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S’mores Represent Everything Great About Camping #CampBondFire #smores

Mention going camping and JavaGirl will inevitably ask, “Will there be s’mores?” The two are inextricably intertwined in her mind and I fear the day when she encounters a camping trip without that marvelous, gooey treat. The disappointment is sure to involve tears brimming in her big, brown eyes while trying to put on a brave face — a look so pitiful that it breaks the heart of any grown man within a 50-foot radius.

Her association is not unique. I, too, can’t imagine a campfire without s’mores. In fact, I love all campfire cooking. S’mores were essentially the gateway to teaching me all about the joys of harnessing the raw power of fire to produce cooked food out in the wilderness.

Don’t get me wrong. I covet my air conditioning and California King pillowtop bed as much as the next girl, but I appreciate how empowering camping feels and I am dismayed at how often I see families shy away from it. Both JavaKids are in scouts and when their organizations have family camping trips, I’m astonished and disheartened by the number of  families who choose to come for the day and not stay overnight. We switched JavaGirl from one troop to another and one deciding factor was an insistence of one of the organizer that camping trips be catered. What?!

Most of my camping growing up was done as a Girl Scout, with my church youth group, or at summer camps. Through these experiences I learned:

  •  everything from how to pitch a tent to how to make an emergency lean-to;
  • not to be afraid of spiders (okay, sometimes I still am, but not as much);
  • that I can cope with scorpions, leeches and ticks (not that I want to, but I can);
  • a little bit of rain isn’t going to kill me;
  • going to the bathroom in the woods is also not going to kill me (even if the cow who snuck up on me and mooed almost gave me a heart attack);
  • I am capable of paddling a canoe for 20 miles;
  • I can build a fire;
  • I can use a pocketknife without ending up in the ER;
  • you can wrap just about anything in tin foil or put it on a stick and it will taste terrific when cooked on a campfire;
  • and most importantly — you don’t need electronic gadgets to have a good time and nothing is as beautiful as a starry sky on a cloudless night when you are far away from city lights.

As parents, we hear so much about self-esteem. We are bombarded with media reports with interviews of “experts” telling us what we should be doing to build up our kids’ self-esteem, what tears it down. What causes bullies, what is media doing to this generation’s self-esteem? Are we eating dinner together enough as a family? Are they watching the right shows, the wrong shows? In the right sports? Are we praising them correctly?

And then we refuse to spend a night outdoors with them? And teach them some basic life skills? Really?

It may not seem like much, but give a kid a stick and a marshmallow and watch his face. Why is he so delighted? Do you think it is really just the sugary snack? I mean, yes, I think s’mores are a slice of heaven — the honey-crunchy goodness of the graham cracker and just-right softly melted chocolate with the ooey-gooey marshmallow. Pure bliss! But what your kid is thinking is, “My mom just handed me something pointy! And she is letting me step next to a FIRE! And wow, I can transform this marshmallow! COOL!” Watch how your kid experiments with the different ways to cook the marshmallow — holding it close to the fire, further away from the fire, actually setting it on fire. Call it science if you want to (and indeed, it is!) But part of it is also esteem-building. A sense of control. No, the cavemen didn’t have s’mores, but imagine how they felt, experimenting with fire.

When I’m in charge of the s’mores supplies (and I usually am, because I don’t want to disappoint JavaGirl!) I like to mix things up a bit and prepare a s’mores buffet. For the last camping trip, I brought chocolate marshmallows, jumbo marshmallows as well as the standard ones. I provided chocolate graham crackers and the usual honey ones. Because kids often dive into s’mores like locusts on a fresh crop, I like to prepare plates with the crackers already broken into half (s’mores sized — although now you can also buy some already in squares), the marshmallows in bowls, and the chocolates already portioned in bowls. A trick I’ve learned is that you can also use the snack-sized Hershey’s chocolate bars rather than breaking the large ones — I go with whatever is the best price at the time.

We have amassed a collection of telescoping campfire forks over the years. It began with our wedding registry when I saw some for the first time at Crate & Barrel and just had to have them. People thought we were crazy and they were one of our most remarked-upon registry items (but we received them!) Since then, we’ve managed to acquire more and now bring extras with us to every camping event. For some reason, this “civilized” way of making s’mores appeals to the non-campers and we’ve noticed that the adults are willing to jump in on the s’mores making if handed a telescoping fork.

When everyone is nestled into their seats, munching on their s’mores, I try to engage them in conversation about other campfire foods. Banana boats, hobo hamburgers, hobo omlettes. Recently I’ve acquired some pie irons and am itching to make some mountain pies. My kids started with s’mores, but have now learned to cook other foods as well.  It was the food that lured JavaGirl into being willing to try camping even though she wasn’t sure if she wanted to stay in a tent overnight. And now she’s a tent-sleeping, frog-catching, s’mores-cooking camper, just like her brother. Looking forward to the day when she’ll get her own pocketknife so she can try her hand at whittling like he does. It is my hope that by getting other families to see that campfire cooking is fun, they will then be willing to give up a night of air-conditioning to try out sleeping in a tent and discover what else camping has to offer. Frankly, s’mores are the universal lures of campfire cooking — not everyone likes hot dogs!

Yes, we can make s’mores on forks or in foil packets on the grill. We have an indoor s’mores maker with a sterno pot. Now you can even make them in the microwave. But there’s something to be said about instilling the love of the old-fashioned way – around a campfire with your friends, just before retiring to your tent filled with the memories of a day spent outdoors and the confidence that can only be gained by doing things yourself and knowing that if you ever really did have to rely only on yourself, you could.

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Disclosure: National S’mores Day was Friday, August 10. But who needs a special day to enjoy this awesome treat? My kids’ first experience with s’mores was not on a camping trip, though I highly reccommend that if you can!  Find a time this summer or fall to spend some time outdoors with your family around a campfire roasting some marshmallows. I had the pleasure of riding the Hershey’s #CampBondfire sponsored bus home from BlogHer ’12, which inspired this post.  Hershey’s and Walmart  provided me with a ride home from BlogHer, two scrumptious s’mores kits, and some “welcome home” goodies from Walmart.

Quick Tip: Clean Your Car During Carpool Pick-Up Time

As I’ve shared before, I am certainly not the queen of clean cars. I am in my car constantly, ferrying kids (and myself!) from one activity to another and despite my best intentions, my SUV can quickly resemble a mobile trash heap. But whenever I find myself with those extra 10-15 minutes between pick-ups — long enough to feel like a waste of time but too short to squeeze in another errand, instead of getting annoyed, I remember a tip a friend taught me long before I ever had kids. Use that time to clean your car or purse.

I keep a stash of plastic grocery bags in my car (yes, I also have my reusable ones) and use one for a “stuff that isn’t trash but doesn’t belong in my car” bag, one for a “trash” bag and one for a “recyclables” bag. I can quickly go through the car in a matter of minutes, working from front to back, gathering loose items and sorting them into one of the three designated bags (don’t forget to look under the seats!) Since most places have an outdoor trash can, I can immediately dispose of the trash bag, and if they don’t have recycling, I just tie a knot in the handles and recycle them when I return to the house. As for the “stuff” bag, depending on whose stuff it is, when we come home, I’ll ask one of the kids to spend a few minutes finding the rightful home for all the items, or if I’m the main culprit of the clutter, I take charge of emptying the bag.

If I’m stuck waiting in line at a grocery store or inside somewhere, I take the opportunity to clean out or reorganize my purse (when I carry one.) I go through receipts in my wallet, put random pens back into the zippered pocket, make sure loose change goes back into my change purse and so forth.

If my physical surroundings are in order, then those otherwise wasted moments are a great time for me to get my iPhone and digital files organized – filing away apps I’ve purchased, updating my digital checklist, cleaning out my email, or just catching up with friends on Facebook. Taking a few moments — away from distractions of home — to deal with small islands of chaos allow me to feel a bit more relaxed and ready to welcome my kids back into my arms with an even bigger smile on my face.

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Quick Tips illustration put together by J.J. Newby using elements from Microsoft Clip Art Gallery and Fuzzimo.

Spontaneous “Discovery” and the Red Pajamas

There was a time when my husband found my spontaneity endearing. Enticing. Sexy, even. Now, it is more often met with an eyeroll and a look that says, “Really, I’m in the middle of eating my dinner here.”

No, I’m not talking about that.

I mean when I looked at him and said, “Hey, two of my friends have arrived at Dulles airport in the past couple of hours and said they saw Discovery on the tarmac. Let’s hop in the car right now and see if we can find a place where we can see it!”

Commence pained look from JavaDad.

Okay, I understand his perspective — he’s tired, he’s almost done eating dinner, it’s raining. He doesn’t like rapid change. It wasn’t previously discussed.

This is my perspective: Ohmygodohmygodohmygod….IcangetMOREpicturesoftheshuttle…..itwouldbesoCOOLto
seeitontheTARMAC!!!  RememberwatchingplanesarrivewhenWEwerekids????
THE KIDS WILL LOVE IT!

See my point?

We were losing daylight fast, there was no time for debate. It was either hop in the car in the next five minutes, or the opportunity was lost. Forever. There would be no do-overs.

I offered him an out — something like, “You can stay here if you want, but I’m taking the kids and we’re going!” With a chirpy voice and a slight frown on my face. Simultaneously being supportive of the fact that he can be a stick-in-the-mud while subtly reminding him that it was this unique brand of craziness that he claims to have fallen in love with way before he had a driver’s license.

Did I mention I was in my pajamas? My bright red pajamas with hearts on them and phrases like “Be Mine” and “KissKissKiss” all across the legs. Not 20 minutes earlier my sinus infection was making me miserable and uncharacteristically ready to snuggle under a blanket and call it a night. Usually I am up until well past midnight, but tonight, I was toast. Thus, the pajamas.

I told the kids to throw on some jackets, grab their shoes and get in the car. I threw on a red fleece and figured that I’d throw caution to the wind and just go in my PJs. After all, we were just going to pull over on the side of the road in the rain — who would ever know I was in my PJs?

We’ve never watched planes at Dulles (IAD) from the road before. We’ve certainly done it from the observation tower at Udvar-Hazy, so I guess we never had a reason to do so from the road. We were surprised not to find a true observation point like most airports have. But we found a narrow shoulder and indeed, saw Discovery, still strapped to the jet. Space Shuttle Discovery parked on the IAD Tarmac

JavaGirl was unhappy with her vantage point from the backseat on the passenger’s side, so she and JavaDad finally decided to get out of the car and JavaBoy joined them, which prompted me to hop out so I could get a photo of them.

Just then, a minivan pulled behind us and the driver enthusiastically waved at us.

Oh no, surely I am not standing here, on the side of the road in my bright red pajamas and someone who knows me has pulled up?!

Oh yes, not only that, but my friend K. from the Junior League. Now I’ll admit that shamefully, I often show up at school pickup in my “schlumpy mom” look — no makeup, shorts, flip-flops, ponytail or my hair looking a bit flyaway. I shouldn’t, but on those days when the most exciting thing I’m doing is laundry, the grocery store, or writing, I often focus on getting the tasks done in the window between the first and last rings of the school bell more than my appearance, but when it came to my time at the League, I tried to at least pull it together and appear decent most of the time. And I certainly don’t appear in public in my pajamas even on my worst days!

Fortunately, K. had a big laugh over it. In fact, she said some other friends of hers was debating coming but were worried because their kids were in pajamas and moments later, said friends called on the phone to get directions to our vantage point.

They showed up, pulling up in their minivan, parking in front of us. Why not, let’s have a party! Everyone there, you know, with me, in my bright red pajamas… They weren’t even my CUTE pajamas. Or my satin ones. I have special pajamas for when I travel to conventions and have to share a room with female friends and want to appear somewhat presentable. Nooo, couldn’t have been THOSE pajamas.

So K.’s friends were polite but I think were slightly suspicious of this grown woman in red pajamas with hearts. (They are Valentine’s Day pajamas, for goodness’ sakes, they weren’t even the appropriate season! Note to self: Buy some Space Shuttle pajamas.) I tried to redeem myself by sharing our binoculars with them. We swapped space shuttle sighting stories while my children became inexplicably ill-behaved in my SUV. And then when we all decided it was time to pack it all in, K. went to her minivan to find her battery dead.

JavaDad once again shot me a slightly pained look. The Iwasjusttryingtoeatmydinnerwhathavochaveyouwroughtnow look. As we were now wedged between K.’s minivan and her friends’ minivan, we needed to pull out, do a highly illegal but unavoidable three-point turn on the one-way highway exit, and position our SUV so it would face her minivan so we the cables would reach in order to jump K.’s battery. Then, both JavaDad and the husband from the other couple bravely admitted to each other they didn’t remember exactly how to jump a battery and wisely allowed me to look up the instructions in my car’s manual despite the fact that I know this violates the very highest law of The Man Code.

So there I was, in the rain, off Highway 28, reading from page 325 of the Toyota Highlander manual how to jump a battery to two men who were half-listening to me. Gesturing wildly for emphasis in an attempt to get their full attention. In my red pajamas. While my kids acted like wild banshees in the backseat.

Her car started, the men disconnected the jumper cables without blowing up anything or harming anyone, JavaDad once again successfully executed another illegal three-point turn, and we were on our way home.

“That was COOL!” JavaBoy exclaimed.

JavaDad grinned slightly. I think he just may remember why he married me after all.

 

Gaylord National’s ICE! Is a Cool Christmas Treat

Santa at Gaylord National's ICE

5,000 blocks of ice, each weighing nearly 400 pounds, are hand-carved to make the dazzling display which is comprised of ten different colors and more than 1, 500 specially designed light tubes that are frozen within the ice.

Yes, we have terrible traffic,  high gas prices and a housing market I never seem to be on the right side of, but when it comes to celebrating the holiday season, the Metro DC area knows how to do it right! Having spent the first two-thirds of my life celebrating Christmas in sunny Florida and California, those wintery holiday scenes in TV Christmas movies were quite foreign to me.  So you can understand why I may have been the most excited member of the JavaFamily when MomzShare invited me to see Gaylord National’s ICE! at National Harbor.

If you live locally, you’ve been pelted with commercials and fliers about it, but nothing does it justice like seeing it in person.  I had stayed at the Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center a few weeks earlier for the Blogalicious conference and even I was amazed by the transformation.  The first thing to understand is that ICE! is part of an entire set of Christmas on the Potomac activities.  It is indeed the centerpiece, but there is so much more!

Another thing to know is that previously you had to stay at the hotel to access many of the activities, but this year, the Gaylord National has changed the package pricing so members of the general public may join in the fun of meeting characters and decorating gingerbread houses.  Because there are so many components, I will break down the events and the pricing as I explain our experience — keep in mind if you like more than one activity, you may want to look into a package.

Gaylord National’s ICE!

No doubt the sparkling gem of the Christmas on the Potomac experience, this ranked high with all members of the family.  Each year 2 million pounds of ice, some clear, some colored, is carved to recreate scenes of a popular movie — this year it is Merry Madagascar.  But what we didn’t know until visiting the web site beforehand is that the ice carvers are 40 artisans from Harbin, China, sharing knowledge from an old tradition of ice lantern festivals.  There is a lot of science involved in how the ice is made — the differences between the processes for making the very clear ice, the cloudier white ice, and the colored ice.  For example, clear ice is made using deionized, highly filtered water that is slowly frozen whereas white ice is quickly frozen. I highly recommend watching the videos available online beforehand so the kids can better appreciate the work that goes into building the scenes and know what to expect.  Although it was not busy the day we were there, as part of their “crowd control” you will get a chance to see a video before entering ICE! but it still helps to read/watch video on the web site ahead of time.  I think this made the difference between the kids just running through it and saying “oh yeah, neat” and us really talking about what was done, looking at the details, discussing  the science involved, appreciating the hard work of each part of the process and truly enjoying the artistry.

It is truly cold, 9 degrees Fahrenheit in the ICE! Pavilion, which is a tent across the street from the Gaylord National.  You will be required to wear one of their large, blue parkas (yes, ALL of you), because these are also what are used to slide down the main attraction — the lit ice slides.  They had the parkas in all sizes, even for me as a plus-sized person.  I recommend wearing long underwear under warm clothes, and bring your own gloves/mittens and hats. While we did have jackets and coats that fit under the parkas, you may find that you want fleeces instead to minimize your bulkiness, and scarves may help you keep your faces warm — a friend who had gone previously brought ski bibs for her kids, that would’ve been overkill for my family, you will have to figure out what your family’s comfort level is and I recommend a backpack so you can add and subtract layers as needed. Warm, comfortable walking shoes (no heels allowed on slides) are essential. Try to minimize how much you need to bring in with you. Keep in mind your camera may fog/freeze in that temperature. They will take a souvenir photo of your family in front of a green screen (and lay in a nice backdrop digitally) just before you enter, which is then for available for you to purchase ($20-30) in the large gift shop you pass through on the way out should you choose. Since we knew the kids did not get a decent photo of the two of us inside, we opted to buy the photo.

Ice slidesWhen it comes to the slides, it’s really simple — sit with the long, slick parka tucked under you, feet ahead (no high heels!) and whoosh off you go!  JavaGirl was frightened at first, but once she got going, she didn’t want to stop.  This was, of course, for the kids, their favorite part of the ICE! event. If I felt a little more graceful at the top and the bottom of the slide, I would’ve made more trips myself!  This also seemed to be the coldest, so be prepared to either go up and down the stairs with them a lot (the slides aren’t that tall) or to stand at the bottom of the slides, taking lots of photos and perhaps getting  little red in the cheeks from the chill.

Nativity made of ice.In my opinion, one of the prettiest parts of the display was the crystal ice nativity scene with a quick narration and dramatic lighting to give an overview of the birth of Jesus.  It was breathtaking and frankly, put me in the Christmas spirit.  It is the last room of the ICE! display so if you have objections to the religious meaning, as I overheard one visitor exclaiming, you can quickly scoot out.  Upon exiting, workers will help you return your parka and oh-so-conveniently hot chocolate and snacks are for sale.  You can then exit or go on to ice skating, visiting the Madagascar Penguins or riding the train (extra charges apply).

For many families, this is an “investment” event — is it worth it?  I would say yes, but that it is up to you to maximize the value.  Spend the time before your visit to look at what is involved in creating ICE!  Walk over to the conference center to take advantage of the additional beautiful decorations and some of the free activities I’ll mention below.  Take time to talk about the event afterwards and discuss as a family what you saw, what was your favorite, how do you think they made the different characters, how fast do you think you went on the slides, or whatever other extension activities you can think of.  A week later my family is still talking about it and that to me means it was family time well spent.

Details:  Hours and prices for individual tickets vary by the day so check web site for details but Adult prices range from $35-25, Seniors from $24-19, Kids (4-12) $30-20, Military Adult with ID $32-22, Military Child $27-17, younger Kids (3 and under) are free.  There are also package prices that allow you to save by bundling other events with the ICE! tickets. Self parking is $10 for up to three hours with purchase of an ICE! ticket.  You can buy a VIP Pass to bypass the line and get a cup of hot chocolate and a meet and greet with the Penguins of Madagascar for an additional $15, conditions apply. There are a variety of public transportation options including the National Harbor-Washington DC Shuttle, Alexandria-National Harbor Water Taxi, and NH-1 Metrobus from the Branch Avenue Metro Station Green Line.

Ice Skating, Potomac Express Train

While still inside the ICE! Pavilion, you can buy tickets to skate at the (smallish) indoor rink. $10 for overnight guests, $12 otherwise, includes skate rentals.  This was the first ice skating experience for the JavaKids and the rink was probably just the right size for them. There are no lockers (or none we saw) so again, travel light. There were no buckets or gliders for new skaters (or that I saw) so it was the old-fashioned hang-on-to-the-rail-honey method as I tried to teach JavaGirl how to skate. It was towards the end of our day and we were rushing to get to the tree lighting so we didn’t spend much time here, but it was just enough for us to let the kids get the taste of ice skating, I am not sure how packed it gets on a busy day. In the same space is the Potomac Express Train,  a small train similar to the types that run through many local malls, $3 per ride, or three rides for $5. Here you will see the Madagascar Penguins — as they were on break while we were there, I wasn’t clear whether you had to have the character pass to see them or not.

Activities Inside the Resort

Obviously you could spend plenty of time just inside the tent, but maximize your day and maybe even wear out your little ones (you will definitely be worn out by the end of your visit!) by heading across the street to the resort. If you really want to splurge, book a package for an overnight stay at the hotel so you can spread out the fun — the view of the harbor is truly gorgeous and the resort has 300 acres.  But even if you don’t stay overnight, it is worth it to walk over to enjoy the decor and shows.

Several activities are free while others require tickets. 

Nightly Tree Lighting Ceremony Featuring the DreamWorks Characters

Tree lighting ceremony at ICE!Synthetic candy glass tree at ICE!There is a beautiful fountain in the atrium and suspended above it is a 60-foot Tree of Light made of synthetic “candy” glass. Although gorgeous by day as it sits in front of a large window and radiates from the sun, at night the tree is lit by single light source, one of the world’s brightest light bulbs. In a theme-park-worthy show, DreamWorks characters such as Shrek, Fiona, Alex the Lion, and others come out while the fountains behind them dance to music and change color leading up to a dramatic lighting of the tree. Though the lighting ceremony is at 6:30, my advice is to either get a seat in the atrium (there are a limited number of seats there) or pull a chair up to the glass railing at the Belvedere Lobby Bar one floor above the atrium to get the best view by 5:45 or 6:00 pm and as this is prime kid dinner time, either have snacks handy or order something from one of the many hotel restaurants and bring it with you. The production pulls out all the stops — including indoor snow! Apparently by the end of the season, an average 15 inches of snow will have fallen INDOORS at the Gaylord! This is FREE.  If you do only one free show with your kids, this is the one and getting prime seating is key for maximum enjoyment. 

Brightest Star Fountain Show

At the same fountain, the water “dances” while you listen to a narration of the classic Christmas story.  We happened to be sitting at the National Pastime Sports Bar and Grill while this went on and saw/heard part of it from the patio, but I can’t really tell you how crowded the atrium was. I suspect any place that gives you a nice view of the atrium would be sufficient for this show, which begins at 9:30 pm, and that you don’t have to secure a spot as early as you need to for the tree lighting.  This is FREE.

Northern Lights

When the sun goes down, the 19-story atrium sparkles from 6:00 pm to midnight as more than two million lights illuminate the atrium and garden. If you put all the strings of lights in a row, they would equal 12.27 miles! Walking around the hotel and enjoying the ambiance is FREE.

DreamWorks Character Passport

Puss In Boots at ICE!

Meow! Even mommies like Puss In Boots!

Buy your tickets and cross into a tiny village where you can meet your favorite characters from Madagascar, Puss In boots, Kung Fu Panda, and Shrek.  In addition to meeting characters in six locations, children get a keepsake passport stamped at each location and can participate in the Puss in Boots and the Quest for the Magic Beans Scavenger Hunt, which takes you throughout the indoor gardens on an interactive scavenger hunt (warning, lots of counting involved!)  My kids thoroughly enjoyed the scavenger hunt and were thrilled with their prize.  Check web site for dates and times as there are some blackout dates.  Tickets are $35 for ages 4 and up BUT one complimentary guardian or parent is allowed per paying child.  Professional photographers will take photos of your kids and you may buy them online (they give you a card with a barcode on them) but you are also allowed to take your own photos.  Note that not all characters are available for all meet and greets at all times — read all the fine print and make sure you are comfortable with it before booking. I’ll note here that my kids are very wishy-washy about meeting characters – sometimes they’ll run up to, say, the Easter Bunny, but they didn’t care to wait in line to see a character at Disney, perfectly content to watch from afar.  Yet they thoroughly enjoyed this particular experience and are still talking about it days later (my 5-year-old mostly).  So you will have to gauge for yourself whether this is worth your time and money or not.

Gingy’s Gingerbread Decorating

Decorate either a gingerbread family or a gingerbread house at Gingy’s workshop and then meet Gingy!  Prices start at $29.95 (plus tax) and are based on the item you decorate rather than by the number of people doing the decorating.  We did not have time to try this out, but plenty of families looked like they were having fun when we quickly walked through this area.

Santa Souvenir Photo

Although we did not take our photos there, several of our friends did and were thrilled with the results.  A very jolly old elf indeed has taken up residence at the Gaylord National and with photo packages starting at $20, quite competitive with the rising prices of pictures with Santa at the mall. A photo purchase is required in order to gain audience with this Santa, but I’m told he’s quite a good listener. 

There are many, many more activities, including a Brunch with Santa, a ShrekFeast, and spa treatments I would kill for! 

Final Impressions

My husband and I are customer service fanatics. Nothing infuriates us more than rude service and nothing catches our attention faster than excellent service. Every single employee, literally every one of them we came in contact with at the Gaylord National, was polite, friendly, and attentive. Down to details such as noticing that my parka was snug and insisting on getting me a different size, seeing upon exiting the ICE! exhibit that the warm air made my daughter’s nose start running and bringing her a tissue, packing up a Diet Coke in a to go cup for me for the ride home at a restaurant and so on. Wherever we were in our day, each employee asked us if we were enjoying our stay, even the parking attendant as we left asked if we had a good time. The kind of customer service that is rare these days. But imagine my surprise when the next day I discovered I had left my wallet at the Gaylord and didn’t know where after traipsing all over the 470,000 square foot center, the customer service continued at the same level. I was certain there was no hope and yet within hours, they found it for me, all contents intact, and had it at the bell hop desk waiting for me. It is perhaps for this reason the most that I think my family found it quite fun and relaxing to spend many hours at the Gaylord National — we felt truly cared for and away from the hustle and bustle for a while and could focus on just having fun as a family, and have built priceless memories we’ll cherish forever. It was a great reminder that for those of us lucky enough to live in the Metro DC area, you don’t have to travel far to give your family a special experience they’ll remember for years.

The entire Christmas on the Potomac event runs from now through January 8 and you can find more details at www.ChristmasOnThePotomac.com or by calling 301-965-4000.  If you are doing multiple events, packages such as the Freeze and Fun Day are the way to go.  Look online to see if they are running special web deals at the time you want to go.

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Disclosure:  My family and I were provided with complimentary tickets to the Gaylord National’s ICE!, character passports, ice skating and parking as part of a MomzShare media event.  This did not impact my opinion of the event or what I wrote about it (I always tell it like it is), but it did give me an opportunity to share a local event with you with firsthand knowledge.  Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda and all related characters and properties © 2011 DreamWorks Animation L.L.C. Merry Madagascar © 2011 DreamWorks Animation L.L.C.  All photos are mine.

Lunch Planner Doc: Simple Tool to Reduce Chaos

I’m a list maker, a binder gal, an iPhone app junkie.  I own not one, not two, but THREE label makers. (One for home, one for the office, and one simply because I liked the fonts better). Yes, I have a problem. I like to organize things. Alas, I was far better organized before I had a family. My loving JavaKids and JavaHusband are the antithesis of Organization. The are the personification of Chaos. I love them any way… but my constant battle to maintain order is much akin to the battle between good vs. evil in the many episodes of Star Wars my son likes to recount endlessly over dinner. 

And so, when I stumble upon a system that makes all four members of the JavaFamily happy for more than a week, I consider it a success.  When I find something that works, I like to share it with YOU!

Food PyramidI would love to say that we have fantastic, creative school lunches around here, but the fact of the matter is, my kids don’t really like creative lunches.  They insist that I follow the Food Pyramid (no, seriously, they check the magnet on our fridge…) and they don’t like for me to get fancy with presentation. No fru-fru Bento box meals for them (though I’m going to keep trying to jazz things up). Also, JavaGirl is going through an impossible stage where she’ll inexplicably turn her nose up at a food she loved just three days earlier. Since becoming a Kindergartner, she’s become quite opinionated about everything. Both kids love fruits and vegetables, but my son dislikes most proteins and anything his sister likes, he is certain not to like (she likes chicken, he does not.)  He likes mayo on his sandwiches, she only likes mustard. She likes peanut butter, he only likes soynut butter.

This has made packing lunches a challenge. Even more so if JavaDad has to do it.

Finally I decided to make the kids part of the process. I created a simple matrix and now each week we go through and plan out their lunches and morning snack and post it on the fridge — one sheet for each kid. Because they are so tied to the food pyramid, I help them see how their lunches correspond to the food groups. To make life easier for absent-minded JavaDad, who often helps pack the lunches, I painstakingly detail out everything such as including ice packs and napkins. This way, no matter who packs the lunches, every single item is included, every preference is remembered, and if a kid complains about not liking a lunch, I can point out that he/she personally chose that lunch, quickly quelling any grievances.

Miracle of miracles — lunches come home eaten. Lunch-packing is faster. No more “oh wait, we’re out of ___” panics because we have planned lunches for the entire week and make sure anything we need is stocked or on the Sunday shopping list. It’s not rocket science, but with the whole family being involved, it’s no longer just another one of Mom’s harebrained ideas.

Some additional changes that have helped:

  • I’ve put a bin on the lower shelf of our kitchen island that holds all of our lunch-making items including Posh Pouches, reusable water bottles and thermos cups, plastic containers, etc. instead of constantly moving them from the dishwasher to the different “appropriate” spots in our kitchen cabinets (i.e. glasses cabinet, “plastic containers” cabinet, etc.) only to have to retrieve them every morning. Now it’s a mere arm’s reach from the dishwasher to the bin, and from the bin to the counter where the lunches get packed — everything is in one place and my cabinets are less cluttered.  Why didn’t we think of this sooner?
  • The kids know that the first thing they need to do when they come home from school is empty out their lunch boxes and snack sacks, putting ice packs in the freezers, emptying out containers, and setting everything that needs to be washed by the sink.
  • I don’t like packing up sandwiches the night before as I feel they get a little soggy, but I do try to prep anything that can be, the night before (i.e. slicing tomatoes, putting carrots into a Posh Pouch, pre-filling cups and keeping in the fridge).

You can download the lunch planner form as a Microsoft® Word document or a PDF document.

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