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October 4, 2018

Fun ways to involve your young children at every age!

I love to bake. I love my kids. I always daydreamed about the day I would bake with my kids. It would be perfection: We would laugh and smile and get flour in our hair and have chocolate smeared around our mouths. They would take turns cracking eggs and I’d show them how to fish the shells out using bigger shell pieces. They would sit on the counter and turn on the mixer and be amazed as liquid cream whipped up into mounds of fluffy, sweetened clouds of bliss.

It was going to be magical. I could not wait.

Baking is therapeutic to me. I love the quiet rhythm of scooping flour and sometimes sinking my hands into the flour bin and squeezing fistful of the soft powder just for fun. I didn’t know it was “sensory play” at the time, but as a kid I used to love dunking my hands into the huge bin of flour and indulging in the cool, soft, light and almost liquidy sensation it gave. I love the warm smell of cocoa powder and the stress-relieving powers of kneading a smooth dough under my palms (and the amazing smell of fresh bread baking in the house!). It calms me.

Baking with kids is not therapeutic to me. It can actually be pretty stressful. They get eggs everywhere, then lick it off their fingers (ACK! NO!!). They scoop flour, then spill it (ugh). They stir a batter, then tip over the bowl (nooo!!). They constantly beg, “MOMMY CAN I DO THAT MOMMY IT’S MY TURN MOMMY I WANT TO DO THAT!” They sneak bites of chocolate (mmMMmMMMmmm). They sniff at everything (ahhHHHhhHhhH). They squeal with delight when I let them lick freshly churned ice cream off the paddle (which also makes for the cutest chocolate-covered smiling faces!). They smile with closed eyes and then stop talking altogether when they finally get to bite into the freshly-baked cookies they’ve been smelling for the last fifteen minutes.

…Like the ones we had tonight. We used my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe, and somehow it came out wrong. Maybe I made a measurement error while doubling the recipe (I should not have–it already makes a generous amount!). Maybe it was baking with a 2- and 4- year old. Maybe my daughter counted the wrong number of scoops of flour. Whatever the case, the cookies rose too much and were more cakey than chewy. Even as I scooped out hunks of dough to form into logs for freezing, I realized that some logs were really thick and meaty, and some were goopy and weak. They had not been mixed evenly, and now I had seven failed logs of cookie dough (!) to go through before I could make a proper batch again.

Wah-wah.

But the kids didn’t seem to notice, and Ben didn’t mind at all. When we sat down to milk and cookies, everyone smiled their contented, closed-eyes smiles and there was a chorus of “mmMMm” and “yummMmm” and “Mm, not bad!” around the table. Because really, who’s going to complain about fresh-baked cookies on a rainy day?

And this is always when I start again through the amnesia cycle and think to myself, “Wasn’t that fun? Let’s do it again!” And you know, it IS fun. For the kids. And I know they can’t wait to do it again. There is so much to experience even in cracking an egg. They’ve seen plenty of pictures of eggs, but to hold the cool egg in their palms and tap-tap-tap it against a bowl to crack-CRACK it is another thing. To feel the slimy egg goop on their hands and then watch it blend and disappear into the other ingredients is truly a unique experience. They are seeing, smelling, touching, hearing (and, unfortunately sometimes tasting… bleh!) all in one small little baking task.  Baking is such a multi-sensory experience for kids, and one they can actually eventually EAT. There is a special satisfaction that comes with making your own food, and it is such a wonderful thing for kids to create and enjoy the work of their hands.

There is also a ton of practical learning that can take place during a baking session with kids. There are endless opportunities to weave math skills in, such as counting, measuring (fractions!), weighing (units of measure), doubling recipes (multiplication, fractions), measuring time. There is also so much opportunity to introduce rich vocabulary as you describe the smells, textures, tastes, and sounds you hear. They will understand these words in a totally different way when they are actually engaged in hands-on, multi-sensory experiences where they apply. There is plenty of social learning, from taking turns (especially when siblings are involved) to cleanliness (wash yo hands!) to kindness, thoughtfulness, and sharing (cookies for all!). They practice self-control when you tell them not to lick the brownie batter with raw eggs in it, and they have plenty of opportunity practice taking things slowly and cleaning up after themselves.

Sure, JoEllen, that all sounds good, but my kid is only one. Is there really much he can do in the kitchen right now? Why, yes! Yes! There is! And there are plenty of ways to involve toddlers and preschoolers, too. So many that I made lists for you of ways to involve your 1-, 2-, 3-, 4-, and 5- year olds in the baking fun! If you don’t bake as often or can’t think of a single task that would seem successful with your child, then start at the ideas for one-year old children and slowly work your way up as your child proves herself more capable. For example, anyone can take a ripe, browned banana and squish it up in its own skin for banana bread! Fair warning, there’s a decent chance it will burst out of its skin and make a mess, but that’s part of the fun, too (for your kid, at least).

Please note that all of the suggested activities are really just suggestions and ideas based on what has worked for me and my kids. They might not be appropriate for the child(ren) you are working with, so please use your own discretion and knowledge of the child(ren) and their abilities to decide if it is an appropriate activity and adjust the activities as needed. Parents should be nearby and supervise all tasks closely!

If the idea of bringing your young child into the kitchen to bake with you seems daunting, you are not alone. I still shy away from baking with my kids sometimes because of all the potential mess and hazards, but I ultimately choose to do it because I think it is so beneficial and fun. I make it more manageable by choosing age-appropriate tasks for them to participate through. You might be surprised at how much they can do! I know I was tinkering away in the kitchen on my own when I was nine, and I hope to give my kids the same freedom when they get older. Until then, I’ll be here to guide them through the kitchen and hope to make great memories through it!

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August 24, 2018

“JO. I just wrote one of your posts for you,” Ben said, bursting into the office as I mindlessly scrolled through Facebook. He had an excited and boyish look on his face, and I was just happy to see that he was so happy.

“What?” I asked, glancing up.

“Ok, are you ready? It’s called Life Hacks with Jo,” he began, serious as ever, “and you can tell them about what you did in the kitchen.”

“What did I do in the kitchen?”

“With the cake!”

“I didn’t even make that cake.”

“I know! But you stored it so nicely,” he exclaimed. “You should share it!”

I wasn’t convinced. Would people really want to hear a little tupperware trick?

Then earlier this week, a friend offered me a slice of cake. Her husband pulled out some Snapware to store it, and I mentioned my little trick. After an initial look of confusion, he tried it out and remarked, “Hey, that’s a good idea! That makes it way easier to serve!” And I decided it was about time to let you all in on my little amazing life hack, along with four other simple (but useful!) things that will hopefully make you think, Why didn’t I think of that?

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August 2, 2018

It started with an innocent trip to Costco. In July. Which meant there were enticing summer fruits beckoning to me as I strolled with my big, empty cart, shopping alone at 8:15pm, which is the absolute best (or worst??) time to shop at Costco. I sauntered over to say hello to the sweet produce.

They seduced me.

I drove home with strawberries, blueberries, a watermelon, bananas, and white peaches. All Costco-sized, of course. White peaches are one of Ben’s favorites, and I couldn’t wait to dig in! They’re also my friend Kim’s favorite, so I justified the purchase by telling myself she’d probably take half of them. Even so, I started to feel burdened by all the ripe fruit we would have to consume in the next week. I was comforted with the knowledge that summer fruits were going to be amazing right now, so this was the time to GO BIG OR GO HOME.

When we got home, I sliced one of those soft, juicy peaches open and… it was yellow inside.

They were not white peaches.

And then the strawberries weren’t sweet.

And then the watermelon wasn’t as amazing as last time.

What a bust!

What was I going to do with two pounds of mediocre strawberries, two pounds of blueberries, a ginormous meh watermelon, pounds of bananas, and 10 juicy, ripe YELLOW peaches?!

So I sat down with my fun new journal and decided on the fate of my disappointing purchases. Soon I had visions of fruit tarts, ice creams, juices, and galettes dancing in my mind. I had go-to recipes for almost all of them, so it was just a matter of remembering to run the blender before the kids went down for a nap, and sticking the ice cream bowl into the freezer so it would be ready to churn ice cream. No problem.

My first go at galettes

Except for the galette. I had never actually made a galette before, but had been itching to try since I had a slice of my friend Lauren’s nectarine galette recently. Everything I read about galettes promised me that they were the more relaxed, rustic cousin to pies. They didn’t require a pie tin and the fillings had minimal fuss. Just roll out the crust, pile fruit on top, and fold the edges over. This would be a snap to throw together, right?

Lauren happily shared her recipe with me, but as I skimmed it, I was immediately overwhelmed by the paragraphs of instructions. I like to keep my recipes short and sweet, and this didn’t feel like the more relaxed, rustic version of anything. There were ~13 ingredients on the list, which was about 8 more than I was hoping for. So I went to see what my baking hero Dorie had to say about it, and then researched a whole bunch of other recipes online, and here is what I learned:

One of the reasons a galette really appeals to me is the idea that it’s supposed to be very simple. Also, the fruit I was using was actually good, so I didn’t want to mask that with custards or jams or lots of sugar. So, with simplicity as my guiding principle, I started with my favorite store-bought pie dough (thank you Trader Joe’s!).

I didn’t make a fancy filling, but just sprinkled on a bit of sugar.

I generally followed the instructions from Smitten Kitchen that Lauren had sent me, with a few (simplifying) tweaks.

The final result was delicious!

It was simple but elegant and my friends each got seconds and I’m already trying to find another excuse to make it. Which means I need to write down how I made it so it will turn out good again. So here goes!

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July 7, 2018

Last week, I shared tips on traveling to Disneyland with a 2- and 4- year old. Today, I’m going to focus on tips for bringing the princess-loving child to Disneyland. Like I mentioned before, I never imagined I’d be the mother of a super princessy girl, but here she is. And here I am. And she loves everything princess so much that we decided to finally bring her to the place where they all live: Disneyland. The magic is real, and I am so glad we brought her. She had a royally fun time!

For the Princess Fan

In case your child is really, really into princesses like mine currently is, here are some princess-related things to know:

Once when we were walking past Tomorrowland, we crossed paths with Maleficent, who narrowed her eyes at my daughter and said in measured, perfectly sinister tone, “Hello, Belle…” as she glided past. My daughter stopped in her tracks and stared after her, not sure whether she was a nice or not-nice character (we haven’t watched Sleeping Beauty yet). I loved how she and Gaston and the other cast members played along and I’ve never loved dress-up more. If you are taking your little princess to “the castle where all the princesses live,” I hope you have the most magical and wonderful time!

 

June 28, 2018

Last month, we had our first trip ever with all four of us. I’ve taken trips with my husband, and I’ve taken a trip with my daughter, but it was a big family first to have all four of us stay overnight somewhere. Instead of easing our family into The First Car Ride Over 1.5 Hours as well as The First Time Sleeping In The Same Room Together with a nice relaxing cruise or local trip, we took the 6+ hour drive down to Southern California and then went to DISNEYLAND.

Disneyland is not a relaxing family vacation.

…But I’m glad we went. In the end, everything went as smoothly as we could have hoped, and I think we have a lot of great memories to keep with us. There were some things that couldn’t be helped (like my son being two), and other things we’d change now that we know (like not giving him all the snacks he wanted- that ended up being uh… messy =P). For the most part, though, there were a lot of things that were organized well and went right and made all the Type A planning worth it. That’s what I’d like to share with you today!

To be honest, I’m probably the last person you should ask about travel tips with family. I’m probably less experienced than most of you reading this right now! But I spent a lot of time researching what more experienced people know (in person and online), asking Super Disney Moms (like my friend who takes her little ones to Disneyland multiple times each week) for insider tips on Disneyland, and thinking through the details of what would make this a more successful trip for our family. So you can think of this as my research paper, compiling all the info that helped make this trip a success. Plus, some friends have been asking me to share some of my research, and this is the whole reason I started this blog in the first place- to share some of my learnings and tips easily with friends! So here we go :).

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May 28, 2018

I was wasting away on Facebook yesterday when this lovely video popped up in my feed:

Mmmm… fluffy, lightly sweetened, bouncy souffle pancakes. Some people commented that they had tried them before in Taiwan and Japan and said it was like eating a cloud, and that it was airy like cotton candy. The stuff of daydreams.

I watched all the way through wondering how well the inside got cooked and how fluffy it would taste in my mouth. So I went searching for recipes and videos online. I couldn’t seem to find the right kind of recipe when I searched “Taiwanese Fluffy Pancake,” but there was a lot out there for “Japanese Fluffy Pancake” and before I knew it, I landed on the familiar pages of Nami’s blog at Just One Cookbook and was quickly convinced that her recipe held the key to a perfect fluffy pancake experience in my future. It looked very similar to the fluffy ones in this video- maybe with a little less bounce, but just as tantalizing.

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April 6, 2018

HAPPY SPRING! I am so ready for a new season. This last month concluded with my toddler in a full-arm cast (wrist fracture from a spill at the playground), me in an ankle brace (sprained ankle from volleyball), and my husband in a sling (dislocated shoulder while working out)! It’s been a little crazy here, but we are all moving forward and I am SO HAPPY ABOUT THAT. My son is back in the sand and dirt and water… and I am back on the court. Full speed ahead!

I wanted to share some material I’ve been working on for a local Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) group that I’ve been part of. It’s a wonderful group of moms that meets every other Friday to share life and motherhood and coffee together- there is always coffee. A few weeks ago, they were looking for someone to teach something craftsy to the group for a fun artsy morning they were planning. I’m not particularly crafty, so it wasn’t until some of the ladies at my tables remarked about my calligraphy and lettering that I realized I had something to offer!

You might remember that a couple years ago, I picked up brush calligraphy as a nice stuckstay-at-home mom hobby. Since I was still nursing, many of my fun activities were limited to things that were nearby, easy to start/stop, and not easily ruined by a curious toddler (who is now FOUR… when did that happen?!?!). That’s when I decided to learn brush lettering, which is a branch of hand lettering and modern calligraphy. I got better at it (I can write in a straight line now!) and even taught a brush lettering workshop for a church fundraiser last year. So when the ladies at my table were so encouraging about my lettering (someone even guessed I was a designer based on my lettering! I was so flattered- art has never been my thing haha), I decided to offer to teach the whole group some brush lettering basics.

Since this was a group of “Mothers of Preschoolers,” I thought it would be so cute and appropriate to teach using Crayola markers! They’re such a great tool for learning brush lettering since they are easy to find, relatively inexpensive, and very forgiving for lettering! I figured most of the moms would have a pack handy and it would be a fun and easy thing to practice and doodle with alongside their emerging little artists at home.

So I created these drills, and worksheets just for them:

Free Crayola Calligraphy Drills and Worksheets

Someone mentioned that the moms would probably appreciate having access to the videos at home, so I decided to create and upload it all here to share with everybody:

This first video is the starting point for most brush lettering and calligraphy. The basic idea behind calligraphy is to create a contrast between thick lines going down and thin lines going up. When done right, the words come out looking artistic and beautiful. Each letter is made from a series of basic strokes, which you can learn in the first “Drills” video.

Now for actual words. Have you ever tried applying the “heavy downstrokes and light upstrokes” method to the cursive that you learned in third grade, and found that it just didn’t look quite the way you’d hoped? That’s because in modern calligraphy, letters are not formed the same way you learned to write cursive in elementary school. There are different ways to form letters that maximize the beauty of a letter and eventually a word. See the letter “b” in the lowercase alphabet video below for a good example. Realizing that there is a completely different way to form individual letters was the turning point for me in figuring out how to make beautiful brush lettering.

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March 11, 2018

These soy-glazed chicken wings are a dish from Ben’s childhood that really live up to the memories. His mom makes it almost every time we go over for dinner, and it’s a tasty treat that is gobbled up in minutes every single time. Everybody loves it. For years, I kept asking her for her recipe and method, and she didn’t have a recipe, but insisted it was really simple- just simmer the down the wings in a soy sauce mixture with Chinese rock sugar. That was it.

I tried to recreate it a few times, following various recipes I found online for proportions, but always ended up with something that came out beige-ish and tasting like boiled chicken wings… with some soy sauce. They did not hit the spot. Last time we had dinner at her place, I asked again for her method, determined to figure this recipe out. She must have known I would ask, and smiled as she pulled out a bag of rock sugar she had set aside just for me.

How did she know I still hadn’t actually tried it with rock sugar? (I have like 25 lbs of white and brown sugar already at home- it’s hard to justify buying more haha). Well, she was right, and guys: IT MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE. It had that extra special flavor and gave that extra syrupy sheen that was missing before.

But I didn’t know that until I went home and decided to just kind of wing it (har har) instead of using an online recipe. I made two other adjustments this time, increasing the amount of soy sauce and keeping the wings in one single layer in the pan. I used my potsticker method: pan-frying for a bit, then adding liquid (sauce instead of water though) and letting them simmer down until almost all the liquid evaporated. I guess that’s kind of like braising?

Anyway, they turned out AMAZING. The wings had a rich, glossy sauce and were finger-licking DELICIOUS. I am happy to say that we have a new easy weeknight go-to chicken recipe to add to the mix! Try these, and maybe you will, too!

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March 2, 2018

I stood on the side of the playground chatting away with other parents while our young kids roamed freely about the playground. Church service had just let out and we were enjoying the enclosed play space which allowed us to watch our kids while catching up with each other. I kept an eye on my daughter as she climbed about the play structure in all the “wrong” ways. She had recently started imitating the daring moves of an adventurous 5-year old girl at church, which included finding… creative ways to climb about the playground.

While I was okay with her pushing the limits a bit, I could tell it made other parents (who mostly had even younger kids) a bit uneasy. And… maybe it wasn’t the best example for the toddlers who were apt to imitate without having the same strength or command of their limbs. I kept a close eye as she began to proceed over the high tunnel instead of through it like she probably should.

The father I was chatting with watched with growing alarm as she started to climb up and over. When it was apparent that she meant to cross the tunnel by climbing over it, he hesitated, “Uh, Jo, I think she’s going to climb over…!”

“Sweetie, please come down,” I called out to her. She froze for a moment. I imagine she was trying to decide whether to come down or pretend that she didn’t hear me. She started forward again- it appears she chose the latter.

“That’s one,” I called out, matter of factly.

She scampered down in a flash.

I turned to pick up our conversation again but the father looked at me, wide-eyed, “Is that from… 1-2-3 Magic?” he asked, a little wonderingly.

“Yeah! Have you tried it?”

“I’ve read some of it, but we haven’t really gotten too far in it,” he said, “It seems to be working really well for you!”

And thus began yet another animated conversation about the “1-2-3 Magic” program which we had been using for the last couple of years with great success. I figure it’s about time I shared it with you, too!

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February 2, 2018

Yesterday, I had to pay for a lost library item for the first time in my life. I could tell the librarian felt a little bad as I dug out $8.22 for a five dollar kid’s magazine from 2016. They were probably ready to take it out of rotation anyway, but I honestly didn’t mind. We’ve benefited from the library a lot!

“Actually,” I laughed, “I’m surprised this is the first time we’ve lost something! We usually have over a hundred items checked out at any given time… my daughter is such a bookworm.”

“Really? How do you ORGANIZE all of your books??” she asked, genuinely impressed.

I paused to see if she wanted to short or long version. I mean, she was a librarian, and they’re kind of all about reading and sharing and organizing books, right?

“Well, we have this big desk or side table kind of thing… it’s super sturdy,” I began.

She nodded, still eagerly listening.

“It came with an office set, I think, but we use it as a side table in the living room, and it has a sort of shelf underneath,” I continued. “I put a bunch of blankets and pillows underneath to make a reading space for my daughter- we call it her ‘nest,’ and she loves to just sit there and read whenever she can.”

“So how do you organize the books? I mean, there are so many!”

She DID want to know, she really did! My bookworm heart soared. I looked back to see if there was a line forming behind me. There was. She didn’t care. Her eyes were still with me, intrigued. There was another librarian at the counter, so I didn’t feel as bad as I went in depth about how we organized it, and why we did it that way.

“Ok so we used to just have a box of books. But then it was just a big pile of books and I think it felt too messy and overwhelming for her to go through. I also tried just lining the books up on the shelves, but she’s a bit too young to just look at spines to pick out what she wants to read. The main thing that really helped were these book bins I had, kind of the shape of magazine file holders but shorter? I used to be a teacher, so I already had them.”

 

The librarian nodded, she seemed familiar with them.

“So in one bin we have Elephant and Piggie, another one has Henry and Mudge, then Dear Dragon, and then the Biscuit books.”

To anyone else, this might have sounded like gibberish, but I felt a connection with her as I saw her eyes light up with recognition as I listed off these well-loved early readers.

Maybe I should become a librarian.

“Then we have an actual magazine file for the magazines, and then a bigger miscellaneous box for all the other books. The game changer has been this ONE rule, though: home books stay in her room, and library books stay-”

“-IN THE NEST,” she smiled, “Of course! No commingling, so things don’t get mixed up!”

My people.

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