08 March 2013

Frugality and Growth Spurts

No new news on the house front yet. Still trying to secure a firmer pre-approval from a bank before our offer can go any further. Since I've put all my interior decorating and organizing dreams on hold, I thought I'd do a bit of updating on our frugal adventures as of late.

(NOTE: See the end of this post for the resources I'll mention below)

I realized that I haven't done much updating as to our frugality since the dawn of 2013. Well, I do continue to homemake 100% of the tortillas and tortilla chips that we eat, and I still make bread and crackers a majority of the time, but sometimes I will buy a loaf or box if we run out before I have time to make more. I realized that making bread with a breadmaker would be much more efficient, so I have been perusing Craiglist and hope to check out the Salvation Army/Goodwill soon to try and hunt down a good bargain. My mom hinted that if we haven't found something by the time we move to Michigan, we may just get one as a housewarming present. In the meantime, I'm putting my old loaf pans (two metal, one glass) to good use:

Flour-dusted pugliese (pronounced please-y) is a light and fluffy Italian bread that is easy to make and few in ingredients.

For a few years now, I've made half-hearted attempts at creating a weekly meal plan, but I never seem to stick with it. I've been following a couple of frugality blogs and know from past experience that the most frugal homemakers out there live by a meal plan, so it's long been my goal to eventually get around it joining them. I'm pretty good at throwing things together with what I have in my fridge, but more times than I'd like to admit, we end up with a pizza or making pancakes because I didn't plan ahead.

I'd been feeling the urge to go through my folder of random recipes (both electronic and tangible) and sort through them. As I was organizing, I realized how many recipes I'd been wanting to try for literally years, but just never had for one reason or another. Not only dinner recipes, but also homemade spinach artichoke dip (perfect for an at-home date night), and whole wheat cinnamon rolls.

Concurrent with my cleaning experience, I picked up a book at the library called The Kitchen Counter Cooking School (I borrowed the 2010 edition). The subtitle is pretty self explanatory: How a Few Simple Lessons Transformed Nine Culinary Novices into Fearless Home Cooks. The author, a Le Cordon Bleu graduate, is really good at explaining cooking techniques in writing. I've only read the first few chapters, but I already learned the correct way to hold a Chef's knife (turns out I've been doing it wrong all these years and the right way gives you way more control over the blade), how to slice an onion, and how to cook veggies so they aren't bland and mushy. The book is pretty engaging and I often find myself reading it while standing in my kitchen examining my knives and my slicing and dicing technique.

The book is great for people who hate cooking or are scared of the kitchen and also people like me who have a certain sense of confidence in some areas, but rely on boxed or canned goods for most of their recipes.

So I finally wrote up a 1-month meal plan. It includes meatless Fridays (since it's Lent and we're Catholic), breakfast-for-dinner Sundays, and leftover Wednesdays. I included meals that primarily require ingredients and techniques I'm comfortable with, but most of them will push me to grow in one small way, like homemaking the refried beans that will go into tonight's burritos. The goal is that by the end of the month, I'll emerge with a greater set of kitchen skills.

My process:
1. Go through my recipes and set aside the ones that sound the best.
2. Jot down the meals in my planner, starting first with days that had the least flexibility (like meatless Fridays).
3. Go through the recipes and make a grocery list for ingredients I don't have.
4. Check out the grocery store fliers and dig through the coupon book.
4. Go grocery shopping and make dinner!

The entire process took a several hours, to be honest; although I did finish it in one day. And my grocery list scared me half to death. It filled up 1.5 pieces of 8.5 x 11 notebook paper (front sides only). I kid you not. I wish I'd taken a picture just to show you the craziness. My anxiety increased when I checked out the store flyer and found that it wasn't a good sale week. We don't have a warehouse membership and I don't think it's worth my time to drive to 3 different stores to get the best sale prices (even before I had a kid and lived in the city I hated doing this). I kept carefully track of the total in the margins of my grocery list, and when I left the checkout aisle? The damage was only $154. I kid you not. An entire month's worth of dinners, plus breakfast and lunch foods, for only $154. I will have to double back for things that don't keep, like bananas and milk, but I estimate that I'll spend less than $50 throughout this month on food. $200 for a family of three to eat comfortably in Chicago, IL.

The reason the total was so cheap was because I was buying ingredients, not boxed food. Spaghetti squash costs the same per ounce as a box of store brand pasta on sale at my grocer. Limes were $0.25 each and is the only thing I didn't have for a sauce for an upcoming dinner. A 10lb bag of flour (white, unbleached) cost me $6.29 and covers me for tortillas for a few meals, crepes, breadsticks, bretzel rolls, cinnamon bread for french toast, regular bread for sandwiches, burger buns, calzone dough, and pot pie dough. That's intense savings! Just from buying the stuff I need to make stuff for myself. Plus you get less preservatives, less additives, and usually, less calories!

I don't plan to make everything from scratch though, at least this time around. I did buy enchilada sauce in a can, Abigail has boxed, name brand granola bars, and the pizza we'll have on Friday the 15th is a Jack's shrink-wrapped number that was $2 a few weeks ago. I need to take this one step at a time.

The biggest critique I see against frugal meal planning is that it takes time. It takes time to make the meal plan and time to make the things that are normally pre-packaged. This is a real and valid critique. I would caution that making dinner is a lot easier when you know days in advance what you'll be having, you have all the ingredients on hand, and you're making something that you really enjoy. But it still takes time. I budget an hour to make dinner since I'm new to most of these recipes. Abigail sometimes gets frustrated and I've had to sacrifice my organized tupperware cupboard to her whims. We all want more time, money, and to be healthier, so we each have to find our own careful balance between homemade burger buns and destructive children.

But it's VERY important that if you opt to ditch a homemade pot pie in favor of something from a box that you do so because you understand your own personal balance and NOT because you're scared of making a pie crust. Cause otherwise you're just a victim of Marie Callender's marketing department. And what kind of life is that?

The last update to my frugality spree is that I finally made my own laundry detergent. I was quite skeptical at first because I had such bad luck with dishwasher detergent that I actually just broke down and bought some. But homemade is just so. freakin'. cheap. that I had to give it a shot. It took all of 10 minutes to make and I stored it in an old Ovaltine can. After the first week, I asked Matt if he noticed anything different about his laundry. He responded that he didn't. We are in agreement that homemade detergent cleans just as well as store-bought detergent. My whites and colors look the same. But I'm saving serious dough by switching. We're talking less than $2 vs. about $5-6 for the small jug of fragrance and dye free stuff we were buying.

Moving on to everyone's favorite Chica, we have a mad terrorizer:

Abigail's new thing (one of many) is to pull things off shelves and sit in them. I need to clear out another row of stuff on our shelves. Or load up more bankers boxes so they are too heavy for her to move.

She's getting to be quite a confident push-toy walker now, and can say "goldfish" (as in, the cracker) and "daddy" in addition to "kitty cat." She says "mama" in a pathetic voice when I'm disciplining her. The cute little manipulator. Her words are still pretty muddled, I'm pretty sure I'm the only one who can understand them, and sometimes I think maybe I'm just so excited for her to talk that I'm hearing what I want to hear instead of the babble that she actually speaks. She can understand tons of what I'm saying now, and obeys short commands. The developmental "growth spurt" for typically developing kids is right around their first birthday. Out of nowhere kids suddenly start walking, talking, understanding, having an attitude, all at once. (I understand the biological reason behind this, but most of my readers will probably find it boring). For kids with Ds, this occurs on average just after the second birthday. Abigail is (at least, physically) slightly advanced for a kid with Ds (or so we've been told), so it makes sense that she's hitting her stride as we approach the big 0-2.

It's getting harder and harder to wear her out indoors, so I'm pretty psyched for this weather to warm up so that I can let her loose at this awesome-looking toddler park I found while getting lost site-seeing in my own neighborhood. Either than or we need a house with a basement. Damn employment gap.


- Calculate the calories in your homemade recipes here.

- The laundry detergent recipe I use is this one. I made a very small batch to see if I liked it before I whipped up a big one. I'm still using that first recipe I made last month!

- A kick ass spaghetti squash recipe (I used regular ground beef because it was way cheap).

- Cheap and easy pretzel bread that makes GREAT burger buns and requires minimal rise time.

-Cinnamon roll and breadstick recipes (which I have yet to try).

UPDATE: I thought I should probably throw in a disclaimer. Part of the reason our food budget is slow low is because I rarely buy meat (usually only 1-2 packages a month) and I make it last a long time. Our main meat is chicken and I only buy it on sale. We get the biggest ham and turkey we can find during the holidays, cook the entire thing, then freeze the leftovers in Ziplock bags for future meals. I very rarely buy beef and usually only use 1/3 lb ground beef in recipes that call for 1lb, supplementing with rice, beans, or even just veggies.

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