Monthly Meal Planning Update: Hoisted on My Own Petard

Original Taco House

The Original Taco House: keeping Portland weird since the 1950s. I assume.

On Monday I started Week 3 of my Monthly Meal Planning experiment, and things were going pretty smooth. For once, we weren’t running out of fruit (estimating how many servings we typically eat resulted in a surplus), and while we had run out of dinner veggies on Monday, our Monday “easy” meal was grilled cheese and tomato soup. No sweat! I can grocery shop tomorrow!

Until I started opening cans of tomato soup and realized . . . DUN DUN DUNNNNN! We were out of milk. In fact, both of my Monday “easy meals” rely on milk. So I ran out to the corner store and picked up half a gallon (the full gallons there would expire too soon), the exact thing my whole plan was supposed to prevent. Humbling times, folks.

But here’s the update!

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Menu

Week 2 meals we did eat: spaghetti carbonara with veggies, braised coconut spinach with chickpeas and lemon (over sweet potatoes), liverwurst sandwiches, ham and cheese sandwiches, bran muffins with fruit and bacon, kale smoothie with pineapple and banana (actually borrowed from Week 3), waffles with bacon and fruit, yogurt with honey and granola, vanilla ice cream. Holdovers from Week 1: roast chicken with potatoes and veggies, hummus with carrots and pita.

Week 2 meals we didn’t eat: Sid’s soup with cornbread (since I didn’t make it in Week 1), shrimp tacos with black beans, chicken soup with rice and veggies (since I hadn’t made the roast chicken in Week 1), banana-spinach smoothie (switching to this week).

As you can see, changes in Week 1 made a big difference in Week 2. The other major curve ball is we had the opportunity to bring a friend and his family dinner on Tuesday in Weeks 2 and 3, so I ended up making chili and had some left over for us.

Week 3 shopping: I ended up adding some things to Week 3–partly because we ran out of things (like onions), but mostly because we brought dinner to our friend again this week, so I added on herb roasted pork tenderloin (I didn’t do the preserves) and kale pasta salad, which were both solid choices: portable crowd pleasers that hold up well as leftovers.

Pros: Even though I’m not sticking strictly to the menu, I’m never at a loss for what to make for any meal or snack, which is great. This has been especially helpful for breakfast, AKA my weak spot. Plus, the fridge is not stuffed crazy-full: everything has a purpose and is getting eaten!

Cons: My freezer is really at its limit, since I’ve been freezing leftovers for later in the month, plus I have a bunch of shrimp, salmon, and chicken in there. Well, and I’ll be honest: my freezer wasn’t pristine to begin with.

Money

This was the thing that shocked me the most: I checked our grocery expenses, and if next week proceeds as planned, we’ll have saved about 37% in groceries this month. This kind of blows my mind. Plus, I have freezer backup, as in meals that will be shifted to next month, so our savings might be increased in February.

I’m kind of happy and kind of sickened at the same time. We’re not really eating any differently–I haven’t put us on beans and rice (yet). I’m just more organized and wasting less food. I don’t want to think about how much food I’ve been throwing in the compost bin instead of ingesting.

However: I do think this is in part because we’ve been going out to dinner a little more often than usual. We had friends visit last weekend (I finally got to experience The Original Taco House), and I’m being taken out again tonight for my birthday. It’s birthday month.

Going Forward: I’m going to make some chicken broth and strip the carcass I have in the fridge (yummy), so next week will be all about making use of that deliciousness. And then I’m going to have to plan next month!

Geek Mentor

Profiles in Geek Mentors: Cousin Danny

Geek Mentor

Cousin Danny: Portrait of the Geek Mentor as a Young Man.

I grew up geeky: comic books, sci-fi movies and television, the works. It led me to a career marketing comics and enjoying conventions of all stripes. However! While it is good to be a geek these days–with mighty Marvel movies making mucho moolah at the multiplexes and darker DC dramas dominating the (television) dial–back in my day (the halcyon ’80s) we had it tougher. I mean, I had to walk five feet across shag carpeting both ways to turn the channel to catch reruns of The Incredible Hulk!

But in all seriousness, geek culture was not as prevalent or accessible when I was growing up, so as a mature adult, I feel the need to thank and recognize the geek mentors who nurtured my nascent nerdiness along the way, and I’m starting with one who is significant to both my brother and me: Cousin Danny.

Uncle Bruce is my mother’s older brother, and six years after we relocated from California to Oregon (stow it, haters), he moved himself and Aunt Judy to nearby Gladstone with sons Danny and Bryan. At the time, I was six and Danny was nine–impressively older, but not terrifying like 13-year-old Bryan (I’ll be writing a separate tribute to Bryan in a future installment). So when we got together for holidays and whatnot, Danny was leader and playmate to me and my little brother BJ–young enough to enjoy a game that included spinning around his dad’s pool table while listening to “Beep Beep” by the Playmates on the record player, but old enough to transfix us with his genius.

Mild mannered and round cheeked, Danny was perhaps an improbable genius. I have to admit that he played the accordion. But! In his room (where we loved to hang out), he had all of the books to solve all of the different Rubix cubes–extremely cool to us–and even more impressive, he had a Commodore 64, a futuristic device that allowed him to type to other people across the country, in real time! It was like having a pen pal–without having to wait for the mailman!

It was Danny who showed us movies like Gremlins, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and War Games, all on VHS tapes copied by Aunt Judy super-long-play style from cable (they had HBO!). But even better: Cousin Danny was the person who showed us Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back for the first time.

Now, would I have watched Star Wars and Empire without Cousin Danny? Of course. Would I have watched them repeatedly until I actually paid attention? Perhaps not. You see, as a young girl (around seven or eight), I initially dismissed them as “boy movies.” It wasn’t until the fourth or fifth time that I suddenly realized, “Hey! I like these movies. These aren’t boy movies at all!” And I was ready to see Return of the Jedi in the theaters. When I saw The Force Awakens this year (with my brother), I thought of Danny and smiled.

Danny also gave us our first taste of freedom: I vividly remember my brother and I being allowed to go see a double feature of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and The NeverEnding Story with just Danny–no grownups. I was nine, with money in my pocket to go buy a second round of refreshments during intermission. Truly a heady experience.

Unfortunately, Bruce and Judy moved to upstate New York in 1988, with both cousins eventually joining them, before the whole clan settled near Atlanta, Georgia. However! I was reunited with Dan (Danny no more) a few years ago at–where else–Dragon Con, one of the biggest, craziest geek conventions on the planet.

DanFrame

Cousin Dan today: geek mentor and Dragon Con master!

While Dan has grown up to work in software development (of course), he still books a room at the Dragon Con host hotel every year, and he’s an integral part of The Outworlders, Atlanta, a “science fiction, fantasy and horror fan group that supports and promotes gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender themes within these genres.”

So I salute and thank you, Cousin Dan: hero, genius, geek mentor, and master of my old Speak N’ Spell. I hope you know you’ve made our lives much more interesting and entertaining, and may the Force be with you!

Deep Thoughts From a Ladies’ Locker Room

BathingBeauties

Image via the United States Library of Congress.

Yesterday was a teacher planning day (no school), so I took Sarah, Sid, and two of Sid’s friends to the Mt Scott indoor pool. We had a blast: 15-month-old Sarah went from being scared and super-clingy to repeatedly jumping into the pool with glee, and the boys loved the lazy river, whirlpool, and water slide.

I’m a little sore today after carrying around a 25-pound baby in the pool for two hours (so much crab walking, ow), but I’m also pondering an epiphany I had in the ladies’ locker room.

Bear with me here. So, I was checking out the naked elderly women in the ladies’ locker room. I’m not a creeper, I swear–it’s almost impossible not to see them, because the elderly women at the pool do not give an eff. They’ve got it all hanging out–they offer no apologies or furtive glances. They are living life!

But in the back of my mind, I always have this guilty, repressed thought: Dear Lord, am I going to look like THAT someday? The wrinkled, slack skin, the gray hair, the . . . aging. Because no matter how I try to be better than this, it’s been imprinted on me that the worst thing a woman can do is to become old and–according to prevailing standards–undesirable.

But as I walked past, holding Sarah’s hand, another thought occurred to me: one day, she’ll look like this too! And it’s like the heavens opened and my perspective shifted just a tiny bit, and I had my epiphany.

Would I love Sarah any less if she became an old woman? Of course not–I’d be happy she lived a long life (and still loved the water)! She’d still be my precious baby!

Not too long ago, in the general scheme of things, those women had sleek, round baby bodies, too–and then they became children, teenagers, women, and now older women. We all get a turn to be all things. There’s nothing shameful about it: it’s literally one of the most natural things in the world!

So I feel like this is yet another fringe benefit to having a daughter (besides our future Mommy and Me wardrobe–oh it is coming): it’s led me to several unexpected “aha!” moments that I think are making me a slightly better person.

Have any of you experienced something like this? Willing to share?

 

Rapid Mac Cooker

The Final Countdown: Rapid Mac Cooker

I am not exaggerating when I say I am famous for my Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. Among people who know me. I love it. I eat it. And I make the best Kraft Macaroni & Cheese anyone has ever tasted. It made me both a super-popular babysitter and a welcome sight at late-night parties. You’re jealous, aren’t you?

Ahem. But this post isn’t about my fantastic, extraordinary Kraft skills. My good friend Chris gave me a Rapid Mac Cooker (two of them!) for my birthday, so I decided to take it for a spin. It says it takes five minutes to make a box of mac and cheese–with no straining or draining. We’ll just see about that:

0:00

Rapid Mac Cooker

Minute zero: the mac is in the cooker with the water poured up to the line.

2:30

RapidMac3

Minute 2:30: time to stir!

4:30

RapidMac4

Minute 4:30: the mac and cheese should be cooked and ready to go! It is not. I add another 1/2 cup of water and put it back in the microwave.

6:30

RapidMac5

Minute 6:30: the macaroni is still not ready. Two more minutes!

8:30

Rapid Mac Cooker

Minute 8:30: I used the second Rapid Mac Cooker to make the sauce (I do NOT throw the sauce ingredients on top of the noodles). Milk and butter!

9:30

Rapid Mac Cooker

Minute 9:30: with the cheese and butter melted, I add two slices of Kraft American cheese and about one ounce of shredded sharp cheddar.

10:00

Rapid Mac Cooker

Minute 10:00: the cheese sauce is ready for the mac!

10:30

Rapid Mac Cooker.

Minute 10:30: get that mac in there! The water had mostly evaporated, leaving a weird gelatinous coating on the noodles.

11:00

RapidMac11

Minute 11:00: all stirred up and ready to go. I added a lot of extra milk. I usually have to, due to the extra cheese, but the weird gelatinous quality made it even thicker than normal.

11:30

Rapid Mac Cooker

Minute 11:30: plated and ready for my mouth.

The final verdict: this gets a C, due to the inconsistently cooked noodles (parts were fully cooked, parts were . . . not) and the aforementioned gelatinous goo. Plus, it only saved me five minutes or so.

But what if I don’t have a stove? Frankly, I’ve made perfectly fine Kraft Macaroni & Cheese in a hot pot or even an electric kettle, so give the Rapid Mac Cooker a thumbs down and save your money–and your tastebuds!

Monthly Meal Planning Update: I Bought Too Much Food But That’s Okay

EasyMac

My “Rapid Mac Cooker.” I’ll have another post on this.

Hey everyone! I’m in the middle of Week 2 of my Monthly Meal Planning endeavor, and I wanted to update you on my progress. So far it’s like pretty much every party I’ve ever thrown: I’ve got way too much food.

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Menu

Part of the problem is, last week was my birthday–yay! So we went out for sushi one night. And then my folks took us out to dinner. And then we went out with friends to a karaoke place/Vietnamese restaurant for more birthday celebrations. So I had way too many dinner planned, just because we went out so much.

Week 1 meals we did eat: Kraft Macaroni & Cheese with veggies (duh), spaghetti with veggies (I froze half the sauce for later this month), tacos with ground beef and refried beans (froze half), ham and cheese sandwiches with fruit/carrots, blueberry muffins with sausage (baked a double recipe of muffins and froze half), waffles with sausage (switched from pancakes), yogurt with honey and granola, hummus with pita and carrots, Cowboy Cookies, vanilla ice cream.

Week 1 meals we didn’t eat: Sid’s Soup with cornbread (didn’t make it, still have ingredients ready), roast chicken with potatoes and veggies (froze the chicken), salmon with veggies and couscous (froze the salmon), pumpkin smoothies (didn’t need, pumpkin is frozen).

This has led to changes for this week: because I didn’t have Sid’s Soup on hand, I made mac and cheese again (using my Rapid Mac Cooker, a birthday present). Because I didn’t roast a chicken last week, I didn’t make chicken soup with rice–but I did end up making chili for a friend and saving some for us last night.

I also had some fruit and veggies left over, which was convenient this week–I didn’t have to rush out to the store to re-up.

Week 2 shopping: I re-upped on yogurt, fruit, and veggies–I just bought less produce than last week, since I had some left over. I also got more lunch meat and cavatappi, my son’s favorite pasta, which I can’t get at WinCo.

Pros: While I’m not cooking and eating everything as planned, at least we’re not wasting food–I’ve been throwing things into the freezer, and the produce has held up well. I may have part of next month all ready to go if this keeps up.

Cons: I have so much food, freezer space is becoming a problem. Plus, not making one dish (like roast chicken) means I’m not using the leftovers as planned (broth, etc.).

Money

I won’t give specific numbers yet, but I am at just over 50% of what I typically spend in a month on groceries. Since we’re midway through the month, that doesn’t sound so impressive–except I can’t see myself needing to buy much in the way of groceries over the next two-and-a-half months!

Going Forward

I definitely need to plan fewer meals. We only have Sid every other week (although I get him for breakfast and snack every school day), and Scott, Sarah, and I can only eat so much! Hopefully, this will be the black-and-white proof my crazy brain needs.

Happy Monday! X-Plain the X-Men & More

GeekCraft Expo

Wait–are GMOs the mutants of food?!? Geeky lunch boxes, photo via GeekCraft Expo.

Happy Monday, everyone! Did you have a great weekend? Mine was packed full of White Elephant and birthday parties (I celebrated my 41st) and talking about the X-Men. You know the usual.

Let’s get on to links!

Nerdy Entertainments

As Jay Rachel Edidin is out of town, I was asked to guest host my favorite podcast, Rachel & Miles X-Plain the X-Men, again with Miles Stokes! As you may remember, I subbed in last year for Rachel & Miles X-Plain the X-Men #47, where Miles and I talked about the Alpha Flight/X-Men crossover! In our upcoming episode, airing January 31, we chat about Pryde of the X-Men, Marvel’s failed 1989 X-Men cartoon pilot, as well as the spinoff arcade game, which we played in its entirety over at Ground Kontrol Classic Arcade.

You can watch Pryde of the X-Men (which is surprisingly solid, although Wolverine inexplicably has an Australian accent) on YouTube:

I was going to wait until an official announcement was made, but I figured I’ll let you guys in on a gig I’ve taken: I’m the Event Coordinator for GeekCraft Expo PDX, working with Daniel Way (Deadpool, Gun Theory) and his fabulous team to bring a handmade, curated, geeky craft fair to Portland! It will be at the Lloyd Center Doubletree June 11-12, it is free to the public, and I’m very excited about it.

Lest you think this is a strictly Portland event, rest assured that GeekCraft Expo is in 15 other cities in the US and Canada, including Austin, Honolulu, Toronto, and more. Make sure to check out their website to find nerdy, cool, unique stuff near you!

I am obsessed with Fargo Season Two and Tom and Lorenzo’s fashion analyses of the episodes. Their interpretations of the colors and fashions that characters are wearing–and what it says about them, and what will happen in the story–are incredibly engrossing. Their Mad Style posts for Mad Men were epic, too.

This week, I’ll be updating you on my Monthly Meal Planning efforts (spoiler: I planned too many meals so far) and my winter 10-item wardrobe! Also: I will be paying tribute to my Geek Mentors, starting with my cousin Danny. Get ready!

 

Monthly Meal Planning: Eat Better and Save Money & Time

 I’ve been in a rut after the holidays–feeling stressed, uninspired, and like I’m always playing catch-up with my grocery shopping. I love to cook, like, I love to cook, but it was getting to the point where I couldn’t even figure what to make for dinner. I felt like I was spending too much money, wasting food, and just generally working way too hard. So I decided to brush off my old Monthly Meal Planning spreadsheets (something I started working on last year) and use them this month.

Plus, I’m sharing them with you: one, because hopefully they might help someone else, but two, I would love feedback on their usability, etc. Help me make them better!

Download my Monthly Meal Planning spreadsheet now, and then I’ll break down my method. Note: This is an example, not a complete list of items you would need to make all of these meals. This is because I had some items on hand, so I didn’t need to buy them.

This is a six-page Excel workbook that I’ve found very helpful. But first, as with any project, you should establish your goals. Here’s what I’m trying to accomplish:

  • Feed my family a variety of meals, but:
  • Choose recipes that have common ingredients
  • Go only once a month to WinCo (an amazing, large, cheap grocery store we have with dozens and dozens of bulk bins that is a 20+ minute drive for me, hence the once-a-month schedule)
  • Save time (both cooking and doing dishes) by making large quantities of meals and freezing/rotating them
  • Be as zero waste as possible by shopping from the bulk bins using my own containers, and by shopping wisely and selecting common ingredients (see above) so I use everything up

Here we go!

Menu

Monthly Meal Planning

As you can see, I plotted this out via several categories, beginning with dinner (which is my top priority). To help jog my creativity and make meal planning easier, I try to choose a pasta or rice dish each week, a taco (Taco Tuesday!), a soup, a meat or other entree, and seafood. Monday is devoted to either Kraft Macaroni & Cheese with a vegetable or grilled cheese and tomato soup (or something else I have in the freezer that is virtually instant). I like Mondays to be easy. As a rule, I only plot five or so dinners per week, because we may go out to dinner or eat leftovers.

Lunches are basic–I pack a bag for my husband and feed myself and Sarah sandwiches or leftovers.

Breakfast is my crucible, so planning really helps me. Categories include muffin or cake, smoothie, griddle, or yogurt. I used to have eggs in here, but I’m not a huge fan and our son Sid’s been saying he hates eggs, so we’re taking a break.

Snacks are pretty self-explanatory–for me and Scott to munch on, and for Sid after school. Desserts are also standard.

You’ll notice that some things repeat every couple of weeks this month: spaghetti, salmon, muffins, sandwiches, cookies. I’ll be making large batches and freezing them (and freezing half our fish and lunch meat) for simplicity’s sake.

Master Shopping List

I can only show you a small portion in the screenshot–this ended up being a list of 83 items! In addition to food, I went through and figured out what items we needed for cleaning, personal care, etc. I then added categories for stores (I’ll be shopping at four places: WinCo, the People’s Co-Op–I can get oils and such in bulk there–Fred Meyer, and Flying Fish, our local fish market), department, how much I need, and what week I need to buy it. Then I sort by week, store, and department.

I try to buy as much as I can in Week 1: non-perishables and freezables, weekly dairy and produce, etc. Then in Weeks 2-4, in a perfect world, I’d only need to pick up the weekly dairy and produce at the store. It never works out that way, but I can dream . . .

Week 1 Shopping

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I then copy and paste each week’s items in their own spreadsheet. Again, I can only show a small portion of Week 1–it contains a whopping 59 items. The only thing I would do to improve this is to move the departments around to mirror how the store is actually laid out–produce, then deli, then meat–but I’ll continue to refine this until it’s just the way I want it–then I can save it and pull it out every couple of months and save myself some work. In an ideal world, I would have four or five perfect months planned out that I could rotate and update, depending on what I have on hand.

Week 2 Shopping

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I won’t bore you with screenshots of the rest, I just wanted to show you the difference in the rest of the month–11 items in Week 2, baby! I’m living the dream! I’m only buying cavatappi pasta at Fred Meyer’s because they don’t sell it at WinCo and it’s my son’s favorite.

Sunday I went out to WinCo and did Week 1’s shopping. While I bought tons of food, including a whole chicken, four pounds of chicken breasts, two pounds of shrimp, ground beef, Italian sausage, bacon, breakfast, four pounds of dried beans, 25 servings of fruit–and on, and on–it totaled about a quarter of what I usually spend on groceries in a month, so I’m hopeful!

So what do you think? What changes would you make? I’ll continue to blog weekly and let you know how it goes. In the meantime, I’ll link to a bunch of the recipes I chose, in case you’re interested!

Banana-Spinach Smoothie
Chicken Soup With Rice
Chicken Hash
Coconut Braised Spinach With Chickpeas and Lemon
Cowboy Cookies
Coconut Curry Spaghetti Squash With Shrimp
Free French Vegetable Soup
Kale Smoothie with Pineapple and Banana
Pumpkin Smoothie
Refried Beans
Roast Chicken and Potatoes
Sid’s Chicken
Spaghetti
Strawberry-Flaxseed Smoothie