Missing in action, but for good reasons!

4 Aug

We spent two weeks camping at the beginning of the summer, and enjoying sunsets like this one every night.

Hello and happy August!

Yes, I know it’s August.

And yes, I know I haven’t posted a blog post in a very long time, and I am here to say that although I have been MIA for a while, it’s been for good reasons and that we are all well!

When school ended at the end of June, we had one week and then we were very lucky to head almost immediately into two weeks of vacation for the first two weeks of July. We took the camper to a state campground right here in our very own state for a much-needed Staycation. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, nor could the location. We had an amazing time enjoying each other, our friends and the treasure that is our home state. So often we feel the need to go away to get away, and although we technically did go away, it was only about a half hour away, but yet we felt as if we were away-away.

We spent two very relaxing weeks reading, resting and getting our energy back from a busy school year, but also getting ourselves ready for a huge kitchen renovation project ahead.

In the meantime, we were getting ourselves ready for a huge project that we’d be in the thick of once we were home from our two weeks. We were going to be finishing up a kitchen renovation project that we started, somewhat unexpectedly, last February 2016.

Our old kitchen was out-dated and in need of pretty much everything.

As a family who does a whole lot of cooking, we have always been frustrated that we had a pretty small, closed in, cramped and out-dated kitchen. In February 2016 we were given a generous gift: all new appliances. We were so excited when they arrived, and we could not wait to use them all. Our old dishwasher hadn’t worked in a couple of years, our old fridge no longer made ice or dispensed water on the door, and our old stove didn’t cook things properly or consistently.

When the delivery guy from the store brought in our new appliances, he commented that the layout of our kitchen, with the stove and fridge so close together, was odd and not usually recommended. The layout had always been this way since the house was built in 1976, and we really had no other options than the way it was, so he put the new ones just as the old ones had been.

What could possibly happen?

What could possibly go wrong?

Within weeks, our new stove was melting the side of our new fridge.

Panic set in as we realized we had to quickly fix the situation. We opted to do a partial renovation of our kitchen last year in order to remedy the problem as best we could at the time. So last April we ripped out one set of cabinets and counter tops and ripped out five layers of flooring in order to move our fridge into a new spot. It meant getting a new tile floor (which we also needed badly) and putting up some new wall covering, and painting. Once we did all of that, we put in some temporary cabinets and a temporary counter top where the fridge used to be and then stopped where we were and took more than a year “off” to regroup, save some money and ready ourselves for the rest of the project.

This always-cluttered back counter and cabinet space would soon be a new home for our new fridge.

This summer our focus was taking down a wall to knee wall height in order to open up our kitchen and dining area a bit, and replacing all of the rest of the kitchen cabinets and counter tops.

We took out a wall to open up our space significantly.

In order to keep costs down, we did all of the demolition ourselves and assembled our kitchen cabinets ourselves too, rather than having our contractor or the cabinet store do any of it for us. I use the words “we” and “us” quite liberally, since I wasn’t the one actually doing a lot of the manual labor. I did my part, emptying and later re-loading the kitchen, and helped with demolition and assembly in any way I could. Even the kids helped out with demolition, happy to put a hammer to a wall and put a hole through it with permission.

As I type this post, we are about 3/4 of the way done. Our demolition was started before we went camping and finished when we returned, and our contractor arrived the very next week to do the work we couldn’t do on our own. That one week was a bit chaotic, although not nearly as bad as I imagined it would be.

Our kitchen was a mix of old and new for more than a year before we continued with our renovation project this summer, knocking down a wall and taking out the rest of the old cabinets.

Now, we are down to waiting for our new counter tops and sink to arrive so that we can stop doing dishes in our bathroom sink and tub.

We still have a lot to do, and I am sure we will be finishing up this project for quite a while, with a tile backsplash still to go in and touch up painting still to be done on the walls and ceiling, but it’ll be more complete than it’s been in a long time, and for that, I am thankful.

Below are some photos of where we are at right now as we are awaiting the arrival of our granite counters and our kitchen sink this weekend.

I will end my post with a promise that I will eventually post again soon, but it may be a little while longer until I do. At least for now, while you wait, you know what I’m doing instead!

A new home for the refrigerator solved our melting problem.

Looking in from the dining room, which we can do now that the wall is gone.

 

 

 

We can hardly remember what it looked like when the wall was there.

Cave Tools Pigtail Food Flipper: a great new tool for summer grilling

30 Jun

We’ll be taking these with us to the campground this summer!

It’s officially summer! Summer means so many things, but one thing it means for us is grilling. Another thing it means for us is camping.When we camp, we grill! Therefore, I was very excited when Cave Tools asked me to try out another one of their fabulous products. I have reviewed several of their other grilling tools and have yet to be disappointed.

The Pigtail Food Flippers arrived on our doorstep just as we were creating our menu for a week’s worth of meals, and we put steaks right on the menu so we could try out our new tool. We would be grilling at home, but soon we will be camping and we’ll be grilling over a campfire. These new tools, a pair of two-one longer and one shorter-seemed to be perfect for all the grilling we do. Although we were doing steaks on this particular night, the tools are great for so many other things, including bacon, chicken, hot dogs and ribs, just to name a few ideas.

The Pigtail Food Flipper was great for grilling steaks, but it has many other uses as well.

When I asked my husband what he liked about the new Pigtail Food Flippers versus using a spatula, a fork or tongs, he said that the shape of the hook which made for easy flipping.

“I liked the way the hook was shaped,” he said. “All you had to do was hook the meat and flip it rather than trying to get a spatula underneath. I also liked that it came in two sizes, I didn’t have to use a big one for a small piece of meat and I won’t have to use a small one for a big piece.”

The tool was super-easy to clean because they’re dishwasher safe, and to store, which is a big plus for a small kitchen. Additionally, the handles fit well into the palm of your hand, much more comfortable than the flat form of a spatula.

You can find this great new tool set in two places and it’s very affordable. It’s on Amazon here, and on the Cave Tools website here. If you choose to order from the Cave Tools site, there is a great 15% off discount available by entering the coupon code PIGTAIL15 at checkout.

As we pack up for camping, we’ll be including our Pigtail Flippers, and I encourage you to check them out too!

 

***I was given a free product in order to do this review. However, all thoughts and opinions are my own.***

 

What’s for Dinner Wednesday: Busy? Me too! Meals for on the go schedules

14 Jun

I feel like I must look like this by the end of the school year, every June. Most days, I barely know what day it is.

Happy Wednesday!

It’s finally stopped raining, at least temporarily, so we’re cancelling our plans to build an ark and have instead started the final countdown to the end of the school year. We have just about a week to go.

I always compare this time of year for teachers, students, parents and those of us in the education world to what I imagine the tax season to be like for accountants. It’s crazy-busy for all of us, and we’re spread thin, trying to put ourselves in several places at once. This year, I am especially thankful that we have a third driver, which has helped our situation when we aren’t able to clone ourselves to be two places at once.

Busy? Absolutely. Still need to cook and eat? Absolutely.

Normally during much of the year we plan our meals two weeks in advance and shop for them two weeks in advance as well. However, since after the April vacation week, we have only been able to manage to plan and shop a week at a time for much of May and June. It’s been working out, and this week I am particularly proud of our meal planning because we were able to prep so much of it in advance. It meant a lot of work, particularly on Sunday night, but we had the time to spend that evening, and it’s nice to know we’re set for this week, the final full week of the school year for all of us. Like everyone else, we’re battling with the culminating events forĀ  sports and school and work and other extra-curriculars, but we get through it, just like everyone else does, just like all the other years, and then it will be summer and we can breathe again.

I told someone just the other day that during the rest of the year our schedules are busy, but doable because everything has a designated slot on the schedule and when left as is, it all works out. There may be a lot of it, with five schedules and only seven days in a week, but everything fits. November/December and May/June are the months that throw things off because all of the activities choose new, additional slots on the schedule in which to place their seasonal events. So our Saturday morning slot also goes into a slot on Monday and on Tuesday night, for example, but yet we already have something in that slot on Monday. And on Tuesday. Our Monday and Wednesday slots decide to put their event on a Saturday and on also a Sunday, and still on Monday and Wednesday too. Things that are normally contained within the school day curriculum, like band for one, or chorus for another, or theater for the other, or even recognition events for all, suddenly need night time slots for everyone. As adults we are also required to attend many of these same events at other schools for our school-related jobs as well as for our own three kids, so the chaos multiplies quickly for us here. It gets all mixed up for a good month and then it goes back to normal again, but for those weeks of the year, twice a year, we are definitely over-scheduled, over-worked and overwhelmed before normalcy and calm returns.

We use our summer to decompress. We don’t over-schedule and we don’t have to worry much about competing events because we don’t do a lot, and for both of us adults, work slows down to a more normal, regular pace. I take the time to evaluate what worked and what didn’t from the past year and make adjustments by August for the upcoming year. I also look at ways we can be more organized as a family, every summer. Last year I instituted the Cozi app, and have loved that and will definitely keep it going for the next year. The year before, I instituted a great allowance system, and have kept that going as well. Summer is always a great time for reflecting, making changes and improving our well-oiled machines.

So, in preparation for all of your upcoming busy weeks ahead, here is our one week of meals, instead of two, but they are great for making ahead, cooking once and eating twice, and for having to grab and go.

ONE WEEK OF MEALS

Sunday: Shepherd’s Pie: This was our plan ahead, shop ahead and cook ahead day, and even though the daytime hours were full of obligations, we cooked into the evening hours and ate our dinner late that night in order to be ready for the week ahead. The kids used the time wisely and played outside until well after the street lights came on. See the recipe here. Make a big batch, eat half the first night and save the rest for a leftovers night later in the week.

Monday: Quesadillas: This night we had a PT appointment for one, a dance class for another and a fashion show rehearsal for all three, all after school, so we needed a literal grab and go dinner. (Thankfully, no one had any homework.) As a shortcut, I used already cooked chicken strips as my chicken and cheese fillers for these. I made plain cheese, spicy chicken and cheese, and plain chicken and cheese, and I bagged them all up, labeled and ready to go. When made with corn tortillas, these are also gluten free. They’re better served hot, but they’re edible cold as well, and when you’re hungry, cold will do just fine. Find the recipe here. As an added bonus, these make a great lunch, so I was one step ahead Tuesday morning as well.

My bag of quesadillas, ready to conquer dinner and then lunches, in one fell swoop.

Tuesday: American Chopped Suey: This was a meal we made ahead on Sunday night as well. Sauteed peppers, onions, mushrooms and olives filled our kitchen with a delicious aroma as we cooked, and thanks to that little teaser, now everyone can’t wait for this meal. We need to be at the kids’ fashion show by 5:30, so this will be an early meal, but will fill everyone’s bellies sufficiently before we go. Additionally, this will be something that will leave leftovers for our leftovers night. I don’t have a recipe we follow for this, it’s just sauteed ground meat (we use turkey), veggies of your choice, cooked pasta and sauce topped and baked with cheese. Ours is gluten free.

Wednesday: French Toast: This is my favorite go-to meal: breakfast for dinner. It’s fast and French Toast is my favorite meal for breakfast, despite my love for other types of morning treats. We have an after school meeting for one, piano lessons for one, dance class for one, a band concert for another, plus a work event for one, all before 7pm so this time, everyone will eat when they can, before they need to go, or when they get back, or both. It’ll be ready to eat, gluten free and not, for whenever it’s needed.

Thursday: Leftovers: On this night, all the kids are home, and finals start in the morning for our highschooler, so it’s crunch time for sure, but now both adults have to work. Normally we try our hardest to avoid both being out simultaneously for work at night, especially since I can set my own schedule more easily, but this week is an exception. It is graduation week here in our city and I cover three of the four high school graduation events, so my being out can’t be avoided, and neither can his. So, we planned our leftover night for this night because everything can be reheated from earlier in the week. If no one likes that, there’s enough other choices that they can make on their own easily enough, but we’ve done what we consider to be our parental due diligence and provided good meal options.

Friday: Homemade Pizza: Only I have to work on this night, graduation event #2. So I’ll come home at the end of the night and enjoy some yummy homemade pizzas. We enjoy homemade more than the pizza we take out, Don makes the absolute best pizza around, so this is a treat we all look forward to.

Saturday: Dinner event: We have a birthday party for one child early on in the day, and the final graduation event during the day for me as well, and then we are all heading to a dinner event that night, so our final meal of the week is planned for us, thankfully.

We will (hopefully) have made it through the week unscathed and having our meals planned out and mostly ready to go will have allowed us to enjoy the moments as we get to them and through them, and to enjoy the end of the year as it comes. It was a relatively inexpensive set of meals too, so that has been a little bit of a break for our grocery budget as well, when all else is so much more costly at this time of year.

May you all survive the busy seasons in your own lives, families and occupations. If this isn’t your busy season, save this post for when you’ll need it most!

 

 

Fun Friday: Mini Strawberry Cheesecakes

9 Jun

If you’re looking for a new summertime dessert, this one comes highly recommended!

We don’t entertain often, but when we do, I like to try out new things. We are generally among friends and family so the “never try out new things for guests” rule gets bent a little bit, if I think it’s a new thing that I can pull off relatively easily.

Last Wednesday I shared our Burger Bar post from the previous Sunday’s get-together and I promised I’d share two other recipes. Today’s is one and I’ll still have another one for you coming up in a future post as well.

I was looking for a summery dessert to serve that Sunday, something different than brownies or cookies. I came across this recipe by Life, Love and Sugar and thought it would be different and something I could make gluten free, which is always a consideration. My grandmother has always made mini cherry cheesecakes which are my absolute favorite, and this reminded me of those. Additionally, they were summery and a little bit patriotic looking, which was an added bonus.

I had gluten free graham cracker crumbs on hand and I also had gluten free graham crackers in the freezer if I had needed to use them to make my own crumbs, which I didn’t need to do. I had enough left in my box to make a set of gluten free cheesecakes and a regular box to make a set of non-gluten free. I had colored cupcake liners in red, pink, orange and green in my cabinet too, so I made the red and pink liners the gluten free cheesecakes and the orange and green the non-gluten free cheesecakes so everyone could easily tell which was which.

These cheesecakes have multiple layers of deliciousness, and they’re able to be made gluten free to boot!

What I loved about this recipe was that it had layers to it: a layer of crumbs, a layer of fresh strawberries, a layer of cheesecake, more strawberries and some whipped cream. They were mini, but they were fancy and multi-faceted.

The thing to pay attention to in the recipe is the baking and cooling times. You need to pre-bake the crumbs for a few minutes, and the temperature for baking changes. The time and locations for cooling are specific as well. It’s not hard, but if you’re someone who doesn’t read a recipe all the way through to start, or who just skims and will wing it along the way, I encourage you to take the time to read it through first.

The entire recipe is easy, and the dessert was delicious, well-received by everyone and I would most definitely do it again. I like that it fed so many people. I had two trays of mini cheesecakes, minus just a couple. For my ingredients, I chose to substitute low fat sour cream instead of full fat and 1/3 fat cream cheese instead of full fat, and to use I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter for my butter, which we always do. I also increased the recipe slightly, in order to make more mini cheesecakes, and increased my ingredients all accordingly. I also cheated and used a squirty whipped cream instead of making it homemade, given our time constraints.

I hope you’ll give this recipe from Life, Love and Sugar a try, and many thanks to them for sharing it!

*Tip: If you’re looking for gluten free graham cracker crumbs, I found these at a Super Walmart, but you can also make your own by using a blender or food processor to grind whole gluten free graham crackers into crumbs.*

What’s for Dinner Wednesday: Make it a burger bar!

31 May

I was inspired by this new cookbook that had come in a fundraiser order.

Happy Wednesday, everyone!

We are in the home stretch. We have just 17 more days of school for our middle school kids and 15 for our high school kid and then we get a nice, long summer break.

We can’t wait. The days of no schedules, no homework and no pressure are just weeks away.

This past weekend was Memorial Day weekend. I spent a good portion of my Thursday and Friday honoring those who lost their lives in service to our country as I covered various ceremonies and events over the two days’ time. As the latter part of the weekend loomed near, I had to begin to focus on a menu of sorts for a Sunday evening get- together that was taking place at our house. It’s a regular get-together that we do several times a year with the same group of people, and this time it was our turn to host.

I was looking for something different or unique to do for our portion of the meal, which included the main dish and one dessert. We tossed around some ideas. There were going to be about 12 of us eating, and we wanted to keep the meal budget-friendly as well as schedule-friendly, something that didn’t take all day to prepare and cook. Everything we had thought of, we had done before or seemed too unexciting for what my mind was reaching for. Although I didn’t know what I wanted to serve, I seemed to know plenty of what I didn’t want to serve.

Suddenly, one afternoon, my eye caught on a pile of items that had arrived from my daughter Caroline’s high school fundraiser. Two of the items specifically called out to me: a burger stuffing tool and a gourmet burger cookbook. I knew we couldn’t use the new tool to sit and stuff a dozen people’s burgers individually and uniquely, but as I flipped through the cookbook and saw all the yummy different types of burgers and toppings, I came up with an idea: a burger bar.

We are fans of the taco bar, the baked potato bar, we’ve done a crepe buffet, and we often do DIY chicken and make-your-own pizzas, so why not set up a burger bar so everyone can have some fun, not-your-average burgers?! I thought it was a fabulous idea, and it checked off my boxes of being budget-friendly and schedule-friendly too. As it turns out, since there is a national day for everything, Sunday ended up being National Hamburger Day.
Even better.

When I ran it by the rest of my family, it got a thumbs up, so I made my list of toppings and condiments that I’d want to have available so that people could customize their burgers.

What would be at your burger bar? This was ours.

We had several kinds of cheeses: American, Provolone and Swiss. I added Bleu Cheese to the list.

We put out several condiments: relish, ketchup, mustard, mayo, and I added in BBQ sauce as well.

Next up, some fun items: French’s onions (similar to the onion straws I love at Smashburger and at Texas Roadhouse restaurants), avocado, red onion, sauteed mushrooms, bacon (Who doesn’t love bacon?? There wasn’t a crumb left.) Sliced lettuce and tomato topped the list, and we were ready to roll.

Just one of the burgers created this past weekend at our burger bar. Creation by: Liz.

People got in line, got their rolls, chose the burger with their favorite cheese and made their way down through their choices. On mine, I had bacon, French’s Onions, tomato, and mushrooms. Everyone’s burger was different.

It was a lot of fun and I’d do it again this way. It made a typical meal less than typical and let everyone have what they wanted to have, and maybe try something they didn’t know they wanted to have.

There were a couple of outliers…they had hotdogs. We aim to please.

That same day, we tried out two other new recipes which I will be sharing with you in my next couple of posts, but for now, I’d like to know, what would you put on the list for your own burger bar?

Leave a comment and let me know! What did I miss?

Fun Friday: Summer is here!

26 May

Ready to plan your summer?

Well, not officially, but it’s Memorial Day weekend, and that often signifies the un-official start of summer, while seasonally it doesn’t officially start until mid-June. Today, I wanted to share two exciting links with you from my work with The Providence Journal, which will help you plan your summer adventures, if you are local to Rhode Island, most especially your eating adventures.

The Providence Journal published its annual Summer Guide last weekend, providing readers with nearly 100 pages of summertime fun. I was asked to be a contributor to the guide, providing readers with a comprehensive roundup of great places to eat during the summer months and great food festivals to visit all summer long.

To create my lists of places to eat and festivals to visit, I polled my social media community. I asked them where they like to eat, and what their favorite festivals are each summer. I was amazed by the answers. My family and I tend to be creatures of habit, and we often visit our same favorites over and over again, forgetting that our littlest state packs quite a punch when it comes to delectable meals. I found myself saying, “We’ll have to remember this place, and that one, and that one….next time we want to eat out.”

And so, here are my two pieces for you so that as you sit down and with your calendar to plan out some summer fun, you have a place to start.

You too, might find a new place to eat that you never knew about!

To see the roundup of Rhode Islanders’ Favorite Restaurants, visit the link here.

To find some great new food festivals to visit (Swedish Meatballs anyone?) visit the link here.

Foodie festivals for everyone’s tastes and budgets!

And finally, to read the entire guide, visit this link here. You can find the best beaches, historic homes, fairs and more, to fill your summer months with fun and adventure.

Budget-friendly camping tips from The Penny Hoarder

24 May

Camping on a budget can make you a very happy camper!

It’s the end of May, Memorial Day weekend is just days away. I can almost taste the summertime…if it would just stop raining! We had some hot, 100 degree days last week, and the flip flops and tank tops were out, the sun shining, kids playing in the yard, I could see the lazy days of summer just ahead.

If summertime includes camping for you, as it does for us, you’ll be happy to read the most recent post from The Penny Hoarder’s site, “Get the Vacation You’ve Been Craving on a Budget: Go Camping.” The post contains six tips for budget-friendly travel through camping.

If you’ve been a fan of The Whole Bag of Chips recently, then you know that we purchased a new-to-us camper in 2015 and used it to travel in a budget-friendly manner over the past couple of years, touring the country in 2015 and touring NYC this past spring. We also traveled to Mystic, CT and to Meredith, NH as well as hanging out by the beaches here in the Ocean State in 2015, 2016 and again this coming summer in 2017. Having our own camper is thousands of dollars cheaper than renting a beach house in New England for a week every summer.

I was so thrilled when Lisa Rowan, writer for The Penny Hoarder, reached out to me for some tips to include in their camping post. The only thing that makes me happier than being able to do things because of the fact that we budget, is to be able to help others achieve their own goals by doing things on a budget as well. Stretching a dollar has helped us to achieve so many things, including all of the recent travel that we’ve been doing.

So if you are wishing you could do more traveling, but just don’t have the means, be sure to read the above post, or check out my travel pages #crosscountryadventure2015 and #thecowartstakemanhattan2017 for some tips and tricks for traveling and camping on a budget.