Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Family diet and family budget

As a larger family, our grocery budget can be a little intense, especially as we have really tried to cut the crap out of our diet. I've written before about how we cut out hydrogenated oils and aspartame ("The first step") and how we really try to eat at home ("Dinnertime"). Over two years has passed since I wrote those blog posts and I wanted to do a follow up. How are we doing now that we have two busy toddlers, a homeschooling preschooler, and another on the way? And, since I wrote those original posts, we've moved twice ("Across town move" and "PCS to South Carolina") and my hubby started power school--a lot has changed since we decided to undertake a new family diet!

I'm happy to report that our family diet is going even better than we had anticipated! Not only have we cut out hydrogenated oils and aspartame, but we've also cut out food coloring and fast food. We stick to foods that have ingredients we can pronounce or that we know the origin/purpose of. For the processed foods we buy, we try to stick to under 10 ingredients, preferably under 5, bonus points if they are made out of ingredients we have in our own pantry (take, for instance, Cape Cod chips).

Getting to this point has required a significant shift in how we do things. I pack a lunch or snack almost every time I leave the house with the boys. This has many added bonuses. My husband would say that first and foremost this saves us money. I'm not driving through Chick Fil A to pick up 3 kids meals at just over $3 each plus my meal, equaling about $20 for one meal that won't even be finished by the kids. I like it because I can control what is in the lunches I pack for our boys. I can also pack more of what I know they'll eat (fruits and veggies) and pick a protein I know they'll like more than chicken nuggets (like yogurt or peanut butter). It has been a shift because it does require preparation before we leave the house. If we are going to be out of the house for a longer amount of time, I need lunch and a snack. If I think we'll only be out of the house for a short while, but home for lunch, I often pack a snack anyways that keeps well (apple slices and string cheese with an ice pack). This works great because if it takes me longer than expected to get home, I have something on hand and I'm not tempted to drive through anywhere on our way home. Plus, when we do get home the boys have something on their tummies so they aren't fussing and whining while I pull together lunch. In my blog post "Toddler twin must haves (2yo to 3yo)," I list what we use to pack the boys' lunches and my favorite lunch pail to use for me and the boys.

Packing lunches has also required that we have more food on hand at home which means staying on top of our grocery shopping. I miss how convenient it was for us to do online grocery shopping at Harris Teeter in North Carolina, but we live here in South Carolina now and don't have that luxury close by. Instead I do the bulk of our shopping at Costco and a real life grocery store. That has been another big shift for us because the entire time we lived in North Carolina, I did the bulk of our shopping online. Suddenly I find myself in South Carolina with a preschooler and toddler twins and I'm figuring out how to make grocery shopping work with our hoard! We are in the groove of it now. (Though it has really made me appreciate the convenience of online grocery shopping and made me miss our old Harris Teeter even more.) To accommodate our family and cut down on the frequency of our grocery trips, the extra side-by-side fridge/freezer in our garage has really come in handy. With the aid of our extra fridge/freezer, I can pretty much limit our grocery shopping to every 2 weeks. That means that when we run to Costco, I buy the 7.5 dozen box of eggs, 3-4 gallons of milk, and 2-3 cartons of heavy cream every 2 weeks. I missed my last Costco run so my hubby actually had to pick up a carton of 18 eggs at the commissary and we have been rationing them over the past couple days. (Yes, eggs are our favorite protein!)

Costco is an integral part in our family grocery shopping. There are so many things that I buy there that would cost a fortune buying in smaller portions at a grocery store, even the commissary, such as nuts, dried fruits, tubs of yogurt (we buy the large tubs and then portion out from there), eggs, milk, butter, organic ground beef, fancy cheeses, and a lot of the fresh produce we buy there. I wrote before about how Costco has a lot of great organic options for a better price than grocery stores, but, even there, a lot of times I still can't squeeze it into our family budget (read "Organics vs family budget"). I've found that the longer we stick with our family diet, the more we have been able to make room for things, like insisting on real maple syrup and not table syrup (we buy Costco's organic maple syrup).
And to make more room in our family grocery budget, I've started making a lot more things from scratch. I thought that I made a lot of things before, but we've really started incorporating homemade items into our regular day to day family life. This has been a slow shift because it puts a lot more on my plate that I've had to make room for. Yet, it all fits in, especially since we are homeschooling. We are home and I can talk to the boys while I make granola bars or have them help cook, especially our oldest who is very interested in the happenings of our kitchen. My husband and I love that we are controlling what goes into our food. Some things I started making homemade out of necessity. The cost of granola bars was becoming a substantial portion of our grocery budget. Because we cut so much of the junk out of our family diet, buying granola bars that made the grade was a much larger expense. If you read the back of the boxes of granola bars, most of them are essentially candy bars. My husband loves to bring a granola bar in his lunch for power school and I love having them as snacks for our boys or myself when I'm feeling like I need a boost (oh, the joys of pregnancy!). The granola bar recipe I used to make granola bars for the kids wasn't filling enough for my hubby and Clif Bars were becoming too expensive. I found this Hearty, Homemade Granola Bar Recipe posted by Men's Health that I modify based on what is my cupboard, usually switching up what nuts I use or the dried fruits I mix in, which also gives them variety.
But I've taken over making a lot of things from scratch, like pasta sauce. I have a food processor that I love (shout out to Cuisinart!) and make the Best Marinara Sauce Yet courtesy of AllRecipes.com. I've also been making our pie crusts more and more instead of using the Trader Joe frozen pie crust like I did almost the entire first 2-years of our twins' lives. Putting that food processor to use again, I've loved Pam's Pie Crust from the Pioneer Woman. We also love the Pioneer Woman's Applesauce Recipe, another food processor favorite. My family is absolutely crazed for Alton Brown's "Instant" Pancake Mix Recipe. We've used a variety of mix-ins for the pancake mix; we'll never be buying pancake mix from the store again with a recipe that tasty (and easy)! The Pioneer Woman has so many amazing recipes on her website that whipping something up from scratch isn't intimidating anymore. For instance, this is one of my favorite oh-crap-it-is-dinnertime recipes, her Bowtie Chicken Alfredo. The other night I threw a couple frozen chicken breasts in warm water for a few minutes before dicing the mostly frozen breasts and tossing them in pan for that recipe--easy and homemade in under half an hour. I cannot recommend her cookbooks or her 16-minute meals tab on her blog enough. Her cookbooks are totally worth the money and her 16-minute meals tab is well worth the time to peruse. I own The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl and The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food from my Frontier. Tonight I made her Mini Meatball Sandwiches. However, I've made the recipe many times before and my pregnant self knew all I wanted was meatballs in sauce. I whipped up the meatballs in my Kitchen Aid mixer and made my marinara sauce in my food processor to pour over the top of them. We ate them with broccoli sprinkled with Parmesan. Hands down, my favorite Pioneer Woman recipe is her Comfort Meatballs. I don't know what it is about these meatballs that I just love.They really do just taste comforting. My husband's favorite recipe is her Chicken Pot Pie. We haven't bought store bought chicken pot pies or meatballs in over 3 years because of the Pioneer Woman.
We eat the majority of our meals at home. Much like packing lunches, this takes preparation as well. I freeze most of our meat. I stock up on meat at Costco and freeze it in portions that work for most of our recipes. It is so convenient having a well-stocked meat freezer. I can flip open my cookbook and decide what sounds good-- flank steak? pork chops? chicken? I try to cook portions that will last for a family dinner and lunch the next day, both for my husband and for myself and the kids. Right now for our family of five-- a 5-year old and 2 3-year olds-- that means cooking for 6-8 people. Because buying organic, free-range meat is so expensive, I try to do several meatless recipes a week or really cut down on the amount of meat in a recipe I cook. My family never notices when I almost cut the meat in half in a lot of our regular recipes. Another one of my favorite tricks from the Pioneer Woman is to cook a large portion of meat-- like a brisket-- and then break it up into several different dishes, like what she did on her "Bulk Buys" episode of The Pioneer Woman.
I also utilize tricks to make things quicker for me, especially breakfast. For instance, when we make pancakes, we make big batches that will have plenty of leftovers. The last batch of pancakes we made lasted us 2 days after we made them. I just microwaved pancakes in the morning. Most mornings we have eggs or oatmeal for breakfast. I make the eggs fresh each morning, throwing some toast in and giving the boys a banana while the eggs cook. Since we don't buy instant oatmeal, I give them a banana and a glass of milk while I cook their oatmeal. When I make oatmeal, I make a huge pot. I get the water boiling first thing when I wake up (well, second after my cup of coffee). I store the leftovers in a container in the fridge. The following mornings I scoop the boys' portions into their bowls, splash a little water on top, and microwave the bowls 1 or 2 at a time. I stir it up before mixing in their toppings. I either do a little sugar and milk or brown sugar and mashed banana. Sometimes I'll do strawberry spread with chopped nuts or granola on top. We also like doing "pizza toast." I toast some bread and spread yogurt on top. I chop up strawberries or bananas and lay them like "pepperonis" on the pizza. Sometimes I'll sprinkle some sort of spice on this, like ginger or cinnamon, or drizzle honey over the top. Sometimes I drop berries over the top of this. I buy the big tubs of plain Greek yogurt at Costco instead of individual cups; I use this for the yogurt I spread on their toast and to eat with mix-ins. Of all the fancy ways I mix up my yogurt, our kids prefer it drizzled with honey. And as much as they love fruit, they don't like when I drop fruit in their yogurt, just on the side of their bowls.
For us, eating healthy is not about a calorie count; it is about balance. We eat a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables. I use my Pampered Chef Apple Wedger almost everyday. We snack on fruits and veggies; we eat them raw with breakfast and lunch everyday. I actually cut them up for dinner a lot too, especially if the one dish meal I made isn't heavy in veggies. I care much more about the ingredients list than the calories to fat. We believe in moderation, portion size, and a healthy, active lifestyle. We spend a lot of time playing outside-- a lot of time. We like going to the park, taking walks, and playing around our house. When I say our family diet is much more a lifestyle, I really mean that it seeps into all aspects of our life. We don't believe in a life dependent on technology for ourselves or our kids (read "Toddler technology"). Our kids are often bored and we like it that way. Today while they were bored, our oldest took it upon himself to pull out our large coloring sheets and teach his brothers their colors. They spent 45 minutes coloring together and working together as a team; they also spent a large portion of the day playing on our back patio in costumes and doing various imaginative play throughout our house. We read them books-- real life, bound books. We try to make the best choices that we can for our family.
Part of that has also been shifting to making our household cleaners (read "Homemade household cleaners"). This has also been one of those decisions that has really been a blessing both to our lifestyle and our family budget. I love being able to mix up refill cleaners in my laundry room instead of having to make a trip to the store. I love that they are non-toxic. My husband absolutely loves how affordable they are. Our kids can help us clean house without worry about the chemicals they are handling.
We are really happy with the changes we have made as a family. When we first made this shift, I never would have believed all the things that slowly would have made their way onto my plate, like making household cleaners or all these different things from scratch all the time. There are other staples in our family diet that I would like to shift to homemade, like our bread. I have a bread maker, but every time I make bread in there, my son calls it "ugly bread." I think I may try having the bread maker knead it up and let it rise, then pour it into a bread pan and bake it in the oven. Maybe that will help make it more attractive. I'd love to get rid of store bought bread. We consume so much bread and there are so many ingredients in store bought bread that I would like to cut out.
Something that I touched on in my blog post "Organics vs family budget" is that sometimes what we want to buy doesn't always line up with what we can afford to buy each month. I feel that we are taking steps in the right direction and that we are much further towards that right direction than I would have expected us to be when we originally started down this path. I would love for us to buy all organic, free-range meat, but that doesn't mean that we can suddenly afford that. So we buy the next best thing. I would love if we could afford to buy all organic dairy products, but, man, we cannot afford that. I would love if we could afford organic eggs again, but we are buying the 7.5 dozen box practically every 2 weeks. We would either need to cut down drastically on our egg consumption or start a special egg savings account. I do my best to avoid GMOs, but, honestly, my attempt is spotty at best. I have found that trying to buy products with recognizable ingredients has cut out a lot of the red-flag GMO products (bye-bye processed cereal!).
When I look at where we are now compared with when I wrote my first blog post on our family diet in October 2011, it is night and day. In another 2 years, where will be then? My mom called me the other day and told me that someone gave her a bunch of eggs from the chickens they raise. She said it reminded her of me. I would seriously love if we had fresh eggs-- not sure how military housing at each of our duty stations would feel about us throwing a chicken coup out back. (Maybe when my hubby retires...) Tonight my hubby and I were looking up peanut butter recipes for our food processor. My love of cooking has grown. I love that my husband loves the granola bars I make him and that my kids get excited when I tell them what I'm making for dinner. I love when I've had a really stressful day and I make Clodagh McKenna's risotto to unwind. I cannot even begin to describe how much I love watching our oldest help his daddy make pancakes for breakfast; they are such an adorable pair! We absolutely love when our kids get excited over "real" food. We like the direction this is going in. We like the food we've been making. We like turning raw ingredients into something delicious and we love gathering together as a family to enjoy them. It was a scary first step to take, but we haven't ever looked back.
I do want to make a note here that we have made a very conscious effort to not be confrontational about any of our changes in our family diet. We never turn down what is offered us when we go to dinner somewhere. We do not judge other people's choices for their family diets. We do not expect our families to conform to our diet or buy anything special for us. We have eaten the candy given to us at holidays and never make it a big deal to our kids; we even have a sweets bin in our pantry. We have tried to be very practical about these changes. I wish that it was more mainstream to eat this way; I'm totally on board with Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution. But we understand that not everyone feels this way or eats this way and so we have been very careful and thoughtful in our friendships and day to day life to make sure we don't isolate people with our diet changes. I'm writing this blog post on something that has been a big shift for us as a family and how we made those steps.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Toddler twin must haves (2yo to 3yo)

Our toddlers are days away from turning three-years old which means it is time for another must-have list! :) What are the things that have made this past year with toddler twins just that much easier? I have found that as our twins get older, it is becoming much less about finding things that work for twins and more about finding things that work for having three children. Most of these things are applicable to making life easier with three young children, not twin specific.

Side note: I can't believe that my next must-have list will probably be for the youngest of four children-- newborn things again! This pregnancy is flying by; I'm already in the third trimester!

1. The Aqueduck Faucet Extender
Without the Aqueduck, reaching for the water flow
With the Aqueduck, standing flat footed on the stool
Not sure what the silly face is for, but using the Aqueduck

This is seriously a parenting must-have, twins or not. I can't believe I didn't own this when our oldest was small. This makes washing little hands so.much.easier, even with a stool boosting them up. The Aqueduck moves the water flow closer to them and is easy to take on and off, which is useful when you have guests using the bathroom or if you want to bring it with you on a family vacation. I know this will be coming on our next timeshare trip.

2. Lunch containers

All these are from-- where else?-- Target

I don't have a specific lunch container that I highly recommend... Instead, this is much more about just having a lunch container that suits your needs. I love how these lunch containers from Target don't have fancy lids to open or lots of compartments to keep clean. I can take the lids off and let the boys finish their picnic lunches in their carseats. They are small enough to easily fit in their laps and hold the perfect portions for our almost three-year olds and five-year old. We pack a lot of lunches and so having containers for each of them is very useful. I also have water bottles that I refill for them and bring with us. Again, I don't have a brand that I am in love with. I tend to prefer water bottles that don't have a lot of small parts and no valves. Easy to clean is a must!

3. Thirty-One Picnic Thermal Tote

I do have a lunch pail that I absolutely love for heading out with all four of us-- me and the boys-- and the times when my husband goes out with us too: the Thirty-One Picnic Thermal Tote. I love this lunch pail. It fits us perfect for our park trips, afternoons out running errands, and when I'm bringing snacks to our oldest son's little sports games. I use this thing almost every day. I can also fit my water bottle in here along with our lunches. This lunch pail is not too big and not too small. It is also soft so I can shove it underneath our stroller. The handle is adjustable so I can hang it over the handlebar of our stroller. I bought this lunch pail because I was out with one of my girlfriends and she had packed her lunch in it. I absolutely loved it and how well everything fit inside! I went home and told my Thirty-One consultant that I wanted one and promptly placed an order. :)

5. Croc-like shoes

Putting his Crocs on all by himself
Putting his Skechers on all by himself

I know what you are thinking: CROCS?! Yeah, Crocs. When you have three kids, it is really (really, really, really) annoying to help get three sets of shoes on six feet, tie six shoes, and then-- Lord forbid-- we go somewhere where they have to take their shoes off. Or their shoes get wet. So Crocs, or Croc like shoes, are just the ticket. The little boys can put their Crocs on and off by themselves. If they get wet while we are out, they dry quickly, unlike canvas sneakers. They breathe. They work like flip flops and protect their toes like sneakers. When we go to the spray park, they can wear their Crocs in the sprinklers. I let the Crocs dry and then they wear their Crocs over to the playground. Love a multi-purpose shoe! Their feet have grown again and it was time to buy shoes for this summer. A friend tipped me off to the Skechers Boy's Guzman Seeperz. They have all the convenience of Crocs without that oh-so-stylish Crocs look. I loved the price tag-- I bought all 3 boys a pair at the outlet mall for just under $50 compared to one pair of Crocs at $29.99-- but for our oldest they have been a little disappointing. The shoes are still intact, but the white on the toes start chipping almost the same day we brought them home. Little kids are quite hard on play shoes, although they haven't chipped near so bad for our toddlers.

6. Baby-sitter

In my blog post "0-2 year old twin must-haves," I said drop-in childcare and a baby-sitter were a must. Sadly we have moved from North Carolina to South Carolina and we no longer have a drop-in childcare place (believe me-- I have looked!). Being a military family, we move a lot. We are probably only going to be living in South Carolina for another year. When our oldest was a baby, I never had a baby-sitter I hired. I never even looked. I would ask my girlfriends in the FRG or I would reschedule whatever I had planned. My husband was always underway or working. I had a sling and our son went everywhere that I went. Having three kids with a fourth on the way changes that a little bit... I kind of need a baby-sitter for a lot of things, like my OBGyn has a no kids in the exam room policy. Actually, my last OBGyn had that policy when I was pregnant with our twins, but it was much easier to drag one fairly well-behaved toddler with me than a preschooler and two toddlers-- it's slightly more distracting. Also, with three kids and our fourth on the way, we like getting out every now and then. My hubby and I want to use a baby-sitter to go birthday shopping for our toddlers. Not a very fancy date, but it sure is nice to get out without three kids in tow and chat as a couple. With a busy family, it is good for our marriage to take advantage of those little opportunities to get out by ourselves.

I know what a lot of my military wife readers are thinking, "But where do I find a baby-sitter?!" I don't really know. One of my best friends has found their baby-sitters (2 different duty stations) on sittercity.com. It is free for military families: Sittercity Military Program. My sister has even used a baby-sitting site like that, for her daughter and also to find a pet sitter for her cat. One of my really good girlfriends used to baby-sit for those sites before she had kids; I would definitely hire her to watch my kids (and I often do abandon my kids at her house-- haha!). I didn't have good luck finding a sitter on those sites when we first moved here. I get really nervous leaving our asthmatic toddler with people I don't know. I'm going to have to give them a try again when we move next time; I don't know if we'll move somewhere with such an awesome neighborhood as we have here. I found our current sitter by word of mouth from my neighbors. I do know that I didn't just have a baby-sitter fall into our lap when we moved to South Carolina, away from our awesome baby-sitters in North Carolina. We found our baby-sitter here by asking people about baby-sitters. I messaged people. I posted jobs on baby-sitting sites. I met up with people. I actively searched for a baby-sitter and, after a couple weeks, I found the perfect match for us-- a fabulous Navy wife who also happens to have asthma (makes me much happier finding someone who understands asthma to watch our boys!). It takes patience. It is hard as a military family, moving to a new state and finding someone you trust to watch your kids, especially when you don't know anyone. Give it time. Keep looking. It can happen!

7. Our Baby Jogger City Select with a Second Seat

Well, you knew this would make the list. Read my previous blog posts about it here:
Most of the time, now, I only put one seat in the stroller. There are still times when I put in both seats. Yesterday at the park I put in both seats because the boys played at the playground for an hour or two, ate lunch, and then played at the splash pad for another hour or two. I was very worried they would be tired on the way back to the car and wanted the toddlers to have somewhere to sit (at 28 weeks pregnant carrying two toddlers and all our gear isn't an option for me). A lot of times when I only have one seat in, one toddler will sit in the seat and the other toddler will sit on the foot rest. Not the best picture, but here is a picture of them doing that when we looked at Christmas lights this past December:

I put one seat in most of the time because only one of our toddlers really ever wants to ride in the stroller anymore. The other prefers walking. When baby #4 comes along, I'm going to put our glider board back on our stroller. That way I will have the glider board for one toddler, a seat for the other toddler, and the infant car seat adapter for baby #4. For times when we are going to the park and hanging out for a long period of time, I love having the stroller with me to help carry all our stuff.

8. Responsibility

This is the age where our toddlers want to help with e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. They want to help unload the dishwasher, clean the bathtub, fold the laundry, pick up toys, carry in the groceries... but they don't really want to follow through with all of it or do any of it exceptionally well (well, the way I would do it if I didn't have "help"). Today when I cleaned the bathtub, I let one of our toddlers help me scrub. No need to worry; I used baking soda to clean the tub so it was entirely safe. I just gave him an extra scrub brush. (Read "Homemade household cleaners.") In my blog post "Domestic goddess," I talk about our cleaning schedule. They love helping me clean. I give them rags to dust with and dole out small tasks for them to help with. Today I gave one of our toddlers one piece of laundry at a time to put in the laundry hamper as I folded clothes. I like encouraging them to help because I've seen how awesome it can be-- our five-year old is an exceptionally good help. He's even started washing dishes lately! Yeah, awesome help. Encourage it while they are interested. :)

The other thing they love is having little things that they can do by themselves. Our boys love coloring. I put the crayons and the paper on a shelf that they can reach. This took time-- we didn't start out with the crayons within reach. They have learned that if they want the privilege of using the crayons whenever they want to, they need to use them at the table. They feel like big kids getting the crayons out whenever the urge to color strikes them. Having these little independent activities that they can do by themselves helps them start understanding responsibility and following instructions. These types of things are much easier when you are delegating to the youngest age. When we had these types of responsibilities for our oldest and our twins were around 18-months, we had to set him up in an area that wasn't accessible to his younger brothers who were not old enough to understand what he was doing and why they couldn't participate. Now that they are almost three, they understand when we tell them that their older brother is working in the office and they need to stay out. We can usually distract them with an activity of their own at the kitchen table. We have designated areas for all these types of activities/responsibilities. Our office is transitioned to a K'Nex/Lego workspace for our oldest (right now my hubby and our five-year old are building a 3D Star Wars puzzle in there). Most of our toddlers' activities are at the kitchen table so we can keep a close eye on them and make sure they get properly cleaned up when they are finished.

9. Oliver's Labels Safety Wristbands

This one is identical twin specific. We bought these wristbands when our twins were born. They were much too big for newborns, but we started using them after we found our first baby-sitters in North Carolina, before our sitters could tell our identical twins apart, or when we would drop them off in a childcare situation (drop-in childcare, church nursery, etc.). These are very useful when we have new baby-sitters (our new baby-sitter here in South Carolina now can tell our boys apart) or when we have friends/neighbors watching the boys. Now that we've been making all new friends, these have been quite useful again, especially since our toddlers don't like being called by the wrong name. "That not me! That my brother!" These are also super handy when you have a lot of extended family visiting or out of town guests that aren't used to interacting with your twins. Our boys have such different personalities (and look different now that they are toddlers and not newborns) that it only takes people a little while to identify them. As I said, we bought each of our boys a pack when they were born. They are turning three in a few days and we are still using the same pack. When we had family in town for a couple days, I usually just kept the same wristband on them the whole weekend. These wristbands are very durable and did well through bath times and daily wear and tear for those long weekends.

(I am avoiding saying "knowing who is who" because I seriously do hate the "who is who" game. Read my blog post "Identical brothers.")

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Homemade household cleaners

I love vinegar water. My mom used it as a cleaner when we were growing up and so the smell brings back memories of my childhood home. I've always kept a spray bottle of vinegar water in our home. I have used it for a bunch of small cleaning tasks, but it hasn't been until our most recent move that I have started using it for all my cleaning needs. (Probably because up until we moved to South Carolina I had a housekeeper... read "Domestic goddess"). I want to say what prompted our shift to vinegar water is how environmentally friendly it is, but that's not true. What prompted the switch is how easy it is to make and how inexpensive it is.

What kind of cleaning products did I used to use? I used to use the Swiffer Wet Jet, but you have to buy the Swiffer Wet Jet Cleaner Refills and the Swiffer Wet Jet Spray Mop Cleaner Pad Refills, not to mention have the Swiffer Wet Jet Mop. I also had the Swiffer Dust Mop (needs the Swiffer Sweeper Dry Sweeping Cloths). We had the Swiffer Duster (needs the Swiffer Duster Refills) and the Clorox Toilet Wand with Storage Caddy (needs the Clorox Toilet Wand Refills). Plus we relied a lot on Clorox Disinfecting Wipes. The most offensive of all these cleaners (save for the waste from all these other cleaners) was my Clorox Bleach. We had these cleaners as well: Clorox Anywhere Hard Surface Cleaner, Soft Scrub, and Windex.

When we moved to South Carolina and I started doing all our house cleaning, I couldn't believe how much waste was leaving our house each week. I switched from all the Swiffer products to the O Cedar ProMist System, using vinegar water as the cleaning solution. I also bought the O Cedar Dual Action Dust Mop. I bought these at Target and picked up a couple extra cleaning cloths for them at the same time-- no throwing out, just wash and reuse. I switched from all the other cleaners to Method cleaners.

I still felt like I had a lot of waste and chemicals. Our toddlers are at the age where they want to "help" with everything and imitate everything they see Momma doing. Childproof locks and off-limit areas don't always prevent them from finding cleaners that should be well out of their reach. So I threw out almost all our harsh chemicals and switched almost exclusively to vinegar water. I kept some Method cleaners and put them in a box up on a high shelf in our laundry room. But there were cleaners I just couldn't bear to part with: our Clorox Toilet Wands and my Clorox Bleach.

Switching to vinegar water prompted a huge shift in our thinking. I buy a ginormous jug of distilled vinegar and mix this with water in a spray bottle. I use the vinegar water to clean our bathrooms (including the shower and outside of the toilet), the kitchen, our floors, our highchairs, and for detailing our vehicle (car seat buckles, car toys, center consoles, cup holders-- not the leather or our WeatherTech Floor Mats). I even use it as a dusting solution: spray a little on a dust cloth and send my toddlers to work dusting our house. I love that I can leave this cleaner under our kitchen sink and bathroom sinks with no worries. Not that I want our toddlers wandering around our house spraying everything down with vinegar water, but it can't hurt them! Even better, I never run out. Spray bottle empty? Grab one of my giant jugs of vinegar and fill it up right then and there. I love that convenience. No more shopping lists with dust mop refills, Clorox Wipes, on and on and on. No more gearing myself up for a cleaning day only to find out that I am out of bathroom cleaner.

(Don't care for the scent of vinegar? Try My Merry Messy Life's recipe for Homemade Citrus-Infused Vinegar.)

I started thinking about how wonderful it would be for all our household cleaners to be this convenient. What if I could mix up laundry detergent whenever I ran out? What if I could make our own hand soap refills? What if whenever I ran out of something, I just needed to make a quick trip to our laundry room to whip up a new batch? Also, what if all these cleaners were environmentally friendly and non-toxic? What if I started saving money doing all this? I spent a lot of time Googling. I didn't want to switch from my beloved Tide Pods to something equally as horrible for the environment and my kids (OxiClean). I wanted to find ingredients I could use across the board for my cleaners.

Then I stumbled across my new favorite blog: "My Merry Messy Life," specifically her Green and Natural Cleaning Recipes and Buying Guide. Yesterday my husband and I started buying our materials for making our own household cleaners.

Whole Foods
Dr. Bronner's Organic Castile Soap Citrus Orange, 32 oz. $15.99
Dr. Bronner's Organic Castile Soap Lavender, 32 oz. $15.99
Dr. Bronner's Organic Castile Soap Peppermint, 32 oz. $9.99 (on sale)
Now Essential Oils Lemongrass, 1 oz. $6.99
Now Essential Oils Lavender, 1 oz. $11.99
Total: $63.95

Ace Hardware
20 Mule Team Borax, 76 oz. $5.49
Total: $9.78

Total: $11.97

Now Essential Oils Tea Tree Oil, 4 oz. $18.00
Toilet brush with holder $12.00
Glycerin Vegetable Kosher, 32 oz. $13.47
Total: $59.72

Hydrogen Peroxide, 64 oz. $1.99

Grand Total: $215.68

Lowe's does not carry Super Washing Soda or Borax, but the gal at Whole Foods recommended we try Ace Hardware (where she said they for sure carried it) or Wal Mart (where she thought they might carry it). We went with Ace Hardware where we could for sure buy it. We then went to Target; they carried Borax for about $1.50 less than Ace Hardware but didn't have Super Washing Soda. My husband feels Wal Mart probably carries both for less. Also, some of the ingredients that we bought in store are less expensive on Amazon. We wanted to make everything today, so we went with the in-store option, but next time I buy I will make sure to go with the less expensive option. The reason I bought 3 different kinds of Dr. Bronner's Organic Castile Soap is to give myself some variety when making my various cleaners, same with the lavender and lemongrass essential oils. The tea tree oil was purchased for its antibacterial properties.

What are we making with these ingredients?

All these recipes are from My Merry Messy Life:
I am really excited about her uses for hydrogen peroxide. I cannot wait to get rid of our bleach. And our Clorox Toilet Wands. We have already phased out our Clorox Wipes. I use a rag sprayed with vinegar water instead and haven't looked back. Maybe one day I will make Homemade Reusable Disinfecting Wipes, but for now our system is working great. The only cleaner I haven't been able to replace yet is Windex. The Method window cleaner is streaky-- not too bad for bathroom mirrors but horrible for the windshields in our vehicles.

My husband is super excited about the economics of switching to our own homemade cleaners. Yes, we spent all this money up front, but to make the homemade laundry detergent I used 1/2 cup of the Borax, 1/2 cup of the Super Washing Soda, 3/4 cup of the lavender Dr. Bronner's Organic Castile Soap, and a little over 20 drops from the lavender essential oil. I hardly put a dent in our supplies and it made 2 gallons of laundry detergent! If you read My Merry Messy Life's posts with the recipes, she includes the math of how much it cost her per ounce to make and how much it costs per ounce to buy the conventional products. Also, all the ingredients we bought are used in all these other recipes. While my husband keeps a close eye on the bottom line for our family budget, I focus on convenience. Being pregnant with our fourth and a stay-at-home homeschooling mom, I like when things are easy. It took roughly 10 minutes from start to finish to make the laundry detergent; how much easier can it get? I can tell you that was 100% easier than dragging all the kids to Costco! For once, my husband and I are in firm agreement on something-- homemade is the way to go for us! :)

The last point that my husband and I love about all these homemade cleaners is that they are non-toxic. While, thankfully, our children have never eaten anything life threatening, we have needed to call poison control several times in our 5-years of parenting. It is such a comfort to know that we have safe products in our home, the reason why my mom used vinegar water as my siblings and I grew up. I know that Borax raises eyebrows on the "green" blogs, but I have done some reading and for now we are using it. I like that My Messy Life includes links for more information on Borax and I also found this blog post helpful when making our decision: Crunchy Betty's post, "Getting to the Bottom of Borax: Is it Safe or Not?" Of course there is a lot you can read Googling the topic, but I found those 2 posts to be very informative.


I have been getting a lot of questions about our homemade household cleaners. Here are a few:

1. What do you do about the vinegar smell?

First of all, the vinegar smell doesn't bother me, at all. I don't really measure the vinegar and water when mixing it into a spray pump or our floor mop. For the spray mop, I do put in more vinegar than for just our everyday spray pump (read the above post to find out what I use the vinegar water to clean). I find the vinegar smell dissipates quickly and, as I said, it doesn't bother me.

If it bothers you, check out these recipes for citrus smelling vinegar: My Merry Messy Life's Homemade Citrus Infused Vinegar or The Busy Mom's Homemade All-Purpose Citrus Spray.

2. I like the idea of making my own non-toxic, biodegradable cleaners, but do they actually, you know, clean?

Short answer: yes, they do. I would suggest researching some of the properties you are unsure of, like vinegar, baking soda, super washing soda, citric acid, or borax. My Merry Messy Life has really turned me on to Dr. Bronner's Organic Castile Soap. Our homemade foaming handsoap is way better than the store bought foaming handsoap refills. I have very dry skin (genetics and washing my hands all the time with potty training twins!) and the homemade foaming handsoap is so moisturizing!

3. Okay, but what about the laundry detergent? How does that clean?

My Merry Messy Life's laundry detergent recommends 1/3 cup detergent per load. I have been using:
  • a little less than 1/3 on very small loads
  • 1/3 cup on small/normal loads
  • a heavy 1/3 cup on normal loads
  • a really heavy 1/3 cup for large/normal loads
  • 2/3 cup on large loads.
When I was shopping for ingredients, the gal at Whole Foods told me that many of her homemade laundry detergents made her clothes dingy. I have had a similar experience with previously sampled homemade laundry detergents and store bought biodegradable detergents, so I upped the borax in my detergent (heavy 1/2 cup compared to the 1/2 cup called for in the recipe). I've also been careful to separate our laundry into brights (color), whites, and darks; washing like colors together has really been working. I've also been much more proactive about stains, rinsing them out when the boys take their clothes off to change into pajamas and not letting dirty clothes sit in the hamper. Big changes around here! I've actually been staying on top of our laundry. ;)

As a former Tide Pod user, I have not noticed a difference between our laundry washed with Tide Pods and our laundry washed with our homemade cleaners and neither has my husband.

4. How long does it take to make your own detergent and cleaning products? I don't think I would be able to stay on top of that.

I'm a homeschooling stay-at-home mother to a preschooler and toddler twins with our fourth baby on the way, not to mention a Navy wife. I thrive on convenient. The detergent seriously took 10 minutes start to finish, including set up and clean up. Making vinegar water requires popping open my jug of vinegar, pouring it into my spray bottle or floor mop, and pouring water on top. I have a funnel for making the other cleaners and all my cleaning materials are kept in the same bin in my laundry room. I grab my Pyrex mixing cup, my funnel, and whip up my next batch. Sound easy? It is. If you compare it to a shopping trip with kids, it is almost perfect (it would be even better if magic cleaning elves popped out of the homemade cleaners and did the actual cleaning!).

5. How much did all this cost?

I love that on all the homemade cleaner recipes My Merry Messy Life includes a price breakdown when comparing her formerly used store bought cleaning products with her homemade cleaning products. Check out her price breakdowns! We essentially started from scratch when we started making our own cleaning products. I had to buy a toilet brush because I didn't own one; we had always used Clorox Toilet Wands. I also bought gallon jugs to hold our detergent since we only used Tide Pods before. I think My Merry Messy Life reuses her old laundry detergent jugs. We have hardly put a dent in the supplies I listed in the above blog post.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Mom to all boys

I've refrained from writing a post about what it is like being a mom to boys, but I suppose with our fourth boy on the way, it is long overdue. I love being the mother to my children and I love my children with all my heart. Right now, I view them as my children. Yes, I call them "boys" when I am addressing them or talking about them, "Boys, we need to take turns," "Boys, you did a great job following instructions at the doctor's office," "Boys, it is time to go!" "I was out today with our boys..." But I do not-- ever-- use it to corner them into a gender role. "Son, you need to toughen up," "Son, you need to stop crying like a girl," or, my absolute least favorite expression ever, "Boys will be boys."

Why does it bother me so much hearing "boys will be boys?" Because, in my experience, people do not use that expression in regards to positive behavior demonstrated by my children. When one of our toddlers steals a toy from the other toddler and he lashes out in anger, ending up with both toddlers hanging on to either end of a toy and screaming, I hear, "Oh, boys will be boys!"

When I am out shopping at Target and our children throw a fit wanting to go down the Matchbox car aisle, screaming over some toy they recently saw advertised on television, I hear, "Boys will be boys!" chuckled by some stranger walking by.

When one of our children dressed head to toe in a pirate outfit picks up a stick that he then labels a sword and begins hitting his brother with it, I hear, "Boys will be boys!"

It makes me mad. We have had many playdates where little girls wrestled for a toy with one of our boys. I've seen many little girls throwing fits in the toy department at Target. Our boys have been hit, kicked, and bitten on many playdates with little girls (and before any one says biting is only done by girls, our oldest was attacked by a male preschooler dubbed a "biter" at our drop-in childcare and we've had many biting incidents between all of our boys).

I'm not in denial that little boys and little girls develop differently-- mentally or physically. I'm not saying they don't have different interests. Our little boys all have baby dolls and babies that they take care of but these baby dolls often become equipped with super powers or become weapons to hit each  other with. One of our toddlers has a baby dinosaur that has always remained a baby-- he gets very upset if you are rough with his baby dinosaur-- but if you pet it, he will make it bite you and roar a fierce roar. Even that baby has a wild streak. Maybe little girls play this way. I don't know, having never raised little girls, but I remember being a little girl and remember all the games we used to play with our baby dolls. Some games were wild and crazy, some were sweet and maternal. I feel our boys play similarly. I hear them in there feeding and napping baby dolls. I hear their baby dolls fighting super villains. It all depends on the game they are playing.

There are things that frustrate me when shopping at big box stores being a mom of boys. It is really hard to find a gender neutral doll stroller or baby doll carrier. All our boys have asked for one at one point or another and I can't bring myself to buy the hot pink doll strollers. Why do all the doll strollers have to scream "THIS IS FOR A GIRL"? Our oldest is old enough to know that these types of toys were marketed for girls. Play kitchens are another thing that are hard to get gender neutral. There are a lot of pink play kitchens out there (play kitchens at Toys'R'Us). You can find several online, but, in stores, the gender neutral kitchens tend to cost more than the pink ones every store carries. (We ended up buying the Fisher Price Servin' Surprises Kitchen and Table and have loved it.) Funny since being a chef is such a male dominated profession... Our boys love Doc McStuffins. Have you looked at her retail products (Doc McStuffins at the Disney Store)? I get she's targeted towards little girls pursuing their dreams and not being restrained in another male dominated field, but it is a lot easier, again, to buy pink doctor's kits than gender neutral or boy doctor's kits (doctor's kits at Toys'R'Us). I wish I could buy these things more easily and so it would be less of a statement. No one questions our Fisher Price kitchen, but they feel I'm making radical parenting decisions when they see our toddler carrying around his "Disney book," a Disney princess notepad he insists on bringing everywhere and "reading."

Even more offensive to me are the "funny" t-shirts geared towards little boys. I saw a blue onesie at a Party City that said, "Hide your daughters" or "Lock up your daughters." Really? That's appropriate for an infant? We even own several well-meaning boys' shirts, "Tough like Dad" or the Osh Kosh graphic t-shirts. Not saying those shirts are bad, but they further promote the gender stereotype that because you are a boy you are automatically this rough and tumble dirt magnet.

I don't believe in the extreme, like keeping a child's gender hidden (read about the Canadian couple who did just that). I've also heard of families that believe in allowing their children to choose any clothes and toys they like. For instance, taking their son shopping and allowing him to wander the girls' and boys' department picking out things he likes, regardless of the gender it is marketed for. Our boys threw a huge fit when we bought them blue boat shoes instead of the pink sequined boat shoes. While I am not going to buy our two-year old sons pink sequined boat shoes based on their whim, I also don't believe gender shaming is the correct way to explain my reasoning, such as, "You are a boy. You don't wear pink GIRL shoes!" We simply told them we had picked out which shoes we were buying. And, no, we haven't bought our boys Barbie dolls or anything along those lines, though we have bought them boy Manhattan Toy Baby Stella Dolls.

We have had many playdates with many boys and girls. I have heard from many mothers of girls, "Your boys are so well-behaved! We have playdates with other boys and they spend the whole time running and hitting." I'm not saying our boys don't run and hit and the mothers of girls aren't saying their girls don't ever run and hit, but-- I've seen it too-- many mothers of boys don't discourage this behavior. Why is it acceptable for your children to play tag or sword fight in someone else's home? Why is it acceptable for your children to wrestle in someone else's living room? We've had little girls sprint into our house and start jumping on our couch for their mothers to come in and tell them they needed to get down. We've had little boys sprint into our house and start jumping on our couch for their mothers to shrug and say, "Boys will be boys!" My couch doesn't distinguish between a little girl or a little boy jumping across it wearing shoes. It bothers me, from the stand point of a grown woman living in this male dominated world, that even from the beginning we as women are allowing our boys a pass on good behavior due to their gender. "Don't worry about being polite in someone else's home. You are a boy and can behave how you feel in the moment."

It makes me cringe when people tell me, "You are lucky you are only going to have boys. You won't have to go through [x, y, and z of female behavior]." Good Lord, if my parents ever told me those words while I was growing up, who would I be today? Would I feel that I have the freedom to make choices that suit our family? Would I have the confidence to put my career goals on hold for the time being to support my husband at this point in his career? Would I have the patience to spend these years working in our home, homeschooling our boys and raising them to be young men after God's heart? Would I be able to hold my own at dinner parties when I hear educated women pursuing their careers brush me off when they find out I'm a stay-at-home mother? Would I know in my heart the importance of continuing my education as a I balance family life and my own dreams? Would I continue to write day after day, read as often as I do, discuss my own hopes and dreams with my children*, their daddy's hopes and dreams, and encourage them to discuss and pursue their own hopes and dreams? Would I believe-- really and truly-- that one person can make a difference in this world? I don't know. Thankfully my parents never said those things to me and my sisters. They never made us feel lesser as females. They never made us feel like we couldn't or shouldn't or will never. They never made us feel there is one path we must walk down. They encouraged our individuality. We all rebelled in our own ways and they stuck by us throughout and encouraged us to learn from our mistakes, to discuss what we learned, to embrace ourselves for who we are as individuals-- not for gender stereotypes.

(*Note: I discuss my hopes and dreams with my husband and he with me. We feel it is also important for our children to see their parents pursuing their goals and supporting each other in that.)

And, yes, I believe men grow up and generally interact differently with their parents than women do, especially in regards to the mother/daughter relationship. Every day as I parent my children I understand more and more what it was like for my mother raising the four of us. Every day I am more and more thankful for her love, sacrifice, patience, and the lessons and morals she instilled in us. I find myself often looking back to my own childhood for guidance when faced with a difficult parenting dilemma. I'm quick to tell my children I'm sorry. I'm quick to hug them when they have made a mistake and I listen when they explain to me what they did wrong and the lessons they feel they learned from that mistake. I make the time to listen to them. I am joyful in my relationship with them. Some days are never ending and emotionally/physically exhausting, but I put in the hard work with my eye on the end goal: the example given to me from my own parents. I see the people my parents raised and want to walk down that road, sometimes taking the lessons I learned from them and applying them in a way that works better for our own family situation. And I do mourn that I will never have the relationship that I have with my own mother (read "Four boys"), but I know that one day my sons will have spouses or partners that will become family to us, just as my husband and my brother-in-law have become family to us. (I could have that mother/daughter relationship with my daughter-in-law!)

We want our boys to have the confidence to become the men that God desires them to be. We want our boys to have the self-assurance to take the hard road, the less traveled road, the road that is right for them. We want our boys to know that their parents support them 100%, no matter what, that wherever life takes them we are at home with arms wide open. We want our boys to grow up with dreams, reachable and unreachable, and a list of goals they are constantly adding to. We want them to be passionate about life and sure of what they believe in. We want them to grow up with a strong support system at home, from their parents and from their siblings. We want them to feel God's presence in their lives. We want them to know that their parents are not perfect, but constantly humbling themselves before God to be the parents he wants us to be to each of our children, striving for what is best for our children-- not the easiest or the most popular, and showing them love every day in all things. Right now our boys are young. Our oldest is 5 and a half years old. Our twin toddlers are going to be 3 in a few short weeks. Our fourth is due early this summer. I know our focus on parenting is much different than a parent of even middle-schoolers; I'm sure our priorities will shift as they grow, becoming adolescent boys. Our focus right now is about our letting our children be children. We want to give them the space and time to be bored and explore their creativity. We want to nurture creative play and pretend play. We want them to be active. We want to cheer for them (read "Marthas and Marys"). We want them to learn manners and how to function in society.

I love Rage Against the Minivan's recent post, "I don't want to #banbossy. But I will #affirmassertive." To her post I say yes, yes, yes! As a woman, I feel it is important for our boys to grow up learning to respect all people for who they are as individuals and not treating someone differently based on their gender, just as we don't treat anyone differently based on their race. I hear a lot of words thrown around at infants, toddlers, and preschoolers based solely on their gender (by women, no less!), "We were late because Miss Priss couldn't find the perfect pair of shoes and threw a diva fit. The female hormones start early! You are lucky to have all boys." "Girls and boys are so different; you don't even know. He was such a good baby. You are lucky to have all boys because she's been demanding since she was a newborn." "She is such a little momma, always wanting to play with the new baby, but he doesn't even notice the baby. He's too busy being all boy." I know these mommas don't mean anything hurtful by these comments, but our boys have ears (and their boys have ears). To the moms with two children, a girl and a boy, I would like to say that all three of our boys have different personalities and have been easier/harder than each other at various points (teething, nap schedule, bathtime, feeding, etc), and all of them are the same gender. Our boys are sensitive and assertive in various areas; they all have different strengths and weaknesses. One will cry when he feels embarrassed or shy. One will cry (and cry and cry and cry) if he sees a bruise or a single drop of blood anywhere on his body. One throws a fit if his hands or clothes are dirty. One can play outside for hours. One can cuddle with you for hours. One wants to hold your hand if he feels scared. One wants to hold his brother's hand if he feels scared. One will change his clothes 3 or 4 times a day, putting on a new outfit for each activity he is doing. One will wear the same outfit day after day unless we make him change. One loves rainboots and wears them with everything. One loves all shoes and tries raiding my closet, his dad's closet, and both his brothers' closets for shoes. One hates bathing. One loves bathing. One only wants to take showers. They are different. They are different people with different tastes. They may all like something. They may all dislike something. But it is not just because they are boys. And we would really like for our boys to have interactions with other children who are treated as individuals as well, not hear how their little friend is bossy because she is a girl or that it is okay to throw sand in someone's face because he is a boy.

So if you have a friend who is pregnant with her second boy or fourth boy, tell her, "Congratulations!" (and maybe read this blog post by Scary Mommy, "Things Not to Say to a Mom Expecting Another Boy"). When you have a playdate with a mom of all boys, don't say "Boys will be boys" or "He is all boy, isn't he?" Tell her, "It is fun getting our kids together!" Don't talk down your little girls to our little boys or excuse our boys' behavior with their gender. If you have a house rule that you have playdates follow, you can gently tell the mom, "Would you mind asking them not to sword fight in here? They could take that in the backyard or playroom though!"

Maybe I'm overzealous on this subject. I don't want our twins defined by their birth either (read "Identical brothers") and I love when all moms support each other, whether it is a mom of one or a mom of multiples (read "We are moms"). As the mother to these boys-- these three, almost four, people-- that God has given my husband and I, I am confident we are doing what is best for us, which, really is what parenting is all about.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Homeschooling 5-year old preschool

The year is not over yet, but I have loved homeschooling 5-year old preschool. Yesterday I worked on our curriculum for kindergarten and I'm even more excited for next year. We kept D back a year (a fellow homeschooling mother of boys calls this "red shirting" and not keeping them back-- love it!). Our son's birthday is at the end of the summer so he would either be youngest or oldest kid in his class. We decided he could use another year before we started him in kindergarten. Next year we will start our first "real" year of homeschooling: kindergarten.

For us, the emphasis for preschool has been on character and community. We've been focusing on waiting your turn and taking turns, not interrupting, helping others, thinking of others before yourself, listening and following instructions, and following the rules even without direct supervision. Most of this can be taught in everyday life, especially since he has two younger brothers. We apply these lessons as he helps cook, clean, and run errands. When there is an aspect we feel needs special attention, we take the time to teach that lesson, such as following instructions while cooking and patiently waiting for the job he has to do (not rushing through it and making mistakes).

Of course we also do school. I've been following Ruth Beechick's method for reading and writing, The Three R's. We do some sort of writing every day. Usually it is informal, but a couple times a week I have him copy a complete sentence. We've been reading chapters of Who Was Martin Luther King Jr? by Bonnie Bader. After we read a chapter, I have him copy a sentence down from that chapter, a sentence of my choosing that I feel summarizes that chapter or teaches something important about Martin Luther King Jr. Often he copies words in his notebook that have something to do with that day's theme or activities, like when we were working on colors with his toddler brothers, he wrote down things that were red (strawberries, apples, Clifford). Sometimes the only writing he does that day is on a treasure map he drew or a card for a friend or family member he made. We do a lot of reading as a family anyways, Look and Find books, children's books, books on a topic that interests him. One of their favorite books is Birds of North Carolina by Tim Ohr. We bought it when we lived in North Carolina and had lots of trees and birds in our backyard. There we would sit in our sunroom and name the birds we saw. This book was a Costco find that I bought on a whim (need to get one for South Carolina now that we've moved!). We also have a large coffee table book on John Deere tractors that they love. It gives the history of John Deer and facts on each model; we read that book a lot. That book was a used book store find that cost hardly anything. Now that we are working on reading, I've scoured the used book store's children's section for easy readers (Curious George, Berenstain Bears, Clifford, etc). We usually work together on reading during his brothers' naptime when we have uninterrupted time together. I love that time, curled up on the couch together working on reading a book (and then I love when we are done for the time being and not spending 10 minutes on one word-- haha!).

Math hasn't been difficult for us to incorporate in our homeschool. I actually bought Saxon Math K: An Incremental Development (Home Study Teacher's Edition). I bought this at a homeschool consignment store in North Carolina-- best place ever! I did not buy the meeting book or the kit, which includes all the materials needed for the curriculum. I bought the materials on Amazon, like the linking cubes and such. I bought some of them before we started and some of them after we started when I realized I actually needed for the lessons. I also did not follow this book to a T. I mostly used it as a guidebook. D really likes math and it comes naturally to him. We tend to do a lot of math with him in everyday life, not just with counting bears, but with word problems and having him help solve things. For instance, "If Mommy and your brothers drive in the van and Daddy and you ride in the Jeep, how many people are in the van? How many in the Jeep? How many all together?" "I made 10 cookies and there are 3 boys to eat the cookies. How many cookies does everyone get? How many cookies are leftover?" "How many drinks do I need to buy at Chick-Fil-A so we all get a drink? If we want a milkshake after we drink our lemonades, how many drinks will I buy total?" I used the Saxon Math Teacher's Edition much more as an inspiration for a more structured lesson if I need it. I do not use the calendar plan laid out in it; we have a hanging pocket calendar we use instead. We also play math guided games: Chutes and Ladders, ThinkFun Math Dice Jr, Sorry. He seriously loves math and loves when we do anything that has even the slightest mathematical slant. A favorite game of his? Measuring things in the house with a tape measure. I make it a math game. "If the chair is 20 inches across, how many inches across would it be if there were 2 more inches? How about 2 less inches?" I really did like the Saxon Math book; so much so that I bought the Level 1 Home Study Teacher's Edition to use his kindergarten year-- again, just the teacher's edition, not the complete kit.

There are other subjects that we do regularly. I keep track of everything in the Homeschooler's Journal. We try to remember to do our calendar everyday and we usually do. Before I got the pocket calendar, we crossed off days on a wall calendar. My neighbor and I have big plans to make an adorable felt calendar! I'm very excited about that. Everyday at breakfast we read from the One Year Children's Bible. The boys love their Bible story and pull it down while I get their breakfast plates on the table. I like how short the stories are so I can actually read to both our preschooler and our toddlers without losing their interest. We also do a Bible verse with our preschooler. I do not have him learn a verse a week, just more on his pace. He must learn it word for word, but when he's ready to learn the next part, I teach it to him. He just learned Isaiah 9:6 and now we are working on John 3:16. We also talk a lot about the Navy, since their dad is a submariner. The toddlers are very interested in submarines, ships, and boats. Our preschooler is very interested in how the submarine works. They all love that there is a submarine in Despicable Me 2.

And part of our homeschooling plan is teaching that everyone needs to help out around the house. He feeds the dog every morning and changes the dog's water. They all bring their dishes to the kitchen sink or kitchen counter (depending on the dish-- I bet they could break their Corelle bowls chucking them in the sink). They have to pick up shared living spaces throughout the day, when they change activities. I do not require either the toddlers or our preschooler to move all the toys from the family room to where it necessarily goes in the playroom, unless I'm having our preschooler pick up toys that he got out and a mess he made (like his puzzles or his craft stuff). That is too much of a task for the toddlers to grasp (keep picking up toys in the family room and put them away where they go-- they get distracted). After they bring the toys to the playroom, I sit in there and help put them away or direct where they go. They all help with housecleaning, tidying shared spaces, dusting, sweeping, wiping down counters. This Rubbermaid Dual Action Microfiber Flip Mop has made it so easy for our preschooler to help with the floors. The toddlers dust with dusting cloths and they help clean either with paper towels or rags sprayed with vinegar water. They all help fold laundry. Surprisingly, they actually can all help, not the kind of help children often give that is in no way helpful. The toddlers can fold rags, towels, and pillow cases quite well. Their shirts and things are often folded by them in interesting and unique ways, but when they get a bee in their bonnet to fold a load of laundry, who am I to stop them? Our preschooler can fold just about anything; he gets frustrated when I drop a big load of laundry in front of him and will hum and haw. Once he gets going he is fine. The smaller loads he handles with no complaint. I really, really, really make an effort not to complain about house chores in front of them. They do, after all, have to get done one way or another, so it might as well be cheerfully. I have Philippians 2:14 hanging in their playroom, "Do everything without grumbling or arguing."

As for socializing... We do lots of playdates and activities, some structured (held a paper airplane contest), some not (park picnics or children's museum trips). There are neighborhood kids to play with at home and homeschooling families that we've really been connecting with since we've moved here. And we are looking into our homeschooling co-op options for next year, joining one of those in the next couple weeks. He's part of organized sports and, most recently, a preschool piano class. The best thing about homeschooling preschool is that our schedule is open and we are available for playdates and get-togethers that are held during the day. I've been really excited looking at the co-op options for next year and the homeschool families we've connected with. The other thing I'm really excited about is that my hubby's schedule is going to a little crazy next year and homeschooling is going to give us the flexibility to spend as much time as possible with him! I know we haven't started the kindergarten year yet or had baby #4 yet, but I loved homeschooling preschool this year and I think kindergarten is going to be even more fun. :)

Picture taken by A McTaggart