When the kids started kindergarten, we began the ritual of packing lunches, but were concerned about the cost, health aspects, and environmental problems with using little plastic sandwich bags. So we splurged (~$30) on a metal ‘bento box’ we found online.

We got the Three-in-one and we’ve used it every day (at least, every school day) since. It keeps food separate, which is not just for picky kids, but to keep damp food (baby carrots) from touching dry food (sandwich). It packs up compactly but holds enough food for a kid’s lunch.

It washes easily. We usually wipe it down at the end of the day and put in the dishwasher after every 3 or 4 uses.

The first time we used it, the metal clasps held the top on so tightly that our little one couldn’t open it. But we just bent the clasps slightly outward and now it has a snug fit but is also easily opened.

We though the kids would be excited about it, but they’re not. Just the parents are.

ECOlunchbox has lots of similar products.


These things have been standard fare at childrens’ museums and science museums since they were developed in 2008. I had seen them many times but didn’t know what they were called.

Unlike some other magnetic toys, these are perfectly safe for infants to gnaw on. From the website:

“Each shape contains rotating Rare Earth Neodymium magnets, the strongest of their kind for guaranteed connectivity. Every magnet is kept safe and secure in Sonic welded, BPA free, HQABS plastic. This process of manufacturing ensures each magnet is encapsulated with the utmost security, providing a safe, long-lasting play experience.”

We found a box of them on sale and gave them as a Christmas gift to our kids and they have become standard fare in our house as well. The kit is a set of squares and triangles and other shapes with embedded magnets that allow the shapes to snap together.

It is one of the very few toys that is enjoyable and usable by kids as young as 1 as well as older kids. The magnets snap the pieces together so the infant doesn’t get frustrated when stacking them. The toddler likes matching colors and combining to make more complex shapes, and the older kids can make much complicated shapes and objects.

Magformers has recently vastly increased the type of kits they sell, with ones that let you build dinosaurs or vehicles or robots. Some kits come with gears and motors and other parts that allow you to make functional machines such as a working merry-go-round.

Like Lego, Magformers are fun just to fool around with, and are also fun to use when following instructions to make pre-designed objects.

Planet Plates

The kids got these as a gift one year. I think we, as well as the giver thought of it as just a novelty that might not get much use, but the plates have become an essential part of our kitchen and we have used them just about every day for years now.

I estimate that about 40% of our glassware has been broken since we had our first child. A lot of the breakage is from a small toddler hand reaching for a glass or dish on a table, with us not realizing that the kid is now tall enough to reach it. But most of the breakage has actually been from us, exhausted while washing dishes, or distracted while clearing the table with a baby on one hip.

We’ve been using a lot of canning (Mason, Ball, etc.) jars, not because we’re trendy hipsters but because that’s almost all we have left to drink out of, and the thick glass of canning jars is more likely to survive being dropped on the tile floor. I have a somewhat Darwinian approach to kitchenware: ‘Survival of the fittest’ – if it breaks, it wasn’t meant to be. But that philosophy doesn’t work so well when there’s nothing left.

So that’s why we were happy to receive and use the planet plates. They are big enough so the different foods don’t touch each other (for those who care about that) and the planet patterns are fun. The kids occasionally fight over who gets Jupiter or Earth. No one wants Mercury, which looks a bit like barf and stays on the bottom of the pile in the cupboard.

The plates are made out of melamine, which is slightly more forgiving than other plastics. Our Batman and Superman bowls crack whenever they have been dropped. And I’ve had to superglue them. None of the planet plates has ever broken or cracked.

More at The Unemployed Philosophers Guild, which has lots of fun stuff for kids and adults.

Lucy Kalantari

Whether with TV shows, music, movies, videogames, or books, a challenge is finding stuff that the kids like that we parents can also enjoy, or at least tolerate, even when it’s just the noise we hear on a device from across the room. This is especially true with music when driving. Lucy Lalantari is a recent discovery, who makes music that both the kids and parents can enjoy, and I mean not just grudgingly tolerate but actually enjoy.

From her website:

Kalantari went to the Purchase Conservatory of Music for composition and production. She has published many works in various genres spanning from singer-songwriter to industrial rock. After being introduced to the ukulele by a colleague, her writing took a shift as she created sounds inspired from the bygone jazz era. Listeners likened her laid back voice to that of Billie Holiday, and Kalantari herself noticed how natural it felt to sing and write in this genre.

Two months after giving birth to her son, she participated in a song-a-week project in 2013 while staying home with her newborn. She found herself with a handful of upbeat ukulele ditties pleasing to babies and adults alike. This collection became her debut into the kids independent music scene, as she released Pockets Full of Joy, in 2014. Pockets landed a Parents’ Choice Silver Honor Award and earned a place in The Best Kids Music of 2014, by Cooper & Kid.

The sound is very New York, and the prominent clarinet in many tracks gives it an almost klezmer sound, reminiscent of Woody Allen movie soundtracks. Some of her songs are very much kid songs, others are grown-up jazz songs, and some are specifically songs for parents.

Sandra Boynton

Sandra Boynton has had children’s books in print for the past 40+ years, ever since publishing “Hippos Go Berserk” in 1977. Her distinctive and very recognizable illustration style may be more familiar from her many, many calendars, coffee mugs, and cards. By her own estimate, she has drawn between 4,000 and 6,000 greeting cards! Her most famous is probably the birthday card that reads, “Hippo Birdie Two Ewes”

We have several of her 60+ children’s board books and they are an easy and popular gift to give and receive. The drawing style is fun and whimsical and the “stories”, as simple as they are, are great for read-along time. Our kids essentially memorize entire books and then can read along with us.

Her most popular books include “Moo, Baa, La La La!”, “The Going to Bed Book”, “Barnyard Dance”, “A to Z”, “Blue Hat, Green Hat”, and “Oh My Oh My Oh Dinosaurs!” A complete list of her books is on her Wikipedia page

She also has several children’s music albums, including:
“Rhinoceros Tap” (1996)
“Philadelphia Chickens” (2002)
“Dog Train” (2005)
“Blue Moo” (2007)
“Boléro Completely Unraveled” (2010)
“Frog Trouble” (2013)
“Hog Wild” (2017)

Our kids love “Philadelphia Chickens” in particular.

More information about her books at

Pete the Cat

I first heard of Pete the Cat in 2008 or so. A local bookstore had a huge poster of the cat and books signed by the author. I did not understand the appeal and thought the writing and illustration was so crude and simple that anyone could do it. It made me think that I could write a children’s book if this thing could get published.

But I haven’t written a children’s book and not only did “I Love My White Shoes” get published, there are now 40+ titles in the Pete the Cat series. And regardless of my initial impressions, kids love it. They love the illustration style and the attitude of the main character, Pete, and they love the repetitive say-along style of the writing.

We have several of the books and frequently check others out of the library.

Pete the cat is now an icon with his own musical and his own TV show on Amazon Prime.

More about the series and the author and illustrator

B. Fish N’ Splish

Of all the toys in our house, this one has probably been played with the most (apart from legos). We got it as a gift for our oldest’s first birthday and it has been an essential part of the tub toy collection ever since.

It’s a well-designed toy with all the features that kids want:
• Cups to pour water
• Cups with holes
• Little captain figure
• Floating boat
• Fishing rod with fish
• Mirror
• Comb and brush

The fishing rod itself is an essential toy for us that has spent as much time outside the bathroom as in it.

The boat even has an elastic band that allows you to wind up the paddle-wheel in the back, which then actually powers the boat forward.

All the pieces fit inside the boat so you can keep things tidy when not in use.

And the components are designed with no deep crevices so there is no place for mold to hide, which has been an issue with some other bath toys we’ve had.

Highly recommended if you need a gift for a 1- or 2-year old

Mudpuppy Puzzle Wheels

We get lots of gifts for the kids, and it’s very hard to tell in advance which ones will get played with a lot, and which will just stay at the bottom of the toy box. I don’t even remember who gave this to us, but it is one that each successive kid has pulled out and played with over and over. Even the older kids will play with it when they see it again, even if just for a few minutes.

The ‘puzzle’ is a circle with 6 pieces around a 7th central hub piece. Each puzzle is themed. We have the farm one, but the company has several others, such as construction vehicles and forest animals, as well as licensed images from Eric Carle, Babar, The Little Prince, etc. The puzzle has pictures on side and solid colors on the other

The theme doesn’t seem to matter much with our kids. The appeal is the size and shape of the pieces that even little hands can manipulate, pulling out of the box and putting back in. And for little brains, 7 pieces seems to be the right number in the balance between boringly simple and frustratingly complex.

The thick cardboard has gotten a little worn after so many hands have handled it, but it’s still in decent shape after the 5+ years we’ve had it.


We try to restrict ‘screen time’ to weekends and when we do let the kids use our phones or the iPad we try to limit video usage to PBS Kids, Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime. YouTube is a special case because of the quantity of ads, but also because of the content of the ads, which often is not appropriate. Further, YouTube, with its vast store of content, is a rabbit hole of discovery that can lead to inappropriate videos. An innocent search for ‘batman’, for example, can turn up raunchy spoofs that a 5-year-old should not see.

There are some (many, really) exceptions however, and we try to make sure we are around to supervise in order to prevent wandering into the YouTube equivalent of the wrong side of the tracks.

One of these exceptions is the set of ~200 videos from the unmemorably-named KidsTV123 which has had over 3 billion views since 2009.

Price: $12.00
Price: $12.00

My kids have many favorites, but the ones we adults sometimes catch ourselves humming aloud are


Many of the songs are true earworms, and the songwriter is a master of melody. The animation is very simple – the kind of thing that would never get distributed by a commercial network, but the kids don’t seem to care. In fact, the simplicity is part of the appeal.

The singer (and presumably also the songwriter and guitarist) is a bit of a mystery. His FAQ is not generous with details. The Week tried to profile him but came up short. But that anonymity adds to the allure and helps separate the music from the creator.

Bob the Builder: The Legend of the Golden Hammer

This movie is from Bob the Builder’s “middle period”, when the animation was done using CGI but meant to look like the original stop-motion style, but before the change to a more human-like look for the characters. This older look is more popular in our family. We seldom watch the new one, even though it is freely available on PBS Kids.

The structure of the story is that of a scavenger hunt, with each discovery leading to a new clue, ultimately resulting in the finding of the golden hammer. The tone is gentle and fun and the kids like the pacing. It’s like a mystery thriller for kids. There is lots of reinforcement about what has happened, what the characters have done and seen, so it’s not confusing for little ones, but it doesn’t get bogged down in repetition so is not boring for older ones.

IMDB has a rating of only 6.6/10 but our kids love it. This is one of the few movies that the kids ask for by name.

It’s available as a DVD and also streaming on Netflix and Amazon prime.

“Golden hammer” is the embodiment of The Law of the Instrument, the idea that your most familiar or available resource becomes the only one you rely on. In other words, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. I don’t know if the writers were making a point or not, but when I’m watching children’s cartoons, I find them more entertaining when I deconstruct them ad absurdum.