Heatwave: You’ve Got to Cool It Now…

Variety of popsicles in shop

The heat. The heat. I’m melting.

Welcome to the Heat Dome. What is a heat dome? It’s some meteorological term. But frankly I don’t care. Just make it go away.

We are in Day Three (it’s like a hostage crisis) with heat indexes over 100 degrees, and maybe Texans and Floridians can handle this. But us Midwesterners are about to lose it.

Since I’m holed up in my air-conditioned office, I thought I would provide a community service and list some of my favorite summer survival gear.

There’s a little something for everyone.

Hit the Beach, with frozen Snickers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, grapes (all better frozen IMHO), and some icy cold beverages, toted in these totally cute insulated bags from Ban.do priced at $32-$34.

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Need something a little bigger for your crew? Maybe everyone can chip in on this little piece of paradise, a cooler with a cool breeze. YASSSSSSS, please. The Icybreez cooler from Wayfair.

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After work last night, I emerged from our sublimely temperature-controlled office, into a blast furnace. The temperature inside my car, which had been baking in the sun all day, was up to a toasty 113 degrees Fahrenheit. Lovely. If I’d planned ahead, I might have thought of one of those old-school reflective shades that roll across your windshield. Instead, I sat down on my black leather seats, and scalded the backs of my thighs. In any event, a hand-held mini-fan, powered by AAA batteries or a USB Cable, really would have come in handy.  They’re available for about $12.00 from Rakuten.

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When I got home, I wasn’t the only one who was feeling the heat. The puppies were feeling it, too. Hopefully, I don’t need to tell anyone how important it is to make sure your pets have access to plenty of fresh water, and that they shouldn’t be left outside for more than 15 minutes, or alone in a car, even with the windows open, at all in this weather. There are several ways to keep your dog cool, with a cooling vest, from Dr.s Smith & Foster or a Pet Cooling Mat for just $19.99 at Target.

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I also found some fabulous coolers for infants and toddlers, Meeno Babies “Cool Mee” Car Seat and Stroller liners with a 3-ply mesh that keeps baby comfy and safe from the heat. At Bed, Bath and Beyond.

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Finally, any time the heat index or real temperature climbs above 100 degrees, it’s no laughing matter. Here are some tips from the Red Cross to make sure you and your loved ones stay safe, when you have to be outdoors.

As for me…I’ll be the one cannon-balling into pool, in 5…4…3…2…

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Smart Perks blogger Melanie Bisson is old enough to have LOVED the song Cool It Now, by the The New Edition back in the day. For you youngsters, that’s a boy band featuring Bobby Brown from the 80s.

 

 

 

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.

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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

The Mani/Pedi: What to Know Before You Go

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Summer’s here and it’s the time of year to expose your tootsies and toe-cleavage to the sun and sand! From sandals to peep-toes, summer shoes are more fun. And we feel more care-free and bold in our nail polish choices as well. I love it! No matter your age, a good nail color is an expression of your personality, and a mani/pedi can make your spirit soar.

Whenever I tell my mother I had my nails done, she gasps and recoils with such disgust at my shockingly foolish extravagance. You would think I just bought a diamond-encrusted sports car!

“Why would you ever throw money away like that? I’ve never had a manicure. That’s just such a waste,” she exclaims with righteous indignation. But the days of the mani/pedi being an exclusive indulgence for the wealthy, or something a girl does once or twice in a lifetime, for prom or her wedding day, are long gone.

The emergence of the mall nail salon, rather than having your nails done in a high-end hair salon, has made clean, pretty hands and feet accessible to everyone at a reasonable price! The strip mall next to my office has a nail salon that I’ve gone to now for five years.  For $14, I can get a regular manicure and polish, and I’m in and out in under 45 minutes. I always tip over 20% because the hand-massage alone is worth $14 during a break in my stressful workday. A gel mani typically costs double, but it will last 2-3 weeks, as opposed to the one week that a regular polish typically lasts without chipping.

A “luxury” pedicure which involves a calf and foot exfoliation with a tingly mint scrub and to-die-for massage, followed by having your feet slathered in a thick oil and wrapped in steaming towels, runs between $40 -$50 in my area before the tip, and takes about an hour. It is heaven on earth, and believe me, you deserve a luxury pedicure, at least once a year.

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I love that I don’t need an appointment because I’m a “fly-by-the-seat of my pants” kind of girl, and with the exception of the holiday season, I can just walk in, pick a color and I’m good to go.

If you really want to see a certain person and if you gravitate towards acrylic nails, which take longer, you can make an appointment. For instance, at my salon, there’s one nail technician who does amazing acrylics, and the last time I was in, he was doing the nails of one of the leading female business leaders in the country. I couldn’t believe I was sitting next to her, but it’s really a testament to the quality of work and talent you can find in a mall salon.

So about those gel manicures… I have had varying results with these. They’ve been around now for several years, and the color selection has improved 10-fold. Now you can generally find any color in a gel that you can find as regular polish.The thickness and hardness of the layer of gel applied seems to affect the length of time the polish lasts. I just had a french gel manicure and it only lasted a week before the first gel peeled off (note: I tried a different salon while on vacation.) And once one nail goes, I immediately start picking the others off. This is VERY bad. It removes the top layer of your nail, which leads to weaker, brittle nails. The alternative is soaking your fingers in an acetone polish remover, typically at the salon.

Another consideration with gel nails is that the UV light exposure needed to get the nails to set. Some may be suspicious of the UV light used in the nail dryers at salons. According to a study from the December 2012 Journal of Investigative Dermatology, nail lamps would be safe to use for over 250 years of weekly manicures and even then there would be a low risk of skin cancer. Click here for more on UV light exposure at the nail salon.

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Make sure your salon uses instruments that are properly sterilized and wrapped in a sealed paper package, so you can see they are using a fresh, sterile set of tools for every client. With pedicures, you should watch or ask to make sure that the foot bath is thoroughly cleaned with a disinfectant between each customer.

If you can’t get in for a pedicure, then treat yourself at home. Keep a pumice stone in the shower and gently slough heels and calloused areas. Especially during the summer months, when you’re running around barefoot or in sandals. Also, for dry, cracked heels, try slathering them in Vaseline, Udderbalm (yes, that’s what it’s called…check the foot care aisle at Target or WalMart) each night before bed and cover with socks. This really does work!

Just for fun, I asked some of my girlfriends on Facebook to share some of their recent mani/pedis with me. I like seeing how each of their personalities are reflected in the colors and styles they choose. What about you? What are you doing with your nails this summer? I’d love to hear. Nail art? Jamberry Wraps? Please share!

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Need some at-home help to keep your feet looking lovely between salon visits, here’s a great deal from The Great deal company. Only $4.99. Look for a mani kit, too. http://bit.ly/1HxHJgA

Blogger Melanie B, a Smart Perks employee, has been known to go through 3 whole cycles in her nail salon massage chair, during her pedicures. Big shout out to Twin Cities Nails in Minnetonka! You are the best.

The “Garage Sale King” Shares Secrets of a Successful Sale

Two hands holding brown cardboard with garage sale on blue sky background

Every spring there’s a community-wide garage sale in our town and we like to get in on it. After all, you can make hundreds of dollars in one weekend selling things you want (or need) to get rid of any way, like the pair of duck decoys gathering dust in our garage or the frightful clown figurines I inherited from my aunt (as they say, “one woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure”). 1116200_695488353810672_1208156024_oBut, we learned the hard way you can’t just set out a mishmash of stuff hoping people will come along and buy your second-hand goods. It takes planning, organization and some know-how to make your sale a success. Otherwise, it’s not worth the time and effort.

After our first garage sale was a bust (we had no idea what we were doing), we consulted our friend, Larry, who is known around here as the “Garage Sale King.” That’s because he manages to rake in between $2,000 and $3,000 every year peddling everything from bikes and baby clothes to fishing tackle & flower pots. Suffice it to say, Larry knows what people want and what they’re willing to pay for them.

Here are some inside tips Larry shared with us:
Sort and set aside items you want to sell. Make sure they’re in good condition (they may be used, but no one wants to buy things that are dirty, stained, torn, or broken). Some of Larry’s top sellers: kids’ clothes & toys, kitchenware, furniture, sporting goods, camping gear, tools, lawn/garden supplies, collectibles, books, CDs, DVDs, games, and jewelry.
Pick dates & times for your sale. According to Larry, Fridays and Saturdays are the best days and Sundays tend to be a wash. However, he’s been known to get quite a few customers on Thursdays as well. As for times, Larry suggests opening your sale around 8:00 a.m. and closing it no later than 5:00 p.m. Serious garage-salers like to shop early so they can get first dibs on the good stuff (I guess it’s an “early bird catches the worm” kind of thing). Some will even show up the night before to get a sneak peek at your wares, so be prepared!

Check out Delightful Order for Garage Sale supplies like this printable sign.

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Check out Delightful Order on Etsy for some great garage sale supplies.

Advertise. Your best bet is to put up big, legible, two-sided signs (with days and times of your sale, your address and arrows pointing in the right direction) around town and at the end of your street a few days before your sale. Balloons will get their attention too. NOTE: check with your city hall first to make sure there aren’t any restrictions on signs. Other advertising avenues: flyers, the internet and local newspapers.
Decide what you’ll need ahead of time. Some of the essentials: long tables (borrow them if necessary) to display your merchandise, a garment rack or long shower rod to hang clothes, shelves for books & knickknacks, a card table for checking out and chairs to sit on, labels/tags for prices (use big ones for larger items), a cash box (a shoe box or an old metal tin works), tablet & pens to tally/keep track of purchases (a portable calculator may help too if you’re bad at math like I am), bags & boxes for carrying merchandise and newspaper for breakables. Don’t forget the cash! You should have enough small bills and coins to make change.
Price items accordingly. Shoppers are looking for bargains – we’re talking how low-can-you-go deals here – so don’t overprice your merchandise and be prepared to haggle, even if it’s over a measly 50 cents! Use round numbers like .25, .50, .75, $1.00, etc. so it’s easier to make change. On the last day of your sale, mark down whatever’s left by 50% or more to get rid of it. Or, do what Larry does and let people fill a grocery bag for $5.00. Have a free box for items that would go for less than a quarter, like little toys for kids. Of course you want to make some money, so click here for guidelines on garage sale pricing. Hint: If more than one person/family is involved use different colored labels or people’s initials to keep track of who’s selling what.

Old objects in secondhand trade market
Focus on presentation. Arrange tables so it’s easy for people to navigate between them and set everything up in a neat and orderly fashion, by category. For example, line up books, movies & music by genre, display clothing by gender, size and type, and put similar items next to each other. Place more desirable merchandise, like furniture, sporting goods and small appliances, in a prime spot so people notice them right away when they walk/drive by.
Create an inviting atmosphere. Play music in the background (it doesn’t have to be elevator music, but nothing loud or offensive – after all, children and grandmas come to these sales!). 1781b0a2410890434b3ea36de0f984dfOffer beverages like bottled water and soda, and maybe a few treats like cookies or bars for $1.00. Better yet, have the kids set up a lemonade stand and let them keep the profits.
Make checkouts easy and pleasant. Be courteous with customers and carefully pack their purchases. Always smile and thank them when they leave. Remember, happy customers are loyal customers.

Follow these basic tips and you’ll be a garage sale guru in no time.

Good luck and have fun!

Catherine B enjoys her work, but is looking forward to retiring so she can write whatever (and whenever) she wants at home in her pajamas.

Seed Starting for Newbies – Greetings from Zone 4!

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Greetings from Zone 4? No, that is not the title of a science fiction novel.

Zone 4 is the plant hardiness zone for Smart Perks headquarters in Minnesnowdah. But regardless of where you live in the U.S., with spring right around the corner, it’s a good time to start thinking about seed-starting for your vegetable garden.

I’ve started seeds indoors for over a decade now. It’s a great way to save money by avoiding nursery prices, and I typically have more than enough plants leftover after mine are in the ground, to share with friends and family.

Have you seen the price of a grocery store tomato lately? You shouldn’t have to make a choice between a child’s college education and a tomato! Besides the savings, starting seeds indoors will bring a little summertime to your home during a cool, damp March.

To get started, you need to decide which veggies you want to plant, depending on your personal tastes and growing space. If you live in apartment, a lot of plants can be grown in a couple big pots on a deck or outside your front door.

I usually like to start cucumbers, tomatoes, and beans indoors. Herbs, especially chives and basil, are easy and fun to grow, because they smell DELICIOUS as soon as they sprout. You can dry them and use them throughout the year. Fresh herbs are the best, and you really can taste the difference in your recipes!   mozzarella di bufala con pomodoro e basilico

Then head to your local hardware, discount store or nursery and pick out your seeds. Check the back of your seed packets for the zone hardiness of the plant, and how much time you’ll need to allow if you’re starting indoors, as well as time until harvest. The typical amount of time for indoor growing is 6-8 weeks. Here in Zone 4 we shouldn’t put our plants in the ground until after May 15th, when the danger of a killing frost is USUALLY passed.

I usually start my seeds around St. Patrick’s Day or during the NCAA Final Four. I remember in previous years, sitting on my kitchen floor, with seed starter soil everywhere, listening to a tournament game, while trying to get wet soil out of my grout. That was before I wised up and started using peat pellets.

While some hardier veggies like lettuce and radishes can be sown directly in the ground in early spring, others have to wait until the ground warms up. Tomatoes, for instance, thrive in heat. If the temps are too cold, or the weather too cloudy, their growth can be stunted. Tomatoes are an excellent plant to start indoors.

Then you’ll need a tray that will allow adequate drainage and a clear, vented cover. I recommend investing in a multi-square version like the Jiffy Starter Kit if you’re a newbie. jiffy-greenhouseIt has everything you’ll need, except the seeds, light and water, and will cost approximately $10 or less. Plus the tray can be used again next year.

You can buy the growing medium loose, or in a little mesh-covered peat pellet. Trust me…the peat pellet is the way to go to avoid a mess! You soak them in hot water for about 5 minutes and voilá…they expand to just the right size. It’s pretty cool to watch. Kids will love this, too.

There’s even a little hole in the top of the mesh to place your seeds in. So all you have to worry about is checking the back of your package for seed-planting depth, and how many seeds to plant in each pellet. It can take anywhere from 4 to 14 days for seedlings to emerge.seedling

The three most important words of wisdom I can give you, after years of making every mistake imaginable, are to separate, ventilate, and rotate!

  1. Separate. You’ll typically plant multiple seeds in a peat pod, because all the seeds may not sprout. However, sometimes they will and you’ll need to separate or thin out the young sprouts. If you don’t, once they start to leaf, they’ll crowd each other out, competing for space and nutrients. Your plants won’t thrive, and when it comes time to plant, you’ll have a bunch of tangled, thin, and gangly plants.
  2. Rotate. Placement of your seeds is key. You need a warm, sunny place that gets the most light over the course of the day. Seeds need warmth to germinate. So a window near a heat vent is optimal.  You can buy a small grow light and warming mat on which to place your seed tray for around $30-$40. Although I never have. Remember these investments sound like a lot, but once you have the right equipment, you’ll have it forever. When the seeds have sprouted, you’ll need to rotate the tray at least once a day or more, so that neither side has to lean toward the sun. Optimally you want light coming from directly above, so that your young seedlings will grow straight up and have strong healthy stems. Believe me, I’ve had many years, where I’ve ended up with spindly, sideways tomato plants, that have eventually borne fruit, but it certainly wasn’t easy to put a tomato cage on a horizontal plant.
  3. Ventilate. As I mentioned, seeds to stay covered and warm in the first several weeks, hot and moist like a greenhouse with minimal ventilation. But once they have sprouted, you’ll want to keep the soil moist, but not drowning, and ventilate or you’ll have moldy soil. Once the plants are touching the lid, you can remove the lid completely.

You’ll want to watch the bottom of your mesh peat pods for exposed roots, transplanting them to larger pots filled with regular potting soil until it’s time to put them in the ground. Potting up tomato seedlings © Arena Photo UKAlways refer to the back of your seed packs for more specifics, like when to pinch the first leaves from the stems.

And when you’re ready to put your seeds in the ground, remember, the plants need to be gradually acclimated to the direct sun outdoors, and other elements. So you can take them out for a couple of hours each day. This is called hardening off your plants, and you can read more about the process online.

Starting seeds indoors has been one of the best experiences I’ve had as a novice gardener, and I’ve learned so much from my mistakes, without reading stacks of books, or spending a fortune. The results have been great savings, and the greatest rewards…FRESH VEGGIES and the satisfaction of knowing I grew them myself. Have your own tips or experiences with seed starting? Please share in the comments!

Young plant in a pot ready for planting

-MB

When she’s not blogging for Smart Perks, Melanie is staring glassy-eyed at Pinterest, her Pin It finger splinted from overuse. Besides crafting, gardening, shopping and cupcakes, the loves of her life are her three naughty terrier pups, the smartest and best-looking dogs in the world, and her husband.