Saturday, February 27, 2010

In life and in death

It's been a rather serious week here at OSH, and as a result, I'm searching for an all-purpose sharing dish. A close friend of mine lost her Opa last week, and the visitation and funeral were this week. In addition, an acquaintance from church (whose kids I've looked after in the nursery) is pregnant and due in April, but is on bed rest because she was having copious contractions. Imagine bed rest with two little boys running around!

Anyway, when life begins and when it ends (and I guess at many points in between), the sharing of food is always appropriate and needed. Back in the fall, when I had little D, we had some great friends and family who brought us meals to eat right away or to freeze, and it was invaluable. My criteria for practical meals: they have to be delicious (something we ourselves would enjoy), free of common allergens (i.e. nuts), made from readily available ingredients, and, ideally, something that shows we care for the people on the receiving end. After much research, there are two dishes I've found that would work well, one sweet and one savoury.

The dish the first: Monkey Bread, brought to my attention by Deb, the genius behind Smitten Kitchen. It's like many tiny cinnamon buns that you pull apart. As an experiment, I made it with regular cinnamon bun icing (icing sugar + milk) instead of cream cheese, since it was easier. It does take awhile to prepare, but that fulfills the criterion of showing care. The only ingredient that you may not have readily available (unless, like me, you have a breadmaker) is yeast. I test baked it, and then made it again to bring it to dinner with some friends visiting from the States.

The dish the second: Cheesy Chicken & Rice Casserole. I came across a version of this recipe several years ago, and it's nothing original, but it's a good, hearty meal. I'm planning to test cook this before I send it out, because it's been awhile since I last made it.

Baby Dee is exclaiming quite loudly, so I'll have to sign off now.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

No meat, no problem

If this post is a little choppy, it's because I'm watching the Canada-US game. Please forgive the occasional hockey-related interjection. Okay, so I love steak, chicken, and many other meats, but they are sometimes not the most economical meat options. (Someone in the arena has the biggest Canadian flag ever! And there's red and white everywhere. I'm so proud.) When you feel like cooking without meat, here are some meal ideas, with estimated costs. (Oh man, the States just scored already! Forty seconds in. That's unfortunate.)

Notes about pricing and recipes:
-all prices are regular, not sale, from a discount grocery store- in this case, Food Basics
-I lied. Since I only buy sale cheese, cheese is priced at 5.00$ for 500g
-unless name brand is the only thing available, everything is home brand
-although I love math, for the sake of my sanity, I'm not factoring in the cost of a teaspoon of salt or sugar or vinegar. Consider it minimal, like a cent or two.
-I'm linking to recipes where they are available, or to the cookbook from whence they came

2 Weeks of Meatless Meals
(Commentator- there are 6 Americans named Ryan? You mean on the US team, or in the whole country?)

1. Southwest Sweet Potato Soup: makes 4 servings
Sweet potato: 0.80$
Potato: 0.30$
Onion: 0.17$
Oil: 0.04$
Chicken bouillon: 0.68$
Optional jalapeno: 0.20$
Corn: 0.08$
Total: 2.27$
(Canada just scored!! Celebrate! Way to go, Staal, Seabrook & Toews)

2. Sweet Potato Black Bean Quesadillas: makes about 5 quesadillas, then a quiche. I heavily modified the recipe, omitting green onions, celery, red pepper and jalapeno, and swapping cheddar for feta cheese. This is so my hubby will eat the final product.
Sweet potato: 0.80$
Can o' black beans: 1.10$
Potato: 0.30$
Onion: 0.04$
Oil: 0.04$
Tortillas: 0.23$/each -we usually use 5, so it'd be 1.15$
Total: 3.43$
(What! The Americans answered back right away. And Baby D just started crying; I don't blame her, and neither does Mike Babcock.)

3. Quiche: makes 6 servings
We use the leftover mixture from the quesadillas, so it's just the cost of the crust. If you're really curious, the mixture itself is 2.28$, so 1.14$ of that goes to the quiche.
Flour: 0.20$, for 2 cups
Shortening: 0.63$
3 Eggs: 0.54$
Cheese: 1.00$, for 1 cup shredded
Milk: 0.25$
Total: 2.62$
(Heatley scored for Canada, evening out the score at the beginning of the 2nd period!)

4. Perogies and Zucchini Latkes- makes 2 servings, and was, incidentally, today's lunch
Perogies: 0.08$ each, we had 15 total for 1.20$
Zucchini: 0.50$
Onion: 0.17$
2 Potatoes: 0.30$
Oil: 0.04$
Flour: 0.03$
Egg: 0.18$
Total: 1.00$
(Aw man! The US just took the lead again. 3-2)

5. Corn Chowder: makes 3-4 servings
Potato: 0.15$
Onion: 0.17$
2 bouillon packets: 0.34$
2 cups milk: 0.50$
Flour: 0.01$
Total: 1.49$

6. Fettuccine Alfredo: makes 2 generous servings
Whipping cream: 0.50$
Fettuccine: 0.60$
Parmesan cheese: 1.33$
Garlic bread: 2.00$
Total: 4.43$
(Now 4-2 for the States from a power play goal. Rats.)

7. Grilled cheese and Couch Potatoes and Peas: makes 2 servings of sandwiches, 2-3 generous servings of couch potatoes, and 2 servings of peas
5 potatoes: 0.75$
Oil: 0.12$
Cheese: 0.75$
Bread: see bottom
Peas: 0.16$
Total: 1.78$
(We're almost back in this thing! 4-3, come on boys! My hubby says Crosby is the man!)

8. Butternut Squash Soup: makes 4-6 servings
Squash: 3.16$ out of season...ouch
Onion: 0.17$
Oil: 0.04$
Chicken bouillon: 0.85$
Total: 4.22$

(Wow, we were playing with so much heart before that empty net goal.)

9. Macaroni and Cheese Not from a Box: makes 4 generous servings
Macaroni: 1.00$
Flour: 0.02$
Milk: 0.50$
Cheese: 3.00$
Total: 4.52$

10. Pizza From the Ground Up : makes 2 12" pizzas
Flour: 0.35$
Yeast: 0.14$
Oil: 0.04$
Tomato paste: 0.59$
Green pepper: 1.45$
Onion: 0.17$
Cheese: 2.00$
Total: 4.74$

I'd add another 3.00$ for a loaf and a half of bread to go with the soups and the grilled cheese sandwich, and that's it.

Your cost for 2 weeks' dinners (including leftovers for lunches): 33.50$

(Come on, Canada! We've still got another chance at getting to the quarterfinals)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

TV or not TV?

I've been all over the Olympics since the Opening Ceremonies last Friday, watching coverage of events I would never see otherwise, like skiing, biathlon, snowboard cross, half pipe, speed skating, etc. Tonight was the first time we watched a bit of the action on television (at a friend's house), the reason being that we don't actually have one. We made the decision last spring to downgrade from a VIP cable package (46$/month) to basic cable (26$/month), then we got rid of cable altogether (0$/month). After that, we watched the odd DVD on our LCD (40" Sony, purchased in 2007 for 1500$- ouch), but mostly it just sat in our living room. One of my husband's co-workers was looking for an extra TV for her house, so we sold it to her for 700$. By the time all this was done, it was the end of the 2008-2009 TV season, so we didn't miss it much. I found that I wasted a lot of time watching shows in the evenings, and I was glad to get rid of it.

When the start of the 2009-2010 season rolled around, I wondered if we'd find it tough to be without a TV, but it wasn't too bad. Most of the shows we watch (The Office, House, Til Debt Do Us Part, etc) are available online just a couple of days after they air. The others, we don't really miss. I was a little concerned about how I would be able to watch the Olympics, but the CTV website streams live, and does so surprisingly well. We watched the entire Opening Ceremonies, and coverage for tons of events.

Like all money-saving options, this may not work for everyone. It's worth trying, though. Maybe downgrade your cable package, or try putting your TV in a less convenient spot, or try watching your favourite shows online (legally). My parents got rid of their cable shortly after we did, and they haven't missed it. (They don't watch much TV anyway, and they only have one kid at home now; the rest of us have moved out.) Plus, it all adds up: we're saving over 500$ this year from not having cable.

One last note about TVs: on Til Debt Do Us Part (a counter-cultural show that helps couples get their finances under control), the host always walks through the family home at the beginning of the show to see what they spend their money on, and 9 times out of 10, there's a big-screen TV in one room or more, and they're usually purchased on credit, if not financed. These sets cost upwards of 1000$ (once you factor in all the up-sells, like cables and matching DVD player, and of course the extended warranty), and even more if you finance them, paying copious interest for the sake of temporary "affordability". I am really not a fan of how popular they are. The way I see it, if you want to get your money's worth, you have to watch it a lot, and if you're doing that, you're missing out on a lot of your life. (Wow, tell us what you really think, Becky!) Just try scaling back and see if you miss it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

My grocery M.O.

People tend to either have enough time or enough money to accomplish what they want to do. As a stay-at-home mom, I don't have a lot of money for variable expenses, but I do have time to play around and find the best ways to make our dollars stretch. Our biggest variable expense is our grocery bill, and so far, I've managed to develop a system that keeps it to about 60$ per week. Here's what I do.

It starts with a quick perusal of the flyers from the grocery stores we frequent. Usually, for our area of town, it's either Food Basics or Real Canadian Superstore; these two have the best deals and if it's a toss-up between the two, sometimes I'll go to both. Once I've seen what's on sale, I can plan my meals accordingly. My breakfasts and lunches are usually about the same (cereal and sandwiches or soup, respectively), my husband doesn't eat breakfast and he takes leftovers for lunch. So the only meals that really vary are our dinners and whatever baking I do during the week. I have a list of possible meals, broken down by beef, chicken, pork, and vegetarian. We have a few favourites that we'll have every week or so, but the more I read food blogs and cookbooks, the more recipes I like to try out. My beloved husband is somewhat of a picky eater, but I know his tastes well enough to know what he'll like. He tends toward peasant foods, like root vegetables, soups, stews, and the like.

Once I've planned my meals (which means I write down 10 dinners on the back of my shopping list), I check to see if we have all the necessary ingredients, and write down any that we need to buy. I also take note of anything we're running out of, or that we're likely to run out of before the two weeks are up before the next trip. I'll also call my hubby to see if there's anything he wants or needs while I'm out. Once the shopping list is all written out, I highlight produce, frozen/dairy, and meat in different colours so that I have an easier time when I'm in a given section of the store. As an aside, I only plan 10 dinners because we have a lot of family and friends in town, so we often eat at someone's house, and I also leave room for a meal out every once in awhile.

As I mentioned, I shop every two weeks, usually on a Friday since that's when the flyer prices come into effect. That way, I'll get in on any awesome/time-sensitive specials, and the produce is fresh rather than picked over. Since I often have to bring my daughter with me, mornings tend to work best, and Fridays are best of all because most people are at work then, so I don't feel like we're slowing anyone down in the aisles or at the checkout. Before leaving the house, I make sure I have our grocery bins and recyclable bags, because not only is it a drag to pay 5 cents for plastic bags, but it's also a drag to carry multiple plastic bags in from the car by myself. As much of an adjustment as it's been, I really think it's a blessing that most stores make you pay for bags now.

My goal is always to stick to my list, and I've had limited success in doing so. Sometimes, if I've just forgotten to put something on there, or if I'm not sure we have quite enough of another, I'll pick up whatever it is. However, sometimes I have to be flexible if I've planned a certain meal, and the key ingredient isn't available (an unfortunate reality at discount grocery stores). This happens all the time, most often when I really want to make butternut squash soup and there's no squash. Or the meat advertised as being on sale ends up being more expensive than buying a whole chicken.

When buying produce for two weeks at a time, I get a lot of frozen (peas, corn) and canned (black beans, mandarins, corn) and I look for things that don't expire quickly: sweet potatoes, onions, apples, oranges, etc. I can't count how many times I've bought celery or pineapple or some kind of melon and thought I'd finish it right away, but ended up throwing it out. If I do get something like that, I have to chop it up as soon as I get home, otherwise I'll forget about it until it's too late. Which reminds me of a canteloupe that's been in the crisper for about three weeks now... I don't like my odds on that still being edible.

One last tip: if you cook with a lot of cheese (like we do), don't ever pay full price for one of those bricks! It goes on sale often enough for 4$, and when it does, stock up. Check the expiry dates: if unopened, those bricks are good for months, so work through them one at a time and buy more when it's back on sale. Don't freeze it unless you like crumbly cheese.

I'll close with our list of meals and grocery bill for this two-week period (Feb 12-26th):
Southwest Sweet Potato Soup (with homemade bread)
Butternut Squash Soup (with homemade bread)
Sweet Potato & Black Bean Quesadillas
Quiche (with leftover SPBB mixture)
Beef Stew
Roast Chicken, mashed potatoes, peas & carrots
Chicken Pot Pie
Perogies & Zucchini Latkes

Grocery Bill: 113.08$ (including white chocolate and fresh berries for a special Valentine's Day dessert and 4 cream cheeses for 1.88$ apiece)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bulk, baby, bulk!

One of the best ways to lower your variable expenses is to keep the grocery bill in check. I won't get into my whole system (or the one I want to have) right now. While I am a fan of buying in bulk, I'm pretty skeptical of places like Costco. Maybe because my husband once came home with a 40-pack of Creme Eggs a couple of Easters ago. (Did I mention we've made money mistakes in the past?) But places like that do tend to make people lose their minds; if you're going to shop there, you have to know your unit prices to determine what's actually a good deal and what isn't. I'm not there yet.

I prefer to apply the buying in bulk principle to my local discount grocery store. For instance, on my most recent grocery trip, I purchased 1.5 kg (aka about 3 lbs) of lean ground beef for 10$. Normally, since we only use ground beef about once a week or so, I buy 500g at a time for around 5$, freeze it, and use it later. With this family pack, I cut it in four as soon as I got home (and put away the groceries, and fed and changed my daughter), kept one quarter out for tacos that evening, and double-plastic-wrapped the other three quarters for later use. My husband and I do like meals that involve ground beef (tacos, chili, etc.) but we often don't finish them in one go, so we end up wasting meat. By making our own smaller packs from one bigger pack, we'll use up all the meat and get one extra meal out of it.

In a future post, I'll explain how I shop once every two weeks for groceries and keep my sanity. For now, Happy Valentine's Day, and way to go for gold, Canada!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Why stay home?

A year ago today, I found out I was pregnant with my first child. At that time, my husband and I were in the process of getting into a better financial position: we had moved into a house we could afford on one income, we had sold one of our two cars in the fall to pay off some debt, and most of my teacher's salary was going into savings. We had made our share of money mistakes in the past (and will probably continue to do so), but we had planned to have a baby around this time so that I could stay home full-time, which had been my dream since I was a little girl.

My mom was a full-time stay-at-home mom, and she raised four kids in the 80s and 90s. She had an undergrad degree in Applied Statistic and Computational Sciences from McMaster, and before her first child was born, she worked for about 3 years at Shell Canada (at the head office, not at the pump). As the story goes, when she was pregnant and about to go on mat leave, she had chosen a daycare and put down a deposit. Then when my older brother was born and she brought him home from the hospital, she was holding him in her arms one day and she turned to my dad and said, "this is too important." And so she decided to stay home with him.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that every mother should stay home. As every parent knows, what works for some does not work for others. I decided for myself from a young age that I wanted to have children and be a stay-at-home mom. Obviously, my own experience growing up plays a significant role. I loved having my mom around, and we are very close (even more so now that I have my own daughter). Also, although I am not at all opposed to daycare for other people, it's not the best option for me. I have a strong set of values, and I want to be able to impart them to my children through our daily interactions. I want to read with them, play with them, cook with them, clean with them, discipline them. As beneficial as daycare can be for other people, I would like to be the one my children spend their time with during the day.

What I am saying is this: I've heard many women say they would love to stay home when they have children, but they don't think they can afford it. I've started this blog to illustrate how they can. On the way, I also hope to demonstrate that being a stay-at-home mom is not an outdated notion, nor does it waste a woman's potential or show a lack of ambition. This has been my career goal since childhood, and I plan to excel at it.