Sunday, January 31, 2010

Menu Plan Monday

What I liked most about The Pantry Challenge was that it forced me to think carefully about what we needed to eat each week, and how we could eat most effectively. I liked having dinners planned in advance; I didn't always follow the plan exactly, sometimes plans would get shifted around, but for the most part I followed the plan that I had made! I'm going to keep it up!
  • Monday: Lasagna with salad and bread (as previously planned)
  • Tuesday: Creamy Enchilada Casserole (My son's request. Again!) and broccoli
  • Wednesday: Mom's Chili with homemade cornbread , green beans
  • Thursday: Coconut Barley Pilaf--a new recipe! w/vegetable (NOTE: I've reviewed this recipe here. Please read my recommendations before you try this, as the liquid measurements don't appear to be accurate.)
  • Friday: Leftovers
  • Saturday: Make Your Own Pizza, vegetable
  • Sunday: Leftovers from Sunday Brunch
  • Monday: Spaghetti with Meatballs and vegetable
Soup of the Week: Chicken Bone Soup (makes stock to use for cooking)

I'll be preparing for the brunch this weekend, which is why the meals get simpler as we get closer to the end of the week! I'll also be preparing some extra items for my Freezer Cooking Day tomorrow.

You can check out many more meal plans over at I'm an Organizing Junkie!

Wrapping up the Pantry Challenge

Well, I haven't figured out a use for the frozen mango yet, but pretty much everything else I hoped to use up from my pantry has moved out. I still did quite a bit of grocery shopping this month; at this point I don't have the data to state how much less than usual I spent. Considering that we usually eat at home and eat a variety of fresh, nutrient-rich foods, I only 'saved' on staples from the pantry, and even those I couldn't stop myself from stocking up on earlier in the challenge.

What have I learned?
  • I can buy less and still make good meals for my family.
  • With advance planning, I can anticipate using an item made for one meal into an ingredient for a second meal, perhaps more. Unless the family eats everything first, that is.
  • It's worthwhile to Eat From the Pantry all the time: to periodically scan the pantry contents and build meals from what you have rather than bring all-new ingredients into the house.
It's been a fun challenge, but now I need to shift my focus back to my poor basement and plot some new ways to move some of this stuff out of my house!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Decluttering Challenge: The January Report

I haven't forgotten about my decluttering goals; in fact, I've made some progress in several areas, and it's time for an update!
  • We donated a pile of items to Goodwill several weekends back... AND I have already started another pile of worn-out clothes where the old pile used to be! I will try to take a picture next time before my husband industriously bustles the pile out of the house. He did itemize the donation for our tax records before he swept everything away, good man that he is.
  • I have finished paring down the books in the household. We still have plenty left, but I have shipped two boxes to Powell's. I have already recieved payment for the first box. I omitted one book from the original order because it didn't have a dust jacket, so I recieved a little less than they had quoted: $48.50. This was so easy to do and rewarding so fast that I lost no time putting together a second box! I highly recommend this as an easy way to sell your books.
  • I have also put a few books up for sale on Half.com that appear to be in reasonable demand (aka Worth more than A Few Dollars) yet Powell's didn't want to buy them. The remainder of the books are together in storage, and I will pull them out in a few months to see if I can sell them locally--it doesn't make sense to me to ship them around the country if they are worth less than it costs to ship! Stay tuned...
  • I had a few pieces of dishware that it was time to part with. Nothing antique or family-cherished, just a few pieces that do not match any of my other dishes and/or that I do not use. I contacted Replacements Ltd., a company that buys and sells pre-owned dishes and collectibles. It's a great place to find a dish that you need to replace, or sell dishes that you no longer need. They were willing to purchase 6 of my items, one for quite a competitive price. I carefully packed up the pieces and sent them off--double boxed!

  • It should be worth it, though, as I am waiting for my payment of $89! I did have to pay shipping and insurance, which came out to $11, so my net is $78. I have additional pieces that they aren't buying currently which I will keep for now. Maybe I'll check back in a few months and see if they're purchasing those pieces again.  
$78 from Replacements plus $48.50 from Powell's (for the first box) brings my January total to $126.50. I am going to make my $100 loan payment, but I'm going to donate the $26.50 balance to a charity supporting the crisis in Haiti, which I haven't selected yet. It's a small amount, but every little bit helps, right? (ETA: I selected a charity and made the donation; you can read more about it here.)

It doesn't count for this challenge, but I also made a number of store returns and exchanges in January. In one case, I had ordered a pair of pajamas, top and bottom sold separately. They ran out of the top, but still sent the pants. The pants weren't very useful to me without the top they belonged with, so I sent them back. Sometimes it seems like more trouble than it's worth to return something, especially when it 'could' be useful, but I am trying to raise my standards and consciousness to only bring wanted, necessary, and useful items into the household. If something isn't exactly right or useful, I need to return them for a refund.

I still feel like I am just scraping the surface of the items that need to be moved out of my home and into the hands of people who will find them useful. Fortunately, coming up with this challenge and posting scary pictures of my basement for the world to see have really motivated me to think about ways to move this stuff along in creative ways. I look forward to sharing my plans and experiences as they happen throughout the year!

Our Freezer Cooking Plan: Cook with a Friend


My son took this picture of my friend and I cooking lasagna together recently. It's fun to see things from his perspective!

I am so inspired by people who schedule a day to do a bunch of advanced cooking for the freezer! MoneySavingMom and LifeasMom are hosting a Freezer Cooking Day to start off the month of Febrary and I find this to be a great way to share recipes and strategies for cooking ahead.

I have tried various methods and I've decided that one intense day of cooking is too much for me and my family. In addition, some of the recipes I like to make don't take well to freezing, which is all right because my freezer is an incredibly small and useless space anyway.

Instead, I try to cook 'ahead' all the time. Examples from the past 2 weeks:
  • When I made salmon the other day, I froze half the marinade with additional frozen salmon filets. I often prep a marinade once, divide it and use it for two separate meals.
  • When I make quesadillas for lunch, I keep making extra until I run out of beans and cheese, freeze them and use them for future meals or snacks. (see below!)
  • When I have leftover cooked chicken or turkey, I chop it and freeze it. When I accumulate enough for a recipe, I use it in soup or casserole.
  • I save chicken and turkey bones in the freezer to make Bone Soup, which I hope to make this weekend. I have a separate freezer bag for vegetable trimmings to either add with the bones, or to use seperately for a vegetable stock.
Another strategy that I have really been enjoying and benefiting from is getting together with a friend for a play date... and cooking! We have made home-made spaghetti sauce, lasagna, chicken casserole, baked ziti with mini meatballs, potato kale quiche, cookies, etc.

One friend and I like to get together in the afternoon after her son's nap. For both of us, the later afternoon can be the hardest part of the day. We are tired, the kids get moody, and relief in the form of "Daddy" doesn't come soon enough! We take turns coming up with recipes and shopping for ingredients, then we cook as quickly as possible before sitting down for a cup of coffee or tea--if the kids will let us, of course; sometimes we have to take turns in the kitchen while the other person is entertaining the children. (It's great to have another adult to distract the little ones when we are at a crucial point in the cooking process!) At the end of the afternoon, we both have a hot meal (and sometimes an extra meal to freeze, or a dessert!) and our kids have entertained one another and worn one another out.

This arrangement has been working so well that I am adding 2 cooking days in February with another friend, and one happens to be on Monday, so it fits right in with the Freezer Cooking Day! We've cooked together in the past; we made dinner for our families as well as a third portion for our other friend who had a new baby. Our daughters play well together, so we are anticipating having a decent amount of productive time. One thing that we doing differently this time is that we are making different stuff--I need to finish my advance cooking for the Sunday Brunch and my friend is making something for a school function.

The catch is that I wasn't planning to go grocery shopping until later in the week to wrap up The Pantry Challenge for the month of January. (You know, to make up for my inability to stop myself from shopping a mere 2 weeks into the challenge!) I'll get over it. I just need two items!!! Oh, and we need milk, bread, and fruit too.

I am planning to prepare:
  • Crock Pot Chicken (for cubed/shredded chicken meat, which I plan to use in this recipe for dinner soon, saving the rest for a future meal. Waaaay less hassle than roasting the chicken like I did last time!)
  • Salmon Corks (for the brunch)
  • A Quiche (for the brunch, probably something quick and simple such as a cheddar-bacon quiche. This is not in the original Sunday Brunch meal plan, but I decided it would be good to have a spare quiche on hand. Also, I have all the ingredients so I might as well whip one up.)
  • Bean and Cheese Quesadillas (my daughter loves to help with these, and they will probably be served for lunch with extras being frozen)
  • Pumpkin Chocolate chip muffins (just because! I make a slightly modified version of Crystal's recipe)
 Then we will sit down and drink some coffee and eat some muffins.

If you'd like to see what other people are planning to cook, stop by!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Just Get it Done: How Long Will It Take?

You have 30 minutes before you have to be somewhere/do something. Quick! What are you going to do with that time?

Okay, you could sit down and goof off. That would definitely be my first choice, too! Let me rephrase the question: What tasks can you do around the house, finishing the task yet not being late for your next commitment?

This is what I am trying to figure out. There is a list of stuff that needs to be done around here, and it is never completely finished. That is not the nature of taking care of a home, at least not for our family. Around here everything is in fluid motion, the kitchen is clean now, but it gets used extensively almost every night. I 'finish' the laundry only to turn around and find a new pile of clothes that need to be washed. I'll admit, I am a control freak, and it took a while for me to get used to the fact that nothing stays 'finished' when you have an active household.

Still, I can't say that I want to spend the majority of my time stomping on the top of the housekeeping To Do List. I want to complete  these necessary tasks effectively and efficiently so that I can focus on The Rest of my Life, which is far more interesting anyway. I want to know: How Long Will It Take? If I know it takes 15 minutes to clean my wood floors, then I can get that done when I have 15 minutes before I have to leave the house rather than waiting until a bigger block of time comes along. The bigger block of time can be used for something else, such as going to the park. Knowing that I have only 15 minutes will also motivate me to get it done quickly--maybe I'll set a new record for myself, or at least I'll do the task with a sense of purpose rather than dragging through it and taking longer time (aka Wasting Time that I could use doing something enjoyable!)

Here are some timing records I am working with right now:
  • Sweeping Main Level (with a broom; includes fast toy pickup and moving a few furniture pieces): 15 Minutes
  • Mopping Main Level (ideally after sweeping!): 15 minutes
  • Vacuuming both flights of stairs (I hate doing this.): A mere 12 minutes!
  • Cleaning The Bathroom (full cleaning): 35 minutes <--This time needs to improve. I'm experimenting with breaking it up into smaller segments to make it more doable.
These times include the complete task as well as set up and put away (vacuum, cleaning supplies, etc.) What these times do NOT include are Interruptions. You know, the phone ringing, the kids fighting or 'helping', etc. The shorter the amount of time a task takes, the less likely I am to be interrupted. The more I can fit productive tasks  into the little slivers of time between bigger events, the more 'free' time I will have. Or so I hope! I'll check in occasionally and report how this experiment is going.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Lots of moneymaking, what about homemaking?

Last week I read this article and it really got me thinking. On one hand, it's nice to hear that men are adding financial advantage to the list of benefits when they marry (we already knew that marriage is likely to lengthen their life-span, etc.). But there was one quote in particular that stood out to me:
 "We've seen a historical shift in the marriage bargain since the mid-20th century," said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who has studied marriage extensively. "The old bargain was that the husband earned the money and the wife took care of the home. The new bargain is that both work, and they pool their incomes."

This sounds great: more money means more financial stability and more shared decision-making for married couples. But a little voice in the back of my head couldn't help asking: "Who is taking care of the home in the new bargain?" That important task seemed to disappear out of the equation in Mr. Cherlin's explanation.

The answer seems obvious: couples in this scenario are doing so well that they must be hiring out many of the tasks necessary around the home, right? This isn't always the case, as evidenced by columnist Petula Dvorak's reaction to this reasearch. Women in general still do more around the home than men, and are still usually taking the lead in determining what needs to be done. I find it very sad that women are reporting feeling unhappy despite being (as a whole) better educated and better employed than in years past.

She follows up this column with additional discouraging news about some parents who at some point in their career are paying to work, due to the high cost of childcare. I doubt these families are hiring out household tasks if they are working so hard just to make ends meet.

And here I read about one working mother's quest to identify the leisure time in her life. Brigid Schulte states, "I never feel I do any one thing particularly well." because she always has so much on her plate. Clearly Mom is still doing a whole lot in addition to bringing home all this extra bacon; although I also acknowledge there are many men who are stepping up to do their share of parenting and home making, whether their spouses earn an income or not.
Now I know that there are plenty of families out there to whom these statistics and observations don't apply, but it frightens me to think about how difficult it is for women and mothers to balance everything expected from them and still retain a sense of fulfillment and an opportunity for leisure time that feels refreshing and rejuvenative, unlike waiting for a tow truck on the side of the road for two hours.

I don't have any answers, or even suggestions. I'm trying to do what works for me any my family for the present, but our needs will change in future years, and I can only hope I will be able to figure out how to handle the changes while still hanging on to some quality of home life and leisure time for myself and my family.


Thoughts?

Monday, January 25, 2010

An Easy, Flexible Meal Idea

A friend of mine gave me this recipe recently, and I haven't been able to find a link for it online, so I decided to share it here. Here are some things that I love about this recipe:
  • It's Flexible: You use what ingredients you have on hand, based on how much time you have to work with
  • It's Make-Ahead: You can mix it up in advance and even freeze the casserole portion in a freezer bag!
  • It's Absorbs Leftovers: You can throw in various leftover items that may be hanging around your fridge
Chicken and Dumplings

Ingredients:
  • 3-4 cups chopped or shredded cooked chicken or turkey
  • 2 cups mixed vegetables (leftover cooked, or frozen)
  • optional: 1 cup diced cooked potato (such as a leftover baked potato)
  • 1 10 oz can cream of mushroom soup (or equivalent made from scratch, see below!)
  • 1/4 t salt
  • 1/4 t pepper
  • 3/4 cup water
  • Biscuit Dough (10 oz can of refrigerated dough, or home made)

Combine meat, vegetables, soup, salt, pepper and water in a large mixing bowl. (At this point, you could freeze the mixture in a large ziploc bag for future use.) Pour into a 2 quart casserole dish and bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes.



Remove from oven and add biscuits to cover the top of the mixture.



Bake for additional 15 minutes or until tops of biscuits begin to brown. Serve.

When I made this, I used leftover chicken and turkey from 3 separate meals that I had been accumulating in the freezer. I didn't have any cream soups on hand, so I made a very simple and fast replacement:

Casserole Filling (in place of a 10 oz can of cream base condensed soup)

  • 2 T butter
  • 2 T flour
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup stock or broth (I had some turkey broth leftover that did the trick. Or you could use water)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • Optional: sauteed mushrooms or celery
Melt butter in saucepan. Add flour and whisk briskly, combining butter and flour into a smooth paste. Whisk until bubbling, then remove from heat and gradually add milk and stock in small amounts; continue whisking to maintain a smooth texture. Stir until mixture just begins to boil and becomes creamy. Remove from heat and use immediately.

---

I also made my own biscuit dough for this recipe, during the first 15 minutes the dish was cooking. It's no big deal to make biscuits yourself if you have some self-rising flour.


2 cups of flour, 1/3 cup of shortening, and 3/4 cup milk combine into a floury dough. I don't even use a rolling pin, I just press it out to the thickness I want and cut the biscuits up. I use Hudson Cream Self Rising Flour... amazing! Next I am going to try Cream biscuits, just 2 cups of the flour and 1 to 1 1/2 cups cream, part of a recipe I found here.

This Chicken and Dumplings recipe comes from the Real Simple: Fake it-Don't Make It series, but I couldn't find the link for this specific recipe online. To fake it, you would by a rotisserie chicken and shred it to make a last minute meal with the frozen vegetables, can soup, and refrigerated biscuit dough.

My needs are usually different: I like that I was able to throw it together with all my leftovers and without using processed foods, hopefully resulting in a lower fat and lower salt version. I didn't have to run out to the store, which fit right in with my goal to stay out of the store until the Pantry Challenge is over!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Pantry Challenge: Stretching to the end of the Month

Must. Not. Go. Grocery. Shopping!


It's time to dig around a little more and see what I can come up with to feed my ravenous family for the final 5 days of the Pantry Challenge. Fortunately I overplanned for this previous week and I didn't make every meal that I intended to make--we had leftovers more than I planned. I can move those meals over to the new week. My goal is to postpone grocery shopping until February 2nd.

The meals from last week or so that I didn't make were the mushroom barley soup (for lunches) and the salmon with the lime cilantro. I'll shuffle things around a little and get these things made for this week.
  • Sunday: I'm going to move the shrimp pasta I was planning and make the salmon with lime cilantro soba noodles and spinach today. I am going to double this recipe to marinate the salmon, freezing half for a future meal. (The salmon is already frozen, I'll just combine the marinade w/the frozen salmon in a freezer bag and it will marinate when I move it to the fridge to defrost.)
  • Monday: Chicken and Dumplings Casserole (as previously planned)
  • Tuesday: Bouchons au Thon (tuna corks) with roasted potatoes and vegetable (as previously planned)
  • Wednesday:  Chicken drumsticks with side and vegetable
  • Thursday: Shrimp Pasta, finally picked a recipe! with salad (this recipe is reviewed here.)
  • Friday: Breakfast for Dinner: Eggs, hash browns, bacon, vegetable, etc.
  • Saturday: Leftovers
  • Sunday: Bean and Cheese Quesadillas and a vegetable
  • Monday: Lasagna (from the freezer) with salad and bread
  • Tuesday: Grocery Shop! This will be great timing to shop for the Sunday Brunch.
I think we'll make it--so long as there aren't any surprises such as people eating food that I am hoping to use in a future meal!

The only item I need from the store for this meal plan are eggs. We made a frittata yesterday as we had some guests for a small brunch and exhausted our egg supply. Can I go to the store and buy only one item?

Be sure to check out other Pantry Challenge Updates at MoneySavingMom.com!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Frugal Flowers during Winter Months

One of my favorite projects to do with my kids each winter is to force paperwhite narcissus bulbs in small containers. My daughter and I put these together today so that they will bloom for the brunch we are hosting in a few weeks. They are striking when planted individually or in groups, and have a fragrant scent when the flowers bloom. These also make fantastic affordable gifts for relatives, hostesses, or teachers.

Gather your materials and prepare to plant the bulbs about 3 weeks before you want them to bloom. You will need:


  • A Small Assistant (optional)
  • Small votive candle holders: here is an example of the size I use to plant one bulb per container--one bulb is all you need! I prefer a round rim shape to hold the rocks inside. I am in love with some votive holders sold at Michael's that have crackled glass and are painted gold around the rim, I believe those are approximately $3 apiece, or the plain glass ones such as the example are around $1 each. You can also put up to 4 bulbs in a slightly larger glass container; the 3 larger containers you can see in the photos were also $1 apiece.
  • Paperwhite narcissus bulbs: I can usually find these at local garden centers for about $1 apiece in November. You can also purchase them in larger quantities online for less per bulb. Home Depot sells kits for $4.99 that come with 4 bulbs ($1.25 apiece, but you don't need the container etc. that they include with the bulbs) they may still have them in stock and discounted now. They are 'in season' at stores in November. I bought mine in November online and saved some in the garage so they stayed cold and fresh. You can also find them online at this time of year, but you will have to hunt around for a good price and watch out for shipping costs.
  • Small glass rocks or aquarium gravel: I like the flat round decorating rocks sold at Michael's and similar craft stores, but I have also used beige aquarium gravel in the past. I reuse the rocks/gravel each year (unless I give the votive away as a gift!)
  • Small watering can: if a young person is helping you!
  • Sunny spot by a window
Steps:

1. Place a small amount of rocks or gravel inside the votive holder. Place a narcissus bulb in the center with the stem facing up and surround the bulb with additional rocks to hold the bulb upright. If you're using a larger container, position multiple bulbs with stems facing upward, placing rocks between and around bulbs.

2. Add water to almost fill the votive. It should cover about 3/4 of the bulb or so.

3. Place votives in a sunny place. Check water levels every few days and add water as needed.


4.Withing a week or so, the bulb stems should turn green and start to grow. The flowers bloom in about 3 weeks. STOP WATERING just as soon as the flowers bloom; this will keep your paperwhites standing upright. If you continue to water, the stems will be too heavy and the paperwhites will fall over.

I find that my paperwhites will smell nice for about a week after they bloom, then the flowers will dry but the stems will stay green (without watering) for about 3 weeks after the flowers dry out. The paperwhites in the first picture are over 6 weeks old and bloomed over Christmas. My daughter and I took the old bulbs out, composted them, and put the new bulbs in.

Using a $1 votive and finding the bulbs for $1 can make this an incredibly affordable gift--you can use any small container you have on hand if it will hold water to reduce the cost even more. The only additional cost would be for the rocks or gravel placed around the bulb. Today I reused votives and rocks that I've owned for years, so the only cost for this project were the paperwhites, which I paid $.63/bulb (23 bulbs = $14.49). This made a total of three 4-bulb containers and eleven single-bulb containers: 14 potential gifts! I'm keeping most of this batch, though.

After the paperwhites are growing steadily, I'll place them around the house: single votives in the bathrooms and clusters of 2-3 votives on tables around the main living areas. I won't feel the need to buy cut flowers for the brunch, and we'll enjoy the paperwhites until March!

Meet My Basement

I've been procrastinating about posting this, but thought you might enjoy a peek at my piles of stuff in the basement. (I'm going to hide my eyes because I don't think I can look at it.)

This is the dreary 'play room' with The Book Project spread around.



Stacks and mounds (including the laundry on the floor I need to do today)



Stuff


Everywhere!



This has been improved recently as we took a donation to Goodwill just last week.

Argh! There's lot of work to do. But now you all can hold me accountable to it and motivate me to stick with the project, right?

Creamy Enchilada Casserole

ETA: There is a typo in the recipe when you click on the link below. The recipe SHOULD call for one 16 oz Can of Refried beans, not 'one 6 oz can'!!!  Cool! They fixed it for me.

We've been making this casserole in high rotation recently as my son (age 5) has decided he really likes it--so much so that he wanted me to promise to make it again when he asks me to. Your kids might like it too! The picture posted with the recipe is not accurate, though, so I thought you might like to see what it looks like:

Happy Eating!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Lasagna!


We love lasagna! Here is my version of our family recipe. This version has 2 layers of sauce and noodles, and one layer of spinach-cheese mixture. It's chock full of vegetables if you add all the optional ingredients. This makes enough to fit a large pan; something a little larger than your standard 13 x 9 pan. (You can use a 13 x 9 pan but you may have leftover sauce.) It takes me about an hour to make (without interruptions, that is) but it is worth it because there are always plenty of leftovers!

Ingredients:
  • Lasagna Noodles of your choice: 10-12 standard size noodles
For the Sauce:
  • Olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1-2 carrots, grated
  • 4-6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 package mushrooms, sliced (optional)
  • 1 zucchini, diced (optional)
  • 1 yellow squash, diced (optional)
  • 1 lb ground meat of your choice (optional) I like ground beef for this recipe
  • 2 14 oz cans diced tomatoes (or 28 oz can)
  • 1 12 oz can tomato sauce
  • 2 6 oz cans tomato paste
  • Oregano
  • Basil
  • Bay leaf
  • Salt and Pepper
  • 1-2 tsp sugar or to taste
For Spinach mixture:
  • 12-18 oz spinach leaves (fresh or frozen)
  • 1 16 oz container cottage cheese
  • 6-8 oz shredded mozarella
  • 3 oz shredded Parmesan
  • 1 egg
 Topping: Additional shredded mozarella and parmasan to taste (I use 6-8 oz mozarella and 2 oz parmesan because I love cheese.)

1. If lasagna noodles require boiling, set salted water to boil in large pot. Continue with recipe. When water boils, add lasagna and cook for minimum time instructed on box. Lay out a kitchen towel topped with a sheet of wax paper. Strain noodles and lay half of noodles flat on wax paper. Set down addl wax paper on top, lay out the rest of the noodles. (if using no boil noodles, I recommend soaking them in warm water for a few minutes before putting the lasagna together.)

2. In large dutch oven or very large saute/skillet, brown ground beef over medium heat, breaking into small pieces. Remove from pan and set aside. If using fresh spinach, add spinach leaves to pan juices, stir over medium heat until wilted (add a little olive oil if pan is too dry). If using frozen spinach, place in strainer to defrost and drain excess water. Empty spinach into a medium size mixing bowl to cool/hold until step 4.

3. In same pan, heat 1 Tbsp olive oil. Add onion, garlic, and shredded carrot, saute 5 minutes over medium low heat, stirring frequently. Add other optional vegetables one by one (mushrooms, zucchini, yellow squash), stirring and cooking each for 5 minutes or so. Add all cans of tomatoes/sauce/paste, adding about 3/4 cup water. Add cooked ground beef and mix everything together. Add spices to taste: I usually add more than a teaspoon of both oregano and basil and 1 bay leaf. Add salt, pepper, and sugar.Cover and simmer on low while preparing the spinach mixture.

4. Carefully press the wilted spinach and pour out any excess liquid. Combine spinach, cottage cheese, mozarella, parmesan, and the egg in mixing bowl. Mix everything together into a paste.

5. Taste tomato sauce mixture and adjust seasoning if necessary. Remove bay leaf. Scoop half of tomato sauce mixture into large lasagna pan, shake pan to distribute sauce evenly. Cover with half of lasagna noodles. Scatter spoonfuls of the spinach mixture all over top of noodles, using entire mixture; spread to cover noodles with back of spoon. Top with remaning noodles. Spoon remainder of sauce over noodles, spread evenly. Sprinkle with additional mozarella and parmesan to taste.

6. Bake uncovered at 350 for 35-45 minutes or until bubbling; let stand for 10 minutes before serving. This also can be frozen; thaw for 24 hours before baking. I like to freeze individual portions after baking and serving. (Tip: refrigerate cooked lasagna in pan for 12 hours or so before cutting up to freeze; the pieces stay put together better if lasagna is cold before cutting it up.)

Enjoy! I would post a picture, but we inhaled it all before I thought about taking one. I had to rescue the last 3 pieces from being eaten so that I could freeze them for a later lunch or quick dinner.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Let's Have Brunch: The Meal Plan

As I mentioned last week, I'm planning a Brunch and it's time to come up with the meal plan. I'm expecting 12 adults and up to 5 kids of various ages. Some of the people attending are vegetarians/non-meat eaters to some degree. I'd like to put together a menu that can be mostly prepared in advance and that is easy to eat, using a fork at the most so that people don't have to be sitting at a table to eat, instead mingling. Everything will be cut into small portions so that people can nibble.
Main Dishes:
  • Potato Kale Quiche (from The Vegetarian Mother's Cookbook) The only thing I don't have on hand for this recipe is the kale. This is easily made in advance and then reheated.
  • Summer Squash Frittata: I'll follow this recipe (using less butter) but use whatever veggies I have on hand, maybe slice a tomato and lay it on top to make it pretty. My friend gave me a wonderful new frittata pan that I need to break in! This will be made the day of the brunch.
  • Bouchons au Thon (aka tuna corks) I will make these well in advance and freeze; I'll triple the recipe, replace the tuna with salmon, and put them in a mini muffin pan to make them bite sized. (I'm pretty sure the non-meat eaters attending eat salmon) If I'm really organized I'll make a little dill sauce to dot on top with some chopped parsley or something. I will have to buy the salmon (in can or pouch)
  • Make Ahead Strawberry French Toast I already have the strawberry preserves and all the other ingredients, so this will make a big fancy dish for only the cost of the challah bread, fresh strawberries, and cream cheese!
Side Dishes:
  • Cut up fresh fruit: Probably cantalope and strawberries accented with whatever else looks fresh and is on sale that week.
  • Banana Bread- I use the recipe from The Joy of Cooking, but use whole wheat flour and double the amount of mashed bananas. I have everything I need to make this already. I plan to make a double batch in advance and freeze half in a secret location so that it doesn't get inhaled before the party.
  • Mini whole wheat bagels, cream cheese, and smoked salmon and capers. Just need to buy the smoked salmon; bagels are presliced and frozen in the freezer.
  • Sweet potato biscuits: I'll take the leftover sweet potato from roasting them for a previous meal and make these up as mini-biscuits, maybe put a little ham on some of them.
  • 'Oatmeal' cookies-I'm trying to use up the 5-grain cereal as mentioned here and the cookie recipe on the package isn't the best, so I'm going to combine the package recipe with my favorie oatmeal cookie recipe. I'll let you know how it turns out!
So looking at the meal plan so far (I'll keep it flexible) and based on what ingredients I have in the house at this point, my grocery list is as follows: lots of eggs, kale, spinach, canned/packaged salmon (three 6 oz packages), table cream, parsley, challah bread, cream cheese blocks, cantalope, strawberries, squash, tomato, lunchmeat ham, and smoked salmon.

To be made in advance and frozen: the salmon corks, possibly the potato-kale quiche, and the banana bread.

To be prepared the day before (Saturday): make-ahead French Toast (the night before), cut up fruit for french toast sauce and fruit salad, cut veggies for frittata, cut up and arrange smoked salmon on plate, bake the sweet potato biscuits and cookies (the only two things that need to be cooked, the rest is chopping and mixing this day). Defrost the quiche (if frozen) and banana bread overnight.

The morning of the brunch: Combine and bake the frittata, bake the french toast, reheat the quiche and salmon corks, make the strawberry sauce, toast the frozen bagels, put everything on plates and set up the beverages.

I'll talk about beverages next!

Pantry Challenge Update-Using stuff up


Well, another week has gone by in the Pantry Challenge, and I'm still trying to figure out what to do with the various random items I've found so far. We ate the Kasha (buckwheat groats) twice this week as a side with dinner, and I liked them; very similar to brown rice. I might even buy some more in the future!

I made cookies using a recipe on the side of the 5 grain cereal--I liked all the ingredients: dried cranberries, coconut, raisins, walnuts, but they were...soggy. Perhaps from the recipe instructions to add 1/2 cup of water, which I've never seen in a cookie recipe before. I think I am going to treat the cereal as rolled oats and try a different cookie recipe-- I already have one in mind! I'm using the barley in my Soup of the Week this week (serving for lunch rather than dinner, so not listed below), and I still haven't figured out what to do with the frozen mango. (We ate the chicken, but without the mango as I couldn't get my nerve up to try and do something with it!)

So here is where I am with the meal plan this week:

  • Tuesday: Creamy Enchilada Casserole, mixed vegetables (using beans, refried beans, and salsa from the pantry) I just want to point out that the picture in the link for the recipe looks nothing like the casserole! I'll post a picture of what it really looks like tonight. :)
  • Wednesday: Salmon with Lime Cilantro Soba Noodles and spinach (using frozen salmon, soba noodles in pantry, and various condiments in pantry... although I HIGHLY recommend the fresh lime...incredible!)

  • Thursday: Pasta w/Meatballs and sauce, broccoli

  • Friday: Bunny's Turkey Breast (from Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook), sweet potatoes + green vegetable
  • Saturday: Leftovers

  • Sunday: Shrimp Pasta (w/frozen shrimp we need to use) still looking for a recipe
  • Monday: Turkey/Chicken Casserole with biscuit topping (this is a great recipe from a friend of mine, but I have to figure out where it came from...)

  • Tuesday: Bouchons au Thon (the tuna corks that I didn't make last weekend because the kids did Make Your Own Pizza)
That's as far as I've made it--I'll have to take a look around at everything again and see if I can put together 5 more meals to make it to the end of January without going to the grocery store again. I went again this weekend because we needed milk/bread/produce/meat--I'll compare how much I spent this month with how much I usually spend next week. I can make all the meals above with what I have in the house... it will take a little creativity to get to the end of the month!

Check out other Pantry Challenge Updates at LifeasMom.com!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Opening your Home to Friends and Family

If you've read previous posts about my progress (or lack) in The Pantry Challenge, you'll have noticed that I had a number of food stuffs that were originally intended for/left over from a holiday party. We hosted four gatherings in the last 2 weeks of December, and there were two additional gatherings we had planned that had to be cancelled due to bad weather. I also hosted a book club meeting and several play dates in December (both involving coffee and snacks). These numbers don't include the various gatherings that we attended at other people's homes. It was a busy month!

Yes, I love to entertain. I think it is an important part of home life that doesn't happen as frequently as in the past because people are intimidated by the potential work and expense, which really aren't as bad as they may seem. It seems easier for people to meet up at a restaurant if they are getting together socially at all. Don't get me wrong, I really like restaurants, but eating at restaurants all the time can be expensive, both financially and calorically--is that a word? If you are hiring a sitter to watch your kids while you go out, the expense goes up even higher. If you are bringing your kids along, the food options for them are limited, as well as the amount of time you have to work with before your kids can't stand sitting still any longer and start running around the restaurant like maniacs (or am I the only one with this type of child?).

I also find it difficult to have a substantial conversation at a restaurant that is crowded and loud, whether my kids are there or not. The art of conversation, the opportunity to get together face to face to exchange ideas or to just laugh with one another is so valuable, and I want to do what I can to encourage people to see their home not only as the place they go to eat, sleep, clean, and relax, but a place to connect and socialize with friends and family.

With that in mind, I am going to write a series of posts that explain my strategies for entertaining. I hope that sharing what I know will inspire someone to host some sort of get together that makes them feel more connected to someone they know. An added bonus would be to help someone feel more comfortable with the idea of entertaining at home once you see how easy it can be. 

The first get together I want to share is a Sunday Brunch I am hosting the first weekend in February for my husband's coworkers. I'm expecting 8-10 adults and 1-3 kids (not including my own family--one spouse and 2 kids!)

The benefits of hosting a Sunday Brunch (that I can think of right now) include:
  • You have all day Saturday to prepare (if you don't prep in advance, which is what I prefer to do)
  • If you have kids, the gathering doesn't interfere with bedtimes. The kids may play better together because they are fresher than they would be at the end of the day.
  • Brunch foods are often easy to prepare, easy to prepare in advance, and affordable (eggs!)
  • You have plenty of time to clean up before it gets to be The Middle of the Night. (And, in this case, before the Super Bowl starts...)
  • You don't need to have everyone sit down together, like at a dinner party. People can sit whereever, eat as they feel like it, and hang out!
General tips for planning a brunch:
  • Keep it small. 12 adults is about the maximum for us indoors--unless we are hosting my husband's family, that immediate family totals 24 people including ourselves. Those parties are pretty busy! A brunch with only a few guests can be a relaxing get together. 
  • Don't invite guests any earlier than 11 AM. This could give your guests the opportunity to attend services Sunday morning if they do so, and also gives you adequate time to set up. (Feed your kids as usual when they wake up so that the brunch is their lunchtime.)
  • Serve foods that can be prepared in advance. Omelets or pancakes are kitchen intensive down to the final minutes before serving. Try quiches or casseroles made in advance, as well as breakfast breads and bagels. I also try to focus on foods that are easy to eat and that can still be enjoyed at room temperature. Be sure to check out potential allergies with guests--I usually ask people to let me know if there is anything they can't eat.
  • Start planning about 3 weeks in advance. Invite your people (phone, email, or Evite) and find out who is available to come. Plan out a menu and a strategy for getting everything ready. Don't get in over your head; try to make selections that are Easy and Affordable. This is where we will start in my next post.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Soup of the Week


Just a quick note to explain another strategy I am working on: to make a pot of soup each week. Sometimes I'll serve it for dinner, sometimes just for lunch. The benefits include:

  • using up leftovers and older stuff from the pantry
  • adding nutrient-rich foods (kale, beans, quinoa) in appetizing ways that are
  • easy to freeze and defrost later for a quick meal--like this:


Making Bone Soup will also count as a 'soup of the week'; then I can freeze portions of mineral-rich broth to use in future soups and other recipes.


Monday, January 11, 2010

My Pantry Challenge Update: I've got to go shopping...


The easiest part of the pantry challenge for me thus far has been the meal planning. We've stuck to the menu and had some nice meals, and we've used some items that needed to be used up. There's now a decent amount of space available in the pantry and fridge (the freezer has nothing useful in it, but it's still full! I need to investigate this.) Unfortunately, we are running out of things to eat, so I am off to the store tomorrow for a big shop. This means that I will only have made it 12 days into the challenge before having to stock up again.

I've also had a Challenge Violation: I was at a store that I only shop at infrequently (to pick up kale and other produce), and I couldn't stop myself from stocking up on a few pantry items we were out of, mostly things that I can't buy anywhere else (organic refried beans, whole wheat pasta that the kids LOVE, canola oil, and lentils). My system is to replace our favorite staples as I use them up so that I have them on hand when the perishable items in the same recipe are ready to be used. What I've learned about myself is that I really don't like running out of things! I'm hoping that my Declutter Motivation Plan will help me to free up space so that I can have a larger stockpile.

I want to continue to find uses for the stray items I've found in our meal plan for this upcoming week. I think I am going to try to make cookies using a recipe on the side of some 5 grain cereal that I found, and I also have the following planned:

  • Tonight: Salt and Pepper Chicken (value pack in freezer not needed for holiday dinner) with Kasha pilaf (one of the random items from the pantry!!!) and a veggie.
  • Tuesday: Soup of the Week night: Tortilla Soup (w/leftover chicken from previous night) we were supposed to have this with pita chips, but they're gone so instead I have some frozen french baguette we can use.
  • Wednesday: Leftovers from the Holidays: Mini Beef Wellingtons with Gorgonzola (a special treat made only once a year!) with a green vegetable/salad
  • Thursday: Homemade Lasagna: I have 3 different types of lasagna noodles to use up, some to boil, some no boil. I'll be making this with a friend; we get together to make dinner or cook ahead each week. Stay tuned for a post about the recipe later this week!
  • Friday: Chicken Fingers (from the freezer--left over from a holiday function) and other leftovers
  • Saturday: Bouchons au Thon (literally means 'tuna corks'--this will use up the stray tuna in my pantry, but usually I prefer this recipe with salmon, and I usually double it. It will also utilize some Gruyere cheese I found in the freezer. My 3 year old really likes these made in the mini muffin pan!) with baked potatoes.
  • Sunday: Chicken with Mango Something or Other, possibly in the crock pot (I'm still researching recipes; need to use up that frozen mango somehow...)
  • Monday: Creamy Enchilada Casserole (easy, vegetarian, and the kids like it)
  • Tuesday: Soup of the Week: Mushroom Barley (to use up the barley from the pantry and some shallots and carrots in the fridge)
You can read my previous Pantry Challenge posts here and here.

Selling vs. Donating: Why Bother?

After reading about my goals to declutter by selling, you're probably wondering why I'm bothering to sell rather than just donate our extra stuff. It would definitely be easier to make a pile of belongings on the driveway and call a local charity to come pick it up--and this is a great option to have access to. In fact, I already have a pile of worn out clothes ready to take to Goodwill, but I will tell you, these clothes are pretty wrecked. I'm not sure Goodwill will be able to sell most of them in their stores. I hope they find some use for them other than adding them to a landfill! I really want to keep as much stuff as possible out of a landfill. While keep it in mind as an option, I want the trash can to be the final option after I've exhausted all other options.

You see, I feel responsible for our stuff. If it's useful to someone, somewhere, I want to unite that item with that person. I could do this for 'free' by donating to charities or posting items on freecycle, and I will ultimately donate items that no one wants to pay for, but in my experience, people tend to value items that they have paid for over items that someone has offered them for free. If it's free, they shrug and take it, and figure they will decide later whether it's something they can use. If they decide they don't want to use it, the item becomes part of the 'stuff' that's cluttering that person's house, which is exactly what it was doing in MY house in the first place. If the same item costs $2, a person has to decide how much they value the item right away, and s/he may think twice about parting with their money! In this paying scenario, I think it is less likely that my clutter item will join someone else's clutter pile.

I am inspired by the Used Marketplace that is developing in our culture. I have purchased used toys, books, clothes, baby equipment, decorations, DVDs, etc. and I've been really glad to have these options so that I don't have to pay a higher price for a new item when the used item works just as well (and sometimes better!) I want to support this marketplace and get more comfortable with being a seller as well as a buyer. I don't want to make profit my highest priority, but it will definintely be fun to see how much I can earn, and having a bill to apply it to each month will hopefully keep me motivated. In the end, I hope to have less stuff and some great ideas on how I want to handle our unneeded items in the future.

Decluttering: Selling Books

I'm not really in the mood to declutter today, but it's time to jump in and get started! We have lots of books that need a new home. Some of them the kids have outgrown, and some the grownups have read and don't plan to read again. Many are books that we purchased used or received used from others, and I want to send them on their way so that they get connected with others who want to read them.

Today I started with Powell's Books, a new and used book store in Oregon that buys used books from individuals and pays for their shipping via Media Mail. I learned about their service in this article here. I like that they want to keep books in circulation.

 Wow, was this easy! I typed in the ISBN numbers from the back of the books, and they immediately returned with an offer telling me which books they want to buy. They only want used books that are in top condition, so I was careful to enter only the best of the bunch. It too less than 10 minutes to enter 39 of our best-looking books, a wide variety of titles, and they made an offer for 26 of them. All I need to do is print the shipping label, pack them carefully in a box, and drop them off at the post office. The offer is tentative until they receive and accept the books, but right now I am expecting to receive $51!

26 books down, but plenty more to go... I might enter another batch of books to send to Powell's, but I have some other book-selling strategies I want to try, too, and I'll report back here on what I try and how easy or challenging it is.

For now, things are a little roomier in my son's bookcase:



Friday, January 8, 2010

Declutter Inspiration

While I am still working at packing up the Christmas aftermath, I am trying to put together a plan for attacking my Declutter Project for the year. For me, it's not just about cleaning things up and getting rid of stuff (although these are important and valid goals), but about maintaining a home that is peaceful rather than stressful, relaxing rather than overstimulating, and energizing rather than depressing.

It is also important to me that our home be efficient. Rather than mindlessly adding more space, I would like to use the space we have in creative ways that work well for our family, and I am always looking for ideas and inspiration.

One of my favorite inspiration books is Creating the Not So Big House: Insights and Ideas for the New American Home by Sarah Susanka. Sarah Susanka is an architect who has written a number of books, but for some reason this is the one that inspires me the most. Her concept is that smaller well-laid-out homes can be more efficient than larger homes while at the same time feeling more cozy and homelike. This book contains lots of beautiful photos of expensive new homes and remodeling projects, but the basic concepts beneath the designs can often be implemented in affordable ways. Check it out from your library today!

A few years back I stumbled across a slide show at flickr.com of a small, beautifully laid out, and incredibly efficient apartment space. Be sure to move the mouse over the white squares in some of the photos to see the notes about various items. Delight is such an incredible photographer and interior decorator; I love virtually walking through her home--even though she hasn't lived there for years! She has had many adventures since leaving this apartment, which you can read a little about here, if you are interested. Talk about inspiring!

Enjoy!

The Secret Ingredient: Chocolate!

Here is our family recipe for Chili; something that my mom throws together without a recipe. I managed to jot down how she makes it one day when she was explaining it out loud.



If you don't go grocery shopping very often, this a good recipe to schedule in the days before your trip when your fresh produce may be running low, because almost all the ingredients can be found in your pantry or freezer. You can serve the chili as a thick stew, or if you want to stretch it to feed a larger group, serve it over brown or white rice.


The Ingredients:


  • 1 pound ground lean meat (I like turkey)
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 carrot, shredded (optional but adds some Vitamin A and natural sweetness)
  • Minced Garlic, to taste (I like 2-3 cloves)
  • 2 14 Oz cans diced tomatoes
  • 2-3 14 oz cans of kidney or pinto beans (or cooked frozen beans) drained and rinsed
  • 2 small cans of chopped green chiles (Coupon currently available! See here.)
  • 1 tablespoon Chili Powder
  • 1 tablespoon baking cocoa
  • 2 T Sugar/sweetener (You can read here about how a little sugar can be a more nutritious way to add flavor to a meal versus fat or salt)
  • Salt and pepper to taste


In a very large skillet or dutch oven over medium heat, heat olive oil. Add ground meat and brown, breaking into small pieces. When meat looks cooked, add onion, carrot, and garlic. Cook, stirring occassionally, about 5 minutes. Add diced tomatoes, rinsed beans, and green chiles. Add water to taste (I like really thick, stewlike chili, so I only add about a cup of water). Add spices and stir to combine. Cover and simmer on low for 15-20 minutes.


Serving options:
  • Serve over brown or white rice.
  • Top with shredded cheese or sour cream (or my favorite: BOTH)
  • We enjoy this with homemade cornbread, too.


This freezes wonderfully! If your family is small, you may get 2-3 meals out of one pot.


This chili is low in fat and chock full of nutrients: protein, fiber, and magnesium in particular. Plus, it has chocolate in it! The cocoa adds a great depth of flavor.


Check out other healthy recipe ideas at LifeasMom.com!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

My Declutter Motivation Plan for 2010

We have a lot of stuff, and we need to get rid of it. We make occasional donations to Goodwill, but I have a lot of trouble letting go of stuff that may have some monetary value and I hang onto items with the plan to sell them on Ebay or Craigslist, etc. The problem is, I never quite get around to actually selling much of anything. It's a step into unfamiliar territory for me, and I need to figure out what will motivate me to move forward with my plans.

My goals:

1. To sell/donate/MOVE things out of my home throughout the year
2. To go through, clear out, and organize the basement
3. To go through, clear out, and organize closets and cabinets
4. To set up a process to deal with future items whose usefulness has expired (to be used after the major purge is over); a schedule for going through clothes seasonally, a place to store items destined for donation, etc.

My motivation plan:

1. To see how much money I can earn each month from selling our items online, through consignment, and (perhaps) at a yard sale this spring.
2. To apply this money to a loan payment I make every month. The payment is $100, but if I make more than $100 in a month, I will increase my payment to the total amount made in the month.
3. When the clutter is cleared, it will be time for my husband and I to start planning our next remodeling project. We can't figure out what to do with our space when we don't know for sure exactly how much stuff we need to store, so we need to make some decisions about how much stuff we want in our life and how we are going to handle it. I think remodeling is fun, so this will be an incredible motivator for me!

I'll report here at least once a month on my declutter and financial progress.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Pantry Inventory-I'm Finding Weird Stuff




I decided that taking an inventory of my pantry meant digging and poking around in it for a bit to see if anything surprising turned up. (I admire everyone who diligently went through and made a list:) The Good News is that I didn't see an evidence of moths or other bugs. Yay!





Most items are things that I use regularly and rotate accordingly, but there were a few items that were gathering dust:


I have plans to try the Kasha (given to me by a friend), and I have recipes for the pearled barley and tuna, just need to figure out when to prepare them. The green package is alphabet soup pasta, which I will probably use with some odds and ends to make some lunch.

The plastic container contains millet of an undetermined age. The 5-grain cereal I made once for breakfast and have never made again. I have no idea what to do with these items!


I also found a box of oat bran. The expiration date said 2005. It went into the trash. The millet might be that old, too!


I poked through my freezer, trying not to get buried under an avalanche. It's crammed full but doesn't have much in it, if that makes any sense. Here are my weird freezer items I need to integrate into my meal plans:




  • 2 lbs frozen shrimp: this was supposed to be an appetizer for a party that was cancelled due to a snowstorm. We don't usually eat shrimp, so I'm going to have to figure out what to do with them. (Have another party?)

  • Frozen Mango Chunks: For smoothies we were making last summer. The blender didn't like them, so I stopped adding them.

  • Frozen Bananas: Well, these aren't so weird, but I need to get them made up into some banana bread because they are multiplying!

The Fridge Scan was less interesting, because I tend to keep up with the fridge more consistently. The only items on the brink of expiration were a package of blueberries (overbought for traditional English Trifle recipe) and a open container of half and half that will most likely pop into some pancakes.

Eat From the Pantry Challenge


I'm excited to be joining the Eat From the Pantry Challenge hosted by Moneysavingmom and Lifeasmom! They have some ambitious goals set for themselves this month, and they have inspired me to scrutinize my food stock and clear out a few things that have been hanging around for too long.
My main goal is to see how long I can go buying only produce, sandwich bread, and dairy at the grocery store. I don't think I will last the entire month, because all last fall I was having my own little personal challenge of seeing how long I could stretch food between trips to the grocery store.
My secondary goal is to find creative ways to use up random stuff in the fridge, freezer, and pantry. Suggestions are welcome!
Here are the meals I have planned forJanuary so far (going back to January 1st to be thorough!):
  1. Friday: Black Eyed Peas and rice (made with leftover Christmas ham)
  2. Saturday: Leftovers from our Christmas Family get-togethers (Maple-Balsamic Chicken with fresh rice, veggies, and leftover salad)
  3. Sunday: More Leftovers! (random stuff)
  4. Monday: Spanish-Style Lentils and Rice with steamed asparagus (used up mini bell peppers from a party veggie tray and cheese)
  5. Tuesday: Honey Hen, roasted sweet potatoes, and green beans (made with boneless skinless chicken thighs and green beans from the freezer)
  6. Wednesday: Quinoa Vegetable Soup (from freezer stash) and Sweet Potato Biscuits (if there are any sweet potatoes left over from previous night)
  7. Thursday: Spaghetti and Meatballs w/whole wheat pasta, broccoli, and French bread left over from holiday party (with homemade spaghetti sauce from freezer stash--my last bag of sauce!)
  8. Friday: Eating out
  9. Saturday: Potato Kale Quiche (making this ahead on Thursday) and broccoli
  10. Sunday: Bean and Cheese Quesadillas, fruit, frozen peas and corn (need to use up cheese and whole wheat tortillas. Make ahead on Wednesday and freeze)
  11. Monday: Salt and Pepper Chicken (value pack in freezer not needed for holiday dinner) with Kasha pilaf (one of the random items from the pantry!!!) and a veggie.
  12. Tuesday: Soup of the Week night: Tortilla Soup w/leftover chicken from previous night and leftover pita chips if I can keep people from eating them in the next week.

I'll be back later to share the random items I've found in my pantry, fridge, and freezer.

Clearing up Christmas


Christmas Cookies. Ahhhh....
This is the time! You may not want to spend another minute thinking about Christmas once you stuff all your decorations, wrapping paper, and holiday cards out of sight, but right now, Christmas is still near the top layers of your mind, and it's a great time to give some thought to how you want to handle things next year. Some ideas:
  • Review and collect your holiday recipes together in one place. Make some notes as to what worked and what didn't work for each recipe, even if it seems obvious, because it's pretty unlikely that you will remember that your pan was too small for the ingredients next year! My notes include the fact that I need to buy an extra box of lady fingers for the English Trifle I make for Christmas Day.
  • Make a list of items you need to purchase near the beginning of the holiday season, particularly of things that sell out quickly. For my list: Christmas lights! All our strings are old and half-working, and I need to grab them early next fall; they are always nearly sold out by the time I set up our Chrismas tree in mid-December.
  • If you don't keep a list already, I highly recommend starting a spreadsheet record of the gifts you give each year. I have an Excel spreadsheet that contains a record of gifts that we have given back to 2004. It's handy to know what I've already given people (Especially book titles so that I don't give the same book more than once!) and sometimes it helps me to come up with gift ideas for challenging people when I see successful gifts I've given to other people in the past. This year I'm going to add a column for 2010 Birthdays and Holidays (Mother's Day, etc.) If you buy gifts throughout the year, you can plug them into your spreadsheet and recall everything you have when you need it (you just have to go and find it... whereever it is...)
  • Make a Christmas Note to Self. Think about what worked well for your family this past holiday season, and what didn't work so well and write a note to yourself about it, to remind yourself for next year. Then, instead of doing the same dysfunctional thing next year, you can be proactive about keeping what works and changing what doesn't work instead of repeating the same cycle. What worked for me: Hosting a neighborhood get-together the week before Christmas. It was a great party, helped by the fact everyone had been snowed in for 2 days. What didn't work: Trying to have my siblings and grandparents over 3 days before Christmas. Too much (and it got canceled anyway). I also need to figure out more strategies for the 24th and 25th to make it less hectic. New Goal for next year: I want to figure out how to get together with my husband's siblings closer to Christmas (this is challenging because they tend to disperse for the holiday...)
  • Lastly, figure out how you are going to get all of this information to your future self, and when, because it doesn't make sense to write it all down now and never read it again! I am going to try to set myself a remind in Outlook for November 1st to read my Christmas Note to Self (saved in a file on my computer in a folder marked "Christmas" of course! Do you have one? That's where my gift spreadsheet lives!)

Please share what works and what doesn't work for you!

Fitness Goals


I'm happy to report that I met my 2009 Fitness Goal to attend 150 aerobics classes in the year! This was done with a little help from my Jazzercise location. Every 25 classes you attend, the instructor recognizes during class by giving you a few Hershey Kisses, and when you reach 150, you receive a workout top (see above!) AND you are invited to The Fit Club party, where you are fed large quantities of high calorie foods. The consumption of the chocolate and party foods means that you must continue to attend class to burn off all those calories. (What a clever business plan!)

The beautiful silver cosmetic bag you see above is the prize for joining with a partner to attend 46 classes in November and December. This was a handy bonus because as of November 1st I had only 116 of the 150 classes I needed for the year.

I was doing really well until August when I strained my back and only attended 3 classes the entire month. I struggled in September and October to get back up to speed, but I was still lagging behind. I got motivated when I realized that my goal was doable, but in jeopardy. I started attending every chance I got, which sometimes involved getting up at 6:45 AM to go to an early morning class. I also did a double class about 3 times in December. (Hey, I needed to burn off all those Christmas Cookies anyway!)

For 2010, I am going to try to repeat my 2009 goal, with one simple adjustment: instead of sliding in to number 150 on the last day of the year after manic attendance for 2 months, I want to coast in. This is entirely doable; all I need to do is attend at least 13 classes per month, which works out to 3 times per week. Stay tuned; I plan to update as I reach each 25-class milestone.

Feel free to share your fitness goals and what keeps you motivated to work out througout the year!

A Start

I can't get this idea of writing a blog out of my head, so I decided to go ahead and start one, despite the fact I have no idea what I am doing.

I stay at home with my 5 year old son and 3 year old daughter, and I have really enjoyed making a home for my children and husband. I am feeling moved to share my thoughts, experiences, goals, and struggles with whomever may find them useful.

Thanks for reading.