Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Best Gift Is Helping Others

SWAGG is a free mobile app (download here) that lets you shop smarter using your mobile phone. Buy, send or swap SWAGG GIFTS and organize your old school plastic gift cards.

For every download of the app between now and Dec. 31, 2010, SWAGG will donate $1 to Stand Up To Cancer (SU2C) , up to $125,000.

Clever Girls Collective and SWAGG are sending a pair of movie fans to the Sundance Film Festival! Download the SWAGG app and then visit the Ultimate SWAGG Getaway Sweepstakes site to enter to win a trip for two to the Sundance Film Festival. Entry deadline is January 3, 2011, 11:59pm, PST.

I've had the chance to get several amazing gifts over the years, from my Strawberry Shortcake dolls when I was five to a replacement for my stolen engagement ring a few years ago. I've always tried to give as good as I get, though, and I've managed to find several perfect gifts for my loved ones.

But the best gift I ever gave would have to be one from Christmas 2008. It was a rough year for us - Aaron had been laid off earlier in the year, leaving us with no full-time income. By Christmas we had blown thru our savings, and while we were in no danger of losing our house thanks to family, we were still living with only the basics. It made me really consider what was a need and what was a want, and it made me extremely grateful for all we did have.

Out of nowhere, we received an anonymous Christmas card in the mail - no return address, no signature - and enclosed was $100. I couldn't believe my eyes, as this was more cash than I had seen in months. My daughters could have Christmas gifts from us!Yet in my heart I immediately knew what to do with at least part of it.

Just weeks before I received this card, I discovered our local YWCA family shelter was in need of supplies. They were asking the public for baby supplies - diapers and formula, especially, but also lotions, baby wash, etc. - as the cold weather and recent economic downturn (that we would later realize was the start of the recession) had the shelter filled to capacity. This shelter is the only one in our city where a family can stay together, receiving job services, tutoring for the kids, and family support until they can get back on their feet.

While we were running very short on wants, these people were short on needs. It only made sense to divert some of my unexpected gift to help this shelter. I ended up using most of that $100 to buy diapers and formula, and also asked friends at Johnson & Johnson to help by providing samples of baby wash, lotion and powder, which they were happy to send me.

I then loaded the back of my SUV with everything I had and took it to the shelter. They were so appreciative for the supplies, telling me that they sometimes have less than a day's worth of diapers to go around. Looking at the families gathered in the common area, with small children playing with well-worn toys while their parents watched with sad eyes, I knew this was the right choice to make.

It felt great to provide a gift that would genuinely help someone in need. And by participating in this act of giving, I was reminded of just how lucky I am for all that I have.

Full disclosure: Learn more about the coolest new app that revolutionizes the whole shopping, gifting, and gift card-organizing experience and Download the SWAGG app to your iPhone or Droid. I was selected for this sponsorship by Clever Girls Collective, which endorses Blog With Integrity.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Smart Grid: A New Way To Look At Energy

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to gather with a group of local bloggers at Alana's (amazing restaurant with to-die-for food!) to learn more about the GridSmart program through our local energy provider, AEP. Like most readers, I pay my electric bill each month, groaning at how much I'm spending but never really thinking about how much energy we're using or how that energy is managed and delivered to us.

AEP is starting a pilot program of SmartGrid technology (provided by Silver Springs Networks) in the northeast corner of Columbus to evaluate if this technology could help better manage energy consumption, reduce outages, save consumers money by allowing them to participate in choosing how they pay for their energy use, and develop more environmentally friendly ways to save and generate energy.

At the moment, a meter reader comes to our house each month and we get a bill for the total amount for that month. I can't tell if I'm using a lot of energy one day and not as much the next, and I have little control over keeping track of my energy usage during the month. Now imagine that my meter was digital with a chip that constantly transmitted data back and forth across a secure network between my house and AEP. This network is vast and allows the energy company to manage and track energy in regions, in neighborhoods, and even your own house. I'd also have complete access to my home's energy usage with the ability to track it down to fractions of an hour.

old meter on the left, digital smart meter on the right

One enormous benefit of this new technology is reducing the number and length of power outages. If the meter can communicate back and forth with the power company, they won't need to rely on phone calls to tell them there is an outage - the system will tell them who has no power and where the problem is. Also, power can be re-routed for many people with this network, making it easier to get the lights back on even faster for most people. Another component will feature a battery-backup to be shared by several neighbors, so your power can shift over to a local battery backup until repairs can be made.

This new technology will also allow consumers to opt in to new models for buying their electricity. Energy consumption is highest during the afternoon, especially in the summer when everyone is trying to keep their homes cool. New pricing options might include paying a lower cost for off-peak energy usage, but a slightly higher cost for peak periods - this would be perfect for families who are out of the house during those hours and don't need a large amount of energy during that time. Best of all - you can opt-in only if the plan fits you!

Another proposed program - called SmartCooling - would give a communicable digital thermostat to homes with the agreement that on summer days of extremely high energy usage the power company could increase your thermostat by up to 4 degrees for a couple of hours to help with the burden on the grid. In exchange, you'd receive an $8 credit on your bill every month, including months when it's not needed. And you could opt-out at any time, either for a single event or for the entire program all together.

Personally, I love these ideas and only wish this program was already in my part of Columbus. I'm a control-freak over my money, so being able to see daily or even hourly energy usage in my home would be awesome. I'd get a kick out of trying new things and seeing how much of a difference it made in our usage.

Some might argue that the SmartGrid technology is an intrusion and affects our privacy, but I don't see the argument. The privacy and encryption controls used by AEP are similar to the ones used by banks for online banking. The number of people who would have access to my private records would be small, and honestly, I don't care that much if people see how much energy we use.

Knowing that AEP would be able to better predict and prepare for peaks in energy use and therefore reduce their need for additional fossil fuel burning plants is well worth any minor risks to privacy. And having fewer and shorter power outages is an enormous benefit as well. I see the GridSmart program as a way for AEP to be more transparent with consumers about energy generation and consumption. And hey, digitally reading the meter is way better than having a meter reader tromping around my backyard!

SmartGrid technology is the way of the future, and Columbus is lucky to be one of the early-adopter markets. Other cities have integrated the SmartGrid technology ahead of us with great results, and I'm hopeful we'll see the same benefits here as well. Saving money through better use of resources, all while providing greater access to my personal energy use information and making me a more informed consumer sounds like a great idea to me, and I only wish they'd hurry up and implement this in my part of Columbus!

The GridSmartOhio website also features a huge amount of energy savings tips even if you're not on the pilot program. Take a look to learn how LED Christmas lights can save you money, and how to recycle your energy-efficient CFL lightbulbs. 

Full disclosure: I wrote this post after attending an informational luncheon on behalf of Silver Spring Networks and Mom Central Consulting and received a gift bag and gift card as a thank you for taking the time to participate.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

12 Weeks Until Christmas: Week 3 Declutter Week (GIVEAWAY)

We're down to the last few weeks before Christmas, and now its time to focus on the little details. For my family, clutter is something that seems to sneak up on us every week, and no matter how I try to keep it tamed down, it keeps coming back.

Here are some tips for decluttering your house before the guests arrive:

- Papers from school seem to be one of the greatest sources of clutter. The more kids you have, the more the paper clutter grows. Set up a bin or folder by the door, along with a calendar. When taking papers out of your kids backpacks, immediately put any important dates on the calendar, then recycle those papers. Anything requiring you to fill out a paper should be placed in the folder so you can find it when you have time to fill it out. For younger kids, homework can also be kept in the folder to make sure nothing gets lost.

- Another source of clutter is kids' artwork. Oh, don't get me wrong - they're all beautiful expressions of creativity, but you know we can't keep every drawing, macaroni art and and watercolor painting. To cut down on the clutter, start by picking out your favorites to keep and display. Select a box to keep in a closet where all kept artwork can go after new artwork replaces it. What about the ones that don't make the cut? They don't have to be gone forever - take a digital photo of each masterpiece before you toss it so you'll have a memory of it for years to come.

- Put everything in its place. So much clutter is simply stuff that needs to go back to its home. It's easy to leave something sitting out when you're in a hurry. Take the time to return everything to its proper home. If it doesn't have a drawer or box or container, find a spot for it or get rid of it.

- Don't be afraid to label it! Labels can help you find things quickly, and make sure everything gets returned back to the right place. This makes it easy for any member of the family to find what they need quickly and - more importantly - get it back to where it belongs! A personal labelmaker is worth the investment to help with this task.


To help you with your decluttering, I'm giving away a Dymo personal labelmaker and 2 refill cartridges! 

To enter, leave a comment below sharing what kind of clutter is the hardest for you to manage in your house! (mandatory entry)

For additional entries:

2. Leave a comment here with your best tip - other than the ones mentioned above! - for decluttering your house. (one entry - separate comment)
3. Follow me on Twitter @mommystory and tweet this contest leaving me a link here in the comments. (one entry)
4. Write a blog post about your own tips for decluttering your house and link back to this post. (1 entry - leave a comment here with your link)

Giveaway will close on Sunday, December 12 at 11:59pm ET. One winner will be selected by random drawing to win the labelmaker. Winner has three days after being contacted by e-mail to respond or another winner will be chosen in his or her place.

Good luck!

Full disclosure: This Dymo labelmaker is provided fully by myself. I was not approached by the company and received no compensation at all for this giveaway. Model #LT-100T.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Smart Gloves For Your Smart Phone

I never thought I was going to become an iPhone junkie, but now that I've had it for over a year, I often wonder how I lived without it. That phone is my lifeline when I'm out of the house - anyone I could ever need to reach, in just about any method, is available to me at the touch of a finger.

Of course, winter in Ohio can make my love for my smart phone a little difficult. Anyone in cold weather has likely faced the dilemma of using their phone versus risking cold fingers. More than once last winter I was seen furiously trying to answer my phone with my gloves on, only to remember that the gloves block the ability for the phone to sense touch and so I had to quickly tear off my glove to answer the phone.

And don't get me started on those fingerless gloves for smart phone users. Of all parts of my hand, my fingers are precisely the parts most prone to cold and therefore what I want to keep warm the most!

I was recently made aware of a new product called Agloves, however, and it's like my blue-fingernail prayers have been answered.

Agloves make it possible to keep your gloves on and use a touch screen phone at the same time. These stretchy, knit gloves are made with silver-coated nylon thread throughout (hence the name - Ag is the elemental symbol for silver) to provide the connectivity needed to operate any touch screen.

I always thought that touch-sensitive screens were based on body heat, but actually they're made to react with the bioelectricity in your skin. Put a barrier between your skin and the phone, and those little ions can't flow the way they're supposed to. Agloves, however, allow those ions to flow freely thanks to the highly conductive silver thread.

Now, I know what you might be thinking: metal coated thread? Sounds uncomfortable, right? I can tell you that when I received a pair of these for review, the first thing I noticed was how soft they are. They feel just as soft as any knit gloves, and they are just as warm, too.

I'm really impressed with these gloves. I can use my iPhone without taking my gloves off, and the phone responds to my gloved finger just as well as it does when it's skin to glass. The gloves can get wet, are also washable, and the silver will not wash off or wear off. They're available in three sizes, with a sizing chart to help you pick the right fit.

Unlike other tech gloves on the market, these keep all of your fingers covered and warm while still providing full, 10-finger conductivity with your smart phone. (Some only provide conductivity with your index finger and thumb.) The black is stylish and looks great with winter sports wear as well as a formal wool coat. Cost-wise, these are extremely well-priced gloves, at $17.99 a pair.

And if you needed one more reason to love Agloves, consider that they were created by a "mom-preneur" looking for a solution for a common problem. Support your fellow mom-run small businesses!

Win a pair!

Agloves has graciously provided me with one pair of gloves to give to one lucky reader! The winner can choose which size works best for them.

To enter, leave a comment below telling me your favorite outdoor winter activity. (Mandatory entry.) Be sure to leave a valid e-mail address so I can contact you if you're selected as the winner.

For additional entries:

2. Follow me on Twitter @mommystory and tweet this contest leaving me a link here in the comments. (one entry)
3. Follow @TheAgloves on Twitter. (1 entry - leave a comment here with you link)
4. "Like" Agloves on Facebook. (1 entry - leave a comment here with your Facebook username)

One of each entry per person, US residents only.

Giveaway will close on Sunday, November 28 at 11:59pm ET. One winner will be selected by random drawing to win the pair of Agloves. Winner has three days after being contacted by e-mail to respond or another winner will be chosen in his or her place.

Get FREE SHIPPING on Agloves!

If you can't wait and want to get some of your holiday shopping done, Agloves has also provided readers of Mommy's Must Haves with a great promo code for free shipping on any order from Agloves. Simply enter the code mommusthave in the coupon code box to get free shipping on your order through December 15, 2010!

Full disclosure: I received a pair of Agloves to facilitate my review, and no further compensation was received. A positive review was not guaranteed - all thoughts are my honest opinions. You can bet I'll be taking advantage of that discount code, though - I've got a lot of holiday shopping left to do.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Rapunzel Gets TANGLED in Disney's Newest Film

I had the chance to check out a sneak peak of the new Disney film Tangled last week, and I'll admit I was probably just as excited as many of the kids there. I'm a big fan of Disney, and many of the recent animated films have been instant classics, so I jumped at the chance to get a first glimpse at this new take on the story of Rapunzel.

The story synopsis from Disney is this: When the kingdom’s most wanted—and most charming—bandit Flynn Rider (voice of Zachary Levi) is taken hostage by Rapunzel (voice of Mandy Moore), a feisty teen with 70 feet of golden hair who’s looking for her ticket out of the tower where she’s been locked away for years, the unlikely duo sets off on a hilarious, hair-raising escapade filled with adventure, heart, humor and hair—lots of hair.

Truthfully, that's a fairly shallow description of everything involved in this movie. It doesn't mention that Rapunzel is a princess who was kidnapped by Mother Gothel and has lived nearly all of her life inside the tower. Or that her parents still hold out hope they'll find her again one day and have a lantern lighting ceremony on her birthday each year. (You'll sob when you see this.) Or that the cast of supporting characters could include vikings who like to collect tiny ceramic unicorns. Or that Rapunzel can wield a mean frying pan.

The movie is both funny and heart-warming, with a few scenes that brought tears to my eyes. Rapunzel is an innocent teen, both afraid and in awe of the world yet unwilling to back down from her dreams. Flynn is the semi-stereotypical self-absorbed rebel with a heart of gold. Mother Gothel ranks right up there with Ursula and the Shadowman as a creepy villain, and certainly a mother I'd never want to have.

I don't want to give away too much of the movie, but I will declare this one a must-see. Kids will love the humor, the songs and the horse, Maximus, while adults will enjoy the love story, the emphasis on family, and will cry with the realization that we someday must let our children go free into the world.

I had the chance to see it in 3D, and while it had moments of dazzle, overall I felt the movie could do just as well without the 3D. Unless you're a big fan of it, skip the 3D. Also, the movie is rated PG for some moments of violence and a moment involving death (practically nothing is rated G anymore), so use your best judgment in determining if your child is ready to see it.

I do love that Rapunzel is a strong female character. She's kept away from the world at a child, innocent and scared of the outside, and yet she faces her fears to follow her dreams. Along the way she encounters a lot of frightening moments, but she rises to the occasion for each - she's a good modern princess role model for young girls. (Honestly, I still am not sure why this movie wasn't titled Rapunzel like all of the other Disney princess films.) 

Overall, I wouldn't rate it as my favorite Disney film, but Tangled earns its place in the Disney library of films. It's a great story, the music is good, the animation is lovely and the characters are a lot of fun. You won't be disappointed by Tangled.

Friday, November 12, 2010

12 Weeks Until Christmas: Week 6 Garage Week (GIVEAWAY)

I'll admit, the garage is my final resting place for many items. After removing items from my black hole closets a few weeks ago, several boxes ended up in the garage where they're still waiting to be moved to Goodwill or some other place outside of my home. But many items in my garage have been waiting an awful long time for a new home, making the garage a purgatory for clutter, awaiting the final judgment.

While the clutter is annoying, it's also keeping me from getting my car into the garage.

So while the weather is still not yet freezing, I'm going to take some time to get my garage in shape to park at least one car in it. If your garage could use a little help, too, here are some tips I'm following to organize this space:

- Start by getting rid of the space wasters. Have you touched it in the past two years? If not, then get rid of it immediately. Have you used it in the last year? If so, then take a careful look at it and decide if it's worth the space it occupies.

- Next, get tools and sports equipment off the floor. Think vertical and use your wall space to your advantage. Use tool organizers and bicycle hooks to organize equipment and keep your most needed tools easy to reach.

- Sort holiday decorations into bins by season and store them on shelves. Again, think vertical when planning out your space to leave you with the most floor space available for your vehicles!

- Finally, clean up the floor. Make sure bags of fertilizer, mulch, and pesticides as well as gas cans are properly sealed and stored away from electrical or heat sources. If a bag is torn, transfer the contents to a plastic container that can be sealed.

Be sure to visit Kelly, Heather and Lisa for more tips this week!


To help you in your garage clean-up, I've got a $50 gift card to The Container Store to give to one lucky reader.

To enter, leave a comment below sharing what (other than your car) takes up the most space in your garage! (mandatory entry)

For additional entries:

2. Leave a comment here with your favorite organizational tool for keeping your garage and shed neat and tidy. (one entry - separate comment)
3. Follow me on Twitter @mommystory and tweet this contest leaving me a link here in the comments. (one entry)

4. Write a blog post about how you plan to (or already are!) getting your garage organized and ready for winter and link back to this post. (1 entry - leave a comment here with your link)

Giveaway will close on Friday, November 26 at 11:59pm ET. One winner will be selected by random drawing to win the gift card. Winner has three days after being contacted by e-mail to respond or another winner will be chosen in his or her place.

Good luck!

Full disclosure: Gift card to The Container Store is provided fully by myself. I was not approached by the store and received no compensation at all for this giveaway. Links to Amazon do include my affiliate code, meaning if you purchase something at Amazon after clicking that link, they give me a small percentage of that sale. Win-win, everyone.

Twelve Weeks Til Christmas, Week Seven: Kitchen Clean-Up Time

Can you believe how close we're getting to the holidays? I can tell you that I'm still feeling overwhelmed at all I have left to do to get ready to host family members for Christmas Day.

This week's focus is the kitchen, and this is an area I'll admit I often feel out-of-place in. I'm a lousy cook, but I'm not a half bad baker. So while most of the year I avoid the kitchen, during the holidays there are so many baked goodies to make and share!

Getting the kitchen organized for me begins with a massive storage container hunt. Plastic containers of all sizes seem to breed in our cabinets during the year, and no lid ever seems to have a matching container.

So I begin by pulling out every storage container from every cabinet and setting them all on the table. I start by recycling any container that looks like it's seen better days - warped plastic, dented holiday tins, permanent stains, etc.

Then I start the process of matching up containers and lids. Once that is done, anything left without a partner hits the recycling bin, leaving me with only the storage containers that I'll actually use this season!

This is also the best time of year to take a look at your baking pans and cooking utensils and replace anything that is looking worn out. Make sure you have all of the supplies for your baking needs - you don't want to find out at the last minute that you don't have that double boiler you need to melt chocolate!

This week, Lisa and Rubbermaid are giving you a hand at getting your kitchen organized and ready to bake up some holiday cheer. Visit her blog to enter to win a Rubbermaid modular canisters prize pack!

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Eye-Fi Makes Backing Up Photos Even Easier

I've listened to several people at blog conferences rave about their Eye-Fi cards, and for the longest time I never knew what they were. Wi-fi for your camera? How does that work?

I recently had the chance to try out an Eye-Fi card, and now I think I understand a little better. The Eye-Fi card is an SDHC memory card with built-in 802.11n wireless ability. That means that when you're in your home wireless network, you can easily upload your photos from your camera to your computer with no cables, and no need to remove the memory card.

Setup for the Eye-Fi card is a breeze. Put the card in the included USB card reader, plug it into your computer, answer a few questions, and you're ready to go. It took about 10 minutes to completely set everything up and take a test photo to make sure it was working properly.

I put the 4GB Eye-Fi Connect card to work at Halloween, as I took many, many photos of my girls in their superhero costumes, snapping away safe in the knowledge that the 4GB card could hold hundreds of images. The Eye-Fi software gives you the option to upload all photos directly to a website like Flickr or Picasa, but I prefer to edit and pick and choose which photos I want share so I didn't enable that option.

However, each photo was quickly transferred to my computer only seconds after being taken. At the end of the night, I turned off the camera and went to my photos folder on my computer, where all of my photos were waiting for me. Perfect!

Eye-Fi cards can transfer video as well as photo, too. All Eye-Fi cards also feature the Endless Memory setting, freeing up memory on the card as soon as photos are securely transferred to your computer. Upgraded features include Geotagging and the ability to upload photos to your computer from any Wi-Fi hotspots in the US.

Overall, I like the Eye-Fi card. Being able to transfer photos without taking out the memory card is a nice feature, and the Endless Memory setting is nice, too. But unless you have the upgraded Hotspot Access feature, the card will only transfer photos when in your home wireless network.

Also, one disadvantage to me is your computer and camera have to both be on and awake in order to transfer photos. I have a laptop, so I have to keep it open while photos transfer, and my Canon Rebel has a tendency to go to sleep mode if not used for 30 seconds. When I wanted to transfer several photos at once (taken outside of my home wireless network) I had to keep hitting buttons to keep my camera awake so the photos would continue transferring.

Do I recommend the Eye-Fi card? While I don't know how useful it would be if you only take a single photo here and there, I think it would be very useful for someone with a taste for photography, whether hobby or professional. If you take a lot of photos away from home, I'd recommend the 8GB Eye-Fi Explore or Eye-Fi Pro, both of which include Hotspot Access.

Eye-Fi cards are available in 4GB and 8GB memory, and can be found in many retail locations, including Amazon. They'd make great gifts for the photography fans in your family!

Full disclosure: I was provided with a 4GB Eye-Fi connect card on loan to facilitate this review. No compensation was received and the Eye-Fi card was returned after writing the review. The links above include an Amazon Associates code, meaning that if you click them and purchase anything at Amazon, I get a tiny percentage of the sale. (And thank you if you do!)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Find Your Perfect Holiday Card With Shutterfly

Halloween may be my favorite holiday of the year, but the entire month of December is not far behind it. It's hard for me to believe that it's already time to start unpacking the decorations and gearing up for the winter holidays, but as soon as Halloween is past, the remaining weeks until Christmas will be a whirlwind of activity.

Which means now is the perfect time to start thinking about holiday cards. Ever since the rise of the photo card, I've become a fan of sending out Christmas cards each year. We love sending out new photos of the family to distant friends and family members, getting photo cards in return to display on the mantle.

In our house, there are a few rules when selecting our annual card. First, it needs to not be a folded card. (This rule comes from me.) The holidays are already so busy, and a folded card - with all of that beautiful blank space inside just begging for someone to fill it with words- is too much stress for me to handle. I want my greeting to be printed on the card along with our names and have it ready to go. Sounds impersonal, I know, but I think friends would rather receive a card from us without my messy handwriting rather than no card at all.

Second, the card has to keep to a semi-generic "Happy Holidays" theme. (This rule comes from my husband.) My family celebrates Christmas, while my husband's family celebrates Hanukkah, and some of our friends simply enjoy the holiday season. The thought of getting two or more different sets of cards and trying to figure out which ones best suit which recipients makes my head spin. Instead, we choose one design that we hope will offend no one.

Thankfully, Shutterfly has hundreds of gorgeous designs to choose from, and no matter the rules your family may have for picking just the right card - whether they be Christmas cards, Hanukkah cards or just holiday cards - they will have a card for you. Here are three of my favorites:

Isn't this design gorgeous? The black background with the brightly colored snowflakes is so modern, and the colors just make me happy. Looking at this card, I'm wishing for the snow to get here soon!

I love the color combination on this card as well as the ability to add three different photos. Sometimes I have a horrible time choosing the right photo for a card, but with a card like this, I've got a lot more flexibility. Also, the text is customizable, so I can easily omit the "Merry Christmas" in favor of "Happy Holidays" or simply "With love."

I know, this one really doesn't look like a holiday card, does it? But I love it because it's so different. The interesting color, the flourishes - it's perfect for someone who doesn't want a traditional holiday card.

Which one will I choose? I have no idea. Honestly, these are three of about ten favorites I have saved, and it may come down to simply closing my eyes and picking one. No matter which one I choose, I know it will look amazing on the premium cardstock.

Bloggers - Get Your Own Cards Free!

Do you want 50 free holiday cards from Shutterfly? Click here to go to Shutterfly for information on how you can get 50 free cards this holiday season, and make sure to select Clever 1000 as the referral source.

Full disclosure: This post is part of a series sponsored by Shutterfly. I was selected for this sponsorship by the Clever Girls Collective, which endorses Blog With Integrity, as I do.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Twelve Weeks of Christmas: Travel Time

I think it's safe to say most of us travel for the holidays, whether across state lines or just across town. And if your car is looking like mine right now, it could probably use a little help before you hit the road this winter.

A few tips to get your vehicle travel-ready:

- Get any maintenance done now. Take your car for an oil change, make sure all of the lights are working, the battery is in good shape, and the antifreeze is doing...well...whatever exactly antifreeze does. This is also a good time to check your tire tread and replace any worn-down tires before driving on wintry roads.

- Clean out the clutter! Get rid of that newspaper you left on the floor, the empty soda bottle you forgot to take with you, and any excess toys hanging out in the backseat. After you've removed the clutter, give your car a quick vacuum to suck up crumbs and dirt.

- Don't forget to clean the inside of your windshield. We all know how to clean the outside of the windshield, but the inside is often neglected. A dirty windshield on the inside can increase glare and make it hard to see at night.

- Keep an emergency kit in the car. When cleaning out your trunk to pack as many presents in it as possible, make sure your emergency kit stays in the car. No one wants to be stuck on the side of the road, but if you are, an emergency roadside kit is a lifesaver to have.

And speaking of roadside emergency kits, be sure to visit Heather at Domestic Extraordinaire this week for your chance to win a 42 piece AAA roadside emergency kit!

PS - Congrats to my Week 2 winner, Shel! She won 3 bottles each of Tide with Acti-Lift and Ultra Downy in the new Sun Blossom scent! Happy laundry day, Shel!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Disney's Beauty and the Beast Charms A New Generation on Blu-Ray

I have fond memories of watching the Disney animated classic Beauty and the Beast when I was a freshman in high school. It was my favorite of all of the Disney movies for several reasons. First, Belle was a smart, independent, bookish girl like myself. She wasn't looking for a man to complete her, and was quite happy to reject the town hunk rather than give in to someone she didn't like. Love came as a surprise with the Beast, and it involved both of them accepting each other for who they were. It wasn't the typical princess fairy tale we all have come to expect, and I liked that.

But I also loved the animation. I still can picture the shot of the chandelier while they were dancing during the song "Beauty and the Beast." It was the first extensive use of computer animation, and seeing such detail in that chandelier was amazing.

The music was also fantastic. I still own my original cassette of the soundtrack, and can still probably sing every word of "Be Our Guest." The film won two Academy Awards and two Grammy Awards for music, and was the first Disney animated film to inspire its own Broadway show.

In other words: I love this movie. It was one of the first Disney films that I truly fell for, and I'm thrilled that I can now show it to my smart, independent and bookish daughters.

Disney's Beauty and the Beast: Diamond Edition was released for the first time on Blu-ray in a Blu-ray + DVD combo pack on October 5, 2010. Included in this set is a fully remastered and restored version of the film on Blu-ray as well as a DVD copy, along with lots of bonus features and extras to keep the fun going well past the movie.

Some of the extras include deleted scenes, making-of and behind-the-scenes features, enhanced music tracks, and interactive games. There are three versions of the film you can choose from: the original theatrical release, the special extended edition that includes the song "Human Again" which was cut from the original version, and the storyboard version, which shows the storyboards alongside the film.

My favorite extra is the Sing-Along Mode, where the words of the songs appear on the screen so you can sing along. I know most of the songs, but it's nice to have a cheat sheet to help me teach my girls the songs as well. My youngest daughter loves the Enchanted Musical Challenge game, while my oldest likes to watch the "Belle in the Library" deleted scene storyboard.

Overall, Beauty and the Beast is a well-made addition to Disney's Blu-ray Diamond Edition collection. I compared it to my older DVD version of the movie, and they really did an excellent job at making the picture quality even sharper, the colors brighter, and the music even more enchanting. The extras are nice to have as well, but just the stunning quality of the film is worth the price.

The Beauty and the Beast: Diamond Edition Blu-ray + DVD combo pack is available now, and a DVD-only version of the movie will be available next month. Don't wait to get your copy - like all Disney movies, they're only available for a limited time before they go back into the vault - and you don't want to miss your chance to own one of the best Disney movies of all time.

Full Disclosure: I was provided with a complimentary copy of the DVD to facilitate my review. However, the opinions stated here are still 100% my own and I know I could out-sing most of you on the song "Belle" because I sang it all the time in my car in high school. Wait...did you just call me a geek?

Friday, October 08, 2010

12 Weeks Until Christmas: Week 2 Closet Week (GIVEAWAY)

After week 1, are you now ready to tackle getting your house organized and ready for the holidays? OK, then it's time to start big with the one area we're all most likely to have disorganized: the closets.

It's true. When you have visitors five minutes away from your house and clutter in the living room, where do you stash it on short notice? The closet. When you need to get the laundry off the guest bed, where does it go? The floor of the closet, of course.

It's the perfect hiding spot for anything out of place, although it then becomes a black hole of out-of-place items, when actually your closets can be one of your best tools for staying organized!

So this week's challenge: clean out those closets and get them organized! And we've got tips from me, Lisa, Kelly and Heather to help you along the way.

Living room/Hall closet

The hall closet often has a mix of outerwear, family games, cleaning supplies and other random stuff crammed in it. So the first step is to pull it all out of the closet. Get yourself some boxes or laundry baskets to help you sort it all, along with a trash bag.

First, make sure all trash immediately goes into the trash bag: lost paperwork from kids' backpacks, a torn mitten, broken toys, or anything else that can no longer serve a purpose. Take anything that belongs elsewhere back to its proper place.

Next, take all out of season items (if you live in a climate where it gets cold) and toss them in one box or storage container. Sandals, sunhats, light jackets and anything that screams summer need to give up their spots to make room for winter coats, scarves and snow boots. If anything in the closet is too large or too small for anyone in your family, place it in a different box to either save for a garage sale or give to a charity like Goodwill.

Finally, put it all back in place. I like to use an over the door shoe holder to keep track of mittens, scarves and other accessories for my family, but small plastic containers can do the job, too.

Bedroom closets

Now is the time to tackle all of that laundry and store away clothing you won't need until it's swimsuit season again to make room for all of those wonderfully cozy sweaters. The hardest part for me is taking the time to gather up everything that I won't be using for months, make sure it's all washed and then store it away.

Now, laundry isn't my favorite chore, but it needs to be done. And when tackling a massive project like this, it's best to sort it all out into 1-load piles each, and set aside an evening or a weekend afternoon to get this done. I hate taking the time to pre-treat stains - or worse, re-treat stains and try again - which is why I'm a big fan of Tide with Acti-Lift. It's the best detergent I've tried at getting out stains the first time, while still keeping my clothing looking bright and new.

Also, when washing clothing you plan to store away, add just a little extra fabric softener in a scent you love. If you keep them stored in air-tight containers, your clothes will still smell fresh when you open them again. This year I'm using the new Ultra Downy Sun Blossom scent - when I open up the storage containers in the spring, I know I'll still have that fresh, just-washed scent to greet me!

We have several clear plastic storage bins in the back of our closet to hold out of season clothing and linens. The clear plastic makes it easy to see what's inside, in case you do need to break out short sleeve tops but aren't ready for shorts yet. If you don't have clear plastic containers, any other storage solution will do, but make sure you label the boxes or bins so you know where to find things when you need them.

Finally, the biggest hurdle of bedroom closets is simply putting everything in its place. Match up shoes and line them up or put them on a shoe rack. Keep all of your pants together in one area, skirts in another, tops and sweaters in yet another. You don't want to be frantically searching through your sweaters just to find the one little black skirt you stuck in the middle somewhere. If you share your closet with your spouse, assign each of you one side of the closet to keep your clothing sorted out.


We're going to get you ready to tackle all of that laundry in your closets with a little help from Tide and Downy! One lucky reader will win 3 bottles of Tide with Acti-Lift, as well as 3 bottles of Ultra Downy in the new Sun Blossom scent!

To enter, leave a comment below with your best organization tip for keeping your closets from turning into a jumbled mess. (mandatory entry)

For additional entries:

2. Leave a comment here with your best laundry or stain-fighting tip! (one entry - separate comment)
3. Follow me on Twitter @mommystory and tweet this contest leaving me a link here in the comments. (one entry)
4. Follow @Tide on Twitter and thank them for helping you get your summer clothing ready to be stored away with a link to this post. (1 entry - leave a comment here with you link)
5. Write a blog post about how you plan to (or already are!) getting your closets organized and ready for winter and link back to this post. (1 entry - leave a comment here with your link)

Giveaway will close on Friday, October 15 at 11:59pm ET. One winner will be selected by random drawing to win the Tide/Downy prize pack. Winner has three days after being contacted by e-mail to respond or another winner will be chosen in his or her place.

Full disclosure: This giveaway prize is being provided by Tide and Downy. I received no compensation nor was I given any free product. I just really like their products and reached out to them to join us in this series. Thanks, Tide & Downy!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

12 Weeks Until Christmas: Week 1, Getting Organized


The holidays are an incredibly stressful time for me. I'm not the best at getting organized, and far too often I've found myself frantically shoving clutter in boxes before family arrived or rushing out at the last minute for one more gift I forgot to buy. And it's not just one holiday I have to prepare for - we celebrate both Christmas AND Hanukkah in our family.

Well, this year I'm committed to getting an early start on the holiday prep work, and three other bloggers (Lisa from Life with Lisa, Kelly from 3 Boys & a Dog and Heather from Domestic Extraordinaire) are helping me - and you - get organized for the holidays. For the next 12 weeks, each of us will be hosting a different organizational topic, along with a giveaway as a little added incentive!

Here's a sneak peak at the schedule:

1.LISA – Week 12 – Get Organized Week October 2nd
2.CHRISTINA – Week 11 – Closet Week October 9th
3.KELLI – Week 10 – Don’t Forget The Computer October 16th
4.HEATHER – Week 9 – Travel Time October 23rd
5.HEATHER – Week 8 – Living Room October 30th
6.LISA – Week 7 – Kitchen declutter November 6th
7.CHRISTINA – Week 6 – Garage/Shed Week November 13th
8.KELLI – Week 5 – Thanksgiving is coming November 20th
9.HEATHER – Week 4 – Kids’ Domain November 27th
10.CHRISTINA – Week 3 – Declutter Week December 4th
11.LISA – Week 2 – Bathrooms December 11th
12.KELLI – Week 1 – Final Sweeps Week December 18th

So this week's challenge is to organize yourself in preparation for what's ahead. Some tips:

- Lists are your friends. Make your lists for everything you want to accomplish now. Plan who you will be buying gifts for and what they might like, list out what you'll have for your holiday meal and what ingredients you'll need, make a list of the parties you plan to attend, the chores you need to accomplish - anything that needs a visual reminder. Crossing items off of lists feels so good, too!

- Designate locations for gifts. Instead of buying gifts and stashing them in various places around the house, choose one box or closet to put everything in and remember to put it all there.

- Keep everyone in the know. Make sure all holiday events are clearly marked on the calendar, along with any information you might need to know. If your child needs to bring a gift for a gift swap at his scout troop's party, write it on the calendar. Find out when company Christmas parties are being held to prevent conflicts with travel or other gatherings.

- Establish a budget. Spending on gifts and food and decorations can really hurt your bank account. Determine ahead of time how much you'll spend, and stick to it. If you can, set some of that money aside now so you're not pulling out the plastic in a pinch.

How do you get organized for the holidays? Visit Lisa's post this week and leave your best tip for a chance to win a $30 Label Daddy gift certificate and an organizational prize pack from Carolina Pad!

Come back next week as I attempt to tackle the nightmare I call my closets!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Walgreens Helps You Stay Healthy During Flu Season!

The weather's turning colder, and school is back in session. I don't know what this means for your family, but I know for mine it is often the kickoff of the sniffles and cough season. It seems like everywhere I look someone is sick, and my youngest has already started bringing home various stomach viruses that her classmates have been so kind to share with her.

This is also the time of year when my family gets our flu shots. As an RN, I've seen how sick the flu can make people. Sure, if you're an adult in good health, you're unlikely to die or suffer serious side effects from the flu, but individuals in poor health and children aren't always so lucky. I am healthy, but I don't want to risk passing the flu on to my children, or to someone else I happen to meet, so I gladly roll up my sleeve each year for that little shot.

Walgreens has made it easier than ever to get a flu shot. Many of their locations are fully stocked and have healthcare professionals trained to give out the shot, often with no wait. While getting a flu shot isn't a hardship for my family, not everyone can afford this sometimes lifesaving vaccine, which is why Walgreens and The Motherhood is asking us to spread good health with their "Random Acts of Wellness" campaign.

I was given 5 gift cards, each good for a free flu shot, to distribute to those in need, and I took this challenge very seriously. Here are a few of the stories of those I gave a card to:

  • One of my recipients was a man I know with emphysema. He has smoked for most of his life, and now in his late 50's is suffering the effects of that. The good news is he did quit smoking a few years ago; the bad news is that some of the damage to his lungs is permanent. Staying healthy is a must for him, as the flu could easily land him in the hospital in a life-threatening situation. His flu shot will help him to stay healthy and stay at work through this season.

  • One gift card went to a woman I work with who is pregnant. The CDC has recommended flu shots for all women in their second and third trimesters of pregnancy, as the flu could cause complications with the pregnancy. Her baby is due in November and I wanted to make sure that not only is she protected, but that the baby she and her husband are so looking forward to is protected as well.

  • Another woman I know has two children, one of whom has a health condition that leaves him susceptible to any virus that comes along. What might be a sniffle for us could be a hospitalization for him, and the flu could be deadly. She works hard, but makes very little money and while she gets help in providing her children with health insurance, she has none. A flu shot for her is vital to her child's health, and I was happy to ensure that money would not stand in the way of her getting her shot as soon as possible.

Having the chance to provide the gift of health to others has been such an amazing and rewarding experience. But it doesn't stop there - I have another 5 flu shot gift cards from Walgreens to give away to 5 lucky readers! Use it for yourself, use it for someone in your family, or create your own random act of wellness and give it to someone in need.

To enter, leave a comment below sharing the "acts of wellness" your family participates in during flu season. How do you keep your family healthy? What steps do you take to avoid illness? Comments will be accepted until Tuesday, October 5 at 11:59pm ET, one entry per person, US households only. Please be sure to leave your e-mail address so I can contact you if you win.

5 winners will be selected at random after the closing date and will be notified by e-mail. Winners have 2 days to respond or a new winner will be selected.

The best tips shared by all of you will also be gathered to create a Walgreens "Acts of Wellness During Flu Season" tips list and I'll feature my favorite tips in a follow-up post here as well.

Good luck, and stay healthy this winter! For more information on the Walgreens flu shot program, you can visit their website or their Facebook page.

Full disclosure: I was provided with five flu shot gift cards to hand out as part of the "Random Acts of Wellness" campaign with Walgreens and The Motherhood, as well as 5 gift cards to give away on this site. I was also provided with a stipend for my time involved with this project. All opinions shared here are 100% my own, and yes, I am an RN, but before you ask me for medical advice I will refer you to your doctor.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Leaving My Comfort Zone

I've been blogging for nearly five years now. Which, you know, in blog years is about forty years, meaning I'm right at the perfect age for a mid-life blog crisis. Only with this type of crisis, you don't go out and buy a sports car. Nope, instead you choose to go to a different social media conference.

I've attended BlogHer since 2006, and for the past two years I've also attended Blissdom. Both are blogging conferences for women, and in the past there has been a strong leaning towards mom bloggers. I've learned a lot from these conferences, and will continue to attend them, but coming home from BlogHer last month, I felt like I was missing something.

There's no doubt that social media conferences with a female-focus are important and have a lot of merit, but I can't stay in my estrogen-cocoon forever. I need to branch out, see what else is out there in the blog world, and even - gasp! - interact with more of the male social media population and see what I can learn from them as well. I have a "mom blog" and this review blog, but I'm also developing a fitness blog and who knows where I'll go from there?

I'll admit that I'm nervous of stepping outside of my usual circle. I always worry about being taken seriously, and it's hard to get the nerve up to approach big name bloggers when you're just a small fry. But hey, if it can advance my blogging, or help me develop a new direction for myself, I'll gladly walk up to anyone and say hello.

So next month I'm conquering my fear of flying yet again to attend BlogWorld Expo with the hopes of finding new inspiration and new influence from an entirely new population of social media participants. As an RN, I'm especially interested in the social health track on Thursday, as I've been considering doing more health blogging but worry about issues regarding privacy and liability.

BlogWorld looks like a fantastic event, but at the moment I only have a pass for Thursday. I'm hoping that IZEA will select me to receive a free pass for the remainder of the event so I can get the most out of the panels and parties and bring what I learn back to my own blogging circle, many of which have never attended any conferences, or have only been to female-centered conferences.

Besides, I want to disprove that whole idea that "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas," because we all know that in the world of social media, what happens in Vegas will be photographed, videotaped, and written about for the whole world to see.

 I'm not above wearing McDonald's bags for hats, either!

IZEA, please pick me to receive a free full conference pass to BlogWorld! I've got the flight, I've got the hotel - all I need is the full conference pass! I won't let you down!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Oregon Chai: The Perfect Drink for Me Time

Here in Ohio, the weather has started to turn ever-so-slightly crisp. The morning and evening air is cool and dry, while afternoons are still warm and sunny. But this shift has me excited, because I love nothing more than wrapping up in cozy sweaters, drinking warm drinks and enjoying all of the beauty of fall.

Although coffee is always my go-to for staying awake, my drink of preference is always tea, specifically chai tea. Chai is a sort of spiced black tea that often has milk added for a creamy texture. You can drink it hot or cold, depending on your preference or time of the year. Personally, a hot mug of chai tea is the ultimate comfort drink for me.

I recently received a "Time for Me Wellness Kit" from Oregon Chai that contained a canister of The Original Chai mix, a mug, USB-powered mug warmer, and an acrylic double-walled reusable iced tea cup with straw. (Oh yeah, and a mood ring! I haven't seen one of those since the 80's.) I've already used much of the chai mix, which isn't a surprise because I was already a fan of Oregon Chai and their many chai variations: vanilla, green-tea, caffeine-free, vegan, and sugar-free.

You can buy Oregon Chai in either a concentrated liquid form, or in a dry mix form, including their new 10 oz. mix canister. Either way, you can control how strong you want your chai to be, adding more or less than the recommended amount to create the perfect drink for you. All Oregon Chai drinks are also all-natural and the mixes are preservative-free.

Want Some For Yourself?

Oregon Chai has generously provided two gift packs for me to give away so you can enhance your "me time" as well. One reader will receive a 10 oz chai mix canister and mug, and another reader will receive a 10 oz chai mix canister and an acrylic double-walled reusable iced tea cup!

To enter, just leave a comment below telling me your favorite way to spend "me time" along with your e-mail address so I can contact you if you're a winner. You can enter until Monday, September 20, 2010 at 11:59pm eastern time. One entry per person. Open to US residents only. Two winners will be selected using Should either winner not respond within two days of being contacted, another winner will be selected.

Full disclosure: I received the kit mentioned above from Oregon Chai to help facilitate my review. No further compensation was provided. All opinions are 100% my own.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Just Eyewear Makes Buying Glasses Easy

Welcome my husband, Aaron, to Mommy's Must Haves today as he provides a review of Just Eyewear glasses!

If you had looked on the dashboard of my car anytime over the past nine months, you would have seen a pair of glasses sitting there – with one lens barely hanging on to the frame. That's because I broke my glasses immediately after losing our vision insurance, and while I needed them to drive, I couldn't afford to replace them. So, in the car they sat, able to sit gingerly on my nose as I drove, but otherwise banished from my face.

Fortunately, I was given the chance to order a pair of prescription glasses online from Just Eyewear, and now I'm able to see well all of the time again. This is a great relief to me, and I have to say that I was very pleased with the process.

The first step you'll need to ordering a pair of glasses is your prescription, and some details about the size and shape of your face. The good news is that all of this information can come looking in a mirror, having a measuring tape handy, and being able to lay your hands on another pair of glasses that fit you well in the past.

With your prescription in hand, you'll head on over to the Just Eyewear website, where they will walk you through the process of choosing frames. This starts by selecting your gender and the shape of your face. Using an old pair of eyeglasses as a guide, you can then use the custom frame fitter filter to help you select frames that have the correct lens diameter, bridge and temple measurements.

At this point you'll be presented with numerous frames to select from, in a variety of colors and materials, all perfect for your face. I was quite pleased with the selection they had, and was able to find something very similar in style to my broken pair (which I liked a lot, other then the fact that they were, you know, broken,)

After you've picked the frames, you'll then fill in your prescription information. One thing that you will need that isn't always included in your prescription is your P.D. or pupilary distance (it wasn't included in my prescription). This describes the distance between your two pupils, and is essential to getting a set of glasses that fit you. Fortunately, you can take this measurement yourself or with a friend's help, and the Just Eyewear website walks you through that process.

Once you have the prescription information in, you then get the option to add customization to the lenses, either by choosing different thickness lenses, special coatings, tinting or polarization, or even transition lenses. Finally, you'll check out and the glasses will be on their way in 5-7 business days.

My glasses took just under two weeks to arrive, and so far I'm very pleased with them. They looked exactly as represented on the screen, fit perfectly, and the prescription matched my old prescription identically. By virtue of these being a review pair, I had up to fifty dollars to spend in picking out my glasses, and while I didn't get transition lenses or prescription sunglasses, it was easy for me to pick frames and lenses that fit into that budget. Honestly, it was easy enough that I intend to order another pair of glasses that are prescription sunglasses – and I'm only too happy to pay for those out of pocket.

There are some downsides to the process, of course. First off, these aren't “designer frames,” although they are clearly modeled after them. So, if having a designer logo on the side of your frames is important to you, then you probably want to look elsewhere. Also, using Just Eyewear doesn't eliminate the need for a trip to the optometrist – you still need to have an eye exam and prescription written out for you. For those with insurance, the trip to the optometrist might cover most of the cost of the glasses, and in that case, there isn't a lot of reason to use Just Eyewear in place of the glasses you could order through your doctor.

But for someone needing a second pair of glasses, or who needs replacements between trips covered by insurance, or someone like me with no vision insurance, buying glasses online from Just Eyewear is a good choice. The glasses are high-quality, the price is inexpensive, and their website is extremely helpful in walking you through the process to ensure that you get glasses you'll be satisfied with. I certainly am satisfied with mine.

Full disclosure: My husband received a complimentary pair of glasses from Just Eyewear to facilitate this review. We received this opportunity through my status as a contributing member of the PRIZEY giveaway community, and no further compensation was received. An honest review was promised, but a positive review was neither guaranteed nor required.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Staples Makes Back To School Shopping Easy

I was not thrilled to receive my daughter's school supply list last week. It was long and very specific and immediately gave me a headache. I mean, for goodness sakes, she's only going into kindergarten! Does she really need two spiral bound notebooks, folders with brackets inside them, glue sticks and headphones for the computer, along with crayons, markers, glue sticks, scissors, erasers, hand sanitizer and tissues? Whatever happened to bringing a blanket, a pillow and some crayons to kindergarten?

However, I know I can always turn to Staples to have everything I need for back-to-school. I love how they have everything on my list, organized in such a way to make shopping quick and easy, with the variety to keep my picky five year old happy. (Everything must be blue this year. Ugh.)

Mom Select and Staples teamed up to send me a small sampling of the great school supplies Staples is offering this year. Some of my favorites:

Do notebooks, folders, and planners - These products are exclusive to Staples and help students stay organized while learning about important issues impacting their communities. Each product features cool designs including background on social issues and tips on how students can make a difference. I'm using the planner to keep track of my daughter's school assignments and school functions, while she was thrilled to find a blue notebook and folder included in the box, and crossed those items off of her school supply list right away.

Westcott KleenEarth products - These products are eco-conscious and include environmental features such as handles made from recycled content. Bonus: they also have Microban antibacterial protection, perfect for using around kids who prefer the back of their hand to a tissue. We received a pair of scissors (checking off the supply list!), a sharpener for pencils and crayons, and a ruler. Cordy already loves the scissors with the bright orange handles!

Staples Soccer Buddy Calculator - Cordy doesn't use a calculator yet, but she wants to learn now that she's found this new blue friend! It's bendy and features a fun mini-soccer ball to help achieve all her math "goals" - OK, bad pun, but she's already named it "Blue number guy" so I think it's here to stay.

Omnitech 2GB Swivel Flash Drive - Another Staples exclusive, this flash drive will make sure you never lose the cap again. Just swivel to click it into place and it's ready to travel in your backpack or purse. This thing is genius - I can't tell you how many flash drive caps I've lost and how many flash drives I've ruined from bending the metal connectors. I wish all flash drives were made like this!

Many of these items are already in my daughter's backpack, waiting for her first day of school on Wednesday. The items we didn't need are being donated to the school to help provide supplies for other kids who can't afford them.

Want to win some back-to-school goodies for yourself?

I've got one $25 Staples gift card to give to a lucky reader! To enter, leave a comment below telling me your favorite school supply to buy when you were a kid. Be sure to leave your e-mail address so I can contact you if you are selected! One entry per person/household, please - if I find you cheating, your entries will be deleted.

US residents only. Entries will be accepted until Friday, August 27 at 11:59pm Eastern time. One winner will be selected at random from available entries using Winner has three days to respond or another winner will be selected.

Good luck and happy back-to-school shopping!

Full disclosure: I received a box of the supplies listed above from Staples to facilitate my review. No further compensation was received. All opinions of these products are my own - no guarantee of a positive review was promised nor expected.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Grasshopper Shoes Provide Comfort For Your Feet

I'm not someone who is willing to accept pain for fashion. I'm also not someone who is obsessed with shoes.

That said, I DO own many pairs of shoes, and I prefer my shoes to be cute, or at least not be mistaken for my grandmother's shoes. Finding shoes that fit both categories of fashionable and comfortable is often a challenge, though. What may feel comfortable at first quickly results in a blister or sore spot on my foot. (My BlogHer heels are a good example of this - what was I thinking?)

However, I have found a perfectly comfortable pair of shoes for late summer/fall from Grasshoppers. These shoes have the PureFit Comfort System to keep you light on your feet all day long. The well-designed flexible outsoles and padded dual-density footbed cushion your foot and require oractically no break-in time - just slip them on and go!

I was provided a pair of the Janey Sneakers in Dark Bown Plaid to try out. I was immediately drawn to these shoes because, c'mon, that plaid is awesome! When they arrived, I was impressed that they didn't feel stiff and rigid like many new shoes can. I slipped them on and was surprised by the targeted cushioning I felt under my heel and the ball of my foot.

It's been nearly two weeks now, and I love these shoes! I can easily wear them with or without socks, and they feel like old, well-loved shoes but still are just as cushioned as the first day. They've survived two days with me walking all day long as well as grocery trips and playground visits without a single ache in my feet. A woman in the grocery store actually asked me where I got my shoes because she liked them so much.

So far I've been very pleased with my Grasshoppers shoes. They're easy to wear, they look good, and they keep my feet feeling happy. If I had any criticism at all, it would be that the sole doesn't have a lot of traction, making wet floors or low-pile carpet a little slippery. It's a minor complaint, though, as I think the chance of slipping in these shoes is minimal.

I'll admit I was a little nervous about the idea of picking out shoes on the internet, but these run true to size for me. I also have slightly wide feet (they're right on the border of needing a wide width shoe), but the standard width worked just fine for me.

If you're looking for comfortable, good-looking casual shoes at a good price, I recommend giving Grasshoppers a chance.

Full disclosure: I received a complimentary pair of shoes from Grasshoppers for review purposes. No further compensation was received. A positive review was neither promised nor expected.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Wendy's Fresh New Salads

In this era of food awareness - where we're finally waking up and thinking about what we put in our mouths - it's awesome to see fast food and restaurants quickly responding to meet our needs with food that is fresh and real. For my own family, we've cut back on a lot of processed foods and as a result don't eat out as often.

But Wendy's recently revised their entire line of salads, and may have won me back at least once a week. I had the chance to listen in on a webinar with Chef Rick Tramonto as he went through the process of creating each of Wendy's four new salads, emphasizing fresh ingredients with the ability to completely customize your salad to your liking.

Their four new entree salads have something for everyone. There's the Apple Pecan Chicken Salad, with an all-natural pomegranate vinaigrette dressing for those who like a little fruit with your veggies. (Note: I am not a fruit-veggie mixer, so this one wasn't even tempting for me.)

If you're a fan of Cobb salads, you'll love the BLT Cobb salad with applewood smoked bacon, blue cheese crumbles and an avacado ranch dressing. Personally, I think Wendy's has the best bacon around, so if you like bacon, this salad is a winner for you.

For something with a little more spice, try the Baja salad, with freshly made pico de gallo and guacamole, topped with Wendy's famous chili and a red jalapeno dressing. This salad is delicious, and I can see myself eating this even in the winter thanks to the warm chili on top.

And for a little twist on an old classic, the Spicy Chicken Caesar salad is just like the caesar salad you remember, but with a lemon-garlic punch to the dressing and a spicy chicken breast cut up on top. I love this one, but be sure to have plenty to drink!

I appreciate the variety in these salads, all of which fall roughly in the 550-750 calorie range. They're large enough to be filling, or even enough to split with a friend if you want to enjoy some fries, too. The produce is crisp, the colors vibrant - no stale wimpy lettuce here!

If you're looking for a little adventure for your tastebuds the next time you crave a salad, try one of the four new salads from Wendy's and see if it doesn't change the way you think about lettuce.

Full disclosure: I received a gift card from Wendy's to facilitate my review, but received no further compensation. No favorable review was guaranteed nor promised. Wendy's is a Columbus-based franchise, and I love to support my local peeps. We miss you, Dave Thomas.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Entertainment & Learning On-the-Go with My Living Stories

As an iPhone toting mom, its always fun to learn about the latest apps available both for work and for home. While I used to only have apps for myself on my iPhone, I've quickly learned how valuable it can be for my kids and now they have their own page of apps, too. When it comes to tools for quick entertainment and distraction from the imminent grocery store meltdown, or being stuck in the car when everyone is hungry, I’m sure most of us would agree that they have become a true lifesaver! That's why I was excited to find a fun set of apps called My Living Stories; these animated storybooks bring both new stories and the classics to life on the iPhone and iPod Touch.

The My Living Stories apps combine beautiful artwork, narration and interactive features in an easy to use platform that is perfect for preschoolers to read along all on their own, without any help. My Living Stories are a great solution for entertaining on-the-go or as an aid for teaching children to read at home. The apps allow for your child to read along with English narration or read the stories themselves. Interactive sounds and animation bring stories to life. Another great feature is the ability to record your own voice to go along with the story (this feature requires an iPhone or iPod Touch with microphone capabilities). My Living Story classic stories include Princess & the Pea, King Midas, The Tortoise & the Hare, Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

My daughters are just beginning to be interested in technology, and the iPhone is one of their interests. Whenever we're out somewhere that requires waiting, I know I'll probably have to pull out my iPhone and find something interesting for them to watch or play. They often like to watch clips of TV shows on the YouTube app, and while it works in a pinch, I'd prefer they had something a little more interactive and with a little more educational value to it.

I like the My Living Stories collection because they're not just entertaining, they're educational. My older daughter is learning to read, and likes reading along with the story. My younger daughter can't read yet, but she loves getting to "turn the page" for each story as she listens to a classic fairy tale. I also like that there is a little bit of animation on each "page" but overall these are pretty low-key stories that won't over-stimulate your child. (Which means they're great for quiet time, too!) We received three stories for review, and the Princess & the Pea is by far the favorite in our family.

Win an iTunes gift card!

My Living Stories has provided me with a $25 iTunes gift card to give to one lucky reader! To enter, simply leave a comment below telling me which of the My Living Stories you (or your kids) would like the most. Be sure to leave an e-mail address so I can contact you if you win.

This giveaway runs until Friday, August 6, 2010 at 11:59pm Eastern time and is open to residents of the US and Canada. One entry per person - duplicates will not be counted. You may enter the contest on multiple blogs but are only eligible to win one iTunes gift card as part of the My Living Stories contest.

One winner will be selected at random and will have three days to respond or another winner will be chosen.

Good luck!

Full Disclosure: I am participating in the My Living Stories program by Mom Central on behalf of Decode Entertainment. I received 3 free apps and a gift card as a thank you for my participation.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Breyers Smooth & Dreamy Ice Cream Treats

As temperatures rise and summer approaches, my family starts to crave frozen treats even more than usual, and clamor for ice cream in the freezer. Whether enjoying dessert on the back porch while watching the setting sun or grabbing a frozen treat out of the cooler at a picnic, it doesn't really feel like summer without ice cream in hand.

The one problem my family has with ice cream, though, is that so much of it is filled with artificial ingredients. Whether artificial flavors or colors or both, these man-made additives are toxic to my older daughter, who has autism. Her behavior takes a serious turn for the worse whenever she eats anything with artificial colors or flavors, forcing me to be extra picky about the ice cream treats I choose for my family.

So when Mom Central asked if I wanted to try out the new Breyers Smooth & Dreamy ice cream bars and sandwiches, my first question was: what's in them? The answer is all natural ingredients with no trace of artificial colors or flavors!

The Breyers Smooth & Dreamy ice cream bars and sandwiches come in six flavors, including Chocolate Caramel Brownie, Vanilla Caramel Chip, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Chocolate Covered Strawberry, Vanilla Fudge Brownie, and Triple Chocolate Chip. We tried the Vanilla Fudge Brownie ice cream sandwiches, and my entire family loved them. Despite being low fat and low calorie, the ice cream was deliciously creamy and the rich chocolate fudge flavor of the cookie packed a full-flavor punch.

Compared to other low-cal ice cream sandwiches I've tried, this one had a better flavor and the cookie didn't crumble to pieces or stick to my fingers. I appreciate that this is a treat my entire family can enjoy thanks to no artificial colors and flavors. My only criticism is that I was hoping to avoid high fructose corn syrup as well, but it is present in the ingredients. If Breyers could change one thing for me, I'd ask them to remove the corn syrup.

That criticism aside, the Breyers Smooth & Dreamy ice cream treats are tasty. And with no artificial flavors or colors, 160 calories or less and 4-6g of fat per serving, and delicious mix-ins and swirls, these bars and sandwiches make for refreshing snacks and desserts.

Want to try them for yourself?

I've got 5 coupons for a free box of Breyers Smooth & Dreamy ice cream bars or sandwiches to give away to 5 lucky readers.

To enter to win, just leave a comment below telling me your favorite flavor of ice cream. I'll accept entries until Monday, August 2, 2010 at 11:59pm Eastern Time. Five winners will be chosen using a random number generator after that date. Winners have three days to respond to my e-mail or another winner will be selected.

Be sure to leave an e-mail address so I can contact you if you're selected. One entry per person, US residents only.

Good luck!

Full disclosure: I wrote this review while participating in a blog tour campaign by Mom Central on behalf of Breyers and received products necessary to facilitate my review. In addition, I received a gift certificate to thank me for taking the time to participate.