What to do in Chicago Over the Holidays!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

As much as we both really hate the cold, Brian and I agree that Chicago is a magical place to spend the holidays — this city doesn't mess around when it comes to seasonal cheer. Sure, the temperatures drop (like, a lot), but it feels like the city comes alive. We've rounded up our five favorite things to do to make the most of December in Chicago. Let us know what we're missing!

Side note: Years ago I freelanced for Chicago.com and wrote all of their seasonal guides, and now the site's under construction. Boo! If you're visiting the city in the future I'd check there for a longer list of activities and restaurants (shameless plug! ;)

ZooLights: I've mentioned a few times that we love going to the Lincoln Park Zoo to see the lights, ice carvings and a few animals every year. We always go to dinner here after (where I always order a turkey burger and a glass of red wine).

Christkindlmarket: These Germany-inspired markets are something we hit up several times between November and December. I love the iconic German items like nutcrackers, cuckoo clocks, beer steins, hand-blown ornaments and wooden crafts. There's also great authentic food (sausages, sauerkraut, potato pancakes, waffles) and drink (beer, hot spiced wine), but my favorite is the stuffed pretzels. The Loop location gets really, really packed, so I'd suggest the new Wrigley one if you're not one one for crowds. It's much smaller but has all the same stuff.

Hot chocolate flights: A cozy afternoon at Katherine Anne Confections with truffles and a hot chocolate flight is a must. Also a croissant. And a handful of homemade marshmallows. Of course you can do this any time of year, but it feels so right in December. We've loved every single thing we've tried, so I can't make recommendations. Get all the things ;)

Walking around Millennium Park and Maggie Daley Park: Even though it's the coldest time of the year, it's also really the only time of the year we venture to this part of the Loop. The tree is so beautiful and the skating ribbon (with a long line, always) has the skyline as a backdrop. If skating isn't your thing (me!), the hot chocolate will still make it worth the trip. Bonus: Santa's willing to take photos with children of all ages, ha!

The Great Tree at Macy's Walnut Room: You have to wait a long time to get a table next to the tree at the Walnut Room, the seventh-floor restaurant inside Marshall Field's ;) So I like to check it out (45 feet tall! 3,000 ornaments! 6,000 lights!) from the eighth floor and then head somewhere else for dinner. Like here. Before leaving, check out the holiday window displays.

Also, here are some things on my wishlist. There's just never enough time ;)
Happy Holidays!!!!!!! 

Ladies' Brunch!

Monday, December 11, 2017

Over the weekend I hosted a women's breakfast and invited 20 awesome ladies over for coffee, mimosas and yummy food. It was so nice to spend the morning with a bunch of smart, funny women. Especially our sweet moms <3 I think it'll be a yearly tradition ;)

B's Shepherd's Pie!

Monday, December 4, 2017

B made shepherd's pie on Sunday, and it was so, so, so delicious, I wanted to post the recipe here in case you've also been craving it since June. I told him it was the best thing he has ever made, and he says I always say that, but this really is up there with the best ice cream (which he's also making this week, what a week!!!), best peanut butter bars and best steak (and best strombolis, but duh). Bet you didn't know tax accountants have these hidden talents. Brian also did a one-man performance for me of the entire Hamilton soundtrack on Sunday, so there was that. He also cleaned the bathrooms, bless him.

In the summer of 2013, a few weeks after I had launched my blog, we were at a wedding reception and someone asked me what my blog was about. Someone else jumped in before I had a chance to speak and said, "it's basically just pictures of Brian." It is, isn't it? Haha! But I'm so, so grateful for him. I can't help myself. So often I reflect on how this relationship, which I stumbled into somehow, is the best thing that has ever happened to me and how lucky I am to share life with this person. He truly makes every day a joy, and I'm so thankful for it all. Especially all the best meals ;)

Anyway, here's the recipe. And pictures of Brian.

Ingredients (serves eight):

For the potatoes:
1 1/2 pounds russet potatoes
1/4 cup half and half
2 ounces unsalted butter
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 egg yolk

For the meat filling:
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 cup chopped onion
2 carrots, peeled and diced small
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 pounds ground lamb
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons tomato paste
1 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons freshly chopped rosemary leaves
1 teaspoon freshly chopped thyme leaves
1/2 cup frozen corn kernels
1/2 cup frozen English peas

Peel the potatoes and cut into 1/2-inch dice. Place in a medium saucepan and cover with cold water. Set over high heat, cover and bring to a boil. Once boiling, uncover, decrease the heat to maintain a simmer and cook until tender and easily crushed with tongs, approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Place the half-and-half and butter into a microwave-safe container and heat in the microwave until warmed through, about 35 seconds. Drain the potatoes in a colander and then return to the saucepan. Mash the potatoes and then add the half and half, butter, salt and pepper and continue to mash until smooth. Stir in the yolk until well combined.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

While the potatoes are cooking, prepare the filling. Place the canola oil into a 12-inch saute pan and set over medium high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onion and carrots and saute just until they begin to take on color, approximately 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and stir to combine. Add the lamb, salt and pepper and cook until browned and cooked through, approximately 3 minutes. Sprinkle the meat with the flour and toss to coat, continuing to cook for another minute. Add the tomato paste, chicken broth, Worcestershire, rosemary, thyme, and stir to combine. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer slowly 10 to 12 minutes or until the sauce is thickened slightly.

Add the corn and peas to the lamb mixture and spread evenly into an 11 by 7-inch glass baking dish. Top with the mashed potatoes, starting around the edges to create a seal to prevent the mixture from bubbling up and smooth with a rubber spatula. Place on a parchment lined half sheet pan on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 25 minutes or just until the potatoes begin to brown. Remove to a cooling rack for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Holiday Decorating & Wayfair Giveaway!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Hooray! It's time for Christmas!!! After a couple weeks of pre-Thanksgiving begging B to put up some decorations, he finally caved. And because of it we have a new tradition! We decided to make ordering a copious amount of Chinese food (they gave us five fortune cookies...) and spending the Saturday after Thanksgiving decking our halls a yearly Hayes event. It was such a fun, cozy night with the fireplace on and records blaring. I love our little family and this home that makes me so happy.

I was a big holiday grinch last year. We had just moved into our apartment and didn't have any furniture other than our couch and guest bed. Brian was traveling a lot for work, my parents were out of the country, and everything felt unsettled. When it came time to put up the Christmas tree, I was regrettably totally against it. It looked ridiculous in an empty living room! Also, what box were our ornaments in? Brian ended up putting it up along with a few trinkets, but I just couldn't get myself in the spirit.

I promised to make it up to him this year, so we spent a few weekends ago shopping for some new decorations! We thought about buying a bigger tree (our little guy is four feet, haha), but we decided to procrastinate that until next year. Instead, we bought these garlands, this adorable gold pig snow globe, these decorative Christmas trees, these mercury candleholders, this candy dish and lots of new ornaments (like this sushi one!).

Last year was a fluke because I love, love, love the holidays and love traditions. For lots of years now we've gone to the zoo lights and had dinner here after. We're going again this year, the night before we head home to see our families, and have decided to make that a tradition — having our own little celebration before the chaos begins ;)

To get you in the holiday spirit, Wayfair is giving one reader a $100 gift card to spend however you like (there are lots of great decorations and gifts on there, or, you know, a gift for yourself — I'd love this, and that's how I know I'm not 22 anymore). To enter, just put your name, email and favorite Wayfair upside down Christmas tree in the survey below (of no surprise, the gold ones are my favorite). The giveaway will close at midnight CT on Friday, December 15. Open to U.S. readers only. One randomly selected winner will be notified by email.

Good luck!!! And happy holidays, friends!!!!!!

(This post was sponsored by Wayfair. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Make the Most.)

California Cool Hair with Playa

Saturday, November 18, 2017

When it comes to haircare (and skincare) I'm a minimalist. Well, I am and I'm not. I want to try this hairbrush (surely it must be full of magic), I bought this blowdryer upon much research and recommendations earlier this year (some frizz, higher price tag), and our medicine cabinet is full of dumb late night purchases of the styling cream, spray and dry shampoo variety. Brian would like me to emphasize full. My idol Marie Kondo would be appalled.

But at my core, I'm a minimalist. Truly. After temporarily giving up shampoo a few years ago (my hair was fried and thinning at an alarming rate), I transitioned into a very low-key routine sans heat tools and products. I wash my hair a few times a week, and I let it do its own thing. Whenever I visit Iran I'm in awe of everyones beautiful skin and hair, and I swear it's because they just let it be. So thats been my mantra. Au naturel. Let the wirey whites roar. Let the split ends be seen.

So when Playa reached out with products, I was hesitant. I'm the last to be recommending beauty products (it genuinely upsets my sister how terrible I am at putting on eyeliner), but since they operate under an M.O of minimalism, I had to give it a go.

Playa is the brainchild of Shelby Wild, a former fashion stylist who has since made it her mission to bottle California cool. With Playa, she does exactly that: Based out of Venice Beach, the five-product line is touted as a "one-and-done" collection. Wild says "It's simple, it's laid-back, it's healthy." Each formula — a shampoo, conditioner, dry shampoo, salt spray, and nourishing hair oil—is crafted with naturally derived ingredients with the intention of enhancing natural texture. It's simple and thoughtful, but it's no-fuss — the essence of the California lifestyle. Which I am obsessed with. This is essentially step 15 of trying to convince B to move to California with me.

As I've played with the Playa collection over the past few weeks, I've been so impressed with the dry shampoo (beautiful rose scent, no weird residue), the Endless Summer Spray (I have 20 sprays that have promised flawless beachy texture and finally this one delivers) and the Ritual Hair Oil (the perfect remedy for dry ends, flyaways and general hydration, which conveniently also smells heavenly).

I'm not a hair expert. I mean, I don't know how to use a curling iron. But if you want to make your hair look and feel better with minimal products and minimal effort, I can't recommend Playa enough. You'll feel like (and look like) a cool surfer girl with every use ;) Even if you're still in cold, snowy Chicago.

(This post was sponsored by Playa. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Make the Most.)

Traveling Tips!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

As you may have noticed, traveling is a big priority for me and B. I grew up traveling internationally a lot (and am so, so thankful to my parents for that), and from the early days of our relationship, getaways have been B and my favorite things. We love every bit of the process — scrounging the Internet for cheap travel, finding the perfect lodging (not always our specialty), putting together an itinerary, gathering recommendations, spending our days inspired and refreshed in a new place, meeting new people, seeing new sites, perspectives and cultures, getting completely lost ;) There's nothing better.

This photo is from our first vacation together after a year of dating. I was so nervous the whole weekend! 

We're often asked how we can afford to travel so much, and the truth is that while we don't both have unlimited time off (B does, but that's a new policy at his job) or unlimited piles of cash at our disposal (womp womp), we still truly believe that travel (and lots of it!) is still totally doable. It just takes a little more prep and planning before booking.

We're not experts on this at all, but we've learned a few tips over the past few years we thought we'd share. We'd LOVE to hear where's on your travel list, your favorite places to go and any tips you have to make the most of it all ;)

Make it a priority. If you want to, that is. Both Brian and I are as Type A as they come, so there's a budget for everything (I can tell you the exact month we're set to retire thanks to the dozens of spreadsheets Brian updates on our finances each month...). For us, paying our monthly bills is the most important, followed by meeting our goals for our various retirement accounts. To anxious me, a traditional savings account for when our furnace gives in and our car simultaneously breaks down is next on the list, but after that, travel is key. In January we decide how much we're willing to spend on travel for the year and prioritize places and opportunities from there, taking into account family vacations and travel for things like weddings.

To make it a priority, we sacrifice elsewhere. For example, our eating out expenses have declined considerably over the years. To see friends, we mostly hang out at each others' homes and host potlucks. Also, both B and I take our lunches to work every day and try to eat out only for leisure, not out of laziness (in my experience, it works best with dedicated meal planning, a grocery budget and a few staples always on hand). We also don't go to bars, coffee shops, to the movies, or take cabs, really. These are little expenses, but they add up. And to us, if it all adds up to an extra trip, we'd rather do that. Again, it totally depends on what's important to you. For me, I enjoy the cup of coffee B makes at home that I can enjoy in bed in my pajamas a lot more than I would for $3 for the same cup at Starbucks.

Let's do disclaimers in italics, yes? ;) I want to point out that over our short time as adults and together we've had to pay off loans (student and car) and medical bills have come up. Those have always come first (alongside regular bills) at those times. I realize that everybody's situation is different, that we're very lucky to be in the place that we're in with two incomes, but my point is that with some extra planning, I think dollars can go further than they do (Brian's no doubt rolling his eyes that I'm giving financial advice, ha!). 

Budget days off: Brian's work recently changed his paid time off policy to being unlimited, and I have a really generous plan, so we're very lucky in this regard. Still, I take the time to plan out what I think my calendar year will look like at the beginning of the year (I try to roll over five days each year and save five in case I get sick or for unexpected time off) and plan things from there.

Because we do tend to take a decent amount of time off, I think it's nice to tell our employers in advance, especially for long trips. For example, when we went on our honeymoon in September, I got it approved in January. But even for short trips, I think it's nice to have it on everyone's calendars in advance. Besides, I swear trips are cheaper the sooner you book them. You can take the risk of hoping the flight doesn't sell out and prices dip, but more often than not we find that prices only go up.

If you don't have many days off, a short trip is often the best type of trip. Most of our domestic trips start with a Thursday night flight and a late Sunday night or red-eye Monday morning flight home (three full days of exploring but only 1 PTO day!). For some reason, in our favor, those flights are always the cheapest, too.

But a trip doesn't have to include airfare or be far. One of my favorite getaways was camping in Wisconsin together, eating takeout pizza and drinking canned wine under the stars. Prioritizing the time off is key.

It's important to note that both of our families live in the Chicago suburbs, a big bonus for us. We never have to use PTO days to see them or pay to travel (and we get to see them often ;) We'd have to spend a lot more time and vacation days on that otherwise. 

Do your research: There are so many travel sites out there that promise the best deals, but we're loyal to Google Flights for airfare and Airbnb for lodging. We have friends that swear by travel agents, but in our limited experience, we've always found better deals on our own. And when booking hotels, we start with discounted sites but always call the hotel directly (you get the best rate that way).

A quick note on Google Flights: It's basically a search engine for flights that pulls in pricing from numerous airlines into one place, so you easily browse prices by destination and date. It's great for when you know exactly where you need to go and when because you can set price alerts to track flight prices so you're able to book when prices drop. But it's even better when you don't quite have a destination in mind because you can really easily browse flights from your home airport.

I give up on trying to find out what day and time is the best time to book flights (I think flight prices just go up after a certain number of seats book), but I do think weekends are the worst time to buy. 

Consider off season travel: A lot of my friends are teachers and unfortunately have to take their trips during the summer months. We try to avoid this as much as possible for a few reasons. First, it's so much more costly to travel during peak holiday times. Our trip to Croatia was double the price it would have been if it wasn't over the Fourth of July and in the summer, but we had to take 10 peoples' schedules into account. On the other hand, our trip to Japan was half the cost of what it would have been during cherry blossom season, when we originally wanted to go. Second, high-season times (Christmas, spring break, summer) are the best times in Chicago, so we're not itching to leave. Every other time, though? Sign us up ;)

Get crafty with credit card programs: This is Brian's domain. Thanks to him, for the last two years, we've had a Southwest Companion Pass (buy one ticket, get the other free), access to airport lounges (Free food! Drinks! WiFi!) at all international airports and a few reimbursed travel expenses thanks to various credit cards. Because of the Southwest credit card points he's accrued, we haven't paid for a domestic flight out of pocket the past two years, and we were able to pay for a couple of flights to Europe with Chase points. The whole thing makes me kind of anxious (I hold on to things like our credit scores really tightly, forgetting who I married and that he holds them tighter), but Brian's gotten us some great benefits out of it. Here's his advice:

There are tons of resources out there to help find the best credit card rewards for your particular situation. Some popular sites include The Points Guy or Nerd Wallet. When I started looking into the most valuable credit card programs, I relied mostly on the "churning" subreddit. With those sites at your disposal I have no doubt anyone can find some value should they so choose. Certainly people have a wide range of sensitivity to the use of credit cards and how they impact your credit score, so you have to find the right balance. I've seen people discuss applying for 20+ cards in one year, and know others who have never had a credit card in their life. I personally land in the middle of those extremes, carefully chasing a few select rewards when the timing is right. These are the rules I felt were important for us to follow when doing so:

1. Do your research. Even after you've identified a card you might want, it might be offered with 25,000 points at one time and then be offered with 30,000-50,000 points a month or two later. Try to time your applications when the maximum bonuses associated with the card are available. It's also important to understand the terms of the bonus. Most bonuses are only awarded after spending $X in the first few months. If you miss the sign-up bonus you likely have missed the biggest perk associated with the card. Many of the more lucrative rewards come from cards with annual fees, so be sure you understand the amount of fee and when it will be charged. Once you've gotten the bonus, consider downgrading the card to a no-annual fee card if possible through the bank. Keeping the card open will help your credit score, but you don't want to pay an annual fee if you can avoid it. 

2. Don't carry a balance. Credit card debt is the devil. Pay your statement balance off each month. You don't want to be paying 15-25% interest on something you bought in exchange for some rewards points.

3.  Understand your credit score and you future credit needs before you start applying for new cards. If you already have a good credit score, you probably don't need to be too worried about the impact of new card applications on your score. Your payment history (35%) and your credit utilization (30%) make up 2/3 of your credit score. So, pay your bill on time and in full each month and your score is going to be in good shape. In fact, applying for a new card (and thus, new available credit) will decrease your utilization if you aren't carrying a big balance on it, which helps your score to an extent. Other factors to your score like length of history (15%) and new credit (10%) will experience a bit of a hit if you are consistently applying for new cards, but I never noticed a dramatic shift in my score. Many people who churn cards retain credit scores in the 780-850 bracket which is usually good enough to qualify for the best rates on any new credit you apply for. However, if you are applying for car or home loans in the near future, you might want to tone down the credit card application process before doing that. 

4. Maximize your rewards. When we had the companion pass (which sadly expires in about 6 weeks), I could earn points on my non-Southwest Chase card, and then transfer those points to Southwest to book myself a free flight at a better rate than I could redeem them through the Chase travel site on another airline. Then, I could add Ladan as my companion due to the benefits earned using my Southwest card. By stacking the rewards programs we did a lot of traveling at minimal cost over the last two years. 

Keep it cheap while you're there: For me, just being in a new place feels so magical. I love walking the streets, window shopping, taking in the new air, snapping photos, eating little snacks. While we're willing to splurge for tickets for things in some places (the Vatican Museum in Vatican City, for example), we try to keep our expenses down while away and take advantage of free or nearly-free activities (and try not to get souvenirs, the memories are enough ;) That said, if you have activities you want to spend on in mind, I'd recommend looking them up before you go or checking online before booking anything onsite. We were able to get discounted Robot Restaurant tickets through a U.S. site before going in Tokyo, saving us $50.

We're also known for picking far from fancy accommodations. While we don't stay in hostels, we do mostly pick cheap studio apartments in central, safe locations. We try to keep them at $100 or less a night (this place will forever be our number one recommendation, a steal) because we know we just need a place to lay our heads at night (and I can fall sleep anywhere). In the end it's all about what's most important to you. An extra night or two away means more to me than a concierge desk and my bed being made for me, but I know I'll never be able to convince some of our friends and family ;)

We almost always treat ourselves to one fancy meal while away. We love to eat, and that evening is always a highlight (getting dressed up for it is so fun, too!). Not indulging in a pricey meal every night makes that one feel extra special.  

We realize that we're very privileged to have the opportunity to travel as often as we do but hope these tips can help you explore more, too! We love this planet and exploring it together and can't wait to see more of it in all the years to come. xoxo

Some more photos because I cut as much as I could! Really!


Stole this from Brian's collection because I have no shame ... we've taken 28 road trips together and every single one has looked like this. Oops.