Saturday, February 25, 2012

Lazy savings

Randy and I pride ourselves on spending relatively little money at the grocery store. However, I wasn't sure how we compared with the average person. We rarely use coupons or get our groceries at different stores to maximize all the sales or play the drugstore game or any of the other tricks that people use to save money.

Another store? Think again!
Our reasons are simple: we shop with a toddler and each subsequent store we go to exponentially increases the odds of a Fukushima-esque meltdown; most of the main grocery store chains are 15+ miles away, so making trips on separate days to minimize a Toddler Apocalypse would result in cancelling out any savings with increased gas costs; I am not focused enough to play the drugstore game (although I know it works wonders for some people and at some point, I might try it); and finally, most coupons are for processed foods that we simply don't eat.

So where does that leave us?

According to the government estimates for how much it costs to feed a family (as of December 2011), found here, 'thrifty' plan to feed a family our size costs $461.27/month. Their “low-cost” estimate is $587.90/month.

Their website doesn't clarify any variance by region or whether these are simply food costs, or if this is the entire grocery cost. Since most people combine food/health & beauty/household cleaning expenses into one budget item anyway, I figured we'd do the same thing.

Bonus: really long receipts!
Our total grocery bill for February (including all the non-edibles) was approximately $450.00. We did eat out a couple of times, which is fairly rare, and that added about $45.00. Still, we came in just under $500 for the month, which falls between low-cost and thrifty. And we did it without the up-front effort of couponing or searching out sales.

That isn't to say we don't have tricks or time investments of our own. Here's what we do to save money:

Shop once a month
We live 20 miles or so from WinCo (which has the best over-all prices and therefore is our best bet for a main grocery store) and Costco (for diapers and a couple of other things). The distance means it doesn't make as much sense to drive there on a weekly basis. Also, I only get paid once a month. If we do all the shopping at once, it's a lot easier to budget.

                                                                                   Scour the bulk section
Bulk dry goods in our pantry
WinCo has the best bulk section I've ever seen in a chain grocery store. We get as many of the things we use regularly in bulk as possible. Oatmeal, dried fruit, pasta, any non-all-purpose flours, spices, grains, etc. We don't eat cold cereal much, but they have that, too. Some savings are more impressive than others, but the bonus is that the healthier the product, the more significant the savings over buying it pre-packaged/brand-name, since marketers know people will pay more for whole wheat pasta, etc. and often double the prices of their whole-grain options.

Stock up on fruits/veggies
One of the questions people ask when they find out we only shop once a month is “how do you have fresh fruits and veggies, then?” The answer has two parts. One is that by the end of the month, we don't; we rely on canned/frozen fruit and frozen veggies for the end of the month. However, we also shop smart for the produce we buy.
*We get the makings for a huge salad, focusing mostly on dark green veggies (kale, spinach, mustard greens) because they tend to last a bit longer, and a few other things to add texture (carrots, radishes, celery, etc.). We make all of this into a salad that we store in a giant tupperware container and eat salad with dinner every night for a week or so – until it runs out or gets funky.
*We buy some veggies that will hold for a week or so – zucchini or other squashes, etc. - to use when the salad runs out.
*We buy a lot of the veggies with the longest fridge life – if it's in good condition when you buy it, broccoli will last for two weeks or more, as will brussels sprouts, and cauliflower.

The principles are the same for fruit – I make sure to always get a large amount of apples, since they last the longest, plus I like them. Other fruits depend on what's on sale and what looks good, usually bananas (although I think they're horrifically foul, Zoey loves them) and grapes. Again, we eat the shortest shelf-life fruits first (and if they start to get a little past their prime, figure out how to cook with them or dehydrate them) and then move on to the apples. At the end of the month, we eat canned fruit.

We also buy a Costco-sized bag of frozen berries each month; Zoey has them for breakfast and Randy uses them in protein shakes after he works out.

This has the benefit of helping us eat more healthily for most of the month, at least. We have to eat the vegetables in a timely manner or they go to waste. Since we don't have enough cash to waste food, we have a healthy portion of veggies with each dinner and fruit at lunch.

Repackage/re-purpose meat
We buy whatever meat is cheapest, and make it work. There's no meal-planning (too much effort, and we find that it makes us buy specific ingredients rather than what's cheapest); we figure it out based on what we have on hand. Usually, this means buying family packs and repackaging them into single-meal servings.

However, it also translates into buying more roasts and grinding the meat ourselves, and buying whole poultry rather than packs of individual parts. Turkeys are usually available for about $1/lb and are widely customizable (we made three versions of turkey bratwursts that are now a go-to easy dinner). Again, this comes with some significant cost and health savings: ground turkey is $3+/lb. People pay more partly because it's a healthier option than ground beef.

When things like steak or better cuts of meat go on sale, we buy one package more than we will use during the month so we can stock our freezer. This helps us keep a diverse amount of meat so we don't get bored with our options and feel more tempted to splurge. Everything will go on sale at some point – patience is key.

Make as much as possible from scratch
I am constantly amazed at the claim that it costs more to eat healthily. Granted, we don't generally have the highest-quality cuts of meat, but we don't eat a diet high in fat or sodium, either. The main reason for this is because we don't buy many processed foods. Mainly, we avoid processed foods because they're more expensive than making our own, but the health benefits are nice, too!

This is where most of our time investment comes in. It takes more time to cook from scratch than to add a 'flavor packet' to a dish or to put something frozen in the oven or microwave. However, it usually costs less than half of the pre-made option, and we know exactly what ingredients are in each dish.

As much as we can, we make basic foods in bulk and store them so they're on hand with the convenience of processed foods. This helps isolate the big time investments to a couple of days/month and makes avoiding convenience foods easier – we have our own on hand! Right now, we have a good frozen supply of: bread, bratwursts, burritos, and stock. We also have a dozen or so pints of canned beans ready to add to recipes. The savings aren't always huge, but it adds up, and lets us control what is in the food.

Use Costco for staples only
Costco can be deadly on a budget. There are simply so many good things that are a relatively good deal. However, the vast majority are convenience foods, and ultimately cost more than buying the ingredients and making your own version. We make a set list for Costco and don't let ourselves deviate from it much unless we find something we use regularly for a discounted price. Some things aren't worth buying in Costco-sized packages just because they're there and a deal, but some things are.

Really, there are few things available at Costco that aren't also available at WinCo for similar prices. However, some things are worth the extra trip:
*Formula, for the few months we needed it/will need it is less than half the price as other stores
*Frozen berries
*Tin foil
*Laundry detergent
*Storage containers
*Yeast – worth it because we bake our own bread and will use it before it expires.

We usually get a few other things since they have better quality or are in more conveniently-sized packages for a similar price as WinCo – flour, rice, and bacon on a regular basis, and occasionally other items if they're on sale.

                                                                                   Make a list and stick to it
Our list - by the end of the month, it's pretty long!
We keep a white board on our pantry door so we can quickly write down things we need before we forget. We keep a running list all month and then organize it for our shopping trip. If it's not on the list, we don't buy it unless it's something we overlooked. It helps that our list for the first areas of the store consists of: fruit, vegetables, meat, bulk foods. We only put down specifics for these if there is a special dish we want to make or we are out of something and want to replenish it. That means by the time we get to the middle aisles with the tempting pre-packaged food, our cart is usually full with staples and it's easy to think “Yikes! We might be spending too much – better put this back!”

Limit pick-up trips
The hardest part is limiting what we get after the main shopping trip. We keep milk on hand for Zoey, so we have to go to the store about once a week for a fresh gallon. It's easy to fall into the trap of “while I'm here”, but sticking to the items we MUST have (which is usually only milk) on that follow-up trip helps keep the budget under control. I will say that when we get a little more wiggle room in the budget, I will probably add fresh fruit on one of those trips. The increase in quality over canned fruit is worth the slightly greater cost.

Basically, it comes down to where people are willing to invest their time and what their end goal is – we don't have a lot of patience for putting in effort up front, but enjoy making things ourselves, so we put in the time and effort to can, brew, bake, etc. after a shopping trip. It can take an hour or so to get all of the post-shopping work of re-packaging, sorting, and storing done, but we also only have to do it once a month. Not only does it save us money and give us greater control over our food, it leaves us with a feeling of accomplishment.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Ruh-roh - doughnuts are easy to make!

So much doughnut goodness

*WARNING* People who are trying to lose weight should not know how easy it is to make these doughnuts. Read at your own risk.

I was going to post about something non-food-related this week. Then Randy had a brilliant idea. “We should make doughnuts,” he said. Of course we should! This was the best plan I'd heard in a long time.

We had only two requirements for the recipe we used: it had to be for risen donuts (not cake donuts) and it couldn't take very long to make. It was Wednesday afternoon, you see, so we didn't have time to wait for hours on end for the donuts to rise to the proper fluffy state.

After searching through a few recipes that took five hours or so, and one that only existed in video format (seriously, who DOES that?), Randy found this gem.Since we didn't have all the ingredients for the apple cider glaze (and reviews didn't entirely like it anyway) we used the glazes from this site.
There's really no way to go wrong with plain OR chocolate glaze.

Perfect size!

The dough took very little time to make – about 15 minutes. It took Randy less time to make the dough, roll it out and cut the doughnuts than it did for me to make a casserole for dinner. Unhealthy splurges like this should be more difficult to make so they're not so tempting!

Randy made the doughnuts ridiculously large, which made my inner fat kid extremely happy. My inner health nut was sent to her room for using bad language and so I could anticipate my sugar rush with less guilt-tripping.

Nice and thick, too!
After a one-hour rise – which only made them more mammoth – we fired up the deep fryer to cook these bad boys. Unfortunately, because we have a small fryer and the doughnuts were so ginormous, we could only cook one at a time. We only had eight to cook, but it still got tedious. Next time – and there will be a next time – I will use a frying pan so I can cut the cooking time in half and get on to the stuffing my face part of the experience!  There are few things as good as a still-warm doughnut.  

Once the doughnuts were all cooked, glazed, cooled, and the requisite pictures taken, we dug in. I appeased my inner health nut by sharing with my daughter. And then gave in to the fat kid by eating a second doughnut (I shared that one too). I did have to try one of each kind, right?  Really, the size was a good thing - it meant that we each only ate two the first day and two the second day.  If they were smaller, we'd have eaten many more!  It's the overall number that counts, right?

You can almost see through the glaze - add more!
I worried that the dough wouldn't be sweet enough (the recipe only has 2 tablespoons of sugar in it) but with the glaze, they were everything a doughnut should be, and avoided the too-sweet stage that many doughnuts fall into. These take almost all of their sweetness from the glaze; when I experiment with variations (and I will) that don't include glaze, I will probably add a bit more sugar to the dough. Randy noted that the chocolate-glazed version could be a bit sweeter; that glaze was thinner, so needed either a second dip or a thicker glaze.

The only thing keeping me from making these constantly is the fact that donuts don't keep very well, so the whole batch has to get eaten quickly. While I thoroughly enjoyed a doughnut with my morning coffee the next day, they had gotten a bit "sweaty", as doughnuts tend to do.  Pregnant or not, I just can't eat that many donuts. I guarantee I'll find reasons to make these again on a semi-regular basis, though. I just have to make sure there are other people around so I can't completely pig out on them!

I learned a few lessons from this experiment: 
1) I will keep eating doughnuts until no more remain. 
2) Zoey will fight me for her fair share of doughnuts
3) Glaze is a good thing; make it nice and thick
4) It's way too easy to make these and I'm at risk of turning into Homer Simpson.
5) I can't decide whether to spell them doughnuts or donuts and I probably went back and forth in this post.  Deal.

Linked to This Week's Cravings via the Daily Dish
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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Cheap Eats: Bacon-Wrapped Jalapenos

These are always a big hit, are easy to make, and are very affordable. Prices are based on what I paid at WinCo, but jalapenos/cream cheese are almost always available for cheap. The price of bacon is what will vary most from store to store.

1 3/4 lbs Jalapenos ($1.50)
2 (8 oz) packages cream cheese ($2.50)
2 packages bacon ($4.50)
Total: $8.50

The process is simple:
*Turn on the kitchen fan. Otherwise, you'll be breathing pepper fumes, which isn't the most fun. If you're doubling the recipe (or more) you'll also want to open a window.

*Cut the stems off the jalapenos, then cut in half lengthwise and scrape the pith and seeds out. If you don't mind a little heat, you don't even have to be that meticulous about getting the seeds.

*Fill each half-jalapeno with cream cheese.

*Cut each pack of bacon into thirds

You'll get a bunch of these. Don't rub you're eyes during this process!
*Wrap 1/3 slice bacon around each jalapeno and fasten with a toothpick (I find it's easiest to cut the bacon just out of the fridge while it's more firm. Let it sit on the counter while you cut/clean/fill the peppers, and it will stretch a little better as it gets towards room temperature).

*Place on a broiler pan or on a rack set into a cookie sheet. Bake for 25 minutes at 375, or until the bacon is cooked. You can also make these on the grill, although I never have.

I burnt my tongue eating this just after I took the picture.
*Chow down

This time around, it made just slightly more than would reasonably fit on a broiler pan. I had to unreasonably force them to fit. It worked fine, although they probably would have cooked a tad better had I made two batches. It's that whole patience thing again...

What? They fit...ish.
While it's probably a symptom of my lack of attention to detail – especially towards the end of the process – I've found that these tend to have wildly varying heat. Some are quite mild, and some will send you scrambling for a drink. If you are not a big fan of spice, make sure you clean the peppers well, and also check for seeds sticking to the outside of the peppers, especially those cleaned later, since seeds do accumulate on your cutting board.

I made this batch for the Super Bowl; we had a total of eight adults and four kids, and there were leftovers (we also had home made pizza, and various treats people brought). 

Linked to This Week's Cravings at TheDaily Dish

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Spend money to save money?

Although we've gotten most of our kitchen toys when we had money to burn, and not as investments, they've paid for themselves many times over. I've compiled a list of the things we've frequently referred to as “the best investment ever”. They're in the order that, if starting from scratch, I would buy them now.
Chest Freezer (Cost: $120)
We couldn't do a lot of what we do – once-a-month shopping trips, making 30 pounds of bratwursts, etc. - without a chest freezer to store all the extra food in. I love, love, love my freezer. If I could figure out a good organizational system for it, I'd love it even more.

Food Saver (Cost: $80 + cost of bags)
Meat is always cheaper in huge family packs; this helps us repackage them into more reasonable sizes. It also comes in handy for a lot of our made-at-home products. We tend to go all out with projects – making 30 pounds of bratwurst at a time, or making 100+ egg rolls – which means we need a way to store all of our treats. The food saver is a lot easier, and more efficient, than wrapping with plastic wrap or foil, or using Tupperware after Tupperware.
Crock pot Cost: ($30)
By now, everyone knows of the joys of crock pot cooking – just throw a bunch of ingredients in early on, and come back a few hours later to a nice dinner. We use ours mainly to make stock, though. Buying chicken and turkey whole is much cheaper than buying cut-up, and we use the bones to make stock. Our freezer almost always has over a gallon of various stocks in it, to later use in risotto or soup. Making risotto is a great way to not get tired of eating rice as often as we do.

Kitchenaid mixer (Cost: $250-$400)
This was a birthday present from Randy seven or so years ago, and it pains me to put it so far down on the list because I adore it. However, it's the most expensive thing on the list, and is – in many cases – more of a convenience than a necessity. I use it for everything I bake, because it gets me to the good part (eating cookie dough!) much more quickly. It even makes kneading bread - my least favorite part of bread-making - a breeze. Without the mixer, I'm fine kneading for a minute or two, but all recipes call for 7-10 minutes, which I don't have the patience for! With the dough hook, I just set the timer and check a few times to make sure I don't need to add more flour. This makes it much more likely that I will bake something. While baking frenzies come and go, we haven't bought bread for months, thanks to our ample freezer space.
The best thing about the Kitchenaid, though, is the zillions of attachments you can get for it.

Kitchenaid Attachments Cost: ($40-$150)
Although it made sense at the time, to get a Kitchenaid, I don't know that I would buy one right now if all I used it for was baking. Yes, it makes it easier, but tight budgets and paying for convenience don't work well together. With the added benefit of the attachments, though, its well worth saving up and investing in one. Even if that does mean you'll always have “just one more” attachment you want to buy.

We use the meat grinder attachment most frequently; for some reason, ground beef is often more expensive than other cuts of beef. We go to WinCo (in my opinion, the best grocery store for those on a budget, hands-down) and get whatever meat is cheapest, and grind it up if a recipe calls for it. Some meats are ridiculously cheaper this way - ground turkey can run $4/lb, but a whole turkey is rarely more than $1/lb - and it lets us have a bit more freedom in our recipe choices; if you buy ground meat, you can't turn it into a roast, but it works well the other way around! The sausage stuffer is also getting good use – sausage casings are cheap, and it's easy to turn a big chunk-o-pork or a turkey into bratwursts. This summer, we plan on branching out to more complicated sausages (salami, kielbasa) and filling our freezer! If I didn't have a Kitchenaid, I would get a meat grinder/sausage stuffer independently.

We also have the pasta roller, which is handy, although we only use it intermittently; fresh pasta is good, but it's also really cheap to buy in bulk. I usually use it if I want to make ravioli or experiment with a new type of pasta.

The slicer/shredder is basically a salad shooter on overdrive. I mainly use it to make hash browns on the weekend. They come out much better when I use the shredder as opposed to the hand grater. We don't make salads often enough to utilize it as much as it could be. However, since I'm married to a hash brown junkie, it's worth it.
There are tons more attachments available that I don't have but lust after: grain mill, pasta extruder (to make macaroni and other tube-y pastas), ice cream maker and more. Some would make sense on a cost-saving measure, but mostly, they're fun kitchen gadgets. Please feel free to give me any of them!

Meat slicer (Cost: Getting married)
This was a wedding present from my sister and brother-in-law and it makes me wish Randy and I had gotten married years ago. We use it constantly – sometimes for meat, yes, but mostly for cheese and bread. I can slice bread as well as any four-year-old, but it is nice to have regular, even slices. Slicing cheese to deli-thin makes it last longer (my cheese-slicing skills are on par with my bread-slicing skills), and we can make lunch meat for less than half the cost of buying it at the deli.

Barbecue with smoke box attachment (Cost: $100)
This was quite a bit cheaper and harder to find than I anticipated; it seems that most people prefer gas grills (or at least that's what the stores think, because good luck finding a regular charcoal grill). We found it shoved on a shelf in a back corner of Lowe's a few years ago. We haven't used it as much as it deserves, because at our old place, it required schlepping everything downstairs (and back up afterward); here, we have no stairs and it's already getting more use. Randy even snow-b-qued this year (check one thing off his New Year's list!) It's good for making ribs, and the smoke box (which was $30 or so of the total cost) makes it easy to replenish the coals without losing the heat. I'm still working on regulating the temperature for low-n-slow cooking. 

Espresso Machine (Cost: $60)
I love, love, love mochas. I hate, hate, hate that they cost $4 or more. As with most things, it's much cheaper to make your own. It doesn't take long for this to pay for itself, since a can of espresso is only $7 and makes dozens of drinks. Costco helps out with the mega-sized Hershey syrup/pump combo, and you're in business. I like the ability to make my drink the exact way I like it, too...way overly caffeinated! The only downside is that it only makes one at a time and it takes a little bit of time. If other people are over, it can become a chore to make everyone a drink.
  Dehydrator (Cost: $40-$100)
I'm a bit of a texture wuss, so I hate the cheap-o red delicious apples. I love dried fruit, however, and it's a lot cheaper to buy red delicious apples and dehydrate them than it is to buy dried apples. The dehydrator also comes in handy because we only go grocery shopping once a month, and we tend to load up on fruit. When the fruit starts getting past the stage where we want to eat it, we slice it up and throw it on the dehydrator.

 Little Chief Smoker (Cost: Awesome parents!)
This doesn't really count as an investment on our part, because Randy's parents bought it for him for his birthday this year. However, given the amount of use we plan on getting out of it, I'm going to count it. Look for lots of posts on jerkies, smoked fish, and smoked sausages. Yum!