Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Grocery Free Challenge: Week 3 Menus

I meant to post this on Sunday, but a sinus infection or some other as yet undiagnosed ailment has been doing a number on me.

Here are our menus for Week 3 of the Grocery Free Challenge. Because I'm sick and don't feel much like cooking and because there aren't two people to tag-team the toddler in the evenings, I've already revised things a bit to allow for some takeout meals.

Breakfast: blueberry muffins
Lunch: Arby's
Dinner: Stovetop Chicken Casserole served on Wacky Mac

Breakfast: blueberry muffins
Lunch: leftover Stovetop Chicken Casserole
Dinner: Pork Pad Thai (ramen noodles substituted for rice noodles!)

Breakfast: cereal
Lunch: chicken salad courtesy of Nana, a fig bar for the sick Mommy
Dinner: salad and baked potato from Ruby Tuesday

Breakfast: cereal
Lunch: pizza
Dinner: dirty rice made with turkey sausage, sauteed squash

Breakfast: waffles
Lunch: leftover dirty rice
Dinner: Asian grilled chicken salads with Chinese noodles, mandarin organges, almonds and dried cranberries

Breakfast: cereal
Lunch: chicken salad
Dinner: Pasta with Italian turkey sausage sauce, salad and homemade bread (if I'm feeling like it!)

Breakfast: pancakes
Lunch: leftover pasta
Dinner: July 4 fireworks picnic with family

Friday, June 26, 2009

Sharing Recipes from our Grocery Free Challenge

I promised that I would share some recipes as we continue on our Grocery Free Challenge (14 days and counting with no grocery shopping!).

This week, there were two dishes, in particular, that we couldn’t stop talking about – our grilled Father’s Day ribs and the scalloped cauliflower I made on Monday.

The rib recipe, Lacquered Baby Back Ribs, came from A New Way To Cook
by Sally Schneider and the cauliflower recipe is from Joy of Cooking, my go-to-guide when I have an ingredient that I’m not sure what to do with.

As always, I tweaked each recipe a bit to make use of what I had in my stockpile. My substitutions are noted in parenthesis.

Lacquered Baby Back Ribs

3 TBS dark brown sugar
1 TBS curry powder
1 tsp whole cloves
½ tsp cayenne pepper
½ tsp ground allspice (nutmeg)
½ tsp kosher salt
¼ tsp coarsely ground black pepper
¼ cup plus 2 TBS reduced-sodium soy sauce or tamari
2 TBS fresh lime juice (lemon juice)
2 TBS dark rum (bourbon)
1 TBS minced fresh ginger (skipped it; didn’t have any fresh ginger)
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 racks baby back pork ribs, trimmed of excess fat

In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients except the ribs, mixing well. Add the ribs and turn to coat. Cover and marinate for 2 ½ hours at room temperature. Or refrigerate for up to 12 hours; let sit at room temperature for 1 hour before roasting.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Remove the ribs from the marinade and brush off any cloves or pieces of ginger or garlic; reserve the marinade . Wrap each rack tightly in foil and place on a baking sheet. Roast the ribs for 1 ½ hours.

Meanwhile, if you wish to grill the ribs, light a charcoal or wood fire and allow it to burn down to the white-hot coals. (I used a gas grill and lit it 15 minutes before the end of the roasting time.)

In a small saucepan, bring the marinade to a boil over moderate heat; boil for 30 seconds.

Remove the ribs from the foil, being careful of the escaping steam, and place on a rock on a baking sheet or on the grill rack. Roast or grill, brushing the ribs with marinade every 10 minutes, for 30 minutes. Turn the ribs over and cook, basting every 10 minutes, until the ribs are brown and glazed, about 30 minutes longer. Cut the ribs apart through the joints and serve.

Scalloped Cauliflower

2 lbs. cauliflower, cut into small florets
2/3 cup grated cheese
1 ½ cup Bechamel sauce, mixed with ½ tsp grated or ground nutmeg or 1 TBS Dijon mustard
½ cup plain or buttered fresh breadcrumbs (French’s dried onions)

To make the Bechamel sauce: Combine 1 ¼ cup milk, ¼ onion, 1 bay leaf and 2 whole cloves and simmer for 15 minutes, uncovered, to infuse flavor into the milk. Discard the onion, bay leaf and cloves. (I chopped the onion and strained it out for the next step. Then I added the reserved onion in the casserole.)

Meanwhile, melt 2 TBS unsalted butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Stir in 2 TBS all-purpose flour. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally with a spoon or spatula, over medium-low heat until the roux is just fragrant but not darkened, 2 to 3 minutes.

Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Slowly whisk in the warm milk and return the saucepan to the heat. Bring the sauce slowly to a simmer, whisking to prevent lumps, and cook, stirring often and skimming any skin that forms on the surface, over low heat without boiling, until it reaches the consistency of thick cream soup, 8 to 10 minutes. Season with salt and ground white pepper to taste.

To make the casserole: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 2-quart gratin dish.

Boil or steam the cauliflower. Drain well and spread in the gratin dish. Sprinkle with half of the grated cheese (I used a mix of swiss, cheddar and asiago).

Spoon over with 1 ½ cup Bechamel sauce, mixed with ½ tsp grated or ground nutmeg or 1 TBS Dijon mustard. Top with bread crumbs or dried onions. Bake until browned and bubbly on top, about 25 minutes.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Grocery Free Confession

I was supposed to cook spinach manicotti tonight, but I just didn't feel like it.

Chalk it up to waking up at 4:30 a.m. with a killer sinus headache, a busy workday and a scratchy throat.

So I sent my husband for Chinese takeout. Technically, we're still Grocery Free, but not takeout free.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Spiders, spiders everywhere

This post from a friend and the fact that we found a huge spider (unknown type) nesting near the potty in the bathroom this morning, I thought I'd share some spider bite first aid tips I learned a few years ago while working on a client project:

  • Only two types of spiders in the United States are poisonous to humans: the black widow and brown recluse.
  • Brown recluse spider bites are the most dangerous, and should be treated immediately. Watch for itching, tingling, redness and pain at the site and for a lesion to form within an hour or two. Symptons may progress to include fever, chills, headache and stromach problems. Later, bleeding disorders, kidney failure or major organ failure may occur.
  • Symptoms of a black widow bite usually occur within 30 minutes to two hours. They include severe back pain, muscle cramps, rigidity of the abdomen, nausea, vomiting, sweating, restlessness and, in some cases, elevated blood pressure. Seek medical help if any of these occur.
  • Other spider bites can be treated at home. First, clean the bite with soap and water and apply antibiotic ointment to prevent infection. You can also use hydrocortisone cream to reduce inflammation, antihistamines to control severe swelling and analgesics for pain. Contact a doctor if the area becomes infected and to see if the bite victim needs a tetanus booster.

Source: American Red Cross

Having just seen Charlotte's Web last week, I was thinking spiders were kinda cute. But the visitor in our bathroom changed my mind. Spiders, particularly black widows and brown recluses, can be very dangerous to kids and adults. You can learn more about spider bites and treatments here. It's spine-tingling but necessary reading.

My Cinderella Story: How I Found My Prince in a Bottle

I have a toddler and an incontinent dog, so my carpets are stained with dribbles of one sort or another.

Those spots drive me crazy, and I've spent hours scrubbing and channeling Lady MacBeth -- Out, damn spot! -- often with little success. I think I've tried every carpet cleaner on the market, rented steam cleaners and even bought my own in my quest to rid my carpet of the evidence of spills and other accidents. Heck, I even ripped out the carpet in the living room and sprung for new floors last summer as an antidote to stains.

I've literally spent thousands in the fight against carpet stains. And I've usually been disappointed with the results of my stain-busting attempts.

Don't misunderstand me: many carpet cleaners on the market do work if you put enough elbow great behind them. But I usually don't have the time or the energy to get down on my hands and knees and scrub away at a stain. I want something that works well, quickly and easily. I don't want to break a sweat cleaning up an apple juice spill.

I think I've finally found the carpet cleaner that delivers for me.

A few weeks ago, I was indulging in a little QVC when I saw the presentation for the Stain Buddy 2-piece Master Stain Removal Kit, which includes a laundry pre-treater and a carpet cleaner. As I watched the product demonstration, I was amazed at how quickly and easily stains came out of carpet without scrubbing.

I'm not naive enough to believe everything I see on TV. But I've purchased a lot on QVC through the years and generally have been pleased with the quality. And when I haven't been a fan of a product, I've had no hassles returning it for a full refund.

So, I ordered a bottle of Stain Buddy.

When it arrived on my doorstep a few days later, i ripped into the box and headed straight to the master bedroom to tackle some spilled soda stains and some doggie stains, as well. I sprayed a jet of Stain Buddy on each spot, completing saturating the stain, just as I'd seen on TV. And in almost every instance, the spots disappeared without any scrubbing on my part.

I was so pleased with the results that I went through a whole bottle in one day. I was on a cleaning tear through the bedroom, the stairs, the loft, the hallways, my home office and my son's room. Our carpet now looks as good as 6-year-old carpet can look.

I'm not sure how Stain Buddy works as well as it does, but it does. Stain Buddy has a pretty lengthy discussion of how the products work and tips for removing tough stains at its Web site.

The Stain Buddy kit that I bought (which includes a 23-ounce bottle of carpet cleaner) retails for about $20 at QVC. I know many of my bargain-loving readers are balking at that price. But, in my opinion, this product is a super deal. I'd much rather spend $20 on a bottle of spray than hundreds hiring someone to steam clean my carpet or thousands to replace stained and dingy carpeting. QVC also offers two 32-ounce supersize bottles of Stain Buddy for $28.75, which is what I'll be ordering next time around.

While Stain Buddy worked wonders on my carpet, it didn't get out some old ink stains on my upholstery. (My little boy "personalized" my beautiful linen-upholstered cocktail ottoman some time back with my return address stamp. It looks like those stains are there to stay. Some day, I will laugh about that bit of precociousness, but not today.)

The laundry pre-treater that came packaged with the Stain Buddy carpet spray worked well on new food stains, but really no better than Shout, OxiClean, Spray 'n Wash or other well-known brands. I was hoping it would work magic on some old food stains, namely the butter that I dribbled on my new camisole while eating Maryland crabs.

My boobs catch food better than any bib, and I have lots of shirts with stains in exactly the same spot. If anyone knows a) how to avoid these kinds of stains (besides a boob job or quitting eating) or b) how to get old grease and protein stains out of clothes, I'll be forever indebted to you. And so will busty gals everywhere.

Goo Goo Buy Buy rates the Stain Buddy both a bargain and a worthy splurge.

QVC appears to be the only major retailer that carries the product. If you decide to try this terrific stain buster, I'd recommend ordering it through Cashbaq or Ebates, where you can earn 4 percent and 3 percent, respectively, on your online purchases.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Day 11: Meal Planning...I'm Lovin' It

On this, Day 11 of our family's Grocery Free Challenge, we had dinner at McDonald's as a treat for Jackson.

Normally, I wouldn't get too worked up about a fast food meal. But this morning when I woke up, I was excited to know that I wouldn't have to cook tonight after a busy day at the office.

Before this challenge, there were plenty of nights when I wouldn't cook. But we rarely planned for those occasions.

I start most days with the best of intentions to cook up something fabulous for the family to eat. Quite often, by 5 o'clock, I'm too tired and frazzled to figure out what to throw in the pan. For me, it's not the cooking that's the big chore. It's figuring out what to cook.

So, when I'm tired and fried, I default to takeout. I can't tell you how often I've made a last minute decision about eating out or grabbing takeout. That's a surefire way to waste money.

The Grocery Free Challenge is forcing us to plan our meals ahead of time. So, I've known since Saturday that we were eating out tonight. That knowledge was quite freeing today. I left the house for work confident that the kitchen would stay clean all night and knowing that there was no cooking or cleanup in my or my husband's immediate future.

Yep, tonight my toddler wasn't the only one who had a "Happy Meal."

Monday, June 22, 2009

Investing in CDs: A Safe, Short Term Strategy

When it comes to money, it usually doesn't pay to bury your head in the sand. However, I must admit, that it has been months since I've opened an investment statement or logged on to see how our 401(k)s are doing.

Like many investors, our portfolios have been hit hard. In the span of 10 days last fall, they lost 30 percent of their value, and that wasn't even rock bottom. I never thought we would lose as much money as we have, let alone have it to lose.

I've been avoiding those monthly statements because I'm trying not to panic about the sorry state of the economy and the stock market. I'm trying to follow the advice of our financial planner and other wise counselors who advise that we should invest for the long term, not the short term.

However, there are times when a shorter-term investment makes better sense. As part of our overall investment strategy, we have money stashed in 401(k)s, IRAs, mutual funds, stocks and CDs.

We bought our first CD shortly after our son was born, in hopes of earning a better return on some of our liquid savings. We chose a CD because CD rates are generally better than a traditional savings account, CDs are FDIC insured, and because we planned to use some of that cash toward a downpayment on a new house in a few years.

When you purchase a CD, you invest a fixed sum of money for fixed period of time – six months, one year, five years, or more – and, in exchange, the issuing bank pays you interest, typically at regular intervals. When you cash in or redeem your CD, you receive the money you originally invested plus any accrued interest. If you redeem your CD before it matures, you may have to pay an “early withdrawal” penalty or forfeit a portion of the interest you earned.

Our CD is nearing maturity again, so I've been searching around to find the best rates at sites like Monitor Bank Rates, which is a clearinghouse for the best rates on CDs, credit cards, mortgages, car loans, savings accounts and other personal financial information. The site lists rates for Chase CDs, Wachovia CDs, eTrade CDs and other big banks and investment houses, as well as community banks when you put in your ZIP code.

One thing I've learned after our first stint of CD investing is that the tradeoff for lower risk is a lower returns. It's laughable how little we made on the money we invested in our initial six-month CD. We're talking around $50 on a $5,000 investment. We knew the rate going in, but my husband and I are both word people, not numbers people. We couldn't compute what 2 percent interest would work out to in six months!

That's why I'm really loving these nifty CD calculators. You just punch in your investment, choose your interest rate and your term and find out how much money you'll be sitting on at the end of that time. Before I started playing around with the calculators, I thought the key to CD investing was shopping around for the best rate. While that's important, it's also important to choose the right CD term for your financial needs. Longer term CDs may pay higher rates. But if your need the money this year, a longterm CD isn't a good idea.

After schooling myself some more on CDs, I'm considering CD laddering when ours matures. This strategy helps minimize risk and maximize returns. You can learn more about laddering here, here and here, but here's a quick primer:

If you have a chunk of cash that you've been holding onto, waiting for the economy to improve and the stock market to settle down, laddering CDs may be a good option. The beauty of a CD ladder is that you lower your risk and increase your return without losing access to at least some of your cash.

You start the ladder by buying several CDs at one time but with different maturity dates, for example, one year, two year, three year, four year, and five year CDs. Every year one of your CDs will mature and you can roll it over into a new CD with a longer term (if rates are high) and higher rate.

Such a strategy can really pay off, even on a relatively small investment. For example, according to the CD Ladder Calculator at Monitor Bank Rates, by laddering a $10,000 investment into 5 CDs, you could earn an additional $823. Not chump change. Have $20,000 to put into CDs? Laddering could earn you an extra $1,646.

I'd love to hear from anybody who has had experience with CD laddering to find out if it worked for you. I'll keep you posted, as well, about our experiences with CD investing and CD laddering.

Day 10: Man Logic, Doritos Threaten Grocery Free Challenge

Sent the husband to Walmart tonight to pick up some batteries and some other sundries.

Later, I notice a bag of Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos on the cabinet.

"Did you buy these?" I asked, accusingly. "We're not supposed to be buying groceries."

"Those shouldn't count," he answered. "Technically, they're not groceries. They're a snack."

Man logic. Arghh!

He cheated on the Grocery Free Challenge; I didn't. But to spite him and to teach him a lesson, I might have to eat the whole bag.

What do you think? Those are some darn-good Doritos.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The difference between a coupon and a gift certificate

Over the weekend, I shared a limited time only deal being offered by World Market and Outback Steakhouse on my Facebook page.

According to its Web site, World Market was offering $10 gift cards to Outback with any purchase through Father's Day. As it read, that was a deal too good to pass up.

So, I headed to World Market today while the boy and his daddy were settling in for a nap. I found a fun kids' arts and crafts kit for much less than $10 and headed to the checkout.

I walked out feeling quite proud of my dealmaking, until I took the time to study the so-called Outback certificate.

It wasn't a gift certificate at all. It was a coupon, good for $10 off the purchase of two entrees. Nothing to complain about, certainly, but that wasn't the deal that World Market and Outback were advertising.

A coupon has conditions. A gift certificate doesn't. You should be able to use a gift certificate like cash and order anything you like.

Personally, I'd been hoping to use my $10 Outback gift card to buy my favorite meal there -- soup, salad and breadsticks. I was figuring on a free meal. Now, I'll have to spend more if I want to the coupon.

A $10 dining coupon is pretty generous, but it's no match for a gift certificate.

Grocery Free Challenge: Week 2 Menu Plan

We're heading into the second week of our Grocery Free challenge. I'm avoiding the grocery store and instead shopping from my stockpile.

This week, we picked up some produce at the farmer's market and fresh milk. But otherwise, everything we've eaten at home has come from the pantry, the fridge or the freezer.

Now, onto next week's menus, including a recap of our delicious Father's Day meal:

Breakfast: waffles for the boys, raspberry breakfast bars for mommy
Lunch: steak salad
Dinner: babyback ribs, roasted root vegetables, leftover green beans, side salad

Breakfast: bagels and cream cheese
Lunch: chicken tenders, vegetable rice
Dinner: leftover babyback ribs, leftover roasted root vegetables, cauliflower, pineapple

Breakfast: cereal and fruit
Lunch: sandwiches
Dinner: McDonald's ($1.99 Happy Meal and playtime for the boy!)

Breakfast: eggs, coconut bread
Lunch: Knorr noodles
Dinner: black beans, Alton Brown's baked brown rice, sauteed squash and zuchini

Breakfast: breakfast casserole
Lunch: leftover beans and rice
Dinner: Arroz con Pollo, peas

Breakfast: breakfast casserole
Lunch: leftover Arroz con Pollo
Dinner: Spinach manicotti, side salad

Breakfast: homemade muffins
Lunch: hummus pitas with feta cheese
Dinner: dinner out for family birthday party

Are You Getting All the Deals from Goo Goo Buy Buy

I want to make sure you don't miss a single deal from Goo Goo Buy Buy.

I'm posting deals all over the place -- Twitter, Facebook, and this blog. Some deals are so hot and so limited that they don't make it on the blog. That's why you should follow me on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook. You don't want to miss out on any great bargains or splurges.

And while you're at it, subscribe to my blog. You can view updates in a reader or have them delivered to you by email, so you never miss a deal from Goo Goo Buy Buy.

Happy shopping.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Day 8: Still going strong going Grocery Free

We've passed the one week mark on our Grocery Free challenge, and we're still playing by the rules and eating well.

Today, we did go to the local farmer's market to pick up some produce, and yesterday, my husband grabbed two gallons of milk at Costco, all allowed under the rules I set forth when I decided to forgo grocery shopping and cook exclusively from my stockpile.

Kristi, a friend who reads this blog who plans to embark on her own Grocery Free challenge, asked in an email if she was allowed to buy milk. The answer is a definite yes -- especially for Kristi, who is nursing a newborn and has a toddler at home, too. It's hard to stockpile perishables, like fresh produce and milk (I don't like mine thawed from frozen). And I believe those items are essential to a healthy and nutritious diet, so I will be buying them as needed during this challenge.

If you'd like the idea of the Grocery Free challenge, but can't live with all of my rules, feel free to make your own. These rules work for my family and for me, as our primary cook.

You may have different needs, and you should tailor your Grocery Free challenge to fit those needs. For me, the point of this exercise is to make use of what I have and to be a better steward of the food I buy.

Too often, though my cupboards and fridge are stocked, I've been guilty of pick up something from the grocery store (or at a restaurant) because I've failed to pre-plan my menus. I've learned from experience that at the end of the day, whether I've spent it working at my computer or playing with my toddler, my brain is too zapped to make any weighty decisions like what's for dinner. That's why I've been using MomAdvice's weekly menu planners.

We did deviate from the menu plan slightly this week. On Thursday, my husband and dad went to a baseball game. Rather than cooking for two, I grabbed dinner with my mom and son. We had Thursday's planned meal - chicken and dumplings -- on Friday, and I'll work Friday's meal -- manicotti -- into next week's plan.

I've updated my stockpile spreadsheet to reflect what we've used and the produce we purchased today. Here's a short list of what we bought at the farmer's market:

- a pint of blackberries (these won't last long; I've been snacking on them all day!)
- fresh parsley
- rainbow carrots
- tomatoes
- cucumbers
- fresh garlic
- zucchini and squash

We spent around $20. (That doesn't count the muffin my husband bought for his breakfast or the 2 glasses of lemonade I bought --- spilled the first in my trunk!)

Check back tomorrow. I'll be posting the Week 2 menus on Sunday evening.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Day 6: Temptation in the form of super doubles at the grocery store

So far during this first week of our family's Grocery Free challenge, I've felt no desire to go to the grocery store and stock our stockpile.

Then today I read that Harris Teeter, my grocery store of choice, is having a Super Doubles coupon event June 24-30 and will be doubling coupons up to $1.98. That's even more tempting than triple coupons. A $1 coupon will be worth $2; a $1.50 coupon worth $3.

Do you realize how many free groceries I could "buy" during that event. My philosophy is to treat coupons like cash. Will I be throwing away free money if I don't shop during the Super Doubles sale?

What's a girl to do? Stick with the challenge? Or pass up on the free coupon cash?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Show off your kids' artwork for a chance to win a $50 Toys R Us Gift Card

One of my favorite bloggers, Grandma Lizzie at Grandma Lizzie's House, is running a terrific contest on her blog.

Terrific because the prize is spectacular -- a $50 gift card to Toys R Us -- and because to enter you have to get creative with your kids.

To earn an entry, just post a self portrait drawn by your kid or grandkid at Grandma Lizzie's House. And while you're there, check out her suggestions for kids activities. Kids know that Grandma's house is the "funnest" place to play, and Grandma Lizzie shows parents how to recreate some of that magic.

I'm not sure if my toddler will get the concept of drawing a self portrait, but we'll have fun trying.

Actually, he loves to draw. Here's Jackson's self-portrait:

I am supposed to tell you that in this portrait, Jackson doesn't have feet, just a face.

Thanks to a stint in "summer camp" and some great puppet kits I found on clearance, we've lately been really into arts and crafts. And already, I'm stressing over how to preserve his precious artwork without being overrun with paper. I think I'm going to create a digital archive, using a site like flickr or one of other myriad photo-sharing sites.

The Tranquil Parent
has some great ideas for showcasing your little Monet's masterpieces. One, in particular that appeals to me is creating a gallery on a digital photo frame. I think I know what the grandparents will be getting for Christmas.

Going Grocery Free: Menus and an update

We're on Day 5 of our grocery free challenge, and it's going really well. I haven't felt the urge to rush out to the grocery store, yet.

In fact, not having to grocery shop is rather freeing. I'm happy to mark that chore off my to-do list.

Cooking from my stockpile has required me to plan our meals, something I lectured my husband about this morning when he offered to cook tonight. (Sorry, hon! But if you want to cook tonight, you need to thaw things ahead of time and get things marinating.)

Here's what we've been eating this week, along with the rest of our menus. You can download some nifty weekly meal planners from Mom Advice. Hers are the ones I use.

Breakfast: homemade cherry and white chocolate chip muffins and waffles
Lunch: out to lunch (Daddy was working in town, so we all met up)
Dinner: Wacky Mac & Cheese casserole dressed up with leftover spiral sliced ham and frozen mixed vegetables

Breakfast: frozen Sara Lee sausage biscuits
Lunch: Momma out to lunch with the girls; leftover Wacky Mac & Cheese casserole
Dinner: Bratwurst, Grandma Joyner's Baked Beans, diced peaches

Breakfast: frozen Sara Lee sausage biscuits/waffles
Lunch: brats and leftover Wacky Mac & Cheese casserole
Dinner: Crockpot barbecue chicken, stir-fried squash, green beans

Breakfast: bacon cheddar pinwheels
Lunch: sandwiches
Dinner: Chicken and dumplings, green beans

Breakfast:Raspberry Breakfast Bars
Lunch: chicken and dumplings
Dinner: Manicotti, side salad

Breakfast: pancakes
Lunch: Diner's choice leftovers
Dinner: flat iron steak, corn on the cob, Alton Brown's baked brown rice, side salad

Sunday, June 14, 2009

We're Going Grocery Free

About a year ago, I started changing my shopping habits, clipping coupons like crazy and stockpiling food and household purchased at rock bottom prices. I've got my own supermarket/drugstore behind every closed closet door.

But, truth be told, I'm not as good a steward of my money as I could be. Somewhere along the way, I've missed the essential point of stockpiling. You see, the goal of stockpiling isn't to wind up with lots of stuff, but to spend prudently and to use what you buy.

At my house, we've been doing that, but not to the extent that we could -- or should -- especially when it comes to groceries. Even though I have a freezer full of good, nutritious food and a well-stocked pantry that is embarrassing in its abundance, I often choose to cook recipes that require another trip to the grocery store. And usually on those grocery trips, I'll find another deal that is worthy of stockpiling and promise myself that I'll find a way to make a meal from 4 bottles of Worcestershire sauce, a case of Wacky Mac and French's dried onions.

I do pull from my stockpile regularly; there's rarely a meal served in this house that doesn't include some ingredient pulled from our second refrigerator or our pantry annex. But I've never planned meals with my stockpile in mind.

That is changing. Beginning yesterday, I imposed a grocery moratorium in our household. We're going grocery free; I'm challenging myself, as our family's main cook, to see how long we can last without going to the grocery store. So, for as long as we can stand it, I'll be cooking exclusively from our stockpile.

A few rules I've imposed, as our family embarks on this new gustatory endeavor:

  • I will allow a weekly trip to the farmer's market (or grocery store, if necessary) to purchase fresh produce, milk, dog food and sodas, which we don't have stockpiled.
  • If we feel like eating out, we can. This is less about spending and more about stewardship. I'm coming around to the notion that we shouldn't buy food we don't need. To do so is wasteful, and to throw it away is more so.
  • I'll be looking for creative uses for leftovers, as I'm really not a fan of eating the same thing over and over again.
  • When my in laws visit, they often bring along a goody bag of bargains they've gotten at the military commissary. If they bring one of these during this challenge, we will accept the free food in the spirit in which it was given.
  • I'm not imposing a time limit on this. I really want to see how long we can last on our stockpile. (We can pretend it's the Cold War and we're hiding out in our bomb shelter!)
  • I won't beat myself up for my human failings, but I do expect those around me to hold me accountable for this challenge. So, if you see me backsliding, give me a hard time about it.
  • My husband is welcome, expected even, to pitch in on the menu planning and cooking.
To prepare for this challenge, I took an inventory of our stockpile and created a spreadsheet (see below) listing most of the food we have in the house. This list does not include already opened items we have, like salad dressing, sandwich meat, bread, spices, any leftovers and condiments. As I post my menus and recipes here, you can assume that any ingredients not specifically included in the stockpile were also on hand. Luckily, we're pretty well-stocked with staples, so my cooking will not be limited by that lack.

Without further ado, here's what's in our stockpile:

As we use items from the stockpile, I'll either change the quantity on the spreadsheet or strike through it to indicate it's been used.

Today is Day 2 of our grocery-free odyssey. (Menus posted soon.) Already, I've latched onto three bits of wisdom that I hope will ensure our success.

First, planning is essential. This morning, I sketched out a week's worth of menus by looking at our stockpile and also considering what fresh produce we have to work with this week. As I said before, we want to be good stewards of our food and that means eating fruits and vegetables before they go bad and have to be thrown away. (Something we unfortunately do with some regularity because of bad planning.)

In addition to mapping out this week's menus, I also thought some about what we'd like to cook and eat next week. I already have the beginnings of a very short list for the for the farmer's market on Saturday.

The second lesson I've learned is that I need to be more creative in my cooking if I want to sustain this challenge. I've always loved to try new recipes, but I usually follow those recipes religiously. That won't work with this challenge. I need to be prepared to make substitutions, as I did on Friday when I substituted chicken broth for white wine in a marinade. I'm sure the wine would have added more depth to the grilled pork tenderloin, but it was still delicious.

Finally, I realize that I will need help to keep this challenge going. I need for my readers, my friends and my families to share their great recipes with me. I'm also going to be using sites like Supercook and Kraft to plan meals. Both let you search for recipes by ingredients.

I haven't used the databases yet, but I'm sure I will. For now, I feel a little bit like the host of the Splendid Table on NPR, concocting delicious dishes from a list of disparate ingredients. But in the end, when I get down to making soup from Worcestershire sauce, dried onions and barbecue sauce, I'm really going to need help. Or a stockpile of activated charcoal.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Freebie Alert: Take the Guesswork Out of Applying Sunscreen

After spending the day at the pool and getting just a little pink on my shoulders, this freebie resonated with me.

Sundiwear will send you a sample pack of its really cool stickers that tell you when your sunscreen has stopped working and when it's time to reapply again.

These are, of course, designed for kids. But to avoid the searing pain of a sunburn, I'm willing to wear a silly sticker on my bicep.

Thanks to STL Mommy and Taking Stock for alerting me to this fab freebie.

Now, if I could just get a hot pool boy to apply the sunscreen for me...

Freebie Alert: Free Chocolate Friday

Have you been signing up for your free chocolate every Friday as part of Mars Real Chocolate Relief Act?

You definitely don't won't to miss out on this freebie. Every Friday until September, Mars is giving away coupons for free chocolate to the first 250,000 people who sign up each week. That's a lotta free candies and a lot of calories.

Unlike many freebies, you can cash in on this one more than once. Mars is allowing each household to request four chocolate coupons.

We've already gotten three chocolate coupons -- they arrive in the mail pretty quickly -- and I'm saving the M&Ms for the next time we go to the movies. I'd rather pay nothing than $3 a bag.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Bargain Alert: Martha Stewart Craft Kits on Clearance at Walmart, Online

We love to do arts and crafts projects around our house. There's no better way to while away a rainy afternoon then to sit and create, and crafting together is great family time. So I'm always on the lookout for toddler-friendly projects.

I love the Martha Stewart craft kits -- they're easy and cute -- but I find that they can be a bit pricey.

So I was downright giddy to find them on clearance at Walmart. Thanks to the fabulous sale, I've filled our crafting box with all kinds of fun projects - puppets, pom-pom animals, and photo frames, paying just $2-$3 for each kit. I also got a few things for myself when I find time to do scrapbooking.

If you can't make it to Walmart (sorry, the clearance pricing isn't available online), the Martha Stewart Crafts Website also has some great deals on seasonal craft kits. Now is a great time to stock up for the holidays, if you're looking for a way to get ahead and reduce your stress, something that Amy @ Our Frugal Journey has been blogging about lately.

Crafting with kids

Some of my fondest memories from childhood are of crafting with my mom and brothers. We made a little bit of everything: corn husk angels, Christmas tree ornaments, origami, potholders, hooked rugs and Shrinky Dinks, just to name a few.

I want to create those same kind of memories for my own son. And though he's only almost-three, he loves when we do crafts. Just this week, we made pipe cleaner farm animals, and this weekend, he's going to paint a birdhouse for his Pop-Pop for father's day. (That's an outside craft!)

Crafting with kids presents limitless opportunities. You're only bound by your imagination.

These are a few of our favorites:

Make homemade signs and wrapping paper. Decorate brown kraft paper with crayons, chalk, stamps, stickers and paint -- if momma is feeling brave!

Decorate T-shirts to celebrate a theme. For example, when the movie Monsters vs. Aliens was in theaters, everyone in the family made a T-shirt depicting their favorite character using iron-on printables we found online. (I was Susan, the boy was Bob the Blog and the hubby was Dr. Cockroach.)

Most official movie Web sites have slews of downloads and games and activities that you can do with your kids. I've found these activities a lot of fun for kids and parents alike, and it really helps build excitement about going to the movie. It makes theater-going a much more interactive experience. Check out these sites for some fun activities you can do with your kids around the movies Ice Age 3 and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Noggin also has lots of great kids crafts, activities and printables.

Paint ceramics. Back in the days before paint-your-own pottery places were in vogue, people used to go to ceramics studios. The place we stay at the beach has one of these old school ceramics studios, and I find it so relaxing chill and paint for a few hours. (My husband likes it too, though we do joke that we kinda feel like we're in an asylum.)

This summer, we took Jackson with us to the ceramics studio, and he had a ball. We had so much fun, in fact, that I've bought some cheap greenware figurines (priced at 69 cents each) at Michaels so we can paint them at home. All you need are some acrylic paints, lots of newspaper and a smock to keep your clothing clean. If you like, you can also spray the painted pieces with spray sealant, but that's not necessary. (Make sure you do this step outside.)

Actually, at our house, painting is always an outside craft. I'm too anal and connected to my furniture to let my toddler loose inside with a paintbrush.

Gluing. I don't know why, but my son just loves to glue things. If I need him to stay still and seated in one place, I'll pull out some felt, cotton balls, Q-tips, sequins, googly eyes and miscellaneous trim and let him go to town. I always stay close by to marshall the glue. If I didn't, he would dump a whole bottle on a single piece of felt.

At Christmas, we made snowmen by gluing cotton balls to felt and decorated them with the doo-dads that I've accumulated as a crafter.

OK, now I'm itchy to create. Jackson is heading to the pool with his Nana this afternoon, but I think we may have some grownup craft time today.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Spend Coupons As If They're Cash

When I'm clipping coupons at the kitchen table, my toddler often wanders over and asks for some "bills" of his own. I've tried correcting him, explaining that I'm clipping coupons, not bills. But after some thought, I've realized he's right.

Coupons are bills - dollar bills.

In just a bit, I'm going to tell you how I "cashed" in big time this weekend using coupons -- my spending money of choice -- at the mall.

Coupons are as good as cash. Better even, because they don't empty your wallet. If you're not using coupons, you're throwing away free money. In my book, not using coupons is akin to not maxing out your contributions to your 401(k) at work to qualify for matching funds from your employer.

If someone wants to give me "money," in the form of coupons, then I'm going to spend it.

Of course, I want to get the most out of my "money" whether it's the kind printed by the U.S. Mint or the kind printed by companies desperate for consumers like me to try their products.
I've blogged before about the Grocery Game, which takes the guesswork out of couponing at the grocery store. The Grocery Game tells you when to buy certain products at rock-bottom prices by combining coupons with store sales. (To sign up for a $1 four-week trial, visit the Grocery Game and use referral email address amyjoyn(at)bellsouth(dot)net.)

You can apply the same gaming philosophy to shopping elsewhere, too. Particularly in this economic climate, retailers are being quite generous with their "free money" -- coupons -- and we as consumers can cash in.

How much did we pay for all this stuff? Read on for the answer.

Case in point, JCPenney just sent out $10 to customers on its mailing list. Didn't get yours? Well, sign up for JCP Rewards and get on the mailing list because the retailer frequently sends out these high-value coupons. And lots of times, there's no purchase requirement beyond the coupon value. That means the coupon is good for $10 off a $10 purchase.

My husband and I both got a coupon, so we headed to the mall last weekend to spend our $20.

What did we buy?

  • 2 polo shirts for our son
  • 1 T-shirt for our son
  • 1 pair of soccer shorts for our son
The store was running some killer sales and clearances, so we got all four items for just $4.22 in real money, including tax. Without our coupons, we would have paid about $22.

But wait, there's more...

I had some more coupons burning a hole in my pocket, notably a card I got in the mail from Victoria's Secret for a free pair of panties PLUS $10 off my total purchase.

Initially, I just planned to grab the free panties and skedaddle, but then I spotted a super sale -- 75 percent clearance on all Victoria 's Secret makeup. I scooped up a lipstick, 2 lip glosses and an eyeliner pencil. Had I bought everything at full price, I would have paid $53.50. But with my coupon, I paid just $1.60 for everything. That is one sweet deal.

Want to get your own Victoria's Secret cash (coupons) in the mail? Sign up for the store's mailing list online and also become a fan on Facebook. To parrot another company's slogan, membership has it rewards. (Also, be sure to check out Freebies4Mom for Heather's post about how she maximizes her savings when shopping at Victoria's Secret.)

By this time, my husband had nearly dropped from all the shopping, but I still had another stop to make: Sephora.

Thanks to fellow blogger Erin at Coupon Cravings, I had a coupon for a free sample of Fekkai Hair Care at Sephora. (The coupon is still available) I cashed that in and also used some of my Sephora BeautyInsider Points to get a deluxe sample of Juice Beauty sensitive skin peel so I can give myself a facial at home. Total out of pocket: $0. (And I got my eyes done, too.)

If you want to get frequent freebies from Sephora, including coupons you can cash in for products, become a Beauty Insider. And after you do that, sashay over to Coupon Cravings to find out how you can get six free music downloads from Sephora, as well. (The freebies keep on coming!)

A quick trip to the grocery store netted even more freebies, as I cashed in three coupons for free candy from Mars, earned through the company's Real Chocolate Act promotion, available every Friday through September to the first 250,000 people who sign up each week. (You'll notice that one packet of M&Ms is missing from the photo. Blame it on my hungry husband's sweet tooth!) I also got a free package of Oscar Meyer hotdogs, thanks to a Kraft promotion I signed up for last month.

Money spent? Not one red cent, just four coupons, as good as cash where I shop. Normally, the purchase would have set me back around $5.50

We called our shopping trip quits with a trip to the drive-through at a local diner. Of course, I had a coupon from my Attractions Dining Guide, good for a free menu item. So, we paid just $6.08 for our dinner - two vegetable plates (macaroni is a vegetable in the South!) and two drinks.

Not our real food
Image copyright

All in all, I'd say it was a pretty productive shopping trip. We "bought" about $93 in merchandise and food using coupons but paid just $11.90 in real money.

That's an 87 percent savings. As my mother-in-law would say, "You can't get that kind of return on the stock market." Her words are particularly true in today's rollercoaster economy.

It seems that guy in the crazy question mark suit was right. You can get free money.

You'll find it in your newspaper every Sunday, in your email inbox and in your mailbox. It's up to you to spend it wisely.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Too Hot to Cook - Stay Cool with These Tips and Recipes

Frugal Upstate shares some great tips for beating the heat in the kitchen in the summer.

It's not officially summer, but I'm predicting this one will be sweltering. At the end of a hot, sweaty day, there's nothing I hate more than having to stand over a hot stove. So, I'm always on the lookout for tips and recipes that will keep me and my kitchen cool.

Anything you can do to minimize the amount of heat that goes into the air as a consequence of your cooking in the summer is a good thing. It reduces your electric bill or makes your home more comfortable...

Another way is to cook outside. The grill can be used not only for hotdogs, hamburgers, chicken and steaks, but also for grilled veggies and even pizza! Many propane grills today even have a single burner added on the side. This can be used to cook anything that you would cook on your range inside

But the grill isn’t the only way to cook “outside”. Remember, the main point is not to add heat to your living spaces-that can be done by plugging your crockpot, rice-cooker, toaster oven, or breadmaker in out in the garage, or even with an extension cord run to the back porch or deck.

I've got a few tips of my own for cooking cool in the summer, including recipes for some of our family's favorite meals.

Lots of folks must be getting into the mindset that the oven needs to stay off for a while. Andrea at Mommy Snacks shares a delicious no-bake dessert recipe for Angel Lush on her blog. (I've made this before, and it's rich yet refreshing. Very tea party and baby shower appropriate.) Good Housekeeping has developed a whole diet for when it's too hot to cook.

I'm on the search for more recipes I don't have to cook. As I find them, I'll be sharing them here. Please post your best stay-cool meals and recipes in the comments section.

Fun and Free Family Events in the Triad

Last week, I shared with my readers in the Piedmont Triad my calendar of summer movies suitable for the whole family. summer movies s

Now, I've added a second calendar of fun family events, many of them free. Check the calendar frequently, as it will be updated often as I learn of new events. And if you have an event you'd like to include, please email me.

The calendar is best viewed in agenda mode and it's searchable. So, if you're looking for a storytime or something free, just type in those keywords, and you'll see everything that is available.

Countdown to a Clutter-Free Life - 6 Items from Your Fridge or Pantry

If you've been following along on the Spring Fling Challenge, please accept my sincerest apologies for my slackness. I have been flinging, just not blogging thanks to a recent vacation, a business trip and a busier than normal schedule.

Enough with the excuses. Summer will be here in 12 days, so on to flinging...

In the next step in our challenge to rid ourselves of 55 unwanted, unneeded things, organizing guru Julie Morgenstern's challenges us to get rid of

  • 6 items from the fridge or pantry that will never be eaten or that have passed their ideal freshness

I'm ashamed to admit that this was no problem for me. In fact, I could probably do this challenge every week. (We're terrible about finishing all of our leftovers.) Last night - separate from this challenge, I tossed out some old lettuce, some leftover pasta, leftover garlic butter, some leftover Mexican casserole, some uneaten Chinese takeout and a few stuffed mushrooms.

This is so bad and so wasteful. Every time I do this, I promise myself that we'll do better at eating the food in our refrigerator and finishing off leftovers. But I'm not really a leftover kind of gal. My hubby can eat the same thing for days on end, but I really don't like dinner repeats. However, I'm going to challenge myself to find ways to repurpose our leftovers into delicious meals. If you have any suggestions, I'd love to hear them.

Now onto the purging. I cleared out our cabinets and tossed:

  • 2 outdated packages of gnocchi (a travesty!)
  • 1 package of spring roll skins (the best intentions)
  • 1 can cheddar cheese soup
  • 1 package of dry milk
  • 1 jar of instant coffee (never drink the stuff; bought it for a recipe)
  • sushi rice (not enough left to make even a single serving)
  • opened bag of Swedish fish from Ikea (to be fair, I ate these! Purging is hungry work)
  • 1 box of tea (I have more tea than Boston Harbor)
  • 1 almost empty bag of pear caramel tea (see above)
  • dried out coconut
  • golden flaxseed meal (didn't much like the taste)
  • 4 packages of fast food dipping sauce (I never end up using these)
  • 1 Ziploc bag of cornmeal left by my mother in law (I have a box, what do I need this bag for?)
  • 1 Thai Kitchen instant rice noodle soup (no idea how long that's been there!)
Drumroll please. With this task finished, I've gotten rid of 90 unwanted, unused and useless items since embarking on the challenge (plus 4,000 emails in my inbox and BlackBerry).

Keep checking back to follow my Spring Clean Countdown progress, and feel free to join the fun and post your own challenges and successes in getting clutter-free.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Discover & Donate with Artist Diane Birch

Discover a great artist and donate to one of five great causes.

Singer Diane Birch, whose album Bible Belt debuted Tuesday and is number 3 on the iTunes pop chart, has a great promotion going on. Thanks to SiteWarming Parties and Resourceful Mommy for bringing this to our attention:

For every Diane Birch album purchased through a special widget, $1 will be donated to one of six charities. Choose your charity - Autism Speaks, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Keep a Child Alive, SOS Children's Villages, or Share Our Strength - post the widget, and win. The person who raises the most money for charity through their widget will receive a FREE PRIVATE PERFORMANCE in their hometown!

I've chosen to support Share our Strength, a charity whose goal is to end childhood hunger in America. Just click below to purchase Diane's album and to donate $1 to this wonderful charity.

And if you're a blogger, you can add a widget to your site. Maybe you'll raise the most money and win a Diane Birch contest in your hometown.

And don't forget to join the SiteWarming Party for Discover & Donate tonight on Twitter. We'll be tweeting about #music4good from 9-10 p.m.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Free and Cheap Summer Family Movie Round Up

Movie theaters around the country will be showing free and discounted kids' and family movies throughout the summer.

My son and I plan to take full advantage of the free and almost-free movies in our hometown

At some theaters, tickets are free; others charge $3 for popcorn, admission and a drink. On a hot summer day, there's nothing like sitting in an air conditioned theater and munching on popcorn.

The thermometer on my car said the temp reached 97 degrees today. That may be an exaggeration, but tomorrow we'll be headed to Carousel Cinema to see the SpongeBob movie

For my Greensboro, N.C. readers, I've compiled a Google calendar listing movies and showtimes for theaters throughout the Triad. Please check back often, as I'll be adding additional theaters and other free and cheap kid-friendly events.

The calendar is best viewed in the Monthly or Agenda mode. Click on a movie title and you can see where it's playing on that date.

If you don't happen to live in Greensboro, you can check out movie schedules online at the Web sites for Cinemark, Carmike, Regal Cinemas, Southern Theatres, and AMC Theaters. (If I've missed any chains, let me know!)