(Not) Extreme Couponing

I’m a TLC show junkie. It’s my guilty pleasure. Nothing’s better than sitting down on the couch after a long day, hitting my TiVo button, and seeing Sister Wives, Cake Boss, Hoarders, or Say Yes to the Dress just waiting for me to watch. Dan makes fun of me for this constantly.

A few months back, Extreme Couponing caught my eye. Inspired by it, I decided to get a little more into couponing myself. I’ve done fairly well, so when asked by friends at book club last week how I did it, I thought I’d share my secrets.

As you can probably tell, I’ve always been one to look for a deal. If I buy something online, I’m checking for a promo code. If I know I need something from Macy’s, Carson’s, Michael’s, JoAnn Fabrics, Express, Bath & Body Works or any other retailer that regularly sends out coupons, I will wait until I have a coupon in hand to make my purchase. It’s a small way to save money, but it adds up. You saw how much these coupons helped with all my DIY wedding-related crafts.

As much as I loved deals, I never took coupons to the grocery store. I didn’t give it much thought because the coupons in the Sunday paper are always for such a small amount, like $.50, and the items the coupons were for were not usually items I needed right then. Plus, if I just bought the store brand instead of the name brand, I was saving at least as much as the coupon, sometimes more. It didn’t seem worth the time or effort.

One thing Extreme Couponing taught me is that the way to save money with those coupons is to use those coupons on an item that is already on sale. I can’t believe I never thought of that. This way, you’re getting two discounts on the same item. Add in a store-specific coupon (if you have one), and you’re really saving big. 

Here’s an example.

The other day, I went to Walgreens for Gillette body wash for Dan. The Walgreens weekly ad had a coupon that made the body wash only $2.99, down from the regular price of $4.59. Added to that, I had a $2 off 1 coupon for the body wash, which I had gotten in the Red Plum coupon newspaper insert from a Sunday paper about a month ago and kept in case I needed it. I paid $0.99 for an item that was regularly $4.59. I ended up saving $3.60, or 78%!

I also saw that on Extreme Couponing that at check out, the coupons were doubled, which is how people were able to buy cartfuls of groceries with 90% savings. I did some research to see if any stores in the greater Chicagoland area doubled coupon values. Nope. Bummer.

So how do you get these coupons, you ask? Well, I’ve been going to a few places:

1. Target’s website has a coupon section. Just click which ones you want and they will print out. Remember to use these with regular manufacturer’s coupons for even more savings!

2. I visit the Redplum coupon site. They don’t have as many coupons listed to print as their coupon book in the Sunday paper has.

3. I go to coupons.com. They have different coupons based on different zip codes. I don’t usually enter a different zip code unless I know of a coupon I want.

4. I just became a Chicago Tribune Sunday newspaper subscriber. I have a 6 month Sunday subscription that I bought for only $13 with coupon code X277. That promo code may not work since it was from a little while back. If not, visit Retail Me Not and find a new one. I figure if I use just one $.50 coupon per week, we’ll have broken even. And we now have the funnies to read with our breakfast. It’s a win.

Once I clipped about 2 weeks worth of coupons, my coupon stack became unwieldy. Something needed to be done about them, to organize them in some way.

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Enter the coupon binder!

 

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I took an ordinary binder, some trading card holders, and some standard tabs and turned them into my coupon binder. I started by separating out the coupons into different categories. Here are the ones I used:

  • Baking
  • Beauty
  • Cereal
  • Cleaning Supplies
  • Condiments/Salad Dressing
  • Dairy
  • Drinks
  • Ethnic Foods
  • Food Storage
  • Frozen Foods
  • Fruit
  • Laundry
  • Meat
  • Pasta
  • Pharmacy
  • Phoebe (our dog)
  • Produce
  • Sides/Rice
  • Snacks
  • Soup
  • Toiletries
  • Vegetables
  • Misc.

Of course, these categories work best for me. You need to figure out what works best for you, as this list is by no means exhaustive.

After I clip my Sunday coupons, I put them into the binder by category. This way, when I see Jewel has a sale on Lean Cuisines, I can easily flip to the Frozen Food tab of my binder to see if I have a coupon that would make the Lean Cuisines even cheaper.

This system has worked very well for me. I did recently add a new tab to the end of my binder for Target-specific coupons since I was printing quite a few of them and preferred to keep them separated from the rest so I would only see them when I wanted to have Target only ones.

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I create my weekly shopping lists from looking at the store ad and comparing the items on sale with the coupons I have in my binder. I try to stay organized as much as possible by separating the coupons I plan to use that week by store. I have an envelope for each store and put the coupons in the correct envelope. I write out my shopping list for each store on a sticky note, and stick the note to the store’s envelope.

This helps me be as quick as possible, and it also eliminates distractions and excess purchase of items I don’t need that aren’t on the list.

Just in case I do see an item on sale on some item that I didn’t know about, I try to bring my binder with me on every trip to the store. That way, I can easily grab a coupon if I need it, without having to come back to the store later. A quick tip: the best in-store, not planned deals on items already on clearance that I can match with a coupon. For example, sometimes Target has some of their toiletries on clearance. If I happen have a Target coupon or a manufacturer’s coupon for that item, I save big.

Some cautionary words before I go:
1. Couponing can be time consuming. It probably takes me a good 30 minutes on Sundays to go through the coupon inserts, cut out the ones I want, and put them in my binder. Add to that the time it takes for scanning the weekly ads for Walgreens, Target, CVS, and Jewel, and creating my shopping lists. I do have help though, so don’t think you have to match up all the coupons yourself. I subscribe to a couple blogs that email me daily coupon match ups:

These sites will let you know the price of an item at the store, if there are any store coupons or manufacturer’s coupons, and what the final price will be. For those newbies, Krazy Coupon Lady has icons she puts next to the good and really good deals to let you know to stock up.

2. If you are couponing, you can’t be brand loyal. You have to go with what’s the best deal. I’m not picky about a lot of items like body wash, shampoo, conditioner, mouthwash, toothpaste, salad dressing, chips, laundry detergent, and a whole bunch of other items. Of course, there are some products I just won’t switch, like my deodorant, and in that case, I just stock up on it when there’s a sale and a good coupon.

3. You can’t fall into the trap that if it’s on sale for a great deal, you should get it. I fell into that trap once, and that’s how I ended up with a ton of Target brand ibuprofen.

4. You will definitely have to do your shopping at more than one store, and most likely, you’ll have to go shopping weekly. I regularly visit three.

5. You can’t plan out a week of meals and then shop for them. Instead, I do the reverse and plan our meals based on what we already have and what’s on sale that week. However, if you plan ahead for when you’re having a party, you can usually most of what you need for a bargain. For the BBQ we just had, I got deals on the buns, brats, hot dogs, chips, peaches, corn, and whole milk (for ice cream).

6. You may need room for your stockpile reserve. Since I buy things as they are on sale and not as I need them, we do have quite a bit of some items right now. We’re totally set on body wash and salad dressing, for example. We have some room to keep these items, but space is a concern. No way I’m living like one Extreme Coupon woman who has a whole utility rack full or canned goods in her bedroom and paper towel under her kids’ beds!

7. Set your savings realistically. You’re not going to buy four carts of groceries for $10. I try to go by the rule that if I saved as much as I spent, it was a successful trip.

I wish I had been keeping track of my savings since I started couponing, but I wasn’t thinking about it. I’ll try to track my savings for the month of July and report back.

I really hope this helps all those couponing newbies out there. If you have any questions, fire them off in the comments and I will answer them all. Happy shopping!

Summer Fun BBQ

I love me a good party. Most of all, I love planning them. I think through and yes, even obsess over every little detail: the menu, the decorations, the theme, the color scheme (yep, my parties all have a color scheme), and most of all, the dessert. I’m not sure how I discovered my party planning prowess, but I suspect it came about from planning our wedding.

In any case, last weekend Dan’s side of the family came over for a combination of celebrations. On the docket to celebrate: belated Father’s Day, our niece’s second birthday (we were in San Francisco during her big family party), and Dan’s parents’ wedding anniversary.

With no one specific theme to cling to, I decided that an overall “Classic Summer Fun” theme would be the best way to tackle 3 very different celebratory occasions. Here’s how it looked when everything came together.
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First thing, it had to be inside. We didn’t have the outdoor space. Oh how I wish we had a backyard! In any case, we made it work by using the kitchen as the sort of staging area for food prep, and we served it all in the dining room, which was the main area we decorated. I love how the sidebar area came out. So happy and playful in those sharp summer colors.

Let’s start with the decorations. I worked the color scheme from a tablecloth I had that just screamed “SUMMER” to me. From there, I settled on the color scheme – yellow, coral, and aqua. I stumbled upon the printable wall sign on a blog I read, and that gave me the idea for the bunting. Things were coming together!

I really liked the bunting I made. It was super easy too and added a fun color pop. What do you think it’s made from? You’ll never guess.
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Paint chips! All I did was measure an inch onto each paint chip, and draw a line from there to the center of the bottom of the paint chip. There’s your flag! I cut them out and cut a piece of jute twine to hang the flags. I used a hole punch to create holes on the flag and strung them onto the twine rope, using some tape to secure them in place. I think it looks quite festive.

Another fun decoration I made were the centerpieces. Following this tutorial, I made 3 aqua colored pinwheels. I added a small punch out in a flower shape to the center. To complete the classic look, I bunched up yellow tissue paper and put one pinwheel in each of three small mason jars. For the final touch, I tied a piece of twine around the top of each jar. After the party, I put them in my bookshelf as sort of a summer decoration, so they didn’t go to waste.

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To help with clean up, I bought some plastic plates in yellow and placed those on the table. I didn’t want to be super wasteful though, so I used real silverware. To keep the table from looking too formal, I tied a plain paper napkin around a knife and fork and secured it with a piece of twine. I loved the rustic look.

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Speaking of rustic, what’s this old 6 pack holder doing on the table? I turned it into a condiment caddy. I Mod Podged every surface of it to make it water resistant (due to the condensation on the ketchup, mustard, and relish), and it became a handy way to carry everything to the table.

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On to the food! Our menu tried to reflect our theme – Classic Summer Fun. We had dishes that have been staples at BBQs since people started having BBQs – potato salad, burgers, brats, hot dogs, corn on the cob, summer pizza, chips and dip, watermelon, peach pie with ice cream, and a special birthday cake for the birthday girl.

We didn’t want to have everything be old recipes we’ve had since we were kids, but we did make a few family favorites. I took two recipes straight from Dan’s mom – the summer pizza and the ice cream. When her boys were in the process of moving out of their childhood home, she pulled together the top recipes her boys loved and turned them into a mini cookbook. How cute was that?

I also included a dip recipe that my cousin introduced to my family and was a hit. She entrusted me with her recipe, but you won’t be seeing how to make it on here. I was sworn to secrecy.

To put our own spin on classic summer food, we switched up the potato salad recipe. Dan used a recipe he found online that didn’t have green onion or egg in it – two things both his family recipe and my family recipe had. He also used whole grain dijon mustard instead of the plain stuff.

For dessert, I tried a new recipe. I wanted to make a peach pie, but lately I’ve been into making single portion sized desserts. This recipe for summer peach pie twisters inspired me. I bought pre-made pie crust and cut one sheet of it into 6 pieces. I cut up about 2 peaches, stirred those with 1 1/2 tablespoons of cornstarch with the juice of half a lemon, and finally added about a teaspoon of cinnamon. Then, I added the peach filling to each of the six pieces. I folded each piece of crust into a sort of cone shape with the filling inside and crimped the edge closed with a fork. I cooked all six of the twisters on a baking sheet at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes. I served them with homemade vanilla ice cream, which was also a family recipe.

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Quick food tip, I’ve thrown a few parties where I’ve forgotten to put out one of the dishes I’ve made. Since then, I got smart and started going off of a list. Usually, it’s on paper, but this time, we made use of the chalkboard in the kitchen. We had a column to make sure we made it, and one to check that we actually served it.

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That takes us to the end of the party. To end the celebration, we brought out the birthday cake we made for Taylor and sang to her. She liked it.

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You may not be able to tell by scale, but this is a super tiny cake. I tried to figure out how to make it, since the smallest cake pan I had was an 8-inch round. I knew that would be too big in diameter and not tall enough. I looked all around my kitchen and tried to figure out what else I could use short of buying a new pan. I ended up using a small casserole dish from Crate & Barrel, which turned out to be the perfect size. I used a ton of non-stick cooking spray on it, and the  cake slid right out once it cooled. Hey, you have to use what you got! I was quite proud at my resourcefulness.

Finally, I thought I’d talk about the little extras we had going on. Dan made a playlist on his computer full of upbeat songs and songs from the past (to go with the “classic” theme). Also, I had some fun things for Taylor to play with while she was over so she would be entertained. It’s amazing how much fun a little kid things sidewalk chalk and bubbles are.

In the end, we had a great time just being together, and I had many complements on how cute everything was. I’m glad everyone had fun.

Making the Zucchini Bread Less Bad for You

Have you tried to make Auntie Valerie’s Zucchini Bread yet? No? You should. It’s delicious.

I recently tried tinkering with the recipe to try to make it more health-friendly. That cup of oil sure makes bread taste good, but it’s not so good for your body.

The solution I came up with to make the bread a little healthier was to substitue the whole cup of oil for a cup of unsweetened applesauce. Yep, an even exchange.
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I “neutered” the bread too, meaning I didn’t add any nuts this time. I did everything else exactly the same.

When creaming the eggs, sugar, and applesauce, the mixture looked thinner and it didn’t “cream” in a traditional sense.
 

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The batter seemed to be a lot thinner too, even with the zucchini added.
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I baked the bread in a bundt pan for an hour. It came out looking a little burned, which made me think that perhaps the applesauce made the bread bake quicker, which means I should have taken the bread out about 5-10 minutes before I did. Bummer.

But, when you cut into it, the bread is definitely cooked all the way through, and not burned. It didn’t taste burned either. Hmmm. Maybe it was the ghetto oven in the apartment. It’s been known to be way off from the temperature I set it to be.
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In any case, the bread was actually quite good. It tastes a touch sweeter, in my opinion, but the bread was more dense and not as crumbly as it is when it’s made with oil.

The verdict? I’ll definitely make the zucchini bread with applesauce again, but it won’t happen every time I make it. Try it for yourself and let me know which way you prefer yours.

My First Time Sewing

I’m a beginner in the sewing world. And by beginner, I mean I’ve never sewed anything more than fixing a quick hole in a pocket or sewing a loose button back on. I’ve never worked a sewing machine once in my life, and the thought of trying scares me.

I still have no idea what I was thinking when we bought this chair on craigslist.
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It was a steal at $20. It has a strong and sturdy wooden frame and we could easily get some slipcovers for those cushions. Well, all didn’t go exactly as planned.

First, this style of chair from World Market had been discontinued. No problem, I thought. I thought the Casa chair currently sold at World Market was close enough that we could just purchase slip covers for those chair cushions and all would be fine.
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You probably noticed it already. The back cushion of the Casa chair is a lot bigger than ours. I thought about getting a slip cover anyways, then pinning the material so it fit correctly, but that was dashed when I saw the available colors were khaki, rust, plum, charcoal, and ivory.This chair was destined for the office, so I wanted it to be a yellow or green shade. The slip covers were a no go.

I then got the bright idea that I could just purchase material from JoAnn’s (either on sale or with a coupon, of course) and create my own cushion covers. No problem, I thought, despite my total lack of sewing experience.

I was looking for a way to infuse more green into the room, as we already had the yellow rug. I knew the furniture would be painted white, so I thought that a green and white pattern would be best. I found the Waverly Lovely Lattice pattern in Jungle.
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The pattern complemented the rug well, without it being too busy, or fighting it for the eye’s attention. I’m new to the whole “styling in layers” concept, so I didn’t quite trust myself yet. But, with Dan’s encouragement, we went to JoAnn’s and picked up a yard and a half of the fabric. I figured worst case, it was a wasted effort and we were out a few bucks. We brought the fabric home, and it sat in the office on that chair for quite a while as I went between ignoring it out of fear, and looking online at every sewing tutorial I could find.

Eventually, I decided it was time to take action.

From my research, I learned that you should start by measuring the cushion. It measured 18.5 inches by 24 inches. I added an extra inch to each dimension to allow for room to sew the seams. I measured it out on the fabric, and used a pencil to mark where to cut.

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I ended up with two pieces that I was going to have to sew together. By hand. Gulp.

I lined the two pieces up together, with the underside of the fabric facing out.
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This is because you will turn the pillow right side out before putting the cushion into it. This way, the seams are inside the pillow and hidden away. So, I began the loooooong process of stitching the fabric together on three sides. I tried to sew as straight a line as I could, and I tried to make the stitches close together. Eventually, after what felt like a million years (it was really only about as long as of Superbad), three sides of the pillow were sewn and I was ready to turn the fabric inside out. I was nervous, wondering if the seams would rip.
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Very carefully, I inverted the fabric. To my happiness, the seams held! Now my other nail-biting moment, would the pillow fit inside? It sure did – nice and snug, but not too tight! I did my happy dance right then and there!
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I was on top of the world! I could sew! I was on a high, that is, until I realized I still had that one seam to finish, and it would be the hardest one. Sigh.

I consulted my research again, and I ironed the edges of the unsewn fabric in towards one another, creating the seam line I would follow when I sewed. From here on out, I had problems.

I followed the slip stitch directions exactly, but my results were far less than perfect.
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I could still see the thread. The fabric puckered. I ran out of thread and had to re-thread the needle half way into the seam. The last bit of the two sides didn’t seem to match up correctly. Grrr. I ended up with a pretty ugly seam, but at that point, there was no way I was going to rip it out and try again. Maybe another day, but not that day. So, I placed the pillow on the chair with the seam facing the wall. No one will notice, right?
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That left the bottom cushion to be done, which was to be finished another time since I had filled my sewing quota for the day. I don’t know what made me think of it, but I had a moment of panic where I wondered if I would have enough fabric for the bottom cushion.

Nope. I put the cushion on top of the leftover fabric and unless I got pretty crazy with the seams, which I am nowhere close to in skill level to do, I didn’t have enough fabric. Son of a…

At that point, I was ready to admit defeat, so I headed for the shower to get ready for a planned girls night that evening. When I got out, I saw that Dan had taken pity on me and tried to figure out a solution. He sort of wrapped the fabric around the cushion like he was wrapping a present, and then pinned it to the cushion itself. For now, I’m leaving it as it, but I know it’s not a permanent fix for the problem.

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There’s the dilemma. What should I do? Get more of the fabric to have enough for the whole cushion, then make it like I made the smaller one? Sew the fabric as it is directly to the cushion? Just leave it alone and hope the problem goes away? Hey, maybe the cushion will sew itself, right? Any suggestions would be much appreciated.

Mini Pies

Happy belated Father’s Day to all!

I celebrated a low key Father’s Day with my family. We ate dinner together and i was charged with bringing dessert. I knew my dad likes cherry pie, but no one else there did. My solution? Mini pies in different flavors.

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I had seen this idea months back, and attempted it with really bad results.

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The filling boiled over the sides, got all over the pan, burned the crust, and made a big sticky mess. So when attempting the mini pies this time, I was quite nervous. I did think I figured out my problem though. Last time, I made the pie crusts just barely fit into the muffin pan.

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This time, I had the pie crusts go over the sides of the cups. Also, instead of lattice, I went ahead and put a piece of pie crust over each mini pie and pinched the 2 crusts shut.

Luckily, I had much better results.

You can too.

Start with a package of pie crust (you’ll need both sheets). Use a cookie cutter, or in our case, a glass, to cut a circle.

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Make sure each circle is large enough to put in the mini muffin pan with dough overhanging.

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It may not look like a big difference, but it really is. It’s what keeps your mini muffins from becoming the big sticky mess.

Next, put your filling in. Do not overfill, or you will definitely have it bubble over while cooking. For these mini pies, I used canned cherry pie filling and a quick mixture of fresh chopped apple, cinnamon, and sugar.

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I cut a smaller circle out of more of the pie dough and put it on top of each pie, sealing the 2 pieces of pie together. Them, I cut some vents into each mini pie.

I put them into the oven at 375 degrees and cooked for 10 minutes. I took them out of the oven covered them in foil, then put them back in the oven for another 3 minutes. Take them out and they are done.

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Don’t forget to spray each muffin tin very, very well. Once my mini pies cooled, they came right out of the pan and were not stuck at all.

My dad really liked them. The dad in your life will too.

 

Healthy Sesame Chicken with Pineapple Rice

I was on a health kick last year and found this yummy recipe. Well, the health kick is over, but the dish is so good, I still make it for dinner. This is a great weeknight meal to make. To make this easy meal even easier, you can prepare the chicken the night before, put it in the fridge, and cook it when you get home from work. A great homemade weeknight meal that’s good for you, tasty, and looks like this?

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Let’s get started!

Ingredients for the chicken:

 – 2 tbs sesame seeds

 – 1/4 cup breadcrumbs (use whole wheat to make this recipe even healthier)

 – 1 tbs powdered ginger (can use more, to taste)

 – 2 tsp olive oil

 – 4 small 4 ounce chicken breasts

 – 1/4 tsp salt

 – Non stick cooking spray

Ingredients for the pineapple rice:

 – 2 tsp olive oil

 – 1 can diced pineapple

 – 1/2 cup chopped green onion (I didn’t have this on hand when I made the dish, so it’s OK to skip)

 – 2 cups uncooked brown rice

 – 1 tbs soy sauce

 – 1/2 tsp sesame oil

Directions:

1. Start cooking the brown rice as directed on the packaging. Mine usually takes about 50 minutes to fully cook.

2. Preheat oven to 350. Bake sesame seeds, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes or until toasted. Set aside to cool. Raise the oven temperature to 400 degrees.

3. Combine sesame seeds, breadcrumbs, and ginger in a shallow bowl or pie dish.

4. Using a brush, coat the chicken with olive oil, then sprinkle chicken with salt. 

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5. Dip the chicken into the sesame seed mixture, making sure both sides are well covered. 

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6. Place foil into a baking pan and spray it with nonstick cooking spray. Place the chicken in the pan and bake for 20 minutes.

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7. While the chicken is baking, make pineapple rice: Heat olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over high heat; add pineapple and green onion. Sauté for 1 minute. Reduce the heat to medium-high; add cooked rice and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes or until hot. Stir in soy sauce and sesame oil.

8. Serve and enjoy.

This recipe makes enough for Dan and I for dinner with enough leftover for  lunch the next day. Try it out.

Entryway Organization

One of my favorite parts of our apartment is the little entryway nook. It just makes me happy.
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I especially enjoyed it in the winter months. All the excess winter gear – coats, hats, gloves, scarves, boots – was tucked into our entryway storage furniture and out of our house. No wet and dirty boots tracking all over my floors. It was great.

Before we even moved in, I was already looking for an entryway storage solution. Auto pilot sent me to Pottery Barn, and I saw the Samantha Entryway Collection in mahogany stain. I wanted it. Badly. Of course I picked the most expensive color. It was $620, before shipping costs. Darn it.
 

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I started a hunt for something for the entryway. I had an old wooden hope chest that I thought I could use as a bench, but I wanted some sort of shelf to hang coats and to put storage bins. Nothing I found matched the wood of the hope chest. Having 2 different colored woods would have eaten away at me slowly, and I didn’t feel like re-staining the hope chest, so I scrapped the shelf idea.

A few weeks later, on a whim, I visited JCPenney’s website. The Ashton bench and wall shelf looked a lot like the Samantha Entryway Collection to me. Was it available in the right color? Yep, espresso! And it came with storage bins. Woohoo!
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I know I love sharing the deals I find, but I cannot remember the exact total of this purchase. I do know this much: (1) When I bought the furniture, it was on sale. (2) I was able to get free shipping. (3) I was able to use a coupon. (4) There was a promotion running that if you used a Mastercard to make your purchase, you got an additional percentage off the price. (5) While my item was on backorder, I saw the item dropped to an even lower sale price. I called customer service and they matched the new sales price, and still honored all of my original discounts.

The entryway furnture finally arrived and I was so excited to see it. Here’s Dan putting all the pieces together.
 

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My review of the product? I’d give it a solid 3 out 5 stars. The price was certainly right, as was the color, and the look. The downside? The particle board used to make this item is thin. If I don’t sit down carefully, I feel the whole bench shake, and it makes me a little nervous. Also, the wood color is chipping a bit on the hooks of the shelf already. Overall though, I’m satisfied. I would purchase the Ashton set again, if I had a do over.

One thing I do want to change, in due time of course, is the storage bins. The cream color looks nice as a contrast to the dark wood, but they are getting dirty. The material isn’t super thick either. I’m hoping to change them out for a woven basket like this one from PB Kids, which look like they are a ton more durable.
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Maybe someday, I’ll change up the color or add some hooks with a little more spunk, but for now, I’m totally loving the look and the extra storage space hidden away in my entryway.