Thursday, June 28, 2012

Parmesan Zucchini

I love squash and zucchini, my husband and kids don't. I've always had one way to prepare them - breaded and fried with lots of butter. They turned their noses up. I mean, who doesn't like breaded veggies swimming in lots of butter?

So I started searching for healthier ways to prepare zucchini, hoping that they'd at least try something new. I found this recipe on Pinterest and knew it was exactly what I was looking for. I adapted it slightly to make the prep a little easier, but it's a perfect way to get my family to eat the dreaded zucchini.

Here's what you need:

2 zucchini
1/2 TBSP olive oil
1/4 teas each salt, pepper and garlic powder
Shredded Parmesan cheese

Cut the ends off each zucchini and then cut into fourths, making a total of 8 pieces.

Place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Mix the olive oil and seasonings together, then brush over the zucchini. Sprinkle each piece with some Parmesan cheese. You definitely want the shredded kind, not the grated stuff in a green can.

Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes, or until the zucchini is tender and the cheese is melted.

See how yummy that looks? And no frying!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Strawberry Muffins

Muffins are a sweet way to start the day. These strawberry muffins are moist and delicious. Even though the recipe calls for a mashed banana, the taste is barely discernible. The strawberries shine in this recipe!

Here's what you need:

2 cups chopped fresh strawberries
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter, softened
An additional 1/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teas vanilla
1 mashed banana
1 3/4 cups white wheat flour
1/2 teas baking soda
1/2 teas baking powder
1/4 teas salt
1/4 teas nutmeg

In a small bowl, combine the strawberries and 1/2 cup sugar in a bowl. The sugar draws out the juices so the muffins stay moist. This process is called maceration.

Let the berries sit for about an hour. There should be lots of liquid by this time.

In a mixing bowl, cream together the butter and additional 1/4 cup sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Stir in the vanilla and mashed banana.

In another bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and nutmeg. Add to the creamed mixture and mix well.

Gently stir in the berries with their juices. I didn't think this looked like enough batter for 12 muffins, but it was.

Spoon batter in muffin tin cups lined with paper liners. Bake at 400 degrees for 15-18 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into a muffin comes out clean.

Cool on a wire rack, then remove muffins from the pan and enjoy.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Menu Plan June 25-July 1

After a week of traveling to see family, we're home. Well, Charles and I are. The kids stayed in West Virginia with my parents and will be there for a couple of weeks. They'll come back well-spoiled, no doubt.

I'm going to try to catch up on some freezer cooking while the children are gone. I already have some calzones and wraps I can heat up quickly for the two of us which is very convenient. But it will be nice to restock the freezer in the kids' absence.

So here's the menu plan for the week:

Portobello pizzas

Grilled steak, green beans and corn

Garlic butter pasta, broccoli

Mediterranean chicken wraps 

Taco salad


Out to eat

For more meal planning inspiration, visit Organizing Junkie's Menu Plan Monday. Hundreds of home cooks share their menu plans, so you're sure to find something to whet your appetite!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Family Pictures

While we're visiting my family in West Virginia, I asked my niece who loves photography to snap a few photos of our family. My parents' neighbor graciously let us use his property as a backdrop. Here are a few I wanted to share with you.

I love these people so much!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

No Menu Plan for the Week

Usually I post a menu plan on Sunday nights, but not this week. We're going to be spending time with our families and enjoying each other's company.

My husband's brother retired from the Navy yesterday, so we drove to Maryland to attend his retirement ceremony. He chose to have the ceremony at the Maryland WWII Memorial in Annapolis.

It had rained all morning, but right before the ceremony, the rain stopped. We are so proud of Chris and excited for him as he starts this new stage in his life.

His wife and four boys are very happy to have him home for good!

We're spending the rest of this week in West Virginia with my family. I'll update a little later if I can.

Hope everyone has a great week!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Disney with Kids - What to bring

Now that you've decided when you're going to Disney and where you're going to be staying, what should you bring with you from home (besides clothes, of course)? How much is too much?

Well, most of that will be determined by how you're getting to Disney. Are you driving (more space for stuff) or flying (less space for stuff)? Also, consider the age of your children. Will you need to pack a diaper bag, baby food, etc? Have you thought about each child carrying a fanny pack or small backpack? We let both children choose what kind of bag they wanted to carry. We felt like they should help carry their own stuff in the parks.

You can see all of our bags in this pic from 2009. The Princess and I carried purses that crossed our bodies, Mr. Lego loved his fanny pack, and Charles used a shoulder bag with a long strap he could adjust and wear across his body.

 Here's what each child carried:

Small flashlight - for dark rides that might scare them. Even though our kids didn't use them, they felt like they could if they needed to which greatly reduced their fear of dark rides. We found some on a string they could hang around their necks so they were accessible at all times.

Ear plugs - some rides are really, really loud. If your child is easily freaked out by a lot of noise, these are invaluable! We learned this the hard way. Definitely came in handy during the fireworks.

The Princess waiting in line for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (2007)

Rain poncho - we always buy ours in the camping section at Walmart or Target during the off season. Very, very cheap compared to what you'll have to pay in the parks if you're caught in a sudden rain shower. And it's Florida, so it's going to rain at some point during your stay.

The kids and I in the rose garden at Epcot during a little rain. Wearing a ball cap under the hood kept the rain off our faces/glasses.
 Small fan - this is invaluable when you're standing in a long line, even indoors where it might air-conditioned. Get dozens of people pressed together and it's going to get warm! In the above picture with our bags, you can see a portable fan around Mr. Lego's neck. We found those at Walmart years ago. And the Princess has a folding fan attached to her bag strap. I think she bought it in the Chinese pavilion at Epcot. And how did we attach it? Small carabiner clips!

Of course, Charles and I carried a bit more in our bags in addition to all of the above. We each had a bottle of water because although you can get a cup of free water at any counter service restaurant, Florida water has a funny taste. So we just took our own. Also, we took a camp towel that could easily fold up and was super absorbent. You'd be surprised how many rides you get on that have water in the seats. Even Pirates of the Caribbean can get damp. It's nice to wipe off the seat before we sit our booties down. If you can't find one in the camping section, look for a Sham-Wow or other microfiber cloth.

You are also going to want a small first-aid kit handy. I simply used a snack-size Ziploc bag to hold a few band-aids, some Tylenol and Tums, and antibiotic cream. It's so much easier to have with you than looking around for a first aid station if you have a small cut or scrape. Also, a purse-size bottle of hand sanitizer and wet wipes are a must for sticky little hands. And speaking of Ziploc bags, tuck a few small ones in your bag to hold cameras and cell phones on water rides.

Some extras that I took along in my bag:
A small notebook to jot down memories and funny things the kids said. You'd be surprised how many details you can forget by the end of the day!
A camera and extra batteries.
Snacks like granola bars and fruit roll-ups. Chocolate stuff, not so good.
Gum - gum is not sold anywhere in the parks, per Walt Disney's own preferences. He was trying to save his maintenance staff the trouble of cleaning it up. You can bring your own, but you're out of luck if you wait until you enter the parks.
Autograph books (for characters) and fat Sharpie pens - if your kids wait in line to meet the characters, they might want an autograph. Each character has his or her own distinctive signature. So if you see Aurora in the Magic Kingdom and ask for her autograph, then meet her at Epcot later and get another autograph, the signatures will be identical. Cool, huh? Just one way of keeping the magic alive for the kids. For characters in costume like Chip and Dale, or even Mickey, fat sharpies are easier for them to use than skinny pens. Something a Cast Member told us.

Princess Aurora signs a jewelry box for the Princess during our meal at Akershus in Epcot
 Sunscreen - Charles and I both carried travel-size bottles with us. Even though I applied it liberally before we even left our room, the kids often needed another application later in the day.

We also bought our own light-up necklaces to take. After dark in the parks, vendors are everywhere selling light-up jewelry and toys and asking an arm and leg for them! We made a pre-emptive strike and bought our own like these.
Yes, we had to pay shipping, but even with shipping it was cheaper! And our kids didn't feel like they were missing out because Mom and Dad wouldn't pay $7-10 for the ones Disney was selling. If you really want to save money, just buy glo-necklaces and bracelets at the Dollar Store or Walmart. For a buck, your child can light up the night, too!

Also, take along some pennies and quarters for penny presses. This website publishes current lists of all penny press locations. This was one of our favorite things to do. It's a cheap souvenir, too!

Okay, so you know what to take into the parks with you, but is there anything you need to remember for the resort room? Yes! Take a power strip. You will need to charge your cell phone or laptop or even your camera. And there will not be enough outlets, I can guarantee you that. We actually have a power cord we bought specifically for vacations. We pack it for every trip, not just Disney.  And take your chargers for your electronics, too. For things we use so much, they are the easiest things to forget!

Every resort has laundry facilities for guests. You have to use your room card to access them. But if you're planning to wash a load of laundry or two during your stay, take your own detergent and lots of quarters. Each load of laundry requires $2 to wash and $2 to dry. I took a laundry bag too, so I'd have a way to carry the clothes from the room to the laundry area. Even though it was pricey to wash and dry clothes there, it was nice not having suitcases full of dirty to clothes to wash when we got home.

When you're packing, always bring a second pair of comfortable shoes. If your shoes get wet from rain or water rides, they might not dry out overnight in your room. So keep a spare pair for each person. Nobody likes hiking around an amusement park with soggy feet. And don't wait until the week before you leave for your trip to break the shoes in. Buy them a couple of months in advance and wear them often. You don't want to wear brand new shoes as you walk 7-10 miles every day.

If you're staying in a moderate resort, you will have a mini-fridge in your room. It's so nice to be able to keep grapes and other fruit in it for snacking. We also stopped at a Walmart before we got to Orlando and purchased milk and orange juice to drink the mornings. Value resorts don't provide mini-fridges unless you request them, and it's on a first-come, first-serve basis.

One other packing tip - you will most likely be returning home with more than you took. You're going to find all kinds of souvenirs to take home. Keep that in mind as you're packing all of the above so you have some spare room in your suitcase or vehicle for your newly acquired Disney treasures.

So, are you ready to start packing?

See my other Disney with kids posts:
When to go
Where to stay
How old should they be

And here is my Top 10 Disney Tips post, not necessarily kid-related but helpful.

Linking this post up to Works for Me Wednesday at We are THAT Family.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Smoked Sausage and Pepper Skillet

With the heat of summer upon us, I dread turning the oven on in the afternoon to prepare something for dinner. My kitchen is extremely warm, since we have a skylight right in the middle of it. We get direct sunlight for several hours in the afternoon during the summer. So I'm always looking for stove-top meals that don't heat up the kitchen as much as baked meals do.

This quick and easy skillet dish fits the bill. I like to chop up the meat and veggies in the morning before things get hectic. Then all I have to do is heat the skillet and we're on our way to a simple, yummy meal. Alternately, you can grill this as kebabs or in a grill basket. It's delicious either way.

Here's what you need:

1 lb, smoked sausage or kielbasa, cut into 1-inch slices (I usually halve the slices since I have kids who need to take smaller bites)
2 bell peppers, any color, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 onion, chopped
2 TBSP balsamic vinegar
1 TBSP olive oil
1 teas Italian seasoning
salt and pepper to taste

Place the cut-up meat and veggies into a Ziploc bag. Combine the remaining ingredients in a small bowl and pour over the bag contents. Refrigerate for up to 8 hours. You can skip the refrigeration step if you're in a hurry. Just add the vinegar, oil and seasonings to the pan when you cook the rest of it.

Heat a little olive oil in a pan over medium heat. When the pan is hot, dump in the meat, veggies and seasonings.

Cook until the peppers and onions are tender, stirring once in a while. You want a nice brown color to the meat and veggies so don't stir too often. It will take about 10 minutes.

 The balsamic vinegar gives this dish a nice tang without overpowering it. I usually serve it with potatoes or over rice.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Menu Plan June 11-17

This week we have VBS at church. We're using curriculum from Answers in Genesis called Incrediworld Amazement Park - A Thrill Ride Through God's Creation. It's a Bible- based, action-packed program that highlights the evidences of God being the ultimate designer of the universe. Really, really good! I'm teaching the lesson portion each night, so it will be a busy week.

So the menu this week will have to be easy. I'm pulling some frozen pizzas and chicken spaghetti from the freezer to speed these along, and I'm using my crockpot a couple of times, too. I've also got some skillet meals that won't heat up the oven.

Here's the plan for the week:

Loaded jambalaya, zucchini

Taco soup (crockpot), tortilla chips

Indian butter chicken (crockpot), rice

Chicken spaghetti, cauliflower

Tasty tilapia, broccoli


Out for Father's Day

For more meal planning inspiration, visit Organizing Junkie's Menu Plan Monday.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Disney with Kids - When to Go

Now that you know you want to take your kids to Disney, what time of year do you want to go? Well, here are some things you might want to consider.

First, if cost is a major factor for you, the off-season (non-holidays and non-summer) is definitely cheaper. Disney has several rate changes for different times if the year. Value season is the cheapest - January, February, August and September. Peak season, which is during most holidays and spring break, is the highest. The summer season is the next highest. Room prices can differ up to $40/night from value to peak season for values and moderates. You can save over $200 just by visiting during the off-seasons.

Check the Disney accommodations website and compare the rates to give you an idea of what different times of year will cost you. Prices will most likely increase in 2013 by $5 or $10 but it's a good place to start for comparisons.

Just a note - the above advice was obviously for those staying at a Disney resort. But most off-site resorts also offer cheaper rates during the slow season to attract more guests.

On an early February morning, we were cold!

Also, crowd levels might play a part in your decision of when to go. Obviously peak season is called peak season for a reason! The parks will be jammed with people seeking fun in the sun, especially during spring break! If you'd prefer not to deal with wall-to-wall people, consider the off-season times.

Here's some info from AllEars.Net about historic attendance levels to help you decide. Also, there are several special events throughout the year that will attract more visitors - Star Wars Weekend, marathons, concerts, and festivals to name a few. Check out Disney's special events calendar for more info. Just wanted to note that I've heard from several sources that the week between Christmas and New Year's is absolutely the most crowded week of the year.

The age of your children should also be taken into consideration. Are they old enough for school and do you want them to miss a few days or a week? Some teachers/schools are very understanding of family vacation time during the school year, others are not. Of course, we homeschool our children, so we use our Disney vacation as a great big field trip! And we can go any time of year.

Weather is a huge consideration, too. We've gone twice in February and had great weather both times. Of course, there were some chilly days, but the majority of the time was beautiful. It could just as easily be cold during that time of year. We joke that in February, you take your chances! We've also gone in October, and there were unseasonably high temperatures that week. So I guess you take your chances in October, too! We checked the Weather Channel's 10-day forecasts right up until the day we left to see what we might possibly have to deal with. And don't forget your rain ponchos. No matter what time of year it is, you will probably see a little rain. It's Florida, after all.

If you and your kids don't handle heat well, consider going in the late fall or even winter. If heat doesn't bother you, summer is perfect. Cause it WILL be hot! Our personal experience has been that it's easy to layer more clothing for cooler temperatures than to take clothes off in the heat. I mean, there's only so much you can take off before you get arrested! LOL. The Weather Channel has an average weather chart by month, so you can see what you might be in for.

Now, do you have a special occasion to celebrate? Disney World is the perfect place for a celebration! Plan your trip to include your special day, and Disney will make it even more special. For instance, both February trips coincided with Mr. Lego's birthday. He was given a birthday button to wear for the week, and nearly every Cast Member we came across wished him a happy birthday. He got special treats at several restaurants, too.

Mr. Lego got a birthday cupcake at the Liberty Tree Tavern, just one of many special treat
We celebrated our 11th anniversary at Disney in October 2009. We also were given lovely cupcakes at several restaurants. And at the Crystal Palace, we found a confetti heart waiting for us at our table! Cute, huh?

Special touches like this one make it worth going to Disney to celebrate a special occasion!
As much as we enjoy Disney during the less-crowded times of year, there are some downsides. Most attraction refurbishments take place during the off-season. In February, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, my favorite roller coaster, was closed for refurbishment. We also missed Dumbo, which was closed because it was being moved to another part of Fantasyland. It only makes sense for Disney to do this routine work while the crowds are lower, but it can be disappointing if you're counting on a certain attraction being open.

Working on the tracks of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

Also, Disney hosts several national sports events during the off-season - cheerleading competitions, Pop Warner Superbowl, and the Disney Soccer Showcase. Accomodations might be hard to reserve during those times. Buses from the resorts will be crowded, too. Just a heads up, because we've been stuck waiting for buses with groups of 200 cheerleaders. Fun, fun, fun!

While crowds might be lower, don't go with the expectation that you'll walk onto every ride without a wait during the off-season. Popular attractions are still just as popular then as during peak seasons. Still, I think the longest we waited for a ride (Test Track) in February was 25 minutes, compared to an hour or longer during spring break. Toy Story Mania in Hollywood Studios always has an insane wait time, too, no matter what time of year you visit.

Our next trip is scheduled for the week after Thanksgiving in 2013. Historically, that week has very low crowds. Since the Christmas holidays are right around the corner, many people schedule their vacations for later in December instead of coming to Disney right after Thanksgiving. One of the things I'm looking forward to is seeing the parks decorated for Christmas!

Bottom line, no matter what time of year you choose to go with your kids, you WILL have fun! Just plan ahead and be prepared.

See my other posts on Disney with Kids:

How old should they be?
Where to stay?

And here's my Top 10 Disney tips post. These tips are general and not necessarily kid-related. But you might find some helpful info there.

Next Disney with Kids topic - What to bring for the parks

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Kitchen Clean Up Tip

Have you ever watched Rachael Ray's cooking show on the Food Network? One of her favorite tools to use is a garbage bowl. As she's chopping veggies or opening packages, she dumps everything into a bowl instead of making several trips to the garbage can. Sounds practical, huh?

You can even purchase one of her garbage bowls in your choice of colors for $20. And then you have to clean it up every time you use it.

Well, what if you had a garbage bowl that you didn't have to wash every time you used it?

Just grab a bowl while you're prepping food and line it with a plastic bag, like from Target or Wal-Mart. Make sure the bag doesn't have any tears or holes, or you WILL be washing it when you're finished.

Fill it up with your food scraps and garbage. Then lift the bag out of the bowl and dump in the trash! No muss, no fuss.

And now you have a clean bowl again!

How's that for practical?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Disney with Kids - Where to Stay?

 Now that you've decided to take your kids to Disney World, where are you going to stay during your visit? Do you want to stay on-property in a Disney resort or off-property at a hotel or condo? This will depend on the size of your family, of course. I don't really have a lot of advice to offer on off-property locations, but check out this forum on the Disboards. You might be able to find some good info there.

 For our family of 4, it is much easier to stay on property. There are several advantages to staying at a Disney resort. Here are some:
1. Free transportation to and from the airport via the Magical Express
2. Free parking at all the parks
3. Free bus service to all the parks, as well as Downtown Disney
4. Charge to your room privileges - you don't have to carry lots of cash
5. Dining plan offers, sometimes even free dining
6. Free delivery of purchases in the parks to your resort gift shop - great if you don't want to haul around that giant Tigger all day!
7. Extra Magic hours - almost every day, at least one park opens earlier or stays open later for guests staying on Disney property

And of course, the biggest perk for us is just the Disney magic! The attention to detail keeps us coming back.

So now comes the hard part - which Disney resort is right for your family? For most of us, cost is usually the first consideration. But you might also want to consider what amenities you find desirable, what type of theming the resort has, and how large the rooms are. Here's a chart with room sizes in the various resorts to give you an idea of how much space you will have available.Think about how much time you want to spend in the room, too. You might not mind a smaller size if all your family is going to do is sleep there!

The Princess in our room at the Coronado Springs Resort in 2012
 Disney resorts are grouped into four categories - value, moderate, deluxe and deluxe villas. Cost is, of course, the main difference. As you go up the ladder in price, you also get more amenities. For example, each value resort has a pool or two. Some of the moderate resorts have a main pool with another "quiet" pool per building. Most moderates also have hot tubs and fitness clubs. Deluxe resorts offer closer proximities to the parks. The deluxe villas are just that, villas with one, two or three bedrooms, along with a kitchen or kitchenette.

By the way, every pool on Disney property is heated, so you can even take advantage of the pools in the cooler months. We had great fun this past February at our resort's pools!

To see descriptions, pictures and rates for the Disney resorts, visit Disney's accomodations page. You can see what the rooms and pools look like and get a feel for the amenities offered in each one. You can also check out the theming, which is different for each resort.

Where we've stayed

For our first two visits, we stayed at the All-Star Movies Resort. We requested the Toy Story building and got our request both times. Also both times we were close to the bus stop so we didn't have far to walk to hop a bus to the parks.

Mr. Lego in the Toy Story courtyard 2007

This resort was very kid-friendly. The theming was great and we enjoyed wandering around and exploring it. Because it was kid-friendly, it was also pretty noisy. If you're looking for peace and quiet, you might want to upgrade to a moderate. But for the price, it was great for our kids when they were smaller.

Also, the bus service to the resort was shared with two other All-Star resorts. So it was almost always crowded and there was nowhere to sit and wait for it.

On our last trip in February, we chose to stay at the Coronado Springs Resort. We chose a moderate because all the bed are queen-sized, while the value resorts only have double beds or one king per room. The theming for this resort was Southwestern, and it really felt like were were in Mexico or Arizona!

The Dig Site pool was amazing
We liked the bigger beds, quiet pools, hot tub and the relaxed atmosphere. But this resort was very spread out, so it took a bit to walk to the main building or the bus stop. Overall, though, the bus service was very good and we rarely waited longer than a few minutes.

I think from this point on, we will try to stay at moderates. With the kids getting older and bigger, the larger rooms and beds are a must. In fact, we're already planning our next trip for November 2013, and we're hoping to stay at Port Orleans Riverside. They have refurbished some rooms into Royal Guest Rooms complete with princess theme. Since the kids are getting older, we thought it might be our last chance to stay in a themed room without them feeling too childish.

If you have any questions about either resort we've stayed at, please ask. I'm no expert by any means, but I'll honestly share our experiences with you.

See my previous Disney with Kids - How old should they be? post

Next Disney with Kids topic - when should you go?

Monday, June 4, 2012

Garlic Butter Pasta Sauce

I love pasta dishes of all kinds. I like cream-based sauces, tomato-based sauces, you name it. This simple sauce for pasta is light and flavorful. It will nicely season about a pound of pasta. Best of all, it takes just minutes to prepare!

I like to serve this as an accompaniment to chicken or pork, but it's also great as a light main dish. I've added diced chicken and shrimp, too. Just a note, if you add meat to it, increase the butter and/or oil by a tablespoon or two. You don't want a pasta dish that is too dry!

Here's what you need for the sauce:

1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup olive oil
1 TBSP minced garlic
1 TBSP lemon juice
1-2 teas Italian seasoning, to taste
1/2 teas sea salt

In a saucepan, melt the butter and combine with the olive oil. Add the minced garlic and saute over medium heat until the garlic is really fragrant. Be careful not to burn the garlic.

Stir in the lemon juice and seasonings.

Pour over cooked pasta. I'm using whole wheat rotini this time. Pasta of any shape will do, though.

Garnish with shredded Parmesan cheese, if desired.

 How simple is that?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Menu Plan June 4-10

We had a pleasant weekend here in the Deep South. The temps stayed in the 70s and allowed us to enjoy some time on the sun porch and in the yard. But we'll be back in the 80s and higher this week, so I'll attempt once again to keep the oven off as much as possible. I'm even going to try to make artisan bread in the crockpot, based on this recipe from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day website. Sounds great, doesn't it?

Anyway, here's the menu for the week:

Roast and potatoes in the crockpot

Mexican Pasta Skillet, green beans

Chicken shawarma, flatbread

Baked potato bar (potatoes cooked in the crockpot)

Southwestern chicken on the grill, corn on the cob

Taco salad (using leftover Southwestern chicken)

Steak and gravy in the crockpot, mashed potatoes

For more meal-planning inspiration, visit Organizing Junkie's Menu Plan Monday.