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Friday, March 24, 2006

Reebok Bracelets and Dollar Tree Jewelry Recalled

Reebok has recalled a charm bracelet that was a free gift with some styles of children's shoes because of potential lead poisoning. The only suggested remedy is to immediately dispose of the bracelet. No replacement or reimbursement is offered. See the full press release here.

Dollar Tree Stores, Inc. has recalled its Mood Necklace and Ring, Glow-in-the Dark Necklace and Ring, and UV Necklace and Ring because of potential lead poisoning. The jewelry can be returned to the store where it was purchased for a refund. See the full press release here.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A Round of Recipe Reviews

I've been too busy to spend much time developing recipes these last few weeks, and have relied on old favorites or tried some new Cooking Light recipes instead. Here are the verdicts:
  • Sweet Hot Tofu: Just okay. I left out the ginger and green onions since Marc hates them and added some frozen peas instead. It was good enough to eat the leftovers for lunch the next day, but not good enough to keep the recipe.
  • Peanut Butter-Banana Spirals: Pretty good. But since our standard for a repeating recipe is quite high, this one didn't make the cut either.
  • Apple Muffins with Walnut Streusel: Good but not great. I love the streusel topping but not the rest of the muffin.
  • Crunchy Shrimp with Toasted Couscous and Ginger-Orange Sauce: Yummy! This was Cooking Light's Grand Prize Winner in a recent contest, and with good reason. I made it without the sauce because I was missing a couple of ingredients (poor menu planning on my part), but it was delicious nonetheless. The shrimp especially was terrific.
  • Apple Cinnamon Granola: So-so. I got tired of my own Yummy Granola and had been buying Trader Joe's Maple Pecan Clusters for a while, but recently decided to stop spending that $2.99 per pound on something I can make myself. This was the first recipe I tried but it was just okay - maybe because I left out the dried apples, but I hate their texture. I also found the oat mixture was on the wet side when I put it in the oven and baked it for longer than the recipe called for. I did like the Cheerios and might incorporate that into my next batch of Yummy Granola.
  • Maple Almond Granola: Better but not great.
  • Power Granola: Better than the first two. But again, the oat mixture was quite wet when it went into the oven. I might make this one again, but I'll add a cup of Cheerios to reduce the wetness and add more crunch.
  • Spicy Orange Beef: Quite good. Marc thought there was too much orange flavor, so I'll cut down on the orange peel the next time. But yes, there will be a next time. This one was a keeper.

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Monday, March 13, 2006

Don't Let Perfectionism Stop You

I have a tendency toward perfectionism, but one area I have been able to let this tendency go is in managing our finances. For example, as I discussed last week, our family budget is a constant work in progress. Here's another example:

In the last few weeks, I have been doing some mid- and long-range financial planning involving Alex's education and our own retirement. The further in the future I plan, the more I have to estimate the numbers I use in my calculations. But that doesn't stop me, and it shouldn't stop you. This is truly a situation where some planning is better than no planning at all. In five, ten or twenty years, Marc and I may realize that we have too much or too little money to accomplish what we set out to do, but we will definitely have more money than if we hadn't planned in the first place.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you don't have to do everything at once. In fact, you're much more likely to create a complete plan if you do it in stages. Gather information on how to achieve your goals over a week or two (read articles, bookmark online calculators, etc.). Then spend a day or two or three putting all of your financial information in one place. Once you have all the materials you need, you can do the math.

One last word about the math: don't let the final figure scare you. Sure, you might realize that you truly cannot afford to take a Carribean vacation this year or next year, but it's better to make that decision because you're in control of your finances than to blindly pay for the vacation with a credit card and spend the next 10 years paying it off. Or you might enter numbers into an online retirement calculator and have the program tell you (as it did me) that you need to be saving 47% of your gross salary in order to retire at the level you inputted. Not surprisingly, 47% is completely unrealistic for our current budget, but I was conservative with the numbers I put in because (as I mentioned earlier) I don't know what our exact situation will be in 20 or 30 years. The important thing that came of this exercise was a renewed commitment to increase our retirement savings.

The bottom line: Let go of your perfectionism and take control of your finances. Even without perfection, you'll be ahead of the game.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Macaroni & Cheese Plus

I almost called this recipe "Mac & Cheese for Mom's Peace of Mind" because I came up with it for Alex. I'm finding it challenging to hit all of the major food groups, but this dish makes it easy.

Macaroni & Cheese Plus
Serves 6 to 8

8 oz. dried whole wheat elbow macaroni or other short pasta
1 lb. lean ground beef
1 tablespoon butter
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons whole wheat pastry flour
2 1/2 cups milk (I use whole milk since I give this to Alex)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
1 cup shredded Gouda cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
4 cups chopped spinach
1 cup shredded carrot
1/4 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cook the pasta according the package directions. (I like to heavily salt the water when cooking whole wheat pasta.) Drain and set aside.
3. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Add the ground beef and cooked until browned, stirring frequently to crumble. Drain the meat and set aside.
4. In a large pot (I use the pasta pot), melt the butter and add the garlic. Cook for one minute and the flour. Slowly whisk in the milk. Add the salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and cook for two to three minutes, or until thickened. Stir in the cheeses until melted. Add the ground beef, spinach and carrot. Stir until everything is mixed well.
5. Pour the mixture into a 13x9 baking dish coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle the panko evenly over the top. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until bubbly.

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Monday, March 06, 2006

Keep Your Baby "Regular"

Alex might be mortified by this post when he's old enough to understand that I'm discussing his bowel movements for all the world to read, but I think this tip on keeping his bowel movements regular (and a good consistency) is too good not to share:

Every day, we feed Alex three to four dried apricots or prunes, and that's all it takes. I make sure the fruit is organic since apricots and plums are on the list of fruit that retain high levels of pesticides (the plums are from Whole Foods and the apricots are from Trader Joe's). I put them in a small bowl, cover them with diluted apple juice, and microwave them for two minutes or until they are plump, then cut them into small pieces. Alex loves them so eating them is good practice for his pincer grasp, too.

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Five Tips To Make Your Spending Plan (aka Budget) Work For You

Whether you call it a budget or a spending plan, you should have a system that gives you a pretty good idea of how much money you bring in, how much you save, how much you spend, and where it all goes. I use Quicken, simply because it's what I started with about five years ago, I've got everything set up the way I like it, and most importantly, it works for me. I don't really use Quicken the way it was meant to be used - I don't use it to reconcile my accounts or track my investments. I really use it mainly to keep track of our expenses. So here's Tip #1: Find a tracking system that works for you.

I keep a basket by the computer and toss all of our receipts into it. I create a new cash account in Quicken each month, and once a week, I sit down and input all of our expenses. That's Tip #2: Update your expenses at least once a week. It will take less than 15 minutes and will keep the receipts from piling up, which will discourage you from ever entering the information. My bonus organizational tip is to keep two envelopes in your receipt basket, one marked "keep" and the other marked "toss" or "shred." After you enter the amount into your tracking system, sort the receipts into three categories. Some can go straight into the wastebasket. The receipts that you might need later, for example, for warranties, go into the "keep" envelope (or better yet, filed away). The remaining receipts, which in my case usually for credit card purchases, go into the "toss" envelope. You can dispose of them after you get your credit card statement.

Like I said, I mainly use Quicken to track our expenses. I like my system because I can generate reports to see how much we spent on a certain category in a certain time period. That leads me to Tip #3: Check regularly to see how you're spending your money. Early on, I found that a frequent problem I ran into was that I underestimated how much we spent in certain categories, and I had to ask myself if the amount I had budgeted was realistic (it wasn't). Frequent checks to see if your spending matches your budget will keep you on track.

Tip #4: Remember that your system is a work in progress. That's why I recommend frequent checks to see how things are going. A couple of months ago, I doubled the amount budgeted for natural gas because the cost had gone up so much once it got cold (I think we're also using more hot water now that Alex takes real baths). I also recently changed the way I budget for unpredictable but inevitable expenses (like home repairs) because my previous way of doing things just wasn't working for me. I don't think I'll ever achieve the "perfect" system, but that's not my goal anyway. My goal is simply to manage our money, and I think I'm doing that pretty well. :)

Tip #5: Don't obsess. If you follow Tip #s 1, 2, 3 and 4, you'll probably spend an hour a month making sure your family spending plan works for your family. That's all you need! Okay, so it'll take more time if you have to start at the beginning and create a family budget from scratch. But a computer program like Quicken that has templates can make that pretty easy (I'm sure MSN Money and other programs work much the same way, I just don't have any experience with them). Once you have a basic plan, it won't take a lot of time to tweak it so it fits your family. And the peace of mind you'll experience from having control over your finances will be priceless.

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Friday, March 03, 2006

Coping With A Crying Baby

For me, the hardest part about being a parent is accepting the fact that I can't control Alex, even if he is my child, especially when he's on a crying jag that I can't do anything to stop. I know I'm not the only one who feels this way, so I'm sharing a few things that help me handle my frustration:
  1. Keep things in perspective - Not only does this kind of thing happen every day to parents around the world, it is, in the long run, a tiny moment of Alex's life.
  2. Remember that I am not a failure - I remind myself that Alex's crying does not mean I am failing as a parent.
  3. Try not to take it personally - Alex's crying doesn't mean he doesn't love or like me, this is just how he expresses himself.
  4. Call someone - Usually I call Marc, sometimes I call a friend. This accomplishes three things: first, it keeps me from focusing on the sound of the crying, at least a little bit; second, the person I call can help me remember the first three tips; third, the person I call can suggest a few things I can try to stop Alex's crying.
  5. Read a parenting book - Right now I'm reading The Happiest Toddler on the Block by Dr. Harvey Karp, and I've picked up a few tips on how to handle the Terrible Two's (which, ironically, start at 11 months and end at around 18 months).

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

"Girl Favors" Toy Jewelry Recalled

144,500 sets of beaded toy jewelry has been recalled because the jewelry can break, releasing the beads and posing an "aspiration hazard" to children. The jewelry was sold under the name "Girl Favors" at dollar stores nationwide. Click here for the full press release, including what to do if you have a recalled product.

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Little Tikes Flashlights From Target Recalled

Some Little Tikes Glowin' Dino and Glowin’ Doggy Animal Flashlights have been recalled because some of the paint may contain excess levels of lead. The products were sold exclusively at Target from November through December of last year. Click here for the full recall notice, including the date codes of the specific models recalled and information on what to do if you have a recalled product.

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Spanish Tortilla With Spinach

With all of our computer problems, I never did get around to posting my adaptation of this Shrimp, Potato and Cheese Tortilla, so here it is.

Spanish Tortilla With Spinach
Serves 4

4 slices applewood smoked bacon, diced (I like the Trader Joe's version)
4 cups diced red potato
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon dried basil
6 large eggs
1/4 cup nonfat milk
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 6-oz. bag baby spinach leaves
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cook the bacon in a 10-inch nonstick ovenproof skillet over medium high heat until crispy. Remove the bacon from the pan and set aside, leaving the drippings in the pan. Add the potato, 1/2 teaspoon salt, paprika and basil, and cook for 10 to 15 minutes until potato is browned and fork tender, stirring occasionally.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, 1 teaspoon salt and pepper.
3. Add the spinach to the pan and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, or until spinach wilts. Reduce heat to medium and add the eggs and bacon, stirring until the potatoes and spinach are evenly distributed. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
4. Bake the tortilla for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the eggs are set and cheese is melted. If desired, broil for 1 to 2 minutes or until cheese is browned. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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