How “Meal Squeeze” Meal Planning Service Saves my Sanity

meal planning working momsMeal Planning used to be one of my most-dreaded tasks. I would spend literally hours every week trying to cobble together recipes from Pinterest, cookbooks and facebook, write grocery lists, and then forget to do prep steps or misjudge how long a recipe would take from start to finish. I would spend precious time at work worrying about what to make for dinner or wondering if I had the groceries in the house for a complete recipe. I don’t hate cooking and have a deep desire to feed my family a variety of healthy meals,  but I just didn’t know where to start.

meal squeeze circle

For the past year (*UPDATE: I’ve now been a member over 2 years and still love it!), I’ve been using a super-affordable, convenient meal-planning service  called “Meal Squeeze” to take all the guesswork out of planning healthier meals that my family will enjoy. It has literally been life-changing and is my #1 “working mom hack” that I recommend to everyone!

Here’s what you get for a $39/year Basic annual subscription:

  • Weekly Meal Plan for 7 Dinners and 1 dessert (choose 2,4,6,8 servings)
  • Includes meal AND sides, ready at the same time (one of my biggest weaknesses)
  • Most meals ready in 30 minutes or less if you do the weekend prep list (perfect for busy families)
  • Printable Grocery list that’s easy to customize (or download an editable version!)
  • Nutrition facts for all meals
  • Conversation Starters to make dinner meaningful family time
  • Access to lunch, snack, slow cooker and smoothies ideas
  • Members-only facebook group with cooking/prepping tips from a registered dietitian who will answer your specific questions! (one of my favorite perks)
  • $2 off $10 fresh meat/produce coupon good at Orange City, Sioux Center, Sheldon, Lemars, IA Fareway Food Stores. (this helps my subscription pay for itself) Limit your use to 1x per week!
  • $5 off $20 at Sioux Center, Le Mars, Storm Lake, IA Hy-Vee grocery stores. Limit your use to 1x per week!

My daughter LOVES to go grocery shopping with me!

grocery shopping

If you’d rather go digital, a Premium Plan is only $10 more per year. At $49/year, it’s the most affordable meal planning service I’ve seen.

Additional services in Premium Plan:

  • Meal Plans are sent to ModernMeal website and app
  • Mobile grocery list you can customize and check off while shopping
  • Access to ALL past recipes with a search function (great for finding your favorites)
  • Ability to customize serving size on any recipe or filter by allergens (great when hosting)
  • Calendar to customize and add additional meals – plan breakfast, lunch and dinner

Basic Annual Subscription: $39 Annual or $5 Monthly

Premium Annual Subscription: $49 Annual or $7 Monthly

Click here to subscribe or use the Join Button below. Let me know what you think!

If you found my review helpful, I would super-appreciate you putting in my name “Courtney Boone” when it asks who referred you.


Does your family like the meals?

My husband is not a picky eater, but has REALLY enjoyed the variety and healthier options without ever feeling like he was on a “diet”. The kids (age 5-10) are apprehensive about unfamiliar foods sometimes, but have discovered MANY new foods they enjoy (my 7-year-old LOVES roasted brussel sprouts!!) and the recipes are family-friendly. My goal is to give them lots of healthy options and teach them to try new things but I do modify once in a while, leaving a sauce off some things or offering the ingredients deconstructed.

Does it use a lot of weird ingredients my store doesn’t carry or I’ve never heard of?

I have found this to be much more “midwest/small-town” friendly than other services. I shop at Fareway Food stores and can find most ingredients. Hy-Vee carries all of the ingredients and shopping at bigger chains like Walmart, etc. will guarantee you can find the produce, meat cuts, and spices that are staples. Modifications are also easy if you can’t find an ingredient or prefer a different vegetable.

Will I have to buy a lot of ingredients I’ll never use again?

The meal plan does a good job of using up ingredients from previous recipes/plans, so the more you use it, the more efficient you’ll be. I’ve bought more vinegars, cooking wines/sauces and spices than I did previously and definitely buy a wider variety of produce and meat cuts but have really enjoyed the variety.

Will I spend more at the grocery store on this meal plan?

That depends on your current habits! At first, I thought my grocery bills were a bit higher due to more fresh produce and higher quality meat than I’d previously purchased, but I noticed a BIG difference in how little we were throwing OUT because we had less leftovers that were forgotten, less ingredients spoiled before we used them (lack of planning) and although we don’t eat out frequently, having a meal half-prepped and already planned for the night GREATLY reduces the impulse to order take-out or make frequent “filler” trips to the grocery store. Overall, I’ve kept my grocery budget at $600/month for a family of 5 including ALL paper/cleaning goods as well. (LCOL area)

What are the recipes like?

A variety is offered every week, but there is usually one meatless option. Other things on the menu frequently: sheet-pan dinners including meat and veggies, whole wheat pasta dishes, stir-fries, soups, salads, Mexican and Asian-inspired meals, “meat and potatoes” meals, slow-cooker recipes (can be modified to Instant Pot). A LOT of the meals are stove-top skillet-type meals, so you’ll want a large high-walled skillet with a lid, but no other special equipment should be needed.


How do I get started?

Click here to subscribe.



Black Hills Family Vacation: Itinerary

black hills vacation guideWe just returned from a 7-day, 6-night family vacation to the Black Hills of South Dakota and had such a fun trip! Since I found family vacation itineraries helpful in planning for our Black Hills Trip, I wanted to share mine and include some tips for maximizing your trip and how to keep it more affordable.

First a few details. We are a family of 5 with kids ranging from age 3-8 so everything on our trip was geared toward those ages. We are glad we waited until our youngest was old enough to walk/hike herself, but went before our oldest outgrew some of the popular kid-friendly Black Hills attractions. We drove in from the East so Days 1 and 7 will only make sense if you’re coming from that direction. We took a mini-van with lots of snacks, soft-side coolers, and comfortable clothes. Sunscreen and bug spray are a must.

Lodging: Comfort Inn & Suites near Mount Rushmore (Hill City, SD)

We opted for a 3-queen bed hotel room over a cabin and it worked great for us. It’s hard to find hotel rooms to fit a family of five comfortably, but having a large room with 2 queen bed plus another room with a queen bed/chair/dresser/TV for mom and dad fit the bill perfectly. We had a free hot breakfast every morning with many options including Belgian waffles, eggs and sausages, all the staple continental options, fruit. etc. It was handy  having an indoor pool and hot tub because we mostly swam when it was raining. The kitchenette included a microwave, coffee maker and mini fridge with freezer! This was key to allowing us to pack a picnic and cold drinks everyday while actually freezing our ice packs.  There are many lodging options but I am not the camping type and I would highly recommend this hotel in particular. Located in Hill City, it’s very centrally located to all Black Hills activities, clean and updated and had a well-run breakfast.

How to save: I booked at least 6 months in advance since prices change as you near the summer. I became a Choice Privileges member (sign up here to get 500 bonus points after your first stay) and opened a Choice Privileges credit card and met the minimum spend of $1000 in 90 days to get 30,000 bonus points. The points ended up being worth about $230 worth of free lodging and I bought some points to get an even 2 nights paid with points. The points we earn paying for the other 4 nights (12,000+)  will net us a free night for a regular room at a later time.

Day 1: Travel via I-90 from the East into Hill City

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Chamberlain Rest Stop

Chamberlain, SD

Take a rest stop between exits 263 and 265 on I-90 near Chamberlain, SD. View the statue “Dignity” honoring the Dakota and Lakota tribes, view the Lewis & Clark exhibits indoors, and take the short trail to an overlook of the Missouri River.

Ways to Save: FREE plus includes lots of visitor guides you can take for your trip.

Verdict: Great rest stop and a beautiful statue. Take the short hike if you have time.

minutemenMinutemen Missile National Historic Site

near Philip, SD

Stop at the Minutemen Missile National Historic Site Visitors Center just off I-90 on Exit 131 and view exhibits and a video about the Cold War-era missile program. We also drove 15 miles west and used exit 115 to get to the Delta 09 missile silo. This is on a gravel road and parking is limited. An audio tour is available via cell phone.

Ways to Save: FREE unless you want a ranger-guided tour of Delta 01 silo

Verdict: It was interesting and had nice bathrooms, but not a must-stop if you’re not a history buff.

wall drug

Wall Drug

Wall, SD

After seeing 87.5 signs along our route (we had fun keeping track), you can’t NOT stop at Wall Drug. After parking, we headed straight through the shops to the “Backyard” for free ice water and lots of photo ops on a giant jack-a-lope, rail car, covered wagon and bucking bronco.

Ways to Save: FREE unless you want to buy a souvenir, food, or coin-operated fortune teller. We didn’t buy anything and enjoyed the free ice water.

Verdict: You have to stop once in a lifetime and the pictures were fun.


Reptile Gardens

Rapid City, SD

Since the weather was great, we decided to visit Reptile Gardens on our way through Rapid City. We arrived around 4:00pm and were able to catch the Bird Show, Snake show and Gator Show, then toured the indoor exhibits and left around 6pm. The gator show, especially, was entertaining and the colorful flowers makes this fun for everyone to see. Petting a 112-year-old giant tortoise and a python are things they haven’t done before!

Ways to Save: Our family’s entrance fee was $60 and if you ask for a “vacation pass” it will get you in for your entire stay. We didn’t end up coming back, but some might want to. You could get nickel-and-dimed to death here with tons of coin-operated add-ons but we didn’t not do any of those and didn’t buy any food. Prep your kids if you don’t plan to spend any money inside the park. 

Verdict: The kids really enjoyed this as their first paid “attraction” and 2 hours was enough time to see everything. You could skip the snake show, but don’t miss the gator show. Trey was a great guide. This would be good for all ages and is not that large so it’s easy to walk around without needing a stroller, plus 4 and under is FREE. 



Hill City, SD

After checking into our hotel, we went downtown in Hill City to find dinner and had a 15-minute wait at Desperado’s. It’s an old log-hewn building and good comfort food. I had a terrific chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and green beans.

Ways to Save: Consider having your kids share meals (2 kids meals for 3 of them) or eating off your plate if they don’t generally eat a lot.

Verdict: Nice meal, great waitress (Cheyenne) and good food. We recommend!


Day 2: Wind Cave, The Mammoth Site, Needles Highway, Silver Dollar Saloon


Wind Cave National Park

11 miles north of Hot Springs, SD

We drove south to Wind Cave National Park to the visitor’s center and signed up for the Natural Entrance Cave Tour. These tours are first-come, first-served, so we were glad we got on the next tour starting in 30 minutes which is enough time to see a few exhibits. We had a great guide, Ranger Joe, and heard about the discovery and history of the Wind Cave and then walked the  1 hour, 15 minute tour. Our 3-year-old was a trooper, but I could see some younger kids getting scared as it’s tight, steep and dark in places. Not the traditional stalactites and stalagmites since it’s so far below the surface, but neat to see if you’ve never been in a cave.

Ways to Save: The fees for this tour were $12 for adults, $6 for kids 6-16 and 5 and under were free. There is a cheaper/shorter tour if you have younger kids. I’d go first thing in the morning.

Verdict: Fascinating to hear about the history and then see the cave formations. Nice to go to a National Park cave and not a commercialized one. The kids thought it was cool but not their favorite part. Educational, though. Do not go if you are claustrophobic.


The Mammoth Site

Hot Springs, SD

Hot Springs seemed like a cool little town but we didn’t explore much, just drove through on our way to The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, SD. The dig site itself contains 60+ mammoth who were trapped in a pond created by a sink-hole and it’s an active site where you can even talk to the archaeologists in the lab as they work. We did the video, then a tour with headphones that hurt the kids ears with a slightly unenthusiastic guide. No one was “working the dig” at the time.  There were a few other exhibits to see and a sand box with a few “fossils” to brush off, but not as much interactive stuff for kids as I had hoped. I believe you’d have to sign up for one of the “educational classes” for your kids to actually do stuff, but you had to be 4 to sign up, so we didn’t stay for that.

Ways to Save: We paid $10.15 per adult, $7.37 for kids 4-12 and 3 and under was free for the guided tour. We didn’t do the Jr. Paleontologist program which would have been another $11.06 per child and didn’t buy any souvenirs. We actually ate our lunch during the drive from Wind Cave to Hot Springs.

Verdict: For some reason, our kids just weren’t into it. I’m sure some love it, but ours were just not “digging it”. If we ever headed this way again, we’d probably check out Trout Haven Ranch (catch and keep your own trout from stock ponds) in Buffalo Gap north of Hot Springs. 


Needles Highway

Custer, SD

We were planning to head to Sylvan Lake and since all the kids were sleeping, my husband convinced me to take the Needles Highway. Here is a good recap from some other travelers. I get extremely carsick and did 100% of the driving in South Dakota. I would have been puking as a passenger for sure. The kids woke up by the first overlook we stopped at and thought the tunnels and mountain goats were cool. We ended at Sylvan Lake Day Access parking lot and had just climbed to the top of a big rock when it started to rain. It was a fast jog back to the van to beat the downpour (and hail) so we decided to come back to the lake a different day and swim

at the hotel instead.

Ways to Save: It costs $20 for a week pass into Custer State Park, but worth it if you want to drive the highway and spend time at Sylvan Lake or hiking other areas of the park.

Verdict: Not for the motion-sick members of your family or large vehicles, but neat for everyone else. It does take 45-60 minutes so plan on it and be careful. Next time, I’d pick up a Junior Ranger handbook at the ranger station as we entered near Custer and would explore more of Custer State Park.

silver dollar

Silver Dollar Saloon

Hill City, SD

We were looking for pizza for supper and stopped south of Hill City at a saloon with good reviews. It was a very laid-back find-your-own-table cash-only takes-a-while sort of place but we ordered a 14″ pepperoni/cheese and a 10″ chicken fajita pizza and polished it all off. Watched the Home Run Derby and unwound from the day

Ways to Save: We saved a lot by ordering pizza to share ($32 with tip) and had our customary water to drink. Watching other families order apps, entrees and multiple beers made us realize it’s not so much the prices at the restaurants, it’s what you choose to order. The cheese curds did look amazing though.

Verdict: Excellent pizza, friendly staff, just be prepared for very laid back “leave the cash on the counter” atmosphere. Would go again.

Day 3: Mount Rushmore, Alpine Slide, Cosmos Mystery Area, Old-Time Photos,  Powder House Lodge

rushmoreMount Rushmore National Memorial

Keystone, SD

We arrived at  Mount Rushmore by 8:45am before it got busy. Avenue of flags was nice. Go down into the balcony seats of the amphitheater for less crowded pictures. Take the Presidential Train around to the left and read about the presidents (part of the trail is closed). There was an activity area for kids near the teepee. We watched the movie inside and explored the exhibits-the favorite being selecting a spot on the memorial and then watching it explode as you pushed down the dynamite pump. This was one of the only gift shops we browsed and picked out Christmas ornaments to commemorate the trip.

Ways to Save: Pay $10 for parking and you can get in all week (we came back another night). Bring your own water and snacks if you don’t want to be allured by the ice cream. We did not pay for the audio tour and thought the free movie gave enough info.

Verdict: You simply have to stop here when in the Black Hills. Parking wasn’t as ominous as I thought and there are new speed-parking terminals coming this fall! Don’t skip the trails.

slideAlpine Slide at Rushmore Tramway Adventures

Keystone, SD

The Alpine Slide is just off the highway in Keystone and there are several other things to do like a zipline, ropes course, etc. but we were keyed in on the Alpine Slide. A ski lift takes you to the top of the (very tall) hill with a distant Mount Rushmore view on the way. You go down the track on a cart controlled by stick-break. Kids 6 and under have to go with an adult, but all of us really had fun and if it weren’t so expensive, would have done it again. We went in 2 groups so the others could take pictures/video. There is more to explore in Keystone, but since we were trying to spend money on experiences instead of candy or souvenirs, we moved on.

Ways to Save: One ride is $12 for age 7-adult and $6 for ages 2-6, so we paid $48 for one trip up the lift and one ride down the hill. You can buy 10 rides for $85 so do that right away if you want 2 rides, especially if your whole party is over age 6. 

Verdict: Very fun, even if it feels short. If you have older/braver kids, they might like the other things this park offers and could do a more complete package. Operators were happy and helpful.


Cosmos Mystery House

Keystone, SD

The Cosmos Mystery Area is is an unusual attraction offering guided tours through an area that seems to have a different gravitational pull than normal. They go through a series of experiments where water flows uphill, balls roll the wrong way on a slanted board, and people appear shorter, then taller than each other. Here’s a video that helps explain it better. I skipped the tour due to motion sickness and everyone seemed to come out of it a little woozy, so beware. We also let the kids hunt for geodes in the sand pile and then crack them open since one of our kids is really interested in geodes. We ate our picnic lunch on their umbrella-covered tables as it was a gorgeous day again.

Ways to save: Tickets are $11 for adults, $6 for ages 5-11 and free under 5. Geodes are $8, but only $6 if you add them to your tour tickets. So, we spent $41. The geodes aren’t a must-do if your kids aren’t into that.

Verdict: Those who went on the tour didn’t feel great afterwards but they were kind of amazed or at least intrigued by what they saw. Not sure it’s a must-do and wouldn’t recommend for anyone with motion sickness.

old-time.jpgProfessor Samuel’s Portrait Emporium

Keystone, SD

We checked out several “old-time photo” places in the Black Hills and it’s hard to find pricing unless you call or walk in and depends on the size of your group and what you buy to print/add on as a CD. We actually meant to go to a different one in Keystone but walked into Professor Samuel’s by mistake and their prices were lower and we liked the backdrops better. They only bummer is the other place in Keystone would do different poses like just kids, just mom & dad, etc. and this one didn’t.  The costumes fit over your clothes and they are quick to pick things out for you. I wish I’d had a mirror to fix my hair and adjust my hat, but they whisk you through pretty quickly. We changes props and who was smiling but couldn’t change poses/people. The boys loved picking out their own guns and their soldier outfits. You could view your photos right afterwards and choose one to print along with options on frames, then come back to pick them up in 45 minutes.

Ways to Save: We wanted the CD, not just the printed picture, and this was the most affordable one we saw. We bought an 8×10 with frame for $77 and added the CD for $35 (at other places, the CD was $50). 

Verdict: Quite a bit to spend but it was fun and we both had done this as kids and remember seeing those photos for years afterwards, so hopefully it will be a lasting momentum of our trip. I suggest asking for pricing and looking at the samples before committing to a certain place.

Powder House Lodge

Keystone, SD

Just outside of downtown, this was a restaurant attached to Powder House lodge. After a short wait, we were seated and had excellent service from the staff and host and a great meal. I had the Louisiana Cajun Pasta which was amazing, my husband had the Powder House Chicken, all served with bread and salad. The kids chicken strips were huge! There is also lots of game-style meals to choose.

Ways to Save: We spent around $50 on this meal with tip (waters all around of course) but it was a great family meal. We took leftovers of my meal and the kids’ to supplement supper at the hotel next night.

Verdict: Very enjoyable experience and would recommend. There is a nice patio, but it was storming that night (driving rain on the way home).

Day 4: Bear Country USA, Storybook Island, Pizza Ranch, Dinosaur Park, Mount Rushmore Lighting Ceremony


Bear Country USA

Rapid City, SD

A trip to Bear Country USA was one of the most-recommended activities and it did not disappoint. This drive-through wildlife park had reindeer, big horn sheep and of course, bears, right up close to our vehicles. Plenty of photo opportunities. We also visited the smaller animal exhibits at the end and enjoyed watching the bear cubs play. We went first thing in the morning and have heard the animals are more out and active when it is cooler.

Ways to Save: You pay per person and it’s not a cheap attractions. $17 per adult, $11 for kids 5-12, so $56 for our family. We didn’t buy any concessions as we had water bottles and snacks along.

Verdict: Kids loved seeing the animals up close and the bear cubs were a lot of fun too. Definitely recommend for all ages.

IMG_1698Storybook Island

Rapid City, SD

Storybook Island is a free park/playground geared towards kids ages 2-9. There are lots of swings, slides, and jungle gyms to climb but they are all incorporated into famous storybook settings and characters. Our kids loved acting out the 3 Little Pigs running from house to house and especially liked the slides coming out of houses. There is even a designated area for kids 5 and under. Tons of cute photo opportunities

Ways to Save: FREE admission! They route you through the gift shop, so be prepared on the way out. You can picnic outside the park but they encourage you to use their concessions and not bring your own food inside the park.

Verdict: Our kids ages 3-8 had a lot of fun here and burned off energy. They didn’t know all the characters (Raggedy who?) but liked to see and try everything. Bring water bottles and sunscreen. Above age 9 might just be too old for this type of playground.

pizza ranch

Pizza Ranch

Rapid City, SD

We are quite familiar with Pizza Ranch, a chain of buffet restaurants across the Midwest, and knew it would be a great vacation destination since you don’t have to wait, everyone can choose exactly what they want (and we knew they liked the food) and my sons were most pumped that they didn’t have to order water (drinks are included)! Ha! They filled up on pizza, fried chicken, salad, fruit, veggies, pudding, chicken fingers, ice cream and cactus bread dessert pizza. We requested a pepperoni & jalapeno stuffed-crust pizza and they brought it right to our table to make sure we got as much as we wanted before putting it on the buffet. Hot and delicious! There are 2 locations in Rapid City, SD and a few more in the area (Spearfish, Sturgis, and if you are traveling I-90 back east, Mitchell, Hartford, Sioux Falls, and Luverne, MN).

Ways to Save: This was our MOST affordable family meal of the trip and we definitely got the most variety of food. Kids Buffets at this location are free for 3 and under and we went on Kids’ Day (Wednesday in Rapid City-it’s Tuesday most other places) so each of our other 2 kids were free with the purchase of our 2 Adult buffets. We also went at lunch instead of dinner when the prices are lower. We paid $21 for the whole family to eat as much as we wanted, including drinks! 

Verdict: Pizza Ranch is always a winner with our family and we like visiting them on our trips. Full disclosure: I work for Pizza Ranch…but I recommend it because it is family-friendly, fast, affordable, and makes everyone happy!

dinosaur park

Dinosaur Park

Rapid City, SD

This is basically a winding road that leads to a bunch of stairs that lead up to a hilltop with 7 big dinosaur statues. A storm was coming in as we stopped here, so we couldn’t stay long. It does provide incredible “100-mile views”

Ways to Save: The attraction is free, but there is a concession stand. The brochures we saw at the rest stop visitor centers and in our hotel lobby had a coupon for a free bag of popcorn at the concessions, but we didn’t take advantage since we had just eaten.

Verdict: The statues themselves are not a must-see, but the views are pretty great. One funny thing is we quickly stopped at a pull-off on the way out and as my husband was taking pictures of the panoramic view of a lightening storm, he looked down and saw a small memorial dedicated to someone who was struck by lightning in that spot while watching the wildfires. Yikes! 

IMG_1893Mount Rushmore Lighting Ceremony

Keystone, SD

We arrived at Mount Rushmore around 7:45pm and had enough time to take the trail to the right (towards the Sculptor’s Studio which is closed) and then took the “Nature Trail” back to the entrance. It was a gorgeous night and we were about the only ones on the trail. We took a seat in the amphitheater around 8:15pm. Patriotic music plays for a while, a Ranger talks at 9:00pm, then plays a video about Freedom. They then light the monument and invite all veterans and active duty military to the stage for a flag-lowering ceremony. It was moving and a nice way to spend an evening.

Ways to Save: Since we had already paid for parking, this entire event was free. We packed snacks and drinks so we didn’t buy any concessions.

Verdict: We thought it was worth it. Older kids and adults probably appreciate more. Definitely go if someone in your party is a veteran. Bring jackets and possibly wear pants or bring a blanket. I also recommend bug spray. If you only have time to visit the monument once, I think you could arrive by 6:30 and see everything, then stay for the lighting ceremony. 

Day 5: Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park, Wade’s Gold Mill, Hubcap Diner, 1880 Train

IMG_1909Sylvan Lake

Custer State Park

We headed back to Sylvan Lake to try some hiking trails. Our kids are a little young for the 7-mile round-trip Harney Peak trail, so we parked in the Sylvan Lake Day Access and walked to the back of the lake to the Sunday Gulch Trailhead. We went counter-clockwise and were tipped off that the heavy rains had turned the end of the trail coming out of the gulch into shin-deep rushing water over the rocks, essentially climbing up a waterfall which didn’t seem great for our 3-year-old. So we ended up hiking in about 1.5 miles of the 4-mile trail and then back out. Very fun hike with lots of rocks to climb and things to see. We changed into swimsuits (there is a bathroom with running water. Yay!) and then played on the beach and in the water and climbed the big rock. Water is cold and it would be more fun with sand toys or floating tubes, etc. Gorgeous, iconic scenery. You can rent paddleboards and kayaks, but we were content just cooling off by the sandy beach.

Ways to Save: We had already paid the $20 entrance fee to Custer State Park and packed a picnic for lunch.

Verdict: Kids handled hiking better than I expected and we’d like to do the other trails. Bring sunscreen, bug spray, snacks and plenty of water especially if you do the round-trip. Fun place to swim.


Wade’s Gold Mill

Hill City, SD

The kids were keen on panning for gold and Wade’s Gold Mill had great reviews, however the heavy rains flooded their creek and washed out their bridge/seating area in the stream, so we had a different experience than most, panning out of troughs. Kids got a vial of sand and were taught the panning process. We skipped the video. Each child got several flecks of gold to keep and lots of garnets. The place looks like it hasn’t changed in decades and many people appreciate the “authentic” non-commercialized site.

Ways to Save: We weren’t there in time for the tour, so we just paid $12/kid for the gold panning lessons which came with a vial guaranteed to have some gold, plus the chance to dig for another pan. They all got garnets from their dig but no more gold.

Verdict: If you’re not into the history of gold mill equipment, I’d skip the tour. The kids seemed satisfied with the panning but were ready to leave after one pan. I was a little disappointed, but I feel we would have had a different experience if the creek had not been flooded.

IMG_1937Hubcap Diner

Hill City, SD

We were looking for good burgers and this place had great ones along with hot fresh fries. It’s 50’s diner decor and the specialize in milkshakes but at $5/piece (no kids sizes, no meal deals with a burger) we didn’t spring for them.

Ways to Save: We originally intended to get burgers and shakes, but with shakes being $5/each with no kids sizes and no “meal deals,” we ended up just getting food and stopping down the street at DQ for mini blizzards afterwards (which were $4.19, so joke’s probably on us.)

Verdict: Good burgers, corndogs for kids, fun coloring sheets, more expensive than we hoped.

IMG_19441880 Train

Hill City, SD

A restored steam engine pulls passenger cars at 10 mph from Hill City to Keystone and back on the 1880 Train. I bought tickets online about 10 days in advance for the 6:45pm Thursday train out of Hill City which is the only time they do the Old West Shootout. I highly recommend buying tickets ahead of time and choosing your seats especially if you want to see the shootout. Reserve seats on the right/passenger side of the train from Hill City to Keystone in the middle of the train for the best view of the shootout. Then choose seats on the opposite side of the train for the ride back so you can see different scenery (the seat backs flip around for the ride back–so you want to move across the aisle to the other side.) I highly recommend the “enclosed” cars over the “open-air” cars because they have padded seats and the windows are much lower, allowing small children to see out. The open-air windows were so high I had to have my 3-year-old on my lap to see anything and my 5-year-old could barely see sitting on his knees (you cannot stand). The shootout is pretty “volunteer”-quality but it gives the kids a distraction. It was relaxing at night and our 2 youngest fell asleep on the ride back. The ride is narrated, but it’s hard to hear if you are near the engine. I recommend the Oreville car if possible. If you don’t want to see the shootout, I’d recommend taking it to Hill City, looking around Keystone for a few hours, then taking it back later.

Ways to Save: This was our most expensive attraction at $109 ($29 for adult, $14 for kids 3-12). We brought our own snacks (the ones for sale on board aren’t terribly expensive) and didn’t purchase the beer and wine available on the train.

Verdict: It was fun to do and we saw a lot of deer and scenery. The shootout isn’t a must-do but was fun for our kids to get the blanks casings from the shooters. Just decide if the $ is worth it for your family and definitely reserve online ahead of time-just pick up your tickets 30 minutes before departure.

Day 6: D.C. Booth Historic Fish Hatchery, Spearfish Canyon, Deadwood, Harry’s Spaghetti Western

IMG_1984D.C. Booth Historic Fish Hatchery

Spearfish, SD

We took an 80 minute drive north to Spearfish and started at the D.C. Booth History Fish Hatchery. There is lots to see and do here as we fed the fish and ducks, viewed fish underwater, did a scavenger hunt in the museum, toured a replica fish rail car, and took the path to some lookouts. There is also a house and garden that were closed for a wedding along with a gift shop and boat.

Ways to Save: This is a FREE family attraction. The only money we spent was on three $1 bags of fish food. Plus if you complete the scavenger hunt in the museum, you can turn in your sheet for a free cup of fish food.

Verdict: This was much more fun and interesting than I anticipated. Nice facility that is well maintained with friendly volunteers. Kids loved feeding the ducks and fish. There is a nice park next to it and we also stopped downtown at the Visitor’s Center for trail maps and great advice on where to stop with kids to hike.

IMG_1991.JPGSpearfish Canyon

Spearfish, SD

We took the advice of the Visitor’s Center guide and drove through Spearfish Canyon, stopping at Bridal Veil Falls, then enjoyed the picnic area at Roughlock Falls (there are many hidden picnic tables in the shade but we ate right by the stream). We walked around the boardwalks here, then drove to the Latchstring Restaurant parking lot to take the trail to Spearfish Falls (easy 0.5 mile hike).

Ways to Save: FREE, plus we brought a picnic!

Verdict: Beautiful and worth the drive! You could find more trails if you have older kids, but this was perfect for our family.


Historic Main Street

Deadwood, SD

We arrived around 3:45pm and found a metered parking lot, then walked downtown for the 4:00pm staged gunfight! The kids were sworn in as deputies and then Deadwood Alive performed the short show. We stumbled upon a Model Train exhibit in the basement of a gift shop (across from Mineral Palace Hotel) which the kids really liked and there are “I Spy” cards of things to find. We arrived at Saloon #10 at 4:45pm to get a seat for the 5pm show of Wild Bill getting shot. The actor told his “life story” and then acted out the shooting with some audience participation, then took pictures. We just missed some activities for kids such as playing Go Fish and having Nerf shootouts dressed as cowboys, so check out Saloon #10 in the afternoon for family-friendly activities. We didn’t take any tours and kids weren’t into the history, but it was fun to watch the Deadwood Alive shows.

Ways to Save: All the shows were free and we didn’t do any shopping. We did use an app to pay $2.75 for parking (didn’t have quarters on us). We put $1 in the machine to make the model trains run for 10 minutes–well worth it. We also tipped the Wild Bill show since we had a child take a picture with him.

Verdict: Fun stop and there was more we could have done, but we were hungry and also wanted to get back to our hotel on time to pack.


Harry’s Spaghetti Western Restaurant

Deadwood, SD

After a week of American-style food and the kids eating too many chicken strips and fries, we decided to try Harry’s Spaghetti Western Restaurant based off excellent reviews and the fact it was family-friendly and away from the gaming/alcohol of the saloons. You choose your pasta, sauce and meat and can get a full plate for $14.95 or a half for $9.95. We got a whole spaghetti/meat sauce/meatballs, a whole fettuccine/alfredo/chicken, and a half spaghetti/red sauce/(hot!) sausage. It came with salad, bread and then spumoni for dess

ert. Everything was excellent!

Ways to Save: We shared 2.5 bowls of pasta and paid $48 with tip, but it was a great meal and we appreciated that they allowed us to split it family-style. Ordering water and skipping extra dessert 

made this affordable for our family.

Verdict: Excellent family restaurant with seriously good food.

Day 7: Badlands National Park, Mitchell Corn Palace


Badlands National Park

Hwy 240 at Wall, SD

On our way home, we decided to venture South at Wall to travel the Badlands Loop through Badlands National Park. We stopped at the first major lookout and again at Fossil Trail where we climbed many rocks.  There are several other stops you could make such as the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and the “Door” but it took about 2 hours to do the loop already, so we continued on our journey home.

Ways to Save: We paid $20 for an entrance fee which is good for 7 days in case you want to return. If you have a 4th grader, you can apply for a free National Parks Pass ahead of time.

Verdict: I’m glad we took this detour to see the varied landscape and the kids really liked climbing the rocks at the Fossil Trail stop.

corn palaceMitchell Corn Palance

Mitchell, SD

If you get all the way to the eastern part of the state, you might as well stop at the World’s Only Corn Palace. There are murals made of corn, of course, on the outside and a few exhibits and gift shops inside–right on the basketball flour. Mitchell has a few other tourist stops and is a popular overnight stop for folks who need 2 days to get to the Black Hills.

Ways to Save: Free Attraction. We picked up a present for a birthday party and a souvenir for each child: a stuffed animal, a slingshot, and a play rifle/pistol/handcuff set. They were reasonably priced compared to the gift shops in the Black Hills and it gave them something to look forward to playing with when they got home.

Verdict: Stop, take a picture, look around. You probably don’t need to go several times in your life, but I appreciate the effort and it’s something you don’t see everyday!

Overall, we had a terrific fun-filled family vacation to the Black Hills. We saw and experienced a lot of things and made memories together as a family of five. I highly recommend the Black Hills as a family vacation destination and the activities listed for younger kids. We may consider going back when our kids are older and can do more hiking, trail riding, etc.

There is even more to do than I listed here and if you have a Black Hills Vacation Itinerary you’d like to share,  I’d love to link to it as an additional resource for families planning a trip to the Black Hills.

Ultimate Family Guide to the Black Hills: The Speech Mom

The Ultimate Black Hills Itinerary for Families: Tips for Family Trips


Get Free Clothes: Part 1 ::

Schoola is a website that takes donations of used clothes from people who want to raise money for their schools. They sell the clothes online and give 40% back to schools. They also happen to have a pretty nice sign-up bonus and referral program and often run promotions that will help you get an even better deal. Here’s one going on now where you can get $37.50 in free clothes.

Short instructions (for those with short attention spans): You need to sign up as a new customer using this link to get a $20 credit, then create a collection to get a $10 credit, then go find $37.50 worth of clothes, put them in your cart and enter RMENOT16 in the promo code box for 20% off your order. You’ll qualify for free shipping (14-21 days) so it’s $37.50 worth for FREE!

Long instructions (pretend you’re teaching your mom):
1.Click on the link for $20 credit:
2. If you are on your phone scroll to the bottom of the page and click “full site”
3.Click on “join” and create an account.
4.Click on “New Collection”on the side and create a new one (such as “womens”) A promo running right now gets you a $10 credit for creating a collection.
5. Add up to $37.50 worth of clothing from ANY category to your cart and head to checkout. Make sure to check “Good” under condition if you want to use the 20% off code – it won’t work for New with Tags items.
6. At checkout, add the promo code RMENOT16 for 20% off (or check for a new code). Choose Free Shipping.
7. Your total will be $0 if you added $37.50 or less! It will absolutely show you how much your end total is, so you’ll know if you did it right.

Make sure to do it in that order for it to work. We don’t know how long this will last or how long the promo code is good, so if you want to try it, I’d do it soon.

There aren’t great descriptions and no guarantees on the condition. Most of the kids clothing I received was in fair condition- okay for play clothes. I had much better luck with Women’s career clothes and did searches for nice brands such as Banana Republic for some cardigans and pants. I also scored nice dress pants from H&M and The Limited and a great pair of Athleta pants. Shipping took about 2 weeks. Even after my “credits” were used up, I ended up ordering a nice dress for a reasonable price and I felt great knowing that 40% of my purchases were helping schools!

Hope you find something fun and feel free to share with your friends! (Full disclosure: the link is my referral link so I get some credit if you use it, but it’s the only way to get the $20 credit yourself too! When you share with YOUR friends..give them your referral link and you can keep earning $20 credits up to $500/year.)


Stay tuned for additional entries in this 5-part “Free Clothes” series.

The Mitten Habit

The Mitten Habit

The three little kittens, they lost their mittens, and didn’t know where to find them.

“Oh Mother Dear, we sadly fear, our mittens we have lost!”

“What! Lost your mittens? You naughty kittens! You know where your mittens go…

In your hat, in your sleeve, in your coat, in the closet.

In his first winter month of kindergarten, my son had lost 2 hats, 3 sets of mittens and both sets of boots. Only a few were recovered from the various Lost and Found boxes. I knew something had to change or pretty soon he’d be down to one black and one navy stretch glove and his little sister’s spare pom-hat.

What’s a mama cat to do?

We implemented the mitten habit. Every time. Like, E-V-E-R-Y time the boys come in the house, they take off their mittens, put them in their hat, stuff the hat in the sleeve and get the coat in the closet (usually on the floor, but you pick your battles around here.)

So, when it’s time gear-up and get out the door? The mittens are always in the hat in the sleeve in the coat in the closet. I didn’t even realize this was working until I saw my just-turned-three-year-old automatically carry out the ritual with no reminders. And saw my 16 month walk to her room, retrieve her coat and reach into the sleeve to get her hat.

After recently hearing Charles Duhigg speak at a conference and then reading his book The Power of Habit within 2 days, I was re-inspired to look for other places where developing intentional habits had the potential to make life much, much easier.

So try this exercise with me.

Think of something you lose the most. What are you always looking for?

Keys? Phone? Purse? Coat? Favorite Pen? Remote? The other shoe?

What habit/routine can you create so that you always put those things in the same place and therefore always know where to find them?

For example, my car keys live in 2 places when they’re not in the ignition of my minivan. When I’m home, they immediately go in the junk drawer. You know you have one too. Where else do you store the Box Tops for Education labels, mini screw drivers and random marbles? When I am ANYWHERE else, they go in the end pocket of my purse. Not in my coat pocket, jeans pocket, van console, desk drawer, or even the black-hole-main-pocket of my purse. Only one pocket. Now I don’t even think about, it: they’re just magically there every time I look!

So my challenge for you is to pick ONE habit. ONE thing you lose often and decide where that object is going to live at all times that it’s not in use. Then make a commitment to put it there every time. I don’t know if it will take you 7 days or 21 or a year, but you’ll know you’ve succeeded when you never think to youself “where is the [X]” because your feet automatically walk and your hand automatically reach for it…

and it’s there.




How to STOP Head Injuries from Falling Sippy Cups

sippy cups sigDUCK AND COVER!

This was my strategy when opening the cupboard containing our plates, bowls and cups. Among the why-did-we-pick-that-pattern Corelle place settings and the grown-up glasses was a rainbow of plastic drinking devices designed for the post-bottle and pre-breakable glass contingent. You know, the soft-tip sippies that were supposed to be the easiest to transition from the bottle, the hard-tip easy-to-clean ones that never fit in the stroller cup holders, and my personal favorite, the miracle 360 cups that dentists love because they’re most like cups but lose their magic when thrown defiantly from a high chair. I was sick.of.all.of.them.

I am embarrassed to admit how many times I have actually been injured by these topsy-turvy, falling-everywhere sippy cups. Like, give-me-a-minute-I-might-cry injured. This is dumb. I am dumb. There has to be a better way. Here it is:

Put sippy cups in a basket. Or a drawer. Just not a cupboard above eye level. Or they will hit you in the head. #organizinghack

There is no reason the infinitely more unstable sippy cups need to be in the cupboard next to their more mature glass counterparts. They don’t.  That is dumb. They will fall over. They will fall out. They will attack you.

If you can’t spare the drawer space, get a basket and throw them all in there. You know where they go, you know where they’ll be, and where they won’t be is smacking you in the face every time you open the cupboard to get out another snack bowl to hold goldfish because Child A picked a different snack but now sees Child B’s choice and wants some of that too and they can’t have goldfish touching their other less-cheese-product-dusted crackers. Because waaaaah.

Snack bowls, by the way, have the decency of staying in a nice stack, so don’t demote them. Let them live up in the cupboard with their equally courteous cousins, the cereal bowls.

But the cups, man. Just bring them down.