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20 Best Learning Toys for the Kids

Learning toys do more than sit there and entertain—they stimulate and teach kids important skills like critical thinking, problem solving, logic and even coding. Learning toys—open-ended games, kits, toys and crafts—make for great Christmas gifts.

To help you get past the shock of realizing Christmas is fewer than six weeks away, here’s my list of the best learning toys. I love them because they’re fun but at the same time stimulate learning through creativity and mind-challenging play. I think the kids in your life are going to love them, too. Enjoy!

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1. Sit-to-Stand Learning Walker.  This early learning center for babies who are not yet walking, is just adorable. It’s a clever toy that encourages and teaches a baby how to move from sitting to standing position and then walking, all the while encouraging interactive play. The learning walker has 70 sing-along song onboard, sound effects, and fun phrases. Meant for babies and toddlers from 9 months to 3 years. About $25.

2. Chat and Count Smartphone. There’s some kind of magnetic attraction between babies and mobile phones. Have you noticed this? Now you can separate little ones from your phone without stifling their curiosity by giving them their own smartphone! This adorable “phone” from the folks at LeapFrog mimicks the real thing with more than 15 phone activities, a music button to sing along to tunes about counting and phone manners. Skills to learn: numbers, pretend play, social interaction and conversational skills, as well. Ages 18 months to 3 years. About $12.

3. Pretend & Play Teaching Cash Register. This working register encourages imaginative play while teaching measurements, basic math and early money skills. Kids will easily learn currency denomination and have fun handling life-size money and this working cash register. Features a solar calculator, pretend credit card, play bills in various denominations as well as plastic coins and more. This realistic toy will give children endless hours of fun pretending, playing and developing math skills! Ages 3 and up. About $28.

4. Little Apps Tablet. This kid-size toy tablet keeps little ones busily learning for hours on end with its color-changing screen, letter buttons and piano keyboard. Includes 12 learning activites with progressive learning levels. Thankfully, it also features volume control and automatic shut-off to conserve on battery life. And if that’s not enough, check out just how adorable it is! Ages 2 years to 5 years. About $15.

Gift Baskets for the “Tremendous” Cooks on Your Gift List

If the idea of gift baskets for the cooks on your Christmas list piques your interest, you’re going to love this gift-guide, which continues to be very popular having posted last year to rave reviews and many notes of praise.

It is the late humorist and master of salesmanship, Charlie “Tremendous” Jones, who said one of my favorite quotes of all time: “You are the same today that you are going to be in five years from now except for two things: the people with whom you associate and the books you read.” 

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While he didn’t specify, I’m nearly certain Mr. Jones was talking about cookbooks. Reading cookbooks has changed me. Not only have they made me a better cook, learning how to do it and falling in love with the activity has impacted our household finances, tremendously.

Little by little, as I have become a better cook, we naturally eat at home more. The more I read, the more I cook; the more I cook the better cook I become and the more often we eat at home. It’s a beautiful thing!

The hubs and I have reached the point that eating out has become more of a “Do we have to?!” than a “We get to.” We eat at home, gladly, at least 99 percent of the time.

The Secret for Debt-Free Holiday Season in One Word: Predetermine

It’s not exactly a new word to me. But I’m pretty sure I’d never actually used the word predetermine in a sentence until just a few weeks ago when my pastor referred to it—and in a way that turned on a bright light in my noggin.

To predetermine is to make a decision in advance.  That describes perfectly what it means to budget. You get your paycheck and before you do anything with it, you predetermine where every dollar will go. You give each dollar a job to do—in advance. You predetermine!

Here we are on the cusp of one more glorious, fabulous, exciting and joyful Holiday Season. How can we do this without going into debt? Predetermine. That’s it! Decide or establish in advance what we will do, how much we will spend; where you will go, what you will do. Yes, I know that sounds very much like a Spending Plan and it is. The way to get to a Spending Plan is to—you guessed it!—predetermine

DIY Holiday Gift Idea: Spa in a Jar

If you are at all familiar with a wonderful yet pricey personal care product, Salt Rub® by Origins, you may know that for some very odd reason, it has been discontinued. I know. How could they do this?

Origins now offers in its place some kind of ginger scrub concoction that contains sugar and spice. I think it is just awful, which makes me even happier that I know how to make my own version of Origins Salt Rub. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? This may be the perfect gift you’ve been searching for—one you can make yourself for many on your Christmas Gift List.

A mixture of salt and oil, authentic salt rub resembles wet, slushy snow. Unlike bath salts that are used in a tub bath, salt scrub is used in the shower. So you have a better idea, before I tell you how to make it, here is the kind of instruction you would print on a tag or label for the finished salt scrub:

Still the Most Perfect Homemade Holiday Gift

To me, homemade Christmas gifts are the best gifts—both to give and receive. In the past I’d begin to scramble about this time of year to come up new and unique ideas for my long list of friends, neighbors and colleagues.

The purpose of these gifts is to deliver my love and best wishes for the Holiday Season. And if I can weave into these messengers a small Wow! factor, well that’s a bonus.

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What always made this so challenging was my list of criteria. My homemade gifts had to be easily mass produced. They need to be consumable, attractive and appeal to a wide range of tastes. And above all, homemade gifts must be affordable.

Several years ago, I came up with a gift idea that just nailed it. That was the year I made homemade Pure Madagascar Vanilla Extract. This was such a hit it has turned into an annual tradition. No more scrambling for me.

Vanilla Exract

Each year about this time you can be sure the top cabinets in my kitchen are filling up with big glass canning jars that must be shaken every few days.

While in the past my extract-making has been limited to just one type (vanilla), this year I’m branching out to include lemon, almond, coffee and chocolate extracts. I was surprised to discover that the basic instructions for making pure extracts are about the same, regardless the flavor.

Any pure extract is a “tincture” where alcohol meant for human consumption extracts the flavor from the beans, fruits or nuts. Whether making an extract for baking, health purposes or for flavoring a beverage, it’s simply a matter of combining the food item with alcohol then giving it time to “extract” in a dark environment.

What makes an extract pure is that it has nothing added but the food item to be extracted—no corn syrup, fillers, sodium benzoate, colorings or other mystery ingredients found in most commercial flavorings and extracts—even those labeled “pure.” 

6 Gifts of Summer to Make for Christmas

Even if you don’t have an abundant garden this year, don’t worry. You can still make these wonderful gifts of summer to hold onto for Christmas. You can find everything you need at a local farmer’s market.

How wonderful it will be when you welcome the holiday season knowing your gifts are ready to go.

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FREEZER JAM. Mix 2 cups crushed fresh strawberries with 4 cups sugar, and let stand for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, stir one package dry pectin into 3/4 cup water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, and boil for 1 minute. Stir the boiling water into the strawberries. Allow to stand for 3 minutes before pouring into jars or other storage containers. Place tops on the containers, and leave for 24 hours. Freeze and store frozen until ready to give. Makes 5 pints.

EC Father’s Day 2016 Gift Guide

Since Father’s Day is a week away and since I have a feeling you’re as surprised by that as I am and since most of us have dads, know a dad or have a dad figure in our lives—once again I’ve taken the liberty of assuming that you might appreciate some help coming up with an awesome Father’s Day gift. And don’t worry—Amazon Prime shipping can deliver most, if not all, of these gifts in plenty of time for the big day.

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BBQ Grill Tools Set. This 16-piece BBQ set is made of sturdy stainless steel construction and just as neat as a pin! if your Dad likes things well organized with easy access—and he’s a man of the grill—this is the set of tools he wants and needs! $42

Nordic Ware 2 Burner Backsplash Griddle. Watch Dad turn the kitchen (or outdoor grill) into a diner for making great breakfasts (lunch, dinner) with this Double Burner Backsplash Griddle. It features a raised edge that allows for easy flipping-whether cooking eggs, meats or veggies and is two burners wide. Ideal for frying multiple foods at once. Drip reservoir in front collects excess grease and oil, and backsplash prevents spillage. Cast aluminum is durable and easy to clean. Made in the USA. $40

Bosch 2-Speed Drill/Driver Kit. 12-Volt Max Lithium-Ion 3/8-Inch 2-Speed Drill/Driver Kit with 2 batteries, charger and case. Great power and absolutely the best drill/driver for common household projects. $99.

Our Best Mother’s Day Gift Guide Yet!

Since Mother’s Day is two weeks away and since I have a feeling you’re as surprised by that as I am and since I’m a mom and most of you are moms or know a mom or have a mother figure in your life–I’ve taken the liberty of assuming that you might appreciate some help coming up with an awesome Mother’s Day gift!

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I wouldn’t say I am the ultimate expert when it comes to selecting perfect Mother’s Day gifts, but I know what I like and think I may not be too far off from what most moms would also enjoy. Here’s the deal: You love your mom. She’ll love these gifts. Easy as that.