Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Cooking For The Picky Eater

My brother-in-law's girlfriend is a very picky eater. My in-laws tend to have odd food, many of which I had never heard of before I started dating my husband. I remember being terrified the first time I went to their house for an extended because they have such odd eating habits. Still even after dealing with me, my mother-in-law gets frustrated with this girlfriend.

And I have realized that I am not so picky either. First one of the benefits of being forced to eat at their house is that I have learned to be able to try new foods. I had an odd feeling about foods that looked funny, but I am getting over that. Second I am willing to try most anything once, but I refuse to eat something that I know I do not like out of politeness. (Besides, I always thought it was rude of hosts to expect people to eat foods they do not want.)

At any rate, when this brother-in-law and his girlfriend come over, I find that I have a difficult time trying to decide what I will cook because I am concerned about whether or not she will eat the food. I have come up with a couple of ideas, some tricky and some not, that will help to feed the picky eater.

The first solution is to offer a wider selection of dishes than I normally would. By offering more side dishes, in particular, I am improving the chances that she will like at least one of them. I also tend to cook far more than is necessary when I am having anyone over, and I make sure to do this when I have her over because that way if she likes only one or two dishes, there will be plenty to eat.

The second thing that I do is to provide sauces and other additions to meals often. Instead of putting a unique oregano-based sauce on the meat, I serve it on the side in condiment dishes. That way I can serve a basic baked chicken, and everyone can partake of the chicken without the sauce if they would like. Trying keep out additions to foods helps.

I also try to avoid making casseroles. With my in-laws or other people I know well, I have a tendency to make meals that are not as complex. I will throw something together for a casual dinner. With more formal affairs, I may make something exotic, such as apricot-stuffed chicken (which is yummy, by the way!) By avoiding both extremes when a picky eater is coming, I am able to have something that she is likely to enjoy.

If it comes down to it, I will call and ask if she likes whatever I pick. While I consider that less tasteful that trying to accommodate her, it is sometimes easier if I find a really interesting dish that I would like to try, or if I want a remake of something my husband and I have cooked up, to call and be sure that she will like it than to chance that she will go hungry.

I provide plenty of the basics. Salads are great because even if you make a huge bowl and have everyone serve him or herself, people can pick and choose what they really want. At any rate, it is easy to leave what they do not want in the bowl. I also make it a point to have bread whenever they come by. Although I may make rye, pumpernickel, or something else that is more fun, I will make a loaf of plain-old white bread as well because I know she eats that. If all else fails, she can fill up on the bread until she goes home.

A final effort that I make it have food with larger pieces. It is easier to pick out the onions if they are in chunks rather than chopped. Sometimes, though, I have been known to grind up something that is mandatory to the dish so that no one will know that it is there. That works well with foods like zucchini that have subtle flavors. While I do not cook to suit everyone, I do try to take the time to ensure that everyone will have something to eat around my table.

By Julia Mercer

Help Guests With Save The Date Cards

Save the Date cards are something new among guests for weddings and other social events. According to traditional guidelines governing etiquette, it is very tacky to include reply cards in a wedding invitation. Alas, that old breed is dying out. More people have more events on their plates, and you will find very few wedding invitations today that do not include the Save the Date or RSVP cards for the guests.

RSVP cards are simple. They ask the person to send a response on the card indicating whether or not he or she will be coming to the wedding. The bride and groom typically put envelopes with postage paid with the invitation so that they can get as many reply cards as possible. These cards save a lot of time in the planning process.

A newer idea, and one that is catching on, is the Save the Date cards. These cards are ones that the guest can put up that will give a visual reminder of when the wedding will be. While the person simply could write the date in his or her calendar or planner, many people fail to do that. These cards are a way for the bride and groom to remind people of the upcoming event.

There are many types of Save the Date cards that you can send and make them seem like a part of your event. Part of quality entertaining is making sure that people feel a theme during the entire event, which for most of your guests begins with the atmosphere of the invitation. For the cards, you can even get magnets. This popular idea is one that is growing as more people realize that magnets can be placed on the refrigerator in plain sight. It is difficult to miss a magnet designed in the colors of the wedding hanging on the fridge. Bob and Susan are getting married June 13. There is no way to miss it.

Another choice that works for a more casual wedding is to have scratch-off cards made. These cards look like lottery tickets, and the recipient can scratch off the top surface, which should be in the wedding colors, to find a picture of the happy couple and the date of their wedding beneath. Guests for a more informal wedding may find this approach amusing, and they will approach the wedding with excitement, rather than trepidation.

Some people even send these Save the Date cards before the actual invitation. If you opt to do that, then you should put a line at the bottom indicating that you will be sending along an invitation. You do not want people to think that this card is the entire invitation, particularly if it does not have all of the details. If you have a number of guests who are traveling a good distance for your wedding, then you may want to single them out for these cards so that they may make their travel plans.

If you plan to use these cards, then you should have the printed with the full names of the bride and groom (particularly for relatives who are easily confused), and you should have the date of the wedding. You can include other information optionally. Some of that information may be the time of the wedding, the location of the wedding, the location of the reception, and a website you have set up with information about the event.

Be creative when you plan the Save the Date cards. You should make them part of the event. They can be expensive so be sure that you budget for them in your initial estimates. If the price becomes too prohibitive, then you may want to consider sending them out to only select guests. After all, Aunt Ethel, who lives two blocks from the church and only goes to bingo once a week, probably will not need to put the date on her calendar.

The Save the Date cards are a unique way to announce your wedding to the people you love. Although it may have once been in poor taste to make a bold announcement to people that they should put you on their calendars, the world is changing. It is busy. Make your event count.
By Julia Mercer

Dressing For A Job Interview

If you want to be taken seriously as a professional, then you will have to look like one first. It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that we are judged so much by how we look instead of by how we act. Job interviews are a perfect example of being judged by our looks. While your looks alone will not (or should not) get you a job, they will determine the opposite. Someone may decide not to hire you immediately upon your arrival because of your appearance.

Women should be especially careful of how they dress for job interviews as male attire is fairly uniform. There are fewer choices; therefore there is less chance of making a mistake. Women, however, are faced with an endless set of choices for clothing to wear to job interviews. If you are a woman preparing for a job interview, you should begin by wearing a dress suit or pantsuit. Although certainly business skirts are still acceptable, more women are finding that they are more comfortable in a pantsuit than in a skirt.

Your pantsuit should be a fairly muted color. The traditional colors are black, navy blue, and gray. Sometimes brown and perhaps even off-white suits are acceptable under the right conditions. If you are interviewing for a job at a corporate office, the off-white may be a little suspect, and you should always go with the more traditional look if you are unsure. The place where you can make your clothing more intense is with the shirt that goes underneath the suit jacket. Instead of just wearing a plain white shirt, you can try a brighter color to give the image that there is pizzazz in your personality.

Your shoes probably are the next most important part of your ensemble. You should avoid flat shoes as they tend to give the impression of indecision or weakness. Also avoid any heels that are higher than three inches. You should get shoes that are a similar color to your suit or are a complementary color but match your blouse. Be sure that the shoes are shined and are free of any scuff or wear marks.

When you are thinking about the makeup that you want to wear, imagine that you are going to a casual event. While that may sound odd considering how you will be dressed, it is the best way to get a visual of what type of makeup is acceptable for women to wear to job interviews. Avoid any dark or bright colors. Stick with subtle makeup that accentuates your face. If people notice your makeup, then it is not subtle. You also should avoid wearing any jewelry to your job interview. You never know when someone could have an allergy, and you do not want to miss out on a job because someone was too busy blowing her nose to pay careful attention to you. If you must add a scent, try a light spritz of body spray instead of a perfume.

The final issue you have to consider is how much jewelry you should wear. It is best to play it safe here as well. Try to stick to no rings or only your wedding band. Then you can wear a small chain and a watch. Avoid big jewelry and do not wear bracelets. They can be distracting when you move your arms, and you want to avoid anything that may distract the interviewers from your abilities.

While you should not try to hide who you are when you go in for an interview, you should make every effort to appear professional. I would never advise hiding a nose ring, for example, if you plan to wear it everyday on the job. While some people believe that you should get your foot in the proverbial door first, it would be worse in many ways to get the job only to be fired during your probationary period. With that said, it is not necessary to try to be flamboyant at your interview. You want the people who are interviewing you to be impressed with you. It is best not to do anything that would distract them from seeing you as a candidate for the job. If they leave talking about your clothing, that is never a good sign.

By Julia Mercer

Daily Kitchen Maintenance Is A Must

The kitchen and bathroom are the most difficult rooms to keep clean, and they are the rooms most likely to need daily care. If you think that keeping the kitchen clean is hopeless, think again. There are a few ways that you can work to keep your kitchen clean, but much of it depends on how you design the room. Many people head into decorating and designing the layout of rooms and plan the organization later. You cannot separate the two. If you read about organization, the very first advice you will receive from the experts is to look at your kitchen. Decide what works and what does not and start over on designing the room. How much time you spend cooking will affect the way you feel about your cooking in general, and the efficiency of your kitchen is a major component in the time it takes you to cook.

If your kitchen is set up well, you will be able to use the downtime that you have while you are cooking. You may be waiting for water to start boiling, vegetables to soften, or bread to rise. While you are waiting, use the time to do basic maintenance. Wipe the counters. Toss any trash. Also try to wash pots as you go. If you have the time to wash a pot or two while you are cooking, it will be much easier when you need to clean up the entire kitchen if you do not have as many pots to clean. Keeping the kitchen relatively clean is important to hygiene as well. Raw chicken, for example, can have serious bacteria in it. You should keep your kitchen cleaned as you go to avoid allowing a knife that you used to cut up chicken breast from coming into contact with the lettuce you are chopping for your salad. If you are organized and are using the downtime well, then you will be able to avoid these problems.

Sweep or run a sweeper over the floor everyday so that the crumbs and other small particles do not get ground into the floor. Also to keep items from getting onto the floor to begin with, use mats. You should have a mat in front of the stove and any area where you regularly chop vegetables or perform other similar tasks. If you put a mat in front of the sink, be sure that it will dry quickly, or you could end up with a molded mat. In addition, get a plastic mat to put under the high chair so that you can just pick it up and toss it when baby is done eating. It is imperative that you make it simpler to clean so that you can spend your time focusing on other tasks.

Finally, set up organized areas in the kitchen. You should have the sweeper or other cleaning supplies nearby, as well as plastic wraps, cleaners, gloves, and other items. You are more likely to clean up when a mess happens if you do not have to go as far to get what you need to clean up. Think about what you need when you are cooking. Do you look for pens to mark the bags you are putting in the freezer? Do you find that you have to search for new sponges amongst other supplies? Then take care of that problem. Take a week or so to record problems that you run into while you are cooking and then work on fixing them. Your best bet is to begin with the problem that bothers you the most, such as scrubbing a pot after it has dried, and then start there. Fix that problem and move on to the next one. You should see drastic improvement with each step that you take.

These tips will get you on the path to keeping your kitchen clean. Just remember that you will have to work on the kitchen everyday. Even one day of slack will cause a major backup, so be sure that you are prepared to clean every time you go into the kitchen to cook. You will need to keep on top of kitchen maintenance so that your home stays look fresh and inviting for you and your family.

By Julia Mercer

Signs of a Good Fishmonger

If you giggle at the title of this article because you did not know the word fishmonger, then you should consider that you need to beef up your knowledge of purchasing seafood. Well, if that is where you are, then I am here to help! There are some surefire ways to know that you are visiting a reputable fishmonger, which by the way only means someone who sells fish.

A good fish market will have raw and cooked foods displayed separately. I am not prone to give in to hype about dangers, seafood is not something to play around with. Indeed, fish and shellfish can cause serious health problems if you do not take care of it well. Putting raw food in the vicinity of cooked seafood means that you should head out the door. You could be talking about blood and other uncooked fluids seeping into the cooked foods.

A good market also will indicate if foods are fresh or previously frozen. Most of the markets will indicate this distinction only if the food is previously frozen. On the little descriptor tag, there will be a line that lets you know. If there are none of these signs, beware unless you are right on the ocean. Many types of seafood have to be frozen if they are not being sold immediately. Ask if you are unsure, and the person working the counter should be able to let you know.

There should be a temperature marking on the case. You will want to know that the foods are being kept at the right temperature, which is ideally between 29 and 32 degrees Farenheit. If you do not see a temperature, ask the person working about the temperature. Also check the cases. If there is any condensation or if any of the ice looks as if it may be melting, the seafood is not being kept at the right temperature. Beware of defrosting fish. You do not know how long it may have been sitting that way, and it is unhealthy.

Here is a stickler for the real seafood connoisseur. The flesh of fresh meat should not touch the ice - ever. There are a couple of ways to get around this when the fishmonger is displaying the foods. One way is to put the fish fillets on their skin, but some fish people will tell you that even that is not acceptable. Instead you should look for liners, such as a plastic wrap, above a layer of ice or the fish being put on a tray. That way, they are being kept cold, but they are not touching the ice so that their flavor is not affected.

A good fish market also should answer your questions. While that really goes without saying for any business, customer service often seems to be a lost art in the retail world. When you are buying any kind of meat or other sensitive food, then you need to be sure that the person selling it is able to answer your questions. Seafood is very sensitive. That means that if you cannot find someone who knows or is willing to find out, you should walk away. Get another seafood market.

These tips will not guarantee that you will find the best market. That depends on location, time of year, and some dumb luck. There are some fishmongers who are better than others, however, and you should be sure that you increase your chances of finding one of the good ones by asking the right questions and looking for the right signs. As with other high-end items, price typically should not be the decision-making factor for you. Looking for good quality is better than paying high price in a market where the workers know little about quality seafood.

Being sure that you are comfortable with the person selling the seafood is most important. If there is any reason that you have to suspect any health-related issues or any reason that you feel uncomfortable asking questions, that is a sign that this store may not be the place for you to shop. Look around. Ask for suggestions from other seafood lovers. You are sure to find something that suits your needs.

By Julia Mercer

Selecting The Right Fabrics

When are you choosing fabrics, you should take care to choose ones that you will enjoy wearing and that will look good for a long time to come. There are some simple rules to follow when choosing fabrics that will help you to be sure that you are wearing the right clothes.

The first test you should do before you even take a piece of clothing to the fitting room is the touch test. If a garment feels odd to your hand, it will not be comfortable to wear. It does not matter how wonderful a piece of clothing looks on the hanger, you need to touch the fabric to be sure that you will find it comfortable.

After the fabric has passed the touch test, then you can begin to consider whether or not it works for your lifestyle. Do not be pulled in by fashion gurus. You need to wear what works for not only your body type but your lifestyle as well. For example, cashmere is a wonderful fabric. It is incredibly soft, which is why people love it, and it is very flexible. If you take it to be dry cleaned as you should and take care to fold it and put it away after you wear it, then you will find that you can stomach the expensive price tag on this quality piece of fabric. If you live on a farm where you do chores and raise six children, skip the cashmere. That is not meant as any type of insult. There are beautiful fabrics you can and should wear, but cashmere is not for you unless it is for a special occasion. This fabric is for people without children who need to look professional regularly.

If you travel regularly, you may want to look for labels with viscose. This fabric is as close to wrinkle-free as you can get, which means that it will survive those long flights in the suitcase. It also will work well even if you need to roll it up. Care is the only concern for this fabric. You should have it dry cleaned, but if you cannot, then you can hand-wash it in cold water and allow it to air dry. You can run a warm - not hot - iron over viscose if you had to let it air dry.

Let us return to that farming lady with the six kids. What should she wear? Well, look for stretch and wrinkle-resistant cottons. Although it does not sound sexy, it has some major benefits. First, as more people go for casual looks even in the office and millions of people work from home, there have been some changes to these cotton fabrics. They now come in wonderful designs that do not look old or dated (and do not scream Mom when anyone sees you). They are easy-care cloths and the wrinkle-resistant ones work well if you are doing chores and running after little ones all day. The best part is that these fabrics are not very expensive, so you can stock up without spending a fortune.

Another good choice for moms when they need to go out (or want to dress a little more) is a denim look. Jeans are no longer just casual. A sharp pair of jeans paired with a nice shirt can look really great for running errands or hanging out at home. The fabric is flexible and moves with you so they work well for being about children as well.

Everyone, stay-at-home mom or not, should consider investing in at least one tropical blend suit. These outfits are durable. The fabrics are designed to be resistant to wear and tear, and they usually do not wrinkle much. They travel well. Although they are expensive, they are classic pieces, so you could buy one or two and keep them for years, making them fresh with a few accessories added in for something extra.

Choosing the right fabric is important if you are planning to make up a new wardrobe. If you go shopping, be sure that you feel comfortable in what you are considering buying. Whether it is chic or not, it has to fit your lifestyle and your budget to make you feel good about the purchase.

By Julia Mercer

The Right Jeans

Jeans have become a staple of the American wardrobe, especially for the younger set. Just any pair of jeans will not do, however. You must learn to match your jeans with the person you are on the inside and out. Here are some ways to make your jeans work with you, not against you.

You must choose between the classic cuts, such as boot cut or tapered leg and the trendier types of jeans out there. I personally opt for the boot cut jeans for a couple of reasons. First, the tapered leg jeans just look bad - period. There is no discussion. They draw people's attention to your feet, and they tend to bunch up. They also expose any flaws in your buttocks and legs because they tend to fit tighter. Boot cut allows you to wear any shoes you would like and still look great. The trend in jeans right now is still the low-cut back. The problem with these is that they only work on women with wide hips. Otherwise, your undies will show when you sit down, and that is just tacky.

It is very difficult to have the body shape that looks right for these jeans. You would need wide hips and a very small waist, so unless you were blessed with wonderful jeans or work out often, avoid this cut and go with a classic.

Another option you now have with jeans is to get stretch denim. These jeans have a couple of benefits. They move with you, unlike many of the more starched versions of denim. They also tend to be very flexible, which makes them good if you move around often. On the downside, they will stretch until they are too big to fit. Some are great, but I have had others that I cannot even wear for a full day. If you are getting stretch, be sure that they fit very snugly in the store and use a belt when you wear them.

It is important when you are shopping for denim that you get the jeans that fit your body. Most stores, like the Gap or Old Navy, will have charts on the wall. Be honest about yourself. They will let you know which cuts work for which body types. Pay attention to these charts. If you are in a store without the charts, then your best bet may be to try to focus on your best features. If you have a nice bottom, get jeans that are snug with pockets that are placed appropriately.

Similarly you can go against what you would like to have. For example, if you have long legs, go for a straight-leg or slightly flared jean. It is slimming to your legs and will make them look longer. If you are high-waisted, then you want to consider a jean that sits lower.

Your final choice in jeans will be in what color of denim you want. No, all denim is not made equal. Instead you will want to pick out the denim and see what works. Stone-washes are not very popular anymore, but you may find that you can get other unique types of jean washes. As a general note, dark jeans work best with brighter colored tops while light-colored jeans are a bit more versatile. The biggest mistake you can make, however, is to mix dark jeans with a dark top. It will be too much for others when they are looking at you.

Do not be afraid to splurge on a nice pair of jeans. You will find that you will want to get jeans that are comfortable. Few people make it with only one or two pair, but I have been trying out this trick for a while. Since I work from home, I only have two pair of jeans. I have really pared down my wardrobe, but I find that it is much easier to spend more money on jeans when they are going to last a good long while. I will be wearing them often, and I know that I am getting a good deal.

You should work to get nice jeans and make them work for you. This piece of clothing can really make a drab outfit look great.

By Julia Mercer

Starting To Cook In Bulk

This whole cooking once a month trend sounded like something I wanted to try. Some people find it repulsive, however. Some of them, like my mother, believe that the food you would eat would all be soggy and not worth having after having been frozen and thawed. Other people believe that this type of cooking requires that you have the same boring foods over and over.

I have discovered that neither is true. Although I have yet to get to cooking only once a month, and I am not sure that I ever will as I enjoy cooking, I am using some of the techniques to move myself in that direction.

For starters, I cook three main dishes at a time. I have discovered that the time I spend in the kitchen is reduced drastically when I make it a point to cook three entrees at once. That is because I can use the same skillet over and over while I am cooking and only rinse it out between uses if necessary. I can use the measuring cups and spoons and only wash them once as opposed to washing them three times. It saves a good bit of time.

The other way that you can save time is that you will be cutting up carrots for two of the three dinners, and you will do the same with other veggies, meats, and fruit. I started the three entrees cooking by making two small changes to the way I buy groceries. First I went out one weekend and stocked up on canned and frozen vegetables as well as rice and other foods. That way I can cook the entrees and then just match them up with side dishes I already have on hand.

The other change was to buy meat in bulk. I am not sure why I did not do that in the beginning because it is cheaper all around. Still, if I buy family packs of three or four types of meat, then I can cook part of each. For example, I may get a pork loin. I will cut it into four pieces. Then I wrap three of them and cook the fourth. I will do the same with ground turkey, chicken breasts, and chopped steak. That way we are getting a variety of meals with the same cooking session.

The next step for us is going to be freezing breakfasts. I am not going to start with an entire month. Instead I am going to spend some extra time one Sunday morning cooking and freezing ten breakfast meals. I do not count the weekends as we have more time then. That way, my husband can grab a breakfast from the freezer and warm it to eat at work. I can grab something in between feeding the cats in the morning and getting my son ready. We will all eat a healthier breakfast than if we purchased pre-packaged breakfasts, and we will be doing it much faster than if we cooked every morning.

I am not sure how far I will take this cooking in bulk issue. I am not sure that I want to cook only once a month, and I know that I do not have the freezer room to do that right now. On the other hand, I am considering moving to lunches after we do the breakfast cooking for about six weeks. I am not even sure that I will freeze the lunches. My husband comes home for lunch everyday, and it would be nice to grab something and microwave it instead of having to stop what I am doing to cook. Hmm. It is a thought.

I do not think that there is anything wrong with cooking in bulk. In fact, I hope the trend catches on. My mother was of the Supermom generation. She worked hard, went to school full-time, and raised us alone. Somehow she managed home-cooked meals. My mother-in-law was a stay-at-home mom who also cooked from scratch. I am not sure how they did it, but my life as a work at home mom is different. And this cooking in bulk could be just the thing that saves my sanity.

By Julia Mercer

Cooking With Herbs

If you want to add some spice to your meals, but you do not have a lot of money to do it, then you should consider adding herbs. What, you ask? When I have been to the store, herbs are expensive! Well, that is true, but there are ways that you can use herbs that will be cost-effective and still allow you to add something special to your meals.

First, grow your own herbs. A small herb garden is something that you should consider even if you have a small living space. Most of the plants are pretty small, no more than two or three feet, and they are simple to grow. Even the most novice of gardeners can figure out how to get a couple of herb plants to grow. If you grow your own, then you avoid the supermarket prices. Instead they will cost a couple of dollars for the initial investment, and then you will be using them for plenty of meals to come.

Be willing to experiment with herbs. Some are noted for their association with certain ethnic cuisines. Basil, for instance, typically is associated with Italian dishes. That does not mean, however, that you are limited. When you start cooking with herbs, be sure that you are willing to have a couple of dishes that are not the best. You will find some odd combinations, but that is okay. Instead of fretting over it, know that cooking with herbs is a learning process, and you will be an old pro in no time.

If you find that one of your plants is growing too quickly or the neighbor offers you some of her sage, then you can keep fresh herbs in the fridge. Before you cut your plant, be sure that you have an airtight container handy. Use the container to keep the herbs in it. They should stay for up to a week in your refrigerator, depending on the herb you are using. Just make sure that you use them before they go bad.

Know that you can try herbs on almost everything. Even if you are having a basic rice dish, adding some parsley to it can give it a nip. You also may be able to add herbs before you cook a dish. Experiment with casseroles and other dishes, and you will soon find that you have found your match.

Some cooks are open to constant experiment, but if you are trying to nail down some family favorites, then you should write down the herbs that everyone likes with certain dishes. While it is not necessary to have exact measurements, you can write down the herbs that you put with the baked chicken or tuna casserole so that you will eliminate the guesswork in the next go-round.

Also try using herbs as garnish. Some of them, like parsley and even dill weed, lend themselves easily to this use. They have interesting and soft leaves, so they will work well as a plate garnish. Others, such as basil, can be chopped and place around the plate. This works well if you want to serve everyone on everyday dishes but want to try something to show everyone that you are having a special meal. Let everyone know that he or she can add the herbs to their dish if they would like.

If your family really loves herbs and gets into the process, then you can grind some herbs and allow your family members to season their own food. It will help you to avoid using salt and pepper at the table, but it can permit everyone to enjoy the meal with their own level of herbs.

Remember that herbs are a little volatile. If you are buying them from other growers or try something different with your own plants, then you may get a result that is a little different from what you had expected. That is okay. You should approach eating as an adventure instead of a structure. Be happy with what you get and know that you are learning more and more about how to cook with herbs which can do nothing expect increase the quality of the home-cooked meals you offer your family.

By Julia Mercer

Selecting A Novel

You have just walked into the bookstore, looking for a new read. Maybe you have already read everything by your favorite author, or perhaps you are just looking for a change of pace. At any rate, when you head into the store, you see that there are thousands upon thousands of books from which to choose. How do you decide?

Well, if you read contemporary or mainstream fiction, then your task is even more difficult. Other genres, such as science fiction or African American themed novels, typically are pulled out onto their own shelves. Here is how you can go into the store and come out with something that you will enjoy.

First identify in your mind what type of books you like. Are you a Tom Clancy nut? Is Terry McMillan more your style? Are you still reeling over your re-read of the Lord of the Rings trilogy? Identifying your type of book will help. While you certainly can and should branch out, you want to begin with what you know. Once you have identified the type of books you want (which you should have done before you got to the store), then you are on the right track.

There are a couple of ways to find new books if you want to stick with the same general themes. You can use search engines to type in your favorite author's name and then similar, books like, or other phrases that may lead you to different authors who are compared to that writer. Another way you can find authors is by asking someone who works at the store for a comparison.

When you need a new author, however, and are unsure of a good comparison, you can find a book by picking through a bookstore. You should start by looking through and starting with five or six books to take from the shelf. You should ask yourself about the length of the book. If a book is 900 pages, it may be incredible (indeed, it is for a modern publisher to print it that long), but do you have the time to commit to reading it?

Also look at the blurbs on the back. Many books unfortunately have shied away from having a summary on the back cover and have quotes instead, so you may have to look around for the a summary on the first few pages of the book. This summary should be a clue as to whether or not you are even interested in reading the book.

Another clue on the popular appeal of the book (which may not may not be a bonus for you) is to check which publications reviewed the book. Larger publishing companies send the cream of the crop to the largest places, such as The Washington Post and The New York Times for review. Books reviewed by less-well known publications are either considered mediocre possibilities at larger publications or are from small publishers.

Once you have selected a few books from the ones you have reviewed, take them to a seat with you. Most bookstores now have places to sit, so you can see if you will like the book. A general rule of the thumb is that the book should grab you by the end of the first chapter. If you read the first chapter and end it not caring what happens or what is going on, then chances are that the book will not be fun for you.

Grabbing you does not mean having action. Some people are more interested in books that analyze character than have large fight scenes. The book just needs to begin to interest you. Also be sure that you are interested in the author's style and that the writing makes sense to you.

Picking a new novel is always a fun experience. Do not stress too much over finding a new author. There are thousands of new books out there, and even if you pick one that is a dud, you can find another book next week. Committing yourself to reading a novel is only a few hours' commitment, and while it is nice to find a new author you love every time out, chances are not good that it will happen. When you do, though, hang on. You are in for more books to entertain you.

By Julia Mercer

Buying Books For Teens

Teenagers often pretend that they do not like to read, but the reality is that there are so many books on the young adult market, many of them huge sellers, that some teens somewhere are reading. If you are like me, you always try to get gifts for people that will help them to enjoy themselves and will provide something educational as well.

If you are buying for a teen, then you should consider getting a book. When you are getting a book, however, you need to be sure that you are getting one that the teen will want to read. To start, ask the teen's parents what interests the child. If you know this child well, think about what is in his or her room. Are there horses everywhere? Is the telescope on prominent display? Think about the subjects the teen likes and then go from there. Trying to get a teen interested in a subject just because you like it is a lost cause, so your best bet is to go with the tried and true.

When you are checking for books, you should find some age ranges on the books. These ranges are just guides, but you should begin with them. Think about the teen you are considering. Does she seem a little immature or sheltered for her age? Does she read voraciously and have a college-level vocabulary? Make sure that you use the teen as a guide for the level of books he or she may be interested in receiving.

Unless you know the family well, you should beware of controversial topics. Some parents, like me, will have no problem with our son reading materials that may be considered objectionable or may be offensive to others. We absolutely abhor censorship, so we would have no problem with what other people get.

Other parents, however, may be more easily offended. They may not want their children to know much about certain subjects, and while it makes me cringe, you have to respect those parental desires when you are buying for a teenager, who is technically still a child. I have an aunt who was very upset when my mother got a historical novel for her 12-year-old about the Holocaust. She did not want her children to think about such atrocities because it shows an ugly side of life. My mother could not understand why she would want to hide what is an ugly part of world history from her children, but my mother returned the book. If the teen has parents who are easily put off like my aunt, then you should verify the book with them before you buy.

A great way to check out what is popular is to visit the websites of popular publishers, such as Random House or Penguin. Most of these sites have links to books for teens. You will be able to read about the book as well as check out reviews and see what subject matter is covered. Because these books are new, you also will run the chance that you will be getting a book that is currently popular among the teen's friends.

The last consideration you should have is whether or not the book challenges the teen. While I will read a chick lit novel at the beach, they are not the bulk of my reading because they do not challenge me. I can get lost in a great love story or the tale of an urban professional, but if I am looking for something more profound, I turn elsewhere. When I buy books for others, I try to keep that thought in mind. While controversy may be questionable, thinking is not. You should strive to get books that will require the teen to think about various facets of life. I read some powerful books as a teen that changed my opinion on a number of social and cultural issues. You strive to provide those experiences.

Buying books for teens is always a little tough, but books are able to change people's minds and force them to look outside themselves for answers. That is a wonderful gift to give a teenager because you will find that teens are looking for something to make them think and to help them make sense of the world. You can give it in a gift.

By Julia Mercer

Unique Flower Vases

When you are short on a flower budget or want something unique, then you should consider spicing up the flower arrangements you have with a different type of vase. Getting a vase from your nearby mass merchandiser is acceptable, but you can have more fun with something exciting and different.

Make it a point to stop by craft stores, flea markets, and thrift shops. Look for any type of glass (or even wooden or some types of high-end plastics) with openings for flowers. You likely will be able to find some sets available. You can buy all types of containers that will fit a single flower or a group of them but that was not intended for use as a vase. Be creative. Look at any number of objects that you can use as a vase. Bring them home, clean them up, and put them away. The next time you have guests coming by for a small, casual affair and you want to go simple, yet elegant, pull out some of these containers.

As you build your collection of interesting flower containers, take a minute to think about some other options. One interesting choice is colored glass. Keep in mind that some colors look better than others. Still if you find green or auburn glass, there is nothing to say that you will never need it for a 70s party or need it for something themed that you are planning. Picking up some pieces of colored glass can mean that a white rose or simple carnation can look stunning.

Look for pieces that have bubbled glass. These pieces come in clear and colored as well. If you find something that has been bubbled, you can put it away for a casual event or an event intended for children. These pieces of glass are great for some occasions, and they work well with flowers with small blossoms or with flowers that are fairly plain in and of themselves. The glass in this case can be the attraction, instead of the flowers.

Also check for embossed lettering. These pieces are not ones that you will find immediately, but if you keep looking, you may be able to find ones monogrammed with the first letter of your family name or with the first letters of your names. Try finding other pieces of embossed or etched glass for really unique looks for your party.

Another choice is to have a piece that is hand-blown. You probably will not find these pieces at your average second-hand store although flea markets and independently-owned craft stores are places where you may be able to find them if you look hard enough. These pieces are great for entertaining because they provide a conversation starter. Often they are made by people in different countries, and you can talk about the craft if you educate yourself about it.

These types of vases are wonderful, and you can do numerous things with them when you are decorating. You can use a single vase for a centerpiece for the table where everyone will be eating. You also can put them at various points around the room so that people will notice them no matter where they are in the room. This idea works well if you are going with a theme for the party and want to scatter flowers that go with the theme (or if the containers themselves go with the theme). You can put them on your coffee table and end tables to make the theme go around the room.

There are a number of choices you have with these containers. The best part about them is that most of them are very inexpensive. If you spend $20 at various stores, you can get five to ten containers that you can use for flowers. Then all you need is a proper storage area for them, and you are in business. You can create a great entertaining space simply by pulling out great pieces that you already own.

Try it out. You may find that you are interested in the various types of glass out there. You also will discover that your guests will enjoy the differences. Guests love to be able to comment on something they see, and these glass pieces can be just the ticket for a great conversation.

By Julia Mercer

Tips For Flower Arrangements

Flower arrangements can be absolutely stunning if you do them in the right way. While you may imagine that you are not much of florist yourself, here are a few tips on ways to arrange your flowers so that you can get the best effect.

Do not forego single flowers.

While a single flower is not technically an arrangement, it can really be a wonderful way to set apart great flowers. Lilies, for example, are a type of flower that work well alone. You can tie a beautiful ribbon on the long stem, or you can use a single flower as a corsage or for another type of display. A single rose for a flower girl in a wedding is a wonderful example of how to use a single flower for a great effect. If you are entertaining guests, you may want to consider floating small flowers singly in vases or other containers. It can have a wonderful effect by allowing the guests to see decorations all around them while not overwhelming them (or your budget).

Bundle small flowers.

If you are using small flowers, then you will want to bunch them together rather than separate them in an arrangement. Some people try not to put any two flowers of the same kind together when they are working on flower arrangements. While there may be some merit to this position, the reality is that if you do that, then you may not be able to see the smaller flowers. Their blossoms may get lost among the bigger ones surrounding them. You also may find out that they will show up better if you use them in small clusters around the larger flowers.

Do not use vases only.

You can find some amazing elegant vases to be sure. It also is true, however, that you can find some wonderful containers that are not intended for flower arrangements. Some decorative bottles, for example, such as the ones you find with distilled vinegar and colored veggies will work (if you wash them thoroughly) for flower arrangements. You can use unique items, such as decorative bowls, for your flower arrangements. This option has a couple of advantages. First you will find that you can use the bowl for something else once you no longer need it for flower arrangements. Second, you will be able to better match the bowl with other bowls you have to make a seamless decorating decision.

Double up your container.

Well, I have a wonderful bowl, you say, but it will not hold water to use for a flower arrangement. Use an old trick. Slip a smaller vase into the container you want on the outside. No one will know that the flowers really are not being held in the container they see, and you will have done something unique for your guests to see.

Make sharp cuts.

When you cut your flowers to fit them into an arrangement, be sure that you cut them with something sharp. Do not use any old knife. Make sure that it is one that has kept its sharpness over time or that you have sharpened recently. Otherwise the cut will keep water from flowing into the vase, and you will shorten the length of time you can keep the flowers on display.

Take the guests into account.

You may love gardenias. They are beautiful, and the smell is great. Well, it is to you anyway. Other people have strong allergies to smells such as gardenia or lavender. That means that these people will not want to sit sneezing at your dinner table all night. Instead try to ask (if it is a small group) beforehand if anyone has any flower allergies. If they do, avoid those flowers. If you are entertaining a large group, then you should select blossoms with subtler odors, as they are less likely to cause problems for your guests.

Overall, be sure that you use your creativity and your own sense of decorating (even if you have to work to get in touch with it) when you want to think about your flower arrangements. You will need to be sure that you do something that is beautiful and elegant and that you can make. Do not try to be elaborate. Often with flower arrangements, simpler is better.

By Julia Mercer

Tips For Choosing Room Fabrics

Are you thinking about redecorating but unsure what to do? Are you finding that all of the fabric choices in your local store have you spinning? Well, there is something you can do. Begin your redecorating with these tips for how to work with fabrics in your home.

The first key is that you will to have a certain fabric to begin. Do not start with solid fabrics. Even if you find a solid with a color that really catches your eye, you should not begin with this fabric. Instead you should start your decorating with a patterned fabric. So start looking. What do you see as the foundational fabric of your room? Pick it, get a sample, and then get started on the rest of the planning.

Know that this foundational fabric will be the main pattern for the entire room. You may pick complementary fabrics (preferably with help from someone who has an eye for patterns, or at the very least the sales clerk at the fabric store). This person should be able to help you pick out patterns that work well together. Three patterns is the absolute most you can have in a room. Even then, you may be pushing it, depending on how busy and intense the pattern is. Try to stick to one or two patterns so that they are not competing with each other.

Be sure that you vary the size of the patterns if you are going to select more than one pattern for a room. Two small floral prints, for example, or even a small floral and small plaid will not be appealing. Instead they will create an odd collection of patterns with none of them standing out as the main voice of the room. You should work at a large and small pattern if you must have more than one.

To pick complementary colors, take a swatch of the foundational fabric with you. It will be imperative to match one of the dominant colors in this pattern to the additional patterns you select. Any solid colors that you choose should come from matching them directly with this foundational piece. Do not rely on your memory, especially for reds and purples. They are difficult to match, so bring the original fabric with you.

Match the size of the patterns with the size and feel of the room. A large airy room should get large plaids and stripes while a smaller room will need more compact patterns. Trying to mix and match the patterns of the room with the size can be difficult, but think atmosphere here. If you have an open loft, then you want big patterns so that you, and others, are focusing on openness not the small plaid you picked for the pillows.

If you are picking pieces to complement the furniture, take that into account as well. If you have a small love seat, a large pattern, even in a large room, can make the pillow look more important than the furniture, which you do not want. Instead in these instances you may opt for a medium-sized print because then you will find versatility. Medium-prints can help to look open while not taking over the furniture you have in the room.

Try stripes to liven up furniture. Stripes seem to add depth, so they make a couch or other piece of furniture look taller or wider, depending on the type of stripes you pick.

You should work with creating the patterns in various spaces around the room. Instead of trying to cluster everything, spread out the patterns. Try to incorporate them into as many places as possible. For example, you may be able to make a lampshade and a pillow from the same material, and it will work well to bring together the room. In essence, you want people to think that you put the room together from a catalog or bought it ready-made from the store. They should not think of the room as pieces of a pattern but rather one large pattern. If something does not fit, do not keep it. Toss it and try something new. You are bound to improve, and you will have a beautiful house to show for your efforts.

By Julia Mercer

The Psychological Impact of Color

The color you opt to use in the rooms in your house can have a huge effect on your mood. While there is some discrepancy between the exact mood that certain colors promote, one things that is certain is that people know color matters. Here are some common beliefs about the colors you can use in your rooms and what those colors can do for your mood.

Some colors, such as red, are known to have wildly differing effects on different people. While all colors have this duality to a certain degree, red is one of the most notable. For some people, painting an entire room red (which can be overwhelming anyway) can trigger aggression. The term "seeing red" alludes to this aggression. For other people, however, red is an invigorating color. If you think about it, the two effects are really opposite effects of the same idea. One way that you can deal with this difference is to try a lighter hue, which will be more likely to have a positive effect.

When you are picking a color, think about the theoretical psychological effect. Decide what you do in the room the most. While the idea of getting a yellow room may be great, your bedroom probably is not the place since yellow indicates cheerful. This color will work well for a living room or other room where you will need to be exited, but the bedroom may work better with a softer hue.

Using contrasting colors, those that incite the opposite reactions in most people, are great choices for children's bedrooms or for family rooms because they allow the mind to work through a number of colors. On the other hand, the colors can be too much for a little brain, so you should try adding in softer tones that are not pure colors, such as lavender.

Green is one of the best colors to use for your bedroom or for a sunroom. Green means restful and peace, and most people feel comfortable when they paint their rooms in a soft green hue. Also because green is the predominant color of nature, it is thought to bring about notions of nature, which means balance and harmony.

Black and white, colors that are rarely the sole color in the room, mean stark. Some people cannot stand rooms that are all-white because they remind them of sterilization, such as in hospital rooms. These rooms give people rest, however, and they do promote feelings of cleanliness, making them great choices for kitchen or bathrooms. While you probably do not want to paint your walls black, try adding in splashes of black through rugs, tiles, or other accent pieces.

Orange is the color of excitement. Be careful with orange because a hue that is too intense can be overwhelming and make you feel as if you cannot focus. A nice dark orange, however, is a beautiful color for a dining room. It suggests vitality and is known to increase people's desire for social interaction.

Blue is an interesting color to consider. A pure blue, such as a royal blue, is considered a stress-reliever. A softer blue tone can mean a reduction in tension. Blue light bulbs even work well. You can put a blue light bulb in the lamp in your bedroom, for example, and by leaving it on for a few minutes before you go to bed, you will promote more restful sleep.

Purple is a relaxing color. It is also difficult to find purple in a suitable hue. Few people want a bright, pure purple a la Barney the Dinosaur. Instead they will use shades of lavender.

Use these color palettes to experiment. You do not need to have bland walls. Try adding some color or include these colors in a room's decorations so that you will be able to promote thoughts of well-being when you are in a room. Just take into account when you are picking a color that it typically will look more intense in a full room, so picking the brightest shade you can find may not be the best choice. Instead get something lighter and then work your way up if you would like. Experiment. You will find something you like.

By Julia Mercer

Supervision At Children's Parties

Getting help for your children's parties can be an overlooked part of the planning process. In between ordering balloons, getting a cake, sending out invitations, and buying party favors, you can forget about who is going to be watching the little ones during this affair. It is a very important part of the planning process, however, and you should be prepared.

Making plans for a pre-schooler's party can be odd as far as decision-making time goes. Children younger than five years old may typically should have a parent with them. These children are still too young to grasp completely concepts about behavior. They will need a parent with them unless you know the children well enough to scold them when they misbehave. You can avoid any problems by asking that a parent or older sibling (specify how old) stays with the child at all times. You also can ask only children you know very well. That way you can avoid the three-year-old who will not stop opening the birthday child's gifts.

When the kids get older, though, it is likely that the parents will want to drop the kids off and leave them. At this point, you will need to make arrangements for who will watch the kids during the party. When you are talking about children from kindergarten through about third grade, you will need a supervising adult or teen for every five or so children. Past third grade, you will need someone for every seven to ten children.

There are a number of ways you can find people to help out. One option is to ask various parents of the children if they would be willing to stay during the party. Some parents may be planning to stay anyway, and others may be willing to stay if you ask. Also ask neighbors or relatives if they want to come to the party. They will expect to help out with any little hooligans while they are there.

Some parents choose to have their parties through planning services or at arcades or other fun locations. These parents find that it is much easier to have the parties through these services because there often will be staff members available who are assigned to the party. Before you sign a contract for a party, check to see what is available. If there will be staffers assigned to your party, ask how many and what their job duties are.

You also may have to hire people to come in to supervise the children. These party babysitters can be a good choice as children get into middle school. The children will be past the age of wanting other adults, such as you or their own parents, to watch their every move, but they still will need strict supervision. Ask some teens you know if they will come to the party. You should pay them a nominal fee, and of course, they should be allowed to eat. Be sure that you tell them what is expected of them before they come. You do not want a babysitter to think that she is coming over to watch a couple of kids to find 40 screaming little ones ready to party.

Finally do not be afraid to call parents if someone is not behaving. It is not your job to discipline the children, and you should not have to miss out on having fun at the party simply because the children who were invited cannot behave. If you do not know how to contact one of the children's parents, then feel free to pull that child away from the action if he or she cannot behave. Do not allow the other children to have a bad time because of one kid who cannot behave.

If you have to do that, then explain it to the parent when he or she arrives to pick up the little troublemaker. It is better that the parent hears it from you first-hand rather than the child's version first.

Remember that above all the party should be fun. There should be enough people to supervise so that the children will be able to play without getting frustrated. If you are doing crafts, the kids should enjoy them and have enough help there that they can have a good time.

By Julia Mercer

Cleaning While Entertaining

When you are hosting a party, you may find yourself torn. Part of you will want to clean up so that there is less to do once the guests go home. The other part of you will realize that you should enjoy the party. Which decision is the correct one?

Well, you should do a little of both. You absolutely should spend time having fun with your guests. There is no point in planning a party and getting everything ready only to have to run, run, run, during the entire affair so that you do not have any fun. Also you do not want your guests to feel overrun with dirty dishes and serving bowls, especially if they will sit at the table sipping wine or drinking coffee after the last of the meal is completed.

At the same time you do not want to be running around cleaning the entire time. Guests may leave feeling as if they did not get to see you at all. It also makes guests feel uncomfortable if they feel that the hostess is doing so much working that she is not enjoying the event. If you will allow the guests to help you, then let them know if they ask. If you would feel odd about the guests helping with the clean-up effort, then you should be firm. Do not let them bully their way into helping you. Though it may seem odd, some guests will make you feel that way.

Consider hiring someone to help. Though you may not be able to afford a full housekeeping or catering service, there is nothing to say you have to hire trained professionals. After all, you are talking about some basic cleaning up during the event. Hire a couple of teens to come by about half an hour after the party gets started. They can pick up plates from the guests, refill drinks, and help with other small tasks. You can pay them considerably less than you would pay a catering service, and you and your guests will have an enjoyable time.

Find somewhere to put the dirty dishes if you decide to let the guests help or if your affair is more buffet-style. You will find that by having a spot for people to put their used plates, then they can stack them, creating much less clean-up work for you. Another choice for a casual event is to use only paper or Styrofoam plates so that your guests can toss everything. You also may want to consider renting fine china and glassware (though be sure you can pay for any broken pieces). While it is more expensive, there is a convenience payoff. You can return them unwashed so that there is little for you to do after the dinner.

Be sure that you have enough trash cans for the number of guests you will have and be sure that they are clearly visible to all guests. You also may want to find a way to make the clean garbage bags visible to any ambitious guest who wants to change out a full garbage bag. You may find that you can put them below the bag in use or there may be an area near the trashcan where you can put them. Also be sure that you have a number of garbage cans for a roaming or outdoor party. It is better for you to be sure that the guests can toss their own trash. It makes the clean-up easier for you.

Cleaning up during the party should be something that is natural. While you want their to be plenty of room for your guests to put their plates and relax without feeling crowded, you should not spend the party cleaning up. If you have emptied the dishwasher before the party, you can put clean plates into it while you are talking to a guest or when you run to the kitchen. Otherwise, stack the dishes and work on the heavy cleaning when the guests leave. In the meantime, you will want to enjoy the party. Once everyone leaves, there is plenty of time for you to clean up once you are all alone and your guests have had a great evening.

By Julia Mercer

Thinking Of Milk Alternatives

My son may have a milk allergy. Although I know that such allergies have increased in recent years, I was not that concerned about it. My husband had a slight milk allergy when he was younger, but it is all but gone now. Plus we did all of the things we were supposed to do, such as not introducing him to dairy products until he turned one.

He had a doctor's appointment last week, and she gave us the go-ahead to start giving him regular milk. We gave him milk on Thursday and Friday, and it resulted in yucky experiences that you would rather I not recount. At first, we thought that he may have a virus, but we realized that the milk was the more likely culprit. We did not give him any milk on Saturday, and everything cleared up. Beginning Sunday, we started giving him soymilk, and he has not had any problems with it thus far.

As I said, I was unprepared for the milk allergy, so I was not sure what to do. I did some basic reading and discovered a good deal of interesting information. First, lactose intolerance and milk allergies are two entirely different animals. One, lactose intolerance, builds up over time. It is very rare to be born with a body that does not produce lactase, which is the hormone needed to break down lactase, the sugar in dairy products.

What my son, and most people who cannot stomach milk, has is a milk allergy. It is highly likely from my reading that his allergy is to a protein in the milk. This protein is put into the milk through the pasteurization process, which means that it is a bonus for us. We will be happy to provide our son with one of the alternatives to cow's milk, such as goat milk, soymilk, or even rice milk or oat milk. We want him to learn to love milk, and we will provide whatever he needs to do that.

On the other hand, trying to go one's entire life without cheese, ice cream, and yogurt would be a more difficult proposition. The wonderful part about the allergy to the protein is that it is possible that the pasteurization process causes the allergy, so he may still be able to eat other dairy products. We will try him on them slowly to see what he will be able to eat.

Still it sent us on a frenzy at the grocery store. Unfortunately for us, we are currently stuck in a town where things like organic milk make people look at you as if you were an alien. It is hippie food, and it is not readily available. There is a health foods store about an hour from us, so it looks as if we may have to go there. Still we were able to find organic milk, though that will not help in the case of a milk allergy, as well as soymilk and other varieties. We were pleased to find that although it is more expensive than regular old milk, it is not prohibitively so.

Instead we may just be able to allow our son to stick to alternatives to milk. A friend sent me a link to a site for raw milk, which is cow's milk that has not been purified by the pasteurization process. I am unsure what that means as far as health goes, but apparently the raw milk phenomenon is catching on, and people are able to drink it and digest it better than other products.

The search for alternatives to milk is on in our home, and I am sure that we will be learning more than we ever wanted to know about dairy alternatives over the next few weeks. There will be a good bit of experimentation as we learn about what my son can and cannot eat. Although the grandparents seem more concerned about the inconvenience that we are, though none of them live close by, we are happy with the potential for change. It is an adventure, and that is how we try to approach all of our food experiences. I hope this one works out for the best.

By Julia Mercer

Some Foods You Should Be Careful Of Freezing

One of the rages in cooking these days is the fascination with freezing food for later use. There are good reasons that this type of cooking is popular. In many instances, buying in bulk can save a few pennies here and there, which can really add up. Freezing meals also saves time when you are in a rushed state. Even if you keep a relaxed pace, freezing meals can help to reduce what you have to do everyday.

One of the problems, though, is that all foods do not freeze well. Indeed some foods are not made for freezing and reusing. There is some trial and error there. Some foods may change slightly, and while that may be okay with some families, it is not with others. To see if a food will freeze well, you can check online to see if you can find anything about it. Barring that, you should freeze a small amount of the food and try it in a week or so to see if you like it.

Some foods are known not to freeze well, however. Anything greasy, such as fried meat, should not be frozen because the freezing process will serve only to make it seem greasier when reheated. These foods also become soggy and are not good reheated, and that applies to anything greasy, including dishes like scalloped potatoes.

Freezing sandwiches always is a danger because you may find that whatever you have frozen onto the sandwich will work its way into the bread. For example, jellies are not good to freeze already on the sandwich. As a general rule, you should not freeze anything on bread if the insides of the sandwich are heavier than the outside bread.

Among accoutrements for your dishes, mayonnaise and sour cream should be off the list of potentially freezable foods. Mayonnaise is essentially eggs and water, and you are likely to find that if you try to freeze mayonnaise, it will separate. You may be able to get by with it in a casserole, but it depends on the other ingredients. Sour cream becomes very watery, much like the way it looks when you first open a container, only after freezing, you will not be able to stir it back to its normal consistency.

Potatoes are tough to freeze although you can do it if you are quick about it. The problem with potatoes is that they become mushy. If you plan to freeze potatoes, you should not allow them to cook all the way when you are cooking them. Instead freeze them immediately when they start to cook. Do not wait for the dish to cool, or you have waited too long.

Most of the yummy treats made with egg whites, such as cake icing or custards, are not good for freezing. The eggs do not do well frozen, and the icing or custard will separate.

Other foods can be frozen but with a few qualifiers. For example, you can freeze gravy, broth, or soup. Just beware that it may separate during the freezing and defrosting process. If that happens, you can put it in the blender or warm it on the stove and stir it to help avoid the problem in the future.

Many seasonings, including most herbs, will have a slightly different taste after they have been frozen. The best way to deal with this issue is to add them when you are reheating. You should freeze the original serving without any of the seasonings. It will be much easier and tastier to do it when you are reheating although some dishes are dependent upon the seasonings blending in, so it may not work for all dishes.

Do not freeze raw veggies unless you intend to use them in stews or casseroles. You probably will not want to eat the raw if they have been frozen because they will not be very crisp. Instead you will need to cook them.

Remember that there are no hard and fast rules for freezing and reheating foods. Much of it depends on personal preference, so you should be willing to try out different foods to see if they work. You may want to freeze only occasionally, but a growing number of people cook once a month and freeze everything.

By Julia Mercer

Saving Money On Food

There are many ways that you can be frugal when it comes to cooking. Many moms and dads find that although they want to buy better food and be healthier, their grocery bills already make up a good portion of their budgets. There are plenty of ways you can work to save pennies here and there in your kitchen, and you will find that they add up quickly.

The first thing you can do is to save all zippered bags. That applies not only Ziploc bags that you used for items that did not make a mess but to the bags that tortillas shells and other items came in. You can put these bags in the freezer and save them. Then when you cook something (such as pancakes) and want to save some of it, you will be able to do so by putting them in the bags you already have.

Do not toss out bananas if your family did not eat them before they went bad. First know that the flesh of bananas are good long after the peel turns brown, especially if you put them in the refrigerator when you get them. If you find that the peel has turned brown, you can make banana bread, banana pudding, or other dishes out of them. You also can put the entire banana (with the peel) into the freezer. Then you will have it available when you want to make a fruit smoothie, and the banana will still be good.

Make your own breadcrumbs! You can make breadcrumbs fairly easily from bread that is going stale or from the ends of bread that people do not want to eat for whatever reason. Put the ends into the freezer in a sealed bag. Then when you have enough to make a good serving of breadcrumbs, you can put them in the food processor. Grind them up and then re-freeze them. You will be able to use them for various recipes for months. You can put out as much as you need and use it, leaving the rest frozen.

Are you tired of spending money for those "cream of" soups that you need? Well, make your own. These recipes are not as simple to duplicate as others, but you can make yours at home. If you use these recipes often, you can save a significant amount of money. Here is a simple recipe for making a cream of soup. Mix two cups of nonfat powdered milk with 3/4 cup of cornstarch, 1/4 cup of chicken bouillon, two tablespoons of onion flakes, and one teaspoon each of thyme, black pepper, and basil.

This dry mix can be stored in a sealed container until you would like to use it. Heat 1/3 cup of the mix with 1 1/4 cups of water in a saucepan and then add them to your dish when you want to use it. You can add in whatever the cream of is supposed to be. You can add in 1/2 cup of chopped mushrooms or celery, 3/4 cup of cooked mixed vegetables, or 1 cup of potatoes, broccoli, or asparagus as needed to make the soup. This tip alone can save you a good bit of money if you use a lot of these soups. It also is healthier for you, so there are a number of benefits.

Try out a number of spices. They can save you from purchasing expensive packets. Plus you can add your own flavor. If you are a huge fan of basil, you will be able to make your own spaghetti sauce based on your preferences if you use your own spices. Adding spices also can help you to eat more foods that you may not think you like.

These few tips should get you started on saving money on your grocery budget. As you start your quest for a more frugal and a healthier kitchen, you will find that you will discover more ways to save money. There are items that you may buy, such as pre-made or add meat only dinners, which you think are inexpensive. You will find, however, that you can make them yourself for less money. They will be healthier, cheaper, and tastier, and that makes these dishes winners for any family.

By Julia Mercer

Save Money On Restaurant Food

Restaurants are a great source of food and companionship. I am known to be a bit of a restaurant junkie, though we have cut that down in the past year or so. If you do find yourself needing to eat out, though, there are ways that you can cut down on the cost.

First see if the restaurant you choose has half portions. Many restaurants are responding to the health craze that is facing America right now and are offering up smaller portions. The benefit to your health is great, but they also are great for your pocketbook. You will not spend on meals that you cannot eat completely. If you do have to get a large portion or if you do not eat all of it, you should ask for a to-go bag. Take the food home. After all, you paid for it. You can have lunch for the next day and will save a little money.

On this note, you can allow your kids to share. My one-year-old son still eats with Mommy and Daddy. There is no way that he could eat an entire meal by himself besides the fact that children's meals typically are not good for you at all. We let him eat off of our dishes after we order him a side dish that he can enjoy on his own. You can always order more food, but you cannot send back what you ordered and did not eat.

Look for restaurants with specials. Some restaurants allow children to eat free on certain nights of the week, or they offer specials, such as 1/2 certain meals at certain times. Keep a mental log of those restaurants so that if you decide to go out at the last minute, you will know where to go to get the best deal.

Beware of buffets. They can be wonderful places to fill up, but you can spend more money than you would if you purchased meals. You also may not eat as much food. When you want to go to a buffet, be sure that you find out how much it costs. Some restaurants have a bad habit (and poor customer service decision) to put up several prices for the same buffet because some are for lunch, some for dinner, and some for special occasions. Be sure that you find out how much it costs and compare that cost with the price of a full meal. Also avoid filling up on salad or high carbohydrate foods, such as mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese. While it may sound silly, the restaurant pours out those foods because they know that they are cheap, and people love them. You will go home full but be hungry again soon.

Keep coupons with you for local restaurants. If you know that you sometimes grab something at the local deli after soccer practice, cut out their coupon from the Sunday paper. Then keep the coupons in your wallet so that you can be sure that you have them available when you want to stop by for a quick meal after a long day.

Watch for semi-healthy fast food. Some restaurants, such as delis, are not as bad for you as other fast food restaurants. At the same time, they are not as expensive as sit-down restaurants. By going to these restaurants, you can split the difference between the price and the health and get something that works for both areas of your life.

You should get only a small amount of food. If you are running late, the kids may be dying of hunger, or so they claim. The reality is that they just need something to tide them over. Instead of going all out at a restaurant, buy them something small and let that hold them until you can cook at home. You can stop the kids' whining and hunger pains (as well as your own) while you are not spending too much money on food that will not be nutritious for them.

Eating at restaurants is not bad if you can get yourself into the habit of watching what you eat and what you spend. You just have to be careful.

By Julia Mercer

Learning To Grocery Shop

What are you having for dinner? Many people find that this question sends them into a panic. People will spend the last hour of work thinking about what they will indeed be having for dinner. Then they think about what they will get on the way home before stopping off at the grocery store. This type of dinner-planning is destructive for a number of reasons. It is more expensive when you buy meal-by-meal. You also tend to buy, and eat, more than if you planned out your meals, and you will find that you opt for quick meals that are less nutritious. If you are having trouble deciding how to make shopping for food less of a hassle, never fear.

First you should begin by knowing what you like. Do you eat casseroles often? Are you a big fan of fried food? Is Asian cuisine your thing? Now once you know where you stand as far as the big questions, you can begin to prepare for them. You will need to stock up on the foundational items that go with these dishes.

For example, if you like Asian foods, then you should get plenty of rice and soy sauce. You can even pick up several cans of bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, and chow mein noodles. You also should be sure that you have on hand all of the items you will need to cook from scratch. That includes flour, sugar, and salt, along with oils and other spices. If you are new to planning ahead for grocery shopping, then you should plan a single large trip when you will buy all of these foods. (Be sure that you have cleared room in your pantry.)

Once you have these items, you will be in better shape. The weekly trips will not take as long if you are just filling in what you do not already have stocked in your pantry. Once you have made this trip, you can teach yourself to shop a couple of days at a time and work up to a week or month (or even longer!) when you get better at it. Personally I would shop for non-perishable items on a quarterly basis if I had the room in my pantry for it.

Before you get started with the meals, think about the foods you like to eat often again. Come up with a list of three to four dishes that you enjoy. Now on your next trip to the store, you should pick up the ingredients to make this dinner two times. That way, if you are in a rush, you will have some back-ups on hand at home, and you will not need to run by the store everyday. Remember that if you had spaghetti on your list, and you have spaghetti next Wednesday, you will need to replenish the stock.

What you have after you have completed these steps are the basics of your cabinet. You should keep these items on hand at all times and add them to your grocery list before you go out. Speaking of, you should have a running grocery list. One of the reasons that people begin to eat out more often or rely on processed foods is that they have not learned that they should use a list. Keep it on your refrigerator and write down when you run out of anything. That way you will know when you need milk. For the next few weeks, you should tear off the top sheet on this pad everyday and take it with you in case you cannot avoid a trip to the store.

You will find that this process becomes much easier as you go along. At any rate, after you have stocked your pantry, you should think about beginning to shop for longer periods of time. On Sunday, since you likely do not work then and are relatively free, sit down and plan out what you want for Sunday night, as well as for Monday and Tuesday. Now take a trip to the store. You know what you will be having those nights. Then beginning on Wednesday, you can make your trips to the store again. You quickly will learn how good it feels not to go everyday.

By Julia Mercer

Try Cinnamon With That

There is growing evidence that cinnamon may have some medicinal properties. In fact, people outside the Western world have used cinnamon for certain ills for centuries. In the United States, people are just getting to the point that they accept that cinnamon may be useful. If you are a type 2 diabetic, for example, eating a couple of teaspoons of cinnamon everyday may help you stay healthier longer.

Whether or not you have health reasons, you may find that you want to use cinnamon more in your diet but are unsure how to use it. Here are a few ideas for you to try that will allow you to add some cinnamon to your life.

One quick way to get more cinnamon, and better-tasting coffee, is to sprinkle a teaspoon or so over your coffee grounds before you start the coffee pot. That will help you to get flavored coffee. (Note that you can try this trick with other seasonings as well or even liquids, such as vanilla extract.)

If you have a cold, try putting some cinnamon on your chicken soup. It may help your head clear up, and it will definitely make your chicken soup taste better. Similarly you can add 2 teaspoons of cinnamon to a cup of hot water to help stop diarrhea.

If you add some cinnamon to your yogurt, you will have a better dish than just plain yogurt. In addition, you may find that you can add the mixture to a raisin bagel and bake it. You will come out with what seems like a deliciously sweet cinnamon roll with frosting, and it will be much healthier than the pre-packaged variety. Cinnamon and yogurt also works well as a topping for cookies, pancakes, and other bread-based products.

Chocolate and cinnamon go together very well. You may know that a cinnamon stick in your hot chocolate can make the drink so much better. You may not know, however, that you should try mixing other forms of chocolate and cinnamon. You can add it to melted chocolate, chocolate cake, or puddings as well as any hot dishes with chocolate. You can put cinnamon in before the baking, or you can add it on top when you are done.

If you combine cinnamon and sugar into a spice jar or a spare saltshaker, you can pour it out onto toast, apples, or other goodies to make them more flavorful. Also try out this great breakfast idea. Make a piece of toast and spread it with peanut butter. Sprinkle the peanut butter with cinnamon for a delicious, quick breakfast. You also can top the peanut butter with raisins or with apple slices for something even tastier and very nutritious.

If you want to make cinnamon apples, you need to cut the apples into thin slices. You can sprinkle them with cinnamon and microwave them for a couple of minutes until they are tender enough that you can cut them easily with a fork. If you want them a bit harder, then put them on a baking sheet and bake at 300 degrees for about 15 minutes.

Try the fruit version of a hobo dinner. Lay out a piece of aluminum foil. Put in pieces of your favorite fruits along with a little bit of vanilla extract and some cinnamon sprinkled on top. Fold the foil together and put on the grill for a few minutes. The resulting fruit will be a tasty treat and something very different for your family!

Also be willing to try cinnamon out on dishes that you may not have considered good candidates for cinnamon sprinkling. For example, it can work really well on beef stew, chili, or other soups. If you do not add to much, then you will get just a hint of something sweet, which is all you need to make a good dish great. If you want to get your family, do not tell them what you have done and see if they can guess.

Cinnamon is one of the few spices that you can add to almost anything. You may not love the resulting flavor, but it is unlikely that you will hate it either. Instead you probably will find that you will have something new to add to your list of family dishes.

By Julia Mercer

Looking For Older Games

Is there a game that you remember from your childhood that you want your own children to play? Have you heard about a game but been unable to find it? Well, you may be in luck! Here are a few tips on how you can start your search for a hard-to-find game, and you may just discover that you will be able to find that game after all.

First you should begin with auction sites. Of course, eBay is the most popular, but there are others. Do a web search for the name of the game and the terms auction, used, or sell. You may be able to find something fairly quickly. If you are looking to buy the game through an auction site, particularly if the game is now out of print, you should check to be sure that the game that is up for sale is intact. All of the pieces as well as the instructions should be there unless you remember the game or can find the instructions elsewhere. Be sure that you check out these issues before you bid.

If you see several versions of the game for sale, then there is no need to rush to buy. Take some time to check out completed auctions. Find out if the one you are considering is in the same price range. If it is, then you may have a winner. If not, then check out why. It could be a newer edition or in better condition. Watch for the game in the condition and price range that you want.

There are message boards online for people who are interested in video and board games. You can try using some of these sites. You may be able to post your need and what you are willing to pay and find buyers that way. It is a little riskier than going through an auction site, but if you have watched the auctions for several weeks and have not found anything you like, then this option may be the next best thing.

Also consider looking locally. See if there are gaming enthusiasts near you. Check pawn shops and second-hand game stores. Even if you are looking for a board game, check out used video game stores. Some of them occasionally have board games for sale. Also consider posting an ad in your local newspaper to see if you come up with anything.

The online version of second-hand game stores also exists online. Many of the bigger second-hand stores have websites, and you may be able to browse their selections to find something to buy there. Some of these stores also have the option to ask them to look around for a game for you. It may be a great way to have a game when it first becomes available.

You also can try yard sales. While this method is not very efficient or effective, you may luck up. Often when elderly people die or move away, their family members sell their items. If you are looking for an old game, they may just have it tucked away in their attic.

The most important point is to be persistent. You will have to shop around for the game you want. It will not just come to you. Do know what you are willing to pay for the game and do not exceed that price. You also do not have to buy the first copy of the game you find. Doing so could leave you overpaying for a game that is not complete. Be sure that you do your homework before you buy so that you can find out how frequently people are selling the game and get a general idea of the price range.

Also know as much about the game as possible so that you do not accidentally buy the wrong version or a game of the same name that was published by a different company. Be sure that you are keeping an eye on the gaming market. Keep looking. Know that you will be able to find what you want eventually. It may just mean that you are in it for the long haul, but that is okay. It will be worth it when you find the game.

By Julia Mercer

Finding Missing Game Instructions

If you find that you have lost the instructions to a game, or if you buy a used game only to discover that there are no instructions, then perhaps you can consider these options in finding out how to play the game.

First check out the box for the game. (Make sure that there is not a shortened version of the rules there.) Also find out the official name of the game as well as the publisher, edition, and publication year. That is important because sometimes two companies will publish various editions of the same game. Once you know the basics of the game you want, then you can begin searching for the rules.

The easiest and quickest way to find the game instructions is to do a search online. While you may luck up on the first search, it may require some persistence, especially if the game is rare. You will want to look through several pages of the results as well as checking using different search terms. For example, you may want to search for instructions, how to play, and directions, among other terms. Keep trying for a while to see if you come up with anything.

If you have no luck, then you should write to the company that made the game. Be sure that you check online to find out how to contact the company as well as who owns the company. For example, Hasbro owns Playskool, Milton Bradley, and several other popular game makers, so you should be sure that you are contacting Hasbro (or whatever the parent company is) if you want to get the instructions. Be very clear in your letter or email. A letter is better, but you can try email. You should give all of the basic information you collected and ask for a copy of the instructions. The company typically will send you the instructions for free or let you know what you need to do. Do not be surprised if they ask for a fee, however, and know that it should not be very large.

Give it up to six weeks after you contact the publisher before you send anything else. Remember that you are contacting a large company, and someone will have to read your request and process it. If you do not have any luck after about six weeks, head back to the internet. Ask people in forums and on message boards if anyone has the rules and would be willing to post them. Remember to be patient. You are asking someone to do a lot of typing for you, and you should be grateful if they make the offer to do it.

It may take some time to be able to find the rules, but keep looking. A last resort, of course, would be to purchase an entirely new copy of the game. While that may seem like a waste, if the game is not very expensive, it can be less hassle. If you do that, then remember to keep all of the cards and pieces to the older version so that you will have them if you lose any of the pieces.

For the future, you should get a binder with plastic sheets. Use the sheets to keep all of the instructions for any games that you buy. Keep this binder in the family room so that when anyone needs to check on the instructions for the games, they will be in one place. This method works much better than keeping them in the box.

As with anything else involving finding missing pieces, you will need to be patient. It may take you several months from beginning to end to find the instructions for the game you need. Be sure that you keep trying if getting another copy of the game is not possible. Ask several times. Visit local coffee shops as many of them have board games for people to play. You may be able to find a copy of the game with the instructions, or take your copy with you. Someone who knows the rules may play you. Keep looking and asking, but in the meantime, you can always wing it. Your instructions may not be exactly right, but at least you will get joy out of your game!
By Julia Mercer

Designing Your Own Board Games

Designing board games is not a hobby that most people consider something that could turn into a career. In fact, there are probably few people who go about thinking about designing board games - computer games maybe, but rarely board games. When I was in fifth grade, I received the intriguing assignment of creating a board game. I approached the assignment without much enthusiasm as I was the rare student who preferred exams and essays to creating something new. Still, I decided that I would create a game that would involve trivia about the Presidents of the United States.

During the course of creating the game, I learned that it could be fun. In fact I rather enjoyed creating my game, and I got great joy out of it when the other students were playing it! I had created something useful - something that could teach other people while entertaining them.

I learned a number of lessons during my trial game production, and I would like to share them with you. If you are considering designing a board game, know that you should create a prototype out of inexpensive products, such as index cards and poster board. You will find that you will make mistakes no matter how hard you work on the brainstorming session, and it is better to make the mistakes with less expensive products than the final ones.

The concept of the game is the most important. Move backward from the way you would play a game. If you are designing a game, what is the point? Where would a player want to get at the end? How will someone win the game? You need to know where the players are going to determine how they can get there. In my game, the goal was to get to the White House. In other words, the players would use their knowledge about the Presidents to get elected to the White House.

Once you know the goal your players should have, think about the basic steps to get there. Will they roll dice? Will they always move one step at a time? Will their moves be dependent on answering questions or performing other tasks? You should know what your players will need to do on an average turn during the game.

After you have set up the basic rules, then you can begin designing the actual game board. Come up with the plot the characters will need to take. It should have something to do with the theme of the game. Think about Clue, for instance. You roll and take a certain number of steps. The steps are actually bricks in the floor of the house. In Monopoly, the goal is to out earn the other players, so properties are the stepping-stones for the game. Similarly, the steps or levels of your game should match the theme of the game.

After you have the basics down, you can think about trick plays or advanced plays. Think about Uno. The first design would be creating cards with different numbers and letters. Then you would begin creating cards with the Wild and Draw Four. These cards are bonus plays, such as the Community Chest in Monopoly. They are what make a game fun because the players cannot anticipate these plays although they will be hoping for them.

Once you have come up with the layout and all of the possible plays, then you should begin to write down the rules. Invite a few people over (people who you trust to be nice to you about the game) to play the game. These people should be able to criticize gently so that you can make changes. The purpose of this visit for you is to allow you to see the game played. Watch for any potential problem areas. What did not make sense to the players? What worked? What did not?

After everyone leaves, you can get back to work. Make changes to the game based on what you saw. After a couple of these sessions, you should get a feel for what you can do with the game. Work on perfecting the system and creating a working prototype, and then you may be able to try to gain attention for your game.
By Julia Mercer