Staycation: All I Ever Wanted

keep-calm-and-take-a-staycation

Sure, heading to Europe for a week sounds amazing, but that’s not really doable for the majority of us – though I wish it was!

Sometimes even taking a car trip to a neighboring state isn’t in the cards due to time constraints or previous commitments. Solution: a Staycation!

Never heard of it? Luckily, I have, and I’m here to give you the lowdown on the down low! (What?) Anyway, a staycation is a vacation where you stay at home. But don’t think this is just another regular weekend – Oh no. There are rules!

Family time at home snuggling on couch in living room eating pop

Don’t worry: the rules are very easy. Mostly, just relax. After all, it’s your vacation!

Rules include: No work, no phone calls, no errands, no doing laundry. It’s quality time with your spouse or kids or just yourself, exploring your own town and relaxing in your own home (or in a nearby hotel or bed and breakfast).

If you need more advice, here are my Staycation Rules! Rules:

Rule 1: Really, Truly No Working

It’s best to utilize a long weekend for a Staycation, or you can simply take off a Friday and/or Monday from work to create your own. Or, if you have a full week off and nothing to do (like during Spring or Summer Break, for instance) all the better!

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Either way, put an “out of office” message on your work email, and don’t you dare look at that phone. Even to top your Candy Crush score or to read the news. This is your Staycation! You have to make the most of it, and getting a “Reply All” from all of your coworkers isn’t going to do much to help your relaxation.

In the same vein, no errand running. The dry cleaning can hold off for a few days.

However, if you are anything like me, and you’re choosing to stay at your home for your Staycation, I would suggest cleaning your house beforehand. That way, you don’t have the itch to pick up your kids’ toys or to dust the bookshelves. SmartPerks blogger Cathy has some tips on how to perfect your spring cleaning you might want to give a try to make sure you’re in the proper, relaxed mindset.

Rule 2: Theme Your Vacation

Hey, we’re really trying to make the most outta this Staycation. Wherever your ideal vacation place is, go with that theme – for an evening, a whole day or the entire weekend.

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Recipe for Greek kebabs here.

For example, if you’re feeling a Mediterranean vacay, go to the grocery store one day before your Staycation. Pick up some key items, like marinated olives, tapenades, fresh feta cheese, and pita as an appetizer, and some shrimp skewers with roasted vegetables for dinner. Don’t forget the fresh fruit and baklava for dessert – and maybe a bottle of Ouzo. 😉 Play a beach-y Greek station on Pandora, and enjoy!

After dinner, you can settle down with a movie like My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Mamma Mia.

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Maybe the next day, go to a park and have a picnic, head to the beach or take a hike, or if the weather isn’t permitting, drive to the nearest museum, spend a day at the spa or go to a fancy restaurant you wouldn’t normally try. Not all of your Staycation events have to be themed; sometimes it’s just nice to enjoy your own area while treating yourself.

Rule 3: Think Outside the Box

Of course, turning your living room into an Amazonian jungle isn’t likely to happen (though it might sometimes feel like it with that summertime humidity!), but choose activities that aren’t typical to your regular Saturday afternoon.

If you’re unmarried or don’t have kids, don’t feel left out – The best part of a Staycation is how little planning it can require, and that you can invite local friends or family on short notice. I one time had a Staycation in New York City with some of my closest pals, going out to meals, visiting the major tourist attractions, and in general acting like a visitor in my home city. We hadn’t planned it out at all, just woke up on a Saturday and decided that would be a fun way to spend the weekend!

If you’re Staycationing with pals, make it feel adventurous by going on a longer drive (2-3 hours is a good amount) so you have a change of scenery. You can even rent a convertible! Find hiking trails or national landmarks, or even quirky attractions, and make a day of it. I’ve used the site Roadside America before on long road trips to find the most interesting destinations.

Three Female Friends On Road Trip In Back Of Convertible Car

“Let’s go see the Unclaimed Baggage Museum!”

Regardless of who you do it with or if you’re alone, make sure you’re being creative! Instead of seeing a movie at the same old cinema, what about catching a live theatrical performance? Or, if you like the park, what about heading to a zoo, greenhouse or public gardens? Do you spend your time reading historical novels? Ever heard of a live reenactment!? The ideas are endless. As for me, I’ll stick to the kitsch – I plan on visiting the Hometown of Paul Bunyan and taking a gander at his giant statue. I’ll probably have too busy of a schedule this summer to travel a lot, so a Staycation here in Minnesota sounds about right.

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Just remember: The possibilities of a Staycation are endless. Whether you spent your whole life in the town you live or moved there a month ago, there’s always something near by to make you see your surroundings in a whole new light. Enjoy!

Blogger Katie U., a SmartPerks employee, thinks her perfect Staycation involves a stack of fresh novels, Netflix, enough groceries to feed a small army and some nice red wine. Who needs Paris (or the world outside her apartment), anyway?

Savory Spring Sides

When it comes to holiday dinners, the main course tends to take center stage. This season it’s usually glazed ham, pork roast or leg of lamb.  But it’s time to put the spotlight on the supporting players – side dishes. They not only complete your feast, they make it more satisfying. Even if your kids, or in some cases your spouse, turn up their noses at anything that’s green, orange, or yellow and grown in a garden, we all know your meal would be pretty bland (and not nearly as nutritious) without these colorful edibles.

It’s customary in our family to have two kinds of vegetables, along with a salad and potatoes with the glazed ham for Easter dinner. When considering the menu for the upcoming holiday, I got to thinking about different side dishes we could add to mix things up this year. After searching for recipes, I found a few that I’m anxious to try (hopefully they’ll impress the relatives!).

Good tasting, Good-For-You Veggies

I adore asparagus (it’s my vegetable du jour for spring and summer) and I’m always looking for new ways to serve these delightful green spears. I came across this easy, but enticing recipe in the April edition of Food Network Magazine.

dill mushroom asparagus

Asparagus AND mushrooms – can’t wait to dive into this one!

Dill Mushrooms and Asparagus

  • 4 oz. fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • Olive oil
  • 1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and cut into thirds
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 tbsp. water
  • 2 tbsp. chopped dill
  • 3/4 tsp. lemon zest

Directions: brown sliced mushrooms in olive oil for 5 minutes. Add asparagus and water; season with salt & pepper. Cook and stir, until crisp-tender, about 7 minutes. Toss with chopped dill and lemon zest.

If you don’t care for mushrooms, you’ll find dozens of other asparagus recipes at tasteofhome.com.

Here’s a simple recipe for Glazed Carrots that has just the right amount of sweetness to appeal to kids… anything to get them to eat their vegetables, right?

baby carrot salad

So buttery & sweet – even kids like these cooked carrots!

Glazed Baby Carrots

  • 1 lb. fresh, frozen or canned whole baby carrots (fresh is best)
  • Water
  • 2 tbsp. butter
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar

Directions: Cook carrots in a small amount of water until tender. Drain. In a saucepan, combine butter and brown sugar; heat until sugar dissolves. Add carrots and toss to coat. Heat through. Yield: 4 servings – double or triple ingredient amounts for a bigger crowd.
Recipe from tasteofhome.com.

Tired of the same old tossed salad? Add more flavor and texture to your greens with mandarin oranges, pecans and a tangy dressing!

Mandarin Orange and Pecan Salad

  • 2 heads romaine lettuce (washed and torn into bite size pieces)
  • 1 cup pecan halves or slivered almonds (toasted)
  • 1 (8 oz.) can mandarin oranges

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Dressing

  • 1/4 cup vinegar
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 small red onion, chopped
  • 1 tsp. dry mustard
  • 2 tbsp. water

Directions: Place lettuce, pecans (or almonds) and oranges in salad bowl. Combine dressing ingredients in a blender and blend until well mixed. Make ahead and refrigerate until ready to toss with salad. Recipe courtesy of food.com.

 Stupendous Spuds

Potato Latkes are a traditional dish served on Passover and Hanukkah – they refer to them as potato pancakes, but really they’re more like hash browns. Anyway, you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy them. I found this recipe for classic Potato Latkes on realsimple.com.

Homemade potato pancakes served with sour cream and brown sugar

Potato Latkes (potato pancakes) may be served on Jewish holidays, but you can enjoy them anytime!

Potato Latkes

  • 2 tbsp. canola oil
  • 2 lbs. (5 medium) peeled medium-starch potatoes, such as Yukon gold
  • 1 medium red onion, finely chopped (3/4 cup)
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • Applesauce and sour cream, for serving

Directions:

  1. Heat oven to 450° F. Brush 2 baking sheets with 1 tablespoon of the oil and set aside.
  2. Using a box grater or a food processor fitted with a shredding blade, coarsely grate the potatoes. Place the grated potatoes in a large bowl with the onion, flour, salt, pepper, eggs, and the remaining tablespoon of oil. Toss to mix well.
  3. Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls onto baking sheets and press lightly to make patties. Bake 10 minutes or until golden brown on the bottom. Turn the latkes with a metal spatula and rotate the baking sheets. Bake another 5 minutes or until golden.
  4. Transfer to a platter and serve with the applesauce and sour cream.

Even though I plan to modify our Easter menu with a few of these scrumptious side dishes, I still have to include a family favorite – Cheesy Potatoes. My aunt gave me this recipe several years ago and it’s been a hit ever since.

cheesy plateCheesy Potatoes

  • 1 2-lb. package frozen hash browns (thawed)
  • 1 can cream of chicken soup
  • 1 16-oz. carton sour cream
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1 large package shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1 stick melted butter
  • 1-1/2 cups crushed corn flakes

Directions: combine first 6 ingredients except for 1/4 stick butter. Spread in a large casserole dish. Coat corn flakes in remaining melted butter and sprinkle on top. Bake at 350º for 1 hour.

See more mouthwatering cheesy potato recipes on pinterest.com!
Find all kinds of sensational side dish recipes at simplyrecipes.com!

Have a Happy Easter, Passover or whatever you’re celebrating this spring!

Smart Perks Blogger Catherine B. tricks the kids and sometimes even her husband into eating vegetables by disguising them under mounds of melted cheese.  

The Best (Free!) Apps for Adults

Are you – like me – an adult that has only five apps on your smartphone? I have Candy Crush, Instagram, Facebook, FitBit and Bank of America. I’m told day after day that there are so many awesome apps, and hear “Have you downloaded this one?” and yet here I am with the most basic apps.

But it might be time for a change. Although there are plenty of gaming apps out there (I think Clash Royale wins the Most Popular Award at the moment?), I think I’ve been ignoring some really helpful apps that could make my life easier.

Between food delivery services and sleep schedule planners, there’s an app out there for everyone. Here are some of my most recent discoveries that are great for adults.

The App for the Knowledgeable: Trivia Crack

Trivia Crack is a super easily navigated app that asks trivia questions in six key categories: Art, Sports, Entertainment, History, Geography and Science. You get to play against Facebook friends, friends you already have or a randomly selected opponent (from around the world!)

trivia-crack

Even though my sports history is shockingly limited, I still love this game because it accesses a wide knowledge base. Basically, you get a wheel with 7 slots – one in each of the categories, each represented by a different symbol. When you “spin” the wheel, you automatically land on one of the sections and are presented with a question.trivia c

For example, a sample question is, “Who invented the Chinese torture box?” (Answer…Harry Houdini!) If you get the answer right, you move on to the next round, and earn a character from that section. Collect six and you win!

 

The  App for the Sleepless: SleepBot

We’ve all been there: you have a great pillow (Pro tip: Check out Smart Perks’ amazing offer for the MyPillow), the best sheets, a cool, quiet, dark room – and yet you still can’t catch any zzz’s. Luckily, there are plenty of sleep apps to help figure out what’s up with your cycle of insomnia. Our favorite is SleepBot.

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All you have to do is leave your phone on your bed while you sleep, and it picks up your movements and patterns to track your individual sleep habits. Its best use, aside from providing you with a log of your nighttime schedule, is you can set a time frame of when you want to be woken up. Based on your movement, the app judges when you are in a light sleeping zone, and then gently wakes you up with a song or sound of your choice. This way, you’re not hearing insanely loud bells and buzzing during the deepest sleep of your life (well, night).

The App for the Forgetful: Tile

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Yeah, my keys are just over…there?

And yet again, those 3 little keys with the Florida keychain disappear yet again! Seriously, do they have feet? And why are they always in the fridge?

Tile app (which is, like the others, free for both iPhones and Androids) tracks your items you lose often. Keys? You got it. But also anything else – your TV remotes, cell phone, your kid, your car, anything! Imagine: You’ll never wander out of the mall and wonder where the heck you parked ever again.

The App for the Busy: EasilyDo

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Think about how many work events, social gatherings, errands and appointments you have. If you keep track of them with a calendar, kudos. But now there’s something even easier – EasilyDo.

This app does everything a calendar does, plus keeps in check all of your emails and correspondence, reminders on social media interactions, and helps personalize your searches for what is most relevant to you. Basically, think of EasilyDo as your own personal assistant, who lives inside your phone.

Planning has never been easier!

There are a bunch of amazing apps out there. What are your favorites?

Blogger Katie U., a Smart Perks employee, may or may not be addicted to the Vivino app, which is for wine lovers.

 

 

 

 

Helpful Hints for the Domestically Challenged

I can’t say I’ve ever really done any spring cleaning per se. The truth is housework is not that high on my priority list. It’s one of those things in life I dread doing, even though I know it has to be done, like taking out the garbage or mowing the lawn (oh, wait, my husband handles those things, but you know what I mean). When it comes to everyday cleaning, I usually limit it to only what the eye can see (like sinks and toilet bowls, dust on the furniture, dishes, and dirt on the floor), unless we’re having company then I try to make our home more presentable. Obviously I’m pretty lax when it comes to housekeeping. I even have a refrigerator magnet that says “An immaculate house is the sign of a misspent life.”

The thing is I need to start doing something about my untidy abode soon because my closets are overflowing with clothes I’ve never worn (they were on sale, what can I say?) or no longer fit (I keep telling myself that I’ll squeeze into them someday). The junk drawers in the kitchen are jammed packed with, well, junk, and my bathroom cabinets are harboring bottles of prescription and over-the-counter medications that expired in 2010. And, those dust bunnies behind my dresser are starting to multiply like real rabbits!funny-cleaning-quotesThis year I’ve vowed to change my tune and finally get to the nitty-gritty tasks I’ve been putting off for too long, like washing windows, organizing my closets and chucking those misfit toys that are taking up space in my son’s old bedroom. He’s 24 now, so it’s time.

How and where to begin…

Angry woman in a chaotic living room with vacuum cleaner

Aarrggh! Where do I start?

When I look at all the projects ahead of me it seems so daunting and overwhelming (one of those eye-twitching, pull-your-hair out kind of things). That’s why I’ve decided it’s best to focus on one room or project at time. I realize it’ll take days or even weeks to go through my list. I mean, let’s be real, unless you’re Superwoman or live in one of those tiny houses that are all rage now, there’s no way you can do it all in a day or even a weekend! Besides, I happen to live in a hundred year-old, three-story house with six bedrooms!

To help me stay on track and reach my goals, I’ve made up a checklist of things to do (I did some research online first to compile my list). I’m hoping this will help other domestically-challenged people like me.

The List

Take inventory of cleaning supplies. Usually that means mops, brooms & dust pans, dusting/cleaning cloths, pails, and cleansers. After experiencing adverse effects from harsh chemicals (they make me cough, sneeze and feel dizzy), I’ve decided to experiment with natural cleaning solutions like lemon juice, vinegar and baking soda.

110_F_101640069_2pENzjjfeTibJ20YRrtF05LlFh3Ezr5r Try these homemade and natural cleaning solutions.

Declutter. Go through old mail, newspapers, magazines, piles of papers, etc. Recycle what you don’t need and file anything of importance, like unpaid bills, medical statements and tax forms, in a safe place. Just remember where you put them!

Organize closets. Pack up and store seasonal items. Donate apparel and shoes you no longer wear, but are still in good condition, to a charity or thrift store. You can also bring them to a consignment shop to get money or credit for purchases, or sell them in a garage sale. Rule of thumb – if you haven’t worn it for a year, get rid of it!

Reorganize kitchen cupboards and drawers.

  • Dispose of anything that’s worn, broken or expired (even canned goods have an expiration date). That includes any plastic containers without lids and lids without containers (seriously, where do those missing pieces go? Probably into the same black hole as the mismatched socks!) Click here for tips on storing containers & lids.
  • Take out and replace old shelf paper or consider covering your shelves with smooth and glossy paint. Find tips on painting kitchen shelves at hgtv.com.
  • Restock cupboards and drawers in an orderly fashion, keeping similar items together. My sister-in-law even arranges her spices in alphabetical order so they’re easier to find. Hey, whatever works!
  • Wipe down outside of cupboards and cabinets as well as appliances to remove any built-up grease and grime.

Clean out the fridge. NOTE TO SELF: this should be done on a regular basis, like once a week or at least a few times a month!

  • Toss spoiled or expired food (you may be able to use some of it for composting).
  • Clean shelves and bins with baking soda or vinegar and water.
  • Arrange items neatly on shelves/in bins.

Go through every room from top to bottom.

  • Sweep cobwebs off the ceiling and corners.
  • Dust woodwork and furniture.
  • Sweep/mop floors (don’t forget the dust bunnies!)
  • Vacuum rugs or carpeting.
  • Flip mattresses and remove dust/dirt from headboards and bed frames.
  • Scrub sinks, toilets, bathtubs/showers – this should be done at least once a week too.
  • Wipe down cabinets and vanities.
  • Clean out (and in some cases debug) light fixtures.
  • Wash curtains, bedding, towels, shower curtains, and throw rugs.
  • Open the windows and let in some fresh air!

Wash your windows inside & out. I plan to use my grandma’s tried-and-true method – a vinegar/water solution and newspaper. Grandma always said it makes your windows squeaky clean! NOTE: it’s best to do this on a cloudy day as direct sunlight dries the glass too quickly, leaving streaks. Don’t forget to wipe away marks on window panes too.

Shake out throw rugs and steam-clean carpets.
If you really want to get embedded dirt out of your rugs, hang them on the clothesline outdoors and beat them with a broom or an old-fashioned rug beater (fortunately I have two of these), then leave them on the line for a few hours to freshen them up. If you don’t have a steam-cleaner, you can usually rent one from a hardware store.

Who knows? Once I see the fruits of my labor, I may decide I like a clean house and want to keep it that way. Or, I may just hire someone to do it.

Happy cleaning!

Go to our Smart Perks Pinterest Board for ideas, inspiration and great tools on
Organizing Your Life. old fashioned quote

Blogger Catherine B., a Smart Perks employee, shares the same view as Erma Bombeck when it comes to keeping house – “My idea of housework is to sweep the room with a glance.”

Fun-Filled, Budget-Friendly Activities for Kids

 

mother and her child preparing healthy food and having fun

I’m not a mom, or an aunt, a godmother, or even a person who has friends with kids. But I am an older sister – to both a natural-born younger sis and as a mentor to a 12-year-old girl in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. And although my natural-born sister lives many states away for college, I am tasked with the challenge of coming up with fun and engaging activities which are appropriate for children but fun for adults with my Little Sister. Also, since I’m not about to spend an afternoon shelling out the big bucks for kid-friendly fun (Why are museums for children so pricey?), I’ve gotten pretty savvy at finding things we both enjoy – minus the hefty price tag.

Here are some of my greatest hits that are a ton of fun without breaking the bank.

Cooking/Baking:

Getting kids started early in the kitchen is a great way to teach healthy eating habits and improve important skills, like mental math and hand-eye coordination.

This one is great regardless of age. Do you have a 3-year-old? Great, have them pick out some fruits they like, put them in a blender with low-sugar yogurt and ice, and once the adult secures the lid (I would hold it down), let the kid press blend! You could also try ants on a log or a Crockpot recipe like Salsa Chicken where you just toss the ingredients in and let it simmer.

Boy eats a lot of sushi

Some kids do really love sushi!

If you’re looking for more of a challenge with older kids, Pinterest is (as usual) a great place to start. With my Little Sister, who loves spicy food and chocolate, we like to get really creative. Our last adventure in cooking was mole sauce, a spicy, savory chocolate sauce from Mexico. Spooned over grilled chicken, it took a blah dish and made it something out of this world. Our next adventure is sushi! But if sweets are more the taste of your kids or young friends, this easy éclair cake is super tasty.

Bowling:

Bowling has made something of a comeback in recent years. Gone are the days of The Big Lebowski-type establishments with dried-up chicken wings, dusty and dated furniture, broken arcade games and a vague scent of stale cigarette smoke. Though these can of course be great fun, they don’t exactly appeal to the kids these days. The iPad-and-Justin-Bieber generation thinks that’s like, totally lame, man.

Luckily, there are more to choose from these days. The website Kids Bowl Free showcases different kid-friendly bowling alleys across the US that, as the name suggests, offer free bowling for those under 18. For example, Brunswick Zone is in many states and is an updated take on a bowling alley, with video games and billiards. They cater to a hipper, younger crowd, so kids (especially those picky preteens) are sure to enjoy.

brunswick zone

Doesn’t this look like a day of fun?

The best part? Those that are in-the-know can join their rewards program for coupons and special offers, so you can get deep discounts. That’s a whole evening of family-friendly fun!

Crafting:

You might be surprised at how popular crafting is with kids of all ages right now. When I was a kid, we twisted pipe cleaners into knots, played with silly putty, and did paint by numbers and called it a day. Now, with crafting booming with the adult market as well, the wee ones are picking up on the new craft trends.

nature weaving craft 5

From Pinterest user Craftiments.

Take, for instance, fellow blogger Melanie’s potted mini gardens from our previous blog post. This is completely doable for kids of all ages, and is a lasting gift – and teaches them the gift of a green thumb (which I am sadly lacking).

sponge tower timeAnother idea is a nature-weaving craft ornament. As we all know, kids spend way too much time in front of screens. So I plan on taking my Little Sister for a long walk once the weather is a little nicer, picking up things like pine cones, flowers, leaves, shells and twigs along the way. Then, together we can craft one of these adorable decorations to commemorate our day! The best part is most of the materials are found in nature; all you really need is some yarn or string and your imagination.

For the indoorsy type, I loved this idea: Sponge Jenga. Buy a pack of sponges from a discount store, cut them up into even strips, and then stack them like Jenga. All of the fun of the game without the loud crashing sounds.

Volunteering:

So much time it seems is spent trying to figure out activities your kids and you will both enjoy, but what about the impact your activities have? Think about it this way: If you both like cooking, why not volunteer to cook for others at a soup kitchen? If you like animals, what about volunteering to walk an elderly neighbor’s dog, or at an animal shelter?

Happy siblings collecting rubbish

Volunteering can be easy as collecting trash in the park.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be an organized, repeated commitment, though there are plenty of websites to help you out with finding one of those. Huge nature lovers can just pick up trash as they walk the beach or a trail with a group of their friends, or to run a bake sale or lemonade stand and donate the money to their favorite cause. Not only are you of course helping others in the process, but you’re teaching the little ones in your life that no matter how small they are, they can make a big difference. And you can’t put a price tag on that (But also, if you could…it would be free!)

These are just my favorites. What are some of your suggestions for on-the-cheap activities to do with the kids in your life?

Blogger Katie U., a Smart Perks employee, not-so-secretly wants to be a little kid again eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch while reading Nancy Drew.

Enchanting Miniature Gardens

use2Springtime is the season of cute! My mind is full of bright colors and baby animals. I want to smell green grass and fresh dirt. I want sunshine, even on the days when the temperatures are still struggling to hit the mid-50s.

Spring can’t come soon enough for me and I need to do something green and creative. That’s why I love mini gardens so much. Even in the dead of a Minnesota winter, I am lucky enough to  have two amazing garden centers nearby with large greenhouses, featuring elaborate fairy gardens or gnome villages, like the one pictured above in Tonkadale Greenhouse.

Since I can’t start planting my garden until the danger of a hard frost has passed (in mid-May), a good alternative to full-scale immersion in outdoor gardening is to create a potted or miniature garden indoors.

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You don’t have to live in a cold climate to enjoy miniature gardening. Container and terrarium gardening can be done anywhere and is simple enough for anyone. They require very little space. In fact you can create a tiny garden in a mug or teacup.

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Here are some quick tips that I’ve learned after several springtimes making mini gardens.

  1. Pick your container & your plants at the same time. Tiny, small-leafed plants, mosses and succulents are perfect for tiny gardens. I love to use Irish moss for ground cover. Most greenhouses now feature a section devoted to small plants for fairy gardens. These plants won’t get too big and crowd each other out. Check the tags on the plant for size guidelines. Or ask your nursery expert for some good suggestions for companion plants, given the size of your container. I like to mix it up with a couple of different small varieties of moss, ivy and ferns. Or, I’ll do all  succulents. Succulents are among the most forgiving of plants, and if you’re a plant newbie, they are harder to kill (I kid). use 8
  2. Plan for drainage. Remember, plants don’t like wet feet!  If your pot or container (you can use anything from a wood crate with a liner, a big bowl, a tin bucket, an old coffee can; I’ve seen some really cute mini gardens in repurposed containers) does not have a hole in it, providing adequate drainage is crucial. What I like to do, depending on the size of my container, is layer small stones or pebbles at the bottom of my container, with space for water to seep through. A thin layer of activated charcoal wicks moisture and absorbs any stagnant water odor. Dried moss can be used at the pebble layer to absorb excess moisture as well. 945239_657248600967981_589083094_n
  3. Use good soil. Choose a fluffy potting soil that is not too dense or too wet. I typically use Miracle-Gro, but any fluffy potting soil that allows air, moisture and nutrition will do. Depending on the size of my container, I use odd numbers of plants, based on the old decorating rule. For a medium-sized container, I will use three. I space them evenly, giving them room to grow, and tease the roots a little before nestling each little plant into it’s soil. Once the plants are in, I use extra fine sand, finely shredded bark, shells, or decorative moss as ground cover over the soil.
  4. Imagine and play. Then comes the fun part! Play time. I always start with a vision. I have little Zen gardens, cute gnome gardens, animal gardens, spring themed gardens, gnome getaways. Let your personality be your guide. I have a friend who loves the ocean and made a darling container garden using fine white sand, shells, and beach glass. use9
  5. Sunlight and water. Save the tags that come with your plants. Most miniature plants make good partners, requiring the same amount of light and water. I have always enjoyed my mini gardens indoors and then brought them outside, to the deck or patio, once the weather warms up.
  6. Enjoy! Caution: Creating these miniature vignettes with plants, and tiny little things that make you smile, is addictive. You start to see every small object as something that could serve a purpose in your miniature garden, from an acorn to agate or marble.

The miniature garden is the perfect March treat to tide you over until your warm weather plants can go in. But if you simply can’t wait, violas, or johnny-jump-ups, are a good cold-hardy plant that you could probably enjoy outside out today. Happy planting!

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Blogger Melanie B., a Smart Perks employee, is a Zone 4 gardener who believes in fairies and gnomes.

 

Meal Kits for Inspiration in the Kitchen

Blue apron cover pic

I think we can all agree that simplifying weeknight meals is a top priority. Whether you’re a busy working parent or a retired Baby Boomer, trying to cook homemade dinners can be a real pain.

As a result, a lot of different meal  delivery kits have become popular in the past couple of years, such as Plated and Hello Fresh, but my go-to (and the most popular of the bunch) is called Blue Apron.

So what is it, you may ask?

Each week, you get mailed all of the ingredients (less salt, pepper and cooking oil) you will need to make a well-portioned meal, along with step-by-step recipe instructions with pictures. The services vary slightly, but in general, the meals are truly delicious while being reasonably priced (Blue Apron’s costs, for example, are $60 for 3 meals for 2 people, or 2 family style meals for 4 for $70).

Whereas some people who are new to cooking enjoy learning new techniques they never thought of before, I like trying ingredients I never would have purchased myself (chicken demi glace or the nut-spice mix dukkah, for instance).

Hello Fresh recipe

A recipe from Hello Fresh.

The team of Smart Perks is all about giving you the best bang for your buck, which is why I started meal delivery services in the first place. Shipping is free and you can cancel or skip weeks, but this way I’m not spending time driving to the grocery store, waiting in line behind the person writing a check while trying to calm their crying baby, and then ultimately making a meal that leaves leftover ingredients I won’t use.

Seriously, who among us finishes a whole head of cabbage in one meal, or the rest of the bag of arugula before it goes bad? It’s an awful feeling to throw away perfectly edible food because you didn’t use it before it spoils, and that’s a huge advantage to the carefully packaged individual portions of ingredients in meal delivery kits.

Now, on to the fun part: the meals themselves!

Since I already order Blue Apron, I chose to highlight one of their meals here, but I’m also including two sample recipes from the other major meal kit services. Hey, whatever floats your boat!

blue apron curry photo

Doesn’t this motivate you to try this dish?!

 

Blue Apron’s Trinidadian Chicken Curry with Coconut Grits and Collard Greens:

See what I mean about the recipes being exciting and different? I for one would never think to cook this meal on a Thursday night after a long day of working, exercising and volunteering, but here we are! Just cooking away at a fragrant Caribbean curry with toasted coconut and fresh lime and cilantro accents. Not exactly the type of meal I think of, but totally a dish I am happy to have in my repertoire. Warm, filling, and just the right amount of spice!

Ingredients:

  • 4 Boneless, Skinless Chicken Thighs
  • ¾ Cup Yellow Grits
  • 1¾ Cups Light Coconut Milk
  • 3 Cloves Garlic
  • 1 Bunch Collard Greens
  • 1 Lime
  • 1 Bunch Cilantro
  • 2 Tablespoons Dried Coconut Flakes
  • 1 Tablespoon Butter
  • 2 Teaspoons Trinidadian Curry Spice Blend (Curry Powder, Ground Nutmeg, Smoked Paprika, Dried Thyme, Ground Cumin & Ground White Pepper)
2P_010516_4_TriniWestIndianRoti

The ingredients laid out for easy cooking.

Although I linked to the recipe, here are the basics:

Step 1 – Prepare all of your produce by washing and drying it. Combine the coconut milk, salt and 1.5 cups water in a medium pot and bring to a boil. Zest the lime, mince the rind, and quarter it. Pick the leaves off the collard greens and the cilantro, discarding stems. Peel and mince the garlic cloves. Dry off chicken and sprinkle on salt, pepper, and spice blend.

Step 2 – Cook the grits by slowly adding them to the boiling coconut milk mixture, then reducing the heat and whisking occasionally, cooking for 12 minutes. Turn the heat off, and add half of the butter and the lime zest, and salt and pepper. Keep covered.

Step 3 – As your grits cook, heat a nonstick pan until just hot. Add the coconut flakes and toast by stirring frequently for about 3 minutes. You’ll know they’re done when they’re golden brown. Then transfer to a plate.

Step 4 – Also while the grits are cooking, add 2 teaspoons of olive oil in the (now-empty) pan, adding the garlic and collard greens when it’s hot and seasoning with salt and pepper. Cook 2-4 minutes, and then transfer to a plate.

Step 5 – In the same pan used to cook the coconut and the collard greens, heat 2 teaspoons of olive oil until hot. Add the chicken and cook for 5-7 minutes, making sure to cook through. Turn off the heat, and then add: the rest of the butter, the juice of 2 of the lime wedges, 1 tablespoon of water, and salt and pepper to taste, stirring until combined (and mixing up the yummy brown bits from the bottom of the pan).

Step 6 –Divide coconut grits between two bowls, topping with the collard greens and pieces of chicken. Garnish with the coconut, cilantro and 2 leftover lime wedges.

Still not your thing? Try one of these recipes from Plated or Hello Fresh.

smoresS’mores Fondue – Can you say ‘yum?’ This Plated dish takes all of the elements of a delicious s’more and turns it into a one-pan delectable dessert in under 10 minutes. Crunchy toasted marshmallows sit atop chocolate ganache, just waiting for your graham crackers to dip themselves into the sticky treat. No campfire required.

Jamie’s Incredible Sicilian Eggplant Stew – This dish was created by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, a frequent Hello Fresh contributor. Combining rich eggplant with salty baby capers and olives, tart tomatoes and crunchy almond slivers all atop warm couscous certainly sounds like a brilliant idea.

For more recipe inspiration, check out the Smart Perks Pinterest page. Juicy Lucy cheese-stuffed meatballs, anyone? Be still my beating heart!

In the words of Julia Child, “No one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.” So try!

Blogger Katie U., a Smart Perks employee, can’t wait for her chicken curry leftovers for lunch.