The Secret to Easy Stovetop Mac & Cheese

Fact of life: Feeding children is like being a short-order cook in a busy diner. There are orders and special requests coming at you fast and if you’re not prepared, the whole operation can come apart at the seams. Those of us in the kitchen trenches are continually honing our skill set to better manage day-to-day life and meet everyone’s needs in the most efficient and effective way we can. We gather recipes and tips from fellow kitchen warriors and are always searching for ways to improve our craft.

I’ve personally searched for and tried more mac & cheese recipes than I can say including a very tasty baked version that required a good amount of prep and $20 worth of ingredients. It’s delicious and a great one to have for special occasions but perhaps not a realistic choice for my 2 year old at lunchtime. So stove top macaroni is my go-to for a quick, pleasing meal for the kiddos. With efficiency in mind, I always have the ingredients on hand to throw together a batch of mac & cheese, either for quick hearty kid lunch or an easy weeknight dinner. There are A LOT of recipes out there alleging to be the best version and I make no claim to that here. however, the recipe I’ll share- well method really- is one that every home cook should have in their arsenal. It doesn’t involve evaporated milk, mustard powder, or anything fussy. Starting with this method you’ll have your own perfect mac and cheese that will have other Mom’s asking how you do it. Play around and make this your own “Best Mac & Cheese” recipe.

Easy Stovetop Mac

Ingredients

  • 2 C or 8 oz. of sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1/2 C milk
  • 2 T cornstarch
  • 2 C dried Macaroni or shells, prepared
  • Seasoning of choice *I use all-purpose seasoning salt and a dash of onion powder, you may want to add some cayenne or a little smoked paprika. Experiment to find the flavors that you like.

Note: You can use any cheese or combination of cheeses you like here, as long as it melts. In order to have a flavorful sauce you’ll want to choose cheese that has a strong flavor which is why I use sharp. It’s okay to use mild or whatever you have on hand though you may need to season your final product a little more to keep it from being bland. No need to run to the store, show-off your homemaker chops by making do with what you have.

cheese sauce

Prepare the pasta according to package directions. My kids like really soft macaroni so I add 2-3 minutes to the cooking time. For the cheese sauce, start by heating the milk. Get it nice and hot but don’t boil it. You can either do this in the microwave or on the stove top. While the milk is heating place your shredded cheese in a bowl and toss it with the corn starch to coat, you could also do this in a baggie. Once the cheese is coated, stir into the hot milk until smooth. Taste and season your sauce to your preference and then stir in the pasta and serve. Make this a dinner by doubling amounts and adding cooked meat, or boiling sliced hot dogs in with the pasta. This would be perfect for Meatless Monday. Add a side of veg for good measure.

Our Daughter’s Diagnosis

Our Little Girl

I’ve had that burning need-to-cry feeling in the tip of my nose for 3 days now and it won’t go away. There just isn’t a time or place that I can have a good cry and so I’m struggling emotionally to spite that fact that I really have no cause. There’s been no tragedy and our daughter’s diagnosis was expected, long awaited even. It’s a relief to have the label of Autism so that I can get her school to offer appropriate services and start therapy. Yet… I’m feeling bummed out and hermit-y. I don’t really want to talk to anybody for fear of a crying jag and also because it hurts to talk about my baby girl and be forced to really think about what Autism means for her. I can’t be bothered to get dressed. Jeans and a bra, how dare you? I just need sweatpants, to snuggle with my dogs and avoid the outside world for a while. It would be so nice to stop being a grownup for a few days.

We’ve been on this road since Stella was a toddler who seemed a bit more temperamental than one would expect. Over the past 4 years we’ve become more and more certain that there was something going on with our little one and have visited the Family Doctor or Pediatrician periodically to ask for help. Real progress came about a year ago when Stella was 5 and I told the Pediatrician point blank: “There has to be something diagnosable going on here. We need to start the process of evaluation whatever that is.” I got a referral to the Seattle Children’s Autism Center but no help immediately because they had a 9 month waiting list. I was already at the end of my rope and now they wanted me to hold? I had no choice so that’s what we did.

7 months later, 2 months before the start of Kindergarten, I was still waiting and becoming more and more nervous about how she would fair when I’d have to send her out into the fray without me, her advocate and the only person who knew how to handle her. So I visited the Pediatrician again, expressing my concern. She referred us to Occupational Therapy while we waited for the evaluation. Even without a diagnosis we could go to therapy and work on her sensory and social issues. I was amazed at how well she responded. They knew how to reach Stella in ways that made sense to her. It was an emotional experience to watch her understand concepts we had struggled with and to see immediate results. This helped my nerves immensely.

I also met with the counselor at her elementary school prior to the first day to let her know that I had a special kid who was, as yet, undiagnosed but who may have trouble in school. I tried to prepare our girl and to smooth the way as much as possible. By the start of school, she was super psyched and I felt as ready as I’d ever be. We’d already waited a year until she was 6 to start school which allowed her more time to mature and was hugely beneficial. What a difference a year makes!

Now, 3 weeks after the start of Kindergarten, we finally have our Autism Evaluation and have been given a provisional diagnosis in just one visit: Autism Spectrum Disorder. They say she has what was previously been referred to as Asperger Syndrome. The diagnosis is provisional because we still have to follow up with a Neurodevelopmental Pediatrician to do further physical tests. So far I’m told that she’s high functioning and that her physical symptoms seem mild.

Diagnosis is a relief in some ways because my husband & I now have credentials to hold up for the people who shake their heads at our concerns. Many believe that the “antics” of difficult or troubled children to be natural childhood behavior and that fussy parents like us just aren’t handling them correctly. This opinion has mostly come from our elders who perhaps take the differences in recent generations’ child-rearing methods as a personal affront. We have the benefit of science and research that simply wasn’t available to them 30, 40 and 50 years ago. So naturally there’s been a little fine-tuning to the task of raising young’ns.

It must seem smug and condescending when today’s new parents hold up our newfangled rules and standards in contrast to the way we were raised. I can only imagine how annoying that must be.  Some naysayers try to tell us that many of these mental disorders didn’t exist 50 years ago (or today for that matter) and that somehow we’ve caused Autism or are just making it up. It’s nice to be able to say, “See? We weren’t kidding and we’re not the lazy, over-indulgent parents you thought.” My Mom calls it vindication, and I’m trying not to see it that way. Diagnosis really isn’t about (well for the most part anyway) saying told ya so and I don’t want to be that person. Advocating for our daughter isn’t about me but today I’m feeling a little self pity. I really need some time to shake off the sudden depression so that I can move ahead with all the energy and enthusiasm needed to keep fighting for her future.

Saving Money on Diapers: Name Brand vs. Generic

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There’s a significant price difference between brand name and generic disposable diapers. I’ve done a price comparison of 5 national diaper brands to illustrate the savings. All prices are Wal-Mart’s and all counts are for a size 6, which our son currently wears.

I came up with the yearly total based on the number of diapers we use a week times 52 weeks rounded to the nearest hundred: 2400. I divided that number by the count per box then multiplied the price of each box by 52 to get the annual estimated totals. These parameters give us an example of the considerable price differences among brands. Save money, buy generic.


Large Package

  • Huggies Snug & Dry: 100 ct., $34.97 (34¢/diaper) =$827 
  • Parent’s Choice: 92 ct., $19.77 (21¢/diaper) = $514
  • Up + Up: 120 ct., $28.99 (24¢/diaper) =$579
  • Pampers Baby Dry: 128 ct., $45.60 (36¢/diaper) = $866
  • Luvs: 112 ct., $31 (28¢/diaper)= $682

Medium Package

  • Huggies Snug & Dry: 64 ct., $20.97 (33¢/diaper) =$796
  • Parent’s Choice: 60 ct., $13.97 (23¢/diaper) = $558
  • Up + Up: 60 ct., $16.99 (28¢/diaper) =$679
  • Pampers Baby Dry: 64 ct., $24.94 (39¢/diaper) = $947
  • Luvs: 54 ct., $15.97 (30¢/diaper)= $718

Small Package

  • Huggies Snug & Dry: 23 ct., $8.97 (39¢/diaper) =$941
  • Parent’s Choice: 23 ct., $5.97 (26¢/diaper) = $626
  • Up + Up: 23 ct., $6.99 (30¢/diaper) =$733
  • Pampers Baby Dry: 21 ct., $8.97 (43¢/diaper) = $1,031
  • Luvs: 21 ct., $6.97 (33¢/diaper)$801

I think that a lot of people don’t consider the cheaper brands of diapers because they assume that the quality must be sub-par. Truth be told, some store brands are junk. For example, I can vouch for the fact that the Parent’s Choice brand (sold at WalMart) used to be total garbage several years ago when we were diapering our first baby. However, since then they’ve redesigned and are now comparable to Huggies in fit and absorbency much like the Target Up + Up brand. Parent’s choice is the brand we use because it happens to fit our son well, Target’s didn’t. Luvs is way too perfumey so I skip those as well. Every brand has a different fit so I say,  give a few generics a tryout to find a good fit for your baby and your wallet. Your homemaker paycheck could get a raise of several hundred bucks a year!

Getting it Done

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Multitasking, Mom-style. Yes we can! I love baby & toddler-wearing because it allows me to do chores while caring for a kid too. No crying toddler begging for Mommy to pick him up and no feeling sorry for myself because I can’t find time to take care of the chores. This is my way of getting it done and all our bairn have been huge fans of being Mommy’s little Koala. Also, by the time I was done mowing, he was asleep. Put baby down for a nap, check.

The Dumptruck

IMG_1507When I found out we’d have a son my heart soared. I would have had the same reaction if it was a girl, but we’d already been blessed with two wonderful, sweet, exceptional little girls so a son would be completely new to us. I was so excited to start having boy stuff in our lives. Being the utterly practical person I am, I’d already been collecting the usual baby stuff we’d need from the day I found out we were expecting. We would be sure to have all the bases covered when the new one arrived. (We were starting all over after handing down our baby stuff a few years prior)

However, both my husband & I were dreaming of toy tool sets and dinosaurs scattered all over the house. We were so giddy! So the first thing I shopped for when I found out there was a little guy on the way was a Tonka dump truck. To me, this was the quintessential boy toy and our little guy had to have one. I was discouraged to find that Tonkas cost about $30-40. I was still saving up for a stroller and a crib. This wasn’t on the list of necessities so it had to wait.

About 8 months later, our little guy wasn’t yet old enough to play with a dump truck so it was still on my wish list. We got lucky one day when my Auntie gave us a dump truck that her son had outgrown. She had no idea how amazingly awesome this random hand-me-down was to me. I nearly cried (dang hormones) and Little Mr. was very happy with his new toy. IMG_7077

As he grew, this was far and away his favorite toy. He’s the kind of kid who sees a truck when we’re out driving and exclaims “A truck! Vrrrmmmmm vrrm!”. When his Daddy is working on cars in the garage, Little Dude is right beside him trying to copy his every move. He is a mini car-guy.

On our son’s second birthday, Toys ‘R Us had a BOGO sale on Little Tykes toys so we went to pick out a gift for him. I love Toys ‘R Us’ selection but not their prices. Whenever we go, I have to walk the whole store and drool over all the wonderful things we’d love to spoil our kids with. I could spend a fortune in there! On this particular day, while browsing & wishing, I came to the truck section and found the mother of all dump trucks. It was a huge, metal, construction yellow Tonka. Light began to shine from this awesome toy and a choir of angels sang- it was a religious experience. Then I saw the price tag… $55.

IMG_0159I knew I couldn’t buy it but I lusted. I stood there running my hand over the smooth, shiny yellow paint wanting so badly to get this for my little guy but, sense kept me in check. He would never miss not having it and it would cost an eighth of my grocery budget for the month. After a minute or so, I slowly moved away from the truck… but I didn’t forget. I told my husband about it and, his reaction was the same as mine. He would have loved to buy it for Mr. Man but couldn’t justify spending the money on something that wasn’t needed. We accept that we want all kinds of things but, unless it sustains us in some way that thing goes on the maybe someday section of the shopping list. Perhaps we would have bought it as his one Christmas gift.

Two months later, my husband was driving home from work, when he spotted this huge yellow toy dump truck in a vacant gravel lot near the roadside.  He had to get a closer look. It turned out to be a faded, weathered, rust spotted Tonka truck. They very one I had told him about!

When he walked into the kitchen that night I turned to greet him and he had this huge grin on his face as he hefted the toy for me to see. I squealed in delight and astonishment. You’d think the man had brought me diamonds (actually I probably wouldn’t have been this exited about diamonds). You’d think the man had brought me Taco Time Take-out. I couldn’t help it, nothing gets me more excited than getting to give our kids a little something extra. Providing for them feels so good and spoiling them feels even better.

So I immediately grabbed a dish brush and some soap and dragged it out to the hose to wash it. Dinner was bubbling away, the troops were waiting to be fed and my husband was like, “Do you have to do that right now?” “Of course I do! He’s going to want to play with it the second he sees it! I need to get the scum off!” A couple days later, Daddy is sanding and repainting the rust spots and giving the hinges & axles a little grease.  Little Dude doesn’t give a rip that his awesome new toy is used and faded. He’s just utterly in love with his dump truck. And me? I’m counting our blessings. IMG_1449 IMG_1451

Children’s Birthday Parties for Less

birthday cakes Collage

I feel like a birthday party pro. That may be because after 8 years and 3 kids I’ve taped up a lot of streamers and iced a lot of cakes. Our very first kids birthday party was over the top though. I spent about $200, and invited like 50 people. I was a new Mommy celebrating my 1st born’s 1st birthday- I couldn’t help myself. A few parties later I’ve pared down the cost and streamlined the process to reduce stress. A few pointers:


Decorations: You can have a beautiful party without dropping serious cheddar at the party store. I use the classic combination of balloons & streamers and they always look great. You can get whatever colors you need to complement your child’s theme for under $10. Also, don’t bother buying one of those expensive helium tanks to blow up your balloons! You can make them “float” by blowing them up with plain old lung power and hanging the strings from the ceiling, or taping them on the wall to compliment your streamers. I always hang the streamers and balloons at least a couple days before to get the decorations off my to-do list. Save as little for yourself to do the day of as possible.

If there is a specific character or theme you’re trying to accomplish, a couple of well placed items from your local department store’s party section can help. For example, my daughter had a Monster High themed party so I purchased a table cover and wall hanging for about $9 to compliment the streamers and balloons I picked up for $5. After the party, I put her name banner (made in MS Word & printed at home) and the giant poster in her bedroom IMG_0328(minus the happy birthday portion). She now has a M.H. themedIMG_0330 decor every day for pretty darn cheap.


Food: Planning ahead goes for food to. Do as much food prep in advance as you can. Less to do the day of the party means less stress and more fun. Feeding a crowd can be pricey and complicated. I like to make simple, inexpensive yet yummy food in large quantities. One idea I’ve used is a hot dog bar. You can cook your dogs (and keep them warm) in the crock pot. I use beef bouillon cubes in the water to give the tube steaks extra flavor. A great idea, found on one of my favorite food blogger, Stephanie O’Dea’s, website is to stand the hot dogs on end to get more into the slow cooker. You can see that post here.


Treat bags for the kids: I have often made homemade goodies like Chex coated in white chocolate or chocolate dipped pretzels, cookies, etc. to fill treat bags. The kids always enjoy it and the adults do too. There have also been parties where I skipped treat bags altogether because they aren’t strictly necessary.


Invitations: Our local Dollar Tree has invitations and thank you cards. They have decorations too. That’s my sweet spot. You could always go free and text, email, or Facebook invite people but I love invites in the mail. It just says party to me.


Cake: When ordered from a store bakery, cakes can be a good chunk of your party budget. $30 for sponge cake & colored Crisco? No, thank you. I like to make my kids’ cakes as often as possible. Sometimes we can’t afford a big gift but I can always fire up the mixer and bake up a box of Duncan Hines. The kids love choosing what kind of cake they want made and come up with ideas throughout the year in anticipation of their next birthday. There have been times when I’ve bought a cake off the rack at Costco to avoid becoming overwhelmed by party prep. Whatever it takes to get it done.


Party space: We have a large family. My husband is one of 5 and they all have kids. So our kids have 13 first cousins and 1 more on the way. Add that to friends and my side of the family… we need a big space. Since two of our kids  have winter birthdays, outdoor parties won’t work. We lived in a single-wide mobile home for 2 years and ended up having 3 parties at bounce house places just to accommodate everyone. $250 a pop. Ouch. Now, we live in a house large enough to have everyone over but it’s still a squeeze. So I’ve done away with the big party and we do two small parties for each kid. One with my family and one with just one or two of my husband’s sibs and their kids, as well as a special homemade dinner and cake on their actual birthday. It’s a week long birthday and the kids love it. I leave the decor up all week too. It’s pretty fun!


So these are the things I think of when planning a party. Bottom line. Try not to go overboard. Your blood pressure and your wallet will thank you.

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My baby boy & I at our 3rd, and last, first birthday.

My Kitchen’s Makeup-Free Selfie

I had to cut back on Facebook. The constant whiny updates, bragging and drama were kinda bringing me down. I don’t need to be that involved in every random thought that comes into a person’s head… times 180 persons. First I went down my friends list and unfollowed everyone except family and close friends. I only want to be involved with people I actually see in real life. That helped. It was like unplugging a bit. And the nice thing about unfollowing is you don’t have to unfriend the annoying people in your life. Offended annoying people can be awful. Awfully annoying. This way, they’ll be none the wiser.

It was time for a reality check. I had to stop comparing  myself to the constant boast-posts. I had to back off and get perspective. Get real. Us Mommas shouldn’t be ashamed of the natural state of our homes. Unless you’re a Hindu Goddess with 8 arms I don’t see how a person could keep all those balls in the air without a break. This morning, I walked into my kitchen and looked at my mountain of dishes and all the things stashed behind the sink, out of the precocious toddler’s reach, and thought This is how my house always looks. I should share this. So these pictures are like my makeup-free selfie to the world. Not a quick spruce up followed by Instagram editing to make things look magazine ready.

So look everybody! Here’s my messy kitchen. It’s clean, yet messy. I won’t be ashamed as long as we can eat out of it- and eat we do. Lots of good homecookin’ takes place here and if you stop by to find the dishes piled high that means I haven’t done them yet. I cook & bake a lot. We go through a buttload of dishes.

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This doesn’t make me a slob and if your kitchen looks like this I hope you don’t feel like one either. I didn’t put that coat on the floor or that one on the counter, or those toys.  But I’ll pick them up, at some point. Probably after I step on one and hurt myself. Maybe one day I’ll even show you my bathrooms in which the surfaces are covered in toothpaste, dirt smears and toys.

Another thing that makes a girl feel inadequate is watching Giada de Laurentiis on TV. I don’t cook like her. I just don’t have the time. Or the budget. For lunch today, I didn’t feed my kids any whole grains, or perfectly measured out portions according to MyPlate.Gov’s guidelines. They got a heated up can of generic Spaghetti Os, a can of green beans and some toasted cheese sandwiches. Nothing trendy, no bento boxes or dates stuffed with goat cheese. Just plain old kid food, and I served it up hot.  ‘Aint no shame in my game!

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If Better Homes & Gardens ever stops by I’ll probably get out the pledge and start polishing… but not today. Today we’re doing schoolwork. I hope this inspires some of you to feel proud of the job you’re doing too. A good woman doesn’t need to be weighted-down by doubt and needless guilt. Your doing a great job and your family is very blessed to have a Momma like you!

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Soap Bottle Squirters

One thing that my kids LOVE to do outside is squirt water. So we bought some cheapy little party favor squirt guns to entertain them but they had to be refilled every couple minutes and ultimately broke within a day or two. I started saving my dish soap bottles and, after a few good rinses with cold water, they’re a great substitute for squirt guns. Sometimes we put food coloring in the water and they call them their rainbow squirters. These are also a lot of fun in the bathtub!

soap bottle squirters


Let them water your plants!

Another way we play with water is to have the kids water plants. Our daughter, Miss S, loves to water every bush and rock she sees until she’s soaking wet and covered in mud. It’ll entertain her for a good hour or so at least. So we gave Miss S a cleaned out gallon milk jug as a watering can. My husband used a tiny bit to drill holes in the cap to let the water out. We’ve also done this with 12 oz. water bottles and plastic juice containers.

 

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