Our Berkshires vacation

27 July 2020

While I’m so (SO) grateful we were able to travel at all this summer, our annual trip to Maine did look different in big and small ways. I’ll talk more about some of them in my next post covering our time at the Island, but one change was that we weren’t able to get into our cottage until the Monday after the Fourth of July. Since John and I both had Friday the 3rd off, we opted to drive to New England on Friday and spend the long weekend in the Berkshires. We figured it would break up the drive and give us a chance to experience a new part of the Northeast! It ended up doing all of that and more, and I thought I’d share a few photos, if you’d like to see!

I do mean that – I imagine there are lots of you missing special places or nursing hurt over canceled plans this summer, so I’d understand if you’d rather skip today’s post!

We packed the kids in the car at 6am and arrived in Lee, Massachusetts about 12 hours later. We stopped for a picnic lunch at our usual spot – the Concord Point Lighthouse Park in Havre de Grace, Maryland. I HIGHLY recommend it if you find yourself traversing the Eastern seaboard by car! Three MVPs of our trip:

1. This Octonauts coloring book. WORTH ITS WEIGHT IN GOLD. June is deep into an Octo phase and this was literally the only entertainment she required for the car ride (and most of the following week, ha).
2. This small, lightweight lap desk. Perfect for Octonauts coloring.
3. A reacher grabber. Call me crazy or call me genius – but if you have a child who insists on throwing his stuffies in hard-to-reach places and then immediately screaming for you to get them, this will allow you to retrieve them without risking life and limb by unbuckling at top highway speeds. I put a little video of the grabber in action on my Stories today :)

In Massachusetts, we opted to stay at the Lakehouse Inn. (Our first preference would have been an Airbnb, but we could not find one that fit our criteria.) We were both a bit nervous about staying in a public space, but we felt comfortable for a few reasons:

— They had just opened the week before – we may have been the first ones in our room!
— The inn is small, and seemed to be at about half capacity. We saw about 6 other parties over the weekend and never saw anyone else besides staff inside.
— The staff was vigilant about wiping down surfaces, distancing, creating one-way flows through the common spaces, and more. They also had made accommodations like not offering breakfast or cheese at wine and cheese hour. There was no housekeeping during our stay.
— Among other precautions, our family wore masks in all common areas, regularly sanitized, and kept our windows open.

Everyone has a different level of risk they’re comfortable with right now, which I completely respect. We were grateful to be able to stay within our risk tolerance for this trip!

The inn itself was lovely – perched on a little cliff above a small, warm, clear lake. Adirondack chairs dotted the lawn and there was a fire pit and small beach area with a dock and kayaks and paddle boards to use for free (those were wiped down after every use, too!). We also were able to stay in two adjoining rooms, which gave us room to spread out and relax after the kiddos went to bed.

Though the Inn is technically in Lee, it is about 100 yards from the Lenox border, and almost all of our trips “into town” were to Lenox. Lenox’s adorable, historic downtown is about 5 minutes away (it’s where Tanglewood is located!). I wish I could have spent time exploring the cute shops, although I’m sure John was grateful COVID prevented it :)

On Saturday, we brought muffins, croissants, and a breakfast burrito back to the Inn from Haven Bakery & Cafe and ate them overlooking the lake – a pattern we’d repeat many times in our short stay! Then, we hopped into a pair of kayaks and paddled around for a bit before drying off and driving a few minutes to The Mount, Edith Wharton’s homestead.

My beloved sunhat – I go almost nowhere without it! Love my swimsuit, too (order a size up!).

Though the house was closed, the grounds were absolutely gorgeous, with formal gardens, fountains, tree-lined avenues, and wooded paths. We bought lunch from the little cafe on site and picnicked in the garden and pretended we were on our private estate :) It wasn’t hard – there were only a handful of other guests. Admittance to the grounds is free.

When you’re trying to get one child to take your photo and the other child steps in – ha!

We headed back to the Inn in the afternoon for Shep (and John, as it turns out) to take a nap, while June took her BGQH outside. I think this made her feel very special and grown-up, and it was a sweet time for just the two of us. She colored while I read my book, and then we took a dip in the lake. It was the perfect temperature – so delightful!!

We grabbed a yummy Italian dinner from Frankie’s and brought it back to our Adirondack-chair home base, eating it as the sun began to set. (Lest you think this sounds a little too perfect, both kids were covered in bolognese by the end of the meal!)

The next morning, we grabbed breakfast to go from the No. 6 Depot in West Stockbridge on our way to Bash Bish Falls.

The hike to the waterfall was about 45 minutes gently uphill, and though we were able to avoid people on the trip in, the waterfall itself was mobbed. So, instead of making that our destination, we turned around and splashed in one of the many exquisite pools alongside the path. Hardly a sacrifice! We picked up lunch at the No. 6 Depot on our way back to the Inn because we’d enjoyed it so much that morning!

After another indoor/outdoor quiet hour, we took the paddle boards all the way across the lake and then swam some more by the Inn’s beach. Is there anything better than an early evening swim, a shower, and dinner outside?!

On Sunday night we brought our Alta takeout to the Lenox town green so that we could get ice cream afterwards. John did indulge me with a walk around some of the historic neighborhoods once we had our cones, which was lovely.

After a last cliff-top breakfast, we were off to Maine the next morning with very grateful hearts and sweet memories! I don’t know if our schedule will always allow it, but I really hope we get to return to Lenox to break up the drive on future trips to Maine! Still gotta peek in those boutiques :)

Our favorite at-home, hands-off activities for kids

22 July 2020

After several months of two parents working from home with childcare gaps, we’ve learned to get creative. While there’s no shortage of inspiration for kiddo activities on the internet, I’ve found most of them require parent participation – which is great, but not when what you’re after is a way to finish up a task before clocking out for the day WHILE keeping littles happy.

Trust me – there are few things I hate more than working while my kids are around, but the pandemic has made it unavoidable at times. If you find yourself in the same situation, I thought I’d offer up a few activities our crew has found especially enjoyable and entertaining this spring and summer. Hint: just add water :)

A few disclaimers:
— My children are (almost) 2 and 4, but even if yours are the same ages, these activities may or may not be developmentally-appropriate. Always use your best judgment!
— I classify these activities as hands-off, but that doesn’t mean they don’t require supervision. Even small amounts of water require supervision! What I mean is that these activities capture my children’s attention without my direct participation – and usually for a long time, to boot. Typically, I’ll take my laptop to our backyard or front porch to work while the kids splash a few feet from me. So grateful to have these spaces!

Without further ado…

Under the sea sensory bin | Sensory bins are the bread and butter of Montessori preschools, so although we were very familiar with them, we’d never attempted one at home. Turns out they’re very easy: dump some small animal figurines (or the Arctic version), an aquarium plant or two, some rocks, some shells, and anything else that strikes your fancy in a big plastic tub, then add water. A few drops of blue food coloring takes things to the next level :) We have two of these for side-by-side play or this big one if they’re playing together.

Splash pad | With little jets around the edge, this water-inflated pool is the most low-key version of a water park right in your backyard. I toss a few animal figurines and plastic cups in with the kids and they are happy as clams.

Pouring station | Big plastic tub + multiple sizes and shapes of cups, pitchers, squeezers, etc. + water (and maybe a little food coloring!). They can pour, measure, make potions, pour it on each other’s heads, whatever. As always, animal figurines are welcome.

LEGO bath | Dump the LEGOS and the kids in the bath! Yes, the LEGOS need to be dried out, but that can become part of the play: after the kids hop out, have them scoop out each LEGO piece with a net or colander and lay them on a towel to dry.

A big bucket of ice in the backyard | I literally just take the container that catches ice cubes in our freezer and set it down in the backyard. The kids love handling the ice cubes, trying to melt them, toting them to various plants to “water” them, sliding them down the path, etc.

Free the sea creatures | This activity doesn’t last terribly long on its own but it’s a fun add-on to another water activity. Freeze a few animals in an ice cube tray then pop them out and introduce them to the water environment. If you’re feeling fancy, you can give the kids droppers and cups of hot, warm, and cold water to experiment with.

Also fun to add to any water activity: mini tongs, little strainers, droppers – all good for practicing fine motor skills! I’ve also cut up a sponge to make teeny sponges, making them appropriate scale for June to wash her horses with :)

Cooking trays | A bonus non-water activity! I’ll fill up a muffin tin for both kids with various dry kitchen items: different shapes of pasta, oats, rice, cereal… this is a great way to use up the random ends of bags of dry beans, etc.! I’ll also set out a few bowls, spoons, whisks, strainers, etc. and let them go to town making “potions” or “bakery treats” or “cat food,” depending on the day. Shep is just there to make as big a mess as possible, obviously. Despite his best efforts, everything sweeps up pretty easily, in my experience, since it’s all dry! Best not to mix water with this one unless you’re ready for more intense clean-up :)

Got your own hands-off kiddo activity to share? Hit me! (And of course, head to Busy Toddler, the inspiration for many of these activities, for many more ideas!)

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Our favorite summer recipes right now

20 July 2020

Many of you expressed interest in seeing occasional meal plans, so I thought I’d share some of the summer recipes we’re making and loving right now! Some are old favorites, a few are brand new, and almost all take advantage of the abundance of delicious produce this time of year.

Photo from The Cozy Apron

Summer Cavatelli | This pasta recipe is SO easy (most of the flavor comes from regular old marinara sauce – we use Rao’s), but it packs a seasonal punch with zucchini, fresh corn, and basil. It is also vegetarian! Note: I usually can’t find cavatelli, so I just use farfalle or penne.

Chicken Fajitas | This is hardly a recipe, but it’s an easy favorite! We grill chicken breasts with salt and pepper and saute green peppers and onions, then pile them both on tortillas with shredded cheese, salsa, sour cream or Greek yogurt, and homemade guacamole.

Cowboy Burgers | I’d put a hiatus on turkey burgers for awhile because I’d never found a recipe I liked, but this one is a winner! (You mix shredded cheese into the burger mix, which I’m sure doesn’t hurt.) I make 6 smaller patties and put them on potato rolls with lettuce, tomato, red onion, and either barbecue sauce or a little Sriracha and mayo whisked together. We’ll often have frozen sweet potato fries and cucumber and tomato salad on the side.

Grilled Chicken Shawarma | This has become one of my absolute favorite meals. The marinade is SO good – I try to mix it up the night before, but even if I can only let it sit an hour, it’s so flavorful. To the grilled chicken and garlic sauce, we’ll add sliced cherry tomatoes and cucumbers, toasted mini pitas, hummus, and boxed rice pilaf for personal Mediterranean plates!

Grilled Lemon Chicken Flatbread Wraps | I don’t like grilling kebabs, so I marinate the chicken breasts whole and grill them in the backyard before cutting them into bite-size pieces. The garlic sauce is so yummy, and these wraps are a great way to put our bigger tomatoes to good use, too!

Classic Cookout | Hot dogs, corn on the cob, baked beans, cucumber and tomato salad, pasta salad, and salt and pepper chips – doesn’t get much better than that :)

Pulled Pork Tacos and Pulled Pork Sandwiches | This is a one-two punch combo for our family – I’ll make them on back-to-back nights! The recipe could not be simpler: just sprinkle a chopped onion in the pot, add a 3-5 pound boneless pork shoulder, then pour over two cans of Coca Cola and pressure cook for 90 minutes. Drain the liquid, shred the meat, then mix in the barbecue sauce of your choice (we use Sweet Baby Ray’s).

From there, you can put the meat on buns with coleslaw for a Southern twist, or on those little street tortillas with shredded cheese (bake for 5 minutes at 250) and guacamole. So good, so easy!

I’d love to hear: what summer recipes have you been loving lately?

Kitchen quick tip

9 July 2020

Since you all were so generous with me and my handbag search earlier this week, I wanted to pass one of my best kitchen secrets back to you. File this in the same folder as the best way to reheat pizza or print Instagram photos – just one of those little life hacks that is not going to save the world, but might just rock your world a little bit.

Whenever a recipe calls for chicken stock, I mix up my own using this bouillon concentrate.

It’s right next to the boxed stock in my grocery store, and costs about the same – but this little puppy makes quart upon quart of stock for that price. Plus, it lasts for ages once open, whereas if I just need a half cup of stock for a recipe, the rest of the box will go south quickly in the fridge.

If you’ve never used it before, it’s so easy! I just measure the water I need in a liquid measuring cup, pop it in the microwave (or in a pan on the stove for a larger amount), heat it to boiling, then stir in the correct amount (1 tsp for every 8 ounces, I think). I’m not a particularly fancy cook, but I’ve never noticed any difference in taste between this and the readymade stock I used to buy. Homemade stock? That might be a different story, but I’ve not yet added that to my regular repertoire – hats off to those of you who have :)

Hats off also to Jenny Steffens Hobick, the lady who taught me about this jar of wonder many years ago. Cheers to all the little tricks that help us get dinner on the table with more ease and for less money!!

I’d love to hear: do you already have a jar of this in your fridge? Did you just add it to your shopping list? Do you, like me, remember your mom cooking with chicken bouillon concentrate “cubes” when you were younger? Somehow this seems slightly more legit :)