Thursday, May 22, 2008

It's Butter, But It's Not--Except It Is

I'm liking this product

Both my thumbs up for this product, because it combines two of the things I constantly vasillate between in the kitchen. I use Smart Balance for almost everything that calls for butter or margarine, but there are some situations when you really need butter--like for browning in baking or sauteeing...this, to me is a good solution, and I was happy to find it in my grocery store the other day. It comes in a "regular" version, and the one shown here, which has added Omega-3 (in the form of fish oil, which somehow doesn't affect the flavor) fatty acids in it, and it costs about the same as name-brand butter at my store.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Ford's "Driving Skills For Life" Program

DSFL car

Alex and I had the opportunity, courtesy of the Ford Motor Fund, to take a little overnight jaunt to Chicago on Mother's Day to observe and take part in their "Driving Skills For Life" program. It's a safety program geared toward teen drivers, in which the kids get hands-on experience behind the wheel, guided by professional drivers. The exercises concentrated on things like hazard recognition, reaction time, speed, and vehicle handling.

We had an uneventful flight (well, once we got on the plane, anyway) into Chicago on Mother's Day, and were met by a very pleasant driver, who would prove to be a nice counterpoint to the next day's surly driver. Alex wasted no time at all in making himself right at home in the limo.

our happy driver

Alex wasted no time making himself at home in the limo

We arrived in downtown Chicago with plenty of time to check into our well-appointed suite at the Embassy Suites hotel, relax a bit, and get ready for dinner. At the nice, not-too-early, not-too-late hour of 6:00PM, we gathered in the hotel lobby with our hosts from Ford and Social Media Group, and headed out to Maggiano's Little Italy, where we were treated to an enormous "family style" meal.

at Maggiano's

The food was good, and more than plentiful, and the company was interesting and engaging. Seated closest to me, representing Ford, so that we were able to visit a bit, were Ford spokesman Wes Sherwood, and Vice-President of Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering, Sue Cischke.

Wes and I had a common bond in that we both have 5-year-olds who will be starting kindergarten in the fall, so we had plenty to talk about there! The Ford folks at our table that night didn't seem to have very much background in social media (double-kudos to them for hiring a liaison who is social-media savvy), so much of our conversation was centered around The Way Of The Internet. It's obvious to me that big companies NEED go-betweens to help get their messages out to the online community--and there's nothing wrong with that! These are busy people in high-powered, high-stress careers, who don't have time to be blog-surfing or Twittering all day long. At the same time, Ford Motor Company obviously does have some internet-savvy folks among their ranks, as evidenced by their Flickr stream. Check it out--what they've done there is very, very smart: They have a good Flickr presence, with high-quality, well-described and tagged professional photos which they've made free for anyone's use. They also use the account to comment on others' photos, and add their own photos to all applicable Flickr groups, for maximum exposure. Smart, smart, SMART.

In conversation with Wes, I sensed a sincere desire on the part of Ford to connect with bloggers, their readers, and the consumer in general--this was not a slick, fake "shill" in the least. This was a regular guy, dedicated to his job, and honestly excited about the opportunities ahead, especially the importance of the DSFL program.

I could have spent another several hours listening to Sue Cischke, too. This is an inspiring woman doing a BIG job, and she has an amazing amount of knowledge over a broad area of expertise in her industry. I was most excited to hear her describing some of the research that's being done right now in developing new fuel sources...if I give you my dumbed-down version of that conversation, it's this: CARS WILL RUN ON GARBAGE. OK, so, yeah, I'm over-simplifying. But it's coming, I tell you! I came away with the feeling that, if I'd asked Sue, "So, where are our flying cars?" she'd have explained to me just how far along the flying-car research is at this point in time. Long story short (too late for that?), I was quite impressed by Sue.

head honchess

We were able to get back to the hotel at a very decent hour, which, after the madcap pace of the J&J event, I really appreciated, especially since we had to be checked out and ready to go at 8:00 the next morning. Alex and I rolled out at the appointed time the next day, had a lovely breakfast of custom-made omelets in the company of the lovely Zoe Siskos of Social Media Group, and then went outside into a beautiful Chicago morning to wait for the car service to come and take us to Cellular Field (home of the White Sox) for the DSFL program. And we waited. And waited. An hour and a half we waited, apparently due to some mix-up with the car service (their fault, thankyouverymuch). Because of that delay, we missed part of the DSFL program--the "hazard recognition" portion, specifically.

We were, however, able to catch most of the program, and got to observe the teenage audience soaking in the talks given by Ford's professional drivers, all of whom seemed to have racing backgrounds.

racers have the best sunglasses

another of the pro drivers

teen audience, driving skills for life

The first session we observed focused on distractions, and many of the teens seemed genuinely surprised at how easily their attention was taken off the road, as the professional drivers riding along with them moved their mirrors, messed with the radio, pointed out landmarks...and then cheerfully informed the young drivers that they'd just missed a stop sign or taken out a road cone. POINT MADE. It was a hoot.

test course

teen test driver

Then it was time for what we'd all been waiting for: The SKID CARS. We'd been watching the pro drivers spin out and skid the specially-customized Mustangs all over the Cellular Field parking lot all morning, and it just looked like a lot of fun.

burning rubber

The Mustangs were specially fitted with casters which took a great deal of the weight off the rear wheels, making the cars much more prone to skid in a turn.

casters underneath test cars to facilitate skidding

Our next instructor, one of my favorites, did a fantastic job of explaining the physics of a skid in terms that the teenagers (and myself) could easily understand. I especially appreciated his detailed discussion of "target fixation," the phenomena which occurs when, instead of concentrating on where we're trying to direct our vehicle, we visually "fixate" on the object we're trying to avoid...which, ironically, makes us all the more likely to have a collision with that very object.

I really liked this professional driver

I was very impressed by all the professional drivers at work on this morning--they were cheerful, accessible, helpful, and very easy to understand. Also, they all had rockin' shades.

happy drivers

Alex and I exercised remarkable restraint in not shoving any of the kids aside to get our turn to drive one of the skid cars. We waited patiently, like grownups, and then got our chance. Our driver/instructor, who was impossibly young, was personable and fun. His name was David Bahr, and you can even check out his website. He showed us the basics of handling the car, then all too abruptly announced that it was MY turn. You know, to go too fast around the turn, so that I'd spin out, so that I could then try to correct the vehicle, pull out of the skid, and stay on the course.

I have to tell you, this exercise was very difficult for me to even attempt. Being a single gal with horses to tow and dogs to carry to shows for most of my adult life, I've only ever owned SUVs and pickup trucks. And if there's one thing that I'm cautious to the point of paranoia about in driving those vehicles, it is most definitely that you DO NOT NEGOTIATE TURNS AT SPEED, because that will cause your SUV or pickup truck to TURN OVER. David had to encourage me pretty vigorously to "accelerate into the turn!" To which I would answer, "I don't want to!"

Ultimately, though, I got up my nerve enough to let 'er rip (if David is reading this, I assure you that he is laughing his HEAD off at MY interpretation of "letting 'er rip,"), and felt the rear end of the Mustang sliding away from me, to the outside. My instinctive response? I let go of the wheel. This is not the right answer, for those of you following along at home. By "let go," I don't mean that I threw my hands up in the air or anything, just that I released my grip on the steering wheel enough so that it slid freely through my grasp of its own volition, until it reached the "home" position in which the wheels were straight. This tactic totally works... if you're going 3 miles per hour. But at skidding speed? Not so much. So my first attempt had me facing back the way I'd come, which is not what you want. But the next few times, I conquered that bugaboo, and manually corrected the wheel as David had instructed. I did not "target fixate," which kind of surprised me, because when I'd been outside the car, I'd been hyper-aware of all the nearby lampposts scattered between the skid courses, and was sure I'd be sliding into at least one of them, or, worse yet, another car.

But here's what I did NOT see coming, and herein lies the value of an opportunity like this, an opportunity to have a "controlled accident:" All through my skids, even the corrections, my tendency was to NEVER TAKE MY FOOT OFF THE GAS. That's right, something in my brain thought it would be a good idea to just keep on accelerating through the entire process. David had to say, "stop," every single time before I'd remember to brake. That, folks, was a rude awakening, and something I never would have guessed to be a problem. David informed us that it was a common accident response, because of adrenalin, tension, and inexperience (and really, how many of us are "experienced" at having--or avoiding--accidents?).

I'd also like to thank David for his take on one of my personal little pet peeves of driving instruction, which is the advice to "steer into the skid." That phrase, to me, is deceptive, and what I've always said to myself (and what my dad said to me long, long ago when teaching me to drive) instead, is, "steer in the direction you want the car to go." David said it that way, and it made ever so much more sense than "steer into the skid." He also pointed out the many things that come after "steer into the skid," chief among them the fact that, at some point, you have to STOP. So thanks, David--it was educational and fun, and I learned a lot, even if I'm old enough to be, let's say "cool aunt," OK?

In another little gem of unconventional wisdom, the female race driver we rode with in another session informed us that, in her opionion, the "10:00 and 2:00" position of your hands on the steering wheel doesn't give you nearly the control that you get at 9:00 and 3:00. I've got a feeling that you could take lessons from these drivers for weeks on end and keep learning new things. I know I'd LIKE to.

And then, for our trouble, Ford gave us this sweet, sweet car. Cool, huh?

hot rod and a hot bod

I'm KIDDING. They gave us a nice lunch. Which Alex and I skipped in favor of a visit to Giordano's before our flight out.

If you'd like more information about Ford's Driving Skills For Life program (I know I, for one, would like to know how to get them to come to MY hometown), follow the links in this post, or leave a comment here, and I'll make sure the right person sees it. This is a company that has always been on the forefront of driver safety research and development, and I found them to be quite open and responsive. Thanks to the Ford Motor Fund for giving us the opportunity to learn more about this great program for teens.

Click here to see my full photo set from this trip.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Highly Recommended

I'm breaking my own rule about foods packaged in single servings, but this is so good I'll make an exception. And although I am following the Weight Watchers program right now, and doing well, I'm not normally a huge fan of Weight Watchers brand packaged foods, for various reasons. This cream cheese is a standout product, though.

highly recommended

I'm going to eat cream cheese anyway, so it makes sense to seek out the best one for my caloric budget. This one is closer in fat content to "real" cream cheese than it is to standard light or fat-free versions, but that's why it tastes so good, with a texture that matches "the real thing" pretty closely. There are 5 grams of fat in a 60-calorie serving, but Weight Watchers has done that trickly little thing they do where they add fiber (in this case in the form of inulin, a fiber source derived from chicory root) to a food to lower its "point" value. A 1-point snack with fat and protein is fairly hard to come by, so this cream cheese is a good part of my dietary intake. To elevate it into a light meal or heavy snack, I like to spread it on a toasted whole-grain bagel, and sprinkle dry-roasted sunflower seeds on top for crunch (and more protein, good fat, and fiber). The cream cheese/sunflower seed combo also makes a really nice addition to a turkey sandwich.

I can say, from experience: GO EASY ON THE FOODS WITH ADDED INULIN. You want most of your fiber to come from the actual food it's found in, not from supplementation. One serving of Weight Watchers cream cheese a day is plenty. That said, there's nothing on this product's ingredients panel that causes me to run screaming for the hills.

nutrition panel, WW cream cheese

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

John Deere Green...With Envy

There are lots of things I lust after, and wantwantWANT. The new Sony HD Handycam. A MacBook. Actual grown-up luggage. Furniture that nobody else owned before me (seriously, I'm over 40 now, and my bed is the only piece of furniture in my house that's not a hand-me-down...I'm not "on track," am I?). Multiple sets of sheets and towels, so that I'm not always washing them. Spare time. A maid service.

But there is something that stops me in my tracks and causes me very nearly to drool in public. It's shiny and gorgeous. It's not jewelry--it's better. It's a lawn tractor. A JOHN DEERE lawn tractor.


This is another thing that I've never owned new, but it hasn't ever mattered. My dad's John Deere hand-me-downs have held up beautifully for many, many years. I've replaced a couple of seats, and in one case a hood, and I usually have to have it serviced once a year, but the thing just goes and goes and goes. I know people with John Deere tractors that are 20 or more years old, and showing no sign of slowing.

So I'm waiting, and hoping that the price on this super-fantastic lawn tractor drops at the same time our current one shuffles off this mortal coil. And if anyone has an in at John Deere, hook me up, wouldja?

Monday, April 7, 2008

Don't Wait On Storm Repairs

Early this year, tornadoes whipped through Arkansas (as they have several times since then), doing major damage to many, many structures. Although our home sits down in what we like to call a "holler," part of our property is more elevated and in a clearing, and so is subject to high winds. It's in that part of the property that our "shop" building is located. In the storm cycle I've mentioned, we lost almost every shingle on the west side of the building, and the roof began to leak.

not good

Obviously, this had to be repaired, but the estimate for repair was $2100, which we simply didn't have. Our homeowner's insurance wasn't a whole lot of help, since our deductible is $1500. So we were preparing to do what so many of our neighbors were doing with their homes, which was to effect a homemade rain-barrier made of tarps and sandbags and try to save up the money needed for repair.

But a couple of things happened around this time which were serendipitous, and allowed us to learn from the experience. First, we got our income tax refund, which was around $1100. Lesson: always file your tax return as early as possible. Second, we got a break from a roofing company for being willing to have our repair done right away--it seems that our job was small enough that they could fit it between two larger jobs, which made it more cost-effective for the roofing company. This saved us around $1,000, making the cost of the repair just about equal to the amount of our tax refund. Lesson: Even if it means sacrificing other things, make repairs in a timely manner if at all possible. We also saved a little money by going with a readily available shingle (in a different, but compatible, color) instead of waiting on delivery of the shingle that was previously on our roof. Lesson: Be flexible.


On the one hand, it stunk that we weren't able to use our income tax refund on some other things we needed. On the other hand, we were very thankful that we HAD the income tax refund when our roof blew off.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Healthy Grocery Shopping With Coupons IS Possible

I've posted on this topic before, and I'm still at it. I get a lot of questions about couponing and store sales, and one of the most common is, "But aren't coupons always for highly-processed junk food? I try to eat healthy, so I can't really save money on groceries."

The short answer is, yes, most coupons are for crap. But your store sales will usually have lots of good deals on the "outer perimeter" of the store, where the nutritionally dense foods tend to be--your meats, produce, grains, dairy. And, believe it or not, many coupons are for staples that are not frozen pizza and cupcakes, and you can make the most of those. So, to answer all the, "What do you buy with your couponing?" questions, here are some recent examples. I shoot for an average of 60% savings, which I usually meet when averaging trips. In the examples below, two of the receipts showed around 53-55% savings, while the other got darn close to 70% saved.

Click on the pictures for notes and a closer look.

Kroger 2/17/08

On this trip, the receipt total was $109, and once I'd applied my coupons to the store sales, I paid $53 for all this food, plus a couple of things that didn't get pictured because Alex had already taken them downstairs to the freezer in the basement. Here was the haul:

Wonton wrappers
Nature's Own Double Fiber Wheat bread
Several cans of store-brand veggies
Couple cans of Dole pineapple
T. Marzetti Fat-Free Ranch veggie dip
Fresh asparagus
Fiber One bars, 6 boxes
Milk & Cereal bars for Bella, 3 boxes
Organic carrots
Black table grapes
Packaged tart apple slices for Bella
2 Freschetta 4-cheese pizzas
10 Banquet chicken pot-pies for Bella (they're very small)
15 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast, great sale price (these I opened, repackaged into single-meal size servings, and vacuum sealed and froze, so now we have enough chicken for 7 meals)

Yes, there are some prepared foods there (breakfast bars, bread, veggie dip), but also plenty of "real" food to show for that trip, where I paid for less than half of my groceries. It can be done. Next:

today's haul  68% saved

This trip included a good few non-grocery items, which, if you're paying attention, can REALLY save you some dough. This was the trip where, but for that roast, I'd have broken the 70% saved mark. As it was, this was $216 worth of food, for which I paid $74. YES. Here was the take:

14 cans Healthy Choice vegetable soup for one, for my lunches
5 boxes Kelloggs Frosted Flakes Gold, for Bella (I know, cereal, ewww)
20 Yoplait YO+ digestive health yogurts
5 Lloyd's barbecue chicken & beef (tasty and lean)
10 lbs. Riceland brown rice
1 bunch bananas (sliced & frozen for use in smoothies)
White seedless grapes
Frozen strawberries
7 boxes Garnier Nutrisse haircolor, MY actual preferred brand
7 Gillette Fusion Hydragel shave gel
2 boxes bandages
1 roll bandaging tape
3lb. English beef roast

It may look crazy to buy 7 boxes of haircolor or shave gel at a time, but look at it this way: You're going to need these things (well, I am, anyway) sometime, and if you wait until you run out, you're likely to have to pay full price. In the case of the haircolor, that would have been a $6-8 difference PER BOX. So you can see, it pays to stockpile while the sales are on, especially if you can combine those sales with coupons.

Kroger 2/25/08 53% saved

This trip, today's, was what we call a "cherry-picking" trip, in which, outside of my actual needs, I was ONLY buying things that were deeply discounted due to the combination of store sales and my coupons. What did I NEED when I went into the store? I needed bread and juice. That's it. And those things were not on sale, so they threw of my percentages somewhat, but that's OK. Here's what $99 bought me (the ticket total was $206):

3 bags Baked! Lays potato chips (shut up, they make my lunches sufferable, all 14 of them at a time)
1 large bottle pomegranate-blueberry juice (the base of my berry smoothies)
6 bags Kraft string cheese
10 boxes Orville Redenbacher light popcorn (*sighs* for Act II Kettle Corn)
4 packs Huggies wipes, for the car
6 tubs Kan-Doo pop-up wipes for Bella's bathroom
6 bags Welch's dried fruit
1/2 gallon Florida's Natural orange juice
10 Glade jar air-freshening candles (what--you don't stink?)
2lbs white seedless grapes, for the freezer
2 loaves Nature's Own Honey Wheat bread, for Alex
1 loaf Nature's Own Double Fiber Wheat bread, for me
48 Fiber One Yoplait yogurts. That's right, 48. Stored in the basement fridge until I finish the current stock of Activia and YO+ I already have.

You may be wondering things like, "Where's the veggies? Where's the milk?" Well, I already have pretty good stores of most things, and I even freeze milk when it's on sale--it thaws just fine, good as new. Cheese also freezes well, as does bread. And we buy MOST of our vegetable frozen, which actually means that you're usually getting a fresher product than by buying "fresh" produce, since frozen veggies are flash-frozen on the spot shortly after being picked, instead of being shipped from wherever they're harvested to your grocery store.

The meat that we feed our dogs, and most of our own meat, we get from a small, wonderful, local butcher, where we're able to pick it up on the day the cow is processed (the only do one cow at a time), and it actually winds up costing less than grocery-store meat.

And of course, our larders are full-to-bursting with canned goods, pastas, rice, and beans.

The only thing I can add is that I AM now using The Grocery Game, which only became available in my area this year. I can't say that it saves me more money than what I was managing to save going it alone, but it saves me HOURS of time, which is worth a lot.

So...any questions?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Superbowl Commercials And

Not enough, apparently. Which is surprising, considering my hatred for the Quiznos "Baby Bob" spots of a few years ago. This is just done SO much better, and by someone with a really great eye for comedic timing. Plus, these spots actually made me visit ETrade's website, which is the idea, right?

P.S. Have I ever mentioned how much I love hulu? I LOVE HULU.