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Friday, April 27, 2007

Heaven is Watching a Garbage Truck

Yup - you read that right. The moment when I paused today and thought, "This is heaven," I was sitting on the grass and watching the garbage truck go down our street. Right next to me, Alex sat with his little hand resting on my leg.

I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I'd ever find myself waiting for and watching a garbage truck, let alone enjoying myself while doing so. But it makes Alex happy, it's quality time that we spend together, and I'll treasure these memories forever. It's also a free form of entertainment for a little boy that gives him some exercise and outdoor time.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Easiest Chocolate Dipping Sauce Ever

I'm hosting a dessert party this coming Sunday, and I created this chocolate sauce for strawberries, bananas, and pound cake. Basically, I wanted a fondue but without the flame, since there will be small children present. This chocolate sauce fits the bill nicely, staying fluid at room temperature and taking only a couple of minutes to put together. The butter is optional but adds a velvetiness and gloss to the sauce.

Easiest Chocolate Dipping Sauce Ever
Makes approximately 3/4 cup

1/2 cup good quality chocolate chips or chopped chocolate (I like semisweet chocolate but I think dark chocolate would work nicely too; milk chocolate might be too sweet)
1/4 cup 2% milk
1 tablespoon butter (optional)

Combine chocolate and milk in a microwave safe bowl. Microwave on high for one minute. Remove and whisk until well-combined and smooth. Add butter and stir until butter is melted and chocolate sauce is smooth.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Product Review: Fisher-Price Royal Potty & Fisher-Price Royal Potty Step Stool

In just the last few weeks, potty training has really taken off in our house. We are now the proud owners of not one, but two potties. We started off with the Fisher-Price Royal Potty. That has been in the boys' bathroom for about six months now. It's supposed to give off a fanfare to reward proper use but that's never worked properly. I think the light sensor just isn't sensitive enough. The only time we seem to get fanfare is when we bump into the potty. I like this potty, however, because it's very easy to clean - the bowl just slides right out. It's also a good size for Alex.

Because we're using the potty so much, we acquired a second one for the downstairs bathroom. I would have gotten the exact same one but they didn't have any at the Target nearest our house and I want to check out another store or wait for shipping. So I picked up the Fisher-Price Royal Potty Step Stool, which turned out to be more different than I expected. For one thing, the shield that keeps urine in the bowl when used by boys can be folded down - something Alex enjoys doing while we sit there. Instead of sliding the bowl out, you have to lift up the seat and then lift up the bowl, so it's not quite as easy to clean. But on the other hand, there's no risk of Alex pulling the bowl out while he's sitting on the potty. The step stool version has the added benefit of a built-in trainer seat for the big toilet and, like the name implies, it folds up to be a step stool. Finally, the sensor on this version is a little different and produces fanfare at appropriate times; however, it also produces fanfare even when nothing happened and so is a little misleading.

The final verdict: I like both potties but if I could only have one, I think I'd go with the step stool version because of the versatility.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Sticking To That Budget When You Use Credit Cards

From the time I was in high school, my father emphasized the importance of paying off credit cards each month. As a consequence, I have very rarely carried a credit card balance - only in my student days, and only for a minimal length of time.

But as I've mentioned previously, I love using my credit cards because of the points and miles I accumulate. The problem we kept running into, though, and which I suspect is a common one, is that we would spend more than our monthly budget provided for. We would still be able to pay off the entire balance, but we were also spending more than we wanted to.

I finally hit upon a relatively easy solution. It's incredibly simple to track your credit card balance online or via telephone. So I sat down with our Quicken budget and figured out how much discretionary spending we could afford each month. The number I arrived at included groceries and household items, which is our biggest discretionary expense, as well as monthly bills I pay with our credit card, such as our cell phone and landline bills. Every day, I check our balance online and make sure that we are staying within our budget. If we get close to the limit before the billing cycle ends, we pay closer attention to our spending and minimize non-essential purchases. This system helps us reach our financial goals that much faster.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

The Aquarium of the Pacific: A Better Deal Than the Los Angeles Zoo

I posted previously that I think membership with the Los Angeles Zoo is a great idea. But we haven't been to the zoo in ages, primarily because Alex doesn't seem to find it interesting. I think it's because he can't really see the animals and they're just not that interesting because they're so far away. Additionally, the exhibits are quite a distance apart and it seems like half the zoo is undergoing renovation.

In contrast, Alex gets excited about going to the Aquarium of the Pacific. He loves going up to the tanks and pointing to things to ask or tell us what they are. Sometimes he likes touching the rays, other times he refuses. And he especially enjoys perusing the gift shop and touching the toy fish, turtles and otters. My favorite part is watching Alex run through the various exhibits, stopping briefly to check out each tank and then taking off again. I also think the clam chowder in a bread bowl at Cafe Scuba is a real treat.

Membership at the Aquarium of the Pacific is more expensive than the Los Angeles Zoo, but it's worth it to us because of how often we go. Children under age 3 are free.

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Britax Marathon vs. Britax Roundabout vs. Graco ComfortSport

I'm happily using Tyler's infant carseat still, but since Alex switched over to the Britax Marathon at 6 months, I've begun thinking about what carseat I'll get for Tyler.

For starters, I love the cushiness of the Marathon. It's nice and wide and Alex seems to fit in it really well. I also like the neck pads that come with the carseat - they're minimal but keep the straps from cutting into Alex's neck. It's pretty easy to strap him in, especially because the velcro on the lower part of the straps keep them out of the way so he doesn't sit on them when he first gets in the chair. And then there are the two primary reasons I bought the Marathon: the 65-pound weight limit and its high safety rating. The negatives about the Marathon are the price, the size (it seems comfortable but it is quite big), and most importantly, the fact that Alex has undone the belt once while the car was in motion.

We've installed a Britax Roundabout in my in laws' car, so I've had a good chance to compare it to the Marathon. The Roundabout is a little smaller and although it's nicely padded, seems less cushy - and by that, I think what I'm really trying to say is that it seems less deep. The Roundabout doesn't come with neck pads, which adds to the impression that it's less cushy. And although I think it's a little harder to tighten the straps on the Roundabout, it's still pretty easy to use. The major plus compared to the Marathon is that the release is a button, not a buckle, and I don't think Alex could loosen the straps on the Roundabout. Also, the Roundabout, while not cheap, costs $40 to $50 less.

High on the list of positive attributes of both Britax carseats is the ease of installation. I bring that up because we got a Graco ComfortSport for traveling that we absolutely hated. I was concerned that the Marathon wouldn't fit in an airplane seat (we didn't have the Roundabout at the time) so I picked the ComfortSport based on the recommendation in Baby Bargains. The book recommended the ComfortSport pretty highly so maybe we just got a lemon. But the bottom line is that it was extremely difficult to install with a seatbelt (we couldn't use LATCH in some of the cars we rode in) and almost impossible to tighten. I never felt that Alex was strapped in tightly enough and so we ended up getting rid of the ComfortSport and buying the Roundabout, a choice we've never regretted one bit. The one positive of the ComfortSport is its portability compared to the Marathon, but that was meaningless in light of its near uselessness.

What I will likely do with Tyler is buy a Britax Regent, which is a non-convertible carseat with a weight limit of 80 pounds, and move Alex into it. Then Tyler can go into the Marathon, which we'll turn rear-facing again. This won't save us any money (the Regent and Marathon both cost $269.99 at Babies R Us), but it should keep the boys in a carseat for the longest time possible, maximizing their safety. And that, of course, is the most important thing.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Lessons Learned From A Power Outage

Last week, we had no power for almost 24 hours, something I hadn't experienced since I was a little girl. Because we live in earthquake country, we always have emergency supplies on hand. But the power outage was a chance for us to test some of our newer supplies and see what worked, and assess whether we had enough of the proper materials on hand for a true emergency. Here's some of what we learned:
  • Food in an unopened refrigerator is considered safe by the government for 4 hours. Food in an unopened freezer is considered safe for 48 hours (24 hours if the freezer is only half full).
  • Coleman's glow sticks work beautifully as night lights and last 10 hours or more. (The orange one lasted about 10 hours, but the green one was still emitting a good amount of light after 12.)
  • Our fluorescent flashlight/radios give off a lot of light.
  • Battery-powered radios don't get AM reception in our house (we tried several radios too).
  • Have lots of D batteries on hand.
  • We don't have many candles on hand for emergencies because you can't use them during an earthquake, but it's good to have some for power outages.
Our local gas company sent the following list of things to keep on hand for an emergency:
  • first aid kit
  • essential medications and extra eyeglasses
  • 3 gallons of bottled water per person (or 1 gallon per person per day)
  • shelf-stable food
  • blankets/sleeping bags
  • extra set of house and car keys
  • fire extinguisher (A-B-C type)
  • cash
  • portable radio, flashlight and batteries
  • anything necessary for babies, elderly or disabled family members, and pets

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Diaper Cake

A diaper cake makes a great baby shower gift and/or centerpiece. I received a large one at my first baby shower and thought it was great. For my friend's baby shower, I was inspired by this picture from a Right Start catalog and decided to make a small diaper cake to be the centerpiece. I used these directions as a general guide, but made only two layers (I wanted to keep the cake low so the guests could see across the table). I found that a relatively tight rubber band around each layer was a must. I also ended up rubberbanding most of the diapers individually to keep them tightly rolled. To keep the cake together, I used chopsticks instead of dowels. For presentation, I bought the kind of cardboard used to serve cakes at a crafts store. I had thought that the diapers would be white and originally intended to use a cute pink gingham ribbon to disguise the rubber bands, but had to go with plain white ribbon when the diapers turned out to be quite colorful. (I used about 30 Huggies Supreme size 1s for my small two-layer cake.)

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Potty Training Basics

Marc and I have been thinking about potty training for a while now. We've talked about it with friends who have older kids, purchased the Elmo and Potty Power DVDs, installed the Fisher Price Royal Potty, allowed Alex to accompany us to the bathroom, and asked if he wants to sit on his potty at opportune moments (such as before bath time or after his nap). Above all, we try to encourage Alex to use the potty, praise him enthusiastically when he does so, and don't pressure him if he's not so inclined.

Because we've severely limited TV watching for the last month or so (that's another post in itself), the DVDs have been of limited use to us. But we do have a friend whose daughter loved the Potty Power DVD, watched it countless times, sang the songs, and was pretty well trained at 2 1/2 or so.

I like the Fisher Price Royal Potty, though the fanfare doesn't work as described. It is supposed to go on to reward proper use of the potty, but instead it only goes on when someone bumps into it. However, I like it because it seems to be a good size for Alex and is very easy to clean.

Although I'm normally a book person, I haven't read much about potty training. There are numerous articles available on the topic, but I haven't felt the need or had the time to read any of them. A friend did give me a book called Potty Training in One Day, which she used to train her younger daughter in, well, one day. I am planning to pull it out if Alex or Tyler isn't trained when they are about 3.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Breastfeeding Tyler - Update #3

See my previous posts on this topic here, here, and here.

As Tyler has gotten bigger, it's become easier in some ways to breastfeed him since he has such great neck control now. I can nurse him comfortably without pillows, just about anywhere at anytime. But that's not to say it hasn't become harder in some ways. With his strong neck, he pulls off frequently and looks around (especially at the TV, which I have been known to turn off just to get him to look back at me). And with all the craziness of taking care of two kids, half the time I can't remember when I last fed him.

The costs continue to add up. I had already spent $400 and recently spent another $110 on a couple more bottles of More Milk Special Blend to keep my supply up. I also spent about $15 on two boxes of nursing pads. I was delighted to find that Target has store brand tubes of lanolin, which are about $3 cheaper than the Lansinoh brand, but it still cost about $12 for two. (Target brand lanolin does not appear to be available online.)

So, my new total is $537. I'm probably going to need to purchase more More Milk Special Blend and lanolin as well, which will put me over my target budget of $600. But at least that's still less than the cost of a year's worth of formula, and hopefully an immeasurable savings in doctor's bills.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

No-Measure Pasta Bake

This is a super easy meal and you probably have the ingredients on hand at any given time.

No-Measure Pasta Bake
Serves 8

nonstick cooking spray
1 1-lb package ground beef or turkey
1 1-lb package dried rotini or other short pasta (try the whole wheat version from Trader Joe's)
1 26-oz jar of your favorite spaghetti sauce (I like Newman's Own Mushroom Marinara)
1 12-oz package shredded mozzarella
1 handful of freshly grated Parmesan (I always have a small tub from Trader Joe's on hand)

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain pasta and return to pot.
3. While pasta is cooking, cook ground beef in a medium skillet coated with cooking spray over medium-high heat until browned, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon or spatula. Drain the meat and add to the pasta.
4. Combine the pasta, meat, spaghetti sauce and mozzarella, stirring well. Pour the mixture into a 13x9 baking dish coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle Parmesan over the top.
5. Bake the pasta mixture for 30 to 40 minutes, until the pasta is hot and the Parmesan has melted and turned golden. Serve with a salad and garlic bread.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Tip for Saving on Nursing Attire

Special thanks to Melody, who read my article on saving money on the Dollar Stretcher site and suggested this tip.

To save money on nursing tops or dresses, sew your own clothes! This tip doesn't really work for me personally because I can't sew (I tried to learn and it was a disaster) and I don't know anyone who can. But Melody recommends patterns by Elizabeth Lee Designs. From a quick look at their website, the patterns appear to be $10-15, which is less than the cost of an inexpensive nursing shirt. If you buy a reasonably priced material, you'll be saving money from the second outfit on, and as Melody pointed out, you can use the patterns repeatedly.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Turkey Sloppy Joes

I love this recipe because it's so fast and easy. You could make it a little healthier by using fresh minced garlic instead of powdered garlic and whole wheat rolls or buns instead of baguettes.

Turkey Sloppy Joes
Serves 4

1 pound ground turkey
cooking spray
1/4 teaspoon powdered garlic
1 15-oz. can tomato sauce
2 tablespoons ketchup
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 mini-baguettes (or 1 large baguette)

1. In a 10-inch skillet coated with nonstick cooking spray, cook ground turkey over medium high heat until cooked through, about 10 minutes. Use a wooden spoon or spatula to break the meat up while cooking.
2. Add the tomato sauce, ketchup and Worcestershire sauce to the skillet and stir to combine well. Bring to a simmer and reduce heat to low.
3. Cut the mini-baguettes in half (or the large baguette into fourths). Slice open on one side, taking care not to cut all the way through the bread. Lightly toast the baguettes in a toaster oven.
4. Remove the meat mixture from heat. Top the baguettes with meat mixture and serve.

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