Thursday, May 29, 2008

Tiny*Prints Gets a Big Reception

Last weekend we celebrated Mira's first birthday. I know the first birthday is really more for the parents than it is for the baby, so I wanted it to be a casual but fun gathering of friends and family. I also wanted to have pretty invitations to send out and also keep as a memento.

Usually we order the standard photo cards for birthday parties. They're usually glossy, and some of the designs are cheesy or limited in how much you can personalize them. Nothing fancy, but they get the job done.

So when Parent Bloggers asked if I would like to try out some invitations from tiny*prints, I took a look at their site. After looking through their birthday options, I agreed to order Mira's party invites through them.

I was really impressed with the modern, stylish designs they offer for birthday invitations. Even baby-themed birthday invites were both elegant and fun at the same time. It was actually very difficult to choose which invite I liked the best. Some had cute drawings on them, others were photo cards, and they came in a variety of different sizes.

Finally, I decided on a photo card, and went to the next step: personalization. The on-screen editing of each section of the invitation is simple, easy to use, and allows you to preview your changes immediately. Can't think of what to say? They have suggested verses to borrow.

The photo editing was better than any other I've seen. Photos can be changed in several ways: zoom in or out, move to better fit the size of the window, rotate, and change to black and white or sepia tone. If you decide you don't like the changes, you can always revert to the original.

Before I placed my order, the system also let me know that an actual human being (a professional designer) would be reviewing my order to make sure everything looked the best it could. How many places offer that?

So how did my invitations turn out? Well, take a look at this:

(Bad blurring of personal info was my doing.)

I was stunned at how pretty these invites were! I love the thick cardstock they are printed on, and the colors are vibrant and rich. (No glossy finish, either!) The envelopes were also much better than the standard see-thru lightweight envelopes you find at other places.

Overall, I love the tiny*prints invitations. The only downside is that they are a little more expensive than other photo invites I've seen. But the quality makes that additional cost worth it, I think. Several of the guests told me they thought the invites were beautiful, and they planned to save them.

I recommend tiny*prints, and would use them again for birthday invites. They also offer moving announcements, birth announcements, thank you cards, and invites for lots of other events.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Is Your Child Star-Quality?

Company Kids is currently looking for their next child models for their 2009 print and online catalog. If you've seen their catalog or their website, then you know they have an impressive collection of fun children's furniture, room decor, and apparel.

If you think your child has the right look and attitude to be a model, then check out this contest. To enter, just visit the contest website and submit the best current photo of your child. Entrants must be between 3 and 6 years old. Full rules can be found at the contest site.

2 winners will be chosen to go to New York City for the photo shoot, as well as a $500 Company Kids gift card. 10 others will receive a $100 Company Kids gift card.

Contest ends June 20, 2008, so find your best pictures and send them in today. Good luck to everyone, although my daughter is clearly going to win. (Kidding! Now go enter!)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Best. Steak. Ever.

Occasionally you go out to dinner and are so blown away by the food and the service, you have to tell everyone you meet.

So hello everyone. I'd like to recommend Outback Steakhouse to you.

Oh sure, I'm probably the last person on the planet to eat at Outback. While those Bloomin' Onions looked good, my husband doesn't like onions, and I couldn't see eating an entire one when I could just apply it directly to my thighs instead. Same effect.

But I remembered I had a gift certificate to try Outback, so we took the entire family out to eat last week. Looking over the menu, I skipped the appetizers (avoiding temptation) and went straight to the main course. My first thought was to choose a pasta dish - my standard fare - but then I remembered that I was at a steakhouse, so steak seemed the obvious choice. You wouldn't order a steak at Red Lobster, right?

Aaron and I both ordered the "Outback Special" steak. This is a center cut sirloin steak, and the cheapest steak they offer. We both expected a decent steak, but not the best we've ever had. I was surprised, though. It was delicious. Juicy, tender, and not chewy at all. The seasoning was just right, so that no additional seasoning was necessary. I did ask for some barbecue sauce, and found it added another yummy layer of taste to the steak. Folks, this was their cheapest steak, and it still tasted better than nearly every other steak I've tried.

Our service was awesome. Drinks were always filled. Any request was promptly handled. And when I asked for an extra milk for Mira, our server billed it as a "refill" of Cordy's milk - no charge.

The children's menu was impressive, too. Cordy got not 1, not 2, but 4 crayons, which made her very happy. Instead of the usual page or two of games and coloring, she was handed a large booklet full of activities that kept her happy for most of the meal. And she was thrilled with her grilled cheese and fries.

So thank you, Outback, for an impressive family meal. You can bet we'll be back again.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Mama Knows Best, and Mama Rock Rules!

Growing up, my mom didn't have a lot of time for me. She worked long hours and often left me alone at night. But while I was given a lot of freedom, I also knew what her expectations were and kept to her rules. I respected her and in return I was given more leeway. Many of my friends thought that I had it easy, and that my mom was more of a friend than a mom. But while she was someone I could always talk to about anything, she was still my mom first.

After reading Mama Rock's Rules, I think my mom and Rose Rock would get along well. Parent Bloggers offered me the chance to read this book, and I thought, "The mom of Chris Rock wants to tell me how to parent? This should be good."

But having read it, I have to say that this woman may be one of the best parenting experts out there today. After raising ten children of her own, along with 17 foster children and working in preschool and special ed, Mama Rock has some well-tested theories of parenting that are simple to follow and practical.

She jumps into the most important aspect of parenting in the first chapter: you are your child's parent, not their friend, and you must set boundaries. This seems to fly in the face of the new parenting guidelines that ask us to be kinder, gentler parents. In Rose Rock's house, the kids knew that she was the boss, and their job was to follow her rules. Establishing these boundaries early on isn't some attempt at forcing your children into submissiveness, but instead setting them up to understand that the world is full of rules you must follow, and learning to be a respectful human being early on will help you cope with the world around you.

I was really impressed with her advice. One tip was to have a family dinner time free of distractions. This is something we don't have, and I can see how a dinner ritual, free of outside distractions, could help a family connect each day. We're often eating at different times, and TV is always a distraction. It's something that I want to start in our home.

She also discusses the need to establish respect, often beginning with eliminating swearing and negative talking from the house. (Yes, parents, this means you, too. Where do you think your little one learned those words?) But not only do your kids need to respect you, they need to respect themselves, too. Her ideas for teaching self-respect were inspiring and reminded me that I must always choose my words carefully around my daughters.

This isn't just a book about being tough with your kids, though. There is a lot of talk about love, too. She stresses that your kids should respect you, but not fear you. Mama Rock explains that kids want to belong, and they want positive attention from their parents. Rewarding kids for good behavior with hugs and kisses is always a good idea.

For me, the greatest lesson I took away from this book is that while your children may not always like you, they will someday appreciate and understand the rules you set for them. Looking at my own life, I remember many times when I did not like my mom at all. But as an adult, I can examine those situations and see that she really did have my best interests in mind, and most likely saved me from some very bad decisions.

This book is an easy read, with a casual tone and a lot of humor and anecdotes. She even throws in a few of her best recipes, in case you can't think of any food to make for a family dinner. Mama Rock's Rules is the most down-to-earth and honest parenting guide I've ever read, and I recommend it for new parents as well as veterans who feel they need to find some support or a new direction to go in. Mama Rock will set you straight on how to be an effective parent.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Never Again Hear "Why Don't You Send Me Pictures Of The Kids?"

As I've said before, my mom is constantly upset with me because I never give her new pictures of the girls. I show her new pictures on the computer when she comes to visit, and each time she asks me to print off some of them for her. I always forget.

While I do give her digital versions of the photos, she has no idea how to get them printed off. (It's not like when she could take a roll of film to the store and have it developed.) Which is why I was interested in trying out Kinzin, a photo sharing service that offers several advanced features to keep grandparents happy.

Kinzin has many of the features that other photo sharing services offer - the ability to keep your photos private, the ability to e-mail photos, etc. But unlike other services, Kinzin specifically is targeting families with children in the services they offer.

When you first set up an account, you have the option to set up separate categories for each child. You can then upload your pictures into each one, adding in information about your child to their "kidstream" if you want, such as a wishlist or your child's favorite things. You can also create virtual books using the pictures you upload, adding in titles and text.

This service is extremely easy for less tech-savvy grandparents to view. Simply send them an invite e-mail, and they can then access the photos. There is very little clicking involved, and each section is clearly labeled, making it less likely to cause any confusion.

Uploading is fast and simple. You can either upload from your computer, or pull your pictures from your Flickr account, and add a caption if you want. My only complaint is that I haven't found a way to go back and edit an image in any way once you upload another image to a kidstream.

But the most unique service from Kinzin is their automated print delivery system. For $2.99 a month (per recipient), you can have your ten most recent photos printed and mailed to the person of your choice. It requires no effort from you other than uploading your pictures and if you have more than ten uploaded in a month, selecting the ones you want to print and send. They do all the work from that point - printing, packaging, and mailing.

I'm really impressed with the automated print delivery, and feel this is what sets Kinzin apart from other photo sharing services. I set up three addresses for my account (you can set up as many as you like, and every third is free): one to my mom, one to Aaron's dad, and one to myself so I could see how well the photos turned out.

My mom received hers first, but only by a matter of hours. Each of us received our package on the same day. She was thrilled to see some of her favorite images on paper, and immediately started putting them in frames. My father-in-law also commented that he was happy to have some printed copies of the photos.

The photo quality is pretty good. It's not the best out there, but then again, my digital camera doesn't take the best shots, either, so the blame could lie with my camera. But the pictures were clear, the colors were good, and I was impressed that the photo paper was so thick. My only complaint is that the photos have a matte finish, and I wish I would have had the choice between glossy or matte. It's a minor thing, but some people really love that glossy finish.

Overall, I like Kinzin, and think it is a great way to keep your family in touch. If you have family members who live far away, getting ten photos of the kids each month will be a welcome thrill for them. If, like me, your family lives nearby but you use a digital camera, they will also enjoy getting hard copies of photos. If you're worried about the safety of your images, Kinzin is also a good choice, because you have complete control over who can see your pictures.

I'm glad that Parent Bloggers introduced me to Kinzin, because thanks to them I will no longer have to deal with nagging grandparents who want more pictures of their granddaughters. For more reviews of Kinzin, be sure to visit the Parent Bloggers Network.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Just What Do You Do With A Baby, Anyway?

I don't know about you, but as a first time mom I was pretty boring. While pregnant, I had big dreams of doing all kinds of exciting things with my baby on my days off as we enjoyed spending time together on walks and doing crafts while we wore matching white linen dresses. OK, maybe not the dress part.

The reality was that parenting was extremely overwhelming, and whenever I found a free moment to do something with the baby, my mind drew a blank and we ended up sitting at home, me in my sweats, and her in the stained sleeper she woke up in. It was all about survival in those first hazy months.

If I had a copy of The Rookie Mom's Handbook back then, I might have picked myself up off the floor and forced myself outside more. This book, written by Heather Gibbs Flett and Whitney Moss, was an extension of the Rookie Moms website, and features "250 activities to do with (and without!) your baby." This isn't your standard book of activities, asking you to play peek-a-boo and shake a rattle over baby's head. Instead, it is a guide to help you, as well as your baby, have a fulfilling, successful first year.

They understand the difficulties many women go through in transitioning to the role of mother, and so several activities in the book are aimed at making sure that you are not forgetting about yourself during baby's first year. Each section of the book covers three months of the first year, and instead of listing what skills baby has mastered at that point, they list skills that mom has mastered, such as folding laundry with ease, reciting baby books from memory, etc. Some activities involve going places with friends, or finding ways to reconnect with your spouse - in other words, to prevent you from losing all of the "old you" in motherhood.

The ultimate goal is to make sure you get out of the house and not become a hermit because of baby. It's all too easy to fall into a boring, predictable pattern, and that's not healthy for mom or baby. Instead, get out and hit a children's museum, or a park, or the zoo, or go to a sit-down restaurant with friends. Sure, your baby may be too young to reap the full benefits of an outing, but the real benefits are for you. Going out forces you to shower, put on clothing that isn't stained or has an elastic waistband. We all need those little pushes, right?

Each section of the book has age-appropriate suggestions for what to do with your baby, and many were things I had never thought of. One idea is to take an artistic picture of your baby looking at herself in a mirror, so that baby's front and back sides are in the photo. It's easy to set up, and easy to do, and we all know babies love to look at themselves in the mirror, right?

There are also several ideas to help you maximize your time, such as planning out a schedule for the week, making dinner a night in advance, and using the internet to make shopping easier.

I've already started using some of the suggestions in this book, and I think I'll continue referring to it long after my second baby's first birthday. Because even though the book covers the first year, many of the ideas are not limited to the baby stage. Even moms of toddlers could use a date night now and then, right?

My favorite part of the book has to be the mom milestones chart in the back. We all write baby's firsts in their baby book, but how often do we stop to remember our firsts? They give prompts like "first unpregnant cocktail," "first public diaper change," and "mom's most impressive new bra size." I wish I could remember some of those details.

The Rookie Mom's Handbook is a small book that fits easily in your purse or diaper bag, and is a great resource, with a lot of humor, for helping you make the most of your baby's first year. I really enjoyed this book, and unlike some books that you read once and forget about, this one will stay off the bookshelf as a useful guide whenever I find myself feeling bored or overwhelmed. And once my youngest has moved past toddlerhood, I see myself passing this book down to another new mom, to make this transition to motherhood easier for her.

This is a great book for new moms and moms-to-be, and would make a well-appreciated shower gift. I'd like to thank Parent Bloggers for giving me the chance to review The Rookie Mom's Handbook. If you'd like to read more reviews or check out how to participate in this Friday's rookie mom blog blast, visit the launch page at the Parent Bloggers blog.

Monday, May 05, 2008

SanDisk Cruzer Gator Winners!

With 30 entries for the contest, I asked the great instrument of fate,, to select who would get a new electronic gadget. Here are the five winners of the SanDisk Cruzer Gator flash drives:

Goon Squad Sarah
Amy in Ohio

Congrats everyone! I'll be in touch with you to get your mailing address and color preference.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Rasied By Wolves, Or Just A Very Busy Mom

When I heard the premise of the new book, Were You Raised by Wolves?: Clues to the Mysteries of Adulthood, I knew it was something I had to read. Basically, author Christie Mellor gives practical advice on surviving young adulthood that some of us may not have received (or at least didn't pay attention to) when we were younger.

What modern mysteries am I talking about? Much of it is basic advice - things like how to make your bed, wash dishes by hand, and set up a budget. Simple, everyday living tips that we probably all should be following, but most of us aren't.

But a surprising portion of the book digs far deeper into topics we should have been educated about: how to act in social situations even if you're bored, how to properly throw a party, how to be a good worker at your first job, etc. In other words, basic etiquette.

As Mellor writes, "By making the people around you comfortable, and therefore forgetting about yourself for a few minutes, you are actually helping society run more smoothly and in a much more enjoyable manner." I wish I could force a large chunk of society to read these sections, as I slowly see basic etiquette slipping away more and more each day. I love her rant about turning off your cell phones once in a while - do we all really need to be that connected? Her guidance on how to be a good listener is also priceless information that even I need to be reminded of now and again.

OK, at this point I have to make a confession: I learned a surprising amount of information even from the basics mentioned in this book. I consider myself a domestic zero. My mom was a single mom, so she didn't have time to teach me all of her wisdom when I was younger. My house is a disaster, I'm a lousy cook, and until reading this book, I didn't know that a martini was made with gin. I could have sworn it was only made with vodka. While the intended audience are young adults on their own for the first time, I realized that at 31 I still needed this advice and knowledge.

Mellor also proves to have a little bit of Martha in her (sorry, Christie, if Martha offends you!) when it comes to ingenious uses for everyday products. Who knew baking soda kills fleas, relieves itchy skin, and can unclog a kitchen sink? And I never would have guessed that mayonnaise could bring back the shine in hardwood furniture.

Near the end of the book is a series of quotes under the title If only I had known: Things I wish I'd understood before I hit thirty. I enjoyed reading all of these, nodding my head with them and wishing I had understood some of them before I was 30. I especially liked the first one: "Sunscreen and cocktails: one I should have used more, the other less." So true.

This book is a quick read, and Mellor's sometimes chaotic writing style - jumping from one topic to the next, rapid-fire - is actually easy to follow and resembles having a conversation with a wise friend. Even if you think you've mastered adulthood, this book could prove you still have a few things to learn.

I'd like to thank Parent Bloggers for giving me the chance to check out Were You Raised By Wolves? You can read more reviews by visiting the PBN campaign launch page.