Posts Tagged ‘Charlie-approved’

Lately I have been looking around the house at Charlie’s various toys and thinking about which ones have been really good buys. I don’t necessarily mean the cheapest toys, but rather the toys that have gotten the most use. Here’s a rundown of the top five toys (in no particular order) that have gone the distance, entertaining him as both a toddler and a preschooler:

Push toys. Charlie has been obsessed with the vacuum cleaner for a long, long time. When he was a baby and seemed to cry incessantly, Mark frequently would hold Charlie in one arm and vacuum with the other arm because somehow the combination of the noise of the vacuum and the movement of vacuuming was very soothing to Charlie. As he grew older, he wanted to help vacuum. So for Charlie’s second birthday, Mark bought him a little toy vacuum. Charlie adored it from the moment he opened it. At some point, maybe a year later, Charlie broke the vacuum, so we quickly went out and bought him another one because we knew he’d continue to love it. And, to this day, he does. Given how much he uses it, I only wish the toy vacuum actually sucked up dirt.  A second very successful push toy was a shopping cart that we gave Charlie shortly after he started walking. He doesn’t play with it as much now, but he loved that shopping cart for at least 18 months. Now he mostly uses it to store things in his room. And, for a really inexpensive push toy, Charlie has absolutely adored the recycling bins since he was about a year and a half. He loves to push them from the garage to the curb when it’s time for the recycling to be picked up each week, and then he pushes the empty bins back to the garage. Sometimes he’ll sit in the bin and asked to be pushed around the yard.

Ride-on toys. Charlie has a few toys he can ride and they’re all great. Two of them — a school bus and airplane — he’s had for about two years. Both of them play annoying music and have batteries that just won’t die, but Charlie loves them. Well over a year ago, we scored a fantastic tricycle for Charlie on Craigslist for $20. We had to drive about 30 miles to get it, but it was so worth it.

Though both the pull toys and ride-on toys tend to retail for considerably more money than the other items on my toddler-to-preschooler toys list, you can often find deals on them on Craigslist (like we did for Charlie’s tricycle) or watch for sales at the big toy stores. For an energetic child like Charlie, both of these types of “action” toys are really helpful to help expend some of that energy. And, as a testament to the appeal of these toys, they are always the first thing that other children play with when they come over to visit Charlie.

Playdough. Playing with playdough helps develop fine motor skills (all that kneading, rolling, and cutting), as well as early language skills (naming both colors as well as the cutter shapes like stars, trees, and cats). When Charlie was younger, the cat cut-out was by far his favorite and got a lot of use, but Lord help us when that thing would temporarily go missing. Now Charlie seldom uses the cut-out shapes. Instead, he “writes” his name making the letters out of the playdough. He also creates pictures, usually faces, and when he gets to the mouth, we talk about whether he is going to make a happy face or sad face by the way he makes the smile. It’s a nice, easy way to talk about emotions.

Sidewalk chalk. I don’t know exactly when we bought Charlie his first pack of sidewalk chalk, but it was probably the summer after he turned one. Initially, of course, he just used it to scribble, but even then he was developing fine motor skills. As Charlie learned to talk, he started demanding that we draw pictures for him — usually pictures of him. We went through a long phase of drawing pictures of Charlie; left to draw for himself, he’d still just scribble. Miraculously, one day he started drawing his own pictures of himself, and it was clear that he’d been studying how we drew the pictures so he could learn. He now carefully draws a head, then tells us how he needs to add eyes, a nose, and a smile. Then he’ll draw his body. Finally, he’ll often try to label his drawing by writing his name next to it (he’s really good at the C and H, but then it starts to break down from there).

An unexpected benefit of always having sidewalk chalk on our front porch is that it gives Charlie a chance to interact with other kids in the neighborhood. It turns out that sidewalk chalk is like a kid-magnet. All we have to do is start drawing and children seem to show up. It’s great.

ABC wooden blocks. These blocks are a classic multi-function toy, which makes them useful at several different developmental stages.  Mark bought wooden blocks for Charlie when he was about 18 months old.  Charlie’s interest at first was just to stack two blocks, one on top of the other.  As his fine motor skills improved, we played little games to see how many blocks he could stack. We encouraged early language development by naming the pictures on the blocks — cat, dog, flower, etc. Eventually, Charlie started building up the blocks and counting them. Then he made bridges out of the blocks for his trains to drive through. Now he’s learning to recognize letters so he looks through the blocks looking for the C-H-A-R-L-I-E and then arranging them just so. When we played with the blocks the other day, he decided to create a picture of himself (he’s a little obsessed with pictures of himself).  He rearranged the blocks into a face, and then found some things lying around the house he used to make the body.

It’s oddly comforting to me that most of the for-the-long-haul toys that made it onto my list aren’t very sophisticated; in fact, most of them are toys I played with as a child.


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I like to cook, but there are some many days I come home from work tired and really just want to do no more than heat something up for dinner. My friend Jon recommended these frozen mini chicken tacos from Trader Joe’s and said that they make a quick meal for him and his wife. He pairs them with chipotle salsa, also from Trader Joe’s. We tried ours with pineapple salsa.

The tacos take 6-8 minutes to cook in a 425 degree oven. The salsa takes 10 seconds to throw in a bowl. If I were really feeling fancy I could have thrown some sour cream in a bowl too.

The tacos are pretty good, especially given that all I have to do is heat them up.  And the salsa is really good. Oh, and the best part: Charlie ate a couple of tacos. Miraculous!

The tally:
mini chicken tacos: $3.99 for a box
pineapple salsa: $.66 (we used about 1/3 of the $1.99 jar)

Grand total: $4.65
Cost per serving: $1.86
(I estimated 2.5 servings in a box — Charlie’s serving only counts as 0.5!)

Does anyone else have recommendations for inexpensive frozen meals? I mean, who can’t benefit from a go-to frozen dish from time to time?!

I just looked in our freezer and was reminded of two other meals we really like from Trader Joe’s: Vegetarian Biryani and Mandarin Orange Chicken. Come to think of it, we’ve also had some frozen pizza that was pretty good too.

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Composting is a way of recycling your food scraps and yard trimmings – thus keeping them out of landfills — and turning them into a valuable material to use in your garden. Using compost on your plants will add nutrients to the soil and improve absorbency thereby helping your plants to grow stronger. And, it’s fun to produce compost at home instead of buying it at the nursery. Composting is good for the environment, your plants, and your wallet. Heck, these days it’s even good for your image – didn’t you know that “green” is the new black?

Last week I made my second compost bin out of a trash can. Now I’ll tell you what I’ve learned about the very basics of beginning to compost.

Before I started composting, I was a little intimidated by it. I didn’t know exactly what I could compost and I thought there was some formula I had to follow. There isn’t really a formula, but there are things to keep in mind. Remember, however, that you can make a lot of composting “mistakes” and still end up with compost—it just may take longer than other peoples’ compost or it might smell funny along the way.

This EPA site offers a nice list of things that can and cannot be composted. The highlights: along with both kitchen scraps and yard trimmings, dryer lint, animal and human hair, shredded paper, newspaper, dust bunnies, and eggshells can all be composted. Do not compost meat, bones, fats (including grease), or dairy products.

Compostable materials can be thought of in terms of “greens” (rich in nitrogen) and “browns” (rich in carbon). Greens are things like fruit and vegetable scraps, and browns are things like leaves and twigs. This site does a good job explaining the science behind balancing greens and browns in your bin. I’ll give you the take home message for an easy way to make compost: add roughly equal amounts of both kitchen scraps (such as fruit and vegetables, coffee grinds, egg shells) and leaves.

Shredded leaves (also known as “leaf mold”) are a great brown material to add to the compost bin. Our town offers free delivery of shredded leaves during the fall and winter season when they’re picking up our raked leaves at the curb. I had them dump a pile of shredded leaves a year ago and I’m still working my way through it. I use the leaves as mulch for garden beds, and when I was working on my little front yard landscape project, I dug the leaf mold into the soil to improve drainage (we have heavy clay soil). I keep my compost bins next to the pile of shredded leaves so that when I’m in need of brown material to add to the bin, I just pick up some of the leaves and toss them in. Simple.

It is important to maintain the proper moisture level in the bin. The material should be like a very slightly damp sponge – not so wet that you can squeeze water out of it. If the pile is too dry, it will take much longer to break down; if it is too wet, the beneficial little microorganisms won’t get the proper amount of oxygen they need to help break everything down. This site recommends the following as a quick moisture test: Squeeze a handful of the compost. If water drips out, it’s too wet; if the compost crumbles apart, it’s too dry; if it stays compacted without water dripping out, it’s perfect.

For items I collect in the house to compost, I keep an old plastic container (with lid) under the kitchen sink. When it’s full, I just take the container out to the bin and dump the contents in. It’s important that your container have a lid because otherwise it will quickly attract little fruit flies and other uninvited guests.

So let’s get this compost bin started. Begin by filling up the bin about 1/4 of the way full with dirt, topsoil, or, if you’re really feeling fancy, some of the compost from your first bin (complete with earthworms!).

Add some leaves (if they’re shredded, they’ll break down more quickly).

Add fruit and vegetable scraps and anything else you’ve collected in the house. If you’re interested in speeding up the decomposition, cut up the food scraps into small pieces before putting them in the bin. I don’t do this because I’m lazy. Also, if you add eggshells to your bin, it’s a good idea to crush them because they take a long time to break down.

Give it all a pretty good watering from the hose. While I occasionally use a thick stick to stir everything up, I generally just put the lid on, turn the bin on its side, and have Charlie do all the work for me.

Now that the bin is started, just remember that for every “layer” of green material you add, throw a layer of leaves in. Then roll the bin about once a week.

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For the cost of a can of shaving cream ($1.99 in our case), we have several nights of entertainment for Charlie.  This is actually a really soothing activity and fun even for adults.

What you’ll need:

  • shaving cream
  • baking pan or some kind of washable tray
  • bowl of warm water for rinsing hands
  • towels to put under the tray and bowl of water
  • the knowledge that you’ll probably want to put your child in a bath afterward

Charlie draws pictures of faces and practices writing his name (he’s not very good at it yet, but he can do the C and sometimes even the H).

And when Charlie is done with one masterpiece, he just rubs it away, rinses his hands, and starts afresh.

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My mom gave me her recipe for banana bread about a dozen years ago.  I make it often because I love it but also because it’s a great way to use up bananas that have ripened for too long on the counter.  The riper the banana the better for this recipe.  Aside from the bananas, all the other ingredients are pretty standard items that I’m likely to have in the cupboards or refrigerator so I never need to plan ahead to make banana bread.  If I’m not ready to make the bread but the bananas are ready, I just toss them in the freezer.  When I’m ready to make the bread, I take the bananas out, cut off the peel, and follow the recipe as usual.  I don’t even bother letting the bananas thaw (by the way, frozen bananas are yummy — they’re a creamy texture and very sweet).

Banana Bread
Adapted from Mom

  • 2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1 cup mashed banana (about 2-3 whole bananas)
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2 Tbsp vegetable oil

Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.  In a separate bowl, mash the bananas and blend in the milk, egg, and oil.  Stir the flour mixture into the banana mixture until well blended.

Pour into a greased loaf pan.  Bake at 350 degrees F for about 1 hour (I usually take it out slightly before an hour because we like our bread a little under-done).  Cool in pan for 10 minutes.  Remove from pan and finish cooling on wire rack.

I noted that this recipe is adapted from my mom’s.  My mom’s recipe calls for 2 Tbsp melted vegetable shortening instead of the vegetable oil.  I seldom have vegetable shortening on hand and almost always have vegetable oil, so I once substituted the oil for the shortening and the bread tasted just as good, so I’ve never bothered with the shortening again. Also, Mom’s recipe calls for 3/4 cup of Grape Nuts cereal (the nuggets, not the flakes) added to the flour mixture.  Many years ago I forgot to add the Grape Nuts and Mark and I found that we liked the bread better without the cereal.  So, again, I’ve never bothered to use it since.

Charlie loves to help make banana bread (he’s not so great at eating it, but we’re working on that).  He’s in charge of peeling and mashing the bananas.

And, here’s the result:

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Charlie has a toy airplane that he adores.  He yells, “Up, up, up in the air!” and zooms around the house with it.  Yesterday morning he was playing with it when suddenly he dropped it, ran to the den closet, and emerged with the remains of our Christmas wrapping paper.  Then he quickly disappeared into his room.  I followed him because it’s never really a good idea for Charlie to play without being supervised (just this morning he tried to climb to the ceiling and we found him perched on the windowsill hanging onto the window lock to keep himself steady).  When I got to his room, he’d spread the wrapping paper on the floor and dumped a huge number of his books on top of it.  He looked up at me in the doorway and announced he was going to wrap some presents.

Now, in case you’re wondering how he went from flying an airplane to wanting to wrap presents, I do in fact have an explanation.  Over the holidays we flew across the country to visit family.  It was a long, long trip.  We’ve flown with Charlie before and I have learned that in order for him to consent to sit in the airplane seats, he has to be constantly entertained.  So, Mark and I stock up on new little toys or books before every flight–nothing extravagant, but things with novelty.  Before this past trip though, a friend recommended that I wrap each new toy and book for the flight.  Sometimes genius occurs in the most unexpected ways.  Charlie was thrilled to get the presents and between unwrapping and playing with the new gifts, our flight across the country was almost dreamy.  Ok, that’s not really true since Mark hates to fly and I’m not all that fond of it either.  In fact, Charlie is a better flyer than both of us.  The point is that wrapping these toys and books was phenomenally effective.

So, Charlie wanted to wrap his books yesterday morning.  I grabbed his scissors and the tape and we started wrapping.

And do you know what?  This was an amazing activity.  He got to practice cutting, he picked books that would fit the pieces of paper he cut, and he learned how to close the paper with tape.  He even wrapped a book to give to Mark when he came home (I know, aaaahhhhh).  And then, something almost magical happened.  He wanted me to read the books with him that he was wrapping.  Some of these books he hasn’t looked at in months and months.  Some of them he never paid any attention to.  It was like Christmas in February.

So I got to thinking, we have TONS of toys around the house that Charlie played with once, twice, or even never before putting aside and forgetting about.  These are the toys that fall to the bottom of the toy chest or get pushed to the back of his closet.  I’m thinking that if I get these out, wrap them up, and give them to him again, he might just take an interest in them this time around.  And that, dear readers, is how you celebrate Christmas in February.

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We’re lucky that our town has an excellent public library.  Well, I’m told it’s excellent.   The truth is that until recently, I had scarcely ventured beyond the mystery section.  Between my job and Charlie, I have little time for reading.  If by the time I get Charlie to bed I’m awake enough to read, then I almost invariably opt for a very light mystery–something that requires little attention beyond plot.  Just the other day I finished the last book I had checked out of the library and knew that, with Charlie being sick, I wouldn’t get to the library to check out anything new.  So, I begged Mark to let me borrow one of his TWO copies of the murder mystery The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by his favorite author, Michael Chabon.  Uh, that’s the PULITZER PRIZE WINNING Michael Chabon.  Mark was reluctant to let me borrow it because he knows all too well that I usually end up falling asleep on top of whatever book I’ve brought to bed with me and he feared that I might end up ruining the book, but he nevertheless eventually gave in.  And, he deserves some major kudos because a couple of days later he asked me how I was enjoying the book and when I said, “I could do with a little more mystery and a little less literature,” he didn’t utter one disparaging remark about me.

Anyhow, recently I’ve started exploring the children’s section of our great library because Charlie has finally decided that occasionally a book is good enough to sit still for.  Have I mentioned that his energy level is off the charts?  The other thing that Charlie has recently discovered is cartoons, and not a moment too soon is all I can say.  Mark and I have been chasing this kid around for 3 years and the least he can do for us is watch a little TV once in awhile.  And, finally, now he does.  He usually stands about 4 feet in front of the TV jumping up and down, dancing, and giggling which is pretty cool for us because it means he’s occupied AND he’s expending energy.

So, in our expeditions to the library we discovered that our library rents DVDs, including children’s cartoons, for FREE! Isn’t that great?  DVDs of some of Charlie’s favorite cartoons can run about $15-$20 each and there’s no telling how long his interest in any DVD will last.  Consequently, renting them from the library is perfect.  Now, if only they had a DVD of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.

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