Holiday Party Checklist and Easy Fudge Recipe

holiday party checklist
‘Tis the season! Now that Thanksgiving is over, Christmas is coming whether I am ready or not. This means a lot of family get-togethers, which means I will have to cook. Ahem.

Don’t get me wrong. I love get-togethers. I’m just not that fond of hosting them. All the preparation stresses me out. The shopping. The cooking. The cleaning. The kid wrangling. I can feel my blood pressure rising already.

One way that I try to keep hosting stress-free is by keeping the menu simple and easy. This means no fancy, complicated dishes. Instead, I choose recipes that I know like the back of my hand, and because I’m an absent minded cook — I enlist my husband to watch the kitchen timer!

One of the easiest recipes is my husband’s microwave fudge. Not only is it easy to make, but it’s perfect for when I need to bring something to a party. In about 10 minutes, you have an dessert or snack that looks like it took way longer to make and everyone will love it. I promise.

Easy Microwave Fudge Recipe

fudge recipe
Andy’s Easy Microwave Fudge

Ingredients & Directions

  • 12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
  • 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped nuts (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Microwave 12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips and a 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk, 5 minutes. Stir vigorously, then add 1 1/2 cups chopped nuts and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. Spread in an 8-inch-square pan lined with buttered parchment paper. Refrigerate, then cut into squares. Total prep: 10 minutes

Holiday Party Checklist

Before every party I mentally run through the following holiday party checklist to get my house (and myself) ready. Feel free to click the image to print a copy for yourself.

holiday party checklist
Click the image to print

 

10 Unique Gift Ideas

unique gift ideas a

Unique Gift Ideas

Some people are incredibly easy to shop for. You can go into any store and find something they would like. For others, you can spend months looking and still not discover the right gift.

So what do you give the person who has everything? How can you get a unique gift at an affordable price? Here are 10 unique gift ideas for under $100 that are sure to be special, memorable and brighten your loved one’s day.

Vintage toys

Vintage TinkerToy set
Vintage TinkerToy set

Remember Hasbro’s G.I. Joe action figures? What about Xavier Robert’s Cabbage Patch Kids? Long before the age of LEGO®, there were Lincoln Logs, “America’s National Toy.” A lot of people put vintage toys on a shelf to look at, but I love the idea that you can give toys another life with another child to love them. What was your favorite childhood toy? Chances are your kids will love playing with it, too.

You don’t have to be a child to get joy out of collecting vintage toys. When you give an antique or vintage holiday gift, you’re not just giving an item — you’re giving a feeling. Vintage toys can back good memories of the past.

Unique twist on the traditional

unique gifts
biOrb HALO 15 aquarium by OASE

An aquarium can be a great gift idea for many people. However, the success of this gift depends on how well you know the recipient. As wonderful as the hobby is, it’s not something that should be dumped upon those who aren’t interested. A fish tank was the perfect gift for my son last year. He wanted a pet, but not a dog. And I was willing to help him care for them.

The easiest way to give someone an aquarium is to simply go to the store, buy a package kit, wrap it up and let them do the rest. Include a card with a gift certificate for the pet store so they can pick the fish they want.

Custom experiences

Biplane Rides over Atlanta
Biplane Rides over Atlanta

Rather than giving something, have you thought of gifting an experience instead? Whether it’s reservations and a gift certificate to the city’s hottest restaurant, tickets for the theater or an annual pass to a local amusement park, an experience will stand out. Print out the information, wrap it in a box, and watch their faces light up when they open it.

Classes

Art lessons at Painting with a Twist
Art classes at Painting with a Twist

Have you heard for years how your loved one would like to learn to carve wood, ballroom dance or spin pottery? Allow them to cross an item off their bucket list by gifting classes. From golf lessons to knitting classes, this is a gift that is sure to be appreciated.

Monthly clubs

Organic Loose Tea Club from TheTeaSpot.com
Organic Loose Tea Club from TheTeaSpot.com

Give the gift of a good mail day. Subscription gifts come in every shape and size. From bacon to wine, flowers to makeup, select a club that you think your loved one will enjoy. A girlfriend once gave me a 6-month subscription to the Organic Loose Tea Club from TheTeaSpot.com. It’s truly the gift that keeps on giving.

Donation

Give online, year-round at GAGivesDay.org

Want a gift that has meaning and makes a positive impact? Make a charitable donation to a special cause in your loved one’s name. Does she adore animals? Donate to a certain exhibit at the zoo or a nearby animal shelter. Does he have a soft spot for childhood education? Donate to the local library or organizations that help low-income children succeed at school.

Memberships

Individual Annual Pass to Callaway Gardens ($49)
Individual Annual Pass to Callaway Gardens

A membership can be a useful gift that’s much appreciated. For example, an automotive membership provides assistance for auto accidents and other traveling concerns. Maybe he or she would enjoy a membership to the local museum or garden that would offer year-round visits.

Cultural gifts

Buckingham Palace Queen Victorian Miniature Set (£50.00)
Buckingham Palace Queen Victorian Miniature Set – Royalcollectionshop.co.uk

Does your loved one have an interest in a particular country or culture? Create a gift basket and use that culture as the theme. Gather special spices and ingredients to make an authentic recipe or find a book about the history of the culture. Traditional clothing, cultural-specific art and imported candy can all help you create a wonderfully unique gift.

Friends of mine gave their adopted daughter a traditional Indian sari. The gift was a lovely way to celebrate their daughter’s cultural heritage.

Restored pictures

Photo restoration by Whitt's Image Works.  www.whittsimageworks.com
Photo restoration by Whitt’s Image Works

Before digital photos and endless smartphone images, printed photographs were cherished keepsakes. For a meaningful gift, find an old photo and have it restored. Finish by putting it in a beautiful frame and you’re sure to tug at the heartstrings when it’s time to open presents.

Gift of time and talents

holiday gift certificate

When the recipient seems to have everything, gift a service instead. Offer your time to babysit or assist with gardening. Use your talents to bake, paint or knit a custom blanket. Whatever your ability, it’s sure to be appreciated by your loved one. Create a certificate showcasing your offer and wrap it in boxes or gift bags for a stunning presentation. Click here to download ours.

We hope this list of unusual and unique gift ideas has inspired you to find the perfect out-of-the-box gifts for your family this year. Finding that truly special something will bring smiles, create adventures and make memories for your loved ones.

Thanksgiving Pet Safety Guide

Guest Blog by Double Churches Animal Clinic

thanksgiving pet safety

7 Thanksgiving foods dangerous to pets

As we gather together with loved ones, it is important to remember that some of our favorite holiday foods can actually be harmful to our furry family members. Here is a Thanksgiving pet safety guide with a list of the top 7 foods to avoid feeding to your pets.

1. Onions and Garlic

All members of the onion family contain compounds that can damage red blood cells. Even when cooked, onions and garlic should not be ingested by pets. This includes onion powder and garlic powder.

2. Baking essentials

Chocolate, dough, batter and sugar substitutes are all harmful for pets. Even very small amounts of baking chocolate can be toxic. Raw dough that is eaten can rise inside the stomach causing severe pain. Batter may contain raw eggs which can lead to serious bacterial infections. The sugar substitute Xylitol that is found in sugar free candies and gums is also toxic in very small amounts.

3. Alcohol

Many pets find alcohol very palatable, but even very small amounts can cause life threatening toxicity.

4. Nuts

Especially Macadamia nuts and Walnuts can cause a toxic reaction within 12 hours of ingestion.

5. Cooked bones

The bones from turkey and chicken carcasses can splinter when chewed and cause gastrointestinal obstruction or perforation.

6. Nutmeg

This commonly used holiday spice can cause seizures in pets if ingested in large amounts.

7. Turkey skin

The turkey skin holds all the good stuff. Butter, spices, marinades and oils used to cook the turkey can all be found in this tasty part of the bird. If fed to our pets, however, these spices may cause gastrointestinal upset and the butter and oils can cause pancreatitis which can be potentially life threatening.

If your dog or cat has eaten any of the above foods, please contact your veterinarian immediately.

So what foods CAN your pet eat?

  • Turkey (boneless and well cooked)
  • Sweet potatoes and plain mashed potatoes
  • Plain pumpkin
  • Green beans
  • Cranberry sauce
  • Carrots
  • Apples
  • Macaroni

Celebrate Small Business Saturday

Guest Blog by Christie Rudd, bensbooknook.com/

Market Days on Broad; Small Business Saturday
Market Days on Broad where every week it’s Small Business Saturday

The weather’s changing, leaves are falling and pumpkin spice is threatening to take over the planet. That can only mean one thing…. Christmas is just around the corner. Or, next week if you go by the displays out at the big box retail stores.

With the imminent arrival of the holiday season come the joy, and for some, dread, of holiday shopping. Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals abound, but what about the small business owner? How do they fit into the frenzied shopping season? That’s where Small Business Saturday comes into play.

In 2010, American Express introduced the Shop Small Movement, whose goal is to celebrate and support the small business owner 365 days a year. The Saturday after Thanksgiving is known as Small Business Saturday, a day when buying local is encouraged. Many of us know someone who owns their own business or who is a consultant for a direct sale company.

On Saturday, November 26, let’s not forget these entrepreneurs who are passionate about what they sell and always looking for new customers.

 

Buying a Used Piano

piano teacher; buying a used piano

Advice about Buying a Used Piano:

for parents of young beginning piano students

By Sally Phillips

There are many common misconceptions about buying pianos for young students, and one of them is that a suitable piano can be had for only a few hundred dollars. The truth is that, to progress, young students need better pianos, not worse.

Parents may not want to invest a lot of money in a piano — after all, the child may lose interest — so an older, cheaper piano may seem the logical place to start. However, a bad purchasing decision at this point in a student’s learning tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In many cases a piano that is too old, too small, or simply not good enough will soon become useless to the student. Students don’t have enough experience to distinguish between a bad piano and their own lack of ability. When a piano’s action can’t be regulated to the correct touch, or its strings tuned to a harmonious sound, the student, unable to duplicate what was taught in a lesson, will become frustrated and discouraged, and will lose interest. No amount of practice on such an instrument can overcome its shortcomings. And when you include other factors — the costs of moving, tuning, and repairs; an older piano’s shorter remaining life; lack of warranty protection; the need to hire experts to make repeated trips to evaluate the conditions of various older pianos — a new or more recently made instrument may start to look like a bargain in the long run.

I would encourage the financially able family to look at good-quality new pianos, or better used pianos no more than 15 years old.

For these reasons, I would encourage the financially able family to look at good-quality new pianos, or better used pianos no more than 15 years old. And with a young talented student, moving up to a quality grand is never a mistake. If an older piano is chosen, it should be one that was of good quality to begin with, and has been restored to like-new condition. If you’re concerned about a child’s continuing interest, I suggest renting a new instrument now, with an option to purchase it later. Most reputable piano dealers offer month-to-month rental programs.

Although good and bad pianos have been made in every decade, and every used piano must be evaluated on its own merits, certain decades or categories of piano frequently found in today’s used-piano market should raise red flags:

Old uprights

These are usually 48″ to 60″ high and somewhere around 100 years old. Many buyers will purchase an old upright with the idea that it might have antique value, then quickly find out that it doesn’t. In some instances, buyers fascinated by old uprights see them as an opportunity to tinker with and learn something about pianos. There’s nothing wrong with this — as long as a young student is not saddled with it.

Most pianos that are a century old and have not been discarded will need extensive restoration before they can be useful to the student, but few are worth enough to have such work performed on them. Many have difficulty holding a tuning, and/or desperately need new strings, hammers, dampers, or pedal repairs — or all of the above. Parents who purchase these deteriorating instruments as practice pianos for beginners will probably face a constant stream of complaints and subsequent repairs. In most cases, this category of used piano should be avoided for use in serious practice.

Small, cheap, American-made pianos from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s

During this period, American companies started feeling the competition from Japanese (and, later, Korean) makers who could undercut their prices. The result was that the few remaining American makers of inexpensive pianos began to cut as much cost as they could from their production. In addition, small pianos, especially spinets, were heavily promoted for their cabinet styling at the expense of their musical qualities.

Spinets, which are 36″ to 40″ high, have a recessed, or “drop,” action that is connected to the keys with long “stickers” of wood or metal. These actions are difficult — and thus expensive — to repair. Also, during the 1950s and early ’60s, many spinet actions were manufactured with connecting parts, called “elbows,” made of plastic — a technology then in its infancy — which eventually deteriorated and broke off. Installing a set of replacement elbows can cost hundreds of dollars.

Spinets were usually the least expensive entry-level pianos a company would manufacture, and most are not worth repairing. Many of these small, cheap pianos were so poorly designed and constructed that, even when new, and regulated and tuned as well as possible, they played poorly and sounded terrible.

The first wave of pianos from this era began to enter the used-piano market in the 1980s, as the people who originally purchased them began to retire. But many others were passed on to this generation’s children, and now, as those children retire, a second wave of these instruments is entering the market. Even pianos from this period that were well made — and there were some — are now 30 to 50 years old, and so are likely to need some restoration before they will be suitable for the student. Caution should be used to separate those that have potential as good student instruments from those that don’t. (See sidebar for some of the names from this period to be avoided.)

Early offerings from Korean and Chinese makers

Korean pianos made before the early 1990s, and Chinese pianos from before the early 2000s, often exhibit unpredictable, idiosyncratic problems. Quality control was erratic, and wood was often not properly seasoned, resulting in sticking keys and binding cabinet parts. Replacement parts can be difficult to obtain. Especially problematic were the small console pianos without legs (continental furniture style). These pianos tend to be plagued with sticking keys that repeat too slowly due to poor action design, a problem that can’t be inexpensively corrected.


 

PIANO BRANDS TO AVOID

Here are some brand names from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s — and others from a little earlier and later — that are probably best avoided by students, though some may be acceptable for casual use if carefully serviced or reconditioned.

Aeolian

The following were some of the many brand names owned and made by the Aeolian Corporation, which went out of business in 1985. Many of these, and other names not listed, were “stencil pianos” — essentially identical instruments with different names applied to them, to meet dealers’ needs. Note that this list applies to the use of these names only during the mid to late 1900s. Some of these names were used in earlier periods on fine pianos, and several are still being used today, but on pianos that have no connection to the ones warned about here.

Bradbury, Cable, Duo Art, George Steck, Hallet, Davis & Co., Hardman(, Peck & Co.), Henry F. Miller, Ivers & Pond, J. & C. Fischer, Kranich & Bach, Melodigrand, Pianola, Poole, Vose & Sons, Winter & Co.

Other U.S.-made brands of the period

Betsy Ross (by Lester), Brambach (by Kohler & Campbell), Currier, Estey, Grand, Gulbransen, Hobart M. Cable (by Story & Clark), Jesse French (by Grand), Kincaid (by Grand), La Petite (by Kimball), Lester, Marantz (by Grand/Marantz), Rudolf Wurlitzer (by Wurlitzer), Westbrook (by Currier), Whitney (by Kimball)

Foreign-made brands of the period

Belarus (Belarus), Daewoo (Korea), Horugel (Korea), J. Strauss (various countries), Sojin (Korea), Suzuki (China), Tokai (Japan)


piano-lesson-600x400

Of course, the used-piano market also offers many well-made pianos from the past, including some with famous names, that are of potential value to a student, but these can also present pitfalls for the unwary.

Don’t buy, without professional guidance, a piano that is not thoroughly playable and tunable, with the idea that you can simply have a few inexpensive repairs done once you get the piano home.

Get repair estimates before you commit to purchasing any used piano. Every piano technician with any experience has stories of arriving at a tuning appointment to work on a newly acquired piano, only to find an unserviceable instrument. The fact that the instrument may have been rebuilt sometime in the past is not necessarily an advantage. A piano that was rebuilt 40 years ago is no better than a 40-year-old piano that has never been rebuilt, and if the rebuilding job was not competently done, it could be worse — it’s more difficult to properly restore an instrument when certain critical design specifications have been modified due to a past restorer’s mistakes.

Finally, don’t rely on a private seller for important information about the piano you’re thinking of buying. Even the best-intentioned sellers — including ones who play well — tend not to be knowledgeable about piano construction and mechanics, and may have absorbed erroneous information about the instrument, or forgotten important things about its history. Hire a piano technician to inspect any piano you’re seriously considering buying. Sometimes, just a phone call to a technician will be enough to verify whether or not a particular instrument should be considered a serious candidate; if it is, the next step is an inspection by that technician.

Piano technician Sally Phillips lives in Columbus, Georgia and is the owner of Piano Perfect LLC, an authorized Steinway Dealer. She can be contacted at [email protected]. Reprinted with permission.