...because home doesn't happen overnight.


Congrats to Megan! She’s going to use Cook Smarts and her Whole Foods gift card to whip up a vegetarian dish for her family.

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I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I’m not particularly fond of cooking. My biggest tiff with the whole process is coming up with ideas for meals and organizing grocery lists. But as much as I detest it, meal planning really does make a difference in how well our weeknights go – especially during the school year. Enter Cook Smarts.

weekly meal plan

Cook Smarts takes the guesswork out of meal planning. Their weekly meal plans include four balanced dinners to save time and money and bring you out of the dreaded dinner rut.

paleo option

Steve has been eating paleo most of the time for the last six months so, by default, the rest of us have been, too. Each Cook Smarts recipe can be customized to a gluten-free, paleo or vegetarian version. Needless to say, this is a huge and practical benefit to me and my family. Once customized, you can print / email the meal plans and create grocery lists with the click of a mouse. Done!

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The kids and I are out of town this week and next. Right before we left, I threw together an early Father’s Day meal since we won’t return until the day before the actual holiday. Seeing as how I’m barely functioning a day after making the 16-hour drive with three kids, I’m guessing I won’t be in any condition to entertain when I return home. (In case you’re wondering, the total sleep time for the entire drive for all three kids was…wait for it…50 minutes. And it was broken up at that. Gotta love road trips with kids!) I searched the recipe archives and decided to try the chipotle burger recipe.

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It isn’t a Father’s Day meal without some grilling action! If you need to brush up on your grilling skills, Cook Smarts offers short how-to and prep videos which teach basic cooking skills to boost your cooking confidence.

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I topped the chipotle burgers with homemade guacamole and served them with sweet potato fries, steamed broccoli and our favorite pasta salad from a local gourmet deli. Since we were entertaining extended family members who don’t follow a paleo diet, I didn’t customize this particular recipe.

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The burgers were so good! They had a bit of a smoky bite to them that was tempered by the guac. I will definitely be making these burgers again!

i made this recipe

To keep a running list of the recipes we try, I click the “I made this” button at the bottom of each recipe.

favorited recipe

To denote favorites, I click the button above the dish’s photo. And just like that, everything is organized for me. It really is a smart setup. For a more in-depth guided tour of the site, click here. Who knows? Maybe cooking in the kitchen could eventually become my happy place??

jess at cook smarts

As easy as Cook Smarts makes it to live smarter, happier and simpler in the kitchen (I find cooking isn’t as awful when I have a plan of attack) what really inspires me is the story behind the business. The website was founded by Jess Dang who, after being diagnosed with Hepatitis C at the age of 17, made a promise to herself. If she lived to see 30, she would do something that would help others lead a healthier life because she knew first-hand how much “it sucked to feel unhealthy and helpless.” Jess is now 32 and Cook Smarts is 2. Some people become complete victims and wallow in self-pity whenever problems arise in life. But those who choose to make the most of their situation by helping others are extraordinary and inspiring. That is exactly what Jess is to me and I support her mission whole-heartedly.

Are you ready to try Cook Smarts for yourself? Great! You can sign up for free and receive 3 free meal plans to sample. Subscription plans start as low as $6/month or roughly $0.40 per meal. To help you out, Cook Smarts is giving away $250 in groceries! See entry details below.

PRIZE: $250 gift card to Whole Foods plus a Cook Smarts tote bag

RULES: You must be at least 18 years old to enter and have a shipping address (no P.O. boxes please) within the U.S. to enter. One entry per email address.

TO ENTER: Sign up for a free Cook Smarts account here. Then check out the recipe archives and comment on this post sharing the meal you’d most like to try.

DEADLINE: Enter before Sunday, June 8th at 9:00 p.m. EST. One random winner will be announced Monday, June 9th.

BUT, WAIT!, THERE’S MORE: Use the discount code “HTCOOKS” to receive 30% off your first meal plan payment. Offer expires June 10th, 2014. A subscription to Cook Smarts would make a great graduation or wedding gift this summer.

Eat healthy, stay healthy!

images: Dana Miller for House*Tweaking; image of Jess Dang via Cook Smarts

05.31.14 / Made Me Smile

living room peek

It was my boys’ last week of school for the year. It hit me that it was also my last chance (for the summer at least) to get stuff done in the afternoons while the older two were at school and Mabrey was napping. Not to mention, I’m secretly going to miss spending one-on-one time with my girl. I worked on a few projects, enjoyed my last kid-free workout for a while and finally took pictures of the house (sample above) for an upcoming tour. It was just the kick in the a$$ I needed!

More kicka$$ stuff…

*Apartment Therapy’s Small Cool Contest is in full swing. So far, I’m digging Derona’s mini duplex (the bedroom!), Drew & Kelly’s open concept, Emily’s stylish small home, Natasha’s fashionable & functional space and Brian’s off the grid home.

*A look at Bekah’s home and her thoughts on parenting.

*More tricky hex tile on a bathroom floor. (It looks great Cathy!)

*Who knew a vacation rental could be so inspiring?!

* I just realized that some of my favorite interiors were all designed by one person. Where have I been?

*Lukas won!

*I’m thinking of trying this sea salt & lavender misting spray for a natural, tousled look this summer.

*The film the food industry doesn’t want you to see. (I want to see it.)

Have a good one! The kids and I are headed to Florida next week to visit family so my weekend will be spent packing and getting the car ready. Road trip!

image: Dana Miller for House*Tweaking

05.30.14 / Inside Out

inside out 1

We finally dragged out the outdoor furniture we bought last year after finishing the deck. You can read more about how we stored the furniture during the winter here. In the fall, I washed the cushion covers (they’re removable) then placed them in plastic bags in the attic along with the cushions themselves. We stacked the rattan bases on top of each other, covered them with quality covers found here then pushed them up against the house under a deep eave to protect them as much as possible.

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The furniture looks great and we survived one of the worst winters ever so I think this storage method was a success! The real test will be this summer. We only had the furniture set up for a few weeks during late summer / early fall last year so it didn’t see a ton of action. I’m curious to see how it holds up.

inside out 2

We have plans to build and hang a simple trellis / screen to hide the electric meter. I also think it would be fun and practical to install a shelf just below the kitchen window. We could serve drinks through the window or use it for easy clean-up after dining outside.

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The stool I spray painted gold has held up well over the last year. I stored it in the garage over the winter months. We carried the heavy Crate & Barrel planter inside to keep the plants alive over the winter. It hung out in our mudroom all winter. One succulent died but the jade and fern are going strong. I KEPT SOMETHING ALIVE.

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I’m drawing a blank on this planter next to the arm chair. We’ve had it a while. I pulled it out of the garage and planted something labeled “ground cover” in it. (A botanist I am not.) I was drawn to the texture. Still am.

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When the outdoor furniture arrived last year, I wasn’t keen on the coffee table. Mostly because everything was so matchy-matchy. But I think it has grown on me. (I stored the glass top in the attic over the winter.)

The planter on the table came from a local nursery. I wasn’t really looking for a planter but the minute I saw it I wanted it. I made myself wait a week then I went back and bought it because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I have no idea what I planted in it. Just some cheap leafy things I found at Home Depot that said they could survive in part / full sun. Again, I was sold on the various textures.

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The deck is awesome. It could use a good scrub. We backfilled and reseeded around it. With frequent waterings and kids in the mix, it’s a little lot dirty. But I have no intentions of cleaning it only to have it muddied up ten minutes later so I’ll wait until the grass starts coming in. Even dirty, it’s our favorite spot to hang out these days. To keep the lightweight furniture from sliding across the deck, we added gripper pads to the feet and plastic clamps to the frames of adjacent pieces. They’re working like a charm! I ordered some throw pillows for the sectional because it’s not “bringing the inside out” without bringing the pillows.

Putting in the deck last summer was so much work but knowing we’ll never have to maintain it (other than a scrub here and there) makes it totally worth it.

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I set up the furniture on the dining patio. It’s all holding up well so far. There was some concern over the DIY wood art withstanding the elements but it looks the same as it did a year ago. It helps that it’s protected by a deep overhang. We haven’t busted out the globe lights – yet! I want to build wood frames around the concrete bases of the light poles we made.

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Guess what. I KEPT ANOTHER SOMETHING ALIVE. I bought the succulent centerpiece at Ikea last spring. It lived outside on the dining table all summer then inside on our kitchen island all winter. What is going on?! I kinda miss having greenery on the island now but if I buy something where does this happy lil’ guy live next winter?

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We fired up the pit for the first time this past weekend and made s’mores. (Um, have you tried dark chocolate on your s’mores yet? It’s a must.) The kids LOVED it. I think I birthed three pyros. After posting about the portable pit last week, I heard from a few people who said they had the same / similar pit and it scorched the grass beneath it and rusted out after only a few years. Since the fire pit was a gift from family, we’re hoping to make it last as long as possible.

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I bought nine 1′ x 1′ concrete pavers from Home Depot. It cost me less than $15 for all nine. Steve dug up the grass under the pit and transplanted it to random bare spots in the backyard. Then he leveled the ground and laid the pavers in a square. Now there’s no fear of the grass under the pit catching fire and it gives the pit a nice, even surface to rest on. Since the pavers are flush with the ground, it’s easy to mow over and isn’t a tripping hazard. If / when the fire pit konks out, we’ll probably just build a new pit with smaller pavers right on top of the square ones.

The folding patio chairs were a hit! We fought over them. I immediately ordered two more that very night. Steve’s only complaint was that the back isn’t tall enough for him to rest his head on and fall asleep. I told him he shouldn’t be sleeping around a fire + kids. We all know what Mabrey’s capable of

So that’s how things are looking in the backyard these days. It’s extra living space! I’ll be sure to share updates (trellis / screen, window shelf, pillows!, globe lights, light pole bases, more fire pit seating, maybe a portable shade cover?) when we make them.

How are you bringing the inside out?

images: Dana Miller for House*Tweaking

05.28.14 / Exterior Evolution

It’s been three years since we made the decision to downsize and buy the Underdog. From the beginning we said “it isn’t the house of our dreams but rather the house in which to pursue our dreams.” We still stand by that motto. Renovating this house hasn’t always been easy (or quick!) but we feel we made the right decision for us. Some days when we’re feeling especially disappointed about our progress (or lack thereof…yes, kid bathroom, I’m giving you the stink eye) it helps to look back and see how far we’ve come. So today we’re taking a look at the exterior’s evolution.

exterior tree removal

When we bought the house it was barely noticeable from the road, hidden behind several large trees. Our inspector found evidence of a previous termite infestation inside and outside the home. One of the first things we did was have many of the trees removed to allow the house and yard to dry out properly. The tree removal also optimized natural light inside. (I had to fight to save that one remaining tree. I’m so glad I did. It provides the only shade in the front yard.)

exterior lawn redo

Shortly after removing the trees, we did away with the wood shutters and installed a metal roof. Still, the yard was horrendous – bumpy, full of weeds, stumps and bare spots. It actually sloped toward the house. After talking with a neighbor who happens to be a landscaper, we had the yard excavated in the fall of 2012 and started from scratch. We had new concrete walks installed, completely reseeded the lawn and put in some basic landscaping. Eventually, we rehabbed the front entry.

exterior spring 2014

It’s taken us a while but this is how the exterior looks currently. It’s nothing special but it’s clean and uncluttered and well-maintained which was basically our goal all along. Really, anything other than “crack house” was our goal!

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We endured a brutal winter and, unfortunately, we lost some of our young plants. I spoke with employees at a local nursery and they said they are having a hard time keeping up with the demand right now. Many commercial and residential customers are having to replace plants that didn’t make it through the winter while the nursery’s own plant inventory (they grow their own shrubs and trees right here in Ohio) suffered as well. A few of our gold mop cypress have a bit of brown on them and that has me worried. I guess we’ll just wait it out and see how they do. Two grasses aren’t sprouting yet so it looks like they may need replaced. Many of our plants aren’t meant to withstand temperatures colder than -10ºF and we had many days much colder than that this past winter.

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As far as I can tell, the roses are fine. The hydrangeas are greening up. One of them started sprouting way ahead of the other but the second is starting to catch up.

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We did lose the miniature evergreens in the front bed. Personally, I wasn’t all that sad to see them go. They were one of those hasty “I don’t know what to put here so let’s do these” choices. I replaced them with Elijah blue grass. I don’t think I’ve shared a good picture of the planter under the picture window that we turned into a storage bench.

exterior spring-5

Steve built a wood frame within the planter and used leftover Trex deck boards to create three separate “lids” that form a bench seat. We store potting soil and outdoor toys inside. It’s worked out really well so far.

exterior spring 2014-7

Last year we created flower beds along the east and north sides of the house but held off on planting anything in them. We didn’t have the time or money to devote to them. A few weeks ago I spent $350 and one day planting them. The east-facing bed has spirea, grasses and variegated liriope.

exterior spring 2014-8

The north-facing bed only receives a little sunlight in late evening. A nursery employee suggested chardonnay pearls (left of the heat pump) and an azalea (right of the heat pump) for this shaded area. I threw in a few more liriope.

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The chardonnay pearls are my favorite. The have the slightest sweet scent that drifts in through our bedroom window.

We went with a different mulch this year. It’s browner and finer than what we used last spring. I like it better. The previous stuff was chunky and almost stick-like…although I did like the black color. Steve had the mulch delivered last Friday afternoon and by the time he got home from work, I had spread it all. I really enjoy spreading mulch. Is that weird?

exterior spring 2014-2

The grass seed has taken really well. We pay an organic lawn care company to come out and fertilize regularly. We recently reseeded around the deck we installed last summer. Hopefully, it comes in as nicely as the rest.

For comparison’s sake, a look at where we’ve been and where we are now…

exterior before & after

Again, it’s nothing special but it’s definitely an improvement. Our neighbors and mailman have noticed. In fact, just last week our mailman came to the front door and said “Don’t take this the wrong way but I don’t think I’ve been up here since you got a new front door.” Imagine his surprise when I told him it’s the original door. It feels good not being embarrassed by our home’s exterior anymore. We’re really looking forward to having the driveway replaced and I’m anxious to see how everything fills in over the years.

What about you? Did you lose any plants due to the harsh winter? Were / are you embarrassed by your home’s exterior?

images: Dana Miller for House*Tweaking