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Sunday, January 31, 2010

part 3 cookbooks and such

In part 2, I mentioned a cookbook that I use quite a bit....and then forgot to tell you what it is. The cookbook that I use for egg rolls and beefy mini pies is called : The $7 a meal cookbook by Linda Larsen (touted as a Pillsbury Bake-Off Recipe Tester). I got mine from BAM! (formerly known as Books-a-million) and it is well worth the price. The first chapter is all about cooking on a budget and addresses topics such as your spending habits, "The indispensable list" (this would be the inventory of your pantry/cabinets/freezer that I mentioned in previous posts), how to use coupons, etc. She then goes on to present recipes for appetizers and sauces, breads, breakfast on a budget, beef, chicken and turkey, pork, seafood, vegetarian, pasta, sandwiches, soup, chowder, and chili, pies and pizza, vegetables and side dishes, and desserts. All of which can be made for $7 or less!!! How awesome is that?? The last 2 chapters are devoted to an equivalent's chart and a food preparation glossary.

Trust me, I was doubtful about purchasing this cookbook because, in today's society, how likely is it to REALLY be able to feed your family for less than $7?? Well, I'm definitely convinced that it *IS* possible!! The 2 favorite meals for my family - egg rolls and beefy mini pies - are actually in the appetizer section and cost $6.56 and $5.64 respectively. Now, this is following the recipes exactly. My family doesn't have a huge need for shredded cabbage, however, so sometimes the cost of the egg rolls is a little higher due to buying packaged col slaw mix or even broccoli slaw (not as spicy as coleslaw mix, and my family actually ate more of these than of the original ones). We also skip the cream sauce for the beefy mini pies, which cuts the cost of making those (yes, the first time I made them I did the sauce, and hubby and I liked them, but the children didn't....they taste just fine without the sauce).

Ok, so I've given you 2 of the cookbooks that I use when working to cut the family budget, so let's take a look at cookbooks in general. Do *NOT* fall under the belief that you can never have too many cookbooks (even if you are a graduate of culinary school!!). Something that goes hand in hand with cost-cutting and such is clutter control...odd, but really, it does. I will admit, I seldom found a cookbook that I didn't like, and if I didn't get it for myself, it usually found it's way via a family member as a gift. Recently, I began what could very well be a 9 year odyssey of creating a cookbook of family favorites. Really, it isn't for me because *I* have the original cookbooks - well, some of them - but it will be for my children for when they move out on their own. It is part of my plan to raise children who can at least take care of the basics (house repair, clothing repair, car maintenance, at least 7 meals, preferably more), and I decided that since my oldest is in 4th grade, I should probably get started on it. While working on this project, I discovered that a LOT of my cookbooks only had a few recipes that I relied on. I decided it was time to clear out the underused cookbooks and free up some more space (space that can be better used to store cooking supplies bought in bulk!! See, told you they were related!!).

So, I have started the family cookbook and have gotten down to 8 cookbooks that I use regularly, They are: Betty Crocker cookbook: Betty Crocker Microwave cookbook:, The Joy of Cookin:, $7 meals, More With Less; Don't Worry, Dinner's in the Freezer; Eat for Life (I think that's the title - it's from the Body for Life program and has GREAT recipes in it); and Where's Mom Now That I Need Her? (sadly, I have found that this is no longer available....this gets the least amount of use because of the high fat and sodium content in the recipes, but it also addresses clothing repairs, home remedies, etc. and it had a companion book called Where's Dad Now That I Need Him?...also one thatIi haven't been able to find lately).

I will probably clear more of these out as I continue to add to the family cookbook (currently being saved on the computer for those times when I actually have an hour to sit and write). You may be more comfortable having tons of cookbooks, but once you start meal planning and actually keeping in mind the foods that your family likes, you will find that you have the recipes memorized and don't NEED the books to help you out.

I have found that it is best to always have back up meals - macaroni and cheese, tv dinners, etc. I know, you are probably gasping in shock right now, but let's be real here....there are going to be nights when the last thing you want to do is cook a meal that you then have to remind the children that YES, they HAVE had it before and YES they DID like it (sound familiar to anybody out there??). While not the healthiest, it is hard to beat tv dinners for $1 each, or pot pies for $0.69 each, and sometimes you need a little spontaneity in your meals and you KNOW the kids will love you for tonight...we are supposed to be having balsamic chicken and really, after shoveling the driveway, clearing off the cars (ok, hubby did most of the driveway), and running errands, I really don't feel like dealing with we are having beef stew....from a can....GASP!! with potato rolls and cookies that I baked (with DD) as dessert.

No, I'm not perfect, and sometimes the plans have to get tossed out the window because life throws a curveball (like this past week when my 6yo DD ended up with a broken nose due to a playground accident)....nope, didn't follow plan there....or maybe we did and it was just a quick and easy meal...see, I'm still a little foggy about everything from Thursday afternoon up until this morning. Anyway, the point is not to seek perfection and be a coupon maniac (like the people we hear about getting hundreds of dollars of groceries for $20 or thereabout), the point is to save YOUR family money while cooking mostly healthy foods for them. I don't subscribe to the idea of perfection because there was only ever one perfect person, and that is NOT me. We are all human, we all will have times of failure and success....don't beat yourself up if dinner consists of hungry man dinners and juice boxes...sometimes that's what you need because you get to spend more time with the family.

Take a look at what you have been spending on groceries....for us, it was $1000 every month. Decide how much you want to be able to save every month - it sometimes helps if you decide that you want to save a certain amount so that you have it to put towards paying off a bill (this is how I paid off my van, bought in 11/2004, by 2007...yep, 6 year loan paid off in 3 years). I decided I wanted to cut the groceries in half...down to $500 a month, so that we had more money to put towards my van and the credit card that we had outstanding at the I did the work. Now, I average between $400-$500 a month, with birthday months being a little higher since the children get to choose their meals and desserts.

The one thing that will probably be your biggest block is your disbelief and doubt. You are probably reading and saying that there is no way I have the time to do this, or there is no way this is really worth it and no way it really, yes, it does, yes yes yes....did I mention that the groceries I bought for this month were bought with NO coupons being used??? If I had taken more time, imagine how low the final cost would have been!!

So, the real question is this: is it worth $500 to take 4-6 hours (the first month only) to take inventory, shop the circulars, and hunt the coupons?? If not, enjoy overspending and wasting food. If yes, by all means, leave me a comment or ask me a question and I will keep posting the things that work for me and my family!!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Meal planning contiunued - 2

So, you have your list of what is on sale at the local stores. By the way, now would be a good time to mention that I typically shop at 3-5 different stores, depending on if the savings is worth the little extra drive (little because 4 of my favorite stores are located right near each other and the 5th is located close to the elementary school my children attend).

There are many meal planning calendars available for free online. The ones that I use (I have a weekly and a monthly that I fill out and keep for referring back to) came from, but there are others out there ( has a weekly one for lunch and dinner). Since I only plan our dinners, I use the sections for breakfast and lunch as "buy" or "have" sections - based on what recipes I choose to use for each dinner.

Figure out your schedule and the meat rotation, and then add in vegetables or other sides, making a note of what you already and have what you need to buy. It is easy to plan meals based solely on what the stores have on sale, but you also want to add in your coupons (also found in the Sunday paper and at various online sites, including ones for specific stores - sometimes).

Ok, are you scared yet?? Did I mention that our family was spending in excess of $1000 for groceries and my last run (last night) only totaled $266?? Hopefully, that savings makes your fears go away. Does it take time?? Yes, the initial month takes a good deal of time...but you can do it over a few days....inventory the freezer/fridge one day, the pantry/cabinets the next day, and shop the circulars on day on day 4...whatever works best for you. When I restarted shopping like this (last year), my first month took me a total of about 6 hours, including matching coupons up to everything that I had on my list. It now takes me about an hour.

Here's where the savings start. Say you see whole chicken on sale for $0.89/lb. Buy 2 if you have the room. Even if you think there's NO WAY you and your family will eat an entire chicken, go ahead and get one. Now, the first time you have chicken (btw, it takes about 2 days, sometimes more for a frozen chicken to completely thaw out, so be forewarned), you will have a roast chicken - seasoned the way your family likes it. For us, it's an olive oil rub with a light sprinkling of salt and pepper and sometimes a squirt of lemon juice. Cut off as much meat as you can, eat what you want/need. The next step is to boil the carcass for broth (and to remove the little bits of meat still on the bone). Keep all the meat in a storage container in your fridge or freezer and the broth in a pitcher (I add seasonings while cooking the broth, but you don't really have to). With me so far?? You have 1 chicken meal and 1 pitcher of broth. Next, plan to use the leftover chicken in at least 2 different meals. One that goes over well in our house is chicken with red beans and rice. You are probably thinking I'm nuts to do this meal from scratch....I don't. I buy a Zataran's family size box of red beans and rice (less that $2 and it not only feeds my family at dinner, but also gives my husband at least 1 lunch to take to work), and while it is boiling, I shred some of the leftover chicken into the pot - this way the chicken also absorbs some of the seasoning. That makes 2 meals from 1 chicken...not too bad, huh??

Now, since you have the broth, why not make some homemade chicken soup (especially in the winter months!!). Again, you already have the main ingredients - broth and meat - leftover from that one whole chicken you bought. Another option is chicken, easy, and filling and will use up a good amount of remaining chicken meat. Just add cooked and cooled rice, whatever vegetables you have on hand (we've used shredded carrots, cabbage, broccoli slaw), soy sauce, and if you choose, 1 egg. Now, remember that whole chicken you bought at $0.89 per pound?? You just got 4 meals from it, with some leftovers for you or your spouse to take to work (cutting down on the expense of eating out). Pretty cool, huh??

The same can go for pot roasts, though not exactly the same recipes. I do our pot roasts in the crockpot and let them cook all smells great and they end up SO tender! One meal is pot roast with whatever sides I chose (usually potatoes and salad), one night we have a simple meal of beef and gravy over either rice or noodles, another night, I make vegetable-beef soup, and the final night could be beef stir fry or beef eggrolls (another great recipe I found in a cookbook...details later). Again, 4 meals from 1 cut of meat. These are actually bargains that are made even better when the store has a "Buy one, Get one free" deal going on (one of mys tores does this regularly).

Value packs...are they really worth it?? Yes and no. If you and your family don't like pork, it makes no sense to save $.20 per pound for a family pack of pork chops when they will just sit there and get freezer burn. However, if you can handle pork chops once a month, it is a good deal when you can find them on sale (my family doesn't really like pork, but after a month of nothing but beef and chicken, I wanted something different). Value packs of hamburger tend to be pretty good deals. Remember, hamburger isn't just for burgers and meatloaf, it can be browned and used in stew instead of stew cubes, spaghetti, lasagna, egg rolls, shepherd's pie, etc. Really, it all depends on your family and your eating habits.

But what about breakfast and lunch???

Well, since both children are in school, they eat breakfast with me every morning, and we have discovered that generic cereals and pop tarts are actually less expensive and taste just the same as the name brand ones - even if we DO have coupons!! So, I make sure to have at least 3 different cereals and 2 different kinds of pop tarts on hand, plus we have store brand pancakes and waffles that can be heated in the toaster or microwave. Ok, not very healthy - well, not as healthy as cooking every single thing from scratch, but hey, we ALL have busy lives, and this is about saving money on food, not anything else.

Lunch is typically PB&J with fruit and a juice box, however, sometimes they want something else. That's when coupons and such come in because both children like to take hot soup in their thermoses when it's cold outside and my son has started taking ramen noodles to school (always VERY cheap). I also make sure we always have lunch meat, cheese, and bread on hand and lots of fresh fruit for them to choose from. Yogurts are bought on sale and with coupons and are a hit with both kids. The key to kid's lunches is to make them both healthy AND fun...and by no means should you completely restrict sweets. Just don't make sweets a regular part of your shopping or lunch-packing routine, and it will all work out. When the holiday candies come out, every now and then, drop one in your child's can make a bag last for weeks and weeks by doing this, and it won't really add to your grocery bill, but it may make your child believe that you think they are special (c'mon, we all think our children are special, but kids being kids, they often need tangible proof).

I did forget to mention one important your mortgage and any other major bills BEFORE you do your grocery shopping!!! This way, you won't fall behind on payments and you will know exactly what you have available to spend on food and still keep some in the bank for emergencies.

Feedback is always welcome...and if you have tips you'd like to share, by all means, send them to me and I will make sure to mention them and give you credit!!

Am I *really* that strange??

So, I went out to do grocery shopping last night - the night before we were supposed to get more snow. Yes, ok, that was a little odd, but WE didn't *need* bread, milk, eggs, toilet paper, *WE* needed the monthly supply of groceries.

Yes, I said "monthly supply" as in, I do one major shopping trip a month, and fill in with swing by stops when we are running out of milk. While I actually like grocery shopping (especially if I can go by myself and actually take my time), I have figured out that shopping once a week, or even every 2 weeks, still makes the groceries a larger par of our budget than they need to be.

At one point, we were spending well over $1000 EVERY month in groceries, and a lot of that was ending up in the trash because nobody wanted to eat leftovers or else we forgot what exactly was in each storage container. So, I started meal planning. I wasn't exactly new at this...back when hubby and I were living in NY with our newborn son (2000) we were living of less money, but still had a mortgage and a car payment to worry about, not to mention the bills for the utilities, medical expenses, etc. How to cut costs....lowest cable service we could get and actually have more than 3 channels, lowest phone service that still gave us long distance since we had no family living nearby, and planning every single meal possible!!!

So, flash forward and we now have 2 children, both in elementary school, I'm still at home taking care of the family and running a small business that really feeds my creative needs. Hubby is still making more money, but as anyone with kids children get older, they seem to get more expensive as well. Now, besides the mortgage, a car payment, bills for utilities, etc. we also have expenses for each child to have one outside-of-school-activity. Cut down on gas by having them take lessons at the same place (one does boxing and one does karate). Oh, and because we took a rather long break from being conscientious about our spending and the current house needed some serious repairs, we also have a home equity loan hanging over our heads.

It's now 2010 and I have been back to meal planning for about a year now. I am really only planning our dinners, but the cost in expense is astounding! On this most recent trip, I went to 2 stores (the 2 that had the most on my list for the best prices) and completely forgot to take my coupons (whoops!). After the 2 stores, my total for the groceries was $266 - and that's for a family of 4 with 2 cats and a dog!!!! Yes, I still need to pick up some seafood items, but they are at a different store and at 9pm, I was pretty much tired of the people who were freaking out over the storm and acting like morons to everyone else that was shopping, so I came home.

Since the last store is close to the elementary school, I will head there Monday morning and pick up the last few items (including cat food, which means that this weekend, the cats get dry food)...I still don't see going over $300.

Now, the title is because people (friends and family) can't seem to figure out HOW I do this and seem to think I'm rather odd because I do my shopping this I *really* that strange for wanting to save the family money AND have a good variety of healthy meals??? I don't think so.

How do I do this?? That's the question that *everyone* (and yes, that means family I haven't seen in years as well as friends that I see regularly) keeps asking me. In reality, the first month is the hardest, and each successive month gets easier and easier.

First month of meal planning: TAKE INVENTORY!!!! Of your freezer, your pantry, and your cabinets. Since hubby is totally on board with me shopping like this, our anniversary present to each other was a deep freezer, which is housed in the garage. Now, I know some of you can't do this, but there's a great book available (I bought a copy from after I had marked so many pages in the library copy that I ended up being cheaper to just buy my own copy. The book is called "Don't worry, dinner's in the freezer" and is by Jill Bond). I say this is the hardest month because of the time you have to put into it. In order to save money, you NEED to know what you already have....and don't be too upset if you find that you have 3 bottles of vegetable oil, 1 of olive oil, or multiples of other items.

Ok, once you have your inventory, it's time to start your shopping list. ALWAYS make your shopping list before you make your meal plans!! Make a note of what is on sale at the grocery store(s) from the Sunday circulars. I usually have a couple of notebook pages: meat, seafood, produce, frozen, misc. and write what is on sale with a notation for which store (M for Martin's, K for Kroger, etc.). That is your main shopping list because that will save you the most money. If you meal plan BEFORE you shop the circulars, you will always spend more money - pork roast isn't on sale this week, but you already planned a meal for it....can increase your total bill significantly.

Ok, so now you have your main list and you know what you already have on hand. In my family, eggs are the big thing these days. My son had a severe egg allergy for years and only recently tested negative, so eggs are always here: omlettes, pancakes, cookies, etc.....they all require eggs. Buy eggs in the 1.5 dozen packs and you don't have to add them to every single list....or whatever your family goes through on a regular basis.

Next step is actually planning the meals. As I said, I only do this for dinners and I use our family schedule to dictate the complexity of the meal and the cooking time. There are 2 nights that we know will be late dinner nights (we typically eat around 5 or 530, late nights mean dinner is at 6 or a little later). You want to have a good variety of foods or else you and your family will get bored, so try to buy red meat, poultry, seafood, pork, even do some vegetarian meals. Oh, and do NOT throw out your leftovers!!

More in the next post..............

Saturday, January 2, 2010

2010 - new outlook, etc.

Etsy shop has been busy since Black Friday, which has been both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it means that people actually like my things, and a curse because I've got numerous packages to keep shipping out but I only make runs to the post office twice a week. Of course, there's also the taxes that I need to figure out for the last quarter of 2009...ugh.

However, I'm trying to stay positive and have a better outlook on life and everything that comes my way. I have my creative energy back and will be starting on new projects in the immediate future, some of which will be listed on Etsy, and some which will only be sold locally at the craft fairs. I have gotten several new patterns for more chic, updated wardrobe items for myself, and as much as I would like to be working on them now, I will delay starting them until late spring/early summer with the hope that I will have lost some weight and inches.

I'm working on getting an even tighter grip on the family finances, though the recent fabric purchases undermine that a bit. I'm hoping that we will be able to pay of Ken's car by the end of April as we will probably be looking for a new car for me near the end of the year - it would be nice to have extra money socked away in savings to put towards a down payment in addition to the trade in of my current car.

So, things are going to be more focused around here: focus on better eating, healthier living, more productivity. With any luck, there will be HUGE changes in the family life - more time together as a family, actually doing things together and enjoying the time together instead of bickering and being plugged in to electronic entertainment.

Onward and upward!!