Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas 2012: Temporary Insanity and Peppermint Bliss

It all began with a simple question from my son's teacher at school -

"Would you like to help us with the Christmas costumes for the infant and toddler classes?"

Weeks later - surrounded by onesies, tulle, and felt, frantically sewing what would be peppermint costumes for eleven children - I had to laugh at my ability to volunteer for projects that can't help but spiral a bit out of control.

While there were more than a few moments I wondered at my sanity in taking on such a big commitment right before the holidays (which, at least in our household, is both the merriest and busiest time of year), the truth is that I love projects where I can be creative and help others. Figuring out how to make costumes that were cute and festive on a budget - and perhaps most importantly, EASY - helped to get me in the Christmas spirit (well, that and the big glass of wine I poured to celebrate when the last peppermint was complete).

Should you ever find yourself saying 'yes' to crafting Christmas cosumes for a class full of children (or just you own), here are some simple instructions on how to make peppermints for less than $1 a piece. Merry Christmas!

Red, green and white felt (I made red peppermints for the girls, green for the boys)
White thread
White onesies or t-shirts (nearly every child out there has an old one to donate to the cause)

1. Cut a white felt circle for each peppermint about the width of a onesie. I used a medium sized bowl as a guide.
2. Cut green and red felt circles and free-form draw peppermint shapes on each. Cut along the lines to create the peppermint 'swirl' pieces.
3. Glue the swirls to the white circles. I found that regular Elmer's glue worked best - though be careful with the amount so you don't soak through the felt.
4. Once your felt peppermints are ready, it's time for the tulle 'wrapper.' Cut a square of tulle large enough that it wraps around the peppermint like a taco (with the open seam to the center back of the peppermint) and you have at least 6 inches of overhang on each side. It's better to leave too much on each side than too little - you can trim later.
5. As you make your peppermint tulle tacos, pin them to the onesies. At the end of this, all of your onesies should have peppermints pinned in the middle with the tulle in a rectangle form (open seam of tulle tucked between the peppermint and the onesie) and about 6 inches of overhang of tulle on each side.
6. Get out your sewing machine and white thread, and sew around the edge of each peppermint so that in one swoop you sew both the peppermint and the tulle to each onesie.
7. Use scraps of tulle to tie the overhang of tulle fabric on each side of the onesies, creating the little tuft of 'wrapper.' Trim the tulle to your liking.
8. Ask all of the parents to bring something white or khaki for the bottom - tights, pants, etc.
9. Have a big glass of wine.
10. Done! *

* On a trip to Target I came across some cute peppermint bags and mistletoe headbands in the $1 bin. In this case, I pushed the 'easy button' and gladly paid $22 for headpieces and bags (which I filled with bells and sewed shut) to outfit the whole class.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Winter Squash-a-Paloooza

Last year was the first we planted butternuts in the garden and - 5 vines and more than 30 squash later - we learned our lesson about this plant's abundance. The season was one big "Iron Chef" episode in our kitchen, with nearly every week's meal plan incorporating winter squash. I earnestly clipped recipes from magazines and newspapers, searching for inspiration. Soups, stews, salads, purees, roasted sides, pastas and desserts - you name it, we tried it.

This year we planted only two vines and tried a new variety - Rogosa Violina vs. the traditional Waltham - resulting in a much lower yield but some mammoth specimens. Although there was a time when the thought of yet another squash dinner made me want to head for the hills - or at least the nearest restaurant - I'm enjoying dusting off what are now tried-and-true recipes and reintroducing this hearty seasonal ingredient to our dinner table.

Winter Squash Soup
Serves 8
Adapted from Gourmet

This soup is so simple and is utterly delicious. We omit the cream nearly every time as the soup has tons of flavor and a lovely texture without it.

1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 large garlic cloves, chopped
3 14 1/2-ounce cans low-salt chicken broth
8 cups 1-inch pieces peeled winter squash, any variety (about 3 pounds)
1 1/4 teaspoons minced fresh thyme
1 1/4 teaspoons minced fresh sage

1/4 cup whipping cream

Melt butter in large pot over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Add broth, all squash and herbs; bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until squash is very tender, about 20 minutes.

Working in batches, puree soup in blender. Return soup to same pot. Stir in cream; bring to simmer. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Chill. Rewarm over medium heat before serving.)

Enchiladas with Spicy Pumpkin Sauce
Makes 12 appetizers or 6 entrees
Adapted from Catherine Bergen, C Casa

Everyone in Napa knows that the best place in town for tacos and Mexican fusion fare is C Casa. When I saw this recipe in our local paper, I knew I had to try it. We were not disappointed - the blending of flavors is outstanding. I've never been so happy to have leftovers!

For sauce:
4 cups pureed organic pumpkin (two 15-ounce cans) or any winter squash
2 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 jalapeños, chopped
6 large cloves garlic
3-4 Tbsp. curry vindaloo (depending on how spicy you want it)
1 tsp. sea salt
Puree above ingredients until smooth.

For filling:
3 cups shredded chicken, duck or pork
4 cups goat cheese and Oaxacan cheese (we use all goat cheese)
1/2 cup chopped green onions
Mix cheese with green onions.

12 white corn or flour tortillas

Possible Condiments:
Lime crema (Mexican sour cream with fresh lime juice)
Green onions
Toasted pumpkin seeds
Micro greens
Sea salt

To assemble:

Preheat oven to 425 F. Cover one large baking dish with olive or grapeseed oil spray. Pour enough of the sauce to generously cover the bottom of the baking dish.

Lay the tortillas flat. Add the protein of your choice. (You can also just do cheese enchiladas; in that case, use 5 cups of the cheese mixture.) Top the meat with some of the cheese mixture, then roll each tortilla tightly and place in baking dish, seam side down.

Pour the rest of the sauce over the enchiladas and top with remaining cheese. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes or until bubbling hot all the way though.

To serve, place one or two enchiladas in the center of a salad or dinner plate. Top the enchiladas with micro greens and toasted pumpkin seeds, then drizzle with lime crema. Finish with sea salt.

Barley Risotto with Winter Squash
Serves 4
Adapted from Real Simple

Last winter when we were working through our mountain of squash - and had a newborn baby - my Mom helped me whip up this risotto for dinner. Every ingredient needed was already in the kitchen (my litmus test for a good recipe) and the result was hearty and delicious.

2  tablespoons  olive oil
small winter squash (about 11/2 pounds)—peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch pieces (about 3 cups)
onion, finely chopped
kosher salt and black pepper
1  cup  pearl barley
1/2  cup  dry white wine
3  cups  low-sodium vegetable broth
5  ounces  baby spinach
1/2  cup  grated Parmesan (2 ounces), plus more for serving
1  tablespoon  unsalted butter

Heat oven to 400° F. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or large oven-safe saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the squash, onion, ¾ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring often, until the onion begins to soften, 4 to 6 minutes.

Add the barley to the vegetables and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the wine and cook, stirring, until evaporated, about 1 minute. Add the broth and bring to a boil; cover the pot and transfer it to oven. Bake until the barley is tender, 35 to 40 minutes.

Stir in the spinach, Parmesan, and butter. Serve with additional Parmesan.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Tricks of the trade from 'Be Thifty' and 'Living Well on a Shoestring'

During one of my mid-day walks with Will, we headed to the library to find some good reading material on how to start a family while cutting back financially. While I didn't find exactly what I was looking for (maybe I should take a stab at writing a guide myself...), I did find a few good books on frugal living that I brought home and devoured from cover to cover. From olive oil hair treatments to reusing vacuum bags, below are some of the best tips that I've either implemented or filed away for future use.

Be Thrifty: How to live better with less, Pia Catton & Califia Suntree (2010)
I really enjoyed this book - I even bought it after returning the library's copy, and goodness knows that's saying something. (I found it used on Amazon - did you know there are warehouse deals via Amazon that are eligible for free $25 super saver shipping? Always click on the 'used book' option to see what you can find.) It was an easy read and I found myself dog-earing just about every page. Some of the new things we are doing in our home include:
  • Cutting my husband's hair. We bought a $20 Wahl clippers from Amazon and I've cut his hair for 6 months now. That's already a savings of at least $80 given he used to have his hair cut every six weeks. After getting over his initial fear of being my next DIY project, I think he secretly likes it...no hassle to get to the barber shop anymore. And honestly? No one can tell the difference.
  • Cooking more often with dried beans, which are SO much cheaper (and more delicious!) than their canned counterparts. There is a great chart with some quick tips for soaking and cooking different types of beans, including a quick soak method I've already used a few times when I've forgotten to soak beans overnight (put beans in water, bring to a boil, cover and turn off heat and let soak for an hour). I used to have no luck with beans - they would be one of two extremes, burned or rock hard - but with the help of this book I've managed to overcome my bad bean karma.
  • Making our own cleaning supplies. I've been using vinegar and water for a while now on my countertops, but after reading this book and articles in Natural Home and Urban Farm magazines, I've been inspired to switch up my whole cleaning regimen and go the natural (and cheap) route. This weekend I'm picking up washing soda, Borax, grapefruit essential oil and other supplies at the store. Let the experimenting begin (and let's hope that there are no explosions).
Living Well on a Shoestring, by the editors of Yankee Magazine (2000)
It's pretty amazing how many things have changed since this book was written in 2000 - for example, cell phones, online shopping, and streaming movies. Although it was quaint reading about inexpensive ways to store floppy disks and VHS cassettes, I enjoyed all of the ideas as I could tell they were written by a kindred spirit. Some of my favorites (for the 21st century) include:
  • Leftover rice? Make rice pudding.
  • If you get paid bi-weekly, twice a year you will get three paychecks in a month. Instead of allowing that third one to get eaten up by expenses, as soon as you receive it put it into a savings account or allocate it towards one of your goals.
  • Put a small spray bottle with detergent in the bathroom to start treating clothes when they go in the laundry (vs. spending extra money on Shout or another stain pre-treater)
  • Make facecloths from old t-shirts
  • Make a hot oil treatment for hair: Empty out a travel-size shampoo bottle and fill with olive oil. Drop into a hot bath to warm. Put on hair for 10-15 minutes under a shower cap.
  • Make a heart-shaped cake from 1 8-inch square pan and 1 8-inch round pan (cut round cake in half and add to two adjacent sides of the square)
  • Turn old Christmas cards into a paper chain for decorating - cut the fronts into thirds, make into loops and create a chain (I love this idea - so fun for kids!)
  • Make a garland of dried citrus slices
  • Child gift idea: Find a small wooden chair at a garage sale, spray paint and stencil their name on the back
  • Reuse your vaccum bag (I'm in the midst of trying this out). When bag is full, cut a slice in the side and empty into the trashcan (p.s. a messy endeavor). Seal with duct tape and reuse for one more cycle
These are just a few of the 'pearls of wisdom' I gained from these two books. If you are of thrifty mind, I am sure you would find the time reading them to be well spent!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Bringing crochet, and Yoda, back from the '70s

This being my son's first Halloween, I was inspired to try my hand at crafting his costume. It needed to be cute but not girly (my husband quickly vetoed a lamb) and, of course, inexpensive. After much scouring of Pinterest, I came across the perfect idea - Yoda. My husband loved the Star Wars theme and the key element of the costume - the hat - presented the perfect opportunity to dig my crochet hook out of the black hole it had fallen into.

Channeling the force...
I headed to my local yarn store (Yarns on First in Napa) and found the perfect shade of green yarn in the sale bin for $7.00. After a trip to the fabric store for some cream and brown felt for a coat and belt - for a grand total of $1.29 - I had all of the materials necessary to channel the 'force' and transform our little guy into Yoda.

The coat and belt were ridiculously easy - I cut a square of cream felt to wrap around him like a jacket and made two slits for arm holes. The belt was one long piece of brown felt cut about 1.5'' thick.

The hat was another story. I hadn't touched a crochet project in at least five years and the prospect of reading a pattern - let alone figuring out how to single/double/half-double crochet again - was a little daunting.

Somewhere along the line I discovered Ravelry, an online community of crocheters and knitters where ideas, projects and patterns are shared. After signing up for a free account, I searched for "Yoda hat" and came across a few patterns that offered me a starting point. I picked out two - here and here - that had the look I was going for and didn't appear too complex.

I then sat down with the yarn, a 6.5mm crochet hook, my two patterns, the Crocheter's Companion (a good investment on my part years ago), said a little prayer for patience, and started crocheting.

After many failed attempts (my prayer for patience must have been answered), I ended up with a hat that I'm very happy with. It's a little big and certainly not perfect, but was a manageable project for a novice crocheter. I used elements of each pattern for the final result and made changes along the way as I remembered how to wield my crochet hook. Below is the 'bastardized' pattern that resulted, along with some instructions that I would have found helpful the first time around. I thank the ladies that wrote the original patterns for guiding me along the way!

Yoda Hat

Begin by making a magic loop (watch this YouTube video for a how-to)
Row 1: 10 dc (double crochet) in the magic loop. Join with 1 sl st (slip stitch) in the first dc.
Row 2. Ch 3. Increase by making a cl (cluster stitch) in every dc from the previous row.
Row 3. [1cl, 1dc] (this means repeat the pattern 1 cl, 1dc, 1 cl, 1dc, 1cl, 1dc, etc. for the entire row)
Row 4: [1 cl, 5dc] (same as above, repeat the pattern in the brackets for the entire row - 1cl, 5dc, 1cl, 5dc, etc.) 
Row 5: [dc] Repeat row 5 until the hat is large enough.

Yoda Ears
Start with an 8-10 inch tail for sewing ear onto cap.
1. Chain 16, dc in 2nd ch from hook and continue down the chain. Ch 3 & turn.
2. dc in each dc across, ch 3 and turn. Repeat this row so that you have a total of three rows that are all the same length.
3. On the fourth row, sctog (this means skip) the first 2 dc, dc to the 2nd from last dc.  Sctog the last 2 crochet, ch 3  & turn (this will make the end of your ears into a triangle shape - in a nutshell, you are reducing the length of the row by 2 on each side as the triangle narrows). Continue until the ear naturally completes as you get to the end of the triangle. 

Attaching the Ears

Using the 8-10 inch yarn tail you left when you started the ear, begin by sewing that through the very bottom of the ear and then pulling the yarn tight so that you 'gather' the ear - this will create the cone shape at bottom of the year. Tie off the yarn so that the ear stays in that cone shape.  At that point, simply place the ears on either side of the head and use the remaining yarn to sew onto the cap. Trim any long ends and sew into the cap. You're done!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Scones that even I can't screw up

In our home, Sunday morning always finds me in the kitchen with a cup of tea, enjoying the task of whipping up breakfast from whatever I can find in the pantry. Usually we end up with pancakes (the Lemon Pancakes from the Joy of Cooking are one of my all-time favorites), waffles, or crepes with fresh fruit. What do these recipes have in common? Well, for starters, they don't involve my oven.

The jury is still out as to whether it's my fault or the oven's fault that I can't bake, but suffice it to say that the last time I made a pie there was fire involved. However, in a flury of energy one Sunday morning, I decided I would throw caution to the wind (though not the fire extinguisher) and try my hand at scones.

Like pancakes or waffles, you probably have everything you need in your pantry and fridge to make a batch of scones. I came across the following recipe after Googling 'best scones' and I must admit, it lives up to the search criteria. I think the secret is the sour cream - well, I know so as I tried it once with yogurt and it just wasn't the same. You can make them your own by throwing in dried cranberries, grated lemon peel and poppy seeds, currants, or whatever suits your fancy!

Easy-Peasy Scones (adapted from this recipe)

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup white sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup dried currants, raisins, or cranberries
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup sour cream
1 egg
1 tablespoon milk

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).

Sift the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt into a large bowl. Cut in butter using a pastry blender or rubbing between your fingers until it is in pea sized lumps. (Or, use your food processor to mix in the butter. If its frozen, you'll need to use the blade. Make sure to pulse gently and not over mix.) Stir in the currants (or other addition). Mix together 1/2 cup milk and sour cream in a measuring cup. Pour all at once into the dry ingredients, and stir gently until well blended (or, pulse gently in food processor). Overworking the dough results in terrible scones!

With floured hands, pat scone dough into balls 2 to 3 inches across, depending on what size you want. Place onto a greased baking sheet, and flatten lightly. Let the scones barely touch each other. Whisk together the egg and 1 tablespoon of milk. Brush the tops of the scones with the egg wash. Let them rest for about 10 minutes.

Bake for 10 to 15 minutes in the preheated oven, until the tops are golden brown, not deep brown. Break each scone apart, or slice in half. Serve with butter or clotted cream and a selection of jams - or even plain.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Eating Well on the Cheap: Keeping a stocked freezer

Growing up in DC, when it came to freezers all I knew was the tiny excuse for a thing that lives in the fridge and collects half-eaten ice cream cartons. That's what I thought freezers were for - well, for that, Eggos and Toaster Strudel.

Then we moved to Napa, went to our first Junior Livestock Auction and ended up with 25+ lbs of meat from the butcher a few weeks later. After trying to origami it into our fridge's freezer (*not easy to do with frozen goods, just saying*), it became very clear that we were going to have to seriously upgrade our freezer space.

Enter into the picture our 9-cubic-feet baby humming out in the garage. While she was a little bit of an initial investment up front ($199 from Home Depot, you can also find freezers on Craigslist), she's paid for herself many times over in the three years that we've had her.

The beauty of having a ton of freezer space is that you can load up on good deals - especially when it comes to protein. For example, if Whole Foods is having a sale on free-range chicken breasts for 99 cents a pound, go a little crazy and buy 10-15 lbs (or more!). Separate your take into meal-size portions, get out your Ziploc freezer bags and go to town. (Hint: Vacuum sealing is a huge help when it comes to freezer burn - Ziploc sells a cheap manual version at Target that has served us very well.)

One of the keys to getting the most out of your freezer is knowing what's in it and 'shopping' from your freezer when you make your weekly meal plan. Sounds pretty simple and obvious, but not when the bottom of your freezer is hiding under a ham, a sea of ground beef, a whole chicken or two, bags of tomato soup, etc. I've tried to make a habit of doing a freezer list update every quarter or so, and taping it to the wall next to the freezer so we can mark off things as we take them out. This works really well until we get lazy - hence the quarterly list.

I just did our 'State of the Freezer' inventory and found us to be pretty well stocked. Our list is below - you can see why our fridge freezer was simply not cutting it anymore.

Country style sausage - 3
Ground pork - 1
Ham - 1
Pork chops - 1
Pork country style ribs - 2

Ground beef - 4
Flank steak - 1
Tri tip - 1
Beef liver - 1

Venison sausage - 10 (50% pork - quite shockingly delicious!)
Blackstrap - 1

Chicken breasts - 5 (the 99 cent deal at Whole Foods - what a steal!)
Whole chickens - 1

Lamb steaks - 2
Lamb chops - 2

Salmon - 7 (my husband went on a deep sea fishing trip - SO WORTH IT)
Trout - 3 (from a long-ago fishing trip...looking pretty shady...)

Tomato soup - 6 (4 from 2011 - must eat!)
Tomato sauce - 3 (from 2011 - ditto; FYI that I recommend canning sauce vs. freezing)
Bolongese sauce - 1
Fava bean pesto cubes
Pesto cubes
Pesto in Tupperware - 4
Chicken broth - 4

Other Protein
Meatballs - 1 bag
Wild ducks - 7 (these babies are collecting dust...)
Lamb bones for stock - 1

Butternut squash risotto - 1
Rangpur lime juice cubes (we use these for our weekly iced tea)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Book Review - Dinner: A Love Story

There's a first time for everything - I don't think I've ever read a cookbook from cover to cover, but I simply could not put down 'Dinner: A Love Story.' I even plan to buy a copy (my current one is from the library), and lord knows that speaks volumes.

I've never been much of a blog reader (I know, how ironic - due to lack of time, not interest), but I discovered the Dinner: A Love Story blog about two years ago and was immediately smitten. You know it's good when you've read just one post and find yourself willfully adding clutter to your email inbox with a subscription.

When I read that the author, Jenny Rosenstrach, was publishing a book based on her beloved blog, I knew I had to read it. Apparently, so did half of Napa County - it took nearly three months to receive the copy I requested at the library.

The wait was worth it as this book is a keeper. I'm not sure what I love more - the prose that reads like a laugh-out-loud memoir, or the recipes, all of which have been winners. One of our favorites thus far, undoubtedly due to it being tomato season, is the Lazy Bolognese. I whipped up a meatless version the other night to go with some frozen homemade meatballs and fettuccine, and my husband and I had trouble resisting licking our bowls.

I used Jenny's recipe as inspiration, and instead of using the tomato paste and can of diced tomatoes, cut up a few cups of fresh heirloom tomatoes from the garden. It was amazing, and I might add, lived up to its lazy title. This one will definitely find a permanent spot in the dinner schedule.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Cutting Back - Part Two (aka. my ode to Mint.com)

You know, it's pretty amazing what you can do when you put your mind to it, and I have to admit I'm even surprised that we've been able to live so well on so little since adjusting our budgets. Below are a few things we've done to change our spending habits - both large and small.

1. Savings Goals: When you're paying down debts like our student loans, your savings accounts are going to suffer a bit. However, once you get rid of those payments you'll be able to direct all of those funds back into your savings accounts and build those nest-eggs. We've continued our 10% into retirement (which is typically viewed as a bare minimum), but have pared back our other savings accounts to the basics (see next point...).

2. Continue saving for big fixed expenses: Put away a little each month for property taxes, home insurance, life insurance, car insurance, holiday gifts, home maintenance, car maintenance, etc. so that you're prepared when those large expenses hit.

3. Keep your savings goals - just adjust them: Have a slush fund account? An emergency fund (you should! At least enough to cover your fixed expenses for three to six months)? A 529? Don't stop funding these accounts entirely - just figure out what you can afford to put into them right now. $25 or $50 a month? Even just a little bit will make you feel like you're still making progress towards these goals.

4. Reduce your fixed expenses: You'd be surprised how much you can save when you make a few phone calls and decide to change your lifestyle in small ways. For instance, we've made the following changes -
  • We don't have cable. My husband put an antenna on the roof of the house for $25 a few years ago and that's all the TV we get. We've gotten to enjoy not having the TV on all the time. Yes, we do get Netflix, but if we needed to we would give that up and just get movies out of the library.
  • Call your car/home insurance companies and see how much you can cut back. I did so recently and cut nearly $300 off of our annual car insurance costs.
  • Line dry your clothes. Really. I cut nearly $30 off our power bill each month by not using the dryer.
  • Clip coupons. Not for everything, but for those items that you're going to need to buy anyway.
  • Cut your own hair. Or, at least, your husband's hair. Thank goodness I have a husband who's willing to let me experiment on his tresses (and who has one of the easiest haircuts ever)...and that saves us $15 a month.
  • This is one of those times in your life when you may have more time than money. For example, learn how to sew to save money on alterations. I hem my husband's pants and that saves us $20 a pop.
5. Make a budget and track what you spend (and save!). With websites like Mint.com it's easier than ever - and, better yet, free! You're not going to know how much you're paying each month for, say, groceries, until you start tracking it - and I dare say you'll be surprised. On the flip side, you'll be able to watch your savings accounts grow (even though it might be slowly!) and it will feel good to get closer to those goals.

6. Food. Ah yes, despite my penchant for cutting back I'm not about to give up our passion for good eats. I'm not going to mention the basics about forgoing your lattes (that's pretty obvious), but here are some tips for eating well on a budget.

  • What is a reasonable food budget? I could find just about nothing out there on specific numbers but for reference, we're spending about $300 a month, or $75 a week, to feed the three of us.
  • Meal planning. Seriously, this was a life changer for me. It was like suddenly everything came into focus when I realized that, with a little pre-planning, I could use our leftovers with purpose. For example, grilling a chicken on Sunday? Make chicken tacos on Monday, chicken salad on Tuesday, and use the final bits for a pizza on Wednesday. Use the chilis in Adobo sauce you bought for your tacos on Monday to add a little heat to your pizza sauce on Wednesday. Oh, and use that cilantro for the tacos on Monday to season your salad on Tuesday. Yep, it's fantastic and yes, I have a type A personality.
  • Dried beans. Learn to love them and learn to soak/cook them. In fact, learn to love everything in the bulk department at your grocer.
  • You can still do organic/Whole Foods. We shop at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's every week and manage to keep our weekly food bills less than $75. It can be done. See meal planning above.
  • Freeze. Buy things on sale (like chicken breasts) and freeze the extras. Make stock and freeze in batches. Make pesto and freeze in ice cube trays. Make a list of what you freeze so that you know what's in there. And, most importantly, use it.
  • Use meats sparingly. We are definitely not vegetarian (my husbands hunts), but at least half of our meals each week are meatless. The savings are seen not only in our food bill, but in our waistlines.
  • Garden. I'm lucky to have a husband that loves working with his hands and treats our garden like his man-cave. When we make up our dinner plans for the week I 'shop' in the garden first.
7. When you waver, remember why you're doing this. When I feel the need to go to World Market and purchase new curtains or pillows for the living room, I remember that I've given that up for the time being so that I can spend more time with my son. Talk about putting things in perspective. And, if I'm dead set on some project I want to do around the house, I head to Goodwill or a consignment shop to find inspiration at a fraction of the price.

These are just a few things that we've done to cut our spending by thousands every month - yes, thousands. It can be done and, honestly, I've found it to be quite enjoyable. I feel more in control of our spending then I ever have and I know that we're using our finances in a way that allows us to live the life we want to lead.

Cutting Back - Part One

I've always been of frugal mind, but becoming a Mom brought my natural inclination to the next level.

Having a kid helps you clarify things. My husband and I have always been savers, but seeing our finances through the lens of new parenthood made things all the more clear. For instance, when along the line had we decided that, unlike debts like credit card and car payments (which we detest), it was OK to hold onto student loan debt? Yes, there is an interest deduction for tax purposes, but, ah hem, given my husband's out of state tuition at the University of California (yes, the degree was worth it honey!), let's just say we were paying a whole lot more in interest than we were able to claim on our taxes. While we've been paying down these loans above and beyond the minimum payments for years, when our son was born all of a sudden we saw these loans for the burden that they are - monthly financial responsibilities keeping us from living on one income.

I absolutely loved the four months I spent with my son during my maternity leave and while I was at home I massaged our financial data to the point where we could have made it on one income - barely. As in, 'savings go-out-the-wazoo-and-we're-living-paycheck-to-paycheck' barely. The stickler? Those darn student loans.

We went through the whole stay-at-home Mom vs. working-Mom thing and were lucky to find a solution that presents the best of both worlds. Let's just say that I'm extremely blessed to work for an employer that was willing to work with me to find a part-time role that allows me to spend more time with my son while giving us the extra padding that we need to live without stressing about overdrafts.

And, I should add, a solution that helps us pay down those pesky student loans.

How, exactly, are we making do? After all, when you include the cost of childcare, I'm making less than 25% of what I was making previous to my maternity leave. (Ouch - it still hurts.) Plus, in an effort to prove that we can do it on one paycheck, we are living off my husband's salary and nearly 100% of what I make above and beyond childcare is going to student loan payments so we can finally rid ourselves of those debts.

Continued in Part Two...

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Real Food on a Budget - yes, even food from Whole Foods...

When I left work to go on maternity leave, we decided to cut back - way back - to see how it would be to live on one income. One of the budgets we slashed was our grocery budget, which we sliced by about a third to $300 a month, or $75 a week. At one point in my life $75 seemed like a lot of money. Now I know that $75 will buy you about one 8lb brisket at Whole Foods. Ouch.

Yes, we shop at Whole Foods and are not about to deprive ourselves by forgoing our addiction to good food. We've read too many books and watched too many movies (like Omnivore's Dilemma, Real Food, and Food, Inc., all of which I all highly recommend) about the state of the modern day food chain to go for the status quo when it comes to food - mainly in regards to CAFO meats and industrial produce. When we tell people we shop at Whole Foods I'm pretty sure they think that we're food snobs and spend a fortune...but that's definitely not the case (at least when it comes to the money part - as far as food snobs, well, call a spade a spade). It's all about planning out your purchases, limiting your protein and being able to say no to that delicious Gouda they are sampling at the cheese counter that is not on your list. But maybe next week it will be...

We now spend some time every Saturday morning planning our food for the week to make the most of our shopping trip and to make our food stretch as far as possible. A sample for this week -

Week of April 14

Sat - Salmon (from local fish monger) with wheat couscous and sautéed spinach from the garden
Sun - Lamb Steaks (from the freezer - a lamb we purchased at the local 4H auction) with mashed potatoes and salad
Mon - Asian chicken salad (minus the lo mein noddles to save some cash)
Tues - Chicken tostadas
Wed - Chicken Pasta (something thrown together with the final left over chicken and whatever we have left in the fridge, like cilantro, which we'd make into a pesto)
Thurs - Lentil Fritter Pitas
Fri - Freezer Meal (see what random Trader Joe's items are in the freezer, like fried rice or pot stickers)

As you'll notice, the key to many of these meals is chicken - we bought a chicken from Whole Foods and are grilling it up on Sunday night along with the lamb so that we can use the leftovers throughout the week. One of the main ways we cut back on spending was the fact that so many of the meals use similar ingredients, such as the chicken, or items that we already have at home left over from last week's meals like Greek yogurt or cilantro (we always take stock of what is in the fridge or freezer when getting inspiration for the week's meals). The grand total in spending for this week between Trader Joe's and Whole Foods was less than $60. Not too shabby!

Sunday, April 15, 2012


We are always looking for fun, inexpensive things to do, and yesterday headed to Cornerstone in Sonoma for Tomatomania - an heirloom tomato sale with more than 100 varieties. It was our first time to Cornerstone, and we were surprised to find this little gem right off the road on 121! There are art shops, winery tasting rooms and a market for lunch, but the crown jewel is the gardens. There are at least 20 or more garden art installations by different artists, making it a great place to go just to walk around.
We of course did hit up the tomato sale, although since my husband Matt has started more than 20 tomato plants, we only bought one - a type called Carbon that he's read about in many blogs, magazines, etc. It's supposed to have great flavor and do well in our coastal climate - I guess we will see!

The afternoon was beautiful and it was our first 'outing' with our son Will (notwithstanding weekly grocery trips, which have become quite the adventure now that we have a little one). He slept for most of the time, but we did get in a nice stroll through the gardens with him in daddy's arms.
Besides our $4 tomato plant, the afternoon was free! You don't get much better than that.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The great cloth diaper experiment

I never knew I'd be so excited about baby poop, but today's cloth diapers are something to behold.

Little engineering masterpieces, these poo containment devices are proof that there must be a diaper god. Many sport features like 'all-in-one' functionality (meaning they operate pretty much like regular diapers, notwithstanding the whole washing thing) or sizing options that reconfigure one diaper to serve from birth to potty training. And by golly, they are pretty darn cute to boot.

Researching which diaper to choose is akin to researching your next car purchase - there are countless brands and each one fits differently, has different features like Velcro or snaps, etc. Like cars, you don't really know what your'e going to get until after you purchase it...because its not like you can take these puppies out for a test drive. Well, at least that is what I thought until I discovered Jillian's Drawers.

Jillian's Drawers is a cloth diaper retail store in Ithaca, NY that also has an online store. I discovered them through an article on the Parenting Magazine website that referenced Jillian's Drawers as having a cloth diaper trial program for $10. I was shocked - how in the world is that possible when some diapers retail for $25 each or more? Well, I'm pleased to say the program does exist and I've been so incredibly impressed! I'm not asking questions - I'm just enjoying the fact that I can give these things a go without forgoing a ton of cash.

After the trial, I have to admit I'm in love with cloth diapers. They've sold me - hook, line and sinker. They're just so stinking (no pun intended...sorry, couldn't resist) easy - literally throw them in the wet bag (we use FuzziBunz), chuck in the washing machine (we use Tide original powder) and wash. Then line dry (or dry in the dryer on the low heat setting). That's it. Seriously.

After much consideration/testing/budgeting, here is our diaper stash:

Bum Genius: 2 rotating diapers for nighttime use with extra hemp liners for absorption. They never leak.
FuzziBunz: 18 for daytime use
Tots Bots Easy-Fit: 8 for daycare. The Velcro makes them so easy to use - just like a disposable! My daycare originally wasn't open to cloth diapers but when they saw these, they were on board.

While we have yet to experience cloth with, shall we say 'solids,' I'm hopeful that I'll be able to make it through that shift in the bum department with my love of cloth in tact. Only time will tell....

August update: We've been using cloth for four months now, and I'm still just as excited about these diapers as I was at the very beginning! They are holding up great. By now, we are close to net zero in our outlay of cost for the cloth diapers vs. disposable. From here on out, it's just gravy. Not to mention that they're better for our son and the environment. Have I mentioned I'm in love with these diapers?