Friday, July 18, 2014

My Life Briefly; Boring

Okay, so I've been absent for a bit.

I got discouraged.

And I had to do taxes.

These two are unrelated, and yet....

Quick summary: I discovered that I could purchase groceries to feed the four of us for ~$50/week. However, teens being teens and wanting pizza, sodas, dates, candy at the movies, bring a dish to the potluck and so forth, I could not claim to "feed the family for fifty bucks". I mean, I suppose I COULD have, but it would've meant saying No a great deal more often, not going to parties where a bottle of wine and/or a dish to share was the "done" thing, and birthday meals would've been meager and cakeless.

Doing taxes is unrelated to food purchases, but related to fiscal responsibility. I do my own, or rather, I do OUR own, as both Mr. Gomez and I are and have been self-employed, and (in my case) self-un-employed. Taxes with two Schedule Cs is not a task for the faint-of-heart. Mr. Gomez's filing system is random receipts stuffed in tissue boxes (no separation of categories) and a stack of logbook sheets, which he's inclined (after a month of reminding) to thrust into my arms on April 11th saying, I think this is everything.

I have dropped the ball on some of the years, but have caught up and only 2010 is outstanding. I intend to rectify that.

I also dropped the ball on budgeted grocery purchases, and we were spending ~$80-120/week on food supplies, plus "extras" like our Stupid Costco Dates (total: ~$8-12, not bad for a family date, but seriously? 25% of our total food budget?) These spendings, I am sad and embarrassed to report, included Sofa Merge snacks. Sofa Merge snacks are akin to Snowceries, only there doesn't need to be any weather warning. Yes, every year (partly due to SAD, but also depression in general- it's a constant wrestle with the Black Dog) I wear an ass-shaped hole into the sofa, eating cookies, drinking cocoa, and staining my fingers with orange cheezy dust.

The sub-adults were damaged by this, and Mr. Gomez doesn't eat very well anyway, which led to our June Family Diet. Mr. Gomez and I used to go on this diet every several years, until we had children. It's too hard to do a diet this restrictive while still preparing regular kid food. The one we use isn't in any significant way different from any other 'fad' diet, except that we can stick with it and it works for us. He usually loses 12-15 pounds in a week, and I usually drop about 5. It's called the Sacred Heart Hospital Diet, though Sacred Heart hospital disavows any association with it. It's been around for the longest time, though... I used it a few times as far back as 1980, and I know the Mr. and I were on it before our wedding in '89, and at least once again before '95, which is when Pugsley was born.

The basic plan: Day 1: fruits, except bananas, especially melons
Day 2: vegetables- no legumes, and one potato for dinner- with butter
Day 3: fruits & vegetables, no bananas or potato
Day 4: milk and bananas
Day 5: beef and tomatoes
Day 6: beef and vegetables
Day 7: vegetables and rice

There is a vegetable soup to go along with this- any time you wish, as much as you like. The trick is to feel full all the time on these high-water, low-calorie foods. Nutritionally, it seems sound. Drink plenty of water. No alcohol, no carbonated beverages, but fruit juice and unsweetened tea and coffee are fine.

Notice that this eating plan includes NO pasta, NO bread, NO beans, NO eggs and NO cheese. Whoa.

It's not cheap, either. But it's effective. As a family, we are down 38 pounds. And we are making an effort to not revert to old habits- easier in the summer, when a smoothie for dinner feels just fine, and delicious melon is plentiful. Salads feel almost filling, and a broth-based soup is filling enough.

Wednesday designed an eating plan that weds this diet into our weekly Meal Plan. It required some creativity on my part, but I came up with at least two dinner options for each day. Some of the recipes are as yet untested, like the fruit strata- I floated the idea of fruit quiche past Wednesday. It was received with skepticism and a hairy eyeball.

But here's the basic plan:
Monday: CORN
Tuesday: Fruit
Wednesday: Vegetables
Thursday: Fruits & Vegetables
Friday: Vegetables & Starch
Saturday: Meats & Rice
Sunday: Fish & Leaves

Here are my meal ideas (I'm'a leave them right here, as I've lost Wednesday's notebook twice already).
M: CORN
T: fruit smoothie, fruit strata, tomato soup & fruit salad
W: steamed veggies, giant salad, harvest soup
R: tropical salad, veggie soup, super smoothies
F: Veggie mac, CornYamBeans, White Pasta, Spaghetti
S: Green & Yellow Chicken, Fajitas & rice, Jambalayah
N: salmon steak & collard greens, tuna salad salad, salmon cake & Brussels sprouts

As I've mentioned, I don't object to rearranging. But it's so much easier to eat well, and cheaply, if you have a Plan, a Budget, a List and INGREDIENTS.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Stocking Up The Pantry: A Caution

I like the idea of stocking up, even though the phrase bothers me because of the preposition at the end.

But you need to do your research.

Stock Up! Save! Low Prices! is all very well and good, IF it's a savings, IF it's things you usually use, IF they won't be wasted waiting for usage and IF you have room to store them.

I 'stocked up' on some tinned fish once upon a time, in roasted tomato sauce and spicy mustard sauce. The dog ended up eating most of it, because the kids wouldn't and I got tired of it. One of the Low Prices! displays featured canned goods at half again what I customarily pay for them. I have Save!ed boxed mixes (cornbread, biscuits) long enough for them to become inhabited and unusable. I think you know what I mean.

However, on a recent trip to the market (which we had to ourselves and managed to NOT buy Snowceries), there were items that appealed to me. For example, the boxed pasta at $.99 each- that's what I pay at the Aldi, and sometimes more for the fancy shapes like spirals and bow ties. I chose 2 each of 4 varieties- not angel hair, because the Aldi always has that, but the fancy word that means "little mustaches" and ziti and the fancy word that means "spiral". I bought several cans of stewed tomatoes. There were jars of red sauce for $.95 each. If it had been my usual brand (Priano, $2.79 at Aldi), I would have bought MANY jars, but it wasn't, so I limited myself to 3, in case they weren't very good. (They're not. Too sweet.) When I see Ragu displayed at 2/$6, I pass. On sale it's more expensive than my usual stuff, and the family doesn't like Ragu.

Another caution about Stocking Up: I tend to keep X cans of This, Y boxes of That, and Z frozen packages of The Other. BUT (it's a big but) if I get out of the house with the Meal Plan and a list of Out Ofs, and I did NOT check my stock first, I usually will buy all the needed ingredients for the meals on my Plan. I tend to end up with X + 4 cans of This, Y + 2 boxes of That, and Z - 1 frozen packages of The Other. For example, I use red beans very often. So I keep red beans in the house. I buy them whenever I think to. And they pile up. They pile up so much that I say to myself, "Self, stop buying red beans until you use most of these," and I do that, because sometimes I listen when I give myself advice. Then I forget that I have Used Most Of These, and I plan a meal that includes red beans. Like chili. And I find out when I'm about to put stuff in the crock pot that I'm down to ONE  lonesome can of red beans and that's just not enough to make chili. I recently planned to make chicken pot pie (yeah, remember that?) and didn't, partly because even though I had a can of cream of chicken soup, I had no cans of chicken meat. Whoops. The other part, well, you remember. So yeah, Stocking Up can cut you both ways- if you usually have it, you may forget that you don't, and if you keep buying it, you'll soon be keeping it in your coat closet.

If you'd like to Stock Up, here are my Guidelines:

1. Know what you usually pay for your basics, so you can recognize a Real Bargain! from a "Real"! "Bargain"!, if you catch my meaning

2. Take Inventory. Even if you don't have Red Beans on your list for this week, try to notice whether you have some, and how many.

3. Do not believe your Labor Force when they say "we have some of That in the downstairs freezer" or "no, we don't have any of The Other, and need to buy some." They did not actually check, and (they'd deny it) their memories aren't that much better than yours. Try this: ask them when was the last time they changed their bedsheets. I bet you know, and they don't.

4. Keep a 'backup meal' on the shelves, for days when nobody (even you) wants what's on The Plan, or in case you didn't do Inventory, and find yourself without a crucial ingredient. My go-to is ravioli in a box and a jar of red sauce.

Happy Stocking, y'all!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Meal Plans for the Non-Planner

Look, I hate planning things as much as the next guy, or maybe more. Because things are going to go all wonky anyway and nothing will go according to plan, so why even bother? Yeah. HOWEVER.

Even more, I hate the pressure of being stumped on the question of What Shall We Eat. HATE IT.

So I do meal plans so that I can have in the house ingredients for a week's worth of dinners. That's all. If things Go Sideways, I'm okay with that. The tuna in the cans will sit quietly for next week. The red sauce in the jars won't fuss about not being used on Thursday as I'd marked on my schedule. The veggies in the freezer won't storm out of the house in a huff, though maybe the chocolate chips did when I didn't make cookies as I'd planned. At any rate, I can't find them.

Everything else, though, remains pretty much where I put it. As far as meals other than dinner, I just need to remind myself to remember to replenish the oatmeal and eggs from time to time, as well as non-meal things like tea or Tang. I keep a running list on a magnetized pad on the fridge. Well, I MEAN to keep a running list on a magnetized pad on the fridge. What I mean is, I USED to have a magnetized pad on the fridge in order to keep a running list of things we ran out of (white vinegar, milk), things we needed to replenish (salsa, chicken broth, cream of mushroom soup, pasta) and things we wanted that we don't usually buy (sausage links, waffles, cake mix, lettuce). The pad has wandered away, as such things tend to do in my home.

This is an ongoing problem, a manifestation of the Too Muchness that stuffs itself into my Life. Those people who claim they 'have no life'? I wish they'd take some of mine, as I seem to have more than I can handle. I could whinge about this all day for a series of months, but even I'm tired of listening to me, so. One day, my home will be organized and tidy. Until then, I can at least make the food in the kitchen behave itself.

This week's shopping list:
White vinegar (you thought I was kidding? It's a cleaning supply.)
Eggs
Red sauce
Shredded moz cheese (remember my issue with spelling that word? ...I give up.)
Frozen mixed veggies
Frozen stir-fry veggies
Salmon
Carrots, loose if I can find them (I only ever use 2 or 3 carrots. The rest go limp, moldy or mushy.)
Onions
Ground turkey or turkey sausage
Italian loaf or maybe two
and a Wish List item is seaweed in some form.

Rough approximation of this week's Plan:

Sunday: Chicken stew in the crock pot and maybe noodles; I won't be home much on Sunday
Monday: CORN, or we might go out because it's Pugsley's birthday on Monday
Tuesday: Tuesday Surprise. I have no idea.
Wednesday: Tuna Melt or White Pasta or Salmon Cakes, depending on what I feel like cooking.
Thursday: Pugsley's Pasta Bake
Friday: Wednesday Salad and Soup (she wants to make borscht, but won't EAT borscht, so maybe not.)
Saturday: Burritos or one of the things I don't make on Wednesday.

So you see, my Plan, it's not Rules or anything. It's really more of a Guideline.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Premise #8: CORN For Many Reasons

CORN For Many Reasons has nothing to do with actual corn. Well, it could, maybe. Sometimes. If you have leftover corn.

The idea of Clean Out Refrigerator Night is to Use What You've Bought and to Know What You Have. It is also to eliminate accidental science projects. I like to have CORN on the night before Garbage Day. It just makes sense.

This is intrinsically different from Eating Leftovers. I've nothing against that, naturally, but if I let them, the kids will just Eat Leftovers without actually doing CORN. CORN involves pulling All The Things from the fridge and setting them on the counter. Little bits of stuff are judged to be Something or Not Anything. Moldy things go in the trash. Dried out things might go in the trash, or they might go in soup stock, if I'm planning soup stock. They might INSPIRE soup, if there are enough of them.

Tonight is supposed to be CORN (it's Monday) because Garbage Day is Tuesday, which is tomorrow, if memory serves. However, the family believes itself to be Off The Hook because a) they Ate Leftovers yesterday, so they think their weekly CORN has been fulfilled and b) Gomez wants to make Beanie Weenies, using real-for-sure-expensive Bush's Vegetarian Baked Beans and the Nathan's hot dogs he tossed in the cart while we were at Costco. (It seems no one likes MY baked beans- "It's like eating clown," Pugsley said. "They taste funny.") He hasn't purchased them yet, so who knows what will happen. There are enough leftovers that they could all Eat Leftovers again without even making a half-assed pass at CORN.

But anyway, CORN is supposed to also provide a surprise meal. When we were doing the $21/week grocery plan, on Monday nights I would go through, find bits of Something and create a surprise meal of them, and all the little bits and bobs of stuff that weren't going to be Tuesday Surprise were consumed as CORN or thrown away as Not Anything, spoiled or both.

People who simply Eat Leftovers are missing out on two-thirds of the tri-pronged point of CORN.

Another little bonus of CORN (in my opinion) is that it's a meal I don't need to plan or cook.

Once in a VERY long while, there isn't enough in the fridge for CORN, (usually when we've been out at mealtimes more than once during the week, or when Gomez hasn't been home, because when he's home I cook for 8 or 12 or 170, but when he's not home, I've more or less gotten the hang of cooking for 3), so when there's nothing to eat for CORN, we have soup and cheese & crackers. Because Easy! No Thinking! is another of the many reasons for CORN.

Here is my universal sample template of mealplans:

Sunday: Something I think of, crock pot
Monday: CORN
Tuesday: Tuesday Surprise
Wednesday: Something I think of, meatless
Thursday: Pugsley's meal
Friday: Wednesday's meal
Saturday: Something I think of

On the advice of a few wise friends, I'm instituting a new thing: teen cook nights.  Starting next week, Pugsley is responsible for making Thursday's dinner and Wednesday will cook on Friday evenings. They'll make something they already know how to do, be limited either by an $8-10 ingredient budget or what we already have in the house, feed all four of us and not use EVERY utensil in the kitchen.

Because it isn't just the refrigerator that needs a cleaning.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Premise #7: Convenience, Carryout and Fast Foods

Premise #7: Convenience, Carryout and Fast Foods

This week's premise is dedicated to the Anonymous commenter who challenged me on the issue of taxing prepared foods. The popular idea is that people who are on restricted budgets can't afford to eat well because "good" food is expensive, and since low-income people may work more than one job or live in a food desert, they have little alternative to reliance on prepared foods. This would unfairly levy a Prepared Food tax on lower income folk who are least able to afford the increased expense.

I have no desire to see lower income people paying more for their food. This blog is all about investigating the possibility of eating well for less.

The problem with 'convenience' foods is that they are expensive, offer mediocre nourishment and often leave the consumer still feeling hungry.

I'd like to suggest that eating 'real' food doesn't need to require a huge investment of time. I mean, I think I've made it pretty clear that cooking is one of my least favorite activities. I therefore spend as little time doing it as I can get away with while still feeding the family.

The other night, after I taught a theater class downtown, I washed some sweet potatoes, put them in the microwave, opened a couple of cans and had dinner ready to eat in 15 minutes. This includes washing, can opening and spooning things out onto plates. We had black beans, corn and sweet potatoes with lots of butter. I have no idea about the caloric value of this meal, the amount of fiber or fat or, really, anything other than that it's nutritionally sound, delicious and filling. It's also colorful on a plate.

A frozen pizza takes 7 to 12 minutes in the oven, not counting the 9 1/2 minutes it takes me to wrestle the plastic packaging off of the stupid thing. An hour later, everyone is looking for something else to eat.

The food advertising industry has conditioned us into a state of 'learned helplessness'. We have grown, as a community, to believe that cooking for our family is time-consuming, costly and for gourmet cooks only. I call bullshit. Eating is something so simple any idiot can, and through the centuries, has, managed to do it for himself and often his family.

Rice doesn't take very long to cook and is dead cheap. Even the Uncle Ben's boxed rice isn't terribly pricey,  but Wal-Mart sells brown rice for about 77 cents for a one-pound bag. Frozen veggies aren't expensive, though they're sometimes harder to find in food deserts. Cans are heavier to carry, but three cans of veggies at under a dollar each, plus a can of beef or chicken broth, with or without rice, is a nourishing soup, much cheaper than prepared tinned soup ($1.79/can? what the hell, man?) feeds several people, and doesn't take much longer than the canned version. I mean, yeah, you're operating the can opener four times instead of one, but the actual heating in a pot on the stove is about the same. Slice up some cheese and open a package of crackers- or toast some bread, whatever- and you've got yourself a meal.

The food advertising industry has conned us into believing that your meatloaf NEEDS two veggies and a starch, plus a sauce on top, to be a 'real' meal. This is not true. One veg with that meatloaf is FINE, and if it comes from a can or a package, there is nothing wrong with that. Tomato soup and grilled cheese for dinner? Go for it. Actually takes about twice the time of YamN-BeansN-Corn, but is still quick. Boxed mac and cheese is WAY more expensive than it needs to be, but in a pinch, it's quick and cheaper than drive-through.

I can't imagine ever being convinced that soda, marshmallows or Doritos qualify as food ("food" = nutritive substance, all others being, in my opinion, "edible matter") and so I'm okay with those things being taxed. If people wish to eat those items, they, like smokers, should be prepared to admit to the non-health-enhancing nature of their personal preferences.

Okay. I will step down from my soap-box now.
(Probably not really.)

Last Night

Everyone (read: the rest of the family) wanted chicken pot pie. I was going to make it. We bought one from Costco instead. I probably never need to make pot pie again. It was ~$16, and we only ate half of it.

So, one of those serves 8. We did not even bother with salad.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Food, Fast (ish)

Red Beans And Rice, February 13

1/2 bag brown rice, .50
olive oil
2 cans red beans, ~$2
1 onion, chopped (the whole bag was ~$2)
3 slices turkey bacon, diced (I have no idea how to calculate this)
bacon grease
black pepper, sage, parsley, chives, bay leaf

Salad- Romaine lettuce $2, sprinkle of Parmesan cheese, croutons $1.50, Ceasar dressing $2.00

So, I cooked the rice like I cook rice. (I told you about this already, right?) Then I put a lump of bacon grease in a large saucepot with the onion and the turkey bacon. When that got all cooked, I added the beans and the seasonings. Except bay leaf. I seem to be out of bay leaf. But I'd've included it if I'd had some.

Serve with cornbread, garlic bread, salad, whatever. Season with hot sauce (like Tabasco) to taste.

Fed the four of us, with leftovers, so we'll call it six (maybe eight).

Oh, and... the turkey bacon is tasty and cheap and I buy it in bulk at the Costco. But it has almost negative fat content, so I neeeeeed the bacon grease. Besides, I LOVE bacon grease. It's tasty and it's a free byproduct of pork bacon, and adding fat to a meal makes it more satiating. I am a big supporter of fat, the good 'food' sort of fat, like olive oil, bacon grease, butter, fish oils and so on. Without enough fat, you feel hungry enough to put just any junk in your face. Whatever the grease is that's in cheez poufs, that can't be 'food'.

~$4.00 for beans and rice
$5.50 for salad, but we only ate half, and didn't finish the croutons or dressing
 Total: $9.50ish

Prep time: half an hour on the rice, ten minutes on the beans, but no one was hungry so it all sat around for an hour before we ate. The rice stayed warm, but the beans needed to be warmed.

 Pasta Bake, February 14

11/2  1lb.box of pasta- ziti, bowtie, rigatoni @$1ea = $1.50
1 3/4 jar red pasta sauce @ $1 ea =$1.75
Grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, if you have it
Italian Seasoning, $1 (I didn't use all of it, of course.)
Shredded Mozzerella cheese (ok, after 3 attempts I give up on spelling that) ~$3?
   (not sure, bought it in bulk @ Costco)
Olive oil

Cook pasta til al dente. Drain, then toss with olive oil and Italian seasoning. Place a layer of pasta in a large glass baking dish. Dust with Parmesan cheese. Layer red sauce on top of pasta. Cover with shredded moz. Repeat. Bake at 350*F for 35-45 minutes. Serve with garlic bread and leftover salad. Fed the four of us. I didn't put away dinner, but I think there were leftovers for lunch for 2, so 6ish servings.

Garlic Bread

1 stick butter ~.50
I Tbsp garlic powder or minced garlic
Italian seasoning
loaf of Italian bread $1.50


Total cost: ~$10.

Tonight I plan to make chicken pot pie. I'll post that soon. Well, soon-ish.


Saturday, February 8, 2014

Jambalayah and My Mother's Rice Pot

Jambalayah is one of those dishes which is nearly impossible to do "wrong". Okay, start with rice. Broth is good. Whatever bits of meat you have, unless you don't want meat. Yes, it's possible to have Jambalayah without bacon fat, though my Inner Deep Southern Woman shudders at the idea. Y'all do yours however you want. Here's how I did mine last night.

1 can chicken ~$3
1 tin smoked oysters ~$2 (I think. I bought them intending to just eat them on crackers, then didn't.)
1/2 package turkey sausage ~$2.50
1 can diced tomatoes ~.80
1 chopped onion
bacon grease
rice
sage
seasoned salt
black pepper
cayenne pepper
olive oil

In my kitchen is yellow crock that has been mine for 20 years, but which I still refer to as "my mother's rice pot". When I was a little girl, she cooked rice in it. Occasionally other things, but mostly rice. When I was a teen or young adult (still living with her), she bought a replacement. It's an enamelled iron thing with a lid on it, I guess Dutch Oven is its actual name. I claimed the old one. Over the years, I've cooked Frito Pie, Spaghetti Pie, Ravioli Bake, stew, roast, soup and spoonbread in my mother's rice pot. It's still my mother's rice pot, and I never cook rice in anything else. Well, for awhile I tried: Gourmet Sister gave me a rice steamer. It was supposed to cook rice "perfectly every time". It made the rice soggy and was a pain in the ass to clean and after about six months, I went back to using my mother's rice pot. I'm not great at everything, but I'm finally pretty good at cooking rice.

I have no idea if anyone else puts olive oil in their rice pot and heats it before adding the rice. I don't watch cooking shows, generally, and when I go to people's homes, it's usually potluck, so things are prepared already. But my mother always heated olive oil, added rice, sauteed it awhile, then added water, a lot at first, and more gradually as the rice needed. So that is what I do, too. Except this time, I opened my cans first, and added the liquid from the can of chicken and the can of tomatoes before adding water. The recipe books said I should use broth, but I didn't. You can. I save my broth for things that NEED broth, and this doesn't, really.

While my rice was cooking, I chopped the onion and the turkey sausage (three fat bratwurst-sized things) and browned them together with bacon fat in my large iron skillet. When they were cooked, the rice was about halfway done, so I added the chicken, they oysters and their liquid, the tomatoes and the spices along with more water.

When the rice was nearly done, I added the onion and sausage and some more liquid- I rinsed the cans, rinsed the skillet, dumped that water into the pot. I turned the heat off before all the liquid was absorbed, gave the pot a few good stirs and let it sit, covered. Then I steamed some broccoli.

The four of us each had 2 servings, and there are leftovers for the boys to have lunch.
 Roughly $9.50 for the meal  divided by 6 (where is my division symbol on this keyboard??) so that's what, $1.90 per serving or so.