A Redeemed Jack-O-Lantern

As much as I love to cook up a good pumpkin and throw it into just about everything, I’ve found that there are other – non-culinary – uses for those big fat squashes that might not be edible, per se, but are just as much fun. 

This Redeemed Jack-O-Lantern, for example. I found the instructions in the files left by the previous K3 teacher in my classroom, and found further inspiration in the fabulous children’s book, The Pumpkin Patch Parable (that right there is an affiliate link), written by one of my favorite authors, Liz Curtis Higgs (That is not. An affiliate link, I mean.). Instead of glorifying death and fear, it celebrates life and hope; and it radiates faith. That’s my kind o’ pumpkin!

How a Jack-O-Lantern is Redeemed

  1. Choose a big fat pumpkin, the best you can find. No bitsy pie pumpkins this time around! “… just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world…” Eph 1:4
  2. Use a sharp knife to cut a lid out of the top of the pumpkin, making it large enough for you to fit your hand in comfortably.
  3. Scoop out all the icky yucky slimy junk stuck inside the pumpkin. It kind of reminds one of all the yuckiness (aka, sin) that resides in each of our hearts. “What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man.” Mark 7:20-23
  4. Throw away the icky yucky slimy junk. (If your frugal heart cannot bear to part with the seeds… save them discreetly! The eliminating of the yucky junk is an essential element of the redemption illustration.) “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I John 1:9
  5. Take a star-shaped cookie cutter and place it on the pumpkin in the general approximation of where it would have eyes if it were a face. Use a hammer to tap the cookie cutter into the pumpkin, and remove the star shaped piece of pumpkin to reveal a star-shaped eye. Repeat for the second eye. (Note: Plastic cookie cutters work, but metal cookie cutters work better. And if you have neither, just use a sharp knife and free-hand it.) Because our sin separated us from God, He had to redeem us. He sent His Son Jesus to earth to live a perfect life and be the perfect sacrifice for our sin. He announced the arrival of His Son on earth with, among other things, a very special star. “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” Mat 2:1-3
  6. Use the sharp knife to cut a cross-shaped piece where a nose would be on your pumpkin’s face. God’s redemption plan culminated in the death of Jesus on the cross and His subsequent resurrection. “Without shedding of blood there is no remission.” Heb 9:22
  7. Use a fish-shaped cookie cutter (What? No such thing in your house? Just use a knife.) and a hammer to punch out the mouth of the pumpkin face. No Bible verse here, but a little bit of Christian history: the persecuted early church used a fish as a symbol whereby they identified one another. Hence it is now a symbol of our belief and faith in Jesus Christ as our Redeemer. 
  8. Place a tea light candle (I like the fake ones from the dollar store) inside the pumpkin and watch the light shine through the pumpkin’s face. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Mat 5:16

And that’s how a pumpkin (and a person) is redeemed.

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Simplifying, Twenty-First Century Style

This is a sponsored post written on behalf of Staples. All opinions are mine, of course. (Are there any other?!)

Simplify 21st Century Style As much as I would love to return to a simpler time and a simpler place, I have to admit I would be loathe to give up certain modern conveniences. Like my washing machine, for example. I have absolutely no desire to wash all our clothes over a washboard in boiling hot water, no thank you! Are you kidding me?! The Boys go through so many clothes it’s not even funny. I will even graciously acknowledge that I contribute my own fair share to the wash load. So maybe it would be nice to go back in time about a century… as long as I was one of the lucky people with a washing machine!

But then again, that means I’d have to give up my tablet, which is my new favorite invention. You see, back – oh, about 10 years ago – I was kinda envious about those ladies who had kitchens large enough that they could fit an office type area in the corner. The reason for my envy? I loved that they had such easy access to a laptop or PC right there in their kitchen! It’s been a long time now since I’ve found my recipes and other household how-tos online almost exclusively, and I envied anyone who had it right there at their fingertips whenever they needed it.

Well, I still don’t have a big kitchen, but guess what?! The computers keep getting smaller (and are considerably cheaper than large dwellings with large kitchens) and it doesn’t take an entire office nook to house the all-important portal of all household knowledge (otherwise known as the internet) anymore. My recipes, my meal planner, my inspiration, my fix-it guide, and even my background music all can be held in my hand and set on any (clean… if I can find one) corner of the countertop. It’s almost like my own personal fairy godmother! 

In particular, I am speaking of the Google Nexus 7, which Staples sent me to try out in my kitchen. Its size is perfect – larger than a phone, so easier to read a recipe, but small enough to fit comfortably in hand – and the screen is very high quality. I am honestly not so much into the techy details of this sort of thing… all I know is it works and it works well! It’s easy to use, and the battery is long-lasting.

 

Simplifying With a Tablet

What do I do with my tablet? This list is definitely not comprehensive:

  • Browse Pinterest for ideas and inspiration when I’m not sure what to make for dinner. Or snack. Or beverage. Whenever I’m hungry or thirsty.
  • Use Plan to Eat’s mobile site to help me plan and follow my menu. Which reminds me: I need to get back on that wagon. Oops.
  • Check the Groupon app for eating-out deals when I don’t feel like cooking.
  • Ask Google to find me instructions when I’m not sure what I’m doing (which is usually after I’ve made a mistake trying to do something without the instructions. Ahem.).
  • Pull recipes from my own blog. Why, yes, I do, all the time! Why do you think I post them here, anyway?
  • Access eBook recipes from my Amazon app.  Hey, you can even read my book on there! Plus also I can access digital books from our library system and/or reserve print books right from my tablet, how awesome is that!?
  • Keep on top of my life (or try desperately anyway) by using a variety of different calendar tools. I honestly haven’t found one I love 100%; I’ll let you know when I do. If I do. I think my biggest problem is the whole calendar aspect of it, which is sort of hard to get around.
  • Post pics of my successes and failures in the kitchen on Instagram, because, oddly enough, everybody seems very interested in those sorts of things. Who knew?!
  • Fire off Facebook messages to friends and family to get last-minute much-needed info on this that or the other thing.
  • Listen to music on Pandora while I cook, bake, and otherwise putter around in the kitchen.

See why I would be hard pressed to live without my lovely tablet? As much as the turn of the 19th century seems like such a romantic time (those dresses!), I really don’t think I could give up the convenience of my tablet in order to stay there for any length of time. So if anybody can arrange a quick time machine visit, that’d be awesome, but otherwise I’m going to stay put right here in the 21st century. With my tablet in  hand!

Do you have a tablet? Have you found it useful in the kitchen? Or have I just made you envious?

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Safety Online

I was provided a year’s subscription to Covenant Eyes in exchange for this post, but all opinions and thoughts are my own. This is not a commercial; just my thoughts about a very real problem each of us faces in our world today.  CovenantEyes.com Good and evil run on parallel tracks and they both arrive at the same time. 

I heard a sermon once where the pastor repeatedly quoted that statement until it was stuck in my brain forever, and I’ve since repeatedly thought how true of a statement it was! The internet is a perfect illustration of its truth: it can be both good and evil.

The Internet Can Be Good

Very good. In fact, I make a little spare change for myself and my family via my little enterprises on the internet. I know many have established entire businesses and careers online to support themselves, and I think it’s so wonderful that they can stay home with their families (both mom AND dad!) and still earn a living. That’s a beautiful thing, in my opinion.

I’ve also learned SO much from the internet: my blogging friends have inspired me time and time again with fresh ideas and challenges on all sorts of fronts, and of course, there’s Google, which is always ready to help you find the answers to burning questions of any level of importance.

I use the internet all the time in planning for my preschool class; I’ve found it to be indispensable!

The internet helps me manage my household, decorate the house, decorate birthday cakes, raise my children, love my husband, keep up-to-date with friends and family, keep up-to-date (to the extent I want) with world events, and find fabulously new recipes.

BUT….!

The Internet Can Be Evil

Very, very evil. Men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil, and the internet provides the dark cover of what appears to be a cloak of secrecy that encourages all manner of evil deeds to take place.

Like cyber bullying for example.

Or trapping victims in an online web in order to perpetrate crimes in person.

Or porn. Or any other manner of deviant immoral behavior.

The internet can be evil indeed.

Arm Yourself for Battle

Thankfully, there are ways to reap the benefits of the internet without succumbing to the dangers. Just arm yourself and your family with a the right tools, and you can do battle with confidence!

One important step my family took recently was to install a filtering and monitoring service on all our devices: PC, laptop, phones, and tablets. This service, offered by Covenant Eyes, is completely customizable and adjustable to the particular needs of your family, and gives us a great peace of mind as The Boys get older and are exposed to the internet more and more. I highly recommend that every family take this proactive step to protect themselves against the dangers that can be found online.

There are, of course, other measures families can take, most of them involving a lot of time, attention, and discernment on the part of the parents. My DH and I have discussed at length how we will approach our growing boys’ time online as they get older, and there are various strategies we’ve heard about and read about that we’ll probably implement at one point or another. But ultimately, it comes down to how we train them. I am reminded more and more recently of the instruction God gave to the Israelites to teach their children about His commandments when they were at home, when they were on their way somewhere, when they wake up and when they go to sleep. Our goal right now is to fill our sons’ minds with the Word of God so that when they are older, the Holy Spirit can use it to give them wisdom to know what is right and the courage to do it.

What about you? How do you protect your family from online dangers?

 

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5 Tips for a Perfect Picnic

We’ve been enjoying a lot of picnics as part of our day-at-a-time staycation, and I’ve learned a few tricks along the way.

Henceforth and therefore, without further ado, I share said tricks with you.

1. Bring along a basic first aid kit.

Eating outdoors just introduces a whole host of potential issues: bug bites, sunburns, scrapes, bruises, etc. Here’s what I always make sure to pack along with the food (Note to the FTC and whoever else cares – many of the links below are affiliate links.):

2. Pack a blanket or tarp.

If there’s a picnic table at your destination, this might not be necessary. Then again, it might be. You never know! We have a very basic picnic tarp-like blanket that is designed to be outdoors and has weights on the corners to keep it from blowing in the wind. You could also use an old sheet or blanket that you have lying around, of course.

3. Don’t forget the utensils!

I can’t tell you how many times I arrived at our picnic spot only to realize I forgot either the spoons, the forks, or a knife. So now it’s the first thing I think about! Even if you pack an entire spread of finger foods, just be on the safe side and pack a complete set (fork, spoon, knife) just in case.

4. No more boring picnic food!

Not being a huge fan of sandwiches, I’m always trying to think outside the box for creative picnic food ideas. I’ve compiled a list of picnic food options for you to consider, or you can check out the following articles:

5. Bring your picnic on wheels.

I probably wouldn’t even know such a thing as this existed – and I certainly wouldn’t put it on my top 5 picnic tips must-haves list! – if it weren’t for the fact that I picked one up at a yard sale for a ridiculously low price… and now find that I can’t live without our rolling cooler! This Rolling Cooler on Amazon is very much like the one we have, including the mesh pockets on the side that are perfect for the aforementioned first aid items. Ours also has a zippered pocket in front that’s perfect for paper plates, napkins, and utensils. There’s even enough space in the cooler to shove our picnic tarp, so our entire collection of picnic supplies fits into one convenient rolling case, which, incidentally, can even be pulled by our Certain Little Someone (who feels very proud of himself whenever he’s put in charge of it). I call that a total win-win!

What’s your perfect picnic tip?

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5 Picnic Food Ideas

As part of our Day-at-a-Time-Staycation, we’ve had quite a few picnics this summer. My Certain Little Someone was trying to keep track of them at first, but he lost count somewhere around 4 or 5, and we’ve had quite a few since then!

Except for the minor issue of bugs (ahem), I love picnicking because:

  • it’s a fun way to experience the outdoors.
  • it’s a fun way to eat lunch.
  • it’s one way to enjoy local parks and historic areas.
  • IT SAVES MONEY! No need to eat out when you have a picnic in tow.

(In case you couldn’t tell, that last point was my favorite one, and in my opinion is reason enough for picnicking anytime.)

Picnicking all summer long is no fun if every picnic is the same, besides which I’m not a huge sandwich fan, so I’ve been getting creative with our picnic lunches. Here are a few of the things we’ve enjoyed on our outdoor luncheons:

1. Cold Plate

I actually posted about the idea of a Cold Plate lunch/dinner way back in 2009 (seems like ancient history now). The concept is this: just pack a variety of cold cuts and crudites that can be eaten with the fingers and with little fuss or mess.

Some ideas to include in your Cold Plate lunch:

  • Boiled Eggs
  • Cheese Cubes
  • Leftover Sliced Meat
  • Lunch Meat
  • Sliced Cheese
  • Various Vegetable Crudites: Celery Sticks, Carrot Sticks, Broccoli, Cucumbers, Peppers, etc.
  • Fruits: Grapes, Watermelon, Berries, Apple or Pear Slices, Clementines or Oranges
  • Dried Fruit

2. Meatballs & Dips

Another idea I posted way back when was a finger-food meal concept that included meatballs and sliced apples, both with dipping sauces. Meatballs can be made ahead, and can be made in pretty much any flavor profile desired, with an appropriate dip to match. Bring along some toothpicks and have a dippity-do-dah day!

Here are some meatball recipes I’ve enjoyed:

As a side dish, bring these super cute “Veggie Gardens”.

3. Bean Patties

Say wha?? Yep, bean patties. They’re healthy, sturdy, delicious, and super easy to make at home if you have some pre-cooked and/or canned beans. (I always keep a stash of cooked beans in my freezer ready to be used for occasions such as this.) Plus, like meatballs, you can make them pretty much any flavor you want!

I usually start with this black bean burger recipe, but the truth is that bean patties are really just a mixture of beans (pretty much any kind), shredded veggies (again, pretty much any kind), some sort of flour or starch (pretty much… yeah, you got it), and seasonings. Sometimes bread crumbs and/or eggs are added, and sometimes not. Whatever ingredients you use, just run them through your food processor until you have a consistency that’s able to be molded into patties. Fry your patties in a little bit of oil or bacon grease on medium-ish heat, and you’re done.

Falafels are a kind of bean patty (or meatless meatball, as they are sometimes formed in spheres rather than patties) made from chickpeas that are particularly delicious. Not a fan of beans? Try these Onion Quinoa Bites.

4. Boiled Eggs

My Certain Little Someone can’t have eggs, so I don’t do this one very often. However, at our last picnic, I made the aforementioned bean patties, which my DH cannot have, so I packed some boiled eggs for him instead. This is a super simple, portable dish that provides a great source of healthy protein and energy. Pair it with fresh fruits and veggies and you’ve got a winner meal right there.

5. Cheese & Crackers

Here’s another idea from the olden days of my blog: Pack some crackers and assorted toppings for your picnic lunch. Cheese is an obvious choice, but tuna salad, egg salad, or chicken salad are great options, too. Really, just about anything you’d put on a slice of bread can be paired up with crackers, too, and it makes a fun lunch for everyone. In fact, bring a variety of toppings and everybody’s happy!

Happy Picnicking!

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Vegan By Day, Omnivore By Night: Mark Bittman’s VB6

This post contains affiliate links.

Recently, as I was browsing through the cookbooks available on my local library’s eBook rental service, I stumbled across Mark Bittman’s latest book, called “VB6″. I’ve always loved Bittman’s simple approach to cooking , and I own a few of his cookbooks, so the title and the author caught my eye. I got in line to borrow it, and eagerly read through it as soon as it was downloaded.

I was intrigued, to say the least. Very intrigued! The whole idea behind VB6 is this: what successful and healthy diets all have in common is the fact that they are all plant-based. Whether or not they also include animal products (and sugars and starches) doesn’t seem to matter, as long as plant-based foods (fruits and vegetables) make up the majority of the diet. However, not many of us either want or need a full-time diet of nothing but fruits and vegetables.

That’s where VB6 comes in. The idea is that you eat like a vegan during the day, but come dinnertime, you can eat whatever you want. There’s structure balanced with flexibility, and between the two you end up eating well without sacrificing the foods you love.

I actually had no intention of following the plan Bittman lays forth in his book, until it started to make sense to me. I personally have a hard time eating the quantity of fruits and vegetables I should, and I’ve felt for a long time that that simple fact has kept me from achieving my optimum weight and experiencing my best health. Following the VB6 concept, even in a moderated way, would help me achieve both without actually “going on a diet” or drastically changing my eating habits.

What VB6 Is

  • It is a structured way of eating. The basic idea is this: Eat only fruits, vegetables, and whole grains throughout the day. Then allow yourself to eat whatever you want for dinner (whether that means meat, or pasta, or your favorite dessert).
  • It is a way to give your body the nutrient-rich foods it really needs, namely fruits and vegetables. I suppose this appeals to me because I’ve always struggled with getting enough fruits and veggies. On a good day, I have 5-6 servings of fruits and vegetables, and I know that’s not really good enough. A large portion of the vitamins and antioxidants your body needs are found in fresh produce, so it’s really important to eat more of those than anything else. When eating with the VB6 plan on mind, I can’t help but get in more than adequate servings of the food my body really needs.
  • It is a common sense and simple approach. It reminds me a lot of Michael Pollan’s simplified approach to eating: Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.  Food is a necessity that should be enjoyed, not a science requiring a degree, nor a battle to be waged. Trying to “eat properly” should be a simple matter.

What VB6 Isn’t

  • It isn’t a diet.  I don’t do diets. It’s a way of eating… in short, a lifestyle. Mark Bittman has been sticking to this way of eating for 6 years so far!
  • It isn’t restrictive. Yeah, I know, a “vegan” diet is nothing if not restrictive. But the whole point is that every day, you have an opportunity to enjoy whatever foods you want, even if they’re not vegan (or vegetarian, or paleo, or grain-free, or low-carb, or low-fat, or…)
  • It isn’t a fad. I kind of get sick of the fad diets that circulate… and sometimes re-circulate. Most of them hinge on some “revolutionary” concept or idea that will change your life and your health, and help you lose all kinds of weight. Meh. Not interested. VB6, while I suppose it definitely could become a fad, isn’t based on any new idea, and it doesn’t eliminate entire food groups (carbs, fat, grains, meat, etc.). It doesn’t have its own terminology, and you don’t need a new cookbook with special ingredients made just for it. No, it’s just a simple way to eat what you always knew you should (fruits and vegetables) without restricting all the foods you think you shouldn’t. It’s just a structured way to go about doing what you’ve always intended to do.
  • It isn’t rigid. Some meal plans and diets are so rigid, you have to follow a strict menu. Or, like Weight Watchers, you have to calculate how much of certain foods you’re allowed to have, and how much elbow room you have to fit in the foods you really want to eat. Although Bittman explains the science behind such things as calories, fat, carbs, and the glycemic index, he is very adamant that there is no need to calculate those things as you go through your day, eating. If you stick to the basic idea, all those things will take care of themselves.  Furthermore, there’s room for flexibility: if you want eggs and bacon for breakfast one day, then by all means have eggs and bacon! Just make your dinner vegan… or just figure one day isn’t going to ruin everything.

What I Like About VB6

  • I like that it is straightforward and simple.
  • I like that it doesn’t eliminate entire food groups.
  • I like that it’s not actually vegan. Because I don’t do vegan.
  • I like that it’s a simple shift in perspective that allows you to both eat what you should… and allow yourself to occasionally eat what you “shouldn’t”.
  • I like that it is very flexible and can be adapted to each individual’s desires, needs, and philosophies.
  • I like that it is a friendly way to force me to eat more fruits and veggies, because that’s what I need more of in my diet.
  • I like that Mark Bittman for the most part isn’t tied to the conventional view of dieting (either low-carb or low-fat, or counting calories, etc.).
  • I like that counting calories is not involved, because I personally think that’s a pointless activity.

What I Don’t Like About VB6

  • I don’t like the idea of being strictly vegan during the day. Vegetarian perhaps, but not vegan. (More on that in a minute.)
  • Although Mark Bittman debunked a lot of common dieting myths in the book, and although he admitted that saturated fats don’t appear to be as evil as they’ve been portrayed for the last few decades, he still insists on keeping saturated fats to a minimum and encourages the use of vegetable oils. While vegetable oils might seem to have a healthier profile, the truth is that they’re very unstable and extremely difficult to keep from going rancid. That means the bottles in the store are by and large already rancid… which means that they are full of free radicals… which cause cancer and a whole host of other illnesses. I appreciate his whole-hearted recommendation of extra virgin olive oil as the best oil to use, but I wish he hadn’t recommended against coconut oil, which is just as healthy of an oil, if not healthier. I also will continue to enjoy butter, whole milk, bacon grease, and other products high in saturated fat simply because I don’t believe the saturated fat alone makes them unhealthy.

My Version of VB6

I’m not quite up to going vegan, even part-time! However, I’ve known for quite some time that eating lots and lots of veggies and fruits is really the best way for me to improve my health and my weight and unfortunately, I’ve had trouble really motivating myself to eat produce to the extent that I should. I think this concept could be the kick in the pants I need to help me get in all my fruits and veggies on a regular basis, without sacrificing other dietary pleasures.

So I decided to compromise by going vegetarian – rather than vegan – during the day.  In the book, Mark Bittman explains that he has three basic categories for food: Unlimited, Flexible, and Treat foods. The unlimited foods can be eaten at any time whenever they are desired and include most fruits and vegetables. The Flexible group contains foods like whole grains and certain fruits and vegetables that are more calorie-dense or high in sugar. Those can be enjoyed every day, just in smaller quantities than the Unlimited foods. Then there are the Treats, which are only enjoyed at dinner time. In his plan, dairy products and eggs are considered treats, but I moved them up to the “Flexible” group, so that I can have cultured dairy (kefir and yogurt for now, but I want to try my hand at cultured butter, too) and eggs for breakfast or lunch if I want. Personally, I believe that grass-fed dairy and pastured eggs have great health benefits and I don’t want to reduce them from my diet that significantly.

I’m also not exactly sure what to put in my coffee. I have never found anything that quite gives coffee the creaminess I love like cream or whole milk does. So either I’m just going to be stubborn and continue drinking cream in my coffee, or I will experiment with dairy-free alternatives. We’ll see!

So here’s my personal VB6 plan, (which I guess I should actually call “VB5″ because sometimes we eat dinner at 5):

  • Vegetarian foods only until 5pm. This means I will enjoy fruits, vegetables, whole grains, cultured dairy, and eggs only. No meat or meat products during the day.
  • Also no sugar until 5pm. Healthier sweeteners like maple syrup and honey can be enjoyed in very small amounts, but otherwise, I will stick to stevia or no sweetener at all.
  • From 5-8 I give myself permission to eat whatever I want. This usually means a “normal” dinner and some kind of sweet treat for the day, usually homemade.
  • After 8, if I’m hungry, I will enjoy a high-protein snack because when I eat sugar or carbs late at night, it shows up on the scale the next morning!

And that’s it! Simple, and yet kind of profound in a way, as well. If it turns out that my plan isn’t as effective as truly going vegan… then I might reconsider. Might. Depends on how desperately I want to lose those last few pounds of baby weight.

What do you think? Would you be willing to go vegan (or vegetarian) during the day?

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Take a Staycation… One Day at a Time!

Except for the occasions when we’ve joined one or the other of our families for a “real” vacation, my DH and I have mostly enjoyed “staycations” throughout our married life. This year is no different, except that instead of taking one whole week to enjoy our staycation, we’re spreading it out through the summer. My DH’s work schedule is kind of erratic, so we take our little mini staycations whenever he has a day off during the week. Our goal is to go somewhere one day a week throughout the summer, but in reality, it will probably be slightly less than that. Still, we plan to pack our summer full of fun and exciting memories despite the fact that we’re not truly “going on vacation”. 

Just in case you are in a similar boat (no time off, no money, no inclination for a real vacation), here are some ideas to help you enjoy your summer anyway! And on the cheap, too, of course, because that’s how I roll.

Family Self Portrait taken at Maymont Estate in Richmond, VA

1. Scout Out NearBy Tourist Spots

We are lucky to live in an area where we are approximately 2 hours away from a whole host of hot tourist spots: Washington DC, Baltimore, Annapolis, Richmond, Gettysburg, the Shenandoah Valley, and more. Day trips to places like Williamsburg or the Eastern shore are not out of the question. Not to mention the whole host of local, lesser-known historic towns and spots that boast all sorts of free or nearly-free touristy fun, like historic home tours, botanical gardens, zoos and the like. So we can literally spend the whole summer being tourists in our own town without visiting the same place twice.

You may or may not be so blessed, but I bet if you take the time to look at your area through the eyes of a tourist, you’ll find more options than you thought possible for stay-at-home fun, entertainment, and even learning. Chances are, the city (or big town) nearest to you has a website (or possibly even an app) with all sorts of tips on the best sites for tourists to see. Find favorite local spots like restaurants, historic homes, parks, recreation, museums, and more.

Don’t forget to think outside the immediate area as well. Decide how far you’re willing to drive for a day trip (maybe an hour? Two? Three, perhaps?) and widen your scope to check out what’s available in that radius.

Depending on what sort of things your family likes to do, you might enjoy any of the following types of tourist spots:

  • national/state parks
  • museums
  • historic homes
  • gardens
  • nature preserves
  • zoos
  • amusement parks or entertainment parks
  • historic old town centers
  • scenic drives
  • natural sites (like caverns, waterfalls, and the like)

He found a car just his size at the local coffee shop car show.

2. Visit Favorite Local Haunts

Let’s switch gears a little bit and get hyper-local here. Whether or not you’re already plugged into the local scene, make it a priority to visit all of your town’s hot spots this summer. I’m talking about the ice cream parlor that has lines out the door every day through the season, or the pizza joint that everybody knows about and has been to at least once. What’s the favorite playground or park that all the mommies know about? The coffee shop that’s crowded on Saturday mornings because of the uh-may-zing donuts and fresh lattes they carry? (Or maybe, as in my case, the local coffee shop that hosts a car show every Saturday morning? Now that’s a fun – and free – summer activity!)

If you don’t know where these local favorites are, you can find  them simply by giving  a little shout-out on Facebook. Your friends should be able to point you in the right direction.  Or if your town newspaper/magazine hosts a “Best of” contest every year, check those out.

Cheap Fun: Train Rides at the Mall

3. Plan a Day of Fun

You don’t even need to “get away” for your day-by-day staycation! Really, all you need to do is plan a day around activities that are enjoyable to everyone in your family, and just a little different from your usual routine. Think about what your perfect relaxing day would look like, and make it happen!

Here’s an idea for a “Staycation Schedule”:

  • Sleep in.
  • Enjoy brunch at a leisurely hour.
  • Go to a local pool for the afternoon (or play water games in your back yard). AND/OR go to the mall and get cheap carousel rides or train rides, or play in the mall’s playground.
  • Make everybody’s favorite food for dinner as a family.
  • Go to the town’s free outdoor concert or movie (many towns host these on a weekly basis through the summer).
  • Finish the day by “camping” in your own backyard. Borrow a tent if you don’t have one, or put sleeping bags in the living room!

A day trip to a lavender farm, sponsored in part by a daily deal my sister bought.

4. Check Daily Deal Sites

Sites like Groupon, Eversave, Living Social (and/or the local version in your area – around here, we have Specialicious) are a great source of good deals on local entertainment. You’ll get vouchers for at least half off to such local places as:

  • restaurants
  • bowling
  • mini golf
  • local events
  • concerts
  • sporting events
  • classes
  • pool/water parks
  • and lots more!

Using deal sites like this might make summer fun activities affordable for your family when they wouldn’t be otherwise. We’ve used these deal sites to get half priced entry to the local water park, which The Boys absolutely loved! It’s not something we’d pay full price for, but half price was totally do-able, and definitely worth it.

Playing in the sandbox at the local botanical gardens.

5. Attend Local Festivals & Events

It seems like there’s always a festival nearby around here. Some of them cost, some of them don’t. Some of them are worth it, some of them are not! The county fair is always free, and is always fun for the kids – animals to pet, shows to watch, and exhibits to enjoy. Other festivals celebrate local crops or industries, or even just townships. Do a quick Google search by combining your town or county’s name with the word “festival” and you’re sure to find some fun events to attend this summer.

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Simple Hospitality: Host a Kaffeeklatsch

Some times I think we have the idea that hosting guests in our home has to be a big ordeal complete with written invitations (or at least an evite), a set of fine china, a sparkling clean home, and the perfect balance of dinner guests. And sometimes I think that our hours spent browsing on Pinterest have convinced us that no event is complete without handmade decor, cute-si-fied mason jars, and/or an assortment of creative, delicious, and – of course – uber-healthy treats for every dietary need possible.

Simple Hospitality

Forget all that stuff. That is not what hospitality is all about!

Hospitality is about people getting together, plain and simple. The setting doesn’t really matter – you don’t need to spend hours of time impressing your friends with either your millions… or your ability to create what looks like a million bucks out of  nothing.

Sure, we all love good food, and I love a themed party as well as anybody! Cute decorations and creative touches make me smile and say “awww”. But really, when I host (or attend) a get-together of any kind, what I’m really looking for is good conversation and fun with other people. All that other stuff is auxiliary and completely unnecessary.

So if you’re not feeling up to scrubbing the house top-to-bottom, or if you don’t have a crafty bone in your body, or if the thought of cooking up a full-course meal for other folks makes you sick to your stomach… well, then, don’t. Don’t do all that stuff. 

But do have other people over. One of the easiest ways to get some friends over to your house for a good time of conversation and fellowship is to have them over for coffee. The Germans even have a name for it – Kaffeeklatsch – so if you want to make it sound a little more exciting, then that’s what you can call it!

A Kaffeeklatsch is super simple, inexpensive, and enjoyed by just about everybody (even the non-coffee drinkers; I’ll get to that in a minute).

How to Host a Kaffeeklatsch

Here’s how I recently hosted a Kaffeeklatsch myself:

  • I invited my guests by text, Facebook message, and cell phone. No fancy-schmancy invitations needed!
  • I ran to Safeway (literally at the last minute) and picked up some coffee (Did you know, by the way, that Gevalia coffee is now available in grocery stores? It used to be mail-order only back in the day, but now it’s available to pick up any time! And it’s yummy stuff, so that’s what I got. Decaf for the sleepy folks who wanted to stay that way, and regular for the rest of us.)
  • While at Safeway, I also picked up some healthy-ish treats. Since this was a total impromptu gathering, I didn’t bother taking the time to make some truly healthy treats at home; I chose instead to compromise health for the sake of hospitality! So we had all-natural ice cream, Newman-O’s ginger creme cookies, dark chocolate with fruit and nuts, and some bake-at-home cookies from the Immaculate Baking Company (also all natural).
  • Once home, I set out the cookies and treats on trays, and got my French press ready to go.
  • I also set out different kinds of sweetener (chocolate-flavored stevia, for one –  yum!), some chocolate syrup (all natural again), real whipped cream, and cinnamon for my guests to dress up their coffee.
  • I also had some organic hot chocolate mix ready for friends who preferred not to drink coffee. And if I had any tea-drinking friends present, I would have set out some options for hot tea as well.
  • And we all sipped our coffee, nibbled our treats, and chit-chatted until it got dark!

That’s it, friend! All there is to it. If you prefer to fix healthy treats for your friends, here are a few ideas:

What’s your favorite easy hospitality?

I was selected for this opportunity as a member of Clever Girls Collective and the content and opinions expressed here are all my own.

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Don’t Buy for Everyone – Pick Names at Christmas!

Christmas presents under the tree
Since there are 11 children in my family, my mom, as I have mentioned before, found lots of ways to simplify our Christmas gift-giving process. Rather than each of us giving all 10 other kids a gift, she had us pick names out of a hat earlier in the Christmas season. That way, each of us was responsible for only one sibling gift, and each of us received a gift. Simple, fair, and square.

Clearly, this suggestion is a wee bit too late for you to implement this year. But since you’re probably going to be seeing – or at least speaking with – your extended family in a few days here, now’s a good time to think about it and perhaps suggest it for next year. 

Picking Names for Christmas Gift-Giving

Now that all 11 of us siblings have grown up and gone separate ways all around the country, the name-picking process does get a little complicated. We have learned that we have to think ahead, so whenever the bulk of the family gets together for any reason (this year, it was in September, when my parents descended from their Yooper heights to spend some time with their family in the almost-South), we make it a priority to draw names for that year’s Christmas giving. Sometimes this name-picking process occurs as early as May or June, depending on we all have plans to get together.

The process has also expanded to include in-laws as they are added to the family, although we haven’t yet figured out a good system for the cousins/grandkids. We’ve tossed around the idea of having a separate name-picking process for all the children, but so far haven’t actually done that yet.

And just to make sure that all goes smoothly, it’s my mom’s responsibility to record who has whom so that when if we should happen to forget, we can give her a call and be reminded. Not that any of us ever has to do that. Ahem.

When we were little, we had a price limit of $10, if I remember correctly. As adults, I think technically, the limit is $20, but mostly, we each just spend what we’re comfortable spending (which is typically in the $20-30 range).

Also, as adults, some of us have chosen to give each sibling a small gift, whether or not we picked their name. This is totally voluntary and not at all expected by anyone. For myself, I typically try to find a nice small gift of $5 or less to give to each sibling besides the one whose name I picked, just to show them I love ‘em.

This name-picking process is ideal for anyone with a large and/or extended family. It’s also a great idea for cousins and grandkids, especially if the whole family gets together for Christmas.

Make it Fun with Added Elements!

As an extension of this idea, my mom’s family does something very creative for gift-giving at Christmas. Every Christmas, there’s a standing invitation for whoever is available to come and celebrate together at this bed and breakfast. As a group, those who attend pick a letter of the alphabet, and everyone who plans to come the following year must come bearing a gift that begins with that letter. And every Christmas evening, after a very large and satisfying potluck meal, they all have fun taking turns picking gifts from under the tree one at a time. The fun twist is that when wrapping the gift, each person is supposed to write a clue on the tag and whoever opens the gift must guess first what is inside the wrapping. It’s a lot of fun, and a great way for any extended family or group to give gifts without the expense and stress of buying for every single individual.

Go Digital

And, of course, in this digital age, there is a way to make the name-exchange process simpler and more organized. Check out SecretSanta.com, a free online service that helps you exchange names and keep track of them. It even has a way to share wish lists! I’m definitely suggesting we go with this for next year’s Christmas gift exchange!

How do you make extended family gift-giving easy?

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Get Personalized Gift Ideas for Those Hard-to-Buy-For People

Christmas Gift List
We all have those people on our list – the people whose wish list is either nonexistent or full of very expensive toys. We wrack our brains trying to come up with an affordable but desirable gift idea, and end up resorting to gift cards (Not that there’s anything wrong with gift cards, really. They just don’t show how much evidence of thought and care being put into the gift).

I have a great idea for you that will solve your gift-giving blues. It’s such a simple but effective tip, you’re going to smack your head and say, “Duh! Why didn’t I think of that?”.

Here’s a great gift-giving idea for hard to buy for people:

Browse the Pinterest and/or Facebook profile of the person you are having trouble gifting. Look for interests, hobbies, and even specific items they want and/or need.

Because you know, if you just asked the person outright what they want for Christmas, you will more than likely get a shrug of the shoulders and an “I don’t know!”. At least that’s my experience. But if you do a little modern-day spying, you can get some great fool-proof ideas for the best gift ever. 

Here are some tips to guide your social media spy mission:

  • Look for fan pages of musicians, movies, and TV shows they have “liked” on Facebook. Chances are, they probably already own the music, TV show, or movie in question, but you can purchase them some fan paraphernalia. Or, just buy them the digital version on Amazon and have it sent to them on Christmas Day. If they already do own it, they can do a virtual exchange to get something they want but don’t have instead.
  • Do the same with sports teams. Find out which college or pro team they love, and gift accordingly. Clothing will always be well accepted (think t-shirts, hoodies, sweatshirts, etc.), as would tickets to a game!
  • Is your friend crafty? Do they pin scrapbooking or knitting ideas like crazy? Buy them tools for the trade! Put together a package of scrapbooking accessories, or yarn and crochet needles, or a glue gun with lots of glue sticks. Once you’ve identified a favorite craft they enjoy, a walk through Michaels’, Joanns, or Hobby Lobby will yield more gift-giving ideas than you can imagine.
  • Notice recipe trends on Pinterest boards. Does your friend pin lots of Italian recipes? Or baking? Or quick and easy meals? Think of cookbooks they might enjoy along those lines. You could even build a basket of ingredients to make one of the meals or dishes they pinned. This is particularly useful if it’s a special recipe with expensive ingredients they might not buy as part of their normal grocery budget.
  • Identify hobbies and pastimes. Aside from crafting, many people enjoy pastimes like reading, or listening to music, or watching TV shows. Once you’ve figured out their particular pastime, you can come up with lots of great gift ideas to go with them. Find favorite authors and purchase their books. A subscription to streaming Netflix would be another great idea! Did you know you could gift Redbox codes, which are good for TV show, movie, and video game rentals?
  • Check out their sense of style. If your friend posts lots of fashion ideas on Pinterest, that can give you some great guidance as you browse through clothing racks. Clothing is hard to buy for someone other than yourself, but armed with their own personal fashion guide they created themselves, it’s easier to get it right.
  • What kind of fragrances do they enjoy? Candles, personal toiletries, and perfumes all come in a variety of fragrances, and with a little bit of sharp sleuthing, you can figure out what sorts of smells your friend might like. They may not come out and say, “I love this smell”, but you can look for postings about favorite flowers, favorite drinks and foods, and other indicators.
  • Find their favorite colors. A quick skim through a few different Pinterest boards will help you figure this out.
  • What sparks their passion? What topics do they post frequently about? Politics? Religion? Natural living? Child-rearing? Think of books, movies, and events that correlate to those and buy along those interests.

And if all else fails, buy them a gift card.

How do you buy something for that hard-to-gift person?

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