Friday, July 25, 2014

Kid, Finger and Budget Friendly Meals with Kraft

This shop has been compensated by #CollectiveBias, Inc. and its advertiser. All opinions are mine alone.

Keeping a family of 5 full and happy seems to be my full-time job. Trying to balance hungry children and my wallet? That is the real challenge. The first and fifteenth of the month often leave us feeling the pinch right before payday. I am always on the look out for recipes that can be turned into budget friendly meals. Alongside the Back-to-School sales at my local Walmart I also found some great #RollIntoSavings deals on the products we already use and love. Combining those great products into one simple dinner seemed like the perfect mid-week Mom Challenge!

I don't know about your house, but finger foods are king around here. All three of my children would much rather eat with their fingers than a fork any old day, so sometimes I like to indulge them in a laid back family meal where we can all concentrate more on the conversation and less on perfect table manners.

Summer seems to be slipping away and I still want to share some great moments with my kids. So I challenged myself to create a menu for under $20 with items I knew they would love. We piled into the car and headed to our local Walmart.

I noticed the rollback deals on Kraft and Velveeta products as soon as I entered the store. Some were even part of a back-to-school promotional display. We grabbed several items that I will be using for other recipes later on in the week as well. There is nothing more frugal than multi-tasking an ingredient in multiple menu items.

These are just a few of the items on rollback right now. I know they helped me come under my $20 budget without losing flavor. While I was planning my menu I had all of my children in mind.

My youngest, Elliott is only 1, but he loves macaroni & cheese! Since he is all about finger foods and is still working on making sure some of it gets to his mouth, I wanted to make him a finger-friendly mac, well, finger-friendly for all of us. For my oldest son I wanted to make cheesy potato skins. He just loves potatoes. My daughter always picks out the bag of salad when we do our grocery shopping, so I wanted to make her a salad to remember with a sweet and delcious creamy barbeque dressing.

Let's get started with those potato skins.

Start by rolling each scrubbed spud in oil and sprinkling liberaly with Kosher salt. I baked them on a baking sheet for 45 minutes to an hour at 400 degrees. Time will vary depending on the size of your potatoes. The skins will start to crisp up and the potato will be soft and fluffy.

Let them cool for a while until I could safely pick them up. Cut in half, then scoop the filling out of each one. Reserve that for another purpose. Brush the inside of each hollowed out skin with barbeque sauce and turn it upside down on the sheet. Bake for another 7 or 8 minutes, or until the are nice and crisp.

Then turn them back over and stuff each one with a big pinch of shredded cheddar cheese. Mmmm... Stick them back into the oven until the cheese gets all melty. Drizzle with a little creamy barbeque dressing and ranch, top with a generous pinch of sliced green onions for a little added bite.

For the macaroni bites prepare the KRAFT Macaroni & Cheese Dinner as usual and add in a can of drained green chiles. Let that cool, then mix in one egg yolk and scoop the mixture into a mini muffin pan sprayed with non-stick cooking spray. Press the pasta down into each well and then sprinkle with a little additional Velveeta Cheddar Shreds.

Bake at 425 degrees for about 12 minutes. I let mine cool slightly in the pan before running a silicone spatula around the edges to loosen them from the pan. They popped out and were ready to dip in Kraft Ranch Dressing.

Now, isn't that a spread? This was one meal where I didn't hear one complaint from my kids. In fact, I didn't hear much of anything. They were too busy eating to complain or fight. It was lovely.

Now, want to see how easy it is to make these dishes for your family? Continue reading for all the recipes.

BBQ Potato Skins

You Will Need:
  • 8 small to medium russet potatos, scrubbed
  • vegetable or canola oil
  • Kosher salt
  • KRAFT Barbecue Sauce
  • VELVEETA Shredded Cheese
  • KRAFT Ranch Dressing
  • Green Onions, sliced thin
  • One recipe of Creamy Barbecue Dressing (see below)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Rub each potato in canola oil and sprinkle with Kosher salt. Place on a baking try and bake for about 45 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender and the skins are crisp.

Remove from the oven and as soon as you can handle them, cut each potato in half and scrape out most of the inside. Leave a thin ring around the peel so the potato retains its shape. Brush the inside of each skin with Kraft Barbecue Sauce. Place back on the baking tray skin side up, and bake for an additional 5 to 7 minutes. Turn them over and bake for 3-5 minutes more, or until the skins are nice and crisp.

Fill with Velveeta Shredded Cheese and return to the oven to melt the cheese. Drizzle with Kraft Ranch Dressing, creamy barbecue dressing and green onions. Serve immediately.

Creamy Barbecue Dressing

You Will Need:
  • 1/4 c. KRAFT Barbecue Sauce
  • 2 Tbsp. KRAFT Mayo
  • 1-2 Tbsp. Milk to reach the desired consistency
Whisk together the Kraft Barbecue Sauce and Kraft Mayo. Add the milk, a tablespoon at a time, to achieve the desired consistency. Drizzle over a tossed salad or potato skins.

Baked Green Chili Macaroni and Cheese Bites

You Will Need:
  • KRAFT Macaroni & Cheese Dinner
  • 1/4 c. milk
  • 4 Tbsp. butter
  • 1 can of fire roasted mild green chilies
  • 1 egg yolk
  • VELVEETA Shredded Cheese
Prepare the KRAFT Macaroni & Cheese Dinner as directed on the package. Note, you will be using slightly less milk. Stir in green chilies and allow the macaroni to cool slightly. Stir in the egg yolk.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Spray a mini muffin tin with non-stick cooking spray.

Using a cookie scoop, place a packed tablespoon of the macaroni mixture in each mini muffin well. Press down slightly and top with a little Velveeta Shredded Cheese. Bake for 12 minutes, or until the tops start to turn golden brown. Let them cool in the pan before taking out to serve. They will hold their shape better if they are room temperature or cooler.

Serve with a side of Kraft Ranch Dressing for dipping.

With these budget recipes I will still have enough money leftover to take the family to the roller skating rink. It is a big hit with my kids who have both mastered quads. The kid-friendly fun doesn't have to stop at the table and I can savor these final days of Summer vacation just a little longer.

Check out other great budget recipe ideas on the Kraft site.

What is your family's favorite budget friendly meal?

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

DIY Succulent Garden - Kids Create #TBCCrafters

Succulents are all the rage right now. Have you seen them on Pinterest? Etsy? in Magazines? Well, they are also fabulous plants for kids. They don't require much water, they grow slowly and are very resilient. We decided to set up our own little succulent garden.

We opted for a shallow clay pot  base since terrariums often create too much humidity for the plants. They like to be in the open air and do not do well with too much water. Our solution was shallow and with a nice layer of gravel to keep the roots watered but the plants dry.

DIY Succulent Garden

You Will Need:

  • 1 large, shallow pot.
  • assorted small succulents
  • good potting soil (ours contained a large amount of vermiculite for good drainage)
  • gravel
  • figurines *optional

Fill the dish just below the rim with potting soil.

Arrange the plants, dig small holes and fill in around the plants with more potting soil

Cover the dirt with a layer of gravel. Water the plants well to allow the dirt and gravel to shift and settle.

Then decorate with figurines or small toys. My daughter helped decorate the garden and insisted that her bunnies nibble on the succulents. Now my kids can water their plants weekly and re-arrange their bunnies as often as they want.

Simple and fun. Now my kids have their own succulent garden and it cost a fraction of the pre-made succulent planters in stores.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Party Perfect Hawaiian Style Macaroni Salad

A staple at every backyard BBQ, picnic or family reunion is the macaroni salad. But, let's be frank, it isn't always that exciting. Limp noodles? Dripping in mayo? Bland?  Yeah, I have scooped myself a fair number of passable macaroni salads. Not, passing good, but more like, I'll pass.

But, there is a great little place called Ron's Island Grill in Eugene Oregon that serves up a mean Huli Huli Chicken with a side of pineapple and a scoop of macaroni salad. It is smooth, tangy and good. Now, you can choose any side at Ron's, but why wouldn't you choose the amazing macaroni salad?

My version is inspired by Cook's Country who added the bite of vinegar back into the noodles and even added in a touch of color and crunch with some veggies. I actually added just a bit more apple cider vinegar and more veggies. I think my favorite Hawaiian restaurant has finally met it's match.

Start by whipping up the wet mixture. This will be part of it. This recipe is all about timing. It isn't a barbaric dump and stir sort of affair, no, it has stages. No need to be intimidated though, it's just a salad.

Boil a pound of elbow macaroni noodles. For this recipe they are boiled long past the recommended time. The noodles should be very soft and ready to drink in the vinegar. Toss them in good apple cider vinegar. I prefer Bragg organic raw apple cider vinegar, but use what you have handy.

Stir in all the vinegar, but be careful not to take a deep breath over the pot. That stuff will knock you over!

While living in Japan I remember touring brewery for vinegar. Climbing up a big vat to look inside the operation, no one warned me not to inhale. The stuff just about knocked me off the ladder. Now I have a deep respect for rice wine vinegar.

When the noodles cool slightly, mix in the sauce. Stir it up and let the noodles soak it in. Don't worry. There will be more sauce to add later.

After it is completely cools you can toss in the green onions, carrots and celery along with more sauce. Now the macaroni salad is ready to chill before serving. This stuff tastes even better the following day.

Just a little warning... this mac salad is not short on flavor and creaminess, but it is also full fat. If you want to cut it back and add skim milk, sadly, it won't turn out the same way.

Hawaiian Style Macaroni Salad

You Will Need:

  • 2 c. whole milk
  • 2 c. mayonnaise
  • 1 Tbsp. brown sugar
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 lb. elbow macaroni
  • 1/2 c. apple cider vinegar
  • 4 green onions, thinly sliced
  • 2 carrots, peeled and grated
  • 2 ribs of celery, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 tsp. paprika
Whisk together 1 1/2 cups milk, 1 cup mayo, brown sugar and 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a small bowl. Chill until needed.

Boil the pasta for about 15 minutes, until the elbow macaroni is very soft. Gently drain and drizzle with the apple cider vinegar while still hot. Toss gently so all the noodles are coated. Let the pasta cool for 10 minutes and then coat with the dressing. Allow to then sit and cool completely. 

Once cooled, add the sliced green onions, carrot and celery. In a small bowl whisk together the remaining 1/2 cup milk and 1 cup mayo. Dress the noodles and stir to coat completely. Add additional salt and pepper and the paprika to taste. Chill for at least 1 hour before serving. It also serves well the following day.


Do you have a favorite Macaroni Salad?

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Queen of Hearts, Volume Two: The Wonder, by Colleen Oaks - #SRC2014

I received review copies from BookSparks in order to write my book review posts for the 2014 Summer Reading Challenge. All opinions are my own. This post may contain affiliate links. #SRC2014

Book two in the bestselling Queen of Hearts series! 

Alone in the wilds of Wonderland, Dinah fights for survival. When she meets the Yurkei, natives she was always taught were the enemy, and finds out she had been lied to all along, Dinah plots to reclaim her throne with their help. Filled with vivid imagery and thrilling action, Dinah’s transformation into a fierce warrior is stunning.

My Opinion
Picking up where the first book left off,  The Wonder is just as good as the first. I love the idea of seeing what leads a notorious villain to become who they are.

The same great cast of characters is back, and author Colleen Oaks does a marvelous job of bringing the reader back to Wonder Land. We all know how the story ends, but the journey there is full of twists and turns that will keep you guessing. Dinah is growing up... and we know what kind of villian she is growing into.

Now you will know why...

This is one of my favorite series right now and I can't wait for the third book to be released. You can bet I will share my thoughts on it as soon as it is released.

About the Author

Colleen Oakes is the author of the Elly in Bloom series and the YA fantasy Queen of Hearts Saga, both published via SparkPress, a BookSparks imprint. She lives in North Denver with her husband and son. 

When not writing, Colleen enjoys swimming, traveling, and immersing herself in nerdy pop culture. She is currently at work on the last Elly novel and her second YA fantasy series, Wendy Darling. 



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Have You Joined in the Fun? Come Connect with Beamly.

Gone are the days of random channel surfing. Now you can have everything you ever wanted right at your fingertips. Your favorite shows are now social experiences and fellow TV Junkies are sharing and discovering more about their favorite shows on Beamly.

I don't have the same taste in TV shows as my husband, or even my kids. One of my current favorites is Master Chef, Monday nights on FOX. Headed by Gordon Ramsay, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot as the panel of judges, home cook contestants face new challenges weekly.

It is now down to only 13, and the pressure in the kitchen seems to keep rising. Not only am I loving the show, but I can dish about my favorite contenders, the drama and the food with fellow fans on Beamly. It is a little like having a crew of buddies over each week to watch with me. We chat in the room during the episode and then can leave questions, clips and info all during the week to build up excitement for the next installment.

If you are a fan of Master Chef, Orange is the New Black, Suits or a whole host of other great shows on this Summer, come follow me and see how much fun it can be to talk about those emotional highs and lows of our favorite programs. Come connect via the App, the web, in real time or whenever you get to TiVo. I'll be waiting.

What are you watching?

Beamly is THE 24/7 social and content network for TV and TV fans. Join me today in TV conversations and get the latest juice and gossip about your favorite shows!

This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Beamly. The opinions and text are all mine.

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

A New Twist on a Favorite Shortcake Recipe with Lifeway Kefir

This shop has been compensated by Collective Bias, Inc. and its advertiser. All opinions are mine alone. #KefirCreation #CollectiveBias

Peaches are here!

Yes, strawberries get the most attention in our house because they are the first crop to fruit each year on the farm, then come the cherries, but peaches kinda slide into home base quietly. Don't let there subtle entrance fool you though, they are sweet, fragrant and juicy.

Normally I would throw any overly ripe counter peaches into my morning smoothie with a little Lifeway Kefir but today I decided to makes something completely different. Since this year's strawberry season came and went without me making shortcake biscuits, I thought it would be fun to give a few peaches the same treatment. The fun thing is I can also use the tangy flavor of my favorite blueberry kefir, with all the probiotic benefits I love, in place of the buttermilk in the recipe. I just happened to be all out of buttermilk.

Oh, darn...

These are the light and tasty biscuits that I make year after year. This time around I modified the recipe a little more. With a little less sugar because of the great blueberry taste in the kefir and just a little more flour to keep the biscuit dough from being too wet.

You may have seen Lifeway Kefir before.  I usually drink it straight or add it to a cold fruit smoothie, but I am also learning about how easy it is to bake with. Now I just have to find the plain kefir so I can try it in my homemade pizza crust recipe. I have heard that kefir makes a fabulous and flavorful crust, much like a sourdough crust but without all the extra waiting. Want to get creative with your own #KefirCreations? Try substituting kefir in your favorite recipes in place of milk. It's that easy.

Not sure what Kefir is? Well, similar in someways to drinkable yogurt, think of it like yogurt's cousin, it came from Eastern Europe over 2000 years ago. If you are looking for an easy way to add probiotics into your diet, this is a great option. You may have remembered some of my other posts on probiotics and cultured foods, sauer kraut and kimchee, to help with my overall digestive health. I even remember drinks like this being very popular in Asia while I lived there. I am so glad I can now find it locally.

I already love making fresh biscuits. They are one of the few baked goods I make regularly because they are so fast and easy. One of the tricks is to have good, cold ingredients, especially the butter. I use a pastry cutter for incorporating the butter. I don't want it to melt in a food processor or between my fingers. Cold little clumps of butter will bake up to create flakier biscuits.

The other key is to work the dough as little as humanly possible. Push the biscuit cutter straight down with no twisting. Twisting is tempting isn't it? Well, don't. Biscuits cut straight down will rise higher.

Trust me, okay?

For fabulous golden brown tops with a bit of crunch, I brushed the tops of the biscuits with more kefir and sprinkled them with sanding sugar. I used clear sanding sugar on my biscuits here.

The filling was really easy. I am always a fan of peach pie, so I grabbed my ripest (aka: mushiest) peach and mashed it down for a compote with a little sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla bean paste and a touch of corn starch for thickening.

After slicing my biscuit in half I put a few heaping spoonfulls of compote on the bottom half, stacked on some sliced peaches, sprinkled on some blueberries, added a little kiss of whipped cream before topping with the other half of the biscuit.

Just perfect, let me tell ya.

But, you don't have to take my word for it. Go ahead and try this easy recipe for yourself.

Kefir Shortcake Biscuits with Spiced Peaches and Blueberries

You Will Need:

  • 3 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 Tbsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1/2 c. unsalted butter, chilled and cubed
  • 1 tsp. vanilla bean paste
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 c. Lifeway Low Fat Kefir Cultured Milk Smoothie in Blueberry + more for brushing the tops
  • sanding sugar
  • 5 ripe peaches
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1 Tbsp. cornstarch + enough water to dissolve it
  • fresh whipping cream
  • 1 c. blueberries
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Whisk together the first 5 ingredients in a large bowl. Cut in the chilled butter until you have pea sized pieces. In a medium bowl, whisk together the vanilla bean paste, egg and kefir. Fold this into the dry mixture until moistened.

Turn onto a floured surface and pat down to about 3/4" thick. With a large biscuit cutter (or glass) cut biscuits and transfer to a non-stick baking mat lined sheet. Do not twist the cutter, cut up and down. Brush the tops with a little more kefir and dust with sanding sugar.

Bake for 10-12 minutes or until the biscuits are golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for at least 10 minutes before slicing.

For the compote, peel and slice the ripest peach. Mash it in a small saucepan and add in the cinnamon and nutmeg. Bring up to a simmer, add in the cornstarch and stir till it begins to thicken. Turn off the heat and allow it to come to room temperature before building your shortcake.

To assemble, Cut the biscuits in half. Divide the compote between the biscuits, top with peach slices, blueberries and whipped cream. Replace the biscuit top and serve.


Want to try Lifeway Kefir for yourself? Get started by signing up for coupons.
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Friday, July 18, 2014

Soar into Excitement with fun #FireAndRescue Actitivies for the Movie (Opens Today)

I haven't been this excited about a sequel... er, series movie for a while. It just happens to be Disney's Planes Fire & Rescue which opens in theaters TODAY!

Yes, my little copilots are eager to see it on the big screen. Till we have a chance to break away from hay season and check it out, we have some fun activities to do. Click below for the PDF file. Print it out and share with your own Disney fans.

Download Race To The Rescue Activities

...and for anyone wondering, no compensation was received. I know my kids will love these and had to share. These would be a great thing to print out for eating out entertainment or road trip fun.

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After I Do, by Taylor Jenkins Reid - #SRC2014

I received review copies from BookSparks in order to write my book review posts for the 2014 Summer Reading Challenge. All opinions are my own. This post may contain affiliate links.

You may have noticed that I haven't posted many books lately here, but I am slowly getting back into my Summer reading after a few crazy weeks. I think I should point out that you can join in with the Book Sparks Summer Reading Challenge at any time. There are still fun prizes to be won on the Facebook page and many great books to discover! #SRC2014

When Lauren and Ryan’s marriage reaches the breaking point, they come up with an unconventional plan. They decide to take a year off in the hopes of finding a way to fall in love again. One year apart, and only one rule: they cannot contact each other. Aside from that, anything goes.

Lauren embarks on a journey of self-discovery, quickly finding that her friends and family have their own ideas about the meaning of marriage. These influences, as well as her own healing process and the challenges of living apart from Ryan, begin to change Lauren’s ideas about monogamy and marriage. She starts to question: When you can have romance without loyalty and commitment without marriage, when love and lust are no longer tied together, what do you value? What are you willing to fight for?

This is a love story about what happens when the love fades. It’s about staying in love, seizing love, forsaking love, and committing to love with everything you’ve got. And above all, After I Do is the story of a couple caught up in an old game—and searching for a new road to happily ever after.

My Opinion
Emotionally raw, insightful and beautiful all at the same time. After I Do really made me appreciate the love I have and the ongoing relationship I have worked so hard for. As the cover states, falling in love was much easier.

I wasn't really sure what to think when I picked up After I Do. Having been married for 13 years the premise was a little odd to me. I am not sure I would ever choose to live apart from my spouse if we were having trouble. But, I can't say I have ever had the breakdown of communication as Lauren and Ryan did in the book

I love how author Taylor Jenkins Reid set up the story. The reader is shown short but significant snapshots of a relationship changing and then dying. When the whole suggestion of living apart comes up, it makes sense for the characters. A few of the scenes, like the big fight and the morning after, were gut wrenching. It was brutal honesty that I rarely see written.

And though the family of characters may not start out making sense, through how they all deal with the "breakup" and how life moves on, I started to fall in love with all them - even the irresponsible younger brother and quirky Mom. In the end it was a whole family who endured this "breakup" and had to discover a way to heal and appreciate each other all over again.

There were a few times I was brought to tears. There were so many strong emotions tied to how their actions affected the other, even when they didn't realize it. There is a bond of marriage and being connected so deeply to someone that just doesn't go away. I thought the author did an amazing job leading me along that emotional rollercoaster and I really had a hard time leaving the world in the book to come up for air.

This is a book you MUST add to your Summer reading list. Just make sure you arm youself with a box of tissues from the start.

Taylor Jenkins Reid is an author and essayist from Acton, Massachusetts. She graduated from Emerson College with a degree in Media Studies. Her first novel, Forever, Interrupted, was named one of the “11 Debuts We Love” by Kirkus Reviews. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Alex, and her dog, Rabbit. Her forthcoming novel, After I Do, will be published July 1, 2014.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Bow Embelished Butterfly Card

This week I am actually in the middle of several large projects. I have a cross stitch sampler (or two) in progress, a 50 States embroidery project that involves a lap quilt as the final project as well as a few knitting projects on the needles. But what self respecting crafter doesn't have a million projects ideas and several things in progress?


So this week I decided to work on some cards. Paper crafting is my weakest area. I remember my Mom with all her tubs of stamps, inks and embossing powders. The truth is, all that is expensive! I just haven't had the patience to build up a working inventory yet. But, I do have a lovely stash of ribbon thanks to the Really Reasonable Ribbon of the month club. Now, I just need to use it more often.

The holidays will bring a bunch of birthdays and events for our family and now would be a great time to start working on all those birthday, holiday and thank you cards.

This week I broke out my Mini Bowdabra to create the yellow bow.

I was moderately pleased with this, but am thinking I shouldn't have gone with the mini version. If you have a bow tying tool, what do you have and do you recommend it?

For this project I also used some of the Mod Podge Mod Melt butterflies, a scrap of sample fabric from my stash, a pre-cut velum double sided gift tag (I ended up using the opposite side with "celebrate"), sequins, and more ribbon from Really Reasonable Ribbon.

I really liked the simple colors, and the purple "celebrate" tag was a nice little contrast.

I plan to do a bit more experimenting this weekend with the Silhouette for die cuts to use on my next cards, but this is a good start for my card stash.

If you are a paper crafter, what items do you suggest I add to my supplies to get started? What is your favorite product to use when making cards?

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