Weekly Menus – Intro

I am a Southern homemaker at heart. Honestly, ya’ll. For example, when my then-boyfriend (now husband), Ryan, proposed to me, a million things ran through my mind. Amid the images of wedding dresses, flower arrangements and honeymoon locales, I could clearly picture our post-wedding life, including all the fabulous and delicious meals I would make…

Yeah, that didn’t happen. Not even a little bit.

This pains my inner-chef, because, as little as I do it these days, I really do like to cook! Having a full-time job and social committments several days of the week leaves little time during the evening to cook. And then there’s making sure we have all the ingredients for a recipe…ay yi yi. Looks like it’s soup and sandwich night again.

As I’ve found out, I’m not alone: many of my friends and family members describe themselves as being in the same situation. Below are two of the main reasons why I (and probably many others) are stuck in this “boring dinner” rut, as well as an introduction to my “Weekly Menu” idea.

1. Complex (and therefore, scary) recipes – I’m always up for trying something new, but there are a couple of things that intimidate me to the point that I won’t even try them (including, but not limited to, bread with yeast, melting chocolate and anything involving ginger root). Yes, this is probably ridiculous, and yes, these things probably wouldn’t be that bad if I would just try them. But I won’t. I think (and hope) everyone has that one (or two or three) culinary process / ingredient that scares the heebie jeebies out of them. Therefore, when faced with the option of trying a recipe with said process / ingredient or falling back on the faithful spaghetti with red sauce, it’s likely spaghetti will win. Which means our taste buds lose.

2. Strange and/or too many ingredients – Relatively speaking, my arsenal of spices is in the growing stages. I may have cinnamon, but I do not have anise. I use garlic and basil regularly, but haven’t dared venture into marjoram or coriander territory. Therefore, I am totally open to buying ingredients specifically (and only) because a recipe calls for it…but I do have my limits. Spices are not cheap, so unless I know I’m going to use the entire jar of tarragon, I have a problem spending the money on it. As a result, I pass on recipes I really want to try merely because they call for ingredients I can’t justify buying. The same thing happens when recipe ingredient lists go on and on…and on and on. Simplicity, please!

3. Wasting food – Speaking of too many ingredients: I can’t tell you how much food (and money) we’ve wasted over the past year alone from food that goes bad before we can use it. While some of this is just our own silliness, most of this waste is the ingredients leftover from recipes that didn’t call for the whole amount. Every time I throw out food, I picture the cash I spent to by it (“There go $1.75.” and “That was a waste of $5.”). And that makes me sad. And a little angry.

I was in an especially frustrating cooking rut when it occurred to me that there had to be a solution. There had to be a way to prepare delicious, unique meals while avoiding my hang-ups (as discussed above). During a three-hour drive across central Ohio (where the flat landscape and minimal traffic made the ideal “thinking” environment), I had it: a weekly meal plan based on one simple, short grocery list and weeknight-friendly recipes. And so the idea “Weekly Menu” was born. This is totally a work in process, but here is what I’m thinking: each weekly menu will provide the following:

1. Five dinner recipes for four people (or sometimes more. We only have two people in the house, but we love leftovers. And I love not having to make separate lunches.);
2. A complete grocery list of ingredients, as well as a list of “kitchen staples” (salt, milk, butter, etc.), needed for the recipes;
3. An estimated budget; and
4. Fun extras (for example, breakfast and lunch ideas for leftover ingredients, and cooking techniques).

I hope to have the first weekly menu posted within the next week. Depending on how successful I am at all these recipes, my goals would be to post one every week (but hopefully at the very least, twice a month). I would really appreciate your feedback. Don’t be shy! Let me know what you think.

Shop and Do Good

What do you get when you combine shopping, Groupon-like deals and giving to a good cause? Besides a fatter wallet and warm, fuzzy feelings, you have Socialgoodies.com. Sounds like my kind of site. Here’s how it works:

Sign up at Socialgoodies.com and buy one of the site’s deals. For example, earlier this month, you could purchase a $40 credit for Good on Paper (an online paper store with customizable thank you cards, sticky notes and much more) for just $20.

After your purchase, the site will send you a “Goodie Voucher” email with a code. When you’re ready to shop, use this code in the coupon/promotional code area when checking out with your purchases.  You deal will be applied after the code is entered.

And the best part? 20% of the cost of the purchased deal is donated to a charity of your choice. So, in our example above, $4 from the $20 Good on Paper purchase would go to your choice of one of the three charities the site is featuring that month.

Socialgoodies.com is adding more deals and charities everyday (when I checked last night, the site had donated over $38,000 to charities), so consider checking out this site when doing your online shopping. Getting greats deals while contributing to charity? Win-win.

Happy birthday, Sarge!

Wow! It’s been over a week since I’ve last posted. I blame the beautiful weather we’ve been having for forcing me to spend all of my free time outside sans my computer. But even 70+ degree days in March couldn’t keep me from posting about this:

Two years ago last Saturday, our baby puppy was born.

Obviously, this is a huge celebration in the Bowers household. But I couldn’t help but notice as I was driving around Akron on Saturday that there were tons of people out celebrating Sarge’s birthday. I was surprised. I was touched. And I was really confused why everyone had decided the best way to celebrate Sarge’s birthday was by wearing green and drinking all day long. Hmmm… 🙂

Anyway, since Ryan worked on Saturday, we decided to celebrate Sarge’s birthday on Sunday. As much as it may seem like I am, I’m not THAT crazily obsessed with my dog to go all-out for his birthday. Party hats and birthday “cake” are a little much, even for me. But I did want to give him something special for his big day, so I decided to finally try making my own dog treats, a la a suggestion from my college roommate (and one of my best friends), Allie.

One of Allie’s adorable little dogs, Gary, has some pretty bad food allergies, so she makes her own dog food and treats for the pups. During a recent visit, she told me about a treat they go gaga over: frozen peanut butter and plain yogurt. It’s so simple: she puts the two ingredients in an ice-cube tray, freezes and then watches as her dogs devour the tasty treats.

Sounded simple enough to be right up my alley. And it was: the whole process took me 45 minutes, which included a trip to the grocery store for supplies. After the treats were assembled and put into the freezer, we took Sarge to a park close to our house where we played and chased squirrels for an hour. I’m pretty sure he was in doggie heaven. When we got back, the treats were frozen and ready to be eaten. 

And eat them he did. I’m not sure how Allie’s dogs approach eating these treats, but Sarge swallowed the first one we gave him whole (he’s such a guy). Subsequent treats were first cuts into smaller pieces.  He did much better with those.

Happy birthday, Sarge! And Allie, thank you for the great idea for low-cost, yummy treats for our birthday boy.

Living Social Deal – Vistaprint

As a personal rule, I’m generally against using excessive capitalization to express emotion, however, I’M SO EXCITED ABOUT TODAY’S LIVING SOCIAL DEAL FOR AKRON!

Ok, that’s enough of that.

Now that I have that out of my system, here is the information on the deal:

For $10, you get a $50 at Vistaprint.com for custom invitations, business cards, photo books and so much more. That’s 80% savings! Since I am planning a baby shower for one of my best friends this summer, I was instantly interested. Invitations are not cheap. Here is the link to the deal: http://www.livingsocial.com/deals/289848?rpi=51504294&ref=personalized-link-box-51504294&rui=34508046

I’m not one to impulsively buy Living Social deals or Groupons; I first do research on if it really is a “deal”. In order for me to buy this deal, I needed these invitations to be 1) cute/modern/not ugly, and 2) not outrageously expensive. So, I looked on Vistaprint.com to get the low-down the site’s invitation selection. My conclusion: Wow, it’s huge! And their invitations are really cool. I was very impressed. Even better: they are very well priced. I quickly compared the price of a 1st birthday party invitation on Shutterfly to the ones on Vistaprint.com. I used invitations in the middle of the price ranges for both sites (i.e., not the least expensive, but not the most expensive). For 50 invitations, Shutterfly cost $66 ($1.32 per card); on Vista, 50 invitations cost $32.45 (just under $0.65 per card).

I didn’t compare prices for photo books, so if that’s what you’re interested in, I suggest doing a little pricing on those before you buy the deal.

This seriously made my lunch hour complete.

DIY: Coffee Creamer

Like more and more people, I’ve become slightly obsessed with the website Pinterest. My husband swears that at least 3 out of every 10 sentences I say lately start with “Guess what I saw on Pinterst!”. The only problem with this online pinboard is that I keep adding more and more things to my to-do list. Projects for the house, recipes, entertaining ideas…I have no idea how I’ll ever find the time to do all the super cool things I find on Pinterest.

But I did come across one that looked so simple and so yummy that I had to try it right away. As advertised, this recipe for home-made coffee creamer took less than 15 minutes and was delicious.

Grab a mason jar, a 14 oz. can of sweetened condensed milk, any milk of your choice (I used skim) and vanilla extract. Pour the sweetened condensed milk into the mason jar (but don’t throw the can way). Fill the empty can can with the milk, then pour into the mason jar. Finally, add 2 teaspoons of the vanilla extract. Shake, shake, shake until all ingredients are combined (only takes a couple of minutes). Enjoy!

When I made this, I was (unpleasantly) surprised to find that my husband had taken the vanilla extract to work (he’s a fire fighter and often takes food to work).  I improvised and used Torani coffee syrup (in Brown Sugar Cinnamon flavor) instead. As the recipe indicates, coffee syrup will make the creamer stronger in flavor, so I didn’t use as much as the recipe called for.

This coffee creamer tasted SO good and costs much less than the flavored creamers you would buy at the grocery. Plus, it doesn’t contain a bunch of unpronounceable ingredients and can be made in any flavor you desire. This recipe is definitely a Pinterest-inspired keeper!

P.S. Haven’t been introduced to the wonderful world of Pinterest? Want to see what all the fuss is about? Message me your email address, and I will send you an invite. But be warned: it is highly addicting!

Saving Made Simple

I just want to put this out there: I.love.finances.

There, I said it. Consider yourself officially warned.

If you’ve decided to continue reading (thank you!), I’m sure you’ve guessed my post this evening is about finance. Specifically, personal finance. I’ve been thinking a lot about my family’s finances lately, and I’ve found a lot of my conversations with friends and family have been going in the direction of saving, budgeting and cost-cutting tips. I don’t know about you, but everything I heard about bail-outs, unemployment and our crumbling economy over the last few years has sent the frugal part of my brain into overdrive. I wouldn’t exactly consider myself a “spender”, but I can’t say I’ve always been the “saver” I want to be either. In a perfect world, money experts recommend that we save between 10-20% of our after-tax income. But, alas, this is not a perfect world: according to the most recent studies, Americans only save about $.05 of every $1.00, or 5% of their after-tax income. That’s up from our negative savings a few years ago (yikes!), but still not where we should be.

So, a couple of months ago, my husband, Ryan, and I modified our budget to cut out some spending and increase our saving. But as everyone knows, saving money isn’t always easy. I’ve read various articles on tips and strategies for saving money, but we hadn’t found a system with which we were totally comfortable. Through trial and error, we’ve come up with several saving strategies that we’ve been successful at following. While everyone’s approach to money is different, I think these strategies can be adjusted to fit numerous personal finance styles (with as little pain as possible).

Savings Strategy # 1 – Break It Down. No, I don’t mean on the dance floor (ha…ha): break down your savings goals in manageable sizes. Whatever manageable means is up to you. Here’s how I do it: First, set a savings goal (“I need $2,000 for our vacation next summer.”). Then, taking into consideration how much time you have to save, calculate how much you need to save monthly to reach your goal (“For the next 10 months, I will need to save $200 per month to reach my goal.”). If you’re completely, 100% comfortable with the monthly number (and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you will save that amount each month), go ahead and start saving! However, if you’re like me and feel more comfortable with smaller amounts coming out of your checking account, you should next calculate what you need to save per paycheck (“If I continue to get paid twice a month, I will need to save $100 per paycheck to reach my goal.”) Ah, much better. If you want, break it down even further to a weekly savings target (“If I save $50 each week, I’ll reach my savings goal for vacation.”). Even though the math gets you to the exact same place, savings $50 a week seems much more manageable than one big withdrawal of $200 per month. Simple, but it works!

Savings Strategy #2 – The Round Down. Every Sunday, round the balance in your checkbook down to the nearest hundred-dollar amount. For example, if the balance in your checkbook is $563.10 on Sunday, round it down to $500. Write a check to yourself for the “round down” (in my example, $63.10) and stash it in a safe place. Even if you only round down an average of $20 per week, you’ll have over $1,000 saved in one year ($20 per week x 52 weeks = $1,040). If a weekly round down is too much to start off, try doing it once or twice a month. This is a great way to save for expenses that depend on how much you save (like Christmas and spending money for a trip).

Savings Strategy #3 – Automate. Unfortunately, left to my own devices, I wouldn’t save nearly as much as I would like (or need). My solution to this is both convenient and simple: set up automatic transfers that take a set amount of money from my checking account and deposit the cash into various savings accounts. All the work is done one time, and I don’t have to remember to go into my online banking sites to transfer money into savings. Start with a small amount and work your way up. Once you see the balance in that savings account going up, your sense of accomplishment will trigger the desire to save more.

Savings Strategy #4 – Inconvenience Yourself. While I am normally an advocate of multi-tasking and streamlining tasks, when it comes to saving, I’ve found one of the best ways to save a large chunk of money is to take away the convenience of accessing that money. Online banking rocks in so many ways (for instance, it allows me to balance my checkbook everyday…yes, I do that), but there is one pitfall for me:  I can transfer money out of my savings and into my checking account with the click of a mouse. And I can do this at anytime, from anywhere. Ah, the convenience of technology.  However, if you were to add driving to the bank, standing in line and going through a teller to do that same transfer, it instantly becomes less appealing. The result: I’m less likely to touch the money in my savings account. This self-inflicted “cooling off” period works well for any kind of savings account, but it’s especially effective for emergency savings accounts or other savings accounts in which you want to build up a sizable balance (such as saving for a down payment on a house).

Had enough financial talk for one day? 🙂 Hope everyone has a wonderful weekend!

“Good News” News

I’ve heard many people say they don’t like watching the evening news because it always seems to be BAD news. This seems especially true right now, as there has been a string of tragedies in Ohio and the Midwest over the last couple weeks. One theory on why our news stations are flooded with bad news is that good news is boring. Well, I don’t know about you, but I certainly could use some good news right now, boring or not. 

Enter Gimundo. This whole site is dedicated to sharing the GOOD news that happens all over the world, plus lots of links to feel-good websites. It’s so refreshing to read about the inspiring, selfless and well, good, things people are doing. And while I was very disappointed to read that the 25 billionth app was downloaded (I had my heart set on that $10,000 prize Apple has been advertising), it’s nice to know that someone won.

I spent close to an hour on this site last night before forcing myself to get some sleep. As it turns out, good news isn’t that boring at all.