Archive for February 7th, 2011

Valentines Day is just a week away!  I love this holiday, but it can be stressful when you’re on a tight budget.  However, you don’t have to buy fancy cards or go out to eat to have Valentine fun with your family.  Here are some ways we’ll be enjoying Valentines Day on a dime.

Print-Your-Own Valentines
One of my fondest memories from childhood was the annual valentine exchange at school.  There’s just something gratifying about coming home with a construction paper pocket full of little cards (and candy from the cool moms).  This is the one time of year when homeschooling can be a bummer.  In past years, I’ve had my kids make valentines for widows at church and residents of an Alzheimers care home where my Grandma used to live.  While they loved giving the valentines away, my heart always sank when they would ask why they didn’t get any in return.  On Valentines Day, it’s quantity – not quality – that counts when you’re a kid.

So this year, I decided to look for cheap Valentines I could print off on the computer and give to my kids.  I found this awesome set of 9 Disney Valentines online.  I printed them in black and white, since we’re out of colored ink, then cut them out and pasted them onto hot pink card stock trimmed with fancy scrapbooking scissors for my daughter.  My son loves Cyberchase on PBS, so I was thrilled to find these Cyberchase Valentines for him.  (I also found links to Sponge Bob and other character valentines online, so if your kids prefer other characters, it’s worth Googling!)  We’re planning to hide these for the kids to find on Valentines Day, since my kids LOVE treasure hunts (and we’ll, of course, make construction paper heart envelopes to hold them!).  My daughter adores pets, and since we accidentally bought a pregnant gerbil and ended up with 5 for the price of one, I decided to address some of her Valentines from our pets.

Mommy Meals
My kids love Happy Meals at McDonald’s, but with us being a gluten free family, these aren’t such a great deal.  (My son does not like to eat a hamburger without a bun, and nuggets are out.)  Besides the gluten issue, we’re generally not fans of fast food and are living on a tight budget, so when we have money to eat out we prefer a sit-down restaurant instead.  Still, there’s something thrilling about getting a toy with your meal.  So I invented Mommy Meals a few weeks ago when I was trying to cope with the 5th straight day of fog and winter gloom.  I found a couple decorative paper gift sacks (the kind you get for $.20 around the holidays) in the closet, and rounded up a couple cheap toys from my stash where I keep dollar store finds, party favors, carnival toys, and other little trinkets my kids forget about the day after they got them.  I made hamburgers with gluten free buns for dinner, and wrapped them in foil to go in the bags.  I also sliced an apple and split it between two Disney character-themed sandwich bags.  Since my kids love to get chocolate milk at McDonald’s, but it’s no longer an option for my daughter who can’t drink milk, I made chocolate milk using chocolate syrup and rice milk for my daughter, and put both kids’ drinks in thermoses to go in their bags.  The kids were beyond delighted when I plopped down their colorful bags in front of them and explained what they were.  My daughter asked me every day the following week when we could have them again!

For Valentines Day this year, I’m planning to go a step beyond Mommy Meals and duplicate the other iconic childhood restaurant experience: the pizza parlor/arcade with prizes.  Since there is no gluten free pizza at these places, we haven’t visited this type of establishment in two years.  We’ve visited places with arcades, but this can be pretty spendy.   So we’re going to make our own pizza and fun at home!  Even though we’re big fans of Udi’s GF pizza crusts, we’ll probably use the Bob’s Red Mill GF pizza dough mix so we can make heart-shaped pizzas and let the kids decorate their own with the toppings of their choice.  (For non-GF folks, you could use Pillsbury pizza dough and divide it into individual heart-shaped pizzas.)  For the arcade, I’ll give them tokens (plastic gold coins we already have) to spend at various games set up around the house with tickets to earn toward prizes.  Anything can be turned into a carnival or arcade game with a little imagination.  Some I’ll use include:

  • Little catapults with foil balls to shoot onto paper plate targets with various point values
  • Plastic bowling set or Wii bowling (with extra tickets awarded for strikes)
  • Bean Bag Toss (you can make homemade bean bags with rice or beans in doubled sandwich bags, and a large piece of cardboard with holes cut out)
  • Putting green with toy golf set or a tape ball, wooden spoon putter, and hole made out of an upside down paper plate with a hole cut out of the middle (or you can skip the other games and just set up a miniature golf course!)
  • Spin the Wheel game using a spinner from a board game with stickers or tape attached stating the number of tickets awarded for landing on each color/number
  • Ball Bounce using a bunch of plastic balls on a mini trampoline (or your bed, if you don’t mind kids jumping on it this one time) with a set amount of time to bounce all the balls onto the floor
  • Fishing game with either a strong magnet on the end of a string used to pick up small metal items, or a clothespin at the end of a makeshift pole tossed over a sheet to “catch” a ticket or prize clipped on by you
  • Mystery Egg game with a prize ticket placed inside one or two plastic Easter eggs for kids to try to find in a basket full of plastic eggs (we reuse plastic eggs, so we always have some on hand)
  • Pillow sack race or obstacle course (a tricycle obstacle course outside is fun when weather’s nice) with a prize ticket for the winner (or if you don’t want to have one winner, they can try to beat the clock)
  • Ball Toss game with a toy hoop or laundry basket and tickets awarded for however many baskets are made within a certain time limit
  • Ring Toss with homemade cardboard rings or canning jar rings tossed on a sturdy skinny bottle (condiment bottles work) taped to a plate

Obviously, the possibilities are endless for homemade games.  All you need to do is assign a point or ticket value to each game and give kids enough tokens to play each game at least once.  For prizes, I’ll raid my cheap toy/trinket stash and assign different ticket values to each prize (you kind of have to think this through and add up how many tickets your child is likely to collect, or you could wait to write the amounts until the end).  It’s interesting to see whether kids will choose to spend all their tickets on something big or collect a bunch of little things.  If you don’t have a goody stash, you can check the party favors aisle or dollar store for inexpensive treats.  I like to include things like stickers, fun art supplies, balls, dollar store books, bubbles, and other things I know will get used.

Just Me and My Valentine
Of course, once the kids are in bed, my husband and I will probably leave the mess to clean up later and enjoy a yummy dessert, like these decadent homemade brownies (made with regular or GF flour), while watching a favorite romantic comedy on DVD and snuggling by the fireplace.  Who needs expensive gifts and crowded restaurants when there’s no place like home!

(For frugal gift ideas for your valentine, check out this post from Simple Mom.)

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Best Brownies Ever!

I modified this recipe to be gluten free by replacing self-rising flour with Pamela’s Pancake and Baking Mix.  Using dark chocolate chips makes these brownies decadent and delicious, but the cost of the chips is no more than the cost of a boxed GF brownie mix.  Plus, you can throw together the batter in the time it takes for the oven to preheat, so what are you waiting for?!!

1/2 c. sugar
1/4 c. butter
1½ c. dark chocolate chips (we use Hershey’s Special Dark)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 c. self-rising flour* or Pamela’s GF Pancake & Baking Mix
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips plus 1/2 c. milk chocolate chips
OR 1 c. mint chocolate chips

*To make self-rising flour, add 1 tsp. baking powder and 1/4 tsp. salt to 3/4 c. all-purpose flour or GF flour blend.  For gluten free flour, you’ll also need to add 1/4 tsp. xanthan gum.  Whisk ingredients together, then measure out 2/3 c. and save leftover amount for another use.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat and stir in sugar until dissolved.  Remove from heat; stir in dark chocolate chips until melted.  Add eggs and flour or baking mix, stirring until just blended.  Stir in vanilla and 1 c. chocolate chips (either mint or 1/2 c. each semi-sweet and milk chocolate).  These chips won’t completely melt.

Pour into a greased 9” pie plate.  Bake at 350 degrees for 28 minutes or until set (won’t test done with a tooth pick).  Serve warm with vanilla ice cream and hot fudge sauce.  (These taste best the first day or two.  Reheat in the microwave for about 20 sec. per slice and drizzle with generous amounts of hot fudge if baking these the day before serving.)

Milk Chocolate and Peanut Butter Variation:

Substitute 1 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips plus ½ c. milk chocolate chips for the dark chocolate.  Substitute 1/2 c. Reece’s Peanut Butter Chips and 1/2 c. milk chocolate chips for the remaining 1 c. chocolate.

Garnish ice cream with chopped peanut butter cups.

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