Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Holiday Prep: Shipping Strategies Part 1

1. Make a list of packages you need to ship
If you're like me, you have at least a few Christmas gift recipients on your list to whom you will need to ship gifts this holiday season. Now is a good time to figure out who those lucky people are so that you can plan accordingly.

2. Purchase Packing Tape
Buy an extra one, because you will run out of tape on the first roll when you are halfway through packing everything up. I haven't figured out a way to avoid paying for tape; it's the only thing I purchase other than the shipping label.
3. Assemble Free Shipping Supplies
I've been shipping a lot of items this year as I've been working on my declutter challenge, and I'm proud to say that I have my shipping strategies down to a science. (Mostly.) I'm pleased that by recycling packaging that I receive, and using the resources at the post office, I've avoided having to spend money on anything other than packing tape and the shipping label itself! There are two ways I collect free shipping supplies:
  • Save packaging when shipped items are delivered to your house. I set up a storage area for shipping supplies in my basement so that when a package arrives, I can stow the useful packaging (boxes, air bags, bubble wrap, foam wrap, etc.) until I am able to reuse it. I don't save packing peanuts because they tend to make a mess. My favorite shipping material to reuse is a heavy duty plastic envelope. Turn it inside out, pack, tape, and seal. Presto!

  • Order flat rate shipping supplies from You can order flat rate shipping boxes and envelopes online, and the post office will deliver them to you for free! The minimum number of boxes in an order is 10, so if you just need a few, it may make more sense for you to pick them up individually from your post office. It costs $4.90 to send a flat rate envelope or small box, and more for a medium  or large flat rate box. (I find that the flat rate envelope and small box are most cost effective, unless sending heavy items long distances, such as across the country.)

4. Schedule a Shipping Deadline
Look at the calendar and figure out when would make sense for you to ship your items. I like to strike a balance between shipping closer to Christmas (because my grandmother opens her stuff right away) yet early enough so that I can have it out of the way in time to focus on local preparations. Make it a priority to purchase/make/bake items to be shipped sooner rather than later so that you will be prepared to ship all of your items at once. Remember to schedule time to pack the boxes; this step always seems to take longer than I expected.

In early December, I will explain how I avoid going to the post office completely, as well as what I do if I absolutely have to go to the post office.

This is one way I am trying to get organized for the holidays. I hope it works for you!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Holiday Prep: Sending Holiday Cards before Christmas is Over

If you would like to send your Holiday Cards before the Holiday Season is over, it's best to do as much of the prep work as possible BEFORE Thanksgiving.

Step 1: Review and Revise your holiday card list. My criteria is this: if you don't feel like writing a personal message to the person/family, remove them from your list. Add any new friends/family members that you've connected with over the past year. This could include your new neighbors, or your husband's long lost cousin whom the family reunited with this year. Hunting down the addresses now will save your sanity next month. If it isn't already, quickly type up your list on the computer. Then you can update it next year more easily.

Step 2: Count up your list, and order your holiday stamps online. Right now! It only costs a dollar for the mail carrier to deliver them to your door. Before you order, check to see if you have holiday stamps left over from last year. Include extra  holiday stamps for your thank you notes if you are neurotic like me. :)

Step 3: Do you have return address labels? If not, save yourself some writing time and order some cute holiday return address labels--again, get enough to cover your thank you notes as well. You could print your own if you're so inclined.

Step 4: Determine what type of holiday card you plan to send, meaning a traditional folded card, or a photo card, or a traditional card with a photo holder? Or a newsletter? Design and/or purchase your cards now. I recommend 1/2 dozen extra if you want some on hand in case you forgot someone in Step 1. If you are sending a photo card, consider purchasing an acid-free scrapbooking pen so that you can write on the back of the cards (optional).

Step 5: As your supplies start arriving, keep them all together in a bag or other container--I like to use a small-size handled gift bag--along with your address book. You know that you are ready to start writing your holiday cards when the bag contains the following items:
  • Checklist (print the list you wrote up in Step 1)
  • Stamps
  • Return Address Labels
  • Cards, photos (optional) and Envelopes
  • Pen (optional photo-safe pen)
  • Address Book/Printout
If you are really organized, you should have all of these items assembled before Thanksgiving. Before I had children, I would assemble my supplies in this way, and take them on the airplane with me when I went visit my grandparents over Thanksgiving weekend. I would work on them on the flight down as well as the flight back, and have more of them done and ready to mail by December 1st!

This has not occurred again since my kids came along. Instead of writing pleasant holiday messages on the airplane, I am corralling my dear children, who are actually pretty well behaved on flights, but not well-behaved enough for me to write holiday cards. I must admit that there have been numerous years when some of my holiday cards did not make it past Step 5.

This year, I am determined to have my supplies bag ready to tote along and work on whenever I have down time. The steps occurring at this point are as follows:

Step 6: Write a personal greeting and sign your name.
Step 7: Stuff, seal, address, stamp, send!

Your kids can participate in these two steps by:
  • Signing their name
  • Sealing the envelope
  • Attaching return address labels and stamps
This is one way I am trying to get prepared for the holidays.

Menu Plan Tuesday: November 16th

I am late writing this up, but I don't want to lose the opportunity to stay organized from now until Thanksgiving! By Wednesday, November 24th, I want to have significantly more space in my fridge and freezer so that I have plenty of space to work with during the holidays. I'm hoping that this plan will take me there:
  • Monday: Marinated Flank Steak (from the freezer, cooked on the grill, in the dark!), Cranberry Rice Pilaf, Sesame Baby Bok Choy (needed to use it up), and mixed steamed vegetables for the kids, who do not eat bok choy (more for me!)
  • Tuesday: Apple Sausage Risotto and steamed broccoli
  • Wednesday: Crunchy Crumbled Cod with Frozen Peas (sliding from Monday, which was a good grilling day to use up the flank steak)
  • Thursday: Leftovers (Daddy's Night Out)
  • Friday: Baked Chicken with some sides that I haven't decided yet.
  • Saturday: Pot Roast in the crockpot
  • Sunday: Leftovers (Mom's Night Out)
  • Monday: Spaghetti and Meatballs with steamed vegetable (Mom at a meeting)
  • Tuesday: Grilled Cheese with Minestrone (from the freezer)
And then we'll be gone until December 1st!

I also plan to bake, puree, and freeze at least 5 pumpkins this week. At least some of this puree will be traveling with me to be added to the pumpkin pie I'm making for Thanksgiving Dinner. My home kitchen will be closed, but I'll be cooking the entire meal at my grandmothers! I'll need to pack some kitchen supplies to take on the plane as well.

Find more meal planning inspiration at!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Menu Plan Monday: November 8th

Last night's dinner (kid portions): Salt and Pepper Chicken, Roasted Purple Potatoes, Steamed Broccoli

Things didn't work out exactly as planned last week due to me being sick for a couple days on top of the heater dying... the good news is that when you plan your meals around what's in your freezer, things don't go to waste when you don't get around to cooking them. :)
Find other meal plan ideas at!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Holiday Prep: Review Last Year

Somehow I managed to schedule a pop-up reminder telling me to review the notes I made about Christmas 2009 back in January when I was clearing up Christmas. The notes are just a single page Word document with reviews of how things went, reminders for this upcoming year, and a few ideas of new things to try. It's like having a conversation with a past verson of myself to help jog my memory regarding various and sundry Christmas Stuff that I otherwise won't think of until it's too late.

I'm hoping this miscellaneous list will spare me a few emergency trips to the store and help me to plan a little better than last year; for instance, I need to recognize that gift wrapping will take 6-8 hours and it would be best to schedule time to get the wrapping done during the day rather than staying up all night one night, all the way past sunrise. (I had no idea it would take that long! And yes, I have a very big family and we do quite a bit of gift exchanging. And no, I am too neurotic to use gift bags in most cases.)

It's one way that I am trying to get prepared for the holidays.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

How to Feel More Organized: Keeping up with Kids

In addition to my attempts to keep myself organized, I've been implementing strategies to keep up with my kids as well.

A Clothes Box in Every Closet
This is a place in each of my kids' closets where I can quickly stow outgrown, damaged, or disliked clothing until I am ready to deal with it. I repurposed a pretty Piperlime box for my daughter's closet.I also have a box in the laundry room to store items after they are cleaned, but it's nice to have a storage spot right where the kids get dressed so that I can separate the items right away--sometimes outgrown clothes get reintegrated with the regular laundry en route to the basement, and they don't quite make it to the Consignment box. (Of course, I don't consign an item unless it meet my criteria.)

This way I can take a larger amount of clothing to the basement all at once when I have time to think about what I am doing, reducing the chances of the clothes ending back up in the drawers!

A Toothbrush in Every Bathroom
I don't know how other kids are, but my kids are highly distractable when we are trying to focus on leaving the house. If I send them upstairs to brush teeth, it takes forever for them to reappear, mostly because they got lost on the way! I finally got the message and put toothbrushes, floss, and toothpaste in every bathroom. Now, whether we are preparing to leave the house, preparing to go to bed, or someone just has bad breath, dental hygiene supplies belonging to my kids are close by.

I included supplies for the master bathroom because I've made the habit of preparing a toothbrush for any kid who joins me in the bathroom while *I* am brushing my teeth. I need a few extra toothbrushes for this strategy; I've found the sample size toothpaste and floss from the dentist works well in lesser-used bathrooms. I'm finding that it is well worth it to help my kids avoid skipping brushing, especially since both kids have tooth issues that increase their vulnerability to cavities.

A Spot for Every Lunch Box
My son takes his lunch to school every day. My daughter uses her lunchbox 3 days per week. What this used to mean was that my son's lunchbox was sitting on the countertop when the weekend arrived, and my daughter's was taking up space in the kitchen every day! I realized that even items that are used nearly every day need a 'put away' spot. Now that I designated a spot in a cabinet to store them, our lunch boxes spend much less time cluttering up the kitchen counters, and I always know exactly where to find them when we DO need them.

This is what works for me, I hope it works for you, too!

Fitness Goals Update: October

I skipped my goals update last month, but I have been keeping up with working out pretty well. I'm trying to work out 5 or 6 days a week rather than the paltry 2 or 3 I had been managing. This doesn't mean that I work out at Jazzercise each day (necessarily) but that I'm doing something fitness related most days.

One thing that has made working out a little more intruiging is my recent purchase of a heart rate monitor watch. (I found mine new on Ebay.) The watch communicates with a sensor I wear around my ribcage and records my heartbeats per minute. Combined with data I've entered about my age/weight, it calculates how many calories I burn while working out. It also give me an idea of how much time I was working out in the Fitness Zone (higher than 70% of max BPM) versus the Fat Burn Zone (approx. 50-70% of max BPM).

I learned pretty quickly that I don't burn much fat at Jazzercise--it's an intense workout where I spend the vast majority of time in the fitness zone. If I'm not late for class (argh!) I tend to burn 450-500 calories per session.

As a result of these findings, I've been trying to add more fat-burning activities into the mix (walking and low-impact dance workouts on streaming Netflix.) I've thought about wearing the monitor while doing intense housework, just to find out what I'm burning, but I haven't actually hooked up the monitor to find out yet.

Anyway. I'm still working towards my fitness goal for the year, and there is a chance I will make it, although I'll have to focus and work hard.

Total for 2010 as of October 31: 120 classes

This means that I have two months to attend 30 classes, which breaks down to 15 classes per month. This is doable, but I'd hoped to be more ahead by this point, as there are exactly 15 days in November when I expect to have time to attend class. I see some early morning workouts in my future!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Declutter Challenge October Update: Successes and Failures

I am really glad that I jumped on the declutter wagon again this month and moved additional items out of the house, but it is really hard to keep up with my declutter challenge when there is so much other stuff going on!

First, I have to talk about my failures: I didn't get around to selling anything on Craigslist as I had planned. I find Craigslist overwhelming to deal with. You post your item for sale, and then you have to comb through your email to find the responses. Typically at least one response is from someone who is talking about something you aren't selling (ex. someone was interested in my stove once when I was offering some free tickets to a consignment sale...????). It's difficult to determine who is really interested vs. someone who isn't serious. Some people want to meet you at a location in between, and then they don't show up, or want to meet at a strange time, such as early in the morning (horror stories from friends).

I haven't figured out a smooth way to deal with Craigslist Chaos, so I'm reluctant to do a lot with it. If I am going to sell something on Craigslist before the end of the year, it will have to be this upcoming weekend. Stay tuned next month to find out if I get motivated...or not!

I had an opportunity to sell items at a friend's yard sale over the holiday weekend, which would have been a great way to move the items I am dreading posting on Craigslist. Unfortunately, I had too much going on that weekend and I had to bypass the opportunity. I love that people are getting together and sharing yard sale opportunities, though, and I look forward to participating next time!

I had a steady, tiny stream of book sales on this month. I am going to count only the transaction that I already received payment for, and count the 3 other sales for November, which means that my total is $7.75.

I also pushed myself to consign approximately 100 items, and sold over 60 of them, with the rest being donated by the consignment sale to several different organizations. (You can read here about how I track what I sold/didn't sell without picking up the unsold itemsSince most items were small and I priced them to sell, I earned just $121.13, significantly less than the big earnings I saw at the spring sale, but better than nothing!

I scraped up 11 items to sell on Ebay, including a few seasonal items I had put aside earlier in the year, thinking they would sell better in the fall. The list included a few Halloween costumes, NFL Football kids' clothes (Steelers stuff, if you care to know), and some little baby shoes, in addition to my newborn cloth diapers, which were so cute and so little they were hard to let go, but sell them I did.

10 of 11 items sold (a couple for only 99 cents, but at least I found someone who wanted and could use the item!) and I made a total of $107.45 after shipping and fees. I have another short list of items for Ebay to sell in November, because so far I find it to be the most convenient way to connect nicer items to people who want them and can use them.

All of these totals added together bring me to $236.33 for the month of October. Two more months to go, and I can tell already that December is not going to be a big month. :) It's time to shift gears and get organized for the holidays!

Check out additional declutter reports at The Finer Things in Life!

Menu Plan Monday: November 1st

The smaller pumpkin on the right is from our garden!

I'm happy to report that I used up the produce that persists on growing in the garden despite the fact that it is now NOVEMBER. Happy Halloween, by the way!
  • Monday: (parents possibly going out) Leftovers
  • Tuesday: Apple Sausage Risotto that we haven't made yet--it's a good thing that apples keep well!, with steamed broccoli
  • Wednesday: Marinated Flank Steak (from the freezer) with cranberry rice pilaf and steamed green beans
  • Thursday: (parents out) Creamy Enchilada Casserole with steamed mixed vegetables
  • Friday: Eating out
  • Saturday: Minestrone soup (from the freezer) and Grilled Cheese
  • Sunday: Lemon Chicken (pre cut chicken from the freezer) with Carrot Orzo
  • Monday: Whole Wheat Spaghetti and Turkey Meatballs (not eaten on Halloween) with a vegetable
Find additional meal planning inspiration at!

Holiday Prep: A Series

I have a rule about Christmas. The rule is that Christmas must be contained to the month of December. This means that any and all Christmas decorations must not go up until after my birthday (Dec 9th), and must come down during as soon as possible after New Years Day. Christmas Shopping and Shipping are properly done in December. Holiday Photos are taken in December, holiday cards are written and mailed in December...

I really like this rule because it makes me prioritize and limit Christmas Activities. I enjoy the holiday season, but one month's worth is plenty for me. At the same time, it seems like there is more and more to do to get ready for the holidays each year. As our family grows, and I volunteer to help at school, AND I entertain more around the holidays, I've found that I must be very organized and cheat bend the rules as much as possible if I want to get ANY sleep at all during the month of December!

I am going to share a few of my Holiday Preparation tips during the upcoming weeks in the hopes that they will be as helpful to others as they have been for me.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Whole Wheat Couscous with Zucchini and Cherry Tomatoes

This recipe is incredibly versatile as a side dish or a potluck dish:
  • You can serve it either hot or at room temperature
  • It makes 6-8 large servings for an affordable price, especially if you make it using produce from your garden
  • It's great as leftovers, especially when the cherry tomatoes burst and the tangy tomato juice soaks into the couscous
  • It's a great way to use a large quantity of cherry or grape tomatoes quickly--you know, when they are on their last legs and getting a little too soft to add to a salad.
  • If you finely dice a portion of the yellow squash, you can serve the couscous only portion to a picky child and they will not notice that they are eating onions and squash with the couscous. (Ask me how I know!)
Adapted from The All New Joy of Cooking, page 268:
  • 2 T olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 1/2 lbs zucchini and/or yellow squash (I use 4 medium: 2 green, 2 yellow) in larger bite-sized pieces
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock (I try to use bone soup or homemade vegetable stock)
  • 2 T chopped fresh thyme, or 2 tsp dried
  • 1 tsp salt (or to taste)
  • 1 1/2 cups quick cooking whole wheat couscous (I find this at Trader Joe's)
  • 24-36 Cherry or Grape tomatoes (to taste; I like extra)
Heat olive oil in large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add onions, cook 5 minutes, then add squash and zucchini. Cook, stirring often, until some onions and squash are browned a bit. Don't overcook to avoid the squash getting soft and soggy. Add minced garlic, stir, and cook for an additional minute. Add stock, thyme, and salt, stirring to combine. Bring mixture to a boil, then simmer for 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in whole wheat couscous. Cover and let stand until couscous has absorbed the stock, about 8-10 minutes. Add cherry tomatoes, stirring to combine, and cover again to gently warm tomatoes up a few minutes longer. Serve warm immediately, or at room temperature later.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Menu Revisions... Forgot the Fresh Stuff

Apparently this weeks meal plan was the 'What Was I Thinking?' version, because I completely forgot about the large harvest of cherry tomatoes from our garden. I just picked about a dozen, used 3 dozen last night, and have an additional 2 dozen that my daughter has been harvesting over the past week. Some of those may be too old to use by now.

As well as some yellow squash that is growing.

And a couple green pumpkins that are taking forever to turn orange, I think I need to harvest and sun them. There's only one pumpkin in this picture.

Clearly I need to leave a few items in the freezer and focus on the fresh produce growing in my yard! Despite the fact that it is nearly November!

Revised Menu Plan:
That's better! It's possible that I'll be able to keep up with the cherry tomatoes if I stick to this plan. If not, I'll make a Summer Squash Frittata with halved cherry tomatoes decorating the top.

Purse Funeral

It kills me to have to write this, but it is time for a purse funeral.

I love my beautiful red purse. It is especially special because my husband bought it for me a few years back when we were on a date. (If you know my husband, you know that this is atypical to say the least.) I like to carry it in the fall/winter, as it goes well with both my gray and brown coats. It's nothing special, just a vinyl handbag that happens to be a very pretty shade of red, with teal lining, and is just the size that I like to carry--big enough to serve a few diaper bag functions (water bottles, snacks, extra clothes) without being Huge.

So why the funeral?

This purse has a metal frame opening, and it keeps falling apart. I searched for someone who could repair it the first time it happened, but no one really 'repairs' things anymore. I finally found a clock repairman who was willing to give it a try, despite the challenge of cheap manufacturing. He did his best, and it lasted a bit longer, but now it is falling apart again. When the frame IS holding together, the clasp doesn't hold the purse closed properly. Clearly the lesson here is: Do not purchase a handbag that has a metal frame/clasp opening, no matter how pretty the bag is!

I am so disappointed because I am the type of person who likes to use a handbag (or ANY item) over and over again. I keep finding that my expectations are too high for how long an item should last, whether it be a home appliance, or a purse made of vinyl. I know that the companies that manufacture these items want me to go back to the store any buy a replacement item as soon as possible. I get tired of this process.

I've tried different strategies to get around the built in 'wear-out' timer on my stuff. Once a while back, I bought a handbag and I liked it so much that I bought a second one exactly like it (on deep discount) so that I would have a new handbag all ready to go when the first one died (my plan worked!) I have also bought multiples of shoes that worked well for me to avoid having to search all over again for something that fits.

My summer handbag is canvas with a few pieces of leather, and it has tolerated being washed in the washing machine twice now. Next spring/summer will be Season 3 for that bag.

In the mean time, I need to somehow let go of my beautiful red bag, and find a replacement. It's in perfect condition other than the metal frame. Goodwill? The trash??? Maybe I will just put it on the shelf in my closet, to look at once in a while.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Menu Plan Monday: October 25th

Last week I ate out for dinner four times, and it was too much (and it was mostly junk food). I am really happy to return to normal!
  • Monday: Baked Breaded Fish Nuggets (sliding from last week) with baked redskin potatoes and steamed asparagus
  • Tuesday: Apple Sausage Risotto with steamed broccoli
  • Wednesday: Lasagna
  • Thursday: Leftovers
  • Friday: Salt and Pepper Chicken
  • Saturday: Attend a Party (need to ask if I can bring something)
  • Sunday: (Halloween/Family Get-together) I am not sure what we will be eating yet. Something that works well with extensive pumpking carving, numerous relatives, and candy-hyper kids!
I also need to make baked goods for two class Halloween Parties on Thursday, which is why that day is Leftover night.

Find more meal planning ideas at!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Liven Up Leftovers: Eggplant Stew for Breakfast

Here is a little breakfast I put together using my leftover Eggplant Stew:
  • Reheat Eggplant Stew in the microwave (approximately 3/4 cup per serving)
  • Meanwhile, scramble two eggs
  • Serve Eggplant Stew over the scrambled eggs
Here I served it with clementines and a mini whole wheat bagel with cream cheese. A hearty breakfast like this will stick with me all morning--and I've already eaten a serving of vegetables today! It's a quick any easy way to Liven up your Leftovers. I'm sure there are numerous leftover dishes that would taste good for breakfast served over scrambled eggs.

If only my kids would eat stuff like this... they just don't know what they're missing!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How to Feel More Organized: 5 Little Things

I am a long way from being fully organized, but I like to think that I get a littler closer to having it all together each day. Here are a few tips that I try to follow to help keep everything a little more together.
1. Keep Dollars and Quarters on Hand
If I have a supply of dollar bills (or coins!) and quarters, it helps everything run a bit more smoothly. I'm prepared if I have to feed a parking meter, pay a toll, tip a service person, hire my son to do a project (his fees range from 25c to $1 depending on the task), or play the Tooth Fairy.
2. Charge Up the Technology 
When I take the time to make sure my cell phone, camera, ipod, and laptop are plugged and charged properly, I can just grab them and go. I need to get better about this, particularly for  my cell phone.

3. An Empty box in the trunk to hold Reusable Shopping Bags
I recently left this box in my trunk, and I think it's going to stay until it wears out! It holds all of my reusable grocery bags, which has a double benefit of clearing the bags out of my cluttered pantry along with ensuring that I never arrive at the store without my bags. I can fit two full grocery bags in the box to prevent them from falling over on the way home. I can put messy things, like potted plants, in the box. I also keep a few plastic newspaper bags in the box to cover wet umbrellas when getting in/out of the car on rainy days.
4. A 'Little Bits' Tray
You know when you are clearing things up around the house and you stumble across a small object, but you're not quite sure what it is or where it goes? This Little Bits Tray is where those items end up in my house. Along with various tiny toy parts, it holds some paperclips and other potentially useful items. It's a quick place to stow something small that I don't want to lose, then periodically I go through it and put small items where they really belong.
5. A Running Grocery List on the Refrigerator
I use a large Post-it Note pad to keep a running grocery list, right on the fridge. I keep a pen in the drawer close by so that I can quickly add to the list when I see that I am running low on various staple items--I don't wait until I run out of something to add it to the list! I put items in three columns based on the grocery stores where I typically purchase things. When I am ready to go to the store, I add the items I always buy (milk, bread, produce) as well as anything in particular I need for an upcoming recipe and I'm good to go. When I get away from this habit, I find myself going crazy running out of things that I thought I had!

I would love to hear from others about the little things that you do that make you feel more organized.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dishwasher Day Part II

Another thing I learned about dishwashers is that it is not enough to clean the front. My appliance repairman visited recently and reported that the bacterial and dish soap buildup around the gasket/door seal of my dishwasher is best removed occasionally.
That vertical black line in the picture is coated with crud.

Fortunately, I have a handy dandy grout brush that looked up to the task!

As you can see, the crud is growing on the edge of the dishwasher door as well as on the seal.

Fortunately, the grout brush combined with some liquid dish soap quickly dissolved the mess and all was wiped away with a damp rag.

We can add this to my list of Things I Never Thought to Clean. My repairman will be so impressed--if ever we need him to return...

Menu Plan Monday October 18th

Fall has finally arrived--with regard to the weather in our area, so I'd like to pull out a few more cold-weather recipes... unfortunately it will be difficult to do that this week because there is a lot going on, including my husband leaving town for a few days.
  • Monday: Leftovers for adults, quesadillas and steamed broccoli for the kids
  • Tuesday: (parents out) Whole Wheat Spaghetti and Turkey Meatballs with steamed vegetables
  • Wednesday: (book fair) Eating out
  • Thursday: Baked Breaded Fish Nuggets, hash browns, steamed vegetable
  • Friday: Eating out
  • Saturday: Date night; kids at grandparents'
  • Sunday: (Book Club) Mom's Chili with homemade cornbread and salad
  • Monday: Apple Sausage Risotto (sliding from last week where it was sacrificed for Fast Food :()
Soup of the Week: I didn't get to the Minestrone last week. I'm not sure I will get to it this week, either, but I'll try.

Find other meal plan ideas at!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dishwasher Day Part 1

A few weeks ago, I observed that all of the dishes coming out of the dishwasher were less than clean. I used Angie's List to find a reputable, affordable repairman, and he had bad news: the dishwasher motor needed to be replaced entirely.

We were disappointed to say the least, as we purchased the dishwasher in February 2006 based on the Consumer Reports recommendation at the time. (It's a Kenmore Elite, if you care to know.) We have run the dishwasher once a day on average for less than 4 years, so we were very surprised to learn that it needed such an extensive repair--$350!

My first thought was to replace the dishwasher entirely. It doesn't make sense to me to invest an additional $350 into a machine that cost less than twice that amount in the first place. When I asked the repairman for dishwasher recommendations,the repairman recommended the mid-range dishwashers because many of the low-price dishwashers have a one-piece motor identical or similar to the one in my broken dishwasher. I hopped online to research and determine which dishwasher would be the best replacement.

Many hours of research and deliberation later, I was confused and overwhelmed. The dishwashers rated highest by Consumer Reports (and the dishwasher repairman) were the ones that had the most positive AND negative reviews by individuals on the various store web sites. Most of the time it was difficult to determine whether the reviewer was writing a review for the specific dishwasher I was looking at... or an older/different model.

The entire research process left me as uninformed as when I started, except as to the high cost of a new dishwasher. In addition to the $1,100 dishwasher I was considering, I would need to pay an installation fee, anywhere from $200 to $400. After reading about the mixed experiences people were having with the various dishwashers, I felt like it would be taking a risk to purchase a new dishwasher.
These conclusions led me back to the option of repairing the current dishwasher. Not the glamorous choice by far, especially after seeing the special 3rd rack my potential new dishwasher came with. The deciding factor was the recycling factor. It seems like a crime to dispose of a practically new dishwasher, even if the entire motor doesn't work. If I succumb to temptation and buy the sparkly new dishwasher (with stainless steel interior), I will be reinforcing our culture of discarding appliances at the first sign of a problem to replace them with the latest and greatest (energy-saving drying cycle!).

If the old dishwasher lasts another 4 years with the repair, we will have saved money.

If the replacement motor dies in 12-18 months (as happened to numerous reviewers on the web), we'll kick ourselves and wish we had gone with the new dishwasher. And then buy the new one.

If we're lucky, the new motor will last longer that our wildest dreams and I will never get a chance to enjoy the new-fangled one. I don't know why I care; ask me how often I load the dishwasher in our household? I'm the chef of the house, my husband is The Loader.

Anyway, I have been spending way too much time thinking about dishwashers recently.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Menu Plan Monday: October 11th

It's Abundance Week in our household... a series of lovely gatherings with friends and family over the holiday weekend have left us with a full refrigerator, and I just need to plan out what we are going to eat when!
The great thing is that I have everything I need to make all of the recipes listed above. It is so nice to have a break from grocery shopping.

Soup of the Week: I'm craving the Minestrone alla Milanese that I made a few weeks ago... I want to eat it for lunch with a buttery grilled cheese sandwich. MMMmmm!

Also for lunch I need to make a Super Special Spinach Pie to use up some spinach and sour cream (and eat the leftovers for breakfast), and also make some Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins for my friend who is ill.

Added to all that, I have 3 leftover cakes, and the leftover Apple Crisp to finish up. I guess I'd better plan on working out every day this week to keep up with the caloric intake!

Find more meal planning ideas at!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Yard Sale and Consignment Deja Vu

I'm having somewhat of a deja vu experience this month. Just like this past spring, I am participating in a consignment sale and a yard sale all in the same week!

The consignment sale is a set event that occurs twice a year, and I am exhaustedly pleased to report that I pulled together just under 100 items to take to the sale: kids' clothing, snow bibs/boots, videos/DVDs/toys, and a few other miscellaneous items, including those items pictured above--except for the 18-wheeler truck, which was withdrawn from the sale by my packrat son. (Has he played with this truck in the past 2 years? No! Will he play with it again after today? No! Sigh.)

The Yard Sale is actually something a friend of mine is putting together, and she has kindly invited others to sell items at her sale. I have just a few larger items in mind to add to the sale, but it will save me having to list items on Craigslist and arrange individual pickups, etc.

I'm glad to have these extra motivators to keep me focused on Stuff Elimination, because I've been looking at my calendar and there is a lot going on in the next few months. I want to continue purging through the end of the year to complete my Declutter Challenge, but I have to be realistic about the lack of available time and energy I'm going to have to devote to the project. It is probably realistic to predict that October is going to be my last 'big' selling month of the year.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Birthday Declutter: Daughter's Bedroom

Recently I decided it was time to deal with... The Situation in my Daughter's Room.

Most of my daughter's toys are kept here in her room, and she enjoys pulling everything out, as can be seen. She has plenty of things (including many many puppies), but she isn't interested in helping me declutter. "Don't sell my stuff, MOM!" is what she says every time I gently bring it up.

The space in her room is a little tight because she has a double bed. We gave our kids larger beds because a) we had two double beds already and b) a parent can lie down with either child to help them fall asleep (the kids love it. The parents don't mind except when they fall asleep before the kids do!) My daughter's room is decorated with a bedspread and curtains that used to be mine when I was growing up. I figure we'll update her room if/when she is interested and wants to pick out something on her own.

In the mean time, I wanted to get a better hold on her stuff, and clear out some of the things I didn't think she would miss, and do this before her birthday, when I knew she would acquire additional Stuff on top of the stuff she already had. We took one rainy day and spent it moving furniture and decluttering. I took four boxes of random items to the basement, and completely cleared everything under the bed. (Did I post that before picture yet?)

Anyway. Ever since, my daughter has enjoyed her clean room so much, she asks me to clean her room almost every day. I encourage her to help me, of course.

I can't wait to post the 'After' pictures, which I will do later this week. (Long Story Short: daughter broke camera, ordered new one, it's arrived, just need to remember to take the pictures when the room is all put together nice.)

Stay tuned...

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Menu Plan Tuesday October 5th

I have a plan, I just need to write it down here:
  • Monday: Spaghetti with whole wheat pasta and turkey meatballs, with steamed broccoli
  • Tuesday: Roasted Lamb Rack (special treat from Trader Joe's) with baked potatoes and steamed green beans
  • Wednesday: Creamy Enchilada Casserole with steamed asparagus (parents out)
  • Thursday: I could be optimistic and plan to cook on Thursday, but I doubt it will happen. I think we'll order Pizza. :)
  • Friday: (Friends for Dinner) Marinated Flank Steak on the grill, cranberry brown rice pilaf, salad, maybe something else
  • Saturday: Leftovers
  • Sunday: Family Birthday Get-together (need to finalize menu)
  • Monday: (Dinner at Friends) Make some sort of apple crisp or pie with the apples my friend brought me today, I haven't decide yet. With vanilla ice cream, of course.
I also need to bake chocolate chip cookies for a teacher luncheon. Fortunately I can do that asleep with my eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back.

I just used the Recipe Index that I put together last week for the first time. I found my links so quickly!

Find many more meal planning ideas at!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Navigating a Sick Day

Imagine some lovely picture here, which I would post if my daughter hadn't broken the camera lens. :)

Just when I thought I was getting back into a routine, the germs have invaded. My son (age 6) is home from school for a few days while fighting a low grade fever. I'm trying to keep my daughter (age 4) on her regular schedule. She might have been sick last week, possibly, it's hard to tell with her. She's the one who brings the germs home and spreads them around the family yet doesn't get sick herself. Her medical history is the most boring form to fill out, but it's fast--there's never anything to report!

While I am writing this, my kids are running around throwing a large plastic shark at one another. Clearly, my son isn't sick enough to be tucked into bed, so I've been trying to figure out what is going to keep us occupied until he is fever-free and well enough to return to school, other than movies and computer time.
  • Playing Cards- My son would play cards with me all day if I would let him. His current favorite is Rummy 500, although he also likes Uno and a game that we call 'Slap and Tickle'. I'm going to teach him to play Gin Rummy tomorrow.
  • Thank-you notes- We have a few notes to finish up sending to friends and relatives after the kids' recent birthdays. (Will the germs transfer on the notes? Hmmm.... Maybe I should do the envelope sealing...)
  • Lego Sort- My son and I spent an entire sick day last year sorting his Legos by color, and then building one of his sets. He was in heaven.
  • Call Grandma- It's a great time to make some surprise midday calls to relatives to catch up--if they are retired, etc. Although if I get desperate, we may bother Daddy at work.
  • Puppy Show- My daughter and I may hold a Puppy Show (instead of puppets) to entertain my son if everyone gets particularly whiny and crabby.
After his fever breaks and before he returns to school, I have a few other plans in mind:
  • Clothes Shopping- My son is very picky when it comes to clothes. He is very sensitive to tags, collars, etc., and he is very particular about how clothes fit his body. I've been trying to figure out a good time to take him to the store to try things on and this may be the time!
  • Lunch Out- I know that both kids will enjoy going out to lunch one day, if it works out.
  • Baking- If we are making something just for our family, not to share, he can help me bake some cookies, bread, or muffins.
Again, I won't take him out and about in public until his fever breaks and he is fully on the mend. No need to spread his bug through the stores and restaurants if we can help it!

Many of these things are activities that we like to do but don't have much time for in the average week. Instead of viewing these Sick Days as a hindrance to my plans, I try to see them as an opportunity to spend some special time with my kids, providing them with interesting activities while their bodies rest and heal.

Summer Recap and Back to School... and Work

Our full school schedule is now starting its third week (we start school late around here, and preschool starts even later), so it's time for life to return to some semblance of normal.

I was expecting my summer to be productive time spent continuing my decluttering quest, in addition to keeping my kids entertained with fun summer activities. Based on the amount of decluttering I completed (very little), I need to adjust my expectations.

All I wanted to do this summer was hang out with my kids. We did numerous non-productive mundane activities, including swinging on our rope swing, chewing bubble gum and learning to blow bubbles, and occasionally making it all the way to the swimming pool. We also celebrated both kids' birthdays and went to the beach twice. For some reason I was expecting to get more done despite the fact that my kids were involved in fewer activities during the day. They were always around, standing between me and their coveted piles of stuff saying, "MOM, DON'T SELL MY BABIES!"

I did have some house projects going on; our masonry and landscaping project took most of the summer, and we had some electrical work done. It took a lot of time and effort to stay on top of these projects (which were hired out to contractors, I wasn't even doing the work myself!) as well as doing the regular tasks that need to be done around the house.

Now, at least I know what to expect of myself next summer: not very much! After my declutter challenge is over, I'll change to a different focus; instead of getting rid of items year round, I'll focus on purging once in the spring and once in the fall.

This means that I need to focus on October as my next big declutter month. My basement is filling up as I recently did Birthday Declutters on my son's room (1 large container full) and my daughter's room (4 boxes!). If it doesn't get decluttered in October, it probably won't leave the house until next year, as I already know I won't have a lot of spare time to work on the project in November and December.

So, we'll see what I can complete next month!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Soup of the Week: Minestrone Soup

I actually made this soup two weeks ago. :) I have two frozen packages left; it is really good! Now that summer is over, I want to get back into the routine of making soups and stocks on a regular basis. I like to have a stash of prepared soups in the freezer to have for lunch or as part of a quick dinner.

This recipe is for Minestrone alla Milanese (from Cooking Class Italian Cookbook) and I got it from my grandmother, who likes to add whatever is on hand, saying, “This is the way Italian cooks make it, using whatever is on hand and using up small amounts of leftovers.”

• ¼ lb green beans, trimmed and cut into 1 inch pieces
• 2 med zucchini, ½ inch cubes
• 1 large potato, ½ inch cubes
• ½ lb cabbage (I omit this)
• 1/3 cup olive oil (I use less)
• 3 Tablespoons butter (mandatory for the flavor!)
• 2 medium onions, chopped
• 3 medium carrots, chopped
• 3 ribs celery, chopped
• 1 clove garlic, minced (I used 2)
• 1 can (28 oz) diced tomatoes, undrained
• 3 ½ cups beef broth (I use chicken bone soup or vegetable stock, see * below)
• 1 ½ cup water (or use additional stock if you have enough)
• ½ tsp salt
• ½ tsp dried basil
• ¼ tsp dried rosemary
• ¼ tsp pepper
• 1 bay leaf
• 1 can cannellini beans (white kidney) drained and rinsed
• Baby spinach leaves 1-2 oz (I added this to the recipe)
• Orzo pasta (I added this to the recipe-found whole wheat orzo at Whole Foods)
• Grated Parmesan

Prepare vegetables, make vegetable stock (see * below). In a large stockpot, heat oil and butter. Saute onions 6 min, add carrots and potato, sauté 5 minutes, add celery and green beans, sauté 5 minutes more (stirring often during these times). Add garlic, stir to combine.

Add broth/stock, tomatoes, water, seasonings, and stir well to scrape vegetable bits from bottom of stockpot (umami). Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to low, simmer for 60-90 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add cannellini beans, cook 30 minutes more but uncovered this time to reduce somewhat, then add orzo and spinach, stirring to combine, and cook 5-7 minutes, or just until pasta is cooked al dente.

Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Serve w/cheese. Makes about 12 cups.

*Vegetable stock: clean your vegetables well. As you cut up what is needed for the soup, throw the trimmed ends into a large pot full of water. I add onion ends/outer layers, carrot ends, peelings, and tops, celery tops (the more leaves the better), zucchini ends, a bit of parsley if I have some, etc. (I usually don’t add the potato peel but just wash well and leave it on the potato.) Bring to a boil and simmer for 30-45 minutes (while you are chopping everything else and sautéing the veggies for the soup in another pot). Place a strainer over a large pot (I use a large pitcher) and carefully pour the stock through the strainer into the pot. Discard boiled vegetable bits. Measure the amount needed to add to the soup recipe above. You can also freeze vegetable trimmings to make stock at a later time, or add the vegetable trimmings to chicken bones to make chicken stock—but that takes 7 hours, better to do on another day.

Recipe Index

Here is an index of the recipes I've either mentioned or posted on this blog, organized by the following categories:
  • Breakfast/Brunch Recipes
  • Barely a Recipe
  • Appetizers
  • Salads and Salad Dressings
  • Soups and Stocks
  • Entrees
  • Vegetarian
  • Desserts and Snacks
 Some recipes are listed more than once. I will add new recipes as I discover links to them online, or as I post more of my own recipes. I recommend all of them. Enjoy!

Breakfast/Brunch Recipes

Make-Ahead Strawberry French Toast
Peach Berry Crisp (Filling and Topping)
Pineapple Zucchini Bread
Potato-Kale Quiche or Frittata
Strawberry Bread
Summer Squash Frittata
Super Special Spinach Pie
Whole Wheat Banana Bread

It's Barely a Recipe

Bean and Cheese Quesadillas
Black-Eved Pea Hambone Soup
Cucumber Tomato Salad
Fried Zucchini
Salt and Pepper Chicken
Salt and Pepper Potatoes
Smoked Salmon Appetizers


Basil Pesto
Bean and Cheese Quesadillas
Fried Zucchini
Gougeres (Cheese Puffs)
Mini Hamburgers/Sliders
Salmon or Tuna Cakes (Bouchons au Thon)
Sweet Potato Biscuits
Smoked Salmon Appetizers

Salads and Salad Dressings

Broccoli Salad
Cucumber Tomato Salad
Green Goddess Dressing


Black-Eyed Pea Hambone Soup
Chicken Bone Soup
Minestrone ala Milanese
Quinoa Vegetable Soup
White Bean and Kale Soup


Apple Sausage Risotto
Baked Chicken Tenders
Baked Ziti with Mini Meatballs
Beef with Broccoli--homemade
Chicken Casserole
Honey Mustard Chicken
Lemon Chicken with Carrot Orzo
Maple Balsamic Chicken
Marinated Flank Steak
Marinated Salmon
Mini Hamburgers/Sliders
Molasses Glazed Chicken Thighs
Mom's Chili
Pot Roast (My Favorite!)
Pumpkin Seed Crust (for chicken or fish)
Roasted Chicken with Spinach Rice Stuffing
Salt and Pepper Chicken
Soy-Glazed Salmon with Sweet Potato Black Bean Salsa
Sweet Asian Chicken (Marinade)

Vegetarian Entrees/Sides

Bean and Cheese Quesadillas
Carrot Orzo
Creamy Enchilada Casserole
Eggplant Stew over Couscous
Fried Zucchini
Kale Brown Rice Casserole
Lasagna (omit ground meat)
Lentil Rice Casserole
Lime Cilantro Soba Noodles
Potato-Kale Quiche or Frittata
Potato Salad with Picky Eater Option
Salt and Pepper Potatoes
Sesame Baby Bok Choy
Skillet Cornbread
Spinach Rice Stuffing
Summer Squash Frittata
Sweet Potato Black Bean Salsa
Super Special Spinach Pie
Whole Wheat Couscous with Zucchini and Cherry Tomatoes

Desserts and Snacks

Best Chocolate Chip Cookies Ever!
Decorated Cut-Out Cookies Part I and Part II
Lemon Lavender Butter Cookies
Mini Sour Cream Pound Cake Cupcakes
Peach Berry Crisp (Filling and Topping)
Pineapple Zucchini Bread
Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins
Shortbread Hearts
Strawberry Bread
Sweet and Spicy Pecans (scroll down to first recipe)
Sweet Potato Biscuits
Whole Wheat Banana Bread

You can find more recipe index posts here at

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Menu Plan Monday: September 27th

Okay, I haven't blogged in a month, but I'm still here and everything's fine, just busy, which is why I should be planning these meals out in advance, hm?

4 Easy Steps to a meal plan:
1. Type out the days of the week.
2. Look at the calendar and see if the family is scheduled to eat out on any of the days (nope. Darn!) Also check to see what else is going on during afternoon/evening hours (appointments, meetings, etc.) that may interfere with the production or consumption of dinner. Figure out if/when a grocery trip is coming up.
3. Check the fridge/freezer/pantry to determine
                -what needs to be consumed quickly (leftovers, produce, meat, etc.)
                -what else is plentiful

 4. Despite these steps, still hem and haw while trying to figure out what to make this week!
  • Monday: Roast Chicken with potatoes, carrots, and green beans (grandma's recipe)
  • Tuesday: Leftovers (including Lasagna made on Sunday)
  • Wednesday: Apple Sausage Risotto with steamed broccoli
  • Thursday: New Recipe- Creamy Tomato Penne with Shrimp I'm planning to replace the heavy cream with evaporated milk as suggested here to reduce the saturated fat.
  • Friday: Leftovers
  • Saturday: Potluck dinner, make Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins with my wonderful fresh pumpkin puree
  • Sunday: Molasses Glazed Chicken Thighs on the grill, roasted sweet potatoes, cucumber tomato salad
  • Monday: (my son's favorite) Spaghetti with whole wheat pasta and turkey meatballs, with steamed green beans
I am on the hunt for pumpkin recipes, particularly for some type of pumpkin soup or tips on what to do with pumpkin seeds. Please let me know if you have a good recipe source!

Find more menu planning ideas at Happy Monday!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Scheduling Annual Physicals

I just scheduled annual physicals for my kids. It seemed a good time to schedule them for several reasons:
  • They both have birthdays this month, so I thought about it.
  • I can use the information from my daughter's physical this fall to get her paperwork completed so that I can enroll her in kindergarten next March. A physical over this past summer would be too outdated, which is why I was waiting.
  • My son hasn't had a physical since I enrolled HIM in kindergarten a year and a half ago.
 Now that they are booked for November 3rd, which is 2 1/2 months from today, I have questions:
  • Is it normal to have to schedule an annual physical over 2 months in advance? I admit I was expecting about a 4-6 week lead time.
  • Is is possible to have a reminder system in place to prompt a parent to schedule physicals? We seem to get to the dentist every six months without a problem. Or would the additional appointment load become even more overwhelming for the practice?
  • How could I remind myself of the need to schedule appointment in an effective way? (Saying to myself randomly, 'Gee, I should schedule physicals for the kids,' may not be the most effective strategy.)
  • What Else? What else is slipping through the cracks because it hasn't randomly occurred to me at a time when I can follow through with the idea?
  • Am I the only person who has problems like this?
In other news, I've made steps forward in my own health care by setting an appointment with a specialist (three weeks ago) to see if my own health issues can be improved. My issue isn't serious or life threatening, but it does interfere with my life, and it wasn't resolved by the PCP I visited in May. My options were:
  • Make another appointment with the same PCP (whom I don't want to use as my PCP) and explain that my issue isn't resolved. Receive additional unsatisfactory care.
  • Find a new PCP to try out.
  • Go to a specialist who has helped someone else I know.
So I still don't have a PCP. Maybe I will continue the search after the school year starts back up. This summer the kids have been home the majority of the time, preventing much progress on anything productive, frankly. (I shouldn't blame them. I want to relax and have fun, too!)