Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Vacation Packing

Am I one of the few crazy people who packs food for vacations?  And I mean real food, not just snacks or sandwiches.  Well, The Prudent Homemaker does - check out her blog for her recent summary of their road trip to a wedding.

A friend of mine gave me a revelation when she mentioned she pre-cooked food for a camping trip.  I tend to take easy-to-cook things for camping.  And I pre-cook food on the weekend.  Why did this not occur to me?

So we are headed out on a road trip (about 4 hours away), and I have been busy prepping food.  Now, why would I do that?  Isn't eating out part of vacation?  I would say, most certainly, yes.  But things have changed over the last few years:

1.  I have a toddler.  It is not fun to eat out with a toddler who cannot sit still.  Age 2 to 4?  Not fun.
2.  I have an 8 year old.  He's a fan of McDonald's, Chik-fil-a, Chipotle, but doesn't like "fancy food" because it "makes him sick".  (i.e., he doesn't have the patience to sit an order a meal and wait for it.)
3.  I have two kids.  I hate to repeat myself, but eating out with them is not fun.  They want their food NOW.  And it's expensive.
4.  I have a weight problem.  Generally food that you eat out is not as healthy as you could make yourself.
5.  Eating out is expensive.

So we are going out of town for four days.  The first two nights we are in a nice hotel with a microwave and a mini-fridge.  We get free breakfast.   The second two nights we are in a hotel with a fridge.  No microwave.  Husband upgraded for $10/day total for four breakfasts.

Here's the general plan, I tried not to overdo it.

I packed enough sandwiches, eggs, bread, fruit and veg for two lunches.
I packed spaghetti and meatballs for one dinner (out of 4). Depending on timing, we can probably grab dinner at a grocery store.

Generally, I could probably plan to pack enough food for lunch and dinner all four days, but my family would probably protest.  And it's my vacation too - I don't relish washing dishes in hotel bathroom sink.  So I opted for about 1/3 of the meals either already packed or purchased at a grocery store, 1/3 will be free breakfast, 1/3 out.

This is just a sampling of what we have in store:

Saturday, July 19, 2014

More Crockpot Meals and 3-day Refresh Results

It's SUMMER!  Well, it's been summer for awhile.  And I live in So Cal, so it's always warm.  But summer to me means tomatoes and cucumbers, delicious salads.  Grilling outdoors.  Well, not so much on the grilling.  I don't really know how to grill. I should learn though.

So this past week, on recommendation from my coworker, I tried the Beachbody 3-day Refresh.  Since the layoff in April, I'd lost my mojo.  Not only did my weight loss stall, but due to stress and lack of sleep, I gained back 8 of the 18 pounds that I've lost this year.  My coworker tried the refresh and enjoyed it.

So two weeks ago, I got PiYo in the mail for my birthday.  It's a pilates-yoga inspired workout that is no impact but really really hard.  So the first week of PiYo (which I did even though I hurt my knee twice in two weeks boogie boarding with the kids) was great and hard, and I lost 1.2 lbs with the workouts and recommitting to my diet.  I decided to start the 3-day Refresh cleanse on a Monday, figuring it would be easier to do it during a work week.  Plus, Sunday was my anniversary, and we enjoyed lunch at the beach with the boys (18 years!)
View during our anniversary lunch

Well, the results were stellar.  I lost 5 lbs in 3 days, including an inch on my waist.  I hope it stays off (it did for my friend).  The Refresh is not cheap - but it was pretty easy to follow.  Here's a summary of what it is:

First of all, half your weight in ounces of water. Start the day with water first thing.
Also, keep workouts light to moderate.  I did 15 minutes of PiYo and 30 minutes of walking on day 1, and walking on Day 2 and Day 3.

Breakfast: Shakeology with fruit
Morning snack: green tea with stevia (there is NO COFFEE on this Refresh, so I started cutting back 5 days in advance.  Of course, I'm back on the coffee.  More on that later.)
Morning fiber drink
Lunch: a vanilla protein shake, a vegetable, a fat
Snack: a vegetable, a fat
Dinner: a protein shake, veggie broth with herbs, 3 vegetable servings, 1/2 fat

It's like a cleanse but with food.  It is very low calorie, and it's vegan.  I generally felt hungry right before lunch each day, but I did feel energized, even on little sleep.  I am at least back to 16 lbs down.  I really enjoyed the veggie broth, and plan to have that with dinner more often.  Also, it's very heavy on veggies, and it's easy to get away from that because of the amount of work involved.

The idea is to use it to bust through a plateau, or get back on track after a bad spell, etc.  Well, my eating went to crap right after.  So I hope I can get back on track again.  The final night, Wednesday, my 2 year old came home with a fever.  That night I went to my quilting potluck (and didn't eat).  Since Wednesday his fever has flared about every 12 hours.  So I've been awake a lot.  Tuesday morning from 3:30 to 5:30 am.  Thurs from 1:30 to 3 am.  Friday from 1:30 to 2:30 am.  Friday night from 10:45 to 11:45 and again from 2:00 to 3:00.

Plus my husband had a busy work week so I took one for the team.  Meaning I took two days off work, but tried to work during nap time.  Do you know how hard it is to be at home full time with a toddler who is sick but energetic?  Well, it's impossible.  For one thing, he wants your constant attention, compared to normal when he can play independently for maybe 30 minutes.  Next, he's sick with an as-yet-unknown illness.  Roseola?  Hand-foot-mouth?  Something else?  So you can't exactly take him to the park or the library.  Or at least, you shouldn't.  Because that's shitty to other parents out there.  And except for the midday fever, he's still his energetic old self.  And the fever means he doesn't nap long, and of course there is the nighttime wakeups.  Did I mention my husband came home late  yesterday?  And that he went out for a beer with the neighbor (totally deserved, don't get me wrong), and toddler woke up then?

Ugh.  Anyway, with those parameters it's really really hard to do anything, much less eat anything, much less keep to a reasonable diet.  And of course I have almost no PTO left.  Somehow I think when we come back from our August vacation I will have 14 hours (HOURS) of PTO and my husband will have 250.

On the plus side, I cooked dinner both nights and did the grocery shopping, because I was home.  The second night I didn't cook until late because I was waiting for the husband, who didn't materialize until very late because of the last minute project.

First night: baked chicken tenders with Tuscan herbs.  Bruschetta with fresh tomatoes, and steamed veggies.  (I got really used to the steamed veggies on the 3-day refresh).  I'm still not great with the chicken tenders.  They were dry and overcooked.

Second night: stir fried onions and peppers with the leftover chicken, leftover veggies, and cooked flageolet beans.  And corn on the cob.  Which took an hour to husk.  5 ears.  No pictures, but got two thumbs up from the hubby.  Kiddos aren't eating much these days.  The corn was delish, on sale for $1 for 5 ears.

Anyway, on to the meal plan and the use of the crockpot, because I suck at grilling:
Saturday: chicken tenders and TJ's Island Soyaki in the crockpot, with brown rice (pressure cooker recipe) and sauteed snow peas (leftover from Refresh) and broccoli.

Sunday: tri-tip with beans, peppers, onions, and salsa in the crockpot, with kale chips, leftover rice, and guacamole.

The rest of the weekly meals include:
sandwiches.  It's hot.  I bought turkey.
salads.  See above.  I have lettuce and radishes.
beet salad with feta
roasted vegetables.  My niece in SC is a monster - you should check out her blog - she's lost a ton of weight and is training for a fitness competition.  She's in the early phase of being a total cheerleader and a "no excuses" kind of attitude, and I totally remember being the same way.  When I was her age anyway.  Now I'm 44, with too many injuries to count, and not enough sleep. So. There's that.  Anyway, Sunday is her meal prep day and her instagram last week had three large trays of veggies roasting, so I bought cauliflower and broccoli to roast this week.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Fast and Easy Meal for a busy day - crock pot! And, vacation budget.

So, I took a day off work this week to take the family to the water park.  We got sunburned.  (Sunscreen washed off, and you know that white stripe you get from your flip flops on your feet?  Yeah, mine's red now.  So our 4th?  Not going to the beach.  Even though the water is supposedly SO WARM this year.)

Before we left, I decided to throw some food in the crock pot.  I had these raw chicken tenders in the freezer from Trader Joe's.  I found a great recipe for sesame honey chicken. But decided it would be MUCH easier to just use the TJ's Island Soyaki.  So, two ingredients: chicken, and TJ's sauce (which, you know, is made of a bunch of ingredients.  I realize this.)

Cook on low all day.  Now, with small tenders, they got overcooked.  But they were tasty (bone in or dark meat or larger pieces would be better).

When we got home, late, I got out the rice cooker.  But our rice cooker, and brown rice = 1.5 hours.  Instead, I pulled out my trusty Pressure Cooker cookbook from Lorna Sass.  I toasted up the rice, added water, salt, and voila!  45 minutes later (including heat up and cool down) rice is done.  Simple steamed broccoli finished the meal.  The boys were SO HUNGRY they mowed through it, including the toddler - he was mostly into the rice and broccoli, opposite of normal for my little meat lover.

The total cost for the water park was about $100 for 5 people (we took a friend).  Entry into the water park was $12/person, plus $10 for parking = $70.  We picked up sandwiches on the way, took bottled water and snacks - that was about $30.  It's a fairly pricey day.

As far as vacation days though, it's not too bad.  I used to be a lover of great vacations - Hawaii was my friend!  But with kids, it's different.  I read recently that mothers don't take vacations, they take trips.  So true.

When it comes to vacations, I now try to substitute cheaper options.  I love Hawaii - why?  Pool, beach, tropics.  How do I get that cheaper?  Go to the beach at home, in the summer.  Water park will take the place of the pool.  Or perhaps take a vacation to San Diego - save yourself the $800/person airfare.

So the water park is a substitute for Disneyland or Hawaii, not a regular thing.  Hiking or the zoo is a substitute for day trips to the water park...a slow decrease in the expense of the vacations.  As opposed to pre-kid days, when they get pricier and pricier!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Total Mental Health Day

Well, it has been one of those weeks.  Work has been stressful for about 6 weeks.  When I'm stressed, I don't sleep.  I had three nights over the weekend where I could not fall asleep until 3 am.  3 am people!  I usually am asleep by 9 or 9:30 am.  It was a rough weekend.  We also changed our son's crib into a toddler bed, and he proceeded to fall out of it.  So here are my stats:

Saturday night: 3 am to 8 am
Sunday night: 3:15 am to 7:15 am
Monday night: 2 am to 8 am with a couple of wakeups for the kid falling out of bed
Tuesday night: 11:30 to 6 am (that was a good one)
Wednesday night: toddler woke up at 10:30, 12:30, 2:30 and 4.  Man, he was not liking the new bed rail (kept kicking it), so middle of the night my husband took it off, then at 4 he cried - he'd fallen out of bed and rolled UNDER it and then got stuck.
Thursday night: reassembled the bed into a crib, and he slept great.  I dozed from 9 to 12, moved to the couch and slept solid until 5, moved back to the bed and dozed until 6:30.  So, better, but not perfect.

Anyway, with the lack of sleep and the fact that my spouse left last night on a 5 day business trip...yes, over the weekend...leaving me a single parent...yes, over FATHER'S DAY WEEKEND.  Which, well, I didn't do anything for him yet, not sure what I'll do when he gets back... I decided to take a mental health day from work today.

I think work has been extra stressful, and I happen to need a week off every three months.  So my last time off was end of March.  I'm about due.  Instead of trying to work the day and survive the weekend, I took today off, kinda last minute.  The kids are at camp and daycare.  I did the grocery shopping.  I am going to do my weekend food-prep today:

wash and freeze blueberries
wash strawberries
wash spicy salad greens
wash and spin kale (for kale chips tonight, along with chicken nachos)
wash, peel, and turn carrots into carrot sticks (for snacking)

The rest of the day I may do a little work from home.  My older child is at YMCA camp, so I think I'll go an hour earlier than pick up, and work out at the Y, then pick him up, go get the little guy, come home and enjoy nachos/ kale chips/ movie night.

Now one day isn't quite enough, so I plan on taking a few days off at the end of the month for my birthday.  Probably won't go anywhere, just enjoy the days off.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Super Frugal and Delicious Tomato-Basil Soup and Rosemary Olive Oil Bread

I love baking bread, but rarely have the time. Even though it's not a lot of "hands on" work, it is "time sensitive".  I'm at work all day, so weekends are it.  So I have to set  my day in a way so that I can actually be at home for the various parts of kneading, shaping, baking etc.

I managed to do that last Saturday. I'm a fan of The Prudent Homemaker on line and on Facebook, and she had posted a pic of her Rosemary Olive Oil bread on FB.  That inspired me.  I generally try to follow bread directions exactly, but he batch was too big for me and I wanted to use my bread machine. 

I also had a bread recipe from America's Test Kitchen that I've successfully morphed into the bread machine.  My problem with their recipe is that you preheat the bread at 500F.  My oven is not so great at that temperature.  The Prudent Homemaker uses baking sheets, and I use a pizza stone.  America's Test Kitchen sprays the bread for 15 minutes to get a crust, The Prudent Homemaker uses a tray of water (and some other recipes bake inside a cast iron pot.  But I digress.)

So here's the recipe in the end, combining The Prudent Homemaker, The Bread Machine book, and America's Test Kitchen.

Rosemary Olive Oil Bread (adapted from The Prudent Homemaker)
2 c. bread flour: 0.52
2 1/4 c. all purpose flour: 0.46
1 3/4 c. water
2 Tbsp sugar: 0.04
2 tsp salt
2 tsp yeast: 0.04
2 Tbsp rosemary: 0.15 (usually this is free, but my husband killed my rosemary plant)
2 Tbsp olive oil: 0.18

Total: $1.39

Place all ingredients in bread machine in order determined by bread machine.  Put on dough setting and run.

After the dough cycle is done, dump out onto a flour dusted counter.  Dimple the dough with your fingertips.  Shape into a loaf:  Pull two opposite sides of the dough into the center.  Repeat 2 more times, going around in a circle, form it into a ball.

Place a piece of parchment paper on a rimless cookie sheet, and put the bread, seam side down, on top.  Cover with a clean towel or cooking-spray coated plastic wrap.  Put in a warm place to rise.  Let rise 45 minutes to 1.5 hours, until doubled in size and the dough springs back slowly at the touch.

Adjust oven: Put baking stone in the center and a rack below.  Preheat oven to 450F.  Let baking stone preheat for 30 minutes.  

Right before baking, place a shallow pan with water on the bottom rack.  Remove the plastic from the bread, and slice an "X" in the top of the bread with a sharp knife (I SUCK AT THIS).  Slide the parchment paper with the dough onto the baking stone.  

Bake at 450F for 15 minutes.  After 15 minutes, reduce heat to 400F and bake for 25 more minutes, until internal temperature is 200F.

Transfer to a wire rack, discard parchment, and let cool for about 2 hours before slicing.

Enjoy.  My family LOVES this bread.

I made this with The Prudent Homemaker's Tomato Basil Soup.  I cannot believe I never made this before.  It was SOOO good.  I had a bunch of tomatoes in the freezer from a #10 can.  We have been collecting carrots from the CSA.  I found chicken stock from 2011 in my freezer (yeah, I tossed that).

Tomato Basil Soup (from the Prudent Homemaker).  Follow the link for the instructions!
2 Tbsp olive oil: 0.18
1 large onion, chopped: 0.50
10 carrots, peeled and chopped: 0.80
1. 5 Tbsp dried basil: 0.23
2 cloves garlic, chopped: 0.10
2 28oz cans diced tomatoes: 1.50
4 cups chicken broth: free (make my own)
1 can evaporated milk: 2.00

Total: $5.32 for 16 cups, $0.33 per cup

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Another successful camping trip in Joshua Tree

So this was our 5th camping trip in Joshua tree.  This year, we went with our neighbors and celebrated her birthday.  She booked a group site at Indian Cove Campground. Usually we just drive in and wing it (sometimes unsuccessfully).

Wow, this time it was awesome.  First of all, the group sites were $25 a night.  The individual sites in the park are $10 a night, PLUS the $15 fee to get into the park.  The individual sites allow 6-8 people (we are 9 with just the two familes), and the group site we had allowed 5 cars and 25 people.  We had 6 cars and 25 people.  It was amazing.  The site was HUGE - 6 picnic tables plus one in the middle for sharing.  Plenty of space for 7+ tents.  Rocks for climbing.  Very close by toilets (still no water here). Closer to town for ice runs.

It was so awesome that my neighbor said "I'm going to book this for next year!"  Well, I got home and looked - all weekends in the "not hot" months are already booked for 2015 spring (you can book a year in advance).  I'm toying with booking a site for spring break - there is ONE site with TWO days available that week.  Maybe.  It's $50 for two nights.

We got lucky with the weather.  It's the desert.  It's hot.  But the high was about 93 and the low about 65, and it could have been a LOT worse.  They'd had a "cool week" so the first night was cool.  It was already 82 the second morning when we left at 9 am.  And we all hit our cars for some exploring in the one afternoon (AC), and hit up the store for ice cream.

The hard part about the desert is the constant need for ice.  The thermoelectric cooler wasn't much of a help. We ended up buying a second small cooler.  The other hard part is the toddler.  Where we'd branched out to eggs and bacon last time, this time we were back to oatmeal for breakfast (just add water), turkey sandwiches for lunch (kept it on ice), and chili or quesadillas for dinner with raw veggies and hummus (of course I forgot the tortillas!)  The other parents (who did not have to dedicate one parent at all times to chase the toddler, who wanted to climb everything) were more pros - they had gin and tonics, burgers, eggs, bacon, pancakes.  Of course, almost every other kid had helmets for climbing except ours, and Nick's legs are totally beat up.

Still, the trip was fairly cheap.  About $90 for gas, plus same amount for lunch on the road, ice cream, ice, and water.  Not a bad price for two days of fun.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Creamy Pesto Pasta

So for some reason, I thought about this pasta this week.  I haven't made pasta in awhile, I had carrots and broccoli that I hadn't cooked. I remembered my Weight Watchers cookbook (maybe I read an article about WW?) with this fettucini alfredo recipe in it that I used to make a lot back in the pre-kid days.

But one day at work, I googled "Creamy Pesto pasta recipe" because I have pesto in the freezer (and I got basil this week too).  I found this recipe from Budget Bytes, which is a great blog if you haven't seen it yet.  Very well done.

Being me, I morphed the two.  I love the WW recipe but I got home late and it called for making a roux, and I didn't feel up to it.  So I started boiling the water, started chopping the veggies, cooked the pasta, then made the pesto, and finally cooked up the sauce and tossed everything together.  I didn't salt it enough, but that's easy enough to fix.  I served it with meatballs (not pictured, because they are pre-made frozen meatballs that I bought in a 5 lb bag).

I also doubled the recipe, because 1/2 lb of pasta makes 4 servings, which is 1.5 meals for us, so...no.  I need leftovers.

Creamy Pesto Pasta (adapted from WW and Budget Bytes)
1 lb pasta: 1.00
1 bunch basil: 1.00
4 cloves garlic: 0.40
2 T olive oil: 0.26
8 oz cream cheese: 1.99
1/3 c. parmesan cheese: 0.45
2 head broccoli, cut into small florets and the stem peeled and sliced: 1.20
1/4 of a red bell pepper, cut into 1/3 inch x 1 inch strips: 0.25
4 carrots, sliced: 0.60
S&P to taste
Total: $6.91 for 8 servings, or $0.86 per serving.

Bring the water to boil.  Boil pasta according to package directions, but set your timer for about 2 minutes before it's due to be finished.

Make the pesto: in a food processor, add the garlic and process until chopped.  Scrape down the sides, add the basil and parmesan and blend.  Scrape one more time and blend.  Stream in the olive oil.

Prep the vegetables.  When your timer goes off, add the veggies to the boiling water.  Return to a boil and boil 2-3 minutes, depending on how you like it.

In a small saucepan, mix the cream cheese and 1/3 cup of pasta water (once you've added the veggies).  Heat and stir until the cream cheese has mixed in and made a sauce.  Add in the pesto (all of it) and stir until blended.

Drain the pasta and veggies (remember to take out the pasta water for your sauce!)

Return pasta/ veggies to pot, stir in the sauce, add S&P to taste.