Some purr-fect cupcakes

When my kids’ birthdays roll around, I can come up with some creative party theme ideas. However, I lack the technical skills to create the epic party perfection so proudly displayed on Pinterest. A three-tiered, fondant-covered fairy woodland cake? Not gonna happen.

But I can create some pretty cute cupcakes, using my vast knowledge of boxed cake mix, frosting in a can and store-bought candy.

For Eve’s second birthday, I decorated cupcakes like Sesame Street characters. I used marshmallows and chocolate chips for their round eyes, halved Oreo cookies for the mouths, gumballs for noses and licorice for hair and eyebrows.

Can you name that Sesame Street resident? (Clockwise from upper left) Ernie, Oscar, Elmo and Cookie Monster

Now for her fifth birthday party on Saturday, I’m at it again. Eve chose Hello Kitty invitations and I ran with the theme for the goodie bags and tableware. I very nearly bought a HK cake pan, but decided instead on the far-less-expensive red and pink cupcake liners. Then I realized Hello Kitty’s face would fit pretty nicely on them.

Today, Eve and I stirred up two boxes of strawberry cake mix. After our cupcakes were cool, I frosted them with vanilla frosting and set about decorating. I knew I wanted to use yellow M&Ms for her nose (‘M’ side down, Eve insisted), but realized as I sorted through the large bag that the brown would work well for eyes and the red could add to her bow (as for the blue, orange and green, I had no choice but to eat them …). I bought some pull-and-peel red licorice for her hair bow, thinking I could loop/twist/tie the ropes into bows, but soon abandoned that plan and just placed half-inch pieces on either side of the red M&M. Some black writing gel made for easy whiskers.

Well, Hello Kitty

Eve also decorated her own cupcake, too.

We switched to chocolate chips after the brown M&Ms ran out

Four dozen later, we’re ready to party. Say goodbye, kitties!

Meow

Marking a half-decade

Somebody is now 5 in my house. How the heck did that happen?

Birthday Girl

In the weeks after Eve was born, my husband and I took out a 5-year certificate of deposit at a local bank. I remember so clearly looking at Eve snoozing in her car seat while we filled out the paperwork, and remarking that when this CD came due, Eve would be about ready to start kindergarten. It seemed a lifetime away.

I got a letter in the mail last week reminding me the CD was maturing.

And, watching her now, so has my daughter, I realized.

The night before Eve’s birthday, I lay in bed and flashed back through the last five years. I pictured her as a brand-new baby in my arms, a dancing toddler in a purple sundress, a big sister about to start preschool. I wished I could remember more of the last 1,800-some days, wondering what mundane wonderfulness I’ve already let escape my memory.

It’s an odd combination of emotions we parents feel simultaneously, nostalgia for our children’s past, excitement for their future. I so often need to remind myself to stay in the present.

To stop and take a breath, and help my daughter blow out five candles on her birthday cake.

Money-Savin’ Mama’s Guide to F-M Birthday Specials

This month, the SheSays section of The Forum is celebrating its first birthday. It seemed like a good excuse to tackle a story I’ve been intrigued by for awhile: Where in town can you get freebies for your b-day?

I’ll be honest, it was an overwhelming task to call as many restaurants as I could think of in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. After four days and 145 establisments, I wrote on Facebook that I felt like I’d run a marathon on my phone, and have hit the wall at mile 25.

“This is why I get paid the medium bucks,” I wrote.

So in hopes of preserving my marathon-like effort, I’m posting the piece her for posterity. I’d like to keep it updated, so if you hear of a birthday promotion in town, let me know.

What a deal: Check out these special birthday bargains
By: Sherri Richards, INFORUM

With SheSays celebrating its birthday today, I’ve been on the look-out for ways to celebrate. My criteria: Free. Food.

Last week, I called more than 150 restaurants in the Fargo-Moorhead metro area, searching out the best birthday promotions. It turns out lots offer a little something extra on the anniversary of your birth.

While this list includes only free restaurant promotions, there are other deals to be had. Some bars I called give a free drink or shot to birthday patrons. Several coffee shops have birthday specials. Toys R Us mails out small gift cards before your child’s birthday.

My new rule: If it’s your birthday, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

Here’s the fine print: Offers are subject to change. Some freebies, especially dessert, require a purchase. There may be a price limit on complimentary items. You’ll need to provide proof that it’s your birthday, so bring ID.

Did I miss your favorite restaurant’s birthday freebie? Know of a great deal outside Fargo-Moorhead? Email srichards@forumcomm.com, and I’ll update this guide.

The free meal

The gold standard of birthday freebies, several local restaurants comp your meal on your birthday. Bon appetit, birthday boy/girl!

Big D’s Bar and Grill: Free meal
Denny’s: Free Grand Slam breakfast
Grand Junction: Free sub
Grazies Italian Grill: Free meal
Hooters: Free meal (up to $10)
IHOP: Free meal (up to $10)
Mexican Village: Free meal with purchase of entrée (equal or greater value)
Old Broadway Grill: Free meal with purchase of entrée (5 to 10 p.m. Mondays during birthday month)
Paradiso: Free meal
Valentino’s: Free buffet with purchase of buffet

Meal deal

These places offer a discount for birthday guests, or gift cards good for use at a later date.

101 Sushi: $15 gift card (with group of 5 or more adults). Otherwise, free deep-fried bananas.
Acapulco Mexican Restaurant: Half-price meal and free sopapillas
Broadway Classic Subs: Half-price sub
China Garden: $2 off buffet
Gallery Restaurant at Holiday Inn: $15 off fine dining entrée (after 5:30 p.m.)
Giant Panda: Half-price meal
Kobe Japanese Cuisine: $15 gift card and free dessert at end of meal (evening only)
Mango’s: Half-price meal
Speak Easy: $10 gift card (no purchase required)
Speedway: Half-price meal
Spitfire: $10 off any entree
Super Buffet: Half-price meal

Join the club

Lots of national chains and even some local establishments send birthday coupons to members of their loyalty or rewards clubs. They’re free to join and get you other deals throughout the year. Just visit the restaurant’s website or ask for a card in the store. An added bonus: Most of these coupons give you a week or more to redeem the free item, stretching out the celebration, though you must sign up in advance.

Arby’s: Free menu item (coupon varies)
Boppa’s Bagels: $8 toward sandwich and drink
Cold Stone Creamery: Buy one, get one free creation
Culver’s: Free sundae (on birthday only)
Dickey’s Barbecue Pit: Free drink or barbecue
Divots at Edgewood: Buy one entrée and beverages, get one entrée free
Erbert and Gerbert’s: Free sandwich
Green Mill: Free menu item (otherwise free dessert on birthday)
HuHot Mongolian Grill: Free meal (if register on birthday, free cheesecake or sake bomb)
Moe’s Southwest Grill: Free burrito or entrée
Noodles and Co.: Free meal
Old Chicago: Free pizza (otherwise free dessert on birthday)
Pizza Ranch: $5 off, plus $5 in reward points (kids get free meal on birthday)
Qdoba: Buy one burrito, get one free
Ruby Tuesday: Free burger (otherwise free cupcake on birthday)
Schlotzsky’s: Free sandwich
Smashburger: Free shake
Smiling Moose Deli: Free sandwich or salad (automatically deducted when swipe rewards card)
Spicy Pie: Free slice of pizza and soda (Facebook coupon)
Texas Roadhouse: Free appetizer
The Pita Pit: Free pita

Sweet deals

Forty-one restaurants not already mentioned said they offer birthday guests a free dessert, with some giving the option of a free drink to guests 21 and older. Most required purchase of an entrée. Some places were specific about which dessert you get. Here are some other “sweet” deals.

Cherry Berry: Free yogurt up to 12 ounces
Goodfellas: Free dessert pizza (or personal pan)
Perkins Family Restaurant: Free strawberry pancakes (or slice of pie)
Sandy’s Donuts: Free donut
Tutti Frutti: Free yogurt up to 12 ounces

Worth mentioning

Chuck E Cheese: 12 free tokens
Godfather’s Pizza: Free mini pizza
Pizza Hut (sit-down): Free personal one-topping pizza (children only, call ahead)

Money-Savin’ Mama: Birthday fun doesn’t have to bust the budget

My 31st birthday may have been my most expensive celebration ever. Thankfully, insurance picked up much of the tab.

A year ago today, I marked that birthday by giving birth to my son, Owen, a week before his due date. I like to say he was the best birthday present ever. The chocolate cake from the hospital cafeteria wasn’t too shabby either. It even came with a festive party napkin.

Today marks my baby’s first birthday, and our second shared celebration. And in Money-Savin’ Mama fashion, it will be a frugal affair.

A couple weeks after Owen was born, my husband asked what I thought about us sharing the day. I sheepishly admitted that while it’s special, I’m a bit selfish about my birthday. He informed me that was an understatement.

I’ve just always felt my birthday could be the one day when I’m justified in calling all the shots: to do what I want, go where I want, eat what I want. And, at least for this year, I’m holding to that, without spending too much.

I’ve scheduled a spa appointment, finally using a gift certificate friends gave me for my 30th birthday. We’ll take a cruise of the Red River on the S.S. Ruby pontoon, with half-price tickets purchased from SaveCoin.com. Then we’ll enjoy a sushi dinner. I have a coupon for a free birthday meal at Yuki Hana.

On Saturday, we’ll celebrate little Owen with a family gathering at our home. It’s a mid-afternoon affair, which will save on food costs. I’ll bake the cupcakes myself, assemble colorful fresh fruit skewers, and serve lemonade.

The party’s theme is simply “summer fun,” meaning all the entertainment for the little ones can be found in our back yard. I printed free coloring sheets for the older ones if it’s rainy.

I perhaps splurged a bit on the goody bags – or buckets, to be more precise – spending around $11 total for the three bigger kids I expect to attend. But they’re a bargain when you look at everything they include.

I shopped at two local dollar stores to find items for summer-themed goody bags – or buckets, in this case. The total cost for each bucket was around $3.65. (Photo by Carrie Snyder / The Forum)

I hit up a couple local dollar stores, where I found large sand pails with shovels for a buck each. In each pail, I placed a bucket of sidewalk chalk (3 for $4), a bottle of bubbles (3 for $1), a small squirt gun (3 for $1), rubber ducky (3 for $1) and juice pouch (about 30 cents each).

We didn’t go overboard with Owen’s gift either, a tool belt with soft, fabric tools that cost $8. That’s the thing about 1-year-olds, they’re thrilled with new toys no matter how much they cost.

In total, I expect the party will cost less than $100, including some party-store purchased plates and napkins emblazoned with “1”s. I could have gotten by for less by buying non-themed disposable tableware, or using my own plates.

Years ago, before my daughter turned 1, I remember reading several different articles about out-of-control kid parties that cost thousands, complete with petting zoos, Ferris wheels and limousines.

In response to parties like these, Dr. Bill Doherty, a University of Minnesota social science professor started a website, BirthdaysWithoutPressure.org, encouraging parents to talk about this excess, evaluate their community norms and reduce the pressure parents feel when it comes to birthday parties. The site offers ideas for simple party games, birthday rituals and gift alternatives.

One of the easiest ways to reduce the pressure, in my mind, is to reduce the price tag. After all, it’s the people, not the presents, which make the party special.

Sherri Richards is thrifty mom of two and an employee of The Forum

Baby no more: My daughter turns 3

Eve blows out her candle.

I’m officially the mother of a preschooler. We celebrated Eve’s third birthday this weekend, and today she started a new daycare, where she’s in the preschool room.

Eve had spent the two days leading up to her birthday with her Papa and Grandma. When she came home Saturday — in time to take a nap before her party — I was struck by how much she seemed to have changed in that time, by how poised and grown-up she seemed.

Up until the day of her birthday, when asked how old she was, she politely answered “2.”  She was very excited to finally be able to add another year. “It’s my birthday today and I’M 3-YEARS-OLD!!!” she enthused to us immediately after waking from her afternoon nap.

We had a “Toy Story”-themed birthday party. We played pin the tail on the donkey, which we pretended was Bullseye. I gave Eve a tail sticker, put the blindfold on her and spun her around. As she approached the poster, she lifted up the blindfold. I tried to get her to cover her eyes again, but she wouldn’t go for it. How was she supposed to see where to put the tail if she was blindfolded? Pretty logical, Miss 3-Year-Old. 

Then, she sat at a pint-sized card table with her cousin, also 3, and they talked while they ate. My mom commented it was like two ladies visiting over coffee and cake. Eve even got excited about the $10 bill Grandma had put in her card, kind of unusual for a kid her age who doesn’t yet grasp the concept of spending. “MONEY!” she yelled when she saw it. “That’s my daughter,” my accountant husband said proudly while recording the gift opening.

Her gift from us, a Jessie doll from “Toy Story,” was a hit. She’s hardly set it down since unwrapping it (Jessie is currently sitting in Eve’s car seat, awaiting her pick-up from preschool). Eve’s uncle, aunt and cousin in Baltimore also sent her a special gift, a Jessie nightgown that she wore to bed that night.

Girls rule, especially when they're 3

From the mom’s point of view, something about this party (and her new daycare assignment) signaled a shift for me, into a new stage of parenting. While I sat next to her during gift opening, I didn’t need to assist much. I got her a plate of food and cup of punch, but didn’t help her eat. In the midst of the party, she led her cousin to her room to play, and I didn’t follow.

All traces of babyhood are gone. My daughter is 3. Happy Birthday, little girl.

Jessie’s girl: ‘Toy Story’ doll is my daughter’s ‘Red Ryder BB gun’

Ralphie gets his prized Red Ryder BB gun.

 A favorite tradition among my little family is to watch the movie “A Christmas Story” on Christmas Eve and day. We often spend that day at my husband’s mother’s house, where the movie plays nonstop, thanks to a cable channel playing it for 24 hours straight. (This year, we celebrated Christmas there a week early, so repeatedly played the DVD.) The 1983 film touches on so many classic coming-of-age themes, but perhaps my favorite is Ralphie’s zeal for one certain present: “An Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle.” As a result, I’ve come to refer to much-desired gifts  — Christmas or otherwise — as the recipient’s “Red Ryder BB gun.” 

Several years ago, before we had a kid and there was time for such things, my husband had spotted a “Lord of the Rings”-themed video game he just had to have. I got it for him as his main Christmas present, but didn’t put it under the tree. Instead, I hid it behind a cabinet, letting just one wrapped corner peek out the side. After we’d exchanged gifts, I asked my husband if he got everything he wanted and then pointed him to the hidden gift, much like “The Old Man” did to Ralphie in the movie. Craig caught on to the joke right away. 

Now, my daughter has her own “Red Ryder BB gun” and it’s even western themed: A Jessie doll from “Toy Story.” Eve became a big fan of the movie series last summer, watching my VHS copy of “Toy Story 2″ nearly daily. (Instead of 24 hours of “A Christmas Story,” it was more like a four-month “Toy Story” marathon.) We bought her the third movie on DVD as a belated Christmas present. We tried watching the original one day, but she just kept asking where Jessie was. That yodeling cowgirl is by far her favorite, and I’m glad. She’s an adventurous and brave role model for my nearly 3-year-old. 

Eve's 3rd birthday present

Our daycare provider’s daughter has a Jessie rag doll, and Eve plays with it all day, every day that she goes to her house. When I ask Eve in the morning what she’s going to do that day, the answer is always the same: “Play with the Jessie doll!” The first thing she says when she gets to Trisha’s is to ask where the Jessie doll is. So it’s pretty obvious what I should get her for her third birthday next month. I’ve already searched online for just the right one, ordered and picked it up.  It’s hidden on a closet shelf for now, although her enthusiasm and zeal makes me want to give it to her sooner than later. I’ll wait. It will be a good lesson in patience for both of us. 

But I’m also nervous. It’s not exactly like the doll she plays with at daycare. What if she doesn’t like it? What if she suddenly decides she wants a Buzz or Woody doll instead? What if she develops a new obsession in the next three weeks? 

For the first time, I’m seeing the Red Ryder BB Gun from the parents’ perspective. At least I can take comfort that she won’t shoot her eye out.