Save money on fuel

gas signI’ve developed an appreciation for using gift cards to make purchases at my favorite retailers. The benefit is great in Maryland where the value of gift cards never expire. Check before stocking up to see how long you have to use your funds. The savings are small but they add up- I find that I save about $8-10 per month. Here’s how:

Where to buy the gift card?

Depending on which credit cards you have, you may earn rewards for purchases at certain stores. For instance, with my Chase Ink card, I earn 5% back at office supply stores. When there is no better option, I will purchase my cards in person at Staples or Office Depot. Don’t order the cards online as there are usually fees associated. Likewise, you may have a card that gives great rewards at grocery stores. With my Chase Freedom card, the categories change quarterly. With my Target RedCard, I instantly get a 5% discount on the gift cards I purchase in-store. Using credit cards for rewards only works if you have a card with no annual fee and are paying the balance in full every month.

Also consider if a store is offering a special on gift card purchases. I’ve seen awesome promotions at my grocery store for a free $20 grocery card with purchase of $100 in gift cards.

How using a gift card saves you money:

In addition to the obvious benefit of getting cash back rewards or promotional rates on gift cards, I’ve discovered a hidden benefit. Many of the stations near me offer a cash discount of approximately 5 cents per gallon. I’ve found that when using a gift card to pay at the pump, many stations will automatically give the cash discount. Occasionally this isn’t the case, but it happens many more times than not.

Don’t forget about station loyalty cards!

Several of the stations near me (Exxon, BP, Shell) have recently rolled out loyalty programs. Snag a free loyalty card (many times they’re right on the pump) and scan it before you make your purchase. After a few uses, you’ll notice offers on the screen. If you accumulate your credits, you can get as much as 20 cents off per gallon.

 

 

The view from my glass house

I first became aware of the gorilla incident when a friend posted the video with a caption expressing disgust at the negative comments. I intentionally have not read the comments, but some negativity has managed to make its way into my Facebook feed anyway.

I’ve spent a few days reflecting on myself as a parent. A tragedy like this could happen to anyone and I am no exception. I only have one toddler but she is extremely independent. When she was a baby, I thought independence was a trait to be admired and I wanted to build that up in her. Everything in moderation, I’ve learned, as now she is also difficult to control.

During toddler group last night while I was pushing my daughter on the swing, I watched with my heart in my throat as one little girl who was not part of our group wandered across the road toward the water. My eyes didn’t leave her for a second, but if a car had come speeding along I would not have been able to get to her in time to help. If something had happened to her, would we all be jumping to blame her mom? I would personally blame myself since I saw her walking toward the road and the water and did not stop her. Don’t worry- it turned out that she was heading down to the water to see her mom- then she came right back and asked me to take off her shoes and push her on the swing. Still, as far as I’m concerned, this girl was a toddler crawling into a gorilla enclosure and I did nothing to stop her.

We all so desperately need each other. I love my toddler group and the adventures that we have together. I wish the mom from the Cincinnati zoo had more of a community available to her. She would be so welcome here.

Float Therapy

For my husband’s birthday last year, I surprised him with a 60 minute session in an isolation tank. We had seen isolation tanks used in science fiction shows but had not realized that this was a real-life thing until I stumbled across the services of Float Annapolis. When I visited in October for Patrick’s session, I asked Jeff (the owner) a million questions. He was super-nice and showed me the tanks and explained the entire float process. Yesterday it was my turn to float. Patrick gave me an hour in the tank in celebration of Mother’s Day. Here is how it went:

I arrived about 20 minutes early for my appointment. Jeff showed me the room but didn’t go over everything since I had already had the grand tour the first time. I took a shower in the room. There was a wall-mounted soap dispenser with four different shampoo/body wash fragrances (I tried all four, my favorite was Nordic Flower).Photo May 05, 2 52 30 PM

There was a shelf with some earplugs- I put them in and got into the tank. It was kind of like a big walk-in refrigerator, except it was about 100 degrees F. There was a small step down and the water came up to my shins. I sat down in the water and the door closed behind me. It did not smell like anything. It was complete darkness. The tank was not huge, but I did not feel confined. I am not small and I had room to float around. Photo May 05, 2 52 15 PM

I lay down in the water. It was not the same consistency as water- the salt made it thicker and a little more slippery. The salt was such a high concentration that I floated effortlessly. If I tried to roll over, the water pushed me back upright. I think this was my first mistake, splashing around too much in the beginning. I settled down and tried to get comfortable. I could close my eyes or leave them open- the view was the same and it was silent. As I experimented with the eyes open/closed question, a drop of water from my ill-planned maneuvering at the start of the session rolled down into my eye. I decided to just keep my eyes closed, but I regretted not having a towel nearby. I can’t even take a regular shower without a towel handy to dry my face.

Eventually I lost my concept of time. My mind battled with itself- coming up with ideas and then shooting them down because they were not important enough to think about during my time in the tank. Soon I lost control over the process and my mind went where it wanted to go. I felt like a passive observer, which was interesting and a little scary. One thing that was cool was that I experienced much more visual thoughts. I could see and experience my ideas in a way that was unusual for me.

As time went on, I felt anxious about not hearing the musical cue that my session was over. Now that I know that I will definitely hear the music (even with earplugs and underwater), I will be more willing to relax during future sessions. The music was soft and natural, the kind of music you would expect to hear in a spa. I found the handlebar and sat up, pushing open the door so that I could see enough to exit the tank.

After my float, I had to take a thorough shower. When I picked up Patrick last time, he was covered in white powder because he did not get all of the salt off. The shower was glorious.

If you decide to give floating a try, here are some tips:

  • Don’t shave or drink caffeine before you go.
  • Bring deodorant and a comb for after your shower.
  • Wear non-slip shower shoes to keep you safe.
  • Ask for a second towel if you need one before you go into the room.

Checkerboard Cake

IMG_5088I love cake. Decorating a cake is fun, but I was looking for a challenging project. This cake took me two days, but it was worth it. The cake is special and obviously homemade- you will not find a cake this awesome in the grocery store. Read on to see how you can achieve this dazzling effect yourself.

Bake the cakes (you’ll need two):

  • Cake Mix – I’m not ashamed. Cake mix is cheaper and has a more consistent texture than scratch cake. I used boxes of Duncan Hines French Vanilla and Dark Chocolate. You will need two boxes of cake mix for this recipe. Any brands of flavors will work. Prepare the mix as directed, one flavor at a time.
  • I used three 8-inch round cake pans. Grease the pans well and then add a circle of wax paper to the inside bottom. Grease the top of the wax paper, too.
  • Divide the mix evenly between the pans. Use a rubber spatula to move the mix so that it is more to the outside of the pan than the center. This will keep your cake from puffing up in the center.
  • While the cake is baking, prepare a simple sugar syrup. In a saucepan, combine 3/4 cup sugar with slightly more than 1/2 cup water. Bring to a boil, then cool. This mixture will keep in the refrigerator for up to a month.
  • After baking, let the cake cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack. Remove the wax paper and then brush the surface of the cake with the syrup mixture (just the part that was covered with the wax paper).
  • Repeat this process for your second flavor. Cool both cakes, then wrap and refrigerate overnight.

The next day…

Prepare buttercream frosting:

  • Use a kitchen scale to weigh out equal portions of butter and powdered sugar. I used about 700 g each, but I made them in three small batches. It works out to about 6 sticks of butter and 2 boxes of powdered sugar. I use salted butter, but if you don’t, you will also need to add a pinch of salt.
  • Soften the butter and then use a sifter to process the powdered sugar. Use an electric mixer to beat on low for 1 minute, then on high for 5 minutes.
  • Add some frosting to a piping bag. I like to fit the bag over a drinking glass- this makes it easier to fill with frosting.

Cut the cakes:

  • I used a ruler to make sure I had the right dimensions. I used a 2″ round cookie cutter, a 4″ round cookie cutter, and a 6″ cereal bowl to make my cuts.
  • It’s a bit complicated to describe in words, so I’ll let a picture do the talking on this step. Basically, you’re going to cut the three circles from your cakes and then swap the flavors so that they alternate. Use your frosting bag to pipe a thin line of frosting around each circle (both sides of the larger circles) so that they stick together. Do this for all six of your cakes.
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Assemble the cake:

I used a few tools to make my assembly fool-proof: Cake lifter, Cardboard cake circles, and Cake turntable. I recently acquired many of these cake making tools, so I’m linking to the ones I used on Amazon. I did not buy these at Amazon- I went to my local craft store (Michael’s) and took advantage of sales and coupons.

  • Set a cardboard circle onto the cake turntable. Use the cake lifter to move one layer onto the turntable. Add a thin layer of buttercream frosting and then bring over the next layer. Be sure to alternate the two flavors (in this case, I did a chocolate circle, then a vanilla, and then a chocolate). Repeat this process with a thin layer of buttercream frosting for each layer.005
  • Cover the entire cake with a thin layer of buttercream frosting. Refrigerate for one hour and then add another thin layer of frosting. Repeat as needed until the cake is covered.
  • At this point, the cake is yours to decorate. I added some simple frosting swirls and then used a stencil to put colored sugar on top (I’m still not very good at decorating).001

Chocolate Chip Cookies

133Chocolate chip cookies hold a special place in my kitchen. Some might worry that it is a boring cookie, but this trusted cookie is sure to satisfy any sweet tooth. This is a rich, chewy cookie that brings in the best elements of the greatest cookies ever (Otis Spunkmeyer and Mrs. Fields).

Ingredients:

  • 2 sticks butter, softened (I use salted butter)
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 Tablespoons vanilla
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 2 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 cups chocolate chips*

*Be choosy about your chocolate. Different brands and flavors will have different effects. You can’t go wrong with semi-sweet chips. I choose Hershey’s or Ghirardelli for special occasions, but I keep a warehouse-sized bag of Nestle chips that I use for most of my cookies.

Directions:

Use an electric mixer to combine butter and sugars. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add vanilla. Combine dry ingredients and gradually add to mixture. Stir in chocolate chips.

Chill dough for as long as you can manage, up to overnight.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Shape the dough into smooth balls by rolling between your palms and then bake on an ungreased cookie sheet for 11 minutes (for a 1.5 in ball, add a few minutes for larger cookies). Remove from the oven and let the cookies sit for a few minutes before transferring to a cooling rack.

Bonus: Bake a dozen or two of the cookies, then ball up and freeze the rest of the dough. Pop two frozen cookie dough balls in your mouth the toaster oven for delicious cookies anytime.

cookie

Easy & Inexpensive NY Strip Steak

Fillipo Berio just released some new olive oils and sent me a coupon to try them. I’ve experimented with a few different recipes, but tonight I used two ingredients to make a jazzy steak dinner. If you’re not in a reading mood, you can watch my video here.

I found the lean-cut NY strip steaks at my local grocery store for just under $7 for a package of two.

The secret to grilling great steaks is to let them sit at room temperature for about 20 minutes before putting them on the grill. As they were sitting, I topped them with Fillipo Berio Robusto olive oil and McCormick GrillMates Montreal Steak seasoning.

My husband put them on the grill (medium heat) for about 8 minutes each side. Use a meat thermometer to ensure the internal temperature is 140-155 degrees F.

The steak was so tender and had a rich flavor. I paired the steak with a simple salad and my ranch potatoes (I’ll share that recipe soon). It was a hit!

FTC disclosure: I received a free sample of Fillipo Berio olive oil for testing and review purposes.

steak dinner with filippo berio robusto

 

Make Your Own Dog Food

In the morning, I feed 1) the baby, 2) the dog, and 3) myself (if time allows). This morning my kiddo dove headfirst into the pantry. Seeing she was content, I went to the fridge to feed our dog Max. There was no dog food in the fridge and none in the freezer. I filled his bowl with dry food and told him that he would have to eat like a normal dog today (spoiler alert: he has waited all day for me to make him some food).

Max has always been a picky eater. He hates most dry dog foods, although he will tolerate them for awhile as long as we switch them periodically. I noticed a shift in his behavior when the baby started sitting with us at meals and eating table food.

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Before cooking

After what seemed like an eternal hunger strike, I started cooking for Max. I realize he is a dog and that dogs will eat when they’re hungry. There is no excuse to spoil him except that it makes me happy to see him happy. Spending a bit more time and money on food that he loves to eat is no big deal compared to the unconditional love and friendship he gives me every day. At first it was a bit time-consuming, but now I keep the ingredients prepped in the freezer and I can toss them in the slow cooker and let them cook for a few hours. He’s a tiny guy, so one pot of this recipe will last him for 2 weeks.

Want to make your own? Research the ingredients or ask your vet to make sure this recipe will meet your pet’s nutritional needs. Other recipes have suggested adding beans, but Max always picked them out so I omit them. He has a healthy build, good energy, and a shiny coat.

Max’s vet approves of the recipe but noticed that he reached his ideal weight fairly quickly on this diet (he was underweight before, thanks to the ongoing hunger strikes). His vet recommended feeding him 15% less than I would typically give him in dry food.

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After cooking

Dog Food (in the slow cooker)

1 pound ground beef
3/4 cup barley
3/4 cup butternut squash, chopped
3/4 cup carrots, chopped small (or run them through the food processor)
1/4 cup peas
2 cups water

Combine all of the ingredients in a slow cooker and cook on low for 5 hours. For easy clean-up, I recommend a slow cooker liner.

Allow the food to cool and then package it into plastic bags. You can toss them in the freezer and then just keep one in the fridge. Heat it for 15-30 seconds before serving.

 

 

Popovers for Breakfast

002I did not know about popovers until I met my husband. A lot of people in my circle had never heard of them before I started singing their praises. I describe them as a biscuit made out of love and shaped like a hot air balloon (if you do it right).

My in-laws had always made them from a mix. The mix used to be a small box with enough powder to prepare six popovers. It cost less than $1.00 and they were able to buy it at the grocery store. They gave me a few boxes, but then I ran out. I could not find the mix anywhere. I finally found it at Whole Foods but you know that box cost over $10.00. For awhile, I was buying the boxes on Amazon, but even those became prohibitively expensive. I needed to learn how to make them myself.

I’ll admit that I was not very efficient when it came to duplicating the recipe. I developed a recipe that worked, but it involved a lot of ingredients (powdered milk and such) and was really a substitute for the “just add water” mix. It was also expensive to make. I was dumbfounded to learn that these are actually very simple to make and only require five ingredients found in every kitchen.

The problem with popovers is that they are a finicky pastry. Several conditions need to be met in order to make them “pop.” Sometimes I will prepare a batch that still tastes good but it lacks the magical texture because they did not rise in the oven.

Here is my recipe. Before you begin, you should invest in a popover pan. I have heard that others have had success using regular cupcake tins, but I have not tried this. This recipe takes about an hour, but it is worth it.

Popovers (makes 6)

Ingredients:
1 cup name-brand flour (like Gold Medal)
1 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 cup milk
1 TBSP butter (melted), +1/2 TBSP butter (melted) for brushing the pan

1. Preheat oven and popover pan to 450 degrees.
2. Melt 1 TBSP butter and set it aside to cool.
3. Combine milk and eggs in a microwave-safe container and heat for 20 seconds to bring them to room temperature.
4. Add eggs, milk, flour, salt, and 1 TBSP melted butter to a blender and blend well. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the sides of the blender and then run it again.
5. Remove the popover pan and brush the sides and bottom of each cup with melted butter. Work quickly as the pan needs to stay as hot as possible.005
6. Pour the batter into each cup, slightly more than half way.
7. Bake at 450 degrees for 20 minutes. Turn on the oven light because you are going to want to watch, but do not open the oven at all.
8. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and continue baking for 20 minutes. Do not open that oven!
Were you successful? Popovers are an amazing treat. We eat them with butter, but they can be enjoyed plain or filled with goodies of your choosing.

5 Reasons Why You Need a Kid-Free Day

It started with a generous maternity leave. In reality, I had not used a vacation day in seven years, so I was able to stay home until our baby was four months old. My salary was barely equal to the cost of paid childcare, so I had to get creative. My amazing family and friends stepped up to fill the childcare gap from April through June. Each day of the week, my baby would stay with someone different. Her aunt, her grandparents and even one of my former co-workers generously gave their time so that my baby could be safe and loved while I finished the school year.

Two years later, my in-laws still take the baby one day a week. I’ve been judged by the “sanctimommies” for continuing this (I’m a stay at home mom, how lazy to have someone else watch my kid), but here are five reasons why you need to have a kid-free day.

1. Kids Are Happier
My mother-in-law plans a spectacular day for my toddler. This week, they went to the indoor pool, had lunch, took a nap, and went to the park. Last week, they went to the zoo! It does not have to be something so elaborate; really, almost any change from the routine activities is a good growth experience for children. Obviously, this does not work if the adult is setting the kid in front of the TV all day, but then why is that adult watching your kid? Something as simple as getting to visit a different library will be special. Also, spending time with a grandparent can be great for a child’s self-esteem.

2. Bonding Time (for Others)
Your kid is an amazing person and others would be so lucky to get to hang out with her. At first, I worried that it was an imposition to ask someone to watch my kid. Then I realized how it makes me feel when others ask me to babysit- I’m honored. To clarify, it is not an imposition if you ask far enough in advance and are respectful of the person’s schedule. It is also important to show gratitude- no one likes to be taken for granted.

I see how special it is for my in-laws to get to spend time with our daughter. I love the email updates with photos and journal entries about how they spent their day. It is a great opportunity for them to bond with their granddaughter and I can tell that it makes them happy.

3. You Can Work
I do a lot of work as an independent contractor. In contrast to a regular job, where you work set hours and do the same work every day, I choose my own hours and the projects that interest me. There are some projects that are a great fit for my toddler and she enjoys doing them with me. Other projects are not well-suited to children, making my day off a prime time to earn some extra money.

The day off can also be used to catch up on housework, but this is not realistic for me because:

4. You Can Not Work
Having an unstructured personal day is a rare luxury for parents. It had been weeks since I had watched a show other than Peppa Pig, so I used my most recent day off to binge watch Downton Abbey. I also took a bubble bath and a nap. It’s okay to rest. I have had a hard time with days like this in the past because I would miss my kid. I would go to a restaurant for lunch and be miserable thinking about how much she would have enjoyed it. To fully appreciate a non-work day, try to choose activities that you would not ordinarily be able to do with your child.

5. Your Mental Health
I love to work, so quitting my job was a scary thing for me. Being able to work one day a week does a lot for me personally. Having some kid-free time to recharge is also important. These are the obvious mental health benefits.

Somewhere along the way, I learned something important about letting go.  I think a lot of parents put limitations on their trust. I had a friend who worked as a nanny and the kid’s parents would not let her take the kid to the small local beach. This conditional trust has nothing to do with my friend’s nanny skills (she’s amazing). If my kid is with someone else, it is because I trust them fully. My in-laws might not do things exactly the same way as I do, but I do not care. They raised my husband, and he’s OK. My daughter is safe, happy, and loved when she is with them. I know this, so I am happy to let go of the situation and not try to micromanage her time with them.

After spending the day apart from my little one, I appreciate our time together so much more. Even though she cannot articulate it yet, I think my daughter feels the same.

I realize not everyone has in-laws as fabulous as mine. This is why it is so important to build relationships with other parents, which is something that is particularly challenging for me. If we support and help each other, we can all carve out a little bit of time to make everyone a lot happier.

Try Hard Things

I have always encouraged others to be Web creators rather than just consumers. Since leaving the workforce in 2014, I feel like I have not been contributing anything meaningful. Obviously this is not true – I do lots of important things in my role as a homemaker, and I do not want to minimize that. Instead, I want to work harder to make those contributions count more.

One of my greatest challenges is that I am uncomfortable with speaking up, despite experiencing that others value what I say. The initial goal of this blog is to gain momentum in sharing ideas and experiences. I learn so much from reading other blogs and I am ready to add my own voice. It’s scary, though.