Wednesday, October 31, 2012

For A Bit of Holiday Fun

School is back in session.  Schedules are pretty much set in stone.  And the calendar is filling up weekly with things to do, places to be, and deadlines to be met.  When do you find time to travel with the family?  That's saved for holidays and weekends.  Right?

It's getting more like that each week as we watch our hard earned dollars sucked away by rising fuel costs.  It seems like our trips are staying closer to home and getting fewer and further between.  Well, that doesn't work when we want to visit family across the country.  So how do you do it?

First, start saving those pennies.  Every little bit helps.  When I get the idea in my head that we need to go see Great Grams, I start planning months in advance to make sure we're going to get the best price for our trip.  I realize I can't control the gas prices, but I can look at past trends to see how much the price will increase on a particular holiday weekend.  That way, I can average out how much more I'm going to spend to get from home, through the woods, and on to Grandma's house.

Then, I start looking at hotels.  Some of the best deals can be made by searching online for a few weeks in advance.  You could even call the hotel of your choice and see if they have any special deals they can make

With our family, we exceed some of the largest room capacities by one person.  We've called to make sure they don't really care if one of our kids squishes into the queen size bed with the other two children.  Oftentimes, they may be able to cut you a deal, especially if you need more than one room.

Since we usually travel during peak holiday times, we spend a few months before we go telling the kids to help us set aside some money for our trip.  They love the idea that they can help fund the trip.  There have been evenings when I'm too tired to cook and I want to grab something from fast food.  They will remind me that we're saving up to see Grandma.  That's their contribution.  And boy are they proud!

Be sure to include the kids in your plans.  They will feel as though they own just a part of the trip and maybe that will help things go more smoothly once you start out for Grandma's house.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Outdoor Cooking with Kids

Does the blog post make you think we're going to be grilling on the back patio or roughing it with only sticks and burnt hot dogs smoldering over a fire in the middle of the woods?  Well, it could be either one, but hopefully we can find successful ways of teaching our children how to cook even when we're away from traditional cook surfaces.

My kids have learned that just because we're eating outside doesn't mean it has to come from take out and it doesn't have to be difficult.  Here's how we let the kids help out and have a full experience with outdoor cooking.

Meal Planning

I think we underestimate our children because we don't think they can plan a nutritious meal.  A little guidance may be necessary when first beginning this process.  But they are just as capable as anyone to tell you what they'd eat.  And whatever you make at home can certainly be made just might have to be a bit more creative.

Part of meal planning is trying to guess how much your family will eat.  If it's going to be a scorching hot day, the kids may not eat as much as if it were a cool autumn day in the park.  Also, if your kids are young, they will eat sporadically, their attention moving from food to surroundings and then back again.  Don't get frustrated.  They're learning how to focus and they can't take everything in like you can.

So once you know what the kids want to eat, you need to implement it somehow.

Outdoor Cooking Made Easy

There are so many resources available on the internet for outdoor and survival cooking.  How can I pick just one?  Let me give you two  that have really made our lives more simple as we try to teach our kids about living in the great outdoors.

Linda White has quite a few books that focus on children and enjoying nature.  We were especially impressed with her book Cooking On A Stick.  It had simple (and I mean it!) recipes like roasting hot dogs on a stick with a croissant wrapped around it.  If your child can hold a stick, they can cook their own dinner.  The book doesn't have just stick cooking recipes.  It also contains several recipes for trail mix, foil dinner pouches, and cooking on a grate or grill.  Ms. White has several other books devoted to children and camping.

If you want the foremost leader in outdoor cooking (the one the experts still refer to), check out Roughing It Easy by Dian Thomas.  She gets creative in her methods to survival living and there are some interesting recipes inside (I've always wanted to try frying eggs in a paper bag over a fire!).

Don't get freaked out that you need expensive equipment or exotic recipes.  Start simple and you can do it!  Feel free to post any recipes that have worked for your family so others can enjoy the great outdoors too.  Happy cooking!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Mixing Up Some Kids & Camping

My husband and I love camping, outdoor cooking, and enjoying nature.  We decided this was going to be something the entire family would be a part of.

How do you do this?  We've started them young so they get the experience of camping even before they could walk.  If you don't have this option, there's never a better time to start than now.

I've also come to several conclusions:  1) kids and camping mean dirt, and sometimes a lot of it!; 2) if there's a bit of whining and complaining (and there will be if your kids are even somewhat normal), take a break from what you're doing and go for a walk;  3) stress will happen but will you let it ruin the fun that you could be having?  Here are a few tips that have really helped make camping a family event:

Gettin' Down and Dirty.

If it's possible, scout out your campsite a few weeks before you plan to go.  We make a Sunday drive and go visit some of the campgrounds in our area to see which ones are the cleanest, safest, and actually have running water. 

As we drive through camp, we try to see what our needs will be:  1)  do we need to bring shade or will the trees be enough?  2)  is the ground flat and large enough for our tent? and finally, 3)  how close is the bathroom to our site?  A little prior planning will also determine a few safety issues as well (how close is that creek to where my kids will be playing?) and show if you need a little extra space from your neighbors should they decide late night karaoke is their camping tradition. is the federal government site for reservations.  If you can choose your spot ahead of time, this takes out a lot of stress and you know your site is guaranteed should the campground fill up.  If your park is controlled by the state or a private company, check out the DNR (state) or ask the campground if they have a website.

Meal Planning

In this category, we've done it all.   Sometimes those last minute camping excursions call for take-out.  But other times we've done dutch oven meals complete with popcorn as a treat after dinner.  Whatever your family needs, remember to take some snacks and don't be discouraged if the kids decide they're more interested in playing than eating.  You're not at home and everything distracts them.  Plan something simple and familiar if the kiddos balk at trying new stuff.  Macaroni and cheese can be cooked on a small one-burner stove.  And it is no dishonor to outdoor cooking.  We'll discuss options on this topic soon.

Keepin' baby safe by the fire.

So what do you take and what do you leave home?  We try to take the bare minimum because it just doesn't fit.  Seven pillows crammed into the back of a minivan and you quickly find you don't have room for much else.  Try packing the porta-crib and the jackets for the baby...and you've run out of space for food or even a tent.  So, if you're going on an overnight camping trip, you don't need as much as you think.  Week long trips might be a bit different, but that's another blog post.  Keep it simple and you'll do much better.


While setting up a tent or camp the kids often get curious about their new surroundings and wander away.  We've been setting up a tent and look up only to realize a few of our children are no longer near the campsite.  Scary!  If you can manage it, send Mom or Dad off to entertain the kids while the other parent works on setting up "house."  Older kids can learn to help set up a tent and blow up air mattresses, thus arranging their own sleeping areas just as they like it.  Don't be afraid to educate them about camping.  They'll get it  Even little ones can help.

I have to say it's a lot of work and we usually bring home a bit more than just memories from our camping experiences.  But it's worth it.  Stay positive.  Keep a smile on your lips and a laugh in your heart and you'll do just fine.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

National Parks versus State Parks

Arches National Park
We live in a beautiful state with some of the most varied National Parks in the United States.  We can go from red rocks to beach front property in a matter of hours.  But in between, there are numerous state parks that shouldn't be missed.  I didn't realize how many organizations it took to plan, maintain, and prepare the parks for visitors.  So, how do you know which group (state or national) actually "controls" the parks near your home?

Well, here's a handy website that we use when we decide to go camping.  It's very helpful whenever you want to make reservations for camping but don't have the time to drive to the campground hours before to get just that right spot.

Bison on Antelope Island takes care of all of your federal camping, national parks entrance fees, and other national agencies as well.  The website has the ability to narrow down your search from a wide selection of campgrounds, to a narrow field for group camping with disabilities, or even if you need to camp with animals.  We've used this a few times in January to reserve popular campground locations for the summer time.  When we decided to take a trip to Arches National Park in Utah, we found that the campground fills up before the end of February.  Great!?  Now what?

Well, there's always a Google search for local campgrounds.  But what about state parks?  There are a host of these.  But how do you find them when you thought your local campground was a part of the National Parks Service?  That took some digging.

Goblin Valley, Utah
In most states, the parks are maintained by a branch of the Department of Natural Resources (or DNR).  You can do a Google search and look up individual state parks.  For Utah, the web address has little to do with the DNR so it was a bit more difficult to find.  But the benefits are endless.  There were places listed that I had never even dreamed of before...and what's better:  they were close to home and didn't cost as much as the National Parks.

This year, we've planned a few camp outings and we'll discuss all the joys of camping with small children and how to cook for an army in later posts.  Remember when planning your own weekend excursions to keep in mind those less known sites in your own state.  They might not be "popular" enough to make it to a national level, but that's just fine with us.  We don't mind taking the less traveled road to see something just as amazing and beautiful, and possibly with less visitors too.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Holiday Travel Time

Our first holiday travel experience occurred when I had two children still under the age of two.  We decided to travel on the busiest day of the year:  the weekend before Christmas.  We found ourselves up before 5 a.m. to get to the airport for an 8 a.m. flight.  The toddlers were unhappy.  Mom and Dad were unhappy.  The airport was crowded and inevitably, one of the children got pushed around too much.  She started crying.

Sound familiar?  Perhaps yours is getting stuck in traffic as everyone pushes to get out of town before the three day weekend officially begins.  Kids are hungry.  Drivers are irritating.  And the family vacation begins with tension.

Could this get any better?  Is there something we can do to alleviate the pain?

Let me tell you a few things we've noticed since our nightmarish experience at the airport:

Travel Early/Late

Airlines and freeways become jammed with traffic just before the start of any holiday break.  Generally, price rates increase for air tickets and gas prices skyrocket as the holiday travel increases.  If it's possible with work or school schedules, plan to leave a few hours earlier or even a day earlier than the typical rush.

We live in sight of a major interstate.  Let me tell you it's bumper-to-bumper traffic at 5 p.m. on Friday evening.  Campers, SUVs, and all the regular commuters pack the road.  Accidents only make the bottleneck worse.  It usually takes a few hours for things to get back to freeway speeds.

The same is true as people return home after the holiday weekend.  Take, for example, a typical Memorial Day weekend.  School is sometimes out.  Families decide to get out of town for an early summer vacation.  They leave at 3 p.m. and roads are already getting congested.  When the same families return on Monday evening, they find everyone heading home.  The same congestion increases, oftentimes later into the night than when they left.

Some states offer travel advice on the Department of Transportation websites.  They will have traffic cams to help drivers plan their best routes.  GPS systems sometimes alert motorists of alternate routes when busy thoroughfares become too busy.

In-Town Holidays

When travel becomes too tense, we choose to stay home and have a bit of fun in our own sphere.  Once, our family tried to find a good BBQ spot at a local picnic ground.  Everything was packed.  We toughed it out and made do in the only empty spot in the park.  It wasn't as enjoyable as we'd hoped.

As we drove through town, we found some of the closer-to-home parks were empty.  City-goers had opted for more distant parks, just as we had.  But if we had chosen something downtown, we would have had a much better experience.  Don't be afraid to stay local.

Themed Holiday Vacations

Since this weekend is Memorial Day, it seems fitting that we should theme our family activities around remembering the past.  In the past, we have enjoyed airshows sponsored by the Air Force.  We have listened to speeches given by local officials at cemeteries to honor fallen veterans.  Some families decorate graves.  Whatever the holiday and whatever the tradition, be sure to include the family.  Holidays are a good reason to get together and include the little ones as much as possible.  These will be memories that will drive them for years to come.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

School's Out. Now What?

Tell me I'm not the first Mom to question what to do with a pack of kids for three months before school starts again.  There are radio advertisements that start at the end of May and run through June suggesting ways to entertain and keep those kids happy.  Awesome!  But I don't have the $45/week for youth programs (and that's just per child!).  If I tried to pay for just my school-aged children, that would be around $100/week for educational summer camps.

Back to the drawing board.  We'll make our own summer camps and involve all of the kids!  My own mother had a schedule, complete with field trips, that made summer fly by. When I returned to school, I could proudly fill out pages of essay on "What I Did Last Summer" thanks to her efforts.  The following are some ideas of successful planning for a summer of pure enjoyment:



I'll admit this was the part of my mom's summer schedule that I hated the most.  School was out.  My friends didn't have homework.  Why did I have to sit down and practice my penmanship?  Well, last summer I found out her reasoning the hard way.  My kindergarten boy went from fairly nice handwriting, to writing 2's as S's and D's as B's.  His reading level declined from a first grade to pre-K in two months.  Whoa!?

All of those days I had spent practicing writing, doing math flash cards, and writing in a journal had saved me from the "summer slide."  The reviews at the beginning of the school year were boring because I had done all of this stuff the previous months.  I didn't need a refresher course.  My son, on the other hand, worked hard to "remember" all of the stuff he'd learned.

This year, we're implementing school work into our summer schedule.  It's not going to be overly time consuming, but enough to keep our pencils sharp and learning minds open.

One of the ways we're going to keep reading at the top of our game is through our local city library summer reading program.  Kids are encouraged to get their own library card, check out books for their reading level, and enjoy crafts, games, and story time all summer long.  If they complete specific tasks, they'll get prizes to parties, stores, and other goodies.  It's a great way to get the kids reading stuff they're interested in.

Field Trip Day

We planned one day a week to spend as a field trip day.  We stuck mostly to Thursdays because interesting sites were usually less busy.  We also tried to find locations that were either free or had a membership that we could use (our local zoo pass).  Here are some ideas for your own field trip day:
  • Local restaurant:  We scheduled with a pizza company that had a brick oven pizza inside the restaurant.  They showed the kids where the food was stored (they got a kick out of how big the freezer was) and how it was made.  The company even let the kids make their own personal pizza.
  • University Museum:  Local universities often have different kinds of museums to help display student research or faculty presentations.  We've walked through a small dinosaur museum, animal science center, and astronomy museum.  We haven't gotten around to the art museum yet, but that's coming up this summer.
  • Theater:  Show the kids the workings of a theater backstage and then go see a show.  This would also work for a movie theater.
  • Airport:  Does your city have a small local airport?  See if you can get a tour of the facilities and the tower.  Learn how an air traffic controller does his job.
  • Fire/Police Station:  These are common field trip locations with schools and scout groups.  But what about a family?
  • Zoo:  This just seems like a given.  If your family is large, consider buying an annual membership and then return whenever you like.  We make up the admission cost on just two trips to the zoo.  And we've found that winter at the zoo is a very good time to visit.  There aren't many people and some of the animals are more active.
Play Time

Don't forget!  It's summertime and that means it's fun time.  Sometimes remembering to play is that hardest part of all.  Go swimming!  Dance in the sprinklers.  Watch a popsicle melt.  And enjoy the easy life while you can.  School will come again soon enough.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Simple Entertainment

How do you keep seven people crammed into a minivan for four hours happy?  There are plenty of old answers like "Benadryl" or "drive while it's dark and they'll sleep through it."  Well, unfortunately, we must have gotten children who aren't "normal" because Benadryl makes my kids hyper and long drives don't make for comfortable sleeping in the safety of booster seats.  So, those options are not available for us.  How do you make the trip to Grandma's house happy for everyone?

For those who have access to iPods and other systems with downloadable apps, there are some great tools to use on the road.  Roadside America ensures that travel waysides are never missed.  Older children can research little known scenic stops on the way to your final destination.  Get out at the world's largest ball of twine or a crazy statue that you never knew existed.  The kids will get a kick out of helping to plan part of the trip.

You can possibly save a few minutes of sanity by handing technology to a child and a few miles will fly by before they get bored again.  If you only have one iPod, smartphone, or other piece of technology, be prepared to hear a bit of whining when someone doesn't share as he should.  We have dealt with this numerous times.  But be persistent with the rotations and everyone will get used to the idea that they have to share/wait their turn.

A few weeks before traveling, visit your local library and see what they have in the audio book collection.  We took the Harry Potter series with us on a long drive and the narrator, Jim Dale, kept the kids enthralled.  Even our two year old, who didn't really understand what was happening in the book, loved the fact that Mr. Dale could change his voice to be so many people.  It was amazing!  If your children are old enough and don't mind reading in the car, have them read aloud and practice being the narrator to their siblings.  It's rather fun to see what comes out.

For preschool children, simple games like "I Spy" and "20 Questions" can keep attention for a few minutes.  But we've had to be realistic.  When traveling, the best our 14 month old can do is play with simple toys and sleep.  He is more than eager to get out at every rest stop available and run.  Be prepared to let the kids get out and stretch.  This might increase travel time a bit, but just getting the blood moving helps to make little people happier.

We've also found small crayon organizers a way to keep coloring tools carefully tucked away.  Some parents we've talked to use empty DVD cases.  Colored pencils, crayons, and paper can slip inside the case and the outside can be used as a coloring surface.  Excellent suggestion!  We've got kids who love to be creative.

If you put your mind to it, you don't have to use a DVD system to entertain on the long drives.  That can come in handy but doesn't have to be a go-to as soon as the key is turned.  Remember, this is family time.  But don't feel guilty if you can't handle the pressure and resort to a little technology induced quiet time.  Whatever works best and keeps the peace.