Cruise-themed Anniversary Party Part 5: The Menu

Ah, the food. The thing most often scrutinized (read: judged) and talked about long after an event takes place. No pressure, but if your food sucks, it will leave a bad taste in the mouths of your attendees (pun very much intended).

So, how do you prepare everything for a party, from cleaning to setup to activities and STILL manage to have food that wows your guests? Well, it comes down to planning, of course.

As with many of the elements of a party that I’ve covered so far, you need to think about a few key things to get started:

  • Who – the who is important for a few reasons:
    • Does anyone have dietary restrictions you need to accommodate? (vegan, gluten free, keto, dairy free – I have seen it all!)
    • Are you responsible for food for a few attendees or a large crowd?
    • Can you rely on anyone that is coming to prepare and bring part of the meal?
  • Where – this will help you determine if you should plan more hot or cold food, how far in advance food needs to be prepared / ready and what accommodations you have available for serving (both space and things like power for a crockpot or a fridge to store cold stuff)
  • When – the timing of your event should help you decide the heartiness of the meal. For example, a 2pm birthday party could be served by snacks and dessert only, whereas a 12pm baby shower should provide a full lunch.

Once you have a sense of how many people you need to feed, what size of meal you need to give them, what limitations you have on what you serve and an idea of who might be able to help, then you can start to brainstorm on the actual foods you want to include. This is the fun part. I like to circle back to my theme at this point. If you’re having a bridal shower tea, you should stick to traditional “tea foods” like finger sandwiches, mini snacks and cakes, and fresh fruit and veggies. A backyard Baby-Q would be well served with barbecued meats and traditional southern sides (think coleslaw, cornbread, collard greens, and the like).

If your party theme doesn’t help clarify your menu, then pick foods that will be a favorite of the guest(s) of honor. If your kid loves pizza, have pizza at their birthday party. If you’re secretly addicted to Chick-fil-A chicken, order a party tray of nuggs. Food that will please you and/or your guests is far more important that something overly fancy or novel.

And, while I’m at it, a quick aside about home-making vs. ordering – I’m always a fan of home prepared foods at parties. For one, it’s way cheaper and two, it gives you more control over ingredients, especially when it comes to allergens. However, there is NOTHING shameful about ordering food. This is a great option when you’re not great at cooking or have your hands full with other elements of the party. Don’t feel like you have to be a super-host and handcraft every single element of the event. Good food is good food, no matter whose hands prepared it.

Hopefully by now you’ve been able to brainstorm a number of options for your food. Now it’s time to review and edit. During this process, think about the following:

  • Do you have the major food groups represented? (protein, grains/starch, veggies/fruits, dairy)
  • Is your menu appropriate for your attendees? (think back to dietary needs, allergens, pickiness)
  • Can you pull it off? (4 dishes that all need to go in the oven won’t work, but neither will a stove top meal that needs to feed 50)

This last bullet, in particular, was a major factor in planning the menu for our upcoming party. We wanted the full cruise dining room feel, with a menu our guests of honor can order off of. This means multiple appetizers, main entrees and desserts. But, we didn’t want to be stuck in the kitchen right up until dinner is served. So, we did some googling and got creative. Here is the menu we landed on:

Appetizers

  • Polenta Cakes – these are easily made ahead and re-warmed before serving or served at room temperature; we’re using a recipe from Recipe Girl
  • Squash and Apple Soup – we need vegan options for some guests, so this checks that box and is easily made in a small crockpot; thanks Nerds with Knives
  • Shrimp Cocktail – thaw the shrimp and you’re done! Can’t get any easier than that

Mains

  • Beef Tips – these are easy to make in an Instant Pot and can be kept warm until ready to serve; they also can be dairy free; we’ll serve these over herbed rice, the only thing we’ll be cooking on the stove all night
  • Chicken Marsala – this will be made in the oven and served over mashed potatoes, which we’re keeping simple by buying some Bob Evan’s trays you throw in the microwave to warm
  • Sous vide steak – this will also be served with mashed potatoes; I bought my hubs a sous vide for Christmas and we love it! You cook the steak in a bag in water for 2-3 hours and then right before you’re ready to eat, use a grill, hot oven or torch to brown the outside and create a delicious crust. It is so tender when prepared this way!
  • All of our mains will be served with a side of green beans with bacon and feta cheese, which we’ll keep warm in a small crockpot (I bought a mini trio crockpot a few years ago, so it’s getting put to use for this party!)

Dessert

  • Chocolate Peanut Butter Mousse Cups – we’ll make dairy free chocolate cups and fill them with this divine pudding from Mr. Food
  • Apple spice dump cake with ice cream – this is another dairy free option and can be made in a crockpot!
  • Cheesecake bites – another “make ahead” option that we can even plate ahead of time; check out the recipe from Crazy For Crust

Drinks

We will have coffee, water, wine, and spirits with a specialty cocktail called Giggle Juice.

One of my next steps in planning is to sort out the presentation of each of these options – the soup will need an attractive bowl and I’d love to use martini glasses for the shrimp cocktail. The rest still needs some work. I’ll be back with more on that as I get into assignments and supplies needed to pull the evening off.

But, as a quick update, our party date has changed (again) and we’re back on for April 10, so, as a special edition this week, check back on Friday to learn more about what we planned as our event “primer” to get our guests of honor out of their house so we could take it over for the event.

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Cruise-themed Anniversary Party Part 4: The Invite

Creating an invite is usually one of the first things I do once I decide to host a party. In fact, outside of my initial brainstorming, it’s the first thing I did for this event, even though I’ve posted about a few other activities before it. For me, it sets the tone for the event, both in how I start to think about and plan for it, but also in the minds of my guests. It provides valuable clues for what they can expect at the gathering. And the invite for this party is no exception, but more on that below.

The whole concept of “priming” your guests for an event, of which the invite is an important part, is something I read about in the book The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker. I highly recommend it if you enjoy hosting gatherings, personally or professionally, which I assume you do if you’re reading this. The basic idea of priming for a party is no different than in any other context the word may be used – you prime something to prepare it. You prime a wall before you paint it, you prime a lawn mower before you start it, therefore why wouldn’t you prime your guests for your event before they arrive?

So, how can you start this business of priming with your invite? Well, there’s a few things to plan for in what you create (or have created… or buy…):

  • Include the basics:
    • Who – the host / the invitee / the guest(s) of honor
    • What – the type of event
    • When – date & time + when RSVPs are due, if you’re requesting them
    • Where – the address and if the event is indoor or outdoor
    • Why – the reason for the gathering
  • Highlight your theme – unless you’ve already sent a Save the Date or shared details of the event with all of your guests some other way, this is your first chance to give your invitees a taste of what to expect at the party. A child’s birthday invite might be colorful and fun and contain their favorite characters who will decorate the party. A backyard BBQ invite might be simple and homey. A Mother’s Day tea invite might be fancy and whimsical. Let your invite introduce not only the important facts of the invite, but the mood as well.
  • Remember you’re in charge – now, this might seem high-handed, but it’s your event. You get to set the rules. And the rules are there to ensure all your guests (especially the guest(s) of honor) have the best experience possible. If you have specific ground rules, state them up front so that anyone who does not wish to comply can opt out of attending.
    • Ex. Stating that a murder mystery dinner requires all participants show up on time, in costume and actively role play.
    • Ex. Asking guests to bring a book in lieu of a card to a baby shower.

Here’s the invite I’ve created for my upcoming party. It’s nothing more than a highly customized table created in PowerPoint. You’ll see that I’ve conveyed all the important facts (who, what, when, where, why) in some way, shape, or form. And, I’ve used the structure of the invite, mocked after a Royal Caribbean Set Sail Pass, to start to set the stage for the cruise-themed event. I’ve also set some expectations for attendees: they must wear formal attire for dinner, they need their reading glasses and masks for the event, and they must come ready to party. 🙂

Using a non-traditional invite format is probably one of my favorite ways to prime guests for an event, convey important information and personalize it. Check out my Globe Trotter Bridal Shower post for one of my favorite invites of all time.

In addition to all of the above that I’m conveying with this invite, I also threw in a few other details to make it truly special for the recipients:

  1. The cabin number – their anniversary date is April 6, so I used this in numeric format as their assigned “cabin number” on our “ship”.
  2. The King Kruises name / logo – originally I built the invite using a Royal Caribbean logo, but we decided that personalizing even further was worth it. I used a free logo creator website and whipped it up in 10 minutes or less.
  3. The “prepaid excursion” – I referenced this last week in my post about the location. This is the activity we’re sending them out to do so we can set their house for the party. More on this in a future post!

You’ll note that the date on the invite doesn’t match previous posts. Due to some scheduling conflicts (aka work), we had to bump it back a week, which means 1 more week of posts and anticipation before the big day.

If you want specific advice on your invite or help designing one for your next event, leave a comment below and I’ll be in touch.

Next week is all about the best part of any event – the food and drink. We’ll walk through how to plan what and how much and I’ll run you through how we’re tackling a multi-option 3-course menu for our event. Stay tuned!

Cruise-themed Anniversary Party Part 3: Choosing the Location

Depending on the type of event you’re planning, choosing the location can either be a big to do (like a wedding / reception) or a total no-brainer (where else would I have it but my house??). Nonetheless, like any event decision, it shouldn’t be a throwaway.

There are a few important considerations you should account for when selecting your venue:

  • Number of guests – you won’t know your final attendee count when you choose the location, but a good rule of thumb is to plan a space big enough to fit 75% of the guests you invite. Inevitably, some people won’t want to come, will have to work or will have other plans, so this will give you an idea of the space you need to comfortably fit everyone.
  • Activities – this is important for a few reasons. Firstly, if you’re serving food, you need a location that has any needed food prep / storage / warming or cooling accommodations. Secondly, it needs to be big enough to set out tables for guests to eat. I always like to have a minimum of one chair per person when I’m serving food, even if they aren’t all at a traditional table setting. Depending on the type of party, everyone may or may not sit down to eat at the same time, but it’s nice to have the option should that happen. Finally, if you have other things planned beyond eating, you will either need space to fit those activities too, or you’ll need to either move to a new location (a different room, another part of your yard, etc.) or “flip” your space. This might include breaking down tables or putting food away and should be planned into your event flow.
  • Weather – I talked about this a bit in Part 1, but does the geographical location and time of year dictate that you’re indoors? Does a likelihood of unpredictable weather mean you need a backup plan or do you have a covered outdoor location that’d work either way?
    • Funny story about covered outdoor locations… I went to a baby shower for my SIL toward the end of May. This was some years ago now, but I’ll never forgot her shower. It was outside under tents / in the garage, so definitely well covered from the beautiful sun. However, when it randomly started down-pouring with hail and huge gusts of wind, the tents weren’t a whole lot of help to the guests under them!
  • Safety – this is even more important for any events happening now with COVID social distancing measures, but also applies to general safety and well-being. Here are some things to think about:
    • Do I have adequate room to allow guests to safely move around the space and one another? (think 6 feet distancing and fire safety)
    • Are there any dangerous elements I need to protect my guests from? (think grills, fire pits, stairways without railings, sloped yards, uneven pavement, pools or hot tubs)
    • Will all guests be able to attend without restriction? (think wheelchair access, if required, safety for small children, pet allergies)

Sometimes, with all of these items considered, you may land on a location you never thought you would. Let yourself think outside the box and keep the happiness of yourself AND your guests top of mind.

For our party, we landed on the home of the couple we’re celebrating as our location. It’s the biggest, has two spacious areas where we can host the different parts of the evening and has everything we need for food prep. It will also mean the couple doesn’t have to drive, so they can imbibe freely.

At first this seemed like a bad idea because we have a lot of setup and prep to do and don’t want them to be there for that. But, after some creative thinking, we’ve come up with a way to get them out of the house for some added fun and “priming” for the event since it ties perfectly into our theme. More about that in future posts…

Speaking of, next week I’ll be walking you through my process for creating the invite, a critical part that sets the tone for your guests. Stay tuned.

Cruise-themed Anniversary Party Part 2: The Project Plan

Depending who you ask, you’ll get different answers to the question, “what makes a party great?” Some might say it’s the food, others the location (especially if it’s somewhere fabulous) and then there are those who think it’s the activities that make an event memorable.

I’m a firm believer that it’s all of these things – the full experience – that truly make a party. Unfortunately, it can be any one thing that can also “break” a party, so it’s important to do your best with all the major elements. In order to help with planning all of the details and working with others involved in putting on the party, I like to create a party project plan. I even create these when I’m throwing a party solo (because usually my husband is helping or someone has volunteered to bring food or something else). I find they are a good way to keep myself from regularly worrying about when I need to do certain things or if I have everything accounted for.

There really isn’t much to a project plan. As a project manager by trade, I’m used to writing these day in and out and I’ve seen tons of variations. But, I like to keep mine simple so it’s easy for me to keep updated and share with others without them thinking I’m totally crazy. The core basics to include on a solid project plan are:

  • Activity name – what is the task or action that needs to be accomplished?
  • Owner – who is going to be responsible for doing whatever the activity is?
  • Status – what’s happening with the activity?
  • Due date – when do you absolutely have to have it complete?
  • Comments – what info is relevant about the activity (decisions, input, issues, etc.) that you want to note?

You can see my sample project plan here that I built for the upcoming anniversary party. This is just my first draft and it’s likely that as I start to get into some of the activities in the plan, other things will arise and need to be added. It’s not important to get the plan 100% complete and perfect from day 1…just to get it started and keep it updated as you go so nothing slips through the cracks.

Once you have a simple tracker started either on paper or digitally (feel free to download and edit mine!), then you can brainstorm all the activities that you think need to go on it and assign owners and due dates. Here are some rules of thumb I use for due dates and owners:

  • Owners
    • Assign the person who is going to be responsible for getting the activity done, even if they need to consult others for their input on it.
    • Be up front with your expectations for owners of activities – are you hoping they will keep the plan up to date or will you manage that?
    • It’s okay to generalize activity names by owner – as long as the owner knows what they’re supposed to do as part of the activity, you don’t need to write out every little detail.
  • Due dates
    • Start at the end and work backward.
    • Send invites 1 month before your event.
    • Request RSVPs 1 week prior to your event (and then use this date for final food / seating planning).
    • Remember they are “drop dead” dates – aka the latest possible date the activity can be done to stay on track. Ideally, work ahead when possible.

While it might seem a little OTT to create a project plan for your next event, I promise it will be worth the 10-15 minute time investment by reducing your stress levels and helping you feel more prepared overall. Give it a shot!

If you have any questions or a unique situation you want advice on, leave a comment below! And, stay tuned for the next installment of this series where I’ll cover the process of choosing a location.

New Mini Series: Cruise-themed Anniversary Party Part 1

I’m trying something new and I hope you like it. It’s been over a year since my last post and what a year it has been.

So, to kick off 2021 (a month-ish late), I’ve decided to try a new approach to releasing content – a mini series. Rather than one long post that gives an overview of what I did and how I did it, I’m going to take you on the journey, real-time, as I put together an event. Each week, I’ll post about what I’ve done to prepare for the event and give you my best tips and tricks for any of your own events. And, of course, since we’re still in the midst of a health crisis, I’ll share the practices I’m putting into place to ensure the safety of my family and guests. So, let’s get started.

First, some details – my mom and step-dad are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary in April. My sisters and I have decided to put together a small celebration for them. To determine the type of event, theme, plan, etc., we started with some basic facts and brainstorming by answering a couple of key questions about our event.

1. Who do you want to invite?

This is usually my favorite place to start. Knowing who, and more specifically, how many, is helpful in making subsequent decisions, like type of event, where you can have it and what kind of food to plan. Since we’re still battling COVID19, we decided to keep the event to a total of 10 guests, adults-only. This would allow us to properly social distance, especially while unmasked to eat. For events larger than 15, think carefully about any activities you plan – you’ll probably need to plan on multiple, simultaneous, “opt-in” activities versus one big activity everyone does together. And, especially right now, try to stick to outdoor events or large spaces with good ventilation.

2. When will the event take place?

Like “the who,” the when can help you make other decisions. An event in the dead of winter in Ohio is going to be an indoor event… And the same could be true of an event in Arizona in the peak of summer – A/C will be required. Also, usually this is an easy detail to get out of the way if you’re trying to celebrate a specific date and can also help determine what all you can realistically achieve for your event based on how long you have until the event. So, get this decision out of the way early and, if there’s anyone you really want to be at your event, give them a heads up to save the date. We picked April 10 – their anniversary is early April, but we wanted to avoid Easter weekend. Since we are still finalizing this plan, we texted our mom to “hold it open” with more details to come. (but let’s be serious… No one has plans these days anyway…). This gives us time to plan while also creating some anticipation for her!

3. What are some themes or activities that could work (if you want one/some)?

Depending on the type of event, you may want a theme, an activity or both. For example, a birthday party for a child probably just needs a theme (and maybe doesn’t even need that!) but a dinner with friends could be enhanced with an activity (and a theme if you’re up for it!). For this event, we did some brainstorming on both. Ultimately, we landed on the theme of “On a cruise” (since they can’t be right now with COVID) and the activity of the Love and Marriage Game Show since it’s an anniversary celebration.

  • Themes
    • “On a cruise”
    • 90s (since they were married in 96)
  • Activities
    • Murder mystery in a box
    • Escape room in a box
    • Love & Marriage Game Show
    • Hollywood Game Night
    • Family Feud

Answering those three questions are enough to get us on the same page to start further planning for the event. Now that we’ve decided on who, when and what, our next step is to build out a plan of all the activities that we need to accomplish between now and April 10. Stay tuned for my next post where I’ll dive into project planning an event (my favorite part!).

Posts will release every Monday from now through Monday, April 12. Subscribe to receive notifications or leave a comment below to let me know what you think or what questions you have!

Gift Ideas: Adult Easter Basket

I don’t know how you were raised, but in my household, Easter baskets were primarily filled with candy and maybe a few springtime fun items (bubbles, sidewalk chalk) and 1-2 “big ticket” items (and by big ticket, I mean $10-$20 MAX). Nowadays, I see kids getting bikes or scooters for Easter gifts (if that’s how you roll, more power to you).

Anyway, a few years ago, my sisters and I started a tradition of putting together an Easter basket for my mom and step-dad. My mom does all sorts of fun Easter things for the kids in our family (and for us), so we figured this is a fun way to treat her in return. We all go in together to compose the basket, so it only comes out to about $15-$20/person, but you could easily simplify the list of items you include to keep it on the more “cost effective” end depending on your target spend.

Here’s what we included this year:

  • Healthy snacks – both my mom and step-dad are or have recently been watching their figures, and in general, want to eat healthier, so we included a variety of “better for you” treats, including:
    • Nut packs: we picked up individual packs of cashews, pistachios and almonds (funny story: we each bought one of these packs and coincidentally ALL bought the same brand…aren’t we cute…)
    • FiberNow Cinnamon Coffee Cakes: these little delights are great for when you need a fiber boost and come in at only 90 calories, which isn’t bad when you’re looking for a sweet fix; I get this off-brand from Aldi and they also do a really nice chocolate brownie and lemon bar
    • Whisks Parmesan Cheese Crisps: my sister got these as salad toppers for one of our family gatherings and my mom absolutely RAVED about them, so we figured it’d be fun to include
    • Skinny pop: there are lots of flavors of this or the Boom Chicka Pop or the Simply Nature Sea Salted Popcorn (Aldi) that you can choose from; they even have poppable bags now!
  • Fun drinks – my mom used to always include a 20 oz. bottle of pop in our Easter baskets since this was a “treat” we didn’t typically get; since neither are pop drinkers, we included:
    • Mini wine bottles: my mom is a sweet white drinker and my step-dad is more into dry reds, so we got the mini 4-packs from Target in each flavor; this also helps them with portion control to not overdrink their calories – much easier to open one of these for a glass than open a bottle and feel like you should drink the whole thing in one evening.
    • Moose Munch Coffee: this is my mom’s FAVORITE coffee, but is definitely on the more expensive side (best bet is to buy from Harry & David), so we try to get this for her every year
    • Major Dickason’s K-Cups: these are my step-dad’s preferred k-cups, but he tends not to buy them because they’re a little more pricey, so again, a nice little treat (plus then they both get some of their favorite coffee to enjoy)
  • Big ticket items – usually we try to come up with some “thing” that either they can both enjoy, or a bigger ticket non-food item for both of them. This year, we were light on ideas, but included the following:
    • EnerGel Pens: my husband actually bought these on impulse as they are my mom’s favorite (they weren’t in the original plan)
    • 3-wick Bath & Body Works Candle: you can’t really see it in the picture, but it’s there! We get one of these EVERY YEAR for my mom because she loves them. And, technically it IS for both of them since it makes their house smell nice.
    • Mini hand lotion from Bath & Body Works: this was an impulse add – I had a coupon for a free item, so why not get a little bottle of creamy lotion in her favorite summer scent?!

And that’s it! What I recommend for you is to do some brainstorming within the above categories to build your own Adult Easter basket:

  • What snacks / candy does the recipient love? (think about including both salty AND sweet)
  • What drinks could I include?
  • What other $10-$15 gifts could I throw in? (Note, gift cards are always an easy idea for this and stores may even have cute Easter themed-cards too!)

And, finally, I snagged the basket, which is MASSIVE, from Target for only $5 (they have TONS of options right now).

The final countdown is on – you have 1 week until Easter, so you better get your baskets ready. Happy basket building!

Gift Ideas: Vodka Soaked Chocolate Covered Strawberries and BONUS: Chocolate Covered Strawberry Martinis

As you may know, Christmas 2018 was a handcrafted Christmas. Some of the gifts I made were more family-friendly (like the homemade board game) and others were more geared toward the adults (like the Awkward Cat Calendar). As such, there were a few instances where I needed (well, wanted) a small gift for either the adults or kids in the family.

For my brother and his wife, they live across the world and are only home every 3 years. This can make gift giving tricky because I can’t do any of my obvious DIY gifts for the home since it’d be really hard for them to take back with them. So, I opted for a “disposal” gift – vodka soaked chocolate covered strawberries. First, who DOESN’T love chocolate covered strawberries, and more importantly, who doesn’t love a little booze in their dessert? I know I do.

This was a really simple recipe. Here’s what you need:

  • Chocolate flavored vodka – I used Van Gogh Dutch chocolate infused vodka; any kind will do, but this was oddly one of only 2 brands available in a chocolate vodka at my local grocery store (pic below)
  • Strawberries
  • Melting chocolate – lots of people will tell you to get the special wafers that are meant for melting; they aren’t wrong, but I prefer the taste of milk or dark chocolate, so I tend to get regular chocolate chips or chocolate squares, melt it and then cut it with a TINY bit of coconut oil to thin it up so it’s easier to dip
  • Coconut oil (optional, see note above)
  • Wax paper
  • A cute tin or tupperware for storing the strawberries

These are DEAD EASY to make:

  1. Soak the strawberries in the vodka overnight. I put them in a glass container laid out side by side (so the strawberries didn’t get any soft spots) and poured about 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch of vodka into the dish.
  2. Remove the strawberries from the vodka and dry thoroughly. Don’t SQUEEZE them (you don’t want to lose the infusion), but you do need them to be dry to the touch if you’re going to get the chocolate to stick.
  3. Melt your chocolate and cut with a tiny bit of coconut oil (if using) to thin to a nice, dippable consistency. I have a little chocolate melting pot, but you can use a double boiler or pot of boiling water with another pot with the chocolate in it sitting down in the water. Try to avoid just microwaving the chocolate if you can – it’s really easy to burn. Also, microwaved chocolate tends to cool more quickly, making the last strawberries that you dip a little ugly…
  4. Dip strawberries in the chocolate and place onto wax paper to dry. Put into the fridge to speed up the cooling process.
  5. Arrange in a decorative tin or “treet” yourself!

TIP: Save the strawberry infused chocolate vodka! A few days later I made really yummy dairy free chocolate covered strawberry martinis that I adapted from this recipe. Instead, I used the following:

  • Chocolate syrup – to line the glass; just get crazy and drizzle it all in there
  • Strawberry infused chocolate vodka (from above) – I used 1.5 oz. per drink
  • Pinnacle Whipped Vodka – I used 1.5 oz. per drink
  • Sweet Creme coconut creamer – I used 1.5 oz. per drink
  • Ice
  • Blended strawberries

Put the vodka, cream and ice into a shaker and mix well. Pour into a chocolate syrup lined martini glass and top with a glob of pureed strawberries. Stir them in just a little bit and serve!

Gift Ideas: Reversible Drawstring Toy Bag

As with many of my recent posts, this was another item from Handcrafted Christmas 2018. I made this for my SIL, as she has two boys (3 and 1.5 and one more baby on the way!) so figured easy toy clean up and transportation is definitely something important to her.

The original idea for this gift (and subsequently, this post), came from a number of my fellow pinners on Pinterest. I looked at pictures to get some inspiration, but ultimately sorted out how to made this step by step on my own, so here’s what I did.

Materials:

  • 2 yards of soft, flannel fabric in two patterns (1 yard of each) – you don’t have to use flannel, but this gave the bag a really nice feel, so I opted to; it also makes the bag feel a bit more durable
  • Liquid stitch – you could also hand sew or use a sewing machine to make this bag. Since I didn’t have a sewing machine at the time (though I’ve since gotten one, thanks, MIL!) and I didn’t particularly feel like hand sewing it, I opted to use liquid stitch and it worked great
  • Grommets & kit – by “kit,” I mean the tool to install the grommets (see below pics for what mine looked like); I used this set
  • Something sharp to punch your grommet holes – the hubs had this random tool (see below pic) that I used that did a nice job of punching the hole, but you honestly just need something sharp to get the hole started
  • Super glue – I used this to keep the holes from fraying and expanding and opted for the brush-on super glue, which was helpful to keep it clean without getting my fingers stuck to anything!
  • Hammer and a small piece of scrap wood– if needed, to install the grommets
  • Rope – I used a dark blue paracord; get the appropriate size to fit through your grommets; I got mine at Wal-mart
  • Drawstring piece – this is completely optional – the bag works completely well without this part, but I just used one from an old coat; you can also get them on Amazon
  • A marker and scissors – to trace onto the fabric and then cut out your desired shape

Instructions:

  • First, I cut my fabric into circles. To do this, I flipped the fabric over and found a large, circular object (the bottom of my custom cat stratcher) and traced the circle on both pieces of fabric. Then I cut it out. It doesn’t have to be perfectly cut / edged as you will not see the rough cut edges once the bag is finished. Be sure to trace the circle on the back of the fabric.
  • Then, I took both pieces of fabric and put them face to face (ie, the sides of each that I wanted to show on the outside were facing each other with the opposite sides facing out). I used my liquid stitch to glue around the edge of the circle to bind the two pieces together. Be careful to stay as close to the edge as possible and make sure to leave a little bit unglued so you can turn the fabric inside out (so the right sides of the fabric are facing outward and the rough edges are hidden in the seams).

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  • Once you flip the pieces inside out so the right sides are facing outward, carefully finish folding the seam and glue the two flaps together. Your final seam should look like this.

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  • Next, poke your holes for your grommets and fit the larger piece through the hole. Use your super glue around the hole / rim of the grommet to prevent the fabric from fraying.

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  • Finish the grommets by taking the other piece (the smaller part that looks like a washer) and fitting over the cylinder piece. Use your grommet tool and hammer to fit it into place and finish the grommet. I watched this video before doing my own grommets and it helped.
  • Finish the bag by threading the rope through the grommets. I choose a “middle” to the bag and threaded the rope from there around both sides rather than feeding it through all the grommets starting at one end and working back around the circle. Once the rope is threaded through all the holes (and long enough for the bag to be fully laid out as the circle), cinch the bag closed and put your drawstring piece on to hold the bag closed. If you decide not to use the drawstring piece, you can just tie a loose bow knot at the top of your bag.

I decided to finish my bag by putting some cute little toys inside for my nephews. This helps with the bag presentation (makes the bag shape a little better) and also demonstrates the purpose of the bag for the receiver. Tada!

Gift Ideas: Custom Board Game

A lot of people have asked me where I came up with this idea for handcrafted Christmas / why I decided to do this and I, unfortunately, don’t have a great answer. I can’t really remember! So, regardless of the catalyst, I decided to make a custom board game for one of my nephews. He is turning 7 this month, so he is reading and starting to become aware of his surroundings, including his neighborhood.

As a kid, I was always a fan of the Game of Life, but could rarely get anyone to play it all the way through with me. As I got older, I found the game Mall Madness and LOVED it, so when trying to come up with the premise for this game, I decided to marry the two to create: My Actual Neighborhood (the hubs picked the title).

Here’s how I did it:

  • Create the game premise. Before you start designing a board or anything else, it’s important to have a plan for how the game will be played. That way, you’ll know what the board should look like and what pieces, cards and other materials you’ll need. I decided that I wanted to include pictures of his neighborhood, so, for the gameplay, each player would draw a card that would give them a “mission” for the game. This “mission” would include 3 places on the board that they’d have to go to in order to win. I then created cute little scenarios to accompany each combination of locations. For example, one scenario was: You’re having a sleepover with your cousins at Grandma’s. Start at home and pack your bag. Then, go pick up your cousins from their house. Lose a turn at their house because they aren’t ready. Finally, head to Grandma’s for a night of fun. Other scenarios require the player to go buy something (like craft supplies for a gift for mom or dad), for which they must first earn money. In order to earn money, they can either complete chores at any of the locations (each location has a corresponding chore and payment amount) OR they can get lucky and land on a board space that pays them (for losing a tooth, having a birthday, etc.). I outlined all of this FIRST so I could think through how to design the board and what other pieces I’d need to create.
  • Design the board. My next step was to draw out what I wanted the board to look like. I did this on paper first and really started by thinking about the locations I wanted to include (I included 6: his house, his school, our house, another aunt & uncle’s house, houses of his grandparents on either side and his mom’s work, which is Wal-mart, so it worked out for a few of the missions) and where they exist in relation to one another. My original sketch was pretty tough to follow, so I added color and it looked like this:

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Note, I added the park as somewhat of an afterthought because I had a lot of dead space and I also wanted a neutral location for all players to start. The same is true with the Community pool (I had a few extra blocks I didn’t know what to do with).

  • Create the board. Next, I transferred my design concept onto the actual board. I wanted to get an understanding of the sizing of each space / the board overall so I could create the other pieces to scale. Since my original design was on a letter-sized sheet of paper, I wanted to try to scale it so I wouldn’t have to rework all the spacing. My final sizing was roughly 4:1 (just under) with the fold down the middle of the board. This required a little math to convert onto the board, but I just counted the number of spaces I needed vertically and horizontally and then divided the length and width dimensions of the game board accordingly to create evenly sized spaces. The materials I used to create the board included:
    • Tri-fold board from the Dollar Tree – I used one side flap and part of the main board piece to create a board that had a pre-built fold down the middle.
    • Exacto knife and cutting mat – I used this to cut the top and side to get the size I wanted. It’s really hard to cut straight, so a metal ruler would have been incredibly helpful for this part, but I didn’t have one so I free-handed it (after making line markings, of course).
    • Ruler and pencil – for measuring and marking everything; as mentioned, if you have a metal ruler, even better as this will help you with cutting too!
    • Calculator or brain – to do math

  • Add board details. Once I had the basic layout of spaces, I went back through and added pictures of each location and other board accents. For the pictures, I printed them out at home on plain computer paper and used double stick tape to attach them. I decided to include arrows on each space to indicate which way a player could move (like how roads work). I also added stoplight symbols on some spaces and location markers on others; more about what these mean below. To finish the game board, I applied a thin layer of mod podge to the bottom. I decided against applying a layer on the top because I was worried it would prevent it from folding nicely and/or would make the colors run.

  • Create your supplemental materials. Now that the board was done, I needed to create everything else to go along with it. The supplies I used (referenced below as well) included: paper cutter (super helpful for getting straight cuts!), stamp pads in red and blue, letter stamps and a location symbol stamp, number stickers (Dollar Tree), colored dot stickers, printer and a few colors of paper. Note, the preview / google docs version of some of the below templates don’t display correctly. For best results, download and open with Microsoft Word.
    • Money – I looked at pictures online of board game money to get an idea (and also based this off of the style of American money since that’d be familiar for my nephew). You can see my money template here.
    • Mission cards – I used Microsoft word to create 4 cards per page and wrote out each mission using a numbered list. I made sure to keep the formatting consistent so each card would be the same size. Then, on the back, I used stickers and stamps to label each as “Mission” with a number (so they can switch up what mission number they have each time they play). I made a total of 10 missions. You can see my template here. 
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    • Stoplight cards – as I mentioned, I drew little stoplight symbols on the board with marker, so I needed cards to go along with them to indicate what they mean. Each stoplight card had some sort of driving-related incident – a speeding ticket, out of windshield washer fluid, ran out of gas, etc. If the player lands on the space, they must draw a card and then either pay the fine (if they’ve earned money) or lose a turn. Again, I used Microsoft Word; you can see my template here. I printed these on colored paper to distinguish them from the mission cards. For the back, I used colored dots to make the little stoplight symbol.
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    • Location symbol cards – these are like bonuses throughout the game. If you land on a space with a location symbol, you’d draw a card and earn money for some reason (babysitting your cousins, helping an elderly person carry their groceries, picking up your neighbor’s dog’s poop, etc.). I used a different color of paper for these and used a location symbol stamp to mark the backs. My template (Microsoft Word) is here.
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    • Instruction sheet – definitely don’t forget this! You can see my template here. I laminated it after printing just because I love laminating.
    • Location Chore Payment Card – as mentioned, if the player needed to earn money to make a purchase, he or she could choose to visit an additional location and lose a turn to earn some cash. I created this little guide here to indicate how much money would be earned at each location.
  • Make the game pieces. Thankfully, my husband got a 3D printer for Christmas in 2017. I don’t have any great recommendations for you on how to create pieces without one (maybe find random knick-knacks around your house that you could include? Maybe make little cardboard people or stands?), but here’s the pieces we used from Thingiverse:

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  • Make the game box. I found a really helpful blog about how to make a board game box here. My husband was adamant that he didn’t want to just use a clothing gift box, so I followed the instructions using a couple of boxes I received some shipments (Amazon, Wal-mart, etc.) to create a custom-sized box. Then, I covered the entire thing with thing brown paper (from my massive roll I’ve used for all my gift wrapping). I used mod podge to adhere the brown paper to the cardboard. Then, I printed out pictures of all the locations on the game board and a few others (his dad’s work, restaurants and stores they go to in their area, the mall, a park, etc.) and used these to cover the top and sides of the top piece for the box. I used mod podge to adhere the pictures to the box and then applied a thin layer of mod podge on top as well to give it a shiny finish and protect it. I also made sure to include the name of the game right in the middle.

 

Once I had everything done, I used baggies and a little box we had laying around to keep the cards, money and game pieces organized. Here’s the final product:

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3D Unicorn Cake

I’m guessing it’s the sheer ridiculousness of the title that drew you into this post, right? I cannot claim any of the magic that you’re about to see as my own – only (most of) the words are from me. The rest is the great and fabulous talent of a very good friend of mine, heretofore referred to as HC. (Yes, there’s a story. No, I’m not going to tell it. Count your blessings.)

HC has a niece who was turning 5 this year. For whatever reason (what DOES go on in the minds of children?), her niece requested a black unicorn cake with a fairy perched on the tip of the horn. Ummmmm. Okay. Let’s break that down.

  1. A unicorn cake, in its own right, is hard enough on its own, especially if we’re talking 3D. You have to make multiple layers to give it dimension and then, of course, you have to figure out a way to mount the horn and add detail on a…vertical surface.
  2. A black cake is also incredibly tough. Black isn’t a color that’s easy to make with frosting and fondant can be a pain in the butt.
  3. A fairy perched on anything other than the cake is just absolute madness and also…a fairy…with a unicorn? I guess they are both mythical…

Anyway, despite having all the odds stacked against her, she created this gloriousness:

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Here’s how she did it.

Materials:

  • 3 boxes of cake mix (any kind or flavor will do)
  • Wilton mini cake pans (6″ and 8″)
  • Wilton frosting recipe ingredients (enough for 4 batches)
  • Fondant (she used both white and black fondant)
  • Cake board (10″ should be good)
  • Gel frosting dye (she used the Wilton neon dyes)
  • Wilton Color Mist (it’s a spray can – pic below)
  • Frosting bags and tips
  • Dowel rods (food-safe)
  • Straws
  • Fondant smoother
  • Pizza cutter (to cut fondant)
  • Fondant glue
  • Flower foam (optional – this may or may not work for you)
  • Fairy, if desired

Instructions:

  • Take a deep breath. This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint.
  • Party day -2: Roll out the fondant for your appendages (so, in this instance, the white fondant).
    • Eyes / lashes: roll into thin, worm-like shapes. Mold together into eye curves with lashes toward the ends and let dry.
    • Ears: Cut the shapes out of white fondant and pinch from the back to make an ear shape. Option to put onto a stick to dry (this will make it easier to put into the cake).
    • Horn:  Roll out a long worm-like piece of fondant and wrap around a straw, leaving the top a bit unfinished so you can wrap around the fairy’s foot when you assemble. Let dry. Option to stand up in the flower foam to dry. (Note, this could cause the fondant to slide down the straw; you may be better off letting it dry on its side and accepting that one side may be slightly flattened.)
  • Party day -1: Make the cakes and let them cool.
    • HC made a total of 6 of each size in a couple of flavors that’d pair well together. Feel free to get super creative and dye the mix for the layers (so the inside will be as magical as the outside).
  • Party day: Make the frosting and stack the cakes, layering with frosting in between.
    • *TIP: Use a cake board so it’s easy to move the cakes once they’re together.
    • Create two cake stacks with dowel rods through the middle to help them keep their shape: one stack of 6″ cakes and the other of 8″ cakes. As you can see from the pics below, the 8″ cakes are stacked up to 6 and the 6″ cakes are stacked up to 5.

  • Paint your accent pieces (eyes / lashes, ears, horn) and let dry.

  • Roll out the fondant for the main cake body.
    • Cover the sides of the cake stacks in frosting to adhere to the fondant.
    • Drape the black fondant over the cakes, covering each cake stack separately.
    • Start smoothing the lower part of the fondant sides with getting it to stick as your primary objective. Smooth up. Focus on having one good side (the front).
    • Use the fondant smoother to smooth into place and the pizza cutter to trim the excess fondant away.
  • Apply fondant accents (eyes / lashes and ears). You will want to use a combination of fondant glue and frosting to get the eyes / lashes to stick since they are attaching to a vertical surface. You may need to use toothpicks or straws to keep the ears standing up. Insert the horn into the cake.
  • Apply piped frosting accents. To create a multi-color effect, put stripes of frosting down each side of the bag, twist off the top and then slide it all down toward the tip. Be sure to use the frosting to cover any imperfections / the insertion point for the horn / any support for the ears.
  • Depending on when you assemble and when your party starts, you can store in the freezer to keep the frosting from sliding until you’re ready to present it. Putting the frosting and/or cakes in the freezer to flash-freeze as you make the cake is also a good idea. Your hand heat will warm the frosting which could cause your various designs to lose their shape.

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  • IF YOU MUST transport, arrange a trustworthy passenger to hold it and don’t plan on going far.

I would say “that’s it” but….well…that was a lot. Good luck. Leave a comment below if you decide to attempt this crazy feat and god speed!