Christmas in VA and PA

01.20.2016 · Posted by Emily (The Culinary Couple)

The only year that we spent Christmas at home was the year that I was 38 weeks pregnant with Nora. Every other year, for eight years, we have traveled to spend the holiday with both of our families: from Pennsylvania and California to Alabama and Virginia. But it’s always worth all of the prepping and packing and the hours spent in the car or on an airplane.

This year we started at Laura’s and Stephen’s house in York, PA. It was the perfect spot to stop for the night on our way from NJ to VA. They treated us to dinner and a fire in their beautiful new fireplace. And Sam was thrilled to finally have a sleepover in his “room,” a.k.a. the gigantic closet that he claimed as his own on the first day that he visited their house last year.


We left early the next morning and stopped to visit friends and eat pizza in Alexandria, VA. Bonus that the kids were sufficiently worn out by the time we got back in the car. Which means Starbucks and Serial podcasts for Mommy and Daddy.


Final stop: Williamsburg, VA! We rolled in just in time for dinner. Though Sam immediately disappeared up to the playroom with his cousins, which is where he remained for almost the entire week.

Christmas week was filled with so many fun activities: gingerbread houses with the cousins, Polar Express and a hot cocoa bar with Oma and Opa, a glow stick party hosted by Aunt Kirsten, and so much delicious food prepared by Megan. The older boys went to the Star Wars premier one afternoon, and we took the kids to the playground on the only sunny day of the week. Nick stayed up late playing video games with Sean, and I got to sleep in several times, thanks to aunties and grandparents. Many days we stayed in sweatpants and ate a ridiculous amount of sweets. And Nick and I escaped one afternoon for a quick, rainy stroll through Colonial Williamsburg.



On a very humid and rainy Christmas Eve, we headed to Busch Gardens for Christmas Town. We saw several impressive shows, including Scrooge and Gloria. We walked from country to country and marveled at their light displays (Germany’s Festhaus and tannenbaums was a definite favorite). We even got to catch up with NJ friends, although the kiddos did not cooperate for a photo to commemorate the occasion. Then we enjoyed dinner with Santa and Mrs. Claus and their elves. Sam and Nora and their cousins visited with Santa and shared their final Christmas list wishes. And everyone enjoyed the chocolate chip cookies baked by Mrs. Claus.



We got to bed late on Christmas Eve. But that didn’t stop the kiddos from waking up bright and early to find out whether Santa had visited.


And he did! We tried to control the chaos of four kids and three dogs and piles upon piles of presents. But the chaos is what makes Christmas so wonderful. Favorite finds under the tree included a baby doll that Nora promptly named Baby Margaret, the Millennium Falcon, several Pete the Cat books, and a set of walkie-talkies that Nick was as excited about as Sam. And Momma got a new camera!


We concluded our week in Williamsburg with a festive feast and more sweets before heading north to PA to do it all over again.

Sam helped Nini to prepare our traditional Christmas breakfast of egg and sausage casserole and apple nut ring with mimosas. Then it was on to more gifts. Sam was immediately obsessed with his new microscope and science set (he even declared, “I love science!), and Nora spent the remainder of the day feeding and diapering her baby doll. And the adults were pretty excited about our beautiful canvas bags filled with camping supplies. The five (!!) dogs made our celebration even crazier than usual. But we wouldn’t have wished to have it any other way. We were especially grateful that Andrew and Breck drove all the way from Colorado to spend the holidays with us!


The rest of the week was spent entertaining the kids with their new games and gifts and puzzles like Spirograph, Ants in the Pants, and LEGOs. We went bowling one rainy afternoon, and the boys played several rounds of frisbee golf at a local park. We stayed up late playing cards almost every night. And the dogs were permanently caked in mud from wrestling outside. Mom and I prepared an amazing feast of filet of beef with Gorgonzola sauce, smashed Parmesan potatoes, and green beans — and we all declared it restaurant quality. And Sam expertly wrapped bacon around pheasant, courtesy of Stephen and Andrew and their hunting dogs.


We rang in the New Year with lasagna and Mexican Dominoes and all managed to stay up past midnight.


The fact that we got to spend so much time with both families, and that the kids really enjoyed and appreciated the generosity of everyone made this one of my favorite holidays yet.

Letter to Nora: TWO

01.19.2016 · Posted by Emily (The Culinary Couple)

Dear Nora,

You are smart and sassy. Independent and opinionated. Stubborn and sensitive. Silly and oh so sweet. You are a storyteller and an artist. And such a love bug. You are two!


At your two-year check-up, you weighed 26 pounds and measured 34.5 inches. You allowed the doctor to check your eyes, your ears, your mouth, and your belly without shedding a single tear. You told her about the baby in Mommy’s belly and how Aunt Kirsten painted your pretty purple nails. You jumped and touched your toes on command and exceeded every expectation listed on the “what to expect” worksheet.


You say more words than I can count and surprise us with new ones every day. You speak in full sentences and tell imaginative stories about needing an umbrella to keep your hair dry when we play in the rain; about having to rescue Minnie from the hot lava; and about the stars and the big moon outside. You have memorized the words to all of your favorite books, including May I Please Have a Cookie, Alfie? and every book in the Gossie and Friends series. You even imitate Mommy voices and deep Daddy voices when you read. You sing songs like Itsy Bitsy Spider, Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed, and The Wheels on the Bus. You can count the groovy buttons on Pete the Cat’s shirt and identify the colors of his shoes. You are basically a little sponge, soaking up everything you see and hear every moment of every day.


We celebrated your birthday with a family brunch at Nini’s and Poppy’s house. You were so spoiled by grandparents and aunties and uncles and enjoyed being the center of attention. You clapped when we sang “Happy Birthday to Nora” and blew out your candle — with a little help from Sam. You opened your gifts while everyone watched and had a cute reaction to almost every new book or toy or article of clothing. In fact, you insisted that you immediately put on a new pair of pants, a new skirt, a new t-shirt, a new hoodie, and your new Under Armour sneakers. Then you danced for your audience and showed everyone two fingers when we asked “How old is Nora?”



You run up and down the stairs, walk on tip-toe, spin in circles, climb onto beds, and jump from one piece of furniture to the next. Thanks to Little Gym, everything has become a balance beam or a set of monkey bars, and you do forward rolls every chance you get. You can kick and throw balls, ride Sam’s scooter around the deck, and much prefer the big kid swings and slides to the toddler ones. You love to play hide-and-seek, and I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I have lost you in our little house. Your favorite spots are under your crib, or in my closet behind my hanging clothes.


You play creatively and independently. You like everything from baby dolls and princesses to matchbox cars and swords. You build LEGO towers and block castles and Magna-Tiles spaceships. You have mastered all of your chunky puzzles, and we have moved onto simple wooden ones. You love to draw and paint and use glue sticks and play with kinetic sand – you will often spend more than 20 minutes completely engrossed in an art project. We have tea parties and bake pretend cookies in your kitchen. We race trucks around the house and run away from pretend zombies. I love that are you are exposed to all types of toys and all types of play, thanks to big brother. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find you wearing a tutu, a superman cape, a firefighter hat, and a pair of light-up heels.


You wash your hands and brush your teeth. You can remove every article of clothing, including your diaper. And you insist on trying to dress yourself every morning, which adds at least 10 minutes to our already hectic routine. You tell us when you have to go potty – sometimes we get there in time and sometimes we don’t. I suspect (and hope!) that you will be potty trained before baby brother or sister arrives.

Speaking of the new baby, you love to kiss Mommy’s belly and speak to him/her in a whispered voice. You have accompanied me to several doctor’s appointments and are so fascinated by the sound of the itty bitty beating heart. Both you and Sam are convinced that we’re having a girl and that her name should be Baby Margaret (thank you, Daniel Tiger!). I know that you are going to be a fantastic little momma helper. You love to feed your baby dolls and change their diapers and sing them lullabies. I’m getting excited to see you in your big sister role! Although … every time we refer to you as a big girl, you quickly correct us: “No, I’m Daddy’s baby.” Oh, Daddy is in trouble!


You most definitely exercise your independence and test your boundaries on a daily basis. You say “No, I got it” at least 20 times before lunch – from putting on your boots to climbing into the car to buckling your seat belt. And if I try to help, or if I do it the wrong way, then we have to start all over. Whew. It’s exhausting! Fortunately, the tantrums over the wrong pair of socks or the wrong color toothbrush or the wrong water cup have already decreased.

You are a girl who thrives on routine, especially at bedtime. Bath is always followed by brushing your teeth, spitting into the sink, and taking a sip of water. Then we move into your bedroom to put on lotion and PJs and comb your hair. You say “beep, beep” and insist on sitting on the chair beside me, rather than on my lap, for story time. We read at least three books and always sing “Rock-a-Bye, Nora.” Then we have to stand up, and I cradle you in my arms while we sing it again. Finally, it’s into bed with your pink blanket and three binkies. One more sip of water, one more song, a big hug and a big kiss, and lights off. Daddy has finally figured out the order of events after several attempts that resulted in you screaming for Mommy. You are typically in bed between 7:30 and 8pm and sleep until about 7:15am. And you nap like a champ every afternoon. We have plans to move you into your big girl bed this spring, and I sincerely hope that the transition doesn’t affect your stellar sleep habits.


You love to eat pretzels with hummus, cucumbers with Ranch, and waffles with syrup. Your favorite snacks are raisins, marshmallows, gummies, popcorn, and applesauce. You can eat an entire apple, all the way down to the seeds, and will often eat two bananas in one sitting. You still don’t care for milk (unless it’s poured over cereal), but you eat lots of cheese, yogurt, and ice cream.

You love Daniel Tiger, Mickey Mouse, and Pete the Cat. You can identify all of our family members and friends and their pets by name. And when asked, “What’s your name?” You say, “Nora Wiley.” You say “Hi” and “Bye” to strangers and will give a hug to anyone who asks for one.


My heart melts a little bit every time you say “thank you, Mommy” and “I love you, too.” I savor your squeezes and kisses. Gosh, this is such a fun age. And I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings. I love you, sweet girl!

Countdown to Christmas

01.12.2016 · Posted by Emily (The Culinary Couple)

We kicked off Christmas season with a walk down to the Green to welcome Santa Claus to Morristown. We sang Christmas carols with hundreds of other community members as we waited for the big guy’s sleigh to land on top of the Century 21 department store building. The kids were mesmerized as we watched Santa ride the fire truck ladder from the top of the building to the ground.


Bobby the Elf arrived on December 1st and brought chocolate chip muffins for breakfast. Every morning after that the kids raced downstairs to look for Bobby and open another door on their advent calendar.


While Nick jet-setted off to Germany for work obligations, I took the kiddos to Dover to bake cookies! Dad and Laura and I have mastered our family’s sugar cookies, and Sam did a pretty decent job as decorator and taste-tester.


Back to New Jersey to celebrate St. Nicholas Day. Our own St Nick brought back some authentic goodies for Germany, including Rittersport and Kinder Eggs. The kids also got robes and slippers (Spider Man and Minnie Mouse) and new Christmas books to add to our growing collection (George and Ollie).


Before Daddy left the country again — for Canada this time — we sprinkled some Christmas joy around our home. We opened the box of our very first artificial tree (because our limited time at home this month just didn’t justify a real tree) only to find that the 7-foot white-lit slim pine that we had purchased had been replaced by a barely 5-foot multi-color tree with frayed branches and a few old ornament hooks. Yes, that’s right. Someone bought a new tree and returned their old one. And they got away with it. Sam was especially bummed and couldn’t understand why we had to pack it up for Mommy to return to Target the next day. Fortunately, they still had a slim pine in stock, and we set it up as soon as I got home.


Auntie Laura spent a few days with us while Nick was traveling. We watched movies and ate popcorn, worked on Christmas tree crafts, and did a little shopping. While at the mall, Nora caught her first annual glimpse of Mr. Claus. She was perfectly content to wave at him from a safe distance.


Two weeks before Christmas, on a 60+ degree day, we thought it would be fun to take the train into New York City. Not only was the city packed with holiday shoppers, there were also 20,000+ drunk Santas stumbling around. It was not at all the fun, festive family outing that we had envisioned. At one point, we had to recruit help from a muscular man to hoist the double stroller over a 4-foot barrier because we were stuck for 45 minutes in a mob of people outside of the Disney store. But don’t get me wrong. There were moments like this: seeing the pure joy on Nora’s face when she spotted the tree at Rockefeller; watching the ice skaters at Bryant Park with Sam; dancing with the Salvation Army donation team; devouring slices of pizza on the steps of Madison Square Garden while waiting for our train back to NJ. Those moments made our crazy adventure idea seem a little less crazy.






On the Monday before we headed south, I dressed up the kids in their holiday attire, and we were off to see Santa. Sam prepared his list, which included Star Wars guys, a robot, and walkie-talkies. And Nora seemed surprisingly excited about the idea of sitting on Santa’s lap, “with buh-buh, too” she added every time that I asked. When we arrived, both kids were successfully distracted from the long line by Charlie Brown and Snoopy and fake snow falling from a larger-than-life-size snow globe. Of course, they threw handfuls of the fake snow at each other, and I frantically tried to brush it from their hair and clothing before our names were called. And then it was our turn. Sam ran right up to the jolly old man, and Nora clutched my leg as tightly as her little arms could manage. But Santa was amazing. He got onto his knee, looked into Nora’s eyes, and addressed her by name. Before I realized it, they were talking about baby dolls and Daniel Tiger. However, she still wouldn’t get any closer than the plastic white stool at his feet. But I’ll take it!




After Nora’s meeting with Santa, she was even more interested in all things Christmas. And her mind was totally blown when I showed her the special video message that he sent just for her. Every time he said her name (which was about five times during each viewing, and we watched the 3-minute video at least 35 times), her face lit up with the most amazing smile. Gosh, I love witnessing the magic of Christmas through our children’s eyes.


Finally, we closed out the week with a little Christmas concert and party at Sam’s preschool. The kids performed several songs, including “chopping down the Christmas tree,” which Sam had practiced for Nick via FaceTime the night before. They then binged on cookies and cupcakes and apple juice before hugging each other good-bye until the new year.




12.12.2015 · Posted by Emily (The Culinary Couple)

October and November are mostly a blur. Probably because I spent the better part of those two months solo parenting a busy preschooler and an increasingly opinionated toddler while simultaneously growing a third little peanut inside my belly. I felt nauseous all day, almost every day, and allowed the kids to watch an embarrassing amount of television and eat frozen pizza for dinner on more than one occasion. But we all survived the first trimester, and Nick’s project in Calgary is almost complete. Plus Christmas is less than two weeks away, so how can we not be full of merriment and good tidings?

But before we pack our bags and head south the celebrate the holidays with family, here’s a look back at how we spent our fall.

We spent a Saturday in October at Ort Farms. While 90 percent of North Jersey was at the infamous Alstede Farms just two miles away, we opted for the quieter and just as festive option. We pet the baby farm animals, pretended to drive the John Deere, got legitimately lost in the corn maze, ate apple cider doughnuts, and picked our pumpkins from the patch.








We painted pumpkins and carved pumpkins. (I think it’s obvious which method Nora preferred.)



We visited another pumpkin patch with Sam’s preschool friends and spent an afternoon at Fosterfields Living Historical Farm. We cracked corn, washed rags and hung them to dry, harvested eggs, and fed a baby calf. We also let the kids run wild. Because that’s what they do best.


We enjoyed the Millersville Homecoming Parade (superhero-themed!) with Dan and Carol, and the kids consumed a ridiculous amount of sugar. Then our favorite alumni gave us a tour of campus where they met 40 years ago.



We visited the best pumpkin farm in Lancaster County before driving back to New Jersey where fall gourds are at least twice as expensive.


Sam rocked his first Halloween parade. I still can’t believe he wore his mask during all eight laps around the gymnasium.




Then Spider Man and Bat Girl celebrated Halloween with Strawberry Shortcake (and her momma — two people we miss most in Pennsylvania!). We trick-or-treated in downtown Morristown, and they each filled their bags with sweets. Then we decided they needed some salt to counteract all that sugar, so we had a popcorn and movie night — in matching PJs, of course.



And just like that, it was November. While Nick was scraping snow and ice from his rental car in Calgary, we were enjoying 60-degree days here. We thought we would be helpful and clean up the leaves while he was gone, but we really just raked piles and proceeded to jump into them.




We spent several of those unseasonably warm afternoons at parks and playgrounds around town.


We traveled to Pennsylvania to meet the newest furriest member of our extended family — Aunt Lucy (her brother is Lager’s father) was especially excited to have a new playmate. Then we drove west for a far-too-short visit with friends that we don’t get to see nearly often enough.




Thankful for library crafts and preschool projects that melt my momma heart.


Finally, Thanksgiving in Bethlehem. When it was our turn to share what we are grateful for this year, Nick told our circle of family members that we are expecting baby #3. There were hugs and kisses and congratulations and even a few tears.


That brings us to December. Decking the halls, baking cookies, wrapping gifts, trying to remember to move Bobby the Elf every night. It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

Brooklyn for the Day

12.12.2015 · Posted by Emily (The Culinary Couple)

Considering our proximity to New York City, we don’t visit nearly often enough. I’m sure it would be different if my brother hadn’t moved from Manhattan to Denver just one month before we relocated to North Jersey. Or if we didn’t have two children and all of their necessities to take with us every time we leave the house.

But I decided that we were due for a little family trip — so we planned a Sunday in Brooklyn during a break in Nick’s work travels to Canada and Germany. I chose Brooklyn because I knew we wouldn’t have to tackle the subway with the double stroller and because I knew there were plenty of playgrounds and family-friendly food options.

The drive from Morristown to Manhattan was far too easy. And it barely took any time to cruise through the Holland Tunnel (words we would be eating later that day). We parked in a garage near Cadman Plaza Park, loaded up the kiddos, and headed towards the Brooklyn Bridge.


We let the kids stretch their legs and run around the Pier 1 Playground while we all enjoyed the panoramic views of Lower Manhattan.


The playground is geared more towards the toddler crowd — but we promised Sam that bigger things awaited him.


Because it was lunch time, and because we were within sight of Shake Shack, we decided it was necessary to stop. Sam ate all of his burger and part of Nora’s. Probably because she was too focused on the vanilla milkshake.



Time to walk off lunch (and work on building up our appetites for dinner), so we strolled along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Well, we strolled, and Nora ran.


Next stop: Slide Mountain at Pier 6. It was super crowded, thanks to the gorgeous sunshine, but Sam and Nora both managed numerous trips down the slides. We didn’t have a chance to check out Swing Valley, but I’m sure it’s equally as awesome





We took our time getting back to the bridge and stopped at every rock to climb, log to jump, and exhibit to explore.


Finally, back to the main attraction. We attempted to carry both kids in the double stroller up the ridiculous amount of stairs the reach the bridge. And, fortunately, a nice young man offered to take my load. Otherwise, we might not have made it up in one piece.

We managed to keep the kids strapped down until we reached the Manhattan side, then they were both eager to get out and explore for themselves. This lasted for about 20 minutes until we bribed them with lollipops to get back in, and they both (thankfully!) fell asleep before we got back to Brooklyn.



Every other person we passed had a selfie stick. Time to invest in one?


Dinner time! We debated between Grimaldi’s and Juliana’s. Both had lines — even at 4pm. Since we had eaten at Grimaldi’s in Hoboken several years ago, we decided to give Juliana’s a try. And, boy, am I glad we did. It was probably one of the best pizzas I have ever eaten. Nick still flops between New York style and Chicago deep dish. But I much prefer the thin, crispy crust and simple tomato/basil/mozzarella toppings. Bonus that we had a perfect view of the pizza chefs throwing and stretching the dough and building the pizzas. Sam was especially enthralled.



Time to make our trek back to New Jersey. And what a trek it was. While it took under an hour to get there earlier that day, it took almost 2 1/2 hours to get home! Fortunately, our phones were fully charged and kept the kids entertained during the drive. And, really, it was well worth it for such a fun day in Brooklyn. See you again soon, NYC!


Number Three

12.10.2015 · Posted by Emily (The Culinary Couple)

More diapers. More laundry. More noise. Less sleep. And LOTS more love! We are so excited to announce that baby #3 will be joining our family in June!


This photo took two rounds, 25 minutes total, and the promise of a dozen chocolate chip cookies to achieve. I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like with THREE!

Here are a few outtakes.


More details to come!

Gift Guide for 2-Year-Old Girls

11.30.2015 · Posted by Emily (The Culinary Couple)

Nora loves everything that Sam loves, and I fully expect her to play with many of his new toys. But that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t get a few gifts of her own. First up, some things that she already has and plays with often. Then, a few things that she will find on Christmas morning.


(1) Melissa and Doug Kitchen: This kitchen has been a staple in our living room since Sam was two. Both kids still play with it almost daily, and I love that we can continue to add accessories to it for years to come.

(2) Green Toys Dish Set: Speaking of kitchen accessories, Nora loves this tea set. Sometimes, we even eat real snacks off the plates and sip real water from the cups. So fancy.

(3) Gossie and Friends Board Book Set: Nora loves, loves, loves to read. And this set has been her favorite for a few months. She has memorized every character and sleeps with the books in her bed every night.

(4) Melissa and Doug Puzzles: These are the best puzzles for toddlers, in our opinion — chunky and durable.

(5) Disney Princess Klip Klop Castle: Last year was the year for Disney princess castles and accessories, and Nora still especially loves this one. Sometimes Sam’s superheroes invade the castle, too, which means it gets play from both kids.

(6) LEGO DULPO blocks: Nora has been playing with tiny LEGOs for months, but the DUPLO blocks are preferable for her little hands. She loves to stack the square blocks into tall towers.


(1) Baby Doll and Cradle: Nora is in a baby doll phase right now. She has several plush dolls already, but this one has eyes that open and close, which I know she will love. She’s also getting the high chair for her birthday.

(2) Crayola Pip-Squeaks Markers: We never seem to have enough supplies for our little artists, and we especially love the pip-squeaks line.

(3) Pete the Cat: This is currently Nora’s favorite library book. We read it multiple times per day, and she can recite the entire story. I think it’s time to get the girl her own copy.

(4) Princess Dress-Up Set: Nora has a few hand-me-down princess dresses, which she loves. Almost as much as Sam’s superhero capes.

(5) Daniel Tiger Trolley: Nora is obsessed with Daniel Tiger, and I think she is going to flip when she has her very own trolley. She’s also getting the full set of characters.

(6) Minnie Mouse Princess Bowtique: Finally, she loves Minnie almost as much as Daniel. And this line gets consistently great reviews.

More Gift Guides:
Gift Guide for 3-Year-Old Boys
Gift Guide for Toddler Boys
Gift Guide for 1-Year-Old Boys (part 1)
Gift Guide for 1-Year-Old Boys (part 2)
Gift Guide for 1-Year-Old Girls
Favorite Toys at Ten Months

(All links are Amazon affiliate links.)

Gift Guide for 4-Year-Old Boys

11.25.2015 · Posted by Emily (The Culinary Couple)

‘Tis the season for holiday gift guides! First up, a few things that Sam has and loves. Then a few things that he will likely find under the Christmas tree this year.


(1) Dinosaurs: These jumbo dinosaurs from Learning Resources have been a favorite for almost two years. They are durable enough for battling and still nice enough to display on the bookshelves in our playroom.

(2) Imaginext Batcave: Sam’s third birthday was superhero-themed, and I’m happy to report that he plays with these toys as much now as he did then. Some of his sets (Gotham City Jail and Joker’s Fun House) are hand-me-downs and are still in fantastic shape.

(3) Micro Maxi Scooter: This was Sam’s big birthday gift this year, and it was a huge hit. I highly recommend the maxi version rather than the mini, if your child is at least 4 years old. This will grow with Sam for at least the next 6 years.

(4) LEGO Juniors: I don’t know a 4-year-old that doesn’t love LEGOs. We have several of the Junior sets, which are easy enough for him to help assemble, and not too intricate that I cry if he wrecks them to build his own version.

(5) Magna-Tiles: This set was an investment last Christmas, but well worth the price tag. They are still played with by both kids almost daily. There are several other brands of magnetic blocks on the market, but I can’t speak highly enough about this one.


(1) Star Wars Millennium Falcon: Since Sam has the entire Imaginext line of superheroes, we figured it was time to introduce him to Star Wars. I think Nick will love this battle ship as much as Sam does.

(2) Walkie-Talkies: This might be the top item on Sam’s wish list this year. Again, equally exciting for both father and son.

(3) Science Lab Set: Sam has been requesting to do “science projects” for weeks. We’ve been filling glass vases and tupperware containers with water and vinegar and baking soda, and we figured it was time to upgrade to his first official lab set. He’s also getting the microscope.

(4) Spider-Man Gloves: The Spider-Man obsession is real. Sam wears his Halloween costume at least every other day, and this will be the perfect accessory to add to it.

(5) Books: We read several books every night before bed, and Sam has recently showed interest in “reading” the level 1 reader books. We suspect he will be even more interested if the books are about superheroes.

(6) Mailbox: We pretend to stamp and address and send mail to friends and family almost daily, so this will further encourage that pretend play. I know Nora will love it, too.

More Gift Guides:
Gift Guide for 3-Year-Old Boys
Gift Guide for Toddler Boys
Gift Guide for 1-Year-Old Boys (part 1)
Gift Guide for 1-Year-Old Boys (part 2)
Gift Guide for 1-Year-Old Girls
Favorite Toys at Ten Months

(All links are Amazon affiliate links.)

Letter to Samuel: Four Years

11.15.2015 · Posted by Emily (The Culinary Couple)

Dear Sam,

Always moving. Always asking questions. Always telling stories. Always making us laugh. You seek adventure and challenges and, sometimes, trouble. You are confident, but not aggressive. You are polite (with the exception of the very dreaded and very typical preschool potty talk). You are impressionable (hence the preschool potty talk). You are stubborn and opinionated, but sensitive and considerate. This is four.


The past six months were quite eventful. We sold our house in Pittsburgh, moved in with Nini and Poppy for three months, and finally settled in Morristown, New Jersey (which you often call “Nora’s town”). It’s quite different than our old house — in a cute and cozy kind of way. This is how you described it to our family: “It’s a tiny, tiny house with a playground in the back yard and a big road with police cars.” Long ago are the days on our quiet cul de sac, bud! But you really do like it here — you especially love the fact that we can walk to the park, and the bakery and the library … and to school.

You are excelling in your new preschool. After an unexpected meltdown at orientation and a few tears on the first day of drop-off, you easily adapted to our new routine. You are quick to make friends, and your teacher says, “everybody loves Sam.” Nobody would guess that you are the youngest kid in the class (almost a full year younger than some of your classmates!). You are proud of the artwork that you bring home and are excited to share the new songs that you sing.



Behavior is improving, though you still tend to get crazy and cranky around 5pm every night (probably because you don’t nap and insist on waking up around 6:45am and are exhausted by this time of day). We implemented a token reward system for a few weeks, which seemed to help. And sometimes we take a 2-5 minute timeout on the steps, and Nora almost always joins you because she thinks it’s a game.

Not surprisingly, you don’t get into any trouble at school. Though you love to tell me about the behavior of the other kids. One day, you said, “I don’t want to tell you what happened on the playground today.” Then you proceeded to tell me which two kids got into trouble for wrestling. And less than a minute later, you said, “Maybe I should tell you the truth … I got in trouble for wrestling.”


Imaginative play has become more elaborate. Good guys and bad guys have evolved into ninjas and knights, zombies and aliens, spies and intruders. You construct detailed stories about spaceships, missions, battles, explosions of hot lava. Every object has the potential to become a sword — an empty paper towel roll, a glow stick, a spoon. You put on your Spider Man suit at least every other day. Then you help Nora into her pink princess dress so that you can “rescue” her from the bad guys. And sometimes I have to be the dinosaur or monster that chases both of you around the house.

You like to build forts and set traps, and you are constantly creating problems to fix — like the loose boards on the swing set or the legs of your art table.

You love art and will spend hours in the basement with Nora — coloring, cutting, gluing, and constructing “decorations for the house.” You were especially proud to frame the family portrait that you drew at school — complete with clouds and grass and sunshine.

You also still love your LEGOs. You got a few new sets for your birthday and were really excited to help me to build the Star Wars ships and the garbage truck and the Spider Man hideout. Then, within a week, you had disassembled almost everything and created your own versions. I cringed just a little bit, but I also had to celebrate your creativity.


You recognize about half the letters in the alphabet and can write your name, though you sometimes ask that I “dot the S” for you. We read at least three books every night before bed. Favorites are: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spider Man, and the If You Give a Mouse a Cookie series (which you have mostly memorized).

Favorite TV shows are: Miles from Tomorrowland, Creative Galaxy, and Paw Patrol (since we finally put the nix on Scooby Doo). And favorite songs are: “Shake it Off” and “Up, Down, Funk You Funk.” You also sing quite an interesting rendition of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” that involves the spider falling off the wall and into the mud.


Some days you can’t seem to eat enough and other days you barely touch your meals. You are always excited to see what Mommy packs in your school lunchbox — favorites include jelly sandwiches, pepperoni, cucumbers with Ranch, pretzels with hummus, and oatmeal raisin clif bars.

You have grown almost five inches in six months and weigh 40 pounds. You wear size 5T/5 clothing and size 11 shoes. You still insist on wearing “soft” pants (as opposed to jeans) and Under Armour shirts almost every day. If I’m able to convince you to wear something else, like cargo pants and a striped shirt, you change as soon as you get home from school.


You played soccer in the fall and insisted on wearing your hand-me-down cleats to every practice (even though some of your teammates played in jeans). You were a fantastic listener and followed directions from the coach (even though some of your teammates spent a majority of the hour playing tag and wrestling in the grass). You are pretty skilled, and I think you’ll be ready for real “games” next season.


For your birthday, you got a scooter, and it took just one time around the park to master it. You also love to ride your bike (with training wheels). You are just a little hesitant on hills and around corners. But no complaints about that from this momma. You are also obsessed with your hand-me-down four-wheeler. Unfortunately (or, fortunately!), we had to leave it at Nini’s and Poppy’s house because we don’t have enough yard space to ride it here. But every time we visit, you shine it up and take it for a few laps around the yard.


Some of the funny things you’ve said recently:
To Nora: “Come on, babe, let’s be adventurers.”
To Mommy: “I like how you smell. I could eat your hair.”
“You’re the best daddy. I need to write a letter to you and ask for a motorcycle.”
“Super Poppy is the best builder man. He can build me a boat.”
“I’m packing up and going to Nora’s room. This is not a good life for me.”
“Sometimes I wear spy goggles, and I can see through people.”
“Sometimes I x-ray people.”
“I’ll give you some of my imagination.”
“Are these Halloween M&Ms? Do they taste like mummies and zombies?”

Never a dull moment with you, kiddo. And I still melt every time you ask me to snuggle or sing a lullaby before bed. Love you to the moon and back, buddy!

A Day in the Life | Fall 2015

10.16.2015 · Posted by Emily (The Culinary Couple)

“Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me learn from you, love you, bless you before you depart. Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow. Let me hold you while i may, for it may not always be so.” ? Mary Jean Irion

I saved this quote weeks ago, and it has really resonated with me. It’s easy to remember the big days, but it’s the normal, ordinary, every days that are the best days. And so I’ve attempted to capture one of these days in as many details as I could manage. Because these are the days I treasure — as crazy and chaotic and exhausting as they are.

Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015

Emily: 33 | Nick: 33 | Sam: just turned 4 years | Nora: almost 22 months | Lucy: 3

6:28 am | I wake up without an alarm — kid or otherwise. That’s what going to bed before midnight does for a woman. I choose to lay in bed for another 15 minutes before I jump into the shower. Then it’s a race. Will I finish my shower, get dressed, and dry my hair before the kiddos wake up? Sometimes I win. Sometimes I don’t. Today I win.


7:10 am | Nick is in the shower. And just as I finish straightening my hair, Sam appears in the doorway. With Ricky, of course. He says he has a picture for Daddy and reemerges a few seconds later with the family portrait that we made yesterday. He shows Nick through the shower curtain.


7:15 am | I race upstairs to make our bed before the boys join me. They’re talking about Daddy’s cuff links and the special box he keeps them in. Lucy is not ready to get up.


7:25 am | I hear “Dada Dada Dada” coming from Nora’s room. She always remembers who tucks her in the night before and chooses to greet that person first the next morning. But since Nick and Sam are still chatting, I sneak in to see my little lady. Smiling and ready to start her day! A few minutes later, she’s dressed and reading books on Sam’s bedroom floor. But not before I hear Sam crying from my bedroom. Apparently, he pinched his finger in our dresser drawer and needs a Band-Aid. He chooses Spider Man, but is not happy that the Hulk covers Spider Man when wrapped around his finger. And so we switch it out for a lightsaber one.


7:40 am | Daddy has an early meeting today, and so he’s out the door before we even get downstairs. But not before big hugs from both kids (How grateful are we that an early departure means 7:45? Most of Nick’s colleagues have an hour commute.) Time to get Sam dressed for school. I convince him to wear khaki cargo pants and a hooded striped shirt. I’m surprised neither child argued today about their outfits. Second win of the morning!


7:45 am | We all head downstairs. I let Lucy out the back door and turn on the Keurig. Sam requests to put more stickers on his pumpkin. Nora wants stickers, too, of course. (These pumpkins have been a source of entertainment all week.) Perfect. This will give me time to make breakfast. I get milk for Sam, water for Nora (because she still refuses to drink milk), and pumpkin muffins for both.


7:55 am | Hot coffee. Scrambled eggs (plus avocado for me). And more pumpkin muffins all around. Breakfast conversation consists of: I want to be next to Nora. Nora is too close. Nora, stop looking at me. And, inevitably, we arrive at potty talk. Because Sam is in preschool now, and apparently that’s what preschoolers do.


8:00 am | Nora requests music (by pointing to the Bose speakers and saying “on moo-sick”). And so I pull up one of our Music Together albums on my phone. The first song is Alabama Gal, which leads into a conversation about Oma and Opa (because they live in Alabama). And Sam is excited to know that we will see them next weekend. And Nini and Poppy are visiting this weekend. Then he asks if Poppy is going to fix his clubhouse. Because he always asks: When is Poppy going to fix my clubhouse? Nora dances between bites of her breakfast.


8:05 am | And then she crawls across the table and into my lap. Because she always ends up in my lap during mealtime. And she’s not very happy that I’m trying to take a selfie with her.


8:20 am | The kids are finished with breakfast, so I clean the table. While I pack Sam’s lunch (pepperoni + cheese, pretzels + hummus, clementines, applesauce, and a kid clif bar), they decide to take Lucy’s leash out of the closet and try to walk her around the dining room. I rescue her from their tormenting and fill her bowl with food. Sam runs upstairs to use the bathroom.


8:30 am | Nora and I meet Sam upstairs to brush teeth. We throw their pajamas into the hamper and tidy their rooms before it’s back downstairs. Let Lucy out one more time.

8:40 am | Socks, shoes, jackets. Nora doesn’t want to wear boots or a jacket. She wants sandals. She has taken the barrette out of her hair. And she wants to bring the Christmas book that she insisted we borrow from the library yesterday. We manage to re-focus and get out the door.


8:45 am | Into the stroller and off to school. I love, love, love that I can walk Sam to school. It’s one of my very favorite things about our new house. We pass our favorite bakery, a kids’ consignment store, two wine shops, the creamery, the library, the performing arts center, countless restaurants, and the street that leads to the train station (three blocks from our house and 50 minutes into New York City). Sam talks about the fruit truck that we pass and the police car that’s redirecting traffic away from road construction. Then he says, out of the blue, “I really want to be Spider Man.” I figure he’s talking about his Halloween costume. But I can’t be sure.

9:00 am | Preschool drop-off. I’m convinced it takes less time for us to walk than to drive because morning traffic on South Street can be ridiculous. As always, Sam is excited to see his teacher waiting for him. He gives me a quick smile and a quick kiss. Then he’s off.


9:15 am | Next up. Music class. Just one block behind Sam’s school. But first, we pass one of my very favorite yards. These fall flowers are the absolute best I’ve seen.


Then I fold up the double stroller (I think this is the only building in town without a ramp), and I follow Nora up the stairs.


9:30 am | Girl is having a bit of a morning. I tried to hide her binky in my bag before class started. But she’s begging for it. Not participating. Whining. I finally give in after about 10 minutes. Later she gets mad because the boy sitting beside us tried to take her drum — that she wasn’t even using. I have to admit, I’m relieved when class is over today. I chat with two mom friends whose older sons are in Sam’s class as we walk back down the stairs and outside.


10:00 am | Nora is still being moody. But I have errands to run. So I give her a snack cup of animal crackers, hoping she’s just hungry. And onward we go. Downtown and across the Green to Century 21. I text my girlfriend to confirm the size and color fleece that she wants for her daughter (because neither of us were thrilled with the Champion brand for Target this year, and I found hugely discounted Columbia jackets here). Then I pick out a pink sweater for another friend who just had a baby girl. Next stop is the post office to mail a package to yet another friend whose baby shower I’m going to miss this weekend. And I have to say that I’m continually amazed by the kind people in this town. I was a little concerned about the North Jersey stereotype (think Real Housewives of New Jersey, which is filmed about 20 minutes from where we live). But everyone I meet smiles and says “hello” and offers to hold the door for me (and my double-wide). After just three months here, I love Morristown so much more than I expected to.



10:50 am | Final stop: the grocery store for a few items for dinner since I decided I would rather have pasta than sausage sandwiches tonight. King’s is just one block from our house. It’s like a local Whole Foods, and it’s amazing. But pricey. And so I really try to limit my trips. But it’s super convenient for an onion, a can of crushed tomatoes, and a loaf of bread.


11:00 am | As we approach our house, I hear Nora say: “hooooome,” which she says pretty much every time we arrive back home. As soon as we get inside, she takes off her jacket, her shoes, and her socks. Then she asks for “one Dan-yull” (Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood). She has learned to add the “just one” to this request. I oblige. While she’s having some quiet time, I unload the dishwasher and make lunch. I peak in at her, and it appears as though she’s more interested in her book anyway. Good. Now I don’t feel so guilty.


11:40 am | Lunch is chicken corn soup for me (this is my fourth day eating the soup that I made on Sunday, which is about my limit), and grilled cheese for Nora. With a side of Itsy Bitsy Spider. Because, of course, now she wants to sing. We also do the Hokey Pokey. And, as Nora “shakes her sandwich all around,” Lucy tries to snatch it. She finishes lunch and eats three more slices of cheese before climbing down from the table.


12:15 pm | We still have about an hour until we have to pick up Sam. So we head upstairs. That’s when I realize it’s 62 degrees in our bedroom. Yikes! I close the windows and hope that will help because I really don’t want to turn on the heat. I contemplate putting away the two baskets of laundry. And then I decide against it. Nora and I play princesses and read Halloween books instead.

1:00 pm | I get a text from a preschool mom friend, inviting us and a few others to the playground after school. I probably shouldn’t because it will interfere with Nora’s nap, and she’s already been a bit of a grouch today. But I’m incapable of turning down an invitation, so I reply “of course!” Lucy is perched in her favorite spot as we head back downstairs. She likes it here because she can see out the front door and both windows — and bark at every person that walks by.


1:15 pm | I pack waters and snacks for the playground. Then we head out to pick up Sam. On Thursdays, he stays 30 minutes longer for music class, and we pick up the kids in the hallway near the stairs rather than inside their classrooms (which means no fun photo of inside his classroom today!). Sam is pretty pumped when I tell him we’re going to the playground. He jumps into the stroller and yells “see you at the park!” to his buddies. I am so thrilled with the friends he’s making. (And the friends I’m making, too!) I decide to take the residential route to the playground, and we walk along one of my favorite streets in town. These houses are unreal! Multi-million dollar houses just a few blocks from our humble rental. On our walk, Sam tells me about the “macaroni-tosh” apples that he tried at school today (a.k.a. McIntosh!). Apparently they had an apple tasting and talked about cider presses in preparation for our field trip to the farm tomorrow. He’s also very curious about the Halloween display that we pass. But he confirms that it’s not a real spider’s web, just black and white string. Nothing gets by this one.


1:30 pm | So many friends at the playground today! The kids have a blast rolling down the hill, playing tag and Darth Vader, and throwing tennis balls. Nora swings and hangs from the bars and tries to climb the rock wall. And I get to chat with the moms. We talk about soccer, school lunches, and upcoming Halloween events in town.


3:00 pm | Nora is requesting her binky and climbs into the stroller. I know that’s our signal to go. Surprisingly, Sam doesn’t argue. He must be tired, too. I huff it back up the hill to our house. I’m still wearing my fleece vest, and I regret not taking it off before we started the walk home.

3:15 pm | Back home. Nora is content with just one book before I lay her down to nap. And Sam gets some quiet time with the iPad while I check email and Instagram and Facebook for the first time today. Actually, I realize that this is really the first time that I’ve sat down all day.


4:15 pm | Time to pull ourselves up off the couch. Sam goes to his room to play, and I start dinner.

4:30 pm | Sam is back downstairs and decides he wants to do an art project. A leaf like the one Nora made yesterday at the library. So we go down to the basement, and I help him to cut some construction paper.


4:45 pm | Nora is awake. Perfect. Because I really didn’t want her to sleep past 5pm. I give her some graham crackers, and we go downstairs to find buh-buh (a.k.a. brother — I kind of hope she calls him this forever). I set up both kids with crayons, scraps of paper, and glue. This should entertain them long enough to finish dinner prep.


4:50 pm | Almost five minutes without a peep from downstairs. That’s about their limit before I hear arguing and whining, and Nora comes upstairs to “tattle” on Sam. I give her another graham cracker.

4:55 pm | Nick texts to say he’s running late. He won’t be home until about 6:15pm. Again, I know I shouldn’t complain that 6:15pm is late. But anything past 5:00pm feels like an eternity after a full day with the kiddos. Fortunately, dinner can wait until he gets home (pasta shells with sausage sauce).


5:15 pm | I go downstairs to join the kids. Nora wants me to set up the train tracks, but Sam is currently using the train table as “Dinosaur Land.” So I redirect Nora’s attention to the Octopod. And then, of course, Sam takes an Octonaut right out of her hand. There’s always lots of arguing during this time of day. I succumb to Nora’s request for “one Dan-yull.” We’re all tired and hungry and ready to start winding down.


Also, I love that we have this play space in the basement. Otherwise, I think the house would feel too small. (It’s about 1/2 the size of our house in Pennsylvania — and we pay over twice in rent what we paid towards a mortgage there! Definitely the biggest downside to living in North Jersey.)

6:05 pm | Nick calls to say he’s on his way home. And he’s very excited about dinner. (I think he could eat pasta every night of the week.) We decide to get started without him. Sorry, Daddy! Sam asks for plain pasta because last time the sauce was too spicy. I promise him that it’s not spicy tonight, and I convince him to have a bit of both. Along with cucumbers and Ranch for both kids. And salads for the adults.


6:15 pm | Daddy’s home! Hugs all around. And we all enjoy dinner together. Sam tells Nick about the song he sang in music class: “lay down and be still.” And he demonstrates by laying on the living room floor. I’m sure that was a fun task to get a room full of preschoolers to lay down and be still. He also shows off his apple book and tells him about the “macraoni-tosh apples.” That’s never going to get old! Sam eats three bowls of pasta. And Nora eats three servings of cucumbers.


6:30 pm | Sam disappears upstairs and reappears as Spider Man. This happens at least every other night. He also has a cape for Nick, a pirate’s hat for me, and a super hero mask for Nora. He’s carrying a little rubber frog in his hand and singing “five little froggies jumping on the bed.” Nora starts jumping around the living room. Sam busts out some push ups. I really can’t make this stuff up.



6:45 pm | Nick suggests I take Lucy for a walk while he starts baths. And I happily agree! One of the two of us tries to walk her every night. I feel bad that she probably doesn’t get as much exercise as she did in PA when we would play ball with her almost every night. Our current backyard is a fraction of the size of our old backyard. But one positive is that she’s gotten much better on the leash. I enjoy the cool night air. And I wonder how many miles I walked today — I’m guessing close to five. Good thing because I have zero desire to workout tonight.


7:00 pm | Back from our walk, and I sneak into the kitchen to load the dinner dishes into the dishwasher. From the bathroom, I hear Nick yell at the kids: “hands and feet to yourselves!” This must mean that he put them in together. We still do this most nights, but it’s becoming more difficult.


7:05 pm | Nora comes downstairs to find me. She’s wearing hand-me-down Halloween pajamas that both her cousins and Sam wore. Nothing better than hand-me-down jammies! I notice that Nick attempted to brush her hair, but didn’t do a very good job. So we go back upstairs to finish getting ready for bed. Sam is just getting out of the tub and into jammies. Nora is climbing on and off the bed, and Sam is trying to move his nightstand to retrieve the sticky stars he dropped behind it.


7:15 pm | Nora gives hugs and kisses to me and to Sam, and Nick takes her over to her bedroom for stories. This girl loves books, and Daddy loves to read to her. So I let him do bedtime routine with her most nights. Meanwhile, Sam and I get set up in his bed with a few books.


7:25 pm | Lights out for Nora. I love that she’s such a good sleeper. She rarely ever refuses naptime or bedtime. Girls needs her beauty rest! Then Nick joins us in Sam’s bed. Sam decides he want to do the “finding” book, which I really don’t like, but Nick does. So I let the two of them do their thing while I struggle to keep my eyes open beside them.


7:45 pm | After three books and two songs (“Super Sam” by Daddy and “Mommy’s lullaby” by me), it’s goodnight hugs and kisses for Mr. Sam. Followed by “I love you” and “happy dreams.” And then I walk down the stairs and through our cozy living room before joining Nick in the basement. He’s doing some work on the couch. So I call my parents for a quick catch-up before Facetiming with my sister and their new puppy. We can’t wait to meet this furball next weekend! We chat for about 20 minutes.



8:30 pm | I make a cup of vanilla tea and watch the episode of Nashville that I DVRd last night. There are only a few shows that I watch every week, and this is one of them.

9:15 pm | Nick is still working, so I decide to start organizing my notes and photos from today. It’s a little overwhelming, but I know it will be worth it. Lucy tries to get our attention. She would love to go outside to play ball right now. Nick gives her a rawhide and hopes that will suffice.


10:15 pm | This is our time quiet time. Our time to decompress and refuel for the next day. We both get wrapped up in what we’re doing and, before we know it, it’s after 10pm.

10:45 pm | I start to lose steam and decide it’s time to call it a night. Nick went up about 20 minutes ago. Lucy follows me upstairs, and I let her out one more time. Then I wash my face, brush my teeth, and climb into bed. I set my alarm for tomorrow morning (6:45 am) and check the weather forecast for our field trip to the pumpkin farm. Looks like it’s going to be another sunny fall day. I can’t get enough of this weather lately.

11:00 pm | I’m fast asleep within about 10 minutes and sleep straight through until my alarm the next morning. Time to do it all over again :)