Saturday, May 30, 2015

The End of the School Year is Nigh

Wow, April 19, huh?  I have had a few blogging ideas, but little blogging time.

The last month has been a flurry of school and kid things -

The school auction was early May, and I was in charge of it - so many late nights of prepping, a day of setup, a day at the auction, and a bunch of little things to wrap it up.

Art night/ open house night was last week

Spring sing was this week - and I was 5 minutes from the school (picking up my kid) when I remembered that LAST year's auction we auctioned off "reserved seats" to school functions.  Nobody remembered that in December (whoops), so I ran to the office and wrote out 5 "reserved" signs with a sharpie.  Score one for the mommy brain!

A few parents had a camping "party book" to raise funds for the school, and that was also in mid-May.  It was a GREAT time with about 7 families at a nearby campground. Right next to the beach, at the edge of a big open field for games (but we had to make sure not to set up the tents in the grass, or the sprinklers would go off), right next to a great playground.  Across the RR tracks from the playground was a brewery, didn't make it there.  Had some good burgers though.

Then there was the 3-day weekend, where we had THREE parties and our first family photo shoot.  We are firmly entrenched in the toddler birthday swing.  Amazingly, this weekend we have no parties, and I think  none next weekend either.

I've been trying to get back in the major healthy eating swing.  I hit 140.2 lbs in January, but round 3 of work layoffs + the auction + strange work stuff + kids - I found myself in the upper 140's again.  (which is at least a good 20 lbs less than last year).  But I'd love to break that 140 lb barrier.  I'm just not sure it's worth completely giving up wine and bread.

Some of the "good eats" this week have been lots and lots of veggies.  I've been following the 21-day fix again, with a change - a few days a week (Tues/Thurs/Sun) I am trying to mix it up and allow myself to go up a bracket.  The difference is probably mostly mental, but the higher bracket (which would be a maintenance bracket) allows me to have an extra carb, an extra fruit, an extra veg, and two extra tsps of fat.  Gotta make it work in the long term!

We are in a few weeks right now of NO LETTUCE from the CSA!  I've been steaming and roasting the "Normandy vegetables" from Costco (yellow carrots, baby carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower).  I made a "Greek" salad with cucumbers and peppers yesterday.  I've been eating scrambled eggs with zucchini.  Lots of experimentation this week!

Your frugal tip of the day:  My spouse and I had a DATE NIGHT last night.  Now, while it wasn't "cheap" by most people's standards, we did do things to make it more frugal.
1.  Babysitting - no cheaping out there, it was $50.  That's standard for 4 hours.
2.  Wine - I have a membership at a local winery, which includes a glass of wine for me and a guest, for free, every single day.  In the 2 months I've been a member, I've gotten a total of 3 glasses of wine.  Because I have kids.  Who can make it?
3.  Dinner and popcorn: We grabbed a quick burger.  I got mine lettuce-wrapped.  I was trying to find something "healthy", and when looking at the nutritional info, realized that a plain lettuce wrapped burger had 150 calories less than a salad (maybe even more).  This left room for the popcorn.  Total for both: $16.
4.  Parking: $3
5.  Movie: Free.  We were going to try and get discount tickets, but those are hit or miss.  My spouse traded in his "points" from being a blood donor for 2 free tickets to see The Avengers.

Now it's time for me to get ready for the gym. I did this crazy thing and decided to do a "lazy man's triathlon" - it's an Iron Man distance, but you have the month of May to finish.  Now I have 28 miles of biking and 4.4 miles of walking to finish in 2 days, because I'm generally lazy on weekends.

Here's a silly pic from the photo shoot: (wearing the kiddo's chess medals!)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Why Do People Eat Processed Food?

As a follow up case-study to "Why Do People Eat Out?", I am going to now look at "Why do People Eat Processed Food?"

I'm going to simplify the question by reviewing a couple of different types of food.

Case Study #1: Hummus
Hummus is delicious, and healthy, and relatively easy to make but even easier to buy.  I try to make hummus weekly, but I bought it weekly for YEARS.  So let's look at this, shall we?

7 ounces of store bought hummus:  $3.00
(It's probably cheaper at Costco, but even my family cannot eat that much)

To make your own:
1.  Soak and cook 1 pound of dried chickpeas: $1.00 (makes 6 cups cooked) - this is a super deal that I cannot always find.
2.  Use your food processor
2 cups of cooked chickpeas: 0.33
2 Tbsp of olive oil: 0.18
2 Tbsp of tahini: 0.38
1 clove garlic: 0.05
salt, cumin, cayenne: 0.10
juice of 1 lemon: 0.25

Total cost: $1.29 for approximately 2 cups (16 oz).  So 7 ounces would be $0.56

Total active time: 20 minutes to rinse and put beans on to soak, drain, cover, and cook in the pressure cooker.  20 minutes to make in the food processor and to wash the darned thing when you are done.

So that saves about $2.44, with 40 minutes of work.  But we'd probably go through 2 a week, so that means it's $4.88 for 50 minutes of work.  That's $7.32 an hour.  Not  much, eh?  But if you cook a pound of chickpeas, that's enough to make the hummus for 3 weeks, so there is that.

Case Study #2: Breaded Chicken Tenders
Kids love these and they are easy.  28 ounces can be had at Trader Joe's for $7.99, which comes out to $4.57 a pound.  They bake in the toaster oven in 20 minutes!!  Perfect with some steamed broccoli on a weeknight.  The key here is to not go too crazy.  If we all eat them for dinner, that's 1/2 bag.  So, we do eat these, and generally it's just the kids.  The parents eat something else.

You can make your own fairly easily with plain raw chicken breast and a batter of some sort.  It really depends on the kind of batter.  I'm just not in a place in my life where I can do the flour then egg then flour batter.  I've done skillet chicken with flour/ cornmeal mixture.  There's always a corn flake coating too.  I have a tendency to buy chicken in large portions these days though, so it's simply easier for me to throw it in the crockpot.

However, let's assume you get chicken breasts on sale at $2 a pound, and feel up to a cornmeal or flour-type crust.  For only $2.50 a pound you can save a ton of money over the store version.  Active work time: probably 30 minutes.  This lets you save $2.07 in 30 minutes, or $4.14 an hour.  Needless to say, I don't make my own here.

Case Study #3: Frozen Pizza
I LOVE making my own pizza.  But I'm going to fess up, it's a rare thing these days.  My desire to eat less bread, plus the effort involved in making my own dough and sauce...well, it just doesn't happen.

A totally processed, completely unhealthy frozen pepperoni pizza from Costco is $3.50.  This is a full meal for our family, maybe with leftovers.

A homemade, healthier pizza would be:
1. Homemade pizza crust with half whole wheat: 10 min to put together in the bread machine, 45 min to run, 30 minutes to shape and rest, 20 minutes to par-bake (can be frozen now, and the recipe makes 2x) then top, then 10 minutes to bake.  Needless to say, this is NOT a weeknight meal, unless we already  made the crust.

2. Sauce: The easiest sauce is marinara (runny), or tomato paste with herbs (not runny) or homemade pesto from the freezer

3. Cheese: gotta shred it so you aren't using cheese with wood pulp: 5 minutes

4. Vegetables: I prefer my onions and peppers sauteed to remove the liquid: to chop and cook: 20  minutes

Cooking everything from scratch simply takes a lot of time, compared to processed food.

Case Study #4: Soup
We get a lot of vegetables from the farm, and some of them are of the "what do I do with this?" variety. Which means soup.  Even though it's hot here, and we almost didn't have a winter.  I'm impressed with The Prudent Homemaker and her ability to eat soup year round in Las Vegas.

A 32-ounce carton of carrot ginger soup from Trader Joe's is something like $3-$4 (I don't remember exactly).  Other stores may carry it for more. So let's call it $3.50.

I have a great recipe for carrot ginger soup, and I use it to use up turnips (as much as half turnips).  So here's the work involved in a double batch:

1.  Chop an onion
2.  Wash, peel, chop 10 small turnips
3.  Wash, peel, chop 10 medium carrots
4.  Press 4 garlic cloves
5.  Grate 2 Tbsp fresh ginger.
6.  Saute onion, garlic, ginger in olive oil until onions are soft
7.  Add turnips, carrots, and 6 cups water or stock
8.  Bring to boil, reduce heat, simmer until carrots and turnips are soft
9.  Let cool on the stove 15 minutes
10.  Put in fridge for several hours
11.  Grate 2 more Tbsp ginger.
12.  Puree in batches in blender (5 batches).  This requires a second big pot.  One for the start, one for the finish.  Forget to salt and pepper, so do that at the end.
13.  Wash two big pots, the grater, and the blender
14.  Freeze for later

This probably takes 1 hour, and it makes two 32-ounce containers.  I think it probably costs about $2 - depends on whether you use water or stock, and if you make your own (I was out of chicken stock most recently, so used water).

That's $1 a container, or a savings of $2.50 per container, or $5 an hour.

It's actually a little depressing how little you get from this recipe.  On the other hand, it makes 8 cups, and there are a ton of veggies in each serving. So it's healthy!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Why Do People Eat Out?

Do you ever wonder why people eat out so much?  Apparently it's in the news now, that people (Americans) officially spend more money eating out than they do on food cooked and eaten at home. For the first time ever.  Dan over at Casual Kitchen has a good post on the topic - that people still insist that it's expensive to eat healthy, and some people insist that it's cheaper to eat out.  And it's not.

But that is not the point I was going to make today.  What point was I going to make today?  Well, we did quite a bit of eating out on our vacation recently - I'd say once per day.  (That's a lot for us.)  McD's once (I know, I know. I even packed myself a salad on McD's day, and my husband got it out of the car, it wasn't lidded correctly, and it exploded all over the ground.  Bye bye salad.)  Chipotle a couple of times.  A sandwich.  Pizza.

My family is a big fan of Mexican food (or Mexican-like food).  One thing that we love (besides burritos and quesadillas) are "bowls".  Well, I like them because they are easy.  Sort of.  And cheap.  Sort of.

You can get a "bowl" with a coupon for $5 to $9, so that's not too terrible, right?  But of course you can make it home for cheap, so why don't people?  Let me tell you why.  Here's a summary of my bowl-making efforts recently.

1.  The rice: I use a rice cooker.  Chop onions, press a garlic clove, chop a couple of carrots.  Rinse rice.  Put rice, peas, carrots, onions, garlic, some spices, some tomato paste, and water in the rice cooker.  Do it early enough because it's brown rice so it will take 90 minutes.  ~$1.75 for 5 cups

2.  The beans: Soak pinto beans all day in the pressure cooker.  Cook at pressure, let come down in pressure naturally.  $0.60 for 1 lb dried beans

3.  The guacamole/ sour cream: buy it at Trader  Joe's. $3.00

4.  The cheese: shred it yourself:  $2.00 for 1/2 lb

5.  The veggies: I used cauliflower, so I chopped, tossed with spices and oil, and roasted. $2.20

6.  The salsa: I buy this, but darn it if I'm out.  So make a quick version with canned diced tomatoes, garlic, green onion, jarred or frozen spicy peppers: $0.75

7.  The chicken: cook this up in the crockpot.  3 lbs sale chicken + homemade BBQ sauce = $5

Now, this is delicious, makes enough for 4 people to eat at least 4 meals (in my house), except for the guacamole that will brown anyway.  But there are 6 different steps up there that I had to go through to make the stuff.  That's 2 steps per meal still.  All told, this is $15.30 for about 4 meals, or $3.83 per meal (for four people).

Versus going to a restaurant: walk up to front, order, eat.  This, my friends, is why people eat out.

At times when I've been home (maternity), or working part time, it's been easier for me to spend time cooking, because I'm at home. When I'm out of the house for 50 hours a week working, it's MUCH harder.

For four of us at a restaurant, it would run $20 to $35.

By cooking, I save $16 to $31 PER MEAL.  A no-brainer, right?  Except for a few notes:
1.  I'm pretty good at this frugal cooking and shopping thing, so those prices are near rock-bottom.
2.  Active, hands-on cooking time there is probably about 3 hours all told.  Most people look at that and say "shoot, I'm going to Chipotle!"  And really, you have way more variety there with different ingredients, different salsas.  But variety comes with a price.

You could say I'm "earning" money by cooking:
Cost to eat out four meals: $100
Cost for my four meals: $16
Saved: $84
Work hours: 3
Money earned per hour by cooking: $28

That makes me feel a *little* better when at the end of a long weekend of cooking.

Friday, April 3, 2015

A tale of two stores

Well, it's spring break week here in FHS land.  We took a short trip and did a couple of days of camping in the desert.  It was HOT.  Abnormally so - in the 90s when about 80 is the normal high.  That made the  Goodness, for many reasons I hope we can get an end to this drought.  It's pretty awful in many ways.  Of course, toddler started coming down with a cold on the drive out there, and colds really transfer easily in dry weather.  So yep, hubs and I are struck with it now.

From the couple nights of hot, sweaty, dusty camping we moved on to a nice resort with a suite with a full kitchen, pool, and water slide.  During this trip I didn't do so well tracking the grocery budget.  We took food with us, which I counted in prior weeks.  We did one grocery shop, and I counted that.  But the stops for water and to refill the ice in the ice chest?  I'm afraid at the end of the year, they end up in miscellaneous.  We also ate out a few times too.

So now that we are back and off a half day from work, I did some grocery shopping.  A quick trip to Costco for eggs and bread (Ha!  Easter weekend - the lines were 10 people deep, it was NOT quick).

But that's not what the story is about, nope.  This is about two other stores, on opposite ends of the grocery spectrum:
1.  Whole Foods (aka Whole Paycheck)
2.  The 99c only store

I went to Whole Foods because we were out of tahini, and I make my own hummus.  The 365 brand is high quality and a good price ($6).  But you know me and that darned hot bar...

I went to 99c only store because I had a coupon for "Buy 5 get one free" that expired today, and because the last time I went, I got strawberries and they were pretty good.

Now, I know what you are thinking.  Am I comparing apples and oranges?  Yes true.  The hot bar isn't cheap, it's not supposed to be cheap, and the 99c store doesn't have an equivalent (which is probably a GOOD thing).  I can resist the bags of chips at the 99c store.  Whole Foods has a lot of very high quality, local and organic produce.

I live in an area where sustainable, local, organic - they are very popular and very prized and very supported.  Many people here can afford to shop this way.  Many who perhaps cannot do anyway - they make room in the budget for good food.  However on the other end of the spectrum, there are large numbers of people who could never afford to shop there.  The 99c only store is actually relatively new here.

I tend to fall in the middle.  I belong to a local, organic CSA.  The produce is delicious. We've been members since 2001.  The few times I've priced it out, it is superior in price (and much better in quality) than the regular grocery store.  When I can get free range meat - going in on a pig with a friend, buying part of a cow from a friend who bought too much, or catching a good sale at WF or another local store on free range chicken, I pounce on it.  I tend to pay $6-$8 a pound on pork or beef this way and $2 a pound on chicken.

But shopping this way is either incredibly expensive or incredibly time consuming.  If I wanted all organic and local, I could simply shop at the farmer's market.  I am agreeing then to spend my Saturday mornings shopping, and it would probably cost about $200 to $250 a week (most of that for the meat/eggs).  You can certainly bring the price down by buying direct from farmers, but then you are doing a LOT more leg work to get the items.

Therefore, I'd say about half of my food is local and organic, and the other half is not.  I *try* to buy organic for the "dirty dozen", but let's face it - even that can be a trial sometimes.  The convenient store doesn't always have organic and local.

So here's what I got today at these two stores:

First, Whole Foods:  Cost: $16.95  (there's a fourth samosa there that was already eaten).  Items: four samosas from the hot bar, one bottle sparkling water, one jar tahini

Next: 99c Only store: Cost: $4.89 (after $1 off coupon): 10 lb potatoes, 1 lb strawberries, 3 lb bananas, 1 head cauliflower, 2 lb carrots, 1 pkg mushrooms.  No, not organic - but then, I personally think that more produce is better - and if it means you can afford more produce...

So, the 99c store - this is helping me stick to an $80 budget, and it also leaves room for the WF hot bar.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Budget and Brain Power

One of the things on my mind this week is the budget with respect to brain power.

Now, I'm not sure if brain power is constant or not.  I know that different people have different abilities for sure, but what of a single person - does it vary?  I think it does.

When I embarked on this $80 a week budget thing in late January, I knew it was going to take some effort.  Though I learned to cook 13 years ago and spent many years cooking frugally, the addition of that second child and an increase in work hours took its toll.  That's when we started slipping into easier food terrain.  Small cups of yogurt, canned beans, some pre-prepared meals, especially proteins.  I figured that it would take some work to get my good frugal habits and mojo back.

And it did.  The first few weeks had us eating out a few times a week in laziness and boredom, so I set a goal of NO eating out until spring break.

Boy, what a challenge.  I didn't quite realize how much of one it would be!

When I was a child, my mother was at home until I was 11 or 12.  Her cooking repertoire was pretty repetitive, but I didn't know any different.  And she was good at it - spaghetti and meatballs, baked chicken, casseroles, fish on Friday nights, grilled cheese, meatloaf, sauerkraut, corned beef and cabbage, chili.  Not a huge amount of variety, but that was pretty normal, AND we were poor, and on a budget.  However, my mother grew up gardening, canning, and cooking from scratch - so the budget thing was normal for her.

Several years ago, when I'd been cooking for 5 or 6 years, both my mom and my MIL asked me (separately), "aren't you tired of cooking?"  The answer was NO - because I hadn't been cooking long, and because my husband was a more adventurous eater.  So I was often trying new recipes - vegan, vegetarian, meat, Indian, Middle Eastern, Italian, Greek, Thai, Chinese...whereas my mom and MIL were cooking with much less variety.

But how does that work on a budget.  Well, let me tell you, it's hard.  Why?
1.  $80 is a challenge for me. I cannot buy EVERYTHING that I think I need. I  have to buy what we NEED, with a little extra for wants.
2.  $80 doesn't give you a lot of variety.  The problem with the "no eating out" rule is complete and utter boredom.  Now, we weren't eating out at a lot of different places (I like Asian cuisine, family not so much).  However, it's really nice to grab a burger, or a burrito, or a pizza, or a sandwich, that someone else made.  If you have a big enough budget, you can get this in your groceries.  Costco and Trader Joe's, for example, offer prepared (or partially prepared) refrigerated and frozen items to tickle your fancy - like sushi, or orange chicken, or pad thai, or spanakopita, or curry.
3.  $80 is tough when you and your husband are trying to lose weight, and therefore need to prioritize protein and fat (meat, nuts) over carbs.  Beans, brown rice, and homemade bread are cheap, but I can only have 2 servings a day.
4.  $80 can be done with variety if you can cook from scratch - buy some chicken thighs, broccoli, and make a good stir-fry sauce.  Make your own empanadas.  Try your hand at making different salad dressings.  This takes time, AND thought of how to make everything, proper planning!

All of this takes BRAIN POWER.
I consider myself to be intelligent and organized.
At work, I am usually efficient and can multi-task.
I've handled this budget thing pretty well I think, balancing the grocery shopping and cooking.

But I spend a LOT of time and energy on planning meals, shopping on a budget, and cooking.
I am so tired of salad right now, I cannot even tell you.  But we get greens from the CSA every week, so there you go.

I am on the PTA board at our school.  As I attend meetings, there are a few women there who are SO organized, and efficient, I am amazed!  I simply cannot hold it together like they do.

And this what I ask myself: "why?"
The answer? "Brain power"

I use brain power at work all day.  I use brain power at home to plan meals, cook on a budget, and plan at least 3 meals a day for 3-4 people.  I use brain power to carefully control my own food intake so that I can lose weight.  I use brain power to try and schedule workouts, when insomnia and the toddler let me sleep.

I really think that after all that?  I don't have the brain power to focus on this school stuff.  It takes thought, and planning, and organization - to get people interested in helping, to make phone calls, send emails, plan events, divide up tasks if you at least have people to give the tasks too.

But after the job, the kids (one toddler) and the meal planning, there's just not the brain power left.  I think that some of my more organized friends have some advantages.  Some of them work fewer hours, so they have more time to devote to this stuff.  Some of them have older children, so they aren't dealing with lack of sleep 4-5 nights a week.  Some of them don't give a crap about a grocery budget, so they just buy and eat whatever the hell they want.

Why do I bring this up?  Imagine that you are poor, with a hard job and a couple of kids.  Imagine that you have to spend this brain power on how to feed your family on a budget.  But it doesn't stop there - you have to use it to figure out how to fix your car, pay your electricity bill, and pay your rent.  You have to use it to help your kids with homework.

Is it any wonder that there is a cycle of poverty.  "Pull yourself up from your bootstraps!  Get an education!"  There are studies out there that discuss the stress that comes with being poor - and how it affects your brain in a negative way.

I only read the abstract, but hope to read the full article here, as an example:

So: brain power.  This time last year, I was able to put regular hours into the PTA every week. I awoke before the kids on the weekend and banged it out. But it involved simpler tasks (not planning)

This year: the kids wake up before me, so it's WAY more difficult!

How much brain power do YOU have?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

What did I make this week?

So one of the things I love about many of the blogs I read is when people put out their meal plans.  It's inspiring and gives me great ideas.

The reality of my life right now is that I often don't stick to the plan, and I have a hard time planning more than 3 days ahead.

So I thought I'd share some pictures of things that I made this last week instead.  It's been a rough week, with a lot of beer and not a lot of sleep, due to work layoffs, heat, stress, etc.

Not pictured: a legion of salads and turkey sandwiches, plus crockpot Asian chicken with broccoli.  And nachos.  And cupcakes.  And hummus.  And beer.

 Spinach balls (actually "mixed greens)

Roast potatoes 

Falafel (the dough)

Falafel (in the pan)

Falafel (done)

Lentil/walnut/mushroom pate, on a bagel (this stuff is delish)

Cabbage and ramen slaw with cashews

A view on my walk one day.   Yeah, rubbing it in.

The aftermath of my 9 year old's birthday party

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The budget update

So how am I doing on my $80 budget?  Well, so far so good.  There are some challenges, however:

1.  I tend to buy a lot of produce.  The CSA (not included in the budget) helps, but it's hard to figure out how much produce to buy around the CSA stuff.
2.  Running out of things.  I don't always remember to write stuff down.  So, we ran out of popcorn. At the local grocery store: $4.  At Trader Joe's?  $2.  Guess where we bought it last night, at the last minute?
3.  Organics.  These are expensive.  Free range meat?  Even moreso.  You can get good deals at the local Whole Foods and other high end stores, on sale.  But you have to track that.  And fit it into your budget.  And thus far, I haven't had the energy to track that - a good whole chicken can be had, on sale, for $2 a pound (so $10-12).  You can get a good 3 or 4 meals out of that, particularly if you make your own stock.  So I eat more stuff from the freezer and more dried beans, because they are universally cheap.
4.  Special occasions.  A certain boy is turning 9 next week.  I am shopping for cake mixes.
5.  Eating out.  When I first set the budget, we ate out a LOT.  Then a few weeks ago, I said "no eating out for 6 weeks".  Well, there are a couple of exceptions (gift cards, the birthday party, and a pre-paid event.)  And my spouse ate out yesterday for lunch because he was too tired to pack a lunch after a long business trip - he got stuck on the East Coast an extra day due to weather.

Anyway, here's the summary so far:

Note that this week (week 7), is still not over.  And I'm sending my husband out for vanilla and yogurt for another batch of muffins, so it will go up by a few bucks.

I'm still "over" for the year because of the first 3 weeks before I set a budget.  I'm hoping that a bunch of $70-75 weeks will let me catch up.  It's easier to get a $70 week when my spouse is traveling.

What's on the menu this week?
Lunches Mom: salad (spinach, lettuce, arugula, leftover ham from Christmas from freezer)
Lunches Dad: turkey sandwiches

Saturday: Falafel (chickpeas were on sale for $1 for a pound dried), roast potatoes, kale chips
Sunday: Some sort of lentil thing, but I haven't figured out what
Monday: crockpot chicken (I'll be at a PTA meeting for 3 hours), broccoli
Tuesday: Leftover chicken, cole slaw
Wednesday: one-pot spaghetti, cole slaw
Thursday: Seriously unable to plan that far ahead.  Depends on leftovers - spaghetti?
Friday: Someone's birthday, Nachos?

Other things that I'm cooking that don't fit into a category:
Spinach balls (actually, chard, beet green, collards).  We get a lot of greens.  I have to be creative.
Orange lemon poppy seed muffins
Corn bread
Ham salad