What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

14241461_1528337867192379_4559129092582322024_o

In honor of the 100th anniversary of our National Park Service, my husband and I decided to rent an RV and take our three dogs on a road trip to Yellowstone, stopping at several sites along the way. Needless to say, there was never a dull moment. However, despite all the craziness inherent in first-time RV travel, I had many personal epiphanies, as I ventured into the “wilderness” (we stayed at campgrounds, omg!) and I thought I would share some of my insights with you.

Here are just a few:

Go Naked. Well, not literally.  As the saying goes, “the ability to accessorize is what separates us from animals.”  To me, going naked means wearing no make-up, jewelry, or cute shoes. Okay, I admit, I couldn’t go cold turkey. I did use mascara and lip gloss. But that was HUGE for me. Even stranger still, I wore no jewelry. My ears went completely unadorned for 9 days. I had no watch. My watch is as ubiquitous to me as Wonder Woman’s gold cuffs are to her. I FEEL naked without it. I applaud all of you lovely ladies au natural, who face each day fresh-faced and free of bangles and baubles. I wish I were one of you. Who knows, maybe there’s hope for me yet. I’m a firm believer in the theory that it’s NEVER too late to change.

14242495_1529949567031209_4969906897525042729_o

Tune Out Social Media. It’s a blessing in disguise, for die-hards such as me if I can’t get service at my destination. Facebook is a hard habit to break. I not only work in social media, but I’m a devoted Instagrammer personally. It killed me not to be able to post photos of all the beautiful, interesting things I saw. But guess what? I not only survived, I truly lived in the moment.

14257513_1529970270362472_4214378069929568382_o

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

Stay Active or Atrophy. As I climbed the wooden steps to the top of Mammoth Springs, I literally fell over when I stopped to tie my shoe. I got dizzy looking at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I was winded and my heart pounded as I climbed the slightest incline. I absolutely swear, an older lady with an oxygen tank kept pace with me on the path to Devil’s Tower. No lie. This was a huge eye-opener for me that sitting at a desk all day, gardening on the weekends, and walking my dogs every night were not going to cut it as I age. Now that I’m home, I need to develop a serious exercise regimen that pushes me harder.

14305212_1529917060367793_2668411769527494990_o

Sacred Smoke Sculpture at Devil’s Tower

Take Notes. I have kept a journal almost every day since the first grade, when I learned to write. But on vacations, much to my horror, I get home and find blank pages where all the interesting people, places and adventures should be. It’s the little, odd, unexpected things that spontaneously happen to you on vacation, that really make the trip. So take a notebook. A simple wide-lined, spiral-bound will do. I kept mine handy so any time I had a spare moment I would jot down a couple of key phrases, just enough to jog my memory once the trip was over. It also came in handy to take notes from our vet back home when one of my dogs had an emergency, and to keep track of how much we spent on gas. I’m not an artist by any means, but I doodled a sketch of the creek beside one of our campgrounds, and as primitive as it is, the drawing is at least representative of what I wanted to capture.  So now I can go back and reconstruct my trip with the small details that mattered and fill in those blank pages. Those are the memories that take you back to a specific time, and risk being crowded out by day-to-day minutiae.

14352350_1529913713701461_5621332004568560944_o

The kayak trip…I’m the little yellow dot on the far shore

Spend Time Alone. Explore. Be still. Reflect. Be grateful. Notice the little things. Despite this being an anniversary trip, with apologies to my husband, some of my best memories of this trip were when I ventured off alone. I’d sneak in an hour or so each day to walk through the woods alone to a creek. Or I’d use walking one of the dogs as an excuse to venture down to the beach to watch the sunset over the water. My favorite alone time was renting a kayak early one morning on Jackson Lake, before the wind kicked up. I had the whole lake to myself. The water was perfectly still, and there, spread out in front of me, was not only the majesty of the Grand Tetons themselves, but a mirror reflection of them on the water. It was breathtaking and awe-inspiring. I felt reverence. I know that this moment of calm was something I will carry with me and pull out when the stress of everyday life begins to wear me down.

14305395_1529660980393401_3824590971817420514_o

Contemplating life at Jackson Lake, The Grand Tetons

Finally, as author Susan Jeffers famously said, “Feel the fear, but do it anyway.” I don’t climb around on mountain boulders, ranging in age from 250 to 600 million years, every day. Or ever, in fact. Nor do I get the chance to venture off into the woods (bear spray in hand) exploring, searching for the source of the rushing water sounds, when I’m comfortable in my suburban home. But vacation is the time when you can be whomever you want to be. Do the things your home self, your 9-to-5 self, your mom self would NEVER do. Be bold and wander.

14333795_1528271730532326_5367176723865229142_n

Smart Perks blogger, Melanie Bisson, gets up close and personal with the wildlife.

 

Turn Up the Heat, It’s Chili Season!

Chili is the perfect fall dish. Think about it. Few foods are more satisfying on a cool, crisp evening than a hearty bowl of chili. Serve this savory stew on game day and you’re sure to score a lot of points with hungry football fans. And, because it’s so versatile (have you seen all the different chili recipes online?), it appeals to any appetite.

Some like their chili muy caliente (very hot) with loads of sweat-inducing peppers that set our tongues ablaze, while others prefer a milder version, with just a dash of cumin and cayenne. In Texas they leave out the beans (it’s called “Bowl ’o Red”), and in Ohio they serve it over pasta (aka Cincinnati Chili). So, how you make and take your chili seems to be a matter of taste, tradition, and location.

Every October we have a Chili Cook-Off at work. Resident “chefs” bring in slow cookers filled with their homemade creations, and by noon people are lined up with bowls in hand, eager to treat their palates to a range of flavorful and fiery concoctions.  My taste buds are tingling already!

Since we tend to consume a lot of chili this time of year – at football parties, potlucks, everyday meals, AND cook-offs – I thought I’d share a few recipes, including some award winners! Note: if you can’t take the heat, just tweak the recipe a bit or go with one that’s a little less zingy.

white-chicken-chili

The 1st place winner in our last chili cook-off. One taste and you’ll know why!

Southwest White Chicken Chili   
This is my absolute favorite chicken chili recipe and it’s gluten-free!
Ingredients:
3-4 chicken breasts, cooked and shredded
2 (14.5 oz.) cans black beans, rinsed
2 (14.5 oz.) cans sweet corn, one drained & one with liquid
2 cans diced tomatoes with green chilies
2 pkgs. dry ranch dressing mix
2 (8 oz.) pkgs. cream cheese
2 tsp. chili powder
2 tsp. onion powder
2 tsp. cumin
1(14.5 oz.) can of chicken broth (optional)

Directions:
1) Place cooked, shredded chicken in the bottom of a slow cooker.
2) Pour the beans, corn, and tomatoes over the chicken. Mix in the ranch mix and spices. NOTE: This is a thick chili. If you are concerned with the thickness, you can add chicken broth to thin it down some. It won’t change the flavor much, just the consistency.
3) Lay the cream cheese on top of the chicken, beans, and corn.
4) Cover and cook on low for 6-8 hours.
5) When done cooking, stir in the cream cheese.
Serves 6-8. Recipe courtesy of glutenfreemakeover.wordpress.com. Photo: dennyssupervalu.com

Chili Corn Carne - traditional mexican food, in wooden bowl,

This recipe is loaded with extra-hot peppers, so it definitely has some kick to it!

Matschina’s Ghost Chili
If you like it hot, I mean really hot, this one’s for you!
Tip: Keep dairy products (e.g., ice cream or milk) on hand to tone down the heat from the peppers. Wear gloves when cutting chili peppers.
Ingredients:
7 ghost peppers, julienned
5 habanero peppers, julienned
5 jalapeño peppers, julienned
1 yellow bell pepper, julienned
2 medium white onions, chopped
7 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. spicy Italian sausage
3/4 lb. applewood smoked bacon
3-4 (28 oz.) cans of San Marzano tomatoes
Vegetable oil
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. cayenne pepper (or to taste)
1 tsp. smoked paprika
1 tsp. dried oregano
Salt & pepper, to taste
All-purpose flour (optional)

Directions:
1. Using a sauté pan, heat oil to medium heat and add garlic. Simmer garlic for one minute; add peppers and onions and sauté until onions are translucent and peppers are heated yet crisp (not soggy). Place in cooking pot (without heat).
2. In another pan, brown sausage, adding salt and pepper to both. Drain grease.  Add to cooking pot.
3. Cook bacon. Drain grease. Chop. Add to cooking pot.
4. Add tomatoes straight from the can to cooking pot. Break up tomatoes with cooking spoon into bite-size pieces, but not so much that you have created a sauce.  Add up to all 4 cans to cooking pot, depending on your desired consistency.
5. Add all spices to taste, using a smaller amount of oregano than the first three on the list and then salt and pepper to taste.
6. Simmer everything in cooking pot on low-medium heat for 3-4 hours to allow flavors to come together.
7. Serve with flour tortillas, cheese, onions, sour cream, and chives.

debdoozles-chili

Simple to make and full of flavor – no wonder it got 5 stars on allrecipes.com!

Debdoozie’s Blue Ribbon Chili
This is one of the easiest and tastiest chili recipes out there!
Ingredients:
2 lbs. ground beef
1/2 onion, chopped
1 tsp. ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. garlic salt
2 1/2 cups tomato sauce
1 (8 oz.) jar salsa (mild, medium. or hot, depending on your taste)
1 pkg. chili seasoning mix
1 (15 oz.) can light red kidney beans
1 (15 oz.) can dark red kidney beans

Directions: In a large Dutch oven over medium heat, combine ground beef and onion; sauté for 10 minutes or until meat is browned and onion is tender. Drain grease. Add black pepper, garlic salt, tomato sauce, salsa, chili seasoning mix, and kidney beans. Mix well, reduce heat to low and simmer for at least one hour. Serves 8.
Recipe and photo from allrecipes.com.

For True Texas Chili, try this recipe from epicurious.com.

Skyline Chili 3-way
Wondering how chili tastes with spaghetti? Here’s a recipe for Cincinnati “Skyline” Chili from americanfoodroots.com.

Go meatless with this Contest-Winning Vegetarian Chili from Taste of Home.

Now that I’ve enticed you with all these amazing recipes, it’s time to indulge your chili cravings!

Find more great comfort food recipes on our Smart Perks Pinterest Board!

Smart Perks blogger Catherine B. likes to get out and enjoy the fall weather, but when winter comes she’d rather hibernate.

7 Essential Tips to Stay Sane Through Your Move

Moving can be a time of stress
Moving sucks. It always has and it always will. No matter how excited you are about your new place, no matter how many times you’ve done it before, it’s a huge transition and a massive hassle. And despite the benefits that come with living alone, it can be even tougher when you’re moving into a little one-bedroom apartment.

I’m still getting settled into my first one-bedroom, almost a month after my move-in date, and through the experience, I’ve developed a few guidelines – precepts, if you will – that have made the process smoother. I’d assert they’re still good tips for people moving into houses and people moving with roommates or families, too, so let’s just get started, shall we?

1. Get Preemptive
Before your move, nail down utilities and internet. This is tough to do when you’re hard at work packing up your things and getting your old place ready for inspection, but it makes a meaningful difference in helping the transition. I spent my first three nights in my humid, 85-degree apartment because I’d overlooked the fact that tenants supplied their own A/C units. Likewise, my first week was one without internet, simply because I figured I’d take care of it after the move (ignoring how important contact to the outside world would be immediately after such a transition). In both cases, I had only myself to blame.

Secure payment by mobile. Smart phone on a wooden desk at the of2. Get Paperless
Receiving your first bills for these utilities is a good reminder to set up online bill payment. It reduces clutter in your home, allows you to ditch stamps and constant check-writing, and benefits the environment, too. These systems are designed for every kind of consumer, so they’re extremely straightforward to set up and tend to be good at providing customer service.

3. Get Zen
Our society is endlessly preoccupied with capital-s Stuff, with wonder products that will solve all of your problems and make your life perfect. What you discover living on your own in tight quarters for the first time is that there’s hidden value in empty space as well. You COULD cram in a bed, couch, dining room table, entertainment center, and a pool table into your little one-bedroom apartment, but at what cost to your mental health? We’re setting up an apartment here, not a storage locker. Value that space!

4. Get Ruthless
You own your possessions; don’t let them own you. Ask yourself, “Does this actively serve my needs in my current set-up?  Do I have a way to store it for free until my set-up changes?” Don’t be afraid to cut loose. If you’ve got parents or relatives who are also upgrading or downsizing, chances are they’ve tried to get you to take things they no longer have room for. This is well-meaning, but it can also be an emotional easy way out for them (“Maybe Grant will want this 18-year-old TV, let’s not throw it out just yet”). Between the glasses I’d bought for a college apartment, glassware from grandparents, and glassware from parents, I ended up accidentally moving 38 pieces of glassware into my one-bedroom apartment. Just, no. Find a charity you like and get well-acquainted.

bathroom-shelf

Turn wasted space into productive space that reflects thought and care.


5. Get Creative

Apartments are measured in square feet, but they exist in cubic feet. Don’t forget this. Do yourself a favor and entertain the idea of little organizer/storage doo-dads. Coat hooks that hang over the door, slide-out drawers that sit on the tile under the bathroom sink, pull-out shoe containers that sit under the bed…these things become vital. If you’re looking to buy a shelf, get a tall one. Utilizing your high spaces frees up floor space, and that frees up your mind space. Check out the Over-the-Toilet Cabinet from Wayfair above.

quintladdershelvingunit

6. Get Ready (To Spend)
This one’s easy to say when it’s somebody else’s money, but it’s good advice nonetheless. This place is your home for the foreseeable future, and you own all its contents. Buy quality stuff that’s built to last. Skip past the dorm-room aesthetic. Think metals and woods, rather than plastics. Get a bed frame with a headboard. Obviously don’t put yourself in undue financial distress, but within reason, expect furnishing a new place to take a chunk out of your paycheck for a while. This Leaning Bookshelf from Wayfair is sturdy, portable, tasteful, and affordable!

7. Get Patient
Your move-in day has come and gone. All of your stuff is in the new place. The hard part is over, but you’re far from done. A month later, you’re still not quite done. That’s okay. You might not realize a half-dozen things you need until you’ve actually moved, and that’s fine. Get a list going to keep track of short-term needs versus long-term needs, big pieces versus small pieces. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so don’t expect that of your little personal empire, either. Steady, incremental progress is the way forward.

happy man lying carpet or rug at home

Remember, it’ll all come together in the end. Take it one step at a time and savor the possibilities!

 

That’s all the wisdom I’ve got to drop today, so take it and go! Be free! Be domestically ambitious! With a little work and pride in your space, you’ll be amazed at how much brighter all facets of life can be.

Smart Perks blogger Grant A. likes rainy mornings, fresh fruit, and the mental image of a T-Rex skateboarding.

Irises: A Beginner’s Guide for Late Summer Planting

unnamed

“Irises” by Vincent van Gogh, which sold for $53 million at auction

Come late summer, a gardener’s thoughts immediately turn to spring. Most likely, planting tulips or daffodil bulbs come to mind, two of my favorite flowers. However, a good friend of mine, Traci, recently moved to the area. She bought a new house and had a blank slate as far as planning her garden is concerned. She planted the idea of new iris beds for us both. And an obsession was born!

As good friends do, we fed off each others’ enthusiasm for a new undertaking. Now that both of our gardens are in, and you still have time this year to plant one of your own, I thought I’d share some of our learnings with you.

iris1A1

First, a bit of iris history. The iris, famously used by the French Kings, including Louis XIV, as a symbol of power and position, was adapted as the Fleur de Lys and is now a symbol of the great state of Louisiana. Before World War II, most new iris hybrids came from Europe. But since that time they have become an American passion, and can be enjoyed in all their regal splendor, standing tall in late spring, alongside the poppies and peonies.

Although people often refer to planting iris “bulbs”, the bulbs are actually called rhizomes. The rhizome is planted right at ground level, the tops just visible, and its adventitious roots make it possible for many plants to propagate from the stem. While the rhizome grows horizontally, it rises into a beautiful fan of sword-like leaves with showy, spectacular flowers in a rainbow of colors.

14107616_1507777192581780_8231629248261300294_o

The healthy roots of an iris rhizome

I’ve compiled a couple of “Iris Newby” tips that my friend and I have learned, that hopefully will be helpful to you, too.

Where to Find Your Rhizomes. Don’t let the cost of irises deter you from starting a bed of your own. One of the best features of these hardy perennials is how quickly and abundantly they reproduce. Iris typically have to be divided every four years. So you can most likely find some neighbors, friends, family or coworkers who would be delighted to share some of their bounty with you. Gardeners are by nature eager to share knowledge and the fruits of their labor.

14059983_1469529756406364_416118174_o

An elderly neighbor of Traci’s, who could no longer garden, generously offered her as many irises as she’d like. This is what Traci ended up with, and she shared with me.

Another fantastic and inexpensive method of procuring your precious rhizomes is to find the local chapter of the Iris Society, through an arboretum, or horticulture department at a local university. Traci and I attended the annual sale of the Iris Society of Minnesota and found award-winning irises at a fraction of the price, that we knew would do well in Minnesota’s unique climate. We were also able to benefit from the experience of Master Growers, such as this lovely gentleman, who was more than happy to help a couple of beginning iris enthusiasts out.

Finally, there are many sources for high quality, distinguished irises online. Perhaps the most venerated is Schreiner’s Iris Gardens. While a peek at the 2016 edition of their Iris Lover’s catalog features resplendent Irises for $50-$60 a bulb, I shopped their summer sale and purchased several for under $10 a piece. Plus, they will throw in a bonus Iris, if you meet certain thresholds.

14107676_1507777189248447_8738025101718326022_o

Once we had all of our iris selected in the colors we favored, (both of us love the purples and blues. I also like the pinks, and yellows. Traci hates yellows and goes for some of the deep reds), it was time to prepare the beds. Irises will ship in July, August and September. They should be planted in late summer, earlier than tulips or daffodils, because they need time for the roots to get established, prior to the temps falling below 40 degrees.

Choosing a site. You’ll want to select a site where you’re going to get full sun for at least 6 hours a day. Choose a spot that doesn’t get standing water. Remember irises don’t like wet feet. You’ll need to amend the soil if you have heavy clay soil. Most importantly, choose a spot where you will be able to see and enjoy them in bloom, and hopefully, passersby will be able to enjoy them, too.

Preparing the Bed. Again, Iris do not like wet feet. You’ll need well-drained soil. Like most perennials, Iris prefer neutral to slightly acidic soil. You’ll want to use fluffy compost or aged manure, and light black dirt.

2 Final

We cleared a site, where a previous home owner had planted iris over two decades ago. The soil was compacted under gravel, so we uncovered down to the clay, turned it over, and added aged, composted manure and light, fluffy black dirt.

2A Final

Next, I set out all my bulbs, according to color and size. All of mine are Tall Bearded Iris, so mine were arranged by color scheme. You’ll want to plant them 1-2 feet apart. The closer together they are planted, the sooner you will have to divide them.

3 Final

Finally they were planted, so that the rhizomes were just visible above the soil or had a very light covering, with the roots fanned out to the sides, pointing down.

Finally, I created a map of what I’d planted and where. Anyone who has ever planted a perennial garden will attest to the fact that markers tend to mysteriously migrate, or disappear, and you end up not knowing what is where until it blooms.

Traci found some darling garden markers on Pinterest that she made for both of us, using beads from the craft store. I’m sure I have the nicest garden markers on my block. But plastic markers and a Sharpie will work as well.

While I love all four seasons in Minnesota, I can hardly wait until next spring to enjoy the fruits of my labor, as well as to share with my friend yet another mutual passion that sustains our friendship. For more information on growing irises, I encourage you to check out the American Iris Society.

 

Smart Perks Blogger, Melanie Bisson enjoys getting dirt under her nails as much as a good manicure afterwards.

 

 

Hey Ladies: Fantasy Football is Good for You

Fantasy Football Letterpress

I did it! I did it! I got the number one pick in my Fantasy Football draft. Big thanks to my personal Holy Ghost of the gridiron…Vince Lombardi, who I know is watching over me. This is going to be my year.

Clearly this is a sign the tide is turning in my favor, as I haven’t finished in the top three in the past three years. You’d think I might be dejected after three years without winning, right? Or perhaps, when I tell you I’m a Vikings fan, you think, “Ahhhhh, she’s used to losing.” But no, I am not dejected.

Even if I haven’t had a winning season in 5 years, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the 2016 Fantasy Football draft night since the final seconds ticked off the clock in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl last February.

Group of happy young people

I am an unabashed Fantasy Football diehard. According to Forbes magazine, I’m one of 6.4 million American women who are glued to screens, — television, mobile or otherwise, each game day, monitoring scores from around the NFL. That’s right. One third of Fantasy Football managers are women. It’s not a man’s game anymore, baby.

And no, we’re not letting our husbands and boyfriends manage our teams. I put someone in a headlock for insinuating that once. Kidding. Sort of. And we’re not choosing players by cutest mascot or tight end.

We do the homework. We “break down tapes,” as they say. I’ll admit, before I started playing Fantasy, I was a hometown team fan, and that’s about as far as my love for the game went. I knew the basics of football, but I had no idea what a tight-end was, where the redzone was, or which running back had the most yards-per-carry.

But with Fantasy Football you not only gain knowledge of the game you never in a million years imagined you’d care about, but you can name every Quarterback in the league, the best defense, the Wide Receiver with the most receptions, and the number of yards the leading Running Back ran for.

If you love analytics, there is no better hobby for you. You’ll suddenly find yourself listening to SportsCenter on Sunday Morning, watching NFL GameDay, or tuning in 15 minutes before game time to find out who is active or on the injured reserve.

There is the maddening, nail-biting anticipation of a Monday night game, when winning or losing comes down to the 4th quarter, and three extra points by your kicker stand between you and first place in your league. The only time I stay up past my bedtime on a weeknight? Guaranteed, it’s for Monday Night Football.

Gold Guy Fantasy Football Player

So why are more women drawn to the allure of Fantasy Football each year? Well, assuming they don’t have a huge passion for the game to begin with, women love it for a lot of the same reasons men do, including:

Connecting with friends, family, coworkers, neighbors – My dad and I talk now more than ever. He plays in 3 leagues. I like to go to him to discuss strategy, proposed player trades, line-up and bye week options.  However, I learned early on: don’t ever take anyone else’s advice. You’ll have no excuses and resentment if the advice doesn’t pan out, and you’ll get all the glory for yourself if you make the decision on your own.

I play in several leagues. One is a “girls-only” league with my friends from Facebook, who live all over the country. It’s a great way for us to keep in touch on a regular basis throughout the season, and we share a lot of laughs…from team names to the most ridiculously frilly, frou-frou traveling trophy in the history of football (if Martha Stewart designed trophies, this would be it).

Social Ritual and Tradition – Every year a group of my coworkers, from all departments, IT, Finance, Customer Service and Marketing, get together after work for some appetizers, adult beverages and our Fantasy draft. People who never meet during the course of business hours have become friends over  the years. There’s more cooperation, camaraderie, and morale boost through the friendly competition. We also have a jersey day and chili cook-off during the season, and, of course, we give each other a little good-spirited ribbing during the offseason.

13935017_1502717683087731_8058015751851730047_n

It’s Good for You – Everybody knows about the psychology of winning right? There’s the adrenaline rush. The self-confidence boost. Fantasy Football is good for your health. It’s science. Don’t believe me? Read for yourself, from the author of Sports Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators.

Bragging Rights, Trophies, Cold, Hard Cash  –  Or, humiliation of opponents in extreme cases, like the guy in the news a few years back who was the big loser in his league and had to get a tattoo of his most hated team’s logo. Talk about a diehard.

So ladies, this is your year. Beginners luck is REAL. Trust me. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes on more than one occasion. Give it a go. It’s good for you!

To form a league of your own, check out Yahoo Fantasy Football…it’s my favorite.

Smart Perks Blogger, Melanie Bisson, doesn’t feel it’s appropriate to reveal her team’s name in this forum.

Pack Healthy School Lunches Your Kids Will Eat

Final Main ImageIt’s that time of year again when kids are gearing up for school or are already settling into their classrooms (do I hear a collective sigh of relief?). If you have children in grade school, you may be wondering what to do about their midday meals, specifically whether you should pack their lunches or trust they’ll eat whatever the cafeteria dishes out.

Let me just say if your little darlings are finicky eaters, they’re probably better off bringing their lunches from home. The trick is to make them appealing and nutritious at the same time. I know, easier said than done, right?

Well, good thing I have some ideas for tasty and healthy meals, as well as fun and functional ways to tote food & beverages to school!

Say Goodbye to Boring Bag Lunches

Back in the day, if you weren’t lucky enough to own one of those groovy tin boxes with your favorite TV characters, you had to carry your lunch in a flimsy, worn-out brown paper bag that was barely big enough to hold a sandwich and an apple.

These days you’ll find an awesome assortment of durable, roomy and cool-looking lunch bags, boxes and containers, many at discounted prices during back-to-school sales. Here’s a sample:

Insulated Lunch Bags. These lightweight bags come in so many patterns and styles – from cartoon characters and action heroes to cute critters and bright geometric designs – you’re sure to find something to suit any age and taste. Find fabulous lunch bags. like the one below, at Amazon.com!

Zootopia_DIY_LunchBox
DIY Lunch Box.
Pick up a plain tin lunch box, like the one above from Oriental Trading, and let your child decorate it his or her own way with glitter, markers, magnets, stickers… you name it!

20160816_153501
Rubbermaid LunchBlox®.
  This Bento-style kit includes 3 colorful containers with leak-proof lids to help you organize and store snacks, fruit, veggies, dips and sandwiches, plus a Blue Ice® pack to keep food chilled and fresh. Everything snaps together to fit inside tall or flat lunch bags. See the complete LunchBlox line at Rubbermaid.com.

Best Bets for Beverages and BrothsContigo water bottles

Contigo AUTOSEAL® Gizmo Kids Water Bottle. The BPA-free reusable water bottle is leak- and spill-proof and has an easy-clean transparent lid. Go to reuseit.com for all kinds of clever water bottles for kids!

 

Crayola® Juice Box Holder. No more crying over spilled juice! Just place the juice box in this sturdy, squeeze-proof plastic container and the juice stays put! Get one now for only $3.99!

food jarninji turtles food jar
THERMOS Brand FUNtainer Food Jar.

The compact, double-wall stainless steel container holds up to 10 ounces and keeps food hot or cold for hours. Choose from a variety of FUNtainers at Target.com.

Kid-friendly (and mother-approved) menu ideas:
* Pita-bread pizzas — If they like pizza, they’ll devour these! Take pita rounds (without the pockets) and top them with pizza sauce from a jar, pepperoni and grated mozzarella. Bake in a toaster oven and wrap them in foil to stay warm.
* Sandwiches in fun shapes — Use crust or cookie cutters to turn ordinary sandwiches into something “magical” like butterflies, hearts or dinosaurs! Get a 5-Pack of Sandwich Crust Cutters at Amazon.com
* Pinwheels — Spread cream cheese on a flour tortilla, cover it with deli ham or turkey, shredded cheese and lettuce, roll it up and slice into bite-size pieces.
* Kabobs — Take wooden skewers and lace them with chunks of ham or turkey, cheese and fresh fruit like pineapple or apple.
* Mini pot pies — make these ahead of time, heat ’em up and wrap in foil to keep them warm. Here’s an easy pot pie recipe from Betty Crocker.
* Pasta — Most kids like mac & cheese, spaghetti & meatballs and ravioli. Needless to say, homemade is better than the pre-made kind you pop in the microwave. Try these delicious, kid-tested pasta recipes from allrecipes.com.
* Vegetable alphabet soup — Heat it up in the a.m., put it in a thermos and it’ll still be “mmm, mmm good” at lunchtime.
* Ants-on-a-Log — A good-tasting, good-for-you snack that’s fun to make and eat! Just spread peanut butter on stalks of celery and sprinkle with raisins.
* Veggies & dip — A great way to get youngsters to eat their vegetables! Fill a container with baby carrots and include hummus or ranch dressing for dipping.
* Yogurt — Click here to find the best yogurts for kids.
* Something to drink — low-fat milk and ice water are the best choices for beverages. Juice boxes are good, too, as long as they’re low in sugar. Sodas are a no-no, of course. Even diet soft drinks have been proven to be unhealthy.
* Include some fresh fruit (grapes, berries, an apple or pear), string cheese, crackers, maybe a granola bar or cookies (from scratch) for dessert, and they’re good to go!

Visit our Kid Stuff Pinterest board for more school lunch ideas!

Smart Perks blogger Catherine B. tried brown-bagging her lunch once in first grade but gave it up after the paper bag ripped and she lost half her meal on the sidewalk.

4 Deliciously Different Things to Do with Zucchini

If you have an overabundance of zucchini in your garden, you’re probably thinking “what the heck am I going to do with it all?” Yeah, I’ve been there and I know from experience that if you don’t pick them soon enough, your zucchini will turn into overripe, torpedo-size gourds!

Sure, we joke about leaving bags of the green stuff on neighbors’ doorsteps and using giant zucchini as door stops, but the truth is there are so many wonderful ways to prepare summer squash, you’ll wish you had more!

Let’s start with these amazing recipes!

zucchini shrimp scampi

This savory shrimp scampi uses spiralized zucchini in place of pasta and has only 214.3 calories per serving! 

Zucchini Shrimp Scampi (Serves 4)
Ingredients:
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 lb. medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes, or more, to taste
1/4 cup chicken stock
Juice of 1 lemon
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1-1/2 lbs. (4 medium-size) zucchini, spiralized
2 tbsp. freshly grated Parmesan
2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley flakes

Directions: Melt butter in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add shrimp, garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring occasionally, until pink, about 2-3 minutes. Stir in chicken stock and lemon juice, season with salt & pepper. Bring to simmer. Stir in zucchini noodles until well combined, about 1-2 minutes. Serve immediately, garnished with Parmesan and parsley, if desired.
Recipe and photo courtesy of Damn Delicious.

Watch this video on how to spiralize zucchini.
Don’t have a spiralizer? Shop for one now at Amazon.com.

20160807_150344

Try this good-tasting, good-for-you snack with your favorite dip!

Baked Parmesan Zucchini Crisps   
Ingredients:
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups Panko breadcrumbs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 zucchinis, thinly sliced to about 1/4 inch-thick rounds
3 large eggs, beaten
1 tsp. dried oregano
Salt & pepper
Directions:
1. Lay out paper towels and place zucchini slices on the paper towels. Sprinkle zucchini with salt on both sides. Cover zucchini slices with more paper towels and press down. Leave for 20 minutes. Paper towels should be wet and zucchini slices fairly dry.
2. Preheat oven to 400° F. Line large baking sheet with parchment paper.
3. In a shallow plate, combine Panko breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, oregano, salt & pepper; set aside.
4. In a 2nd shallow plate, add flour seasoned with salt & pepper.
5. In a 3rd plate, beat eggs with salt & pepper.
6. Dredge zucchini slices in flour, dip into eggs then dredge in Panko mixture, pressing to coat.
7. Place zucchini slices on prepared baking sheet. Repeat until all zucchini rounds are done. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, or until zucchini rounds are golden and crispy. Serve with your favorite dip.  (We like it with ranch dressing.)
Recipe from jocooks.com.

20160808_165612

This yummy zucchini quiche is easy to make and there’s bacon in it… need I say more?

Zucchini Bacon Quiche (Serves 6-8)
Ingredients:
1 tube (8 oz.) refrigerated crescent rolls
2 tsp. prepared mustard
6 bacon strips, diced
3 cups thinly sliced zucchini (about 1-1/4 lbs.)
1 medium onion, chopped
2 eggs, lightly beaten*
2 cups (8 oz.) shredded mozzarella cheese*
2 tbsp. dried parsley flakes
1/2 tsp. pepper
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. dried oregano*
1/4 tsp. dried basil*

Directions:
1. Separate crescent dough into eight triangles; place in a greased 10” pie plate with points toward the center. Press dough onto the bottom and up the sides of plate to form a crust; seal perforations. Spread with mustard.
2. In a large skillet, cook bacon over medium heat until crisp. Remove to paper towels; drain, reserving 2 tablespoons of drippings. Sauté zucchini and onion in drippings until tender. In a large bowl, combine eggs, cheese, seasonings, bacon and zucchini mixture. Pour into crust.
3. Bake at 375° for 25-30 minutes or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. Cover edges loosely with foil if pastry browns too quickly.
*I changed this Taste of Home recipe by adding an extra egg and replacing mozzarella with Colby Jack cheese and dried basil/oregano with Adobo seasoning. My husband devoured it!

Southwest Zucchini Boats

These fun zucchini boats are packed with flavor and they’re healthy, too!

Southwest Zucchini Boats (Serves 4)
Ingredients:
4 medium zucchini
1 lb. ground beef
3/4 cup salsa
1/4 cup dry bread crumbs
1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro
1 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
1 cup (4 oz.) shredded Monterey Jack cheese, divided

Directions:
1. Cut zucchini in half lengthwise; cut a thin slice from the bottom of each with a sharp knife to allow zucchini to sit flat. Scoop out pulp, leaving 1/4″ shells.
2. Place shells in an ungreased 3-qt. microwave-safe dish. Cover and microwave on high for 3 minutes or until crisp-tender; drain and set aside.
3. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, cook beef over medium heat until no longer pink; drain. Remove from heat; stir in salsa, bread crumbs, cilantro, chili powder, cumin, salt, pepper and 1/2 cup cheese. Spoon into zucchini shells.
4. Microwave, uncovered, on high for 4 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining cheese. Microwave 3-4 minutes longer or until cheese is melted and zucchini are tender. Serve with sour cream if desired.
Photo and recipe from Taste of Home.

Looking for something on the sweeter side? Check out these recipes for Chocolate Zucchini Bread and Cake from my 8/4/15 blog post.

You’ll find tons more zucchini recipes on Pinterest too!

Smart Perks blogger Catherine B. is hoping these recipes will entice her husband to eat more vegetables.