Sunday, December 22, 2013

Easy, frugal and festive: Salt Dough Christmas Ornaments

With our son nearly two years old, this year we can really have fun with Christmas. Over the last month we've been learning about baby Jesus, taking photos with Santa Claus, baking Christmas cookies, singing Christmas carols, and dancing like crazy to Mannheim Steamroller. Hey, don't judge. I blame my parents.

At what seemed like the last minute - about a week before Christmas - I decided I wanted to make Christmas ornaments with William. He's at the age where he can appreciate crafts, if with a very, very short attention span. Given that I was already in the midst of umpteen Christmas projects - per the usual, biting off too much for the season - I wanted to find something that was easy. No rushing to the craft store for supplies, no cutting 100 pieces of felt, no glitter to clean up - you get the idea.

Enter salt dough Christmas ornaments. You know - those crumbling things on your parents' Christmas tree that you made when you were two. I had just about all of the ingredients/supplies I needed in the house and the instructions were super simple. We could make one for us and at the same time do one for the grandparents, aunts, uncles - perfect! What's better, with a few extra steps I could (hopefully) strengthen the ornaments so that, twenty years from now, they're not crumbling as well.

Whether you're looking for a last minute kid-friendly Christmas ornament project or just something fun to do over the holiday break, you can't go wrong with these simple crafts. Below are instructions on how to get started.

Merry Christmas!


Salt Dough Christmas Ornaments 
Recipe will make 6-8 ornaments

1 cup flour
1/2 cup salt (I used kosher because it's all I had on hand - wouldn't recommend, but it still worked)
1/2 cup water
Cookie Cutters
Paint (acrylic or water-based, though acrylic should hold up better over time)
Paintbrushes (or fingers for water-based paint)
Optional (to strengthen/seal the ornaments): Gesso and Gel Medium 

1. Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
2. Mix the flour, salt and water together and work into a dough. Knead the dough on a floured surface until it becomes smooth. It should not be sticking to your hands - if so, add more flour.
3. To make your ornaments, you can either roll it out as a cookie dough and use cookie cutters, or roll little freehand circles or other shapes. You could even do a handprint or footprint. You want the end result to be about 1/4 inch think. Have fun here and get your child involved!

4. Use a straw to make a hole at the top of each ornament.
5. Put onto an ungreased cookie sheet and bake for two hours.
6. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
7. If using the gesso (which is basically a primer that will turn your ornaments white), apply this now. I timed the project so I could put the gesso on the ornaments while William was napping. It dries very quickly.

8. Get out paint and paintbrushes for your child and let them go crazy!
9. When the paint is dry, if you would like to seal your ornaments and make them shiny, apply a few thin coats of a glossy gel medium.
10. Thread ribbon through the hole.
11. Hang on the tree with your little one! 

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Napa Valley Frugal Daytrip: Bale Grist Mill

Though we've lived in the Napa Valley for over five years, it wasn't until last weekend that we finally visited the Bale Grist Mill.

What a hidden gem! Located between St. Helena and Calistoga, the Bale Grist Mill was originally built in 1846 by Dr. Edward T. Bale. When, only four years later, he passed away at the early age of 38, his wife took over mill operations and made improvements that brought it to its current state. She oversaw the addition of a 36-foot wheel (an upgrade from the previous 20-footer) and a new conveyor system that enhanced the Mill's productivity. The mechanics of the Mill, still in operation today, are a sight to behold.

Our visit to the Mill started with a comprehensive tour and demonstration of grinding corn into cornmeal. It was simply incredible to see the system of gears, pulleys, sifters, grindstones, etc. developed in the 1850s to produce what we now take for granted - flour.

The Mill is open on weekends from 10am to 4pm (call Bothe State Park at (707) 942-4575 to confirm, as due to California budget cuts it is currently run by volunteers). Entrance to the Mill and the surrounding grounds, which includes a tour and demonstration, is $5 for each adult, $2 for children age six to eighteen, and free for children under five. We made a day of it by packing a lunch and enjoying shaded picnic tables.

In the fall, the Bale Grist Mill hosts "Old Mill Days," a family-friendly pioneer celebration with music and history re-enactments. Kids can make their own corn husk dolls, learn to write in calligraphy, press apple juice, and - my favorite - wash clothes by hand. We will definitely be back next October to join in the fun!

The best souvenir from the Mill? Freshly ground grain available for $5 a bag (each approximately 1 pound). Visitors can choose from whole wheat flour, spelt, buckwheat, rye, cornmeal, or polenta.

Though each bag is clearly marked "not for human consumption," we threw caution to the wind when my husband baked the potentially lethal - yet quite delicious - loaf of bread below. We obviously survived to tell the story. (The warning is due to a misguided California regulation that classifies the Mill as a restaurant, which it clearly is not. There is a bill pending before the State Assembly to rectify the issue.)

We enjoyed the Mill's bounty with a butternut squash soup sourced from our garden, making the meal perhaps the most farm-to-table dinner that has graced our table.



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Monday, October 7, 2013

Bye-bye student loans: How we paid off $50K in one year

A few weeks ago, we made our final student loan payment. In just over a year, we had paid off more than $50,000 in student debt. As in, a home downpayment. A luxury car. A start to a new business. Or, ahem, a UC system education. (Well worth the investment, but pricey nonetheless.)

Was it easy? Heck no. We don't make six-figure salaries and live in Napa, CA where the cost-of-living - the median price of a home is currently $450,000 - is one of the highest in the country. As new parents we have new financial responsibilities, including childcare to the tune of a monthly mortgage payment. Moreover, I recently started working part-time vs. a previously full-time schedule. In a nutshell, some might think us crazy to tackle $50K of debt in a year. They may just be right.

But tackle it we did - with plenty of blood, sweat and, well, not all that many tears. It was us vs. Sallie Mae/Citibank/Federal Direct Loans and, by golly, we squashed them. It was as if we won the Super Bowl and the trophy was being debt free. I'll take that over a ring any day.

Though there were lots of beans for dinner, no cable TV, no flashy cars, no expensive nights out on the town, and no style updates to the wardrobe (ouch - that last one hurt), quite frankly it was empowering to know we could do it. It was one of the best life lessons I've had and, while I certainly don't recommend going into debt to learn the value of money, I think I'm a better person - and will be a better parent - for it.

Here are some tips on how you can squash your debts too:

  • Be a team: If you're in a relationship, you and your partner need to be in this together. Eating beans once a week wouldn't have flown if my husband wasn't equally invested in obliterating our loans. There will be times you need to cheer each other on and agree that, yep, you can go without pricey Christmas gifts this year. As with any challenge in life, paying off a large debt as a united front will strengthen your relationship.
  • Make a budget and stick to it: If you don't have a budget, tackling debt is pretty much impossible. The first thing you need to know is how much you're currently spending. is an excellent tool for this. Once you have an accounting for a month or two, look at where your money is going and decide how you should be spending (e.g. you discover your wardrobe is costing you more than your groceries).  At that point, say you you want to find an extra $500 to put toward your loans. Look at each bucket of your expenses (food, clothing, savings, etc.) and trim where you are able. Then, each month, check-in on your expenses weekly to make sure that you're not going over budget. If you are, stop spending. "Shop" from your pantry. Turn away from the tempting cute shoes. Block from your computer. Walk to the store rather than drive. Do whatever it takes to live without dipping into your bank account. (What are reasonable budgets? As two examples, we manage to live on $300 a month for groceries and $50 a month for restaurants. Not easy, but doable.)
  • Make it your number one financial priority besides retirement: Experts recommend contributing a minimum of 10% of gross income toward retirement. While we continued to do so while paying off our loans, we cut way back on our other savings goals, like buying a new house. (I should mention that before we embarked on this quest, we worked hard to build up an emergency fund. Knowing we had that cushion gave us the freedom to put our savings on hold without feeling like we were unprepared if one if us lost our job, etc.)
  • Take stock of your assets: The first thing we did when faced with $50K remaining in student loans was take a look at our financial assets and decide if we were using them wisely. For example, we had some money in stocks, a gift from our wedding, that was not allocated toward any immediate goal. We decided to sell a portion and use that to take a chunk off the top of that $50K. It was a nice mental boost that made us feel we were making immediate progress toward our goal. While that may not be the right decision, or even an option, for everyone, think about what you do have that could get you closer to your goal. It might be a car that you're making payments on (buy a used car that fits your budget instead and reallocate the monthly payments to your loan). Or an entertainment center you don't really need. Or jewelry that you never wear. Whatever it is, you can do without it (really, you can!) until you reach your goal. Sell it and put the money toward your debt. (Don't have anything that comes to mind? That's OK too - if we hadn't done this, it would have taken us closer to two years vs. one to pay off our loans.)
  • Pay attention to interest rates: Start paying off your debt with the loans that have the highest interest rates. For example, put an extra $500 a month towards the loan with the 8% vs. the 5% rate. Once you pay off the 8% loan, move on the 5% loan (with both that extra $500 and what you were spending on monthly premiums for the 8%  loan), and so on until you're done. 
  • Cut your fixed expenses: Look at all of your fixed expenses - groceries, phone bills, power bills, mortgage payments, etc. - and think about how you can cut back. For example, I called AT&T and got a $10 credit toward each bill for the year. Or, on a larger scale, I called our county property assessor and had our home reassessed. We were able to knock more than $1,000 off our property taxes. Other examples? We refinanced our house, reduced our power bill by being smart about energy use, and cut our monthly DSL expenses from $35 to $20 by changing our provider.
  • Save for fixed expenses: Don't get caught off-guard with a car insurance payment or any other large expense that you know is coming. Divide your annual payments by twelve and save that amount each month.
  • Extra money? Put it towards the loan: Get an annual bonus? Take $100 off the top to get yourself something special and put the rest toward the loan. Yes, all of it.
  • The little stuff counts: That bag of clothes with the tags still on that you'll never wear? Return it. The fishing equipment you got for your birthday that - let's be real - you'll never use? Sell it on eBay. All those little things add up for big savings.
  • Count your pennies: One easy way to do this? Check your receipts. I can't tell you how many overcharges I've caught on grocery bills - at least one mistake a month.
  • Extra paychecks: If you get paid bi-weekly, two months out of the year you will get three paychecks. As you're already used to living off of two monthly paychecks, find out when you'll see the extra ones and note on your calendar to put them toward the loan. 
  • Dual income family? Try living on one income:  If both you and your partner work, try living off of the larger income and put all of the second toward your loan.
  • Give of your time vs. your money: This is a time in you're life when you're not going to have the financial resources to give large gifts to family members or significant donations to charities. That's OK. What you do have is the gift of your time. Volunteer for the causes that are important to you. Make Christmas gifts for your family vs. buying them. Oftentimes, those are the gifts that mean the most.
  • Make due: Much of what got us through the last year was a mindset that unless we really needed something, we were not going to buy it. Besides saving money, this is a great way to recalibrate your complete way of life. By making due with what you have, you will forever shift your priorities, better manage your resources, and be able to focus on what brings you true fulfillment. (I highly recommend the book Your Money or Your Life for those who want to dive deeper into these principles). 

While we present an extreme case for paying off debt (see above-noted craziness for tackling $50K in a year), I hope that our story inspires others to think creatively about how to become debt-free. It may take a year, or five, or ten, or more - but for those committed to whittling down expenses and putting every extra dollar toward their loans, it will happen. In the long term, the money saved in interest payments and the financial freedom gained will be well worth the effort.

The last year wasn't the easiest year of my life, but I can easily say it was one of the best years. It challenged me to focus on what is important - family, friends, and a healthy, positive outlook - and leave behind concerns about status and "Keeping up with the Joneses." I learned that true happiness doesn't come from how much money you have (or spend), but from the relationships you build, the goals you set for yourself, and a glass-half-full approach to life. I learned to be thankful for what we have and not to focus on what we don't.

And, I have to say the payoff was great. Pun definitely intended.

What have you learned by tackling debt or living a frugal lifestyle?



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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Dad's $75 weekly meal plan

Last weekend my husband gifted me a Mom's afternoon out and took over meal planning and grocery shopping for the week. I got a mani/pedi (his treat!) while he combed my dinner diary for recipes and took our toddler shopping at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. 

Pinch me? I could get used to this.

Besides being pampered for a few hours, reading three back issues of Sunset Magazine, and returning home to find two happy boys, perhaps the best part of my day was seeing the delicious meal plan my husband put together while I was out. Not only that, but his shopping trip totaled only $48 which, when added to the $15 spent at the farmer's market/grocery the previous day, kept us below our $75 a week grocery budget. (Note: Our total $75 grocery budget does include breakfasts, lunches, snacks and kid-friendly staples. As far as planning goes, we focus on dinner as that is the main meal we prepare each day, and our lunches are nearly always leftovers.)

As with each of our weekly meal plans, he took into account what we already had in the fridge, garden and freezer, substituted (or omitted) ingredients in recipes, stayed away from processed foods, and stuck to his list when he went to the store. While your family may not be able to match our exact spending given what you already have on hand, the meal plan below is budget-friendly, reuses ingredients, and takes advantage of fruits/veggies that are in season (and thus less expensive). To help you see how we cut corners and saved money, I inserted notes on how we prepared each meal.

Have your own meal plan tips? Please share them in the comments!



Matt's Awesome Meal Plan

Saturday: Burgers with Kale Chips 
  • The grass-fed ground beef for the burgers came from my husband's winery. Don't have your own free beef from work? (Really, who does?) Buy it on sale and stock your freezer. We get the kale from our garden, but you can find a bunch of it at the grocery store for $1.50 or less. If you have kids, I bet you can get them to try these delicious and crunchy kale chips. Our toddler loves them.
Sunday: Salmon Tacos with Carrot & Cabbage Slaw
  • This recipe is for white fish tacos, but we like to spice it up with salmon. We buy 1/2 lb of fish for our family of three and make it work by having plenty of veggie toppings. Other ways we keep this recipe cheap: skip the jicima and red cabbage (just do green), and if you don't have all of the spices for the fish rub, no biggie. We often just do chili powder.
Monday: Grilled Whole Chicken w/Tomato Cucumber Salad
  • We stock up on chickens when they are on sale (like this week) and put them in the freezer. Tomatoes and cucumbers are in season so if you don't have them in your garden like we do, you can find good deals at your grocer or farmer's market.
Tuesday: Chicken and Black Bean Tostadas
  • Use leftover dark meat from the grilled chicken for these yummy toastadas. Also plan to reuse a lot of ingredients from the salmon tacos: tortillas, chilies in Adobo sauce, sour cream, limes, and cabbage. We also save by not including the radishes, and keeping our pantry stocked with black beans we bought on sale.
Wednesday: Chicken BLTs and Side Salad
  • Use the leftover white meat for these yummy BLTs and whatever bread you have on hand. Save any remaining bacon for a leisurely weekend breakfast. For the side salad, be creative with whatever you have on hand. For us this week? Let me guess...tomatoes and cucumbers...
Thursday: Zucchini Baba Ganoush with Fresh Vegetables
  • This has become our go-to recipe this summer - it's delicious, easy and healthy. You will need to invest in Tahini paste the first time you make this, but it keeps well and can be used to make other great frugal dishes like homemade hummus. I've also found that I can use half the amount of Tahini called for in this recipe and the result is even - if not more - delicious. Zucchini is in season and if you ask around, you may find a friend who would beg you to take some off their hands. We serve our Baba Ganoush with Mediterranean flatbread from Trader Joe's (or leftover tortillas), sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions. Notice a veggie theme this week?
Friday: Margarita Pizza with (shocker) Tomato Cucumber Salad
  • I love pizza nights because I can almost do the cooking with my eyes closed. We buy pizza dough and a huge hunk of mozzerella (you always save when you buy ungrated cheese) from Trader Joe's, and use tomato sauce that we canned last year. If we have leftover veggies or meat from the week, onto the pizza they go.
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Monday, August 5, 2013

A Napa Valley Peach Harvest

Biting into a ripe, juicy peach - the kind where the juice runs down your hand and drips off your elbow - means summer has officially arrived.

This year, that moment occurred for our family in early July when we arrived home from vacation to find our peach tree so laden with fruit that branches were laying on the ground. After four years, our tree had finally decided it was going to bear fruit. And bear fruit it did. Bushels and bushels of it.

It would be a conservative estimate to say we picked 100 peaches over the course of the next two weeks (nonwithstanding the countless number that fell to the ground). We ate peaches for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We gave them to friends. I think our 18-month old son lived on peaches alone for days on end (to his glee, I might add). And yet this barely made a dent in the pile of fresh fruit blanketing our patio table.

It was time to get to work.

As a child I spent a lot of time in Ohio, visiting my grandparents' farm. I always loved peeking into their root cellar to see canned fruits and vegetables neatly lined up along the shelves. The colorful rainbow that the jars made - red tomatoes, green beans, pink rhubarb, orange peaches - captured the essence of summer.

While our idea of preserving food is much different that my grandmother's - she canned/froze to feed a family of nine and we do so for three - when I'm in the kitchen in the heat of a summer afternoon with a big pot of water boiling on the stovetop, freshly sanitized jars on the counter and something delicious and bubbling ready to fill them (say, peach salsa), I like to think that she would be proud.

In preserving this year's peach harvest we canned, froze, dehydrated and baked. Have your own bushel of peaches? I hope you find some inspiration below.

Peach Salsa

Courtesy of the Ball Book of Complete Home Preserving

Note: If you haven't canned before, I highly recommend taking the Ball Book of Complete Home Preserving out from the library to read about the process, or visit their website for more information. When canning, it is extremely important for food safety to follow the recipe to a tee as you want an appropriate balance of acid, salt and sugar.

Makes about eight 8-ounce jars

1/2 cup white vinegar
6 cups chopped, pitted and peeled peaches 
1 1/4 cups chopped red onion
4 jalepeno peppers, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1/2 cup loosely packed finely chopped cilantro
2 tbsp honey
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

1. Prepare canner, jars and lids.
2. In a large stainless steel saucepan, combine vinegar and peaches (to prevent the peaches from browning, put the vinegar into the pot first and as you cut the peaches, add them to the vinegar and stir). Add onion, jalapeno, red pepper, cilantro, honey, garlic, cumin and cayenne. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and boil gently, stirring frequently, until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat.
3. Ladle hot salsa into hot jars, leaving 1/2 inch (1 cm) headspace. Remove air bubbles and adjust headspace, if necessary, by adding hot salsa. Wipe rim. Center lid on jar. Screw band down until resistance is met, then increase to fingertip-tight.
4. Place jars in canner, ensuring they are completely covered with water. Bring to a boil and process for 15 minutes. Remove canner lid. Wait 5 minutes, then remove jars, cool and store.

Spiced Peach Jam

Courtesy of Preserving the Harvest, by Carol W. Costenbader

Makes five 1/2 pints

4 pounds (about 8 large) peaches, peeled, pitted and chopped
5 cups sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. Place all ingredients in a heavy 8-quart saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, to dissolve the sugar.
2. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, and boil until the mixture reaches 220 F on a cooking thermometer.
3. Ladle into sterile jars, allowing 1/4 inch of headspace. Cap and seal.
4. Process for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath canner.

Fruit Leather

Pit your peaches and place them in a food processor or blender. Blend until smooth. If using a dehydrator, follow the manufacturer's instructions. If using your oven, pour the puree onto a rimmed cookie sheet lined with plastic wrap or freezer paper. The puree should be about 1/8 - 1/4 of an inch think (the thinner the fruit leather, the less time it will take to dry). Place in a 135 degree oven for 8-10 hours. Set the door ajar with a spoon handle to maintain the low temperature and allow for moisture to escape.

Peach Cobbler

This summer I discovered a recipe for the best, easiest, you-probably-already-have-the-ingredients-on-hand peach cobbler. Per the usual, it came from one of my favorite blogs: Dinner, a love story. I made this cobbler at least four times with our fresh peaches and every time it came out perfect.  

Frozen Peaches

Peaches should be wet packed, meaning they should be frozen in liquid. This year I froze our peaches in a 'honey pack,' a syrup made of 1 cup mild honey and 4 cups water. You can also use a 'sugar pack' - just substitute the sugar for the honey.

To make your syrup, heat the sweetener and water to a boil in a large stockpot. Let the syrup cool completely. Add 1-2 tablespoons of lemon juice to your syrup to keep your peaches from darkening.

You can freeze peaches with or without the skins, either in slices or halves. As this was our first year freezing peaches I tried freezing them every which way so that next year I'll know what works best.

Add your sliced/halved peaches to your freezer container of choice (you can use plastic containers or glass canning jars). Use the syrup to cover the peaches, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace in pint size containers and 1 inch of headspace for quarts.

Place in the freezer and add to your freezer list.

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Monday, July 15, 2013

Meal Planning: How we eat well on a $75 weekly budget

As a total foodie and someone who loves planning (the word spontaneous is not in my vocabulary, much to my husband's chagrin) I'm not sure what took me so long to put two and two together, but suffice it to say that when I discovered the concept of meal planning my life was forever changed.

Yes, seriously. And whether or not you are also a type A personality, I bet it will change your life - or at least the way you eat - too.

It wasn't until our son was born and we slashed our grocery budget to $75 a week ($300 a month) that the thought of planning our family's meals even occurred to me. Until then I thought that it was normal to go to the grocery store and ask the aisles for inspiration. Or to find new tasty recipes and buy every "necessary" ingredient. Or to not have a monthly grocery budget at all (though that's a topic for another post).

In all honesty, this was not a lightning bolt idea that hit me one day. It was inspired by reading the cookbook Dinner: A love story (one of my all-time favorite books). The author writes of keeping a diary of her family's meals to get organized for each week and to remember favorite recipes. I immediately knew I had to start my own dinner diary and upped the ante - planning our meals to make the most of each ingredient and cut our expenses.

Let me tell you, it works. Not only are we able to stick to our grocery budget, but it's so nice to come home from work and know what I'm making for dinner that night. It also helps me maximize resources - our food, our money, and perhaps most importantly, our time together at dinner as a family.

Here are some tips on how to get started with your own meal planning.

1. Create a record: Buy a small notebook to keep track of your meals. On each line, write the date and what you had (or will have) for dinner that night. So simple to do and so nice to revisit to get inspiration for future meal plans.

2. Plan: Set aside 20 minutes each week (I do this on Saturdays) to brainstorm meals for the week. I pull out my favorite cookbooks, my binder of recipes from magazines, and my computer so that I can look up recipes online. Start by making note of any nights that you will not need to make dinner (going out, off to a friend's house, etc.), and then fill in the blanks based on the tips below.

3. Shop first from your pantry, fridge, garden and freezer: The first thing you want to know is what you already have on hand. I begin by going through the fridge to see what is leftover from the previous week - especially perishable items -  that can still be used. For example, left over sausage and spinach can be transformed into a delicious pizza. Do the same for your garden (what is fresh that needs to be picked?), freezer and pantry. I find this especially helpful when, sometimes at the end of the month, we need to stretch our budget and keep grocery shopping to a minimum.

4. Pick one protein: Meat is expensive and, though my husband and I are a far cry from vegetarians, we try to limit it in our diet from both a health and a cost-conscious perspective. On a typical week we pick one protein - for example, chicken - and cook with that ingredient throughout the week. Night one might be a roast chicken, night two is an Asian chicken salad (with leftovers), night three is chicken and arugula pitas (again with leftovers), and night four is a butternut squash soup made with chicken broth from the carcass. 

5. Pick recipes that reuse ingredients: As with protein, make the most of everything you buy by finding recipes that reuse leftover food throughout the week. If you're buying arugula for chicken pitas, plan an arugula salad the following night or make an arugula pesto pasta.

6. Substitute in recipes: Have a recipe that calls for parsley or basil but all you have is cilantro? Use the cilantro. Need sour cream for your tacos? How about the plain yogurt already in the fridge. You'd be surprised just how much you can chop your shopping list by thinking ahead and substituting ingredients and trust me - your dinner will be just as delicious.

7. Stay away from prepared/processed foods: We've all heard the old adage to shop the perimeter of the grocery store - produce, proteins, and dairy - and stay away from the aisles upon aisles of processed foods in the middle. This practice is good for your waistline and your pocketbook. The average number of items in a supermarket now tops 50,000 (90% of them, I bet, made from corn). Wow. Something tells me that the goal isn't to offer you more selection, but to get you to buy more stuff.

8. Make your shopping list: I start my shopping list as I begin the planning process so I can see what ingredients I'll need to work into multiple meals.  

9. Do a final check: Go through your list and double-check to make sure you don't already have ingredients on hand. 

10. Shop around:
Especially when it comes to staples, it pays to find the stores in your town with the best deal. For example, we buy our oats from Target, almonds from Trader Joe's, and coconut oil from Whole Foods (yep, they have the best price). Though it takes extra time, check weekly sales flyers for specials - this is a great way to get inspiration for your weekly meal plan.

11. Stick to the list and don't shop mid-week: When you go to the store only buy items on your list. Obvious? Yes. Hard? Oh my, yes. But at this point you don't want to sabotage your hard work by putting that frozen pizza they're sampling at Trader Joe's in your cart. Also, if you find mid-week that you need to run to the store, first ask yourself if you really need that ingredient. Is your soup begging for bread or would a quesadilla made with items you already have suffice? More often that not, you'll find you can make due.

To get you started, below is one of our recent meal plans. When putting this together I took stock of what was already in our fridge/pantry/freezer, which allowed me to keep within our $75 a week grocery budget.

Saturday: Yogurt Marinated Grilled Chicken & Salad
Sunday: Chicken BLTs
Monday: Pesto (from the freezer) Pasta  & Salad
Tuesday: Chicken, Apple and Black Bean Salad
Wednesday: Sweet Potato & Black Bean Burritos
Thursday: Spiced Red Lentils with Onions and Spinach & Brussel Sprouts
Friday: Homemade Margarita Pizza & Brussel Sprouts

In the spirit of sharing meal plan inspiration with fellow frugal mamas (and dads), every few weeks I will post one up to the blog.

How do you organize your family's meals - do you have any favorite tips/meal plans/recipes? Please share in the comments!



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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Have a fun & frugal Father's Day

Happy Father's Day to all of the dads out there - including my incredible husband!

In celebrating holidays, our family has found that we don't need to spend a lot of money on gifts to communicate how much we care for one another. In fact, I've discovered that the less money we spend, the more creative and thoughtful we are in our gift giving.

This year for Father's Day, Will and I did a little "I love Dad" photo shoot in our backyard with some sidewalk chalk. (If there are any procrastinators out there, this idea is both frugal and a good last-minute gift idea.) It doesn't need to be perfect - just have fun!

On Father's Day we're going to let Dad sleep in, have a lazy breakfast with Eggs Benedict (Dad's favorite), present him with our gifts and let him put his feet up for the rest of the day. Unless, of course, he'd rather spend his "day off" working in the garden - we frugal folk aren't good at sitting still for long.

What are some of your favorite frugal Father's Day crafts or gifts?

Cheers to dads!


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Better than Belgian: Restaurant-style waffles at home

I am a sucker for waffles. If there is a Belgian waffle on a breakfast menu, my order is a foregone conclusion. While I've tried to imitate restaurants' crisp, buttery waffles at home, my attempts have always fallen short.

That is, until I discovered the secret ingredient - yeast. Now, if you're like me, the mere mention of 'yeast' may have you backing away from the computer. Lord knows I've cursed many a hockey puck roll. Well this recipe, my friend, is easy as pie. Make that way easier than pie.

Step one is having yeast readily available, and I don't mean in tiny packets collecting dust at the back of your cabinet. Due to my husband’s recent interest in baking as a hobby (one that, needless to say, I do everything in my power to encourage), we discovered that you can buy one pound bags of yeast on Amazon for around $8. That beats the pants off the $4 you pay in the grocery store for just three ¼ oz packets. When stored in the freezer in a Ziploc bag, your pound of yeast will stay fresh for a few years meaning that a) you can whip up tasty baked goods at a moment’s notice and b) you can no longer blame failed recipes on old yeast. Darn. 

Step two is deciding you want waffles for breakfast on Friday night vs. Saturday morning. With this recipe, you start the mix before you go to bed, and when you wake up the next morning the batter is bubbly and nearly ready to go on the waffle iron. Bonus? Fewer dishes to clean up after your tasty breakfast.


Overnight Waffles
Courtesy of Mark Bittman, How to Cook Everything

1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups milk
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, melted and cooled (I use less - about 4-5 tablespoons)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Canola or other neutral oil for brushing the waffle iron
2 eggs

Before going to bed, combine the dry ingredients and stir in the milk, then the butter and vanilla. The mixture will be loose. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside overnight at room temperature.

Brush the waffle iron lightly with oil and preheat it. Separate the eggs and stir the yolks into the batter. Beat the whites until they hold soft peaks. Stir them gently into the batter.

Spread a ladleful or so of batter onto the waffle iron and bake until the waffle is done, usually 3-5 minutes, depending upon your iron. Serve immediately or keep warm for a few minutes in a low oven. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Frugal eats in Napa

Whether you live in the Napa Valley or are planning a visit, it is possible to enjoy some of the best eats that Napa has to offer on a budget. My fellow frugal-minded folk will know I'm not talking about stretching your dollar at The French Laundry (though read on for an affordable way that even a penny pincher like me can enjoy Thomas Keller's food). I'm talking about family and budget-friendly restaurants that will excite your tastebuds and your wallet.

In my recent post about how to spend $50 or less a month on restaurants, I write about how to make the most of your money while eating out. For locals and visitors, here I write about where. Below are some of our favorite spots to dine out in and around Napa.


Buttercream Bakery
(707) 255-6700
2297 Jefferson St  Napa, CA
Table Service
Corkage: N/A
From it's pink and white striped exterior to its tasty cakes and I-can-die-now-that-I've-inhaled-this chicken fried steak, it's not hard to see why this local favorite has stood the test of time. Buttercream Bakery opened in Napa in 1948 and has been whipping up baked goods and delicious classic diner breakfasts ever since. 
Model Bakery
(707) 259-1128
644 1st St, Napa, CA
Counter Service
Corkage: N/A
We're on a mission to steal the secrets of the Model Bakery bakers. While certainly not the cheapest place in town to buy your bread, there are two great deals at Model that make it deserving of a place on this list: 1) each day the bakery has a 'Bread of the Day' for 50% off and 2) you can buy day-old pizza, breads and croissants for 50% off while they last.

Fremont Diner 
(707) 938-7370
2660 Fremont Dr, Sonoma, CA
Table Service
Corkage: N/A  
Though a little bit outside of town and the most pricey of these three breakfast options (you'll be in good shape if you spend about $40-$50 with tip on breakfast for two), Fremont Diner is on this list because it is just so darn good. Period. The chefs source most ingredients from the restaurant's farm and do cool things like make their own sausage.


Oxbow Public Market
644 1st St  Napa, CA
Corkage: Bring your own bottle and glasses - you can enjoy your own wine at any of the public tables.
'The Oxbow,' as locals call it, is hands-down our favorite place to go for dinner in Napa. Set up like a public market, it is kid and budget friendly. Local purveyors include the Cheese & Wine Merchant, Ca' Momi Pizzeria (which, while not cheap - pizzas are $15 and up - is delicious), Three Twins Ice Cream (try the Cardemon), Kara's Cupcakes and, my personal favorite, C Casa, a unique taqueria that offers kick-ass tacos, nachos, and sides unlike any Mexican food you've ever had before.
(707) 944-2487
6476 Washington Street, Yountville, CA
Counter Service
Corkage: None. Bring your own glasses and corkscrew.
You too can enjoy Thomas Keller's five-star food without mortgaging your house. Known primarily for his restaurant The French Laundry, Mr. Keller makes his crispy, juicy - dare I say perfect - buttermilk fried chicken available to all walks of life via Addendum, a small 'shack' in Yountville which offers fried chicken and BBQ lunches on Thursday, Friday and Saturday (which include three pieces of chicken or BBQ, cornbread and a side) for $16.50. While that may sound pricey, consider that dinner at The French Laundry for two, with wine and tip, will set you back nearly $1,000. Call ahead with your order. If it's a nice day, enjoy your tasty meal at the quiet picnic tables and garden.

Gott's Roadside Tray Gourmet
(707) 224-6900
644 1st St  Napa, CA
Counter Service
Corkage: None 
I have never been to Gott's (which is next to the Oxbow Public Market - they also have a location in St. Helena) and been disappointed. I have, however, been surprised by the bill (when did $8-$10 burgers become the norm?). When we go, it's almost always on Local's Night (Tuesdays) when cheeseburgers and pints are half price. For less than $20, you can get two burgers, two beers, and fries. That, in this town, is a steal.

Sushi Mambo
(707) 257-6604
1202 1st St  Napa, CA
Table Service
Corkage: No fee on the first bottle; $10 on each additional
Craving sushi? Sushi Mambo has an awesome happy hour - from 4-6pm sushi rolls (and beers) are buy one get one half off. Make sure you mention to your waiter that you're there for happy hour pricing. 

La Taquiza
(707) 224-2320
2007 Redwood Road, Napa, CA
Counter Service
Corkage: None
You haven't had fish tacos until you've been to LaTaquiza. My favorites are the shrimp tacos - the shrimp are plump and juicy and the sauce the perfect blend of spicy and sweet with a hint of lime. My husband loves the pulpo (octopus) tacos. It's the only place I've ever had pulpo and not only did I eat it, I liked it.

Heritage Eats
(707) 226-3287
3824 Bel Aire Plaza  Napa, CA
Counter Service
Corkage: None
Tucked away in the Bel Aire shopping center next to Whole Foods, Heritage Eats is one of those gems where meals are consistently good. Owned by locals, the restaurant offers Chipotle-style counter service with a wide array of ethic foods - from Vietnamese to Indian to Mexican and beyond. Try the Thai Boa, though you won't be disappointed with anything on the menu.

Small World Cafe
(707) 224-7743
932 Coombs Street, Napa, CA
Counter Service 

We recently discovered this gem when we were in the mood for some budget-friendly vegetarian food (though rest assured that Small World Cafe offers plenty of carnivore-inspired dishes as well). After feasting on the Falafel & Baba Ganoush platters, with a little and Baklava for desert (how could we not at only $1.40 a piece?), we were back within the week to introduce a friend to some of the best, freshest fare that we've found in the Napa Valley.

Did I miss your favorite "cheap eat" in Napa? We are always looking for new spots to try - please share your recommendations!



Monday, April 1, 2013

How we spend $50 or less each month at restaurants

For our family, living a frugal life means stretching each dollar as far as it can go. What it doesn't mean is sacrificing our quality of life. When it comes to eating out, we, like any family, sometimes need a break from the kitchen. Whether it be for a change of pace or to fulfill a craving - or simply to avoid doing dishes - going out to eat is a treat that we enjoy a few times a month.

Napa Valley, the place we call home, is the Garden of Eden when it comes to restaurants. From The French Laundry to Meadowood to La Toque to Morimoto's to countless others, there is no lack of amazing places to find your next meal. What can be difficult is finding an affordable meal, especially on a monthly restaurant budget of $50.

I am here to tell you that, even in one of the most expensive places in the world to dine, it can be done. In fact, we're typically able to stretch $50 into two or more meals over the course of a month. Are we eating at one of the Napa Valley's many Michelin star restaurants? Obviously not if we're paying. But we are enjoying incredible, budget-friendly meals and having fun as a family. Here's how we make it happen:
  • Counter service: These days, plenty of non-fast food restaurants offer great menus without table service. Avoiding a 20% tip stretches your budget.
  • Tip properly: When you do have table service, tip well - as I waitressed during college, it's a rare occasion when I tip less than 20%. However, don't forget to calculate your tip on the bill before tax. Here in California - where restaurant tax is nearly 10% - that makes a big difference. (For fellow Californians, an easy tip trick is to double the tax on your bill to tip 20%. Voila!) Even when you don't have table service, put a dollar or two in the tip jar - you'll feel good about paying it forward.
  • Share your meal:  Portion sizes at restaurants are often so large that each person doesn't need their own meal. Sharing a dish with your partner or child will make the most of your night's budget.
  • Drink water: You'll shave at least $10 or more off your night's bill if you forgo fancy beverages for Plain Jane water. Drinking water obviously applies to more than just eating out  - it's also a good way to cut your grocery bill, not to mention great for your health. Miss a glass of wine with your meal? Enjoy it as a nightcap when you get home. 
  • BYOB: If you do want wine with dinner, bring your own. More and more restaurants these days have corkage fees, typically $10-$20 to open your bottle (there are quite a few in Napa that waive the fee completely). Before heading out for dinner, call the restaurant to find out if you can bring wine. At the end of the night, remember to tip your server as if you had purchased a bottle of wine off the menu - look at the wine list to find a bottle close to your budget and mentally add that amount to your bill (minus any corkage fees).
  • Happy Hour pricing: As anyone with little kids knows, it's all about the early dinner! What's good for your little ones is also great for your checkbook as an early dinner helps you take advantage of deals like happy hour pricing. It's not all about the booze anymore (although two beers for the price of one is sure to make Mom & Dad happy!). Many restaurants have deals on appetizers or nightly specials - call ahead to find out what they offer and until what time.
  • Nightly specials: To build up business local spots may offer specials on weeknights. Whether deals are on specific menu items or the entire meal, it pays to find out so you can get the most bang for your buck. Here in Napa one of our favorite places to eat, the Oxbow Public Market, has Local's Night on Tuesday. We rarely eat at the Oxbow on any other night as the Tuesday deals are too good to pass up. 
  • Join a club: Does your favorite sandwich place offer you a free sandwich once you've purchased ten? Lots of restaurants have loyalty clubs - ask the next time you're there.
  • Get on the email list/fan their Facebook page: Find out how your favorite places share deals with their customers and make sure you're in the know. For example, one of our favorite pizza spots in town, Firewood Cafe, offers two pizzas for the price of one a few times throughout the year. We get updates via email and plan a night out around the special.
  • Coupons: While it can be difficult to find coupons for local restaurants, it's nice to have a few for the big chains in your back pocket in case you need them. For instance, we always clip the Subway coupons so that when we want to go for a picnic and don't have the fixins' at home we can get two subs for the price of one. Our bill always comes to less than $6 for the whole family to eat. Not too shabby.
  • Go out for breakfast: One of my favorite discoveries since having a child is the joy of eating out for breakfast. I'm not sure why we never ventured out for breakfast before, but something tells me it's because we were, well, sleeping. Since there's not much of that going on anymore, we may as well get up and start the day with some delicious food! Besides scrumptious waffles and pancakes and sausage and bacon and chicken friend steak and biscuits and oh-so-many-wonderful treats, one of the best things about going out for breakfast is the price. Not to mention your child is running on a full tank of gas and on his/her best behavior. Ah yes, breakfast is the meal of champions. 
I've been surprised, and pleased, by how far we stretch $50 using these tips. Cheers to your next (frugal) meal out on the town and - do tell - how do you maximize your restaurant budget?


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Tips for lowering your power bill

I pull back the curtains to reveal a beautiful and unseasonably warm February day here in Napa. Opening the back door, I can hear our chickens waking up to greet the day and breathe in the the fresh, crisp morning air that will soon heat up to over 70 degrees. There are many thoughts going through my head - including that I must add an unplanned stroll downtown to today's to do list - but chief among them is that it's time to get the laundry started because this gorgeous sunshine is about to lower my power bill.

Probably not what you were expecting but, well, no one has ever accused me of being impractical.

It was not until recently that I experienced what a big impact lifestyle choices can make on energy use. While I've always done little things to conserve gas and electricity, like turn off lights and keep the furnace set a reasonable temperature, there wasn't incentive to do much more as our usage was already very low.

Then we had a baby. And, as all parents know, with a baby comes laundry - mountains and mountains of it, especially if you're using cloth diapers like we are. What was once a one- or two-times-a-week-thing quickly became a daily occurrence - often snowballing into multiple loads. The dryer seemed like it was running constantly and, needless to say, the first bill we received from PG&E after our son was born was a painful one. Although I expected our costs to go up, my jaw hit the floor when I saw our electricity bill had increased by nearly 100%.

After recovering from the initial shock (I had NO idea the dryer used that much energy), it was time to figure out how to get things back within the budget. Enter into the equation much trial and error and a newfound passion for our PG&E SmartMeter and, I'm pleased to report, our energy use is back to, and some months even lower, than our pre-baby bills.

You know you're a little crazy when you do a dance of joy when your power bill arrives. Bonus? What's good for us is good for the environment.

It's been a bit of a long road getting here and along the way I discovered ways to conserve energy - some big, some small - that have made a big impact on our bottom line. Here are a few things that have worked for us.

Know your enemy: Identify the energy hogs in your home. For us they are the electric dryer, electric stove, and gas furnace. Now, everytime I use these I mentally see dollar signs and think about how to conserve energy. Another potential culprit? Your hot water heater - we replaced our old electric one with an on-demand gas hot water heater a few years ago and the $1500 price tag has already been paid for. Yep, that was a good investment.

Become friends with your SmartMeter: I love this new contraption. I can log into my MyEnergy page online and see, virtually in real time, my energy use down to the hour. I even kept an energy log for a week and compared it to the online graphs to identify our above-stated energy hogs. I. Love.It. (No, I have not been paid for this endorsement - though that's not a bad idea...)

Be a master of the obvious and use your energy hogs less: I'm all about bang for the buck so I stared with the big guns. Here are some tips on reducing your use of the oven, dryer and furnace. (We do not have an air conditioner, so unfortunately I can't offer any good tips to that end except the obvious - don't use it. I know we're lucky to live in California where that is an option.)
  • Use your slow cooker or toaster oven more often.
  • Plan fewer meals each week that require the oven - for example salads, sandwiches, etc.
  • When you do use the oven, take advantage of the cost to preheat and and piggy-back your dishes.
  • Line dry your clothes. Seriously. The first month you do it you will see a big impact. I guarantee it. If you don't want to put an ugly umbrella looking contraption in your back yard to do this, I'm right there with ya. Invest in a retractable clothesline for all of $10 and you'll be saving money in no time.
  • Be strategic when you do use the dryer. Obviously the winter months make it difficult to harness the power of the sun so when you do need to use the dryer, be smart about it. For example, as we do a load of cloth diapers everyday, I wait to dry the diapers until I have another load of laundry that also needs to go on the dryer. If I dont have another load that needs to go into the dryer, they get put on the clothes rack in the garage to dry which leads me to...
  • Line dry inside. You know that pop-up clothes rack you have for your delicates? It's also a great way to save money. Put things that you don't need to be dried immeately on the rack. Even if they don't dry completely, the dryer will not need to work as hard.
  • Spin, spin, spin. Let the spin cycle on your washing machine get out as much water as possible.
  • Pay attention to the temperature setting. I was using low heat and the temperature sensor to dry our clothes, but noticed that things were not getting dry and I needed to keep the dryer on longer - thus using more energy. I switched to medium heat and now do a 30 minute (or less) cycle to start. Often that does the job but if the clothes need more time, I add it in 10 minute increments.
Over the last year I had some major 'ouch' moments with our gas bill as I figured out how to set the thermostat with a baby in the house. As a new mom, the last thing I wanted to do was make our home uncomfortable for our little boy. While it was easy to monitor his temperature when he was in our room either in a co-sleeper or our bed, after he moved to his crib and the cold winter months ensued I didn't know how to keep him warm - but not too warm - at night.

To make a long story short, after a few very high bills I called PG&E to see if they had any advice. I spoke with a sweet mother of five kids, and she told me, in not so many words, that I was over-thinking the situation (me? Never). Here are some tips I gleaned -
  • Keep your heat set at 62 at night - if your child is too cold, he/she will let you know it.
  • During the day set your thermostat at 67 or less when people are in the house, and have it turn off when no one is there. If you are cold - or worried about your child being cold - get out a sweatshirt.
  • Things you can do to help keep your child warm at night are use a footed sleeper and/or a sleep sack, put socks on under the sleeper and, if need be, put a cap on your child.
  • As SIDS has been linked to overheating at night, be careful not to put too many layers on your child. Err on the side of slightly cool rather than too warm.
So, that night I put our little guy in a sleeper and sleep sack and turned the thermostat down to 62 degrees and, wouldn't you know it, he slept through the whole night and we all woke up refreshed. Go figure. Problem solved.

Energy Tiers: Here in California we are on an energy tier system. The lowest electricity tier (for us, an average of 11 KW per day) is the cheapest, once you exceed that you get bumped into the second tier, once you exceed that it's into tier three, and so on. After I understood how the system works, it was easier to manage our energy costs and shoot for the 11 KW average that would keep us in the lowest tier (though I think it's just about impossible to live on 11 KW a day - even with our 1,000 square foot house that doesn't have AC). Call your utility company to find out how your plan is set up and see if there are other pricing plans you can try - for example, many power companies offer a 'time of use' plan that, as you might imagine, charges different electricity prices based on the time of day. The lowest prices are typically at night, so that is the best time to run the dryer, heat up the stove, etc. If you're religious about it, I hear the savings are significant - I'll be able to let you know soon as we're going to give it a go.

These tips have made a huge difference for us in trimming our power bill and I hope they are helpful for other frugal mamas out there. How do you conserve energy and keep your costs down? Please share your ideas in the comments section!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Throwing a birthday party on a budget

Our little boy is turning one! Strange as it may seem, there was a part of me (OK, let's be real - the whole me) that thought this day would never come. That our little man would stay little forever. Denial? Perhaps. Well, earth-to-mom - time only starts moving faster after having kids.

After I got over the initial shock that this day was indeed upon us, it was onto the fun part - planning a memorable (and inexpensive) get-together to celebrate Will's big day. I wanted to keep it low-key and fun - aka. not turn it into an overly orchestrated Martha Stewart-esque party that would stress me out - but in typical fashion I needed to let the creative wheels turn at least a little bit. My goals with the party were 1) fun for Will and the attending kids, 2) fun for me to plan and not too much work and 3) of course, cheap!

I'm happy to report that the party was all of the above and more. It was one of those special days that we'll never forget (especially not with all the photos snapped and videos taped), and it was relaxed enough for all of us to enjoy it - including the birthday boy and mom. From budget to decorations to - of course - the cake, below are what I hope are helpful tips on how to throw a fun and frugal birthday party.
Timing: Less is more. We hosted our party from 1:30 - 3:30 and that allowed us plenty of time to enjoy the moment and then wrap things up before the kids got too tired. The timing fit with Will's nap schedule and that of his friends (although it's impossible to accommodate everyone), and also meant that we wouldn't need to do lunch (thus saving money and mommy's sanity).
Invitation List: Who to invite? For a few days I had flashbacks to the lengthy process of putting together our wedding guest list and felt like I needed to check myself into a 12 step program for the decision-making impaired. But seriously - where do you draw the line? Do you invite friends from school? His or her teacher? Your friends both with and without kids? The answer is going to depend on your individual situation and I say go with your gut. I erred on the side of small and simple and we ended up with two families attending (though I invited and planned for five - January is apparently a challenging month to throw a kids' party) and his school teacher. It was the perfect size. (After the fact, my mother-in-law told me a good rule of thumb for planning kids' birthday parties: the number of kids invited should be close to the child's age plus one. So, for instance, you should invite three kids to a birthday party for a two-year-old.)
Budget: I gave myself a $100 budget to throw the party and made it work. How did I do it? Here is the breakdown.

$20 for invitations and postage
$50 for food and drinks
$20 for decorations, activities and plates/cups
$10 for goody bags

Food and Drink:
Cake: A few months back I found a mold for a giant cupcake at a garage sale for $1 and snagged it knowing it would be perfect for his first birthday party - and many a bake-sale in our future. I made a yellow butter cake ($2 mix) with homemade strawberry filling ($3), cream cheese frosting ($2) and sprinkles ($2). While I considered making the cake and frosting from scratch, considering my track-record when it comes to baking I decided to push the 'easy' button and buy cake mix and ready-made frosting. Don't have a giant cupcake mold? Make regular cupcakes - they're inexpensive and the perfect size for both kids and adults. (Tip: I discovered that you can use a turkey-injector to put filling in the middle of cupcakes - just make sure the filling has been thinned in your food processor and inject the cupcakes before you frost them. Score!)

Food: I easily could have gone overboard here and had to reign myself in a few times. I made three types of tea sandwiches that were also kid friendly - hummus and roasted red pepper on wheat ($5), cheese and fig spread on wheat ($8), and cucumber, cream cheese and dill on white bread ($5). Other than that, I kept it really simple and put out some cheese cubes ($2), grape tomatoes ($3) and chips ($2). After all, what guests are really looking forward to is the cake.

Drinks: We got a 12 pack of beer ($12), apple juice ($2), ginger ale ($1) and sparkling water ($2). We avoided drinks with bright colors, thus no worrying about stains on the carpet.

Decorations: This is a flexible part of the budget because you can do as little or as much as you want - for me, this is where I wanted to have a little fun. I bought the necessities (plates for $3 and napkins for $2), hats ($2), balloons ($5 filled), and a cute felt 'Happy Birthday' sign at Target for $5 (there is no way I could have made that for less).  To add a little extra pizazz, I made and hung tissue paper pom poms around the house for a grand total of $4 (really, more like $2 as I didn't use all of the paper).
Kids' activities: Keep it simple! I had some crayons and paper as back-up, but didn't need them as cake and the opening of presents offered plenty of excitement.

Goody bags: I certainly didn't need these for a first birthday party, but found some cupcake themed goody bags on sale at World Market for $2 that I couldn't pass up. I added some rubber duckies for $1 a piece and voila - done.

Planning: This is my type A personality talking, but I found it helpful to spread the to-do list out over the week so that I didn't feel overwhelmed come Friday/Saturday. As in decorate house on Wednesday, make grocery list on Thursday, shop and bake cake on Friday, etc. A little forethought here went a long way because Lord knows life is unpredictable with a soon-to-be one-year-old!

Video and Photos: Get some help here! You simply can't do it all and play host at the same time - not to mention that the guest of honor is going to need a lot of your attention throughout the whole party. Ask two friends or family members to help with photos and video and let them know what you want them to capture - like your little one stuffing cake in his or her mouth (or eating crumbs off the floor...just saying...) or ripping up wrapping paper.

Have fun! Above all, once the day arrives go with the flow and don't sweat the small stuff. The most important thing is to enjoy the company of family and friends and help your little one feel at ease. The more relaxed you are, the most relaxed everyone - including the birthday boy or girl - will be.

Being new to kids' parties, I'd love to hear other ideas for budget-friendly birthdays. From food to themes to cake to activities, please chime in with your comments!

Friday, January 11, 2013

How my slow cooker got her groove back

On our first Christmas together as Mr. & Mrs., my husband and I received a slow cooker from his parents. While some daughters-in-law might take this as a not-so-subtle 'hint,' being a bit of a geek in the kitchen I couldn't wait to take her for a test drive. I dreamed of tasty, tender beef falling off the bone, hearty stews that begged to curl up with crusty bread and soups and sauces to warm our hearts and bellies all winter long.

What I got on my first few tries were bland, watery excuses for dinner that bordered on inedible. Oh, and I cracked the crock insert within a few weeks of receiving it. Not exactly a winning start to my relationship with my slow cooker.

She went back into the box in the spring and collected dust while we turned our attention to cool, colorful salads and let our grill take center stage during the hot summer months. The following winter, armed with tips on how to make slow cooker dishes that are actually appetizing, I dug my no-longer-shiny-and-new appliance out from the garage and gave her another whirl. And wouldn't you know it? My slow cooker had gotten her groove back.

Especially now that we are mindful to make the most of every dollar, my slow cooker plays a prominent role in our weekly meal planning. Using this kitchen workhorse on a regular basis has not only allowed us to take advantage of inexpensive cuts of meat like roasts and ham hocks, but reduced our electricity bill as we use the oven less. (Our oven is electric, though we dream of gas. Each time we turn it on it costs us at least $1-2 in electricity.)

Should you have a slow cooker that smells more like moth balls than beef bourguignon, here are some bits of advice on how you too can rekindle your love for this trusty kitchen appliance.

  • Brown your meats: Yes, it takes time, but you'll have better results if you do this step prior to placing meats in the slow cooker. Browning on the stove helps the cuts retain their juices and gives the dish more flavor. An exception is the recipe below, in which you basically throw a whole chicken into the slow cooker and let it work it's magic.
  • Don't start with frozen foods: This is how we cracked our first crock. Learn from our mistake.
  • Resist opening the slow cooker while it is cooking: Don't let the heat escape! Let your slow cooker do it's job and enjoy the mouthwatering aromas in the meantime.
  • The liquid ratio is key: Because there is nowhere for steam to escape, your slow cooker retains all of the liquid from a recipe's ingredients. While this can be fantastic for meals like the chicken below, it can be disastrous if a recipe calls for too much broth/water/etc. I err on adding less at the start - you can always add more later if the dish needs it.
Below is what has become my favorite, go-to slow cooker recipe. It is easy, inexpensive and absolutely delicious. Enjoy!

Braised chicken with salsa verde
From The Italian Slow Cooker, by Michele Scicolone
Serves 4

4 large potatoes, thickly sliced
2 carrots, thickly sliced
2 cups 1-inch cubed butternut squash (I should mention that we use whatever veggies we have around - squash, carrots, onions, celery, parsnips, etc. The key is slicing/cubing them thickly.)
1 large onion, sliced
Salt and pepper
1 4-lb chicken
1/2 lemon
4 garlic cloves
1 sprig rosemary

Scatter the vegetables at the bottom of the slow cooker. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Remove the neck and giblets from the chicken along with any excess fat. Reserve giblets for stock.
Sprinkle the chicken inside and out with salt and pepper to taste. Place the chicken in the slow cooker and squeeze half a lemon over the top. Place the lemon half, garlic and rosemary inside the chicken. Salt and pepper the top of the chicken.

Cover and cook on low for 5 hours, or until the chicken is cooked through and the vegetables are tender. Remove the chicken skin before serving.

Salsa Verde

2 1/2 inch thick slices of Italian or French Bread, crusts removed
2 cups packed fresh parsley
1 garlic clove
4 anchovy filets (we have never used these and I don't miss them in the slightest)
3/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
salt & pepper

Soak the bread in warm water for 5 minutes. Drain and squeeze out most of the liquid. In a food processor, combine the parsley, garlic and anchovies (if using) and process until finely chopped. Add the soaked bread. With the machine running, drizzle in the oil and lemon juice. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Cut the chicken and serve on top of the vegetables. Top with the salsa verde. Leftover salsa verde can be used throughout the week with fish, as a spread for bread, etc.