No-Dine-Out February Update!

IMG_0961.jpgWhy hello there! Geez louise, am I writing an update about last month a month late?!? I’ve been a bit busy. And I’m about to get busier (psst! I’m gonna have an announcement in the near future!).

But! To refresh your memory, my family and I pledged to not go out to eat in February, with a few exceptions (coffee and a pastry allowed, in very limited amounts; we already had plans to go to Great Wolf Lodge for a night; we had one Burgerville “cheat” night to use).

The goal: To virtually eliminate our restaurant expenses (which comprises 33% of our monthly food bill) without increasing our remaining food budget by more than 10%.

The result: Overall, we reduced our total food budget by about 9%–which was disappointing, and far off the mark in terms of only increasing our grocery bill by 10%! But I was pretty sure why: while our restaurant spending went down by 70% (I did take advantage of our “cheats”), our grocery bill went up by 37%. This was mainly because of Valentine’s Day (I splurged on steak and lobster), and because we held two or three dinner parties for eight–lots of comics folks were in town for Wizard World Portland (no I’m not linking to them).

Conclusion: If we were going to realize the full benefit of cutting out restaurants, I needed to similarly tighten our grocery budget. A no brainer for most, probably, but oh well!

Plus, we did eat out a few times, using a loophole I discovered near the beginning of the month: we used our weekly cash allowance instead of our food budget. While not strictly kosher, I was grateful for this for a few reasons:

  • I got super sick
  • I had a week where I cooked three freakin’ four-course meals and I was exhausted
  • If I can’t go out to eat occasionally life is terrible

Other observations:

  • Cooking virtually every meal (with a few exceptions) was, overall, easier than I thought. When I made our monthly meal plan, I made sure to add in any activities/events we had, so I was better about planning something super easy the night I had book club, for example.
  • While the urge to have a treat is a powerful inducement to go out to eat, I actually felt like social pressure was even more of a factor. The idea of looking cheap (or like I was no fun) made me more uncomfortable than passing up a sushi dinner.
  • Using my “personal funds” (my weekly cash allowance) made me a lot more selective about going out to eat–the reality of handing over cash made it much more real!

Finally, the most interesting thing I learned during this experiment is how to make pressed sushi (pictured above)! I’ll post the technique/recipe . . . before June. I hope.

 

Last Gasp of Summer

summer vacation Slurpees

Slurpees yesterday before we went to the pool–proof that we had fun (and sugar).

It’s the last day of summer, and I’ve been struggling holding back tears all week because I am that mom/stepmom/nanny (seriously, I cried when I was 19 and my 6-year-old charge went off to first grade–sorry Allie). Yes, Sid is entering middle school, and I am gripped by panic and guilt.

Did I use our summer productively? Did we have enough fun? Did I enrich Sid and Sarah’s lives and brains with culture, and challenges, and new experiences? Well . . . if watching Bob’s Burgers counts, the answer is a resounding yes.

summer canteloupes

All that work for two . . . two canteloupes that smelled better than they tasted. The anticlimactic flavor of summer (don’t even ask about the tomatoes).

In all seriousness, yes, we went to the zoo and on vacation, and swimming, and to the library every week for Tiny Tots. Sarah and Sid completed their summer reading challenges today (Sid read a lot of Archie). We watered the garden (occasionally) and made a ginger bug to make our own lemonade soda (turns out Sid does not like the taste of ginger), but mostly, it just feels like summer went by too quickly. Sid had at least five weeks of summer camps, and a huge chunk of my day is still taken up with Sarah’s naps and freelance projects (one big reason this blog has been slow).

But this summer is over, and we have a limited number of summers, and really, we might not have one like this again. Sid is 11, he needs less supervision and wants more independence, and that is a natural thing, a great thing. But man–right now I just want to capture this summer and keep it, fill the last few hours with everything wonderful and lovely and memorable and special.

I think this means more Slurpees.

Coffee Grinder Zero Waste

Shopping With Less Waste: the Caffeinated Version

Coffee Grinder Zero Waste

My shiny “new” coffee grinder!

It’s been awhile since I’ve done a Zero Waste post, mainly because I’ve just been doing the same things: using reusable bags (including produce and bulk bags), doing as much bulk bin shopping as I can, and doing monthly meal planning to try to cut food waste. Unfortunately, I am still buying meat and cheese in plastic (although I’m buying large quantities to at least cut down on the overall packaging). But I did have a revelation a couple weeks ago that will propel me down a path to less waste.

Our house guest, Alise, stayed with us for a month after Emerald City Comic Con. That was enough time for her to acquire enough souvenirs and gifts from people and publishers that she needed another suitcase before she flew home to Latvia! Not wanting her to spend more money than necessary, I took her to the massive Goodwill Superstore near us. If you’ve never been to a Goodwill before (how?!?), it’s a thrift store filled with donations from people clearing out their closets, as well as some new things donated from companies.

I usually only go there to get rid of things (so many things). I rarely go in, because I’m trying not to buy more stuff. And yet. When I went down the aisles stuffed with electronics, kitchen gear, books, and more, I kept seeing things that yes, I had purchased new this year. A five-gallon drink cooler! A stainless steel travel mug! Pyrex (I bought a 10″ x 14″ glass casserole dish for $7.99, score)! My mind boggled as I realized I probably never needed to buy anything new again.

So this was fresh in my mind when I opened Sid’s Mother’s Day present to me, which included a bag of coffee! Yay, I love coffee! However, when I opened the bag, I realized it was coffee beans. And I have no grinder. Or rather, I had one, but I lent it to a neighbor 15 years (and about 12 residences) ago and never got it back (I am pretty weird sometimes).

Off to Goodwill, where I found two identical white Mr. Coffee grinders, one for $4.99, one for $7.99 (I picked up the $7.99 one just in case). Took it home–no bag, no packaging to toss–gave it a quick clean, and then made a pot of coffee. Perfect! I looked up my grinder on Amazon and saw an identical one for $15.44, so I felt very smug. Also caffeinated.

Thrift store purchases might be hard to stomach, for some. The stuff usually seems “used,” rather than “vintage.” It can make you feel poor. There’s definitely something in our culture that makes stepping into a shiny-new store and buying a brand-new, brand-name object feel so good.

But how many of those things have you donated to Goodwill–or a similar outfit–over the years? The “new thing” smell wears off pretty quick. And oh man, the gadgets I saw: Ninja blenders, juicers (juicers are like the gym memberships of kitchen appliances), espresso machines, old-fashioned giant coffee urns like you see at church suppers (that might be something only I coo over)!

My tips: thrift stores in wealthier areas tend to have more brand-name items. And if you want something very specific (like a coffee grinder), I’d suggest going straight to a Goodwill Superstore rather than one of the smaller stores (you’ll waste less gas or have a shorter bike trip). Also, when you realize that no, you really don’t want to buy 20 pounds of produce to juice every week . . . donate that juicer back so another sucker can pick it up.

What’s your best thrift store find? Post below!

Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half

I Cut Our Food Bill By 44%–Can America’s Cheapest Family Get It Lower?

Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half

Lots of good tips, although I may have to work my way up to buying chubs of ham and asking the meat counter to slice it for me (their solution for expensive lunch meat).

So I’ve been making a Monthly Meal Plan menu and grocery lists for four months now–yay! I stopped posting my spreadsheets every month because I figured you’ve got the gist of them, but you can find past examples here.

Overall, planning out our menu has been very successful. We’ve averaged a monthly savings of 29.4% on groceries compared to our previous six-month average, plus we’ve saved 32.7% on restaurants. That means our average monthly food savings is 44%–which is insane!

But you know me: I figure I just cut the waste I should have had under control long ago. Surely there’s a way I can peel another 11% off our groceries, right? So I went to my beloved library and checked out Cut Your Grocery Bill in Half with America’s Cheapest Family, by Steve and Annette Economides, which had a lot of tips–some useful (create a price list), and some ridiculous (go out to eat at hospital cafeterias, I kid you not).

I don’t want to lay out all of their tips here, but there were a couple that struck a chord:

  1. Create a price list. I was bragging to Sid last week that I bought avocados on sale at five for $5, and he asked, “What do they normally cost?” Yup. Grocery stores advertise lots of “deals,” but if you don’t know the relative price of, say, a gallon of milk, how do you know you’re really getting a discount? The Economides (yes that’s their real name) have a “buy price” for almost anything–they won’t buy, say, chuck steak for more than a certain price, and if they find it at a deep discount, they stock up. I realized I shop at WinCo because the total bill is cheaper, but I really had no idea how much things generally cost off the top of my head. It’s going to be tedious, but I’ll be using my receipts to build a price list of all the things we buy regularly.
  2. Shop around. I really disliked the idea of this–I like to make grocery shopping simple, and usually just go to WinCo once a month (to stock up) and to Fred Meyer weekly for produce and dairy (because it’s close and I like it). I didn’t want to be slave to the weekly ads! But the book pointed out that every store has “loss leaders,” aka attractive items at rock-bottom prices, to get people in the door. Why not read the ads and see what I could find?
  3. Plan your monthly meal plan around grocery deals. This is so simple and obvious I should have been doing this before. Instead of making menus off the top of my head, I will definitely at least check our stores’ online ads and see what’s on sale.

I kept these ideas in mind this month and realized that Safeway (not my favorite store) was having a special on boneless, skinless chicken breasts (something we eat every month) at $1.69 a pound, compared to $3.29 a pound at Fred Meyer.

Because I’ve been keeping track with my monthly spreadsheets, I knew we ate four pounds of chicken breast per month. So I went and bought eight pounds, and separated and froze them all (note: I didn’t just buy chicken breasts–I did all my weekly shopping there, concentrating on loss leaders). The next time I was at WinCo, I checked out their prices: $2.69 per pound! So I saved eight dollars.

Of course, saving eight dollars over two months is not terribly exciting–gee, what’s that, a dollar a week? But that’s also only one item on my list. I’m hoping that by shopping a little smarter and using my freezer more efficiently, the savings will add up.

So . . . am I crazy? Just a little crazier than normal? I’ll keep you updated (on both our savings and my tenuous mental health). Got any tips? Post them below. And be honest: who among you have eaten at a hospital cafeteria . . . to save money?

Avengers Sons of Serpent Trump

Happy Monday! #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain & Xena Cosplay

Avengers Sons of Serpent Trump

Donald’s totally under that mask, isn’t he? Avengers image via Comic Book Resources.

Happy Monday! How was your weekend? I went through about 10 pounds of sugar. I am not kidding even a little bit. Fortunately, all of the resulting chocolate cake is out of my house, except for four chocolate cupcakes.

Links!

Politics

Politics? Elisabeth, you don’t post about politics! It’s true. I think most of the yelling about politics on the Internet and via the media is counterproductive. Plus I don’t want to get into any fights with people I love.

But mostly, I honestly thought this wave of Trump jingoism would blow over. I mean, it was a joke, right? I didn’t believe Trump even really wanted to be president–I thought it was all for publicity for his “brand.” But here we are. A lying, racist, grandiose piece of crap has a very good chance of being the GOP candidate for president. Even the GOP doesn’t want this!

So, on one hand, John Oliver’s take down of Trump and his #MakeDonaldDrumpfAgain hashtag makes me feel a little better. But mostly it’s just depressing, because it probably won’t change anything. But you should watch it!

I’m currently reading the Avengers Omnibus Volume 2 to Sid at bedtime, and we just finished a story arc where the Sons of the Serpent decide to spread racism, nationalism, and fear to control the American public because they’re so easily led. This was written in the 1963, but feels entirely relevant to today. Think about that.

Food

I haven’t written a full update on this month’s meal planning, but I’m happy to say it looks like we’ve saved 37.5% over our average pre-planning monthly grocery bill! Last month, we saved 25%. While I did plan this month’s menu around a lot of bulk staples I already had in the house, I was also able to do the following on a budget:

  • Have house guests for two days
  • Host two dinner parties
  • Make a giant cake and 84 chocolate cupcakes for various events

Speaking of dinner parties, I’m having a small one tomorrow. One of our guests is vegetarian. I’m a little tired of pasta (for once) so I came up with the following menu: Sour Cream Enchiladas, Mexican Couscous Express, and Crazy for Coconut Bundt Cake.

Fashion

My sweater came! My sweater came! And it’s everything I hoped it would be. I can finally post my 10-item wardrobe! Err, once I take pictures.

Geeky Stuff

I’ve been thinking more and more about making a Xena costume. Yes, I’m 15 years too old and six inches too short. I don’t care! Plus, I found this incredible tutorial for a Xena Warrior Princess Dress. Hmm!

That’s what I’ve got for today! Post a comment to cheer me up!

Xena Comics Sam Woolley

Happy Monday! Breakfast Corn Dogs & Xena Comics

Xena Comics Sam Woolley

New Xena comics! Art by Sam Woolley. Image from io9.

Happy Monday! Oh wow, when’s the last time I actually did a Happy Monday post on Monday? Never mind, I’m not looking it up. Hope your week was awesome! We had a good week topped by a weekend that included 1) a Terraria party/sleepover with Sid’s friends, 2) dinner at a friend’s house, 3) friends from out of town coming to stay with us, leading us to 4) a dinner party and karaoke tonight.

Plus, for one brief, shining moment yesterday, I had all the laundry done. All of it. Clothes, sheets, towels, dishcloths, diapers . . . it was glorious. And then I cleaned the laundry room because, guests. DUH! Don’t you do that? Just kidding, I’m a maniac.

Links!

Divine Geekery

The second annual Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics were held this weekend at Long Beach Expo, and G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel won! Ms. Marvel is a fantastic comic–if you haven’t read it yet, TFAW has Ms. Marvel here!

The latest episode of Rachel & Miles XPlain the X-Men is up, and they’re covering early Captain Britain and pre-Psylocke Betsy Braddock! I cannot wait to listen.

Omigosh! So, as I have written before, I am watching Xena: Warrior Princess for the first time and loving it. So I’m excited and worried that there’s going to be a new Xena comic, set toward the end of the series. Fortunately, io9 had Javier Grillo-Marxuach, showrunner of the new Xena TV show, and Genevieve Valentine, the writer of the new Xena comic, interview each other. It’s promising!

Food

Breakfast Corn Dogs

Breakfast corn dogs?!?

Since Sid’s friend Ernie (who’s a champion eater) spent the night, I used him as an excuse to make the Pioneer Woman’s Sausage Pancakes-on-a-Stick. They were glorious, and I used the extra batter to make pancakes. Yum.

If you missed it, my latest Monthly Meal Planning spreadsheets are available. Tonight: Lipton Onion Soup Meatloaf and Shells & Cheese With Bacon & Peas (it’s a real fancy dinner party).

Fashion

Vintage Fisherman's Sweater

Are you The One?!?

Aw yeah fashion! Ha. I posted about beloved articles of clothing that needed to be put out of their misery this weekend. I’m pretty sure I’ll finally be able to post my Winter 10-Item Wardrobe this week! You know, since it’s almost spring.

The missing piece (hopefully) is arriving today: this vintage fisherman’s sweater I found on Etsy. I’m hoping it’s going to be my year-round, goes-with-almost-everything, wearable blanket. No pressure, sweater.

So that’s what I’ve got so far! What do you think of the sweater? Are you looking forward to more Xena? We’re still in Season Two (we only have Sid every other week and average about four episodes a week), so I may have to wait.

 

 

Monthly Meal Planning Take 2: Bulk Overload

Meal Planning Zero Waste

So many lentils and beans. And almonds! Next month . . .

So I dusted off my old Monthly Meal Planning spreadsheets last month and gave them a spin. Overall, it was pretty great: not only did I feel more prepared at mealtimes and waste less food, but we saved 25%–even though I threw a Super Bowl party. Yay!

However, when I started planning this month, I realized I still had some issues to work out: mainly, the jars and jars of dry bulk food in my cabinets. I love to purchase beans, grains, etc. from the bulk bins with my own bags! My problem: I am a terrible judge of how much we actually need. Plus, I decided to make mason jar mixes as gifts for Christmas and really went overboard.

So, Challenge #1: create a menu that would use up my surplus, focusing on:

  • Black beans
  • Lentils
  • Couscous
  • Pecans
  • Oatmeal
  • Sundried tomatoes

Challenge #2 was I wanted to still save 25% or more over our average monthly grocery bill, yet I wanted to splurge for Valentine’s Day with steak and lobster tails. However, I think Challenge #1 will actually make that quite easy, since we’ll be eating so many things we already have on hand.

Challenge #3 is that we’re having house guests this month for a couple of days. Yay! My problem is I always want to go a little bigger when guests are here. Just yogurt doesn’t really seem like an adequate breakfast! The other issue is one of our guests is a pickier eater and doesn’t care for vegetables. But this is actually something I can really work with. I mean, I’ve already gone through Sid’s picky period. And really, this is just an excuse to make a lot of comfort food like meatloaf (with Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix) and homemade macaroni and cheese (with the rest of the Velveeta from the Super Bowl party.

So here’s what I came up with! You can download my February Meal Plan here. You can also peek back and download my January Monthly Meal planning spreadsheets here.

If you haven’t read my previous posts, here’s the deal: I make a meal plan for the entire month, create a shopping list, and sort it by store, department, and week. I try to buy almost everything for the month in Week 1 at WinCo, because it’s the cheapest, and freeze all of our meat, etc. That mainly just leaves weekly dairy and produce, which I buy at our Fred Meyer grocery, which is closer and more convenient.

This month went according to plan, except . . . when I went to WinCo, I discovered that I had someone lost my list of like 53 items. Aargh. With no other choice, I buckled Sarah into our cart and went to work. When I got home and checked against the list, I was surprised–I had remember 51 things! Clearly, writing everything down and having an idea of what I was going to cook helped a lot. But still. What a dumbass.

We’re in the middle of Week 2 and going strong! Here are links to several of the recipes we’re making this month:

Banana Wheat Muffins
Black Beans with Couscous and Avocado (recipe calls for brown rice but I subbed)
Brown Sugar Oatmeal Cookies
Butter-Poached Lobster with Orzo
The Best. Coffee Cake. Ever.
Curried Lentil Soup
El Dorado Casserole
Lipton Onion Soup Meatloaf
Shells & Cheese (With Bacon & Peas)
Spaghetti Squash Noodle Bowl with OMG Sauce
Tenderloin Steak

Is anyone else trying to plan their meals? What have you done in the past? Comment below!