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Space Shuttle Discovery Thrills Audience at Udvar-Hazy #SpotTheShuttle

Joy, patriotic pride, and sadness over the end of an era swept over me as the space shuttle Discovery whooshed over our heads while the kids and I stood with what felt like half of Northern Virginia at National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center Tuesday morning. I wasn’t born until after the first astronaut landed on the moon, but I vividly remember (and was even invited to attend) the first shuttle launch. The 1986 Challenger explosion is a defining moment for my generation, and every launch that followed felt like an American triumph over tragedy, especially after the Columbia tragedy in 2003. We no longer naively believed that the shuttle was invincible after Challenger, and Columbia reinforced that. Space is still a wild frontier, with so much left to be tamed. Though there has been the International Space Station, the Hubble telescope, and the Mars Rover — to me, the shuttle program has been the iconic symbol of NASA. It is what I grew up with, studied, rooted for, cried over, cheered for when it rose again, and then struggled with the realization that we weren’t going to see another one launch. I can’t imagine not watching another one launching.

I pulled my kids out of school to watch today’s flight, and made a last minute decision to rush over to Udvar-Hazy rather than just watch from our front yard. The kids were reluctant to miss school, but once they felt — actually FELT — the air rush over them and saw the underbelly of the jumbo jet that gave it a piggyback ride to Virginia, they understood why I was so insistent. Miraculously I managed to pick the right spot to be directly under it for the first pass of the morning, directly under it, feeling so close that we almost felt like we could reach up and grab on for a ride. In fact, it flustered me so much, I pushed the wrong button on my new camera! I got off a couple of shots, but not the ones I should have!

 Space Shuttle Discovery Udvar-Hazy fly-by

Thankfully, we had two more chances for an up-close view.

 

Space Shuttle Discovery side view

Between flights, I had an opportunity to take some shots of the people who were trying to spot the shuttle.

 

There were people of all generations in the parking lot, including a grandfatherly gentleman who was also skipping school (“I told my geology professor I was skipping class so I could come here!”) He was clearly as giddy to be there as some of the kids. In fact, I almost think that the excitement factor racheted up in direct correlation with age. Though there were some grumblings along the political front about the future of the space program (one comment I heard, “JFK must be spinning in his grave!”), overall the crowd was united in how thrilled they were in being able to be this close to the action. It was the most well-run event and politely behaved crowd I have ever seen.

I’m not sure my kids fully grasp the meaning of this historic day, but one day they will, and they will thank me for understanding that sometimes, you can learn more out of the classroom than in it. In the meantime, they got to see the beauty of Discovery in the air, not once, but THREE times, hone their powers of observation, (When did the air traffic stop? When did the pacer plane come by? When did the helicopters sweep through, where did they hover? What clues told us when Discovery was coming back by and which path it would take next?) and feel the difference between watching an incredible moment and actually being a part of it.

Incidentally, one of the channels recently ran a series of programs that was co-created by Discovery Channel and NASA called When We Left the Earth: The NASA Missions. I found it so fascinating that I am going to purchase the DVDs and found you can buy them online at Amazon or at Discovery. I think these will help my kids help put today into perspective, and you may find them helpful for yours!

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Associate and have included a link to a product to Amazon.  If you buy a product on Amazon directly after clicking on that link, I may receive a small percentage of the sale. I do not track nor have a way of tracking who purchased what.

Bertolli Weeknight Special Meal Challenge

Bertolli Frozen Meal SoupsSo many weeknights find us rushing around, making sure homework gets done, going from one evening activity to the next, that dinner is often more about the necessity of nourishing our bodies than actually dining. When Bertolli challenged me to prepare a special meal for my family using their new restaurant-quality Frozen Meal Soups and only one hour of prep time to do something special, it made me realize how rarely we turn dinner into an event.

Tonight was the perfect time to put the challenge to the test. The kids had a science fair at school in the afternoon and both had evening activities. Could we pull together a quick, delicious dinner that felt special in under an hour?

You betcha!

Taking our cue from the Bertolli® Frozen Meal Soup Tuscan Style Beef and Vegetable we chose, the kids and I decided on an Italian-themed night. And given our time frame, I opted for every shortcut possible. Right there on the bag it suggested fresh Italian bread. Grabbed that from the bakery section. Added some salad in a bag, already sliced mushrooms and cherry tomatoes into the cart for a quick salad. Then, sudden inspiration hit, and I steered us back to the bakery section and put a tiramisu into the cart.

“Who is that for?” JavaGirl asked.

“For us!” I exclaimed.

“Us? Why? Who is having a party?”

“Just us, we’re having a just-us, family party!’

From that point on, JavaGirl made a point of letting everyone she saw know that we were having a family party that night — who knew that making a special weeknight dinner would make such a difference?  It wasn’t the dessert, we certainly have dessert other nights, it was that we were make an event of things.

Our last stop was the floral department. What’s a special night without some fresh cut flowers?

Magazine ads, HGTV and Pinterest would have you believe that everyone else is eating dinner on beautifully set tables every night, when I would bet that I am not the only mother who long ago turned to easy-to-wipe tablecloths and doesn’t print out custom menus for her family on a nightly basis. We just don’t like to post those photos on the Web.

dining roomBut it is important to remember to “bring out the good stuff” not just when company comes, but also for family.  Not just for special occasions, but also “just because.” So when we got home, I pulled out the special tablecloth JavaDad’s grandmother embroidered for us a wedding gift, broke out the wedding china and crystal, found some candles, and put the flowers on the table.

Dinner itself was a cinch. The Bertolli Meal Soup can be cooked on either the stovetop or on the microwave and since I was cooking two bags (each bag is meant for two people) I decided to try both methods. Since this particular soup included bowtie pasta, I was curious to see if the pasta would turn mushy in either method and pleased to see it didn’t.

We sliced up the bread, threw the salad together, served up the soup, and unwrapped the tiramisu and placed it on a cake stand. JavaDad poured some wine, lit the candles and dimmed the lights. Voila! A special meal on a Monday night.

In addition to helping us shift our moods and slow down (briefly) between events, though we often take our kids out to restaurants, this gave us the unexpected benefits of making our kids feel special (our daughter particularly kept talking about how pretty everything was) and also an opportunity to remind our kids about table manners (break bread in small, bite-sized pieces, then butter it, eat your soup by pushing the spoon away from you). I am quite thankful to Bertolli for reminding me that a special meal does not necessarily mean one that takes a long time to prepare. It was a simple dinner, perfect for a busy night like this one, and yet with a few very easy touches, it turned into a special one.

Want a quick meal for your family? Find where to get Bertolli Frozen Meal Soups here: http://www.villabertolli.com/where-to-buy.aspx

Share your tips for a special weeknight meal in the comments section!

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Disclosure: I was compensated by Bertolli to participate in the Weeknight Meal Special Challenge. As my loyal readers know, my opinions are always my own and I always tell it like it is, no matter what! My family liked this soup and we’re going to get more to stick in the deep freezer.

 

Encourage Their Inner Engineer

We cannot expose our children enough to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) – so run, don’t walk, to Discover Engineering Family Day at the National Building Museum today for a an opportunity to discover just how fun engineering really is. Last year my family made pop-fly devices (think trebuchets), tried to balance tennis balls on newspaper cones and attempted other feats of engineering marvels.

Near and dear to my heart, of course, is the exhibit by The Children’s Science Center, “Engineering in Motion: Physics Playground” which was recently featured at Udvar Hazy.

Additionally, cast members from the show Design Squad will be there demonstrating dance moves and electrical engineering behind a supersized dance pad every hour, on the hour. They will have dozens of hands-on engineering activities, fun design challenges, and lots of giveaways.  Also, the National Society of Professional Engineers will be offering the Design Squad (DS) activity, Pop Fly, where kids will launch a ping-pong ball into the air using a foot-powered lever of their design. At the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ booth (IEEE), kids can explore which materials conduct electricity with DS’s Electric Highway, build circuits that can be easily concealed with DS’s Hidden Alarm, and try out and be inspired by some homemade dance pads, like those created in DS’s Dance Pad Mania activity.  I LOVE Design Squad for the way it inspires kids.

Discover Engineering Family Day at the National Building Museum: MyFoxDC.com

 This event is free from 10 am to 4:30 pm today, Saturday February 18 at the National Building Museum,  401 F Street, Washington DC.  http://www.eweekdcfamilyday.org/

Things I Love: Play Today DC

Things I Love logo Two things I love: tools that make my life easier and anything that makes me look like a fun mom! Play Today DC does BOTH!

There are many web sites that help parents find local events and family-friendly things to do and I love them all, but newcomer Play Today DC has a very clean sorting interface that allows you to choose the type of activity (i.e. sporting events, performances, educational opportunities and more), the time frame, and location you are looking for. Even better, you can register/purchase tickets right from the the Play Today DC site!  Once you set up an account, your activities are all saved into a calendar on the site and you can export them to several popular online calendars such as Google Calendar so you won’t double-book yourself.  You can share events with your friends via Twitter, +1, and Facebook so they may join you. This site is free, registration on the site just allows you to take advantage of the many features.  Currently they cover Vienna, Oakton, Falls Church, Great Falls, McLean, and Reston. Because the site is so new, I haven’t had enough time to find a way to break it <grin> but so far I like what I see. Being able to view my options, register for paid events, save them to my calendar, share them with friends and get directions all from one place is not only efficient, but helps people like me who are easily distracted by both kids and the computer!  Their FAQs hint at a future Reminders capability, which will make me love it any more.  (Now if only they’d add a laundry and dishwashing feature, we’d be all set, right?)

Want to get a better feel for the kinds of activities they will be letting you know about? Play Today DC is hosting a free Find the Fun Fair at Westwood Country Club in Vienna, VA, February 4, 10 am – 2pm for their official launch, with facepainting, moon bounces, soccer and golf, demos, giveaways and so much more from 50+ local businesses — find all the details here.

Additionally, they are having a sweepstakes on the Play Today DC Facebook page where you can enter to win an iPod Touch (value $199).  If you print the Play Today DC Facebook fan page, write your name, email, address and phone number on the page and bring it to the Find the Fun Fair you may enter to win an iPad (value $499)  at the fair.  See the Facebook page for complete sweepstakes rules, sweepstakes runs through February 3, 2012. (Really, I hesitated to tell you about the sweepstakes because I want that iPad all to myself, but fair is fair.)

Check out the website and let me know what you think — did I steer you in the right direction?

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Disclosure: I will be compensated for this post.  However, as you know, my policy is to “tell it like it is.”  If I don’t like a product, I will not recommend it. iPod and iPad are registered trademarks of Apple Corporation.

 

Things I Love: E-Mealz.com Menu Planner

Things I Love logoI am the opposite of a domestic goddess — does that make me a domestic demon? I have tried to put together weekly and monthly menu plans and I’m just terrible at it. There comes a time when you have to admit defeat and outsource! My neighbor “M” is a relatively new stay-at-home mom (SAHM) and yet seems to have her act far more together than I do as a veteran SAHM so I asked her about her menu planning and she pointed to her oh-so-organized bulletin board in her kitchen and a print out from E-mealz.com. “They plan everything out, it usually has five ingredients or less, and it has the shopping list all organized for you,” she told me as our children played chaotically in the background.

It took me a while to get around to it — I mean I have literally shelves and shelves of cookbooks and two recipe boxes, surely I could manage to do this on my own?! But finally I caved in and signed up. And now I’m kicking myself for not doing it sooner. JavaBoy has always been a challenge when it has come to non-dairy proteins, and yet, he has loved every recipe from E-Mealz. I have him review the week’s recipes beforehand to see if there is anything he won’t like and so far he’s approved every option, even the ones I was certain he wouldn’t like, and he’s eagerly gobbled them down. JavaGirl, who is going through an I’m-five-so-my-tastes-change-by-the-hour phase, has also enjoyed all the meals. Whenever possible, I involve them in the cooking because I always find that helps them get more excited about the meals.  The service has different selections of plans: standard, portion-controlled, budget-friendly, low-carb, gluten-free, natural/organic, and vegetarian.  Because I am diabetic, we are using the low-carb version.

We have been trying some recipes that I probably wouldn’t have picked out myself and yet my family really enjoyed, so this has been a good way to push ourselves. Although we aren’t doing the “budget” plan, I’ve found it to be economical and we are certainly wasting less food because I’m not buying stuff with the intention to cook it and never getting around to it. Because I tend to cook the larger size of the range of the recipe (i.e. if it says 1.5 – 2.25 pounds of meat, I choose 2.25 pounds) we have plenty of leftovers to use for lunch for myself and my husband (and sometimes the kids ask if they can take the leftovers for lunch for school!) or even to have a second night of dinner. Often there is a crockpot night or two, which I love, especially for the nights when my kids have choir practice. Though it kills me to smell that wonderful food when I’m home during the day.

I cannot tell you how much stress this has alleviated for us as a family. No trying to figure out what’s for dinner.  Grocery shopping is easier because we know what we’re going to eat and everything is listed for us. I go through the list and all the non-perishables that are needed for the week, I put into a clear storage box in the butler’s pantry so that it doesn’t accidentally get used for something else and is also easy to find for that night’s meal (not only for myself but in case my husband ends up cooking that night — he doesn’t have to hunt up various spices and canned goods.)

I loved it when I explained to the kids we were having Hamburger Soup (really a variation of a beef and barley with vegetables) and JavaGirl said “show me the box” and I said, “No, Mommy made this from SCRATCH! It’s been simmering on the stove for two hours!” It really didn’t take long to put together and yet it was yummy and gave me a great sense of satisfaction to provide homemade soup for the family. Granted, “scratch” might have been a stretch as it did involve some canned tomatoes and canned broth, but there were fresh vegetables, barley, fresh spices, and of course, ground beef.

There are several meal planning services out there, I checked quite a few out and asked friends for recommendations and ultimately decided on this one because I liked the format, the sample menus they showed, the low cost and because my neighbor was so happy with it. If you are interested in researching them, enter the phrase “meal planning” in your favorite search engine. 

Things I Love will be an occasional series on Caffeine and a Prayer where I highlight items or services that make life in the Java household a little easier or just make me happy and I hope will delight you as well. Other than being a paid subscriber, I have no relationship with E-Mealz.com and they have no idea I’m writing about them — I’m just a really happy customer.