Monday, April 30, 2012

Taming the Scrap Bin(s): Part 1

These are my scrap bins:

Here's what I worked on this weekend:

The blocks are all sewn and arranged for this lap-size (approximately 60x72) quilt, based on a tutorial by Bonnie Hunter @ It's made up of 2" x 3.5" rectangles (Bonnie calls them "bricks") with 3.5" solid  background squares to bring all the scraps together. It didn't make a dent in my scrap bins, but it was loads of fun!

Each section is incredibly ugly when viewed alone, but when it comes together, it'll be the most cheerful, colorful, fun quilt. And the best thing about it is that nearly every scrap in it provokes some delightful memory. The giraffe print at left (you can see I had to do some seam-ripping and left the threads hanging there...) reminds me of a sewing student from a few years back. Jake chose his "PJs for the whole family" pattern and this adorable giraffe print, and over the next six weeks, completed his jammies. Now, when the most female students finish and want to try their new garments on, they go to an entirely separate room, lock the door, and do it in total secrecy. They usually won't come out to model for the group, even if the garment is a perfect fit. But Jake wasn't shy- he just went around the corner, took off his jeans, and tried on his new PJs. He came out, too, with this funny expression on his face, and looking like the Incredible Hulk wearing Bill Bixby's pants (only without the rips). He never cracked a smile- just said "I think I accidentally made the little kids' size". I will never forget that young man (wouldn't have even without his scrap in my quilt).

The blue calico is from a colonial dress I made my daughter when she was six or seven; the Mary Engelbreit fabric is from a picnic blanket I made my sister's kids; the purple was in a Flower Fairy/log cabin quilt I made Mabzie; and the dark blue floral was in my very first quilt.

I can't wait to finish it, but I'll probably start something else first- I always do!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bird Bottle Babies!

Our baby Bluebirds have hatched!
This little birdy family is living at my sewing cottage in a Colonial Williamsburg bird bottle. Another bird couple (small brown birds, possibly wrens) is nesting in the one at our carriage house, but no baby-chirping coming from that one just yet. No one ever seems to want to nest in our third bottle- I think it's too near our back entrance. The mom and dad share feeding responsibilities and made a million trips in and out today. The sad news is that we saw a Bluejay leaving the nest on Friday with something in its mouth. Did you know that those meanies snatch other species' hatchlings?  

The Redeemed Gardener posted pictures last week of the wrens and finches his four bird bottles in West Virginia attracted. I hope he didn't have to hide in the bushes as long as I did to get his shots! 

Friday, April 27, 2012

I Agree with Audrey...

Image from

Yesterday, while sitting in my hair stylist's chair with a head full of aluminum foil (looking anything but glamorous), reading a Glamour magazine, I learned that Audrey Hepburn and I share a similar philosophy. I'm certain it's the only thing we could've possibly had in common.
Enjoy your weekend!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Throwing Away Money

Get the most for your family's food dollar by eliminating food waste. Americans are throwing away their grocery money in a big way! According to a recent article in the the Wall Street Journal*, the average family of four is spending at least $500 a year on food that ends up in the trash. That's a huge impact on our budgets!  

Ways to Reduce or Eliminate Food Waste:

  • Plan your meals for the week.
  • Shop with a list, and stick to it.
  • Purchase only a few days worth of perishable foods, and make sure you eat them before they spoil.
  • Store food properly.
  • Understand expiration and "sell by" dates.
  • Organize your refrigerator and utilize your freezer.
  • Make good use of leftovers.

Each of these tips is worthy of its own post, and will get one very soon! Meanwhile, start thinking (if you don't already) that food = money.  It's not enough to get the best price in the grocery store- we have to use all of the food we buy. 

Last week, after being so proud of myself for changing brands of butter beans to save six cents a can, I had to throw away some sour milk and a whole cucumber. My savings were more than canceled out in that transaction. Gotta be more careful... 

*Leftovers: Tasty or Trash by Sarah Nassauer

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Ingredient Substitutions

Have you ever started a recipe and realized halfway through that you didn't have a required ingredient? It's happened to me so often that I now make it a practice to lay everything out on the counter before I start. This is called "mise en place", French for "everything in place". If you're not going use this concept, then you should know about these websites that offer suggestions for ingredient substitution:

A mistake or shortage of ingredients isn't the only reason you might consider a substitution. Sometimes I consider a substitute ingredient when a recipe calls for a very small quantity of something I don't normally stock in my pantry, or to replace an expensive ingredient. I'm very adventurous with substitution in cooking- sometimes out of necessity, and sometimes just for fun! 

I'm more cautious, however, about ingredient changes in baking. Baking results are much more dependent on texture and chemical reaction. The Joy of Baking's recommendations make sense to me, based on what I have learned about baking, but I have seen some resources that I wouldn't trust. 

So, use the "mise en place", a French phrase meaning "everything in place". If you still need a substitution, give one of these lists a try!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Saturday night, just before dusk, there was just
 a hint of this beautiful rainbow:
A picture really is worth a thousand words... 
maybe even more with a better camera and some photography skills.

Monday, April 23, 2012

What Now?

This is the last in a series about the "One Year Attic Rule" (scroll down to previous posts).

Step 4: Remove everything you just took out of your attic from your premises immediately! You've made your decisions. Don't second guess yourself. And don't let any other family members dig through it and pull things back out either.

Take it all (RIGHT NOW!!!!!) to one of the following places:
  • dump, dumpster or curb
  • charity thrift shop (YMCA Thrift ShopGoodwill)
  • consignment shop (may require an appointment, see Yellow Pages to find one)
  • Once Upon a Child or Plato's Closet for cash payment
  • Craigslist listing (don't keep it if it doesn't sell, and don't shop while you're there...) 
  • (insert any other place you can think of besides your attic, house, porch, yard or car here) 
It doesn't matter where you take it. Just take it. RIGHT NOW!!!!!  (Yes, I do know that typing in bold caps is considered yelling.)

Step 5: Repeat steps 1 through 4 until your attic is as clean as you want it to be. It might take a while, but you'll get there. If you do this a year from now, you have a reference point for the "One Year Attic Rule". If it's still there the next time, right where you left it, then it's been there a year without being used. Bite the bullet and get rid of it!

If you're wondering what's left in my attic, here's the list:
  • Christmas decorations, wrappings and artificial tree 
  • a few decorations for other holidays
  • 25 years of business files (you have to keep those but I'm not worried about deterioration)
  • a few of my daughter's toys
  • a dollhouse (currently listed on Craigslist) 
  • 2 leaves for my dining room table (shouldn't be there- could get damaged)
  • luggage
  • metal filing cabinet (can't remember what's in it)
  • 3 American Girl doll boxes
  • rocking chair from my childhood (should be somewhere else but just doesn't fit in)
  • 2 humidifiers (used only in winter months)
How long did it take my husband and me to get to this point? It probably involved somewhere around five years of difficult decisions, but we got there. And I don't regret any of it. Freedom from junk is so liberating! Try it...

Oh, I forgot to mention this technique works anywhere in your house that you might have a growing collection of unused (or useless) items. Give them to someone who will appreciate them. You'll both be happier. 

Good luck! Let me know how it goes. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Implementing the One Year Attic Rule

STEP 3: Get rid of everything that has been in your attic and hasn't been used for more than a year. When taking this step, don't use these common excuses (I tried them all...) :
  •  But (insert friend or relative's name here) gave it to me.
  •  But it belonged to (insert friend or relative's name here).
  •  But I paid a fortune for it.
  •  But I think I might be able to use that sometime...for something.
  •  But you can't buy those anywhere anymore.
  •  But I'm saving that for (insert event or situation that will never happen here).
  •  But I'm saving that for (insert name of person who will never really want it here).
  •  But that was mine when I was a kid.
  •  But I'll fit into that again someday.
Here's how to deal with these excuses (none of which are completely without validity, but cause your attic and other spaces in your home to contain an unimaginable amount of clutter):
  • Gifts become the property of the receiver. Your friend or relative would not want you to be burdened by something you don't like, want or need. Give it to someone who can use it.
  • Your grandmother's china all boxed up and never used does not represent her. Keep a few things which really remind you of her and get rid of the rest.
  • It doesn't matter how much you paid for it. If it does not meet your needs now, or your tastes have changed, it needs to go. 
  • No, you'll never use it. I have NEVER really needed something that cost more than a dollar or two and realized that I used to have one, but I disposed of it. Honestly!
  • Sometimes there's a reason you can't buy those anymore. No one likes or uses them anymore.
  • What you're saving it for is theoretical. Junk is for real.
  • The person you are saving it for will never want it.
  • Keep your favorite childhood items (in good shape only) and let the rest go.
  • If you can ever fit into it again, it'll be out of style. It probably already is.
Still having trouble? Try asking yourself these questions:
  • Have I used this since our last move?
  • Would it be worth it to take this with me if we move again?
Make as many of these decisions as you are mentally capable of this time around. If you've made a big dent in it, give yourself a break- you can go another round later. However, if there's not a huge load of stuff waiting to be hauled away, keep going. It'll be worth it. I promise.

Next post- Step 4. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

What Not to Store in Your Attic

If you're just joining us, this is a continuation of yesterday's post "The One Year Attic Rule" (scroll down).

STEP 2: Box up everything in your attic made of paper or fabric and take it downstairs.

I know this instruction sounds troublesome, because, after all, this category includes some things you had planned on keeping forever: scrapbooks, wedding mementos, photos, baby clothes, stuffed animals, books, and goodness knows what other sentimental goodies. Relax- you can keep as much of this as you want (and/or have room for). 

What I recommend for these items is two-fold. First, whittle the collection down a bit. Do you really need to keep every outfit your baby ever wore, or every book you ever read to him/her? You have your special favorites- keep them and give the rest away. Sort through it all and keep whatever falls into these two categories: a) anything that represents a specific happy memory, and b) anything that would make you sad to part with. Secondly, get rid of everything else, including pictures of folks you can't identify and clothes you think your grandkids might wear (it's never gonna happen...).  

OK. Now that you (hopefully) have just a fraction of what you started with, find someplace else to put it. Since this is stuff that you've decided to keep "forever", you can't (or shouldn't) store it in your attic! Extreme, fluctuating temperatures and humidity break down textile fibers causing yellowing, deterioration and other serious damage. So do insects, mice and other chewing pests. Additionally, some sources say that the unfinished wood in your attic can do harm as well. So, your valuable keepsakes need to be stored in a climate controlled, dry, pest-free environment. Our four plastic tubs full are stored in our crawl space, which maintains a fairly consistent temperature with low humidity, and is well sealed. Your best option might be a closet, so you may have to be very discriminating when choosing what to keep. As time passes, you will become comfortable narrowing it down even more- to make room for new memories.

Coming Next- Step 3: Implementing the One Year Attic Rule 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The One Year Attic Rule

Guess what? I don't have to Spring Clean my attic this year! Not so very long ago, you could barely walk around up there without tripping over something. This is what it looks right now:

No, all the junk is not piled up at the other end:


Our family operates under what we call the "One Year Attic Rule", which was enacted a few years ago: If you put something in the attic, and it hasn't been used since last year's Spring Cleaning, out it goes! Of course, at first there were items one person or another (OK, usually me...) would refuse to part with, but it got easier with practice! When I was up there yesterday to put the luggage back, I was thrilled to realize that our attic has actually stayed clean this year!

Because of the "One Year Attic Rule", things just don't seem to even get put up there in the first place. We keep an old plastic laundry basket as a "donation bin" in our crawl space. When it gets full, we just take it to the YMCA Thrift Shop.

I have never regretted disposing of even one single item! I have never wished, even once, that I had something back that I sold or gave away. It's so much more important to feel organized and relieved of a junky attic!

So, choose a day that's not too hot and not too cold and get up there and get started! 

STEP 1: Throw away anything that's damaged, broken, or missing pieces/parts. These items are easiest to admit you'll never use again! In fact, do this everywhere in your house.

NEXT POST- STEP 2: What you want to keep that should be stored somewhere else...

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Best Macaroni and Cheese Recipe Ever

A chef I once knew (who is no longer with us) made the most delicious macaroni and cheese. When I asked for the recipe years ago, he was happy to oblige. The only problem was, he had been making it in a hotel pan for a restaurant buffet! He stood there on the spot and figured out (while I took notes) how I would make just enough for a family. After tweaking it just a tad, it turned out just like his! Now that Fred is gone, I like to think that I make the best mac and cheese around.  No sense keeping all that creamy, cheesy deliciousness to myself, so here it is... Enjoy!

Fred's Macaroni & Cheese

4 cups macaroni
2 1/2 cups milk (I use fat-free... might as well try to counteract all that cheese)
2 eggs
5 cups grated cheddar cheese (I like Kraft Triple Cheddar mixed with any sharp cheddar)
1 teaspoon dry mustard
salt and pepper to taste

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cook macaroni according to package directions and drain.
3. Put drained noodles back into pot and mix with three cups of the cheese.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. In separate bowl beat eggs with fork. Mix in milk and dry mustard. Add to macaroni in pan and mix well.
5. Spray 13x9 (3 quart) baking dish with cooking spray and pour in macaroni mixture.
6. Top with 2 more cups of cheese.
7. Bake 25-30 minutes until bubbly.

This recipe feeds my family of three as a main dish at least twice. You can easily cut the recipe in half and bake it in a 2 quart dish, but I  never do this. You may want to stick with nearly the same amount of cheese on top, since the surface area of the casserole is not that much smaller. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Written on the Bathroom Wall

We spent some time this afternoon walking along the New River:

We were visited by this gorgeous cardinal:

We love this hollow tree along the path, though the light wasn't just right today for a photo:


Fresh Air & Sunshine   $0
Invigorating Exercise in a Beautiful Setting  $0
Elevated Sense of Well-Being  $0
Time Alone with Husband   PRICELESS

Yes, my friends, a walk outdoors with someone you love is still absolutely free in this country, and much more fun than a treadmill in a smelly, expensive gym! I take advantage of that every chance I get and I urge you to do the same. 

Here's the "written on the bathroom wall" part- the opinion of someone passing through somewhere between here and Washington, DC:

Virginia is for losers? I think not.
Virginia is for lovers? Definitely.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Liar, Liar

I was once an advertising copywriter and I'm ashamed to admit that I used this one a time or two myself:

Buy More, Save More?

You know how I hate math, but here it is:

This convenience store's regular price was $4.19 for twelve 12 ounce cans (that's about 35 cents a can). If you buy 2 cases for $8, each case costs 19 cents less (38 cents in "savings") and the cost per can comes down to 33 cents. Three cases for $10 ($3.33 per case)... your "savings" is $2.57 and your cost per can is about 28 cents. Four cases for $12 "saves" you $4.76. This IS substantially more economical than feeding quarters or dollar bills into a vending machine daily. I'll give you that...

I could go on and on, paragraph after paragraph (and had planned to) about less expensive ways to purchase Coke products (2-liter bottles), and more frugal beverage alternatives (like stores brands and brewed iced tea). But as I was doing my pricing research at the grocery store, I realized I already knew the real key to this one. To really save money on beverages, you have to do what my family decided to do a couple of years ago...

Before I go on, let me say that this is extremely difficult for me (not the rest of my family- just me). You see, I am a recovering Diet Coke addict. I define the four basic food groups as follows: cheese, chocolate, wine and Diet Coke!

OK. Here's the secret to saving lots of money on soft drinks: Do Not Buy Them! Tap water is absolutely free, saving you the entire price of every 12-pack. If your water is not tasty (or you worry about contaminants like my husaband) and you splurge on filtered bottled water, the kind we buy (Great Value Drinking Water/Walmart/$.88 per gallon) costs us about 8 cents for 12 ounces.  

You can never save by spending (unless the item is an absolute necessity and you can get a discount off of the already absolute lowest price you could find anywhere). You only spend by spending and save by saving. Got it? Good. Now, all you have to do is convince yourself that soda is not a necessity!

Oh, and you'll get used to drinking water (I almost have) and you'll be healthier, too!

P.S. I still treat myself to a Diet Coke once in a while and a huge unsweetened iced tea (less than 5 cents a serving made with tap water) daily.



Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Meet Milburn & His Medicine

Milburn came to us as a scraggly stray in the summer of 2006, so he's not much of an inside cat when the weather gets warm. And since we are surrounded by a wooded area, he is troubled by deer ticks (which I recently learned don't have a "season"- they're around all year long!). I used to take him to the vet for prescription Frontline. I can't remember the exact cost - just that it was astronomical! Browsing around one day a couple of years ago, I found Sentry PurrScriptions Plus (pictured above) at Tractor Supply ($14.99 for 3 monthly treatments). There's the purple box for cats over 5 pounds and another color for under 5 pounds. For reference in this post, I called Milby's vet to check the current price.  They now offer a generic flea/tick medication which is less expensive than Frontline, but still $10 per monthly application. So, I'm saving 50% and Milby's tick free and happy.  How do I know it works? Whenever I slip up and go too long between treatments, he gets ticks!

NOTE: I hear a lot about 1-800-petmeds, so I checked there and couldn't find a better price on any of their products (they don't represent this brand). I am sure there are other good ones out there - look around and see what you can find!  

Monday, April 9, 2012

My Baby's Growing Up!

My baby girl turned 13 today!
She is shown here with the beautifully decorated (and delicious) birthday cake delivered to our room at the Ritz-Carlton Tyson's Corner this weekend.  I should have arranged it on the platter so you could see that the chocolate scroll is even personalized with her name.  I mentioned when making the reservation that the trip was in celebration of her special day. Upon check-in, we were granted a complimentary upgrade to their Club Level, where we enjoyed a spectacular view from the twenty-third floor, along with the privilege of spending time in their concierge lounge. She received so much special attention that she felt like a princess!  Mom and Dad felt pretty special too...  

TIP:  Mention your special occasion when making reservations at restaurants and hotels, particularly if you are a frequent guest. Our travel agent got us upgraded to the most amazing suite on our very first cruise last summer just by mentioning our anniversary. It never hurts to ask. They want to make you happy and will honor your request if they can!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Dogwood Blossoms

The pink dogwoods are in bloom Downtown!  I think you can see why the white version is Virginia's state flower.

I love Spring!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Easter Eggs

We got back from our little Spring Break trip just in time to decorate our Easter eggs!  They're different every year, depending on what techniques look fun in magazines or stores.  Last weekend, we bought these Ukrainian Easter egg sleeves at Oasis World Market for $1.99/pack of 7 (also available online from the manufacturer/distributor). I was tired this evening, not to mention totally skeptical about this product after many disappointing attempts to make amazing Easter eggs.  Let's just say ours often end up reflecting our unique personalities!  So I didn't have my hopes up too high...

Here's what we needed:

Here's what we did, per the package instructions:

I boiled the eggs as usual (Joy of Cooking method), cooking a few extra in case any were to break during cooking (they didn't!), and dried them.  The package didn't mention this, but it seemed like a good idea.  As instructed, I carefully cut the plastic egg sleeves (shown above in a strip) apart. Mabzie then slipped one egg sleeve around each boiled egg, and dipped each one back into the boiling water for 3-5 seconds using a ladle (pictured below). The package says "the film will stick around the egg".  Does it ever! Just hearing the noise it makes as it adheres to the egg makes it worth it!

Here are eggs in all three stages:  plain, wrapped and waiting to be dipped, and done:

Aren't they beautiful? (The solid-color eggs were dyed the traditional way.)

I am so pleasantly surprised that this product did exactly what it was supposed to do. And the process was easier and much more fun than anticipated. I think we'll be doing this again next year!   


Monday, April 2, 2012

Cupcake Calculations

Lots of Moms say it's just as cheap to buy cupcakes as it is to make them, but I always get self-righteous and disagree.

So when Mabzie wanted to take 18 cupcakes to school tomorrow to celebrate her upcoming birthday with her friends, we got our stuff together to bake them:

1 box  Funfetti cake mix (makes 24 cupcakes); $1/Walmart
2 cans Funfetti frosting with sprinkles (13 servings each); $3/Walmart
1/3 cup vegetable oil; $.21/Walmart
3 eggs; $.48/Walmart
cupcake liners ($1.47 for 75); $.48/Walmart
2 pkg Peeps for decoration; $2/Walmart

So I figured 24 cupcakes would cost $7.19, compared with the decorated cupcakes Walmart was selling today for $6 a dozen.  We were going to save almost $5! (For ease of calculations, I didn't consider tax, but I think the rate is lower for groceries than for prepared foods, anyway, which is another post for later...)

The first dozen cupcakes baked beautifully and we were both quite proud. But for the second batch, we only had enough batter to make 7. So a box of mix made only 19- which is OK, still enough! But, I was worried that my math was not going to prove my point at all...

Iced and decorated with sprinkles and Peep bunnies, they were so cute!

Then, guess what?  One can of frosting (13 servings) was plenty for 19 cupcakes!  We can return one can of frosting for $1.50, so our cost ends up being $5.69, or 30 cents per cupcake.

Final analysis:

Walmart cupcakes:  50 cents each
Our cupcakes:         30 cents each
Making cupcakes together:  PRICELESS

In the end, we saved over $6, and we did have enough cupcakes, but the Home Ec Dropout part of me thinks that even if those other Moms are spending twice the money on inferior cupcakes, at least they know how many they are getting!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Spring Means Mulch!

Today we finished spreading 54 yards of mulch on our property. In case you're a "city slicker", hardwood bark mulch is sold by the cubic yard, which is the amount that would fit into a cube 3 feet high by 3 feet wide by 3 feet deep. So 54 yards is a good bit of mulch to spread, but some years we've put down as much as 180 yards.  That's two tractor-trailer loads! So this year was actually kinda easy! I wish I had taken a picture of the pile for you.  

TIP:  If you've bought a large quantity of goods or services from a particular local vendor for many years, he/she may be willing to negotiate a discount with you. 

The highlight of our day was a visit from this little salamander:

He appears to have an injured left eye.  That's why it looks red in the picture.

Also, the snake count is now at 4 for the season.