Merry Christmas from Our Family to Yours

To family and friends
Far and near
We wish you could be with us here!
Wherever you may be
May you have Good Times and Good Cheer
Throughout the Holidays
and the New Year


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An American Girl Christmas Greeting

Merry Christmas to one and all, including (and especially) all you American Girls!

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Holiday Muppet Memories

I think I learned the words to the Twelve Days of Christmas from watching John Denver sing it with The Muppets in their 1979 holiday special.  Those were in the days when The Muppet Show aired on TV every week, and we watched it the way kids watch Phineas and Ferb today.  My aunt had the holiday special taped on videocassette (anyone remember Sony Betamax?)  so we could, and did, watch it again and again, year after year.   My cousins and I would sing it incessantly, aping (or should I say piggying?) Miss Piggy's part to perfection:  "Five.... Gooooooolden Riiiiiiiings!........ PADAM-PAM!!!"   Christmas just isn't complete for me without singing this song:

What's for lunch this week? Cookies!

Okay, not really.  I've just decided to give myself a break from posting lunch photos since this is the last week of school before the winter break.  So instead of a nutritious, well-balanced meal I'm treating everyone to a photo of two sugar cookie snowmen that we made recently (note to self: never use Nerds for snowman eyes or mouth because they will melt in the oven and the snowman will come out looking like a zombie snowman).

I'll resume my lunch photo posts when school returns in January.  Until then, happy holidays and happy feasting!

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Ten reasons to support your local student Nutcracker performance

All around the country, Nutcracker ballet performances are springing up like daisies.  From world reknowned New York City Ballet to the smallest dance studio, there's bound to be a Nutcracker near you.  Although you can't beat the grand sets and sheer perfection of the artists at professional ballet companies, there's something to be said for patronizing a Nutcracker performance from a local dance school, particularly  if you have a young child in tow and it will be his or her first Nutcracker.  I'm not saying that just because I happen to have a daughter who performs in her dance school's Nutcracker every year, I'm saying it as a parent who has been watching Nutcrackers, large and small.  Here are some great reasons to take your child to a small Nutcracker performance:

How to Make a Holiday Card Wreath

This year I've been looking for creative ways to display the holiday cards that we receive every year.  We usually string them over our doorways and windows, but I'm ready for a change.  Last week I wrote a post about how to make a holiday card holder to hang on your wall for the holidays.   Here's an alternative way to display your cards:  a card wreath.  It displays only 8 cards, so it's a great way to showcase your prettiest cards, or the cards that mean the most to you.  Here's how to make one:

What's for lunch this week?

Brie & cranberry panini, cucumbers with ranch dressing, blueberries

For our wedding anniversary this year, Alfie got me a panini press.  I know, it doesn't sound very romantic, but whenever I use it, it brings back memories of our lovely trip to Bruges this summer, eating panini and sipping espresso at a sidewalk cafe, so it's actually quite a romantic present.  Plus, it makes awesome panini.  Our poor grilled cheese sandwich maker is sitting in a cupboard, gathering dust!

Swedish Julbord celebration at IKEA

All I know about Swedish food, I've discovered at IKEA: lingonberries, Swedish meatballs, gravlax, crisp bread, herring with cream, Daim chocolate. I've always wondered whether the food at IKEA is truly representative of Swedish food, or whether it's as authentic as fortune cookies and sweet & sour pork are to Chinese food.  According to the internet (which is always right, isn't it?), those dishes really are traditional Swedish food, so when I found out about IKEA's annual Julbord last year, I decided to try it out and assume we were would be enjoying an authentic Swedish dining experience.

Julbord (pronounced "yuleboard") is the traditional Swedish Chrismastime smorgasbord, and once a year IKEA closes their restaurant early and has an all-you-can-eat feast.  Tickets to the feast are just $9.99 for adults and $2.50 for kids, so I figured that even if the kids just stuck to the usual Swedish meatballs, it would be totally worth it.

What's for lunch this week?

Burrito (I forgot what was inside it), extra lettuce, tortilla chips, strawberries & blueberries

The crazy holiday season is already starting to wreak havoc on my stress levels -- mail holiday cards!  decorate home!  supply cookies for class holiday party!  volunteer for Nutcracker!  shop for presents!  prepare for trip! lose sanity!   -- but so far I'm still managing to pack lunch every day.  I almost caved in one day and asked The Pea to buy a hot lunch at school instead, but she told me, "No, mom, the school lunches are so disgusting and unhealthy, I'd much rather have a packed lunch!".  With that kind of praise, how could I not pack her a lunch?!

How to make a holiday card holder

In England, giving, receiving and displaying holiday cards is a Big Deal, and it's a tradition I've come to look forward to every year.  Even in this age of Skype and Facebook updates, I still love receiving cards from friends and family, checking out the holiday photos, reading about what they've been up to, seeing how the kids have grown.  What's more, they look so pretty and festive -- hang them up, and they become instant holiday decor!

In defense of Reno

Every time we go to Reno, I feel a sense of excitement and adventure, because every time we go, we have a great time -- but every time I tell someone we're going to Reno, I feel a vague sense of defensiveness/sheepishness/apology/shame. Most of the kids' friends at school take their winter vacations in much ritzier places.  They stay in chalets in North Tahoe, condos at Squaw Valley, hotels in South Tahoe, or fly to Aspen or Whistler.  It's sort of like admitting you shop at Kmart or Walmart instead of Macy's, or eating at McDonald's instead of some chic organic/gourmet/celebrity chef cafe.

After all, when people think of Reno, they think of wrinkled old ladies with one hand clutching a cigarette and the other hand clutching a slot machine lever.  They think of tacky casinos and cheap buffets and seedy motels.  They think of Vegas' neglected little brother.  And it's true, Reno does have an air of disrepair and shabbiness about it, of tackiness and tired glitz, especially near the downtown casino area.

Taking Photos

Last night I dreamed that I was watching what might be the greatest game of football ever.  All the best players in the world were there, including Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, some blond guy and lots of others I can't remember any more -- you know how quickly dream memories fade -- but I know they were great.  There were no team colors or kits, just regular workout gear, and there were no ugly fouls, no cheating or diving.  The guys were playing just for the sheer joy of the game.  The game was held in some kind of indoor arena, and the spectator area was like a parent's waiting area in a dance studio, separated from the pitch by a glass wall (hey, it's a dream, go with the flow).  Anyone could just wander in and watch.

The only catch? No photos allowed.

What's for lunch this week?

 Crackers, ham & cheese skewers, cucumber slices, ranch dip, vanilla yogurt, brownie

Recently I bought a bunch of bento lunch box supplies: silicone baking cups, plastic picks, and plastic sauce cups.  They certainly improve the presentation of the food and make it a whole lot more fun to eat!  Even my kids aren't immune to the cuteness factor.  Of course, garnish can be more than just for appearances:  the blue sauce cups in the photo above are garnished with a cilantro leaf and orange sprinkles.  Sure, it looks nice, but I also did it because I didn't want the kids dipping their cucumbers into vanilla yogurt or pouring ranch dressing onto their chocolate brownie!

Our non-traditional Thanksgiving greeting

Thanksgiving is full of traditions:  dressing in your holiday best, gathering with family and friends, feasting on turkey and cranberries, going round the table and telling everyone what they're thankful for.  I didn't grow up celebrating Thanksgiving, but over the years that I've lived in the US I've come to enjoy the holiday and appreciate everything it stands for.

Ferry Building Marketplace: a Foodie's paradise

How have I lived in the Bay Area for almost 20 years and never been to San Francisco's Ferry Building Marketplace before now?  Okay, it was just a former ferry terminal that had fallen into disuse once the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge were completed in 1936 and 1937,  and with the construction of the Embarcadero Freeway, it barely even saw daylight -- so I had no reason to know it existed.  But after the collapse of the freeway in the 1998 Loma Prieto Earthquake, the whole Embarcadero area began to transform, and the Ferry Building underwent a massive renovation -- so after 2003, I no longer have an excuse.  I had heard about the Ferry Building Marketplace, of course, but just never got around to going there.  Even The Pea got to visit the place before I did!

What's for lunch this week? Lunch break!

Hot dog on a bun, mixed nuts, strawberries

It's Thanksgiving week, and the kids have Wednesday, Thursday and Friday off.  That means I only have to make 2 lunches this week!   Advanced Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, and I hope you enjoy the (lunch-making) break!

How teammates become friends

This past weekend the boys went on their first-ever overnight soccer tournament, the NorCal State Cup for U9 boys in Davis, CA.  Davis is less than 2 hours' drive from home, but their team had four games spread out over 2 days, and 2 of those games started at 8AM (7:15AM if you count their warm-up time) so everyone agreed it would be best to stay at a motel on Friday and Saturday night.

I love watching their games, but with the holidays approaching and The Pea's Nutcracker rehearsals going and with our trip to the Manila looming on the horizon, taking a whole weekend off for soccer seemed excessive.  Then we all came down with colds and flu the week before, so everyone was stressed out trying to recover.  3Po and Jammy shook off the virus by Thursday and I scraped through on Friday, but Alfie had to miss the whole thing, which was a huge blow since he's their biggest fan.  The team hasn't been playing too well either, so I was not optimistic as I drove off, leaving a miserable Alfie and an ecstatic Pea (ecstatic because didn't have to go) at home.

What's for lunch this week?

Pork siopao, red bell peppers, dried pineapples, mango cubes, pumpkin pretzels

Didn't I just brag about my improving photo quality last week? I take it all back.  This week's photos look worse than ever!  I think it's because the mornings are getting darker and darker, and I just can't get a decent amount of light for my phone camera to focus with.  What I need, of course, is a newer, more expensive phone with a better camera :)   Don't let the grainy images fool you, though; the food featured this week is delish.  I'm especially proud of the pumpkin pretzels in the photo above.  It took me a few tries to get them looking all cute and pumpkin-like, but the result is worth it.  I may not spend time getting a good photograph, but that's because I'd rather spend the time making a yummy lunch!

What's for lunch this week?

Chicken salad, crackers, brie, peanut butter, Reeses Pieces

When you're blogging about food, a good photo is essential.  You can rhapsodize over a savory chicken salad, buttery crackers and creamy brie wedge, but if it's accompanied by a photo that's blurred and washed out, no one is going to want to eat it.  Over the past weeks I've tried to improve the appearance of my lunch photos, and although they're far from being Pinterest-worthy, I think they're looking as good as my time (milliseconds out of my crazy morning), talent (minuscule) and equipment (phone camera) will let them be.  I try to shoot in natural light, and I've caught on to the trick of laying the bento boxes on a sheet of scrapbook paper so it looks more lively and colorful.  Hopefully now they look like something you'd want to send to your kids to eat, or even eat yourself!

Halloween Costumewatch 2012: Evil Jester (part 2)

Finally, Jammy consented to have his photo taken! I've been bugging him for weeks to try it on and pose in it, but he resisted until this morning's school Halloween parade.  Better late than never!

Halloween Costumewatch 2012: The Nerd

The days when I could influence The Pea on her choice of Halloween costume are long gone.  All I can do is veto anything inappropriate, cross my fingers, hope for best, and indulge my mama-bear instincts by costuming her American Girl dolls.

What's for lunch this week?

California rolls, strawberries, cucumbers, olives, ghost donut

A few days ago one of the school lunch moms came up to me and said, "Your boys always have the nicest lunches!  Everyone loves looking at them, and your boys eat up every last bit!".  Wow, you'd think I had won the lunch Oscars or something.  I've been feeling good about making well-balanced, visually appealing,  low-cost lunches, but having someone actually notice (other than myself, of course) really put a smile on my face and inspired me to keep going.  I'm such a sucker for a compliment!

Halloween Costumewatch 2012: Evil Jester (part 1)

Now that 3Po and Jammy have passed the superhero/ Star Wars stage, all they want to be for Halloween is something scary and gruesome.  Skeleton.  Grim Reaper.  Zombie Rock Star.  Swamp Creature.  And this year, Evil Jester.  Who would even think up of such a costume? But as soon as they saw it, they wanted it.

Halloween Costumewatch 2012: Red Riding Hood's Granny

Last Halloween I received a set of werewolf gloves and headpiece to review, and although we all loved the costume, none of us ended up wearing it for Halloween.  This year I decided to use it so I wouldn't have to buy or sew anything.  At first I thought of wearing it with jeans and a red plaid shirt -- the classic werewolf getup -- but it was just too Meh.  Besides, I like to dress up as female characters.  I don't know where the inspiration came to dress up as the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood, but I'm glad it came, because I can already tell that this is going to be one of my best Halloween costumes ever.

Halloween Costumewatch 2012: The Mad Hatter

When you hear the phrase Decision 2012, what do you think of?  Forget politics, it's all about what to wear on Halloween night!  October 31 is just 1 week away, so all this week I'll be featuring each person in our family and what they'll be wearing when we go trick-or-treating.

31 Days of Pink: Week 3

Once again, I'm accompanying my pink clothing from last week with a memory of someone I know who has been affected by breast cancer -- because instead of blathering on about the pink stuff I wore last week, I'd rather talk (and you'd probably rather read) about the people I wear pink for.

What's for lunch this week?

Bagel with ham and cheese, cherry tomatoes, assorted flavor graham bunnies

I've been feeling pretty inspired about making lunch these days.  I know I'll be posting photos of what I'm making, so I've definitely been putting more thought into the visual presentation -- the mix of colors (you know what they say, eat your colors!), shapes, even textures. I'm not saying I'm ever going to come close to the beautiful bento boxes I'm constantly pinning on Pinterest, but I can safely say that sliced bread is NOT the norm around here.  I even got around to cutting out a jack-o-lantern face on a slice of Colby Jack to celebrate Halloween!

How to make a Doll's Halloween Treat Bag from Duct Tape

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on how to make a Halloween treat bag from duct tape.  It was so easy and so much fun that I decided to make a matching bag for The Pea's American Girl dolls.  This miniature version looks just like its full-sized counterpart, and it's even easier to make.  Here's how:

How to make a Halloween candy corn tutu for your American Girl doll

Last weekend we attended the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival, and we spent a pleasant day gawking at the beautifully carved pumpkins, collecting free samples of granola bars and bread,  pigging out on pumpkin ice cream, and wandering through the arts and crafts booths.  One of the booths happened to sells little girls' tutus of all kinds.  I miss The Pea being young enough to wear a tutu!

The tutus on display were adorable -- and when I looked closely, I realized how easy they were to make.  Since I can't make one for The Pea anymore, I decided to make one for her American Girl doll.  Yes, I'm destined to become the crazy old lady who plays with dolls.  If you're like me, keep reading to find out how to make the tutu....

Linky Love: great BCA posts

Breast Cancer Awareness gets an unbelievable amount of publicity in October.  Supermarket shelves are overflowing with pink products, Facebook and Twitter are awash with pink memes and updates, and the blogosphere is full of pink posts (including my own!).  With so many bloggers dedicated to the cause, which posts are worth reading?  Here are 7 that I found which offer useful advice and concrete ways to help the cause:

From Toddler Planet: In the name of awareness
From Toddler Planet: Turning awareness to action
From Cool Mom Picks: 7 Smart Tips for Supporting Breast Cancer Awareness Month the Right Way
From SkinnyScoop: The Best Breast Cancer Non-Profits
From Where the Money Goes: A Breast Cancer Donation Guide
From Think Before You Pink: Critical Questions to Ask Before You Buy Pink
From ecouterre: 10 Ridiculous Pinkwashed Products That May Actually Cause Breast Cancer

Okay, that last link on my list is probably more sensationalist -- at least the title is.  But it's definitely an article that reminds us to think carefully before we jump on the pinkwashing bandwagon.  That's the key word -- Think.  Oh, and Act.

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31 Days of Pink: Week 2

I've decided to dedicate the rest of my weekly Pink Recap posts in October to featuring someone I know who has had breast cancer. Instead of blathering on about the pink stuff I wore last week, I'd rather talk (and you'd probably rather read) about the people I wear pink for.

What's for lunch this week?

I know what you're thinking: your kids will actually eat a green salad for lunch?  Well, yes they will, actually, but the truth is that this wasn't their lunch, it was Alfie's.  A couple of weeks ago the kids had a day off from school for Yom Kippur, but Alfie didn't get the day off so I packed him a lunch.  And I packed him a sandwich to go with the salad because it's not much food, and he's be starving by 3PM otherwise.  By the way, that sludgy-looking goo beside the clementine orange is a lot yummier than it looks -- it's leftover pear crumble.

Here are 4 more lunches for the week.  Hopefully they'll inspire you to keep making and taking your own lunches as well!

How to make cute pretzel pumpkins (without screwing up)

I've been seeing lots of recipes for Pumpkin Pretzels on Pinterest over the past few months, always with beautiful photos of smooth, satiny coated pretzels, and I've thought, That's the craft for me!  Just pretzels and candy melts, how hard could it be?

Helping reluctant readers enjoy books

Helping your child love books isn't as easy as reading to them every night.   We found that out when 3Po and Jammy were babies.  The Pea had always loved books, and she still does, so we thought we were awesome parents for reading to her each and every night.  But when we started reading to 3Po and Jammy, they were just not interested.  We despaired of getting them to sit still long enough for more than a page or two -- that is, until we bought books about trucks and cars, and then they couldn't look away.  Those bunny and cat books that we had read to The Pea when she was little just couldn't hold their attention!   So just like sports, just like work, just like practically everything in life, rule number one in getting kids to love reading is to find a subject they they love.

What's in your smartphone?

Can you believe the Apple iPhone was released in 2007, five whole years ago?  How time flies! In 2007 I had a pink clamshell phone, and I thought it was the coolest, cutest thing ever.  Today, even my kids wouldn't be caught dead with that phone.  Heck, even my 3 year-old niece wouldn't want that phone.  She'd probably throw it away, thinking it was a fake toy phone, and ask for  a real one, with a colored screen that does things when you touch it.

I got my first web-enabled phone (a Samsung Reclaim) in 2009, and my first smartphone in 2010.  I honestly can't imagine life without one anymore!  I've had my current phone (and HTC EVO 4G) for just over a year now; it wasn't the most hi-tech phone when I got it to begin with, and a year later, it's even more outdated. It does feel clunky and sluggish, and I'm ready for a new one.  Unfortunately, I won't be eligible to get a new one (at least not without paying full price for the phone) for another 6 months or so -- but I'm not frothing at the bit, so I'll wait.

What's for lunch?

Ham and cheese sandwich, cucumber slices, grapes

I'm guessing you've figured out by now that the lunches I've been featuring for the week are not the lunches that I actually packed that week.  Other people might be organized enough to have all their kids' lunches for the entire week prepacked by Sunday night, but not me.  We started school in mid-August, and I began this series in September, so I'm actually featuring the lunches I packed 2 weeks ago.  So if you see Halloween-themed lunch photos posted in November, don't be surprised!

Another thing I'm guessing you've figured out is that I bought a BIG bunch of grapes a couple of weeks ago, because four out of five lunches on this post have grapes in them!

31 Days of Pink: Week 1

New parents love recording their child's development through photos.  They photograph every single milestone, and everything in between -- but by the time they have their third child, the photos have dried up to just the obligatory newborn, first birthday and first day of school photos.  So it is with my third year of wearing something pink every day in October.  With everything else going on, wearing and photographing something pink has been shelved to the farthest corners of my mind.  I had to resort to wearing pink pajamas on October 1 and 2 because I forgot all about my resolve until late at night!

It's Breast Cancer Awareness Month -- and you CAN make a difference

October is here again, and you know what that means: it's time to get out my pink wardrobe and see the world through rose-colored glasses.  Time to hope that we can make a difference.  Time to hope that there will be a day when they find a cure.

To be perfectly honest, sometimes I wonder if things will get better.  When you look at the statistics on breast cancer, it's easy to be discouraged.

  • About 1 in 8 U.S. women (just under 12%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime
  • Besides skin cancer, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among American women. Just under 30% of cancers in women are breast cancers.
  • For women in the U.S., breast cancer death rates are higher than those for any other cancer, besides lung cancer.
  • About 39,520 women in the U.S. were expected to die in 2011 from breast cancer.

I was so lucky that the lump my doctor found last year turned out to be benign, but I've had friends and relatives battle breast cancer -- and not all of them have won. What on earth can wearing pink actually do in the grand scheme of things.  It's such a BIG disease.  What can one person really do?

What's for lunch?

Who says cereal has to be eaten at breakfast?  My kids love having breakfast food for lunch or dinner! I sometimes pack cereal and milk, waffles with syrup, or yogurt with fruit and granola to have a lunchtime.  They also love homemade Egg McMuffins:  veggie sausage patties, cheese and egg on an English muffin.  The only "breakfast-y" food I've never attempted to pack for lunch is oatmeal.  My packed lunches are mostly cold, so if they want oatmeal, they have to eat it for breakfast.  Or dinner :)

How to make a Lego minifigure case

When we moved 3Po and Jammy into their own room, we told them they could set it up and decorate it however they wanted.  Unlike The Pea, who has grand plans of wall organizers and posters and beaded light fixtures in her room, the boys asked for only 2 things:  they wanted their room to be green and blue (their favorite colors), and they wanted shelves to display some of their Lego Star Wars sets.  I found the coolest Lego minifigure display cases on Pinterest, so I decided to use them as inspiration to make some of my own. Here's how I did it:

Contemporary children's book series I love

The book that inspired this post, The Mark of Athena, is coming out on October 2, 2012.  If you need to contact me on October 2, please don't.  I intend to be home sick with a cold.

One of the best things about having kids is rediscovering the joys of children's literature.  I read voraciously when I was young, and my love of children's books has not faded one bit.  I can still lose myself in the books I read throughout my childhood, like The Chronicles of Narnia, Anne of Green Gables or the Tintin comics, and there are many newer books that I love to read again and again -- Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, Twilight, and so on.   I'm amazed at how many wonderful books have become available for kids since I was a kid!

To bike or not to bike?

When it comes to my kids' independence, I don't think I'm all that uptight . I have never been the type to hover over them at the playground; I preferred to sit on a bench and let them play on their own, and if they grazed their elbows or skinned a knee (or, during one memorable time, slipped, did a face plant on the metal stairs and got a black eye) themselves, well, all the better to learn their lesson the next time. As they grew older, I had no problem with drop-off parties, sleepovers or camping trips.

There's only area where I am completely paranoid, and that is letting them walk or bike to school by themselves.

Star Wars Miniland Experience at Legoland Windsor

If you're a parent to a boy 5-10 years old, chances are he's crazy about LEGO Star Wars. It's one of LEGO's most popular themes, and every day you'll find millions of little boys busy building speeders and x-wing fighters and AT-AT walkers and dreaming of flying through a galaxy far, far away.

Fortunately, you don't have to be Richard Branson or a former N'Sync boy band member to be able to afford a visit to the Star Wars galaxy.  You just have to visit your nearest Legoland* , where the Star Wars Miniland exhibit is wowing fans with their detailed models, massive sets and cool light and sound special effects.