Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Little Fun with Fitness

Did you know that more people go to the gym in January than in any other month?  Why?  Because the most common New Year's Resolution is to lose weight or get in shape.  This is why January is the perfect month for a fitness themed dinner. I hosted this one back in 2010 and titled it "A Little Fitness Fun".

Invite:  The invite could be a gym membership application.  Just recreate one on your computer with all the party details.  For my invite, I gave each girl a "workout" assignment.  The details of the party were included with workouts like "lift your wine glass" for weight training and "laugh away the pounds".  I also asked each guest to dress in workout attire for the fun of it.

Decor: Back in my marathon running days, I had a friend that had a stack of 24 Fitness towels he kept in his closet. I called him up to see if he would loan me enough for each guest at the party.  I set the table with a royal blue tablecloth and various weights/workout pieces as the centerpiece.  I used the 24 Fitness towels as placemats under each plate.  Red napkins added a hint of red.

For the place card, I created 24 Fitness membership cards using Microsoft Word. My photos are not great of these (I didn't know I would eventually blog about my dinners!), but you get the idea.  The front had the guest's name.  The back had a barcode and the date the guest became a "member".  For us, this was the first monthly dinner they attended.  I have these saved if you are interested in trying this party.  Email me or comment below, and I will forward them to you.
The ladies lifting their appetizer barbells!
Menu: I tried to choose a healthy menu for this dinner, but I only partially succeeded. I started off with an appetizer I made to look like a barbell and weights.

Appetizer Meatballs

(place two meatballs on a toothpick when finished to look like a weight)

1 pound lean ground beef

½ cup dry bread crumbs

1/3 cup minced onion

¼ cup milk

1 egg

1 tablespoon minced parsley

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 bottle (12 oz.) chili sauce

1 jar (10 oz.) grape jelly

Mix all ingredients except the chili sauce and the grape jelly; gently shape into small balls (3/4 to 1-inch in diameter).  Lightly grease a jelly roll plan or cookie sheet with sides.  Arrange meatballs on pan so that they are not touching.  Bake in a 500 degree oven for 9-11 minutes.  Heat chili sauce and grape jelly in large skillet, stirring constantly, until jelly is melted.  Add meatballs and stir until thoroughly coated.  Simmer uncovered 30 minutes.  Makes 5 dozen. 

For the main dish, I borrowed a Weight Watchers cookbook and found a recipe to try.

Spinach and Cheese Stuffed Chicken Breasts

2 egg whites, lightly beaten

2 teaspoons cold water

¼ cup dry bread crumbs

4 (5 oz.) skinless boneless chicken breasts

1 (10 oz.) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry

2 (1 oz.) slices reduced fat swiss cheese, each cut in half

2 ounces (from a 6-ounce package) thinly sliced turkey meat

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Spray a nonstick baking sheet with nonstick spray.  Whisk together the egg whites with the water in a small bowl.  Place the bread crumbs in another small bowl.  Lightly pound the chicken between 2 sheets of wax paper with a mallet or rolling pin to ¼-inch thickness.  Top each chicken breast with one quarter of the spinach, 1 half slice of cheese, and a slice of turkey.  Roll up each chicken breast from a short side.  Dip the chicken, one piece at a time, into the egg mixture, then into the bread crumbs.  Place the chicken, seam-side down, on the baking sheet.  Spray the tops of the chicken lightly with nonstick spray.  Bake until the chicken is cooked through and the crust is golden, about 25 minutes.  Cut each roll into 4 or 5 slices (I left them whole).  Makes 4 servings.

For dessert, I strayed from healthy and went with fun instead!  I served "pound" cake (haha) and barbells made out of ice cream and a Twix bar.  These were definitely a challenge and did not turn out perfect, but you get the idea.  Here is how I made them...

Pound Cake with Weights

Vanilla ice cream

Twix candy bars

Pre-made Pound Cake

To make the weights, slightly melt ice cream in a baking pan with edges (the metal kind works best) so that is approximately ½ inch thick.  Then refreeze.  When ready to prepare, use a round cookie cutter to slice ice cream into round circles.  Use a smaller cookie cutter to make the center of the weight.  Then unwrap a Twix bar and use that as the pole of the weights.  To complete the dessert, slice the pound cake into ½ inch thick slices and place one on each plate along with the ice cream/Twix “weight”. 

It was another fun party and an easy one to prepare for.  Easy decorations and comfy clothing made it a relaxed night.  You could even alter the theme to be like the TV show "The Biggest Loser" and it could be the kickoff to a competition with friends (my work did a "The Biggest Loser" competition and many teachers participated).

Monday, January 16, 2012

Cooking Party -- Ella's 2nd Birthday

As Ella's 2nd birthday approached, I was trying to figure out what theme to have for her party. One evening, Ella came to me and asked to help me cook dinner. After dinner, she brought daddy and I some cookies that she had made in her play kitchen.  As I nibbled on a wooden cookie with sprinkles, it struck me that this would be the perfect theme for Ella's 2nd birthday..and what a great theme it was!!
Scanned image -- real thing definitely looked better!

Invitation:  I made the invitations after looking online and not seeing too many great options. The blue polka dot part is a pocket made by folding scrapbook paper and gluing the sides.  The apron I cut out using my Cricut machine and the pilgrim girl dress from the Paper Dolls Dress Up cartridge. The spatula and rolling pin are from the Everyday Paper Dolls cartridge (which also has an apron, I just didn't like it for the invite). I typed up "Cookin' Up Fun for Ella's 2nd Birthday" on white paper and adhered it as the pocket of the apron.  All the paper I bought at Joanns.

The red backing you see on the invite pulled out of the pocket and had all the party details in recipe format! This was so much fun & an easy invite to make even if you just did the recipe card. I would be happy to email you the pocket tag and/or recipe (both done using Microsoft Word) if you are interested.  Just comment below.

Decor:  At the entrance to the party, I set out a giant blackboard on which I wrote "Today's Special: Ella's 2nd Birthday".  The party was held in the backyard of my parents' house.  All the tables were set with red tablecloths and cooking themed centerpieces of either pots with utensils sticking out of them or mini metal shopping carts with fruits in them.
My mom made aprons for each of the kids attending the party, & I hung them up like a clothesline as decor until it came time for the kids to "cook".  I found the fabric at Joanns Fabric Store, and the party colors of baby blue and red were chosen from this fabric.  The girls aprons all had red pockets and ties while the boys had brown.  Extra fabric was used as tablecloths.
The kids wore the aprons throughout the party...look how cute they are!! Thanks mom for this super cute addition to Ella's party!!
As other decor, I brought Ella's play kitchen and borrowed two others from family/friends.  The kids loved cooking with all the play food, and it was an easy/inexpensive decor piece since we already had them.

Activities/Games:  The first activity I set up for the kids to do was to make their own chef hat.  My husband built a table using plywood and 2x4's cut as legs.  This was the perfect size for the kids and they felt special because they had their own table. To make chef hats, you simple need white poster board, tissue paper, and tape.  I pre-cut the poster board for the kids, and set out crayons for them to color.  I bought cheap crayons that didn't work that well.  I suggest markers or better crayons.  The assembly of the chef hat is a little complicated. It definitely required parent-involvement to put it together, but it was cute to see the dad's sitting at the little table helping their kids!  Here are the directions:
  1. Start with a band of white poster board 26 inches long and 3 1/2 inches high, and 3 sheets of 20- by 30-inch white tissue paper. Fold each sheet in half the long way.
  2. Gather and tape one of the short sides of each sheet along the hat band, overlapping the sheets slightly.
  3. Curl the band tape side out, place it around a child's head, and paper clip the ends. Gather the tissue at the top, taping it tightly together, as shown at right. Cut off the extra tissue, remove the paper clips, and turn right-side out. Reattach the paper clips, puff up the tissue, and start cooking!
The second activity was cookie decorating.  I made 2 round sugar cookies (plus a few extra) for each child to decorate. I set out white frosting and plastic knives. Then just add sprinkles and other fun decorating supplies for the kids to use.  The kids loved this and it was cute to see them all "baking" in their aprons!

Food:  To avoid nap time, I scheduled the party from 10:30 to 1:00, so I needed to serve lunch. I thought of cooking individual pizzas were everyone could be the chef of their own pizza, but I didn't want to stay in the kitchen at the oven the entire time.  Instead, I did a Make-Your-Own Sandwich bar and I had George Foreman grills set out at the end for guests to create a panini.  Most of the kids had grilled cheese, but I had meats and cheeses, etc. for the adults.  I also served fruit salad and chips.
We had cake and cupcakes for dessert.  My wonderful mom made this fun apron cake.  We simply cut a standard rectangle cake...easy.  The ribbon was attached by sewing pins.  I bought red with white polka dot cupcake liners, and we frosted the cupcakes with baby blue icing and used red sprinkles.  We served the cake to the adults and saved the cupcakes for the kiddos.
Ella loved blowing the candle out on this cake...and of course the cupcakes were yummy!

Favor: The kids went home with their aprons, but I also put together a simple favor for each child. A red lunch sack was filled with homemade play dough (which I put in a tupperware container), a cookie cutter, and a rolling pin.  The tag read,
Super cute! Here is the recipe I used to make the play dough:
Play Dough
Mix together 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup salt, and 2 teaspoon cream of tartar.  In a separate bowl, mix together 1 cup water, 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, food coloring.  Add liquid mixture to flour mixture and cook over medium-high heat until the consistency of mashed potatoes (1 or 2 minutes).  Flip out on cool surface.  Knead until smooth and elastic.  Store in a plastic bag.

Overall, it was a great party. If you don't have the time to make aprons for each child, there are plenty of places online to purchase them.  They were a big hit with the kids.  The cookie decorating was definitely fun with 2 year olds, but is great for all ages.  If your kids are older, there is even more you can do that involves actually cooking. The possibilities are endless for this birthday theme!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Black, White, and "Read" All Over - Crossword Puzzle Party

My wonderful father turned 80 in August, and my brothers and I decided to throw him a surprise birthday party.  My dad LOVES all kinds of puzzles and does the newspaper crossword every morning.  Therefore, I decided this would have to be the theme of his birthday. This was also the theme of our monthly dinner this past Monday, so I was able to use these ideas for multiple occasions.  Most of the photos are from the monthly dinner.
Invite:  The invite for this theme has to be a crossword puzzle in which the clues give the party information.  For my father's party, I added the answers in a simple format to the back of the puzzle just in case guests couldn't figure out one of the clues.  I created the crossword puzzle using a Crossword Puzzle Maker website.  It basically creates the puzzle for you.  I did type my own clues so that I could change the font, add the stars, etc.  The color scheme for the invite and party was black, white, and red to go with my slogan Black, White, and "Read" All Over.

Decor:  At the entry door for my monthly dinner, I created a huge crossword puzzle using a foam board and scrapbook paper.  All guests were asked to answer one clue as their ticket into the party.  The clues were very easy and all had to do with red/read.

I used red tablecloths and found some black and white crossword puzzle fabric at Joanns fabric store.  I cut the fabric into squares and sewed the edges. For the centerpieces, I bought crossword puzzle books at Dollar Tree and used the pages to make crossword puzzle roses.  The stems were pencils.  I placed these in a vase ($1 at Dollar Tree), tied them with a red ribbon, and filled them with Hot Tamales.

On each plate, I also had a crossword puzzle with pencil for guests to complete.  For my father's surprise birthday, this served as a way to pass the time while we waited for him to arrive for the big SURPRISE!  The clues were all about my dad, so the guests tried to see how much they knew.  At the monthy dinner, all the clues related to the 12 monthly dinners of 2011 since this was our first dinner of the new year.

Looking for any way to incorporate my theme, I made fun tags for the utensils. I made these tags on Microsoft Word. If you want to throw a crossword puzzle party and want these, just email me or comment below. I had similar crossword tags next to each of the menu items I served.

Menu:  I used much the same menu for both crossword parties I hosted.  I served a green salad with lots of yummy fixings as well as lasagna and garlic bread. I tried out this lasagna recipe, and it was delicious...

1 pound sweet Italian sausage
3/4 pound lean ground beef
1/2 cup minced onion
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
2 (6 ounce) cans tomato paste
2 (6.5 ounce) cans canned tomato sauce
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons white sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil leaves
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
12 lasagna noodles
16 ounces ricotta cheese
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 pound mozzarella cheese, sliced
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
In a Dutch oven, cook sausage, ground beef, onion, and garlic over medium heat until well browned. Stir in crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, tomato sauce, and water. Season with sugar, basil, fennel seeds, Italian seasoning, 1 tablespoon salt, pepper, and 2 tablespoons parsley. Simmer, covered, for about 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally.  Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Cook lasagna noodles in boiling water for 8 to 10 minutes. Drain noodles, and rinse with cold water. In a mixing bowl, combine ricotta cheese with egg, remaining parsley, and 1/2 teaspoon salt.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C).  To assemble, spread 1 1/2 cups of meat sauce in the bottom of a 9x13 inch baking dish. Arrange 6 noodles lengthwise over meat sauce. Spread with one half of the ricotta cheese mixture. Top with a third of mozzarella cheese slices. Spoon 1 1/2 cups meat sauce over mozzarella, and sprinkle with 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Repeat layers, and top with remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Cover with foil: to prevent sticking, either spray foil with cooking spray, or make sure the foil does not touch the cheese.  Bake in preheated oven for 25 minutes. Remove foil, and bake an additional 25 minutes. Cool for 15 minutes before serving.

We finished off with a cake.  Again, I designed the crossword puzzle on the computer.  I feel bad to say it, but I actually didn't make the cakes myself for these parties.  I took the printout of the crossword to Albertons Bakery and had them make the cake.

Here is the one I had made for my dad's party.  To elevate some of the menu items (as seen here), I also wrapped empty boxes in crossword puzzle paper to add to the decor.

Activity:  To make the monthly dinner a little bit more fun for my girls, I also asked each guest to bring a $5-$10 wrapped gift that was either black, white, or red/read.  We did a fun exchange/steal.  We had everything from a homemade red/black scarf  to bottles of nail polish in all three colors.

This was such a fun party theme.  It was perfect for my father's birthday party, but also neat for the monthly dinner.  You can even incorporate some of the ideas into a game night party.  Enjoy!

PS. If any of you are interested, I would be happy to post photos and directions of how to make the paper roses.  They take time, but are not very difficult.  Comment below if this is something you would like.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Wedding Reception: A Personal Touch

Here is the third of my three posts about our wedding (see Something Borrowed to Something Blue and I Do...Added Touches for the other wedding details I've shared). This post will be devoted to the personal touches we incorporated into the wedding reception --held at Orange Hill Restaurant. I highly recommend this location for an evening reception.  It was beautiful in the early evening, and then seeing the sunset was amazing.
As I mentioned, this post will detail the little spin we put on the typical wedding reception traditions of favors, table numbers, and the bouquet toss.

Favors:  I had two favors at my wedding. One was traditional -- heart-shaped chocolates in our wedding colors with a tag that read "Sweet" Hearts.  My girlfriends and I put these together at one of our monthly dinners (thanks ladies!).
The other favor was a bit more labor intensive, but was one of the biggest compliments I got that evening and continue to get from the wedding.  I made a mini photo album personalized for each couple/guest. My husband (fiance at the time) did not want me to undertake this idea at all, but when I finally figured out the concept, I actually had a lot of fun creating each one.  I bought teal paper (our wedding color) and folded it to be able to create the book.  I then cut a heart out of the front using scrapbooking supplies and typed up the couple/person's name to show in the center. I used a white ribbon to hold all the pages together.
The inside was the true detail.  The first page was the same for everyone.  It read (in better font of course), 
You have helped build the memories of our Past 
And shared with us the moments of our Present... 
The next 3 pages each had a photo that was a personal memory I or my fiance had with that couple/guest.  Each page also had a short label to describe the photo.  To do this, I had to scan a lot of old photos and the ordered the wallet size prints from Costco.  This way all I had to do was type/print the label and back it, cut out the photo, and glue both to the page. I tried to make sure each photo was a different memory from the years we had known our guests.  The final page of the mini album read,
We look forward to creating many more memories with you in our Future.
Mr. and Mrs. Casto
July 15, 2007
If you are crazy like me and would like to take on this project, feel free to email me and I will give you the dimensions, etc.  These took me a while to figure out, and it would save you lots of time. I think I ended up making 75 of these!!  But...we were only engaged for 5 and half months, so I only had a short time to get all of this done.  This just shows that it can be done!

Table Numbers: I have to admit, we stole this idea from our friend Tom's wedding up in Oregon.  We loved it so much, we decided to add this funny touch to our wedding. After figuring out who would be sitting at each table, Tom and I took a fun photo that represented the guests at that table in some way and held the table number during the photo.  I backed each of these in teal to be placed against the flower arrangement at each table.  Most tried to play up the fun personalities of our guests, but others were more heartfelt (sorry..none of those are pictured here!)
This was super fun and didn't take much time at all.  To be perfectly honest, my maid of honor snapped these 2 hours before the rehearsal dinner, we uploaded them to one-hour photo, picked them up after the rehearsal, and I backed them that night before going to sleep!!

Bouquet Toss:
The single-lady bouquet toss is yet another tradition I hate at weddings. It is too cheesy for me, and I could not bring myself to participate in this silly tradition. I decided to present my bouquet to 3 couples Tom and I hoped to emulate in our own marriage.  My florist had included a toss bouquet in my floral package, but when I told her my idea, she was happy to make 3 small individual "toss" bouquets instead.  When it came to this part of the reception, I simply explained what we were doing instead of a bouquet toss.  I then recognized each couple and what aspects of their marriage we hoped to emulate as my husband presented them with the bouquet. This was a neat way to highlight the true meaning of marriage.
That's it for my wedding posts. It was a beautiful day/evening, and the start of an amazing marriage.  Thanks to all those that participated in this day and to those who we've met since who add so much to our lives.  Please comment and let me know your thoughts or your fun wedding details!

*All formal photos taken by Joel Eckman Maus of Studio EMP, Inc. Table number photos taken by my maid of honor.

Monday, January 2, 2012

I Do...Added Touches

Ready for a few more wedding ideas?  In the Something Old to Something Blue post, I outlined some of the details that helped to give a personal touch to my wedding.  Here are three more simple things to incorporate into your wedding without costing much.
Group Photo:  Just after the ceremony, we had all the guests gather together on the stairs outside our church for a group photo. I totally recommend this!  It was a great way to capture everyone who celebrated our special day with us in one photo. Just make sure you let your photographer know you want to do this beforehand, so he/she comes prepared. Our photographer raised his camera up on a huge pole to get everyone!

Guest Book:  Almost every wedding I go to has a framed photo of the couple with a mat around it for guests to write well wishes. I HATE THIS!!  The English teacher in me always notices the person that misspells "congratulations", and I couldn't imagine having to walk past this error (or others) on the wall of my house every day!!  Other couples have an actual book which is nice, but usually sits on a shelf and collects dust.  I do have a friend that used her guest book for every big event from the wedding on which was neat.  We signed for her housewarming, her child's first birthday, etc.  I thought this was a neat idea and a good way to record the history of your life's major milestones.
Another idea is the one we did for our wedding. I bought scrapbook paper and temporarily adhered it to foam board so it had a solid background.  I placed one of our engagement photos on each page and left the rest for guests to sign.  These signed pages (I had 4 total), I later added to the scrapbook of our wedding. So our guest book just became part of our album for the entire day.
Details in a Program:  Some type of program page/book is common for the wedding ceremony. I don't think it is essential, but I wanted to incorporate it into our wedding because I wanted to share the details of our wedding I felt were important. Our wedding program had a few aspects I really enjoyed.
The first was a photo/write up from each of our bridesmaids/groomsmen.  Each of these special people wrote a short paragraph on how they met us, favorite memories, and well-wishes. We included a headshot next to each writeup.
My favorite page of the program was the "Interesting Information" page.  This is where I explained the Something Old, Something New, etc. as well as other details (see previous post).  One other detail on this page was the fact that we were married by the same pastor and in the same church as my parents 38 years prior. There were just fun items for guests to read while they waited for the ceremony to start, but also neat details we added to our wedding to make it even more meaningful.

*All photos taken by Joel Eckman Maus of Studio EMP, Inc. except scanned images of bridesmaid page and details page of program.