Any woman who’s had a facial knows how wonderful and luxurious they are. The comfy robes, the smooth treatments, the neck, hand, and leg massages. It’s so relaxing. But in this economy, most of us have to say no to such extravagances. While you can’t fully reproduce the spa experience, you can give yourself a facial at home to at least feel like you have some luxury in your life.

Step 1: Gather Your Ingredients
You don’t want to get into your robe only to discover that you don’t have all the necessary ingredients and supplies. You’ll want to skip certain facial steps like extractions, which can damage your skin if not done properly. But you can treat yourself to several relaxing skin treatments. Find your recipes and then shop for those affordable items that will transform them from yogurt to high-end goop.

Try these fantastically rejuvenating options:
Yogurt and Honey face mask
Oatmeal and Yogurt face mask
Clay mask

Check out this complete list of simple, affordable masks at Fat Free Kitchen.

You should also pick up a cucumber, fresh fruit juice, lemons and limes for slicing (to add to your water), and a light spa snack. If you have a chance, go by the mall to ask for a sample of a decadent moisturizer you could never afford.

Step 2: Get Rid of the Family
If you have a family, serenity will not be yours while they’re home. Send them to the park, the movies, the library, anywhere but your house for at least three hours. Then you can soak and relax and have a lovely afternoon.

Step 3: Set the Stage for a Facial at Home
Mix your facial masks, put lemon slices in cold water, pour a glass of juice, slice the cucumber, dig out a soothing CD, get a headband or shower cap, collect washcloths, find your fluffiest towels and robe, and gather up candles. This is everything you’ll need for your relaxing afternoon.

Step 4: Start with a Shower
Start with a quick shower and clean your face before the facial. Remove your contacts if you wear them.

Step 5: Relax
Fill the tub with hot, steamy water. Turn on your CD and light some candles. Lay back in the tub with your glass of water nearby. Put cucumber slices over your eyes. Soak for at least 15 minutes to give your face a good steam. If you can’t get up a good steam in the bath, you may need to hold your face over a bowl of steaming water with a bit of lavender or lemon to help open your pores.

Step 6: Apply the Facial Mask
Don the shower cap or headband, wrap yourself in your robe, and apply your facial mask. Now lay back on your bed or couch (covered with another towel) and relax for another 15-30 minutes. Carefully wipe your face with a warm washcloth when it’s done. If you made more than one mask, apply the next one.

Step 7: Moisturize Your Skin
Hopefully you had time to get a moisturizer sample. Slather it on as a final step. If you don’t have one, use your regular moisturizer.

Step 8: Relax Some More
If you sent your family away for long enough, you’ve probably got at least another 90 minutes to relax. Set up a little nook where you can sit in your robe, eat your light spa snack, and read a juicy gossip magazine or novel. Absolutely no current events, financial news, or heavy tomes allowed. We want fluff and escapism.

Giving yourself a facial at home won’t be quite as soothing as the real thing, but it’s a perfect way to treat yourself amidst all the turmoil of our world without spending a fortune. You can get most of the necessary ingredients for less than $10. Most facials cost at least $90. True, there’s no neck rub, but a savings of $80 might be worth the sacrifice. For that kind of savings, you can also get a discount massage.

I’ve been wearing the same winter coats for several seasons. Of course, I’m in Los Angeles, so there’s no snow or sleet and barely any rain to wear them down. If you need to replace your winter coats every few years, it’s tempting to do it at the start of the season when you’re looking at your coat and thinking, “Wow, this is ugly.” Instead, you should buy your coats in late winter/early spring when they’re on clearance. Here are a few tips for finding the best coats at a bargain.

Shop in Stores and Online
You can check the major websites for clearance sales for winter coats and other apparel, however you might find better deals by going into a store. While a warehouse can hold onto those coats longer, Macy’s only has so much room in the store. They need to move that merchandise out, which motivates them to make deeper cuts.

Look for Sales in Newspaper and Online
The best place to find winter coat sales is to check the ads in the Sunday paper. That’s where they announce the really big sales. If you join the stores e-newsletter, you’ll also receive advance notice and possibly a discount. If you have their credit card, more discounts and advance sales may be in the offing.

Visit the Outlet Stores for Deals on Winter Coats in May
Outlet stores were originally created as a place where manufacturers could send their unsold merchandise and factory seconds to move it at rock-bottom prices. Although some goods are created for outlet stores now, you can still find deals once products have moved out of the stores unsold. Winter coats may arrive at the start of spring or the start of summer, depending on the manufacturer.

Buy Classic Styles
If you plan to wear this coat for more than one season, or are buying it at the end of a season, look for classic cuts and colors. This year’s hot color may be out-of-date in nine months, but black, brown, and navy blue are always in style. Pea coats and similar classic styles will also hold up well.

Buy Quality
With prices marked down, you can look for high-quality winter coats that are thick, warm, and made of durable fabrics like wool. Also look for a polyester lining with tight stitching along the seams.

Buy a Size Up for Kids
Children are tough to shop for ahead of time because they grow so fast. If your child has reached a stage where he or she is growing more slowly, then buy a size up so the coat will still fit the next winter. If you have a young child, shop for winter coats in season at places like Old Navy where kids clothes are cheap or look for hand-me-down from friends and consignment sales.

Store the Coats Properly
Once you get the coats home, hang them in the closet right away. You don’t want to leave them in plastic because that actually invites degradation. Instead, cover them in tissue or just let them hang freely. If you have air-tight storage, put them in the bin with a few cedar balls to ward off moths.

A good winter coat should last more than one season, so it’s worth paying a little more to get good quality. But that doesn’t mean you should pay full price – watch for sales and time your shopping to get the best deal on clothes that will last a long time if you want to save money over the long term. Visit my older post on discount clothes for even more money-saving tips.

I don’t drink milk or eat cereal, and neither does my husband, so it’s tough for us to use up milk before it goes bad. We do now buy a half-gallon every other week, but it’s used entirely for yogurt, leaving none for other purposes. That’s fine with me. Over the years, I’ve found several milk substitutes that are great for cooking and baking.

Lactose-Free Milk
I used to buy a quart of acidophilus milk every month or so. This kind of milk keeps longer, so it’s perfect for baking or cooking where you just need a little. But there is still the opportunity for waste if you don’t use it all up before it goes bad. It also costs slightly more than regular milk.

Dry Milk
This is my favorite milk substitute. I keep a box of non-fat instant milk in the cupboard. Then I mix it up a cup at a time when I need it. It’s best if you put it in the fridge for a couple hours after you mix it, but it will work even last minute.

Evaporated Milk
If you hit the grocery store sales around the holidays, you probably have a can or two of evaporated milk. Just add an equal amount of water to get milk suitable for cooking or baking. It sounds gross, but this is how they stored milk before refrigeration was common.

Coconut Milk
This will add a hint of sweetness, but coconut milk can be used in place of regular milk in baking or cooking. Add an equal amount of water to get the same consistency as milk.

Rice or Soy Milk
If you can’t tolerate dairy, then you probably have rice or soy milk in the fridge or cupboard. Again, the flavor will be slightly different, but both can be used in place of regular milk.

Frozen Milk
You can actually freeze milk. Freeze it in ice cube trays, but don’t let it stay in the freezer too long because it will pick up other flavors. Use it to stretch your milk for a few weeks. Once frozen and thawed (in the fridge), stir or shake well. It’s best for cooking and baking because the texture will have changed.

Buttermilk or Cream
If you’re making something like mashed potatoes, you can use buttermilk or cream instead of milk to impart a slightly different flavor or texture, and use them up before they go bad.

A Word on Organic Milk
Many people are choosing to buy organic milk. If you do, make sure you can use it up before it goes bad. Letting it go bad is pouring money down the drain, literally.

With these substitutions, you’ll not only avoid throwing away spoiled milk, but you’ll also avoid running to the store mid-recipe when you realize you’re out of milk or the milk you have has gone bad. Do you have other tips for making milk last or substituting other things for it? Share them in the comments.

Buttermilk is a wondrous food. It used to be the remnants of the butter churning process, but now it’s the result of an unrelated process. Contrary to what you’d expect from the name, it’s actually quite low in fat and good for you. So, if you’ve got some leftover from a recipe, here are some ways to use it up. Not all of these are low fat, but they’ll taste good. With buttermilk, you can’t go wrong. Some of these also call for cream, so see my previous post for tips on using that up, too.And then of course, some call for sour cream, so you’ll have to use that up, too. You could easily gain 10 pounds, but it would probably be worth it.

25 Uses for Leftover Buttermilk

  1. Pancakes! Duh. This one’s a no-brainer
  2. Waffles. Like pancakes, but crispy and with dents.
  3. Crème fraiche. It uses just a tablespoon, leaving lots for pancakes!
  4. Sour cream. It also requires cream, but will use more buttermilk than crème fraiche.
  5. Buttermilk biscuits. Flaky goodness.
  6. Buttermilk dressing. Especially good poured over cold fried chicken.
  7. Fried chicken.
  8. Cornbread. Serve it with the fried chicken instead of biscuits.
  9. Mashed potatoes. Give them a twist from the usual milk.
  10. Buttermilk scones.
  11. Buttermilk pie. I haven’t tried this one, but it sounds good, especially at a July 4 picnic.
  12. Soda bread.
  13. Ranch dressing. A different variation on the traditional buttermilk dressing.
  14. Buttermilk ice cream.
  15. Anything you use milk in. It gives it an extra kick.
  16. Potato salad. Use half buttermilk, half mayonnaise for an extra kick.
  17. Chocolate cake. Moist, delicious.
  18. Buttermilk bundt cake.
  19. Buttermilk panna cotta.
  20. Bread pudding.
  21. Pound cake.
  22. Potatoes au gratin. Buttermilk, cheese, potatoes, delicious.
  23. Sugar cookies. A hint of sweetness, a bit of tang. 100% goodness.
  24. Cole slaw. As with potato salad, the buttermilk gives it an extra kick.
  25. Freeze it. It won’t be suitable for drinking, but it will be perfectly good for baking and cooking.

Got more ways to use up leftover buttermilk? Please share them in the comments.

Another week, another dollar, another set of picks from this week’s blog carnivals. We’ve got three to share this week, so here we go.

The Carnival of Personal Finance #195 at Stock Trading To Go. In addition to my post about planning a week of freezer menus, I also recommend StretchyDollar’s post about coupons being cool again.

The Festival of Frugality #168 hosted by Funny About Money. In addition to my post about hosting a frugal baby shower, I also recommend Harvesting Dollar’s post that they are baby-ready (for twins).

The Money Hacks Carnival #55 hosted by MoneyNing. In addition to my post about places to find coupons, I also recommend Engineer a Debt Free Life’s tips for saving money in rural areas.

I tend to have leftover cream fairly frequently, and I hate wasting this delicious nectar of the gods. So, I’ve developed a list of tried and true uses for cream. I’ve also recently discovered some new ones, but I haven’t actually tried all of these yet. I can’t fully vouch for their effectiveness. So here, in no particular order are:

29 Uses for Leftover Cream

  1. Crème brulee. You can make four small servings with a couple egg yolks, sugar, and a cup of cream. Yum.
  2. Cream sauce. Making pork or chicken? Vary the usual sauce by making a cream sauce instead.
  3. Chocolate mousse.  What else is there to say?
  4. Ice cream. Okay, this isn’t so much leftover cream, as a thing that will create leftover cream, but what list of cream uses is complete without second most delicious dessert ever created? (The first being chocolate mousse.)
  5. Crème fraiche. You can actually make crème fraiche yourself with cream and buttermilk. See tomorrow’s post for uses for the leftover buttermilk you’ll now have.
  6. Sour Cream.  Crème fraiche is really just a French version of sour cream. You can make the American version with cream and more buttermilk.
  7. Ricotta. Again, you can make this at home with leftover cream, vinegar, and milk.
  8. Whipped cream. Whip it up and serve it over dessert.
  9. Butter. According to Alton Brown, you can make your own butter by churning cream in a food processor. I have not tried this.
  10. Thicken other sauces. Try using it instead of butter if you have a sauce that needs a bit of thickening.
  11. Buttercream frosting. You will, of course, have to bake a cake or cupcakes, but at least your cream will be used up.
  12. Cream soup. Most soups that have a creamy texture actually call for cream. They’ll taste much better homemade than you anything you could get in a can. Start with clam chowder.
  13. Borscht.
  14. Topping for any soup. Add just a dollop to make a serviceable soup truly decadent.
  15. Served with fruit. Get a fruit, just about any fruit but berries are best, and put it in a bowl. Pour cream into the bowl. Eat.
  16. Fleur de Sel caramels. Make your own candy (assuming you happen to have this pricey salt.)
  17. Mac and cheese.
  18. Cream scones. I really, really wish I could make these!
  19. Mashed potatoes. Use it instead of milk for extra creamy potatoes.
  20. Potatoes au gratin. Try using this recipe, or replacing the milk in your favorite recipe with cream.
  21. Ganache. You can then use it for truffles, frosting, or just an ice cream topping.
  22. Bread pudding.
  23. Panna cotta.
  24. Pots de crème. Sort of like custard, sort of like creme brulee. All good.
  25. Tea or coffee. If you usually use milk, use some of that cream instead.
  26. Brandy Alexander. Alcohol and cream? What’s not to love?
  27. Eggnog.
  28. Chicken pot pie.
  29. Freeze it. If you can’t find a way to use it, pop it in the freezer. Depending on the thickness of it, it may not be something you can whip later, but you can still use it as a thickener or in other recipes.

Got any other great uses for leftover cream? Share them in the comments!

At this point, you probably know you need some kind of budget. You may even have tried and failed to set one up. If you’re still earning less than you spend and can’t find places to cut, or can’t stop spending no matter how hard you try, it’s time to go extreme: the envelope budget system. It’s more work, but it will stop you from overspending, and prevent you from missing those important things like rent payments. Here’s how to do it.

Sort Out Your Bottom Line
As with any budget system, the first thing you have to know is your baseline spending. Go through your receipts, credit card statements, checking account, etc. to total up the following items for the past three months:

  • Housing (mortgage, rent, property tax, maintenance)
  • Transportation (gas, maintenance, bus pas)
  • Insurance (auto, medical, life, etc.)
  • Car Payment
  • Child Care
  • Food (groceries)
  • Utilities (gas, power, water, basic home phone)
  • Other Loans
  • Education
  • Clothing (basics necessary for survival)
  • Medical

These are your minimum expenditures. You must pay for these no matter what. You may be able to find wiggle room in the food budget through couponing and sales, but obviously you need to eat.

Divide each total by 3. Now you have an average monthly cost.

Deduct the monthly total from your monthly take-home pay. If you have something leftover, you can setup an envelope budget. If you don’t, then you need to either find a way to make more money, or find things you can cut, like cable, cell phone, or eating out. For extreme situations, you may need to sell your car and get a bus pass.

Determine Your Nice to Have Items
Let’s assume your income more than covers the essentials listed above. Now figure out your nice-to-haves like:

  • Savings
  • Retirement
  • Cable
  • Cell phone
  • Eating out
  • Entertainment
  • Clothing (beyond the basics)
  • Subscriptions
  • Gifts

Savings and retirement are actually must-haves, but you can’t deal with them until your core survival expenses are met. Then put them at the top of your list of excess cash.

Determine How Much You Should Budget for Each Category
The must-haves are easy to budget for. You know how much your mortgage or rent is. You know approximately how much gas costs (although you should budget extra for rising pump prices.) The harder part is the nice-to-haves. Start with retirement and savings. Designate $50-$100 per paycheck if you can. At the very least, designate something. Gifts don’t happen regularly, so estimate the amount you spend in a year and divide it by 12. Put that much in every month so it’s saved up for when you need it.

Divide Your Pay Among the Categories
In a traditional system, you would now cash your paycheck and divide the proceeds among envelopes for each of these. Since we now operate on a cashless basis for most recurring payments, it takes a couple extra steps, but you can still do it.

Create envelopes for each spending category, or for subcategories if you could be tempted to spend all of your auto money on gas and leave nothing for insurance. Write the total amount you must or would like to spend each month on the envelope. The total on all envelopes must not exceed your income.

You can still create an envelope for items you pay automatically, but remember not to withdraw that amount from your checking account later. If you write a check for the item, make an envelope and put the check in it at the start of the month.

At the start of each month, write the checks you normally write, or set up the online payments for them. Deduct this from the amount you have left, even if you don’t withdraw it. Now, go to the bank and withdraw the balance in cash.

When you get home, divide that cash between your envelopes. For example, you know you must save $100 a month towards car insurance, put $100 in that envelope. You know you’ll need to spend $30 a week on gas for your car. Put that in the gas envelope. You know you’ll need to spend $60 a week on groceries. That goes in another envelope.

Organize the envelopes in an accordion file. Write the date deposited and the amount on the front of the envelope. If you get paid bi-weekly, you may need to replenish your envelopes mid-month, but don’t go over your monthly budgeted amount.

Spend Only What’s In the Envelopes
When you need to buy something, take the money out of the appropriate envelope so you can pay for it in cash. When the cash is gone, you’re done spending in that category for the month. Do not borrow from another envelope to make up the gap.

When it’s time to pay something like auto insurance, deposit your accumulated savings back into your checking account and mail the check you have waiting in the envelope. Eventually you’ll be able to save up the money for these things without actually withdrawing it.

Record expenditures on the front of the envelope so you can see how much you realistically spend. Revise your budget accordingly the next month, or look for ways to cut back.

Make Saving Automatic
If you can’t make yourself put money in your “savings” and “retirement” envelopes, or you pilfer from it to cover the gap in other envelopes, then make sure you never get the money in the first place. Set up automatic withdrawals and sign up for your company 401K plan. That way the money is whisked into your savings account or retirement account before you ever see it. If you don’t see it, you can’t be tempted to spend it.

After a while, you won’t need the envelopes anymore, but this tool can teach you to control your spending if you just can’t figure out how to live within your means. If you prefer an online system, try Mvelopes , which does it all for you, but doesn’t require you to spend it all in cash.

My husband and I decided five years ago (around the time I moved in with him) that the next time we moved, we would hire professionals to do the job. Yes, it costs more, but given the hassles, timing, and expense of doing it yourself, it’s worth it to us. Here are our reasons:

  • We’re tired of wrangling friends to help us
  • It takes far longer for non-professionals to do it
  • It’s difficult to effectively estimate truck size if you don’t move often
  • It’s easy to injure yourself
  • It’s easy to damage furniture by lifting it improperly.

On our last move, my friend decided the best way to move a fragile IKEA entertainment center was to tip it on its side. We no longer have a fragile IKEA entertainment center, because it collapsed in the elevator. Note: we only live one floor up.

And finally, once you exceed a certain age, it’s sort of unseemly to go around begging friends to help you move in exchange for pizza. That age, for me at least, is 30. We’re way over that, so no more corralling friends for us.

But, hiring a mover can be daunting. Here are a few tips to help you find good movers:

How to Find the Right Movers
If you just need help moving a couch up some stairs, go to your nearest Home Depot or hardware store to find some day laborers. They’ll gladly move furniture for a small fee. However, I don’t recommend that for a full move. Instead, you’ll need to actually pay money to hire more qualified people.

Ask friends and relatives for referrals. Chances are you know at least a few people who have moved. Ask them to recommend someone. If you’re buying a house, your real estate agent may have a list of recommended movers, so ask for it.

Look for Online Reviews. With that list in hand, check on Yelp, the Better Business Bureau, and Angie’s List to see if they’re receiving complaints or bad reviews. Select only those with good records. You should also check MovingScam.com for more reviews.

Call to Schedule Estimates. Some movers will offer an estimate over the phone, but it’s difficult to gauge a true cost that way. There’s a big difference between moving the 3-bedroom home of a pillow enthusiast and moving the 3-bedroom home of a book collector. Show the estimator all rooms that will be included in the move, including attics, basements, backyards, closets, etc. You should also point out elevator or parking restrictions if applicable.

Get a Written Binding Estimate and Other Information. At the time of the estimate, request a written binding estimate. You should also request all the business names they operate under, their DOT license number, and complete contact information.

Review the Estimates. Review the estimates side-by-side. Lowball estimates aren’t always the best. Choose the one that seems reasonable and has the best reputation.

Contact the Department of Transportation. As a final step, contact the federal Department of Transportation (for interstate moves) to verify that the company is reputable. For in-state moves, contact your local Department of Transportation or Attorney General’s office. Your state’s website may also provide assistance. You should also check the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration website to confirm that they’re fully licensed for your move, don’t have an above-average claims ratio, and are properly insured. You can also call 888-368-7238 to see if there are additional complaints.

Help the Movers by Being Prepared. Finally, make sure everything is packed and ready to go on the morning of the move. Provide complete directions to your new address. Label boxes clearly. Get pets out of the way. Before leaving the house, ask the mover for an inventory, then make sure everything that went onto the truck comes off the truck at the other end.

Moving is stressful, but hiring professional, reputable movers may actually make it easier. And although it will cost more, you also won’t have to buy pizza at midnight when your friends finally finish helping you move. If your friends really want to help, invite them over to help unpack.

I’m sort of working my way around all the various rescue packages. Why do they all have to have fancy names and acronyms? TALF, TARP, Making Home Affordable, Making Work Pay. Argh! But that’s not today’s rant. Today’s stabby post about the way some of these programs and statistics are presented. The government likes to say things like, “This will save the average homeowner $1300 a year.” Or “Home prices have fallen 25%.” When you average numbers in that manner, you create unreasonable expectations for some and irritation for others because you can’t just average a number across $300 million people, 50 states, and multiple major metropolitan areas. Here’s why.

We Don’t Have a National Housing Market
Journalists and politicians like to report statistics for U.S. housing prices. However, as anyone who lives in the U.S. can tell you, we don’t have a national housing market. Frankly, we don’t even have state housing markets. We have regional markets, and even more local markets within a region. Here in the Los Angeles region, some areas have seen prices fall by more than 50%, while others are only starting to see prices decline. If one section of one state has such a wide discrepancy, how can you possibly even think about averaging those declines across the country?

Not only that, but home prices vary wildly, which makes those percentages mean very different things. A 10% decline in a $150,000 home is $15,000. A 10% decline in a $500,000 home is $50,000. That’s quite a difference.

Finally, the “Making Home Affordable” plan says that the average U.S. home value is $200,000. That’s a completely meaningless number when trying to calculate how much anyone stands to gain from the program. At $200,000, the average homeowner could see their home value stabilized by as much as $6,000. (We’ll pretend that sentence makes sense.) Does that mean someone with a $400,000 house could maintain $12,000 in value? It’s impossible to know, because this one number tells us nothing.

We Don’t Have a National Employment Pool
The U.S. unemployment rate is 8.1% today. In California, that number is over 10.1%. In Los Angeles, it’s 10.5%. All of those numbers are bad, but to average them together actually paints a better picture than the actual case in many places.

We Don’t Have a National Income
They also like to talk about how much various tax cuts will help the “average American.” They average U.S. incomes to work out those figures. But there’s no such thing as an average American income! This payroll tax reduction is supposedly worth $13 a week. Is that true whether you make $10 an hour or $150,000 a year?

I know that statistics can’t reasonably be presented for every American, but I do wish they’d stop making general statements based on bogus statistics. Just say what the program does and let us figure out what it means for us individually. When they make cite these general statistics, it only makes some people think they’ll got more than they will, and irritates other people for whom the “average” is too low to make a real difference.

And while they’re at it, they need to stop slapping acronyms and happy marketing titles on everything. We’re not stupid. Oh wait, I’m probably generalizing again.

Eating at home is in, eating out is well, out. Sometimes, though, you just get tired of all your current recipes, or you let things pile up in the cupboards, freezer, and fridge without thinking about it. If you want to learn how to cook more creatively and use up some of those items, it’s time to play the fun new game: Top Chef at Home. While the results may not always be tasty, you’re guaranteed not to hate the winner. (Ahem.)

Create Your Own Quickfire Challenge
You can play this alone, or with a friend of family member. Look in your cupboard, freezer, or fridge for an ingredient that’s been in there a while or about to expire. Now challenge yourself to come up with a dish you can prepare in 30 minutes with this ingredient. Try to use it all up. You can, unlike the TV contestants, go to the web to find a yummy recipe. All Recipes has a great ingredient search function.

Borrow Cookbooks by Chefs from the Library
It seems like most of the guest judges on Top Chef are there to plug cookbooks. So, why not take them up on that plug? Go down to the local library and borrow a cookbook by a big-name chef. Flip through it to find one recipe you can make affordably this week. Bonus points for using at least one ingredient you already have on hand.

Buy a Random Ingredient at the Farmer’s Market
When you walk through a well-stocked farmer’s market, you’ll see a few items you’ve never seen before. Ask the farmer about it – what is it, what does it taste like, how is it usually served. They may even be able to recommend a cooking method. Unless they say it tastes like monkey excrement or it costs a small fortune, take that ingredient home and find a new way to incorporate into a meal. I’d start with a snack or side dish. It can be risky using a new, untested fruit or vegetable as a main dish.

Ask a Friend for a Challenge
Ask a friend to create a culinary challenge based around an ingredient, an ethnic cuisine, or a theme. Give yourself one week to create the menu around that meal. If you can recruit a third friend to play, you can turn it into a competition. Then have them over to test your new creation and judge the winner.

Pick a Recipe You’ve Been Saving for a While
I have many recipes in my recipe binder that I’ve never actually made. I intend to make them, but I just never get around to it. If you’re in the same boat, get out of those recipes. (Limit it to dishes that are actually affordable and have ingredients that are in season. Preparing a dish that calls for four kinds of berries in the middle of winter will get very expensive.) Now turn them upside down and shuffle them. Pick one from the pile. You have to make that recipe in the next week.

Get a Video Camera and Talk Smack about Famous Chefs
Yeah, all those top chefs working in top restaurants, what do they know? Make yourself feel better when your Quickfire fails by getting out the video camera to record why you think Eric Ripert’s food sucks. You’re completely wrong, but you can at least pretend you’re right. It’s what some of the people on Top Chef do.

True, this won’t fully reproduce the Top Chef experience. You’d need way more arrogance to pull that off. But at least you’ll learn a thing or two, maybe discover a new recipe, and have fun in the kitchen – all for less than the cost of a restaurant meal.

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