Homemade Halloween costume hacks for parents in a hurry

Halloween is in just over two weeks. How are the costumes coming?

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring it up. Please stop crying. Did you want me to call someone? You sure?

All right, I’ve been making costumes for kids for almost twenty years. I don’t really know how to sew, and I don’t want to spend a ton of money, and my kids often pick costumes that no one sells. So DIY it is.

Here are a few ways to make them . . . not easy, exactly, but much less hard. The most useful things I’ve learned:

MAIN BODY:

Giant adult t-shirts can be turned into all kinds of things, and they are already hemmed. Always always always use existing hems whenever you can! Tuck the sleeves in (sew or glue them if you like), and a little kid can wear a T-shirt as a skirt, using the neck as a waist. This is how I found a brown skirt for Avatar Kyoshi: brown t-shirt, $1, done.

You can also turn a T-shirt into a cape, using the already-existing neckline. Just cut off the back and sleeves of the shirt and “hem” the rest with hot glue or duct tape. This is not razzle dazzle, but will please a young kid.

Here are Zita the Spacegirl and Robot Zita, made with Daddy’s undershirts and some black plastic garbage bags:

Black duct tape would have been miles better, but this was an emergency “Mama, I forgot to tell you we’re supposed to dress up tomorrow for Whatever Day” costume.

Even cheaper: If you can’t find a plain shirt in the right color, get a shirt with a logo and turn it inside out and just cut off the tag if it shows. Here’s Wish Bear wearing an inside-out sweatshirt that had a different pattern on the other side, because we couldn’t find a plain light aqua sweatshirt.

I glued on a felt belly and decorated it with puffy paint. I can’t explain what was going on with those ears, though. This is a classic example of overthinking and over-engineering. I should have just cut two little ear shapes out of felt and clipped them to her head using tiny hair clips. As it is, she resembles Head Trauma Bear (which, come to think of it, would explain a lot about Care Bears in general.

Sometimes a good old paper bag gives you the look you want. Not recommended for masks if you’re planning to be walking long distances in the dark. This Strong Strong costume was for “favorite character” day:

Paper bags can also be converted into vests pretty easily — just cut a front opening and a neck and arm holes, and decorate however you like. You can bash in the corners to make it look more like clothing. You can also just cut a head hole and cut the sides off completely and make a boxy poncho, making the base for all kinds of square costumes (robot, Lego piece, iPhone, etc.).

Bathrobes bathrobes bathrobes. These are always abundant at the thrift stores around here. Manga costumes were a big deal one year, and I discovered you can take some quick hand stitches to make them fit the kid, then add trim (I glued on fur for one, and used metallic duct tape for another), then complete the look with a sash and sweatpants.

If you need a basic flowy dress or robe, turn the bathrobe backwards and do whatever you want to the neckline — trim it and hem it with duct tape, disguise it with a scarf, or hide it with a collar made of cardboard and tin foil. Using an already-existing article of clothing is always light years ahead of starting from scratch, and you can often find robes in fancy, silky fabrics.

Backwards button-down adult shirts also make good tunics or basic dresses. You can add high or low belts to vary the look quite a bit.  Check out this nice little prince in my shirt and my husband’s belt:

You can also use duct tape to cinch sleeves in wherever you like, which changes the look quite a bit.

If you need puffy upper sleeves and tight lower sleeves, cut the end out of long socks and put them on the kid’s lower arms. Over that, put on an adult long-sleeved shirt, scooch the sleeve up to the elbow and cinch them in place with duct tape.

If they’re the same color, it will look like it’s one top with fancy sleeves. Remember: nobody needs to know what it looks like underneath!

A giant cloak hides a multitude of errors. One of the few sewing projects I can manage is this basic hooded cloak. I’ve made six or seven of these over the years, but I find that you need to make the hood about 50% larger than what the pattern calls for. It’s a pretty forgiving pattern overall. Here is my daughter wearing a store-bought dress and the hooded cloak she made herself, with almost no sewing experience:

One year, a kid wanted to be Ash from Army of Darkness, and we just used a big wool blanket draped strategically and held in place with a giant safety pin. We made a tinfoil dummy clasp to cover the pin.

Guess what? You can spray paint some clothing. Search for items that are the right shape and style at the thrift store, and paint them the right color. It’s easier then dyeing, and paint will stick to, for instance, shoes and vinyl. It will crack eventually, but it’s good for a night.

I’m a fan of bath towel ponchos for costumes of things (rather than people). They are warm, easy to get around in, and the kid can wear something neutral underneath. Find a bath towel in the right color, cut a horizontal slit halfway up for the head, “hem” it with duct tape, and decorate it however you want.  Keep it rectangular and it can be a slightly floppy Creeper:

You can paint towels, I should say, but it takes forever because they are, duh, absorbent. I still think this is a good costume, but it was pretty time-consuming, if not difficult. It may have been easier to hot glue felt squares to the towel, rather than painting.

Fleece is also handy for these over-the-head, free-form costumes. You can cut it into all kinds of shapes and you don’t need to hem it at all. You can be, for instance, a piece of pizza (but you may need to reinforce the shape with strips of corrugated cardboard). Fleece is a little pricey, so I don’t often buy it from the fabric store.

If you can do a tiny bit of sewing, here are some tips from Elisa Low, who does stuff like this every day for the costumes she makes. Elisa says:

With a seam ripper and some minor sewing skills it is easy to remove the top part of a collar on a men’s shirt (the part that folds over) so you are left with only the round part that stands up, like they had in the Old West.

Boy’s colonial knickers are easy to make from men’s or women’s pants. Just cut off the bottom part, cuff them, and attach a decorative button on the outer side of each cuff.

As far as fabric, remember that clothes are made of fabric! So instead of going to the fabric store, go to the thrift store and look at the XXL clothes. Large dresses, skirts, coats… these have lots of fabric for low prices and you can make things out of them. Also look in the curtains and bedding sections for good fabrics.

For pics of some of Elisa’s projects, check out her blog.

HEADPIECES, HELMETS, CROWNS, and ACCESSORIES:

Pillowcases are awfully handy if you are making a medieval headpiece, a veil for a nun, a pharaoh costume, etc. They can also be folded lengthwise and used as sashes, if the kid is skinny enough; and they are fine as basic capes with a few safety pins.

Plastic milk jugs make great Greek or Roman or Medieval helmets for people with small heads. Find a picture of the helmet style you want, trace out the lines with a magic marker, and just snip away, using the jug handle side as the nosepiece. You can spray paint them any color you like. Here’s a Spartan helmet on Pinterest; here’s a knight’s helmet with visor. You could even make a Mickey Mouse headpiece this way by adding ears and spray painting the whole thing black.

Milk jugs turned the other way around (with the flat part in front, not the handle part) are also handy for the base of whole-head helmets (like for a Storm Trooper or a gas mask), as long as they’re for small heads. Pretty much anything that needs to fit over a small head can start with a milk jug.

If the kid’s face will be covered, let him wear the helmet plenty beforehand, so you can be sure it’s breathable enough and he can see well. Also, if you’re using glue or spray paint, let it air out for several days before the kid wears it! You don’t need him passing out from fumes.

You can also use milk jugs for bishops’ mitres. (The mitre is the hat. You’re thinking of “crook” — that’s the staff thing he holds.) Just find a clear picture and trim away. Add paint, ribbon, etc. to make it look authentic.

Milk jugs can also, sigh, be used to make an elaborate papier mache chain saw hand. Here are directions, if you insist.

If the paint does not adhere they way you like, or if you want more texture, rough it up with sandpaper before painting.

A round bottle, like for a large bottle of juice, can be cut into a crown or circlet, if the kid’s head is small enough Spray paint it gold and add some gems or whatever you like.

Those blank white masks from Walmart can be adapted in any number of ways. To make this Ichigo Kurusaki Hollow Mask,

I added paper plates to the top to make the skull round, and covered the existing eyes, nose, and mouth holes with paper plates and tape, and then re-cut the eyes in a different shape. Then I spray painted everything white and added the details with red and black Sharpies. Adapting something that’s already designed to be worn is almost always easier than starting from scratch.

Here’s a last-minute costume that began with a plain white mask, plus various items raided from past Halloweens:

I dunno what it is, but it got attention.

For some excellent, customizable masks, you can pay a small sum to download templates for 3D masks from Wintercroft. Friends tell me they are time-consuming to put together, but they turn out just as described. Really neat designs.

Disposable pizza pans from the dollar store make good shields that don’t get too heavy, and they’re already metallic, yay. You can also decorate them with hot glue and then spray paint it, for a worked metal look. Use duct tape to make straps behind. You can also color directly on foil with Sharpies.

Use the bottoms of small juice or soda bottles for excellent medallions or for crowns, dress trim, etc. Just cut the bumpy bottom off, maybe smooth the edges with sandpaper, and spray paint it gold. Lots of things look amazing when you spray paint them gold or silver. Here’s a handsome little vampire with a soda bottle Count Dracula medallion (I made a slit for the ribbon before painting, and glued on a plastic gem after):

Foam meat trays work well for stiff but light accessories. You want the kid to look good, but also to be able to get around; so keep weight in mind. Foam meat trays (washed thoroughly, of course) are great because you can cut them into all kinds of detailed shapes, spray paint them, glue things to them, and so on, but they won’t drag the kid down. BUT, some adhesives will dissolve foam! So test it first.

Pipe cleaners make decent last-minute glasses, if not especially comfy ones:

General rule for accessories: Keep it light. I’ve made this mistake more times than I can count: I forget how heavy everything is going to be, and the kid is overwhelmed. In this Rainbow Dash costume, I made everything way too big, and it was unwearable:

The following tools are your greatest friends to put on details that can really make the costume:

Colored duct tape, either to make easy hems or to add details, or both.

Puffy paint.

Felt. 

Foam craft sheets. These come with our without an adhesive side.

Sharpies. Sharpies can color on any number of surfaces, including foil and plastic. Elisa Low reminds us that you can color plastic gems, too. Brand name markers are much more brilliant and adhere better than cheapo ones from the dollar store. (Beware the treacherous “Sharple,” for instance.)

And of course hot glue.

Speaking of glue: I always root for glue before sewing, but I’ve ruined more than one accessory by using the wrong kind of glue. Check the label to see what materials it will work on, and test it if you can! Some adhesives will dissolve certain materials; others simply won’t stick. Some take days and days to dry completely. There are soooo many kinds of glue available in the craft aisle, so take the time to make sure you’re getting the right one.

And don’t forget glue dots. These are moldable, and are sometimes the only thing that will work.

And sometimes you don’t need glue at all. For Hellboy here (who made his own right hand of doom),

I ended up making small holes in a bald cap and poking spray paint can tops through for the sawed-off horns. The tension held them in place. (I covered the can tops with crinkled duct tape to give them more texture before spray painting them.)

It’s okay if it looks ugly halfway through. I get overly fixated on making things look pretty at every step, but you can always attach things with as much duct tape as you need and then spray paint over the whole thing. Spray paint does not adhere very well to packing tape, though.

MAKEUP:

Keep makeup basic unless you have experience with it. Trying to cover someone’s entire face another color is harder than it sounds, and you often end up with a patchy, diseased effect. Here is a successful attempt at full-face makeup (well, half face) which I’m including just because I’m thrilled without how it turned out. But it took FOREVER. Forever forever forever. So don’t think, “I’ll just smear on some make up right before we go out.”

Instead, pick the main features and just stick with those. Here’s a less-successful attempt at makeup. The child specifically wanted just the lower half of her face to look like a furry cat, and I tried to comply:

She was actually happy with it, which is what matters; but every time I looked at her, I thought, “Burl Ives!”

Beards on babies: I can’t decide if this is brilliant or stupid, but I also used Nutella to make a Paul Bunyan beard for the baby. I didn’t want to put makeup on the baby’s tender skin, but Nutella felt nice and safe. She did eat most of it before anyone saw her, though.

GENERAL INSPIRATION:

If you’re just starting to figure out how to make the costume, Google “character X costume” rather than “character X.” Even better, Google “character X cosplay,” because those will show you homemade costumes, not store-bought. Other people will have solved a lot of problems for you already, and other people will have picked out which features are really necessary to make the costume look right. I tend to get bogged down in details, but you can get lots of details right and still completely miss the overall look you’re going for.

Any time you can persuade a kid to be a person rather than a licensed character, you’re going to get off easy. Here’s a costume my daughter put together in about three minutes:

The only down side is that everyone now knows we’re horrible parents who let our kids watch Die Hard.

You don’t have to be literal. Do mashups of two characters, or make a nod toward the character, rather than tracking down every last detail. A serviceable, if slightly off-fleek Terminator here:

We forgot to spray paint the gun, but the Austrian accent and the attitude put it across.

Other variations: I had my heart set on dressing the baby as Paul Bunyan (above) for some reason, but I couldn’t find a plaid flannel shirt in her size; but I did find a red and black checked poncho, and did not hear any complaints:

The same goes for lots of other costumes: a ballerina pony might be even cuter (and easier!) than a regular pony; and you can make a meticulously accurate costume from the neck up, and then just wear a plain sweatsuit or a dressy suit, and it will still hit home.

Attitude goes a long way to making a costume work. This Raven costume was really just an approximation, but the way my daughter spoke and carried herself was dead on:

THE FINAL WORD ON APPROACHING HOMEMADE COSTUMES:

There are really two major mistakes you can make with costume-making:

One is making a costume that looks great, but the kid can’t move in it. I once made a “rider-riding-a-horse” costume, with false legs and all. It was adorable and amazing, but completely non-functional. Two steps and the kid was in tears. So make sure it’s walkable; make sure the kid can see; make sure it’s an outfit, not a prison!

If the kid is old enough, he can consent to wearing a costume that is extremely uncomfortable. I wish I had a better picture, but we did the old “severed head on a platter on a formally-set table” costume one year

and it was fabulous. Exhausting to drag around and keep stable, but fabulous. He went around saying “Alms for the bodiless?” instead of “trick or treat” and he got a lot of candy. (Oh, look! Behind him, there’s Ash with his milk jug chain saw hand.)

The other terrible mistake you can make is trying to make the costume look the way you want it, rather than how the kid wants it. Do it their way, whenever possible.

I had wonderful plans for Nightmare Moon. The four-year-old, however, had plans which were wonderful to her, including make up design. So those were the ones we went with. She got lots of candy, too.

And then sometimes the kid says she wants to be a Pink Mummy Ghost. What is this? We don’t know. We only hope that, by some miracle, the thing we come up with is the same as whatever it is that’s in her crazy head.

Happy costuming! Please share your tips and hacks in the comments. And seriously, if you’ve ever come up with a good way of making a cat tail that curls up but doesn’t make people feel uncomfortable when they wear it or see it, let me know asap.

5 easy crafts for preschoolers (and their color-starved moms)

Maybe it’s different where you live, but here, there still isn’t any green. Just brown, tan, black, white, and grey. I know it’s Lent and it makes sense to look out the window and feel terrible, but I just can’t take it. I resorted to  . . .

Craft day.

In about half an hour, we came up with five very simple crafts that my five-year-old could do with almost no help. These are all projects that make the house brighter and more colorful, and that cost almost nothing to make. To make all five, you’ll need wax paper, colored tissue paper, paper plates, thread, glue sticks, paints and/or food coloring, scissors, clothespins, and pipe cleaners.

#1: Stained glass mosaics

Cut or tear colored tissue paper into squares or shapes. Lay out a sheet of wax paper, and run a glue stick all over it. Stick the tissue paper on the wax paper, in a design or at random. Stained glass!

 

#2: Tissue paper garden

This one is more fun to make than it is fun to look at.

Take a paper plate (always have paper plates on hand!), and color it green or brown, or glue green or brown paper on it. Cut colored tissue paper into little squares, wrap a square around the eraser end of a pencil, dab some glue on the end, and dab the gluey end onto the paper plate. Lift away the pencil, and — boop! — you’ve “planted” a frilly little flower. Plant as much or as few as you like.

You can also cut long strips of green paper and fringe half of it, so it looks like a comb. Fold it the long way, glue the unfringed side onto the plate, so the fringed half sticks up, and you have a row of grass.

#3: Flower garland

We made a lot of paper snowflakes this winter, so now we put those skills to use to make flowers. You want to start with a rough circle of tissue paper or colored paper.  (You can also use coffee filters, but, being white, they may look too snowflake-y.) You can trace a coffee can if you like. Fold it into a semicircle, then fold it in half again into a triangle, and then again into a smaller triangle, if you can.

To make a basic flower, cut the curved end into scallops or a jagged edge. Then snip off the point. Open it up carefully, and you have a sweet flower.

You can string a bunch of these on thread and make a little garland to brighten up the window.

 

#4: Coffee filter butterflies

Paper coffee filters absorb paint very nicely. Paint whatever designs you like on a coffee filter. If you get the paper wet, the colors will spread and blend.

Pinch the coffee filter in the middle to make butterfly wings. Clip them in place with a clothespin. For antennae, bend a pipe cleaner in half, twiddle the ends, and clip the bent part into the clothespin along with the wings.

If you like, you can add eyes with markers or googly eyes.
#5: Coffee filter planets

Flatten out some coffee filters. Put them on a plate, and get them nice and wet. Then take them, one by one, and drip watercolors or food coloring onto them. Then set them away somewhere to dry completely. (The washing machine or dryer is a good place to dry wet crafts, because you can wipe it clean afterwards.) Food coloring is more fun to work with, but it does stain skin, clothes, and hard surfaces, so be aware!

They get a gorgeous marbled effect, and look like glowing planets if you hang them in the window.

***

These projects are not razzle dazzle, but they are pleasant, cheap, and doable, and they make the house cheery.

Here are my general rules for preschool crafts:

1. The kids should be able to do most of the stuff without help, or else it’s not really a preschool craft.

2. The kids should listen while you explain how to do it, and then they should be able to do it however they want to, without being corrected

because it is their craft.

If mom wants it to turn out perfect, then mom can make her own!

3. Remember that some kids just want to take their pants off and watch craft day burn.

Just roll with it. That’s what old towels are for.

What fresh hell is this? It’s Pinterest Christmas 2016!

Feeling a dearth of burlap, foxes, chevrons, fairy lights, and mason jar lids in my life, I went on Pinterest to see what was happenin’.

I always start out with wholesome intentions, sincerely searching for neat DIY ideas. I even bought a set of plain glass balls, and I intend to spray paint them, using tiny paper snowflakes as stencils. As stencils! It is going to be pretty. Tell me it’s going to be pretty!

I start out, I say, with good intentions, looking for ideas that we will enjoy trying out; but I always end up calling my husband over for backup to help me mock stuff more thoroughly.

Because son, there is some stupid shit out there.

For your convenience, I’ve organized my thoughts into some basic rules to help you identify when you’ve slipped past DIY and landed smack in the middle of WTF, by which I obviously mean Where’s the Fphrenologist to feel your lumpy head and figure out what would impel you to follow through with some of these hideously inexcusable projects?

Things that would bring shame to hobos. Okay, so we all have failed crafts and stupid crafts and crafts that don’t turn out so great. That is fine. I have a number of them displayed around my house, because I have low standards.

But when I do come up with something lousy, I do not then use an expensive camera to take luxe photos of it and offer tutorials for how to recreate it in your own home. And not only because it didn’t occur to me! It’s because when you take a sweater and cut it up into heart shapes and then stick a paper clip through it, that’s not a cozy winter ornament. That’s garbage.

When kids make things that turn out a little rough and wobbly, that’s cute. When disabled people make things that are kind of naive and clunky, your heart is allowed to melt. But functioning adults are not allowed to just churn out crap and call it “adorable” just because it looks bad! Bad is bad! It’s not twee or offbeat or funky! It’s just bad! Bad bad bad!

(If you want to live a little, browse around in this chick’s site. Do not miss the confetti updo, which, the tutorial will instruct you, can be achieved by braiding your hair and then using your head to clean under the couch. In another spot, she instructs you to roast a turkey, cram some pom poms up its ass, and call it “festive feast.” I BET IT IS.)

Craft projects that require you spend $18 on a hobby store fake version of something people used to throw out back once the hogs were done with them. You know it must be within ten days of a major American holiday when local message boards are full of frantic pleas: Does anyone know where I can find wooden pallets? No, honey, nobody knows, because they have all been painted like terrible flags for the fourth of July, hung on the walls of pretentious condos for terrible wine racks, transformed into terrible herb planters in the front yards of people who wouldn’t know what to do with basil if grew with instructions right on the leaves, or tacked together by someone’s gloomy husband who would be perfectly willing to shell out cash for an actual, real, non-wobbly coffee table that doesn’t give you splinters, but now we have to spend all Thursday night sanding, and the Raiders are playing, too.

Leave pallets alone. Also milk bottles, mason jars, pre-weathered planks, and fruit crates. Gosh.

When you have a display, rather than decorations. Stores put up holiday displays. Businesses put up holiday displays. School children get together and work on a nice display together. But why are we doing this as individuals living in our homes? Why do we buy three shrink-wrapped bales of disinfected hay upon which to prop up some easily-identifiable symbols of the current holiday season in a studiously asymmetrical fashion, and set it up just to the left of the entrance to your home, and then forbid the children to play in the front yard because you’re trying to make it look homey with all those corn stalks you bought for eleven bucks a bunch? It’s your house, and you’re supposed to be living in it, not marketing it.

A small-scale rendition of this trend is when you take perfectly good stand-alone ornaments and tag them with keywords designed to snag maximum pageviews. You know what I mean: You have five glass balls in tasteful blue and silver, and that’s fine, but then you have to buy a special glass-writing marker and label each one with a Certified Holiday Word (without upper case letters or punctuation, of course, because we are having fun!). “Jingle” says one. “Merry,” explains another. “Star,” posits a third.

What? What? What is this for? This is stupid.  If you like jingling so much, maybe use a bell, eh, smartacus? This is one of those things that people only do because other people are doing it, so it seems normal and cute and pretty, but it’s not. It’s stupid and it’s making the word stupider.

Subset: those astronomically smug, oversized wall decals that literally spell out exactly what kind of family you are. “WE DO LOVE! WE DO MESSY! WE DO OOPSIE WOOPSIE DOO ON THE REGULAR! WE SHINE FULL TIME! LOOK AT MY WHITE TEETH! I DEMAND A GOLD MEDAL FOR NOT FLIPPING OUT WHEN CARTER DROPS A CRACKER ON THE CARPET! CAN YOU EVEN BELIEVE YOU GET TO BE FRIENDS WITH US!” No, I can’t. Please give me my coat back; I really must be going. I think I left my humidifier running, and the cats are going to get all waterlogged.

Yeah, yeah, I know, they’re not there for guests. They’re there for the actual family, to remind them of their own ideals. Except they’re not. They’re totally there to impress people, along the lines of those “Another family for peace” bumper stickers. I’m going to start my own auto insurance company just to design a rider specifically to cover people who deliberately rear-end another family for peace.

 

Inedible food ornaments. This may just be a hangover from some stinging childhood disappointment, but I feel like it’s bad form to fill the house with marvellous scents and then not get to chew on anything. Gingerbread cookies? Those are for eating. Applesauce is also for eating, and not for compressing into little weird brick stars and hearts that only look like non-poop if you tell people, “Those are made of applesauce, you know!” I’ll make an exception for clove oranges, because they really are pretty, and they have a venerable past. But no more dried applesauce poop. It doesn’t make me mad, it just makes me sad. I like applesauce.

Complete non-ornaments that just stare baldly at you, daring you to wonder if this is, like, the lost and found shelf, or what. Skis, ice skates, sleds, bicycles, wagons, whatever. You are not TGIFridays, nor were meant to be. Just because you manage to hang it on your wall, that doesn’t magically transform them into decor. This offends my thrifty heart, and it also violates the whole “decoration vs. display” rule.

Now, if you’re trying to sell me on the idea that industrial design can be beautiful, that is one thing. I will actually go to a museum and look carefully at a very good toilet or a telephone or a circuit board, because I like design. But that is not what is going on here. What is going on here is that some deranged housewife gets it into her head that anything that is no longer for sale at full price at Bed, Bath and So Forth must be automatically nostalgic, and therefore decorative. My only comfort is that deranged people are bad at hanging stuff, so it will probably fall down at some point and hit somebody. Kapow! Where’s your nostalgia now?

 

Things made out of books.  Okay, so if the book was going to be destroyed anyway, that’s fine. But the thing that gets me is “She loves books so much, she made a whole chair out of them!” Hey, that’s great. I’m entirely blown away with your thorough grasp of the purpose of the written word! Or maybe you love books so much that you cut them up into bits and torture them into a gluey diorama depicting a scene from that book, that’s how much you love books!

Super duper. Remind me not to let you babysit my kids. Yes, I know you said you love kids. I heard you.

***

In closing:  Yes, I write things like this because I am a bitter, unhappy person who finds fulfillment in criticizing others, even though their behavior in no way impacts my life. Please pray for me.

Yes, mason jars are still a thing, still. I checked.

 

 

What’s for supper? Vol. 10: ‘At’samatta for you?

whats for supper

 

SATURDAY
HOBBIT BIRTHDAY!

Roast chicken, asparagus, braided stuffed bread, and roast apples; hot cider; birthday cake and ice cream.

One of my four teenagers had a birthday. Fine, her birthday was last month. But when we finally got around to having a party, it was pretty good. It was a dinner party very loosely based on The Hobbit.

food blog hobbit cake

You thought the Peter Jackson version was bad? This is the version where the cake is basically just crumbs held together with damp coconut, and everything else is made out of store bought icing squeezed out of sandwich bags, and the director has severe PMS and is just trying not to get tears in the food.

Mommy blogging alert and disclaimer. I like making crafts, decorating cakes, and crap like that. It is fun for me. If you hate crafts and stuff, and reading about crafts and stuff makes you feel bad, just tell yourself, “Yeah, but her house smells like pee andlooks like the hynena cave in Lion King!” And it will be true. Or, if you’re much better at crafts and cake decorating and stuff than I am, just go suck an egg. See? Everyone’s happy.

We had a giant garbage bag spider with a captured Felicity dwarf in its web lurking in one corner

food blog spider

and I attempted to make Bilbo’s door out of streamers, but it didn’t look that great, mainly because the my Cheapskate Brain overpowered my Regular Brain and persuaded me that we could afford to buy green streamers, but not colored paper for the bricks.

food blog hobbit door

Benny was very impressed, though, when I used matches to distress the “no admittance” sign.

I used a match because it's from The Hobbit, back when everything was burnt on the edges.

I used a match because it’s from The Hobbit times, back when everything was burnt on the edges.

That was all decorating we had time for. We had a campfire, the kids played at the stream, and we made dragon eggs. Yes, the dragon in LOTR is a boy dragon, but you know what? This is a party activity which teenagers are not too cool to do (if you can put up with a lot of shrieking over how gross the egg-blowing is). Here’s theinstructions, and here are a few the kids made:

food blog dragon eggs

 

 

If you make a little circle of hot glue on one end, they will stand up on their own.

We have An Unexpected Cookbook: The Unofficial Book of Hobbit Cookery (actually, we couldn’t find our copy; but not one but two friends were kind enough to get their hands on the ebook version and send me the recipe!), which is full of tasty things we need to make someday. Because we were rushed, we just chose the braided braid stuffed with onions, mushrooms and cheese. I’m not great with yeast breads, and in desperation picked up five pouches of pizza crust mix from Walmart, and it turned outspectacular. My daughter made four large loaves. There were shouts of, “MAKE THIS EVERY DAY FROM  NOW ON.”

I also roasted a couple of big chickens, steamed some asparagus, and made two big pans of roasted apples, and it was a very fine meal, if only vaguely Hobbity.

food blog hobbit meal

We had hot cider, non-mulled, because I’m the only one who likes it mulled. I like some wine in it, too, but it wasn’t that kind of party.

food blog irene campfire

Or was it?

Roasted apples, by the way! Yes. So easy and delicious. A quick, easy side dish that would go with lots of cold weather foods.

food blog roasted apples

 

 

SUNDAY
Yummy things without kids!

Sunday was our 18th anniversary. The kids had hot dogs or something, and we packed a bottle of wine and an assortment of tasty things and ate the by a little fire down by the stream, which is just out of sight of the house, and we had a lovely time.

food blog fire wine

So then I realized it was time to start the week, and I hadn’t gone shopping yet, and had also somehow unexpectedly run out of money. Like, all of it. So the rest of the week went like this:

You’ll note there was no actual falling down, but there was a lot of falling. I never actually made a meal plan or went grocery shopping in any organized way; I just flailed around in the store on the way home from school several times, and then flailed around in the kitchen until there was something hot on the table.

 

MONDAY
WILD TURKEY SURPRISE

There was so much grousing about lack of good lunch food, I thought I should make an effort for dinner, so I made sauce out of all the stuff we had in the house, which turned out to be peppers, onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, wine, and ground turkey. I like making homemade sauce, because how fancy is it to add sugar to something that is not supposed to be sweet, because you’re so smart, you know you have to cut the acidity of the tomatoes? I feel like such an insider.

An’ a little bit l’ wiiine . . . and that’s my secret.

Of course the end result is less Godfather and more Tasmanian Devil

But the end result was actually pretty good, mainly because we were starving by the time I got dinner on the table.

 

TUESDAY
???

Maybe frozen chicken burgers? I forget.

 

WEDNESDAY
Chicken drumsticks; macaroni salad; frozen peas

I was planning to make rice, but there was no rice, so I scraped together this macaroni salad recipe, which tasted fine.

 

THURSDAY
Braised pork with red wine over noodles

I was determined to make something interesting this week. This was not bad.

food blog braised pork

It is something new to do with pork, anyway, and pork keeps on being cheap.  I let it boil too fast for too long, so the meat was a little tough; but the gravy was fantastic. I could have eaten just the noodles with gravy and been happy. It’s definitely easy, and you can do it in a crock pot if you like.

Also, it turns out I didn’t know what “braised” means.

FRIDAY
???

I have no idea. Probably more noodles. I have to finish up Halloween costumes. I’m really counting on the kids being full of candy from their parties today, and thinking less about supper and more about (sigh) gutting and carving ten pumpkins.

This looks like a happy childhood, right?

This looks like a happy childhood, right?

My therapist says that people underestimate the profound effect of not getting enough sleep. Well, I don’t. Or, I do. I mean, I’m really tired. I feel bad even saying it, because my husband keeps getting up with the kids so I can sleep, but nevertheless.

Question of the week: ‘Attsa matta, you no like-a, HEY, ‘attsamatta for you?

Cheap and Easy Christmas Things that Even You Can Do!

I assume you’re already doing all the religious stuff, and have already bought, made, figured out, or given up on gifts. Here are a bunch of other nice Christmasy things you can do pretty easily, using materials that you may actually have in your house and skills you can probably muster up even at this stage of your life.

 

SOMETHING SWEET TO EAT:

Fudge recipe that doesn’t require a candy thermometer.

fudge

Can be dressed up with various nuts, crushed candies, flavored chips (peanut butter, mint, butterscotch, etc.), but yummy on its own. There are also lots of other great recipes on that page, with clear instructions.

Also more of less foolproof, and without any exotic ingredients or equipment, but messy to make: buckeyes. I let the kids do this one, since it involves a lot of hand-mooshing of dough and unsanitary dipping in chocolate.

 

SOMETHING SAVORY TO EAT:

 

10857174_10152582632862029_1424889618274400515_o

Jew-for-a-day potato latkes that are great for Chanukah but don’t require any special Jew ingredients. I didn’t bother with the cheesecloth; I just squeezed out the potato shreds in a colander and added a bit of extra flour. So tasty and tender. Serve with sour cream. Leave time to go lie down afterwards.

 

SOMETHING TO LISTEN TO:

Christmas music that is free and won’t make you grind your teeth: The Boston Camerata never disappoints.

medieval feast

 

SOME DECORATIONS TO MAKE:

 

paper ornament

Neat Christmas decorations that require only some paper, a stapler, and some string
.

The dog actually made this one, and he’s an idiot! That’s how easy it is! The dog couldn’t even find the stapler, so he used needle and thread. For a fancier look, try using this basic idea, but with lots of different sizes and shapes (giant to tiny), different cuts (straight, scalloped, etc.), with shiny, patterned, or regular paper, and hang them from string or ribbons or yarn, and add sparkly beads to the string. Instantly dresses up a room if you hang up half a dozen from the ceiling.

We also had fun last year gluing together various kinds of pasta for ornaments. Hot glue worked the best. These can be painted (metallic spray paint is great) or even colored with markers, but you can also get on board the “natural pasta look” train that is not actually a thing. We made wreaths, trees, angels, instruments, and all kinds of stars. We really did! But here are the ones I can actually find, to take a picture of, including the inevitable unfinished Dalek:

 

pasta ornaments

Just look on Pinterest for “pasta ornament” and you’ll see all the possibilities. Because it’s Christmas, I didn’t say “pastabilities.”

 

SOMETHING TO READ OUT LOUD:

 

A_Christmas_Carol_-_Mr._Fezziwig's_Ball

Full text of A Christmas Carol by Dickens from Project Gutenberg. I have never actually gotten around to reading this out loud to the kids, but it’s doable. It’s a long short story, not a novel. If you can find a copy of it anywhere, the 1951 movie with Alastair Sim is the best by far.

 

SOMETHING TO AVOID:

argy bargy

Contentious social media. Seriously, if you are feeling stressed out and overwhelmed, you will not feel more peaceful and generous after spending time arguing about torture, racism, rape culture, or liturgical practices, so just close that tab and go find something nicer to do with your time. It’s not that these things aren’t important, and it’s not that you’re wrong. It’s just arguing about them is not going to help us get ready for Christmas. Save some argy bargy for the New Year! It’ll keep.

Advent is coming. Keep it simple! UPDATED

I know, I know, you’re focused on Thanksgiving right now.  Just bookmark this for next week.

Advent is coming!  I always feel a little silly saying that, because the word “advent” actually means “coming.”  But that’s how life is when you’re In Charge of Stuff:  you even have to plan about planning ahead.  So, if you haven’t looked it up yet, the first Sunday in Advent is Nov. 30, which is . . . soon.

We do try to put off celebrating Christmas until it’s actually almost Christmas.  I claim this is because it would be a violation of the integrity of the spirit of penance and preparation to behave as if Christmas has already arrived; but actually my main reason is that my fine young sons see decorations as a challenge.  A punching challenge.  When some new vision swims before their eyes, whether it’s a pillow or a brother or gorgeous centerpiece bedecked with fragile berries, gilded bells and trembling, cinnamon-scented miniature pine cones, they say to themselves, “Gotta punch that.”

So I put off Christmas as long as possible for Christmas’ own good.  I don’t want Christmas to get punched.

Advent, however, can take a little smacking around.  One of the great things about any kind of Advent preparation is that, by definition, you have to keep it simple and spare.  A lush, lavish, complicated Advent makes about as much sense as a simple, understated fireworks display on the Fourth of July.

So as Advent approaches, I always remind myself that, while there are lots of wonderful ideas out there for how to observe the season, it’s not only impossible to do it all, it would be contrary to the spirit of the season to go overboard!  I plan small, and we can always add things later on years when we’re feeling ambitious and energetic.  We aim for simple, inexpensive, and edifying.

We do two things without fail every Advent.  The first is to make and light an Advent wreath, which we attempt to light every night while singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (adding two verses each week); but some years, it’s mostly a Sunday thing.  I just bought a cheapo twisted twig wreath at the dollar store, then use about forty yards of thread strapping evergreen branches down thoroughly.  If I can’t find purple and pink candles, I just use white, and tie on bows made of ribbon or cloth in the right colors.  Oh, and after a lifetime of trying to attach candle holders to a wreath, I just gave up, and now use (again, cheapo dollar store) glass candle holders, which I set inside the wreath.  I put the whole thing on a pizza pan, so I can easily move it off the table and store it in a safe, unpunchable place when it’s not in direct use.  Some years we have little golden balls and berries and doves, but other years, it’s just the greenery.  Here are prayers for each Sunday.  Print it out now, along with a few copies of “O Come Emmanuel,” and tape it to your pizza pan or something.

If this sounds unpleasantly practical and workaday to you, remember:  Advent is dark.  Lights out.  Once you have candlelight and acapella singing, it’s just as magical and luminous and mysterious as whatever the Vatican is doing on that same day.

(The child pictured above is utterly failing to think, “Tippy candle?  No pinecones?  This Advent is not impressive at all!”)

The second thing we do for Advent is we all go to confession once or twice before Christmas.

That’s it.  That’s the bare minimum, and some years, it’s also the maximum we can manage. There are plenty of wonderful Advent ideas.  But please remember, KEEP IT SIMPLE.  Don’t go overboard.  Pick one or two, and don’t make it elaborate.  And make sure you get to confession!

If you want a hands-on project for your kids but aren’t feeling very crafty, here is a free printable chain from  Life Made Lovely.  Print it out, cut the days into separate strips, and staple or tape them into a long chain.  You can hang the chain on your Christmas tree if you have one already, or anywhere in the house (hang it high, to avoid punching).  Starting on Nov. 29 (which is Saturday, the vigil of the first Sunday in Advent), you cut off one link each day and read what’s inside. This particular one just has a short description and a Bible verse to look up and read, and is designed for little kids; but if you Google “advent chain 2014,” you will find other styles, some more elaborate that others.

UPDATE: Rebecca Salazar hunted down a link that I thought was lost, so now you can also print and use the Advent chain links that my sister Abby Tardiff made up. These have complete short verses, plus pictures to color, on them. Link here.

If you like, you can color or attach the  paper strips to construction paper strips before you make them into a chain:  purple for the first, third and fourth weeks, and pink for the third week. I like the idea of a chain, because you can see it getting smaller and smaller as Christmas approaches.  You can explain to kids that it reminds us of the chains of sin, which get weaker and weaker until our Savior arrives — and then the chain is gone.

If you do an advent chain that has pictures on it, you could also use the cut strips as ornaments for a Jesse Tree, adding one ornament each day of Advent.  Or, if you’re feeling brave and have kids who are old enough, you could just dump all your craft materials which you have carefully kept organized and . . . sorted . . .

Tohu wa-bohu.

Tohu wa-bohu.

on the table, assign different symbols to each kid, and go hide for a couple of hours and see what happens, repeating the phrase “it’s only once a year” to yourself, and with the firm understanding that glitter on the floor doesn’t count as a mess unless it actually impedes your walking.  We do this some years for our “day after Thanksgiving” tradition.  Lacking space for a free-standing Jesse Tree, I just clip a branch from a bare tree and bolt it to the wall.  It looks good and weird, like a Catholic home should.

Another very easy Advent tradition that we manage to keep as a family most years is to “fast” from dessert except on Sundays. I take what money I would have spent, and buy extra food for the church’s food pantry.

What are your Advent plans?  On the years when you really followed the spirit of the season, what was it like?

***
[This post originally ran on the National Catholic Register in 2011.]

How to make your Halloween magnificent!

We never did find out what Wish Bear was so angry about. I thought she looked magnificent.

We never did find out what Wish Bear was so angry about. I thought she looked magnificent.

Our founding fathers didn’t die face down in the mud of Vietnam only to see my children struggling through the night with only Mary Janes, Good and Plenty, nameless lollipop blobs, and Bit-o’- Chicken to sustain them, like I did when I was a kid. Those were dark times. We can do better.

Read the rest at the Register.