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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Holiday Shopping

Many people lament the commercialization of the holiday season (e.g., here and here), so I thought I'd chime in on the subject. I completely understand that retailers' bottom lines are wholly irrelevant to the holiday spirit, but what often seems to get lost in the complaints is that giving a gift that brings joy is a joy in itself.

I know a lot of people are happy to receive T-shirts with their grandchildren's handprints, homemade baked goods, and family-photo calendars, and you don't need to shop much for these items. But there must be at least as many people whose eyes will light up at a flattering sweater, comfy pajama pants, or a DVD of a much-loved movie. For the last four years or so, I have derived infinite pleasure from picking out a new cashmere sweater for Marc and knowing that he really really liked it. (But not this year, because we're on a tighter budget!) I can understand that if you don't enjoy shopping, this time of the year must feel like a long nightmare, but I, for one, actually love coming up with great gifts at bargain prices that I know the recipients will appreciate. I can't even begin to imagine the fun that Marc and I are going to have buying toys for Alex when he can actually play with them and doesn't think that everything is made for his mouth.

I think that lately it's become chic to complain about the lack of holiday spirit, and un-chic to actually celebrate the holidays. But this is my favorite time of year, and I love giving gifts, receiving gifts, spending time with family and friends, eating good food, and generally just being joyful. So I'll be celebrating as much as I can. I hope you do, too, and that your holiday season is full of joy as well!

Cookie Recipes

This time of year always brings out the baker in me, but I'm not very good at creating my own recipes for baked goods. Instead, I offer you 4 cookie recipes that I like very much, and 3 recipes that I really want to try. Let me know if you try any of these!

Cookies that I know are good:
  • Low-Fat Almond-Cinnamon Biscotti - Especially good dipped in chocolate.
  • Flourless Peanut Butter & Chocolate Chip Cookies - Easy to adapt into a sugar-less cookie: Substitute Splenda for the brown sugar, omit the chocolate chips, and form the balls as directed. Break a sugar-free chocolate bar into the marked segments and press a segment into the center of the ball. Bake as directed.
  • Sugar Cookies - I'm not a huge sugar cookie fan (I love my chocolate) but this Martha Stewart recipe is so good, even I love it.
  • Snickerdoodles - This was my first snickerdoodle and it was yummy!

Cookies that sound good:

Sunday, November 27, 2005

More Thoughts About Customer Service

About a month ago, I wrote about notifying a company if you experience a break down in customer service and specifically, about an incident that occurred at Grand Lux Cafe - my dessert was missing from a take-out order and the manager refused to issue a credit, instead offering me a gift card. The gift card never arrived so I complained via the company's website, and was contacted by the restaurant's general manager, who apologized and said he was sending a $25 gift card.

I just wanted to let you know that I did receive the gift card the week after I spoke to the general manager (although I just got around to sending them a thank-you email today). A couple more thoughts worth noting:
  • Every time you talk to someone about a problem, take notes. Write down the date, the name of the person you spoke to, and a brief summary of the discussion. You may need this information later (in this case, I was able to include the name of the manager who refused to issue a credit when I contacted Grand Lux through their website).
  • Follow up. It would have been easy to say "forget about it" when the gift card promised by the manager who refused to issue the credit never arrived. I probably would have done so if I hadn't been so irritated by the thought that the restaurant had essentially stolen from me - after all, they had taken my money and failed to provide the item that I paid for. It's especially important to follow up if the situation bothers you - being proactive is a good antidote to being bitter.

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Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Joy of Giving

Usually, when someone talks about the joy of giving, they're referring to the joy of giving to the less fortunate, but in this case, I'm referring to the joy of giving to your loved ones. MBHunter's comment about not going shopping at all on Black Friday reminded me of an entry I read on The Dollar Stretcher's This Old Housewife blog. The November 11 entry is by a student who wrote about her lacks of wants, and said that one reason she doesn't spend much money is that she doesn't have friends. That made me feel sad.

I love giving gifts. I shop all year round for gifts, and I have a couple of boxes in my closet where I stash gifts that I can give when the occasion arises. An "occasion" can be a birthday or a holiday, but it is also often just a token to say "thank you" or "I'm thinking of you." Sometimes I give gifts to mere acquaintances just to say "I'm sorry you're having a rough time." The important thing here is that these gifts are budgeted for and relatively inexpensive, and I get to have fun hunting for great bargains. Most of all, they serve an important purpose: they give joy.

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Thursday, November 24, 2005

Poor Money Management

I came across this list of Top 10 Causes of Debt and was struck by #3:
3. Poor money management. A monthly spending plan is essential. Without one you have no idea where your money is going. You may be spending hundreds of dollars unnecessarily each month and end up having to charge purchases on which you should have spent that money. Planning is no more difficult than writing down your expenses and income and reconciling the two. You will be surprised at how powerful you'll feel when you are making thoughtful decisions about where and when to spend your money.

That last sentence is worth repeating: You will be surprised at how powerful you'll feel when you are making thoughtful decisions about where and when to spend your money.

Before I learned how to really be financially responsible, I felt out of control and helpless. I thought I had no choice but to struggle to pay my monthly expenses. Then I learned about budgeting and making conscious decisions about spending. Even though these seem like basic skills, I simply didn't have them. Once I learned them, I felt powerful, like the quote says.

These days, if I start to feel a bit overwhelmed by our financial situation, I know it's because I've gotten lazy about tracking our expenses and that I'm not seeing the entire picture anymore. When this happens, I take some time to sit down and review our overall financial picture - expenses, income, debt, investments and overall net worth. It puts things in perspective, and puts me back in control. Now that's something to be grateful for.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Children's Product Recalls

The following products have been recalled:
  • Viking Chubbies Toy Cars (10-inch plastic sedans sold with two 3-inch high figurines) - The heads on the figures sold with the cars can detach, posing a choking hazard. Click here for additional details, including a photo of the recalled toy.
  • Flexitoys Monster-Size Vehicles (plastic dump truck, race car, tractor, SUV, fire truck and digger truck) - Small parts can detach, posing a choking hazard. Click here for additional details, including photos of the recalled toys.
  • 10-in-1 Activity Trunks by Kid Connection sold by Wal-Mart (wood box with a removable lid providing 10 different activities) - Some of the toys contain small parts, which pose a choking hazard. Click here for additional details, including a photo of the recalled toy.
  • Lov’s “Europa” Natural Color Cribs sold by Toys R Us (Style # 4827-2 M.F.G. No.: W 24088 Date: 22 JUN 2004) - The paint on the cribs contains high levels of lead. Click here for additional details.

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Turkey Nachos (Dinner Plus Your Next Day's Lunch)

I'm a big believer in saving money by cooking at home and brown bagging your lunch, so I'm using this recipe as a chance to explain how I prepare meals like this for our next day's lunch. You'll need access to a refrigerator and a microwave oven at work, and some plastic containers and zip-top plastic bags (the sandwich size works fine). First, the recipe:

Turkey Nachos
Serves 4

1 pound ground turkey breast
2 jalapeños, thinly sliced
1 package taco seasoning
3/4 cup water
1 package tortilla chips
1 1/2 cups shredded Mexican blend or cheddar cheese
1 head of romaine lettuce, shredded
1 avocado, diced
3 roma tomatoes, diced or 1 pint of cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup sour cream, optional

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a nonstick pan, cook the turkey, crumbling it with a spoon as it cooks. When the turkey is no longer pink, drain the liquid from the pan and return the pan to the stove over medium low heat. (I put a paper plate over the meat to hold it in place while I turn the pan on its side.) Add the jalapeño, taco seasoning and water, and stir to combine. Cook until the water has evaporated and the jalapeño has softened.
2. Coat the inside of a 13x9 baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Pour the chips into the dish, top with the turkey mixture and cheese, and bake uncovered for 15 minutes or until cheese has melted.
3. Remove the baking dish from the oven and top with lettuce, avocado and tomato. Serve immediately with sour cream if desired.

To eat half for dinner and half for lunch:
  • Use a 9x9 baking dish and only half of the chips, half of the turkey mixture, and half of the cheese. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, then add only half of the vegetables.
  • I am assuming that you need two lunches. Put half the remaining turkey mixture into each of two microwavable plastic containers. Divide the cheese into two zip-top plastic bags. Divide the lettuce in two more bags. Put half of the avocado and tomatoes into two bags (they can share a bag). Put half of the chips in zip-top bag and use a rubber band or paper clip to seal the remaining chips in their bag. If you want sour cream, divide it into two small plastic containers.
  • The next morning, pack the turkey, cheese, vegetables, chips and sour cream. At lunchtime, heat the turkey in a microwave oven, then top with the cheese, vegetables and sour cream if desired. Use the chips to scoop up the nacho mixture.
It may seem like a lot of stuff to take to work, but one (or two) plastic containers plus the plastic bags won't take up that much space, and won't require much clean up when you get home. Consider keeping paper plates at work so you can bring the turkey mixture in as small a container as possible, then pour it onto a plate before you top with the cheese and vegetables. Lunches like this will make you the envy of your lunch group!

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Saturday, November 19, 2005

Product Review - EZ Carry Floppy Seat Shopping Cart Seat Cover

One of my relatives was kind enough to buy this EZ Carry Floppy Shopping Cart Seat Cover off our registry in blue, and we began using it once Alex was capable of sitting up without support (at about 6 months). I'm actually quite sure it's completely unnecessary, and just a hassle I put myself and Marc through, but I like the peace of mind that comes from knowing Alex can't mouth the cart while we're shopping.

The Floppy is plush, with quite a bit of padding. When unfolded, it does take up a decent amount of space. But it's very easy to shove it back into its built-in pocket, which reduces it to the size of a medium handbag. It has handles so you can carry it on the same side that you're holding your baby. It's machine washable, and dries quickly in the dryer.

There are places to attach toys on the inside, which is nice. Alex usually likes the hustle and bustle of a store and likes to grab things off shelves, so he doesn't need many toys - a chain of plastic links that he can chew on is usually enough. There's also a pocket on the inside where you can stash a small toy or two.

As I said before, the EZ Carry Floppy Shopping Cart Seat Cover is definitely not a must, but if you want the peace of mind of a protective cover, I highly recommend it.

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

Xbox 360: A Lesson In Consumerism

The second incarnation of Microsoft's video game console, the Xbox 360, will be released on November 22. There are two versions of the console being released: the Xbox 360 Core System, priced at $299.99, and the Xbox 360, priced at $399.99. The main difference between the systems is that the "standard" Xbox 360 comes with a hard drive, wireless controller and, for a limited time, a media remote.

The "Core System" seems to be aimed at parents who balk at spending $400 on a console, leaving their children to pony up $40 for a memory unit or $100 for a hard drive. It appears that if you want to play games from the original Xbox, you'll need the hard drive. A wireless controller is $50, and the media remote is another $30.

There will only be an extremely limited number of Xbox 360s available for the holidays, and many retailers are only selling the 360 as part of a rather expensive bundle pack that includes games and an extra controller. The ToysRUs bundle available through Amazon is $999.95 (not a typo). EB Games has a Core bundle for $599.93 and a standard bundle for $699.92. Their website states that orders placed now may not ship until 2006.

So what does all of this mean for the consumer? For starters, if they bought the Core System, most gamers would end up spending $100 to buy accessories already included in the standard system - so in this case, the more expensive system is probably the better deal.

What if you want the system the day it comes out? Limited quantities mean it's a seller's market, and that you have to pay a bundle just to get a system (pun intended). If you're a gamer who would have bought everything in the bundle anyway, then you'll probably save money. But I think that given a choice, there are at least a few things in every bundle pack that most gamers wouldn't buy (usually games). So most gamers will end up paying a premium for the privilege of getting their hands on the Xbox 360 when it first comes out, rather than waiting until supply meets demand.

I can understand that sometimes, you just have to have something. But I hope that the people who are buying the bundle packs have made a conscious decision to pay that premium, and that they've also decided that they can afford it (i.e., that they're not paying for it with a credit card they don't then pay off).

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Product Review: Fisher Price Healthy Care Booster Seat

In my previous review of The First Years' Infant-to-Toddler Reclining Feeding Seat, I said that it was light and easy to carry around, but I failed to mention that it's rather bulky. That's not a problem when there's more than one person, but when I took Alex to a restaurant by myself, it was a little awkward. So we gave it to Marc's parents to use at their house and got this booster seat from Fisher Price to use as a high chair when we go out to restaurants. I like that it folds up compactly, with the tray attached, and that one of the straps used to secure it to a chair doubles as a carrying strap. I also like that much like the regular Healthy Care high chair, the tray for the booster seat can be sterilized in the dishwasher. The tray also has a dishwasher-safe cover for extra protection. Additionally, the seat itself is easy to wipe clean. The tray and back can be removed as Alex gets older so that the seat can be used as a booster seat to get him to the right height for the table.

Unlike The First Years' seat, the Fisher Price seat does not recline, so it's not suitable for a baby who can't sit up straight, and it's not likely a baby would be able to fall asleep and be comfortable in this booster seat. I do wish there were a place to clip toys on to so they didn't fall on the floor.

Overall, I highly recommend the Fisher Price booster seat for any baby who can sit up straight.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Sweet Sesame Soy Dressing

This is a versatile dressing that can be used for almost any Asian-style salad. It will keep for a few days in the refrigerator.

Sweet Sesame Soy Dressing
Makes about 1 cup

1/4 cup rice vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup low-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil

In a small bowl, whisk together the rice vinegar and sugar until the sugar dissolves. Whisk in the soy sauce. Slowly whisk in the vegetable oil and sesame oil. Serve immediately or whisk again before serving because dressing will separate.

You can add 1/2 teaspoon of freshly grated ginger and/or 1 teaspoon of toasted sesame seeds for extra flavor.

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Sunday, November 06, 2005

Seasonal Produce

From L.A. Magazine's November issue:

  • Apples: August - November
  • Apricots: May - June
  • Artichokes: February - May, September - November
  • Asparagus: February - May
  • Beets: April - November
  • Blackberries: May - September
  • Blood Oranges: January - February
  • Blueberries: June - August
  • Bok Choy: December - January
  • Cabbage: October - May
  • Celery Root: September - May
  • Cherries: May - July
  • Collards: January - April
  • Corn: May - October
  • Cucumbers: June - September
  • Dates: August - May
  • Eggplant: June - October
  • Fava Beans: May - October
  • Fennel: January - July
  • Figs: June - September
  • Garlic: March - November
  • Grapefruit: December - May
  • Grapes: June - September
  • Heirloom Tomatoes: July - September
  • Kiwifruit: November - March
  • Leeks: November - April
  • Melons: May - September
  • Meyer Lemons: October - March
  • Nectarines: June - September
  • Onions: January - September
  • Peaches: May - September
  • Pears: July - January
  • Persimmons: September - November
  • Plums: July - September
  • Pomegranates: September - November
  • Raspberries: February, May - October
  • Rhubarb: January - May
  • Squash: May - January
  • Sunchokes: November - March
  • Yams: September - December

Obviously, you can find most of these items in your supermarket year-round, but now you'll know what to expect if you hit your local farmer's market.

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Saturday, November 05, 2005

The Shadow Rule

I know all about sunscreen, and how important it is for Alex not to get too much sun, but I'd never heard of The Shadow Rule: If a child's shadow is shorter than he is tall, keep him indoors or in the shade.

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Thursday, November 03, 2005

Learning How To Cook (Efficiently) - Financial Tip of the Week (Nov. 3)

This is the fifth and final installment in a series on saving money by cooking at home. Don't forget to check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

Cooking Skills
It's hard to cook without basic skills, and even experienced cooks continue to learn in the kitchen. For a few years now, I've been wanting to take a knife skills class at The New School of Cooking but haven't managed to work it into my schedule. I'm sure other cooking schools throughout the country offer similar classes, not just on knife skills but on other basic techniques as well.

However, you don't have to spend a lot of money to learn how to use a knife, or even to cook. I think that one of the best ways to learn these days is to watch Food Network. Several of the chefs are particularly good at teaching - for beginners, I recommend the shows Sara's Secrets, Food 911, How to Boil Water, Everyday Italian, and 30 Minute Meals. I think Semi-Homemade won't really teach you skills, but will give you the confidence to try a few things because they're so easy. Additionally, there are many websites with how-to videos and articles - take a look at Epicurious, Cooking Light, and Food Network (here and here; check out their list of safety tips, too).

But the single best way to learn how to cook is to just do it. As I discussed in Part 1 of this series, experimentation - even if it results in a failure of a meal - is still a success, because it makes eating at home fun and exciting.

The Efficient Kitchen
It's much easier to cook if your kitchen facilitates cooking rather than hinders it. When we moved into our house, the first thing I did was have additional countertops installed in what was supposed to be the breakfast nook. I couldn't understand how anyone could cook in a kitchen that didn't have any counter space!

Counter space is important, because you need room to do your prep work, like chopping and measuring. Give yourself plenty of room, and don't forget to put a plastic grocery bag on the counter to toss your garbage into. Keep the tools you regularly use within easy reach. And make sure there's some clear space next to the stove to make stove top cooking easier.

These tips from Cooking Light are intended to assist in designing a new or remodeled kitchen but some of them can be used to reorganize any kitchen. Find more tips here and here.

I hope you've enjoyed this series on how to save money by cooking at home, and that you've been inspired to eat a few more meals at home. Don't forget to invest the money that you've saved!

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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Big D (Discipline, That Is)

How do you discipline a baby? Do you even try?

These are questions that my group of mom friends and I have been asking ourselves and each other now that our babies are mobile and getting into all kinds of trouble. Here is what Babycenter's expert has to say on the topic (basically, 7 to 9 months is too early). What he says makes sense to me, since Alex is 7 months old and I can tell that he knows there are some things he shouldn't touch, but he also doesn't understand the concept of "no" yet. However, an older baby we know clearly understood the concept of "no" at 9 months and loved to push the boundaries set by his mommy - in this situation, discipline (but not punishment) is appropriate.

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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

IMBB #20 Soufflé Roundup

Kitchen Chick has posted her roundup of IMBB#20. Part 1 is all about savory soufflés - check out the Japanese Style Soufflé at the bottom of the post. Part 2 is all about dessert - one of the chocolate soufflés even claims to be lowfat!

Easy Corn Chowder

I made corn for Alex and pureed it in the food mill, then used the remnants left in the mill to make soup for Marc and myself. You can substitute 1 1/2 cups of fresh, canned or thawed frozen corn kernels for the corn remnants. If you use whole kernels, pop them in the microwave for 5 to 10 minutes, until they're soft. For a thicker texture when using whole kernels, puree half of the mixture in a blender before adding the milk, or add the milk and then use an immersion blender to achieve the desired texture. You may also want to simmer the soup for an extra 10 minutes to make the corn more tender. Add some crusty bread, or better yet, a grilled cheese sandwich, and you have a complete meal.

Easy Corn Chowder
Serves 2

4 slices of uncured bacon, diced
1/2 onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 cups corn remnants
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 cups 1% milk
2 ounces of sweet potato puree (optional, thickens the soup slightly)

1. Heat a nonstick stockpot over medium-high heat and saute the bacon for 5 minutes. Drain the pot, leaving 1 tablespoon of bacon fat in the pot. Add the onions and garlic and saute for 5 minutes, or until the onions are very soft. (Note: As you might recall, I don’t like onions very much, so I grated them instead of mincing them, and sauteed them for 2 to 3 minutes.)

2. Add the corn remnants, thyme, salt and pepper, and cook for 2 minutes.

3. Add the milk and sweet potato puree. Simmer for 5 minutes and serve.

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