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Childrens' Birthday Parties Recommendations

Birthday Party Places for Kids in Montgomery County, Maryland

Here is my list of birthday party place ideas for toddlers, children, tweens, and teens in Montgomery County, MD. 

I also include links to ideas for party favors that are available on Amazon.

[Looking for some great birthday gift ideas for your gifted girl or boy? See my list!]

First, here are some of the more typical birthday party place ideas from around Montgomery County.

  1. Laser tag (Ages 6+)
    laser tag party

    Shadowland in Gaithersburg is an fun venue for your party. Most kids seem to enjoy laser tag, and Shadowland’s birthday party packages make it easy for parents. Gaithersburg is also home to Castle Laser Tag.
    Locations: Gaithersburg
    ✳Laser Tag Party Favor Ideas: LED Bumpy Ring, Magnetic drawing tabletsMini LED carabiner Flashlights, LED Finger Rockets

  2. Duckpin Bowling White Oak(Ages 8+)
    birthday bowling party
    Bowling parties can be fun for kids. The key is to go to an alley that has
    duckpins rather then standard balls. This is because duckpin smaller balls are much easier for toddlers/younger kids to handle. There are obviously a few bowling alleys in Montgomery County, but I only know of one with duckpins: White Oak (near Silver Spring).
    Locations: White Oak
    ✳Bowling Party Favor Ideas: ✳LED Rubberband Helicopters ✳(I love these!) or Rocket Copters

[Need a great solution for your child’s allowance? Check out my review of FamZoo.com,a debit card for kids]

  1. Movie Parties (Ages 4+)
    Cinemark movie birthday party towson md
    With the right movie, a movie theater birthday party can be a fantastic
    choice. This can take a bit of planning and luck to be sure an appropriate movie is going to be playing when it’s time for your child’s birthday. One option would be the  Arclight Theaters in Montgomery Mall. The party goers could enjoy the movie and then a party in the mall at the Food Court.
    Locations: Bethesda
    ✳Movie Party Favor IdeasKid’s Card GamesMini Uno CardsPuffy Kush Balls
  2. Pool Parties (Ages 1+)
    Most kids enjoy a pool party. Whether it’s an outdoor party in the summer or fun at an indoor pool, kids of all ages will have a great time. There are a few options in Montgomery County including
    Rockville Swim and Fitness Center
    or Kid’s First Swim School in
    Germantown.
    Locations: Rockville, Germantown
    ✳Pool Party Favor IdeasWater ToysGogglesFlip-Flop KeychainsHawaiian Flower LeisHibiscus Flower Hair Clips
  3. Gymnastics Parties (Ages 2+)
    There are several gyms that offer birthday parties in Montgomery County. Examples are Little Gym in Silver Spring and Olney, My Gym in Potomac, Hill Gym in Gaithersburg.
    Locations: Silver Spring, Potomac, Olney, Gaithersburg
    ✳Gymnastics Party Favor IdeasRibbon WandsNecklacesJump Ropes
  4. Indoor Parkour (Age Range 7+)
    Kids love to climb. Bolt Gym in North Bethesda takes it to the next level with indoor parkour birthday parties. Kids will train in a simulated urban environment to overcome obstacles. In short, they’ll have a great time getting worn out climbing and jumping. Sure to be a great birthday party.
    Location: Bethesda
    Party Favor Ideas: Lucky Bambo, Jump Ropes (*or better quality jump ropes), hula hoops
  5. Chuck E Cheese’s (Ages 3-7)
    I am not the biggest fan of Chuck E Cheese, but I know many families like it. There is a location in Rockville and Takoma Park. Token prices are low—maybe around 20 cents each depending on which package you get. This is a great party venue for toddlers.
    Locations: Rockville, Takoma Park

Looking for some great gift ideas for your girl or boy? See my list!

Here are some other ideas that aren’t as popular. This will give your kid
the chance to do something more unusual:

  1. Escape Room Party (Age 11+)
    There is an escape room in Rockville – A Game of Rooms. They offer
    several types of games. There is a conference room available for rent for parties, but there isn’t really a group rate. You can just visit their
    website and purchase the number of tickets you need. You need to be 11 or older to enjoy this birthday place. Keep in mind that the puzzles are very challenging and some might find it frustrating instead of fun.
    Location: Rockville
    ✳Escape Room Party Favor IdeasMini Magnetic Board Games, Mini Rubics Cubes, Mini Teaser Puzzles, Snake Twist Cube Toy
  2. Fencing (Ages 8+)
    If you’re looking for something different, try a fencing party. Contact
    Capital Fencing in North Bethesda. You might also try
    UR Fencing in Rockville. If you’re looking a different kind of party
    location, this is your place.
    Locations: North Bethesda, Rockville
    Fencing Birthday Party Favor Ideas: Lego BricksMake Your Own Bouncy Ball Kits, Atomic Soccer Balls
  3. Nature Center Parties (Ages 2+)
    There are several choices around the Montgomery County area for Nature Center birthday parties. Consider Black Hill in Boyds. They
    have several types of parties available.
    Location: Boyds
    ✳Nature Center Party Favor Ideas: Succulent Plants, Worm on a string
  4. Craft Parties (Ages 4+)
    Kids can have a great time at craft parties. There are several options for locations including Michael’s Stores and JoAnn Fabrics.
    Locations: Rockville, Wheaton
  5. Pottery Parties (Ages 6+)
    Paint your own pottery is a great idea for a birthday party. Kids in
    kindergarten and beyond will enjoy paint parties with their friends.
    Color Me Mine in Rockville is a great choice for this type of party.
    Locations: Rockville
    ✳Pottery Party Favor Ideas: Playdough, Magnetic drawing tabletsPutty Balls
  6. iFly (Ages 3+)
    An amazing venue in Gaithersburg! Possibly the most unusual idea on this list, indoor skydiving would make for a wonderful birthday party place. Your boy or girl will never forget this birthday party! Be warned, this is a bit of a pricey option, at the end, each child will probably only get maybe 2 to 4 minutes of flying time. I would suggest that due to the amount of patience needed while waiting for your turn to fly, this venue is best for kids older than 7 even though toddlers are welcome.
    Locations: Gaithersburg
    ✳iFly Party Favor Ideas: Parachute Cord Bracelets, LED Finger Lights
  7. Rock Climbing (Ages 5+)
    Earth Treks is a fantastic place to host a birthday party. The location in Rockville on Gude Drive is convenient for all of Montgomery County.
    Locations: Rockville
  8. Indoor Playground (Ages 3 – 7)
    ZavaZone in Rockville, Kidville in Bethesda, and Badlands in North Bethesda are two fun places for kids birthday celebrations. Both are in Rockville. Your child might also like the party options at BusyBees in Chevy Chase. If you’re in the north of the County, you may want to check out Adventure Zone in Gaithersburg. Although I have concerns about the safety of trampoline parks, this one has some other options too.
    Locations: Rockville, Gaithersburg
  9. Ice Skating (Ages 8+)
    Plenty of kids love to ice skate. The Cabin John Ice Rink is a
    great venue to host a birthday bash.
    Locations: Cabin John/North Bethesda
    ✳Ice Skating Party Favor Ideas: Glowing GlovesGlowing Bracelets, Light
    Up Finger Rings
  10. Rent a Pavillion at Local Park or Community Center(Ages 2+)
    Rent a pavillion at one of the local parks. Brookside Gardens or
    Wheaton Regional Park would be great choices. At Wheaton Regional Park, younger kids would enjoy the train ride and excellent playground at the park. There are several great themes for birthday parties at Brookside Gardens including a Wings of Fancy Butterfly party, a Garden Tea Party, Dinosaur party, and a Paint a Pot Party. You might also want to consider renting a room at the Thomas Farm Community Center.
    Locations: Wheaton
    ✳Outdoor Party Favor Ideas: Sidewalk Chalk, Bubble Wands, Beach Balls
  11. Fire Station Birthdays (Ages 3-7)
    Many people don’t even know that you can host a birthday party at some of the fire stations in Montgomery County (Potomac).  I
    know quite a few kids who love fire trucks and love birthdays…so why not combine the two. It’s fun for the kids, and they get some fire safety tips too! My only caveat would be that an emergency could potentially cut the party short.
    ✳A great gift to go with this birthday party would be a pair of walkie
    talkies. Here is one suggestion for a pretty good pair–but please read my caveats about them in my gift ideas for brainy kids blog post.
    Locations: Cabin John/Potomac, Rockville.
  12. Zoo Parties (Ages 1+)
    It’s a bit of a trek from most of Montgomery County, but the National Zoo is a prime idea for a birthday party. Kids could take Metro down to the Cleveland Park Metro Station and walk from there.
    Locations: Washington DC
    ✳Zoo Party Favor Ideas: Zoo Animal Headbands, Cat Keychains, Magic Snake, Invisible Ink Pens, Rubik’s CubesAnimal Sticker Sheets
  13. Basketball Party (Ages 5+)
    If you’re child is into basketball, there are a few places around Montgomery County for a themed party. Some of the Sport and Health Club Locations (Bethesda, Gaithersburg) can host a basketball party. You can also have a great time at Pat the Roc Basketball Skills Academy.
    Locations: Bethesda, Gaithersburg
    Basketball Party Favor Ideas: Atomic Basketballs, Basketball Mini-Stress Foam Balls, Basketball Keychains
     
  14. Day Spa Parties (Ages 4 – 14)
    There are some great spas in Potomac, Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Rockville, and Silver Spring that can host children’s birthday parties. One option would be Cutesy Celebrations in Kentlands/Gaithersburg. They offer spa parties and tea party theme packages for kids.
    Locations: Around Montgomery County, Kentlands
  15. Imagination Stage (Ages 2 – 8)
    Why not have a dramatic birthday party with a show or class at Imagination Stage in Bethesda. This is sure to be great fun and it’s a one of a kind kids party venue.
    Location: Downtown Bethesda
    ✳Theater Party Favor Ideas:Tea Party Hats, White Formal Gloves
  16. Indoor Miniature Golf (Ages 8+)
    Monster Mini-Golf is an interesting place to have a birthday party for older kids. The place is dark, flashy, and rather loud in my experience, and I realize that for many kids this will be a plus. Since it’s also coupled with “monsters” it might be a little bit too creepy for younger kids, so I’d steer you away from this place for kids 7 or younger.
    Location: Gaithersburg
    ✳Miniature Golf Party Favor Ideas: Colorful Mechanical Pencils, Noise Putty, Active Flyers
  17. Music Birthday Parties (Ages 4+)
    There are some options for music-related birthday party fun. One venue suggestion is Bach to Rock in Gaithersburg featuring a two hour jam session for 7 year olds and older kids. They also have programs for kids 4 and older as well. 

Bonus Idea: For any birthday party, consider getting a photo booth. These can be great fun and provide lasting memories. Choose your  photo booth provider carefully. I’ve had great luck with Shelly’s Sweet Photo Booth (410) 961-2983.

Hopefully this list of party ideas helps you out. If you can think of any
places I missed, please comment below. Don’t forget to check out my list of gifts for gifted kids.

Categories
Education Parenting Recommendations Reviews

FamZoo: A Debit Card for Your Kid’s Allowance

My Review of FamZoo – An Allowance and Finance Education Solution for Families

Looking for advice and ideas on how to make more out of giving your child a weekly allowance or to reward them for meeting goals or doing chores? Look no further than FamZoo.com.

FamZoo is a great solution for families to handle this time-honored tradition. Not only does it provide a great, easy-to-manage system for giving your kids money, it teaches financial literacy, and encourages charitable giving.

Here’s a quick summary of the features that make this a great option for families with kids:

  • At its most basic level, FamZoo is a MasterCard debit card for each of your children.
  • The card is the same as many bank-issued debit cards/ATM cards.
  • When you order the cards, each kid over the age of 13 years old can get their own name on the card.
  • Kids younger than 13 years old get their parent’s name and their name on the card.
  • The parent’s transfer money into a FamZoo account and then it can be distributed as required either automatically in regular intervals (such as for an allowance) or as the parent authorizes.
  • There is a web-based and iOS application that parents can use to setup accounts, transfer money to kids’ cards, and keep track of transactions/spending.
  • Savings and charity accounts can be created. Parents can decide on an “interest rate” for their child’s savings account. (The parent pays the interest, but the kid learns about the value of saving.)
  • When a child earns money, some of it can automatically be diverted into the charity or savings accounts. Parents can setup a “savings match” program if they like.
  • If a debit card is lost, there’s a checkbox in the app/web account that can disable it instantly.
  • Since it’s a debit card, and you set the pin, the possibility of theft / fraudulent use is minimized. It is easy to order replacement cards and to transfer the money on the old card to the new account.
  • Debit cards also mean no chance of accidently going into debt, late fees, overdraft fees. The money that you put on the card is all that is available for your child to use.
  • The debit card is on an ATM network (MoneyPass), so your child can withdraw cash as needed (from the available balance on her card).
  • Teaches responsibility.


Watch the video below to learn more about how FamZoo works:

Interested in a 30-day trial? Click to learn more about FamZoo.



Categories
Recommendations Reviews Secondary Features

Sandy Point State Park Beach Review

Sandy Point State Park Maryland

Central Marylanders are often faced with a choice during the summer–trek out to Ocean City or the Delaware shore or go to one of the closer in Chesapeake Bay Beaches.  If you don’t have time or money to head all the way over to the Eastern shore, there are definitely a few popular beaches in Anne Arundel and Calvert County.

I’d say that among the most popular Chesapeake destinations are North Beach, Chesapeake Beach, Flag Point and the one everyone knows – Sandy Point State Park.

The park is open year round. As of this writing, it is only closed on Christmas Day.

The street address for the park to put into your navigator is:

1100 E College Pkwy, Annapolis, MD 21409
1-800-830-3974 / 410-974-2149 (Office) General Information
Hours of Operation are 7am to sunset. Fishermen and boaters may have 24 hour access.

There are entrance fees (see below) that are paid either using coins (quarters or dollars) or credit cards (Visa/Mastercard).

See below for park entry costs (Updated for Summer 2019).

[Looking for the perfect solution for your child’s allowance? Have a look at my review of the FamZoo MasterCard Debit card for kids]

Sandy Point, which opened in the 1950’s, is located just to the western side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge which looms over the beach. In fact, one drawback of the Sandy Point beach is that you may encounter some of the beach traffic you’re hoping to avoid by not going to Ocean City.

To get to Sandy Point, you head down Route 50 towards the bridge but exit (exit 32) shortly before you reach it to get to College Parkway.

Just plan your visit with the potential for traffic in mind and most days you’ll be able to get there without much of a delay.  In case you were wondering, a section of the beach is supervised by lifeguards from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends and holidays, Memorial Day to Labor Day.

[See my hand-picked list of great places to host a birthday party in Baltimore County, Howard County or Anne Arundel County.]

As a state park, there is an admission fee which as of May 24, 2019, Sandy Point State Park entry for Maryland Residents is:

  • $4 per person on weekdays
  • $5 per person on weekends and holidays.
  • Children buckled in a child safety seat (infant and small children in a car seat or booster seat) are free.
    Costs are a few dollars more for non-Maryland residents. Rates may increase for holidays or special events.
  • Military and their dependents as well as disabled people get in for free–you have to present proper ID to get these free passes to Sandy Point.You can also buy a season pass or buy a Golden Age Pass for $10 if you’re older than 61. Here are a few more details: If you plan to go often, you probably want to consider getting a season pass. Golden Age Passes are available for purchase for people age 62+ –with it, you’ll get free admission (and unfortunately, the National Park Service Eagle Passees aren’t accepted).

As mentioned above, those with a Maryland Park Service Disability Pass get in for free.  BTW, when you get a season pass, they give you a magnetic card to get you into the park, as the entry gates typically aren’t staffed.  By the way, aside from those passes, these automatic toll machines accept exact change only in the form of $1 coins and quarters. Alternately, you can use a credit card: MasterCard and VISA are accepted.

Be aware that sometimes, especially on certain holidays, the park can fill to capacity and they simply stop letting people in. That can really be disappointing because there aren’t really any comparable nearby beaches. If that happens to you, I can only suggest taking a ride to downtown Annapolis and taking in the sites, or if you a heart-set on the beach, take about a 1-hour ride down to North Beach and hope for the best.

The beach itself isn’t perfect, but it is a nice way to spend the day with kids. As mentioned earlier, there are life guards on the beach during the summer months from 10am to 6pm.  Snacks and concessions are available for sale at the beach.  They also have showers and restrooms available.

Aside from going in the water or hanging out on the beach there are also opportunities for crabbing and fishing (for licensed fisherman and people age 16 or under).  There are rock jetties you can stand on for fishing or you can rent a 16 foot motor boat/bring your own small craft. Fisherman enjoy 24 hour access to the park during certain times of year.

Jigging and chumming seem to be effective ways of catching striped bass at Sandy Point–especially if you’re there in the early morning hours. If you like hiking there is are several nice trails that take you through marsh land and a planted pine forest.  It is a great way to see wildlife such as birds and turtles.

Pets are allowed in the park only during the off-season times of year. Dogs must be leashed.

[Looking for things to do with kids in Maryland? See my list of ideas.]

Sandy Point might be a place to consider for group outings or parties.  For large parties they have shelters available for rental that can hold up to 300 people.

Note that this is the only place alcohol is allowed in the park, and you MUST get a permit if you intend to serve drinks.  Also, you are NOT allowed to have amplified music at Sandy Point.  Another important consideration for groups is that everyone entering the park must pay separately.  Youth and scouting groups can also reserve a campground area.

Another important thing to note is that Sandy Point is a “trash free” park.  What that really means is that it is up to the visitors to collect their trash and take it with them.

There aren’t any trashcans in the park.  Related point–you can bring your dogs to the park during the off season, but you are expected to clean up after them.

People ask me what I don’t like about Sandy Point.  Well, we’re lucky to have a close-in, convenient option, but well, it isn’t the same as Ocean City.  The sand is different, the bottom of the bay feels different to walk on and there seem to be more creatures that bite and sting (Both flying creatures and lots of jellyfish some years–especially when the water starts getting warmer).

Another issues is that the beach itself can get kind of dirty sometimes. Anyway, I do like it, but sometimes it makes me wish for O.C. — also, on most days, given the choice, I would rather trek out to North Beach which tends to be better maintained for sunbathers and swimmers.

Liked this post? Please check out my other reviews and lists. For example, my list of gift ideas for children and restaurants for kids in Howard County.

Categories
Education gifted and talented Recommendations Reviews Technology

Getting the Most from your Rocketbook Notebook – A User Review with Tips

The Rocketbook Everlast and Rocketbook Fusion are a fantastic gift for the “wired” high school, college students, artists, and business people.

These notebooks put a new twist on taking notes in the more traditional way with pen and paper, while at the same time not being as onerous as using a tablet computer to take handwritten notes.

There are a few things that raise the value of this system:

  1. The spiral-bound notebook is made of paper-like plastic, rather than regular paper. This is great because it means that if you use the readily available Pilot Frixion Pens or Markers, anything written on the pages can be easily wiped away clean with a damp paper towel. So basically it means you can reuse the notebook over and over again. I love the feel of the special Pilot pens on this surface. It is smooth and fluid. I also appreciate the fact that the notebooks have some pages that use dots instead of lines. I prefer this because makes it easier to use the paper for a wide-variety of notes including drawings and landscape notes (as opposed to portrait) which definitely has come in handy.
  2. There are two sizes available: 8.5″x11″ and 6″x8.8″.Although there is a cool-factor to having the smaller size, I’d recommend going with the letter-size book. It’s slightly more expensive, but the added utility makes it worth it.
  3. Before you wipe away your notes with a wet cloth, you can use the Rocketbook app to photograph your work and automatically file it up to one of several services including Google Drive, DropBox, and Evernote, or just email the notes to yourself or a designated email address (perhaps use Gmail’s “+ addressing” as part of a filing system).
  4. The app includes handwriting recognition that incorporates artificial intelligence to improve the results. I have been using this feature and I must say it is pretty good–not perfect, but my writing certainly isn’t either. What it gives you (for now) is the ability to make your notes searchable once you scan them and email/file them in the cloud. That’s a huge step forward, and it’s definitely a welcomed feature.The notebook’s pages have a 7 symbols at the bottom of the page that when checked tell the system where to send your notes…You define the symbols in the app…that way, if you check one or more of the symbols, the app will automatically know where to email or upload your notes. Otherwise you have to do it manually once you’ve photographed the pages…kind of a waste of time since it can be automated.

These two parts taken together mean freedom for people like me who need to take lots of notes and actually keep track of the resulting work for future reference.

Here are a few points that may help you understand the way you can make use of the Rocketbook system:

  • The Rocketbook system let’s you work in a nonlinear way–since the notes will be sent to the cloud, you don’t necessarily have to use contiguous pages to track the same topic–you just have to send the right pages to the right place in the cloud and then possibly further organize them from there.
  • You may want to consider adding a pen holder to your Rocketbook.
  • If you don’t plan to fill the notebook before you photograph it, or if you need to erase some notes but aren’t ready to erase others, you’ll need some sort of system to identify which notes have already been photographed.
    I keep it simple–I just use the upper right hand corner of the page to put the date and circle it after I capture the page so I will know it’s safe to erase.
  • There are a wide variety of Pilot Frixion pens and markers available from retailers including Amazon.com. They come in different colors, sizes, and tips.
  • I learned from the “A Life of Productivity” blog, that it’s better to use the Pilot Frixion 0.5 tipped pens–they dry faster and obviously don’t make your writing as thick. This solves a problem that I have also noticed: it takes a few seconds for the ink to dry on the page–I’ve definitely smudged a few notes with the default 0.7 pen that ships with the Rocketbook.
    I have a few of the .5 tipped pens, and it is clearly an improvement. I also appreciate the fact that I can take up less space with a fine tip.
  • Rename your files when they reach the cloud. For instance with Google Drive, you would want to rename them and possibly move them into a more precise folder.You will want give the files some kind of descriptive name to help you to know the contents of the notes and the order that they’re meant to be read.  If you always write about a particular subject, you may be able to leverage the symbols system to always file particular types of notes to a particular place/folder…so that can save some time.
  • The Rocketbook people also have another notebook that is possibly more well-known than this one called “The Rocketbook Wave.”It is cool in that you erase the notebook by microwaving it, however it may only be able to be used a few times.Aside from that, the idea behind the notebook is basically the same as the Rocketbook Everlast.
  • One final tip: The day is going to come when you’re going to make a little mistake in your notebook and you’re going to want to erase. It would be simple to just use the eraser that is on the other side of your pen. Don’t Do That. If you do, you’re going to mess up the coating on the notebook. I know it’s a pain to use a damp cloth to get to just one small area of the notebook, but still don’t erase the regular way. If this comes up for you alot, you might find something like this aqua eraser which could work in some cases.
  • Stickers like post-it notes seem to mess up the notebooks. It’s unfortunate because one thing that’s missing is a good way to bookmark or divide up the Rocketbook…but try to avoid putting these to use in your notebook.
Categories
Food Nutrition Recommendations Save Money

Top 6 Places To Buy Fruit, Vegetables & Other Produce For Cheap in Central Maryland


If your family is like ours, we eat lots of fruit and vegetables.  We especially like fresh organic fruits and produce when possible, but we also like to keep the costs under control.

Below are my top 6 recommendations for where to buy produce, plus some bonus tips on how to get great veggies for lower prices in Maryland (This advice applies to anywhere in the United States although you’ll need to follow my links to find cheap produce in your area–read further for some great kitchen gadgets to help you make the most of your produce:

1) You can subscribe to a weekly fruit and vegetable box delivery. We’ve been using Hungry Harvest to get weekly organic deliveries. The company drops the box on our porch every Friday. We can pick the items we want to have in it week by week.

This particular company says they give you cheaper prices because they deliver “ugly” fruits and vegetables. We haven’t really found this to be the case for the most part for our organic box. We suspect it may be more likely that we’d get less attractive fruits if we subscribed to their non-organic offering. Sometimes we do see things in the box that are a bit undersized, but mostly it’s just the normal stuff you’d get in the supermarket. (And some things you wouldn’t find there at all.)

Hungry Harvest has a warehouse in Jessup and they employ local drivers to drop off the boxes in each neighborhood. I spoke to our driver today and she said it’s really exploding in popularity. She said she had 60 deliveries just today in Columbia alone. I know a few people who use this service and also like it. If you’re interested, please use this link to sign up-We will both get a $5 credit on our next order.

Each produce box you get comes with a gel ice pack. So if you decide to order from Hungry Harvest, be sure and save your ice packs and return them…just leave them on your porch on the drop off day and the driver will get them. They prefer them to be thawed out and dry.

vidalia onions at Costco Wholesale Warehouse2) Shop at Costco warehouse stores.  We love shopping at Costco (Read my review and list of organic foods available there).

One of the great things is that they stock lots of organic fruits and vegetables, both fresh and frozen.  Availability varies from store to store, but at the Costco in Columbia, MD they reliably have organic bananas, gala apples, “power greens” (Kale, spinach), and frozen organic corn as well as pineapple and various berries.

Another great thing about Costco is that it is more Earth-friendly to purchase in bulk.  I highly recommend Costco for everyone, you don’t have to purchase very much food there to make up for the membership price.   Find a Costco location near you.

Spring Onions 7 bunches for $1 at Super Best Asian Market
Green Onions
at a
Maryland
Asian
Market

3) Shop at Asian or International markets.  There are many of these in Maryland.  One of the better ones is Lotte, but also in Laurel there is the Super Best. We are always surprised at the cheaper prices at Super Best–but note that we tend to find that the items we buy there need to be consumed quickly as the cheapest items tend to be near the end of their shelf lives.

There are plenty of other Asian markets around…for example H-mart and Lotte in Ellicott City/Catonsville. And my current favorite Great Wall in Catonsville. You won’t find very much in the way of organics, but you will find a huge, unusual variety of fruits and vegetables and they’re suspiciously cheap.  For example 3 bunches of green onions for $1. If you live in Columbia, you may want to visit La Mart.  To find your nearest Asian market, just Google Asian Market in your city/state.

3) Get your fruits and vegetables wholesale by the case. Wholesale fruit markets aren’t for the faint of heart.  You need to have time and a sense of adventure to make this happen, but it definitely does pay off.  In Jessup, Maryland there are two places where consumers can go  to get wholesale produce at the central distribution point.

That’s right you can go the place supermarkets and restaurants get their fruits/vegetables and save.  Below is a video that explains what to do if you decide to go to the Maryland Wholesale Produce Market – Conowingo Drive, Jessup Maryland.  Note that when you go, you should probably expect to pay with cash and you’ll have to stop at a guard gate to explain what you’re doing there.

If you’re mainly interested in organic produce, you’ll want to visit Class Produce.  Class Produce isn’t far from the Maryland Wholesale Produce Market, but it is a bit easier to access. Class does take credit cards and my experience with the staff there is that they are very helpful and welcoming to families who want to purchase wholesale.

It is very important to note that you really need to place your order ahead of time.  Visit their website to get more information and to request a current price list.  They are located at  8477 Dorsey Run Rd, Annapolis, MD 21401 in an industrial area.   (410) 799-5000.

PRO TIP
: For the freshest perishable fruits and vegetables (ie-berries) arrange for pickup on Mondays or Tuesdays.  It seems that Class produce and other wholesale sellers get their deliveries late Sunday nights, so it’s strategic to pick up your fruits and veggies early in the week to get the freshest foods possible.

4) Join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group or “farm share”.  Local produce is delivered to your home or central location at predetermined intervals.  This is a great way to get super-fresh food and help keep local farming viable.

A great example of a well run CSA program is Gorman Farm, which is kind of on the border of Columbia and Laurel. You have to be on the ball to get into a CSA program–there is a window of time when you can sign up each year and generally there aren’t many openings because of course the farms don’t produce an unlimited amount of fruits and vegetables each year. There are lots of these but here is a list that the Washington Post provided a few years ago.

5) Shop for fruits and vegetables at farmers markets.  There are a few farmer’s markets around Howard County that have fairly decent variety and prices.  Locations sometimes change but for instance the Howard County General Hospital and the Miller Library are two reliable places to find markets.  Here is a resource with an up-to-date list with hours and days (typically farmers markets take place once per week in the specified location).

PRO TIP: 
One great thing about Farmer’s markets is the ability to actually talk to the people who grew the crops.  This means that often you’ll be able to get a pretty good idea of how pesticide-happy the farmer was when growing them–often you will find a farmer who is actually using organic farming methods but who hasn’t yet been certified in organics and that can lead to significant savings.

Bonus Tip: Not-So-Cheap Fruit and Vegetable Options: Grow your own.  Ok, this isn’t directly buying fruits or vegetables, and it can in fact be expensive rather than cheap, but it is fun, educational and great exercise to have a garden.

If you’re new to gardening, you might want to have a look at the home gardening programs and information provided by the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension–it is a great resource.  If you live in outside of Maryland, check with your state’s department of agriculture for similar programs.

This year we got 3 Aerogardens hydroponic systems, so we’re growing year round now. At the moment, we are raising Italian herbs (parsley, thyme, mint, two kinds of basil…and had the cat not eaten it, we would also have chives), roma tomatoes, and chamomile. Miracle Grow is the manufacturer and they definitely do make it easy.

Unfortunately, even though the plants don’t need any herbicides or pesticides (since they’re grown indoors), the required nutrients that you add to the water isn’t organic. We aren’t that concerned about this, but I am trying to determine whether there is an organic substitute we can use. Having said that, we REALLY love the Aerogardens. My favorites are the tomatoes and basil. The basil grows like crazy!

There are different price points for getting an Aerogarden. The Aerogarden Elite takes 6 seed pods, and gets great reviews. There is also a 9-pod system that may be worth consideration, especially if space is not an issue.

Pick your own strawberries - box of strawberries

Bonus #3 Also in the expensive rather than cheap column, but worth it is a trip to Larriland Farm in Northern Howard County to pick a variety of fruits and vegetables.  They have apples, peaches, broccoli, kale, spinach, melons, potatoes, pumpkins, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and more. Check their website to see what is ready for picking.

BTW, Larriland Farm uses “integrated pest management” which they say means that they use much less pesticides than a typical farm.  I have spoken to them about this several times and they say that they mostly only use pesticides when they have severe problems.  It may not be organic farming, but at least this sounds like a huge improvement over the norm.  You can read about how Larriland uses this system here.  There are many pick your own farms throughout the USA–here is a curated list.

BTW, here are some of the gadgets I recommend that are great to have in the kitchen when cooking with produce:

  • InstantPot – This is a digital pressure cooker/slow cooker/rice maker/yogurt maker and more. We use ours every day. Here is my full review of the Instant Pot.
  • Vitamix or Blendtec blenders – You’ll love making smoothies and vegetable soups in these professional blenders.
  • Spiralizer – This is a three-blade spiral slicer for vegetables. So many fun things you can do with this including zucchini noodles.
  • Julienne peeler – This is a great way to peel veggies.
  • Corn Stripper – Well, the name makes me laugh, but it’s a great way to get the corn off the cob.
  • Produce bags – These bags will help keep your produce fresh much longer.
  • Juicepresso – A great way to juice. Definitely an improvement over our Jack La Lane.
Categories
Education kids activities Recommendations Review

Before and After Care in Howard County

after care in howard county MD

We’re definitely going to need before and after care for our children this school year (2018-2019).

We’ve started looking into what the standard options are, and we’re a little worried.

As a former teacher,  I have seen what before and after care can be (a waste of children’s time, with some fun mixed in) and hope to find something better.

Idea Lab After School Program

Idea Lab is located in Ellicott City/Columbia on Route 108 near Red Branch Road. It specializes in STEM programs for kids, and it is one of the few places that will pick kids up from school and transport them. They pick up a schools that are within 5 miles (elementary and middle schools).

I’d note that you may not find it easy to navigate their website to determine the pickup options, but just give them a call — they definitely do offer this service.

They have some great options for STEM classes and activities after school. They offer classes in coding, 3D printing, cooking/baking, and more.

They also have great summer camps and school’s out camps.

It’s a great option to consider. Here is a sample of their offering for Spring 2020. Howard County Schools After Care Columbia Ellicott City Schedule

Martial Arts Centers After School Programs

Another possibility is a martial arts program at one of a few locations around Howard County. The deal is that for about $450 dollars/month, a member of the martial art’s schools staff picks up your child up after school (walking or typically with a van) your child may get a snack, and then they take martial arts classes and have some free time to do homework.

The local Howard County martial arts schools with after-school programs that I know of are:

  1. Wilde Lake Karate After Care $450/month
  2. World Champion Martial Arts Laurel, Md
  3. Hwarang Martial Arts $89/week after school only – Serves schools near 21045 zip code.
  4. Nam’s Kicks  Ellicott City, serves Illchester, Waterloo, Phelps Luck, Bonnie Branch, and Thunder Hill Elementary.
  5. Harraday’s Karate & Fitness Columbia, Md – Not sure which schools they serve with their after-school program.

In-School Before and After Care

The public schools in Howard County all have on-site before and after care. Some of the programs are run by Howard County Parks and Recreation, and some are primarily run by the Columbia Association. This means you won’t have a choice–it’s either one or the other.

At our local elementary for example, before and after care is run by Columbia Association. It turns out, however, that there are “special programs” that are added on by the Howard County Parks and Rec. For example, they have a 12-session before school chess club running this fall from Silver Knights Chess.

Checking out the Recreation and Parks after care page, it definitely looks as if they have some good programs, but recently, we  heard some parents complaining about this program one day while my girls were taking a ballet lesson–exactly what I am afraid of, basically frequent disorganization, and more of a babysitting service than anything else.  I hope that’s not what I will find.

The following elementary schools have before and after care provided by Recreation and Parks:

  • Bellows Spring Elem
  • Bollman Bridge Elem
  • Bushy Park Elem
  • Dayton Oaks Elem
  • Deep Run Elem
  • Ducketts Lane Elem
  • Elkridge Elem
  • Forest Ridge Elem
  • Fulton Elem
  • Gorman Crossing Elem
  • Hollifield Station Elem
  • Ilchester Elem
  • Laurel Woods Elem
  • Lisbon Elem
  • Manor Woods Elem
  • Pointers Run Elem
  • Rockburn Elem
  • St. John’s Lane Elem
  • Triadelphia Ridge Elem
  • Veterans Elem
  • Waverly Elem
  • West Friendship Elem

As mentioned many of the local schools have programs offered by Columbia Association. There is an application on the website. You may find that your school has a waiting list for the before and after care. You can call them on 410-715-3000 to check on the waiting list.  The following elementary schools have Columbia Association before and after care:

  • Atholton
  • Bryant Woods
  • Centennial
  • Clarksville
  • Clemens Crossing
  • Cradlerock
  • Guilford
  • Hammond
  • Jeffers Hill
  • Longfellow
  • Northfield
  • Phelps Luck
  • Running Brook
  • Stevens Forest
  • Swansfield
  • Talbott Springs
  • Thunder Hill
  • Waterloo
  • Worthington

The Columbia Association programs are convenient, but certainly aren’t what I’d call cheap-basically you’re going to pay $183/month for before care starting at 7am, and $260 for aftercare until 6pm or both for $493/month (These are 2018 prices, subject to change! Financial aid is available) for before and aftercare. (They also offer a full-day program for days when school is closed for $55/day. See my list of other options for schools out camps)

So for that kind of money, and for spending so much of your child’s time, you can only hope for well-run, worthwhile offerings.  The website states that the ratio of students to staff in this program are no more than 15 to 1. Also, worth mentioning is that they provide snacks (I hope they’re healthy snacks!)

So that’s one option, easy if you don’t get waitlisted, but what are the other options?

As mentioned earlier, some of the elementary schools also have special add-on aftercare programs that are available through Howard County Parks and Recreation or Columbia Association from local businesses. (ie-Chess, music lessons, yoga, sports, Girls on the Run, scouting–see my post about after school activities in Howard County!)   You have to check with your school or browse through the online catalog to see what’s available and the additional costs.

If your student is a middle schooler, there are also programs at some schools run by Howard County Parks and Recreation called Can-Teen ($299/month). Details about the program and the registration forms are here. It is available at the following schools:

  • Bonnie Branch
  • Elkridge Landing
  • Folly Quarter
  • Lime Kiln
  • Mayfield Woods
  • Thomas Viaduct

Does anyone have any additional suggestions?

What have you found about before and after care at schools in Howard county?  Also, check out this post if you’re looking for other worth-while activities to do with your kids in central Maryland and if you’re looking for gift ideas for your child, see my post about birthday and holiday gift ideas for smart kids. (Also see my birthday party ideas for kids in Howard County)

Categories
Education Recommendations

Educational Apps for Kindle Fire

Pettson's Inventions and other great educational apps for Kindle Fire

Looking for some great educational apps for your child’s Kindle Fire Tablet (or other Android device)? Here are a few of the ones that my kids enjoy now or in the not-too-distant past. All of these are available in the Amazon App Store for Android / Kindle App Store:

  1. Inventioneers – Filimundus-AB makes some great games that teach kids how to invent and think of creative solutions. Great physics engine. Great fun.
  2. Pettson’s Inventions 1  / Pettson’s Inventions 2 /Pettson’s Inventions Deluxe – Another great game from Filimundus-AB. This game requires you to solve puzzles by placing moving parts in the right places. The deluxe version allows you to compete against a clock or other people online.
  3. 5th Grade Learning Games – A great set of games for learning on the fifth grade level (other grades are available too!)
  4. ScratchJr.- Great introduction to programming for younger kids. Meant for kids ages 5 -7 but may be helpful for older kids too.
  5. Ancient Greece for Kids – Learning app that teaches kids about Ancient Greece.
  6. Duolingo – A free, fun and effective way to learn one of several languages Great for anyone of any age.
  7. Manic Math – Tetris, but with math. You have to be quick solving addition, multiplication, subtraction, and division problems.
  8. Stack the States – Learn about the geography of the USA including the location of the state, state capitals and the shape of each state.
  9. Stack the Countries – Makes learning about world geography fun!
  10. Word Shaker – Find as many words as possible in the jumble of letters before time is up!
  11. Box Island – This is a great “3D” app to help teach kids to code. 99 Cents gets you 10 levels. You may have trouble if you’re using Amazon Free Time when you want to purchase the other levels.
  12. Flight Simulators – There are many choices for flight simulators. The skills learned go beyond learning to fly.
  13. Hill Climb Race – This is a little bit more “fluffy” but there is educational value in the way that cars work and the physics engine that’s in use in this Android app definitely is something kids can learn from.
See more ideas for what to do when school is closed.

For younger kids, don’t forget these favorites:

  1. StarFall – This app makes learning to read fun. Was very helpful with my kids.
  2. Kid Weather – A fun introduction to meteorology.
And then there are these games…more for adults than kids, these are great educational games that pose a bit more challenge than those listed above, still some kids may find them just on the right level:
  1. Rube Works: The Official Rube Goldberg Invention Game  – A great game, with some very challenging puzzles. Fun and interesting.
  2. Bacterium – Blurs the line between fun and learning with a bacteria simulator. You take care of a population of bacteria and get them to do your bidding.
  3. Crazy Machines – Golden Gears HD – Another Rube Goldberg-style game with a very good physics engine.
  4. SimplePlanes – This is a wonderful game where you have to build airplanes and see how they fly. Cool and very entertaining.
  5. SimpleRockets – Well if SimplePlanes wasn’t enough for you, they also have this gem.  Build and launch rockets.
  6. Gravity Sim 3D – This isn’t for everyone, but a very interesting space simulator.

See more ideas for what to do when school is closed.

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Categories
Featured kids activities maryland Recommendations

List of Fun Activities For Kids To Do Around Maryland

what to do in maryland for fun

Looking for worthwhile things to do with your kids in the Baltimore/DC Area?  I am too.  Here is a list of 27+ fun activity suggestions that I have compiled from experience with my own children.  Please feel free to add to this list by leaving a comment below.

1) Children’s museums: Visit the  National Children’s Museum in National Harbor or in Baltimore called Port Discovery.  Kids love both places.

Another great place to take kids and teens is the Natural History Museum in Washington D.C.  There are some great exhibits including mummies, gems and minerals, loads of animal and plant exhibits and an insect zoo where you can watch them feed a tarantula, see a live butterfly exhibit and more.  One of the greatest things in the museum is also the best kept secret–Q?rius is the name of a special kids science zone in the basement of the museum.

They have lots of high quality microscopes and tons of specimens and activities.  I highly recommend this for all kids but especially kids and teens interested in basic science. Rumor has it that they will soon be getting a scanning electron microscope!  See  the Natural History Museum’s website for information. Your children may also love the children’s activity center at the American Indian Museum.

Also, the Smithsonian maintains a website with a calendar of things to do for kids at all of its museums.  Check it out here.

2) In the spring, summer and fall months you can go to Brookside Gardens and see a great butterfly exhibit called Wings of Fancy (goes from Spring until October)

3) The National Gallery of Art has free hour long story time/Looking at art classes for kids on Sundays.  Get there before 11 (when the museum opens to get into the first class–usually there’s great parking spots open right near the museum).

4) In May – November, there are two great picking farms we like to go to–Larriland Farm in Lisbon, MD, Weber’s Farm in Parkville, and Butler’s Orchard in Germantown.  We especially like Larriland, they grow all kinds of things you can pick and the kids really love it.  Larriland uses a farming method called integrated pest management which significantly reduces pesticide use.

This is not the cheapest way to get your produce in the summer and fall, but it’s definitely one of the most fun. (If you are looking for cheap ways to get produce, see my blog post 6 cheap places to get produce in Maryland.)

5) Baltimore Harbor is always a fun place to go.  The paddle boats are a little expensive, but our girls really love riding on them.  Two of the most popular museums in the area are the National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center.

Hard Bargain - Visit farms in Maryland

6) Visit Hard Bargain Farm.  For some readers it might be  a little bit far, but they have some great programs for kids there.

7) Visit the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge in Beltsville.  Ride the tram through the forest….

8) For a quick day-trip to the beach visit North Beach, Maryland or Sandy Point State Park.

9) Patapsco State Park – Visit one of several areas in the park including the “tire park” which is near Catonsville in the Hilton area of the park.  Some great hiking and nice scenery.

10) Is it hot outside? Follow the Maryland ice cream trail.

11) Go watch hobbyists launch model rockets at NASA Goddard. Held one Sunday per month–a tradition since 1976. You will also have a great, nerdy time at the Goddard Sunday Experiment.

12) Go to Imagination Stage and see a play for kids.  This ten year old theater company produces high quality shows and presents them in a modern venue.

13) Take a trip to Great Falls and walk along the C & O canal tow path.  See the amazing falls at the overlook. Hike on the billy goat trails and visit the museum.  Take a ride on a canal barge.

14) Visit Clarks Elioak Farm in Ellicott City.  Learn about farming and see artifacts from the Enchanted Forest.  Check the website for hours.

15) Terrapin Adventures in Savage, MD or Adventure Park in Sandy Spring for some fun in the trees including zip lines and climbing.

16) The Maryland Renaissance Festival – On weekends and holidays from late August to Mid October, this is a great place to have some fun.  If you’ve never been to a Ren Faire before, expect lots of interesting spectacles — low-tech shows (Jousting, magic) and interesting food and drink.

17) The National Zoo or The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.  The National Zoo is free, there is an admission charge for the Baltimore Zoo (at this writing $17.50 for adults, $12.50 for children).  Both zoos are an excellent experience for all ages.

things to do in Annapolis MD

18) Visit historic Annapolis – This colonial capitol town is charming and storied.  Visit the shops, museums and restaurants by the water, take a boat ride, a walking tour of the Naval Academy and more.  There are quite a few things to do and see. If you get a chance, have a look at the Hammond Harwood, William Paca House and Charles Carroll house historic sites.

19) When you take a trip to Annapolis and go kayaking, paddle  or canoeing at Quiet Waters Park.  They even offer stand-up paddle boarding–give it a try! You may also want to try Capital SUP – You can do stand-up paddle boarding right in the Annapolis Harbor in Eastport.

20) Transportation Museums – In Baltimore, visit the B&O Railroad museum – Kids love trains.  This is a chance to explore the history of the railroads and see old steam engines in person. To continue the rail theme, visit the streetcar museum.

Also in Baltimore at the inner harbor are some historic ships  including the USS Constellation and sometimes a submarine for you to get on board and have a look at. In College Park, there is an aviation museum. Another great museum is the Maryland Fire Museum in Lutherville. They have an amazing collection of old fire apparatus and plenty of fun things for kids.

21) For a bit of history, visit Montpelier Mansion in Laurel, Maryland.  This Georgian mansion is very interesting especially if you are interested in local history and architecture.

22) Also in Laurel, is the Dinosaur Park–an interesting place to learn about Maryland’s prehistoric history.  You can visit any day, but for the best experience, you want to go on Saturday’s when they have open houses (check the schedule!).  It isn’t far from the Montpelier Mansion so you can plan to visit both on the same day.

22.5) If you’re in the mood for archaeology and looking for fossils, here are two more great activities: Have a go at the National Geographic Museum in Washington DC.  Great stuff! Also, there are several locations near Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant that have fossils that can be found. My best suggestion here is to visit Flag Pond beach–you may find sharks, whales and alligator teeth and shells that are millions of years old.

23) Hike at Brighton Dam – Brighton Dam is a reservoir used as a water supply for homes around Montgomery County. They have walking trails and you can do some fishing there. Also, there is a spectacular azalea garden with 22,000 azalea bushes. Best viewed around early May.

24) The Fire Museum – The Fire Museum is lots of fun for kids of all ages. Located in Lutherville, this museum has some great exhibits. It’s also a great place to have a birthday party!

25) Do your kids like climbing? There is a super-cool indoor climbing place for kids in Laurel, MD. Climbzone is unusual because it doesn’t have your typical climbing walls. Kids can climb all sorts of nets, book cases, a Mount Rushmore replica and more. Highly recommended.

26) The American Visionary Art Museum is a little different. Located in Federal Hill in Baltimore City, this place has some great stuff for kids to enjoy. Look for their annual activities such as their whimsical moving sculpture parade and their sock puppet activity.

27) Crystal Grottoes Caverns – Discovered in 1920, the Crystal Grottoes Cavern is a great place to take kids. There are plenty of interesting and amazing formations sure to fill kids of all ages with wonder.

For a weekly roundup of special events for kids in Maryland, Virginia and DC visit Kidfriendly DC.  In the Baltimore area, we have Cool Progeny, which also is great for finding things to do.

Categories
Featured Food Nutrition Recommendations Review Reviews Save Money

Why We Shop At Costco – Costco Review Part 1

Organic Blue Agave from Costco
Costco sells two 36 ounce bottles of Organic Blue Agave
for $9.89

Easy Ways to Save Money: Shop at Costco

This is part 1 of my review of Costco. [Don’t miss Part 2 here]

I know this may seem a little off-topic for this blog, but I think there are still many families who haven’t discovered the joys of shopping at bulk food warehouse stores.

Many people are turned off by the membership fees or think they just don’t need a huge box of this or that.  I submit that if you have a family of 3 or more, you should definitely look more closely–even couples can offset the membership fees with a few purchases.

The cost savings on many items is drastic and although the selection can be limited, there are other factors that offset this such as higher quality of available items and even environmental benefits of buying bulk.

Example of cost savings.  Today I purchased 40 Duracell AA batteries for about $13.   On Amazon.com, they offer a 48 pack of Duracell batteries  for much more.

In a typical grocery store, you cannot buy this quantity of batteries at all.  Instead you’d buy maybe 12 batteries per package at most and they might cost you $11.  It is a huge difference.

Many folks might say, “yeah, but what am I going to do with all those batteries?” but in this case, Duracell guarantees their batteries to be usable for 10 years…so as long as you have a safe place to store them, this is a fantastic deal.

Membership at the Costco Warehouse

I really like Costco.  Generally speaking the shopping experience is good, although I admit that sometimes it is so crowded that you feel like you could be mowed down at any moment by a wave of oversize shopping carts.

I have the executive membership that is currently priced at $110.  One of the benefits of the executive membership is that you get 2% cash back on your purchases.  So that means that if you buy $5500 worth of products there, you will make your money back on the membership purchase.

That might seem like alot ,but over a year’s time it could easily add up–especially if you purchase any of the many non-food items such as electronics, appliances, home and garden, furniture and much more (especially if you count what you can buy on costco.com).  There is also a regular membership that costs about half as much.

With your membership you get two membership cards, meant for two people who live together from the same family.  You need to present the card whenever you pay and when you enter the store. (You might be able to get away with going in on a membership with a friend who doesn’t live with you, but it is against their policy and only one of you will get their monthly coupon mailings.)

Below is my full, 2-part review of Costco. I will try to include as many of the aspects of the store as I can, starting with their Visa Credit Card.

The Costco Visa Credit Card

As of June 2016, Costco no longer takes American Express, they have switched over to Visa which means you can use any Visa credit card at their stores. You can also use a Visa or Mastercard debit card to make purchases there. However, if you’re a long-term Costco member, you should definitely consider getting yourself a Costco Visa from Citi. It is a fantastic deal, especially if you are careful to pay it off each month before interest kicks in.

The card gives you additional cash back on Costco purchases (see below) plus has other great features and benefits.

The cash back comes in the form of a check that can only be redeemed at Costco (for products or cash), but if you’re an avid Costco shopper, then it’s all the better. At this writing the interest rate is about 15.5%. You can apply online.

The features you get with the card beyond the cash back make it even more worthwhile. Here are a few of the reasons I think this is such a great card:

  • As mentioned above, you get 4% cash back on gasoline purchases from any gas station (There is a limit of I think $7,000 worth of gas, and then it goes down to 1% cash back).
  • You get 3% cash back on qualified travel and restaurant purchases.
  • You get 2% cash back on all purchases from Costco
  • You get 1% cash back on everything else

Cash back comes in the form of a voucher that is emailed to you or mailed on paper that can be used to make purchases at Costco or redeemed for cash. This really works fine for my family and I since we shop there so often. But there are also other benefits, all of which have various caveats, that make me think they may or may not work for real-life situations, but anyway, they exist, so here are some of them:

  • Travel insurance / Trip cancellation insurance
  • Rental car insurance
  • Extended warranties that include thefts and other losses

I am pretty sure this is one of the best credit card deals you can get at the moment. I highly recommend checking into it.

The “Green” of Costco – Organic and Environmentally Friendly Offerings

As I mentioned earlier there are a few reasons why shopping at Costco is good for the environment.  First of all, buying bulk items typically means reduced amounts of packaging.  Although this hasn’t held true for some items, usually you are buying much bigger amounts of an item so less packing material is needed.

Secondly, Costco offers quite a large variety of natural, fair trade and organic items.  A good example is their house brand of chocolate chips which they sell for the price of $6.99 for 3.5 pounds.  These chocolate chips contain fair trade cocoa and do not have any  preservatives.   They are delicious and much better quality than the comparable Nestle chips. (Although Costco also sells Nestle as well)

Rice Milk From Costco - Kirkland Signature Ricemilk
Cost of Organic Rice Milk At Costco

Here is another example of the savings you can garner by shopping at Costco:  If you purchase Organic Rice Milk at a regular grocery store, you might pay about 8-15 cents per ounce.     As you can see below, you will pay less than 4 cents per ounce ($1.14/quart – – on quart = 32 ounces) at Costco.  Yes, you do have to buy 12 quarts at a time, but with something like rice milk, you can definitely store it very easily and it lasts a long time.    I should mention that Kirkland is the house brand of Costco.  Most of the time Kirkland products are of very good quality and typically much cheaper than their name brand counterparts.

Kashi Cereal at Costco

As I stated, there are many organic foods at Costco.  I am excited to see Costco adding more and more of these kinds of items because when they do, their buying power has strong effects in the consumer ecosystem.  They purchase huge amounts of these things from suppliers and that helps stabilize the market and reduce the prices for everyone.

There are plenty of examples of the organic items you’ll find in a Costco store. (BTW, if you live in central Maryland, see my blog post about other ways of getting lower cost organic fruits and vegetables at wholesale prices) I have put prices down for some of them to give you something to compare to other stores–be aware that sometimes these things come and go, plus prices do change and vary around the country, so YMMV.  Here is my current list of organic foods available at Costco–unfortunately this list isn’t complete:

– Eggs (they recently stopped packaging their organic eggs in styrofoam (doh!), excellent)
– Whole and 2% Milk
– Several cuts of chicken/whole frozen chickens
– Ground beef
– Coffee
– Butter (2 lbs for $7.69)
– Olive Oil
– Croutons (2lbs/ 32 oz for $6.49)
– Rice Milk
– Soy Milk
– Frozen Blueberries
– Quinoa
– Spinach
– Kale
– Mixed Greens (Kale & Spinach)
– Bananas
– Frozen Corn
– Frozen Mixed Vegetables – (The flash frozen vegetables are great to have around for soups and quick sides.  The quality has been very good.)
– Stoneyfield Yogurt
– Sugar
– Blue Agave ($9.89 for two 36 ounce bottles)
– Frozen Mango
– Bread (two pack)
– Tortilla Chips
– Brown rice
– Edamame
– Mary’s Gone Crackers Gluten free crackers
– 18 Rabbits Granola
– Rickland Organic Trail Mix
– Next Organics Drak Chocolate Covered Banana Coconut
– Late July MultiGrain Snack Chips
– Tasy Brand Organic Wild Berry Fruit Snacks
– Hanover Organic Ancient Grain Pretzels
– Tazo Organic Iced Green Tea
– Horizon Organic Vanilla Milk
– Apple & Eve Organics Orange Carrot Juice
– Mayorga Organic Cafe Cubano Coffee
– Carrington Farms Organic Coconut Oil
– Minsley Cooked Organic Brown Rice Bowls
– Della Organic Belends Quinoa and Rice Blend
– Gluten free Organic Black Bean Spaghetti
– Organic Pasta
– Classico Organic Pasta Sauce
– Kirkland Signature Organic Tomato Paste (12 – 6 oz cans- $5.99)
– Kirkland Signature Organic canned Diced Tomatoes
– Kirkland Signature Organic Tomato Sauce
– Pasta Prima Organic Spinach and Cheese Ravioli
– Sambazon Organic Acai Juice
– Better than Bullion Reduced Sodium Beef Base
– Black Chia seeds (2 pounds for $9.89)
– Several Breakfast cereals
– Carrots
– Peanut Butter
– Nutiva Gluten Free Coconut Flour

Sometimes Things at Costco Come and Go

Just to say a bit more about a couple of things that have come and gone:  One of my favorites that they took away without warning was the organic oatmeal…they have plenty of genetically modified Quaker oats though.

So if I was going to make any complaints about Costco, one of the top ones is that you cannot count on a product to be there for “good”.  Certainly there are some reliable offerings in general, but I would say that you can mainly only count on staple foods, as I have seen all sorts of random things get removed from the lineup or replaced by a different brand over the years.

They also tend to have “road shows.” These are also temporary items brought in by Costco or 3rd party vendors that are only there for a few days, and then they are gone. It’s anyone’s guess whether they will ever be back again.

Things like suits, high-end purses, coats, bedding, jewelry, folding ladders, and a variety of food items are only there temporarily. They do have some “regular” road shows too, such as their seafood roadshow, which seems to turn up at our local store approximately once a month with items they don’t regularly sell. Also in this category to some extent are things like blenders (Vitamix and Blendtec brands) that tend to be consistently sold in the stores, but seem to run out regularly and then are restocked after a company demonstrator comes in for a few days.

They also sell “earth friendly” products of other sorts.  For example, they offer products from the Honest Company including vegan shampoo and diapers/wipes.  They also offer environmentally friendly Costco-brand environmentally friendly dish soap and laundry detergent.

Sheet Cakes and Desserts

costco sheet cake selection

As someone who thinks most supermarket cakes taste disgusting, I do think that Costco’s sheet cakes are definitely better tasting than most and at $18 for a half sheet cake that feeds 48 people, it is a good deal.

We have purchased several cakes for birthday parties at Costco and that have always been tasty (Having said that, they still use quite a bit of sugar and have some chemicals that everyone should do without).   They always have “stock” sheet cakes available that are quite nice or you can order a custom decorated cake by filling out a form.

There are two basic kinds of cake – chocolate and white.  The white cakes are filled with 2 pounds of vanilla mousse and iced with white butter cream.  The chocolate cakes are filled with 2 pounds of chocolate mousse and iced with chocolate buttercream.   They request that you give them 1 day’s notice for customized cakes.

Costco Cake Order Form

I have created a fillable form to make ordering cakes at Coscto easier.  Click here to download the form. (If it opens up in Google’s web viewer, you need to click the download icon to get to the fill-outable/printable form. Once you fill in the details simply print the page.) This definitely helps to eliminate errors because of handwriting issues!

There are also several other types of pre-made party desserts you can purchase at Costco.  For example, there are many types of non-sheet cakes you can get–they have some really delicious choices including a red velvet cake, coffee cakes, an amazing chocolate cake, cupcakes, and apple strudel.  Availability tends to shift, but you can bet there are plenty of outrageously delicious options.  You can also find some amazing frozen party desserts, such as filled pastries, mochi and ice cream bars.

There is more to read–Don’t miss part 2 of my Costco review here.



Categories
Recommendations

Why We Shop At Costco – Costco Review Part 2

 

This is Part 2 of My Review of Costco Food Warehouse
Don’t Miss Part 1 of my review.

As I was saying in part 1 of my review, there are plenty of things to like about shopping at Costco.  Here are some more great things:

Electronics at Costco

Savings on Electronics at Costco

As far as electronics–Costco has all sorts of great stuff.  Cameras, TVs, computers, tablets, phones and accessories like flash drives and portable harddrives.  They occasionally have other electronics, like for a while around Christmas, they sold the  Parrot AR Drone helicopter.

If you’re just shopping by price, you might not realize that you’re looking at a bargain.  Generally Costco gives you much more for your money than you would get from Amazon or some other retailer for about the same price.  For instance if you bought an SLR camera from Costco such as the nice Canon Rebel DSLR or Nikon D5300 that they sell, the price might be about the same as elsewhere.  The difference is that your purchase might, for example, come bundled with a case, an extra lens and a memory card that you’d have to buy separately at some other venue.  Again you  never know when the electronic device you saw at Costco will disappear, so if you see it, get it while you can (you can always return it).

Print Your Photographs at Costco

Costco Photo Low-Cost Print Prices
Cost of prints at Costco 1 hour photo

Speaking of cameras, photo printing at Costco is very cheap.  One hour photos of all sizes are available.  You’d be shocked to know you can buy a nice quality 20×30 poster for $8.99.  Regular sized photo prints (4×6) are 13 cents.  8x10s are $1.49 cents. You can upload your photos on the Costco website or even just use a machine right at the photo area in Costco. When you order online you can choose to print them at your local Costco or they will mail them for a fairly reasonable shipping rate.

PRO TIP:   If you are a professional or prosumer photographer who uses Photoshop or Fireworks or gimp to resize your photos and edit them, the chart to the right below will come in handy for knowing the right dimensions for your pictures so you don’t have to be concerned about cropping.

Costco also offers photobooks and other alternatives to paper prints.  You’ll have to order them and wait for them to be sent though–no one hour photobooks.  Costco’s photo center also offers ink jet print cartridge refills.  This is a good deal at less than $10 per refill when you compare it to the cost of purchasing a new ink jet cartridge.

Costco photo image dimensions for photographers resizing their photos

The Food Court at Costco

If you’re looking for healthy food, you won’t find much of that at the Costco food court.  You will definitely find unusually low-cost food, and in the genres of food offered, you’ll find it to be of good quality.   I hope Costco will improve on this by offering high quality, healthier options.

Probably the most popular offering is the $1.50 beef hot dog and drink combination…or maybe the huge $1.99 slice of pizza is most popular   (I believe whole pizzas-also huge-are $9.99)  As pizza goes, they use a generous amount of cheese and toppings and give you an extra large slice.   I don’t know what ingredients they use, but probably better quality than standard pizza places.  Nevertheless, it wouldn’t surprise me if they’re using genetically modified ingredients.  Probably the healthiest thing they offer is the chicken Cesar salad…but even that has the caveat of being a relatively high calorie item when you factor in the portion size and salad dressing.

For dessert you will find churros and frozen yogurt.  Again, these are priced very fairly

PRO TIP: If you want to save some time and you know what you were going to order, you can just tell the cashier when you checkout with your food and regular items. You’ll then just show your receipt to the cashier at the food court.

PRO TIP: If you plan to take your pizza to go, you are going to likely find out that the only way to get a box is to order an entire pizza.  Otherwise, you’ll find yourself with a paper plate and a tin foil covering…not a great situation.  On the other hand, since whole pizzas a so cheap if you’re getting more than 2 slices, it might just be worth it to get an entire pizza instead.

Clothes at Costco

Kirkland Men's Jeans from Costco

Costco sells a variety of men’s, women’s and children’s clothing.  Their offerings include dress shirts, jeans, athletic shoes, underwear, t-shirts, camisoles and dresses.  They also offer seasonal clothing and accessories such as Halloween costumes and sun hats in the summer. As with everything at Costco, brands and specific offerings come and go, but I have recently seen Docker pants and shorts and Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, for example.  They also tend to offer the Kirkland brands.  For instance in the photo they are selling men’s Kirkland jeans for $13.99 in a variety of sizes.  They also have Kirkland men’s athletic shoes for $16.99.

Costco Pet Foods and Pet Supplies

Costco Kirkland Brand Premium Cat Food

Costco offers dog and cat food as well as some occasional pet supplies such as dog beds, heart worm medicine and chew toys.  Brands will vary but for instance they have Fancy Feast cat food and the Kirkland brand dog food/cat foods.  Buying pet foods in bulk is clearly cost effective.  Pictured is 25 pounds of Kirkland premium cat food for $18.69 cents.  So for about 75 cents/pound you get some pretty decent cat food.  Obviously, you’ll need to have a place to store such a big bag of food but many people keep in in their garage or some other out-of-the-way place and then just scoop it into a smaller container that they keep handy.  BTW, I have also seem some pretty cool crafts made out of the huge/sturdy bags these foods come in.  They also sell a 42 pound bag of Scoop Away brand kitty litter, cat toys, and dog toys. I don’t have dogs, but I have been told that the dog food product seems to be better than average and is well liked by my friend’s dog.

They also offer bulk bird seed.

Tires at Costco

There are some fantastic deals on tires from Costco. They’re installed and included nitrogen fill, rotation, and road hazard insurance. The price offsets the inconvenience of the tire service there. I love the tires, I love the price, but the last 3 out 4 times I’ve been there recently, I’ve waited in line over half an hour (one time close to a full hour) to drop off or pick up my car.

It’s absurd sometimes–for instance the last time I was there I spent 36 minutes behind 1 person who just couldn’t decide whether to get 4 tires or 2, going over every possible scenario of tire rotations, etc. Meanwhile the one sales rep on duty (I’ve only ever seen one person working at the counter there at once) indulges the customer without any care at all for the line forming behind us. When it was my turn it took him less than 30 seconds to hand me my keys so I could be on my way. This is pathetic service Costco. Absolutely pathetic consider this is not a 1-time affair. On the other hand, the price for the tires was very good, and the actual workmanship seems fine. You should note that it may take upwards of 2 to 4 hours to get the tires put on depending on the line behind you, so you’ll want to have someone to pickup and dropoff. You may or may not be able to set a specific appointment time at your local Costco (but even if you have an appointment, you’re still going to be standing in that line!)

PRO TIP: Double check the tire center hours. At our Costco in Columbia, Md, the tire center opens at 7am–way before the actual warehouse opens, 7 days a week. Most people think the hours are the same as the warehouse, so if you get there early in the morning you may be able to avoid some wait time both for purchasing the tires and for having them put on.

Costco Pharmacy

Costco pharmacy with view of toothpase brands availableBy all accounts, Costco’s pharmacy is the way to go for any and all medications. Their generic brands are exceedingly cheap, and the service is quite good–they even offer the ability to refill your prescriptions by mail–you can order them online. Most locations have a pharmacy, and in fact, in many states (as required by law) you don’t even need to be a Costco member to use the Pharmacy. You can view the base-price for some prescriptions using their online drug information and pricing tool (you would have to know your insurance company’s policies to know how much you would actually pay if you are using insurance–they don’t give pricing for all prescriptions). They also have a special program Costco members can join to get even lower prices on medications. BTW, they also offer flu shots.

Gift Cards At Costco

Gift card aisle at Costco in Columbia Maryland

Aside from gift cards for Costco itself (which can be used to purchase products or memberships). Costco offers a wide variety of discounted gift cards.  Available cards vary from month to month and tend to come with decent cost savings-typically about 20% off the face value of the card.  These include restaurants, entertainment and sporting venues.  Examples would be $60 for $100 worth of gift cards to Portalli’s – a local restaurant.  I have also seen gift cards to Starbucks, ski resorts, amusement parks, movie theaters, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, McCormick and Schmick (two $50 gift cards for $79.99), Bertucci’s and Cirque de Soleil ($200 for $159.99).

Costco Travel and Service Discounts

Costco offers discounts on travel and other kinds of services.  This includes things like gutter installation, air conditioners, high end water filters, counter tops, flooring and credit card processing for businesses. I have used the Costco travel, and I can say that they do offer great service and competitive pricing. For example, we got a great deal on a hotel and tickets to Universal Studios Orlando. You can book your travel yourself, but Costco has travel agents that are very helpful.

More on Why We Shop at Costco

As I’ve been saying, there is plenty to like about the available products and savings from shopping at a Costco store, but don’t forget about Costco.com...there are plenty of interesting things to buy there…everything from glassware to coffins for a funeral (apparently they can deliver them quickly to a funeral home and the funeral home is required to let you use it–who knew–just note that it is likely the funeral home will charge you a handling fee and often these are exorbitant because of course they want you to buy a more expensive one from them.).

I have seen many times that Costco makes virtually no money on the products it sells.  They do have some markup–probably about 10% over what Costco pays, but by the time they pay their expenses, that money is gone.  Where they do make money is from membership fees.

When I compare Costco to Sams, I would say that there is quite a bit in common.  The man who came up with Costo was originally the founder of Price Club–so he sort of started the wholesale warehouse business.  In general I would say that Costco tends to have healthier foods available. Prices seem to be very comparable though.  I haven’t got any experience at all with BJs, but I do have family members who love that place.

Yet another great reason to love Costco is that its employees make much more than minimum wage and they get some benefits.  The average employee at Costco makes over $20/hour.  This isn’t common in the big stores, so it is great that they treat their employees well.  They also tend to hire within–meaning that many of their managers started off working at cash registers and stocking the shelves.

Need to know how to become a member of Costco?  That’s easy–just walk in through the door marked “EXIT” and go up to the customer service desk.  Aside from the above mentioned $110 executive membership, there is also the regular membership that costs $55.  They will give you information, a current costco coupon book and of course two Costco Store membership cards.  (They require that each card recipient be there to have their picture taken–if both parties can’t be there, you can always give them the name of the second person who can come by Costco at their leisure to get their card.) Don’t forget about the Citi Visa Credit Card when you join–makes good deals even better.

Costco Coupon Book Sample

BTW, you’ll look forward to receiving Costco coupon books in the mail.  Most of the discounts are taken in store and don’t actually require you to clip a coupon.  The coupons are also available on the Costco Website.  Note that there are also certain products that you can get in the stores that come with instant rebates that may not be mentioned in these coupon books.  Also, there are certain things that are seemingly always on sale such as vitamins, mobile phones and tires.

Shopping at Costco has been a great way to get quality foods and other merchandise while saving money.  For other easy money saving ideas, see my other posts in this series: Changing your electricity ProviderDitching Your Home PhoneChanging Your Mobile Phone Provider and Getting rid of cable TV and instead getting your television shows over the internet.

Don’t Miss Part 1 of my Costco review.