February 8, 2017

Fun & Simple Valentine's Day Party Ideas for the Entire Family

Love is in the air and Valentine's Day is just around the corner! This is one of my favorite times of year. All the sugary sweetness, pink hearts everywhere, and people freely declaring their love. 

Thinking about throwing a little Valentine's Day soiree of your own? Here are some simple (and affordable) ideas the entire family will enjoy! 

1) Scale Down

There's just something about tiny things that are so cute! Valentine's Day is a great occasion to enjoy all sorts of petite treats. Plus, they are smaller so you can eat more of them. 

I found some really great selections at my local Aldi store, including these cute heart-shaped jam cookies. If you have a pedestal plate or a tiered serving plate, that would make your sweets look even more adorable. 

Another great tiny dessert to create for Valentine's Day is a mini strawberry shortcake. I picked up some really cute small parfait cups at Party City. It's all about presentation and these help you make your presentation really special. 

2) Add Some Flair

Sticking with the smaller scale, I picked up some mini muffins at Aldi as well. These are fine for store-bought, but the way to really jazz them up for a Valentine's Day party is with a little flair. 

Add some festive picks or candy accessories to give them that semi-homemade look. 

Other variations on ways to make store-bought treats more special...

1) Attach heart-shaped marshmallows to the top with a toothpick for a really sweet looking treat. 

2) Slather on some frosting (homemade or store-bought). Sometimes local bakeries will sell containers of their frosting for home cooks. This is a great way to jazz up a store-bought or box mix cake. 

3) Serve it up in Style

As I said earlier, and many times before, it's all about presentation. Two completely identical food dishes can be presented in different ways and you will think one tastes better if it's presented beautifully. 

Something easy to serve for a Valentine's Day party is popcorn. It's cheap and easy to make or you can buy it already popped. 

I melted some chocolate & white chocolate chips (tinted pink with food coloring). Then I drizzled it over the popcorn and added some pink and red candy pieces. Voila! Easy and delish. 

And to serve, I picked up some really fun little paper cones and a cute serving tray from Party City. For just a few bucks, I took this simple party food up a notch. 

You could serve plain popcorn in a boring bowl and nobody would bat an eye. But give it some pizzazz and you'll have all your guests raving.  

Valentine's Day is such a great time to share your warm and fuzzy feelings with the ones you love most. It doesn't have to be about a romantic (and expensive!) dinner out. You can enjoy Valentine's Day with loved ones of all ages, with tasty treats for everyone! 

January 25, 2017

Simple & Delicious Drinks to Help Beat the Winter Blues

Winter can be downright depressing what with the dreary short days and cold weather. The holidays are over, which is something of a let-down and spring feels so far away. 

Even though Knoxville has been experiencing a relatively mild winter these past few weeks, cold weather is supposedly coming. 

I've ramped up my Vitamin D intake and am trying to be kinder to myself and those around me during these harsh times. I'm also trying to drink more water. But water gets boring and sometimes it's fun to enjoy a special drink, especially when winter really gets you down. 

I'm sharing three of my favorite drinks to help you get through the most blustery winter day. Just think, March will be here before we know it! 

Morning - Rise & Shine Breakfast Smoothie

I tried to get on the green drink bandwagon, but many of the recipes I tried weren't really for me. There's something about sipping kale through a straw that I struggle with. 

But I found a great recipe for a breakfast smoothie that incorporates a little bit of green (spinach) with some yummy fruit for a tasty combination. I even added some hemp seeds for extra protein. 

To make it, you'll need: spinach + pineapple + banana + mango

One tip is to use frozen fruit instead of ice and your smoothie will be frosty and delish. 

Afternoon Pick Me Up - Dirty Chai Latte 

I only recently discovered my love of chai, which is the word for tea in many parts of the world. Chai (rhymes with 'pie') is a centuries-old beverage which has played an important role in many cultures.

Chai from India is a spiced milk tea that has become more and more popular in the past few years. It is generally made of:

• rich black tea
• heavy milk
• a combination of various spices
• a sweetener

The spices tend to vary depending on what region of India you happen to be in. The most common are cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and pepper. Indian chai produces a warming, soothing effect, and goes a long way on those cold winter days. I first tried it at a local coffee shop in my hometown and now I'm hooked. 

Add in a shot of coffee and it becomes a "dirty chai." 

You can make your own from scratch or take the easy route, as I have with a store-bought chai option from Tazo. 

Evening Nightcap - Honey Bee-tini 

I first tried this amazing drink while staying at the Fairmont Hotel in Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown neighborhood. The hotel even has its own bees on the roof that produce the honey for the cocktail. 

To create your own bee-tini, mix equal parts vodka, tequila and lemon juice. Add in a teaspoon of honey and garnish with fresh honey comb. 

Great for those winter nights when your throat is feeling scratchy. Plus, it's just spirited enough to help you hang in there til spring! 

The world might feel like a harsh place right now, but let's all hang in there and hope that sunnier days are ahead! 

January 15, 2017

No Mold for our Brokenness

My first "real" job was as the administrative assistant at a good sized real estate company in my home town. I had just graduated from high school and was headed off to college that fall, but needed some work for the summer.

I was replacing a soon-to-be-retired older lady who had held the position of office admin for many years. She had her job down to a science and trained me on all the ins and outs of the real estate world. We hit it off pretty well and became friends.

In the process of getting to know each other, I learned she was a ceramics artist. In her possession were hundreds of ceramic molds, used for casting all sorts of various ceramic creatures, vases, and other objects. Having just moved to a new house, she needed help transporting them safely and I volunteered.

I didn't quite know what I was in for. Each heavy, white chalky mold had to be carried individually with utmost care so it didn't get chipped. She explained to me that even the smallest chip in the mold could ruin a future casting. After several hours, we finally finished transporting the molds and she treated me with a trip to Sonic as a way to say thanks.

I'm not sure why this memory has stayed buried for so many years (16 to be exact!), but it came to me tonight at the grocery store of all places. There was a heavy-set man in the deli area, carefully inspecting some overpriced pre-packaged crab cakes. I must have gotten my cart a little too close to him because he moved quickly on, apologizing for blocking my way.

"It's fine," I said. "I'm in no hurry."

"Oh, I know how it works here," he said. "You gotta keep moving along and stay outta people's way."

This made me feel sad and I wish there had been something else I could have said to let him know he really wasn't in my way or any bother at all.

Then, when I got to the checkout line, I noticed the guy ringing up my groceries had a black eye and half his face was bruised and swollen. I immediately tried not to let him think I was looking at it. And even though I really wanted to ask if he was okay, I instead launched into the story of how I was nervous to show my face at that particular store after breaking a huge bottle of wine in the checkout line during my last visit.

He told me it was okay, that it happened just about every day.

As I left the store, my heart felt so heavy for the two guys I had encountered. Without knowing any of their stories, I just felt like maybe each was carrying his own heavy load.

What does this have to do with my memories moving the ceramic molds? My encounters at the grocery store got me thinking about molds. How each mold was created to form just the exact right ceramic casting you wanted to create. And how if even a small chip got in the mold, it would potentially ruin the piece of art.

There's no mold for our brokenness in life. Each little chip we've gotten over the years causes us to look a tiny bit different from each other. And over time, our brokenness changes us in big ways. The only uniform thing about brokenness is that we all have it. From the ones of us who don't know where tonight's meal is coming from to those of us who just polished off a fancy steak dinner.

We try so hard to shine ourselves up and put our best versions forward.

What looks like perfection, right down to the Ralph Lauren 400 thread count sheets, is often falling to pieces around us. Each of us carries our hurts inside. And sometimes those hurts are so big, they take up more than their fair share of space, squeezing and pushing their way out, causing us to transfer them, hurting the ones around us.

You can never know what kind of hurt someone is carrying just by looking. Even with the ones you feel closest to or think you know best.

Seeming like you have it all together is not indicative of reality much of the time. The ones who get dressed up and sit quietly in the church pew, singing "Holy, holy, holy" in full voice are often the same ones who come home and cry in their driveway, yell at their dog, or snap at their husband. Let's just say I would know.

I don't believe God causes our suffering or wants us to hurt. I do believe our brokenness can help us love each other better and understand each other more.

But we have to acknowledge it. To give it a name and let it be.

This can be hard when so many things about our lives seem good. I often get mad at myself for focusing on any sort of problems or challenges because I think "My issues are not nearly as bad as the next person's. I haven't really earned the right to feel this way." 

I think this is dangerous because it keeps us from acknowledging our truest feelings and hurts. Even if there's nothing we can do about them. We just never know when something we experienced can cause us to have a unique perspective and maybe even offer a tiny bit of comfort to someone else going through the same thing.

And then, even in the midst of the brokenness, a little beauty can grow.

January 14, 2017

Love, Life, and La La Land

On New Year's Day, my husband and I went to the movie theater to see the new film La La Land. Just after Debbie Reynolds passed away (rest her soul), I found myself watching that famous song and dance sequence from her iconic film Singing in the Rain and remarked to my husband that I wished Hollywood would bring back the musical.

This was before I knew anything about La La Land. Then I randomly came across a December issue of "Parade" magazine with it featured on the cover. It's so funny how things like this happen.

I wasn't sure if my husband would like the film. He's not mad for musicals the way I am. But instead of sitting there worrying if he was enjoying himself, I got lost in the story.

**Spoiler Alert** If you plan to see the film, but haven't yet, you might not want to read any further. Although I'll try not to give too much away.

The story of an aspiring actress and an aspiring musician, the movie stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. It won a ton of awards so it's probably already on your radar.

The colors are vibrant, the music will stay in your head, and the story will break your heart in the most beautiful way.

It brought both me and my husband to tears. What can I say, we're just a couple of romantic softies.

At first, I was not happy with the ending at all. But in some ways, it was true to the musical genre. I grew up hearing the music of musicals, especially Camelot, a favorite of my mom's.

It wasn't until I was around nine or ten that I fell head over heels in love with musicals, thanks to my grandpa. I was staying with my grandparents for the weekend and my grandpa took me to the video rental store inside of Kroger to rent a VHS tape. Most of the kid movies in stock seemed too babyish for me and I remember asking him to help me choose a more grown-up film.

He pulled a VHS tape with a red cover from the shelf and said, "Here, you might like this."

"What's it about?" I asked.

"It's been awhile since I saw it, but mainly a bunch of kids in New York. And it's a love story."

I was sold. We rented the tape and I couldn't wait to get back home to watch West Side Story. 

That first weekend, I probably watched and re-watched the film at least five times. Then, each subsequent weekend I visited, I would beg my grandpa to let me rent it again and again. I wanted to be Maria with her beautiful dark hair and white dress, at the dance with Chino but dreaming about Tony from afar.

We must have eventually gotten our own copy of West Side Story because I introduced my younger brother to it and he was hooked as well. Just last summer, while on a beach vacation with our parents and significant others, the movie came on TV and we could still recite nearly every word of dialogue and song.

Once I realized that musical films were a thing, I tried to see every one I could find. Cinderella, Oklahoma!, and Godspell quickly became favorites, along with A Chorus Line, Annie, My Fair Lady and Guys and Dolls. Actually, I don't know if I've ever seen a musical I didn't like. I've even been lucky enough to perform in a couple of them, including during high school and for a local community theatre.

Right now as I type this, the soundtrack to The Sound of Music is on my retro record player. Earlier this week, I scored a copy of The King and I at my local Goodwill.

There's just something so magical about stories set to music. And the way the actors burst into song to express what they are feeling brings something inside me to life.

Plus it's so comforting. For me, listening to musical soundtracks is like spending time with old friends.

There are so many hard things in the world these days. I'm not saying musicals are the answer, but they help me get through the day. Many an evening after a long day at work, or a Saturday while doing odd chores around the house, I can be found listening to my musical soundtrack records.

It wasn't too long ago that I told my grandpa about my getting a record player and that I was starting to collect musical soundtracks. He said, "but can't you get pretty much any song you want on your computer?"

Yes, but it's just not the same.

January 11, 2017

Ways to Serve Your Community

I've always loved the quote "Bloom where you're planted." It serves as a great reminder that even though we may not exactly end up in the spot we thought we would, there's still an opportunity to add some beauty by blooming no matter where we are. 

In my opinion, this is especially important lately as things around the world and in our own neighborhoods are becoming increasingly challenging for some of our friends and neighbors. If I can add even just a little bit of beauty or make someone's situation feel a tiny bit more hopeful, I want to do it. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a Federal Holiday. For many years my family took this three-day weekend as an opportunity to go away to a cabin in the woods and spend time together. There's definitely nothing wrong with that! Sometimes a bit of relaxing and refreshing can make a huge difference. But lately, many organizations around the country are encouraging folks to view this day as a chance for service. 

Here are just a few simple ways you can serve your community, on MLK Day or anytime. 

Create Care Packages for Neighbors 

It might seem like a small thing, but to a neighbor or member of your community who is older or not able to leave his or her home for whatever reason, care packages are often appreciated very much. 

Neighbor care packages might include things like snacks or treats, magazines or crossword puzzle books, and hand lotions, tissues, or lip balm. When giving the gift of snacks, make sure you find out if your friends have any dietary restrictions or allergies. 

When delivering the care packages, maybe allocate some time to spend with your neighbor as well. The gift of friendship is the best gift of all, and for many of our older neighbors who don't get visitors, a smiling face and a listening ear can be a godsend. 

Collect Items from Nonprofit Wishlists 

Most area nonprofits that serve the community have wishlists on their websites. I try to familiarize myself with these so that when I run across various things they need, I can pick them up. 

For example, most of the local animal shelters accept donated items such as newspaper, old towels and blankets, and pet food. If you're doing any New Year cleaning out of your home, make sure to donate items like these where they can help someone else! 

Thrive, a local nonprofit serving the Lonsdale community in Knoxville, is currently collecting garden tools for their community garden. There's a wishlist on their website with all sorts of things you might have collecting dust in your garage, from garden tools to bags of mulch and the like. 

Spread the Love! 

Valentine's Day is just around the corner and I bet there are plenty of folks who won't get a card this year. Why not write Valentine's Day notes of encouragement to all your neighbors? Or maybe contact a local retirement home and ask if they  have any residents who could use cheering up. 

It just takes a few minutes to sit down and write a few lines in a card. And for the cost of a stamp, you can really brighten someone's day. There's still plenty of time to do this between now and February! 

**Disclaimer: These suggestions are just as much for me as they are for anyone else. I don't always do such a great job at serving my community. Sometimes I just want to come home after a long day and veg out in pajamas. But I know it will be worth it if I can just try a few of these things!**

For my local friends, here's a link with more Knoxville volunteer opportunities than you can even imagine! And no matter where you live, I'm sure there are nonprofits and other organizations looking for a little help. 

January 10, 2017

Breaking Things that are Fragile

Do you know the difference between peace and chaos? At my house this morning, it was a split second. The time it took for a bone china bowl to slip from my husband's hand as he was taking it out of the dishwasher. The bowl then clanged loudly against a ceramic souffle dish, causing both to shatter. 

The noise was enough to startle me and both our cantankerous aging dogs. In all fairness, our rescued Yorkie Ruthie is only five, not nearly old enough to be considered a senior citizen. But she and her recently adopted sister, Sweetie, a shelter chihuahua who might be upwards of 13, were startled nonetheless. 

We did what any good married couple worth their salt would do...got into a huge argument of course. If you can't tell, I'm being sarcastic. Even as it was all unfolding, I thought to myself this will definitely make it to the blog. Making matters worse, my husband picked that moment to yell, "Well I guess now you're going to write mean stuff about me on your blog!" 

Who knew mind reading was a skill of his? 

No, but really. He completely supports me and my desire to share certain stories online. And I would never set out to write anything mean about him (or anyone). Usually he is involved in the stories I tell, but it's all about our learning together...working together and trying to be better, together. It's not about fault-finding. But truth finding. To gain wisdom, and understanding. 

I wasn't even mad that the bowl(s) got broken. In the past, I would have been. This is something I'm making a conscious effort to work on. Not getting my feathers ruffled about things that don't really matter. Two broken dishes? In the grand scheme of life, the world, rapidly melting glaciers, starving children, war and other terrible things, two broken dishes are not even the tiniest fraction of a blip on anyone's radar. 

But my husband expected me to get mad. And I guess he had every right to, based on how I have reacted to these types of things in the past. So he got defensive. And this led to our misunderstanding each other, which led to the fight. 

But it didn't take long for us to talk it out, work it out, hug it out, and so forth. 

All of this reminded me of the fragility of things. That when you use things daily, like china bowls, or Royal Doulton souffle dishes, there's a good chance they might get scratched, chipped or even broken all to pieces. 

The bowl was nothing special. One of seven like it that I'd picked up from the clearance shelf at Belk. No local stores carried the bowls that came in our china pattern, so I found a suitable substitute for a steal. This is actually the second of these that has been broken, so now I think we're down to five. But I wasn't particularly attached to them. 

The souffle dish was more unique. My mom had purchased it from an estate sale and given it to me as a gift. If you're thinking I don't seem like the kind of person who makes souffle, you'd be correct. We have used the bowl for serving side dishes, salads, and even my husband's occasional late-night cereal habit. So yeah, if you'd ask me if I wanted you to smash it with a hammer, I'd have said no. But even so, having it get broken was not that big of a deal. 

This is the risk we must take when we put our valuables to use. Daily handling, the routine maintenance and care they require, and storage of them may cause them to be destroyed. Well at least certain types of things. 

The good news is that with our inner valuables, unlike our dishes or knick knacks, they are much stronger and harder to break. While I can't promise you won't find yourself staring at them in pieces on the floor, I know for sure that they don't end up in the garbage. When something inside you is shattered, this is a loss for sure. 

But it's only a loss in terms of what you knew. When it comes to our most precious things, nothing can ever really be lost from us. These things might change shape, or take on new forms, but what's at the heart of them is always there. As if it were deep inside our bones. 

I'm actually writing a book about this very thing. Well, trying to write a book. We'll see how it goes. I thought maybe if I put it out there and shared this fact with you, it might hold me more accountable. My book writing has gotten pushed to the wayside lately. But it's a new year, and I'm hoping to be able to bring it back to the forefront. Say a little prayer for me it crosses your mind. 

Happy 2017 friends! 

December 28, 2016

Fun & Simple New Year's Traditions

I have a love/hate relationship with New Year's Eve. It's one of those festive holidays that feels like it should be celebrated while dressed to the nines, at some swanky party with other glam looking revelers. But then I also secretly want to be at home in my pajamas, eating comfort food and watching favorite movies til the stroke of midnight.

No matter how you're celebrating New Year's this year, I've got some fun and simple ideas and traditions that you might want to incorporate into your festivities. Be advised that most of the New Year's traditions involve good old fashioned superstition. It's all in good fun of course, but I don't know if I really believe any of it. Still, there's something comforting about traditions you enjoy again and again.

Put Together the Perfect Charcuterie Tray

Charcuterie has to do with prepared meats like salami, sausages, and pate. A charcuterie board or tray is a great option for a New Year's party because it can include a little bit of everything and something for everyone. Whatever your favorite tastes and flavors may be, your charcuterie board can incorporate whatever you like. Some offerings you might want to include are: 

  • Deli meats (prosciutto, ham, salami, corned beef, etc) 
  • Assorted cheeses (hard and soft)
  • Dried fruit (figs, apricots, pineapple, raisins, and plums) 
  • Nuts (Marcona almonds, cashews, pecans, walnuts) 
  • Honey
  • Crostini or crackers 
  • Pickles (sweet and dill) 
  • Olives (green, black, kalamata, etc) 

Arrange your charcuterie platter in a way that is pleasing to the eye, and your guests will love it. Start with a cutting board or large tray. Anchor it with a few bunches of grapes and some wedges of cheese. Then add your meats. Layer in different dried fruit, nuts and pickles. Use fresh rosemary for a garnish. Throughout the night, you can replenish your offerings as they run low, but guests are sure to love all the delicious options that a charcuterie tray can provide. 

Eat Black Eyed Peas & Greens for Luck 

Eating Black Eyed Peas is one of my favorite New Year's traditions. If you want an easy recipe that incorporates both, check out my Tennessee Caviar (adapted from this). 

Stir together 2 cans of black eyed peas (drained), one can Ro-Tel, and one can yellow corn (drained). Add 2 cups of zesty Italian salad dressing and stir well. Refrigerate for at least one hour, up to overnight. You can also add shredded kale or spinach as a garnish. 

Beans and greens eaten on New Year's are said to bring good fortune because they resemble money (coins and dollars). Who couldn't use a little more of the green stuff? Eat up! 

Eat Round, Sweet Foods in Honor of Life's Continuous Circle

From donuts to cookies, or cakes, many cultures enjoy sweet round foods as part of their New Year's celebrations. It may be because they represent the circle of life, the way things flow from the end of one year to the beginning of another. 

Cream puffs or profiteroles are a great option for a New Year's party. You could even set up a cream puff station and let guests add their own toppings. Offer things like chocolate and caramel dipping sauces, whipped cream, and sprinkles for a fun DIY dessert bar. 

Eat 12 Grapes at the Stroke of Midnight for Good Fortune in the New Year

New Year's traditions in Spain include eating 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight. Supposedly this began after a grape surplus in the early 20th century. The idea is to eat all 12 grapes while the clock is striking midnight. Each is supposed to represent the months of the coming year. 

To make your New Year's grapes feel a bit more special, try sugaring them. Rinse grapes and then dust them lightly with caster sugar or powdered Jell-O for a bit more flavor. As they dry, the sugar will crystallize and create a lovely treat. 

Whatever you do eat, don't eat lobster on New Year's...since they move backwards, it's said that eating this can cause you to have regrets in the New Year. And we don't need any of that! 

December 22, 2016

Stretch Your Pennies: Holiday Saving Tips

How do you determine your holiday shopping budget? If you're anything like me this year, you might have found yourself scrambling at the last minute and end up spending more than you intended for rush shipping, settling for less than personal generic gift selections, etc. 

Maybe you're one of those people who shops all through the year and right about now, you are sitting back drinking egg nog while the poor procrastinators like me are running around like mad. Don't rub it in. 

The bottom line is that we want the holidays to feel special. And while the love we feel for those we hold dear can't be summed up in a package or gift bag, it still feels awfully great to see their faces light up when they unwrap something they were hoping for. 

No matter what your shopping habits or style, it's never a bad time to think about your budget. 

Are you familiar with the 50/20/30 rule? Not only is this a handy way to keep your holiday shopping in check, but it's also helpful to remember all year long as you are managing your money. 

I've never been so great at budgets. I've always been more the type of person who tried to save some, but didn't really track my spending. The times I have really paid close attention, it was crazy to see where my moolah went. 

My husband and I have been making a more conscious effort to cook meals at home as opposed to grabbing lunch or dinner out. This has made a huge difference in our health as well as our pocketbook. We love to treat ourselves to a special dinner at our favorite restaurants, but we're trying to meal plan and bargain shop for the most part. 

I'm always reminded of that Bible verse in Luke that says "Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much..." There have been times when I've had little as well as times when I had a little more. But I want to be a good steward of my resources, from my talents to my funds. 

Last night, after dinner with my best friend (her treat!), our server followed us outside the restaurant with nearly tears in his eyes and said to my friend "God bless you. Thank you so much." She had given him a considerable tip as part of an idea she and her 9 year old are trying called "Secret Heart Santa." They are being generous this holiday season, as their hearts lead them to be, and trying to do it in a secret way. This also included paying for another family's Christmas tree. 

Of course she wouldn't want me bragging on her, but this warmed my heart so much and reminded me of exactly why I want to be a good steward of my resources. So that when my heart leads me, I can give generously without hesitation.

Thanks to Personal Capital, a personal finance software company, for the infographic and inspiration for this post.  I was not compensated for this post and all thoughts and opinions are my own

December 21, 2016

3 Simple Ideas for a Christmas Drink Station

No festive occasion is complete without a few signature drinks and this Christmas, I'm putting my own uniquely simple spin on things with a DIY drink station. Whether you're hosting brunch, lunch or dinner, these tasty drinks might inspire you as you're planning your menu.

The best thing about these drink options is that they are delicious without alcohol, which saves you time because you don't have to offer separate alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Any guests who want to enjoy a more spirited concoction can simply add it to the base recipe. But the basic options are fine for kids or any non-drinkers you might be hosting

First up is a favorite combination of mine, which I'm calling Poinsettia Punch. Poinsettias are indigenous to Mexico, but were introduced to the United States in the late 1800s. They definitely provide some festive cheer when used in your decor.

Poinsettia Punch

To make Poinsettia Punch, you'll need cranberry juice, and some type of seltzer water. To make this drink more spirited, skip the seltzer and add prosecco or champagne. 

Garnish with a sprig of fresh rosemary and a few fresh cranberries. It's really quite simple, but looks so beautiful in a stemmed glass. 


Taking inspiration from that classic cocktail the "Screwdriver" and paying homage to our favorite villain-turned-hero Ebenezer Scrooge, I'm calling this one a Scrooge-Driver. 

To incorporate this recipe into your Christmas drink station, have plenty of good orange juice on hand. Of course, you can also use your favorite citrus juice, like lemon, lime, grapefruit, tangerine or pomelo. I grabbed a great option from Whole Foods, with the added ingredient of carrots for some extra healthy goodness. 

Top off a tumbler half filled with juice with a good quality sparkling soda...I like the Whole Foods store brand from Italy. If you want to stick with the orange flavor, match your soda to your juice. If you want to mix things up, try some other tasty combinations like grapefruit juice with lemon soda, or pineapple juice with blood orange soda. 

Add some pomegranate seeds for color or garnish with my mom's favorite, orange slice candy. 

To make this one more spirited, add vodka or champagne, depending on your preference. Or gin. Any alcohol really. It's up to you. 

St. Nick's Nog

Eggnog is one of my favorite Christmas drinks. You might think it's a bit rich to drink with your meal, but you ain't seen nothing yet! I'm taking it to the whole next level with Cruze Farm eggnog ice cream. Yes, you read that right. Cruze Farm eggnog ice cream + eggnog + cream soda = a delicious eggnog float fit for Saint Nicholas himself. That's why this is called St. Nick's Nog. 

You can play with the proportions. I put one scoop of eggnog ice cream into a glass, topped with a bit of eggnog and then added cream soda. You could also use club soda if you don't want any added flavor in your soda option. 

Sprinkle on some nutmeg and garnish with a cinnamon stick for a beautiful presentation. It's a bit decadent however Christmas comes but once a year. So drink up and enjoy! 

December 7, 2016

Simple Christmas Decorations for Less than $5

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I just can't believe December is here again...and with it, Christmas. But instead of getting caught up in the hustle and bustle that certain elements of this season can bring, I'm choosing to focus less on the stress and more on the things that matter.

East Tennessee was hit hard by the wildfires that tore through our region recently. Lives were lost, homes and businesses destroyed. And that on the heels of so many other struggles and challenges that our communities are facing. Sometimes, things like Christmas decorations seem trivial or silly.

But I was reminded recently of the greatest mission that any of us is charged with: to be a source of encouragement to each other. That's what I set out to do when I started this blog.

It's not about being perfect, or even presenting the illusion of perfection. It's not about buying all the things, just for the sake of having all the things. It's about simple ways to bring a little bit of loveliness to your world.

And today, we're doing it with Christmas decorations that cost less than $5 each. This is a round up of some of my favorite ideas, as inspired by other bloggers. Because you know, sometimes all it takes is a little inspiration.

First, I've got a simple holiday garland made with items from the health and beauty aisle. Cotton balls and dental floss, to be exact. I threaded a large needle with floss, and strung up some cotton balls. I doubled the floss through each one to hold it in place an equal distance from the next cotton ball.

This great blog was my inspiration. Check out the pretty vignette blogger Kathy created with strings of cotton ball garland hanging from the ceiling. So much whimsy!

Next, turn a plain old white candle from the Dollar store into a cheerful snowman.

All you need is a white candle in a glass jar, a bit of scrap ribbon or fabric (for his scarf) and Sharpie markers. I happened to have an orange one on hand, but you could use whatever color you want for your snowman/snowperson.

A great gift idea for a teacher, neighbor or Secret Santa.

Speaking of great gift ideas, here's another one that also doubles as a cute decoration. Turn any clear glass jar into a Santa-themed candy dispenser. For this one, you'll need some black ribbon and a bit of gold or yellow paper. And red candy! I used cinnamon red hots but you may have a different favorite.

Click here for full tutorial.

All of these ideas are pretty simple, but sometimes the simple things are exactly what we need. Life can be complicated enough on its own. Why make matters worse?

And you don't have to be a blogger or think of yourself as a "crafty" person to enjoy these types of projects. Just jump in. Give yourself permission to try. Tap into some creativity you didn't know you had. It's good for the soul. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas season!

December 2, 2016

Dollywood Foundation Announces Details for MY PEOPLE Fund

Fund already has raised more than $1 million; Need is much greater

PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. (Friday, Dec. 2, 2016)— Dolly Parton announced Wednesday evening the creation of the Dollywood Foundation My People Fund, established by Parton, The Dollywood Company, Parton’s dinner theaters and The Dollywood Foundation, to provide $1000 each month to Sevier County families whose homes are uninhabitable or were completely destroyed in the recent Smoky Mountain wildfires. In less than 36 hours, the fund already has raised more than $1 million, but the need is much greater.

Any family who lost their primary residence (renters and homeowners) due to the wildfires in Sevier County will be eligible. A pre-application for those affected will be available at dollywoodfoundation.org beginning today at 4 p.m. Completion of the pre-application is not required but is encouraged to expedite the distribution process.

The first funds will be distributed Dec. 15-16 and Dec. 19-20 from 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. at the CARE MORE Assistance Center at the LeConte Events Center in Pigeon Forge. One check per household per month will be issued. All recipients must show a photo I.D. Families can receive aid for up to six months. Anyone needing assistance in the application process should call 1-800-DOLLYWOOD.

“We are proud to assist Dolly in the creation of the My People Fund,” said Craig Ross, President of The Dollywood Company.  “We hope this serves as the first step to rebuilding for the families of the Sevier County community. We send our heartfelt thoughts and prayers to everyone affected.” 

Jim Rule, CEO of World Choice Investments, LLC said, “It is our hope that the My People Fund will make a difference to those families looking for a way to move forward during this difficult time. The Dixie Stampede and Lumberjack Adventure families are honored to help Dolly provide this special support.” 

“We are working to gain a better idea of the number of families affected by the tragedy,” said David Dotson, President of the Dollywood Foundation. “The My People Fund has already secured more than $1 million and climbing. But we know that substantially more donations will be required to meet the need.” 

Significant donors to the fund include Verizon, Tanger Outlets, Miley Cyrus’ Happy Hippie Foundation, CoreCivic and The Blalock Company.

Cumulus Knoxville and The Vol Network will hold a radio-thon for the My People Fund on Monday, Dec. 5 from 6 a.m. – midnight.

Anyone who would like to make a tax-deductible contribution to the My People Fund may visit dollywoodfoundation.org. For those wishing to send donations via mail, those contributions should be sent to: My People Fund, c/o Dollywood Foundation, 111 Dollywood Lane, Pigeon Forge, TN 37863.

Please help the Dollywood Foundation share the word about this effort by using the hashtags #MyPeopleFund and #someplacespecial. 

November 16, 2016

Simple Tips for Hosting a Harry Potter-Themed Fantastic Feast

If you're a Harry Potter fan, I'm sure you're planning to see the new spin-off film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I can't wait to see it myself! In the meantime, let's get into a magical mood with some simple ideas for hosting your own Harry Potter-themed Fantastic Feast! 

Since the new Fantastic Beasts film is set in the 1920s, let's stick with the time period and throw a roaring 20's party, with a speakeasy theme. 

For the costumes, think Great Gatsby, prohibition era, 1920's style clothing. Flapper costumes, lots of black and gold, sequins and pearls. Or you could always just throw on a wizard's robe and call it good. 

Now for the eats...there are so many fun ideas you can try for a Harry Potter theme party. 

Professor Sprout's Veggie Garden Treats 

For a healthy option, how about this great treat that features fresh veggies! All you need are some small plastic cups, fresh veggies cut lengthwise, and some type of dip. Hummus is a great choice, or your favorite salad dressing. 

source unknown

Goblin Gold Cupcakes 

For some sweet treat options, why not dress up plain Jane vanilla frosted cupcakes with a little Goblin gold? These great chocolate coins are widely available in holiday displays right now. Add them to your favorite bakery cupcakes and voila! And if you want to make your own cupcakes from scratch, try this recipe. 

HoneyDukes Candy Floss Cupcakes

I stumbled upon these gorgeous creations from the baking blog Bakingdom and tried to make my own (more simplified) version. Honeydukes is the candy shop in the village of Hogsmeade and there's also one at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. One staple of the shop is candy floss (aka cotton candy) and I thought this would be a great cupcake topper. 

The version shown features a pom pom topper, but either that or real cotton candy will work depending on what you can find. So cute! 

Scamander Strawberry Cordial 

During the Prohibition era (1920-1933), when Newt Scamander was having his adventures in New York, the only place to get a spirited drink was a speakeasy. Another name for a speakeasy was a blind pig, which is consequently the name of the one in the film.

These not-so-secret establishments were popular as the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcoholic drinks was illegal in the United States at that time. 

Here's a recipe for a Prohibition era drink recipe, that you can make with or without alcohol. 

More Harry Potter Wizard-esque Fun for a Fantastic Beasts Party! 

  • Drag out your Halloween decorations or scour the shelves of your local discount store for clearance price Halloween merchandise. I found some great skull decorations in a clearance bin at my local grocery store
  • Make your own broom
  • Incorporate creepy crawly bugs and other gross things (I painted some Dollar Store plastic insects gold and dusted them with green glitter for a more glam look)
  • DIY a Golden Snitch from a giant Ferrero Rocher and glittery accessories from the floral department of Hobby Lobby! 

Whatever you do to get in the mood for the new Fantastic Beasts film, I hope it's wizardly wonderful! Happy wizarding friends! 

November 2, 2016

Simple Ways to Jazz up a Boring Sandwich

November 3rd is National Sandwich Day, and there's no better way to celebrate the occasion than by enjoying the delicacy that inspired it. Thanks to the Earl of Sandwich, we're all a little better off. 

Would you believe that Americans eat around 200 sandwiches each year? From ham and cheese, to salami on rye, tuna melts and good old peanut butter and jelly, there's no shortage of sandwich combinations to enjoy. 

But don't just eat any old boring sandwich! Try some of these fun and simple ways to jazz up your ordinary lunch. 

Pour on the Sauce

Plain mayo and mustard are a fine starting point, but why not incorporate some other fun flavors? Stir together some store-bought pesto and a little mayo for a rich spread that's great on all sorts of sandwiches. Here are a few other tasty flavor combinations to try on your next sandwich. 

Wasabi + Mayo

Balsamic vinegar + Mustard

Gunshot Sauce + Mayo

Tobasco + Ketchup 

Lemon Juice & Sea Salt + Mayo

Curry + Ketchup

Rosemary + Mustard 

Sour Cream or Cream Cheese + Cilantro 

Relish the Relish

Love tart and tangy flavors? Pickles, olive and relish are a great option for you! Hot and spicy jalapenos can give a kick to plain old tuna salad. Or whip up a batch of homemade olive tapenade for your next boring ham and cheese. Even the humble grilled cheese gets new life with the addition of relish, sun dried tomatoes or olives. 

Spread the Spread

I'm not talking about condiments here...but extra things you can spread thickly on a sandwich to make it even heartier for those cold winter days. Tasty options like hummus (a favorite of mine) or pimento cheese, which can really add some oomph to a boring sandwich. 

Next Level Peanut Butter & Jelly 

I love a good PB&J as much as the next person, but sometimes even this beloved standby needs a little something extra. How about bacon? Trader Joe's has a bacon jam that has gotten rave reviews. Plus, they just got in a new product - Roasted onion and garlic jam. How about that for a memorable sandwich experience? 

Other ideas to give PB&J a boost? 
  • Toast the bread first, or make the sandwich and put it in a Panini press
  • Instead of bread, use toaster waffles to change things up 
  • Try almond, sesame or cashew butter with a tart jam like orange marmalade 

Dress it Up

You may have heard the saying that "we eat first with our eyes" and I believe it's true. Something that is presented in a creative or thoughtful way will always be more enticing than something just tossed onto a plate. 

 Try parchment paper and twine (see first image above) to give your sandwiches a little something special. I picked up some cute plastic napkin holders that would also be great sandwich servers, a bit reminiscent of the British tradition of serving toast. 

I hope your next sandwich is delicious! Happy National Sandwich Day! 


October 27, 2016

What About Me?

This morning I went to my kitchen and was horrified at what I saw. Two baking pans, covered with the crusty, dried remains of last night's dinner. And in the sink, several forks and spoons, with bits and pieces of food particles slowing drying on them. A knife coated in peanut butter, the horror! The dishwasher, only inches away, was partially filled with dirty dishes, but had plenty of room to hold these items...should someone have felt the need to load them in. 

My husband, who had only been in the kitchen moments before, failed to tidy up anything. In fact, it probably didn't register with him that it needed tidying. We're different that way, in the things we notice. 

So I naturally did what any normal person would do. I started cleaning up, banging the dishes around loudly in the sink, hoping he'd at least hear me and feel guilty because I was having to do it. 

Are we a mess or what? When I say "we" I'm not even referring to my husband and me, although our house sometimes teeters between a state of slightly messy and "what just exploded in here." 

When I say we're a mess, I mean we as humans. As I was washing the peanut butter off a knife I had not used, feeling deeply wounded at the unfairness of it all, I had to laugh at myself. So ridiculous. 

What's the big deal about doing something kind or helpful for somebody else? In this case, how did tidying up my husband's dishes become such a monumental issue that I would actually be offended to get stuck with the task? 

It all comes down to this: What about me? 

I'm so quick to see only myself, my own wants and needs, my own sense of what should be. I would think nothing of having my husband clean up after me. Or perform some other task that might make my life easier, less hectic, more fun. Because it's all about me, right? Not! But sometimes it feels like that. 

Like there isn't going to be enough for me. Enough what exactly? Enough time, enough energy, enough recognition, enough acceptance, the list goes on. 

We're so wrapped up in our own little worlds, players in our own dramas and comedies. We build our sets, painstakingly curating our homes and other surroundings with all manner of things we think bring us joy. We toil and trouble ourselves to get everything just perfect. And we carefully cast each show with supporting characters who will bring just the right dramatic overtones and comedic timing. But be not mistaken about one important thing: we are the star. And it all must revolve around us, a perfect backdrop against which we can shine. 

It kind of sounds pathetic when you think about it like that. 

This idea of dying to ourselves is a big part of Christianity. One of my very favorite Bible verses is from Galatians...for I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. 

Even if you don't profess a Christian faith, or any faith at all, the idea of selfishness is pretty much universally seen as rotten and not any way we should be. 

I don't think we ever set out to be selfish. But somewhere along the way, our experiences and the messages we receive make us feel like we aren't getting our fair shake. Like everybody else is having it better than us. And this is infuriating because aren't we're entitled to our piece of the pie? So we focus on ourselves and don't even realize we're doing it. Until we're banging dishes around trying to shame our spouse for the fact that the kitchen needed tidying up. 

And the most ironic part of all is that I wouldn't have had this moment of clarity had I not been standing in front of the sink, quietly contemplating things, giving my soul a moment to breathe and reflect, all the while washing dishes in the first place. 

Nobody is perfect. I have done bad things in my life. I've hurt people. And I've been selfish. And I've missed out on things that could have really blessed my heart because I was too busy worrying about getting my fair shake. I don't believe this is something we ever get free from as long as we are living on earth. It's a daily struggle to remember what's important, and to let go of the rest. 

It's something I'm working on. That doesn't mean I don't have my moments of "What about me?" But I have found the cure for this to be doing something for somebody else. Not an act of obligation, but giving purely and freely out of the abundance of the heart. In that place, there's no room for selfish anything.