Party Paper

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I know it’s been a month since NYE but I wanted to share a fun party trick I used for our little get together. Don’t worry- you don’t have to wait until next NYE, you can use it for any party! I bought a roll of Kraft paper a while back and I’ve been having fun using it for entertaining. So far I’ve used it for book club, casual post-thanksgiving gathering and game night. I love this idea for so many reasons… First you can buy rolls of Kraft paper at many grocery stores and even Walmart on the cheap. Second, it’s disposable. Third, it’s a festive way to add some unique decor and a functional and fun way to label dishes. There is so much you can do with it!

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I simply rolled out my paper (cut to a 12″ runner size in this case) where I was going to have our “bar” area. I used a sharpie to outline the glasses, label wines, and even outlined the corkscrew. I tried to vary the size of the letters and different vibes for each word. I had fun and made a whimsical illustration of Champagne and used the marker to label cranberry juice that I had put in a small carafe.

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As most of our guests are tired young parents like ourselves, I knew midnight was passed most of our bedtimes. I made sure the Keurig was ready (thanks, Santa!) and set out some coffee mugs with a K-cup in each one. Then I wrote simple direction for the Keurig. *** Side note: I just got a reusable K-cup so I can have any local coffee I want and be more “green” …BTW- have you seen this video?!?! Worth a quick watch.

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I also used the paper on our kitchen’s peninsula for some of the food. I left the marker and open spaces for party guests who were bringing dishes to share. I added washi tape to keep everything in place and to keep the end from rolling up.

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Whenever I use this I get tons of comments on how clever it is. It is literally a blank slate for your party. Cut the edges with scrap-booking scissors, use washi tape, different markers, use movie quotes or fun facts that pertain to your theme. Anything is possible! I doesn’t need to be perfect. Have fun with it!

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Holiday Centerpieces [on a budget]

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I had the pleasure of hosting a casual family get together over Thanksgiving. Nothing too fancy- chili, macaroni and cheese and some spirits. No need for place settings but I wanted to have the house feel like the holidays without having to decorate for Christmas just yet. I’m like Nordstrom: you will not see Christmas here until Thanksgiving. Obviously due to the holiday I had time restrictions and I’m always looking to be budget friendly. So I scoured the grocery store earlier in the week for a little inspiration.

What I got:

4 bags of cranberries at $1.50 each

2 large naval oranges at 99 cents a pound

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I started by finding some of my favorite vases with broad or straight sides. And of course my favorite mason jar. Then I thinly sliced the oranges (a mandolin is helpful here if you aren’t a great slicer) and discarded the smaller slices and the ones without the star burst pattern. I set them aside to make a little pot of stove top scent (Psst: Toss orange slices, 5 whole cloves, a splash of vanilla and a couple of cinnamon sticks in with 2 cups of water and simmer for a holiday scent that fills the house and lasts all day!).

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I lined the sides of my vases with the orange slices and filled them with cranberries. Then I filled each vase with water until the cranberries were just slightly afloat.

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I placed each vase around the house and had intended to run to get fresh white flowers (hydrangeas? roses?) to completely the centerpiece vibe. But I really liked how simple and cheery they were without flowers so I saved myself the trip and left them as they were. I grabbed a little beverage chalkboard I had and made a quick “Give Thanks” sign.

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These were complimented all night! I especially like that they are appropriate for Thanksgiving as well as Christmas and New Years. Oh, and the fact that I made 5 centerpieces for less than $8 is pretty awesome too.

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Easy, inexpensive and quite darling if I may say.

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Per family tradition, we spent some of the weekend decorating for Christmas, putting up the tree, making gingerbread houses, baking blue berry muffins and listening to the Michael Buble Holiday Pandora station. Here’s a peak:

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We rearranged the family room to accommodate for a tree in the window. O had a ball hanging ornaments all over however she pleased. She would occasionally step back and say “It looks beautiful!”

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We made a batch of my famous “Real Blueberry Muffins” from scratch. O has become quite enthusiastic about baking and insists on helping in almost every kitchen activity. Aprons are her new favorite “dress up”.

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I got a Wilton Gingerbread house on sale at Michael’s the other day for $9. Total impulse purchase but O has been asking to make it every single day since we bought it. I finally caved… she was so excited (below is her actual “excited” face). Mom note: this was a great excuse to use extra Halloween candy or undesirable candies left over.

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While I’m at it… I have to tell you a life changing secret that I only discovered a few years ago. Bold and italic there, friends. Truly a life saver. It saves tons of time and even more stress if you assemble the  gingerbread house frame using hot glue rather than the icing provided in the kit.

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I use mine on high but I think any setting will do. I just put hot glue on the seams that I want to attach and hold in place for a few seconds. Repeat for all the sides and do the roof pieces last. Hot glue… what can’t it do?

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Then O and I developed a little rhythm. I’d make a “blob”, she’d choose a candy to place there. Almost all of the design choices here are hers. I did make the door, windows, wreath and bow. But she made the roof with me, sidewalk, sides of the house and all. I just kept piping icing and she kept sticking candy there. You know, between stuffing her face with m&m’s. I cheated and did the bow and Dum Dum trees with hot glue as well.

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Snow Day Salt Dough

The other day O and I had an unexpected snow day. Hubby worked in the morning and my already short day at work got cancelled all together. I took the opportunity to do a little toddler holiday craft with her. And you guys, I turned to Pinterest. Surprise! Having done salt dough before with kids, I basically knew what I wanted to do but I needed the recipe.

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All the recipes were mostly the same. Here is what I found over and over on Pinterest:

1 cup salt

2 cups flour

1 cup warm water

Optional: powdered tempura paint or food coloring to add color.

Mix all in one bowl. I started string with a spoon and quickly realized my Kitchen Aid dough hook would have been perfect for the job. After it was well blended I just dove in with my hands. The more you knead it the smoother it gets.

Bake at 200F for 20-45 minutes depending on thickness or dry overnight.

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I rolled it out on wax paper, used a cup as a cookie cutter to make circles the right size for O’s hands. Then I helped her make her hand print on each cut out. This is where there were tears. Apparently the kid thought these were cookies and she was really excited about cookies… but then I had to burst her bubble. She just wouldn’t accept that they weren’t cookies. So Mom of the Year over here let her take a bite and she was really disappointed that these were not cookies.

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After she made about 15 prints, I made holes  for a hanger and we left them to dry. I let them dry overnight (as my Pinterest sources repeatedly recommended) but I found them to still be soft, damp and still a little malleable. So I popped them in the oven as many of the sources also recommended. Um, no. NO. No. no. 20 minutes? Nope. 45 minutes? Nope. Try MOST OF THE DAY. I just kept peeking in on them. Not only did they not dry quickly… I realized they weren’t drying evenly. The bottom side that faced the pan was still wet halfway through the day! So I flipped them. And I continued to keep an eye on them. I lost track of exactly how long they were in there but they did eventually dry.

I had originally thought I’d spray paint them silver (a color I knew I had on hand) but I stumbled upon another idea on Pinterest to paint the hand print to look like Santa.

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I used acrylic craft paint that I already had. I’ve broken Santa down into steps above. To be honest, I did these in stages… between laundry, dishes and a tv show’s commercials. An hour maybe total. My only flaw was that I had already punched the holes. Santa will be hanging sideways… but that is ok with me. I was having fun and really considered adding glasses to Santa as a little tribute to O but decided it might be too challenging and time consuming. I sharpied her name and the year on the back. These will be given to great grandparents, grandparents, aunts/uncles and special people over the next few days. If you’re one of these people… pretend you never saw this! Of course, ours already hangs on our tree!

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Preschooler Play and Toddler To Do’s

A while back a friend asked me what kinds of things I do with kids on the cheap and with a baby in the house. It is always a challenge to keep older siblings busy while you are strapped to house by baby naps, and forced to be quiet. Cold winter days and rainy spring afternoons only make this harder. Another challenge for many of us is the cost of so many activities, outings and toys. I’ve compiled a list of simple thrills for kids up to 5 years old. Most don’t cost much money… and I really believe in making memories with kids. They won’t remember the stuff and much as they remember doing things together. Kind of like at Christmas… O loved all the wrapping paper and boxes and barely noticed most of the gifts. While diapers are expensive, kids only cost as much at you let them cost.

I mean, look at this face.

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Stamps and Stickers: A&Z both loved stamping all over a pad of newsprint. I bought a bunch in the clearance bins at Michael’s and the dollar store. Melissa and Doug sell a few little sets too. Also, look for “foamies”… Little foam stickers. Paper isn’t the only place for stickers. I’ve let them decorate their art boxes, shoe boxes and all kids of things with stickers. Its amzing how much time kids can spend with this activity. For younger kids it can be an opportunity to idenify animals, shapes and expand vocabulary. For older kids it provides a creative outlet and can spark a little imagination.

Crayons: Have you seen those Crayola crayon holders for little hands? Huge help to get him going on controlling a crayon. Larger and thicker crayons can be easier for little hands too. Talk about colors, shapes, even start some letter recognition.

Recycled Crayons: Preschoolers love this one. We keep old crayon nubs and broken pieces of crayons around for a while. Eventually we dig them out of the crayon tub and separate them from the useable ones. Then I let the kids make piles of the nubby crayons in a muffin tin (mini muffin tins are best because it doesn’t take as much to fill them and the crayons you make become thicker). The piles don’t have to match or have any of the same colors… you really can’t do this wrong. Then I place the muffin tin in a 250 degree oven and check on them every 5 minutes or so. When the crayons have melted to liquid I slowly remove the tin from the oven… hot liquid wax is dangerous. Then we let them cool for an hour or so and pop out our new recycle crayons! The shape is easy for kids to hold and when they use them they are coloring with a rainbow or tie dye effect. For older kids I ask them to make observations about what might happen before we put them in the oven and the happened after and why they think it. Doesn’t hurt to add a little science to it!

Go Big: Another big hit is a bunch of giant sheets of paper and a long roll of paper I bought from Ikea. Z still loves to have me draw roads and tracks for his cars and trains …and with a roll of paper they can go on forever! We have made signs with giant messages to welcome new cousins to the world and then we took pictures with the kids holding it and sent them in texts or posted them online for family. You can make birthday signs for each person’s birthday to hang in a doorway, or welcome them home from a trip. We also trace hands, toys, do leaf rubbings, and he thinks its way cool that we lay on the floor to draw. The possibilities are endless!

Playdoh: I probably don’t need to tell you that it is amazing. We have tons of it and to be honest you only need a few colors and a couple of the utensils. If you don’t want to buy any try this recipe I posted a while back for homemade dough. Big kids love measuring and making it. And everyone loves playing with it. As far as what to use for utensils: stamps work on playdoh, kitchen utensils like a butter knife or whisk, anything with texture, cups, cookie cutters, ice trays and the list goes on. Playing with dough is great for small motor skills, imagination and sensory development. I actually find it relaxing myself.

Nature Walks: Give kids a bag to “collect” anything he thinks is cool on a walk. Bring them home and talk about all the things he found, the season, animals, rocks… Whatever. This always sparks conversation. “I Spy”, “Follow the Leader” and “Simon Says” are also a fun games for a nature walk. Don’t live near a trail? So what… a walk down the sidewalk or through a park is just as exciting. Even if it’s snowing a 15 minute walk and fresh air can cure cabin fever. I’ve also had older kids help me make a list of things we think we may find and then make it more of a scavenger hunt for them.

Make Wishes: I keep pennies in my car for making wishes in fountains we pass by. Sometimes we make a point of finding a fountain to make a wish in. We count our pennies, observe the years on them, and close our eyes and wish reeeeally hard.

Storytime: You can’t read to a kid enough. Go to the library and get new and unfamiliar books often. Make your own storytime… we cuddle up in a blanket and read all of our books as soon as we get home. And do it again a few times a week. This often suffices as “rest” for kids who no longer nap but still need some chill out time midday. Check your library’s and local bookstore’s schedules. Many of them have regular story time, music play and such for free!

Puzzles: Those wooden ones with pegs are great. Most kids can do some large piece ones, and anything with the alphabet. Use the Go Big method above to make your own puzzles. If your kids get tired of puzzles or have them all memorized consider swapping puzzles with friends for a couple of weeks. Fresh puzzles for everyone!

Play House: Have a “picnic” with pretend food, “cook” and stuff too. Let the kids lead the way. They love being in charge and telling us what to do for once. It’s always interesting to hear their perception of roles in the household too. I”ve heard kids say, “We need to go to Target. Can you be on your best behavior?” or “I’m going to drop the kids at school and go get coffee.” They can do this for hours!

Build A Fort: This is a great exercise for problem solving, imagination and creativity. Building the fort is a blast and using it is fun too. Consider reading books, doing puzzles or “hiding out” in the fort. Kids think I’m a genius when we do this.

Inside Picnics: We eat lunch somewhere besides the kitchen table. We have done it in a fort, at the coffee table, under the kitchen table, with his stuffed animals, on the front porch, in the tailgate of my SUV. Anywhere.

PJ Day: Let the kids wear their PJ’s all day. Even go to the grocery store with them on. They think its so silly and funny. On this day we also do breakfast for lunch. Pancakes for lunch is always a hit!

Make Noise: (Ok- not too much). Have concerts with paper towel and toilet paper tubes, tissue boxes. Filling baby food jars or pop bottles with beans, rice and pasta makes great “instruments”. None of them make too much noise though.

Scavenger Hunt in a Bottle: Fill a clear soda bottle about halfway with rice. Drop in random objects to “find” in the rice. Think crayons, beads, paperclips, pennies, bouncy ball… anything that will fit in the hole and you won’t miss. The more rice in the bottle, the harder it is to find the objects. Seal the bottle (I always add super glue to avoid disasters) and start searching. Kids can roll the bottle every which way to find the objects.

Pipe Cleaners: The possibilities are endless! String large wooden beads on them (more motor skills!), or make a macaroni necklace, build a house (in my case a Bat Cave for Batman), bracelets,

Penne Picasso: Glue pasta on paper. So simple- he can’t mess it up, there is no paint and its inexpensive! Use pasta to make necklaces on yarn to to decorate a shoe box.

Ball Pit: Ikea, Target and other big box stores sell those plastic balls for ball pits. Put them in a pack n play or crib for an instant ball party. This never gets old. And when he’s done he can help you clean them up. For bigger kids let them fill as small room.

Cooking and Baking: Let kids help prepare their meals. From choosing a plate and utensils and setting the table to letting them stir and teaching them to measure. You’ll be surprised how happy they are to help. They really do like a little responsibility! And preparing food together makes time for a good little conversation. It’s often the only way I can get the “What did you do at school today?” question answered. You can also teach them about their food and where it comes from along with encouraging trying new foods and making them aware of a having healthy diet.

Sink or Float: Gather some household items to see if they sink or float. Use a baby pool or bucket outside or use the bathroom tub. Have kids guess which will happen and why. A fun one is a Diet Coke can vs a Coke can. Apples are heavier and most kids think it will sink but they float. Try to stump each other!

Put a Ring on it

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Hubby and I are revamping our master bedroom slowly but surely, and of course on a budget. I was scrambling for inexpensive and easy ways to update things we already had for the room. We have bedding we can live with (for now), and I will be repainting nightstands and the dresser but I need accent pillows. In all my rooting through Target sales, Home Goods, and such I was frustrated. I already owned tons of throw pillows. Why do I have to buy more? Then I reminded myself of a couple of pillows I made for my sisters recently. Duh, I will MAKE new covers for the throw pillows!

Here’s the catch- I don’t sew. Not like that at least. When I made the pillows for my sisters I didn’t sew. I bought plain white pillow covers at IKEA and used fabric paint! I think I payed $3 ish for each cover and the paint was existing (but cheap if you had to buy it).

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Quick Tutorial:

1- Line the inside of the pillow case so paint doesn’t bleed through to the opposite side. I used foil, but wax paper or cardboard or something would work too.

2- Decide on a design. I highly recommend simple. The texture of the fabric makes detailed work hard. Consider a stencil, stamp or even tape off a border.

3- Paint away! I used a mason jar ring to stamp interlocking circles on this one. On the other side I printed her monogram but I can’t find a picture. On another pillow I taped off varying widths of stripes and painted a couple of coordinating colors. The possibilities are endless! I smudged occasionally but with a busy pattern nobody can tell and it adds to the handmade vibe. Even if you don’t have a steady hand or aren’t artistic, you could do this.

4- Dry WELL. I used a hair dryer to help it along.

5- Wash according to directions. The paint smell is strong and you will want to “set” your design” by washing it.

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Then fill the pillow cover with either an existing pillow, a filler from IKEA or batting. They zip closed so nothing is super permanent. Ta-da! new life to an old pillow or a new pillow all together! You could make a handful of these for the price of one already made pillow!

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2 Things for Myself Friday Night

I had been looking forward to Friday night all week. I had grand plans with my good friend Greta. We were going to an art show (hello, my FAVE kind of thing to attend) and hopefully hanging out afterward. It was exactly what the doctor ordered: grown up time with a good friend, high heels, great conversation, art and likely a glass of wine. But my Friday at work proved to be a little draining and to add to my physical exhaustion, I become emotionally exhausted after learning that a dear friend of my family passed away that afternoon. Heartbroken, I sent Greta a text explaining that I just wasn’t up for going out. She explained that she had a headache… we decided to drop our plans. But then she asked me to make her a promise. No problem. Anything for her. But then she made me promise to do two things for myself that evening instead. I think she knew this was going to be a challenge for me.

I accepted and challenged her to do the same. I knew my first order of business: a manicure. When was the last time I painted my nails? I’d like to introduce you to my favorite nail polish. Sally Hansen INSTA-DRI! Oh boy, its affordable and comes in both classic and trendy colors. Those aren’t even why I love it as much as I do. It dries in record time AND it has a flat brush with a curved tip to make painting in one stroke a breeze. I also find it extremely helpful in painting my own nails. I often dread painting my right hand, as my left is undependable. I no longer have a right hand manicure that looks like a two year old did it for me. And one coat is all it takes. By far my favorite nail product  right now.

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{I chose Silky Slate- a deep taupe with a sweet hint of purple}

It was hard to come up with the second thing to do for myself. I wrestled with vacuuming, mopping floors and organizing some of O’s toys. All are things that are on my mile long to do list and would make me feel good (an organized home is bliss but mine is only partially there) but I was certain Greta would not accept this as “for myself”. Then it hit me: my nightstand. If you can call it that. Its a balancing act on top of Rubbermade containers. I fight with it every night looking for my phone charger, tissues and trying to keep the baby monitor from toppling onto the floor. And I trip all over it in the morning looking for my watch and rings as I fly out the door. It was an impromptu fix when hubby and I moved in…We knew we were going to purchase a new mattress (hallelujah- it arrives next week if it wasn’t held up by the blizzard) so we didn’t want to decide on a bed set until we knew if we were buying a king or queen. As much as we want a king, we felt it will make or room unbearably small. Anyway, thats why I have a plastic container for a night stand. Sad but true. So organizing this would be for me. It will make my life easier and our room a little more put together. Below is the “before”:

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The plan was to convert this old end table from Hubby’s bachelor days into my night stand. It was out of place in the dining room and was quickly becoming a collect all from the peninsula overflow (which I also organized this weekend because I just can’t take it anymore). Another embarrassing shot:

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It took a surprising amount of time to clear off the old nightstand. I sorted things for trash, needs, things that belong elsewhere, etc. Here is what I found:

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Some of the strange finds include: 5 paint chips for master bedroom, a plethora of pens, 2 sets of headphones, a spoon (really.), a long lost Swarovski ring (woo… glad that turned up), the Fifty Shades trilogy, “Bared to You” trashy read (and highly recommended), unknown chargers, a dangerous amount or extension cords and power strips, a sound machine, tons of lotion, a glasses case and iphone 5 package and instructions (who reads those anyway?).

Oh, and I though the container was empty. Apparently I haven’t missed any of these shoes. How random.

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And here is what I came up with. Once we decide on a color scheme I plan on painting it but it will do for now. I put a parfait on the top to coral my jewelry and hair things. I minimized all those cords to one power strip hidden behind the nightstand to charge my phone, computer (I guess I need an office?) and the monitor. The middle shelf is home to my winter hand lotion essentials and tissues. The bottom shelf stashes the baby monitor so now the little power and volume lights won’t be nearly as bothersome all night. It also is home to my spare glasses and both my current and regular reads: Bared to You, What to Expect The First Year, Baby 411 and Real Simple Magazines.

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The side by side before and after:

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What do you need to do for yourself? What have you been organizing to make life a little easier?

Stuffed Red Bell Peppers

I love, love, love red bell peppers. I often slice them and devour them with hummus. As much as I love them, I don’t have any recipes using them as the  main ingredient. I’ve compiled this one from a recipe my sister gave me (from her boyfriend who does not measure) with the help of a much better of a cook friend and my preferences and trials and errors.

 You will need:
4 or 5 red bell peppers, halved, cored and seeded
1 box of Rice-a-roni Spanish rice
1 can fire roasted tomatoes
water
2 tbsp butter
1 to 1.5 cups diced veggies
1 cup shredded sharp or medium cheddar cheese
about 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese 
parmesan cheese to sprinkle 
1/2 lb sausage or beef (optional)
Preheat oven t0 350 F. Heat a large saucepan on medium, melt butter, brown rice quickly (just a minute or 2 on medium). Add can of tomatoes, a can full of water  and bring to a boil. Bring boil back down to simmer, add diced veggies and cover. Cover, cook, stirring occasionally  until liquid absorbs and rice is cooked well (20ish minutes). ***{this is when I usually prep the peppers and pan}*** Quickly stir in cheddar cheese. Scoop rice into peppers until full. Don’t over fill. Place peppers in a 9×13 glass pan, sprinkle with mozzarella and parmesan cheese. Bake 20-30 minutes until cheese topping melts well. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

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MMMmmm. DELISH! Enjoy! Note that this is a fairly inexpensive dish- peppers are $1 each, as is the rice-a-roni, tomatoes and cheese. Its also extremely filling… I often eat it with a just salad.

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