Friday, December 27, 2013

Our Christmas

For the past few decades, Christmas around our home always begins with practices and performances for school and church Christmas programs.  When the big boys were young they exercised the same grueling practice schedules OG & EJ currently go through every year.  The work always seems to pay off as the children are consistently proud of their accomplishments.  Our children have always eagerly signed up for performances despite the hectic schedules and hard work.  They seem to genuinely enjoy entertaining others with their talents.
 
 
 
This year, in addition to the children's choir, EJ had a speaking part in our home school group's Christmas program.  He also had a speaking part in the Children's program at our local church AND he played "Jingle Bells" on his harmonica during our church's Christmas music specials.  We have not been able to find a harmonica teacher, so EJ has been using the internet to teach himself.  He is so proud he learned "Jingle Bells" in only 3 weeks.
OG was especially busy with speaking, singing and as a guitarist in our home school group's program, our church program & music specials and our community Christmas Cantata.



Until this year, OG was the only youth who participated in our community Christmas Cantata.  This year she was joined by another very vocally talented high school student.  Both girls are hoping more youths will participate next Christmas season.


Just before bedtime on Christmas Eve one will find us gathered 'round mugs of hot apple cider, hot cocoa or glasses of eggnog with a plate of cookies for the reading of Luke 1:5 - 2:21. 

Christmas morning begins nice, neat and tidy.  But always turns ...




... Excitedly messy!!






AND our Christmas breakfast always includes
 
Karbach Haus Bread Pudding 
 
 


Step 1:

     1 8-ounce package of softened cream cheese
     1 cup sugar
     1/2 teaspoon vanilla
     1 teaspoon cinnamon

In a mixing bowl, cream above ingredients together.  Spread mixture on 6 slices of day old bread or sourdough sandwich bread.  Cover with 6 more slices of bread, making sandwiches.  Cut or tear the sandwiches into bite sized squares.  Pile the squares into a 9 x 13 inch greased casserole pan.

Step 2:

     12 eggs
     2 cups milk
     4 ounces softened cream cheese
     1/2 cup sugar
     1/2 teaspoon salt
     1/4 cup butter, melted and cooled

Beat eggs until light and fluffy.  Add remaining ingredients and blend well.  Pour over bread and cream cheese mixture.  Cover with foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Step 3:

Next morning,  pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.  Remove foil and sprinkle with 1/2 cup chopped pecans.  Bake at 375 degrees fro 45 minutes or until knife inserted in center comes out with out raw egg.  Serve with whipped cream, syrup or any other favorite French toast topping.

10 - 12 servings

Note:  When our big boys and extended family are not home, I half the recipe and bake it in an 8 x 8 inch casserole.  This recipe also doubles well for very large gatherings of 12 -24.  When doubling the recipe I bake it in two 9 x 13 inch casseroles.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Making a List & Checking it Twice: Update #4 Ready for Christmas!!

Christmas Gifts Purchased:
     CHECK

Out of Town Gifts Wrapped & Mailed:
     CHECK

Christmas Décor:
     TODAY (If I didn't have children in the house and since no other family will be home for Christmas this year, I'd skip the décor - Last year I was Home Alone during Christmas & I skipped the décor.  Does that make me a scrooge?)
      CHECK (I might add red velveteen bows to the porch and deck railings tomorrow ...)

The children have been pestering me trying to talk me into purchasing a new Christmas tree
for years.  We found this little "Charlie Brown" Christmas tree at an after
Christmas sale for $5 fourteen years ago.  I am too cheap frugal to even consider a new tree.

Many of our Christmas décor items have been homemade gifts from one of
Mr.B's aunts.  She is so very talented and is a blessing and inspiration.
 Thirty years ago, I made paper bag stocking patterns and as family members have
been added, I sew each a stocking specific to their personality.  Since our grown boys and
extended family will not be joining us this Christmas, I've only hung 4 stockings on the mantle this year.


15 Homemade Gifts:
      13 completed, 2 left
CHECK

Christmas Cards Addressed & Mailed:
     1/2
CHECK

Local Christmas Gifts Wrapped:
     1/4
CHECK

The  packing paper from mail ordered supplies is saved and re-cycled into wrapping paper.
Ribbon, bows, string are also re-cycled or purchased from re-sale shops.
Our annual gift wrap budget is less than $10.

Christmas Dinner Planned:
     NO
A Work in progress:
     CHECK
             Appetizer:
               Pastry Wrapped Brie
            Dinner:
               Honey Glazed Ham
               Macaroni & Cheese
               Buttered Broccoli
               Southern Green Beans
           Dessert:
               Chocolate Pie
               Pecan Pie
           Beverages:
              Iced Tea
              Water
              Warm Apple Cider

Budget:
     YES!! - so far, $106.00 under budget

There is progress, but I've still a long way to go.
Just need to finalize Christmas dinner plans and we'll be ready for Christmas!
HooRay!  We are ready for Christmas !!!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Pot Luck Etiquette

Those of you who know me personally or who have been following my blog for a while know that we live in a VERY rural and VERY sparsely populated area.  Our entire county has fewer than 1,000 residents.  Consequently, we drive long distances for recreation activities, restaurants, shopping, etc.  One of our community's most popular local activity is pot lucks.  We have pot lucks for homeschool socials, sports socials, church socials, volunteer socials, and just about every other reason one could think of.  They are most often held in church basements, the court house court room, the senior citizen center, the volunteer fire station and individual homes. 

Usually the guests / participants observe proper manners at these pot luck functions.  However, we will occasionally observe someone who is simply unaware of certain social graces.  Those who are guilty of failure to exercise certain manners are usually younger or from large cities where pot lucks are not quite so common.  For families who maintain a tight grocery budget regular pot luck socials are a great budget saver and inexpensive family entertainment.

 As fun and entertaining as pot lucks can be, there are certain social graces that must always be maintained.  Young children should be reminded of these social graces before every pot luck gathering, especially those concerning hygiene.

1.  If the organizer has provided a list of specified dishes, such as last names beginning with A-F bring main courses, G-L bring salads, M-R bring side dishes, S-Z bring breads OR desserts, PLEASE always bring a dish from the specified category.  Example:  Even if your broccoli, rice and cheese casserole is the best dish you make and the best in the community, do not bring it unless your last name begins with M-R for side dishes.  NOTE:   If a list of specified food items is not provided or mentioned then, by all means, bring one of your best or a family favorite.

2.  If financial or time management obligations prevents you from being able to contribute a food item, ALWAYS assist with set-up AND clean-up.  The concept of pot lucks is to prevent the expenses and labor of social gatherings from falling on one or two individuals.  As they say, "Many hands make light work".  Quite frankly failing to contribute by bringing a food item or contributing to the labor will earn you and your family the very unflattering title of "mooch".

3.  ALWAYS wash your hands before set-up, progressing through the food line or after you cough, sneeze, etc.

4.  Want seconds?  ALWAYS obtain a clean plate.  No one wants to come behind you and eat from a food item in which the serving spoon was tapped onto your dirty, germ filled plate.  Using a dirty plate for seconds - HORRINDOUSLY poor manners.

5.  Aside from basic table manners, which I've personally realized can vary significantly from family to family, ALWAYS clear your and your young children's place settings when you are finished.  Disposable dinnerware should be placed in the trash, other dinnerware should be placed in it's specified area for washing.  If you don't know where the wash area is, ASK.

Our family enjoys our community pot lucks.  They give us an opportunity to visit and catch up with friends and neighbors.  They solidify community spirit and cooperation.  They offer fellowship and celebration for various community or holiday events.  Observing the most basic of pot luck etiquette makes the experience most enjoyable for all in attendance.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Gift Basket's How To's

As our family's Chief Financial Officer (CFO), [yes, I am also the Chief Operations Officer, (COO) .. a person as multi-talented as I am wears many hats ...]  I am always searching for frugal avenues to bless others.  Birthdays and holidays can reek havoc on any family's budget.   Through the years I've learned that frugal doesn't have to mean cheep.  There are several penny pinching ideas that allow frugal gifts to be presented in a special and professional manner.  I  have a relative who is sugar sensitive and this year's Christmas candies and cookies just will not due.  Therefore, I decided to build a non-sugary gift basket.  My cost savings for doing this myself was more than 40%.  Here's my frugal attempt to mimic fancy gift basket companies.
 
Step 1:  Select an appropriate sized basket and place filler in the bottom.  I purchased the basket from our local re-sale shop for 50 cents and used a crumpled paper sack as filler.
 
 

Step 2:  Spread a small amount of raffia across the filler.  My red raffia was FREE because I had saved it in a plastic bag from the packaging of a previous gift.



Step 3:  Attractively arrange your gift items.  I used glue dots from my scrapbooking supplies to affix the items together and prevent them from shifting.  These gift items were purchased on sale from our grocer.


Step 4:  Set the gift basket in the center of cellophane wrap and gather the ends together securing them with a twist tie.  Trim the excess cellophane.  Add ribbon or a bow.  My velveteen bow was purchased in an unopened package of 4 for 25 cents from our local resale shop.



Tuesday, December 10, 2013

"Nap Time? ...



... No, I think it's pull my socks off time ..."

I began babysitting this precious little guy, ET, a few months ago.  Although he has his own ideas about nap time, I think he is still the one of the cutest and sweetest little people I've ever met.
Because of him, I am, for the first time in my life, looking forward to becoming a grandmother someday.

Monday, December 9, 2013

WARNING: The National Weather Service ...


... has issued a BLIZZARD warning for the following counties ..."

Yup! we are officially experiencing our first blizzard of the season.

 "Lord, we come to you with prayers of thanksgiving for the winter moisture that will help grow our crops next spring.  Lord, we thank you for getting us home safely before the blizzard.  Lord, we humbly ask that you protect our community and families during this storm.  Lord, we ask that you divinely keep our electricity connected and in normal working condition.  Lord, we thank you for providing us with the wisdom and resources to store winter preps .  Lord, we trust your wisdom in all thingsIn Jesus name we pray"

Current outdoor temperature is 17 degrees Fahrenheit w/ a wind chill factor of 2 below zero; current wind speed approximately 43 mph.
 (as bad as that may sound to my southern friends and family, 17 degrees is 30 degrees warmer than Thursday morning - ha! who would have ever thought a heat wave would include a blizzard?)

Friday, December 6, 2013

Poverty, More Than a Lack of Income

I suppose many would wonder why I would choose to post about poverty during the Christmas season.  Christmas is supposed to be a season of joy, expectation, and peace.  Thoughts of poverty often bring vastly different feelings.  Feelings of despair, hopelessness, and conflict.  Many often feel conflicted with the expectations of providing material gifts that one's household budget can not afford.  Many feel hopeless that their situations will never change.  Many feel despair over a perceived lack of opportunities to change their situations.

Living on the eastern Montana prairie places us "next door" to the North Dakota oil boom, often referred to as the Bakken.  The oil is flowing, the unemployment rate is around 2% and the middle class is growing.  In a area where the average McDonald's and Wal-Mart employees earn over $15.00 an hour and some oil field hands are earning over $100K a year, it seems everyone should have a very comfortable lifestyle.

Don't pack up or rent a moving van just yet.  The reality of the Bakken is vastly different from the perception.  $15.00 an hour is not a "living wage" when the average rent for a one bedroom apartment is $2,100 per month and childcare is as much as $1,700 per month per child.  The net take-home pay of a $15.00 per hour employee is not enough to live in a one bedroom apartment, in the Bakken.  $2,100 a month rent is roughly 1/3 of the net take-home pay of an oilfield hand.  If you need a home for a family, that will cost you a 30 year mortgage of about $2,800 per month.  A gallon of milk is nearly $5 and there aren't any $1 value menus at the McDonald's or Taco Bell in this region of our nation.  $15 a pair wool socks are a necessity in this area's cold winter climate.  (This morning I awoke to an outdoor temperature of 27 degrees below zero).  Need a vehicle?  There is a reason my Mr. B flew to southeast Texas to purchase a farm truck.  Even after the expense of a one-way plane ticket and fuel costs to drive it home, he saved THOUSANDS of dollars.

Economically, poverty is relative to the cost of living for a region, not the national average hourly or annual wages.  But poverty is also a mindset.  It is an attitude of despair, a lack of expectations, the absence of hope.  When looking at poverty from a socioeconomic perspective we see many working poor with a lower standard of living than our nation's well-fare class, but they don't live with an impoverished outlook.  They are grateful for employment even though they may have to work a second job to pay the rent, they expect that through hard work their futures will improve and they hope higher earning job opportunities will come their way.  On the other hand, the well-fare class often resents those with a higher standard of living, they have no hope for a better future because they are not working, or can not work, toward that goal, and there is no expectation of opportunities, because there are no opportunities in well-fare; creating an environment of despair.  During our years of living below the poverty line working hard, learning to be a good steward of our resources, and being grateful for our opportunities helped to us maintain the positive and hopeful outlook on life that I continue to see in many of today's working poor.

When I lived below the poverty line, there were times when I felt impoverished and times when I didn't.  I felt impoverished when I visited my middle-class maternal grandmother and she served me a slice of bread smothered in gravy while she ate roast beef, mashed potatoes, and vegetables in front of me.  I felt as wealthy as a king when I lived with my paternal impoverished grandmother and she shared her only bowl of soup and crackers with me; she shared her all.  I felt impoverished when my middle-class maternal grandmother gave me a used coloring book and crayons for Christmas.  I felt as wealthy as a king when my impoverished paternal grandmother made me a blouse and skirt from the fabric of a large dress found in a bag of dirty, stained old clothes an unknown stranger had left on her doorstep; she gave me the best she was able to give.   I felt impoverished when my middle-class extended family told me to lie about the birth of our oldest child because of the embarrassing circumstances of his birth.  I felt as wealthy as a king when a co-worker told me that although I couldn't change my past I held the power to change my future; she offered words of encouragement and hope.  I felt impoverished when a food stamp coordinator told me I was stupid and foolish to work for minimum wage, as she denied my application.  I felt as wealthy as king when I found a brown paper grocery bag of Christmas presents for our children on our door step with a note telling me how respected I was for working two full-time jobs to support our family; someone had taken notice of my hard work.  I felt impoverished when a school counselor told our son that poverty begets poverty and despite his extremely high I.Q. he would most likely continue the cycle of poverty.  Watching that same boy enlist in the Air Force, attend college, work hard and begin planting his own business makes me feel as wealthy as a king; he is exercising diligence in overcoming his childhood circumstances.

In my world wealth is not bottled up in a paycheck.  Wealth is contingent upon our attitudes and our outlook on life.  Going into debt to rescue the poor will not shatter the mindset of poverty.  Blowing our household budgets and purchasing a boat load of Christmas gifts for our children will not prevent the mindset of poverty.  From the view out my window, if poverty is to be abolished every person, regardless of his socioeconomic status, must offer his very best.  For some the best will include working 2 full-time jobs, offering a word of encouragement, recognizing a neighbor's efforts, recycling the old into something new and useful, refusing to give up when everyone else says all is hopeless, etc..  Putting forth our best evokes an attitude of gratefulness, the hope of better things to come, and expectations of opportunities. Gratefulness, hope and expectations are what pulls people out of poverty.  I pray this Christmas season will be the season you either choose to put forth your best or find the strength to continue in your best.  After all, God gave us His best so that we could be rescued from eternal death and redeemed unto Him.  John 3:16-17, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.  For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved."  Let us follow God's generous example and give our best to our families, friends, neighbors and communities.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

It's Time For ...

Wool Socks
Long Handles
Hats, Scarfs & Mittens
Flannel Bed Linens & PJ's
Quilts
Blazing Fires in the Fireplace
Steaming Bowls of Soup
Fresh Loaves of Warm Bread
Mugs of Hot Tea and Cocoa
Board Games
Movie Nights
Arts & Crafts

Everything else will have to wait until spring.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

"Professional" Gift Giving on a Budget

Yesterday was "Black Friday".  Did you wake up at an unusually early hour to brave the crowds?  I woke up at 3am in an attempt to obtain the "deal of the day" one time many years ago.  I arrived at my destination by 4am for a 5am opening and the parking lot was completely full - I had to park several blocks away and walk to the stores.  I stood in a ridiculously long line waiting for the doors to open and when they did, I did my best to keep up with the crowd in fear of being trampled if I fell behind.  Once in the store I experienced utter shock as I watched people scooping every single package of specific items off shelving into their shopping carts.  I  experienced utter disbelief as I observed people becoming angry and very mean & rude when they thought someone was attempting to "cut in line" near the electronics department.  I was literally overwhelmed and within 20 minutes of walking through the doors and I walked out of the store with nothing.  In my world "Black Friday" is too expensive. Every Black Friday since, I have been found in my home caring for my family, watching a cheesy Christmas film or working on one of my homemade gifts.
 
This "Black Friday" we chose to make candy.  We made rum & pecan fudge, milk chocolate marshmallows, white chocolate peppermint bark and chocolate covered coconut almond balls.  This afternoon I worked on "professionally" packaging a couple tins to ship out to Grandpa's. My primary reason for choosing to make candy is that some of it will be gifts for my youngest brothers who own and operate a bakery - thus, I didn't want to send them cookies or other baked goods. 
 
 
We were surprised how much candy only 1 batch of each recipe made!
I think a few other people will be receiving candy also.

Several weeks ago I found the tins at the re-sale shop for 25 cents each.
Mini cupcake liners are the perfect size for one piece of candy.

We used waxed paper, cut to fit the tin, to cover the candy and placed a pretty note card on top.

I also found ten bows and 150 ft. of ribbon (brand new in packaging) at the re-sale shop
for only $3.00.  I have enough bows and more than enough ribbon for 10 gifts.

249 pieces of candy cost me $28.50 in supplies.  That averages only 11 1/2 cents per piece.  By utilizing the re-sale shop, each tin & gift wrap costs less than 65 cents.  Can you believe the total cost for the two gifts pictured above is only $1.80 each?  Yes, we spent 3 hours making four batches of candy and I spent a few minutes attempting to professionally wrap and package the candies.  But those 3 1/2 hours were spent in a relaxed, stress free atmosphere.  I didn't have to drive 65 miles one-way to find the "deal of the day".  I didn't have to worry that the person in front of me would clean off the shelf before I could get the item I had written on my list.   I also find it hard to believe that any store had their tins of candy marked down to only $1.80.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Thanksgiving Dinner: Reduced, Reused & Recycled

Since I recently finished part 5, Stewardship in the Kitchen: Reduce, Reuse & Recycle, I thought I'd share our post Thanksgiving example.

Since our big boys and Grandpa were not able to come home and we were not sure Mr.B would have the day off, I didn't invite any of our neighbors or others from our community to join us for Thanksgiving dinner. As a result this year's Thanksgiving celebration was small and intimate thus, I kept our meal small in comparison to past festivities.  We enjoyed roasted chicken w/ dressing & gravy, buttered green beans, cob corn, sweet potato casserole, jellied cranberries, chocolate cream pie and pumpkin pie.

Reusing and recycling was not limited to just the leftover foods.  This year's Thanksgiving dinner had elements of food recycling.  I NEVER purchase bags of stuffing mix, bread crumbs or croutons.  Instead, I freeze any stale bread, ends of bread or leftover bread in a freezer bag and use it for dressing/stuffing, bread crumbs, bread puddings and croutons.  This year I used a combination of white and wheat breads from my freezer bag to make the dressing and we all enjoyed it very much.

Although not enough to feed us for a week, we did have some leftovers of each food item served.  As I was putting the food away yesterday afternoon, I considered how to get the most out of the leftovers.  I chose to reuse the chicken, gravy and dressing in a chicken & broccoli bake served with sides of the remaining green beans and sweet potato casserole.  I will remove the corn from the cob and use it in a corn & black bean tortilla soup later in the week.  The remaining jellied cranberries will be added to breakfast fruit smoothies.  Mr.B finished the remaining chocolate pie before leaving for work this afternoon and the pumpkin pie will be a nice sweet treat tomorrow evening.  I placed the chicken carcass, the innards packet and fat in my crock pot with a carrot, a small onion and two stalks celery.  This morning I strained out the chicken parts & vegetables and found I had a little more than 2 quarts of homemade chicken broth.  Nothing will go to waste - the strained fat solids and vegetables will be fed to our chickens.

Here's my recipe for the

Chicken & Broccoli Bake

2 c. cooked and de-boned chicken or turkey
1 pound chopped frozen or fresh broccoli
1 1/2 c. chicken or turkey gravy (may substitute or add cream soup to make measure)
2 -3 c. prepared moist dressing (add small amount of water or chicken stock to moisten if necessary)
salt & pepper to taste

Combine chicken, broccoli and gravy.  Season to taste with salt & pepper.  Pour into a greased casserole and spread dressing over top of chicken mixture.  Bake at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes until hot, bubbly and top is lightly browned.
6-8 servings

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving Blessings

Before I list a few Thanksgiving blessings, I'd like to thank Kati at The Country Blossom for the adorable turkey craft Idea.  Because she generously shared her children's Thanksgiving craft activities, my children made this terrific Thanksgiving table centerpiece today.

Now, on to my post ... This Thanksgiving there is so much to be thankful for.  First, and foremost, I am thankful for my salvation through Jesus Christ who has transformed me into a new creature.  2 Corinthians 5:17 says, "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new."
Second I am thankful for my beautiful family.  Our family's testimony is a testimony of God's generous, restorative and loving grace.  Psalm 123:8 says, "Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house; and thy children like olive plants round about thy table."
Third, I realize that through God's provision there are so many little things that bring joy and comfort to my daily life.  Matthew 6:33 says, "But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you".  I am thankful for oodles and oodles of little things such as:  flannel bed linens on cold wintry nights; wool socks; indoor plumbing with lots and lots of hot running water for soaking aching muscles; warm mugs of chamomile tea right before bedtime; a barn full of cats (='s fewer mice); the view of vibrant sunrises through a large picture window in my bedroom; miles of prairie topped with water colored sunsets; black night skies sprinkled with sparkling "diamonds"; the perfumed scent of Russian olive trees floating on a summertime breeze; gentle movement of cool air from the ceiling fan on hot summer's evening; the echo of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe's whistle drifting across the prairie on clear, crisp winter mornings; the warmth and beauty of the winter evening's fire; the birth of kittens, farm animals and garden seedlings in the spring; the smile on a baby's face and his smell when I cuddle him close; my little girl giving me a hug for no apparent reason in the middle of the afternoon; the sound of our big boys' voices on the telephone and the tight squeeze of their hugs when they visit; the curiously funny questions our EJ often asks; Mr.B's steady commitment to our family; and the list could go on and on and on.

I pray that you and your family had a wonderfully blessed Thanksgiving Day.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Stewardship in the Kitchen: Reduce, Reuse & Recycle

There is a television commercial advertising a food storage product that claims "... the average U.S. family throws away over $500.00 worth of food each year."  I don't know how accurate this estimate is, but from my personal observations, I certainly find it believable.  Even within our own extended family I've watched relatives throw multiple plates of food into the trash because too much was cooked and "we don't eat leftovers, we like our food fresh."
Coming from a place of poverty where government assistance was not accepted, watching entire containers of food being scraped into the trash is literally like watching money being carelessly thrown away.  If the T.V. commercial is accurate, $500.00 per year is more than an entire month out of my family's annual food budget.

For more than a decade we've been listening to public service campaigns telling us to Reduce, Reuse & Recycle.  These campaigns are aimed at reducing pollution and conserving natural resources.  Our nation's Builder Generation came of age during the Great Depression & Dust Bowl of the 1930's.  They made the phrase "waste not, want not" popular and by applying today's "reduce, reuse & recycle" concept to every aspect of daily life, and survived one of the worst economic downturns in U.S. history.

There are several avenues we can take to reduce the amount of food we are preparing and often times wasting.  First and foremost, if you find you are consistently throwing food away because you simply cooked too much and don't like leftovers, reduce the recipe(s) by half and serve smaller portions.  Not only will this save money but it will also reduce your family's caloric intake - something many of us need to do anyway.

Meat and dairy are some of the most expensive food items we purchase.  Research shows that Americans consume far more meat and dairy than our counterparts in other developed countries.  By reducing the amount of meat we consume, not only will we be healthier as a nation, but it is also a simple and easy way to reduce our grocery budget.  Preparing a soup, main dish salad, casserole and two meatless meals each week will reduce the average U.S. family's weekly meat consumption by 50%.  If one reduces the amount of meat used in casseroles, soups & stews by 25%-50%, even more savings will be found.  Also keep in mind that less expensive cuts of meats are perfect for use in soups and casseroles.

When attempting to reduce the cost of dairy, reconstituted powdered milk is often half the cost of a regular gallon and an excellent option for cooking.  I've found that puddings, baked goods, gravies, basically any cooked recipe that calls for milk, has the same flavor and texture as milk from gallon jugs purchased from the dairy case.  Substituting reconstituted milk in cooked recipes has reduced our family's milk costs by a 1/2 gallon per week and at $4.68/gallon that's $121.68 annually -  more than an entire week's worth of groceries.  Also, stronger cheeses are more flavorful than milder ones.  Do you realize that by substituting sharp cheddar for mild cheddar in recipes, you can achieve the same flavor by reducing the amount used by up to 1/2?  Not only is that budget friendly, but it's also friendly for the waist line.

By replacing cold cereals, instant hot cereals, toaster pastries and pre-prepared frozen waffles & pancakes with high nutrition old fashioned oats and homemade pancakes, waffles & egg sandwiches, one can save more than 50% on breakfast foods.  We must stop buying into the myth that "cooking", especially in the morning, takes too much time.  Old fashioned oats are cooked and ready in less than 10 minutes, farina (aka cream of wheat, malt-o-meal, etc.) cooks in only 5 minutes.  Prepare waffles, pancakes and/ or homemade egg on English muffin sandwiches on the weekend and freeze them for quick breakfasts later in the week.  If you are looking for something lighter, a slice of toast with a smear of peanut butter or sprinkling of cinnamon sugar and a banana or apple takes less than 3 minutes to prepare and is a fraction of the cost of pre-prepared breakfast foods, not to mention packed with improved nutritional benefits.

After school snacks can blow any family's grocery budget faster than one can say "licitly split".  Homemade snack options are far more healthy and, in many instances, up to 75% less expensive than their copycat store bought versions.  By focusing on high protein & high fiber snacks youngsters will eat less and stay satisfied longer than if they consume all pre-prepared snack foods.  Some ideas include:  a hard boiled or deviled egg, celery w/ peanut butter or cream cheese, saltine crackers w/ peanut butter or thinly sliced cheese, graham cracker "sandwich" made with peanut butter & jelly, sliced apples or other fruit, 1/2 c. of yogurt from the less expensive per ounce family size container, etc..  Keep in mind that a snack should be a SNACK: a small serving of food intended to tie one over until meal time.

Restricting desserts to once per month and holidays is another easy step in reducing the grocery budget. Pre-made store bought desserts are especially expensive, and if your income level is "average" they are certainly too expensive for the 10%-13% recommended budget.  Since ingredients such as sugars, nuts, candy pieces, exotic spices, etc. are very costly, even homemade desserts are a splurge for today's median household income and from a financial perspective should be restricted.  Restricting desserts to once per month and/or holidays only, increases the value and enjoyment of the desserts.  During the Great Depression, children looked especially forward to birthdays and holidays because that is when desserts would most often be served.  I've met many a senior citizen who fondly recalls the peppermint sticks of Christmas, the fruit pies of July 4th, and fluffy birthday cakes.

Leftovers are a food source that many families overlook.  Cleaning the "science experiments" out of the refrigerator has become a regular monthly task in many American homes.  When we do have leftover foods it is vital that we do not throw them away no matter how small the portions may be.  There are several ways to reuse them.  Such as:
**  Planning a leftover buffet for the busiest evening of the week is a budget and time saver. 
**  In our home we save the smallest of leftovers, usually less than a serving size, in the freezer.  We have three freezer bags that store leftover beef, chicken and vegetables.  When enough food has collected in the freezer bags, we thaw it and by adding beef broth to beef or chicken broth to chicken we make a soup or stew out of the leftovers.  We often refer to this as Sunday soup because it is most often placed in the crock pot with a few seasonings to cook and simmer while we attend Sunday morning church service.  It is wonderful to come home to a delicious and satisfying pot of soup. 
** When consuming leftovers it is vital to get the most out of what you have.  Example:  2-3 cups of leftover beef stew could be two lunch servings the following day.  However, by adding some thickening and making a double pie crust that same leftover stew becomes beef pot pie and with an added salad it will feed 6 people supper.
**  For those who just can't seem to stomach "leftovers", I challenge them to become creative and turn the leftovers into make-overs.  The above stew to pot pie example comes to mind.  Leftover roasted chicken can also be de-boned and turned into chicken & rice casserole, chicken noodle soup or chicken salad sandwiches.  Leftover meatloaf can be crumbled and  converted to homemade sloppy Joes, shepherd's pie or added to homemade Italian meat sauce for spaghetti or lasagna.
The art of reusing foods is a huge budget stretcher.  In our home spoiled leftovers, or "refrigerator science experiments", is a sin.

 There are many food resources that most Americans simply toss into the trash.  Recycling foods is a concept that most modern American families have never considered.  A few resources include:
**  Simmering meat bones in lightly salted water for a couple hours or overnight in a crockpot will make homemade chicken, beef or pork broths.  In turn boiled beef and pork bones are terrific teeth cleaners for the family dog or cat & they will reward you with lots of tail wagging and purrs of love.  (note:  do not feed chicken bones to dogs or cats).
**  Substituting soured milk for buttermilk in pancakes, waffles or baked goods is a budget saving tip I learned from growing up with my grandmother.
**  Saving the pulp in 1 cup increments from the juicing machine can and should be substituted for whole fruits in muffins and other baked goods.  Leftover juicing pulp can also be cooked down with sugar making homemade fruit butters.
**  By straining and freezing the juice from canned fruits until enough is collected one can make homemade jellies and syrups.
**  Using a nylon brush to thoroughly clean the outside skins of vegetables before peeling them and  placing the peelings in a pot of lightly salted simmering water for 1 - 2 hours will create homemade vegetable broth.  If you have any, feed the strained vegetable peels to your livestock or add to your garden composting bin(s).
**  If you have any hunters, trappers and fishermen in your family, save the usually discarded innards in the freezer.  A few days before a planned trapping or fishing excursion "sink it" and use it as bait.
**  Any antlers or small bones from harvested meat sources can also become hours of hobby time for young boys.  Allow them to use a hand saw to cut the antlers or bones into button sized rounds.  They can use a manual crank drill to drill holes in the buttons.  With a little research the boys can sell their handmade buttons to various craftsmen.
**  Finally, if you do find that food must be thrown out don't put it in the trash.  Fruit and vegetable scraps can be composted for your gardens and meat & dairy products are great sources of extra protein for omnivore livestock such as chickens or pigs.

I was fortunate to live with my impoverished depression era grandmother until I was aged 12.  Her daily life was an educational experience in making the most out of what we had and never allowing anything to go to waste.  My life experiences have taught me that with planning and creativity every family can eat well.  I also know it is not always the amount or extravagance of food served, but the hidden ingredient of love that genuinely nourishes our families.  I pray this Stewardship in the Kitchen series has equipped you with the knowledge and desire to plan and create daily family meal times with your loved ones.  I am confident the time spent around the meal table will become some of your family's most cherished memories.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Stewardship in the Kitchen: Planning (AKA Taking Control)

I've heard it said, "Those who fail to make a plan; are planning to fail."  Other than self discipline, planning is the most important task in taking control of the household grocery budget.  Five commonly used tools needed to take control are a calendar, an envelope, a calculator, a pencil and a small notepad.

Obviously, the calendar will be used for meal planning and scheduling "big cook" days.  Big cook days are essential for many of today's very busy families, especially dual income families.    When I was employed outside our home, scheduling our big cook day on the morning of my 1st day off each week worked best for our family.  During my big cook day, I would prep the beef and vegetables for that week's  upcoming crock pot stew, mix together the upcoming casserole recipe,  pre-cook the rice for that week's fried rice meal, etc.   If you incorporate help from your spouse and children, big cook days can be a free, fun and educational experience for the entire family. 

When planning family meals, remember to do your homework by taking a quick inventory of the pantry, freezer and food storage areas.  Reviewing the sales adds and using deeply discounted items in your meal plan will stretch your budget.  Also, remember to be nutritionally minded.  Good nutrition always provides the biggest bang for the buck.  Meal planning doesn't have to mean that your diet will be boring and unexciting.  By perfecting 2 chicken, 2 beef, 2 pork, 2 fish/seafood, 2 meatless, 2 main dish salads, 2 hearty soups, 2 casseroles and 2 outstanding sandwiches you will provide your family with a variety of 18 meals per month.  Increase that to three each and your family will never eat the same meal twice within the same month.  And having a repertoire, will keep your food costs consistent.  In a previous post, Meal Planning 101 , I've outlined examples of 3 two week meal plans to help spark the creativity aspect of meal planning.

Laura Barfield, author of Feed Your Family for $12.00 a Day, suggests taking a reconnaissance trip to your local markets and recording the prices in a small notepad to determine which market has the lowest food prices.  I personally found this nugget of advise to be invaluable during our lean years living in poverty.  This is where I'd like to make two suggestions.  The first addresses brand loyalty.  I suggest anyone working to stay within a budget needs to throw brand loyalty out the window.  I've personally found that there is little difference between name brands and generic, especially in dry good staples.  The exception to this would, of course, be food allergies, real vs. imitation, or the rare exception of  extremely poor quality.  The second addresses the hidden shopping expenditure of fuel.  Although I now have to drive 45 miles to the grocer, I am fortunate in that the two markets available to choose from are conveniently located across the road from each other saving me money on fuel.  If store A will save you an average of $8 each two week shopping trip (or $192 annually) but it costs you $8 or more in fuel to get there - you are not saving any money.  Remember to account for ALL expenditures when determining which market will be the most economical for your budget.

When comparison shopping it is vital to pay close attention to the cost per ounce/pound.  For instance the large family size yogurt generally costs 20%-40% less than the same amount packaged in individual serving cups, the sale price of a two pound block of cheese is often up to 30% less expensive than 1 1/2 - 2 c. bag of shredded, a 25# bag of flour is often 35% less expensive per pound than the smaller 5# bag.  For the wise consumer comparison shopping should also include the cost savings of pre-made vs. from scratch.  Cooking from scratch is not only overall vastly less expensive, but the quality and nutritional value of the foods is much higher adding even more value to your dollar.  Here are few tidbits to consider:
**  Dried beans cost about 50% less per finished ounce/pound than canned.
**  Bullion purchased in bulk is 50% less expensive per serving than canned or boxed broth.
**  It costs an extra 10 minutes and less than $0.75 to make homemade pie crust (double crust).
**  It cost an extra 15 minutes and less than $1.00 to make 2 dozen from scratch homemade biscuits.
**  It cost an extra 10 minutes and only $0.62 to make homemade cake batter.
**  It costs 5 minutes and less than $0.35 to make 6-8 oz. of homemade salad dressing / marinades.
**  If you own a bread maker, using it will save you more than 65% per loaf.
**  As long as you refrain from chips, sodas, etc., your kids can brown bag their school lunches for 1/2 the cost of the school's hot lunch plate.

To combat the amount of time spent in the kitchen, always think ahead.  When preparing muffins or pancakes, double the recipe and freeze the extras for breakfasts on the go and quick snacks.  If grilling, grill extra for another meal later in the week or month such as grilled chicken for chicken salads or an extra steak for steak quesadillas.  If serving rice as a side dish, cook extra for a rice pudding dessert or a quick meal of fried rice later in the week.  Because most baked goods freeze well, try incorporating a baking day and bake for the entire month.  Also by including extra time to wash / clean vegetables, divide discounted family packs etc. into your shopping schedule, you will save precious time on busy weeknights.

I've addressed the calendar for meal planning and the pencil & notepad for list making and comparison shopping.  The glamorous calculator and envelope are vital tools to staying within budget.  The envelope will carry your cash.  Yes, I said cash for grocery shopping; no checks, no debit or credit cards.  I suggest that each pay period you place a budgeted amount, 10% - 13% of income, in an envelope for groceries.  Take only the budgeted amount to the grocer with you.  If you cheat and take the check book, debit or credit card, I promise you will fudge and blow your grocery budget.  Having a limited amount of cash and no other resources for payment and using a calculator to add up the items from your list as they are placed in the cart will ensure that you stick to your list and stay within budget.  I always recommend one reserves an extra $5-$10 for "just in case" purchases between shopping trips (i.e. need extra milk or another loaf of bread).

I assure you that by making a plan and working your plan you will be able to not only take control of the budget, but find more time to spend with your family over satisfying meals.  I firmly believe that when we feed others, especially our loved ones, we are nourishing their souls.  Although I do remember a couple tense conversations around the family meal table while living with my Aunt J and Uncle T, I cherish the vast majority of memories that included the family coming together at the beginning and end of each day to break bread and nourish each other's souls.  I only lived with them for a short period of time, but family meal time left the most lasting impressions upon me and provided me with more positive influences than any other aspect of my childhood.  I sincerely pray the information provided herein will encourage and enable you to gift your family with family meal times.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Stewardship in the Kitchen: Setting a Realistic Grocery Budget

Once kitchen inventory has been taken and weekly family meal times have been established, it is time to get serious about the grocery budget.  As mentioned in a previous Meal Planning 101 post, the costs of groceries can be very fluid for those who do not have a plan or a set budget.

When planning our meals and the coordinating shopping trip a couple questions beg to be asked.
1.  How much do I currently spend on groceries each month?  If you are not a receipt saver, like me, please take time to review the last 3 months of your checkbook register or bank statement and add up ALL your grocery expenditures, no matter how small they may be.  Divide the amount by 3.  This is your family's average monthly grocery expenditures.  2.  What is a realistic grocery budget for my family's income level?  According to personal finance advisors, like Dave Ramsey and Larry Burkett, Americans should not be spending more than 10 -13% of their monthly incomes on food.  Not only are we one of the wealthiest nations in the world, but we also have some of  the lowest food costs in the world.

According to Wikipedia the 2011-2012 annual median income of U.S. households equaled $50,054 (almost $200 less than 2009 figures).  That means the average household should never spend more than $417 - $542 per month on groceries, regardless of family size.  Of course if your family's income is higher than the average, you will be able to have a larger grocery budget.  However, if your family's income is lower than average, then your budget will have to be adjusted accordingly.

According to research, in 2012 the average U.S. family spent an estimated $250 per week on groceries.  That's $13,000 per year or 26% of the median income of U.S. households!  These numbers are very telling.  Although our nation still has one of the lowest food costs world wide, our food prices are increasing at a much faster rate than average income levels and families are failing to budget their food dollars.  We must remember that when the U.S. government releases official inflation rates, food, fuel and utility costs are NOT included in those figures.  So just because the U.S.'s annual inflation rate was only 1.74% for a said year - that does not mean that food, fuel and utilities increased by only 1.74%.  Math tells us that the costs for these necessities are increasing at a significantly faster rate than the rest of our economy.  Budgeting one's grocery expenditures is more important for the financial health and well being of our families than it has been in decades.

How do we get our grocery budgets under control?  How do we feed our families healthy nutritious meals on a budget?  First we must identify our spending habits.  As I stand in line at the check-out counter, I am nosy and look in the other guy's cart.  I've done this my entire life.  By looking in someone's grocery cart, I can generally tell if someone is a single parent, divorced or married, has athletic children or couch potato children, I can even deduce why someone may be overweight and/or chronically ill.  From my observations I've realized that Americans spend far more money on groceries than they have too.  I consistently see cart loads of the most expensive items one can buy in almost every grocery cart I peer into. 

What are the 3 most expensive food items Americans purchase?  Convenience pre-prepared processed foods, animal products, and the most expensive products you'll ever purchase ... spices/herbs.  Yes, spices/herbs.  Do you realize that when one does the math, that little 1.75 oz. bottle of caraway seed you paid $4.69 for actually cost more than $45.00 per pound?  Who's living large now? 

The easiest way to reduce the cost of herb/spices is to grow the ones you use most often.  Herbs are the easiest and most simple plants to grow.  They can be grown in a flower bed or in an old tin can on a sunny window sill.  Growing a few of my own herbs was the spark that ignited my gardening passion.  Nowadays, my garden saves my family thousands of grocery dollars every year.

As the years have progressed, I've found it more and more difficult to purchase quality meat products that are not "ready to use".  The frozen foods section is expanding, the "fresh" meat coolers are shrinking and the meat displayed in them is often pre-marinated / pre-seasoned adding exorbitant costs to it's purchase.  Grocery carts at the check-out counters are full of "ready to use" meat products.  I never purchase these products.  As a matter of fact, any store bought meat that is purchased for our home is purchased from the reduced for quick sale bin and is never pre-seasoned/pre-marinated.  Upon arrival home, if this meat is not cooked the day of purchase it is placed in the freezer.  My freezer is my most utilized kitchen tool.

Most of the foods purchased from today's grocery stores are convenience foods.  Remember, I know what your buying - I've been checking out your grocery cart.  What are convenience foods?  They include food products that are partially cooked (i.e. instant minute rice, instant potatoes, hamburger helpers, etc..), packaged pre-seasoned foods (flavored rice and noodle sides, etc.), boxed baking mixes (cake & brownie mixes, cornbread & biscuit mixes, etc.), pre-cut and attractively arranged fruit & veggie trays from the produce department, ready to eat foods from the deli department, bottled salad dressings and marinades, etc..

Why do we find so many convenience foods in today's grocery carts?  I believe lack of time, lack of knowledge and advertising pressures have made convenience food a societal norm for our culture.  Convenience foods are not only EXPENSIVE they are also very unhealthy.  We have a relative who consistently comments on how they can spend a week in our home eating more food then they ever eat and still loose weight.  It is because, they are not eating partially cooked, pre-seasoned, boxed & bottled convenience foods.  They are served and they consume foods prepared from scratch.  Foods prepared from scratch generally contain fewer calories per serving than most convenience foods and are often at least 50% less expensive per ounce/per pound.

Using time management to plan family meals and  cook from scratch are the best behaviors one can use to combat high grocery bills.  I'm sure you are asking yourself, "how much does she spend on groceries?"  Please keep in mind that I live in an area of the nation that has very high food costs (my Houston friends pay about $2.50 for a gallon of milk, we pay $4.89 per gallon), we host other families about 2 times a month, I occasionally babysit, my dad visits for months at a time, we consistently donate to our church food pantry, needless to say, I am often feeding quite a few more than 4 people each week.  I am proud to say that as our family's Chief Financial Officer, I've set a $5,000 annual grocery budget or $416.66 per month for our family.  I stick to that budget and everyone who comes into our home eats very well.  If I can do this, I believe anyone can do it.  All it takes is discipline, creativity, and resolve.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Stewardship in the Kitchen: Time Management

In learning to be a good steward of one's resources, it is important to include time management.  I must confess that some seasons of my life have seen better time management than others.  I've learned that time management is an area of stewardship that needs constant work and can always be improved upon - at least that's how it applies to my life.

So, how much time do we really have?  Everyone is allotted 8,760 hours per year.  This number can be deceiving.  When we begin to break our time down into days, hours and minutes and begin filling in tasks and responsibilities most of us start wishing we had more - a lot more.  This is why time management is an important aspect of good stewardship for any area of one's life - not just the kitchen and home.

Taking time to maintain a balanced household budget and spend time with family around the meal table eliminates a tremendous amount of stress within the family unit.  Identifying and conquering time bandits is an excellent start to acquiring more time for the things that really matter in our day to day lives.  Social networking, internet surfing, television & movies, video/computer games, reading fiction, etc. steal so much of our time.  We are all, me included, guilty of just doing a quick check of our e-mails, reading just one section of a new novel, or watching just one 30 min. program and before we even realize it we've lost 1, 2 or 3 hours of our very precious and limited time.  Time that can never be retrieved or made up. 

The realization that we are the Chief Operations Officers of our homes is where many folks suddenly realize that time management is of vital importance to the well being of one's family.  The COO's of major corporations do not spend hours each day on  social networking sites, internet surfing, watching television, etc.  They are focused on the daily operations, the personnel requirements, the quarterly goals and the profit margins of the corporations they manage.  How much more important are our homes and families to us?  As the COO's of our homes it is our responsibility to manage and schedule the day to day operations of our homes while making sure those operations are aligned with the long term goals our families. 

As challenging as all this may sound to the average person, it really isn't difficult. 
1.  Just as an employer would assign a work schedule, we need to have a "work schedule" for our homes.  We should always begin, stop and take breaks at the same time daily - just as we would if working for a corporation.
2.  Make a list of all the responsibilities involved in operating the home:  i.e., laundry, tidying up, deep cleaning, meals, shopping, schoolwork, yard work, farm work, animals/pets, time with children, errands, paperwork/accounting/filing, time with spouse, sports/extra activities, gardening, workout routines, social commitments, educational commitments, church commitments, bedtime routines, etc.
3.  Implement a schedule.  Just like a job outside the home, use a calendar to schedule specific days / times for various responsibilities.  Many people are surprised to find that as they implement a routine, their families become calmer, more disciplined and happier.
4.  Delegate various responsibilities to those who live with you, especially your children.  Taking time today to teach your children how to perform age appropriate chores will save you hours, days, weeks and months as the years pass.  If elderly parents or other relatives live with your family, incorporate their help as well.  If they are physically unable to assist with chores and household responsibilities, recruit them to lead the children's reading hour, supervise craft time, play indoor board games, etc., thus, providing you with an hour of uninterrupted time for household accounting,  or other responsibilities that need your undivided attention.
5.  Manage the home.  Remember, you are the COO of your home - act like it.  Write out daily, weekly, monthly goals and the tasks required to achieve them.  As things on the "to do" list are completed, mark them off.  Follow up with others to confirm their responsibilities are completed, performed correctly and provide additional training, if needed.

When we learn to effectively manage our time within the home, that is when we will find that we really do have time for meal planning and daily family meals.  Family meals not only help us maintain a grocery budget but they also build strong families and contribute to the long term health and well being of the family unit.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Stewardship in the Kitchen: Resources

Anyone who has been following my blog for any length of time is aware of my interest and passion for being a good steward of the blessings God has blessed us with.  Since I am also a "foodie", I have a "special bond" with the concept of being a good steward of all things kitcheny. 
 
A few months ago I was honored with the opportunity to lead a workshop on stewardship in the kitchen.  In preparation for the workshop I compiled several handouts/worksheets for the attendees.  I've decided I'd like to share the same secrets and tips covered in the workshop with you, my dear readers.  This will be a 5 part blog series covering the topics of resources, time management, budgeting, planning, and waste.  I hope you find the information useful.
 
 
Resources:
 
Good stewardship in any area of one's life begins with taking inventory.  When applied to stewardship in the kitchen this includes asking yourself questions such as:
 
Am I wildly energetic and creative?  Energetic and creative types usually enjoy creating & trying new recipes, and the challenge of setting a budget and sticking to it.
 
Am I focused and well disciplined?  Focused and well disciplined people thrive on having a plan and working the plan.
 
Kitchen inventory also includes a tool inventory.  What kitchen tools do you own?  Do you use the tools you have?  Some kitchen tools may include a crockpot / slow cooker, food processor, deep freezer, electric mixer, automatic bread maker, blender, food saver, dehydrator, electric fryer, meat slicer, etc.  I like to think of my kitchen tools as my modern day servants, they are most often designed to make food preparation easier and faster.  The most frequently used tools in my kitchen are my crock pots and freezer.
 
 
When speaking of kitchen inventory, we must not forget to include knowledge and skills inventory such as cooking from scratch, reading and following recipes, cookbooks, knowledge of good nutrition, menu planning, gardening, butchering, safe home canning / food preservation, etc.  All the tools in the world are not going to help someone who doesn't have the knowledge or skills to use them to their full advantage.  I was fortunate to grow up in an environment where we cooked EVERYTHING from scratch, we also had a garden and harvested many of our own proteins which naturally lead to the education of safe food preservation.  During twelve years of single parenting, food nutrition and meal planning became essential aspects of stretching our grocery budget.
 
I'd like to encourage you to take inventory of your kitchen.   Inventory will  make you aware of the tools, skills or knowledge you'd like to acquire.  It will also bring awareness to the tools and skills you have but are not currently using that will make food preparation faster, easier and more cost effective.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Meal Planning 101

Planned meal times with one's family not only saves money within the household budget but it also strengthens the family unit.  Coming together each day for a meal validates each member of the family.  Studies show that  family meal times increase nutritional awareness and reduces eating disorders, increases self esteem and respect for others, and the children of families who eat together are less likely to become involved with alcohol and drugs. 

Many people have told me they don't like meal planning because they have a difficult time sticking to a grocery budget and their family is, simply, too busy.  I surmise that flexibility within the grocery budget, impulse buying, and lack of planning contribute to budget and family meal time failures.

Unlike our mortgage / rent, auto payments, etc., grocery budgets can be very fluid. Often times we experience financial "surprises" and the first thing we do is reduce that week's or month's grocery budget to cover an unexpected expense.  This perceived flexibility can be a huge budget buster and before we know it we are using our credit card at the grocery store for the current week's groceries. Which, by the way, most likely ends up being purchased a the end of an exhausting day, without a plan and a rumbling stomach.

A busy activity schedule including sports, music, drama, etc. can have everyone "eating on the go".  Take out, microwave and frozen meals or food left in pots on the stove for everyone to dish out at his or her convenience has become the norm for busy families.  This is where the parents must step in and designate specific family meal times.  Although having family meal time on a daily basis is best, studies indicate that a minimum of three family meals per week are necessary for the above mentioned benefits.  For some very busy families these meals may include one weeknight and Saturday & Sunday afternoon.  Other families may need to be more creative and incorporate breakfast as part of the family meal schedule / planning.  Also, when implementing family meal time, PLEASE make the meal table an electronics free zone.  The goal is to spend time together, focusing on each other not high school gossip or the latest crisis at work.  Once the meal is on the table, most families have finished eating within 30 minutes - electronics can and should be set aside.

I am a firm believer that meal planning is a cornerstone to working within a grocery budget and getting everyone to the table at the same time.  Since most families are paid either once every two weeks or twice per month, I believe a 2 week meal plan is best. Determining a spending limit prior to shopping and having each meal's ingredients in your pantry, refrigerator and freezer are paramount to sticking to the plan.  If someone is having to run to the store several times per week or daily to pick up needed items,  the grocery budget will skyrocket because one will be too temped to impulse buy, either at the grocer or take-out drive thru, and the meal plan will have been a waste of time and family meal time may not happen.

There are several concepts to meal planning that can keep it organized for the list makers and flexible for adventurous.  First of all a simple wall calendar, the ones that come in the mail for free are perfect, is all that's needed.  Over the years I've used several creative ideas to keep our meals varied and exciting.

Themed Meal Plans
Meatless Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, Waste Not Wednesdays, Take-Out Thursdays, Finger Foods Fridays, Seafood Saturdays and Sunday Soups or Salads keep the meal plan fun and varied.
2 Week EXAMPLE:
Monday - pasta & vegetable stuffed zucchini, warm garlic bread
Tuesday - tacos, Mexican rice, refried beans
Wednesday - leftover buffet
Thursday - family meal out at favorite restaurant
Friday - pizza & salad
Saturday - parmesan crusted tilapia, buttered green beans, roasted potatoes
Sunday - sausage, lentil and spinach soup, hot buttered rolls,

Monday - asparagus tomato salad, mixed olive crostini
Tuesday - beef fiesta bowls
Wednesday - leftover buffet
Thursday - family meal out at favorite restaurant
Friday - honey barbecue chicken wings, spicy sweet potato chips
Saturday - mixed paella, tossed salad
Sunday - chef salads, croissant rolls, cheesecake bars

Rush Hour Meal Plans
Crock pot / slow cooker recipes, cook once - eat twice recipes, comforting make-ahead casseroles, breakfast for supper, minute meals and speedy sandwiches are great for the busy family.
2 week EXAMPLE:
Monday - large crock pot of beef stew (reserve 3 c. for later in the week), buttered peasant bread (such as rye or pumpernickel)
Tuesday - make-ahead chicken & pasta casserole, tossed salad
Wednesday - leftover buffet
Thursday - beef pot pie made from reserved beef stew, spinach & parmesan salad
Friday - breakfast burritos
Saturday -tuna salad pita sandwiches, avocado drizzled w/ lime juice
Sunday - grilled steak (grill an extra for next week's steak tacos), loaded baked potatoes (bake two extra for next week's speedy baked potato soup), tomato slices w/ herbed feta cheese

Monday - 20 minute orange glazed salmon, summer squash sauté
Tuesday - slow cooker German style beef roast, bacon & mushroom Brussels sprouts, green beans
Wednesday - 20 minute baked potato soup (made from Sunday's extra baked potatoes), turkey & Swiss w/ herbed greens sandwiches
Thursday - steak tacos (made from extra steak cooked on Sunday), Mexican cheese cornbread
Friday - mushroom & pepper omelet, toasted & buttered peasant bread
Saturday - 30 minute maple pork chops, lime carrots, almond green beans
Sunday - chicken & sausage manicotti (mix up two casseroles, freeze one for another two week meal plan), Italian salad, lemon panna cotta w/ berries

Economy Meal Plans
Simple home cooked dishes, traditional immigrant foods, soups & stews, cooking from scratch, meatless meals, portion control, carrying leftovers to work & school for lunches and "ingredient stretching" are essential for the family on a very limited budget.  Ingredient stretching involves things like purchasing a much cheaper per pound whole chicken and boiling and de-boning to stretch it into 3 meals plus several cups of homemade chicken stock, using meats as flavor enhancers instead of as a main dish, and purchasing ingredients that will be used as components in several meals, etc.
2 week EXAMPLE:
Sunday - homemade chicken & dumplings (made from 1/3 a boiled & de-boned chicken and 1/2 the homemade chicken stock), cornbread
Monday - spaghetti w/ homemade meatless marinara sauce, garlic bread, tossed greens
Tuesday - red beans & rice (made with 1/3 lb. diced smoked sausage for extra flavoring), Sunday's leftover cornbread, sliced onions & pickles
Wednesday - egg drop soup (made with the remaining 1/2 homemade chicken stock), homemade egg rolls (using 1/3 a large head of cabbage)
Thursday - chicken & noodle casserole (made from 1/3 boiled & de-boned chicken), green beans
Friday -  large crock pot of vegetable soup (reserve 3 c. for use next week), homemade dinner rolls
Saturday - cheese omelets, homemade hash browns

Sunday -  chicken bbq sandwiches (made from remaining 1/3 boiled & de-boned chicken), coleslaw (made from 1/3 lg. head cabbage)
Monday - apple cinnamon pancakes (using one grated apple), scrambled eggs
Tuesday - veggie pot pie (made from reserved vegetable soup), lettuce wedge salad
Wednesday - sautéed cabbage & sausage (made with 1/3 lb. thinly sliced smoked link sausage & remaining 1/3 lg. head cabbage), fried potatoes, steamed carrots
Thursday - black bean & cheese enchiladas, Mexican rice
Friday - smoked sausage & potato casserole (made with remaining 1/3 lb. thinly sliced smoked link sausage), steamed carrot, onion and celery medley
Saturday - tuna casserole, pickled beet slaw, sautéed beet greens, lime jello

When planning meals, taking  a quick inventory of what foods are already in the pantry, freezer or refrigerator will eliminate unnecessary  purchases.  Simultaneously adding needed ingredients to the grocery list will prevent additional trips to the grocer and impulse buying.  Perusing the sales ads for deeply discounted items and using coupons for specific ingredients in weekly meals is another frugal tactic that I used for decades while living in a metropolitan area.

Moving to a rural area has forced some changes in my grocery shopping habits. These days I shop "seasonally".  Our family spends the beautifully weathered summer months growing produce,  fattening up livestock, and perusing the sales ads to stock up on deeply discounted staples.  I must confess, grocery shopping during the summer seems like an indulgence - we  have the opportunity to actually buy whatever we want that is within budget for each 2 week meal planning session.  However, once the snow and ice of winter arrives, the items and ingredients from our store room will be our only choices for meal planning.  Many city folks are probably wondering how can one stock up and prepare for months at a time without forgetting something or several somethings?  For me, it started many years ago by developing the habits of budgeting and meal planning.  When it came time for our family to transition to our current lifestyle, I intrinsically knew how much food our family would need for two weeks.  Simple math is all that was needed to fill the store room, ensuring we'd be well nourished while waiting out months of snow and ice.  We received 3 1/2" of snow yesterday afternoon and our outside temperature was - 2 degrees this morning.  That means the days of perusing the store room for our 2 week meal plans have arrived.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Got Preps?

Life on the Gulf Coast taught me at a very early age that emergency preparedness was an essential aspect of life.  Living with tropical storms,  hurricanes, tornados, torrential thunder storms, ice storms, flooding, droughts, airborne chemical accidents from the petroleum & chemical plants, etc., is, simply put, a way of life.  However no matter how long I lived there, I was always SHOCKED at the vast number of folks who never took the time or put forth the effort to prepare for such emergencies - even after they had struggled through "the last one".  Two days without electricity and potable water, these people would start becoming desperate.  They would become angry that some government agency wasn't immediately rescuing their family.  No matter how many disasters they lived through they never seemed to grasp that immediately following a disaster, rescue agencies simply can not get into many areas.  There are often hazardous conditions such as downed power lines, huge trees blocking streets and thoroughfares, rubble and debris, etc. that restrict access.  Often times, prolonged power outages cause severe fuel shortages.  If emergency personnel can not obtain fuel in a specific area, this will also hinder access.   I was always felt a mixture of sadness, confusion and disbelief that so many citizens were unprepared.  Simply put, they never made emergency preparation a priority.

The American Red Cross, FEMA and other emergency agencies suggest every household keep a minimum of 72 hours of emergency stores per person on hand at all times.  History has proven that it often takes a minimum of 72 hours for these agencies to deploy and arrive on scene.  Preps will vary depending on the climate for your region and the location of your home. For instance, I no longer need sheets of plastic and duct tape for windows and doors because I no longer live near chemical plants where airborne disasters may, and have, occurred.  But I do need to have a plan for alternative non-electric heating source(s) due to the potential threat of long, severe blizzards.  We stored emergency preps even when we lived below the poverty line, therefore, I firmly believe that anyone from any income level is capable of preparing.  When we lived below the poverty line, I did not have the resources to gather all our emergency preparations at the same time.  I had to add to our stores over a period of time as our resources allowed.

Nowadays, we live isolated on the Montana prairie.  Tropical storms, hurricanes, torrential thunder storms, severe flooding, and accidents from chemical plants are no longer a threat to our serene and peaceful existence.  But, however isolated and peaceful our life is out here, we have not been fooled into believing that we are insulated from disasters.  We simply face new ones such as prairie fires, blizzards, wind storms, etc..  We can't prevent disasters, but we can prepare to survive while waiting for emergency rescue personnel.

As mentioned above, emergency stores for each home will vary based upon region and the health of persons living in each home.  But there are some basics that EVERY family needs, regardless of location or health.
 


  
WATER:
Potable water for drinking and cooking is an essential element in any emergency kit.  Without water the life expectancy for healthy human beings is only 3 days (72 hours).  The American Red Cross suggests every household store a minimum of 5 gallons per person.  Although we are now blessed to have the resources to store a couple weeks worth of water in a homemade storage system, when we lived below the poverty line, I washed and filled empty milk jugs for water storage.  Make sure to "rotate" stored water every six months by emptying, washing and refilling the container(s).

HEAT:
Living in a region where winter temperatures can plummet to -30 degrees, a non-electric INDOOR heating source is a necessity.  Make sure any non-electric heat source is approved for indoor use.  If it is not clearly stated on the heat source that it is approved for indoor use - DO NOT use it.  Carbon monoxide is an odorless and silent killer.


LIGHTING:
Electricity brings so many conveniences to our lives.  It powers all sorts appliances and tools that help make numerous daily tasks quick and easy.  During a power outage, none of those appliances and tools work and we suddenly find that daily tasks take longer when done manually.  It is probable that one will find themselves trying to prepare a meal or tend to infants and children after dark.  Evening lighting is necessary to move about during power outages.  We keep a supply of battery operated lanterns and flashlights, kerosene lamps w/ fuel and candles.  NEVER allow children to use candles and kerosene lamps.  NEVER use candles or kerosene lamps in children's bedrooms or near draperies.  Our children are only allowed to use battery lanterns and flashlights during power outages.  We do not carry lit kerosene lamps or candles from room to room.  They are placed on a sturdy table or counter in the room we desire to use BEFORE lighting.

FOOD:
Again, the American Red Cross and FEMA suggest storing for each person in each household at least 72 hours of NON- PERRISHABLE foods.  Since we live in a very isolated region and grow/produce, preserve and store much of our food, we usually have a well stocked pantry, especially during autumn and winter after canning season.  However, when we lived below the poverty line a well stocked pantry was not always possible & since we lived with the convenience of nearby grocers, a well stocked pantry was not the necessity it is now.  Even with our limited resources and the convenience of nearby grocers, we ALWAYS had at least 3 days of non-perishable foods on hand.  Our stores were humble and included instant oatmeal for breakfasts, canned soups and saltine crackers for suppers.  We stored enough for each person to consume 2 meals per day for three days.  Please remember to "rotate" dry goods such as instant oatmeal and crackers every six months and canned goods annually by consuming the stores and replacing them with new.

 COOKING:
A non-electric cooking source for preparing meals and boiling water is also a necessity.  Since I prefer to cook over gas, we have a propane range, thus we must be vigilant to ensure the propane in our tank doesn't get too low.  For those who do not have a gas or propane range it is important to acquire a non-electric cooking source.  If a bar-b-que grill or camp stove is the cooking source of choice, NEVER use them inside your home.  Both emit carbon monoxide and, again, it is the odorless, silent killer.  If using a grill or camp stove be prepared to cook and boil water outside.  Also, NEVER cook over a gas fireplace.  They are not designed to have any type of obstruction over or near the flames.  Any obstruction from an attempt to cook over a gas fireplace could result in an explosion causing severe bodily injury or death.  If living below the poverty line, constructing an inexpensive non-electric cooking source is as simple as placing an old wire refrigerator shelf over a small fire pit in the back yard.  Dig a shallow hole, line the outer edge of the hole with rocks.  Use briquettes or salvaged wood as a fuel source.  When finished cooking make sure your "campfire" is completely extinguished before leaving the fire pit.

RECREATION:
With so many people "wired" nowadays, we often fail to realize how board our children will get when the power goes out and their computers, i-pads, cell phones, etc. don't work for a significant length of time.  Keep a few games, books and puzzles on hand to help youngsters pass the time.  If your family doesn't have a supply of board games and other non-electronic games, the dollar store is a great resource for inexpensive card games, puzzles, crossword & word search books, etc..

FUEL:
Kerosene lamps, flash lights, indoor propane heaters, grills and camp stoves are useless with out fuel sources.  After determining your choice for lighting, heating and cooking make sure you purchase and store appropriately sized batteries, lighting or heating oil, propane or bbq briquettes.  Remember to stock matches.   We also suggest never allowing your car's fuel tank to drop below 1/2 full and store an additional 5 gallons of fuel for your auto.  Remember, during extended power outages, gas stations do not have electricity to pump fuel, preventing fill ups from any nearby locations.  After hurricane Ike, our area was without power for more than three weeks and we found ourselves having to drive over 100 miles one-way for gasoline and diesel.  Those 1/2 full gas tanks and extra gas stores were more than valuable.  Please remember to NEVER store fuel sources near open flames such as furnaces, water heaters, stoves, etc.  "Rotate" stored auto fuel every six months by adding to your vehicle and refilling the storage container.

FIRST AID & PRESCRIPTION DRUGS:
Most important - stock first aid and PRESCRIPTION  MEDICATIONS, especially if anyone in your home is dependent upon daily dosages.  The American Red Cross and FEMA recommend maintaining a TWO WEEK supply of any necessary prescription drugs as part of your home's emergency preparedness kit.  Although emergency rescue personnel may be able to reach your area within 3-4 days, they may not have immediate access to certain or specific daily prescription medications.  Mr. B and I also suggest that everyone in your family is up-to-date with his/her tetanus vaccine.  There is often extraordinarily large amounts of debris following a disaster.  One little scratch, one little poke is all that's needed to transmit the deadly tetanus bacteria.  Tetanus vaccines last 10 years.  So, if anyone in your family is due, please make getting one a priority.

When I lived down south I always conducted an initial check and rotation of our emergency preparedness supplies each spring, right before the onset of hurricane season, and re-stocked after each emergency.  I would again check and rotate stores each autumn.  Now that most of our emergencies are likely to occur during the winter months I take initial inventory and rotate in the autumn before possible blizzards.  I continue to re-stock if needed and always check and rotate at the beginning of summer.