Sunday, September 23, 2012

My Snack Drawer

When people hear that I have a drawer in my kitchen devoted to snacks they often ask me about it.  So, I'm doing a blog post.  Hey, sharing information is the whole reason I started this blog ;-)

I started with a drawer in my kitchen that my kiddos could access and that I could accept not using for other kitchen "things".  Then I filled it up with a variety of snack items that my kids like.  I keep a lot of options in there because my kids really don't like a lot of the same things.  Plus, I like to mix it up now and then so they don't get sick of everything - then they complain about.  Instead, my kiddos are overjoyed when I tell them they can have a snack!

Here's my drawer:

Oh how I wish it was always this organized!!  LOL

Notice that everything is bagged up individually.  Sometimes I find a good deal on items that are already in small packages but mostly I use a lot of snack size baggies! 

When I have a large bag of a particular snack I do not move the entire package into individual baggies all at one time.  The reason???  I have noticed that these little baggies do not keep things as fresh.  There are little tiny microscopic holes that allow more room to breath than most of the original packaging.  So I seal the original package back up (as good as I can) until I need to make more little baggies.

After grocery shopping (usually later that night) is when I replenish my snack drawer.  I make baggies of the new stuff I bought, add more baggies of the stuff I already have that has been eaten, and check for stuff that hasn't been eaten and should probably be tossed.  Tip - it's easier to keep track of freshness if you write a date on the outside of the baggies.

No candy or chips in this drawer!!!  We have a different place for that so there is no confusion!

I have one other place for snacks and that is a shelf in our freezer for yogurt pops (they get frozen yogurt "pop cycles" as a snack option too).

It would be great to have a drawer in my refrigerator for snacks like apple slices and baby carrots!  But, I don't have the space and I do a pretty good job at offering those.

One of the reasons I started this drawer was because my kiddos were (and still are) required to bring their own snack to school each day.  This makes that "task" so much easier!!!  What tricks/tips have you implemented around your house?

Anderson & Girls Orchard: Stanton, Michigan

It's my favorite time of the year which means it's also time to squeeze in a visit to as many orchards and family farms that I can!!  One of my favorites is Anderson & Girls Orchards.

Okay, I did live in the nearby area for a good chunk of my life and I went to high school with the "Girls" of the orchard.  But, it really has become much more than it was when my best friend in 8th grade lived across the street (we'd go over to the orchard to play).  At that time it was a simple orchard (still large but not as much for the average individual to take advantage of).   They had a small stand that you could visit to purchase apples, pies, jams, and a few other things that the family offered.

Now, they offer a large variety of activities, the little stand has grown into a large store and bakery, and they also offer a small restaurant/ice cream shop!

The main floor is where you can buy vegetables, fruits, baked goods, ....

Items for sale in the top of the barn store.

Items for sale in the top of the barn store.

Items for sale in the top of the barn store.

Ice cream shop & restaurant

Lots of great food at a good price!

Of course we had to try one of these!!!


Many schools do field trips to this orchard and people travel from all over the state to visit.

One thing I love about this orchard, more than many others, is the feeling that they haven't outgrown the area they are located in.  Let me explain....  They have a lot of commercial things to offer but at a reasonable price and they still offer a large variety to those who really can't afford to pay for EVERYTHING!  They have many animals of all kinds that anyone can go see for FREE!  You do not have to pay a fee to witness any of this:

Picture opportunity!
Look for these signs before getting friendly with any animals.

Don't get too close!  My kiddos have seen many funny videos of these when they are upset!
This baby was real playful and offering lots of laughable opportunities!
Play time!
Stop to see a show!
What's playing?  Yep - it's pig races!!!

Free - $.25 for food but you don't really even need it. 
Okay - feeding them cost us a quarter (see the machine above her).
But, they were loving our attention for free before we bought the food!
Pay it forward opportunity - share some food with other little kiddos that you notice may not have any.
Yes - even santa's reindeer are there!!
Check them out at Christmas for some awesome picture opportunities!
Watch out - they spit!!!
That big white tub is a tunnel slide!  My kids love it!!!

Bottom of the slide
Higher view of some FREE stuff you can check out!!!
Yep - even kangaroos!!!

I love this thing!  There are faces that flip down for each animal so you can pick which
animal you would like to be.  And it will accommodate a group of up to 5 faces!

I want to point out something in the animal sign picture above.  To the right there is a small red barn that looks like a bird feeder and it has a sign below it.  MANY of the activities at this orchard are free but we all know that caring for these animals, and the property, can cost a lot.  This "red barn" is one of many donation boxes they have.  If you have a little extra cash please consider donating!  As a child, I would have loved to visit a place like this and for many - "free" is the only way it's possible.  I hope that this orchard can continue providing all that it does at such a great value!!  Now to continue my blog post :-)

For only $1 a stick (covered with bird seed) you can feed parakeets!  Another pay it forward opportunity if you see a little one that can't afford a stick.  I have never seen such friendly birds at one of these!  

My daughter LOVED it!

My son freaked out and threw his stick on the floor ;-)

Yep - they will even try to eat a shoe lace!
There is a fee for camel rides but I have visited many places and I am pretty impressed with the price they are charging!

There is another section of play area that you can take advantage of for a fee.  I took a picture of this sign to give you an idea of what they offer:

We did not have time to do this but there are a few rare things
(for us) in this section that my son would have loved!!

They even have a penny smash machine for $.51.  My family and I collect these
from every place we go so it was a great addition to our book!
If you have had a chance to visit this place, let me know what you liked!

Sloppy Joe Biscuits

A few years ago I came across an easy recipe for a new way to make "sloppy joes".  We love it!  Every time the weather turns colder it reminds me to make these biscuits.  It might be a little higher in calories than using a regular hamburger bun but it's worth it!  


1 package Grands biscuits (do not use the flaky version)
sloppy joe meat (whatever you usually use)*
sliced cheese (optional)
chopped onion (optional)


Flatten biscuits - I use my hands to flatten it.  You need two biscuits per sandwich.

Don't flatten too much.  The biscuit on the left has been
flattened and the one on the right is the regular size.
Add sloppy meat, chopped onions, sliced cheese.

Top with a second flattened biscuit.

Bake on cookie sheet (highly recommend that you line the pan) according to biscuit package directions.

Now you are ready to eat!!!

*I make a lot of sloppy joe meat at one time and then freeze it in batches (both a hamburger and vegetarian version).  These work great with left-over/frozen sloppy joe meat!

Tips I Have Learned: Avoiding Food Color Stain on Skin

This is a quick tip that I learned a while back.  It doesn't work for me every time but in most cases it does.  It works enough that I felt it worthy of sharing.

When working with food coloring, I'm very careful to not get any coloring on me.  But it never fails that I eventually get some on my hand!  

If I'm lucky it's only a small amount but usually I have very colorful hands after working on a project like sugar cookies!!!  Even after hand washing a few dishes I am left with this:

The tip:  as soon as you get liquid food coloring on your skin, run the "contaminated area" under cold tap water (don't rub or anything).  If done correctly, it will take the color completely off!  

Friday, September 14, 2012

Pasta Parmesan

My mom made this for me one night and I loved it so I had to have the recipe!  Of course, I had to share it too!  It's a great summer/fall casserole to utilize some of the abundance of vegetables you may have from your garden.


1 lb. twist pasta
1/4 cup olive oil
3 cups zucchini, sliced
2 cups mushrooms, sliced
1 cup onions, julienned
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon basil
1-1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
1-1/2 cups shredded swiss cheese
salt & pepper to taste


Cook pasta according to package direction (don't over cook).  Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large skillet and saute zucchini, mushrooms, onions, garlic and spices.  Cook for 6 minutes.  Toss in hot pasta.  Mix well, place pasta and vegetables in casserole dish.  Top with cheeses.  Place in hot oven (425 degrees) until cheese is brown on top.  Serve immediately.

Historic Train Excursion in Michigan: Coopersville & Marne Railway

For a few years we have passed a billboard promoting a train excursion through The Coopersville & Marne Railway Company.  My kiddos have been interested in trains so I thought it would be something fun to check out.  Of course, I kept thinking about it, and researching it, but never actually went through with the activity...  Until I was sent a promotion through Groupon!  

I was pretty impressed with this adventure!  So, I figured I would do a blog post to share our experience with others in the area that might want to check it out.

This is the ticket booth.  There is  free parking on both sides of the booth so no worries.  You can purchase your tickets during the hours listed on the website and they start boarding 20 minutes prior to the start time.  They have holiday excursions that I have heard a lot of great things about.  They also cater too groups and birthday parties!  I wish we would have been part of a group so we could have experienced the "Hobo Lunch"!  For a higher price you can even ride in the locomotive with the crew.

It was very busy the day we went for our ride!!  We were given the last tickets (20 minutes before the start of the trip) so others were turned away.  We also weren't sure if we were going to fit on the train!  Thankfully, some passengers moved around to make room for our family of four.  I have a feeling that they were extra busy that day because of the Groupon promotion.

There are 3 cabooses (your ticket will indicate which to ride in).  Each caboose is filled with bench seats that face each other and are big enough for 2 people in each bench.  Kind of like the movie "The Polar Express" but there isn't enough leg room for a table to have hot chocolate ;-)  Actually, there wasn't enough leg room for our family of four to face each other so the adults had to sit a little sideways and the kids had to sit side by side so they didn't kick each other.  Siblings!!!  

Each caboose has a restroom on one end.  However, they warned us not to use them while moving because the toilet water (when you flush) will splash all over your feet.  The lady behind me found out the hard way before they mentioned it to the passengers.

Some windows open.  Just look to see what windows have metal handles on the bottom.  They will help you open the window if it is hard to do.  It is an old train with painted windows so they stick.  

As you start the ride, a staff member tells you a little about the history of the train and the area you are traveling.  This is done via speakers wired in each caboose.  We were in caboose two and could barely here it.  A staff member asked me later if we could here what he was saying.  He said that they had a problem with the speakers in our caboose.  Hopefully they will fix that soon so others can here the historic tale.  

Just like on "The Polar Express", but less dramatic, the train staff walk through to stamp each ticket.  

The ride:  You travel 40 minutes from Coopersville to Marne, the train is stopped for about 10 minutes while the locomotive moves to the other end of the train, and then you travel another 40 minutes back to Coopersville.  You can bring snacks and beverages if you would like.  At least I saw many people who did.  I would have liked to have beverages but I forgot them.

I am really excited to try a holiday excursion.  Especially the Christmas option while my kiddos are still young!

Of course I had to sneak a picture for the blog ;-)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


We live close to Chicago (about a 3 hour drive) but we never go there.  My husband had actually never been to Chicago!  Many people we know think that is strange since they usually visit Chicago a few times a year.  We had a plan to visit there as a family some time soon and it just worked out perfect that I received a Groupon deal for my favorite hotel (only one of two that I have ever stayed at in Chicago but still - my favorite).  So I purchased the Groupon and made our reservations.  

Congress Hotel

 I love this hotel because of the location and the view.  I have been lucky to get a good view of Lake Michigan both times that I stayed there.  Just across the street is a large park that has many statues, seating, and relaxing spaces.  It also has the "Married With Children" fountain (for those of you who are old enough to remember the intro to that show).  The Congress Hotel is also within walking distance of the Art Museum, Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, Solder Field, and the planetarium.  However, it wasn't close enough for my little kiddos so we didn't take advantage of that.

View from my hotel window.

We decided to purchase Chicago CityPASS's for our family since everything we wanted to see was included.  I knew that the passes would save us some money but I didn't realize the full benefits until we actually used them.  I will mention the benefits as this blog post continues.

Chicago CityPass
We planned to only stay 2 nights in Chicago (a mini vacation) so we decided to stop at one of our sites on the way in and another on the way home.  Our first stop was the Field Museum.   It was too early to check in to our hotel so we decided to park in the ramp at the museum.  It was $20 for the day.

Field Museum

It was a rainy day so it was great to be inside.  The lines weren't real bad at first but then we noticed a split in the line.  One was a long winding line to purchase tickets and other was a short line for "Will Call" and for CityPass!!!  So, with our printed CityPass receipt in hand, we entered the shorter line and quickly received our official CityPASS tickets (booklets pictured earlier in this post).  Since this was our first CityPASS stop we were given everything we needed to start using the passes.  Our CityPass also included a free admission into one of the 3D movies they offered but they were sold out for the day.  I noticed this is common at all the big "museums".  The movies/shows sell out quick so get there early!!  

My son LOVED the real T-Rex bones!
Next, it was time to check into the hotel.  We decided not to hassle with parking (I've never had luck with hotel parking in Chicago) so we did valet.  It cost us a little more but it was worth it.  From there, we were just going to leave the car until our trip home.  I personally find it much easier to just take a taxi!  The taxi drivers know where they are going and you don't have to worry about parking and parking cost.  Plus, my kids were very excited about riding in a taxi for the first time!

I got a chuckle out of seeing that they post a "Vomit Clean-up Fee"!
We had a taxi take us to the Hard Rock Cafe for dinner.  It's one of our "must stop" places to eat!  My kids love it, they offer a great vegetarian meal, and we also collect pins for each city we visit.

A couple of the pins we have collected.
We decided to walk for a while to burn off our meal and check out the sites.  Since it was rainy and foggy we didn't go to the Skydeck that night as we originally planned.  

We started the next day at the Shedd Aquarium.  We took a taxi but we could have walked (if our kids were bigger) or parked for $20.  The taxi cost us about $10.

See that long line?  Our Will Call/CityPASS line was at the white canopy - no line!!!  We were also given free tickets to the live Aquatic Show and to a 4D movie of choice.  Those all sell out so get there early.  Thankfully, we were early enough to get tickets for a show within our visit time (some times your only option is many hours from your arrival time...).

Shedd Aquarium

Do you see that line we were able to pass by???!!!
At least they had a canopy to keep people out of the sun and rain....
There are many great things to see.  I personally LOVED their jelly fish exhibit (limited time).  They also had a lot of kids activities.  My kiddos loved the play submarine and the penguin dress-up area.

 You can also touch a live starfish!!!

Next, we took a taxi to the Skydeck.  I'm glad that we took a taxi because with construction and everything else going on I have no idea where we would have parked!  As soon as we entered the front doors we saw the line.  It was long but not bad.  I didn't see anything about the "CityPASS line" so I had my husband ask the gentleman at the elevators.  He said that this was the first line that would take us on the elevator to the basement.  Once in the basement you could purchase tickets or go into the "CityPASS line".  It took us about a 1/2 hour to get through the first line and on the first elevator.  Once we got off the elevator I couldn't believe the huge line to buy tickets!!!!!  But then I saw the CityPASS line :-)  We passed by everyone!!!!!  Not only the line to purchase tickets but also the line after that to get on the main elevator that would take us to the top!!!!  This experience made the entire CityPASS option so worth it to me!!!  

Once we got to the top we noticed how crazy busy the place was.  It was hard to get to a window to take a picture without getting a portion of somebody else in it.  It was a great experience though!!!  On one side of the building there are glass windows that you can walk out onto.  There are 4 total but one is used for professional pictures.  We had to practically fight our way into one of the other 3 windows to get a picture opportunity!

We did have the more professional picture taken of our family.  It was great!  Although it did cost a nice chunk of money to buy a copy....  That picture was the whole reason I wanted to visit the Skydeck so we got one.

Another place that we always have to eat at is the Rainforest Cafe. We had a taxi take us there (valet parking appears to be their only option) for an early dinner.  

Rainforest Cafe

My husbands favorite meal.

They had a very good pasta dish for me!  

The next stop for us was Navy Pier.  Before I actually discuss the pier I wanted to share a tip with you that I learned one time while staying in Chicago on the "Miracle Mile".  The Rainforest Cafe and the Hard Rock Cafe are not far from the Miracle Mile.  If we would have timed things out better we could have taken a free ride to the pier instead of paying for a taxi.  Here are a couple of pictures I took of a free trolley service that is offered.  My mom and I once took advantage of this service because it was near our hotel.  It was nice but I noticed it can get busy so you may get stuck without an open seat to ride (bring taxi money just incase).  With kids, it was too much of a hassle!  But, if I would have been traveling with my dad (who was always looking for fun ways to save money) we would have walked for miles to catch the trolley!

We could see Navy Pier from our hotel window and at night you could really see the beauty of the large ferris wheel!  So, my kids were overly excited to check out the pier.

Navy Pier
Of course, we had to ride the ferris wheel.  If I remember correctly, it was $6 a person to ride.  Or, you could do what we did and buy 10 ride tickets for $37.  We decided to do that since the kids were already begging to ride some of the other options.

You can get some great pictures of Chicago from here!!

Okay - you can barely read this!  One thing to know is that you only go around once.
Also, you get on and off while it is moving so it might be hard for some with physical limitations.
We did not take advantage of the many options to take a boat ride out onto Lake Michigan.  We figured we had crammed enough activities into one little vacation.  We hope to catch a ride on the pirate ship the next time we visit.  Tall Ship Windy Sailing.

After checking out the sites from the pier we headed back to the hotel for our final night.  Unfortunately, they were having a huge dance party in the park across the street so it was a little hard for the kiddos to settle down.  But, it wasn't long before it started to rain and the people scattered.  It did look like a fun event to check out though!

The next day we checked out of the hotel and headed to the Museum of Science & Industry (our CityPASS gave us the option of this or the John Hancock Observatory).  It's a little out of town and on our way back home.  Parking was under the building and $20 for the day.  There wasn't really a line the day we went but there was a "Will Call" area for CityPASS customers.  Because of our CityPASS, we also received free tickets for a flight simulation and for our choice of a movie at the amazing Omnimax.  The Omnimax movie and the flight simulation are at scheduled times and could be full for the day if it's busy.

I have to admit - I LOVED this place!!!  Everything is very interactive, educational, and just amazing!  They also had great food options in the cafeteria.  Expensive - but they had a large variety and it was really good.

Museum of Science & Industry
The nose of the airplane in the picture is actually an airplane that was once in service.
The inside has been transformed into an educational piece and a past pilot of the plane was there to help us learn.

This is a full size real (U-505) submarine that you can pay extra to tour the inside of.
We decided to save that for another visit.
Behind my kiddos is a simulated tornado in the weather section.  

We did pay extra to tour the coal mine since that was one of the things I had heard the most about.  It was very educational (like everything there) and fun.  However, it was a little dark for my kiddos who were just excited to find out that we were actually still in the building - not in an actual coal mine ;-)

Also, check out the schedule for the day.  There are a lot of hands on classroom opportunities that are broken down by age.  Heck, you can even dissect something!!

You could spend a full day at this museum and still barely touch the surface of all it has to offer!!!  It was great for all ages!  I actually think my husband enjoyed it the most!

That was the end of our mini vacation but not the end of this post.  When I returned home I still had to rate my CityPASS for a potential winning of $250.  Don't laugh at the idea - when I rated our Southern California CityPASS a couple of years ago I won $500 from the survey I completed afterwards!!!  

We did not use all of the CityPASS.  We had the option to go to Alder Planetarium (would have loved to if we had the time) or to the Art Institute of Chicago.  Even though we didn't use this portion of our pass, it still saved us a ton of money and the bonuses of having the pass was priceless!! 

We plan to visit Chicago again to check out some other sites.  Do you have any recommendations?