5 ways to prepare for Thanksgiving now

Categories: Entertaining, Holiday Entertaining, Meal Planning

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Thanksgiving is only a couple of weeks away, can you believe it? It’s been a few years since I’ve had to host dinner, but this year is my turn and I’m a little out of practice.

I stay pretty busy, so I feel like I should get started on it right away. I know cooking is the bulk of the work, it’s hard to do too much about that right now, but there’s plenty of other things you can do to begin to get ready for Thanksgiving ahead of time:

1. Plan the menu - Deciding what to cook isn’t brain surgery, but take some time now to find any needed recipes and solicit special requests from your guests. I like to create a detailed shopping list from the menu I write down. Sometimes I buy all at once, and other times I see what’s on sale and buy as I go. Now’s a good time to see if you have enough staples like butter, flour and sugar already in your pantry.

2. Plan the table - What tablecloth, napkins, plates etc are you going to use? Go ahead and dig them out and wash them if they are stored somewhere. Will you need to borrow chairs? Be the first caller to that friend who always seems to have extra. When we have a lot of people, our table space is limited, so I also mentally assign a serving dish to each menu item and estimate how much space they will use.

3. Make room in the fridge - A couple of weeks before a holiday, I try to cut back on any bulky items from my regular shopping so there will be room to store all the things I’ve prepared. Also, the day of reckoning is here: clean out the refrigerator.

4. Clean the house - If you’re like us, the house doesn’t stay clean long, but now is a good time to straighten a guest room, stay on top of the laundry or vacuum a little-used dining room. If there are any chores you can take care of now, you’ll thank yourself when you don’t have to do them AND cook at the same time.

5. Plan the leftovers - Our dinner guests are family, and I have one brother-in-law who is known for taking leftovers. He’s single and It’s just what he does and everyone plans accordingly and I just factor that into what I cook. He usually arrives with his own set of storage containers, but I try to be prepared with disposable ones that he (or anyone) can use if needed. This is also the time to match those pesky tops with the good storage containers for the food you keep at home for turkey sandwiches on Friday.

I’ve been trying to do a few non food-related tasks each day to get ready for Thanksgiving. However, I have no authority to tell you how to cook ahead of time, I’ve not mastered that part. I will be the one asking you about your fastest macaroni and cheese recipe at 2am on Thanksgiving morning.

However, my storage containers will have their lids.

Dinner idea: Crockpot potato-sausage soup

Categories: Cooking, Crockpot

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When the weather gets cooler, I want to make soup. However, my problem is that I’ll get a vague idea of some soup I want, but I have no idea how to get there. (Hey, I’m more on the soup idea and consumption end rather than the pesky “make it” part in the middle…) Consequently, we’ve ended up with a few “almost” soups in the past, yet I keep trying.

The other day, we had some leftover Italian sausage, I decided I wanted to make soup with it, and I wanted something with cheese, too. I didn’t want to waste the sausage, so I looked up some recipes rather than performing my usual soup experimentation. I found bits and pieces of what I had in mind, and I ended up with this:

Crockpot potato-sausage soup

1.5 lb Italian sausage
5 baking potatoes, cubed
1/2 bag of frozen spinach
1/2 cup onion, chopped
Matchstick carrots (as much as you want, or as much you find sitting in the fridge)
1 - 14 oz can of chicken broth
1 - 12 oz can of evaporated milk
Shredded cheddar cheese (about 2 cups, I think, after everyone taste-tested it)
salt and pepper to taste

Directions:

1. Cook sausage and onion in a skillet and drain.
2. Thaw the spinach and drain thoroughly.
3. Put the potatoes and carrots in bottom of crock pot. Then add the sausage, onion and spinach. 4. Pour the chicken broth over everything

5. Cook on low for 4-5 hrs.
6. At the end of the cooking, add the evaporated milk and cheese. Serve when the cheese is melted.

It was good! I think I’ll sautee the spinach first, next time as it seemed a little strong, but it wasn’t a show-stopper by any means.

I need some new ideas, what’s your favorite (fairly simple) soup to make? Tell us below in the comments.

5 ways to get ready for the holidays early

Categories: Uncategorized

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It’s that time of year, again. With less than 3 months to go, we’re hearing rumblings of the holidays and some stores even have Christmas decorations in stock, can you believe it? Even though we want the holidays to be a picture perfect time filled with family and friends, the reality is that it’s a busy time of year and there are lots of things that need to be taken care of before that can happen.

Though I’ve given up pretending I’m going to have everything done before Thanksgiving, each year I vow that I’m going to “start early” to get ready for Christmas, but each year I seem to be that person who’s racing the clock on Christmas Eve trying to finish up.

Despite my procrastinating, I do know what I need to do to prepare for Christmas and over the years I’ve learned that it really begins the prior year. Here are a few things I’m going to do to facilitate getting ready for Christmas early:

1. Pack the decorations properly at the end of the season - The best gift I give myself is well-packed Christmas decorations. When the holidays are over, it’s tempting to just toss things in a box to get them put away quickly, but it will just leave you with more to do next year. I try hard to discard unused decorations, make sure everything works and pack things carefully and logically.

2. Shop the after Christmas sales - More shopping is last thing I want to do when Christmas is over, but I find that if I make myself visit the sales, even with just a couple of things in mind, it’s well worth it the next year. Beginning the next season stocked with even just gift wrap, bags and bows helps a lot.

3. Shop early for known items - I know people who begin Christmas shopping in January. While that seems like a good idea, it would be hard for me because I don’t know what people will be asking for by the end of the year. However, I do know that there are gifts and other items I buy every year and while I admit I probably won’t do it in January, there are some things like batteries, stocking stuffers and gift cards that I can start gathering in August or September.

4. Set a goal date for decorating - Sometimes, we end up decorating late in the season because we say we’re going to get to it “sometime this weekend”, and before we know it 2 weekends have passed, and then we’re in a mad rush. I find that if we put it on the calendar, the house gets decorated and the tree gets put up in time for us to enjoy it.

5. Wrap presents as you go - This is the area I struggle with the most and I vow to change this year. I’ve seen 2:30 am on Christmas morning more time than I care to admit while wrestling with wrapping paper and tape. This year, I’m going to make myself wrap things as I buy them, especially since my chief wrapper is away at college.

Do you have a favorite hint for getting ready for the holidays early so you can enjoy time with family and friends?

Maintaining the weekday routine

Categories: Uncategorized

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By now, school has been in for a little while for most of us. The excitement of a new year is starting to fade into routine. Fall can be especially busy with sports practices and other activities, and before you know it, all the promises of being organized and early to bed begin to fade when suddenly you find it’s 7:30 pm and dinner’s still on the table and homework isn’t done, yet.

It’s tempting to just get everyone off to bed and worry about the rest, “in the morning”, but (oddly enough) that just shifts the chaos to the next day, and before you know it, the week becomes more about survival than anything.

Over the years, I’ve found there are a few things that I have to do consistently (no matter how tired I am, or when I have to be at work the next morning) that are essential to making the week run smoothly:

1. Commit to keeping the family calendar updated - We write things on a monthly calendar as they come up, and each Sunday I transcribe the upcoming week to a larger M-F format and the whole family meets briefly about it for any updates. I’ve also started maintaining it online so we can have it on our phones as well.

2. Keep up with the laundry and the dishes each night - Maybe it’s just me, but after a long day at work, I can easily talk myself into dealing with those “tomorrow”, and then they somehow reach critical mass. I’ve been working hard at clearing the sink each night before bed, and it’s much nice to wake up to a clean (OK, clean-ish) kitchen where there’s room for everyone to get ready. I may not do laundry each night, but I gather dirty clothes each night and sort them to make sure there’s nothing we need to clean for the next day.

3. Have kids do homework in the same place at the same time when possible - Our evening routine gets in trouble when we change up the homework routine. Even if it’s a late night with sports practices, things always go better when we do things in the same order.

4. Prepare books, lunches and clothes the night before - I struggle with this, but no matter how late it is, I’ve been working hard at making myself prepare lunches, get out clothes and supervise the kids packing backpacks before bed. It makes a big difference when it’s time to get out the door in the mornings.

5. Deal with clutter spots each day - Our kitchen counter is a clutter magnet. We tend to pile things there when we’re in a hurry. If I do a little sorting each night to throw away trash and return stray items to their rightful places, I find that I’m much less stressed and it’s easier to find what we need.

These are some things that I’ve learned to do that help us during the week. How about you? What are the tasks you have to do consistently to keep your week running smoothly?

Organize under the kitchen sink

Categories: Organization

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The other day, I reached under the kitchen sink to get something and I realized there was a lot of stuff under there, but I wasn’t sure exactly what was under there. It seems that we’ve really only been using about 1/4 of the things under there because it was hard to tell what we had.

As a matter of fact, there were even a few things in there that we’ve had since we moved in 20 years ago. There were also a lot of duplicates under there because it was hard to know if we were out of something, or not. (Note to self: you can lay off buying dishwasher detergent, we’ve got enough.)

When I couldn’t find something I needed that I knew we had in there, I decided it was time to do something about the mess under the kitchen sink.

Here’s what I did:

Empty - Resist the urge to scoot things around and just rearrange the mess. Get a trash bag, have a seat and pull everything out where you can see it. Then, clean the cabinet. It’s amazing how dirty a space that holds cleaning supplies can get.

Purge - Put that trash bag to use. Get rid of any trash, items that are expired or rarely used, unidentified items (yes, I found a couple of those) and things that don’t belong there.

Organize - Take what’s left and divide it into like groups. I ended up with groups of polish, air freshener, cleaning tools, cleaning sprays, soaps, trash bags and a fire extinguisher. Be careful not to have too many things called “miscellaneous” because that makes it easy to treat the space as a catch-all.

Plan - Is there room for everything so that you can get to it easily? Do you need some containers? I have to be careful about overloading on baskets and boxes because we’re not always good at putting things back in them and the mess gets bigger than it was before you started. I try to only use them if I have several small items.

Return - Put it all back in the cabinet and make sure everyone in the family knows where to find everything, especially if you’ve relocated items.

While organizing under the sink may seem like a small thing to do, I’ve been surprise at how happy the difference has made me, and how I can actually find things, now:

As always, if you have small children, be sure to safeguard the undersink cabinet and don’t forget a fire extinguisher in the kitchen!

5 items for a great guest room

Categories: Entertaining, Organization

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We’re fortunate to have a guest room, and we really enjoy having people stay with us, and we’ve certainly put it to use, lately. While will never be mistaken for a 5-star hotel, I enjoy making sure it has what it needs to make people comfortable.

Here are 5 items I make sure that we provide for our guests:

A good bed - The guest room isn’t really a great place to put your oldest mattress. Test out your own guest bed and make sure it’s comfortable. If a new mattress isn’t in the budget, consider investing in a good foam mattress topper or even a high quality air mattress to make things more comfortable for your guests.

A place to put luggage - I always try to make sure guests have a place to put a suitcase or a bag besides the floor. We have an empty, low table near the bed that’s a great size for a suitcase, but I’m in the market for a luggage rack.

Guest toom

Clock - While it’s true that most people have cell phones to check the time when they’re on the road, it drives me crazy when I’m staying somewhere without a clock. Sometimes, you just need to glance at the time quickly in the middle of the night. It’s also important to make sure the clock has the accurate time, so be sure to check the guest room after a power failure since a flashing “12:00″ isn’t an accurate time.

Power outlets - These days, people travel with all sorts of electronic gear that needs to be charged. We live in an old house where power outlets aren’t always conveniently located, so I keep a power strip on the guest room table so our guests don’t have to crawl under the table or behind a dresser to plug in a computer. We also have an iPhone dock on the table that several of our guests have appreciated.

Wifi information - We keep a card by the guest bed with the wireless Internet information on it. I know I always appreciate that information when I travel, and I’ve been known to do some “sleuthing” in friends’ houses when I find that it’s late at night, and I’ve forgotten to ask my host for it.

How about you? Tell us in the comments below what guest room touches do you like to provide or receive?

5 must-have apps for traveling

Categories: travel

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I’ve been on the road a lot this summer, and even thought it’s drawing to a close, there’s still a lot of travel ahead of me with out of town soccer games and visiting our college freshman 4 hours away.

I rely a lot on my phone to keep information at hand when I’m away from home, and there are thousands of apps out there that can help you do just that, and make your trip a little more organized.

These are some of my favorite apps that I always keep handy when I travel:

Tripit - If you’re not familiar with Tripit, you should be, I love this app. It keeps all of your travel information (reservations, flights, itineraries etc.) in one place. It’s as simple as forwarding your confirmation e-mail (or, you can enter information into Tripit manually) to your TripIt account, and Tripit automatically builds you an itinerary you can access from anywhere. No more combing through e-mails for that confirmation or flight number!

iExit - I’ve recently traveled some by myself with my youngest child, and when it’s just us, I want to make sure our stops are safe and efficient. iExit provides real time Interstate exit information to help you answer that age old question, “Where’s a ‘good’ exit?” Since you shouldn’t use it while you are driving, I’ve taught him to use it, and we look for a good place to stop together.

AroundMe - Just like the name implies, AroundMe is a location app to quickly find out about your immediate surroundings. It’s invaluable for finding things like restaurants or the nearest drugstore when you’re in an unfamiliar city. It shows you a list of businesses in the category you chose, as well as the distance and route from where you are.

RepairPal - This is an app I hope I don’t need frequently, but I’ve used it more than once (just last week, as a matter of fact). RepairPal is a location-based app that lets you find a car repair shop near you, get an estimate, get roadside help and more.

Ambiance - Everyone in my family sleeps with white noise, and when on the road at a hotel or a friend’s house, things can seem awfully quiet at night and it can be hard to get to sleep. Ambiance is an app that provides noises and sounds that can help you sleep, relax or set a mood.

I’m always on the lookout for great travel apps to keep me organized, do you have a favorite one? Tell us about it in the comments below!

5 tips for packing for college

Categories: Organization, Tips and Tricks

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A while back, I shared my experience with college dorm shopping, and this past week, I got to put my efforts to good use when we took our daughter to begin her freshman year. The time finally arrived and we packed everything and headed south. I’m certainly glad we started gathering things when we did, I can’t imagine having to shop and pack in just a few days time.

She’s all moved in now, and I’m by no means an expert, but I did learn a few things along the way about packing for college:

1. Make a plan - Visit ahead of time, look at pictures (Flickr can be helpful) or read the school’s housing descriptions and outline an idea of which items you’ll keep in dresser drawers, closets and/or plastic storage containers. Packing like things together makes it easier to unpack and planning ahead saves time deciding what to put where.

2. Put everything in a container - Trust me, loose items do not fare well during move-in. Box up everything you can, and make sure it’s sealed well. This makes things a lot easier to get on the moving carts and this will reduce trips on the elevator. You want that. Really, you do.

3. Label all containers -Label the outside of all your containers with a name, room number and cell phone number. There are lots of people moving in at the same time. Things can get mixed up, or your loads can get separated and end up on 2 different elevator trips.

4. Allow ample time to pack the vehicle - Once you get everything together, it will look like your kid is taking the most of any college student, ever. Take comfort in the fact that someone will always have more than your kid, but you still have to get stuff in the car. I found the whole thing to be like a game of Tetris, but I did get everything in the van, it just took a lot longer than I expected.

5. Separate electronics and valuables - Often, when you arrive at school freshman year, there’s a whole army of volunteers waiting to help you unload the car. The moment you drive up, they descend and start unloading and it can be hard to know which items are in what load. Before you arrive at school, make sure you have all fragile and/or valuable items separated from the load and carry them yourself.

College is an exciting time, and a little advance planning goes a long way to get you started right.

I know many of you are more experienced than I am, what tips do you have?

Organizing and managing business cards

Categories: Organization

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I just returned from the BlogHer conference in New York, and I have a lot of business cards I collected there. This year, I’m determined to save these contacts and follow up as needed, but I’m still experimenting with the best way to save the information.

There are 2 ways you can save business cards: save the cards themselves the old fashioned way, or save them electronically.

Some people store cards in an old-fashioned file while others have elaborate business card notebook systems. I have this complicated system that I like to call, “Two Piles”. The first pile is contacts I need to follow up with for business purposes, and the second pile is new friends, social contacts and blogs to check out. Then I enter them into my contacts as needed.

There are also several digital options for saving business cards. Scanners have made handling business cards easier than ever. There are also smartphone apps that scan your business cards and enter them into your contacts.

I have to confess that I usually save cards from conferences in the paper manner because I like business cards. I love to see the different kinds and some of them inspire me for my next design. However, there are some smart phone apps that store them as images so you can still enjoy them.

No matter how you organize them, using cards from contacts is only as effective as your follow-up practices. Develop a system for taking action by jotting notes on the cards after you meet someone to help you remember details and contact people while they’re still fresh in your mind to get the most out of your efforts.

How about you? Tell us how you organize and manage contacts you meet.

Storing clothes in a room without a closet

Categories: Decluttering

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If you know anything about old house living, you know that rooms can be odd shapes and sizes and storage can be limited.

We live in an old house, and there are 3 full bedrooms upstairs. That’s all well and good, except that we need 4 bedrooms. Having the kids share a room isn’t a great option because of age differences, so we use a dormer space as the 4th bedroom.

This area started out as the nursery. It was a good place to keep the crib and some baby things until we reconfigured some space to make a bedroom for our first child. Then the second child came along and he lived in the nursery for several years until we were able to finish a bedroom for him.

But, by the time the third baby arrived, we’d run out of options for making another bedroom. So, 10 years later he’s still in the nursery. He’s only recently had an opinion about his room being smaller than the others and about the babyish decor in there. So, we fixed it up a bit and made it more age appropriate:

But, part of the update was removing the nursery armoire, leaving nowhere to hang clothes. Additionally, the only real space to do so is behind the door on the right:

As you can see, at the moment we just have a random shelf there, but I’m looking for ideas for some sort of free-standing closet or some way to hang clothes and a couple of shelves would be handy.

What can we put here? Share your ideas! (Please?)

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