It’s a Cool, Cool Summer

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When I was young, one of the highlights of summer was the ice cream man coming to our neighborhood once a week to deliver sweet relief from the sweltering heat. We’d hear the familiar melodious sound of his truck down the block and dash into our houses to grab a few quarters from our piggy banks. By the time he stopped at our street we were ready with coins in hand, eagerly waiting to dig into orange cream bars, Push-up Pops, Eskimo Pies and sundae cups. Aaaahhh, those were the days.

Sadly the ice cream man wasn’t around when my kids were little. So, we’d get ice-cold goodies at the community pool, local DQ or the grocery store.

Now that I have grandchildren, I want to start a new tradition – creating our own refreshing frozen treats.

You’ll find a fabulous assortment of fun and colorful containers and contraptions to prepare and enjoy your favorite frosty creations.  Check these out…

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Ice Pop Molds – Make your own pudding, fruit, yogurt and juice pops with these handy little molds! Pick up a 6-Pc. Set now from Amazon!

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Zoku Ice Cream Maker – Whip up a bowl of fresh gourmet ice cream, gelato, sherbet or sorbet in less than 10 minutes!

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Ice Cream Bowls & Spoons – I love these cute little bowls with matching spoons! They’re perfect for picnics, birthday parties & summer celebrations. Get a set of 12 bowls & spoons for only $13.99 at Oriental Trading Company.

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Zoku Slush & Shake Maker – Use this specially-designed cup to mix up milkshakes, smoothies, iced coffee and floats, or turn your favorite soft drinks into slushies!

Here are some recipes you’ll want to try, too!

Chocolate Pudding Pops
Ingredients:
1 (3.9 oz.) pkg. instant chocolate pudding
2 cups milk
1 cup thawed whipped topping
Directions:  Beat ingredients with whisk for 2 minutes. Pour into ice pop molds (or you can use paper/plastic cups and wooden pop sticks). Freeze for 4-6 hours or until firm. To unmold, run water on the mold for a minute or so. (If using paper cups, peel paper off pops before serving). Variation: try other flavored puddings like vanilla or banana. Serves 6.
Recipe from Kraft.com

Fresh Fruit & Yogurt Pops
Ingredients:
2-1/2 cups plain vanilla yogurt (divided)
1 cup fresh blueberries
1 cup fresh raspberries
1 tbsp. honey
Directions: Mix honey and berries together in a bowl; set aside. In blender, combine 2 cups yogurt with berry mixture, blend until smooth. Fill ice pop molds a quarter full with yogurt and layer berry mixture on top. Freeze about 6 hours or until frozen. Serves 6.


Homemade Strawberry Ice Cream  
Ingredients:
1 pound strawberries
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1 cup sugar
Directions:
1) Wash and trim strawberries; cut into 1/4″ slices. Place half of sliced strawberries in food processor or blender and puree. Set aside both sliced and pureed strawberries.
2) Combine cream, milk and sugar in medium saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring until sugar is completely dissolved. Remove from heat and pour mixture into large bowl. Add strawberry puree and mix well. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator until completely cool.
3) While cream mixture is chilling, dice remaining sliced strawberries into smaller pieces to mix into ice cream. Pour cooled cream mixture into Ice cream maker and process according to manufacturer’s instructions. Towards end of process, stir in diced strawberries. Transfer ice cream to airtight container and freeze for at least 2 more hours before serving. Makes approximately one quart.

See more ice cream recipes at RealSimple.com
Find ways to make smooth no-churn ice cream without a maker!

Hot Fudge Sauce
Ingredients:
2 cups powdered sugar
1 (12 oz.) can evaporated milk
1 cup chocolate chips (milk or semi-sweet)
1/2 cup (stick) butter
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
Directions: In saucepan, mix powdered sugar, evaporated milk, chocolate chips, and butter. Melt and bring to boil. Boil 8 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in vanilla. Take off heat and serve over ice cream. Store in airtight container in refrigerator and reheat as needed. Makes 2 cups.

sundae closeup finalTop off your sundae with sprinkles, nuts, cherries, fresh fruit, candy pieces, pretzel bits, cookie crumbs, peanut butter, whipped cream… you name it!

Think Outside the Ice Box
Tickle your taste buds with unique flavor combos like brown butter & bacon, cilantro & lime and curry & mint – click here for recipes
Or, try this Miso Butterscotch Milkshake  (It seems like an odd combination – miso paste and ice cream? But, I’ve been told it’s surprisingly delicious, a perfect blend of sweet and salty.)

As you can see, the sky’s the limit when it comes to creating your own frozen treats. Here’s to a cool and sweet summer!

Smart Perks Blogger Catherine B. adores ice cream. If she didn’t care about calories, she could probably eat a carton of chocolate almond in one sitting.

 

New Year, New You

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Who, me? Blogger Katie agrees with Calvin! © Bill Waterson

Come mid-December, we start wrapping up the previous year and looking forward to the upcoming one. During this holiday season, as we sit around with friends and family, recounting the trials and tribulations of 2015 – we end up eating cheese plates and cheesecake, drinking beer and wine and soda, maybe capping the long nights with a cigar and heading to bed way past our bedtimes. But while this type of over-indulgence is what the holidays are about, the New Year is always about the New You!

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Cupcakes and champagne – I’m about that life!

That is, until it’s February and you realized you didn’t even keep your New Year’s resolutions for a month. And you wouldn’t be alone. According to Franklin Covey, a time management firm, 30% of New Year’s resolutions are broken by the end of January. The thing is though that when you start to backslide, you think, “Well, I already got off on the wrong foot, might as well try again…later!” and get discouraged, and give up.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. You can successfully set and keep – and even exceed! – your New Year’s resolutions if you keep three things in mind.

  • Set Realistic Goals
  • Think Short-Term, Dream Long-Term
  • Plan It Out

All too often we think of our resolutions as make or break it. Trying to commit to huge changes like, “I’m going to write a book in 2016!” when you haven’t so much as written a paragraph in 2015, sets yourself up for failure. Instead, we outline the three most common New Year’s resolutions and small ways you can make big changes, leading to a happier, healthier you!

Fat to Fit Before After Diet Weight Loss Success

1. Lose Weight

Ah, the most common resolution we make. Who doesn’t want to lose a few? Actually, according to some estimates, between 30% and 40% of us vow to shed some lbs annually. If your plan is to incorporate more veggies in your diet or hit the gym more, this might just work. But science says setting a goal to lose 30 pounds is most likely not going to work. Why? For the same reason that agreeing with your aunt you’ll meet her coworker’s friends’ daughter’s boyfriend for coffee in three months: you’re making vague, faraway promises you can’t (or won’t) keep.

The best way to lose weight is to make small lifestyle changes that can lead to you losing those 30 pounds. For example, set the goal of determining your ideal daily caloric intake and then logging your calories each day with a site like http://www.caloriecount.com/. At the same time, start a workout routine that’s appropriate for your lifestyle and level of current fitness; again, it’s all about moderation! Throwing yourself into a new rigorous workout is a good way to throw out your back.

Are you a person that’s worried they’ll judge you at the gym, and you’re just not cut out for running miles and miles outside in the snowy January weather? All the more power to you if you can, but if that’s just not you, check out SmartPerks’ solution: The Total Gym machine. It offers complex workouts, utilizing all of your muscles that need to firm up, but without putting too much strain on your body. I know a huge factor that keeps me from working out as often as I should is the struggle to drag myself to the gym, so getting a full-body exercise in my own home is a huge plus. If it’s good enough for Christie Brinkley, it’s definitely good enough for me.

Losing weight is a commendably healthy goal to set for 2016, so we don’t want you to let yourself down. Just go slow!

2. Eat This, Not That

Similar to the losing weight resolution, but not fully, because you can be at a totally fine weight, but still eat too much chips and guac or French fries. Most of us could stand to eat better, even if we think we’re really on top of our diet. And while the SmartPerks office is a great place to work, there is one downside: the abundance of snacks. Between the homemade toffee, apple pie bars, caramel popcorn, and bowls of Hershey’s kisses, it’s a sweet tooth-owner’s dream. Tasty though these treats might be, they’re certainly not good for my thighs.

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How could anyone say no to a handful of these?

So, one of my personal 2016 resolutions is to cut back on the daytime snacks. When my blood sugar levels are dipping around 10:30 am and 3 pm, I need to turn to something wholesome like a piece of fruit or dried soybeans, not those delicious, mouthwatering, scrumptious apple bars… dang it, Mary!

Of course, it might be obvious to cut down on the sodas and sweets, but often our biggest issue is our main meals themselves. Oversized, low on fiber, or high in sugar, we might be able to fool ourselves into thinking our veggie burrito is healthy, but we’re not fooling the scale. Even something like salad dressing can be a shockingly caloric addition to an otherwise healthy salad. For example, Newman’s Own Family Recipe Italian, a vinaigrette-style dressing, is loaded with unhealthy ingredients – two tablespoons is 130 calories, 13 grams of fat, and 320 milligrams of sodium. Certainly not a good option with which to top your greens. Something I do to cut down on calories but not on flavor is I make my own dressing.

Katie’s Apple Cider Vinegar Dressing:

Salad dressingThis dressing is excellent on kale salads, roasted vegetables, or any kitchen sink salad. This makes ¾ cup, and after using you can keep in a Mason jar or Tupperware in the fridge.

 

  • 1 small shallot, diced small
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • ¼ cup cider vinegar – I often use closer to ½ cup to thin out the dressing
  • 4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 2 teaspoons honey (or maple syrup)
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice (or any citrus – grapefruit works great!)
  • Pinch each of salt and freshly ground pepper

Combine ingredients in mini Mason jar, and shake until your preferred consistently! Store in tightly closed jar for up to two weeks. Upon use, shake jar to re-emulsify ingredients.

Two tablespoons of this dressing equated to 14 calories, .5 grams of fat, and 214 milligrams of sodium, without losing out on any flavor.

Another way of managing your eating habits? Subscribing to a food delivery service like Blue Apron or Home Chef (Pro Tip: Use the SmartPerks promo code “SP30FREE” to receive $30 off your first order.) The best thing about weekly meal kits is they’re chef-curated so they’re probably more inventive than anything you whip up. You can also pick and choose which weeks you want based on the meal plans listed online. Also, since they’re specifically portioned, you know exactly what nutritional value (including calorie content!) your meals have.

On top of that, they are usually very balanced, representative of the good parts of the food pyramid, so you know you’re getting your veggies, too. For example, one of the available meals for Home Chef is “Winter Quinoa and Arugula Salad with Blue Cheese, Candied Walnuts, and Apricots.” Now, doesn’t that sound healthy and yummy?

Quinoa Salad

Home Chef’s winter salad

If your New Year’s Resolution is to eat healthier in 2016, know that you can do it, it just takes some planning, self-control and motivation. And for your coworkers to not bring in treats.

3. Break the Habit

Always Late

Whether it’s smoking cigarettes, biting your nails, being perennially late, or procrastinating on the job or elsewhere, make 2016 the year to break the bad habit.

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We’ve all got something we do that we shouldn’t, right? If your resolution is to finally learn some healthier habits, we encourage you to get to it! Though some are worse for you than others, anything that negatively impacts your life should be stopped. For example, I’m a nail-biter, guilty as charged. Whenever I’m nervous, bored or tired, I gnaw on my nails like there’s no tomorrow. So far, nothing has helped…though I hold out for next year! I’ve heard no-bite nail polishes can really help, but I’m not so optimistic about me actually taking the time to paint my nails.

Another issue I face – like an estimated 50 to 70 million Americans – is sleeping problems. Sometimes, even after getting 7 hours of seemingly restful sleep, I’ll wake up groggy and exhausted. There are plenty of tips out there for getting a better night’s rest, including avoiding caffeine, alcohol and nicotine (go figure), consistent sleep scheduling (“catching up on sleep” on the weekends is a big no-no), and regular exercising (perhaps a New Year’s resolution double-whammy!).

In addition, setting up your bedroom as a sleep sanctuary can help get you in a relaxed mindset. Just recently, I bought some black-out curtains for my bedroom windows to keep out light and a new cozy throw blanket to stay warm during winter. I also light lavender candles in my room about an hour before bed for aromatherapy. I have found that buying a new set of really soft sheets, a fun duvet, or a great pillow help to make your bed the most inviting place for you to unwind from a long day and catch some z’s.

Cozy bed

How cozy does this look? From MessageNote’s Pinterest

To help you in The Pursuit of Sleep, check out SmartPerks’ deal for My Pillow, a machine-washable, always-cool foam pillow that cradles your neck and head, helping to guarantee a sound night of sleep. Use promo code “smart2” for 50% off your first order! Saving money and sleeping better? Say no more!

Whatever your New Year’s resolution is, whether it’s specific or vague, big or small, a lifestyle change or a daily tweak, SmartPerks wishes you the best of luck in accomplishing your goals for the new year. And as we head into 2016, don’t forget to enjoy the remaining days of 2015!

Blogger Katie U., a Smart Perks employee, bit her nails the whole time she was writing this blog post. 

Roman Holiday: A Trip to A Local Italian Market

Food is the stuff of life, right?

A good meal not only sustains us, it’s the heart of so many holidays, celebrations, and family get-togethers. The dinner date. Catching up with old friends. The client lunch. Meals are where we make memories, toast to health and happiness, and delight in the most tantalizing of flavors, as well as the fruits of someone’s labor, be it family or a professional chef.

Food reminds me of my heritage and family traditions. I am Serbian, and grew up with my Grandma baking potica, a traditional Serbian sweet bread made with walnuts and honey in a flaky brown and cream-colored spiral, and sarmas, a meat mixture wrapped in cabbage leaves boiled with tomato sauce, sauerkraut and Polish sausage for hours, at every Christmas dinner.

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My family came from a small iron ore-mining town with a large immigrant population and lots of different cultural delicacies. So we enjoyed baklava, spanokopita, porchetta, antipasto, fresh crusty Italian bread, spaetzle, hard salami and delicious salty cheeses.

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Foccacia

Now that my grandparents are gone, and I am living in a different city, I don’t eat the foods of my childhood every day. However, we still make our Serbian sarmas every other Christmas. It’s a big production, but luckily my Grandpa taught us all the little tips and tricks before he passed (like freezing the cabbage beforehand and then boiling the whole head, so the leaves peel off easily and whole).

When my husband and I are both so busy with work, and life is hectic, we just don’t always have the time or energy to shop for fresh ingredients, or spend a lot of time in preparing authentic ethnic cuisine on a weeknight. It’s much easier when a meal comes in a box, and you can just pop it in the oven or microwave. But so much of the heart, soul and emotional symbolism of eating a good meal is lost with this lifestyle.

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As much as I love grocery shopping (I always shop when hungry…gasp…so taboo) at a big chain grocery store, whenever I have the time, I visit my all-time favorite, family-owned, authentic Italian grocer – Cossetta’s. It’s more than a mere grocery run. It’s a full-sensory adventure. 12047167_1229474950412007_5034716741244026546_nThe smells, the bright colors…you’re transported from the neutral palettes of most everyday life.

In the late 1800’s a young man named Michael Cossetta came to St. Paul, Minnesota from Calabria, Italy, and settled in a little Italian neighborhood in St. Paul called the Upper Levee. By 1911, he opened a tiny food market called Cossetta’s, which drew customers from everywhere who appreciated his quality foods and genuine hospitality.11930928_1229474957078673_2699722492694218449_o

Since 1984, Cossetta’s has been known for its award-winning pizza, homemade sauces, handmade Italian sausages and welcoming staff.  Cossetta’s recently celebrated it’s 100-year anniversary, and the fourth-generation family decided to expand the tradition to include all the Old World sensations and offerings a customer could experience in Italy without actually traveling there.

It’s about an hour from my house, but well worth the trip. Since I don’t get to Cossetta’s frequently, I like to stock up, and freeze some things. Because everything is so fresh, I can’t help but buy all of the ingredients for at least three nights of Italian meals in a row.

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“Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” The Godfather

Since most people (like me, with little self-discipline) are too busy devouring their meal to remember to save room for dessert, Cossetta’s has smartly located the impressive Pasticceria — their pastry shop, where you can purchase an authentic cannoli pastry like you would in Sicily— in front of the regular market.

Only after I’ve filled a box with all of my favorite cookies and splurged on a cake, I head to Cossetta’s full Italian Market , featuring everything you need to make an authentic Italian meal, from antipasti to pizza, bracciole to parmigiana, masterpieces with only the best imported or home-grown ingredients. 11998952_1229965397029629_5135466810060602391_nMost of the time, I take shortcuts by buying Cossetta’s freshly made dough and thick, spicy pizza sauce, and then topping with their chewy, salty fresh shredded mozzarella (pronounced Moot-za-relle by my Italian friend from Long Island), which I buy by the quart.12004140_1229474900412012_9185852308898427024_n

It’s so good that sometimes we can’t resist digging in to the shredded cheese before we get home. If I’m not up for cooking, I might take home a chef-prepared meal.

The meat market is full of the freshest cuts of meats with romantic Italian names, straight from Carmela Soprano’s kitchen. I always buy Cossetta’s meatball mix in bulk, pepperoni for our pizzas and sandwiches, hard salami, spicy sausage links for my pasta and gravy (Sauce? What’s that?) several porchettas (a pork roast covered in Italian spices and seasonings), Italian beef roasts, veal cutlets, and thinly cut and rolled bracciole.

12019778_1229475070411995_6510653163129296253_nWe love meatball subs on crusty, demi-baguettes, baked fresh that morning. It’s our first night meal. Meatballs on our baguette, covered in marinara and heaped with mozzarella, with parmesan sprinkled liberally on top, then placed under the broiler. Yummo!

Second night is pizza night.

The first Sunday is a roast. Because Sundays were always the day my Grandma made a roast for the family. And a spicy hot porchetta sandwich with pepperoncini peppers tastes great with a cold beverage and a football game on TV.

I know that Cossetta’s is our own local gem, but if you haven’t found a local ethnic grocer in your area, it’s probably because you haven’t looked. Whether it’s Greek, Mexican, Asian, or Ethiopian, I guarantee you will find a grocery store that will transport you to another place, a vacation destination in your own backyard. Fall is the perfect time to start stocking up for the winter ahead, when you’ll be so glad you have some delicious meals to look forward to.

So go, already! Mangia!

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Blogger Melanie B, a Smart Perks employee,  gained 10 pounds just writing this post.