Needle-felting Basics: Felted Acorns

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What is needle-felting? It’s the process of taking clean, carded wool roving, basically a big fuzzy lump of hand-dyed fiber, and using a long barbed needle to repeatedly poke and shape the wool into a tightly compacted 3-D shape. The compacted wool is much denser and is now what we commonly refer to as felt.

Creating needle-felted acorns is a simple jumping-off point for your introduction to the craft. Now is the perfect time to learn, as fallen acorn caps are at their most plentiful, and felted acorns are a wonderful addition to your fall and holiday table-settings and displays.

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Gathering Acorns – Look out, squirrels. You’ve got some competition.  Hunting for acorns is a great excuse to get outside and enjoy nature and fall sunshine. It’s also an opportunity to pick up some of Mother Nature’s other craft supplies: pine cones for holiday decorating, colored leaves for pressing, and fallen branches of birch or red dogwood for spruce pots in December.

Drying Acorns – Once you’ve gathered your acorns, drying them is an important step.  There are many crafts that involve using the whole acorn. But for needle-felted acorns, you will only use the caps. I throw the meaty nut part out in the yard for the squirrels. I will defer to my friends at wikiHow for a simple explanation of the washing, and oven-drying process.

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Supplies – There are many places to find needle-felting supplies. I purchase my supplies from Dream Felt on Etsy. I prefer to felt with Norwegian Wool, as it’s coarse and easier to work with. The super fine Merino wool, is so incredibly soft and perfect for fine details, but it’s not recommended for making acorns.  Dream Felt has a wide variety of Norwegian wool in gorgeous hand-dyed colors. The owner sells her wool in complementary color packs or individually.  There is also an autumn collection, which gives you a nice selection of autumn colors: burnt umber, deep orange, rich yellow, forest green,  and chestnut brown in a bundle.

Acorn caps

Wool –  .5 – 1 ounce each of 3-5 colors of wool for fall colors

Needles –  38-gauge is a medium, all-purpose needle and 40-gauge is for finishing

Foam Pad – provides a surface to felt on so you won’t stab yourself

Clear Tacky Glue

Once you’ve gathered your supplies, you’re ready to start.

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Felting  – The amount of fiber you pull from your roving (pull, don’t cut) will depend on the size of your acorn cap. I generally don’t use the fuzzy variety, as they make a mess. But otherwise, acorn caps come in sizes varying anywhere from a pinky nail to larger than a quarter. I’ve created a video on YouTube, which will demonstrate the process of creating an acorn from beginning to end. The video will give you a good visual of the ratio of wool to use in relation to the size of the acorn cap. I create both a medium and micro acorn, but you’ll also see an example of the large cap as well.

Once you have the loose wool, you roll it between your thumb and forefinger into a small cylindrical shape. Keeping it pinched between your thumb and finger, set it on the foam and hold it there.

Use the 38-gauge needle in your right hand (assuming you’re right-handed) and start poking. You will want to poke about ¼ to ½ of the way down into your wool. Not all the way through. Go slowly at first, until you get the hang of it. This will reduce the likelihood of overzealously poking yourself with these sharp needles. It happens. I speak from experience. They do sell leather thumb protectors, but I find them awkward, and like more control over the wool. If you’re worried about poking, you can use Band-Aids on your thumb and forefinger on your left hand. But just starting slow should do the trick.

As you’re poking, you’re also gradually poking and turning the wool into a chubby cylinder shape. It should be loosely packed at this point. Start to round off one end of the cylinder and flatten the opposite end. Keep placing the chubby little acorn nub into the cap until it’s slightly bigger than the inside of the cap.

Squeeze a dollop of clear glue inside the cap. Then squeeze the flat part of the acorn into the cap, pushing it flush with the inside. Now you poke, poke, and poke some more. It’s probably over 200 pokes. I’ve never counted. Trust me. It’s a lot of poking.  The video will give you a good idea, but once you feel more confident, you will achieve a nice steady rhythm and it will go much more quickly. Your poking now is to refine your acorn’s shape and tightly compact the fibers. You’ll notice the acorn becomes lighter the more you felt. Finally, when the acorn feels solid, you’ll use the 40-gauge needle to make shallower pokes all around the acorn to create a uniform smooth felt surface, and tame any stray “hairs.” And  you’re done. On to the next one!

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Given the repetitive, rhythmic nature of the poking and forming of the wool into the felted shape needle-felting is incredibly relaxing.  It’s the perfect craft for multi-tasking, so you can feel less guilty about spending an entire rainy day binge-watching The Affair or season six of The Big Bang Theory for the third time. At the end of the day, you’ll actually have something to show for all the couch-surfing you did.

Be sure to watch the instructional video that accompanies this blog to see the fall acorns come to life!

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Smart Perks Blogger, Melanie Bisson, loves multi-tasking. On Sundays, she is watching football, her fantasy football match-up and needle-felting.

 

Keep Calm and Cook On

 

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I love to cook and I must admit I’m pretty good at it, but there are some things I’m not so good at, like peeling hard-boiled eggs without leaving divots. (If you were to rate my deviled eggs I’d probably get 8 or 9 in taste and a 1 in appearance!) I have the same problem getting the skin off tomatoes! It’s so aggravating, not to mention I end up wasting a lot of food in the process. I must say though that chopping onions is probably one of my least favorite things to do – even if I use a food chopper, I still get the tears and that strong “onion smell” on my hands.

I’m sure a lot of you can relate to my kitchen faux pas and frustrations. Fortunately I came across some helpful hints to make cooking and preparing foods easier, faster and less stressful. Some are from my Grandma Vi, who was an excellent cook, and the rest I found online.

Give these tricks a try and be smarter (and happier) in the kitchen!

* Avoid “onion tears” by placing the onion in the freezer for at least 30 minutes before slicing it. To get rid of the “onion smell”, try soaking your hands in lemon juice for 3 minutes, then rinse them in cold water.

* To easily peel skin off tomatoes, dip the tomato in a pan of boiling water for a few seconds, then stick a fork in the stem and use a paring knife to remove the skin.

Lemon and lemon zest with grater* For lemon zest, freeze the lemon and when a recipe calls for it, just grate the rind from the frozen lemon.

* Use an ice pick to peel and de-vein shrimp. Just run the pick down the back toward the tails and presto… the shell and vein are gone in one step!

* To keep apple slices from turning brown, soak them in a bowl of cold lemon water (1 tbsp. of lemon juice for 1 cup of water).

* Thaw frozen fish in milk to take away the “freezer taste”. Soaking fish in milk for 30 minutes or so will also neutralize that strong “fishy” taste and odor.  After removing fish from the milk, just pat dry with a paper towel and discard milk before cooking the fish.

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There’s nothing like fresh berries!

* To make fresh berries last longer and keep them from getting moldy, wash them in a water/vinegar solution (3 cups water + 1 cup vinegar), then store in paper towel-lined containers in your refrigerator.

* Prevent brown sugar from drying out by storing it in an air-tight container with a slice of bread.

* Keep celery crisp in your fridge for weeks by wrapping clean, dry stalks tightly in aluminum foil.

* Thinly slice raw meat, poultry or pork when it’s slightly frozen.

* If you want your fried chicken or potatoes golden-brown and crispy, avoid overcrowding the pan. It’s better to fry food in smaller batches or use two pans. The reason — food releases moisture as it cooks and you need to leave room for the moisture to escape.

* Add a small amount of uncooked rice to salt shakers and sugar containers to absorb moisture and prevent clumping. Also, instead of using your salt shaker to season food on the stove, place salt in a bowl and sprinkle it over the food.  Apparently the steam from cooking causes the salt to clump in your shaker too.

Boil egg in white plate on wooden background.

The end result when I try to de-shell a boiled egg.

Deviled Eggs

My goal – the perfect deviled egg.

* As for getting those stubborn shells off hard-boiled eggs… I found various tips on this and these seem to be the most commonly used methods. I put them to the test and voilá, the shells practically fell off!

  1. Start with eggs that are at least 7-10 days old as fresh egg whites tend to cling more to the inner shell.
  2. Place eggs in a pan of cool water (make sure they’re covered completely). Add about 3 tbsp. of salt and slowly heat to boiling – this will prevent the eggs from cracking.
  3. After draining water from cooked eggs, tap both ends of the egg with a spoon and roll the egg over a hard surface, like a countertop, until it’s cracked all over. You can also shake the eggs in the pan until the shells crack. Both seem to work.
  4. Cover eggs in ice-cold water and let them cool down to room temperature. This helps loosen the membrane, making them easier to peel.
  5. Peel egg with your thumb, starting at the wider end where there’s an air pocket. Hold under running cold water to remove any remaining shell pieces.

One final tip: save those eggshells — they’re good for your garden, among other things. Find ideas on Pinterest.

That’s it for now – I don’t want to bombard you with too much info at once. keep calm and cook

Smart Perks Blogger Catherine B. enjoys preparing all kinds of dishes, but dreads the clean-up afterwards. She finds someone else to do it.

 

Staycation: All I Ever Wanted

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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?

Pet Adoption How-To Guide

Whoever said “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” had it totally wrong. I could care less about diamonds. Diamonds are shiny pieces of carbon. Give me a dog!

…Or a cat, like the kitten I just adopted a month ago. See, look at Chuck, my two-month-old tabby kitten!

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Chuck, in all his glory.

I swear, this blog isn’t just an excuse to post adorable photos of my kitten. As a life-long animal lover, I’ve wanted to adopt a cat (my apartment building doesn’t allow dogs, and they require a little more work than I have time for right now) for quite some time. And with spring coming and its influx of baby animals due to people not neutering their pets – I can imagine I’m not the only one wanting a new pal!

Except for in special instances like intense allergies – which might require getting a guaranteed hypoallergenic breed – I’m a huge advocate of adopting your animals. Plus, if you’re adopting through a trusted and well-vetted shelter, you might be provided with a much more reliable version of the animal’s health history, the animal most likely have been spayed and neutered, and it is significantly less costly than a breeder. There are so many cats and dogs and other lovable critters in the United States that don’t have anyone to call Mom or Dad. Of course, no need to dwell – we’ve all seen those weepy Sarah McLachlan SPCA commercials. They’re called sad puppy dog eyes for a reason!

Are you looking for a new addition to the family? Having just navigated the pet adoption process, I have a step-by-step guide!

Step 1: The Question

Decide if you have the time, energy and resources to care for a pet right now – and for the next decade or more.

Committing to taking care of an animal is a big deal. Unexpected medicine, emergency veterinarian costs, paying pet sitters, and even the everyday expenses of food, litter, treats and toys can add up. Make sure you have enough savings or at least enough expected income to cover these costs.

In addition, animals take up more time than some people think, especially first time owners. Do you have time to walk your dog at least 3 times a day, or the outdoor space to keep him? Are you willing to play with a rambunctious kitten for a couple of hours everyday to keep their minds and instincts sharp?

Another concern is if and when your family might be expanding. Of course, you can’t tell the future, but if you’re planning on having a kid anytime soon, you might want to hold off on adopting a pet. It’s also important to think about the existing members (furry or not) of the family. If you have kids, are you prepared to teach them proper treatment of animals? And if you have a pet already, how will you make sure they interact in a healthy and happy way?

I’m assuming your family already knows what kind of animal you want, but you have to ask yourself some questions about what type of pet you want. Does age matter? Kittens and puppies (so, animals under a year old) tend to be the most popular choice, but they do require more time and energy to train and care for in the beginning. Also, there are of course plenty of adult animals that need your love, too. Once you have the question of age settled, you might wonder about breed.

One “downside” to adopting is you can’t necessarily shop based on breed (certifying that the animal is purebred), as you can when buying from a breeder. However, as you do get the full veterinarian paperwork from any respectable adopting organization, you can generally have a good idea of the past history of your pet.

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Stella, a border collie/lab puppy, was just adopted from the Humane Society by a coworker.

If you are, keep going to Step 2!

Step 2: The Browsing

Now for the fun parts! Once you feel you’re ready to adopt, you get to browse. There’s a multitude of ways of going about this, but first things first: check out https://www.petfinder.com/. On this site, you can set a variety of specifications, which can help point you in the right direction. For example, you could look for a “baby” or “young” border collie that is within 200 miles of your ZIP code. Sometimes the animals are from individuals who happen to be re-homing the animal, but the majority are from adoption organizations. Oftentimes, in these instances, the cat or dog isn’t at a specific shelter, but is being fostered by a caring animal lover in their home. You can consult with the foster parent to set up an available time if you’re very interested in that animal, but be prepared to fill out vetting forms asking questions like, “How much time do you have to spare for your pet?” and “Where will your pet sleep?” beforehand.

Fellow SmartPerks blogger Melanie adopted one of her Cairn terriers from a shelter located in Nebraska that she found on Petfinder. After 2.5 months at the shelter, little Bacon was certainly happy to find his fur-ever home.

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And really, how could you say no to Bacon?!

Or, instead of trying to find a specific animal, you can go the route I went, which was to research adoption centers within my area and visit during my free time. Keep in mind that the weekends are usually the busiest time to go pet shopping, so if you can sneak in an hour or two during the work week, you’re more likely to be able to find the exact animal you want. Before I found Chuck, I visited all of the local Animal Humane Societies at least twice each, as well as a handful of other local shelters. Each time, although I met a cat I really liked at nearly all of them, there was always something that held me back because it just hadn’t clicked.

But then it did, and I couldn’t be happier.

There’s not always a way to know if it’s the right time and place to adopt the exact animal you are meeting with. You might not even have all of your pet supplies yet, or you were not expecting to come home with a pet TODAY and now feel a little anxious about what to do next.

But have no fear…

Step 3: The First Day

If you found The One, and went through with your adoption, congratulations! This will be an exciting time in both your family’s and your pet’s life.

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It’s an exciting, but sleepy, time. Lots of napping.

But now, if you’ve gotten little Fifi or Fido home and aren’t exactly sure what you can do, here are some pointers.

Some things to look out for when pet-proofing your home:

  • Make sure all plants in your home or pet-friendly
  • Keep all medications, chemicals and cleaning agents on high shelves in tightly sealed containers
  • Secure all wires and chords so animals can’t chew on them
  • Vacuum your floor regularly and check for any small items dogs or cats might try to nibble on
  • Always keep trash (including in the bathroom) covered

Also, it’s important when introducing your animal to your newly pet-proofed home that it might take them up to 2 weeks to fully adjust and be comfortable. Giving them space and safe nooks and crannies to hide in, slowly introducing young children or other animals to your pet, and being home as often as possible to facilitate bonding are all good ways to make them feel welcome.

Now, ready to have some fun?

Both cats and dogs need toys in order to remain happy. For both animals, you will want to pick out toys that facilitate activity (like rope pulls for dogs and fishing poles for cats), distraction (like mobile toys filled with treats) and comfort (like stuffed animals or an old t-shirt).

You can check for local dog parks, join a Meet Up group for Pet Lovers, or spend some time cuddling on the couch.

Whatever you do, I hope you have the happiest time with your new friend.

Blogger Katie U., a Smart Perks employee, is currently wishing she could upload about 30 other pics of her beloved Chuck.

 

 

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!)

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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.

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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.

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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.