Thursday, August 29, 2013

Cooking for 10 Preschoolers and 2 Teachers: Slow Cooker Chicken Gyros with Tzatziki; Lemon Yogurt Pound Cake

My 3-year-old daughter attends a preschool that is run and operated by... the parents! We do all the planning, teacher hiring and coordinating, bill paying and...lunch and snack prepping. Here's what I cooked for the kids last week:

Morning Snack

  • Yogurt
  • Lemon Pound Cake - This recipe was so yummy and so simple! It calls for very few ingredients as well. I cut up a small piece for each child and enjoyed a slice of the other half of the cake for breakfast my first few days back on the job last week. 
  • Oranges 

Lunch

  • Slow-cooker Chicken Gyros with Tzatziki, served in pita bread - This was the easiest recipe ever. Throw all the ingredients (all easily available; most pantry staples) into your slow cooker and let it cook overnight. In the morning, it's ready to go. I served the chicken gyros with homemade tzatziki - a super healthy spread made with plain yogurt, garlic and cucumbers.   

Afternoon Snack 

  • Sharp Cheddar Cheese and Whole Grain Crackers
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Sunday, August 25, 2013

#makesmesmilemondays Review: Santa's Village Azoosment Park in East Dundee


Disclosure: Santa's Village Azoosment Park granted our family media passes. I was not asked to write a review. All opinions are my own. 

On Sunday, the kids and I headed to Santa's Village Azoosement Park in East Dundee for one last summer hurrah before back-to-school.

My daughter, age 3, was over the moon to ride the mini boats, the hot air balloons, the race cars, and Santa's trucks. Her favorite ride by far was the Tilt-a-Whirl: the three of us worked hard to lean in the right direction for maximum whirls.

At age 12, my son is a bit too old for most of the rides, but as usual, he was a good sport and went on even the most kiddie rides with his sister.  

I loved seeing many of the classic kiddie park rides, like the race cars and mini boats. 

I liked this park because it's shady with lots of trees. There are also animals everywhere: we spent time just watching the tortoises ramble around their home, pet the sheep and goats, and Chiara enjoyed a pony ride. The theme of the park itself is adorable - Santa's summer outpost - and you can even visit the white bearded man in red in his cozy chalet. 

We packed a healthy and yummy picnic lunch and enjoyed the shady picnic grounds. We also stopped into the ice cream shop where one-school sundaes in a waffle cone are an affordable $3.50. 

Santa's Village Azoosment Park is located in East Dundee. Check out their website http://www.santasvillagedundee.com and buy your tickets online before you go to avoid the lines! And here's a coupon for $2 off admission!


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Exploring my DNA with 23andMe (Genetic Testing for Health, Disease & Ancestry; DNA Test)

Disclosure: 23 and Me provided me with a genetic testing kit free of charge. All opinions are my own. 


Have you ever wondered where exactly your ancestors came from? Have you ever wondered if you have an inherited condition, one that could possibly put your children at risk? 

I recently had genetic testing through 23andMe. I'm fascinated by the secrets held in our genes, and I was more than curious to know what secrets my own genes held. 

The process was super easy: I ordered a test kit, which was shipped directly to my home. I registered my kit online. I provided a saliva sample and shipped it via FedEx for testing. In about four weeks, the results were all available online. 

23 and Me provides reports on 240+ health conditions and test results for 40+ inherited conditions. You can also discover your lineage, find relatives and more. You can find out if your body metabolizes caffeine quickly, or if you're at a higher risk for diabetes.   

My results are rather boring, which in the case of genetic testing, is a good thing. 

Of the 40+ inherited diseases (including the BRCA cancer mutation - selected), I only possess one or more genetic variants linked to one disease: Hemochromatosis. Though I am not personally affected by it, these variants could be inherited by my children. People with Hemochromatosis absorb too much iron. This was an odd finding because I have the opposite problem - I have always suffered from low iron levels, and it was a big issue during both of my pregnancies.  

Of the 240+ possible health risks, I am at average or decreased risk for all. Good news! 

There weren't many surprises in my ancestry, either. I am 99.9% European, and mostly Northern European (48.4% Northern European - Scandinavian and British, 8.5% Eastern European, 8.4% Southern European, 34.6% Non-specified European). This is on par with what I knew already about my ancestry, and though my mother's side of the family is mainly from Northern England, most of Northern England was settled long ago by Vikings (Indeed the cricket team that our family hails from - Yorkshire - has the Viking as a mascot). 


One of the more hilarious discoveries in this report, for me at least, is that it is now confirmed that an estimated 3% of my DNA is from Neanderthals. From what I've learned, this is a pretty high percentage. This must explain why I love campfires and exploring caves! Can I blame my Neanderthal ancestry on mistakes or poor choices I've made in life?

My great, great grandma x 100, back in the cave days.  
Evidently not. Neanderthals get a pretty bad rap, but did you know that Neanderthal cranial capacity is thought to have been as large as that of modern humans, perhaps even larger? This indicates that their brain size may have been comparable, or larger, than modern day humans. A 2008 study that created three-dimensional computer-assisted reconstructions of Neanderthal infants based on fossils found in Russia and Syria showed that Neanderthal and modern human brains were the same size at birth, but by adulthood, the Neanderthal brain was larger than the modern human brain. Neanderthals were also much stronger than modern humans, and had very strong arms and hands. 


Exploring my DNA with 23andMe was a fun and interesting opportunity. If you've ever wondered what secrets your own genes hold, I encourage you to give it a try! For more info, visit 23andme.com.



Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Goodbye, Summer

The sun is setting on another summer, one I really wished could have gone on forever.


This summer was all about the great outdoors for our family: we hiked, we climbed, we fished, we played in rivers, we dived into lakes, we swam - oh boy did we swim! We rode horses; we spotted eagles, moose, elk, deer, and buffalo in their natural habitats. We cooked breakfasts, lunches and dinners over campfires; we woke up to the sound of birds in the woods. We saw amazing spectacles of nature: Old Faithful, Dragons Cave, and some truly inspiring sunrises and sunsets. 

We even climbed a mountain:
Not the mountain we climbed, but some rocks that Daniel scared me half to death by climbing

Daniel and I set off one afternoon. We took lots of breaks along the way. About 7/8 of the way up, however, I looked down.
Watch your step
And vertigo set in. I do. not. like. heights. I usually just ignore my vertigo, but underfoot was gravel that I was unable to get a good footing on, and the only thing to hang on to were a few dried sage bushes. I wasn't even wearing adequate hiking shoes. "I can't do it, Daniel," I wimpered.

Daniel was even more nervous than I. Yet he gathered his courage and I encouraged him to go to the peak, asking him to please stay within sight. (He wanted to sign a book that was kept at the very top in an enclosed mailbox, as proof that he had climbed to the top. )

I watched him as he nervously climbed to the very top. He did it! But staying within my eyesight meant not signing the guest book that was on the other side of the peak, behind a tree. So he came back down to my perch - I was hanging onto a larger sage bush and lying down - and he was in tears. He was exhilarated, and he really wanted to sign that darn guest book.

I was proud of him for climbing the mountain, but more importantly, for staying within sight and for not getting too down on his mom, who he knows is always trying her very darn hardest. This incident could be seen as a metaphor for other challenges I faced this summer: To reach - almost! - the top of a mountain was certainly an achievement for this vertigo challenged mom, but to watch as my son battled his nervousness and did it on his own brought me to tears of joy. I've had challenges this summer, yes, but they pale in comparison to the many, many touching and unforgettable moments I've experienced this summer.

May my kids always know that as they reach out in life towards their goals, climbing their own personal mountains, I will be right there, never too far away, watching them soar, always cheering them on, even clinging to sagebrush and lying on the side of the mountain if I have to!

And dammit, I promise that we'll be back to that mountain, the kids and I, and I *will* wear the proper shoes, and I won't look down and I *will* make it to the top, and all three of us *will* sign the book in the mailbox, so help me God!

This was a summer of nature, of new horizons and experiences, and most of all, a summer of absolutely no regrets.

Monday, August 19, 2013

#makesmesmilemondays Picking Up Big Brother from Equestrian Camp

Daniel spent all of last week away from home, at an equestrian camp. On Friday, families were invited to see firsthand all the new skills that their children had acquired. 

Daniel was in the second level this year, and now he really excels at taking care of a horse, from cleaning the stall to saddling up his horse - he did it all with amazing confidence. 

Chiara was THRILLED to see her brother. I have to say that in Chiara's eyes, her brother is the brightest and the best in the entire family. When she saw him she just leaped for joy and ran into his arms.


Daniel is now a super confident rider, thanks to two years of equestrian camp and this summer's intense riding in Montana. 


Meanwhile, Chiara, at age 3, fearlessly hops into the saddle like a little Calamity Jane. 



It was a wonderful end of summer treat to spend an afternoon on the farm with my cowboy and cowgirl. 


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Tire Safety with Bridgestone

Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Bridgestone. All opinions are my own. 


Last week, Bridgestone tires invited me to learn more about tire safety and drive four BMW320a Sports as fast as I wanted on a test track at Toyota Park. Sounds like fun, right?



Even though it had been raining on and off that day, the organizers actually sprayed the track down with water to make it even more slippery, so I could feel how the four different tires performed on slick roads.  

A very kind former racecar driver sat in the passenger seat and actually urged me to go faster. At first I was extremely cautious - I really don't like driving fast! But by the 8th spin around the track I got the hang of it (and I *really* liked driving the BMW). I also definitely noticed a difference in tire performance. 

Bridgestone took a lot of time educating our group of media moms on tire safety. I learned that proper tire maintenance is an important safety function often neglected, and that the importance of properly maintaining your tires cannot be overemphasized.  After all, tires are the only contact between your vehicle and the road.

Here are two important tips I took home with me: 
  • The most important aspect of tire maintenance is proper inflation of your tires. 75% of drivers wash their cars monthly while only 1 out of 7 (14%) correctly checks tire pressure. The air pressure should be checked on all tires, including the spare, at least once a month. To help you remember, sign up for free monthly email reminders from TireSafety.com.
  • Regular rotation of your tires will also help prevent irregular and premature wear. 40% of drivers have not rotated their tires within the recommended interval of at least 8,000 miles. A healthy habit many people follow is to rotate their tires with every oil change. 

You can learn more at tiresafety.com

Have you checked your tire pressure lately? 


P.S. I promise I won't drive this crazy on the streets of Chicago: 


Unique Gifts at UncommonGoods

Disclosure: In exchange for sharing this news on my blog, UncommonGoods will be making a donation to Women to Women International on my behalf. All opinions are my own. 

Looking for a unique, thoughtful gift for a friend (or even yourself?!)? 

Check out UncommonGoods. I love their interesting, unusual selection of gifts!

I have my eye on this Starfish locket. And I am ordering these Ms. Food plates because they're just too cute. I would also love to see these hand embroidered state pillows on my sofa!

Founded in 1999 and headquartered in Brooklyn, New York, UncommonGoods is an privately-owned retailer that endeavors to feature unique designs and handcrafted gifts created in harmony with the environment and without harm to animals or people. All operations are run out of the historic Brooklyn Army Terminal, including their warehouse where the lowest-paid seasonal worker starts at 50% above the minimum wage. Uncommon Goods has made it their mission to support and provide a platform for artists and designers; in fact, half of what is sold is made by hand. Most of the products are created right here in the USA, and about one-third of the entire collection incorporates recycled and/or upcycled materials.  

UncommonGoods is celebrating its charity partners this month by spreading the word about Better to Give, a charitable program that allows customers to choose a  charity at checkout that UncommonGoods will make a $1 donation to. The goal this month is to increase average monthly donations by 10%! One of the charities that you can choose to donate to via your UncommonGoods purchase is Women to Women International. Read more about Women to Women International here, and consider donating to them as you checkout at UncommonGoods.

Happy Shopping!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Guest Post: Not the Main Attraction: Great Places for Kids in New York

Disclosure: This is a guest post by travel writer Hillary Bain. I have been compensated for editorial review and posting. 

New York City is a hustling, bustling world of wonder, well-known for many world-class attractions: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Radio City Music Hall, and the Guggenheim, to name a few. Some of these places are must-dos for a family vacation; kids and adults alike will “ooh” and “aah” over the views from the Empire State Building. Other attractions might be more appropriate for adults; not every kid is going to dig walking through the European Paintings Galleries at the Met.

Fortunately, there is a plethora of lesser-known places in New York City that are perfect for kids and will help make your NYC vacation loads of fun for the whole family. Here’s a small selection:


Central Park Zoo
Located in New York City’s most famous park and surround by the striking Manhattan skyline, the Zoo is home to over 150 species from all over the world, including polar bears, snow leopards, sea lions, snow monkeys and red pandas, plus a host of birds, reptiles and amphibians. You can view penguin and sea lion feedings and take in a thrilling 4-D experience in the Zoo’s theater.

Tisch Children’s Zoo
Designed especially for the under-6 crowd, the Tisch Children’s Zoo is part of the Central Park Zoo and is included in the main admission price. Little animal lovers can get up close and personal with goats, sheep, cows, pigs and other furry friends.  Staff members dress up as animals and there are free performances throughout the day at the Acorn Theater. And kids will love the climbing spider web!

Central Park
Central Park has loads to offer kids besides the zoo.  A seasonal ice-skating rink/amusement park (Wollman Rind and Victorian Gardens), multiple playgrounds, many fascinating sculptures and memorials, the famed carousel, fishing, festivals and much more – not to mention the endless trees and expansive green lawns, right in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the world.

Children’s Museum of Manhattan
This is a great destination for families with young children – five floors of interactive exhibits will entertain – and educate – kids for hours, and parents will delight in the enjoyment their little ones experience.  Kids can join in on animal rescue missions with perennial favorites Dora and Diego, learn about the properties of water at City Splash, and take part in daily Art Lab programs at PlayWorks. Older kids might enjoy learning about the NYPD’s mounted police force unit in 10-Foot Cops (through October 14), and the whole family can learn about ways to create a healthy lifestyle together in EatSleepPlay.

The Art of the Brick at Discovery Times Square
If you have kids who love LEGO, this exhibit might inspire them the next time they sit down with a bucket of their own bricks.  Artist Nathan Sawaya, whose sole medium is LEGO bricks, has built over 100 pieces of art, including famous works of art, human figures, dinosaur fossils, historical sculptures and even the Statue of Liberty, all recreated entirely in LEGO bricks. Truthfully, parents will be just as amazed as kids at this one.

New York Hall of Science
Originally built for the 1964 World’s Fair, the New York Hall of Science is the only hands-on science and technology museum in New York City.  The exhibits will keep everyone’s mind working. At Preschool Place, wee ones can stage puppet shows, build arches, play house, go to the “grocery store,” explore musical instruments, and more. Older kids might enjoy Sports Challenge, testing their skills at a variety of sports while learning about physics, physiology and science, or Search for Life Beyond Earth, where they’ll explore the extreme environments on Earth and what that might mean for life elsewhere. And adults might like Rocket Park, showcasing rockets and spacecraft from the 1960’s that were, at their time, state-of-the-art exploring machines. Throw in some math, molecules, mini-golf and a Science Playground, and a fun time will be had by all.

Brooklyn Bridge Park
If your family is the walking type, consider heading over the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan to visit Brooklyn Bridge Park. The Brooklyn Bridge Park is an 85-acre sustainable waterfront park, stretching 1.3 miles along the East River shoreline and containing multiple piers and park areas. With construction breaking ground just a few years ago, in January 2009, some parts of the park are yet to be developed, but there’s plenty to explore. Pier 6’s Water Lab, with a water-jet field and water channel, is a perfect play area for a hot day.  And what kid wouldn’t go nuts over a giant sandbox? Swing Valley features ten swing sets of varying sizes, as well as Tarzan ropes. There’s slide mountain, with slides, jungle gyms and climbing structures. And all of this is just at Pier 6! Don’t miss other areas of the park, including Jane’s carousel, Main Street’s water-edge views of Manhattan and rolling lawns, numerous other play areas, fishing – and the Brooklyn Bridge Wine Bar, when Mom and Dad are ready for a break!

Rockefeller Center
Hopefully you and your family will have a chance to experience the amazing views from Top of the Rock Observatory, but once you head back down from the top, don’t even think about leaving Rockefeller Center just yet. Of course, the Christmas tree is fantastic if you’re there that time of year, and the ice-skating is lots of fun. But kids might also enjoy the FDNY Fire Zone, where kids can play with interactive exhibits, learn about fire safety, and meet real firemen. Get in a little playtime at The LEGO Store. Explore the underground labyrinth known as the Concourse, a complete underground city experience that connects to every building in Rockefeller center and houses a huge variety of stores and eateries; pick up lunch from one of the more inexpensive spots and eat in one of the windowed seating areas.  (You can also access seven subway lines from the Concourse.)


#makesmesmilemondays Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Last night we hosted a fun gathering and Chiara had a chance to hang with a lovely little pal of hers who is visiting from China. The girls set up a stuffed animal healthcare clinic, dressed up as Supergirl and Cinderella, and zoomed around the house in Chiara's car.

I think this picture captures it all: Girl just want to have FUN!



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Disney on Ice Celebrates 100 Years of Magic - Promo code to save 40% and enter to win a 4 ticket giveaway for opening night!

Disclosure: This post and giveaway is sponsored by FELD Entertainment. All opinions are my own. 

We love Disney on Ice. Chiara (age 3) was enthralled when we saw Disney on Ice Rockin' Ever After this past January. She followed along with the songs and stories, and when Mickey swooped to the front of the ice stage, I had to hang tightly to her so she wouldn't run off and step onto the ice to give him a hug!


Tickets are now available for the upcoming Chicago show, 100 Years of Magic! With tickets for opening night on September 11th starting at just $12, the cost of this fun show is the same as a trip to the movies. Also, parking at the venue, the United Center, is FREE for the duration of the show, which runs from September 11-13!

Over 65 Disney characters will be featured in this magical new show, including Goofy, Donald Duck, Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio, the Disney Princesses, and of course, Mickey!   

Here's a promo code for Disney on Ice to help you save! You can save 40% on all weekday shows and 20% on all weekend shows by entering the Promo Code "MOM" when you check out at Ticketmaster. Here's the link to buy tickets: http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/32882/830558.

And even better, I have a family four pack of tickets to giveaway for opening night, on September 11 at 7 p.m. at the United Center. Enter below via Rafflecopter! I'll be announcing the winners here on this post, so check back in!





a Rafflecopter giveaway

Back to School: Lunchbox Inspiration #RocktheLunchbox

Disclosure: I received samples from the four companies featured in the Rock the Lunchbox campaign. All opinions are my own. 


I can hardly believe that my soon-to-be 4-year-old daughter is starting pre-K this year. Last year, she attended a play-based preschool where the focus was on how to play nicely and have fun with new friends; this year she'll be in a preschool that will also focus on pre-reading and pre-math skills, along with all those other wonderful preschool activities that make learning so much fun. 
Yesterday I gifted Chiara with a new pair of school shoes and her very own lunchbox. She was delighted to see her favorite characters on her lunchbox - My Little Pony - and we took a moment to talk about the lunchbox concept. She's never eaten lunch out of a lunchbox before, so this is an entirely new adventure for her. She's thrilled! 
Chiara's lunchbox pick for PreK


Recently four of my favorite leading natural and organic companies teamed up to create “Rock the Lunch Box”, a free online resource that promises to give you lunchbox inspiration in the form of recipes, tips and... coupons! The instructional videos are great too. You can even submit your own ideas and enter to win a prize pack containing all your lunchbox faves. 
I've packed lots of lunchboxes in my lifetime for my son who is going into 7th grade this year (!!!), but I realized that I needed some new ideas for Chiara, who at age 4 has her own tastes. (Luckily, she loves every kind of fresh fruit, as well as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!) I created a Pinterest board with some Back to School Lunchbox ideas. I especially love the banana as a messaging system idea. Check out Rock the Lunchbox at www.RockTheLunchbox.com, and please send any other back-to-school lunchbox recipes or ideas my way!


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

P.S. Join Me for a Chat on #SummerTravel Chat with Travel and Leisure Magazine Tomorrow!

I'm so excited to be a panelist on a Travel and Leisure Magazine chat (one of my favorite travel mags!) about #summer #travel TOMORROW @ 2pm ET/1pm CT!

Join me HERE! I'll be posting live from the same little @PureMichigan pier where my kids were fishing yesterday!

Twitter Chat on #SummerTravel
http://tandl.me/13fTZ1E 
 #TL_Chat

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Gone fishin'

We're off on another camping trip and will be back to regularly scheduled blogging later this week!

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Sunday, August 4, 2013

Goodbye, Layla!


Layla was with us for less than two weeks; we all really adored her and she just fit right into our family. She left earlier this week for the next step of her program, in Washington, D.C.; next week, she'll fly back home to Najaf, Iraq.

We all felt sad seeing her off, and I do hope she has packed some more confidence and determination to reach her goals into her suitcase.
A sweet and very heartfelt card from our exchange student, Layla

I'm thankful for having had this opportunity, and I look forward to hosting more students from near and far, in the future. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Save Your Instagram Pics from Being Lost Forever in Your Phone with a New App from Walgreens

How are you organizing your family photos taken on Instagram?

When was the last time you actually printed one outt?

I don't know about you, but until a couple of days ago, most of my Instagram photos were gathering dust somewhere inside my iPhone. So when I learned about Walgreens new app that promised easy ordering and pick-up for Instagram prints, I decided to finally take action and give it a try.

Six easy steps, and my orders were ready for pickup!

Here's all you need to do:

Download the Walgreens app.  

- Once you have the app downloaded, select Photo.

- Link your Instagram account. 

- Select the photos you want to print.

- Select the size: either 4x4 or 8x10.

Place your order for same day pick-up at your local  Walgreens.



I placed my order in the morning, and it was ready for pick up by noon at the Walgreens located on my corner. It was so convenient to have the prints ready ASAP. 

Just a few of the 8x8 prints I ordered from the new Walgreens app

I love the 8x8 size and I plan on creating a framed wall art project for our upstairs living room area.

Check out the Walgreens app today, available on iTunes and Google Play.

Disclosure: This is not a sponsored post. All opinions are my own.