Thursday, September 29, 2011

Time for a Confession

I have a confession to make.  As I write this blog I am guiltlessly enjoying a piece of fruit cake that my mother made for me to freeze for the holidays.  We've been tag teaming this year on the baking/cooking.  Each time one of us prepares a meal or a batch of goodies, we double the recipe and wrap the extra batch up for the other.   (I highly recommend this if you have a friend or family member to prep with!)

I realize most of you did not finish reading that paragraph, stopping dead in your tracks at the phrase "fruit cake".  But, yes, I love me some fruit cake.  Not all fruit cake, mind you.  Just my grandmother's fruit cake, which is basically glorified raisin bread.  There is something about the scent and taste of the cinnamon and the cloves that just instantly reminds me of Christmas. 

What favorite food makes it feel like Christmas to you, regardless of the time of year?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Take Action

Week of September 25th - October 1st

*Make a batch of holiday goodies and freeze them

*Make one freezer meal

*Buy at least one more gift- wrap it, label it, check it off your list, and put it in your "gift closet"

*Work on any homeade gifts or crafts

*Clean out old/outgrown toys from your kid's bedrooms and/or playroom- prepare them to donate or sell

*Make a list of toys/books your kids would like that will fit in their rooms and go with other toys they already have- I have yet to do this because one side of our family is not big on gift suggestions and the other side shares my DNA and has already purchased their grandchildren's presents.  But I think it is a brilliant idea!  As a parent, you know what your kids like, what they already have, and what they'll play with.  I would personally welcome a list like this for any child I have to buy for...not to mention a few adults!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Christmas Morning Chaos

One thing I've learned over the past few a mother of young children, Christmas morning is chaotic!  Those images of mom and dad wrapped in bathrobes, nestled into the couch, sipping coffee while youngsters blissfully unwrap packages are pipe dreams.  Christmas morning at our house has always been a marathon of unwrapping gifts with paper flying and kids wanting to tear into presents immediately, while my husband and I try desperately to instill some sense of patience and gratitude into our children and maybe take a few pictures, if we're lucky.

Christmas 2010 was the clincher for me, though.  Not only was the morning loud and crazy, but my husband and I spent the entire time prying open plastic packages, untwisting wire ties from around toys, and installing batteries.  I wore a noticeable path in our carpet going to and from the garage with various tools necessary to free our kid's new toys from their cardboard prisons.  I decided then and there, I'd never do that again!

This year I'm prepared.  I made a very important trip to the dollar store and created my very own Christmas morning tool kit.   It will be ready and waiting Christmas morning (along with about 15 lbs of batteries) to make opening presents a breeze...for me, that is.

The tool kit includes:
Box cutters (one for Mom and one for Dad)
Screwdrivers (a Phillips and a flat head)
Wire cutter
Plastic package opener (which I had to buy from Amazon and didn't cost a dollar, but, I'm convinced will prove to be worth every penny)
Garbage bags

I was able to find a little zipper pouch to fit them all in and my tool kit is ready to go.  Every year, I'll pack it up with the Christmas stuff and I won't ever have to run back and forth to the garage again!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Take Action

Week of September 18th - 24th

*Make 1 batch of holiday goodies and freeze them

*Make 1 freezer meal

*Buy at least one Christmas gift (if not more)- the Holiday Grand Plan suggests you purchase 1/8 of your gifts this week.  But I think one a week, or even every pay period, is a great idea.   That fraction intimidated me at first because it sounded like a lot.  I've purchases a few gifts over the last few weeks and already have 1/4 of my shopping done.  You'll be surprised at how much of a dent you can make!

*Wrap and label your gifts- sounds crazy I know, but you won't regret it.  Many stores are already setting our their Christmas wrapping paper.  I found some at our local dollar store the other day.  Try craft stores as well and don't forget to look online.  Stock up on Post-it notes so you can label who the gift is for before you stash it.  Keep a running list of what you've purchased so that you don't over buy.

*If you plan on making any homemade gifts or holiday crafts, try to spend at least an hour working on those.

*List any miscellaneous items you may need for the holidays- including kitchen/bathroom linens, candles, serving pieces, etc.  Were you short napkin rings last Thanksgiving?  Did one of your goblets break?  Try to reflect back and dig through your cabinets and linen closets if necessary.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Pantry Prep

This last week we started our holiday baking and are now beginning to stockpile those non-perishables for our holiday cooking.  Before we get carried away, we need to make sure our pantry can keep up with extreme efficiency.  This weekend, set aside a few minutes to prep your pantry for the holidays.  Don't feel the need to go through small appliances or old Tupperware that may be hiding in there.  Just focus on your food shelves.  Clean out cans, boxes, and bags that have been there a while.  Eat your inventory, plan it into your menu, and make room to begin stocking up on extra non-perishables for the holiday season.

Buy an extra canned good or two each time you do your weekly grocery shopping.  The holidays always bring plenty of opportunity for donating food.  Spending an extra dollar or two now helps spread out the cost and guarantees those less fortunate get something other than that old can of garbanzo beans.

Inventory your baking supplies.  If you are a baker, or at least pretend to be during the holidays, now is the time to prepare for your baking.  You probably already have an idea of some of the things your family enjoys at the holiday.  We all have our "go to goodies"- the things our family can not celebrate without.  At our house it's our butter cookies.  That means we need to have on hand plenty of flour, sugar, and you guessed it...butter!  These things are not cheap when you have to purchase them in bulk all at once.  Look for sales now and take advantage.  Make sure you have extra flour, sugar, salt, baking soda, etc in your pantry.   Butter is expensive but freezes beautifully!  Stock up when it's on sale and stick it in your freezer.  It will be handy when you are ready to begin baking!

If you haven't had a chance to bake your first batch of goodies this week, don't sweat it.  Focus on preparing to bake something next week.  Use your time to organize your storage space and purchase what you need.  Tomorrow, you'll be ready to hit the ground running!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Falling Behind

Happy Monday!  Here's hoping you enjoyed your weekend and are ready to tackle another week of holiday preparation.

I knew, at some point, in our holiday planning I'd have to write this post.  But never expected it to be so soon.  I'll be honest, there have been some pretty big events on my plate lately and some of my Christmas planning has had to go by the wayside.  To those of you feeling like you can't keep up, let me just throw this out there...

It's okay!

There you go.  Let yourself off the hook.  Life happens to all of us and no matter how hard we try, we can't always get everything done the way we want to.  Just the fact that you're thinking in advance about the holiday season will be a huge benefit to you.  If you manage to make it to November 25th with 1/4 of this things on our list done, you are that much closer.  Don't beat yourself up.  Don't throw in the towel.  Do what you can when you can and, in the end, you'll be glad you did!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Take Action

Week of September 12th - 17th

*Make a batch of holiday goodies

*Make one extra meal.  Label it "Holiday Meal" and freeze it.

*Clear out your pantry.  Throw away anything that you haven't and won't use.  Inventory the food you have and plan to use it for upcoming meals.   It's time to stockpile for the holidays and you need some space.   Find 2 boxes that you can label "Holiday Food" and "Food Drive" so the items in them are not used in every day cooking.

*Buy 2 canned food items from your Menu. Be sure to purchase two of each item- one for you and one for the food drive (This is a good rule of thumb as you're shopping throughout the year, as many schools and organizations collect canned foods year round).

*Buy film, camera batteries, blank video tapes.  Store them someplace safe and write yourself a note so you can easily find them when the time comes.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Take Action

Week of September 4th- 10th
 *Complete any unfinished lists from last week
  • Gifts to give
  • Christmas card list
  • Travel/Visits
  • Goodies for sharing
  • Menus for Thanksgiving & Christmas (don't forget Christmas Eve and Christmas morning)
  • Favorite meals to freeze
  • Long term shopping list: canned food, perishables per holiday, linens/tableware, decorations.
*Buy extra flour, sugar, and other baking supplies (don't forget plastic containers to store and freeze your goodies)
*Develop ideas for gifts, decor
*Find and designate a space for storing gifts
*Make your first freezer meal

* Order/Purchase Christmas Cards (yes, I said it)- or at least start planning to.  If you send photo cards, dig up that photo or take a new one.  Get this task out of the way a.s.a.p.  You'll be SO glad you did!

Later, Labor Day!

I have to admit, Labor Day put a bit of a cramp in my style.  Leave it to another holiday to throw off my preparation for the biggest one of the year.  But, company is gone, kitchen is clean, and now it's time to get back into the swing of things.  Labor Day marks the unofficial kick-off to Fall, at least in the retail world.  You'll find that stores, as early as today, are stocking shelves with Halloween and even Christmas decor items.  Most stores have already outfitted their racks with Fall clothing as well (pun intended).  We tend to scorn retailers here in the desert for selling sweaters when the forecast calls for a high of 109, but with Christmas shopping in mind, we may be a little more forgiving (And, yes, that is our actual estimated high for today- in case you were wondering).

It's week two of our holiday prep and there are a few things to think about this week.  First thing's first- if you haven't completed any of your lists, be sure to do that a.s.a.p.  You'll need to have them all done to continue on with your planning, as you'll refer to them often throughout the course of the next few weeks.

Next, as you prepare for your grocery shopping this week (or run back to the store for one of your many "last minute" trips after work), buy extra flour, sugar, and any other baking ingredients you might need.  You don't have to stock up for a year, but having an extra bag or two on hand will help tremendously over the coming weeks as we start our holiday baking.  Look for sales on butter and take advantage.  Butter freezes beautifully and can be pulled out and thawed at will whenever you need it.  Hopefully you've made your list of goodies to make/give and know what you'll need for each one  (That's what your long-term shopping list is for).

Think about ideas for gifts and decor.  Make a master list of gift ideas.  The more time you have to think, the more likely you are to choose sincere, meaningful gifts for your family and friends and  find them on sale. 

Start buying a Sunday paper, if you don't already get one.  Look through the adds with Christmas in mind.  Take advantage of sales on toys and clothing.  Save and use those coupons to stores like Michael's and Joann's to pick up holiday decor items at a discount.  You'll save and, when it comes time to decorate your home, you'll have what you need.

Last but not least, find space (however small) to designate as your gift closet.   Your gift closet doesn't have to be an actual closet.  But if it can're my hero!  My gift closet happens to be a box that sits on a shelf in my closet.  It will multiply over the next few months into several boxes, but everyone has to start somewhere.  I haven't broken this news to my husband yet, but as we begin searching for our next house...I'm looking with a gift closet in mind (wink, wink).  Prepare a master list so that you can keep track of what is in the gift "closet".   As you purchase a gift, update your list and place a sticky note on the item with the recipient's name.  Don't assume  you'll remember who it's for.  You have enough to think about!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Freeze Ahead Meals

I've had several requests for recipes for meals that freeze well.  I'm guessing from the number of them that there are a lot of your ran into the same issues I did.  Lots lasagna and enchilada recipes out there.   If you're at a loss, here are some that might help.  These are my "go to" freezer meals.  Happy cooking!

Sicilian Casserole- I can guarantee that there is nothing Sicilian about this dish.  My Sicilian grandmother would be so disappointed in me.  But, I'm not going to lie.  It's DELICIOUS!

Sicilian Casserole
1 lb. ground beef
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 (6 ounce) can tomato paste
1 (8 ounce) can tomato sauce
3/4 cup water
1 tsp. dried Italian seasoning
2 cups elbow macaroni
8 oz. pkg. cream cheese, cubed
3/4 cup milk
1/3 cup sour cream
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, brown ground beef, onion, and garlic in heavy saucepan, stirring to break up ground beef. Add green bell pepper when beef is almost cooked; continue to simmer until beef is done. Drain well. Add tomato paste, tomato sauce, water, and dried Italian seasoning and stir well to blend. Let simmer for 10 minutes to blend flavors.
Meanwhile, cook elbow macaroni as directed on package. While macaroni is cooking, combine cream cheese and milk in medium bowl. Cook in microwave on medium power for 2-3 minutes, stirring once halfway through cooking. Remove from microwave and stir with wire whisk until sauce thickens and blends to form a smooth sauce. Drain noodles and add to cream cheese sauce along with sour cream and 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese; stir to combine.
In 2 quart casserole dish, place all of cream cheese mixture. Top with all of the ground beef mixture and sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes until casserole is bubbly.
To freeze, add 1 Tbsp. cornstarch to the cream cheese sauce. Prepare casserole as directed, except instead of baking, chill in refrigerator. Wrap well and freeze up to 3 months. To thaw and reheat, thaw casserole overnight in refrigerator. Bake, covered, for 25-35 minutes, then uncover and bake 5-10 minutes longer until bubbly.
Appalachian Chicken Casserole- This one came from a friend, after my recipe APB.  By far, one of my favorites.  Thanks, Kathleen!

Appalachian Chicken Casserole

3 cups cooked diced chicken or turkey
1 can cream of mushroom (or chicken) soup
1 can cream of celery soup
2 cups chicken broth (reserved from cooked chicken/turkey)
1/2 cup melted butter
1 package stuffing mix, (6 to 8 oz) - herb, cornbread, or chicken flavor
1 cup shredded cheese, Swiss or Cheddar - optional

Combine soups and chicken broth; add diced chicken to the mixture. Add butter to dressing mix. Combine chicken mixture with the dressing mixture. Place in a 2 to 2 1/2-quart casserole and bake at 350° for 30 minutes. (Mother and I usually layer chicken mixture and the dressing mixture, with the chicken on the bottom. Either way works well.) Top with shredded cheese during the last 5 minutes if desired.

I have nothing to say about this next one except....Yummy!
Chicken Potato Casserole

10 oz. can condensed reduced fat and sodium cream of chicken soup
1 cup sour cream
1/4 cup milk
2 cups cubed cooked chicken
1-1/4 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
3-1/2 cups frozen hash brown potatoes, thawed*
1-1/2 cups frozen peppers and onions, thawed*
1-1/4 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
1-1/2 cups crushed potato chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, combine soup, sour cream, milk, chicken and 1-1/4 cups cheese. Spread three-quarters of this mixture in a greased 2-quart baking dish.

Sprinkle hash browns and peppers and onions over the top of the casserole and press down lightly, then top vegetables with remaining soup mixture. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and potato chips.
Bake casserole, uncovered, at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes or until bubbly. Let stand for 5-10 minutes before serving. 8 servings

*To freeze, assemble casserole as directed, except do not thaw potatoes, peppers, or onions and do not sprinkle with potato chips. Wrap casserole in freezer wrap or heavy duty foil and freeze. Reserve potato chips in pantry. To thaw and bake, let thaw overnight in refrigerator. Uncover and bake at 350 degrees F for 60-70 minutes until bubbly. Then top with crushed potato chips and bake 5-10 minutes longer.