Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas Reading

Do you have a favorite book you like to read at Christmas?  We have a nice stack of Christmas picture books that we have collected over the years that we pull out and read during the holidays.  Last year I read A Christmas Carol out loud to the kids.  That is a good one, but a little over the heads of the younger children.  Last year we got the audio version of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.  It is a really cute story and although it is written to younger audience, it has appeal even for adults with a great message about the transforming power of Jesus.  A friend mentioned that she reads this book every year because she loves it and I thought that it might be a great tradition to read it aloud in our home.  So, I made the investment in it (which is a big deal for me because I rarely by books but instead rely on the library).  So, far the younger kids are really enjoying it.  I hope to do a little each day and time it to finish just before Christmas.

So, do you have any Christmas book traditions in your home?

Here are a few of the Christmas books we have collected over the years:

Monday, December 20, 2010

Countdown to Christmas

Well, it is that time of year when I have to realize that I am just a few days from Christmas and I have a lot that is yet not done.  I am out of time.  I am out of money.  It makes me sad.  Maybe if I didn't put the extra burden of trying to make many of my gifts to save money Christmas wouldn't be so stressful.  So, it is crunch time.  I have to realistically wrap up all of my projects.  I have to go through my gift lists and make sure everyone is covered and that it looks balanced.  (Each of my children has the same amount, each of my nephews have the same amount.)  I don't want anyone to feel slighted. 

To be honest, I am feeling a bit overwhelmed and stressed.  This makes me sad because Christmas shouldn't be this way.  God never intended for the birth of His Son to be a stress on our lives.  He is the Prince of PEACE!  Every year I say that I am going to break this cycle.  Things may improve, but are still too stressful.  So, I am reflecting a bit this morning and talking to God about He thinks is important.  I want Him to prioritize my to-do list.  Then at least I can have some peace about what gets done and what doesn't.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My Cup Runneth Over

My cup runneth over...I should be thankful.

My cup runneth over with children and chaos, dishes and laundry, messes and tasks.  I know that I should be thankful, but so often I have to admit that I am not.  Instead I long for peace and order, quiet and solace.  I crave to just be alone in my house, to have opportunity to catch up, to get ahead of the chores without someone following behind messing things back up.  I want to have time to quietly reflect with God without someone chattering in my ear.  I would love to be able to type a simple post like this without having with a squirmy four year old on my lap.  But that is not the way it is.  That is not my cup.

I am truly thankful to God for my cup - the place He has brought me in life.  I don't desire someone else's cup.  Sometimes I just wish it wasn't so tiresome to carry, that it felt more like a blessing than a burden. I know the things that overflow my cup are gifts.  Why can't I handle it all better? Why am I exhausted?  Am I placing extra burdens into my cup that God never intended for me?  How do I recognize those?  What part of this balancing act do I let fall.  Which things are not eternally significant and should be dropped?  I suppose that it is healthy to ask these things.  It is good to continually check to make sure we are still on the right path and not become complacent to God's voice in our lives.

So, as the Christmas season ramps up in all of its busy glory, I am stopping to question.  Is all that I am doing and participating in actually glorifying to Jesus?  It's His birthday we are celebrating here, so it really should be.  Are there burdens that I am placing on myself or my family that have no eternal significance?  That being said, you may not receive a Christmas card from me.  Don't be offended. I just might have decided that family Christmas devotions were a higher priority this year.  I have already simplified our Christmas decor this year.  I may not even bake a single Christmas cookie.  I figure that my family will still have plenty of opportunities to eat them and we will have less temptation to over indulge.  Maybe we will bake them in January when we have more time and can let the children do more of it because we are not in a rush to merely get them done and checked off the list.

This morning I am not merely going over my to-do list, but I am praying over each of these items on it and seeking guidance from my Helper to know which are my priorities and which I can just let go.  I can't do that on my own; only God knows what is truly important in the long term.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

"Jesus...He's the bossiest thing..."

A friend of mine shared this on Facebook this morning and I wanted to share it here.  It is a video of Beth Moore telling a story about listening when God speaks to you. It made me laugh and cry.

I have to admit that there are times I have heard God speaking to my heart to take a particular action and I have ignored Him, talked myself out of it, or made excuses.  I tried to tell myself that wasn't God speaking; it was just me thinking that. Because of this I have missed opportunities to be used by God and words cannot express how much I regret that.  So, I am praying that I hear God's voice and discern it from my own AND that I have the gumption to obey, even if it is tough.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

POIIs...Points of Internet Interest

My little explorers during a recent geocaching expedition
Here are some interesting sites that I have stumbled upon lately during my internet explorations...

How to Make a Skirt From Men's Ties | eHow.com - Last Spring I noticed one of the other moms in our 4-H group wearing one of these awesome skirts.  Since I have an affection for upcycled clothing, I was intrigued.  I just stumbled upon this tutorial to make your own.

49 Creative Reuse Ideas That Will Inspire & Surprise You Roundup | Apartment Therapy Re-Nest  - A page full of links to various sites with ideas for reusing all kinds of household items.  I love to read through the creative ideas.  I suppose that is a sign of a true packrat, huh? 

Sally's Kitchen: Rice Cooker spaghetti recipe - In my ongoing quest to creatively use my rice cooker, here's another recipe I discovered.

Maps - Old Testament Bible Maps by Generation Word - Here is one for my bible study buddies.  This site has relevant maps that correspond to nearly every chapter in the bible.  Very helpful!

Pick Up the Pen - Learn to Write! - This site has a bunch of links to help teach the alphabet, penmanship for both printing and cursive.  There are many printables, too.

Enjoy your weekend!



Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Leftover Magic: Seasoned Taco Meat

Do you eat leftovers?  We do - we love them!  I even count on them for lunches throughout the week.  I am always amazed when I hear that people hate leftovers and just throw them away.  I supposed I was just raised that you do not waste food.  With the advent of microwaves and quick easy reheating, leftovers are wonderful.  I seldom make enough of one dish to get two complete dinner meals out of it, but we can usually squeeze out lunch for me and the kids or pack my hubby's lunch.  Just packing a lunch for my husband daily saves a fortune when you consider that he spends $6-7 a day on average if he has to go out and grab something.  We can save $35 per week, over $150 per month and over $1800 per year just by packing up leftovers in a container for my husband to take to work with him.

Sometimes, though, I do go overboard and make way too much of something.  Although the family may love it the first time around, by the third meal of it, they are crying, "Enough!"  Since I have a no-throwing-away-perfectly-good-food-policy, I have to do something.  One option is to package leftovers in the freezer to pull out in a few weeks when it will seem new again.  Be sure to LABEL things well.  I cannot tell you how many times I have hurriedly thrown something in the freezer thinking, "Oh, I'll remember what this is." only to unearth it months later from the back of the freezer with NO IDEA.  Sometimes you just have to thaw it to figure out what it is.  I suppose if you like adventure, you could just do this and call it a "mystery meal" and no one (including you) knows what's for dinner before it hits the the plates.

Another option for surplus leftovers is to morph them into something else.  That is what I am going to talk about specifically here.  My son had a birthday a couple of weeks ago and requested tacos for his family birthday party meal.  When I do tacos, I usually have enough fixings for hard or soft shell tacos as well as taco salad. The kids love tacos, hubby and I prefer to create a yummy taco salad with lots of lettuce and veggies over corn chips topped with salsa and Italian dressing.  I never am quite sure how much seasoned taco meat to prepare, especially when we are having guests.  So, I decided to err on the side of too much.  I cooked a LOT!  It was pretty economical because I used the ground turkey from Sam's Club that I mentioned before along with some ground beef I had in the freezer from Angel Food.

As a side note, I never use those little packets of taco seasoning from the grocery store any more.  They are too expensive. You can by taco seasoning in a big container at Sam's Club or Gordon Food service.  The container at Sam's club costs on $3.88 and seasons 14 pounds of meat. Compare this to the packet at the grocery that sells for over a $1 and seasons only 1 pound.   I find that this is even cheaper that making your own homemade taco seasoning.

Anyway, I ended up have TONS of leftover taco fixings.  We ate tacos again the next day and still had lots left.  I didn't think that I should push the envelope and eat it a third day, so I decided to get creative.  I had bread dough in the fridge which is not uncommon, so I decided to create a stuffed braid.   I rolled out a rectangle of bread dough and placed my leftover taco meat, onions, tomatoes and cheese down the center of it.  Then I cut 1 in strips along the edges and wrapped these over the top of the filling to create a braid.  I realize that is kind of vague.  I am a visual person and I need to see images.  Unfortunately, I was in a hurry and didn't snap photos of the process.  However, this page has a good explanation with pictures.  I did take a photo of my finished braid before baking it which you can see here.

I know it looks more like a mummy than a braid.  The kids were kind of amused by that fact.  Like I said, I was in a hurry because we had someplace to be right after dinner.  I didn't snap a shot of this baked, but you can use your imagination.  It looked like the before picture only more brown and puffier.  Make sense?   The verdict was that it was really yummy and it didn't feel like we were eating tacos again.

Believe it or not, we still had taco leftovers the next day.  So, we made mexican pizzas.  I had some flat tostada shells and topped them with tomato sauce straight out of the can, taco meat, refried beans, onions, and cheese.  I microwaved the taco meat first so it would spread better and not clump, so these only needed to bake long enough for the cheese to get toasty.  I popped them into a 425 degree oven for about 10 minutes.  We topped them off with leftover shredded lettuce and diced tomato.  Even though these tasted rather taco-like, it was a fast and fun variation.  We had a few of these leftover and ate them cold out of the fridge the next day for a snack and it was even yummy that way.  This, by the way, used up all of our taco leftovers.

Other ideas for leftover taco meat:
There are so many things you can do with this, you may decide to make extra on purpose and do some mega cooking and prepare a bunch of these dishes ahead to freeze.  I love having already prepared meals in my freezer on a day when I am overloaded.

Leftovers are a treasure trove in the frugal kitchen.  Don't relegate then to the garbage disposal; get creative and use them up.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tried the Mac'n Cheese!

Yesterday after lunch I decided to start a double batch of the Rice Cooker Mac n' Cheese that I posted the other day.  I didn't have any heavy cream, so I used a combination of half and half and whole milk which I did have in my fridge.  To make up the difference in fat content, I added about 3 tablespoons of butter to make sure it was plenty rich and yummy. 

Part way through the cooking time, the rice cooker started to sputter and spew liquid out of the vent.  Just when I thought that I would have to shut it down to prevent a big mess on the counter, it settled down and cooked just fine.  After the rice cooker was done and switched to warming mode, I added the cheeses and salt.  I didn't have any mozzarella, so I just used more cheddar instead.  After mixing it through, I shut the lid and let it go until dinner.

I was wonderful to have a a big chunk of dinner done and ready ahead of time.  I cooked some pork chops and broccoli to go with it for a quick and easy meal.  A real bonus was that part of the family wasn't home at dinner time and I just put the meat and veggies in with the macaroni in the rice cooker which kept it warm and ready until they got home.  No reheating and nothing was overcooked.  Loved that!

Oh, and the mac 'n cheese? It was delightful!  It was well received by all, even my macaroni-and-cheese-hating hubby! I am glad to have this recipe in my stash.

I am really falling in love with my rice cooker.  (This is the one I have.) It is not a fancy one, but it seems to work like a charm.  The other day when I was searching for rice cooker recipes, I noticed the Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook mentioned.  I placed it on hold at the library and already have it in my hands.  I see many yummy recipes in the future.  When I find some winners, I will be sure to share them with you.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Rice Cooker Mac 'n Cheese

Sounds kind of crazy doesn't it?  Who ever hear of making macaroni and cheese in a rice cooker?  I found this recipe on a rice cooker thread on the ChowHound site.  (It was posted by tbunny27...thanks tbunny!)  I am posting this untried, but I wanted to preserve it here for future reference because I fully intend to experiment with this.  Here's the thread, if you are interested:  Rice Cooker Recipes.   I also found another site with a bunch of recipes that sound pretty yummy at Food.com.

Rice Cooker Mac 'n Cheese

1 1/2 cup macaroni of your choice (shells, stars, macaroni etc)
1 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 up chicken broth/stock
3/4 cup shredded cheese
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella
1/4 cup Parmesan
1/4 tspn Kosher/Sea Slat or to taste.
Combine noodles, broth & cream in rice cooker.
When machine switches to warm, add rest of ingredients & stir thoroughly until cheese in melted.
When switches to warm, its done.
The bottom will be browned like in the oven, so you can invert in into a casserole dish and sit back to rave reviews.

We have been making a lot of rice lately due to my daughter's food allergies and stomach issues.  She is happiest living on a diet of rice, veggies and fruit.  Who am I to argue with that?  I have been looking for some ways to spice up plain rice and cooking different grains.  My hunt for a Spanish Rice dish prepared in a rice cooker led me to this site.  Of course, the mac 'n cheese wouldn't be eaten by my oldest daughter due to the dairy, but the rest of the family would probably enjoy it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Lessons From Raising a Strong-Willed Child

I have mentioned before that I have six children. I find it amazing that each one is uniquely different. The characteristics of each of their personalities are unique to one another. Oh, I see a few similar personality traits and they definitely share similar looks, but for the most part they are each their own person. Today, I want to share a bit about my fifth child, Rachel. She is an adorable four year old with crazy, curly blond hair. As with all of my children, I love her more than words can express. BUT, there are days that I do not like her a whole lot. You see, if you took all of the stubbornness of all of my other children and put it one one side of a scale, Rachel would outweigh them with ease. Most days, nearly every little thing she is told to do becomes a HUGE battle. And when she is frustrated and digging her heels in, it usually also means she feels the need to scream at an ear-piercing level (which is especially fun in public...not). Now, every child goes through phases of being strong-willed and having temper tantrums. I have dealt with this before. I have four children before her; I consider myself experienced. However, I am NO match for this fiery tempered little girl! I have pulled every tactic I know out of my bag of tricks. Often, I am at a loss with how to deal with Rachel and throw my hands up in frustration.

One thing for sure is that Rachel has driven me to my knees to seek God's wisdom in parenting her on many occasions. I guess if you look at that, I could consider her personality to be a blessing. She forces me to realize that I can't be her mom on my own. My skills alone are inadequate. I need God's help. So, when I can see the battle lines being drawn, I am trying to remember to stop and pray for God's wisdom and words to help in the situation.

The other day when I was just loving on Rachel giving her a hug, a realization hit me. It doesn't matter how much she battles me, screams at me or how uncooperative she is, I still love her. She is my girl and I can't help but love her. I look into her eyes and see her insecurities and her weakness and I have compassion for her. The amazing thing I realized is that our relationship is a model of my relationship with God. I am His girl. He is my heavenly parent. Often when He asks me to do something, I argue with Him. I stubbornly dig my heels in and choose not to do what I know is right in His eyes. I often choose not to pay attention to His voice and feel like I know the best things for me. Just like I, as a parent have the wisdom of experience and know what is best for my little girl, God is ALL-knowing and knows what is best for me, but often I won't listen. The amazing thing is that He still loves me in that same unexplainable way that I love my little strong-willed girl. In fact, he loves me more even though I don't deserve it. That is what God's love is. It is an amazing thing!

So, if you finding yourself loving your little one or big one or other special person today, remember that God's love for you is so much bigger no matter how you behave. He loves you for just being you.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Monday, October 04, 2010

My Discovery of Ground Turkey

For years I have read that substituting ground turkey for ground beef is a healthy choice.  So, I trekked to the store and my jaw hit the floor when I saw the PRICE of ground turkey.  It was usually over $4 per pound.  Well, I stuck to my ground beef.  Then one day I was at my local Sam's Club and discovered that they sell two 20 ounce packages (5 pounds) of ground turkey for just over $10.  $2 per pound is less than even the cheapest ground beef unless you find a good sale. 

So, I decided to try it.  When cooked, ground turkey is much lighter in color than ground beef and does have a different flavor.  However, when you are mixing it into a dish, these differences are not very obvious.  One nice thing about ground turkey is the lack of fat that cooks out of it.  You can brown it and not drain it or use it in a dish like meatloaf and not worry about it swimming in a pool of fat.  Because of this, though, I find that I need to add a little olive oil to my skillet when I am browning it. 

So, you might be wondering what exactly to do with this stuff.  I have used it in casseroles and chili.  It makes wonderful seasoned taco meat, too.  I have also started making meatloaf with it which is quite yummy.  We use one 20 ounce package of ground turkey to make this and it feeds our little family of 8 with some leftover.  Although you can form it into loaves, I find that it is simpler just to press it into a 9" x 13" casserole dish like a big meat cake.  We cut it into pieces, like cake, to serve it. 

Turkey Loaf

A delicious yet healthy version of meatloaf made with ground turkey.  Could also be made with lean ground beef. Serves 8.

  • 2 1/2 pounds (40 oz.) ground turkey
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 large eggs *
  • 1-2 tsp. Italian seasoning
  • 1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 1 cup applesauce (unsweetened) **
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup dry unseasoned breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese ***
  • 2 cups spaghetti sauce
Mix all ingredients EXCEPT the spaghetti sauce together.  Clean hands work best for this.  Press into a greased 9" x 13" pan/dish. (You can form this into several loaves, but I find that it is quicker and easier to just place into dish and cut like a cake to serve.)  Pour sauce over top.  Place in a 350 degree oven for 60 minutes.

*To lower the fat in this recipe you can substitute 4 large eggs for the 2 whole eggs.
**When I am out of applesauce I have substituted ketchup, baby food, or cooked and pureed vegetables.
***May be eliminated if trying to keep this dairy-free. (Yes, sadly, this is now a concern in our house.)

The recipe can also be found here.

You can also make this and freeze it baked, half-baked, or unbaked.  If your family is smaller, you could make this into two loaves and bake one and freeze one for a future meal.  I love when I can make two meals for the effort of one.  What a bonus!  You could also make snack size meatloaves in muffin tins.  You could just bake them and eat them for dinner or bake them and freeze them for individual lunches or snacks.  You could pop one or two out of the freezer and microwave them.
Hope you enjoy!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

POIIs...Points of Internet Interest

A few things that I have discovered recently on the web...

Read Kiddo Read - a booklist of of great children's books by age and type
Dance Mat Typing - typing game for kids to learn proper hand position typing
25 Websites to Download Free Stock Photos for Your Projects - a good resource for anyone who designs anything.
Top 10 Reasons Why You Should Stop Watching TV - This goes along with my Best Decision post

Enjoy exploring!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Outside Activities

It has been a busy week.  You can probably tell because I have been pretty quiet here.  Even homeschoolers are affected by Fall back-to-school time because that's when many of our outside activities start back up.  I sometimes struggle with outside activities.  There is a big part of me that is just a homebody and loves having long days at home.  Because of this, I have always been pretty selective about what we choose to do away from home.  I have always made an effort to choose outside activities that benefit as many family members as possible.  With six children, if each chose an activity that just they were involved in, I would soon be carting everyone everywhere all the time and we would never be home at all. 

This year we have been blessed with several opportunities that many in the family can participate in at once.  Our first one is Bible Study Fellowship (BSF).  I began in this program back in 1996 when I had one preschooler and another on the way.  I went to a daytime class that had a preschool program.  BSF is an amazing tool for studying the bible.  I would highly recommend it to anyone.  I went through 7 years of study completing all the studies that they offered at that time.  I stepped away from this to allow me to get involved at other bible studies at my church, but my MIL and SIL were attending an evening BSF class and my MIL took my older two girls to the school-aged program offered.  They loved it and benefited a lot from this.  But several years ago, my MIL felt that it was time to move on to something else.  Last year I felt a nudge to return to BSF.  Although I was craving it for myself, I also knew that my older daughters who had done it before were desiring to study like that again, as well.  So, this is our second year back.  I am fortunate that I am able to take my oldest 4 children with me and we are all studying the book of Isaiah together this year.  What a blessing!  The cost for this program is nothing, although there is an offering plate there if you want to donate something. 

This is also our second year to participate in a homeschool gym class coop. Three of my children are the right ages to take advantage of this (the 8, 6, & 4 year olds).  This meets one afternoon a week and gives them an opportunity to burn some energy, learn some group sports and meet new friends. The requirements are that I need to help teach and the cost is minimal.

We have also joined another homeschool coop this year that meets one afternoon a week.  This is an academic coop with classes offered for all ages from preschool though high school.  We have never participated in anything like this, so it is a new experience.  I think it will be a good for the kids to experience a taste of learning in a more school-like setting.  I love the fact that they all have class at one place at the same time.  Again, I will have some teaching requirements and the cost is minimal. 

We also signed up for a homeschool, Christian drama group.  My older two girls have really been wanting to get involved in something like this.  This, too, is an activity that most of the children (the oldest 4) can participate in.  It also will meet one afternoon a week once it starts up.  I don't have to teach for this one (which is a good thing because I don't think I would be horrible in this area).  There is one cost per family, so with 4 participating, it works out to be very reasonable for us. 

Another thing we do as a family is 4-H.  We are involved in a club that meets monthly and all the kids can take part.  Well, the baby comes with us to the meetings, but doesn't really have much part in things. 4-H has lots of great projects that are a great resource from a homeschooling standpoint.  Cost for this is pretty minimal, too.

Do you see a recurring theme here?  Reasonable time requirements, minimal cost, many in family can benefit from it.  We don't have each child involved in a different sport or activity that would have us running most evenings.  We still have a few other things like youth group and a church dance group that fall into the evenings, but it is not too much.  So, although we have many things we are doing this year, it is my hope that it is very doable because we are doing most of them as a family and the schedule is not too crazy.  Because we already have a good number of activities planned, it is easier to say no to other worthwhile things that come along that maybe only one child may be involved with.

So, that's how we handle outside activities in our family.  How do you all do it?

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Recipe Cache

I have talked about menu planning before.  I have to be honest, I think it is a marvelous idea, but struggle to be disciplined to do it all of the time.  (I think there is a part of me that enjoys the creative process of making something out of the odds and ends in my pantry each day.)  One of the things I mentioned that is a good tool for me to aid in meal planning is having a list of tried and true recipes to refer to.  I have made lists, changed lists, and often misplaced lists.  Yes, organization is not one of my natural-born gifts. [wink] 

I decided to go at this recipe list thing a little differently.  I have set up for myself another blog site dedicated to my recipes. Every recipe I post is one that is tried and true in our household, meaning we have made once or twice and LOVED it or have made it dozens of times and it is an old standby. Most recipes are scaled to the quantity that I prefer to make which means they are probably more suited to a larger family. Each recipe is also categorized.  The category labels are linked on the right side of the site for quick reference. 

Although I made this selfishly for myself, I thought that it might be something that others would enjoy.  Right now, there are only about 20 recipes posted, but I plan to continue to add them on a regular basis.

So, the site is   The Recipe Cache

Saturday, September 18, 2010

POIs...Points of Interest

Points of interest discovered that I thought I'd share...

Homeschool/Educational Printables:

Site full of tins of useful printables and more.  Some things I discovered were list of journal topics to use as writing prompts, and interesting graphic organizers for taking notes.

Amazing Preschool Activities
I found them while on a search for coloring pages for my little preschooler who keeps begging for MORE schoolwork like her older siblings.  There are coloring pages by topic which is nice when you are looking for something specific like Princesses, in our case.  There are other printables on the site, as well.

No list of printables sites would be complete without including this one.  Donna Young has created TONS of forms, calendars, planner pages, worksheets in most subjects and more.  She has it all on her site available for download.  I think this is such an amazing resource that I have added a link to her on the right side of the blog here. 

Friday, September 17, 2010

Chicken Feta Pizza

Yesterday, I talked about making your own crust for pizza.  Today I thought I would share a non-traditional pizza that I have been making and loving.  Normally I make this along with a traditional cheese pizza because that is what the younger set prefers. 

  • Pizza crust of choice (I make homemade)
  • Canned tomato sauce
  • Garlic salt
  • Cooked chicken, diced or shredded (leftover, canned, etc.)
  • Feta cheese
  • Red onion, thinly sliced
  • Herbs of choice (Herbs de Provence, oregano, basil, rosemary, thyme...)
Form pizza crust.
Spread very thin layer of tomato sauce on crust.
Sprinkle with garlic salt.
Top with chicken, feta and red onion.
Sprinkle with herbs.
Bake at 450 F for about 12 minutes.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


A couple of weeks ago, I talked about my favorite bread dough that I love to keep on hand in my fridge, the Olive Oil dough.  Not only does it make great bread, but it works fantastic for pizza crusts.  Now, I love making homemade pizza.  If you already have the dough on hand, it is a very quick meal to make.  The trickiest part, though, is making a decent crust.  There is definitely a trick to getting a nice crust.  You don't want it too thick or too thin.  Round is preferable and holes kind of ruin it.  I have to admit that I have struggled a bit with this.  I have made my share of no-so-pretty pizzas.  Fortunately, it is pizza and my kids don't really care what it looks like.

My usual method to make my crust is to whack off a hunk of dough, put it down on a floured counter, flour the top liberally and roll it out.  This usually results in a misshapen crust.  Then I saw somewhere how you can stretch the dough with your fists.  That definitely helps.  I also decide that I would try tossing it.  This is very entertaining for the kids, but you must make sure you don't accidentally drop it on the floor when you have witnesses [wink].  I found a great video that demonstrates how to make a pizza crust that I found very helpful.  Unfortunately, I can't find it now, but when in the process of searching online for it, I found quite a few other good ones.

Stretching the dough:

Here is a great instructional video on how to actually TOSS a pizza crust:

And here is what it looks like when you get fast:

Hopefully this has inspired your to make your own pizza. It is a fast, fun, and it can definitely be a cheap eat.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Making Time

It sure has been quiet on the blog front here hasn't it?  I am trying very hard to be more disciplined with my time and follow a particular routine/schedule for my days.  The time in my day that I have allotted for blogging is in the early morning before my children rise.  During that time I also get completely dressed and ready for the day, make hubby's lunch, and have my quiet time with God.  These things take priority over blogging so if I don't get up as early as I would like, guess what falls by the wayside?  Yup, the blog.  And guess how is having difficulty getting up early?  Yup, that would be me!  I am working on this.  I am determined to do better. 

On a positive note, the new routine has been working pretty well for us.  (That is, when I actually stick to it.  Oh Discipline, I pray for you daily!)

  • 5:00-6:00am:  Get up.
  • Until 8:00am:  Get completely dressed and ready for the day, make coffee, make hubby's lunch, bible study, prayer, e-mail, facebook, blogging.
  • 8:00-8:30am:  Wake kids (if necessary), help them complete their upstairs tasks, laundry.
  • 8:30-9:00am:  Breakfast, family devotion, memory verses
  • 9:00-:9:30am:  Mom's office time, Kids chore time
  • 9:30am-12:00pm:  Academics
  • 12:00-12:30pm:  Lunch
  • 12:30-3:00pm:  Project time
  • 3:00-3:30pm:  Tea time
  • 3:30-4:30pm:  Quiet reading hour, Mom's office time
  • 4:30-5:30pm:  Pick up house and make dinner
  • 5:30-6:00pm:  Dinner
  • 6:00-8:30pm:  Family time/Outside activities
  • 8:30-9:00pm:  Younger kids bedtime
  • 9:00-10:30ish pm:  Free time with older kids
  • 10:30pm (approx.):  Bedtime!
Of course, this varies depending on outside activities for the day, but this is the basic framework that I am trying to maintain. Theere are several new things on this schedule that are working out very well:
  1. Earlier mealtimes than we had before.
  2. "office times" both early and late in the day for me to officially make/return non-personal phone calls, do paperwork, pay bills, etc.
  3. Tea time which acts as a benchmark in the day and a little snack time for the kids.  We have been reading poetry during this time.
  4. Quiet reading hour for my younger children.  This gives me a quiet hour to be productive AND I have seen a big boost in reading interest and skills since we started this, especially with my 8 year old son.
That all being said...I gotta go.  It's time for me to go motivate my kiddos!

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Monday, September 06, 2010

(One of the ) Best Decisions We Ever Made: Chucking Cable

We chucked cable TV and it has proven to be a wonderful decision. The choice was born out of budget cutting. Cable TV is a ridiculously large monthly expense and, let's face it, it is a want and not a need.

Throughout most of our married life, we lived with cable-less TV, watching whatever came over the air. At times, we felt like we were the ONLY people who did this and felt rather out of the loop in many conversations.

When we built our new house, hubby got the bug to have cable and found us a sweet deal. You know that's how they suck you in, right? We got a great price that included a DVR. We were soon fairly hooked on the Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, Food Network, Nickelodeon, and The Disney Channel. What we got REALLY addicted to is the DVR. It changed the entire way we watched TV. We became selective about what we watched, choosing to record our favorite shows. Then when we would decide to sit down in front of the television, they were there waiting for us. No longer were we ever tied to the TV schedule.

Of course, our introductory price went away and the cost went up considerably, but by then we were hooked. As we would review our budget, trying to find areas to cut, the cable TV would often come up. We wrestled long and hard about giving that up for nearly a year, but finally the finances (or lack of them) won out and we pulled the plug. It was not easy. Sadly, television had become a real part of our family time. What eased the blow was our Netflix subscription and the fact that so many shows are available online on sites like www.hulu.com.

So, as I write this, we have been without the cable TV for just over 6 months. There have been some significant changes in our household. We watch WAY less TV now. My husband used to come home from work and just flip it on to relax his brain after work. He no longer has his recorded shows to watch and we don't get reception for our local stations so his choices are pretty limited. So now, he has gotten in the habit of coming home and reading. What a bonus. His reading is a great example for the kids, too. My children also watch way less TV and it is mostly DVDs or Netflix streaming stuff which means they see virtually NO commercials. It is amazing how much this eliminates the “I wants” and the “gimmes.”

My hubby and I were just having a conversation about this and we both have to agree that ditching the cable has been one of the best decisions we have ever made. Even if our financial situation changed, I cannot see us going back to this. The TV is such a time robber and it doesn't really give much, if any, value back in return. As I get away from the habit of vegging in front of the television, my desire for it is less and less. I am discovering that I would much rather sit and read a book or do a project. I didn't consider myself a heavy TV watcher, but I have gained so many hours back into my day. Selfishly, I do not want to give them back up. I am not too far off from feeling like I could give up the boob tube entirely. I definitely could for myself. I do however use it as a bribe tool for my children. “If you get all your chores and schoolwork done promptly, there will be time for a movie later.”

If you have been considering chucking the cable, I would highly recommend it. Not only will it save you tons of money, but you will reap even greater benefits in your life.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

My Favorite Dough

Focaccia bread with rosemary, thyme, olive oil & sea salt.
I really love the green kind of dough that you keep in your wallet, but that is kinda hard to keep around and when I run out of it, I can't just make more.  So, my most favorite dough is a bread dough. It is yummy, useful, and I can make as much as I want without getting arrested.

Yesterday in my post, I included a link to a recipe for bread using the "5 Minutes a Day" technique.  That is a basic dough for making a crusty European style bread like a French baguette.  It is wonderful!  When it is fresh, the loaves from this have an amazing crispy crust with a neat texture on the inside.  However, if you are planning on keeping this for a day, it definitely loses something.  Also, it is not as ideal to make sandwiches, especially for little ones.  They struggle with that tougher crust. 

After feeling confident with the basic dough technique, I began experimenting with various other dough in the book.  We discovered that everyone LOVES challah bread which is enriched with eggs, butter, and honey.  When we are feeling rather decadent, we will make up some brioche which is enriched with LOTS of eggs, butter and honey.  I was still however searching for a simple everyday dough that my family loved.  That's when I discovered olive oil dough.  It is categorized as a dough for making flatbread and focaccia bread or pizzas.  There are several recipes in the "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day" book that it can be used in, but it is never discussed as a stand-alone bread.

For our first experiments with this dough, we made focaccia bread (like in the photo).  I rolled it out like a pizza crust, drizzled olive on it and added rosemary, thyme and a bit of French grey sea salt.  It was love at first bite!  We started making this more frequently because not only is it yummy, but it is super fast to make because it is thin and doesn't require much time to rise.

One day I decided to try to use the dough to make a regular loaf of bread.  It turned out beautifully.  It has a finer texture than the basic European style bread and a nice soft crust.  It works wonderfully for sandwiches.  Over time I have also used this dough for, pizza, calzones, rolls, dinner braids with various fillings, and breadsticks, along with countless numbers of basic loaves that got devoured right out of the oven by my family.  (It is hard to tell a group of hungry folks to wait until the bread cools after they have just been smelling it baking.)

Here's how I make it:

OLIVE OIL Bread Dough

3 cups warm water
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 T. yeast
1 1/2 T. kosher (course) salt
1 T. sugar
6 1/2 cups bread flour

Mix all of the ingredients together in a large container.  My favorite type is a commercial cold food storage container like this one.  It is just the right size, fits nicely in my fridge and has a lid that just sits on top without snapping tight which is what you need to avoid a messy explosion of yeasty gasses.  Let this rise on the counter 2 or 3 hours.  Then it is ready to use, but will be less sticky if placed in the refrigerator for a while first.  This makes 4 pounds of dough and will keep 10-14 days this way.  Because we can go through a lot of bread, I usually will divide the dough in half and form 2 large loaves.  I let these rise 1 1/2 - 2 hours and then I bake them at 350 degrees F for 45 minutes. 

Another recipe for using this wonderful dough can be found here:  Sweet Provençal Flatbread with Anise Seeds.  I haven't tried this, but it looks delish.

Let me know if you give this a whirl and what you do with it.  Next, I will share with a favorite pizza that I use this dough to make.  It's a fun, fancy gourmet type, but simple to throw together.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Our Daily Bread

Various snapshots of bread that I have made over the past couple of years. 
I have a confession to make...I am one of those women.  I homeschool my kids and I bake my own bread.  I know.  You all want to roll your eyes in disgust.  But I wasn't always like this.  I have been married for over 22 years and it has only been the last two or three during which this strange bread-baking phenomenon has occurred.  Before that, through the years, I had made several attempts to bake bread which had resulted in doorstops.  I affectionately had called them "brick-bread."  Imagine a loaf no more than an inch and a half high and dense enough to break a toe if dropped.  I had decided that baking bread was an impossibility for me.  My parents thoughtfully gave me a bread machine one year.  That was wonderful!  For the first time ever, I was able to produce an edible loaf of bread in my kitchen.  Sheepishly, I have to admit, I had my share of failures even with the machine, but with practice, I prevailed and could consistently churn out yummy loaves.

A few years ago, I got the bug to start baking all of our bread.  It was healthier and saved money.  Every morning I would diligently measure ingredients into my bread maker and we would have fresh bread.  Then, just as we were totally hooked on this, tragedy struck. My bread maker quit working!  I didn't have money in my budget to replace it either.  Faced with the option of returning to store bought bread, I decided that this was the time to master the art of bread making from scratch.  With determination, I began to read about bread making techniques and actually figured it out. I made bread!  (Imagine me yelling this just like Tom Hanks yelled "I made fire!" in Castaway when he finally succeeded.)

So, I began a new ritual.  I would get up early, measure out my ingredients, mix them, and knead them (and knead them....and knead them....) and set the dough to rise.  A couple hours later I would punch the dough down, form loaves and let this rise again.  Then I could bake it.  It took at least half a day of babysitting the dough and working with it.  It took longer if I was busy and didn't get back to it right away.  But when you smell that bread baking to perfection in the oven, it is all worth it.  Oh that smell!  I was a lot of work, though, and my family can devour a 2 pound loaf of bread at one meal.

This process continued for quite some time.  Then I discovered the the best technique EVER for making bread.  Seriously, it is revolutionary.  I was reading a blog that referred to the book, "Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day."  I was intrigued and decided to see if my local library had it.  It did so I checked it out.  The book spells out a process of mixing up ingredients for 4 pounds of bread dough all at once in a big container, letting it sit on the counter to rise, and placing it in the refrigerator.  When you want bread, you whack off a hunk, form a loaf, let it rise and bake it.  Do you notice what is missing from this process.  Think about it; I'll give you a minute...NO KNEADING.  None!  It also saves time because you make a lot of dough at once and then can use it to make a fresh loaf each day. And the bread is flipping fantastic.  I can tell you, once I tried this technique, I won't ever go back to the long, tiring process that I was doing before.

Are you intrigued?  The recipe and process for making the basic bread dough in the book is available online here:  Back to Basics ~ tips and techniques to create a great loaf in 5 minutes a day.  It may look a bit long and daunting at first, but I assure you, once you understand the process it is SO simple. 

I now own the book and the newest version, "Healthy Bread in 5 Minutes a Day."  I bake 2 large 2 pound loaves of bread at least every other day, sometimes even daily.  I can manage this even when we are at our busiest.  My point is, that if baking bread is something you desire to do, you can, too.  I highly recommend giving this a try.

I will have to do a post on what has become my "go-to" bread dough from this book.  I try to keep some on hand at all times and use it in a variety of ways.  Stay tuned for that.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Blessing of Unmet Needs

Lately I have been struggling with having many things that I feel like I need and want and not having the means to get them. The tight budget can be so exhausting at times. If I am honest, I have to admit that I get so tired of worrying about every dime that gets spent and feeling guilty for spending a few dollars to grab a cup of coffee with my hubby or going over my grocery budget. When I see a need, I want to be able to fill that need and the simplest way to do that is to purchase something to meet that need. I can't do that at this point in my life; my budget will not allow it. I cannot even tell you how many times I have questioned God about why He is bringing us through this financial valley. I know in my heart that it is for His good purpose and I cannot deny how much this process of struggle has grown me.

Lately one of my struggles has been in the area of curriculum for homeschooling my children. I basically have nothing in the budget for it right now. If I buy something, I will have to steal money from another area of my budget. Since most of my budget expenses are fixed bills, I don't really have many areas with any play. I doubt that I can convince my hubby to eat beans and rice for a week so that I can buy a couple of books for school. So, I have been seeking God in this. He is the one who has given me this high calling to educate my children and He is also the one in control of our finances (or lack of them). Every day I have been seeking His wisdom in this area. God is so good and gracious. He is teaching me about what is really important and about how we learn. He has reminded me of what He taught me many many years ago when I first started on this adventure of homeschooling. I was struggling then, too, with how to teach my child. She was having some difficulties and not picking up on things, reading in particular, very well. I tried several curriculums and techniques, beat my head against the wall, and cried out to God. His answer to me was to back off on trying to make her read. So for nearly two years, I rarely forced her to read anything. I read aloud to her, she listened to scads of audio books and learning continued in other areas. Oh, I encouraged reading, but I just didn't push it. This process forced me to constantly seek God and think a lot about my goals in homeschooling. I came to the conclusion that even if my children grew up illiterate, but they loved the Lord with all their heart, soul and mind, I would have to say that I had succeeded. God can accomplish anything with a yielded heart, even one with zero academic knowledge.

Now, just to clarify, my goals are not to have my children grow up illiterate, [wink] but having this idea in mind, puts things in perspective. It is important to remember what is the most important. It is so easy with homeschooling to get wrapped up in the curriculum and worrying about the body of knowledge that you are trying to cram into their little minds. But, because I can't just run out and purchase a curriculum, I am forced to stop and really think through what is important in the education of my children. Because I have to be more creative and thoughtful in finding resources to teach them, I am seeking God for His wisdom. If I had plenty of money right now, I would have picked out curriculum and we would be going along our merry way working on them. I would have looked at a some government educational standards list and said we need this subject and that, forced my children to do those subjects and checked it off my list. Yay, job done. But what if that is merely the education that society says they should have and not even remotely close to what the Lord deems important for their specific lives?

So, as painful as it is, I have to say that I am thankful for our financial strife. It has forced me to look at what is really important and see that God has a better way for us. This applies to all of our areas of life, not just homeschooling. These unmet needs and wants have driven me to my knees to seek God's Wisdom – what a blessing that is!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

It's Fair Time! (Kettle Corn Recipe!)

I know that it has been fair time all summer, but Fall is when the really good fairs happen.  In my neck of the woods, Fall is the time for the country fairs.  They are full of real artisans and craftsmen selling their wares.  My all-time favorite is the Johnny Appleseed Festival.  They have strict requirements that don't allow anything modern in appearance.  There are wood carvers, blacksmiths, civil war era reenactors, along with every kind of traditional craft you can imagine.  Then there is the FOOD:  fresh apple cider, caramel apples, corn on the cob, ham & beans, apple dumplings, funnel cakes, sausage burgers, and one of my favorites, caramel/kettle corn.  Around here, there is a church that does caramel corn in a big copper kettle over an open fire at all the fairs.  It is not the heavily coated traditional caramel corn, but it more closely resembles the lighter coated kettle corn.  It is so yummy to get fresh while it is still hot!  If you have never tried kettle corn, you need to.  Put that on your bucket list.

Did you know that making your own kettle corn is a piece of cake and you can do it right on your stove-top at home?  Once you try this, you will wonder why you never did it before.  The other bonus, is that it is a Cheap Eat.  I mentioned it before when I was talking about Cheap Eats: Popcorn a while back.  Since then I have made it quite a few more times and tweaked the recipe a bit.  I make mine in a Whirley Popper.Wabash Valley Farms 25008 Whirley-Pop Stovetop Popcorn PopperIt has a stirrer inside that keeps the popcorn from burning or sticking.  I just throw 3 simple ingredients in the pot, turn the heat on high, and turn the crank.  Now, I have never tried it, but I don't see any reason why you could not just do this in a big pot.  I would probably keep a wooden spoon or spatula handy to stir it at least until the kernels start popping.  At the fairs, all they have is a big copper pot and a big wooden paddle to do just that.

Kettle Corn
1/4 cup oil (vegetable, corn, canola)
1/4 cup sugar
Scant 1/2 cup unpopped popcorn

Throw all of this in a stovetop popcorn popper or big pot.  Place over high heat and stir until popcorn pops.  As soon as the popping slows, remove from the heat.  Otherwise, the sugar will burn.  Dump it in a big bowl and lightly salt with regular table salt.  Don't forget this step; this is what makes it magical!  Salt it while it is still hot and sticky.  The combination of the sweet and salty together is pure bliss.  I will warn you, though, don't sit with a big bowl of this in your lap - you will regret it because before you know it, you will have consumed way more than you intended and will feel helpless to put the bowl down.  (Please, don't ask me how I know this.)
Go forth and enjoy this fun time of year at the fairs.  Then let the fair food live on in your kitchen making many, many bowls of yummy kettle corn. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Time Management

It's that time of year again...back to school time.  So, you're like, "Don't you homeschool?  Don't you even homeschool year round?"  Yup, yes I do.  But there is nothing like sales for school supplies and hearing all my friends preparations to send their children back to school to make me feel the need for some planning and regrouping.

First, I always have to ask myself "why?"  Why in the world don't I send my children to school and take this enormous burden to educating them off of myself?  That's a whole other topic that I am not going to go into right now, but suffice to say, I know that this is God's calling for me and the right thing to do for my family.  It is good to think about that and remind myself why I go to this effort.

Next, I feel the need to plan things out and make sure we are on course.  Although we school year round, I find that I get a bit slack in the summer.  By the end of the summer the lessons are getting very relaxed.  This year I even feel like I have let our tried and true routines slide quite a bit, too.  It is time give our little homeschool a kick in the pants.

So, I am thinking a lot about our daily schedule and how to make it all fit.  There is so much that I need to squeeze into a day.  Without careful planning, it is just not all going to happen.  I realize that I can't figure this out on my own; I need help.  So, I have been seeking God's Wisdom during my morning quiet time.  I'll share a bit of what I have discovered:

"So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air." 1 Corinthians 9:26

"But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you." Matthew 6:33

"Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time." Colossians 4:5 (Emphasis mine)

"For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?"  Luke 14:28

"Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil." Ephesians 5:15-16

"O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!"  Psalm 39:4-5

"Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin." James 4:13-17

"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:"  Ecclesiastes 3:1

"Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise,"  Ephesians 5:15

"And Jesus said to her, 'Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.'"John 2:4

"And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed." Mark 1:35

"So as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God." 1 Peter 4:2

There is much that God has to say about time management.  Lessons that I learn from this are:
  • God desires us to use our time wisely.
  • God wants us to plan ahead.
  • When God causes circumstances to change, we need to roll with it.
  • We are to put God first in our priorities.
  • There are "seasons" for everything. Blocks of time for each purpose we have.
  • Jesus had His time planned out.
  • Jesus got up early to pray to God.
I am really trying to think this through and apply it to my life.  I am in the process of mapping out my days into blocks of time (seasons) so that it is possible to get all I need to do done.  But as I type this, I realize that I am out of time. (How ironic!) So, I will have to share that in more detail on another day.  Until then, God's speed to you!

Photo:  My Regulator Clock that hangs in my living room

Monday, August 16, 2010

Oh, the futility of it all...

I am having a down day. I look around my home and am overwhelmed with how many messes and how much work surrounds me.  It takes SO MUCH effort just to keep things with some slight semblance of order.  I feel like I have to be constantly picking up, cleaning, instructing the kids, cooking, doing laundry...did I say picking up?  I feel like I can just ignore the clutter that accumulates for a few hours and it is overwhelming.  Why are we all so messy?  Some days it all seems so futile.  I know that everything that I clean right now will probably be just as dirty again in a matter of hours (if not minutes!)  As soon as I am done with one meal, I am on to planning the next.  I can work diligently getting all the clothes in the laundry room washed and put away, but as soon as I turn around, there is a new pile of dirty clothes awaiting me.  It never ends; I can never get ahead.  I have things I would love to accomplish - great ambitions, but I feel like I am too busy doing the mundane over and over and over to even think about doing more.

I don't always feel this way.  There are days when I feel like I could take on the world.  I have been trying to figure out he secret to those days because feeling like I do now is no fun.  I think much of it has to do with how I am physically feeling.  I mentioned last week that I have been fighting a cold and allergies. I am tired and my head and body ache.  I feel like I don't have the luxury of just being sick and resting.  So, how does one get past this feeling and drive through it?  This truly forces me to rely on God's strength because I truly don't have much on my own.. 
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.  Philippians 4:13

I pray for God to show me the eternal camouflaged in the mundane, the purpose in the redundant.  I know in my heart that it exists.  Sometimes it is just so hard to see it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Stretching the Food Dollars: Simplify

My last and final word on stretching your grocery dollar is to train yourself to eat more simply. We don't have to eat elaborate restaurant type food in big portions for every meal. This is an easy trap to get in the habit of setting our food expectations high, especially if you are used to eat out often. There is nothing wrong with a simple meal of beans and rice with a piece of fruit. It is healthy and cheap. The other day I cooked up some rice and melted some cheddar cheese over it to serve to the kids for lunch. They loved it! It was a simple and healthy meal paired with carrot sticks and canned fruit. Think about what simple foods your family loves. Make a meal out of this. Yes, we have the big meals, too, but keeping it simple is a very good thing, too.

Other tips for stretching the food dollar:
Eat less food. Don't wait until you feel full to stop eating. Put your fork down when you no longer feel hungry. It takes time for that food to hit your stomach and give you the feeling of being full, but once your brain realizes it has some good food in your stomach, it will turn off the hunger signals. You will eat less food, thus saving money, and perhaps loose a couple pounds in the process.
Avoid processed foods. Although that convenience food made look delightful on the box, it is full of extra fat, flavorings, fillers and chemicals that you don't really want. You are paying for the convenience of the quick, no-brainer prep, but if you learn some basic cooking skills, you will realize that you can make something from scratch in about the same amount of time. It just takes a bit of planning ahead to have the right ingredients on hand.
Set daily food budget challenges for yourself. I do this often, especially when the finances are extra tight. I will set a goal to feed our family of 8 for only $10 per day. I have to tell you that this is a bit challenging and takes some creativity. I set a goal of $5 for dinner, $2 or less each for breakfast and lunch which leaves $1 for snacks. Unfortunately, my children can blow the snack budget with just a piece of fruit each.
If you want to try this, here are some blogs with budget conscious recipes:
This wraps up this series on stretching the food dollars. I hope you have enjoyed it and gleaned some ideas from it.
I would love to hear from you. What are some of your ways to stretch your food dollars? I'm certain that there are many great ideas that I haven't even begun to touch upon. Leave a comment and share your stories.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Stretching the Food Dollars: Menu Planning

What is menu planning? It is planning out your meals in advance to avoid standing in front of the open refrigerator at 5pm like a deer in headlights struggling to figure out what to cook for dinner. That is a terrible feeling and will often incite a budget-blowing fast food grab or restaurant expedition. At the very least, lack of menu planning will require a quick run to the grocery store for that one item that you need for the dinner you just figured out. I know for myself that there is no such thing as a quick run into a grocery store for just one thing. I always end up picking up several other items along the way. Next thing you know, I have wasted over half an hour in the store and have dumped over $40.  So, menu planning can save you a bit of money because it eliminates the temptation to eat out and it saves you money at the store by eliminating extra trips and helping you buy just what you really need.

I have to confess. Although I think meal planning is an awesome thing to do, I am not as disciplined in this area as I would like to be. In my mind, I would love to have several monthly meal plans that I could rotate through. Each would be filled with breakfasts, lunches and dinners that my family loves complete with grocery lists. I have really tried to accomplish this, but I end up not sticking to it. I think there is something rebellious in me that doesn't like to be boxed in by what a menu plan says that we should eat. I do better with a loose weekly menu plan to aid in the making of my grocery list. You have to figure out what works best for you. If you are a very disciplined person who requires organization, detailed monthly meal plans may be the perfect fit for you. If you are a person who craves a bit of spontaneity, you may enjoy a looser weekly plan like I use. The key is finding a what you are comfortable because you will stick with it.

Let's discuss some different ways to go about menu planning:
Just plan dinner meals. In our house, we try to keep breakfast and lunch on auto-pilot. We have a list of basic breakfasts that we rotate through. (oatmeal, cereal/granola, eggs, toast, breakfast burritos, and Saturday is usually pancake day) Lunch is typically leftovers from last night's dinner. If we don't have any, or there is not enough, we will eat usually sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, or ramen noodles.

Make a meal list. I have made and regularly update a list of tried and true meals that I know how to make with ease and my family enjoys. I like to group them by main ingredients, usually type of meat used, so if I get a great deal on chicken breasts, I can go to my list of chicken meals for inspiration. I also group them by type of food (i.e. Italian, oriental, etc.) I posted a list a couple of years ago that seems pitifully meager compared to the variety of foods that I make. One of these days I am going to make a great master meal list that I can keep updating, but at this time I usually just start from scratch listing meals that are fairly current for us.

Fill in the calendar. The simplest way to create a meal plan is to take a calendar and start filling in the blanks. You can do a month at a time, 2 weeks or even just one. That depends on how much variety you need. The Simple Mom has a great idea of using Google Calendar for this purpose. She creates a separate calendar just for menu planning and adds her meals for each day. She sets them up to repeat every two weeks (which is a fairly simple thing to do with most calendar programs). If you can come up with two weeks worth of meals, you are instantly done for the month this way. Sometimes it is nice to menu plan right on your regular calendar so you can see what you have going on. That way if you have something going on right up until the dinner hour, you will know that this is a good day for a crockpot meal that will be ready for you as soon as you arrive home.

Use a premade menu plan. There are cookbooks or even subscriptions to menu plans that have already been set up for you with grocery lists you can take to the store. I discovered this several years ago and subscribed to a weekly menu plan service. Most are fairly inexpensive and the cost is readily made up by visiting the grocery store with a shopping list and avoiding eating out because you know what you are cooking each night and have all of the supplies already. This is an easy way to jump into the meal planning arena.
Here are just a few of the menu plans available online:

  • Saving Dinner – I have also used this menu plan and have enjoyed it. Then I discovered that you can buy their cookbooks that each have a year's worth of their meal plans and I did that.

Do some once-a-month or mega cooking.
The original book, Once-a-Month Cooking discusses this concept which is basically shopping and preparing a month's dinner entrees in one day and having them in the freezer to use all month. It is economical because you can buy things is bulk quantities, you save time because you do all of your chopping, etc., at one time. The book maps out how to shop and prepare 30 meals all in one day.  I find this to a bit overwhelming and exhausting with small children underfoot.  I remember that the very first time I tried this, I had a restless 18 month old and no other adult support.  It was a very LONG day. 

I have decided that I prefer mega-cooking.  That is doubling, tripling or quadrupling a meal as I am cooking it for dinner and freezing the excess.  I like to do this with meatloaf, lasagna, casseroles, and homemade enchiladas.  I doesn't take much more time and is an easy way to stock up the freezer.  Another good resource for freezing meals ahead is Dinner's in the Freezer.

Plan by the week.  Even if you don't feel like you can pull off a monthly meal plan, working out a weekly one will help considerably.  It can help you stick to a weekly grocery trip and save you money if you have the discipline to stick to your list.

Meal plan according to the sales.  Often I go to the store for my staple and basic items and fill in with meats that I can find for a good deal.  This is when your list of meals (above) can come in handy.  If I got a great deal on chicken breasts, I will pick out various chicken meals.  If you can scour your local grocery store adds before you shop, you can make a meal plan so you know exactly what else you will need to complete your meals.
At the very least, meal plan by the day.  Often I am not organized enough to have a meal plan.  I usually have a good supply of basic foods that I use often and some sort of meat that I have found for a good price in the freezer.  So, during my morning quiet time, I will decide what I will make and pull anything that I will need out of the freezer.  Anything that I can prep early, I will do while I am in the kitchen at breakfast or lunch.  Often I will put something together after lunch and place it right in the oven and set the delay start.  Then I can blissfully go about my afternoon without having to stop and think about dinner.  

Whether you plan out meals a month at a time, a week at a time or even a day at a time, planning can save you a lot of time and money.