How We Celebrate the USA…

Fourth of July Dachshund Dog

On July 2, 1776 the Continental Congress of the United Colonies decided to declare independence from Great Britain. The declaration was formally adopted on July 4th. The actual signing did not take place until August 2, but I digress.

In a letter to Abigail Adams dated July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote that “the declaration of independence should be celebrated with shews, games, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forever more.”

I’m fairly certain that not ONCE did he mention hot dog eating contests.

And yet, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Stand has been staging the world’s MOST famous hot dog eating competition in Coney Island, New York, every July 4th since 1916. Nothing says God Bless America like polishing off 62 hot dogs in ten minutes. That feat was accomplished last year when competitive-eating maverick Matt Stonie unseated former Nathan’s Famous champ, Joey Chestnut, who chowed down on a mere 60 dogs in the sunny Coney Island heat.

Nathan's Famous July 4 Hot Dog Eating Contest 2015

Legend has it that the contest’s roots date back to 1916, when four immigrants held a hot dog eating contest at Nathan’s Famous stand to settle an argument about who was most patriotic. My country tis of thee, indeed!

Waving-The-Flag-Fourth-Of-July-Celebrations

The fourth of July is steeped in a lot of tradition. It’s the holiday that’s synonymous with red, white, and blue festooned everything, burning your finger tips on the spent end of a sparkler, Lee Greenwood singing “Proud to be an American,” and lots of artistically-rendered desserts featuring strawberries, blueberries and Cool Whip.

But I bet a good old-fashioned marathon up the side of an Alaskan mountain isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you think of American independence, is it?

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Just two hours south of Anchorage, the party in Seward, Alaska begins at 12:01 a.m. on July 4th with fireworks. The biggest bang comes later that morning with the town’s famed race, Mount Marathon. The course is straightforward, but far from easy: start downtown, run to the top of the 3,022-foot mountain, then run back to the finish.

It’s rumored the race originated as a bet between locals that the mountain could not be tackled in less than an hour. Runners get schooled by steep slopes and gravity, inertia and loose shale, and are introduced to oxygen debt and lung capacity. The winners are usually locals who can practice on the mountain, or Alaska Olympians who can turn oxygen into speed. Happy birthday, Uncle Sam. Pass the oxygen canister.

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In keeping with the hot dog theme, in recent years it seems like Independence Day has really gone to the dogs, the wiener dogs. Those sleek and stealthy stubby-leggers can fly. Race fans flock to Canterbury Park in Minnesota to see the Doxies compete. Get-a-long little doggie!

Maybe it’s got something to do with America the beautiful’s “amber waves of grain” but tractor parades are particularly popular on the 4th of July from sea to shining sea. Living in the midwest, we’re especially proud of John Deere tractors, made in the heart of the heartland.

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And speaking of the sea, patriotic boat parades are an annual tradition from sunrise to sunset on July 4th.  It’s amazing to watch fireworks bursting over the water, their mirror images glittering on the surface, hearts swelling as kids sing The Star Spangled Banner – way off-key. We claim our spot in Excelsior Bay at dusk every year on the 4th of July.

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America’s 4th of July celebrations are as wildly vibrant, spirited and diverse as its citizens. It’s a beautiful thing to see us all continue to keep John Adams’ dream alive, over two hundred years later, with as much pomp and circumstance as he’d imagined. I hope you do your part to make Adams proud. Eat a bomb pop. Light a sparkler. Don’t forget the sunscreen or the bug spray. And enjoy a spectacular 4th of July!

For more ideas on celebrating the 4th of July and other holidays, be sure to visit the Smart Perks Pinterest page.

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Must read!!!

 

 

Smart Perks Blogger Melanie Bisson has her dog’s red, white and blue ensemble all picked out and ready to go for the big day.

 

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

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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

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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!

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

 

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.

ValentineGiftWrapCards

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.

 

 

 

 

 

NewYear

“Cheers to a New Year and another chance to get it right.”
– Oprah Winfrey

It’s time to uncork the champagne and bid adieu to 2015! We all know New Year’s Eve is a big deal and people all over the globe will be celebrating in a big way. You’ll find everything from extravagant, black-tie galas at high-class hotels to Karaoke contests in small town bars. If you’re not out carousing with friends you’re probably glued to your TV watching millions of spirited revelers take over Times Square.

Back in my single days, my friends and I would get all decked out and pay a month’s worth of wages to attend some lavish soiree, hoping to meet a rich bachelor (a girl’s gotta dream, right?).

Other years we’d go bar hopping and spend half the night fending off inebriated admirers and the other half waiting in line for drinks. Of course, we could always count on a few brawls and plenty of PDA to keep us entertained. Ah, good times.

If you’ve ever been out on New Year’s Eve you know how crazy (and expensive) it can be. So, if you want to take a break from the outlandish parties and crowded bars, I have some ideas for a fun evening with friends or family at (or close to) home.

Neighborhood Block Party. My sister-in-law and her husband live in Florida and every New Year’s Eve they get together with their neighbors for a barbecue. They’re on a cul-de-sac so they’re able to set up grills and tables right on the street and roam around with drinks in hand. At midnight they shoot off fireworks. The best part is everyone can walk home afterwards.

Progressive Dinner. Another great way to celebrate the New Year with your neighbors is to have a progressive dinner – appetizers at one house, the main course at another and dessert at a third. Everyone contributes something for each course.

big glasses times square

Theme Party/Potluck. Get the gang together at someone’s house and have everyone bring a snack or appetizers and their beverage of choice. To add a fun twist to your gathering, have it revolve around a specific theme. We do this every year and so far we’ve had pirates, hippies, the Old West, famous TV characters, a Hawaiian Luau, and a Mexican Fiesta. Often times the food, decorations and party favors are tied to the theme.

For entertainment, you could play games, watch movies and tune into one of those New Year’s Eve extravaganzas on TV. Don’t forget the party hats, foil horns and champagne!

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Girls’ Night In. Watch romantic comedies or episodes of TV shows like Sex and the City, Downton Abbey and Desperate Housewives, maybe play some board games or even a little Truth or Dare! Forget the diet for one night (it’s the holidays after all) and indulge in your favorite comfort foods. For beverages, how ‘bout mixing up some delicious “girly” drinks, like cosmos, sparkling sangrias, or lemon drop martinis. Check out mygirlishwhims.com for easy and tasty drink recipes.

Dinner for Two. No reservations, no problem! You can always have a romantic dinner at home. Some menu ideas: Filet Mignon with baked potatoes & tossed salad, a pasta dish like Fettucine Alfredo or Spaghetti alla Carbonara with Caesar salad & French bread, or seafood with steamed asparagus and rice pilaf. Not sure what kind of wine to serve with your meal? Click here for a wine & food pairing chart  Create a romantic mood with lighted candles and soft music. Or, make it more casual and have pizza and beer. Hey, whatever floats your boat!

Happy new year card on table set for party

Family Movie/Game Night. When our kids were young, we’d rent movies or watch them on VHS tapes (remember those?). Now that there’s Blu-ray the picture and sound is so much better. Or, make it easy and stream movies directly to your TV. Enjoy a few “concessions” like popcorn, candy and beverages while you’re at it. As for games, you can play board games, cards, or build a puzzle together.

Click here for a list of the top 100 movies for kids & families from Rotten Tomatoes.

Click here for a list of the best board games for families.

Click here for fun New Year’s Eve games for kids and adults.
Of course, every New Year’s celebration needs some good eats. So, I’ve included a few of my favorite appetizer recipes:

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Artichoke Dip from marthastewartliving.com

Buffalo Chicken Dip
Sweet ‘n Tangy Meatballs
Bacon-Wrapped Smokies
Artichoke Dip
Fiesta Pinwheels

Here’s to a happy, safe and healthy new year!

Catherine B., a Smart Perks employee, enjoys celebrating the New Year with good friends, good food and good wine (in this case a sparkling Asti Spumante).

May your troubles be less,
And your blessings be more.
And nothing but happiness come through your door.
– Irish Toast

Santa Baby, Slip A Lipstick Under The Tree

 

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Sephora’s “Oh What Fun” sample bag, free with purchase on Black Friday!

 

Santa’s coming!!!! And his cheeks won’t be the only ones that are plump and rosy this holiday season. From my girlfriends to grandmas, all the ladies on my holiday list are going to be getting their “glow” on with fabulous beauty products!

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Too Faced Le Petit Tresor Lipstick Trio $29

 

After watching dozens of Carli Bybel make-up tutorials and taking advantage of each and every Black Friday, Cyber Monday and email promotion that have come across my computer, I’ve stock-piled some sensational beauty gift sets and stocking stuffers (like flash tattoos – so hot), without spending a fortune. Plus, I’ve picked up a few tips along the way to help you save and collect some rewards for yourself, too.

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Tarte Contour Palette & the Original Beauty Blender from Sephora.com

 

One of the year’s biggest trends is Contouring, providing definition with different shades of creams and blushes to play up your cheekbones or make your nose appear thinner. I watched a tutorial, and while the final result looked amazing (hello, supermodel bone structure) there were just too many products for me. Too intimidating. Enter Tarteist (from Tarte costmetics) and their color palette. All the products you’ll need in one ultra glam gold compact with an over-sized mirror. This makes a great gift for all ages. And you can add one of my favorite products, a beauty blender sponge, to help. Beauty blenders come in mini, medium and large. The one shown in the photo features a cleansing bar for your blender, too. Minis are the perfect shape to get under lashes, and all around your face and provide flawless coverage.

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Stuff Stockings with Bath Products from Lush.com, Whale Nail Brush from CB2, That Gal from Benefit Cosmetics, and the Semi Sweet Chocolate Bar Palette from  Too Faced

 

Palettes are another hot trend this year, although they’re a little on the spendy side. So the perfect eye-color palette may be the one big gift you want to get for your bestie. Urban Decay’s Naked palette is hugely popular. Bobbi Brown has several special holiday palettes for eyes, lips and cheeks as well. But my personal gift-giving favorite is from Too Faced. The tin case is shaped like a giant chocolate bar, and the 16 shadows not only come with delectable names and colors ranging from warm colors like hot chocolate and rich mocha. But the best part is, they actually smell like chocolate! (drool) It’s an expensive gift at $49. But if you purchase from a store with a rewards program, like Sephora with their VIB program or Ulta, you will earn points that you can redeem for freebies and purchases throughout the year yourself.

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Bold and sparkly…that’s the trend for holiday parties. A dramatic nail is the perfect accessory. And talk about accessorizing…check out the stylish make-up bag that comes along with this cool polish set. These are a must-have for the teens and sisters.

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QVC’s Tarte Holidaze of Giving 15-piece Collection

 

QVC, QVC, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…in Easy Pays! If you’re running over your holiday budget for December, you can afford to really wow Mom with 4 easy pays of just $16.48 ($65.94) on this spectacular gift set from Tarte. Opening the box is like Christmas morning itself. Unwrap layer after layer of surprise. I LOVE the brushes and chubby lip pencils. The eye cream is fabulously rich. You will not be disappointed in this amazing value. QVC is also offering Easy Holiday Returns. You can send any gift back until January 31, 2016. No questions.

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Love this! Quick dry with ionic heat hair dryer from TJ Maxx, $24.99

 

TJ Maxx has really expanded it’s selection of beauty products and they even sell make-up now. It’s a great place to get bath and hair care products and beautiful luxury soaps for under $10. I fell in love with this floral-designed hair dryer, yours for only $25!

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Origins Gift Set

 

Origins Ginger Souffle Whipped Body Cream is my absolutely favorite luxury cream for after shower, in the drying winter. It’s just $33 at beauty.com, and well worth the splurge for its zesty,  invigorating scent. It’s the only Origins product I’ve tried. But the holidays are a great time to get a variety of products from a brand you love at an affordable price. Like this fantastic Origins gift set from Sephora, with a variety of products. It’s over $74 in value, for only $34. Plus, Sephora always sends samples along. These are great stocking stuffers, because everybody loves a free sample- they’re low commitment and you can’t beat the price!

I love to pamper my friends and family during the holidays with gifts that they might feel a little guilty buying for themselves. But it’s the holidays…a time to indulge. It’s the best time of year, and also typically the only time of year, when cosmetics go on sale. Case in point: Have you ever read the back of a department store coupon?

So be bold! Be bright! Be merry!

And most importantly, enjoy the gorgeous glow of this most wonderful time of year.

Happy Holidays, Melanie B, a Smart Perks employee and blogger.

 

 

 

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.
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    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.

Holiday Cards: Adding More Joy to Your World, Less Humbug to Your Holidays

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Ebeneezer Scrooge has finally gotten hold of me in the last couple years.

At least when it comes to Christmas cards. Or Valentine’s, Easter, Halloween and Thanksgiving. I have been single-handedly doing my part to keep the greeting card industry and United States Postal Service afloat for over two decades now. Chew on this. According to the Greeting Card Association, 1.6 billion cards were sent out last holiday season. The cost of a first class stamp is .49¢. So assuming no over-sized cards, which require additional postage, that’s $735,000,000 in postage alone.

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This year I was seriously considering humbugging it and making the switch to email cards. Or a text message. (shudder, chortle, snort). I kid. I will NEVER send Season’s Greetings via a text message.

However, I’m a “reach-out and touch someone” kinda gal. I don’t want anyone to stare into a cavernous, empty mailbox and hear the echo of “Hellllllooooooo in there”, a la Charlie Brown. Call me Mary Sunshine, but I want to make people smile. I want my friends, neighbors, coworkers, the people I’ve fallen out of touch with over the years, to know that I still think of them warmly and wish them the best.

Besides, despite all the time and money associated with sending holiday cards, sending them makes ME feel good. I enjoy the tradition. I also love going to the mailbox and seeing some brightly colored envelopes, with a return address from someone I miss. 12185008_1255686671124168_2853116667187239140_oAlthough I have to admit, through the joys of social networking, my three dogs have more friends, and receive way more cards than I do. True story!

Don’t get me wrong, if I don’t get a card from you, I won’t feel snubbed. I understand the pressures of life and the need to put first things first. No one can get every single thing done that they want to do. But making cards is something I enjoy.

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So right about now, this time of year, you’ll probably find me spending at least a Saturday afternoon or two, sitting in my craft room, listening to Christmas tunes and making cards.

Making my own cards gives me a chance to play, get glitter on my face, exhale and most importantly put some of myself into my cards. 337661_327967827229395_574144619_oI don’t make all my cards, but maybe a couple dozen for close friends and family. Like this one, that I made for my cousins to remind them of the Christmases we spent together growing up.

I know that not everyone hoards craft supplies year-round. Not everyone has separate boxes stacked on separate shelves in their craft cupboard, one for craft papers and stickers, another for rubber stamps and ink pads, or 4 wooden dowels that hold about a dozen or more spools of festive ribbon each. My husband will be the first to tell you how expensive craft supplies are. Well, you should never pay full price for craft supplies.

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If you have a Gmail account, Google has gone through the trouble to sort your emails for you. That means you have one whole tab just for Promotions. Virtually EVERY single company you sign up for emails with offers a first time subscriber discount or coupon to use either online or in the store.

After that, whenever you need a coupon or coupon code, you simply click on your Promotions tab, and I promise you will find an email with a discount, usually percent off coupons, for one item or your entire purchase and/or free shipping. You’ll also get advance notice of sales. And, you don’t have to see them until you need them with the Promotions tab. This works for Michael’s, Hobby Lobby, Crafts Direct, JoAnn Fabrics. If you still get a newspaper, Michael’s has a flier every week containing coupons for 20-50% off one item, and a percent off your entire purchase. During Black Friday, they’ll even give you a percentage off sale prices.

One of my favorite Smart Perks partners, Expressionery, has an email sign-up incentive of $10 off your first $30 purchase with free shipping. You’ll also find additional discounts at http://www.smartperks.com. Expressionery is a great source for self-inking address stamps. So much easier than labeling! You can really power through your stacks of envelopes in minutes. Colorful Images is my go-to source for personalized shipping and gift labels. They always have a great discount available online.

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Tiny Prints and Snapfish are my go to online sources for holiday photo cards. Being as my husband and I don’t have children, but have three dogs, our dogs are usually the highlight of our cards. In fact, I actually got a complaint last year for sending a photo card with a photo of just my husband and I. Some years I’ll have such a hard time choosing from my favorite photos, I’ll have to order more than one card. I go for natural poses for the holiday cards, just catching the pups doing what they do, being their goofy selves.

While I’ve received discounts from both Tiny Prints and Snapfish, both online and in my mailbox already this year, I typically wait to do my ordering of photo cards until Black Friday. peanutsstamps-1441218230778-23546992-ver1-0-900-675-153806You’ll not only get the best prices of the season, but you’ll receive your cards back in plenty of time to get them in the mail.  If you want to ensure your cards arrive on time, try to get them to the post office no later than the end of the second week of December, or earlier if you’re mailing cards outside the U.S.

Well, I’d better get busy…those cards aren’t going to make themselves.When it stops being enjoyable for me and turns into a chore, that’s when I know it’s time to scale back. But in the meantime, whether you send cards or not, whether you celebrate the holidays or not, whichever holiday you celebrate, I hope you take time to pause and enjoy the season and create your own traditions.

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Blogger Melanie B, a Smart Perks employee, can’t wait to watch Elf a half dozen times. Smiling is her favorite, too.