Monday, August 30, 2010

Simple Money Saving Tips

There are many ways you can save money on your grocery budget.  You can shop with coupons, shop the sales, buy items on clearance, minimize the amount of meat you use, buy in bulk, and I could go on and on.  Here are some simple ways I save money on our grocery bills:

    Knorr Chicken Bouillon 35.3-Ounce
  • I buy beef and chicken bouillon granules instead of canned broth.  Last night I went to Ralphs to price their canned broths and bouillon.  Ralphs brand chicken and beef broth were on sale for $0.79 (regularly $0.99) for a 14 ounce can (5.6 cents per ounce on sale).  The bouillon cubes were $3.49 for 3.25 ounces, which makes 25 cups of broth (1.7 cents per ounce of broth).  The bouillon granules were on sale for $4.49 (regularly $6.49) for 15.9 oz, or enough to make 113 cups of broth (0.5  cents per ounce of broth on sale).  Keep in mind this was at Ralphs; I can get it much cheaper at Sam's Club.
  • I buy yeast at Sam's Club (or Costco).  Even if you don't bake your own bread on a regular basis, it may be worth it to buy a large container at Sam's Club or Costco.  Here's why: At Wal-Mart, you can buy a 4 ounce jar of yeast for $4.24 ($1.06 per ounce) or three 1/4 ounce envelopes of yeast for $1.24 ($1.65 per ounce).  At Sam's Club, I buy 2 pounds of yeast for $4.38 ($0.14 per ounce).  Even if I don't use all 2 pounds, I'm still saving money, because I definitely use more than one 4-oz jar.  The great thing is that it comes in two 1-lb bags, so you can split the cost with a friend and you'll only be spending $2.19 for a pound of yeast.  After I open the bag, I put it in a zip-top bag and keep it in the refrigerator.  While yeast comes with an expiration date on it, I've found that it stays good even after that date, so I keep it even after it "expires."
  • I don't buy presifted flour.  Usually when a recipe calls for sifted flour, it's because you'll get a more accurate volume measurement after it's been sifted.  When flour has been sifted and then packaged, it will resettle and need to be sifted by you, just as regular unsifted flour would.
  • Buy dried beans instead of canned.
  • Get the non oil-packed sundried tomatoes and pack them yourself.  My sister buys the dried tomatoes in the bulk bins at Winco and packs them in a jar with olive oil, garlic cloves, oregano, and basil.
  • Use your crockpot.  The long and slow cooking process can turn cheap, tough cuts of meat into delicious and tender meals. 
  • Avoid convenience foods and plan ahead: Most pre-made foods can be made from scratch at home relatively easily, but with the pre-made foods, you're paying an exorbitant amount simply for the convenience of not having to do it yourself.  For example, Trader Joe's recently advertised hard-boiled eggs.  In their ad, they point out that hard boiled eggs are not difficult to make, but take time and require you to plan ahead.  So their solution is to sell hard boiled eggs by the half dozen for $2.69.  I won't even spend that much on a dozen eggs, let alone a half dozen eggs.  Save yourself some money and plan ahead!  Of course, for some things, it may be worth your time to buy the more convenient form.  It all depends on how valuable your time is to you.

  • Instead of buying chili and taco seasoning packets, I buy large containers (or in bulk at Winco if I happen to be near one).  Ralphs had 1.48 ounce Lawry's Chili seasoning packets on sale for $1.50 (regularly $1.79) each, or 99 cents per ounce on sale.  Sam's Club sells 20 ounce containers of Chili Powder for $4.28, or 21 cents per ounce.  Taco seasoning would be similar.
  • I buy fresh meat and freeze it myself.  There are certain types of meat I try to keep on hand at all times.  Boneless skinless chicken breasts is one of them.  I can buy frozen chicken breasts, which is super convenient, because all I have to do is stick the bag in the freezer and pull out some pieces when I need them, but it is usually over my $2 per pound limit on meat.  I usually wait for boneless skinless chicken breasts to go on sale, then I stock up and wrap each breast individually or in groups of two in cling wrap.  Once they're wrapped, you can either wrap them in foil (what my sister does) or stick them in a zip-top freezer bag (what I do).  I have had problems with the cling wrapped chicken bundles sticking to each other with my method, so you may want to experiment and see what works for you. 
The chicken breasts wrapped in packs of two.
All of the individual packs placed in a labeled zip-top bag.

    Friday, August 27, 2010

    School Lunch Strategies

    Keanna and her teachers on the first day of school.

    To save money and feed my family more nutritiously, I do not buy pre-packaged snacks.  Though individually packaged snacks are super convenient, they can cost three to five times more than if you bought a regular package and divided it up yourself.  For example, I checked the price of goldfish crackers at WinCo last week.  If you buy the 100-calorie packs, you will pay over $0.70 per ounce.  However, if you buy a big box and divide it up into little containers or bags, you will only pay $0.21 per ounce.  The same is true for just about all pre-portioned snacks:  raisins, applesauce, fruit cups, pudding cups, crackers, chips, cookies, cheese, and drinks.

    To be a little more environmentally friendly, I try to use cheap reusable plastic containers.  I love these Glad containers.  They hold ½ cup and are the perfect size for snacks.  I bought this pack of eight for only $2.22 at Wal-Mart.  Before sending them to school with my daughter, I used a permanent marker to write her name on them.  Hopefully we’ll end the school year with almost as many as we’re starting.  These don’t work for long, stick shaped snacks like pretzel sticks or carrot sticks.  I have yet to find small, cheap containers that accommodate snacks of this shape so I use zip-top bags.  Anyone have any suggestions?

    But I have to admit that packing school lunches is one of my least favorite things to do.  I currently only have to pack two lunches (one for my daughter and one for my husband), but someday I will have to pack five.  Just thinking about it makes me tired—or maybe I’m just tired from the middle-of-the-night feedings.  Anyway, last year I kept finding myself scrounging around the kitchen every morning trying to pull healthy lunches together at the last minute while trying to make breakfast and help Keanna get ready for school.  Can we say “frazzled”?!?!

    Packing snacks like this does take time.  That’s one reason why my mornings used to be so hectic.  But I am not willing to pay the extra money for convenience.  I decided I did not want to continue in this manner for the next 17 years so I came up with a system for preparing school lunches:

    Sunday night:  prepare and package up all snacks for the week
    Each night:  fill lunch box/bag with non-refrigerated items (including napkin and utensils); fill thermos and put in fridge
    Each morning:  add refrigerated/frozen items (including ice pack)

    By packaging up all the snacks on Sunday night, the rest of the week is grab-n-go.  There are some things I cannot do on Sunday such as cut fresh fruit and vegetables for the entire week—I usually portion these out on Sunday and Wednesday nights.

    I never buy baby carrots.  They are more expensive and don't last as long in the fridge.

    I usually send my husband with dinner leftovers for lunch.  I simply package those up for him as I am putting the leftovers away.

    Good school snack ideas:
    • Crackers and peanut butter
    • Hummus with pretzels or pita bread/chips
    • Grapes, sliced apples or peaches, or orange slices
    • Cheese sticks (cut from a block to save money)
    • Hard-boiled eggs
    • Pudding
    • Whole wheat noodles
    • Carrot or celery sticks (ants on a log!)
    • Homemade trail mix/snack mix
    • Raisins or other dried fruit
    • Yogurt
    • Granola bars
    • Popcorn
    This week's snacks:  grapes, cheese crackers, hummus, pretzel
    sticks, chocolate graham crackers, peanut butter sandwich crackers,
    and carrot sticks.
    You can also get your kids involved.  Keanna made the peanut butter sandwich crackers this week.  Even small children can fill containers or bags.  Not only does this take some of the work off you, but it helps teach them that everything they eat needs to be prepared by someone.

    If you have other great ideas for quick, healthy school snacks, please post a comment to share them with all our readers.

    Thursday, August 26, 2010

    Good Old PB&J Update

    For those who didn’t see the comment on the original PB&J post, there is a square sandwich cutter/sealer that can be found here.  Thanks so much to Crystal for passing this on to us!!

    I mentioned that white and wheat bread work better than whole wheat.  As this has always been my experience with the bread I buy, I always wondered if there was a whole wheat bread out there that would work for these sandwiches.  After my post on Monday, I received a question from a reader regarding this issue.  Kimiko advised me that the Oroweat bread she buys at Wal-Mart is softer than other whole wheat breads and thought it might work.  So off to Wal-Mart I went.  I ended up buying three loaves of whole wheat bread.  Last night I experimented with all three and even conducted a blind taste test to see which one tasted best.  Okay, the only subject was my husband, because he was the only one available at ten o’clock last night.  Here are the results:

    My least favorite was Oroweat’s Dutch Country 100% Whole Wheat ($1.97).  While it did seal, the bread itself had a coarser texture than the others and was drier.  It also seemed like it wanted to rip if you put too much inside.  The loaf is wider and squattier than regular loaves, making it too short and too wide for the cutter.  This one scored lowest in our blind taste test.

    Oroweat’s Soft Family 100%Whole Wheat bread ($1.97) worked a lot better.  My main issue was that the loaf I bought had a lot of large air bubbles in it which meant that many of the slices were not suitable for spreading the peanut butter and jelly.  Does anyone out there buy this type of bread on a regular basis?  Is this common for this product or did I just pick the wrong loaf?  Other than that, it was great and ranked second in our blind taste test (though I preferred the taste of this one).

    The bread that worked the best was Sara Lee’s Soft and Smooth Plus 100% Whole Wheat Made with DHA Omega-3 ($1.88).  This bread looks and tastes almost like white bread.  It produced a great crustless sandwich and sealed perfectly.  My husband chose this as his favorite in the taste test.

    Conclusion:  Yes!!  You can make sealed crustless sandwiches with whole wheat bread!!  I already have a loaf’s worth in my freezer.

    Wednesday, August 25, 2010

    Granola Bars

    When I was a kid, I loved granola bars - especially the ones with chocolate chips in them.  I think I liked them so much because they were the closest thing to candy bars I was allowed to have on a regular basis!  While you may be able to find some great deals on granola bars with sales and coupons, I enjoy making my own granola bars because I can control what goes into them, as well as play around with the recipe to come up with various flavor combinations.  I like having them on hand for snacks and they're easy to wrap up and take with us.  I have to thank my sister-in-law, Kristin, who introduced me to this recipe.  The original recipe can be found here on AllRecipes.

    Granola Bars
    2 cups oatmeal
    1/2 to 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
    1/2 cup wheat germ*
    3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
    1 cup whole wheat flour
    3/4 tsp salt
    3/4 cup raisins (optional)
    1/2 cup honey
    1 egg
    1/2 cup canola oil
    2 tsp vanilla extract

    Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Grease a 9x13 baking pan and set aside.

    Combine dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.  Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients; pour wet ingredients into well.

    This is the Measure All Cup by The Pampered Chef and it's the easiest way to measure thick and/or sticky ingredients such as honey, shortening, or peanut butter.

    Mix until combined, then spread into the prepared pan.  Using your hands,  press it evenly over the bottom of the pan.

    Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until they begin to turn brown around the edges.  Cut bars while still warm.  Store in an air-tight container or zip-top bag.

    I made two different kinds.  One had dried cranberries, and the other had chopped almonds and mini chocolate chips mixed in and melted chocolate drizzled on top.

    Variations - Instead of raisins, you can use any of the following:
    • Dried Cranberries
    • Chocolate Chips
    • 1/2 cup peanut butter (plus some chocolate chips, of course!)
    • Nuts
    • Dried Fruits (apples, bananas, cherries, blueberries, etc.)
    • Pretty much anything your heart desires!
    *Wheat germ can be found in the natural/health foods section of your grocery store or at natural foods stores such as Whole Foods.  While I generally don't shop at Whole Foods because of their prices, "specialty" health items are often actually cheaper there than at typical grocery stores, because they sell a lot more of those products and can therefore offer lower prices.

    Monday, August 23, 2010

    Good Old PB&J

    Some things just shouldn’t be:

    Pre-made peanut butter and jelly?!?  Oh, I get it—there are no crusts and the contents are sealed inside for a less-mess kid lunch.  Voila!  The Pampered Chef’s Cut-N-Seal (available here):

    Yes, I costs $9.00 (plus tax, shipping, and handling).  But I can make crustless PB&J for a fraction of the cost ($0.25 each) of the store-bought version ($0.62 each).  If your kids are buying these at school, I guarantee you’re paying even more.  In the end, the Cut-N-Seal pays for itself in five easy steps:

    Step 1:  Spread two slices of bread with peanut butter—putting peanut butter on both sides will keep the jelly from making the bread soggy.  Note:  unfortunately, white bread and wheat bread seal better than whole wheat bread.

    Step 2:  Spread jelly on top of peanut butter on one side; put two halves together.

    Step 3:  Press outer edges of Cut-N-Seal into sandwich to cut off excess (save extra bread for croutons or bread crumbs).

    Step 4:  Press down crimper to seal edges.

    Step 5:  Remove crustless sandwich from middle of bread.

    But wait!!  The store-bought ones are really convenient because they are frozen—they last a long time, are individually wrapped, and are so easy to pack in school lunches!

    Step 6:  Place sandwich in zip-top bag or wrap in plastic wrap and store in freezer.  In the morning, I simply pull one out of the freezer and put it in my daughter's lunch box.  By lunch time, it has thawed and is ready to eat!

    Have a great school year!!

    Saturday, August 21, 2010

    Back to School with Near to Nothing!

    It's back-to-school time!  For you parents, school mornings can be stressful.  Between getting yourself ready, your kids ready, breakfast served, lunches made, and making sure everyone has everything, getting out the door on time can be quite a challenge.  This week, we'll be offering tips, suggestions, and recipes for saving time and money on school lunches that will hopefully make your mornings a little less stressful.  Even if you don't have kids for whom to pack lunches, you might find these tips handy for "brown-bagging" it for work.  So be sure to check back!!

    Friday, August 20, 2010

    Chocolate Covered Strawberries

    One of my favorite treats is chocolate covered strawberries!!  However, they can cost an arm and leg to buy.  I've seen them in bakeries for $4 per strawberry and online for $50 per dozen, which is the low end of the price spectrum, believe it or not.  Thankfully chocolate covered strawberries are easy to make at home and cost much less.  In fact, I made about 20 (I forgot to count, so I don't know how many I made!) for approximately $3!  I usually wait for strawberries to go on sale for $1 per pound or less - which they often do in the summer - before I buy them.

    Dipping Chocolate
    1 cup chocolate chips
    1 Tbsp. vegetable shortening

    In a microwave-safe bowl or mug, place chocolate chips and shortening.

    Microwave for 1 minute, then stir.  Microwave in 30 second increments, stirring after each 30 seconds, until chocolate and shortening are smooth, being careful not to overheat the chocolate.  Depending on how thick or thin you want your chocolate, you may need to adjust the amount of shortening.  Note: For you bakers out there wondering why I didn't temper my chocolate, it's because this works just fine for what I'm trying to accomplish.  Also, this method is much easier.

    Chocolate Covered Strawberries
    Dipping Chocolate
    White chocolate (optional)
    Shortening (optional)

    Clean strawberries and dry.  This is important because any moisture in your chocolate will cause lumps.

    In the meantime, line a plate with wax paper.

    Once the strawberries are dry, pick them up by the stem/leaves and dip into the chocolate.  Swirl the strawberry around to coat the entire strawberry, except a little bit at the top.  Remove the strawberry and shake off any excess chocolate.

    Place the dipped strawberry onto your prepared plate.  Allow chocolate to cool and harden.

    In the summer, I place mine in the refrigerator to set.  Once the chocolate has hardened on the strawberries, I like to drizzle some white chocolate on the strawberries to add some decoration.  To do this, I melt white chocolate chips with shortening.  Keep in mind that in order to drizzle the chocolate, it needs to be thinner than the dipping chocolate, so your chocolate to shortening ratio is going to be different.  Once the white chocolate has reached the desired consistency, dip a spoon into it.  Hold the spoon about 4 to 6 inches above the strawberries, and quickly move it back and forth over the strawberries.  Allow white chocolate to set.

    Viola!  You've got chocolate covered strawberries!  Simply add some nice packaging, and you've got a great gift that didn't cost you $50 but easily could have!

    For some added variety, you can dip the strawberries into white chocolate and drizzle with chocolate.  (Fun fact: I made some white chocolate ones, but left them in the freezer [I put them in there to speed them up a bit] until the next day.  Woops!  I would have pictures, but they were frozen and the chocolate had cracked.) I've also seen a lot of websites that dip their chocolate covered strawberries in sprinkles, mini chocolate chips, nuts, and an assortment of other toppings.  Be creative with this one and have fun!

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010

    Taco Salad

    One thing I love about summer is serving dinner salads!!  They are easy, healthy, affordable, delicious, and don’t require me to heat up the house by using the oven or stove.  One of our favorites is taco salad.  This is a great way to use leftover ingredients from tacos or burritos.  I sometimes include taco meat or my all-purpose chicken (to be posted at a later time).  But because I always use beans and corn, this salad provides a complete protein even without meat.

    I almost always use romaine for salad.  I buy it at Costco where I can get six hearts of romaine for $2.89.  Since my house is so busy, I usually tear and wash more lettuce than I need so I have it on hand, ready to use.  I simply tear the lettuce into the colander, rinse it off, shake off excess water, and store it in a zip-top bag or plastic container with a tight-fitting lid.  The key to keeping the lettuce from going bad is to soak up any extra water.  I always place a paper towel or two in the bag before placing it in the refrigerator.  If I notice that the towels are soaked, I replace them.

    If you have young children, you can’t serve tacos or taco salad without olives.  For salad, they are best sliced, but I find slicing olives to be a tedious task since they are so small.  You can buy canned sliced olives, but they are much more costly than whole olives.  My super-duper trick?  I use my egg slicer!  I can slice four to five olives at one time.

    One great thing about salads is that they are easy to tailor to your preference.  The following recipe is how I made it last week.  Next time I make it, it will be slightly different.  For example, I used an orange bell pepper from our garden.  Next time there won’t be any left.  And there aren’t any quantities because it’s up to you.

    Taco Salad
    Romaine, washed and torn
    Beans, drained
    Corn, thawed
    Tomatoes, diced (same as for potatoes)
    Olives, sliced
    Cheddar cheese, shredded
    Tortilla chips, crushed
    Taco Salad Dressing (recipe follows)

    Other optional ingredients:
    Bell pepper, diced
    Taco meat
    Avocado, sliced
    Hot sauce

    Place a bed of romaine on each plate.  Top with desired toppings and dressing.

    Taco Salad Dressing
    ½ c. sour cream
    ¼ c. ranch dressing
    2 Tbsp. taco seasoning
    Hot sauce, to taste (optional)

    Mix all ingredients until well-combined.

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