Sunday, November 30, 2014

Christmas Countdown to an Organized Christmas - Day 23 - Plan Holiday Meals

Article and Photo Courtesy of Organized Christmas

Holidays ahead ... and that means the feast is on us! Will you be ready to make memorable holiday meals?

Even experienced cooks can quail at the idea of cooking a holiday meal. Who hasn't run out of butter, curdled the gravy, or found themselves holding back an entire meal while waiting for one last item to finish cooking?

Not this year! The secrets to stress-free holiday meal preparation? Planning--and sharing the work!

Today's the day we break out our printable holiday meal planner forms, and organize those big dinners and festive brunches. Better, we'll consider ways to delegate and simplify holiday meal preparation ... for an organized Christmas.

To Do Today

Print the 2 menu planners:

Here are addition menu planners that can be used throughout the year: 

Plan holiday meals

Thanksgiving is a few days away: it's time to sort out holiday menu plans! While we began last week by planning Thanksgiving dinner, today we'll make menu plans for the rest of the season's festive meals.

Why? Because this week and next will see the year's best bargains at the supermarket! Holiday non-perishables such as canned pumpkin, cranberry sauce, frozen desserts and freezer rolls will be offered for sale as "loss leaders" in most grocery stores.

Knowing what you'll need for the rest of the season's special meals lets you stock up now ... and save!

To begin, print a free printable holiday menu planner or designate a fresh sheet of paper for each holiday meal that will take place in your home.

Thanksgiving Day? Christmas Eve? Christmas Day? New Years? Give each at-home meal a good hunk of space on the page for menu planning.

Next, use a potluck meal planner to list those meals that you will take away from home.

Christmas brunch at Grandma's? A holiday pot-luck at church? If you'll need to bring a dish, note it down.

Once you've sorted out all the when-and-where issues, it's time to plan the meal itself. What will you serve--or delegate!--at each holiday meal?

Tradition has its advantages: if you always have turkey with cornbread dressing on Christmas Day, you't have to decide on the menu from one year to the next!

Consult cookbooks if needed then list every element of the meal:

Side Dishes

Can you delegate any of these items to guests or family members? Mark a big "D" next to the dish, and add a name.

Finally, turn to your list of "away" meals. Have you coordinated your contribution with the host and hostess? If not, call and discuss what you'll bring. A proactive hint: decide what you'd like to prepare, then call and offer.

Positive action frequently means you won't get stuck making individual sweet potato casseroles cooked in hollowed-out orange shells. She who offers first, smiles to the end!

Menu Planning: Save Time in the Kitchen!

New to menu planning? Come up to speed on menu and meal planning with tips from sister site, Organized Home.

What's for dinner? It's the question of the hour!

Too many home managers look for answers in the supermarket at 5 p.m. Harried from the day's work and harassed by by hungry children, they rack their brains for an answer to the what's-for-dinner dilemma.

Three meals a day. Seven dinners a week. From supermarket to pantry, refrigerator to table, sink to cupboard, the kitchen routine can get old, old, old.

No wonder we hide our heads like ostriches from the plain and simple fact: into each day, one dinner must fall. What's the answer? A menu plan.

Menu planning doesn't have be complicated! Planning meals ahead requires a small investment of time, but can reap great rewards:

A menu plan saves money. Reducing trips to the supermarket, a menu plan reduces impulse spending. Using leftovers efficiently cuts food waste, while planned buying in bulk makes it easy to stockpile freezer meals at reduced prices.

A menu plan saves time. No dash to the neighbors for a missing ingredient, no frantic searches through the freezer for something, anything to thaw for dinner.

A menu plan improves nutrition. Without the daily dash to the supermarket, there's time to prepare side dishes and salads to complement the main dish, increasing the family's consumption of fruits and vegetables. Knowing what to serve each day--and having the ingredients already on hand--cuts back on the drive-through habit.

Follow these tips to put the power of menu and meal planning to work for you:

Dare to Do It

For too many of us, making a menu plan is something we intend to do . . . when we get around to it. Instead of seeing menu planning as an activity that adds to our quality of life, we dread sitting down to decide next Thursday's dinner. "I'll do that next week, when I'm more organized."

Wrong! Menu planning is the first line of defense in the fight to an organized kitchen, not the cherry on the icing on the cake.

Take the vow. "I, [state your name], hereby promise not to visit the supermarket again until I've made a menu plan!"

Start Small and Simple

Still muttering, "But I don't wanna ..."? Break into menu planning easily by starting small and simple.

Think, "next week." Seven little dinners, one trip to the supermarket. Sure, it's fun to think about indexing your recipe collection, entering the data in a database and crunching menus till the year 2015, but resist the urge.

Slow and steady builds menu planning skills and shows the benefits of the exercise. Elaborate hoo-rah becomes just another failed exercise in home management overkill.

Where to start? The food flyers from your local newspaper, or sales circulars from your markets' Web sites. You'll use the ads to get a feel for the week's sales and bargains. They'll be the basis for the week's selection of dinners.

This week in my hometown, two local chain supermarkets are offering whole fryers for the low, low price of 99 cents a pound. Clearly, this is the week for Ginger Chicken and Fajitas, not a time to dream about Beef Stew and Grilled Pork.

Menu Planning Basics

Okay, it's food ad day. Time to rough out a simple menu plan.

The goal is two-fold: shop efficiently to obtain food required for seven dinner meals, while minimizing expenditure, cooking, shopping and cleaning time. Here's the overview of the process:

Scan the food ads (newspaper or online) for specials and sales. Rough out a draft menu plan: seven dinner entrees that can be made from weekly specials, side dishes and salads.

Wander to pantry and refrigerator to check for any of last week's purchases that are languishing beneath wilting lettuce or hardening tortillas. Check for draft recipe ingredients. Review your shopping list and note needed items.

Ready, set, shop--but shop with an open mind. That 99-cent fryer won't look like such a bargain next to a marked-down mega-pack of boneless chicken breasts at $1.29 a pound. Be ready to substitute if you find a great deal.

Return from shopping. As you put away groceries, flesh out the menu plan. Match it up with the family's calendar, saving the oven roast for a lazy Sunday afternoon, the quick-fix pizza for soccer night.

Post the menu plan on the refrigerator door. Refer to it during the coming week as you prepare meals.
That's it! The bare bones of menu planning.

You've made a draft plan, shopped from a list, retained flexibility in the marketplace, firmed up your plan and held yourself accountable.

The devil, however, is in the details! Use the pager links below for some points to ponder as you bring menu planning under control.

Build A Personal Shopping List

Planner companies, gift shops and generous desktop publishers all compete to produce cute little shopping lists for all persuasions and occasions. Bear-shaped shopping lists. Long skinny shopping lists. Shopping lists with winsome graphics, kittycats and teddy bears. Awwwwww.

[We even offer some, too, in our library.] 

 Only one problem: why aren't you using them?

Because they don't work, that's why. Teenaged sons play stuff-the-hoop with the empty cereal box and the trash can, but have you ever known one to neatly write "Cheerios" on the list? Blank shopping lists fit about as well as one-size-fits-all clothing.

Solution? Build a pre-printed family shopping list on the computer, listing all the foods and sundries your family consumes. Print 52 copies each year. Post them on the refrigerator. Boys who don't circle "cereal" on the list when they empty the box must eat hot cereal for the rest of the week.

Make your list work for you: organize it by aisle. Next shopping trip, grab a hand-out supermarket map as you leave. Construct your personal shopping list according to the order you shop the store. You'll speed your way out the door in record time!

Coast in the Calm of a Routine

Yes, there are some well-organized souls among us who don't make formal meal plans. Look close, and you'll discover that household meal service dances to a routine.

Sunday's a big dinner, and Tuesday gets the leftovers. Monday is burger night, and Wednesday sees spaghetti, year in and year out. Thursday's the day for a casserole, and Dad grills on Friday. Saturday night, it's take-out or pizza.

Create a routine around your menu planning. Sure, you can try new recipes--just don't let your enthusiasm for the cookbook trick you into doing so more than twice a month.

Find cues in the family schedule to help you plan a routine. At-home days with more free time can handle a fancy meal--or can signal soup, sandwiches and Cook's Night Off. The night you drive the sports team carpool is a great time to plan for pick-up sandwiches. Make the routine yours, and it will serve you well.

Consider Cook's Choice

Build flexibility into your plan and serve the aims of thrift with a weekly Cook's Choice Night.

Traditionally held the night before grocery shopping, "Cook's Choice" is a menu planning catch-all designed to account for real life.

Use it to tie up loose ends before the next round of menu planning.

You can slide a neglected dinner into Cook's Choice, or chop up the contents of the refrigerator for a clean-out stir-fry.

Either way, you'll feel smug at your frugality and good planning.

Stay Flexible

Menu plans aren't written in stone. So you're dodging cramps on the "big" cooking day? Swap it out with Pizza Night and go to bed early with a cup of herb tea.

With meals planned and ingredients on hand, it's easy to juggle your menu plan when circumstances require. Staying flexible--while being prepared--brings calm to the kitchen!

Make It A Habit

Simple or not, a menu plan won't help you if you don't make one. Weekly menu planning is a good candidate for a new habit: an action on "auto-pilot" that you engage in without thinking. Need to learn how? Check out Habit, the Household Wonder Worker as a guide to building new habits for an organized home.

Get into the habit of planning menus before you shop, and you'll get hooked on the ease and convenience--an addiction of great value!

Recycle Menu Plans

After you've made menu plans for a few weeks, the beauty of the activity shines through: recycle them! Organized by main ingredient--chicken breasts, say, or chuck steak--completed menu plans make it even simpler to plan and shop for a week's meals.

Tuck completed menu plans in a file folder or page protector in your household notebook. Next time fryers are 99 cents a pound at the market, pull out the plan you made this week. Done!

Group Plans by Season

Over time, weekly menu plans will setting into two major groups: menus for warm weather, and fall/winter menus. Try to assemble six to eight plans for each menu "season"; most families do well with that much variety--and no more.

For instance, a great special on ground beef signals grilled hamburgers and burrito bar during warm-weather months; spaghetti or cabbage rolls during the cold season.

Include both variations in your menu stash for re-use next time you spot ground beef at a bargain price--whatever the weather!

Make the Move to Monthly Menu Plans

Once you've flexed your menu planning muscles with a few weekly plans, consider moving from weekly to monthly menu plans. It takes only a few more minutes to add the additional three weeks to your plan; doing so saves time all month long.

Longer-term menu plans are slightly more complex, relying as they do on freezer and pantry. But by reducing trips to the store--and maximizing use of food on hand--they bring superior savings and convenience.

Build Your Pantry Power

Longer-term menu planning brings new emphasis to household food storage areas: refrigerator, freezer and pantry.

Brush up on your pantry power with our Beginner's Guide to Pantry Pride; keep tabs on stored foodstuffs with free printable pantry inventory and freezer inventory forms.

Maintaining an organized pantry offers many advantages for the menu planner. Keeping stocks of bought-on-sale staples lowers food bills and speeds meal preparation. Unexpected guests are no problem when you can turn to the pantry or freezer for hospitality supplies or a pre-prepared entree.

Today's Recipe

aunt bills brown candy recipe

It's a special holiday candy with a down-home Oklahoma history: Aunt Bill's Brown Candy.

With the texture of fudge and flavor of caramel, this ultra-creamy treat is studded with plump pecans for an unbelievable taste treat. In our family, Aunt Bill's Brown Candy has been a seasonal tradition since the 1930's!

For experienced candy makers only ... but the result is heaven! Also known as Oklahoma Brown Candy or Sooner Brown Candy, but in my house, it wouldn't be Christmas without the Aunt Bill's!

Aunt Bill's Brown Candy

Ready for a unique seasonal taste treat? It's Aunt Bill's Brown Candy!

With unforgettable caramel flavor and bursting with plump pecans, this old-fashioned cooked candy is a Sooner tradition in the state of Oklahoma--and it's been a family favorite in the Ewer household for five generations!

Not for the inexperienced candy-maker, but for those with a good knowledge of candy-cooking, it's a heavenly holiday treat.

6 cupssugar, divided
2 cupslight cream or half-n-half
1⁄4 teaspoonbaking soda
1 cupbutter, unsalted
1 teaspoonvanilla extract
2 poundspecans, shelled (about 8 cups)

Combine 4 cups of sugar and the milk or half-n-half in a large, heavy saucepan. (Rub the sides of the saucepan with butter, to help prevent graininess.) Stir and set aside.

Put the remaining 2 cups of sugar in a large iron skillet over medium heat. Stir constantly until the sugar starts to melt. At that time, place the sugar-milk mixture over low heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar dissolves.

At the same time, continue melting the sugar in the skillet, stirring, until all is melted and it is the color of light brown sugar. Melting sugar scorches VERY easily, so watch carefully. The entire process may take almost 30 minutes; at the end, you want one pan of light-brown melted sugar AND the milk-sugar mixture at a very light simmer.

The next step requires family teamwork. Pour the melted sugar into the simmering milk-sugar mixture in a stream "no bigger than a knitting needle". Stir constantly! This step may take five minutes, and works best if someone strong pours the melted sugar v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y.

Continue cooking the combined mixture to the firm ball stage (246 degrees; higher at high altitudes), do not stir, other than to scrape the sides of the pan occasionally.

Remove from the heat at once. Stir in the baking soda--the candy will foam vigorously, so call the children to watch this step. Plop the butter into the foaming mixture, and let everything stand without stirring for 30 minutes.

Add vanilla and beat with a wooden spoon until the mixture stiffens and loses its gloss. This process may take 10 to 15 minutes, so beat in turns with your helper . Add the pecans, stir to mix, and turn the candy out into a buttered 13-by-9-inch rectangular pan.

Let the candy cool until barely warm; cut in smallish pieces--it's rich.

This candy is a wonderful keeper if each piece is wrapped in aluminum foil, and the wrapped pieces stored in an airtight container.

Aunt Bill's Brown Candy is traditionally sent by the women in our family to family members serving in the military. It's sturdy, keeps well and won't be damaged in transit--and brings an unforgettable taste of home to our family members in service.

Christmas Countdown to an Organized Christmas - Day 22 - Get Cooking Week

Article and Photo Courtesy of Organized Christmas

Visited the supermarket recently? It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas!

With Thanksgiving Day coming soon in the USA, there's no better time to organize holiday meals, menus and baking. Welcome to Get Cooking week!

Assignments center on all things food at the Christmas Countdown this week. We'll clean and prepare food storage areas for the days ahead, plan holiday menus, stock the freezer and get organized for holiday baking.

Along the way, we'll learn ways to save on holiday meals and develop a baking specialty to save time in the holiday kitchen.

Tighten your corsets! We're going to Get Cooking ... for the most delicious holiday season ever!

To Do This Week

This week in the Christmas Countdown, we'll explore frugal strategies for holiday meals, plan holiday dinners, clean out our freezers and get the goods on those sneaky Grocery Guys. Ready to Get Cooking?

Get Cooking Week Assignments (additional print outs available) 

To Do Today

Write and address one-fifth of Christmas Card List this week.

Make one-fourth of Gifts To Make this week.

Frugal Feast: Save Money on Holiday Meals

Holiday meals can punch you right in the pocketbook. Save money on Thanksgiving dinner with these tips for frugal feasts:

"Frugal" holiday meals? Something of a conundrum, isn't it? The very nature of holiday meals is to express the value of abundance.

Finances, on the other hand, have definite limits--and never so much as during the holiday season.

Take heart! It's possible to serve bountiful--yet frugal--holiday meals with a bit of care and forethought.

Consider these tips to plan holiday menus without breaking the bank:

Know your portions
There's nothing like a giant, gleaming turkey at the head of that Thanksgiving table to warm holiday hearts. The economic downside to that big bird? Waste! Most of us know the shame of tossing several pounds of dried-out drumsticks and crumbled white meat a week after the feast is over.

This year, limit waste by buying only as much turkey as your family truly needs. Do you serve a whole turkey at just one meal? Think one pound per person. Want a few leftovers for sandwiches? Calculate your needs at one and one-half pounds per person. Generous leftovers (enough for another meal or two plus sandwiches) require a figure of two pounds per person. Pass up that 22 pound bird and save money and energy costs.

Plan your leftovers
If you're like me, the holiday cook-fest brings on a real distaste for cooking for the next several days. It's tempting to think, "Oh, we'll just eat out of the refrigerator!" until the next day, when the stuffing runs out and the gravy goes dry. Result: husband with hamburger sack in hand. There goes the budget!

As you clean up from the holiday meal, package leftovers in meal-sized portions. Decide when you'll serve them, and store accordingly. While you shouldn't re-freeze turkey that's already been frozen, a fresh bird's leftovers can safely be consigned to the freezer.

Ham, while not appropriate for long-term freezer storage, can be frozen for up to two weeks. The family will give you much less guff if holiday leftovers don't make an repeat appearance for a week or ten days.

Stock the pantry
During the next few days, grocery stores will be offering the year's lowest prices on holiday pantry staples--and those discounted cans of cranberry sauce, black olives and pureed pumpkin will be just as welcome at Christmas and New Year's.

To save this month--and next!--shop these sales for all holiday meals to be prepared in your home, right up to the New Year. Be on the lookout for low prices on pantry basics like canned broth, prepared gravy, and side dish ingredients like yams and green beans. In the freezer aisle, double up on frozen pie shells, pies and bread dough. Soda, mixers and sparkling juices at discounted prices make it easy to create festive holiday beverages ... and save!

Grocery shop the day after Thanksgiving

Frugal fanatic that I am, I didn't learn this tip until November, 1996. That year, we returned from a trip to Europe at 2 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning. The cupboards were bare, bare, bare, so a grocery run was required the morning of Thanksgiving Friday.

Tired, jet-lagged and grumpy, my mood changed when I saw what was in store for the Thanksgiving Friday shopper.

What did I find? Bargains on top of bargains! Fresh turkeys that didn't sell before Thanksgiving? Marked down to an incredible 29 cents a pound. I bought three for the freezer: fresh, no added ingredients birds that usually retailed at around 99 cents a pound.

Other Thanksgiving Friday specials included pans of pre-baked rolls, fresh yams, and a variety of beef and chicken markdowns. Anything that has a sell-by date and hasn't sold by Thanksgiving may show up, discounted, the day after the big feast.

Smart shoppers take note! Shop for the Christmas holiday meal the day after Thanksgiving.

Know when to pay for convenience
Some components of a holiday meal are worth paying for in a convenience format. Some convenience foods are true money-savers, while others save sufficient time to justify the higher price.

Unless you live in sweet potato country, canned yams or sweet potatoes are a good buy compared to fresh yams at 69 cents a pound . Pre-baked brown and serve rolls are frequently offered as loss leaders for under $1 a package, so stock the freezer now.

Similarly, pumpkin pie filling mix, when offered on sale, is usually less expensive than buying canned pumpkin and adding evaporated milk and eggs.

In the middle ground, you'll find prepared pie crusts. Whether they're flat and pre-rolled in the deli section or pre-shaped and frozen, prepared pie crusts may be worth the extra money because of the time and effort they save.

Start your stuffing now
Frugal shoppers know that some convenience items never make the list, no matter how wowser the sale. Primary among these are canned gravy, dry gravy packets, and packaged stuffing mix.

Why not? Because these items can be assembled free from most family kitchens, not to mention that it's downright immoral to sell stale bread crumbs for four times the price of fresh bread!

Start on your stuffing mix now. It's so simple, it's criminal. Finished a loaf of bread? Toss the heels and/or the last few stale pieces on a cookie sheet and put it in the oven. Turn the oven on for five minutes. Turn it off. Leave the bread there to dry out.

Next day, have some bottom left from the loaf from the automatic bread maker Take out yesterday's bread, toss it in a zipper storage bag, and put today's bread onto the cookie sheet? Do the oven on/oven off routine one more time.

If you forget about it, don't worry--the dried-out bread won't grow stale or mold, and in the oven, it won't get dusty. (Automatic bread machine users should slice or cube leftovers; that way they'll dry easily and will be easy to crush when you're ready to make dressing.)

To make dressing, beat that bread-filled zipper bag with a rolling pin until it looks like the store-bought stuff. Dump it in a big bowl. Add sauteed onions and celery, and season with sage, parsley, salt, pepper--you know your family's preferences. Moisten with chicken broth, milk or water, and stuff that bird.

Simple. And it sure won't cost you any $3.59 per six ounces of bread crumbs, either. The variety of bread leads to an interesting, flavorful stuffing.

For those of the cornbread dressing persuasion, follow the same rules--if, and in my family, that's a big if, you've got any cornbread leftovers from Chili-and-Cornbread night!

Ready, frugal shoppers? Take control of holiday meals ... and save!

Today's Recipe

Blessing Mixes with Poems

Thanksgiving is coming! It's time to count your blessings ... and share them, with Thanksgiving Blessings Mix, an easy-to-make snack mix!

A batch of Thanksgiving Blessings Mix packaged in small food storage bags makes a pretty Thanksgiving table favor, workplace gift or classroom treat. It's easy to make in multiples with free printable Blessings Mix gift tags and Blessings Mix bag toppers.

Christmas Countdown to an Organized Christmas - Day 21 - Give ... to Make a Difference!

Photo Courtesy of Clipart Heaven
Article Courtesy of Organized Christmas

Is your holiday giving only about "stuff"--or is it a reflection of your heart? To express your deepest holiday values, plan to make a gift of yourself this holiday season!

This week in the Christmas Countdown, we've focused on gifts and giving. 99% of the time, we've seen this effort in terms of "things." Stuff. Boxes and parcels and bags. Stocking stuffers. But have we considered making a true gift: a gift of ourselves?

In the days to come, we'll begin planning the American Thanksgiving holiday. Will we also begin to ponder those things for which we are thankful? Out of gratitude comes grace, and from abundance comes true giving. How will we reflect this gift?

To Do Today

Plan family service projects

Challenge yourself and your family to make a difference: to make a true gift of yourselves. Today, plan service projects or volunteer activities.

Service doesn't have to be regimented. Even small efforts can reap big rewards.

Teach someone a new skill. Tackle a service project as a family. Visit an assisted living center, or take part in a church ministry.

Don't just share your stuff this season: share yourself! The real secret? When you give of yourself, you are returned blessings tenfold!

Complete holiday scheduling

Calendar in hand, review holiday season activities and events.

Consider adding a no-event "family night" to the calendar to provide stress relief during the height of the season.

Schedule family service projects, or sign up for church charity efforts.

Reserve baby-sitters for December's nights out.

Keep tabs on the holiday budget

As you shop, record expenditures on your holiday budget. Keeping your budget in the front of your mind helps prevent impulse purchases and over-spending.

Clutter-Free Gift Solution: Think Consumable!

Simplicity. Frugality. Great holiday gifts. Find a way to serve all these values with clutter-free consumable gifts:

Gift-giving. Seldom do we engage in an activity that invokes so many conflicting values.

On the one hand, we hope our gift will entertain, educate, and amuse.

We dream of seeing our special gift proudly displayed in the home of the recipient.

We hunt and search and shop, trying to find just the right gift to stand for the relationship we're celebrating.

On the other hand, gift-buying brings us up against our limitations. While our emotions urge extravagance, our wallets counsel frugality.

The desire to delight a child with the year's hot toy runs smack up against the knowledge that the toy is question is shoddy, lacking in play value, and composed of 374 tiny plastic parts (most of which will become food for the vacuum cleaner by January 15th).

We squander precious time to produce a hand-crafted decor item, yet suspect it will never see the light of day in the recipient's precisely decorated home. The sheer drudgery of slogging through a lengthy gift list--never enough time, never enough money--takes the emotional component of gift-giving and stands it on end.

There is a strategy that can cut through the gift-giving conflict. A strategy that will ensure each gift is appreciated and enjoyed. A strategy that serves the values of frugality, simplicity, and freedom from consumer mentality. And, not at all incidentally, a strategy that makes gift-buying much, much easier: think consumable!

A consumable gift is one that will be used. Used up, not stashed in a closet for the next yard sale. A consumable gift is something that can be eaten, sent, read, or enjoyed by the recipient. A consumable gift is the gift of an experience, not a thing, a "keepsake", or another piece of clutter.

How does it work? Start with the small fry. Forget the "Mrs. Fields Baking Oven", a pricey piece of kiddy work that purports to bake cookies using a single light bulb. Instead, bundle a few cookie cutters, a rolling pin and a box of sugar cookie mix together with a certificate for "cookie lessons". Child in question learns some baking skills and has a memorable afternoon with Grandma or Auntie. Consumable!

That teen-aged nephew? Sure, you could try to figure out which video games he has, which he doesn't, and which of the store's supply he might like to own (to the tune of $39.95). If you guess wrong? Too bad.

Think consumable. Delight the young man in question with a selection of three or four video gaming magazines, the flashier, the better. He'll pore over them for game cheats, information on new games, and tips for power players. You've simplified gift-buying, saved money, and given a gift you know will be used. Consumable!

Your parents? Forget more decorator junk to add to their overstuffed house. Give them tickets to a play or a certificate for dinner in a restaurant. Give Mom a big supply of note cards, greeting cards and stamps. Give Dad a basket full of car wax, windshield treatment and tire cleaner for his beloved classic Mustang. Consumable!

To think consumable, think "experience". You won't be buying things, so much as buying an activity.

Many consumable gifts are very direct: passes to a movie theater, fast food gift coupons, magazine subscriptions. Others take more imagination: give a group of women friends the same book, and invite them all for a Book Night party in early February. Give a teen-aged daughter a set of hair brushes, some styling aids and two or three hairdo magazines (and be prepared for a locked bathroom door).

The Christmas gift industry knows the appeal of consumable gifts. Where would Swiss Colony be without them? Try, if you can, to pass up the obvious "I'm in despair" choices. Have you ever truly enjoyed the stale and salty offerings of those "gift packs?"

A better, more frugal strategy: use commercial consumables as models for your own gifts. Send special children "cookies of the month" throughout the year. Model a gift basket for a gardening friend on the commercial variety--but spend far less by buying gloves, trowel, herb seeds and a garden bucket and packaging the gift yourself.

Think consumable as you buy your Christmas gifts. Think consumable to fight clutter, to save money, and to bring the holiday spirit back home. . . and get Organized!

Today's Recipe

apricot bread recipe

Apricot Nut Bread is a sweet addition to holiday gift baskets. One of Cynthia's specialties!

To make ahead, bake this quick bread recipe in small loaves, then double-wrap with plastic food storage wrap. Place wrapped loaves in a freezer storage bag; they'll stay fresh for up to 2 months:

Apricot Nut Bread Recipe

Looking for a different holiday quick bread recipe? Try Apricot Nut Bread!

Tangy dried apricots give a pleasing taste and color to this succulent nut bread.

Bake it in mini-loaves for holiday giving.

1 cupdried apricots, snipped in 1/4-inch cubes
  boiling water to cover
2 cupsflour, all-purpose
1 cupsugar, granulated
1 teaspooncinnamon
1 1⁄2 teaspoonbaking powder
1⁄2 teaspoonsoda
1⁄2 teaspoonsalt
1 cupwalnuts, chopped
3⁄4 cupsorange juice
1⁄4 cupvegetable oil
1 egg
1 teaspoonorange rind, grated

Place snipped dried apricots in heatproof bowl or measuring cup; add boiling water to cover. Let stand for 5 minutes; drain well.

Stir together in a large bowl: flour, sugar, cinnamon, baking powder, soda and salt. When well blended, add walnuts and dried apricots. Stir to coat nuts and fruit.

In a separate bowl, stir orange juice, vegetable oil, egg and orange rind with a fork until well blended.

Pour over the dry ingredients; stir just until dry ingredients are completely blended into wet ingredients.

Pour into greased 9x5 loaf pan or 3 mini-loaf pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 60-70 minutes for large loaf, 45 to 60 minutes for small loaves.

Cool completely on baking rack before wrapping individual loaves with plastic wrap.


To freeze, wrap individual loaves in plastic wrap, then place wrapped loaves in freezer storage bag. Freeze for up to 6 weeks.

Christmas Countdown to an Organized Christmas - Day 20 - Status Check

Article and Photo Courtesy of Organized Christmas

Nearly half-way there: time to do a little status check on the progress of the Christmas Countdown.

I hope that most of us feel a bit more prepared, a bit better organized. We've met together for three weeks, and we've covered a lot of ground.

Still, it's natural to feel a bit of panic today. From here on out, time will fly with a vengeance. Rehearsals, parties, holiday activities will rain down upon us.

During the next three weeks, the Countdown slows the pace to match the season. Because we're doing more in other areas of our life, the Countdown will lighten the load.

Ahead lies Get Cooking Week, appropriately so as America begins to prepare for Thanksgiving Day. Beyond that, we'll Decorate, then prepare to Celebrate ... an organized Christmas.

Get ready to settle into a slower rhythm! Because ready or not, the holidays are nearly here. This year, though, we are riding relaxed and in control, prepared and ready for the best holiday season ever!

To Do This Week

Get Cooking Week (Additional print outs available)

To Do Today

Prepare for Thanksgiving dinner

Plan Thanksgiving Dinner using the Holiday Menu Planner. Select dishes for each category, and consider family favorites if adding new recipes. Simplify the holiday by delegating to family and friends.

Order turkey.

Check serving pieces, and write the contents on a Post-it note. Placed inside the dish on the holiday table, it'll make it easy for others to help!

Cutting Costs? Christmas Cheats for Frugal Gifts

So you want to celebrate Christmas ... without busting the budget? Try these frugal "Christmas cheats: to have a bountiful holiday season without going into debt to do it:

If the local newscast (egged on by local retail merchants) tells me one more time exactly how many "shopping days" are left until Christmas, I'll scream!

For busy home managers, there are never enough days to shop for/buy/craft/bake gifts for family and friends--and this year of all years, disposable income is in short supply for many of us.

Solution: Christmas Cheats. These spending short-cuts save time, money, energy and aggravation during the holiday season. With clever solutions for gift-giving, they're the frugal way to celebrate like Santa but spend like Scrooge.

Ready to outwit that old Christmas shopping demon? Try these strategies to get the most delight from your holiday spending dollar:

Back to Basics
Some basic principles underlie the concept of a Christmas Cheat. First and foremost:"special" means more than "expensive." Better a tiny, beloved jewel than a big, costly item that'll end up in the recipient's next yard sale.

[Rule of thumb: avoid all gift items displayed on red-covered tables that block every aisle at the department store. Nine times out of ten, you're looking at Yard Sale Inventory, come July.]

Second concept: consider time, not just money. The classic Christmas Cheat is both inexpensive and quick to produce. You'll have to get over the idea of hand-embroidered guest towels, plastic-canvas tree ornaments, and crocheted anything. Ditto hand-iced and decorated cookies, elaborate multi-step fruitcakes, and anything requiring a pastry tube.

The obvious corollary: think multiple! What you do for a Christmas Cheat, do a lot!

Last point: presentation is everything. This does not mean investing a fortune in overpriced holiday-colored this and holiday-decorated that, or sweet little baskets that cost more than the gift inside. Even simple drop cookies have more impact presented nestled in a foil-covered candy box than a zipper food storage bag!

Cheat Central: Catalogs
How do we put these principles to work? For inspiration and guidance, go to the source, the fountainhead, the wellspring of the Christmas Cheat: mail order catalogs. Preferably from Gumps, Neiman Marcus, or tiny over-priced boutiques.

No, we're not going to buy from these fine commercial entities! As Cheaters, we're here to rip off ideas, plain and simple.

Take a perfect Christmas Cheat: pint-sized canning jars filled with colorful layers of dried beans. The lid's been embellished with a simple cut circle of Christmas fabric and tied with a bow. A gift tag lists the recipe for "15-bean soup"--and the catalog price--$5.95 plus shipping, handling and sales tax.

So we'll make our own! You'll need a case of half-pint jelly canning jars (and do get the decorated jelly jars), a half-yard of Christmas fabric, two rounds of inexpensive Christmas ribbon from the craft store, and 10 to 15 bags of dried beans. Choose the beans by the color, including yellow and green split-peas, white kidney beans, red kidney beans, pinto beans, navy beans--as wide a selection as you can obtain at the super-market. Add a jar of beef bouillon cubes to the shopping cart, and you're ready to Cheat.

Open the jars, and fill them in layers: a half-inch of green split peas, a half-inch of red kidneys, and so on. Choose the most colorful beans for the bottom layers, as they'll show the most. Toss any leftovers in a zipper storage bag for your family's 15 bean soup! Toss two foil-wrapped bouillon cubes on top of each jar of beans.

Lay the inner lid on top of the jar. Cut 12 6-inch circles from the Christmas fabric and place one fabric circle over each jar. Screw the outer lid over the fabric

Now to apply Cheat Concept Three: presentation is everything! Go to your computer, and use any word processor to make small gift tags. Include a basic recipe for bean soup, but be sure to name it after yourself! Add a nice little graphic and use your fanciest font. (Or print out our own Confetti Bean Soup Gift Tag to save even more time!)

Punch a hole in the corner of the tag, and tie to the jars with a ribbon. Voila! Christmas Cheat: twelve gifts you can give anyone, teachers to neighbors, with a minimal investment of money, time and effort. A classic!

The same catalog that led to the Bean Soup Cheat also featured--for $12.95!!!--quart canning jars containing oatmeal and chocolate chip cookie ingredients. Also prettily layered. Also topped with holiday fabric and clever gift tag. Also a perfect candidate for the Christmas Cheat!

Find more recipes and printable gift tags for gifts in a jar here

Banish Baking Blues
Are you baking this year? Don't fall for the iced sugar cookie routine! Unless you schedule cookie-baking as a child-centered activity, frosted sugar cookies violate principle two: they take too much time. Ditto the more-is-merrier idea--baking tons of different kinds of cookies. Long hours on weary feet, and have you priced nuts this year? Yikes!

Perusing our catalogs, though, we can identify two Christmas Cheats for baked gifts. First recommendation: biscotti. Now, I thought everyone knew that biscuit are twice-baked Italian cookies, made for dipping in coffee or chocolate. Wrong

So I will tell you: these easy-to-make, cheap to bake goodies are hot, hot, hot. Biscotti have an espresso/cool quality that makes them suitable candidates for a Cheat. Pair them with a bag of good coffee beans, and you've created the ultimate--and desirable--Christmas cheat.

Check any recent Christmas cookie magazine for recipes.? You'll make dough, shape it in a single big flattened log shape, and bake it once. Then you'll cool your log of dough, cut it into 1/2-inch slices, and bake again until the slices are dry and crisp, but not hard.

Applying "Presentation is Everything", you'll stand eight or nine biscotti on end in an inexpensive coffee mug and wrap with plastic wrap or cellophane. Stop there for a modest gift, or add a half-pound of gourmet coffee beans for a heftier treat. Result: a city-chic Christmas Cheat!

Here's Baking Cheat Number Two: dip things in melted chocolate chips. Christmas cookie magazines are full of dipped goodies this year, but I'll share the secret.

Use 1/2 cup of white chocolate, semi-sweet chocolate or milk chocolate chips. Place them in a Pyrex measuring cup or small batter bowl. Add one teaspoon solid shortening, no substitutions! Microwave for 30 seconds on high, stir, and repeat the cycle until the mixture is melted and smooth. Dip away! Short, sweet, and you'll look like Cordon Bleu material.

Dip one end of biscotti in melted white chocolate chips for a fancy touch. Pedestrian oatmeal cookies turn Gourmet Snob Cookies when they've stuck their toes in some melted chocolate. Add some dried apricots half-dipped in white chocolate, line both cookies and apricots up in rows on a foil-covered piece of shirt cardboard, and top with plastic wrap. If Presentation is Everything, this cookie plate is mega-everything--and quick, and cheap!

Get the Goods on Gift Wrap
A confession here: I hate gift wrap. It's expensive and it's wasteful and it takes too much time and it's just thrown away and if I could do without it, I would. But I can't. So here are some hints for getting your time and money's worth out of gift wrap

First, keep it simple. Why buy a box, fancy printed tissue for the inside of the box, fancy printed paper for the outside of the box, a cardboard mailing carton, and separate gift cards?

Check into the U.S. Postal Service's new innovation: decorated mailing containers. Buy white tissue paper, wrap it around the gift, plunk the gift in the decorated mailing box: an instant Christmas Cheat!

When you do have to buy paper and tissue, stick with solid colors. A thick package of white tissue will cushion birthday, wedding, and baby gifts all year long, but you can't get away with that Cheat if your tissue says "Merry Christmas!"

Ditto wrapping paper. Solid red can be used throughout the year with different-colored ribbons. Mickey Mouse in a Santa hat just doesn't have the same universal appeal.? Slickest Cheat I found this year: nicely printed gift boxes, 3- and 4-for-a-dollar. Wrapping couldn't be easier!

With bows, you're on your own. At most, I wrap glossy gold ribbon (also multi-occasion; red ribbon is just too saved-from-Christmas for me) once or twice around the box. But I acknowledge that others may be of a different bow persuasion--so do your best to get the most dash from your ribbon purchases!

Stretch-Tite(tm) Saves the Day
Here is my number one packaging Cheat: Stretch-Tite brand plastic wrap. It's hard to find, and costs about $4 a roll, but Stretch-Tite is the best single food wrap going. (It's also designed for the microwave, but that's another article.)

Use Stretch-Tite to wrap stacks of cookies. Stretch it over baskets. Tape it to food plates. It has an elastic quality that looks almost professional, doesn't tear, and won't wrinkle or shift. Pedestrian cookie plates will look professionally shrink-wrapped. Bonzer stuff!

Look for Stretch-Tite at warehouse stores like Sam's Club and Costco, or ask your grocery store manager to add it to the plastic wrap and bags section.

Packaging Cheat number two: "foil" gift wrap works for baked goods as well as holiday gifts.

Buy several rolls and use the foil to wrap hunks of cardboard for cookie trays.

Tuck pieces of fudge or Aunt Bill's Brown Candy in small squares of foil gift wrap, and they'll keep nicely, yet add a gala Christmas flair to gifts and candy dishes.

Who said you had to buy metal tins and fancy "goodie" boxes for your baked goods?

Today's Recipe

candy cane reindeer

Simple to make, this little Candy Cane Reindeer does holiday duty decorating packages or peeping from a stocking.

With materials available at craft stores or discount houses, Candy Cane Reindeer are ideal for classroom projects, Secret Santa presents or little "just because" gifts!

Candy Cane Reindeer

He's sweet, sassy, and easy enough for children to make: a Candy Cane Reindeer!

Our little Candy Cane Reindeer makes a great craft project for school, scouts, church groups or Secret Santa gifts.

Using candy canes, chenille stems and google eyes from the craft store, Candy Cane Reindeer make great stocking stuffers--or add them to holiday gift wrap for a sweet touch!

For each reindeer, you'll need:

candy cane
small pompon for nose
two "google" eyes
brown chenille stem for antlers
green chenille stem for bow-tie
small jingle bell
non-toxic craft glue
Leave the wrapper on the candy cane.

Wrap the brown chenille stem around the top of the candy cane and twist. Separate the ends and twist into antler shapes. [Hint: the letter "W" makes a great model for an antler!]

Thread the "jingle bell" onto the green chenille stem. Twist the green chenille stem around the body of the candy cane with the bell in the center. Fold back the stem ends to resemble a bow or a bow-tie.

Place small dots of glue on google eyes, and apply them to the front of the candy cane.

Place a larger dot of glue on the pompom, and apply it to the front of the candy cane to form the reindeer's nose.

Candy Cane Reindeer may be used to decorate gift packages, as party favors, or hung on a Christmas tree as ornaments.

Christmas Countdown to an Organized Christmas - Day 19 - Simplify Handmade Gifts

Article and Photo Courtesy of Organized Christmas

Ask any wife and mother what she needs most during the holiday season, and she'll tell you, "More time!"

Yet this same busy lady will fill her Christmas gift list with elaborate hand-crafted gifts, requiring substantial outlays of cash, time and skill.

Result? She careens into mid-December either (1) working nightly until 1 a.m. to finish the lot or (2) substituting last minute purchases for the unfinished gifts.

How to take charge of out-of-control crafting? Apply the Rule of Four!

To Do Today

Apply the "Rule of Four" to simplify handmade gifts

Thinking of adding hand-made gifts to your gift list? Here's a little test: the Rule of Four. Go to the closet or cabinet where you store craft items. How many UFOs (Un-Finished Objects) can you find? How old are they?

Did you find four or more UFOs? Were any of your UFOs more than four years old? That's a big, big reality check, and should tell you to scale back on the crafts this year.

Tempting as it is to lavish time and love on our families, we need to be realistic. If you do craft projects for pleasure, and if you usually finish them, by all means, craft your little heart out.

For the other 99% of us? Think hard before you fall for the siren song of a hand-crafted gift! Be realistic about your time, skill and ability to finish. After all, wouldn't it be wonderful to release yourself from the crafts stranglehold? You can do it ... and get ready for Christmas!

Begin working on handmade gifts

List all Gifts to Make--then step back and evaluate.

Be stern! Make your list and cut it in half--there's less time than you think. List needed materials and add them to the Master Shopping List.

Begin working on "to make" gifts this week. You must make one-fourth of your gifts each week.

No More UFOs! Get-Em-Done Strategies for Homemade Gifts

Hoping for a handmade holiday this year? Keep tabs on time and energy with more tips to organize handmade gifts and crafts:

Scanning a list of handmade craft gifts is something like reading a cookbook: it makes you hungry!

Whether you wander the crafts store, settle in at the library's craft bookshelf, or flip through holiday magazines, visions of bright and beautiful gifts follow one after the other. Will this be the year you give hand-crafted gifts ... to everyone?

Give in to the impulse to overload on holiday crafts projects, and you're likely to find yourself drowning in UFOs: Un-Finished Objects.

Try these ideas to keep your holiday crafting within bounds--and budget and timeframe, too.

Apply the Rule of Four
This simple strategy will cut to the crafting chase ... and ground you in the midst of crafting-magazine intoxication.

Go to the location where you store unfinished crafts projects. Count the number of UFOs: Un-Finished Objects. Are there more than four, or is any unfinished work over four years old?

If so, apply the Rule of Four. No new crafts this year--finish the pending projects before you buy one more hank of floss or sack of sequins!

Think theme
Lovely as it is to be a crafting grasshopper, pick a single crafting theme when you plan each season's holiday gifts.

Will this be the year for knitted scarves? If so, make them in multiples. The project will go faster with practice, unused yarn from one project can be repurposed to the next, and you'll only need to invest in a single set of tools.

Schedule regular crafting time

The quickest way to create a UFO (Un-Finished Object)? Forget to add crafting time to each week's activities.

Sure, the glow of creativity burns bright in the crafts store, but that light will go out for your project unless you set aside time to tend it. Without a scheduled time to work on handmade gifts, it's too easy to sweep them aside in the bustle of daily life.

Work daily or weekly crafting time into your schedule to see crafted gifts through to completion.

Go with the flow
Many crafts lend themselves well to small bits of time--so where you can, pack the crafts bag and take the current project along with you.

Knitting, needlework and even scrapbook doodling or journaling can be done while waiting for appointments or supervising children's play in the park.

Track progress with a "Gifts To Make" list
The simplest way to keep track of gifts-in-progress? Make and keep a Gifts To Make inventory list. Reviewed weekly, it'll remind you of planned homemade gifts. Get crafting!

Today's Recipe

praline recipe

My grandmother, Mim Miller, was a flat-out wonderful Southern cook. These chewy Texas pralines show why!

A frugal holiday treat, they used little more than a sack of sugar and pecans from the tree--but the distinctive taste makes holiday memories.

Updated with easy microwave instructions:

Mim's Texas Pralines

Creamy and delicious. this Texas treat dates from the days when Christmas memories had to be made with little more than some nuts from the backyard trees.

Traditionally sent to our family by my grandmother, Mim Miller, these pecan patties spell "Christmas" to me!

Includes both conventional and microwave directions.

1 cupbrown sugar, packed
1 cupsugar, granulated
1⁄2 cupmilk
2 teaspoonsvanilla extract
2 tablespoonsbutter, unsalted
1 cuppecan halves
Conventional directions: Combine milk and sugars in a large saucepan. Boil to the thread stage.

Add butter, vanilla and pecans, and cook over medium heat to the soft ball stage.

Remove pan from heat. Beat candy immediately until it thickens. Quickly drop by tablespoonfuls onto waxed paper.

Microwave directions: Combine milk and sugars in a 2-quart batter bowl; microwave on High for 7:00 minutes, until mixture begins to bubble. Add butter, vanilla and pecans.

Microwave on High six to seven minutes, until mixture reaches 232-degrees to 240-degrees--the soft ball stage.

Remove from microwave, and beat candy immediately until it thickens. Quickly drop by tablespoonfuls onto waxed paper.

To use microwave thermometer to test temperature, crumple a 15" piece of Stretch-Tite or plastic wrap into a long ribbon.

Center the ribbon over the batter bowl, pressing both ends on the outside of the bowl. Stick the microwave thermometer through the center of the plastic wrap strip--it will stand straight up in the center of the candy.

Check the thermometer every 45 seconds to 1 minute.


NOTES : For a quick holiday treat, try making pralines in the microwave--Cynthia's update to this classic recipe. Both conventional and microwave directions are included.