Sunday, December 9, 2012

Stationery card
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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Carnival Birthday Party - Prizes!

Oriental Trading had a great deal for the type of prizes I needed - they have several options in the size of bag and types of goodies in each.  In addition to the prizes from there, I also got some of the items from the $1 bins at Target and also from the party store.

The more desirable prizes cost more tickets.  I made sure I had a wide range of ticket "costs" so that everyone would be able to go home with some fun.

In order to come up with the number of tickets awarded at the games and how many tickets the prizes would cost, I thought about how many games I had (8, since the photo booth and face painting didn't award tickets), how many games each child could play in about an hour, and the difficulty.  First I assigned ticket prices to the prizes (25, 50, 100, etc.)  In order to earn a 100-ticket prize, a child would have to have played each game twice and achieved most of the goals.  The children were awarded tickets at each game for participation, and a higher amount for achieving the goal (such as hitting the golf ball through the castle).

Some games had levels of tickets: playing the Balloon Darts would win a player 2 tickets for any color balloon and 3 for any white balloon.  For the Shooting Gallery, the player wins 2 tickets for each ping pong ball knocked off the tee.

I had an adult assigned to each game station (or in between two) to hand out tickets and explain the game.  This was the biggest help of all - recruiting help was essential to this being a success!

The prize table was set up, so that the kids could look at the options and decide what to buy.  I bought individual popcorn containers from Target to hold the prizes, and this was each guest's take-home gift.

In the end, everyone's container was very bountiful.

Having a Fantastic Carnival Party:
- Carnival Party - Games
- Decorations
- Food

Carnival Birthday Party - All About Games

My daughter came up with the idea of a carnival-themed party for her birthday, and it was so much fun to get ideas and plan.  I hope what I share can help inspire your next celebration.

From the first mention of the idea, we began planning - writing down ideas, looking in magazines and on Pinterest for decorations, making the list of food we'd have.  From that list of ideas, I whittled it down to what was achievable, and then agreed to consider it a success if I just pulled off 80% of our plan.  This relieved a lot of stress, and helped me prioritize and plan the most important ideas first and save some of the "would be nice if it happened" for "if there's still time."
First, I enlisted help from my family and friends - from saving cans for games to blowing up balloons the week before to pulling pretzels out of the oven the morning of the big day.  The planning and idea stage was about 2 months prior to the party, which helped tremendously in not feeling stressed by the rush to get it all done.  Having time on my side was more helpful than I even imagined.  I'm not someone who typically plans that far in advance for any big event - except for a Disney trip :-). So this was definitely new territory, but all the accolades on Party Day made it worth the effort.
Being on a budget, I listed our game ideas and what materials we'd need to create them.  We narrowed it down the ones that would be most fun for the age group and also least costly.  I tried to use materials we already had around the house or could borrow.  I even had 1 or 2 "maybes" in case we ran out of time or room, or a planned game had to be taken off the list.
The signs for each game were something I started on in advance.  I liked a few ideas I saw with the triangle banners.  I used constructions paper mostly. For some game titles, I used scrapbook paper that fit in with the color scheme (primary colors, mainly red, yellow and blue).  I wrote down game titles for all the planned (and backup) games, so I would know how many coordinating triangles I'd need for each, then all three of my children and I cut them out.   I got them involved anytime I could.  They were excited to be helping.

On each triangle I glued a letter - most of these were cut out with a Cricut® machine that I borrowed.  This saved a ton of time and also looked great!!  I punched holes on the ends and threaded red yarn through to connect them.
A few game signs (with long titles), I printed on paper with a Rosewood font, and matted the sign with festive paper.

With each game, the player earned tickets toward prizes at the end.  I gave a ticket just for participating/trying, but more tickets for obtaining the goal. More details about the tickets and prizes...

1. Balloon Darts ($10.50 for 36 darts at Oriental Trading; $6 for balloons)
For the balloon darts game, I found a fairly large piece of cardboard in our garage and tested pinning a balloon to it to make sure it'd stay with a thumb tack.  I also tested how long the balloon remained inflated (in the garage) to determine how far in advance I could set up the balloons on the board before the party.  Blowing up 5" balloons with an air pump lasted over a week before they began to deflate and lose air.
I wasn't able to find a large selection of multi-colored balloons in the 5" size, so I ended up getting a few packages of tye-dye water balloons, which looked and worked great.
I covered the piece of cardboard in some left over table covers (red, yellow and blue).  Next I fastened (with thumbtacks) all white balloons to form a number 9 in the center (her birthday age). Finally, I filled in the rest of the board with the color balloons.  To earn tickets, I decided that popping a white balloon would also be worth more.

I ended up using about 90 balloons on the board, then blowing up an additional 90 to use for refills as the game was played throughout the day, putting the extras in plastic garbage bags. 
I ordered the darts form Oriental Trading - they had primary, fun colors and in a large quantity, which ended up being the best price.  Each player received three darts.  I rewarded 2 tickets for each balloon; 3 if it were a white one.

2. Clothespin Drop ($0)
I used an empty glass candle jar (about 9" tall), cleaned it out with lamp oil, to remove the wax. The kids painted a couple of clothespins, and this was placed on an outdoor blanket for the game.  The object is to stand over the jar, hold the clothespin to your nose and try to drop it in the jar.  We gave each player three pins.

3. Bottle Bowling ($4 water bottles)
For this, I decided to use water bottles as the pins.  I had the kids test out several types of balls in advance to decide which was the most successful, but also challenging, in knocking them down.  We ended up using baseballs, which were a perfect weight to knock down the filed bottles. I kept the lids and filled the bottles with water, nearly to the top, which ended up weighing right at one pound each.  For a festive disguise, I covered the bottles in some colorful scrapbook paper.  I used a piece of 1/4" board from our garage as the alley and drew the arrows on it with a red marker, to emulate a bowling lane.  Any flat surface would work - if using a sidewalk, patio or driveway, you could use chalk to draw the triangles.

4. Photo Booth ($3 for props)
For the "stage, I used a nylon puppet theater to set the stage for our photo booth.  I had this in a "donate" bag, but pulled it out for the party, when I saw this idea. I looked at ideas for props, and even saw some in the store later, but cut out my own with construction paper and glued them to bamboo skewers. I also had the kids look through former dress-up costumes for fun things like hats and silly glasses.

I set this up by taping it (on the top) to our swing set.  I had the kids use props and pose for pictures ahead of time.  Then I printed off a few photos to show ideas for how it worked.

5. Baseball ($0)
For this game, I used aluminum cans (canned veggies), well rinsed.  I also covered these in scrapbook paper to camouflage.  We set this up on a card table and used whiffle balls to knock over.  Tennis balls would have worked as well. The reason we didn't use actual baseballs was because we thought if someone's aim wasn't perfect, a stray whiffle ball would probably be the less damaging or painful.

6. Shooting Gallery ($7 for golf tees; $6 for ping pong balls; $1 for package of three water guns )
This fun game involves shooting water guns at the ping pong balls to see how many can be shot off the golf tee.  I used part of a 2x4 board in our garage, and had my husband drill holes in it, just deep enough to hold a golf tee.  I bought a bag of white golf tees and used the kids’ leftover acrylic paints to brighten them up for the carnival.  After adding some ping-pong balls and a few tiny water guns, this game was complete.  We used a saw horse, covered in a table cover, to hold the board.

7. Ping-Pong Toss ($6 for ping pong balls [used one package for both games 6 and 7]; $5 for clear cups)
Our second use for the bag of ping pong balls was a toss game, into cups of water.  I used clear plastic cups, filled with water.  A few of them had blue food coloring, a few more had red, and the rest were clear.  The colors were worth more points, and also in a more difficult place on the table.  Each player got three attempts.

8. Ring Toss ($1, bracelets; about $12 for bottles of IBC)
Until my dad offered a terrific original Coke crate (which I used), my first idea was using an old box.  I'd cut around the sides so that only 4-5" were left.  Then I used paint to decorate it with red and white stripes.  Since we don't use glass bottled drinks often, I looked for sales and stocked up when IBC went on sale.  I bought some regular root beer (brown bottles) and also some black cherry (in clear.  They make great floats for the kids, if you have trouble drinking all that soda.  For the rings, I used some hard plastic bracelets from the Dollar Store.

9. Mini-Golf ($4)
On a trip to Home Depot one day for some paint, I looked at the clearance shelf and found a gem for one of the games.  It was a wooden, build-it-yourself castle for mini-golf.  This was a great find, because my son would enjoy building it, and it would serve as a fun game - plus the kit was only $3.  Using a small container of mis-tinted paint ($1), this was perfectly-priced game.

10. Face Painting ($12 for paint kit)
My daughter (not the birthday girl) volunteered to paint faces and practiced on the other two the week before.  She drew on a poster the 6 decorations she could do, and had "customers" pick one.

11. Guess How Many Gumballs
We counted ahead of time and filled a Mason jar with gumballs - the closest guess got to take the jar home!

Other ideas we had - but didn't use this year:
- ducks in the pond (baby pool) - picking the one specially marked to earn a prize
- Cake Walk
- Pie in the face
- Bean Bag Toss
- Fishing (using pole with magnet and paper fish in a pool/pond (dry), also with magnet to see how many you can catch
- Bobbing for Apples:  I borrowed a metal galvanized tub for this activity.  However, before the party, some of the kids in the group had become ill, so I decided it wouldn't be a good idea to share water at the party.  Instead I ended up using this for ice and cold water.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Science Party: experiments, snow, explosions, astronomy...

My daughter is very much into science: experiments, space, anything related to science.  She asked for a science-themed birthday party.

I found a great website that had all the materials and detailed instructions for for some really cool experiments to do at the party - everything was very hands-on, so all the guests got to do something fun. Steve Spangler Science (website).

The mentos and diet coke explosion has become fairly familiar.  I thought this would provide some excitement.  I bought several 2 liters of Diet Coke and a pack of Mentos, so we could perform this a few times.  Steve Spangler's website sells a contraption that makes it easy to drop the mentos into the bottle while allowing enough distance and time to run away before the soda volcano covers you.

Inside, we all played with sand that didn't get wet, blue goo worms that went from liquid to solid out-of-water, and tiny gelatinous beads that not only expanded significantly in water, but also took on the color properties of the water:

Also inside, we held a centrifugal force experiment with a bicycle wheel.  By spinning the wheel and tilting it slightly, the person holding the wheel felt strong forces of movement associated with that.

Outside, we continued our fun with some Insta-Snow (from Spangler).  Just add a small amount (I used plastic cups for each person), then combine with water to watch it grow instantly into snow.  It felt exactly like snow!  Amazing experiment - I highly recommend. (You just can't eat it).  It only disappears as it dries out, but you can add more water later to bring it back.

Finally, we took a look at the moon - it was a perfect evening - through my father-in-law's telescope.  It was the first time for most of the guests, so they loved it!

From not knowing how to pull off a "science" party to getting ideas from my father-in-law and some great ready-to-do and kid-friendly experiments from the Steve Spangler site, it turned into a successful evening and one that the kids talked about for months!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Tower of Enchirito: Week 4

As we were trying to title this entree, my children came up with "Tower of Enchirito" - combining enchiladas and Doritos, plus the fact that we built layers like a tower.  We came up with this mexican casserole with what we had in pantry - it was something new we hadn't tried before, and the kids loved it!  Even the leftovers are delicious.

Cost: $18; serves 8 (large servings)

1 lb (or 1.25 lb) hamburger (or meat of your choice)
1 large can refried beans
2 cans enchilada sauce (I used one green chile and one red)
1 large block cheese (I used combination of Mont Jack, and Cheddar)
1 small can olives (optional)
6 regular flour tortillas (or corn, if you prefer)
about 1/4 bag of Doritos or one of the snack-size bags
1 can Rotel

Preheat oven to 350. Cook hamburger until done.  Add Rotel and refried beans.  In 9x13 dish, pour about 2/3 can enchilada sauce on bottom; coat both sides of tortillas, and place in bottom of pan, flat, so that the pan is covered.  Overlapping the tortillas is fine, or tear some pieces off to make up for the bare spots.  Sprinkle grated cheese on top, then spoon beef/bean mixture on top.  Put handful of olives on top of meat. Layer with enchilada-sauce coated tortillas, and repeat cheese, meat, olives.  The easiest method for coating the tortillas (which you don't have to do - but it helps get the flavor on the inside) is to pour the sauce on top of the pan or mixture, then just press the tortilla into it, and flip them over to the other side. 

For the top, end with a layer of tortillas, pour any remaining enchilada sauce on top, sprinkle with cheese and olives.  Crush Doritos and layer on top of cheese. Bake about 20 min, until cheese is melted, then serve.  It only took about 35 min from start to finish.

The Doritos really give a nice crunch and zestiness to the dish. 

Our family of 5 ate approx half the dish, so we had enough leftovers for a few lunches or an entire second meal.

Pretzels: A Pursuit of the Best

Do you ever get in the mood to make something in particular, look up a recipe online, and find 6 variations of the same recipe, then wonder which one is going to be the right one?  Well, I took several variations of pretzel recipes to find the one that worked best - and I hope this helps saves others some time in their pursuit.

My daughter decided on a carnival-themed birthday party this year. One idea for food was, of course, pretzels - what carnival is complete without those yummy snacks that call for salt, or sugar, or mustard.

Wanting to be prepared, I thought I'd try these out ahead of time to be sure I could make them, and also to test how far ahead I could make them, and they still taste good - a day, 2 days?  First I attempted a from-scratch recipe with yeast, flour, etc., dipping them into a baking-soda/water mixture before baking.  Well, the entire batch was a disaster.  Maybe I let the dough rise too long, or maybe it was just a bad recipe.  At any rate, even with all the mustard in the world, I couldn't eat these pretzels.

So I turned to the Pillsbury breadsticks recipe for pretzels.  Even with these, I found many variations, so I spent one morning testing out each one to determine which was really the best.

One can of breadsticks has 12 sections.  If you use only one to form the pretzel, it's very small, and would fit in the palm of your hand - almost better to make garlic knots with.  However, rolling out two strips into long ropes and connecting them will make a perfect sized pretzel - not the huge kind you get at the game, but a great size for kids and snacking.

I separated each section and rolled it on my stone until it was thin and round. Next I brought two end together to create a circle, twisted the ends around each other, then flipped it over the circle, to make the pretzel shape.  I made 2 small (one section) and 2 regular size (with 2 sections).

One variation I had seen online mentioned freezing the pretzels after forming them, so that they would keep their shape and not bulk up so much, so I tried this method with half.  I formed the pretzels and stuck them in the freezer on some parchment paper while the first half was baking. This would be a way to make a large number of them ahead of time, so only the baking time is left - not the rolling out and forming into pretzel shapes.

The other variations I'd seen in recipes involved the basting of the pretzel prior to baking.  The 4 most common I saw called for one of these (so I tried all four to compare):

- the whole egg, whisked
- egg yolk, whisked
- egg white, whisked
- melted butter (not pictured)

(Above) Going into the oven: top left - egg white; top right - melted butter;
bottom left - egg yolk; bottom right - egg

Coming out of the oven, the one coated in egg yolk was the best looking - very golden.  The one dipped in melted butter didn't have any of the "shine" like the others did.  I noticed with the whisked egg (not separated) that I got a little too much in one spot, and it started cooking, so be careful that you give the pretzel a light coating.

As far as taste, the melted butter one didn't seem to add much flavor to the breadstick - it just tasted like a breadstick.  The egg white and egg yolk coated pretzels also just tasted like normal breadsticks (which are still delicious).  The pretzel with the whole egg had some flavor to it that made it taste more like a pretzel to me, than the others.  I could tell a difference, and it was not egg-tasting, at all.

Also, the addition of sesame seeds and/or sea salt helps enhance the flavor and take it more to the pretzel taste from the breadstick.  If using these toppings, pinch some in your fingers and sprinkle on before baking, so it sticks.  After baking, the egg will harden the outside, making it difficult for toppings to adhere.  If making a sweet pretzel, I think brushing with butter, then sprinkling with cinnamon-sugar (after baking) would work.  I didn't try this, because I probably won't be making sweet pretzels for the party - however, they do sound tasty.

When comparing the final product of the straight-into-the-oven vs the freeze-first batches, the frozen ones did hold more true to their shape in size (left), and didn't plump up as much as the ones that went straight in (right).  As far as taste, the flavor didn't change, but the texture of the straight-in batch was more fluffy, and the frozen only slightly more dense.  To me, it wasn't enough difference to choose one over the other - it will just come down to time, and how I want to prepare ahead of time.

Right out of the oven, they all tasted delicious.  I'm going to cover them and check again later this evening and then tomorrow.  If there are any pieces left, I'll test two days out to see how the taste and texture hold up with time.

After just a few hours (I couldn't wait), the egg-covered was still great; the butter-covered had already gotten too chewy and lost a bit of the soft, freshness.  I think the egg-coating helps seal in the softness of the inside for longer.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Turkey-Cheddar Meatloaf (week 3)

I decided to try ground turkey for meatloaf this week, and it was a good decision.  The texture was perfect; the flavor was fantastic.

Cost: $12 (not purchasing new bottles of sauce and but accounting for using what you already have)

2 lb ground turkey
1 envelope Lipton onion soup mix
1 cup breadcrumbs
1 cup ketchup
2 eggs
1/2 cup finely chopped green pepper
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar
1 tsp cumin
1/4 cup A1
1/4 cup BBQ sauce
1/8 cup Worcestershire sauce

Preheat oven to 400 F.  In large mixing bowl, combine sauces, using only 1/8 cup ketchup, green pepper and eggs.  You can use any various combinations of the liquid ingredients/sauces, to equal about 3/4 cup. Mix in ground turkey. Add breadcrumbs, onion soup mix, and cumin;  mix into turkey well. Mix in shredded cheese.

Spoon mixture into loaf pan.  Yes, I use a spoon even for mixing - I know some believe in doing this with hands only, but I don't feel that using a spoon makes it any less tasty.  I used a 4-mini loaf pan which makes smaller loaves, allowing more edges.  It also doesn't usually take as long to bake as a loaf pan.

Cover loaf  (or each loaf) with remaining ketchup, thickly covering the top to coat.  You could also use BBQ sauce instead for a spicier flavor.

Bake for an hour (may need to be longer in one loaf pan.  Make sure temp reaches 170 degrees.

Remove from oven and serve in slices.  The cheese inside keeps the moisture and adds flavor, without it being greasy. Delicious!  And the leftovers taste good, heated in the microwave or on a sandwich.

Serve with mashed potatoes or cheesy fries.

Cheesy Fries (week 3)

This week I have 2 new dishes: one of which is a side dish.  These cheesy fries look very much like the appetizer one might find at Chili's.  It's a delicious party dish or side dish to BBQ, chili or Turkey and cheddar meatloaf (my new meal this week).

Cost: about $9, if you have the seasonings on hand already

4-6 potatoes
2 cups shredded cheddar
5 slices cooked bacon
1 green onion, sliced thinly
2 Tbsp olive oil

Seasoning mix:
2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp each: chili powder, onion powder, garlic powder
1/4 tsp cumin
salt - dash
pepper - to taste

Preheat oven to 400 F.  Cut potatoes into 1/4" slices.  I used a wavy cutter to give it the true "fry" look and also helps with keeping the oil and seasonings on the potato.

Put slices into 1 gallon Ziploc bag and pour in olive oil.  Close bag and work potatoes slices to coat evenly.  Next, add the seasoning mix to the bag, close and work potatoes to coat.  This is a great task for the kids to help with.

Place potato slices in single layer on foil-lined baking sheet(s) and bake about 25 min. until tender. If they need to crisp some more, turn on the broiler for about 5 minutes.  Remove from oven.  Combine into one dish (9x13 works well), if you had to use two.  Remove foil from pans.  Cover with shredded cheese; sprinkle with bacon pieces, jalapenos and onion slices.

Place back in oven to bake (350 or 400 - not broiler) for about 10 min, until cheese is melty. Serve immediately with ranch dressing for a dip, if desired.