Handy items to keep in the car

Categories: Organization

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I pride myself not only on keeping my car reasonably neat, but also on being prepared for whatever comes my way when I’m out and about.

A while back, I wrote about must have items for the car trunk, but I also have a certain set of things I keep in the console next to me.

The contents may look like random items (OK, the loose change in there is random, I don’t know how it got there), but I spend a lot of time in the car, and contents of the center console are a carefully crafted list of things I like to keep close without having a lot of extra stuff.

They’re not emergency or winter-preparedness items (I keep that kind of thing in the trunk) or anything smart like that. I’m talking about little things that drive me crazy if I don’t have them when I’m away from home.

Some of the things in my car console:

Lip balm - inevitably, one of the kids will complain about the worst chapped lips in the history of ever when we are 250 miles from civilization on the Interstate in the middle of the night.

Spare reading and sun glasses - Mostly self-explanatory, but they rank near the top of my list of things that bug me to death if I accidentally leave them at home.

Hand lotion -I’m not a lotion addict by any means, but there seems to be some relationship between noticing dry hands and sitting in a huge traffic jam.

Nail clippers and nail file - For those times when that annoying fingernail has to be dealt with RIGHT. NOW.

Pens and paper - I’ve never mastered typing in a number on the phone at the same time I’m talking on the phone, so I have to be all retro and write it on paper.

Mints - I keep them in there mostly to let my youngest child think he’s discovered a secret treat.

Napkins - I have kids, need I say more? My paper napkin stash is also like a retrospective of everywhere I’ve been over the past few weeks.

Tweezers - We all know about the annoying stray hair that only shows up when you’re at a stoplight, right? Tweezers are also good for a variety of kids’ backpack-related malfunctions like stuck zippers.

Also, when my kids were younger and were going to lots of birthday parties, I used to keep gift bags, tags and tissue paper in there because I may or may not have been that person who bought the gift on the way to the party.

I may be the only one who thinks this deeply about the subject, but are there things you find handy to keep in your car?

Packing the Christmas decorations

Categories: Organization, Tips and Tricks

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Every year, I promise myself that I’m going to put the holiday decorations away properly.

I even plan to go out and buy things on sale for next year so I’ll be prepared.

However, I somehow talk myself out of it saying, “I’ll just take care of it next Christmas”.

But, now? This is my year.

I may have missed the sales (we’ve been out of town a couple of times), but I’m going to get a grip on storing this stuff if it’s the last thing I do.

Here’s my plan so far:

1. Get rid of worn/broken items and things we don’t actually display. We have quite a bit of Christmas decor as a result of being on a tour of homes thing (long story) several years ago. I don’t really have a need for the “all out” decorating scheme anymore, so it’s time to thin out the collection.

2. Make sure we have proper storage containers and decide what goes in each. While I don’t want to fall into the trap of buying boxes to contain junk, I do want to have what we need, and home organizing things are on sale right now.

3. Divide items into categories such as soft items (stockings, towels, tablecloths etc.), knick-knacks, garland and lights, fragile items, tree ornaments, outside decorations and kids’ personalized items.

4. Re: kids’ personalized items. A couple of years ago, I bought 3 identical plastic boxes for each of my kids. They each have a nativity set and personalized ornaments from each year, so these things go in their labeled box. They like to unpack them each year, and eventually I can present them with their box when they have homes of their own.

5. Plan for where the boxes will be stored. Most of our decorations go in the closet in the dining room, but I don’t want the boxes to outgrow the closet or anything, so I want to make sure they all fit before I pack everything.

6. Pack everything logically and carefully, even if it takes a long time.

We’ll see how I do as it’s just now underway, but I’m going to try to make sure Christmas 2012 me thanks (instead of curses) Christmas 2011 me.

Do you have any tips for storing Christmas decorations? I’m all ears.

Accidental dessert discovery: microwave bread pudding

Categories: Cooking, recipes

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I was visiting a friend over New Year’s weekend, and we were home for the night and craving dessert after being out most of the day.

There was talk of really wanting something, but we weren’t quite sure what it was, and that most things worth eating would take too long to make. We were about to admit defeat and I joked about having bread pudding with vanilla sauce which naturally made us want to stop at nothing short of bread pudding.

This is the part where true bread pudding connoisseurs might cringe, but we set out to make some in the microwave because bread pudding was needed RIGHT NOW.

We searched for “microwave bread pudding” as sort of a joke, and apparently it can be done in the microwave. Who knew? I did not.

So, after inventorying what was in the house, we cobbled together the following from various recipes:

6 slices of bread (we used white bread from the bakery that was stale), torn into small pieces
2 cups milk (actually, it was the rest of the milk in the jug and some half-and-half)
1 tbsp. butter
2 eggs, beaten
1 1/4 cups sugar
pinch of salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla

Place bread in dish. Heat milk and butter on high power 3 minutes in a large measuring cup.

Stir small amount of hot milk into beaten eggs and return the eggs to milk.

Add sugar, salt, cinnamon, vanilla. Pour egg mixture over the bread. Cook on high about 10 minutes, or until the center is firm.

Please note, I don’t like raisins or nutmeg, so it was imperative that we figured out something sans those ingredients.


We didn’t really have the ingredients (or the patience) to make any kind of sauce, but we did have some custard (the English kind that’s like a sauce rather than pudding, Birds Custard, specifically), so that made a great sauce.

My picture of the finished product was blurry, but I didn’t realize it until it was too late, so you’ll have to trust me that it actually came out looking quite nice.

So, if you’re looking for a quick dessert that’s a little different, give it a try. We were pleasantly surprised, and since there was none left at the end, I’ll declare it a success!

Storing gift wrapping supplies

Categories: Organization

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The gift-giving holidays are done for the most part, and there’s a wrapping paper, gift bag, box explosion in the house now.

Someone (and, by “someone”, I mean probably you) will eventually have to sort through is because some of that stuff can be reused. Really, have you noticed the price of gift bags?

Once the aftermath is combed through, you have to decide what you’re going to do with it all.

A long time ago, gift wrapping supplies consisted of a few rolls of paper, some tape, a few sticky bows and some scissors stuck in the hall closet. But, when gift bags, decorative boxes and such came on the scene, gift wrapping supplies began to take up more space.

Additionally, gift wrapping has become such an art form (a competitive sport?) that birthdays and other events no longer mean there’s just a roll of non-Christmas paper to add to the supplies. Now, is seems like there’s a whole other set of item we have to store for birthdays, anniversaries and surprises.

Maybe that’s just me since my kid’s school sells wrapping paper for a fundraiser, and I have quite the display of “all-occasion” wrapping supplies.

Any way you look at it, all that stuff has to go somewhere, and for those of us without a “wrapping room” in the house that means paper, bows and other supplies go in some sort of box.

A long time ago, I splurged for a “gift wrap organizer” that was actually just a long box, thinking it would solve the mess. But soon, paper rolls got longer and gift bags came along and things no longer fit neatly inside it and I ended up having an “annex” box.

I’m not really happy with my gift wrap storage solution, but I haven’t come up with anything better.

Currently, I have those 2 boxes for holiday wrapping supplies, and I keep the all-occasion supplies in the kitchen closet since we have to access them more frequently.

When the kids were younger and they were going to birthday parties all the time, I also kept a supply of gift bags, tissue paper, tags and tape in the car because I confess to being the person who usually bought the gift on the way to the party, but I really don’t have to do that anymore.

Also, since the kids are old enough to get into the supplies themselves, things end up looking like this:

I’d love to be able to keep the gift wrap supplies neat, and all in the same place. Do you have a storage system or a container you like to use to organize gift wrapping supplies?

Please share in the comments below!

Displaying, recycling and saving holiday cards

Categories: Decluttering

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I love to get holiday cards in the mail. I can’t wait to see what the mail brings this time of year and I love to look at them, and I even look forward to update letters.

I’ve tried displaying them various ways over the years: decorating a doorway, clothes-pinned to a decorative cord on the stair bannister or on the mantle.

However, I’ve discovered that I like them best in a little holder I got at some Christmas party. I keep it on the kitchen table because it’s where I tend to spend a lot of time, and I like being able to get them out and look at them.

But, my biggest problem is what to do with the cards when the holidays are over.

I’d love to be the crafty person to recycle them and make something cute, but I’m not.

But, if you are that person, here’s a few ideas to recycle old Christmas cards:

1. Cut the backs off, and use the fronts to make a Christmas collage (fun activity for kids), or decoupage a tray, a small box or a frame.

2. Use the backs for scrap paper or to make lists, etc.

3. Make gift tags for next year with a hole punch and some ribbon.

Or, you could cut the backs off and donate the fronts to a preschool, kindergarten or library for crafts.

Additionally, St. Jude’s Ranch for Children has a Recycled Card Program. The children at St. Jude Ranch make new cards from them to sell.

But, my dilemma is what to do with the pretty photo cards people send. I have the worst time throwing away pictures, and for years I’ve stored photo cards in a cigar box (remember those?) and it’s getting full. I know it’s clutter, and I need to go through it and pick out the special ones, but I can’t seem to do it.

Any suggestions how to declutter or save photo holiday cards?

Dinner idea: baked spaghetti

Categories: Cooking, Food, recipes

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Like many households with kids, we eat a fair amount of pasta. Even though it’s not always imaginative, it’s easy to get spaghetti on the table after a long day at work.

Baked spaghetti (sometimes called “spaghetti pie”) is a change of pace. It’s easy to make a big pan to last a couple of days. It’s been particularly handy to have around this week as we rush around before exams and the holidays:

Baked Spaghetti

1 (16 ounce) package spaghetti
1 pound ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped
2 (26 ounce) jars of spaghetti sauce
1/2 teaspoon seasoned salt
2 eggs
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
5 tablespoons melted butter
2 cups small curd cottage cheese (or ricotta, I sometimes mix both)
4 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

Directions:

Cook spaghetti according to package directions. Meanwhile, cook beef and onion over medium heat until the meat is done; drain.

Make sure Santa Claus approves:

Stir in the spaghetti sauce and seasoned salt; set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, Parmesan cheese and butter. Drain spaghetti; add to egg mixture and toss to coat.

Place half of the spaghetti in a greased 13-in. x 9-in. x 2-in. baking dish. Top with half of the cottage or ricotta cheese, meat sauce and mozzarella cheese. Repeat layers.

Cover and bake at 350 degrees F for 40 minutes. Uncover; bake 20-25 minutes longer or until cheese is melted.

Ignore the fact that someone came along and cranked up the oven too high for some reason and the top got a little too dark, but it was still tasty!

Things to keep in your suitcase

Categories: Tips and Tricks

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The holidays are upon us, and for many of us it means travel.

I travel a moderate amount for holidays and various things, and I’m notorious for waiting until the last minute to pack, which sometimes results in forgetting things I need. Like, oh say…shoes. (Yes, that happened, and I became “that woman who always wears boots” one weekend.)

I’m not really a procrastinator, and I’m not usually scatterbrained, it’s just that I usually try to wait to pack when the kids aren’t around so I can concentrate on what I’m doing, and I may or may not run out of time, and that may or may not result in arriving without things I use.

Over the years, I’ve developed my own little packing routine, and part of it includes maintaining some items that are permanent residents of my suitcase. I have other things I stock in my make-up bag such as band-aids, safety pins, etc., but these are some non-toiletry items that stay in my bag:

iPhone dock/speakers - I have a iPhone dock that folds flat, and I keep it in my suitcase at all times. It’s handy for listening to music, watching movies as well as for the white noise app I use to help me sleep in a hotel room.

Power strip - this has been invaluable for many things. I’ve used it at conferences and in the hotel room where outlets are scarce when you you have women rooming together. However, I most frequently use it on the night stand in a hotel room because there never seems to be an outlet in a convenient place for keeping your phone or computer near you.

Extra cables/cords - I keep a small make-up bag with spare cords/chargers for electronics. We’ve always got extra phone cords, camera cords, etc. and I keep them there for the times I forget (or the kids have stolen) my regular ones.

Trash bags - I keep 2-3 tall kitchen can liners in the inside pocket that I use mostly for bagging dirty clothes, but they also make a good raincoat in a pinch. I keep a stash in there because that’s one of the items I tend to forget when packing, and it drives me crazy not to have a place to put dirty clothes.

Do you have any hints to make travel easier? What are your must-haves when you go out of town?

Dinner idea: hamburger steak

Categories: Cooking, recipes

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Ground beef is on the dinner rotation here, mainly because I’m raising carnivores. However, it’s also because it’s kind of my default mode if I haven’t really planned anything for dinner and I’ve just walked in from work where these kids are expecting dinner again (even though they just had dinner last night…sheesh).

Please note, I don’t serve it every night or anything, but if you’re me, there’s only so many things in your ground beef repertoire, and it can get a little boring.

It may be a southern thing, but hamburger steak is a variation on the hamburger and some form of tomato sauce theme. Now, I know it’s not really steak, but ground beef and gravy, it’s just something a little different, and you know it beats turkey leftovers right now.

My mother-in-law makes it, and it’s really good. I can’t quite figure out how she does it, but I’ve tried, using a conglomeration of various recipes from around the Internet.

I made it this way the other night:

Hamburger Steak

1 pound lean ground beef
1 egg
1/4 cup bread crumbs
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon seasoned salt
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon (or more, if you love it like I do) Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup chopped onion (I use the frozen chopped onions, I wish I had invented that.)
2 tablespoons flour
1 can of french onion soup (I didn’t have any plain beef broth, but this was good.)
1 tablespoon red cooking wine

Directions:

- In a large bowl, combine the first 7 ingredients, divide into 6-8 patties
- Get an assistant (A hamburger helper? Sorry…) and fry the patties and onions until they are done:

- Drain and remove from skillet
- Gradually add the flour until and mix with drippings already in the skillet
- Add the beef broth (or, french onion soup in my case), wine and seasoned salt.
- Simmer and stir for about 5 minutes, until the gravy thickens.
- Add the patties back to the gravy, cover, and simmer for another 15 minutes.

They turned out quite well, but I somehow forgot to take a picture of the finished product, so you’ll have to use your imagination, but I think it’s a keeper!

Do you have any new or different ideas for ground beef recipes? Lay ‘em on me.

Thinning out the cookbook collection

Categories: Cooking

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For someone who doesn’t cook a lot (I feed my family, and all but I don’t consider cooking a hobby), I sure do love cookbooks. I read them, and bookmark recipes, and I firmly believe I’m going to try them out, yet most of them remain meals unrealized. I guess I use them more for inspiration than actual cooking, but I still like them.

I use online recipe sites, too, because I’m a good digital citizen, but it’s just not the same as perusing a cookbook, and I’m not someone who believes the Internet will make them obsolete.

I used to have quite the collection of cookbooks, but it started getting a little out of hand and I needed to thin it out a bit. It was hard because most of them meant something to me as some were wedding gifts or a memento of a group or a school. Some were ones that I inherited from my grandmother and other relatives (the hazards of being an only child), while others represented a lifestyle I wanted to sample.

I culled the collection and kept two shelves (instead of many) based on the following (non-scientific, merely my whim) categories:

Cookbooks

- Ones my mother-in-law gave me (need I say more?)
- Timeless, basic cookbooks such as The Joy of Cooking (stuff I’d ask my mother if she was still alive)
- My most-used regional cookbooks (small town church ones, Southern Living Annual Recipes, etc.)
- Healthy recipes
- One holiday cookbook

I was hard to get of so many because they’d always been with me. I’d moved them from place to place, and it wasn’t until they were falling off the shelves and annexed themselves under the bed that I realized I needed to do something.

With some hesitation, I put quite a few in a yard sale, and it turned out to be so much fun to see people who really wanted them be excited to get them.

So, it’s a start, but you’ll notice I didn’t address what to do with recipes that are clipped from magazines or what to do with this box of hand-written recipe card that was my grandmother’s because I haven’t figured that out, yet!

How about you, are you a cookbook person? Is your collection vast, or do you have it pared down to only those you need?

Thanksgiving appetizer idea: pumpkin dip

Categories: Cooking, recipes

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Thanksgiving is just around the corner for those of us here in the United States, and that usually means a whole lot of cooking. But, sometimes it means just bringing something to a large family gathering and choosing just the right dish for the occasion.

Or, if you’re like me, you are expected to bring something to a large family gathering where various matriarchs try to outdo each other with their Thanksgiving specialties. My assignment is usually, “Oh, anything”, so I bring some sort of appetizer since there’s always enough main course food to feed a city or three.

Sometimes, I bring pumpkin dip because I love it so, and because everything else you could imagine is already taken.

Pumpkin Dip

2 c. powdered sugar, sifted (sifted is import since this dip can get a little lumpy, sometimes I use a little less as this dip is pretty sweet)
2 8 oz. packages of cream cheese
15 oz. pumpkin (I have made with pumpkin pie filling, too)
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ginger

Cream together sugar and cream cheese:

Add remaining ingredients. Blend well.

Store in refrigerator in airtight container.

This isn’t something you can eat a lot of, and the recipe makes a lot, so if you have a small gathering, you might want to cut the recipe in half.

You can serve it with graham crackers, vanilla wafers, apples or whatever sounds good to you, but my favorite way to serve it is with ginger snaps. I use the fancy thin ones you can find in the deli area or with the other fancy cookies because I am all fancy like that:

Even though it’s sweet, pumpkin dip makes an interesting appetizer and it’s often the topic of conversation because it’s not usual potluck fare.

OK, some people are scared of it because it sounds “weird”. That does not compute with me, they should just eat it, it’s great!

What are your cooking responsibilities over the holidays? Do you have an unusual dish you make?

Tell us!

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