I just got in the mail a sample of the new Renuzit Holiday Air Fresheners.  Not only are they pretty, but these little guys have a powerful holiday scent.  My kitchen currently smells like Winter Berry and the Festive Snow has overpowered even the diaper pail stench in the bathroom.  Hard to believe it's almost 80 degrees outside because it sure smells like Christmas in here!

And the best part - three of our readers will get to try them for free!  I have 3 coupons for a free product and I can't wait to pass them out.  If you would like to win one, just leave a comment below!

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Fall is officially here, which means it's apple season!  And at our house, that means we have a fridge full of half-eaten apples.  Our boys love to start apples, but they just can't seem to finish one.  My solution - make apple crumble!  It's super easy and super delicious, which is perfect for a busy afternoon when I want something sweet for dessert.  And the kids love to help.  My older son likes to measure the sugar and flour for me, and my younger son just likes to beg for apple slices while we cook.  Here's the recipe:

Apple Crumble

6 cups apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
1/4 cup sugar
2 tbsp flour (all-purpose or rice flour)
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg

3/4 cup flour (all-purpose or rice flour)
1/3 cup brown sugar (or white sugar)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
dash nutmeg
6 tbsp butter, softened

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  In large bowl, toss apples, sugar, flour, cinnamon and nutmeg.  Let stand 10 minutes.  In medium bowl combine flour, brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg.  Cut in butter with pie-crust mincer or strong fork.  Pour apples into 9" pie dish.  Spoon topping evenly over apples.  Bake for 40-50 minutes, checking frequently after 30 minutes.  If top begins to brown before apples are cooked, cover dish with tin foil for remaining time to prevent burning. 

Our pick for book of the week this week is Mama Zooms by Jane Cowen-Fletcher.  In our household, we try very hard to teach our children to be accepting and loving.  And we want them to know that physical differences are part of what make us unique.  There is far too much bullying in the world now (well, any bullying is too much) and we don't want our children to be part of it.  To that end, we love to read them books about how people are different and why that makes them special.  Mama Zooms is an excellent book for this purpose.  It takes us through all the adventures a little boy has with his mother who happens to need a wheel chair.  He describes all the ways his mama 'zooms' him through the day and how precious his time with her is.  My kids not only adore this book, but they now think of wheel chairs as being very 'cool.'  We still teach them to be grateful for all the things their bodies can do for them, but we also want them to know that physical limitations don't limit who they are.  Mama Zooms is a beautiful story and I love reading it with my children.

If your house is like my house, toys rule the roost.  I find toys in the washer, in the dryer, in the refrigerator, on the stairs, under the couch - pretty much anywhere you'd think to look.  With three kids under 4 we have plenty of toys, and plenty of enthusiasm while playing with them.  We've gone through many iterations of toy tidying, and here are our family's top ten tips for keeping things neat:

1) Create a No Toy zone.  There are some places in the house where toys simply don't belong.  When my kids were very small, their bedrooms were No Toy zones.  We didn't want the kids staying awake to play when they really needed sleep.  Now that they're better about bedtime, we've moved the toys into their rooms and the dining room has become a No Toy zone.  No more tripping over riding toys while trying to put the soup on.  The locations will vary for every family, but try to establish some areas where toys are not allowed.  Limiting the rooms that contain toys will limit the clutter and the likelihood that toys will be lost.

2) Store toys where they are used.  Keeping each type of toy in its appropriate area will also limit the likelihood that toys will be lost and lessen the amount of hauling required to return them to their rightful homes.  Keep tub toys in a slotted bin by the tub.  Keep outdoor toys in boxes under the porch or in the garage.  Stash a flat box of puzzles under the living room couch, keep dolls and stuffed animals in bedroom closets, and store the giant train table in the basement.  Or, keep often-used toys in a caddy with a handle or wheels so it's easy to move from room to room.

3) Choose appropriate containers.  A giant toy box may seem like an efficient use of space, but if the tiny cars and doll shoes get lost at the bottom, you might as well not have them in the first place.  Keep each type of toy in an appropriate sized box.  Large toys fit well in large toy boxes.  Keep Hot Wheels and other smaller cars in special car boxes or in shoe boxes with lids.  Store Lego bricks in tubs with locking lids, medium sized cars and toys in carts with drawers, and art supplies in bins with handles for easy clean up. 

4) Label everything.  When possible, keep toys in clear bins so your child can see what is inside.  If your child is not yet reading (like mine), attach a photograph or magazine cutout of the items that belong in the bin to the outside.  If your child can read, a simple list of items affixed to the container can help children when it comes time to sort and clear away her toys. 

5) Rethink your space.  Try to use your storage space creatively.  Stash tiny toys or craft supplies in a hanging shoe holder in the closet.  Put wheels on the train table and trundle it under a bed.  Set up vertical toys like the HotWheels Wall Tracks and get your storage off the floors.  Run a shelf around the room near the ceiling and store lesser-used toys up there.  See where you've got the most space and make it work for you.

6) Rethink your toys.  Toys that promote imaginative play are the most versatile.  Keep around a box of blocks, a pile of costume pieces, a bin full of art supplies and the like.  Not only will these guide your children in expanding their creativity, you can save space by purchasing fewer toys. 

7) Rotate. Don't set out all of your children's toys at once.  Give them a set of toys on a theme (cars, musical instruments, blocks, dolls, etc) and keep a few other sets in reserve.  Rotate on whatever timetable best suits your child's personality (daily, weekly, monthly, etc).  Children are suckers for novelty and this way they will appear to have new toys to play with frequently without actually increasing the size of your stash.  Also, when overwhelmed with too many toys a once, a child's creative abilities will be diminished.  When they have a small selection of toys to choose from, they are better able to engage in play.

8) Donate.  If your child has toys that they haven't touched lately, despite continual rotation, it might be time to donate the toys to charity.  Also, if a child's toy collection grows beyond a reasonable storage configuration, it is also time to donate.  Explain to your child that he or she is fortunate to have so many nice toys to play with, and that it is time to share some with other children who are not so fortunate.  Have him or her help you gather up a box of toys and take them with you to the donation center.  Conversely, you might consider hosting a toy swap with friends of a similar age.  The children can bring toys they have outgrown or no longer enjoy and swap them for 'new' toys that have been brought by their friends. 

9) Motivate clean-up.  It may seem harsh, but in our house we have the rule "you may not eat dinner until your toys have been picked up."  I can guarantee you that since we put this rule into place, our 2 and 3 year olds have not missed a single supper, and their rooms have been tidy at bedtime (no more stepping on HotWheels while kissing them goodnight).  Sometimes all it takes is a simple, kind ultimatum to get kids to put their things away.  And I haven't met anyone yet who sleeps better in a messier room. 

10) Teach responsible ownership.  Teaching kids to take care of the toys they have will guide them in becoming responsible with pricier possessions as they grow.  If a child breaks a toy (willfully or accidentally) do not replace the toy.  Tell the child that if he or she really wants a replacement item, it will be added to a birthday or Christmas list.  I am always amazed in our house how quickly broken toys are forgotten anyway. 

If you follow these Ten Step to Tidy Toys not only will you hopefully have a neater home, but you will be teaching your children valuable lessons in responsibility that will prepare them for adulthood.  And don't forget to look for other areas of your home where some of these organizational tips might be of use.  You just might be surprised what labeling, donating, rethinking, and appropriate storage can do for your pantry (or laundry room, or kitchen, etc)!
Please note:  I wrote this blog post while participating in the SocialMoms and HotWheels blogging program, for a gift card worth $40.  For more information on how you can participate, click here
I have such a fun week of giveaways lined up that I cannot wait to get started!  That being said, I'm lowering my goal - if we can reach 45 fans on our Facebook page, I'll launch the giveaway.  As of this moment, we only need 5 more fans!  So find us there and let's get this party started!  Another benefit of following via Facebook are all the awesome deals, discussion questions and comments from other followers that are posted there but not here on the blog.  So check us o
    Have I mentioned that I love love love my double stroller?  Because I do.  The last couple of days I've been without it (why?  because I'm just that distracted and totally forgot to put it back in the trunk of the van *sigh*).  And let me tell you, it's been harrowing. 
    When I don't have my stroller, I have to carry the not-yet-walking baby in my arms, hold one toddler by the hand while he holds his brother with his free hand, and balance any bags/purses/misc items on my shoulder and pray they don't slip.  At the doctor's office I couldn't put baby down for a second because I didn't want her getting germs all over.  Which made for interesting juggling when I had to retrieve items from my purse, help big brothers get their stickers and put away the chairs we'd dragged over to the tv.  At the store I had to chase two wild kiddos and return all the merchandise they were tossing willy-nilly into the cart.  At the library and the park I'm still not sure how I got all the kids and the books and the shovels and everything else out of and into the car.  Whew.
    My Graco Duo Glider double stroller makes my life infinitely easier.  It has two cushy seats for my younger kids to sit in.  Both seats have umbrellas to keep the sun out of their eyes.  The back seat even reclines and accommodates a Graco car seat which is perfect for smaller babies.  And with the snack-tray attached to the front seat the stroller has room for two bottles or sippy cups, two snacks, and a copious amounts of diapers, purses, changes of clothes, library books, groceries, toys, trash or whatever else we need to stash in the roomy basket beneath.  My boys fight over who gets to ride in the front (baby always has the back) and who has to *groan* walk everywhere.  I have a feeling that once she takes her first steps, baby is getting the boot. 
    Not only is the stroller comfy and roomy, but it handles amazing well.  It can take gravel and curbs without too much jostling, it folds up quickly and easily (though I've yet to master the one-handed fold), and it's light enough that even I can hoist it into my van.  Truthfully, it doesn't take up much more space that my single stroller did, and it fits through tight store aisles easily. 
    I fully admit that I'm nuts to attempt to go anywhere with all three of my kids in tow.  But sometimes it's just necessary, and when it is, I am eternally grateful for my awesome double stroller that helps me keep my kids safe and my hands free so I can get in, get out, and get it all done!
I've learned several things the hard way over the last few days/weeks.  We all make mistakes, we all do things we regret, and we all fail now and then.  The important thing is that we do learn.  Here are some of the things I've taught myself recently:

1) Never (ever ever ever) attempt to go to the grocery store with 3 kids under 4.  I will turn into a nagging screaming mess, and the kids will turn into whining screaming messes and sometimes the groceries will be abandoned as I flee to the car before someone else decides to discipline my kids.  I don't care if we're out of milk, or bread, or formula, or even if our cupboards are bare.  I CAN wait until Daddy gets home or until I find a sitter or until someone invents drive-through groceries.  Ooooof.
2) Planning is everything.  It is totally worth my time to plan out a week of meals, a detailed grocery list, a precise schedule of activities and how I'm going to stick to my weekly budget.  Even better if I have a back-up plan in case church runs over and I can't get to the grocery when I intend to, etc.  Making lunch the night before saves me from the "I'm exhausted and the kids are screaming let's just get Panda Express" lunchtime budget-blowers.  Keeping a frozen home-made meal in the freezer saves me from "I'm too tired to cook so we'll have cereal for dinner" nights.  And having some coloring books and crayons on hand saves me from, well, just about everything! ('Cause, hey, coloring can be therapeutic for everyone).
3) Besides taking the time to plan plan plan, just about everything else non-kid-related is an unessential time-sucker.  I don't need to do that craft project.  I don't need to read that blog.  I don't need  to get caught up on my Mt. Everest of magazines.  I don't even need to scrub the kitchen floor (we're just going to drop spaghetti on it again tonight anyway, right?)  But I do need  to cuddle my babies.  I need to read them stories, to sit in their pretend train caboose, to take them outside to run, to give them some extra time to chat at bedtime.  I need to help them learn to paint, to build elaborate railroad tracks, to let them stir the cookie dough even if all the chips end up in one place.  And I absolutely need to spend my quiet hour doing just that - being quiet.  In my bed.  Asleep.  So that I am recharged and ready to be sweet to my precious babies for the rest of the afternoon. 

Slowly, too slowly, I'm learning where my priorities need to be.  Not every mother is so blessed to be able to stay home with her children and I cannot take it for granted.  I need to remember that behind God and my husband, my kids are my top priority and I need to do whatever it takes to treasure them and make them feel treasured.   I have this little poem taped to my fridge - it's a wonderful reminder for me on the days that I'm too tempted to say "Not now, honey, mommy's busy cleaning (or blogging or reading or cooking or...)."

Song for a Fifth Child
Mother, oh mother, come shake out your cloth!
Empty the dustpan, poison the moth,
Hang out the washing and butter the bread,
Sew on a button and make up a bed.
Where is the mother whose house is so shocking?
She’s up in the nursery, blissfully rocking!
Oh, I’ve grown as shiftless as Little Boy Blue
(Lullaby, rockaby, lullaby loo).
Dishes are waiting and bills are past due
(Pat- a- cake, darling and peek, peekaboo).
The shopping’s not done and there’s nothing for stew
And out in the yard and there’s a hullabaloo
But I’m playing Kanga and this is my Roo.
Look!  Aren’t her eyes the most wonderful hue?
(Lullaby, rockaby, lullaby loo).
Oh, cleaning and scrubbing will wait till tomorrow,
But children grow up, as I’ve learned to my sorrow.
So quiet down, cobwebs.  Dust go to sleep.
I’m rocking my baby.  Babies don’t keep.

1958   Ruth Hulburt Hamilton

    Before we had kids, I had a plan.  I knew exactly how far apart my kids were going to be.  I knew what schools they were going to go to.  I had a long list of lunches I'd lovingly pack, and songs I'd sing and activities I'd shuttle them between.  I knew exactly how they should be disciplined and I dreamed about family dinners with neatly scrubbed children sitting primly at the table devouring all the wholesome foods I made for them.
    And then our kids were born.  They were not 4 years apart, as I'd dreamed, but rather 17 months apart (yes, both sets).  I spent hours researching preschools, rarely have a plan for lunch, sing 'Skinamarinkadink' on repeat between all the playgroups and Kindermusic classes and little gym activites.  And my very loud, very dirty children rarely sit at the table long enough to get in a square meal.  I have become "that mom."

    I am the mom who is eternally running out the door 5 minutes late, with one shoe on and someone else's oatmeal on my shirt. 
    I am the mom who's hair is in a ponytail so often it's starting to fall out in clumps.
    I am the mom who's kids are throwing blocks at the library and shouting as they chase each other through the aisles of books.
    I am the mom whom strangers tell "Oh you're so brave!" or "Oh, you are crazy!" on every public outing with the children. 
    I am the mom who cries over commercials, magazine articles and a sweet afternoon at the park, but doesn't even wince when run over with a tricycle. 
    I am the mom whose kids eat food off the floor (or the lawn) yet are, remarkably, rarely ill.
    I am the mom who finds her car keys in the dryer and plastic dinosaurs in the fridge and someone's left shoe in the diaper pail.
    I am the mom whose life turned out 'all wrong,' and yet it could not be more right. 
    I am the mom who is greatly greatly blessed.

How about you?  Have you become "that mom?"
    We recently checked out from the library The Boston Coffee Party by Doreen Rappaport.  As I was reading to my children, I was horrified by the message of the book!  I realize that this book is based on actual historical events, and I realize that war can be ugly - but I just felt that this book's message was unnecessary. 
    The story depicts a group of women in Boston during the Revolutionary war.  The women take offense to a 'greedy' shop owner who hoards luxury goods and sells them at a premium after all the other shops have run out.  They call the shop owner a scoundrel because he does not subscribe to the price-fixing of the local shops to artificially keep prices low during the war times.  Whatever your views on economics, what the women decide to do about the situation is despicable.  They organize a mob, march on the store owner, throw him in a cart and parade him around town before dumping him in the street, stealing his keys, and running off with every last ounce of his coffee supply - without paying him a dime!  Sure, 'price-gouging' may not be a very nice thing to do, but when is kidnapping and theft ever the correct answer to a situation? 
    I was highly relieved that my children lost interest in the story before I got to the end.  I would never want to teach them that it's ok to harm another person or steal their property just because they aren't 'being fair.'  It's one thing to recount historical facts, but entirely another to make acts like this out to be heroism, which this book certainly does.  So here is one book that I definitely don't love.  Reader beware!
I posted on our facebook wall yesterday about our super nutritious, delicious dinner:  Hot-dogs and fried squash.  Ok, so maybe it's not super nutritious - but it is delicious.  And my kids did actually eat some veggies.  Since some people were curious about fried squash, I thought I'd post the recipe here.  Note: This can be made with any kind of slice-able vegetable (carrots, zucchini, summer squash, peeled and soaked eggplant, cucumbers, etc). 

Fried Veggies

All-purpose or rice flour (if you're gluten-free)
thinly sliced vegetables
canola oil

Heat 1/2 oil in large skillet.  Toss sliced veggies and flour in gallon-size plastic bag until veggies are well coated.  Dunk veggies in beaten egg, then dredge in cornmeal.  Fry in hot oil (I set my flat-top stove at 3-4 so I don't burn things) until coating is crispy and just brown.  Drain on layers of paper towel.  Repeat until all veggies are fried.  Serve with ketchup, BBQ sauce, or marinara for dipping.  Quantities of ingredients will vary depending on amount of veggies cooked. 

Note: You can add seasonings to the cornmeal before coating veggies if you want to enhance the flavor of the dish. 
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