In a Dinner Rut? Some Quick Fixes

Are you tired of eating – and cooking – the same exact meals night after night, week after week?  Does it feel like you could cook each night with your eyes closed?

Here are some easy solutions:

 (1)  Re-create your restaurant favorites

Let’s face it.  We often eat out because need a break from cooking.  But, we also eat out because we like the food.  Yesterday, I had no idea what to make for dinner and thought about some favorite meals when I go out.  I really enjoy a lot of restaurant salads and decided to re-create Barbecued Chicken Salad, a meal I have ordered at several different restaurants.  It’s always on a base of regular house salad – lettuce, cucumber, tomato, shredded cheese.  Then, there’s usually corn and black beans, so I open up a can of each of those (and rinsed the beans).  Then, I coated 2 chicken breasts with a favorite barbecue sauce and grilled them on the George Foreman grill.  To top it off, I put a little barbecue sauce in to a bowl with ranch dressing.  Voila!  I had barbecue ranch dressing without having to buy an entire specialty bottle.  I also made my version of California Pizza Kitchen’s BLT pizza a couple weeks ago.  It was just as tasty, a ton cheaper, and added some variety to our dinner menu.

Try re-creating some of your favorite restaurant meals at home.  Think about the different toppings you have had on pizzas, the different ways you have seen pasta prepared, and the restaurant sandwiches you really enjoy.  Bring those in to your own kitchen.

(2)  Flip through those cookbooks

If you’re anything like me, you have a huge stack of cookbooks.  Open one of them, and flip through it.   You don’t have to make anything in it, but I find it tends to help me generate a lot of ideas to help mix things up.  I may see 2 ingredients combined in a way I never would have thought of, such as a pork and nectarine stir fry I came across.  Sometimes, I also come across a recipe that will remind me of a dish I used to make, before I entered my current rut.

(3)  Turn on the TV

I can’t watch the Food Network for a half hour without seeing some new technique or cooking method that I have never tried.  I have picked up such ideas as roasting cherry tomatoes to put on salads or pasta and boiling green beans with my pasta (same water at the same time) and then tossing them both with pesto.  (Although mine comes from a jar, not a food processor.  Sorry, Rachael!)

(4)  Take matters in to your own hands

I have a friend who recognized she was in a rut and asked for help.  She sent out a note to several of her mom friends on Facebook and asked us what we have been cooking lately.  She asked us to send her recipes for favorites in our own rotations that she could add to hers.  Not only did we help her out, but we also got to read what everyone else was making to expand our own cooking repertoire.

I also subscribe to daily emails from

These recipes have been posted by home cooks, and many of them are reviewed.  They feature a recipe each day, and at least half of them seem worth trying.  I love having new recipes to try, and I love it even more when they’re tried and true successes.

These methods certainly work for me!  Have your own tips or methods?  Please feel free to share them here! 

Holiday Photo Tips

Tis the season for holiday decorating, overeating, over spending and family gatherings.  If you’re like most Americans, you will most likely be toting a camera around with you on these occasions.  How do you capture these moments and what are the best tips from the pros?  Lucky for you I have some great tips for even the most beginning novice.

You don't need the whole tree in there to get they're in front of the tree.

Don’t have a super fancy DSLR?  No worries, the point and shoot cameras that are available today take some really amazing pictures. Even I don’t carry around my big pro camera to family functions, I carry my small Canon Powershot.  The first tip I tell everyone is to READ YOUR MANUAL!  Get to know your camera and the different settings.  For example, you should be able to switch between having the flash fire automatically or turn that baby off.  If you want a moody shot of the neighborhood Christmas lights, you obviously don’t want the flash going off automatically, you need to know how to turn the flash off.

Decide what is your subject.  This is a HUGE one that I tell people all the time, especially my parents.  Every time my parents come back from a trip there are always pictures of my mom, about the size of an ant, the huge skyline, the trees, cars, etc all in one picture.  What is the focus?  If you’re going to do a scenic photo, take the people out, if you want a photo of a person, make them the star and don’t worry about all that scenery.  Too often I see holiday pictures with the huge Christmas tree, the stockings hung, and the kids in about 1/4 of the photo.  Trust me, if your kids are the star of the photo and take up 75% of the frame, the viewer still understands and sees they’re in front of the Christmas tree, you don’t need all 8 feet of the tree in there.

Get creative with your shots!

Be creative. We always try to do something different with our holiday pictures, whether its a fun picture of the kids wrapped up in a ton of Christmas lights, just a picture of their feet in front of the fire, or funny angles of their toys.  That’s the joy of the digital age, you can take as many pictures as you want, so go ahead and be creative!
And finally… edit edit edit.  I am a AVID believer in editing.  We have way to many pictures stored on our hard drives these days.  We didn’t use to have 150 pictures from Christmas, maybe a roll of 36 exposures right?  Just because we took the picture does not mean we have to save it.  We don’t need a picture of every toy that was opened, or the back of the kids when they were playing with their cousins.  Instead edit the pictures down to a solid 30-40 pictures that represent this holiday season best and get them into an album of some sort.  Whether is an online album to share with friends and family or a printed album get them off the computer and into a place that your children can look at!  Don’t hand them a hard drive when they’re all grown, get these memories in print.

The Photo Addict runs a retail photography studio location in Fullerton, Ca.

Preventing Crib Escape

Mouse is now 23 months old and has recently demonstrated his great prowess in being able to escape the Pack n Play (first), and now the crib. I can’t tell you how excited I am about this turn of events.

After scouring the internet for suggestions for this problem, I really only came up with two solutions people kept saying over and over. 1) A crib tent, or 2) ditching the crib and moving to a toddler bed. Both of these are problematic for us.

Aden and Anais Sleeping Bag

Our gorgeous crib has a funky shape and as such, does not fit any available crib tent. Additionally, when we are up at the cabin, Mouse has to sleep in the Pack n Play, and they don’t make a crib tent for a Pack n Play (well, they did, but it was recalled due to tragedy).

I’m very hesitant about moving to the toddler bed for a couple of reasons. One, I’m paranoid and I don’t like the idea of him having free range in a room where I cannot see him or at least be close by or at least be awake when said free ranging is taking place. It’s not that his room is a dangerous place, per se, but I worry about things like him deciding to gnaw on the power cord that goes to his music player, or exploring the glorious contents of the diaper pail, or simply pulling everything off his many shelves. The problem is also compounded by the fact that a toddler bed is not an option at the cabin due to the configuration and nature of the room in which he sleeps, so he’s still stuck in the Pack n Play up there.

We did have a brief period between when he discovered he could escape the Pack n Play but hadn’t figured out the crib yet, so I had a short time to think. I studied his escape method closely. He would hike a leg up onto the side, sort of push off with his other foot while pulling with his hands, and then just shift his weight until he rolled over the side. It finally occurred to me that if I could prevent him from hiking his leg up, he wouldn’t be able to get out. A-HA!

We went back to our trusty sleep sacks. Like many parents, we had used sleep sacks to keep him warm rather than blankets for well over a year. When he outgrew our largest size, we felt comfortable putting him down with just his blankie and warm PJ’s (plus we live in Southern California). But the sleep sack did an excellent job of containing his feet, and while he had some wiggle room to shuffle around in, there was no way he would be able to lift his leg up that high and get out.

Locking diaper pins

Our problem, for now, is solved. Well that one, anyway. We did encounter two other problems: 1) finding a sleep sack big enough for our 32-pound, well-over-33″ chunkster, and 2) preventing him from unzipping it. For problem 1, I turned to Aden and Anais Sleeping Bags. I absolutely love these muslin sleep sacks. They are light and breathable, which is so nice in the summer, and ours have held up so well. Plus they come in an XL, which is supposed to go up to 36 pounds. It fits well for now, and I do think it’s going to buy us enough time to get him successfully transferred to a toddler bed (and well-protected twin at the cabin).

The A+A sleeping bags zip at the bottom, so I solved the second problem with a locking diaper pin. I was nervous that he could undo a regular safety pin, but locking diaper pins are much more difficult for little hands to figure out. The head of the pin slides open and shut, and you have to slide it out and then unfasten the pin to get it open. Again, it’s all about buying more time.

The sleep sack solution won’t work for every child, of course, but if you’re facing the same issue, that’s what works for me!

Gerber Bunch-A-Bowls

With all of the elaborate and expensive crap there is out there to buy for babies and children, sometimes it’s just really, really nice when a cheap option is the perfect product. And when it comes to toddler feeding, there’s no more perfect product than NUK Gerber Graduates Bunch-A-Bowls.

Don't underestimate my awesomeness

Oh it seems simple enough–little plastic bowls with lids in happy friendly colors, and I even picked them up as an impulse item thinking they might come in handy someday. And now we use them, like, several times a day, every day. Don’t let their rather humble simplicity put you off. Sure, they’re not as flashy as a contour-molded suction cup bowl scientifically designed to encourage independent eating while teaching your child four different languages and the text of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (unabridged!), but they get the job done and then some, and at the end of the day, isn’t that what we’re really looking for?

Allow me to extol the virtues of the NUK Gerber Bunch-A-Bowl.

  1. Lids that fit tightly but don’t break your fingernails getting them off. Maybe it’s strange to kick off this list with lids, but these babies are air tight and absolutely waterproof. You can toss them in your diaper bag without fear of leaks or spills, but they have a handy tab that makes it easy to get them off.
  2. Size. They are the perfect size for so many things. With finger foods, each bowl is pretty much one toddler serving size, so it even helps portioning. When I’m packing up meals for Mouse, I loosely fill the bowl and that’s just about exactly what he eats.
  3. Additionally, they are the size of a jar of baby food plus baby cereal. When we were still feeding purees, I used to thicken it with some baby cereal. On the go, I’d just put a couple spoonfuls of dry cereal in the bowl with the lid, then take along a jar. When it was time to eat I’d just pour the jar into the bowl, mix it up, and it was totally the perfect size.

    One portion of mashed potatoes, one of cut-up apple, ready to go!

  4. Dishwasher-friendly. This is a term I just made up in my own head that’s different than dishwasher-safe. Lots of things are dishwasher-safe but they are still a serious pain in the rear, particularly things that collect water that then gets dumped over the clean dishes when you pull out the rack. These bowls and lids are easy to stack in the dishwasher and don’t collect water, which I love. Also they don’t warp in the dishwasher–another big plus for me.
  5. BPA-Free. Oh yeah.
  6. Microwave safe. I’ve never used them in the microwave, but you can if you want to.
  7. Stackable . They’re very easy to store, as they stack quite neatly into one another and don’t take up a lot of space.
  8. Perfect for leftovers. When we have leftovers, it’s super-easy to just divide them up into individual bowls. Then when the next meal comes around, I can grab a bowl and it’s already set up for me.
  9. Unbreakable. Obviously, because they’re plastic, but if kiddo is into throwing his tableware, these aren’t going to suffer any damage.
  10. CHEAP!!!!! This is the best part of all–they’re CHEAP! A 4-pack will run you around $6.00 or less, and they last forever. We’re going on well over a year on our first set and they work just as well as the day I bought them.

I really do love these bowls. They’re so simple, yet so effective, and so cheap! NUK Gerber Graduates Bunch-A-Bowls, works for me!

Don’t miss your Hamburger Helper coupon below!

WFMW: Detangling Playground Hair

Ah, Fall…the leaves are turning, the wind is blowing, warm hats and hoods are pulled on and off and on and off, and long hair gets mind-blowingly tangled.

Unless you live in Southern California, where it’s still quite nice but hair gets tangled on the playground anyway.

Nice

When I was little I used to scream when my mother came at me with a comb or brush. Tired of the battles, my mother told me I could either endure the hair grooming or they would cut it all off and I’d have to sport the Dorothy Hamill bowl cut that was all the rage. Despite the fact that it made me look like a boy, and that my hair wasn’t anything near Dorothy Hamill’s, I got stuck with it up until I hit the spiral perm craze.

At any rate, if you love someone who has long hair that gets tangled, and you don’t want them to end up looking like the unfortunate person in the picture, our good friend The Hair Guru has a video tutorial on how you can comb out tangled playground hair with just a comb and some hair oil (you can even use olive oil!). The oil the Hair Guru talks about in the video can be purchased here.

Easy detangling–Works for me!

Works-For-Me Wednesday

WFMW: Easy Peasy Banana Peeling

You know, sometimes bananas are just hard to peel.

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tell your own banana joke

Like you start at the root (stalk? thingie that attaches it to its other banana friends?) and often you end up bending the peel instead of breaking it, and then it gets all mushy and gross and it’s quite frustrating.

Well here it is–frustration free banana peeling! Just start from the bottom of the banana. It’s very easy to stick your finger in, even if you just cut your nails because you’re afraid of permanently maiming someone accidentally, and you never squish the top.

Easy banana peeling–works for me!

Works-For-Me Wednesday

Get Free Stuff – Join Birthday Clubs

I love free food. And I like making my birthday celebration last as long as possible. How to combine the two? Join some birthday clubs! I did this and enjoyed several complimentary meals and desserts for two weeks. Sign up at the restaurants or online. You may get a few mailings throughout the year but many times this includes coupons and, of course, birthday treats. Some places, like Denny’s, BJs and  CPK offer free meals  only for kids. Here are some of the better deals I found this year that include adults:

If you live in the LA area, there is a great Mexican restaurant called El Cholo. Sign up for their e-mail club and you can receive a $25 certificate to be used within 2 weeks of your birthday. Also a $10 coupon just for joining. Heck yeah! Sign the whole family up!

El Torito offered me a free entrée which I was not ashamed to collect on my own.

Black Angus – free steak dinner with purchase of 2nd entrée.

Red Robin and Fuddruckers offer free burgers.

Corner Bakery offers a free cookie.

Get free ice cream at Baskin Robbins and/or Cold Stone Creamery.

Golden Spoon Frozen Yogurt – free yogurt.

Disneyland restaurants offer buttons, balloons and desserts throughout the resort.

Chilis, Applebees, TGI Fridays, Buca di Beppo – free desserts.

I did not sign up for this in time but I hear you maybe can get something good from the Cheesecake Factory. Sweet!

If you have local restaurants that you really love, check out their web sites and see if they offer freebies for signing up. Create an e-mail just for these offers if you don’t want them crowding your existing box. You can combine these with the deal alert e-mails I mentioned before.

Please post any great offers that I missed.

Works for me!
works for me wednesday at we are that family