I got creative this year and made a train cake for Cameron and Aidan’s third birthday.  It was a huge hit!  In fact, a bunch of older kids circled around us as I was putting on the final touches at the swimming pool before the party.  One boy said it was the coolest cake he’d ever seen, and another said he wished he had a train cake for his birthday.  I was glowing in the praise of small boys (and girls), but the best reward was the smile on Cameron and Aidan’s faces when they saw the finished product.  They loved their birthday train cake!

Train Cake

The Boys' Cool Birthday Train Cake

This cake wasn’t too hard to make, and it was a lot yummier and moister than most store-bought birthday cakes where they tend to sacrifice taste for decorating ease.  This is only the second birthday cake I’ve made, and even with a few icing mistakes and a seriously lopsided engine, the cake was still fabulous.  I used two boxes of extra moist yellow cake mix and five loaf pans of various sizes filled half-way.  I used one “loaf” for the engine and two loaves, cut in half, for the freight cars and caboose.  I cut the other two loaves to use for parts, such as the cab on the caboose and the boiler on the engine, plus I had a little left over to munch on while I worked.  Alternately, you could use pre-made Sara Lee pound cakes and save yourself a step.

The assembled train cake engine.

The assembled train cake engine.

After I made the cake, I cut the pieces and assembled them to look like an engine and freight cars. Then I stuck them in the freezer.   Frozen cake is much easier to decorate (freezing helps you avoid getting crumbs in the icing), and you can make your cake in advance if you know you’ll be pressed for time the day before the party. I chose to decorate with cream cheese party icing (see recipe below), but if you want a really fancy cake with elaborate decorations then opt for the traditional buttercream icing.  I mixed my colors in separate bowls and iced each car on a sheet of wax paper.  I went ahead and did the white piping and lettering (you can use a store bought decorating pen for this, a well-washed syringe, or a plastic sandwich bag with the tip cut out—my usual method).  I then stuck everything back in the freezer, which may or may not work in your situation.  We had the party at a swim pool and I needed the cake to survive transfer and not melt too much until we ate it three hours later. Also, the frozen train cars were very easy to move from the waxed paper to the train tracks, where a room temperature cake might not have been.

Blowing out the caboose candles.

Blowing out the caboose candles.

I assembled my cake a few minutes before my guests arrived at the pool.  I used chocolate Twizlers for the track and the connectors between the cars.  The coal is made of crumbled Oreos, the wheels are Oreos, the circus animals are animal crackers and the logs are Pirouline rolled wafers.  You could also use pretzel sticks for logs and M&Ms for headlights or other decoration (it would have been cool to attach one to the middle of each wheel).  In fact, the possibilities are endless (check out Coolest Homemade Birthday Cakes for other cake ideas.)   To me this was the really fun part!

My total hands on time commitment was about three and a half hours:  a half hour of mixing cake batter, pouring it into pans and directing excited soon-to-be-three-year-olds (don’t forget to grease AND flour your pans!); another half hour cutting the loafs in half and “building” the caboose and engine (no helpers here); two hours mixing the icing, icing the cakes, preparing the foil cardboard holder and trying to fix a few minor engineering problems (luckily no helpers . . .); and finally, a half hour assembling the cake and adding the wheels, coal, circus animals, logs and tracks (while unsuccessfully trying to keep two excited birthday boys from poking it).  I also spent time thinking and dreaming about my construction project, how I would transport it, what I would use for the various decorations, and where I would store it.  All in all, this train cake was a lot of fun and a fabulous way to “up” my cool factor.

Have fun making your own birthday surprise!

Cream Cheese Party Icing

8 oz. cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 cups powdered sugar

Put the cream cheese, butter and vanilla in a small bowl and mix until creamy.  Slowly add sugar, mixing after each 1/2-3/4 cup until the sugar is fully mixed in.  This recipe makes enough to ice one 9 x13 sheet cake, and freezes easily.  It also keeps well in the refrigerator and can be made in advance (it’s easiest to work with room temperature icing when decorating).


My boys are too young to be called home by the dinner bell, so we’ve started a new family ritual in honor of that tradition.  At the beginning of dinner I ring the bell to signal it’s time to eat.  Of course, the boys want to ring the bell, too, so the ritual has quickly evolved into a grace.  Each boy rings the bell then tells one or two things he is thankful for.  Aidan is usually thankful for mixers (the concrete kind) and ice cream. Cameron is thankful for excavators and dump trucks. Occasionally, he is also thankful for French fries.  I am thankful that my sons find joy in simple pleasures and that they love coming to the dinner table.

Aidan rings the bell at Grammy's house.

So far this new ritual has not replaced an older ritual I started when the boys were about 14- months-old.  A friend of mine had taken dinner to a young mother of triplets who was sick.  She put the food on the table, lifted the boys into their highchairs, then stood in stunned silence, tears streaming down her cheek, as all three infants took hands and bowed heads with their parents while the mother thanked God for the food and for the wonderful friend who brought it.  The babies were ten-months-old.

Cameron and Papa take turns with the dinner bell.

I knew right then it was time to start my own family grace ritual—one that could be shared comfortably with any guest at our table no matter their age or religious beliefs.  I settled on the simple act of gratitude.  Our family often takes hands before eating; then each person shares something he is thankful for.  We call it “Saying Our Thank You’s,” and it has become an important part of my sons’ lives.  If I mention I am thankful for something during our meal, two sticky hands shoot out to clasp mine followed by two smiles and another chorus of gratitude for construction equipment.

I am truly thankful indeed.

What family dinner rituals help your children feel like they belong?  Please share at The Dinner Bell.

My friend Mary is smart, funny and kind.  She solo parents her twin toddlers five days a week while her husband works in another city, so by Thursday evenings she is also stir crazy and a bit desperate.  A few weeks ago the “great potty training fiasco” put her over the edge, and she lured four mothers to her house with the promise of mango margaritas and pasta salad after she put the girls to bed.  I thought this a strange entertaining combination, but equally in need of adult company, I called grandma to babysit and fled my own toddler twins.  The pasta salad turned out to be an inspired choice.  Made with fruit instead of the traditional vegetables, it was sweet, healthy, and filling.  Best of all, it was one of her girls’ favorite dishes.

Before we left that evening, Mary said she felt like she deserved a blue ribbon for potty training two toddlers by herself.  I agree.  Here’s to all parents who survive this toddler rite of passage, and here’s Mary’s Blue Ribbon Pasta Salad.  I made it with apples, strawberries and oranges, and I modified the dressing (Mary uses the time-saving method of dousing the pasta with commercial Italian dressing until “it seems like you’ve got enough”).  My boys wolfed this down!

Fruit and Pasta Salad


8 ounces whole wheat pasta (bow-ties work well)
1 ½ cups chopped fruit (any combination of apples, strawberries, pears etc.)
2 ounces mozzarella, shredded (½ cup)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
A pinch of salt
½ teaspoon dried basil
½ teaspoon oregano


Cook the pasta according to the package directions.  Rinse the pasta in cold water and put in a serving bowl.  Add the rest of the ingredients and toss.  Chill for at least one hour before serving.

Yeild: 4 adult servings

 Time Savers:  Cool cooked pasta in an ice bath before tossing with other ingredients to reduce chill time (a five minute ice bath should reduce chilling time to 15 minutes).  You may also substitute commercial Italian dressing for the vinegar, oil and herbs.  Sundried tomato pesto vinaigrette is especially good.  Pour in enough dressing to coat the pasta sparingly and add more when serving if needed.

Picky Eater Pleaser:  Reserve a portion of plain noodles, fruit, and cheese.  Serve in a toddler separator plate with a small dish of dressing to use as a dip.

Get the Kids to Help:  Set your kids up at the table with a cutting board and a plastic knife and let them cut the fruit into bite-size pieces.  Anticipate at least half will go into their mouths instead of the bowl (a good snack time activity!)  Kids can also pour in the dressing, add the cheese, and toss the salad (not literally, I hope).

Menu Planner:  This salad pairs well with cottage cheese for a light lunch or with grilled burgers and asparagus for a simple supper.