Posts made in October, 2012

my favorite trader joe’s products

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Posted on Oct 31, 2012 in Food

I’m a total Trader Joe’s fangirl.

It’s hard to believe that up until a few months ago, I’d never even really shopped in one, but it’s very quickly become my go-to grocery store. In my ideal world, I’d grow, make and preserve the vast majority of my own food and buy locally what I couldn’t make myself, but that kind of lifestyle just isn’t realistic for us right now (maybe someday!). So like millions of other hipster yuppie food snobs, I’ve become totally obsessed with the organic, natural and not-so-bad-for-you options available at TJs.

I thought it might be fun to share with guys some of my favorite products from T. Joe’s. I’m far from a TJ’s expert, but I have definitely found quite a few must buys over my months shopping there. Navigating the aisles at Trader Joe’s can be a little bit tricky, because, to be honest, there is a lot of junk there. Granted, it’s junk made without chemicals and preservatives, but it’s still not healthy, fresh, real food. It’s can be really easy to get into the mindset of, “Well, it’s from TJ’s, it must be good for me!” but that isn’t always the case. Feel free to share your favorites, too!

Organic and Seasonal Produce

I’ve heard a wide variety of things about the produce sections at various TJ’s locations  but ours is actually really nice. And it’s an absolutely amazing resource for organic and seasonal produce. Like these giant stalks of Brussels sprouts that I’m currently obsessed with.

Go Raw Trek Mix

The selection of nuts, trail mixes and dried fruits at TJ’s is amazing, but this stuff is my absolute favorite! It’s super simple (almonds, cashews, walnuts and raisins) and has no sugar added. You can buy it in this big bag, or in individual serving packs (which is awesome for grab-and-go-snacking).

Hummus Snack Packs

These hummus snack packs (a little cup of hummus, plus some pita chips) are the type of convenience food I don’t love buying, but when we started commuting three hours to and from work, they kinda became a necessity. Sure, I could do the same thing with hummus and pita chips, but that 5 minutes or so I save by not preparing my own snack packs really adds up.

Whole Wheat Pizza Dough

TJ’s premade whole wheat pizza dough is amazing and crazy cheap. You couldn’t even really pay for the ingredients to make whole wheat pizza dough for $1.19. The only issue? We haven’t had any success with it after it’s been frozen, so you gotta use it up while it’s fresh.

Cheese!

The TJ’s cheese selection is the stuff cheese-lovin’ dreams are made of. You can get cheap hunks of really good quality cheese, plus some not-so-cheap, but totally fun gourmet cheeses (like chocolate cheddar cheese!).

Natural Tonic Water

Gin and tonics are our cocktail of choice during the summer, but regular grocery store tonic water choices are total crap. You either buy the regular stuff and get a glass-full of HFCS or you buy the diet kind and get a ton of artificial sweetener. TJ’s is one of the few places I’ve seen natural tonic water. And these little cans are the perfect cocktail size.

Flavored Sparkling Water

All natural and unsweetened, I love these waters as an alternative to plain ole water.

Organic Dairy

TJ’s has a pretty great selection of reasonably-priced organic dairy. An organic sour cream this size at a regular grocery store in our area runs about $4.99, but at TJs, we get it for $2.99. And it’s crazy good. Like the best sour cream I’ve ever had.

Cottage Cheese

This is my favorite cottage cheese in the history of all cottage cheese ever. Probably because it’s 4% milkfat. I also choose to ignore that it’s not organic.

FAGE

I actually don’t really like the TJ’s brand of Greek yogurt, but I do really love their prices on FAGE 0% and 2%. Cheaper than any other store in our area.

Organic Frozen Pizza

This one is particularly delicious. Perfect for an “OMG I CAN’T COOK TONIGHT” dinner.

Frozen Organic Veggies and Fruits

You cannot beat TJ’s prices on frozen organic produce—especially berries. It’s a crazy good deal, and it’s crazy good quality, too.

 

Dark Chocolate PB Cups

These fall solidly into the “junk” category, but damn, they are good. Like, insanely good. And they come in a variety of sizes. My favorite is the small ones (there are teeny-tiny ones, too).

Dark Chocolate Honey Mints

There are a lot of sweet treats at TJ’s, but this is my favorite of them all. They taste like honey-flavored peppermint patties, and only have three ingredients. We buy these and toss one into our lunch for a nice little mid-day treat.

Multigrain Pita Crackers

Best. Crackers. Ever.

Applesauce Crushers

Again, this is a lunch-packing convenience food, but we’re big fans of the Applesauce Crushers. They come in a few flavors (banana=least favorite, carrot=yummiest). Our cashier once tried to tell us we shouldn’t buy them because they are baby food, but they aren’t! They’re just applesauce.

Canned Salmon

We always have a few cans of this in the pantry. It’s really high quality stuff and much cheaper than we can find it at any other store. It’s great for salmon salads!

Organic Tomato and Roasted Red Pepper Soup

This is my favorite canned/boxed soup ever in the history of ever.

Chicken Breast Wraps Dog Treats

Puppyface freaking loves these dog treats. She gets to nom off the dried chicken layer and then spend quite a while working on the rawhide. They are definitely her favorites.

Sprouted Multi-Grain Bread

Ezekiel sprouted grain bread is awesome (and sugar-free!) but it’s crazy expensive—but thankfully TJ’s has their own version. It’s pretty much exactly the same—except for the price.

Original Turkey Jerky

Obsessed. We get a bag of this every shopping trip and share it on the drive home. It’s super flavorful, low-calorie, packed with protein and the perfect combo of chewy and soft. It’s a little pricey at $4.99 for a small bag. If it was a bit cheaper, I’d eat this stuff everyday.

Flavored Chicken Sausages

The raw chicken sausages at TJs are amazing. There are a few flavors and they are all excellent. Grilled them up and serve them along side a veggie and you’ve got a crazy easy dinner.

Chia Seeds

Chia seeds made the list not because of price (I can actually get them much cheaper elsewhere) but because of convenience. Before I always had to make a separate trip to a speciality store to buy chia seeds, but recently TJ’s started carrying them. It’s definitely worth the few extra cents to not need to go to a different store.

The Dark Chocolate Lover’s Chocolate Bar

This is the best Dark Chocolate on the planet.

So you can totally see why I love TJs, right? I don’t know how I lived without it for so long.

What’s your favorite TJ’s product?

what i ate wednesday: it’s back!

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Posted on Oct 31, 2012 in Food

Behold, the return of What I Ate Wednesdays on Back to Her Roots! Woohoo! I know a lot of people really enjoyed this feature, and I’m really happy to bring it back. Honestly, I got a little burned out of doing WIAWs, so I took a break, but after a few weeks, I realized I totally missed sharing my eats. What a weird thing, right? To miss showing people your food? It’s a weird world we live in. But anyway, welcome back WIAW!

  1. It’s hard to tell, but under that pile of raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, banana, pomegranate seeds, and clementine slices is a whole bowlful of Cheerios and milk! With coffee (x2).
  2. I roasted some pumpkin seeds (with olive oil, nutritional yeast, garlic powder, sea salt and cayenne pepper) and had a small bowl of those as a snack. Plus a ginger ale. I love ginger ale!
  3. Benefit #93494 of living 1/4 mile from your parents: your Mama brings you hot-out-of-the-oven coffee cake just because. I had a slice (it was stupid good) with another cup of coffee (decaf this time).
  4. We ate an early dinner of leftovers—baked penne with a giant garden salad on the side.
  5. Since I had my coffee cake dessert earlier, I subbed in something a bit less sugary—this Lemon Berry Shandy from Leinenkugel’s, which is absolutely delicious.


What’s the best thing you’ve eaten so far this week?

6 blog design tips for non-designers

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Posted on Oct 30, 2012 in Career

I don’t do a lot of B2B (blogger-to-blogger) posts here, but I was trying to read a blog post the other day (about something I really wanted to learn about) and the design of the blog made it absolutely painful to read! So I thought maybe I’d take my experience as a web designer and write a little post with a few tips that’ll help make anyone’s blog more comfortable to read. So if you aren’t a blogger, feel free to skip on over this post. I’ll be back tomorrow with regularly scheduled BTHR-ness.

Before I get into the actual tips, you might be wondering what makes me qualified to dole out this advice because I don’t talk about my day job a whole lot on here. What makes me qualified? Well, I’m a web designer! Actually, I’m a web designer who has won some pretty impressive awards and worked for some pretty huge clients. As a professional, I’ve learned a thing or two from my day job that applies nicely to my side gig as a blogger.

A lot of folks can make decisions about what to them is “pretty” or “attractive”, but a pretty blog that is impossible to read, navigate or use is worthless. Function > form. Especially on the web. So today, instead of giving you tips on styles, colors or fonts (which is individual to each person), I’m going to give you functional usability design tips. These are the kinds of things anyone can implement. And everyone should. So, let’s do it!

1. Left align your text, just do it.

The offending blog I mentioned earlier? I couldn’t get through the content because the text was centered. It made it almost painful to read. Just say no to centered text. Centered text is for headlines, billboards and advertisements—not for large chunks of text. Why? Well, each time your eye moves to a new line, it has to struggle to find the start (because it’s never in the same spot twice), which makes it uncomfortable to read large chunks of text. It just isn’t a smooth transition between lines. Just go ahead and left-align your text. I promise you that users aren’t comprehending your content well if your text is centered. If you want users to read—and understand—your content, don’t center it.

Think fully justifying your text is a good compromise? Think again. Justified text is better than centered, but justified text has its own problems—especially on the web. First of all, a reader uses the right length of a line to help them identify where they are in a paragraph. It all happens in a few milliseconds, but basically, a reader sees “Oh, that line is longer than the one above it and the one below it, so don’t read that one again.” but when all the lines are the same length, it’s nearly impossible to identify where you are in the paragraph. Justified text means re-reading the same line multiple times, which we all know can be frustrating. Also, to make text justified spaces are put between words, which causes “rivers” (areas of white that flow throughout the paragraph) which disrupts the reader.

In print, designers have more control over how text is justified. They can tweak and adjust things to make it to where rivers don’t show, but on the web, you have almost no control over that.

Seriously, just left align it. There has been decades of typography research done about this (yes, there are researchers that cover such things)—flush left text with ragged right lines are the easiest to read and score the highest when it comes to reading comprehension. If you want your readers to consume large amounts of text (like say, a 1600 word blog post, like this one) you want to make it as easy as possible on them to read it and understand it, dontcha?

2. Make your links all the same color. And only use that color for links.

When we’re surfing the web, we are constantly looking for indication that something is clickable. This is really clear when something is a big fat button or says “click here” but it gets a little fuzzy when it’s just a link inside a swath of text (like this). Most websites use color to indicate links in text. My link color is a hot pink color. Awesome! It stands out from the black non-link text and obviously has a different purpose. The problem comes when people use their link color for other text that isn’t a link.

So say you’re link text is bright red. A reader is reading a blog post, sees a bright red word, clicks on it, gets sent to another website, comes back. Then they keep reading. They see another bright red word, click it and the same thing happens—they go to a link. But when they come back to your blog, they see a headline that is the same bright red color. What are they going to expect that header to do? Link to something. But when they try to click on it, nothing happens, because it isn’t a link. And suddenly, your reader has hit a hiccup. You created a precedent that bright red=link. But when you used that red elsewhere without the same action, confusion hit. So pick a link color and only use that color on links.

3. Use headers.

Headers are good. Headers break up large chunks of text and help users scan to find the information they need. Don’t know how to apply a header? In your blog editor visual view, look for a drop down that says “Paragraph” or “Style”. Open it up and inside you should see Heading 1, Heading 2, Heading 3, etc. among the list.

You should never use Heading 1 or Heading 2. Why? Well, this gets into semantic HTML code geeky-stuff, but to boil it down, those are already “taken” in your blog structure. Your Heading 1 (H1 in the code) is the title of your blog (so Back to Her Roots is mine) and your Heading 2 (H2) should be your post title if your theme is programmed properly. Those are automatically generated on each and every blog post, so you don’t need to use those two tags.

The earliest header your blog post could use is Heading 3. So say you have a blog post called “Cooking Chicken” (that’d be your Heading 2/H2) and then inside that blog post you have a section titled “Safe Handling of Chicken”, that’d be a Heading 3/H3. And if within that section, you have a sub-section specifically about Salmonella, that subhead would be a Heading 4/H4. And so on and so on.

Don’t just pick your headings based on the color/size/how they look—the heading tags are literally altering the document structure of your blog post. Want to read more about it? Here’s a good resource.

4. Keep your line lengths reasonable.

As widescreen monitors become more popular, I’m seeing more and more blogs with super long line length (the number of characters on one line before it breaks). Just like with the centered text, super long line lengths are difficult to read because you lose your spot. You spend so much time reading a single line, that by the time you are ready to jump back and read the next line, you have to pause and find your spot. No bueno.

It’s generally accepted that a good web line length is around 100 characters (that includes spaces) but I’d say you could even go up to 130ish and still be good. Basically anything way short (under 50) or way long (over 150) is going to cause some issues. Go ahead, count your characters. Here are some examples of blogs out there with excellent line lengths:

5. Short paragraphs are king.

This blog post is a terrible example of this (do as I say, not as I do), but short paragraphs are king on the web. TL;DR, anyone? That doesn’t come from the word count, that comes from the wall-of-text that comes from not using frequent paragraph breaks. There is something so intimidating about a giant paragraph on the web. Breaks are good.  I usually write my post, with my normal paragraph-when-I’m-feelin’–it method and then go back and try to add more paragraph breaks wherever I can.

6. Skip serif font for body text.

Any trained designer can tell you that serif fonts (fonts with the little tails on the tops and ends of their letters) are the absolute best for readability when it comes to print text, because the eye carries between letters easier. But on the web? Not so much. Sans serif fonts reign supreme. Why? Well, the pixels of the computer monitor screen actually break up the serifs, which makes fonts like Georgia and Times New Roman look fuzzy when at a small, body-text size. But sans serifs like Arial and Tahoma look crisp and clean. If you love a good fancy serif, use it, but reserve it for larger header text where the serifs aren’t as easily broken up by the pixels of a screen.

Even if you don’t love the design of your blog (the colors, fonts, layout), if you implement these six suggestions, your blog will be so much more comfortable for your reader to consume your content—and that’s the whole point!

A usable, well-functioning blog combined with good content is definitely the cornerstone to becoming a successful blogger. Sure, people love a pretty website, but some of the most read blogs on the web focus a lot more on functionality and usability than they do making their blog pretty. Focus on these tips first, then go pick yourself out a new header photo.

Alright, what’s the best designed blog out there? What do you like about it?

Edit: OH! I forgot to mention: remember, that your blog is just that—your blog. So if you love something (like justified text or a sans serif font), keep it! Every day as a designer I make concessions on usability and functionality because of something I really like and that’s okay. Just as long as you are aware of the consequences and challenges of making that decision. The most important thing though? For you to love your blog. Don’t let anyone (yes, even me) tell you to change something that makes you happy.

confessions…

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Posted on Oct 30, 2012 in Lifestyle

1. I love making them, but I rarely use my own printables. Not because I don’t want to. I really want to, but because I’m totally a closeted spreadsheet lover. Especially when it comes to keeping track of stuff like All About the Numbers. Don’t tell my art school professors that I get way giddy when I successfully rock a complicated Excel formula. You should see our budget spreadsheet. Swoon. #nerd

2. I came thisclose to playing Christmas music this weekend. I was curled up next to Puppyface in front of the fire and all of our Christmas records were just begging to be put on the turntable. But I didn’t. It’s so much more special for me if I wait. And, I’m trying to get better about that whole wishing time away thing. I still have two holidays to enjoy before Christmas comes ’round!

3. I’m really sad hockey isn’t happening. Like, way more sad than I ever thought I could be about hockey. I miss the Hawks.

4. We spent $65 at the Goodwill this weekend. Do you have any idea how much stuff you have to buy to get up to $65 at the Goodwill? Let’s just say the cashier literally brought out a trash bag to put our purchases in.

5. Speaking of money, we spent $1300 on groceries in the last month. Granted, that’s not an average month, but I bet your grocery bill is looking pretty good right now, isn’t it? In related news, we’ll be living on beans and rice for the rest of the year.

Do you have any confessions to share?

cheesy baked penne with spinach and italian sausage

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Posted on Oct 29, 2012 in Food

I think everyone has a different definition of what comfort food is. Some people feel cozy after a giant order of Chinese food. Others might want their Mom’s pot roast. And still others might prefer a sundae from their favorite ice cream shop. I get it, we all have our own thang, and that’s cool. But that all being said, I have to believe that there is a large chunk of us that want the exact same thing out of our comfort food—warm, cheesy, gooey pasta. Ya with me?

I just, can’t imagine food more comforting than a big bowl of gooey, warm carb-a-licious pasta. I’ve heard there are people out there that don’t like pasta, but I’ve never met one in real life, and I’m not sure I actually want to, either.

Does. Not. Compute.

I do think that, pretty universally, comfort food solidly falls into the “not-so-healthy” category. There is something about the decadence of a splurge meal that makes the whole world seem shinier and happier. I know emotional eating gets a bad rap, but if a reasonable-sized serving of macaroni and cheese can make a crappy day feel better? I’m all for it.

And the truth is, as varied and drastic as folks’ comfort food of choice is, I highly doubt anyone will ever say, “Oh my gosh, I had the worst day ever, I really wish I could have a big garden salad, that’d make me feel so much better.”

And if they do, they’re lying. No one has ever comforted by bowlfull of romaine.

But I think there is a way to make comfort food healthier. Take this cheesy, gooey pasta bake for instance. Whole wheat pasta mixed with four cups of fresh spinach is slathered in a silky parmesan cream-less cream sauce. To add more flavor (and still keep it light and healthy), I used lower calorie and fat Italian chicken sausages and sundried tomatoes. This is how you do comfort food healthy!

Next time you find yourself in need of some comfort, maybe skip the ice cream sundae and try your hand at this cheesy bake instead. You’ll get your comfort food without setting your healthy lifestyle onto the back burner.

Cheesy Baked Penne with Spinach and Italian Sausage

by Cassie Johnston

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 30 minutes

Makes: 8 servings

Cheesy, creamy and full-of-flavor, this pasta casserole bake is classic comfort food turned healthy! 

Ingredients

  • 1 pound whole wheat penne
  • 4 cups fresh baby spinach
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 small green pepper, diced
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 3 cups skim milk
  • 1/2 cup shredded parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
  • 1 cup sundried tomatoes, diced
  • 1-12 ounce package Italian chicken or turkey sausage, cut into thin coins

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. Cook penne according to package directions in a large stock pot, drain and return to stock pot. Mix in spinach and set aside. The steam from the pasta will begin to wilt the spinach.
  3. In the mean time, in a dutch oven or large skillet, heat olive oil over medium-low heat. Add in red pepper flakes and garlic and cook for 3-4 minutes until fragrant. Add in onion and green pepper and cook for 7-8 minutes or until tender.
  4. Add in butter, oregano, salt and pepper. Once butter is melted, whisk in flour and cook for 2-3 minutes. Then whisk in milk until well-combined. Continue to cook, whisking frequently, until sauce has thickened. Remove from heat and stir in parmesan and 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese. Add in sundried tomatoes and sausage coins.
  5. Mix together the sauce mixture with the pasta and spinach mixture. Pour into a 9 x 13 casserole dish. Sprinkle top with remaining mozzarella cheese. Bake in preheated oven for 20-25 minutes or until cheese is brown and sauce is bubbly.
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What’s your favorite comfort food?