Tuesday, November 14, 2017

SV Toddler's Picks: 20 Great Christmas Books to Read with your Child

(Originally published in December 2015)

Last December, I shared another blogger's post about creating a unique Advent calendar with Christmas books -- you wrap 24 of them, and let your child open one each evening in December. I love traditions and I love books (and bizarrely, I love wrapping), so this seemed right up my alley, and I immediately started collecting Christmas stories.

I quickly realized, though, that this tradition is an impractical one for our family. We're not "read it once" folks. If Toddler X likes a book, there's a good chance we're reading it daily, or at least every other day, for weeks at a time. Also, we don't read a single book at bedtime -- it's usually at least 3 or 4.

Under the "a Christmas book a day" concept I had read about, in the early days of the month, we'd have a very limited selection of Christmas books available to choose from (the rest would still be wrapped). Even worse, some of the great books I had so carefully selected wouldn't be opened until mere days before Christmas. I LOVE to go all-out with Christmas in the month of December -- I'm fine not reading anything but Christmas stories the whole month through -- but come January, I'm ready to move on. That means that a brand new Christmas favorite, opened on, say, December 22nd or 23rd, would only have a week of availability before it was packed up and stored for next winter. Not ideal at all.

So I decided to modify the tradition to fit our needs, and I'm delighted with how it worked out last year, and is working out this year (I'm almost two weeks in). Rather than wrapping the books (I've amassed over 20 of them since last year, and have several checked out from the library right now as well), I created a dedicated Christmas book shelf in the living room, right next to our tree. On December 1st, I filled it with our books and made it a part of the room's holiday decor. Now, each evening, we select our bedtime books from the shelf and read them next to the tree, sipping on warm milk or tea or whatever festive drink suits our fancy. We will read each book at least once during the season, and add at least one new one each night, but our daily picks will be dictated by our mood (sometimes you just want lighthearted board books, while other times you're up for more thoughtful fare), and favorites can be chosen again and again for weeks on end. It's the perfect tradition for us.

Whether you decide to wrap 24 books, create a holiday book shelf like mine, or you simply want some Christmas books to read with your children during this festive month -- well, have I got some suggestions for you!  We've read dozens and dozens of Christmas books, and I'm pleased to report that I've found some wonderful stories, from simple, colorful board books that young toddlers will love, to endearing stories of holiday spirit and generosity that everyone from older toddlers to adults will really enjoy. Some of these books are out of print, but even those can be found used via my Amazon links.

Please let me know in the comments if you have additional recommendations - there's always room for more books on our shelf!

Here are my TOP picks, in no particular order (I've read dozens more, but these are the ones that stand out as too great to miss). I'm happy to make recommendations for a specific child or situation if you'd like to ask. Hope this is helpful!

Bear Stays Up for Christmas by Karma Wilson
Bear Stays up for Christmas. This is an adorable story of a sleepy, ready-to-hibernate bear doing his best to stay awake to celebrate Christmas with his little animal friends. It's a warm, familial crew of woodland creatures that supports Bear in his efforts to avoid sleep, and he thanks them by providing some Christmas surprises while they slumber. Ultimately, when he can stay awake no longer, his friends give him the perfect gift as they part ways 'til Spring. A very cute book about celebrating with friends.

Merry Christmas, Big Hungry Bear by Don and Audrey Wood
Merry Christmas, Big Hungry Bear. I absolutely love this book, which is a follow-up to The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and The Big Hungry Bear -- one of our favorite read-aloud books ever. The Christmas version includes the same narration style (talking to the little mouse protagonist) and the same darling illustrations, but with a very sweet, generous Christmas twist that reminds us of the true meaning of the holiday. Check out the final page for a few hidden references to the original book -- I just discovered them last night, after having read this story at least 20 times, and they definitely made me smile.

Snowmen at Christmas by Caralyn Buehner
Snowmen at Christmas. We read this book for the first time last week, and I just loved it -- it seriously skyrocketed up towards the top of my favorite Christmas books list, and we've read it three more times since. As we started our initial reading, I was actually kind of concerned that the concept -- snowmen coming alive and roaming the town at night -- might frighten Toddler X a bit (he's been unpredictable with stuff like that lately), but as soon as he saw the snow dogs and snow children (including little ones holding hands with mom and dad and swinging, "One, two, three...jump!" style), he was sold. The story is cute and happy, and the illustrations and bright and fun to look at (again, looking for the snow babies and kids was a highlight for us). I would put this on a "must have" list for fun Christmas books -- it's a gem.

The Not Very Merry Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen
The Not Very Merry Pout-Pout Fish. This is another really cute book with fantastic illustrations and a nice message. The perfectionist Pout-Pout Fish is sad and stressed because he can't find the right gift for each of his fish buddies in stores, and he considers not even going to the reef's Christmas party because of this perceived failure. Fortunately, a kind friends talks him down and lets him know that a perfect gift is one that comes from the heart. It's a good reminder to all of us.

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
The Polar Express. A very kind reader sent this book to me last December after I mentioned in my blog post that we didn't own it, and I am so glad she did. If you haven't read The Polar Express...well, you should. It's a lovely book about believing in the magic of Christmas -- well-written and beautifully illustrated. I'd recommend this one more for ages 4 and up, though Toddler X really enjoyed it last night. Oh, and I dare you to read the end without tears in your eyes. :)

The Christmas Mouseling by Dori Chaconas
The Christmas Mouseling. I love this book -- I just love it. I cry every single time I read it (including when we first discovered it at the library -- Toddler X was bewildered by mama's blubbering). It's the story of a little mouse born on a blustery winter night, and his mama mouse's efforts to find him shelter and warmth. Various animals offer the mouse family their shelters because they're "off to see a king", but one by one the shelters blow away, and the mouse and her shivering baby have to move on. Finally, they see a small shack exuding warm light, and...well, you can guess where the story goes from here. While the story is not overly religious -- there's no talk of miracles or angels or praise, no mention of god or Jesus -- it obviously references Jesus' birth scene (the manger, the animals, the gentle mother figure, etc.), so if that's not something you're comfortable with, skip this one. I'm not a religious person, but I enjoy the Christmas story and, particularly as a mother, I love the comforting message of this book.

How do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas? by Jane Yolen
How do Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas? We really enjoy the How do Dinosaurs...? series, and this is actually one of my favorite volumes. It's so much fun watching the "bad" example dinosaurs doing all the things they aren't meant to do -- searching for their presents, pulling down the tree, dumping out stockings, eating Santa's cookies -- before the contrasting good dinos are introduced. The usual fun illustrations (I always love the parents' facial expressions) and well-structured rhymes. I'd definitely put this on the must-read list for light Christmas fun.

The Last Christmas Tree by Stephen Krensky
The Last Christmas Tree. A sweet little book about a Charlie Brown-esque Christmas tree -- small, sparse branches, kind of hunched -- with lots of Christmas spirit who is devastated as all the other trees in the tree lot are chosen, leaving him all alone (and decorated with a "Free" sign instead of the ornaments and lights he'd hoped for) on Christmas Eve. But before you get too sad for him, know that there's someone who recognizes a spirited little tree when he sees it, and that someone welcomes the little tee into the most Christmas-y home of all. Sweet book with cute illustrations. (Toddler X can't get enough of the monogrammed stockings hanging by the fireplace on the last page -- do you know who they're for?)

The Christmas Bears by Chris Conover
The Christmas Bears. Another really fun one! Beautifully illustrated with full spread pictures between every page of text, this one follows a big bear family as they prepare to celebrate Christmas. There's lots of joy and togetherness, helping to prepare a meal and working in the workshop with papa to make toys. It's sweet and non-commercial, and it seems to celebrate family and togetherness more than anything else -- a very authentic Christmas. Worth adding to the shelf.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Who doesn't love this book? Our copy of the Grinch resides in the midst of a big book of Seuss classics, and it's definitely my favorite to read. If you're searching for a story with an actual Christmas moral, here's your winner -- the Grinch's realization that maybe Christmas is about something more than presents provides an excellent reminder for us all. This is a no-brainer for any Christmas reading list.

Little Blue Truck's Christmas by Alice Schertle

Little Blue Truck's Christmas. If your toddler enjoys the first Little Blue Truck books, he or she will like this one as well. Often I find Christmas versions of popular series to be total let-downs -- I didn't like Merry Christmas, Stinky Face at all -- but this one is very cute. Blue is in charge of delivering Christmas trees to his animal friends, with a toddler-friendly countdown motif and the same cute illustrations and rhymes as in the original. There's no deep storyline, but it's a fun read for a 1-3 year old. The surprise on the last page will delight toddlers.

Llama Llama Holiday Drama by Anna Dewdney

Llama Llama, Holiday Drama. I've always loved the Llama Llama series, from way back when my now 9 year-old niece was a toddler and I first read the Red Pajama book. The Christmas version of Llama's adventures is written/illustrated in the same style, and is very cute. It addresses all the anticipation and busyness of the weeks leading up to Christmas, and how easy it is for someone -- particularly a child -- to get overwhelmed. Fortunately, Mama Llama has just the cure of the "holidrama", and it's an ending that will remind you to pause, hug your little one, and be grateful for the quieter, more reflective moments of the season - you know, like the ones spent reading a book by the tree.

Fa La La by Leslie Patricelli
Fa La La. A great pick for younger toddlers, this is Leslie Patricelli's take on the Christmas book genre. Like all of her books, Fa La La features a cute little diaper clad toddler and his happy parents, in this case choosing a tree, making presents, visiting Santa, and caroling, among other holiday activities. It's actually a very cute little board book, definitely a good pick for a one or two year old.

Carl's Christmas by Alexandra Day
Carl's Christmas. What a great book! Our elderly neighbor, who has a vast collection of Christmas books, brought this over for Toddler X to enjoy, and we've read it -- or looked at it, actually, as it doesn't have any text -- many times over the past few weeks. It's about a lovable rottweiler who is charged with babysitting the family's toddler for the evening (don't think about it too much), and who then sets off on a sweet Christmas adventure with his young charge. Again, there's no text, so you tell your own story based on the pictures -- take some time to soak in the details, as they're delightful.

Olive, the Other Reindeer by Vivian Walsh
Olive, the Other Reindeer. A kind gift from a reader last Christmas, this was the only Christmas book that stayed on Toddler X's bookshelf throughout the year because he loved it that much. Admittedly, it is a cute book about a little doggie (maybe a Jack Russell?) who realizes she must be a reindeer after misconstruing the words to a Christmas carol, but after about 40 reads, I needed a break. Fortunately, he forgot about it from summer onward, and we were able to pull it out again last week and have it feel new. Nothing particularly deep here -- just a silly story that your toddler may love.

Jingle-Jingle by Nicola Smee
Jingle, Jingle. Toddler X loved this book last year, and he loves it again this year. It's a light, easy read, about some happy animals cruising around on a sleigh. Toddler X loves the repetition, the sound effects, and the imagery -- this is a fun one to read. It's a board book, so good for even the youngest toddlers, but I'd say most 3 or 4 year olds would still enjoy this book too.

Deck the Walls! by Erin Dealey
Deck the Walls. This was a library find this year, and Toddler X enjoys it so much that it will probably be added to our permanent collection. It's a goofy take on "Deck the Halls" (if you haven't already figured that out), with kids celebrating the holiday in wacky fashion. (An example: "Deck the walls with mashed potatoes, fa la la la la, la la la la. Build a snowman with tomatoes, fa la la la la, la la la la.) Like most preschoolers, Toddler X loves it when words to songs are changed or pictures depict out of the ordinary occurrences, so this book is lots of fun for him. Overall, an enjoyable read with an older toddler/preschooler.

My Penguin Osbert by Elizabeth Cody Kimmel
My Penguin Osbert. This is a really cute book for preschoolers and beyond about a little boy who gets more than he bargained for when Santa grants his Christmas wish for a real, live penguin. Lots of humor in it for parents, and I guess a good lesson for kids about not asking for something you can't handle.

Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree by Robert Barry
Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree. This fun book follows a grand Christmas tree through many iterations as its top is chopped off to help it fit in one person/creature's living space after another, and eventually brings it full circle. It's sweet to see how the recipient of each smaller and smaller portion of the tree is grateful for and excited about his or her share. Again, a good message about gratitude and appreciation of the special things in your life, even if they may not be as grand as someone else's.

The Christmas Wish by Lori Evert
The Christmas Wish. The jaw-dropping pictures/photos in this book are the big attraction, taken by the author's photographer husband (who's worked for National Geographic, Audubon, etc.) of their adorable daughter interacting with polar animals (don't worry -- I think there was some photoshopping going on, and she didn't really lie down to nap with a bear or cruise on her skis behind a reindeer). Anja's beautiful blond braids and bright red clothes stand out against the backdrops of snowy white, as she leaves her home to go join Santa as an elf. This is a beautiful book to look at, and would be a neat gift for party hosts or a family you're visiting over the holidays -- adults might even like this book more than kids.

I'll keep adding to this list as I discover more great books, and I'm always open to suggestions! Wishing all my readers and your families a wonderful holiday season!

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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Top Toddler Toys: A Play Kitchen and All the Fixings

Cooking at home, almost 4 years old
(Note: This post was originally published in November 2015, when Toddler X was just shy of 4 years old. Now it's Baby X, at 15 months old, who is loving this kitchen and all that comes with it!)

When I think of the quintessential toddler/preschooler toy, it's hard to come up with anything better than a play kitchen. Play kitchens and food are fixtures in preschools, play places, and home playrooms everywhere. Just scanning through photos for this post, I found pictures of Toddler X enjoying play kitchens at Whimsy, Billy Beez, Play!, La Petite Playhouse, the Duck Pond, the Children's Discovery Museum, Lemon Tree, Tahoe Tot Spot -- and, of course, our playroom and those of several of his friends.

Children's Discovery Museum, almost 3 years old
Why are play kitchens and food so ubiquitous at toddler/preschool hot spots? Because kids love them! Pretend play is the basis of SO much learning in these early years, and much of it is modeled after the real-life activities of adults. Kids have watched their parents shop for and unload groceries, prepare meals, set the table, and sit down to eat at home and at restaurants -- why wouldn't they want to emulate that in their pretend world?

The Duck Pond, 17 months old
Toddler X received his play kitchen shortly before his 2nd birthday, and it has gotten daily use ever since (coming up on two years now!). We've added lots of fun accoutrements over the past two years -- appliances, food sets, a tea set, etc. -- and each one has been a worthwhile investment. Every day, he finds a new way to play with these items, from making breakfast for mom and dad, to running a restaurant, to building a grocery store out of Magna-Tiles or Tegu, to (most recently) feeding dolls. Every day, he enjoys these toys, and every day, he learns.

Tahoe Tot Spot, 3 1/2 years old
Having played with our own play kitchen, as well as those at friends' houses, preschool, and countless toddler/preschooler play places, I've had a chance to experience/observe a lot of different products in action. If you're looking to create a kitchen for your child or add some "fixings" to the one you already have, here are my top recommendations. Enjoy!

A Play Kitchen...

This gets play time every. single. day.
A Kidkraft Kitchen. Almost all of our friends and many indoor play spaces have some form of KidKraft kitchen. Though these are a beast to put together, they are absolutely adorable and very sturdy and well-made. Toddler X got his for Christmas when he was just shy of two years old, and it has seen play time every day since. He'll be turning four in a few months, and I don't see his interest waning at all. It is the centerpiece of our playroom and has brought him so much joy.

In terms of which model to get, you probably can't go wrong with any of them, but the one we have (and see most frequently at play places) is the Vintage (or Retro). They have it in several colors (we chose red), or in a two piece style for more flexibility in placement (see the pink one below -- two of our friends have that version). You should be able to find the Vintage on Amazon for $120 or less -- if you see it higher, wait a bit, as it's frequently on sale. You can often find even lower prices, down to just over $100, if you're flexible as to the color. Here are a few examples of different styles (ours is on the left) -- you can't go wrong, so just choose the one that fits your budget/aesthetic.


The only negative about the KidKraft kitchen is that it is a beast to put together -- if you plan to give it to your child on Christmas morning, start working the night before. But once put together, it is solid and secure -- ours hasn't required a single screw tightening in almost two years.

If the KidKraft doesn't appeal to you, our other top pick is the Hape Playfully Delicious Gourmet Kitchen, pictured below. It's adorable, compact, and very well-made. While its standard price point is usually the same as the KidKraft kitchens, I've seen the Hape go on sale for as low as the mid $80s, so keep an eye out if this is the kitchen you want.

And finally, Ikea makes a cute and very inexpensive kitchen that is less substantial but can still provide for plenty of toddler/preschooler fun. 

...And all the "fixings"!

Hape Kitchen Appliances and Cookware. I discovered Hape during Toddler X's infancy because of their beautiful wooden baby toys, and we've fallen even more in love with this brand during the toddler years. When it comes to kitchen accessories, these are definitely our top picks.

A perfect, durable basic set.

When Grandma and Pops gave Toddler X his KidKraft kitchen, they were kind enough to include the Hape Playfully Delicious Kitchen Starter Set to get him off and cookin'. This wonderful, all wood set includes a pot and pan, a ladle and spatula, two place settings, and salt and pepper shakers. The pieces are as solid and well-made as could be -- after two years of hard play, they are in perfect condition (except for some crayon marks, but that's certainly not Hape's fault). This set is a pure winner.

That same year, knowing that Toddler X would be getting a play kitchen for Christmas, a friend gave him the Hape Playfully Delicious Toaster, and our love affair with Hape's Playfully Delicious kitchen appliances was born. In the two years since, we've added the Coffee Maker and the Mixer, and all three are incredible toys. Not only are they adorable, but they come with moving parts and accessories that make them so much fun to play with.
I dare you not to try to
flip the toast out onto the plate...
The Toaster Play Set comes with two slices of bread, which it pops up (or flips out) with a lever, as well as a plate, a knife, some sliceable butter and a bottle of honey (all wood, all cute as can be).

The Coffee Maker Play Set emulates a Keurig, with a little coffee pod that you can put in and a start button -- it comes with a mug, cream and sugar (again, all wood and adorable).

And finally, the Mighty Mixer Play Set has a knob that allows you to actually spin the mixing wand, and has a knob to turn up the speed. It comes with a plastic bowl and fabric pouches of brown sugar and flour.

Overall, we've been absolutely delighted with the look, functionality and durability of the Hape Playfully Delicious line -- like I said, Toddler X plays hard and uses these toys every day, and almost two years later, they're still going strong. These appliances generally retail in the mid $20s, but you can occasionally find them on sale for as low as $18 -- if you see that deal, jump on it!



Toddlers love to wheel their possessions from room to room.
A Shopping Cart. It is amazing how much fun kids can have with a simple shopping cart -- and how great shopping carts are for quick cleanup of play food (and everything else)!

Just throw everything in the cart...
Shopping carts are hugely popular at every single indoor play place, and Toddler X loves his at home. This is one item where we went with plastic -- the Little Tikes Shopping Cart -- because I found a great deal on it, but I was very, very torn between that and the Melissa and Doug Shopping Cart in metal, which we've enjoyed at various play places (and which is the the #1 shopping cart sold on Amazon). The Little Tikes one works just great, while the Melissa and Doug one is adorable, but more expensive (and metal, so be careful with walls and shins). You can't go wrong with either.



Solid wood, absolutely adorable.
A Tea Set. We adore our Plan Toys tea set pictured above. It's made of solid wood and is simple, sturdy, and small, but not tiny. The two tea bags are adorable, and Toddler X loves bringing us tea and adding cream and sugar (and honey, from his Hape toaster set). (Note that the sugar cubes are teensy and are definitely something to take away until you're certain your child won't put them in his or her mouth.) If you're looking for a simple, gender-neutral tea set that any child will love, this is a perfect one.

The other big contenders for us were the Hape tea set (which Toddler X has really enjoyed at play places like Whimsy, but which seemed really diminutive in size), and the Green Toys set in primary colors (which is a bit larger, but didn't match the rest of our kitchen wares at all). Both of those are other great options, and the Green Toys set is actually food-safe and dishwasher-safe, which is neat.


New Sprouts food is perfect for toddler hands!
Play Food. What is a kitchen without play food? There are a ton of great play food sets from our favorite toy makers -- Learning Resources (New Sprouts), Hape, Melissa and Doug -- some of which we own, and some of which we've enjoyed tremendously at friends' houses or play places like Whimsy, Lemon Tree, Play! Los Altos and the Tahoe Tot Spot.

Here are my top picks:

Enjoying some of his New Sprouts play food
  • Learning Resources' New Sprouts line: This is the primary set of play food at our house, and we love it dearly. We have three baskets worth of food, representing breakfast, lunch and dinner choices. The pieces are rubber, which is not usually my thing, but the material is perfect for play food -- it's soft and pliable, more fun to hold and pretend eat than wooden food, and seems to sit better (or at least more naturally) on plates and in pans. The pieces are perfectly sized for little hands. We've had our set for almost two years and they've held up great.

    For once, though, I'm going to recommend that you not purchase the three basket set on Amazon. We got ours at Costco at Christmas time two years ago, and purchased all three baskets (breakfast, lunch and dinner) for about $18. Guess how much Amazon sells a similar (though slightly larger) set for? Over $50!

    Amazon is the place to go for many of Learning Resources' New Sprouts specialty sets (the adorable fruit salad, the fruit and veggie bag, and the cookout set are all good deals at around $20), but for the basic food items, try to find the big set at Costco around the holidays. The food items in the sets below are the same size/material as the ones in our set (and many of the pieces overlap between sets), so I feel comfortable recommending these as excellent play food sets.
    • Hape Playfully Delicious food playsets: The Hape Playfully Delicious line, which accounts for almost all our cookware and play appliances, also produces some of the cutest play food sets I've ever seen, all of which are very highly rated on Amazon. We've had the opportunity to play with some of them at friends' houses or play places (the sushi set and the salad set are absolutely adorable!) and Toddler X will be receiving the kebab set with the grill he's getting for Christmas. Like with every Hape toy I've encountered, these (and the many other specialty food sets Hape makes) are total winners. (I also included the strawberry pancake set in the links below just because I think it's adorable -- I've never played with it, but I feel confident that it's as good as the reviews say.)
      • Melissa and Doug playsets: Not surprisingly, Melissa and Doug sells a bunch of extremely popular, very cute wooden food playsets. (They actually have some nice felt ones as well -- we've played with the sandwich one, and it was lots of fun and definitely high quality). There's one for every toddler interest, so take a look at the whole array -- two that Toddler X loves are the Pizza Party Set (so much fun to create pizzas with all the toppings, bake them in his oven, and "slice" the pieces with the roller) and the Slice and Bake Cookie Set (which comes with an oven mitt and baking pan, which he loves). I'm including a link to the sushi set too because I think it's so darn cute -- I have no personal experience with it, but the reviews are great, so I'm comfortable including it.

        A Cash Register. A cash register brings a whole new level of pretend fun to a kitchen, as you get to play grocery store or cafe (not to mention all the non-kitchen-related pretend play fun you can have -- we love to do a pet store with Toddler X's stuffed animals). Grandma X got Toddler X the Learning Resources Pretend & Play Calculator Cash Register, and it's absolutely perfect. The drawer opens with a delightful chime, the credit card swiper beeps (a plastic credit card is included), and the calculator actually works, making it a great learning tool. We took the plastic coins away because Toddler X was just shy of 2 when he received this, and we only gave him about ten of the paper money pieces (you get a whole stack), but we augment his stash with all the store loyalty program cards we have lying around, and he's happy as a clam. I think this is a great educational toy that has tons of different uses.


        A Chef Costume. The Melissa and Doug Chef Role Play Costume Set is a great gift for a little chef who already has lots of kitchen features, or an add-on to the gift of a new play kitchen. Toddler X doesn't actually have this set at home, but he loves it whenever he finds it at a play place (and judging from the kids running around in these at Billy Beez, other toddlers love it too). The hat, the oven mitt and the little kitchen tools round out a very cute set. This is sized for kids 3 and up.


        The Hape Playfully Delicious Gourmet Grill. This will be Toddler X's Christmas present this year -- he has absolutely loved playing with it at both Whimsy and Lemon Tree, and when I saw a great deal on Amazon, I couldn't resist. This little set is adorable -- in addition to the grill, the set includes wooden shish kebabs and fixings, all on little skewers. Toddler X's favorite part seems to be opening the grill hood and trying to see how much food he can pile inside -- not the best cooking technique, but hey, he's three. (Update: We love this grill!! It's a great play kitchen alternative if you don't have a lot of space, super well-made, and so much fun!)


        Selling ice cream at Tahoe Tot Spot
        The Melissa and Doug Grocery Store/Lemonade Stand. If we had extra room in our playroom, this would definitely be at the top of my "big gifts" list for Toddler X. This little two-sided stand -- one set up for selling groceries, the other for lemonade -- is absolutely adorable, and Toddler X has loved playing with it at various play places over the past few years. It's a great way to extend the kitchen pretend play element into the outside world, with kids buying/selling items (great for working on number and money concepts), loading shopping carts, and taking their "purchases" home to place in the kitchen. The bins are also great for sorting fun -- you can sort by color, by food type, whatever. If your child already has a kitchen and you're looking for a related gift (oh, and you have a large playroom), this is a winner.

        So, that's it! If you're starting from scratch, my first recommendations would be:
        1. A kitchen (obviously). The KidKraft ones are my top picks.
        2. A basic set of play food (ideally the New Sprouts baskets from Costco, but you can't go wrong with any of the New Sprouts, Hape or Melissa and Doug sets). 
        3. The Hape Playfully Delicious Kitchen Starter Set, which has a pot, a pan, plates, utensils and salt and pepper shakers. 
        After that, I'd probably invest in the shopping cart -- not only does it allow for grocery store play, but it's a great way to clean up play food and accessories!

        If your child already has those basics, I highly recommend the Hape Playfully Delicious accessories, like the coffee maker, toaster and mixer, as a next step -- at just under $20 (when on sale), they're great deals for the quality.

        The specialty food sets by Melissa and Doug, Hape and New Sprouts are also reasonably-priced add-ons to a kitchen set, and it's fun to pick sets based on your child's interests (we love pizza, so the Melissa and Doug pizza set was a no-brainer -- others might gravitate toward the pasta set or the sushi).

        If your toddler already has a well-established play kitchen, and you're looking for a big gift, the Hape grill and the Melissa and Doug grocery store/lemonade stand are both adorable.

        Hopefully you find this useful as you think about setting up a play kitchen for your toddler! Toddler X's kitchen has brought him (and us) so much joy over the past two years, and I'm so glad that I get to share some of my favorite elements with you.

        Happy cooking!

        Hmm...what to do today?