Spring break

Spring break. We haven’t jetted off to warmer climes. We’ve enjoyed a visit from the grandparents, gone to the zoo, the library and the swimming pool at the Y. We’ve stayed in our jammies until noon (or later). I finished one book and started another, and slept until 8:30 a.m. two days in a row.

wpid-2014-04-04-16.13.18.png.png

In an attempt to be productive, I got so far as making a list of possible projects. It’s Friday, and I’ve only crossed two items off the list, one simply because the weather isn’t cooperating. (Can’t rake leaves when the yard is under several inches of water. April showers bring May flowers…) This morning I cleaned the kitchen, not because it was on the list, but because I couldn’t take the smudges on the new dishwasher anymore. One thing led to another, and pretty soon I was scrubbing the sticky coating of dust off the knife block.

wpid-2014-04-04-16.09.46.png.png

Miss Eight has busied herself all week with duct tape crafts. Mr. Eleven has clocked too many hours on his iPod, watching YouTube videos and texting his friends. Today he was finally able to ride his scooter over to a friend’s house. Little Six has polished his piano recital piece (I never saw a kid so fond of the metronome), played a lot of sword fighting on the Wii, and finally unearthed his marble run.

wpid-2014-04-04-16.10.41.png.png

Since I won’t be doing any laundry today (when the ejector pumps are working so hard to keep the rainwater out of our basement, I don’t like to overtax them), I should probably make good on my promise to Miss Eight to get the first coat of paint on her nightstand. I did finish one other project: cleaning out the hall closet.

wpid-2014-04-04-16.41.49.png.png  wpid-2014-04-04-16.44.48.png.png

 

It’s probably tempting fate, but I put away the snow gear and got out the rain gear. (Tip of the day: You can shine your plastic rain boots with Armor All!) If I don’t accomplish anything else, that at least will make Monday morning’s return to school a little easier.

wpid-2014-04-04-16.12.13.png.png

You might think that these lazy days at home would lead to more exciting cooking. Though we did cook quite a lot while the in-laws were here (see the nice birthday cake the Hub baked for his mother?), the Hub is working a regular schedule this week and I am not very motivated. I’ve resorted to easy fall-back meals: pasta pesto, hamburgers and roasted potatoes, pizza (the dough was in the freezer), and leftovers.

wpid-2014-04-04-17.01.10.png.png

Recognizing that we’ll be back to the routine in a few short days, I did make next week’s menu and baked some extra pancake batter into these Pancake Mini-Muffins for school morning breakfasts. Now it’s time to roll out that pizza dough…

Change

Did you all think I had dropped off the face of the blogosphere?

Nope. I got a job.

As jobs go, the hours couldn’t be more ideal–I’m working only during the school day as an elementary school instructional assistant–so I’m home in time to shuttle my own children around to their activities, help with homework, and get dinner on the table. I’m free most of the same days as my children (including summer vacation).

Ideal.

Still, Little Six now has to go to before and after-school care, because I have to leave for work nearly an hour before he starts school, and I don’t return in time for his dismissal. We now pack lunches and set out backpacks the night before, and we grocery shop on the weekends like every other family with two working parents.

It’s a big change.

No more sleeping in, soap operas and bonbons. No more volunteering at school, running errands at 10 a.m., or taking a shower at 2 p.m. The dirty dishes sit in the sink a little longer. My desk looks like a bomb exploded somewhere in the vicinity.

I am physically wiped out by the end of the day–I’m certain none of you teachers is surprised–and I can only hope that I build up some stamina after a few more weeks. I blame it on those little chairs in the first grade classrooms and the challenge of learning a couple hundred new names. Not to mention fourth grade math.

A few things that have made this transition go more smoothly:

  • Ye Olde Crockpot. Slow Cooker Salsa Chicken saved us on my first day back to work. I took one minute in the morning to dump a package of chicken breasts, a jar of mild salsa (Aldi’s organic), and a good shake of cumin (instead of taco seasoning) in the the slow cooker. After eight hours on low, it was juicy and took a minute to shred for tacos. There was enough left over for Chicken Taquitos later in the week, and still more to put in the freezer for another taco night.
  • Weekend meal planning and batch cooking. If we can prepare at least one meal for the week ahead, we feel so much more relaxed. The Hub has been great about making this happen. Continuing our dinner swap arrangement has also been a lifesaver.

  • Taking advantage of after-school care. I could pick Little Six up within the first half hour, but we pay a flat rate no matter how long he stays, so he can stay until 6 p.m. if necessary. I’ve been picking him up around 4:30, which gives me a little extra time with the big kids and their homework. Little Six is a social kid who enjoys the play time–including art projects, games, and time outdoors–which is better than being at home playing Super Mario Bros. by himself while I make dinner and drill spelling words. The big kids seem more cooperative, too, when I can give them my undivided attention to hear about their day.
  • Keeping up with the (almost) daily laundry routine. Saving it all up for the weekend just sounds soul crushing. I managed a load three out of five days last week, and still had four loads on Saturday.
  • A shared family calendar. I put everything on Google Calendar, from all the kids’ activities (and what time I need to pick them up) to social events to school and work deadlines. I even add reminders for errands I need to run and when library books are due (we’ve been burned one too many times with late fees). Having a record of all our commitments in one place works for us. We can check it from work and generally rely on its accuracy. At least, I can’t remember the last time we double-booked something!

What are your best tips for juggling your work schedule and your home schedule?

Closet clean sweep

In the spirit of Chinese New Year, I cleaned out my closet yesterday.

I tried to be ruthless–if I hadn’t worn something in the past year, into the donate bag it went. A few things went into the rag pile. I pulled all the summer clothes out and stashed them in a box under the bed so that I can actually open, close, and see what is inside my dresser drawers. Obviously, I should have done that in October, but since I won’t need them until May, better late than never. I refolded all my sweaters, and put my to-be-ironed clothes on hangers in the closet so that I don’t keep forgetting I own them. I even sorted through my shoes.

The donation truck is coming by next week, and I’m happy to have a few bags to contribute.

Today we have to trek out in the snow to sell band candy for a couple of hours. (We’ll be indoors, thankfully.) I’d rather be cleaning the house.

How often do you clean out your closet?

Recycled t-shirt animal pillows

These little pillow pets are the latest addition to Miss Eight’s room. They began life as adorable t-shirts from Mini Boden that I bought for $.50 each at a consignment sale. Miss Eight loved and wore them until she outgrew them, and we saved them for this little project. To beat boredom on the fourth day this month that school has been cancelled due to weather, it was nice to work on this activity with Miss Eight.

At first we thought we’d make little square pillows, but then I saw these cute examples from H&M and Etsy, and we changed our plan.hmbunnypillow

Because Miss Eight wanted to vary the colors on the backs of the pillows, I cut the t-shirts apart at the side seams. Then I paired a pink front with a green back, and vice versa. I cut around each image, leaving a good inch border all the way around.

I pinned them right sides together, and stitched all around, leaving an opening at the bottom. We turned them right side out, Miss Eight got busy stuffing the pillows with fiberfill, and then I hand stitched the pillows closed. The entire project took 30 minutes, tops, and cost us absolutely nothing.

Aren’t they cute? I can say that without reservation, since these pets don’t need to be walked or have their smelly cage cleaned out.

 

Family room

The family room might be my favorite room in the house now. I was chatting with a friend last week about how long it can take to figure out how to make your house work for your particular family, the way you live. Not only how it looks, but how it functions.

In six and half years, this is the first time this room has felt like us. It helps that we’ve moved beyond big baby and toddler toys, and we don’t need to baby proof anything. Finally getting the scale of the furniture right has made a huge difference. Our old sofa and loveseat–which we bought for the enormous basement family room in our last house–just overwhelmed this room. Our new chairs arrived and we (the grownups) each have a perfectly comfortable spot to relax, with a good view of the television and a light for reading. I wasn’t sure what to hang over the fireplace, but I dug out this old poster, and I really like the punch of yellow and the clean, graphic lines of the Matisse sketch. I’ve since hung it a little higher (I had to add some picture wire to the back) so the hardware doesn’t show.

I assembled the two new bookcases and found space for all of the board games, the overflow of books, and some baskets of toys. In the future, I might be more thoughtful about which books to keep in the family room and which in the living room, but for the moment I am just happy that there is space for all the books. And now that the games are on open shelves in plain sight, the kids have been playing them more often. (Miss Eight and I really love Set these days.) I also finally framed and hung the series of favorite director prints that I gave the Hub for Christmas 2012.

We moved the big coffee table from the middle of the room to one end. Little Six’s art projects (and accompanying mess) tend to take over the table so that we weren’t getting any other use out of it anyway. Now the table (and the occasional paint spill) is off the carpet and there is floor space to spread out a game, practice headstands, or play the Wii.

This arrangement with our big old tv isn’t permanent, but we streamlined things by putting it on a smaller stand and tucking it into the corner. Someday we’ll get a flat screen and figure out a good layout for this wall, but this television is still going strong. I tacked up the colorful woven wall hanging from Ecuador to relieve some of the blank white space.

The little armchair adds just enough seating for the whole family to watch a movie together. It’s light enough to swing around and face the tv when we need it. I also sewed up this floor pouf from three little cotton rugs to act as a footstool or extra seating. I loosely followed these directions (minus the zipper–I just hand stitched the opening). My pouf is stuffed with rags and a few pieces of foam. I might raid the rag bag and fill it just a little bit more. Hmmm…I probably should have ironed out the creases before sewing.

We’re still on the hunt for a couple of new side tables so that every chair has a spot for a cup of tea and a lamp. In the meantime, I’m happy that there is finally space for the whole family in our family room.

How have your rooms evolved? What changes have made the most difference in how you use and enjoy the space?

A little tarty

 

Pretty fancy, no? From concept to table, this dessert was made by Little Six. I still have no idea what inspired him, but for a couple of weeks he couldn’t stop talking about a mysterious dessert called a “tarty.” He proposed a few variations (some of which involved several layers of chocolate cake topped with pudding, frosting, fruit and sprinkles), but he seemed very happy with the streamlined version we settled on. We, the taste testers, were happy, too. As promised, here is the recipe.

Tarties

Makes 5-6 individual tarts

For the crust: Put 20 chocolate sandwich cookies (Oreos) and 1/4 cup melted butter in the food processor. Process on high until finely ground. Divide the crumbs evenly among the tart pans and press evenly around the base and sides. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

For the filling: Follow this recipe for Pastry Cream (don’t leave out the whipped cream at the end). When thoroughly chilled, fill each tart crust with pastry cream and smooth with a small spatula.

Just before serving, top each tart with fresh berries, sliced bananas, and toasted almonds.

Happy New Year!

If it’s above zero, we play outside.

Though the Polar Vortex has come and gone, we’re still surrounded by drifts of slushy snow, and the laundry room is strung with banners of damp Smartwool socks. We had a lovely Christmas and New Year, with a good balance of celebrating and relaxing with family and friends. The kids were home from school two extra days because of the aforementioned weather, but now we are clawing our way back into some semblance of a routine.

Girl shovels driveway while boys push each other down in the snow.

Anyway, I thought I’d share a few of the home-related things that have been on my radar lately.

Home

  • Thanks to Mom and Dad’s Christmas generosity (and a very good sale), we will soon be snoozing in front of Netflix while reclining in a pair of these stressless recliners. My aching back is so excited!
  • Possibly my favorite Christmas present was a lavender-filled microwaveable shoulder wrap. That, a cozy new throw, hot tea, and The Goldfinch have kept me warm lately. Turns out the space heater we borrowed does a mighty fine job of heating the family room–until it blows the fuse.
  • Sewing project I finished over the weekend for the family room: this DIY floor pouf made from Ikea cotton rugs. I made something similar a couple of years ago, but the dimensions were wrong and the burlap I chose was not durable. Super easy project (I skipped the zipper and stuffed it with rags)!
  • Miss Eight and I have settled on a nightstand for her room (that wobbly three-legged decorator table isn’t cutting it). Inspired by the millions of Ikea RAST dresser hacks, we are planning to paint it white and then apply a rainbow of washi tape stripes to the drawer fronts (possibly sealed with Mod Podge).
  • Home Depot purchase I’m most looking forward to: Grout Renew (for the kids’ bathroom floor tiles)
  • Next make-do-with-what-we-have DIY: Restain (darker) the orangey oak corner media cupboard that we moved from the family room to the foyer. New hardware, too. Former game cupboard to backpack/library book/karate gear storage–that’s the plan, anyway. Our cubbies in the hall closet just aren’t big enough anymore for three kids and their school & activity gear.

Food

  • Successful meal of the week (that cooks itself while you are out of the house): Crockpot rotisserie chicken and baked potatoes (using the “delay start” feature on the oven). Cross my heart, it only takes five minutes to prep the chicken, and one minute to stab some potatoes and program the oven (400 degrees, to start 45 minutes before we got home). First person home makes a salad and microwaves a veggie. (If it makes you feel better, there was somebody home while the oven was on.)
  • Little Six has become obsessed with a recipe he invented called a “Tarty.” No joke–he has brought it up at least half a dozen times a day for the past week. Some kind of cake/tart hybrid, it includes chocolate, pudding, “any fruit you like,” and possibly sprinkles and/or frosting. We finally tested this recipe over the weekend, and it was a winner. Recipe coming later this week!

Kid stuff

  • MacGyver couldn’t have done it better: We made a ping-pong table out of half an armoire, two closet doors, and a portable ping-pong net. When it’s too cold to play outside and the batteries are all dead in the Wii remotes, there’s always the basement.

I hope the New Year brings you all the time, money and energy you need to accomplish all your goals. Or at least a few of them!

Family room gallery wall

After looking at this blank wall for a couple of weeks, I finally got out my hammer and hung some art.

Based on that photo, the white paint seemed like a dubious choice. But as soon as I hung the first frame, I was relieved. The white paint is the perfect backdrop for this rainbow collection that my three artists have created at school and at home. Before I consolidated them here, some of the paintings were hung in other parts of the house, and some were languishing in the basement file cabinet.

We spend so much time in the family room, and it’s finally beginning to be a room that feels homey to me.

If you’re curious about how much effort it takes to hang so many pictures, I can promise it didn’t take me more than a couple of hours (that includes time I took to frame some pieces). I used this Apartment Therapy post as a loose guideline, and laid all the frames out on the floor until I had an arrangement I liked. I also measured the wall to make sure everything would fit. I did shuffle a few pieces from my original layout as I went along, but I pretty much started at the left and worked my way across the wall, just eyeballing the spacing between frames. My handy Hang & Level allowed me to speed through the nailing and hanging.

 

Now I need to find something to hang in those empty spots in the foyer and powder room where I stole paintings to put in my gallery wall!

Fast forward

Maybe it has something to do with the shorter days and longer nights, but it feels as if each day is scrolling by in fast forward, each frame only on the screen for a fraction of a second.

palette cake

And so for the past few weeks, there hasn’t been room in the day for blogging. Holiday preparations, celebrations, birthdays, school and work have more than filled our days. We made another big step in our family room makeover. The Hub and I shuffled the furniture around (my arms still ache–those sofas are heavy!) and I took most of two days to paint the walls and trim. On Little Six’s birthday, we picked out a Christmas tree and did a little decorating.

DIY Tip: How to Hang Stockings Above a Fireplace Without a Mantel

Thread clear picture wire or fishing line from eye hooks mounted on either side of the chimney breast. Stretch the wire tightly and hang the stockings with S-hooks or wire ornament hooks.

The paint felt so very…white as I rolled it on the walls, but I’m happy with the decision. Everything feels bigger and cleaner. Sometime after Christmas we hope to replace the orange oak shelving with taller, wider white bookcases and put a pair of slim but comfortable chairs in front of the fireplace. I plan to stain the coffee table a darker color (and give Mr. Six a big piece of oilcloth to protect the table while he’s creating).

I’m looking forward to filling this blank wall above the sofa with a gallery of the kids’ artwork. I have old frames to fill and a few new ones from Goodwill. I may steal some from other parts of the house and consolidate it here. We’re hosting a Christmas party in a couple of weeks, which gives me a deadline for the project.

You may have noticed that I abandoned my Monday Menu posts for the past few weeks. I’m getting bored writing them, and I suspect you may be bored reading them. I’m still meal planning, but I’ve been visiting my blog archives and stealing meal ideas from past years. Sharing my menu each week has been a wonderful way to develop the habit of meal planning, but I’m going to take a break from writing about it, at least for a while.

I do hope to share a recipe and project or two with you before the year’s end. In the meantime, I have some more decorations to put up. It’s sunny and a balmy 17 degrees, so this may be my chance to hang that string of snowflake lights on the porch.

Cleaning out the refrigerator

Yeah, so I’ve been meaning to clean out the refrigerator for, like, MONTHS. Maybe a year. I really can’t remember. In my defense, there were no festering science experiments lurking in its depths (we are pretty good about rounding up the bits of food and lost containers every week or two). But we had company over the weekend, and the embarrassing state of the fridge finally sent me over the edge.

Then I saw this motivating video in my Facebook feed this week. How timely! A refrigerator makeover for under $100! I prefer free makeovers, so I didn’t buy any supplies–though I’m tempted to snag one more set of containers next time I’m at Ikea. I wouldn’t mind those dry erase labels that they talked about, either (Hey there, Santa!).

My fridge before looked pretty much like the one in the video: stuffed with stuff, in no particular order. I didn’t even snap a picture of it. I emptied the fridge of all its contents:

That’s where this story takes a wrong turn. You thought you were watching HGTV, but now you’re in a weird indie horror film, or maybe an episode of Dexter.
It took me nearly an hour of scrubbing to get rid of the evidence. I heated up the kettle and drizzled boiling water to loosen the sticky mystery spills–I really could have used some rubber gloves. Then I spent another hour reinstalling the shelves, sorting and repackaging food.
My big addition was a piece of shelf liner to help keep the wine bottles from rolling around. I even reorganized the condiments in the door.

From crime scene to clean, well-lighted place. A happy ending, don’t you think?