Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Week 46: Buy quality kitchen appliances

It isn't a big secret that I like to save money.  Sometimes I'm not very good at melding my desire to eat better food and still save money, but I'm working on it.  Since I make our meals from scratch and cook three full meals and at least one or two snacks each day, it is safe to say that I spend A LOT of time in the kitchen (or near it). 

Over the past several years, our income has dropped about $10,000 over what it once was.  While we're in no way impoverished, time are tougher and the budget is tighter.  That generally means that when something breaks, I seriously debate about whether to replace the item or not.  In terms of kitchen appliances, the decision is usually made not to replace something.  In the past two years, I've lost my bread maker, hand mixer, toaster, hand blender/food chopper and various other fluffy items that aren't necessities, but are nice to have.  Luckily Hubby's parents gave me a stand mixer for Christmas last year and that has been wonderful to have.  But, there are still other wants...

Back in the summer (week 26 to be exact) Hubby and I decided that we would purchase used if possible to save money and be "greener."  To keep in the spirit of that "baby step," I've been periodically checking out Freecycle and Craigslist to see if anything fabulous popped up.  Unfortunately most of the appliances that were listed weren't really things that I thought we needed and/or they were still pretty expensive.  No big deal, I'd been getting along just fine without them anyway.

In the past month or so, I've been in a funk.  I've sort of lost the energy to stick with some of the changes I've made.  I still have the desire, but there has been a definite lack of follow through on some things, like meal planning, staying under budget, eating out--hanging head in shame. :(

After a lot of thought on why this was, I came to a conclusion.  With Hubby working a second job for the past three months, there just isn't the support there at night.  Not that he's not supportive, but there's alot to be said for adding a second set of hands to help with homework, run errands, keep Little Man busy, etc. while I'm in the kitchen.  No extra hands mean I'm doing it all and I run out of steam long before my next day's meal prep gets done and there is no time for blogging or searching for new recipes during nap time because I'm doing laundry, sweeping floors, or trying to get dinner prep done before the kids come home from school needing help with homework, etc.

OK, so now I identified the problem, but what could I do to solve it?  I decided that adding a couple quality kitchen appliances to speed the prep process along would be money well spent.  Coincidentally, I came across the Kohl's Black Friday ad and saw that they had a Cuisinart Food Processor at a crazy markdown.  That, coupled with $50 that I had received as an early Christmas gift and a 15% off card, I paid a little less than $5 out of pocket for an awesome food processor.  I've had it 5 days and I've already used every feature on it.  I've used it to make biscuits (within 10 minutes of arriving home with it!  LOL), waffles, shredded veggies on a salad and this morning I used it for cinnamon roll dough-delish!

Hopefully, this new addition to my kitchen will save me time and help me be more efficient.  I'm feeling a little less funk-ish.  We've tried several new recipes in the past couple weeks, all of which the family thought were yummy.  That's a plus.  I'm back to planning and using cash, so hopefully that will keep the budget in check.  I've made a few concessions though for my sanity.  I have purchased a few convenience items (bag of fries and popcorn chicken and a couple take and bake pizzas).  I know that these are certainly not healthy choices, but if I'm hitting McDonald's on a crazy night, it is certainly no healthier.  We'll save these things for those on the go nights and save money by not eating out.  One day, I hope to have all of this mastered with several homemade options in the freezer to just pop in the oven.  But, until that day comes, I'm doing what I can.

My second, and notably the biggest, concession is that I've allowed the girls to eat school lunch.  This was a huge hurdle for me to overcome, but when lunches came home day after day uneaten, I decided to give this one up.  The girls liked the food I sent and most often ate it every day as soon as they got home from school (or occasionally on the way home), but they got teased at school because their food was different so they would eat only the food they thought would be acceptable to their peers and leave the rest inside their lunchboxes so no one would see it. :(

On the higher side, our school is working hard to make the lunches healthier.  Salad bar is offered every day with a variety of fresh fruits and veggies.  They make much of their bread items from scratch-adding whole wheat (not solely, but some is better than none).  They serve bone-in chicken instead of processed patties.  I appreciate the effort being made and if I could get them to ditch the canned goods, I'd probably be completely ok with it (but beggars can't be choosers it seems!).  Now, the downside... I've heard that they might ditch some of the healthy measures they've taken because the general population of kids won't eat the healthier foods.  Ugh!  We'll see how that goes!

I've rambled enough for now.  Hopefully I can get a minute to post my menu plan for this week and include links for some of our new dishes.  Have a great day!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Week 45: Try new "in season" produce

I like to think that my family eats a pretty wide variety of  foods.  I plan meals that use a variety of ingredients and from different cultures.  You would think that by now, before I pat myself on the back, I should think again.  Last Sunday I was walking through the produce section of our local grocery store and could point out at least 10 (and probably more) foods that I've never tried, much less prepared for a family meal.  Ahhh, a new goal forming!  We will try at least one new food each week for the rest of the year.  Last weeks (if you didn't realize, I'm behind a week) new veggie was turnips.  Hubby brought a few home from his second job and peeled them and ate them raw.  Little Man and I didn't care for them, but Baby Girl loved them and wanted more.  Big Girl was undecided-she ate the piece she was given, but didn't want more, so who knows on that one.  I think in my next menu plan I will try to find a different preparation to see if a can win over the non-lovers (myself included).

The new veggie for this week is leeks.  I've always considered leeks to be a fancier food.  We'll see.  I'm going to make a batch of potato and leek soup this weekend.  It's not the focus of any meal-so if it's terrible, we'll still have other food! :)

If you have a great recipe using either turnips or leeks, I'd love to hear it.

Other possibilities for the rest of the year are spaghetti squash, acorn squash, various types of potatoes, parsnips and fruits like persimmons, papaya, etc.  I don't necessarily know if the fruits are in season, but they have been on sale in this particular store lately, so I might try those as well.

I'll try to keep everyone updated as to what we're trying and what the verdict is!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Apple Zucchini Muffins

I am a week and a half into my 60 pounds of apples from Azure Standard and I'm sort of tiring of apples.  Don't get me wrong, I love apples, but I'm tired of the same applesauce, apple butter, dried apples, apples for eating... you get the idea.

I thought I'd shake things up last week by having zucchini muffins.  Woooo!  I'm definitely thinking outside the box now, right?  I didn't matter, because as soon as I started making them, one of the daycare kids was hanging on me clutching two apples.  "Can you please make apple muffins?"  Who am I to say no to a kid who wants to eat more apples.  So, we constructed a new recipe on the fly.

Apple Zucchini Muffins

1/3 cup butter melted
1/2 cup sugar (I use evaporated cane juice.)
1 egg
1 cup shredded zucchini
2 apples-peeled, cored and chopped (Although I think leaving the peel on would be fine too.)
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 1/2 cups whole white wheat flour (I'm sure you could use all-purpose or bread flour too-I just don't.)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Combine wet ingredients in a large bowl.  Then add baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon.  Stir it in.  Add the flour, stirring until just combined.  Fold in nuts if you are using those.  Spray muffin cups with non-stick spray or just rub some oil in all of them.  Fill muffin cups 3/4 full.  Bake 15 - 20 minutes.

These muffins came out super moist and the kids each ate two.  That is success if ever I saw it!

Linked up with Muffin Monday at Talking Dollars and Cents

Week 44: Organize for Efficiency

I have been in a serious funk for about the last month.  I'm tired of eating the same things, cooking with the same ingredients, looking in the same cabinets stocked to the brim with the same old stuff.  Ugh!  Throw me a pity party!  Yesterday, I decided that I'd had enough of eating the same stuff.  I was going to branch out and fix different things.  So I head over to allrecipes.com and begin poking around.  I found myself quickly overwhelmed and thought, "Now what?"

I have a recipe collection that I've been working on since before I was married.  It isn't anything fancy-just a couple of 3 ring binders divided into  various categories and when I had several recipes sitting in a pile, I would go through and put them in sheet protectors and file them in the correct category.  It occurred to me around 10 o'clock last night that I have hundreds of recipes in my binder that I haven't actually tried.

Discarded recipes from the recipe binders
Hmmm, I  think I have a project!  I grabbed a few pieces of looseleaf paper to jot ideas on and grabbed my binders.  An hour and a half and a couch full of miscellaneous recipes later, I cleaned my binder out and made a menu plan for the next two weeks.  There are several recipes that sound great along with some tried and true dishes.  I weeded out all of the recipes that I read and thought, "What was I thinking?" or ones that didn't measure up to the new way of eating that we've adopted (remember these binders are close to 15 years old-there was a lot of junk in there).

I'm kind of excited about our menu for the first time in several weeks.  Granted, I picked a two week span that is full of busy night or holidays, but I can't pick when motivation strikes, can I?

Here is our menu plan for the next two weeks.

Today (Monday)
B:  Banana Muffins, Dried Apples
L:  Scrambled Eggs, Biscuit w/ Jelly, Hash Browns, Banana
S:  Leftover Biscuits and Granola Bars (I had something else planned, but only had 3 kids, so I didn't make a big effort).
D:  Creamy Chicken Enchiladas, Spanish Rice, Refried Beans

B:  Pumpkin Bread, Grapes
L:  *Sausage Sandwich Squares, Bananas, Peas, Nuts
S:  *Zucchini Chip Cookies
D:  Chef Salad

Wednesday (day care closes early)
B:  Egg Muffins, Apples
L:  Pancakes, Yogurt, Applesauce, Dried Cranberries
D:  *Mini Frittatas, Hash Browns

B:  Apple Muffins, Oranges
L:  Stromboli, Corn, Peaches, Animal Crackers
S:  Apple Slices
D:  *Pita Pocket Pizzas, Carrot Sticks or Salad

B:  Waffles, Blueberries
L:  PB & J Sandwich, Pearsauce, Broccoli, Deviled Eggs
S:  Carrots & Raisins
D:  Teriyaki Chicken & Fried Rice

Saturday (out of town)

Sunday (returning late afternoon)
D:  *Chicken Lasagna, Salad

B:  Cinnamon Apple Oatmeal
L:  Chicken Noodle Soup, Pineapple, Tomato Wedges, Roll
S:  Chocolate Zucchini Muffins
D:  *Layered Fiesta Casserole

B:  *Oatmeal Pancakes, Blueberries
L:  Eggs, Biscuit & Gravy, Roasted Potatoes, Mango
S:  Cheese & Crackers
D:  *Chicken & Dumplings, Carrots

B:  *Oatmeal Muffins, Raisins
L:  Spaghetti, French Bread, Broccoli, Apple Slices
S:  Ham Sandwich
D:  *Pork Chops w/ Mushroom Gravy, Mashed Potatoes, Salad

Thursday (closed)
B:  *Sausage Quiche
L:  Cheeseburger & Fries
D:  Tuna Casserole

Friday (closed)
B:  Leftovers
L:  Leftovers
D:  Chili Frito Pie

B:  Freezer Stash
L:  Leftovers
D:  Thanksgiving Dinner with family

B:  Freezer Stash
L:  Thanksgiving Leftovers
D:  *Breakfast Bake

*Denotes new recipe that I will be trying.

Linked up at Menu Plan Monday on OrgJunkie and On the Menu Monday at Stone Gable

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Shepherd's Pie

I sometimes forget that we like Shepherd's Pie.  It's one of those dishes that I plan for once every two or three months, but should appear more often.  I made it tonight and the girls ate 2 helpings each.  Even Little Man, who doesn't typically care for casserole type dishes, ate it if I agreed to feed it to him (and pick out the peas).  Hubby had to restrain himself by only taking a small portion, so some would be left for lunches tomorrow.

I don't have a particular recipe.  It's one of those "clean out the fridge" kind of dishes.  But here's what I used tonight.

4 potatoes, peeled
2 Tbsp. oil
3-4 carrots, peeled and finely diced
2 stalks celery, finely diced
1/2 a medium onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup diced green pepper (I have some already diced in my freezer, I just dumped some in)
1 pound ground beef
2 cloves of garlic (I use the already minced kind-about 2 Tbsp.)
1 1/2 cups tomato juice (or 1 can tomato sauce if you have that)
seasoning to taste (I added salt, pepper, onion powder, garlic powder and a few dashes of chili powder)
1/2 cup frozen corn
1/2 cup frozen peas
2 Tbsp. butter
Milk if needed
Shredded cheddar cheese, optional

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Rough chop the peeled potatoes and place in a large glass bowl.  Fill with water until potatoes are covered.  Add salt if desired.  Place in microwave and cook until potatoes are tender (for me, that's 25 minutes).

While the potatoes are cooking, heat oil and add the carrots, celery, onion, and green pepper.  Stir frequently until the veggies start to soften.  Add the ground beef and garlic.  Stir together and break up the meat so it is mostly smaller bites (I have one of those handy dandy Pampered Chef star chopper things that works great.  A spoon work too! :) ).  When the meat is done and the veggies are cooked, add the tomato juice, desired seasonings, corn and peas.  Continue to simmer for 10 to 20 minutes allowing some of the tomato juice to evaporate and the corn and peas to cook.  If you use tomato sauce, you probably won't need to simmer as long.

By this time, the potatoes should be done.  They can be drained and mashed, adding the butter and milk if needed.  Set aside.

Pour the meat/veggie mixture into a medium sized baking dish.  I used a 9 inch deep dish pie plate.  A 9 x 9 baking dish would also work well.  Spread the meat out evenly into the pan.  Top with mashed potatoes and spread them over the meat getting as close to the edges as possible.  Top with cheddar cheese.  Place in the oven for 20 minutes.  Upon removal, allow the dish to sit and rest at least 5 minutes before serving.

Linked up at Hearth and Soul Blog Hop-Penniless Parenting

Monday, November 7, 2011

Weeks 42 & 43 Crawling out from under my rock

Last week, I asked for suggestions for what to do.  Michelle suggested looking at my recycling habits.  Initially I shrugged that off since our town has single sort recycling that is picked up weekly.  Then I started looking closer.  While there are drop points for glass recycling, it isn't part of the single sort pick up.  We have to make a trip to drop the glass off, so we don't do it regularly.  We don't have a good reason for not doing it at least weekly since one of the drop sites is in the parking lot next to where the kids go to school-it's not like we aren't there 6 days a week (also our church).

I went through the cabinets and collected these,  plus a few others that I found in the dish drainer.

So, at this point I think I'm all good... then I went to grab a Wal-Mart bag (general name for plastic shopping bags) and a sense of realization smacked me in the head and called me a hypocrit.  One of the most simple things to do to "be green" and I don't do it often enough.  I don't bring my own bags when I do my shopping (hanging head and waiting for 50 lashes).  I have several cloth bags and I take them to Aldi with me, but not to other stores.  I can even get $.05 off for each bag I use at a couple of our stores.  Yet, I can't seem to remember to do it. 

Consequently, I have probably close to a hundred Wal-Mart bags hanging in my stairwell in one of those hideous bag sleeves that my Grandma made (sorry Grandma, they aren't very attractive). I made it a point all of last week to collect any plastic bag that I used and put it in one big bag to collect. I was astounded and embarrassed. It is jam packed full (bursting at the seams).

I have felt like I do a pretty good job of recycling, but this past week showed me how wrong I was. I will take my giant bag of bags to be recycled at Wal-Mart or maybe Target, and I WILL remember to bring my own bags with me from here on out.

Well, since I already hanging my head in shame, I might as well tack on week 43.  My grocery budget has become a nightmare.  Prices are increasing, summer produce is dwindling or already gone, and we have been eating out too much (like once every other week, but at $30 a pop, it will take a hit to the budget).  Our budget, in general-not just food, is so out of control that this month we have to make double payments on 3 bills because we spent the money needed to pay them.  Granted, not everything we bought was dumb, but it certainly wasn't planned for and if we are to continue to work on whittling down our debt and trying to eat better, we need to get our act in gear.

For the first time in a long time, I went to cash only for all extra expenses (monthly bills not included).  My Azure Standard order was $200 this month, so that leaves $300 for the rest of the month-theoretically.  However, since we are making double payments on some of our bills, that amount was cut.  I got $125 on November 1st and will get $150 on November 15th.

Immediately the amount from the first was cut by $25 because there was a doctor copay that wasn't budgeted.  So with $100 for two weeks, it has been pretty tight.  With the Azure Standard order and the other items I buy in bulk, we certainly aren't in danger of starving, but I'm having to get creative in coming up with ideas that use either ground beef or chicken, as those are the only cuts of meat we have on hand.  We are having a lot of bean based soups and vegetarian meals like breakfast for dinner or tortellini alfredo (not uber cheap, but it was tasty).

Tomorrow I will try to get my meal plan posted (did I mention I didn't do those for a month or so and that started the disintegration of my food budget-some people never learn!).  I think I will go $5 over budget to pick up some ham.  It won't be nitrate free, but this week I can't afford the super expensive stuff.  And, if this is the first lunch meat we've eaten that has sodium nitrate in several months, surely we're better off than the fellow that eats it every day.  At least that's what I'm telling myself.
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