

This weekend we celebrated Ethan’s 8th birthday with a good old-fashioned birthday BBQ bash for our family.  I have so many new recipes and ideas to showcase from this party, but today I wanted to share with you some of the decorations and strategies that I took to save money and make this birthday special. Over the next few weeks, I will be highlighting the new recipes that I used and tips for creating the dishes in your home.

We greeted our guests with this beautiful birthday wreath that was featured in our notebook and recreated in our home from How Does She. It can be created in about a half hour and requires zero craft skills. Everyone commented on how cute it was and it will be put away on a shelf until the next birthday. It took about $13 in supplies and I am sure we will get every dollar out of this wreath. Isn’t it adorable? I have a real adoration for anything that can become a part of our yearly traditions and the kids loved that this let everyone know we were in celebration mode.

One investment that I made into our future parties was a set of burger baskets. I found these at Gordon’s Food Service ($14.99 for 12) and I purchased one package of delicatessen paper ($4.99 for 500 sheets) for my family celebrations. I really am not a fan of paper plates and one time use party products.  I also hate the bulk of heavy dishes when you have an outdoor party. These seemed like a great  alternative and are a little studier than paper plates. I admit it is also a nod to my love of all things diner and retro. We can use these all summer long and everyone seemed to really love this idea!

When you are on a party budget, you have to evaluate every aspect of food preparation. A vegetable tray that is pre-made can be purchased for between $10-12, but making a vegetable tray at home cost about $5 in supplies. I saved a deli platter from a catered party that I had hosted and added to to my own party supplies. This sturdy tray has been reused multiple times and adds a more professional element to my party without the added expenditure.

Buying corn that has already been cleaned and is ready to go can save time, but it can add quite a bit to the party budget if you are trying to stay within your budget constraints and have many mouths to feed. With a little effort and time, preparing the corn yourself can shave an easy $5 off of your budget.

Drinks can also add a lot to a party budget and that is why we usually rely on a big batch of birthday punch to save on this category.  It is easy to spend $20 or more on the drink budget, but with one great batch of punch and a little decaf coffee for the dessert hour, I can spend $6 in supplies that will serve fifteen people with plenty of refills. Now that is a huge savings!

I will admit the cake process can be intimidating for me and many other moms. I took a cake decorating class and found the process to be a little…tedious. When I have more time, perhaps I will pick it back up. This year, I gave my son all of my cookbooks and he and his sister spent a Saturday morning flipping through them and selecting the most perfect birthday cake. To my surprise, he selected an easy chocolate bundt cake that he said would be, “the most perfect cake ever.” Do you think sometimes we put more pressure on ourselves as mothers than necessary?

This cake cost about $4 in supplies and still wowed everyone without the labor of homemade frosting and perfectly piped decorations. It was so simple, in fact, that I added a berry cake (another $4 in supplies) so our guests had two cake options. Both of them were perfection and cost a mere $8 versus two bakery cakes that would cost $15 to $25 each. Hurray for saving money and hurray for easy cakes! (recipes coming soon)

Thanks to waiting until after the fourth of July this year (instead of having a patriotic party like last year), we were able to take advantage of clearance party supplies to create the wreath and for the paper products that we did have to buy. A little ribbon added to a cake platter ties our theme in beautifully and we were able to take advantage of those clearance tables!

Does this look like the face of a child who has had the worst celebration ever because of his mother’s cheapness?

Yeah, I didn’t think so either.

Birthday Party Punch

2 liter bottle fruit punch flavored soda or strawberry flavored soda (I found this at Walmart)
2 liter (half a bottle) Cherry 7-Up
1 (12 ounce) can frozen pink lemonade concentrate
1 can pineapple juice

Mix all the ingredients together for the punch. This will fill one large punch bowl or two smaller ones.

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Perfectly Pulled Pork Sandwiches (Adapted from All Recipes)

1 (4 pound) Boston butt (or pork shoulder)
1 (12 fluid ounce) can or bottle root beer
1 (18 ounce) bottle your favorite barbecue sauce
8 hamburger buns, split and lightly toasted

Place the pork meat  in a slow cooker; pour the root beer over the meat. Cover and cook on low until well cooked and the pork shreds easily (I cooked for eight hours).  Shred the meat and drain the root beer from the slow cooker. Stir in barbecue sauce and toss gently. Serve over hamburger buns.

Many more recipes to come…

A Week of Summer Fun On $20 or Less

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010


I have to admit that our family doesn’t go on a lot of vacations, but we do love to make a wise investment into a great summer staycation each year that the kids will remember (hopefully) for years to come. A summer staycation does not have to cost a lot of money.  In fact, it is fun to see how far we can make our money stretch and still provide beautiful summer memories for our children.

Really, the possibilities for free and cheap summer fun are endless. There are free story hours at libraries and bookstores, crafts and activity days at local parks, church programs and sport camps, VBS, inexpensive movie programs at the theaters, reading programs, ice cream treats, and so much more. Each year it seems we are trying to top the summer bucket list from last year.

Today I wanted to showcase some of our favorite things to do and share with you ideas for making those summer memories fit snugly in your family budget.

Happy Hour Out (Cost $.50-$2 per child)- Our favorite thing to do this year has been taking advantage of those Happy Hour drink specials that so many restaurants are now offering. Sonic, for example, offers a Happy Hour between 2-5 PM where your family can enjoy half price drinks. Steak & Shake is another restaurant in our town that offers a deliciously cool and refreshing milkshake for half price between 2-4 PM.  Don’t be ashamed to inquire at your local restaurants if they offer any type of summer drink special that your family can take advantage of and allow your kids to enjoy a fun summer treat that your budget can live with. At Sonic, two small slushes for my children and one large Diet Cherry Limeade for me is a total mere cost of $2.18. Fabulous!

Happy Hour Time At Home (Cost $1  in supplies or less)- If you don’t feel like venturing out and want to enjoy a little slushie fun or milkshake fun at home, it is easy to do with your blender and a few items that might be lurking in your pantry already! My kids love to indulge in our homemade slushies and homemade frosty shakes that your whole family will flip for!  The cost for creating these is minimal, but make sure you make enough for everyone in the family. This is a happy hour that you definitely do not want to miss!

Have a Park Day (Cost- FREE) - Going to the local park to spend the afternoon is nothing new, but it could be something new if you decide to explore another local park. Pack a picnic lunch, snacks, drinks, and your sunblock and enjoy a day of completely free fun. Go on a park adventure and visit a park that you have never visited before or venture outside of your own town into a neighboring town to explore a new-to-you town treasure. We love to load up the scooters, a ball, and a Frisbee to create even more opportunities for fun in the sun. This year we have made it a family priority to explore new parks that we haven’t tried before.

Have a Roast-Your-Own Dinner Night (Cost $5-7 in Food Supplies)-  One thing that we look forward to all summer long is the opportunity to roast some foods on our little campfire. Stock up on hot dogs and supplies to make s’mores and you can have a fun little night together that doesn’t cost a lot. I also love to keep the fire going after the kids hit the sack and make it into a fun little date night for me and my hubby.

Visit a Museum (Cost- FREE)- Free days abound at the local museums although I will admit that you do sometimes have to brave those crowds to take advantage of them. We always try to check the websites for local museums and find out when their free days are offered. If free days are not offered, call your local library and see if they offer museum passes that you can check out. Many local libraries offer passes that can get you and your family in for free!  Make it a family trip and take vacation days on those days so you can take advantage of those free admissions. Don’t forget to pack a picnic lunch that you can enjoy on the museum grounds or in transit to your destination.

If there is a special museum you have always wanted to visit, but they do not offer a free day, be sure to take part in the National Free Museum Day sponsored by the Smithsonian. Tickets can be printed starting July 1st!  This just might be the perfect time to take a road trip to experience a free museum that will cost only the cost in gas.

Take a Visit to a Local Farm (Cost $0-$5 per child)- This year we got the opportunity to visit an alpaca farm that was just thirty minutes from our home. The kids had the best time learning about the animals and getting the opportunity to feed, touch, and even take a few of them for a walk. If you want to  find an alpaca farm near you, visit I Love Alpacas to find a new place to visit in your town!

For other farm animals, see if there are any local farms in your area that you could visit and give your children the chance to have an experience like this. It is one that will long remember and gives them an opportunity to learn about where their food comes from!

Go Berry Picking (Cost $5 or more, depending on amount purchased)- One of our favorite things to do in the summer is to go berry picking. We usually buy around $5 in berries and then come home and create something in our kitchen together. With a variety of fruits for picking, the possibilities are endless for places and things to pick during the summer. Visit Pick Your Own to find places to visit and to take advantage of the foods that are in season.

Last year we went blueberry picking and then came home and created new things in the kitchen that the kids had never tried before. We dined on homemade waffles with blueberry syrup and even created a fancy blueberry syrup for our iced tea for a fun summer drink. We paid $5 in berries and we were able to make a whole day and evening of fun from just that $5 spent.

Sprinkler Fun (Cost- FREE)- Running through the sprinklers is a fun and free relief from the brutal summer heat. A good old-fashioned sprinkler or inexpensive sprinkler toy can keep kids entertained for days on end. More recently we have discovered that our town offers a lot of fun at the parks with the addition of splash pads and fun new sprinkler parks. The cost to visit these is free and can be a great way to keep cool in the summer. If your backyard sprinkler is starting to lose its luster, Google your town and the keywords “splash pad” or “sprinkler park” to see if you can find a fun new place to keep cool!

What are your favorite budget-friendly summer activities in your town? I would love to hear your ideas for inexpensive summer fun!

Make Outdoor Living a Family Priority

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

(this article originally published on 06.30.09)

I love nothing more than lounging around in our backyard all summer long. I will do anything to stay outside with my kids and hibernate in our big backyard. Indiana winters are so long and our summers here are far too short. I really try to make the most of every moment of sunshine.

Wouldn’t we all love to just lounge around in the backyard all day with our feet kicked up? While I can’t say it will be possible every day, I want to share with you a few things we have been doing to make outdoor living a priority in our home.

Chores come first. We all love being outside and in order for me to be able to camp out with the kids in the backyard, we need to have our indoor chores accomplished. The short list for me is to unload the dishwasher, make the beds, and swipe the bathrooms. The kids have to eat their breakfast, get dressed, and tidy up their rooms and playroom. With the promise of fun and relaxation outside, we all are more motivated to do our chores inside.

For work-at-home moms, I try to get up an hour before the kids and tackle any work priorities and I do most of my work on the weekend mornings. I encourage you to read my post on finding balance to work priorities to assist with figuring out a good work-at-home schedule.


Get the dinner prep done. After I have finished the chores, it is time to get together whatever we will be eating for dinner in the evening. Slow cooker meals are a great alternative in the summer because they don’t heat up the house and can be pulled together quickly. Likewise, marinating meats or preparing meat for the grill is another way to keep the house cool and keep one step ahead of the game in mealtime prep.

Of course, anything that you can do after your grocery shopping will also give you more time to enjoy being outside. Chop up veggies and fruits for snacking on throughout the week, cook pasta for pasta salads and keep it in a food storage bag to make a yummy cold pasta salad, bake chicken for the week to dice in tortilla wraps, for cold chicken salad sandwiches, or to toss into a pasta salad. I also love to wash and chop the lettuce for the week and use it on burgers or for a light lunch for myself or a side salad with our dinner.

Take the night off completely from dinner and roast your dinner on an outdoor fire pit instead. Children will love the novelty of cooking their foods over the fire and you will love having a night off from cooking. We try to do this a couple of times a month as a fun family night tradition.

Scale back those fancy dinners and keep things simple with grilled meats, fresh veggies, and fresh fruit. Summer is not meant to be spent in a hot kitchen so get acquainted with your grill or slow cooker so you can enjoy that beautiful weather outside.


Be prepared for outdoor excursions. The past couple of years, I have learned to become more prepared for those unexpected outdoor adventures. On our door hangs a beach bag that is ready to go for a fun outdoor getaway. I keep sunblock, bug spray, towels, bathing suits, and a water bottle in this bag.

In our car, we have a collapsible bag that is filled with activities for the park. I try to keep containers of bubbles, a ball, a waterproof blanket for sitting on, a Frisbee, and a lawn chair. These activities not only come in handy for when we take a trip to the park, but they also are invaluable when visiting friends who don’t have activities/toys to keep little hands busy.

Revise your homemaking schedule with the weather. Check the forecast at the beginning of the week and try to format your schedule according to the weather. If it is raining on Thursday, make Thursday your day to clean the house. If it is sunny on Tuesday, use that day to accomplish the laundry day outside and hang your clothes on the line instead. If it is sunny all week long, then accomplish chores during your child’s nap time or after they head to bed. By revising your homemaking schedule to fit the weather forecast, you can take advantage of as many beautiful days as you possibly can.


Make the outdoors fun. My children will play outside for the entire day, but each summer we make an investment into outdoor activities that will help keep the outdoors fun. Some of my favorite summer investments have been a sandbox, a small water table, sprinkler toys, a new set of chalk, and a batch of homemade bubbles.

My children also love to create so I also put out a bucket of water with paint brushes for them to paint the cement or to paint their chalk drawings. We also make a batch of sponge balls to play with in their water table or for fun water play outdoors. Nature journals can help them document the changing of the seasons and what they see in nature. Homemade play dough with some cookie cutters and a rolling pin can lead to fun creations, without the mess, on an outdoor table.

Don’t forget that many activities that you can get your children to do outside can also help you. I have my kids use their water toys to water my garden. My children also love to help wash the cars and wash their own outdoor toys. Have them set their own table for lunch or help you clean up after an outdoor dinner.


Make easy evening routines. After a long day of playing outside, I bring the kids inside and we start tackling the baths. After the kids are bathed, they can have a small snack and watch a television show while I work on getting our dinner ready.

This usually leads to a little napping or general zoning out as they are usually so exhausted from playing outside. With this time, I tidy up and get our easy dinner together for us to dine outside. After that the kids play outside until bedtime and I am able to put them to bed earlier after all of their outdoor fun.

Outdoor chores are accomplished by my husband & I trading off the kids to get done what needs to get done. One of us mows in the front, while the other parent is playing with the kids in the back. As I have said before though, many of these chores are just done side by side with the kids while they are playing or helping.


Remember they are only young once. Each summer, I marvel at how much my children have grown and how quickly our time together seems to be passing. I am trying to savor these moments and for me, that means slowing down our summers. While we make big plans for summer activities, I can admit that I become selfish with my time with them in the summer. The school year will begin again and we will be back to the crazy grind of school days.

Savor these moments and revise your schedule so you can enjoy each moment of them. Seek a little shade with them. Create with them. Hop in the kiddie pool with them. Indulge in homemade slushies and popcorn every single day and blame it on “the kids” and “hydration.” Be selfish with them and their time. Treasure them.

As my husband and I say after it takes two hours to put away all the outdoor toys and clean up after the dinner, “We are making memories.”

How do you make outdoor living a priority in your family?

New Article: Great Board Game Recommendations

Monday, May 10th, 2010

Our family loves to play board games and we love sharing great game ideas with our friends. We hope you like our new piece on Great Board Game Recommendations for some added fun to that board game collection. There is nothing like a great set of board games to keep you busy on those rainy days. Make sure to check your local thrift shops for some fun board game bargains!

Feel free to leave a comment and share your own recommendation for anything that might not have made our list!

Great Reads for Moms: March ’10 Edition

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Photo Credit: Charles Williams

I am so enjoying sharing what I am reading each month and I hope it inspires you to crack open a book or two as a special treat just for yourself.  Whether you challenge yourself to join a book club or you just do a solo challenge of reading, I really encourage you to make your reading a priority!

This month I read five books and I am sharing my thoughts here on each of them.  I hope that these reviews and book ideas are helpful to you when choosing a great read at your library!

You can also join the GoodReads community and friend me (my username is momadvice), if you would like to get an early sneak peek into what books I have my nose in. to read my past reviews, visit our Books category to get more ideas for your reading list!  Happy reading!

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

Alice I Have Been was one of the best historical fiction books that I have read in a long time and surrounds the life of the real life Alice in Wonderland. As someone who was not familiar with the story of Alice or Lewis Carroll, I found the story both intriguing and disturbing. Alice led far from the enchanted life that you might have thought and ultimately, the friendship between her & the author lead to the demise of many relationships in her life.

Alice Liddell was the muse for Mr. Dodgson, a professor at Oxford, who later wrote the book of Alice in Wonderland under the pen name of Lewis Carroll. Alice and her sisters spend many days exploring the grounds, going on boat rides, and spending time in the company of Mr. Dodgson. He is fascinated, in particular, with Alice and tells a story to her one night about her adventures in wonderland. Alice begs him to write her story out and he later does, which becomes the book series that he is so known for.

As their friendship grows, Mr. Dodgson and Alice began to have a relationship that is both confusing and exciting to Alice. Mr. Dodgson has an interest in photography and tells Alice that he would like to take her on a special outing where he can take special pictures of her. He writes her letters and Alice writes him back in an almost courtship that would be very inappropriate for a child of her age. That day of photography ends the friendship of Mr. Dodgson and the Liddell family, causing difficulties for Alice to find true love later in her life under her clouded reputation.

As Alice grows into her own person, she finds and loses loves in her life and increasingly finds the burden of being the Alice in Wonderland that everyone is dying to meet very cumbersome. She later decides to use her celebrity status and the sacrifices that she made in her childhood later aid Alice to have a better life than she could have had on her own.

If you don’t know anything about the story of Mr. Dodgson or about the real-life Alice, it is a fascinating look into a friendship that was altogether inappropriate and, in this historical fiction perspective, caused a lot of heartache for Alice in finding love later in her life.

This is a book that you just want someone else to read so you can talk about it! A fantastic first novel from Melanie Benjamin and makes me excited to read more books from her in the future!

(MomAdvice Rating- 4 Stars)

The Things That Keep Us Here by Carla Buckley

Ann Brooks is a newly single mom taking care of two little girls while her estranged husband is busy doing scientific research surrounding an H5N1 virus (avian flu) that has struck their community. It starts in the bird population and quickly jumps species and becomes a level 5 pandemic among the human population. Now this estranged family must come together to survive the worst scenario of their life- being quarantined together while they must rely on the government and medical system to find a vaccination to stop the virus before it kills them.

The portrait of what life would be like if this situation would happen is terrifying. It begins with Ann rushing to the grocery store to stock up on food, where people are hurting and even killing each other fighting over bottled water and food. They lock themselves in their home where the electricity is out for over a month, garbage is no longer being picked up, hospitals are not operating, and everyone must be scared of their neighbor and friends to prevent being struck with the H5N1 themselves.

The family is forced to make tough decisions that they never thought they would face and learn to live without the luxuries in life of clean water, how to protect those you love while still caring for others in your community, and how precious life really is.

As the situation escalates, the character development builds and you began to root for this family to pull together and to survive this ordeal.

This book was amazing, thought-provoking, and made me question what I would do in such a scenario. Could I still stick to my virtues when I have to protect my family or would I become as many of the people become, fighting and stealing to protect what is mine?

The book slowed down a little in the middle and I did not really like the narration switching in the last chapter over to the daughter, but overall, it was an excellent book that will make you hold your children a little tighter and make you aware of all of the precious blessings we all take for granted.

(MomAdvice Rating- 4 Stars)

House Rules by Jodi Picoult

I am a huge Jodi Picoult fan and could not wait to dive into her new book, “House Rules.” I have found her books lately to be a little predictable and formulaic and I was hoping for a little more with this book. In some ways it was a huge success in the exploration and research of Aspergers syndrome, in others, the book fell a little short with me.

Jacob Hunt is a teenage boy who has Asperger’s syndrome. He is intelligent, can memorize facts and movie quotes better than anyone, and he has a huge love of forensic sciences. He lacks the ability though to connect with people, can only understand literal meanings of words, can easily become overly stimulated, and has never understood the social cues and unwritten rules of personal space or relationships.

His true obsession with forensic science is what takes up the majority of his day and research. He has a love for a CSI show and keeps hundreds of journals on the episodes, trying to crack the cases himself and documenting each case dozens of times. His obsession with forensic science and his inability to engage with others makes high school tough for this teenager.

Thankfully, he has a great friend, Jess, who has stepped in to offer guidance on learning social behavior and who has been hired by the family to help him survive the tough world of high school. Jess is a college student and an all-around golden girl who has a true devotion towards helping make Jacob’s life easier and help him understand all of this cues that we take for granted.

When Jess is murdered, her abusive boyfriend is the first person to taken into custody and seems the most likely suspect. His boot print is found at the scene of the crime and his previous physical abuse towards
Jess makes him seem the perfect murderer.

When the news shows the victim’s body wrapped in a quilt that could only belong to Jacob, his mother steps forward and says that she is concerned that Jacob may have had something to do with the crime. Jacob is taken into custody and the entire world of the Hunt family is sent into a downward spiral.

All of Jacob’s behaviors, due to his Asperger’s, are behaviors that are often exhibited in someone who is guilty. Jacob can’t make eye contact, he can act violently or inappropriately if he is over stimulated, and he seems to have no emotion. His lawyer, Oliver, has a tough case on his hands and must convince a jury that Jacob acted innocently because of his emotional detachment and inability to understand the social cues of others.

As a reader, I really enjoying the pacing of Picoult’s books and the usual twist that occurs at the end. Unfortunately, I was able to solve the case on my own within the first twenty pages and then had to read another 500 pages in hopes that the twist was not so obvious.

The worst part about this book was that the book seems to be missing a final chapter, as though Picoult was on a writing deadline and just stopped short before bringing the reader into a conclusion of how the case actually ended or where the relationships of this family went. For all of that research and the bulk of this book, it was a disappointment for me.

The careful research and beautiful prose were definitely there, but the ending and predictable twist made it not as solid of a read as some of Picoult’s earlier work.

(MomAdvice Rating- 3 Stars)

Julie & Julia by Julie Powell

I might be a little late to the Julie & Julia bandwagon, but I have finally arrived and read this fun little read that was just what this blogger needed for a fun pick-me-up! I will admit, it was not one of the best books I have read, but in many ways I related to Julie’s commitment to her blog and recreating recipes in her kitchen for her blog audience. That being said, I have heard from many that the movie was much better than the book itself, and that is why I am looking forward to watching the movie soon.

Julie Powell is a frustrated secretary living in a small New York loft apartment, with her husband and cats, who decides that the thing that she needs to do to jumpstart her life again is to become passionate about something. When she runs across her mother’s old copy of Julia Child’s, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” she remembers how her mother whipped out that particular cookbook for special occasions and created recipes out of it to impress their dinner guests. She decides that she will challenge herself to cook all 523 recipes within a year and chronicle those adventures through a blog, in hopes that the challenge will add something into her life that has been missing.

It is a laugh-out-loud funny book that had me giggling from the bottom of my toes as she tries to find rare ingredients, attempts making dishes out of live lobsters, and goes on a journey of self-discovery as she attempts to master the art of a little of her own French cooking. It really isn’t a book about cooking, unless you are looking for a person that is simply struggling to cook, but more about what is discovered about herself through this adventure.

As she works her way through this cooking challenge, you see how it brings her closer together with those she loves and how those around her (both in the blogging world and her real life world) come together to eat, share, and become a part of her cooking adventures.

The book wasn’t enlightening at all, the language was rough, and Julie was not always a likeable character, but I appreciated her realness and how so many of us find our place and discover ourselves through blogging.

It didn’t change my life, but it did make me giggle…and sometimes you need that!

Editor’s Note-  There is graphic language in this book. (MomAdvice Rating- 4 Stars)

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything by Janelle Brown

To be honest, this was definitely not my favorite read this month, but I am including my thoughts on it for my mom friends who love a good soap opera or Melrose Place type of drama.

All We Ever Wanted Was Everything is a Silicon Valley satire that takes a glimpse into one family’s life and showcases how the threads began to unravel when they discover that money really is not the key to happiness.

Janice is a relatively happy trophy wife who has helped her husband in every way that she knows how to be the roaring success that he is. She reads her Gourmet magazine and replicates the dishes, she is carefully groomed and has maintained her figure over the years, and her family lives in the immaculately tidy home of their dreams.

When her husband’s stocks soar, after making an important pharmaceutical drug, she runs out to grab the ingredients for the most perfect celebration dinner. When she arrives at home, she finds a note from her husband letting her know that he is leaving her for her best friend and that he will be filing for a divorce.

What happens to a woman when her whole career and existence are based upon caring for her husband? Janice quickly spirals out of control and the reader is taken through Janice’s downward spiral and the downward spiral of her two children who are both trying to find themselves after making bad decisions.

One daughter who grew up the valedictorian in her graduating class, now is deeply in debt after her the feminist magazine she started failed to bring in any profits. The other daughter has a desire to be liked by her peers and begins sleeping with her classmates to garner attention and her feelings of self-worth. She later decides that Jesus might be the key to her salvation, but her poor choices have taken her so far off path that you are unclear where her life will really end up. Janice, meanwhile, has decided to take crystal meth because she feels happier and more in control when she is drugged. With their mother drugged out and the two children both choosing their own destructive paths, the reader can only hope that the resolution will be filled with deep discovery and a realization that they have each other and money is not everything. It just did not end the way that the reader might hope.

I found the book to be a fun and impressive premise of self-discovery when each of the characters are trying to find who they are without their fortune, but the book was depressingly dark and never went anywhere other than the dark and dreariness that it began with. If you are into dark satires though that is filled with a little bit of dreary, this just might be the ticket for you!

Editor’s Note-  There is graphic language, sexuality, and drug use in this book. (MomAdvice Rating- 3 Stars)


An Orlando Treasure: GatorLand

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

Ethan and I had a fantastic time in Orlando and I am looking forward to sharing about some of the attractions that we visited and ways you can save on enjoying many things in Orlando while you are there. We truly enjoyed our visit to Orlando and the experiences and memories we created together were just priceless.

To start this series, I wanted to share with you my absolute favorite place that we visited and some ideas for ways that you can save on your ticket to this attraction and many others that you might be visiting. You might be surprised to hear that it wasn’t Disney that holds a special place in my heart. In fact, it wasn’t anything that I thought would be that exciting, but I was quickly proven wrong by an amazing little theme park called, “GatorLand.”

GatorLand definitely is not a new attraction to Orlando residents, but we had never heard of it before and my little guy was so excited to see a few Florida gators for himself. GatorLand might sound  like a quaint touristy spot to visit, but it is, in fact, a 110-acre theme park and a nature conservatory for the city of Orlando.

When I say theme park though,  it isn’t the kind of theme park that you might think of when heading to Orlando. They have no big relationships with corporate companies, real animals (not mechanical ones) are located there, real people are guiding you and sharing about the animals, and kids are gobbling up every minute of these beautiful animals and their stories.

Upon entering, we were introduced to the four very rare white alligators that are currently residing in the White Alligator Swamp. These are not Albino alligators, but a very rare breed that actually have blue eyes and the white pigmentation to their skin. It is thought that there are only a dozen of their kind in the world, and four of them have happily made their home there. Technically, they are named leucistic (loo-SIS-tic), which is basically a genetic defect which produces their white pigment and the bright blue eyes that make them so unique.

While there were many alligators there, there were perhaps a few hundred more birds that are located on the property. They had everything from herons, to wood storks, to vultures that were happily residing near the alligators that were lazily swimming in the water. Our tour guide informed us that the birds love to make their nests and be near the alligators because the alligators protect them (and their eggs) from other predators. The alligators have no interest in bothering the birds and the birds know that they can make a home there.

The spot is a hot one for photographers and people come from all over the world to photograph the birds there. Photographers can buy a  pass and come in the early morning hours to sneak a peek at the birds. It was quite unbelievable all of the varieties of birds that were on the property. It would be a great place to bring a trusty bird guide and discover birds with your children!

Kids can get a closer look at the alligators in their “Gator Wrestlin’ ” arena. No worries, there was no wrestling other than the wrestling required to get the animal out of the water and give kids the opportunity to learn more about these fascinating creatures. They offer survival tips on what to do if you are ever in the path of a gator and share facts about what makes alligators so unique. Stunts, like the ones pictured above, showcase the strength of the alligator’s jaw.

For an additional $5, they offer the chance to pose with a real alligator, in the arena, which my son was very eager to do. The extra five dollars goes towards the care and food for the animals. This was all done under the watchful care of their trainers.

If your children love the creepy crawlers, then they won’t want to miss the Up Close Encounters Show. You never know what kind of animal you might be introduced to next as they unveil a variety of different snakes and spiders from behind the crated boxes. Volunteers are brought up from the audience for the great unveiling which the kids will definitely get a kick out of… especially if their mom is the one that gets selected!

There is so much more to do that we didn’t even get a chance to see while we visited. They offer a train ride around the property, a water park that the kids can play in to keep cool, and you can even sit down and have lunch or a latte there.

The price of admission is as follows:

Adult- $22.99 (if purchased online, $19.99)

Child- $14.99 (if purchased online, $11.99)

To save a little more on your visit to GatorLand, head over to print out a free 2010 Orlando Magicard which provides year-round savings at more than 75 area establishments including attractions, accommodations, restaurants, dinner theaters, ground transportation, golf courses, and cultural arts.

The Orlando Magicard is free and can be downloaded at VisitOrlando.com/deals, requested for mail delivery by calling 1-800-551-0181, or picked up at The Official Visitors Center in Orlando. The 2010 version of the card provides expanded offers including theme park deals and other significant savings options such as free nights plus additional free amenities at area accommodations; buy one ticket, get one free offers at attractions; or straight discounts up to 50% off.

If you use the Orlando Magicard at GatorLand, you can score a free train ride for each paid admission.

As a parting gift, on our way out each child got to hold a baby alligator.  The kids were so excited and were all amazed at just how tiny these alligators start out.

I was so taken into the moment that I even took the opportunity to hold the baby alligator myself. If you know me at all, you know that this is so not like me. I will say that my son couldn’t have been more proud of his mommy and I am so proud of myself for stepping out of my comfort zone a little!

We would like to thank GatorLand for giving us the opportunity to explore and learn more about what they offer and to experience a place in Orlando that we would have never known about. It is a hidden gem that I highly recommend if you are ever in the Orlando area.

Disclaimer: We were invited by the Orland/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau for an all-expenses paid trip to experience Orlando and share with our readers about our experience. All-expenses paid means that our travel, hotel stay, visits to area attractions, and food were covered by the company. We will receive no other additional compensation for the project and are asked for our honest opinions without any further obligation. To find out more about how things work here at MomAdvice, please feel free to visit our official Disclaimer page!

Do you have any hidden gems that you have found in your state or in another that you highly recommend visiting for a family vacation? Please feel free to share cool things about your own town or links to past entries on great places to travel!

Iced Coffee the Cold Brew Way

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

I have a few weaknesses in my life- pretty yarn, delicious books, lovely shoes…and coffee, coffee, coffee!  In the winter, I crave a hot drink to warm my hands. In the summer, it is an entirely different story and I want a delicious iced coffee  to keep me cool while I dream of exotic vacations and escaping the reality of my mountains of laundry and cranky children. Does coffee let you escape too?

As the Indiana weather has begun to make it’s way towards Spring, I was anxious to finally give the cold brewed coffee technique a try from the New York Times.  This winter, I saved my Swagbucks and decided to buy myself a treat… a French Press that I could use in the evening for my decaf coffee. When Rachel highlighted her own cold brew technique using a French Press on Small Notebook (and then featured here), I had to put my little gadget to work and see what all of the fuss was about.

Traditionally, when I use my French press, I heat the water in my teapot and then add it to the grounds, steep it for about four minutes, and then plunge it to push the grounds down. With the cold brew technique, you just do everything wrong. You put in the grounds, add cold water, don’t plunge it for an entire night, add more water, and then finally plunge it for your iced brew. To be honest, it looks like really watery coffee sludge and you wonder if you just wasted your coffee and a moment of effort to pull it together.

I then poured it and mixed mine up with almost half skim milk and a generous little shake of caramel coffee syrup and excitedly went in for a taste. The taste? Coffee perfection! There is no bitterness and no coffee edge at all.  It just tastes like a delicious coffee that you would get at the fancy coffee joints, but only costs pennies versus dollars!

After I made a coffee for myself, the next day I made one for my grandmother. If you don’t believe me that it was good, perhaps seeing the two of us ladies rushing over to Target that-very-instant to buy a French press so she could easily replicate the coffee at home, our fun discussion dissecting the recipe and what could be done with it, and then talking about how delicious it was for an hour just might convince you.

Really though, a French press is not required for this technique, in fact, you could just use a coffee filter and a jar, if you don’t want to make the purchase. If you are in the market to buy one, I recommend one that has a second mesh filter around the lip (as pictured above) to give your coffee an extra strain. Should you use the medium grind coffee, as recommended by the manufacturer, you might not need this additional strainer as much. If you are like me though and choose to use the coffee you already use every other day of the week (which is most definitely not always freshly ground) then that extra little strainer might come in handy. The one pictured here is the BonJour Hugo ($19.12).

As an aside, I have made my own coffee syrups and also have bought them. It really depends on how motivated you are, but I love to have a variety of them when I have my girlfriends over for coffee. I am all about the coffee shop experience on a pauper’s budget, and syrups are one of those things that make my coffee brewed at home feel a little more special.

The best deal I have found on them has been at the wholesale club. Our local Sam’s Club (our area does not offer a variety of wholesale clubs, unfortunately for price comparison purposes) offers a 25.4 ounce container of gourmet coffee syrups for $4.42. Basically, for the price of one of those expensive caramel coffees, you can make a few dozen of them. The prices in the grocery store typically are much higher so if you are going to buy them, definitely put your membership card to work on this purchase and peruse the aisles for affordable coffee too!

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Cold-Brewed Iced Coffee (Recipe Courtesy of The New York Times)

1/3 cup ground coffee (medium-coarse grind is best)

Milk (optional).

In a jar, stir together coffee and 1 1/2 cups water. Cover and let rest at room temperature overnight or 12 hours. Strain twice through a coffee filter, a fine-mesh sieve or a sieve lined with cheesecloth. In a tall glass filled with ice, mix equal parts coffee concentrate and water, or to taste. If desired, add milk.

For the French press: Place 1/3 cup of ground coffee in the bottom and add 1 1/2 cups water. Allow to sit overnight without pushing down the plunger. The next morning, add 1 more cup of water. Add milk as desired and coffee syrup as desired. Stir and serve.

For more great coffee tips and tricks for savings, be sure to visit, “A Frugal Mom’s Guide to Good Coffee.”  I told you, I am so passionate about this topic!

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To clean your French press- Keeping your French press clean is quick and easy. First, dump the grounds in your trash can and not down your sink. You may want to trust me on this, but even with the best garbage disposals it can create a big mess and clog your drain. I use a spoon and scoop as much as I can out of the bottom before giving it a wash.

Most French presses can be placed into the dishwasher for easy cleaning on the top rack. If you are worried though, don’t hesitate to give it a quick wash by hand (using just a tiny bit of dish soap). For the unbreakable plastic variety, a little shake of baking soda and water is an ideal way to get it clean. Allow it to air dry or gently towel dry it, if you are trying to avoid the spotting. However you clean it, put it to good use and make it earn its keep in your cupboards!

What are some ways that you save on your coffee experience? Any tips or tricks for cutting the cost on your daily brew?