Frugality

Making homemade instant oatmeal packets

Cinnamon Raisin Instant Oatmeal

We were given a box of pre-packaged instant oatmeal from the store as a gift after Moshe was born, and the kids loved it.

I did too, actually! No pans to wash afterwards and yummy (though really too sweet), along with the whole instant factor... :)

So, I set out to make our own homemade version of instant oatmeal!

Strawberries and Cream Instant Oatmeal

Here is my basic recipe for instant oatmeal:

2 cups quick-cooking oats, pulsed slightly in food processor
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sweetener (dry -- like sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, sucanat, etc.)
1/2 cup powdered (dry nonfat) milk

Mix all ingredients together and store in an airtight container or bag.

To prepare oatmeal: Mix 2/3 cup of dry mixture with 1 cup boiling water in a bowl, stirring to remove lumps. Let stand 1-2 minutes and serve.

Blueberry Instant Oatmeal

I didn't have quick-cooking oats on hand at the time, so I put rolled oats in the food processor and pulsed it until the oats looked a little finer than quick oats normally would be.

But to me, the instant oatmeal made with coarsely-ground oats tastes rather raw.

So the next time, I pulsed the oats until they were very fine. Then I had the issue of lumps forming when the boiling water was poured over the finely chopped oats. Once the lumps were stirred out, however, the oatmeal did taste good!

Here are some flavors we made. Add the ingredients to the basic recipe above!

Cinnamon Raisin Instant Oatmeal

Cinnamon Raisin Oatmeal

Basic recipe (above, using brown sugar) plus:
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup raisins

Strawberries and Cream Oatmeal

Basic recipe (above) plus:
1/4 cup powdered non-dairy creamer
1/2 cup freeze-dried strawberries

Blueberry Oatmeal

Basic recipe (above) plus:
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup dried blueberries

Blueberry Instant Oatmeal

This was a fun project, and we ate instant oatmeal for breakfast for over a week, experimenting and playing with flavors!

However, this won't be a staple breakfast at our house. Here's why:

Water in the tea kettle (for instant oatmeal) takes just as long to heat as water in a pan (for regular oatmeal). So, no real time savings for me.

In fact, considering the amount of time I spent pulsing oats in the food processor to make them cook in a minute's time, I was actually on the losing end of things time-wise.

We like our regular stovetop oatmeal better. And, it's easy to throw frozen fruit like blueberries or strawberries into a fresh pan of oatmeal, which is a whole lot cheaper than the dried fruit versions.

One nice thing about the instant oatmeal is that there is no pan to wash afterwards, and no leftover oatmeal to deal with.

Strawberries and Cream Instant Oatmeal

If you normally buy instant oatmeal but care about eating quality, healthy breakfasts, making homemade instant oatmeal is an easy way to put in only the ingredients you want. There's also a lot less waste in packaging, especially if you buy your oats in bulk! :)

Have you ever made your own instant oatmeal? I'd love to hear your tips, or favorite flavor combinations! :)

Visit Jessica's blog for more Frugal Friday tips and ideas! :)

This recipe was featured in 10 Fabulous Foods We Make At Home (Not Buy!) :)

Update on how our garden *really* turned out

After I re-posted about our learning experiences with trying to plant way too many plants in a small plot in the mud, several of you asked me how our garden actually did that year.

So, here's a re-cap:

A photo of our growing plants, as we waited for something more exciting to happen.

Unfortunately, the more exciting thing that was about to happen was... squash bugs. No, not squashed bugs. Bugs that ate our yellow squash plants!

But it gets worse. While the bugs were munching away on the leaves, a wilt had settled in and killed the cucumber and squash plants. I ended my post with dreams of next year's garden, which never ended up happening because we moved across the country and now live in an apartment in the Seattle area. Someday... :)

My parents have a huge (and mostly successful!) garden each year. So inspiring! :)

I especially miss living near them in the summer, when many of our meals were full of fresh garden produce! (And the kitchen sink, too!)

We did get to pick blueberries and blackberries here in WA last year, which was a lot of fun. :)

From-scratch snack: Homemade pita chips and creamy guacamole

Since both Joshua and I are trying to focus on healthy eating, our house has been void of most processed snacks for quite some time now. Our grocery shopping trips are full of real, whole foods -- ingredients to use in cooking from scratch.

The snack foods we generally have available are things like apples, bananas, pears, or a green salad.

And those things are all good! But sometimes I just want a salty, crunchy, fatty snack!!

Good thing crunchy, salty, and fatty can still be healthy... like these homemade whole wheat pita chips with creamy guacamole dip!

Whole wheat pita chips

I make my own whole wheat pitas when we have them, since it's cheaper and they're much more delicious than the cheap pita pockets from the store.

Once the pita bread is made, these chips just require two quick ingredients: olive oil and salt. (This has got to be the first time I've ever shared a three-ingredient recipe that takes less than 10 minutes to make!)

Whole wheat pita chips

Having never made pita chips before, I was a bit skeptical as to how great they could be. I mean, don't the yummy chips in the grocery store have lots of fancy ingredients (like MSG!) to help satisfy my taste buds? How could my homemade whole wheat pita breads, some olive oil, and a little salt compare to a "real" chip?!

I was pleasantly surprised that we all loved these chips! They have the crunch, they have the salt, and when dipped into some creamy guacamole, they are downright awesome!

Creamy guacamole

And about the guacamole. I like guacamole, but I LOVE this creamy guacamole. Joshua, who hates cilantro and rarely tolerates avocado, sampled this guacamole at my request and declared it to be "one of the best dips I've ever had... and I hate guacamole!"

Whole wheat pita chips served with creamy guacamole

Many thanks to my friend Jennifer for the idea of adding some sour cream into the guacamole. It lends a smooth, creamy, and almost... sweet taste to the guacamole and is truly the difference between a so-so guac and a "Can I just eat the whole bowl?!" guac!

Your Questions Answered: Cost analysis of recipes

Michael wrote,

Our family is trying to really watch our p's and q's. I was wondering if in the future you could compare costs of your recipes to going out to eat the same thing. Maybe you have someone that has already done this that partners with you? Thank you for your time and thank you for your website.

I have done a cost analysis of a few of my most-used recipes:

Our favorite beans and rice

Homemade pizza

Homemade wheat bread

Italian Cheese Bread

Baked beans (cost analysis from a reader)

This post describes how I calculate the cost of a from-scratch meal.

Since I buy everything in bulk and generally don't enjoy math, that is why I don't usually figure out exactly how much it cost me to make a certain recipe. (As a side note, I would totally love it if any of you math-lovers wanted to figure out the cost of some of my recipes!) :)

I always figure it's cheaper to cook at home than to go out to eat when quality is a consideration! We buy most things in bulk and focus on eating as healthfully as possible on the budget we have (about $100/week for our family of 6) rather than trying to maintain a barebones food budget.

You might enjoy Erin's website, 5 Dollar Dinners. She does a cost analysis of every recipe! Her recipes serve 4 for $5 or less, but I find we eat about double her amounts of food (for dinner, our largest meal of the day). Just for reference, our family right now includes two adults and children ages 6, 4, 2, and newborn (nursing). We have dinner guests several times a month and rarely go out to eat. :)

Head over to Jessica's blog for lots of Frugal Fridays tips today, as well! :)

Dandelion season, just ahead!

Have any of you been enjoying dandelion salads this Spring? I called my mom (back in Ohio) earlier this week and she was outside gathering dandelions for dinner. Growing up, we had dandelion salads every day in the Springtime!

When picked young and tender, dandelions make a delicious salad. Here is my mom's recipe for Dandelion Salad with Vinegar and Oil Dressing. Since we live in an apartment in the city, I won't have any opportunities to gather fresh dandelions this year, but maybe again some day I will! :)

Stephanie has a great post about using dandelions as food, including a few recipe links.

Making homemade vanilla extract

About 15 months ago now, we embarked on a new "make our own" adventure: Vanilla Extract!

Making homemade vanilla extract is simple, and can save significant money long-term, especially if you do a lot of baking!

To start, you will need some vanilla beans and some vodka.

About vanilla beans:

We first looked for vanilla beans at our local stores, but the prices were very high -- about $5 per bean. I knew we wouldn't save any money if we spent that much on the beans!

We also weren't sure how fresh they would be. Vanilla beans should be soft and pliable. The ones in the store looked ancient, and were in a little plastic case so we couldn't feel them.

We purchased our vanilla beans on Amazon.com. We bought these Premium Bourbon-Madagascar Vanilla Beans - 1 lb. - Approx. 108 beans although we got the 1/2-lb package. The seller also has even smaller packages, but of course the price per bean goes up.

We were very pleased with the vanilla beans. Besides being the cheapest we could find, the beans were high-quality: very fragrant and pliable. The beans had a fermented sort of smell to them; real vanilla beans have a very rich smell that I love! :)

We had some leftover vanilla beans after making our vanilla extract, so we have been able to use them in cheesecakes. Another use is to stick a vanilla bean in some sugar to make vanilla sugar! I haven't tried that yet though. :)

If you order vanilla beans, first decide how much vanilla extract you wish to make (recipe below) and then calculate how many beans you will need. The vanilla beans we bought were sold by weight, but the seller listed an approximate number of beans for the weight.

About vodka:

We made a trip (our first and only!) to the liquor store for this ingredient. We were in search of 80-proof (40% alcohol) vodka. There were many, many choices. We had heard good reviews of Smirnoff's Triple Distilled Vodka, so we got a bottle of that. We also tried a cheaper one, Kamchatka. Honestly, both made very good vanilla in our opinion!

Homemade Vanilla Extract: Small and Easy

Ingredients:

2 vanilla beans
12 ounces (1.5 cups) 80-proof vodka

Directions:

1. Slice vanilla beans length-wise and scrape out the seeds. Cut pods into 1-2 inch pieces.

2. Place pods and seeds into a pint (2-cup) glass jar. Add vodka.

3. Seal jar (we used a canning lid and ring) and shake vigorously.

4. Label jar with the date and contents (unless you have a better memory than we do!). Start date: Today's date. End date: Six months from now.

5. Place jar in a cupboard or some place away from sunlight.

6. Shake jar once a day for a week, and then once a week for a couple of months, and then once a month (or whenever you think about it).

When 6 months have lapsed, your vanilla extract should be nice and strong and you can start using it! I know, 6 months seems like a very long time. But start it soon -- and it'll be done before you know it! :)

After 6 months you can also strain out the extract, leave any seeds/pods in the jar, add more vodka, and make a second batch with the same pods. The second batch may take even longer to become the same strength, but if you have even a small spot in your cupboard to spare, it's worth using again!


(Our finished small jar of vanilla extract. This amount of vanilla extract would cost at least $12.00 from Aldi's -- and ours smells way better than theirs!)

Homemade Vanilla Extract: Big and Strong

Ingredients:

21 vanilla beans (approximately 1/4-pound of beans)
1.75 liters 80-proof vodka

Directions:

1. Slice vanilla beans open length-wise and scrape out the seeds. Cut pods into 1-2 inch pieces.

2. Pour half of the vodka into a second jar or an empty vodka bottle, so that both containers are half full of vodka (to enable vigorous mixing!).

3. Put vanilla seeds and pods into vodka, dispersing as evenly as possible. Seal tightly and shake.

We also sometimes would pour some of the vanilla into the other container, shake, pour a bunch back, shake the other container, etc... the idea is just to be able to mix it well. Technically you could put the beans into one 1.75L bottle (removing enough vodka to allow the beans to fit!) but it would be difficult to shake it and the vanilla extract would take a longer time to become strong and fragrant.

4. Label your bottles with the starting date.

5. Place bottles away from sunlight and shake once a day for the first week, and then once a week.

Some people have told us that their vanilla extract was ready in as little as 6 weeks with this method. We waited longer than 6 weeks, since we weren't in a big hurry and we wanted a very strong vanilla flavor. The longer you wait, the stronger it gets! After a few months, this vanilla tasted delicious and we've been using from it ever since.

When your vanilla extract is ready, you can pour off the top, leaving the seeds and pods in the bottom. Add more vodka to the bottle and shake and let sit until it smells strong enough for you! :)


(Our "big and strong" bottle of vanilla extract -- very very delicious!)

The Savings

I had been purchasing real vanilla extract at Aldi's. Their price (last year -- I haven't checked recently) was $1.99 for 2 ounces. That breaks down to $1 for 1 ounce and 1 ounce is 2 tablespoons of extract.

Now, the confusing part is when you start figuring liters (which is what the vodka comes in) and ounces and prices and all that. :)

Since the beans can be used twice, here is how I figured the price for our bottles of vanilla extract:

1.75 liters (~59 ounces) x 2 = ~118 ounces = ~$30 (total)

21 vanilla beans purchased from Amazon.com = $21.53 ($43.05 [for ~54 beans or 1/2 lb] divided in half -- price includes shipping)

Yield: 118 ounces of vanilla extract (3 liters) for $51.53

This same amount would cost $118 at Aldi (the cheapest real vanilla extract I have found) -- and ours tastes better! :)

If 3 liters sounds like a lot of vanilla extract, well, it is. :) That 118 ounces will make 236 tablespoons of vanilla extract! But vanilla extract won't "go bad", so you can store it for years and years. We do a lot of baking, and so we were willing to make the investment for the long-term savings. Even better, find someone local who will order some beans with you and you can split the order so that you get a better price on your beans!

You can, of course, make smaller amounts of vanilla extract. Your needs may be different from ours depending on your family size and eating habits! :)

Another great use for your homemade vanilla extract is to give it away as gifts. We have given away a number of "samples" of our vanilla extract to friends and family. It's a fun, tasty gourmet gift that people love! :)

Have any of my other readers made their own vanilla extract? If so, what kinds of beans and vodka have you tried, and what was your favorite? I'd love some recommendations of other kinds of vodka for when we need to purchase more! :)

Originally posted in August, 2008

This recipe was featured in 10 Fabulous Foods We Make At Home (Not Buy!) :)

Fresh whole wheat pancakes (without a grain mill)

Whole wheat berry pancakes with blueberries

When Joshua and I were first married (almost 8 years ago), a friend introduced us to Whole Wheat Berry Pancakes, an easy whole wheat recipe that doesn't require a grain mill. We've made these pancakes ever since, and they're Joshua's favorite pancakes!

The whole grain wheat is put into a blender with some milk and blended until smooth. Add a couple eggs, brown sugar, baking powder, and salt and blend for another minute before pouring the batter on a hot griddle to cook. So easy and so delicious! :)

Whole wheat berry pancakes with blueberries

I added some frozen blueberries to the pancakes in these pictures. We ate them hot with a little butter! The brown sugar in the pancake batter makes them sweet enough for our tastes, so we rarely use syrup.

For anyone interested in using fresh whole grains, but not wishing to purchase a grain mill for heavy use, these blender pancakes are a fun and easy way to start! :)

Free mailing supplies

Okay, first, this is not a link to sign up for free mailing supplies. (If it were, you'd probably be seeing it over at Money Saving Mom, and not here!) ;)

However, I have been requesting lots of free samples for all kinds of other things, and another perk is that some of the freebies come in little boxes or bubble envelopes.

I open them carefully, and then I can re-use the bubble envelopes (I just tape a paper with the recipient's address over the spot that had my address). Bubble envelopes are so nice for mailing things! :)

One handy little box became my children's crayon box. And the boys have had loads of fun playing with countless other little boxes that I didn't plan to re-use. :)

In the course of the past 4 months of receiving free samples, I now have a nice little stash of mailing supplies, mostly bubble envelopes. Those are like an "extra" freebie, right? :)

And while we're on the topic of freebies (can you tell I'm addicted?!), the free sample-size packets of granola bars, snacks, or other food items are just perfect for sending in Joshua's lunch. It's even more fun when he didn't see them come in the mail, and I get to surprise him with something new to try! :)

Now, head on over to Jessica's blog for more frugal ideas and tips! :)

This post was originally published in 2008.

Edited to add: When we moved last year, I used many of my free bubble envelopes to pack breakable items for our move! :) I still maintain a nice little stash of bubble envelopes, and it's so handy to have whatever size I need for mailing things! :)

New/unused postage stamps for less than face value

I just ordered some new (unused) 41-cent postage stamps for 34 cents each. That means that the roll of 100 stamps cost $34.00 instead of $41.00 (includes shipping). How is this possible? Ebay. :)

For some time now (at least 2 years), my younger brother Phillip has been ordering unused postage stamps from eBay for less than face value. Often, the stamps are a cent or two below the current first-class postage rate. For example, my last roll was 39-cent stamps, and I had to add a 2-cent stamp each time I mailed something. However, the stamps were cheap enough that I was still saving several cents on each mailing.

Since I've never ordered anything from eBay myself, I interviewed Phillip to get the scoop on how he finds these great deals (which he passes on to me!).

So, Phillip, how do you find these postage stamp bargains on eBay?

Phillip: I just go to the stamps section, select the U.S. category, and then search terms like "41", "unused", or "new".

How often can you find good deals on unused postage stamps on eBay?

Phillip: Well, whenever someone asks me to order some stamps for them, I start watching for a deal. Sometimes it takes a week or two before one pops up. As far as getting them for 34 cents [for a 41-cent stamp] -- well, that might take a couple weeks. That's a really good deal.

And that price includes shipping, right?

Phillip: Yes. Actually, I got free shipping on those.

Tell me about how you do the bidding. Do you wait until the last minute to place bids?

Phillip: I don't have the time to monitor the auctions, so I just put in a maximum bid -- an amount that I think would still be a good deal.

Do you have to order large amounts of stamps to get these good prices?

Phillip: Not really. The 34-cent ones I just got -- it was 3 rolls (300 stamps). It just depends. I get them and sell them to friends or family members for what I paid.

How many times have you ordered stamps on eBay?

Phillip: I'm not sure... about 8 times maybe.

Do you have any advice about what not to do? Has it always worked out well for you?

Phillip: Well definitely check the feedback for the seller -- but that's a given on eBay. I did order one time from someone who had really good feedback, but he never shipped my order. He had like 800 feedbacks and it was 99% positive, so I don't know what happened. I just got my money refunded through PayPal, and it was no big deal.

Thanks for taking the time to answer all of my questions, Phillip. Now, I'm going to go blog about this... ;) (Originally published in May 2008)

Visit Jessica's blog for more money-saving tips! :)

Frugal potluck choices: Our favorite beans and rice

Our favorite beans and rice!

I grew up in a home where beans were rarely served (and then, it was either baked beans or my mom's chili).

Joshua grew up eating lots of beans and rice, and when we got married he told me that beans really weren't his favorite... especially not beans and rice.

We've been married 7 years now and I've really expanded my recipe collection when it comes to beans! I've been able to find lots of yummy meals that include beans and satisfy my husband's taste buds! :)

One such recipe from the past year has been the dreaded... beans and rice. The first night I served beans and rice, I didn't even tell Joshua what I had made for dinner! I just served it up. ;) And as I had hoped... my version of beans and rice was acceptable to him! He actually said it was good!! I was so delighted, since the children and I all love it! :)

I don't have a "real" recipe, but here is how I make my beans and rice:

I cook pinto beans following this recipe. We like our beans nice and tender! :) Adding the salt and Tapatio hot sauce called for in that recipe makes for some fabulous tasting beans!

I cook some rice. Our favorite is basmati rice, which I get in bulk at Costco. But any rice will work! For some extra color in the rice, I sometimes add chives or paprika.

Then I layer the cooked rice, cooked beans, and shredded cheeses. If I'm taking the dish to a potluck, I can easily re-warm this part in the oven.

When serving, I add some sour cream to the top and serve with tortilla chips on the side.

We all love this way of making beans and rice, and I've taken it to our church potlucks many times, since it is affordable and everyone loves it! :)

Our favorite beans and rice!

Here's my price breakdown when making beans and rice for a crowd. And these amounts really will make about 16 servings. :) Prices are from Costco.

2.5 pounds C+F pinto beans      $1.29
Salt and Tapatio hot sauce       $0.05
2.5 cups dry (7.5 cups cooked) Basmati rice      $1.10
4 cups (1 pound) Tillamook shredded cheddar cheese    $2.20
2 cups (16 ounces) Darigold sour cream       $0.90
16 ounces Mission tortilla strips        $1.11

Total cost for 16 servings: $6.65

Reasons we love this beans and rice:

It's easy.
It's affordable.
It's yummy! :)

I don't take this to every potluck though... I still make my cheesy bread for potlucks, and have recently taken homemade pizza (re-warmed in the oven) which was eaten in a flash!! :) I like variety, so it's fun making various things to take. :)

Be sure to visit Jessica's blog for more Frugal Fridays tips and ideas! :)

This recipe was included in my freezer meal plan of main dishes when preparing for the birth of my fourth child. Read my update on how this recipe and the others turned out after freezing!

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