Cooking with tots: Butternut squash coconut milk muffins

I had an odd collection of items in the fridge that needed using in some way or another. An end of a butternut squash, half a can of coconut milk, steamed spinach, a bag of cooked pasta…. I had a fleeting idea of tossing everything together into a butternut squash coconut curry pasta dish to enjoy for lunch, but then the tot caught sight of those noodles and she just had to have them.

As soon as she finished her lunch she demanded some sort of “treat” as a reward.

Damn Halloween.

But our candy was fresh out and instead of her begging for “A TREAT A TREAT A TREAT,” I thought it would be wonderful if we baked a treat together instead. And mixing together the high-in-antioxidants butternut squash and coconut milk had the beginnings of a really flavorful and healthy baked goodie. Coconut milk is nut-free, vegan, and vegetarian, making it a fitting alternative to milk when baking and cooking. And it’s nutrient rich, high in protein, and packed with healthy fatty acids. I love cooking and baking with my tot because it’s not about how pretty things turn out, it’s all about creating something together — and making it taste good while being healthy.


1/2 cup cooked butternut squash

1/2 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup coconut milk

1 egg

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Dash of salt

1 1/4 cup flour



Let’s be honest, there’s not much to this recipe. Preheat your oven to 375F and then invite your child to help measure and add the ingredients into a mixing bowl. Slowly stir everything together until the batter comes together. And if a little more of this or that ends up in the mix, I’m sure your muffins will still be tasty.

Then pop liners in a muffin tin and then invite your child to (attempt to) evenly distribute the batter in the tins. Drizzle with a squeeze of honey for extra yummy flavor. My tot assisted with the drizzling while her favorite stuffed animal watched, making sure she got a big glop on each muffin.

Place the muffins in the oven for 20-minutes or until the tops are nicely browned and slightly cracked. Let cool and then dig in.


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Trick-or-treating with a toddler (for the first time)

Yes, that’s right. We just took our tot trick-or-treating for the first time. She’s three, almost four, and we haven’t attempted the whole trick-or-treating-Halloween-pumpkin-carving thing at all. She had a bit more interest in the pumpkins at the grocery store this year, and had learned more about Halloween while at preschool, but had no desire to wear a costume at all.

Taking a toddler out for her first night of treat gathering is also a unique thing. My child was totally clueless. We attempted to prep her before the adventure, stressing to say, “trick or treat” when accepting goodies and offering a “thank you” once the candy was in hand.

Yeah. That didn’t happen.

Amazingly, after getting a bit of face paint, our tot jumped right into her Halloween outfit and was ready to head out. Our town turns main street into a trick-or-treater’s paradise and shop owners offer candies to tots as they walk by. It’s perfect for little kids and the street was packed. We walked up to the first spot to stop and my child seriously freaked. She hid behind me, wouldn’t move, didn’t talk, and literally tried to crawl me. I pulled her aside and we took a moment.

I got down to her level and asked her about what was going on. She didn’t seem to like all the attention being on her when walking up to a person with candy so I offered to say trick or treat with her. We cautiously walked up to the next spot and she hid again.

So, at this point, I pulled her aside again and talked it through again. The thing about little tots is that sometimes it just takes a bit more coaxing to open up. And, hey, I said if she wasn’t up for it, we could head back home.

Nope, she wanted to try again, which we did. This time she didn’t hide behind me, I held her basket for her, and she slowly walked forward for a treat.

Then she was hooked.

As we continued down the street she started speaking for herself and began offering a quiet “tanks” after receiving a treat. And as she became more comfortable I reminded her that taking a treat before being acknowledged wasn’t polite, not to grab, and that saying thank you was a must. While we walked through town, I loved seeing her opening up, feeling more comfortable, and understanding the give-and-take of the whole thing.

After making our way up and back I was exhausted, our tot had a glazed look in her eye, and we were all ready to go home and enjoy a few treats.

If you’re heading out for a night of trick-or-treating fun with your tot for the first time it’s a good idea to prep your child before the adventure so she has a basic idea of what’s going to happen. Reading a Halloween trick-or-treating book helps, as well as explaining that talking to strangers in this situation is okay. Along with begin lots of fun, trick-or-treating is actually a great way to encourage your child’s language and communication skills, and get a handle taking turns.

Understand that your tot may not be into it and don’t force it. We really wanted to have a great time trick-or-treating with our daughter, but we exchanged “that look” the second time she started freaking out, understanding that we might have to grab her and go if her behavior didn’t change. The last thing you want is for your tot to have unhappy memories about Halloween adventures.

Set limits before hand on how much candy your child gets to eat after trick-or-treating. Our tot wanted to sit down on the sidewalk and eat her candies the minute after they landed in her basket, but we reminded her we were going to keep walking, enjoying our Halloween adventure, and at home we’d have two of her trick or treat candies.

And, amazingly, we did.

Happy Halloween!


Homemade play table

We have this spot at the top of the stairs on the side of our living room. It’s a “spot” we have no idea what to do with. It isn’t really part of the living room, not big enough to do much with, and has been the home to several different things, including a large plant, small bench, and mini pool table — all of which just sat there doing not much of anything.

I was getting really tired of just looking at that empty corner and watching it become home to a happy family of daddy-long-legs.

I was also getting a bit tired of the tot’s toys ALL OVER THE PLACE.

She needed a solution. I needed something. We talked about getting a toy chest (I had visions of pinched fingers), we dreamed of putting together a built-in bookshelf-slash-seating area (I had visions of power tool mishaps), and we chatted about buying furniture (and I had visions of lots and lots of fighting). So the corner sat deserted, the cat turned the mini-pool table into her new favorite lounging spot, and I kept vacuuming up the spiders.

While at O.S.H. picking up who knows what, I spied round cuts of plywood and knew I had to make a play table. But how to make it cool… Then we spied the big spools used for holding rope and I batted my eyes and inquired if we could have an old one. It was my lucky day and we headed home with the round and a spool.

After a nice sanding, and a coating of white stain, the husband took over and screwed the spool to the round and we had a table. I had plans for adding another round base to make the table sturdier, and to touch up the paint, but the tot had other plans. She got busy working the minute it was brought into the house.

Once she was tucked in for the night, I added a few other cute items around her area so she’d stay interested for more than a few days. On the other side of the play corner is our entry way buffet (that houses a bunch of the hub’s old CD’s) that will be cleared out for her toys so the area is comfortable for her to play and stay organized — and I’ll be able to slide the doors so they will magically disappear.

So for less than $20, we reinvented a spool into a fun play table that will hopefully be used for years and years.



Bribery (and a Dream Lite)

Dream Light

First and foremost, I was not paid in any way, coerced, asked, suggested, or even chatted with about this post from anyone at Dream Lite. Nope. In fact, the last thing I would have ever imagined picking up for my tot this weekend WAS a Dream Lite. And it all started with a bit of bribery.


That’s right.

I bribed my tot.

There’s been a lot going on lately, between starting a new preschool, having a new schedule, me not having as much time for her lately, and my husband’s commute pretty much being THE WORST lately, I was starting to seriously twitch every night at bedtime when she tossed her regular nightly fit.

We try to stay away from watching the big TV. We catch Sesame Street in the morning, maybe a bit of Sprout in the afternoon, but not much else. So when my tot started asking for this so called “dream light” thing, I had no clue. I made up songs, hit her up with some imaginary play (still trying to figure it out) and then one afternoon I finally caught the commercial (after I had left Poppy Cat on too long…). Dreeeaaaam liiiiight, DREAAAAAAM light. You know it if you’ve seen it.

And then it got it.

This was a great opportunity to bribe my tot with a toy (which is something I really haven’t done before) and go with it. I was done with the hours of listening to the whining, the trying talking to my tot in the same tone of voice she was using, the yelling, the serious grey hairs that were popping.

So I did it.

I told her if she behaved herself at school like a big girl, was nice and quiet at bedtime, I’d pick her up a Dream Lite. Well, low and behold, the tot held up her part of the bargain, so the husband and I found ourselves searching around our non-box-store-allowed town for a crap-tastic Dream Lite. After picking the coveted thing up, we headed home, loaded the thing up with batteries, and then listed to the tot complain about how it didn’t work AT ALL.

Finally it got dark out and then the magic happened.

It worked.

She was amazed, in love, in awe. Honestly, we were too.

There’s no way you can share pictures (because taking pictures in the dark just doesn’t work) but all I know is that my tot LOVES going to sleep, falls asleep, and the husband and I sneak downstairs to check out the glowing stars too.

Thank you Dream Lites.

Thank you.

Oakland Zoo

Today we spent the entire day at the Oakland Zoo. We’d never been there so weren’t sure how things would go but were pleasantly surprised by happy animals, friendly people, and lots and lots of open space to wander. We even enjoyed a decent meal, got to meet a snake, and loved the petting area. We went to the San Francisco Zoo last year and were not that impressed. The penguins seemed sad (and their area was dirty), the lions wouldn’t even look at anyone, and it seemed small and frustrated. Yeah, yeah. I know, the whole “zoo” thing. But I was happy to learn that many of the animals at the Oakland Zoo had been rescued from circuses or homes/ranges that thought they could raise a chimp…

If you’re in the Bay Area, the price of admission is totally budget friendly ($9.75 for kids over 2, 15 and up for $13.75 – with a $7 parking fee), and you can bring your own lunch or pick something up for around $6 per person, making the Oakland Zoo is a great way to spend a leisurely day. There are tons of benches for sitting and relaxing, a play area for the kids, lots of tables for eating, and a fantastic children’s educational area.

Fine art for kids: Tints and shades

There’s nothing like the moment when your little one picks her favorite color. It’s awesome and so cute and then it becomes obsessive and overwhelming. At first it’s totally adorable when your tot asks for clothes in her favorite color, hair clips in her favorite color… But then when it becomes, “that has to be ____ (insert favorite color)!” or “I want a ____ (insert favorite color) cupcake NOW!” Then you know the favorite color obsession has hit a new level.

So after a bit of drama the other day when I refused to let her only eat the red goldfish from the rainbow multi-color box, I decided it was a good opportunity to introduce how red can be lots of different colors. Yes, I want to continue to encourage her to love the color red, but also expand her horizons to seeing more than just that bright hue.

Tints and shades are variations on a color, or hue. By adding white to a color you create a tint. When black is mixed with a color, a shade is created. I used to tell kids in the classroom, trying to remember which is which, to think of pulling a shade in their bedroom to make it darker — just like when thinking about mixing paint to create a darker shade. It’s never too early to introduce color theory to tots, so gathered a few materials for a tints and shades of red painting.

Select your little one’s favorite color of paint as well as white and black. I also tore a few bits of red tissue paper of different shades for a bit more excitement. If you’ve got a wee tot like me, offer them a sheet of paper and then drop a few drips of the red, white, along with hardly any black on the paper. Older kids can squeeze a bit of each color of paint in three small containers to do the activity.

Now offer your child a paint brush and encourage her to paint the entire paper, watching what happens when her beloved favorite color mixes with the white and black.

Invite your tot to paint and press the tissue paper on her paper to see how the color changes. Keep painting until all the white paper is covered. Add a few drips here and there as needed.

Let the paper dry and then find a special spot to display the tints and shades creation!

Star binoculars

I don’t know about you but I always have a ton of those toilet paper rolls hanging around. I can’t seem to throw them out so find different things to use them for. From stamping to making binoculars, we seem to find a way to reuse them. The other day my tot made a comment about how she never gets to stay up late and look at the stars (I have NO idea where it came from) and figured we should do something so she could see those stars.

Nighttime binoculars.

This is a really simple project and so fun for tots. The instant change from light to dark makes imaginary play tons of fun and turns any kid into an adventurer. All you need are a couple of things and tons imagination.

Gather two toilet paper tubes and place on a sheet of scrap paper. Squeeze some blue or black paint on the paper and offer your tot a brush to coat the outsides. We spent lots of time mixing the colors together and making swirls in the paint.

After the tubes are dry, trace around an end of a tube – just a bit bigger than the circle – onto the black paper, and then cut out two rounds. Do the same with some yellow tissue paper. If you’ve got a tot that is handy with a scissors, she can have a great time with this step!

Now carefully poke a few holes in the black rounds using a toothpick. This is best left to adults with a bit more precision. The holes will let the light in to create the stars!

To finish the star binoculars layer together the yellow tissue paper with the black paper facing out and tape to the end of the toilet paper tubes using black electric tape. This takes a bit of patience, so either give your tot a helping hand, or use small sections of the tape to make sure both the yellow tissue and black paper are secure.

Tie together the tubes and then add a length of string for a strap and your tot can enjoy looking through the starry night binoculars!


Toddler art

displaying your child's artwork

My tot is totally into getting creative. Along with making lots of art, she has begun to master the concept of putting her art tools away and how to display her own artwork. I’ve also encouraged this through a few simple things, like giving her a dedicated drawer in the kitchen to keep her crayons and such and leaving out the tape for her to use. Displaying your child’s artwork shows you are proud of her creativity, which encourages her to strive to create more. For toddlers, creativity is more about the process than the end result, meaning most artworks won’t be representational in any way – just a bunch of big scribbles.

Nurturing self-esteem is one way to foster successful, healthy, and happy kids (and adults). For toddlers, art is one of the main means of self-expression, so when your child sees her art displayed within the home, she truly feels special. We adults can focus on:

– The child’s ideas (and not our own) during creative times. Hey, if your toddler wants to scribble her way through a drawing of a dinosaur cooking dinner, so be it.

– Providing accessible art materials available for when your child wants to create. This is a challenge because no one wants crayon-coated walls. Start with leaving out paper and stickers and eventually moving to mark making implements as the child develops. I cleared out a drawer in the kitchen and my tot has proudly organized her art materials. Here’s her craft drawer compared to mine….

craft drawer

– Creating a comfortable creative space. No matter if it’s a spot at the kitchen table or a dedicated art table, if your child has a go-to scribble spot, she’ll feel good about getting arty when she feels the creative juices flowing.

– Allowing your child to display her finished artworks! Sure, if you have a few favorites along the way, pop them in an old frame or hang from a clothesline in your home. Leaving out a few strips of tape for your child to use to hang her own creations is a wonderful way for her to be in charge of where she wants her art to be seen. I tear off a few strips and leave them on the edge of the kitchen counter for her to pull off and then stick onto her paper – and then wherever she wants that art to go (which is usually the fridge).

I love finding the tot totally engrossed in getting creative without any prompting. Sometimes it involves mess, but, hey, that’s what sponges are for, right?

making art

Sticker finger paint

sticker finger paint

This is such a simple project with fun – and educational – results. Along with honing fine-motor skills, it also encourages color recognition. Toddlers love getting messy – and finger paint doesn’t disappoint. Combining stickers and finger paint also creates a multi-step activity, which also helps tots learn how to wait and follow directions. This doesn’t mean that things are going to go smoothly – plan for chaos by having wet-wipes or a few damp paper towels handy and donning your tot in a smock or okay-for-mess clothing.

Finger painting is an exciting way to introduce color theory through mixing paints. Most toddlers are on their way to mastering color recognition, which means it’s time for the next step. Using two colors keeps things from turning into a big brownish-grey mess o’ paint. Most tots are also still in the scribble stage and getting pretty comfortable using pencils, crayons, and markers to draw, draw, draw.  This activity encourages kids to use the entire paper, focusing on the big picture, and use something exciting (fingers!) to make those big scribbles.

Start by taping a sheet of white drawing paper to your work area or on a plastic place mat. Offer your toddler a selection of stickers to peel and stick to the paper. We used a combination of puffy stickers as well as regular stickers to mix things up and add to the fun textural feel when finger painting.

sticker finger paint

Once your tot has finished stickering, place about a tablespoon of one color of finger paint on the paper. Encourage your child to spread that finger paint all over the paper until it is completely covered.

Now add a small dollop of another color of finger paint for your child to mix with the first color observing what color is created. See if your child can figure it out all on her own!

sticker finger paint

Let the finger paint dry and then invite your child to peel the stickers from the paper revealing the white paper underneath. Removing the stickers takes focus and concentration – as well use of those fine-motor skills!

Hang the finished sticker finger paint creation on the fridge for all to see.


Philo Apple Farm

While camping at Hendy Woods last weekend we made a visit to one of our favorite places – Philo Apple Farm. Along with making amazing apple stuff (vinegar, juice, cider, jams…) there’s a path you are welcome to stroll that takes you around the property. While you meander through the beautiful farm you stumble upon chickens, horses, pigs, and views, views, views. The farm produces Biodynamic heirloom apples, offers cooking classes, and even rents quaint cottages tucked within the property. This place is just magical – and a must stop if you are in the Anderson Valley area. On a side note, Hendy Woods is one of the California State Parks that is slated for closure due to budget cuts. Do your part to keep them open by pledging to defend our parks!

Sarah Lipoff