Eat Well, Spend Less

Eat Well, Spend Less

Eat Well, Spend Less: Frugal Budget Considerations for 2012

Last January (2011), I shared some of my thoughts and plans after having re-evaluated our household budget. Having a plan in place to change even just a handful of our practices or habits has helped keep our budget on track throughout the year. I thought I'd give an update on last year's goals and brainstorm areas where I still want to improve.

My goal last year was to budget tightly enough to save for the "extras" that pop up in life -- like a new baby, vehicle repairs, medical things, etc. (Speaking of "medical things", Joshua's surgery this week went well [praise GOD!] and he is home recovering. He'll have a second surgery in February, and should be able to return to work in April.)

My plan for 2011 included:

Continue having 1 vehicle -- did this all year and are continuing :)

Continue having only basic phone service (no cell phones or long distance) -- same

Continue having Netflix (no TV, no movies, and no other movie rentals or purchases) -- Canceled Netflix in August, 2011

Continue menu planning -- did better, but not 100% on this

Discontinue restaurant/take-out eating (none, vs. the 6-8 times per year for the past couple of years) -- We ate out (as a family) twice, Joshua got take-out twice, and we got hot dogs at Costco 4-5 times, so... not really an improvement, but not too bad :)

Go to Costco every 2 weeks instead of every week -- we averaged shopping every 10-14 days, so much better than weekly! :)


Spend only $420/month on food/household/toiletries -- this has increased to $500/month; I'm just not sure what else I want to cut when it comes to groceries...

Continue to keep the heat at 64 or lower -- we did this, but getting the furnace repaired (by the landlord) ended up reaping much bigger savings, yay!

Wash towels and whites in cold water instead of hot (use a few drops of bleach instead) -- I went back to hot water for whites/towels, 1 load per week

Take shorter showers (this is a hard one for me!) -- I've been taking fewer showers, not that that's a good thing... ;)

Get Ruth potty trained (she's in Pull-Ups) -- did this in February, yay! :)

Go back to cloth diapers for Moshe (used disposables during December) -- went back to cloth diapers full-time and continued, aside from a 2-day break (just while flying to Ohio/to Seattle to visit my family)

Take a year-long break from buying stuff (we have so much already!) -- I *mostly* did this. Joshua got me a few gifts, though! :)

Shop around to see if we can get a cheaper car insurance rate -- looked into this but didn't make any changes

Recycle anything possible -- done

Call trash service and downgrade to smallest, customer-provided can (saving $7/month) -- did this, and have been able to fit our trash in the tiny can every week! :)

Get landlord to fix dripping faucet in bathroom -- fixed

Figure out how to pay bills online to save stamps -- found a couple I can pay online without extra charges :)

Continue blogging -- I mostly did this, in my bad-blogger way...

Get my recipe e-book finished -- Definitely did not get this done. I let too many things be my excuses/reasons not to make time to work on it...

Eat Well, Spend Less series

Eating Well, Spending Less in 2012

I don't know how many times we've gone over our household budget and...

...the only category it seems we can realistically fiddle with is the food/household items budget.

While I don't think I can actually reduce this year's food budget (can we say growing kids?!), I want to do more without spending more.

Specific ways I plan to accomplish this:

1. Continue to spend nearly all of our food/household budget money on food (instead of things like diapers!), which is one of the ways we eat well and stay within-budget.

2. Continue to go grocery shopping every 2 weeks (or even less often). This practice, especially, means I have to plan ahead -- which is a good thing.

3. Continue to plan menus, focusing on using fresh food at its peak, not wasting anything, and eating lots of affordable foods like beans and carrots. :)

4. Resist buying foods that are expensive but don't provide good nutrition.

5. Do more freezer cooking, and not just for "special occasions" like surgery or having a baby.

6. Introduce new kitchen tasks to the children as they grow older. Yehoshua will be 8 in April, and Eliyahu is 6 -- they could be more helpful and independent if I took more time to teach them to cook. Starting beans in the crock pot, making a pot of oatmeal for breakfast, or getting carrots ready to cook are some of the things I'd like to get them doing more regularly and independently! :)

7. Finally perfect a homemade chicken broth (from the bones after making roasted chicken). I've attempted a few times and didn't care for the results. :(

8. Try to limit desserts more than we already do. Desserts tend to be unhealthy and expensive, anyway. :)

This month's Eat Well, Spend Less series posts are on the topic of New Year's Food/Kitchen Resolutions! Check out what these ladies are sharing:

Jessica at Life As Mom: Teaching My Boys to Cook

Aimee at Simple Bites: Food Resolutions

Katie at Kitchen Stewardship: Yogurt, beans, and chicken broth

Shaina at Food For My Family: Overall Kitchen Organization

Katie at GoodLife{eats}: Variety with whole grains

Mandi at Life...Your Way: The Key to Changing Your Diet for Good

Carrie at Denver Bargains: Reducing Kitchen Waste

Amy at Kingdom First Mom

Delicious winter holiday food on a budget (Eat Well, Spend Less)

This month's Eat Well, Spend Less series posts are holiday-themed (of course!). For practical inspiration, check out:

Easy Appetizers for the Holidays -- I LOVE Jessica's ideas. Appetizers are one of the highlights of a fancy meal/party for me, and I know I'll be coming back to this post next time I'm brainstorming good appetizers to serve! :)

Stocking up for the Holidays -- Shaina from Food for My Family gives a rundown of what to have on hand for the holidays and reminds us to shop now! (I can totally miss the traffic and lines this weekend and next... yay!) :)

Make-Ahead Breakfasts for Christmas Morning -- Mandi at Life...Your Way shares her favorite mouth-watering extra-special make-ahead breakfasts!

Homemade Substitutes for Holiday Favorites -- Aimee from Simple Bites rounds up some of the best from-scratch versions of everyone's favorite holiday foods!! :)

Cheap and Easy Party Foods -- Katie at Kitchen Stewardship shares her tips and recipes for healthy homemade party foods. Her cooked spelt salad looks amazing! (Scroll down to see it here.)

10 Easy Homemade Food Gifts -- Amy at Keeping the Kingdom First shares her favorite festive homemade food gifts. I love all the extra-fancy treats like no-bake snowball cookies! (Scroll down to see them here.)

Coping with Lackluster Holiday Grocery Sales -- Carrie at Denver Bargains blogs about the absence of rock-bottom sale prices and some creative ways to get more groceries for less budget, despite the obstacles.

My own post for this week is Frugal Cold-Weather Comfort Foods. I'll also be doing a roundup of some of my favorite splurge-a-little company foods on Monday! Having guests is always a great excuse to turn the heat up a little and bake something extra special. ;)

Frugal Cold-Weather Comfort Foods (Eat Well, Spend Less)

One of the great things about winter is that so many of our favorite comfort foods happen to be really frugal, too. If I can contain most of my baking urges to breads and main dishes and skip the buttery, sugary desserts, we're all set! ;)

I'm partial to some of these foods because they remind me of my childhood -- cold Ohio winters, sitting in the kitchen of my parents' old farmhouse, eating foods we'd grown and preserved throughout the warmer months. But before that starts sounding too rosy -- I do remember all the hard WORK involved... ;)

Eat Well, Spend Less series

My family "did things" very simply. Special events were a bit rare and a big deal, and holidays were special because special stuff just didn't happen that often. We didn't have elaborate celebrations or gift exchanges, but that was okay. A day off school because of snowfall, or family gatherings -- it was special because it was our family... and I like that.

...and, our favorite cold-weather comfort foods are pretty simple, too.

Beans! Oh, all right, you already know I love beans... filling, delicious, and frugal. I almost always cook my beans from dried beans. I either cook a big batch and freeze some of them, or cook a big batch and we eat all of them!

On a chilly day, some freshly cooked beans waiting in the crock pot is a perfect meal. And not many perfect meals are that cheap. ;)

What do I like besides pinto beans (and some toppings)? Here are a few easy from-dried-grains recipes for variety:

White chili is so easy, and a welcome change if you eat "regular" chili often. We love this soup!

Hearty Beef and Lentil Chili is one of my newer discoveries. If you've never cooked with lentils, this is a great place to start!

Lentils don't get any easier than this Easy Lentil Soup recipe! Despite its simplicity, it's delicious. Our whole family likes it. I got lentils in bulk (25#) and this is one of the ways I serve them! :)

This veggie bean soup with spinach is one of my personal favorites. I can't get over how good it is -- when I follow the recipe. ;) It's meatless, colorful, and affordable. I like to buy the big 3-pound bags of spinach at Costco and make several meals with spinach, including this soup! (Leftovers freeze great, as well.)

This Gourmet Bean Soup is really as easy as 1, 2, and 3. You may end up standing at the stove wondering if you really did everything you were supposed to do for this recipe! Start it early, and then get busy doing other fun stuff (or make some dinner rolls and a salad while the soup cooks). :)

Beef and Barley Soup is one of my childhood favorites. I have a similar version made using wheat: Wheat Berry Soup.

My mom's vegetable soup... one of the common Sunday lunches after church. My mom would make this in the morning, leave it to simmer, and we'd come home to a hot lunch (only we called it dinner, of course). Having vegetable soup in the crock pot (or in the fridge, waiting to be warmed up) is one of my best tactics for affordably filling hungry tummies after a day (or part of a day) away from home. :)

While this one won't save you time (compared to making loaves of bread), it really ups the presentation of your pennies-per-cup soup when you serve it in a homemade bread bowl! Everyone LOVES these bread bowls when I make them. :)

Easier beans or soups during busy days and weeks:

Make large batches and freeze leftovers for a quick meal later.

Bread or rolls (made and then frozen) are a great side with soup.

Most soup recipes can be easily adapted for the crock pot.

Have a plan! My downfall is that soups need to be started early, despite the little hands-on time required. Having a menu plan is a huge help! :)

A favorite winter tradition: Sunday night popcorn! Dark before 5 in the evening, and we'd pull out the air popper and pop lots and lots of popcorn. My mom usually served home-canned apple juice or grape juice with our popcorn. Popcorn is a great frugal snack (even though I don't grow my own). :)

I don't usually get too fancy with beverages, but here are a couple I turn to when a friend comes over (or it's just been One Of Those Mornings).

Chai Tea Latte (pictured above) -- or this from-scratch spiced chai tea! Mmm... cardamom... :)

Hot cocoa on demand. This stuff totally saves my morning some days. :)

Since this is rather decadent (hello, eggs and cream and maple syrup!), I've been saving it to make when we're having company. No one can refuse homemade egg nog -- what a treat! :)

Joshua's specialty is making homemade sparkling grape juice (or other juice) when we have company. It adds a festive touch without costing much! :)

What do you like to make from-scratch this time of year? I'm sure I'm forgetting things. We have a more relaxed December than most... and hang out at home a lot. ;)

Tips for a Homemade Make-ahead Thanksgiving Dinner (Eat Well, Spend Less)

Thanksgiving dinner menu planning tips

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays! For starters, all of our friends and family celebrate it, so my Thanksgiving memories are fond ones filled with family or friends (or both!). We get the day off from work or school, and sometimes there's even an early snowfall that gets us all excited about Winter ahead. :)

I also love a good excuse to do some cooking. We've always done potluck-style Thanksgiving Dinners, and one of my favorite things to provide is hot pumpkin dinner rolls spread with butter. (Okay, that's my very favorite Thanksgiving food, too.) When we lived in Ohio, I just made rolls for Thanksgiving. Lots of rolls. Rolls for everyone (40+ people). And they would be gone, every time. (I did a double batch of this recipe, which is already huge!) Now, here in Washington with a much smaller family potluck, I get to make more foods, and only about 10-12 servings of each. Cranberry sauce and green bean casserole are on my list so far for this year! :)

While I do enjoy cooking, I have trouble socializing or relaxing while cooking. I can't join a conversation very easily while I'm cooking, and then there's all the dishes and mess and the fact that I'm usually running behind by 15-30 minutes on whatever I'm doing anyway... so, I find it's extremely helpful to do anything possible ahead of time! Besides, I want to sleep in on Thanksgiving Day, not get up early to start cooking! ;)

Here are ways to make your favorite homemade Thanksgiving foods in advance (or mostly in advance)!

Eat Well, Spend Less series

Appetizers, like veggie trays, dips, chips, meats, or cheeses

Most dips can be made 3-4 days in advance, and meats and cheeses can be sliced for serving 3-4 days in advance, as well. Just store in the fridge, sealed. Veggies can be prepped 2 days ahead (possibly longer).

Tip for prepping veggie trays or cheese trays: I don't always have room in my fridge for the finished/assembled tray or dish, but I still prep the veggies or cheeses ahead of time. Store the prepped foods in Ziplock bags in the fridge, which take up much less space than a specialty tray or dish. You can quickly assemble the tray on the day it's needed! This is especially helpful for advance meat/cheese tray prep, as the foods are kept separate (so flavors don't mix) until a few hours before serving.

Turkey

Turkeys take a long time to thaw (and should be thawed in the fridge). I plan on about 24 hours for every 5 pounds of turkey (so, a 16-pound turkey would take about 3 days to thaw). If it happens that you didn't start thawing your turkey in time, you can do a quick-thaw. Leave the turkey in its original packaging and submerge in COLD water. Allow 30 minutes of cold-water thawing per pound of turkey.

Plan ahead for your turkey. Choose a recipe to use, make sure you have the ingredients on hand, and calculate when you'll need to start thawing and what time you'll need to start baking the turkey.

Gravy

Gravy can be made ahead and re-warmed for Thanksgiving Dinner -- unless you want to use drippings from your turkey to make the gravy. In that case, when the turkey is finished cooking, assign someone else to carve the bird while you make a quick gravy with the hot juices. Or, make giblet gravy ahead of time, and save the turkey drippings for another meal. (Freeze for later use.)

Stuffing

I love stuffing with gravy! The good part about stuffing is that you can make it 2-3 days in advance and bake it before serving (or actually stuff the turkey with it).

I'm guessing that stuffing would work great in the slow-cooker, too (anyone have a tried-and-true slow-cooker stuffing recipe/method?), freeing up more oven space. (My mom's Simple Stuffing recipe is here; hopefully this year I'll make time to take a picture and get the recipe "officially" added to the recipe browser!)

Mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes

Mashed potatoes is another homemade side dish that can take a bit of time to prepare if you wait until last-minute. You can make mashed potatoes 2-3 days in advance. Spread the mashed potatoes in a greased baking dish and re-warm in the oven on Thanksgiving. For sweet potato casserole, unless you're making something super fancy, make it ahead of time and keep in the fridge until you're ready to bake it!

The crock pot also works great for re-warming mashed potatoes! After you make your mashed potatoes, grease the inside of your slow cooker's crock (if removable) and spoon the potatoes into it. Store, covered, in the fridge. (If your slow cooker doesn't have a removable crock, then just store the potatoes in a container in the fridge.) On Thanksgiving Day, heat potatoes in the slow cooker on LOW for 3-4 hours, stirring once if needed.

Green Bean Casserole

Green bean casserole is another good candidate for the crock pot or slow cooker. If you have room in your oven, you can make the dish ahead of time and just bake on Thanksgiving Day. But make sure you really do have room in the oven for everything you're planning to bake or reheat! Turkeys fill up an oven quickly. :) (I'll be posting my homemade green bean casserole recipe early next week!)

Dinner rolls or bread

I love homemade dinner rolls, but like I said, I also like to sleep in. And a lot of our Thanksgiving dinners happen around noon or so -- with a commute. I've not yet successfully attempted the make-dough-ahead, bake-the-next-day approach to yeast breads without the dough completely poofing all over in my fridge while I slept. (I am partial to really truly freshly-baked homemade bread, so I'm not giving up yet!)

So, my method for fresh-like dinner rolls is to make the rolls in advance (up to a week is fine), and freeze them as soon as they're cool. Thaw in the bag before serving. If you have room in the oven, you can re-warm them and everyone will think you really did get up at 5am to start bread.

I've also found that using some natural dough enhancers / dough conditioners can make day-old homemade breads taste just like fresh, so that's another option if you want to skip freezing and bake a day or two early, with fresh-like rolls to serve the next day.

Cranberry sauce

I like whole-berry cranberry sauce, and it can be made 4-5 days ahead and stored in the fridge. Cranberry sauce was one of those things my grandma made and served for Sunday dinners -- just because she knew I loved it. I never disappointed her, and always ate a big helping. ;)

Pumpkin pies or cheesecake

Pumpkin pies can be made a day or two ahead of time. Cover with a layer of plastic wrap so the top doesn't dry out if you're storing them for longer than 24 hours. Pie crust dough can be made and frozen until needed. Or, you can eliminate the need to thaw the pie dough by making it up to 3 days in advance and just storing the ready-made dough in the fridge. (That's my favorite way to do it!) My mom's Foolproof Pie Crust recipe is the best-tasting pie crust we've found.

Cool Whip is just no competition for homemade real whipped cream. I've tried various ways of stabilizing real whipped cream, but none were successful enough in my opinion. Instead, I just plan on taking 2-3 minutes to whip up the cream for dessert. No one seems to mind waiting 3 minutes to get real whipped cream... ;)

Pumpkin cheesecake is another great dessert option, and cheesecake freezes wonderfully. Just thaw in the fridge, covered, for 24 hours before serving. (Cheesecake can also be made and refrigerated for several days before serving.)

Other Thanksgiving Dinner Preparations

Gather your recipes and supplies ahead of time, making sure you have everything you'll need. A roasting pan that's big enough? A meat thermometer? Ingredients for everything?

Calculate just how much space you will have in your oven for everything you plan to bake. You could borrow a slow cooker or a plug-in roaster oven / pan from a friend (who isn't hosting Thanksgiving at her house!) if you need to. If you're having a potluck-style dinner, talk with your guests ahead of time about anything they might be planning to bake in your oven. (They may want to bake at home and bring it in an insulated carrier, already hot, if your oven will be full. I've used my Pyrex dish with insulated carrier so many times!)

If you're using special dishes, linens, or decorations, make sure they're washed and ready to go, well in advance.

I also find it's nice to try to clean out the fridge (use up leftovers, organize, etc.) about a week before Thanksgiving, so I have room for all the extra, special things I'll need to refrigerate! :)

After writing all of this, I need the need to clarify that, of course, Thanksgiving is NOT about the food, but about giving thanks to God and enjoying a special day with friends or family! We've had very elaborate and very simple Thanksgivings, but what I remember most is who we were with on that day.

I hope that, whatever menu you're serving or having on Thanksgiving, these tips and ideas help free you up to relax and enjoy your family and friends on Thanksgiving Day. :)

I'll be sharing links to the other Eat Well, Spend Less Thanksgiving-themed posts this weekend. You'll love them! :)

Enjoying Fall's Bounty of Pumpkins and Squashes (Eat Well, Spend Less)

October's Eat Well, Spend Less theme is about cooking with fall foods. I haven't been blogging much, but I sure have been enjoying the crisp days, sunshine, and having hot tea in the mornings. I can actually keep up with the yard work now (I love making it look beautiful!), and we've been getting outside on any days that are nice. Soon enough, the clouds and rain won't lift for weeks at a time...

But, on to the topic at hand: Using and enjoying delicious winter squash and pumpkins!

For more info on types of winter squash, see Aimee's great article about winter squash. (I haven't tried all the different types, but have tried some of the most common ones, and of course, pumpkin!)

I find that pumpkin puree and winter squash puree are interchangeable in most recipes. (Cooked and pureed carrots also can be substituted for pumpkin puree in most recipes.)

I usually end up using whatever I am given or find on sale. Some friends know that I love to cook with pumpkin and winter squash, and will give me their Fall pumpkins and squashes after they're finished using them for decoration. Other times, friends or relatives with gardens will give me some of their extra Autumn bounty. I don't think I've ever had too much pumpkin! :)

How to store pumpkin and winter squash:

Store pumpkins and winter squash in a cool dark dry and well-ventilated location until ready to use. It's best to store them on a soft surface, such as cardboard or a cloth/towel. Most varieties will keep for 3 months.

Before cutting into your pumpkin or squash, wash or rinse the outside with water to remove any dirt. I like to use a thin serrated knife to cut. (I actually use a bread knife!) Remove the seeds (save pumpkin seeds for roasting!) and stem before cooking.

How to cook pumpkin or winter squash on the stove top:

Cut into wedges to fit into a large stock pot. Add a couple inches of water to the stock pot. Cook over medium heat, covered, until the flesh is soft (test with a fork). Drain and allow to cool. Scoop flesh from the skin and discard skin.

(I find I prefer the stove-top method, especially when I have a lot of pumpkin or squash to cook, since I can fit a lot in a big pan.)

How to cook pumpkin or winter squash in the oven:

Place halves face-down on a baking sheet/pan and add 1/2-1 inch of water to the pan. Bake at 400 degrees for 30-60 minutes (may take longer for larger halves), until flesh is soft (check with a fork). Cool; scoop flesh from the skin and discard the skin.

How to make pumpkin puree:

Puree pumpkin in small amounts in a blender or food processor.

Puree can then be frozen in bags or containers (I prefer containers).

Easy no-blender pumpkin puree tip:

I've also used a potato masher to mash the cooked pumpkin and while that didn't make a smooth puree, it did just fine in my pies, muffins, and pumpkin dinner rolls!

Pumpkin differences:

Smaller "sugar" pumpkins (or "pie" pumpkins) are more flavorful, sweeter, and less watery. They will make a pumpkin puree similar to the store-bought canned pumpkin puree.

Larger "carving" pumpkins are definitely edible, though lighter and more watery. When using these pumpkins, drain the excess water for best results.

You definitely don't want watery pumpkin puree for your baked goods, and the thicker your puree, the more flavorful!

Pumpkin raisin cookies recipe
Getting ready to bake Pumpkin Raisin Cookies in the bright (but cold) sunshine. A friend gave me this recipe when I was first married and I love it. It also uses lots of pumpkin! :)

How to drain the excess water from cooked pumpkin or winter squash puree (important!):

Place a strainer inside a bowl or clean sink. Spoon the puree into the strainer. Don't worry, unless your strainer has huge holes, the puree won't slide through! Allow the puree to drain until water stops coming out. From 1 medium-large carving pumpkin, I drained over a quart of clear watery liquid!

Pumpkin dinner rolls
Pumpkin Dinner Rolls
: one of my favorite breads,
and a Thanksgiving tradition at our house! :)

Whole wheat pumpkin pancakes recipe
Whole wheat pumpkin pancakes, drizzled with maple syrup

More from the Eat Well, Spend Less team:

Fall Produce and Recipes (Katie at goodLife{eats})

Grocery sale outlook and predictions for Fall 2011 (Carrie at Denver Bargains)

Seasonal Soups (Aimee at Simple Bites)

10 Frugal Fall Snacks for Hungry Kids (Jessica at Life As Mom)

10 Things to do with Apples (Katie at Kitchen Stewardship)

How to Save on Thanksgiving (Alyssa at Kingdom First Mom)

Hearty Breakfasts for Cold Mornings (Shaina at Food For My Family)

Creating and Using from a Long-Term and Short-Term Food Storage (Eat Well, Spend Less)

This month's Eat Well, Spend Less topic is centered around emergency preparedness. I've been interested in this topic for a long time, and today I get to write about food storage!

Growing up on a farm with parents who grew (and preserved) much of their own food, buying ahead and having short-term food storage in our home seemed natural to me. Then, we took our first steps toward long-term food storage several years ago. Now, we have a mixture of short- and long-term food on hand. I'm still expanding our variety with new foods, like lentils this year.

Here are my tips on getting started:

Research What Stores Well and How To Store It

I knew I wanted to store some food long-term, and I wasn't planning to buy the little bags or boxes from the grocery store with a "use by" date. Was it really true that properly-stored wheat could stay good and nutritious for decades? What about the shelf life of dry beans?

Here is one of my favorite pages about long-term food storage, and here is another site that is a wealth of information on the topic. Google has lots of results for search terms like "long term food storage", and a YouTube search for similar terms brings up videos on the topic (if you like to watch instead of just reading!).

Decide Which Foods You Can Both Use and Store

For example, if you've never cooked with dry beans, buy a small quantity and use them before deciding to invest in a hundred pounds of beans for your food storage, even though they are cheaper in bulk! ;)

Why store and use?

  • You'll save money by buying in bulk quantities.
  • It's easier to maintain a short-term food supply (items with a shorter shelf life).
  • You'll be using ingredients while they're still fresh (and not tossing anything, having paid only to store it and not to use it).

I also have a grain mill, which means I can easily use wheat (which stores very easily) and make my own flour as needed. If you don't have a grain mill or the means to purchase one (or simply don't use a lot of flour), you can purchase flour in bulk -- such as 25 or 50 pounds at a time.

Get Ready to Purchase

For short-term food storage (items with a shorter shelf life), watch for sales at your local grocery stores. Research bulk purchase options such as bulk food stores, health food stores, or co-ops. Azure Standard is a co-op that services where we currently live. When we lived in Ohio, we were able to order from Something Better Natural Foods.

One of the best ways to find out about stores or deals in your area is to ask friends or acquaintances. "Where do you buy ___ ?" is a common question I have when I'm at someone's house or if they've brought food to our house. I've written more about buying in bulk here. We try to buy in bulk as much as possible! :)

After you've scoped out the options available in your area, you're ready to buy ahead! :)

Italian Pasta Salad recipe
Italian Pasta Salad -- using mostly pantry ingredients

Carefully Store Your Food

Label and date everything!! I love buckets for bulk grains or flours.

We have stored some grains in Mylar bags with oxygen absorbers. Those buckets are not in rotation and have not been used yet, for two reasons. Reason #1 is that Mylar bags and oxygen absorbers cost money. However, that cost is worth knowing that those grains are safely stored and can be kept for 20+ years before using. Thus reason #2 is that those buckets can be stored for a very long time before using. I have other buckets (not sealed with Mylar bags) that are in regular rotation and are used from. :)

Food should be stored in a cool, dry, dark location, preferably without any drastic temperature changes. (E.g., storage at 70 degrees year-round is better than a fluctuating 50-80 degrees.)

Don't be Afraid to Try New Recipes!

Search online, in cook books, or in books from the library for ways to use the ingredients you've stored. Storing simple, whole ingredients like dried beans and legumes, sugar, salt, pasta, and hot cereals allows for plenty of experimentation in the kitchen -- and incorporating fresh ingredients when you have them! :)

The Prudent Homemaker has a lot of great articles and tips about living off of food storage. Really, anything I could write on the topic is inferior to Brandy's knowledge and experience! Be sure to read her story about living from their food storage, and check out her list of what she buys at Sam's Club! :) (By the way, Brandy's recipes all look mouth-watering! See the sidebar for her recipe categories and then browse the photos!)

Don't miss the other great posts this week from the Eat Well, Spend Less team:

Making the most of your pantry, fridge, and freezer (Jessica at Life As Mom)

5 ways with beans (Katie at goodLife{eats})

5 ways with lentils (Aimee at Simple Bites)

5 ways with pasta (Mandi at Life... Your Way)

5 basic steps to emergency preparedness (Katie at Kitchen Stewardship)

Whole Grain 101 (Shaina at Food for My Family)

An emergency fund in your pantry (Alyssa at Keeping the Kingdom First)

Managing From-Scratch Cooking While Home Schooling (Eat Well, Spend Less)

Back to school. Already?! As homeschoolers, we chose not to take the summer off from academics and worked in some reading and math each weekday. The work was minimal, but I mentally patted myself on the back.

I thought I was ready to start the new school year this month, but boy was I wrong! Having a child in second grade, kindergarten, and pre-K, along with a toddler (18 months) has really thrown me a curve. Someone is always needing help with something. Someone ends up being grumpy, someone ends up goofing off a little too much, or someone is bugging someone else. I'm reliving the "joys" of a struggling almost-reader. Our kitchen table is getting a workout as it functions as our dinner table, school desk for 3, and my computer area -- not all at the same time, of course.

How in the world am I supposed to get "everything else" done during a rigorous school schedule?! (Thankfully, we don't have extra-curricular activities to run to!)

Quite simply, I don't get everything else done as I'd like to. And cooking from scratch during busy seasons of life -- or is all of life a "busy season" for you? -- ISN'T EASY. But, I've been making it a priority. And I think... it's working. So far. Here are my tips!

Plan Ahead

Why is planning always at the top of the list? Because it's so crucial. I hate menu planning, but when I do it (and it does get easier over time... I speak from experience...) so much stress is gone from my day.

Plan simple meals. I probably don't even need to tell you that most of our meals are very simple ones, and have been ever since baby #3 was born, over 3 years ago.

We love to cook, but the more involved stuff isn't an everyday occurrence. It can't be. Frozen vegetables, fresh fruit, and a simple main dish are our dinner staples. Breakfast is oatmeal or scrambled eggs. Lunch is bean burritos, peanut butter and honey sandwiches, or leftovers. On the weekend, or when we have dinner guests, we make fancy stuff, because we enjoy it. :)

Read more about my time-saving and money-saving dinner tips here!

Have A Schedule

Home education is awesome because it can happen any time, any where. We get to set our own schedules and routines.

On the other hand, we have to set our own schedules and routines. For me, this means buckling down, eating breakfast, and getting started on the book part of home schooling right away. I could let housework, laundry, organizing, and goofing off (think playing games... man, kids are so fun some times!) take up the whole morning if I didn't put them aside and make the "work" part top priority. Getting the work done on time means I have time for other things, like making dinner.

Use Appliances

Lighten the last-minute dinner scramble by using a crock pot. There are tons of slow cooker recipes online. I use my crock pot mostly for pinto beans, black beans, and soups. You can cook a whole chicken in there, roast beef and gravy (mmmmm), or macaroni and cheese.

This week, I put garbanzo beans in the crock pot overnight. The next morning, I spent about 15 minutes of hands-on time making hummus. I had planned ahead, done the quick step of putting beans in the crock pot and turning it on the night before, and we had a healthy dip for our veggie sticks at lunch time and dinner time.

Drastically reduce the time it takes to make homemade bread by using a bread machine or stand mixer to knead your bread. Bread needs time -- but not your time. You just need to plan it in advance. A few minutes for pizza crust, a few minutes for a loaf of bread -- but you gotta start early enough in the day.

Having a freezer is one of my time-saving appliances. I like to make large batches of things and freeze extras. Beans, taco meat, soups, rice, burritos, and casseroles all freeze great and cut down on from-scratch dinner prep time!

You probably have some appliances you love that make life easier. Use them! :) And I'd love to hear about them in the comments. (Now that I have a big enough kitchen and house to actually consider having appliances on my counter...) :)

Have Everyone Help

Joshua often grills for our dinners. He also encourages our children to help clear the table after dinner and is a good example to them. After working hard all day and making dinner, having help with the cleanup is MUCH appreciated -- and needed.

Our children are currently ages 1, 3, 5, and 7 and can set the table, unload the dishwasher, clear the table, put away leftovers (I supply the containers), wash the table, sweep the floor (somewhat, haha), and more. Everyone helps!

Do Something Before Bed

I try to do at least a couple things before bed that will help the next day run more smoothly. For me, it's things like filling the Berkey so we'll have plenty of water, making sure the kitchen table is clear and washed so it's ready for use the next day, and getting things ready for Joshua's lunchbox the next morning. I always pack a lunch for Joshua, but planning ahead makes it easier. (Well, that and the fact that he takes things like bananas and apples and almonds, things which take virtually no prep time!) I wrote more about Joshua's lunches here.

Then, I try to go to bed on time. (Ahhh, this explains the scarcity of blog posts around here this month!) Going to bed early is even better! ;) And then getting up on time and getting our day started early. The kids all get up when Joshua's alarm goes at 5am, so I don't really have the option of sleeping in. Overall, this is good, since it keeps us all on the same schedule. And deep down, I am a morning person so once I wake up, I feel ready to tackle the day. Usually.

More ways to maximize efficiency in the kitchen:

Meal-planning before baby arrives (our favorite freezer meals)

How to make multiple freezer meals with just one dish

Easy bean and rice freezer burritos tutorial

How to efficiently load a dishwasher

And don't miss the other great Back-to-School posts from the Eat Well, Spend Less ladies:

Eat Well, Spend Less: How to host a BBQ without breaking the budget

I'm excited about July's Eat Well, Spend Less theme of "Entertaining on a budget"!

As I've mentioned before when I've shared our weekly menu plans, we have dinner guests regularly (4-6 times per month). Since I'm used to cooking from scratch, buying things on sale (or at Costco), and planning frugal meals (most of the time!) we have plenty of food to share and can even splurge and serve extra nice meals to guests. :)

This year, we've hosted quite a few BBQs. No, I don't have secrets for a fabulous summer BBQ for pennies per person. I do have a few tips on how we host a BBQ for less, though!

This first tip is a no-brainer: Buy food on sale. Or in bulk. Making homemade is even better, but I'll be honest: I've been buying Costco's 24-pack of hamburger buns. It's $3 that takes a weight off my week. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not Superwoman and I love to go to bed on time at night... or sleep in a little on the weekend -- even if we're having company. :)

And of course, serve what YOU can get affordably! I'll tell you some of the things we serve, but these could very well be expensive for you, so put on your thinking cap and serve what YOU got on sale last week or last month! :)

Some of our menu choices have been:

Grilled burgers, the quintessential summer BBQ food. We have served salmon burgers and beef burgers.

Buying beef burgers, buns, and toppings at Costco runs just over $20 for 24 huge burger sandwiches. Maybe a couple dollars more depending on the kind of cheese you use. (We've been using the pre-sliced American, Costco's cheapest.)

I know, that sounds like a lot of money, and it is! It's also a main dish that takes 15 minutes to prep and 8 minutes to grill, and I guarantee your guests will love a decked-out burger!

Serving burgers has been one of the easiest ways for us to host a BBQ. Joshua loves taking some of the load of hospitality off my shoulders, and I can actually relax instead of spending an entire day preparing for guests. Which is a good thing, since we're homeschooling and doing lots of other stuff too! I love hospitality, but unless I take a few shortcuts it can become overwhelming.

I haven't found time to make black bean burgers for 15+ people and my food processor broke recently, but I want to some day! I'm guessing that homemade black bean burgers would slash the price of BBQ burgers by about 75%, since I buy my ingredients in bulk!

Grilled chicken breast. We buy chicken breast on sale and it's an easy meat to grill that guests love. (Joshua's grilled chicken breast is so tender and delicious -- I really need to pick his brain for all his tips on grilling great chicken breast!) Serve grilled chicken over or with a green salad or some cooked rice to help stretch it a little.

Grilled Half Chicken recipe

Grilled Half Chicken. Joshua's latest frugal grilling endeavor was to grill a fryer chicken. You know, the kind that go on sale for under $1 a pound. Joshua's Grilled Half Chicken is fabulous and frugal! I've been able to pull a chicken out of the freezer that was purchased on sale for $0.69/lb making it under $4 for a 5-pound chicken that easily serves 6. The only problem with making such great food is that your guests will want to eat extra large servings! ;)

Consider also grilling cheaper chicken portions -- like drumsticks, wings, or leg quarters.

Grilled fish. This is economical for us because we're able to get discounted fish through Joshua's employer. (I love that perk of his job!) We serve grilled fish fillets over cooked rice. A few of our friends or guests were unsure about trying grilled fish (we asked them first to make sure it was okay to serve!) but we've NEVER had a guest not like Joshua's grilled fish of any kind! (Check out Joshua's fish recipes if you need a tried-and-true way to grill seafood!) In fact, we've had several guests tell us "I don't even LIKE fish, but this is awesome!". I can't tell you how happy that compliment made us! :)

Grilled kebabs. These are a good choice because you can stuff them with whatever's on sale or fresh from your garden. Zucchini, carrot or potato chunks are all frugal choices to add to your kebabs!

Serve Sides

If you're grilling meat, be sure to have some side dishes available to help the main dish go further. Serve potato salad with grilled burgers, cooked rice with chicken or fish, and a lettuce salad with anything!

Homemade garlic bread like Italian Cheese Bread or Grilled Cheese Loaf are two fairly easy breads you can serve that are affordable to make. (96% of people like or LOVE garlic bread, so it's a great choice!)

You can easily make a gluten-free grilled meal by serving a grilled meat with rice and lettuce salad. (That and taco salad are our two go-to gluten-free meals for guests!)

Serve veggie sticks with homemade Dill Dip, or apple slices with Cream Cheese Apple Dip. Having dip makes these fresh foods more palatable for guests. The apple slices and cream cheese apple dip can function as a dessert for a busy day!

Ice water

Serve Water

Don't be afraid to serve water to your guests. Obviously, you need to choose where to spend YOUR food budgeting dollars, but for our family, we tend to spend those dollars serving higher-quality foods and skipping expensive drinks. Most beverages have lots of empty calories, anyway! If we do want a nice beverage for guests, we make homemade sparkling juice.

We also make our own ice! True, it's only a dollar or two, but I find it easy to make ice and we like the taste of our own ice! And, we have a chest freezer so there's really no excuse for me to not have ice on hand. :) It's all about deciding where to save and where to spend... and for us, water and ice is where we usually choose to save. :)

Our reusable "large group" dinnerware
My basket of reusables (except napkins)

Run the Dishwasher

We also use reusable dishes whenever possible! Formerly, I had dinnerware (Corelle) for 14 people. When we had larger groups, I would use paper plates. But I would rather make use of having a dishwasher, so this year we got some inexpensive reusable plates.

Instead of spending a few dollars on disposable dinnerware, I just run the dishwasher an extra time. This also fits well with our trash pickup service, since we pay for the smallest service possible and have room for about 2 medium bags of trash per week.

If you do go with disposable dinnerware, I've found that Costco's prices, combined with a coupon offer from one of the monthly coupon flyers, is the cheapest way to get NICE disposable dinnerware. It's probably not cheaper than, say, Wal-Mart's cheapest disposable options, but definitely much higher quality!

Consider what you're serving. If it's finger food and grilled burgers, then cheap-o plates might be just fine! But I've made the mistake of buying cheap paper plates and then trying to serve food that either shredded up the plate or made guests want to use 3-4 plates at a time. (There went any of my "savings"!)

I do use paper napkins, since napkins tend to get greasy and hard to clean. (If you use cloth napkins when hosting large groups, I'd love to hear your tips!)

Read More!

Here's the latest from the fabulous Eat Well, Spend Less team! They're covering more on the topic of hospitality on a budget:

Budget-Friendly Potluck Meals from Jessica at Life As Mom

Simple, Inexpensive Hostess Gifts from Katie at GoodLife{eats}

Throwing a Party on a Budget from Mandi at Life... Your Way

The Gift of a Meal from Katie at Kitchen Stewardship

...and watch for more (will be linked here) from:

Aimee at Simple Bites

Alyssa at Keeping the Kingdom First

Carrie at Denver Bargains

Shaina at Food For My Family

Eat Well, Spend Less: Hot weather mealtime solutions

Yay! It's time for another Eat Well, Spend Less installment! :) Today I'm writing about ways to work around summertime heat in the kitchen. Not eating out when it's "too hot to cook!" is one of the ways we eat well and spend less! :)

Since we live in the Pacific Northwest, our summers are really quite mild compared to other areas. However, we don't have air conditioning and it does still get hot on occasion.

"Weather" we like it or not...

The past two summers, we were living in a third-floor apartment which was great in the winter (warm!) but not so great when a week of 90+ degree weather came along! ;) And I learned my lesson when I wasn't watching the weather forecast and made homemade pizza on the first hot day. Using the oven heated up our whole apartment quickly!

So, my first advice? Watch the weather forecast! In the warmer months, I check the weather forecast every couple of days so I know what temperatures to plan for (okay, I'll be honest -- I also check so I know when to do laundry!). If it's going to be hot, I'll take some measures to keep the heat outside.

Bake in the mornings?

I've heard so many people say "I bake in the mornings in the summer, since it's cooler at that time of day." Without air conditioning, this hasn't worked for me. Baking in the morning, even if the oven is turned off by 8 or 9 AM, still doesn't leave enough time for the house to cool down before the heat of the day, especially when it's really hot.

Instead, I like to bake in the evening. (If I bake at all!) Yes, it's adding heat to an already-hot house. But if I can bake at 8 or 9 PM, by then the house is as hot inside as it is outside, and we can put fans in the windows overnight and there is plenty of time for the house to cool down (at least, as much as it will cool when it doesn't get cold at night!). :)

On the same note, on hot days I make sure to run the dishwasher at night for those same reasons. Even with the heated-dry feature turned off, dishwashers let off a bit of heat while they're washing dishes. (Thankfully, we're still able to run the dishwasher only once a day if I pack it efficiently!) And I'm so thankful for my dishwasher! Washing dishes by hand when it's super hot makes me super hot -- and not in a good way. ;)

Grilling: My summer sanity-saver!

Using our grill is definitely one of the easiest and tastiest ways to cook without heating up the house. We love the convenience of our gas grill, and when the days get hot, I start experimenting! We have a grill grid/pan which makes it easy to use the grill as an oven-substitute for roasting veggies.

With the grill pan, it's pretty easy to convert an oven-based recipe for meat or vegetables to a grilled one! Here's what I do:

1. Think of what you would like to make.

2. Search online for grilled recipes for that item, to get an idea of how others have done it.

3. Loosely follow a recipe, or create your own, watching extra closely the first time you try it, and writing down your notes for how well it worked on your grill, how long it took to cook, etc.

Some of my favorite grilled recipes:

Grilled chicken: Grill a big batch and use it in any number of these chicken recipes!

You can see all of our grilled recipes here.

Grilled New York Steakburgers recipe

And of course, there's burgers! Turkey burgers, beef burgers (or steak burgers, pictured above), lamb burgers, salmon burgers, or even Mexican black bean burgers! I'm married to a burger-lover, and I take advantage of that during the summer months! ;) Burgers are just so easy and yummy! :) See more sandwich recipes here. 

Use appliances outside

Be careful to do this in a safe manner if you try it, of course -- but I have successfully used my crock pot and bread machine outside during hot weather. This gives another alternative to grilling everything! ;) If you have a safe outdoor area, like on an enclosed porch, deck, or in a garage, try moving some of your appliances out there during the hot weather! :)

Barely cooking

It's okay to have simple meals or -- gasp! -- even eat out when your house is too hot inside. But I find I enjoy eating out a lot more if it's planned into our budget and week rather than being a last resort for an unplanned dinner. So my advice is to watch the weather report, watch your schedule, make a menu plan -- and include dinner out IF you want to and IF you can afford it! :)

Salads: Endless variety for cool summer mealtimes!

Salads are my other go-to hot weather meal solution. If a salad requires cooking (like pasta salad or potato salad), do the cooking in the evening. Assemble the salad the next day for an easy, no-cook meal or side dish!

Joshua likes green salads with lots of meat. If I serve a meatless salad, it's usually as a side dish. Some of our summer favorites:

Taco salad recipe
Taco salad
! We could, and often do, eat this once a week during the summer. We love the seasoned taco meat (recipe included), which I cook in a large batch and freeze in meal-size portions. I do the same with the beans, making taco salad a very easy meal in the end! :)

Apple harvest chicken salad recipe
Apple Harvest Chicken Salad (like Red Robin's)

Tabbouleh recipe
Tabbouleh -- a favorite no-cook salad! :)

Olive Garden Salad and Dressing recipe
Olive Garden Salad and Dressing

Chicken pasta salad recipe
Chicken Pasta Salad -- a family favorite!

Greek Spinach Orzo Salad recipe
Greek Spinach Orzo Salad

Southwest chicken salad recipe
Southwest Chicken Salad

Strawberry Spinach Salad recipe
Strawberry Spinach Salad

You can see all my salad recipes here. :)

Cooling down on hot days without A/C

Sometimes, it's just plain HOT! We try to:

*Wear less clothes -- while still being modest. :) Go barefoot, let the baby crawl in a diaper, and pull my hair back in a pony tail. Wait -- I do the pony-tail thing all year... hmmm ;)

*Use cool, wet washcloths on our faces and foreheads

*Let the kids take a cool bath (with lots of toys in the tub!)

*Snack on frozen blueberries, strawberries, or other frozen food

*Eat ice cubes (my kids make homemade "popsicles" with plain water!)

*Sit in front of a fan and play with toys or read books :)

*Cool off the house with fans in the windows at night. Close the windows and shades during the day to keep the house cool. Don't turn on the stove, oven, computer monitor, dishwasher, clothes dryer, etc. unless absolutely necessary! I dry my laundry outside which helps a lot, too. :)

No-cook summer snackin':

What's your current favorite hot-weather menu item? :)

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