Monday, August 27, 2012

Pencil In Back-to-School Fun

Today I'm sharing reflections on sending the kids back to school, as well as directions for making this easy pencil cake. Please join me at Culinary.Net's Culinary Chat, where we'll start school off on the write foot here.

I am excited to pass 600 votes today in Taste of Home's search for a new holiday ambassador. But I still need your daily votes to stay strong. Please vote for me in the Mrs. Holiday contest here.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Back-to-School Dinner

"Education is not filling a pail but the lighting of a fire." ~ William Butler Yeats

School started for our four this week, and excitement has been high. First-grader Emma burst through the door Monday afternoon to shout, "I love my teacher! I love my teacher!" So far, the other children have been just as enthusiastic, so I am relieved that this looks like it will be another great year.

Earlier this week I shared details of our PTO teacher-appreciation dinner. Learn more about that here.

I decided to carry a similar color scheme into our family's back-to-school dinner. I am always eager to gather around the table on the first day of school to hear the highlights of everyone's day. Monday night we enjoyed a simple menu of chicken and dumplings, fruit salad and dessert.

I prepared chicken and dumplings for the PTO dinner, and the house smelled so good while the crock pot simmered. Since we didn't sample the dish before I took it to school, I have been eager to make it again for the family. I found a chicken and dumplings recipe on Pinterest last year, and I have really enjoyed making it. This comfort dish is so easy to assemble, and the aroma really says welcome home. I found the original recipe here on Bubblecrumb. I have altered it a bit to suit our family. The recipe I follow is listed below.

Chicken and Dumplings
2-3 boneless skinless chicken breasts
2 tablespoons butter
2 cans cream of chicken soup
1 box chicken broth
1 onion diced
2 tablespoons dried parsley
1 teaspoon pepper
1 package Grands refrigerator biscuits
Place chicken breasts in the crock pot, and add the rest of the ingredients (except biscuits) on top. Cover the crock pot, and cook on high for 4 to 6 hours. Use two forks to shred chicken. Then cut biscuits into bite-size pieces, drop the dough into the chicken mixture, and cover again to cook for 30 more minutes. Stir the chicken and dumplings, and serve. Serves 6 to 8.

I set the table with colors to match our tissue-paper bouquet and added a couple of treats to each child's  place. I found lollipops and 4-packs of spiral notepads at Wal-Mart. These favors were little tokens to let the children know I was thinking about them during their first day of school.

Here are my babies, ready to begin the 2012-13 school year: Carson, 8th grade; Christian, 5th grade; Mary Ashley, 3rd grade; and Emma, 1st grade. Away we go!

Please help me put heart into the holidays by voting for me in Taste of Home's search for Mrs. Holiday. After "liking" this page, you can find me by searching for my name. Thank you for your support and daily votes!


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"Oh, the Places We'll Go" Party

One of the most-anticipated events of late summer is open house at our local schools. We enjoy reconnecting with old friends in the hallways and visiting new classrooms to meet our teachers for the upcoming year. As a new PTO board member at Wetumpka Elementary School, I was eager to honor our teachers at the school's annual teacher appreciation dinner. I have lots of photos and resources to share from this year's dinner, so hold on to your desks.

Oh, the Places We'll Go!

Oh, the Places You'll Go!
by Dr. Seuss

This Dr. Seuss classic is often used with graduations, but what a great theme for beginning a new school year! I planned this year's teacher-appreciation dinner decorations using this book as our inspiration. We adapted the book title to promote our theme: "Oh, the Places We'll Go!"

Oh, the Places You'll Go! features memorable artwork in happy pastels, so the color scheme and whimsical style lept from the pages for our party. See yesterday's post to learn more about this easy bouquet.

The pink and yellow striped balloon is the quintessential image from the book. I searched for striped balloons without success, but found this great polka dot option to fit our color scheme.

Polka Dot Balloon Pack

I wanted to make a big impact with balloons, clustering a bouquet on each table and tying a row of balloons down the center of the food table. Green apples made charming anchors for the balloons on our buffet. Find the value pack of balloons I used by clicking the link above.

This framed quote added interest to our drink station.

And custom water bottle labels from my sister's etsy shop, The Polka Dot Party, added a refreshing pop of color. Jennifer can customize the wording on all her products to suit the occasion. This would be a great theme for baby showers, birthdays and graduations.

I carried the theme into food labels and quotes, altering the names of items on our menu to fit the back-to-school theme.

These quotes, printed on card stock and backed with scrapbook paper, added color to our tables.

Plates, cups, napkins and plasticware from Party City made setting the table easy and colorful.

Hours before the party, the children helped me bundle the silverware. Teachers have a short time to eat before they greet the masses for open house, so picking up bundles saved time and added convenience for those who needed to take their meal back to the classroom. And aren't they cute? Thirteen-year-old Carson found this assignment tedious, but several teachers commented that they appreciated this detail. I placed our plasticware bundles at the end of the buffet so teachers could fill their plates before picking one up.

I was so excited watching all the details come together!

Teacher-Appreciation Dinner Menu

Fresh-Start Salad
Mixed Greens with Ranch, Thousand Island or Italian Dressing

A+ Chicken and Dumplings

Use-Your-Noodle Spaghetti  Casserole

Roll Call -- Here!
Fresh-Baked Rolls with Honey Butter

Assorted Desserts

Sweet Tea(cher)
Honor Roll Pink Lemonade
Oh, the Places We'll Go and WES Water Bottles

Encouraging messages for our teachers filled the room, as shown on this cake and chalk board platter. (The platter was decorated by children while we worked on other decorations.)

Buddeez Beverage Dispenser

I hope the PTO will get a lot of use out of this unbreakable, 3.5-gallon drink dispenser. We ordered two for our dinner -- one for tea and the other for pink lemonade.

I like that this center well for ice keeps the dispenser cool.

And the clear base allows us to add more color to the table. We used apples and lemons for our tea and lemonade.

Here are some of the teachers sitting down for a quick bite to eat. Our faculty puts in a long day for open house, so this is our teachers' one opportunity to rest for a bit. In the left corner of this picture, you can catch a glimpse of the back-to-school gift the PTO gave teachers this year: a 31 lunch tote. We also had drawings for goodie baskets and school supplies.

What a great start to another school year at Wetumpka Elementary School! We were all smiles at the end of the evening.

One of the teachers marvelled to me that our dinner felt like a party. "No one has ever made us feel this special!" she declared.

Well, these men and women give the best of themselves to our children each day, so we do think they are pretty special.

With teachers, administrators, parents and students working together this year,
Oh, the Places We'll Go!

Please join me in my quest for the title of Mrs. Holiday. With less than two weeks of voting left, I need your help! Please "like" Taste of Home's Mrs. Holiday search page here to view and vote for entries. You can find me by searching for my name. Your daily votes give me such a lift!

Monday, August 20, 2012

A Tissue, A Tussie ..

A Bouquet That's Not Fussy!

Today is our first day of school! We are welcoming the new school year in more ways than one this year. Last Monday we hosted 50 of Joe's law students in our home for dinner, and Thursday I decorated for our elementary school's PTO teacher-appreciation dinner. Tonight we will share highlights of the first day of school over supper. And I will have celebration details for you all week!

Tissue paper flowers made a whimsical, fuss-free centerpiece for the dessert table at the PTO dinner. Do you remember making these years ago? I used tissue paper from my stash to make a bouquet of five blooms.

1. Cut each sheet of tissue paper into strips, about as wide as you want the finished flower to be.

2. Stack the strips, and folded them accordion-style. I used three strips each for the blue and green flowers, which resulted in more full and open flowers. Using four or five strips each for the pink flowers yielded a more dense, frilly flower.

3. After you bend the tissue back and forth in the accordion fold, secure the center with wire. I found it helpful to cut a little slit on each side before wrapping the wire around the middle. Pull the wire tight.

4. Add interest to the ends of the tissue by using scissors to round the edges or cut points.

5. Gingerly fluff the flower by separating the layers of tissue and manipulating the tissue to shape it into a bloom. Martha Stewart has a helpful pom-pom tutorial with photos here.

6. Secure the tissue flowers to a wooden dowel or paper straw with hot glue.

For a fun bouquet, vary the length of pretty straw stems, like these from The Sugar Diva. These blooms can be a bit top-heavy, but a handful of pink paper shreds dropped into a clear vase gives stability without covering the patterned straws.

There is more to come this week, so please join me every day!

And with only two weeks left in Taste of Home's search for Mrs. Holiday, I would appreciate your daily vote. Like the contest page here, and you can find my entry by searching for Melissa Lester. Thank you!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Amelia Island Escapes

"Long before we saw the sea, its spray was on our lips, and showered salt rain upon us."  ~ Charles Dickens

I hope you have enjoyed our escape to Amelia Island, Fla. This quaint little island beckons with historic homes, unique shops and delicious eateries. Historic Fernandina Beach draws visitors downtown, but we can't leave without dipping our toes in the sand, taking in some water views, and breathing deeply some salty sea air.

Amelia Island boasts Atlantic Ocean views, with beaches so wide and flat that many visitors park their vehicles on the sand. Along with gathering shells and playing in the surf, beach goers can enjoy bicycling or horseback riding on the beach. We enjoyed visiting this lesser-known Florida destination because even when we visited in peak-season July, the beaches were not crowded.

We visited Amelia Island during a pretty rainy week. One afternoon, storm clouds rolled in just as we made it to the beach. We were a little crestfallen to leave the sand, but after the thunderstorm passed, all was forgotten when we caught glimpses of one of the most beautiful ocean views we have ever seen. 

We were piddling along the road that runs parallel to the beach when the sun came out. Passing beach houses along the edge of the sand, we caught glimpses of a rainbow so lovely we had to pull over so I could take photos of the ocean vista. What could be lovelier than this stunning view?

How about a double rainbow that spans the entire ocean view? I hopped out of the car and slipped between two houses under construction to capture photos of the prettiest rainbow I have ever seen. Can you imagine looking out your living room window at such a view? (The rainbow, that is -- not me lurking on the patio with camera in hand.)

The downtown area of Fernandina Beach sits on the banks of the Amelia River. Tourists can take in sunset views with a cruise on the deck of the boat pictured above on the right. Mary Ashley and I opted for a morning cruise to nearby Cumberland Island, Ga.. We saw some amazing views and learned some interesting tidbits about the area.

Mary Ashley thought it was neat that we would pass in and out of Georgia on our Amelia River excursion.

Amelia Island is known as the birthplace of the modern shrimping industry. Sadly, our tour guide explained that imported shrimp has hurt the domestic shrimping industry as more consumers choose cheaper, farm-raised shrimp.


Our Amelia Island River Cruise introduced us to some area attractions I hope to explore on future trips to Amelia Island.

Cumberland Island, Georgia


Tops on my list is a visit to Cumberland Island, Ga. Cumberland Island is the largest sea island of the Southeastern United States, in terms of continuously exposed land. Most of the 40-square-mile island's natural habitat has been preserved and is maintained by the National Park Service. In generations past, the Carnegies fell in love with Cumberland Island and built impressive mansions there, where they entertained many of the world's wealthiest and most influential people. Sadly, a couple of the island's mansions have burned, but their remains intrigue visitors to the island. Greyfield still stands -- built as a private home by Thomas and Lucy Carnegie in 1900, and converted into an inn by their daughter Lucy R. Ferguson in 1962.

From the river boat, we caught glimpses of the beautiful white Greyfield Inn. Find out more about this luxury hotel here. Cumberland Island became a popular wedding destination when John F. Kennedy, Jr., and Carolyn Bessette secretly wed on the island. According to our tour guide, JFK Jr. spent many carefree summer days exploring Cumberland Island as a boy. Greyfield Inn played host to the Kennedy family during the wedding festivities. You can read more about the wedding here.

Greyfield Inn is still owned and managed by Carnegie descendants. Above, this Carnegie grandchild's home is visible from the water.

Greyfield Inn offers luxury accommodations, but travellers looking for a more rustic experience can camp on Cumberland Island through the National Park Service. Find more information here. Our guide says campers can explore miles and miles of the island's beaches without encountering another human footprint in the sand.

More likely, they will discover hoof prints, as Cumberland Island is home to wild horses. We were thrilled to spy several from the boat.

We were on the lookout for manatees on our cruise. We did not spot any, but noticed lots of birds along the way.

Fort Clinch

Another destination worth an excursion is Fort Clinch. We ran out of time to visit this trip, but I think the whole family would enjoy exploring this 19th Century fort. Find out more here.

Now preserved and maintained as a Florida state park, visitors can play and picnic on the beach or tour the fort.


With surf fishing, nature-trail hiking and camping, Fort Clinch offers fun for the whole family.

The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island

Joe's conference was held at the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island. Above, you see a view of the pool area at the Ritz. This hotel was so beautiful! Find out more here. Joe and I joined Faulkner's JSL faculty and spouses for a delicious dinner at Salt, the premier restaurant at The Ritz. We stayed off-site during the conference, but enjoyed spending an evening roaming the hotel and grounds.

Sweet Escapes
Too soon, our getaway to Amelia Island drew to a close. But as the sun set on our last family vacation of the summer, we were left with warm memories of sand, sea and sites.

And more than one rainbow to tuck into our hearts.

Please visit Taste of Home's Facebook page to vote for me as their first holiday ambassador. "Like" the Mrs. Holiday search page here to view my entry. I appreciate your daily votes!
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