Category Archives: Tips

Getting Organized - Email

Getting Organized ~ Email

I’m old enough to remember the days before email was even a word. In the mid 90’s I set up my first email account through AOL … like as in “You’ve Got Mail” (love that movie, btw). Remember the weird ringing tone as the dial up connection to the internet was made. It was fun sharing jokes and stories with family and friends. However, important things were still mailed through the Post Office … affectionately known as “snail mail”.

In today’s world, email has made snail mail practically obsolete … practically, but not totally. We all receive plenty of “junk mail” to attest to that. You can read about my tips about organizing paper clutter here.

These days, our electronic inboxes are overflowing with emails … some are from family & friends, some are business/school related, some are household related, but many, a great many, are advertisements.

I try to “organize” my email accounts monthly. I have a couple … personal and business.
Today, I’ll concentrate on my personal/household account. I’ve had the same email address for many years. That being said, I’m on many mailing lists that are no longer important to me. Here’s an example, as many of you know, I homeschooled my kids. My youngest graduated in 2011 … and I still receive emails from homeschool textbook companies 🙁 Instead of just deleting them, I unsubscribed so I won’t receive future emails from them. I also made adjustments to the frequency that I receive emails from companies that are still relevant to me but I don’t necessarily want to hear from on a daily basis. I also usually just delete all those forwarded jokes (sorry) … I just don’t have time to read them all, especially since I’ve probably seen many of them floating around on Facebook or Twitter.

I created separate folders and “filed” important emails that I may need to refer back to in the future. I have also created a new email address that I use strictly for signing up for free giveaways and following blogs, etc. I don’t have to check this daily, only when I have a little time for some leisurely reading. It is there when I need it and then my other email inbox doesn’t get clogged up so quickly 🙂

After my initial inbox clean up (which I admit, took awhile), I now delete and file stuff from my smartphone whenever I have a few minutes of downtime between clients and appointments.

Hopefully, I’ve inspired you to take a look at your inbox & get it more organized 🙂

Photo credit to SeanMacEntee

 

Stuffed Shells Freezer Meal

Freezer Meal Ideas

I mentioned in last week’s blog, that I would share my ideas for having some meals in the freezer for those times when your schedule is super busy. You know, those crazy weeks when everything hits the fan all at once. If you try any of my ideas, the hardest thing you have to do is to remember to take it out of the freezer the day before 🙂

When my kids were young, I did a huge freezer cooking day with a friend of mine. It was the kind where you have a month’s worth of meals for your freezer when you are done. We did it over a weekend. Thankfully our husbands helped keep the kids entertained & occupied. We shopped on the first day. It was the one and only time I used a credit card for groceries. It costs a lot to buy ingredients for a months worth of meals, and I usually budget for 2 weeks at a time. We prepped and cooked everything on the second day. It was exhausting, expensive and my family ended up not liking at least half of the meals. I don’t have fond memories of that weekend …

Fast forward … that was then ~ this is now 🙂

With Pinterest becoming so popular in the last few years, I’ve read many (and I mean many) articles and blogs about freezer cooking. There are many different techniques out there, and I’m sure they are great. However, with my not-so-great experience back in the day, I have come up with my own plan that works best for me.

As I mentioned last week, I pretty much only cook for my husband and myself these days. Since we have no need for a whole 9×13 casserole, when I make the recipe, I divide it in half and use two 8×8 pans instead. I use aluminum pans from the dollar store … I cover it with foil and them put the pan in a ziplock freezer bag. I also put the cooking directions in the bag ( paper seems to freeze well 🙂 ) I then have a meal for dinner that night and one to put in the freezer for future use. Sometimes, I’ll double the recipe and have one 8×8 for dinner and the freeze the other 3 🙂

Disclaimer ~ I only make recipes we have tried and liked. I’ve learned that not everything turns out like the picture they show 🙂 I’ve also learned that not all recipes taste good after being frozen … it’s trial and error for me. It’s also easier on the budget doing it this way.

I have also recently starting using my crockpot more often. I confess, my crockpot used to only come out when I hosted a party and wanted to keep something warm on my buffet table. This past year, I have been trying various soup recipes I’ve found online. One of my favorite things to make in my crockpot is homemade chicken stock. I think it tastes so much better than the kind you get at the store. I try to always have a few quarts (mason jars) in my freezer.

I have tried several freezer recipes for the crockpot that I have found on Pinterest. You can check out some of the recipes (not all for the crockpot) I’ve pinned to try. We have liked all the ones I’ve made so far. They have been pretty similar in preparation. You chop everything and measure out all the ingredients, then store them in freezer ziplock storage bags. Write the cooking directions on the bag with a sharpie pen. They suggest laying them flat to freeze to allow for better storage space. Again, you take it out of the freezer the day before to thaw. Then you dump it all into the crockpot and go about your day. Dinner is ready when you are 🙂

I also make a double batches when I make cookies or quick breads. I bake them first. I use the same 8×8 pans or foil loaf pans … wrap them in foil, then store in a ziplock bag. Dessert when you want it or a last minute dish to bring to a potluck type gathering … arrange it on a pretty plate and you are good to go 🙂

So these are a few ideas that work for me … what ideas work for you?
If you want to save some time, Tracy Helps You can do the shopping for you … then you’ll have everything you need on hand for you freezer cooking day. Remember, we are only a phone call or email away 🙂

Meal Planning Calendar

Meal Planning Tips & Menu Ideas

 Generally when I plan my meals, I do it for two weeks at a time. Unfortunately (pretty much since starting my own small business, if I’m being honest), I haven’t been as consistent at meal planning as I once was. I have to figure out a way to make this part of my normal routine once again.

I’ve been researching different meal planning approaches on various blogs and on Pinterest. So far, I’ve determined that there are approximately a million different ideas on the topic … So I’ll make it a million and one by telling you my technique 🙂

My family has changed over the years. My kids have grown ~ one has moved into his own place and the other still lives at home, but isn’t home all that often (and hardly ever eats at home with us). So, I only make plans for me and the hubby 🙂

I’ve decided to make my new meal plan approach to cover a whole month. I print out a blank calendar page and write in the meal for each day. I save them in a binder, and hope to reuse them in the coming years. I usually write in pencil so we can switch things around if we’re not in the mood for what is on the schedule for that day. I try to switch with something in the same week, so I have all the ingredients on hand. Also, I usually only plan dinners on my meal plan.

My schedule (and I use the word loosely) with Tracy Helps You is quite erratic – some days I have multiple clients – some days one – some days none. Each day is different … and I love it, but it does keep me on my toes, so I definitely need a flexible schedule / plan 🙂 My husband works the early shift and is long gone before I even wake up, so I keep a variety of breakfast type foods on hand for fending for yourself. Since I’m only cooking for 2, we often have leftovers for lunches. I also try to always have sandwich fixins’ on hand.

My husband and I have some favorites that are on the menu every week … like Taco Tuesday 🙂 Then I rotate some tried and true staples like spaghetti & meatballs or pork chops with cinnamon apple slices. We go out to eat on date nights and, of course, there are a couple of pizza nights 🙂 Then I fill in the other days with new recipes to try from my Pinterest Board or meals from my freezer that have been prepared in advance. I’ll be talking about freezer meals in next week’s blog post – stayed tuned 🙂

My plan sort of blends my current technique with some ideas that have worked for others. I have taken different points from different sources and come up with a customized plan that fits the needs of my family.

I hope my plan “helps” you … you can use it as a “jumping off” point in customizing your own menu plan or use it “as is” whatever works best for you … it’s all cool 🙂

American Flag ~ 4th of July

American Flag Etiquette for the 4th of July

We are coming up on the 4th of July … it’s the perfect time to show your patriotism by flying the American flag.
I have great memories of being a Cub Scout leader when my son was younger. One of my favorite memories was of one den meeting where we were working on an achievement about honoring and respecting the American flag. I had gotten prior approval from the principal to use the flagpole in front of the school where we held our meetings. The janitor met us at the flagpole and showed us how to properly raise and lower the flag. We had just talked about flag etiquette guidelines and how it shouldn’t touch the ground. Each 1st grade boy was to get a turn either hoisting or lowering the flag. I divided the den up into teams of 2 and had the team with a particularly shy and reserved boy go first, knowing he would back out if left until the end. He was doing so well until he accidentally dropped it while trying to get it hooked onto the rope. Of course, one of the more mean spirited boys called him a rude name and the shy boy burst into tears …

Anyways …

Here are a couple of the main guidelines (nutshell version):
• Always hang the flag with the blue field of stars in the upper left hand corner – whether hanging vertically or horizontally
• The flag should only be displayed during daylight hours … unless it is illuminated, (like a spotlight shining on it)then it can be displayed in the dark
• The flag should be folded in a triangle for ceremonial purposes or to display on the mantle. It can be folded into a normal square shape for ordinary storage

The etiquette guidelines I’ve shared are very simple and basic. You can read the very detailed, official rules here.

Fly our flag proudly and always remember what a privilege it is to live in “the land of the free & the home of the brave” …
Have a Happy and Safe 4th of July !!

camping

My Top 10 Best Camping Tips & Hacks

I love camping, but if you know me at all, you know that I love to have a plan. Even if things don’t always go as planned, you can go on to Plan B 🙂

Here are some tidbits of wisdom (no particular order) that have served me well …

#1  Plan all your meals and snacks (I suggest lots of snacks) ahead of time – then use your menu plan to create your shopping & packing lists

#2  Create a separate plastic storage bin (with tight fitting lid) to store camp essentials – one for your “camp kitchen” aka, pots & pans, dishes, utensils, dish towels, etc. – one for your “camp gear” aka, tools, flashlights, rope, fire starters, bug spray, etc. – one for your “camp pantry” aka, to store all your non refrigerated, dry food items.

#3  Have 3 separate coolers – one for meats (freeze ahead of time and put in zip lock bags (to catch blood from the meat so it doesn’t mix in with the water from melting ice)) – one for beverages (I keep these separate because the lid is opened so often). I also fill a gallon zip lock with clean ice for my glass each time we get more bags of ice. – one to serve as the “frig” … for your fruits & veges, condiments, butter, eggs, etc. I freeze gallon jugs of water before hand to keep things cold and then use the melted water to make lemonade.

#4  Try to choose a shady campsite – it is cooler during the day and you can always find a sunny place to hang out if you want heat & fun in the sun.

#5  Get inexpensive solar garden path lights from the Dollar store – place them around your site so you can see where you are going a night … darkness fall very quickly. These generally work even if they don’t get direct sunlight during the day, maybe not as bright, but enough to light your path.

#6  Use aluminum foil and aluminum pans – the grates over the fire pit are usually pretty dirty and gross, so I use foil grill pans to cook my meats – plus easy clean up 🙂

#7  Have two matching (size/shape, so they can stack) laundry baskets – pack your clothes in one with the empty underneath. Each night as you change clothes, put the dirty clothes in the bottom basket and stack the clean clothes on top of it.

#8  Have small mesh bags for carry bath & hygiene essentials to the shower house – make one for males & one for females, or one for each person. I also set up a hand washing station at the campsite for quick clean ups. I put a bar of soap in an old knee high nylon stocking and hang it with a towel near the water / dish washing area.

#9  Always take your trash to the dump station every night before going to sleep – you do not want animals prowling around your campsite because they smell your meal leftovers! I also fill all our water containers at this time too – I need fresh water for my morning coffee 🙂

#10  Always have a well stocked first aid kit with a basic first aid manual. I use a jumbo vitamin/pill day of the week type container and re-labeled them for a supply of Advil / Benadryl / Pepto-Bismol / etc.

Do you have any tips or tricks or ideas about camping that you could share with us? Leave a comment … I’d love to hear them. We can all learn from each other !

Camping - Nap Time

There’s nothing like a relaxing afternoon nap while you are camping.

Happy Camping 🙂

Garage Sale Top 10 Tips

Top 10 Tips For Having A Successful Garage Sale

Confession time ~ I just love garage sales … both going to & having 🙂 Here are my Top 10 Tips (aka … a few things I’ve learned from experience) for having a successful garage sale:

1) ADVERTISING ~ Have good signage that makes it easy for potential customers to find you. Make sure to place signs where people can see them coming from all directions. Put a sign decorated with colorful balloons / flags / streamers at the foot of your driveway. Remember to take them down after your sale ends. Also, hang a sign on your local grocery store bulletin board and create a free ad on Craigslist.

2) BE PREPARED ~ Be prepared to start very early. If possible, have everything set up and ready to go the night before. Customers may be at your house before your official start time, especially if you advertised well ∧∧∧ 🙂

3) ORGANIZATION ~ Try to organize your sale tables into departments … tools, toys, books, clothes, jewelry, kitchenware … etc. Try to lay everything out on a table, many people don’t like digging through boxes under tables. If possible, try to “display” items … for example, if you are selling dishes, display a place setting showing each piece in the set. For jewelry, display each piece in a separate compartment (not tangled up) or to show earrings, hang them on a piece of screen.

4) PRICING ~ Have everything priced ahead of time. Many customers will ask for a lower price, be prepared to haggle. Remember, everyone is looking for a bargain … so don’t expect to get the price a store would charge. Also, while you are pricing, try to wipe off / clean everything (no one wants to look at dusty or dirty items).

5) AMBIANCE ~ Have some fun, upbeat music playing in the background (you want to be able to have a conversation). If at all possible, have some of your sale items displayed in a shady area (maybe under a portable gazebo / tent). If it’s hot & humid, have a fan going to create a breeze 🙂

6) CHECK-OUT ~ Have your check-out area in an obvious place … a patio table with an umbrella set up for shade would be great. Have it near an outlet with an extension cord, so people can make sure their item works before purchasing (most garage sales have a NO RETURNS policy). Have an assortment on batteries on hand too.

7) CORRECT CHANGE ~ Have plenty of singles and coins to make change. It seems like everyone wants to pay with a twenty dollar bill and the singles can run out fast.

8) BAGS ~ Have plenty of bags or boxes (save them from shopping) for your customers to carry their treasures (purchases) home. If you are selling furniture or large pieces, have some rope or twine available for them to tie the trunk down or secure it on the roof of their car.

9) REFRESHMENTS ~ Have some candy or cookies for sale at your check-out area … have some water bottles on ice, too. Nothing is better on a hot summer day !

10) SECURITY ~ Sadly, this is something you need to be aware of. Pay attention when a large group of customers come together (especially with kids). One may ask questions to distract you, while their friend steals something … I speak from personal experience 🙁  Also, don’t put their payment in with your money until you have made their change … they could say they gave you a 20 dollar bill when they really gave you a 10 (again, personal experience). If possible, have another family member run the sale with you, or maybe ask a friend to keep you company for the day.

11) BONUS TIP ~ Offer some FREE items … little trinkets or small toys (stuffed animals or McD’s happy meal toys). Keep your FREE box at your check-out area and place a couple signs on your tables advertising a “free gift” with your purchase. Who doesn’t LOVE getting something for FREE ?

Tips for Winter Roadside Emergencies

Winter Emergency Car Kit Tips

I live in the Midwest, and living through harsh winters is just a reality.

I have memories, as a young girl, maybe about 10 years old, of my Grandpa telling me to always have an emergency kit in my car when I grow up. He was pretty specific – he said to always have a toolbox, a spare tire, a flare and jumper cables. He also said to keep a coffee can filled halfway with sand, a big candle, matches and candy bars. He said I could spread the sand under my tires if I got stuck in the snow. He said if my car broke down, lighting the candle would provide some warmth as well as light. The candy bars were for energy. Of course, back in the day, coffee came in metal cans … not plastic containers or bags. Times have changed, but I love my memories of Grandpa teaching me life skills, by example. So

Winter Car Emergency Kit

I always try to be prepared for an emergency.

I have improvised some from Grandpa’s advice, but I’m still prepared for car emergencies.

I’m sharing some tips I’ve learned through my decades of winter driving experience. I have a bin with mechanical stuff and a bin for personal care stuff. Here is a list of my suggestions:

MECHANICAL BIN:
• Basic tools and wrenches
• Jack and tire iron
• Jumper cables
• Orange emergency triangle (flare substitute)
• Flashlight
• Rope and nylon zip ties
• Small shovel and some kitty litter
• Work gloves, rags and a plastic garbage bag (to kneel on or wear as rain gear)

PERSONAL BIN:
• Several water bottles
• Protein bars and nuts
• Blanket and hand warmers
• Extra pairs of socks and gloves
• First aid kit
• A book (something to help pass the time til help arrives)

These are some ideas for you to use as a guide … start with this list, then customize it to your preferences and needs geared toward your family.

One of my favorite sayings is … “I would rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it”.

To - Do List

How My To-Do List Helps Me Get & Stay Organized

I love lists … it’s true ! I love making them, but I especially love checking things off my to-do list.

I make many kinds of lists, but my to-do list is my main list and then I make off-shoot lists from it. For example, I may list: go grocery shopping, run errands and pay bills on my to-do list. An off-shoot list from grocery shopping would be a meal plan list and a shopping list ~ an off-shoot from run errands might be drop off dry cleaning, return library books and pick up a prescription from the drug store ~ an off-shoot for paying bills might be to balance the check book, schedule individual online payments and then file the statements. Usually my main off-shoot type list is grocery related … only if I’ve procrastinated / blown things off like running the errands or reconciling the bank account, do I break it down into doable chunks. Writing tasks down is a way for me organize my thoughts and make a plan to accomplish everything. I’m a visual learner, so having a list in front of me helps me to see the “big picture” and then be able to prioritize things. Continue reading

back to school college logo image

Back To School ~ College Bound

It’s mid-August, and Back to School preparations are in full swing 🙂

Going off to college is an emotionally charged time for both the student and the parents. It is sooo much more than the typical annual shopping spree, getting backpacks and school supplies in at least 3 ways.

  • The books and “supplies” are definitely different in price. The books alone could take up a huge chunk, if not a whole week’s paycheck. Pretty much gone are the days of paper and pen; now they need a laptop or tablet fully loaded with various software programs.
  • They need to furnish their dorm rooms or apartments. Every school has different rules & regulations / requirements … ex. microwaves are provided – microwaves are not allowed. Bedding reflects their personal style / décor can show their school spirit … and it all has to be stored compactly, not to mention actually fit into the minivan for the road trip to get moved in 🙂
  • Last, but most certainly not least, are the gi-normous tuition payments that will now be a way of life for the foreseeable future.

For these young adults, it’s a conflicted time – exciting and scary. They anticipate living on their own, being independent, making decisions for themselves. Some may be happy to be out from under their parent’s “thumb” and get to experience freedom. Others may be a little leery of all this newfound freedom. Still others may feel “on the fence”, relating to both range of emotions. This first time away from home, they will be learning far more than academic courses.

As parents, we are scratching our heads and wondering where the time went. It seems they were just babies not that long ago. We are reliving all their milestones in our memories. We are juggling so many emotions (pride, joy, sadness, anxiousness, etc. … ) in these final days of Back to School preparations along with so many questions running through our minds. Are they ready to handle so much independence? Will they be homesick? What if they can’t stand their new roommate? Will they be able to balance their studies and social life? Will they be able to manage their money well? All these questions and concerns will probably be discussed on the ride to the college campus, but first and foremost, make sure they know how much you love them and how proud of them you are. Re-assure them that you are always there for them — no matter what – you are just a phone call away. Oh … and try to hold back your tears for the long ride home (if you can) … my kids know me well enough that that isn’t something I can control, but they do know that I try <3

Although Tracy Helps You can’t help you in this particular instance, I can offer some helpful advice:

Students – call your mom (often), she longs to know how you are and hear about how everything is going. Remember she has had you around nearly every day for the last 18 or more years … it’s a big adjustment not having you at home.

Parents – don’t call your son or daughter (too often), they are most likely having the time of their life and may feel guilty if they know you are missing them so much.

Parents and Students – love each other unconditionally while everyone experiences all these emotions in their own way during this transitional time of life !

Organized Toys

Getting Organized ~ Kids Toys Storage Tips & Ideas

Back in the old days, a.k.a. when I was a little kid, toys storage was a wooden toy box … all or most of my toys fit in it. To be truthful, I had a little cradle where my dolls “slept” when I wasn’t playing with them and a small bookcase.

In the 90’s, when my kids were little, they each had a big, plastic Little Tykes toy box. Both my children were a little spoiled (ok … a lot spoiled) by very generous grandparents. If I remember correctly, they had more toys than they knew what to do with. The toy boxes were always so jam packed, that the lids wouldn’t fit. I started supplementing the storage space with square laundry baskets. I noticed that they mostly played with the toys in the baskets, and not with the toys in the toy box. I finally figured out that the toy box was overwhelming for them … they couldn’t find what they were looking for without pulling everything out. Continue reading