Friday, April 27, 2012

Recipe Finds - Hot and Tasty

Confession - cooking for one is a science I have yet to master.  My meal options lately have been largely limited to scrambled eggs, individually frozen pizzas, sandwiches, soup, and the lone pan-fried chicken breast smothered in bbq sauce.  A month into this deployment and I haven't even had to do proper grocery shopping.  My inner cook is wailing in despair.

This weekend will put an end to that as I miss good homecooked dinners and budget-friendly and portable leftovers for my lunches.  As I finally get my kitchen clean, here are a few recipes that have been spotted lately and successfully halved to accomodate my single status.

Spaghetti Bake

Jar of pasta sauce?  Check. 
Angel hair or spaghetti noodles?  Yeppers.
Shredded cheese?  Absolutely.

Skip any notion of making a homemade sauce for this - who has the time?  Instead, this 3-ingredient dinner is perfect for nights you can't think straight after work. 

This dish is seriously impossible to screw up.  Boil noodles.  Alternatively layer with sauce and cheese.  Bake.  Pair with a salad.  Eat.

The nice thing is that you can boost the nutrition on this by upgrading to whole-wheat noodles or varying the flavors by trying different pasta sauce.  I would recommend, however, skipping the cheddar cheese, which is a little out of place with an Italian-esque dish.  

5 out 5 forks 

Mini Ham & Cheese Quinoa Cups

Let's face it, quinoa is a goofy grain.  It has a texture like brown rice but with a more earthy flavor.  This super food is packed full of good nutrition so I've been striving to make a place for it in my kitchen.

After a mediocre attempt at Mac and Cheese and a botched attempt at breakfast cereal, these Ham and Cheese Cups finally stuck.

Since I'm still convincing myself I like the flavor of quinoa, I left out the shredded zucchini and doubled the diced ham.  Apart from cutting everything else in half, I followed the recipe to a T.

These are definitely reminisient of mini quiche bites but crunchier.  They make for a filling meal, reheat well for leftovers, and double as a unique breakfast.  A half recipe produced 18 mini cups or 3 servings.

You could also easily customize this by doing all veggies or trying different cheese types.

4.5 out of 5 forks 

Chicken Fried Rice

Fried rice is one of my new favorites for singles cooking.  You already have everything on hand and rice keeps in the fridge well.

I confess that the cook in me totally deviated from the recipe in the link, but I did use it as a start place to get the cooking method right.  Besides, some recipes aren't a science but a playful experiment.

I cooked up my chicken with sesame oil and sriracha sauce, skipped onions but seasoned the chicken with onion powder, replaced the butter with spray when cooking up the egg, divided the soy sauce between the egg and the chicken/rice, and used a touch of garlic olive oil when frying everything up.   

Tonight I'm returning to this dish to reduce the soy sauce (even reduced sodium is a salt bomb!), use brown basmati rice, and see if this vegetable hater can stomach adding a serving of peas to make this a complete meal.

5 out of 5 folks

What have you been cooking lately?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Guilt of Vacation Planning

It is some consolation to remind myself, as I sit here with a headache and blowing the most unbecoming stuff out of my nose, that I will be laying on a beach in Jamaica in 8 months.

The Royal Decameron resort we stayed at in 2008 - I can't find my original pics buried on the computer so forgive the stock I plundered off their site!
After Mike's last deployment, we did a make-up honeymoon to Jamaica.  It was seriously one of the best times of my life.  We stayed at the Royal Decameron, a cute 3-star all-inclusive resort on the north side of the island. 

We talked extensively before this deployment about how to maximize the income and we both agreed that a vacation was in order.  Our trips in recent years have strictly involved family visits and weekend getaways, but there hasn't been room for anything else.  Perhaps this is why I've been fretting all along about whether a real vacation is a fiscally responsible thing to do.

I booked our last vacation right after the economy crashed in 2008 and I got an amazing deal - $2,500 for 5 nights + airfare.  By the time we added two day trips, souvenirs, and gas to get to the airport, the trip was $3,000.  For a comparable vacation today, I knew four years of inflation and a bump in resort star ratings would put the price somewhere around $4,000-5,000. 

They had cute little cottages - it's awesome to not share walls!
It is so very hard when you're on a limited budget to "treat" yourself to something on this magnitude.  It feels luxurious to be planning a major vacation when we struggle with our normal finances. All the while I keep thinking of how else we could spend this money - a valuable nest egg for savings, a future down payment on a home, a good start on replacing our truck, or kicking off retirement savings.

But I've come to the conclusion that the hesitation I have now is insignificant compared to the regret I would feel if we didn't go.  

Amid the penny-pinching and thriftiness, there's also this thing called life one is supposed to be living.  You only get one chance to live your days to the fullest.  Your savings account and 401k may be golden, but if you have a pile of regrets and what-ifs, it's not going to emotionally matter that much.

One of the beachfront bars we hung out at.  Instead of bar stools, they had swings
So here are the rationalizations I've come up with to reassure myself that just because I'm not rich doesn't mean Mike and I don't deserve a vacation.  Ready?
  1. Taking a true vacation like this once every few years is far from irresponsible.  It would be one thing if we did this every year while sacrificing finances elsewhere.  Or we were stretching ourselves by putting this on a credit card.  But no, Mike's deployment is the very reason we have the extra income to pay for this out of pocket and in full.  

  2. We will probably always be a couple who can only afford something nice like this every five years.  It's comforting to know that we can plan to treat ourselves far in advance. If we squirreled away only $50 a paycheck, in five years we'd have thousands of dollars to play with for our next vacation.
  3. There is no reason people don't deserve some R & R every so often.  In fact, it's widely reported that Americans would be far healthier and happier if we took more vacations.  We chronically miss the boat when it comes to balancing work and play.
  4. Our vacation budget of $4,500 is 1/7th or 16% of Mike's deployment income.  So it's not like we taking an inappropriate chunk of his well-earned money.  And you'd better believe this keeps a fire under my butt to not screw up all of the other goals we have.   
This was the Quiet Pool - adults only, had to keep conversation to a minimum.  So nice.
With these reasons firmly mind (and still a touch of reservation), I closed my eyes and booked our Jamaican vacation for Christmas today.  For 6 nights + airfare, my bill is  $4,760.

Read on here to see what $5,000 will get us for a week!  

Have you ever felt guilty about spending money on a vacation?    

Jamaica for Christmas

Now that I've laid out all of my arguments for deserving a vacation, here's what we're actually getting for our $5,000.

Couples Swept Away in Negril, Jamaica
It was tempting to think of where in the world $5k could take us and we had plenty of international suggestions from Belize and Mexico to London and Paris.  But in my mind, those are exploring vacations, the kind that require a schedule and lots of walking.   

What we want this round is a lounging vacation - no schedule, no obligations, and very little energy expended.  I can't think of a better spot in the world for doing nothing than on an island.   

Swim-up bar, anyone?
With the help of a travel agent, we scouted a variety of resorts in the Caribbean.  There are tons of choices so we asked ourselves what else we wanted out of our vacation.  We decided we'd like:
  • All-inclusive resort.  This one is a no-brainer, but I really dig all-inclusive.  It means you pay one upfront price for room, drinks, tips, food, amenities, and airfare.  The only thing you would pay for out-of-pocket would be extras at the spa or gift shop.
  • A higher resort star rating.  The Royal Decameron in Runaway Bay was a cozy resort at 3 stars, but we got a little bored with the food options.  It was tasty, but nothing that blew us foodies away.  We figured another star would expand the menu.
  • Couples only.  We're child-free by choice and while we love the children of friends and family, there's nothing like being on vacation and competing with teenagers for snorkeling equipment, being crashed into by kids while out for an evening stroll, or hearing the wail of a toddler nearby.
  • Simple and peaceful.  Some resorts are equipped with tons of bars, nightly theme parties, casinos, and dance halls.  We don't need to be entertained.  Some water activities, good restaurant options, and the option to splurge on the spa is all we need.
  • Comfy room.  If I want a posh hotel room with gizmos and gadgets and the latest interior design trends, I'll go to Las Vegas.  We want a room that's quiet and secluded.  No need for an oceanview or beachfront either (which are more expensive than garden views anyways).  

My travel agent sent eight options between Jamaica, Cancun, and the Dominican Republic.  Most of them offered the same set of amenities so it came down to the rooms and location

Because we'd already fallen in love with Jamaica, it was an easy sell to want to go back.  We'd heard about the beauty of Negril, an area on the southern side of the island where you can see the sun set into the ocean <drool> 

So we settled on Couples Swept Away, a lovely 4.5 star resort that has hammocks everywhere (a major selling point).  It offers all of the amenities you'd expect (including fitness classes, which I really like), but the rooms had me at first sight.  We reserved an atrium suite that looks awesome!  

More hammocks!
I really like this aesthetic - simple and elegant
We're also excited about the food options.  Among the standard grills and buffets, there's a Thai-style restaurant and a gourmet Caribbean restaurant, both right up our taste bud alley.

Mike's biggest drool factor is the white-sand beaches.  Mister Photographer will have no shortage of scenic landscapes to occupy himself with.  The resort includes free glass bottom boat tours too.

Our $4,750 price tag gets us airfare, a full 5 days, and then two half days when we travel in/out.  We're skipping any day trips (we did two the last time and got our fill, they're also an extra expense) so there is absolutely no schedule beyond arriving and leaving.  I cannot wait! 

Have you ever done a resort vacation? 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Deployment Checkup - 6 More Months To Go

I bet I'm going to jinx myself, but one month into this deployment and so far everything has been a cake walk.  Perhaps it's because life is drastically less stressful than it was during the last deployment.  Or that Mike and I have spent over half of our relationship apart and we know how to handle the situation with grace.  Or that we're one of those weird couples who thrives when we get a break from each other (it's actually a good thing to miss your spouse once in a while).

At any rate, this has not been a difficult separation thus far.  Sure, I was a little bummed the first couple of days, but I've been seriously so slammed at work that I've had little time to sit and mope (which is really bad anyways).

The trickiest thing has been switching to "single gal with cats" mode.  I didn't have a head start on this at all prior to Mike's departure.  It's amazing how much time it takes to address a messy apartment, laundry-pocalyse 2012, bare cupboards, and unorganized paperwork.

I swear I've run errands almost every day in the past month.  Boredom has not been a problem!  I've also been traveling quite a bit between work and social visits to friends.  Minus the business trip, I've really enjoyed my outings, but that's also time I'm not spending adjusting my life (or exercising ... cough ...).

Through traveling has me booked solid the next 5 weekends (one social, 3 graduations, one business), my work schedule is coming back down to normal.  It's nice to not feel so overloaded with projects and it helps me to feel more kindly about my job when I'm not working 50-60 hours a week when I'm paid for 37.5.

Financially, our to-do list is coming along nicely.  Our personal family debt was smashed out of the park the first paycheck.  I have $2,000 socked away for our downpayment on a Carribean vacation (which is half of the total cost).  I've also kicked down our credit card balance by $800.  That's pretty good for one month.  Granted, because I've done ZERO grocery shopping (except for milk, eggs, and salad), I haven't started on our pantry goal yet, but that's coming.  

As I've been explaining to my truly caring coworkers, I am really lucky for this deployment.  I don't have kids to manage, elderly parents to take care of, I'm not pregnant or in bad health, and no one in the family is having a medical crisis.

Mike was talking about how some of his unit buddies have first-time deployment wives who are freaking out (been there, done that).  He said the nicest thing when he confessed he was glad we were past that stage, that being apart just isn't a problem anymore - he's not worrying about me and I'm not worrying about him.  I agree.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Tips for Solo Business Travel

There’s nothing like a solo business trip to leave you with a million questions – figuring out what to wear, how to act, what to pack, and how to get there in one piece can suck up hours of preparation.

I’m not a travel pro by any means, but my trips to Memphis, Chicago, Orlando, and Seattle have been great learning lessons about what to expect when you’re representing your company by yourself.
Travel Basics

There’s some steadfast advice everyone should know when traveling – book early, have your documentation in order (ID, flight pass), get there early, and dress comfortably.  But you may not realize these:

·       If you are food sensitive, such as need to eat on a regular schedule or have allergies/intolerance, it’s wise to pack a small, portable meal. You never know when you’re going to encounter a meal you can’t eat or run into a delay and have to skip food altogether because you’re sprinting across an airport. My go-to is beef jerky and shredded wheat cereal – unglamorous but both provide enough protein and fiber to last a few hours and I can avoid a drop in blood sugar.

·       Same goes with water. While you can’t take a full bottle of water through airport security, you can take an empty one. Throw an empty container in your carry-on and fill it up once TSA has cleared you. This is invaluable if you have to wait a long time to board, have an extended flight, or get stuck on the runway.

·       You know you need to arrive early, but if your flight is overbooked and you’re the last person to check in, you will be bumped.  This can wreak havoc on your plans so avoid hitting snooze too many times before your flight.  
Clothing Options
I think I genuinely need to write a post about the difference between business formal and business casual, but here’s my number one rule – always dress more formally than you’d like, particularly if you’re a woman.  Men do run the chance of looking stuffy if they overdress, but I can’t imagine a single business situation where someone would have a negative impression of a woman in a suit (properly fitting, of course).

Thus far, I’ve never felt like my salary gives me the option to invest in a true business wardrobe, partly because I only need it for special occasions and largely because my income is just not enough.  However, that doesn’t get me or any other low-paid lackey off the hook from looking smart in public.

Your best bet is to save up for one nice outfit that you can customize – your basic suit coat, pants, and dress shoes.  From there, you can fill out your outfit with low-cost items like shirts, blouses, and accessories.  I have a standard pair of black dress pants and was delighted to pull out a black suit jacket that still fit from the nether regions of my closet.  Paired it with a wine-colored tank and I was one sharp-looking cookie.  
One of the nice things about traveling solo is you can get away with more comfy outfit choices en route to your destination.  When by myself, I travel in tanks, throws, sneakers, and yoga pants.  If I were with a colleague, I would certainly spruce up.
Be Prepared

This differs by industry, but when you’re representing your organization solo, it’s all on you to ensure everything is up to snuff.  There’s no safety net, no wing colleague – just you and your bright smile.
When I travel, I typically need my laptop, a notepad + writing utensil, and a healthy knowledge of whatever company/clients I’m meeting with.  This means remembering every PR person who I was communicating with, background information on the company’s main objective, having my schedules on hand to reference, and an empty bag to lug all of the press kits I pick up.  Then there’s accessories, such as phone and computer chargers, so I’m reachable at every turn of the trip.

The one thing I always forget is my business cards <forehead smack>  It’s not that I don’t have a box of 5,000 of the little suckers, but I just don’t need them that often.  And when I do, I can never find where I left the card holder I have.  So that’s something I need to work on.   

Post-Trip Courtesies

Remember how your mother forced you to write thank you notes for every Christmas and birthday gift?  Now is the time to brush off those skills and leave a lasting impression.

Particularly if you went somewhere invited, make sure to send a thank you email (or call, if that’s better for your industry).  Include specific details instead of generic adulation so your thanks are genuine instead of obligatory.  Here’s a simplified one I used for a recent trip:

Dear X,
Thank you so much for inviting me to <insert company’s name> event!  It was very well organized and I feel I have a much better understanding of <insert company name>.  I really appreciate all of the experts you had on hand to interview and the portable press kits.  It was also nice to have such healthy food options for dinner and lunch!
After you’ve expressed your thanks, you can wrap up any business points.  For me, I’m typically telling a company I’ll be running a product in a certain issue, setting up an opportunity to interview one of their experts, or suggest they contribute some material.  Obviously publishing is a really specific field, but you get the general idea.
Don’t forget about internal communication post-travel too.  Brief your boss/supervisors about how it went and contacts you made, share any relevant information with colleagues, and turn in any receipts to accounting for reimbursement within a week of getting back.  You want to make sure all the hard work you did on a trip is recognized by your own company.

What are your trips for solo business travel?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Seattle – A Delightful Place to Do Business

I am freshly arrived from a business trip out to Seattle for the magazine.  Ok, not so fresh as I spent all day on planes and in airports, but the cats were super thrilled that I came back to fill up their food dish. 

View flying into Seattle
My reason for travel was a little outside my normal duties as an editor – we often attend tradeshows as they have an education bent to them but this was for a company that’s launching some new products.  I was resistant to going as I knew I would come back empty handed from the event (content-wise), but politics won and the powers that be said I would spent three days out of the office. 

I have no idea what these are, but they're really neat looking (*reader update below)
Side note – I detest work politics.  I am a straight shooter almost to a fault and if you ask me a direct question, I cannot give you anything back but an honest answer.  That being said, I’m smart enough to know when politics are afoot (thank you working in higher education!) and can say with a genuine smile, “Of course I’d be happy to represent the magazine and the company.”  It’s a savvy move sometimes to not put up a fight … 

Somewhere in between Denver and Seattle
Anyways, the event I attend was informative, well organized, and populated with interesting people to network with.  The greatest benefit I got out of the trip was the conversations I had with other B2B (business-to-business) editors.  It’s nice knowing that they also have crazy workloads, share the same struggles with online content generation, and do their best to straddle multifaceted audiences. I bonded with one gal over our shared frustrations about managing the volume of emails we get for our product sections.

You also meet a lot of characters while traveling, whether at your event or on your flight.  I met a gentleman from Spokane who ran a utility plant, two ladies from Alabama with very pronounced accents (one informed me that parsnips were a “yankee vegetable,” I kid you not), a pair of editors from Madison whose extended family are in the same Wisconsin towns as mine, and a social media strategist who couldn’t have been much older than I but was totally rocking that platinum grey hair color that’s going around. 

Another view coming into Seattle
I have to say though, Seattlers are lovely people. They’re a lot like Midwesterns – they’re down-to-earth, genuinely nice, and minutely attune to the weather.  They’re also very proud of their city and state and every one of them will assure you that it actually rains more in New York or Boston.   

I’m told that very few of them are native to the Emerald City (named so for the shape of the skyline) – most are transplants who needed a distance place to reboot their lives.  That intrigues me as it makes me think of the Northwest as one of the last places in America you could genuinely consider a frontier (not in an economic sense, but a personal one).  

Anyways, business trips seem like a great way to explore the country and that’s partly true.  I got enough of a taste of Memphis and Orlando to know that I would visit the first again if passing through and avoid the latter at all costs.  But depending on your schedule, you may have no time to get out and get a true taste of your host city.  

Such was my luck with Seattle.  I saw the inside of the airport, my hotel, and my meeting site.  I was fortunate enough to have a window seat both in and out of Sea-Tac so I was able to get a glimpse of the beautiful landscape. 

In fact, the highlight of my trip was getting a glimpse of Mount Rainier.  It’s crazy to think this ginormous mountain is 2 hours away from Seattle – so what you’re looking at in my photo is over 100 miles away! 

This is definitely an area I would come back to for a vacation – the Space Needle, the proximity to Canada and Banff National Park (drool ...), the allure of hiking the mountains, the chance for ferry rides.  It reminds me greatly of the very northern edges of Minnesota, up in the Boundary Waters. It smells and looks so fresh and pristine. 

Around Chicago
How far out West have you traveled?  Up until this trip, I'd only been as far as Denver.  Definitely need to go back to the Northwest for further exploration!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Quiet 28th Birthday

28 is a weird number to reach, just comfortably smack dab in your late 20s.  

My birthday gift to myself was to spend some quality time with a good friend up in the Twin Cities.  The saying holds true for me that your friends for life are the ones you make in college.  I had a lovely time not having a schedule, talking until the wee hours of the morning, and following a 2 year old around the Minneapolis Sculpture Gardens.  I was also able to make some passing social visits with family and another friend on this little trip.

Today was an inordinately long work day (though a super thoughtful coworker brought in yummy cheesecake), so I treated myself to some Chinese at HyVee.  My fortune said "Good things come to those who wait."  Hmmm, very apropos at present.

My horoscope, courtesy of Huffington Post, rings true as well: 

You might want some breathing room, and thankfully, today may offer you some time to yourself. The problem is that your thoughts are flying by so fast that you don't even realize that you can escape for a while. Don't pass up an opportunity to grab a bit of downtime when it's available because the pace is likely to pick up significantly in the days ahead.

Not too shabby.  Now for packing - I have a business trip over the next three days to Seattle.  Trying to see if my wardrobe will yield both business and business casual outfits.  This poor editor doesn't quite have the clothes to match her writing pedigree! 

Nite all!