Always, Katie: February 2017

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

What's Up Wednesday: February

There's a lot of random stuff ratting around in my head and our life, and I've been wanting to get better about sharing more life updates around here, but I've had such a hard time thinking how or what to share :-) So I'm jumping in on What's Up Wednesday with Shay, Sheaffer, and Mel again, since the prompts are so great and give me a jumping off point :-)

[also: There are affiliate links in this post. If you make a purchase after clicking on one of these links, I'll make a little bit of commission, and it won't cost you anything extra. Thanks!]

What we're eating this week 

Lots of mild foods... and then Mexican food. The kids and I have all had a little stomach virus, so saltines and Sprite Zero have been the mainstays. But when I start feeling better after getting sick, I always crave spicy foods! So I had some awesome enchiladas last night. :-) We've also eaten pre-made mashed potatoes a few nights in the last week, after I processed 10 pounds of potatoes in my Instant Pot. (See my spiffy way of making frugal convenience mashed potatoes here!) 

What I'm reminiscing about

I finally finished up and posted my review of Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies recently, so I've been reminiscing about that wonderful trip to Gatlinburg, and spending time with Becca. Can't wait to plan another get together! 

What I'm loving

The kids got hair cuts and I got mine colored (for the first time in my LIFE!). I think everyone's hair looks great, so I'm loving it! (Even if my Sam looks like a little man instead of my baaaaby!)

What we've been up to

I've been trying to get organized - blog, home, brain... haha! I'm in a constant state of overwhelm from the process, BUT as each area is getting a little more under control, I'm starting to feel that lovely calm grow. :-) 

What I'm dreading

One of my best friends is having surgery tomorrow, and I'm dreading that for her. :-( I'd love it if you'd keep her in your prayers <3

What I'm working on

I've done a major overhaul on my Pinterest... it's maybe half done, and it has been a ton of work! I've made board covers for a nice consistent look, and I'm working on consolidating and deleting some boards that are no longer really relevant or whatever :-) I'd love if you'd stop by and maybe give me a follow! I've also worked on finding some cool avenues for finding consistently awesome pins to share, so hopefully you'll love what you see!

What I'm excited about

We're getting ready to do some big renovations at home! The kids' nurse practitioner said we'll probably need to move them to toddler beds around age 3, and when we do, we want to separate them into their own rooms. But to do that... we need another bedroom! Currently, we have a master suite, a nursery, a guest room, a craft room, and an unfinished basement. The plan is to finish the basement and move the craft room down there, then move the guest room into the current craft room, and one kid into what is currently the guest room. And redecorate the nursery into a more kid-specific theme, depending on who ends up in which room. :-) Yowza! Lots of fun planning ahead! Lots of work! Of course, we'll be doing it as smartly and frugally as we can, and sharing all the fun with y'all here :-)

What I'm watching/reading

So. Much. Clifford! The kids love watching "dog" on Netflix, and it's one I can actually tolerate, so yay!

What I'm listening to

My usual... Garth, Reba... the other fun older stuff on my iPhone. I haven't really looked up new music in a while. 

What I'm wearing

This new kimono from ThredUP! It's an online consignment store, with some really great deals! Lots of designer steals - I also got a ginormous Vera Bradley cosmetic case that looks brand new for less than $10. If you sign up through this link, you and I will each get $10 credit! And that goes a pretty long way in ThredUP prices :-) 

What I'm doing this weekend

Nothing that I can think of... hopefully cleaning up much less vomit than this past weekend! I'd be fine with just a few days of chillaxing with my favorite people :-) Ugh, it's only Wednesday and I'm soooo ready!

What I'm looking forward to in March

Spring Break!! Sorta like this coming weekend... no plans that I know of, but I love time spent with my whole little family!

What else is new?

Umm... I got new photo lights. :-) To help fight the uphill battle that is trying to take good Instagram and blog pictures during the winter. I've arranged a few more fun sponsorships and deals to share with y'all, so that's new and exciting... hm... I can't think of anything else... what's new with you?

Monday, February 20, 2017

How I Make Frugal Convenience Mashed Potatoes in My Instant Pot

We love the super-convenient mashed potatoes you can buy in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. Mashed potatoes are the perfect side for a lot of our favorite meals, and it's just nice to have some we can easily reheat and serve without doing the whole cooking thing :-)

[also: There are affiliate links in this post. If you make a purchase after clicking on one of these links, I'll make a little bit of commission, and it won't cost you anything extra. Thanks!]

And they're not expensive, necessarily, but I realized that I can make my own (better) mashed potatoes for much less money, and I've been pretty conscious of saving money on groceries where I can. So I've taken to whipping up (get it? haha...) big batches in my Instant Pot when I have some spare time, and freezing them in quart-sized freezer bags. Then I can just pull out a bag or two and reheat them when we want them! 

I estimate that the same amount of potatoes costs about a third to a half of the price when I make them at home as opposed to buying them premade. And it only takes a half an hour, most of which is passive so I can be doing other things in the meantime. :-) 

I like my mashed potatoes with red or yukon gold potatoes, because I think the textures lend themselves well to whipping and staying fluffy. When I'm making just one batch ahead of a meal, I choose one color, but for these big batches, I go for both. I grab a 5lb bag of each color and use about half and half in each batch.

You can easily adapt your favorite mashed potato recipe to this process, but here's the basic procedure.

Wash, peel, and cut-up about 3lbs of potatoes into roughly equal chunks. (This is all my stand mixer can handle at a time, so I work in three batches when I buy 10lbs of potatoes.)

Drop them in the steel pot in the Instant Pot.

Add a cup of water (or other liquid, like chicken broth).

Set your Instant Pot: manual, high pressure, 7 minutes. (Don't forget to make sure the valve is turned to "sealing."

After the Instant Pot gets up to pressure, the 7 minutes will begin. At the end of those 7 minutes, your Instant Pot will beep. This whole step will take around 15-20 minutes of hands-off time, so stick close, but you can do other stuff. Like dishes. Or Instagram. :-) 

When the Instant Pot beeps that the 7 minutes are up, do a quick release. If you're not familiar with the quick release, it can be a little intimidating. I jump every time, but it IS supposed to hiss, and steam IS supposed to pour out of it! When the steam has stopped and the little valve indicator floats, it's safe to open your Instant Pot.

That steel pot is HOT, so instead of pulling it out and dumping my potatoes into a colander, I just use a slotted spoon to dig the potatoes out and drop them into the bowl of my stand mixer. 

**If you have a hand mixer, you can TOTALLY make this a one-dish thing. I don't.**

From there, this is where it gets really customizable - make the potatoes however you usually do! (I know some people use combinations of milk, cream, salt, butter, cream cheese, sour cream, etc...) My standard is a stick of margarine for 3lb potatoes, and a TBSP or two of milk, added slowly until the potatoes reach a consistency I like. (The diet coke doesn't go in the potatoes, but it does go into the cook. Often.)

Scoop servings of potatoes into quart-size freezer bags - I use my ginormous Mama Bear mug to hold the bag steady and open while I work. :-)

Squeeze air out of the bag, flatten and spread potatoes out, and place flat in the freezer until hard. Once they're frozen solid, the bags can stand up or be shoved into random corners of the freezer. :-) 

I pull one or two out at a time and run a little warm water over the bag so I can remove the potato blob for thawing or reheating. You can put a frozen blob in a bowl in the fridge to thaw overnight, or just plan on microwaving a little bit longer. Microwave, covered, for 2 minutes. Remove, stir, recover, and continue to reheat for a minute at a time (stirring after each minute) until heated all the way through. Enjoy your easy, convenient, AND inexpensive side dish!

PS: If you love cooking ahead, I've reviewed some of our favorite freezer meals that I stashed while I was pregnant. :-)

PPS: If you have an Instant Pot that you love and are looking for great recipes for, I have a new-ish Pinterest board that I've been adding some delicious-looking recipes to, and making notes on them as I try them out.

PPPS: If you don't have an Instant Pot, you probably need one. ;-) 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Review of Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies... with Toddlers!

My family received free and discounted tickets to this attraction for the purpose of my coverage of our visit. All opinions are my own.

A couple of months ago, I shared the first in a series of posts about our trip to Gatlinburg, TN, but then that whole area suffered from horrible wildfires, and I temporarily suspended the series while we waited for the region to heal. I've been so relieved and happy to see articles and posts from the Smokies saying that things are reopened and tourism is picking back up, and I'm excited to continue sharing with you about our trip in early November!

One of the things we were most excited about doing on our trip was finally meeting up with my blogging bestie, Rebecca of Caravan Sonnet! We decided that our first meet-up would be at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies, so that we could visit and keep the twins entertained at the same time. 

I went to a Ripley's attraction in my early teens, and I remember it being a little bit intimidating and flashy, so my expectations for the aquarium weren't sky-high, although I'd read that it was very nice. Basically, I was hoping it was clean and would keep my kids engaged without over-stimulating them. 

I was THRILLED to find that I'd drastically underestimated what an amazing attraction this aquarium is! Spoiler alert: this is a MUST-SEE! 

The walk from the garage was pretty long. We had our stroller and the weather was fine, so we did okay, but I couldn't help but think how rough it could have been in inclement weather or how it wasn't particularly handicap friendly. We got there early (I was maybe a little spastically excited) and waited for Rebecca outside on a low wall tucked away in a shady area, since it was unseasonably warm, and there were a lot of benches, tables and chairs, and other places to sit and rest. 

Sweet Sam was getting a little bit restless while we were waiting, so we meandered up closer to the door to watch for Rebecca, and I was holding him on my hip when she texted that she was on her way up the stairs. (Fortunately for those of us with strollers, once you've made the hike from the parking lot, everything is extremely stroller-friendly! Even for our wide double.) After lots of squealing and hugging and bouncing and "You're really here!" we headed inside.

We were immediately impressed at how beautiful the aquarium was! My eyes went wide and my jaw dropped and I felt like a little kid. :-) We eagerly jumped into the engaging path through the exhibits.

I was so pleased with how much room we had for maneuvering our wide stroller through every exhibit! I had packed two baby carriers in case we had to ditch the stroller and wear the babies, but we had tons of room everywhere we went. In fact, there was always plenty of room for others to pass around our slow-moving group. :-) Every so often, there were benches for resting (and slipping Cheerios to restless toddlers), too. So toddler-friendly!

There was a huge play area where kids a little older than mine could crawl and climb to their hearts' content, allowing grown-ups to catch up on nearby benches. Nearby, there were also touch tanks for curious kids to get hands-on with some of the cool sea creatures. This fun and educational area alone would keep kids entertained for quite a while, and is one of the reasons I think the aquarium would be a great attraction for folks visiting the area on a day when the weather is lousy. So many other attractions in the Gatlinburg area involve walking outside from place to place. :-)

If I had to pick a favorite exhibit, I'd be torn between the shark tunnel and the penguin habitat.

It's such an intense and beautiful sight to see sharks swimming on three sides of you! Our party was thankful that half of the hallway was a moving sidewalk, and half was stationary so that we could hop off the sidewalk to read educational signs or to get a closer look at a critter that caught our attention, and so that we could hop on the sidewalk with the stroller and just relax as we moved through the exhibit.

The penguin habitat, I must admit, made me squeal like a child! I just love penguins, along with most of the internet, it would appear :-) These little guys were so playful and chill... (yeah, I said it), and we were a little surprised how close to the glass they were hanging out. They seemed perfectly okay with humans being right up next to them, so we got to see them up close and personal. When you visit, check their flippers for little bands with names on them. :-) It's nice to be able to call your new friends by name, after all!

The coolest feature of the penguin exhibit, I thought, was the little tunnel for kids to crawl under where they swim, and pop up in the middle of the habitat. Similar to the sharks, I guess! I just like immersive-feeling experiences. :-) Sam and I had to check out the tunnel... It's mostly for little kids, and I wouldn't have crawled in if it hadn't been a lull in the traffic, but I'm glad I could fit so I could take him. It was a little claustrophobic, and I'm 5'3" and 145lbs, so keep that in mind if you decide to venture in with a little one.

Stinker decided on the way out that he no longer remembered how crawling works!
One of the last things we encountered was a touch opportunity with stingrays, and we got to watch them being fed, too. We opted out of touching, but they were so neat to watch!

I hope the next time you're in the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge/Sevierville area, you'll check out Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies! Our family had such a great time that I could only come up with two small things to put in a "cons" column :-) Have you been before? What's YOUR favorite exhibit!?

Monday, February 13, 2017

Twin Toddler Valentine Mini-Session with Shutter Girls Photography

We did a Valentine mini-session with Shutter Girls Photography, and could NOT keep this gorgeousness to ourselves!! Mini-sessions are so much fun and take out so much of the guesswork for us... one or two sets all set up and ready, and we just go in, take some cute pictures, and we're on our way. :-) Michelle and Rachael are great with our kids (pretty sure Sam has a tiny crush on Michelle) and go above and beyond to coax smiles out of them and make them feel at ease. If you're local to southwest Ohio, could not recommend these "Girls" enough!! <3 

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