Sunday, December 13, 2015

Some favorite recipes

Boy I've been missing of late.  But I do still cook.  Most of my cooking is of the "bulk" variety.

So here are a few of the recipes that I have been making -

Veggie frittata squares - these are really easy for our Sunday morning brunches.  And even when I don't know what to take, as long as I have a dozen eggs, some cheese, and some sort of veggie - then I'm good.  Last week was potato and parmesan, this week is asparagus and red pepper and cheddar.

Applesauce carrot muffins - we had leftover applesauce from the week of the stomach flu.  I adjusted this recipe a bit - it seemed like too many steps for me.  So I did it in one bowl:

Mix wet ingredients - I subbed 1/3 c sugar for the honey.  I only  used 1/4 c butter and used 1/4 c canola oil.

Add dry ingredients - I didn't blend them in a bowl first, one less dish.  Also, I just used 1/2 c whole wheat and 1 c regular flour because that's what I had.

Add applesauce

Add carrots

They were really very good.  We still have a few left

Pumpkin chocolate chip bread - I made some substitutions here, based on what I had (you can see those in my comments on the pin).  It was great and my 9 year old LOVED it.  Also, I used fresh pumpkin that I pureed and froze a couple of months ago.

Asparagus potato soup - this is in the pot right now.  I had leftover asparagus from the frittata, and I didn't buy enough veggies this week.  So this is going to "stretch" my asparagus.  This is a new recipe for me, so I will let you know how it comes out.  I did not make the stock - it seems like a waste of good veggies to me - I used a veggie bouillon cube.

Carrot ginger soup

Chicken fried rice

About the only thing left to cook this week is some canned tomatoes - I haven't yet decided if I will make a third soup (tomato soup) or a curry dish.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Road trip food! More vacation tips.

Well, I'm still kind of slowly working on the round up of "how to eat healthy" on vacation from our summer trip.  Now it's time to keep going in that vein.

We recently traveled for a week long trip to hit some National Parks.  Because 4th graders and their families get free admission all year, woo!

A week long trip has some similar issues for a longer trip.
- You really don't want to leave perishable foods in your fridge
- You really don't want to spend too much while you are out

The plan for a week long trip starts a week in advance, with: not buying too many fresh fruits and vegetables.  The goal is to finish them all before you leave, and perhaps have some to pack up for the trip.

How to keep your budget low on a trip?  Well, we PLANNED to stay at a condo which had a full kitchen.  That's great!  But there are other considerations.
First, you want to bring some foods with you.  These are:
- Foods that you buy in bulk at home (which saves money): salt, pepper, spices, olive oil, butter, canned beans, PB&J.  These are items that can be pricey if you just want to buy a small amount for a week-long trip.  You may use it all up *eventually*, but the point is - if you already have olive oil purchased in bulk, why pay 2x as much per ounce for convenience?
- Snack foods for the car.  If you are like me, you do NOT want to stop at McDonald's on the way.  Sure, the hubby and kids are gonna eat there on this trip, no doubt.  But I'm not.  Also, the car trip is 9 hours long - aka 11 hours with kids.  That means you'll need breakfast AND snacks on the road.
- Foods that are otherwise going to go bad.  This is if you did not plan properly before you went.  Most foods can be frozen, but not all.

Second, you want to compromise in areas that will make sense for  you.
- Bottled salad dressing.  I usually make my own, but for a trip I'll buy Goddess dressing. This has the double benefit of being a dip AND a dressing.
- Pre-made grocery store deli items.  Think chicken fingers, or a roast chicken. Individually wrapped string cheese.  Pre-cut veggies. Sure, it's more expensive than making it yourself, but cheaper than eating out.  For some of these items, it makes TOTAL sense to use Google, and check out the grocery store fliers for the store nearest your vacation site.  Example: I knew that asparagus was on sale here for $1.99 a pound, but is $3.99 a pound where we are headed. So, if you want asparagus, take it with you.  Otherwise, eat something else!

Third, do a little bit of meal planning ahead of time.
- This trip would have involved lots of driving, 5-6 breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.  So for our family, that means: smoothies, cereal, bagels for breakfast.  Sandwiches and salads for lunch.  Fruit for snacks. And protein and vegetables for dinner.
- Err on the low side of food.  Especially camping, I tend to buy too much.  You can ALWAYS hit a store if you need more.  So, plan your meals, and buy/ make/ take a little less than you think you will need.
- If you are going to buy a roast chicken, or cook a big pot of pasta, do it early in the week, not the day before you come home so you don't throw a bunch of food out.

In the end - the toddler got the stomach bug right before we were supposed to leave on the trip.  He was feeling better after a couple of days, so we opted to head out.  We made it 6 hours into the 9 hour drive, and spent the night in Vegas, where both boys proceeded to barf.  So we came back home the next day, another really fun 6 hour drive.

In the end, most of the food I prepped got tossed.
We made multiple trips to the grocery store for toast (bread), saltines, applesauce, and Gatorade.
We did not eat Thanksgiving dinner.  We all ate a bit of crackers and applesauce throughout the day, and even then my 9 year old barfed it all back up.
By the time any of us felt like eating, the food was a week old, and past it's prime.

In the end it was officially the worst vacation ever!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Healthy Eating on Vacation - Part 5. The Emergency Hotel Stop

Now on to the final part of my "Healthy Eating on Vacation" series: when you have an emergency overnight at a hotel.

Our trip, while we were blessed with some of the best summer weather in the northeast, probably ever, was cursed on the way home.

The storms hit the day we were to fly home out of Albany.

The flight from Albany to Newark was delayed 2 hours, so we missed our 1 hour 45 minute connection.

At the airport in Albany, after a few calls to United, we were rebooked on a flight 2 hours after the first.  That flight was also delayed because there was a period of time with a ground stop at Newark.

The end result was that instead of touching down at 9:50 pm in LAX, we touched down at 1:35 am.
- We  missed the last shuttle to the hotel where our car was parked
- Husband and older child took a cab while I waited at baggage claim with tired/ sleepy toddler and bags
- We pulled out of the airport at 3 am finally.  At this point, my spouse and I had been awake for 23 hours.  While we'd lucked out on our new long 5.25 hour flight with seats in Economy Plus (more leg room), we did NOT luck out in that we were the row in front of the emergency exit, and thus could not recline.  So no napping on the plane.
- The 2 or 3 hotels we tried to call in the LAX area were already booked.
- We headed north, and after we hit the 101, I called (and eventually connected) with a Hampton Inn and Suites in Thousand Oaks.

We crawled into the king bed (all 4 of us) at 4 am.  At this point, the parents had zero sleep in 24 hours, and the kids had 6 hours each (5 on the plane and 1 in the car).

At 6 am the kids awoke, and at 6:30 am I gave up on sleeping because they were awake, and I took them to breakfast.

Hampton Inn and Suites have similar breakfasts in every hotel that I've ever stayed in.  And it's really our hotel of choice when we travel.  Generally spacious, often a fridge/ microwave.  Breakfast and a pool.

So how do you eat healthy and stick to an eating plan in a Hampton Inn?  Here are some options, depending on your eating plan.  They have three hot options: one egg, one meat, and one carb.

General/ clean eating:
- eggs
- whole wheat toast
- oatmeal (nuts as a topping)
- fresh fruit
- yogurt (there is sugar in the yogurt)

Paleo/ Primal:
- eggs (always an egg dish)
- bacon (depending on the day)
- fruit
- nuts from the oatmeal bar

- oatmeal (toppings available include nuts)
- fresh fruit
- toast

Gluten free (may have to be careful on the preparation of the items)
- fresh fruit
- eggs
- bacon
- potatoes (this is a sometimes item)

21-day fix:
- eggs (red)
- fruit (purple)
- toast (yellow)
- butter (tsp)
- oatmeal (yellow)
- nuts (orange or blue)

Other, less healthy (but yummy, and yes, I did have them) options are:
make-your-own waffles
bagels and cream cheese
a variety of breads to toast
pancakes or french toast
cold cereal
fruit juices
coffee and tea

My children both ate their weight in bacon (seriously!)  But it kept them busy  while daddy slept a little longer.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A Couple of Frugal Meals and CSA News

So first up: the bad news.  The CSA we have been members of for 15 years is closing for the rest of the season, approximately 6 weeks early.

That is a measure of how bad the drought is in California.  The farm did a great job of reducing water usage 50%.  But agricultural rates tripled, and their costs went up so much that for much of the year, they've been operating at a loss.  The board opted to end the season early.  Members have a choice of: (1) free rental of the pizza oven + area for a party (but you'd still need a caterer), (2) gift basket of farm canned tomato sauce and squash, or (3) donating the remaining weeks.

I'm glad they gave the three options.  Though when you join, they let you know that it's "Community Supported" and there is risk involved.  You take on risk with the farmer.  So some years are great and some, not so much.  Honestly, this is the only year that they've had to close early.  So we obviously donated the shares.

That's going to make my budget a little tighter.

That said, today I shopped with an extra eye at the 99 cent only store, to see what other items were there that I wouldn't normally buy.  I tend to only see what I want to see.  I am on the hunt for dried lentils right now, but I'm not willing to spend more than about 0.80 a pound.  That means I have to wait for a sale.  Today I looked in everyone else's cart in the produce area.  I found one single bunch of asparagus (for 0.99), and a 3 lb bag of baby potatoes (as opposed to the 10 lb bag of russets) for a treat.

All in all, I came away at $12.40.  Let me tell you what meals I made today.

Dinner tonight:
Grilled lemon/herb/garlic chicken breasts: $2.00 ($1.77/lb on sale, plus herbs, garlic, olive oil.  I cooked up about 3 lbs, will last several meals)  (This recipe, except it took more like 15-20 min to grill.  My breasts were fat.)
Sauteed asparagus: $1.20 (asparagus and olive oil)
Roasted baby potatoes: $0.75 (half the bag plus herbs and oil and garlic)

Food for four (though there were only 3 of us): $3.95

Prep for the week:
Refried beans in the crockpot, from 100 days of real food (except I don't mush them up)
1 lb pintos: 0.75
1/2 onion: 0.13
2 cloves garlic: 0.05
spices: 0.05
Total: $0.98

Spanish rice in the rice cooker:
1.5 c white rice: 0.26
1/4 can tomato paste: 0.20
1 T onion flakes because I'm lazy: 0.20
2 cloves garlic: 0.05
olive oil: 0.20
diced pepper: 0.25
cumin, tomato bouillon, parsley, salt, pepper: 0.30
dried corn: 0.25
Total: $1.71

About 12 cups of bean/rice mixture, because that's what I do with it, for $2.69.  This will last us several meals, and we will probably get so sick of it that we'll throw some in the freezer for a Friday night in future weeks.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Weekend Cooking Chores again

We now interrupt this "Frugal Eating on Vacation" series (mostly because I've written #5, but not #4) to discuss weekend cooking again.

My weekend cooking has been coming and going with the crazy weekends and back to school stuff.  Oh, I usually cook at least one thing.  And I make something for the pot luck.  But honestly, the thought of prepping everything for a week is kind of daunting, and I haven't been doing it.

Yesterday was a busy day with swim lessons (I helped a friend with twins who needed a second adult in the pool with her 2 year olds), then beach, then lunch out with toddler friends, then more beach.  It ended with babysitting the neighbor girls (3 of them) so that their parents could celebrate their anniversary.  Our kids are all great buddies, so they played, screamed, made lots of noise, ate popcorn, spilled popcorn all can probably imagine.

But Sunday, well, that's food prep day.  My nine year old decided to try playing baseball.  The practice league just started, so today was his first game.  They left at 9:30 and didn't get home until 1 pm.  Toddler didn't want to go, so I got busy cooking for 2 hours while he spent way to much on the pad.

Here's what's cooking:
Pork chops in crock pot (easiest way to cook them). I know, a waste of good pork, but I'm going to stretch it by putting it in fried rice.

Fried rice: I cooked up some rice.  I chopped a million tiny green onions, plus some cilantro. I will also add peas and maybe carrots. This is going to be dinner/ lunch for much of the week.

Blueberry muffins.  So, we have these freeze dried blueberries from Costco, that you buy on line - big bucket of various fruits.  Cheaper than the little bags at Trader Joe's.  But this one bag got opened and then left  open, and they are soggy not crunchy.  So I have this buttermilk, and I found a recipe for muffins with buttermilk... (I have buttermilk because I came home from a school function to find that spouse hadn't put food away after dinner, including the ranch dressing.  So I bought buttermilk and made some instead of buying it.)

Butternut squash. Yes, in this heat, I had the oven on. I need veggies for the week, so I roasted the squash.  It gets mashed and mixed with pomegranate seeds (first of the season), toasted walnuts, chopped apple, raisins, and cinnamon.  Yum.

Salad.  Yes I washed 2 heads of lettuce.  At least they were small.

Green beans and yellow peppers.  Washed and sliced, and destined for a stir fry side.

Salmon salad (with mayo, cottage cheese, and pickles) - half for today, half for tomorrow.

Only half the dishes

On an unrelated note - I realize those of you who occasionally read my blog do not do it for my awesome photography.  And that's a good thing.  Because I cannot seem to get photos anymore.  My computer doesn't recognize my phone to download, and the few other ways I had it set up (google photos, google drive, picasa albums), well, those don't work either.  It's like my phone is it's own little monster.  If I figure it out I'll add them back in.  (Had to email them to myself.)

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Healthy Eating on Vacation - Part 3. Train travel

Welcome to Part 3 of my Healthy Eating on Vacation series - Train travel.

Mid-way through our trip, we took a train from my family's to my in-laws house.

This involved:
1.  2 hour drive to the "big city" (Erie)
2.  Dinner in Erie
3.  Overnight hotel stay
4.  Breakfast at McDonald's (included in the hotel stay)
5.  Train trip to Upstate NY

Train travel is much like airplane travel.  The food on Amtrak sucks (I know this by experience).  Luckily, this was a short trip - supposed to be 6 hours (was actually 7 due to construction).  I've been on 24 hour trips fun in the food department.

This trip had a few new challenges:
1.  We had to carry all our bags with us (no checked bags)
2.  We were leaving from a hotel room, not from home. That limits your food choices.
3.  We were in the city for dinner, with no kitchen

Let's start with step 1: dinner.  Erie is like any other city, with many restaurants and grocery stores.  I knew that my stepdad would want to have dinner at a restaurant, and truthfully - we hadn't eaten out all trip at that point.  I chose Applebees, because I know they have paleo-friendly, lower calorie options.  I also know that they have meals that my stepdad likes.

In general, I avoid sit-down restaurants with the kids because the 3 year old cannot sit still.  And in fact, he didn't.  When his older brother was 2 to 4, we didn't eat out either.

I ordered the Napa chicken with portobellos.  I have to say, it was kind of bland and overcooked.  But my 3 year old loved it.  So much for choosing healthy - I ended up eating one of his mini-sliders. I tried to talk him into getting chicken, because he likes chicken, but NO.  (Step #1 of a good mom, always order something that your kid likes.  Step #2 be willing to trade with him.)

From there we went back to the hotel to go to bed.  We had a room with 2 double beds.  My stepdad was next door.  We all slept great!  Okay, I lie.  My toddler fell out of the bed.  So my husband joined us so we could trap him.  Two adults, one toddler, in a full bed.  And the toddler did NOT want to share, so he woke up every half hour to push, kick, and complain.

Train left at 7 am.  So we were up at 5 am.  We went to McDonald's for breakfast.  I know, I know.  But this particular hotel had no breakfast, but they gave you a voucher to the McD's across the parking lot.  Again, you have to be flexible.  Big boy ordered pancakes, but only ate one.  Toddler ate the other one.  I had a coffee (my second, the first was from the hotel office), and an Egg McMuffin, because I figured it would be filling.

Next thing we did is pack up.  This particular room had a fridge.  I'd taken some snacks in a cooler up with us.  This is a good tip - your food choices expand when you have access to refrigeration.  It was very nice of my stepdad to drive us up and stay up overnight to take us to the station.

Snacks from the fridge that we packed up:
1.  string cheese
2.  hard boiled eggs - I peeled them at the hotel and put them in a baggie with salt and pepper
3.  apples
4.  raw veggies again (cucumber, carrots mostly)

Other snacks:
Granola bars
2 small bags of M&Ms from grandpa's house.  That candy did come in handy.  My newly potty trained toddler is afraid of public restrooms (can you blame him?) His reward for using the train bathroom was the M&M's.
Water bottles

So my meals looked like this:
Breakfast: egg McMuffin
Snack: shakeo protein shake (I just made it and shook it up and drank it on the way to the train station)
Lunch/snacks on the train: Quest bar, raw veggies, apple, eggs, string cheese.
Dinner: birthday party at my MILs house!  Did I mention that we were traveling on hubby's birthday?

Again, my husband and kids bought some additional snacks, coffee, water, and lemonade from the train.

All in all the 7 hour trip wasn't too bad.  Amtrak seats are pretty comfy and spacious. The kids napped, watched movies, colored, played games on the pads.  We enjoyed the sights, the brief view of the lake.  We had to stop 2x for construction, which made us an hour late.

Probably the most exciting/ scary/ stupid part was watching people at the Erie station.  There was a cargo train that went by before the passenger train.  About 1/4 mile down the tracks there were two people purposely standing in front of the train and jumping out at the last minute.  For both trains.  I hope they were arrested.  Sometimes I think about Darwin, but really you have to feel bad for the guys driving the train.

Have you ever traveled by train?  Do you have any other tips on packing food for the train?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Healthy Eating on Vacation - Part 2. When you are the cook

Welcome to Part 2 of my series: Eating Healthy on Vacation.

Part 2 covers "When you are the cook", aka "When you have control".

Let's face it, when you are cooking at home, you have control over what goes into your food and what you eat.  Traveling has a whole other set of problems.  I went over my method of controlling my food on an 18-hour day of driving and flights (basically, take all your own food).  Now I'm going to review my methods when I'm the cook.

We spent a week with my stepfather.  He doesn't cook, so I did the cooking. This is a good thing!  However I had to navigate some picky eating - his and mine.  And my brother's family was over for dinner a couple of times, resulting in my cooking for 8 or 9 people.  This wasn't too terrible because I normally batch-cook anyway.  There were just no leftovers.

The difficulty in a new place is the type and quality of food.  My options were Walmart and... Walmart.  (That's not totally true, there is a farmstand and family gardens.)  My stepdad insisted on buying vegetables ahead of time, which is hard when he doesn't eat them. I am picky about my veggies.  I get very high quality in California (hello CSA!)  So when in other places, I am likely to look at the veggies, and the price, and make choices.  For example, I may go in looking for cucumbers and peppers, but leave with cauliflower and carrots, because they look better.

That meant I was doing a LOT of winging it with what he got.  He generally wasn't interested in the veggies himself, so I tried to make what we had tasty.  Here's what I made:

raw veggies: peppers, carrots, cucumbers (from his and my sister's gardens) with hummus
Greek salad (onion, peppers, cucumber, olives, tomatoes)
Sauteed frozen broccoli
Sauerkraut and kielbasa (homemade sauerkraut from my BIL!)
Baked chicken tenders with hashbrowns

I also went to a family party (took the Greek salad to it). My siblings brought lots of yummy foods, homemade mostly.  I tend to give myself one meal "off" a week, so I don't need to stress in that situation.  And I didn't!  I also have a bunch of recipes saved for later.  There was cowboy beans, pulled pork, jalapeno dip, corn pudding, pie, meatball sandwiches, veggies and hummus, salads...

The big difficulty during this week was the junk food - candy, cookies, chips, gatorade, soda, beer.  (This was also a challenge for the second half of the trip.)  It's hard to say no to it all the time, and my 9 year old is a gatorade fiend (we almost NEVER buy it).  I ended up hiding the candy so that they didn't know about it, and they only really had chips or cookies a couple of times.  I admit to a beer (or a few) and some sodas.  The liquid calories were the killer all around, especially gatorade for the big kiddo.  The little one was fine with water and milk.

It's hard to say no when it is there!  This is why my #1 recommendation for anyone trying to lose weight or be healthy is this - KEEP IT OUT OF THE HOUSE.   Now, there are some things that I didn't realize would even be tempting - like the soda! I don't drink it anymore.  But it was.  Seriously tempting.  Because: there it is, staring at you.

Many people don't want to "deprive" their spouse or kids of the junk food, so they still buy it, and are still tempted.  I say "what??"  I mean the spouse and kids can get it EVERYWHERE - so let them eat it out of the house!  Not stocking it doesn't mean they never get it.

All in all, I did pretty well this week.  It's nice when you have control.  Then, when it's hot out, you can enjoy a little ice cream.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Healthy Eating On Vacation - Part 1. The all-day plane travel

If you are a friend, or follow me on FB or Instagram, then you know my family recently traveled on summer vacation.

This was the year that we traveled to visit our families on the opposite side of the country, for two weeks.  The vacation started with one VERY long day.  We left the house around 5 or 5:30 am, drove two hours to Los Angeles, parked the car and took a shuttle to the airport.

Next up was two 3 to 3.5 hour flights, with a short layover in between.  Then another 2 hour drive to my family's house (luckily my stepfather picked us up AND borrowed an Explorer from his brother).

So, how do you eat healthy traveling all day?  It can be tricky.  You can buy food in the airport, but it is rarely healthy.  If you find healthy food, it's expensive (I paid $7.64 for 2 bottles of water at LAX).  You can find salads, but I find that many salads from "elsewhere" make me sick - as if they don't wash the greens first.  My niece travels for business and she carries ALL her own food, often for 3 full days - otherwise she'll go off plan.  (You can read her blog here.)  That's a little much for me, and I'm not sure how well the food would keep when traveling for as long as we did.  (By the time we made it to the house, we'd been "on the road" for 18 hours).

It's of course frugal to bring your own food, also.

Well let's start with my parameters.  First of all, my breakfast is pretty much shakeology every day.  I prefer to blend it with ice and banana.  On the long flight, that's what I did - made it, chugged it, and rinsed out my container and packed it before we left.

I'd really planned on staying "on track" with the 21 day fix for the full trip.  Here was my loose plan on the first travel day:

Breakfast: Shakeo w/ banana (1 red, 1 purple)
Snack in the car: 2 hard boiled eggs, Mary's gone crackers (1 red, 1 yellow)
Lunch at LAX: Vega One shake, apple, raw veggies (1 red, 1 purple 1 green) (I chose Vega One because they mix will with just ice and water)
Snack on the plane: Cashews and cucumber/tomato salad (1 orange, 1 green)
Dinner in Houston: Quest protein bar and more veggies (1 red, 1 green)
Snack: Kind bar: (1 blue, 1 tsp)

I did pretty well, but honestly don't remember exactly what I ate.  We spent a couple of hours or more at the United Club in LAX.  They had nice breakfast options (and good coffee), so I may have had part of a bagel.  They had switched over to lunch before we left.  For my lunch I had packed a tomato and cucumber salad - the lunch offered included hummus and kalamata olives, so I took some of the olives to add to my salad and some hummus to eat with my veggies later.  I also tossed some cheese cubes in my container to go with my crackers.

Of course I drank a ton of water, but carefully timed because you don't want to be stuck on a plane having to pee when the seat belt light is on.  Which the boys and I BOTH had to do when we weren't allowed up.  When the light went off again, yes I went to the bathroom FIRST.  But on the other hand, I let my old son pee in a bottle, while I held a blanket to cover him.  Those $7 bottles of water came in handy.

Bonus: they have bubble water/ seltzer as an option now on United flights, which beats juice/ soda for me.

More about the Vega One: I got the vanilla chai based on online recommendations, and it was yucky. And now I have 28 more of them.  I think I may try to blend them with blueberries, and see if it gets better.  Or bananas.  Or donate them.  Because, yuck.

So, what did my family eat?  Well, I wish I'd taken a picture.  But I didn't.  Each family member got two small baggies with their name on them.
One had raw veggies (carrots, snap peas, cucumber, peppers)
One had other snacks, like nuts, granola bars, or a small chocolate bar.
Each family member also had an apple.
I also took string cheese that I'd frozen so it would defrost as we went.

I did not worry about lunch and dinner for the family.  They ate at the airports.  It's too much work to worry about me AND them, and they like eating out anyway.  Honestly, I don't even remember what they ate at the airports, aside from the free food in the United Club.

In summary, recommendations for healthy eating for long plane travel:
1.  For produce, pack as many fruits and veggies as you'd normally eat during that time.
2.  Fruit: pick things that keep well: apples, oranges - not bananas that mush easily.  Berries or melon in a tupperware container will be good too, and more of a "treat" (with a plastic fork).
3.  Vegetables: raw is your friend. Maybe you can find hummus at the airport.  Chopped salads are great, especially ones that you can pre-dress, like cucumber or bean salads or kale salads.  Depending on how long you are waiting to eat them, I'd avoid dairy.
4.  Pre-pack in baggies or containers with everyone's name, so you don't forget anyone.
5.  Make sure to pack "treats" (100 calorie chocolate bars for us) for the trip.
6.  Bring an empty water bottle for each person (I paid $7.64 for 2 bottles of water at LAX).
7.  Bring some protein - hard boiled eggs, string cheese, nuts.  You can bring tuna packets but do NOT eat those on the plane!
8.  Eat the perishable foods FIRST.  Early in the day you'll be eating the eggs and cheese and berries.  Later in the day you'll be eating apples and nuts.
9.  For inspiration, pretend like you are camping without refrigeration
10.  Pack an "emergency" snack bag, in addition to bags for each family member.  I cannot tell you how many times we have been traveling and we ended up running between flights - so NO time to get food in the airport.  Then, on the next flight, we'd end up in the back of the plane - they would run out of food for sale before they got to us.  My emergency snack bags usually have nuts, fruit, candy, granola bars, crackers.

Let me know in the comments if you have any more tips!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

A Word on Variety

A continuation of the theme of "Why do people...?" instead of cook.

I think a lot of it is variety.

Think about that a little.

When I was a child, my mother cooked "American" food.  It was pretty repetitive.  Chicken, meatloaf, spaghetti, chili, burgers, scrambled eggs during lent, corned beef and cabbage, sauerkraut and kielbasa, ham and bean soup, mashed potatoes, canned vegetables.

I have friends from "elsewhere".  A lot of my Chinese friends eat mostly Chinese food.  My Indian friends make Indian food.  My Mexican friends eat Mexican food (you see where I am going here?)

As I hit adulthood and left my small town, I was able to try other cuisines.  And I liked them.

I love Indian, Thai, Korean, Mexican, Italian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Greek food.

I like variety.
I get bored with the same old flavors.

But eating different foods comes with a cost.

If you don't know how to cook it, then you are eating out.  How many people know friends who, for lunch or dinner, often say "what do you feel like, Indian or burritos?"

If you do know how to cook it, then you have time and money invested in learning how to cook the dishes (they are all very different), and in the ingredients.  Cumin is great for Middle Eastern,  Mexican, and Indian, but a lot of the other cuisines use many other spices and ingredients.

And of course you must practice.  I made a mean stir-fry in my day, but now I tend to slow cook things, and I end up overcooking the stir-fry.  Because I'm out of practice.

Mr. Money Mustache talks a lot about hedonic adaptation.  How as you get used to things - air conditioning, nice vacations, nicer cars - they become necessary and you must move the next bigger better thing - because you no longer enjoy what you used to have.

I think the same thing holds true with food.
When you get used to having someone else serve you and cook your food, you don't enjoy doing it yourself anymore.
When you get used to having *any* kind of food you want, whenever you want, cooked properly - you lose the ability to enjoy your own home cooked repetitive meal.

And of course, there is the expense - both time and money.
- money - all the different spices and ingredients for each type of cuisine
- time - if you want to have a great burrito, or salad, based on a restaurant - you have to make the chicken, the salsa, the guacamole, and then shred the cheese, wash and prep the lettuce and vegetables, etc.  There are several steps involved.

Another really good source of "frugal simple food" for me is Frugalwoods.  I recently found this blog and enjoyed reading some of their archives.  One of the things that they do is cook up a batch of beans and rice on the weekend, and they eat it every day for a week for lunch.  They also have oats for breakfast, and rotate dinners.

This is frugal and simple:
- the ingredients are cheap
- they are "used up" and not wasted because you eat them until they are gone
- it's very simple - the meals themselves are simple to make, and they are made once and reheated.

This, of course, prompted me to cook up a batch of beans and rice over the weekend.  There were definitely some comments on their blog with "I could never do that, I'd get bored".  I think, personally, you would get used to it.  Another blog that used to post their meals (I don't think they do anymore) was Path to Freedom in Pasadena.  They are urban homesteaders.  They would also make a batch of beans and rice, and eat it for lunch and dinner until it was gone, and then make something else.  Food is fuel.

There was a time, after baby #2 when I was only working part time, when that was my method.  I would cook up a batch of "something" for dinner for the week, and a separate batch of "something" for lunch for the week.  The lunches tended to be beans and rice, or spaghetti, or sandwiches.  The dinners varied by time of year.  And then Wednesday was crock pot day (which also aligned with "we are out of dinner #1" day).  It helped that it decreased the tendency to overeat at lunch, because by Thursday or Friday, you are tired of the food.

Of course times change, and I'm back full time.  I still use some of the techniques, but not as many.  The challenges I face now are:
- weight loss.  I've lost a bunch of weight, but it was never going to happen on beans and rice, or sandwiches, or spaghetti.  I cannot eat that many carbs.  So I tend to eat salad, which I can only prep a day or two in advance.  (I have 10 pounds to go, and these are the stubborn ones.)
- CSA - we get a lot of variety, and they aren't necessarily conducive to "one-pot" or "prep ahead"
- kids - I find myself packing lunches during the school year
- time (always!) - Last night we had a date night, and I didn't feel like packing lunch. So, I went to bed late, and skipped the gym.  I thought about going for a walk when I woke up at 5:30 am, but opted to prep my lunch for the day ... it took an hour.  Washing and chopping cucumbers, green onions, peppers, and tomatoes for a salad.  Washing and peeling a bunch of carrots for a snack (I eat at least 3 cups of veggies a day, and have to prep them all).  Packing lunch for the 9 year old.
- volume - I am cooking and prepping for four people (though I don't have to do lunch for my child in daycare and during most of the summer I don't have to pack lunch for my 9 year old.  And I also don't pack my husband's lunch anymore, but I *do* make sure we have lunch things available.)

It's always good to be reminded of how lack of variety makes life more simple.  It's really okay to eat raw veggies and a protein for lunch every day.  It certainly also helps me lose weight - just instead of "beans and rice" for lunch, it's "vegetables and protein".

How much variety do you need in your life?

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Thinking Outside the Box

One of the time-sucks in my life right now is facebook (I know, I know), but I try to keep a handle on it.  Truly, a lot of my interaction with distant family and friends is there, and also that's how many of my local friends coordinate things like birthday parties, school pick up, camps, etc.

I belong to several groups on there, and one of the groups is a health and fitness support group.  It's pretty large, and it's based on the Beachbody program 21 Day Fix (which if you read back, you'll see I *love*).

There are a lot of questions from people new to the program, and a lot of questions about looking for ideas for things like road trips, plane trips, and kitchen remodeling. It's always good to get an outside opinion, or to "Think Outside the Box".  And the thing is - if you do this a lot, you get good at it - most things take practice. (Like frugality, cooking, exercise, etc.)

One of the recent questions was "my kitchen is being remodeled for 3 weeks.  It will be 3 weeks of takeout, give me takeout ideas!"  Well, you can imagine the responses - and almost *none* of them were takeout.  This is where you have to "Think Outside the Box" (or takeout bag).

What is your goal? To eat healthfully
What are your limitations?  No kitchen
What tools do you have at your disposal?  Well, depending on the situation:
- a grill
- a fridge
- a microwave
- a rice cooker
- a crockpot
- a toaster oven
- an electric skillet
- grocery stores
- a sink
- a blender

Having most of these, or even some of them, go a huge way towards 3 weeks of eating healthfully without a full kitchen, and WITHOUT takeout.

Some of the suggestions were great:
- Grocery store - get a rotisserie chicken and vegetables.  If you have a microwave (or a rice cooker with steamer insert), that's a quick and easy way for chicken and steamed vegetables.
- There's always raw veggies - you can get trays of them at the store, and same with already cut up fruit.  I'm a fan of doing it myself, but I can understand if you don't have a great sink.  When we redid our kitchen, we had a few weeks of no kitchen sink, so we did dishes in the laundry room sink (and washed veggies).  I have a vague memory of being very pregnant during this time.  Fun times.  My good friend washed her dishes in a dish tub in the bathtub when she redid her kitchen.
- Keep it simple: raw vegetables, raw fruit, steamed rice (in the rice cooker), baked meat (in the toaster oven).  Cheese, deli meat, pre-cut salads, nuts.
- Smoothies
- Pretend like you are camping.  What do I take camping?  Fruit, nuts, cheese, deli meat, oatmeal for breakfast, veggies, hummus, canned chili, hard boiled eggs (which you can buy already hard boiled now).
- Quick stir fry in an electric skillet.  Or scrambled eggs.
- Pretend like you are staying at a hotel with a microwave and a mini-fridge?  Maybe it's just me, but I don't like to eat out much on vacation, so I aim to eat several meals in the hotel, so I do some prep before hand.
- Prepared foods from the deli at your grocery store.

See that list?  No takeout on that list!  I have to admit, some of the ideas come from reading Mr. Money Mustache.  In his 2014 spending review, he reported spending $194 on restaurants and coffee shops for the YEAR, and that included cross country trips.  For a family of 3.  Well, how do you do that?  When you are traveling, you stop at grocery stores not restaurants.

The same idea goes for almost any idea or goal.  My goal: to be fit.  My ideal: to get up and go to the gym.  But I don't get to go every day (split days with the hubby).  So second best is workout DVDs at home 3x a week.  But sometimes the kids are awake and want the TV.  It's so easy to say "I can't work out today".  Today, I opened a book with workouts in it and did a 20-25 minute workout while the kiddo watched a TV show.  Just because the NORMAL way you do things, or want to do things, isn't possible - it doesn't mean you do NOTHING.

So, what other ideas would you give to someone without a kitchen?  Do you "Think Outside the Box?" on a daily basis?

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Budget Update

Well, the weight loss is stalled a bit, so how is the budget?  Better, I have to say.

A month or so ago, I was getting budget fatigue, and decided to increase the budget by a $20 a week, every other week.  It's amazing what a difference $20 makes when you are used to less.  With that little extra breathing room, we are doing okay.  Here's the status.

Total spent for the year: $1877 (plus $950 for the CSA)

Total spent since I started the challenge: $1545.64.

I'm $15.58 over still, and I'm not sure why that number is what it is.  Hm.  Not feeling up to checking the spreadsheet though.

You can see in the blue the $100 weeks.

It's not only budget fatigue, it's cooking fatigue, and calorie counting fatigue, and DAMMIT WILL ANYONE COOK A MEAL OR PLAN A MEAL BESIDES ME?? Fatigue.

Ah well, I'm saving buckets of money, so that's good!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The End of the School Year is Nigh

Wow, April 19, huh?  I have had a few blogging ideas, but little blogging time.

The last month has been a flurry of school and kid things -

The school auction was early May, and I was in charge of it - so many late nights of prepping, a day of setup, a day at the auction, and a bunch of little things to wrap it up.

Art night/ open house night was last week

Spring sing was this week - and I was 5 minutes from the school (picking up my kid) when I remembered that LAST year's auction we auctioned off "reserved seats" to school functions.  Nobody remembered that in December (whoops), so I ran to the office and wrote out 5 "reserved" signs with a sharpie.  Score one for the mommy brain!

A few parents had a camping "party book" to raise funds for the school, and that was also in mid-May.  It was a GREAT time with about 7 families at a nearby campground. Right next to the beach, at the edge of a big open field for games (but we had to make sure not to set up the tents in the grass, or the sprinklers would go off), right next to a great playground.  Across the RR tracks from the playground was a brewery, didn't make it there.  Had some good burgers though.

Then there was the 3-day weekend, where we had THREE parties and our first family photo shoot.  We are firmly entrenched in the toddler birthday swing.  Amazingly, this weekend we have no parties, and I think  none next weekend either.

I've been trying to get back in the major healthy eating swing.  I hit 140.2 lbs in January, but round 3 of work layoffs + the auction + strange work stuff + kids - I found myself in the upper 140's again.  (which is at least a good 20 lbs less than last year).  But I'd love to break that 140 lb barrier.  I'm just not sure it's worth completely giving up wine and bread.

Some of the "good eats" this week have been lots and lots of veggies.  I've been following the 21-day fix again, with a change - a few days a week (Tues/Thurs/Sun) I am trying to mix it up and allow myself to go up a bracket.  The difference is probably mostly mental, but the higher bracket (which would be a maintenance bracket) allows me to have an extra carb, an extra fruit, an extra veg, and two extra tsps of fat.  Gotta make it work in the long term!

We are in a few weeks right now of NO LETTUCE from the CSA!  I've been steaming and roasting the "Normandy vegetables" from Costco (yellow carrots, baby carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower).  I made a "Greek" salad with cucumbers and peppers yesterday.  I've been eating scrambled eggs with zucchini.  Lots of experimentation this week!

Your frugal tip of the day:  My spouse and I had a DATE NIGHT last night.  Now, while it wasn't "cheap" by most people's standards, we did do things to make it more frugal.
1.  Babysitting - no cheaping out there, it was $50.  That's standard for 4 hours.
2.  Wine - I have a membership at a local winery, which includes a glass of wine for me and a guest, for free, every single day.  In the 2 months I've been a member, I've gotten a total of 3 glasses of wine.  Because I have kids.  Who can make it?
3.  Dinner and popcorn: We grabbed a quick burger.  I got mine lettuce-wrapped.  I was trying to find something "healthy", and when looking at the nutritional info, realized that a plain lettuce wrapped burger had 150 calories less than a salad (maybe even more).  This left room for the popcorn.  Total for both: $16.
4.  Parking: $3
5.  Movie: Free.  We were going to try and get discount tickets, but those are hit or miss.  My spouse traded in his "points" from being a blood donor for 2 free tickets to see The Avengers.

Now it's time for me to get ready for the gym. I did this crazy thing and decided to do a "lazy man's triathlon" - it's an Iron Man distance, but you have the month of May to finish.  Now I have 28 miles of biking and 4.4 miles of walking to finish in 2 days, because I'm generally lazy on weekends.

Here's a silly pic from the photo shoot: (wearing the kiddo's chess medals!)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Why Do People Eat Processed Food?

As a follow up case-study to "Why Do People Eat Out?", I am going to now look at "Why do People Eat Processed Food?"

I'm going to simplify the question by reviewing a couple of different types of food.

Case Study #1: Hummus
Hummus is delicious, and healthy, and relatively easy to make but even easier to buy.  I try to make hummus weekly, but I bought it weekly for YEARS.  So let's look at this, shall we?

7 ounces of store bought hummus:  $3.00
(It's probably cheaper at Costco, but even my family cannot eat that much)

To make your own:
1.  Soak and cook 1 pound of dried chickpeas: $1.00 (makes 6 cups cooked) - this is a super deal that I cannot always find.
2.  Use your food processor
2 cups of cooked chickpeas: 0.33
2 Tbsp of olive oil: 0.18
2 Tbsp of tahini: 0.38
1 clove garlic: 0.05
salt, cumin, cayenne: 0.10
juice of 1 lemon: 0.25

Total cost: $1.29 for approximately 2 cups (16 oz).  So 7 ounces would be $0.56

Total active time: 20 minutes to rinse and put beans on to soak, drain, cover, and cook in the pressure cooker.  20 minutes to make in the food processor and to wash the darned thing when you are done.

So that saves about $2.44, with 40 minutes of work.  But we'd probably go through 2 a week, so that means it's $4.88 for 50 minutes of work.  That's $7.32 an hour.  Not  much, eh?  But if you cook a pound of chickpeas, that's enough to make the hummus for 3 weeks, so there is that.

Case Study #2: Breaded Chicken Tenders
Kids love these and they are easy.  28 ounces can be had at Trader Joe's for $7.99, which comes out to $4.57 a pound.  They bake in the toaster oven in 20 minutes!!  Perfect with some steamed broccoli on a weeknight.  The key here is to not go too crazy.  If we all eat them for dinner, that's 1/2 bag.  So, we do eat these, and generally it's just the kids.  The parents eat something else.

You can make your own fairly easily with plain raw chicken breast and a batter of some sort.  It really depends on the kind of batter.  I'm just not in a place in my life where I can do the flour then egg then flour batter.  I've done skillet chicken with flour/ cornmeal mixture.  There's always a corn flake coating too.  I have a tendency to buy chicken in large portions these days though, so it's simply easier for me to throw it in the crockpot.

However, let's assume you get chicken breasts on sale at $2 a pound, and feel up to a cornmeal or flour-type crust.  For only $2.50 a pound you can save a ton of money over the store version.  Active work time: probably 30 minutes.  This lets you save $2.07 in 30 minutes, or $4.14 an hour.  Needless to say, I don't make my own here.

Case Study #3: Frozen Pizza
I LOVE making my own pizza.  But I'm going to fess up, it's a rare thing these days.  My desire to eat less bread, plus the effort involved in making my own dough and sauce...well, it just doesn't happen.

A totally processed, completely unhealthy frozen pepperoni pizza from Costco is $3.50.  This is a full meal for our family, maybe with leftovers.

A homemade, healthier pizza would be:
1. Homemade pizza crust with half whole wheat: 10 min to put together in the bread machine, 45 min to run, 30 minutes to shape and rest, 20 minutes to par-bake (can be frozen now, and the recipe makes 2x) then top, then 10 minutes to bake.  Needless to say, this is NOT a weeknight meal, unless we already  made the crust.

2. Sauce: The easiest sauce is marinara (runny), or tomato paste with herbs (not runny) or homemade pesto from the freezer

3. Cheese: gotta shred it so you aren't using cheese with wood pulp: 5 minutes

4. Vegetables: I prefer my onions and peppers sauteed to remove the liquid: to chop and cook: 20  minutes

Cooking everything from scratch simply takes a lot of time, compared to processed food.

Case Study #4: Soup
We get a lot of vegetables from the farm, and some of them are of the "what do I do with this?" variety. Which means soup.  Even though it's hot here, and we almost didn't have a winter.  I'm impressed with The Prudent Homemaker and her ability to eat soup year round in Las Vegas.

A 32-ounce carton of carrot ginger soup from Trader Joe's is something like $3-$4 (I don't remember exactly).  Other stores may carry it for more. So let's call it $3.50.

I have a great recipe for carrot ginger soup, and I use it to use up turnips (as much as half turnips).  So here's the work involved in a double batch:

1.  Chop an onion
2.  Wash, peel, chop 10 small turnips
3.  Wash, peel, chop 10 medium carrots
4.  Press 4 garlic cloves
5.  Grate 2 Tbsp fresh ginger.
6.  Saute onion, garlic, ginger in olive oil until onions are soft
7.  Add turnips, carrots, and 6 cups water or stock
8.  Bring to boil, reduce heat, simmer until carrots and turnips are soft
9.  Let cool on the stove 15 minutes
10.  Put in fridge for several hours
11.  Grate 2 more Tbsp ginger.
12.  Puree in batches in blender (5 batches).  This requires a second big pot.  One for the start, one for the finish.  Forget to salt and pepper, so do that at the end.
13.  Wash two big pots, the grater, and the blender
14.  Freeze for later

This probably takes 1 hour, and it makes two 32-ounce containers.  I think it probably costs about $2 - depends on whether you use water or stock, and if you make your own (I was out of chicken stock most recently, so used water).

That's $1 a container, or a savings of $2.50 per container, or $5 an hour.

It's actually a little depressing how little you get from this recipe.  On the other hand, it makes 8 cups, and there are a ton of veggies in each serving. So it's healthy!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Why Do People Eat Out?

Do you ever wonder why people eat out so much?  Apparently it's in the news now, that people (Americans) officially spend more money eating out than they do on food cooked and eaten at home. For the first time ever.  Dan over at Casual Kitchen has a good post on the topic - that people still insist that it's expensive to eat healthy, and some people insist that it's cheaper to eat out.  And it's not.

But that is not the point I was going to make today.  What point was I going to make today?  Well, we did quite a bit of eating out on our vacation recently - I'd say once per day.  (That's a lot for us.)  McD's once (I know, I know. I even packed myself a salad on McD's day, and my husband got it out of the car, it wasn't lidded correctly, and it exploded all over the ground.  Bye bye salad.)  Chipotle a couple of times.  A sandwich.  Pizza.

My family is a big fan of Mexican food (or Mexican-like food).  One thing that we love (besides burritos and quesadillas) are "bowls".  Well, I like them because they are easy.  Sort of.  And cheap.  Sort of.

You can get a "bowl" with a coupon for $5 to $9, so that's not too terrible, right?  But of course you can make it home for cheap, so why don't people?  Let me tell you why.  Here's a summary of my bowl-making efforts recently.

1.  The rice: I use a rice cooker.  Chop onions, press a garlic clove, chop a couple of carrots.  Rinse rice.  Put rice, peas, carrots, onions, garlic, some spices, some tomato paste, and water in the rice cooker.  Do it early enough because it's brown rice so it will take 90 minutes.  ~$1.75 for 5 cups

2.  The beans: Soak pinto beans all day in the pressure cooker.  Cook at pressure, let come down in pressure naturally.  $0.60 for 1 lb dried beans

3.  The guacamole/ sour cream: buy it at Trader  Joe's. $3.00

4.  The cheese: shred it yourself:  $2.00 for 1/2 lb

5.  The veggies: I used cauliflower, so I chopped, tossed with spices and oil, and roasted. $2.20

6.  The salsa: I buy this, but darn it if I'm out.  So make a quick version with canned diced tomatoes, garlic, green onion, jarred or frozen spicy peppers: $0.75

7.  The chicken: cook this up in the crockpot.  3 lbs sale chicken + homemade BBQ sauce = $5

Now, this is delicious, makes enough for 4 people to eat at least 4 meals (in my house), except for the guacamole that will brown anyway.  But there are 6 different steps up there that I had to go through to make the stuff.  That's 2 steps per meal still.  All told, this is $15.30 for about 4 meals, or $3.83 per meal (for four people).

Versus going to a restaurant: walk up to front, order, eat.  This, my friends, is why people eat out.

At times when I've been home (maternity), or working part time, it's been easier for me to spend time cooking, because I'm at home. When I'm out of the house for 50 hours a week working, it's MUCH harder.

For four of us at a restaurant, it would run $20 to $35.

By cooking, I save $16 to $31 PER MEAL.  A no-brainer, right?  Except for a few notes:
1.  I'm pretty good at this frugal cooking and shopping thing, so those prices are near rock-bottom.
2.  Active, hands-on cooking time there is probably about 3 hours all told.  Most people look at that and say "shoot, I'm going to Chipotle!"  And really, you have way more variety there with different ingredients, different salsas.  But variety comes with a price.

You could say I'm "earning" money by cooking:
Cost to eat out four meals: $100
Cost for my four meals: $16
Saved: $84
Work hours: 3
Money earned per hour by cooking: $28

That makes me feel a *little* better when at the end of a long weekend of cooking.

Friday, April 3, 2015

A tale of two stores

Well, it's spring break week here in FHS land.  We took a short trip and did a couple of days of camping in the desert.  It was HOT.  Abnormally so - in the 90s when about 80 is the normal high.  That made the  Goodness, for many reasons I hope we can get an end to this drought.  It's pretty awful in many ways.  Of course, toddler started coming down with a cold on the drive out there, and colds really transfer easily in dry weather.  So yep, hubs and I are struck with it now.

From the couple nights of hot, sweaty, dusty camping we moved on to a nice resort with a suite with a full kitchen, pool, and water slide.  During this trip I didn't do so well tracking the grocery budget.  We took food with us, which I counted in prior weeks.  We did one grocery shop, and I counted that.  But the stops for water and to refill the ice in the ice chest?  I'm afraid at the end of the year, they end up in miscellaneous.  We also ate out a few times too.

So now that we are back and off a half day from work, I did some grocery shopping.  A quick trip to Costco for eggs and bread (Ha!  Easter weekend - the lines were 10 people deep, it was NOT quick).

But that's not what the story is about, nope.  This is about two other stores, on opposite ends of the grocery spectrum:
1.  Whole Foods (aka Whole Paycheck)
2.  The 99c only store

I went to Whole Foods because we were out of tahini, and I make my own hummus.  The 365 brand is high quality and a good price ($6).  But you know me and that darned hot bar...

I went to 99c only store because I had a coupon for "Buy 5 get one free" that expired today, and because the last time I went, I got strawberries and they were pretty good.

Now, I know what you are thinking.  Am I comparing apples and oranges?  Yes true.  The hot bar isn't cheap, it's not supposed to be cheap, and the 99c store doesn't have an equivalent (which is probably a GOOD thing).  I can resist the bags of chips at the 99c store.  Whole Foods has a lot of very high quality, local and organic produce.

I live in an area where sustainable, local, organic - they are very popular and very prized and very supported.  Many people here can afford to shop this way.  Many who perhaps cannot do anyway - they make room in the budget for good food.  However on the other end of the spectrum, there are large numbers of people who could never afford to shop there.  The 99c only store is actually relatively new here.

I tend to fall in the middle.  I belong to a local, organic CSA.  The produce is delicious. We've been members since 2001.  The few times I've priced it out, it is superior in price (and much better in quality) than the regular grocery store.  When I can get free range meat - going in on a pig with a friend, buying part of a cow from a friend who bought too much, or catching a good sale at WF or another local store on free range chicken, I pounce on it.  I tend to pay $6-$8 a pound on pork or beef this way and $2 a pound on chicken.

But shopping this way is either incredibly expensive or incredibly time consuming.  If I wanted all organic and local, I could simply shop at the farmer's market.  I am agreeing then to spend my Saturday mornings shopping, and it would probably cost about $200 to $250 a week (most of that for the meat/eggs).  You can certainly bring the price down by buying direct from farmers, but then you are doing a LOT more leg work to get the items.

Therefore, I'd say about half of my food is local and organic, and the other half is not.  I *try* to buy organic for the "dirty dozen", but let's face it - even that can be a trial sometimes.  The convenient store doesn't always have organic and local.

So here's what I got today at these two stores:

First, Whole Foods:  Cost: $16.95  (there's a fourth samosa there that was already eaten).  Items: four samosas from the hot bar, one bottle sparkling water, one jar tahini

Next: 99c Only store: Cost: $4.89 (after $1 off coupon): 10 lb potatoes, 1 lb strawberries, 3 lb bananas, 1 head cauliflower, 2 lb carrots, 1 pkg mushrooms.  No, not organic - but then, I personally think that more produce is better - and if it means you can afford more produce...

So, the 99c store - this is helping me stick to an $80 budget, and it also leaves room for the WF hot bar.

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:

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

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, 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
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


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)


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


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.