Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Week 34: Water Use

Here it is Wednesday already.  I've had a lot on my mind this week and trying to come up with an important change was tough at best.  We will be hit with a 10% decrease in income this next month. Our budget is stretched as it is with trying to increase our savings a bit and building up a few "what if" funds (car repair specifically).  We have emptied our cafeteria plan for medical reimbursement also.  That means the monthly payment for Baby Girl's braces is now coming out of our pocket.  All of this has been bouncing around in my brain the past week or so and I've been trying to come up with ways to save money on our current bills.

I am coming up empty on quite a few things.  All of the usual places to cut back, we already have.  There's no cable, our cell phones are bare bones and our internet/phone is as cheap as it can go  This leaves utilities.  I don't believe our water consumption is out of control, but I'm sure there are ways to conserve.  Water conservation is both green and good for my wallet (at least that's the plan).

This week I'll be reasearching ways to save water and see what strategies we can put in place to lower our water use.  I think I'll also call our local water district and see what average use is in our area and see how the bill is calculated.  I'm particularly interested in how the sewer rate is figured.  I think the amount we pay for sewer seems excessive (we'll see).

Monday, August 22, 2011

Week 33: Juice

Last week I posted about an article that I came across.  It was about fresh squeezed/not from concentrate juice being de-oxygenated (to extend its life span) and reflavored with "flavor packets" containing orange oil and other things.  There are even different flavor packets depending on which part of the country you live in as taste preferences of the South may not be the same as the Midwest.  Good grief!  Can food producers stop tampering with our food?

We aren't huge juice consumers in our house.  I usually reserve it for a breakfast with the daycare kids and my kids will share the little bit that is left.  We do that once a week or even every other week. It's not like we're using a gallon a week or anything, it's more just the idea that another thing that I thought was ok, really isn't.

For those occasions I want or need juice, I will have to make my own (my girls love to make orange juice anyway).  I think this will end up being one of those changes where we just refrain from juice altogether rather than go through the task of making our own.  We'll see.

Friday, August 19, 2011

School Lunch links

Since I've been reading nearly every blog known to man regarding packing school lunches, I thought I'd pass along a few links. :)

I'm a huge fan of 100 Days of Real Food.  Here are a few posts that relate to school lunches.
21 Ways to Plan Ahead for School Lunches
10 Ways to Switch Up Your Kid's Lunch
Real Food School Lunches
Real Food School Lunches II
Real Food School Lunches III

Family Fun has some themed foods that seem fun.  Typically I'm not that organized, but I can aspire to be such.

School Lunch Ideas has some informative articles.  I don't subscribe to all their ideas regarding nutrition.  For example, I don't do the low fat dairy or feel like carbs need to be the center of the meal.  But, like any site, take what is good and leave the rest. has several articles on "brown bag lunches."  Some of the recipes, my kids wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole and they aren't picky kids, but they are unique and could get you out of the "same 'ole, same 'ole" rut.  At the bottom of their articles are links to related articles.

Tomorrow we will be trekking across the state for my nephew's birthday party.  During my 5 hours in the car, I hope to compile a long list of items besides leftovers that can be used for lunches.  And, I still need to make those cereal bars.  Hmmm, the work never ends! :)

You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me!

Are you a person who buys the "not from concentrate" orange juice expecting to get a healthier "fresh squeezed" product?  I am... well, was.  It appears that fresh squeezed orange juice is far from fresh and is loaded with flavorings and chemicals.  This article, featured on Health Impact Daily News uncovers the truth about OJ (and other 100% juices).

It just goes to show that unless you can see your food being produced, you cannot trust that it really is what it says it is.  We don't drink much juice.  I buy a bottle a week for the daycare kids.  My kids will usually drink the leftovers though.

I think I'll be making my own juice if I get a hankering for it.  I wonder how many oranges it would take to make half a gallon of juice.  I'm off to Google that one!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The First Day of School

It's been long awaited by me, but dreaded by my kids-today is the first day of school.  Excitedly no one left in a fit of tears this morning.  Actually they were pretty chipper.

I stuck with the plan for lunches for the most part.  I went to the store last night for something unrelated, but picked up a box of strawberries as a special "first day of school" treat.  Here's their lunch.

On the menu today is lettuce salad with shredded cheddar chese, grape tomatoes, and homemade ranch dressing.  Then there's strawberries and a small container of chocolate chip cheese ball with a few chocolate Bunny Grahams and then spaghetti as the main dish (to be put in a Thermos).  A water bottle is ready to go with ice water.  There you have it.  Lunch on day one.

Please note that I will not be this prepared all the time.  I actually stayed up until 11:30 last night to finish lunches so I wouldn't run late this morning.  That doesn't usually happen! :)

Oh, I also did a breakdown of the cost for the portions each lunch had.
Strawberries = $.26
Lettuce = $.21
Cheese = $.03
Tomatoes from the garden = free
Ranch = $.04
Bunny Grahams = $.14
Cheese Ball = $.10
Spaghetti (meat, sauce, noodles) = $.31

Total = $1.09

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Menu Plan for 8/15 - 8/21

After my previously abysmal shopping trips the past couple of times, I think I did well this week.  I spent just under $73 and I bought toothpaste and a new toothbrush for Little Man with that.  I will need to pick up a bag of potatoes later in the week since Wal-Mart doesn't carry an organic option, but it shouldn't be more than $3.

I'm also including school lunches as well, mostly to prep myself so I'm not wandering around tomorrow morning forgetting what the plan was.

Breakfast:  Cinnamon Bites, Apple Slices
Lunch:  Chicken Quesadillas, Spanish Rice, Lettuce Salad, Watermelon
Snack:  Strawberry Smoothie
Dinner:  Venision Steak Nuggets, leftover rice and watermelon

Breakfast:  Biscuit, Oranges
Lunch:  Spaghetti, Green Beans, Carrots w/ PB, French Bread
Snack:  Banana Bread
Dinner:  Tacos, Bean Dip and Chips, Salad

Breakfast:  Coffee Cake, Raisins
Lunch:  Waffles, Yogurt, Banana, Hash Browns
Snack:  Ice Cream
Dinner:  Chicken Gravy, Mashed Potatoes, Peas
School Lunch:  Spaghetti, Salad w/ chopped tomatoes, shredded cheese and Ranch on the side, Orange Slices, small scoop of Chocolate Chip Cheese Ball w/ Chocolate Bunnies

Breakfast:  Scrambled Eggs, Blueberries
Lunch:  Cheese Pizza, Peas, Apple Slices, Pretzels
Snack:  Mango
Dinner:  Beef Enchiladas, Salad, Rice
School Lunch:  Mashed Potatoes with Chicken Gravy, Carrot Sticks, Plum, Almonds

Breakfast:  Granola Bar, Juice
Lunch:  PB&J Pinwheels, Tomatoes, Cottage Cheese, Cantaloupe
Snack:  Cheese & Crackers
Dinner:  Ham or PB&J Sandwich, Pasta Salad, Carrots
School Lunch:  Cheese Pizza, Apple Slices with Cream Cheese Fruit Dip, Corn, Strawberry Cereal Bar

Breakfast:  Freezer Stash
Lunch:  B-day party with family (they usually choose a Mexican restaurant close to their home)
Snack:  Birthday cake
Dinner:  Pork Sirloin, Corn, Cucumbers, Noodles

Breakfast:  fend for yourself before Church
Lunch:  Leftovers (clean out the fridge)
Dinner:  Egg Casserole, Fruit Salad

Week 32: School Lunches

It's that time of year.  For us, school starts tomorrow and that means several months of brown bag lunches.  My kids have a love/hate relationship with bringing lunch from home.  First, the vast majority of kids eat school lunch, so those brown bag kids are stand outs from the start.  Second, there are a few kids in each of my girls' grades that have made fun of the girls' lunches.  Obviously, I'm not a Fruit Roll-Up and Cheetos kind of Mom, so that makes their lunches "weird."  As an adult, I can point out that the lunches are nutritious, tasty, comprised entirely of things they like, (and that those kids are dorks), but that doesn't hold much weight with the girls.  They do like bringing their own homemade goodies and they do like the food I send, so that, along with getting a fun new lunchbox keep them semi-satisfied.

My goal (beginning this week and lasting for the school year) is to widen the variety of foods I send, find homemade and healthy alternatives for the fun items that other kids bring, and keep the budget well below what the school lunches cost.  My purpose in making the girls' lunches is two-fold.  One, I don't fully endorse the meals that our school prepares.  I think they are doing great things and are well ahead of their public school counterpart in nutrition and freshness, but they follow a set of dietary guidelines that I do not believe to be healthy.  They are set on low-fat dairy options, soybean based oils, commericially produced meat and canned goods.  Those are things that we don't served at our house and while the Earth isn't going to come crashing down if my kids eat canned corn, it isn't something that I want them consuming on a regular basis.  My second reason for making their lunches is money.  Lunches cost $42/month/child.  $84 out of my $500 grocery budget is a good-sized chunk (almost 17% to be exact).  I can find better things to do with my money.

This week I hope to post recipes of snacks that the girls are taking, as well as a few pictures of their lunches.  I already know that I'll be trying a fruit-filled cereal bar (think Nutra Grain) that Zaira posted on Living, Loving, Learning Naturally.  I've been looking for something like this for a long time and I think this might be the one!  I'm excited!  I will probably also be on the lookout for softer foods since Baby Girl had her braces adjusted this morning.  The next couple days will require some soft foods!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Cookie Sticks

The other day in the check out line I got suckered (well, besides the fact that I was there for the upteenth time last week).  It was taking the checker forever to get the person in front of me finished and I started looking at the cookbook magazines-you know, the Betty Crocker and Taste of Home ones.  Usually I'm really good at not purchasing them.  Taste of Home has all of their recipes online, so if I see one that looks good while flipping through, I jot the recipe name down on my grocery list and look it up when I get home.  The "Back to School" edition got me though, and in a weak moment, I bought it.  We'll just add that to the very much blown grocery budget.

Later, the girls were flipping through the magazine and found "Cookie Sticks" and begged to make them.  I've sort of been putting them off, but having bought chocolate chips this past weekend and having already celebrated a daycare birthday this week, I ran out of reasons to put them off!  So this morning we cranked out a batch of cookie sticks.

Sitting here eating one, I have to say they are pretty good.  I think I might have gotten a little carried away with the chocolate chips, but I'm not a huge chocolate person so don't hold that against them (or me).  Don't get me wrong, I like chocolate, but not large quantities of it at once.

Of course you know that I won't leave a recipe alone, so here's how I changed it.
  • 1/2 cup coconut oil
  • at little less than 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon molasses
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1-1/2 cups whole white wheat flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (6 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts, optional (I opted no.)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Mix the wet ingredients in one bowl and the dry in another.  Add the dry ingredients to the wet a little at a time stirring together as you go.  Divide the dough in half and press into rectangles approximately 15" x 3" on a cookie sheet.  I used two cookie sheets because I wasn't sure how much they would spread and while you could get away with one, I'd use two just to make cutting them easier.  Once the dough is pressed out, add chocolate chips and press them into the dough.  If you are using nuts, do those the same way.  Bake 7-8 minutes (the recipe says this make crispier cookies, but I thought they were still plenty soft and at 5 minutes they still looked uncooked to me).  Cool 5 minutes then cut with a serrated knife.  I used a pizza cutter and I wouldn't recommend it.  The first batch cut fine, but by the time I got to the second batch, there was a lot of melted chocolate on the cutter and it tore the sticks up pretty bad.  Maybe at some point, I should follow all of the directions.  Or, I'll just aspire to be a direction follower!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Falling off the Wagon (Menu Plan too)

I committed the cardinal sin of budget grocery shopping last week.  I went to the store without a meal plan or a list (smacking myself on the head!).  I spent $150 and several times last week realized that I didn't have a key ingredient for whatever I was trying to make and went out and spent more money.

Of course, this past weekend was the official I'm out of everything Sam's run and we spent $158 there, plus another $100 at the store, because I didn't spend money last week on things we needed either.  That brings me to today (August 10th) where of my $500 budget, I now have $92 for the rest of the month.  Hmmm!  It is very unlikely that I'll be able to pull that off, especially with no chicken and I'm spending around $150 on Sunday to pick up another 50 pounds of beef.  Oh, and I've been having 14 kids at my house everyday drinking a gallon and a half of milk, so I need to buy more of that too.  Yeah, I fell off the wagon and it doesn't look like I'm going to be getting up.

I did at least do a menu plan for this week, so here it is.

Waffles, Oranges
Banana Muffins, Banana
Granola & Yogurt
Chocolate Chip Muffins, Apple Slices
Sausage Breakfast Pizza

Mac 'n Cheese, Salad, Plums, Deviled Eggs
Scrambled Eggs w/ Sausage, Hash Browns, Toast, Mango
Chicken w/ Gravy, Mashed Potatoes, Roll, Pineapple
Fettucine Alfredo w/ Peas, Corn, Grapes, Peanut Butter and Carrots
Egg Salad or PB&J in a Pita Pocket, Oranges, Fruit Leather, Granola Bar (picnic lunch)

Cookie Sticks (will post recipe soon)
Apple Slices
Nuts & Raisins

Meatball Subs, Pasta Salad, Blueberries
Ham Casserole, Broccoli, Salad
Thanksgiving Casserole, Green Beans
Chef Salad, Leftover Fruit
Pork Sirloin, Baked Potato, Corn

The daycare is closed on Friday and we are taking a picnic lunch on the road with us as we head to Grandma's.  The pork dinner is for Sunday evening when we get home.

Week 31: Buy local beef

My family has been very blessed over the years to receive beef as a Christmas present from my parents.  For the last 6 or 7 years, they have given us 1/2 a beef processed the way we want and it has been so wonderful.  This past year, due to the economy, they weren't able to give us a 1/2 but did give us 75 pounds of ground beef.  This, too, is much appreciated and helps our budget tremendously.

The downside of this is that we are almost out of ground beef.  We've been systematically cutting back on other cuts of beef because we would have to get them from the grocery store, but we rely on ground beef heavily.  So, we made the decision to purchase a large quantity ourselves.  On Sunday afternoon, we will be picking up 50 pounds at the meat locker where my parents purchase their meat.

There are some concessions here.  I don't personally know the farmer that raised the cattle.  Typically we have gotten one of Dad's so I know where it's been, but I know the farmer is local to the area (spanning a couple counties, but not from a big cattle lot).  I am sure that this beef has been finished on corn, most certainly GMO corn at that.  I am adamantly opposed to genetically modified foods, so this is a huge conundrum.

In an ideal world, I would meet a farmer with reasonably priced grass-fed beef and find a reputable local butcher to process the meat for me and I'd be all set.  Since the world isn't ideal, I've got two financially feasible options: 1.  go buy ground beef at Wal-Mart (or another big box type grocer).  Of course, I know that my family pack of ground beef came from several cattle that have been completely corn fed their whole lives and lived many of their days in a lot with thousands of other cattle-many of whom have been shot full of antibiotics to keep them alive during their many trips to various lots since their birth (many trips across several states).  The meat in my package has been doused with a "safe" ammonia wash to kill E-coli or other harmful bacteria and perhaps dyed red to make sure it looks pretty in the store display.  Yum!  Makes ya wanna go grab a big burger doesn't it?

Option 2 is to purchase meat from a processing plant that I've personally been to and see that it is clean and well maintained.  The meat will come from a local farmer whose cattle are on pasture but whose diet is supplemented with corn and other grains.  Antibiotics have probably been administered if the animal was ill, but not as part of routine care.  My ground beef will come from one animal, since the locker only processes one at a time and they will not process the meat if it looks questionable (that keeps the unscrupulous from bringing in animals on their deathbed to be processed so they can get some money out of them).  Since there is only one animal on the machines at a time, there is no need to "wash" my meat or dye it as they are freezing it immediately (it looks red because it is fresh!).

I suppose there is a third option of foregoing beef altogether, but I think Hubby has given up enough for this project.  No beef might just send him over the edge! LOL

So, I'm back at option 2 and I'm ok with it.  It isn't the ideal, but not much in my life is!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Sloppy Joe Pies

With all the dairy free we've been doing around our house lately, I haven't been making many new things-just reconstructing old ones! :)  Today I didn't feel like making buns for our sloppy joes, so I whipped this up.  It's a winner!

I made stomboli dough for the crust (recipe following).  Then using a 3" bisquit cutter, I made circles which got pressed into my regular-sized muffin pan.  I added a scoop of sloppy joe meat and topped some with a small amount of sharp cheddar cheese.  I made a double batch and got 24 pies, with some dough leftvoer-probably enough for 3-4 more, but I was out of meat, so no more pies.  That fed 13 kids with three leftover for Hubby's lunch.  Most of the smaller kids only had one and all of the bigger kids had 2 (or 3, although no one will willingly admit it!).  I think these would freeze well.  Next time I'll have to pull out a few before anyone else sees them, so I can test out a freezer version.

Stromboli Dough
1/2 cup warm water
1 tsp. yeast
3/4 T. oil
3/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups flour

Mix warm water and yeast and let sit for 5 minutes.  Add oil, salt and flour and mix until a firm dough is formed.  I often have to add a tablespoon or two of water here b/c the dough always seems to stiff-maybe it's just me! LOL  Knead for 5-8 minutes and let rest in a covered bowl for 20 minutes.  Roll out to about 1/4 inch and use biscuit cutter to make as many circles as you can in the dough.  Gather dough scraps up and re-roll and cut them.  Place 1 dough circle in each greased muffin cup and press dough into the bottom and up the sides.  Fill with one scoop of sloppy joe meat and top with cheese if desired.  Bake at 375 degrees for 15-20 minutes.  When finished, remove from pan and let cool on a cooling rack for 5 minutes, then serve.

As far as a sloppy joe recipe, I figure there are thousands.  I don't think I make it the same way twice, usually because I'm cleaning out the fridge when I make them, so who knows what might show up in it.  The standard items are ground beef, chopped onion, and ketchup.  I've also added shredded carrot or zucchini, chopped green pepper, garlic, mustard, and tomato sauce or juice or once even salsa (made it more like taco meat).  Just make sure you like how it tastes before you add it to the cups.

Happy baking everyone!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Week 30: No More TV

Where the TV once stood!
 Well, after a huge decluttering binge, I am proud to say that we are no longer TV watchers.  I would say owners, but we still have one left after our garage sale that didn't sell.  It isn't plugged in and will be listed on Craigslist in the near future, so, while we still own it, we aren't watching it.

Getting rid of the TV might seem like a stretch as an actual baby step, but I've given this quite a bit of thought and here's my take on it.  It also used up quite a few materials to produce, transport, sell and all that.  Selling it to someone else keeps it out of the landfill and keeps that person from buying a new one.  That's green, right?  The TV uses electricity to operate.  If I can save a couple dollars on our electric bill each month by not having the TVs running, that is money that can be put toward the food budget and making healthier food choices.

As far as health, Hubby and the kids (ok, and occasionally me) would plop our butts down on the couch and wouldn't be seen or heard for hours.  I'm thinking that if there's no TV, we probably won't be plopping down to stare at the wall for hours on end.  That means choosing other activities, whether it be spending time together, reading, taking a walk or bike ride, etc.  Those are all things that will improve our health.

TV sitting on the chopping (I mean selling) block!

Day 1 (yesterday) was fine as we had to clean the house up from the garage sale.  We were too busy to notice.  Day 2 is getting dicey.  It is naptime and the girls usually camp out in front of the TV for at least 3 hours being quiet, so the daycare kids get a nap.  Now they are complaining of boredom, or laying right next to me as I type this looking all exasperated!  LOL

We'll see how it goes.  We've told the kids that there is a possibility of getting a TV for Christmas (used of course).  I'm not sure if it will happen or not.  It will probably depend on the money situation as well as how we think we're doing without it.  I'd like to hope that we don't really miss it, and even if we choose to get another one, we won't be as attached to it as we have been.
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