Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Has anyone ever tried to go a period of time without buying groceries? I am toying with the idea of going two weeks on, two weeks off with grocery shopping. The first two weeks would be grocery shopping as normal, particularly stocking up on good deals of things we eat regularly. The second two weeks would be focused on using what is in our pantry, fridge, freezer, etc. We would still be able to buy milk, bread, and produce as needed. Perhaps also making exceptions for items we find through couponing that are 50% or more off their normal price that we consume on a regular basis.

So has anyone ever tried something like this? How did it go?

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Pirate Birthday Party!

Over the weekend my son turned 4, and requested a Jake and the Neverland Pirates party. It ended up being pretty cheap and simple, and the kids had a great time! So I thought I'd share some pics in case anyone out there is looking for ideas!

We bought some pirate stuff at Target (pretty decent birthday party stuff for a good price, BTW). We got a fabric banner for about $3, some streamers, a tablecloth, and balloons. Then it occurred to me that I didn't have anything to make it about Jake and the Neverland Pirates, so I printed some pictures off the internet and just taped them to my walls (super high-class around here, can you tell?). You can also see on the second picture my Birthday Collage - I always put up a collage of pictures of my kids on their birthday each year.

Games & Activities:
When the kids first came in, they did a Jake and the Neverland Pirates coloring page. Just wanted to give them something to do while we waited for all the guests, other than pulling out all my kids' toys. One of the kids asked if they were placemats. Hmmmmm... I pulled out my laminator, and then suddenly, they were!

The $1.52 bag of balloons was definitely the highlight of this party. We used the black ones to play Cannon Launch (who could hit a balloon the furthest), Shoot Captain Hook (they all stood behind the line and tried to pelt me with balloons), and Keep the Cannons in the Air (trying to keep all the balloons from falling to the ground). We also used a quick YouTube link to learn how to make balloon swords and made swords for everyone and then the kids had swordfights. They LOVED this (hint: make extras!).

I also put together a treasure hunt. I took pictures of different locations around the house, and then made a picture Treasure Hunt. I gave them the first picture, then they went to that spot, found the next picture, etc., until they found the "treasure." The treasure was a box with their goody bags in them - containing an eye patch, chocolate coins, ring pops, and popcorn.

The Food:
My son requested hot dogs, so we had that all planned out. Then I saw an idea online to turn hot dogs into pirate ships, with Goldfish crackers scattered around. I think these turned out cute, especially considering we put them together in like 5 minutes.
For the cake, we did a pirate hat, with some gold coins scattered around. This was a pretty easy cake made from two 8" rounds. It was in last month's Family Fun magazine.

All in all, I would consider this one of our best kids' parties. As I mentioned, everything was extremely cheap and easy to do, and the kids had an awesome time. My son loved it all!

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How-Tuesday: How To Set Up a Dinner Exchange Group

Cooking dinner every night kind of sucks. What you need is a Dinner Exchange Group, which is where you swap meals with one or more families each week. Doing a dinner group can save both time and money, and it's a great way to try new recipes and ideas. So here's how to set one up:

1) First, figure out how many nights you want to be doing this. I find that 2-4 families usually works out about right. No one wants to be doing this every night - we all have other obligations.

2) Ask around to find some families to join you. We always try to find families that are similar in size to ours so that we are exchanging equal amounts of food.

3) Once you've got your group, decide on your ground rules. You need to have everyone pick a night they want to cook, and decide how you are doing your portioning and menu planning. Discuss likes and dislikes, what to do about canceling, time frame for meal delivery, etc. (See notes later on for more discussion on these.)

4) Get started! Just know that at times, everyone is going to make things that don't turn out very well, or didn't make enough, or whatever. It happens - don't stress out.

5) Touch base regularly and honestly. If there are things that aren't working, speak up. You're not doing anyone any favors by continuing to participate resentfully, or by throwing away a certain meal each time it's made because you're too embarrassed to say you don't like it. We met every few months and just went over our old calendars and said what meals our family really DID like, and that worked well so that people knew what was good to repeat.

6) Sit back and enjoy your night(s) each week where you don't have to do any meal prep or clean-up!

Some Notes From the Trenches:

If you're serious about wanting to set up a group, I thought I'd share some more detailed notes on things we've learned along the way.

*Menu-planning: In my old group, we used a Yahoo calendar to set up meals so that there was no duplication. In the beginning we did a meat rotation (chicken, beef, other) so that there was variety, but after time we abandoned that and just paid attention to what other people were calendaring in so that we didn't have a whole bunch of chicken in a row, or pasta, or whatever. In my group now there are only 2 families and we just make whatever. It causes me a bit of anxiety to not have it scheduled out, but it works for the other family, so I go with it. Another group I'm familiar with meets for breakfast one Saturday each quarter, brings their recipes/cookbooks, and schedules out the whole quarter right then and there.

*Side dishes: This can be handled in a variety of ways, from exchanging the meat, carbs, veggies, and desserts to just exchanging the main dish. Again, this is just one of those things you have to discuss with your group to see what works for everyone. We also never exchanged sour cream or shredded cheese (like as a topping), because those were things we all agreed we had on hand and it was more hassle than it was worth to deal with a tiny little container of sour cream.

*Portioning: In one group, we had designated tupperware containers that we determined were the right portions to exchange, and you just filled them, and we only swapped those containers. Everyone put in like $10 up front to buy the containers. Or, you can just kind of talk about how much you feel is an appropriate portion for each adult and kid and stick to it.

*Meal ideas: Uh, obviously not everything works well for a dinner exchange. You need to plan stuff that will travel well, and sit well since it won't be eaten immediately. Soups, salads, casseroles, stir-frys, etc. are all great. If you'd like, you can check out our old Yahoo calendar for ideas. I participated in this group during all of 2008 and some of 2009 so there are lots of ideas. Sample Dinner Group Calendar

Any other questions? Just ask! We've been doing some form of a dinner group for almost 4 years now, so we've had a lot of experiences, both good and bad!

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Friday, March 11, 2011 Subscribe & Save

So I recently began looking more carefully at our budget and realized we were spending quite a bit on groceries and household products. And while I like the IDEA of couponing, the reality is difficult for me, largely because I live in Alaska, where our coupon inserts are very sparse and food prices are extremely high.

So I began blog-hopping and discovered something I had never heard of - Amazon's Subscribe & Save. sells groceries, and with Subscribe & Save you can get an additional 15% off if you sign up to have them delivered at certain intervals (1, 2, 3, or 6 months). Amazon also has their own coupons and coupon codes. And shipping is FREE for any amount, which is a huge plus if you are one of my Alaskan friends! You can easily cancel or change the frequency of your delivery at any time.

Right now has a 10% off code for Kellogg's cereals, plus an additional 15% off if you do the Subscribe & Save. The cereal comes in at under $2/box, which is not great for those who can do couponing, but in Alaska, that's a pretty great price. This extra 10% off ends March 31st.

I got 4 of the 16-oz. boxes of Raisin Bran for $6.97 shipped, or about $1.75 per box. Not too bad!

So go check out Amazon's Subscribe & Save service!

Does anyone else use Subscribe & Save? What are some of the good deals?

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Product Review: Nook Color

So I'd been minding my own business, happily ignoring the whole e-reader craze. I'm not one of those purists who only wants to read books with pages made of paper, I'm just one of those cheapos that hates to buy books. So when I heard recently that on the Nook you can check out epub books online, my curiosity was piqued. Then when I checked them out at Barnes & Noble and found out you can browse the internet on them, I was sold.

The Pros:
*You can check out books online from your local library without leaving your house! For me this was the MOST important thing. I have three little kids, I work full-time, and my husband is in school, so my time for going to the library and browsing around is pretty limited. So to be able to just log on, look around, put some virtual books in my virtual cart, and then have them appear on my Nook is AWESOME. Even better, they magically disappear from your Nook when they're "due." No more late fees! Not that I um, ever got late fees at the library, of course.

*You can get online. My husband is in school and spends a lot of time on our laptop, reading and studying. It's nice to have another option for browsing the web, and it's a nice little size.

*Rumor has it that Barnes and Noble is going to start coming out with some apps for it. Not sure of the truthfulness of this, but it's a nice possibility. It does have some games (Sudoku, chess), and you can stream Pandora.

*The color is nice. I don't personally get magazine or newspaper subscriptions on it, but you can. Also, if you have a book that has pictures in it, it's nice to be able to see them in color. Also, there are cute kids books and the color is great on them as well.

*The books aren't actually expensive as I thought to purchase. A lot of the NY Times bestsellers are only $5, and most of the rest are up to about $10-$15. So not too bad.

*The backlighting - for me, I LIKE this. For others, it's a con. With the regular Kindle and Nook, the screen looks like a real book page. With the Nook Color, it's backlit, like a computer screen. I like being able to read in bed, or in poorly-lit areas (which we have a lot of in our house!).

The Cons:
*When people told me you can check out books online, I envisioned these large websites where you can check out anything, immediately. As far as I've found, they don't have that. You need to check out the books from your local public library. Fortunately, I live in an area that's very technologically-oriented, and they have a TON of epub books to check out. But not all libraries are that way. So you may want to find out what your local library has before you use this as a main motivation to buy a Nook.

*It's much harder to go back and find a certain part than it is with a real book. You can search if you want, but if not, you have to tap along a slider bar and sort of try to find the spot you want. This is irritating.

*I worry about how light and fragile it is. My kids know they are absolutely not supposed to touch it. But we all know how that goes sometimes!

So, all in all, I consider it a GREAT purchase. I have read more in the month that I've had it than I have the entire rest of my six years of marriage. I'm reading all kinds of stuff, like several books a week. And I love reading, so it's been great to be able to get back to this hobby. If you have any other specific questions, I'd be happy to answer them, just let me know!

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Chicken Washington

This was a family favorite of ours growing up, and it's so easy that when we all went to college, it was our go-to meal to make when we had company coming over. We called my mom so many times for the recipe that she started calling it "can-can-cup" (for the measurements). I really need to start taking pictures of my recipes, you'll have to take my word for it that it's good!

1 can cream of chicken soup
1 c. sour cream
chicken tenders (frozen okay)
bacon crumbles

Mix the two cans of soup and the cup of sour cream together to make the sauce. Take a 9x13 pan and spray it with cooking spray, spread about a half a cup of the sauce on the bottom of the pan. Then put enough chicken tenders in the pan to cover it in a single layer. Spread the remaining sauce on the top. Put it in the oven at 350 and cook for about an hour. In the last 10 minutes, sprinkle some bacon over the top. Obviously it's best with real bacon, but store-bought bacon bits will do in a pinch. Cook until chicken is cooked through. Serve over rice.

This is a simple, delicious, kid-friendly recipe!

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How-Tuesday: How To Resize a Bunch of Pictures at the Same Time

Guest posting today for How-Tuesday is Janelle from Somewhat Singleminded sharing with us an easy way to resize photos! Thanks, Janelle!

Hello, my name is Janelle and I have two blogs.

This is my public blog.

I post a lot more photos on my private blog. I think that’s one of the reasons I like it better. It’s also one of the reasons I sometimes used to hate it.

My old blog system used to go like this:
1.       Major holiday!
2.       Take lots of pictures of everything festive!
3.       Procrastinate.
4.       Procrastinate.
5.       Choose a ton of photos to include in festive family holiday blog post.  Copy and paste them into a “To Blog” folder.
6.       Procrastinate.
7.       Whine a little bit.
8.       Open Paint and shrink photos, sometimes 80+ photos, one at a time.
9.       Write some words.
10.   Insert some photos.
11.   Hit “publish”.
12.   Feel a sense of accomplishment.

Eventually I vocalized my irritation at the tedious nature of my photo shrinking system. My best friend said something like “I just use my photo editing program and resize them all together in a batch. Check your photo editing software.”

I became surprisingly sullen and angry. Why did she get to have a Mac with wonderful programs like iPhoto and also a more brilliant mind that knows its way around a computer? I don’t have photo editing software. I don’t think. And if I do, I have no idea what it is or where to find it.


A few weeks later I lost the chip and rediscovered my “can-do” curiosity. I’m sure there are still even better ways to mass-edit photos, but here’s what I found:

Microsoft Office Picture Manager!

My new blog system goes like this:

1.       Major holiday!
2.       Take lots of pictures of everything festive!
3.       Procrastinate.
4.       Procrastinate.
5.       Choose a ton of photos to include in festive family holiday blog post.  Copy and paste into a “To Blog” folder.
6.       Open Microsoft Office Picture Manager and magically shrink photos, sometimes 80+ photos, all at the same time.

I’ll now pretend that I want to blog about some of my craftiness. I chose 24 crafty photos and saved them in a folder that I named “To Blog”.

I opened Picture Manager and the giant red arrow is pointing to the words “Edit pictures”

Click on the words “Resize pictures.” Highlight all 24 pictures (do I explain how?) (click on the first picture, hold the shift key and then click on the last picture) The giant red arrow is now pointing to the word “Resize”

I choose a percentage of original width/height (usually 30%) and almost instantaneously all photos become a fraction of their former size.

Then proceed as usual:
7.       Write some words.
8.       Insert some photos.
9.       Hit “publish”.
10.   Feel a sense of accomplishment.

Two steps shorter! Less whining and procrastination=more happiness for everyone.

I use Microsoft Office and I shrink photos to add to my blog posts. You might have a different photo editing program and have another reason to edit batches of photos.

Moral of the story: It is possible to simultaneously edit (not just resize, but edit in all kinds of fancy ways) a group of photos.

I just want everyone to know that it’s possible.  Also, that for me it was basically life changing.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Down and Dirty: Motherhood Real-Life

I have been lucky enough to have lots of wonderful girlfriends who aren't afraid to be real about motherhood and put the truth out there. However, I know that not everyone has those friends, and that some people wonder if they're the only one in the world who feels "this way" about motherhood. You're not. There are some people (probably) who adore every minute of motherhood, and they cherish every stage of infancy and childhood, etc. But from my experience, most of the rest of us don't feel like that. So let's get real.

The obvious disclaimer is that I adore my kids. I love being a mom. I am grateful I can get and stay pregnant, and deliver a healthy child. But it's not all pink onesies and roses. Motherhood can be hard. Really hard.

I want to do a couple of posts about the less glamorous side of motherhood, the feelings that are sometimes hard to talk about. And for this first one, I want to start at the beginning.

When I was pregnant with my first, a woman I know had us over for dinner and gave me some advice. "Just so you know," she said in her timid, kind voice, "having that first baby is really, REALLY hard. I don't know why, but no one ever told me that. And I wish that they had." I rubbed my belly and nodded, thinking I understood. I didn't then, but I did later.

Having my first baby changed my life. And I kind of liked my life the way it was. I had a job that I was good at, I had friends I loved spending time with, a family I enjoyed traveling to see on a weekly basis, and a husband I didn't see much to begin with. Then.... I had my daughter. And of course in some ways my life began that day. But in other ways, the life I had known ended. And I mourned that. And I felt stupid for mourning it, which made me feel worse.

No longer did I spend my days doing something I felt skilled at. Instead I spent them in the servitude of a screaming infant who apparently hated me. Was I doing this all wrong? Was I bad at this? I hate being bad at things, anything, and this was the biggest thing of all! Did my daughter hate me? Why was she crying so much? No one around to answer my questions other than the internet, which only provided me with horror stories or smugness.

And it was so PERMANENT! Marriage had been a big decision, but if you really regret it, there's always a divorce. But once you have a kid, barring unspeakable tragedy, you have a kid. Even if you don't stay married to the kid's father, even if you don't have custody of that kid, you are a MOM to someone running around on this earth. And that feels pretty heavy sometimes, for a decision that can be made pretty flippantly (or even made for you by good old Mother Nature).

While older women counseled me to "savor every moment," and "enjoy each stage" because "time goes so fast," I was horrified that this was supposedly the pinnacle of motherhood. EVERYONE enjoys this sweet and tiny phase, everyone! Well, not me. It's hard when you don't know their schedule yet. You don't know what their cries mean. They don't seem to know you or love you. You're not sleeping, you're attempting to breastfeed (PS - also HARD!), you can't even figure out how to collapse the stupid stroller while they're squalling in their carseat and all the strangers are looking at you and probably thinking that you are a pretty sucky mom. I remember sitting on the floor of my hallway bawling into my hands while my daughter cried, and wondering if we had enough money in our checking account to leave this mess I'd created and go get a hotel in Palm Springs and lie by the pool sipping a daiquiri (we didn't).

And all the while, every time you go out, you hear this: "Oh, is she a good baby? Is she sleeping through the night? Don't you just love it?" And the answer can't be no! What kind of a mother says no to those things? "A good baby? No, she isn't. She just screams all day. Bummer, huh?" Can't say that.

Honestly, I think it would have alleviated a lot of anxiety for me to just know - it's okay not to love it. The newborn phase is HARD. It's okay, even, to hate it sometimes (that stage, I mean). Now several years later I've had a lot of  laughs with my friends at those early days. If I had a nickle for every time I've said or heard, "If I could give birth to a six-month-old, I would!" then I would have the beginnings of a college fund for my kids. But no one ever said that to me then.

I guess I'm just writing this because I want new moms to know that it's okay to feel really, really overwhelmed by motherhood. It doesn't make you a bad mom, or mean that you shouldn't have had a kid, or that you shouldn't ever have another one. It just means you're exactly like thousands, maybe millions, of other moms out there. It's just not so glamorous to talk about. Anyone else want to 'fess up to having a hard time with the newborn stage? Or am I about to get flamed in a really big way because now you all think I'm an ungrateful, crappy mom? I'll be honest, I'm a little nervous. But.... posting anyway.

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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

How-Tuesday: How to Fit 10-lbs. of Potatoes in a 5-lb. bag AKA, Organize Your Kids' Dresser

So we've lived in a small home ever since we've had kids. This has meant lots of creativity, clutter purging, and organization. In our current home, we have a small 4-drawer dresser for my 2 older kids' clothes. Unhelpfully, my older daughter is a total fashionista and LOVES clothes, and we get lots of hand-me-downs. This leaves me needing to fit a LOT of clothing into a small amount of space. This is the best way I've found to do it.

For the shirts, first fold the sleeves back, and then fold the shirt in half, like this:
Then stack them with the necks all on the same side, and put them in with the necks facing the bottom of the shelf, like this:
Right now you can see the fold of each shirt, which is approximately the middle. I like to put the shirts in this way for two reasons. First, you can fit WAY more shirts into the drawer. Second, they're stacked in a way that you can see each shirt and no one (ahem, 5-year-old daughter) has to rip apart stacks of shirts looking for a certain one.

Pants are similar. Folded like this:
And then stacked in the drawer like this:
At the right-hand side of both drawers I have socks, underwear, tights, etc. We hang jackets, sweatshirts, and dresses in the closet.

Even when we have more dresser space, I think I'll still organize the kids' clothes this way, because I love that they can see each thing in their dresser. They wear a bigger variety of their clothes, and don't tear their drawers apart looking for a specific shirt. My kids love it too!

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