Simple Heartastic Valentine’s Crafts

ValentinesFromTheHeart

Have you ever heard the saying, “Valentine’s day is a Hallmark holiday?”

Humbug!

With winter raging outside, what could be sweeter than a day spent in the craft room, making pretty things, and reveling in all things heartastical? That’s a word, right? Well, it should be.

Some people dream of warm, sun-drenched escapes. I dream of a dining room table covered with pretty papers, colorful ribbons, rubber stamps, felted wool, and lots and lots of glitter.

There’s something incredibly decadent and rejuvenating about taking some time for yourself to go off-the-grid. Turn off the tech, and tune-out the noise. Make stuff. Make meaningful stuff, that you put a little bit of yourself into, to share with your Valentines.

Here are a few ideas to get you started.

ValentineGiftWraps

Gift wrap from Cavallini Papers. Available at http://www.papersource.com.

Gift Wrap Valentines and Garlands

I found some really fun vintage and Victorian gift wrap at a local boutique and fell in love immediately. The texture and thick stock were fabulous. Too pretty to just wrap a package and have it torn up and thrown away. These Italian wraps can be found in 20 x 28″ sheets online at Paper Source.

ValentineGiftWrapGlueSissors

The first thing I did was use glue stick, thoroughly covering the back of  the wrapping paper and applying it to large sheets of tag board or thick card stock, to make it extra durable. Smooth, smooth, smooth with your hand and then set a couple books on top to make sure the paper is firmly adhered and your card stock doesn’t curl.

After just a few minutes of dry-time, it’s time to put your preschool construction paper cutting skills to work. I find this part remarkably relaxing.

ValentineGiftWrapCards

At this point, you can finish off individual Valentines with some additional flourishes such as red or pink glitter glue, fabric or Washi tape around the edges, or use a hole punch and adorn with tulle or grosgrain ribbon.

ValentineGiftWrapGarland

I decided to make a garland, and it couldn’t have been easier. I just used a hole punch and about 4 feet of red and white baker’s twine, and voila! Now I have a darling vintage garland greeting my guests, along the length of a shelf, when they come in my front door.

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Printables from Brit & Company. Find them on the Smart Perks’ Pinterest Board.

 

Valentine’s Printables

Given my affinity for cutting and pasting, my own personal Zen, I go crazy for free printables. You can find a zillion of them on the Smart Perks Pinterest boards. Here are two projects I completed this weekend.

The first are some sweet treats, Hershey’s Miniatures candy bars, wrapped in fun 90’s pop wrappers (see above). Too cute. Love to surprise my coworkers with a little something unexpected to make them smile.

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My second Free Printable Project was inspired by fellow blogger, Super Mom. This is an awesome and hilarious idea for a non-candy related Valentine that kids with allergies can enjoy. And it won’t be forgotten any time soon.  I simply glued the printed designs onto cardstock, cut them out, and I’ll use red and white baker’s twine to affix the darling Valentine’s Whoopee Cushions that I found online at Oriental Trading to the cards. I think you might want to save these for an in-home party though. Can you imagine a classroom full of third-graders with Whoopee Cushions? OH. HECK. NO.

 

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Fun With Felt

I love felt. Needle-felting is one of my favorite hobbies. It’s extremely satisfying to take a mound of raw, dyed wool and shape it into something completely new. There are many YouTube tutorials on needle-felting. All you need is clean wool, a felting needle and a piece of felting foam. Careful, those needles are sharp. I recommend Dream Felt on Etsy for all needle-felting supplies. Their wool colors are fabulous. I used their wool roving to make the felted wool hearts and ball garland shown in the main photo.

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But if you want to do something a little simpler, you can buy sheets of regular felt at Michaels or your local craft store, along with various Valentine shades of DMC embroidery floss, and create some one-of-a-kind Valentine’s coasters with a personal touch. I used some of my favorite song titles and lyrics, such as Tainted Love, You Sexy Thing, and Love is a Battlefield, to create unique Valentines that won’t be thrown away on February 15th.

You only need to know two basic stitches to complete these simple hearts – a running stitch for the word or design, and a blanket stitch to sew the two hearts together. Just cut two heart shapes from your felt, approximately 4 inches in diameter. Stitch designs on front (and back if you want), add buttons or other embellishments. Then blanket stitch the two hearts together, design-side facing out. Easy Peasy!

Obviously I had a busy weekend, working non-stop on my crafty fun times. But with 3 weekends left until Valentine’s Day, you still have plenty of time to try one of these projects, or one of the many, many others you’ll find on our Smart Perks Pinterest board. I love shopping! But handmade Valentine’s are good for the heart, and the soul! Enjoy.

Blogger Mel B., a Smart Perks employee, has pinholes in her pointer finger and a scissor blister on her knuckle.

 

 

 

 

BYOL: Bring Your Own Lunch

 

dual salads

I called this salad two ways. Because there’s nothing worse than a boring salad lunch.

Was one of your New Year’s resolutions to eat healthier? Or to save money? Well, I might not know how to curb your appetite or shopping habit, but I do know that bringing your own lunch to work every day can help you cut calories and cash flow.

I bring my lunch to work every day. Mostly, it’s leftovers from the dinner the night before; sometimes, it’s just a mishmash of ingredients I have in my fridge. Though I genuinely love everything about cooking – from the grocery shopping (I often say a well-stocked grocery store is my happy place) to the time I plate a nice, warm meal for my boyfriend and me, I enjoy every step in between. But even if you don’t love cooking, there are many different ways to make yourself a lunch that take less than 10 minutes…5 minutes, even! One really easy way to have a nice balanced lunch is to cut up a bunch of different fruits and veggies you have lying around, and then add some protein and a treat or two. Here, I had strawberries, blueberries, pineapple and oranges, white cheddar cheese slices and peanut butter on the celery, plus some treats (in this case, a slice of prosciutto and 2 squares of dark chocolate!)

fruit plate

Healthy lunch options

As many people are quick to point out, all too often prepackaged meals contain weird ingredients you don’t necessarily want to eat. Even if not, they also may be way too high in sodium or sugar. Because I like to know every bit of what’s going into my own body, I’m not a big fan.

 

I wasn’t always this way, though. One Friday night a month when I was a kid, my parents would go out on a special dinner date, leaving my younger sister and me behind with our babysitter Stephanie. I looked forward to it the whole month. Steph would paint my nails, do my hair in funny styles, and let me stay up late reading, warning me just before my parents got home so I could pretend to be asleep. The best part, though, was that I was allowed to choose my own dinner, and almost without fail I chose Stouffer’s frozen mac and cheese.

Mac and cheese

The stuff of my childhood dreams.

In my now six years of cooking post-childhood, I have become very resourceful, learning to create meals with my limited stash of groceries and even more limited amounts of free time. Typically, they’re fairly healthy, utilizing fresh ingredients and with a good macronutrient ratio. That said, it still cracks me up that it wasn’t my mom’s amazing meatloaf or chicken parmesan that I most looked forward to, but a dinky black box of frosted-over cheesy carbs.

Nothing sounds worse to me nowadays. Don’t get me wrong – I love a good mac and cheese meal, and I totally understand the convenience of transferring one item from freezer to microwave to mouth in under five minutes. However, those frozen meals come at a pretty big price, on both your budget and your waistline. There are so many delicious options you can make yourself using mostly fresh ingredients that are more filling, with feel-good vitamins and more texture than mush.

Again, I recognize that sometimes throwing a frozen meal into your bag or heading out for a $5 bowl of soup is easy and can be cheaper. But let me help make your meal decision-making easier: there are 3 kinds of perfect make-your-own lunch options, made simpler by making some ingredients ahead. For example, on Sundays, I like to roast a big batch of vegetables (my favorites are bell pepper, any kind of squash, potatoes, turnips and red onion) and make a large pot of soup, typically lentil or curry. That way, throughout the week, there is far less planning you have to do. You can blend the roasted vegetables with a bit of chicken stock and some spices, and have an easy and delicious soup, or the curry over rice for a filling but nutritious meal.

The Sturdy Salad, Super Soups and The Bold Bowl

1) The Sturdy Salad

Ever heard of this thing called kale? No? Hmm, that’s weird, because it’s everywhere these days! I truly love it, finding its fibrous bite much more satisfying than the wateriness of iceberg or limp romaine. Plus, it’s considered a superfood, with 134% of your daily Vitamin A and C requirements. It also has the added benefit of being able to stay dressed for hours without getting soggy, making it an amazing candidate for the make-ahead lunch.

One of my favorites is the Kale Caesar, with added veggies and a lighter dressing to keep the health factor high.

Greek Yogurt Caesar Salad Dressing

This dressing is so delicious, you truly won’t miss the oil, cream and egg-laden original. Promise!

  • ½ cup plain Greek yogurt (Note: you can use nonfat here if you want)
  • ½ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 3 tablespoons milk
  • 2 tablespoons EVOO (extra virgin olive oil)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2-3 teaspoons anchovy paste or 5-6 rinsed and dried tinned anchovies
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, minced
  • Pinch of freshly grated black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt

Combine all ingredients but the lemon juice, either in a blender on low setting or in a mixing bowl with a whisk. Once smooth, slowly add in lemon juice, mixing it in, until you’re happy with the flavor.

Of course, you could make a regular Caesar with romaine, cherry tomatoes, croutons and extra parm, reserving the salad dressing for right before you eat lunch, and call it a day. Or you could try my version: toss torn kale leaves with some dressing, add cherry tomatoes, freshly trimmed green beans, radish slices, grilled squash, and any roasted veggies, like carrots or squash, I have lying around. Instead of croutons, I opt for toasted chickpeas for added protein and more flavor, but still the satisfying crunch.

tuna salad

This updated tuna salad from Eating Well is incredibly light but filling. Just wish I had that plate, too!

Other ideas for the perfect lunchtime salad include Tuna and White Bean Salad on top of mixed greens, BBQ Chicken Chopped Salad (I use this Avocado Greek Yogurt Ranch instead) and Greek Salad with Grilled Chicken. There are so many varieties of salad (have you heard of the Italian bread salad panzanella, or its Middle Eastern counterpart fattoush?) that you should never settle for something dull. When it comes to salad – especially during these harsh winter months! – you want something hearty enough that you don’t feel hungry after an hour, so look for protein add-ons (cheese, beans, tofu, lean meats like turkey and chicken, or fish) to spice things up.

2) Super Soups

I can think of only three things I like more than soup: cats, dogs, and soup. Wait a second…

Point is, I really like soup. Cold and spicy, hot and creamy, vegetable- or meat-based, I’ll never say no to a bowl of soup. The best part? It makes an incredibly easy (and often healthy) lunch, it can keep for up to 5 days in the fridge and 5 months in the freezer, and if you’re the one making it, you can size up or down depending on how many people are in your family.

Turkey ramen

Leftover turkey ramen, with a substantial portion of chili paste.

They’re also a great use of leftover meat; after Thanksgiving, I made ramen with the turkey carcass and topped with chopped up pieces of dark meat.

There are so many different soups to choose from, but right now, in the middle of winter, the height of cold season, and post-holiday excess recovery, nothing sounds better to me than a nice, bracing bowl of chicken soup. There’s a reason they say chicken soup is for the soul, and it’s an amazing mid-day pick-me-up during the workday.

Spicy Mexican Chicken Soup

This is not an authentic Mexican soup, but rather my interpretation of a Latin American classic. You could make your own stock (fresh, with a chicken carcass), but here I used ground chicken and previously made chicken stock (though store-bought would work, too!) Also, this recipe is all made in one pot, saving you dishes and time.

  • 1 lb ground chicken
  • 4 cups unsalted chicken stock
  • ½ yellow onion, diced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 bell peppers, diced (I used one red and one green)
  • 2 carrots, diced or sliced
  • 2 stalks of celery, sliced thin
  • 1 28 oz. can of tomatoes (really, any would work; I used diced with oregano)
  • 1 15 oz. can of black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 8 oz. of corn, fresh, frozen or canned
  • 2 minced garlic cloves (I used 2 tablespoons minced garlic from a jar for ease)
  • A pinch each paprika, cumin, chili powder, dried oregano, black pepper, salt
  • For garnishes: cilantro, tortilla strips, cheddar or cotija cheese, scallions, avocado, sour cream or Greek yogurt

In large, heavy-bottom pot, heat 1 tablespoon oil on medium heat, adding in ground chicken and spices. Once cooked halfway through (about 4 minutes), add in all of the vegetables, stirring until combined and meat is cooked throughout and the vegetables have softened (in total, about 10 minutes). Add tomatoes, black beans, and stock, bringing the heat up to a rolling boil. Turn heat down to low and simmer for 20-30 minutes (or up until 1 hour). Serve hot, with an assortment of the garnishes.

Mexican Chicken Soup

The finished product, topped with grated white cheddar.

When I make this ahead of time for work lunches, I let the soup cool down, portion it out in individual Tupperware containers, and use these awesome little containers for the garnishes. Even if you don’t have a microwave at work, this soup is surprisingly delicious cold during summer.

3) The Bold Bowl

Arguably the simplest of the three, the “bowl” has really picked up steam in the past year or so. The concept is easy as pie: grains + greens + veggies + proteins. Add-ons are plentiful, such as different sauces, cheese, nuts and seeds, and combinations are endless.

Although you can certainly plan out the bowl ahead of time, like this fancy brisket bowl or Latin vegan bowl, but an even easier way of going about it is to make a big batch of grains (I prefer quinoa, for the protein content, or brown rice, for the heft) on Sunday and then add leftovers on top of it.

For example, are you making spaghetti and meatballs with roasted broccoli on the side for dinner? Make a couple extra meatballs and pieces of broccoli, reserve some of the tomato sauce, and get out your grains (brown rice would work really well here). Layer rice, meatballs, sauce, broccoli, add some grated parmesan and a pinch of red pepper flakes, and boom! Tomorrow’s lunch in no time at all.

Another favorite is to make a chimichurri sauce by putting different herbs, like cilantro and parsley, in a food processor with olive oil, red wine vinegar, a clove of garlic with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes and pulse until it’s fairly smooth. Then all you need to do is take some of the quinoa and roasted veggies from Sunday, and you’ve got a lunch bowl. Add beans or leftover meat such as chicken to really make it well-rounded, but it’s plenty tasty on its own.

I know in the short term it might just seem easier to run out and buy a sandwich at lunchtime, but that is costly in both time and money. With just a little planning, you can save so much in the long term. Plus, you’re showing yourself you’re worth more than an unsatisfying, premade egg salad sandwich. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Katie U., a Smart Perks employee, really does care this much about BYOL and hopes you will, too.

 

How-To: DIY Home Renovation Project

 

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“Your home should tell the story of who you are and be a collection of what you love.”
Nate Berkus

When my husband and I moved into our big two-story farm house in 1993, we knew it would take a lot of time, effort and money to update it. Besides having the wiring and plumbing redone to bring it up to code, the interior of the house needed a serious makeover. It was obvious the previous owners didn’t have any decorating sense whatsoever.

terrible interior

Though it wasn’t quite this bad, it was still pretty bad.

The walls in the dining room and living room were painted light green (the color of pond scum), the windows were hidden under heavy full-length drapes (the kind you’d find in a funeral home or the Munster’s house) and the floors were covered with filthy shag carpeting (I’m sure it harbored all kinds of nasty microscopic critters). The downstairs bathroom looked like it was straight out of a 1970’s flop house – big gold sunflowers against an olive green background, a grungy mustard-colored linoleum floor and a bathtub they probably hauled out of a junk yard. The bathroom upstairs had a long closet decorated with goofy duck stickers instead of a bathtub or shower. I kid you not. It was ridiculous!

Our realtor referred to this 1917 fixer-upper as the “Bates Motel”, but beneath all the unsightly trappings we could see that this place had a lot of character and loads of potential.

Bates_Motel

Not exactly welcoming…

For starters, beautifully carved woodwork, plate rails and beveled mirrors in the spacious dining room, bay windows in the dining room, living room and master bedroom, and underneath that hideous shag carpeting we discovered a magnificent oak floor with mahogany inlay. We were also impressed with the size of the kitchen – 17 ft. x 17 ft. with high 10 ft. ceilings – and the charming built-in cabinet, not to mention the transoms above the bedroom doors (something you’d usually find in grand hotels, not private homes.) Suffice it to say this house was a diamond in the rough.

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This is the detailing I’m talking about. Beautiful, huh?

After buying the house for a song, we decided we could save a lot of money if we tackled minor renovations ourselves. It’s taken quite a few years (and muscle) to do some of the improvements and, as with most old houses, there’s still plenty to do. But, anyone who has seen the before and after pictures will agree this place looks ten times better than it did when we first moved in.

If you’re thinking of remodeling your home, I have some ideas for easy and affordable upgrades you can do yourself.

guy painting

Look at that technique!

Red Walls

An example of a burgundy dining room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Give walls a fresh coat of paint. Probably the easiest and least expensive way to change the look of any room is to repaint it. Think beyond the usual shades of beige and go with colors that reflect the mood or purpose of the room or your personal decorating style. For example, try bright yellow or tangerine in the kitchen, rich burgundy or hunter green in the dining room, and fresh lilac or jade green in the bathroom.

  • Need help selecting the right colors? Check out the interior paint guide at bhg.com
  • Learn how to paint like a pro with help from diynetwork.com

Restore or replace your flooring. If you’re lucky enough to have hardwood floors underneath your worn carpet (like we did) and they’re in relatively good condition, you may just need to spruce them up with a floor sander/polisher from a rental place or buy this handy Floor Scrubber/Polisher. You can always get an area rug if you want to add some color and warmth.

hand painting oil color on wood floor  use for home decorated ,house renovation and housing construction theme

It looks harder than it is, we promise!

On the other hand, if your floors are in bad shape, you’ll want to hide them under new carpeting or flooring. Look for special deals from Empire Today, one of the featured offers in Smart Perks.

Refinish cabinets, shelves and furniture. Instead of investing in new kitchen cabinets, consider refinishing your existing ones with paint or stain. Why not dress them up with different knobs or handles too?

Go to hgtv.com for a simple tutorial on refinishing kitchen cabinets.

Cabinet redo

Photo Courtesy of Pinterest User One Good Thing…

Replace faucets and sinks. Make an outdated bathroom look like new instantly by replacing your faucets and sink with more modern designs. You don’t even need a plumber to do it!

 

Re-tile the floor or backsplash. Tiling is relatively easy. All you need is a little know-how and the right supplies, like tiles (standard subway-style tiles are the most common and the easiest to install), a v-notched trowel, tile mastic (adhesive), a tile cutter, and grout. You can find most of these things at home improvement stores. Go to diynetwork.com for step-by-step instructions on tiling floors, backsplashes, showers and more.

Update window treatments. Get rid of those heavy drapes or dated curtains and put up some sleek new blinds, Roman shades or sheers. Or, you could create your own custom curtains, drapes, shades & more out of materials you already have on hand. Check out the amazing (and easy) DIY Window Treatment ideas from hgtv.com!

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Just one of many options from one of our partners, 3 Day Blinds. Check out Smart Perks for a coupon!

You’ll also find some cool ideas in Melanie’s March 2nd blog post!

For supplies and products, look no further than Smart Perks! You’ll find some great offers from Build.com, Lowe’s, 3 Day Blinds, and more in our Home & Garden section.

Final Note: Before you invest in an older home, have it inspected by a professional to make sure it’s structurally sound. It’s easy to correct cosmetic flaws, but if the foundation is fragile you’ll have a nightmare on your hands. If you don’t believe me, rent the Tom Hanks’ movie The Money Pit!

Good luck and remember, it’s worth all of the effort once you see the fruits of your labor! Have any of you renovated your home yourself and have pics to send? Include them in the comment section!

Catherine B., a Smart Perks employee, may not be handy with a hammer, but she does know how to create an awesome honey-do list.

Journal_wPencil

I have kept a journal since I first learned to write, somewhere around the first or second grade. So the idea that anyone would find it difficult to write just a few sentences a day is incomprehensible to me.

I cannot force anyone to write daily. But I can shout from the roof tops why I think it is the prescription for a healthier and happier life.

Author Pat Conroy said, in his book My Reading Life, “Writing is the only way I have to explain my own life to myself.”

Journaling is not only your live-action autobiography, it can be a useful tool to help you accomplish any number of goals. From training for a race to losing weight, over-coming a personal struggle to achieving your goals, your journal is whatever you make of it.

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These colorful journals from Flow magazine range in subject from How to Slow Down to Fresh New Beginnings.

Maybe you’ve heard of Oprah Winfrey’s Gratitude Journal? Each day writing down something or someone in your life you are thankful for? This simple task is a common suggestion for coping with depression.

Or if you are dealing with grief or a loss, a journal is a safe place to let all of your emotions flow freely without filter or judgment. Your journal can be a place to remember your loved one every day, which can bring enormous comfort.

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Art Journal from Somerset Life, Volume 10, Issue 1

Many doodlers and artists alike keep fun, funky and fabulous art journals with elaborate drawings and water colors, mixed-media fabric scraps, art papers, and embellishments. They’re stunning.

For me, my journal is sanity-saving. The very act of putting pen to paper gives me an immediate feeling of calm.

I like ruled pages. My collection of leather-bound Moleskine notebooks is vast. I have one in virtually every color, and I get a certain thrill opening a new one and seeing those blank pages in front of me.

I write stream-of-consciousness style, with no attention paid to self-editing. Just pouring the contents of my overactive mind out onto the page. Nothing is off-limits. I write everything from the mundane details of everyday life, “the commute was beautiful, with the sun rising all blue and pink over the frozen lake, and The Beatles’ ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ on the radio” to my struggles with anxiety, or progress on achieving my goals as an amateur photographer.

I tell family stories. Some days when I’m feeling nostalgic, I can devote pages to my favorite memories of my grandparents.

In the summer I detail my garden endeavors, birds at my feeder, progress on home renovations, and my ongoing struggle with finding and fitting into a swimsuit that doesn’t make me feel like a dancing hippo at the circus. My journal is the place where I hold myself accountable. Tracking how well I’m doing on sticking to a diet (Two cupcakes? Really? Did you need that second cupcake?) And also, where I rally myself after a setback.

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Love this glue pen for adding quotes to my journals.

I can talk myself down or build myself up. I like to glue motivational messages inside my journals. Or use little doo-dads, stickers or Post-Its. With the popularity of Smash Books, a journal/scrapbook hybrid, you can find all kinds of cool little embellishments to add to your journal.

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These cute sticky notes and pockets are fun additions to your journal.

It’s January. A blank slate. A fresh new chapter in your life. You don’t need to invest in anything fancy. Paper and a pen. That’s all it takes. Your journal can be whatever you make it. Simple to elaborate. Regardless, you’ll find it can be a powerful tool to create change in your life, or to provide you with peace.

What are you waiting for?

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 Blogger Melanie Bisson, a Smart Perks employee, could fill a POD storage unit with all of her journals. She’ll never go digital.