Friday, July 19, 2019

Five on Friday: Last of the Epic Road Trip Posts: Eating on the Road

I hope you consider me less of "that person who can't stop talking about her vacation" and more of "that awesome Mom who is providing a service to other families" (as well as "that woman who has no other ideas for a post this morning")

How do I keep my family of seven fed on the road? We have a few guidelines that might not work for everyone, like we generally don't let them eat in the van and we don't do fast food. We do frequently eat lunch on the side of the road and sometimes what constitutes a meal is pretty weird:

Keeping everyone full, happy and relatively healthy while on the road can be a challenge. We definitely eat out frequently, it is vacation after all, but there's no way we're going to purchase breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner every single day. So here are a few tips that have helped for us:

1. We pack the seltzer maker. I know this sounds a little crazy because when my husband announced, "We have the van and lots of space now, I'm packing the seltzer maker!," I thought he was a little crazy. 

However, we're a family that drinks a lot of water and all enjoy seltzer. We also hate spending money on water when we can just refill our bottles at sinks and water fountains. The only problem is that even if the water is potable, it might not be palatable. We've found when you "zizz up" weird-tasting water it becomes bearable.

2. A second modern supply that we traveled with for the first time this year: an electric cooler. Not having to deal with buying ice, keeping food dry, etc., was a total game changer for me. If you're traveling for more than a week, I highly recommend buying or borrowing one.

3. We frequently use tortillas. Bread is nice but too easily squished. Tortillas are so much easier to pack and make nice wraps. The best part though is that they almost always come in resealable bags that  can be used to pack sandwiches or cut up fruits or veggies in!

4. Speaking of cutting up foods . . . I keep the cutting board and knife (I've got a nice one  that has a carrying case/sharpener) much handier than the other kitchen supplies. I won't frequently need a can opener, for example, so that can stay in the big bin o'camping kitchen supplies . . . but a knife and cutting board are kept in the more easily accessed snack and food bin.

5. We hit the prepared foods at supermarket delis. Eating out is expensive and unhealthy but cooking every night isn't exactly a vacation for the family chef. Every meal can't be gas station snacks and apple slices, so what's a Mom to do? 

Head to the supermarket! They have so many options now that they haven't always had before . . . my favorite this past trip was buying some grilled chicken breasts to make a sandwich with (I was getting sick of cold cuts) or to throw on top of a salad (from a bag, of course, I was on vacation after all). 

Hope these tips can help someone considering a family road trip. Next week we will (most likely) be back to our regularly scheduled programming.


Friday, July 12, 2019

Five on Friday: Helpful Traits for Family Road Trips

Five kids. Two adults. One van. Nineteen days. Ten National Parks. Over seven thousand miles . . . how did we do it? 
Several people have mentioned to me a desire to do the same sort of trip with their own kids and that they'd love some pointers. I've got a book's worth of advice to give but a blog post's amount of time to work on writing it so I narrowed it down to my top five traits needed for a successful family road trip. They are:

1. Creativity! Super helpful for things like:
a. Looking at a random assortment of leftover/boxed/canned foods and whipping up some  semblance of a meal
b. Getting seven people to fit comfortably in a spot designed for four at the most

c.  Keeping kids entertained in the car (Remember how I said I was a meanie when it came to limiting screen time at home? Believe it or not, the same applies to car rides, even when they’re 4-12 hours long. Yes it’d be easier for them to stare at their screens the entire time but I think providing them with a  few basic activities, siblings and a window to look out of forces them to hone their own creativity. That being said, sometimes they need some help getting started.)
d. Improvising. Who needs to dig plates out from the camping supplies bin and then have to wash them later when this perfectly good cracker box  can be ripped into two disposable plates? (True story)

2. Flexibility! Needed for:
a.  Changing plans as needed. This trip was heavy on National Parks and our kids did GREAT—but we also knew when they really needed a break. So one day we skipped the planned daytime hike and let them chill for a few hours at an aquatic center. Later that day we got to take a shorter sunset hike that they were then recharged for. 

b. Being comfortable in a wide variety of accommodations . . . we’ve slept seven squeezed into one tent and stayed in hotel suites. We’ve had kids on floor and in hammocks strung from trees. We’ve had Airbnb rentals turn out to be not exactly what we expected . . . luckily we’re all pretty flexible.
3.  Organization. Absolutely essential to keep the trip running smoothly. For me, this includes things like:

a. Having camping gear already assembled in bins with notes to myself on what needed to be replenished (scouring pads, glow sticks)
b. Thinking ahead and saving some disposable take-out containers for a few weeks before our trip and then packing them in with our food supplies. They were great for packing lunches, storing leftovers, mixing salads in . . . and then we could get rid of them.
c. Packing everything* needed and knowing where it is. I started to count how many bags I had with us—from plastic food storage bags to small zippered pouches to hanging toiletry kits to mesh silverware bags to bags for games and books and dirty underwear and van garbage and clothing—but I gave up after awhile. Nobody can count that high.

Bags and bins are my friends for keeping things organized on the road. Several times it was tempting to throw something into the wrong spot when were done with it but I knew it would get forgotten or misplaced so I took the extra thirty seconds to do it the right way the first time.

*Contrary to the packing parent's pre-travel freakout, in most travel situations, one can purchase toothpaste, underwear and other forgotten necessities while on the road.

d. Making sure our accommodation plans included a place with a washing machine (usually a house rental) after several days on the road, particularly after camping.
 4. Experience: We couldn’t possibly have successfully taken this trip without several years of shorter road trips under our belts. I’d suggest the same for anyone else, too. You need to know things about your own family, like:
a. Can you all get along together for that long in such tight quarters? (If not, organization and flexibility are going to come in handy for scheduling in breaks or taking impromptu ones)

From a day we decided to divide & conquer: Daddy-O and the younger three were at an awesome park while the teens and I went to a museum.
b. Is everyone comfortable with being dirty? I mean that in a smelling-like-campfire-and-not-having-access-to-a-shower sort of way to a we-have-to-sleep-in-a-room-that-smells-sort-of-like-a-wet-dog sort of way and about a hundred ways in between.
c.  What keeps your kids happy in the car? There are so many great games out there but my experience has taught me that ultimately the things my kids like the best are simple paper and pens with some storytelling podcasts and then some occasional Wikki Stix thrown in.

d. For the adults in the car: how many hours can you safely and sanely drive? (Me: not too many. My husband: way more than the rest of us can stand.) Plan accordingly.
d. Does your family do better with camping or cabins? National parks or amusement parks? Museums or malls? Hiking or biking? Only experience can answer these questions.
5. Gregariousness: National Parks, museums, cultural centers, cities, small towns, gift shops, pools . . . all played a role in making our trip amazing. Photos and videos pale in comparison to the real thing when it comes to natural wonders like the Yellowstone paint pots  and the sunset from the top of Bryce Canyon. I am awed, humbled and grateful that we could share these experiences with our children.

But equally important to me was all of our friendly interactions with people from all over the country. Asking the small town shop owner about the best places to visit or the waitress about her favorite foods on the menu not only provided us with helpful tips, it opened up conversations with people we never would have met. Questions about the pulled pork sandwich somehow morphed into conversations about our kids and her grandchildren.
Joking with the retired couple who offered to take our picture turned into a half hour discussion about selling their home and traveling the country in their RV.
Maybe this one's just me, but I feel like I'm doing my children (and myself) a disservice if I expose us to the sights but not the humanity. It seems more important than ever to make sure my kids learn firsthand that every single person in this world has feelings. They all have families, friends, pets, life experiences to learn from, stories to tell and corny jokes to share (okay, maybe that's just some of them).

These interactions were instrumental in making our trip exponentially more memorable and enjoyable.

I know I said I only had time for a blog post but you've got to admit, this is a pretty hefty one. Regardless, this list is still pretty broad but I think it's a good general guideline for anyone considering a big road trip with their families.  I am happy to answer any specific questions anyone might have.

Happy travels!

Friday, July 5, 2019

Five on Friday: Epic Road Trip Part 2: Lessons Learned Thus Far

I don't remember why I first decided to keep sidewalk chalk in the hiking backpack, but I discovered it came in handy when the youngest was all hiked out one day.
The Most Epic of the Family Road Trips Ever Attempted continues into week two! For this week's edition, I'll be sharing some lessons I've learned thus far.

I have learned that:

1. Evidently we still don't have a hammer in the camping supplies bin.

2. I seem to derive a perverse pleasure out of hearing other people's children being fresh. Also, when a kid asked his Mom for some of *her* water on a hike at Arches National Park and she flat out said "No" I might have laughed a little. Because you know there's a backstory to that . . .

On this spot in 2019 a kid asked his Mom for water and she said no and I laughed.

3. Apparently it's been awhile since we've discussed "what to do if you get lost" with the younger kids. (Bringing our total "kids almost lost in National Parks" to two in the past twelve years. Not bad? Or terrible?)

Contrary to appearances, this is *not* when we almost lost a kid.

4. Having the kids call out my first names instead of "Mom"  in crowded places really does work much better in helping them to locate me.

5. The mountains, cliffs and hoodoos (my new favorite word), the flora and fauna we don't see at home,  the Yellowstone paint pots and geysers, the petroglyphs, the sunsets viewed from mountain tops are all breathtaking natural wonders that I hope my kids appreciate and remember forever.

But earlier this week I danced outside of an ice cream parlor with three of my kids and I was reminded of a lesson I seem to learn over and over again: these are the moments that make vacations special and are the memories I hope to keep forever.

Also I may have learned that I just keep getting sappier as I (& my kids) age.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Five on Friday: First of the Epic Road Trip Posts

We're big fans of the summer family road trip. We usually spend lots of time driving in Overkill Jones, see a ton of sights and have loads of fun in ten days or less.

It's cute how our van looks small in this picture.  It can seat fifteen, thus the name Overkill.

Until this year.

Daddy-O has wanted for years to take us all across the country, something he's done twice but I've never done. I was unsure about a nearly three-week road trip but agreed this was the right year to do it: with our oldest going to college in August, it'd be a great "last hurrah" of sorts.

We are one week in and everything is going really well so far. We left New Jersey last Friday and I'm now checking in from Moab, Utah. We've been sightseeing in cities and National Parks, have stayed in hotels, campgrounds and cabins.

Naturally this week's list is going to be five highlights of the trip so far and I hope you like it because surely I'll be doing similar posts for the next two weeks.

1. We love taking "family selfies" (aka felfies) everywhere we go. People frequently offer to take our picture for us but we enjoy the challenge of trying to get seven people in one selfie and we give ourselves bonus points for creativity. Also, every time I said "we" I meant "my husband and I." Not all of the kids are as enthusiastic about this habit.

At the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, we pulled up the "Corn Cam" on my phone and took a screen shot of ourselves on the Corn Cam! That's at least five extra points for creativity.

2. Ranger at Badlands: "What group is this?"
    Us: "Our family."

3. Another creative felfie (look closely!)

4.  Van ride conversation between 11-year-old Z and 18-year-old B. It's gross and hysterical: 

      Z: Ever have booger spit?
      B: Uh, phlegm?
      Z: Booger spit.
      B: Phlegm.
      Z: Booger spit.
      B: Phlegm.
      Z: Okay, phlegm. I *love* it.

5. Best part of any road trip is lots of sibling snuggling. The cold overnight temperatures at Yellowstone really helped encourage this and I'm glad:

Tune in again next week for more laughs, pictures and maybe something else gross one of my kids says!

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Five on Friday: The Summer Time Screen Time Battle Begins

School's out for summer!

This should be such an exciting time, filled with so much promise of fun and magical adventures . . . but many of the social media posts I'm seeing lately are from friends dreading the screen time battle with their kids. One asked other parents recently, "So what's our game plan?"

My short answer was "I'm just mean."

Which is true actually, but I do have some other tricks up my sleeve. Here are my top five tips for keeping kids from too much screen time this summer:

1. Grow up with a parent that doesn't allow much television watching and was constantly telling you to go outside, like I did.

*Okay, fine, maybe it's too late for you to do that but I'm including it anyway so YOU can be that parent for your kids. Because I was that kid and even though I still don't know so many television and movie references from the 80s, I also just have it ingrained in me that kids belong outside as much as possible and not behind a screen.

2. Use the kids' screen time to your own benefit. Need small kids entertained or slightly older kids not fighting so you can nap or shower or exercise? When they ask for screen time, I make them wait and I tell them they are going to get it when I am ready to do that task.

*Added bonus: all summer long my kids inadvertently motivate me to exercise by asking, "Are you going to exercise now, Mom? Now? Mom? Exercise???"

3. Work together on a list of non-screen-time activities to do--not outings you have to pay for, but simple fun things like painting rocks, setting up scavenger hunts for each other, water balloon fights, making a lemonade stand, etc. How many times do we get to the end of the summer and realize we didn't do some of these classic summertime things? We like to write the ideas on little scraps of paper and then put them in a container so we can pull one out and be surprised.

4. When they ask for screen time, direct them to that list they made.  If they say they don't want to, I'M SURE THERE IS A TOILET AROUND HERE THAT NEEDS SCRUBBING.

5. Just say no.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Five on Friday: An Homage to My Husband's Parenting Style

. . . as told in video clips.

Without him, our family motto wouldn't be "Safety Second" and the kids would probably be having a lot less fun. Also I might have one or two fewer grey hairs.

1.  All season fun . . .

2.  This seemed to go much smoother for him than that time I was 8 months pregnant and tried to go down a twisty playground slide with a 16-month-old on my lap:

3. Through the years:

4.  (To be clear, that's one of our kids telling him it's a terrible idea and another one chanting "chug." If you can't tell, it's the liquid that was left in a jar of hot peppers. Ah, life lessons from Dad)

5.  This will always be a classic:

"He's gotta learn how to stop."

Happy Fathers Day to the Best of the Best!

*Lest you think all he does as a Dad is actively demonstrate to the children how to give me near-constant heart palpitations, I felt like I should add this sweet moment, too:

Friday, June 7, 2019

Five on Friday: Best Quotes from the School Tour Season

Teaching is a career I had considered but didn't pursue. Being a tour guide provides me with the opportunity to work with kids and get them excited about learning, which is something I really enjoy.

I never have to lesson plan or grade papers. I also get a brand new crop of kids every day (twice a day, usually, with how the schedule works) and I never know what to expect out of them. 

Now that the season is wrapping up, it's the perfect time to look back on the most memorable moments with kids this year:

1. I'm not sure why, but I've had more than one kid comment on my hair--I don't think it's that unusual? I'm not sure what's so fascinating about it to them. This year, a young boy asked me repeatedly if my hair was a wig. He was 100% serious and I eventually bent down to let him tug at it which was a bit of mistake since he pulled kind of hard, but at least he stopped asking me after that.

2. While walking from one building to the next . . .

Second grader: “Have you seen Back to the Future?”

Me: “Heck yeah!”

Him: “They could film Back to the Future Four here with the Mill and the Blacksmith shop and everything. Just saying.”

Me: “You might be on to something. I’ll write to Hollywood.”

Him: “It’d only cost 30 grand.”

3. In the schoolhouse, one of the 5th graders wrote "YEET" on his slate board. I asked him if he could tell me what it means, since my own kids can't seem to define it.

"Well, it means . . . it means yeet."

Yeah, that's what my kids said too. Thanks for the clarification, kid.

Only picture of the school house I have, my daughter and me in a photo taken for a special event

4. First graders are the worst when it comes to wildly raising their hands to ask a question that turns out to be a comment along the lines of "My cousin? She went on vacation? And this year I'm going with her."

It makes it very hard to keep the tour on track. So when I was explaining that the double turbine water wheel actually generated electricity for the town in the early 1900s and got a wild hand-raiser, I almost didn't call on him. 

But I did and he asked, "Isn't electricity and water not supposed to go together??"

I was not expecting that at all. Had to take a few seconds and then admit, "Well. Yes."

5.  The best kid quote of the season, by far: 

"That was an excellent learning trip and I can't believe my teacher spent so much time on the phone missing it."

Ah, out of the mouths of babes. Maybe that teacher needs to brush up on my tips for chaperones before coming back next year . . .


Friday, May 31, 2019

Five on Friday: A Taste of Summer

Growing up, summer was always my favorite. That wasn't very unique, I imagine every child's favorite season is summer. As I've gotten older, I have come to appreciate aspects of each season (Colorful leaves in the fall! Flowers blooming in spring! Snow falling . . . no, scratch that, I still hate winter.)

Of course summer isn't a season-long break for adults. Even though I only work (for pay) part time, I still have plenty of work to do here on my days off. Even though family vacations mean fun and adventure, there's so much work for the adults to take care of (Planning! Packing! Driving! Cooking and cleaning anyway!)

When I start to think about all the work of our big road trip in a few weeks, and making sure everything at home and work are taken care of in our absence, and remembering I still have to arrange some childcare for days I'm working, I can start to feel a little anxious about summer instead of excited.

I hate it.

So I tell myself to calm down, prioritize what needs to be done, make a list, tackle it, yadda yadda yadda. And maybe most importantly, remember that it's almost SUMMER and I LOVE summer! All I have to do is look at pictures from last weekend . . . we didn't even spend all of Memorial Day weekend at the lake, just over 24 hours. But we packed in so much of what I love about summer, I can look at these pictures and remember what's in store:

1. Family time around the campfire and lots and lots of marshmallows.

My husband declared this marshmallow he roasted to be "absolutely perfect, the Beyoncé of marshmallows" and insisted on letting me have it. #truelove

2.  Currently our weekday mornings consist of me scrambling to get the kids out to the bus on time. There are frequent tears. I'm looking forward to more mornings like this, lazing about and enjoying each other and nature:

3. We won't just be having lazy mornings but lots of lazy days. I'm a firm believer in letting the kids be bored until they figure out how to entertain themselves and if it means something like this, so be it:

4. All the outdoor activities that we enjoy as a family! Hiking, biking, kayaking!

Sometimes even the dog gets involved!

5.  The magic of this last picture captures the most important part of this summer: no, not sparklers, family time together! That is always a priority but this summer will take on a new relevance. Our daughter is going to be going to college about five hours away this August, and we are going to miss her terribly. She's going to miss us, too, but she has a special adoration for one of her siblings in particular. That's him in this picture, making it an especially magical snapshot of this relationship and the best reminder of what I'm looking forward to this summer.