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Friday, May 31, 2013

How to Be Awesome at Decorating a Cake

A while ago, I asked my very talented sister-in-law to teach me how to decorate a cake.  She makes really pretty ones, and I was on a Cake Wrecks binge at the time, so it seemed like a fun thing to try.  I had a Halloween party coming up, so we decided that I would learn by working with her on a cake for our party!

The party was an "Under the Sea" theme, so I found some pictures online of cool cakes with sea creatures on them.  I liked the ones that kind of had a cartoon-type feel, like this one.

I used it as a model, but I also got a few ideas from other pictures I found.

We got together to make the decorations out of fondant.  If you don't know what fondant is, it's what makes all those super-decorated cakes look so amazing.  I also happen to think it is delicious, but I only know one or two other people who agree with me, so apparently that's weird.

We used white fondant that comes in packages.  You can make your own, but we didn't this time.  The first thing we had to do is color it, which you do by putting drops of food coloring in the middle of your blob and kneading it with your hands until it is mixed.

Once the colors were mixed, the fun began!  Turns out, making fondant decorations is pretty much like playing with play dough, except your hands don't get as salty, and if you eat it, you don't gag.  That makes it pretty awesome.

My only problem was that I have the artistic abilities of a four-year-old, so my fondant decorations looked like something actually made out of play dough.

He is kinda cute, though.

With Melissa's help, I was able to make several sea creatures and decorations, including a creepy disembodied octopus head that we would attach to its arms when we got it on the cake.

See that picture?  You see those ones that look way better than the other ones?  She did those.

I had to leave early that day, so she did a bunch more on her own that actually look like something you would pay money for and not something made in a Fun Factory.

Check out that fish!  So cool!

The day before the party, we finally put it all together on an actual cake.  Melissa also taught me some tips for icing the cake to make it look prettier, like using a wet knife to smooth out the frosting, making the frosting look like waves using a big icing knife.  It was neat!

We put brown sugar around the bottom edge to look like sand, which turned out to be as cute as I'd hoped.  Look at that little crab guy.  He looks so happy in his natural habitat!

All in all, it turned out pretty well.



We offset the top layer by pushing it to the back of the bottom layer so we would have room for some of the decorations to sit.  My parts still look a little amateur to me, but mixed in with hers, it looks like it might even have been on purpose.  Awesome by association!  I'll take it!

More recently, I decided to make the smash cake for Cricket's first birthday.  Here is the picture I found on Pinterest to use as my inspiration.

...and here's how it turned out.

Yeah.  I've still got a ways to go.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

How to Be Awesome at Making Lotion Bars

For those who might not know, I am completely addicted to lotion.  I carry some with me constantly. I have to have a bottle by my bed, and I have it strategically stationed around my house as well.  Any time I wash my hands, I have to immediately put on lotion.

A while back I pinned this tutorial for making lotion bars.  It sounds like a great idea: a harder form of lotion that melts at skin temperature just enough to coat your hands, but stays on better than regular lotion and isn't greasy or weird feeling.  You know that feeling when your hands get all squeaky?


Umm, me neither.  Who has squeaky hands?  That's weird.

Anyway, recently we went to a local craft fair, and some of the vendors were selling lotion bars, so I tried them out.  They seemed to work well, and I'm always down for more lotion.  Plus, I thought they would make nice gifts, so I decided to make some.

Step 1:  Assemble your Ingredients.

I decided to buy this DIY kit from MadeOn Skin Care Products.  It comes with everything you need to make the lotion bars, plus one of their own lotion bars and stuff to make a few lip balms, which sounded fun.

I was so excited when my package came that I literally did a happy dance.  I couldn't wait to try it out.

I decided to use a silicone star mold that I got at the dollar store a while ago, and ended up using some silicone muffin cups, too.

Beeswax is of course made by bees, but when you buy it, it doesn't come in a hive, which is the unit I was prepared for.  Instead, it comes in these tiny pellets that do not taste as good as they look.

They do smell great though.  They smell like honey, and I liked it so much I didn't add any other scent to the bars!

I actually had to Google "What is shea butter?" because Brian was convinced that a shea was a kind of animal that had very rich milk.

It is not.

It is a tree.  In Africa.

It also has a consistency pretty much identical to Crisco, and is just about as impossible to handle.  By the time I was finished getting it in the bowl, my hands, counter, utensils, and floor were smeared with it.

(Two days after I made this, I realized that the directions said to freeze the package first to make the shea butter easier to use.  Well played, directions.  Well played.)

Coconut oil was the one ingredient I was actually familiar with.  It's basically a solid oil that melts at exactly skin temperature.

It's not quite as sticky, but since it melts when you touch it, it is difficult to hold onto.  Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure my counters were gilded in lotion bar by the end of this.

You can also use essential oils to scent the bars, but like I said, I liked the scent of the beeswax so much, I didn't use any.

Step 2:  Open Packages.

The best way to do this is to take a small, sharp knife and slice haphazardly at the packaging until it just works.  Ignore the voice in your head telling you this is not a safe way to do it.  You've got this.

Step 3:  Get a Bandaid.

I managed to stop the bleeding before I contaminated my supplies, which was really the main thing.

Step 4:  Combine Ingredients.

You will need pretty much equal parts of the main three ingredients: beeswax, shea butter, and coconut oil.  The directions say to use a double boiler, which of course I don't have.  I really need one.

In the past, I have used different methods to substitute for a double boiler.  They all worked better than the one I used this time.

The flames are not supposed to be that color.

I decided to use a small Pyrex bowl that I would float in a pot of water.  The pot was too small, so I just had to drop the bowl in there, which caused hot water to fly out in all directions, especially the direction of my leg.

If you're keeping count, that's two injuries so far.  While trying to make lotion.  For my skin.

Step 5:  Stir Until Ingredients are Melted.

This was a problem.  I couldn't stir it without pushing down on the bowl, which made water come up over the rim.  I tried holding the bowl with tongs, but there wasn't enough room.  Eventually, I had to put the whole thing in the sink and, using tongs and hot pads, pull the bowl out of there.  Water got in it.  I ignored it.

At this point, I had a half-melted mixture.

I decided to put it in the microwave to melt the rest.  I did it for thirty seconds at a time.  Once or twice it "roiled" like there was some living creature in it, which was kind of creepy, but it actually did work.  After a few minutes, it was all melted.

Step 6:  Pour into Molds.

What they leave out of the directions at this point is, RUN LIKE THE WIND!  THE CLOCK IS TICKING!

This stuff does not stay liquid for long, and everything goes downhill once it starts solidifying again.

I used a measuring cup to pour it in the molds.

Shouldn't have taken the picture.  Valuable seconds wasted.
The more you use, the faster the stuff in the bowl will get solid.  I should have done my lip balms first, but I saved them for last.

Step 7:  Make Lip Balm.

You have to add about 1/2 Tablespoon extra coconut oil to make the lip balm, and by that point, my mixture was pretty much solid again, so I had to stick it back in the microwave.

That's when I heard the explosion.

Step 8:  Clean Out Microwave

"How to Be Awesome at Moisturizing your Microwave"
It was everywhere.  Just everywhere.

It took Brian at least thirty minutes to clean it up, partly because my paper towels are very difficult to use right now, but that's a different story.

Step 9:  Finish Making Lip Balm

I would not be cowed.  I took what was left in the dish and started to fill the lip balm containers with the pipette that came in my kit.

The problem was, it started to solidify in the pipette.

So I had to microwave the pipette to get it back to liquid again.

Over.  And over.  And over.

It took more time to make those three and a half lip balms than it did to make sixteen lotion bars, but I didn't care.  I started it, and I was going to finish it.

Eventually, I did end up with my finished product.

Step 10:  Remove from Molds

I let them sit a while to cool, and then I popped them out of their molds.  That's when I realized my other mistake.

Remember the water that got in the bowl?

It didn't just go away.  It was there in the mixture, and since water and oil don't mix, it was at the bottom of the molds.  When I popped them out, water poured out onto the counter.  It left weird little shapes in the bottoms of the big bars, but I didn't care by this point.  I was finished.

They're moon lotion bars.
The star ones turned out pretty enough to give as gifts.  The big ones I'll keep for myself.

They do work though.  They work really well.  And now that I know a little better what to do, I'm pretty sure I could make them again with a much lower injury count.

As long as I get a double boiler first.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Awesome Ideas for Imaginative Play

I have gotten some great ideas from Pinterest for imaginative play and invitations to play for Cricket, so I thought I would share some of them, and some of the funny stories that went with them.

1)  Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Cricket's Age:  14 Months
Supplies:  Three stuffed bears, doll, three bowls and spoons, three pillows
Teaches:  Storytelling, sequencing, point of view, life skills (feeding)

(I got this idea from Pinterest, but I didn't use any specific site or tutorial for it, so I don't have anything to link to.)

I set up the scene for her,

and then brought her in to see it.  I told her the story, acting it out very simply.  (I left out the part about the three chairs for time and resources' sake.)  She especially liked the part where the everyone ate their porridge and wanted to feed them over and over.

She even tried lying down in Goldilock's "bed" but wouldn't let me get a picture.

A simulation. 

This was a lot of fun, and it held her attention pretty well.  Of course, you could do this with other simple stories or fairy tales, like Red Riding Hood or The Bremen Town Musicians.

2)  Five Little Speckled Frogs

Cricket's Age:  13 Months
Supplies:  Paper towel tube, construction paper (brown and blue), printed frog pictures, glue, scissors
Teaches:  Music (singing), counting, sequencing, object permanence, storytelling

This one has a little back story.

See, I saw this on Pinterest and thought it looked awesome, and I already had all the materials including an empty paper towel roll.  Perfect!

Except apparently my paper towel roll had gotten thrown away recently.

My options were:

1)  Wait until I had another empty paper towel roll.

Takes too long.  We don't use them very much, and I don't have the patience to wait weeks.

2)  Tape some empty toilet paper tubes together.

The perfectionist in me did not like this.  Plus, I thought it might not stay together well, and it might not be the right size.

3)  Unravel an entire new roll of paper towels to get the tube.

That is just ridiculous.

Guess which one I did?

The only downside is that now it is difficult to use my paper towels.

However, I finally had all my supplies.  I cut five strips of brown paper, wrapped them around the tube, and glued the sides flat together.  This took a little thought, because they had to be exactly the same size, and they had to be able to spin freely around the tube.

Then I just glued a picture of a frog on one side and some waves that I cut out of blue paper on the other.  You want the frogs to look like they are sitting on the log, so make sure when you glue them on that you orient their feet towards the tube.

(For the frog picture, I just Googled "cartoon picture of frog" and found one I liked.  Then I printed five small copies of it.)

When you are ready to play with it, you hold it so that all the frogs are showing on top.  Sing the song.

Five little speckled frogs,
Sitting on a speckled log,
Eating some most delicious flies.
(Yum! Yum!)
One jumped into the pool,
Where it was nice and cool,
Then there were four speckled frogs.

As you sing "jumped into the pool," twist one of the pieces of paper down so that the water is visible below and your frog has "disappeared."  So cute!   Keep singing the song, counting down until there are no more frogs.

Cricket loved this and makes me sing it to her several times whenever I pull it out.

3)  Five Little Snowmen

Cricket's Age:  9 Months
Supplies:  Old glove or popsicle sticks, felt scraps, glue, scissors
Teaches:  Counting, sequencing, storytelling, object permanence, the harsh reality of death

 This is is a finger-play rhyme, not really a song.  I used an old lonely glove for my little puppets because I seem to lose at least one glove every winter.  If you don't have any to spare, you can make them on Popsicle sticks, make them fit on top of your finger or just make bands out of felt scraps to put around your finger.

You just make five white circles out of felt and then use little scraps to decorate them like snowmen.  Then I glued mine onto the fingers of my glove.  You can make the little snowmen faces however you want.  I put a blue hat on the third snowman because the rhyme kind of talks about it.

I think mine look more like "Five dead-eyed albinos" than five little snowmen, but I guess that's harder to make a rhyme for, so I just stuck with this one.

Five little snowmen standing 'round my door.
This one melted and then there were four.
Four little snowmen beneath a green pine tree.
This one melted and then there were three.
Three little snowmen with caps and mittens blue.
This one melted and then there were two.
Two little snowmen standing in the sun.
This one melted and then there was one.
One little snowman started to run.
But he melted away and then there were none.

As each snowman "melts," you hide that finger, obviously.

I recommend using this before your kids are old enough to develop attachments to snowmen, because honestly, it's kind of harsh.

"Run, pitiful snowman!  You'll never escape the merciless annihilation of the beating sun! Mwahahaha!"

Yeah, sweet dreams, kids.

Friday, May 24, 2013

How to Be Awesome at Making Cheese

Last weekend, I made cheese!

Cheese is not really that expensive, so I can't really say that I made some to save money, although it is a little cheaper to make your own.  It is nice from a Real Food standpoint to make it yourself and not have to worry about artificial preservatives, dyes, or whatever else going in there.  Mostly, I just did it because it seemed like something that would be cool to make.

I actually tried making cheese several years ago, and it didn't turn out very well.  I just recently found out that this is because apparently I had written down half of the recipe for cheese and half of the recipe for yogurt, which is how you end up with something that is only half edible.

I decided to try it again, now having the correct recipe and also being inspired by my mom, who made a delicious batch recently.

This is way easier than you think it is.  It takes three ingredients that you most likely already have in your kitchen right now.  It takes a little time, but it's not terribly labor intensive or complicated.  It makes a basic cheese: It's soft, and almost crumbly like feta, but with a very mild taste.

Step 1)  Heat milk.

Put a half gallon (8 cups) of milk in a saucepan and heat until it just starts to boil.  I used whole milk.  You can try it with lower fat milk, but I don't think it would work as well.

Stir this with a whisk pretty much constantly because you don't want it to burn on the bottom.  Once it starts to bubble, move to step 2.

Step 2)  Add lemon juice.

I measured out 4 tablespoons of lemon juice into a little cup so I could pour it all in at once.  Keep stirring with your whisk as you pour all of it into the boiling milk.

At this point, you should have curdled milk, (curds and whey of the Little Miss Muffet variety).

It happens pretty much instantly.  One second, it's boiling milk, the next, it's chunks of cheese in a pale watery liquid.  Mmm!  Sounds delicious!

Turn off the heat, and let it cool for a while in the pot  I let mine sit for a couple of hours so the curds separate completely, but you can do less time if you want.

Step 3)  Strain it.

This is where cheesecloth gets its name, although I don't actually prefer to use it.  I love the flour sack towels at Walmart.  They come in packs of two and they are the perfect thickness.  Put one in a strainer or bowl to drain your cheese.

I scooped most of it out with a slotted spoon first, and then poured the rest in.  This is because if you try to pour it into your towel all at once, the water will pull the towel down and you will pour half of your cheese down the drain.  Ask me how I know.

Step 4)  Drain it.

This is the most time consuming and important part.  You have to get out as much water as you possibly can for it to be good cheese.  Start by letting it sit in the strainer for a minute.

Stir it to get out more water.  Then gather up the ends of the towel and squeeze gently but firmly on the ball of cheese to get rid of more water.  (This is why I don't like cheesecloth.  It's too loose a weave, and when I squeeze it, the cheese squirts out of the cloth, which is failtastic.)

Step 5)  Season it.

Add about a tablespoon of salt, more or less depending on preference, and any other seasonings you care to add at this point.  I used less than a tablespoon of salt and I added some Italian seasoning.  It was delicious.

At this point, you are welcome to eat it if you want.  It's just the curds, but it's really good.  Brian and I found a place in Seattle that specialized in selling cheese curds.  They squeak on your teeth, which is fun and weird.  However, if you like your cheese to be more spreadable and less musical, continue to step 6.

Step 6)  Hang it up.

You are still in the process of getting out all the water.  Squeeze it into a tight ball again and, using a piece of string or yarn, tie your cheese in your towel.  Then hang the towel from something so it can drip into a sink or a bowl.  I used an eye hook above my sink, but I have also used a cabinet handle in the past.

Let it hang for a couple of hours.  Squeeze it every now and then.

(Stop laughing.  It's important, and there's no other way to say it.)

Step 7)  Refrigerate it.

Once it's really dry, take it down and wrap it in a new dry towel.  Put it in a bowl in the fridge overnight so it can dry out some more.

If it's not dry enough in the morning, like if it's still pretty crumbly in the middle, wrap it in a new dry towel and refrigerate it some more.  Keep doing this until it's the consistency you want, but don't do it too much or it will get gross.

It should have a consistency similar to cream cheese, but maybe a little more crumbly.

Once it's dry enough, put it in a sealed container, a Ziplock bag, or wrap it with plastic wrap.

Step 8)  Eat it.

It is delicious spread on crackers or on a baked potato.  My favorite way to eat it, though, is with sliced tomatoes and basil from my garden.

It makes a good bit.  Try not to eat it all at one time.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

How to Be Awesome at Cooking: Kitchen Staples

In my continuing efforts to save money and eliminate artificial ingredients from our food, I've been making more and more things from scratch.  And it's not just meals.  I've been making more of the basic staples.  Remember how I posted about making ketchup a while back?  Yeah, it's like that.  So here are some awesome things you can make at home to cut out preservatives, MSG, artificial dyes, and extra trips to the store!

1)  Seasoned Salt

This actually came about because I needed some in a recipe and ran out.  Apparently I am a very specific kind of lazy, because to me, it made sense that it was easier to spend 20 minutes making the seasoning from scratch than to get in the car, drive five minutes to the Piggly Wiggly (yes, I live in the South,) and buy it.  I feel like that's not actually easier, but it seemed like it at the time.

The recipe itself isn't hard.  I got it from one of the big recipe sites, but I can't remember which one.  You can Google it and find a million recipes, so I'm not going to re-post it. 

Did you know the  main ingredient in seasoned salt (often called by the brand name Lawry's) is celery salt?  Well, I mean, regular salt is the MAIN main ingredient, but the main other ingredient.  Who knew? 

It makes a whole bunch, so it's lasted forever.  Tastes great!

2)  Cream of Something Soup

I've actually tried a couple of different variations, and they all work fairly well.  I particularly like this recipe because you make up the dry mix ahead of time, and then just add the wet ingredients when you need some.  It saves time, and it works great in recipes.  I usually don't even try to put the extra flavor in it, like broccoli or mushroom, or whatever.  It works just fine as-is.

3)  Cake Flour

My first instinct is just to pretend I read my recipe wrong and use regular flour.  I mean, what's so special about cake flour?  It's like, snobby flour, right?  I'm definitely not buying a whole five pound bag of cake flour just because I need one cup for some cookies!  But before I just threw in all-purpose, I thought I would see what the deal was, so I Googled it (of course), and I found this recipe.

Turns out, cake flour is actually just regular flour that has been sifted more, and has added corn starch.  Glad I checked!  It's super easy to make your own, and then you don't have five pounds of it sitting around for years until you make that one kind of cookie again!

4)  Ranch, Taco, and Onion Soup Mixes

This blog has great recipes for ranch mix, taco seasoning, and onion soup mix.  I have made all of these several times, and they are great.  I will say, the onion soup mix is not as flavorful as the one you buy at the store, but I'm pretty sure that's because it doesn't use MSG, so I'm willing to take that trade off.  The others, however, are just as good, if not better, than the packaged kind.  Awesome!

5)  Nutella

Yes, for those who might be asking, this is definitely a kitchen staple.  Nutella is amazing, but if you have bought it, you know it is also amazingly expensive.  Aldi has their version, which is cheaper and just as good, but this is even better!

I will say, this is pretty labor-intensive compared to the others.  It took me a while to even find large amounts of raw hazelnuts (Earth Fare).  Then you have to roast them, peel them, puree them, and then you have to melt the chocolate and actually mix everything together.  Also, this is not at all healthy.  Not even a little bit.  And it does come out a little coarser than the store-bought kind, mainly because I didn't feel like straining mine.

BUT, it was really, really good.  I would cut the salt out, because mine was a little salty, but overall, it was great!  Our biggest problem was that it has a much shorter shelf-life, not having preservatives and all, so I was FORCED to eat it often to avoid wasting it.  Aww, poor me. 

7)  Yogurt

I love yogurt, so I was excited to try this one.  First, I tried this "Foolproof Greek Yogurt" in the crock pot.  It was supposed to be so easy you couldn't screw it up.

I screwed it up.

What I made was not yogurt.  What I made was a snot-like sour milk substance that still haunts me in my dreams.  It was gross, and it wasted a whole gallon of milk, which was a bummer.

I think the problem was that I didn't have a good thermometer.  I go through kitchen thermometers like the Kardashians go through botox, so the only one I had was designed for you to leave in meat while it was cooking.  It wasn't very accurate.  Obviously.

After that, I wised up.  I got a good thermometer and a yogurt maker, and just followed the instructions.  This made the best yogurt I have ever had.  I loved it.  It was actually easier than the crock pot method, too.  And it makes four cute little glass pots full of yogurt.  So cute!

On the upside, Cricket loved it.  She devoured an entire little pot in one sitting.

On the downside, she projectile-vomited it back up an hour later.

In my car.

In her brand new car seat.

I didn't give her yogurt again for a while after that.

6)  Butter/Buttermilk

On the left, buttermilk.  On the right, butter.

This is a good thing to know how to make for several reasons.  One, it also makes buttermilk, which is something I never seem to have on-hand when I need it.  (Yes, I know I could just use regular milk and lemon juice, but I'm a perfectionist.)  Two, it's fun to say, "this is homemade butter."  And three, it's a good way to use up the leftover cream you always have when you buy a carton.

It's really easy to make.  Just put some heavy cream in a Mason jar. (Don't fill it all the way.  Leave a little room at the top.)  Close it tightly and just shake it for what feels like a million hours to your triceps.  You will feel it sloshing around for a while, and then all of a sudden, you won't feel it anymore.  At this point, it is whipped cream.  Keep shaking, and in about a minute, it will miraculously turn into butter and buttermilk!

Pour out as much buttermilk as you can and save it if you want.  Then use a towel or cheesecloth to rinse the rest of it off of the butter, or it will spoil really fast.  (This part is kind of messy.)  Mix in some salt if you want, and voila!  You made butter, and you burned some Calories, so you can eat that butter guilt-free!

7)  Bread

I've been making our bread for a couple of months now.  I use an English muffin bread (pictured) for special occasions, and this recipe in the bread maker for sandwiches, and it's gone really well.  Brian loves the thicker, heartier bread and Cricket eats it like it's going out of style!  It also makes a good side at dinner, and everyone is super impressed when you serve them homemade bread, even when all I did was pour ingredients into a bread maker and check back in three hours.

Also, it's cheaper than even the bread you get at the Bread Thrift Store, which is totally a real place.

Monday, May 20, 2013

How to Be Awesome at Messy Play

I have to start by showing this picture.  One of Cricket's friends was playing with a Rice Krispies sensory bucket yesterday, and apparently it was really stressing out her Daddy.

You'd think he only had tweezers to clean with.

This does not have to be you!  Messy play can be fun and low-stress!  I promise!

I will admit that it can be intimidating.  I like things clean, and a large part of my day is dedicated to keeping things that way, so I understand the hesitation.  However, I also understand that kids need to get messy, and exploration is about getting in there and getting dirty, so I make a point to do messy play activities with Cricket.

She does not always care for them, though.

Actually, until recently, she hated them.

I made her some play dough, which isn't even really that messy, and she hated it.

Wouldn't touch it.
But I keep trying, because I don't want her to have sensory aversions, which is a real problem and is being diagnosed more and more.    We tried homemade bath paint.

That's her looking at the tiny bit I put on her fingers like, "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?!"

We have played with spaghetti, and at first, she hated it, but the second time, she actually liked it.

I consider that progress.

She wouldn't even smash her birthday cake!

See that look?  That's disgust.

So yeah, messy play is lots of fun, most of the time, and she really is getting into it more and more.  Really, I can't complain.  I mean, who complains because their child doesn't like to get messy?!

What she does like is a cross between messy play and sensory boxes.  I started off with just a small bowl of dry oatmeal.

Cricket at eight months.
Once she was comfortable with that, I started adding toys and things she could scoop with.

Then we started doing the same thing with dry rice.  We started with just a small bowl full.

Then we moved to bigger containers and more toys.

Often I get asked how I keep her from eating it.  At first, she would explore it for a little while and then put it in her mouth.  I always use the same phrase, "That's not for eating" as I take it out of her mouth.  If she continued to try to eat it, the activity was over and I would clean up and put it away.  Then we'd try it a few days later.  Usually she would throw a little fit and be mad for a few minutes, but she just gradually got better and better at not putting it in her mouth, or catching on to the reminders if she did.  It took several months of being very consistent about it, though, so don't be discouraged if your little one isn't there yet.  They'll get it.

I kept expanding our play times to include other containers for her to pour into, like muffin cups, egg cartons, and sieves, and scoops like measuring cups and spoons.  I usually put a shower curtain under us to make clean up easier.  (I get them at the Dollar Tree and reuse them many times.)

Recently, I tried a box full of Cheerio's.  This was great for a couple of reasons.  One, she loves Cheerio's, and they make a fun sensory substance, but two, it helped me work with her on things we do eat and things we don't eat.

I used Cheerio's (something she knows she can eat), marshmallows (something she didn't know she could eat), and small sponges (something she can't eat).  I also put in some measuring cups for scooping.  I carefully told her which things she could eat and which things she couldn't.  It helps that we have a sign for "eat" that she knows well, so she understands that when I make that sign, she can eat whatever it is I'm offering.  It worked well.  She tried the marshmallows, but she didn't like them.  She made a motion like she wanted to try the sponges, but I reminder her that they were not for eating and she put it down and didn't try it again.  She played with this box for a week or so.

Another idea if you have a little one who loves to put things in their mouth is a sensory bag.  I made one for Cricket when she was younger using hair gel, glitter, and buttons.

You can get all the supplies at the Dollar Tree, and you just put them in a Ziplock!  I used clear packing tape to tape the top shut because she was banging on it really hard and I was afraid it would pop open.  (It eventually did.)  Also, I used more clear tape to tape it to her tray because she was trying to chew on it and I was afraid if it popped open, she would eat the gel.  We reused this one several times before it started to leak, but since I had taped it shut, I noticed the leak before it actually got out of the bag.

There are lots of other messy play materials you can use, so I'm sure I will revisit this again, but hopefully it helps give you some ideas of how to encourage your little ones if they are hesitant about sensory play or getting messy!  Have fun!