Thursday, October 18, 2012

Rainy Day Fun

Rainy days bring a bigger challenge to keep active kids entertained. Overcast skies always bring out a sense of restlessness in my crew.  With four kids in a five room house (3 bedrooms, 1 great room, 1 kitchen), we can get on each others nerves a bit if we're cooped up inside too long.  It's easy to sit and watch TV or play video games, but since we're a one TV household and our programming is limited to an antenna and Netflix live streaming (only $8/month) we are limited there too, however we are commercial free.  Commercial free is a great thing with kids.  They aren't influenced by advertising and can decide for themselves what they think is cool, instead of being seduced by the latest advertising gimmick.  They are often less materialistic as a result.  Not always, but often.  Now that I've strayed completely off topic and I choose not to edit the previous off topic bit, back to rainy days.  I love them, but my kids do not like storms of any kind.  Rain and bugs send them into a complete tizzy. 

  Turn on a single lamp or light a candle in a darkened room and create shadow puppets.  click here for shadow puppet directions   

Another indoor option is Kid's Bowl Free - yes, they really do!  click here for details We love this program - it's mainly through the summer though.  Kids bowl free, our bowling alley charges for shoe rental or the kids can bowl in their socks.  They have a plan to add parents on too and it's very reasonable.  One of our local bowling alleys gives the kids a coupon for a free game for every A or B on their report card.  

Check with your local YMCA and if you aren't a member see if they offer a free trial membership.  Wait until there's plenty of rain on the forecast and head in for a fun place to stay dry. 

Have an indoor picnic.  Spread out a blanket and fix sandwiches and finger foods.  

Build a fort with a card table and some sheets or blankets.  Sit in the fort with them and read books together.  

Bake and decorate cookies.   

Host a Twister party.  If you seen rain on the forecast throw an impromptu Twister party.  If you don't have the game on hand, make your own using a white sheet.  Write the colors and which hand/foot on slips of paper and draw them out of a jar, putting them back each time.  Serve polka dot foods such as pepperoni pizza, M&M cookies, round crackers with ring bologna or smoked sausage, etc.  Add frozen berries to lemonade for a polka dot drink.  

Saturday, September 15, 2012

preserving food and memories

     Lately I have been bartering with my farmer's market neighbors for produce to can and feed my family over the winter months or make more jams and jellies to sell and barter with the next time.  I'm grateful for my friends who share the bounty on their fruit trees with us, we've canned peach slices, apple sauce, grape juice and jelly as well as cherry, peach and apple pie fillings.  We picked fruit together as a family and gone home to wash and prepare it.  My kids won't eat anything but homemade grape jelly now that they've picked grapes and seen them become grape juice and then jelly over a couple of days.  They appreciate all the work that goes into growing and preserving our own food and they've learned a skill that will help us survive not only the current economy, but possibly future disasters.  When I open the cupboard that holds those glass jars full of fruits, vegetables, jams and jellies, I am reminded of my grandmothers and late evenings spent helping my mother.  The canning supplies and jars I have were passed down from these women along with the skills to use them and the pride of knowing we could feed our family even when the money was tight.  
     Every time I can food, I think of all the women before me who canned food and how the process of preserving food has evolved over time.  About 15 years ago, I purchased twenty-four dozen canning jars from a woman my cousin knew.  She lived on a small farm and had raised gardens and an orchard and relied on it to feed her family.  Her jars had been handed down to her, purchased new and even found at second hand shops.  I wonder how many families have seen these jars.  For women who can and preserve food as a means to feed their families, jars are reused over and over.  Purchasing new jars every time is frivolous and wasteful.  The bands are reused until the rust takes them over and only new seals are purchased each time.  It's a tradition, much like decorating the family Christmas tree.  The equipment is carefully stored in one place, clean and ready for it's next use.  
     My mother and grandmother's canned to save money.  I can to save money, but also because I know exactly what is going into the jars and eventually into my children's tummies.  I also like knowing that instead of a metal can with a sharp edged lid and paper wrapper going into my recycling bin, only a lid with a not-so-sharp edge is going into my recycle bin.  The jars and threaded bands are reused and this has to be healthy for our environment.  While recycling is noble, reusing and reducing is much better for our environment.  It requires more resources to recycle than to reuse or reduce.  
     Whether you can, freeze or dry food to store for later, you can benefit your budget and the environment.  Make it a family affair, what a great way to spend quality time with each other.  Quality time has be redefined in our society to mean spending money and doing things that used to be for special occasions or once in a lifetime.  Quality time has more quality if you spend it teaching your children a skill or lesson, rather than paying to be entertained.  

Monday, August 27, 2012

Being Broke Isn't Really a Joy

     The irony in the title of my blog is that being broke really isn't joyful in and of itself.  I've found through my faith in God, I can be joyful in any situation.  I'm not saying I'm deliriously ecstatic about being broke, but I can still find joy in life and with my family.  
     I get incredibly stressed some days, especially when a friend calls and one of my children overhear me turning down an invitation to go see the newest Disney movie, or head off to a theme park offering half price admission.  Four kids at the 10am Saturday morning show means, $30 in admission and $15 for a popcorn and 2 drinks to share among the six of us.  Wow.  That's $45 for less than 2 hours of entertainment.  I can buy 2 movies on blu-ray and a box of microwave popcorn and 2 2 liters of soda for that price and we can watch the purchased movies as many times as we want.  I explained this to my teary eyed 10 year-old last year and he (FINALLY!) got it.  It's not that I don't want to to take my kids to a movie, but it's not the best way to spend our money when our budget is so tight.  
     I am an older mom and was raised in the era when the economy was thriving.  There was always extra money.  I had a part time job, not to pay for college, but to buy the things that my mom said I had to buy with my own money because she was NOT spending her money on that crap.  I worked in college to pay for pizza nights and shopping sprees and sorority dues and because you're supposed to get a summer job in while you're in college.  What else do you do with your time?  Now college kids work so they can graduate with less debt or no debt and pray they can get a job when they graduate.  I had a great job, making good money and worked hard to be debt free.  You never know when life's going to throw you a curve ball.  Apparently, we got a pitcher that can only throw curve balls.  It's forced my husband and I to rethink everything in our life.  
     I was raised by a scoutmaster.  The "Be Prepared" motto spilled into our every day life.  My husband was raised in a fly by the seat of your pants family.  His parents farmed, so everything was unexpected and unpredictable, from the weather to the market price on grain.  His mom is a worry-wort type.  I inherited my mom's roll with it attitude along with my dad's emergency preparedness skills.  My husband got his mom's worry-wort trait and his dad's duck tape will take care of that skill.  So when something breaks he worries about whether the duck tape will hold and I'm relaxed and prepared with a back up plan.  It's been interesting to say the least.  And I have learned to not to say "I told you so", but I can't keep the expression off my face and he knows when I'm thinking it.  
     My computer has been my social connection to many of my friends.  I live vicariously through them.  I'm sometimes wistful, because I can't go meet them for a mani/pedi or have lunch with them at a posh restaurant and spend the afternoon shopping, but I have memories of times when I could do those things (and did) and I know someday I'll be able to do those things again.  I'll treasure them more and be less frequent about it, but nonetheless, I know the day will come when my youngest will start school and I'll go back to work full time, student loans and the 401K loan will be paid off.  When that day comes, we'll rebuild our savings and be able to tithe 10% and help those in need as others have helped us.  
     Meanwhile, I'm rediscovering the joy in the little things.  Nature walks with the kids, the bug in the jar that just won't die, stars and constellations in the sky, the beautiful colors of flowers, jumping contests and using our imaginations to create games, songs, stories and memories that I hope will last a lifetime.  

Monday, August 20, 2012

Easy Chicken Parmesan

This is a favorite at our house and there are never leftovers, even when I make extra.  The no leftover thing bums my hubby out so I try to set a portion aside for his lunch the next day whenever I can.  

This recipe is super easy, and you can make it with low fat cheese if you need to.  You need 2-3 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts.  Lately, I can't make chicken without my favorite meat pounding tool.  I usually buy boneless, skinless chicken breasts when they are on sale which usually means large pieces of meat that are quite thick, requiring longer cooking time.  SOLUTION:  This gadget from Pampered Chef is now one of my favorites.  (link to see said gadget)  I use the flat side and gently pound those pieces flat - the flattening process also makes them larger and more tender.  Once they've been flattened, I cut each ginormous chicken breast in to 3 smaller pieces.  You don't have to buy this particular one, find one you like that you can afford.  This was only $25 when I bought it and I cringed at the price, but it was totally worth it, in the amount I've saved by using much less chicken this way.  Digression in italics out of the way, pound out chicken breasts as described above, cut each into smaller portions.  A good sized portion of chicken is about the size of the palm of your hand, according to the most dietitians.  

Now at this point, I preheat 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet and coat each piece of chicken with flour.  I use a gluten free all purpose flour or rice flour since I cook gluten free and we've found that it gets crispy and has a better texture, but regular flour works fine too.  Place chicken in skillet and cook on each side until flour is a light golden brown.  If you want these low fat/low carb, skip the flour and grill or broil your chicken.  
cooked chicken breast, add marina sauce, top with mozzerella

Grease a large baking dish and place cooked chicken in a single layer.  Spoon 2-3 tablespoons of your favorite spaghetti sauce or marinara sauce over each piece of chicken.  Top each with 1-2 tablespoons of finely shredded cheese. I use mozzarella, but it works with just about any kind.  Use your favorite, I promise not to judge.  Just make sure you cover and refrigerate any left over sauce.  I had a momentary lapse and put it back in my pantry once.  Oops.  I'm just glad it was a clear jar and I didn't have to open it to realize what had happened.  I threw it straight in the trash and skipped washing the jar for recycling/reuse.  

Bake 25-30 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, until cheese is melted and bubbly.  The chicken will be so tender you can cut it with your fork.  See, I told you it was easy!  

I used serve it with pasta and poured the rest of the jar of spaghetti sauce over the pasta, add a leafy green salad and garlic bread.  My gluten free version is now, roasted potatoes and a green vegetable, usually broccoli or a salad. 

Update:  If you want an even quicker version of this, use prebreaded southern style chicken breasts instead of flouring and frying your own.  They aren't quite as healthy and they are a little more expensive but it eliminates a cooking step, saves time and some clean up.  You can also use slices of mozzarella, instead of shredded.  


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Finding Free and Inexpensive Outings

     Being a broke mom has forced me to search for different ways to entertain my kids.  It's very hard to keep hyper kids entertained.  They lose focus quickly and boredom leads to bad behavior, so it's important to keep a hat full of tricks to stave off the boredom. Of course there are obvious things like going to the park.  But even that becomes as mundane as the backyard swingset if you over do it.  (I really wanted some cute pics to go with all of the activities, but figured the info was just as valuable without them.  I'll find some pics/clipart and make it fancy later.)  
     Check the online calendar of events in your local newspaper.  You can often find things that are family friendly and free there.  Check with local entertainment venues to see if they offer any daily specials.  One movie theater in my town had free showings of kids movies one morning each week in the summer - they were usually ones that had been out for quite a while, but it was fun for the kids to see them on the big screen, plus if you have little ones that act up and you need to leave, you don't feel cheated out of the admission price.

     Our local symphony offers a two free concerts each summer.  Both are in a picnic friendly environment and we pack sandwiches or finger foods and head out with a blanket.  If you have young kids, try to sit near the edge or back, you may not have the best view, but you'll be so busy watching your kids, it won't matter anyway and you'll still be able to hear.  Kids will constantly want to get up to walk to the restroom or explore something else that catches their eye and you don't want to disturb the people around you.  The best thing about the second one last year was that if you brought a bag of non-perishable food to donate for a local food bank, you got a voucher for free concert tickets for a family of four at one of their indoor concert hall shows.  I had used coupons in conjunction with sale items and for under $5 we had a plastic grocery bag full of items to donate.  (We attended the Christmas concert, dressed in our Sunday best and got a free family photo taken in front of a BEAUTIFUL Christmas tree in the lobby.  We just had to go to their website to download it and print it off. Talk about getting a bonus!)

     Check with your local university.  If they have a music or theater department, they usually offer free events a few times a year.  Our local university also offers a free family swim night one night a week in one of the indoor campus pools.  Occasionally, they have free admission to their rock climbing wall, planetarium viewings, and other events.  

     We recently found out a local civic theater is often in need of ushers.  You don't get paid, but you get to enjoy the play or musical free of charge.  This is usually for children and adults 12 and over, but I'm considering making a date night out of it.  

     Research state parks in your area.  Our state offers a family membership for $35/year that allows admission into all state parks.  We found one near us that has a nice beach that's open seasonally, and surprisingly isn't crowded.  They usually have nice picnicking areas complete with hibachi's and playgrounds.  The walking trails are a nice way to get exercise and fishing or boat rentals provide additional entertainment.  Many state parks offer youth learning center and family friendly activities for no additional charge.  If you have a way to haul your bicycles, there are usually nice bike paths.  

    Investigate your local library.  Ours offers story time several times a week, free computer classes, a monthly Lego building contest, weekly video game hour, and the occasional special event.  My girls had a blast at a Fancy Nancy Soiree, dressing up and walking the red carpet with games, crafts, refreshments, door prizes and even treat bags as we left. The library used the event to promote a new Fancy Nancy book.

     In the summer, many churches offer a Vacation Bible School program.  I have a friend who tries to send her kids to one every week she can find one offered. The kids enjoy the Bible stories, games, and crafts and it gave her a couple of free hours each day to get things done.  These are often free or a small fee per family and you get a free CD of songs they learned.  My kids always go to the one at our church and I volunteer.      

     Give blood.  Yes, that's right, donate blood.  I read about an LA firefighter who was badly burned and injured in an explosion and by the time he was released from the hospital needed 84 units of blood.  You could help save a life and our local blood bank doesn't pay you, but they offer free movie passes, concert tickets, an all kinds of other fun stuff.  My husband went last month when they gave away free movie passes and I'm going today for the same deal.  They only give you two and we can use them for a date night or wait until we have six and take the whole family.  It's also a great lesson for your kids in giving and I've heard that giving blood regularly has some health benefits.  Make sure you hydrate well 2-3 days before going.  You even get a free snack afterward.  Last year we each got a free ticket to a concert by going on a day sponsored by an area radio station.  They also included a coupon for a free sandwich at a restaurant near the amphitheater.  We had a great date night.  

    Minor league sporting events are often inexpensive and most baseball stadiums have family nights and other specials that offer discounted admission certain days or a free concession item.  We found 2 stadiums in opposite directions from our home that have dollar night where all or selected concession items are $1 each.  

     Many museums have free admission days throughout the year.  Keep in mind these are often their busiest days of the year.  Pack a lunch to save money as most restaurants at zoos and museums are quite pricey.  

     City water parks are becoming more and more popular.  Surprisingly, they're starting to show up in smaller towns too.  One very small town of about 6,000 not far from us has a splash pad in their park.  A concrete pad with various sprinklers and fountains painted in primary bright colors, it's free and a fun way for the kids to cool off in the summer.  A couple of other towns within a reasonable drive have actual water parks with reasonable admission rates around $5/person.  

     Volunteer with your kids.  There are many places to volunteer as a family.  Many food banks need help stocking and while most people volunteer around the Christmas holidays, they need help year round.  Homeless shelters need volunteers to serve meals.  Even small children can wipe down tables and offer a smile to someone down on their luck.  Even better, bake and decorate cookies and take to pass out, just make sure you okay it with the shelter first.  Some have strict rules about any food served.  Visit a nursing home or senior center armed with some board games, card games and compassion.  Many of these people only see their families a few times a year.
     Visit an orchard or u-pick farm.  Plan in advance and have everything on hand so you can come home and can or freeze your pickings.  Blueberries, apples, strawberries are all popular u-pick goods and you can make jams, jellies and apple butter or pie filling as a family.  (My post for making your own jams coming soon.)  Store up for the winter or make enough to give as gifts.  Every year our extended family looks forward to getting a jar or two of homemade goodness for Christmas.  

     Team up with some other parents on your street and organize a neighborhood block party.  Have the kids decorate their bikes and parade down the streets.  Get with your city administration before blocking off a street completely though.  You may need a permit, but if they find out you only want to block off one block for a couple of hours, they may okay it without requiring any fees or permits.  Otherwise meet at a neighborhood park or a vacant lot and have some old-fashioned games like potato sack races and tug-of-war.  For a few dollars you can buy mini party bubbles - they're around $5 for a box of 24 and tie cute messages around them as favors.  Have someone come up with simple paper crafts and ask parents to donate inexpensive treats such as freeze pops, juice boxes, and other sun tolerant snacks.  

          Camp in your own backyard.  Pitch a tent (I just found out the local university's outdoor center rents them out) and sleep in your backyard.  Roast marshmallows, use a candle if there's a burn ban, and tell ghost stories if your kids are older.  Print an astrology chart off the internet and find constellations.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Family Movie Nights

My kids LOVE family movie night.  I'm not sure why it's such a big deal.  We watch movies a few times a week, but for some reason Family Movie Night is so much more special.  

In our house this event takes place after the dinner dishes are cleared away, usually on a Friday or Saturday night.  We put down a spill-proofing blanket on the floor in front of the TV and everyone is in their pajamas, ready for bed.  We've had a few incidents of kids falling asleep during the movie, so we instated the pajamas rule.  Sometimes we just let them sleep where they landed all night, depending on where they landed.  

We also pop popcorn. What's a movie without popcorn, right?  I purchased the striped plastic popcorn containers a few years ago from the dollar spot at Target - they have them several times a year.  My kids think these are awesome.  We pull them out for movie night and everyone has to sit on the blanket to have popcorn. I made one using rip-stop nylon (you could also use oil-cloth) and polar fleece - they nylon goes on the bottom and the top is soft and comfy, also great for picnics. This way I can just fold the edges and carry it outside to shake it out.  Once in a while I pick up a box of movie candy at the store - still trying to figure out how they can sell it for $1/box and the movie theaters must sell it for $3+/box.  They're all trying to make a profit, but that just crosses the line to greedy.  We also buy a 2 liter of soda to share, because we normally don't keep sodas on hand.  I have a stash of kids cups with lids saved from eating out at restaurants and I just use regular straws.  We use these cups all the time.  I don't buy plastic cups for my kids anymore.  Once we're set up with treats, we dim the lights and start the movie.

Tips for memorable movie nights:
  • Establish rules for talking, pausing for restroom breaks, etc.  If you have young kids consider an intermission halfway through the movie.  
  • Plan for snacks ahead of time, snacks that are small pieces they can eat with their hands are best since they'll be eating in the dark, some suggestions to be like a movie theater:  
    • Popcorn 
    • fun size M&M's, Skittles and Reese's Pieces
    • boxes of movie candy
    • gummy fruit snacks
    • muddy buddies
    • juice boxes
    • mini cans of soda with straws
    • sports bottles
    • This would also be a good time to try some of the popcorn recipes you've pinned.  
  • Before you start the movie, make sure everyone is comfy and ready to go with pillows or blankies.  
  • Dim the lights.  It's not like a movie theater with the lights on.  
Our favorite family movies:
  • Nim's Island  - adventure, comedy and just enough thrill to keep them interested, without being scary
  • We Bought a Zoo  - it did take a little while for my younger kids (ages 3 &5) to get interested, because the zoo part isn't right at the beginning and they kept waiting to see the animals, now they love it.
  • Kit Kittredge: An American Girl  - my husband groaned when he saw the title, but when we finished watching it the first time, they started it over immediately.  Great period piece with an ensemble cast and still has a modern feel.  Also has some good moral lessons. 
  • Dolphin Tale  - what's not to love about this feel good story?
  • Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium 
  • Nanny McPhee
  • Mr. Popper's Penquins - I am not normally a fan of Jim Carrey, although I do like his more recent movies better, but this is a fantastic family film about what's really important in life and it's really funny.  
  • Akeelah and the Bee - Proof that you background doesn't have to define you.  
  • The Sand Lot
  • Any of the  Toy Story  movies, they seem to get better with each sequel, and any other Disney-Pixar film for that matter, and yes, like many other adults I know, I cried during the third one.  
  • Where the Red Fern Grows - bring the tissues.  
  • Annie - fun songs.  
  • Anne of Green Gables and all the sequels
There are many more great family films out there, but it takes some looking to find them.  

Since I've dedicated my blog to sharing my savings ideas with you, here's how we pay for movies:  

We rent from Redbox because the $1.20/night is a really cheap way to go and since there are 3 of them within 10 blocks, it's not a big deal to return it.  We've headed out at 11:45pm before, just to avoid the extra days charge.  Plus if one doesn't have the movie we want, another usually does and we don't have far to go.  

We also love the live-stream feature from Netflix.  We stream through our Wii, but many of the new TV's are capable of streaming directly from the internet.  Another great feature for Netflix, is that you can live stream through 2 devices at once, be it your laptop, tablet or smart phone.  We try to only use it when we have WiFi, but it's been a great entertainer when we couldn't get a sitter and needed the kids kept busy.  There are a lot of good family movies and kids' shows, although not a lot of new releases this way.  We used to have their DVD program as well, but at the time we had to go to the post office to get our mail and I constantly forgot to take it with me so we paid a lot of extra money to have one or 2 movies a month.  We now have a mailbox at our house, so I may add it back on since it's more convenient to return them.  

We no longer have cable or satellite in an effort to save money, but there are so many TV programs (reruns) that my kids can always find something to watch.  Plus we don't have to watch commercials so the kids aren't bombarded with advertising.   

Bow Pillow Project

I saw a link for this on Pinterest (Click here to see the original) - I wasn't lying when I said I was addicted - and decided it would be a great  beginning sewing project for my 5yo.  It's going to go on the bench on my back porch.  I think/hope.  I had everything on hand except the pillow form.  There were no directions for the original, but I have a background in sewing and decided to knock it off.  It was a fun project to do with my daughter on a rainy afternoon.

Materials list:
  • 3/4 yard of burlap
  • 1/2 yard of fabric for lining (I used unbleached muslin)
  • thread to match burlap
  • 14"x14" pillow form
  • 12" zipper (optional) or hand sewing needle
  • basic sewing supplies
    • scissors or rotary cutter, mat and ruler
    • pins
    • sewing machine
Getting started:
Cut out your fabric using the guidlines below:

Sewing instructions:
  1. Start with the 16"x8" pieces of burlap and turn each of the 16" long edges under 1/4" and using a wide zigzag stitch sew in place catching the raw edge in the stitching.
  2. Next take the 8"x4" pieces and turn the 8" edge under 1/4" and using a wide zigzag stitch sew in place catching the raw edge in the stitching.
  3. Fold each of the 8"x4" pieces in half across the narrow side (you should have a square) and line up the 4" raw edges. 
  4. Sew sew together to create a loop stitching 1/2" from the edge.
  5. Use a wide zigzag stitch to finish raw edges. 
  6. Turn loops right side out and set aside.  
  7. Pin one piece of muslin to the back of each of the 15"x15" pieces of burlap.  
  8. Using a very wide zigzag stitch, sew around one of the burlap/muslin pieces to finish the edges and prevent unraveling.  Set piece aside - this will be the pillow back.
  9. With the remaining piece of burlap/muslin (pinned together) center the 8" side of one of the 16"x8" pieces along one edge and pin in place.
  10. Take the other 16"x8" piece and lay across the first one, centering it along the adjacent side.                                                                                                  
  11. Zigzag along raw edges of pinned sides only.  
  12. Slide one "loop" over each of the 16"x8" pieces.  Note: the bottom one will not show, but if the edges peek out and you don't like it, fold one end of the loop inside about an inch.    
  13. Pin each of the 16"x8" pieces to the 15"x15" on the opposite side. 
  14. Zigzag along the raw two remaining raw edges.  This is the pillow front.
  15. Place the pillow back and pillow front right sides together (burlap touching) and pin around all sides.  
  16. On one side pin 2-1/2" from each edge and leave the center unpinned. 
  17. Stitch (as shown above with blue line) around the pillow 1/2" from the edge, stitching to the edge of the fabric at the beginning and the end. 
  18. Turn pillow right side out.
  19. Insert pillow form.
  20. Sew opening closed by hand.   
Note: If you are an experienced sewer and would like to put in a zipper, before pinning front and backs together, insert zipper into bottom seam, then sew remaining side seams.  

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Start a Crafting Station

I love crafts.  
I love to take a pile of objects that each, on its own, is fairly boring and create something amazing out of them. Plus it can be therapeutic or a fun family activity and you have a tangible result at the end.    

The best thing about crafting is that you can create a beautiful custom item for a fraction of the cost you would find it in a boutique.  I've come up with quite a few ideas on my own, but lately I've discovered Pinterest.  I must say I am addicted.  The most appealing crafts I've found have turned out to be some of the least expensive and simplest ones I've ever done.  So many are using re-purposed items, others using dollar store finds.  It's a whole new era of DIY.  Armed with various glues and my trusty sewing machines, I'm ready to go!  The most expensive thing about crafting is actually the glues, inks, stamps and other tools needed to do the crafts.  The medium is usually the least expensive item by far so if you aren't a crafter but want to get started, stick to a specific area if you don't have loads of money to create your basic craft station.  I've always sewn, but never really did tons of crafts, so there were still a lot of things I lacked to get started.  
Here's a starter list that will get you going on several different projects without totally breaking the bank.  If you go online and sign up for the email/mailing lists of the craft/hobby shops in your area you should be able to find coupons or sales for the various items.  I have access to Joann's and Hobby Lobby where I live, and I hit Michael's whenever I'm near one, they all have mailers or opportunities for coupon usually for 40% off a single item.  If you are patient and can wait for a sale, Hobby Lobby rotates through their entire store every month and each week you can download a 40% off coupon.  You have to be diligent and check weekly though. Joann's varies, some items are on sale every other flyer and other items only go on sale a few times a year.  
You need on hand (at all times):

  • Good scissors (invest in a couple good pairs in different sizes - just get good ones, you won't be sorry) 
  • Tacky Glue - Ailene's is a good one 
  • Clear Gel Tacky Glue - some projects won't work with the regular stuff and this stuff isn't really universal either 
  • White school glue - this is thinner than tacky glue, and a little better for gluing paper 
  • Ink pads - the kind for rubber stamps - try Staz On, it's waterproof making it great for all kinds of things, it was $7.99 at H.L. and $9.99 at my Joann's so make sure you shop around and use a coupon.  Plus it was recommended for my first stamping craft. 
  • Rubber stamps - try something that you would get a lot of use out of such as daisy, cross, leaf, scroll just to get started.  Buy occasion specific  ones once you know you'll really use them.  Also, I recently discovered the clear ones and others that are on a foam block instead of a wooden block and they are MUCH cheaper.  You can mount them to a blank acrylic block, but you don't have to.  ($3-$15 each)  
  • Card stock or prefolded notecards with matching envelopes - they often are on sale 50% off and you can make your own cards for every occasion if you have these on hand ( around $10/50ct reg. price)
  • various ribbons and trims - pick up colors you love when they're on sale - Hobby Lobby is the biggest bang for the buck on these, often selling them for 50% off - stock up time - and they have a really cute selection (sale around $1-$2/spool)  
  • scrapbook papers - these are so inexpensive even if you purchase them by the sheet as needed you should have enough change in your purse to get what you need, or stock up when there's a sale - just make sure you have a way to store them flat.  A square pizza box works.  I bought an unused one from Papa John's for 50 cents.  You can buy the fancy organizers later if find it's really your thing and you need to organize mass quantities of them.  
  • Jute twine or string 
  • Yarn - scraps from a grandma who knits are all you need for a lot of crafts
  • buttons - you can buy variety bags that have several colors,shapes and sizes that are great and inexpensive for crafting.  
  • Good art paper - plain paper to use as a foundation for projects (11x14 lighter weight bristol is a great universal paper to have on hand, you can draw on it, glue it, paint it, etc.) 
  • Markers, colored pencils, crayons - stock up during back to school sales   
  • Stuff to organize your stuff with.  I love the baskets and totes they have at Dollar Tree and they're only a buck each.  Baskets or the shoe box sized plastic totes are perfect for storing supplies and keeping them together by category, making it easier to find what you need and transport it to your work area. 
For around $80-$100 you can have a decent craft station ready to create lots of fun stuff and not have to spend too much more once you start a specific project.  If you have young kids you might want to keep some plain magnets on hand - there's always an easy magnet craft for kids.  Some of it you may have on hand and you can always hold off on buying buttons, ribbon, yarns, and craft papers until you actually need them.  

If you're looking for some easy crafts to get started, I found this blog through pinterest: click here for three starter crafts   
I loved her stamped coasters, post-it clipboards (I modified mine a bit) and photo magnets (I used paper scraps from the clipboards instead of photos to create gift sets for Christmas and teacher gifts) which turned out adorable!   Her crafts are simple, well instructed, very cute and usable.  I'm not one to have lots of knick-knacks around unless they all have a purpose.  Those three crafts can also be done with children of about any age and yet are still fun to do as an adult.  Plus, they are cheap!  

If you have most of the above list the additional supply costs were: 
coasters - $11 which made 9 coasters and had enough minwax and felt pads leftover to do at least that many more; magnets - $8 for around 36 with some blank magnets left over from a 50ct package; clipboards - $2-$5 depending on the kind of clips you use, plus I added leftover magnets.  I found a 20pk of white cubicle clips for $9.99 at Staples (click here for cubicle clips) and I put leftover magnets on the backs.  I have 12 sets of post-it clipboards with 3 coordinating magnets each to give as teacher gifts, hostess gifts, etc.  

These jazzed up clothes pins are cute too. click here for cute clothespin craft  Use as fridge magnets or hang an indoor clothesline to display kids artwork.  Theirs are decked out for Christmas, but you could do them in any color theme.

I will post the pics of the ones I did soon.  Happy crafting!  

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Seriously, that's all I paid...

     Being a gal with an eye for a bargain, the first place I head is the clearance racks.  This requires you to be a bit of a determined risk taker.  It's always hit or miss and what most bargain hunters don't tell you is how many times they strike out.  I probably only find great deals 10% of the time I check out the clearance.  Sometimes, there's simply nothing I need.  Other times, I see things we need but not the sizes we need.  
     When bargain shopping for your kids it takes a little planning.  My kids have been at the same percentile in height since their 3 month check up.  I have kids that grow pretty steadily from year to year.  That's not to say they don't have growth spurts.  My oldest daughter grew 2-1/2 inches in three weeks before her second birthday.  She also slept 16 hours a day during that time too, which was worrisome, but wow, could I get stuff done.  Back to the point.  You know your kids and how they grow.  Once they quit changing sizes monthly you can pretty buy ahead things they'll grow into without worrying that they won't be able to wear it during the right season.  I try to keep $20 on hand for bargain shopping so I don't let it take over, but I don't have to miss out on a great buy.  
     I try to buy basic items ahead.  Jeans, denim shorts, khakis, polo shirts, solid tees, hoodies, etc.  One of my best bargains was the Target clearance rack where they had marked down toddler sized hoodies to $1.25 I bought 4 each (one per size) of navy and gray in 2T, 3T, 4T and 5T - these were basic plain hoodies and for $10 I  was stocked through toddler-hood.  Plus, the plain solid color made them somewhat unisex and you can always embellish them later with patches or bedazzles.  I've also found Target to be a great spot for the basics - especially for the boys - if you aren't able to catch a clearance bonanza.  Their Legendary Gold jeans are made by Wrangler and the past 3 years they've ran them at $7-$8 (depending on the size) in August, as a Black Friday doorbuster, and usually in the spring.  They've held up as good as the name brand ones I've bought and come in slim and husky sizes and have adjustable waists.  I was told their polo shirts were made in the same factory as Ralph Lauren's.  I don't know if it's true or not, but I've never had a bad one, they run those at pretty good prices too.  I just picked some up on sale for $6 each and I've snagged them for about $4 each on clearance.  They change the colors each season but my boys don't care.  I love the girls basic shorts, leggings and tees from there too.  You can usually find trendy colors and mix them with clearance finds from higher end stores.  Gymboree is my favorite store for the girls things.  They have a Gymbucks program and I make sure to purchase a gift card in whatever amount of Gymbucks I earned so when it comes time to redeem them, I have the money set aside.  
     If you plan to shop ahead - get organized.  Purchase several medium sized plastic storage totes with lids (or use sturdy card board boxes).  Label each tote with a size and fill it as you find items.  I found Gymboree denim bib overalls once at TJ Maxx for $5 a pair and bought one in each size they had.  Once the kids grow into the clothes in the tote, keep it and as they grow out of them, reuse them for storing hand-me-downs.  I don't stock up unless it's AT LEAST 50% off, usually 75% to buy mass quantities.  I also try to buy utilitarian items in gender neutral colors.  For instance snowbibs - we live in a four season climate - by purchasing them in basic black I can pass them from my boys to the girls.  We have some winters they wear them several times a week and others they only wear them several times, but when you need them...
     Always buy quality over quantity.  The exception is items they'll only wear once or twice and summer flip flops. My kids have lost sooooo many flip flops.  I can usually find them at Target or Children's place for $2.50/pair and those hold up well.  We try to make sure our boys get the most out of their suits, so we have them wear them to church on Easter Sunday, to the free symphony concert, etc.  Fortunately, I have 2 boys so I do get to hand them down and they're still gently used enough to resell once the younger one has outgrown them.  I also don't put a lot of money into dress shoes or snow boots.  Our kids don't wear boots to school and since they just wear them a couple of hours at a time to play in the snow they aren't that hard on them.  However if you live in an area with really hard winters, you may want to get good ones.  Think about where and how you live and put the money into the items they'll use a lot - but try and find it on clearance.  I scored on a pair of shoes my daughter wanted.  Our local children's shoe store sells Keen and Merrill but always $15-$20 above MSRP.  She saw a pair of pink Merrill slip-ons at a whopping $70.  I passed despite her tantrum and we found the same ones on clearance 1 size bigger than her current size for $25 at another store out of town.  It was late April and they were suede, so they'd fit perfectly in the fall.  I had picked up winter fashion boots earlier that week for $10 a pair for each of the girls.  
     Once you're done with the hand me downs, sell what is still gently used such as special occasion clothing at a resale or consignment shop.  Sell the play clothes in a rummage sale and promptly donate what isn't sold.  Reason - kids clothes go through trends.  No matter how much you paid for it, if it's last year's trend, no one wants to buy it a garage sale, so hanging onto it and putting out every year at your annual sale, won't eventually sell it.  The exeption:  Infant clothes such as onsies, sleep-n-plays, gowns (with the elastic opening at the bottoms), socks and bibs.  Infant outfits usually sell well too.  Especially cute boys stuff.  It will outsell the girls stuff.  That's because everyone LOVES to buy for baby girls.  We received ten times the clothing for our daughter (3rd child) because my husband's coworkers couldn't resist buying frilly pink little outfits.  We didn't have to buy anything until she was almost a year old.  
     Find a system that works for you, whether it's plastic totes (I like the clear ones so you can see the contents) or copy paper boxes you bring home from the office, the key is to organize it so you can get to it when you need it and get rid of it when you're done.

Remember - it's only a bargain if you use it.  

Weekly Therapy

My husband and I joined a Life Group at our church.  It's the hip thing to do at our church.  Basically a Bible study but better.  They try to limit it to about 10 couples or less.  The key is to make sure all the people in yours are serious about regular attendance.  It's a great way to meet people and get to know them in a "safe" environment.  We meet at someone's house, although a couple of groups meet at the church.  You can take turns hosting or if someone is willing and has the space, always meet at one house.  We have a carry-in dinner and eat first, then send the kids off with a babysitter in another room.  Get a good sitter.  Pay her well.  If your church doesn't have life groups, organize your own.  Now, there's usually a lesson plan to follow and good group discussion, but don't get overly discouraged if you get off topic.  Just steer back onto the subject and enjoy an opportunity for grown up conversation that is uninterrupted by kids!  I love that we have a carry-in.  Some groups sign up via email, that involves a lot of reading emails and keeping track of duplicates.  I recommend creating a group on facebook, provided you are all on facebook.  You can use it as your group bulletin board and make it private so only group members can see it.  Post sign-up lists for meals, prayer requests, and other general info.  It's a great way to communicate and not have to open several dozen emails a week.  This has become our weekly family night out.  We get to eat, our kids play with other kids, have adult conversation and over the weeks the group becomes very close.  It's like building an extended family and a great emotional support network.  I also belong to one for just mom's of young kids.  Love this one.  It's like group therapy.  We do Christian reading.  Sometimes we only spend 15 minutes on the topic, but there's always wonderful discussion and I've had a chance to build close relationships with some of them.  If you're new to the area or just don't have a chance to get out much this is such a great way to find new friends.  Plus it's inexpensive - you would be feeding your own family anyway.

A few rules if you're going to start your own group:
  • What happens in the group stays in the group.  VERY IMPORTANT!!  This isn't an opportunity to glean gossip fodder. 
  • Decide up front how you will pay the sitter.  Per kid, per family, equally divided between those with kids, etc.  Stick to the plan.  Don't change the rules in the middle of the game. 
  • Find a good sitter.  Remember others have different parenting styles, so you may love a sitter only to find others are not so fond of her -be willing to compromise.  I recommend finding a more mature teen, at least 16 if not college age (especially if you're in a college town).  
  • Set rules for the sitter up front: diaper clad children should be returned to their parents with clean dry pants, hands and faces cleaned after eating, interrupt only if there is blood shed or excessive crying after an injury.  You have a sitter so you can have uninterrupted conversation so make sure she/he can handle that.  
  • Have a back-up plan or rule for cancellation.  You don't want to get stuck eating salad and dessert because the person bringing the entree couldn't make it at the last minute.  
  • Create a phone/email list for the group.  
  •  Designate a group leader or someone who can facilitate the discussion.  
  • If your church doesn't have a program in place, let the group vote on a topic.  It can be directly from the Bible or other Christian reading.  There are many resources out there and many topics from marriage enrichment to parenting to financial planning.
By meeting with others in your faith, you can form close relationships and grow spiritually as well as personally.  Plus the chance to socialize with others on a regular basis is therapeutic.  I've seen people open up and share their concerns or fears about something to find they aren't alone and it's so uplifting to have honest conversations about life experiences and know you aren't alone in your thinking or the situation.  

Sunday, June 17, 2012

One Pork Loin, Three meals

When I met my husband, I had never purchased a pork loin.  I don't remember my mother ever having bought one either.  I had seen it in the grocery, this giant chunk of meat, and wondered how on earth to prepare it and when would I ever have an army big enough to eat it all.  I have at least 6 ways we make it on a regular basis.  Typically when it goes on sale, I buy at least three of them and stock my freezer.  The best thing about it is that you can customize your portions when you divide it up.  When I was single I ate out a lot, I managed restaurants so there was never a shortage of food, and why go home and make all that mess to cook for myself and have to clean it up.  

Wow, in the past year or so meats and many other staples in our diet have risen in price considerably.  Feeding a large or semi-large family can be costly these days.  In order to keep our grocery budget in control I try to shop for meats ONLY when they are on sale and then stock up.  Pork loin, chicken breasts, and ground beef are pretty much staples in our home.  Pound-wise a pork loin is typically enough to feed a family of four 3-4 meals.  I buy several when the go on sale.  I keep plenty of plastic freezer bags on hand.  Our grocery offers additional discounts on the family packs of meat, so I buy larger portions and repackage at home.  

Meal one: Boneless Pork Chops
Cut it into chops.  If you look at each end of the pork loin, you should see one end that looks like a boneless pork chop.  The other end may look the same or it may be marbled looking with a darker meat as well as the white meat.  I try to get ones that each end looks like a boneless pork chop whenever possible.  It's easier to work with.  That's not always possible, but dig through the display and you should be able to find a couple of good ones.  
If you cut 3/4 inch chops off the nicer end you should be able to get enough for one meal for your family.  We have four kids, but I only cut 5 because these are pretty big and our girls will never eat a whole one, so I just cut the fifth one in half.  The great thing is you can cut as many as you need, instead of trying to find a package that has the right amount for your family.  
Our favorite seasoning for chops is the Jamaican Jerk seasoning from Pampered Chef, otherwise, salt and pepper, maybe a little garlic powder.  

Meal two: Teriyaki Pork Roast
Cut the next section into a roast about 4"-5" long.  If you're having company, make it bigger.  This is how I had it the first time.  It was served at our wedding reception with my mother-in-law's marinade recipe.  She says the recipe I have written down isn't the one she gave me but I swear it is.  
Here goes:  
Judy's Teriyaki Marinade
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup cooking sherry
1-2 cloves of fresh garlic, minced or 1/2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp salt (optional)  I don't add this because there is so much sodium in the soy sauce.  
Whisk all the ingredients together until the brown sugar dissolves completely.  Soak pork roast in it for at least 2 hours prior to cooking or overnight for a really strong flavor.  Bake about an hour, until juices run clear.  

Do ahead option: Place roast in a freezer bag.  Pour marinade over it.  Seal the bag making sure to carefully squeeze out all the air.  Freeze until ready to use.  Thaw at least 24 hours ahead of cooking.  

Meal three:  Barbecued Pork 
Cut remaining pork into 1" slices and place in a covered baking dish.  
Bake 1-1/2 to 2 hours at 350 degrees F.  Let sit for 30 minutes and drain off any extra juices and discard the fatty pieces.  Break the meat up with 2 forks, it should be tender enough to fall apart pretty easily.  Pour in 1/2 of a 16oz of your favorite barbecue sauce and stir in well, add more to taste.  We like ours sloppy so we use most of a bottle (2 if we use the whole pork loin).  You may have leftovers on this one or have enough for 2 meals depending on how big your pork loin was.  

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Our Favorite Potato Recipe

I got this from my best friend.  She just basically told me how she made it after I tried it at her house, but I loved it so much I made it at home.  I don't really have a name for it.  Her husband makes it and since he was raised near Hamburg, Germany she calls them German Potatoes.  There are only four ingredients which makes it fairly simple.  My kids love it.  It's hearty enough to be an entree, great for breakfast or brunch, although we usually have it as a side dish for dinner.  

You'll need a 1lb of bacon, sliced into 1/2" pieces; 1 medium onion, chopped; 5-6 medium potatoes cut into 1" pieces; and last but not least black pepper.  

In a large skillet fry the bacon over medium heat.  You don't need a lean bacon for this because you'll need the bacon grease to fry the potatoes, so just buy the cheap stuff.  If you use lean bacon, you may have to add some olive oil when you add the potatoes.  

Once the bacon has cooked long enough to release most of the grease add the onions and black pepper to taste (start with 1/4 teaspoon).  Continue cooking until onions soften and just start to become translucent.  

Next add the potatoes, stirring well to coat with the bacon grease.  Cover and cook until potatoes are soft stirring every 2-3 minutes.  Remove lid and cook until edges of potatoes start to get crispy.  Serve hot.  

Best Popsicle Recipe EVER!

Black Cherry Popsicle
I live in east central Indiana.  Our weather is very unpredictable except for July and August.  It will be hot, it will be humid and there will be NO breeze or rain.  It's virtually an outdoor sauna, there is no dip in the temperature when you step into the shade.  You are drenched with sweat by the time you walk from your front door to the mailbox.  And we would love to trade it for a dry heat.  So in the summer we look for ways to stay cool and for yummy cold treats.  These popsicles are combination of several recipes I've tried and they turn out awesome every time.  It starts with a basic recipe and you can create variations from that.  It costs less than $2 per batch and makes 16-20 popsicles.  Last summer I got another brand of flavored gelatin for 20 cents a box, Koolaid was on sale for 10 cents a pack, there's about 50 cents in the yogurt and about 50 cents for the sugar.  Much cheaper than purchased gourmet popsicles that average $1 each.  :)  

Basic recipe:
1 small box flavored gelation (aka: Jello)
1 pouch of unsweetened soft drink mix that makes 2qts (aka: Koolaid packet)
2 cups sugar
2 cups boiling water
2 cups ice cold water
1 cup plain or vanilla yogurt (This is important because it creates a creamy texture so it's not rock-hard when you bite into it.) (If yogurt grosses you out, use heavy cream instead, although it's a bit more fattening.)
1. Mix gelatin and drink mix in a large mixing bowl.
2. Pour boiling water over the mixture and stir quickly with a wire whisk.
3. Add sugar and stir until dissolved.
4. Add cold water and stir.
5. Whisk in yogurt.

6. Pour into popsicle molds and freeze. 

(note: using a ladle and a small funnel is helpful and less messy.)

7. Once frozen, place popscicle mold in a bowl of warm water for 30-60 seconds to release popscicles for eating.  ENJOY!

Tip: If your kids have lost the handles that come with the molds, cover them with a stiff plastic wrap, such as press-n-seal kind, with a sharp knife cut a small slit in the plastic wrap - smaller than your popsicle stick - and insert the sticks. The plastic wrap will keep them upright and if you cut the slits smaller, you can push them in as far as you want instead of them being all the way to the end.

The great thing about this recipe is that there are now Jello flavors that match Koolaid flavors.  You could also add chopped or pureed fruit, use complimentary flavored yogurts instead of plain yogurt, or throw the entire mixture into an ice cream freezer and make your own sherbet.  Place 1-2 scoops of sherbet in a glass and top with sparkling fruit juice or lemon-lime soda.  You could also add flavored liquors for a more grown up treat. 

Our favorite combinations:
  • Black Cherry Jello, Black Cherry Koolaid, Cherry yogurt (or plain yogurt and diced black cherries)
  • Island Pineapple Jello, Orange Koolaid, add mashed banana and/or crushed pineapple with the yogurt (This is my personal favorite)
  • Berry Blue Jello, Berry Blue Koolaid
  • Wild Strawberry Jello, Strawberry Kiwi Koolaid, strawberry yogurt instead of plain
  • Strawberry Jello, Strawberry Lemonade Koolaid, strawberry yogurt instead of plain (I saw a strawberry lemonade Jello, but haven't tried it yet.)