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City Dates on a Budget

February 12, 2015

By Jessica Vician

City Dates on a Budget | Music, BYOB restaurants, Babysitters | People gather on the lawn at Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park in Chicago for a concert and picnic.

As you know, practicing parent engagement includes knowing when to spend time taking care of yourself and your relationship. And based on the popularity of our date night outfits board on Pinterest (and of course this time of year), we know you’re aching for a night out with your parenting partner.

While date night always sounds like a great idea, it can be expensive. A babysitter and dinner alone could put enough of a dent in the wallet to make it an infrequent occurrence. But there are always options if you’re willing to get a little creative.

A good-sized city often has many budget-friendly options for couples. Even if you don’t live in the city, if you’re near one it might be worth the extra 45 minutes in the car or on the train to have a fun night out with your partner. Here are my favorite budget date night options in the city.

As Chicagoans, my partner and I often visit Millennium Park for free concerts in the summer. Even though we could sit in the pavilion and have a view, we prefer to bring a picnic and sit on the lawn. That way, we can listen to the music, eat together, chat, and lie down and watch the sun fall behind the skyline while the city lights brighten. Not only do we get quality time together, live music, and a great location for free, but since we prepare the picnic food at home, we save a lot of money on this “dinner out.”

If you live in a part of the country with more mild weather, this might even be an option during these winter months. If you’re in a wintery city like I am, try a local music school or university—students often perform regular concerts for free.

BYOB Neighborhood Restaurants 
Every few months, we visit our friends’ apartment to watch their kids while they head across the street to a local BYOB sushi and robata grill. Mom and Dad are able to pop out for a few hours, pick up a bottle of wine at the shop, and share it with delicious food and engaging conversation. Since the restaurant is BYOB (bring your own booze), they often spend under $50 on the full dinner. But the time away from the kids and the constant chores needing to be done is worth much more than the low cost of dinner.

Speaking of watching our friends’ kids, babysitters can be one of the most expensive parts of a date night. Enlist the help of friends and family. Arrange for the kids to play at a friend’s house or with their cousins so you can take the night off. After a few hours of playtime, they will be ready for bed (or already asleep) by the time you pick them up.

If friends or family are not an option, see if you have a neighborhood high school student looking for some extra money. High school students are old enough to watch kids of all ages, provided they are trained in CPR and first aid, but won’t charge as much as college students or professional nannies might.

These are just a few budget-friendly ideas to help you and your partner get out of the house and spend some time alone together. What are your ideas for date nights on a budget? Share them in the comments below.

Tags :  parentingmarriagebudgetsocial

4 Food Assistance Programs for Families

February 4, 2015

By Jessica Vician

4 Food Assistance Programs for Families | A child's hands hold a piece of toasted bread with a heart cut out of the middle.

The winter months can be difficult—regardless of the part of the country in which you live, the weather is cooler and bills may be a little higher, which can make affording nutritious food difficult for some families. There are many assistance programs that will provide food, healthcare referrals, nutrition education, and discounts to families who qualify. If you are in need of food assistance this winter, read through this list of four popular programs to see if you’re eligible.

SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) provides nutrition assistance, including food stamps and other benefits, to families who need support getting food. Not all families are eligible, as the household’s gross monthly income must not exceed a certain number. For example, if you have a two-person household and make more than $1,265 per month (before taxes), you will not be eligible for SNAP. If you think you may qualify, contact your local SNAP office to apply. Many states allow you to apply in several different ways. For example, in Illinois, you can apply online, mail in a paper application, or apply at your local family community resource center.

WIC is a special program from SNAP that offers food, healthcare referrals, and nutrition education to certain women, infants, and children (hence the WIC name). Portions of the program can even help with formula purchases and buying fresh fruits and vegetables at farmer’s markets. To be eligible for the WIC Program, women and children must meet several requirements, including residential, income, and nutrition risk. Women must either be pregnant, breastfeeding (up to one year after the child’s birth), or postpartum (up to six months after birth or end of pregnancy), and the child cannot be older than five. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment to apply for the WIC Program, contact your WIC state agency by phone.

National School Lunch Program
Depending on a family’s income level, some children are eligible to receive a free or reduced price lunch during school, thanks to the National School Lunch Program. These meals, which are subsidized by federal and state funds, meet the latest USDA nutrition requirements. You can apply for this program by contacting the appropriate state department or organization on this website.

Feeding America
Feeding America is a network of local food banks, pantries, and programs that serve people throughout the nation. If you are in need of assistance, you can use the food bank locator tool on their website to contact your local food bank. Their website also has a great list of other assistance programs that you may be eligible for, along with their contact information.

There are many programs that can help you and your family this winter and throughout the year—you just need to find them. Hopefully this list helps ignite your search. Here’s to a healthy and fulfilling 2015!

Tags :  physicalhealthy eatingbudgethealth

Quick + Healthy Toddler Dinners – Recipe Included

December 10, 2014

By Jennifer Eckert

Quick + Healthy Toddler Dinners – Recipe Included | Fruits and vegetables on forks.

If you are a working parent like me, the last thing you want to do when you get home from work is cook an elaborate dinner. And if you are a working parent with a child like my son, you need to have dinner ready ASAP to avoid a total meltdown (him, not me). In the limited time between daycare pickup and bed time, it can be tempting to just zip through the drive-thru for some chicken nuggets or pick up a sandwich at the nearest sub shop. While this is fine for an occasional treat, it might not be the best way to introduce healthy food habits to your child (never mind the effect it has on your wallet).

Here are a few tips and tricks for getting a healthy, balanced meal on the table for your demanding toddler in no time:

The key to cooking meat is to plan ahead. Buy a rotisserie chicken at the grocery store and carve it into toddler-sized portions. It will keep in the refrigerator for three to four days or two to six months in the freezer. You could also buy some ground sirloin and form it into toddler-sized hamburger patties that you can quickly cook on an indoor grill. Uncooked patties can be kept in the refrigerator for up to two days and in the freezer for up to four months. Cooked patties will keep for three to four days in the refrigerator and up to four months in the freezer. (Check out for additional information on food storage.)

Your freezer can also be your best friend when it comes to vegetables. Buy bags of frozen peas, carrots, corn, or beans and heat in the microwave. Many brands offer “steam in the bag” packaging for convenience. Leftovers will keep in the refrigerator for three to four days, so you can use the entire bag over the course of the week. Alternatively, you could buy a simple microwaveable steamer at any kitchenware store and use it to steam individual portions of fresh or frozen veggies in half the time it takes to steam them on the stove.

Grains and starches
The main trick here is, again, to plan ahead. Roast and mash one to two sweet potatoes on Sunday night, and you have three to four servings that you can reheat during the week. Cook an adult-sized serving of whole-wheat pasta or brown rice and toss with some olive oil and Parmesan cheese. This will be enough for three to four toddler-sized servings. For an extra dose of veggies with your starch, try Dr. Praeger’s pancakes (available in the frozen aisle at most large supermarkets)—an absolute favorite of my son’s!

Mom and dad’s leftovers
Finally, if you eat dinner after your toddler goes to bed, simply make extra of whatever you’re having and reheat it for your child the next day. The following recipe is a staple in my household and is enjoyed by grown-ups and kids alike:

Pasta Dish
(serves two adults with leftovers for two to three toddler meals)

8 oz. whole grain penne or rotini pasta

1 Tbsp. olive oil

2 red bell peppers, chopped

1 tsp. Italian seasoning

1 9–12 oz. package sun-dried tomato & basil chicken sausage links, sliced and then cut in half (good brands are Sausages by Amylu or Trader Joe’s)

¼ c. grated Parmesan cheese

Cook pasta according to package directions (eliminating salt and fat). Drain. While pasta cooks, heat olive oil in a large sauté pan. Add peppers and Italian seasoning and sauté for five minutes, until peppers begin to soften. Add chicken sausage and cook until lightly browned. Stir in the drained pasta and Parmesan cheese. Enjoy!

Jennifer Eckert is a supervising editor at National Geographic Learning and a freelance writer. She lives in Chicago with her husband, son, and three cats.


Black Friday: Family-Friendly Alternatives

November 25, 2014

By Jessica Vician

Black Friday: Family-Friendly Alternatives | Cartoon images of people fight over items in a store, stack shopping carts full of goods, and race toward the front door of a store.

Black Friday. Those two words probably evoke a strong emotional response from you, whether you shudder in disgust or your heart flutters with excitement.

It’s easy to see that Black Friday has become a cultural phenomenon, with some national chains now opening on Thanksgiving evening. My Facebook feed on Friday morning is filled with photos and stories of how many cups of coffee people drank to stay up all night shopping, battles over the last $200 giant flat screen television, police interventions, and more.

We all love good deals, but what kind of impact does your participation have on your child? Are you at home the Friday after Thanksgiving enjoying breakfast together, talking about the fun times you had with family the day before? Are you decorating the house together for the upcoming December holidays? Or are you just getting back from a night out shopping, trying to hide presents before your child sees them and then heading back to bed to catch up on all that sleep you missed while your son or daughter plops in front of the television?

Black Friday deals are a great opportunity to save money on gifts you may need to purchase for the holidays, but they also prompt us to buy “gifts” for ourselves that we might not otherwise buy. If you come home with a new television or other adult “presents” that you start using right away, you start to model negative behavior to your child.

Stepping away from the family during a holiday to shop demonstrates the importance of materialism to your child and can devalue the significance of family and spending time together. And you don’t want to interrupt your child’s sleep routine to bring him or her with you on this shopping trip. That can leave your child cranky and a bit off all weekend.

While there is value in potentially saving hundreds of dollars on your holiday gifts and getting the shopping out of the way early, there are other ways to do both without giving up quality family time.

Small Business Saturday
As a response to Black Friday, which is dominated by big-box stores and national chains, local businesses and American Express founded Small Business Saturday in 2010. It has grown significantly in the past four years and is worth checking out in your town.

Bring your child with you on Small Business Saturday to local shops and let him or her help you choose gifts for family and friends. Not only is this a safer shopping experience (I haven’t heard of police needing to get involved or fights breaking out), but you don’t have to interrupt anyone’s sleep to shop during normal business hours, and you can use it as an opportunity to teach your child why you buy gifts for others at this time of year.

Cyber Monday 
Small Business Saturday sounds great, but if you ditch Black Friday and bring your child with you on Saturday, how are you going to buy him or her gifts on the sly? Cyber Monday is your answer. Larger stores keep the deals going on Cyber Monday, which is the first Monday after Thanksgiving. Order those gifts online and get significant savings, special products, and sometimes even free shipping.

These are just two alternatives to Black Friday, but I’ll bet there are many more. I don’t want to discourage you from holiday shopping, but these options can help you maximize family and parent engagement time while providing teachable moments with your child—instead of caffeine-fueled fights in the fluorescent-light glow of a store in the middle of the night.


Tuition Costs: In-State, Public, + Private

November 18, 2014

By Nikki Cecala

When I was in high school, I couldn’t wait to get out of my hometown. I wanted to live somewhere new and start fresh. I presume this is the feeling of most high school students. It’s a craving for an escape from the bubble of routine and normality. While going away to a 4-year college affords teens greater independence and exposure to these new experiences, it’s important to consider the tuition expenses and other costs.

Your teen can leave his or her hometown and attend several types of colleges. There are in-state public schools, out-of-state public schools, and private schools. Note that private colleges and universities often charge one tuition rate for all students regardless of where they reside, due to reduced state funding. Usually the cost of private institutions is significantly higher than public institutions. Attending an out-of-state public school could be less expensive than attending a private institution. In-state public schools are often a lower-cost alternative to the other two options.

Of course, the biggest expense regarding any type of college is tuition, but there are other costs to consider as well. Based on the College Board’s Trends in College Pricing 2013 report, I put this chart together to show you the cost difference in schools and where the money goes, from tuition and fees to room and board to books and school supplies. According to their research, the average cost difference between an in-state public school and a private school is over $24,000 a year!

Tuition Costs: In-State, Public, and Private | Total costs for in-state: $31,228; out-of-state: $45,638; private: $55,587

Reduced Tuition Options

As you can see, in-state public schools are significantly more affordable than out-of-state public and private schools in any location. However, there are some schools that offer reduced tuition loopholes in case your student is interested in an out-of-state or private school. Some colleges will waive residency requirements to students whose parents are policemen, firemen, teachers, or are in the military. At Texas A&M University, non-Texans who earn a competitive scholarship of at least $1,000 qualify for in-state tuition rates. It can also be beneficial for your child to attend your or your parenting partner’s alma mater. Northern Oklahoma College waives non-resident fees for children of alumni of several Oklahoma schools.

There are also tuition aid programs that reduce out-of-state tuition for qualifying students who attend school in one of the four geographic regions in the United States. The benefits vary by region, state, and school, so research the benefits in your area accordingly. Here are good places to start: 

Check out the below websites for further information about the entire college process.

Each year, the cost for a college education rises. Don’t give up or let your teen be discouraged. If you do your research thoroughly, it can save thousands of dollars and help your student attend the school of his or her dreams.

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