Posts Tagged ‘Reviews’

Great Reads for Moms: May ’11 Edition

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

Hurray for summer reading! I know many of us are signing our children up for summer reading programs, but don’t forget to get yourself on a reading program too. Summer reading is my favorite kind of reading and next week, I am going to do a round-up of simply great beach reads to add to your beach bag this summer.

I believe summer reading should be a light and fun time for reading with a heavy classic mixed in to round things out and help keep things balanced. In the meantime, I wanted to showcase four more Great Reads for Moms to snag at your local library!

If you are looking for a little inspiration this new year, be sure to check our MomAdvice fan page for a weekly check-in on what everyone is reading each week on our Facebook Fan Page. I hope you will swing by on Fridays and share about the books you are working on or request recommendations with one another. So far it is a huge success and I have gotten a few new ideas for my own stack!

Just as a reminder, I read many more  books than are just featured here, but try to feature the ones that are my absolute best picks of the month here. If you want to read more, please feel free to friend me on GoodReads! My username is momadvice and I am always happy to connect with people there too! There is nothing more motivating than seeing what other people are raving about and my to-be-read pile continues to grow with all of my new friends on there! In fact, many of the books featured are ones that I have found through my friends on GoodReads.

Happy reading, everyone!

Bossypants by Tina Fey

With advance praise like, “Tina Fey is an ugly, pear-shaped, overrated troll- The Internet” on the back of the book, you know that you are going to be in for a big laugh over Tina Fey’s book, “Bossypants.” I found myself laughing until tears streamed down my face while reading this one. I also admit that I read almost the entire book aloud (thanks to my uncontrollable laughing) to my husband who also loved it as much as I did.  I have been a longtime fan of Tina Fey and this book was such a treat to read and a fun light read that really made me giggle.

Part memoir, part comedy routine, part story-telling, the book is a little messy and a whole lot of fun.  As a mom, you will really relate to the juggling routine that Tina endures while working on 30 Rock and her obligations as a mom. More relatable than that are Tina’s stories of teenage angst and some of the hilarious self-depreciating humor that Tina seems to do so well. Tina also weaves in truths and life lessons from trying to break into the male-dominated sketch comedy world.

This book isn’t for everyone, but if you loved her comedy routines on SNL or are a big fan of the show, “30 Rock,” then you will really appreciate the humor in this book.

Editor’s Note- This book contains adult language and adult humor.

(MomAdvice Rating- 5 Stars out of 5 Stars)

If you liked this book you might like: Julie & Julia

Matched by Ally Condie

Fans of the Twilight and The Hunger Games series will have a new book series to love in Ally Condie’s ew new young adult dystopian novel, “Matched.”  In Cassia’s world, nothing is ever left to chance. Everything from what she will eat to who she will marry is decided by the Society Officials. When Cassia attends the ceremony to find out who her match for marriage is, she is surprised to discover that it is her childhood best friend. It is almost impossibly rare that one would know who their match is so it is a happy surprise to realize it is someone she has known her life.

When Cassia arrives home to find out more information about her match on the microchip she is given, it is another boy’s face that she sees…another boy that she has also known.  Cassia quickly spirals down the path of wondering if this really was who she was meant to be with as she discovers the power and consequence of free will.

Unlike, “The Hunger Games,” & “Twilight,” the one ingredient missing in this book is action. The element that brings the reader in is Cassia’s choice to love the person she has been chosen to be with, or to rebel against it all and going after the more dangerous choice. Unrequited love stories are always my favorite kind and the ending to this book left me anxious for the next book in the series from Ally Condie.

(MomAdvice Rating- 4 Stars out of 5 Stars)

If you liked this book you might like: The Hunger Games & My Name is Memory

Night Road by Kristin Hannah

Kristin Hannah strikes again with another tear-jerker of a book that brings into focus all the blessings that we have as mothers and how quickly it all can slip from our reach.

Jude is the quintessential perfect mother who has done everything she can to put the needs of her twins, Mia and Zach, first in her life. When Lexi Baill moves into their small knit community, Lexi immediately finds a kinship and friendship with Mia, an outsider and introvert who struggles to fit in at school. It is not long after becoming Mia’s friends that Zach finds himself falling in love with Lexi. While both struggle with how their relationship can work, while not taking away their relationship from Mia, they soon all find themselves as inseparable as the three musketeers.

Jude’s overprotectiveness of them cannot protect them from a fateful decision that her teenagers make that will alter the course of their lives forever. As their family falls apart and Lexi loses everything, the reader is taken through every excruciating moment of their pain-filled lives.  The book takes you down the harrowing journey of the consequences of that fatefull decision and how even when we desire strongly to keep our children safe that the unthinkable can happen.

Get out your tissues for this one and know that as a reader, you will be in for a bumpy ride and be haunted by this chilling account of this family’s fate.

(MomAdvice Rating- 4 Stars out of 5 Stars)

If you liked this book you might like: Winter Garden, Red Hook Road, The Year of the Fog

The Murderer’s Daughters by Randy Susan Meyers

Lulu and Merry have never had an idyllic childhood, but their lives are forever changed when their father is kicked out of their home and comes knocking on the door, just before Lulu’s tenth birthday. Lulu could never know the fateful decision she was making by letting her father in, as he brutally murders her mother and stabs her sister , finishing the brutality by attempting to kill himself.

Their father is sentenced to a thirty year prison stay for murder and the girls are shuffled from home to home, never really finding their place anywhere. With no family willing to keep them, they only have each other.

Despite Merry being stabbed by her father, she visits her father weekly and seems to see past his mistake, as she continues to cultivate a relationship with him. Lulu, on the other hand, refuses to ever speak to him again and is burdened by her own guilt for letting him into their house when her mother had told her not to. Both girls must find a way to just survive, and the book follows each of them through adulthood, showcasing how their past also shadows their future, as they make decisions, build relationships, and struggle daily with who they are without a family to shape them.

All can remain well when their father is locked away, but when their father appeals his parole, the girls must learn how they can live with their mother’s murderer on the outside and how they can ever find forgiveness….for themselves and for him.

This has a slow build with great character development.  Fraught with emotion, tragedy, and survival instinct, I thoroughly enjoyed this read from Randy Susan Meyers.

(MomAdvice Rating- 4 Stars out of 5 Stars)

If you liked this book you might like: I’d Know You Anywhere & The Good Daughters


Not enough great reads for you? Check out our Books section of our site for monthly recommendations and ideas for making reading a priority again in your busy mom life!

Disclosure: All of the links above are affiliate links and are provided so you can locate the books quickly and easily. Feel free to order a book, but we encourage utilizing the library system and buying me a latte instead.  Then we both would be really happy and we could have our own little book club together! Wouldn’t that just be so much more lovely? Happy Reading!

What has been in your book stack this month? Feel free to share your book recommendations or feedback on any of the books that have been mentioned above! I love getting new suggestions for my book pile!

Taking a Little Store-Bought Help in the Kitchen for the Holidays

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

If you have been reading the site long enough, I am sure you know that I am one of those people that prefers to make everything from scratch to cut down on our grocery budget. We have big eaters in our family though and often convenience foods leaving us feeling unsatisfied and ready for snacking within an hour. Since those foods don’t seem to fill us up, the nights that I don’t feel like cooking we usually end up opting for dining out which costs a lot, even for our little family of four!

I doubt I am alone in saying that my calendar is overflowing with an unbelievable amount of obligations right now. We have holiday concerts, appointments, work commitments, volunteer opportunities…  and it is only going to get worse as the holiday season gets closer.

See that little “No,” sign in the corner of my calendar?

This is supposed to be offering a memory trigger to myself that there is no need to say yes to everything.

Now view my calendar.

I think I must be having a disconnect these days.

Fortunately, Walmart reached out to me to see if we would like to sample some of their Marketside brand items that are sold over by their deli area in the store. These items are of gourmet quality, but offered at a lower price.  The line includes bagged salads, gourmet soups, fun dips for entertaining, take-and-bake pizzas, veggie steamers, artisan breads, and fresh gourmet pastas.

After sampling all of the items, you can be assured that they are delicious and every bit as fancy as dining out.  The soups and bread rivaled our Panera Bread and the veggies were crisp and delicious.  The fresh dips (which included vanilla bean fruit dips, fresh guacamole, and a variety of ranch dressings) would be perfect to keep on hand for all of those holiday potlucks and gatherings!

Of course, adding my own homemade spin to these great convenience items allowed us to pull together a delicious dinner every night last week on a week where our calendar was jam-packed with activities (see the calendar above). With the busy holiday season upon us, I wanted to share a few ways to take those store-bought ingredients to a new level as the calendar fills up.

Veggie steamers are an easy way to incorporate great veggies into your diet in a quick way.  Look for these stir fry medleys over in your local Walmart’s cooler and take these home for a quick & healthy dinner. I love dressing up veggie steamers with a little of my favorite sauce from our favorite Chicken Lo Mein recipe.

Quick Weeknight Stir Fry

1 bag of stir fry medley veggies
1 chicken breast diced (Optional. I use this roasting method once a week to keep chicken on hand)
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 tablespoon ketchup

Cook veggies as directed. In a separate mixing bow, add soy sauce, vinegar, and ketchup. Stir to combine. Add cooked veggies and serve immediately over baked brown rice.


Fresh pasta is one of life’s little luxuries that I love to keep on hand for a quick weeknight dinner. Marketside offers so many fun varieties for the meat-eaters in the family as well as the vegetarians. These delicious pastas can transform your usual spaghetti night into a dinner that rivals your favorite Italian bistro. They also offer fresh pesto and sauces to decorate your pasta without any effort.  Here are a few ways to use their pasta on a busy weeknight!

Pesto Tortellini Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cans petite diced tomatoes (14.5 ounces)
8 cups chicken broth
1 pound  tortellini of your choice (I love a chicken or sausage stuffed, but cheese is always a crowd pleaser!)
9 ounces spinach, chopped roughly
1/4 cup basil pesto

In a large pot, saute the garlic in the olive oil. After a minute or so, add the diced tomatoes and chicken broth to the pot. Bring the broth to a rolling boil and then add in your tortellini. Cook tortellini as directed on package. In the last minute of cooking time, mix in your roughly chopped spinach and stir in the 1/4 cup of basil pesto. Ladle into bowls and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese on top. Side Note: When reheating, feel free to add some additional chicken broth to thin the soup, as the tortellini will absorb the liquid!

Serve with a bag of salad and a loaf of crusty bread for an easy weeknight meal!


Ravioli With Pesto Cream Sauce

1 pound ravioli or tortellini (I love a mushroom-stuffed variety)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1/4 cup butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk (we used skim milk)
1 pinch salt
1 pinch pepper
1 1/2 cups grated Romano cheese
1 cup prepared pesto

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook as directed and drain. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Stir in garlic and butter, and saute until garlic is soft and fragrant, about 1 minute. Dissolve flour in milk, then stir in. Season with salt and pepper, and simmer 4 minutes, stirring constantly. Add cheese, and stir until melted. Stir in pesto. Dish ravioli on plates and then drizzle the pesto cream sauce over it. Garnish with a little fresh basil or chopped parsley.

Serve with a bag of salad and a loaf of crusty bread for an easy weeknight meal!


Ravioli With Homemade Red Sauce

1# package of ravioli
3/4 cup chopped onion (we omitted because we don’t like onions)
5 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup olive oil
2 (28 ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes (do not drain)
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon white sugar
1 (6 ounce) can tomato paste
3/4 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook as directed and drain. Saute onion and garlic in 1/4 cup olive oil until onion is translucent in another pot. Stir in tomatoes, salt, and sugar. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer one hour and thirty minutes. Stir in tomato paste, basil, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and meatballs and simmer thirty more minutes. Gently break apart the tomatoes with the back of your wooden spoon.  Serve over a big plate of your favorite ravioli.


Although this wasn’t included in my Marketside feast, I recently discovered the beauty and flavors of their rotisserie chickens for my weeknight chicken noodle soup. This soup is being made again this week for a fast & delicious soup that will leave people wondering how the heck you could pull it off on a busy school night.

Quick Weeknight Chicken Noodle Soup

2-3 cups egg noodles (I like the Ream’s brand in the frozen foods section)
2 tablespoons of olive oil
12 cups low-sodium chicken broth
salt & pepper to taste
2 stalks chopped celery
3 chopped carrots
1/3 cup cornstarch
1/4 cup water
1 rotisserie chicken

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add egg noodles and cook until tender. Drain, and rinse under cool running water. Meanwhile, in  a large saucepan or Dutch oven, saute the carrots and celery in two tablespoons of olive oil for five minutes to start your soup base or you can skip this step and proceed as directed, if you desire a crunchier vegetable.  Heat up broth and bring it to a simmer. Stir in celery and carrot. Gently add your rotisserie chicken and all of the drippings from the pan and put a lid on your pot.  Reduce heat, cover, and simmer 15 minutes. In a small bowl, mix cornstarch and water together until cornstarch is completely dissolved. Pull out your chicken and set aside to dice.  Gradually add the cornstarch to soup, stirring constantly. Stir in noodles and diced rotisserie  chicken, and heat through. Toss in a handful of fresh chopped parsley and ladle into bowls.
Of course when all else fails, there ain’t no shame in taking home a take-and-bake pizza and calling it a night! My favorite variety is the Primo Pizza with sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, & black olives. Every mom deserves a night off from the kitchen once in awhile!
I am a participant in the Walmart Moms program.  Marketside provided me with meals last week in exchange for my honest feedback.  Participation in this program is voluntary. All opinions are my own. check out the other Walmart Moms had to say about Marketside. (prices may vary from store to store)
What store-bought items do you like to keep on hand for quick weeknight meals or for a night off in the kitchen? Please share!

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs Movie Review

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

I had the unique experience of attending a fantastic movie premiere of a great family film that I know you are going to want to see! I was given the opportunity to have a round table discussion with the stars and directors of “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” and earned a small place of honor on the red carpet to interview and photograph the stars.

Sony hosted a wonderful event for bloggers to learn more about their products and offer in-depth photography tutorials from the amazing Me Ra Koh. For someone who is still figuring out the world of photography, I was more than willing to participate in such a fun event. We got to take our cameras out on the Sony Studio Lot and even gained a little behind-the-scenes access on sets that were being built for future movies.

All that being said, I really want to focus on what a wonderful movie this was for children and adults alike.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is about an aspiring inventor, Flint Lockwood, who is the socially awkward genius behind some pretty bizarre contraptions. His inventions include everything from a pair of spray-on shoes to a monkey thought translator. Flint is determined though to create something that will make people happy.

When Flint’s latest machine, designed to turn water into food, accidentally destroys the town square and rockets up into the clouds, he thinks his inventing career is over. Until something amazing happens… cheeseburgers begin raining from the sky.

Unfortunately, the people in the town become increasingly more greedy and the mayor decides to change what the town was once famous for (sardines) to a town that is famous for raining food. The greed and demands from the people force the machine to begin making more and more food and the town is threatened to become buried in a food avalanche. To save his town and reputation, Flint has to figure out a way to stop it and save them from certain disaster.

The movie is a delight for the eyes and will make you hungry just watching it. The animation is superb and food highlights include the raining cheeseburgers and a fantastic animation sequence with orange Jell-O. In other words, be sure to have lots of popcorn to feed your children or suffer through the whining for food through the entire show!

Anna Faris
Mr. T
Neil Patrick Harris

The film features the voices of Bill Hader, Anna Faris, James Caan, Andy Samberg, Bruce Campbell, Mr. T, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Benjamin Bratt, Neil Patrick Harris, Al Roker, Lauren Graham, and Will Forte. The film is written for the screen and directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller.

The directors were fantastic and truly kid’s at heart. Sitting down with them and hearing the excitement in their voices was contagious. It was truly a delight to see the pride that they felt about this project and see their favorite childhood book in animation form.

What Parents Need to Know:

- The character of Sam Sparks will be a winner for your daughters. Sam Sparks, played by Anna Faris, is the local weather girl who is hiding just how intelligent she is. This movie will show your little girls that it is totally cool to embrace your inner geek and that you should never hide how smart you are for anyone.

- There are no death scenes. Many children’s movies have death scenes which frighten my small children. The mother is in a scene in the beginning of the movie and then it is later said that she has passed away, but no heart wrenching scenes that you wish had to fast forward through. Of course, no death is ideal, but Flint’s sequence with his mother is an important one and shapes the character of Flint.

- This movie is timeless. The directors purposefully decided to create a movie that could be enjoyed years and years down the road so they omitted pop culture and anything that would not be enjoyed for years to come.

- Your whole family will love this movie. I appreciated the funny sense of humor and comedic timing in the scenes. I know that my hubby will appreciate the fantastic graphics that can truly be appreciated with those 3-D glasses, and I know my kids will love just how cool it is to be smart!

Catch this flick with your entire family when it premieres on September 18th! In the meantime, be watching for some great reviews and information from the other participants at this event:

Alli Worthington @ Blissfully Domestic (Represented by Cassie Boorn)
Beth Blecherman @ Techmamas
Darcy Cruwys @ Mommy Pie
Karen Bodkin @ Karen Sugarpants
Kimberley Blaine @ The Go-To Mom
Kristina Sauerwein @ MOMformation
Melinda Roberts @ The Mommy Blog
Monica Villa @ The Online Mom

I give this two mommy thumbs up for fun entertainment and a thoughtful discussion about how cool it is to be smart and believing in yourself!

HOT TIP: Get a FREE movie ticket to watch Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs when you purchase any Spot Shot product! Great deal, there’s even a $1 printable coupon you can use on your purcha
se. (Courtesy of Heather at Freebies 4 Mom!

(Disclosure- My travel and airfare were covered by the Sony team. To read more about how things are handled by, be sure to read our full disclosure.)

Chari-Tea Bunco Cause Party

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

Recently multi-platinum, Grammy Award winning singer/songwriter, Ashanti teamed up with Johnson’s Body Care to launch a new charitable program that enables real women across the country to support local charities through simply hosting get-togethers with friends.

I was given the opportunity to host one of these “cause parties” where I could kick back with my girlfriends, pamper ourselves with Johnson’s new line of lotions and body washes and help raise money for a local charity.

Lucky for me, it happened to be my turn to host our monthly Bunco so I decided to partner these opportunities together and host a Chari-Tea Bunco night at my house.

My guests were asked to bring monetary and/or food donations to support the St Joseph County Food Bank. Everyone also agreed that the winnings would be given to the food bank instead of divided among ourselves for the event and Johnson’s gave us $100 to start the charitable pot for our charity.

By hosting this event with Johnson’s they gave us the money to put towards the food and drinks for our event so I truly got to pamper my girlfriends in style because no one had to bring a single dish to share.
I still kept to a thrifty budget, but tried to add some special touches for our group. Our centerpiece was a bouquet of flowers displayed in a teapot with a variety of special teas in my china teacups for our table. These beautiful bouquets of flowers were purchased at Sam’s Club for less than $5.

Here are some pictures of the great food that we got to eat. I wanted to stick with the tea party food and dishes that would be easy to handle while playing our game.

I got a huge croissant sandwich tray that served 18 for $32 at Sam’s Club. I cut these sandwiches in half and then added colored toothpicks to hold them together so people could sample different varieties of sandwiches and to make them a little more bite-sized.

For side dishes, I purchased two huge vegetable trays for $9.87 each that were prepared by Sam’s Club. I made a delicous pesto pasta salad from my new favorite cookbook, “The Farm Chicks in the Kitchen,” which you must check out! I then bought a variety of fruit and made fruit kabobs by skewering them for our guests out of pineapple, grapes, and strawberries. These fruit kabobs were thrown into a pretty wine bucket for everyone to grab.

For dessert, I purchased two boxes of mini creme puffs that I served on cake platters with a decaf coffee to finish out the meal.

The star of the party though was the Bunco punch that I made that was a delicious summery drink to go with our food. We also had a box of the Black Box Cabernet which was another surprising hit with many of my friends who had not had the pleasure of trying boxed wines before. Sam’s Club had the best price on this with a box that was equivalent to four bottles for only $18.32. I have to say, these boxed wines are an affordable way to entertain on a budget.

On my lower level, we had a little welcome desk where my guests could sign in and my coffee table got taken over by all of the great food donations.

Each guest got to take home a really cute reusable bag filled with Johnson’s products to sample and share with their friends as a thank you for their charitable efforts. Each bag contained their 24 Hour Moisturizer, 24 Hour Moisturizing Body Wash, & their Be Radiant Cocoa & Shea Butter Lotions. These products were just for us, not for our kiddos, and they smell and feel great. My favorite is definitely the Be Radiant Cocoa & Shea Butter Lotion- it smells divine!

We had the biggest turn out for Bunco ever with seventeen great women in attendance and we were so excited about all we could do for our community. With the donation made by Johnson’s plus our own donations, we were able to donate $205 to the St Joseph County Food Bank and an entire car full of food donations for the cause.

With the job loss in our area, our food banks and shelters are in critical need right now and if you are able to give anything at all, I encourage you to take the time to do it.

Here are some of the items the Food Bank of Northern Indiana critically needs:

Cereal — hot and cold
Meat, chicken or tuna
Mac/cheese, dry pasta
Potato flakes
Spaghetti O’s, stews
Pork & Beans
Chicken Helper
Family-sized soups
Dry soup mixes
Juice boxes
Beans — baked, refried
Pancake, waffle mix
Plastic containers

Individuals, clubs, churches, civic groups and local businesses can all conduct food drives. Donated food is a much needed commodity in their fight against hunger. They accept donated food between the hours of 8:00 am and 4:00 pm, Monday through Friday, at their location on 702 S. Chapin Street, South Bend, IN. If this location is not convenient to you, there are many other drop off points including all of the Martin’s Supermarket grocery stores. For more information please visit The Food Bank of Northern Indiana to find out how you can help.

Throwing a cause party was such a fun girl’s night out and I encourage you to do the same with your girlfriends! It is a fun and easy way to give back to charities in your community and I am so thankful that Johnson’s helped us support such a great cause in our own community!

Here are the star recipes from our fabulous Chari-Tea Bunco night that you could replicate for a charity night at your house!

Pesto Pasta Salad (courtesy of “The Farm Chicks in the Kitchen“) and you can visit The Farm Chicks Blog too!

3 cups bowtie pasta (about 8 oz)
1/4 cup pesto (Sam’s Club has pesto for really cheap, if your garden isn’t ready for pesto-making yet)
1/4 cup sour cream
1 cup chopped fresh tomatoes (about two medium)
1/2 cup halved pitted black olives
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup pine nuts (optional)

Cook pasta as directed. Drain and rinse under cold running water and let cool. Place in a salad bowl. In another bowl, mix the pesto and sour cream together and add to the pasta, tossing to coat. Add the tomatoes, olives, parmesan cheese, and pine nuts and toss to mix. Serve.

Bunco Punch

Orange slices
Lemon slices
Lime slices
Maraschino cherries
Cherry juice or red food coloring
Metal ring mold

SIMPLE SYRUP (Prepare ahead) :
3 c. water
3 c. sugar
Combine, boil and cool.

Simple syrup, chilled
4 c. chilled cranberry juice
3 c. chilled bottled lemon juice
2 c. chilled orange juice
2 c. chilled unsweetened pineapple juice
2 qt. chilled ginger ale
16 oz. rum or vodka or wine or champagne

Create your ice ring by throwing in the citrus fruit slices and then pouring in the jar of cherries (juice and all) Top the bundt pan off with water and then freeze overnight.

To serve: Unmold ice ring into punch bowl; add juices and liquor; add ginger ale.

This makes approximately 30 (6 ounce) servings.

What are some fun charitable activities you do with your friends and/or family? I would love for you to share how you make charity a priority in your house?

Related Links:

Good Cheap Fun: Bunco

Retro Housewife Bunco

Kentucky Derby Bunco

’70’s Bunco Style

Boxed Wines: An Eco & Wallet Friendly Choice

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

I feel hesitant posting my personal thoughts on wine. After all, I am the girl who thought that Arbor Mist was the best you could buy for your money for years. Through the years though, my husband and I have become adventurous with trying new wines, I have been to countless wine tastings, and I love nothing better than a good glass of wine at the end of a long day with the kids.

While we both love wine, we don’t necessarily desire the same kind of wine. I am a girl that gravitates more towards a good Chardonnay while my husband is a Merlot fan. Considering we are the only two wine drinkers in the house, the wine would sometimes go to waste because it was not used in the time span it should have. To me, there is nothing worse than throwing money down the drain so I have been looking into other options.

A few months ago though, I was watching the Today Show and they had a wine expert on to discuss the comeback of the boxed wine. “Boxed wine? Blech!” I thought. The expert continued on though to point out that these wines have come a long way and are a great affordable option for families.

We decided to put this theory to the test and began buying and sampling boxed wines instead. I even had the good fortune to receive a few boxes for my review from a couple of great wine companies, which helped add perspective on the different varieties that are available for families.

Why are boxed wines a better value and better for the environment?

Your Wine Lasts Longer- Remember the scenario that I shared about where I was dumping wine down the drain? Well, that doesn’t usually happen when you buy boxed wine. The wine is stored in a Mylar bag with a spout attached. When you pour from the spout the bag acts as a vacuum, which means the wine doesn’t oxidize. An opened box can last for four weeks rather than spoiling in just a day or two.

Boxed Wine is Better for the Environment- Top wine producers are trying to reduce their carbon footprint — that is, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted in the transportation of wine —and selling the beverage in alternative, lighter packaging instead of heavier glass is one way that they can make that change.These boxes of wine are ideal with some boxes reducing waste by nearly 90 percent of the equivalent bottle.

It Saves Space & Is a Hit at Parties- I took a box of wine to my Bunco night and it was the first thing to go on the table of wines. While some might consider it tacky, that pour spout is quite handy and makes filling your wine glass a breeze. These boxes can hold four bottles or more, but take up a lot less room. If you are short on space or you need something to bring to your next party, I highly recommend the boxed wine alternative.

Wine for Cooking Is Right at Your Fingertips- Many of the dishes I make call for wine in them and these boxes of wine are a cook’s best friend. I no longer have to open a bottle for a dish and let it go to waste, I can now just pour it right out of the box and it costs a lot less than the wine I was buying to cook with.

Boxed Wine is Much More Affordable- You can get a box of wine for a far lower cost than you could get in a bottle. Check the side of the box to see how many bottles are contained within it and then divide that to get your cost per bottle. Some of the best boxed wines I sampled cost roughly $5-6 a bottle, making it much more affordable than even the sale prices on bottled wines.

Now that I have hopefully convinced you that it is a better deal, here are my top picks for best boxed wines on the market. I am happy to report that Epicurious also agrees with a couple of my choices!

Of all of the wines that I sampled, the Black Box wines were consistently the best of the best. The Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot are the best that they offer and they are elegantly packaged. The Cabernet Sauvignon has received a Double Gold award and the Merlot was listed in the Top Ten Best Buys by Wine Enthusiast. Best of all, this one was available at our local Walmart and I have also heard that Sam’s Club members can get it for an even lower price. If I was just venturing into the world of boxed wines, the Black Box wines would be a great place to start.

Banrock Station Chardonnay is one of the best bangs for the buck and they now offer their wine in a 3L (the equivalent of four bottles) box. This Chardonnay is an excellent deal for the money and is recommended as a great budget-friendly wine by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Of all of the wines that Banrock Station offers, their Chardonnay is by far the best and is a great wine to bring to parties and a night in with friends. Even someone who is not a wine expert will recognize the hint of green apple and the crisp taste that comes through in the Chardonnay. This wine is particularly great for Pinot fans because this wine seems to mimic many of the flavors you would find in a good Pinot.

When they would run a sale on this wine, we would buy it in the six bottle quantity to get a discount at our local grocery store. I never knew that they offered this wine in a box and I will now be looking for this eco-friendly alternative to my bottles. It really is that good!

Hardys Stamp offers a variety of great tasting budget-friendly boxed wines. While we were not a fan at all of their boxed Riesling, I can say that I truly loved the Merlot. Hardys Stamp Shiraz is also well-known for offering a rich and full flavor. Epicurious shares that the Shiraz, “evokes warm blueberry pie, with hints of vanilla ice cream and toasty American oak, and just enough tannin to balance the ripe berries.” Overall, I would definitely recommend sampling the red wines that are offered by Hardys Stamp because the flavor was such a great surprise and will now be added to my top list of the best of the best in the boxed wine market.

One wine that I really wanted to pass the test was the Target Wine Cubes. We tried several different wines from Target and I just was left feeling disappointed. I loved the chic packaging and I certainly spend enough time in Target to want to pick it up there, but these wines were definitely not my favorite. If you are going to pick up a box of wine at Target, go for the Pinot Grigio because it is the best that they offer. In 2007, the Wine Cube Pinot Grigio won a double gold medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition. Again, I love the packaging on the product, but the wines just weren’t my favorite.

If you are a wine drinker, I would definitely recommend giving boxed wines a try! Once I started sampling boxed wines, we have never gone back to the wines in the bottle. I can’t wait to continue our adventures in tasting and I look forward to more boxed wine products from future companies. I believe that more boxed wines are going to be offered as wineries begin to recognize that even the best wine drinkers love a good wine bargain!

(Photo credit: Paul Olson)

Have you ever given boxed wines a try? Please feel free to offer your recommendations for a great box of wine!

Thank You Writers Strike Part II

Thursday, March 6th, 2008

Oh, it is feeling so good to get back to reading. Last time I checked in, I had been rediscovering my love of reading and I am continuing to develop my hobby more this month…thanks to all of your amazing recommendations! I added everything to my Good Reads list (thanks to my friend Jessica for sharing this site with me) and now I feel an added sense of accomplishment because I can move things that I have read to different categories and rate them. I just love that!

Several of you recommended starting the Stephenie Meyer’s series so I thought I would give it a shot. I am not really into vampire books or anything like that, but it came highly recommended by you so I put a hold on it at the library. I am SO glad I did! I started with the first book in the series (of course), “Twilight.” The plot was moving pretty slow for me in the beginning, but then it picked up about halfway through and the ending was such a shocker that I ran downstairs and put a hold on the next two books. I would agree that even if young adult fiction and vampire books don’t sound appealing to you, that this book crosses those genres and it equals just really great reading. I stayed up until 12:30 one night so I could finish it and find out how it would end. I should have known it would be a giant cliffhanger since it is a series book, but I was thrilled to have finished it. A big thank you to everyone who recommended these! I am looking forward to reading the next two and I thank you for being so tired because I can’t put them down.

The next book I read was, “The Sky Isn’t Visible From Here,” by Felicia Sullivan. I don’t usually read memoirs so this was a little bit out-of-the-box for me, but I am so glad I read this. All I kept thinking was how I am always so worried that something I might do could potentially screw up my kids for the rest of their life and her story just put everything in perspective for me as a mother. I am not saying that I am a perfect mom, but this story just showed how strong the human spirit is and how we can overcome things in our childhood and turn out to be really great adults…no matter what type of childhood or family we might come from. I will admit, this book was hard to read. Who wants to read about abuse being inflicted upon a child or a mother that puts her addictions ahead of her child over and over again? It was a challenge for me as a mother to read a story like this, but I felt better for having read it. An interview with the author offers a lovely incentive too so I am grateful I read it so I could share her story with you! So inspiring!I also read, “One for the Money” by Janet Evanovich. Again, this is not normally my genre, but everyone kept talking about these books so I thought I would give it a shot. This series is awesome! I put the second and third one on hold at our library and picked those up this week. These were suspenseful, but also made me laugh out loud a lot. I think I was starting to annoy my husband at night since I would burst into laughter randomly while he was trying to sleep. Oh well! He knew he married a quirky bookworm when he met me. These books are so much fun!
I got my hands on an advance copy of, “Party Basics for New Nesters” By Maria McBride. This book is amazing and offers tutorials and projects for making your home a place to entertain in. The book is intended for newlyweds, but I think it is an excellent book for anyone who has trouble with entertaining. Many of the projects in it were thrifty and could be put together using items from thrift stores & yard sales so I really appreciated that element about it. I also loved the basics for how to set a table, how to press your table linens, how to arrange flowers, and what tools you need to have a party where you offer mixed drinks. I really enjoyed the basic recipes that this book offered too. I will admit that some of the projects were a little difficult for someone who isn’t crafty or good in the kitchen, but my overall feel of this book was that it contained great elements that I could add to make my home more inviting to my guests. Two thumbs up! A great gift to give to a new bride or as a housewarming gift to friends! It looks like this one will hit the bookshelves on March 11th!Not to be outdone by all of these good reads, we also watched (for the first time) The Jason Bourne Collection. We actually got all three movies at the library and each night we watched one movie. Ryan’s cousin had recommended this series to us and I thought we would give it a try. This was not in my normal genre of movies, but I could have eaten this up with a spoon. I was hanging on the edge of my seat, I jumped a few times at some unexpected parts, and my husband and I kept murmuring, “Now that was awesome! ” over and over and over again. I am so glad that we watched them right in a row too. I am bad about remembering stuff from one movie to the next so this helped me a lot. If you haven’t watched these, get them! So great!

My husband also discovered something really great for me! Direct TV customers can watch the whole f
irst season of, “The Tudors” on their free channel. I am not sure how long they will be airing it, but I am DVR’ing it and watching the episodes in the evening. I don’t know if other stations offer this, but those free channels can be great for watching shows on the expanded cable. I know what they are hoping is that you will get hooked and start ordering Showtime or HBO, but I am just going to enjoy the free stuff and then wait for the DVD to come out for the next season. I love historical fiction and this series is amazing. They have edited it and said you have to subscribe to the channel to get the full-on action or whatever. Works for me!

Sound Off: Tell me what you are reading and watching this month?

Check It Out: The Sky Isn’t Visible From Here

Thursday, March 6th, 2008

It was an honor and a privilege to have received a copy of, “The Sky Isn’t Visible From Here,” by Felicia Sullivan. I emailed Felicia and thanked her for two sleepless nights where I could not sleep because I was thinking about her book too much. I also, very boldly, asked if she would let me do an interview with her after I finished the book. I was pleasantly surprised when she said she would welcome the opportunity to share with our readers, and I am so happy to share it with you.

“The Sky Isn’t Visible From Here,” is Felicia’s memoir of her childhood. It is the story of the neglect and abuse that is inflicted upon her by a mother who is heavily addicted to cocaine, and then a journey through her own addiction and recovery.

Felicia lived through experiences that no child should ever have to go through and then later battled her own demons with drug abuse later in her life. Now in recovery, she shares her personal story of overcoming abuse and, in the end, she shows you the strong and resilient woman she truly has become because of her difficult past.

Your memoir shared a shocking story of abuse and neglect that was inflicted upon you by your mother. How difficult was it to write about such a personal experience and how were you able to cope with reliving it through your writing?

When I embarked on this journey, I thought it would be an impossible one. For years the concept of people knowing about my past terrified me. I thought I would be judged because of my humble background, the fact that my mother was a drug addict. I felt as if I would be judged not for the person I was, but for the environment from which I came.

However, over the past few years, the most amazing thing has happened. Once I let go of the burden of shame and finally mourned losing my mother, it became easier for me to tell people the truth. My mother always told me that vulnerability is a weakness, a disease, and for the great portion of my life I wasn’t actually able to cry (unless I was drunk), and when I finally let my guard down, when I was finally honest with myself and with my friends, something entirely magical happened. All of these incredibly supportive friends emerged, and they listened and supported me without judgment. And this made crafting this book easier because I knew I had a supportive family behind me, even when I’m reliving horrific events or hearing my mother’s voice in my hair. The love and support of my father and friends made this journey easier.

In one scene in the book, you share that your mother rips up some of your stories in a rage and it seems that you are always writing or talking about being a writer. Was this your ultimate goal? Did you see this as a way to get out of the poverty you were living in?

That’s a wonderful question, although I can assure you that a career in writing alone doesn’t afford you a fabulous lifestyle! As a child books were my escape. I would sit on my fire escape after finishing one of the many books I devoured, and dream of cities, countries, characters– places and people markedly different from the ones who inhabited my Brooklyn neighborhood.

My mother’s voice was always the loudest sound and I often felt silenced growing up in her wake. Writing gave me a means of communication when there was none. I could shout! I could cry! I could be angry at the world and everyone in it. And committing these events, my life lived to paper, made inconceivable events that much more vivid and real.

Someone asked me if I didn’t have the upbringing that I did, would I still write books? I thought about that for a while and responded that I would indeed be a writer although perhaps my work wouldn’t be so dark.

Your mother never calls you by your real name in the book and only calls you “Lisa.” In some ways did it feel like you were telling Lisa’s story? Do you feel like Lisa no longer exists now that you have detached yourself from your mother?

Oddly enough, you are one of the very few to ask me about this, and it’s such an integral part of the book!!! How does one find their identity when one has no family history? When a parent routinely gives you different answers for all the same questions? When the person you are is different than the person you want to be? For me, my memoir isn’t about embracing one identity over another, rather I see this story as my journey in realizing that the woman I am today is due, in part, to the life I lived with my mother and her distorted half-truths, but that’s merely a fraction of who I am. My book celebrates the fact that my mother is no longer my “author” (as she so often claimed), while I sit silent taking dictation.

The most painful stories to read were times where your mother was using you to get what she wanted, and it is often repeated over and over again. Would you say that this is one of the worst things that your mother did to you?

One of the cruelest things a parent can do is deprive their child of that small span of time when the world is simple, beautiful and utterly innocent – before time passes and the child grows into a teenager and begins to question this terrific fiction. I never knew this time, and the worst thing I can think of my mother having done to me is this: she stole my childhood from me.

Was writing the story of your life therapeutic for you in any way? Are you now able to close a chapter on your relationship with your mother?

Absolutely! Although, I’m afraid that writing this book has made my view of her and my upbringing more complex. When I started Sky I viewed my relationship with my mother in definitive black and white terms – I didn’t love her and I was never
going to forgive her for stealing my childhood from me, for always putting herself before me, for choosing men over me. Meanwhile I had also been drinking heavily, continuing my decade-long affair with alcohol. However, over the past year, I got sober and have had the advantage of clarity that sobriety can bring, to wholly understand our relationship in a way that I couldn’t have before. It was as if I had been sleeping for a long time and I suddenly woke up.

I don’t forgive my mother for the choices she made but I now understand why she made them. As an addict your choice will always be the drug. And part of me feels an unbelievable amount of sorrow for her – a single parent who never had it easy, a woman who lacked role models and support. It was us against the world, and it was a war she always had to win, but soon grew tired of fighting. Drugs made the land mines, and their inevitable explosions, easier to bear. However, my refrain is this: before the drugs she had a choice and she always chose her over me.

And as I grow older, I get a twinge of sadness when I hear friends talk about their meddling, overprotective mothers – stalwart, lovable women who are their very best friends. I ache for that maternal figure and guide, and although professional mentors, a terrific father, and friends who have served as my surrogate family, comfort me, there is nothing like that intimate mother-daughter relationship. So while I don’t miss my mother, I long for the idea of one.

I understand that memoirs are often very difficult to get published. Did you have any difficulties getting your story published or heard by others?

Not really. I’m privileged to say that my path to publication hasn’t been a difficult one. What’s proved more taxing is publication itself – more difficult than I had anticipated.

What has been the most surprising thing to you about writing this book?

I could actually write Sky and not fall to pieces.

Do you wonder if your mother has read the story?

I do wonder if she’s alive, if she’s living in New York, has read my book. But I’m more focused on the here and the now: my well-being and sobriety. I’m focused on cultivating healthy relationships and strengthening existing ones. I’m focused on being a present and loving friend, daughter, significant other.

What would you hope others to gain by reading your life story?

I wrote this book as a testament to my strength, as a celebration of my survival and recovery, to demonstrate that alternative families are possible, and that love – the most sacred of emotions – is not unconditional. I hope, really hope, that people take comfort in shared experience, and be inspired to live their best life. I also hope that it makes wonderful parents hug their children a little tighter, and, for children who have tenuous, dysfunctional relationships with their parents: you don’t have to carry their shame for it’s possible to create a new family if your current incarnation is an altogether too painful one.

What are you planning to write next?

I’m very excited about returning to fiction!!! Ideas are brewing for a novel tentatively titled Women and Children First. It’s a satire of our technologically evolved, access-hungry society. I tell people it’s White Noise meets American Psycho without all the gore.

For more information about Felicia Sullivan and her book tour, please visit her amazing blog!

Testing The Grocery Game: Week One

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

This is my first week trying out the Grocery Game and really working towards building our stockpile through coupons and sale prices. I promised to chronicle my efforts here and I really appreciated all of your ideas and feedback on your coupon usage and what has been working for you.

Here we are in week one of my Grocery Game membership. Frankly, week one with this membership really stinks. I feel like I do when I go on other websites that offer a “free basic membership,” but then they only extend certain offers and the premium members get all of the good stuff. The reason is, of course, because I have none of the coupons that are listed for these good deals, not because I don’t have access to seeing the deal.

This week I diligently cut my coupons and then explored the official list of deals. The CVS listings were nothing new and were things that I could find elsewhere on the web. The deals for Kroger & Meijer did offer some insight into great deals that I could take advantage of…if I had coupons from January. I took note of some of the sale items that I had overlooked when I had flipped through my flier though, and decided to stock up on the items that were the best deals for the week.

A local supermarket (Martin’s Supermarket for the local folk!) had a 12 for $10 sale advertised this past week so I took advantage of that as well since I am trying to build my stockpile.

In the interim, I cleaned out my purse and gathered up all of the receipts from past grocery visits and put them into my price book (Side Note: We offer a free printable one here!) It had been awhile since this had been updated and I happened to have a few receipts from Aldi to input. I put these in, since ultimately this is about whether or not I do better with coupons or with Aldi.

For this week, I stocked up on:

Martin’s Supermarket:

(6) Aunt Millie’s 100% Whole Wheat Bread
(6) Store Brand Frozen Vegetables (baby peas, broccoli, corn)
Total Cost: $10

Meijer Supermarket:

10 pounds of apples- $4 (Side Note- This should have been six pounds, but I thought the bag I picked was the smaller bag and told them that the price was wrong. Oops! I ended up with an extra four pounds of apples for the advertised price. I was a little overzealous in my flier efforts, not attempting to be dishonest.)
13 pounds split chicken breasts bone on- $.99 per pound
Total Cost: $17

This first week I did not use coupons, but did take advantage of listed sales that I might not have seen as an amazing deal without the assistance of the list. The coupons that I could have used for this week were for items I would not typically buy (convenience foods, frozen foods, crap foods) and I plan to stick with what I feel is in the best interest of our family’s diet and what we would normally buy.

I am looking forward to week two on the program, and feel very good about updating my price book and starting our stockpile. I also am looking forward to making some great dishes with the chicken breasts. I have to also sheepishly admit that the apples look much better than my past couple of bags I have gotten from Aldi (which have went bad in just a couple of days). The kids kept saying, “They are so pretty and shiny!”

If you would like to join me in exploring the program, my referral id is!

Testing the Grocery Game

Sunday, February 24th, 2008

Our discussion on stockpiling really got me thinking about ways that I could continue to save our family money on our grocery budget. I had been wanting to test the Grocery Game program out ever since I read a story on it in a Mary Hunt publication years ago, and what better time than now to test it?

The Grocery Game is a paid membership to receive a weekly list of groceries to buy, combining rock-bottom sale prices with your coupon cutting from your weekly newspaper. “Terri’s List” has a list of everything you should be stockpiling and her personal software tracks the trends of sales for each grocery store, alerting you when you should be stockpiling certain items. They offer a weekly list that tells you all of the advertised and unadvertised sales that are occurring within your local stores. This paid membership supposedly makes it easier for you to track the deals and cash in your coupons at the absolute best time.

I think it is important for me to be honest about what I am going into this program with though so here are a few known truths about Amy:

- I am not a coupon-clipper, except for the occasional CVS trip, and prefer living my life without cutting coupons. For me, I have not seen the value in it because I do so well with our money without coupons.

- Coupons, in the past, have lead me down some destructive paths and have actually ended up costing me more money than saving me. I would see a coupon for, “Hamburger Helper,” for example, and then buy it…even though we didn’t normally buy this product or really have a need for it in our pantry. What was supposed to save me money, actually ended up costing me more money and I came home with products that I would not typically buy.

- I am an Aldi shopper. Most of my regulars know this, but I thought I would mention it. This would mean that I would have to venture out of my safety zone and excuses that you can’t beat their prices, and actually explore some other supermarkets. Aldi does not take coupons so I have never felt the urge to clip.

Now that you know what I am going into the program with, you will understand that I have some low expectations for how well I will do, but I thought it would be some great entertainment to see me struggling with my coupons and lists, trying to buy groceries practically for nothing.

I began by signing up for my membership. They offer a $1 trial program for four weeks so I signed up for that (Referral ID should-you-so-chose is I was a little worried how many stores they would offer in our area, but they did have listed Kroger, Meijer, Walgreens, & CVS. I signed up for those stores and got all of my information plugged in to begin my account.

The cost for a membership after the $1 deal is broken down by the amount of lists you would sign up for. The pricing is, $10 every 8 weeks for the first store list you choose, and $5 every 8 weeks for each additional store list (if more than one store list is available in your area). Example: 1 store list: $10 every 8 weeks, 2 store lists: $15 every 8 weeks, 3 store lists: $20 every 8 weeks.

It begins with an introduction to the program and basically states that it will take approximately 12 weeks for you to really build your initial stockpile. It also will take 12 weeks for you to be able to cash in on all of the coupon deals because they will be referring to coupon packets from the months previous, so when you begin you don’t really get the full benefits of the program. You are just supposed to keep clipping and clipping each week and stockpiling what you can through those initial weeks until your coupon file is as fat as it needs to be and you can really begin cashing in on the program.

I plan to primarily shop at Meijer and CVS because our Kroger was shut down. There is one nearby, but it would require more of an effort on my part. My new list will be published on Tuesday so today I clip all of my coupons, in preparation of my first list.

I am dusting off the old coupon organizer and getting my trusty scissors out- let the games begin!

Edited to Add My Updates:
Grocery Game Week One
The Grocery Game Conclusions

Sound Off: Do you have any experience using a program like this? Do you coupon?

Space Heater Recommendations

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

It is that time of year again and I got our space heater out last night to warm our downstairs family room. Would you believe that this is the third edition of this space heater in our house in less than a year, and it has once again OVERHEATED?!! The first two I had returned, all for overheating, but now I am past the return policy on this one. I really loved the design of this heater because the air blew at just the right height, but now I just want one that works.

Do you guys have a space heater that you could recommend? One that has some lasting qualities to it? I am looking for one with an automatic shutoff.

Boo to Lasko for releasing such a bad product! Shame on you!