Adventures in Pinning #1

As a stay-at-home-mom, I spend a fair amount of time on Pinterest. It’s for the kids & family, really. I swear. 90% of my pins are crafts & activities for the littles, 7% are recipes I’d like to try, 2.75% are healthy recipes, which leaves about .25% of pinning for stuff I like.

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Here are some of our most recent attempts at Pinteresting:

Popsicle Stick Tractor, Glued to My Crafts

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If paint is involved, you can never really call it an ‘easy’ craft for a 4-year-old, can you? But this was relatively easy and allowed Bryan to work on his glue skills. Can I get a, ‘just a dot, not a lot’?!

If you have a boat load of popsicle sticks to use up, Glued To My Crafts is your girl! She has a lot of great Fall/Halloween crafts up right now. This tractor was designed to go along with the book Pete the Cat: Old MacDonald Had a Farm. I love book + craft combos!

Unicorn Poop, Mom Dot

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Listen, I honestly don’t care how these turn out. As long as you don’t burn them, they are going to be delicious! I mean, it’s just cake, frosting and ice cream cones- yumm-o! These were fun to make and funny to share. I highly recommend. I also highly recommend that you NOT buy your ice cream cones at the Dented Can Store (aka grocery outlet). Smashed up cones make this recipe a little challenging.

Moon Sand, Love and Laundry

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I originally pinned this on my ‘Indoor Fun’ board but let’s be perfect clear- this is an outdoor fun activity! At least it was for my 4 & 1 year olds. The kids had a blast with this and it was the longest they have sat and enjoyed one thing together… ever. Annie did take a little taste, which I wouldn’t recommend, but overall she did well with it. Tip: I doubled the recipe, since I have two kiddos playing, but mostly because the bag of flour & bottle of baby oil from Dollar Tree made the perfect double batch. So $2 for a good hour of fun, winner winner chicken dinner.

What have you been pinning lately?

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Getting the Most out of your Zoo Membership

My 4 year old LOVES animals, so we have been talking this summer about different jobs that one can do working with animals. We are blessed to live about 10 miles from a reptile zoo, Clyde Peeling’s Reptiland. In an exciting turn of events, we are now museum members! At the cost of just two visits, an annual family membership made so much more sense for us financially so we splurged this spring. Annie is under 2 so her pass was free. Yay free!

Let me tell you, we have been getting our monies worth this summer! We have been averaging 3 visits a month. It’s a quick drive and, with the attention span of a preschooler, we can see everything in the zoo in about 45 minutes-1 hour. They offer great educational classes and we have made our own worksheets, games & activities to help engage a little more during our time there. I’ve definitely learned a few tips & tricks for how to get the most out of a zoo membership and I want to share those with you.

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Tip #1: Do your research & math

Anytime we are preparing to visit a new attraction, such as a zoo, I always compare membership fees to regular ticket rates beforehand. Depending on how far away it is, what days of week it is open, if it open year round or seasonally, etc., we may only be able to visit a couple times a year. However, depending on rates, annual passes may still offer considerable savings for our family. Usually not, but it’s worth a little math to find out.

Check out the zoo website to learn about membership rates, perks, hours & discounts. Common discounts are senior citizen, military, AAA, and educator/student, but your employer and/or insurance company might also offer discounts on local attractions.  Totally worth a phone call or email to find out!

Did you know that zoo membership may be tax deductible? Many zoos & museums are non-profit organizations, and your membership may be considered a charitable donation. (Always check with your tax professional, but the zoo maybe able to offer some insight as well.)

Factor in parking expenses, if not free or included with your membership. Depending on parking lot fees, this could really add up.

Is your little one about to turn 2, or 3, or 4? Some attractions offer free admission for children under a certain age. Depending on the timing, it could make sense to purchase your membership before a little ones birthday, even if it is off-season. Annie was free this year & we will be able to renew our annual membership before she turns two so we should be able to get another year of fun for her for free!

Do you have a birthday party in the near future that you need to plan? We actually decided to get our membership after having Bryan’s 4th birthday party at Reptiland. If we had purchased the membership before the party, we could have saved 10% off a birthday package. However, given how many people we had coming and our other plans for the celebration, the zoo staff helped us determine that it was actually a better deal for us to purchase tickets as a group, rather than go with the party package. However, purchasing a membership BEFORE your party could work out to big savings!

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We had the opportunity to attend one of the zoo programs during our birthday party.

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They definitely treated our party kids to some special perks… if you like holding snakes.

Tip #2: Ask around & ask the zoo

Ask around to see what others’ experiences have been with that zoo/membership. Friends, family, Facebook ‘friends’, coworkers, mommy group, work message board- ask who else has had a membership at the zoo in the past and see what their thoughts/experiences have been. A current member might be able to gift a discount to a friend who purchases a new membership, or perhaps they will receive a referral bonus. You might also be able to ‘add on’ to a current membership. We were able to add my parents onto our family membership for just $20 each. With a regular visit admission of $16, this was totally worth it for my parents. My father is retired so he has already joined us a couple times during weekday visits.

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My dad with the kids in Parakeet Landing, a really cool new exhibit this summer at Reptiland.

Whenever we are at a local attraction, I always check out the wall o’ brochures/flyers for other local businesses. These will sometimes contain a coupon. Even if it’s just $1 off regular admission, it’s worth asking the zoo if they will apply that towards your membership rate.

Call the zoo & ask if they ever offer discounts on memberships purchased at certain times of the year, perhaps before the holiday season. There might be an off-season discount, or partial year membership option. They also might partner with another local attraction to offer a membership bundle.

Tip #3: Cultivate lifelong learners & supports

My advanced degree is in Arts Administration, which is basically Non-Profit Arts Management. I worked in various Art Museums for 7 years before the kids, so I am a huge believer that museum donors & patrons are cultivated as children. (Did you know that zoos are museums? Yep, totally are.) I also believe that our children are important members of this family, and while they do not get a vote, exactly, in how we spend our money, I like to share with them how & why we make family decisions. I shared with Bryan that this membership was a special treat for us, but that we feel it is important to support local businesses and we appreciate the work that the zoo does to care for and protect their animals. Granted, he is 4 and probably wasn’t listening very well but I tried.

We talk about the zoo as a learning environment, not an ‘attraction’. Reptiland has some fun hands-on activities and a large dinosaur exhibit during the summer, so it can be easy for a kid to think that this is a ‘run around & look’ type place, rather than a ‘stop, look, listen, think & learn’ place. Yes, some days I use the zoo as an opportunity for the kids to run around and burn off some energy… but I really do hope that they both learn something new during each visit. I think this starts with how I talk about the zoo. On the drive-up I always ask Bryan “What animal do you want to learn something new about today?” and “What did you learn last time we went to Reptiland?” On the drive home I ask “What new things did you learn today about reptiles?” and “What reptile do you want to learn more about at home this week?” He is usually all fired-up after a visit and we will spend the rest of that day/week watching Youtube videos, looking up specific reptiles in his reference books and doing reptile art crafts.

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We made this picture of a scorpion after a visit to Reptiland. Bryan wanted to draw where a scorpion lives, what it eats (a fly) and what eats it (a snake).

While doing your membership research, consider other patronage opportunities, especially if you can afford to invest a little more. Your zoo may offer a variety of ‘Friends’ packages at various donation levels, which may include membership for your family, as well as other perks. If it had been within budget, we certainly would have enjoyed our zoo’s adopt-an-animal program.

Tip #4: Enjoy ALL of the perks of membership

We had our zoo membership for 3 months before I realized that they offer a discount in their store. Thankfully, we had not yet purchased very much in their store, so we probably only missed out on about $3 in discounts.. but still, that’s two cups of McDonalds coffee! (Yes, I love McDonalds coffee. More so than Dunkin. Please don’t unsubscribe me!) We look around the shop almost every time we visit and I take mental stock of the toys & books that Bryan whines asks for me to buy. Sometimes I even take photos (so my mommy brain doesn’t forget) and look the items up on Amazon, adding it to our Amazon wish list. I will keep these in mind for Christmas, birthday etc., but most of the time we leave empty handed. Usually, the zoo price (after discount) is comparable enough to the online price that I will purchase it from them to support locally. That’s my jam- supporting small businesses.

On visit #1 I found the most reasonably priced, “cheap” items in the store so I have a good option for those days when Bryan has been very well behaved, or I just don’t have the willpower to fight him on it. Our zoo has a whole rack of small booklets of activities, stickers and temporary tattoos for $1.50 a pop. Who doesn’t love a temporary tattoo?! Another great option would be small animal figures. If you know you will be visiting frequently, your child could pick out 1 animal each visit to slowly build a zoo collection of their own.

Chances are, your zoo offers some type of educational programming. Learn their class schedule. Our zoo has a Program Center where they offer daily live shows. Yes- up close & personal with live reptiles… even a real life dinosaur! (I won’t spoil the fun by explaining- it’s worth the giggles to be surprised!) Remind me to tell you later about the time the power went out during the Snakes Alive show. Did I mention that I am REALLY afraid of snakes?!

Our zoo also offers smaller ‘chats’ throughout the exhibits, such as a Croc Talk with Rocky & Adrienne, their resident American Alligators, and Dragon Talk, with their Komodo dragons. These are more intimate opportunities to learn about specific animals, and last about 10 minutes. Since morning is when it is most convenient for us to visit, we have been to the same programs quite a few times this summer but Bryan always asks to go back. The program is about 30 minutes long, so I imagine that my 4 year old picks up about 20% of what is shared in every class. Chances are he is still learning something new each time. I, however, am crossing my fingers for a new class line-up this Fall!

Here is a little tip, learn who the zookeepers are that offer the classes & programs. I am awful with names, but I try extra hard to learn the program instructors names. I always try to thank them after the class & share with the front desk staff what a great job they did. I figure that everyone loves it when their boss hears positive feedback about them at work. And this could totally be in my head, but I feel like the zookeepers are remembering us and giving us a little extra attention, such as giving us a few moments to take photos w/ the reptiles and answering our questions after the talks.

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These three zookeepers are seriously the bomb.com!

Tip #5: Pump up the learning

On visit #1, I tried to slow down the cyclone that is my oldest child by reading the didactic materials on the walls. (That’s a fancy word for signs.) On visit #2, we tried to follow the zoo’s scavenger hunt, but it seemed more appropriate for slightly older kiddos. On visit #3, I tried to impart some more knowledge on my child by bringing along some questions I could ask him about the different animals. That was mildly successful. I figure out then that Bryan would need something hands-on to help him learn more about the reptiles and to help ensure that I didn’t have to sprint at any time during our visit. I’m a very poor runner.

We’ve tried a couple different activities, but here are the ones that worked the best for us.

Where in the World are the Snakes? 

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Get the reference to ‘Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego’?? Am I dating myself??

This activity was super simple to do. I printed out this map of the world, attached it to a clipboard and grabbed a marker. Can’t get any easier than that! Bryan had been really into the snakes on our visit the previous week, so we had been watching YouTube videos & doing art crafts about snakes. As we visited each utterly terrifying snake window, we looked at the map on the wall panel to see where in the world that snake lives and Bryan colored that area on the map with his marker. I then wrote the snake name beside the location in case we wanted to know later what lived where. I liked this activity because it was easy, but also because it was an introduction to world geography. (And because our little neck of the woods didn’t appear on many of the snake maps.)

Scavenger Hunt

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These little Dover Activity Books are what I mentioned earlier & I picked them up in the zoo gift shop. We played a little scavenger hunt with these and they were perfect! Reptiles, stickers, scavenger hunt & learning- what more can a 4 year old ask for. Bryan would pick a sticker and then we would search around the zoo looking for that snake or reptile. Then, when we found it, he would place it on the correct page and I would read to him what it said. Easy, peasy.

Zookeeper Report

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I stepped up my game for this one, big time. Hand Computer-made by yours truly! Bryan & I learned a little bit about zookeepers and what they do to care for all the animals, including daily observations and recording information about the animals’ habits. I made this simple little chart so Bryan could pretend to be a Zookeeper for a day. (I made this report for the animals that we have at our local zoo, so you won’t find any elephants, lions or bears on it- just reptiles. You could very easily make something like this for the animals in your local zoo; I used Powerpoint.)

For each reptile he recorded if it was awake or sleeping, appeared to be happy or sad (because one of the primary goals of a zookeeper is to make sure the animals are happy, healthy & well cared for), if they were eating or ‘exercising’ (moving around), if they are a carnivore or herbivore (a little vocab lesson thrown in there), and if they live on land and/or in water. He really had a blast with this and it was a great exercise in using visual clues, as well as what he has learned over the summer.

You can download a PDF of this activity here: zookeeperactivity

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Tip#6: Sign-up for the zoo newsletter & social media

There may be perks of membership that aren’t specifically outlined in the member benefits, such as free admission to special events throughout the year. Just this week I received the zoo email newsletter which listed a totally cool Fall event that we do not want to miss- Flashlight Safari, their Halloween event for kids. In the fine print- you know, the tiny * at the bottom of the page- it said that zoo members can register in advance for FREE tickets. Sign us up!

I am seriously crossing my fingers that we will be able to attend (and able to afford) this years Croctoberfest event, which I actually learned about on Facebook.  Beer and crocodillians, perfect combo, right?! Be sure to ‘like’ your zoo on Facebook for special events, learning opportunities and notices (such as closure due to weather or power outages).

Tip #7: Pack a Picnic

I am a fan of picnic lunches just about anytime, anywhere. Not only is it a big money saver, but my kids prefer picnics over eating in restaurants. Bryan actually begs to not eat in restaurants. Definitely check on your zoo’s outside food policy, but whenever you can pack snacks, drinks and/or lunches yourself. Our zoo has a special picnic area, which we love, but if that isn’t available to you do a little research online, ask the zoo staff or take a little drive around to find a nearby park or rest stop to use as your picnic spot.  Really, any chunk of grass w/ a nice shade tree will do.

You will always have a better time if no one is hangry during your visit. Having drinks to keep cool (in the summer) and food to keep your bellies happy will allow you to spend a little more time at your zoo. Let’s face it, if you’ve loaded up the kids in car seats and made the drive,  you want to get the most out of it!

Tip #8: Visit at different times of the day & days of the week

One activity we really enjoy doing at home is looking at zoo webcams. (A post on our favorites is coming soon!) What I have learned from literally hours of cumulative zoo-cam-viewing is that different animals are active at different times of the day. To avoid only ever seeing sleeping or hiding animals, try visiting during different times of the day. Another perk for this is that you might get to catch the zookeepers feeding the animals or cleaning out the habits, depending on their schedule. We always aimed to be at Reptiland when they opened at 10am, leaving around 11 to make it home for lunch. One day we got there a little later than usual and got a chance to see some of the turtles and chameleons being fed their lunch. Another day we hit the jackpot and not only got to see the owner of the zoo, Clyde Peeling himself, giving a tour (and yes I followed around behind him in a completely ‘inconspicuous’ way), but we also got to watch a keeper clean out the Anaconda exhibit. That was truly interesting!

Tip #9: Enjoy your zoo rain or shine… or snow. 

Weather has been pretty cooperative thus far this summer, but I have plans to take full advantage of our membership year round. We are fortunate because most of our zoo is indoors, though you do need to walk outdoors between buildings, so a little rain/snow isn’t a deal-breaker. We had quite a bit of fun the one time it did rain during our visit; sometimes you just need to run & laugh in the rain! When weather isn’t ideal, you will likely find that you get the zoo mostly to yourself. Enjoy it! Take advantage of the lack of crowds, get front row seats to programs and let your kids ask whatever zanny questions pop up in their heads. Use the current weather as an opportunity to talk & learn more about the climates of the animals’ natural habitats, camouflage, hibernation and migration.

Tip #10: Try not to let your kid lick the exhibits

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Sorry Reptiland. I owe you a window cleaning.

I hope you found a few of these tips helpful! If you have any more tips to share, please do so in the comments below!

Grocery Budget Shakedown- Week #1

I have got to get our grocery budget in check. It’s like a mouthy threenager- it never does what I want it to & I’m usually too tired to stand my ground, so it always wins. I am smart, creative and frugal-minded (if not always actually frugal); I should totally be able to figure out how to feed my family for a heck of a lot less.

I read on a blog recently that the national average grocery budget is $100 per person per week. I tend to be inclined to reach for above average, but not in this case. Thus began the shame spiral. I am seriously worried that the days of a reasonable grocery budget are long gone for us.

Our current budget is $500/month, but I rarely come in on budget. Some months it’s closer to $600-$700, which is just crazy to me if I really think about it. We don’t purchase quality meat, in fact, my M.O. is to go to the store without a plan, see what meat has a peelie coupon on it (meaning it needs cooked or frozen in the next few days) and plan our dinners around my findings. We eat a lot of cheap, processed ‘food’.  We do go through quite a bit of fresh produce, but we aren’t usually brand specific when it comes to everything else and often buy store brand. I also shop monthly at our local ‘grocery outlet’, or as we like to call it, the dented can store.

So, all of these issues are clogging my brain- we are eating badly, we are spending too much money on that bad food we are eating and I want better for my family. However, while writing this post, I discovered that the $100 per person/per week figure it not actually accurate. According to the US Department of Agriculture the average family of 4 will spend $719.30 per monthly on groceries. AND THAT IS THE LOW-COST PLAN! The moderate food plan comes in at $890.80 and the liberal plan is $1102.50 per month. (These are stats from 2015.) I just don’t even know where to begin. Apparently, I can stop feeling bad about what we are spending, but perhaps I should feel worse about what we are eating?

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So, what is our problem? Unfortunately, I think the answer is me. I do the budget. I do the grocery shopping. I do quite a bit of the cooking, regretfully. As disappointed as I am to learn that the problem lies with me, at least I am something I can control.

I started following the blogger at Fun, Cheap or Free a couple months ago and at first I thought her budgeting system was waaay more complicated than it needed to be. She breaks her budget down weekly and money doesn’t transfer over from week to week. I believe my initial response went something like, ‘Well, if you have self control you can just have 1 pot of money for the month and make it work.’ Excuse me while I eat my words.

At the beginning of the month, I feel like I have 500 whole dollars and that is a LOT- I can totally do this! But after spending $150-$200 a week for the first few weeks, it runs out. Perhaps, just perhaps, I should give this weekly budget a try?

Let’s look back at the last few months of my grocery spending. This is easy to do because we have one credit card that we just use for groceries.

  • August- $622.06
  • July- $498.32
  • June- $506
  • May- $688.44
  • April- $489
  • March- $811.13 (Ekk! I have no clue why it skyrocketed this month!)
  • February- $534.69
  • January- $726.55  😦

Let me go on record by saying that this kind of personal information is not easy to share in a public forum, even if the only person reading is my mom. Hi Mom.

See, there is definite room for improvement here.

I realized that we pretty much keep a stocked fridge/freezer, pantry & upright freezer at all times. That is great, especially in times of zombie apocalypse, but I’m totally doing it wrong. Rather than buying an item to stock up when it’s at a ‘stock-up price’, I buy it when we run out. Was there a depression in the 80’s that I forgot about?? Because I’m clearly hoarding food for some reason.

I decided that first things first, I need a detox. For September & October I wanted to try to spend as little on groceries as possible. I’m shooting for $50 a week.  And I did good on week 1: $39.08! Whoop Whoop!

(Side Note: My monthly budget runs from the 15th-14th. When I was working full-time I got paid once a month & got pretty used to that system, so it sticks with us today.)

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I started by making a list of what meals I could prepare with what we already have in stock. Without going into the garage to check the upright freezer, where the vast majority of our meat is kept, I came up with a pretty solid list of 8 dishes! Apparently, I had accidentally begun meal planning.

Meal planning had never worked for us in the past. I would plan a solid week of meals… and then life would happen. We would have a bad day, or get invited to my parents for dinner, or I would realize I was missing a key ingredient, or I just wouldn’t feel like whatever I was planning on cooking, or we had too many leftovers that needed eaten, or …. excuses, excuses. Then meat would go bad & get tossed. I am not okay with wasted food! But since I was already half way there, I decided to give it a go. My meal plan for the week looked like this:

  • Monday- Leftover Pulled Pork & Cornbread; kids- hot dog/cornbread pancakes
  • Tuesday- Kielbasa, Potatoes & Onion
  • Wednesday- Bagel Sandwiches
  • Thursday- Soccer Night, Quick & Easy
  • Friday- Flex Night

Of course, on day #1 I was already off schedule. We had planned on having leftover pulled pork, but my parents took Bryan to a local event so I decided to swap with Tuesday & have kielbasa, potatoes & onions instead. Annie loves kielbasa, Bryan won’t eat it, so it just made sense. Not that I’m not already accused to preparing multiple meals every evening.

So day #2 was leftover pulled pork, except I didn’t realize that the hubs had taken the pulled pork to a buddies house Sunday night and the leftovers were no more. We settled on hodge-podge, which is basically when you take everything out of the fridge, heat it all up & graze.

Again, day #3 didn’t go as scheduled. When I was at the grocery store on Monday, I noticed that pork loins were $1.69/pound, which isn’t a bad price at all. I had Jon stop on his way home from work & pick up a 10 pound loin for $16.88. He cut it into chops & a roast, and grilled the chops for us Wednesday for dinner. We had 1 last zucchini hiding in the garden, so that was grilled up as well. Easy, delicious dinner!

I’m telling ya…. cheap meat may not be the best for you, but my husband can make ANY cut of meat taste delicious. Here in lies the dilemma.

Thursday was suppose to be soccer practice night, so I call it quick & easy night. My go-to’s on quick & easy night are hot dogs or, if I’m feeling spunky, I’ll run to Walmart after taking Bryan to preschool in the morning & look for ready-made meals with peelie coupons. I’ve found foot long subs and pre-packed salads for $1.99 each- can’t beat that! BUT, this month is special… because I am the proud recipient of a FREE bagel a day from Panera for the entire month of September!! We are on day 17 and I’ve gotten 13 free bagels thus far. I can’t pass this up! I collected my daily bagels for the week and we had bagel sandwiches.

And since I had done so spectacularly (sarcasm, folks) all week, I decided to just not make dinner for anyone at all on Friday. Bryan had a sleepover with his Pops and wanted to have a pizza party, so I picked up a large ready-made cheese pizza at our grocery store for $5.30 and stole a slice for myself and a slice for Annie. Wife of the Year over here has no clue what, or if, my husband ate last night. I didn’t hear his stomach growling in the middle of the night so I assume he found the leftover pork chops around midnight.

All-in-all… a valiant effort! Total spent on groceries for the week: $61.26 (including the pizza). Over budget, BUT we still have a pork roast left that will be smoked this weekend.

I am going to keep working on 1) using up food that we currently have, especially that really should be eaten soon. Time to cycle out the old, before bringing in the new. 2) keeping my weekly budget down as low as I can. 3) figuring out how a weekly meal might night actually work for me (IF it will work for me).

Cross your fingers for me for next week!