Our most important tradition over the holidays

There are a lot of holiday traditions that my family observes and I know the same is true for you. But I want to tell you about one that has come to have a lasting impact on our family and our kids.

For the past three years we’ve gathered together to do a little soul searching and goal setting. We choose a day between Christmas and New Year that works for all of us. I make a big pot of soup and we share some special chocolate candy, but the main focus is working through a mini-course called 5 Days to Your Best Year Ever.  We crash-course it in just an afternoon, even though it’s designed for five days.

This year marks our fourth time to do the course together and I’m looking forward to it. But it’s not just me looking forward to it, even the older kids have started anticipating this.


That’s my family in that photo. Well, the kids anyway. As you can see, our family has grown up and we’ve got teens and young adults now. Parenting older kids and launching young adults into the world is not for the faint of heart!

And that’s a huge reason why I really love doing 5 Days to Your Best Year Ever with them. It gives us a way to teach them how to think through all the important life decisions that they’re dealing with at this point in their lives. As situations come up throughout the year, we’re able to point them back to what we learned in the course and to the goals they set.

This is not about setting resolutions.  It’s about getting clear on where you are, where you want to go and how you’re going to get there.  And it’s not just for families.  It’s designed more as a solo activity.   I bought it the first year thinking I would do it by myself, but I decided to ask Jim and our oldest daughter to join me.  She was 21 years old at the time and engaged to be married.

We got so much out of the course, that I bought it the next year and the next.  I just hit purchase again for the fourth time.


If you’re looking for 2017 to be your best year ever, if you need a fresh start in life,  or if you’re looking for a way to help your teens and young adult kids to also have their best year ever, I highly recommend this course.  You will not regret it!

Early bird pricing is going on now through Thursday December 8.  The cart closes on December 15.

If you have questions about it, please let me know, but you’ll find fantastic info on this page.

I set several goals for myself last year.  One of those was a travel goal.  In July, Jim and I cashed in the frequent flyer miles we’d been saving and took off for Paris.  I anticipate that this year’s goals will be closer to home, but I treasure the memories we made on that trip.

Paris us in front of love wall

No matter how you set goals and think through the coming year, I wish you an amazing 2017!

This post contains affiliate links. I only share things I love.

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10 Food Related Stocking Stuffers That Anyone Will Love


I usually save the stocking stuffer shopping till near the end of my Christmas shopping.  And since I haven’t even started yet, it may be a while before I get to the stocking stuffers.  In case you’re further ahead and more organized than I am, I wanted to get these ideas up sooner.  These are things that I’ve either purchased in the past or have on my list for this year.  I hope you’ll find some inspiration here for the people on your list.

1.  Insulated Travel Mug



Everyone can use a travel mug.  Even if you don’t plan to actually travel with it.  This one is insulated stainless steel and will keep your drink hot for 5 hours or cold for 10 hours.  Perfect if you tend to sip on coffee or tea at your desk all morning or for taxiing kids to and fro.

2. Microwave Popcorn Packets

We don’t keep microwave popcorn on hand, so it’s always a treat when my kids find some in their stockings.  This is also great for any college students you have on your list.

3.  Popcorn salt/seasonings


Popcorn seasonings are available in grocery stores in several different flavors.  A container of White Cheddar or Kettle Corn will work for most people and I’ve seen both of those in stores.  But if you have a true popcorn lover, you might consider this 12 pack.  There are some flavors in here that I know my husband would love to find in his stocking!

4.  Milk Frother



This little milk frother gadget is really fun to use.  A quick spin with this makes your hot cocoa creamier and more delicious.  You can also use it to froth hot milk or cream for your coffee.  It does a great job and even kids can use it.  If you have someone on your list who loves hot cocoa or coffee, this will make them very happy!  Bonus: it’s not expensive at all.

5. Hot Cocoa or other hot drink packets

I love that I can pick these up at the last minute in the grocery store.  Most stores offer specialty packets of cocoa in interesting flavors.  You can also buy teas, hot cider mixes, cappuccino and other hot drinks.  Inexpensive and always welcome!

6. Orange peelers




Orange peelers go with that classic “orange in the toe of the stocking”.  I love that this set comes with several.  Split up the set and give to several people.  These are really inexpensive, especially if you get four gifts out of them.

7.  Stainless Steel Straws


I bought these stainless steel straws last year or the year before.  We’ve used them every morning in our green smoothies since then.  The kids also use them for juice, chocolate milk, water, the occasional milkshake and more.  These are so, so much better than plastic straws.  They’re inexpensive and you can split up the pack for multiple stockings.

8.  Insulated Water Bottles


Back in March I bought three insulated water bottles.  Our water bottle situation had gotten dire and I was tired of bottles that either sweat or didn’t stay cold.  These were a great purchase!  Someone is always using these.  My only regret is that ours are all black.  I’m a huge fan of color-coding things in a family.  Assign each person their own color and you know who didn’t wash theirs, who left it in the car and which one is yours so you aren’t drinking after someone else.  These bottles come in six colors and two sizes.

9.  Soda/Pop/Cokes in glass bottles

My kids love a treat of some type of soda in a glass bottle.  (We actually call all soda or pop “coke”.)  You can find several different varieties in the Mexican food aisle.  Jarritos are a big favorite of my kids.  This isn’t something we buy often, since we usually drink water with meals, so it feels special as a stocking stuffer.

10.  Salad dressing bottle for packed lunches


I admit that this last one won’t be exciting to everyone on your list, but if you have someone who often packs a lunch and likes to take salad or dressing for dipping, they will love this.  It’s leak proof, small and perfect for dressings.  These come in a two pack, so you can split it up or give both.  This might make an original, useful and inexpensive gift for a coworker too.



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Instant Pot vs Cuisinart – an honest pressure cooker review



If you spend any time at all online looking at recipes, I’m sure you’ve seen the buzz about pressure cookers.  I’ve been a little slow to jump on the pressure cooker band wagon – and honestly I’m not sure I’d say I’m really on the band wagon – but an electric pressure cooker is a great tool for getting dinner on the table.  In this post I want to share with you my honest thoughts about pressure cookers, whether you need to own one or not and what I think of the two major brands.

First of all, I’m only discussing electric pressure cookers here.  I don’t have any experience with the stove top type, but these new electric pressure cookers are safe and easy to use.

Interested in a FREE pressure cooker dinner plan? Sign up here to get yours now!

The Pressure Cookers I own:


I bought my Cuisinart pressure cooker a couple years ago.  Most of the time I’ve owned it, I used it for Mac & Cheese (best recipe for that classic you’ll ever eat!)  A few months ago, I decided to seriously try some recipes in it.  I’d been about to write it off as too expensive for just making mac & cheese.  I’ve since made several different recipes in the Cuisinart, most of them adaptations of slow cooker recipes.  My Cuisinart Electric Pressure Cooker is a six-quart.

Instant Pot

I’ve only owned the Instant Pot for a few weeks.  I bought it specifically so that I could compare the two brands for you.  I’ve used it to make several different recipes during the time I’ve had it.  My Instant Pot is a six-quart.




Both the Cuisinart and Instant Pot can be used to brown, saute, and cook under pressure.  The controls for both are easy to use and understand.  Both are easy to wash and care for.


Interior cooking pot

The Cuisinart has a non-stick cooking pot.  Clean up is really quick and easy.

Instant Pot has a stainless steel cooking pot.  It’s still easy to clean, and a lot of people prefer the stainless steel.

Slow Cooker function

Instant Pot has a slow cooker function.  One thing about slow cooking in the Instant Pot I didn’t like was not being able to see through the lid.  I really like being able to see my food cooking through the glass lid.  They do sell glass lids for the Instant Pot though, so if saving space in your kitchen is important, you could easily ditch the slow cooker and only use the Instant Pot.

The Cuisinart does not have a slow cooker function.

Delay timer

I love the delay timer on the Instant Pot.  It’s perfect for cooking oatmeal.  I can set it up at night and time it to be ready at breakfast.  Oatmeal cooks better in the pressure cooker than it does in the slow cooker.

The Cuisinart does not have a delay timer on it.

And the winner is:

Instant Pot!  In my opinion, if you’re going to buy one of these appliances, Instant Pot is the way to go.  It’s extra features mean it out-performs the Cuisinart.

But do you even need a pressure cooker?

I don’t think everyone needs one of these.  Here are a few guidelines to know if it would be useful to you:

Do you have 30 minutes before dinner to cook?  Pressure cooker meals – even the fastest that only require 12 minutes of cook time – take at least 25-40 minutes to cook, including the time it takes to reach full pressure.  If you’re cooking a large cut of meat or full pot of something else, it could take longer.  Of course, it’s all hands off cook time once it’s in the pot, so you can go do something else while it cooks.

If you don’t own a slow cooker and want to invest in a multi-function appliance, then a pressure cooker is for you.

If you don’t mind or really enjoy learning to use a new kitchen tool, this is a fun way to do it.  It does have a small learning curve though.  Mostly for me it’s been getting used to it so I can know what it can really do for me.  I had the same experience with the slow cooker.  The more I used it, the more I understood how to cook with it and the more helpful the appliance was to me.


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Have you ever really tasted canned tomatoes?

Red Gold product cutting supplies

Canned tomatoes are a staple ingredient for me, and for most of you too.  I have a whole drawer in my pantry dedicated to various tomato products.

But somehow, I’d never given much thought to the differences in quality of those products.  Until now.

Red Gold sent me a product cutting kit to test their whole, peeled tomatoes against Hunt’s brand.  I took a bunch of photos so you can see the difference.

Red Gold can open

The first thing I did was open the Red Gold can.  The photo above is exactly as it was when I opened it.  Four nice looking, whole tomatoes were near the top.  The media (juice) looked red and I noticed a good tomato scent.

Red Gold tomatoes in pan

I poured the Red Gold tomatoes into the provided pan.  All the tomatoes were whole and looked very good.  There was one tomato that was much smaller than the others, but overall they were uniform in size.

Red Gold product cutting Hunt's can open

Next I opened the Hunt’s can.  This is exactly what it looked like when I opened it.  I couldn’t see any whole tomatoes at the top of the can.  The media (juice) looked thick and red though.

Red Gold product cutting Hunt's in pan

I poured the Hunt’s can into the pan.  There were a few whole tomatoes, but many were squished.

Red Gold product cutting side by side

Above is a side-by-side photo so you can see the differences.

Appearance ratings:

On the Red Gold score sheet, there are five different ratings for appearance.  Each is rated on a scale of five, with 1 being poor and 5 being extraordinary.

Red Color of Tomatoes

The brighter the hue of red, the higher the score.  I gave both Red Gold and Hunt’s a score of 4 on this.

Uniformity of the Size of Tomatoes

The less variation in size, the higher the score.  I gave Red Gold 5 on this.  Hunt’s earned 3.  It was hard to tell if the Hunt’s tomatoes were uniform in size, because many of them were squished or in pieces.

Tomato Integrity

The more firm the tomatoes look, the higher the score.  Red Gold earned 5.  Hunt’s earned 2.

Amount of Peel and Seeds Present in Sample

The less peel and seeds, the higher the score. Red Gold earned 5, because I saw no peel or seeds.  Hunt’s earned 1. On of the Hunt’s tomatoes still had most of the peel on it. Another had a significant amount of peel.  I also saw many seeds in the Hunt’s.


The red and thick juice is the media. The better the color and consistency, the higher the score.  This is the only indicator that Hunt’s may have edged out Red Gold.  Hunt’s media was very thick and red, almost like tomato sauce.  I gave it a rating of 4.  Red Gold’s media looked good, but it is a bit thinner and lighter than Hunt’s.  I gave it a score of 3.

Flavor ratings:

The final two ratings on the score sheet are for flavor.  For this rating, a tomato from each can is cut in half.  Notice the appearance, then taste for flavor.

Red Gold cut in half

The flavor of Red Gold tomatoes is very good.  It’s bright and not far off from a fresh picked tomato.

Red Gold product cutting Hunt's cut in half

Hunt’s tomatoes did not taste good.  I was pretty surprised by how badly they tasted.  There was a distinct metallic taste.  They tasted like an old can.  Not good.

Intensity of Tomato Flavor

The more tomato flavor, the higher the score.  Red Gold earned a score of 5.  Hunt’s earned a score of 2.


Tomatoes should taste garden fresh without any off notes.  Red Gold earned 5 here.  I could easily eat a plate of these by themselves.  I gave Hunt’s a score of 1.  They just really weren’t good.

Score totals:

Red Gold – 32

Hunt’s 17

I was very surprised at the difference between the brands.

Red Gold is Non GMO certified and uses a Non-BPA Liner for their cans.  Both of these add to the quality of the tomatoes.

Have you ever tried Red Gold tomatoes?  The next time you open a can, take a bite before adding them to your recipe.  I’d love to know what you think.

Disclosure:  Red Gold sent me the product cutting kit.  I have been compensated by Red Gold for this post, however all opinions are my own.

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National Soup Month with Bear Creek Dry Soup Mixes (and a giveaway!)

Bear Creek Soup with a cozy fire

The first part of our winter was so warm and nice.  We had to turn the heat off in the house on Christmas day so we could enjoy a fire that morning.

Now that we’re well into January, the weather has shifted.  It’s 12 degrees outside right now, with snow in the forecast for tomorrow.  Brrr!  No wonder some smart person set January as National Soup Month.

I love any kind of soup.  Paired with a salad or warm bread – or paired with a fire in the fireplace – soup warms both body and soul.

Bear Creek Soup Mix

I’ve shared Bear Creek Soup Cups with you before.  But I also really like their soup mixes that make a whole pot to share with the family.  These are wonderful for stocking the pantry, so you can have soup anytime you need a quick lunch or dinner.  My youngest son is home with a bad cold today, so I’ll be making the Chicken Noodle Soup for his lunch.

Bear Creek Soups are so easy to make and they only take minutes.

Bear Creek Soup

Last week we had Creamy Chicken Soup by the fire while it snowed outside.  The Creamy Chicken Soup has small shell pasta in it, so it’s filling as well as being warm and tasty.

Giveaway on Instagram

Bear Creek Foods has another giveaway for you this month!  Submit a photo on Instagram showcasing you all bundled up in your winter gear for the chance at a winter warm-up, a month’s worth of Bear Creek Dry Soup Mixes!  Tag Bear Creek (@bearcreekfoods) and use the hashtags #NationalSoupMonth and #WinterWarmUp

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

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Veggies and Marzetti Dip Make the Best Party Snacks (and a $50 Gift Card Giveaway!)

Marzetti dip

My youngest daughter put this vegetable tray together for a family gathering the Sunday after Thanksgiving.  And then I caught her snitching a taste while I shot photos 🙂

All of Jim’s family came on Sunday so we could share a meal together.  Usually, we are the ones who make the drive to see them, so it was really special to get to host.  We moved our kitchen table to the dining room to make space for all fifteen of us to sit together.

table for 15

I snapped this photo on my cell phone before everyone came in.  I remember thinking I should take another photo once everyone was seated, but I totally forgot.

In the empty spot in the kitchen, where the table usually sits, we put a card table.  It was the perfect place for the veggie tray to sit – between the kitchen and family room.  A lot of veggie munching took place while we waited on dinner.

The veggie tray made a great appetizer before the meal, especially since this gathering came at the tail-end of the Thanksgiving celebrations.  We’d all eaten plenty of pie and stuffing.  It felt good to fill up on veggies.  They are colorful and fun and taste great dipped in the Ranch Dip.

Mia cut strips of red and yellow bell peppers, celery sticks, broccoli florets and she piled up baby carrots and grape tomatoes.  Marzetti® Ranch Dip took the center spot on the tray.

Everyone loves that dip!  I always get compliments on it when I serve it.  The flavor goes perfect with the veggies.


Marzetti dip and vegetable tray

Marzetti® is giving away one $50 Visa Gift Card.  To enter, just leave a comment sharing your favorite vegetable to dip in Marzetti® Dip.

You can find Marzetti® on Facebook .

Marzetti party veggie plate



This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of Marzetti® Veggie Dips. The opinions and text are all mine.

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A Home Tasting Meal Where Ever You Are – Bear Creek Soup

Bear Creek lunch with book

It’s not always possible to actually eat at home.  I do my fair share of packing up food to go.  My youngest daughter takes her lunch three days a week to classes, where she has access to a microwave.  And Jim works in an office, so he likes to keep some easy meals handy there.

One quick and easy meal that also has a taste of home, is Bear Creek Hearty Soup Bowls.  These are so easy to toss in your bag in the morning.  Fixing the hot bowl of soup is as simple as adding water, stirring and heating.

If I can have a warm bowl of soup, along with a good book, that is a taste of home for sure.  I love to read while I eat.  That equals comfort for me.

Bear Creak Soups

There are four varieties of Bear Creek Hearty Soup Bowls.

Cheddar Broccoli – Thick and creamy broccoli soup with a blend of rich cheeses

Creamy Potato – Rich and creamy potato soup with a delicate blend of herbs and spices

Cheddar Potato – Savory cheese flavor with a blend of spices and rustic potatoes

Creamy Chicken with Rice – Rich and creamy home-style chicken soup with hearty rice

Bear Creek Cheddar Potato

All of them make a good meal away from home (or even at home!)  And pairing the soup with a good book makes it even better.

Bear Creek Country Kitchens began over 20 years ago with one goal in mind: to create home-style soups that will satisfy every appetite.  Combining high-quality ingredients and a special blend of spices, Bear Creek soups are delicious and easy to prepare.

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

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Easy Changes for Health – Kefir Smoothies

kefir smoothie


My favorite way to get healthy is to make small changes that add up for a larger impact.  I’m not inclined to sign myself up for a marathon, but I have started walking nearly every morning.

It’s unlikely that I’ll do a complete overhaul of my eating habits (although I did try the Whole 30 once).  I’d rather make small changes that are easier to keep up with.

One of those things is adding kefir to my snack rotation.

What the heck is kefir, you may ask?

First, let me just say that it actually tastes pretty good.  The description I’m about to give you may turn you off of trying it, but stick with me.  Despite the description, I do enjoy these smoothies and I think you will too.

Kefir is fermented milk.  It’s a little like a thin, drinkable yogurt, but it’s not yogurt.  It’s possible to make kefir at home, but I haven’t tried that.  Instead, I buy Lifeway brand.

lifeway kefir


I’ve found it at Walmart, Meijer, Costco and Aldi.  Aldi has the best price on the quart size bottles.  Costco carries the individual bottles at a price just a bit more than Aldi.  (This post isn’t sponsored, by the way.  I’m just sharing a product I’m loving.)

Kefir comes in plain or various berry flavors.  I prefer the flavored.  Actually, I’m not brave enough to try the plain.  I even add to the sweetness of the berry flavor by blending half a frozen banana with it.  Of course, the flavored varieties aren’t quite as healthy as the plain, but I think it’s a lot healthier for me.  The reason, is I’d never drink the plain, so I’d miss out on the health benefits altogether.  At least with the flavored type, I get all the good probiotics and other goodness, even if it does come with a bit of added sugar.

Benefits of kefir

Because it’s fermented, kefir is full of probiotics – many more than are found in yogurt.  This is a real boost for gut health, but it also brings a lot of other benefits too.

This article goes into more details on the benefits, but here’s a quick list for you.

~ The probiotics are good for you gut and can help restore good bacteria after illness.  It’s also good for people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

~ It boosts your immunity to viruses and infections.

~ It builds bone density.

~ Some studies show it helps both allergies and asthma.

~ People who are lactose intolerant can usually drink kefir with no problem.  In fact, there’s evidence to show that it will help people who deal with that.

~ There have been lab studies that show kefir fights cancer in animals.

~ There are only about 100 calories per cup.

It’s been easy to swap out my morning or afternoon snack for a kefir smoothie instead.  I just blend half a frozen banana with 1 cup of kefir.  If I don’t have the banana already frozen, I add a cube or two of ice to the blender.  Easy!

I’d love to know if you’ve tried kefir and what you think of it! 




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All I Want for Christmas is… Holiday Gift Ideas for Eat at Home Cooks

I firmly believe you do not need the latest and greatest in kitchen equipment to be a good cook.  However, there are a few essentials and some fun items that are nice to own.  Since Christmas is coming, I thought I’d share some ideas with you.

Stand Mixer

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 8.56.07 AM

KitchenAid 4-1/2-Quart Stand Mixer is very similar to the one I’ve had for 18 years.  Mine is still going strong. I use it several times a week.  It was a huge splurge (one of the only black friday items Jim has ever purchased) but it was so worth it.  Right now on Amazon the black mixer is $50 less than the white.  That could change quickly,
but that’s a great savings.

Pizza Steel

dough joe pizza steel

I ordered the Dough-Joe pizza steel last winter and it has been such a fun purchase!  This thing make awesome homemade pizza.  It transformed our pizza nights.  The pizza steel goes in the oven and the temp gets cranked as hot as it will go.  Pizzas bake in about 6 minutes and the crust is perfection! I explain how to use the steel in this post.  If you’ve ever wanted to improve your homemade pizza, this is the way to go.

Pizza Peel

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 9.21.48 AM

If you’re using a pizza steel then you need a pizza peel in order to transfer the pizzas in and out of the oven.  I use this Epicurean Pizza Peel.  The pizza peel and steel together would make a fantastic gift for the cook in your life.  Or for yourself.  Or even as a family gift.  We’ve had so much fun together on pizza nights.

Slow Cooker

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 9.00.59 AM
Hamilton Beach 33967 Set ‘n Forget 6-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker is a great option if you’re in the market for a new slow cooker.

Ice Cream Maker

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 9.06.32 AM

Cuisinart ICE-21 Frozen Yogurt-Ice Cream & Sorbet Maker  I have two of these and I love them.  They enable my ice cream habit. Yum!

Non-Stick Skillet


I did some work with Swiss Diamond a few months ago.  They sent me a covered skillet to try and I have loved it.  I find I reach for it all the time.  It’s heavy, it cooks evenly, it’s non-stick.  It’s a bit of an investment, but this is a work horse and worth the money.

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Make Your Slow Cooker Programmable for just $4!

This little tip was mentioned by Loretta, one of my readers.

You can use a timer (the kind you use for Christmas trees, lamps, etc.  Find them in the hardware section.) to set your slow cooker.  It isn’t quite as good as a programmable slow cooker, but it is very close.

And it’s perfect for slow cooked oatmeal.  I set it to start about 3am and at 7am breakfast was ready, without being overcooked.

Another cool tip, mentioned by a reader (I can’t remember who!) – Walmart now has Rival 2 quart slow cookers on sale for just $4!  I bought one, especially for fixing oatmeal.  It’s a fantastic price.  The same thing on Amazon costs $20 or more.

Happy cooking!

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