Spend More Time With Your Kids: 13 Fun Activities to Get You Through the Winter Months

Oh cold-weather mommies, I feel your pain right now. I really do. Not only do we have to watch the summer sunshine fade into 4:30 pm sunsets and frigid temperatures, we also have to find ways to entertain our offspring without the aid of outdoor spaces. It’s not easy, and I’ll be the first to admit that our TV sees a lot of extra action between November and April.

My oldest two are in school full-time now so the burden of daytime entertainment falls squarely on the shoulders of their teachers these days (yay, public schools!). However my littlest man is a recent walker which quickly transitioned to all out terrorist, so the need to figure out some indoor activities is once again rearing it’s ugly head. If you too are stuck in the winter child-rearing doldrums, check out this list of some fun ideas to keep you and your little ones engaged through all of the snowy months!

13 Indoor Activities for the Winter Months

1. Not too many of us have room to install a ball pit in our homes, but aside from being bacteria magnets in public places, they’re a great way for kids to get their crazies out. Try inflating a blow-up kiddie pool in your house and then filling it with these balls (available from Target as well as a range of other retailers). When they’re done playing, store the balls in the bag and deflate the pool. It’s as easy as that!

2. How about bringing some of their favorite outdoor activities inside? It’s easy to make your own hopscotch mat, so when they need to jump around a bit (and seriously, when don’t they need to do that?!), just unroll and get playing!

3. There’s snow on the ground. Again. You think you remember that grass used to be green but it’s been so long since something living was growing outside that you’re not really sure anymore. Well, you know what? It’s time to embrace that white stuff and take the play outdoors! Check out this fun tutorial on making colored “glass” out of ice, food coloring and water balloons. The kids can take turns hiding and finding them or you can create a treasure hunt game with points and prizes assigned to each color. Or you can just send them outside, either way, they’re playing!

4. Speaking of the fluffy white stuff, here’s another fun activity that we do with our kids every year – food coloring and squirt bottles. My oldest two boys always request red and green so they can make Mario and Luigi snow, but this mom gave her kids the rainbow so they could literally create one for themselves. Plastic squirt bottles (available from Michael’s) are a great way to store the colored liquid, but if you don’t have those on hand any old spray bottles will do.

5. Build a fort! If you have the time, you can make it super duper fabulous like this amazing DIY teepee, but if not, go for broke with pillows, chairs, blankets and cushions. Kids can get lost in a fort for hours, and if you give them some direction on what to play (Explorers! Princesses! Peter Pan and the Lost Boys! Mario & Luigi! Yup, them again), they’ll have that much more fun.

6. Craft sticks + paper plates + balloons = indoor ping pong. Brilliant!

7. Kids love cupcakes (true story). Kids love Mr. Potato Head (also a true story). Combine the two into a cupcake Mr. Potato Head activity for a fun way to unleash their inner artist. Sure, they’ll be all hopped up on sugar when they’re done and you’ll be all, “What now? They won’t stop climbing the ceiling!”, but just move on to another activity on the list for Phase 2 and know the inevitable sucrose-induced crash will lead to quiet soon enough.

8. Remember not too long ago when the leaves were brilliantly tinged with all the colors of autumn? I know, dig deep into the happy place in your mind, it’s there. To help everyone remember, try using some craft time to make these fun trees with cotton swabs and paint with the kids. They’ll love it and the cotton ball applicators will assure no one fights over who gets the best paintbrush.

9. Spies are cool so try turning your boring hallway into a super spy training zone. Zigzag streamers to create a maze that kids need to make their way through without touching. It’s like the limbo, only bendy-er.

10. Here’s a great idea for winter or summer break. Make your kids an “I’m Not Bored” jar and fill it with slips of paper with age-appropriate activities on them. Some examples could be: paint a portrait of your best friend, play hide and seek, build a fort, construct a building out of toilet paper rolls. Try thinking of things you know your kids would love to do and stuff them all in there!

11. Children have a lot of energy, caged children have even more. Try making this simple and fun physical activity cube and start rolling! Kids will love hearing whether they need to spin in a circle, flap their arms like a bird or jump five times next. You can add any activity you think your kids will like, and set it all to music to have yourself a crazy dance party!

12. Night bowling - how fun is this?! I know the last thing on your mind right now is keeping the little ones up late playing games, but with the sun setting before most of us even consider it nighttime, you’ll have plenty of time to play this super fun game. Creating it is easy, it’s no more than empty water bottles and glow sticks, and your kids will be guaranteed to keep asking to play another string.

13. Grab that discarded pool noodle, wipe away your tears of winter sorrow and saw that sucker in half. A pool noodle is great for flotation, but a dismembered pool noodle is even better as a marble race track! Attach the top ends to the stairs and let your little Nascar enthusiasts go!

What activities do you do with your kids to make it through the winter months?

 

Eat Better: Homemade Bolognesé Sauce

People that make their own pasta sauce used to mystify me. It seemed a laborious process, akin to drying your wet unmentionables on an outdoor clothesline or knitting yourself a sweater that is totally out of style and season by the time you actually finish it. Why make sauce when you can just buy a jar of Ragú, right? Then, the day I came home from the hospital with my oldest son, my mom made me some fresh pasta with this sauce on top and it was a tomato-based epiphany. Sure, it was right on the heels of 28 hours of labor followed by two days of hospital dining so anything homemade would have seemed the pinnacle of gourmet, but one thing this girl knows is food and I knew it was beyond good.

This sauce is simple to make, doesn’t need to simmer all day, will impress anyone at your table and freezes so well that I keep containers of it stocked at all times for a last minute, healthy dinner option. Seriously, why buy Ragú when you can just make this sauce at home?

While the name says ‘Bolognesé’, it departs from traditional form in that there is no wine or milk in the sauce. It’s chock-full of three kinds of meat, lots of tomato and small-diced veggies so you can totally go all Jessica Seinfeld “Deceptively Delicious” on your wee diners and they won’t even look up from their plates to complain. I am not at all a veal eater but for some reason in this sauce I don’t mind it. It plays nicely with the ground sirloin and pork so I definitely suggest keeping it in if you too are on the fence.

This recipe makes a lot, enough to serve at least 12, so unless your last name is Duggar and you actually need all of this in one sitting, spoon the leftovers into portioned containers and stick them in the freezer once they’ve cooled to room temperature. When you need a quick meal, just pop a portion in the microwave for 3-4 minutes to defrost it enough to remove it from the container, and then slow simmer in a covered pot until just bubbling. If you do this right when you start the pasta water, they generally finish cooking at the same time. Be sure to bookmark or print this page too if you’re going to be serving for guests, it’s impossible to make this and not hand out the recipe when you’re done.


I have tinkered with the original recipe my mom gave me a little, and doubling the amount of carrots and celery was one of the ways I did this. With three kids that can go either way with veggies, “hiding” them in this sauce is a surefire way to get them in with no complaints.

 


I force my youngest to flash me his belly at least once during each and every meal prep. I’m not saying it makes the food taste better in the end, but I’m not saying it doesn’t either…


The sauce that made “bottled” a dirty word in our house. 


Try serving this sauce over lots of different types of pasta. I usually go with Rigatoni or Penné for parties because it’s easier, but the kids prefer Spaghetti when it’s just us. Fresh Tortellini or Ravioli? Total mouthgasm. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Homemade Bolognesé Sauce

Ingredients
2 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 lb. ground white veal
1/2 lb. ground pork
1/2 lb. ground sirloin
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped carrot (small-diced)
1 cup chopped celery (small-diced)
1 tsp. chopped garlic
1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 bay leaf
Two 28 oz. cans crushed tomatoes (look for the San Marzano variety tomatoes if you can find them, otherwise just use a very good quality brand. San Marzano can be easily found at Whole Foods, if you have one nearby)
4 tbsp. tomato paste
Two 15 oz. cans tomato sauce
1 tsp sugar
Dried pasta
Freshly grated parmesan cheese

Directions
Heat the oil in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the ground meats and season with 3/4 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. pepper. Cook until the meat has browned, about 5 minutes. Stir with a wooden spoon to break it up into small bits. Drain the browned meat into a colander and set aside.

Add the onion, carrot, celery, garlic, basil, oregano, bay leaf, and the remaining salt and pepper to the already heated pan. Cook until the vegetables are soft, about 5 minutes. Put the meat back into the pot and add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste, sugar and 2 cups of water. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat then lower the heat to medium-low and continue simmering uncovered for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Remove the bay leaf.

Serve over your favorite pasta and sprinkle generously with fresh parmesan cheese. Await praise from your family or friends (seriously, it’s coming).

*NOTE: Because ground meat is generally sold in 1 pound packages, I like to split these up and make two pots at once so I have a lot to freeze. If you choose to do this, do not make it all in one big pot because it will not reduce properly and you’ll get a watery sauce. Use two pots and duplicate the instructions for each.

 

Beautify: Spice Up Your Everyday With Some of Our Favorite Things

Today we’re listing some of our very favorite things in order to accomplish yet another of our ‘Resolutions for the Real You’ – beautifying your life! Think of us like Oprah, only we’re totally not rich, don’t have our own show and we’re not giving any of this stuff away for free. But it’s cool! You should try it! Or at very least check out our list of some fun stuff to help you add little bits of beauty to your every day and hopefully you’ll get some ideas of your own. Beauty is, after all, everywhere you look.

Beautify Your Cell Phone
We don’t all walk around wearing the same clothes so there’s no need for our phones to do so either. Dress it up with one of these super fabulous, totally customizable cell phone covers from Le Papier Studio. You can choose your design, colors and initials or monogram as well. I went with purple and orange with my first initial and my iPhone has never looked so good!

Beautify Your Sleeping Baby
Let’s get real here, the absolute last thing in the world that needs to be made cuter is a sleeping baby, but that’s not going to stop me from trying. When I was pregnant with my third little man, Jenny gave me a pack of Aden + Anais Bamboo Muslin Swaddle Wraps and it was love at first sight. If you’ve never tried these and you have a baby, or know someone who has a baby, they are a must! They’re huge which is awesome for those of us that fall in the “swaddle-challenged” category but beyond mummifying our little ones, they’re perfect to spread out as a blanket, use as a nursing cover or double as a lightweight car seat cover in the warmer months. Even better, they come in tons of beyond adorable patterns and colors to match any style or nursery palette.

Beautify Your Inner Mr. Magoo
So you can’t see two feet in front of your face without glasses or contacts, that’s no reason to sacrifice style. I’ve been proudly spectacled since the third grade so I’ve had many, many years in which to find my favorite places to buy glasses that didn’t look they came off the “free with insurance” rack at Sear’s. Warby Parker is my current go-to for glasses that are stylish, inexpensive and that do good. Started in Brooklyn, NY, Warby Parker prides themselves not only on keeping their prices low, but also on their ‘Buy a Pair, Give a Pair’ program which gives a pair of eyeglasses to someone in need for every pair purchased. They also have an awesome home try on program where you can choose up to five of your favorite styles and have them sent to you at home for free to see how you like them.

Beautify Your Kitchen
Not everyone likes to cook, but eating is a fact of life so sometimes you just have to put on your big girl pants and get it done. And if you’re doing it anyway, why not make it infinitely cuter with these super adorable Owl Measuring Cups from West Elm. They may not turn you into Martha overnight, but it’s a good start.

Beautify The Lives of Others
All the pretty things in the world are fine and good, but nothing feels quite like helping someone else in need. Check out Kiva, a seriously amazing organization that allows you to grant small loans (starting at $25) to would-be entrepreneurs in underprivileged countries around the world. You can go through proposals until you find someone you would like to help, fund their venture, get repaid, then start all over again. 100% of your money goes directly to the person who is looking to better their life and the lives of their family so you know your loan, no matter how big or small, is directly creating big changes.

Beautify An Old Piece of Furniture
Well, if there’s a graceful way to transition from charity towards others to prettifying a beat up dresser, I don’t know what it is so I’ll just keep going here. I’ve been super into stencils lately, and not the kind you  see on the walls of old Italian restaurants either. Stencils have come a long way since your grandma used them to turn her kitchen into a floral wonderland, they’re available in all sorts of chic geometric prints now and can truly transform a worn out dresser into a one of a kind treasure.

   

Beautify Your Freezing Self
It’s cold, subarctic temperatures cold, but that doesn’t mean you need to flake on fashion to stay warm. Once the temps dip below a certain level, it’s time to bundle up and when that happens, there’s no better company to turn to than The North Face. No matter what your style – sleek, sporty or glam – they’ve got you covered. And now that the holidays are over, it’s easy to find tons of coats and jackets on deep discount as well.

Beautify Your Eyes
The Naked Palette from Urban Decay is a cult favorite for a reason – it’s beyond awesome. Seriously, whether you love makeup or just deal with it, this is the eyeshadow palette for you. Filled with 12 shades ranging from nude to deep browns to shimmery black, this will allow you to expertly craft a chic understated eye or an all-out glam smoky one. It comes with their equally praised eyeshadow primer and a brush to get you going so check it out and mix and match until you find the combos that work for you.

Beautify Your Ceiling
You spend half of your life in bed, might as well be happy when you look up, right? Take some inspiration from some of these fearless nursery designers and don’t stop at the walls – keep going up for an extra splash of sass and something to look up at beyond white. One nursery features a playful pattern on the ceiling while the other showcases bold stripes, either way you can tweak this trend to make it work for you and your style.

   

Beautify Your Coffee Table
You need somewhere to put your drink down after you’ve gotten all the kids to bed and slumped onto the sofa, so why not make it somewhere fun and uniquely you? Check out these fun paper coasters and melamine trays from WH Hostess, totally customizable to your colors and personality and relatively inexpensive to boot. I ordered the coasters for myself and for Christmas gifts and at $15 for a pack of 36, they’re a total steal.

Beautify Your Floor
One of the quickest ways to give a room a quick upgrade, is to throw down a new rug. If you need some inspiration, hop on over to always stylish and amazingly on-trend Jonathan Adler to get started. There’s something for every room and while you’re there, check out the accessories and lighting, you won’t go wrong.

Beautify The Future
Whitney Houston put it best when she said “I believe the children are our future.” C’mon, you know you want to stop what you’re doing to belt out that song right now so go ahead, no one’s looking. And when you’re done singing out of tune, let’s talk about one of the best things ever to beautify – children. I have to say, of all the charities out there, none are so near and dear to my heart as St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. I spent a year interning in their fundraising department in college and to say it’s an inspirational place would be a massive understatement. No other institution has done so much to further research and advancements in childhood cancers and they accept everyone, regardless of ability to pay. Helping is easy, you can donate, buy books, volunteer at any of their various fundraising efforts, even round your purchase up to the next dollar to have the change donated at a variety of major retailers. Click this link to see what can be done in your area.

Beautify Your Walls
Art should mean something. It should speak to your soul or call to your inner creative side so when choosing art for the walls of your home, there’s nothing better to put up than family photos displayed on canvas. Sure, this is not the kind of art you’ll find adorning the walls in NYC galleries, but your house is your own gallery so fill it with things that mean something to you. There are a ton of places out there that will turn your prints into canvas, but I like Canvas People the most for their fast turnaround time and constantly available coupons. Become a fan on Facebook and you’ll get either a free 8×10 canvas or a $50 coupon good toward any other available size.

Beautify Your Surroundings
Overwater beach bungalows at the Four Seasons Resort in Bora Bora. Um, a girl can dream, right? Man, now I really do wish I was Oprah.

Get Organized: Creative Ways to Display & Store Your Child’s Artwork

When my two oldest boys were younger, I could barely keep up with the sheer volume of “original masterpieces” and “one of a kinds” they churned out every day. Then, they started elementary school and now I’m pretty sure that if you want to stop rain forest destruction, you should start by taking crayons and paint brushes away from my children. You guys know the drill, they come home from school with a backpack overflowing with their work from the day, and then you either pile it up on the counter or wait until they leave the room to toss it in the recycle bin (okay fine, the trash, you caught me).

We’re now in year two of full day school and the reams of paper it involves, so I made it my mission to find a way to tame the piles while letting my pint-sized Picassos know that I love seeing what they brought home. Here are some creative, unique and most of all organized ways to display or store your tiny treasures.

Make a Mini Picture Gallery and mix it up by including some chalkboard, dry erase or magnetic surfaces as well so they can add art on the fly.

Scan the images and display them as a collage next to a picture of the budding artist. Don’t have time to pee or brush your teeth anymore, much less tackle this little project? Good news, it’s also available on Etsy.

Scrapbook it.

File them away in labeled folders inside labeled bins. Before you start complaining, you don’t even need to know how to make yours all pretty and perfect like this picture, just click this link to find all the free printables involved. Seriously, in my next life I want to come back as organized as this amazing mama.

Try using floating frames to make an interchangeable display wall.

Hang some wire curtain rods (available on the cheap from Ikea, if you happen to live near one and have five extra hours and enough rationed supplies to make it from the door and back to your car again). Kids can add, subtract and change up their artwork on a whim, love this!

Use three-ring binders and limit yourself to saving only what will fit inside each of them for the year.

Hit up the United States Postal Service. Seriously, if all else fails and you have 2.3 minutes in which you’d like to get everything filed away, yet organized, go grab yourself a free Priority Mail box for each child. Put the box up somewhere out of the way, label it with your child’s name and the year and then fill it up until that last day of school in June. Once they get off the bus for the last time until September (shudder), you seal that bad boy up and store it until the day they want to see how they used to draw Mario figures for every.single.school.assignment. Easy peasy.

Make a gallery display wall

How do you display and store your child’s school projects and artwork?

Eat Better: Power Granola Parfaits

The most common New Year’s resolution around has got to be ‘better diet and exercise’, and with good reason. For the vast majority of us, we could always stand to eat a bit healthier or exercise more. To kick off New Year’s resolutions month, we’re starting with the first and most important meal of the day – breakfast.

I’ve been a big fan of granola for a long time now, especially when mixed with yogurt and fruit. This probably stems from my TCBY Yogurt Parfait obsession in High School (which luckily followed my chocolate frosted doughnuts obsession, that one wouldn’t have ended too well long term). Over the last several years, there has been a lot of talk about added sugar in foods and yogurt and granola were no exception. A lot of store bought granolas are loaded with sugar and fruit-flavored yogurt can oftentimes have more than some types of cookies. The solution: make as much of this at home as possible.

Making your own granola does not mean you need to start dreading your hair and playing hacky sack in grassy areas – it’s actually super simple and will last you for about two weeks. You can add or subtract to your specific tastes, but this is a great base with some really healthy elements, and is even better when mixed with fresh fruit and simple yogurt.

Power Granola Parfaits

Ingredients

For the Granola:

  • 2 cups regular oats
  • 1/3 cup ground flaxseed
  • 1/4 cup wheat germ
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/4 cup chopped slivered almonds
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/3 cup orange juice
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons canola oil
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • Cooking spray
  • 1/3 cup dried cranberries

For the Parfait:

  • Yogurt (I like Stonyfield Farms Organic Vanilla but you can add anything, just watch the added sugar)
  • Fresh Blueberries (or any fruit or fruits of your choice)

Directions for Granola

Preheat oven to 300°.

Combine first 6 ingredients in a medium bowl.
Combine orange juice, honey, and brown sugar in a small saucepan. Cook over medium heat just until sugar dissolves, stirring frequently. Remove from heat; stir in oil and vanilla.
Pour honey mixture over oat mixture, stirring to coat. Spread mixture in a thin layer onto a baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Bake at 300° for 10 minutes; stir well. Bake an additional 10 to 15 minutes or until golden brown.

Spoon granola into a bowl; stir in dried cranberries. Cool completely.

Note: Store completely cooled granola in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.

Recipe originally adapted from Cooking Light.

To Assemble Parfaits

In a medium cup, layer 1/3 cup yogurt, 1/4 cup granola, 1/4 cup blueberries (or desired fruit). Repeat layers again, ending on the fruit.

 

January is New Year’s Resolutions Month!

Look, I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a maker of New Year’s resolutions and I’m fully aware that most only last an average of two weeks for those that even bother to do so. But still, there is something intriguing about the idea of recognizing what areas of your life need improvement and taking action to fix them. To me, New Year’s resolutions can happen anytime, not just on the first day of the year. Some random Wednesday in February is a great time to start eating healthier just as the second Saturday in July is the perfect day to begin exercising or playing more with your kids.

Throughout the entire month of January, we’ll be throwing out ideas of how to conquer some common resolutions, all things that are easily maintained well beyond the usual two week threshold. No grand proclamations of “A New You for the New Year”, just some good ideas on how to improve upon what you’ve already got going. If you’re looking for some healthy recipes to add to your menus or exercise plans that we have tried and we know work or just some tips on how to get better organized or spend more time with your kids, it will be right here all month long. Look for posts on eating better, exercising more, spending more quality time with your kids, trying new things, beautifying yourself or your surroundings, getting more “me time” and better ways to get organized. If you have some great ideas for how to help others achieve what they have planned for 2012 too, feel free to share them, we’re always open to suggestions!

Here’s to a happy and healthy 2012!