Making Messes in the Kitchen

When the Dumpling was around two and a half years old, there was an incident that forever changed how cooking was done in our household. My toddler was then looking for me, found me standing in front of the kitchen stove, and became thoroughly confused.

“Mommy, what are you doing?” she asked.

“Cooking,” I replied.

“No, mommy,” she said shaking her head. “You cook over there.” By there, she pointed at the microwave.

Kids say the darndest things.

In my defense I did proper cooking — from scratch with fresh ingredients. The only opportunity for me to do so back then was while she napped, so she almost never saw me in front of the stove. My M.O., however, was to make a giant batch and eat leftovers for the next several days. So whenever the Dumpling saw me in the kitchen, the chances of me being in front of the microwave were high. Very high.

After the Dumpling’s savage microwave shaming, I realized that I needed to show my toddler there was more to cooking than reheating leftovers. As I attempted to prepare fresh meals more frequently, I also got her involved in the process. At first I asked her to help with her own snacks, such as:

Peel boiled eggs: It was her chance to finally break something without getting in trouble. For easier peeling, soak the egg in cold water first.

Peel clementines: Clementines are small and have thin skin, making them easy to hold and peel with little hands. I rolled them around my counter first to help loosen the flesh from the skin.

Slice bananas: It was a bit scary to see my kid with a knife…even if it was just a butter knife. Luckily no one got stabbed. As with all activities, adult supervision is required.

Pick grapes: I still slice grapes in half before serving them, so I would ask her to help me pick them off the stems and soak them.


Kid-friendly recipes

As she grew older, we started experimenting with various recipes — mostly dessert-related because they are enticing motivators. Below are a few of my favorites. Depending on their complexity, I separated the steps into multiple activities or only involved her in what she was able to do (ex: whisking/sifting flour, mixing ingredients, kneading dough, etc.).

Ice Cream Without Machine: A three ingredient recipe (heavy cream, condensed milk, and vanilla extract) that is super easy. We were amazed to see heavy cream turned into whipped cream before our very eyes!

I actually found the recipe overly sweet the first time we made it, so I subsequently decreased the amount of condensed milk, and it came out delicious!

Sugar Cookies: We bake sugar cookies three to four times a year because the Dumpling loves decorating them. I stretched this into three separate activities: 1) making the batter ; 2) cutting the shapes and baking; and 3) decorating.

I purposely used tiny cookie cutters to trick ourselves into eating less; it has not worked.
We used to make our own royal icing but have since moved to store bought ones that come with writing tips.
According to the Dumpling, “you can’t have too much sprinkles!”

Pro tip from my local baker is to decorate whatever you need in an oven tray covered with a clean kitchen towel. The kitchen towel will catch the sprinkles and not allow them to jump everywhere.

Oatmeal Cookies: This is such a versatile cookie because I can add whatever in there (nuts, chia seeds, etc.) and the Dumping would eat it without questioning.

This won the Dumpling’s “favorite batter to lick” award.

Banana bread: This bread could be made without an electric mixer. Overly ripened bananas were easy to mash and the batter could be mixed by hand.

Rice: It is a fun water and scooping activity. I had a strainer on hand in case half the rice got poured out during the rinse.

Jello: I absolutely hate jello, but felt the need to add it to my list. I made this once with her, hated it so much, and ended up using the rest of our gelatin to make plastic.


Although I enjoyed having the Dumpling as my little sous chef, our culinary endeavors were not all picturesque Instagram moments…and they should not have to be. There were often huge messes, a few failures, and occasional bouts of frustration. If the activity went awry, I would sacrifice a small portion of the ingredients to let the Dumpling have her way while I finished up. Sometimes I questioned whether something was safe for human consumption after the Dumpling manhandled whatever she was “cooking”. Luckily no one has gotten food poisoning…yet. In the end of the day, the most important thing was not how delicious our creations were, nor how fun, educational, or enriching cooking can be; it was that I have successfully disassociated mommy’s cooking from the microwave.

Turn Handwriting Into a Font via Calligraphr

Starting last year, I decided to convert the Dumpling’s handwriting into a font every year to document the evolution of her penmanship. Her dexterity has progressed tremendously in the past 12 months — while she was only able to trace when I first started this project, the Dumpling can now free-write block letters and numbers.

And yes, I do realize a mistake in my pangram as it should use “jumps” instead of “jumped”.

Calligraphr

I used the Calligraphr website to convert the Dumpling’s handwriting into a font. The steps are straightforward — fill out a template and re-upload it back onto the site.

But…and this is a big but, it would have been difficult to expect my toddler to write within the boxes and lines, so I had her scribble the alphabet and numbers on a piece of scrap paper first.

Then I digitally “cut” the letters and numbers in Photoshop, scaling each to the proper size and erasing stray marks along the way, and “pasted” them onto the template. I uploaded the completed template back onto Calligraphr to generate my font.

Below is the Dumpling’s font from last year compared to this year.

2018: Tracing (three years old)
2019: Handwriting (four years old)
I can totally forge notes with this!

The Dumpling Turns Four: A Not-So-Scary Halloween Birthday Bash

I was able to get away with not throwing the Dumpling a birthday party last year, but not anymore. Having attended countless birthday celebrations of her friends, the Dumpling had specific requests of how she wanted to celebrate her fourth birthday.

Between a My Little Pony or Halloween themed bash, the Dumpling surprising chose the latter — probably because she wanted to wear her princess costumes. So this year, we threw another not-so-scary Halloween birthday party.


Invitation

I sent out an electronic mummy-themed invitation to set the tone of the party. As much as I love physical invitations, digital ones are just so much easier to send and track…not to mention more environmentally friendly!

Mummy invitation created in PowerPoint.

Party Favors

Goody bags are necessary evils because the kids get so excited about them…for about 15 minutes. I tried to keep the items practical and within the budget of $2-3 per bag. My strategy was to buy items in sets and then separated each into individual gifts. Below are a few ideas I considered:

I stuffed each bag with candy, a sheet of temporary tattoo, and tied everything together with either a headband (for girls) or bow ties (for boys).


Decorations

I always make my own bunting because it’s inexpensive to create custom text and colors to match my decor.

Personalized bunting created in PowerPoint.

I also purchased a few small pumpkins and simple decorations from Amazon that I put up a few hours before the party.

Thank you to C-cakes for these bite size cupcakes!

Games & Activities

Along with a trampoline and bouncy castle that came with the venue rental, we played games to keep the kids entertained. I had prizes prepared for the winners, and theoretically every child had a chance to win something. Unfortunately there were still a few tears because everyone wanted to be winners at the same time…lesson learned for the next party!

Wrap a Mummy: We divided the kids into groups and provided them with two rolls of toilet paper. The team who finished wrapping an adult with the toilet paper (covering head, hands, body, and legs) won.

Pumpkin Relay Race: Each kid must race while balancing a pumpkin on his/her head.

Hot Pumpkin: Similar to hot potato, each kid must pass the pumpkins around. Whoever was holding a pumpkin when the music stopped, was out.

Craft Station: I set up a small table with crayons, coloring sheets, and craft supplies. This little corner surprisingly became a huge hit!

A station to make Halloween masks and cards.

A big thank you to everyone who came to celebrate. Happiest birthday to my little Dumpling, who really isn’t so little anymore!

My little Dumpling turns four!

Create Custom Postcards From Your Artwork

Here is a little secret: I upcycle the Dumpling’s old artwork all the time — either using them as raw material in new projects or digitally giving them second lives.

Remember the geometric tape resist animals from last summer? I framed the originals in her room and turned the digital copies into postcards using PowerPoint and printing on heavy card stock.

I shared my PowerPoint template and instructions of how I created the postcards below:


Take a picture of the artwork with your phone

Take pictures of the pieces (it can be anything, not just paintings) you would like to use with your phone, email, and save them to your desktop. Alternatively, scan the images and save them as high resolution (300 dpi) JPGs. I prefer the first method because I can make basic touch-ups (adjust brightness, color saturation, etc.) on my phone’s photo app if necessary.

Example of the digitized copy (picture taken with my iPhone) of our artwork.

Insert the images into the PowerPoint template

Download and open postcard template in PowerPoint. Slide 1 is where you insert the custom images, and Slide 2 is for your messages, addresses, and stamps. Please note that the template yields two A6 (4.1″ x 5.8″) postcards.

Click on the left white rectangle to prompt the SHAPE FORMAT option to appear. To fill in the shape with an image, click on SHAPE FILL → PICTURES → INSERT PICTURES FROM A FILE. Select the artwork file on your desktop.


Adjust the image size

PowerPoint automatically stretches the image to “fill” the shape, which sometimes distorts the picture size disproportionately. To fix this, click on the image and select PICTURE FORMAT → CROP → FIT.

Click on one of the white circles located at the corners of the image (NOT the black lines), and expand or contract the image while holding down the SHIFT key to adjust the dimensions proportionally. To re-position (ex: centering the image), click on the image and drag it to the desired position. Click on CROP again to set the new dimensions and placement.

From here, you can get fancy by adding custom text on top of the image, but that is entirely optional.

Repeat filling in the image and adjusting its position on the right rectangle.


Print on card stock

I prefer to save my PowerPoint file as a PDF (FILE → SAVE AS → PDF) prior to printing so that it can be universally opened by outside printers since I do not have a printer at home.

Print the PDF in actual size, double-sided on card stock and cut along the borders.


In this day and age, handwritten letters is becoming a lost art — something I intend to change with my kids. The Dumpling and I made an activity out of visiting the post office, sticking on stamps, and dropping our postcards in the mail box. We hope our friends and family would appreciate receiving these in the mail!

Experiments With Homemade Faux Alcohol Ink

Alcohol ink is one of the most fascinating art media I have ever seen. It seems to have a mind of its own, blending and repelling itself into mesmerizing abstract patterns.

I have been wanting to get my hands on a set, but decided to make my own by following a simple recipe using markers and rubbing alcohol. The idea of using rubbing alcohol has never occurred to me, so I further experiment with mixing it with other household dyes to see what happens — some yielded interesting results…some not.


Materials:

  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Gel food coloring
  • Washable markers, both dried-up and usable ones
  • Glossy photo paper or yupo paper
  • Dropper/pipette

Experiment #1: Marker ink mixed with rubbing alcohol

My first attempt was following the recipe I found online where I clipped off the caps from a set of dried up markers (perfect upcycling project!) and soaked the ink pads in rubbing alcohol overnight.

Upcycle dried up markers by turning them into alcohol ink.

We used a dropper to apply the inks onto the photo paper and watched the colors mixed and repelled each other — just like real alcohol inks. The recipe worked!

The layers of color mix and repel each other at the same time.

We experimented with adding ink on top of an almost dried layer and un-dyed rubbing alcohol, which diluted the colors of existing layers.


Experiment #2: Food coloring mixed with rubbing alcohol

In my next experiment, I replaced marker dye with liquid water color. Unfortunately, the solution clumped up so I added gel food coloring instead.

This still ended up being a failure in my opinion because the inks had both watercolor and alcohol ink properties — but were neither here nor there. Eventually everything started turning brown after several rounds of layering.

The Dumpling did not want to create abstract art, so I pre-printed rainbows and unicorns on photo paper for her to color instead. Unicorn image downloaded from Freepik.

Despite the inks not turning out properly, we added the remainder onto a piece of photo paper and tilted it to let the colors run downwards. The results reminded me of corals so I digitally overlaid a doodle of underwater botanicals on top. Pretty cool right?


Experiment #3: Dropping rubbing alcohol on marker ink

For our final experiment, we colored on photo paper with regular markers and added un-dyed rubbing alcohol on top. Even though the Dumpling’s coloring were rough, uneven scribbles, this method seamlessly blended everything together.

(Click here to download crystal image (4″ x 6″))

Images colored in with regular washable markers.
After adding a few drops of rubbing alcohol, the ink on the markers started blending together.

Out of the three methods, the first one replicated the basic properties of alcohol ink the best. Although the homemade recipe was inferior to the real thing, it worked well enough for me to make the faux version again if I have any old markers around.

Aluminum Foil Embossing

DIY metallic embossing — with embossing powder, special ink, and heat gun, has always sounded complicated and messy to me, so imagine my surprise when I discovered that a kid-friendly version can be created with aluminum foil. This project allows lots of room for error, so it is great for toddlers still working on their fine motor skills.

Materials

  • Aluminum foil
  • Thick string or twine
  • Elmer’s glue
  • Scissors
  • Paper
  • Black cardstock (optional)

Draw or print a design on a piece paper. Simple images without much detail work the best. Click here to download my leaf design.

Trace design with glue. Smudges are okay since everything will be covered up by the foil anyways.

Glue string/twine onto the design. For my leaf design, I cut the string into varying lengths beforehand and let the Dumpling chose which ones to use. I was not picky about placement. If you are, however, the strings can easily be re-arranged since the glue took a while to dry.

Apply more glue surrounding the image and on top of the string, cover with a sheet of foil with shiny side up, and gently rub on the raised image.

Let dry, cut along the outlines, and glue the leaves onto the black cardstock. Any color paper can be used, but I preferred black since it brought out the metallic silver.

Bonus: Turn the leftover foil into abstract art. Crumples, rips, and wrinkles are interesting textures, so fold the leftover foil into strips of varying lengths and widths. Then ask your toddler for their expert arrangement to create a piece of abstract art.

Shrink Plastic Crafts

One of my favorite craft materials lately is shrink plastic (a.k.a. Shrinky Dink), which is a type of clear plastic (#6 to be exact) that once heated, thickens and shrinks to approximately half of its original size. It is great for making personalized crafts and gifts since we could essentially draw or trace any design on it.

The Dumpling and I have turned our plastic trinkets into wind chimes, ornaments, accessories, name tags, and key chains, just to name a few.

Original (left) vs. shrunken (right)
A name tag for the Dumpling’s book bag.
An Easter-themed wind chime.

Materials

  • Shrink plastic sheet
  • Color pencils, permanent markers, or acrylic paint
  • Oven safe tray
  • Oven mittens
  • Hole punch (optional)
  • Clear nail polish (optional)

Draw or trace your image onto the smooth side of shrink plastic sheet with permanent marker. My sheets came pre-sanded on one side and smooth on the other, so check carefully. Size the images accordingly as they shrink to half of their original size once heated.

Sanded side (left) vs. smooth side (right)
Trace or draw on smooth side. I have a Q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol ready on the side to wipe away small smudges or mistakes.

Color on the sanded side of the plastic. Flip the sheet over and color on the sanded side — the rougher surface makes it easier for the pigments to grab on. Coloring on this side also ensures that the color doesn’t cover the design outline.

Color on sanded side. The colors may look light, but they darken slightly once heated.

Cut along the outline. Be gentle as plastic can rip easily.

Punch hole(s) on where you want to string the shrink plastic.

Pre-heat oven to 175°C and then bake cutout for approximately 3-5 minutes in oven-safe tray. The funnest part of this activity is watching the plastic curl and then flatten into a miniature version of itself. The first time I did this, the cutout did not flatten properly — my guess was that I did not wait for the oven to pre-heat to the right temperature, so be patient!

The plastic curls and shrinks to approximately 50% of its original size in the oven!

Let cool and varnish with clear nail polish.

Learning Chinese Alongside My Toddler

I did not think it would happen so soon — the Dumpling is now learning Chinese words in school that is beyond my elementary knowledge of the language. Frankly my exact reaction when I saw her second semester vocabulary list was “WTF?!”

Semester 1 vocabulary list: 大, 小, 人, 口, 月, 手, 貓, 狗, 魚, 車, 門, 山, 男, 女

Semester 2 vocabulary list: 花朵, 青草, 杯子, 新年, 米飯, 牛奶, 兔子, 樹木, 刷牙, 洗手, 雨天, 跑步, 打球, 游泳, 爸爸, 媽媽

While she is not expected to write at three years old, her current curriculum requires her to recognize characters. Feedback from the school’s initial progress report stated that she “needs more practice”.

I dislike the competitiveness, methods, and intensity of the Hong Kong school education system (her current kindergarten is actually considered lax by local standards), so I am unwilling to deploy any tiger parenting tactics that would add additional pressure. That means I do not intend to enroll her in after-school tutoring or various extra-curricular courses so she can “get ahead.” I believe that learning at her age should be done seamlessly through play; anything extra should be purely based on her interest level. For example, I will only sign the Dumpling up for additional classes because it is an activity she loves to do—not something I want her to learn.

My challenge, therefore, is integrating Mandarin into our daily routine without making the process feel like a “lesson.” Despite living in Hong Kong, English is the primary and dominant language in both our household and expat community, so Mandarin is actually a very foreign sound. In order to do that, however, I first have to learn the words myself. Google Translate has been my BFF, and I have been practicing the activities below alongside the Dumpling (and pretending like I know what I am talking about).


Flash Cards

I made flash cards and taped them on relevant or highly visible places around the house. For example, 花朵 (flower) was taped right next to my vase of flowers and 牛奶 (milk) was taped on the fridge. Sometime we would play a “scavenger hunt” for the words or we just pointed to them as we went about our day. Those few seconds of daily exposure added up — by mid-semester, the Dumpling’s progress report improved to a “well done!”

Images used in puzzle are downloaded from Freepik.
The flashcards were taped next to relevant objects around the house.

Coloring Sheets

I made coloring pages of her vocabulary words in PowerPoint, which can be done with just a few clicks!

Turn any text into outlines in PowerPoint to create coloring sheets.

Instead of using just markers and crayons, below are few ideas to keep the activity fresh by “coloring” with different materials.

  • 花朵, 青草, 樹木: Scavenge for small flowers, grass, and branches to glue onto the characters
  • 米飯: Glue rice (I dyed mine with food coloring)
  • 兔子: Glue cotton balls or white pom poms
  • 刷牙: Paint with toothpaste (preferable a colored one) on with an old toothbrush
  • 洗手: Paint with colored foam soap/shaving cream
  • 雨天: Draw raindrops with white crayon and paint over with blue watercolor (wax resist)

Below are a few other learn-through-play activities I have done with the Dumpling in the past:

Self Correcting Puzzle with Vocabulary Words

The Chinese characters used in the puzzle correlate with the vocabulary words from her Semester 1 vocabulary list.

Some images used in puzzle are downloaded from Freepik.

Chinese and Arabic Number Puzzle (Click here to download)

I created this puzzle to help the Dumpling recognize Chinese numbers and associate them with their Arabic counterparts.

Directions: Glue each printout onto a piece of cardboard. Carefully cut out the Chinese number puzzle pieces with an X-Acto knife. Lay the Chinese numbers sheet on top of the Arabic numbers sheet.

Missing Number: 1 – 10 (Click here to download)

This was another puzzle to help the Dumpling get familiarize with Chinese numbers. When we first started the activity, the Dumpling actually lacked the coordination and strength to pinch the clothing pins open, so clipping them on became an exercise in itself.

Directions: Cut the strips along the solid lines. Label clothes pin with numbers 1-10 in Chinese characters.

Memory Game with Colors (Click here to download)

To play, lay the pieces with their backsides facing up. Flip over two pieces on each turn with the goal of finding two matching colors in as few moves as possible. Again, I do not expect the Dumpling to read just yet; I just say the colors aloud as we play. We initially started with only two colors and have currently built up to six.

Directions: Make two copies of the printable and cut out each color circle.

Mini Easter Activities Book Printable

For the Dumpling’s school Easter party, I made a mini activities book that I am sharing as a free printable. I love using this template because the book is printed single-sided on a regular piece of copy paper and is assembled without any gluing or binding — just fold and cut.

Materials


Download the template.


The content is appropriate for pre-schoolers and kindergartners with adult guidance.

Print. Under the print options, select “Fit” under the Page Sizing section. This ensures that no matter what size paper you’re using (whether A4 or Letter), the entire image would be scaled appropriately to fit within the print area.

(Confession: I actually forgot this step and my books came out slightly cut off on the edges.)


Fold and cut. Cut along the solid lines and fold along the dotted lines according to the guide below. Remember to trim the rectangular border on the perimeter of the sheet as well.


Inspired by one of my favorite crafters, Hello Wonderful, I also attached mini chocolate eggs to the bunny on the front page using double sided tape. Check on their version of an Easter bunny egg holder!