Monday, December 31

Menu Idea Monday - Saving Candle Jars

My Prince has returned, and I'm back to cooking again, so Menu Idea Mondays will resume!

Today's entry is not a recipe, but a great tutorial for getting wax out of old candle jars. These jars are a great size and typically seal neatly, making them a great option for various kitchen sundries - and a great alternative to buying jars to organize your kitchen with. 

I've never saved candle jars before, as I've never been able to get all the wax out. But this tutorial has the secret - go check it out, and then enjoy a free source of pretty jars for your kitchen!

PS - Don't waste the wax! Any lingering wax from dead candles can be saved and remelted. Use it to make new candles of your own, or mix with a generous handful of sawdust for top notch fire starters.

Saturday, December 29

Lemon Sugar Scrub

Thoughts of transitioning to natural, non-toxic personal care products have been often on my mind in recent months. Initially, it stemmed from reading about the debut of Mary Kay's latest skin care line. Although it took the company years to roll it out, neither consultants nor customers were happy when it arrived. They'd long been asking for something natural. Something completely free of questionable ingredients that would fit the rest of their healthy lifestyle choices. What they got was nothing of the sort.

It was enough to spark my curiosity - I blame the business major in me. Was this another case of bad management through obliviousness and arrogance? Could it really be that complicated to create quality personal care products at a reasonable cost? Surely with the centuries that people had been self-reliant before mega-industry took over production of every category of goods there had to have been simple, reliable recipes using safe and basic ingredients that could serve as models!

As it turns out, the interwebs are ablaze with creative and smart women who asked exactly that same question - and answered with a plethora of simple, healthy and fantastic products that fit the bill. I've been quite pleased with what I've discovered so far, and want to share one of my finds: Lemon Sugar Hand Scrub from Under the Table and Dreaming. It's simple, completely safe and natural, and (happily) cheap to make! It can be easily customized to a different scent if you'd like, as well.

I look forward to sharing what I learn as I continue to slowly transition our home off of as many toxic commercial products to homemade, customized, healthy options wherever I can.

(If you're a Pinterest fan, get a sneak peak at what's on my to-be-experimented-with list by following my Holistic Beauty board!)

Friday, December 28

Post Christmas Debrief

Anyone who's ever worked in events management will tell you that events don't end when you've washed the last dish and flicked off the lights for night. They aren't truly over until you've completed the post event debrief. Whether you had a smashing success, a train wreck or a run-of-the-mill affair, its essential to spend a few minutes in reflection and review, making notes for next time. 

In this respect, holidays at home are no different than commercial events. So make yourself a cup of a tea and carve out a couple minutes to do a little thinking.

Ask yourself a few basic questions.
  1. What went really well this Christmas? What did I enjoy/ appreciate most?
  2. What did not go well?  What was stressful?
  3. What did I learn that I want to remember for next year, and what's the best way to make sure I don't forget?
The key here is really question #3. Hindsight is exceptionally revealing, but memory is easily subsumed and blurred under the chaos of life throughout the rest of the year. It all seems vivid now, but if you don't do something to prompt your memory, you're going to forget. End of story.
Consider using one of these simple methods to ensure your valuable lessons from this holiday season don't get lost:

 1. Start a Pinterest Board (or three). I know Pinterest isn't for everyone, but it has been a tremendously helpful tool for me. Creating a "gifts" board and pinning ideas throughout the year greatly simplified holiday shopping (and hugely reduced the stress involved). You could do the same with anything - decorations or supplies you noticed you needed, menu ideas/suggestions, helpful hints/tips or even traditions to remember or start.

2. Write a bucket list. Right now is the perfect time to write next year's bucket list. Put the things you loved or regret not making time for at the top of the list! Write off the things that disappointed or proved to be a waste of time and energy. Give you post-season perspective a chance to temper the overly-enthusiastic and unrealistic expectations it's so easily to fall prey to at the start of the holiday season.

3. Deploy sticky notes.  Sticky notes are your friend. If you like giving homemade gifts, put a note on your calendar in July reminding you to get started so you aren't rushed and behind when Christmas arrives. Drop a note in September to update your address book and buy stamps, so that when it's time to write out Christmas cards you already have everything you need. A series of little steps taken well in advance will go a long way towards making next holiday season easier and happier.

What lessons did you learn this season?

Thursday, December 20

Skeletons at the Feast

Photo from Flickr
Audio books are expensive, and many of the books that make my wish list are not available in that format at all. As a result, I sometimes have to take my chances with audio books from the library's stock that I wouldn't otherwise have picked up.

Occasionally, this reading roulette brings me an unexpected gem; that was case with Skeletons at the Feast.

If you are unfamiliar with the phrase, as I was, it refers to reminders of troubling things amidst happy or pleasurable times/events. It was only at the end of the book that I could really appreciate the deep aptness of the title.

Told from the perspective of refugees fleeing the invading Russian army in the last days of World War II,  the book delves deeply into what it is to be a civilian - a single person - in the heart of a nation at war. The only other book I can think of that dealt with war from a non-soldier perspective at this deeply human and personal level was Across Five Aprils (which was written for a much younger crowd).

Skeletons is one of those books that you need to chew on and digest slowly. The plot is simple, following aristocratic, 18 year old Anna and her family as they leave their prosperous farm to become refugees, trudging literally across the country to escape the oncoming Russian army as it rapes, pillages and burns everything in its path. With the men away in the Army, Anna, her mother and her young brother Theo are joined by Scottish prisoner of war Callum, loaned from a Nazi work camp to help with their harvest before they fled. En route, they encounter Uri, a Jew masquerading as a series of German army officers while searching for his young sister. Meanwhile, Cecille, a young French woman, struggles to keep herself and her friends alive through the brutality of labor camps and forced marches.

The subtext, however, is anything but simple. Gradually, the sheltered women find their naivety stripped from them and replaced with horror, grief and confusion as they see and experience the atrocities of their own nation. Though the author handles them deftly, deep questions run through the book's undercurrent.

I can't begin to cover in a single blog post the complexities and deep considerations the book prompts, but if you're looking to stretch your brain (and your heart a bit), you might well consider this for your reading list.

Warning: This is a book about war, and it's extremely graphic. It contains rape, brutal violence, extensive death, and adult themes. It is absolutely not appropriate for children, and should be avoided by sensitive readers as well. If it sounds interesting but you tend to be troubled by the aforementioned caveats, please consider reading Across Five Aprils instead. It deals with many of the same themes less graphically.

Thursday, December 13

Proving the Wrong Point

Apparently, Newark New Jersey's Mayor, Cory Booker, joined a long line of politicians trying to make a statement about welfare and food stamps by living on $33 of food for a week. Although the goal was to convince people that there's no room to cut such social service supports, the result was something else entirely: to demonstrate how little even the influential really understand about food and nutrition.

According to the article, Booker spent his money on: "several cans of beans, a large bottle of olive oil, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potatoes and bags of salad".

First off, kudos to him for including veggies on the list and skipping the junk food entirely. That's diametrically opposite what studies show most people on food stamps are buying, but sets a healthy example.

Did you notice anything missing, though?  Starch? Protein?

Bagged salad may feel healthy, but it's extremely expensive relative to what you get, and does nothing to keep you feeling full or to trigger the satiation chemicals in your brain. For less than the cost of two bags of salad, Book could have purchased well over 5 lbs of either pasta or rice, and at least a dozen eggs. Either starch would have ensured that he had a full belly all week with plenty left over carry him into the next week. Combined with the eggs and vegetables, they could have provided a variety of satisfying and nutritious meals.

The problem isn't a lack of money - it's a lack of knowledge and ability. 

It stretches through every strata of society, and afflicts every corner of our nation. Frankly, it's embarrassing.

We are the descendants of pioneers. We have more tools at our fingertips than they could ever have dreamed of - well stocked public libraries, the internet, local Extension courses, older neighbours. We have let giant conglomerates convince us that we need them. That they make the rules - and the food. He who controls the food, controls the nation.

Don't be controlled or helpless. Use the resources available to you and ignore the politicians and the media as they try to justify their own excess. Learn to cook. Learn to spend your money wisely. 

We're only weeks away from a new year. At the risk of sounding pessimistic, the economy is likely to get much grimmer before it gets better. If you don't know much about food, cooking and nutrition, please consider putting it on your list of New Year's resolutions. You'd be amazed how empowering a few simple changes can be. If you don't know already, then for your health, and for your freedom, learn to cook

Saturday, December 8

Kitchen Tip

Whether you're writing a menu of festive holiday dishes or planning a New Year's resolution related to cooking, I would like to offer a simple kitchen tip that may come in handy.

If you're like me, you have several yummy recipes that call for white wine and just don't turn out correctly without it. (Chicken French, anyone?)

Unfortunately, I'm not particularly good at keeping an open bottle of white wine just hanging around. It can be hard to get good wine around here, and there are plenty of lovely wines that just aren't right for cooking with.

So here is the easiest solution I've found: grab a couple bottles of dry or semi-dry white wine (I'm partial to Riesling for cooking, but use what you like) just for cooking. Pour the contents into ice cube trays or other small containers and freeze. Toss into ziplock bags or tupperware, label and store in the freezer.

If you use more than one bag/container, number them and write yourself a note in giant letters on the last one to get more wine! That will give you plenty of opportunity to replenish your stash before you run out, and ensure that you always have wine on hand to cook with... even if your wine rack runs dry.

Friday, December 7

The Bread Trick

For many people, the holidays are a season of decadent food. Not least among the feasting are festive breads of all varieties - your standard boule, huge loaves of cinnamon raisin swirls, eggy challahs, and rich dense tea breads.

It's not uncommon to end up with leftovers, or to find that they don't hold well. If you don't have dogs as eager to help with cleanup as mine (or teenage boys), here are a few tips I learned back in my Panera days for making great use of miscellaneous bread a little past it's prime.

Steam It. Put your bread on a paper towel or plate in the microwave, and put a shot glass of water in next to it. Nuke it briefly. (Think 30 seconds to a minute, depending on your microwave and the quantity of bread being treated.) This creates steam, wonderfully resuscitating your bread.

You can do the same in an oven, it will just take a little longer. Put your bread on a cookie sheet and pre-heat the oven to 350 or 400. Slide the bread into the oven, and spritz down sides of oven generously with water to create steam. Close the door and let it sit for a couple minutes. You may need to steam more than once, depending on the type/quantity of bread, oven variations, etc., but this usually works nicely.

Grill It. Toasting bread can just make it more dry and brittle. Grab a skillet (I prefer cast iron for this, but probably anything would work) and heat it over low heat on the stove top. Butter your bread generously on both sides and plop it on the skillet. The butter will melt as the bread heats, caramelizing slightly as the bread softens and toasts. Grill both sides. If it isn't quite soft enough, pour a tiny bit of water onto the skillet off to the side of the bread and drop a lid over it, allowing it to steam for 30 seconds or so. You may never go back to regular toast again!

Bake With It. Obviously French toast is one of the most common options, and people are rarely unhappy with the result, regardless of what meal you serve it for. (Breakfast for dinner is a good thing!) But it's hardly the only choice. Bread pudding, crutons, frittatas are all quick, healthy and simple ways to use up bread that's a bit stale. Or toast it up and use it as the base for a simple dinner of creamed eggs, chicken, tuna or chipped beef for comfort food at its finest.

Thursday, December 6

Tracking Santa

Enjoy a little geekery now and then?

NORAD (North American Aerospace Defence Command) has a dedicated website where you can track Santa's progress Christmas Eve!

http://www.noradsanta.org/en/

I've never tried it before, but it comes highly recommended and I look forward to checking it out this year. A new tradition, perhaps?


Saturday, December 1

The Underground History of American Education

On a recommendation from my brother in law I picked up John Taylor Gatto's Underground History of American Education.

It blew my mind.

I cannot begin to describe how many disparate and complex subjects the author tackles, lining them up and connecting the dots between them. Faith, family, education, patriotism, business. This should be mandatory reading for every American.

Gatto respects the teachers who battle daily with the same goal he did - to genuinely help American students learn and thrive. But he breaks down the system, showing its poisonous roots and the myriad ways in which it crushes children, suppresses and fragments the family, and erodes Faith. Please make time to read it - we can't make a difference if we aren't informed, and this book brings together truths I have seen explored piecemeal dozens of other places. Together, the power and insight they bring is exponentially increased.

Although it would be impossible to describe here all the things that stunned me during the reading of this, one thing stood out above all else: your family is sacred. God designed families on purpose. That tiny core of structure - with all its defined roles, boundaries and supports - is the foundation of everything we need to be successful. 

There are so many things in this day and age seeking to destroy families. Many of us no longer even recognize or respect what the family was originally designed to look like - it's been beaten into us that the very things that will nurture and grow us are are restrictive, suffocating, to be revolted against. Don't buy it. Don't let anything degrade or eat away at the sanctity of your home. There is no more crucial fight than the battle to maintain a happy, content and intact home.

Okay. I'll get off my soap box now. But please read this. It will change you.

Friday, November 30

Shadow of Night

I don't read a lot of fiction these days. There's too much to learn and do in real life. But I have been waiting for Deborah Harkness's Shadow of Night since last year, and have had the audio book requested from the library since they bought it. It finally came in right before Thanksgiving, and I was able to listen to it while on the road for my holiday travels.

Seriously, people. I cried. It was that good.

If you have not read the first book in this series, A Discovery of Witches, do yourself a favor and get it from your library asap. This series is flawlessly crafted; a historical scholar, Ms. Harkness does not rehash the standard cliches and story lines of witches and vampires but sculpts a completely different world for them. Her ability to weave together a complicated and engaging tapestry of plots and sub plots is on par with Tolkien and Goodkind.

Be forewarned though - the next book in the series isn't out yet. So after you've indulged in the awesomeness of DoW and SoN, you'll be stuck in same place I am... that purgatory of waiting for the next amazing instalment in your new favorite series. I don't know whether to say you're welcome or I'm sorry!

Thursday, November 29

Time to Decorate. Wait... What?

If you'd ever met my sister, you'd know immediately that I did not get the decorating genes in my family. My sweet sister will cheerfully decorate for any holiday (and do a great job). I am more of a "season-less decor" kind of person. I prefer to celebrate the change of seasons through culinary means.

Usually, I get off easy in this - my husband has an awesome job that literally takes him to the ends of the earth every year. (That's him at the South Pole a couple years ago.) Inevitably his travels keep him away at Christmas, and I get away with doing no decorating at all. 



This year, however, my Beloved will actually be home for Christmas! It is also our first year in our new home, so there clearly there can be no slacking this year! That sent me digging through our single bin of Christmas-related decor. We were good on ornaments, but embarrassingly light on around-the-house touches. 

Then Dayspring came to the rescue.  Their Love Came Down table runner in tones of cream and gold adds the perfect understated but festive touch to our table. (And its reversible - red and gold on the other side, if you're looking for something brighter.) It was so nice to find decor options that are elegant and functional.

I was amazed at the difference the complimenting Tea Light Holder Trio made in my kitchen - lined up on the island, they create a surprisingly rich, warm glow. I can't wait to turn off all the other lights and sit with a mug of hot chocolate, watching the snow fall by candlelight. Added bonus - these are very flexible. Though their message is perfect for Christmas, they are not so Christmas-y that you couldn't keep them out and use them all year.

So although I still haven't found the extension cords we need to hang lights in the windows or gotten my hands on a stand to keep a Christmas tree upright, our house is graced with the first touches of Christmas. And for the first time in a long time, I think I might actually enjoy the season. 



Disclaimers: I received these items free from Dayspring in return for my review, but was not required to give them a good report. My opinions (as always) are my own. Also, I apologize for the lack of pictures of these items as they are displayed in my own house. Technical difficulties made it impossible to get the photos I took from the camera to the computer... thanks for understanding!

Monday, November 26

Sneak

Literally months ago now I got my hands on a copy of Sneak, the sequel to Swipe. Life was busy, and it sat neglected on my desk. But once I picked it up, I was through it in no time, staying up well past bedtime to finish it. 

Sneak picks up where Swipe left off, with Logan Langley on the search for his sister. Daniel and the Dust are searching themselves, while Logan's former friend Erin watches the plans she'd so carefully laid go drastically wrong. In a world full of surprises and danger, assumptions are challenged and characters find unexpected strength in themselves and in the faith they were forbidden to know.
I greatly enjoyed this book. I was again impressed with Angler's ability to present characters who are little more than children with an inspiring but realistic combination of strength and vulnerability. They can crack codes with their electronics masterfully, but stumble in finding their way through relationships and the adult world. I also sincerely appreciated his rendering of adults; in a genre where adults are often portrayed as fools or oblivious, Angler's adults love their children and lead the way in holding out against the darkness of the world.
The power of Faith is woven in seamlessly, never leaving the reader feeling smacked over the head with it or alienating anyone. It is handled simply, respectfully and naturally – another thing that can be hard to find. I strongly recommend this book and look forward to the next in the series.

Monday, November 19

Skin Deep

With lots of last-minute projects flying my way at work the last couple weeks, I've half-written about a dozen posts in my head... but haven't quite gotten as far as getting them written down here. Hopefully I'll be back on track this week!

Menu Idea Mondays are temporarily suspended; my isolation diet has kicked in, and I'll be lucky if I make so much as a batch of muffins between now and Christmas, so there won't be much new to post on that front! (Look for it to return in January.)

For today, though, I have a great resource to share with you: Skin Deep.


Skin Deep is a cosmetics database hosted by the Environmental Working Group, and it has just been completely overhauled and refreshed to carry the latest data and be easier than ever to navigate.

Why check out Skin Deep?
  • Many cosmetics are loaded with questionable (or downright nasty) ingredients that can cause allergic reactions, lead to toxic buildup in your body, and increase your risk of cancer. 
  • When standing in a store isle or shopping online, surrounded by options (and often limited information) it can be really hard to sift through it all. 
  • We are responsible for our health - who wants to sabotage it by laying your body with toxins every day when you don't have to?
  • Companies respond to $$$. The number one most effective way to improve the quality and safety of the products we buy is to vote with our dollars! Spend your money with companies making safe, high-quality products and more companies will (begrudgingly) start making their products conform.
Skin Deep is very user-friendly; you can see at a glance an overall assessment of a product's safety, or zero in on factors that are important to you (like allergens).


If you're gifting (or asking for) any kind of cosmetics or personal care products (shampoo, body wash, styling products) this holiday season, I encourage you to check out this database first!

I won't rant here about how the FDA and other government tentacles don't actually protect us or about how much junk they cheerfully let us poison ourselves with; instead I'll just say that there is tremendous power in being an informed consumer. Skin Deep makes it easy to exercise that power wisely - so hop over, check them out, and pass the word along.

[Note: I am in no way being compensated for this post, and there are no charges or registrations necessary to use Skin Deep. It's just a resource I appreciate and want to highlight so that others can benefit from it as well.]

Sunday, November 4

Two Books Worth Reading

Death Has Come Up Into Our Windows is one of those things that you run across and immediately know it will be either amazing or awful - and nowhere in between. It's the first book in the Zombie Bible series; when I ran across the Kindle edition for $2.99, I had to try it.


I'm pleased to report it was fantastic.  The story follows young Jeremiah (the Biblical prophet) and his wife as they leave their hometown and travel to Jerusalem. There, God begins to speak to Jeremiah and opens his eyes to the horrors taking place in the city - women and child abused and abandoned, priests offering sacrifices to pagan gods... and the scourge of the walking dead beginning to roam the streets. The author did an incredible job of bringing his characters to life - you could taste their fear, ache with their grief and rage with them. It sounds crazy to say, but this is the most life-like and empathetic portrait of a prophet I've ever read, and its portrayal of God's lament over lost and wayward children is far better than any strictly Christian book I've encountered. Definitely recommend this one and can't wait to check out the next two in the series!


On a completely different note, I also checked out Lard: The Lost Art of Cooking with Your Grandmother's Secret Ingredient by the editors of Grit magazine. Focused on simple food made from real ingredients, this book was well designed and easy to use. Clearly it was put together by people who know their way around a kitchen! It won't do me much good at the moment, since real (non-hydrogenated, unadulterated) lard is hard to come by around here. but if you have access to lard I recommend grabbing a copy of this for your shelf. It covers baked goods, vegetables - all kinds of variety to the recipes, and no complicated or expensive kitchen equipment involved.

That's it! Short post today, just passing along some good things. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 1

A Promise Kept


Five years ago, we brought home a frizzy little bundle of fur with a dipstick skunky tail; we were immediately in love with him. As he got older, we began promising that one day - when we had a house and weren't dealing with the restrictions of an apartment - we'd get him a companion.

Well, in April we bought a house. In October, tired of being patient, Arthas finally got direct about holding us to our promise.

We've learned a few things since we picked up our first furry baby, though. A heartbreaking number of Border Collies are abandoned, neglected and abused every year. People buy them because they think it would be cool to have one of the smartest dogs in the world, but then are completely unprepared for the time, effort and energy involved in raising a Border Collie... or the destructive mischief that results when you fail to do so.

So this time around, we called Glen Highland Farm - a Border Collie rescue. The team there introduced us to this little beauty:


Rescued from a "breeder" she weighs all of 30 lbs at 3 years old - but she's quite a little spitfire! Sweet and affectionate, she nonetheless is fearless at playtime and decidedly a herder. We've named her Nenya. (Yes, like Arthas the name is sourced from Tolkein. It's the name of Galadriel's magic ring.)


Arthas is delighted. (As you can see, they wasted no time turning into mudballs together.) I'd write more, but nap time will be up shortly and there will be balls to throw and rope toys to shred. So I'll leave you with the latest Fuller Family photo:



Wednesday, October 31

It's Not the Years, It's the Miles


Sometimes, you just need a nap. And where better to take one than under an Indiana Jones-style fedora?

Monday, October 29

Menu Idea Monday: Italian Dressing Seasoning Mix

Really simple Menu Idea Monday Today: Italian Dressing Seasoning Mix.

This is one of those things that tends to show up in other recipes, but that I refuse to buy because the packets from the store are full of chemical preservatives and other crap that I don't want in my body. At the same time, it's hard to know what to substitute to approximate the flavor - so here you go!

Stick this in your cookbook/ recipe binder and make up a little jar once in a while so it's on hand when you want it. Keep the chemicals and cross contaminants out of your life, and get fresher, richer flavor to boot! Enjoy.

Sunday, October 28

Over-Dressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

I saw this title over on Modern Mrs. Darcy's reading list ages ago and my interest was piqued. I was able to download the first chapter on my Kindle, and knew immediately that I had to get my hands on the book.

Fortunately, my library had a copy and the rest of the book was just as good as the first chapter. One of the reviews on the book's amazon page sums it up almost perfectly:
"Elizabeth L. Cline is the Michael Pollan of fashion. Overdressed demonstrates how hysterical levels of sartorial consumption are terrible for the environment, for workers, and even, ironically, for the way we look.” (Michelle Goldberg)
The premise is startlingly simple: we're all being scammed by cheap fashion. Americans squander mind-boggling amounts of money every year on clothing, and get less and less for their investment. Clothing trends now change nearly weekly, and many items are never intended (or even expected) to last more than a few washes. We assuage our guilt by donating our unused things to Salvation Army (or its equivalents), blind to the (sickening) reality that a huge percentage of what is donated never goes back into circulation. It ends up as rags, gets shredding into fiber for alternative uses or simply amasses in landfills.  

I'll stop there, because if I keep going this could get really long, but I encourage everyone to get your hands on a copy of this book. I can't tell you how many things I learned here that shocked and sickened me. There's so much more than just being fashionable wrapped up in decisions that seem deceptively simple.

It definitely made me rethink my own habits and choices - and I don't even like to shop for clothes or shoes as it is! I appreciate books like this that make me think without pretending to have all the answers or relying on scare tactics. The author was genuine about her own failings and had an approachable writing style that was enjoyable to read.

I wish I'd had more time while reading it so that I could have done a chapter by chapter review the way my friend did recently of Jen Hatmaker's Seven. Since I wasn't that on top of things, all I can say is go read it then come back here and leave your thoughts - I'd love to hear what you take away from it!


Saturday, October 27

Catch all, Catch up.

My calendar tells me that we're three days from Halloween. When I attempt to sputter in disbelief that so much time can have gone by already, it patiently flips back a few pages to show me entire days devoted to hurry-up-and-finish-before-winter house projects, hours poured into significant restructuring projects at work, and long drives home surrounded by the resplendent hues of autumn leaves.

Despite my inability to sit and tap out blog posts, new ideas and interesting threads of thought have been weaving through my brain quite consistently. I hope to get some of them sorted out and written down soon in a form worth sharing here. In the meantime, I thought a catch-all, catch-up post was in order.

  • There was a great discussion over at Raising Homemakers recently about wearing skirts in cold weather. If you're like me and pretty sure that tights are shipped to stores directly from one of the lower circles of hell, and find leggings too bulky or not professional enough to wear in the dead of winter, let me share the secret you have been looking for: thigh high socks. Warm, durable, comfortable and reasonably priced - these things rock! Love mine and love that they extend the wear-ability of my summer skirts straight through the colder months. If you've never tried them, I highly recommend snagging a pair - for $10, you can't go wrong.
  • I love simple dinners that look fancy and taste expensive - even though they're not. My newest favorite? Classic, Four-Ingredient Fettuccine Alfredo. I made it with regular grocery-store grade Parmesan cheese and it rocked. It literally takes 15 minutes start to finish. Try it.
  • Have you ever seen a book cover and thought "that's either amazing, or someone has a one-way ticket to hell"? That was the only thing that came to mind when I came across the "Zombie Bible" series. At $3 for the Kindle book, I had to buy it just to find out how one actually combines the Bible with zombies. Haven't had a chance to read it yet, but expect a review... a very, very interesting one...
  • Kari Patterson wrote a fantastic post on Withholding Good. I really resonated with the reality that we so often withhold good -not on purpose, but because we underestimate the value of the little gestures or simple compliments. It challenged me to be more aware of what I don't say or don't think to do. Check it out and see if it speaks to you, too.
  • Speaking of books, I ran across a great list on Pinterest that I had to repin simply because of the title: 10 Books You Must Read to Your Daughter (Or How to Keep Your Daughter From Ending Up Like That Horrid Girl in Twilight). I haven't read everything listed, and it doesn't cover some that I would definitely have included, but all things considered you can't go too wrong with a list written by any woman who correctly identifies Twilight as "horrid", right?
  • Last one for today's round up: Lindsay Stirling. Absolutely freaking amazing musician. If the link doesn't work, look her up on youtube and click the link for "Crystalize". Not sure why I've never heard of her before, but if this is your first introduction to her as well - you're welcome.

Monday, October 22

Menu Idea Monday: Butternut Chicken Stew

Photo from Cookin Canuk
It wasn't until after I was married that I learned how to cook squash at all; it wasn't until this year that I knew you could do more than throw some stuffing in it and bake it.

Having been given several squash of different kinds this fall, I experimented with a few new things and quickly decided this recipe was a keeper: Chicken Stew with Butternut Squash and Quinoa.

Colorful, healthy, delicious and simple - this will be a Fall staple around here from now on! I recommend reading all the way through the instructions first - I have an aversion to cooking things, plating them off to the side and then adding them back in, so I switched things up a little. I roasted the chicken and squash in the oven first, then sauteed the onions and garlic and then threw everything in the pot together and called it good.

You can make this with rice or amaranth if you don't have quinoa - just adjust the cooking time accordingly and keep an eye on it as you may need some extra liquid.

Wednesday, October 17

The Logic of Government: Unnessary, Unwanted Training For All

 In August, I attended a workshop for grant writers. I didn't learn what I'd expected to, but I did run into plenty of mind-boggling information. What decidedly irked me the most was the presence of State employees (who were already guaranteed huge sums of government money, unlike the rest of us) complaining about how badly they needed money to deliver trainings people didn't appreciate.

A representative for a lesbian/gay/bi-sexual group went on about how her group gets plenty of funding, but then struggles to get into schools to deliver the programming being funded because people are "resistant" to them. Department of Justice reps ranted about how stupid cops, schools and towns are because they reject trainings on sexual harassment, child pornography and "cultural sensitivity" for themselves and their children.

It was infuriating the sit and listen to these people rant about cramming training down the throats of people who had the nerve to think that they should choose their own (politically incorrect) opinions on something, and that they should have the right to decide what their children get taught while sharing the room with hospice workers, educators and others struggling to scrape together money for desperately needed humanitarian and cultural enrichment projects.

So I would like to offer a simple suggestion to Congress: there's no need to fuss about how to close the gaping fissures in funding that lead to budget deficits. Just stop funding training the public doesn't want anyway. The materials exist, the trainers are willing. If people want training in anything politically correct, they'll have no trouble finding it or funding it themselves.

Stop wasting what could be productive time poured into the economy and money that could be repaying the deficit or funding vital services. Sure, you'll have to listen to the cries of discrimination from the slighted awareness groups for a while but I guarantee the praise of your grateful constituents would more than drown them out.

What do you say - worth a try?

Monday, October 15

Menu Idea Monday: Paleo Pumpkin Spice Lattes

Have you ever been to the Paleo Parents blog? I found it rather by accident, but it's great. Very honest, very practical and full of yummy recipes - even if you are a starch based life form like myself and unlikely to survive on Paleo alone.

I recently tried a delectable recipe by them for a Pumpkin Spice Latte. I used to love Hot Caramel Apples and seasonal lattes, but it's hard to get good coffee out anywhere around here. (I've actually had to explain to people how to use their espresso machines.) Between that and a growing gastric intolerance for commercial milk, I've been increasingly inspired to find good recipes for making indulgent drinks at home.

This fit the bill! Simple and made only of real foods, it was delicious and tasted like all that is good about Fall. I used regular raw milk instead of coconut milk and threw in a tablespoon or two of homemade caramel sauce - it was amazing!

Hop over to the Paleo Parents site and check it out!

Saturday, October 13

Bacon, Apples and Bumps in the Food Supply

This time last year, we had apples stacked on the kitchen table, in baskets on the dining room floor, an mounded beside the cutting board. Some were snacked on fresh, crisp and sweet, but most were packed in canning jars as apple sauce or pile filling to be lined up in neat rows in the cupboard and savored in the dead of winter.

We had visions of similar abundance and activity this year, but it was a bad year for apples. A late frost wiped out nearly the entire crop across our region. You can still buy apples at the grocery store, of course, shipped in from across the country compliments of our sprawling food supply system, but the cost of everything apple related is through the roof.

It's rare in this day and age for people to have such a stark reminder of the precipitous uncertainty of the harvest. We're so used to grocery stores with overflowing shelves that we forget people we were once dependent on the weather and other variables beyond their control for sustenance and life. With the recession still lingering, people are particularly aware this year of changes in the food supply as they can't just smooth over it with extra cash as they have in the past.

It isn't just apples, either. Last spring was poor for maple syruping, and only lingering stockpiles from the year before prevented an expensive shortage. We're already being quietly warned that the cost of beef and bacon will shoot up next year. With so many regions experiencing drought this past year, it isn't economical for producers to keep feeding their herds, so they're slaughtering early. While that will flood the market with cheap beef and bacon in the short term, it will lead to shortages and higher prices next season.

It's enough to make any one trying to eat well or on a budget (and doesn't that describe most of us?) worry themselves into an ulcer. What can we do?

While I certainly don't have all the answers, here are a few things that families can do to position themselves to better ride out tumultuous seasons in the food world. (And make no mistake - we'll be seeing more of them. Our current system is unsustainable, and although alternative systems are striving mightily to close the gap it will not be a smooth transition!)

1) Get a freezer and/or a canner. When windfalls, good sales or abundant harvests come you need to be able to take advantage of them! Freeze, can or otherwise preserve whatever you can. Food stored neatly and safely is peace of mind far better than money in a bank, because you can't eat money and it's value wavers - the value of good food only ever increases.

2) Learn to cook new things. It's rarely a bad year for everything, so while your preferred options may be in short supply you can still eat well if you branch out a little. It's not uncommon to find we dislike foods simply because we've never had them prepared well (or correctly). Consider focusing your experimentation largely on foods that are local to you - things you can pick up cheaply at the road side stand or grow yourself.

3) Change how you shop. Look for opportunities like CSA's, which require money up front but typically give you tremendous bang for your buck. Consider buying staples (like rice) in serious bulk - it's shelf stable, you know you'll use it, and you'll pay a lot less per pound buying it all at once. You may have to save up to make the purchase, but it will definitely pay off. Look for "seconds" and surpluses suppliers are willing to sell off at reduced rates (often found at orchards or farmers' markets near closing time).

4. Emphasize comfort food. There are two ways to do this. First, pass on the fancy, expensive meals when you're cooking at home in favor of hearty, stick-to-your-ribs, old fashioned comfort food. It's economical and will make the "fancy food" feel all the more special when you do have it. Second, stock up on the things you aren't sure you'd function well without, whether its coffee or your favorite shampoo. Psychologically, it goes a lot further than you'd expect!

How do you handle bumps in the food supply?

Monday, October 8

Menu Idea Monday: Sauerkraut, Sausage & Apples

Photo from Food.com
A neighbour of ours ferments his own sauerkraut every year from cabbage he grows in his garden. When he offered us some, we gladly took it. I didn't mention that I have never liked sauerkraut.

So on night that I wasn't going to be home for dinner, I prepped a new dish I found online called Smoked Sausage, Apples and Sauerkraut to leave for my husband who does happen to like sauerkraut.

When I opened the jar my neighbour had given us, I noticed that it didn't smell at all like what I was used to. It smelled distinctly sweeter, and I braved a bite. It was delicious! Apparently, my boys agreed because there was not a single bite left of the dish when I got home.

Clearly, we will be planting a bunch of cabbage next year and then I will be headed down the street to learn the fine art of fermenting from an expert.

This was extremely simple to make, didn't take very long, and reheated beautifully in a cast iron skillet stuck in the oven for twenty minutes. It will become a staple around here, and I encourage you to try it!

(If you don't have any apple juice in the house, just sub another sweet juice of similar consistency or use water and add a pinch of extra sugar. )

Monday, October 1

Menu Idea Monday: Baked Oatmeal

A co-worker of my husband's sent a recipe home with him for Baked Oatmeal that she said was amazing. Being my nutritionally critical self, I wasn't expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised - it's chock full of healthy things and has nothing cringe-worthy in it!

To be perfectly honest, I don't like baked oatmeal. It's a texture thing. But my husband liked it, and nutritionally I give it five stars. I pre-mixed the wet ingredients in one bowl and the dry in another the night before so it literally took two minutes to get this in the oven in the morning. If you throw it in before you start getting ready, you can enjoy a hot healthy meal before heading out on a workday!

Notes:
1. Didn't take any pictures. Sorry. They always turn out badly anyway, so it's probably no loss. Lol.
2. This recipe was printed from the site Fitness Fruitcake according to the paper I was given, but I have been unable to get that site to load at all so I can't verify. So here's proper credit where it's due as best I can under the circumstances.

Baked Apple Oatmeal

2 cups oats
1/4 cup ground flax (optional)
1 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp apple butter (optional)
1 1/2 cups milk or water
2 ripe bananas, mashed
1 tsp vanilla
1 apple, chopped
handful of almonds
cinnamon and nutmeg

Combine oats, flax, baking powder, salt and spices. In another bowl, combine remaining. Add to oat mix and stir well. Pour mix into greased dish. Bake at 375 for 15 min. Enjoy.

We made half this recipe and it served two, but your results might vary.

Monday, September 24

Menu Idea Monday: Using Zucchini

Photo from Food in Jars blog
Today, I am going to send you over to the Food in Jars blog for the best compilation of recipes that use zucchini I've seen this year.

Personally, my favorite use for zucchini is tucked instead veggie lasagna where you barely notice it. Still, with no garden of our own this year and people willingly passing us lots of zucchini I've had to broaden my repertoire slightly. I don't like to see food go to waste, so I think it's important to learn how to take whatever is available and turn it into hearty, enjoyable sustenance whenever possible.

Do you have a favorite zucchini recipe?


Monday, September 17

Menu Idea Monday: Italian Seasoning

Photo from Food.com
Last week I shared a chili powder recipe I've started using, since I refuse to add clutter and expense to my spice cabinet by purchasing spice combinations. This week, I thought I'd post a link to one of the other most common spice recipes I run across in cooking: Italian Seasoning.

Also from Food.com, this recipe is just like the chili powder - I have nearly everything in my cabinet already! If you tend to make a lot of pasta dishes, tuck this recipe in your cookbook - you're likely to see a lot of it. I expect to make a big batch before canning season next year - marinara sauce anyone?

Saturday, September 15

The Peanut Butter in Schools Controversy

Peanut butter bans are once again in the news as an Arkansas schools experiences push-back over a teacher's decision to confiscate a student's lunch when he brought a forbidden peanut butter sandwich.

Food is intensely personal, as are a parent's choices regarding how they raise their children, so every time food allergies come up in the news explosive and hyperbolic arguments erupt. 

I weary quickly of reading internet articles on the subject because there is so little relevant debate on the actual issues at hand. How is it that a subject with so much potential for informed, thoughtful and innovative problem-solving is squandered rants about individual drama, pride and ignorance?


If you would like to skip the drama and participate in actual, productive discussion on this fascinating and complex topic, I would like to suggest a resource you may appreciate. 

The Unhealthy Truth is the true story of a mother who, in search of solutions to a range of health problems in her family, discovers that all four of her young children have serious food allergies (to different foods). Her journey through the process of discovery and then the struggle to adapt their lives and environment to deal with the new reality is well written and informative in an engaging, easy-to-relate-to style.

Opponents of PB bans will appreciate the author's attitude of personal responsibility towards her children's dietary needs, and parents of children with food allergies will empathize with her fears and struggles. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, O'Brien's book can provide valuable insight and a good starting point for sound, reasonable debate on the subject.

Hyperbole and Straw Men may fuel headlines, but our nation's children deserve better than reactionary thinking, irrational pride or a nanny-state. They need us, as adults, to model healthy decision making and problem solving - which always start with getting the right information. 

Wednesday, September 12

Piyo

The first time my husband suggested we try a Piyo class last spring, I was petrified. Balance, strength and flexibility are not high on my list of attributes and I vividly envisioned flailing around like a train wreck in a room of sleek, composed fitness buffs. He was very gracious about my hysteria, and I agreed to at least try it.

Given that inauspicious start, it wasn't really surprising that he was shocked when I decided in July that I wanted to become a Piyo instructor! Wonderful as he always is, he agreed and I was able to attend the training this past weekend. Halfway through I sent him a text saying the new workout routine was awesome and crazy!

What made me go from petrified newbie to freshly-minted Instructor? I discovered in Piyo a workout that fits my personality!

Piyo is an athletic blend of Pilates and Yoga set to up-tempo music and taught in hour-long classes. I couldn't help but fall in love with it for three reasons:
1. It's completely honest.
2. It is the exercise version of multi-tasking.
3. You don't have time to be distracted.

The Piyo instructor who led the first class we went to was completely upfront about the poses/movements she couldn't do because of a knee injury and encouraged all of us not to be embarrassed about modifying anything that was outside our current comfort zone. Everything can be scaled back to where you are and scaled up later when you want a challenge so you can always have the fun without killing yourself or being left out. 

Much like Insanity (which I also liked), Piyo takes a full-body approach: you are never working just one muscle group. You consistently get a big bang for your buck, which is vital when you don't have a lot of free time to work out.

Best of all Piyo keeps your brain engaged. You don't have time to be distracted by mental to-do lists or emotional clutter - you find yourself completely focused in the moment, giving your brain a chance to relax, helping your body get the most out of your workout, and whisking you to the end of the workout time before you know it!

 

If you haven't tried Piyo, I encourage you to look for a class and give it a shot. You may not love it, and that's okay. But with winter rapidly approaching it is wise for all of us to get (and stay)  intentionally active. 

Darker, colder days and increased stress as the holidays approach can take a toll on your health. Exercise improves circulation, helps keep weight in check and balances brain chemicals - giving you stress relief and an emotional boost. Whatever format works best for you, make sure you're staying active this winter - and consider trying something new! There's lots of great formats out there and you might just find something amazing... even if you are little petrified the first time.

Monday, September 10

Menu Idea Monday: Chili Powder

I've always considered spices one of the harder things to manage in a kitchen. I love the pretty little bottles they come in, but unless you come up with a good storage system they quickly get unruly. Keeping a couple dozen different spices on hand can also get expensive, especially when you consider how often you're technically supposed to rotate through them or replace them.

Photo from Food.com
As a result, there are many spices I simply don't keep on hand. I consistently refuse to buy spice combinations, because I feel like they get little use and just pile up in clutter. It has only recently occurred to me to just look up what's in each combination and make my own in small batches with the spices I already have on hand.

If that sounds like something that might work well for your kitchen, check out this chili powder recipe from Food.com.

I was very pleased that I have all but one ingredient already in my cabinet. So next time I make something that calls for chili powder (a common event), rather than just improvise the spices I can make the recipe true to form without any extra clutter or expense in my cabinet. If I'd know it was this easy, I've have started doing this sooner!

Monday, September 3

Menu Idea Monday: Blueberry Struesel Swirl Muffins

We were out somewhere last week when we passed a bakery case featuring huge, gorgeous blueberry muffins. My husband commented that they looked great, and my instant (oh so humble response) was "Muffins are easy - I can do that."

Photo from Just Baked
So when we got home and I saw jar of homemade blueberry jam our neighbors had given us, I knew exactly what to do with it! Using the Cook's Illustrated recipe (via Just Baked), I whipped off a batch of Blueberry Swirl Streusel Muffins.

Note: Photo borrowed from Just Baked, seeing as we ate all our muffins before I thought to take a picture...

Opinion:
So very delicious. And fast. And easy. They bake up bakery-beautiful, especially if you use a jumbo muffin tin. I particularly like that you can sub jam for the fresh fruit here, allowing for lots of variety and an easy way to get taste of summer in the dead of winter. Try them!

My Modifications:
It's going to sound like I made a lot of modifications here, but they're all simple equivalents:
Coconut oil instead of veg oil
Jam instead of fruit & sugar
Plain yogurt instead of buttermilk

I also skipped the butter entirely and didn't miss it at all. I also subbed 1/4 cup of maple syrup for the 1+ cup of sugar called for and they were plenty sweet. I threw together my own version of streusel, as well.

Dietary Mod Friendly?
Yes and no. I have no idea if you could easily make a GF version of this using a baking mix, but otherwise it is pretty flexible. There are no eggs or nuts, and you could easily sub almond milk if the dairy was a problem.

Saturday, September 1

Free Fun


It's the first day of September already, and many families are back to school. But before all your weekends fill up with school events and get-it-done-before-winter projects, sneak this fun event onto your calendar: Smithsonian Museum Day!

On Saturday, September 29th, museums across America will offer free admission! Just hop over to the Museum Day website and print off as many coupons for free admission as you need. Then grab your kids or a couple friends and head over to that museum you keep meaning to check out but never quite get around to!

Check here for a list of participating museums. (Don't see the museum you were hoping for? Call them and ask if they know about the event. As crazy as it sounds, not everyone does and they might be delighted to sign up!)

So take a minute to stick this event on your calendar, and maybe to invite a friend along. Take the money you'll save by not paying for admission and stop for the last ice cream of the season or a pumpkin latte. What museum have you been wanting to check out?


Friday, August 31

A Year Without "Made in China"

I pretty much knew as soon as I saw the title that I'd have to read this book.  What I found was a deceptively simple masterpiece that should give all of us serious pause.

Two days after Christmas in 2004, Sara Bongiorni sat in her Gulf Coast living room feeling overwhelmed and smothered by the avalanche of cheap Chinese junk overflowing from under the tree. With her husband's dubious support, the family embarked on a year-long experiment with very simple rules: no buying anything that came from China. Gifts were allowed, as was anything already in the house, but no new Chinese purchases.

What resulted was a crash course in globalism, occasional panic attacks, and tremendous insight in the dynamics of modern America.

Bongiorni's voice is simple and sincere; she doesn't pretend to have it all together, and is candid about her emotions and ideas whether laudable or laughable. Her assessments are poignant in their focus on what truly matters, such as recognizing the selfless love her husband showed in agreeing the boycott for no other reason than that he loved her (even if he did torment her along the way).

Perhaps the best part of the book, however, are the things she doesn't have to say directly because her story so clearly illustrates them on every page. The warped perceptions of American adults who actually believe children are deprived if they aren't showered with cheap plastic toys whenever they lust for them. Companies that actually require customers to submit written requests for information to the company lawyer before they'll reveal where their products are made. The reams of products that simply are not produced in the U.S. in any form any more (from children's shoes to lamp components to printer toner). The sheer volume of stuff that moves through an American household in a year - and how quickly most of it meets its demise or loses its luster.

The implications and realities of these realizations are loud and stark, and may make your head spin. The author's light touch wisely lets them speak for themselves. The book is an easy read, and you may breeze through it, but its ideas and lessons will linger in your mind for much, much longer.

Wednesday, August 29

52 Little Lessons from "It's a Wonderful Life"

When it first debuted, critics either loved it or hated It's a Wonderful Life, and it quickly fell from the charts. Since a revival in the 70's, however, it has risen to become one of the most loved Christmas movies of all time.

Author Bob Welch mines this famous movie for simple but valuable life lessons. Each lesson has it's own short chapter (average three pages) and is clearly stated in the chapter title (It's Wise to Seek Counsel, You Matter to the World). Each chapter opens with a quote from the movie, and then the author relates a scene and its lesson, often with interesting tidbits of background or filming trivia worked in.

It's quite straight forward, but nicely put together. If you love the movie, you'll decidedly enjoy this book. If you plan to watch the movie with your kids, this would be a great guide to character-building talking points. Many will also appreciate the informed eye with which the author highlights filming and acting points that create the magic we so often take for granted.

When You Come Home

One of the best things about the Kindle my husband surprised me with for my birthday has been the free books available through Amazon. Hidden amongst the many cheap romances are beautiful gems of all genres that I most likely would never have stumbled on elsewhere.

When You Come Home was one of those surprise treasures. The deceptively simple story of a young soldier and his war bride, trying to love and live as much as they can in the short time before he is shipped overseas, it is beautiful, poignant and powerful.

If you know what it is to be apart from someone you love, your heart will break for them as they try to stay strong in their separations. The faith and support of their families is touching, and the strong moral fiber that used to bind every corner of our country will give you pause to think about and pray for our modern world.

Whether you usually read WWII books or not, I encourage you to check out When You Come Home. It's a pretty quick read, but it will stay with you long after you turn the last page.

Monday, August 27

Menu Idea Monday: Smothered Beef Burritos

Photo from the Food Pusher blog
It's been a long time since I've been to a really good Mexican restaurant. (Honestly, most of the restaurants out here are seriously lacking.) But we like good Mexican food, so I decided to try a very simple but yummy looking recipe off The Food Pusher blog.

I saw the recipe on Pinterest labeled Smothered Beef Burritos but they're listed as Chili Colorado Burritos on the blog.

Whatever you choose to call them, I highly recommend making them!

Opinion:
This was a great recipe - incredibly easy and different than anything else in my cookbook. I liked that it used stew beef; it was cheap but tasted rich and satisfying after simmering in a crockpot of enchilada sauce all day. (As an added bonus, the house smelled great!)

This took no time to throw in the crockpot in the morning and only a couple minutes to assemble and broil up at dinner time. It would be a fantastic meal for long, busy fall or winter days and can just as easily be made for one or two as for a crowd. I will definitely be keeping this and making it again!


My Modifications:
I made my own tortillas and enchilada sauce (can't buy either around here that aren't full of junk), and skipped the beef bullion in the crockpot because my sauce recipe is plenty rich enough already. Otherwise, I followed the recipe as directed.

Dietary Mod Friendly?
This is a pretty flexible recipe. If you don't eat beef you could sub in any meat you wanted and it would work out well. Gluten free tortillas would also be an easy sub-in, or you could skip the tortillas altogether and just pour the meat and sauce over rice. Other than that, there aren't any objectionable ingredients in here so dig in and enjoy!

Friday, August 24

The End of Summer List

Smoothing my hand over the largely blank pages of my new planner, I know the endless time and opportunity they suggest are an illusion. In short order my new work schedule will begin to fill the little blocks. Projects around the house and property will crowd into the weekends and weeknights, jostling museum events for places on the page. Very soon I'll find myself having to search for places to write in visits with friends and will stare at the lists of places to be and wonder where mundane tasks like vacuuming and essentials like making dinner are supposed to fit.

But I am a smart girl, and I learn my experiences. So this year, I'm taking the proactive approach. I've pulled out my lists - Reflections on Summer & Must Not Miss This Fall. I've flipped forward to next summer and written in the things we loved most about this summer so they won't be forgotten or lost in the shuffle – hunting for wild apples and hickory nuts in woods with our neighbors, the Warrior Dash, Sunday afternoons spent with friends at a BBQ or a wine tasting.

I've weighed the weeks this fall, and begun to annotate them with the delights of the season too important to be missed - a trip to the cider mill I've heard so much about, pumpkin spice lattes with a friend, crisp fall hikes with my husband and a wildly happy border collie. Already I've started to draw lines in the sand, precluding the automatic guilt- or habit- induced responses of “sure I can do that” when chances to take on more than I can reasonably do come up in the next few weeks/ months.

Most importantly, I'm building in breathing room. Did you know that it's perfectly acceptable to block out down time in your planner (and your life)? Your health, your life and your relationships are important -make time for them first! Don't run panting and exhausted through the holidays and into next year. Decide right now to give yourself the time and permission to enjoy this fall. 

After all, if the Mayans were correct it could be the last fall we have, right? Just kidding... everyone knows they were only counting down to the Hobbit movie!  (Thank you for that nugget, Pinterest.)

Joking aside, your time is your own and you are responsible for how you spent it. So grab your bucket list, your phone and you calendar and spend a little time this weekend making sure that the really important things make it onto your schedule this fall!

Wednesday, August 22

Finding a Planner that Works

Around this time of year I start to get frustrated with my planner. As we head into fall, sticky notes start to pile up at the end with reminders of things coming up next year that need to be written on pages I don't have.

So when I sat down to buy a new planner last week, I made the decision to get an 18 month planner this time - it will take me through December of next year and avoid the sticky note overload! Note to companies selling planners: why are planners sortable by color, but not by the number of months they cover or their format? 

As I poked around online, trying to find exactly what I needed, I was reminded of the many things I've learned the hard way about choosing a planner. I've decided to share them here in hopes they will save you time, money and headaches!

Hints & Tips on Selecting a Planner

1. Plan ahead... way ahead. Never leave buying a planner until yours is in its last days - it's a recipe for a rushed purchase you won't be happy with! If you don't have an 18 month planner, start looking for a new one no later than about July; once fall hits you're certain to start scheduling appointments and events into the new year. Don't waste time by writing them down and then having to transfer them later - just start writing them in directly on your new calendar!

2. Pick something that works for you. Calendars and planners come in a myriad of shapes, sizes and formats. One that fits your lifestyle and the way your brain works is worth it's weight in gold. If you really don't know what works for you, a little trial and error may be in order and that's okay. Ask around or read reviews online and see what other people like best/least about their planners; see what resonates with you and use it as a starting point. Don't invest lots of money in anything until you find what's comfortable. When you DO find what you want, though, don't settle for anything less! Note: life changes. While our personalities and brain patterns stay the same, what we're planning for on a daily basis may change. So if your planner system stops working, it's okay to look for something else better suited to this season of your life.

3. Colors count. If you use a planner/calendar that you carry around with you, I highly recommend buying something in a color that makes it stand out so you can quickly and easily find it! I also use colored paper clips or tabs (love those!) to make it easy to flip to specific points in the planner that I know I'll use often (addresses, the current week, reminders page, etc.).

4. Know what's worth paying for. There are scores of planner pages and calendar formats online that you can customize and print for free. Pinterest abounds with cute ideas for do-it-yourself alternatives to the big, (expensive) laminated wall calendars. You can buy planners that are undated and start wherever you are this minute. While cheap, and usually cute, most require serious time investment in looking up holidays, labeling pages and headings, printing, whole punching, etc. Know what your priorities are; count the hidden costs of time investment and inefficiency. It can feel wasteful to pay good money for a planner, but investing in the features and formats best for you will pay worthwhile dividends all year!

What kind of planner do you use?

Monday, August 20

Menu Idea Monday: Pure Simple Cooking

Today's Menu Idea isn't a recipe - it's a whole book of recipes!

If you haven't read Diana Henry's Pure Simple Cooking, snag yourself a copy this week!

Diana searched for recipes that sit squarely at the intersection of simple and hearty. She picked recipes that stick to real, healthy ingredients (no cream-of-anything soup here), and that are simple enough for a busy weeknight dinner.

What I liked best about this book was the uniqueness of the dishes. Nothing was strange or something you'd worry about your family eating, but it wasn't your run-of-the-mill, in-every-cookbook-I've-already-got kind of fare. If you're looking for something different to do at dinner time but have a limited amount of time and energy to invest, check this out. You'll love it.

Friday, August 17

Inspiration Cruises: A Word of Caution

I was blessed to be raised by parents who modeled positive life behaviors for me long before I understood what they were or why they were important. As a teenager, I rolled my eyes when my mother listened to teachings aired on Christian radio while she cleaned or did dishes. I mean, how boring can you get, right? (It wasn't until years later that I realized she was employing the principle of keeping your head full of good things and wise teaching.)

These days, she's more likely to listen to Dr. David Jeremiah than Focus on the Family, but the good habit persists. Imagine my parents' surprise when, after patiently saving up for and scheduling their first Alaskan cruise, they heard that Dr. Jeremiah (from Turning Point, I believe) and company were going to be on the exact same cruise ship they were booked on two weeks later! Seeing a once in a lifetime opportunity, they called their travel agent and asked if it was possible to just swap their bookings for that week. Everyone was wonderful and in no time they were all set.

Then they called Inspiration Cruises (the company who runs almost all major Christian cruise programs) and the headaches began. The customer service agents were uniformly rude and unhelpful. My parents were informed they had to completely cancel their current plans (thereby cheating their very sweet and helpful travel agent out of any commission, despite all the work she'd already done for them) and rebook with Inspiration – paying hundreds of dollars more for the exact same thing!

Turning Point staff, when contacted, were extremely concerned and apologetic, but ultimately helpless. Inspiration controlled all decisions and refused to budge. My parents ultimately decided not to deal with the nonsense and stopped pursuing it. They were able to attend one Sunday chapel service on the ship at which Dr. Jeremiah spoke, but that was it.

As someone who has spent years in business, I was appalled.

First of all, there is never any excuse for customer service reps to be rude. Ever.

Secondly, this company handles cruises for Christian organizations. Whether or not they are Christian themselves, their behavior directly reflects on the Christian companies they represent. Bad press can be devastating to any company; being held to higher than average standards, faith-based companies should be particularly conscious of and conscientious about their image and the choices that shape it.

Third, the entire situation could have been avoided with proper management in the first place. No mention is made on the website or in literature for the cruise about the restrictions of booking only through Inspiration at higher prices. Travel agents are unaware of the restrictions, making them unable to offer relevant counsel. Every company gets to set its own rules, but if yours don't uniformly align with common sense then the onus is on you to make sure they're consistently and clearly stated to prevent confusion, frustration and waste.

I close with two words of caution. To potential cruise-goers: tread carefully with Inspiration. To Christian companies: choose your partners carefully – their conduct reflects on you! In the world of Twitter and Facebook, you will never catch up with or smooth over all the bad publicity a poorly chosen partner can churn up.