What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

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

Here are just a few:

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

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

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Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

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

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Sacred Smoke Sculpture at Devil’s Tower

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

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

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

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Contemplating life at Jackson Lake, The Grand Tetons

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

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

 

Enjoy a Front Porch Summer

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Last summer my husband built us the front porch of our dreams, something I’ve longed for forever.

The front porch evokes a romantic ideal of summer for me, of life before social media, or central air. I’m reminded of the traditional farmhouse porches of Forrest Gump, or the Walton Family, up on Walton’s Mountain (Good Night, Johnboy). The front porch was the place where gossip was exchanged, secrets shared and wisdom imparted.

The allure of the front porch is endless to me. Rocking chairs, a porch swing, brightly colored Adirondack chairs, all of them say “Stop and sit awhile.” A porch can create a sense of community. Just building the porch, I met new neighbors I hadn’t talked to in over a decade in our home. Or, sometimes it’s just a friendly wave, a smile and a nod from the runner jogging by, ear buds in place, but that connection is still made.  My dogs have made countless new friends, as dog walkers stop to let the pooches get acquainted.

If you’re an early riser, the porch is perfect spot for quiet and solitude when the sun comes up on a warm summer morning.  It’s also the ideal time to enjoy a little nature, the smell of fresh cut grass, your beautiful blooms, or the sounds of the birds hiding in the trees.

I have a fountain inside my screen-porch, and the sound of the running water attracts hummingbirds. So I put a hummingbird feeder right out front, where I could watch them hovering, hear the furious buzzing of their wings as they feed. I’ve become familiar with the different chirps and songs of the feeder regulars, the dee-dee-dee of the chickadees, the “pretty, pretty, pretty bird” of Mr. Cardinal, the sweet meows of a gold finch, or the plaintive coo of the mourning dove.

13323305_1424426537583513_8057884246284569945_oNot only does a porch offer an inviting welcome to guests and passers-by, but it also adds curb appeal to a home’s façade. It’s a glimpse of your personality, with a dash of summer flair – cascading ferns, colorful throw cushions, a vintage watering can, bright red Wellies waiting at the door.

I devour book after book on the front porch. Sometimes I’ll coincidentally find an incredible book where the porch itself feels like a character. Such was the case with The Truth According to Us, the second novel from the co-author of the insanely popular book The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  Set during the summer of 1938, The Truth According to Us evokes the charm and eccentricity of a small town filled with extraordinary characters, bringing to life an inquisitive young girl, her beloved aunt, and the alluring  visitor who changes the course of their destiny forever.

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If you’re looking for a couple of other great books to read on your porch swing, I suggest Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, which is being made into a film by Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. Two other fantastic reads are At the Water’s Edge, from Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants, or The Nest, a recently released novel about the extremely dysfunctional Plumb family, by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney.

Half of our porch, which extends across the front of our house, is screened in. We have a ceiling fan to create a light breeze when the sultry August air is thick and oppressive. The screened room protects us from being devoured by man-eating Minnesota mosquitoes. It also allows us to enjoy the quiet night sounds, the crickets and frogs, sometimes an owl, or the last little voices of the neighbor kids riding home at dusk.

The chance to play a game of cards with friends, without air-conditioning, television, or mobile devices, is a welcome break from modern life.

 

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Photo from Southern Living magazine

But my FAVORITE thing about a front porch is decorating it for the 4th of July. I’m a devout sentimentalist when it comes to a farmhouse front porch festooned in red, white and blue bunting, garlands, flags in all the flower pots, and the John Philip Souza march playing in the background. Hooray for the red, white and blue!

If you’re looking for some ideas on creating the porch of your dreams, here are a couple more sources for inspiration. HGTV  Country Living  I hope you’ll take some time to disconnect and enjoy some good old summertime, wherever your “happy place” might be.

Smart Perks Blogger, Melanie Bisson is currently in her happy place.

Which Wearable Works Best for You?

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Fitbits, FuelBands, Jawbones: We’ve all heard of them, but do you really know how to use them? Or even what they are?

All of the above are just a few examples of different types of wearables, or technology pieces that serve a variety of functions, ranging from monitoring heart rate to playing music. In this case, these are all activity trackers, which are watches that track, well, your activity.

This can be useful for monitoring how many calories you burn, steps you take, and  what your heart rate is. They are especially useful if you’re trying to get in better shape, because you get information on your progress right there on your wrist! You can even wear some of them to sleep and wake up with a little report on what your night was like – how often you were restless, when you were in deep sleep, when exactly you woke up.

Basically, activity trackers are simply a great way to give you feedback on your own body.  Sounds good, right? If you need some help deciding which of the main fitness wearables is best for you, have no fear: here is a roundup of the top performers and why they might be the watch for you!

Fitbit:

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Probably the most popular of the activity trackers, there are 8 different models to choose from in a range of prices and functions.

Actually, their website has a test you can take to see which one matches your needs most. I have the Charge HR, which is primarily different from some of the others because it monitors your heart rate (hence the HR part), and I absolutely love it.

While I don’t always remember to charge it and sometimes forget to put it on in the morning, whenever I do wear it I love looking at the data. With just a quick push of a button, I’m reminded that I’ve only taken 2,000 steps today – a full 8,000 under the recommended 10,000 to take a day. When I’m exercising, it’s a great motivator to be able to look down and see how many calories you’re burning.

Though some spring for the pricey Fitbit Blaze ($250), for people on a tighter budget, the Charge is just as good and definitely less costly. Plus, it now comes in pink – a great gift for Mother’s Day.

Price: $59.95 – $249.95

Tip: This applies to all activity trackers, not just the Fitbit, but the prices vary significantly from store to store. Definitely shop around before purchasing one!

FuelBand:

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This sleek device, just like a Fitbit, is worn on your wrist and tracks your activity. How it differs: Whereas the Fitbit is great for even the most sedentary of people, the Nike+ FuelBand really kicks it up a notch.

First you determine your daily goal for what you want to accomplish that day, and then the FuelBand tracks your progress – whether it’s running, playing basketball, or walking – and changes colors from red to green throughout the day, giving you an idea of what your progress has been.

From what I’ve heard from people who have them, one of the biggest draws to the FuelBand is this very visual reminder of your activity levels. Because of the way the Nike+ Fuel app is set up, every day seems like a competition with yourself – but in the most positive way possible! Just note that you will need a smartphone in order to most effectively use a Fuelband, as it works in tandem with an app.

Price: $149.99

Jawbone:

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The fitness tracker Jawbone Up has 4 different options, of which the most acclaimed is the Jawbone UP2. Though it first came out awhile ago, this activity wearable is still very popular.

Why? Because at just under $100, it’s cheaper than some of the others on the market, but without losing any of the quality. It tracks both sleep and steps, as well as monitoring calories burned. It’s also unobtrusive and easy to use; it doesn’t have any buttons or a screen, so you switch between active or sleep mode with just a tap.

Although it doesn’t monitor heart rate, one advantage it does have is a “smart” alarm. This can be set before you go to bed so that the Jawbone UP2 wakes you up during a lighter stage of your rest in the morning, which is helpful for waking up feeling refreshed rather than restless.

Like with all of these fitness trackers, it’s unfortunately not waterproof, but it is considered water resistant: a definite plus for those of us (I’m not pointing fingers!) who may sweat a lot.

Price: $49.99 – $199.99

There are plenty of other options out there on the market, but these are the basics of the major three activity trackers. If you’re interested in others, this article is a really useful tool to help you decide.

Whichever one you choose, know that you’re one step closer to reaching your 10,000 step goal. And if you need any advice on how to take all of those steps, hope this helps!

Blogger Katie U., a SmartPerks employee, all too often forgets to charge her Charge HR. Don’t let it happen to you!

 

 

Meal Kits for Inspiration in the Kitchen

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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!

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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)
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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.

Simple Heartastic Valentine’s Crafts

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

How To Survive Hosting a Big Family Thanksgiving

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Practically everyone I know looks forward to Thanksgiving.

It’s one of the few times you can get together with family or friends to catch up on each others’ lives and reminisce, and of course watch a little football.

But, let’s be honest the main attraction is the feast… turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes & gravy, pumpkin pie topped with real whipped cream… oh, yeah!

Slice of pumpkin pie served on antique china. Bacground of assorted pumpkins and what is left of the baked pie.

Sure, you may have to loosen up your belt a bit (or change into your lounge pants) after indulging in all the glorious food, but you can always diet for days afterward to cancel out all the calories you’ve consumed. That’s what I tell myself anyway.

My family has been hosting this holiday for years. At first it seemed a little daunting and stressful, but now that we’ve got it down to a science, we actually enjoy it. Besides, everyone contributes something towards the meal. We’re just responsible for the turkey, stuffing, potatoes and gravy.

Of course, we need to take care of all the preparations, too ― shopping for groceries and other essentials, thawing the turkey (I buy frozen because it’s cheaper), cleaning the house, setting the tables and getting up at the crack of dawn to stuff the bird and throw it in the oven. Fortunately, my husband and kids pitch in and somehow it all comes together in the end.
If this is your first time hosting and you have no clue what to do, don’t sweat it. I’ve got some tricks to help make your turkey day a success.

  • Plan ahead. This is a must! I decide on the menu weeks in advance and ask each guest to bring something, like a side dish, salad, rolls or dessert, oh and a bottle of wine (you can never have too much wine).
  • From there, I make a list of the things I need to buy and shop around for the best deals. Stores generally offer discounts on turkeys, breadcrumbs for stuffing, and other popular Thanksgiving fare days or even weeks before the holiday.
  • Thaw the turkey. If you do get a frozen turkey, you’ll want to purchase it a week or more in advance. The reason being it takes about 5 days to thaw a 20-24 lb. turkey in your fridge. The folks at Jennie-O have some tips on how to properly thaw a frozen turkey.
  • Make sure there’s enough tableware. We tend to have a big crowd every year (25-28 people), so I usually end up borrowing extra plates, glasses, silverware, serving bowls, and platters from a relative or friend. I don’t worry about them matching. Everyone will be so busy eating they’re not going to notice (or care)! Besides, mixing different patterns and colors make your presentation a little more interesting and avant-garde.
  • Tidy up the house. I de-clutter and clean the house, at least the rooms my guests will see, in stages. Otherwise, it can be too overwhelming. I do the dusting and vacuuming a day or two before the event so everything stays clean. A word of advice ― recruit family members to lend a hand, even if you have to bribe them!
  • Set the table the day before. It gives you one less thing to do on Thanksgiving Day. I cover them with nice tablecloths (if I need extra, I’ll borrow one or two from my mom or sister-in-law), and place napkins and silverware at each place setting. I also make sure I have salt & pepper shakers at each table.
    GHK image

    Photo by Good Housekeeping.

    As for the centerpieces, I create my own with candles, miniature gourds & pumpkins, and different colored leaves. Need some inspiration? Check out these do-it-yourself centerpieces on Pinterest.

  • Timing is key. This is where it gets tricky. You have to figure out how long it’s going to take to prepare everything (turkey, potatoes, gravy, sides, etc.) so the whole meal is done at the same time. It helps to do what you can ahead of time and have your guests bring pre-cooked or pre-made items so all you need to do is heat them up in the oven or microwave, or keep them chilled until you’re ready to eat.
  • Start with the turkey as it takes the longest. Usually the packaging includes cooking instructions. If not, you can look them up online at www.allrecipes.com. It also depends on whether or not your turkey is stuffed. Some people prefer to have the stuffing outside of the bird, but our family has always cooked the stuffing inside the turkey. Either way be sure to remove those little bags of giblets (heart, liver, neck, etc.) from the turkey before you pop it in the oven. In fact, you may want to cook up some of those little gizzards and add them to your stuffing to make it more flavorful. Here’s a recipe for classic giblet stuffing from Better Homes & Gardens.centerpieces country living
  • Make it casual. We have our guests arrive early in the afternoon for “social hour” with wine and cider, and some light appetizers (crackers & cheese, veggies & dip, etc.) before dinner. The main meal is served buffet style ― it’s less formal and more manageable. My husband carves the turkey and everybody dishes up their own plates then finds a place at the table.
  • Take time to enjoy the meal and each others’ company. In fact, we don’t start clearing the table until everyone is finished. Most of the time we’re all so stuffed after the meal we wait an hour or two to have dessert, giving us time to relax, catch up on the game, or take a stroll around the neighborhood.
  • Ask for help. I find that people (in my case it’s the women) are always willing to help out, whether it’s setting out the food, clearing the table, or doing the dishes. We talk and laugh a lot in the process so we don’t mind being stuck in the kitchen while the others are sacked out on the sofa.

Finally, don’t panic! I decided a long time ago not to fret over things like lumpy gravy or mismatched silverware. After all, it’s dinner with your relatives or friends, not the royal family!

Here’s to a happy and stress-free Thanksgiving!

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Click here for Free Thanksgiving Chalkboard Printables.

Blogger Catherine B, a Smart Perks employee, enjoys a good Riesling with her turkey.

Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves: The Best Motivational Reads for Women

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“It’s a man’s world.” Etta James

Well, at least it used to be when it came to the genre of self-improvement books.

The concept of a written guide for readers on solving personal problems has been around since the pyramids. Some of the mid to late 20th Century classics, books like Dale Carnegie’s 1936 confidence-boosting classic, How to Win Friends & Influence People,  Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, and Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People are still widely read today. I know I use many of Covey’s strategies to keep my life on track.

12188169_1251257811567054_8247993140834606883_oOne of the most powerful books on coping with great loss, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Rabbi Harold Kushner, holds a place of honor on my book shelf.

But up until the last 15 years or so, it was definitely a man’s world, and I didn’t personally connect with these authors as individuals who could really empathize with my unique experiences, as a trusted friend or confidante.

According to Psychology Today, one of the most important factors in any good self-help book is “the author’s ability to connect with you as though you are in a relationship, to communicate understanding and compassion,” and for me anyway, to feel a recognition, a feeling of “You get me, you really get me.” Or, “I get you.” In the parlance of social media, you’re part of my tribe, or “squad”.

10897052_1251257844900384_7545959439673354695_nThat’s how I feel about Liz Gilbert, the best-selling author of Eat, Pray Love and The Signature of All Things. I call her Liz, because simply by having read her books, and following her on Facebook, I feel like we are the best of besties. I know her. Her posts are a daily treat that I indulge in – guilt free. It’s a conversation where she writes thought-provoking, motivational messages in a letter to us, her “Dear Friends”. And she responds to many commenters. Who does that? I want her to come to my house for the holidays.

Eat, Pray, Love was a memoir/travelogue/inspirational novel, and The Signature of All Things, an epic work of fiction, is Gilbert’s homage to fearless, bold, ambitious, intelligent, curious women; family; love; history and botany. But her latest book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, was probably the most motivational, joy-affirming, “stop with the excuses  and live your dreams” book I’ve ever read (as you can probably tell by all the Post-Its I used to mark up my favorite passages).

Big Magic isn’t just for writers, artists, and starry-eyed dreamers. It’s a book for anyone who wants to break out of the rigid confines of grown-up life, with all its expectations and restraints. Gilbert proclaims that you don’t have to quit your day job to live a creative life. She didn’t. She leads by example. The other day at the bookstore, I accosted a woman when I saw her pick up Big Magic and put it back down. I told her, “You MUST get that book! You’ll LOVE IT! It’s a quick read because of Liz’s conversational style, I don’t know if you’re a writer, because if you are, you have to have to own it. But even if you’re not, you’re just looking for a creative outlet in your life, something that feeds your soul – then you need this book. If you’re into crafts, or ice skating, or photography, you’ll feel like your best friend is giving you the best pep talk ever.” Needless to say, the woman was probably a little frightened to put the book back. (Note to Liz’s Publicist: Not that she needs the help, but I’m available to stalk book stores and drum up sales).

I felt the same way the first time I heard author Brené Brown’s TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability. She is sooooo intensely relatable. If you haven’t watched this 20-minute video, give yourself a gift and watch it.

12196186_1251257838233718_9001777228001757311_nHow many times have you heard the debate about whether a woman can or can’t have it all? How many times have you felt the pressure to do everything, and to do it perfectly, and then felt shame when you fell short? Have you either not done a thing, or found yourself paralyzed to do a thing, because you were afraid it wouldn’t be JUST RIGHT? After watching Brené’s Ted Talk three years ago, I bought every book of hers I could get my hands on, including The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. The book teaches us to stop being so hard on ourselves, and understand the difference between “healthy-striving and perfectionism.” Brené talks about how perfectionism paralyzes us, “because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect.” Just think of “all of the dreams that we don’t follow because of our deep fear of failing.” She talks not only about the “power of vulnerability”, but also the power of shame, of being judged, or blamed. Read everything she’s written! But start with the Ted Talk and this book first.

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So you’re already pretty happy with your life? That is awesome. But what if you could be even happier? Not “Pollyanna Slap-Happy”. But what if using the wisdom of the ages, and in a fun, “what have I got to lose, I’m already happy” kind-of way, you could challenge yourself to focus on giving some thought to and making some simple adjustments to one area of your life, each month, for a year? That’s exactly what Gretchen Rubin did, and she chronicled her findings in the book, The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. 

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Cheryl Strayed (New book, Brave Enough, YAY!), Oprah, Alexandra Stoddard, Marie Kondo, Karen Salmansohn (follow her on Facebook and Instagram for daily inspirational posters!) – there are so many women out there who speak to me and inspire me. I could go on. But instead, I want to share a famous quote from inspirational author Marianne Williamson that has guided me for almost two decades now:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be…Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

I hope whether you read any of these books for yourself, you continue to make your life better every single day.

Blogger Melanie B, a Smart Perks employee, is giddy with optimism and trying her best to live a creative life.