Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Budget and Brain Power

One of the things on my mind this week is the budget with respect to brain power.

Now, I'm not sure if brain power is constant or not.  I know that different people have different abilities for sure, but what of a single person - does it vary?  I think it does.

When I embarked on this $80 a week budget thing in late January, I knew it was going to take some effort.  Though I learned to cook 13 years ago and spent many years cooking frugally, the addition of that second child and an increase in work hours took its toll.  That's when we started slipping into easier food terrain.  Small cups of yogurt, canned beans, some pre-prepared meals, especially proteins.  I figured that it would take some work to get my good frugal habits and mojo back.

And it did.  The first few weeks had us eating out a few times a week in laziness and boredom, so I set a goal of NO eating out until spring break.

Boy, what a challenge.  I didn't quite realize how much of one it would be!

When I was a child, my mother was at home until I was 11 or 12.  Her cooking repertoire was pretty repetitive, but I didn't know any different.  And she was good at it - spaghetti and meatballs, baked chicken, casseroles, fish on Friday nights, grilled cheese, meatloaf, sauerkraut, corned beef and cabbage, chili.  Not a huge amount of variety, but that was pretty normal, AND we were poor, and on a budget.  However, my mother grew up gardening, canning, and cooking from scratch - so the budget thing was normal for her.

Several years ago, when I'd been cooking for 5 or 6 years, both my mom and my MIL asked me (separately), "aren't you tired of cooking?"  The answer was NO - because I hadn't been cooking long, and because my husband was a more adventurous eater.  So I was often trying new recipes - vegan, vegetarian, meat, Indian, Middle Eastern, Italian, Greek, Thai, Chinese...whereas my mom and MIL were cooking with much less variety.

But how does that work on a budget.  Well, let me tell you, it's hard.  Why?
1.  $80 is a challenge for me. I cannot buy EVERYTHING that I think I need. I  have to buy what we NEED, with a little extra for wants.
2.  $80 doesn't give you a lot of variety.  The problem with the "no eating out" rule is complete and utter boredom.  Now, we weren't eating out at a lot of different places (I like Asian cuisine, family not so much).  However, it's really nice to grab a burger, or a burrito, or a pizza, or a sandwich, that someone else made.  If you have a big enough budget, you can get this in your groceries.  Costco and Trader Joe's, for example, offer prepared (or partially prepared) refrigerated and frozen items to tickle your fancy - like sushi, or orange chicken, or pad thai, or spanakopita, or curry.
3.  $80 is tough when you and your husband are trying to lose weight, and therefore need to prioritize protein and fat (meat, nuts) over carbs.  Beans, brown rice, and homemade bread are cheap, but I can only have 2 servings a day.
4.  $80 can be done with variety if you can cook from scratch - buy some chicken thighs, broccoli, and make a good stir-fry sauce.  Make your own empanadas.  Try your hand at making different salad dressings.  This takes time, AND thought of how to make everything, proper planning!

All of this takes BRAIN POWER.
I consider myself to be intelligent and organized.
At work, I am usually efficient and can multi-task.
I've handled this budget thing pretty well I think, balancing the grocery shopping and cooking.

But I spend a LOT of time and energy on planning meals, shopping on a budget, and cooking.
I am so tired of salad right now, I cannot even tell you.  But we get greens from the CSA every week, so there you go.

I am on the PTA board at our school.  As I attend meetings, there are a few women there who are SO organized, and efficient, I am amazed!  I simply cannot hold it together like they do.

And this what I ask myself: "why?"
The answer? "Brain power"

I use brain power at work all day.  I use brain power at home to plan meals, cook on a budget, and plan at least 3 meals a day for 3-4 people.  I use brain power to carefully control my own food intake so that I can lose weight.  I use brain power to try and schedule workouts, when insomnia and the toddler let me sleep.

I really think that after all that?  I don't have the brain power to focus on this school stuff.  It takes thought, and planning, and organization - to get people interested in helping, to make phone calls, send emails, plan events, divide up tasks if you at least have people to give the tasks too.

But after the job, the kids (one toddler) and the meal planning, there's just not the brain power left.  I think that some of my more organized friends have some advantages.  Some of them work fewer hours, so they have more time to devote to this stuff.  Some of them have older children, so they aren't dealing with lack of sleep 4-5 nights a week.  Some of them don't give a crap about a grocery budget, so they just buy and eat whatever the hell they want.

Why do I bring this up?  Imagine that you are poor, with a hard job and a couple of kids.  Imagine that you have to spend this brain power on how to feed your family on a budget.  But it doesn't stop there - you have to use it to figure out how to fix your car, pay your electricity bill, and pay your rent.  You have to use it to help your kids with homework.

Is it any wonder that there is a cycle of poverty.  "Pull yourself up from your bootstraps!  Get an education!"  There are studies out there that discuss the stress that comes with being poor - and how it affects your brain in a negative way.

I only read the abstract, but hope to read the full article here, as an example:

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/341/6149/976

So: brain power.  This time last year, I was able to put regular hours into the PTA every week. I awoke before the kids on the weekend and banged it out. But it involved simpler tasks (not planning)

This year: the kids wake up before me, so it's WAY more difficult!

How much brain power do YOU have?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

What did I make this week?

So one of the things I love about many of the blogs I read is when people put out their meal plans.  It's inspiring and gives me great ideas.

The reality of my life right now is that I often don't stick to the plan, and I have a hard time planning more than 3 days ahead.

So I thought I'd share some pictures of things that I made this last week instead.  It's been a rough week, with a lot of beer and not a lot of sleep, due to work layoffs, heat, stress, etc.

Not pictured: a legion of salads and turkey sandwiches, plus crockpot Asian chicken with broccoli.  And nachos.  And cupcakes.  And hummus.  And beer.

 Spinach balls (actually "mixed greens)

Roast potatoes 

Falafel (the dough)

Falafel (in the pan)

Falafel (done)

Lentil/walnut/mushroom pate, on a bagel (this stuff is delish)

Cabbage and ramen slaw with cashews

A view on my walk one day.   Yeah, rubbing it in.

The aftermath of my 9 year old's birthday party

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The budget update

So how am I doing on my $80 budget?  Well, so far so good.  There are some challenges, however:

1.  I tend to buy a lot of produce.  The CSA (not included in the budget) helps, but it's hard to figure out how much produce to buy around the CSA stuff.
2.  Running out of things.  I don't always remember to write stuff down.  So, we ran out of popcorn. At the local grocery store: $4.  At Trader Joe's?  $2.  Guess where we bought it last night, at the last minute?
3.  Organics.  These are expensive.  Free range meat?  Even moreso.  You can get good deals at the local Whole Foods and other high end stores, on sale.  But you have to track that.  And fit it into your budget.  And thus far, I haven't had the energy to track that - a good whole chicken can be had, on sale, for $2 a pound (so $10-12).  You can get a good 3 or 4 meals out of that, particularly if you make your own stock.  So I eat more stuff from the freezer and more dried beans, because they are universally cheap.
4.  Special occasions.  A certain boy is turning 9 next week.  I am shopping for cake mixes.
5.  Eating out.  When I first set the budget, we ate out a LOT.  Then a few weeks ago, I said "no eating out for 6 weeks".  Well, there are a couple of exceptions (gift cards, the birthday party, and a pre-paid event.)  And my spouse ate out yesterday for lunch because he was too tired to pack a lunch after a long business trip - he got stuck on the East Coast an extra day due to weather.

Anyway, here's the summary so far:

Note that this week (week 7), is still not over.  And I'm sending my husband out for vanilla and yogurt for another batch of muffins, so it will go up by a few bucks.


I'm still "over" for the year because of the first 3 weeks before I set a budget.  I'm hoping that a bunch of $70-75 weeks will let me catch up.  It's easier to get a $70 week when my spouse is traveling.

What's on the menu this week?
Lunches Mom: salad (spinach, lettuce, arugula, leftover ham from Christmas from freezer)
Lunches Dad: turkey sandwiches

Dinners:
Saturday: Falafel (chickpeas were on sale for $1 for a pound dried), roast potatoes, kale chips
Sunday: Some sort of lentil thing, but I haven't figured out what
Monday: crockpot chicken (I'll be at a PTA meeting for 3 hours), broccoli
Tuesday: Leftover chicken, cole slaw
Wednesday: one-pot spaghetti, cole slaw
Thursday: Seriously unable to plan that far ahead.  Depends on leftovers - spaghetti?
Friday: Someone's birthday, hm...pizza? Nachos?

Other things that I'm cooking that don't fit into a category:
Spinach balls (actually, chard, beet green, collards).  We get a lot of greens.  I have to be creative.
Orange lemon poppy seed muffins
Hummus
Corn bread
Ham salad

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Orange Lemon Poppyseed Muffins

So Sunday is park brunch day.  It rained last night, so I wasn't sure we were going to have it, but I wanted to be prepared.

I wasn't up to anything too difficult. I didn't sleep well last night and woke with a bit of a headache (thanks to 1/2 glass of wine too many at our parents' night out and hormones).  Wow, a night out!  It was fun, and for some reason, the babysitter can get our toddler to bed better than we can.

Pinterest led me to a few interesting recipes, and I picked one because I had a bunch of oranges and lemons from the farm and from friends.  But it called for poppy seeds (I had none) and plain yogurt (didn't have that either).  I didn't figure that banana yogurt would taste right.

So I headed to the store and used 10% of my weekly budget (ouch!) on poppy seeds (no cheap options at the close store) and a small yogurt.  It was worth it!  And now I have plenty of poppy seeds.

I pretty much followed the recipe here exactly, except that I didn't top with coarse sugar, because who has that?  Not me.  Still the hubby and older son loved them and they are almost gone. (No brunch today.) Pardon the crappy photo.  I mean, the photos on the original recipe are awesome.  I'm pretty sure nobody comes here for my photography. Just my witty personality.



The general weekend prep this week, in addition to the muffins, included BBQ chicken in the crockpot (for tacos), spinach balls (actually chard and beet green balls), steamed beets, plus lots of washing lettuce and radishes and hard boiling eggs for lunch time salads.

I also washed and froze dill for the freezer, and probably should do the same with the parsley, but I already have a ton of frozen parsley.  How much more do I need, really?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

$1.69

So, I'm looking through the ads this week, and what do I see?

Quaker oats, 42 oz, on sale for $1.69. ($0.64 a pound)

But that's not the crazy thing.  It's says it's on sale from a regular price of $2.69.

Since when?  I JUST paid $3.99 last week at the same store!! ($1.52 a pound)

Grr.

You'd better believe that I'm buying 2 boxes, maybe 3.

Hmmmph.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Oatmeal Death March

So today, I got a glimpse of what my life was like in 2009, when I embarked on the grocery budget challenge.  Back then, I was aiming for $160 or $320 a month (alternating months), not including the pre-paid CSA.

The problem with a tight budget is the inability (or difficulty) in stocking up.  In 2009, the $320 a month months were stock up months.  And of course, I rolled over unspent money to the next month.

This year, I started my $80 a week challenge 3 weeks in, and was already over budget by about $100 when I started.  So there is no "overflow" and won't be until probably April.  I periodically check to see when I break even.  I am lucky that I have bulk chicken breasts and pastured pork in the freezer right now, but when that runs out, it's going to be even more of a challenge than it is now.

Case in point: Oats.

I've been making granola a lot lately.  For V-day today, I decided to make oatmeal cookies.  When I checked the pantry, I realized I was short on both oats and brown sugar.  I knew a grocery shop was in the cards today, but I have only $22 left for the week.

My  memory tells me that oats are generally $0.80 on sale, and I can usually find them for $1 - $1.25 a pound not on sale.

Well, my memory sucks.  Here's what happened today:
1.  I wasn't going to check out Costco, because it's out by work (11 miles away).
2.  I remembered that oats are cheap at Whole Foods, and sometimes Lazy Acres.
3.  Since I was heading to Trader Joe's, I opted for Whole Foods because it is nearby.
4.  I needed milk at Ralphs.

Step 1:
- Ralphs: 42 oz oats on sale for $3.49.  $1.32 a pound.  A little expensive.  Also needed brown sugar.  $1.69/lb.  Opted to skip Ralphs.

- Trader Joe's: 2 lb oats for $4.  $2 a pound.  Nope.  Brown sugar: $3.49 a pound.  Nope.

- Whole Foods: Bulk oats at $1.79 a pound, and packaged was even more.  Nope.

- Albertson's (my regular store): I was sure it would be cheaper here.  $3.99 for 42 ounces, or $1.52 a pound.  And brown sugar $1.79 a pound.

At this point I couldn't stomach another stop, not even going back to Ralph's, which is on the way home.  So I spent $0.60 extra and learned a lesson (again).

When you are on a budget and out of something, it's a problem.  You end up spending more for non-sale items or smaller items.  (I also spent too much on hand soap yesterday.)  In order to get great deals, you have to keep your eye out for prices AND for the amount that you have.  If you are out of something, then you can just decide to make something else instead - this is a seriously good way to save money, and I've gotten better at it over the last few weeks.

So for today, I could have skipped the oats until I got a better price, and made chocolate chip cookies instead of oatmeal cookies.  But my husband doesn't like chocolate, so what's the point of making a Valentine's day "treat" if it's not a treat for your honey?

In the end, I split the dough, and half are oatmeal raisin, half oatmeal chocolate chip, because my big boy doesn't like raisins.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Greens Greens Greens!

It must be winter in Southern California.

My husband picked up the veggies this week at the CSA and ooh-boy, are they full of greens!  Craziness I say.  I know what we are eating this week.

Allow me to list:
kale - 2 bunches
chard - 1 bunch
"spicy greens" - 1 bunch
lettuce - 2 heads
spinach - 1 bag
turnips (with greens) - 1 bunch
beets (with greens) - 1 bunch
(We also got cauliflower, marinara, oranges)

So.  My goodness.

Today I fired up a pot of water with the steamer insert and started washing.

I first washed and steamed the turnip greens and beet greens, and put them in a bowl when done.

Then I washed and steamed the chard, and chopped the stems and tossed those into the crock pot with the black bean soup that's in there (recipe from Budget Bytes).

After that I washed the spicy mix and tossed it in there.  Generally the spicy mix is used in salad.  I could have done that and mixed it with the lettuce and spinach.  But I find it to be really spicy.  And as I suspect that we will be getting the spicy mix for several weeks, I decided to pace myself.

While the spicy mix was cooking, I smelled a strange burning smell. I  turned it off and moved it into the bowl.  Here's the bowl:

After it cooled, I pureed it in the food processor.  My favorite ways to eat greens are in soup, in frittata or quiche, as an Indian curry, mixed with an Asian sauce, or creamed.

These are destined to be creamed with cream cheese and parmesan.

As I started to wash the mountain of dishes, I noticed that the burning smell was the bottom of my big pot.  Ugh.  It's soaking right now, while the beets and turnips roast.

Does anyone have a good turnip recipe?  I admit, I don't care for them.  I've tried them many ways, but mostly end up choking them down with potatoes.