Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Chicken Envy and New Products

I have to admit that I am a bit jealous of a coworker of mine who lives in the country and gets to raise chickens.  The good thing about this is that I have access to fresh eggs!  If you have never tasted a fresh egg, and no I do not mean the day you purchase a dozen from the store, you must seek some out! When you crack open an egg, what color is the yolk...yellow?  Check out the color of Miss Soozie's eggs (that's what the Monkeys call them).  The photo actually doesn't do these yolks justice.  They are a bright orange (the way they should be) and boy are they yummy!  One may not think a farm fresh egg tastes all that different from store-bought, but it does.  This was my dinner last night :)




What's the best part of going to Whole Foods?  Ask the Monkeys and they will tell you, "The samples!"  I have to admit I like that about them too, especially when they have a rep from Snowville Creamery giving out samples of the chocolate milk.  I never buy it because it's so expensive, but it's heavenly!  One thing I do not like about it, is all the open foods they have and the thought of all the germs swarming around them.  One afternoon an older woman grabbed a shrimp off the buffet, ate it, and threw the tail back in the pile of shrimp...no, I am not lying.  Talk about gross!  Then there are the people who treat the sampling stations like it's their lunch.  Ok, off topic... So the other day when we were there, a couple was giving out samples of Rooibee Red Tea.   This is a South African company who began marketing their teas in farmer's market and are now making their way into grocery stores.  We tried the watermelon mint and peach; they weren't too sweet and had a great, mild flavor!  (The Monkeys even loved them and begged for more.) Everyone else must have loved them too, because we got the last of the watermelon mint and cranberry pomegranate.  The only flavor left in the store was unsweet.  The couple giving out the samples were actually the parents of the company's CEO.  We chatted a bit and I learned that the company has really struggled to make it's way into  chain stores and is now quickly taking off.  Kroger is one of the company's newest retailers, so if you are a tea drinker, check this one out!


Finally, my new floors are making their way in!  Here are a few pictures of the family room.  I love the distressed look, because I don't have to panic over the first few scratches that are guaranteed to come quickly.  They are on to the kitchen tomorrow...I cannot wait!







                                



Sunday, May 26, 2013

Randomness

No, I haven't gotten eaten by my students, but I have been super busy with them, hence the reason for my absence.  This time of year is always crazy busy with assessments, trying to get caught up on grading and squeezing in any last minute instruction that I haven't gotten to yet.  I am quite pleased to say that I am in pretty good shape this year.  I haven't had a whole lot of time to devote to other areas of my life other that trying to enjoy my free time with my own kiddos.  My garden is coming along, however, my tomatoes are a bit weepy, my lettuces haven't really grown that much and my strawberries haven't emerged yet (bought them as roots in a package, so maybe that's my first mistake).  On the upside my zucchini, cucumbers, watermelon, cantaloupe, peas and blackberries are all looking good!

 
 
 
Blackberries

Last fall I was dreaming through the Pottery Barn Kids catalog and came upon an awesome lunch box (Planet Box) that contains a metal insert that has multiple compartments and small lidded containers.  It would eliminate the need for baggies and washing multiple glass containers every day.  However, with a $70.00 (yes, I typed that correctly) price tag, I decided I could handle washing a few containers.  Well, last night we were at the mall, and I decided to stop in PBK (I had a $50 gift card) and wouldn't you know, there were a few Planet Boxes left that had been marked down to $48.  I know, not really a bargain, but when I think about the money I will save over the years on baggies, time saved on dishes (the insert is dishwasher safe) and benefits to the environment, I think they will be worth it.  So, got two of them.  I also found these "lunch skins"--dishwasher safe, reusable snack bags.  Olivia is quite excited to start Kindergarten so she can use her new lunch bag.  I'll let you all know how it works out.






Today I went to Whole Foods again, yes, I know....but I wanted to get everything I would need snack-wise to take on vacation with us.  The girls picked out all sorts of nuts, seeds and dried fruits for trail mix and other healthy snack items to take along.  I managed to stay under $200.00, and I shouldn't have to go to the grocery again for the rest of the month.  I also managed to make my weekly loaf of bread and another batch of pitas yesterday.  I can't believe I ever thought I wouldn't have time for bread making...it's so simple and so much healthier.  Anyone tried it yet??

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Teacher Turned Handyman

My kitchen is finally starting to come together and by the end of the month we will be mostly finished with the renovations we I want to make to the house.  We have majorly over-improved our house and will never get back what we put into it, but if we are going to live here for a long time, I want to love the space.  Next week our floors are getting installed.  We are tearing up all the carpeting and laminate wood on the first floor and putting down bamboo.  I am so excited to be rid of the carpet!  This weekend we put up "new" lighting in the kitchen as well.  My sister- and brother-in-law replaced the light fixtures in their house, so we took a few of them off their hands, and they look perfect with the rest of the kitchen decor.  The one thing that I'm most proud of is that I hung the one over the table by myself. Okay, Doug held it up long enough for me to fastened it up, but I did the electrical connections myself. And yes, it works!  One thing that might surprise a lot of people about me is that I am pretty handy.  I have replaced bathtub fixtures, fixed leaky pipes and angry garbage disposals, and I am the painter in the family; now I can add "light installer" to my resume of handiness.  I have had people ask me why I don't have Doug do it, as if my doing things is due to his not knowing how (okay, so maybe that is part of it).  But honestly, it has to do with me wanting to be independent and not having to rely on someone else to solve my problems.  I have to thank my dad for this.  He is also very handy, much more than I, but I learn everything from him. Even when I was very little, I loved watching him fix things.  If I'm not exactly sure what I am doing, I call him and he'll walk me through it.  If all else fails, I wait for him to come rescue me.  I hope I am able to teach my girls this same lesson: they don't NEED a man in their lives, other than their daddy.  I want them to see men as partners and confidants, not someone who comes to rescue them.



Our old kitchen table was also in need of replacement, but rather than buy a new one we moved our dining room table into the kitchen.  Again, it fits perfectly with the style of the cabinets.  It almost feels like a modern country farmhouse kitchen.  Sometime in July we are having my piano moved from my parents house, so my useless dining room will now have a purpose.  The girls are super thrilled, as am I because I truly miss playing.  Bonus: I sold the table and chairs for $50 in our garage sale yesterday along with our entryway bench for $30 and a few other random items, which will go to buying a new storage something-or-other to put in the entryway.

My tip for the day?  If you are tired of the way a room is looking, look around your house and find a few things you can move to different rooms to change it up along with a repositioning of furniture.  I find that this usually makes me feel better and allows me to resist the urge to go buy something new...at least for a while :)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Gardens, Fishies and Other Random Thoughts

 Well, my gardens have been planted, now all we have to do is wait...the hardest part for the Monkeys!  I got one of the gardens wrapped with chicken wire, but didn't have enough to go around the other one.  That will be this weekend's project as well as another million things I have to get accomplished.  This morning Big Monkey told me that she wishes there were only Wednesdays and the weekends.  (Apparently the only day she likes to go to school is Wednesday because she has cooking class and gets to go to the gym.)  I couldn't agree with her more!  As a full-time-working mom, it is so hard to get the house cleaned and in order.  I feel guilty after being away from the girls all day and the last thing I want to be doing is cleaning.  I want to make the most of my nights and weekends with them.  Touch-up cleaning gets done here and there, but my house is far from spotless....and that is ok, because my time with them is more valuable.  We are, however, very lucky to both have the summers off; one of the perks of us both being teachers.




In the big garden I planted cucumbers, two different kinds of lettuce, spinach, and zucchini.  In the smaller one I have watermelon, cantaloup and strawberries.  I also planted a blackberry and blueberry bush.  


Last weekend I decided to try to make my own goldfish-type crackers.  In an earlier post I mentioned I had made my own fish cookie cutter using a pop can.  The recipe was very simple to make, but with using high-quality ingredients, it wasn't really cost-effective, but boy were they good!  The original recipe called for four tablespoons of butter, but they were a bit greasy, so I decreased the amount to 3.  


Goldfish Crackers

8 ounce block sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (works best if you shred your own)
3 Tbsp. butter cut into cubes
1 cup flour
3/4 tsp. salt (I use sea salt)
2 Tbsp. cold water

Pulse everything except water in a food processor until the mixture resembles course sand.  Pulse in water 1 Tbsp at a time.  Remove dough from the processor, wrap in plastic wrap and chill for 30 minutes.  Roll out the dough (about 1/16 of an inch) and cut into shapes.  



Place on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper and bake for 15 minutes in a 350º oven. (May need more time to get them to right crispness.)  Remove from sheet onto a cooking rack and cool completely.  I ended up letting mine sit out most of the day to dry out a bit because they were a bit chewy (but still delicious).
 


So, I haven't posted about my budget this much...with good reason.  It is long busted.  My garden and other expenses have washed it away, but I can tell you that I haven't spent anything on clothes or other useless items.  At least I'm trying :)




Monday, May 13, 2013

Trying Out My Green Thumb

A few weeks ago I decided to start some vegetables from seed. The seeds I had were all "approved" for growing in pots, however I realized I would need a lot of pots to grow the number of plants I started, and that just wasn't a frugal idea.  I searched the internet and found quite a few good ideas--ever think about planting in a reusable grocery bag?  I considered it due to our backyard not having consistent day-time sun; I could easily move the bags around to catch the light, but decided I wanted something more permanent.

 I found box planters but at $40 a piece, that wasn't practical either.  So, last weekend I decided to build a raised garden bed myself.  I picked up six pieces of 4-foot cedar fencing, trimmed off the tops, cut one in half and nailed the pieces together.  The remaining three fence slats went on the bottom with space left for drainage.  Once I got the box together, and after talking with my friend Amy and my neighbor, I realized that my one box just wasn't going to cut it.  So, I build another box using 6-foot fencing.  Each box was lined with heavy grade plastic.  I cut several holes along the open spaces and covered each with rocks to allow for drainage without losing soil. So now I have two garden beds on my patio awaiting my beautiful new seedlings.  The girls have thoroughly enjoyed helping and watching the seeds grow.  Today they noticed our spinach surfaced and were quite excited.  Maybe this will get them to eat it!  I was hoping to get the seedlings in the ground yesterday, but it was so cold the past few days.  Maybe tomorrow.  I also plan to surround the boxes with chicken wire and top my fruit box with a netting that is supposed to keep birds out.  We have a lot of deer, rabbits, raccoons and other friendly creatures, so I worry I won't have much left by the end of the season.



       


This is all a learning experience so we shall see how it goes.  I'll keep you updated on its progress throughout the spring and summer.  I don't think my garden will prove to be so "profitable" this year due to the start-up costs, but hopefully as the years go by, I will reap the benefits.  If nothing else, it will certainly provide many hours of fun, learning and memories for my girls and I...which is the most important thing of all.  

Friday, May 10, 2013

McAttack


Evidently there is a movement going on, supported by Corporate Accountability International, to force McDonald's to stop marketing their product to children.  Hmm....I don't know about you, but I feel like the days of McDonald's advertising to children are long gone.  I can't remember the last time I saw the faces of Grimace, Big Mac, Captain Crook, Hamburgler and all the adorable Fry Kids.  The days of Playland are long gone, at least in all the McDonald's I have been into over the last 10 years, and most of the restaurants have been remodeled to attract a more modern, twenty-something, coffee-drinking crowd.  In our house we only watch children's channels with no commercials, so my kids aren't even exposed to the chance kid-friendly MickyD's images that might pop up on a TV screen; do they even exist anymore??

Click to view website

While my children have never tasted an "All-white-meat McNugget" or McBurger, I do not agree that anyone, especially our government, should be allowed to tell a private business how or to whom they can advertise.  Some are concerned that these images and ideas are forcing our children to "beg" for McDonald's when many parents are trying to keep their kids healthy and away from such fast food places.  What??  Isn't it the parents' job to say "No" if they feel that strongly about it?  I find it hard to believe that a child would beg to go to McDonald's if they have never been there.  Ask my girls what McDonald's sells and they will tell you apple slices and iced tea (and the occasional hash brown on our way home from church).  They have never seen a happy meal, nor do they know that the cute red boxes house a toy (which would be tossed in a landfill a few days after they have forgotten about it).  I cannot imagine them begging to get one even if peers talk about it.  If my girls want chicken nuggets and french fries, we go to Chick-fil-A (whose nuggets are breast meat, not ground up--and their prize is a book) or I'll toss some Bell and Evans nuggets in the oven along with Zoey fries (sweet potato fries).  They are happy either way.  It is my personal choice to avoid McDonald's for my children, for but for some families on the go or those who have tight budgets, it's a lifesaver.  

I do, however, think this group should focus its efforts not in the advertising but rather on getting fast food places to rethink the ingredients they add to their products.  Why does chicken need to be mashed up with starch and other additives/artificial colorings then pressed into weird shapes to be called a chicken nugget...is that really food?  

Let McDonald's advertise as they will.  Commercials are a great way to talk to children about the realities of advertising while teaching them how to make their own judgements.  I know in the end I have the final decision and hopefully one day my girls will make their own healthy choices for their lives.

What do you think of this movement?


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Tree-Hugging Change

I don't know about you all, but one of my family's biggest problems is the number of paper towels we go through.  With two young children, we are always in need of a towel to quickly mop up spills or wipe sticky mouths and hands.  And it doesn't help that Doug grabs one to wipe off the smallest of water messes on the counter tops.  I use them frequently to cover food that's put in the microwave, two every night to dry off fruit for lunches, and multiple a day to wipe up spills on the floor.  On average, we use at least one roll of paper towels per week--and that's usually using the smaller "select-a-size" towel.  I have tried to cut down the use of these convenient, disposable towels but let's face it...they are a pretty great invention!  However, after thinking about the number of towels we throw into the landfill every year (6,496!), I decided it was time to make a change.  I picked up three different types of towels and some Command adhesive hooks and began my tree-saving journey.  The white ones pictured are flour sacks (not really sacks at all) that I use to lay my fruit on to dry.  Yes, the berries stain them, but who cares?  The plaid washcloths are used for floor spills and the colorful ones are for, you guessed it, sticky, munchkin mouths and hands (of course the girls love them!)  



I placed the hooks on the inside of the cabinet door, under the sink.  The ones I use for the floor are placed inside the cabinet away from the other two.  I also keep a dishrag draped over the sink to wipe down countertops.  Is this adding to my laundry load?  Nope.  We never have a maxed out load of towels, so they just join the rest of their linty friends. 



I have to say that I don't miss the paper towels at all!  We still have some, because let's face it, why would I use my towels to pat chicken or fish dry? Yuck!  But, I do find myself reaching for one quite often--creature of habit.  I ended up placing a clean dishrag over the paper towel holder as a reminder to reach for a real towel first.  In the last week we have used roughly one small sheet a day! That's is big news in our house.  Do I dare switch over to cloth napkins??

Anyone else up for banishing their paper towel addiction?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Budgets and Better Bread

Well, this month is going to be a huge fail in the budget department!  We are only 7 days in and I only have $172.00 left.  Between my trip to Whole Foods, stock-up trip to Target, two quick grocery trips and garden materials my budget is about busted.  I still have to pay my cell phone bill, at least one tank of gas for the rest of the month and three more weeks of produce/dairy grocery stops....sigh.  My trips to Target and Whole Foods need to be slimmed down big time!  Guess I'll be analyzing my receipts tonight.  


This past weekend I tried another bread recipe and this one was a winner!  It needed to bake a bit longer, but that's what happens when you leave the job of removing something out of the oven to the husband.  I had forgotten about baking the bread until 10 minutes before I had to leave for a birthday party.  I set the timer and of course most males don't know how to tell whether something is finished baking or not (at least not the male that happens to be in my house).  The top flattened just a bit, but it was soft and so yummy.  My only complaint with homemade bread is the crumbs; it's not the best for sandwiches for this reason, but I am making it work.  Bonus:  The girls love it and it is so easy to make! 

Whole Wheat Bread (makes one loaf, but can be doubled for two loaves)

4 T honey
2 T cane sugar
2 T unsalted butter
1 c. + 1 T water
1 1/2 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 tsp. salt (I use fine Himalayan pink sea salt)
1 package active dry yeast
1 1/2 - 2 cups white flour

Combine the honey, butter and water in a small saucepan.  Heat over low until the butter melts and the water is about 120º.  In a mixing bowl, combine wheat flour, yeast and salt.  Add the warm water mixture and stir for one minute.  Add the remaining flour 1/2 cup at a time (I use my mixer with the dough hook in place) blending well after each addition.  Keep mixing, adding more flour as needed.  Once the flour has been added and dough starts to clean the sides of the bowl, knead another two minutes. (You can let your mixer or your hands do this.)

Remove the dough from the bowl, grease the bottom and sides of the bowl and place the bread back in, turning once to coat the top with oil.  Cover and let rise in a warm place for 40 to 60 minutes, until double.  (I usually turn the oven on for about one minute, turn it off then place the bread inside to rise.)  Punch the dough down, knead on a floured board, shape into a loaf and place in a greased loaf pan, cover and let rise another hour.  Bake for 30 minutes at 350º. (I needed a bit longer.)  Remove from the oven, rub the tops with a stick of butter and cool for 10 minutes.  Remove bread from the pan and cool completely.





Sunday, May 5, 2013

Going Organic...Part 2

Anyone made the switch to healthier meats, dairy and eggs?  I know these items are significantly more expensive than conventional, but I cannot tell you how much better they are for you.  Another way we curb the extra cost of organic food is to have a meat-free meal at least once a week (usually some sort of pasta dish).   Last week our meat-free Monday was baked ziti lasagna.  Instead of using lasagna noodles, use cooked pasta of your choice (12 oz).  Toss the pasta with a jar of sauce, pour half in the bottom of a casserole dish, top with ricotta mixed with parmesan, pepper and shredded mozzarella, then add the rest of the pasta.  Cover and bake at 350º for 30 minutes.  Top with more shredded mozzarella and bake until melted.  There is always plenty left for lunches later in the week.

After making the transition to meats and dairy, the next step is to look at your produce.  Certain fruits and vegetables absorb more pesticide residue than others, so if you are on a tight budget it is only necessary to buy certain items that are organic, conventionally grown items are fine for a lot of produce.  Thinner skinned fruits typically contain more pesticide residue while thicker-skinned fruits/veggies have extra protection from the pesticides reaching the flesh.  The Environmental Working Group conducts studies on pesticide residue each year and puts together a list of the "Dirty Dozen."  According to the group, you can reduce your exposure to toxic residues significantly if you switch to organic when buying these twelve items. 

Dirty Dozen +:  Apples, Strawberries, Grapes, Celery, Peaches, Spinach, Bell Peppers, Imported Nectarines, Cucumbers, Potatoes, Cherry Tomatoes, Hot Peppers, Blueberries, Lettuce.

The one item on this list that I typically do not buy organically is grapes.  They are hard to find around here and when I do see them, they are very expensive.  I will only buy them if they are on sale.  I do buy organic raisins though (Whole Foods sells them in bulk for much less than pre-packaged)

What's not necessary to buy organic? 

The Clean Fifteen: Asparagus, Avacado, Cantaloup, Cabbage, Sweet Corn, Eggplant, Grapefruit, Kiwi, Mushrooms, Onion, Papaya, Pineapple, Sweet Peas, Sweet Potatoes.  Conventional bananas are also a safe bet.  When washing fruits and veggies, especially conventionally grown, wash them thoroughly with a mixture of equal parts vinegar and water.  (Keep some in a spray bottle for convenience sake.)            
                                                                                          Environmental Working Group

Oh, and another helpful hint when shopping for organic produce, know the codes: 



Happy Organic Shopping!





Thursday, May 2, 2013

Going Organic..How to Do It

Well, it is now May and my budget app just reset itself... with $2.00 left to spare from April!  Once again, I broke down my spending and over 66% of it was spent on groceries (just over $550), which is much better than the $700 I was spending!  What really helped me was planning out our menu every week and only buying what we needed.  Before, I was just going up and down isles and picking up things that we typically use and coming up with meals as I shopped.  This clearly was not not working; I ended up buying way more than I ever needed and it began to pile up in my pantry.  As I stated in a previous post, I go to Whole Foods once a month to stock up on organic/non-GMO items I cannot get at Giant Eagle.  Even though I just went to Whole Foods the middle of April, I decided to go again today to get my monthly trip there and to Target back to the first of the month.  This time, I only spent $267.00 (as compared to almost $400 last trip!).  I took a look at last month's receipt and figured out where I could cut back.  My most expensive purchase last month was Spectrum Organic Mayonnaise at $11.99 a jar!  Today, I picked up their non-organic mayonnaise and read that it was third party certified GMO free, so that was a savings right there (still $6.99 a jar, but worth it to me).  By reading labels closely you can sometimes find non-organic items that are still non-GMO certified.

I was having a discussion with my uncle about organic living, and he stated that it's good for those who have the wealth to afford it.  I got to thinking about this, and I believe it is not so much about wealth, but rather on smart spending.  My husband and I are both teachers, so by no means are we "wealthy."  So how do we do it?   I have decided to dedicate some of my upcoming blog posts to giving tips on how to  shift to a more organic lifestyle in baby steps, without breaking the bank.   First, before I give my first bit of advise, I should explain that one of the primary reasons we can afford a 90% organic diet is the fact that we do not spend money on sodas, snack cakes, cookies, sugary cereals, chips, and other unhealthy snack options.  90% of my cart is filled with foods from the stores perimeter (think fresh, raw foods). Neither one of us drinks, smokes or partakes in any other unhealthy habit that sucks money from our budgets.  I highly recommend looking at your pantry and taking note of what is filling your cabinets, (and eventually your family's bellies).  Where can you cut back?  The sugary soda filled with high-fructose corn syrup or artificial chemical sweeteners?  The greasy or sugary snacks that zap our children's energy?  If you permanently cross those things off your list, you have extra money to put towards healthy organic fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat.

Which brings me to my main point for today.  If I were to only be able to afford to switch to one organic food category, I would definitely go with meats, dairy and eggs.  These days animals are fed horrible combinations of food that aren't part of their natural diet and are often filed with GMO corn.  Cows are injected with growth hormones and antibiotics which then turn up in milk and muscle tissue.  Look for beef that comes from pasture-raised cows that have not been treated with rBGH (read more about this here in a previous post) and hormones. If you have to drink milk, I would highly recommend one that is not ultra-pasteurized nor homogenized.  The more treatments milk goes through the more unhealthy it becomes. We love Snowville Creamery--it's as close to raw as you can get here in Ohio, and even better the creamery is located here in Ohio along the Ohio River ($3.39 for a half gallon).  Another common brand here in Ohio is Hartzler Family Dairy (located in Wooster, Ohio).  This dairy bottles their milk in glass jars, which you can return for cash back or credit towards your next bottle. This milk tastes so fresh and natural! Another milk tip: go for the whole milk.  Skimming milk is another process that destroys more nutrients.  As for eggs, have you even been to a chicken/egg farm?  Talk about gross!  I was appalled by the living conditions these hens were facing...not to mention the filth!  Always look for free-range, vegetarian-fed, organic eggs.  They really do taste better and you will be amazed at the orange, not yellow, yolks! Yes, I know you can get a whole gallon of milk for less than $3.39 and a pound of cheap ground beef for $1.99 per pound, but if you give up that 12 pack of soda, those 3 boxes of snack cakes or a bag of Oreos, switching to organic can be manageable!


Anyone up for this challenge?  Make this change for your health and the health of your family, while standing up to unhealthy practices the FDA has allowed to enter the food industry.