Archive | February, 2012

To Coupon or Not to Coupon: The Update

29 Feb
Coupon holder

I will not be an Extreme Couponer, I will not be an Extreme Couponer, I will not be an Extreme Couponer, I will not be.... Remember when I said that??

It’s been exactly one month since my post where I announced that I had decided to try couponing. If you remember, my friend Karen had recommended that I try it out and I decided that even though my grocery stores didn’t accept coupons, I did enough shopping at stores like Walmart, Target and CVS, all of whom did accept manufacturer’s coupons, that I’d try it out and see how I did.

Holy Cow.

It’s addicting. It’s exhilarating.

I love it.

I’m very good at it, or at least I think I am.

And, best of all, I actually have been saving us tons of money, while getting us tons of free stuff we need too, for one month now. Because of our tight budget, having coupons on name brand items has allowed us some treats that we normally couldn’t afford, along the way as well, and that’s been fun. I’ve never seen my kids so excited for yogurt as they were the night I brought home all the Yoplait Crunch yogurts and the Yoplait flavored yogurts. They took turns calling out who was getting to eat which flavor and Alex took over loading them all into a special spot in the fridge. Yogurt. Really.

Here’s my recap of the last month; how it’s gone and what I’ve learned.

First, before I begin, I can’t thank my friends Karen and Pam enough. Both of them provided me with lots of couponing advice and Pam is local, so she was even nice enough to come with me a couple of times and was very patient as I shopped. Both of them were also extremely patient all month long as I would shop and then send them photos, texts and instant messages of what I’d just scored for free. Very patient, very good friends.

So here’s what I learned:

Free pens at Target

I found that I got the best deals once I'd gathered lots of coupons. These three packs of pens were at Target for 97 cents but I had three one dollar off coupons so all three packs were free!

1) To actually be a couponer, you actually have to *have* coupons. That may sound basic and obvious, but it’s actually more important than I knew. For example, if you can find multiple coupons for the same item, you can buy lots of it when it’s on sale and that’s what helps you get your items for free. The very first time I really went shopping with my coupons I spent more than I had to out of pocket because my coupon stash wasn’t up to snuff yet. I still got free stuff, but I knew that if I had multiple coupons, I’d have done much better than I did that first time.  To that end, I began following several different coupon sites on Facebook and on various websites (Coupon Hauls, Dreamzncolor, Coupon Mom, Simply CVS and Coupon Divas are just a few of the ones I’ve found and used.) I know that on TV they show people “dumpster diving” for multiple sets of coupons, but I have found that getting them online has been helpful and one week my friend Pam gave me A TON of coupon booklets that she was done with, and after three hours of cutting them and filing them, I was in business for real (at least until all of those expire!)

Coupon files

My first purchase: a way to organize and store my coupons. Organization is key.

2) To actually be a couponer, you need to have an organized way of storing your coupons. People use binders, expandable files, bins and more. I chose to buy two expandable files, each one has 13 spots plus extra spots in the front. I got them at Target. I chose to organize them in alphabetical order so the first one is A-D and the last one is D-Z.  So far, I haven’t had any problems with this method.

3) It’s important to go in with a list. Know what you’re looking for, what you have coupons for, what you’re getting for free, and what you need to put into separate transactions, if applicable. Being organized is key. Several of the sites I mentioned above do this organizing for you. They tell you what’s on sale at a store, what manufacturer’s coupons are out there and even give you a link to print them from if available. They also often tell you the best way to get the most for free, as in which coupons to use and how to organize your transactions. There’s lots of information and help out there.

My first coupon haul

This was my January 30 haul of free stuff from CVS-every item seen here was free- but this was not my best one. I put out more out of pocket money then I like to now. But, I'd just started. What did I know?

When I wrote my original post in January, one of the things I said was that I didn’t want to go to more than the stores I normally would go to, that I just wanted to save on what I already bought, where I already bought it. I’m pleased to say I’ve stuck to that, but I can tell you it’s SO tempting to look at other circulars and see what else is out there, where else I could go. For now though, I’m sticking to my guns. I normally shopped at Target, Walmart and CVS for my non-food items and that’s where I’ve focused my couponing efforts.

I also had two other goals in mind when I decided to start.

The first was that I didn’t want to spend hours and hours doing this. I didn’t want it to take a whole lot longer than making a normal shopping list would take. I will say the very first time I did it, it took me a little bit of time to organize myself, but overall, I don’t spend a ton of time on getting ready. I am not one who wants to make this my full time job. I don’t want to spend 40 hours a week couponing and shopping. Maybe some day I will change my mind, but at this point, I’m not feeling it. I like going on my way to or from work or when I have a few minutes before I need to pick up my kids at school, but I don’t spend 13 hours in a store, or 40 hours a week making lists, the way I’ve seen on TV.

Health and beauty shelf

Here's where I store all body wash, shaving cream, shampoo, conditioner, deoderant and toothpaste. Once it's full, it's full. There's no more space now, and this photos doesn't even show it completely full.

The second goal was that I would never buy more than I could store. It’s only been a month, but I can already see why these extreme couponers end up storing 200 rolls of toilet paper under their kids’ beds and in their living rooms. I can see how it can get out of hand.

The first thing I had to do very quickly was figure out where I was going to store the things I was getting for free; or what everyone calls their “stockpiles.” Since I was mostly shopping for health and beauty items, I went into my downstairs bathroom and completely cleared off one shelf in there. I decided that was my space for stockpiling and once that space was full, I’d not buy those particular items again until I had more space to put them on the shelf.

My shelf was full in two and a half weeks. Full.

Medicine and makeup basket

Here's where I currently store any medications and makeup items that I get for free, as well as anything that won't stand up on a shelf, like toothbrushes.

I took a big basket for any medication type stuff I was getting for free as well as makeup items. That basket was pretty big and many of those makeup items are pretty small, so that basket isn’t filling up as quickly as my shelf.

My pantry shelves in the garage are still for food items, but since I buy most of my food items at stores that don’t take coupons, that hasn’t been much of an issue, except for the week when I got ten free boxes of Cheerios at CVS. That created kind of a storage issue. However, we go through a lot of cereal so it was only a temporary storage issue.

At Target on Saturday night I got all this for just $20 because I had so many coupons. I didn't have coupons for the eggs, sausage and tortilla wrappers (wrappers not shown) but everything else I did. For example, the vitamins which are normally $6 I paid $2.16 for.

My most favorite and most successful shopping trips have been at CVS, with Target being a close second. The reason being that they both provide sales and their own store coupons that can be combined with manufacturer’s coupons too. I never knew that. So for example, if you see something on sale at CVS, and they have their own coupon for it, and you have manufacturer’s coupons too, and if by chance you get their Extra Bucks as a result of purchasing said items, you’re golden. CVS also recently changed their coupon policy too, where you can not only use coupons on the items you buy, but if you have a buy one get one free sale, you can use coupons on the item you buy as well as the item you get free. That’s how I ended up with so many boxes of cereal. CVS also has a coupon machine when you walk in the door where you can scan your CVS card every single day, several times in one trip, and get coupons and sometimes even Extra Bucks too. I spent a lot of time in February getting reacquainted with my local CVS stores.

On the list of things I never knew was:

Getting better...at CVS on February 13 I spent $20 out of pocket for items not pictured here, and then got all this totally free with coupons and Extra Bucks I'd earned. Pam was there, I did a little dance when we left the store. I couldn't believe how well I'd done.

1) How often CVS has sales where you earn Extra Bucks just by making a purchase. “Buy this item and get $4 Extra Bucks at the register.” You then can turn around and use those extra bucks to purchase more items, totally free. On one of my trips I earned $42 in Extra Bucks. I spent them on items that earned me more Extra Bucks and earned $12 more Extra Bucks. Additionally, all quarter long you’re earning an additional percentage your spending back in the form of Extra Bucks that you’ll get at the end of each quarter. CVS also has a Beauty Club and every time you spend $50 you get $5 Extra Bucks, even if the $50 you “spent” was on things you “bought” for free. On your one year anniversary with their Beauty Club you get a 10% off your next Beauty Purchase coupon and it’s off your entire purchase plus what you purchase earns you more extra bucks. It’s never-ending.

2) Target’s Red Card can be a debit card OR a credit card and every time you use it you get 5% off your purchase plus your school of choice earns points. I always thought it was a credit card only and we don’t do credit cards, so I never applied for one. Now I have one and use it every time I shop.

Free stuff from CVS

Another CVS haul. I spent $27.10 out of pocket for items not pictured here, and got all of this for free, earning more Extra Bucks from this purchase as well.

Another goal I had was not purchasing anything I wouldn’t normally use or need at my house, just because it’s free, and so far I’ve been good at that. But I will say, I’m an easy-to-please shopper because in general we are not brand-specific unless there’s something we totally hate and won’t use. So for example if Crest Toothpaste is free one week, I’ll get it. If Colgate Toothpaste is free another week, I’ll get it. If Dove Body Wash is free, I buy it, and if the next week it’s Softsoap body wash, I get that too. Until I find something I hate, any brand is good. And I can tell you, I won’t need to buy body wash or deoderant or shaving cream or shampoo and conditioner for a long…long….time. Although on the flip side, with four women in the house, we go through one bottle of shampoo and one bottle of conditioner every single week on average. So although it looks like a lot on hand, it goes fast.

My month’s end total for spending and saving is as follows:

What I would have spent on Health and Beauty at Target, Walmart and CVS this month before coupons and Extra Bucks:  $588.31

What I actually spent: $317.50 (and sometimes what I spent out of pocket was just paying tax, 91 cents here, 42 cents there….)

That’s a savings of $270.81 of items I got for free.

.

100% free at Staples if you mail in the rebates. That to me, is worth it for the 42 cent stamp

What I got back additionally in rebates (another new-found joy I’ve discovered in this experience): $31.96

Total out of pocket this month after the rebates: $285.54 ($71 per week)

The biggest difference I see is that normally each month in between the grocery shopping at Price Rite or Aldi’s I’d be spending at least $100 or more every pay period at Walmart or Target or CVS on needed health and beauty items, over the counter medicine, paper goods and cleaning items and I’d only buy what I needed because I was paying full price for them. For example, in my basket photo, notice the Align? It’s normally more than $30 a box for a month’s worth of pills, which I’d pay out of pocket for every month because my daughter has to take it every day. Of the three in the basket, two were free, and one I got down to $14.

This month I noticed already that my usual “big” shopping at Price Rite two weeks ago was also less than normal, under $200 for two weeks’ worth of items and I know that it’s partly due to the fact that many of the items I automatically bought there, I now had on hand for free because of my couponing (like cereal, lunchbox snacks like granola bars, and Kleenex for example). Now that it’s time to shop again, there’s very little that I need because of my new “stockpile,” so I expect my next trip’s total to be way down as well.

I also noticed that I didn’t need to make not even one single Walmart run this month for health and beauty items or cleaning items. I got them all using my coupons at Target or CVS and earned a large portion of them for free. That’s the kind of thing I was just automatically buying as needed before, and paying full price. Now, not only did I buy what was on my list for right now, in some cases, I also have it on hand for later too, saving me money down the line as well.

Because my first shopping trip on January 30th was the one where I spent more out of pocket than I wanted to, I am curious to see how month two goes, now that I know what I’m doing and now that I have more coupons. After that first trip, my next trips had shockingly less out of pocket than that first one, so I know I’m already doing better.

VO5 Free Shampoo and Conditioner

This was one of my favorite CVS hauls because it was a total shock. I ran in for conditioner one night, we were totally out and the kids were IN the shower at home. I quickly scanned my CVS card, and to my surprise I found that I had $5 in Extra Bucks. I went to get my favorite shampoo and conditioner, the VO5, which is normally 99 cents a bottle. It was on sale for 77 cents a bottle. I came home with seven bottles and paid 42 cents out of pocket.

So there you have it. My one month update on couponing. I love it, I now see a huge value in it, both in the money I’m saving and the fact that I have things on hand now that I don’t have to buy just when I’m out of them, in turn paying full price instead of having gotten it on sale with coupons and stockpiling it.

I shudder to think of all the coupons I’ve tossed in the past, all the money I could’ve saved, but my friend Pam is good about telling me not to look back, to only look forward.

And then, she gives me more coupons.

Chicken Bundles

28 Feb
Chicken bundles

You can stuff the chicken with just about anything you'd like. On this particular night I stuffed half with broccoli and half with spinach.

Back when I was a college student, I lived in a house with my friend Karen for a year. Because we were renting a full house, we had a full kitchen and we did lots of cooking. Correction: she did lots of cooking. I got several of my best recipes that I still use today, from her. When we moved out of our house at the end of that school year, she gave me a cookbook she’d made with some of my favorite recipes from her in it. Today’s recipe is one of those recipes that I got from Karen, and of course like all my favorite recipes, it’s super easy and super delicious.

The official name of it is Chicken Asparagus Bundles, but we have made them with either asparagus or broccoli or spinach and all have been great. It’s a fast recipe and when I made it last week after not having made it for a long, long time, it got five thumbs up here; a minor miracle. Even Alex, my meat-hater-since-birth, loved it. We served it with couscous that night, and a Caesar Salad on the side. On that particular night I split the bundles so that half contained broccoli and half contained spinach. Normally when we buy our frozen broccoli we buy Broccoli Florets. On one of our trips recently we accidentally bought Broccoli Cuts, which I hate because it’s almost all stems and very few florets (despite the package picture). This recipe was perfect for the cuts because I picked out all the florets to stuff half of the chicken bundles with, threw out all the stems, and then used frozen cut spinach for the rest of the chicken.

(As a total aside, this same cream cheese used here is fabulous for making stuffed mushrooms. Try it some day! Just stuff them, bake them, and eat them!)

Ingredients for Chicken Bundles

It was when I saw the cream cheese at Aldi's that I remembered this long-forgotten recipe. I hadn't made it in so long and I couldn't wait to make it!

INGREDIENTS

6 boneless chicken breast halves (I use chicken tenders.)

1 eight ounce container soft cream cheese with chives and onions

18 fresh asparagus stalks steamed until crisp tender OR thawed frozen broccoli OR thawed frozen cut leaf spinach. (I nuke the broccoli and/or the spinach to partially thaw them before stuffing the chicken.)

Butter

Paprika

Ready to go into the oven!

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Flatten breast halves to even thickness with mallet. (I don’t need to do that for the tenders.)

Trim asparagus stems to 4 inches, if using asparagus. If not, prepare the broccoli and/or the spinach.

Spread each breast half with about 2 Tablespoons of cream cheese. (Or spread about 1 Tablespoon onto a tender.)

Place your chosen veggies inside and wrap as shown here, forming a roll.

Place rolls seam-side down in a buttered baking  dish.

Place a small pat of butter on top of each bundle.
Bake 45 minutes, baste with pan drippings after 30 minutes.

To serve, spoon any melted cheese in pan over rolls, sprinkle with paprika. (I never sprinkle with paprika.)

Cooked and ready to serve. Enjoy!

Lenten Sacrifices: what gives?

27 Feb

What to give up for Lent?

Last Wednesday was the start of Lent for our family and for many of our friends. It means that the Easter holiday is in just forty short days. Forty days to prepare yourself, however you choose to do so.

For many people, myself included, the big question is always “What should I give up for Lent this year?”

Last week, when I was in a particularly flippant and cynical mood, I posted on Facebook, saying that there wasn’t a whole lot to give up, and that as far as my beloved chocolate chips, well I just couldn’t go there. Not this year.

We live a pretty frugal lifestyle right now, so we sacrifice so much it seems, already. We only buy what we absolutely need, we only go out when we have freebies if at all possible, and we have given up pretty much everything, for just a short while longer. But, it leaves not a whole lot left to give up.

Or so I thought.

I was surprised though, my kids all chose something to give up, even though none of them are 14 so really, by the church’s rules, they don’t have to give up anything. We do abide by the no meat on Friday rule as a family though, so I guess it shouldn’t surprise me a whole lot that they wanted to partake in this part of Lent as well. Even if they don’t make it the whole 40 days with their sacrifices, I’m proud of them for trying.

And then came the question….

“Well Mommy, what are *you* giving up for Lent?”

BAM!!

There it was.

How could I not give something up for Lent if they all were? One was even giving up computer time. Gasp…I could never.

But I went back to that Facebook post from last week and re-read some of the answers that were there, this time I was in a more serious mood, less joking than I was when I originally posted, and I really began to consider them one by one, except Barbara’s who said to give up Facebook. Nope.

I liked the one from Dolores’ priest, who said to try to complain less. I don’t think I complain a lot, but then if you ask my family, it’s really all I do, in their opinion. :) I guess I could try that one.

But there were several others that I liked also, people whose priests suggested adding positivity to your life by trying to do a particular something more often, something good, something positive. I liked that.

Another friend said their priest suggested trying to do something that’s hard to do normally, something that takes extra effort, whether it is being nice to someone you don’t like a lot, or something like that. Also a possibility.

We too, went to church on Ash Wednesday and our deacon said something I found interesting as well, he mentioned that you might start praying for someone who needs it, and you might not even know that person personally, but you might know of them and know they need the extra prayers, so you could add that into your day.  Very thought provoking idea.

However, one thing stuck out most from all the friendly comments and suggestions. Dolores’ priest said, “and if you fall off the wagon, get right back on and try again.”

I guess I liked that piece of advice the most because in my mind, no one is perfect. No one is successful every time, but it’s the thought and the effort that counts.

During this time of Lent, I think it’s more about taking the time to think and reflect and make the effort to work on something, whether you’re giving it up or adding it in. It is about making yourself a better person, or at least trying to be a better person. I know we all try to live our lives to be the best we can be, but I also know that for me personally, there’s always room for improvement. And who knows, it only takes three weeks to form a good habit or something like that, so if we do end up being successful for forty days, then maybe the new good habit or whatever change we make, will stick for the long term.

And that, a true Lenten lesson, was my takeaway from what originally started out as a flippant Facebook post. Think, reflect, try hard and then try harder.

And if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.

Sunday breakfast: Baked Apple Pancake

26 Feb
Slice of baked apple pancake

Baked apple pancake is great with or without maple syrup, and great with a dollop of whipped cream if you like it!

I don’t know about you, but on the weekends I look forward to having a big family breakfast. Usually it’s the typical pancakes, french toast or waffle breakfast, but every once in a while we do something special. In the past I’ve posted a couple of baked french toast recipes, but today’s is slightly different: Baked Apple Pancake. I love this recipe and not only is it good for a weekend breakfast, it’s also good if you’re hosting a brunch. We used to have several “Bickford’s” restaurants near us, all of which have now closed. However, they used to have a similar menu item, the Baby Apple and the Big Apple pancakes. This recipe always reminds me of Bickford’s.

Two baked apple pancakes

Watching these puff up when they cook is fun for the kids. They do deflate slightly after they come out of the oven and cool down a bit.

The recipe is somewhat involved, so give yourself some time if you’re making it. I usually make two for our family. It’s enough for everyone to have seconds and then there’s a bunch left over for a special mid-week treat for their breakfast or mine!

Below is the single recipe:

INGREDIENTS

6 eggs
1 1/2 cup milk
1 cup flour
3 Tbl. sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/2 c. margarine or butter (I use one stick of butter.)
2 apples peeled and thin sliced (at least two, depending on size. You want them to cover most of the bottom of the pan.)
4 Tbl. brown sugar  (at least, I think I use a bit more until the top is generously doused in brown sugar)

Make sure your pancake is cooked all the way through before letting it cool.

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Melt margarine, don’t brown, in 10×10 or 7×12 dish (I use 11 x7 or 9×13 because that’s what I have) coated with nonstick spray.

Peel and slice apples while butter is melting.

Add apple slices to pan, spread out so they cover the bottom (which has the melted butter in it.)

Return to oven til butter sizzles.

In bowl, mix eggs, milk, flour, sugar salt, vanilla and cinnamon. Batter should be slightly lumpy.

Remove, pour batter over apples, top with brown sugar.

Bake 20-25 minutes or until puffed and lightly browned. Make sure the center is solidly cooked before you take it out to cool.

Serve with whipped cream if desired.

Serves 4-6.

Did you survive February Vacation Week? Reward yourself!

24 Feb
Vanilla pudding dessert with vanilla wafers, strawberries and bananas

A perfect treat for the end of the week!

It’s Friday!

Did you survive the week?

If so, treat yourself to a super-simple dessert that I found on Pinterest (been on there yet??) and just had to pin for future use. The future came sooner than later! If you click on the underlined words above, it’ll take you right to the blog post where I got the recipe from.

In the past, I’ve mixed vanilla wafers, vanilla pudding and bananas for a treat before, but this recipe just looked so much better because she served it in mason jars, and I just so happened to have mason jars downstairs, sitting there doing nothing.

I also happened to have both bananas and strawberries, which in my opinion go so well together, so I figured I’d throw some of those in as well.

I got my ingredients at Aldi's, including the bananas, the strawberries and the milk.

To make this, I used two small packages of instant vanilla pudding, just as I would to make pudding for my family usually, plus three bananas and almost the entire package of strawberries. I don’t have a specific number of vanilla wafers to tel you that I used, but I made six mason jars worth of dessert, so I used almost the whole package of vanilla wafers. I just threw them into a gallon-sized ziploc bag and used my rolling pin to crush them up.

You have to let the pudding chill once it’s mixed, so I mixed it first and did the other ingredients next. Once it was sufficiently solid, I started my assembly line of layering the ingredients in the jars.

mason jars

Assembly line layering worked best for creating this dessert.

The layering was easy. I simply layered the vanilla wafers first, then the pudding and the fruit. I did another layer of wafers, a little more pudding and fruit and then whipped cream on top with a couple of strawberries for a garnish. If you have any of those nice long iced tea spoons, they are the perfect utensil to use for eating this type of dessert.

This is also the kind of thing that doesn’t keep well, so once you make it, you have to eat it right away or else the vanilla wafers get soggy inside the jars and obviously you can’t refrigerate it with the cream and strawberries on top either!

I think it’s a perfect dessert for company, for summertime, or….for the last day of February Vacation!! I also saw a comment on the original post that said someone put in mini chocolate chips too! Wouldn’t *that* be yummy?! I didn’t have any, but it’s on the list for next time!

I bet your mouth is watering right now!

Enjoy!

A February Vacation treat so easy even your kids can make it!

23 Feb
Rice Krispie treat cookie cutter snacks

Caroline has been dying to try making this snack for months apparently!

My kids have definitely inherited my creative bug. They like to craft and bake all the time. They’re constantly looking in their magazines for recipes, crafts and games. I can’t keep up with all of the things they find that they want to make, try or do, in addition to all the things I want to make, try and do. (And, can I just say, it’s a good thing none of my kids are on Pinterest yet. They’d be addicted!)

Apparently way back in the fall Caroline found a snack she wanted to try out and allegedly I gave my standard answer of “We’ll see,” or maybe it was “Yup, but not today,” and forgot all about it.

Alex told me that this day was her favorite day ever because she got to paint AND play Playdoh both on the same day. Both make for good, relaxing vacation day fun!

Saturday she came up to me out of the blue and asked if she could please make this snack for her sisters, who were painting and playing play doh. She reminded me that she’s been asking me since October and that I keep brushing her off for one reason or another. This time I really had no reason to say no. I mean there was already a mess in the dining room, what’s one more activity going on in the kitchen? (And I must say, she didn’t even make a mess, she was very neat.)

Painting, like coloring, is a relaxing and engaging activity for kids of any age.

She went in and didn’t allow anyone else in there the entire time she was working, so I don’t have a ton of details for you. What I do know is that at some point on the TLC show, “Cake Boss,” she saw Buddy, the Cake Boss himself, take Rice Krispie Treats and flatten them out, using cookie cutters to make them into shapes, then frosting them to add to their cake creations. We happened to have a package of individual serving Rice Krispie treats in our snack box for school snacks. Caroline took “a whole bunch of those, there’s not too many left Mom,” and rolled them into balls together. Next, using a pizza dough roller, she rolled them out to a more workable thickness and used a variety of cookie cutters to make them into shapes. She then used several of my frostings, icings and other decorative treats to create cute little snacks for her sisters to eat when they were done with their crafting fun.

Decorated Rice Krispie Treat snacks

I was proud of Caroline for trying out this cute snack for her sisters.

Everyone stayed busy that afternoon, everyone loved the special snack, and Caroline was so proud of herself. I was proud of her, and glad I’d finally said yes, even though I only vaguely remember being asked to begin with!

I can definitely recommend this as a snack that kids can make in the kitchen themselves, with little to no help, depending on their ages. It’s not a particularly healthy snack, but it’s a fun treat and makes for a fun afternoon! If you’re looking for something to keep your kids occupied this February Vacation week, try out Caroline and Buddy’s Rice Krispie Treat snack!

February vacation AND Ash Wednesday…a double whammy!

22 Feb

All you need for a great meatless meal during Lent!

Surviving February Vacation week? I hope so! I know a lot of schools don’t actually have a vacation in February, but in our neck of the woods we do, and I’m always grateful for the break. Have you been doing anything special? If you live near a national state park, check out their website. Oftentimes they have special things planned for school vacation weeks. If not, you can always set up an indoor campsite with tents or forts.

Alex set up “Camp Rock” in our house the other day with her guitar and all kinds of stuff in her tent in her bedroom. Kept her amused and busy for quite some time. I always find forts to be a good use of time also. They stay in them for hours.

Alex was set up in her tent for a long time the other day! Forts and tents = tons of fun!

This week Lent begins in the Catholic religion, which means for my family that today is Ash Wednesday and so begins the 40 days of Lent. During Lent there are several practices we follow, one of which is the giving up of meat on certain days, namely holy days and Fridays.

One of our favorite meatless meals is Grandma Rose’s Tuna and Spaghetti. It’s pasta with a twist. It’s a Depression era meal, one that she grew up on back in the 1930′s. It’s one of our family’s favorite meals, and whenever people hear about it, they first say “ewwww” til they taste it. I’ve never had anyone try it and not like it. If you’re looking for something different to try during your 40 days of Lent, or just in general (because we do it this all year long too) give it a whirl and let me know what you think!

Tuna and spaghetti sauce

There's nothing like a pot of bubbling sauce simmering away on the stove!

GRANDMA ROSE’S FAMOUS TUNA AND SPAGHETTI

INGREDIENTS

one 28 ounce can Kitchen Ready Tomatoes

one 6 1/2 ounce can Bumble Bee Tuna and Oil

one clove garlic

1 TBl. olive oil

salt, pepper, basil, oregano to taste

1 cup water

DIRECTIONS

Use 2 qt. sauce pan and brown the garlic and oil.

Remove garlic

Add tomatoes (you can angle the cover of the pan over the pan to avoid splatter.)

Add one cup of water, plus salt, pepper, oregano and basil.

Cook on low heat for 1/2 hour.

Add tuna, including oil in can, and continue to simmer for 15-20 minutes.

Grandma Rose gave us her pasta bowl for serving our pasta. I think of her every time we use it and she's so glad we get lots of use out of it!

Welcome to the jungle…it’s school vacation week!

21 Feb

“You drive us wild, you drive me crazy.”

Peanuts 550 piece puzzle

The Gang's All Here! It's February Vacation Week! Jigsaw puzzles like this one might be one thing you can use to keep older kids busy during school vacation week.

Welcome to school vacation week!!

As I type this those words are echoing in the background because the kids and their dad are playing Guitar Hero on Wii. It just so happens that those exact words are playing at this very moment.

Coincidence, totally.

Additionally, Alex has found another guitar downstairs and is playing a completely different tune on that one while Guns N Roses plays on the TV for the others.

School vacation week has the potential to make any parent crazy. The kids are home full days for a full week and depending where you are in the country, you may be confined to the indoors due to the weather. Knock on wood, it’s been a beautiful winter here. I can’t remember a February this warm in a long time. We have been outside without jackets several times this week and each time, I’m amazed that it’s February and we’re getting to play outside, and not in the snow!

I don’t plan a ton for February vacation and my friends laugh at the reason, but it’s true: we have never had a February vacation where no one has thrown up. The stomach bug usually hits our house this week every year so we end up having to cancel whatever plans we’ve made. Each year, including this one, I’m cautiously optimistic, but even so, I bought two bottles of Gatorade last week just in case. It’s a regular full time work week for Don, which also surprises everyone, since schools are closed, but yes, he has to work and yes he’s got a ton to do.

Overall, I look forward to school vacation week. It gives us a break from all the running and scheduling that we have to do during a regular week when you’ve got two people working and three kids with three different schedules. It’s a lot to manage and I love the break. I love having everyone here. However, if we’re not careful, it can get ugly pretty quickly. We’re not in any way immune to the bickering and arguing that can erupt if they’re left to their own devices for very long.

The secret to a successful school vacation week is having 1) plenty of snacks on hand to prevent low blood sugar meltdowns and 2) plenty of things to do (free or almost free) even if you don’t end up doing them all. Activities can range from crafts and activities to outings or a good combination of both.

Two of my kids have birthday parties this week and I’m hoping to schedule them all for a playdate one day also. I have to work a day, and we’ll have a cousin sleeping over here a night as well. Other than that, there’s lots of free “stuff” to do locally because everyone knows the kids are out of school. For example, if you live in Rhode Island and have younger kids, check out the Learn All About It website to see what kinds of activities they have going on this week. If you see one you’d like, be sure to sign up by calling the store.

I’ve got more projects around the house planned in my head than we’ll ever do, but at least I’ve got plenty of options. My goal is not to have everyone sitting around bored all week or sitting in front of the TV all week either. There’s plenty of other things we can do instead. The week will end up flying by, I’m sure.

Below is a recipe I’ve shared in the past, but never on my own blog. I’m sharing it because I’m sure it’ll make an appearance on my table this week for a snack.

Sour cream dip for fruit.

This is a great snack for kids and adults alike!

YUMMY FRUIT DIP

The girls found this recipe in one of their kids’ cookbooks: “Silly Snacks: Family Fun in the Kitchen.” It was so fast and it’s SO good!

Mix together:

8 Ounces Sour Cream

1/4 cup sugar

1 tsp. Vanilla extract

Fruit of your choice.  In the past we have used red grapes, nectarines, plums, apples, strawberries, peaches and bananas. We also have skewers, which makes it even more fun to eat.

Mix and dip!

Halloween in….February!

20 Feb

Caroline was thrilled when I told her she could be the one to choose a costume from Costume Discounters to review.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a representative at Costume Discounters, asking me if I would be willing to do a product review of one of their Halloween costumes from their website. I’d be able to choose any costume I’d like within a certain price range, and they’d send it to me for review. I agreed, and here is the review. The opinions expressed in this review are 100% my own and I was not paid to provide a positive review.

If you remember, I posted way back in October that we no longer buy Halloween costumes for our kids because we’d accumulated so many from dance class and other things, but that I felt bad for Caroline because most of what we have, she’s already worn, and being the oldest, many no longer fit her.

Therefore, when Costume Discounters contacted me, I decided to let Caroline be the one to choose a costume, which she could then wear for this coming Halloween. I also knew that by doing that, the costume would be handed down so that ultimately they’d all get to wear it if they wanted to. She was thrilled.

The Costume Discounters website had tons and tons of costumes to choose from. I was amazed by the huge selection and very pleased with the selection in our price range ($35 and under). Caroline and I scrolled through probably every single category and might have even clicked on every single link. I liked the fact that you could click on the category and then click on the costume itself for a better view. Being that we live in New England, where it tends to be chilly at the end of October (last year we even had snow the weekend before Halloween) we were trying to choose a costume that she could wear and still be relatively warm when she walked the neighborhood that night. I was also keeping an eye on the styles, since she’s a 12 year old but doesn’t fit into “kid” sizes, which can be hard when we go shopping, finding something “appropriate” in an adult size.

Ultimately, Caroline chose the Renaissance category and picked out a gorgeous Lady in Waiting costume to try. The “Popular Themes Renaissance” category had a large variety of costumes to choose from with a large price range as well. We sent the company our choice and were excited for the costume to arrive.

Caroline couldn't wait to try on her new costume!

We didn’t have to wait long! The costume arrived in less than one week’s time, and Caroline was so excited! When she took it out of the package, it was exactly as we imagined, beautiful dark green velour and good quality material. I’ve done “cheap” in the past, so I know that you get what you pay for.

The only problem that we had was that when she went to put on the costume, there were gold ties that were supposed to tie and hang down the front of the costume and as she put the costume on, one of them fell right off. However, I contacted the company right away and got a response immediately. I was offered an exchange of the costume for a new one, but we opted just to keep the one we had, and cut off the other tie to match, as we liked it just the way it was. Costume Discounters does have a good exchange and return policy though, should you need it.

You can tell the quality of the fabrics used in the costume were good, just by looking at it.

All in all, I was very pleased with my experience using the Costume Discounters website to choose a costume and I’d recommend it to someone else looking to purchase a costume online. I know that Caroline is already looking forward to Halloween in the fall, and I know she’ll enjoy her new costume when she goes to the various Halloween parties and trick or treating on October 31!

Vanilla Rich Chocolate Chip Cookies

17 Feb

This chocolate chip cookie recipe is definitely a keeper!

A few months ago I came across an advertisement by McCormick for their pure vanilla. It came with a recipe for Vanilla Rich Chocolate Chip Cookies. As I looked at the recipe I noted that it called for 4 tsp. of vanilla, much more than usual for vanilla, and I promptly tore it right out of the magazine for future use.

It’s funny, with all the recipes I have and all the cookbooks I have, I’ve never found a recipe for chocolate chip cookies that is “my” specific, always-go-to-recipe for Chocolate Chip Cookies. This recipe might just be it. I tried it out recently because I wanted to make cookies for a friend’s 40th birthday. She’s someone who is always “there” and never asks for anything in return. I decided that I’d make her a plate of 40 chocolate chip cookies and this is the recipe I used. Even though I made 40 for her, I still had another two dozen or so left for us. This recipe made a ton.

The cookies are delicious. I like hard, crunchy chocolate chip cookies and of course I like vanilla, butter and brown sugar. This recipe had it all! I will say though, as much vanilla was in them, it wasn’t an overpowering taste and it didn’t seem like it had as much vanilla as I knew it did! Try them and see how you like them!

INGREDIENTS

3 1/4 cups flour

1 tsp. baking soda

3/4 tsp. salt

1 1/3 cups butter, softened

1 1/4 cups granulated sugar

1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

2 eggs

4 tsp. McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract

1 pkg. semisweet chocolate chips

(This recipe also calls for 1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts, which we don’t use.)
DIRECTIONS

Mix flour, baking soda and salt in medium bowl.

Beat butter and sugars in large bowl with electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy. (I used my Kitchen Aide Mixer.)

Add eggs and vanilla. Mix well.

Gradually beat in flour mixture on low speed until well mixed.

Stir in chocolate chips and walnuts.

Drop by rounded tablespoons about 2 inches apart onto ungreased baking sheets.

Bake in preheated 375 degree oven 8 to 10 minutes or until lightly browned. (Mine took more like 11-12 minutes but I always set for ten minutes and then increased by one minute intervals.)

Remove to wire racks; cool completely.

Makes 5 dozen.

Cool on baking sheets one minute.

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