Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Home Cooking: Spices

Keeping a well-stocked spice cupboard is a major factor in making home cooking cheaper, easier, and healthier.  Unseasoned meats and vegetables are much, much cheaper to buy than the pre-seasoned varieties.  And pre-mixed spices, in addition to containing a lot of extra un-pronounceable things you probably don't want to eat, are as much as 3-4 times the cost per ounce of the spices individually.

Did you know you could make your own taco seasoning?
Italian seasoning?
Cajun seasoning?
Greek seasoning?

How about your own ketchup?
Ranch dressing?
Barbecue sauce?
Or this awesome sauce that will make you want to shank people just to get the last few drops off their plate?

These are some of the spices I always want to have on hand:
Salt and pepper (duh)
Garlic powder
Onion powder
Cayenne pepper
Dill weed

I can make just about anything with these.  I have a small spice rack with all of these spices on the stove, but I buy them in as large a container as I can find available.  I keep the big containers in the cupboard and fill the small spice jars as needed.  If you had a big ole restaurant-sized kitchen, I guess you could keep all those big honkin' containers out, but I don't have such a kitchen.  Also, I've made homemade spice mixes so often that now I just dump from the individual spice jars into each deliciously bubbling meal, but these containers make great storage for your own homemade pre-mixed spices (taco mix, Italian seasoning, etc.)

The next time you want to make tacos, spaghetti, barbecue chicken, or red beans and rice, try a homemade spice mix.  Buying all these spices up front will rack up your grocery bill up front, but the money you save (and preservatives, and who-knows-what-is-in-those-mixes) is totally worth it in the long run.  And I LOVE being able to just go throw together fajitas at the last minute when I haven't planned it in the weekly menu and just need something to feed All These Complaining People tonight.

On Food and Health

I have a lot of ideas about food.  More of an obsession, really.  We're constantly told by doctors, food producers, nutritionists, and our own government what we should and should not eat. What is and is not safe to eat.  The biggest problem is that they don't all agree.  How do we know, then, what is really good for us? 
Eat lots of fish, they say.  Except not too much, because mercury levels are high in ocean fish, and freshwater fish can contain chemicals like pesticides and arsenic, and farmed fish is now genetically engineered.

Eat plenty of whole grains, they say.  Except not grains that contain gluten.  Or maybe no grains at all.

Eat fats.   Don't eat fats.

Eat meatDon't eat meat.

Well, you get the point. I don't even want to get into organic vs. non-organic right now.

Here's what we do know:  Processed foods aren't as good for you as non-processed foods.  And our bodies, whether we're vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, grain-free, nut-free or any other kind of -free, need fats, proteins, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.  The best way to acquire those things still eludes us.

I've chosen, for my own life and family diet, to stick with whole, REAL foods as much as possible. Things that my ancestors would still recognize as food.  We avoid processed foods (although I have a Cheetos addiction I'd rather not discuss at this point), we limit gluten (my husband is Gluten Free, the rest of us most of the time), and try to replace grains in general with vegetables.  You can't have too many vegetables, right?  My point is that I do what is best for my family, within the confines of our budget, and with the knowledge of food and nutrition that I have acquired through my years of obsessive reading and panicking research.

So, I'm in a quandary on this blog.  Because the point is Living With Less.  But living with less money, where food is concerned, often means living with a mediocre diet.  It is simply cheaper to feed your family on tons of noodles, not a lot of meat, and limited vegetables.  But living with less chemicals or other things-to-avoid often means spending ridiculous amounts of money on organic, grass-fed, gluten-free, non-processed foods, and spending more money on your grocery bill.  Living with less time means being unable to prepare food ahead or spend hours on dinner each night, and that usually results in convenience foods that are more expensive and/or just processed crap full of preservatives and chemicals that no human should eat.  But living with less space in your home means being unable to buy bulk food items for lack of storage, and that means spending more money.

And any recommendations I make here should not be taken as gospel.  Because maybe fats are good, and maybe they're not.  The same for grains or organics or GMO's.  Just know that whatever I recommend is based on my own research.  If you're confused or not comfortable, please feel free to research on your own.  If you find my information to be stupid, uninformed, or otherwise not fitting into your personal belief system or lifestyle, feel free to disregard it.

All I can tell you is what I do personally, or things that may benefit others.  My sole piece of advice here is: Do what you can, how you can, when you can.  This is how I approach all aspects of my life; I am always trying to better myself, my life, my family's health, our wellbeing - as best I can, when I can, how I can.  Oh, how I would love to support small chemical-free companies by buying all-natural cleansers and detergents, but I can't afford them.  So I make my own.  I'd love to bake homemade breads, but I just don't have the time or space for all the preparation, and frankly it costs more than the $1 loaf at the discount grocery, so I buy it.  I buy organic vegetables when we can afford them and when there is an organic alternative available, and buy frozen (the next best choice, chemically speaking) when I can't find or afford those organic options.

So, that's my disclaimer.  You won't see "low-fat" here, because I don't believe low-fat is healthy.  Nor will you see soy products, or a lot of recipes with grains - just based on my own research and those choices I have made for my own life.  Some things will cost more and not apply to the "less money" category, just as some things will save you tons of money, but not apply to the "less space" or "less chemicals" category.  I post what I know, and can't possibly post about what I don't.  I'm not a doctor, nutritionist, food producer, or employee of the government.

In other words, use all you find here at your own discretion.  Do what you can, how you can, when you can, and as it applies to your own family/life.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Homemade Gifts

When I first learned to knit, I did it because I simply wanted to know how.  My mother is a crocheter, from a long line of crocheters, so I've known how to do that since I was a child.  But knitting, now THAT was fancy.  I taught myself completely and totally by watching videos on this website.

Anyway, I'd had these crazy ideas of saving us money by knitting sweaters, hats, mittens, scarves, etc. instead of buying them.  Needless to say, I was disappointed to discover how much yarn costs.  Especially "good" yarn.  And not to mention all the accessories like knitting needles, cabling needles, stitch markers, and pattern books.  Holy crap.  Knitting for everyday, household or family use is NOT cost-effective.

So I took it up simply as a hobby.  Something I could do with whatever extra time I had, and whatever money here or there we could afford to waste on keeping me occupied.  I also discovered that sweaters take a LONG time to knit, and I just plain don't have the patience to make them.  So, I knitted about four billion dishcloths, hats, and scarves.  They got used, sure, but it wasn't very satisfying, and it certainly wasn't justifiable as far as the cost, so I pretty much stopped knitting.

Then Christmas came along, and we were broke, and I was sitting around with a ginormous stash of leftover yarn.  I decided to make winter hats for my parents as Christmas gifts.  It was time-consuming, but I knitted during my evening television time and in the mornings during the kids' schoolwork, and got 'er done.  The result?  Two beautiful, hand-knitted hats, for less than $20 worth of yarn.

That's when it occurred to me that knitting or crocheting a gift really IS a money-saver.  No, if I bought them hats, I wouldn't have spent as much as the yarn costs, BUT there's no way I'd just buy a hat for a gift and call it good.  Store-bought hats are cheap and I'd feel like a jerk if that was all I gave someone.  So, realistically, had I gone out and bought gifts for my parents, I could have spent tons of money on ... what?  Just stuff, mostly.  Stuff they may or may not use.  Stuff they likely don't really need to have.  But here was this hand-made item that they appreciated so much more than the store-bought equivalent, and more than any alternative store-bought stuff I may have purchased instead, AND it was actually useful to them.  Every time they wear that hat, they'll be thinking of how I made that especially for them, with hours and hours of my time.  The appreciation for the gift is satisfying to me, and I don't feel the slightest bit guilty if I only spent 5 bucks on materials.  It really IS cost-effective to make homemade gifts, when compared to how much you'd spend on an average birthday or Christmas gift for a loved one.

If you know how to knit, or are planning to learn, here's a website full of free knitting patterns.
If you crochet, or are planning to learn, here's another one for crochet patterns.
If you don't know how to do either of those things, and have no intention to learn them whatsoever, here's one with gobs of other homemade gift ideas.

For Christmas and birthdays, consider a homemade gift.  It really does save money, and the time you spent making it means so much more to the recipient than the 10 minutes you'd spend buying them something at the mall.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Living with less...

Almost every day, I encounter people trying to live with less.  Less money to pay bills and put food on the table.  Less time to spend with family, cook, do home projects.  Less chemicals in their homes and bodies.  Less space to live in.  Less impact on the planet.  Rarely do we hear someone complaining about how difficult it is to adjust to having more.  Well, children, maybe.  Fleas.  Laundry.  The real struggle is trying to maintain a life you'd consider normal or acceptable, with less resources.

When I first started making a real effort to live on less money, it was out of complete necessity.  My husband had changed jobs to work for Voldemort (i.e. The Boss Who Shall Not Be Named), and suddenly we were struggling to feed a family of five, pay bills, and put gas in the car, on one paycheck of about $300/week.  It was bad.  It was really, really bad.  Unfortunately, the best advice I could find on shaving living expenses and cutting food costs amounted to:  Make coffee at home instead of buying Starbucks; Cancel the gym membership and buy an elliptical instead; Shop the sales at grocery stores; Cook at home instead of dining out...

DUH!  From my perspective, people who could afford daily Starbucks, gym memberships, and regular dinners at restaurants were RICH compared to me.  Why did they need help saving money, and were they really so stupid that they never considered cancelling their gym membership until a magazine article told them to?  Those articles were absolutely no help to me, and I'll bet there are a great many more people looking for frugal living options because they NEED them than the magazine editors could even imagine.

What I'm hoping to accomplish here is to offer REAL and PRACTICAL solutions for living with less.  I want the Random Reader to understand that I've fed my family from the Food Pantry and food stamps.  Before my husband left Voldemort, I'd shaved our family food budget to under $75/week.  We have a lot more wiggle room now (thank heavens), but I remain on a Quest for Less.  I want to share my hard-earned knowledge so others can avoid a lot of my own struggles, but I also want to learn from others.  I'll post my tips and thoughts, as well as anything great I happen upon elsewhere.  Please feel free to comment or email with your own ideas too.  While I don't believe you can never be too rich or too thin, I DO think you can never live with too little.  Well, love, maybe.  Air.  Chocolate...