Posts Tagged ‘Family’

Tips for Your Next Disney Magic Kingdom Trip & Ideas for Capturing the Magic

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

Our family spent our Thanksgiving holiday in Florida this year.  It was our first real family trip and our first time heading to the Magic Kingdom. I am a Disney newbie although I had the incredible opportunity to see many Florida sites with the Orlando Visitor’s Bureau with my son last year as a trip for just the two of us.

I will admit it, I was nervous about it all. I wanted to surprise them, I wanted the day to be magical, I wanted the weather to cooperate, I wanted the crowds to be minimal, I wanted us all to have the best time of our life.

Is that too much to ask?

Lucky for us, all of these things really did happen and we had a magical day at the Magic Kingdom.

Accommodations were provided by the grandparents as well as a cooler filled with drinks and snacks for us to take on the road and a few to nestle in a bag that I carried with me.  The truth is, we went into it knowing it was going to be an expensive day. We also went into it prepared financially for this day and I worked some extra freelance jobs to cover the expense.

Here is what we learned from our experience at Disney:


Preparation is Key

Financial Preparation- Whenever our family is tackling a big financial project, we set aside money into a separate savings account to prepare for whatever that financial goal might be. Consider talking with your bank about opening accounts for your Disney trip. Have an automatic transfer made for $25 or more each month put into this account all year long and then you will have the money saved when it is time to make your family trip.

Savings can be had when booking your travel through places like AAA and additional savings can be found while visiting in Orlando by printing a free Orlando Magicard to take with you when visiting restaurants and attractions while you are in Orlando.

Safety Preparation- I don’t need to tell you that Disney is a big place and safety is very important when visiting theme parks.  Each child was assigned a buddy to be their partner throughout the days and they were to hold their buddy’s hand while we were there.  We took additional safety precautions by printing out recent pictures of our children to keep in our wallet and bags just in case something should happen and they were separated from us. With a handy Sharpie, I wrote my cell phone number on their arms so if they were separated from us, someone could call us and reunite us quickly.

Meal Preparation- You can bring snacks and drinks into the park with no problems. We packed fruit snacks, granola bars, and bottles of water for our day in a bag with no objections. Rely on these snacks and bottles of water to help cut some of the costs. I recommend visiting this MouseSavers page to find the best cheap eats while you are at the parks.  We did get table service for the evening, but you want to call ahead since reservations can be made up to 180 days in advance of your vacation. Since we called the reservation number that morning when we arrived, we ended up at the Plaza. The table service was about twelve dollars more than the fast food service in the park and quite a bit better with a lot more food included with our meal. If you want to explore the menus before you go, you can view all the menus for the parks here.

Souvenir Preparation-  Souvenirs are a big expense and children can be plagued with horrible cases of what our family lovingly calls, “a case of the gimmies.” At the same time, I remember the amazing souvenir ears I got and how much I wanted those items when I went to Disney.  I hit the Disney store for t-shirts and small toys which were a third of the price as they were in the shops and a girlfriend recommended picking up ears at a local party store (only $5.99 each). The kids were thrilled with their ears and shirts which they wore throughout the park and they did not even ask for anything while we walked through thanks to this little bit of preparation.

Navigation Preparation- When you pick up your tickets, you can pick up a handy map of the park. Thanks to my iPhone I was able to get some reinforcement on the map with Disney’s Magic Kingdom Tour Guide GPS+ from CXI Gaming (cost was $1.99) and helped us navigate the parks easily and find what we needed quickly. We also had everything in our GPS before we left for getting to the park and how to get back to where we were lodging.

Getting the Most Out of Your Ride Time

Make a Plan of Attack- Along with your Navigation Preparation, discuss as a family what rides are most important to you and order them in a list of importance. The rides with the longest wait times we rode first so that we could make sure that we got those out of the way before the crowds and wait times got really long.  If you aren’t’ sure what rides would be best for the age group of your kids, I do recommend buying the Disney’s Magic Kingdom Tour Guide GPS+ from CXI Gaming (cost was $1.99) because this actually gave you a plan for your day based upon your age group. They have tour plans for adults & teens, parents of preschool children, parents with children ages 4-8, and senior Disney lovers.  It gave us a great starting point for deciding how to make the most of our day.

Use FASTPASS to Make the Most of Your Day-FASTPASS isn’t anything you need to sign up for, it is simply a way to place a reservation on rides with long wait times. On your map that you receive when you come in, it will have a FASTPASS icon next to the rides that you can FASTPASS. In the Magic Kingdom, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, Jungle Cruise, Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, & Peter Pan’s Flight are the rides you can FASTPASS. Head to those rides and a machine will be available to insert your ticket and a receipt will print out when you can come back to the ride with a one hour window that you can cash in on. Head to other rides with shorter wait times and then come back at the designated time to go through a faster line.

Add a free Wait Time App to Your Mobile Phone- No need to invest in a pricey Wait Time App, just the free Disney World Wait Times app will work perfectly since all wait time information is user generated. Check the wait times on the rides and use that to help decide which rides you want to go on.

Capturing the Magic

It is the most magical day of our kid’s lives and the last thing I wanted was terrible pictures that didn’t showcase just how amazing our day was.  My parents have this great picture of me when I was a little girl wearing my mouse ears, posing with the characters, sunburned and freckled cheeks, grinning with the biggest toothless grin at five that is still one of my favorite pictures from my childhood.

Capture Their View-  When Emily saw the castle for the first time…well, I could start bawling just thinking about it. I wanted to see that moment over and over so I captured her first gaze at the castle and then got to her eye level and took a picture at her level at exactly what she was seeing.  Having pictures both of them seeing this magical beauty and the magical beauty itself are captures that your family will never forget.

Capture the Movement- How can you capture the hilarious and dizzy feeling of some of those rides without movement in the picture.  Capturing motion in photography is so much fun especially when riding on the teacups. I focused on the bag in this picture as we spun around and and around.  I recommend this article if you are looking for more tips on how to capture motion blur in your pictures.

Take Fun Pictures on the Go-  My camera equipment can get awfully heavy so we took turns with the big camera and I relied on my mobile phone when I wanted to capture details quickly and easily. I love Camera+ and Instagram for sharing fun pictures on the go. It is such a fun way to take a quick photo, add an effect, and send it to family and friends to keep them updated on how your day is going.

Get a Family Photo- I will admit that I looked for someone who had a camera like ours to take our family picture. If you have a point-and-shoot,  finding someone to snap a picture should be really easy.

When I handed off my camera I switched it to Aperture Mode (Av on my Canon) and changed the Aperture to f/7.1. I was really worried we would be out of focus and Disney is a very busy place. I then used Picnik to crop as many of the background people out of our picture.

They have people all over the parks taking pictures and you can have them snap your picture for their portrait and then ask them to take one with your camera too. They know the best spots with good lighting and backgrounds for your family photos. Best of all, they know how to work cameras.

Capture the Nighttime Magic- Nighttime magic was tricky to photograph and may require a little research on your part. When I took pictures of the castle I was so disappointed. The colors were off and lights were blurry. It was not the magical pictures I had hoped for.

Over dinner, I went on this Disney Photography Blog and found this information how to capture the nighttime parade. I took test shots after our dinner until I was happy with the lighting and able to capture some of the nighttime beauty at Disney.

What are your best tips for doing Disney on a budget? Do you have any tips for making the most of your time at the parks? Please share!

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Below is our big reveal to our children when we told them they were heading to Disney. It was the thrill of a lifetime to get to surprise them with the news that they would be seeing the Magic Kingdom for the very first time. It still brings tears to my eyes that we got to have such an incredibly magical day with them!

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Happy Holidays, Friends!

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

I hope you all have a wonderful and blessed Thanksgiving. We are off on a secret mission to surprise our children. We have packed our bags and are on our way to the Sunshine State to see both sets of grandparents and to share a Thanksgiving meal with them.

The ultimate in surprises is happening this week and we can’t wait to surprise our kids with a trip to Disney and see their faces when we tell them that we are going there for the day. It has been an extremely difficult secret to keep and I am hoping to capture the big reveal on camera. I have lots of surprises in store for this trip and I am so thankful that we get to do this as a family.

We hope you have a very Happy Thanksgiving! Sending lots of love to each of you this holiday!

Content will resume as normal on Monday. Until then, enjoy ever moment that you can with your precious families!

xoxo,

Amy

Happy Halloween from the Clark Family

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Happy Halloween to your family from ours!  I wanted to share with you a few of the pictures I took of the kids in their Halloween costumes. This year the requests were to be a Ninja and to be Rapunzel.

Last year’s fairy costume that we picked up from Cracker Barrel magically transformed into the perfect Rapunzel dress. After buying a terrible, terrible wig to go with it from the local costume shop, I found myself at the Disney store to pick up the authentic Rapunzel hair that she could play dress-up with all year long. She was so excited when she saw it and was willing to compromise on not having the official Rapunzel dress as long as she could wear a pink sleeved shirt underneath to make it look like the real Rapunzel.

The Ninja outfit I picked up at Walmart for  $12. Of course the only way I could get my son to agree to do pictures with his sister were in full Ninja attack mode.  After we were done with the photos, I couldn’t stop laughing and looking at them. I think my daughter has her mama’s flair for the dramatics. I wonder if I will be watching her on the stage like my parents watched me.

Not to be outdone by our children, my husband and I schemed and dreamed of costumes for months this year.  I don’t mean to gush, but it is moments like this when I look at my husband and think, “How did I get this lucky?” I have been with this man since he was fifteen. Our parents used to drop us off for our dates because neither of us could drive. We were high school sweethearts that really worked out, and I think I know everything a girl could know about him.  Then something like this comes up, and he surprises me.

In case you couldn’t tell from the pictures, we went as Marry Poppins and Bert from my favorite childhood movie.  We both wanted to make sure we got the look right.  The clothes we both already owned. The bow tie I am wearing was his  from our third prom together (I still had it in a box of mementos from our high school days). I tied grosgrain ribbon around my waist and grabbed the umbrella from my husband’s car. We found Ryan’s hat and gloves at Walmart and my hat from a local costume shop.  The broom was an inexpensive broom from Target that he took the stitching apart and spray painted with a $.98 can of spray paint from Walmart.  I got a sprig of daisies to weave into the hat and just took my giant purse that I use daily as my, “carpet bag.” We probably spent about $20 or so on the whole look, but had the best time making these outfits happen.

I did splurge and buy myself a tube of fancy red lipstick. I have always wanted to wear red lipstick, but never felt confident enough to do it.  I am hoping to wear this on a date night or two.  The color is Red Zin from Bare Escentuals and I am really liking it for a little something different.  Maybe this old girl can surprise her husband once in awhile too!

Happy Halloween, everyone! Have a safe and fun night with your family and friends this evening!

Watching Your Pumpkins Grow

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

It was another fun day at the Pumpkin Patch this year. Some of us (ahem) may have had more fun than others. I finally have some photographic proof that sometimes I am a fun mom. Just sometimes.

Every year I take a picture of them doing the same pose at the same pumpkin patch so that I can see how big my little pumpkins are getting. Sometimes I forget how different they look from year to year. Seeing it all side by side… well, it makes me happy and makes my heart ache all at the same time. The differences are quite remarkable to me.

Try doing this at your pumpkin patch and see what results you find. Line them all up in a Picnik collage and marvel at how big your kids are getting. Those pumpkins grow so fast, don’t they?

Sweet & Simple Mother’s Day Gift

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

I hope everyone had a wonderful Mother’s Day. We really celebrated simply this year and it was still just as perfect. This year I decided to drop the Mother’s Day gifts the day before Mother’s Day so I could really enjoy a day to myself too this year. I don’t know about you, but there is nothing like a fresh bouquet of flowers bought just for me. I know our moms love them just as much so I headed over to the store to pick up a pretty  bouquet for each of them.

Supermarket bouquets can sometimes not feel as special as the fancy florist so I love to add my own little touches to the bouquets to make them a little more special. You can find rolls of tulle over in the craft section of your superstores or in the wedding section of large craft stores. Cut off a long strip of it to tie an elegant bow on your bouquet.

This bouquet was wrapped in pink and I thought this bow matched it perfectly.  Sometimes the smaller bouquets are wrapped in plain plastic. I love to fill the plastic out with colored tissue paper on the outside or have the floral department wrap the flowers for me.  Don’t forget to take those price tag stickers off the outside. After all, don’t we prefer if people don’t know how cheap we really are?

We made little personalized cards that we printed on 4×6 photo paper. I slipped these between the plastic layers and I am sure the little cards were saved as refrigerator mementos, as all personalized cards are. Just like the teacher cards that I made last week, start by uploading your photo to Picnik. Under the CREATE tab,  select EFFECTS, then select the BLACK & WHITE option to change your picture to a black & white image. While still under the CREATE tab, select the option for TEXT. Once you are in text, put in your message for your mother. Make sure not to put your text all of the way to the edge of the photo because it may cut it off when you print it. It is better to get it a little further in to assure that you don’t waste ink, paper, or your time!  The font I choose for these images was Pupcat. You can do all of this with a free membership to Picnik.

We also framed our favorite picture from Easter and then tied it with another tulle bow. I found inexpensive frames for each of our grandmas and I printed out the photos on my photo printer. We knew these would be a real hit with our grandmas. After all, what kind of grandmas would we have if she didn’t love our pictures?

Then we shocked them with our elegant flower deliveries. I don’t know who enjoyed that part more.

Happy Mother’s Day to our moms. We love you both!

I had a fantastic Mother’s Day. We went to church, I mixed up the waffle batter, then climbed back into my bed to be served. The kids loved serving breakfast to me in my bed and were very professional about checking on me often to see if anything else might be needed. I finished a library book, climbed out of bed for a half price frappe at Starbucks, and then climbed back in bed for the rest of the day. I got lots of hugs, kisses, storytelling, and tickles in with my children. I did not cook anything all day. I did not do one chore. I did not move from my bed hardly at all. It was perfect. It cost $2.22 for the whole day. It was just what I needed.


What did you do for Mother’s Day? Tell me what you did to celebrate YOUR day and Mother’s Day for your family & friends?


Our Thanksgiving Feast

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday! It was so wonderful to take time off from the blog and get ready for the holidays that I think I just might have to do that the week of Christmas too! I am having a hard time getting back in the swing of things now that I have had that time off though.  I did a lot of crafting, cooking, and tackling some of  our holiday shopping & chores. It was definitely not a vacation, but it was really nice to get to spend more quality time in the evenings with my family.

Our Thanksgiving feast this year was really special because I got to have both sides of our family together for the big dinner. Pictured above were the beautiful crafts that my children created at school that adorned the kid’s table this year. I have to say, with beauty like that, who needs to splurge for fancy centerpieces!

We started the day off with the annual Thanksgiving Day parade. The kids really seemed to love the parade this year and the Rockettes were a huge hit with Emily.  Next year I am hoping to incorporate this Thanksgiving Parade Bingo into our annual traditions!

This year I was in charge of the turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, pumpkin cornbread, the cheese ball, and the punch. I tried to make as much as I could ahead of time, but left the turkey, cornbread, and gravy for last. This year, I opted for two turkey breasts instead of the whole turkey since no one is really a big fan of the dark meat. I had thirteen pounds of turkey breast and only had enough for a sandwich leftover. Now I am craving leftover turkey sandwiches so I am thinking I am going to make another one just for us to enjoy now that the festivities are over.

These turkeys did turn out great, but I will admit that I am still learning about turkey roasting. I watched a lot of Martha Stewart Thanksgiving episodes before I made these birds! I will share the recipe with you next year for another idea for your Thanksgiving recipes.

More importantly though, I got to spend time with my family!

My brother & sister.

My husband’s side of the family (mom, dad, sister-in-law, & us)

My mom & dad.

My grandma & mom.

My grandma-in-law, sister-in-law, & my mother-in-law.

My sister’s family (my nephews, sister, & brother-in-law)

My little family.

I hope you had a wonderful holiday too that was spent with those you love! We are excited to share more ideas for the holiday season and ways to enjoy simple celebrations on a budget!  I will be dusting off lots of our older entries and sharing more on our Facebook page as we prepare for the holidays!

A Family Day at the Pumpkin Patch

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

It is my favorite family day of the entire year. Pure and unadulterated pumpkin loving and picking for the entire family. My heart practically bursts every year that we get to do this together and this year was no exception. This year though my heart was just bursting and my eyes were all welling up as I saw my kids in the same exact spots as just two years ago. Yes, they looked completely different than they did before. They had to duck in places that used to easily slide under. They reached spots that they couldn’t reach before. Taking them was a whole heck of a lot easier. We all seemed to enjoy it more than the time before.  Family fun was even more fun this year.

It is bittersweet to watch them grow.

Happy and a little sad all at the same time.

Family Travel: Exploring Wilmington, North Carolina

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

I got the opportunity to travel to Wilmington, North Carolina for a trip with Homewood Suites by Hilton to explore the family-friendly attractions and budget-friendly travel that you can find there. The trip was hosted by Homewood Suites in conjunction with the Wilmington/Cape Fear Coast Convention & Visitor’s Bureau. I had no expectations for what to expect from the trip, other than the opportunity to have a little getaway and I was thrilled when the company said that I could bring along a guest. Unfortunately, the kids had already started school and  my husband would need to stay with them. It is rare that I get to share a trip with anyone else so I was excited to bring my best friend along for the weekend. Who could turn down a girl’s weekend that is all-expenses paid?

We set off for Wilmington and got to stay at the beautiful Homewood Suites by Hilton Wilmington Mayfaire which was a short 5 minute drive to Wrightsville Beach. I have stayed at a lot of hotels over the course of the years with my business, but I have never stayed at a hotel that offered more amenities to their guests than this one.

Room rates start at $120 a night and the company admits that they are not the cheapest in town, but that they do strive to offer the best service and the best amenities for their guest.  I am used to paying for my internet, some dry cereal for breakfast, and paying for any extra frills that I might desire so I really was genuinely shocked by what the hotel offered.

All of the rooms offer a full kitchenette that includes a full-size refrigerator, a two-burner stove, cooking utensils/tools with service for four,  and a dishwasher. For no additional charge (other than the actual price of groceries), you can call ahead and have them stock your refrigerator for you before you even arrive for your trip!

The hotel offers a free huge hot breakfast seven days a week and a bigger bonus for family’s on a budget, was a “Manager’s Reception,” dinner Monday through Thursday for free, that included a full delicious dinner, a kid’s buffet for dinner, and wine/beer for the parents while you are staying there.  As an example of the dinner choices, two of the offerings the nights we were there were tortilla-crusted tilapia and home style meatloaf including two side dishes. I have never been to a hotel that offered a full dinner and full breakfast  for free for its guests and this is available at any of the Homewood Suites locations.

The rooms also offered DVD players and (for no charge)  you could select a family-friendly movie to watch with your kids. Baskets of cookies were available for a free late night snack and a free coffee & tea bar were always open. These little inclusion are the things that I love to look for in hotels especially when it comes to keeping my children entertained and fed well.  The coffee bar is a tired vacationing parent’s dream and it is the first time I have actually loved coffee at a hotel.

Other important inclusions were free wireless internet, grills on-site if you wanted to grill for your lunch, and they even had a little putt-putt golfing for the kids near the pool and hot tub that didn’t cost an extra dime.

Yeah, all of that starting at just $120. I figure just the breakfast, kitchenette in every room, the family entertainment, and the free dinner with beverages would really help to keep our family on budget.

If you were wondering just how pale I am, this picture speaks a thousand words. I was really missing my giant beach umbrella, but used the shadow of my friend Becky and an expert tuck and pull to allow my dress to keep me covered at the beach. I always chant to myself that someday I will be a beautiful old lady and everyone will envy my pale skin… at least that is what I like to tell myself!

In all seriousness the beach was simply stunning and I loved dipping my toes in the water and collecting shells for the kids while enjoying the peacefulness of the ocean. It was beautiful and it was so nice that it was only minutes from the hotel!

The Wilmington/Cape Fear Coast Convention & Visitor’s Bureau were so gracious to allow us the opportunity to explore Wilmington’s family-friendly offerings. We toured the Battleship North Carolina, The Children’s Museum of Wilmington, the Cape Fear Serpentarium, a horse drawn tour of downtown Wilmington, North Carolina Aquarium Fort Fisher, and sampled delicious seafood chowder at Michael’s Seafood, took two boat tours of the beautiful beach, downtown shopped, and enjoyed all of the town’s offerings.

I can’t wait to share with you more as it gets closer to vacation season about my experience in both North Carolina and Orlando for some fun ideas for family travel. I will say that of the places we visited, I loved the Children’s Museum of Wilmington and the North Carolina Aquarium Forth Fisher the absolute best and can’t wait to revisit them for a trip with my own family. The enthusiasm of the employees was enchanting and I know that we could spend a whole day just visiting these two spots alone.

I have to say my favorite part was just getting the opportunity to relax! We spent an evening window-shopping in the Mayfaire shops, grabbed a delicious pizza one night, popped popcorn and watched silly girl movies like, “Fame,” and ate ice cream cones. I loved everything about Wilmington and can see it as a new destination for our family!

In full disclosure, while I was there, I found a new place to write and will be joining the SuiteTrip website for the next few months (through Homewood Suites)  to share ideas on budget-friendly travel and ideas for making travel enjoyable as a family. I can’t wait to share more ideas with you there! It was an unexpected new freelance job that I am really looking forward to!

Disclaimer: We were invited by Homewood Suites in conjunction with the Wilmington/Cape Fear Coast Convention & Visitor’s Bureau. for an all-expenses paid trip to experience Wilmington, NC  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 this particular 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!

Where is your favorite family vacation spot? Where is somewhere you would like to explore? Feel free to share!

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!

Back-to-School Celebration Feasts With Recipes

Monday, August 30th, 2010

I hope you will allow me the beauty of indulging in my endless brag book of photos of my children. There is nothing like the freshness of a new year, a new opportunity to do better, a new opportunity to be better, new teachers, new friends, and the same old sappy mom who won’t stop taking your picture. Ah, some things just will never change!

Emily is all tutus, ballet shoes, and anything purple, pink, or sparkly. She is wildly dramatic, has the sweetest little voice in the world, and is fiercely independent. She plays pretend for hours with her Little People and in her little doll house.

This year she was off for her last year of preschool. My heart just aches when I think that next year my little baby will be going off to kindergarten. I am savoring this last year together more than I can say.

Ethan & Emily started on two different days this year and so we  had two fun-filled celebrations for each of them. I have never cooked so much in my life, but they each got to request their favorite main dish and a favorite dessert to celebrate their big day at school. I look forward to having one giant celebration next year to celebrate them both at once, but I might have to make an investment into another celebration plate to make that happen!

Emily’s celebration request was a taco bar and chocolate cupcakes with pink icing. I have a feeling you are going to really love this celebration dinner because it is thrifty and absolutely delicious!

This taco meat is the best taco meat in the world- truly! The mixture of tomato sauce and chicken broth take away the beefy taste and give it just the right hint of flavoring. Since my kids can’t handle the heavy spices, we modified the chili powder to 1 teaspoon and skipped the cayenne pepper.

Beef Tacos (Courtesy of  The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook)

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 onion, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced (I use a tablespoon of the bottled minced garlic)
2 tablespoons chili powder (adjust to your personal taste)
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt
1 pound (90 percent lean) ground beef (or use a higher fat beef and rinse the meat)
1/2 cup smooth canned tomato sauce
1/2 cup low sodium chicken broth
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
8 taco shells

Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and cook until softened, about five minutes. Stir in the garlic, spices, and 1 teaspoon salt and cook until fragrant about thirty seconds. Stir in the ground beef and cook, breaking it up with a wooden spoon until no longer pink, about five minutes. Stir in the tomato sauce, broth, vinegar, and sugar until thickened, about ten minutes. Season with salt to taste. Divide the filling evenly among the taco shells and serve passing any desired accompaniments separately.

Make-Ahead Version: The filling can be fully prepared, cooled, covered tightly and refrigerated for up to three days. Reheat over medium-low heat, adding additional water to adjust the consistency.

These cupcakes. These cupcakes. No words. The cake is moist  and gets its beautiful texture from a few pantry ingredients and a little boiling water. The batter looks like a watery-looking mess and turns  out to be the most delicious cupcake I have ever made in my life! The cake was moist and flavorful. Use a batter bowl or a ladle to scoop the watery batter into the lined cupcake pan.

Moist Chocolate Cupcakes (Courtesy of The Farm Chicks)

1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar (not packed)
1 3/4 cup flour
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 tsp vanilla
1 cup boiling water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Fill muffin pans with 24 cupcake liners.  Sift dry ingredients into a mixing bowl.  (I recommend a batter bowl to easily pour the batter into the cupcake liners).  Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla.  Beat with a mixer for about two minutes, occasionally scraping the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.  Add the boiling water, and beat, just until blended.  (Don’t be alarmed – the batter appears watery).  Evenly ladle (or pour) the batter into the liners.  Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the center of the cupcakes springs back when lightly touched.  Cool and frost.

I am not a fan of heavy frostings, in fact, I don’t even really like buttercream frosting. That being said, this frosting is my favorite frosting in the world. It is light, delicious, and reminds me a little of marshmallow fluff. It is not a decorator frosting, but decorating isn’t important if the frosting tastes like heaven. For the perfect little swirls on top of your cupcakes,  you can use a Ziploc bag and cut the corner to pipe the frosting on top or use a 2D tip that is gathering dust in your baking supplies and hasn’t been used since that last batch of Snickerdoodle Cupcakes. Get ready for a good old-fashioned mind-blowing frosting perfect for the frosting-haters.

PS- Be sure to break out your stand mixer for this or be like me and forget to do it and update your Facebook profile, tweet a bit, watch a You Tube video, secure a new freelance job, and do this all while simultaneously beating the crud out of those egg whites. Yeah, that really happened.

No Cook 7 Minute Frosting (Courtesy of Food.com)

3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup boiling water
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
3 unbeaten egg whites
food coloring

Mix sugar, cream of tartar, vanilla and egg whites. Add boiling water. Beat on high til mixture forms peaks (like meringue) approx 5-7 minutes.

My sweet boy was ready to head off to second grade. I know many of you have read my site for many years. I still can’t believe that I have been doing this since he was only a year old. For many of you, this kid has been growing up right before your very eyes!

This year it is all Pokemon and Bakugan and, more recently, a lot of the magical Harry Potter. We started the tradition of reading the series together at night before he goes to bed. When he bursts through the door he begs for another chapter. One of the naughtiest thing he does is hide books under his pillow to indulge until the wee hours of the night. He reminds me so much of my bookworm self.

Ethan’s celebration feast was my homemade spaghetti and meatballs, homemade bread sticks, with the new family favorite…peanut butter balls.

Homemade Spaghetti & Meatballs

For Sauce (sauce recipe adapted from AllRecipes Dinner Tonight Cookbook):

3/4 cup chopped onion (we omitted because we don’t like onions)
5 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup olive oil
2 (28 ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes, undrained
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon white sugar
1 (6 ounce) can tomato paste
3/4 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

For Meatballs (this recipe will make enough for a double batch, half to eat and half to freeze):

1/2  cup plain bread crumbs
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons whole milk
2 tablespoons ketchup
1 1/2 cups grated Romano (or Parmesan)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1  teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound Italian turkey sausages (remove the casings)
1 pound ground beef

To make sauce: Saute onion and garlic in 1/4 cup olive oil until onion is translucent. Stir in tomatoes, salt, and sugar. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer one hour and thirty minutes. Stir in tomato paste, basil, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and meatballs and simmer thirty more minutes. Gently break apart the tomatoes with the back of your wooden spoon.  Five to ten minutes before serving, add in your meatballs and then serve over a big bowl of your favorite pasta.

To make meatballs: In a medium bowl, stir together the bread crumbs, parsley, eggs, milk, ketchup, Romano cheese, and the salt and pepper. Add the turkey & ground beef, then gently stir to combine. Make your meatballs the standard size and put them on a baking sheet. Bake at 400 degrees for ten to fifteen minutes. When done cooking, drop in the baked meatballs for a few minutes. This will be just as delicious with a lot less mess and fewer calories.

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I add a 1/4 cup of extra flour to make sure  the dough is sticky, but not too sticky. I cover the whole cookie sheet with plastic wrap and pop it in my fridge until our dinner hour. About a half hour before our dinner, I pull it out of the fridge and let it rest on the counter while our oven preheated.

Homemade Bread Sticks (Courtesy of Chocolate on My Cranium)

Dissolve:
2 TBSP sugar and 1 TBSP yeast in 1 1/2 cups warm water

Add:
3 cups flour and 1/2 tsp. salt. Mix and knead for 5 minutes with your stand mixer (using the dough hook)

Let rest for 10 minutes. Melt 1/2 cube (4 TBSP) of butter in a bowl in the microwave and pour into a 11×17 pan (jelly roll pan). Place dough into pan then lift and turn over so that both sides of the dough are covered in the melted butter. Press dough into pan. Sprinkle with desired seasonings (I love the Italian Cheese Blend cheeses and a sprinkle of garlic salt all over). Let rest 15 minutes. Cut into strips with pizza cutter. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Recut with a pizza cutter and serve.

Our dessert was courtesy of last week’s notebook at The Southern Plate. I halved the recipe just to see if my kids would love these. The results were delicious and satisfying. The oats combined with the peanut butter and the dried milk create a dense stick-to-your ribs treat perfect for after-school or as a yummy snack before bed. My husband said they reminded him of cookie dough. I will definitely be making these again!

In fact, the bread sticks and chocolate cupcakes were both featured in our notebooks (and were notebook experiments) which is why notebook day is my favorite day of the week. We have gained so many family traditions and meal ideas from it. I love experimenting and being inspired daily by bloggers.  You all are wonderful!

After all of that, I collapsed into a puddle of endless dishes combined with a puddle of pure exhaustion. It didn’t matter though because I am so proud that we have these moments to cherish forever!

Do you have any special traditions for celebrating the back-to-school season? I would love to hear them!