10 Easy Make-Ahead Dinners for Back to School!

Monday, July 31, 2017 1 comment
If you are anything like me, the looming, overwhelming, impending BACK TO SCHOOL is starting to freak you out. It is everywhere right now. Heck, even my Target has put out back to school stuff, discounted it, and cleared out the area for something new!

SLOW YOUR ROLL, TARGET! ahem

Anyhoo, since it is "that time", I have started to think about preparing for "it". One of the biggest things I have done to make the school year easier is to prepare dinners ahead of time. Yep, totally non-school related, and yet, so helpful! It takes a huge load off my mind, and one more decision off my plate. (pun intended!) By making dinners ahead of time, it forestalls the inevitable "what's for dinner?" question, saves us from nightly fast food and keeps our grocery bill (and portion sizes!) in check.


In the past, my husband and I would spend Saturday or Sunday entirely on making our pre-made meals for the next 2-3 months. Now, with two little "helpers", we don't have an entire day to spend on it. Usually, we will make one or two pre-made dinners every weekend- one serving to eat that night, the rest to freeze. We will do this over a couple weekends, and fill our freezer that way, and then be good to go for a few months!

Our weekly meal plan normally looks a little like this-
Monday- baked chicken and a vegetable
Tuesday- Pre-made dinner
Wednesday- Baked pork chops and a vegetable
Thursday- Pasta night
Friday- Pizza Night
Saturday- Takeout or pre-made
Sunday- Takeout or pre-made

Obviously, this menu is not the same all the time, but those are our basic go-to meals. For the girls, we also always have on hand chicken nuggets and fish sticks, frozen pasta, and box mac and cheese, for the nights when they are not feeling what daddy and I are cooking.

I have linked the recipes that we use the most for pre-made, along with my tips and tricks-Enjoy!

A little note about preparation- in general, we use the 1 lb foil loaf pans for most of these recipes; for the soups we use the quart sized plastic containers. They are the perfect 2 person serving size (or 2 adults + 2 littles under the age of 4)- add on a side of vegetables, and it's a meal! Sometimes the girls surprise us and devour our portions, sometimes not.

When you are ready to eat a meal, you can pull them out of the freezer either the night before (you early planner, you!) or the morning of (whoops!) and they are ready to cook that evening. Pretty much everything will cook in under 30 minutes-pop it in the oven as soon as you get home, and hey-presto! dinner!

1) Cajun Meatloaf by Paul Prudhome -This meatloaf is beyond just a baked loaf of meat! Delicious as-written, but I only ever use about 1/4 of the seasoning mix. Prepare the recipe up until the final bake. Cover with foil; when ready to eat, put in fridge to thaw for about 8-12 hours and follow cooking instructions. This makes about 4 to 5 one-pound foil loaf tins.
The great chef, Paul Prudhome! 
2) Shepard's Pie by Paul Prudhome -Yes, this recipe is different from the meatloaf. I love this one because the veggies come with it! Again, I cut WAAAYYY back on the spices, and I up the amount of veggies and potatoes. You will cook the meat first, and I usually drain it before adding the veggies and potatoes. Prepare these up until the final bake as well. Cover with foil; when ready to eat, put in fridge to thaw for about 12 hours, then follow cooking instructions. Depending on how much extra veggies you add, this can stretch from 4 to 6 one-pound foil loaf pans.
https://www.melskitchencafe.com/baked-pasta-with-chicken-sausage-2/
Mel's Kitchen Cafe Baked Pasta
3) Baked Ziti by Mel's Kitchen Cafe -This one we make pretty much every time we prep. Beloved by both girls, we usually up the amount of veggie sides we make with it, and serve bread. I always add extra cheese on top and use chicken spinach-parmesian sausage. Boil the pasta for less time than you think- it cooks more during the final bake; boil too much and it gets mushy. I also like to use fresh spinach, although frozen does work. Prepare these up until the final bake. Cover with foil; when ready to eat, put in fridge to thaw for about 12 hours, then follow cooking instructions. Makes about 4 to 5 one pound foil loaf pans.

4) Stuffed Shells -Another good pasta recipe, although a little more time consuming. Boil more shells than it says you need (they always rip). You will want the flatter trays for this. The foil loaf pans work, but it is a pain to serve (they are all stacked on each other). You can dress these basic shells up a number of ways- I usually add chopped up chicken spinach-parmesian sausage and spinach. It's a thing... Prepare these up until the final bake. Cover with foil; when ready to eat, put in fridge to thaw for about 12 hours, then follow cooking instructions. Makes about 5-6 one pound foil flat pans.

5) Pastry Wrapped Salmon or Chicken -This one is a bonus meal! You can prepare it with salmon fillets or chicken breasts-delicious either way! This is a fancy recipe, but it doesn't have to be. We sub out the prosciutto for deli sliced ham, and the __________ cheese for pre-sliced Swiss. Is this as delicious as the original recipe? Meh... Is it still darn good, devoured by small children and a fraction of the price? You betcha! We use about 1.5 lb of salmon or 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (pounded flat-ish) and cut the puff pastry sheets into 2 pieces (for 4 total) after rolling out. Prepare up until the final bake; wrap in foil. You get about 4 servings.
https://happymoneysaver.com/homemade-easy-lasagna-recipe/
Karrie Truman's Lasagna
6) Lasagna by Karrie Truman But, of course! I really like this recipe- it is not too fancy, but not too processed. She also has really good instructions. Again, cook extra sheets. Cut them to fit perfectly into the 1 lb foil loaf pans. Prepare these up until the final bake. Cover with foil; when ready to eat, put in fridge to thaw for about 12 hours, then follow cooking instructions. Makes about 4 to 5 one pound foil loaf pans.

7) Bean soup- I like to use the dry bean mixes (don't forget to soak overnight and rinse well!), and cook with a ham hock. Feel free to add veggies (onion, celery, carrots) to make this soup even a little more hearty. Makes about 3 to 5 servings.

8) Cheese broccoli soup by Ree Drummond- I use this recipe, with very few changes. I don't toast the broccoli (ain't nobody got time for that!) I use an immersion blender to make it a bit more creamy, but I don't blend it all. I like the broccoli chunks! This is really good with some crusty bread. Save some shredded cheese for topping fresh! Makes about 4 to 5 servings.
http://thepioneerwoman.com/cooking/corn-cheese-chowder/
Corn Chowder by Ree Drummond
9) Corn cheese chowder also by Ree Drummond (can you tell I am a fan!) I also like to use an immersion blender for this one as well. I have added salmon chunks to this, and it was a huge hit (sort of a mash up of corn-cheese-seafood chowder). Again, nice, fresh crusty bread! (bonus points for bread bowls!!) Save some shredded cheese for topping fresh. Makes about 4 to 5 servings.
http://thepioneerwoman.com/cooking/macaroni-cheese/
The Pioneer Woman's Mac and Cheese!
10) Mac and cheese again by Ree Drummond (like, seriously, a big fan!) This linked recipe is for when you are feeling extra fancy to make a sauce from scratch. In her post, it links to a non-sauce from scratch recipe. I have done both- I like this one better, but the other one is just as delicious. Depends on your skills and time frame! You can make this a meal, or you can use it as a side. We eat them as meals with a vegetable side. Makes about 4 to 5 1 lb foil loaf pan servings. I have also seen where people freeze them in muffin tins, and then put all the individual servings into a freezer bag and freeze that way for individual servings- seems like a good idea!

So there you have it- 10 easy recipes to make ahead for the school year! I hope they are helpful for your family and sanity as they have been for mine!


Lesson Planning: Back to School-Teaching Rules and Procedures

Monday, July 24, 2017 5 comments
Well, teacher friends-it is just about back to school time! We start school on September 5th this year, and I am in full new-year mode! I have ransacked the Target, Walmart and Staples for supplies and I have been working on completely planning the first semester.

Lesson Planning: Back to School-Teaching Rules and Procedures

I try to have at least the first month mapped out completely. This helps calm my over-anxious teacher-brain, but is not so planned that I feel I can't change it after the month is over. I usually find that the first month is a sort of settling in period for me. I get to know the students, and they get to know me. I get a hands-on practice of how my systems and structure will work and what will and what won't need to be adjusted.

During the first week, I usually do a mini-unit on rules, procedures and expectations in my class, followed by my Introduction to Science Unit. These are both nice easy topics to learn and keeps the students (and me, tbh) from freaking out too soon. (I like to ease them into the freaking out part, lol!)

My mini-unit on rules, procedures and expectations usually takes about a 3 to 4 days of 50 minute classes.

Here is my schedule:
Day 1- Personal introduction and begin Back to School Stations
Day 2- Complete Back to School Stations
Day 3- Fun lab
Day 4- Mini Research/Poster Project

My Back to School Station activity is usually about 5-6 stations of different activities that I pull together, including:

  • a Syllabus Scavenger Hunt, where they have to read the syllabus and find the answer to questions
  • Getting to Know Your Group Dice Game, a school friendly version of "never have I ever"
  • an Around the Room Scavenger Hunt for locations of different materials and bits of information
  • a couple of group challenges (usually working as a group to stack cups or write with a single marker) 
  • setting up notebooks
  • and a station for logic puzzles 
These Station Activities can take anywhere from one class period to two. Sometimes, I will save the group challenges for the second day entirely and talk about how they will need to work together in groups. For that, I will try to have a couple more activities on hand, in case they really work fast! 

I have also had them spend a class period getting notebooks in order, depending on how I use them. If they are using regular binders, then the station will just be coloring a cover page and labeling their tabs for the binder. If I am doing full-on interactive notebooks, then I will spend an entire class period going over how to set them up, and pasting in rules and expectations, showing them examples of good and bad work.  

I like to do a mini-lab on the third day, just to get a quick assessment of how they work in groups. Everybody is still fresh, so no one has fallen into their "role" in class yet. This will usually be the marshmallow/spaghetti stack, or the saving Sam activity. (This is also a great introduction of how to complete classwork and turn it in, whether I am using a binder or INB.)
A mini-lab setup with the rolling lab tables
 **Just make sure that if you do this, you check with other teachers to make sure you are not repeating each other (that was awkward-Mrs!- we just did this in miss-so-and-so's class!)**

And finally, depending on how bored I am with introduction stuff or icebreakers, I will either have them complete a mini-research project to make a poster for my bulletin board or I will dive into my "what is science?" lesson and get started!

This year, I am looking into finding some new activities that are not quite so played out.
I have listed a few things on my wish list below! 

All About Me Back to School Ice Breakers by Getting Nerdy  -this looks like a great icebreaker and INB practice activity in one! Plus, I love their stuff!
Four Brains are Better Than One by Tangstar Science - I already own this one! It is quick and a lot of fun. I have used it and many of her articles as substitute work!

Back to School Science Activities for Middle School by That Rocks Math Science and ELA - This looks like a great collection of 12 activities that focus on different science skills. Geared toward middle school, and looks to be not your typical activities.

Back to School Beginning of the Year Activities: Science Edition by Martina Cahill, The Hungry Teacher - this looks promising. It includes different activities, along with getting to know you and questionnaires. Suitable for lower middle grades (think 5-6, maybe 7)

Take Notes the Cornell Way by Mister Science- I am still thinking about how I want students to take notes. I have done modified Cornell before and this looks like an interesting lesson to teach it more effectively.

So there you have it- my general back to school method! What do you guys do for back to school? do you have any special ways to introduce you rules and procedures? Anything new you are trying this year? Leave a comment below and share!



5 Tips and Tricks I Have Learned on Family Vacations

Monday, July 17, 2017 No comments
Ahhhh, summer! That beautiful time of year when teacher-moms are planning to take a much-needed vacation. It will be family-friendly (and won't break the budget)! We will all get to relax and enjoy each other's company(you tell yourself)! The kid's will all get along perfectly (HA!)!

5 Tips and Tricks I have Learned on Family Vacations for a Fun and Relaxing Time!

This is the second year in a row that we are taking a family vacation with my husband's family. Last year they rented a house on the beach for 8 people (hubs, myself and our two littles, sister-in-law and boyfriend, and grandma and pop-pop) for 7 days. We did have a lot of fun, but we also learned a few good lessons! I wanted to share some of my vacation tips, tricks and truths with you as we embark on this year's adventure to the Poconos!

1) Figure out the right length of time for your stay!
For us, 7 days is toooo long! We actually already knew that from visiting my mom in Texas, but ignored it because VACATION. Not sure why we thought that would make a difference.... We have discovered that 5 days is our vacation sweet spot- long enough to really get to enjoy a place, but not so long that everybody is getting on everybody else's nerves. Figure out what works for you and don't feel bad!

2) Be honest about what you will cook/eat.
My in-laws are usually the first ones to arrive at the vacay house, and they will ask us what we would like from the store. Last year we hesitated to give them a list; it was SUPER long, and we felt bad about having them do all the shopping. Consequence-when we first arrived (right about dinner for two squalling kiddos!) no food kiddos would eat! Whoops! This year, we went ahead and sent the entire grocery list (mostly frozen pasta and chicken nuggets) and will pay them back when we get there. I have a basic plan for meals for myself (diet based) and the girls (picky) already thought out, so I am ready at any time. We are also bringing along a bunch of snacks from our own pantry for the trip and for any delays in supper time upon arrival.

3) Bring toys and activities.
Yes, we were at the beach for 7 days. My then-1-year-old was terrified of the ocean on day 1, and was sick of playing in the sand by day 3. The then-3-year-old was good at the beach until day 4. That meant we spent a lot of money at the local boardwalk and aquarium, taking random, really long walks and being cooped up in the house with tablets. On day 6 we discovered a local park, and the girls had tons of fun and made new friends! This time around, we made sure there was more than just one local feature (that was not too expensive!) There are 2 local playgrounds, woods to walk in, a splash park, mini-golf, movie theater and a little downtown. Plus, I am bringing more books and toys, and a few little arts and crafts activities. (Who wants to make slime and nature pictures!!!)

Making nature pictures after our nature walk!
4) Make a list of EVERYTHING!
And I do mean everything, right down to the mattress covers, night lights, and noise machines. No, we aren't traveling to the middle of nowhere, but last year I forgot my swimsuit (for a beach vacation. Yeah). I had to spend a couple hours trying to find a swimsuit at the end of the summer season. This year, I have been working on my list for 3 days! I keep it in Evernote on my phone, so I can add to it when I think of something. I feel pretty confident that we have almost everything! Bonus points- I also use it to make sure nothing gets left behind when we leave!

5) Try to relax!
This one is for the moms! I know that I always feel a bit bummed out on vacations. They are not really vacations for us, are they? Now, instead of keeping just my own little family on their schedule (naps and meals need to be on time to avoid meltdowns, amIright?!?!?!), but I am also trying to get 4 other grown adults on it as well. Mostly, moms spend their time trying to keep little people from falling into tantrums, but it is important to remember to communicate honestly and openly with the people you are on vacation with. And don't feel bad to ask them to take the kiddos for a bit! I had a bit of a meltdown myself, and I really plan to avoid that this year!

The daily view from our deck!
The babies were "dropped off" at our house two days in a row while mama foraged!
Okay, teacher-moms, there are my 5 tips and tricks that I have learned! Is there anything I missed? What lesson have you learned on vacation with your little ones? Share in the comments below, and enjoy your last days of summer!


Teacher for Hire! Tips from my Experience Searching for my Forever Home

Monday, July 10, 2017 2 comments
Teacher job search and interview tips
I am one of those unfortunate teachers who has not yet found their "forever home". I have been teaching for 6 years now, and I have taught in 4 different schools. I taught for about 3 years in my first school, and then I have been to a new school every year.

When I interview, it is getting a little awkward. Thankfully, there is a darn good reason for having left each school, and I make sure to get a recommendation from the principal each time! The reasons range from truly awful principal, embezzlement and fraud, just not being a good fit (and wanting to return to high school) and the newest (the one I am currently looking to leave) is because they did not represent themselves accurately when I was hired. I assumed, and this was my fault, that they had certain benefits in place, which they did not! Rough surprise...

So this post is for all the other teachers, looking for our forever homes. This post is for all the other teachers looking to leave a bad situation and worrying about how their resume will look. This post is for the teachers who have found their forever home, so that they can get a glimpse into the life of a nomad teacher.

If you are also looking for a new position, or are a new teacher, here are some helpful tips from a "seasoned pro"!
**Please understand that these tips are not for everyone! I teach science for middle and high school grades in a city that has a crazy high number of charter schools, so I can interview in many different places. I am also lucky enough to have a partner who makes the majority of our income- my income is usually sent to daycare, fun spending, home repair and savings/retirement. We CAN live without my income, the only problem is that money would get tight (and I might go crazy from being stuck with my own little ones all day!) **

1) Don't go for the first offer, just because they made it. Schools are almost always hiring-I interviewed with the public school district here, and did not hear back until literally a week before school started. I wish I had held out for that position! I took an earlier offer because I was afraid of being without a job.

2) Don't be afraid to negotiate! Know what you are worth- research the salaries in your area and plan accordingly. I have negotiated my salary every year, usually up around $3000-5000.You will seem more knowledgeable and experienced, and I swear the principals I did this with seem to respect me more as an expert in my field.

3) Know what benefits you want and ask about them! Do not be shy about asking in the first or second interview- don't wait until you have signed a contract to realize that they do not pay into the state teachers retirement fund, or that you only have 5 sick days (and you expected 10)! If I had known this ahead of time- it would have been a no-go! Now I jokingly, but really, ask about them in the first interview! (obviously, this depends on how the interview is going...)

4) BE HONEST! If they are asking you about things that you are not interested in, or in activities you would not be willing to do- be polite, but be honest! Lots of schools have asked about teachers doing after school activities, so I tell them what I would like to do or join. Science club- cool! Mathematics and Robotic Club- nope!

5) Ask about the school day- how many classes, what does a typical teacher schedule look like, and extra activities (hall monitor, before or after school monitor, sitting in the lunch room). All these little things will eat your time during the day, and it is better to be prepared upfront. This can go into pro/con lists when you are deciding! Trust me, the difference between being expected to be at a post at 7:15 and just in you room by 7:30 is huge!

and finally
6) Be yourself! I am an odd, slightly abrupt and weird kind of person! I tend to say what I am thinking, without a whole lot of filter. I find that principals either love me at first sight or do not. I have become really okay with that! If they do not like me for who I am in an interview, then we probably will not work well together, and that makes for a rough school year. Or they love me and the interview turns into a 2 hour talk and an offer on the spot (that drives my husband nuts!lol)

Just remember- you are an awesome and unique person who is willing (and able) to teach little humans! This is a special gift; not everyone can-or should-do this!  We should make sure that we are being compensated and have found the best position for us. So go forth and interview boldly!

Do you have any tips you would add to this list? Are you still searching for your forever home? Comment below!

The Perfect Vanilla Cake

Sunday, July 2, 2017 3 comments

I can't wait to quit teaching.

Don't get me wrong. I love teaching. I love to teach. I love connecting with kids. I love seeing the a-ha! moment happen, and I love when they enjoy class. I love coming up with new curriculum that is engaging and captivating for students.

But if you ask me what I want to be when I grow up-teacher is not it. I want to open my own bakery. I live for cake. Cookies. Pastries. Cheesecakes. I think about them all the time.

When I eat a dessert in a restaurant, I immediately think about how I could make it better. What would I change? How would I present it?

I am a dessert snob. We went to the nicest restaurant in town (town= Philadelphia). We are talking $600 for 4 people for my birthday. And I refused dessert. They brought it anyway, and I ate it (hey, it's still dessert!), but I was judging it the whole time.

So, yeah, a bakery. As you can imagine, I love to bake for myself and my friends. And co-workers. And my daughters schools. And Friday. And that time of the month.
I spend all my time looking at recipes, combining them, comparing them, adding to them. I almost never make the same recipe the same way twice, so when I find something I am happy with, you can bet that it will be amazing!

Which brings us to the Perfect Vanilla Cake. I make all the birthday cakes in our house (naturally) and for large birthday parties, I generally stick with vanilla cake. I have done other types, but they never get eaten, and I end up with leftovers, which is a WHOLE OTHER PROBLEM.

I have been testing vanilla cake recipes for a few years now. My criteria- it must be good for sheet and stacked cakes; it must also be good for cupcakes. I want it to be fluffy and moist, like a box mix, but homemade. It has to take food color well and have a strong vanilla flavor. It can't be too difficult, with too many steps or ingredients, or have too many bowls.

For a while, I used the recipe for Old Fashioned Cupcakes out of the Back in the Day Cookbook, which is still awesome in it's own right. Excellent vanilla flavor, great for cupcakes, but I always wanted the texture to be more like a box mix, more fluffy/moist, and less dense.

Recently, I bought the Cookies and Cups Cookbook, and I have been loving her Vanilla Cake Recipe! I have used it a number of times, and it fits pretty much all of my criteria. That being said, there are a few little changes I make to it.

The first change is that I use either cake flour, or I make my own cake flour, using regular flour and cornstarch. Oh, you didn't know about that little trick? Heck, yeah!-for every one cup of regular flour, replace 2 tablespoons with cornstarch and sift to combine! I think it is a combo of sifting and replacing, but it works, so wooo-hooo!

I also beat the crap out of it. Cream the butter until it is light in color and fluffy, and then at the end, the original recipe says to turn to medium for 30 seconds, but I bump a little higher for a little longer.

The trick I find with all the whipping and beating is to be extra careful when getting trays in and out of the oven-not too bumpy or you will loose your air bubbles!

I think the combo of those two little adjustments makes a great texture! The colors are vibrant, the cake stays moist (after being covered in frosting) and the flavor is awesome!

It works pretty well as a cupcake, too!

So while I may never stop searching for the Holy Grail of vanilla cake recipes, I think this one is going to stick around a while!

I have also added my buttercream recipe below!
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The Perfect Vanilla Cake Recipe
(Adapted from Cookies and Cups Cookbook)

3 cups cake flour
             (or 3 cups flour minus 6 tbsp, then add 6 tbsp corn starch back in and sift 2-3 times)
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup butter, at room temp
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
4 large eggs, at room temp
1 tbsp vanilla
1 cup whole milk, at room temp

Preheat oven to 350 and prep your baking pans (cooking spray and parchment). This will make 2-9" rounds, or about 24 cupcakes.

In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In your mixer bowl, beat the butter and sugar. (I like to beat it until it is lightened in color.) Add the oil, eggs, vanilla and keep mixing until smooth, scraping as necessary.

Turn to low and add about 1/3 of the flour mixture, then about half the milk, beating after each addition. Repeat this step, and end with the flour mixture. Turn the mixer back up and mix for about a minute.

Put the batter into the prepared pans and bake for about 25-30 minutes. The tops should look dry and spring back lightly from your touch. A toothpick should come out clean from the middle.

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Vanilla Buttercream
-makes about enough to thinly fill and frost one 3 layer 9" round cake or 24 cupcakes. Depends on how much you love frosting.....

3 sticks butter, at room temp
2 lbs powdered sugar (about 6-7 cups)
2 tbsp vanilla
1/2 to 3/4 cup whole milk (whipping cream is better!)

Beat the butter for a minute or so on medium speed to smooth it out. 

Turn the mixer to low and add 4 cups of the powdered sugar. 

Add the vanilla and half of the milk. Add the rest of the powdered sugar. Mix on medium for about 30 seconds, then turn back to low and add additional milk until it reaches desired consistency. 

Turn mixer up to medium/high and beat for about 5-10 minutes until frosting has increased and turned a lovely white, fluffy beautiful color. This is where using heavy cream (whipping cream) will really make your frosting sing! 

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If you get a chance to try this out- let me know will you? 
I would love to hear your cake stories!!!