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Who Out There Drives a Swagger Wagon?

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, that’s the Toyota Sienna family van. I recently got to know this vehicle during a trip to Hawaii hosted by Toyota, and though it admittedly would be difficult to find fault with anything under those circumstances, I truly understood what all the fuss is about. And by “fuss” I mean the fact that it often makes our Best Family Cars list (most recently as Best Minivan in 2012 and 2013, and Honorable Mention in 2014). I’m also referring to what I heard directly from our Facebook fans this week, when we asked what they like about their Sienna. Just some of the raves:

“We love our Swagger Wagon! It is seriously the best van. Love the power sliding doors and trunk, so easy to hit a button when your hands are full. Also love that we can take our 8th seat (jump seat) in and out. There is tons of trunk storage too which is great for us as we take a lot of road trips in our Sienna.”

“Gotta love the wireless headsets for the DVD player. No longer do I have to listen to Frozen play in the car. Also the smart features like automatic wipers and auto dimming on high beams if you forget. Dual moonroofs. Recliner seats. I could go on…”

“Where do I start?!?! I drive a 2014 Sienna Limited and I love the ride! Doesn’t feel like you are driving a minivan. Very smooth and has a quick response! The sensors are on the outside, and the rear backup camera are great if you have kids! It is also very quiet inside! I love how simple the controls are!… I love that the LATCH system latches are easy to find…. Power doors and the rear hatch! And the AWD makes all the difference in Michigan snow!”

“I absolutely LOVE LOVE LOVE our van. We have 3 kids 5 and under and lots of stuff to bring with us. The sliding doors let the kids get in and out without worrying about slamming it into other vehicles or walls. We live in Italy and although it’s like having a monster truck here we still take our swagger wagon everywhere. I feel proud to be a ‘soccer mom’ in this ride. Coolest van ever!”

Toyota made some big changes for the 2015 model (available now), including:

* A new front passenger seat cushion airbag, bringing the total to 8

* A fourth LATCH location (optional)

* Heating, vent, and A/C controls that are three inches closer to the driver–and we all know what a big difference a small upgrade like that makes

* A backup camera that’s now standard on all models

* An 16.4″ inch screen above the second row that can divide in half–so one kid can watch one thing and another kid can watch another thing at the same time. OMG. (optional)

* An ingenious creation called “Driver Easy Speak,” which beams your voice into the back of the van so you don’t have to turn around and scream. From what I understand, some parents do that. (optional)

When I test-drove the Sienna with my children (see above), it took them about 90 seconds before they said, “Mom. You HAVE to get this van!” And then throughout our test drive, they chimed in with stuff like, “There’s two glove compartments!” “Look at all these cup holders!” (There are at least 10.) “There’s a secret hiding spot for my stuff in the way back!” “It has footrests!” (Our model had ottoman seats in the second row.) They even made me call my husband to announce that we know the next car we’re getting. And between the standard features, the new options, the smooth way it drove, how comfortable it was, and the rousing endorsements from parents like you, the Sienna actually is now officially on the table for us.

The 2015 Sienna comes in five grades: L, LE, SE, XLE, and Limited, and prices range from $28,600 for the L FWD to $46,150 for the fully-loaded LTD Premium AWD.

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I Can’t Believe I’m Blogging About an Apple

Friday, September 12th, 2014

But it’s a really good apple!

I’m cursed with children who are mega picky about fruit. Berries can’t be even remotely “squishy.” Bananas can’t be too ripe, or too yellow. Watermelon can’t have a hint of mealiness to them. One kid likes only green grapes, the other only red. As for apples, their favorite is the hard-to-find (and very aptly named) Honeycrisp. That’s until now, when we can mercifully add another variety to the mix: SweeTango. Have you heard of these? I hadn’t, but they’ve been around since 2009. They’re bred at the University of Minnesota and are a blend of Honeycrisp and Zestar apples. Like their parents, they’re really crunchy, juicy, and sweet.

SweeTangos are hyper-seasonal, meaning they’re only around for a brief part of the season–specifically, mid August (on the West coast) into November. Last year, they sold out in 60 days.

Because people who are into SweeTangos are really into SweeTangos, a big social media push is underway this season. Share the place you’ve found the apple using #SpotSweeTango on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and you can win a season’s worth of them, plus a trip to a SweeTango orchard. (You can also text your location to 99000.) To find SweeTangos near you, check out the interactive map that launched this week. Since they’re good enough to make my kids happy, I know they’ll be good enough for you and yours!

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Tags: , , , | Categories: Food, GoodyBlog

Did You Know National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day is Coming Up?

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

I have two daughters, ages 8 and 5. My girls like to make a lot of lists. Any topic is worthy of a list: colors, teachers, names (not even “favorite names,” mind you–just plain old names). The only time we get into favorites is when the subject turns to food–favorite breakfast, favorite snack, favorite candy, favorite dessert, and favorite ice cream flavor. (I wish I could say fruits and veggies make the cut, but they don’t.) So I’ve had lots of chances to ponder my favorite treat, and I’ve decided that above all else, there’s nothing I love more than a great chocolate chip cookie.

I’m not picky–I’ll eat soft ones, crispy ones, store-bought, homemade, ones with nuts, ones with oatmeal. I thought I’d tried all the permutations until I was introduced to HannahMax Baking Cookie Chips, which are thin, mega-crunchy, and delicious. They’re also somewhat lo-cal, totaling only 120 calories and 6g of fat for 5 cookies (each one’s about the diameter of a Chips Ahoy). Not often I can eat–or serve my kids–five cookies relatively guilt-free. The Cookie Chips team was nice enough to send the Parents staff a big box of all five flavors, which included Cinnamon Sugar, Original Cookie (basically chocolate chip cookies minus the chocolate chips), Dark Chocolate Chocolate Chip, and Sea Salted Peanut Butter. I put them in our kitchen for my colleagues to enjoy, and within minutes all that was left on the counter were flattened bags and an array of crumbs.

Here’s a list of stores that sell Cookie Chips. But starting today and running through May 20, if you buy (only) Chocolate Chip Cookie Chips from the site and enter the promo code BRIBE, you’ll get 20 percent off in honor of holiday I never knew existed, National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day. I know how I’ll be celebrating this May 15!

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5 Cool Things About Sea World

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

“I am gowing to See Wyrld.”

That statement found its way into nearly every assignment my kindergartner worked on for the month leading up to our recent vacation in southern California. We had lots of activities planned for the week, but as far as Lila was concerned, it was all about Sea World in San Diego. My older daughter, in third grade, was equally excited–but interestingly, neither of them really knew much about the theme park. So when we arrived, they were blown away. If you’re planning a trip to Sea World, keep this in mind:

1.  Shamu gets all the attention, but the dolphin show is even better. The bottlenose dolphins star in a 20-minute show called Blue Horizons that’s pretty amazing. Not only do the mammals perform amazing gymnastic feats, but so do the trainers, diving from on high into the pools below. And we were all stunned when one trainer zipped around the pool with each foot on the back of a dolphin (picture water skiing but using dolphins instead of skis). The Shamu show, One Ocean, is impressive for sure–it’s incredible to see enormous killer whales soaring in the air–but because the animals are so huge, they’re not as limber as the dolphins, which makes for a slightly less thrilling experience. Plus the show is at least five minutes shorter than Blue Horizons (at least it was when we were there; the web site says the shows are nearly equal length).

2. Be prepared to spend some money on feeding the animals. For my kids, a highlight was feeding the sea lions, and trying to feed the bat rays. Whereas you basically drop the bait into the mouth of the sea lions, feeding rays is a slightly more complex process: You stick a tiny dead fish between your knuckles, plunge your arm into the tank, and keep it still while the ray glides over your hand and slurps it out. If your kids are anything like mine–and most of the ones around us–they’ll get spooked as soon as they feel the ray, then they’ll drop the fish, and be looking at you for another $6 tray of bait in no time.

3. Don’t feel bad if you don’t make it on the rides. There are several, including a few for younger kids in the Sesame Street Bay of Play. But we were under a bit of time crunch, so we skipped the rides, and my children still came away absolutely loving their Sea World experience.

4. If you like penguins, you’re in luck. The Penguin Encounter was a jackpot for us (okay, mostly me–I adore those  creatures), with nearly 300 penguins living together but separately: Gentoos with Gentoos, little Adelies with Adelies, huge Emporers with Emporers, and so on. You get to watch them hop in the water, swim briskly, and pop back up onto the ice as you’re transported down the exhibit via one of those “people mover” conveyer belts. And when you exit the building, you’re treated to a display of South American breeds, which thrive not in arctic temperatures but the warm San Diego weather. Who knew?

5. The sea lions will crack you up. We almost skipped Sea Lions Live, since we’d already seen two other shows that morning. I’m so glad we didn’t. Whereas Shamu and the dolphins have you oohing and aahing, the sea lions and otter in this show left us laughing. I can’t say it was the sea lion’s most dignified moment, but me and my family were howling when he clapped along to the beat of “Gangnam Style.”

We’ve been home from California for two weeks now, and Lila’s still finding a way to weave See Wyrld into her schoolwork.

 

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Adventure On (and Off) the High Seas: Universal Studios and Royal Caribbean

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

On this dreary, drizzly Friday, I’m thinking back to three weeks ago, when my daughters and I began a 7-day adventure that took us to Orlando, St. Thomas, and St. Martin, all part of a press trip sponsored by Universal Studios and Royal Caribbean. We kicked off the trip by staying at the incredible Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando, which is designed to make you feel like you’re in Hawaii, or Bali, or someplace similarly tropical and exotic. (If you’re feeling more of a European vibe, consider Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, modeled after the Italian village and including an authentic piazza and boat-filled harbor.)

The next morning we met up with our group to take the brief walk over to Universal Studios. The weather was uncharacteristically rainy, which made me so grateful for the fact that much of Universal’s best attractions are indoors. We started with the Despicable Me ride; my girls, ages 5 and 8, both loved it and were very happy to be able to take a picture with an actual Minion afterward. Shrek 4-D was another hit–especially the part when the Donkey sneezed and we all got sprayed (with water). It’s so much fun to do 3-D with kids, watching them swat at and duck from the stuff coming toward them, and Universal is long on 3-D offerings, including the new Transformers ride and Terminator 2. Then we went to what’s arguably the park’s most popular attraction, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I’d just started reading Harry Potter with my older daughter, Julia, the week before, so that she’d have a frame of reference. Her little sister, Lila, didn’t have the first idea who Harry was, but she still got into the spirit as soon as we got to the enormous Hogwarts Castle. While Lila was too small to ride the main event, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, she absolutely loved the smaller-kid-friendly Flight of the Hippogriff. (And I thought it was very cool that she, along with all the other shorties, were given an official certificate granting her and four guests front-of-the-line access to the Forbidden Journey once she’s tall enough. I’m holding on to that!) After all the adrenaline-pumping rides, we took it down about 20 notches and spent a while in the Dr. Seuss-themed part of the park, which suits the younger crowd very nicely.

If you’re considering a trip to Universal Orlando in the near future, you’ll be happy to hear that come March, they’ll have a brand-new budget-friendly hotel option in Cabana Bay Beach Resort. The resort offers 900 family suites that sleep six (as well as another 900 traditional hotel rooms) and there’s a special offer going on right now with rates as low as $104-$134 per night. Find out more here or by calling 888-273-1311.

Come Sunday, we boarded the Freedom of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean ship that serves more than 3,600 guests. The Universal/Royal Caribbean combo is a nod to the growing trend of “double-duty vacations.” We didn’t know it yet, but my children were about to have five of the most fun days of their lives. Seriously. Throughout our trip, the girls would spontaneously say things like, “Who’s having the best time EVER?” and shoot their hands in the air. They’d ask if we could live on the ship. They’d say they wished Daddy “had a house in St. Martin so we wouldn’t have to go home.” (Believe me, I wish Daddy had a house on St. Martin, too.) The moments that really stuck with us:

  • The Dreamworks Character Breakfast, with special guest stars Puss in Boots, Fiona, and Shrek
  • The Tiaras and Teacups Party, where about a dozen little girls served their moms tea and cupcakes (their favorite part) while being taught about table manners and proper etiquette (my favorite part). This was part of the Barbie Premium Experience, a special package you can buy separately that gets your child a slew of Barbie toys and goodies along with the chance to be in a fashion show and participate in other fun events all week. At $349, this add-on isn’t cheap, but Royal Caribbean does offer significant discounts from time to time, so definitely ask about that when you’re booking.
  • Strolling through the Promenade one night and finding ourselves in the middle of a flash mob dancing to “Thriller” (I’m a sucker for Michael Jackson)
  • Turning on the Dreamworks channel in our room at any hour and catching bits of movies like “Kung Fu Panda” and “Madagascar,” and watching “The Croods” in the ship’s movie theater
  • When Lila won (okay, co-won) a hula-hooping contest during Family Disco Night and left with her own medal
  • Coming back to our room at night to see which origami towel creation our stateroom attendant, Desiree, had created. The girls formed a bond with Desiree as soon as we arrived at our room, and they loved giving her high-fives and hugs all week. In fact, at the Tiaras and Teacups party, all the kids left with a piece of Barbie stationery, on which they were asked to write a note to someone they appreciated. Lila wrote hers to Desiree, thanking her for keeping our room so clean. Very sweet.
  • The ice skating show. (Fun fact: Royal Caribbean is one of the largest employers of ice skaters in the world.) We got there just as the performance started and I didn’t realize it would be so packed, so we had to split up. From my vantage point a few rows behind Julia and Lila, I got to watch a second show: My girls swiveling their heads from one end of the rink to the other and then zipping back to stare at each other in amazement and exclaim “WOW” and “Did you see that?!” after every skater’s jump. When the show ended, Julia ran up to me and said, “That. Was. AWESOME!” (Had I thought to pack the girls long pants and socks, they could’ve skated themselves during the many open-ice sessions during our cruise.)
  • Swimming in the pools, splashing in the “H2O Zone” water park, and chilling in the hot tubs. (It’s worth noting, though, that there are no lifeguards on the ship. Staffers definitely keep an eye out for kids–I watched one hustle over and scoop up a little girl who slipped and fell–but the onus is 100% on parents.)
  • Our excursion on St. Thomas: We sailed on the party boat Kon Tiki over to a private beach for a few hours. The water was the perfect temperature and the scenery was gorgeous, but the highlight for my kids was the on-board entertainment on the way back to the ship. Backed by a steel-drum band, two post-college guys danced the Macarena, started a conga line, and performed a very impressive limbo. (My girls later separately confessed to finding the guys “cute.” I can’t disagree.)
  • Our balcony. With all of the excitement on board the ship (and I’m only scratching the surface), some of my favorite moments were spent sitting outside, watching the waves as we sailed. It was such a peaceful setting and I felt so grateful to have the chance to experience it.

As I said, this vacation was nearly a month ago, but it’s stayed with my children. Just last night at bedtime Julia said, “I wish I was still on the ship.” Lila told me last weekend that she wants to go with her sister and her cousin on Freedom of the Seas for “16 weeks” when she’s in high school. Our on-board neighbors told us that this was their 15th cruise; it’s the only way they travel. I’m wondering if my girls, bolstered by the memories this cruise gave them, will follow in their footsteps one day?

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A Gift Guide From Someone Who Really Knows Kids

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

We at Parents put together a great toy guide every year–and you’ll find our latest here–but I admit I’m partial to this one because it comes from my sister, Meghan, a pediatric occupational therapist who works with young children of various abilities. A large part of her job is to engage her kids and help them reach their therapeutic goals by using toys, games, and apps. She is forever on the lookout for the best items, and when she finds them, she enthusiastically writes all about them on her blog, MAC&Toys. (Bookmark it!) And once a year, she pulls together an extravaganza of recommendations, including links to buy and the skills each item addresses (fine motor, visual perception, sensory processing, social, and so on), and sends it to all of the parents of the children she works with. I am making this bold statement: I guarantee you’ll find something on this list you’ll be tempted to buy or know from experience is awesome. I’ll give you a taste with a couple of the items I’m getting for my children.

From Meghan’s 2013 Holiday Gift Guide:

Lazoo drawing books  There are nine different books to choose from and I can’t say one is better than the other. I adore all of these and each one is so unique and different from other coloring and activity books. My first book was the Holes book and my kids couldn’t get enough.  I quickly picked up the Squiggles and Stickers/Incredible Stickers books. Perfect for preschoolers who may not always love coloring and drawing books because the pictures are motivating and exciting for them to complete. Many of the kids I work with get stressed with coloring books because the pictures are too big and their hands get tired. With drawing, they avoid this task because they aren’t quite sure where to start the picture. These books are great because they give you something concrete to begin with and then you can allow your imagination to run wild. These books allow for success and the more successful they are, the more likely they will be to try coloring and drawing activities outside of their comfort zone. Here is a link to the Lazoo Store….warning, you may not be able to stop yourself! (Improves fine motor grasping skills and in-hand manipulation skills; visual motor skills; eye-hand coordination skills; fine motor skills)

Stack Up  A great cooperative game perfect for preschoolers or young school age children.  The purpose of the game is to work as a team to build a stack of blocks using sticks (the blocks have a hole on either side and children must work together to put their stick in the hole and place it on top of the other blocks).  There are challenges as well that keep the kids on their feet and moving around.  I love watching the kids figure out how to work together to make the tower. Cooperative games are great for teaching kids the importance of team work and that sometimes winning is not the most important part of a game! (Improves bilateral coordination/using two hands at the same time; sensory processing skills, such as attention and focus; improves gross motor skills, such as jumping or whole body movements)

Go to Meghan’s list for dozens more suggestions for toys, games, apps, and independent toy stores around the country. Happy shopping!

Image: Gift boxes on a colorful background via Shutterstock.

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Win an Aden + Anais Sleep Sack!

Monday, October 14th, 2013

Aden + Anais, best known for its adorable muslin baby blankets, is now giving away 10 of its muslin “sleeping bags,” or wearable blankets. These are a safe way to keep your baby warm while sleeping without using a loose blanket, which poses a suffocation risk; avoiding them in cribs is an important part of reducing the risk of SIDS. The company is running this giveaway now because October is SIDS Awareness Month, when advocates work especially hard to increase the awareness of SIDS as well as the importance of safe sleep habits for babies. Among those advocates are the CJ Foundation for SIDS, a nonprofit which has provided millions of dollars for SIDS research initiatives, support service grants, public education, and awareness campaigns since 1994. In fact, a portion of the sales of all Aden + Anais sleeping bags go directly to the CJ Foundation.

To enter the giveaway, visit Aden + Anais on Facebook. (Scroll down a bit to find the latest post about the contest.) Good luck!

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Elmo and Murray from Sesame Street–Live In Our Office!

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

Yesterday we had the pleasure of hanging out with Elmo and Murray, who dropped by to help spread the word about Sesame Street‘s 44th season, which kicked off Monday. (That’s me and Michael Kress, executive editor of Parents.com, proudly posing with the muppets.) The theme of the season is self-regulation, otherwise known as that thing most of our kids haven’t quite mastered. The shows will focus on helping children master skills like managing emotions, making transitions, being flexible, screening out distractions, and remembering rules–all of which will help them in school, or help them get ready for school.

We asked Elmo and Murray all kinds of questions: Do you ever get so frustrated that you want to push or hit someone? What happens when your mom and dad serve you a meal that you really don’t like? Do you fight with your siblings? (They don’t have any, but they still had a good answer about getting along with others.) You’ll see what they had to say in a fun video series we’ll show you soon–and you can show your own children as a way to get them on board with good behaviors. (I know I’ll be showing my girls what Murray had to say about trying foods he doesn’t think he’s going to like.) In the meantime, have your children check out the new season of “Sesame Street”–though I’ll bet they are already–which includes a new segment called “Cookie’s Crumby Pictures,” movie spoofs that show Cookie encountering all kinds of opportunities to show off his self-regulation skills.

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