March 17, 2020

This post is part of a series where I’ll be sharing “bite-sized” ideas and activities for parents to try with their kids. I hope to offer easy, economical, educational, and engaging ideas you can feel good about your kids doing, while buying you some down time. This content may use referral links. Read my disclosure policy for more info.

Last week feels like another life: school was still in session, stores had milk, the weather hit the mid 70’s, and it almost felt like summer. We were out at a creek with a bunch of other kids (another occurrence unique to last week) and the kids were given little plastic jars with a magnifying lid viewer: Bug catchers!

The kids ran to the other side of the creek, which was teeming with these bugs (beetles?). Normally, I’d be totally squeamish about seeing so many of them flit about in the hundreds, and so would the kids. But something about holding a bug catcher empowered and excited them. They fearlessly approached the beetles and tried to catch them in the clear jars. Sometimes, they would catch two at the same time!

It was a simple and fun activity. They searched and explored their outdoor surrounding with fresh eyes, scanning for movement and detail in a way they never had before. They approached the creatures with a new confidence and excitement, and they were so proud when they successfully caught something. They felt safe holding it close in the jar and examining it closely, and were able to see details they had never been able to see before. Of course we freed all of the bugs in the end.

The whole process of searching, capturing, and observing was a really fun way for them to interact with the outdoors and the creatures living in it. I imagine this would completely change the way they see and approach bugs inside the house (hello, spiders) and give them a nice outdoor activity to do in the backyard during this unprecedented and long “shelter in place” period. I just ordered two of these bug viewer boxes for the kids:

My plan is to take them out for a walk or send them to the backyard to hunt for bugs (or snails or worms–it’s been raining over here!) and try to catch one. If I’m feeling teacher-y, then we can extend the activity and record observations in their science journals (i.e. 10 pieces of computer paper that I folded in half and stapled together), draw pictures, count the number of bugs caught and make graphs, etc.

Stack ten sheets of computer paper together, fold in half, and staple. Add a sheet of construction paper to make a cover if you’re feeling fancy!

Or, we can just let the bugs go and do it all over again and again.

It’s easy, economical (you can get the same one we did for $6.58, or get an 8-pack of smaller ones for about the same price!), engaging (hopefully!), and educational. It can be a nice break from the screens, and give them a chance to run, stoop, jump, and play outside in a new way. And maybe, just maybe, if they are busy catching bugs, then they won’t bug you for a few minutes while you get some work done!

March 16, 2020

Parents everywhere are going to be at home with their kids for a long time. It is a unique and unprecedented situation, and one that is hard for so many reasons. And I want to help. After some thought, I’ve decided to start a series on my blog, offering bite-size ideas and activities that parents can try at home with the kids. No full day schedules or long lesson plans here. My hope is to offer ideas that are some combination of the following:

Once in a while, I’ll share an idea that might also be active or outdoors. Those aren’t my main goals, and I know some parents won’t be able to supervise their kids outdoors while they are working indoors. But it’s always nice to have some active and/or outdoor activities in our back pocket for those antsy times when cabin fever hits.

I’m hoping to accomplish most of these goals most of the time, and to make life perhaps a little bit easier or more pleasant for you as you start this “new normal” with your family. Even if you aren’t cooped up at home with your kids right now, these are tried and true activities that I have seen kids enjoy, and I hope yours can, too!

But let’s be honest, screen time is going to happen

No arguments here. Our kids are already getting more screen time than usual, and I’m fine with it. As a matter of fact, I’m hoping to compile and share a list of shows and movies that we like, or that we look forward to watching soon. We also have apps and websites we love, which I’ll share here in bite-sized posts soon. If you have any recommendations to add to that list, please share!

What about my toddler? HALP!

Most of my ideas will be for kids ages 4+. For those of you with younger ones, I will point you to two other mom-educators I have been following who have lots of great ideas and resources for the younger set:

  1. Days with Grey: Beth is a mother of three young boys, and has created a beautiful site with lots of great ideas. She is the brain behind The Breakfast Invitation, a collection of activities that you can set up ahead of time and let your kids engage in while you sip a cup of coffee in the morning (or any time of day!). The ideas might take a little more than five minutes to prep for, but I feel like that is generally true of most things in this stage of parenthood.
  2. BusyToddler: Susie is another former teacher who is sharing ways to make it from hour to hour in these early years. She is working hard to offer lists and relevant activities for the challenges parents are facing today. I’ve followed her on Instagram for a while, and can really feel her passion for helping others become equipped and empowered as parents of little people!

Stick around and share your ideas!

I’ll be updating this page with links to relevant activities, so feel free to bookmark and share it with others. If there’s anything in particular you are looking for, I would absolutely love to hear your ideas in the comments below! Although we’ve been hearing a lot about “social distancing,” I hope we can think of it more as “physical distancing” and actually take advantage of the technology that allows us to connect with others, even if we are not in close proximity. I think this is a crucial time for us to look out for and connect with others, and I hope to use this space to do just that!

Related Links (will be continuously updated):

Fun Math Games for Children (Ages 6+)

Cooped Up with the Kids #1: Insect Catchers (Ages 3-12)

Cooped Up with the Kids #2: Screen Time that Can Count as P.E. (Ages 3+)

Cooped Up with Kids #3: Sidewalk Chalk (Ages 3+)

Cooped Up with the Kids #4: Shadow Tracing (Ages 6+)

February 7, 2020

It’s been pretty quiet on my blog lately, and there are a lot of reasons for that. At first, it was simply that I had started playing sports again and there was less time. Then the kids dropped their naps, so I lost some quiet time in my day. My wrist has been hurting, and working on the computer makes it worse. Also, I am trying to respect my kids’ privacy, which makes it very hard to share my stories in a real, authentic, and interesting way.

And if, after all that, I still had something to say, the voices in my head would start: It’s already been said. People can find this kind of writing anywhere on the Internet. What would people think or say? What would my friends think? How could I write it without coming off the wrong way? But what if you write about this great parenting strategy and then it doesn’t work on your own kids and you look like a fool? These final thoughts extinguished any last chance of me sitting down to write and share with the world the things on my heart.

Perhaps the biggest reason of all, though: my kids. There were some points in the life of this blog where I found myself too preoccupied with getting a post done. I would get annoyed with my kids for wanting me to play with them because I was in the middle of writing something. I would stay up late at night finishing a post and then be completely exhausted and irritable the next morning, with no energy to be the very kind of mom I was trying to encourage others to be.

This couldn’t be worth it. Sure, I needed a creative outlet, and I enjoy interacting with people through this blog, but it was taking away from the mother I wanted to be, and that couldn’t be worth it. Not now. Because lately, I have been feeling like these young years are just speeding by–no pause. I feel like I have been grasping at the last gasps of babyhood in my preschooler, and watching my older daughter turn into a young lady before she has even finished kindergarten: it scares me. I was just remarking to Ben the other night how unbelievable the transformation has been in this one year, and how I can’t believe that only five years ago, she was this baby of a thing learning the words “up” and “down.”

What I would give to have just one carefree amusement park day with my girl as a two year old. I mean, I could take my actual six year old girl there this weekend, but it’s already not the same now as it was for her when she was really little. I remember like yesterday, watching the two year old version of her riding the Granny Bugs alongside these bigger kids, around and around. She was cackling with glee as it started up, while the big kids only had mildly amused smiles and just kinda bumped up and down. And I thought, Someday, I’m gonna stand right here and my girl is gonna be that big kid that is barely amused on this little kid ride. It will feel like just yesterday that she was the delighted, cute, itty bitty one, and I will remember thinking about how someday she’d be so big. 

And that day seriously came in the blink of an eye. It makes me cry inside each time.

The days are long, but the years are short. We have all heard it, and still I hate how true it is. It means that when you are in the present, you are buried in the work and chores and demands of the everyday, but when you pause for perspective, all you see is everything beautiful that you love, slipping away.

Everyone remarks on how their kids grow up so quickly, so I knew it would happen, but anticipating that didn’t make it any easier.

November 10, 2019
Tasty and tender, crispy and comforting: this five spice chicken is the ultimate comfort food, and a cinch to prepare!

Last month, I spent a relaxing weekend with two of my besties. We hardly had anything on the schedule and figured things out as our tummies directed. We strolled from one shop to the next destination half a mile away without a second thought, stayed up late, slept in late, casually took Lyfts around (no car seats to install!) and were undaunted by long lines at popular restaurants. It was glorious.

Seattle, you were beautiful!!

We also didn’t have our kids with us, which you probably figured out six words into the previous paragraph. We even made it past the intense catching-up phase of conversation and moved onto the random-stuff-I’m-wondering-about phase–something we haven’t gotten to in years. So when I randomly asked, “So what’s in your cooking rotation that you love these days?” I was delighted when they immediately started sharing some tried and true favorites: a new mac ‘n cheese recipe, a recipe for Instant Pot Hainan chicken and rice, stir fry combinations, and this delectable oven-baked five spice chicken recipe. YES. We were about to spice things up. Literally.

I love a good “shake and bake” recipe, and this one might be my new favorite! I didn’t have Chinese five spice on hand when I tried it the first time (what kind of Chinese American am I?!), but this recipe is definitely going in the rotation so I bought some soon after. The spice mix I originally used is strong, but the browned, crispy skin with that baked-in flavor is divine. We actually preferred the homemade spice mix to the store-bought one, but store-bought definitely saves time!

The marinade: soy sauce, salt, five spice powder, garlic, oil, shaoxing wine, and sesame oil

I love that I can take five minutes to do the prep work the night before, after the kids are down. The next day, forty-five minutes before dinner, I just pop them in the oven and that’s it!

Chicken on the baking sheet before baking.

Also, the kids begged me to make it again, so that’s a big win in my book!

Chicken after 45 minutes of baking.

These chilly fall evenings are the perfect time to give this baked chicken recipe a try! Enjoy!

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October 23, 2019

This content may use referral links. Read my disclosure policy for more info.

I quietly tiptoed down the hallway, away from my son’s room. As soon as I was in the clear, I raced, exuberant, to the dining table where Ben was sitting at his laptop, and blurted out: “HE ASKED ME THE QUESTION!”

Ben looked up, quizzically, “What question?”


He tilted his head sideways. I was elated and could hardly even get my words out straight.

“I was walking out of his room to get him some water when I heard him say, ‘Do you love me better than my sister?’ and I panicked for a moment and kept walking, to buy myself some time. When I got back to his door, he repeated the question,” I said, wide-eyed.

“So what did you say??” Ben asked.

What DO you say? It’s the question every parent dreads, and the first response that probably comes to mind is something like, “I love you both the same!” or “I love you equally!” Seems safe enough, right? It’s probably what I would have said, if I hadn’t read this gem of a book that has changed my parenting game from the day that I picked it up. Seriously, if you have more than one child, you need to get your hands on this book!

But I didn’t say that. I didn’t tell him I loved them the same. Instead, I took a breath and paused to remember all the things I love about him. The way he hopped over the cracks on the sidewalk today, the way his little legs paddled as he sped around the playground on his balance bike earlier this evening, the way he cackled so hard milk came out of his mouth.

Then I pulled him close so he could hear me breathe, and I slowly said, “You are so special to me. I love the way you run, with your hands at your side. I love the way you ride on your bike, your legs paddling on the ground so quickly. I love the way you hop, like a frog-“

“Like a wabbit?” he asked.

“Like a rabbit. And how you laugh so hard and make everyone else laugh.” I squeezed him tight, and as I tried to conjure up more images of this little boy I adored, I found that what I had said was enough. He hugged me tight and then said, “But today I spilled my milk.”

“It’s okay,” I reassured him, “Even I spill milk sometimes. Your little hands are still learning to hold things steady.”

. . .

I’m not always winning at parenting. If I were, I’d probably be blogging a whole lot more than I have been lately. But this was definitely a victory. It went just the way the book said it was going to go, and I said what he needed to hear to know: not that I loved him better, but that he was special to me and I loved him dearly.

He knew that he was precious to me in a way no one else could be. In Siblings Without Rivalry, the author offers the example of a young wife that asks her husband, “Who do you love more? Your mother or me?” …Wow, what a trap! But the story continues:

Had he answered, “I love you both the same,” he would have been in big trouble. But instead he said, “My mother is my mother. You’re the fascinating, sexy woman I want to spend the rest of my life with.”

“To be loved equally,” I continued, “is somehow to be loved less. To be loved uniquely–for one’s own special self–is to be loved as much as we need to be loved” (70).

The book includes this really helpful illustration to drive the point home:

From Siblings Without Rivalry

I see myself making mistakes left and right every day. But if there’s one thing I need each of my children to know, it is that they are deeply, truly, and uniquely loved, with an unconditional love that I will spend the rest of my life trying to demonstrate to them. Hopefully this tool will be one way you can communicate that kind of love to your children, as well!

September 2, 2019

(Scroll to bottom for recipe)

If you’re thinking I’ve already blogged about milk tea before, you are 100% correct! Taiwan style milk tea and Hong Kong style milk tea have already been covered here. But now I have another recipe/variation for the HK milk tea, and it is so delicious and easy! Possibly even simpler than the 4-ingredient recipe I shared before. The previous recipe uses individual tea bags, evaporated milk, and sugar. This one uses loose leaf tea and condensed milk. Both delicious– just different.

Like before, this recipe was fine-tuned because I was intent on perfecting it to serve to discerning friends with very refined milk tea palettes (oh yes, there is such a thing). Last Saturday, we invited a bunch of friends over for one of my favorite annual gatherings: a Summer Recital. Please allow me to take a little detour here so I can tell you more about this event (or just skip to the bottom for the recipe)!

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July 18, 2019
This post contains affiliate links. The materials were provided by the publisher, but all opinions are my own.

Once, when I was in first or second grade, I got really, really mad. I was so upset that I took to writing out my frustrations in a little pink journal I had. I clearly remember grabbing a pencil and furiously writing with dark, angry lines. I started with something like, “Someday when I am a mom, I will never, EVER–”

…and then my memory fails me.

What?? I have asked Little JoEllen, countless times, What did you promise yourself to never do?? How can I keep this promise if I don’t even know what it is? And then the inevitable follow-up: AM I DOING IT TO MY KIDS RIGHT NOW?!

The inability to remember something that somehow still has the power to provoke strong, childlike emotions continues to haunt me from time to time. This might by why, when I wandered into a cute stationary store last year, I was struck by the title of this colorful, envelope-sized book: Letters to Me, When I Grow Up: Write Now. Read Later. Treasure Forever.

I immediately picked it up. This was the journal I wish I had when I was seven. It would be gold to read what young JoEllen would have filled these pages with! I opened it, and was surprised to find what looked like an envelope, which unfolded to a full page: When I imagine myself all grown up

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June 18, 2019

This post contains affiliate links

I love it when I have a gift idea for kids that is delightful for the recipient, is practical and not too messy/big/annoying/noisy for the parent, has any educational or STEAM value going for it, and brings me joy to give. Bonus points if it is at a reasonable price point! I was able to check all of those boxes last week when we were invited to a casual joint birthday party for two sweet preschoolers. My daughter and I put together a festive little craft kit for each of the two birthday kids, and soon after we left the party, the moms both sent happy snapshots of their kids putting their new crafting materials to use! It was a hit with the moms and kids: HOORAY!!

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March 24, 2019

I’m writing about this because I haven’t taught this to my son yet and lately, he has really picked up on his verbal skills. This also means he has been interrupting me a lot while I’m talking to other adults. Time to change that.

I first came across this idea in a mom blog. Maybe this one? I can’t remember where I read it first, but I decided to try it when my daughter was much younger, and it has worked with great success! She knows not to interrupt when I’m talking with someone else, and will quietly signal a need to talk, wait patiently, and know that I will give her my full attention soon.

So here’s what it can actually look like if you’ve got your child trained to do this. A few months ago (when I started this post), we were at the playground after school, chatting with another mom:

“So do your kids do wishlists or anything for Christmas?” I asked.

“No… they have enough toys, and I don’t think they know how to ask for things yet,” she replied.

“That’s true! I also thought we had more than enough toys–and we do, we really do–but his teacher started talking about these must have toys to buy for Christmas,” I started, watching my daughter swing on the monkey bars, “But then–“

“MOMMY!” my daughter shouted, scampering towards us. I gave her a look and keep talking.

“–But then,” I repeated, “after the teacher started going on and on about how great it was for imaginary play…”

My daughter quietly walked up to me and grabbed my hand. Without missing a beat, I put my other hand over hers and gave her a gentle squeeze, while still talking, “I started looking them up on Amazon… and now there’s all this stuff in my cart!”

“Oh, like what?” my friend asked, looking at me with interest.

“A cash register… a big cardboard house they can color and play in… a marble run, flashlights, walkie talkie,” I say, then turn to my daughter, “Thanks for waiting. What do you need?”

“Mommy, can I play over by the tree?” she asks, pointing off to the distance.


And she was off.

She didn’t do a rushing jittery dance or look at me with pleading hurry up! eyes. There was no tugging of my arm or exasperated sighs (all tactics 5 year old JoEllen was very familiar with). Just a patient little thing, knowing I would soon give her a moment with my full attention.

It’s possible! I’ll have to train the younger one intentionally, as I did his big sister, but it’s possible! If you have kids interrupting your conversations, try walking them through these steps and rehearsing it ahead of time:

  1. Take Mommy’s hand.
  2. Mommy will put her other hand on top of you to show she knows you’re waiting.
  3. Wait patiently until Mommy turns to you.

Your child could put their hand on your shoulder or knee or whatever makes sense for their height or age. If you can practice a few times before you actually need it again, you’ll be surprised how well they can execute when reminded in real life!

P.S. Of all the toys, the marble run was by far the best investment. And I probably won’t buy the cardboard house again. It was a cute gingerbread house, but took up too much space, and the kids are more happy right now with a floppy makeshift cardboard house from big boxes anyway. The cash register is still in the cart.

March 9, 2019

This post contains affiliate links

I was meeting with some moms one night and couldn’t help but gush over the book I had just started, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen. These were the same authors who had penned my recent parenting favorite, Siblings Without Rivalry, so I knew they would have practical, doable, and effective parenting strategies. I had only read one chapter, but there was already so much to digest I had to put the book down to give myself a chance to process and practice it before moving on.

“Ok, so what’s ONE thing you got from it so far?” asked the mom to my right.

“Hmm… well, my biggest personal takeaway so far has been empathy. Mostly because I’m so bad at it. But even saying something as simple as, ‘You’re very upset that your brother isn’t sharing well. That’s frustrating!’ can go a long way in helping her process her emotions and move forward, without much or any further intervention from me,” I replied.

This wasn’t the first time the authors had emphasized the importance of empathy. The first book I read from them also had a lot to say about this, which I shared about last week, but clearly I needed to hear it again.

“But that was just one of the four strategies they presented in the first chapter! I was a little skeptical when reading some of the other ones at first–some sounded pretty bizarre–but as I finished looking through the examples I realized it did make sense and probably would help them feel better. I just would never ever have thought of it myself,” I continued.

“Like what?” she asked.

“Hm… like, giving kids what they want… in fantasy,” I said. I waited for the weirdness of this statement to sink in.

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