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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Back to School Kids Party

This shop has been compensated by Collective Bias, Inc. and its advertiser. All opinions are mine alone.

Before we know it, the kids' summer break will reach its end. For some, it may have already. My daughter still has a few more weeks to play. It's always bittersweet to say goodbye to the carefree days, but at the same time, my daughter gets excited about the prospect of a clean slate (pardon my pun) and a new teacher. So to welcome the start of the coming school year, I hosted this fun "Back to School Party" for my kids and a bunch of their friends. I must say that everyone involved, including myself, left well-fed and superbly entertained.
I firmly believe that parties don't have to be elaborate or expensive to be fun, so, as with all the other parties I style,  I once again challenged myself to stick to a reasonable budget.  I used many items as decor that I already had and purchased others on-the-cheap.  The food also didn't break the bank and was a breeze to put together.

I made the "Back to School Banner" by coating some cardstock with chalkboard spray paint, then cutting out pennant shapes and writing the individual letters with a white chalk marker.  Then I attached the pieces to some baker's twine with wooden clothespins and strung it across a map of the United States that I borrowed from my friend for a backdrop.
I made some cute apple plates by cutting out leaves with green craft foam and hot gluing them to the edge.  It's a super simple dress up, but makes all the difference, don't you think?

It wasn't until after the party that I realized I'd forgotten to set out my cute green polka dot napkins, but did one of the kids notice?  Nope! Ha!
For additional decorations, I filled a glass vase with pencils and a jar with cherry sour candies.  I served fresh apples (the perfect size for little hands) from our tree in chalkboard buckets.  I grabbed some small chalkboards from my craft room and wrote school-related phrases on them to further the theme.  I pulled the Roald Dahl book collection from our library shelf and worked it in because I loved the colors, and they're some of our favorite reads! 
The tin crayon is actually a bank, but I stacked it up on some colorful books to add more school pizzazz!  I pulled the globe from my shelf and dusted it off for another decor piece.  I also displayed some rulers in a white spray-painted vase from my party supply stash.

For the fun table runner, I used chalkboard spray paint to coat some brown kraft paper.  I really wanted to have the option of doodling on it, and I think it was an eye-catching table element.  I ran a piece of burlap down the center.
Quite possibly my favorite part about this party was the fuss-free food.  The kids didn't complain about STOUFFER'S® Mac Cups and HOT POCKETS® either. 
  Because school and teachers remind us of apples, I made some Applesauce Cupcakes for dessert.  I followed this recipe for the cupcake base and then made cream cheese frosting and colored it red with food gel.  I sliced gummy worms in half and stuck them into the frosting.  Then I cut some pretzels for the stem.  The leaves were made with green Tootsie Rolls that I smashed flat with my clean fingers, then hand-cut in a leaf shape with a sharp knife.  I'm not going to lie...this part was a little tedious, but I couldn't help but grin from ear to ear when I saw the cute end result and witnessed the kids enjoying them.
For Back to School "Brain Food" I served baby carrots and broccoli pieces in mini decorative cups with a little Ranch dressing in the bottom.
The STOUFFER'S® Mac Cups were a huge hit with the kids!  Cheesy pasta goodness! I was a fan of the fact that they only take three minute to warm in the microwave too.  Now that's what I call #FoodMadeSimple!  And simple is just what I need when I'm scrambling to get the million last-minute details done on party day before the guests arrive.

I picked up a couple of 2-pack STOUFFER'S® Mac Cups in the freezer section of Walmart with STOUFFER'S® Single Serve Entrees.
The thirsty kids really appreciated the "Get Smart Drinks"...tasty Juicy Juice boxes, made from 100% juice, and the rich chocolate milk that I made with Nesquik Chocolate Syrup.  I love the fun-sized Juicy Juice!  Pretty much everything is cuter in mini form, don't you think?  I tied some A+ tags to the boxes with baker's twine.  Find the free A+ printables, along with the food labels, at the end of this post.
It's easy to throw a memorable back to school party, especially when it involves kid-friendly sustenance!  The little guests came hungry right at lunch time and immediately asked to dig in.  :)
I just had to serve yummy HOT POCKETS®, because what kid doesn't like pizza.  And as a parent, I applaud my children when they can eat it without making a huge mess.  Got to love the pockets!  They make a great after school snack, too, when the kids come home starving from a long day.  I served them in some brown cardstock sleeves that I cut and used double-sided tape to hold together.  Then I tied them with some baker's twine.
Most of the kids ate picnic style on a blanket in the living room, but some preferred to kneel on the tile at a chair.  It doesn't look comfortable to me, but kids never seem to care about that sort of thing.

For entertainment, we played bingo and the kids got to find mini school supplies in a jar filled with rice.
I handed out black and white Back to School Bingo Cards that I designed and let the kids color.  Because kids and crayons go together like bread and butter!

Our bingo rounds were great fun!  We practiced being a good sport if we didn't win every time.  :) Life lessons learned...check!

Find the free printable file for this Back to School Bingo game at the end of this post with 
the other "Party Printables".
I also put together an "I Spy" type game in a large Mason jar, along with a search list.  I used some small school supplies from our collection and then filled the rest of the jar with white rice.  Find the printable list at the end of this post.

I sent the kids home with these adorable Candy Pencil Favors.  I've seen variations of the idea out there, but basically I just rolled some Rolo candies in yellow, grey chevron, and pink paper, then hot glued in place and added a chocolate kiss candy for the point.


A+ Drink Labels

Food Labels 1

Food Labels 2

BINGO CARDS (5"x 7")

Bingo Card 1

Bingo Card 2

Bingo Card 3

Bingo Card 4

Bingo Card 5

Bingo Card 6

Bingo Card 7

Bingo Card 8

Bingo Call Card

Back to School Rice Search List (4"x 6")

A back to school party is a great way to get kids excited about a new year of learning!  Do you have back to school traditions with your kids?  I'd love to hear!

Thanks, #CollectiveBias, for the opportunity to style this fun back to school party!

For all other party ideas go HERE.

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Almond Cherry Bars: July Mystery Dish

Today I've got what's guaranteed to be the easiest and, I'd venture to say, the tastiest Almond Cherry Bar recipe out there!
 I created these as part of July's Mystery Dish.  Sarah over at The Pajama Chef was our gracious host this month and asked us to use at least three ingredients from the following list:

coffee (grounds or brewed)
sour cream
infused or flavored olive oil
fresh herbs (any kind)
hot peppers (any kind)

I say this every time, but I really look forward to the end of the month for this very reason!   I hope you enjoy it too!  I love taking on a new challenge and coming up with a fresh dessert recipe to add to my ever-growing arsenal. 
I have to say these bars are both gorgeous and luscious!  The deep red cherries really contrast with the white glaze and light-colored cookie dough base.  I make a version of them that are 100% homemade and I honestly can't decide which one I prefer.  My husband taste-tested for me and made the observation that they resemble a made-from-scratch Pop Tart in cookie bar form.  I have to agree.  The texture is different from your run-of-the-mill, store-bought Pop Tart, however.  The sour cream makes them ultra soft and moist.
They're semi-homemade and use a packaged sugar cookie mix, with a few add-ins like almond extract and chopped almonds, for the base.  Then come the sweet cherries in their syrup and another layer of the cookie dough base.  To finish off these pretties, I drizzled on a glaze, flavored with a little more almond extract.


Cookie Dough Base:
2 packages (12.5 oz. total) sugar cookie mix (I used Betty Crocker)
1/4 c. salted butter (slightly softened)
1/4 c. (full fat) sour cream
1/4 tsp. almond extract
1/2 c. chopped almonds

Cherry Filling:
3/4 can (about 16 oz.) cherry pie filling
1/4 tsp. almond extract

1/2 c. powdered sugar
1 Tbsp. milk (approximately)
1/4 tsp. almond extract

For the cookie dough base, mix all ingredients together in the bowl of an electric mixer.  Reserve 1/2 c. for the topping.  Press the remaining dough into an 8"x8" glass pan that's been sprayed with butter spray.  Prepare the filling by stirring together cherries and almond extract.  Spread over base.  Top with reserved topping.  The topping won't cover the entire top, but this will allow the pretty cherries to show through.  Do your best to press the dough pieces in your hand and arrange them evenly.

Bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately 23-25 minutes, or until it starts to look golden brown.  Let cool, then prepare the glaze.

For the glaze, with a wire whisk, stir together powdered sugar, 1 Tbsp. milk, and almond extract.  Slowly add more milk, a splash at a time, until it reaches the desired consistency.  Cut and enjoy!
This, my friends, is what you call perfection in a bar!  The wonderful tastes of summer collide into complete cherry deliciousness!  I'm typically the queen of homemade desserts, but this month has been really busy at our house, so a semi-homemade confection is what it called for!  There's nothing wrong with that, especially when it tastes this good!


Here's what the rest of the Mystery Dish bunch came up with this month.  Talk about eye candy!
July Mystery Dish via thepajamachef.com
  1. Watermelon Salsa - The Pajama Chef
  2. Farro Salad - Chez CateyLou
  3. Cherry Almond Coffee Cake - Two Happy Bellies
  4. Watermelon Fruit Salad with Mint Lime Dressing - Yummy Healthy Easy
  5. Toasted Almond Caramel Mocha Gelato - Culinary Couture Blog
  6. Cherry Galettes with Almond Sour Cream Crust - The Well Floured Kitchen
  7. Cherry Watermelon Granita - Joyful Healthy Eats
  8. Cherry Almond Mocha Smoothie - Baking a Moment
  9. Pepperoni Pasta Salad - I Want Crazy
  10. Almond Cherry Bars - I Dig Pinterest
  11. Cucumber Salsa - Weary Chef
  12. Cherry Almond Popsicles - Blahnik Baker
I hope you enjoy the Almond Cherry Bars!  We sure did!

Last month I made some delicious Dutch Peach Pie Bars for the Mystery Dish Challenge...another fantastic summer dessert.  They're a reader favorite right now!

For all my past Mystery Dish creations go HERE.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

$400 Back to School Cash Giveaway!!!

I seriously cannot believe summer's almost over!  Someone please pinch me.  It's unreal how fast time flies when you're having fun.  But, like it or not, school will be back in session for the kiddos before we know it!  I've already been doing some supply and clothes shopping for my daughter.  I secretly get a kick out of it.  :)  But the part that I literally cringe about is seeing my total on the cash register afterwards.  It can get expensive purchasing that long list of classroom necessities, not to mention new outfits, a backpack, lunch box, and shoes...and did I mention that I only have one in school?!

Since I'm pretty sure we feel the same way about back-to-school taking a huge hit on the wallet, I'm joining up with some awesome bloggers to give away $400 in back to school, cold, hard cash!!  How exciting is that?

Complete the Rafflecopter below.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

This giveaway is brought to you by these fabulous bloggers!
The Weary Chef - Joyful Healthy Eats - Lemon Tree Dwelling Five Heart Home - Cooking on the Front Burner - Diary of a Recipe Collector Clarks Condensed - Life Made Sweeter - Lemons for Lulu Little Miss Celebration - Food Faith Fitness - House of Yumm Melanie Makes - Krafted Koch - The Bitter Side of Sweet Julie's Eats & Treats - Vegan in the Freezer - Chelsea's Messy Apron Kleinworth & Co. - Flavor the Moments - Spoonful of Flavor The Midnight Baker - Frugal Foodie Mama - Mom's Test Kitchen Eazy Peazy Mealz - Hot Eats and Cool Reads - Call Me PMc My Gluten-free Kitchen - A Little Claireification - Yesterfood Belle of the Kitchen - Petite Allergy Treats - The Grant Life Yummy Healthy Easy - Beyond Frosting - Wishes and Dishes I Dig Pinterest - Love Bakes Good Cakes Life, Love and Sugar - Delightful E Made

Best of luck to you!  Wouldn't it be awesome to not have to pay a penny out-of-pocket for back-to-school items?  I think so! 

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Friday, July 25, 2014

Make Learning Fun with Disney Jr., Preschool Superhero Sounds & Counting Free Printables!

This shop has been compensated by Collective Bias, Inc. and its advertiser. All opinions are mine alone.

My four-year-old son will be starting preschool for a second year this fall.  Except this time, I've decided to homeschool him rather than send him out. I know I'll need to get really creative with my teaching methods in order to make learning fun and to successfully prepare him for kindergarten.  Disney Jr. has some great learning tools, so I picked up a fun kit at Walmart and then put together some additional sound and counting activities of my own, which you'll see free printables for at the end of this post.
I love seeing how different each of my three kids' personalities are.  For example, my oldest daughter learned the alphabet at age 3 and then begged me to teach her to read after just turning 4.  She is a book worm through-and-through, and I'm so glad.

My four-year-old son's disposition is night and day from her in that he would much rather play superheroes than practice letters and sounds.  Learning to read before kindergarten would, I'm sure, be seen as pure torture to him.  I'm not going to force anything, because I want him to enjoy learning, but I'm determined to provide him with fun activities at our mommy/son preschool in the coming year that will teach him important concepts and help him enjoy the ride along the way.

To help make learning fun for him this year in preschool, I picked up a Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Learning Schoolhouse Activity Kit at Walmart the other day. My son couldn't wait to get home and open it!

I found the kit over in the Back to School section of the store.  Some other great Disney Jr. items that are available are:

Learning Easel Activity Center
Learning Schoolhouse Activity
Counting Learning Activity
First Words Learning ACtivity
Rhyming Learning ACtivity
Alphabet Learning Activity
Numbers Learning Activity
Colors & Shapes Learning Activity
We got home and he immediately opened it and began tracing letters on the dry-erase alphabet board.  I love that it's so easy to wipe clean and can be used over and over for lots of practice!

And see that cute little mini clock up top?  It's the perfect way to jump start time-telling skills!  I didn't think my son would understand it yet, but he's catching on quick!

 The kit also includes some fun star stickers to reward A+ work, which I happily did.  :)  

Then he moved to the counting and alphabet flashcards.  He's becoming a pro counter!

Next, he played the role of teacher and proceeded to quiz me on my U.S. geography and state capitals.  I'm a little rusty, but I think I passed. :)
The Disney Jr. Learning Kit is a fantastic tool.  But because every individual learns very differently, I decided to supplement my son's preschool curriculum by creating a few more simple educational opportunities.  He gets excited at the mere mention of superheroes, so I knew I needed to come up with activities centered around them...
...like this Superhero Counting Game (free printables below).  I simply laid out the large number sheets and allowed him to count out different amounts of each superhero logo to put underneath.  
Two thumbs way up!  He's going to be so #Ready4Preschool to start in a month! 

I wanted to reinforce his letter recognition and teach sounds, so I designed a set of superhero flash cards with the beginning letters emphasized.  I quizzed him on what each letter was and asked him to say the word out loud to me, pausing on the beginning sound of each.
B is for "buh, buh" Batman, his favorite superhero of all time!  He got a kick out of this game.  


Print the superhero logo circles HERE.

Number Labels for Superhero Counting:
Number 1
Number 2
Number 3
Number 4
Number 5
Number 6
Number 7
Number 8
Number 9
Number 10

Superhero Sounds Activity:
Superhero Sounds Game Sheet 1
Superhero Sounds Game Sheet 2
Superhero Sounds Game Sheet 3

Collectively, these activities really got my son excited about learning!  Sweet success! At this rate, he may be reading before kindergarten like his sister did!  I hope you find them useful too!

Thanks, #CollectiveBias, for the opportunity to help make learning fun for preschoolers like my son!

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Deluxe Strawberry Banana Cream Pie with Perfect Pie Crust Tutorial

I cannot say enough good things about this deluxe Strawberry Banana Cream Pie, so I'll let the photos do most of the speaking.  It includes five layers of divine goodness that are well worth the time and effort.  I'm sharing this fabulous recipe as part of Nap Time Creations' "Summer Fun" series, of which I'm thrilled to be a part.
Feast your eyes on that.  Is your mouth watering too?  

I'm yearning for another piece right now.  A perfect pie crust layered with sweet cream cheese, then sliced bananas, succulent fresh strawberries, a strawberry glaze and topped with fluffy whipped cream.  

I mentioned earlier that I visited my parent's house a few weeks ago and number one on my bucket list while I was there was to partake of my mom's homemade strawberry pie.  I seriously dream about it.  I grew up indulging in it every summer.  My siblings and I would beg her to make it.  I even often promised to cut strawberries and bananas to make the job easier.

Of course you can just buy the crust and cut out a lot of the work, but to my mom, pie making is an art, and she would never think of using anything but a homemade crust.   However, if you're short on time, there's no crime in purchasing the crust.  I promise not to hold it against you.  :)

For some reason, I've always been intimidated by making pie crust.  Are you like me?  Each time I do, though, I'm amazed at how easy it really is. Probably the most important thing to remember is not to add too much water.  A soggy crust is no bueno. 

I'll try to be detailed in my instructions so you can output the perfect pie crust to impress your family and friends!

Makes two 9" pie crusts

2 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/8 c. shortening
 Stir flour and salt together. Add shortening on top.
Cut in shortening with a pastry blender or two knives until the mixture forms pea-sized pieces.
Add 3 Tbsp. ice water (ice water prevents the shortening from melting) and work into mixture with a fork, pushing aside the moistened portions.
Sprinkle ice water, 1 Tbsp. at a time on dry areas, and continue working moistened parts to the side until all the dough is moist.
Divide dough into two equal portions and form into balls.  You can use a scale for this or just eyeball it like we did.
Press dough ball with the palm of your hand to flatten a bit.
Roll out on floured surface until about 2" wider than your pie plate. 
Scrape dough underneath with a metal spatula for a clean release from the counter top.
Fold dough in fourths to transfer easily to the pie plate.
Align dough so it overhangs by about 2", then unfold.
Trim dough so it hangs over the pie plate by about 1".  If some areas are scant, grab a piece of trimmed dough and use a few dabs of ice water to "glue" it to the area.
Fold dough under so a little of it sticks above the pie plate.
Now flute the edges using two of your fingers as support on one hand and your index finger on the other hand to press the dough between your fingers.  Be sure to press down so the dough will be right up against the pie plate.  This will prevent shrinking.
Prick the bottom and edges with a fork so the crust can breathe while baking.  Bake at 475 degrees Fahrenheit for 12-15 minutes, or until edges are golden brown.  Let cool, then add filling layers listed below.  You'll want to make the glaze while the crust is baking.
Look at that gorgeous glistening strawberry glaze!  I want to dip my finger into the picture and take a lick.  There are lots of layers, but I guarantee you'll want to jump on this bandwagon, because it will take you to pie heaven!

Layer 1

Makes enough for two 9" pies

1 (8 oz.) package cream cheese, softened
1 c. powdered sugar
1 c. cool whip

Mix in the bowl of an electric mixer until creamy.  Divide in half and spread onto bottom of crusts.  

Layer 2
6 Bananas, sliced and divided in half

Place bananas over cream cheese layer

Layer 3

2 cartons of strawberries, washed, dried, and stems removed.

Slice strawberries in half and arrange 1 carton's worth over each pie on top of the bananas.

Layer 4

Makes enough for two 9" pies

12 c. (or 2 cartons) strawberries
2 c. sugar
6 Tbsp. corn starch
1 c. water

Mash enough strawberries to measure 2 cups.  Mix sugar and corn starch in 2 quart sauce pan.  Stir in water and strawberries.  Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens and boils. Boil and stir one minute.  Cover with plastic wrap and let cool completely.  

Pour and spread half the cooled glaze mixture on each pie.

Layer 5


1 pint whipping cream
2 tsp. vanilla
4 heaping Tablespoons powdered sugar

Put all ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer and whip until peaks form.  Spread on top of pie.

Place pie in refrigerator and chill for 3 hours before eating for best results.

It's simply irresistible, just like it looks!  Strawberries won't be in season for too much longer, so you should make this ASAP!  You won't regret it.  At bite one, you're sure to be hooked and this incredible pie will become a tradition for you, too, each summer.

Do you enjoy making pie crusts from scratch, or are you all about buying them?

Check out these other "Summer Fun" ideas by my awesome fellow bloggers!
summerfun part 8
Chocolate Dipped Mickey Treats from Forty Eighteen- yum!
My Overstuffed Life is sharing How to Host a Summer Book Club for Kids- FUN!
And last be sure to check out this delicious Banana Strawberry Cream Pie at I Dig Pinterest.

Head over to Nap-Time Creations to see lots of other ideas for Summer Fun
last week's collage: summer fun 7
Crochet Nautical Handbag by the Stitchin' Mommy
Strawberry Shortcake by O Taste and See
Mini Greenhouse by Sugar Tart Crafts on Nap-Time Creations
Hop on over to Nap-Time Creations to enter TWO great giveaways...

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