Being Smart About Food

Earlier this year I figured out a way to shop for groceries every two weeks and to save money in the process. The goal was to have nutritious meals and snacks but to be more strategic about it during a No Spend Month. I’ve held onto much of what I learned because it simply works well for me.

First of all, you quickly learn which produce items last the longest. For example, apples and oranges have a longer shelf life than grapes or berries. So you use the grapes and berries during week one and save the rest for later.

Salads are best enjoyed for the first week while frozen veggies are a nice change for week two. Although, if I’m in the mood for salad, I’ve been known to cheat and stop at the store to grab a few things!

At some point I realized that all my bananas were going into smoothies so I could buy ripe bananas, dice ’em up, and freeze them to be ready when needed.

In fact, many things freeze well. I buy mushrooms for stir fry and flash freeze the extras for later. Lots of foods can be frozen for cooking and other things keep well when properly stored in the fridge far longer than most people think.

I prefer fresh foods but usually keep some plain frozen steak fries and lots of frozen veggies. I rarely buy the cook in the bag kind because they’re more costly and I never need an entire bag of frozen peas at one time. Buy a regular bag of cheap frozen peas and you can cook them as needed.

Plain and simple, you find ways to be less wasteful and to meal plan better. I made the above pictured pasta primavera using a combination of stuff from the fridge and fresh veggies that I had flash frozen last weekend. The sauce was something from a jar that I had leftover from another dish. The pasta was the end of a package I had opened a couple of weeks ago.

This ability to plan, salvage and preserve has come in handy these last few weeks. Very little is getting wasted right now. I even discovered that leaf lettuce can be frozen for smoothies!

Another thing – when I come home from the store I jot down a list of things that need to be used first and hang it on the fridge. Things tend to get shuffled around and forgotten to languish in the back.

Given how much food is wasted in this country, I would hope that people are using this uncertain time to be more careful and thoughtful about food. That’s probably a pipe dream but this seems like the perfect time to embrace the old adage- use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.

I’m not advocating that anyone do without but I would like to think we could embrace using and making do.

What about you? Are you being more careful with resources? Have your attitudes about shopping and using what you have changed lately? Let’s talk!

Cinnamon Spice Granola

Since realizing how easy it is to make homemade granola, there is always some kind of tasty granola on hand in my house. Most of my concoctions use just a handful of ingredients that the typical home cook has on hand and they always come together quickly.

This weekend I found a recipe that I didn’t care for because it used a lot of oil and a ton of brown sugar but it did contain just the right combination of spices. So I stole the spice idea and improvised the rest. When I make it again, I’m going to reduce the brown sugar more. The original recipe called for five tablespoons and I opted for three but that’s still more than I want to consume.

Nonetheless, friends, it’s delicious. Want the recipe? Look no further!

Cinnamon Spice Granola

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon cloves

3 Tablespoons brown sugar

1/2 cup maple syrup

1/4 agave nectar ( or honey if that’s what you have)

2 cups rolled oats

1 cup walnut pieces

Golden raisins (optional)

Mix together the first four ingredients. Then add the maple syrup and agave and mix well. Add the walnuts and oats, stirring well to coat.

Spread out in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for ten minutes and remove from oven to stir. Bake another ten minutes and remove from oven. I added some golden raisins at the end and gave it another good stir.

And yes, it is as easy as it sounds.

It takes about five minutes to prepare and twenty to bake. I leave mine on the pan for a while to let it cool and become crispy.

In addition to having delicious granola to eat, your house will smell divine.

Cheese Sauce?

It’s hard to believe but it’s been about six months since a vegan friend encouraged me to try his way of eating for thirty days

This plant based journey has taught me a lot but one of the most valuable lessons is that it’s important to make the right choices for yourself in the kitchen.

Many vegan cooks manipulate ingredients in attempts to recreate familiar dishes in new, plant based and healthier ways. For example, there are scores of recipes on the internet to help you create a “cheese” sauce, ideal for nachos, mac and cheese and scores of comfort food dishes that you may remember from your past life consuming dairy.

I’ve tried a few of these imaginative recipes. Many use cashews and nutritional yeast. Some add a host of seasonings or use roasted red peppers. Nearly all create a neon orange sauce that resembles melted Velveeta. Well, resembles it in appearance at least.

In taste, perhaps not so much.

I have finally learned to cut the recipes in half so that I don’t feel as bad throwing away nearly all the completed product. After the last batch, I stood in the kitchen for a long time, contemplating whether to throw it away right then or stash the concoction in the fridge with hopes I would think of some way to salvage the two cups of mediocrity.

In other words, should I throw it away now or wait till later? This is the inner dialogue sometimes.

I’ve met plenty of people who think these recipes are great. Lots of bloggers, online reviewers and even some real life friends rave about how tasty, how authentically cheesy their favorite recipe is.

I’m happy for them but it’s not for me.

From now on, if I want mac and cheese, I’ll go to a restaurant and enjoy the real thing. It can be a treat, something to be savored and enjoyed occasionally.

For me, plant based eating should be about eating clean and eating well. There’s little more delicious than sautéed mushrooms, onions, peppers and zucchini heaped on top of a baked potato. No sauces, just some pepper and sea salt to taste. In-season blueberries are so delicious they’re hard to resist and homemade soup packed with veggies makes for a tasty dinner.

All of these things can be enjoyed in the simplest form possible. Torturing ingredients into forms they weren’t mean to take on isn’t necessary or worthwhile when you have such tasty meals and snacks at your disposal.

I’ll save my cashews for snacks and occasionally treat myself to the authentic cheesy dish.

After all, food is meant to nourish the body but I think it’s also meant to enjoy. It’s ok to take a break, especially if you’re doing it infrequently. At least, that’s the right choice for me.

No Spend Month Fun and Vegan Food

We’re 21 days into No Spend January and I have to say it’s been so easy that the prospects of ending it are not especially attractive. I’m thinking about continuing it for another month with a couple of small exceptions to the rules.

Weekends and most evenings have called for quiet times at home. I’ve had time to read, watch movies and catch up on chores around the house. It’s like a staycation every weekend.

Purging and organization projects have revealed some disturbing patterns. For example, just how many half used bottles of bathroom cleaner and conditioner does a gal need? I even discovered that I have two copies of Outlander Season three on dvd that I don’t remember buying.

Either of them.

The month began with a list of areas to purge like my sock drawer, kitchen cabinets and movie collection. About two-thirds of the list is complete. I also have a list of things to do instead of shopping or spending money but I haven’t referred to it even once. It’s going to sound weird but it’s sort of fun to just spend some time inventorying and appreciating what you have.

Cooking has been more fun this month and there’s been a fair amount of experimentation in the kitchen. I’ve been trying to figure out how to make vegan baked goods that resemble their non-vegan counterparts. Removing eggs and butter from the equation is harder than it sounds. While there is a vegan butter on the market, I refused to remove one processed food from my diet only to add in another.

Even with cooking more and experimenting a lot, I’m eating extremely well for less money than normal. Plus there’s been a lot less kitchen waste which is extremely pleasing.

I ran into Wal-Mart for cat food and also to TJ Maxx in search of a gift last week. I wasn’t tempted to buy a single thing and didn’t even buy the gift because everything just looked like cheap, unnecessary crap. A month ago I would have been all over the clearance section and would have walked out with a bag of stuff I didn’t need.

That, my friends, is a huge accomplishment.

For all this progress, there’s still much to do. First, I need to figure out this vegan baked good thing. And, at odds with this goal, is my desire to exercise more consistently. I’m still working toward that goal to run a mile. Perhaps another four weeks will get me there.

Are you interested in trying a No Spend Month? It doesn’t have to be as hard or as austere as it sounds. You set your own rules and have the ability to make a No Spend Month what you want it to be.

My rules are as follows:

  1. Pay all bills on time.
  2. Continue saving money for future goals including retirement, emergencies, vacation, etc.
  3. Buy groceries but attempt to use out of the pantry and freezer stockpile. Avoid buying processed foods by preparing fresh and healthy alternatives.
  4. Buy things that are needed. If I damage my work shoes, they need to be replaced but a cute pair of shoes that I don’t need aren’t part of the equation.
  5. Buy gas but make an effort to batch errands and to not drive unnecessarily.
  6. Seek free entertainment. For me, that’s hiking, photography, reading, play piano, movies and other hobbies.
  7. Write down wants and needs instead of buying immediately. So far the list doesn’t exist because I don’t need or want anything but the idea behind this is to delay gratification and to plan purchases.
  8. No more shopping for entertainment. No Amazon and no browsing for entertainment.
  9. Plan as much as possible. I can stop for gas but having a reusable water bottle and a snack in my bag means there’s no reason to go inside for a drink.

There were a couple of exceptions to the rules this month. Dinner and a movie with a friend (it was a delayed Christmas celebration), a retirement gift for a friend at work and retirement cards for some others were planned. I ate out a few times but, aside from that dinner with a friend, it was always because I had to while traveling for work. So far, I’ve stayed in budget and that’s ok.

If I continue this into February, there’s a comedian I want to go see and my mother’s birthday is in February. Other than that, there aren’t many reasons to spend money.

You can make up your own rules and make the exercise what you want it to be.

So who’s in? Anyone else want to try a no spend month? February is the shortest month of the year so it’s a great time to try!

Around here

It’s a three day weekend for me so today marks the halfway point rather than the end of the weekend.

I’ve accomplished some things this weekend and failed miserably at others.

Yesterday featured some cleaning projects. This was a requirement because the house was littered with cat toys and things that little Scout had knocked on the floor. Johnny Cash sang about killing a man in Reno just to watch him die. Scout knocks things over just to watch them fall.

But my work ethic didn’t last long. It was raining and cold so I ended up in a comfy chair, determined to finish this book so I could move on to some less traumatic material.

This book is graphic, emotional and compelling. The author expertly weaves the story of Emmett Till into the context of the Jim Crow south to create a narrative that’s impossible to put down and hard to stomach all at the same time.

How anyone could be so hateful, so intolerant or so so certain of their superiority over another group of humans is beyond me. And yet, it relates closely to a lot of the sentiments we hear today in this country about immigrants and still about African Americans.

Around here, I’m also doing some cooking this weekend. Today I’ll make a bean and veggie soup, pancakes for the freezer and some granola for the pantry. Yesterday I adapted an internet veggie burger recipe to meet my needs and to use up some odds and ends of leftovers in the fridge.

It was far better than store bought veggie burgers and I know exactly what went into the mix. Interested? Here’s the recipe:

Brandi’s Quick Break From Reading To Make Dinner Veggie Burger

1 can pinto or black beans (drained and well rinsed)

3 Tablespoons tomato paste or ketchup

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

2 Tablespoons flour (I used whole wheat but use what you have)

1/2 cup cooked vegetables – I didn’t cook mine but ran them through the food processor so they were finely chopped. Mine were onions, carrots, corn, spinach and mushrooms

Run the beans through the food processor and mix well with the other ingredients. Shape into patties and place on parchment paper. Bake in the oven at 350 degrees for nine minutes on each side or until a bit crisp.

This is an extremely forgiving recipe because it’s designed to use up what you have. Don’t have tomato paste? Use ketchup or maybe some salsa! Whatever veggies you have will do. Want to add a favorite seasoning? Go for it. Can’t eat them all right now? Freeze them.

It really is easy. My apologies for having no photo to share.

Instead, I will leave you with this image. I dared to move Scout’s tent from the kitchen to make mopping the floor a little easier. Here’s the aftermath. It seems there was some kind of riot.

Here’s hoping today is a good day for us all and that I make it back to the list of things I failed miserably at today!

The Small Things

One of my No Spend Month projects is to do some organizing. This weekend, I gathered up my most commonly used dry smoothie supplies into a basket. Flax and chia seeds, unsweetened coconut, protein powder and even the measuring cup live together in this basket so that I can easily move all these ingredients from the pantry to the blender.

Since I make a smoothie for breakfast most mornings, this promises to save me some effort every day. It will also go a long way toward keeping my pre-work routine organized and peaceful. Sometimes it’s the little things that really do matter.

No Spend January Is Here!

January is a No Spend Month for me. It’s a fun little game I’ve played for the last few years where I pay for what is needed but there’s no frivolous spending (unless pre-planned), no impulse buying and no shopping for entertainment. Goodbye, antique malls!

So bills are paid and groceries are purchased but I work on using some things from the freezer and pantry. Yesterday, I stopped at the store for about $10 worth of produce needed to create meals for the week using things I already have. If I stop for gas, my reusable water bottle had better be full because I’m not running inside for a drink. Not even for just a dollar.

There’s a gift to buy this month and a planned dinner and movie with a friend that was postponed from the holidays. That’s all the extracurricular spending that should happen.

This month, I will spend a lot of time at home, using what I own, looking for creative ways to entertain myself for free and simply appreciating the life that I have built and all that I already have. The Depression era mantra “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” comes to mind.

After all the excess and gluttony of the holidays, a spending fast is a welcome relief to the bank account but it’s also a welcome break from commercialism.

We spend a lot of time making money to survive and on spending money on stuff to fill our homes but we don’t always go home and just enjoy the life we have.

It’s is an exercise in gratitude as much as anything else.

I wrote a Winter Survival Guide last fall and it’s here in January that these techniques are truly put to work.

Here’s what’s happening in my world right now:

Books are a priority this year and I’m finding that the more I read, the more I want to read. The problem is that there’s a new one that I’m dying to tear into. I usually have three or four going at once but want to focus on one at a time this year. It can be next.

Cooking is more fun. I always enjoy playing in the kitchen but winter is a great time to experiment with new recipes. This year is especially fun as I’m looking for plant based recipes for my new lifestyle. This week I made a potato corn chowder that was divine and the lunch leftovers were a welcome treat! I also made a pumpkin cookie that was disgusting but we’ll just call that an experiment gone awry and move on.

Organization and purging are another priority. I have a list of areas to hit – from the pantry to the sock drawer to the nightstand and all points in between. It’s shocking how much stuff accumulates over time even when you try to be tidy. The goal is to do one thing from the list every day. The purging extends into intangible areas too. One evening was spent purging emails while watching the Closer on TV. Brenda Lee Johnson caught the bad guys and I unsubscribed and deleted thousands of old marketing emails. The above picture represents a new set of Christmas dishes that need to be put away after some rearranging in the china cabinet.

Movie time! I can’t go to the movies but that doesn’t matter because there’s a stack of movies waiting for my viewing pleasure. One day I’ll make some homemade potato chips and hit the couch for a little movie marathon.

Self care is a priority. Outdoor activity is less common because it’s dark at quitting time but I am trying to prioritize some kind of exercise every day. Rest is also important. My philosophy for most of the year is that you can sleep when you’re dead. During winter, these cold, dark nights call for a warm blanket and an earlier bedtime.

Being happy with the Now is a common theme and resisting the urge to adventure plan involves daily internal negotiations. It’s much harder than it should be. However, the theme of this stage of the year is being satisfied with the abundance of everyday life. Adventure planning can wait a bit. I have started a list of day trip ideas based on suggestions from friends but that’s more about being forgetful than about planning. Being present in this moment rather than dream of the next adventure is a real challenge.

For me, a No Spend Month is an opportunity to get myself together for another year, to set new goals and intentions, to stop buying stuff I don’t need, to nourish my mind and body, and to practice gratitude for what I have.

It gets easier every year and, this will sound sound nuts, but I’ve been looking forward to January for weeks.

Want to do your own no spend challenge? You can set your own rules and make it what you want it to be! You might be surprised at how much money and time you save!