Friday, December 30, 2011

Listerine Oral Care Challenge: The Results

See my first post for the full details of our challenge.

So here we are. We finished 3 weeks of the Listerine Oral Care Challenge, and while we didn't all come out with gold medals, I think I can confidently say that we've seen an improvement in our overall oral care!

The challenge was simple: brush, floss and use mouthwash twice a day, for the entire family. Since mouthwash often isn't recommended for Mira's age, we decided she would be exempt from mouthwash. Listerine sent us a challenge kit with everything we needed for our three weeks: new Reach toothbrushes, Reach floss, and Listerine mouthwash for adults and kids.

I had no trouble with brushing twice a day - it's a habit I've already had and one that will easily continue. Mouthwash wasn't too difficult to incorporate into my routine - most days I managed it twice a day, but there were a few days when I forgot. As for flossing...well, no gold star for me. I know I need to do it, but when I'm in a rush it always gets forgotten. I did floss a number of times, but certainly not every day.

My husband also got in his twice a day brushing, along with mouthwash. He had a cold during our challenge, so he sometimes used mouthwash more than twice a day - that minty-fresh feeling helped him feel a little better when his nose was clogged. But like me, he was a slacker on flossing. We now know what we need to work on in the year ahead.

For the kids, what I expected ended up being the complete opposite. Cordy may be the older child, but her autism often makes her hesitant to try anything new. She was happy to continue brushing her teeth as she usually does, but refused anything else. I thought she might be a little resistant to mouthwash, but I underestimated her fear of the new.

There was crying. And screaming. And refusal. And that was even before she had tasted anything. We attempted to coax her to try it several times, but the idea of putting a liquid into your mouth and then spitting it out was horrifying to her, and we eventually had to give up. I plan to try again in six months or so, and hopefully she'll reach a point where she'll try.

But Mira - the child who didn't need to use mouthwash - BEGGED us to let her try! She insisted that she could use it without swallowing it, so we let her try. She swished it around her mouth like a pro and spit it all out without any problems. And after that, she was hooked. She now uses mouthwash each day and she is incredibly proud of how well she's caring for her teeth. She's asked to start flossing soon, too. She tried all three of the kid mouthwashes, and the Listerine Smart Rinse Batman one is her favorite, although she likes that the Listerine Smart Rinse Barbie one is pink in color. (And she's using the Barbie Reach toothbrush.)

So the winner of the Listerine Oral Care Challenge in our house? The four year old! Despite having none of her adult teeth yet, she's doing a great job at making oral care habits that will hopefully last her for a lifetime, and guarantee dazzling pearly whites! She's also become the oral care coach (dictator, really) for the rest of the family: "Cordy, you really should twy moufwash." "Mommy, did you fwoss?" "Hey, I can't go to bed witfout bwushing my teef!"

I'm glad we had the opportunity to do this challenge. It helped us see the importance of caring for our teeth and gums, and showed us where we're lacking in our routine. After three weeks, my teeth definitely feel healthier and I've noticed they're not as sensitive as before.

Thank you, Listerine, for helping us establish new habits! I'd encourage everyone to take their own three week oral care challenge to find where your family can improve your brush-time habits like we did!

I wrote this review while participating in a blog tour by Mom Central Consulting on behalf of Listerine and received product samples to facilitate my review and a promotional item to thank me for taking the time to participate.

Monday, December 26, 2011

High Quality Entertaining Without Breaking the Bank At Aldi

Suppose you were planning a holiday gathering, and needed to buy some food for the event. Not a lot of stuff, but a few items to munch on, and possible some dessert and adult beverages. (Let's also say you're unable to cook anything from scratch, either because you're short on time or inept in the kitchen like me.)

So you go to the store with this list:

- cheese cubes
- whole grain crackers (the round entertaining-type - 2 pks)
- soft cheese (Brie)
- apple pie
- cheesecake sampler
- chocolate truffles
- after dinner mints
- 2 bottles of wine

How much would you expect all of that to cost you? I priced these items out at one of our local grocery stores, and the cost was at least $75. The wine alone was $10 a bottle for decent wines.

So when I was invited to take a list like this to Aldi and spend less than $50, I wasn't convinced I could do it. First, Aldi sells wine? And second, would the quality be as good as I'd expect from my usual grocery store?

Well yes, Aldi does sell wine in select stores. Their wines include several award-winning wines for very reasonable prices. Known for its premium exclusive brands, ALDI offers more than 1,400 of the most frequently purchased grocery items for up to 50 percent less than traditional supermarkets.

Customers can get all the holiday essentials for less, including everything from wines and appetizers to main courses, side dishes and desserts, making holiday meals and family gatherings warm and memorable. During the holiday season, ALDI stores also carry an additional line-up of more than 100 seasonal items at unbeatable prices.

I did get all of the items on my list, along with some chocolate covered gingerbread cookies and a frozen pack of grilled chicken strips. Total cost for everything: $50.19.

As for the quality? Outstanding. Everyone loved the cheese, the crackers, and the desserts. The truffles just melted in my mouth. (And I probably ate far too many!) The only item I didn't like was the gingerbread cookies, but my kids liked them.

The two wines I bought were the Landshut Riesling and the Villa Malizia Pinot Grigio - both award-winning wines. I poured the wines for my family at our Christmas gathering and didn't tell them where they came from. Once everyone had tried the wine - with several comments about how I picked good wines - I then told them I bought the wine at Aldi and each bottle was $4.99. The surprise was evident!

This one was my fav!

I admit I've never been to Aldi before this trip. My mother occasionally shops there and has always liked it. In our area, Aldi has the stigma of being more of a lower-quality grocery store, but I've found this is far from the truth! Just because Aldi offers private brands doesn't mean the quality suffers in any way. They put a lot of thought into the quality of their food, with the result being great taste at a low price.

I'm impressed at the amount of food I was able to purchase for $50, but I'm even more impressed at how tasty it was. The wines were truly outstanding, proving that pricier wines aren't necessarily better. I've already added the Landshut Riesling to my next grocery list.

If your budget is being stretched thinner and thinner, consider Aldi for your grocery purchases. In case you've never been before, here are a few tips: the grocery carts require a quarter to remove from the corral, but you get your quarter back when you're done. (And ensure no dings in your car from runaway carts in the parking lot.) Aldi also saves money by charging you for grocery bags - ten cents a bag. But bringing your own bags is free and encouraged. You could say they were promoting eco-friendly practices before it became popular!

Full disclosure: I participated in this blog campaign on behalf of Aldi and Mom Central Consulting and received a gift certificate to facilitate this review. No guarantee of a positive review was promised nor required. All opinions are my own. And so are my truffles - go buy some for yourself.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

It's A Dance Party With Just Dance 3!

What did we ever do before the invention of dancing games? When I think back to holiday family gatherings from years past, I remember the same old board games brought out year after year. If the game was too advanced, the younger kids couldn't join in, and the adults didn't want to play anything aimed at the little ones.

But now that there are games like Just Dance 3, any gathering can quickly turn into a dance party for all ages. The first dance game I ever tried was the original Just Dance for Wii (and recented ABBA You Can Dance), and despite my eternal lack of coordination, I was hooked. The enthusiasm spread quickly, too: at Thanksgiving this year, my mom and my aunt joined me for a dance-off in my living room. Never until now would I have imagined them joining in for a dancing game!

Just Dance 3 has all of the fun of the original Just Dance, with even more music and a greater variety of modes to keep the game interesting. Lots of current hits can be found in this game, but for people (like my mom) who don't keep up with the Top 40 and have never heard of LMFAO, there are plenty of older hits to choose from as well like Boogie Wonderland.  (Some songs have to be unlocked via game play, and others can also be downloaded to your console.)

Let me be clear: you don't have to be good at dancing to play this game. You only need to be able to hold the Wii remote in your right hand and try your best to follow the moves of the dancer on the screen. That's it.

You won't match every move, you'll laugh at yourself trying to do some of the poses, and at the end of a song you'll find yourself saying, "Oh no, we're doing that one again, and I'm going to ace it this time!"

We tested the game with all ages, from my older relatives to my four year old. There's the standard quick play mode to get you right into the action, and there's also Just Sweat mode for some serious cardio while burning up the dance floor. If you're not picky about songs, you can set it to Shuffle mode. Dance Mash-up is a new way to play that lets you have up to four players each with their own, separate dance moves to do. You have to carefully follow your selected dancer on the screen, but when done well it's a really awesome choreographed dance number.

Our friends and family have loved playing this game. The number of songs included with the game means it's hard to ever get bored, and the Dance Mash-up provides a fun new way to dance as a group. Beyond the fun - we're also getting our exercise while we play!

And while I've said I'm uncoordinated, there are those few (short) moments when it all comes together and we suddenly look like we know what we're doing:

(I said SHORT moments, people.)

I highly recommend this game. Dance alone for fun and exercise, or hand your friends and family Wii remotes and make your holiday party a dance party. As for us, I know we'll be burning off those Christmas dinner calories with a little Just Dance 3 this weekend!

Just Dance 3 is available for Wii, XBox 360 and Playstation 3.

Full disclosure: Thank you to Ubisoft for sponsoring this blog post. Please click here to learn more about Ubisoft. I was selected for this sponsorship by the Clever Girls Collective. All opinions (and sore muscles from too much dancing) are my own.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Be The Dancing Queen With ABBA You Can Dance

Let's get one thing out of the way up front: I'm not the most coordinated person you'll meet. Far from it. I can usually trip over my own feet on a smooth flat surface. So when it comes to dancing, I'm generally the one hiding in the back to avoid looking like a fool or taking out a group of dancers with one wrong move.

The rise of dancing video games, however, has given me the chance to practice my dance skills a little more in the comfort (and privacy) of my own home. But when the time comes to play a game as a group, I suddenly get shy and encourage everyone else to go before me.

I've found one dance game, however, that simply needs a party. Why? One word: ABBA.

If you know nothing of ABBA, then you are likely under thirty years old or avoid musical theatre. ABBA was one of the great disco groups of the 1970's and their music has persisted well beyond that decade. Even in college in the mid-90's, we could count on the song Dancing Queen being played at every sorority dance. Eventually a Broadway musical was made using only songs from ABBA, and Mamma Mia! quickly became a hit that still tours the US today. (It's actually in Columbus right now!)

When I received my copy of ABBA You Can Dance for Wii, I expected it to be like many of the other dance games available. And in many ways, it is. You can select the song you want to dance to (all ABBA, of course), choose up to four players to dance, and then try your best to match the dance moves on the screen for a high score.

But this is ABBA. These songs are party songs - disco songs that you can't help but move to and sing along with. When you've got songs like that, dancing by yourself is a crime - you need a group.

To properly try out this game, we went to my brother-in-law's house for a proper dance party with friends. I also received a small gift to help set the mood:

Disco time!

The result? We had a blast! We won't be winning any dance competitions anytime soon, but we laughed and sang and danced ourselves silly. 

Even Mira joined in for some dance time.

Some of the songs feature a single set of dance moves, while others have you select a character to follow and your dance moves won't always match those of your fellow dancers, giving you the feel of a choreographed performance. This is especially fun in Mini-Musical mode, where you can live out your Broadway dreams by dancing in a sock-hop style musical. Adding a USB microphone lets you sing along if dancing isn't your style.

While we weren't dancing queens, with practice we did have a few moments of being in sync. Very short moments, of course.

ABBA You Can Dance is a great Wii game for all ages, and perfect for any party. Whether you're a loyal ABBA fan or have never heard them, the songs are fun, the dancing is challenging without being too difficult, and there's plenty of entertainment to keep the party going for hours.

Thank you to Ubisoft for sponsoring this blog post. Please click here to learn more about Ubisoft. I was selected for this sponsorship by the Clever Girls Collective. All opinions are my own. And I have to brag that I was AWESOME at Super Trouper.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Hickory Farms - A Perfect Compliment To Any Holiday Celebration

One of the best parts of the holidays is the food. I don't know about you, but at our Thanksgiving meal on Thursday I ate so much I forgot to have dinner that night. And then dove into leftovers the next day.

Growing up, I remember having Hickory Farms smoked sausage at our holiday meals. Strangely, I only ever remember it during holiday meals - it was like a special treat to eat slices of that yummy, spicy smoked sausage during the colder months. It's probably the reason I still look for a meat tray at any Christmas party.

Hickory Farms' wide selection of signature sausages and savory cheeses are still a part of many holiday traditions. I recently received a gift basket of delicious Hickory Farms foods and intended to bring it to my family's Thanksgiving dinner as a hostess gift for my aunt. Plans changed, however, and Thanksgiving was switched to MY house! This gift basket suddenly took center stage as the appetizers while the turkey cooked.

Prior to being devoured.

We sliced up the beef summer sausage and the farmhouse cheddar cheese and set them out along with a plate of veggies and dip. It didn't take long for the delicious sausage and cheese to disappear. I nearly forgot to include the olive oil and rosemary crackers, but did get them out before the cheese was gone. We kept the fruit (including some amazingly juicy pears!) in the basket until the end of the day, and sent some of the fruit home with relatives, as we were all too full for another bite.

My grandmother remarked that it had been a few years since she's had Hickory Farms foods, but they still taste just as good as they did when she was younger. It reminded me of holidays as a kid, too, peering up onto the kitchen counter to sneak a quick piece of summer sausage before my mom was finished slicing it up. While I didn't get to present this basket of Hickory Farms foods as a gift like I intended, it still served as the ideal warm up to a fantastic holiday meal. As for the basket itself? It's being filled with pine cones to serve as a festive centerpiece on the table for now.

Once again this holiday season, Hickory Farms will donate $5 from each Party Planner gift box sold to Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry Campaign, a national nonprofit that is working to end childhood hunger in America. In addition, Hickory Farms provides free shipping on select products to APO/FPO military addresses across the globe, allowing loved ones overseas to share in holiday traditions.

If you order online, be sure to take advantage of their $3, 3-day shipping option on the website, with no minimum purchase to qualify!

Hickory Farms summer sausages and cheeses are a great addition to any holiday party, or the perfect gift for that hard-to-shop-for friend or relative. We love having Hickory Farms foods as a part of our holiday traditions!

Full disclosure: I wrote this review while participating in a campaign by Mom Central Consulting on behalf of Hickory Farms and received a product sample to facilitate my review. All opinions expressed in this review are my own - if you want an opinion on it you'll have to get your own summer sausage 'cuz I'm not sharing. Yum.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Creating Better Smiles With The Listerine Oral Care Challenge

Confession time: my family's oral care routine isn't the best it could be. Oh sure, we all brush - I'm lucky to have two little girls who don't mind brushing their teeth - but it isn't always as often as it should be. The nighttime brushing always happens, but they often forget in the rush of the morning. My older daughter has several permanent teeth already in, but still doesn't floss or use mouthwash. I try to feel good that at least they do brush, but I know that brushing alone can miss the germs in 75% of your mouth.

I'm a faithful brusher thanks to my sensitive teeth, but only occasionally use mouthwash and hardly ever floss. My husband is faithful with the mouthwash but also never flosses. It's not that we want to neglect our mouths - but when you're busy it's easy for some steps to be left behind in the process. We only get one set of teeth, though, so we could all do better at creating good habits when it comes to caring for our teeth and gums.

Recently I was invited by Mom Central to join the Listerine Oral Care Challenge. The challenge involves committing to a twice-daily routine of brushing, flossing and rinsing for the entire family for three weeks. Listerine provided us with a kit including new toothbrushes, floss, and mouthwash for kids and adults. We also have a chart to keep track of our progress and keep the kids motivated. Chances are I'll throw in some prizes for the kids so they don't slack off, too.

Our Listerine Challenge kit

My younger daughter is still too young for mouthwash, so she'll be participating in a modified version by committing to brushing twice a day. It'll likely be tough to convince my older daughter (who has sensory issues related to autism) to go beyond brushing, but she likes the characters on the kids' mouthwash bottles, so I'm hoping she'll give it a try. If we do it together as a family, she might be more likely to copy what the adults are doing, too.

We'll be starting our challenge on December 1 and finishing just before Christmas. I'm hopeful that we can create new family habits that stick and have dazzling teeth to show off at all of our holiday parties! Check back in three weeks to see how well we did, and if you're concerned about your family's oral care routine, join in and start your own challenge!

I wrote this review while participating in a blog tour by Mom Central Consulting on behalf of Listerine and received product samples to facilitate my review and a promotional item to thank me for taking the time to participate.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

World Prematurity Day & RSV: What You Need To Know

In my previous job as a labor and delivery nurse, the most stressful and anxious moments for me were when women came into our department in premature labor. Our small hospital wasn't equipped for preemies, so we often had to send them to a larger hospital if the labor couldn't be stopped, or if there wasn't enough time, prepare for a preemie birth and then get the infant shipped to a NICU as soon as possible.

I could tell these women were scared, and I shared their fears. No one wants to have a baby too early. I am lucky to have two daughters who were born full-term, but I have friends who have lost children to prematurity. I had a sister who died due to complications from being born too soon as well.

1,400 babies are born prematurely in the United States every day, and 13 million babies are affected by prematurity around the world. Prematurity, defined as being born before 37 weeks completed gestation, disrupts a baby’s development in the womb, often stunting the growth of some of the body’s most critical organs.

At birth, preemies often have difficulty with breathing, feeding and maintaining temperature. Because their immune systems haven’t had time to fully mature, preterm infants are more likely to develop infections, and because their lungs are underdeveloped, they are more susceptible to respiratory problems.

One infection that parents of preemies must watch out for is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).  For the average, full-term infant, RSV is about as serious as the common cold. But for preemies, RSV can attack their already weak systems, requiring medical intervention or hospitalization. Even with medical attention, up to 500 infants die each year from RSV.

Today, on World Prematurity Day, I want to share information about RSV as well as some tips to help prevent it, because the number one way to help reduce the risk for RSV is through education.

While RSV may mimic the symptoms of a cold at first, there are warning signs that your child could be in danger. If your infant shows any of the following symptoms, you should contact your pediatrician immediately:

• Persistent coughing or wheezing
• Rapid, difficult, or gasping breaths
• Blue color on the lips, mouth, or under the fingernails
• High fever
• Extreme fatigue
• Difficulty feeding

Like the flu, RSV has a peak season from November through March, although some regions might have longer seasons.

While there is no cure for RSV, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk for your child:

• Wash hands, toys, bedding, and play areas frequently
• Ensure you, your family, and any visitors in your home wash their hands or use hand sanitizer
• Avoid large crowds and people who may be sick
• Never let anyone smoke near your baby
• Speak with your child’s doctor if you believe he or she may be at high risk for RSV, as a preventive therapy may be available

Even if you don't have a preemie, it's important to consider these suggestions. One in eight infants in the United States is born premature, which means there's a strong chance you know or will come in contact with a preemie in your daily life. Washing your hands frequently, keeping common areas sanitized, and avoiding large public places when you're sick can all help to save the life of an infant who doesn't have the strength to fight off a virus like RSV.

So today, on World Prematurity Day, consider what you can do to help stop the spread of RSV, and take a few moments to learn about premature birth and what's being done by organizations like the March of Dimes to improve the outcomes for these tiny babies. We can't always stop a baby from being born too soon, but we can improve that baby's chances of having a long, healthy life.

Full disclosure: I wrote this review while participating in a blog tour by Mom Central Consulting on behalf of MedImmune and received a promotional item to thank me for taking the time to participate.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Kingston urDrive: The USB Drive Is Fun Again

Thank you to Kingston for sponsoring this review. Please click here to learn more about Kingston. I was selected for this sponsorship by the Clever Girls Collective. All opinions are my own.

Some people call them thumb drives. Or flash drives. Or USB drives. Whatever you call them, they've become a routine way to carry and transfer data in our digital age. Some are designed as cute characters, some come on keychains, and some are built to withstand a beating, but generally all of them have the same purpose: store data to use between devices.

But storing data is generally the limit for most USB drives. They're passive devices, holding the information we need so we can move it to another device, where it can be used by that computer's software. They're really interchangeable to me. I've received so many USB drives from various blog conferences and promotions that I don't even care if I lose one, as long as it didn't have any sensitive data on it. They've become throwaway devices at this point.

However, I recently had the chance to try out the new Kingston 8GB DataTraveler 109 with urDrive software, and I can honestly say the lowly USB drive suddenly has a lot more potential.

The urDrive software makes it possible to carry much of your digital life with you on your USB drive, but also to use that data no matter where you go. Stored on board is an mp3 player, a video player, and a photo viewer for all of your media files. (No need to worry if the computer you're using has the right software or not!)

It also has its own web browser that can save all of your favorite sites and preferences to the cloud, available to you from any computer with your urDrive USB drive. This is incredibly useful for working at public computers where you don't want to leave any of your personal information behind, or for when using a work computer (during lunch, of course) where you can't save any of your favorite sites or preferences.

For kids, the urDrive software also includes Fooz Kids, a kid-safe web browsing application with a parental dashboard to set limits and monitor your child's use of the internet. And for both kids and parents alike, you can access the latest flash games from EA Games and PopCap Games on your USB drive.

Finally, if you're worried about the safety of the computer you're using with your USB drive, you can run a quick scan using the included Norton PC Checkup software.

Additional apps can be downloaded from the urDrive store, allowing you to customize your USB drive to fit your needs.

I often work between several computers, and the Kingston urDrive is a resourceful tool to keep around. I like storing my music on it and having a ready-made playlist wherever I happen to be working. The easy access to PopCap Games is great when I need a short break. And keeping my favorite websites bookmarked on the Maxthon 3 web browser is much easier than trying to save my bookmarks on each computer.

Also? It's smaller than any other USB drive I've ever owned. I mean itty-bitty small - about the length between two knuckles and about as thin as two or three dimes.

Here's a quick video that explains a little more about the Kingston urDrive:


Want to try the urDrive out for yourself? I'm giving away a 5-pack of Kingston USB drives for one lucky winner - enough for you and your family or friends to try out!

To enter: leave me a comment below telling me how many USB drives you currently own. If you're like me and aren't sure, give your best guess. (I've got an entire jar filled with promotional USB drives, plus one in my purse, two in my laptop bag, and probably one or two hiding in a suitcase.)

One entry per person, US residents only. Be sure to provide a valid email address so I can contact you if you're selected as the winner.

Entries will be accepted until Friday, November 18 at 11:59pm ET. After that date, one will be selected by random drawing and contacted via email. Winner has two days to respond to the email or an alternate winner will be selected.

Good luck!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Don't Be An Aunt Dot: Tips For Finding Your "So Right" Holiday Gifts

Now that it's November, I've shifted from ghosts and candy and pumpkins to full-on holiday preparations. I love watching for the sales ads and then planning my list for everyone in my family.

When it comes to gift-giving, I know I'm not the most original, but I also know I'm not the worst gift-giver. That title belonged to my great aunt Dot, the queen of strange and unwelcome gifts. She was so memorable she has her own category on my other blog - if there were awards for bad gifts, she'd have the Lifetime Achievement award.

Aunt Dot was the master at shopping every 90% off, final-clearance sale to stock up on gifts for everyone she knew. And then she'd present you with a large department store shopping bag for Christmas each year, forcing you to pull each small item out of it and show the whole room.

Although she passed away a few years ago her spirit lives on, and RadioShack and I would like to share a few tips on how to avoid the gifts that are so wrong, inspired by real Aunt Dot gifts from the past.

1. Consider your recipient's interests.

Nearly every Christmas Aunt Dot gave me a nutcracker in some form or another. Tall wooden nutcracker, nutcracker ornaments, dancing and singing nutcracker. But I hate nutcrackers. They creep me out almost as much as clowns. I gently told her this several times, but somehow the message didn't sink in. (And we won't even discuss the Santa figurines she gave to my Jewish husband!)

When shopping for gifts, remember to think about what that person is interested in. If you're not sure, ask your loved one directly or ask another friend or family member who might have a better idea. It doesn't take a lot of effort to know I'm a technology geek and would have loved an MP3 player or a gift card to purchase a new video game.

2. ...but remember that too much of a good thing can still be too much.

One year at Thanksgiving, my family had a bowl of mixed nuts on the table. Aunt Dot noticed that I liked to pick out the cashews. So what did I get that Christmas? A bag of cashews. And for Easter? A bag of cashews. And my birthday? You guessed it...cashews. That continued for over ten years - I'm officially sick of cashews.

Just because your best friend mentions she loves owls doesn't mean you should get her something with owls on it for every special occasion. Don't let yourself get stuck in a rut with your gift choices!

3. Practical gifts are good...just not too practical.

I love good practical gifts. The year my husband and I bought a house, my grandmother bought us a toolbox and several tools so we could handle minor projects in our new home. When my mom bought her first laptop computer, I gave her a wireless router so she could use her computer anywhere in her house.

But there's a limit to practical, and it's important not to cross that line. Like giving toilet paper as a gift. (With one roll removed from the pack, too.) Or cake mix. Or this...

Yes, that was one of my Aunt Dot Christmas 2006 gifts. I don't even know what to do with nonfat dry milk.

4. Some items should never be re-gifted.

Recycling and re-gifting are all the rage this year. In this economy, it's great to be frugal, and passing along gifts you don't want or shopping for gifts at a thrift store or used goods store can be a great way to save money.

There are some items, however, that are best given as new. Giving a couple wine glasses with the year 2001 written down the stem as a wedding gift for their 2003 wedding? So wrong. Same goes for stuffed animals from thrift stores that smell like they were pulled from the dumpster.

Aunt Dot may have had good intentions, but that stuffed bear wasn't going anywhere near my kid.

If you have a gift you don't want, consider a trade-in program like The Shack's Trade and Save program, where you can trade in your unwanted electronics for credit towards a new product purchase. Get rid of stuff you don't want, then buy the things you'll actually use - perfect!

5. Check your expiration dates.

When it comes to gifts that are so wrong, expired gifts are the worst. The majority of food gifts I received from Aunt Dot were expired or close to their expiration date. I once received chocolates that were so old they had turned white in some places, which was really disappointing after I was excited to get chocolate as a gift. (And cashews. Never forget the cashews.)

But expiration dates aren't just for food. Health and beauty products and even batteries have a set shelf life - make sure the gift recipient can use the product before it expires. And if you're buying a gift card or a gift from a daily deal site like Groupon, consider any limits placed on them and when they'll lose their value, if ever.

So So Right

Aunt Dot's heart was truly in the right place, but her execution was a little off. She thought of the bargain before considering the interests of the recipient. She got so caught up in buying several small, cheap items at the lowest possible price that she missed the opportunity to spend the same amount of money on one quality gift that we were sure to love.

It doesn't take a lot of effort to make sure you're a gift-giving hero during the holidays. Stores will offer a lot of bargains in the weeks leading up to December 25, but just because it's on sale doesn't mean it'll be the right gift.

Learn from Aunt Dot and make sure your gifts are so right this year. Because this:

Aunt Dot's Gift from Christina M on Vimeo.

is soooooo wrong. (And yes, that is the price tag you see hanging from the toy.)

Full disclosure: This article was written in coordination with RadioShack's "So Right, So Wrong" holiday campaign. I was compensated for my time and effort, and all opinions expressed here are my own. Stories shared above are 100% true - just be glad I didn't tell you about the time Aunt Dot gave my mom a mooing toy cow that poops candy.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Naturalizer Review & Shoe Giveaway!

I'm very picky about my everyday shoes. I insist on shoes that are comfortable to be in for hours on end, which usually means I don't wear heels, anything too narrow in the toes, or anything that doesn't have cushioning for my feet. When I went for my first pedicure last month, the technician remarked at how smooth my feet were - I told her it's because I don't subject them to regular shoe abuse like many.

Recently I received a pair of Naturalizer shoes for review, and I was so excited to try them out. I've worn Naturalizer shoes in the past and always liked how comfortable they were. This new collection of shoes promised high style while still keeping the comfort that Naturalizer is known for, so I intended to put them to the test.

I received a pair of the Valya style, a cute flat that is perfect for work for occasions or when you want a slightly more dressy shoe.

When I first put them on, it felt a little snug in the toe area. Uh oh, I thought, here come the blisters. But I was surprised at how quickly the shoes adjusted to my feet and soon felt as good as slippers. After repeated wearings (and I specifically made sure to wear them a lot before giving you my review) they're still amazingly comfortable, with just the right amount of cushioning to keep my feet happy all day long.

But Naturalizer doesn't just make flats. If you're into heels, you might consider something like these (Irma):

Or if boots are more your style, check out the sexy Arness boots:

Some quick facts about Naturalizer:
  • Since 1927, Naturalizer has proven that wearing the latest footwear fashions can be comfortable, stylish and affordable all in one.
  • With rich leathers, soft suedes, and beautiful, trend right details, Naturalizer shoes provide the ultimate in style + comfort.
  • Backed by research from “Style & Trend” experts, the Naturalizer line offers the influence of current fashion, blended with the enduring style women have come to expect from the brand.
  • Exclusive to Naturalizer is N5 Comfort - five distinctive features that provide flexibility, lightness, balance, softness and breathability in every step - so Naturalizer shoes feel as good at the end of the day as they do at the beginning.
  • Naturalizer offers a variety of styles including tall boots, loafers, wedges, pumps, platforms, flats, booties and oxfords. The fall collection from Naturalizer has something for everyone, with feminine details and styles inspired by a range of classic and contemporary trends.
No matter your style, there are a pair of Naturalizer shoes just perfect for you, including narrow and wide widths and even boots designed for those of us with larger calves! Naturalizer delivers shoes that make you look good and feel good always, so you can live your life and love your shoes.


OK, enough talking about the shoes - who wants to win a pair? Naturalizer is providing one lucky reader with a pair of shoes from any of their collections - ANY pair! (Note: free pair is awarded as a gift card equal to the pair of shoes you select.)

To enter:

Mandatory entry: Visit the Naturalizer website and leave me a comment below telling me which shoe you would pick from their fall collection.

Additional (optional) entries: (leave a separate comment for each)
1. Follow Naturalizer on Twitter
2. Follow me on Twitter 
3. Like Naturalizer on Facebook

Be sure to leave an email address in your comment so I can contact you if you're selected as the winner. US residents only.

Entries will be accepted until Sunday, November 6, 2011 at 11:59pm ET. One winner will be selected by random drawing. Winner has two days to respond to my email or an alternate winner will be selected.

Good luck, and remember to care for your feet!

Full disclosure: I was provided a pair of shoes by MyBlogSpark and Naturalizer and the Brown Shoe Company. All opinions expressed are completely my own. My feet would never tell a lie - they believe all feet should be happy and pain-free.  

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

LeapFrog: Making Learning Fun With Tag & The New LeapPad!

I recently had the chance to try out some new products from LeapFrog in anticipation of the holiday season. I hosted a gathering of friends so we could all try out the LeapFrog Tag reading system and the brand new, ultra-cool LeapPad. As you can imagine, these were big hits with all of the kids.

My family is no stranger to LeapFrog. Each of my daughters has a Leapster with several games, and we already had a Tag reader. I love the educational games they get to play, and it's a great feeling to see my kids learning while having fun at the same time. For the party, I received a Tag reading pen for the guests to use, but I brought out the pen we already owned as well to give everyone more of a chance to use them.

The Tag reading system is designed for pre-readers through beginning readers. The pen works with special Tag books to either read each page to the child, or help the child with individual words or sounding out a word. You only need to touch the pen to the word and it immediately speaks the word for you. (After using a USB cable to connect the pen to your computer and download the book's information to the pen.)

But there's actually so much more the Tag pen can do beyond reading the words. Touch the pictures and the characters talk or sound effects are given. And most books contain games near the end that work with the pen to reinforce reading skills.

Mira can read just like her big sister now - and she's starting to recognize words thanks to Tag!

The Tag pen can also be used to learn geography. The LeapFrog Interactive World Map teaches about the different countries of the world as well as directions and distance through exploration with the pen and games available to play with the map.

My seven year old wasn't very interested in this product because she's already an advanced reader, but my four year old is obsessed with Tag. She loves to read the books "all by herself" with the help of the Tag pen, and it's helping her learn to recognize sight words. One of her friends also loved the Tag system so much that we sent his parents home with our extra pen and a couple of the books to get them started.

The big hit of the party had to be the LeapPad learning tablet, however. Several of us commented on how often our kids want to play with our smartphones or iPads, but we worry about them being broken or cluttering up our screen with nothing but apps for the kids. (Personally, I have barely been able to use my iPad because my kids love it.) The LeapPad, however, is the solution to win back our smartphones and tablets!

Mira even relaxes with her LeapPad like I do when using my iPad
The LeapPad is a tablet computer designed for kids 4-9 years old. It's smaller than an iPad but larger than a smartphone. The touch screen responds to both a finger touch and the included stylus. Like the grown up versions, you can download different apps for the LeapPad, including games, ebooks, and videos. (Apps are downloaded by connecting it to your computer with the included USB cable. And also like the grown up version, apps aren't free.)

It features a camera on the backside that can take still photos or video, and an editing program to create silly faces or add digital scenery to your photos. It has a cartridge slot at the top to allow you to use Leapster Explorer cartridge games as well.

I like the versatility of the LeapPad. It's simple enough for a non-reader like my four year old to navigate and use with little to no help from me, yet there are plenty of challenging games and activities for my seven year old. My younger daughter already considers herself a photographer now thanks to the camera app, and is now starting to dabble in shooting video.

All of the kids at our house had no trouble working the LeapPad. The youngest of the group - three years old - quickly found the drawing app and in no time was creating a masterpiece using the different drawing tools provided on the screen. The older kids played games and loved the interactive Cars ebook.

Reading ability is optional with the LeapPad - every kid loved it!
As for the parents, we all agreed the thick plastic case looked sturdy enough to handle rough play from our kids - far better than a iPad would fare! And the $99 retail price is a fair price for an electronic device that can do so much.

The one downside we noticed is that the LeapPad is battery powered. With heavy use, it needed new batteries by the end of the day, which can really add up. A rechargable battery pack would have been a better choice - we can only hope that it might be an option in the future. But since the party, my daughters have only been using the LeapPad for an hour or less each day, resulting in a longer timespan between battery changes. (Note: an AC adapter is available, which is great but limits the portability of the device when plugged in.)

Overall, I'm really impressed with the new LeapPad learning tablet and I predict it'll be one of the hottest toys for the holidays. I also like how many books and interactive products are available for the Tag reader now - my younger daughter has already pointed out several new Tag books she'd like Santa to bring her.

Take my advice - shop early for these educational toys! My daughters can't get enough of their LeapPad and Tag books, and I like that they're learning new reading and math concepts while they play. 

Full disclosure: I was provided with the above LeapFrog educational electronics and accessories to facilitate this review and demonstrate to guests at a play party. My party guests were also provided with coupons for discounts on LeapFrog products. All opinions stated here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of LeapFrog. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Slim-Fast Sheds The Can And Pumps Up The Flavor

As many know, I've been on a quest to get to a healthy weight for several years now. It's taken a lot of effort, but I've managed to lose over 80 pounds, with about 10 pounds left to go until I reach my goal weight. Those last 10 pounds, of course, are holding on like there's no tomorrow.

I've used a variety of methods to help me lose the weight, with most being some combination of eat less and move more. But if I stay in a certain eating or fitness pattern for too long, my body adapts and I have to do something different to shake things up. I've seen many a plateau, and know that each one forces to me to adapt and alter my routine.

Many years ago, I tried Slim-Fast shakes as one of my weight loss methods. If you're one of the few people who have never heard of Slim-Fast, they're a line of vitamin-fortified milkshakes (and now nutritional bars, too) that help provide calorie control to aid in losing weight. The plan is to have a shake or bar for 2 meals a day, along with two healthy snacks and a nutritious dinner. (AKA, the 3-2-1 plan.)

The first time I tried Slim-Fast, it did work. But back then (we're taking over 10 years ago), the shakes were only so-so for flavor, and you had to drink them out of a metal can, which gave them a metallic taste. I never used the Slim-Fast shakes for long back then (even though they did result in weight loss) because I would eventually long for something with more flavor.

I recently was asked if I wanted to try the new, improved Slim-Fast shakes, and I decided to give them another try. Slim-Fast has worked to improve the flavor to make their shakes the best tasting ever, and they're now moving away from the cans in favor of re-closable plastic bottles.

First, I love the new bottle design and I'm thrilled that cans will soon be a thing of the past. The bottles are tall and contoured and easy to slip into your purse or lunch bag to take wherever you go. With the cans, once you opened them you couldn't close them again. The new bottles with their twist off top make it easy to recap if needed without any worries of a spill.

As for the taste? So far I love it! I received the Slim-Fast Creamy Milk Chocolate bottles, and the taste is completely different from the chocolate flavor I remember from years ago. There's no metallic or chalky flavor - instead it reminds me of chocolate milk, although a little thicker in consistency. It's sweet without being too sweet and has a rich chocolate flavor. Other flavors include French Vanilla, Cappuccino Delight, Rich Chocolate Royale, and Strawberries N' Cream.

Since I've been stuck at yet another plateau, I'm using Slim-Fast for two weeks to see if it can provide me the jump start I need. My schedule forces me to eat quickly or eat on the run often, so Slim-Fast's shakes and bars make a nice alternative to grabbing fast food. I'm using one or two shakes or bars a day and then having portion controlled servings of food for the other meals and snacks. Check back with me in two weeks for a full report on how I did with the new Slim-Fast shakes.

The Slim-Fast shakes in the new re-closable bottles will be on the shelf soon, so be sure to look for them!

Want to try the new Slim-Fast?

The only thing better than reading about something new is trying it out for yourself, right? Well, I've got coupons for a free pack of Slim Fast shakes or bars to give away to 3 lucky readers!

To enter, leave a comment below telling me which flavor you'd most like to try. Be sure to leave an email address so I can contact you if you're the winner! One entry per person, US addresses only.

Entries will be accepted until October 14, 2011 at 11:59pm ET. Three winners will be randomly selected from the valid entries and will have two days to respond to my email or replacement winners will be chosen.

Good luck, and check back in two weeks for an update on my progress. (And maybe another surprise giveaway, too!)

Full disclosure: I was provided with Slim-Fast products and coupons to facilitate my review. All opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Slim-Fast or anyone else.

Also, I'm a nurse, so listen closely: do not begin any weight loss program without first consulting your health care provider. Remember that weight loss is highly individual and what works for one person may not work for another. There's no magic pill for losing weight - you still have to put in the effort. Products such as Slim-Fast are designed to aid you in your efforts through portion an calorie control, but do not replace the effort itself.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Disney's Jake & the Never Land Pirates Now On DVD!

Pirates have been all the rage ever since Pirates of the Caribbean. But they generally don't come off as approachable and friendly to the average preschooler. At least not until Disney Junior developed Jake and the Never Land Pirates, where the pirates went from being just the villains to being the actual heroes as well.

Jake and the Never Land Pirates introduces a crew of kid pirates – leader Jake and pals Izzy and Cubby – and follows their Never Land adventures as they work to outwit two infamous characters, the one and only Captain Hook and Smee, from Disney's classic "Peter Pan."  Every episode features the animated Sharky and Bones characters as they pop up throughout to perform original pirate ditties, and each episode concludes with a live action music video featuring The Never Land Pirate Band.

You may think pirates are more of a genre for boys, but my two girls LOVE this show. Thankfully, one of the kid characters on the show is a girl, so they have a character to relate to when watching. The show is actually gender neutral, with adventures, songs and characters that entertain both boys and girls. My daughters love to sing along and help the crew, and my older daughter has already decided she will be a pirate for Halloween, just like Izzy.

And now you can now find seven episodes available on their first DVD, Jake and the Never Land Pirates: Yo Ho, Matey Away! which appeared in stores last week. The DVD also has two bonus features including "Yo Ho, You Want To Be A Pirate?" where Jake teaches viewers how to talk like a pirate, and "Pirate Party With Pirate-oke," a collection of music videos performed by The Never Land Pirate Band that allow viewers to enjoy with or without the sing-along/karaoke-like feature.

The DVD also comes with a bonus 7-track CD sampler and a pirate eye patch. (But only one eye patch - be ready for this if you have more than one child, or fights might break out over who gets to wear the eye patch.)

The show's first soundtrack was also recently released, featuring songs like the kooky, comical "Hot Lava," “Aw Coconuts,” "Pirate Password,” and the arrrghhh-rated “Talk Like a Pirate.” Hot Lava has now spurred many a game of "oh no, the floor is hot lava! Jump from pillow to pillow or you'll be burned!" in our house.

So if your kids love pirates, but you're not quite ready to expose them to Johnny Depp's version of the scurvy sea-captains, check out the DVD of Jake and the Never Land Pirates: Yo Ho, Matey Away! or the daily episodes on Disney Junior. It's the perfect non-scary introduction to pirates that will have kids eager to start their own adventures and search for treasure in their own backyards.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

October 7: Will You Be Wearing Denim?

Many of you already know of my love for Lee Jeans. They fit perfectly, the price is right, and they hold up through a lot of wear.

But I also admire Lee for their support in breast cancer research. Each year they sponsor the Lee National Denim Day, one of the country’s largest single-day fundraisers for breast cancer. I'm thankful that so far my direct family has been spared from breast cancer, but I have several friends and more distant family who haven't been as lucky. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in her life, but thankfully the survival rate is climbing higher every day.

This year, October 7 is Lee National Denim Day - a day when supporters nationwide come together to put on their jeans in exchange for contribution to the fight against breast cancer with the goal of raising millions of dollars in a single day.

Lee has raised over $83 million since the first Denim Day in 1996. The money raised benefits the Women’s Cancer Programs of the Entertainment Industry Foundation (EIF) which include Lee Laboratories, the EIF Breast Cancer Biomarker Discovery Project and Cancer Support Communities.

Many companies participate by allowing employees to wear jeans that day in exchange for a minimum donation towards the cause. But even if you don't work in one of the participating companies (or work at home), you can still be a part of this one day fundraiser. How? Well, there's a few ways:

Join or start a team to raise money at the Denim Day website. Get your coworkers or local mom group to pledge to wear their jeans on October 7 and make a donation in the amount they would normally spend on a pair of jeans.

Make your own pledge on the Denim Day website. Estimate what you'd spend on a pair of jeans and then donate that amount towards finding a cure for breast cancer.

Visit the Lee National Denim Day store and purchase promotional items, with proceeds going to breast cancer research.

Or, visit the Lee Facebook page and click on the You Click, Lee Donates link. For every click of the big pink button, Lee donates twenty-five cents up to a total of $10,000.

It's that easy to be a part of the cure for breast cancer. Help Lee fight breast cancer this Friday - who knew a comfy pair of jeans could do so much?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

BlogHer Swag: The Best of the Best

Now that the rush of BlogHer '11 is (looooooong!) over and I'm back into my daily routine, I've had some time to look through everything I brought back from the conference and think about which swag items have made the greatest impact on me. BlogHer wouldn't happen without the incredible sponsors for the conference, and those sponsors made sure to offer up some fun take-home items for us to remember them by.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the swag items and sponsors I liked the best from BlogHer '11:

Lee Jeans: I've been a fan of Lee jeans ever since they dared me to try their jeans a few years ago. I thought there was no way they'd be able to fit this curvy frame of mine, but oh how they proved me wrong! I've yet to find another brand of jeans that give me plenty of room in the hips and thighs while fitting my waist with only a small gap.

This year Lee was a sponsor for BlogHer and set up fittings to show other bloggers just how well they could look in a great pair of jeans. I was thrilled to try out their new skinny stretch jeans, and even more excited to go home with the pair I tried on.

Aren't they great? I love these jeans and have been wearing them as much as I can since I arrived home. They fit perfectly, they're not too tight in the legs, and the dark wash hasn't faded at all.

P&G House: The P&G House was back in the Expo hall this year, bigger and more eco-friendly than ever. It was easier to move around in the house, too. But what I liked best was that I could walk through it at my own pace, speak with experts in each area, and not have to fight a crowd for product samples. Instead, we filled out a survey at the end indicating which brands we'd like to receive samples from, and those samples were mailed to our house. As someone who had to fly this year, this was greatly appreciated. (The full-size bottle of Tide was great!)
The one item I was really surprised about from P&G? The new Braun ionic hairbrush. It's a battery powered brush that floods your hair with ions while you brush it, making it immediately smooth, shiny and frizz-free. I received one to try out, and I do really like the brush. It doesn't work on tangles as well as I'd like, but the frizz-factor is practically zero now!

Hershey's S'Mores Suite: It was late morning on Saturday when I found myself hungry and needing a break from the busy Expo hall. Kari and I wandered up to the Hershey's S'Mores Suite to grab a quick snack. Inside, it was relaxing - a sofa in front of a TV, s'mores supplies on the coffee table, and a "beach" view in the next room. We settled onto the sofa and roasted marshmallows, enjoying the quiet atmosphere and relaxed conversation. The s'mores were so delicious, too! OK, so I didn't get to bring any s'mores home with me (though I wanted to steal one of the s'mores maker kits), but I didn't go home empty handed. When we left, we were given insulated lunch bags that have already proven to be a very useful gift for carrying food to and from work.

Middle Sister Wines: I was handed a bottle of Middle Sister Wine at the Aiming Low party, and while my first thought was How am I going to get this home? my second thought was Is this good wine? Answers: wrap all of your clothing around it in your suitcase, and yes, it's a very good wine. I had the Drama Queen white wine - a perfect balance of crisp and sweet. This may be my new favorite wine, and totally worth smuggling back home in my suitcase.

TempurPedic: The travel pillow I received from TempurPedic last year was a lifesaver on my Amtrak ride from hell. This year I was able to get another travel pillow - good thing, too, since I accidentally left my old one in the Las Vegas airport. TempurPedic also sent me a cushioned sleep mask before the conference, which has been serving me dutifully as I sleep during the day. (I work third shift, so sleep masks are a must.) Now if only I could get them to replace my poke-y, worn out bed with one of those heavenly TempurPedic beds...

There were far more brands that I enjoyed talking with, but these were a handful of the standout ones for me. I handed out several business cards, though, and took in just as many, so I look forward to connecting with other companies and hopefully featuring more from them as the year goes on.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

BP: Making The Commute A Little Better

Hooray for back-to-school! While I'm thankful to send my girls off to fill their brains with knowledge and let me get some sleep during the day, I'm less excited about the daily trips for preschool drop off and the increased traffic during morning and afternoon drive times.

I recently had the opportunity to attend an informational session with BP for their Commute Better program. Locals here in Columbus might have heard some of their commercials on the radio recently featuring tips on making the daily commute a little less painful as well as the Commute Better team out at local BP stations handing out commuter essentials.

A recent survey commissioned by BP said that eighty-six percent of Columbus drivers have a specific route they follow for their daily commute, even if construction leads to traffic jams on that route. I was a little surprised by that number, thinking these people must be recent immigrants to our fine city, because I was certain that most residents live by the rule that you need to know at least three ways to get anywhere in this city, since one of those routes will surely be closed or blocked.

Personally, I'm a master at alternate routes, making last minute decisions to take a side street or hop back onto the highway to avoid any stops in traffic. My husband is just as savvy - listening to us weigh the pros and cons of which route to take based on past history of traffic patterns and current traffic reports can be very amusing.

Tip: be flexible with your commute. Listen to the traffic report before you leave the house and plan accordingly. Leaving 15 minutes earlier than normal can sometimes make a big difference as well.

I also learned that not all gasoline is created equal, and that BP includes an additive called Invigorate that can help prevent damaging build-up in your engine or scrub away any current deposits that may be threatening the health of your vehicle. (And wallet.) Keeping your engine clean can lead to better gas mileage and fewer repairs.

Other useful commuting tips include mapping out your day to reduce the amount of driving between stops, avoiding school areas as much as possible during peak times, keeping your car maintained with regular oil and air filter changes, and keeping a basket of car toys to entertain your kids and reduce distractions.

My luncheon ended with receiving an awesome car organizer filled with everything I could think of to make my commute a little bit easier.

For more information on the BP Commute Better program, check out their website. Even if you're not in Columbus, the website has plenty of tips to make the drive easier regardless of location. 


BP is sharing the love with one of you as well! I've got an extra car organizer available to give away to one lucky reader.

What's in it, you might ask? Well, beyond being the perfect size to place between two booster seats, this organizer has pockets to hold everything your kids might need, including drink holders! Also included is a travel coffee mug, a tumbler, umbrella, sunglasses, air freshener, tire gauge, hand wipes, sunscreen, band-aids, tissues, a flashlight, lotion, a notepad, pens, crayons and a coloring book. Oh, and a $10 BP gift card to help with gas while you're on-the-go.

To enter: you must leave a comment below sharing your best tip for keeping kids happy in the car on a long drive. How do you avoid the sibling fighting or the endless "are we there yet?" questions? Share your tip and be sure to leave an email address so I can contact you if you're the winner.

Entries will be accepted until September 1, 2011 at 11:59pm (Eastern Time). One winner will be randomly selected from all valid entries and contacted by email. Winner will have 3 days to confirm acceptance or a replacement winner will be chosen. US mailing addresses only.

Good luck, and stay safe out on the road!

Full disclosure: I was invited to a luncheon sponsored by BP and given a car organizer kit while there. I received no compensation for this post and giveaway, and no promise of a positive write-up was promised or expected. All opinions expressed here are my own honest opinions and, just because it's funny to say in a post about driving, your mileage may vary.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Lake Erie & Cedar Point, Day 2: A Getaway That Isn't So Far Away

Be sure to check out part 1 of our trip to Cedar Point and Lake Erie here!

While our trip to Cedar Point could have been a vacation in itself, we didn't want to waste our chance to see more of the area while at Lake Erie. So on Sunday we checked out of our hotel and took a short 20 minute drive to Port Clinton to see the African Safari Wildlife Park. This 100 acre park is home to more than 400 exotic animals that you can visit from the comfort of your own car. Never before have I been able to get this up close and personal with a wild animal!

This guy? LOVES carrots.

I've never been to a drive-thru wildlife park, so this was a new experience for all of us. At the gate we were given our free cup of food for the animals (you can also purchase more - trust me, you'll want to purchase more!) and instructions on how to feed them. The animals showed no fear and were happy to stick their heads into the car to check for more food.

 Hey there, got any food?

You have to have a firm grip on the feeding cups - some of the animals have learned the trick of pulling the cup out of your hands to get all the food for themselves.

Turns out, feeding the animals is a LOT of fun. How often can you say you had a bison's head in your car?

There's also a walking portion of the park, where kids can ride a pony or a camel, see a white alligator, and feed the fish. Educational animal shows are held daily as well.

Our next stop was the beach at East Harbor State Park. It was a gorgeous view. And thanks to Ohio weather, it was just as hot and humid as any Florida beach.

Cordy wanted to look for "treasure" so we spread out our blankets and walked along the shoreline, looking for anything that might wash up in front of us. The sand was amazingly soft and felt so good between our toes.


The haul for their treasure hunt was a very shiny piece of a shell, two tiny round shells, a hard black rock that was either coal or petrified wood (I have no idea, really), and a small piece of "driftwood." Cordy declared the treasure hunt a success and we moved on to our next stop.

Cordy insisted I take a photo of the treasure.

Our final stop for the day was back in Sandusky at the Merry-Go-Round Museum. This museum houses an impressive collection of carousel horses and other animals, as well as an on site workshop for woodcarvers who specialize in making carousel animals.

Carousel cow, anyone?

Horses in various states of completion

All four of us enjoyed seeing the different types of animals that were created for carousel rides. Mira liked the cow and the lion. Cordy was a purist, preferring the horses. My favorite? The shark:

I bet the Old Spice guy chooses a shark when he takes a carousel ride.

A spin on the indoor merry-go-round was included with admission, and the girls loved one last ride before we needed to start the journey home.

She only looks nervous because I'm not holding on to her at the moment.

Our weekend vacation was just long enough for us to reconnect as a family and create some lovely memories without growing too tired of each other. More than once, Aaron looked at me and said, "I'm really glad we did this." So often we're all coming and going so quickly in our house that we forget to slow down and enjoy the company of our family.

I'm glad we took the time to get away without going too far away. Compared with a vacation to Florida or California, our trip to Lake Erie still contained all of the fun you'd find far away (beaches, amusement parks, etc) with less travel time and less expense. It was also fun to explore some of the exciting attractions we have right here in Ohio.

There were still more sights we wanted to see around Lake Erie, but that only gives us an excuse for a return trip, right?

Want to plan your own trip to Lake Erie? Visit the Lake Erie Shores & Islands website to start planning your own perfect vacation with lodging packages and discount savings available with the Shore Savings Card! When you're in the area, stop by one of the two Lake Erie Shores & Islands Welcome Centers for advice from their helpful staff, maps, brochures and discount coupons.

Another satisfied customer

Full disclosure: I was invited by Cedar Point and the Lake Erie Shores and Islands group to visit and experience all they had to offer. My family was provided complimentary tickets to Cedar Point, the African Safari Wildlife Tour and the Merry-Go-Round museum. All other expenses, including food, parking, gas, souvenirs, etc. were not included.

After Cedar Point, This Is Where You Want To Sleep

Our vacation to Lake Erie and Cedar Point was a two day affair, meaning we had to find somewhere to sleep for the night. I'm usually nervous when it comes to staying at a hotel with my children. Cordy is a poor sleeper, often waking for an hour or more in the middle of the night, while Mira is a light sleeper, waking to any little noise around her. There's a reason why they get their own bedrooms at home.

Cordy can also be very picky about her surroundings, feeling insecure and uneasy if a room doesn't feel "right" to her.

With help from the Lake Erie Shores & Islands group (thank you, Jill!), we were given a complimentary stay at the Best Western Plus Sandusky hotel on Milan Road. Built in 2005, it's one of the newest hotels in Sandusky and a short, easy drive from Cedar Point. It's near a large shopping area with plenty of restaurants to choose from, and several stores that carry whatever essential items you might need.

I've stayed in several Best Western hotels before, but none that had a lobby that looked this nice. I would love to steal this color scheme for my own living room.

All of the rooms are suites, with a microwave and tall mini-fridge, a flat panel TV with premium cable, and a work area that includes a desk, coffee table and sofa. Free wireless internet is also included - a must-have for someone like me!

Our room had two double beds with sheets that were perfectly white. I've seen a lot of hotel rooms, and I judge the quality of a hotel by the sheets. I was genuinely impressed with how new the sheets looked. I also appreciated that there was no giant comforter covering the whole bed - instead it was a thin comforter sandwiched between two sheets. Very warm, and more hygienic!

The whole room looked so clean, crisp and least until my two girls jumped on the beds and got comfortable!

The bathroom was larger than I expected, with a beautiful countertop and large mirror.

Speaking of the bathroom, the only issue we had while there was in trying to figure out the shower. Look at this photo and tell me how you think you switch the water from the faucet to the shower:

The secret is pulling down on a ring around the faucet spout. It took a visit to the front desk for us to figure this out. Two higher ed degrees and I still can't figure out a shower! (Signs may be needed for this, in my opinion.)

We were exhausted from our day at Cedar Point, and quickly got ready for bed. Cordy appreciated the variety of TV programs available, and watched a little bit of Nickelodeon to help her feel at home. She liked the room and said the sheets felt so soft. It wasn't long before both girls were asleep. Cordy did wake up in the middle of the night, but other than Cordy's noise, we didn't hear anything from outside our own room. It was blissfully quiet and peaceful, which kept Mira asleep for most of the night.

In the morning, I went down to the breakfast room and was surprised at the large display that greeted me. Cereal, fruit, eggs, toast, waffles, biscuits and sausage gravy, cinnamon rolls and more were all available for us to choose from. We had a fantastic breakfast (try the cinnamon rolls - they're sooo yummy!) before checking out to continue our adventures around Lake Erie.

The Best Western Plus Sandusky is a 100% smoke-free facility with 89 guest rooms. The hotel includes a laundry and a game room. An indoor/outdoor pool is available for use at the adjacent Comfort Inn.

For the weary traveling family, this hotel offers ultimate comfort and style. The four of us had plenty of space in our room, comfortable beds, and the best hotel breakfast I've had in a long time. The next time we visit Lake Erie, we will certainly have this hotel at the top of our list for where to stay!
And the picky kid liked it, too.

Full disclosure: We received a complimentary stay at the Best Western Plus Sandusky in exchange for a review of their hotel. No further compensation was received. All thoughts shared here are my honest opinions, and as always, your mileage may vary.