Thursday, December 31, 2015

My 5 Favorite Changes of 2015

     As we close out the last day of 2015, I want to take a few moments to look back at the changes I made this year.  I entered the year determined to overhaul my approach to food and to make changes in my life that would lead back to a simpler, more basic way of living.  My primary focus was on the kitchen.  I never dreamed that choosing to put an emphasis on using good old fashioned common sense in my cooking would lead me where I am today.

     I feel better.  I enjoy my time in the kitchen.  My home runs much more smoothly.  The changes in the kitchen have led to changes in my housekeeping, an interest in fitness, and eventually to this blog.  If someone had told me on December 31, 2014 that this is what I would be doing today, I would have never believed it.  It never ceases to amaze me, the paths our lives will take when we trust in the Lord and follow the path he sets before us.  

     So, I’ve been thinking this week about some of the new things I’ve been doing in the kitchen during 2015, and I decided to share my favorites with you.  These are in no particular order.  

     #1 - French Fries - In my quest to make things from scratch, I have found french fries to be one of the most challenging recipes to tackle.  During the last year I have put them in the oven, on the stovetop, and in a fryer.  I have served my family piles of mushy fries, greasy fries, seriously overcooked fries, and some that were just plain icky.  It has been quite the process.  But the reason french fries make my list is because earlier this week my family informed me "These are the best french fries ever!"  I finally did it.  And I feel terrific.  I found that the secret to amazing french fries is that they need a triple process.  Parboil them and then follow with two dunks in the fryer.  It sounds like a lot of work, but I have a system and it's actually very simple now.

     #2 - Philly Cheesesteak Sloppy Joes - This is a recipe that was given to me by a lovely woman at a homeschool group this year.  We were talking about simple and inexpensive meals to throw together when you don't have a lot in the house.  Caroline introduced me to something my family now calls Philly Cheesesteak Sloppy Joes.  Toss some ground beef and diced onions in a pan with a little salt and pepper and cook until the ground beef is browned.  Drain.  Pour in some beef broth and let it simmer until the broth is cooked down some.  Spoon the mixture on buns, top with a slice of provolone, and pop them under the broiler just long enough to get the cheese melted.  They are quick, simple, cheap, and really taste like Philly Cheesesteak.  And it's so easy to add some nice french fries on the side!  My boys feel like they got some grand trip to a favorite sandwich shop while I save tons of money and have 100% control over what gets added into their food.

     #3 - Loose Tea - Let me change gears for a moment.  I know this isn't something I have talked about yet, but I adore tea.  Some day I'm going to dedicate an entire post to the joys of tea.  Earlier this year, my husband took me to an adorable little tea shop where I was introduced to hundreds of wonderful teas.  The assortment was overwhelming and I could have brought home enough tea to keep me brewing for years.  I opted to try small bags of a few different teas.  Having never used loose tea before, I began with a simple strainer and some flavors I found especially interesting.  It turned out to be one of my favorite kitchen experiences of the year.  Again, I got away from the pre-packaged convenient little boxes that line the grocery store shelf, and returned to the basic old process for preparing a simple food.  If you are a tea drinker and haven't yet experienced the pleasure of brewing a cup of loose leaf tea, be sure to add this to your list of things to try. 

     #4 - Yogurt & Granola - This isn't anything especially new or exciting.  If you are like me, you have picked up yogurt parfaits in the past for a quick breakfast or snack when you are on the run.  A few months ago I was perusing the yogurt section in the grocery store and wondered why it was all starting to look alike.  Some of the high end grocery stores sell fancier yogurt parfaits in the produce section, but they generally start at $3 and go up.  I suddenly realized that I could do that.  Why not?  If the guy in the produce department can pile yogurt, fruit and granola in a cup, then so can I.  It turns out that the large tubs of yogurt are much more economical than the individual sizes.  Big surprise, right?  And the cereal aisle has a nice selection of granola available at very reasonable prices.  I left the store having spent less than $10 on yogurt, granola and fruit.  That one trip yielded eight delicious, filling breakfast meals.  Plus, it turns out that the combination makes an excellent meal before my daily walks.  During 2016 I plan to experiment with making my own granola, and perhaps even look into homemade yogurt.

     #5 - Coupon Programs - Coupons are things that I have used on an "as interested" basis in the past.  I've lived in places where certain stores offer terrific deals with coupons or I've had a friend pass along a tidy little pile of coupons that she couldn't use.  But I haven't really put any effort into couponing before.  (By the way, when did "couponing" even become a word?)  This year I realized that I was missing out on a terrific income stream and started to dabble in the various programs that are available.  I am currently using Ibotta and Receipt Hog for rebates.  I have also begun to investigate the printed coupons that are offered through Swagbucks and MyPoints.  I am finding that by doing a little bit of research, having a good plan (Have I mentioned that I love a good plan?), and simply being organized, I can save my family a LOT of money.  So, you will find that income programs and coupons may become a part of this blog in 2016.  I'm very excited by the potential I am seeing so far.

     It's been fun looking back to see the changes that have happened over the past year.  I'm excited to realize that one small goal blossomed into such a life changing approach to my entire home.  And I'm excited to find myself here, sharing all of it with other people.  In 2016 I hope to explore new changes in my kitchen including trying to bake more breads from scratch, and working with preparing freezer meals for easy crockpot cooking nights.

     I hope that you have all had an incredibly blessed year.  Take a moment to look back at what you have accomplished.  You may see that some small changes turned into more than you expected.  And may God bless you with much peace and many joys in the coming year.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Spot Deals Like a Pro!

     So, you've been wondering about the various badges down the side of my blog, right?  What are all of these fascinating places that I love enough to place badges on my page?  Well, let me tell you... these are places where I save money and earn rewards.  Common Sense Housekeepers all know that one of the most important things we do is to save our family money!  And I plan to focus more on saving money and earning rewards in the coming year.

     The easiest and most reliable way to save money is to have friends who share all the great deals that they find.  So, our first stop is a fabulous site where tons of terrific people gather to share all of the best deals they find with each other.  Dealspotr!  There are so many ways to save and earn at it's amazing.  I hardly know where to start.

     First, check out the deals!  People constantly post terrific deals on this site.  There is everything from coupon codes to storewide sales to category sales.  Some people even find awesome savings on an item and post it here to let everyone know.  Before shopping, you can always stop at dealspotr and see if there are savings to be had at the website you are about to visit.  Lots of deals work in store too!

Screenshot of deals at

     But there is so much more to this website than just finding great deals.  Don't forget about the great people!  When you notice that someone on the site always seems to post great deals from stores that you like, just add them to your follow list and you will easily be able to see all the deals they post.  Plus, everyone is super friendly and helpful.  I just love when someone posts a terrific tip about how to maximize my savings in the comments below a deal.

     What's really neat about dealspotr is that while you are searching for great deals to save yourself money, you can also earn Karma points that will earn you free gift cards to Amazon.  I have already earned two gift cards and I'm here to tell you that it is super easy to do.  If you like sharing deals that you find with other people, you will be racking up the Karma points in no time.

     Give this site a chance and see if you aren't saving money and earning gift cards speedy quick.  In fact, click through my referral link here (Dealspotr Sign Up) and you will start off with an extra 200 Karma right from the very beginning.  In case you were wondering, you will get your own referral link once you are a member.  And we all know what that means... you can offer your own friends bonus Karma for signing up, plus get an extra little Karma bonus for yourself, too.  This site is really a win / win for everyone involved.  Go check it out ASAP.  Who knows what's on sale right now!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Journey is Almost Over

     I've never given much thought to Christmas Eve. It's the day before Christmas, right? I know that there are a lot of people out there rushing around to finish up their shopping. My family always has a big gathering in the evening to enjoy our Christmas meal together. I might wrap the last couple of presents before bed. But, overall, it's the end of a month long journey I have spent in preparation and expectation. I feel as if there is a pause on this day... like holding my breath for the final moment. In this beautiful stillness, I find myself thinking of Mary.

      Have you ever wondered how Mary must have felt on the day before Jesus was born? She was traveling to Bethlehem. Pregnant and riding on the back of a donkey. Can you imagine how sore she must have been? The exhaustion, aches and pains must have all been so overwhelming. And then to be told that there was no room at the inn. Imagine her frustration. Her fear. Of course there is no room at the inn! It must have seemed like every person in the world was right there in this one town trying to be registered for the census. How could there possibly be space for all of them? And if things weren't already difficult enough, she goes into labor.

     When my son was born, the world seemed to stop. There was nothing else on the planet that mattered, except having that baby. Anyone who has children knows exactly what I am talking about. The long journey is almost over. Months of planning and preparing, leading up to this single moment in time when absolutely nothing else matters. And then...

     It's Christmas Day! Jesus is born and, finally, Mary is able to hold him in her arms. Imagine how she felt. So grateful. A beautiful, healthy baby boy - just as the Lord had promised. What difference does it make where they are? In that moment, that manger was the most beautiful place on the entire planet. And it still is a beautiful image - probably why nativity scenes are still popular today.

     Let's take a moment on this day to pause. Consider the journey. All of the things that have gone wrong during the last month. The aches and pains and discomforts we have experienced during our preparation for tomorrow. Think of everything that isn't "right" in our lives. You know... that inn that is full... Consider for just a moment that, like Mary, everything in your life is working out according to God's perfect plan. What seems like a run down, smelly manger in your life could turn out to be the backdrop for the most beautiful and amazing miracle that the Lord has ever performed for you. Trust Him. Be patient. And, most importantly, remember to take a moment and be grateful for that one ugly looking gift. It might turn out to be the best present you ever receive.

     Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Exercise Simple & Organized - Fit Clip

     Between cooking, cleaning, and chasing the kids, many of us don't take care of ourselves the way we should - especially this time of year.  We should.  Let's face it - A fitness routine is vital to being healthy and happy.  I don't know about you, but happy is definitely not the word I think of when I look at a gym.  I can't help but admire people who have gym memberships and use them.  That takes a level of discipline and determination that I simply don't possess.  But just because I don't want to join a gym doesn't mean I don't want to exercise.

     My mantra is simple, organized, peaceful, happy!  So, why can't we make fitness work the same way?  There is nothing simpler than walking.  It's free.  It's easy.  It's good exercise.  And most everyone can do it.  Actually, you are probably already doing it and don't realize how much!

     I got this cool little fitness tracker recently.  It's called a Cel-Lab Fit Clip.  It's not a wrist band, so I don't have to worry about it when I am doing dishes, laundry and all the other chores that keep my hands in water all the time.  I clip it onto my waistband and forget about it.  It can also be clipped onto your shoelaces, bra, collar or wherever is comfortable for you.  Wanna know what I found out in the first week?  I walk roughly 2 miles per day doing absolutely nothing beyond my daily housework and chores.  That is absolutely inspiring.  It makes me want to get out and walk more!  So, I am.  I've been out on the walking trails around my house almost everyday.  And I feel better than I have in years.  Seriously - just walking.  Talk about putting the simple back into life.  Wow.

     And I wouldn't be me if I wasn't immediately going after the organized part, right?  So, this Fit Clip...  I can press the button on it and see how many steps I've walked, how many calories I've burned, how many miles, how much time I've been active, and what percent of my goal I have reached for the day.  Seeing those numbers makes me want to walk more to see how much better I can do.  It's very motivational.

     There's also this computer software that goes with it.  The clip is plugged into the computer where the data is uploaded.  Once it's there, you can see charts and graphs that will show you what you have done.  There's even a sleep mode to show how well you are resting at night.

     The software is in BETA mode right now and I got it for free so that I could test it out and tell people about it.  It's also available on Amazon at a super discounted price right now.  Fitness Clip Activity Tracker and Calorie Counter  If you go to that link, there is also a coupon code that you can use.  IVYAF8C5  When you add this code to your shopping cart, you can get an additional 30% off the price.  The price changes, but right now that code would make this fitness tracker only $13.99 - and shipping is free if you are an Amazon Prime member.

     Don't stress the fact that the software is in BETA mode.  I say grab it while it is cheap.  The company is fantastic and will help you with absolutely anything you need. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Best Part of Christmas

     What is the most wonderful thing about Christmas?  The season!  You know... the whole package leading up to Christmas.  Christians call it Advent.

     I love picking out just the right tree.  This year, mine is kinda short, but very full and fat.  It doesn't look like it belongs in a magazine.  Instead it has an assortment of ornaments that my family and I have collected over the years.  It smells fresh and it makes me smile when I walk into the room and see it standing there in it's decorated glory.  And don't forget the wreath on the door made from the tree trimmings.  Every time I open the door it smells like Christmas.

      Next are the lovely little trinkets scattered throughout the house that let me know it's that time of year.  It's a mish-mosh of candles, cookie plates, figurines and jingle bells.  And I love every bit of it.  As I unwrap each piece and search for a place to display it, I remember which of my loved ones gave it to me as a gift.  Some of them have fun stories of after Christmas shopping with a friend when we found the kooky item for a ridiculously low price and laughed while we waited in line to make our purchase.

     How about the holiday cookies and candies!  I could spend the entire month in my kitchen baking.  All those treats that I only make once a year calling my name.  But, what is the best treat of all?  My absolute favorite of all my Christmas kitchen treats...  When my son informs me on the day after Thanksgiving that it's time to make the egg nog!  There's a tradition in my house to never, ever make egg nog before Thanksgiving.  It started out as a rule when Sebastian was little.  It was absolutely forbidden to make egg nog before Thanksgiving.  If not for this rule, the child would have pestered me to make egg nog in the middle of July.  As a teenager, instead of viewing the egg nog ban as some form of great deprivation, he sees it as an exciting event that we get to begin on a very specific day - which he loudly announces to me the moment the leftover turkey is safely stashed away in the fridge.

     There's also music and movies.  I wait like an overly anxious child each year for my month long marathon of Christmas movies.  I watch everything from It's a Wonderful Life, to The Santa Clause, to Christmas Vacation.  It doesn't matter how old the movie or how irreverent, just so long as it puts me in the Christmas spirit.  And when I'm not doing that, there should definitely be Christmas music in the background.  Some Trans-Siberian Orchestra is ideal.

     You see, Christmas is a single day.  In most homes, the presents are opened and the space under the tree looks like a barren wasteland before lunch.  The children have wandered off to play while the adults finally relax for the first time in an entire month.  It was all such a blur and too many people lived though it in a stressed out, exhausted daze.  But it doesn't have to be that way.

     Today I heard two women discussing how much work it was going to be to get the "stupid tree" out of the attic and set it up downstairs.  Unfortunately, so many of us view the weeks before Christmas as a time of extra work.  We are so focused on finding just the right present to make a single morning perfect that we forget there's a whole month out there to enjoy.

     Please take a moment to stop and smell the Christmas tree.  Look around you and enjoy the beauty of all the Christmas decorations in your neighborhood.  Save the worries about your diet for January and enjoy some of those cookies that you just baked for your friends.  Appreciate the season.  And maybe your Merry Christmas can be a wonderful month instead of a wonderful day.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Buzzing the O.J.

     Have I mentioned that I grew up in Florida?  It's true.  Born and raised.  And we all know what Florida is great for, right?  Yes, I mean besides the beaches... and the sunshine... and Disney.  Cmon!  It's the Orange Juice!  I think there may be some kind of state law or something that prohibits people from drinking bad orange juice once they cross the state line.  You would have to look that one up, though.

     I spent a few years living in Orlando where Disney World was just a way of life.  They have these magical fairies (or maybe they are called Sous Chefs) that actually squeeze fresh orange juice right there in the restaurants.  When I tell you that I know good orange juice, I am not exaggerating.  I can talk your ear off about it.  But, alas, I live in North Carolina now.  And as much as I love my new home, I admit that I miss the fresh Florida orange juice yumminess.

     You're probably wondering what brought on this sudden O.J. nostalgia.  Well, last week an icy cold bottle of Tropicana Vitamin C & Zinc showed up on my doorstep courtesy of BzzAgent and Tropicana.  They actually wanted to know what I thought about the new orange juice with triple the Vitamin C & Zinc. What they weren't aware of was how this campaign would make me homesick and drive me to orange juice nuttiness.

     If you have followed my blog this far, you know I'm a big proponent of taking your kitchen back to basics.  You can probably guess that while I am advocating scratch cooking, I also believe that it's best to get your vitamins from your food, not little pills.  Now, that's not medical advice or anything.  Definitely listen to your doctor about these things.  But, like I've said before, does logic tell you it's better to get your Vitamin C out of a dry little tablet, or a glass of real orange juice with no water or sugar added?  Everyone who knows me knows that I am jumping up and down right now pointing at the orange juice.  Triple the Vitamin C & Zinc in Tropicana orange juice (one of my favorite brands anyway) is just a super food bonus to me.

     So, they sent me this bottle of yummy juice for free so I could tell you all about it.  Unfortunately, the magical fairies that squeeze their juice also like to strain it - so no pulp.  Awwww man.  Bummer.  Love my pulp in my O.J.  But I know tons of people who disagree with me on that subject, so I figure Tropicana took a vote or something and the pulp people lost.  That's alright.  As long as it's good juice, I can go with it.

     Now, one great thing about living in Florida where there is such an abundant supply of great orange juice is that we find really interesting things to do with it.  I could go on about all the wonderful drinks that we used to mix with orange juice, but since they are all icy cold and it's 37 degrees out right now, I would rather tell you about Cinnamon Orange Juice Cake.  I found this recipe at All Recipes.  It's really more of a coffee cake.  But the real trick is that the cake batter uses orange juice for the liquid component.  I recommend checking out the recipe.  Just be prepared for it to take longer in the oven than the recipe says.  Mine took 40 minutes.

     Anyway, I saved the last 16oz of my orange juice to make this recipe.  I am glad I did.  It is a nice recipe.  Something different for a coffee cake.  You get a nice orange flavor from it that I doubt you would get from a lesser quality, watered down juice.  It's definitely worth a try.

     That's it for today's post.  Go grab yourself some Tropicana Vitamin C & Zinc, and whip up a nice coffee cake for yourself.  While you are waiting for it in the oven, pour yourself a glass of juice and plop down at the computer to check out BzzAgent.  Who knows what cool stuff they might send to your doorstep for free?  You can follow my link here to sign up.  BzzAgent


Friday, December 4, 2015

Mary, Martha and Elaine

     Sometimes there is a great book that comes into your life from an unexpected place and it just speaks to you.  I love when this happens to me, and I especially love when it happens with a book that has to do with Jesus. 

     Over the summer, I came across Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World, by Joanna Weaver.  It was a wonderful read.  I learned a lot and I'm sure I will read it more than once.  It was one of those books that spoke to me.

This picture comes from website where they did a review of the book.
     When I was only a few chapters into the book, I recommended it to a friend of mine and she purchased a copy almost immediately.  Truth be told, because she isn't much for online purchases, Elaine visited multiple stores in her town searching for a copy of this book.  And then it sat, unread, for months.  We talked about it numerous times and she was always looking for a chance to start reading, but that chance never seemed to come for her. 

     Since this summer, she moved, and dealt with numerous other large personal distractions in her life.  All the while, this book stayed in the top of the moving box, on her dresser, in the living room - everywhere within her sight because she hoped to find the time to start reading it.  She even told another friend of ours all about the book after church one Sunday.  The pastor's sermon had included the famous story of Martha and Mary from Luke 10:38-42.  She promised to loan the book to this friend as soon as she finished reading it herself.  Of course, she needed to start.  And that was months ago.

     Last week, Elaine was praying.  She mentioned to God how much she wanted to read this book and how distressed she was that she just couldn't seem to fit it into her life anywhere.  She promised to start the book over the weekend - and failed.  Then, on Monday, she took the book to work with her for the first time since she had purchased it so many months ago.  Her intention was to read during her lunch hour.  Unfortunately, she was called away to deal with other issues, and again, failed to start reading the book.

     At 3:18pm, the computer system in her office crashed.  The internet went down and all work came to a screeching halt.  Nothing could be accomplished and all of the employees were left sitting at their desks shuffling files and staring blankly at each other.  That was when Elaine remembered the book that was waiting in her bag.  She pulled the book out and began to read.  As she finished reading the last sentence of the first chapter, the computers in her office miraculously sprang to life and everyone was able to return to work.

     My friend called me that same evening and shared this story with me.  She was amazed at how the Lord had responded to her prayers about her desire to read this book.  It's amazing what he will do to help us if we simply ask him.  As we have spoken this week, Elaine has continued reading the book.  All it took was that first chapter and now she makes the time in her life.  She loves the book.  She feels inspired by it.  And she feels a personal connection to it because God himself helped her to make this book a part of her life.

     Her story inspired me.  I always love to hear about the small ways that the Lord works in our lives.  Too many people dismiss the gifts that he brings to us because they are busy waiting for the parting of the Red Sea or some other spectacular show.  Jesus didn't come to put on a show for us.  His miracles weren't meant to entertain us.  They were meant to help us and to bring us to him.  And his small miracles - like a brief computer outage at exactly the right moment - will have the same effect in your life.  All you have to do is ask him.  God loves you and he loves to be there for you.  Give him the chance to show you.

     If you are interested in the book that inspired all of this fuss, below is a link to it via my Amazon Associate account.  Please check it out.  It is a wonderful book.  You can even find it in your local book store like my friend did.  God bless you.