Sunday, August 31, 2014

Frugal Entertaining ... the Labor Day Edition

Cherry pie baked in a cast iron skillet.

Ah, Labor Day, the three day weekend that marks the end of summer (but not really for us in terms of the heat) and the return to lessons, practices, etc.

When I think of Labor Day I think of picnics and BBQs. Sometimes I stop and think of how my dad would spend a fortune making a big BBQ serving everyone huge steaks and giant baked potatoes; the cost of the meat alone might feed a small, very frugal family for a month. But it's his money and I don't begrudge him offering his hospitality in the way that brings him pleasure. (This tradition started well after I left home.)

Still, there has to be a way to have a Labor Day celebration without breaking the bank. Here are some of my ideas.

Have a potluck or picnic! I think a lot of people do this, but I think it bears repeating.

If you eat plant based, bake your own burger buns and either make your own veggie burgers or go ahead an splurge on the brand that your family likes. $1 for each veggie burger patty isn't going to blow the budget, and having occasions where you really do it up can make them feel special. (If we ate veggie burgers every week then it wouldn't feel special.)

Make baked beans from scratch.

Round out your meal with simple salads. If I haven't made beans I like to make a basic potato salad with the inexpensive reduced fat (plant based) mayonnaise from Trader Joe's, or even better, homemade mayonnaise. Potatoes, celery, and green onions are generally very low cost. (If I have made beans I find that having a substantial salad such as potato really isn't necessary unless I am feeding a lot of people).

Another option is a grain based salad. Quinoa is nice, but rice works as well. Add some chopped vegetables (carrots plus red and green onions are inexpensive) and some small cooked beans and perhaps sliced black olives. If I use red quinoa it is nice to add chickpeas. Dress with a homemade citrus and olive oil dressing.

Cabbage is the bang for you buck salad green. Slice it thinly and dress with olive oil, apple cider vinegar, salt, pepper, and garlic powder.

Watermelon is often on sale for Labor Day; that makes it the perfect frugal fruit to serve.

For dessert I like to make homemade brownies as they are very inexpensive to make whether you eat eggs or not. I adapt this low cost brownie recipe to be plant based (using flax seed) and leave off the chocolate chips on top as they aren't necessary and only add to the cost. I'll also admit that when making several pans of these for a crowd I will use white flour and sugar, to bring down the costs. For my immediate family I use freshly ground soft white wheat flour and sucanat.

Pie is another great Labor Day dessert -- bake it in individual pie tins if you are headed to the park or beach.

This year the guys participated in a bike ride to the beach on Saturday; it was about 80 miles and took around 5 hours to complete. I ran support and provided transportation back home. I packed a cooler for our meal at the beach, along with an Igloo full of ice water. The cost of this activity was the gas to and from the beach as well as the parking fee, but I think it was worth it to give my guys the opportunity to challenge themselves this way. Plus we got to spend a Labor Day weekend afternoon at the beach with friends!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Frugal Strategies ... Stay Home

Our dining / learning / making room.

I've found that one of the best ways for us to save money is to stay home. It isn't very popular in today's culture, but it works for us.

For instance, we don't sign up for many field trips and we don't take outside academic classes. We're home learners, not car learners (although that works for many families). Field trips and classes almost always cost money, even if it is just in gas to get there.

We do our best to eat at home, saving restaurants meals for special occasions or social gatherings where we have no other choice. Cooking our own meals is much less expensive than restaurant meals, and is healthier too.

Speaking of those social occasions, I do my best to suggest that we meet at our home (or someone else's) and have a potluck instead. (Unfortunately, I do get turned down most of the time unless people want to come here.) Even if I provide the entire meal I still spend less than I would to feed my family of four at a restaurant.

We try to hang out with friends at the park or at home. I have never found it enjoyable to try to visit with mamas and kids at a bookstore, toy store, coffee house, or pizza parlor, and I think habitually hanging out at places of business without making a purchase is unfair to the businesses.

We watch movies at home. Using Netflix or renting a Redbox movie is so much less expensive than going to the movies at the theater, even with discount tickets. (We do use the discount tickets to take the boys to one or two highly anticipated movies per year, and about once a year for a date night.)

We entertain ourselves at home. We can listen to records (or other music), play board games, watch a recorded TV program, or have a family music night, all for the money already spent on music, games, a TV system, and musical instruments.

Of course, being home results in savings so many other ways. If I am home I have time to cook and bake, to sew and mend, to make gifts, to grow food (I'm working on this), to clean my own home, to hang laundry, to do small repairs, and much, much more. If I worked outside the home then being home as much as possible other than work would be that much more important in order to live a frugal life.

I hope I have helped my boys to feel deeply connected to home and absolutely satisfied to be here. I don't want them thinking that everything good happens somewhere else. That is one reason we make a point of enjoying our evenings together by playing games, listening to or making music, and doing other active things together (versus only watching TV which is very passive).

Friday, August 29, 2014

Frugal Victories

Friday:

I went to bed thinking that I would make mujadara and Chapati for our main meal, but at 10:30 I realized that I hadn't made rice (I usually make a "cheater" mujadara with precooked rice and lentils).  Oops! I remembered that I had a bag of precooked quinoa out in the chest freezer and used that instead of rice. That actually helped me with my Friday goal of using pantry and freezer foods.

I baked a loaf of bread, made granola using piloncillo sugar, and made a batch of hummus. I also made quinoa pudding for T's race, along with his recovery drink.

I continued with Operation Declutter and Organize.

Saturday:

I packed a lunch for the all-day race (6 hours of racing split between T and and friend!), making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and packing fruit and muffins, along with T's chia pudding and recovery drink. They took a 3 gallon Igloo of ice water with them.

I baked muffins since we had bananas that were spotty and had started to break open.

I made homemade vegan broth powder, which I then used to make the lentil-rice casserole from the Tightwad Gazette. The recipe is an old favorite.

Sunday:

We had a low key day at home, cleaning the house and hanging out together.

I prepped my planned leftovers for Monday's main meal.

I baked bread.

Monday:

I baked bread.

The guys took J's bike to the shop and found out that his entire shifter will be replaced under the extended warranty since they can't just get the one piece that is broken.

Tuesday:

I went to the 99¢ store to buy a card and chocolate bar, along with a few other snacks. I found Ore Ida Grillers for 50¢ per 20 ounce bag and Earth Balance vegan crackers, plus portobello mushrooms and cucumbers. I bought a silicone pastry brush; I loved the one I had before but the Puppy Girl stole it from the dishwasher and ate it, and I had decided that they cost too much for me to replace it. I didn't expect to find one at the 99¢ store, but I did. I also bought a package of Scuncii No Slip Hold elastics, which have gotten harder and harder for me to find, and I never paid less than $3 before.

We went to the movies using ticket vouchers purchased from Papa's employer at discount last year.

Wednesday:

This wasn't an actively frugal day, but it wasn't frivolous, either. We did typical low key frugal activities for us, such as hanging out at the park and having a sing along.

Thursday:

I did a happy dance because our electric bill is $67 lower than the same period of time last year, despite our having added another refrigerator. We used 292 fewer kilowatt hours than last year! Even compared to last month, which had similar weather, we used 177 fewer kilowatt hours and the bill is $41 lower. I am so proud of my family for stepping up and helping me reduce our electricity usage.

I went back to the 99¢ store to buy more frozen potatoes, crackers, and chocolate. They were out of the crackers (sad) and almost out of the chocolate; I had to go searching for the last five bars by a checkout stand. However, they had soy chorizo, which they didn't have Tuesday, and Smart Balance Purely Better margarine tubs which are plant-based, non GMO, and non-hydrogenated.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

15 Ways to Save When You Shop

1) Have a list. This one is a no-brainer, and yet how many times have we gone to the store "knowing" what we need and coming home with a lot more than that? Make lists for stores other than the grocery store.

2) Do not take your children with you if you can at all help it. When they are little they just don't like shopping, and that is okay. But their misery will spill over to you and you might buy things you didn't really want, or you may forget something and have to go back.

3) When you do take your children shopping with you DO NOT teach them that they can pick something out because they were good (or because they whined, which is worse). If you grocery shop with your children weekly this is 52 items per child that you have purchased. If you buy them candy then that is 52 candy bars or bags of candy, and they just don't need it. Likewise, don't buy them junk toys from the dollar store just because they are cheap (and the children whined). Don't buy them something every time you go to Target.

4) Do not shop recreationally, and don't teach your children that shopping is a form of entertainment.

5) Likewise, don't teach your children that shopping is such a chore that they deserve to be rewarded for it.

6) Do not take children into toy stores or toys sections of stores to browse. If you aren't there to buy something then don't take them! This really is just mean, and it sets you up for meltdowns that you deserve.

7) Likewise, don't take yourself into stores to browse, especially if it is a store full of items you have a hard time resisting, such as fabric, yarn, books, kitchen gear, etc.

8) Do not buy your child a toy just because you are picking out a gift for a friend or sibling. This teaches a bad lesson and takes away from their opportunity to learn how to give. The focus should be on the other person, not the child; how can their minds be on thoughtfully selecting the best possible gift for a friend when they are thinking about themselves?

9) Don't get fooled by marketing. If a supermarket is selling limes 5 for $1 and you only need one, then buy one for 20¢. Know that not all end cap items are priced on sale. Pay attention to price signs; some grocery stores will put green grapes at 99¢ per pound right next to red grapes for $2.99 per pound. They do this on purpose; you might grab the wrong one and not notice until you are home. Look high and low for lower priced products; marketers often put the most expensive items at eye level.

10) If you are shopping for clothing, wear good undergarments and an outfit that you really like. Smooth underwear and a supportive bra will help you see how the clothing looks on you. Wearing something you feel good in helps you not be tempted to buy something just because you feel frumpy.

11) Go to thrift stores first! Almost anything you need is probably available at second hand store.

12) Be flexible. If you have low heeled black dress shoes on your list and come across a great pair of black flats at a thrift store, ask yourself if black flats will serve the purpose you wanted the heels for.

13) Plan your shopping wisely. People often hear not to shop hungry, and that is good advice, but you should also time your shopping so that you don't run into meal time, thus keeping you away from home when you should be preparing your meal and instead tempting you to get food out. If you must be away from home all day for shopping be sure to pack a cooler with your meal. I like to pack snacks if we will be out longer than two hours.

14) Speaking of coolers, take one with you if you will be going to several grocery stores and the weather is warm. You can take along ice packs or sometimes ask the store for ice in a plastic bag (if they are a store that puts items on display over ice). You don't want to risk anything spoiling, as that would be a waste of your hard-earned money.

15) If you see something that you really want, take a picture of it (if you have a cell phone). I do this with books and then order them from the library if possible. I also use the photos to jog my memory at the thrift store; a photo of a mannequin with a cute red t-shirt and jeans reminds me to look for cute red t-shirts at the thrift.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

While I Always Make a Meal Plan, and Why I Almost Never Follow It 100%

My meal planning style is pretty much pantry principle rather than plan a week and shop for what you need, but I still make a weekly meal plan. For me, waiting until the night before to decide what to make might work, but I am a planner so I like a little more organization than that.

What I don't do is shop weekly or base meals off of sales flyers; the basis of our meals is legumes and grains and those are purchased in bulk and stored in my pantry. We don't eat meat, fish, dairy, or eggs so I don't have to worry about sales on those food items. I cook from scratch; a loss leader sale on boxed macaroni and cheese or canned soup means nothing to me. Once a month I make sure I have all the pantry and freezer staples (oils, sweeteners, grains, legumes, seeds, yeast, baking powder, spices, herbs, frozen fruits and vegetables, dates, etc.) I will need for the month and order or buy what I am low on. I buy basic and loss leader produce every two weeks or so and use those to round out our meals

For planning, I make a master main meal menu and then I customize it for each week.  Right now the master plan looks like this:

Sundays:
Pinto Beans, Brown Basmati Rice, Vegetable

Mondays:
Legumes, Grain, Vegetable

Tuesdays:
Burritos (Homemade Tortillas)

Wednesdays:
Variety

Thursdays:
Pinto or Black Beans, Cornbread Muffins, Vegetable

Fridays:
Use It Up

Saturdays:
Pizza or French Toast

Sundays are my personal rest day; I do the basic tidying chores (bed making, etc.) but don't do laundry and don't cook a labor intensive meal. The beans are made in the pressure cooker, the rice in a rice maker, and the vegetables are a mashed avocado and either a cabbage salad or a seasonal vegetable that has been prepped ahead of time.

Mondays are the day I plan to use the various legumes I have in the pantry that are NOT pinto beans. I might make mujadara, split pea soup or a bean soup, baked beans, a legume based casserole, etc.

Tuesdays I plan on burritos because my family loves them and I am working my way through 25# of einkorn flour so I need to make tortillas regularly. I use planned over beans and rice from Sunday.

Wednesdays I reserve for making something that isn't part of our weekly repertoire; it might be a brand new recipe or a favorite meal that doesn't appear that often. For example, if potatoes were cheap at the last grocery shopping I might make Indian spiced potatoes served with rice and dal. I call this our Variety day.

Thursdays I make beans again, pinto or black, and cornmeal muffins so I can make sure I am getting through my bulk popcorn bucket.

Fridays are my Use It Up Day. I check for leftovers that might need to be used, refrigerator items nearing their expiration dates, and pantry items that have been languishing uneaten.

Saturdays we either make pizza as a family, or I make French toast with leftover bread from the week.

Here is an actual weekly menu:

Sunday:
Pinto Beans, Brown Basmati Rice, Cabbage Salad

Monday:
Mujadara, Sautéed Zucchini, Green Salad

Tuesday:
Bean Burritos with Mexican Rice and Sautéed Mexican Squash and Onions

Wednesday:
Scrambled Tofu, Field Roast Sausages, Breakfast Potatoes, Sautéed Zucchini
(The tofu and sausages were at their expiration dates)

Thursday:
Pinto Beans, Cornbread Muffins, Roasted Carrots

Friday:
Miso Soup, Soba Noodles, Cucumber Salad
(Using soba noodles that have been in the pantry and the sale cucumbers I bought)

Saturday:
PB&J
(The guys weren't home at main meal time, and we attended a party that evening)

It might look like the schedule is set in stone, but since it is pantry based I can be very flexible. If Thursday is a bean day but I see too many unused leftovers I can change the menu on the spot without worrying that anything will go bad. I still decide the night before what the vegetable will be for the next day's meal, checking the produce we have to see what might need to be eaten soonest; I might plan for sautéed cabbage but then see that the zucchini is getting soft, so we'll eat that instead.

I do change the master menu, usually seasonally. For example, in the cooler months there is always a soup night. If I notice the family fatiguing on a meal I will swap it out for something else; recently we all got tired of pasta every week so that has moved into my Variety category. I added the second bean night with cornbread muffins after I did the math to figure out how much popcorn to use weekly and realized I wasn't going to get it used up if I didn't bake a corn-based bread weekly.

I don't bother planning more than a week at a time (I have in the past) because there are too many variables involved and I would inevitably be changing the plan. A week at a time works best for me :)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Food Snobbery and Using the Food You Have

This year I decided to commit fully to making 100% of my family's bread. I had been buying bread for the boys, approximately 22 loaves per month, and I wanted to save money and increase the nutrition of my bread.

However, last spring we did a mostly gluten free challenge, and I ran out of einkorn, so I placed an order for 40# of einkorn berries and 40# of einkorn extraction flour. Of that I still have 25# of einkorn berries and 26# of einkorn flour.

I'm not going to lie; I find baking with modern wheat far easier than using ancient grains. Einkorn can be tricky in terms of how it absorbs water and it gets very sticky. It doesn't rise well, either. Given my choice I'd prefer to bake with modern wheat only. For instance, I've found that 100% soft white wheat makes a lighter muffin than 100% whole einkorn does.

And then there is the einkorn flour. I don't think it is unhealthy, per se, but it isn't a whole grain. Extraction flour has some of the bran sifted out.

However, that is 51# of einkorn in my house, food that I paid good money for, and it would be a shame to waste it. I could give it away to an einkorn using friend, but in monetary terms that is $153 worth of food. $153 is nothing to sneeze at.

I've decided that we will simply use the einkorn berries as we would soft white wheat berries; it should take about three months to use them up. I'll also use them in einkorn porridge once the weather cools; truly it is my favorite porridge.

As for the flour, I'm not going to waste it. I will use it for tortillas, biscuits, brownies, cookies, etc. as well as half and half in waffles. These aren't the healthiest foods anyway.

It is tempting to decide that you want to go in a new direction and to toss out everything that doesn't fit in with the new paradigm, but it is expensive too. If you are making the transition to whole grains and sugars I suggest you go ahead and use what you have. There is no way that I would put $153 in cash into the trash can, so why waste food?

Food is a precious thing! Even a bag of white flour, or white sugar, or a jug of plain vegetable oil is precious to someone. It is a gift to eat and we must always remember that. It is an even greater gift to be able to choose whole foods, but that doesn't mean we should become food snobs.

When someone offers me food I try to never make comments about the ingredients. A white flour tortilla offered in love or friendship is still a beautiful gift; to mention that you only eat whole grain tortillas would be a slap in the face, especially if you mention how having a white flour tortilla is such a treat. You are not "being bad" by eating refined foods, you are sharing a meal with someone. Don't judge what they serve you. Don't ask if they used white flour or if the produce is organic. Don't tell them you usually eat brown rice, or only use extra virgin olive oil, or that pasteurized vinegar is dead.

(If you have severe food allergies or celiac disease, by all means ask questions to make sure that the food being offered is safe for you. And if you follow a plant based diet for ethical or health reasons then feel free to let people know that ahead of time.)

This is also why I don't say no when someone offers me leftovers that aren't of the quality of ingredients that I would buy or use, or to accept canned foods that might have BPA in them (sometimes my SMIL will send us home with extra canned fruit that she has purchased, especially if she had the boys for a day or two and bought it for their visit). Food never belongs in trash cans if we can possibly help it.

The biggest thing that helped me really eliminate food waste was to visualize putting dollar bills into the trash can every time I found food in my fridge that had spoiled. Now I have this mental image that is repulsive and I do much better as using every bit of food we buy.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Use Your Bulk Foods!

I thought I would share how I plan and store my bulk foods.

My main storage containers are food safe 5 gallon buckets with Gamma Seal lids (from Lowe's), 1 gallon glass jars with metal lids (from Azure), and 2 quart Ball jars, but I also use smaller glass jar repurposed from holding purchased foods.

Brown Rice:

Some bulk foods, such as wheat berries, can store for quite awhile, depending on how you store them and the temperature where they are stored. Some, however, like brown rice, don't store nearly as long. From what I have read, brown rice has a storage life of about six months before it goes rancid.

The best way to make sure you use brown rice if you buy it in bulk is to figure out how much you need to use monthly to use it up in six months.

We were going through a lot of brown basmati rice, so I went ahead an ordered 25#. However, right after that we started eating a lot more bread. I wanted to make sure we would use the rice in a timely manner, so I did some math.

25# of rice divided by 6 months is a little over 4# per month, so that is my target. One full batch of rice in my rice cooker uses 1.25# dry rice. If I make a full batch every week I should go through the rice on about 20 weeks, or five months.

So, I know that I need to make a full batch of rice each week. That is easy; I usually make pinto beans twice a week and we like to eat those with rice. I make a full batch of rice for one meal, then I sauté the leftover rice in a little oil with garlic powder, onion powder, New Mexico chili powder, salt, and pepper and put it away for a second meal. Any leftovers after that are free for the taking at supper time (not our main meal).

Wheat Berries:

As I mentioned, wheat berries have a long storage life, but that doesn't mean that I want to keep the same wheat berries in my house for years! I believe that quick turnover lessens the risk of developing pantry moths.

Most of what I have seen online says that there are 2 cups of wheat berries per pound. I weighed 2 cups of white wheat berries and they weighed just about 15 oz. so I suppose it will depend on moisture content from harvest to harvest (or maybe it is my measuring cup or scale). For the sake of keeping things easy I will use the 2 cups = 1 pound measurement.

Currently I use approximately 55# of wheat per month, mostly hard white wheat berries, then hard red wheat berries, then einkorn berries (I am using these until I run out and then I will buy soft white wheat berries as I think they perform better in baking). To figure out how to use my bulk grains and know when to order again I need to separate out what I am using and do the math that way.

I make sandwich bread 5 times a week; sometimes it is 6 times but it is never less than 5 times, so that is my safe number. I grind a 2:1 ratio of red wheat berries to white wheat berries for each loaf. That is 5# of hard red wheat berries and 2.5# of hard white wheat berries per week, or 20# of hard red and 10# of hard white per month.

I use hard wheat to make dough for pizza (3# per week), hamburger buns (1.5# every other week), and cinnamon rolls (1.5# every other week). I estimate that at about 18# per month.

In addition to that I make at least one double batch of muffins per week, using 1.5# of einkorn berries, which is 6# per month. I also use einkorn berries for waffles about once a month, using 2.5# of einkorn berries.

So I use approximately 20# of hard red wheat per month, 28# of hard white wheat per month, and 8.5# of einkorn berries. I just received 50# each of hard red and hard white and I have 25# of einkorn berries. I can shift things around a bit with the red and white and even that out to 25# of each per month. My einkorn should last about 3 months.

(Knowing these numbers is really important for determining my grocery budget as well. Now I know that I use about $50 in wheat berries per month.)

Oats:

Whole oat groats store longer than rolled or cracked oats., but quick oats and rolled oats still have a storage life of several years. I like to buy no more than I will use in six months.

Popcorn:

Popcorn also has a long storage life, but in my experience popcorn does go stale, so if you want to pop some of it (vs. only grinding it for cornmeal) then once again it is better to use it faster and not store it for years. I have read that it stores indefinitely but I have also read that it is best to use it within a year, so that is the number I am going for.

I have 25# of popcorn that I want to use within 12 months, so I need to use a little over 2# per month. I weighed my popcorn and 1 pound is definitely 2 cups. Right now I might pop 1/2 C. of popcorn per week, which would only be 1# per month. I also grind popcorn for cornmeal, but not very often. So now I know that I need to find a few more recipes that call for cornmeal. Cornbread muffins once a month would probably use the that other pound of popcorn.

Pinto Beans:

The same principle applies here, unless you use pinto beans often, as I do. Because I buy my pinto beans from Costco and don't have to order them, and because we eat them so often, I just add them to my list when we are running low.

All other beans:

I like to have a variety of beans and other legumes, so I don't buy these in significant bulk. I bought 25# of split peas once and we ate them for a long time. So now I generally buy between 2 - 5# of other beans and legumes.

Sucanat:

I bought 25# of sucanat recently. I've never had it go bad and I have stored it for over a year.

Piloncillo:

Piloncillo is an unrefined cane sugar product from Mexico. Sugar cane is pressed for the juice and the juice is then boiled and poured into cone molds; it isn't centrifugally spun as for granulated sugar. In terms of nutrition, all the minerals are intact in piloncillo. In that it is very similar to sucanat, but it isn't a dry, free-flowing sugar so it does require some labor to use.  For small amounts many people grate it. I buy it in cones, and store it that way until needed.

Honey:

Honey doesn't go bad; it might crystalize but you can heat it gently to dissolve the crystals. I have bought honey in 5 gallon buckets a few times before (because I was able to do so locally before the local honey processing plant was purchased and then they suspended retail sales), but I must admit that transferring it was so difficult that I no longer choose to buy it that way. As for types of honey, sage and orange blossom are my favorites :)

Oils:

I don't like to buy oils in bulk; I like them to be very fresh and will pay more for that. If you want to buy them in bulk be sure to do the math and make sure you will use them before they go rancid.

Salt, Baking Soda, Baking Powder:

Salt doesn't go bad, so go ahead and buy it in bulk to get the best price, especially if you like Redmond's Real Salt. I've read that baking soda does go bad as may be evidenced by a bitter taste, but have never experienced it myself. Most of what I have read says it stores indefinitely. Baking powder, on the other hand, does go bad, as evidenced by failing to work :( I buy it in the small cans so I can be sure that it is very fresh.

Yeast:

My favorite yeast is SAF Instant; I buy it in one pound pouches and always keep it frozen. To ensure that I don't run out I store my opened package in a glass jar and I have one unopened package. As soon as I transfer that unopened package to the jar I buy a new package and freeze it.

Odds and Ends:

I buy flax seed, hemp seed, and chia in bulk, but not more than a couple month's worth at a time. I keep most of it frozen.




Sunday, August 24, 2014

Frugal Entertaining ... Burrito Bowls

We eat a plant based diet, but most of our friends do not. In the past we struggled with how to feed people that we thought would be expecting meat as part of a meal (we were vegetarian for 12 years, ate small amounts of fish for another 6 years, and then ate meat for almost 6 years before going 100% plant based). I'll admit that it affected our social lives and our wallets; we didn't feel comfortable asking people to come over and share a meal that didn't include meat so we often went to restaurants instead.

We're over that now. We eat the way we eat and people always have the option of declining a dinner invitation. I don't find that they often do.

One meal that I like to serve is burrito bowls, similar to what you might find at Chipotle. I make pinto beans (cooked with garlic) and brown basmati rice (seasoned with garlic, onion, salt, pepper, and New Mexican chili powder) as the main two components of the bowls, and then add a variety of toppings. We might have sautéed greens or diced zucchini, roasted red pepper and onion strips, lettuce, sliced black olives, a pepita-based cilantro cream sauce, and salsa, depending on what it available.

These are one bowl/plate meals; the protein, starch, and vegetables are all mixed together. I set up everything in my kitchen so everyone can make their burrito bowl exactly how they want it, then we gather around the tables to share our meal.

One thing I have heard when serving this meal is how nice it is to have a plant based meal that isn't based around an imitation meat, and I must say that I agree. A lot of meat eaters are very wary of imitation meats anyway. Another person remarked how the cilantro cream sauce (with no cream in it) was so flavorful and creamy that she didn't even miss having shredded cheese or sour cream.

But even if you do eat meat this can be a very inexpensive meal to entertain with. In the past I would slow cook a pork shoulder (very cheap!) and shred it for the bowls. It's also a great potluck meal; you can cook the beans (or meat), vegetables, and rice and ask others to bring the various toppings, or you can even ask someone to bring the rice, as I sometimes do.

Variations on this meal could be to have tostadas or actual burritos in tortillas.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Piloncillo As a Brown Sugar Replacement



Piloncillo after having been broken to small pieces with a mallet and then whirled in the food processor.

I wrote about making piloncillo syrup as a replacement for honey in baked goods and as a topping for breakfast foods such as pancakes and french toast. I used Penny from Penniless Parenting's method for making jaggery syrup, with a few changes.

To break up the piloncillo I placed it into a plastic bag and then pounded it with a mallet, breaking into small chunks. Then, because these small chunks weren't rock hard I took a chance at processing it in the small bowl of my food processor, and what I ended up with resembled brown sugar.

I don't use refined brown sugar in my kitchen; it is little more than white sugar that has had some molasses added back in. In some recipes sucanat makes a good replacement for refined brown sugar; I use it in my cinnamon roll filling and also in corn scones.

However, sucanat costs more per pound than piloncillo, and since when processed at home piloncillo resembles brown sugar I decided to give it a try in muffins. Piloncillo actually has much more moisture than sucanat does, more like refined brown sugar.

Later in my kitchen experiments I tried grating the piloncillo using a food processor doesn't work as well as breaking it up first and then using the food processor to quickly break down the smaller pieces. My strong Breville handled it just fine, but the heat generated softened the piloncillo to the point that it was in big clumps. So, I can't process several pounds of piloncillo for later use; it really is meant to be stored in the cone shape it comes in and then broken apart right before using.

So far l like piloncillo best as a brown sugar replacement in baked goods or toppings that are already meant to be moist. I also think it will work well as the sugar that the boys can put on porridge; I can process a small cone and use it for a few days.

Piloncillo is working for me as a honey replacement when made into syrup; I used it in cornbread and it was delicious, and we like it on french toast too. I've found that I don't love it as a honey replacement in bread; it makes the crust a little tough. Still, I will use piloncillo syrup on many applications and am glad to have discovered piloncillo as a replacement for brown sugar and honey!

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Day in the Life of Voluntary Frugalista

My Friday Frugal Victories posts are so boring that I am going to put up bonus posts on Fridays.

Here is what a typical day looks like for me; it's summer so I don't have homeschooling in the mix right now.

5:30AM

The alarm goes off; I hit snooze planning to grab an extra 9 minutes, but Papa gets up and rouses the boys, so I get up after all. The guys are getting all their stuff together before they head out for a ride, so I stay in my room and check email and blogs.

6:00 AM - 8:00 AM

I get up, open all the windows, and start a load of laundry (my skirts which I wash once a week). I pull down the load of small towels that had stayed out overnight, fold them, and put them away. I also put away a load of towels that had been folded Saturday evening; the basket had been hidden behind a chair. When the washing machine finishes I hang my skirts outside to dry.

I empty the dishwasher and dish rack.

I grind einkorn for zucchini muffins, and while the mill is going I take a cone of piloncillo outside and whack it into pieces (in a previously used zipper bag), and then I whirl the piloncillo chunks in the food processor to make brown sugar. I make the muffins and get them into the oven.

I grind wheat for sandwich bread and get that loaf going in the bread maker.

I hand wash all the dishes I used and wipe the counters in the kitchen.

I make my bed.

8:00 - 8:45 AM

I visit with Papa while he makes smoothies and has his breakfast.

8:45 - 9:25 AM

I get dressed (in clothes nice enough to go out in), wash my face, brush my teeth, fix my hair, and put my jewelry on.

I have the boys close the windows, bring in the dry bike clothing, potty the dogs, and get their clothes ready to be washed.

I start a load of regular clothes in the washing machine.

9:25 - 10:30 AM

We go to the orthodontist to have a consultation for J. The billing secretary works with us to find a way to use our flexible spending account for 2014/2015/2016 so that all the monies paid will be pre-tax.

10:30 - 11:00 AM

I take the bread out of bread machine.

Computer break.

11:00 AM - 12:00 PM

I cook our main meal of scrambled tofu and cauliflower, Field Roast chipotle sausages, roasted potatoes, and fresh fruit.

I hang the clean load of laundry on the racks.

12:00 - 1:00 PM

I eat lunch (our main meal) with my family.

1:00 - 3:00 PM

I kind of piddle around, doing some paperwork, looking for a lost piece of paperwork, updating YNAB, working on a blog post, etc.

3:00 - 4:00 PM

I add a crocheted edging to three dish cloths I had knit previously.

I clean up a sick dog's mess and mop the kitchen floor.

4:00 - 5:00 PM

I call the vet about the dogs, and call Papa, and then wait for a return call (that never came).

5:00 - 6:00 PM

Papa and I visit (while I wait for the return call that doesn't come).

I check the library to make sure the books that are on hold for me won't be returned to circulation before I go early next week. I check to see if there any books due this week, and I put another book on hold.

6:00 - 6:30 PM

We eat dinner, which is actually our lighter, lunch foods meal.

6:30 - 7:00 PM

I bring in my skirts from the drying racks. J is still complaining about his stomach, so I call the nurse line. I have to call back when the first nurse isn't in my state and can't figure out how to transfer my call to another nurse.

7:00 - 8:00 PM

I order the loaf pans I have been needing (and hemming and hawing about) and then I work on this blog post. I am in the living room with the guys, who are playing Monopoly on the iPads so that J can remain lying down.

8:00 - 9:00 PM

I tidy up a little.

I bring in and put away the clothes that were drying outside.

I wrap the muffins that I had frozen earlier, and put them back in the freezer.

I fill my water bottle.

I check the water filter system to see if it needs water added.

I check the dogs' water bowl.

I get ready for bed.

9:00 - 10:00 PM

I close the windows.

I read in bed.

10:00 PM

Lights out.

Frugal Victories

Friday:

I changed our planned main meal so that I could use the leftover plant-based Alfredo sauce I had in the refrigerator before it went bad.

The dogs have been battling a tummy bug, and the vet didn't get back to me, so I used my rice cooker to make rice porridge for their meal. I added a little pumpkin to it. Happily, the dogs seem to be back on track with their bowel habits, and they are hungry and happy, so things are looking up.

I had to buy white rice for the dogs as we don't usually keep it in the house. I went ahead and bought a 5# bag; it had the cheapest unit price and we'll probably need it again before it expires (which is years way from now). Actually, I will probably use it well before that as it is recommended that I periodically clean my grain mill by running white rice through it.

Saturday:

T ran in to grab Larabars for a snack to take with them to a trail work day; I stopped him and quickly grabbed muffins from the freezer for them to take instead.

The guys didn't know what time their work day would end, which made it hard to cook a main meal. I rummaged through the freezer and found a box of Boca Burgers, so I planned to make those as soon as they got home, along with frozen corn cooked in the microwave. We had the burgers on homemade, previously frozen buns.

The boys needed hair cuts, so we dropped them off while we ran another errand. When we picked them up T said he forgot to get the reward card stamped, so we sent him back in.

The hair place is in the same shopping center as Trader Joe's, so we quickly picked up everything we thought we might need for a month.

Sunday:

I prepared and packed our food for the race, meaning we didn't need to buy any food while we were out. We also brought an igloo of ice water to keep us hydrated and cool.

I forgot to put on rice and beans for our post-race meal, which could have been a major frugal failure. Instead, I sucked it up and made waffles despite the stifling heat in the kitchen and the fact that I was exhausted from being at a race all day.

J appears to have sprained his wrist (per the race medics). I saved my wrist brace from when I broke my wrist a few years ago, so we are using that to stabilize his wrist for a few days while it heals.

T watched a free Yahoo/Live Nation concert.

Monday:

I renewed all of our library books so we wouldn't have to go to the library until we want to, which means we can combine the trip with other errands.

Tuesday:

I started a major decluttering project in the house, beginning with my bedroom and the little bathroom. It is almost always cheaper to live in less space, so regular culling keeps us comfortable in the house we have now.

I baked bread.

Wednesday:

I taught myself how to make Kenya chapati (which isn't like Indian chapati - it's more like parathas with a flaky texture). Now we have a delicious flat bread we can turn to to make our meals more delicious and economical.

I made sun tea that ended up being rain tea, which the boys found funny.

They weather was mild today, so we didn't need to run the A/C.

Thursday:

Operation declutter and organize is going on full force! Knowing what I have and where it is goes a long way toward supporting the frugal lifestyle.

It was a warmer today, but we toughed it out without the A/C.

We had leftover beans from Monday and Thursday's main meals, so I didn't bake sandwich bread and instead I put together a taco meal for our dinner out of the beans (put together), leftover seasoned rice, avocado, cabbage, and corn tortillas.

I used a free DVD code from Redbox to rent a movie for my boys, spending 32¢ out of pocket (we chose a BluRay). Because the movie was available at the kiosk at the grocery store we took the opportunity to buy this week's loss leader produce.




Thursday, August 21, 2014

We Eat Very Simply

I suppose that some families would absolutely hate how we eat, and not because it is plant-based whole foods. No, some people really wouldn't like how often we repeat meals and how simple they really are.

Two people in my family are super tasters; I am one of them. Super tasters can have a more difficult time with spicy foods, unusual flavors, and even textures.

A simple meal of brown rice, pinto beans, sautéed zucchini, and avocado.

Two people in my family are teens; I am NOT one of them. They haven't developed a sophisticated adult palate. I would actually say that T has regressed some in terms of being an adventurous eater, whereas J has always been more choosy.

Three of the people in my family have multiple food allergies; I am one of them. The boys allergies no longer are of much concern; J has outgrown a lot of his allergies and while T hasn't outgrown his dairy allergy, we don't eat dairy, so it is a non-issue. I, however, still have to cook around my allergies and sensitivities. While I am very pleased that some of my more recently acquired allergies seem to have disappeared, my lifelong tomato allergy has not.

I am a believer in simple, and I think a lot of people really do love simple foods and enjoying how foods taste. I get so many compliments on my cooking, so it must work!

I rarely do much to dress up legumes because we like the flavor of legumes! Pinto beans are cooked with garlic and seasoned with salt; adventurous tomato lovers can add salsa, avocado lovers can add mashed avocado. Black beans get the same treatment. My favorite way to eat lentils is cooked as mujadara with a very simple, very traditional recipe that involves lentils, rice, onions, olive oil, and salt. The combination is magic. Heirloom beans are seasoned with olive oil, sage, lemon, and salt. Chickpeas become hummus, but even my hummus recipe is very basic: chickpeas, olive oil, water, salt, lemon juice, garlic, and tahini. I would never add cumin or other spices! My split pea soup is a bit more complicated, including salt and a few herbs: thyme, rosemary, fennel seed, and oregano.

I love roasting and sautéing vegetables simply with olive oil and salt, and occasionally black pepper. I never bother with sauces for vegetables. Greens get the addition of garlic, well-browned, and perhaps a squeeze of lemon juice.

Sometimes we eat pasta; two of us have it with tomato marinara (jarred), one prefers plain olive oil and salt, and I bounce between olive oil and homemade hempesan or a homemade vegan cheesy sauce or homemade olive tapenade (just olives, olive oil, and salt).

Tacos are simply refried (really pureed) beans with a simply seasoned rice (garlic, chili powder, onion, salt, pepper) and raw or cooked veggies.

We are a family that can make a meal out of oven roasted potatoes (olive oil, salt, pepper), a roasted vegetable, and a cabbage salad (cabbage, olive oil, AVC, garlic, salt). Even better would be mashed potatoes and sautéed cabbage. On a lazy day the potatoes might be simply baked. If I am really fancy I will cook Indian spiced potatoes which uses more spices than any other dish I make.

If I branch out and make a tamale pie or lentil-rice casserole I am certain to get some resistance from one or more of the troops. Heck, J doesn't even like stir-fry, especially if it is prepared with Asian seasonings. I still think of stir fry as simple, though, so I make it :)

When I was a newlywed Papa worked at a restaurant so I was responsible for my own dinner 4 - 5 nights per week, either at home or work. My number one meal, repeated several times a week, was steamed vegetables and brown rice, seasoned with either vegan margarine or tamari sauce.

It's all good, simple food, seasoned just enough to highlight the natural flavors of the healthful foods I serve.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

21 Things I Do to Save Money

I saw a list like this over at Brown Thumb Mama and thought it would be fun to make my own list!

1) We have a Nest thermostat, so I can control it with my phone. If we are away from home for long it goes into an Auto Away energy savings mode. It also has a cycle where it keeps running the fan after the compressor turns off, to increase cooling without using as much energy. In summer we set it to 82° unless it is a Save Power Day (then we set it higher or turn it off).

2) I get up at 5:30AM, so on cool mornings I open every window in the house, turn on the A/C fan (not the compressor, just the fan which uses very little electricity) and watch the temperature in the house drop by as much as 8°!

3) I make all of our bread and baked goods, saving as much as $100 per month.

4) I wash my hair with baking soda and condition with an apple cider vinegar rinse on the ends. The only other toiletries I use are a natural deodorant, toothpaste and floss, lip balm, oil to wash my face, homemade balms, and the occasional bar of soap or swipe of mascara. I don't buy or use shampoo, conditioner, hair spray, hair gel, hair mousse, pomade, hair serums, nail polishes or removers, makeup (other than very occasional mascara use), body lotions (now that I gave up soap I don't get so dried out and if I do I use almond oil), facial cleansers, toners, serums, moisturizers or pretty much anything else from your typical drugstore toiletries department.

5) I (and my entire family) follow a plant based diet. Not eating meat is a big money saver (but that isn't why we do it).

6) As a general rule I don't buy processed foods. Not cookies, not bread, not ice cream, not crackers, not anything that has ingredients that I can't pronounce or source myself. The only real exceptions are the occasional fake meat product like Gardein or Boca, and those only to help my kids feel normal when we go to BBQs. I do buy canned beans, jarred salsa, and jarred spaghetti sauce as a convenience foods, but I could make them (about 95% of the beans we do eat regularly are made from dried beans). Mostly I just cook and bake from scratch.

7) I make our main meal at lunch time and Papa comes home everyday. It is incredible to me how much some people spend on work lunches out and I am glad that we are able to do this.

8) We choose to live where Papa works; he has a 5 minute commute by car or foot. No money lost on gasoline for a car commute.

9) We carry water bottles with us everywhere we go. My kids never ask for a drive thru soda or a bottle of water at the store.

10) Actually, we don't drink soda. We drink water 90% of the time (some of it sparkled with a Soda Stream because Papa is hooked on sparking water), plus tea, hot or iced.

11) I am an avid thrift store shopper, and over the years more than 75% of my boys' wardrobes (not including socks and underwear) has been purchased second hand or given to us. As for me, I'm not into brands or expensive clothing; I buy the basics (new or used) and wear them out. Including shoes and work clothes we spend under $600 per year (and shoes are half of that).

12) We pack food when we will be gone over a meal time. PB&J on homemade bread is cheap, filling, and good, and has the added bonus of not requiring refrigeration. I toss some fruit into the cooler, and a few muffins, and call it good.

13) I bake for my freezer and keep it stocked with individually wrapped muffins, scones, and cinnamon rolls, ready to pull out if we need to pack a quick meal or for when the boys ride. They also make nice bribe foods, as in, come with me and do two hours of errands, being helpful, and I will let you have a cinnamon roll when we get home.

14) I hang almost all of my laundry to dry, year round. Clearly, my climate helps with this, but I also have systems in place to make it easier, such as washing more frequently when it is cooler so that I don't get behind when I can only air dry one load per day. The only load I put in the dryer regularly is the socks and underwear load that I wash every 7 - 10 days. That is also the only load I wash on hot.

15) I use my local library system to request books we want to read, and we practice patience rather than instant gratification as we are not always first in line.

16) Papa and I sit on our front porch with homemade cinnamon rolls and mugs of tea rather than going to the local coffee house or neighborhood hangout. I keep it clean and tidy, and since we have two little bistro sets out there it is really cute.

17) Our favorite date is to go for a walk! Really, it is the best quality time we can find away from the house. On date night I would much rather cook a quick meal at home and then go for a long walk than pay a restaurant to cook and clean up for me. In summer we can walk downtown and hear free concerts, which is a bonus.

18) When we vacation we either camp, taking all of our own food, or we try to stay at a vacation condo or a hotel with a kitchenette. This saves a lot of money as restaurant meals for four people three times a day really adds up! Then if we are vacationing someplace that has a great vegan restaurant we will go out once to try it and it feels really special, rather than being one more meal eaten out on vacation. For example, we were in Monterey for a race last spring, and for Mother's Day (there was no way Papa and the boys were letting me cook Mother's Day dinner after having worked a race all day) we found a completely vegan Mexican restaurant that had the best intentionally vegan Mexican food we have ever eaten out. (Deep fried potato tacos! Vegan posole!). We could enjoy it fully because we weren't worrying about how much money we'd spent eating at restaurants all weekend or even how unhealthy that might have been.

19) I make my own essential oil and/or herbal blends, oils, and salves, to use in supporting our health naturally.

20) I ask for what I need and want. When people make noise about my birthday or another holiday I give them good ideas. Because I sew I ask for a gift card to a fabric store. There is a vegan restaurant we love so I will ask for a gift card as a family gift. I will mention a book I would love to read but can't find at the library. Last year my dad bought me a waffle maker that I asked for, a very practical gift that has been declared by my children to be the best gift of the holidays (and that is saying a lot since they received a game system). I find that people want to give gifts that you really want, so I don't pretend that I don't want anything. That is how you end up with a zebra striped plush shorty robe!

21) I believe in a whole-istic view of health, and we take no supplements of any kind, preferring to meet our bodies needs by eating nutritious whole foods (including copious amounts of produce), staying properly hydrated with clean water, providing for judicious sun exposure, engaging in physical activity, spending time outside and in nature, reducing/eliminating stress, and getting early and sufficient sleep. We see regular doctors rarely and use a chiropractor and massage therapist for most muscular and skeletal issues. We also take no medications (natural, allopathic, or prescribed) on a regular basis, reserving OTC pain medications for significant pain and antihistamines for severe allergic reactions. Our medication outlay per year is under $10.

I think this last one is really important for my family (and maybe not for yours and that is okay). I spent too many years with a chronic illness (which I still have), being treated in ways that didn't support my overall health. Once upon a time I was popping 12 (!) pills and capsules every night before bed, and those weren't even my only daily medications. We have insurance, but even so the copays added up every month. I decided that I wanted to be vibrantly healthy and took my health into my own hands, and truly, I have never felt better. Papa and the boys almost never need a doctor for illness, just for the types of injuries that I can't treat at home, such as stitching up a wound or taking an X-ray. We go once a year for checkups and blood work and that is about it.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Too Many Carbs?

A friend recently suggested that my family eats too many carbs and not enough protein. Now, I know that higher protein diets have been in vogue for the past decade or so, but I don't think we eat too many carbs.

Carbs get a bad rap, but I think that is because the standard American diet can be carb heavy without being nutrient dense. If we were filling up on potato chips, white bread, ice cream, and cookies I might agree with my friend that my family eats too many carbs.

Instead, our carb heavy diet is rich in fresh fruits and whole grains, along with limited unrefined sweeteners. Breakfast might be a smoothie overflowing with fresh fruits, hemp seed, and flax seed, plus 100% whole grain toast spread with peanut butter. Lunch (our main meal) is usually based on legumes and whole grains plus a couple of vegetable side dishes. Dinner is usually big green salads with lots of veggies, plus sandwiches on 100% whole grain bread. Those sandwiches might be peanut butter or perhaps a nice chickpea-avocado spread, adding yet more protein. And of course, the boys are teens, so they snack on fruit, nuts, and whole grain foods all day long.

Some people see that and think we don't get enough protein, but the reality is that grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, and vegetable all have protein! When I take the time to track protein intake I find that my vegan teen athletes are consuming about 80g per day, and that number goes up during race season when they drink protein recovery drinks.

Sure, a 6 ounce steak has 42 grams of protein, whereas pinto beans have 15 grams per cooked cup, and brown rice 5 grams per cooked cup. But on a whole foods plant based diet every meal is an opportunity to take in quality nutrients. On a standard American diet breakfast might be 1 cup of corn flakes with 1 cup of skim milk, for a total of about 15 grams of protein. One of our smoothies has 15 grams of protein just in hemp seed alone, plus the protein in the flax seed and fruit, and our smoothies have far more other nutrients. Then you add the protein in their peanut butter toast, another 24 grams between the 100% whole wheat bread and the peanut butter (my boys do not go skimpy on the peanut butter!). Their breakfast has at least 40 grams of protein, which is close to their dietary needs for the entire day (teen boys need about 52 grams of protein daily).

I don't eat nearly as much food as they do, but I don't need as much protein, either.

Of course, we don't even know how real these numbers are! A whole-istic view of health is that eating whole, plant based foods provides us with all the nutrients we need. Even if one chooses to eat meat and fish, eating whole grains and lots of vegetables and fruits makes it almost impossible to be deficient in any nutrient, macro or micro, with the exception of vitamin D and that's because our bodies make vitamin D.

(Oh, and that pesky rumor that plant based eaters need to supplement with B12? Even my very mainstream doctor says that current research considers it unnecessary. I'm not saying to stop if you've been advised to take B12 - do what your health care professional says. But if not, do some research into the supplements industry and really think about whether getting vitamins from any source other than food makes sense to you. Our choice is not to supplement and to have annual blood tests to check our levels of various nutrients.)

Now, not every one eats a plant based diet! I wrote this post because people who are choosing frugality often find themselves eating less meat and dairy and more grains and legumes, and I wanted to show how these foods do provide all the necessary protein. You don't even have to worry about combining specific foods at each meal to make complete proteins; over the course of the day and week your body will get everything that it needs.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Why I Love Muffins

A pumpkin muffin and a zucchini muffin, ready for breakfast.

T ran into the house, barely making the turn into the kitchen.

What do you need?, I asked. Larabars, he answered.

Oh yeah, they wanted to take a snack with them to the trail clean up day. I should have taken care of that for them before they left.

Let me grab muffins for you; they'll have to be zucchini as that's the first bag I see.

And he was out the door, six muffins in hand, barely pausing to say Thank You! (but he did).

The lowest price I can get a Larabar for is $1; homemade Larabars have not been well-received. Now, there is a time and place for Larabars, but needing a quick snack isn't it.

I bake muffins two dozen at a time. I used to not use baking cup liners, but then I watched a baking class online and the instructor mentioned that baking cups help keep baked goods fresh longer. I tried using them and had good results, so now I use liners every time I bake muffins, unless I am dumping them out and serving them immediately. (I buy the If You Care large baking cups because they are FSC certified and also unbleached/chlorine free.)

I also wrap muffins in BPA free plastic wrap (Stretch Tite is my favorite brand) after I have frozen them. A baking cup costs me 2¢ and the plastic wrap costs 1¢, so these measures add 3¢ to the cost of a muffin, but I think it is well worth it as the muffins stay fresh in the freezer and are as handy to grab as a Larabar.

(I don't love that I use plastic, but I figure that the small amount I use is less than the packaging on prepared snacks from the store. I use BPA free plastic and never wrap or store hot foods.)

A baked at home and wrapped by me muffin costs between 15¢ and 35¢ depending on the produce I use. Dirt cheap or free zucchini yields lower priced muffins that using canned sweet potatoes or pumpkin, but I do use those at times. A Larabar, as I mentioned, is $1 if purchased in bulk using Amazon Mom and Subscribe and Save. I use the Larabar as an example as that is the healthy snack that Papa defaults to when they need something quick.

My guys took six muffins. They cost me 20¢ each to make and wrap, so that's $1.20 versus $6 in Larabars, saving $4.80.

I bake a lot of banana muffins; they are a great way to use spotty bananas (although smoothies are great for that too) and they taste delicious. I can't help but see muffins as a way to add a little extra nutrition to my family's diet, and I like to vary the produce (eating a wide variety of produce is one of the best ways to ensure getting all your vitamins and minerals without resorting to synthetic vitamins). I use whole grain flours, unrefined sugar (half of what is called for in the original recipe), and ground flax in my muffins, so they start with a healthy base that includes protein, fiber, manganese, selenium, B vitamins, iron (from the unrefined sugar), and omega 3 oils.

But there is a world of muffins out there besides banana. The boys are particularly fond of sweet potato or pumpkin muffins (lots of beta carotene), and I've managed to substitute in pureed (cooked) carrot without any fuss. J doesn't love zucchini muffins with pieces in them, but likes them fine if I puree the zucchini with the wet ingredients.

I make applesauce muffins (from homemade or jarred applesauce) and pear muffins (so good with ginger in them). For pear muffins I usually use canned pears, preferably organic. (I dream of having a pear tree so I can make and can my own pear sauce.) I make mango muffins by pureeing defrosted mango chunks.

I found that blueberry muffins didn't go over well with anyone but Papa until I tried pureeing the blueberries. One little secret when making a muffin with pureed blueberries is that you can get away with adding a little steamed spinach and no one notices :)

Combinations work as well: mango-blueberry, zucchini-pumpkin, sweet potato-pear, pear-banana, etc.

Because of my family's tastes (well, except for Papa) I keep my muffins simple and don't add nuts or dried fruits, which also saves money. I don't add chocolate chips, either, as they are expensive and don't add much other than sugar (despite how healthy the media touts chocolate as being).

I like my freezer to have lots of muffins in it! We grab them for on-the-go snacks, impromptu picnics, quick breakfasts, and more. They are my own little homemade convenience food!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Frugal Entertaining ... the Soup and Bread Supper

I have to admit that for a long time we really didn't consider soup to be a meal worthy of serving to guests. It wasn't that I didn't make delicious soups; I really think it was our fear that most people consider soup an appetizer and not a meal.

However, in 2007 I read a magazine article about someone who held a monthly soup night during the cooler months, and I was inspired. I approached Papa with the idea somewhat trepidatiously, but he was all for it, and so our first soup supper was born.

We do it one of two ways; either as a meal that we cook and serve to friends, or as a potluck. I'll explain how I do each one.

If we are cooking for everyone I will make two or three soups, usually a bean soup, a split pea soup, and a simple broth and noodle soup for any children attending. I use my Instant Pot for the split peas, my slow cooker for the beans, and my vintage electric Dutch oven for the noodle soup (which really only requires boiling broth and cooking noodles in it). I will bake one or two kinds of bread, usually a simple, unsweetened rustic loaf and a cornbread. I make one large cabbage salad (one of the least expensive salads to serve a crowd).

If it is a potluck I make one or two soups and one type of bread. My friends are invited to bring a soup, bread, or beverage. (We skip the salad for this event.) Many bring a soup and bread; I've found that people love to share their dishes.

We set up a buffet in my kitchen (and laundry room, if it is a large potluck). Dishes, flatware, and napkins go on the Hoosier cabinet, soups are plugged in on the counters, breads are placed on the stovetop (I lock the controls so the burners can't light and put my two wooden cutting boards across the stove grates), and the beverage station is on the washer and dryer.

I have lots and lots of plates and bowls and silverware, so I never need to pull out disposables. I have Corelle plates that I have purchased very inexpensively second hand, and I also have my grandmother's Corelle, so I could serve close to 40 bowls of soup before I ran out of bowls. Likewise, my grandmother had four or five partial sets of flatware in her belongings when she passed away, so we're fine there. I have stacks of cloth napkins, and we use masking tape on glasses to mark each person's drink (usually just water, iced tea, or lemonade).

It has become our tradition to have a soup potluck on Halloween, inviting friends to share a meal together before taking the children trick-or-treating in our neighborhood. Since it is Halloween we don't bother with desserts; the kids bring back plenty of candy to share.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Frugal Homeschooling

A random photo of the boys doing lesson work a few years ago.

People can and do homeschool for very little money. I know one mom who made such extensive use of her public library that she spent under $50 annually for workbooks and other resources.

Libraries truly are one of a homeschooler's best resources (public television is another). I used to plan blocks and place hold requests for all of the books I needed, and since they weren't in high demand I was always able to keep them for the six weeks or so that I needed them. Wandering around my library one day I found a whole section of books to teach mathematics which allowed me to "test" a few programs out. I also used books from the children's section that introduced many math concepts. There are so many fantastic non-fiction books (and fantastic fiction books too, of course) available, in subjects ranging from grammar to history to science.

I think the hardest resource to get from the library for use during the entire homeschool year is a math curriculum, and indeed, having used many programs over the years I have come to think that the most frugal math resource is the one that you will use and that your children will learn from. We did really well with Waldorf style math blocks in the early years, and then later with Oak Meadow math for 7th and 8th grades and now with Teaching Textbooks. I truly think TT is worth every penny spent on it!

Many districts provide curricula for free, and there are charter schools which provide funds to buy materials as well. Homeschool groups may have a lending library of curricula and other resources.

One way I have saved with homeschooling is to sell everything after we have used it; indeed, I usually bought used curriculum and then sold it for not much less than I originally paid.

A lot of homeschoolers go on field trips very often, which is fun but rarely frugal. We went on fewer field trips, focusing on those that were free or very low cost, as well as those that were close to home (so we could spend less on gas and also be home for meal times). This allowed us to splurge every now and then (not even every year) on a bigger experience, such as spending a day aboard a tall ship.

I never found that my boys learned a lot from most field trips anyway, at least not when they were younger. Many kids tended to see it as a time to socialize, so even if my boys were trying to pay attention there were often other kids who were being disruptive. (Not that my kids are perfect - i recall all too vividly a field trip last year where my two kept talking to a friend and I ended up separating all three of them.) Instead, we incorporate many field trip type activities into our own travels. On beach vacations (wonderfully educational in and of themselves) we seek out nature centers, tide pools, and estuaries. In cities we look for museums with exhibitions that will appeal to the boys.

I encourage home learners to find things that are free or cheap and educational in their own cities. Our town has a small postal museum that my boys learned a lot from, and we could stop in whenever we were at the main post office. We also have a summer concert series each year, as well as a Shakespeare festival. Local bookstores hold various events, and other area stores offer free crafts.

Being in nature is one of the best ways for young children to learn, so finding local trails is worthwhile. I like to take the same hike once each season so that the kids can see how it changes throughout the year. One year we went to a local nature park every week to observe seasonal changes, which was really neat.

Of course, being in the home is a wonderful learning experience as well.  There is so much to learn from cooking together, raising a garden, caring for pets, tending the home. making music, and more, and yes, many of these things translate into traditional learning subjects. Many schools themselves now have gardens, and my mother-in-law often did cooking experiments with her students.

Let me not forget grandparents! Visiting grandparents in their home towns gave us more places to explore. One year my in-laws watched the boys for several days and I asked that they take them to the local mission on a 'field trip". They did that and also planned nature walks and a visit to the landfill.

Our recreation center offered low-priced sports programs; we would pay around $40 for three months of basketball, and received a discount for the second child.

I hear from so many people how expensive homeschooling is, and based on everything I have written here, I have to say I disagree!


Friday, August 15, 2014

When Saving on the Electricity Bill Isn't Saving at All

My Nest Smart Thermostat, showing the A/C turned off and a temperature of 86° in the hall.

I find human beings absolutely fascinating. We will get all hung up about one thing, like saving on the electric bill by not running the air conditioner, and fail to see that what we did to accomplish that cost us more than if we had just gone ahead and turned it on.

Case in point: I used to have a friend who tried to get out of the house in the heat of the afternoon so that she won't need to turn her A/C on. However, she often went someplace where she ended up spending money - the bookstore, the mall, etc. She might buy a small food treat or beverage, or perhaps a book or new pair of jeans.

Now, this is voluntary frugality; she was free to choose to save on electricity by spending hours at a cafe, and to choose to buy a treat while she was there, and it wasn't my business. I didn't make her budget. I make note of it only because I was invited to participate in these outings in an effort to save electricity, and for me the rationale that I would be saving on my electric bill didn't wash.

Likewise, I know many people who choose not to cook or bake because the A/C has to run longer to make up for the extra heat in the house. Often this leads to getting take out or going to a restaurant. I'm pretty sure I could use my oven, cool my house down to ice box temperatures, and still not spend as much as I would at a restaurant.

And so, I bake and I cook. I do have a bread maker so some days I don't use the oven, and I try to make good use of my Instant Pot when it's hot, but I always cook.

My worst electric bill (which auto correct tried to change to electro chill, which sounds kind of fun) ever was $227 in the summer 2012. That month my electricity averaged $7.30 per day. Last summer my highest bill was $165, averaging about $5.30 per day. This year my highest bill has been $132, averaging $4.25 a day. With numbers like those, even the super high bill, there is no way that eating out makes sense to me as a way to lower my electric bill.

Heck, if I drive to Starbucks (to hang out in their air conditioning) and buy us each an iced tea, between gas and the beverages I end up spending a lot more than I saved by having my A/C off for a couple of hours. It's better to just stay home.

(As a side note, this year my utility company raised rates by 8% and I have a big new second refrigerator in my garage, so theoretically I should be spending more on electricity, but my recommitment to frugality extends to electricity as well as money.)

I think it is really important to have a sense of how much you spend daily for electricity. Monthly bill numbers can sound scary when they are high, whereas grabbing cheap burritos for $20 can sound like a good deal to avoid heating up the house, but only because you might be comparing that to a $227 electric bill. But taken in context, eating out one day versus the cost of electricity for one day (which in this example is $7.30), it's easier to see that you don't save by eating out. Plus, all of that $7.30 isn't spent on air conditioning; plenty of it goes to the basics such as running the refrigerator, lights, washing machine, phone charger, etc.

Of course, finding free or very cheap air conditioning to hang out in is a great thing as long as you don't have to spend a lot of gas to get there. I personally like to partake of the A/C at the public library, where I can also read a magazine and refill my water bottle from the refrigerated water fountain. I do like to run any necessary errands when it is really hot; I love walking into the refrigerated produce case at Costco when I have been sweltering all day. Maybe that is what my computer meant by electro chill.

Frugal Victories

As always, my frugal victory posts contain a lot of minutiae. Read at your own risk of boredom.

Friday:

I cancelled my subscription to Block, the Missouri Quilt magazine. It's one of those automatic monthly subscriptions and I realized I don't need it.

I upgraded my Ancestry membership from monthly to annual. This requires a more expensive up front payment, but will save me $50 per year.

We needed a rake; I dug out an old Home Depot gift card and applied the $6.52 toward the price of the rake. This gift card had been floating around the house for about a year.

The boys could only find two pairs of work gloves and said that we'd need to buy another pair for Saturday's trail clearing; Papa thought so too but I said the third pair had to be somewhere (they used them in June to put up the fence) so Papa dug around outside until he unearthed them.

We went to Bed Bath and Beyond to buy refill cartridges for our SodaStream. I found three 20% off coupons in my coupon envelope, so we saved $9 (Bed Bath and Beyond gladly accepts multiple coupons as well as expired coupons).

In the spend-to-save category, we also bought a fan at Bed Bath and Beyond, using another 20% off coupon. Papa thought that having a second fan in the kitchen would be better than moving the one we have back and forth between the kitchen and living room, as sometimes there are people in both rooms.

I also unearthed $20.01 in unused Target gift cards; I purchased a silicone spoon/spatula (a very helpful money saving kitchen item), a "sticky stuff" measuring cup, and mason jar storage lids.

Papa and I walked downtown to watch an outdoor symphony concert. I popped corn at home to take with us, and brought a water bottle.

Saturday:

I used leftover bread (that I had saved through the week) to make french toast for our main meal.

I hung a load of towels to dry. This usually isn't worth mentioning, as I hang almost all of our laundry, but I really wanted to use the dryer because there were so many small things. I counted 53 items in that load.

The boys had an unexpected social outing; Papa and I used the bonus "date night" to hang out at home quietly with our library books. I also spent some time knitting a birthday gift I am working on.

Sunday:

I made a triple batch of bread dough and used that to make one batch of 12 sandwich/burger rolls for the freezer as well as a double batch of cinnamon rolls. I now have 16 cinnamon rolls in the freezer.

I made another batch of sun tea; Papa and the boys really enjoy drinking it (unsweetened even), which means their hydration levels are up and we won't use our SodaStream cartridges up as fast.

I made a simple cantaloupe sorbet for my family to enjoy after a day of cleaning house in very hot weather. It is just one cantaloupe, peeled and chunked, pureed in the blender with 1/2 cup honey powder and the juice of half a lemon, then frozen in an ice cream maker.

The Yahoo channel has been live streaming concerts this summer (but I didn't really know about it until recently). We were able to watch a concert of a band the boys really like as our Sunday evening entertainment.

Monday:

We had three pieces of french toast leftover from Saturday; I had one piece for my breakfast and the boys each ate one piece to augment their smoothies.

I received a last minute invitation to the park; I quickly put on a pot of beans for our main meal, ground flour and put on bread, and then got ready, grabbing muffins, my knitting, and a full water bottle before I left. Yes, we ended up eating almost the exact same main meal as Sunday, but it was still food eaten at home, and I was able to correct the mistake I made Sunday in not making a double batch of beans so we would have leftovers for our Tuesday burritos.

At the park I continued to knit the birthday gift I need for this weekend.

The watermelon that I cut for our main meal was not quite sweet, so the boys ate less of it than they usually would have, and indicated that they would not want it later for a snack. I pureed the extra and made a double batch of watermelon sorbet for the freezer.

On Saturday the vet recommended an over-the-counter medication for our dog, to help with his stomach issues. On Sunday the chain drugstore ad had the exact medicine recommended on sale for free after the rewards program rebate, and they had a coupon, so they basically paid me to take it. I could have bought the medicine in bulk at Costco, but this gives us a chance to try it without outlaying any funds. They also emailed me a coupon to get a free seltzer water, so I did that too.

There was a free movie code from Redbox so I rented a movie for the family to watch. I chose to reserve it from the kiosk outside of the drugstore so that I wouldn't use any extra gasoline to get it.

Tuesday:

I baked sweet potato muffins and french bread in the morning, and made tortillas for our main meal.

We walked our Redbox movie back to the closest kiosk so that we wouldn't have to spend gas.

Wednesday:

I had cut extra zucchini Sunday, anticipating using it on Monday, but we had so much cooked zucchini leftover that we didn't use it. I don't like to leave cut vegetables sitting too long, so I made a bonus double batch of muffins this morning, using the zucchini.

A week ago Monday I bought a cauliflower because it was on sale. However, it got put in my outside refrigerator and I kind of forgot about it (one danger of buying a vegetable that you haven't planned to use or don't use regularly). So today I cut, steamed, and sautéed it, and then combined it with our planned scrambled tofu meal.

I used the last Field Roast chipotle sausages and the last tub of plain tofu in our main meal, as both were at their expiration dates. I also used two packages of frozen organic roasted potatoes that had been stuck in the back of my freezer for almost a year. (We won't buy those again, they were an attempt at having some "emergency" convenience food in the house, but they didn't taste good, and really, washing and cutting potatoes for oven roasted potatoes really doesn't take much time.)

I need a gift for Saturday, but realized I wasn't going to have time to finish knitting what I had planned. I took three hand knit dishcloths from my gift stash and edged them to make them a little prettier, and now I have a gift.

My son has been having stomach pain, enough that my mom worry meter was going off. I wanted to take him to urgent care, but decided to use our insurance's nurse line before spending the time and copay. In this case the nurse suggested that we watch and wait. While I would never deny my children necessary medical care, I also know that I tend to want to get things checked out and might have a slight reputation as that mom who takes her kid to urgent care for a fingernail cut too close to the quick (which stopped bleeding before the doctor ever saw him). This was a case of using an insurance benefit to save everyone's time and money, not just ours.

Thursday:

I decided to have a light kitchen day; I put on beans that I had soaked the night before (I don't usually soak beans but these were larger than pintos and I had never made them without soaking). I took 8 cornbread muffins out of the freezer to have with our beans rather than running the oven, and I decided to switch the planned side dish of sautéed cabbage to a cabbage salad so I wouldn't have to use the stove. I also ground flour and put on a loaf of sandwich bread.

I washed T's bedding and hung it all outside to dry, then I washed a towel load and hung that too.

I made no bake cookies for my boys, using some cocoa butter (food safe) that I bought for a chocolate making project last year and have way too much of.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Amy Dacyczyn and the Concept of the Hourly Wage

Poor Amy, I wonder if she realized that she would be referenced all over the interwebs decades after her books came out.

One important concept I picked up from reading The Complete Tightwad Gazette was that of the hourly wage. Basically you figure out how much money you saved doing something, how much time it took you, do some basic math, and come up with an hourly wage.

For example, it takes me 10 minutes to hang a typical load of laundry on my drying racks. Each load saves me 35¢ over drying it in a clothes dryer. I can hang six loads of laundry per hour, making my hourly wage the equivalent of $2.10 after taxes.

It takes me 6 minutes to grind grain and put a loaf of bread into the bread maker. Each loaf of bread saves me $3.09 over the price of the bread that I used to buy (and yes, my bread is the equivalent in terms of ingredients; I think it weighs more but since we get the same number of servings from it I don't factor weight in). I could theoretically make ten loaves of bread per hour, this making my effective hourly wage $30.90, which is more than what I could make if I got a job. Of course, I don't really make that $30.90 per hour because I am usually make just one loaf a day, but it is a useful tool in determining how worthwhile a task is.

Amy made a chart in the book showing other things she considers when calculating whether or not the hourly wage makes it worth doing a task. For example, in my case homemade bread tastes better than store bought bread and my enjoyment of the task is about average. I have an average enjoyment of hanging laundry; while it pays a effective low hourly wage it is high on my priority list because of the environmental savings.

It is easier to do really enjoyable tasks that have a low hourly wage than tasks I detest that pay well (but I might do those anyway).

Amy gives an example of her husband Jim making pizza and how much they save over buying take out pizza, and then calculates the hourly wage. This example doesn't work as well for me because I don't really have the option to get takeout pizza because the one restaurant with vegan pizza is so expensive that we have only gotten pizza there twice. What making homemade pizza does do for me is keep my family happy with the repetitious simple meals we eat most of the time. (Not that they aren't great tasting meals, it's just that a pizza meal adds nice punctuation to the week for teen boys.) I don't calculate my hourly wage for it.

I think it is important to be honest about money saved. When I make a batch of muffins I never calculate my hourly wage based on the price of a muffin at a bakery; instead, I might compare it to a package of muffins for sale at a reduced price at the supermarket, or even another equivalent snack. If I bake a batch of cinnamon rolls I do consider how much cinnamon rolls are at the bakery, but I don't calculate it on a per roll price. If I did that I could say that I saved $43 (three trips for cinnamon rolls minus the cost of one batch of rolls, since I make 12 rolls at at a time) and had an effective hourly wage of $172. Instead, I compare the cost of one batch of cinnamon rolls with the cost of getting cinnamon rolls (and a coffee for Husband) once. One batch of cinnamon rolls with simple icing costs me approximately $6.50 and takes about 15 minutes of hands on time. A trip to the bakery for cinnamon rolls would cost about $16.50 (4 cinnamon rolls at $3.50 each, one coffee at $2.50), so I save $10 and my effective hourly wage is $40.

Sometimes I do calculations for fun. If it takes me 15 minutes to go to a store and use a coupon on a purchase I made two days prior, and my credit is $19.44, then my hourly wage was $77.76 which is an amount I could never make at a paying job.

My reality is that I am a stay at home mom; I see no reason to avoid doing a task that might earn me an effective hourly wage of $1 if there isn't anything else productive (for the household or even just personally) I would be doing with my time. If I could be doing something that saved more money with that same time then I would consider not doing the $1 per hour task, but if I would be sitting on my rear end looking at my computer then I will do it.

To me, that can be the danger in calculating your effective hourly wage and using it to decide to do or not do tasks. Because I don't work outside the home my hourly wage if I am not productive is $0, which means everything I can do to save money is worthwhile. These days I try to put in 8 productive hours daily on weekdays, half that on Saturdays, and as few as possible on Sundays. Some of those hours I might only be "earning" $2.10 per hour, but some of them I might be "earning" $40 per hour, which is pretty exciting.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

When People Are Used to the Good Stuff .. a Tale of Piloncillo Syrup



I grew up with pancake syrup, something that was most likely corn syrup with some artificial flavorings along with preservatives, and, as advertised, 2% maple syrup. For the life of me I can't recall the brand name, but it wasn't as high end as Mrs. Butterworth's or Log Cabin. It was supposed to be better than the store brand which didn't have any real maple at all.

(Of course, what can 2% real maple syrup really do for the flavor? I think it was only there for marketing purposes.)

My first experience with 100% real maple syrup was a revelation. The flavors were amazing! It felt like there was no going back after that. We enjoyed it on pancakes as well as drizzled over vanilla ice cream. I've even been known to use it with sparking water for a not-too-sweet maple soda. Also, as I learned more about food I decided I didn't want to ingest high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, or preservatives. 100% real maple syrup was the way to go.

Except ... it's expensive! I pay about $14 for a 32 oz. jug at Costco, and that is actually a great price. However, my family goes through way too much of it every time we have waffles or french toast. It isn't even that they pour so much on one waffle; it's that they eat three or four huge waffles each (the big waffles with four pieces, times three or four).

I wanted to come up with a less expensive solution that would still incorporate an unrefined sweetener, and read on Penniless Parenting about making jaggery syrup. Penny was making it to use in place of honey in baked goods, and I plan to do the same, but I was also hoping we could use it in place of maple syrup on french toast and waffles.

The recipe was easy to follow and I definitely got the consistency right, although it took me more than the six minutes of boiling that Penny specifies. That might be because I was aiming to get to 220°F. I used piloncillo sugar, which is the same thing as jaggery.

However, when I asked Papa if he thought he could eat it on french toast or waffles he didn't exactly answer. Not a yes, not a no, but an expression that might as well have been a no. I think it is because the molasses flavor is quite strong. J said sure, he would use it as a maple syrup replacement even though it doesn't taste like maple syrup. Then again, J is quite addicted to syrup.

Doing the math, I can make 32 oz. of piloncillo syrup for $2.98, which is significantly less expensive than maple syrup. I think it's worth it, honestly. If we use two 32 oz. jugs of maple syrup per month between breakfasts and cooking/baking then we could save $22 a month, or $264 a year.

(In terms of trying it in my bread as a replacement for honey, it wasn't as successful as I hoped; the bread crust was tough and the bread itself wasn't as moist.)

I understand what it is like to be accustomed to the "good stuff". When we ate ice cream we much preferred high end brands (the super premium stuff), and truth be told it made the store brands of my youth taste pretty inferior because they weren't nearly as rich or creamy. Likewise, expensive, luscious, organic European butter was head and shoulders above store brand butter. Artisan breads are tastier (and more expensive) than a basic store bought loaf. And yes, 100% real maple syrup tastes much better than pancake syrup.

In some ways I am kind of sorry that we ever got to a place where we could afford to eat foods like that because scaling back feels like more of a sacrifice than it needs to be. I was never unhappy with our pancake syrup when I was growing up. As a child any ice cream was a delight beyond compare; we didn't turn down so much as the chance at a cheap soft serve cone.

A few days after my piloncillo syrup making experiment I made french toast; I served it with the piloncillo syrup, and no one, not even Papa complained. He said it doesn't taste as good as maple syrup, of course, but it isn't bad.

I'll probably put piloncillo syrup on the table for us on regular days and save the maple syrup for special occasions likes birthdays.