Archive | April, 2012

If it’s free, it’s for me

30 Apr

Recently I’ve taken up couponing, as many of you know. I’ve written about it in both February and in March. I’ve loved being able to save lots of money for my family with coupons and with additional money-back rebates, and I’ve loved the challenge of it all. I’m a bit obsessed.We’re not rich by any means, but we’re saving more money than we were before, and that’s important to me.

However, I’ve always been about saving money, even before I discovered the couponing obsession. I’ve always been good about taking advantage of a good deal or even better, a free deal. My motto is always “if it’s free, it’s for me,” which is not something I made up, it’s just something I tend to live by, especially when trying to save money for my family.

As a mom who has chosen to give up a full time job in order to be home to raise my family, I’ve always considered it my personal responsibility to be as frugal as possible to make up for the income I do not bring into our budget. I feel that it’s important for me to be home, and therefore it’s just as important for me to work hard to make money and equally as important to work hard to save money, and I always have.

Today in the mail I received our free Kodak photo book of our April Vacation activities. In fact,  just about all of the photo books in my cabinet were free.

This week I also received our free sample of the new Quaker Oatmeal cookies and a free magazine to start my year-long free subscription. We gave up all paid subscriptions when we cut back on our budget a few years back.

Yesterday I received a free makeup bag full of make up and coupons from Target and free lotion samples from another offer.

Our dog’s been eating free dog treats on and off for weeks and I’ve been drinking free Gevalia Coffee mixed in with my Price Rite brand coffee.

Next weekend we’re taking a free family photo to replace the free family photo that’s been on our wall since my youngest was a toddler.

When we visited family in California two years ago, our whole family got into Disney for free.

Our kids all got into Legoland on that same trip, for free.

It can be done.

Now obviously everything in life isn’t free, but there’s lots of opportunities out there to have fun for free, and to get a few items here and there for free as well. And in this economic climate, free is good. Many of us are struggling, so every little bit helps.

Summer is coming and there are lots of things out there you can do for free. There are some free things we take advantage of every year.

I’ve already signed my family up for the AMF summer bowling program where you can bowl free all day every day from May to September.

I’ll sign up for the free summer programs for my kids at our local library and we’ll frequent the free music concerts that are held all summer long across the state.

On Wednesday afternoons we’ll try to make it to AC Moore for their free craft every week throughout the summer and should we want to take in a movie, there will be several theaters that offer them free throughout the summer.

We’ll check out the list of museums that offer free entry on Fridays and maybe do a day trip.

Doing things for free will give us more money in our summer budget to do special things as well, like getting ice cream after those free music concerts or maybe purchasing the featured craft at AC Moore if they especially love it, with a coupon of course!

What kinds of free things do you take advantage of during the year?

Jacob’s Cookbook

27 Apr

A brownie recipe from Jacob's new cookbook

I know I’ve mentioned it in the past, but I meet some amazing people in my job at the newspaper, and I mean really amazing. So often I come home after a story, completely stunned by what I’ve just learned about the person I’ve just interviewed. Two weekends ago I had an interview that completely blew me away both as a parent and as someone who loves food and cooking.

Two weekends ago I met Jacob.

Jacob is 14. He’s an eighth grade student and he’s about to publish a cookbook as part of a project he has to do for school. The proceeds from his cookbook will benefit the local community food bank.

That in itself is amazing, but that’s not what blew me away, actually.

Here’s what did: when I interviewed Jacob I asked him where he got all of his recipes from for his cookbook.

His answer: he made them up.

Jacob has not only created a cookbook at age 14, which will benefit a worthy cause, but he created all of the recipes himself from scratch, including how much of each ingredient for each recipe. He created the cookbook page layouts, made all of the recipes, took all the photos of all the foods, and typed them all up himself.

I just about fell out of my chair.

I said to Jacob, “That. is. amazing.”

Jacob with his cookbook before it goes to print.

Jacob said he knew that, but I don’t think he REALLY knew that. I mean I don’t think I could just MAKE UP a recipe (never mind a cookbook full of them) and figure out all the stuff that has to go in it, all by myself and I am FORTY YEARS OLD-I’ve been cooking for several of his lifetimes and I couldn’t do that!!

I sat and interviewed Jacob for about 45 minutes or so, and my article about him can be seen here.

More importantly though, I have one of Jacob’s dessert recipes right HERE on my blog!  That’s right, he was kind enough to share one of his recipes with me and one with the newspaper. I am so glad that the one I have is a dessert recipe, since apparently Jacob and I both have a sweet tooth.

Here it is, Jacob’s recipe which he created himself for Orange Zest Brownies.


“As most people know, opposites attract. Well it is the same for flavors in food. A citrus flavor will go great with a sweet and creamy flavor. That is why orange chocolate brownies are perfect! Enjoy!” -Jacob Gebhart,  Amazing Appetizers and Decadent Desserts

Easy ingredients!



2 oz. unsweetened chocolate

1/3 cup shortening (I used 1/3 cup butter instead.)

1 cup sugar

2 eggs

1/2 tsp vanilla

3/4 cup all purpose flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

1 TBSP orange zest

3 oz. cream cheese

1-2 TBSP milk

2 and 1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar

1 TBSP orange zest

The orange zest gives it a great flavor.



Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and spray an 8×8 baking pan with non-stick cooking spray.

Heat chocolate and shortening in a 2 quart sauce pan over low heat, stirring constantly until melted.

Remove from heat, add sugar, eggs, vanilla, mix well. Then add remaining ingredients and stir until combined.

Spread batter in prepared pan evenly.

Bake for 25 minutes or until brownies begin to pull away from the sides of the pan.

Make sure to cool completely before cutting and frosting.


With an electric mixer, on medium speed, combine cream cheese and 1 TBSP of milk.

Add sugar, a little at a time, beat after each addition. (I added the last TBSP of milk halfway through as it got thick.)

Then add the orange zest and combine.

Cut cooled brownies into 9 pieces. Spread each square with orange cream frosting.


I found the recipe very easy to follow and quick and easy to make, just how I like my recipes to be! If you’re a taster when you bake, I highly recommend tasting the batter after the sugar is added but before the eggs. SO GOOD. I also tasted the cream cheese frosting before and after the zest was added, to see just how much the zest changed the flavor, and I was amazed at what a little bit of zest can do both to the texture (it was immediately creamier) and to the taste (it did now have that hint of orange flavor in it.)

For the orange zest, I used the zest from two medium oranges and split it between the batter and the frosting. It did work out to be just about one whole tablespoon in each, I’d say.

I opted to serve my frosting “on the side” as optional because with all the different likes and don’t likes at my house,  I didn’t want anyone not to want the brownies because they had “stuff” on them.

I also took half the batch to a friend’s house one afternoon and we enjoyed them with our coffee.

Great job Jacob, thanks for sharing your recipe with me! It truly was a decadent dessert!

Anyone who is interested in purchasing Jacob’s cookbook, Amazing Appetizers and Decadent Desserts, when it’s published, please send an email to Jacob at

Our latest Mystery Ride: The Buttonwood Park Zoo

26 Apr

Mystery Ride to a new-to-us zoo!

During April Vacation week when we were looking for fun things to do as a family, Don came across the Buttonwood Park Zoo, which was about 45 minutes or so from us in Massachusetts. We actually have a zoo about 10 minutes from us, but we’ve been there lots of times and we were looking for something new, different, and inexpensive. We found it at the Buttonwood Park Zoo.

We packed a picnic lunch plus snacks for later, and planned to find a spot to eat when we got there. We parked on a nearby residential street since the lot was full when we arrived. The zoo is in a beautiful area and there’s plenty of spots for walking, jogging, bike riding all around. It was a gorgeous day and people were out everywhere. It had such a great atmosphere about it.

We loved the fact that it only cost our family $21 to get in; very budget-friendly and less expensive than the zoo near our house. You had the option to purchase tickets for pony rides, train rides and carousel rides, but we said no, no and no again. At least for this time we were opting to just try out the zoo. We knew that we had plans the next day as well, so we had to stay fast to our budget and we explained that to our kids.

As a parent, now that I’ve seen the train and carousel, I would not spend the money on them in the future most likely. We have a much larger carousel nearby, two of them actually, that are cheaper (it was $2 per ride on the carousel at the zoo) and the train was really tiny, better for preschoolers, but I think I’d be tempted to let them try the pony rides if we went back.

This horse was *this* close to us. We pet her, fed, her and talked to her. She was absolutely beautiful. We visited this part of the farm area twice, just to see her.

Overall, the zoo was wonderful. We found a place to eat right away, in a very clean outdoor area that had tables and chairs already set up for us. There was also an indoor food court where you could buy food there and eat it inside if you wanted to. Because it was April Vacation week they had an area just inside the entrance where they were doing crafts but we didn’t participate because we were anxious to get in, eat and get started walking around.

The zoo had a mix of all kinds of exhibits including (but not limited to) bald eagles, elephants, black bears, river otters and my kids’ absolute favorite: the horses. There was lots of space to walk and an entire Buttonwood Farm area with sheep, roosters, goats, and rabbits. There was also an indoor aquatic exhibit that had snakes, birds and fish native to our area. And horses. Did I mention there were horses?

We spent about 2 1/2 hours or so walking the zoo. Although the lot was full, you didn’t feel crowded or as if you were walking in a herd of people. We saw the whole thing and between us we took over 200 pictures. It was a gorgeous day, perfect fora day at the zoo. We enjoyed the variety of exhibits that gave us a change from our regular zoo as well, even though we love it there also.

I’d definitely go back to the Buttonwood Park Zoo and if you live anywhere within driving distance to the New Bedford area, I highly recommend that you give it a try, especially if you’re looking to stick to a budget. It’s extremely affordable and you get a great deal out of the experience for the money you pay. I’d definitely go back again, and my kids, well they’re saving their money now.

They want to buy a horse.

Ragu Alla Bolognese

25 Apr

A couple of years back, a new extra-special meal was introduced at Grandma and Grandpa's house.

When my kids sleep over at their Grandma and Grandpa’s house they always return with tales of all the yummy things they got to eat while they were there, and although we eat pretty well over here too, they always seem to have that extra special something at their house that makes my mouth water. It makes me want to sleep over too. Maybe next time instead of dropping off, I’ll just hang out and see if anyone notices the extra mouth to feed.

A couple of years back, they started returning with tales of a new dish they’d had and loved: Pasta Bolognese. Elizabeth especially loved it and whenever anyone asked her what her favorite meal was, she’d say “Spaghetti Bolognese.” She’d constantly request the meal at home, but the only problem was, I didn’t have “the” recipe for it and I knew it was a pretty involved recipe. The last thing I wanted was to go through all the work with the wrong recipe only to have her say, “It’s good but it’s not as good….”

Until recently we didn't even have the coveted recipe for the Pasta Bolognese, much to Elizabeth's dismay.

Recently she had to submit her favorite recipe for a troop cookbook for Girl Scouts. Her first choice: Spaghetti Bolognese. I still didn’t have it. Her second choice: Spaghetti with Lobster Sauce, also a recipe I didn’t have. Her final answer: Grandma Rose’s Famous Tuna and Spaghetti. BINGO! Finally, a recipe I had! After hearing my tale of recipe woe, my mom gave me the recipe for the Bolognese Sauce they make.

One recent rainy Sunday we decided to try it out. Don’s Kitchen opened up and he went to town cooking up the recipe. The recipe itself is one my mom got from a family friend. It turned out wonderfully! We used just one part of how much it made so we froze three batches: two for our family and one for company.

Thankfully, when we asked Elizabeth for the verdict on how it came out, she said, “It’s perfect.”


Price Rite had everything we needed to make an affordable Pasta Bolgonese meal for our last April Vacation dinner.

Ragu alla Bolognese

1 and 1/2 stalks celery

2 carrots

1/2 of a large onion

1 and 1/2lb lean ground hamburger (or you can use a mix of beef, pork and veal. We used just hamburger our first time.)

3/4 stick butter

2 cans kitchen ready tomatoes (28 oz.)

2 cans beef broth, 2 cans water

6 TBS. olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

optional: 1/2 cup red wine

The longest part of this recipe is just the simmering. The rest cooks up fast and easy.


Dice celery, carrots and onion very fine. (Don used the food processor.)

Brown lean meat in butter and oil. Add vegetables to meat.

Put tomatoes through the blender. Add to mixture.

Add beef broth and water, salt and pepper.

Allow sauce to come to a boil and then simmer on low heat for two hours uncovered or more.

You can skim oil off the top when done.

Option: you can add heavy cream or half and half at the end if desired, for more of a pink vodka sauce.

Makes 5 meals for two with two pounds of meat.

Does that not make your mouth water?? You know what? It was even better the second day!

Movie Review: “Chimpanzee”

24 Apr

This movie got two thumbs up from all of us!

Last week we got the chance to see the new Disney movie, “Chimpanzee,” on the very first day it came out. I was excited because I personally haven’t seen the last few Disney movies that come out around Earth Day each year. The commercials I’d seen for the movie looked wonderful and we couldn’t wait to surprise the kids with this particular Staycation activity.

We were not disappointed. The movie was rated G, which took a huge weight off of my shoulders. Whenever we see a movie, even if it’s PG, I spend the entire time worrying about what might pop up in terms of language or violence, especially having a child on the younger end of the age range. A rated G movie takes those fears right off my radar. It’s not often you can find a G movie that’s good for the older kids too, keeping their attention throughout. This one definitely did that.

The cinematography in this movie was amazing. The scenery was stunning and the camera crew did an amazing job capturing it all. I loved the out takes at the end because you really see what the camera crew went through to get some of the shots you were awed by throughout the movie.

Tim Allen was the narrator and he did a fabulous job with it. He had the difficult task of narrating a true story where the characters themselves do not speak–nature at it’s best–and he pulled it off without a hitch. He guided the viewer through all the emotions. There were funny parts, sad parts, scary parts (but not so scary) and parts where you were on the edge of your seat.

I wasn’t sure how my kids would like the movie. It was non-fiction which they generally prefer to read, but as far as movies go it wasn’t typical of some of the movie plots out there right now that I know they’ve also been dying to see.  However, everyone loved it! They’d been wanting to see it, and they really enjoyed it. We all did, and I’m so glad we splurged on this activity for our Staycation.

If you get the chance to see the “Chimpanzee” movie, I highly recommend it!

Five Days, One Hundred Dollars

23 Apr

Staycation on the cheap. Can it be done?

There used to be a show on TLC (I think) that was called Trading Spaces. I loved that show. Two families would renovate their homes and they’d have just two days and $1000 to do it.

Well this week was April Vacation here and we were having a Staycation, not traveling anywhere, but we didn’t have much extra money in our budget for the week’s activities either. (Technically we were home for nine days if you count the weekend before and after the vacation week but as far as days we wouldn’t normally be home already, it was five days.)

We had approximately $100. Five people, five days, $100. Twenty bucks a day divided by five people, $4 per person per day.

That’s a Staycation on the Cheap for sure.

So did we do it? Of course we did. Not a whole lot of choice in that regard, since there’s no overspending when you don’t use credit cards. If the money’s not in the account, you don’t do it.

Chinese take out: Big Splurge.

First off, we had some work we needed to do around the house which took up a couple of days at the start of the week. To reward ourselves for a job well done, and since we were too tired to cook, we decided to splurge on take out. 

Chinese take-out:  $30.

Who doesn't love lemonade on a hot day?

My kids were dying to have a Lemonade Stand at our house. They spent part of the weekend making their posters and getting their business plan in place. They worked out what hours they’d be selling, how much they’d be charging and got everything ready to go. The weather was gorgeous on their chosen day and they were outside all day long. They worked together and even stayed open an extra hour because business was so good.

Lemonade Stand: Free

The first of many dinners at the beach took place this week.

The start of the week was very hot, like summertime hot, so we opted to cook dinner at home and pack it up to eat down by the beach. We’d take a walk along the ocean and watch the sun go down. We can do that here, we’re very lucky. We even saw a wedding that night in the gazebo by the ocean.

Dinner and walk along the beach: Free

Mystery Ride to a new-to-us zoo!

Although it was vacation week, I still had to work on and off periodically throughout the week whether it was covering stories for the two papers or typing them, so we worked that into our schedule and later in the week we tried out a new zoo that was in the direction of a story I was covering. It was the Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Tickets to the Buttonwoods Zoo for a family of five : $21.

Redbox is the greatest invention. You can rent movies for just over $1 per night. There were some movies we wanted to see so over the week’s time we rented three movies.

Family Movie Night times three, complete with popcorn: $3.75.

Even though we like Family Movie Night, there’s also nothing like seeing a “real” movie in a “real” theater, something we never, ever do since five people at a first run movie is expensive. Again, we decided to splurge. 

Matinee movie for five with five Entertainment Book Coupons: $38.

Last day on training wheels!

There were other things we did throughout the week like bike rides, scooter rides, eating dinner on the deck for the first time this season, watching the sunset from our own back yard, night hikes with flashlights (my favorite) and things like that, all free, all outdoors, all time spent together. Of course we ate our way through the week too, having “weekend” breakfasts every day, like waffles and crepes, muffins and pancakes, french toast. That in itself is a vacation in my book! And really, all of those things you just can’t put a price tag on.


Sometimes you don't even need to leave home to enjoy the simple magic of life.

A second recipe for Sue’s snack

20 Apr

No matter which recipe you use, this is a delicious treat!

Yesterday I mentioned that I had two different recipes to go along with the snack that Sue makes. This second recipe is one that my friend Pam sent me a while back on a snow day. Here it is as I posted it that February day on Facebook:

Chocolate Crack

1 box graham crackers

2 sticks salted butter

1 cup brown sugar

2 cups semisweet chips (1 twelve ounce package)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line 10×15 cookie sheet with foil, spray with PAM.

Line the pan with graham crackers, using single pieces to fill in the gaps.

Line completely with crackers, breaking to fill in gaps.

Combine butter and brown sugar in saucepan.

Bring to boil over medium heat, boil for exactly five minutes.

Pour over graham crackers as evenly as possible and bake ten minutes.

The chocolate chips will melt upon contact with the hot butter and brown sugar mixture.

Sprinkle chips over the top and spread once they melt.

Refrigerate to chill.

Once solid, break into random sized pieces.