We went back and forth this year on how many trees to put up. One is clearly more than enough, but two years ago we were given a second full-size Christmas tree, and we really couldn’t decide which one we’d rather have up. For the past two years we’ve been putting up both large trees (and then the smaller four foot tree on a counter or shelf), but we didn’t really have enough decorations for two large full-size trees. Instead, we put all our ornaments on the one we’ve always used, and then we used the second one and made it a homemade tree. Every ornament on it was handmade by the kids and myself. Two years ago was probably my favorite version of it, and then last year we started to do the same thing. Our decorating got derailed by unexpected happenings, and last year the homemade tree ended up a little sparse.
But this year, as I surveyed the ornament bins, I decided that we should just put both trees up and see what happened if we divided the ornaments up. We set the larger of the two trees in the school room in place of our school table and loaded that one up with all the fun ornaments we’ve all collected over the years. Here he is in all his splendor.
And then the third tree is the small one that we’ve set on top of the entertainment center this year. This one is decorated in red, white and blue and is just so welcome to me every year. I’d received it from my Grandma’s things when she passed away several years ago, and I’ve yet to undecorate it. I love putting it up and thinking about how she probably had a blast shopping for each and every ornament, and then putting this tree together. I bet she’s decorating some fabulous Christmas trees in Heaven.
And there they all are, three Christmas trees that make us smile. Every day the kids take turns with who gets to turn on the trees. Whoever doesn’t turn on the trees gets to move the snowflake on the countdown calendar one day closer to Christmas.
Honestly, I can come up with a place or two where we could put another tree if we came into one. We just might need a few more ornaments.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what to do with this blog. Every once in a while something totally random that won’t fit on my other blogs comes up, and I think I should post it here, and then I don’t. And the blog just sits, and is boring.
It’s time to stop being boring, and it’s time to revitalize the blogs that have lain dormant for far too long.
A Piece Of Home is going to start getting updated far more frequently, because this is where you’re going to see my home. I’m going to share the kid stuff here- since I’ve been so focused on food over at Tummy Treasure, the pictures of the kids seem more appropriate elsewhere- this is that place.
I will also be using this blog to share local reviews- businesses (not food related) that go above and beyond, or that we like to support. I’ll share about different non-food products I use as well- there’s nothing like finding a good recommendation online for something I’m considering using.
So as a teaser today of the things to come, here are a few pictures of the little people I love best- Abigail and Zander. These pictures were taken in April at one of our dance competitions. The competition itself was at the Kalahari Resort in Wisconsin Dells, and there were statues of animals all over the place. Abigail currently has a fondness for zebras and zebra stripes, so we took a few pictures of her with her friends.
At least I was a good mom and got at least one picture with Zander in it- it wasn’t all just about Abigail!
Many people are complaining about the cost of groceries these days. And with good reason, they are increasing like crazy, and a shopping cart that used to cost me around $80 is now over the $100 mark, and showing no signs of slowing.
In the past, I have challenged myself to shop less, to do more with things already on hand, and those have been fun challenges. The thing about them, though, is that they were planned in advance. I would pick up a few extras on the last shopping trip and then see if I could actually go two weeks without shopping again- except for maybe replenishing milk or eggs. Of course the challenges were easier with all the usual suspects on hand.
But what if you didn’t have the opportunity to prepare? What if, all the sudden, you could not go on your planned shopping excursion for the week? How would your family fare?
That’s what it’s been like here the last few weeks. We’re at the very tail end of Andy’s lay-off time, and there are just no more nickles to rub together to pay the bills. I literally was unable to go grocery shopping last week, and for a minute, I let that worry me.
And then I went and looked in our freezer. And I peeked in the pantry. And then I looked through the fridge to see what needed to be used up. Needless to say, it’s been surprising to me, all the meals that I have come up with out of what I would think of as “not much in the house”. I did have to rummage through the change jar and go pick up a gallon of milk, and I may have to do that with eggs either today or tomorrow, but for the most part, we’re managing, AND enjoying meal time just a little more it seems.
The usual has become different, and the variety that has brought to the table has been delightful! As I went through the freezer, I found some frozen chili and a full assembled and baked lasagna, so those went on my menu for some dinners. I baked up some corn muffins to go with the chili, and homemade breadsticks to go with the lasagna- along with some fresh broccoli that I’d forgotten about. Some frozen boneless/skinless chicken breasts were baked up with a sprinkle of delicious Garlic Pepper, and then sliced thinly and piled on fresh homemade bread when we needed a dinner-to-go. I added some home-grown sprouts and a squirt of BBQ sauce, and you would have thought we were eating sandwiches we’d ordered out.
Of course, there’s been a couple of soups in there. Organic chicken broth I’d frozen, coupled with some turkey brats were paired up with a can of Italian tomatoes and homemade noodles for an amazing Italian Sausage Soup. We had that twice- with homemade bread smeared with homemade jams.
Lunch has also been fun! One day I made pita bread, and then we topped that with chicken salad made with leftover roasted chicken, and those home-grown sprouts. I paired that with some freshly popped popcorn and apple slices and we had a really complete meal that tantalized the taste-buds. Popcorn to go with a lunch is a wonderful idea- it’s whole grain goodness at it’s finest and is way better than greasy chips as a go-with.
Lunch for a few days now will most likely be leftover lasagna and soup, but tonight’s dinner is a scrumptious beef stew, compliments of a pair of steaks unearthed from the bottom of the freezer. Would we rather have a steak dinner? Sure, but two steaks and four people don’t go far, and the stew will be wonderful with that tender beef as its base.
It’s just that, every day I get to the point where I’m thinking ahead, and I think that I just can’t wait any longer, I HAVE to go to the store, because I don’t have much else I can throw together. And then I think of something else. We’re having complete, well-balanced meals that are nutritious and delicious. We had a waffle dinner one day last week along with some home-canned pears, and a topping of strawberries we’d put in the freezer last winter. If I break down and go get eggs, we’ll have another breakfast-for-lunch-or-dinner meal of pancakes with blueberry sauce.
It’s just that, in this day and age of amazing grocery stores, we often don’t realize just how much food we actually have on hand. Seriously, if I worked really hard at it, I could probably keep this up for another 2 or 3 weeks- especially if I threw in a lot of legume-heavy soups.
So the next time you’re wondering if you can cut back on your grocery spending a bit, just do it! Go cold turkey and challenge yourself to feed your family on food you already have on hand. Set aside ten bucks to be used in case of emergency for replenishing milk and eggs and just do it! You’ll be doing yourself a favor, because you’ll be using up foodstuffs that has been around for a while anyway and could probably stand to be used before it goes bad. And maybe you’ll also get a needed reality check. The first step in reducing the grocery budget could very well be assessing the needs in the first place. Do you really need those bags of chips or cereal for example? Try a $2 tub of oatmeal that will make breakfast for two weeks, or try a $3 bag of popcorn that will last a very long time. It’s amazing the things that we could change- but we don’t, simply because it’s just not our way of thinking.
I think it’s time to change the way we think.
I realize the ultimate irony is that I am doing this particular post on this particular blog. I started this blog years ago when it was called “Menu Planning 101″ to try and help me stay focused on my weekly meal planning, and maybe help others out as well. Menu planning has fallen out of fancy for me, and while I keep trying to get it going again, it’s just not sticking as much as I want it to. Our busy weekly schedules make planning more difficult for me, and then adhering to the plan is equally difficult.
So I picked up a few new tools this week to help me in the planning process as we head into the new year. I’m really hoping that they will help me get in a groove and stay there. These things that I’ve picked up I purchased for a steal at our Lang store at it’s end-of-the-season-closing-the-doors-sale. You can still get the items online as well, and perhaps your little Lang kiosk in your local mall has them as well.
The first thing I picked up as I wandered the store was this weekly planner notepad. In fact, I picked up two of them.
It may not seem like much, but I think it’s genius. First of all, it’s huge. They’re nearly the size of a sheet of paper, and there is plenty of room to write on the generously spaced lines. Many planners focus on Monday through Friday and then squish the weekend together. This gives each day it’s own equitable space. It’s also got a massive magnet on the back and sticks to my fridge very nicely. I’ve considered attaching a pencil to a second magnet and hanging it nearby, but I’m thinking I will probably take it down each week to write on. Having a notepad already labeled for each day of the week to do my menu planning on could be just the thing to keep me planning. And the fact that this notepad is glaring at me from the side of the fridge while I work in the kitchen should help as well. I think these Jumbo Weekly Planners are a really good idea.
The other items that I picked up to help me get more organized are these Recipe Portfolios. I picked up two of them in very different designs:
They are glorified binders, already set up for organizing your recipes. I actually wasn’t sure what I was going to do with them at first, but the more I thought on it, the more I came up with a plan. I have hundreds of recipes that I’ve pulled out of magazines or printed off from online or elsewhere on my computer. Sometimes I actually sort them into a binder I have set up for recipes, but most often they just get slid into one basket or another. I’m sure if I went through each spot where I tend to tuck things, I’d have at least 30 recipes floating around. My binder was getting very full, and what I decided to do was divide my recipes.
I took the cherry portfolio and labeled it “Sweet”. Then I took the tabs inside that were already labeled things like main dish, soup, dessert, etc., and covered them up with a new label. The ones I decided on were Cookies, Bars& Brownies, Cakes, Pies, Candy, and Preserves and Other Stuff. Then all my sweet recipes were sorted into this portfolio. The dividers in this one have pockets, so those small, random recipes that need to be re-written or typed up just slid into the pockets for now.
The other binder I labeled “Savory” and for the most part, I left the dividers in that one intact. The only one I changed was the tab labeled “Desserts” and that one I changed to “Breads”. Then I went through and sorted all my savory recipes- the main dishes, soups, salads, etc., into that portfolio. Here you can see the portfolios standing on end, labeled for all the world to see:
I think this will help me with my meal planning as well, and here’s why. When I’m going to be meal planning, and want to use my recipe collection, I’ll know that I need to grab the savory binder. I won’t have this massive all-purpose binder to flip through, and thus get distracted by thoughts of cookies and candies or cake and pie and then never get around to menu planning. There’s also some tools within the portfolios that I hope I’ll end up putting to use.
There is a coupon holder to hold coupons in each binder- that could be handy for weekly menu planning, as I sit down and plan what I need to purchase each week and from which store. I also need to add a section for recipes to try yet, and then only the tried and true recipes will be filled away into the binder- so I’m not filling up the prime real estate with things that I may never even get around to cooking.
It’s a work in progress, but hopefully, as I look to getting more organized for 2011, these tools will help me stay focused and really get back to menu planning. Our health and our budget will thank me for it.
The other day I was thinking about my shopping habits, and how they’ve drastically changed since moving to the city.
And I mean drastically.
My weekly trip grocery shopping doesn’t always happen anymore. There are weeks where I will just stop in at any one of the stores, pick up about $25 worth of perishables like milk, butter and eggs, and that’s my shopping for the week. Before, living in a small town, I had to stock up when I went to the city. The reason for this being that our small town grocery simply was not affordable to shop at on an all-the-time basis. So when I would drive to the city for a grocery shop, I would stock up, and a trip was seldom below $130. Of course, with that, there was plenty of purchases that went to waste, because we couldn’t use that quantity of produce before it went bad.
Now, when I do a weekly grocery shop, my average is around $70, and I’m slowly losing that feeling that I need to stock up. Oh, it’s nice to have an array of meats in the freezer, and various dry goods in the pantry, but anytime I need something, an affordable grocery store is literally blocks away. We’re also wasting so much less, for the same reasons.
But there are other major things that I’ve noticed. The biggest one being that since we’ve moved to the city I have literally walked into Wal-Mart once. One time. And that one time was for a specific item for church, and the only place I knew to get that specific item was at Wal-Mart.
Now, before I go further, let me say that I am far from anti-Wal-Mart. I think there is room in this world for Wal-Mart and other big-box stores, and I also happen to think that they are geniuses when it comes to marketing.
Living in a small town, we kind of had this mentality that there wasn’t much that we needed that we could purchase in town. Planning a trip to the city took time, effort, and money, and in that regard, Wal-Mart was a livesaver sometimes, because it was one-stop shopping. I also found it the cheapest place to shop for items like deodorant, toothpaste, and toilet paper- things we need everyday. Except that I never walked out of there spending only a few dollars. Why is that? Marketing. Genius marketing.
Because when I walk into Wal-Mart for Windex, Deodorant, Fish Food, and a Loaf of Bread, I am going to have to navigate the entire store to find these things. But while I’m walking down the aisles I will see that my brand of shampoo and conditioner is on sale. Some new headbands for Abigail will catch my eye. Then as I head in the other directions I will see that table linens are on sale, and then there will be an endcap with candy at a great two-for-one price. As I head to the checkout, I will realize that I have something for Abigail in my cart, but not Zander, so I will swing by the boys clothes and see if there is a tee-shirt on sale that he would like. See where this is going? All these things are great deals- but when you put them all together, the $12 worth of items I stopped in to purchase have become $102.
I just made a decision to stop doing that.
So I shop where these items may be a little more expensive from time to time. The difference is that although I may pay up to a dollar more for deodorant, I am actually saving a HUGE amount of cash by avoiding the all-purpose store that tells me I need everything.
A beautiful side effect is that we are accumulating far less stuff. We are not buying things just because they are on sale. I want to note that this new way of life was completely unintentional. As I said, I am not anti Wal-Mart or anti Target, but I am anti-take all our hard-earned money for stuff we don’t need. It wasn’t that long ago that I realized that I hadn’t been going to Wal-Mart at all since we moved here. Maybe part of it is that there are so many other stores closer to our house and more convenient. That’s entirely possible.
Regardless of the reason though, I am so glad that I’ve been able to take a good long look at our spending habits, and I hope that we can stay mindful of where our spending is going as we roll into the holiday season.
At the tail end of August and beginning of September, we took a long careful look at our finances and decided we needed to enlist the help of a No-Spend Month to curb our spending. With fall on the way, and winter just beyond that, we were going to need to get in a mindset of not spending. Getting in all our curriculum for the year in August did not help… but a quick assessment of where we stood showed that if we didn’t do something drastic, we were going to end the month of September majorly behind.
So we decided on a No Spend Month. And to do that, we had to come up with a few rules for ourselves. The first thing we had to do was determine what we needed to purchase, and what could wait. We had to buy a rake for leaves- we didn’t have one. Andy needed some new jeans because he lost a few pair recently to some unrepairable holes. And that was it. We purposed together that we would spend money on groceries, gas, and bill-paying. I then gave myself a weekly limit for grocery spending of $120. Now that $120 included our trips to the apple orchard- that came out of my grocery budget, so I had less to spend those weeks. We also would not be eating out at all- no quick lunch, no coffee, no bottle of soda from the convenience store. Everything we ate would be prepared at home. We also decided that we also needed to commit to buying a newspaper subscription. The primary election in the middle of the month showed us how little we know about the city we live in, and we need to stay better informed as to what is going on. So we also agreed to spend $17 for a daily newspaper subscription.
You would think that this mindset of not spending would have been easy. But it wasn’t. School is back in session, and that means that all those back to school sales in the stores are being clearanced already. Agh! Temptation that I resisted. I swear that every day I was getting e-mails from my favorite places to shop at, enticing me with huge savings off this or that- or even free clothing items with any purchase. I’m not kidding when I say that Every. Single. Day. I was enticed in one way or another to spend. Whether it was via e-mail, something in the snail mail, or a person asking if we wanted to go out to lunch or dinner or something.
And then the middle of the month came. And I realized that things were not going well with our math selections for the year, and a purchase must be made. I had to consult with Andy, because new math programs for both kids was going to cost a big chunk of money. We both agreed it needed to be done, and I reluctantly made the order. Thank goodness that decision is already paying for itself.
When all is said and done, despite our best efforts, we will still be leaving September in the hole. Not by much… in fact, if we had not needed the new math books, we would be on the plus side and could have added to our savings. But when I think about it, had we not determined that September was a no-spend month, we wouldn’t have had the money available for the math and then I’d be in a real pickle of a spot.
The thing is, I’ve already been on a kick of not needing stuff for a long time now, but then every once in a while, I just get in a mood and we’ll go pick up a few things that we don’t really need. Or I’ll decide to tackle a new craft and have to go pick up the supplies necessary- or we’ll just go pick up a new video game or something. All those little things add up! Even things that are necessary like books. Our curriculum for school is literature based, and I haven’t been able to quite get in all that we need. Hello, library! If our library doesn’t have them, we can get them on inter-loan from another library. Otherwise, even if I only spent $20 a week on books, that adds up big-time over the long run.
During this month, we’ve also had things start to wear out on us. Of course they have, because we are in the mindset to not spend. But as I’ve been doing laundry, of course socks are filling with new holes, Zander’s clothes seem to be shrinking, and I managed to put a huge, unrepairable hole in one of my nicest pair of jeans. I have no idea when they will all be replaced, because the fact is, we’ve been managing just fine without. It IS incredibly tempting to just swing by a thrift store or consignment shop and see if they have an item or two. But that one item or two will snowball, and that’s what I’ve found eye-opening with our no-spend month. I know that if I walk into a store that sells used clothing, I will probably spend at least $20 on clothing. $20 that we may have on hand- but really isn’t available to spend because we need it elsewhere.
There have been many things that we’ve been doing without. A mop is an example. Shortly after we moved in, we had sewage back up into our basement. Andy used my mop to clean that up… so the mop was certainly not going to ever be used again. With no mop, how does one clean the plethora of wooden and tile floors I have? Why, the old-fashioned way, of course. I use a broom to sweep up the debris, and then I use a soft rag and a bucket of warm soapy water to do the job. Would a mop be easier? Perhaps, but my floors sure look clean, and since a nice mop is in the $20 dollar range…
See? All those $20 bills add up! And at the end of the month, had I spent each one as I thought about it, I wouldn’t have been able to pay all our bills on time and in full.
Is not spending fun? No. It really isn’t fun to have to turn down lunch invite after lunch invite because we’re not spending. I know that many, many people are Dave Ramsey fans… I am not. I think he has a lot of great things to say about money, but I don’t think that his answers are the answers for everyone. However, there is one thing that he says that I take to heart completely, and I may have been remiss in doing so in the past. And that is to Act Your Wage. If you don’t have the income for all the extra things in life, you shouldn’t be doing them. We don’t have the income to go out to dinner even once a month basis. So we don’t. We stay home and for less than $20 a day I can feed my family of four three wholesome meals a day plus snacks. That’s acting our wage.
Another thing we don’t do is go see movies. We did go see Toy Story 3 in the theater, but that is such a rare occurrence. We simply don’t have the extra money to spend the $40 a movie out with the family costs. So instead, we borrow movies from the library for free. (Yes, the library has new, recent releases.) We pop some popcorn at home which is practically free, have a glass of apple cider and have a wonderful evening being comfortable watching a movie on our own furniture.
We act our wage. And this No Spend Month has driven that point home for us even more so, as I realize the simple acts of buying a few pieces of clothing is not acting our wage if we really can’t afford to be doing so. Do I wish I had another pair of nice jeans? Sure, I do. But I do have others, and I also have skirts I could wear with a nice pair of boots. It’s just simply amazing the things you learn that you can do without when you really put your mind to it.
In fact, I think this No-Spend month was such a success that I plan to continue it into October. I do think that we’ll need to first do a thorough assessment of the kids winter clothes before we commit fully, but another month certainly can’t hurt. I’m encouraged by the fact that had it not been for the newer, better math curriculum, we would have said goodbye to September with a little extra. And so we plod on. I suspect I may have a few more things to say about our no-spend month. Especially in regard to smart grocery shopping.
And by the way, that newspaper subscription? Paid for itself in two days as I saved $29 at the grocery store using coupons. $29 dollars! I’m working on a method to save and keep track of coupons, and I hope to get that ironed out so that I can share that here as well.
Busy, busy week here this week! Between swimming lessons and dance classes we’ve got a lot of back and forth, with not as much time for cooking in-between.
We had an impromptu party on Saturday, so I have a few leftovers from that to squeeze into meals this week- meaning, I have a lot of salad here. Today is also the day that I make a fresh blueberry pie for dinner as a way of celebrating blueberries. I had to put the last of our 40 pounds into the freezer this morning for quality reasons, so now we have just over 20 quarts of berries in the freezer, plus some delicious jam. Some of those blueberries are going to be traded for farm fresh chicken in a few weeks.
So here’s the week ahead. Nothing terribly exciting, but it is nice to see a plan for the week so that I don’t have to really think on it each and every day. I am contemplating squeezing a BBQ pizza in this week instead of one of the planned meals- but if I don’t, I’ll be taking leftover BBQ ribs from the weekend, pulling the meat off, and then freezing that for another time.
Sunday: Leftovers, blueberry crisp for dessert
Monday: Pie Day- a broccoli-cheese quiche and fresh blueberry pie
Tuesday: Chicken Stir-Fry, Yellow Rice, Lettuce Salad
Wednesday: Tacos/Black Bean burritos, lettuce salad, fresh fruit
Thursday: Fried Rice, Lettuce salad, fresh fruit
Friday: Hamburgers, grilled potatoes and onions, more salad!
Saturday: What’s good at the farmer’s market day.
About two weeks ago, I decided I needed to get back into the thick of menu planning. I’d shied away from it for a while- partly because the winter was a long tedious routine of cooking what was on hand- that made for boring menu planning. Since we’ve moved to a more convenient city, menu planning didn’t seem necessary, since I could just run to my favorite grocery stores- the farthest being a seven-minute drive away.
But while my grocery budget hasn’t seemed to change too much, our eating habits have been stale. We’ve made a very conscious effort over the last four months or so to try and switch our diet to a completely whole foods diet. Meaning that I cook as much as I an from scratch- and we eschew as many preservatives as possible. We’ve switched completely to full-fat dairy products, as reduced fat alternatives replace the fat with chemicals that we don’t want to eat. I really think our diet has helped us to feel much better overall, but when we’re eating the same things over and over… well, menu planning should help me step up my game and cook for real again.
So in an attempt to convince myself to do my weekly menu planning again, I started an accountability group on one of the bulletin boards I frequent, and that seems to be helping. I still seem to need some inspiration, but without further ado, here is the menu plan for this week.
Sunday: BBQ Chicken, potato salad, baked beans, fruit salad
Monday: Blueberry Pancakes, Yogurt, Canned Pears
Tuesday: Grilled Chicken Breasts, Potatoes and Zucchini, Fruit Salad
Wednesday: Quesadillas, Fresh Fruit, Black Beans, Tortilla Chips and Salsa
Thursday: Taco Salads, Watermelon
Friday: Grilled Pork (Tenderloin I think) Sweet Potatoes, Lettuce Salad
Saturday: Burgers, Veg from the Farmers Market, New Potato Salad
It’s back to school this week! We’re excited to kick off our homeschooling adventure and see if we can get into some kind of rhythm with our days. It’s also a short week for us, as we’ll be travelling to the Twin Cities again this coming weekend to say bon voyage to summer.
Since we’re schooling at home, and time may be an issue, I’m also tackling some lunch menu plans as well. Wish me luck in sticking to the menu! Dinners this week are also on the easy side while figure out timing. I also expect to get some preserving done, and some baking- apple pie and zucchini bread in particular this week. Yum!
Don’t forget to head on over to I’m An Organizing Junkie for this week’s MPM round-up. I bet it’s back-to-school week for a lot of people!
I’m afraid that I’ve had to enable full comment moderation. Holy cow, have I been getting the spam the last few days!
Sorry if that causes problems, bear with me while I try and get rid of them permanently. Something with my spam catcher isn’t working right.