Monday, December 30, 2013

Rock Whatcha' Got January: Edition 3

You know we've always loved to cook. That is evident by the number of recipes you'll see posted throughout the years. And you know that January is always a lean month for teachers, since we get paid prior to the holiday break and then don't get paid again until the end of the month. So, here's the third edition of our rock whatcha got January menu, where we try to live out of the pantry and freezer as much as possible so we don't spend as much of our grocery money.

But first, a few tips to share about pantry and freezer cooking, and frugal cooking in general. 1) Veggies are almost always cheaper, healthier, and more filling than meat, especially when you add beans and some grain. 2) Stretch a dollar by having soup at least once a week. We have soup 2-3 times a week to stretch even further. 3) Sugars and oils are expensive. Where possible, we use oil in baking instead of butter, or go halfsies and use some of each. We also save bacon drippings for future use. They're great for frying eggs or greasing a cornbread pan (though not when our vegetarian friends are around.) I generally cut the amount of sugar in a baking recipe down by at least 1/4 cup. You can't tell the difference in taste, it's healthier, and saves more for the next batch. 4) Leftovers rock! They're great for lunches or a quick weeknight dinner. Or remix them into a burrito, soup, or some other dish that makes sense. 5) Bake your's almost always cheaper and healthier. And if you do it in a huge batch, then you save energy by only heating the oven once.

So, on to our January menu. After assessing the holiday leftovers, pantry, freezer, and knowing what was coming in our spice order from San Francisco Herb Company, I compiled the following menu.


Egg and cheese sandwiches using this french bread recipe (which will also be used for serving with soups)
Fruit salad (using some gifted fruit, leftovers from church, and grapefruit from our bulk order from Rotary Club)
Oatmeal or baked oatmeal (Simply in Season has the best recipe for baked oatmeal)
Lemon poppy seed muffins
Toast and homemade jam

Soups and Stews:

Corn Chowder
Turkey Soup with leftover carrots, celery, onion, and frozen swiss chard from our summer CSA, and of course leftover holiday turkey
Taco Soup
Potato Soup using gifted potatoes and homemade turkey stock

White Lasagna with pesto and butternut squash
Pasta bake with gifted pasta and homemade pesto
Pizza (you know it's our Friday night go-to) with whatever sauce and toppings we have on hand

Miscellaneous fillers and snacks:

Whole wheat pancakes and fruit
Bean soup
Veggie stir fry with bean sprouts (I got a sprouter kit for Christmas which I'm super excited to try out!)
Candied grapefruit peel
Peppermint bark

All told, I think we'll end up spending maybe $25 on groceries this month, which include cheese, milk, and a few vegetables. What about you? How are your pantry and freezer menus coming? I'd love to hear from you! Here's to living and saving green in the New Year!

Frugal Living and a Happy Family

Over the past few months we've transitioned to a mostly single income household, but the transition has been a joyous one. It has been wonderful to know that our little one is home with his daddy all day, and Benny has so enjoyed being home with him. And it's been such a blessing to realize that even with the transition that we're able to put away a little each month in savings, even little one's college fund.

One way we've trimmed our expenses is by purchasing some of our groceries in bulk. We've purchased dried beans, flour, brown sugar, rice, and pasta in massive quantities from Costco and Walmart, though we're seeking out other sources so we're not patronizing Walmart as much. While the initial purchase was tough, it's meant that we can readily use these things, and the unit cost is much lower. We've also purchased spices in large quantities from Costco and online sources, which also reduces the unit cost, and keeps our simple meals from being bland.

We've begun using our crockpot (aka Mrs. Cleaver, as Kingsolver calls it) at least three times a week. We use it to prep stuff, like cooking winter squash or dried beans, or preparing whole meals in the form of soups, stews, and casseroles. This has allowed us to spend more time with little man, and means that we're using far less energy for our meal prep, which means we're spending fewer dollars on our energy bills. Later, I'll share some of our favorite crockpot recipes. Using the crockpot also means that there's still time in the evenings for a family walk, because we can eat an early dinner and still have a little daylight to walk before little man melts down.

We're eating even less meat than we did before. We consider ourselves "weekday veg", meaning that we only eat meat on the weekends, and even then, it's sparingly. Toppings on a pizza, a little bit in the soup, some in a stir fry. In place of meat, we're using lentils, beans, dairy, and combos (veggies and rice, fruit and whole grains, etc.) to create complete proteins.

Our upstairs renter has worked out fabulously. He's really low key and is a great fit for our family. Most weeks, he's only around a few nights a week, so it's almost like we don't have a renter. When he's around, he sometimes joins us for family meals and loves our little guy, and lovingly tolerates Lavender's incessant barking when he comes in the house. It's this income that's probably allowed us to really save each month. We'll probably continue to rent the upstairs space, at least while the Wubba is little.

Now that the weather's cooler, we're closing the shades earlier in the evenings, but keeping them open during the warmest part of the day for the light and passive heat. We're putting our sweaters on in the evenings and loading the blankets on the bed, but we love it that way. It also allows Benny more time during the day to walk with our little guy, and hike with the pup, which means he's happier because he's outside and he's getting great exercise. It also means that the Wubba is getting lots of stimulating time outside.

The majority of our Christmas gifting is handmade or homemade this year. I found a template for making reusable coffee sleeves, so we'll be giving some of those, which will help use up fabric scraps I've stashed away for years. We've made jams and jellies and salsas when produce was free or cheap in season that we canned. I'll use some found time in the evenings or weekends to make note cards and bookmarks to use as gifts. We'll make goodie platters with cookies, candies, and snacks to give. Our homemade hot cocoa is fabulous given with a peppermint stick and a sweet holiday mug, which we usually pick up at the dollar store or Goodwill. And of course, the family will love their pictures of the little man.

So, overall, the transition to Benny staying at home has been relatively smooth. We love that he's able to stay home with Raygan; it gives him a connection with our boy he might not otherwise have and it really allows me not to worry while I'm at work since I know Wubba's in good hands.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

August on $100

Well, we managed to keep August to our $100/month grocery budget. I kept receipts all month and tallied them this weekend, and we had $18 to spend for this week, so overall our budgeting has gone pretty well.

We scored some major deals on meat this month, so our freezer is stocked. We found kielbasa going out of date at the HT with $2 off coupons on the packages from the meat department. So we bought four packages to use in the coming months for jambalaya, potato hash, and as add-ins in mac and cheese. Earth Fare was running a special on their grass fed beef, so we were able to get two and a half pounds for $10. I portioned it out into half pound portions and froze it to use in pasta, sloppy joes, stuffed cabbage, and soups over the next few months. We also had a friend give us some venison sausage, so I used a half pound of that in a breakfast casserole this month. Learning to cut back on meat hasn't been difficult for us, since we were already pretty much weekday vegetarians anyway. But we've learned to be creative. For instance, I made sloppy joes this week with only a half pound of meat and cooked lentils to fill out the rest of the filling. They were awesome! Not only did they taste great, but the lentils allowed us to make more filling than the recipe called for, so it fed us for an extra day or two beyond our normal recipe.

I've totally depleted my baking pantry this month, so I'm going to be stocking up on flour and sugar and cornmeal by buying them in bulk. We've been making about two loaves of bread a week and muffins for breakfasts and some cornbread to go with dinner, so the baking things have gone away rapidly. However, I think this scratch baking has allowed us to save significantly on our breakfast budget. We're no longer purchasing boxed cereals, which we never bought for much more than $1 per box anyway, so that means we're using less milk in a week. We're still getting our dairy in by using cheese and sour cream and milk in other things. We've been using the bread for sandwiches for lunches, egg and cheese sandwiches for breakfasts, and open faced sandwiches (sloppy joes and meatball sandwiches) for dinners. I also used some bread crumbs I had in the freezer as the basis for my breakfast casserole a few weeks ago, and it turned out very tasty with the wide variety of breads that were in the bag. (Saving your stale bread in a freezer bag in the freezer is a great way to not let good bread go to waste. We use it for casseroles, baked french toast, and bread crumbs for chicken nuggets or rounding out a meatloaf.)

We've been able to save on produce, particularly fruit, by purchasing things that are generally cheap or in season. Usually I don't like bananas unless they're really green and starchy, so I buy them green and eat a few, Benny eats most of the rest, and then the last few go in the freezer for banana bread or muffins. Bananas are really cheap and pretty nutritious, and they fill out a lunch easily or make a good midmorning snack. Peaches have been pretty cheap this summer, so I've stocked up from the produce stand and have made some peach preserves and peach salsa for gifting for Christmas too. A few weeks ago, organic strawberries were on sale, so we bought some and had fruit salad with our pancakes for dinner and really enjoyed them. Friends brought us some fresh corn and summer squash, so we had tacos one night with those.

Using dried beans has become a staple in our house too. I generally cook a crockpot full each week and use them in casseroles, stir fries, tacos, fajitas, enchiladas, salads and bean burgers. They also freeze well when covered with the cooking liquid, so I freeze some for soups. We do black beans, kidney beans, pintos, and black eyed peas this way. The black beans and pintos also make great crockpot refried beans (crockpot 365 is a great blog if you haven't checked it out!).

Probably the biggest change for us has really been in the beverage department. We're only making one pitcher of tea a week, and we've got no juice or coffee in the house. We will keep coffee on hand for when we have guests, and I still make a cup of herbal tea each morning before I go to work. I know I've been drinking far more water as a result of this shift, and I think Benny would probably say the same. It's definitely freed up about $10-$20 a month for us to spend on food, rather than extra calories we probably don't need anyway.

Southers Savers has really helped us make good use of our coupons, and its free, while the Grocery Game isn't. So, we cut out our subscription to the Grocery Game in the interest of saving a few bucks, and really have been pretty happy. Last week was super doubles at HT and this week is super doubles at Lowes Food, so we're doing pretty good with purchasing our toiletries, laundry detergent, cleaning supplies, etc. for free or super cheap.

Sharing meals with friends and family has also helped us stick to the grocery budget. We usually have at least on meal a week with my mom, and try to have at least one meal a week with friends. By doing things potluck style, it allows us to use things we already have to contribute to the meal, but it means we don't have to fix it all, which not only saves us money but time. We enjoy entertaining this way, and its definitely cheaper than eating out with friends.

We've still managed to have some treats in the house with our $100/month budget, like some chocolate mint cookies this week and I'm planning on making some homemade icecream next weekend. We really don't feel like we're deprived of anything, just changing our habits a bit and being a little more conscious of how we spend a buck. The occasional gift card we get for a grocery store will help us treat ourselves once in a while to those specialty ingredients we like to have, so we can still try out new recipes.

What about you? Have you been able to stick to your grocery budget?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Feeling the squeeze, but not so much

As we prepare for Benny to become the stay at home parent, we're faced with the loss of income that many families face when they make this decision. However, its a reality we've planned for for several years, so we've managed to stash away quite a bit in savings in preparation. But we know this wouldn't be enough to keep us afloat in the long term, since we plan for Benny to be home for several years. So, we began exploring the options for other streams of income and getting creative.

First, we took a page from friends books and rented out our upstairs guest room. We knew that this would work for us, since we'd rented to family before and we'd hosted two divinity student interns. We're comfortable living with others and sharing common space. This might not be a solution for everyone, but it was an obvious choice for us. It also forced us to clear out some junk from that closet and do some regular maintenance (caulking, repainting trim, etc.) that needed to be done to that room. Our tenant will move in this coming week, so we're looking forward to getting to know him, and he seems like he'll be a good fit for our family. Plus, the extra income will help us pay off a small home equity line we have for finishing out the basement.

What, you say? Finishing out the basement...with a 7 month old?! Yes, we're crazy, but follow me here. We have known since we built this house in 2008 that we planned to finish out the basement one day. Half of that space is a walk out, one bedroom apartment. The other half is my art/craft room and storage for tools, garden supplies, and general garage stuff. We're hoping to have the basement finished by the end of this month in order to rent it out in September. The apartment is really nice with a full kitchen, four piece bath, and dedicated patio space with outdoor furniture provided. There's lots of storage, pretty wood laminate floors, plus great light in the afternoons and evenings. So, we're hoping to get top dollar for the apartment rent, although our neighborhood's road probably hinders that a bit with our winter weather. (Know anyone looking for a rental in the area? Our potential tenant for this space fell through...) With the two rentals, we're figuring we can have the home equity line paid off within two years, maximum.

Now, my art and craft room. It's a beauty... hardwood floors (mostly courtesy of my father-in-law's leftover wood and his spending a week's vacation here helping to install it), dusty lavender walls, and nice lighting, although little natural light since its in the most subterranean portion of the basement. Here's where I plan to begin teaching some art lessons, hopefully group lessons, to kids once or twice a week. I have a beautiful antique pedestal table I inherited that will be the perfect place for students to gather and work on their projects. I'm hoping to have enough students that I can offer scholarships to some kids who would enjoy lessons, but might not have the means for such. I'll probably just teach classes in the summer, spring, and fall, since winter weather would probably force me to cancel classes more than I'd like. While this is a smaller stream of potential income, it should cover our internet bill each month, if not a little more.

Benny's planning to sell several items we have on eBay and Craigslist. Some of these are things we tried to sell on consignment that just didn't sell, others are electronics and gaming things that he has that we knew were just too "niche" to try to sell on consignment. He's already sold some things, enough to cover our first bulk food purchase of spices and nuts from San Fransisco Herb Company, which I'm super excited about. Money from these sales will go toward bulk food purchases, savings, and Raygan's college fund.

There may also be days where Benny keeps another child for cash or bartering for goods or services. This has worked out well for us in the past; its how we got our last printer and how we get some things done around the house that we don't have the time or talent to do ourselves.

And of course, there's my Mary Kay business. It takes me away from my family more than I'd like, but when it goes well, it's a nice supplemental income. So, if you know anyone in need of products, send them my way, please!

Then we're saving where we can: combining errands, carpooling to work, not eating out, frugal meals, buying food in bulk, cloth diapering, watching our energy usage by not running the AC, using natural light when possible, etc., taking shorter showers, not renewing magazine subscriptions or online subscriptions, using credit card points to make purchases instead of cash, etc. Perhaps the biggest challenge I've posed for myself is to go as long as possible without spending money during the week (no extra grocery store trips, carpool to the max to keep from buying gas, no online or in store shopping, etc.).

So, we're figuring that although we might be feeling the squeeze a bit with this transition, we've planned well. These multiple streams of income will be sustainable for several years and will allow us to continue putting money into our savings. Hopefully it will only mean a few hundred dollars loss in income, and its totally worth it to us to know that one of us will be home with Raygan and providing him all the love and attention we can. And, it means that we'll really get to spend more time together when those snow days roll around and next summer begins.

Here's to living green and saving green at home!

Friday, August 9, 2013

A Baker's Pantry

Friends often ask me how I manage to make so much of our baked goods from scratch. The answer is simple; I have great cookbooks, a well stocked pantry, and baking is a hobby, so I enjoy it. Today, I thought we'd explore my baking pantry in the hopes that it inspires you to tackle some scratch baking of your own, even if it's just cornbread.

Since I do a lot of bread baking, I keep several different kinds of flours and meals on hand. We always keep whole wheat, bread, soy, and all purpose (AP) flours. Sometimes, I buy cake flour, but generally I just use the conversions in the back of Joy of Cooking and don't mess with cake flour. I also use the conversions for self rising because I find that I don't use it quickly enough or forget I have it and the baking powder in it goes bad. I use all of these on a regular basis for pizza dough, bread, pancakes and waffles, and quick breads like muffins. I tend to use the soy flour as an additive to baked goods, just substituting a tablespoon or two for the regular flour called for, to increase the protein content since we eat a lot of vegetarian meals. I also keep flax seed meal and corn meal on hand for making corn bread, dusting sheet pans for bread, and other things, but these are the primary uses. I tend to throw a tablespoon or two of the flax seed meal into most of our breads, again substituting for the flour, to increase the omega-3 content, since we don't eat a lot of seafood (I love fresh seafood, but it's not easily found here in the mountains). And I keep rolled oats on hand, since they're nice in lots of whole grain breads and make homemade oatmeal a snap.

I also keep a fair amount of other staples on hand for making bread and cookies. Many bread recipes call for buttermilk, but I hate to keep it on hand in the fridge since I don't go through it quickly and feel like its a waste of fridge space and electricity to keep it cool. So, I opt for powdered buttermilk, which you can find in the baking aisle. I also keep powdered milk on hand, since many bread recipes call for this. It is also fine to use in corn bread, muffins, etc. in place of regular milk if you reconstitute it. A lot of bread recipes, and many sourdough starters, call for potato flakes, so I have a big box. We keep sunflower seeds, poppy seeds, and sesame seeds on hand in the fridge, so they don't go rancid. Sometimes I have whole flax seeds too. If you buy them in bulk, they're a lot cheaper than the tiny bottles in the spice aisle. These are great on top of breads or mixed into muffins for a little extra crunch. (The sesame seeds are also great in homemade fried rice or stir fry.) We generally keep pecans and almonds on hand too. (If I can swing it, I love to have the pecans from my family farm, but right now the pecan trees are infested with a bug which bores holes in the nuts and makes them inedible. And the infestation lasts for 7 years, the lifecycle of the darn thing, so I won't be getting family pecans for a while.) Costco has nice prices on pecan halves, generally around $12 for a 2 lb bag. There is also a local guy who sets up a truck every fall with all sorts of nuts, so we try to buy from him when we can. I love to keep dried fruit on hand too: dried cranberries, cherries, prunes, coconut, raisins, and sometimes apricots or currants. These are fabulous in muffins or scones when its not berry season and I don't want to use my cherished freezer stash of blackberries and raspberries. And, of course, there's the chocolate chips... white and semisweet are the staples around here. I ask for the fun ones (peanut butter, mint, butterscotch etc.) for stocking stuffers and they get used throughout the year.

And sugar... who can bake without sugar? I keep white sugar on hand always. We stock up on brown and powdered sugar when it goes on sale around the holidays, so there's generally some of that around too. I keep honey and molasses in the pantry, which are called for in a lot of my bread recipes. If I'm out of brown sugar, I just make my own with molasses and white sugar. I don't keep fancy sugars, such as turbanido, but I do keep colored sugars and sprinkles for cookie and cake decorating.

Oils and fats are essential. Our butter we buy in bulk at Costco. I keep olive oil on hand for making pizza dough, and we keep some sort of lighter oil (vegetable, corn, etc.) for baking and stir fries. I keep crisco sticks for shortening. I know the cans are cheaper, but the sticks are so convenient and less messy. Keep them in the fridge to keep from going rancid.

As far as flavorings go, we keep vanilla extract and cocoa powder. I plan to make some homemade mint extract soon before my mint is done for the season, so I'll let you know how that turns out. I hope it is good, would be fun in homemade fudge for the holidays.

So, in summary, here's a rundown of the staples:

AP flour
whole wheat
soy flour
rolled oats
flax seed meal

Add-ins and staples:
powdered buttermilk
powdered milk
potato flakes
seeds: sunflower, poppy, sesame, caraway, flax
nuts: pecans, almonds
chips: chocolate, white chocolate, fun ones (peanut butter, mint, etc.)

olive oil
cocoa powder
vanilla extract
brown sugar

Did I forget anything? What do you keep on hand for baking? I'd love to hear from you!

$100 a month

For groceries...$100 a month. First of all, why? Well, since our little one was born, we've decided that Benny's going to cut back his hours at work significantly to only 10 or so a week, so that he can stay home with Raygan. This means that we're going to have to trim our already frugal budget a little more. So, one place where our spending can fluctuate some is groceries. Most months we spend about $140-$160, but we're going to try to reduce this by at least $50 each month, yet still maintain our healthy, earth friendly eating.

How're we gonna tackle this? Well, we'll continue with our regular meal planning, bulk shopping, and using some helpful advice from bloggers like Mavis and The Prudent Homemaker. We'll also cut out some of the extras that we'd been purchasing, like beer from Costco and wine from Trader Joe's. While we enjoy the occasional glass of wine or beer with dinner, they're certainly not necessities and are pricier, even when we bargain shop. We're also going to be cutting back on meat even more than we regularly do, eating more beans, eggs, nuts, and other alternate protein sources which are cheaper. We certainly won't cut out meat entirely; we both enjoy a piece of bacon way too much when we have breakfast for dinner to cut it out for good. And we're going to cut down desserts, something I love to make, to one per week, so once its gone, its gone. The same is true for beverages such as juice, which Benny loves. Why do juice when water is really better for you? We'll make tea when we want something different, using herbs from the garden and black tea bags we purchase in bulk or with a coupon and on sale.

We plan to do more in terms of bulk shopping, like buying our sugar, flour, dried beans, cheese, and rice in bulk from sources like Costco. The savings here is unquestionable and we'll find a creative solution to the storage issue, such as 5 gallon buckets... hmm, wonder where I'll get those? ;)

And of course, we'll make everything from scratch that we can...bread, tortillas, soups, cookies, jam & jellies, sauces, and salad dressings. The Joy of Cooking is a great place to start if you've not done a lot from scratch.

As always, this grocery budget includes toiletries and cleaning products, so we'll get creative here and use coupons, use less (by washing hair every other day and by using a lotion dispenser to control the amount we use of a product). I'll also pair down my makeup routine, which will not only save cash (although being a Mary Kay consultant saves me a bit here anyway) but also time, which is precious with a 7 month old. Since Benny will be staying home, he'll be shaving less frequently, which will cut down on the cost of razor blades and shaving gel/cream. We're already learning to be more careful with things like toilet paper, paper towels, and tissues (remember, we use handkerchiefs and rags any time its appropriate).

So join us on this journey and offer your tips in the comments. Here's to living and saving green!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Meal Planning 101

Meal planning has come to be second nature for our family. There's no longer the question of what's for dinner most nights (sometimes we throw caution to the wind and break out the emergency frozen pizza or ravioli) and it saves time in grocery shopping and cooking. Best of all, it saves our grocery budget, which is usually around $40 a week, although there are weeks we don't grocery shop at all and weeks we go over when we're stocking up. Generally, we probably spend between $100-$150 on groceries per month, and this includes laundry detergent, toilet paper, and paper towels (which we cut down on by using rags--I think we maybe use four rolls in a year unless we have a ton of company). I know, some of you spend that in a week. Take your time, you'll get there. And remember, our family is small compared to some.

So, here's my general plan of attack at the end of the month to prepare for the next month.

1. Assess the stockpile in the pantry, fridge, freezer, and garden when in season.

This month I took a look in the freezer and found lots of meat I'd forgotten about; chicken breasts, kielbasa, filet mignon (leftover from the Valentine's Day sale at EarthFare), ground turkey, and a turkey carcass from Thanksgiving. Then of course there's the veggies: corn, green beans and swiss chard from the summer garden, spinach, cilantro, and okra. I also found black beans, quinoa, barley, brown rice, canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, pineapple chunks, mandarin orange slices, salsa verde, and dried mushrooms in the pantry, among other staples for baking, etc. Then, in the fridge, there were sundried tomatoes, carrots, eggs from our friends who have chickens, mozzarella cheese, bacon, a can of crescent rolls, jams and jellies of various sorts, milk, half and half, and the general condiments.

2. After compiling my list of things we have on hand, I then plan the menu. Friday night is almost always pizza night around here... it keeps things easy and it helps us clean out the fridge of leftovers. Half a green pepper, check. A little chicken, great on a pizza. Leftover breakfast sausage or bacon, yum.

This month's menu went like this:

Week 1: chili verde, pizza, carrot and cilantro soup, breakfast casserole
Week 2: ravioli, chicken tacos/fajitas, whole wheat waffles/pancakes and fruit, pizza
Week 3: turkey burgers, 3-bean salad with quinoa, veggie fried rice
Week 4: bean and cheese quesadillas, jambalaya, quiche, pizza

As you can see, there's some flexibility in there for ingredients I find on sale. If mushrooms are on sale, they'll be great in quiche, breakfast casserole, or on a pizza. If fruit is on sale, then it'll be a wonderful side to breakfast casserole, quiche, or waffles. I give myself some wiggle room to move things around if we need to depending on what we find at the farmer's market or on the sale rack in the produce section.

3. Shop. Shopping is the easy part at this point. I find my recipes, check for missing ingredients, and build the list for the week. I also assess my baking stash since I'll be making various breads (breakfast breads, burger buns, waffles, etc.). Then I check for coupon matchups on The Grocery Game. We only purchase items that we will really use with coupons, not just because we have a coupon. So, if corn bread mix is on sale and has a coupon, I'll buy it because it's generally cheaper that way than from scratch. But, if I don't have a mix in my pantry stockpile, then I will make it from scratch, rather than buying a mix at full price. We make a lot of things from scratch (bread, cookies, cakes, stock, cream sauce, mac and cheese, etc.), even with a little one in the house, and because we've done it for so long, it's pretty easy. Plus, making things from scratch is generally better for you than buying ready made because you eliminate lots of extra fat and preservatives.

In order to make the most of things, I have a few go to cookbooks, like More with Less, Cheap. Fast. Good., The Soup Bible, and Joy of Cooking. There are casseroles, salads, stir fries, etc. that I can easily mix and match ingredients depending on what I have on hand. And of course, I use my bread machine like the workhorse that it is to do a lot of the work for me with pizza dough, burger buns, breakfast breads, etc.

So, I hope this helps some of you get started with your meal planning. If a month is overwhelming, start with a week and go from there. I think you'll be amazed at how it simplifies your life and shrinks your grocery budget. Here's to living green and saving green!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Feeding Baby the Green Way

Throughout my pregnancy, we tried to make sure that I was eating healthfully and that meant mostly organic produce, hormone free, local milk from Homestead Creamery, lots of nuts and seeds and whole grains, and minimal but lean meat, including some seafood. Now that Raygan is here, it's just as important for me to continue to eat healthfully, although there are some things that I can branch out on, such as the occasional glass of wine and a little caffeine in the morning cup of BGB coffee.

Why is this so important? Because everything I eat transfers to him in the form of breast milk. So, I really try to make sure that I'm eating well for both of us, which isn't always easy when I've got him in one hand, but we try to plan well in the morning before Benny leaves for work so it's easy for me to heat up soup or grab a sandwich or salad from the fridge. Essentially, the next five months or so of feeding him are free and won't cost us any more than before he was born. Another perk to breastfeeding is that I have to keep my caloric intake up by an additional 500 calories or so compared to during my pregnancy, so that means I get to eat more. So, maybe it does cost us a little extra in groceries since I'm eating more each day.

Breastfeeding is healthier for both of us. For Raygan, it provides immune support, much needed calories and vital nutrients, and its comforting for him. The human body is truly amazing since it adjusts the nutrients and fat and amount of milk based on his needs, so I don't have to worry about whether he's getting the right things at the right stage in his development. I still occasionally pump just to see how much he's getting at a feeding, but also to store it up in the freezer for when I go back to work. We plan to breastfeed for a year, or at least have enough in the freezer so that Raygan can get the benefits of breast milk for that long. Even when he transitions to solid foods, we can mix the milk into his mashed potatoes or squash, and of course he can still drink it.

The health benefits for me of breast feeding are lower risk of certain types of cancer, easier postnatal weight loss, and breast feeding helps the uterus to contract and go back to its original size quicker after delivery than not breast feeding. All of those were a plus for me. Even though breastfeeding was initially really difficult for me and Raygan had a tough time latching on, once we got over that hurdle, things have been great and he's gotten really goo at eating efficiently and not sleeping while nursing.

Once we transition to solid foods, we plan to make our own homemade baby foods, some of which we already have in the freezer. We're using the Start Fresh cookbook by Tyler Florence as a guide to make things easier. We're also using these ice cube trays to make storing the purees easier. It's really easy to make your own baby food from pureed fruits and veggies, and so much cheaper than the store bought stuff at 50 cents or more for a jar.

So, that's how we're feeding our little one and keeping him healthy. We're hoping he'll learn to be an adventuresme eater and learn to love food like we do. Here's to living green and saving green feeding baby! I'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Cloth Wipes

Today's post is a follow up to yesterday's where I mentioned the cloth wipes we use with diapering Raygan. We use the cloth wipes for a number of reasons.

1) They cut down on cost.
2) They cut down on waste.
3) They are more effective than disposables.

Because the cloth wipes (both handmade flannel ones and inexpensive store-bought washcloths) are reusable and can be washed with the cloth diapers, they cut down on the cost of wipes significantly. Even if we purchased disposable wipes with coupons, we'd still be spending more than by using the cloth wipes. We still keep a few disposables around in the diaper bag for babysitters, when we're out, etc. but 95% of the time we use the cloth wipes. We've seen a huge drop in our waste volume since switching to cloth diapers and wipes, which means fewer trips to the dump, which also means less fuel used for the cars. Win win all the way around.

Because the cloth wipes have more texture than disposables, they're more effective at wiping away sticky poop, so we have to use only one instead of two or three or four like we would with disposable wipes. Sometimes, we find that the washcloths are more effective than the flannel ones, but it really depends on the situation.

Below you'll find the recipe I use for the wipe solution. Right now, we're using about a dozen a day, since we've got about that many diaper changes. So, I double the recipe since it makes enough for about six wipes. I mix my solution in a bottle that I can shake, because it distributes the lotion more evenly than just stirring with a whisk. It doesn't store really well (gets musty), so I mix ours up each evening for the next day. I store the wipes in old formula containers someone gave me, but we'll probably start putting them in an old wipe container we just emptied.

Wipe Solution:

1 tablespoon baby shampoo
1 tablespoon baby lotion
1 tablespoon baby oil (this helps to remove sticky poop, but you can omit it)
1 cup warm water

Stir or shake to mix. Then pour half into the bottom of your container, insert wipes, and pour the rest over the top.

Makes enough for six wipes.

An added plus to this system is that you can control the ingredients in the solution, so we use the Berts Bees stuff or other more natural products. We've found this seems to reduce diaper rash, which is minimal anyway since we're using cloth diapers.

Here's to living green and saving green while diapering baby. I'd love to hear from you!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Cloth Diapering with Baby

We brought our little Raygan home from the hospital six weeks ago and my how they've flown by! The first few weeks were definitely an adjustment for everyone, but now we're in a groove as a family and loving our little monkey to pieces. So, hopefully, I can find time to get back to blogging on a regular basis during some of his nap times.

We were committed to cloth diapering and going diaper free (sometimes, when it works for us) well before we even found out we were pregnant. The cost and environmental benefits were huge to us, especially knowing that we hoped to have more than one child and that the cloth diapers could be used with the next baby. The health benefits to him are an added bonus.

Most of the cloth diapers we purchased were Charlie Banana ones, mostly because they were available at Target through our registry. We were given two that are velcro closure style, one from my friend who makes them for her (Etsy store. These are easy to leave in the diaper bag for those times when we need to leave him with someone who's not as comfortable with cloth diapering since they're styled more like the disposable kind in terms of closures. We discovered that people were hesitant to buy cloth diapers, I guess because they either weren't sure we were committed to the idea or because they wanted to buy something cute like clothes or books. So we ended up pooling our gift cards and buying them ourselves, which worked just as well. My school faculty also wanted to throw us a diaper shower, so we ended up getting about 12 cloth diapers that way also. We've found that the 30 cloth diapers we currently have is enough to get us through about two days of cloth diapering, allowing for what's in the laundry. Since Raygan is still so little, he's eating frequently, which means frequent diaper changes.

Washing is a cinch with these. We keep a diaper pail beside his changing station, so we just toss the dirty diapers, liners, and cloth wipes we use in there at each change and wash them when the pail is full and we're down to about six clean diapers. We love the design of the Charlie Banana diapers since the pocket is in the front, it means its less messy to get the liner out, and they're really adjustable with the elastic in the legs and the snaps in the front. We wash them on warm with a phosphate free detergent and either line dry them or toss them in the dryer on low heat. Stuffing them is easy; we can do it while we watch an episode of White Collar on Netflix and it takes no time; it's really easy to do with him in the Moby Wrap too.
All told, we figure we "spent" about $300 with gift cards to get the cloth diapers for him and we had a few given to us as shower gifts. Since we're cloth diapering exclusively now (he was a little small for them at first), we're not having to buy any disposables, which is saving us probably $20 a week right now. Rough estimates from various sources figure we'll save between $1000 and $2000 on diapering costs alone with him, and that doesn't include the cloth wipes we're using instead of disposables (they're flannel ones a friend made and thin washcloths). This savings is huge, since it's helping us cut costs so that Benny can stay home with him when I go back to work in August.

And then there's the environmental benefit of not filling the landfill with all those disposable things. Of course, there are folks who would argue that it's a toss up since we're washing with warm water, which uses more energy, but hopefully our new water saving washer will help to offset that somewhat. And we wait to wash until we've got a full load of diapers, which means we're saving some energy there too. Being able to line dry them in the summer will be great, and it'll help sun bleach out the poop stains. By using cloth diapers, we're also able to cut down on our chemical consumption as a family, since there are far fewer chemicals used in these than in the disposables (all those super absorbent polymers, etc.).

Plus there are health benefits for Raygan to using cloth diapers. Since he can feel it more in cloth diapers when he's wet or dirty, we change him more frequently than we might in disposable diapers. This means there's less diaper rash and less of a risk of yeast infections for him. It also means that potty training will be far easier, because he won't have lost that feeling of what it's like when he "goes", which means hopefully we'll be out of diapers sooner than if he were in disposables. Friends who cloth diaper also report that they've seen fewer accidents with their kids who were in cloth diapers exclusively, probably because they're more aware of the signs of needing to go and so they don't wait until it's urgent. And, we're exposing him to fewer chemicals by cloth diapering, which makes us feel better, since many of these chemicals haven't been researched in terms of long term effects.

So, all in all, we're thrilled with our decision to cloth diaper. Some might say it's more work; we just see it as a different kind of work (more laundry vs. more trips to the dump). We love that it allows us to save some significant money, and it allows us to save a huge amount of landfill space. Do you cloth diaper? Thinking about it? I'd love to hear from you! Here's to living green and saving green bringing up baby.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Rock Whatcha Got January

Well, we made it through the holidays with only a few extra pounds and lots of chocolate on hand to show for it. Today is all about taking down the Christmas decorations and trying to get the house back in order from the chaos that is the holidays and moving my mom into her new house. Things are still in transition somewhat upstairs, as we totally convert what was once the office to the nursery and make the guest room an office also. But we're getting there...

On to today's topic. It's January again, which means it's a long month for teachers in NC since we get paid prior to Christmas break but don't get our next paycheck until the end of January. It's even more stretched around here as Benny's on winter hours at the store, but we always make it work, and are totally grateful to have the abundance that we do so that it's not always such a shock.

For the grocery budget, we try to only purchase the things we really need, not the wants this month. This is made easier by the fact that we almost always get some fun pantry items in our stockings at Christmas (nuts, specialty dried fruits, coffee, herbal teas and sometimes a grocery store card or two). I totally get that nuts and dried fruit may not do it for everyone, but for those of us who love to cook and bake, they're the staples of winter breakfast muffins and salad toppings. We also try to make sure the the freezer is already stocked with butter, frozen veggies from the CSA or garden this past summer, and meats. (Butter and meats almost always go on sale around holiday time, so we stock up then.) We always snag the turkey carcass from Thanksgiving or Christmas to make stock and soup (we've discovered most people in our family don't want to mess with this step). And of course, we always have dried beans, lentils, rice, barley, and pasta on hand in the pantry to make meals come together quickly.

So, for this month, here's the rough breakdown of menu items:

Soups: smoked turkey and wild rice soup, potato and veggie chowder, split pea soup, chili verde with sweet potato fries, black bean soup, chili con carne, corn chowder, barley and lenil soup

Mexican meals: smoked turkey and winter squash tacos, sweet potato quesadillas, black bean nachos, chicken tortilla soup

Asian meals: egg and veggie fried rice, spicy Thai noodle dish with linguini

Family go-to meals: pecan crusted chicken with baked potatoes, quiche with bacon, sun dried tomatoes, and onion, beef and cheddar pie, whole wheat waffles with frozen fruit syrup and nuts, jambalaya, pasta with pesto or tomato sauce

Side items: mashed potatoes, baked sweet potatoes, okra corn bread, homemade whole wheat yeast rolls or bread, winter greens salad with dried fruit or citrus, braised cabbage

Breakfasts: muffins/scones with dried fruit and nuts, homemade bread with homemade jam from summer fruits, oatmeal with dried fruit and nuts, cereal

Lunches around here are always leftovers. When we're done with fixing a dinner, we portion out the meal into lunch size containers so they're easy to grab and put in a lunch box for the next day. We never buy specialty lunch items from the frozen section, but do occasionally purchase granola bars or individual yogurt cups to help round out lunches or provide an afternoon snack. (Of course these are always purchased with coupons and on sale to make a buck go further.)

So, for the most the only items we need to purchase this month are the occasional fresh produce (we like to have grapefruit on hand for breakfasts and there are always a few veggies we don't have stockpiled in the freezer), cheese (watch for sales and coupons and freeze it if it's going in a casserole or soup where it'll be melted), milk, flour, and eggs. And we'll go to HT this week to get some other staples (cereal, yogurt, etc.) because it's super doubles with coupons.

We also really try during this month to not buy things that are wants, but just needs in other areas of our lives. For instance, the car registration info and bill just arrived for my car--definite need. But the cute Christmas stuff that's 75% off at Michaels right now, not so much. I know that I have enough Christmas wrapping supplies to get us through next year, so there's no point in stocking up now. This is generally our strategy with lots of stuff throughout the year, but we really try during January to cinch the belt a little tighter to make things stretch.

The quote "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without," has really become our
mantra as we try to live frugally so that we can truly live green and save green. It means finding things in the basement that we can revamp with paint for the nursery rather than buying new (picture frames, lamps, furniture), reupholstering the old chair rather than buying a new one, making do with the cars we have and repairing them rather than purchasing a new one, and on and on it goes. And, in the end, it makes us feel good to know that we're not sending something to the landfill or junkyard (though we always try to donate things first if we really can't use them anymore). It also allows us to be more generous with our charitable giving, which means a great deal to us.

So, how are you living and saving green in the days after the holiday season? I'd love to hear from you!