Disclosure: Some posts on this blog are sponsored, meaning that I received goods, services, or monetary payment for my writing. My opinions however, are not 'purchased' and are always 100% my own. Posts contain affiliate links that I earn a commission on. This disclosure is done in accordance with the FTC 10 CFR, Part 255, Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Floridian

Floridian on UrbanspoonWe often sit around looking up deals to places that we consider fantastic (and therefore usually far away), but we rarely stop to consider the places that are in our own backyards. Many times the people that open our eyes to the uniqueness of our own place are those who didn't grow up in the area. This was the case for me when I started introducing my husband to the tourist destinations in the city he grew up in. Granted, he has lived in a place that is considered a tourist destination his entire life, but that doesn't mean that he is immune to the trap of doing the same things in the same places (generally with the same people).

There's nothing wrong with wishing to go someplace far away, and there's nothing wrong with being comfortable doing the same old stuff. But if you're looking for something to do, and complaining that there isn't anything there, just remember - to somebody else, the area where you live is a vacation. Almost every city and even some towns have a Visitor's Bureau. It's typically a place where they can hand out hotel pamphlets and flyers about festivals and things to do. This is one of your best bets when you are looking for something fun. Even if all that catches your eye is the local bowling alley with the cosmic bowling, it's always worth a try to browse through these flyers. Plus, there are usually coupons!

If you don't see anything there you like, you might want to try a local hotel, or a gas-station near a large highway. Many times these places have a free mini-magazine with nothing but coupons and advertisements for nearby attractions and places to stay. A favorite of mine is finding a cheap hotel with a jacuzzi room. It's perfect for a romantic night away or just to get out of the house and watch some cable tv. I don't get the time to watch tv at home very often, so for me, pizza delivery and cable is a vacation in itself!

And if you really don't find anything that sparks your interest - take it a step further! Check out some of the shows on the Travel Channel. Many of them are about places in the U.S. Pick a show that interests you (one of my faves is Man vs. Food) and then google the closest "big" city to you to see if they ever did a show in that location. When I googled Man vs. Food along with my city, I didn't find anything where I live, but I did find many helpful websites pointing me towards the closest city where it had been filmed. For instance, www.tvfoodmaps.com will show you where around 30 of the most popular foodie shows have been filmed.

As for us, we didn't have to go too far to find a neat place to eat, and I didn't even need a tv show to find it. A local area restaurant, The Floridian (know as "the Flo" to locals) is not only open 24/7, it's considered a historic piece of Fort Lauderdale that helped to build the city. The menu holds a variety of options, and you can find just about anything to match your cravings - they even have a "Fat Cat" breakfast that comes with ny strip steak & eggs for two, plus a bottle of Dom Perignon! For those of us who are short on funds, you can get the "Not So Fat Cat": the same breakfast, but with a (much) cheaper bottle of champagne. Or there's the meal my husband and I spotted the last time we were there - the "Bigg Kountry Burger". It's a two pound burger with deluxe toppings and an entire plate of chili cheese fries on the side. We shared it but, needless to say, we wish we had not also ordered an appetizer and there was a lot of food leftover.

The places that are worth visiting are a combination of opinion and perception. See yourself as a tourist in your hometown and you'll find your own Floridian.

(And yes, this is me eating my half of the giant burger. I still can't believe that was just half.)

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

CoCaLo "Perfect Bum" Review

As I wrote before, I'm trying out the whole cloth diaper thing. When I first started cloth diapering, I only knew of the old Gerber white cloth & pin setup. I had no idea that cloth diapering these days was so easy (or in some cases - fashionable). With so many brands out there, I knew I wanted to try several to get a feel for which one would be best for me.

Since BabiesRUs is close enough that I can pop in pretty frequently, I decided to make the first of my cloth diaper purchases there. I picked up the CoCaLo "Perfect Bum" cloth diaper & t-shirt set for $17.98. They had a wide variety of styles to choose from which come in three different sizes. The sets come with a small t-shirt, the diaper cover, an insert, and a liner. It is worth noting that these are being discontinued at BabiesRUs, so if you want a great deal, call around to your local ones to see if they are offering them at a low price. As of 10/16/13, these were marked down to $7.98 from the original price of $29.99. If you can find them in a store near you, stock up!

Here is a picture of my little one in the shirt, although unfortunately grandma saved her from a poopy diaper before I could get a picture of her wearing it as a set.

Overall, I like the diaper for it's convenience, but I'm put off by the lack of tightness in the elasticity. The design is cute, and I love how well the insert and liner wick the moisture away, but it just isn't enough for me to forgive the occasional sudden wet spot on my shirt or pants - or worse, a friend's shirt or pants! Maybe if my baby's legs were a bit chubbier during the trial run of this brand, it would have held up a bit better.

If you do a market comparison, the price I paid for this diaper is a bit cheaper than some others, but it is still a bit costly from a penny-pincher's point of view. And because this diaper doesn't grow with the child (as some other adjustable ones do), I just can't justify buying a bunch of these. I think that this is one of those diapers that I loved having one of (for those moments when I wanted to feel like I was "in-style") but for everyday humdrum around the house, I preferred cheap & sturdy.

Disclosure: I received no compensation for this post, and as always, my opinions are purely my own.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

My Perfect Coffee

About a month ago, shortly after we had brought 'Sissy' home from the hospital, my husband announced that we were both too tired to cook and were heading out for lunch. We went to a local chinese buffet, and when the woman came for our drink order, I was so tired that I ordered coffee.

She brought it out in a cheerful looking Christmas mug and I added in my usual sugar packet before sipping gratefully. I was shocked when I tasted it, and had my husband taste it to confirm what I thought: this was some of the best coffee we'd ever had. We sat wondering what it was. Could it be a special asian blend? Was it available online? I asked my husband if we could buy some if it wasn't over $20.

When the waitress came back, we asked her if we could please have the name of the coffee, and if she could tell us where they got it. Her answer was a mumble and a strange look before she walked off towards the kitchen. I shrugged at my husband, offering the suggestion that maybe she had to ask for permission before she could tell us what it was or where to get it.

She came back to the table, still giving us strange looks as she smiled and held up what we'd been so curious about: it was a packet of Nescafé instant coffee. My husband and I burst out laughing, we couldn't believe we'd been sitting around amazed at a simple blend of instant.

We went out that same day and bought ourselves a jar of it for around $6. I soon learned to love my instant coffee, especially with a new baby in the house. I didn't have to clean the pot or dump grinds anymore just to get a little pick-me-up, and the coffee itself was fast to make - I could have a hot cup ready in about a minute. Best of all it tasted great! When we ran out, I headed over to my local Winn Dixie store to see about buying another jar. There were so many different types and flavors of instant coffee, I found myself wondering which was the best one.

I decided I'd just have to hold a taste test. I went over to +Walmart, where they had a smaller variety, but I would save myself about $1 per jar. Since I was only going to test the classic coffee version, it didn't matter anyway. The brands I tested were: Nescafé Clasico, Maxwell House Original, Folgers Classic Roast, and Walmart's own Great Value brand. Price-wise, the coffees all range in price from about 3 to 5 cents per cup, with the Walmart brand being the cheapest, and the Folgers being the most expensive. Considering that your average on-the-go coffee is almost a dollar though, I'm not complaining about the difference between 2 cents!

I used my family's usual weekend coffee-drinking to administer my taste tests, and here's what we found:

Nescafé Clasico
Pros: Coffee tastes like it has a hint of chocolate to it, strong flavor, no bitter aftertaste, comes in a nice glass container that is perfect for reusing.
Cons: Doesn't come with directions saying how much coffee to use, lid is difficult to get off the jar and gets stuck easily.

Maxwell House Original
Pros: Coffee was very smooth, better for drinkers who like a milder coffee taste.
Cons: Avid coffee drinkers found the mix to be too mild and a bit thin, it didn't have that nice coffee-ish smell to it.

Folgers Classic Roast
Pros: Has a strong coffee flavor, grinds smell good, aftertaste is a good one.
Cons: Coffee is a bit strong for those who don't like it weaker, tastes almost smoky at first (but that reminded us of camping, which is fun, so I guess it could be seen as a pro too)

Great Value Brand
Pros: Coffee was very smooth, slightly stronger than the Maxwell House, had a gentle flavor to it.
Cons: It doesn't have a pleasant coffee smell, the jar is so wide that it can be easily dropped.

In the end, the unanimous winner was the Nescafé, with the Walmart brand coming in at second. We used the recommended "rounded teaspoon" per 6 ounces of water to make the coffees, but more or less coffee can be added to match specific tastes.

So I've found my perfect coffee: cheap, easy to make, no clean-up. Who knew instant coffee could be so great?!

Disclosure: I received no compensation for this post, and as always, my opinions are purely my own.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Stop Picky Eating at the Source!

Two weeks ago I was out shopping with my son. He isn't one of those die-hard picky eaters, but (like most toddlers) he's definitely zeroed in on the chicken nuggets and hot dogs as his favorite foods. So last week when he picked up a box of Sponge Bob shaped mac & cheese and begged me for it, my first reaction was to tell him no. Why? Because I've never seen him touch macaroni any of the times I've made it, and I didn't feel like buying food that he wasn't going to eat.

He persisted in asking me about it for another three or four aisles worth of grocery shopping, and he was being good, so before we went to check-out I grabbed it for him. When we got home I unloaded and put away the groceries and started getting ready to make lunch. Before I could decide what to make, 'Bubby' was in the kitchen with me, begging for his macaroni again. I thought he only wanted it because he didn't really know what it was. On the box, he could only see that it was Sponge Bob, and that's where the real appeal was for him. I figured that after I had it made it and he saw it, he wouldn't eat it... but I made it anyways.

I'm so very glad that I did. He stayed in the kitchen with me the whole time I made it, even asking if he could look in the pot while the pasta boiled. As soon as it had cooled enough for him to eat, he devoured it. And he ate the veggies I had made alongside it. I couldn't believe how well he had eaten! I wondered if the cause was the excitement and involvement he'd had about what he would eat. That's when I decided to experiment with it.

So I made him three meals one week and three identical meals the next week. The first meal was pasta with a butter sauce, salad and a slice of bread. The second meal was oatmeal, an egg, and three smokey links. The third meal was a chicken salad sandwich, a potato, and green beans. The only difference in the meals was that the first week, he had nothing to do with the food. He didn't come to the grocery with me, he didn't come into the kitchen while I was making the food, and he didn't help out. The second week, he went to the grocery with me, picked out foods that he wanted to try and put them in the cart, and helped in the kitchen with whatever he could. Here were the results from two exactly identical meals:

                      Week One                                                Week Two
1rst Meal:  Ate the bread                      1rst Meal:  Ate half the pasta, all of the bread, & three bites of salad
2nd Meal:  Ate the smokey links         2nd Meal:  Ate everything!
3rd Meal:   Ate nothing                         3rd Meal:  Ate 1/2 the sandwich, 1/2 the beans, and a bite of the potato

Not only did he eat more during the week that he helped, the things he didn't eat during the first week were things that he'd never liked to eat. That means he was feeling pretty darn curious during week two, or that my theory is correct: children like to eat what they had a part in. As a matter of fact, when I sat down to eat my chicken salad sandwich next to him, I said "This is good bubby!" and he quickly replied "You welcome!" I still can't get over the fact that he ate the chicken salad - it even had chunks of onion and celery in it!

Today we went to the grocery again. I was thrilled to see that he was pointing to things that he wanted to eat, and even reminded me that we are out of his macaroni. We got some more, which means we'll be having it for dinner tonight, it has gone from being the food he won't touch to the food he wants more of. As far as food goes, I couldn't ask for a better outcome from a toddler!

Picture taken by Alicia Figueroa for Master of Mom™, Inc.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Cracker Barrel Restaurant Review

One of the best things about the weekends is being able to go out for breakfast. When I was younger, it was a treat just to go out, but I didn't truly appreciate it until I became a wife and mother. Contrary to our usual meals, when we go out I get to sit down while someone else does the serving, I don't do the dishes afterwards, and best of all, I get to eat my food while it is still hot. My food this morning at the Cracker Barrel though, was anything but hot.

The meal started out nicely enough. Although we'd had to wait 25 minutes for a table, we didn't mind since it was a busy Saturday in a tourist-friendly hotel area. Our waitress was quick to take our drink orders after we'd reached the table and she was friendly to my two year old who was trying to talk to her about a turtle. She brought our drinks back quickly and we told her we needed just a bit more time before placing our meal order. That's when things started to go wrong.

She came back a couple of minutes later to tell us that she was going to have another waitress take over because her child was sick and she had to leave. She apologized, and we told her that we understood completely. A few minutes later, the new waitress came. It became painfully obvious before I had even completed ordering for my son that the replacement waitress was very distracted. I had to repeat myself several times before the order had been put in for the table, and she answered a couple of my questions with "yes" responses when the correct response would have been something like "They come with links." or "$2.99". I noticed as she was taking the order that she was looking around the restaurant, which made me wonder if she was new and looking for assistance. Whatever the cause, we didn't feel very attended to.

Shortly after we'd placed our order, another family sat down at the table beside ours and placed their order as well. I busied myself with giving my toddler "stern" looks and reminding him to settle down, hoping and praying that the food would arrive soon so that he had a reason to stay in his chair. The waitress came back after a while. I thought perhaps she was here to freshen our coffees since she didn't have our food, but she was back to ask about our bread options since she had forgotten to ask before. She offered us biscuits (although our meals were supposed to come with toast) and I said that would be fine since I didn't want any more confusion to our order. As she walked away I watched the waitress for the family next to us bring their food out.

Our waitress soon returned with the biscuits and I was able to quiet my son for a few minutes. It didn't last and I was soon back to wishing our food would come. The table beside us got up and left, their meals finished, check in hand. They had placed their order and eaten in the time we'd been waiting for ours. Thankfully, almost as soon as they'd left, a new server came out with our food. My son popped up into his chair, and the first words out of his mouth were "Where's my bacon?". I was upset to see that the side of bacon I ordered for him hadn't come with the rest of the food. My mother-in-law was quick to put a sausage link on his plate next to his egg to appease him, and he quieted back down.

I took a bite of my food. It was cold. It was all cold. The eggs were cold, the meat was cold. I sighed and began to eat it anyways. The waitress wasn't nearby to ask her about it, and since I'm the one that does the serving at home before I sit to enjoy my own meal, I'm used to eating cold food. I asked my mother-in-law about her food, she said it was warm, not hot, but warm enough that she wouldn't complain. I touched a finger to my son's egg. Cold also. At least he didn't seem to care. He was talking non-stop about turtles and playing with the peg game on the table.

When the waitress finally did come back she asked how our food was. I questioned her about the missing bacon first. She said that it had gone to another table by mistake and she'd bring me another one. I told her just to take it off our check, my son wasn't making a fit about it, and by this time we were half done with our food. I also pointed out that my food had come cold. She offered to heat it up and I let her take my plate. I hadn't been able to eat more than one of my three cold eggs, it had an unpleasant texture that unsettled my stomach. I was hoping that a little hot food would fix it back up. Unfortunately, the eggs she brought back were too rubbery for me from the extra cooking, and my ham was greasy and curled up on the sides. It was altogether unappetizing. Of my entire meal, the only thing I had enjoyed was the biscuit.

The restaurant itself was clean and inviting, but in the end the bill plus tip came out to $30. For a fraction of the cost, I could have stayed home and made myself eggs and ham, which certainly would have been better than the ones I was served.

I didn't have time to speak with the manager unfortunately - I was already behind schedule due to the delay with the food. I'll send them an email this evening and see what sort of response I get. I may visit Cracker Barrel in the next month or so to see if anything has improved, but if it stays the same, I can't say I'll have any desire to go again.

Overall, I give my Cracker Barrel experience a C. (Location reviewed: #268, Pembroke Pines, FL)

Food: C-
Service: C
Cleanliness: A
Kid-Friendly: A
Prices: $$

Friday, January 25, 2013

Check out our giveaways page...

This giveaway is over, but we have lots of great giveaways going on now on our Giveaways Page. Click the tab at the top or click this link to go straight to them!


The giveaway below ended on 2/3/13 and was won by Liz C. Congrats!


(Expired) We are giving away a $100 Walmart giftcard!

(Expired) Leave a comment* on any blog post at www.MasterofMom.com before 11:59PM EST on 02/02/12 to be entered into the drawing.

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Girl's Day In

The first few weeks after your baby is born seem to pass in a blur. You wear the same outfit more than one day in a row, forget to shower, have spit-up in or near your hair, and have forgotten what sleeping through the night feels like. The nice thing is, this part goes away and is replaced with a routine-craziness that at least allows you to stop smelling like funky milk.

Unfortunately, for most of us ladies, we never quite ever go back to that pre-baby upkeep. Yes, there are some mothers out there who somehow manage to do it all and still look like they've never even seen a child, but the majority of us seem to get lost on our way back. Maybe you used to paint your nails every other day or spend time trying out new make-up methods. It could be that you once scoured the clearance racks at department stores trying to come up with that celebrity's outfit you saw in a magazine. Maybe you just liked to go to the spa now and again. The problem of course is time and money. After a baby, you are (willingly) robbed of both by your tiny screaming bundle, and the things you used to do for yourself go out the door.

There isn't much to be done about this problem in the way of a permanent correction. Your baby will always need your time and attention, regardless of their age. Even I wailed for my mommy a few weeks ago when I was home at Christmas because my new baby had squirted poop all over me. My mom ran up the stairs (yes, ran!) thinking that I was one of my smaller brothers or sisters, but she saved me all the same once she saw who was crying for her. She literally cleaned me up, mopping the spots off my pants with a towel while my dad sat nearby laughing. While she was being such a great mom and saving me from the poop, I happened to notice how nice her nails looked. It was an odd thing to notice while I was having yellow poo cleaned off my jeans, but that's what I thought about.

My mom has nine kids, seven of which live at home still, and the youngest is only two. My mom has a business she runs with my dad, and they put in constant hours to keep it going. And yet my mom had her nails done. I already knew her secret, but I had forgotten it until just then: she understands the importance of taking an hour or two with the "girls" to feel good about herself again.

Now in my mom's case, the "girls" are my sisters, and range in age from 8 to 23, so unless you have a 23 year old daughter living at home that likes to do your nails, this little project is best done with a close friend, a sister, or maybe even your own mom!

To have a great girl's day in you'll need: a friend (or two or three), nail polish and all the accessories to do nails, a couple containers big enough to put your feet into, epsom salt, scented lotion, scented candles, your make-up bags (it's recommended to each use your own make-up to avoid skin flare-ups), tweezers, a bottle of facial mask and some drinks. If you want, the pre-made martini mix is great for this, but a little tub of cappucinno mix from the coffee aisle works just as great.

Soak your feet in the epsom salt and put lotion on afterward to leave your feet silky smooth. Take turns giving each other mani's & pedi's. Do each other's make-up like you did when you were in school. Light those candles up and let the face mask do its work while you girls chat and have a coffee together. This all only takes a couple of hours. Yes, it is hard to find a couple of hours sometimes, but it is also necessary. Taking time for you can give you new energy and put an optimistic spin on the problems that come up in your day. Plus, you can't beat the fact that this type of "luxury" experience costs around $200-$300 per person at a spa, but duplicating it at home with your gal-pals is only around $20-$30.

So call up a friend, clear a couple of hours out of your calendar and prepare to feel normal again. You'll be in a better mood for your kids and your husband afterwards and best of all, you'll get a moment to be yourself.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Crockpot Keepers: Country Steak & Cabbage

Cabbage is under-appreciated. It's good for your bones, helps reduce cancer risk and has more vitamin C than an orange. It's a good source of potassium and several essential vitamins and minerals. This means it has numerous fantastic health benefits. And on top of all that, it's really pretty yummy. This recipe is great for getting a good healthy dose of cabbage.

When I go to the store, I typically like to buy cuts of meat that are on sale or, best of all, buy one get one. This recipe is perfect for the BOGO buys because you can marinate both steaks at once and then put one in the freezer until you are ready to use it.

This recipe is also great because there are only four ingredients to throw in the pot, and the meat comes out perfectly tender.

Country Steak & Cabbage (Serves 6)

1/2 cup italian dressing
1 Tbsp steak seasoning blend

2 lbs sirloin steak
1 yellow onion
1 head of cabbage
1/2 cup italian dressing

Malt Vinegar, Salt & Pepper to taste

Marinate the steak in the dressing and seasoning mix for at least one hour. If desired, you can marinate the meat overnight in the refrigerator and put it in the crockpot the next morning. Cut the onion into rings and separate them. Lay them on the bottom of the crockpot to make a "bed" for the steak. Put the steak, and the marinade with it, on top of the onion rings. Cut the cabbage into sixths. Place the chunks of cabbage onto the steak. Take care to keep the chunks together when you place it in the pot, stray leaves may dry out before there is enough steam in the crockpot to keep them moist. Pour the 1/2 cup of beef broth over the cabbage leaves and put the cover on the crockpot. Cook on low for 7 to 8 hours. Pass around malt vinegar and salt & pepper so each person can season their portion to their taste.

This meal goes great with cut fruit and fresh biscuits. Add a glass of milk and you've covered your food groups.

If you bought a second steak to use at another time, drain the juice from the crockpot after you've removed the steak and vegetables and freeze it to use in place of the beef broth. It will keep nicely in a small tupperware container for about 2 weeks.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

LongHorn Steakhouse Restaurant Review

Yesterday our family went to dinner for my brother-in-law's birthday. He wanted a good steak, so we chose to go out to LongHorn Steakhouse. Because I'm always looking for a way to try and save money, I started browsing the internet for coupons. I found a link on +Coupons.com to get a free appetizer from LongHorn, just for joining their Western Hospitality Club. Usually when I come across these types of deals, I have to wait several hours before getting the welcome email that gives a free appetizer. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the email was immediate, and I had a coupon for a free appetizer (with purchase of regular entrée) and was out the door in just a couple of minutes.

When we got to the restaurant, it was clean, there were tables available, and we were greeted immediately by the host. Since we had a large party we had to wait while they set up a place for us, and the two smallest children with us (both toddlers) began to play in the waiting area. I was pleased that - although they were being slightly rowdy - the servers were pleasant to them when they passed nearby and did not seem annoyed. I'm always happy to find a restaurant that is family-friendly in the truest sense: the people there understand that sometimes a kid is a kid and there isn't much you can do to end their need to wriggle and giggle.

The servers came out and took our drink orders as soon as we were seated. All of the orders were correct, however my husband's water had a strange taste to it and we had to have them replace it. The second one they brought him was fine, and no one else had an incident with it.

We ordered appetizers: the Firecracker Chicken Wraps, their new Spinach Dip, and their new Smokin' Sweet Calamari. The chicken wraps were good, but not something we would order again - they just didn't have as much flavor as we hoped they would. The spinach dip was excellent and one of the cheaper starters on the menu. The calamari was some of the best I've had anywhere, and the dipping sauce was a nice change from the usual cocktail blends at many restaurants. The only problem I did find with the appetizers was a big one: there was a shrimp mixed in with our calamari. My husband is allergic to shrimp and, although he loves calamari, he was unable to eat any after he found the shrimp for fear of allergic reaction. Thankfully, he did not have an episode and we were able to continue the meal.

We ordered meals for the kids, who were unhappy to learn that they were completely out of chicken tenders. Since all of our kids were chicken-eaters, we picked their second choices: grilled cheese, cheeseburger and chicken salad. All of the kids got fries to go with their meals, and at the end of dinner, that was the only thing the two toddlers had eaten. Both children are picky eaters, and I can say for certain that my son didn't eat his cheeseburger since it was a regular-sized one, and he'll usually only eat burgers if they are sliders.

The adult entrées were much better received. My husband and I ordered the Porterhouse for Two, a good deal with sides and salad included for $39.99. Yes, we could have ordered two cheaper steaks and got away with a smaller charge, but we decided that we would rather upgrade to the better cut of steak. It was well worth it. The steak itself was perfectly tender and seasoned, we both agreed it was possibly one of the best we have ever had. The servers brought out a tray and made their signature steak sauce for us at the table. My husband said it had a unique taste and he enjoyed it. I thought it was passable, but I preferred the steak without the sauce since I found it to be excellent on its own.

My brother-in-law ordered the prime rib. He found the meat perfectly cooked, but would have preferred a better seasoned "crust" on the meat. My sister-in-law found a chunk of something burnt in her potato soup, and the taste that had cooked into the soup made her feel sick. The servers apologized and asked if she wanted something else or a different bowl of soup, but she passed on their offer since her stomach was feeling upset. There were no issues or spectacular pronouncements wtih the rest of the meals and it was soon time for the check.

Unfortunately, the check itself became an issue. My sister-in-law was displeased to find that the child's chicken salad she had ordered for her daughter did not come with the side of fries (like the other children's meals did). She had been charged for an adult's portion of ala carte fries and pointed out that the server did not inform her when she placed the order, nor did she see where it was printed on the children's menus.

I also had a problem with my check: My refilling debit card that I use specifically for business had been declined! I handed over my regular debit card to pay the balance and went straight to my phone to look up my balance online. I knew I had more than enough money to pay for the meal my husband and I had shared. As it turns out, I had been charged twice - once for an amount that was more than my check amount, and then again for the bill that had come back with insufficient funds! I pointed out to the server that the only reason there were insufficient funds was due to the fact that I had been charged first for a check that was not mine. Long story short, the manager was called and they finally found that the server had first swiped my card without remembering to take off my "free appetizer" coupon. She then canceled the charge (which still puts a hold for the full amount on my bank card) and tried to swipe the card again the second time with the modified amount. Since I never keep more than I need on the business card, it didn't have quite enough for both charges. Luckily I had the debit card with me, or I may have been unable to pay without using a credit card!

In the end, I told the manager the story of what had happened to us as diners throughout the course of the night. She was very courteous and very apologetic - especially about the mix-up with my card. She offered me a gift certificate in the amount of our meal to come back and try the restaurant again, even if it was not their location. We had an interesting dinner, but she was certainly determined to make things right and was the epitome of good customer service. Having been on her end of the customer service business before, I can say that she handled herself very well and took responsibility for the situation in a way that impressed me.

All in all, I give LongHorn Steakhouse a B rating. I will certainly go back and try it again, but I will wait a few weeks to give things time to improve. There are always bad days for every restaurant, or we may have just been that one meal that seems to go wrong every so often. Either way, I look forward to visiting again to see how things turn out.

Food = B
Kid-Friendly = B+ (the food on the children's menu needs re-inventing)
Service = A-
Cleanliness = A
Pricing = $$

Monday, January 21, 2013

Switching to Reusable: Diapers

When I was younger, I remember hearing the story about how my dad washed my cloth diapers, only to discover that there were little raisins still stuck to them when they came out of the wash. He had forgotten to scrape the poop off. I thought it was hilarious then, but I'm starting to see how he could have made the mistake.

After my second baby came along, I decided to try out cloth diapers. In the beginning I was just working with the basics: three standard plastic covers and twelve large cotton prefolds from Gerber. I remembered my mom using these with my brothers and sisters - but not as diapers. They were originally my diapers, but she opted for the disposables later on, and all the diapers became burp rags. Because these were the only cloth diapers I could recall, these are the ones I bought, pins and all.

Not surprisingly, the cloth diaper scene has changed a lot since I was a girl, and I was rather pleased to find that there was a wide assortment of new and improved diaper covers, not to mention diaper inserts and liners that go along with them. Unfortunately, I didn't discover this until after I was frantically searching the internet at 3 am, trying to see why my baby kept waking up soaked and screaming (I had cloth sticking out the back of the elastic).

After I'd corrected my mistake, I stayed up for a while, browsing and browsing through the massive amounts of information on cloth diapers. I went into this knowing that there were others out there who used cloth diapers, but I figured they were making a huge sacrifice of time and laundry to save a few bucks. I had no idea that there was such a following (largely due to the fact that it's no longer a huge time-consuming laundry-creator).

I was a bit put-off by the pricing at first - one diaper cover with the insert & liner can cost around $25. That isn't a price I'm willing to pay. I figure I'd need about twelve of those, and for all I know I'd have to buy another set when the baby got a bit bigger. I wanted to invest in this, but I didn't want to invest that much!

So I headed to +eBay. I was a bit disappointed in those results since most of them were listings for brand new items that I still considered overpriced. In the end, I decided that my best bet would be to buy a diaper or two at a time from an assortment of places. I found that Craigslist had great prices for diapers, and I also found a lot of great diapers on +Etsy and a website called KerrBearKids.com. All of these diapers ran at around $8 a piece, and that's a price even a thrifty shopper like me can settle for, especially since a lot of those diapers were new.

However, just for the sake of getting a little old-fashioned - the pin & cover method with the old prefolds wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. All in all, the experience (aside from the three-in-a-row soakings from my mistake the first night) was a good one. The baby didn't even seem to notice that she was in a different type of diaper, and I stayed completely caught up on my laundry. Knowing that I could have been stuck with a poopy baby and no diapers was quite the motivator to keep the wash going.

If you've had experience with cloth diapers yourself, please let me know what it was. I'd love to get some feedback from others out there, and I'm curious which ones everyone has tried!

Disclosure: I received no compensation for this post, and as always, my opinions are purely my own.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Salad A Day - Bleu Buffalo

We've all heard the phrase "an apple a day keeps the doctor away", but there should be another one for salads keeping waistlines away. According to livestrong.com, replacing just one meal with a salad can decrease your overall calorie intake and increase your consumption of vitamins and minerals.

Eating one salad in place of a regular entrée everyday seems like it would be an easy enough task. However, when I went around asking people what they thought of salads, all of them said that they wouldn't mind eating salads, but they either had one or more of the following excuses:

Salads are time-consuming to make.
The salads at the store look good, but they are too expensive.
I never have stuff to make the salads at home.
The salads I make at home are boring.
I like the salads at <insert name of fast food restaurant here> but when I saw how high in calories they were, I stopped eating them.

Okay so, that seems like quite a few reasons that salads aren't worth it, but luckily, there is a simple way around all of these problems.

First, you have to be committed to eating a salad a day, and that means making some adjustments to your grocery list. I try to have on hand at all times: lettuce or spinach leaves (don't go for the iceburg lettuce, it's all water and no nutrients), tomatoes, bell peppers, onions (I like to have a variety on hand), and several kinds of salad dressings. These are the minimum things I like to have just because I use these ingredients the most often in my salads, you can change the list to whatever suits your tastes. As a bonus, these ingredients are usually rather inexpensive, and can last through several salad meals.

Next, when you get home with your groceries, chop or slice the onions and bell peppers and store them in a plastic bag in the freezer. This will make them easily accessible when you need them.

Last, think back to the salads that you thought looked appetizing, but were too expensive or high in calories. Then, make your own version. A favorite of mine is the Buffalo-Bleu Cheese Salad at a local grocery, but since I don't feel like paying $6.99 a salad, I make my own.

Buffalo-Bleu Cheese Salad

lettuce or spinach
1/2 tomato, chopped
green bell pepper slivers
red onion slivers
3 chicken nuggets (I buy the super big bag and store it in the freezer for these occasions)
1 Tbsp bleu cheese dressing
1 Tbsp buffalo wing sauce

I heat the chicken nuggets up in the microwave to make it fast. While they cook, I toss everything else onto a salad plate. Once the nuggets are done, I slice them up and put them on the salad and then toss it all together so that the dressing and wing sauce coats it all. Quick, affordable, low-calorie and delicious!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

What Everyone Should Know About Eggs

Everyone has been to the grocery store and seen the array of different eggs. There are usually your standard white eggs, and then a variety of homegrown-looking eggs that come in speckles or brown.

I collected several theories on eggs this week, just so that I could take care of a few of them. Here's what you should know about eggs before you go to the grocery store:

"The brown eggs are better for you because they have more nutrients." This is false. The color of the egg has absolutely nothing to do with the nutritional value inside. Brown eggs are laid by American breed hens. These chickens fall into the dual-purpose category, meaning that raising them for meat is just as worth-while as raising them for eggs. This makes them a popular breed to have for a backyard flock, thus contributing to their "fresh-from-the-farm" appeal. The truth is, these eggs are no different from the white ones, other than color of course.

"The white eggs are worse for you because they are bleached before they are taken to the store." Again, this is false. The eggs are so white because that is how nature and God intended them. Mediterranean breeds lay white-shelled eggs, and because they are the most efficient hens for laying eggs, these breeds are typically used by commercial farms. The eggs produced on a commercial farm are quite likely rinsed under water in the same manner as eggs at any farm-house are, no bleaching required.

"I have to buy expensive eggs because they are the only ones that are 'vegetarian'." Okay, well it's been a couple of years since I've helped out around the farm, but the last time I checked, chickens ate ground corn. To me, this seems like a massive marketing ploy. All chickens are vegetarians, therefore their eggs would be 'vegetarian' as well. Of course, there are always those rumors about unscrupulous corporations who give their chickens 'extras' to make them bigger - but from my understanding those are generally reserved for bulking up the meat chickens. I'm not sure what is in those extras, and it's so hard to discern the hype from the real problems about food additives these days that it makes for a tricky subject. Luckily, I'm just writing about eggs. As far as this one being a true or false myth, it ends up all depending on whether or not the commercial farm is giving extras to the chicken, but I would say that since they are layers (and not meat chickens), it's probably false. Best advice here is to call up the individual companies and ask them directly if they give their chickens anything with a trace of meat in it. If not - buy the cheaper eggs, you'll save yourself about $100 per year.

"You should always buy the freshest eggs you can." This is partially true. Yes, if you are going to use them for general consuming, you should look for the freshest eggs - but! - if you are going to use them for hard-boiling, go for the eggs that are a few days older than the rest. The fresher the egg, the more difficult it is to peel after you've boiled it. If you have really fresh eggs that you want to hard-boil, go ahead and leave them out of the refrigerator overnight to "age" them. This will make them much easier to peel.

"Eggs that have spots on them are not as fresh." It seems like everytime I'm at the grocery store I hear a line similar to this one from some lady that is picking through the eggs and creating her own "custom carton". The spots on the eggs are just natural blemishes and have nothing to do with how fresh the eggs are. Neither do the lines on them that look like cracks (but aren't cracks), the sound they make when you tap them, the way they spin, or any other weird old wive's tale about egg-freshness. So if you've spent your time at the grocery trying to get the best ones with any of the above suggestions, you've been wasting your time. There are three effective ways to tell egg freshness:

Candling Method: You can hold the egg up to a bright light (best done if you are in a dark room) like a penlight and check the air space at the top of the wide end of the egg. If it's less than 1/8", it's very very fresh - grade AA. If it's between 1/8" and 3/16", it's grade A. These ones are good for hard-boiling, especially when they are close to the 3/16" mark. If it's 3/16" or less, that means it is an old egg and it is considered B quality. This is the only method you might be able to do at a grocery store to check, although the lighting would have to be just right.

Sink or Float Method: Toss your eggs (carefully) into a bowl of water if you aren't sure about their freshness. Because the space of air in eggs increases as they get older, so does their float-ability. A fresh egg will sink to the bottom, but an old egg will float because of the air pocket.

Cracking Method: Eggs that are old do not hold together as well as fresh eggs. If you crack your questionable egg into a bowl, the white immediately spreads out from the yolk. If it spreads out so much that the yolk flattens and the white is runny, the egg is older. If the yolk stands up and the white spreads only in a compact area around the yolk, the egg is fresh.

Well now you know what I know about eggs. I learned most of it from the 4-H Poultry Club when I was younger, and the rest of it from my mom. The 4-H Clubs are a great source of advice and information when it comes to all things agriculture or animal-husbandry related. For more information on how to become a part of their programs, please visit their website at www.4-h.org.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Is DIY worth it? Making Cookies

With the economy still trying to bounce back to normal, many families are feeling the pinch of a tight budget. Because of this, Do-It-Yourself kits and How-To guides have had a rise in popularity. But with companies able to mass-produce items at a cheap cost, are we really saving ourselves any money? Or are we just stretching ourselves even thinner?

I set out to discover which is better: making cookies from scratch, or buying the refrigerated cookie dough.

To make things fair, I used a refrigerator cookie dough recipe since that is the kind that you purchase at the store. It can be made ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator until you have a sudden urge for cookies, thus the term 'refrigerator cookie'.

I started out by purchasing my pre-made dough. Because this type of item doesn't usually have an off-brand available, I purchased the peanut-butter chocolate chip variety that is made by Nestle. It cost me $3.99. These cookies were pre-scored as well, and placing them on the pan only took me a couple of minutes. The package made 2 dozen cookies, and I was completely finished with making all the cookies and putting my pans away in less than a half hour. And they were delicious. I had five.

Next I made my "from scratch" cookies. I used a recipe from an old cookbook, one that I rely on when I want an old-fashioned recipe. Seriously, this book is so old there is a recipe for squirrel in there! As I glanced over the ingredient list, I realized I already had all the items available at home, so I went to the store to see how much all the ingredients would have cost me. I used +Save-A-Lot because they always have great prices, and the items I was after were all standard things - nothing I would need to turn to a 'name-brand' for. Below, I broke down the total cost of the item versus how much I needed for the recipe.

Total Item Cost                            Cost for Amount Needed
5 lb bag of flour = $1.99                               2 cups of flour = 22 cents
10 oz baking powder = $1.19                      3/4 teaspoon baking powder = 2 cents
4.25 oz ground cinnamon = $1.99              1/2 teaspoon cinnamon = 2 cents
1 lb unsalted butter = $2.69                        1/3 cup unsalted butter = 45 cents
18 oz peanut butter = $1.79                        1/4 cup peanut butter = 22 cents
4 lb bag of sugar = $2.29                            3/4 cup sugar = 22 cents
30 count eggs = $2.89                                 1 egg = 10 cents
11.5 oz milk chocolate chips = $2.19         2 cups milk chocolate chips = $2.19

The total I'd have to spend if I had no ingredients on hand at home was $17.02. Since I had everything on hand at home I only counted it as the cost for the ingredients I needed, which was $3.44. This was pretty close to the amount I spent at the store for the pre-made dough ($3.99) but I was happy to see that instead of making only 2 dozen, the recipe I was using would make 5 dozen cookies. When I took that down to the per dozen cost, the pre-made cookies came out at about $1.99 per dozen, but the homemade dough only cost me 69 cents per dozen. At this point, I was certain that the homemade cookies would win.

Unfortunately, the money spent isn't always the deciding factor in the Do-It-Yourself world. When I went to make the dough, it took me a good twenty minutes to make. It didn't come out as soft as the pre-made dough, and because it is a refrigerator dough, I had to form it into a roll and place it in the fridge to chill for a few hours. Forming the dough was no easy task. It seemed too crumbly and I wondered why there hadn't been more butter in the recipe. I ended up making a roll of dough that was about three feet long and wrestled it into my fridge. At this point, my kitchen was a floury/doughy mess, there were spilled chocolate chips on the floor, my two year old had unfolded all my laundry and my youngest was crying to be fed.

I took a break and set my house back to rights, already thinking that this recipe seemed more hassle than it was worth. I was curious to see if the homemade dough would make cookies anywhere near as good as the Nestle cookies. Finally, eager to get rid of the crumbly log of cookie dough in my fridge, I took out the homemade dough and began to cut it into slices. Many of the slices crumbled off, and I made a giant mess as I put them on the cookie sheet. I thought again how the recipe would benefit from more butter, but I wasn't in the mood to play with it anymore by this point.

I wish I could say that I baked the homemade dough and the cookies were delicious... but they weren't. They were the too-sweet type of cookies that reminded me of something that only a child would want to eat. I threw the rest of the dough away - I wasn't willing to go through more of the mess and time needed to finish making the homemade cookies, especially when they didn't even taste very good!

It could be that the recipe was just an outdated one, and I could have found a better refrigerator dough recipe. It could be that more butter would have improved the dough, or that the author of the recipe was holding back a crucial portion of it - much like my Granny did when she was writing down her secret recipes. She would give you the recipe itself, but she wouldn't tell you all her tricks to make it come out perfectly.

Whatever the reason, the homemade refrigerator dough didn't stand up to the pre-made refrigerator dough. And I know one thing is for certain: I'll never feel guilty about buying pre-made dough again!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

How-To Write Dirty...

You can only go through life with the same person for so long before you start to get into a routine. There isn't anything wrong with routine - routines are comfortable, and in a relationship you want to feel comfortable. But you don't want to get so comfortable that the routine is all that makes up your relationship, otherwise the moment something changes (the addition of a new baby, kids going off to college, change in job, chores, finances, etc) things are going to be strained.

That's why you need to shake things up a bit every so often. Even if it's just once a month or once every other month, coming up with a surprise for your spouse can keep things interesting for quite a while.

We've all had that moment where we thought about giving our spouse the 'sexy' surprise. Maybe we read about it in a magazine, or heard something from a friend, but most of the time you end up realizing that some of the suggestions aren't as romantic in real life as they sounded: wax can give you a bad burn, whipped cream is sticky, and that lady on the tag wore the lingerie you bought a whole lot better than you did! Almost all of us have been there at some point and thought afterwards that it was better as a fantasy. So my suggestion is to keep these kind of things as just that - fantasies... however, that doesn't mean you can't make them 'visible' to your significant other through creative writing!

So take some time this week to sit down and write your spouse a story. Get that daydream out of your head and onto paper - or write it out on the computer - and shock your honey a little (in the good way).

Here's how to make it happen:

First, make sure you aren't going to be interupted by anyone (like your kids). Nothing can be more damaging to the romantic imagination than having someone whine at you for snacks or tell you that they need clean underwear. You also don't want your spouse interupting you because then they will be suspecting something, and where's the fun in that?

Next, close your eyes and imagine exactly what you want to write about before you start writing it. Make yourself see the colors, the movements, the shapes - this makes it so much easier to write it out. It doesn't have to be anything dirty necessarily. You can write about something that happened a while ago, or you can write about something you have always wanted to happen, it's all up to you as the writer. Make sure the story is about you and your spouse though, or there might be mixed messages. (You don't want your spouse to think that you are starting a new day-job as a dirty novel writer.)

Make sure you use adjectives and adverbs! Use descriptive language! I'm not saying you need to make your sentences massively over-wordy. But make sure that they can paint a vivid picture for your spouse as he or she reads it. Observe the difference in the examples below:

'She kissed him.' - This doesn't tell you much, other than the fact that a woman is kissing a man. Not very interesting to read, and definitely nothing that gets the heart pounding!

'She crossed the room with deliberate steps, each one bringing her closer to him. She stopped just short of running into his chest and slowly leaned towards him, her mouth brushing his with the slightest whisper of a kiss.' - This tells you a lot more. If this was what you had in your mind, this is what you need to write. The details make the story. Be careful not to go overboard with your descriptions though - stick to the details that matter; your honey doesn't need to know what color the curtains are!

Last, all you have to do is pick a time where your spouse can read it without interruption. Don't stand there watching him or her read it. Act nonchalant and head off to do whatever you normally would. It won't be long before they come looking for you!

Have fun!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Newborn Care: Surviving Night Wakefulness

Having a new baby in the house is rough, especially if you've never had a little one before. The sudden addition of new chores combined with the subtraction of your much-needed sleep can knock even the simplest routines completely off course.

Newborns sleep 90% of the time, and for many moms it can seem like they spend all 10% of their waking hours in the middle of the night - exactly when you want to be asleep. Taking care of your infant in a half-awakened state at 3 am means that at 3 pm you are going to be dead on your feet. But that doesn't necessarily mean you can rest! As a new mom, you're going to have to do even more laundry than before, feed another mouth, change diapers, find time for your own self-care and still do your usual housework (dishes, bills, sweeping). We live in a world of "doing-it-all", and free time is scarce because of all the things we are pressed to cram into our already busy lives. Adding a little one into this mix can be hard and confusing until you re-learn your routine.

Unfortunately, because no one informed your baby that he or she would be stepping into a fast-paced world where people try to sleep on a schedule, you're going to have to adapt until they figure out which hours are for sleeping and which ones are for getting momma's attention.

Here are some tips to help you through the night:

First of all, make sure that everything you will need in the middle of the night is close by to your child's crib - diapers, wipes, baby cream, pacifier, extra blanket, extra change of clothing, burp rag, etc, etc. The last thing you want to be doing at two in the morning is walking around the house in your undies looking for the booger sucker.

Next, make sure that you have a small light near the area you will be taking care of the baby. Don't make it so bright that you will wake your little one up, but make sure that it is bright enough to see everything that you need to see. If you have to get three inches away from your child's booty to see that there is poop on it, you need to get a brighter night-light (and you're also probably about to get an unpleasant-sort of shower).

Establish a routine with your baby so that they know this is the point of the day that you will be putting him or her into the crib for (hopefully) a few hours. Read or sing softly to your baby, play a specific song, give them a bath or a baby-massage. This can be before or after their "final" feeding since some babies fall asleep after eating and some only seem to become more awake!

If your baby falls asleep during the course of your night-time routine, excellent! You're already on your way to getting a few minutes of extra sleep tonight. If he or she hasn't fallen asleep, it isn't the end of the world, you'll just have to wait a bit to catch your own zz's. If your baby is awake, take him or her to a quiet area of your house, preferably an area with a couch and a tv.

Like all mothers, you will have laundry to do. Try to make sure that there is always a load of laundry ready to fold in your dryer (it won't be hard to do). Prop your baby up in the corner of the couch and fold your laundry. Feel free to watch the t.v. at a normal volume. I cannot stress this enough: at a normal volume. If you keep your house so quiet that a pin could drop, that is what will wake your baby. If your house has normal sounds running through it almost all the time though, your baby will waken much less often when there is a normal amount of noise. This will also help your baby to establish the difference between night and day since there is an absence of sound at night, as opposed to the sounds he or she will hear during waking hours. The familiar sound of the tv (or radio if you prefer) should soon put your baby to sleep.

Okay, so your baby is asleep. Now what? Now you wait a little. If you move the baby as soon as he or she has fallen asleep, they are going to wake right up again. Babies need to fall into deep sleep before you try moving them or you risk plunging them into wakefulness again. Wait about five minutes. If your baby is making faces in his or her sleep, you need to wait a while longer. A baby that is deeply asleep will still react when you pick them up, but they won't react as strongly. Usually you can lightly touch a baby that is deeply asleep on the forehead and they won't squint or move away from your touch.

When you go to move the baby, try to think of it as more you moving to the baby. Get your chest as close to the baby's chest as possible and hold them firmly against you. The less you jar the baby, the better chance you have of no fussing after you get them in the crib. When you get to the crib, lean down towards it as far as you can, keeping your chest or stomach touching to the baby's chest for as long as possible. After laying the baby inside the crib, lightly place your hand against the flat of their stomach for a few seconds. This lets the baby know that you are still there if they have started to partially awaken.

This is the hard part of the game. If your baby wakes up, you have to start over. If not, run to bed! Baby probably won't stay asleep nearly as long as you need them to.

Now, this part isn't fun, but it is usually necessary. Keep a chore handy that you can do in the middle of the night. Put another load of washing in the dryer before you hop in bed, pile out your bills in front of the computer. Get out a scrapbook page with all the pieces and lay it out on a work-table. When your precious bundle next wakes up, don't spend the entire time trying to toss him or her back in bed as quickly as possible. Most of the time you just end up doing the crying dance - baby cries, you pick them up, baby falls asleep, you cry for joy, baby cries again as soon as you get in bed, you cry from tiredness. Repeat.

It is much better to go through your entire night-time routine again than it is to handle your baby's needs while half-awake. Waking yourself up completely may let you see that your baby is crying because something is actually wrong, like a fever, or a bug in her jammies. This is also convenient because it enables you to get something useful done during time that would otherwise be spent going back and forth to bed, praying for ten minutes of sleep before your bundle of joy starts screaming again. Just don't do anything silly like drink a cup of coffee or you will be awake for the rest of the night.

Yes, you are going to be tired the next day, but you were going to be tired anyways. If you really feel like you can't make it through the day, just take a nap. After all, the laundry's already done.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Crockpot Keeper: Garlic Chicken & Vegetables

There's nothing like going into your house and smelling a home-cooked dinner. This recipe is one I especially love because it is garlicky, although if you prefer more or less of it you can adjust it to your taste. Additionally, this recipe serves 6 for around $9. Try to buy the chicken when it's on sale, it makes the recipe even more cost-effective. I like to add some fresh fruit and biscuits to this meal to round it out.

Garlic Chicken & Vegetables (Serves 6)

1 onion
1 lb fresh green beans
1 lb red potatoes
2 cans cream of mushroom soup
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (approx 2 lbs)
1 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper

Slice the onion into rings and lay it on the bottom of the crockpot. Snip the ends of the green beans and cut each bean in half. Put them in the crockpot on top of the onions. Partially peel the potatoes so that about half of the skin is still left on the potato. You can leave the whole skin on if you prefer, but this may become a stringy circle later when it falls off the potato during cooking. Slice the potatoes into about 1/4" slices and place them in the crockpot on top of the green beans. At this point, sprinkle the salt and pepper over the potato slices. Open both cans of mushroom soup and mix them in a small bowl with the garlic powder.  Spread half of the mushroom soup mixture over the potatoes. Arrange the chicken thighs on top of this and then lightly sprinkle them with the paprika. Spread the other half of the mushroom soup mixture on top. Cover and let cook in the crockpot for 3 to 4 hours on high.

If you prefer, you can omit half the salt in the recipe and let each individual add more to their portion if they want it. If your family doesn't like too much garlic, you can reduce the amount as needed.

This is a great recipe to have your kids help you cook. Cooking a meal with your child is an excellent opportunity to explain things to them like why foods have different colors or how the vegetables make it to the store from a farm. My two year old son helped me layer the vegetables in and even snapped all the beans in half. He got to be destructive (in a good way) and I got to slice potatoes while he was doing it.

All in all, this meal was 15 minutes of prep time, about $1.50 per serving, and gave me bonding time with my son. I'd say that makes this one a definite keeper!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Crock Pot Keeper: Sweet BBQ Pulled Pork

With just three ingredients, this recipe just couldn't get any easier. Add some buns and cheese to make sandwiches, or wrap the meat up in tortillas to make burritos. This recipe doubles well and is great to take to parties.

Sweet BBQ Pulled Pork (Serves 8)

2 lbs boneless pork shoulder
2 medium vidalia onions
1/2 cup sweet BBQ sauce, plus 1/2 cup for dressing sandwiches

Slice the onions into big rings. Put a layer of them on the bottom of the crockpot and put the rest aside for now. Wash the pork roast and lay it in the bottom of the crockpot, on top of the onions. If there is a fatty side to your roast, make sure to turn it towards the top of the pot. This will allow the fat to run down and coat the sides of the pork as it cooks. Drizzle 1/2 cup of the BBQ sauce over the pork roast. Now pack the rest of the onions around the roast. Put the lid on the crockpot and set the temperature to low. Cook for 8 to 10 hours. The recipe can also be done on high for 4 to 5 hours, but this takes away some of the slow-cooking that is needed to make the meat juicy and tender. When the cook time is up, pour off about 2/3 of the juice. Use forks to shred the meat in the crockpot. Please note that when cooking meals in a crockpot, you should never lift the lid unless the recipe specifies that you should. Lifting the lid releases the heat necessary for cooking along with the juices that keep it tender.

Now I know many of you out there may not have cooked a full roast before, and going to the grocery store to find "pork shoulder" is not so easy as you may think. You may not even be able to find anything labeled with those words, and if you do, it will probably say "bone-in" and be far larger than anything you would want to cook. This is because most stores cut the shoulder into the smaller sections of the shoulder to make it more consumer-ready, and they label it with the sectioned names. When at the grocery, you probably see the shoulder cuts frequently, without ever realizing it. The shoulder cuts go by these names: picnic, blade, arm, shank, hand, butt roast, and Boston butt roast. That's right, the butt roast comes from the shoulder - not the butt! - of the pig. The "butt" terminology is from when pork used to be stored in casks or barrels (which were also known as butts) for storage or shipping. Any of the boneless shoulder cuts will work for pulled pork, but I think the butt roast works the best.

If you aren't sure about making this recipe because you've never cooked in a crockpot before or think that buying one would be expensive, let me assure you - crockpot cooking is very cheap, and the crockpots themselves are not all that costly. As a matter of fact, if you are willing to buy one used off of someplace like Ebay or Craigslist (or even a garage sale) they can be within the range of $5 to $20. As for crockpot cooking itself, it is very easy to do. There is no stirring, no thinking, no time-consuming effort at all. It's just prepping the ingredients and letting the slow-cook method do the rest!

All in all, this recipe took me 5 minutes to prep, 5 minutes to shred and cost me $5. Not bad for a meal, and I'll use the leftovers to make tacos de carnitas tomorrow!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The power of Goodwill

When I was growing up I thought my parents were kind of cheap. Nowadays I know that they were just thrifty out of necessity. We weren't what I would call poor, but my mom definitely had to be creative when it came to dad's paycheck if we wanted to do something like go on vacation or even take a trip to +Chuck E Cheese. When I got out on my own, the economy was doing great and I quickly became addicted to having the finer things in life. When the economy started to dip, I used credit cards to keep up with my lifestyle of 'having', and eventually I got myself into so much debt that I was living without a dollar to spare.

save money at GoodwillDigging myself out of the hole took much longer than I thought it would, and it wasn't enjoyable, but it did teach me some valuable lessons when it comes to spending and saving. Although I wouldn't say that I am completely out of the clear at this point in my life, I'm not living in paycheck to paycheck fear anymore. But that doesn't mean I've changed my budget. I still save money and cut corners any way I can. Old pop bottles become garden planters. Coupons are clipped. Dinner is had at a restaurant only on special occasions or when there is a very good deal going. And Goodwill has become my best friend.

When I found out that we were going to have a second baby, my first reaction was honestly to cry a little. I was happy yes, but I was also terrified about where we would get the money from. I had sold most of our first child's things out of necessity since we had no extra storage space, and I knew exactly what all that stuff would cost - not to mention going on unpaid maternity leave, doctor's bills, and so on.

I decided there was no way I was going back into huge amounts of debt again. So I made a plan of action which included going on an every-weekend trip to all three Goodwill stores in my area. I forced myself to only spend money on big-ticket items that I knew I wouldn't be able to buy cheaper elsewhere (otherwise I would have come home with a boatload of clothes each week!). I did my research before I left the house (aka browsing the internet) so that I would know what was being offered in my area for a similar price. After all, a deal isn't a deal if you could have gotten it somewhere else for less money!

I ended up with:

Peg Perego Carseat, Retail = $200. Price I paid at Goodwill? $7.

Evenflo Carseat to put into grandma's car, Retail = $65. Price at Goodwill? $6.

Fisher Price Vibrating Bouncy Seat, Retail = $40. Price at Goodwill, $5.

Baby Trend Stroller, Retail = $100. Price I paid at Goodwill, $7.

A kind relative bought me a bassinet/playpen, or else I would have snatched one of those up as well. So all in all I got about $400 worth of things from Goodwill for $25. Even if I had clipped coupons all day, shopped the best sales and browsed the internet for the online buys, there is no way that I could have gotten that stuff for anywhere near the price I paid for used.

Looking back, I know that stuff like this is how my mom stretched my dad's paycheck all those years. I remember being embarassed on more than one occasion that someone might catch me inside, looking through other people's castoffs. She would always bluntly tell me: "If they see you here, they shop at Goodwill too, so what does it matter?" It didn't matter how much sense she made, I was still always embarrassed.

So to my mom: I've learned my lesson, sorry to be such a pain all those years while we were shopping. And to everyone else: If you haven't yet found the power of Goodwill because you feel too ashamed to shop there, take it from someone who has been in your shoes - there is nothing so thrilling as having all those things you want and money left over in your savings.

To find a Goodwill near you, visit their Google Page at +Goodwill Industries International, Inc. and click on their homepage links.