Thursday, August 22, 2013

Grocery Gadget

I am probably one of the worst grocery shoppers. Even when I actually make and remember  to bring my list, I still manage to walk out without stuff on it. I am easily swayed by sales or coupons and end up spending money on something I won't eat or use, justifying it by saying, "But I saved 50 cents!"

Now that I am grocery shopping for more than just myself and I live at least 20 minutes from the nearest grocery store, I have to get better. And when J and I have tried to plan a budget and think about what this year will be like financially, I realize I have no idea how much I spend on groceries every week or month. I also shop at several different stores but have no idea how the prices compare. Sometimes one feels cheaper, but I've never tracked it closely enough to know if it's true. I'm not trying to be a crazy coupon lady, but I'd like to make smarter decisions in my weekly shopping.

In the age of the iPhone, I figured there must be an app that would help me do that. I asked for suggestions on social media, and just got one tip. I didn't really like that option, but by reading the reviews, I found Grocery Gadget. I'm still getting used to it, and it is taking time to build the database of what I buy. But overall, I think it will help.

I am able to create a weekly grocery list using a list of products or by adding new ones. Then I can get on before I shop specify quantities of stuff I need to buy and leave off stuff I don't without eliminating it from the master list. When I shop, I can scan barcodes to add specific item information to the database and put in the price of each item. The first time I used it, I added that info as I shop. It helped at checkout because I knew how much stuff was supposed to be. But I can also add the info when I unload groceries if I'm crunched for time at the store. I can add prices for items at each store I shop at, so I will actually know if I got it cheaper somewhere else or if I'm getting a good deal and should buy more at the cheaper price.

On the website, it tracks my spending by month, so I can actually account for what I spend on groceries and maybe I'll even start to see a difference. I'm also using it to track buying gas and even those 3 or 4 item trips to the store since those add up after a while.

We'll see if I can keep up the work required to continue to track it.

Monday, August 19, 2013

A new blog

Today marks the first day of a new chapter in my life. I'm starting graduate school full time at Mizzou. Thanks to J, I'll be able to dedicate the next year to school to finish my masters, which will give me more opportunities in my field. It's exciting but also pretty intimidating since I've been out of school for eight years.

I've decided to create a blog dedicated to my school/professional life and let this one continue to be a personal blog. I'm not sure how much either will get updated, but I needed a professional presence on the web (and also tie it to my new name).You can find it at: elizabethstephensblog.wordpress.com. You'll find that at the moment it's backdated posts from this blog republished there. But soon it will be more about my graduate school experience.

Don't feel obligated to follow the new one (or either), I just wanted to let everyone know that it is out there and might be updated more frequently than this one.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Fitbit and the power of competition

The university has a deal on Fitbits — a pedometer — for employees. You buy it at a discounted rate, and once you reach 1 million steps, they refund your money. A couple of my coworkers got them and decide to start a newsroom competition.

I was curious about how many steps I take and needed some motivation to get back to the gym now that the wedding is over. So I decided to get a Fitbit and join the competition.

Here's something you should know about me. I played competitive soccer until I was 15. Yes, my dad (also my coach for many years) always said all that mattered was having fun, but I was competitive and liked to win. Pretty much any physical activity, I could make competitive. I always wanted to be the leader on hikes or family walks. I can get into board games and such, but I never got that competitive with them (mostly because I'm not that great at them). But physical activity was always a competition.

It has been a long time since I've been in a true physical competition, but it all came back to me when I started this competition. The Fitbit app lets you see where your friends are, and you can see weekly rankings. 

And it changed my habits. I was going back to the gym and finding excuses to walk across campus or downtown. When I don't go out for lunch, I walk the quad. I park farther away when I am out running errands. I stop at the trail on my way home from work on cooler days. 

We also got a bike for J, and biking has become our new hobby. We live near a biking/walking trail that goes across the state. We've been biking various sections of it, increasing our mileage. (I get to wear the Fitbit while biking. I only got six miles of steps for riding 24 miles on Saturday.)  So that's my other activity to gain steps, and it's something we can do together (well, kind of, J rides much faster and challenges himself to ride farther than me and catch up).

I'm only a month in to the competition, but I have to say it's been good for both of us. Some really nice weather has helped us as well. Just need to keep up the momentum.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Registry tips


For us, getting married was not about getting gifts at all. But registry or not, people are going to want to give you gifts. Registries just provide some guidance. We were so blessed by everything we got — registry gifts, personalized items, specially picked out items, etc. I don't want this post to sound like we were ungrateful or greedy. I just know that registering can be overwhelming, and I read someone's blog with her tips for registering that were helpful. So I thought it might be worth sharing what I learned.

1. Use the thank-you card managers

This saved my life when it came to thank-you notes. Except for a few late gifts, I had all of my thank-you notes completed before the end of June. The online registries for the places we registered — Macy's, Pottery Barn and Crate and Barrel — had thank-you card managers. This told you not only what was bought but who bought it. I understand the desire to be surprised when gifts arrive at your door, but I was able to stay ahead on thank-you notes by checking this daily. I wrote the thank-you notes when I saw them pop-up there, but waited until I actually received the gift before mailing the card. I only made one mistake but caught it before mailing. I still had a lot to write once we got back from our honeymoon, but I'd say I got through at least half of the thank-you notes before the wedding.

2. Be careful of stores that constantly change inventory

I'm convinced I picked out wineglasses from Crate and Barrel three times. I repeatedly received emails saying items I had registered for at Crate and Barrel had been discontinued. So I was constantly picking out new items that I hadn't ever seen. It got pretty frustrating, and I actually dropped some things off that registry and added them on Macy's, where I rarely had discontinued items.

3. Department stores are the way to go

Macy's was definitely our best registry. The store runs good sales, and their inventory stays pretty consistent. Because we were registering for brands sold elsewhere (Lenox, Waterford, Calphalon), people used their favorite store to get us every day china, fine china or cookware. Macy's also gave us 20 percent off anything in the home store and had a rewards program built into the registry. So I'm able to get a really good deal finishing out some stuff as I use up gift cards.

4. Register at that store in your hometown where everyone goes for wedding gifts

This was my biggest mistake. There is one locally owned store in my hometown that sells jewelry, fine china, etc. Everyone in my hometown that gets married registers there. The store even puts your china patterns out on display in the months before your wedding. But I wasn't in town at good times to go in to register, and I just didn't think it was that big of a deal. Enough people came in asking about my registry that they called my mom. She sent them my patterns (the store also carried them), and we got a lot of our fine china from people going there. But since I hadn't registered, the woman dealing with most of it didn't have my information, and there ended up being a lot of phone calls and back and forth that I might have bypassed if I had gone in there and registered from the beginning. So if you have store like that in your hometown, I recommend finding a way to register there — it could save you a lot of hassle later.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Cooking for two

A post about cooking on a cooking blog! Shocking considering how long it has been.

I'm learning a few things about cooking for two and cooking for a guy.

While we were dating and engaged, J and I ate out a ton. I cooked occasionally for both of us and put together some single-girl meals when we didn't have plans, but I didn't do much cooking in the last year. But I missed cooking, and I'm enjoying trying some new recipes and taking advantage of fresh vegetables.

Since we don't live just down the street from the grocery store, I have to think ahead and shop for the week. My goal is to cook dinner three weeknights — Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday — and have an option for the weekend. We have small group at church on Thursdays, so we stay in town and eat before going there.

What I'm noticing is that I rarely end up with leftovers. I might get one lunch out of a dinner, but generally, a meal that might feed me for three or four days is gone in one night. For someone who hates leftovers, this is mostly a good thing, and I'm glad that J likes my cooking. But it is nice to at least have lunch the next days, so I'm still figuring how much to make.

I've been trying some new recipes from Pinterest and keeping some of my standbys in the rotation. Here are some of our favorites from Pinterest:

Skinny Mediterranean Pasta Toss — This is by no means a budget-friendly meal. But it is really good, and J likes it even though it doesn't have meat in it.

Crispy Cheddar Chicken — This is really easy. I skip the sauce, we like the chicken as is. I use two chicken breasts and "everything" Ritz crackers.

Herb crusted chicken with basil cream sauce — The sauce for this is really good. When I used to have leftovers, I put it on pasta the next day.

Macaroni and cheese — I've only made this once, not the healthiest thing. But if you want really good, homemade mac and cheese, this is a good choice. I just wish I had cut the recipe in half. It was not great left over.

Honey garlic balsamic chicken — This is a really easy chicken meal to make, and J said it could be added to the rotation (the sign of a good recipe).

Summer stir fry — This is not your standard stir fry (I am not a fan of stir fry). It is summer vegetables and shrimp cooked in butter and olive oil. Super easy and really good. Even when I think I make more than enough, we devour it.

You'll notice this is a lot of chicken recipes — that is J's favorite. I usually work red meat in through tacos or spaghetti since we don't have a grill for steaks. I'm not a pork fan, but we are probably going to want some variety of meat mixed in. But J is a fan of my favorite vegetarian meals and sides — tomato pie, zucchini pie, roasted asparagus and a new favorite is roasted broccoli. But I'm on the lookout for good chicken recipes if you have some to share or another meat recipe I could work into the mix, please pass along.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Our house

So I post three times in a week and then fall off the radar again. But you probably aren't surprised.

Anyway, here's a post all about our house. J built (as in, he poured the foundation, framed it, painted, laid tile, etc.) this house before we met. It is the second house he has built. He found the property west of Columbia and built it in a barn-style to fit the rural setting. When we got engaged, he started working on plans to add a master bedroom. Thanks to the help of some friends, it was finished when we returned from our honeymoon. He also added the deck this fall.

The house was definitely a bachelor pad before I moved my stuff in. We started acquiring some additional furniture we wanted this spring, and then I got things where I wanted them when we got back from Maine. We still need to hang pictures around much of the house, but I've been waiting to get wedding pictures back. And he would tell you there are a lot of things that still need to be done. But to me, it feels pretty complete.

The house is about 25 miles west of Columbia. This is the first time I've had a major commute to work. I've always been within about 10 minutes of work (in one case less than 10 minutes walking). So that has been the biggest change for me. It's not a bad commute; it's interstate and there's no real traffic (in the summer at least!). But I have to rethink my mornings to leave in time for work or anywhere else for that matter. There's also not a grocery store (or anything except houses and farms) near us, so I have to plan ahead and make sure I get what I need when I'm already in town. And while I like the escape to the country and time to decompress in the car, I hate getting gas every week and how nasty my car gets from driving on the interstate all the time. I know, it's first world problems, but those are my complaints. We have started taking advantage of a great biking/walking trail that's about 10 minutes away.

Enough of my babbling, here are the pictures.





Living room, looking in from the front door

Living room, view from the kitchen

Kitchen

Kitchen, looking toward the master bedroom; laundry room is to the left

Master bedroom

Another view, walk-in closet is hidden but located next to the bathroom

Upstairs bedroom (ready for guests!)

We both kept our dressers and got a new one for our bedroom, so this is the room of dressers.

Upstairs bathroom

Second room upstairs — combined bedroom and office. (More room for guests!)

The office part of the room. Eventually, this will be divided into separate rooms.


And the deck that is furnished thanks to a generous gift from my aunts and uncles.

J would point out that I left off a major part of the house — the garage. But really, who needs to see our garage full of his tools. Although there is room for me to park in there, another first for me!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Maine, part 2

Here's the rest of the recap of our Maine trip:

Day 5: Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor
This was the farthest north we drove. It took about two hours to get to the park from our cottage. We were a little burned out on hiking, so we took advantage of the Park Road and drove to the top of Cadillac Mountain. More great views, even though it was a little cloudy.



We drove back down the park road and stopped at Jordan Pond. It is a freshwater lake that is incredibly clear. It was beautiful, and there is a restaurant right by it. We headed up there for lunch, and it was one of our favorites. The view alone put it up there pretty high, but the food was great. They serve popovers (big, hollow muffin-type things), and J had really good crab cakes. I had a veggie panini that hit the spot.



We had hoped to rent bikes and ride in the park a bit, but the bike rentals are all in Bar Harbor and logistically and time-wise we couldn't make it work. But we headed down to Bar Harbor. We explored the town and walked along a trail on the coastline. Bar Harbor was the only repeat place for me (I visited when I was 9), and it was familiar. We also found the big sandbar that takes you over to a wooded island. We only walked across the sandbar and didn't explore the island, but it was pretty cool. We got some ice cream and visited some shops before heading south. We stopped in Rockland for dinner.


Day 6: Wiscassett and Boothbay
On Friday, we only really had one thing we wanted to do. In Thomaston, at the turn to get to our cottage, there was a place called the Maine State Prison Store. It was a really cool store, full of things made by prisoners. There was beautiful wood furniture, model ships, wooden toys and even a Shawshank T-shirt that J got.



After that we decided to head south on Route 1 since we had only gone north in our daily trips. We did drive up Route 1 as we came up from Boston but didn't stop along the way. J remembered a town named Wiscasset, so we went there first. We wandered around the town and docks, and we noticed that all of the restaurants were dead but there was a huge line around this shack. We figured that must be the place to eat. It was called Red's Eats, and it had these huge lobster rolls. They were amazing, and apparently, this place is famous for them. The nice thing about a lobster roll is you get all the lobster without all the work. There were also amazing onion rings.



When we were done eating, J handed me the keys, and I got pick our next stop. I headed back north and pulled off to Boothbay and Boothbay Harbor. It was graduation day at the high school, so there was some traffic to get through, but we enjoyed walking around the harbor and the shops there. We headed back to the cottage and got ready for a nice dinner out. The woman that owns the cottage recommended Primos in Rockland. It was a really nice restaurant set up in an old house. It was a neat place to go, but it wasn't our best meal of the week.

Day 7: Boston
We flew in and out of Boston, and we decided to spend a day and night in Boston before flying back to St. Louis. We got up early Saturday to hit the road. We turned our car in and got travel passes for the subway. Then we took off for the Freedom Trail. We didn't make every stop on it, but we walked the whole thing. The highlight was Paul Revere's house, where an actor was playing Paul Revere and telling his story.


Once we got to the end, we took a water taxi across the Charles River. We took the subway out to Harvard for the classic picture there.



We didn't get to the library before it closed, but we walked around the area and sat outside a church. We also happened upon a memorial for the Boston Marathon. My parents had recommended a restaurant, Giacomo's, and that turned out to be our best meal. We both had lobster ravioli that was incredible. And then we headed back to an airport hotel to get some sleep before an early morning flight home.