June 19, 2024

A few weeks ago, I found myself seated at a wedding reception with complete strangers. I was confused. We knew lots of people at this wedding, and some of our closest friends were just two seats away at the same (round) table. But the seating was assigned so I covered my surprise and greeted the strangers, a husband and wife pair.

Within minutes, it felt like I had known her my whole life. After we exchanged a few initial details, she dove straight for the heart of things: “Wow, you’ve been married for so long!! What marriage advice do you have for us?”

I paused for a beat. It had been a while since I had shared any marriage advice, and the guarded part of me that screamed, “DON’T GIVE UNSOLICITED ADVICE!!” clammed me up while my brain tried to think of something useful to offer. But she had asked, so this wasn’t unsolicited.

What advice did I have to offer someone who I had just met, whose husband’s name I was struggling to recall at the moment, and whose personality honestly seemed so warm and open and sweet that maybe the lessons and struggles I had wouldn’t even resonate with her?

“Hmm,” I wondered, mentally sifting through clichés like communication is key, and date each other, and the couple that plays together stays together! Nah. Anyone who actually asks for marriage advice has probably heard all of this. Then I mentally pulled up an email I had sent to myself just last week, full of marriage tips and reminders I had noted to myself over the course of the last couple years: Don’t bring up serious stuff with Ben right before bedtimeAsk more follow-up questions when Ben shares about work… Hmm… These all felt very specific to me, and I couldn’t recall any more of the reminders I had written to myself. And then I saw the answer right before me.

“You know what’s been super helpful for my marriage?” I began, “Emailing myself to keep myself accountable. After Ben and I have one of those big serious talks concluding with different ways we can both do better, I take a few minutes to note what I need to do differently or do better and email it to myself, scheduling it to send a week later. When I get it in my inbox, I read it over, evaluate how I’ve done so far, then snooze it to resend to me a month later. And whenever new things need to be added to the list, I just reply to myself and add it on. So every month or two, I get an email from myself called ‘Relationship Reminders’ that keeps me accountable to the ways I planned to improve and do better as a wife.

It’s not only keeping myself accountable, but it’s also super encouraging! For example, the first thing I have on there is a reminder to NOT bring up serious, heavy stuff to talk about with Ben right before bed. It really stresses him out and then he can’t sleep for hours after. This concept seems obvious to me now, but there was a time when it wasn’t, and it is encouraging for me to see my own growth in that area. It’s nice to see that it’s obvious to me now, but it did take a few rounds of email reminders to let it sink in. Even now I have to pause myself once in a while and remind myself to wait until tomorrow.”

We continued to share and chat, and had a really fun time getting to know each other and the other guests at our table later that night. It turns out we had a lot more in common than I had originally thought, and had so many points of connection that I was grateful for the chance to unexpectedly meet and make new friends!

I was glad to be able to share this tip with this sweet new friend. No matter how different our personalities and issues are, we could all use a little accountability as we strive to be the better versions of ourselves. Over the course of our marriage, it used to be pretty common for us to have the same conversation with the same conclusions again and again. I would feel discouraged that I wasn’t doing well as a partner and kick myself for forgetting. Each time, it felt like I wasn’t loving him well by not following through with what I had said I would work on. But we haven’t had to do that for a while now, and I think a lot of that growth stems from this simple accountability system I have made for myself.

It might seem more romantic to expect your partner to accept you just the way you are, but the goal isn’t always romance. Movies would have us believe that you meet “the one” and they’re perfect. But even if they start off “perfect,” they will change. YOU will change, and what you need from your partner will change as seasons in life change. So we grow with each other, and sometimes for each other, or else we grow apart. And it’s not romantic to say you’ll make changes to love your partner better, and then turn back to your old ways. What’s truly loving is finding ways to support and care for your partner better, then doing whatever it takes– even something as mechanical as emailing yourself– to keep it up.

Ben and I have been married for a long time now, and we have both come to know so many different versions of each other over the years. Becoming parents was one of the greatest joys but also one of the greatest personality changers, and we’ve both had to work hard to become better versions of ourselves for the kids and for each other. Some changes naturally stick, but a lot of the important ones require reminder after reminder before they really become a part of you. Finding a realistic and effective system to keep yourself accountable to your goals is key to making all the other marriage advice meaningful and lasting, so if you don’t have a system in place already, then send yourself an email reminding yourself to send yourself more emails!

December 28, 2023

The other day, a friend asked what my son was into these days. Without thinking, I replied, “Well, yesterday I heard him say his favorite sports are soccer and ice skating, even though he just started skating lessons and isn’t even good at it yet.” I started to hear myself before the words even finished leaving my mouth, and I clamped my mouth in surprise immediately after, wide-eyed and embarrassed. Did I really just say that?

A year ago, I wouldn’t have thought twice about what I had said. I mean, what did I expect after two ice skating lessons? But I have had a shift in mindset since then–one that I am still growing into. The questions I need to ask myself are: So what? So what if he was not good at it? So what if he took twenty lessons and still made little progress? If he enjoyed it, and if he said it was one of his favorites, who am I to rain on that happiness?

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January 23, 2023

Bolo Bao is a DELICIOUS soft Hong Kong bun with a crumbly, sweet, cookie-like topping that you can find at any Cantonese bakery. While “Bolo” means pineapple, and “Bao” means bread, there’s not actually any pineapple in this bread. Its name comes from the criss-cross pattern atop the bread, which looks like the pattern on a pineapple. This bread can more accurately be described as a marriage between a soft, lightly sweetened bun + a crumbly soft cookie on top. It was one of my childhood favorites, and I love that this recipe allows me to make a small little bun at home anytime!

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August 18, 2022

Today was the first day of school, and as expected, I found myself walking home from school with a flurry of thoughts and feelings in my mind. Was my son going to be okay in a combination class? Was he going to make friends? Was my daughter going to be okay with the new teacher? Would the teacher be nice?

I found my brain going back and forth between the temptation to be anxious, and the desire to believe the comforting thoughts I offered it: Combination classes were usually full of pleasant children, right? He made friends last year, so he would probably be able to find new ones this year, right? And, my daughter had at least one good friend in class. That counted for a whole lot… right?

I do that a lot. I try to look for the silver linings, the bright side, the cup half full. It often helps tie me over in my moments of anxiety until either things pan out just fine, or I have to accept that things are less than ideal and then I deal with it head on. Even then, I try to find perspective, telling myself, “At least…” or “On the bright side…”

But this morning, as I tried to fend off the temptation to worry, I remembered something I had read not too long ago. It was a phrase that was so bewildering and foreign to me at the time that I read and reread it and then proceeded to talk about it with every person I could in the days that followed:

Perfect, that’s perfect–it’s just what he needed to happen at least once in his childhood.

I had read plenty of literature about grit and resilience, and meant to let my kids build grit and resilience in measured, thoughtful, and controlled doses. I know, I know… very Type A, but hey, this is me. Some hardship was good, but not toooo much, if I could help it. No one likes to see their kids suffer, and if there are things you can do to alleviate the disappointment or pain, you’d want to do it, right?

But sometimes life throws a curveball, and even our best laid plans get crumpled and tossed aside. Like how I invested so much energy and time last year into building the relationship my son had with his new best friend… only to learn in June that the friend was moving away. At the time, I only viewed this event with disappointment. Well, that stinks. But after reading about the idea of giving your kids “good suffering,” I was able to look back on it and be grateful he could experience it.

These ideas are from the book How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims, where she says:

Not only must you let your kids experience these things, you must appreciate their importance. Anderson and Johnson argue that parenting well means “learning to see events you might otherwise try to avoid or dread in your child’s life as growth-producing events” that build wisdom and perspective. When they occur, we parents should say silently to ourselves, “Perfect, that’s perfect–it’s just what he needed to happen at least once in his childhood.”

I had borrowed this book from the library, and really enjoyed reading it and chewing on ideas like teaching my kids more life skills, giving them more unsupervised space, and rethinking my approach to colleges and college admissions. But it was chapter 18 that produced immediate change in my approach to parenting. Events that once elicited dismay and dread became events I could tally up as “growth-producing events.” Problems I once tried to foresee and prevent became opportunities to build their resilience and grit muscles for future hardships that they would someday need to be able to weather without me by their side.

If you’re like me and sometimes want to curate your child’s experiences–both the good and the bad–then this might be a really helpful frame to put things in perspective. Sometimes there isn’t a silver lining. Sometimes there is no bright side. Sometimes the cup is empty, and sometimes it just sucks. And in those times, you can take comfort in seeing it as just perfect. It’s something that your child can experience and something that can strengthen them for some bigger, harder thing in the future that you want them to be able to get through.

So if they don’t get invited to that party, experience the death of a pet, get sent to the principal’s office, or miss an event that they had been looking forward to, consider it preparation for adulthood. Oftentimes my mind is so determined to find the good in situations, but it can also be really freeing to acknowledge that sometimes, things are just hard and crappy… and that’s okay. Maybe even perfect.

January 30, 2022

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Playing 7 Wonders for Family Game Night (which is… every night, now!). This photo was taken when the kids were 5 and 7 years old.

The Short Version: There are so many super fun games to play, and they’re really good for your kids, too! I’ve made a detailed list (roughly in order of increasing ability/age) of our favorites below!

I recently sent out our family newsletter, where every single one of us mentioned our newfound enjoyment of playing family board games. Shortly after, friends started asking for recommendations, usually in the form of something like, “Can you recommend something for us? I’m so tired of playing _________!” (<– usually rhymes with Dandyland). I would try to get a quick idea of what their children were able to do: Can they identify numbers? Count dots on a die? Read? Do simple addition? Then I’d sort through the catalog of games in my mind and try to recommend a few. This is one of my new pandemic skills: recommending fun board games for kids in various stages of learning and development. Yay.

In the last two years, our kids have made the leap from playing “kid games parents try to avoid” (you know the ones…) to “kid games parents actually enjoy” (like Monopoly Deal and Sleeping Queens) to our current situation: “Grown-up games our kids can now play!” Hallelujah! This past month, we have been consuming a steady diet of 7 Wonders, Carcassonne, Splendor, and Ticket to Ride Europe every night after dinner, and are working our way through the various expansions these games offer.

I’ll be honest, I never thought I’d be the kind of parent to have shelves and shelves of bookcases stuffed with dozens of board games. I had seen photos on buy/sell groups of impossible numbers of board games crammed into every square inch of various cabinets and shelves before. How on earth can one family own so many games and actually play them all? I wondered. But now those are our shelves, and let me tell you: the benefits of those games are hands down worth the eyesore-ness of them!

Preschoolers can learn about grids and coordinates with Race to the Treasure.

Benefits of playing games with kids

There’s nothing like finding the right game for a particular stage of your child’s development. Candyland helped with colors, Uno helped with colors and number fluency, while Blink helped with colors, shapes, and subitization (fancy word for recognizing “how many” without counting, like how you’d instantly recognize there are 4 dots on a dice without needing to count each individual dot). Sneaky Snacky Squirrel gently introduced our young kids to dealing with disappointment and loss (very important life skills!), and Race to the Treasure was a great way to teach kids about grids and coordinates. All of them were more fun than doing worksheets or workbooks, and gave our very young kids an engaging way to learn important concepts that was hands-on and screen-free.

At one point, it occurred to me that I could spend hundreds sending my kids to math tutoring programs, or we could just practice adding numbers by playing Sushi Go a few times. The latter cost <$7 for several rounds of adding, didn’t require me to drive them anywhere, and was a fun way for me to spend time together with them, too! Once I considered how inexpensive that was for so much math fun, our stockpile of games began to multiply.

The learning goes way beyond math. There is so much planning, strategy, visual-spatial reasoning, logic, and social and emotional development that takes place when playing certain games. There are also some really enjoyable word-based games, such as Bananagrams. You can imagine how delighted I was this week when the kids worked together to create a Bananagram crossword while I cooked dinner. Maybe they’re not all legitimate words (…paringer?), but they were working together, playing with words, discussing meanings, and very, very proud of themselves. While. I. Cooked. Dinner. I can’t promise that will happen for you, but if it does, you owe me a comment on this post so it can make my day, too! =D

Ben popped in near the end and contributed some of the Q-words, but the rest was all them! They didn’t play the game according to the official instructions (don’t think my youngest is quite ready for that on his own, yet), but still had fun!

That is ultimately my goal with this post: For you to try some of these games, have fun with the kids, and enjoy seeing your kids learn and have fun without you, too. Maybe it’ll even buy you a couple hours of sleeping-in time on a Saturday morning, and we all know how priceless that is! (Carcassonne is a great one for this: easy set up, games last for a pretty long time, and I didn’t hear any arguing last Saturday morning when they played!). My hope is that you will find games that can bring the family together to have actual fun for everyone–both kids and parents! For that reason, I’ve created a list of games we love, below.

Notes on The List

I divided the games into three major categories: “Must Have,” “Nice to Have,” and “Still Made the Cut.” Even though my kids have outgrown some of the games in the “Must Have” section, they are games that I still highly recommend for parents of younger kids! Within each major section, I put the games roughly in order according to age/ability, starting from the simplest games. In an effort to narrow things down even more, I added an asterisk for my own personal favorites, or the games our family reaches for all the time. I also noted if a game was particularly good for travel, which includes most of the card-based games and the ones that pack very small.

Next, I tried to boil the information down to three parts:

  1. Very approximate age recommendations: You know your child best! But at age 4, my son was able to play several games that were for kids 8+, so you could be missing out on a lot if you simply rely on the ages listed by the game makers. If it turns out your pre-k child is not ready for it yet, no worries! Just hang onto it and try again in a year or two! When they’re ready for it, it’ll be fun!
    playing this game too (even if a child wasn’t asking them to)!
  2. General comments/thoughts.
  3. Skills/strategies supported: This can help you figure out if the game is appropriate for your child, or would support skills your are hoping your child can build fluency in (i.e. Skip-Bo is a fun way to practice remembering numbers in sequence).

As ALWAYS, I would really love to hear from you! There are a ton of games out there, and I know this list only scratches the surface. Do you guys play any of the games on this list? Did any of them catch your eye? Which ones did I miss? Please share in the comments below!

If we were to have another child, I would purchase these games again if we didn’t have them already. These are also my go-to games to buy for gifts for other children.

Sequence for Kids
Fun for preschoolers
Kids can work on animal recognition, game strategy skills and thinking ahead even if they can’t read yet.
Skills/strategies supported: Animal recognition, matching, counting 1-4.

Sneaky Snacky Squirrel
Fun for preschoolers
A simple game where kids spin the wheel and try to fill their trunk with one acorn of each color. Setbacks include getting an acorn stolen, losing a turn, or having all your acorns “blown away” by the wind.
Skills/strategies supported: Fine motor skills (optional tweezers to use to pick up and place acorns), colors, numbers 1 and 2, a gentle introduction to losing and disappointment, and some game strategy when it comes to picking acorns. No reading skills needed.

Fun for preschoolers to adults
This is a super fun game that can work even for very young kids! And, I always enjoy a game more when I get to actually try my hardest without being an awful parent… so this was a good one for the early days when we still had to play easy on the kids for most games, but Ben and I could focus our attacks on each other without making it harder for the kids.
Skills/strategies supported: Visual-spacial reasoning

Fun for preschoolers and elementary age
Among the more fun games to play with very young preschoolers. I felt like this game was actually the bridge from really slow, repetitive, mind-numbingly boring games to “Hey, I can actually try with this game!” Easy parent hack: It’s no fun to always have to play slow/easy, but it’s also not that nice to beat your kid every time. One thing to keep things fun for everyone is, instead of dividing the cards evenly, go with 90/10 or whatever makes more sense for you and our child. Then you can actually play hard as you try to work through your 90% pile, but not feel like a terrible person while your kid tries their hardest to work through their 10% pile! I think the kids like seeing that you are into the game, too! If your child is realllly slow, just take an even bigger pile to start with until it’s a fair competition!
Skills/strategies supported: Recognizing shapes, recognizing colors, subitization
(Card-based game, good for travel)

Spot it
Fun for preschoolers through adults
This fun deck of round cards has many variations for play, which keeps things fresh. It’s compact, and perfect to take along for a trip. Kids don’t have to be able to read to play this one, and you can follow the same “easy parent hack” I noted for Blink to keep things interesting for you, the parent, as well! Basically, divide the cards unevenly, in your kid’s favor, to increase the challenge for yourself.
Skills/strategies supported: Recognizing shapes, observational skills, reflexes, speech-language skills, fine motor skills.
(Card game, good for travel)

Fun for late preschoolers through elementary age
This is a fun cooperative game where teammates work together to find clues, reveal suspects, and try to catch the pie-stealing fox!
Skills/strategies supported: Process of elimination, logic, deduction, reasoning, communication and teamwork, memory, simple addition.

Fun for preschoolers through adults
This is a nice low-key game that also happens to be a great way to practice numbers 1-12 for your young child. I make this game more engaging for myself by making my stockpile bigger, so I can try my hardest while giving my kids a good chance of winning.
Skills/strategies supported: Counting 1-12, strategy
(Card-based game, good for travel)

*Monopoly Deal (not to be confused with Monopoly, which is in a much lower category)
Fun for late preschoolers through adults
This game will forever hold a special place in my heart as the game that got us through the first terrible few months of the pandemic, when there were wildfires and smoke that kept us indoors, COVID that kept us away from friends and family, and crazy hail that made me think maybe the world was ending.
It didn’t. And instead, we played Monopoly Deal. And for that I am forever grateful.
It is also wins the awards for being the game started the era of Family Games Mommy and Daddy Actually Like to Play, Too! as well as Games Our Youngest Can Legitimately Beat Us In.
When I recently mentioned this game to my friend, she immediately groaned, “Noooo… not Monopoly!!” But I promise you this is a TOTALLY different game experience than the traditional board game! Games are relatively short, at around ~15-20 minutes, and in my opinion this game is so much more enjoyable. Players try to be the first to build three sets of color cards (i.e. having both Park Place and Boardwalk counts as one set), facing setbacks like paying rent, taxes, gifting birthday money to other players, etc. along the way.
Skills/strategies supported: Addition, simple multiplication concepts, strategic thinking
(Card-based game, good for travel)

*Sleeping Queens
Fun for late preschoolers through adults
A fun card game with whimsical pictures and short game play. Easy to learn and understand, and one the kids can play together on their own from a fairly young age!
Note: There are two versions, but I recently realized that the “10th anniversary” one we have (which is the one I linked) has 16 queens instead of 12, which I think makes the game more fun.
Skills/strategies supported: Addition
(Card-based game, good for travel)

*Sushi Go
Fun for late preschoolers through adults
Pass cards around to try to make the highest scoring sushi combinations! This game is fun, but may require an older child or adult to help organize the game and add up points at the end. Playing time is around minutes.
Skills/strategies supported: Addition, subtraction, early multiplication concepts, probability, strategic thinking
(Card-based game, good for travel)

*Ticket to Ride – First Journey
Fun for late preschoolers through adults
Players use trains to build routes from one destination to another. The first person to complete six routes wins! For a moment I thought my assessment of age-appropriateness was wildly off when Amazon listed the manufacture recommended age as 13-15, but the box itself says 6+ (and I see reviewers mentioning their 4 and 6 year olds playing this game, too!). It’s a really fun concept and the Ticket to Ride series is one of my personal favorites! There’s just something so satisfying about completing routes efficiently!
Skills/strategies supported: Map skills, planning, strategic thinking

Fun for mid-elementary through adults, adaptable for younger kids
Kids should be able to read and write fairly fluently to play this game properly, but there are all sorts of ways to interact with the letter tiles that don’t require following the rules of the game. My kindergartener enjoys turning tiles over and just seeing how many words he can make, or working with his sister to make crosswords with it. I recently taught them a different game using the same tiles called Pirate Scrabble, which I might enjoy even more than the original Bananagrams game!
Skills/strategies supported: Letter recognition, wordplay. Kids should be to read at a second grade level before playing this game the way it is intended, but you can always use the tiles just to form words for fun.
(Game is small, good for travel)

*CATAN Junior
Fun for late preschoolers through adults
Collect resources to build ships and pirate lairs! It’s a simple introduction to the larger and much loved CATAN game. Solid A for this game.
Skills/strategies supported: Planning, counting, budgeting resources, subitization

Fun for elementary age through adults
Collect gems to purchase cards! Collect cards to get the most points by the end of the game. It’s pretty simple, and very fun. Our youngest beat us all the first couple times we played, and we all had to concede that his strategy has been the winningest. But now that everyone uses the same strategy, it’s not necessarily the best strategy anymore… which is all to say that despite playing several times these past couple of months, the game hasn’t gotten old yet!
Skills/strategies supported: Planning, addition, strategic thinking

Fun for elementary age through adults
This game is GREAT. Set-up is easy, the basic concept is pretty simple to teach, and it is very fun. It does require you to study the instructions a bit before beginning, but not nearly as much as 7 Wonders. When you’re first learning it, I would suggest leaving the farmers out. You can always introduce them later, when you’re ready for something to spice the game up and when you’re ready to focus on reading instructions again. Ben and I played this with my brother, sister-in-law/bff, and my mom during a recent family trip and had so much fun late into the night! Great game overall, and one our kids quickly picked up, too.
Skills/strategies supported: Visual/spatial reasoning, planning, addition, strategic thinking, budgeting

*Ticket to Ride – Europe
Fun for elementary age through adults
This game is more complicated than Ticket to Ride – First Journey, and my youngest may or may not have cried midway through the Youtube video we watched to learn the new game… but it’s fun now! I love budgeting my trains and looking for the most efficient way to complete routes. Maybe it’s just how my planny-planny brain works, but I’m really glad we got this one and that the kids enjoy it, too!
Skills/strategies supported: Map skills, planning, strategic thinking

*7 Wonders
Fun for elementary age through adults
Let me start by saying that this game has probably been the family favorite for several months, now. It’s really fun, the expansions are great, and even I regularly choose it when it’s my turn to pick! HOWEVER. You should know what you’re getting yourself into. For one, 7 Wonders is kind of a pain to set up and put away. It’s not one that the kids can play on their own yet, and you need at least 3 players to play. There’s a whole user manual of directions that comes with it, and you actually have to read it. Pre-pandemic me barely had the patience and focus to sit through and learn this game from my friends, but now that it has fully embedded itself into our lives, I enjoy it just as much as the kids.
There are several expansions for this game which keeps it fresh (and also make it increasingly complicated to set up). As much as I enjoy this game, I can only recommend it if you are ready to do the work of reading the pages and pages of instructions, patiently teaching the kids (with open-faced hands, in the beginning), keeping the pieces organized, expecting them to interrupt you a lot as they learn the game to explain what all the cards mean, and if you enjoy long games played across several rounds. I know, I just lost most of you… and for those of you still reading… you’ve probably already played this game. If you haven’t already, I would suggest learning/playing it with grown-ups first before trying to teach it to kids. In summary, this game is kind of a pain to learn and a chore to put away, but super fun once everyone knows it! (Ok I know I’m not selling it well, but just wanted to be up front about things!).
Skills/strategies supported: Planning, addition, subtraction, multiplication, negative numbers, strategic thinking, budgeting resources, organizing

If you have the space and money for it, I’d also keep these in the collection!

Fun for preschoolers through elementary age
Like Bingo, but with a slightly annoying token dispenser which is pretty fun for the kids to maneuver. Kids don’t need to be able to read to play this game. This one makes the list not because I loved playing it, but because it was one of the first games our kids were able to play together for long periods of time, without us.
Skills/strategies supported: Reflexes, directionality.

Q’s Race to the Top
Fun for preschoolers through elementary age
I have great memories of playing this game with the kids, where they took turns rolling the dice and then doing picking a “You,” “Do,” or “?” card. These cards would prompt them to answer interesting questions about themselves (What do you think about at night before you go to sleep?), do fun actions (With your eyes closed, balance on one leg and count to 20. Now try the other leg.), or consider best responses to various situations. The board itself is basic, but the three sets of card actions are where the fun and learning are at! A fun game perfect for the preschool ages.
Skills/strategies supported: Social skills, emotional skills, gross motor skills/physical movement, empathy, communication, problem-solving

Race to the Treasure
Fun for preschoolers through elementary age
This is a cooperative game that has players connecting path pieces to make it to the treasure before the ogres get to them. It’s a nice introduction to goals, excitement, coordinates and grids, and the tension of an Ogre possibly stealing your treasure.
Skills/strategies supported: Using grids and coordinates (i.e. “A4” and “C2”), probability, dealing with a little tension, teamwork and communication

Fun for late preschoolers through elementary age
This game is almost exactly like a math game I used to teach my students called Low Score. You could literally grab a deck of cards, click on that link for instructions and play a game that is mostly the same (just take out the face cards). Or you could pay extra and buy this game for the novelty of cat and mouse cartoons and the removal of complications that J, Q, and K cards could bring. Since I wanted it to be fairly easy for my then-4 year old to learn, I opted to buy this game, and I have no regrets! But if you want to save space/money and already have a deck of playing cards, I’m telling you… my math games are SO FUN!!! Try them! =D
Skills/strategies supported: Addition, probability, strategic thinking, memory
(Card-based game, good for travel)

*Exploding Kittens
Fun for elementary through adults
“A Kitty-Powered Russian Roulette Card Game,” which to my kids, is simply a card game with silly cartoons and fun actions! Try to make it to the end of the game without exploding! Simple to learn, and fun for kids to play with other kids.
Skills/strategies supported: Strategic thinking, probability
(Card-based game, good for travel)

Throw Throw Burrito
Fun for elementary through adults
This game feels a little like Spoons, but where you try to make sets to get points and where you also get to throw squishy/plushy burritos at each other. Put away the fragile vases for this game!
Skills/strategies supported: Reflexes

Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza
Fun for preschoolers and elementary ages
This game reminds me of Slapjack, but with a fun, chest-thumping twist. I don’t mind it, but it generally falls into the category of games I’m happy to let my kids play by themselves :).
Skills/strategies supported: Reflexes, memory.
(Card-based game, good for travel)

Fun for elementary through adults
At first glance, this might look like kind of a math-y game that a teacher would give her students to play for “fun math practice.” AND IT IS! I would totally! It’s a very fun math game, and has so much good addition practice! Trust me! I play it with my kindergartener (helping him figure out his score at the end), and also my second grader. It’s great fun addition practice for both of them, and me? I enjoy the game plenty! This definitely falls into the category of fun math games that I actually enjoy playing with my kids.
Skills/strategies supported: Subitization, simple addition of one-digit numbers, addition of 2-digit numbers.
(Small game, good for travel)

(on the shelves (for now))
These games are not bad. But I wouldn’t buy a replacement if we lost it.

Fun for preschoolers to early elementary
This is actually a game our kids like to bring out to play on their own. They enjoy matching up the colors and seeing how long of a snake they can make!
Skills/strategies supported: Color recognition, counting

Fun for preschoolers and elementary ages
As long as your child knows their colors and numbers (or, at least can match numbers), they can get the basic feel for this game. It’s also a good way to help your child learn to recognize and match numbers if they’re still working on that.
Skills/strategies supported: Number recognition, colors
(Card-based game, good for travel)

Sum Swamp
Fun for early elementary ages
This is an addition and subtraction game. We had a few plays out of it, and the kids enjoyed it just fine. I was kind of surprised to see that it got 4,543 5-star ratings on Amazon, though!
Skills/strategies supported: Counting, number recognition, addition, subtraction, evens/odds

Robot Turtles
Fun for preschoolers through elementary ages
This game teachers kids early programming concepts and teaches them to plan ahead. My son actually chose, bought, and gifted this game to his computer-y dad for Christmas. Isn’t that cute? And you know what, Ben likes it! We played it recently for family game night and I have to say, it honestly wasn’t bad for something that is advertised as a game for preschoolers.
Skills/strategies supported: Early programming principles, thinking and planning ahead, left/right concepts.

Fun for elementary ages
I like when my kids play this game with each other. But I don’t really like to play it with them.
Skills/strategies supported: You’ve all played this one, right? I mean… it’s a good one for working on dealing with tremendous disappointment and not being a poor sport? Or learning not to be a rude winner?

We have a lot of the classic games at home too (Monopoly, Chess, Chinese Checkers, Mancala, Candyland, Scrabble, Battleship, Chutes and Ladders, Connect 4, Trouble, Taboo, Scattegories, etc.). We’ve played them here and there, but Chess is probably the only one on that list they go back to regularly. Board games have come a long way since these games came out, and I hope you were able to find something on this list that you’d like to try!

April 1, 2021

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Instant Coffee + sugar + hot water. Blend. Dollop onto milk.
So. Good.

I was pretty sure I was the last person to hear about this delightful coffee concoction, but when I texted a photo to one of my friend groups last year, 4 of the 5 didn’t know what it was. When I posted it to my IG account, enough people asked what it was that I decided there were definitely more people that needed to know about it. And bloggers don’t let readers miss out on recipes that are both super easy and super yummy (and extremely Instagrammable). So I wrote this post up for y’all, and then… I forgot about it? I don’t know what happened, but here we are a year later, and I will now think of this as my “1-yr anniversary with Dalgona Coffee” celebratory post. If you haven’t tried it yet, this coffee whip is everything you are hoping it would be: creamy and frothy (without using any cream), tasty, and EASY.

It’s been about a year now since I started making it. As we had all started to adjust to the new normal of hunkering down at home last spring, I watched the world learn new things: how to bake banana bread, how to bake sourdough, and how to make Dalgona coffee. Dal-what?? What was this beautiful creation, and how could I get it in my life?!

It’s really as easy as this picture says:

I use Bustelo instant coffee and 1 tablespoon of sugar (I prefer my milk tea with 50-75% sugar, for reference)

The ingredients are easy to procure, and it’s a texture and taste I would pay good money for. But I don’t have to! You can totally make this at home!

What do I use to blend it?

The main question is how you plan to blend the coffee whip. If you have a hand immersion blender with a whisk attachment, I definitely recommend that. It’s what I use, and it takes about 30 seconds to whip up (unless you’re ridiculous like me and try to do it one-handed while taking a video and end up splattering it on everything within a 2 ft radius).

If you don’t have a hand immersion blender with whisk attachment, the most common recommendation seems to be to use a hand mixer (but you’d have to wash a big bowl afterwards) or a milk frother. Though… if you have a milk frother, I wonder if you might be too fancy for instant coffee. Then again, I have a milk frother and I still like this particular drink very much.

The other option is to use a wire whisk and blend it manually. I’ve read online that it is taking people upwards of 20 minutes when using a whisk, and someone even told me it took an hour. And I honestly couldn’t imagine why. Maybe he tried a little bit of liquid in a big bowl? So I tried it myself and timed it, just so I could tell you here.

First I put the ingredients into a glass, then spun the whisk around with my hands like I was trying to start a fire. I stopped when it was about 3-4x the volume of the original mixture, which took exactly 5 minutes. I dolloped half of the coffee whip into a glass of milk for Ben, and the other half for myself. Stir, sip, and…

It was delicious!!! True, the final result is *slightly* less pretty, but it tasted just as good and still had that wonderful creamy texture. Honestly. And if you were willing to do the fire-starter method for longer (maybe tag team with someone), you could probably get more volume/fluffiness. But I don’t think it’s necessary.

So if the lack of a hand mixer or milk frother or hand immersion blender is keeping you from trying this, and you don’t have 20 minutes of whisking strength in your arms, then try this fire-starter whisking method!

Also, make sure you stir everything up nicely before you drink it to get that whipped texture mixed in, and use your fat boba straw to get nice big gulps of that creaminess!

March 23, 2021
Illustrated by Garth Williams in Little House on the Prairie

When I was young, I used to wish I could step into my books and live in them. I read American Girl books and wished I could knock on Samantha’s door and walk into her beautiful 1904 Victorian Christmas home. I devoured Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories of traveling west in a covered wagon in the late 1800’s, and imagined going to town to pick out ribbon for my hair or going on merry sleigh rides with friends. I read Pride and Prejudice and thought wistfully about how lovely it would be to dress up and attend one of the many fancy balls. I imagined it all through rose-colored glasses and thought someday it would be fun to dress up and pretend to live in the old days: at a farm, in a charming pioneer town, or at a ball.

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but one day it dawned on me that actually, I would look really out of place dancing at Netherfield or walking along the streets of one of Laura’s childhood towns. Even if I wore a big, beautiful gown and put my hair up in lovely curls, I would stand out, and probably not in a good way. As reality settled in, I was sad to realize it probably wouldn’t be very fun at all for me. People would probably give me funny looks because my hair was black, and I would generally be out of place. Would Laura even want to be my friend?

When I was older, I saw pictures of Chinese railroad workers and learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prevented Chinese from entering America during the time my beloved Laura Ingalls Wilder was making her way out West. I learned that Chinese women were viewed as immoral, and had actually already been banned from America several years before the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed.

…Wait, what?!

Ok, nevermind, I don’t want to live in history. I didn’t want to live as a girl in China’s history, where women had to bind their feet and where baby girls were not valued as much as baby boys. And I certainly didn’t want to live anytime during American history, where racism abounded to the point where Chinese people were not even allowed into the country, and the few Chinese women that were present were treated horribly. But that was all in the past, right? Wow, I thought to myself, there is no better time and place to be a Chinese girl than in present-day America. I felt so fortunate to exist right here, right now.

If I admired America as the best place to be a Chinese girl twenty years ago, I love it with an added sense of pain and betrayal today. The recent uptick in hate crimes against Asians and the shootings in Atlanta show that a lot of that ugly old racism is still here today. I’ve long been familiar with the fear that comes with being a female walking alone at night: I stay aware of my surroundings, I grip my keys tightly between my knuckles, and I sometimes run to my car in a flurry of fear and anxiety.

This past year has presented me with another layer of fear to live with: being Asian and leaving my house–at any time of the day. In broad daylight, I keep a close eye on my surroundings, especially if I am in an unfamiliar (and less diverse) city. Instead of gripping my car keys more tightly, I brace myself for a racial slur or a comment and try to stay mentally ready with a possible response. I wonder to myself, Would I push back and defend myself in order to fight against the stereotype of the passive Asian? Or is it better to simply protect myself and leave? What if my kids are with me? Does protecting them mean to flee, or does it mean showing them what it looks like to say something and stand up for yourself?

When I hear about racists harassing Asians at local grocery stores and gas stations, a common theme that pains me is learning how nobody stood up for them. If anyone were to target me and spew racist comments my way, I would be upset. But if there were other people around and nobody intervened or said anything to me after, I would be devastated. Silence is complicity. And then I can’t help but wonder: What would I do if I were a bystander? Would I say something to the harasser? Would I step in? Would I say something to the victim afterwards?

I like to think I would do something, but I know that if I don’t really think it through and come up with a plan, the easiest response would be nothing. In all my mental preparation, I imagine myself with sharp and silencing comebacks, but I know that the real JoEllen would probably be tongue-tied and terrified. My heart rate increases just imagining myself in such a scenario.

What should I do if I see racism taking place?

So when my friend shared a link to “Hollaback!’s Bystander Intervention Training to protect others from harassment in public settings,” I gave it a click. It turned out to be just what I needed:

The Five D’s are different methods you can use to support someone who’s being harassed, emphasize that harassment is not okay, and demonstrate to people in your life that they too have the power to make our communities and workplaces safer. 

Surely out of the five options, I could find at least one that felt realistic and doable. And I did. The 5D’s are: Distract, Delegate, Document, Delay, and Direct:

These are just snippets from the website, which is super well-organized and full of helpful graphics, examples, and tips. I highly recommend taking a look, especially if you have ever found yourself wondering what you would do if you saw someone being harassed in any way. After reading through the options, I felt like Distract and Delay were two things that I could do. I was mentally rehearsing, “Excuse me, do you know what the next stop is?” when I realized that the only time I’m on a train is when I’m traveling, so I mentally modified it to, “Excuse me, do you know where I can find the milk?” (grocery store) and “Excuse me, do you know which way the library is?” (gas station) and “Excuse me, have you seen our red ball?” (park). Whatever the situation, I feel better knowing that I’ve got a method in my pocket to use instead of simply relying on my own bravery and wit (though if I’m honest, I think even this would require some bravery from me).

This organization has full on trainings you can sign up for, but even taking five minutes to scroll through their page and think through which ones feel accessible to you is a worthwhile way to spend your time. It would mean a lot to me if you did. Any one of you. Because even that act of preparation is a way of saying you care and have sympathetic intentions.

And if someone ever says mean stuff to me in the future, I really hope a bystander will show that they care. The website shares that “Research shows that even a knowing glance can significantly reduce trauma for the person who is targeted. One of the most important things we can do is to let the person who is targeted know, in some way, however big or small, that they are not alone.” So if you ever see someone yelling “China Virus!” or “Kung Flu!” at someone, please do something and be one of the helpers.

Let’s stop it before it begins

You know what would be even better than seeing a bystander step in and stand against harassment? If there were no harassment in the first place. If the person spewing unkindness had instead been taught, at a young age, to treat others with respect, compassion, and empathy. If that person had been exposed to all sorts of different people with different skin tones and different traditions and different backgrounds, and learned to appreciate the differences rather than to use them as a way to feel superior.

This is something that is super important to me as a parent and educator. One accessible way to teach this to my kids is with books. I have always valued having my bookshelves full of diverse authors and characters, and I want the same thing to be accessible for families everywhere. I was delighted to learn that my husband’s coworker Tony had compiled an extensive list of diverse book recommendations into a tidy spreadsheet, and I was even happier when he said I could share it with you all. You can search for books based on the reader’s age, the character’s appearance and skin tone, and even whether the protagonist is female or not. There are nearly 300 titles listed, but this list is actually a portal to many more books than that since oftentimes only one book is listed to represent an entire series. I’ve already checked out several titles from the list that our whole family has enjoyed, and encourage you to do the same!

Some personal favorites of mine on the list include Last Stop on Market Street, Jabari Jumps, Jamaica’s Find, Dragons and Marshmallows (part of a series), and the Mindy Kim books (part of a series). I would also add The Proudest blue: A Story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj Muhammad, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales, and The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig. I appreciate books that share about the specific ethnic backgrounds and experiences of diverse characters as well as the ones that portray kids with various skin tones as simply normal American kids. It’s important to me that my Asian American kids, for example, read books about Asian characters that aren’t always about dumplings or folktales, but also books where Asian characters are simply regular kids at school. That’s one of the reasons why The Invisible Boy is one of my all-time favorite children’s books! It’s a story that shares about compassion within a bunch of regular kids, one of whom happens to be an Asian American child.

It’s also important to me that other kids in America are reading books about Asian characters that aren’t always about dumplings or folktales, but also books where Asian kids are simply regular kids at school. I want our heritage to be appreciated, but I also need for our Asian kids not to be othered. And of course I want this for every kid, not just Asian ones! So I love this list and hope you can take a moment to peruse it and find something just right for you and your family to check out from the library or purchase.

Let’s Do Better

America has come a long way. I mean look, I’m here! And I feel so fortunate and lucky to be here for many, many reasons. But we haven’t made it, yet. We still have a long way to go. It’s hard to imagine an America where everyone is truly respected and regarded as an equal, but I have to hope that things can get better. I believe that if we all keep taking these small steps to work towards that–learning how to be a helpful bystander, teaching our kids to appreciate the differences in people around them–the world really will be a better place.

I hope you can take these steps with me.

March 21, 2021

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A gorgeous chewy chocolate cookie with crisp edges, that beautiful crackle, deep toffee flavor, generous blobs of chocolate wafers throughout, and the perfect sprinkle of Maldon sea salt: My new all time favorite chocolate chip cookie!

I know, I said I had a different all time favorite in 2014… and yet another different one in 2017. But I guess my cookie tastes grow and change with me. Who knows what 2024 will bring! Also, I still make the Salted Chocolate Chunk Shortbread all the time (SO GOOD have you tried it yet??). There is always a stash in the freezer ready to save me and Ben when we have that specific craving, which happens more often than is good for us. But that shortbread and these drop cookies are two totally different categories to me, so I don’t feel like I’m giving those cookies the shaft by sharing these.

I got this recipe from one of the youth at church, and was kind of skeptical at first. I mean, Tasty recipes were fun to watch, but would this cookie actually taste good?

Yes. It did.

Alvin Zhou, the recipe author, made a fun video comparing three favorite cookie recipes: The 2-minute vs. 2-hour vs. 2-day cookie. I actually tried making the 2-day cookie, toffee and all, and even though those are “the ultimate” chocolate chip cookie, I have to be honest: I like this one (which happens to be the 2-hour one) even better! Seriously, these cookies are amazing. They’re everything you want from a nice bakery chocolate chip cookie: chewy with a toffee taste, nearly the size of your face, cracks running across the top with big oodly pools of chocolate looking you deep in the eyes… and that hint of salt splashed across the top. They have earned a permanent residence in our freezer drawer, so when I have a deep craving for one (like… right now), I can pop one in the toaster oven any time.

They’re easy to make and the video on the Tasty website gives you a good idea of the consistency you should have at each step. You don’t even need a mixer, so if you’ve been craving chocolate chip cookies, you definitely need to give these a try!

Notes about ingredients:
I’ve been miffed by comments online like, “This recipe was the worst! I substituted A for B and cut the sugar in half, and the whole thing was hard as a rock! Horrible! Don’t try this recipe!” But c’mon now, that’s not the recipe’s fault! Some substitutions work well, but many can change the final texture or taste significantly. So I wanted to make some notes about ingredients to help you get the best results!

A sprinkle of Maldon sea salt on top gives it a little crunch and the perfect hint of saltiness to balance all that sweet!

More tips for success:

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February 19, 2021
Chocolate Babka Roll with Chocolate Streusel (YUM!!) and Fudge Filling (mmmMMmMMm)

There is so much I love about Melissa Clark’s Chocolate Babka recipe: The fudge filling, simple syrup, and most of all, the chocolate streusel! I could eat that streusel every day.

Melissa Clark’s Chocolate Babka is bread and chocolate heaven:
Fudge filled swirls topped with chocolate streusel and finished with simple syrup. YUM.

But as often as I would love to toast up a thick slice of chocolate babka, I don’t always have it in me to make it. It can take 6-27 hours to finish, depending on how long you let it rise for, so I set out to find a way to adapt my favorite elements of her babka and turn it into a roll. After going through and trying various recipes online, I found a combination I LOVE: pillowy, soft bread dough (the same one used for the copycat Cinnabon rolls I make) and the three elements of Melissa Clark’s 26 hour babka that I love best: the fudge filling, the syrup, and the streusel! These last three can all be made ahead of time and kept in the fridge until you’re ready to make the bread dough.

This shot is not representative of how much fudge filling there is. I think it was one of the end pieces of the roll, but trust me–it’s very chocolatey!

The other thing I love about having this in roll form is that I can easily wrap and freeze each roll individually to enjoy weeks later for a midnight snack or a treat-breakfast. If you’re looking for your next pandemic baking project, give these a try! They’re so delicious!

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December 30, 2020

Back in May, when we were all trying to figure out how to stay sane while staying home all the time, I decided to make DIY milk tea kits for some friends. A lot of our favorite milk tea places, like Boba Guys, were temporarily closed and I thought this would be a nice way to add some delight to a very difficult time. I make milk tea at home all the time, so it’s not unusual for me to have a jar of simple syrup ready to go in the fridge and my favorite tea leaves (specifically for milk tea) in the cupboard. I’ve learned over time that you can’t just substitute milk or condensed milk in willy nilly; you have to have a really rich and creamy milk component or the whole thing will come out unsatisfyingly watery.

But if it’s your first time trying it, all these components can be mini hurdles that make the whole endeavor kind of frustrating: figuring out which tea leaves actually work well in a milk tea, the annoyance of boiling up and cooling down some simple syrup, and learning the hard way that even your whole milk is not creamy enough to give your milk tea the body you were hoping for.

So I tried to make a kit that would be as user-friendly as possible! Inspiration came easily, as Boba Guys had just published The Boba Book (aff. link)! It could not have been more well timed: Their shops weren’t open, but now we had the secrets to their magical concoctions at our fingertips!

This book is fantastic. I have especially enjoyed their recipes for Classic Milk Tea and Roasted Banana Milk!

After ordering their recommended tea leaves, I tried out their recipe and it really hit the spot! I knew I wanted to share it with more people, so I ordered more packs of tea and made kits including bottles of premade house syrup and half and half. Finally, I made little instruction cards to print out and include with the kit.

Print these simple instructions out on cardstock, cut in half, and tuck into your kit!

All of the required ingredients for the Classic Milk Tea are included in the kit (except the optional toppings… apologies to the boba lovers!). If your friend runs out of syrup, instructions are included to make more. But at least for their first few go arounds, the pre-made bottle of syrup should make things a bit easier!

To make the kits, I ordered a set of these cute bottles on Amazon (affiliate link). They’re kinda pricey, but pretty packaging makes my heart sing, and I needed all the uplifting I could get back in May! Plus, I have used the extra bottles a ton since then to store my own syrups, condensed milk, lemon juice, salad dressing, etc. at home. They’re great!

Next, I boiled a large batch of house syrup, let it cool, and divvied them out into the jars. I bought a half gallon of half and half and filled up more jars, and then put together the kits with the tea leaves and instructions. Voila! Happiness in a little box! I made sure my friends were home when dropping them off so they could refrigerate the liquids immediately. This part was not hard, since everybody was home. All. The. Time. (And we’ve all been back at home again for the last month! What’s the situation where you live? I’m *SUUUUPER* curious to hear how it is in other states and countries!!).

And that was it! Spreading sunshine, one milk tea kit at a time! Happily, the Boba Guys shops have re-opened, but if you don’t have one near you, you can recreate their delicious drink in your own home! Whether you decide to make your own sets of kits to share with friends or attempt to make some milk tea for yourself, I really hope this can bring some cheer and delight to YOU in what has been a very difficult year!

I hope you are all well, and I would love to hear from you and and how you are doing and managing during this unprecedented year. Hope you had a happy holiday, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!