4 Rules for Home Cooking Done Quick

A lot has happened in the past couple of months.  We decided to move out of state to live near family and enjoy a lower cost of living and better weather.  Since we’ve moved down here I have taken it upon myself to be the best wife and parent that I can be while I look for a new job.  One of the most important things that I’m maintaining with this big life transition is how we prepare meals, eat dinner as a family and do so in a healthy and time efficient way.  I prepare all of our meals from scratch but I like to imagine sometimes that I run a prepared food test kitchen.  Here are a few of my rules for doing dinner in a  healthy and efficient way.

Rule #1:  Use your freezer as a money saving tool and not just a place to keep frozen novelties.  I hear it a lot “why would I buy in bulk if we can’t eat it all before it goes bad?”  Your freezer stops the clock on food spoilage and allows you to take advantage of lower prices.  My two favorite times to use my freeze is when I’m buying in bulk to get a lower price per pound and when meat is on ‘manager special’ and at 20% of the normal price.  I once found chicken quarters for $0.29 per lb!  That’s insane and you know I filled my cart.

When you buy a lot of food that can be frozen make a plan to freeze it.  Do not wait until the expiration date to save the old meat from the trashcan.  You need to portion and bag the food within a day of buying it.

If you freezer is already full go through and evaluate each item that is in there. How old is it?  Can you eat it within the next month?  Is it junk food that we shouldn’t be eating anyway?  Your freezer space is valuable real estate that is there to save you time and money, make sure you are using it that way!

Rule #2:  Dinner will only take 30 minutes from prep to table.  I did this while we were both working full time and wanted to eat dinner as a family before our baby needed to go to bed.

To accomplish this 30 minute rule you need to have a game plan for dinner before you open the fridge.  This is where meal planning comes in handy.

Some of my favorite meats to cook start to finish are:

  • Porkchops – use dry seasoning or a marinade on the meat when you pull it out of the freezer.  Let it thaw in your fridge for at least 24 hours.  I always let it thaw in the dish that I plan to back it in.  1/2 inch chops will bake for 20-25 min at 350ºF.
  • Tacos – use ground turkey or beef and you can brown the meat in about 10 minutes.  Add black beans to bulk up the meal and stretch your dollar even further.  Use it twice in the week for tacos the first night and nachos a few nights later.  Very popular in our house.
  • Salmon (or any fish) – Baking or grilling can be done in under 20 minutes.  We love this marinade for salmon on the grill:  1 part soy sauce, 2 parts oil, 3 minced garlic cloves all mixed together add 1 lb raw salmon and marinade for 20 minutes.  Grill over high heat for 8 minutes turning halfway through.
  • Steak on the grill – We eat steak usually once a week.  Use your favorite dry rub, and grill for 8-10 minutes over high heat flipping once halfway through.

My favorite prepare-ahead-of-time-and-freeze meals are:

  • Meatballs with pasta – the prep kills me but I love having meatballs and pasta.  If you are not a plan-ahead type of person you can always make meat sauce instead.  Meatballs freeze really well and I’ll usually cook a large batch and we will eat it once a week for about 3 months.
  • Chicken – I rarely cook chicken during the week since it is one of those meats that cannot be rushed (or served rare).  I will usually buy whole chicks and roast them in the oven for about 2 hours, sometimes 6 birds at once.  Once the meat is cooled my husband and I will spend a little time pulling the meat off of the bones, portioning meat into freezer bags and freezing.  If I’m low on chicken stock I will take the bones from one of the birds and throw it in the crock pot and make some overnight stock (which also gets frozen).
  • Chicken Taquitos – another labor intensive meal that is completely worth making a giant batch of.  I can take these puppies from frozen and bake them for about 20 minutes and we have a tasty dinner.  We have also used these as quick appetizers when entertaining or if we have unexpected dinner guests.  Serve with sourcream and hotsauce!
  • Pulled pork – Pork shoulder is a cheap cut of meat that becomes a tasty easy meal. Use either a dry rub or a bottle of your favorite bbq sauce and cook the pork shoulder in a crock pot for 8+ hours.  Once it is done, remove the meat and shred with a fork, using a strainer add the juices from the crockpot and mix together with the meat.  Refrigerate overnight and then portion into bags to freeze.

These are just a few ideas but what is most important is to cook what you like and make sure it freezes well.  So if you find a recipe you like and want to try to make a big batch next time – take a little bit from dinner and freeze it.  After a week let it thaw out and check the quality.  Make sure you do this before you cook 10 lbs of meatballs because you wont know how it freezes until you try it.

Rule #3: Use your day off to make a big batch of side dishes, prep fresh veggies and make lunches for the week.

This can be done whether you work or stay at home.  Make something that you love eating so that you are more likely to stick with the plan instead of ditching it for fast food.  If you are not big on leftovers – do not pack them for your lunch at work.  Every Sunday I will make 4 sandwiches for my husbands lunch.  He will take a sandwich and a yogurt to work 4 of 5 days.  He will eat out with co-workers at a restaurant once a week.  Taking your lunch to work compared to eating out every day saves one person about $2000.

Lunch meals that can be prepped at the beginning of the week:

Sandwiches – Deli meat and cheese will hold up nicely for about 5 or 6 days.  Make sure to skip the tomato, pickles and other veggies as it tends to not keep as well.  If you love lettuce on your sandwich, throw it on the morning that you plan to eat the sandwich.

Leftovers – I’m a leftover lover.  If dinner was great (and it usually is!) I have no problem packing a container with the extras and eating it for lunch.

Salads – Every once in a while, usually a couple months before our summer vacation, my husband and I will start eating a little bit less bread and a little bit more veggies.  We will make salads for each of us for the whole week with fresh veggies, hard boiled eggs, and cooked chicken (from the freezer).  Make sure to either add salad dressing the morning that you are going to eat it or put it in a separate container.

For more ideas check out reddit’s meal prep sunday section.

Rule #4:  Make this plan your own.  Everyone has a plan that works but usually it works because they created that plan for their own situation.  My recipes and meal plan will not work for everyone because of taste preferences or food allergies.  What is important is you take things once step, one recipe, one batch of food at a time.  See what works and doesn’t work for your family.  No one goes from spending an hour in the kitchen every day to half of that without some planning, experimenting, and practice.

  • First find one meal that makes it to your table on a weekly basis.
  • Next think of ways to simplify the preparation of that meal.  What can be prepped and then frozen, what can be cooked ahead of time, etc.
  • Then make a batch and see how much time you save with the ahead of time prep.

Start by having 2 meals a week that are quick to prepare, then make it 3 and then 4.  At the moment we plan for 6 nights of at home meals and allow one to be either a night out or a cooking experiment (sometimes I need to switch things up with something fancy).  Figure out with works for you and keep at it!  Soon you will be saving money and finding more time on your hands.

Why we are not buying toys for a year

 

NOT BUYING TOYS

I wanted to share with you all that we have no plans to buy our daughter toys for a whole year.  She was born in the fall and we brought her home hoping that we could handle being new parents.  I tried to hold off on purchasing small things, knowing that we would get gifts from our friends and family.  My husband and I discussed not purchasing toys for our daughter until she was older.  We figured that we would be just adding to the clutter while feeding our own consumerism itch.  We have stuck to this plan for the most part only caving and purchasing a small toy to use up the balance of a gift card.  Before you call me a monster for neglecting my child – think about this; how many toys does your child get from grandparents, friends and relatives?  If it’s anything like my family, you will get more than enough.  My daughter is 9 months old and has 7 toys, some are soft and some play music and she has played with all of them.  At this rate by the time she is 5 years old and wants specific things she’ll probably have over 60 toys.

OK the first image is a bit dramatic - my daughter loves her toys
OK the first image is a bit dramatic – my daughter loves her toys

My plan for toy management:

I’m not a heartless ice queen and know that having something to play with is extremely important for a child.  I was a kid once and have fond memories of playing with marbles and stuffed animals.  Keep in mind that I am a minimalist.  This isn’t some journey or life changing step by step program that I’m taking – it is simply who I am.  Less is more: less things = less time spent cleaning = more time for leisure.  I get rid of the things that I do not use.  I plan on doing the same thing for all of my child’s possessions.  Of course I’m not going to go straight from ‘you haven’t touched this doll in months’ to ‘time to donate all of your toys.’

My plan for keeping the toys under control is to keep 10 toys readily available for play.  The rest will be tucked away in small storage bins ready to be rotated in when a toy that is in use becomes disregarded.  When my daughter gets bored of a toy I’ll put it away and pull out one that she hasn’t seen for a while or once she is able to communicate what she wants to play with she will have her choice of what to keep out and what to put away.  

This toy sings "open up your wallet" etc, etc, I tease my husband that pretty soon our daughter will be batting her eyelashes and asking daddy for money :)
This toy sings “open up your wallet” etc, etc, I tease my husband that pretty soon our daughter will be batting her eyelashes and asking daddy for money 🙂

At the moment there are a few places around my house that toys are kept.  We keep one toy in the parent (our) bedroom – this is because we will hangout in this room as I get ready for work, a few toys are kept in the living room since this is where we spend most of our leisure time, a few toys are kept in the nursery (calling it a nursery makes me feel a little bit like Mary Poppins) these are mostly to entertain during the mornings where I have to run around like a crazy person and feel guilty popping the baby in the crib for 5-10 minutes, so I give her 4 toys to play with – what’s funny is she usually opts to chew on her blanket instead of playing with the stuffed animals or plastic books.  I did keep a toy or two in the kitchen but she really likes playing with measuring cups and plastic container so I moved the toys away and have been rotating Tupperware and other utensils that are baby safe.

Of course my baby is still a baby and doesn’t really care how many toys she has, as long as she is entertained.  As she gets older we will see how my practices work.  I’m striving to keep it minimal as opposed to keeping it organized.  Less toys means that it is easy for my daughter to pick them up every night – complicated organization means that mommy gets to spend time sorting and organizing children’s toys.  And I can definitely think of better ways to spend my time.  Not to downplay the importance of a great organization system but keeping the house clean should be easy or it won’t happen, at least for me.  If I had to take my dirty clothes down stairs every time I was done wearing something, then my floor would be covered in dirty clothing.  Instead I keep a laundry basket and our dirty clothes (mostly) live there until it is time for laundry.  Some people have the willpower to spend the extra time every night doing chores but I am not one of them.  I spend my predetermined amount of time on household chores and if things don’t get done in that X amount of minutes then I leave it alone and then think about ways to make chores more efficient.  No one should need to spend an hour ever night to keep their house in order – if you do then you need to spend a little time revamping your system.

 

Getting Closer to Grocery Shopping Once a Month

Grocery Shop Once a Month

 

 

If you had to explain grocery shopping to someone who never has done it, how would you describe it?  Would you talk about how you work hard all week only to spend a fortune on prepared food that is only slightly less expensive than the take out place down the road?  Would you say that it is a big time commitment that leaves you with sacks full of food and no real plan to use it?  If I were to describe grocery shopping I would say that its an opportunity to be creative, save money, and a challenge to see how well you can organize your food storage space.

I’ll admit that I used to stress about getting to the grocery store every week.  It would take me about an hour to get everything that I need and I would still occasionally forget something and need to make a last minute trip on my way home from work which would inevitably leave me with 10 extra things that I didn’t need.  I would cut weekend trips short if I knew our fridge was bare.  And grocery shopping on a Monday night was just such a pain and it that meant that we didn’t make lunch for Monday and both my husband and I would end up eating out that day.  When I buy my lunch at work I want it to be my choice and not a default answer to poor planning.  It took me a while to realize that instead of trying to shop for the week I could buy enough for the month.

Every day I’m amazed at both how much money we are saving on groceries and how much time I’m saving by not going grocery shopping as often.  The start of a new month gets me excited.  I’ve started doing one big shopping trip during the first week of the month.  I pick up all of my staples and replenish my pantry and fridge.  I buy all of the potatoes, onions, beans, olives, eggs, cheese and tubs of sour cream for the month.  One of my favorite parts about shopping this way is that I don’t need to remember what is getting low in the fridge or pantry since I’m not making a big grocery list every week.  If we run out of sour cream before the end of the month, we will do without.  Same thing goes for potatoes, onions and eggs.  The world isn’t going to end if you have to eat rice with your steak instead of the usual mashed potatoes.

There are a lot of ways that you can achieve a shrinking grocery bill.  You can copy someone else’s grocery list item by item and cook exactly what they cook.  But what if your family doesn’t like some of the meals on that list?  What do you do then?  That is why I think a better long term solution is to create your own list.  Of course could just copy my grocery list but unless you cook exactly what I cook – it just won’t work.  

Here are the steps that I take to maximize my grocery shopping efficiency.

  1.       Make a list of all of the groceries that you buy during the month
  2.       List how much of each item you will need to last you the entire month
  3.       Remove the items that expire quickly that cannot be frozen – like milk, salad fixings, fresh berries.  You can still buy these but only buy enough that can be used prior to expiration.
  4.       Save this list in a place that can be easily accessed.  I keep my grocery list in good docs and print it out when I do my big monthly shopping trip.
  5.       Print out this list (or keep it digital and edit the document) and take a quick inventory of your pantry, fridge and freezer
  6.       Grocery shop with the intention of only buying those items on your list during your once a month trip.
  7.       Keep track of when in the month that you run out of the items on your list.  For example:  I thought that we could get through the month with 6 cans of olives since we use them in our   salads for lunch, I forgot that we also use olives on tacos and nachos (and those are on the meal plan almost weekly).  After one month of running out 3 weeks into the month I upped our monthly amount to 8 jars.
  8.       Repeat next month.

 

Of course this method isn’t a one size fits all, but it is designed to be tailored to your own eating habits.  When you consolidate your shopping into one trip instead of spending extra time at the grocery store, you can spend your time doing the things that you want to do.  Always think of your list as a work in progress.  You should be forever tweaking the amount of what you buy or even the types of food that you eat but always make a decision for that month and stick with it.  Also, make it your mission to eat through all of your pantry and freezer fossils so that nothing goes to waste and it makes room for all of the tasty new foods that you want to try.  If you truly don’t like a food that you tried, there is no sense in allowing it to take up space – just get rid of it.  Either give it to someone who will use it or just throw it away.  Of course you should keep a good variety of fresh vegetables in your diet and use frozen when fresh is not available or too expensive.

Easy Slow Cooker Chicken or Beef Stock

chicken stock

My favorite way to add extra flavor to any dish is to use chicken or beef stock anytime a savory dish calls for water.  Making your own stock is simple and gives you a much tastier result than store bought stock.  When you cook from scratch you control the quality of the ingredients.  With this recipe you get a low sodium stock.  If you find the stock lacking in flavor you can add extra garlic or a little bit of salt.  I normally will skip the salt and add it to my finished dishes as needed.

Easy crockpot chicken or beef stock

Ingredients:

  •         3 to 6 oz of cooked bones (chicken or beef)
  •         1 onion – leave the skin on the onion if you want a darker colored stock
  •         1 carrot
  •         3 cloves of garlic
  •         1 celery stalk

Instructions:

  1.       Remove fat skin and meat from the bones.  You don’t need to have perfectly clean bones, a little scrap of meat and fat here and there will add flavor.  You want the bones to come from cooked meat so this means you would use the bones from a roasted chicken or from bone-in steaks, roasts or beef ribs.  If you want to use raw bones it requires a little more work.chicken bones
  2.       Put bones in crock pot along with the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic.
  3.       Fill crockpot to the top with water
  4.       Turn crockpot on high and let cook for 8+ hours.  The longer it cooks the more flavor you will get in your stock.  I will usually set this up after dinner and let it cook over night.  Do not cook longer than 18 hours or your bones will start to disintegrate.
  5.       Carefully pour stock through a mesh strainer into a large bowl.bowl of chicken stock
  6.       Let come to room temperature and then refrigerate overnight
  7.       Using a spoon, scrap the excess fat that has floated to the top and solidified
  8.       Now your stock is ready to use.
  9.       Storage:  Refrigerated stock needs to be used within 3 days.  Frozen stock will be good for 6 months.  I freeze my stock in an ice cube tray and then put all of the cubes in a gallon size storage back in the freezer.  When adding stock to a recipe 8 ice cubes is about 1 cup.

Ice cube tray of chicken stock

Ice cube trays are my preferred tool for storing liquids.  It gives you about a 1 oz portion per cube and allows you to utilize your freezer space a bit better than if you were freezing cup portions in plastic containers.  I’ve tried using portion bags in 1/2 cup size and the bags tend to leak a bit prior to freezing completely.  They don’t fit into my door compartments as easily as the cubes and sometimes you want less than 1/2 cup.

chicken stock ice cubes

I am always using chicken or beef stock in my cooking.  Here are some simple preparations using the stock:

Brown Rice – 1 cup dried brown rice, 1 ½ cups chicken or beef stock, ½ salt, 1 Tablespoon dried thyme.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes.

Barley – 1 cup rinsed barley, 3 cups chicken or beef stock, ½ salt.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes.

Marsala Cream Sauce – Chop 1 clove of garlic and 1 shallot, fry in a skillet with 1 tablespoon of oil for 3 minutes, add ½ cup marsala wine and cook for 5 minutes, add 1/3 cup heavy cream and ½ cup chicken stock and cook for 10 minutes.  This sauce is great on scallops, pork and chicken.

White Wine Cream Sauce – Chop 1 clove of garlic and 1 shallot, fry in a skillet with 1 tablespoon of oil for 3 minutes, add ½ cup white wine and cook for 5 minutes, add 1/3 cup heavy cream and ½ cup chicken stock and cook for 10 minutes.

Chicken Soup – Combine 2 chopped celery stalks, 2 chopped carrots, 1 chopped onion and 2 Tablespoons of olive oil into a stock pot over medium heat.  Stir occasionally for 5 minutes.  Add 6 cups of chicken stock, 2 cups chopped cooked chicken, 1 teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon pepper.  Cook over medium heat until veggies are tender.  Add cooked noodles right before serving if desired.

 

More and more savings on groceries (July)

In July we spent a whopping $153.53 on groceries for 2 adults and our 8 month old. Our grocery budget is $400 per month which I’m sticking with for the rest of the year since this level of savings is new to me. We were spending on average $500 per month for 2 adults. Its crazy how much we are saving and we don’t feel deprived at all, we even eat steak once a week.  What made the biggest impact on our grocery bill was we stopped buying drinks (like soda, bottled juice or milk), we started cooking everything from scratch and that means that we don’t even have a frozen pizza in our freezer, we started aggressively tracking the price of meat and make our choice of grocery store for the week based on the sales.  I dabbled in couponing this month and I’m still tweaking my method to maximize my dollar saved and minimizing my time spent messing with coupons.  One thing I definitely need to address this month is a better filing system for the coupons.  They are kind of all over the place right now since I don’t like keeping extra stuff in my purse.

monthly grocery totals

It’s the start of a new month and I’m excited to do my monthly stock up shop. My freezer is getting a little bit low, so I’ll be buying a few things that I can cook in bulk and freeze for later. The goal is to have enough pre-made food in the freezer so that we only need to cook 3 nights each week and those nights will be quick food on the grill or tacos so a max of 30 minutes from prep to table.

I assume that for each adult in our household I need ¼ lb of meat for dinner so that’s 15 lbs of meat for the month. For lunch we do chicken salads so I need ¼ of chicken breast for each salad which is 2.5 lbs of chicken breast per week for the both of us, which is about 12 lbs of chicken breast or 10 chicken breasts. This meat could come from packages of boneless skinless breasts or from 5 chickens.

I have the following in the freezer:
– 9 dinners of chicken taquitos
– 10 dinners of meatballs

I plan to add this month to the freezer:
– 15 dinners of pulled pork

Monday 8/1 shopping list

Geissler’s
5lbs potatoes – $2.00
48 oz Turkey Hill Icecream – $1.00 (with coupon)
3lbs green beans – $2.07
2lbs zucchini – $1.98
2lbs yellow squash – $1.98
2 pts grape tomatoes – $3.00
2 loaves day-old bread – $3.50

Total: $20.40

Pricerite
8 cans of olives – $7.92
1 celery stalk – $1.49
6 dozen eggs – $5.94
1 lb bacon – $3.00
1 lb sweet potato – $0.99
4 sour cream 8oz – $6.00
1 tortillas 10 ct – $2.99
5 bags frozen veggies – $4.95
2 yogurt chobani 4 packs – $5.98
2x 6 oz pepperoni – $5.98
8 chicken breast – $15.25
12 lbs pork loin – $22.00
3 lbs sweet italian sausage – $6.00
5 lbs shredded cheddar – $10.99
2 cucumbers – $1.18
1 lbs tomatoes – $0.99
hershey syrup – $1.99 (gotta have it to go with the icecream)
4 bell peppers – $4.39

Total: $108.03

Super Stock up total: $128.43

This leaves me $271.57 to use on our weekly trips for salad fixings, fresh produce and super deals on meat.  We only have 2 ribeyes left in the freezer (oh the horror) so I’m hoping to find another great deal on those.  I got about 8 ribeye steaks at $5.99 per lb where normal price for ribeyes can be between $12-$16 per lb.  If I see them that cheap again I’ll be buying a lot more than 8 steaks!  So this is a pricey week for me, what are you buying at the grocery store?

August Meal Plan

Aug Meal Plan

My method of meal planning is a simple one.  We stock up on meat when it’s on sale and freeze the bulk of it.  Once a month I pull everything out of the freezer and take inventory and create a meal plan for the month based on what we have on hand.  I prefer this method to creating a plan and then buying the ingredients since it allows me to take advantage of deep discounts and save even more money than shopping around a recipe.  We know what kind of meats that we like and what tends to be inexpensive, so our meals are a rotation of favorite recipes with a couple experiments sprinkled in a few times a month.  I use a small magnetic white board to keep track of what is in the freezer and pantry.   I haven’t had chicken stock for the past month and it has really limited my sauce recipes.  I made some chicken stock this morning and froze 2 more bags of chicken bones for later use.  It stinks running out of ingredients but it also teaches us to plan a little bit better.Freezer and pantry inventory
Our freezer is getting a little bit low, so I filled some of the gaps with sausage that I bought yesterday.  I’ll be working a lot harder to stock up this month so we can utilize our freezer space.  Empty space in the freezer is an opportunity to cook something delicious so that we can have more time during the week to do the things that we want to do instead of spending time cooking dinner.  I was planning to buy a pork shoulder to make pulled pork but the selection at the supermarket wasn’t too appealing.  I’ll check next week or when I go to BJs, the price the beat for pork shoulder is $1.29 per lb which is what the discount grocery store near my house sells it for.

Aug Meal Plan

We mostly stick to our meal plan but there are times when I cook something in a big batch to freeze and its easier to also eat that for dinner.  I made a giant batch of meatballs last month and we ended it up eating them that night.  We also will flip around nights that we grill if the weather is looking bad on our normal Saturday steak night.  You don’t have to stick to a meal plan perfectly for it to save you time and money.  Being a little bit flexible helps us to stick to our meal planning long term.  All I ask is when changing the plan to allow at least one day so that the meat can thaw in the fridge instead of trying to microwave a brick of solid, raw meat into a workable product…the microwave is for heating food and not so much for defrosting raw meat.  I’m not a fan of the edges being cooked and the center being frozen.

I don’t plan out what we are having for our side dishes ahead of time.  Sides normally consist of a vegetable and a starch.

Vegetables:  Fresh veggies from that week at the grocery store or farmers market, frozen veggies if we need something quick

Starch: Rice, barley, potatoes or pasta

Here is what our meal plan looked like at the end of July.  We had about a week of vacation that helped us keep the food bill lower than normal.  We got take out once and ate dinner out one night during the month.  By sticking with the routine we are able to save a ton of money without compromising what we eat.  Not only does it save us money by meal planning but it saves us a ton of time during the week.  We both work full time, so we try to make as much time for family after we get home and before bed time.  Making it easy for yourself will help you stick with meal planning long term.

July Meal Plan 2

Why I make my own baby food

Homemade Baby food

Baby food seemed like one of those things that you just have to buy, because how else would your baby get solid foods?  When my baby was ready to start exploring solids, which we knew because she started opening her mouth like a baby bird when ever we were eating, I started out with a couple of jars of the pureed baby food.  I spent about $0.80 per 2 oz jar or $0.40 per oz of blended green beans.  They didn’t taste that good.  You might think that I’m weird for tasting the baby food, but I don’t want to feed my daughter anything that I’m not willing to at least try.  Anyway, after the first couple jars of food I started to see all of the empty jars in our future, and all of the money that we’d be wasting on expensive blended vegetables.  I started to do a little research on how to make your own baby food.  I was surprised to see that it was quite simple to put a meal for baby together with the equipment that I already had.

A lot of the veggies I’m buying are around $0.99 per lb and will make about 16 oz of food or $0.06.  If my baby is eating 8 to 12 oz of food per day this means that we save $2.72 to $4.08 per day or $81.60 to $122.40 per month.

What you need:

Food – We started with sweet potato, green beans, and peas when she was about 5 to 6 months old.  Now that she is around 8 months old we also give her lentils, zucchini, yellow squash, barley, potatoes, beans, and yogurt.zucchini

Something to cook the food in – a pot with boiling water, a steamer basket or the microwave has been used for several of our different baby food preparation sessions.

Something to process the food – You can use a food mill, food processor, or blender.  I have a Nutra-bullet because – hey I like smoothies (and other blended drinks) so this is what gets used to blend the baby food 90% of the time, mainly because it’s easier clean up than the food processor.  You can smash the food with a fork if you have a truly minimalist kitchen, you might need to peal your veggies if you’re using that method.

Zucchini waiting to be blended

Something to store the food in – We have little glass dishes that hold about 4 oz of food.  I like using the glass dishes because they’re safer to microwave than plastic and you can easily see what is in them.  I also freeze extra baby food in ice cube trays so that I only need to make baby food once every 2 or 3 weeks.  I like being efficient with my time and think batch cooking is a life saver.

Baby food in ice cube trays

Things that I’m figuring out while feeding my daughter:

I’m not afraid to give my baby texture.  I’m a believer that exposing a child to a variety of different colors, flavors and textures will help them keep an open mind in the future.  We shall see how my theory works out since I’m mostly flying by the seat of my pants right now as a first time parent.  I hear that kids don’t get picky about food  till they’re about one year old – so we shall see 🙂  Right now we mix shredded chicken into vegetables, we have lentils with chopped up carrots, onion and celery (which she loves) and I’m starting to chop foods into small bits instead of blending everything.

Gagging will happen, this is different from choking.  I don’t leave my baby unsupervised while she’s eating.  But if she starts to gag a little bit I let her work through it and only hook a finger in her mouth if it goes on more than a few seconds.  I try to stay calm when things like this happen so that I don’t startle my child.

Before we started feeding solids I wanted to try baby led weening.  As we all know, things don’t always happen as planned.  My baby doesn’t really put things in her mouth, which is awesome when there is dirt on the floor but not so awesome when I want her to put some beans in her mouth.  So we are using a spoon and when she gets tired of the spoon, and wrestles it away from us to happily bash on the high chair tray, she eats food from our fingers.  This is more of a ‘go-with-the-flow’ technique than any sort of baby feeding method.  It’s working for us so we’ll continue to flow.

Holiday Wreath for under 5

Wreath pin
Nothing makes your home look more festive than some holiday decorations. A classic way to show your holiday spirit is with a fancy pants wreath for your front door or window. I wanted to create a wreath that could be easily modified for the season. I chose red and white for this wreath because those are two colors that will sync up with Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Memorial Day & 4th of July. I picked up all of the materials for this wreath at the dollar store but you can find similar prices on Amazon.

Materials:

10 yards of Decorative Mesh Ribbon 6 inches wide, or 5 yards of 2 different colors

1 Wire Wreath Frame

3-6 yards of foil garland

 

 

Step 1: Take your wire frame and paint it the same color as the lightest deco mesh that you are using. This reduces the appearance of the wire through the mesh. Spray paint is easiest but you can also use craft paint.

wire wreath

Step 2: Once the paint is dry cut 10 inch pieces of either embroidery or crochet thread and tie the strings to the wire frame. Use a color that matches one of the colors of your mesh ribbonYou want to alternate using the inner and outer parts of the frame to allow the colors to spread.

Step 3: Take the end of your deco mesh and thread your string through the end. Tie it securely against the wire frame.

Step 4: Gather the deco mesh and pinch it to create a loop in the ribbon.

pinch

Step 5: Tie the ribbon to the metal frame using a square knot.

20160703_143932

Step 6: Continue gathering the ribbon and securing it along the metal frame. For this wreath we used an alternating pattern going from the inner > middle > outer > middle > inner > etc

start gathering

Step 7: Once you have gone around the wreath frame secure the other end of the mesh ribbon by threading the string through the ends of the ribbon. Repeat with your other colors. For this wreath we went around about 4 times.

coming together

Step 8: Once you are finished tying on your ribbon, clip the excess string.

Step 9: Attach one end of your foil garland to the back of your metal wreath frame.

finishing touch

Step 10: Wrap the foil garland around the wreath and attach the other end to the metal wreath frame.
finished wreath

The Best Baked Dairy Free Meatballs

Meatball recipe

Do you love the ideas of freezer meals but get tired of eating out of your crockpot? Lucky for you there are so many different main dishes that you can freeze for those nights when you would rather spend the time you normally spend cooking, doing something else – like spending time with your family, reading a book or taking a hot bath ***catching Pokemon XD.

Every 3 weeks I make a big batch of one of our go-to meal to stick in the freezer. Normally that batch will last us about 3 months with us eating it once a week. I normally keep a stock of chicken taquitos, pulled pork, and meat balls in our freezer for some minimal effort meals. What would you do if you had 3 nights during the week where you could have a homemade meal on the table in 5 minutes? I know that if I’m cooking from scratch it normally takes me about 45 minutes to put a meal together. So this saves me a few hours per week by having something ready to go.

I want to accomplish 3 things when I make a big batch of food. First I want these meals to save me money so that means that it needs to be from reasonably priced ingredients. Second these meals has to save me time and this is accomplished by making things that will last a while in the freezer. Third, this meal needs to be relatively healthy and taste good. I make almost everything from scratch and that includes my chicken stock and sauces.

We all see the crazy deals that you can get on ground beef when it comes in the plastic sleeve. It’s normally a very high fat ratio and around $2.50 per lb or less. I’m going to show you an easy way to use that 5 lb meat log and stock your freezer at the same time.  If you have ever tried the store bought frozen meatballs you know that they’re not as good as the homemade version.  This recipe is super easy and doesn’t require skillet cooking.  Just roll the meatballs out and bake!  Don’t be afraid of the 27% fat ratio – repeat this mantra: Fat = flavor.

Here is the log of ground beef. Don't be afraid - it's here to save you money!
Here is the log of ground beef. Don’t be afraid – it’s here to save you money!

Prep and cook time: About 2 hours depending on how fast you roll balls.
Yields: 160 meatballs or about 32 servings

Ingredients:
5lbs ground beef – for ultimate value buy the tube or meat log, sometimes found in the freezer section
2 large onions
3 eggs
1 cup bread crumbs
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon oregano
1 tablespoon basil
1 tablespoon cumin
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons steak or bbq sauce (optional)

Instructions:
Dice the onions finely and place in a large bowl – probably the biggest bowl in your kitchen. In a pinch, you can use a stock pot for mixing if you don’t have a big bowl.
Add all of the ingredients to the bowl except for the meat. Mix so that the spices are evenly distributed
Add your ground beef and mix with your hand until the mixtures is even and uniform. This should take you about 3 to 4 minutes of mixing. If you mix your meat too much it could make your meatballs tough.
In a small skillet over medium heat cook about 1 teaspoon of the meat mixture for about 5 minutes. Allow to cool and taste for seasoning. Add additional seasonings if needed. This step is super important when making big batches of food. You want to make sure that the food is up to snuff so that it doesn’t turn into a freezer fossil.
Using a spoon, create meatballs a little bit bigger than 1 inch in diameter, they will shrink by about 20%. To create the balls, take about 2 tablespoons of meat mix and roll it gently between around in the palms of your hands. Place on a baking sheet leaving about an inch between each meatball
Bake at 350 for 15-17 minutes.

Meatball ingredients

Add all of the ingredients to the bowl except for the meat.
Add all of the ingredients to the bowl except for the meat.
Mix so that the spices are evenly distributed
Mix so that the spices are evenly distributed
Mix your ingredients for about 3 to 4 minutes
Add the meat and mix your ingredients for about 3 to 4 minutes.
Roll your meatball just a little bit bigger than 1 inch across. They will shrink when cooked
Roll your meatball just a little bit bigger than 1 inch across. They will shrink when cooked
To create the balls, take about 2 tablespoons of meat mix and roll it gently between around in the palms of your hands
To create the balls, take about 2 tablespoons of meat mix and roll it gently between around in the palms of your hands
These guys are ready to bake! Who has time to pan fry meatballs?
These guys are ready to bake! Who has time to pan fry meatballs?
All done! These meatballs are ready to add to your favorite ball friendly meal.
All done! These meatballs are ready to add to your favorite ball friendly meal.

For Storage: allow to cool to room temperature and then put in plastic storage bags. Refrigerate overnight and then lay flat in the freezer. The meat balls should be in 1 row and not stacked on top of each other. This allows you to pull only what you need out of the freezer instead of needing to thaw out the whole bag. These keep in the freezer for 3+ months.

Once your meatballs are cooled put them in storage bags in a single layer
Once your meatballs are cooled put them in storage bags in a single layer

This is the best part about having frozen meat balls. To use them in a meal, place the frozen meatballs on a plate in a circle. Use the defrost setting on your microwave for about 7 minutes for 8 oz of meat. Your mileage may vary depending on your microwave. At this point they are hot and ready to eat and can be added to your dish.

Some of my favorite ways to eat meatballs:
Spaghetti and red sauce
Spaghetti and mushroom cream sauce
Meatball subs or sandwiches
Meatballs with veggies and mashed potatoes

So how much does my 32 servings of meatballs cost?

These are the prices that I got when I picked everything up at Aldi
5lbs ground beef log – $9.99
2 Onions – $0.50 (at $.99 per lb)
3 Eggs – $0.25
1 cup bread crumbs – $0.25
Pepper – $1.20
Salt – $0.06
Cumin – $0.80
Oregano – $0.60
Basil – $0.60
Worcestershire Sauce – $1.40
Steak Sauce – $.10

Total = $15.75
This works out to $0.49 per serving of meatballs. It might be a little bit less expensive than this since I used Amazon prices for the spices. I buy the store brand for spices and almost always get the bulk containers.

So that’s my meatball story, what are some of your favorite foods to batch cook and freeze?

Scatter-brained and need more hours in the day

I’ve been all over the place lately.  I have so many projects and goals that it’s hard to keep up with myself.

What I really want to do is put on a cape and organize and clean my whole house, own my own bookkeeping/consulting business, earn my CMA, cook dinner every night all while spending time with my family for a couple hours every day.  I’m trying really hard to establish some good habits but the list is pretty overwhelming and I feel like it shouldn’t feel overwhelming.  I wish I could just take a couple weeks off from work and focus on all the things that I want to be doing.  While financially that’s an option, it is pretty hard to walk away from a job that I like with no other income stream to replace the paycheck.

Organizing – I’m on a mission to reorganize the areas of my house that are not functioning very well.  I’m starting with my kitchen which is likely the biggest project.  I find myself walking around in circles, collecting everything I need to chop veggies so this stuff needs to be located together.

Cleaning – I’m in maintenance mode right now.  Dishes and laundry are being done but I haven’t done a deep cleaning project in a couple weeks and I feel the pressure to fit one into the schedule.  I have a long list of things that I want to do in this area.

Becoming a business owner – I’ve been reading every self help book under the sun in this category.  I understand business and accounting, which is the field I want to work in for myself.  But I need to find clients!  This is proving to be the hardest part.  How do you find people willing to give you a shot?  I’ve tried mailing out flyers and advertising on craigslist.  I’m trying to do this around my 9-5 day job and I’m feeling a bit discouraged.

CMA certification – I’m a procrastinator.  I always have been and probably always will be.  I have 12 weeks before I sit for part 1 of the exam and while I don’t want to waste the $410 it costs to sit for the exam I’m having a hard time squeezing study time into my schedule.  I have 1 hour scheduled 3 times a week on my google calendar and I just need to stick to it.

Renovation – I set a deadline for my little renovation project of the end of August and it is fast approaching.  I feel like we haven’t made any progress in this area besides selling a few things from craigslist and Facebook from the yard sale pile.

And for the positives:  I’m loving how organized I’ve been keeping our food stuff.  Meal planning has given me so much time during the week.  I subscribed to our Sunday paper to get the coupons.  I’m reading a couple books about couponing and while it is very informative, I think I’ll just figure out my own method for shopping and not worry so much about trying to get my groceries for free.  I would love to spend more time on this, but if I can save $10-$50 by spending an hour messing with shopping lists and coupons then I’ll be happy.  I don’t want to have crazy stock piles of deodorant and toilet paper, I am a minimalist after all!  Next month I’m going to try to cut down my grocery trips even more.  There are a lot of things that I can buy a month’s worth at once and then just go to the store for the sales, fresh produce, and milk.  If you want to see my grocery list from last week you can find it here.  Being a minimalist isn’t just about having less stuff, but also about maximizing your efficiency.  Every time I go to the store it takes time away from something else.  Reclaiming some of that time is the goal, even if it means that I’ll have 6 cans of olives in my pantry to last us the month.  I’m a bit obsessed with my groceries, can you tell?

Lets take a minute to focus on what we have been doing well in our lives.  What are some accomplishments that you have made in the past few weeks?