Wednesday, October 22, 2014

How I food prep

An example of my weekly prep:

My life is so busy right now, and I’m trying to lose weight, so my success heavily hinges on my weekend prep.  I spent some time on the internet looking for examples, recommendations, tips and tricks to help.  I didn’t find much.

So instead, I decided to write down what I do and see where I can make improvements.

Step 1:  Figure out what you like to eat.  This is the biggest thing. 
-          Find things that you like to eat ALL THE TIME – these will be staples
-          Find things that are easy to make

Step 2: Figure out your schedule
-          When are you eating breakfast, lunch, dinner? Snacks?
-          Are you eating at home, at work, at a soccer game?
-          Are there certain nights that you work late and are tired?

Step 3: Any special goals?
-          Do you prefer to eat organic? Local?
-          Are you trying to lose weight?  Save money?
-          Do you have special dietary needs?

Step 4: The meal plan
-          Do you want to plan daily, weekly, monthly?
-          Do you want to incorporate leftovers?
-          Do you have time to shop more than once/ week?
-          What can you prepare ahead of time?
-          What will go bad first? (What produce lives longer vs. not)

Step 5: Make a list of “best”, “better”, “okay”, “rather not”
-          Best: cook from scratch with local ingredients
-          Better: cook from scratch with grocery store ingredients
-          Okay: prepared foods from the fridge or freezer section of the store: Costco chicken, frozen pizza, frozen chicken tenders, pre-prepared meatballs, pre-sliced deli turkey
-          Rather not: eat takeout food
-          (Your list may be different!)

For my family, it would look like this:
1.        We eat just about everything.
2.       “Easy to make” for us means Trader Joe’s frozen breaded chicken tenders, microwaved vegetables, frozen pizza, one-pot spaghetti, crockpot meals, soup.
3.       Breakfast at home, snacks and lunch at work (microwave available for the adults, not the kiddo), Dinner at home.  Always tired but especially Friday.
4.       Special goals: weight loss (meaning: extra time chopping veggies and counting calories, so try to keep meals simple – more whole foods or proportioned packaged foods, fewer homemade casseroles).  Salads, steamed veggies, hard boiled eggs, deli turkey, fruit, almonds, cottage cheese.  Most of what I eat is a single-ingredient.

5.       Meal plan – I plan weekly, or every couple of days.  I usually make something on the weekend, then fill in during the week with our “easy” meals.  “Make ahead” meals are things like vegetable soups, bean burritos, pasta.
6.       Vegetables that go bad first tend to be the leafies or the things like peppers.  Carrots last longer.
7.       Shopping – strictly once per week for me.

Here’s an example of a weekend prep.  I spread it out over a couple of days.

Breakfast:  (What do you like to eat?  What about the family?)
1.       Make sure you don’t run out of cereal and milk (easy, husband’s fave)
2.       Or oatmeal (cheap)
3.       Or bananas (I have a smoothie every day)
4.       Bagels and cream cheese (kids)
5.       Toast (last resort)

1.       Veggies and hummus or dip.
-          Wash and make veggie sticks: carrots, celery, snap peas, peppers, cucumber.  Package up in five small Ziploc bags for each day of the week.  Prep time: about 20 minutes, dependent entirely on how small the carrots are from the CSA (so much peeling!)
-          Buy hummus or Goddess dressing for dipping.  Measure out.
2.       Cottage cheese or nuts and fruit
-          Buy apples.  Buy pre-bagged almonds.  Buy cottage cheese and scoop out each day.
3.       Ham and cheese (or turkey and cheese) rollups
-          Buy deli meat and sliced or string cheese.  Pack up each day.

I pretty much eat salad every day for lunch.
-          Wash a head of lettuce.  Depending on the size of the head, this is 2-3 salads.  This is about 10 minutes per head. I store the rest of the washed lettuce in a Ziploc baggie (large) with a paper towel.
-          Hard boil a dozen eggs (my children sometimes snack on my eggs, so I need to cook up a bunch): 20 minutes total.
-          Keep small pouches of tuna or salmon on hand for when you run out of eggs.  Or canned beans.
-          Mix up a bottle of vinaigrette dressing, or buy Trader Joe’s bruschetta and use that for dressing, with a little added vinegar.
-          Each day: put dressing in the bottom of the Tupperware container.  Add chopped veggies (I usually take a few out of my snack baggies).  Peel and chop two eggs to put on top.  Finish with the lettuce.  (Essentially, wet on the bottom, dry on the top.)  Shake up at work before lunch and eat – bonus – only one dish to wash!  Time: about 10 minutes.

1.       Make one big meal on the weekend, two if I’m being ambitious.  This could be:
-          One pot pasta
-          Refried beans in slow cooker, made into burritos
-          Soup
-          Fried rice
-          Pork shoulder in the crockpot
2.       Eat this for dinner until you run out.  I aim for it to be 2-3 meals, no more.  If it’s soup, I make a double batch and immediately freeze half for later.

3.       When you run out of this for dinner, move on to plan B:
-          Soup from the freezer
-          Grilled cheese sandwiches
-          Microwaved vegetables with some sort of thing from Trader Joe’s or Costco like pizza or chicken
-          Costco chicken
-          Crockpot
-          Cheater stir fry (chopped veggies, frozen meatballs, Trader Joe’s island soyaki sauce)
-          Pancakes or cereal

4.       Don’t forget Saturday!  If you have energy, you can cook a special meal on Saturday.  But I find that by the time I get to Saturday, I’m kind of over the whole cooking thing and I forgot to plan for it.

What happens if you are the last one home, the spouse doesn’t feel like cooking?  How can you “help” avoid the takeout trap, or the processed food trap (as you can see, I am not avoiding the processed food trap)?

-          Start small.  Simply cooking one big pot of one-pot pasta on Sunday night – that will last you for 3 meals, depending on the size of your family.  Ingredients are: whatever veggies you have, a jar of marinara, 13 oz of whole wheat pasta, and some meatballs if you’ve got them.

-          Keep emergency food in the freezer for when you don’t even feel like doing that.  Pre-made lasagna, enchiladas.  What are options on the way home from work?  Costco chicken is cheaper than takeout.  Or “just heat and serve” meals from most grocery stores, like mac and cheese.  Deli salads are also an option. People are so busy and cook so little these days that there are TONS of options of ready made food at the store, depending on your budget.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Stupid little money saving tricks

Why do I call them this?  Well, you'll see them on *every* frugal living list.  Or most of them.  And you'll almost ALWAYS have two types of commenters:

1.  "You have to hit the BIG THINGS!  Washing out baggies is stupid, call the insurance company and get a better deal!"

2.  "Same old stuff, I want new ideas!"

Here's the thing.  I've read dozens of "frugal tips" books and as many blogs.  There's a lot of repetition, but life changes.  I may read the same idea 10 times, but the 11th, it clicks. Or a tip just may  not apply to me, but as I get older, change jobs, add new kids - suddenly, it does!

Or I start to slowly lose my frugal ways, and then have to re-dedicate myself to them.

Here are a few "silly and stupid ways" to save money.

1.  Water.  When you go out to lunch or dinner with friends (you know, rarely), drink water.  Soda is what, $2?  Eat out once a week, that's $100 a year.  Twice, $200.  And then it becomes a "thing".

When you go somewhere for fun - a walk, the park, the zoo - take a bottle of water or two.  I mean, really, if you get thirsty suddenly, you are looking at $1 to $3 for a bottle of water.  Tap water?  1/2 cent per gallon.  Just get used to carrying water.

We have a potluck in the park every Sunday with the neighborhood.  There's food.  There's wine.  A lot of wine.  So much so that fairly often, there's no water.  So the four young children (aged 8, 8, 4, 2) and the 3 older children (teenagers) sometimes don't have anything to drink.  Sure, a lemonade or soda can be had for $2 from the vending machine.  But really?  I know am in the habit of filling two stainless water bottles with cold filtered water and bringing it every week.  This way, if nobody else brings anything non-alcoholic, it's there.  Often there is bubble water, but many of the kids don't like it.

2.  Weekend trips.  Now, this is a new thing for me.  Now that I have two kids, we find ourselves heading to the beach on the weekends.  If you go to the beach, your trip can really vary from "all out" to "bare bones".  "All out" is a big sunshade, blankets, chairs, a table.  Coolers with water, beer (it IS the beach), veggies, fruit, sandwiches.  Surfboards, boogie boards, towels, sand toys, a volleyball, a frisbee, a football.  All out is great if you have lots of people to carry the stuff.

"Bare bones" is a towel for each person, a bottle of water, a bucket and a shovel, a boogie board, sunscreen and a hat.

We tend to go in the middle with towels AND a blanket, one chair, one umbrella, sand toys and boogie board.  It's usually two trips, but the problem here is: food and drinks. We inevitably go from 10 to 12:30, and then it's lunch time.  And everyone is hungry.  Problem with packing food?  I have to do it.  So sometimes we just plan to eat out as a treat, but most of the time it's a last minute eating out.  Then it's a habit, and it's not a "treat" anymore.

But packing food inevitably falls to me, and I try to pick things that people like.  That won't get covered in sand.  And will stay cool (but that requires a cooler, another thing to carry).  Sometimes I pack simple snacks to tide us over.  Sometimes full on sandwiches.  But it seems that everyone is unhappy with that.  I guess I need to get a thick skin about it.

3.  Prepared food.  If you find yourself out and desperate for food, compromise.  Or if it's Friday night and you REALLY don't want to cook.  This is where the prepared food aisle is your friend, or the salad bar at the grocery store.  Sure it's better to make your own pizza, but a $5 pizza is cheaper.  If you are going home, microwaved mac and cheese is fine.  If you aren't and need to buy cold food, some crackers and cheese, fruit, salami, baby carrots - these can be a meal and they will be a lot cheaper than a meal out.

4.  Eat what you buy, buy what you eat, and don't shop.  Don't give in to the "well, I'm here, I'll just grab..." (a soda, a bottle of water, a bag of chips). I found myself coveting many things at Kmart yesterday, but really, I had veggies and hummus in my fridge at work.  So I didn't buy anything.

I know these seem obvious, and silly.  And only a few bucks at a pop.  But it's the HABITS we are forming here.  And like any habit, they are hard to adopt, and conversely, so easy to lose!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Soup, and Veggies, and Work, and Keeping it Simple

I'm pretty sure we all have a certain capacity to get things done.

I wonder if it's constant or if it ebbs and flows.  I think it probably changes.  For example: I've been so busy with other things that I have neglected the blog.  I have mentally written many updates, that have never actually made it to paper.

As many of my fair readers know, I've been working hard over the last year or two to lose the 2nd baby weight.  My baby is 2 yrs 3 months.

It's ebbed and flowed. I got pretty good at losing the same 15 pounds 3 times, but work and life stresses seemed to get in the way.

Well, I'm not sure what my personal capacity is right now.  Here are the big things on my plate:
1.  Two kids (8 and 2)
2.  Full time job
3.  co_VP of fundraising for school PTA
4.  Regular exercise (daily) for health and weight loss
5.  Weight loss (attempting to lose 15 to 20 more pounds).  This requires daily calorie counting and measuring.
6.  Food prep and cooking.  I am the main cook in the house, so I do the grocery shopping, meal planning, lunch packing, etc.

So my challenges on the food front are many -
When I am in weight loss mode, I eat a lot of vegetables.  Think about 4 cups a day.  A typical day would be 5 small meals.
Meal #2: a cup of raw veggies with hummus or dip
Meal #3 (lunch): salad with two to three cups of lettuce and some veggies (and hard boiled eggs)
Meal #4: leftover cooked vegetables from the prior night, or more raw veggies
Meal #5 (dinner): a steamed or sauteed veggie or veggie soup of some kind.

It is a lot of work to prep all those vegetables. I  have taken to prepping 5 baggies of vegetables on Sunday, so I can grab and go for my lunch.  Still, each night I spend 20 minutes (if not more), packing for the next day.

On top of that, my meals are somewhat uninspired.  When you are focused so much on weight loss and calorie counting, it's hard to muster the energy for new recipes or fun meals.

Next, of course, is the CSA.  I do not like to waste food, so when we get our weekly ration, I have to figure out what to do with it.  This is where the soup comes in.  I have the following soups in my freezer due to the CSA:

carrot ginger
roasted tomato and pepper
chard and potato

And next up this weekend: butternut squash soup.

If only it weren't 80-95 degrees right now, I could ENJOY the soup.

Of course this week's CSA is rather uninspiring for me:
spaghetti squash - don't much care for it, and of course, it's not a "soup" or "crudite" vegetable.
fennel - I just don't like fennel
cherry tomatoes - don't care for these either, so I always roast them
chard - I don't like chard, and I don't feel like making MORE chard and potato soup
eggplant - I like eggplant, but I have a pound of teeny tiny eggplant, so that is a lot of work
green beans - not a soup or crudite, but easy to saute or steam.  Of course, I have 2 pounds to clean and trim.
pomegranates - sigh.  Great on salads, but a PITA

What does this all mean?  Well, it means double duty cooking:
spaghetti squash, fennel, and cherry tomatoes: some sort of Italian dish with meatballs
butternut squash: soup (these are from the last 2 weeks of the CSA)
chard: I guess maybe I'll make bean burritos and hide it in there.  So I have to make refried beans.
eggplant: caponata
pomegranates: sigh
lettuce: two heads to wash
raw veggies: as usual, I have to make up five big bags of veggies
Other: of course I have to buy other veggies (for my raw veggies and for other dinners).  This week, I actually ran out.

It also means that I don't have the energy for much else.  So much of my time is filled with just "getting by" cooking wise - both making sure I use the CSA and making sure I have prepped everything in a timely (for dinner and lunch) manner, that there isn't much time for fun cooking.

And of course, there's the weight loss.  Unfortunately at my age and activity level, I can only really have 1200-1500 calories a day and still lose weight.  That means careful weighing, measuring, and planning.  If I cook something new, I have to figure out how to count it!

Activity wise, I exercise 30-45 minutes most days: swimming, DVDs at home (21 Day Fix, PiYo, P90X).  I usually walk on my lunch break most days also (30 minutes).  Weekends I generally get a walk in on at least one day, usually 3-4 miles.

At 1200-1500 calories a day, every calorie counts.  Right now I'm carb cycling using Chris Powell's plan.  It's similar to the "21 Day Fix" plan, but with a rearrangement of what you eat on what days.  I don't think there is anything magic about the 21DF containers, except they are portion controlled and well balanced with respect to fats, protein, and carbohydrate.  Whether you carb cycle, use the 21DF containers, use Weight Watchers, or simply count calories, they can all be effective - the answer comes down to your own physiology and your own psychology.  Carb cycling is working for me right now because I get a "cheat day" where I don't have to think about it.  That may change.  It's important to note that it's working very slowly, and it's painful - all this planning, and I'm STILL hungry.  I go to bed hungry, wake up hungry, and swim hungry until it turns into a massive headache.


Well, currently I am down 17 pounds from this time last year.  2 pounds above my recent minimum, which was in May.  151 in case you were wondering. :)  My coworkers ask me if it's worth all of the pain and suffering?  I don't really know.  Ask me if I get to my goal.