Tuesday, December 20, 2011

T minus 4 days, 4 hours, 19 minutes...are you ready?!

That's right--just FOUR MORE DAYS.

If you are still scrambling for some last minute ideas in these final days leading up to Christmas (or for the next several days of Hanukkah), and don't want to fight the last minute shoppers at the mall or even for a parking space for that matter, consider some of these ideas.

  • The Entertainment or Enjoy Book. I know the Entertainment Book is nationwide, and even available in some areas of Canada. These are great gifts for anyone, my parents get me one every year! Full of coupons for local restaurants--usually the equivalent of buy one get one, everything from breakfast, lunch and dinner--as well as local businesses (car washes, dry cleaners), sports events, theaters, museums and activities (movies, bowling, miniature golf, etc). Usually ranging between $25-35, they are available at several stores locally, including the grocery store and Rite Aid.

  • Get your GROUPON! If you don't already subscribe to the daily email deals from Groupon and Living Social (and the much newer Google Offers), sign up now! Daily deals offer a deal for typically half off of the usual price of the deal--be it dinner, a wine flight, bowling, tickets for shows & events, memberships to local attractions (zoo, museum etc), mani-pedis, massages, anything is possible! Not only have J & I been prompted to try new places by getting some of these deals, we have also been able to take advantage of things like the South Side Slopes Step Trek. Last year, when putting together a gift basket for my supervisor at work from the team, we were able to purchase a pedicure special for a great price. (It even included a glass of wine in the experience!) Knowing she would be unlikely to treat herself to something like that, we jumped on the offer. Most deals are only available for a day, so you do have to check your email daily. Typically when you click on the deal, it will tell you how long you have to purchase, be it hours or days. Once purchased, you can print the coupon from your computer to slip into someone's stocking! Living Social & Groupon also have getaway deals, so don't hesitate to look at those as well. J & I were lucky enough to snag a 2 nights for the price of 1 deal from Groupon for the Bedford Springs Resort where we celebrated our First Anniversary. That enabled us to use the gift card we had planned to use to pay for the room for dinners and a visit to the spa!

  • Lottery tickets & gift cards--Let's face it, everyone loves scratch-off tickets and gift cards, right? Even those of us who love to cook like to go out to eat, whether it's pizza or Outback, Eat n Park (for Pittsburghers!), Olive Garden or Bob Evans. Many of the grocery store gift card racks now have packs of gift cards--3 $10 Pizza Hut cards, 3 $15 Applebees or Chili's gift cards, etc. that make gifts to the mail carrier or paper carrier easy. Also the variety of scratch off tickets in various price ranges make a fun and easy way of gift-giving. I recently bought several (as in $60 worth!) for various folks like the letter carrier, paper carrier, the girls at the Pretzel Shop and *maybe* for a special someone's stocking. I bought several $1 tickets that I have kept in my purse and handed out to various folks in my travels. The cashiers who waited on me when I shopped for last minute gifts, the bus driver, the cute elderly lady who was also on the bus, the receptionists at my doctor's office, and the Starbucks barista. So many have just been "tickled pink" by a $1 ticket, I think I will make it a point to do this every year!

  • If you are short on cash, do not underestimate the gift of a good deed. If you have long hair and want to go for the gusto, donate 10 inches to Locks of Love, who will use it to make hairpieces for financially disadvantaged children suffering from medical hair loss. Have tea with an elderly neighbor or family member, walk your neighbor's dog or shovel their walk when they are under the weather, make some treats for a neighbor or friend who lives alone. I recently made a batch of my mom's tuna noodle casserole for a co-worker who was having surgery and going to be off for a few weeks to recover. Instead of making a pan, though, I sprayed a regular size muffin tin tray with cooking spray, and dropped spoonfuls of the casserole in each tin cup. I baked as directed, and when finished, the casserole "muffins" popped right out. I wrapped each individually with plastic wrap, this way she could grab 2-4 at a time to thaw out and heat in the microwave depending on how she felt and her appetite. Try it with your favorite casserole, it's a great way to spread the joy over several weeks to someone!
May you all have a wonderful holiday season, spread the joy and love in any way you can!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Holidays Are Upon Us

Are you ready yet?!

I am *just about there*. I'm lucky I was able to get an early start, and that it is pretty easy to buy for everyone I have to. But if you are still stuck on the perfect gift for Christmas or Hanukkah, let me see if I can help.

One of the best gifts I can always tailor to anyone I know is food. Food or beverages. Especially adult beverages. Think about it. Someone is probably a coffee drinker, another a tea drinker, beer drinker, wine drinker. One may love Mexican food, another barbecue. Someone may love sweets, others meats and cheeses.

While there are many pre-made gift sets out there at the grocery stores or malls (I have to confess, I am always drawn to the Hickory Farms stand at the mall!), you can have a lot of fun making your own gift basket. Several styles and sizes of baskets are available at your local craft store, and stores like Michael's or JoAnn Fabrics almost always has coupons in the Sunday newspaper. Once you have a basket (or gift bag in a pinch!), the rest is easy!

I try to support local, independent stores as much as possible, so I try to find as much as I can at non-chain stores. In Pittsburgh we are lucky enough to have a great area of town known as The Strip District. Fresh produce and fresh-baked breads and rolls, cookies, biscotti and popcorn abound. Additionally, there are several ethnic grocery stores in the Strip. Have an International food lover? How about some hot sauces and fresh made tortillas from the Mexican grocery, rice and sauces from the Asian Market, and homemade pasta noodles and olive oil from the Italian grocery?

Coffee and teas can easily be paired with biscotti and several types of teacakes and cookies from any bakery or grocery store. Have a chocolatier or homemade candy store in your neighborhood? Add a couple small bags of treats--nonpareils or salted chocolate caramels (my new favorite!). Don't get intimidated by the per-pound price. Ask for a quarter pound or a half dozen of an item. Look for seasonal items that you can only get this time of year, it really makes it a special treat for your recipient.

Speaking of teas, if you are in need of gifts for a tea lover, check out www.victorianteagarden.com. An array of gifts for the tea lover, from teacups to jewelry to hats (a must-have for a true tea party!), and of course--TEA--these ladies have carefully selected several great items to choose from. My recommendations? Joan's book of tea recipes--chock full of recipes for delicious tea sandwiches, scones and treats--and one of my favorite teas, Harney & Sons Paris tea.

My supervisor at work is a wine lover, so my team and I pitched in to create a great gift bag for her. I purchased one of the new wine totes available at the Pennsylvania Wine & Spirits store (holds 6 bottles), and selected four wines from their Chairman's Selections. I took a worthwhile trip to Crate & Barrel and chose two wine glasses, a wine coaster, and bottle stopper to add to the bag. See how easy it is?!

If you make a basket but feel it's a little "chunky" and need some small items to fill in, check your local craft stores or dollar stores. You can almost always find great things to suit almost any interest, from candles to playing cards to stationery/notecards, recipe cards, the works--usually all available for a dollar!

For the chef in your life, consider gadgets or serving items that aren't necessities (read: items they probably would really like, but hesitate to buy for themselves). Everyone has or needs a potato peeler, but how about something different like a julienne peeler, zester or microplane grater? (Trust me, if they don't have these, they will LOVE them!) Pampered Chef is a great place to find a lot of these great gadgets at a reasonable price, as well as being great quality and long lasting. (At some point, there will be a post just about my Pampered Chef products and what I do or don't like. I recently added many products to my collection and can't say enough good things so far!)

Have a party hostess in your family or friend list? Consider things like cake stands, cupcake stands, and various servers. These are among those items I mentioned that people may hesitate to buy for themselves but secretly pine for. We asked for several types of these servers for our wedding and they are wonderful when we entertain. We have several B. Smith items, all available at Bed Bath & Beyond. My favorites are the 3-tier serving bowls and the 3-tier swivel step server:

Consider pairing any serveware with a cookbook to fit the theme. A cupcake book with a cupcake stand, a book of salsas & dips with the serving bowls, appetizers book with the serving trays. Check your local craft stores, bookstores and discount stores like Five & Below or Tuesday Morning for great deals to help stay within your budget.

Happy shopping and may your days be merry and bright!