Children’s Present Ideas – Free or Frugal


Today I received a lovely email from a lady who plans to use my Kool-Aid play dough recipe to make gifts for her children. Christmas can be a tough time of year financially if you are providing for a family.  Whether it’s frugal gifts ideas, or things to keep the children occupied with over the holiday period, I hope you find something useful here.
Here’s an Australian play dough recipe (for those of us who don’t normally have access to Kool-Aid 🙂 )  You can make this before hand, or give the ingredients and recipe and let the children help.  It can be made in several different colours and stored in ziplock bags or wide mouth plastic jars or containers.  Add a plastic knife, some cookie cutters, toothpicks, scoops from the washing powder or infant formula, or anything else that will add value to the play experience.  If you have an empty box from refillable baby wipes, it makes a good home for the play dough accessories as the lid is easy for children to manage.
You can also make your own packet mixes for baking – Make up the dry part of a cake, biscuits, or scones; type out the recipe; attach a photo of the finished product on the front of the ziplock bag;  and the child who gets to unwrap that present also gets to BAKE it.
Collect a heap of fabric scraps (ask family members who sew for their off cuts of fabrics and trims, or cut up old clothes that are no longer needed and harvest the material and the buttons) and give each child a little packet with a needle, some thread, and a few spare buttons, and let them sew whatever they like – or borrow a child’s craft book from the library and copy a pattern, or download a craft pattern or simple doll’s dress pattern.
Gather the ingredients for a  science experiment – there’s heaps of little experiments like this crystal snowflake that are fun, but the ingredients are quite inexpensive.

crystal snowflake from Anne Helmenstine

For the little ones, a  plastic egg carton or an ice-cube tray, with bottles of food colouring and an eye dropper will give a pre-schooler hours of fun. (just add water.. 🙂 )
For the more adventurous, purchase some off cuts and seconds from the timber yard and try…
bird nesting box (if you research which birds live in your area, there are often plans to suit specific bird varieties)
a timber boat (or make a whole fleet!)
from Kids Konstruction Korner
Or collect odds from around the house,  and try this one from Martha Stewart:
There are many paper projects for both boys and girls available  as free downloads from the internet.  You have to watch that the printing costs don’t get out of hand if you find a big project, though.
A paper boat from the Toy Maker :
Pinwheels are great fun:
The Toymaker has heaps of cute, cute, cute paper toys to download, not the least of which is this pinwheel using a clever paperclip and buttons design.
Super cute design from Marilyn Scott-Waters
Another I couldn’t go past was this adorable bug box.  How tempting to print and make this to gift a packet of seeds for an aspiring gardener.
Flower seeds, or vegetable seeds, or herb seeds in such a dear little box would have to move you to run out and garden.  If you don’t have pots spare, the bottom half of a milk carton or 2 litre drink container with holes punched in the bottom would do the trick.
For the arty, Google your child’s favourite animal with “+ colouring page” and print out some pictures for them to colour, or browse the many free colouring page sites. There are some incredibly detailed pictures available, including famous art works made into colour pages.  Several sites also have paper dolls for download.
Put all the ingredients for these paper bag puppets from Martha Stewart’s craft pages into a bag, and print out pics of what they will look like with the instructions:
Older children may like to make a castle;
For girls, save little boxes from matches, jewellery, medicine, etc, as well as all sorts of plastic packaging, and off cuts of pretty paper and fabric, put them in a large plastic storer,  and let the children use them make their own dolls house from a large cardboard box, or a small book-case.
Download some audiobooks from Librivox (it’s free) on to CD’s  for car listening or bed time.  Google the cover art of the book and print out for your CD cover.
Check ebay, the book Depository, your local thrift store for cheap books.  Keep an eye on your local library for sales of excess stock.  Some books are still like new, but even some of the beat up ones can be treasures if you choose your author carefully.
This paper whistle would make cool stocking stuffer fun (you can use a coloured paper instead of plain to make it more festive).
You can make your own word search with your child’s favourite bands, animals, friends names, family members (this is also good fun to do for each member of the family to personalise home-made crackers)
Home made fudge/caramel wrapped in cellophane are delicious stocking fillers (pop in just before the event if you have ants!)  as is homemade popcorn with icing sugar or caramel popcorn in little zip lock bags.
If you have older boys you may consider a sleep-under-the-stars camp out.  Wrap up a tin of baked beans, or spam, or some other grossly yukky traditional camp food, and let it be known that it goes with a trip to somewhere out of town to sleep out and cook rough.  (Of course, December in Australia that would be a breeze, but if you’re on the other side of the world, I guess that could be a bit brisk!) Hand reels could work the same way for a fishing trip if you have a lake or river near by.
Happy holidays, folks!

Basic, Home Made Casserole


Truly, it’s easy.  Packet mix casseroles have a long list of ingredients that aren’t food, and to cook from scratch really is no more effort, though the rewards are many.

This is a basic recipe, you can change the flavouring to make it as full, or mild, as you choose.  You can change the variety of meat or the vegetables, add wine before the stock,  add cream after cooking, add other herbs and spices – experiment!


  • Beef – Cooking for 6, I used three budget sirloin steaks, but you can use blade, chuck, round, gravy beef – whatever you have, but the tougher the cut, the longer the cooking time.
  • Potatoes – 6 (One large to medium potato per person)
  • Onions – 2 (One per three potatoes)
  • Celery – 4
  • Carrots – 4
  • Beef stock – 1 litre (4 cups)
  • Plain flour – 2 heaped tablespoons
  • Red Lentils (handful)
  • Peas
  • Butter – approx. 70gms
  • Garlic – 2 cloves, or to taste


  1. Prepare the vegetables.  Chat potatoes can be used whole and unpeeled, which will save you some preparation time.  Cut onions into slices or wedges; the flavour transfers to the general ingredients, so a large piece of onion will not be over bearing.
  2. If you want to cut the meat up, make the pieces fairly large, or you can simply leave the steaks whole and cut them when serving.
  3. Using a heavy based pan/dish that can go on the stove top, fry the onions and garlic in the butter. Add the meat, browning over a high heat for flavour, as though making rare steaks.
  4. Add flour to pan, reduce heat, and cook for a minute or two to blend with the butter and pan juices.  This butter and flour business will make the gravy thicken.
  5. Reduce the heat and add stock, stirring as you go. Add hard vegetables and lentils. The lentils aren’t necessary: they won’t add any flavour, but they cook down and help to thicken the gravy, as well as adding an economical source of protein.
  6. Cover and cook in a slow oven (around 130c/260f) for four hours for cheaper cuts, or two hours for softer meats.
  7. Add softer vegetables such as peas, beans, zucchini, etc, about 20mins before serving.

There are a multitude of ways to customize your casserole. You can add in tomato paste, or tinned tomatoes when adding stock, try different herbs and spices, different vegetables, or leave out the potatoes and serve with rice.  Once you have mastered the basics, the options are endless!

Minestrone: the busy mother, hungry children version


The only authentic Italian component of minestrone in my house is the cookware I make it in.  Other than my oh-so-pretty Essteele saucepans, the entire experience I describe here will be unashamedly of the busy-Australian-homeschooling-mother kind.  But it’s tasty, filling, and economical.

You need:

  • approximately 400gms of diced bacon
  • 375gm Italian soup mix, cooked
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • a handful of fresh parsley, chopped (or substitute dried, using less)
  • 3 stalks of celery, chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 3 medium carrots, chopped
  • 280gm tomato paste
  • 2 cups cabbage, chopped  (if it’s not your favourite vegetable, cut it very finely)
  • 3 cups shell pasta (uncooked)
  • lots of water
  • parmesan cheese to serve

If you have forgotten to soak the beans, toss them in a saucepan with 6 cups of water to simmer.  It will take about one and a half hours to cook to soft, in which time you can chop the veges. If you are using bacon rashers, chop those also, but ready diced bacon from the deli is a staple in my freezer – ready to cook!


  1. In your largest saucepan, saute bacon, onion, garlic, celery, carrot, and parsley for around 10mins. 
  2. Add cooked soup mix, including cooking water, to the saute ingredients.
  3. Add tomato paste, cabbage, pasta, additional ten cups of water (2.5 litres), and salt & pepper if desired.
  4. Bring to the boil, cover, simmer for approximately 20 mins, or until vegetables are soft.
  5. Serve with parmesan cheese.

This will make a large amount, enough for our family of six, for two nights.  It improves in flavour, and is wonderful to give yourself a night off if there is a busy day planned, or simply to indulge in extra read aloud time.

Best Playdough Recipe


It doesn’t have to be kept in the fridge, it contains no nasty ingredients (if your little ones are inclined to eat it occasionally, as mine all have) it lasts for ages, and it is so cheap to make. The children love being involved in the process of measuring and pouring, and feel a sense of pride in helping to make their own playdough.

You can make multiple colours, all the one colour, or leave it white. If your little ones are past eating the dough, you can also add glitter to the mix. It can be kept in an air tight container, or ziplock plastic bag.

You need;

  • 1 cup plain flour
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 4 teaspoons cream of tartar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 teaspoon of food colouring


  1. Combine flour, salt, cream of tartar in a saucepan. Using a non-stick saucepan makes clean up dead easy, but the salt may scratch the finish when you mix.
  2. Gradually add the cup of water, oil, and colouring. For a more intense colour, experiment with the amount of colouring, and don’t forget your colour wheel. (For example, blue + red colouring = purple, blue + yellow = green, yellow + red = orange, etc.)
  3. Cook over a medium heat until it all clumps together into a ball.
  4. Remove from heat, and knead. This is the best part. It is worth making your own playdough, just to feel that warm, smooth, freshly made dough. It’s a very tactile experience!

Long sleeves for little legs


Whether you call them soakers, longies, or botty sweaters, they are warm, practical, and in this case, cheap!

If you are mildly crafty, frugal, or into recycling, and have a little person in your life, you might like to try your hand at making a pair of wool pants. They can be lanolised and used as the water proof layer of cloth nappies, or left as is and used to protect crawling knees. In my case, it’s just for fun because it’s such a good idea and I couldn’t resist trying it to see if it works!

Find an unwanted wool jumper (checking the tag to see that it is wool, not acrylic, if you are a novice in these matters).

Cut the arms from the jumper, and use a pair of baby’s pants to judge the length and curve of the rise.

Using a piece of chalk to mark the curve, cut out, and use the little triangle pieces left to make a gusset for extra room if you use cloth nappies and want to try it out as a night time cover, when the nappy is bulked out with night time boosters. Fold one point of the triangle toward the longest side, then cut the excess from the sides, producing a diamond shape with a seam down the middle. If you don’t use cloth nappies, you may want to skip this step.

Pin the gusset in, and if you are like me, it is worth folding it all the right way out after pinning, to see if you have pinned it to the correct side (eye roll!) before you sew. It normally takes me a few goes to work this out!

With the sleeves sewn together, you can fold over the waist and insert elastic, or a drawstring. As I wanted to use them overnight, and so wanted them longer in the rise, I then cut half the waist band from the jumper, and sewed this on as my waistband. The ribbing works like gentle elastic, and it gave me the extra length I wanted to be sure to cover the front of the cloth nappy.

Here the waist is sewn on, and I have prettied up the knee pads (which used to be elbow pads when the jumper was in use for “Sydney Electricity” as a work uniform!)

The finished pants, with a little bear on the back, because that is, after all, the view you have most of little crawling persons!

Here are some pictures of the longies Heidi has made for her little one….

baby wearing homemade longies.

view from behind


overlocked seams (inside out view)

rolled cuffs and waistband

The end result can be quite long (rolled down cuffs and rolled up waist band) or short (rolled up cuffs and rolled down waist band).

Heidi made the gussett larger than my original pattern, (wish I’d thought of that!!) and as she was using a turtle neck jumper, used the roll down neck for a waistband in the longies instead of using the waistband of the jumper cut smaller.

Don’t they look great on that darling little model?  You’ve done an excellent job, Heidi, and I am so grateful to you for sharing your experience and photos with me.

If anyone else attempts a pair, I’d love to add your photos and tips to the article.  My email address is now in the comments, along with a few extra tips from Heidi which are worth reading before you start.