Pack Healthy School Lunches Your Kids Will Eat

Final Main ImageIt’s that time of year again when kids are gearing up for school or are already settling into their classrooms (do I hear a collective sigh of relief?). If you have children in grade school, you may be wondering what to do about their midday meals, specifically whether you should pack their lunches or trust they’ll eat whatever the cafeteria dishes out.

Let me just say if your little darlings are finicky eaters, they’re probably better off bringing their lunches from home. The trick is to make them appealing and nutritious at the same time. I know, easier said than done, right?

Well, good thing I have some ideas for tasty and healthy meals, as well as fun and functional ways to tote food & beverages to school!

Say Goodbye to Boring Bag Lunches

Back in the day, if you weren’t lucky enough to own one of those groovy tin boxes with your favorite TV characters, you had to carry your lunch in a flimsy, worn-out brown paper bag that was barely big enough to hold a sandwich and an apple.

These days you’ll find an awesome assortment of durable, roomy and cool-looking lunch bags, boxes and containers, many at discounted prices during back-to-school sales. Here’s a sample:

Insulated Lunch Bags. These lightweight bags come in so many patterns and styles – from cartoon characters and action heroes to cute critters and bright geometric designs – you’re sure to find something to suit any age and taste. Find fabulous lunch bags. like the one below, at Amazon.com!

Zootopia_DIY_LunchBox
DIY Lunch Box.
Pick up a plain tin lunch box, like the one above from Oriental Trading, and let your child decorate it his or her own way with glitter, markers, magnets, stickers… you name it!

20160816_153501
Rubbermaid LunchBlox®.
  This Bento-style kit includes 3 colorful containers with leak-proof lids to help you organize and store snacks, fruit, veggies, dips and sandwiches, plus a Blue Ice® pack to keep food chilled and fresh. Everything snaps together to fit inside tall or flat lunch bags. See the complete LunchBlox line at Rubbermaid.com.

Best Bets for Beverages and BrothsContigo water bottles

Contigo AUTOSEAL® Gizmo Kids Water Bottle. The BPA-free reusable water bottle is leak- and spill-proof and has an easy-clean transparent lid. Go to reuseit.com for all kinds of clever water bottles for kids!

 

Crayola® Juice Box Holder. No more crying over spilled juice! Just place the juice box in this sturdy, squeeze-proof plastic container and the juice stays put! Get one now for only $3.99!

food jarninji turtles food jar
THERMOS Brand FUNtainer Food Jar.

The compact, double-wall stainless steel container holds up to 10 ounces and keeps food hot or cold for hours. Choose from a variety of FUNtainers at Target.com.

Kid-friendly (and mother-approved) menu ideas:
* Pita-bread pizzas — If they like pizza, they’ll devour these! Take pita rounds (without the pockets) and top them with pizza sauce from a jar, pepperoni and grated mozzarella. Bake in a toaster oven and wrap them in foil to stay warm.
* Sandwiches in fun shapes — Use crust or cookie cutters to turn ordinary sandwiches into something “magical” like butterflies, hearts or dinosaurs! Get a 5-Pack of Sandwich Crust Cutters at Amazon.com
* Pinwheels — Spread cream cheese on a flour tortilla, cover it with deli ham or turkey, shredded cheese and lettuce, roll it up and slice into bite-size pieces.
* Kabobs — Take wooden skewers and lace them with chunks of ham or turkey, cheese and fresh fruit like pineapple or apple.
* Mini pot pies — make these ahead of time, heat ’em up and wrap in foil to keep them warm. Here’s an easy pot pie recipe from Betty Crocker.
* Pasta — Most kids like mac & cheese, spaghetti & meatballs and ravioli. Needless to say, homemade is better than the pre-made kind you pop in the microwave. Try these delicious, kid-tested pasta recipes from allrecipes.com.
* Vegetable alphabet soup — Heat it up in the a.m., put it in a thermos and it’ll still be “mmm, mmm good” at lunchtime.
* Ants-on-a-Log — A good-tasting, good-for-you snack that’s fun to make and eat! Just spread peanut butter on stalks of celery and sprinkle with raisins.
* Veggies & dip — A great way to get youngsters to eat their vegetables! Fill a container with baby carrots and include hummus or ranch dressing for dipping.
* Yogurt — Click here to find the best yogurts for kids.
* Something to drink — low-fat milk and ice water are the best choices for beverages. Juice boxes are good, too, as long as they’re low in sugar. Sodas are a no-no, of course. Even diet soft drinks have been proven to be unhealthy.
* Include some fresh fruit (grapes, berries, an apple or pear), string cheese, crackers, maybe a granola bar or cookies (from scratch) for dessert, and they’re good to go!

Visit our Kid Stuff Pinterest board for more school lunch ideas!

Smart Perks blogger Catherine B. tried brown-bagging her lunch once in first grade but gave it up after the paper bag ripped and she lost half her meal on the sidewalk.

Planning a Theme Party Doesn’t Have to Be a Circus

13403224_1433776873315146_2127514685657735593_o

The season of outdoor parties is upon us! Graduation parties, weddings, birthdays, showers…everyone loves a summer party.

And one glance at Pinterest or Instagram and you’ll immediately realize that theme parties are a huge trend.  If you’re a Pinterest fan, you have to admit it…you’ve spent many an hour perusing board after board of fabulous cakes, floral arrangements, magical barn weddings, and over the top, themed birthday bashes. From elaborate color-coordinated candy tables to amazing baby gender reveal cakes, social media can give you a serious case of party FOMO (fear of missing out).

13417017_1433763236649843_7451463166843003700_o

So when my friend’s french bulldog Louis was about to turn one, I said “Me! Me! Me! I want to host the party at my house.”  Yes, we threw his dog a birthday party. And it was spectacular. I thought I’d share some tips on planning a summer birthday, so you can dream big and ensure nobody and nothing will rain on your parade, so to speak. I’ll also share some of my favorite party planning resources.

Pick a theme you love. Something that excites your imagination. Something that expresses your personality. If you’re in love with your theme, you’ll have no trouble imagining creative ideas to implement it. Enthusiasm breeds inspiration.

13086629_1433762389983261_3691736588710917904_o

Create a Vision Board. Google is your friend. Seriously, what did we do before search engines? Type in your theme (in this case, circus party) and the word images and you’ll get tons of great ideas. Copy the images into one Word document, or print out pages to create a collage or stick in a party plan folder. Whatever works for you.  Whether you want to DIY or enlist the help of professionals, starting with a vision in mind of your perfect event will save you from feeling let down with your final result.

13415539_1433763113316522_5438209930799206137_o

Have a couple WOWS in mind. Or maybe just one. For instance, the Big Top Circus Cake was my WOW. I went to the bakery about 3 weeks in advance (I know my limitations, I am not a baker) and I went in with a sheet of paper showing 7-8 circus cakes I’d found on the Internet that I was madly in love with. The baker immediately brought me back to reality. “Do you want to pay for a wedding cake?” I was asked. Some of my ideas were “Cake Boss” HUGE and way out of my budget. But we started talking about what I could afford. Layer cakes were out. However, I had my heart set on a circus tent. We ended up with a big top cake that would serve 8, covered in fondant (which is more expensive) and a dozen cupcakes with plain frosting and sprinkles, which were considerably less expensive. I got the cake I dreamed of. After all, cake is the best part of the party, right?

What about the dogs you ask? Well, my friend found some inexpensive and awesome dog bone molds and simple dog-friendly cake recipes, and he made those himself. So two-leggers and four-leggers alike got to enjoy birthday cake!

13412172_1433763206649846_3071925714455507834_o

Have fun planning. It’s a party! We made this party fun for both the dogs and their humans. Treat bags included cookies for the dogs and colorful gum balls for the people. Plus, wacky props like foam rubber noses and other goofy favors that made for plenty of great photo-ops. And we didn’t forget the two-legged kids. They got cute little circus tattoos and animals!

13443182_1433759763316857_1072921483049259735_o

Create a big first impression. Whether guests or passers-by, you want to let people know where the party’s at!

13445565_1434452089914291_6975268440611389276_n

Encourage your guests to take part in the theme. They’ll want to come prepared to play along and have a good time, too!

13403906_1433773289982171_5617277765210965263_o

Location. Location. Location. With summertime outdoor events, you have to be prepared for anything weather-wise, and you must have a sense of humor about it. Outdoor parties are not for the faint of heart. Before our party our biggest concern was rain. We considered public parks with a covered picnic shelter, but no loose dogs were allowed. We drew the line at tent rentals for the dog party, and it was a prime graduation party weekend, so we had to compete with that from nearby rental stores. So, our fallback plans included the garage and the house as a last resort. In the end, it wasn’t the rain we needed to worry about. It was oppressive 90+ temps with a heat index around 100 degrees.  We made sure we had extra water and plenty of cold drinks and ice to keep humans and dogs hydrated. We borrowed box fans from everyone we knew and had them on the deck and in the garage. We also had two swimming pools out for the dogs to cool off. We ended up moving lunch and cake indoors because no one wants to eat in that kind of heat.

Make Memories. Once the guests arrive, accept that you’re on the roller coaster, you’re buckled in, and there’s nothing you can do now but hang on and enjoy the ride. Mishaps make memories. It’s hard to see it in the moment, but looking back you’ll be talking about the things that went wrong and laughing about them. It’s a party. ENJOY! If you’re having fun, I guarantee your guests will too!

13450791_1433789266647240_4138978661736326640_n

The birthday boy@ouiouilouis loved his Bark Box.

Favorite Party Supply Stores:

Big Dot of Happiness

Oh Happy Day

Oriental Trading

Shindigz

Party City

Smart Perks blogger, Melanie Bisson is a natural born clown.

 

 

 

 

 

This Father’s Day Give Him the Gift of Time

Child's drawing for Father's day

June 19th is just around the corner and if you’re still deciding what to get Dad this year let me make a suggestion – instead of the usual tools, ties, fishing lures, etc., do something fun and memorable with him.

For example, last year my husband, son, daughter and grandson went to a baseball game. Granted he paid for the tickets, but he just wanted them all to see our Twins play his beloved Cubs at Target Field (he’s never lived in Chicago, but for some reason he’s a big fan). The whole experience was worth more to him than anything you could buy in a store and it meant a lot to the kids too. He told me later it was “the best Father’s Day ever!”

Not sure how to celebrate Father’s Day? I’ve got ideas for meaningful and unforgettable experiences you can share with your dad, grandpa or any father figure.

Catch a ballgame. There’s something about watching your home team in action from the bleachers. It doesn’t have to be major league. Sometimes a minor-league game can be just as enjoyable, or in some cases, even more entertaining.  Here in Minnesota we have the St. Paul Saints and the home games are always a blast! From tire races and sumo wrestling to giant pillow fights, there’s always something crazy going on between innings.

Spend the day at the races. Take him to the track and bet on the horses. You don’t have to wager a lot. Half the fun is picking which contenders will place, show or win and cheering them on. Click here for a list of horse racing tracks by state. If he’d rather watch turbocharged cars than thoroughbreds, go to fastspeedways to find a speedway near you.

Go fishing. If pop’s an angler, bring him to his favorite fishing hole for the day. Just make sure you have all the equipment you need and a fishing license beforehand.

children and grandfather having a barbecue party.

Children camping, cooking and celebrating with their grandpa.

Camp out. If he’s the outdoorsy type, consider spending a night or two camping. This will require some planning in advance, so check with him (or Mom) first to make sure his calendar is clear. Visit reserveamerica to find campgrounds in your region and to reserve a campsite.

Go hiking or biking. Another way to enjoy the outdoors is to hike or bike in scenic surroundings. My home state, Minnesota, has excellent biking and walking trails. In fact, it was recently ranked the second most bike-friendly state in the U.S. by the League of American Bicyclists (Washington was #1). Search for nature trails by city & state at trails.com.

Sample some beer or wine. Find a microbrewery or brewpub nearby and treat him to a flight to taste the various selections (e.g., pale ales, pilsners, lagers, stouts, flavored porters). Then buy him a growler filled with the beer of his choice to take home. If he prefers grapes over hops, spend the afternoon wine tasting at local wineries.

Visit a museum or historic sites. If he’s a history buff, take him to see some ancient artifacts or notable places from the past like old forts, a colonial village or civil war battlegrounds.

Ron_1_0182_001

My kids & their dad loved cruising around in this 1950 Chevy in the mid 90s.

Take a drive. One of my kids’ fondest childhood memories is going on mini road trips in their dad’s 1950 Chevrolet DeLuxe Superliner. Sometimes we’d take it to classic car shows or a small town close by. You never know what you’ll encounter along the way.

Hit the links. If he’s an avid golfer and you are too, reserve a tee time at a local course. Most courses take requests for tee times in advance but do it ASAP as they’re sure to fill up fast. Mini golf is another option.

Cultivate common interests or skills. Maybe you both like to build things, collect memorabilia, play an instrument, or run marathons. It’s more rewarding when you do it with someone else.

Dine together. If he likes to chow down, prepare a home-cooked meal for him. Whether it’s a four-course dinner or a backyard barbecue, just make sure it includes some of his favorite foods. If you’re not much of a cook, take him out to dinner and let him pick the restaurant.

Be adventurous. Thrill seekers may like river rafting, kayaking, surfing, or parasailing. Or, how about rock climbing, zip lining, bungee jumping, or four-wheeling? Note: he may need a doctor’s okay before participating in some of these extreme adventures.

RonEvanDillon_Beach

Three generations (husband, son and grandson) combing the beach in Florida this spring.

Be playful. Go on rides at an amusement park, race go-karts, play laser tag, darts, horseshoes, Frisbee golf, or a few rounds of pool. Or, hang out at the beach.

See a live performance. If he’s into music, look for concerts, musical festivals and venues in your area – JamBase.com is a good place to start. If he’s a theatergoer, take him to a play, or for a good laugh, check out a comedy club.

Visit eventsnearhere.com to find local events, including concerts, theater, exhibits, outdoor activities, lives shows & expos, and more.

As you can see there are all kinds of ways to spend quality time with your dad, granddad, or anyone who’s like a father to you. No matter what you do, the main thing is you’ll be making memories together.

Smart Perks Blogger Catherine B. no longer has her dad in her life, but she’ll always remember being daddy’s little girl.

 

20160511_185137_ShopConsignmentStyle

I love, love, love shopping at consignment stores! It’s like going on an expedition only instead of searching for ancient artifacts you’re on a quest to find the best buys on gently-used, quality apparel, shoes, handbags, and jewelry. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Well at least it is to shopaholics like me! Imagine getting stylish designer fashions and accessories at a fraction of the original price – a leather Coach wristlet for $18… a casual Calvin Klein tee for less than $10… a silk Jones New York dress for under $20… a pair of embellished Anne Klein flats for around $19… it’s a bargain hunter’s dream!

Over the years I’ve learned to master the art of thrifting, so I thought I’d share a few insider secrets to make your consignment shop excursions a success.

Where to shop. Check local directories or visit sites like TheThriftShopper.com for a listing of stores in your area. Ask savvy thrifters you know for recommendations too.  HINT: I try to hit stores in more affluent neighborhoods as they have a better selection of high-end merchandise.

When to shop. Find out what day of the week stores display new arrivals and try to shop the next day or two to take advantage of the latest deals. Also, check store hours and if you’re going on a Saturday or Sunday, get there early as they tend to be busier late in the morning to mid-afternoon on weekends. If you plan to visit more than one place in a day, you’ll need at least a few hours to browse (it usually takes me four hours or more). In other words, go when you have ample time to shop.

BlogImage_1_Shirts

I tend to go for unique, eye-catching tops likes these. They’re so fun to wear!

How to shop. Keep an open mind. You may be looking for a patterned blouse to match a favorite skirt or a fancy dress for an upcoming event, but you could wind up with a groovy boho tunic or a colorful sundress instead. Take time to sort through the racks ‘cuz you never know what gems you’ll find. Also consider what you already have in your closet and take photos with your camera phone. Then look for pieces to fill out your wardrobe.

Try it on for size. Let’s face it: some things look better on the hanger! Plus, sizes can vary from brand to brand. So, always try on clothes in the store to make sure they fit properly and look flattering on you. Take a walk in those shoes you have your eye on too. The style may be irresistible, but if they’re the least bit uncomfortable, don’t buy them!

 Give it the once-over. Even if stores are meticulous about what they’ll accept, they may overlook a small spot, rip, a broken clasp, or a loose heel. So inspect each item thoroughly. A missing button is no big deal, but unless you’re a magician you may have trouble making a stubborn stain disappear!

BlogImage_3_BabyClothes

I got these adorable, like-new clothes for my granddaughter last month for less than $26!

Kids’ Stuff. Now that I have a sweet little granddaughter, I’ve been frequenting secondhand stores that carry children’s clothes and such. If you’re looking for unbelievable deals on apparel, shoes, hats, baby gear, toys, and other items for infants and toddlers, you’ll find a virtual goldmine in these places. Everything looks practically brand new because most youngsters outgrow everything before they wear out.

Sign up for store mailing lists or follow them on social media. That way you’ll be among the first to know about special sales events. Some stores offer discount coupons to help you save even more.

Another great thing about consignments shops: You can bring in items you no longer want and as long as they’re still in style and in good condition, you could get credit for any sold items. Some places even give you cash upfront!

BlogImage_2_Jewelry

Look at all the fabulous jewelry pieces I found on some of my shopping excursions!

Don’t have any consignment stores nearby? No worries! Just go online and shop at places like these:

ThredUP. Choose from thousands of like-new clothing items for women, girls and boys, all hand-selected and certified for quality. You’ll find popular brands discounted up to 90% off!

The Attic. This site features a huge selection of women’s designer clothing & vintage clothing, accessories, modern & retro jewelry, and more at deep discounts.

Swap.com . Considered the largest online consignment store, Swap.com offers a ginormous selection of pre-owned baby, kids’, maternity, and women’s apparel & accessories.

Happy Shopping!

Smart Perks Blogger Catherine B. can’t wait for her next shopping adventure. Her mission: find some hot deals on cool styles for summer.

Photos by Mary Haehn

Fun-Filled, Budget-Friendly Activities for Kids

 

mother and her child preparing healthy food and having fun

I’m not a mom, or an aunt, a godmother, or even a person who has friends with kids. But I am an older sister – to both a natural-born younger sis and as a mentor to a 12-year-old girl in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. And although my natural-born sister lives many states away for college, I am tasked with the challenge of coming up with fun and engaging activities which are appropriate for children but fun for adults with my Little Sister. Also, since I’m not about to spend an afternoon shelling out the big bucks for kid-friendly fun (Why are museums for children so pricey?), I’ve gotten pretty savvy at finding things we both enjoy – minus the hefty price tag.

Here are some of my greatest hits that are a ton of fun without breaking the bank.

Cooking/Baking:

Getting kids started early in the kitchen is a great way to teach healthy eating habits and improve important skills, like mental math and hand-eye coordination.

This one is great regardless of age. Do you have a 3-year-old? Great, have them pick out some fruits they like, put them in a blender with low-sugar yogurt and ice, and once the adult secures the lid (I would hold it down), let the kid press blend! You could also try ants on a log or a Crockpot recipe like Salsa Chicken where you just toss the ingredients in and let it simmer.

Boy eats a lot of sushi

Some kids do really love sushi!

If you’re looking for more of a challenge with older kids, Pinterest is (as usual) a great place to start. With my Little Sister, who loves spicy food and chocolate, we like to get really creative. Our last adventure in cooking was mole sauce, a spicy, savory chocolate sauce from Mexico. Spooned over grilled chicken, it took a blah dish and made it something out of this world. Our next adventure is sushi! But if sweets are more the taste of your kids or young friends, this easy éclair cake is super tasty.

Bowling:

Bowling has made something of a comeback in recent years. Gone are the days of The Big Lebowski-type establishments with dried-up chicken wings, dusty and dated furniture, broken arcade games and a vague scent of stale cigarette smoke. Though these can of course be great fun, they don’t exactly appeal to the kids these days. The iPad-and-Justin-Bieber generation thinks that’s like, totally lame, man.

Luckily, there are more to choose from these days. The website Kids Bowl Free showcases different kid-friendly bowling alleys across the US that, as the name suggests, offer free bowling for those under 18. For example, Brunswick Zone is in many states and is an updated take on a bowling alley, with video games and billiards. They cater to a hipper, younger crowd, so kids (especially those picky preteens) are sure to enjoy.

brunswick zone

Doesn’t this look like a day of fun?

The best part? Those that are in-the-know can join their rewards program for coupons and special offers, so you can get deep discounts. That’s a whole evening of family-friendly fun!

Crafting:

You might be surprised at how popular crafting is with kids of all ages right now. When I was a kid, we twisted pipe cleaners into knots, played with silly putty, and did paint by numbers and called it a day. Now, with crafting booming with the adult market as well, the wee ones are picking up on the new craft trends.

nature weaving craft 5

From Pinterest user Craftiments.

Take, for instance, fellow blogger Melanie’s potted mini gardens from our previous blog post. This is completely doable for kids of all ages, and is a lasting gift – and teaches them the gift of a green thumb (which I am sadly lacking).

sponge tower timeAnother idea is a nature-weaving craft ornament. As we all know, kids spend way too much time in front of screens. So I plan on taking my Little Sister for a long walk once the weather is a little nicer, picking up things like pine cones, flowers, leaves, shells and twigs along the way. Then, together we can craft one of these adorable decorations to commemorate our day! The best part is most of the materials are found in nature; all you really need is some yarn or string and your imagination.

For the indoorsy type, I loved this idea: Sponge Jenga. Buy a pack of sponges from a discount store, cut them up into even strips, and then stack them like Jenga. All of the fun of the game without the loud crashing sounds.

Volunteering:

So much time it seems is spent trying to figure out activities your kids and you will both enjoy, but what about the impact your activities have? Think about it this way: If you both like cooking, why not volunteer to cook for others at a soup kitchen? If you like animals, what about volunteering to walk an elderly neighbor’s dog, or at an animal shelter?

Happy siblings collecting rubbish

Volunteering can be easy as collecting trash in the park.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be an organized, repeated commitment, though there are plenty of websites to help you out with finding one of those. Huge nature lovers can just pick up trash as they walk the beach or a trail with a group of their friends, or to run a bake sale or lemonade stand and donate the money to their favorite cause. Not only are you of course helping others in the process, but you’re teaching the little ones in your life that no matter how small they are, they can make a big difference. And you can’t put a price tag on that (But also, if you could…it would be free!)

These are just my favorites. What are some of your suggestions for on-the-cheap activities to do with the kids in your life?

Blogger Katie U., a Smart Perks employee, not-so-secretly wants to be a little kid again eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch while reading Nancy Drew.