Spring Break Adventure: The Donut Challenge

The Donut ChallengeIt’s Spring Break here. While many families have left town to head South (for the warmth), North (for skiing), or just about anywhere else to simply get away and explore somewhere new, most of my family is home. Our youngest needed to have her tonsils removed and Spring Break allows just enough time for her to recover without missing any school. On Friday she had surgery and since then we’ve been chilling around the house, watching movies and catching up on projects that have been waiting for our attention, while Evelyn chills on the couch or in her room.

Notice I said most of our family is home. Our eldest was lucky enough to accompany her grandmother on a trip to New Jersey to help watch her cousins. That leaves Katherine here to spend her break watching her sister get over tonsil surgery. Relaxing? Yes. Interesting? That depends on what we find to do besides watching an endless stream of movies.

Which led Katherine and I to create The Donut Challenge. We have heard of various donut shops and bakeries in the area, but somehow we’ve only managed to try one non-chain donut shop in all the years we lived here. It’s time to change that. We’re setting out to try donuts from seven shops in Naperville and the surrounding suburbs over the next seven days. Katherine devised a rating system that critiques each shop’s donuts on a variety of characteristics, from presentation, to texture, to flavor variety and more. And to make comparisons simpler, we plan to sample a simple glazed donut at each location (if available). By the end of Spring Break, hopefully we’ll have narrowed it down to our favorite, without putting on too many pounds.DONUT Challenge List

Here are the places we will be visiting on The Donut Challenge:

DeEtta’s Bakery in Naperville

Stan’s Donuts and Coffee in Oak Brook, IL

Honey Fluff Donuts in Countryside, IL

Ingram’s Busy Bee Bakery in Downers Grove, IL

Glaze Donuts in Naperville, IL

Dimples Donuts in Naperville, IL

Sylvia’s Bakery in Darien, IL

My goal is to report back on our findings each day. So stay tuned…

Do you have a favorite donut shop? What makes it most appealing to you?


Deciding When to Splurge on a Bucket List Experience

Deciding When to SplurgeThe nine days my husband and I recently spent in Italy were filled with dream-come-true events. Just being in that country and seeing the sights I’d heard so much about would have been enough. But the extra tours (and a class) that I booked, along with some first-class travel and hotels brought the trip up to the level of truly memorable.

In previous posts, I talked about how I saved money on airfare and lodging using points and miles. I’ve always been thrifty, so I knew any bucket list trip I took would be done on limited funds (we are saving to put three girls through college, after all). As I showed in those posts, bucket list travels don’t have to be overly expensive. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t occasionally splurge when it comes to once-in-a-lifetime experiences. It may be that those splurges end up being (to borrow from the well-known MasterCard commercial) priceless.

Don’t know when to splurge and when to save your pennies for another bucket list experience? Here are some criteria that worked for me:

  • Does this option represent the quintessence of my bucket list experience? One of the tours I booked for us involved having lunch and wine on the terrace of a vineyard in Chianti overlooking the Tuscan hills. You can’t get much better than that for experiencChianti Vineyarding the essence of Tuscany. Both the food & scenery were amazing.
  • Does it afford me an inside or behind-the-scenes look at something I have admired from afar for a long time? We happened into the chance to climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which gave us a perspective many don’t often gain and definitely became a memorable part of our trip (confession: we actually didn’t have to pay to climb, thanks to some generous fellow travelers, but having the opportunity made me realize why it might be worth shelling out money for options like that in the future).
  • Will I continue benefitting from it afterwards? We took a cooking class in Florence, which gave us know-how and recipes we’ll use for making meals at home. Also, I booked this because my husband loves to cook and learning to cook Italian dishes in Italy –  what’s not to love about that?In Tavolo Cooking Class
  • Is the incremental cost minimal compared to the benefit? We were able to book a first class train compartment on one leg of our trip at the same price as second class, thanks to an available discount. It was so worth it for the privacy and comfort, even for a three-hour trip. Again, having experienced it, I’m going to keep my eye out even more for upgrade options like that, if they come at little to no extra cost.
  • How does it fit the rest of my adventure? Will this particular splurge improve the rest? I booked two nights at the Park Hyatt Milan (can you say “Five-Star Luxury”?) for the end of our trip. And while I used a credit card benefit to get them, I might consider splurging on better accommodations similar to that in the future. The rest, relaxation, comfort and pampering we experienced there allowed us to return home more refreshed.IMG_2584
  • Is my bucket list experience itself a splurge? Maybe you’ve always wanted to fly first class or stay in a penthouse suite. Then saving up to make those happen, even if you have to pay full price (although on the first class flight I would argue that there are plenty of ways around it), would make your decision for you.
  • Do I have exclusive access through connections, or just being at the right place at the right time? This reason alone may not be worth the splurge, but combined with the above factors, could sway your decision.

Some splurges are obvious – ones that match a favorite hobby or interest or are somehow otherwise so perfectly suited to you or your family members. Others, aren’t so clear – but don’t blow them off. Give it some thought using the considerations I’ve listed above.

I spent years saving my pennies and skipping add-ons when it comes to our family’s experiences. Only recently did I discover how the occasional splurges can elevate an experience and add value well beyond the monetary cost. Hopefully the tips I’ve shared here will help you not miss out on special opportunities in your bucket list adventures when it comes to considering pricier options.


A Family Bucket List Achievement: Trying Middle Eastern Food

9862595676_c36be86bba_zIt was a chilly December night, but the place was already packed when we arrived with friends. We scrambled to grab two tables as diners cleared their trays to leave. Then our families made our way up to the front counter. Servers behind glass-topped stations took our orders.

The chicken shawarma pita caught my attention and that of our eldest daughter.  My middle daughter zoomed in on lentil soup. And my youngest boldly ordered a falafel and basmati rice bowl. Add an order of fries with garlic sauce alongside a pita and my husband was happy.

My dad talks about how when he was growing up he ate a limited variety of foods. My grandmother often cooked Carpatho-Rusyn and Polish foods and basic meat-and-potato meals. By the time he married my mom he had never eaten Chinese food or even pizza.

My gastronomic upbringing was another story. With two Korean sisters by adoption, my family frequently ate Korean dishes. I hadn’t considered this an adventurous lifestyle until the recent increase in the popularity of sushi. My response: eat sushi? No thanks! That is, until I realized that one of my favorite Korean dishes (kimbap) is actually sushi.

My family also cooked Mexican, Italian and even French crepes at home. My parents encouraged us to keep an open mind when it came to food by exposing my siblings and I to a wide variety of dishes and flavors.

In our home now we have attempted the same. But you know how it goes – you settle into a routine. Your menu tends to rotate around a standard list of recipes. When you go out to eat you stick to your favorite restaurants. Not that there’s anything wrong with this. Unless your goal is to foster an openness to new food experiences in your kids.

Which is why our family bucket list includes certain restaurants and types of foods. Last year one of our goals was to introduce our kids to Middle Eastern foods. I can’t say my husband and I have eaten much of it ourselves, so we welcomed this challenge for our own benefit too.

Enter Naf Naf Grill. It took us until the last week of December to reach this bucket list goal, but through the prompting of friends, we ventured out to this promising local restaurant chain. Think Chipotle with Middle Eastern food. Pitas, shawarma, tahini sauce, basmati rice and more in a build-your-own meal style.

We had a great time! Naf Naf served up interesting flavors and hearty portions. I had to force myself to slow down and save some of my pita for later. Our family traded tastes around so that we could sample some of everything. And everyone agreed that Naf Naf should go on our list of regular restaurants.

I would call that a success! Next up on our family food bucket list: Korean food. My kids really need to try kimbap.

Photo credit: “Naf Naf Grill” by the Shifted Librarian on Flickr via CC License


Winter Boredom Busters For Moms

It’s cold. It’s dreary. And I’m getting that cooped up feeling, no matter how many times I leave the house to run errands.

Even if you don’t live in a cold climate like I do, where winter means hurrying from car to building to car with as little flesh exposed as possible, chances are you feel the drag of wintertime. After several months of shortened daylight hours everyone can get a little twitchy.

So what to do in the weeks left until spring arrives? Here are four mom perk-ups to break the doldrums of winter:

Grill all out
There’s nothing like the flavors of summer to bring back that warm-weather feel. So dig a path through the snow to your grill or roll the Weber closer to your back door (but not so close as to be a fire hazard). Then put together some hamburger patties (or veggie burgers, if that’s your thing), slice up some tomatoes, fix your favorite summertime salad and grill away. Just the smell of burgers cooking on the grill is enough to whisk away my winter blues.

If it’s too much to cook outdoors, but you have a fireplace, load on some logs and make up some s’mores indoors.

Psyche yourself out with a summer flick
Mix up some lemonade, pop up the popcorn and cozy up with a beach flick. You’ll soon forget that it’s frosty outside when you’re immersed in the sunshiny, summertime scenes on the big screen.

Some fun beach/summer-inspired titles to check out:
Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)
Mystic Pizza (1988)
The Flamingo Kid (1984)
Beaches (1988)
50 First Dates (2004)

Give your space a makeover
When summer does arrive, you’re going to want to spend as much time outside as you can. So why not take the time now to spruce up the indoors? Maybe you have a linen closet that won’t stay closed for all the clutter. Or a laundry room that’s gotten dingy. Pick one small project that can be completed in a day or a weekend. Then go to it!

Empty out the linen closet or laundry room and give it a fresh coat of paint. And don’t be boring with your choice of colors. Pick something fun that you normally wouldn’t use but have admired in someone else’s house or on the pages of a magazine. Ditch anything that you don’t really use – the emptier space will appear more inviting. And play around with re-organizing like putting in new shelf paper and buying or creating colorful storage containers. See what everydayMOM has been doing for some inexpensive ideas.

Give yourself a makeover
While we all complain about what heat and humidity do to our hair, the bone-dry climate of winter  turns your summer style into something else. Spice up your look by asking your hairdresser to try something new. Too radical? Give your tresses a pick-me-up by way of a hot oil treatment or scalp massage.

Now is also a good time of year to try out a new color palette for makeup. Indoor lighting isn’t the same as natural light, which may make your skin color more sallow. Add to that the fade in shade that happens from lack of sunlight and you’re dealing with a different skin tone in winter. Take some time for a makeup consultation at your local department store. Then pick one or two (or all) of their suggestions to try and see if brightening up your face can brighten up your mood too.

Whatever you choose to do to break the boredom, just remember this: we’re already on the upside of winter. The days are getting longer. And soon we’ll be answering our kids’ summer break complaints of “I’m bored.”

What do you like to do to fight off cabin fever?


Why Do I Do This?

Black Cat Pop

I made these cat pops for my daughter’s ninth birthday this year. See the end of the post for where you can learn how to make them too.

Three times a year I put myself through the finger-numbing task of creating and decorating my daughters’ birthday cakes and treats. It’s often a four- or five-hour process, during which my shoulders cramp up high around my ears as I hunch over my masterpiece. My tembles throb from the effort of concentration. And my hands spasm from overexertion. At about the three-quarters mark toward completing the task, when the aches and exhaustion rise to a fever-pitch, I question myself.

Why am I doing this? I think.

But I press on, piping row after row of buttercream stars or painstakingly dipping cake ball after cake ball in melted candy drops. My hands shake and the work becomes sloppy. I stop to rest, get a drink, massage my wrists.

“Why do I do this?” I ask, this time aloud. One of my daughters is passing through the kitchen and has stopped to admire my work.

“You know you say that every year,” she says. “So why do you do it if it bothers you so much?”

I pause, fingers locking back into their tight grip around the frosting bag. I swipe my free fingers through some dripped buttercream on the countertop and savor the sweetness as I think.

“It doesn’t bother me so much…” I say, my voice trailing off as I ponder the reasons for putting myself through the agony of the cake-decorating process.

My daughter raises an eyebrow. She’s overheard my mumbled grousing during the past hour as I’ve frosted and re-frosted one section of cake.

“Okay,” I say, answering her look. “It can be a pain. But it’s so worth it. I can’t imagine making you a plain cake or paying someone else to do it when I know how. It’s a way for me to show my love to you.”

Just then her younger sister sweeps into the kitchen and stops to look at her cake.

“Go away,” the elder says, shooing her from the room. “It’s supposed to be a surprise. For later. At your party.” She looks conspiratorily over her shoulder at me.

I shift my body around the kitchen island to shield the view of the cake as I work.

“She’s right,” I call out to my departing child. “Don’t look until it’s done.”

I turn back to the cake. It does look remarkable. All those little pointed stars crammed close together, hiding the cake beneath. Only a small square of velvety-brown cake remains visible. Almost done. It’s then I feel it – that rush of excitement over seeing the work come together. It will be… well, not breath-taking exactly. But it will be special.

And maybe that’s why I do it. Because all those little stars and all those hours of cramped fingers come together into something that reflects what the recipient is to me: special.

In fact, it’s why, as parents, we get up in the middle of the night for feedings and fevers. It’s why we sit on damp, chilly soccer fields, while our kids chase down the ball. It’s why, late at night in a dim living room, dozing upright in a hard chair, we wait for our teenager to return home.

Our kids are precious to us. And because of that they inspire us to take on tasks and chores and obligations that sometimes make us wonder what we were thinking. And I believe that the occasional sacrifice involved in parenting communicates a unique message of value to our kids. “You are worth this,” it says.

Why do I do this? Because my children matter to me. They’re worth the sleepless nights and chilled noses. They’re worth anxious waiting. They are worth hours of sore knuckles and stiff shoulders.

Why do I do this? Because I’m a mom whose knack at cake-decorating allows her to show her girls love in a unique way.

For instructions on how to make the cake pops pictured above check out Bakerella’s book, Cake Pops.

So tell me, dear reader, what is it that you keep doing for your kids even when you ask yourself why?