The One Month Grocery Challenge: Week One

On Friday night, dinner was mushroom and barley soup, homemade in the crockpot. I’ve been on the hunt for quite some time for the perfect recipe for this soup. Bingo! I found it. The recipe I used is the Moosewood vegetarian restaurant’s version (found here online,) although I skipped the whole part about following directions and just threw all the ingredients into my crockpot. It was incredible. Some of the best soup I’ve had in a while- flavorful and hearty, perfect for the beginning of fall. Forgive me because I keep forgetting to take pictures until the food is leftovers, so it probably doesn’t look quite as nice!

Saturday Grace and I were on our own for most of the day because Liesbeth was off coaching volleyball in a neighboring town. I had a bagel with cream cheese and grapes for breakfast and leftover mushroom and barley soup for lunch. Grace had the same- she usually eats a portion of whatever the grownups are eating- along with about a gallon of breast milk. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. Might I just say, though, that breast milk is the ultimate free food? Liesbeth presumably ate cereal or a bagel for breakfast. For dinner, I threw together a quinoa salad with a mix of red and white quinoa, frozen peas and corn, fresh parsley, tomato, avocado, and sunflower seeds with a lemon and red wine vinaigrette. Also, fresh fruit (chopped pear, grapes, and raspberries.) Deeeelicious. After Grace went to bed, our brother and sister in law came over to babysit and Liesbeth and I had our monthly date night. We shared a plate of fries and each had a beer. Although our date night was budgeted for separately, we went over by $2 which cut into our grocery allotment. Worth it though! There’s not much to do in this little town, especially when it’s cold outside as it was on Saturday, so date nights almost always involve spending money. I’m not, however, willing to give up our time to connect, get out of the house, and have grownup time.

Sunday we ate breakfast as a family- oatmeal with raisins, dried cranberries, and chopped home-dried apples. Our friend came over for lunch and we had a leftovers smorgasbord- quinoa salad, mushroom and barley soup, and some leftover vegetarian hamburger helper from last week. (Really healthy, I know!) I drank some Bolthouse Farms juice that we bought two-for-one last week and have been slowly nursing ever since. Even on sale half off it’s a splurge for us, so I will be saying goodbye to the delicious juice this month! Dinner was a tofu and veggie stirfry with a peanut coconut lime sauce. I used up one carrot, two stalks of celery, and half of our broccoli for the stirfry which means there is still plenty of carrots and celery left as well as the other half of the fresh broccoli. Also, I only used 2/3 of the can of coconut milk in the sauce, so I put the rest in the freezer for some unknown use one day. In the evening, brother and sister in law came over to play games and enjoy apple pie (made by Liesbeth with our free apples) and wine (which they brought over.) A lovely little indulgence.

Grace enjoying her fruit at lunch time

Monday was a typical weekday. I’m not going to detail everything that we eat on a normal day, but generally it’s leftovers. Dinner was quick since we were in a hurry, and grilled cheese and tomato soup was perfect. We also had salads and Liesbeth informed me that she is no longer using lettuce on her sandwiches at lunch since she’s toasting them on the borrowed panini press at work. So we’ll definitely be eating more salads that I had planned on, which is great! One thing that I was not going to do this month was buy outside of my planned shopping list… and I broke that rule already, but for a good cause. There were two items that I was not able to get during my first shopping trip and I had to go to a different store to find them. While there, I noticed a ton of bread and bagels on “Manager’s Special” for $0.50 and $0.75 each. This is much more inexpensive than any store bought bread is regularly and it’s also cheaper than my homemade bread. We like to have a little bit of premade bread in the freezer in case I don’t have time to make it fresh sometimes. Needless to say, I bought all of it, but at less than $5.00 for six loaves of whole grain bread and three packages of bagels, it was definitely worth veering from my shopping list. Overall, this shopping trip cost us $10.

Tuesday’s dinner was quick and easy again- spaghetti with homemade pesto made from basil we grew in our garden last summer. A little fresh parmesan cheese, some frozen green beans, and cottage cheese for protein, and we had dinner. Preserving homegrown or inexpensive local produce and herbs can go a long way for saving money! We are still eating garden pesto and shredded zucchini from last year’s garden, canned apricots from our friends’ tree last year, and applesauce from last year’s free apple harvest. Actually, I’m sure those frozen foods need to get used up, so we’ll keep working on it this month!

On Wednesday it was breakfast as usual (still working on those yummy bagels in the freezer!) In the morning I also baked up a bunch of potatoes. Potatoes are cheap and filling and make a great quick lunch, especially if topped with veggies, cheese, or nutritional yeast. In fact, that is exactly what I ate for lunch. Dinner was falafel burgers from our freezer. I made up a batch of these a couple of weeks ago using a recipe out of one of the Moosewood restaurant cookbooks. Burgers are great to keep on hand for a quick-but-hearty meal on the go. Just pop the frozen patty in the oven and you’re set. We had ours on buns with lettuce and feta cheese (another Manager’s Special bargain from a week ago. We also had nutritional yeast roasted broccoli using the other half of our broccoli head. Super easy: Cut broccoli into florets, coat with olive oil and nutritional yeast to taste, roast in the oven for about 15 minutes. SO GOOD.

Here is the Moosewood falafel burger recipe:

  • 1 cup diced onion
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup diced red bell peppers
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • pinch of cayenne, or to taste
  • 12 oz firm tofu, pressed and crumbled
  • 1.5 cups cooked chick peas (15-oz can, drained)
  • 3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tsp dark sesame oil
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
  • 1/2 cup breadcrumbs

Preheat the oven to 350. Oil a baking sheet.

Sauté onions and garlic in olive oil on medium heat for 5 minutes. Add peppers, turmeric, coriander and cayenne and sauté for 5 minutes more.

While the veggies cook, combine tofu, chick peas, lemon juice, soy sauce and sesame oil in food processor until well combined but not a paste.

Transfer tofu mixture to a large bowl. Stir in veggie mixture, parsley, tahini, bread crumbs and salt, until uniform.

Shape into 8 patties, using about 1/2 cup mixture per patty. Bake for 30 minutes until golden, juicy and firm.

On Thursday, dinner was tofu with nutritional yeast, baked potatoes, and sauteed frozen spinach with garlic and lemon. Simple, easy, healthy meal! Here’s how you make the tofu: Cut tofu into 1cm cubes. Throw into a hot pan with olive oil and saute until most of the water has evaporated. Douse with soy sauce until the cubes look lightly brown. Continue sauteeing until the sides of the tofu look caramelized and are brown in spots. Turn off heat, throw on enough nutritional yeast to coat tofu. Done! This is Liesbeth’s favorite way for me to make tofu. As you can see, we get pretty busy in the evenings (since we both get home from work/coaching at about 6 and Grace’s bedtime is between 7 and 7:30.) Quick, easy, healthy meals are important to us!

One Month Grocery Challenge

The time for our monthly payday has come around again. As you may know, Liesbeth is a teacher and is our primary breadwinner. Each month, I plan our budget based around her paycheck, taking note of my estimated income (from my part-time job working for an after school program) over the course of the month. This month we are making up for having paid poor attention to our budget over the summer. Whoops! That means there is very little wiggle room for going over budget on groceries and “extras.” (Extras includes restaurants, coffee, hardware store purchases, craft supplies, etc.) This month I have allotted $189 for groceries and extra expenses- a pretty typical amount, but in all actuality I’d like to come out under budget if at all possible and we certainly can not afford to go over. This will need to cover us for five weeks. Since much unnecessary money is spent on impulse buys in the grocery store, my challenge is to make only one big shopping trip for the month with one produce-only run mid-month in order to avoid overbuying. Luckily for us, our cabinets are well-stocked with dry goods that should easily last us the entire five week pay period.

I think it will be fun to document this process here in our blog, plus it will be a good exercise in accountability.

So how am I doing it? First of all, I took inventory of what we already had available in our refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. Then, I created a meal plan for twenty six dinners that I could make while keeping additional ingredients to a minimum. Lunches will consist mostly of leftovers for Grace and me and Tofurkey and cheese sandwiches for Liesbeth (which is her daily routine.) I plan to rely heavily on oatmeal, our current freezer stock of bagels, and fruit for breakfast and Liesbeth likes cereal. We also has a friend who supplies us with very inexpensive local eggs. After creating the meal plan, I sorted out my shopping list and hit the grocery store. I spent about $85 on staples, produce, and ingredients for this month’s dinners. (In case you are interested, I purchased 3 cartons of soy milk, two large boxes of rice milk, two packages of pre-sliced non-processed cheese, two blocks of tofu, one bag of lentils, two tubs of cottage cheese, 4 cans of juice concentrate, one block of cream cheese, a few spices, and a bunch of fresh fruits and vegetables.)

A few things to take note of: We are a primarily vegetarian family. Grace and I do not eat any meat and Liesbeth does only on a very occasional basis. Vegetarian protein sources (Like dry beans, TVP, eggs, and tofu) are typically much cheaper than meat. If we ate meat regularly, I’m not sure how that would even be possible with this budget. We also try to make more expensive items like cheese stretch as far as possible. We eat the vast majority of our meals from scratch, using things like boxed macaroni and cheese only for “emergencies” or the occasional weekend lunch.

Here is a peek at our supplies post-shopping. I love refrigerator shots!

The pictures don’t quite give a complete view of what we’ve got since I have things squirreled away in all different nooks and crannies of our tiny kitchen. Here’s the gist of our fridge, freezer, and cupboard contents:

Cupboard

  • dry lentils
  • a small amount of dry red lentils
  • dry chickpeas
  • dry black beans
  • Israeli couscous
  • yellow grits
  • TVP crumbles and chunks
  • brown and white rice
  • quinoa
  • peanut butter
  • tahini
  • vegetarian sausage crumbles
  • spaghetti
  • macaroni
  • one can of coconut milk
  • four cans of diced tomatoes
  • one large can of crushed tomatoes
  • two small cans of tomato paste
  • one can of olives
  • one can of tomato soup
  • a few various canned veggies which we keep on hand in case we get desperate haha.
  • three boxes organic mac and cheese
  • one can of lentil soup
  • four packets of ramen
  • two loaves of homemade bread and enough baking supplies to make bread as needed
  • various half-eaten boxes of crackers
  • dried cranberries
  • golden raisins
  • home-made dried apple slices
  • two large boxes of rice milk
  • one and a half large canisters of rolled oats
  • one tin of organic shredded chicken

Refrigerator

  • two large containers of cottage cheese
  • two containers of sour cream
  • one tub of yogurt
  • four containers of organic whole-milk yogurt for Grace
  • eggs
  • two tubs of tofu
  • lots of sliced cheese for Liesbeth’s sandwiches
  • three cartons of soy milk
  • bagels and a few slices of store-bought bread
  • butter and margarine
  • various condiments
  • leftovers from the past week’s meals
  • orange juice
  • 4 beers- a splurge for us grownups!

Freezer

  • about five tupperwares full of homemade soup
  • a case of Tofurkey
  • large bag of peas
  • large bag of corn
  • bag of spinach
  • large bag of green beans
  • a little bit of broccoli
  • tater tots (a guilty pleasure!)
  • homemade falafel burger patties
  • several containers of homemade applesauce
  • grated zucchini from last year’s garden
  • sunflower seeds
  • almonds
  • about two cups of shredded cheddar cheese
  • three cans of juice concentrate
  • several bagels brought back from Liesbeth’s recent trip out of town

Fresh Produce

  • large bunch of bananas
  • 8 pluots
  • three heads romaine lettuce
  • bag of carrots
  • one head of celery
  • sack of potatoes
  • bag of yellow onions
  • one lemon
  • one lime
  • two pears
  • half a bag of grapes
  • a large container of raspberries
  • one tomato
  • 1/2 of an avocado
  • half a bunch of parsley
  • one head of broccoli
  • one pound of mushrooms
  • more apples than we could ever eat

Over the course of the month, I will be updating with our weekly meal plans, any additional shopping trips, and how things are working out. Like I said, this is a very typical grocery budget for us, but the monthly meal plan and shopping trip is not- normally I go weekly. I feel pretty confident about the plan for the month, but we’ll see how well we do.

Apples, Apples, and more Apples

About a year ago, Liesbeth, Grace, and I visited a local apple orchard. In addition to being a super fun trip for the three of us, we managed to come home with bushels of free honeycrisp apples- the orchard was simply giving away the tail end of the very abundant crop. If you know anything about us, you know that we take advantage of good deals on things we can use, and we can certainly use fruit any day. We processed almost all of them into applesauce to freeze and use throughout the year.

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Grace’s New Freecycled Train Table- Improved By Me!

I said I would blog about this a long time ago, but unfortunately every time I tried to, I’d have some sort of computer problem, internet problem, or photo upload problem. Therefore I’ve been really turned off from finishing this particular entry, which is annoying. Anyway, this time I’ll actually finish it, but it might not be as long and pretty as it might have been in oh, May.

As you may have gathered from past entries, we freecycled a train table that our neighbor left on the curb this spring. Score! We had been wanting a train table for Grace and free is my favorite price. The only problem was that the surface was sort of worn down and peeling.

The first thing I did was to use a little elbow grease and sand down the boards and remove the existing plastic coating. I suppose it would be easier if you had an electric sander. I don’t.

Then, I laid down a drop cloth and primed the boards. If I were you, I’d wait for a day that is not too windy, but since I live in Kansas, those don’t happen very often. Especially in the spring. My boards kept getting specks of dust and fuzz and leafy bits stuck all over them… oh well.

For some reason, I don’t have a picture, but before all this sanding and priming, I made out a design of how I wanted the table scene to look. Then I measured and drew a grid over the design so I could transfer it to the board. If you’re actually a decent artist, you might be able to freehand it. I like the grid. Next step is to put a matching grid onto the boards and draw in my design.

Liesbeth photographed me as I was painting in my scene. Obviously not a finished product.

So, I don’t have pictures of the next step, but once the painting was done, I dragged the boards out away from the house and sprayed everything with a coating of Krylon Crystal Clear Acrylic so that the design won’t be scraped up by Grace’s toy trains.

It dried quickly in the Kansas heat et voila! A finished train table. Not the best pic here, but you get the idea!

From Junk Heap to Useful Basement Space in One Week

As I wrote about in the recap of my May Goals, I recently turned the junkpile at the bottom of the stairs into a real, live, organized office space with storage for craft materials as well. If you ask me, this was desperately in need of a makeover and, you know, some shelves. I also cleared out our downstairs family room to turn it into a playroom for Grace.

Here’s the before of the office:

Not so nice, huh? Believe it or not, this is much better than before we brought in the desk, but it still tended to get messy very quickly because it was necessary to move everything around in order to get to items at the bottom of the pile. Also, Liesbeth and I both had bins of craft supply and they needed to be merged and sorted through. No need for multiple storage locations for the same materials.

Since we were doing this project on a budget, it was time to hit the thrift stores and garage sales. Luckily, spring is an awesome time for garage sale-ing. First, I bought an old-but-great-condition gray file cabinet at a local thrift store. Then, I picked up a metal shelf at a garage sale. Hit up the hardware store for a bucket of interior paint in FUCHSIA and some spray paint for the new furniture and I was ready to go! Here’s what everything looked like once it was painted:

A can of spray paint is a fabulous tool for making boring metal furniture into something bright and fun. Yep, we like bright! I managed to organize all of our art materials using the bins and boxes I already had, and I threw out lots of things that were to old and worn out to be useful. The completed office space:

It is now so much easier to get to things! This area ended up being a much bigger project than the playroom, mostly because I decided to paint the wall. The playroom is also now functional, but it will need more work. I plan to paint a chalkboard onto one of the walls, sew a valence for the window, decorate or paint the walls somehow, and of course, bring in more toys eventually. However, this is as far as I got before it was time to pack for our trip and I must say, Grace is quite pleased.

In the right hand corner, you can see our new reading nook, which is probably my favorite new addition to the room. We had an old circular bed that was made up of four wedges. We are getting rid of the bed, but I decided to recycle one of the wedges into a corner seat. It is so comfy and perfect for snuggling and reading! The bookshelf is next to it. On the far wall, you can see a big mirror which I freecycled from a dumpster- and it is in perfect condition. Someone was remodeling their bathroom and they just threw it out! After a little bit of digging, I dislodged the mirror from the construction scraps and stuck it in my trunk. That was definitely our best find. I visited a local glass shop for materials and instructions for hanging it on the wall. I will mount the mirror close to the floor so we can use it above a Montessori movement mat for our future baby. I’m sure Grace will enjoy it as well. To the left, you can see Grace’s completed new-to-us train table, which will be blogged about in the future.

In this photo, you can see a closer view of the train table. I don’t claim to be any sort of artist, but I think it turned out just fine. On the left are some dolls, leftover from Liesbeth’s childhood. At the back next to the standing mirror is a bin that will hold dress up clothes. The TV and entertainment center will be moved to the extra bedroom, provided we don’t find someone to rent it out. The right corner is cut out of the photo, but we have a bunch of cardboard stacking bricks and in that corner is where I’ll be painting a chalkboard onto the wall.

In case you are wondering how much has been spent on these projects (so far), here is the breakdown. Once I finish decorating the playroom, there will surely be a bit more spent.
Metal shelf: $3
File cabinet: $8
Spray paint: $18
Interior paint: $24
One pre-fab bookshelf:$17
Mirror hardware: $11
Total: $81

I have to say, I’m pretty pleased with how well I’ve been able to transform our space on a budget!

But What Do You Eat?

I’ve mentioned a few times on the blog that our family is vegetarian. In this day and age, avoiding meat is not exactly unusual. I have noticed though, that our town in southwest Kansas, completely surrounded by cattle feedlots, is not exactly a mecca for peaceful eating choices. The prevailing attitude seems to be “EAT BEEF!” In fact, I often see plaques on people’s vehicles that say just that. You can also see this gem from our block.

Originally, my reason for giving up meat was that I didn’t like it much and I didn’t see any purpose to eating meat if it was not necessary. I began to read about the meat industry, the factory farming, and its impact on the animals and environment. I was shocked that the living conditions of animals in factory farms were far worse than I could have imagined, the methods of killing the animals were far from humane (if humane killing is a concept that even makes sense in the first place,) and the processing procedures weren’t sanitary. Additionally, when I realized exactly how much grain and water were used to feed farm animals, it was clear that eating animals was anything from environmentally efficient when the grain could be used to feed humans instead of bred animals. I think we all know that wasting water is not the thing to do. It made sense to intentionally reduce my dependency on the meat industry, especially commercially produced meats. Once Liesbeth and I began sharing an apartment and cooking meals together, it was natural that she would start to eat the way I did.

Liesbeth typically has to pack her own lunch when attending catered events for her work or her all-day graduate seminars because no one around here would even think to provide any meatless options- the menu is typically brisket, green beans with bacon, and mashed potatoes with gravy. When people find out we’re vegetarian, they sometimes wonder what we DO eat if we DON’T eat meat. For me it’s a no-brainer. I’ve been a vegetarian for 8 years and I do not feel restricted whatsoever. Once you get past the mental attitude that a meal must revolve around a piece of animal flesh, you can begin to realize that the eating choices are plentiful.

I’ve began keeping lists of our meals because I get the “what do you eat?” question on occasion and I like to have a good answer. I am terrible at thinking of things off the top of my head! A few days ago I went to the grocery store and picked up a few groceries to round out meals for the next few weeks. Incidentally, in addition to being vegetarian, most of our meals are vegan- which means they do not contain any animal products (such as eggs or dairy) at all. This further reduces our dependence on the meat industry. Vegan cooking happens to be pretty darned cheap if you know how to do it right (read: no processed vegan fake-meat products.) Here is what I plan on cooking for dinners:

I think this gives a pretty accurate idea of what types of food we eat on a regular basis. I enjoy being creative in the kitchen and finding new recipes to try, so our menus are always changing. Do you have a favorite vegetarian recipe to share?

The Soap Nuts Experiment

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been reading loads of raves about soap nuts on blogs and message boards these days. Of course, I had no idea what these nuts were- all I knew is that people were using them to clean their laundry. Really? I looked it up. Sure enough, soap nuts are actually a fruit with surfactant qualities. I was curious, but I had no real need for a different laundry solution as the bottles of detergent we’ve been using for our laundry and diapers are still half full (even after a year of use- we only use a teeny bit in our machine!) However, lately I’ve been making my own all-purpose spray for kitchen and bathroom cleaning. It’s much more cost effective than the commercial variety and I can avoid using unknown or factory processed chemicals- better for my budget, better for my family, better for the planet. The only problem was that I was missing that certain… soapiness. So when I saw a soap nuts sample on one of those half-off flash deal websites, I decided to go for it. (I’ll admit, I did some research online first to help me decide if they were going to work or if just maybe it was just some weird new fad… Even after looking it up I was still undecided but I decided to give them a try anyway.)

The berries are about the size of a hazelnut and come in their dried form. I also received a small fabric bag for throwing the soap nuts into the washing machine and a sample of the company’s stain remover. Of course, since I bought these for making all-purpose cleaner, I haven’t even tried out the berries-in-a-bag laundry method.

After perusing several different methods online, I boiled a few soap nuts in 3 cups of water for about a half an hour. Look! You can see suds forming!

Once the mixture had simmered for a half an hour, the liquid had boiled down to about one cup. I strained the liquid through a kitchen cloth.

Once the liquid was strained, I added it to a spray bottle with one cup of plain water and about two teaspoons of tea tree oil for disinfecting surfaces.

Guess what? It works! The liquid does not end up terribly slippery, but it definitely contains enough surfactant to combine the water and tea tree oil quite well. My cleaning spray has the same consistency of commercial sprays and easily cleans surfaces without leaving streaks or blotches. I even used it to clean my windows today! I’m somewhat surprised to say that soap nuts definitely have my vote. Yay for minimally processed cleaning supplies!