The Perfect Mother’s Day Meal

spring veggies

Was your mother always begging you to “Eat your vegetables!” like mine was? As a kid, I had no interest. Boiled Brussels sprouts and canned green beans? Blegh, no thank you. But between growing up and developing a more nuanced palate and finding new ways to cook vegetables in the current veggie-centric food world, I’ve become a veggie (and fruit!) fiend.

So mama, this one’s for you – here’s your Mother’s Day menu chockfull of those greens and things that abound in spring.

Though technically spring started in March, let’s get real: if you live anywhere in the northern or eastern states, you’re only now getting to really experience this awesome season. The beautiful greenery, fresh flowers, spring vacations, those warm but not hot days, and my favorite part of spring – the produce!

Asparagus, apricots, artichokes, fava beans, leeks, radishes, rhubarb, peas, carrots…  it truly is the best time of year for a fruit and veggie lover like me.

There are so many different options for how to use the spring crop bounty, but where to begin? It feels like for every time I see a new recipe I’m dying to try, the next day I find three new ones, and then they all just get lost in the bookmarks and I never end up making them!

But fear not. You don’t have to suffer the same sad fate as me, where I’ve followed the instructions to a t only to be left with starchy asparagus or smushy peas. Here is a menu collection of my favorite spring recipes – starting with an appetizer, ending with a dessert – that are as tried and true as can be. You won’t be wasting your precious spring veggies and fruits on disastrous recipes…just the absolute best ones.

Appetizer: Cauliflower-Leek Soup

leek soup

Photo from AllRecipes.com

I like this recipe for two reasons: 1) it switches out starchy potatoes for cauliflower, lowering the carb count, and 2) it’s pretty much as simple as sautéing a few ingredients and tossing them in the blender. Although this recipe calls for a warm soup, I actually have preferred serving it chilled, but both work.

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 leeks, cut into 1 inch pieces
  • 1 large head cauliflower, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 8 cups vegetable broth
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 cup heavy cream (optional)

Directions:

Heat the olive oil and butter in a large pot over medium heat, and saute the leeks, cauliflower, and garlic for about 10 minutes. Stir in the vegetable broth, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 45 minutes.

Remove the soup from heat. Blend the soup with an immersion blender or hand mixer. Season with salt and pepper. Mix in the heavy cream, and continue blending until smooth.

 

Entrée: Crispy Catfish Sandwiches with Quick Cabbage Slaw, Plus Simple Spring Salad

sandwich

Yes, there is a bite taken out of the sandwich. Don’t judge me!

This is a personal recipe I based on a dish I had at a restaurant, and I’ve tweaked it over and over just to my liking. What’s great about it is you could totally substitute another flaky fish if you’d like, or even thin chicken cutlets, and although it is fried, the batter is so light it feels just indulgent enough without being heavy.

Plus, the salad is more than flexible – I’ve swapped radicchio for romaine, fresh French beans for radish, and tried a variety of dressings, though I’m partial to this vinaigrette.

Ingredients:

  • 1-3 whole French baguettes, or individual sub rolls per person depending on size of party
  • 1 catfish fillet per person
  • 1 cup shredded red cabbage
  • 1 lime
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon creamy Dijon mustard
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon each cayenne, garlic powder, onion salt, paprika, and cumin
  • 2 hearts of Romaine (or lettuce of your choice)
  • 4-5 thinly sliced radishes
  • Handful of multicolored halved cherry tomatoes
  • Simple lemon vinaigrette dressing
  • Note: will use extra mayonnaise from side dish in this dish

Directions:

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a large bowl, mix the flour, 5 tablespoons of water, and half of the spice mixture, plus salt and pepper. In another bowl, mix shredded cabbage, the juice of the lime, the apple cider vinegar and the mustard, stirring well. Then place in fridge. On a dry plate pat the catfish dry. In a nonstick skillet, add just enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan on medium heat. Test the temp of the oil by adding a tiny drop of water; if it sizzles, you’re good to go.

Dredge the catfish in the flour mixture, then add to the nonstick skillet. Cook the catfish 4-7 minutes on each side, checking that it’s not burning or sticking but just turning golden brown and crispy. Once cooked, place on clean, paper towel-lined plate, and season with salt and pepper again.

Cut the bread of your choice, and toast in preheated oven gently, just until edges are turning a warm brown. Add the cleaned romaine (or other lettuce), thinly sliced radishes, and the tomatoes to the plate. Drizzle vinaigrette on top; add a grind or two of fresh black pepper. I like to garnish with finely chopped herbs, such as oregano, chives, or basil, but feel free to leave out.

Spread mayonnaise on toasted bread, add catfish fillet, topping with the quick cabbage slaw and serve warm with the side salad.

Side Dish: A Cozy Kitchen’s Roasted Asparagus

Asparagus_2

Photo from A Cozy Kitchen.

This is an easy to make side that truly stuns (if you like asparagus, that is). Here, we’re doubling the recipe for the hazelnut mayo, adding half to the catfish sandwich. Trust me, it works, but if you have nut allergy concerns, just omit the hazelnuts. Also note: she calls for white asparagus, but I made it with only green and it works wonderfully; though she uses an immersion blender, I’ve used a regular blender and everything turned out fine.

Ingredients:

  • 2 whole large eggs
  • *1 cup sunflower or grape seed oil (a clean, mild-tasting oil)
  • *1/4 cup hazelnut oil (optional – if not using, then add 3/4 cup sunflower or grape seed oil)
  • Juice from 1 lemon
  • 4 teaspoon whole grain mustard
  • Salt
  • 3/4 pound green asparagus, washed and ends trimmed
  • 1/4 pound white asparagus, washed, ends trimmed and peeled
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Juice from 1/2 lemon

Directions:

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Place hazelnuts on a parchment-lined baking sheet and transfer to the oven to toast for 10 to 15 minutes. Immediately transfer warm hazelnuts to the center of a clean kitchen towel. Wrap the kitchen towel around the hazelnuts and rub them vigorously until all of the skins have fallen off. (A little bit of skin staying on is normal and totally fine.) Set nuts aside to cool.

Meanwhile, add the large eggs, sunflower or grape seed oil, hazelnut oil (if using), juice from lemon, mustard and a few pinches of salt to a tall plastic cylinder (note: most hand immersion blenders come with a tall plastic cylinder for blending). Allow the egg yolk to settle to the bottom. Using a hand immersion blender, stick the blade to the very bottom and blend on high for about 30 seconds; you’ll immediately see the mayonnaise begin to form. Slowly raise the immersion blender near the surface to incorporate all of the oil and until very thick. Salt to taste. In a food processor or using a knife, pulse the hazelnuts until they resemble a coarse meal, about 30 seconds. Add the aioli to the food processor and blend until completely incorporated and smooth(ish).

Preheat the broiler. On a baking sheet (you can use the same one you toasted the hazelnuts on), add the green asparagus in an even layer. Rub the asparagus with the olive oil, lemon juice and a few pinches of salt. Place the baking sheet under the broiler and roast for 5 minutes. At the 5-minute mark, add the white asparagus to the baking sheet. Place the baking sheet back under the broiler and roast for an additional 10 minutes. Serve the asparagus alongside the hazelnut mayonnaise.

Dessert: Smitten Kitchen’s Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

rhubarb pie

Photo from Smitten Kitchen.

You just have to end your meal on a sweet note. I tend to like more delicate little bits and pieces of treats, but my mom is a pie fanatic. This one perfectly walks the line between sweet and tart. Plus, it can be made up to 3 days in advance and left at room temperature, so you don’t have to worry about dessert the day of.

Ingredients:

  • 1 recipe All Butter, Really Flaky Pie Dough or double-crust pie dough of your choice
  • 3 1/2 cups (about 1 1/2 pounds, untrimmed) rhubarb, in 1/2-inch thick slices
  • 3 1/2 cups (about 1 pound) strawberries, hulled and sliced if big, halved if tiny
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup quick-cooking tapioca
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 large egg yolk beaten to blend with 1 teaspoon water (for glaze)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. On a well-floured counter, roll half of pie dough into a 12-inch circle and carefully transfer to a 9-inch pie plate. (I like to fold my gently into quarters, to transfer it more easily, then unfold it in the pie plate.)

Stir together rhubarb, strawberries, sugars, lemon, salt and tapioca in a large bowl. Mound filling inside bottom pie crust and dot with bits of unsalted butter. Roll second half of pie dough into an 11-inch circle and cut decorative slits in it. Transfer it to center over the pie filling. Trim top and bottom pie dough so that their overhang beyond the pie plate lip is only 1/2-inch. Tuck rim of dough underneath itself and crimp it decoratively.

Transfer pie to a baking sheet and brush egg yolk mixture over dough. Bake for 20 minutes then reduce temperature to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 25 to 30 minutes, until the pie is golden and the juices bubble visibly.

Transfer pie to wire rack to cool. When full cool (several hours later) the juices gel.

So, just to recap: This menu has cauliflower, leek, cabbage, lettuce, radish, tomatoes, asparagus, lemon, strawberries AND rhubarb. Is that enough veggies (and two fruits!) for you, Mom?

Whether you make this full meal or just some of the recipes, you’re sure to host a home-run Mother’s Day luncheon. Just don’t forget the wine and spritzers!

wine and flowers

Katie U., a Smart Perks employee, wishes all mothers a wonderful Mother’s Day.

 

Staycation: All I Ever Wanted

keep-calm-and-take-a-staycation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rule 1: Really, Truly No Working

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

no_cell_phone

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.

greek-chicke-kebabs3-srgb.

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.

Paul-Bunyan.jpg

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?

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 have a spooktacular, spine-tingling Halloween!

WitchesQuote

Did you know Halloween is second only to Christmas in terms of holiday sales?

Think about it. Retail stores start peddling giant bags of bite size candy bars, countless costumes & props, and spooky decorations right after Labor Day.

Suffice to say we’re really into this holiday. I guess some folks just enjoy being scared out of their wits, while others like to dress up as gory and ghoulish characters to fulfill some macabre fantasy. If you look at the barrage of horror flicks dominating the box office year after year, and our growing and somewhat mind-boggling fascination with zombies (The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead … need I say more?), it comes as no surprise that Halloween seems to be rising in popularity.

Dressing up is my favorite part of Halloween and nowadays you can find an amazing array of costumes for infants through adults and even some awesome outfits for your pooch. Then there are the hundreds of online stores that focus solely on Halloween! If you plan on buying your costumes this year, Smart Perks’ featured partner this month is Costume Discounters. Use promo code SUPER25 and receive 25% off any purchase.

Costumes

However, if you want to try your hand at making homemade costumes, Pinterest is chock-full of ideas for creating some really clever costumes. There are some of the most adorable and imaginative costumes for kids I’ve ever seen! The old man from the Pixar’s movie “UP” is a personal favorite.

il_570xN.778343910_k16x comic book character

If you want to be super-scary, makeup is the key. Buzzfeed.com has lots of fabulous makeup tricks to try from creepy to cool. I love this one, featuring a comic book heroine that looks just like Roy Lichtenstein’s “Crying Girl”. The resemblance is AMAZING.

skeleton door

I also look forward to seeing our neighborhood decked out for Halloween every year. I can’t believe the work some people put into it. Yards filled with makeshift gravestones, frightful motion-activated lawn ornaments that moan, howl or growl, ghosts, bats and skeletons hanging from trees, glowing jack-o-lanterns, and the Grim Reaper guarding front doorways. It’s amazing! I admit some of this stuff scares the bejeezus out of me, but that’s the idea, right?

All I can say is people really put a lot of thought and creativity (and money) in their Halloween décor. But, if you want them to be unique and save some dough, hand-crafted decorations are the way to go.

Again Pinterest is an excellent source for do-it-yourself decorations. My daughter’s family made these clever Halloween lanterns out of old milk jugs. First they drew faces on each jug with black marker then placed glow sticks inside so they light up at night.

HalloweenMilkJugs
As for celebrating Hallows Eve, a lot of establishments host costume contests and some cities even have zombie pub crawls. Yes, people actually dress up like zombies and go bar hopping, often leaving a fake limb or earlobe behind. Zombie-Pub-CrawlTheme parks and malls (like the Mall of America here in Minneapolis) often offer special Halloween events for kids and adults, and you can usually find a number of haunted venues in major cities and suburbs throughout the U.S.

If you prefer to celebrate at home, you’ll find all kinds of recipes and party ideas for Halloween at Foodnetwork.com!

Creative_Ways_to_Use_Halloween_Candy_from_Food_Network_and_HGTV_Food_Network_-_2015-10-19_11.10.30

Still looking for more spooktacular fun? Pop Sugar is a great source for fun and cheap ways to celebrate Halloween.

Happy Haunting!
Catherine “Cat” B, a Smart Perks employee and Good Witch-In-Chief

Back-to-School Shopping: It’s not just for kids anymore

 

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Target sells black chalk board tape! Love it. Here it’s used with chalk markers.

It’s Back-to-School Time!!! The most wonderful time of the year!

Yes, I know that this kind of enthusiasm is typically reserved for that OTHER best time of the year, which believe me, I go nuts for, too.

Here I am, a married adult woman. No kids. It’s the middle of August, and I’m giddy like the proverbial school girl.

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August 1982 B-T-S issue of Seventeen – The memories!

I still remember the summer when I was twelve years old, and my mom bought me my first Seventeen magazine. It was the Back-to-School issue, and I was sure all of the mysteries and wonders of being a cool teenage girl were contained inside those smooth and shiny, uncreased pages. Along with my new Seventeen, she handed me a shiny, marbled hard-plastic compact in navy blue, with Bonne Bell printed in silver on the top. I opened it gingerly, and inside, I remember so vividly, were a rainbow of six eye shadows, three lip glosses (in colors!!!) and a blush, with a mirror on the top of course. My first make-up! I think I may have cried a little. Bonne Belle was the Coco Chanel of my childhood.

My tastes have changed a little since then. Instead of Seventeen magazine, now it’s the Fall of issue of Vogue I anxiously wait for, all 500-plus pages of it. One thing that hasn’t changed however, is the thrill I get from school supplies. Fresh notebooks. Clean white, college-ruled pages, in a colorful new three-ring binder. A virgin, fine-tipped pen. A number two pencil sharpened to an exquisite point.

Why should kids get to have all the fun? So I did some school-supply shopping and thought I’d share some of the goodies I found, in hopes that it will inspire you to let your inner kid out to play, and perk up your desk or office.

11885079_1199219460104223_5621247479853338702_nNo plain old Trapper Keepers for this girl. Notebooks and folders are inspired by textiles with bold prints and vibrant colors, with color-coordinated accessories to match. Summer might be over but I want to keep the hot colors and floral prints throughout cool fall months.

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Washi tape is a huge trend that doesn’t show any sign of slowing down any time soon. I use it to customize my file folders and journal. No manila folders for me.

I visited a couple of local paper boutiques and book stores and found some new takes on classic items, mixing humor and technology, with some great retro flair.

11887846_1199218216771014_4565567492953652332_nHey preschoolers! Nana-nana boo-boo! Adult coloring is cool. We’ve got the coloring books to prove it. Who doesn’t want to color the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?

Kids these days! No puffy stickers or scratch n’ sniffs for them. Now it’s all about emojis. But they still use Number Two pencils! 😉

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I like to have a flash drive handy at all times. So Clark Kent is always at the ready on my key chain or in my drawer at work, for those quick Power Points in the conference room.

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I’d like to say I was giving this new paperback version of The Outsiders to one of the teenagers in my family. But I have to admit, I’m rereading this one by S.E. Hinton. I’ve read everything she’s ever written. Maybe I’ll pass it along to cousin Isabelle after I’m done. “Stay gold, Ponyboy!”

And because I’m not a complete scrooge, as long as I was out shopping, I picked up a few things for the neighbor girls, as well as to donate to schools in my neighborhood.

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Check with your local school or businesses to see if they host school-supply drives. I like to think every kid deserves to start the new school year fresh and excited, with a clean slate and endless possibilities, like the blank pages of my brand new Mead notebook.

College-ruled, of course.

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Blogger Mel B, a Smart Perks employee, refuses to grow up and still buys Dr. Pepper-flavored Bonne Bell Lip Smackers.

Wine a Little, You’ll Feel Better!

“Wine is bottled poetry.”
Robert Louis Stevenson

I’m an honest-to-goodness wine-o. No, I don’t drink a bottle out of a paper bag. Let’s just say wine is a passion of mine. I enjoy sharing a bottle of Merlot or Malbec with my husband on the weekend or unwinding with a glass of rosé or Pinot Grigio after a long day. At book club we always have a little vino with pizza as we discuss our latest reads (actually, we could skip the books and just call it “I think I’ll have another glass of wine club”). And, once a month I join my friend Kathy for wine and wings at our favorite bar & grill.

Wine RackEven my kitchen décor revolves around wine. I have two cork holders – one shaped like a guitar that I bought at a winery in Sonoma (the owner is the manager of the Doobie Brothers) – and another in the shape of a wine barrel that’s crammed full of corks. I also have lighted wine bottles, wine signs, as well as a clock, dish towels and rugs with some kind of wine motif. But, nothing compares to the big wine rack/display I got for a steal at an antique shop. It even came with a grapevine and grape lights! Isn’t it awesome?!

You may think I’m a little obsessed with this whole wine culture thing, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. With more and more wineries popping up all over the country, I’d say there are quite a few wine enthusiasts out there.

Of course, we all know California is the wine capital of the U.S. and if you’re planning a trip to Northern California I highly recommend a visit to Anderson Valley. My husband and I toured some vineyards there last year and they were incredible! The wines were some of the best we’ve ever tasted. A local told me this area is a lot like Napa Valley in the early days, before it became “snooty and expensive” (his words, not mine). We also checked out a few wineries in Sonoma Valley. and spent a few hours in downtown Sonoma – what a charming place! (We may have to hit Napa Valley on another trip to see if it lives up to its reputation.)Wine

More proof that I’m not alone in this… just look at all the websites devoted exclusively to wine! Besides hundreds of online merchants selling every variety of red and white imaginable, there’s a whole slew of sites peddling things like coasters, plaques, towels, and t-shirts with catchy phrases like “Save Water, Drink Wine,” “Wine Flies When You’re Having Fun,” and “You had me at Merlot.” Of course, I have four or five such tees myself!

“Wine Flies When You’re Having Fun”

My girlfriends share my infatuation with wine and we always make a point to stop at two or three (or four or five) wineries on our annual getaways. We love the whole experience ― sampling assorted wines in intimate tasting rooms, chatting with fellow tasters and listening to the owners expound on the various grapes used to create their own unique blends. So far, we’ve been to wineries in Illinois, Iowa, South Dakota, Wisconsin and our home state of Minnesota. (The University of Minnesota developed heartier grapes that can withstand colder climates so vintners in this region are able to grow their own.)

WineryOne of the most memorable places we’ve been to is PromiseLand Winery in northern Iowa. We thought the outside was impressive until we walked through the door. The event room resembles a quaint Italian village, complete with old fashioned lamp posts and charming boutiques and the tasting area has two fireplaces and lounge chairs to create a cozy atmosphere. There are also outdoor patios surrounded by beautiful gardens. I should probably mention that we were quite impressed with their wine too!

Some wineries charge a small fee for the tastings, while others waive the fee if you purchase their wine. Hint: if you plan on visiting more than one winery in a day, you’ll want to pace yourself and pick a designated driver beforehand.

The best way to discover wines from around the world is to join a wine club. It allows you to try different types of wine you won’t find at your local liquor store and your selections are delivered right to your door! My recommendation ― Club W.

For more on this scintillating subject, visit www.winemag.com. This site is considered the world’s number one source for wine information, education, merchandise, events and travel.

After all this talk about wine, I think I’ll uncork a Cabernet and enjoy a glass right now!

Cheers!

Besides wine, Catherine B. enjoys traveling, mysteries, hunky superheroes, and gossiping (as long as it’s not about her).

Check out these websites for cool wine-related gifts, apparel and paraphernalia:
giftedgrape.com
thetipsygrape.com
www.zazzle.com

The DIY “Vintage” Trend: What You Need to Know and How You Can Take Part

mock up, laptop, working space

Many of today’s trendiest bars, homes, apartments, fashions and decor are no longer sporting the beige tones of the ‘90s, the computer-rigid lines of the ‘80s, nor the shag carpet of the ‘70s (as much as we miss all of these). The most coveted items today are refurbished, architecturally-unique throwbacks with foundations in the minimalistic movement in the early 20th century. Think of it as a remix of all of the above, but with less.

Minimalism is “a style or technique (as in music, literature, or design) that is characterized by extreme sparseness and simplicity.” Thanks to the invention of websites such as Pinterest, a lot of people these days are taking old objects ­– desks, chairs, lamps, plywood, that sort of thing – and refurbishing them. The restyled piece is then placed within the context of exposed brick walls and dark wooden floors, giving it that modern vintage look.

For instance, one of my friends made an incredible standing desk out of an old door he purchased from an architecture reclamation store. All he had to do was put some homemade sawhorses on for legs and now it’s a piece that everyone asks about. The whole thing was super simple, doesn’t take up that much space and looks very cool. The sawhorses were just $20 (assembled with cheap 2x4s and sawhorse brackets) and the door was $10. $30 is pretty cheap for a cool place to work!Detail of a board with old paint on it.

Maybe you’re wondering “Who would want to display some old junk?” Why is this refurbished approach so attractive, even among people who can afford many other options?

Well, I have a theory about it: do you remember when your grandma gave you that (ugly) ring she got from her grandma when she was your age? Or maybe you still have that stability-lacking bookshelf your dad made back when you were a kid? The main reason that you might hold onto these objects isn’t because of any visual aesthetic appeal, but there’s an inherent value in the story an object carries – one that occasionally surpasses the beauty of the product itself. When people ask, “Why are you using this broken motorcycle as a coffee table anyway?” You have a great story to tell in return.

The same goes for today’s living room “masterpieces,” although the story can be a bit more self-indulgent, “Well, my (boyfriend, girlfriend, mom, dad, whoever) and I went out to the (thrift shop, architectural reclamation store, grandma’s house, etc.) and found this (lamp, wooden door, ship mast, 1940s refrigerator, civil war musket, other random thing). Then we (put a hat on it, made it into a chalkboard, had our friends sign it, slapped an old map onto it, etc.).”

Watch as guests “ooh” and “ahh” at your creation. And aren’t you so crafty! I have heard similar stories countless times. Although the pieces aren’t always rooted in something sentimental like a family heirloom, they add extra value as a conversation piece and is in tangent with the current minimal trend.Sofa with lamp

I might be an amateur myself, but this is my favorite kind of design. Therefore, what follows is one amateur’s advice to another:

  • Look for organic materials such as stained wood, earthy bricks, water pipes, or antiques made out of such materials.
  • Find a lot of inspiration over at Pinterest: try searching “vintage”, “minimalist”, “rustic”, “DIY” or any other similar terms.
  • The older (or weirder) the better, so if you ever end up working with wood, make sure to treat it with the right stain. Also, if you’re looking for a really beat-up look, get a knife and crowbar out and have some fun doing some damage to it (but be sure you do this before staining it). This is a pretty decent guide on how to give wood that rustic look.
  • Finally, have fun and learn. One of the best parts of this DIY movement is that you get to express yourself artistically without worrying about perfection. Functionality is usually pretty nice though, so go for that in tandem with the look.

One man’s trash is another man’s (or woman’s) treasure. Keep that in mind and be open to the possibilities as well as the limitations of your space. And if your house is already fully furnished, you should think about passing along some of your heirlooms to a friend or consignment store that would be excited to have them. Even if you thought they might have been tacky back then, it’s probably stylish right now. Plus, it gives somebody a great story.

-Jack

As devilishly handsome as he is clever, Jack is the excellent copyeditor for the Smart Perks team. A passionate music-listener, writer, and all-around great guy, Jack is going to help keep you in the know on fun trends and interesting ideas.