Saturday, December 31, 2011

Letter Writing

We are such a technological society, especially in the way we communicate with each other.  Emailing and texting has become a common way of life for so many people, especially our teenagers.  And we all know how much time people spend on their cell phones chatting away while they drive to and from work, run errands, shop for groceries, even eat a meal at a restaurant. 

Facebook is a whole other thing unto itself and you can post pictures and share things with friends and family far and wide that they otherwise would miss.  I think it is a great way to stay connected and share with each other.

The art of letter writing seems to have taken a pretty serious hit these days and I’m sure the post office would heartily agree.  I still write to loved ones and I would like to focus on writing more often.  Even though I could email them or pick up the phone a letter is a little more special.  It didn’t used to be, but it sure is becoming that way. 

I’m always excited when I get my mail and find between the junk mail a letter from my aunt in Arizona.  We write back and forth on a regular basis.  She doesn’t have email and isn’t into the whole computer thing so this is what we do between visits.  We are pen pals. 

My grandfather lives in Florida and doesn’t even own a computer, doesn’t want too.  So in between phone calls I like to send him a letter or a card to let him know we are thinking of him. 

I love to make my own note cards, greeting cards, thank you notes, mailing labels and stationery.  It makes for a nice relaxing project and I never have to rush to the store to pick up a card when a birthday or special event rolls around.  I think handmade is always better than store bought. 

I encourage my children to write letters.  I read an article once online that had taken a survey of students at a high school showing 90% had never written a letter to anyone (excluding Santa).  It really surprised me. 
Our U.S. Postal Service is teetering on some pretty shaky ground.  Technology has severely impacted their revenue because you can pay bills and communicate online.  Yet we still need our mailman.  We still rely on the postal service. 

Can you imagine the positive impact to the postal service if everyone in the United States wrote just one letter this year?  What if they wrote two?  Something to think about. 

I encourage you to write a few letters, send some note cards, mail out your thank you cards and birthday wishes.  Send a card to your best friend.  Encourage your children to write to grandma and grandpa too.  Nothing is more special than a note from your grandchildren.

Friday, December 30, 2011

School Lunches

By the time Winter Break arrives I am ready for it in more ways than one.  Mostly I appreciate the break I get from having to prepare school lunches every morning.  The reprieve gives me a chance to be a little less rushed in the morning too. 

I pack my children’s lunch every day for a number of reasons.  It saves me a ton of money, I know what they are eating and I don’t have to wonder about the nutritional value they are getting.  Plus, I know they are getting enough to eat.  I don’t have that same confidence in the school lunch program. 

By the time they are heading back to school next Tuesday I will be ready to tackle packing lunches once again.  I have washed their insulated lunch boxes in the washing machine and allowed them to air dry so they are all set to go.  The thermoses are nice and clean and the drink bottles as well.  This is how I do it: 

·         I buy each one of my children a nice insulated lunchbox and an ice pack for the freezer.  I also get each one an insulated food jar for hot foods.  As they get older and prove their responsibility I upgrade the jar to a Thermos food jar.  It keeps food much warmer longer.  The consequence of losing it is they have to replace it with their allowance money and use their old one in the meantime.
·         I have a collection of inexpensive small plastic (BPA free) containers with lids.  That way if they get lost it is no big deal.  I keep a stack of Ziploc and Rubbermaid ½ cup containers and a couple sandwich size containers.
·         I wrap plastic forks and spoons in a napkin and keep them in a plastic shoe box to grab in the morning.  My girls help me with this on the weekends.  I have enough to last two weeks at a time.
·         At the beginning of the school year I buy a flat of twelve 8 oz. water bottles.  I wash and re-use them to send juice and milk in their lunch every day.  If they lose the bottle it isn’t a big deal.  Keep a baby bottle brush on hand to help you keep them clean.
·         I keep snack sized zipper bags, sandwich sized zipper bags and fold top sandwich bags on hand.  We don’t use them very often so a box of each lasts all year long.  We also re-use them as much as possible to cut down on landfill waste and expense.
·         Each child is responsible to unload their lunchbox every evening. rinse out their dishes and put their ice pack in the freezer.  Then they hang their lunch boxes on a hook in the laundry room so I can find them in the morning.
·         If they forget their lunchbox at school we have a back up lunchbox and an old thermal jar I keep in the pantry.  It is called the Forget Lunchbox.  I’ve even had to use it once – oops! 

Once I have all my supplies gathered up then I am ready to work on what to fill their lunchboxes with:  

·        Make as much ahead of time as possible and include the children in preparing these items.  Fill small containers with store bought or home canned fruit, homemade trail mix, gelatin (plain or with fruit), pudding, applesauce, salad dressing, etc.
·         I use sandwich sized containers for more than just sandwiches.  Salads are great in them too.
·         Fill insulated food jars with boiling water and allow them to sit while you heat up soup or leftovers to put in them.
·         I don’t buy snack sized individual wrapped items unless I am getting them for a steal.  Instead I buy full sized packages of chips or crackers and fill snack sized zipper bags with individual portions.  I keep these bags in a plastic container with a tight fitting lid so I can easily grab them in the mornings.
·         I like to think outside the box instead the usual sandwich, chips, apple & milk.  Leftovers are a huge help with this.  I also make my own “lunchables” with Ritz or Club crackers, sliced cheese, pepperoni or ham slices. 

I brainstorm an idea list for main dishes and sides and ask the kids for input too. 

Main Dishes:

·         Sandwiches – ham, tuna, turkey, peanut butter & honey, peanut butter & banana, peanut butter & jelly, egg salad, turkey or ham tortilla wraps, etc.
·         Leftovers – spaghetti, macaroni & cheese, chicken & rice, soups and stews, turkey & noodles, chicken strips, pizza (my kids like it cold), roast beef & potatoes, pork fried rice, beanie weenies, etc.
·         Crackers with tuna, ham salad, chicken salad or egg salad.
·         Hard cooked eggs and sliced cheese 


·         Chips & salsa, celery with peanut butter or cream cheese, veggies & ranch dressing, baby carrots, snow peas, tossed green salad & dressing, fresh or canned fruit and fruit cups, gelatin or gelatin with fruit, etc.
·         Zucchini, banana, pumpkin or applesauce bread
·         Bran, banana, pumpkin, cornbread or applesauce muffins
·         Potato chips or corn chips
·         Crackers – cheese nips, wheat thins, wheatables, etc.
·         Biscuit or dinner roll
·         Cottage cheese, yogurt 


·         Milk, chocolate milk, juice, water, flavored water, flavored teas, etc. 


·         Cookie
·         Cupcake (frosted or unfrosted)
·         Miniature candy bar
·         Peanut M&Ms
·         Trail mix – nuts, sunflower seeds, Cheerios or Kix, chocolate chips, gummy bears, etc.
·         Granola bars
·         Brownie
·         Dum Dum sucker 

When packing their lunches I have a lunchbox rule to include at least 1 protein, 1 grain, 1 to 2 fruit and/or veggie, 1 dairy.  This way I make sure I haven’t forgotten anything.  I try to limit their sugar intake and don’t always include a dessert but a little sweet treat isn’t a bad idea. 

I also like to put a travel size refillable bottle of hand sanitizer in their lunch boxes too so they can clean up before and after they eat.  That about covers it!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Extreme Cheapskates – TLC

My daughters and I sat down last night to watch Extreme Cheapskates on TLC.  I have resorted to some pretty extreme measures to save money and try to make it to my next paycheck when times were really tough.  But, after watching this program I am pretty confident they won’t be making a show about me. 

My girls and I certainly found the show entertaining but they don’t think I should plan on serving goat heads for supper anytime soon.  I assured them I wouldn’t, especially since at $7.50 (acquired from scrounging loose change all day – clever!) I think he grossly (heavy on the gross) overpaid for them.  For $7.50 or less I’m sure I could have put on an entire meal, one is wife would have enjoyed eating as well. 

One tip I did pick up from the show was that the goat head gourmet and his wife go on what he likes to call a “fiscal fast” where for one entire week they spend $0.  I think that is a great idea and thought I might try that, however after some thought I realized I already do that as a matter of course.  I don’t always have to spend money all the time and often don’t. 

So after viewing the program I will still continue to buy toilet paper, most likely won’t dumpster dive for anniversary gifts, won’t serve my kids and the neighbor’s kids really expired food or ask other restaurant patrons for the leftover food on their plates.  Instead I think I’ll stick to my current plan. 

Have you ever resorted to extreme measures?  Is so please share!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Hamburger Mushroom Gravy - A Five Ingredients or Less Recipe

I’m pretty sure I am not the first person to come up with this concoction but I do know that it is one we have used quite often to fill the void and keep the wolf from the door.  Inexpensive, filling and delicious this simple dish is a welcome part of our meal planning repertoire.  We seem to never tire of it. 

Hamburger Mushroom Gravy 

½ to 1 lb. ground beef or turkey
½ medium onion, chopped
1 10oz can mushroom soup
1 soup can milk
½ c. sour cream (optional) 

In a large saucepan over medium heat brown meat and drain.  Add onion and continue cooking until onions are tender.  Add soup and milk and stir to thoroughly combine.  Turn heat to low and allow gravy to simmer 10 to 15 minutes.  Remove from heat and stir in sour cream, if desired. 

Serve over egg noodles, steamed rice or mashed potatoes.  Goes great with green beans, buttered peas or a nice salad.  Serves 4. 

I like to add a tsp of dried parsley to this recipe to “dress” it up a bit.  In order to have enough for leftovers I will usually use one pound of ground beef and double the rest of the ingredients.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Goal Setting For The New Year

I don’t make resolutions.  Those things you vow to do that by the end of January are all but forgotten.  Instead I love to make goals and better yet, accomplish them. 

Goals are important.  They give us something to strive for; to work toward.  Once you have met that goal you are filled with a sense of empowerment.  However, I warn you to be careful because goals can be addictive.  Once you set and complete one you will want to do it again and then once that goal is done you will want to do it again and again.  Your productivity will soar and you will be amazed at all the many things you can accomplish.  Pretty soon you will find yourself unable to live without having a goal in place. 

I remember the first time I decided to set goals.  We had just had a staff meeting at work in which setting and achieving your goals was the theme.  It really stuck a chord with me.  The key points that have stayed with me are: 

·                     Set attainable, tangible goals.  Something important to you that is well within your capacity to complete.  Unattainable goals are a waste of time and effort plus they will not positively feed your self-esteem either.

·                     Write your goals down.  You are far more likely to work on them if they are written down somewhere.

·                     Set a realistic deadline in which you plan to accomplish this goal.  This will help you to consistently work toward it.

·                    Review your goals and your progress regularly.  Adjust where necessary but always work your way toward completion.

The first set of goals I set were things that I was wishing for in my head.  So I decided I had nothing to lose.  At the age of 26 I wrote them down: 

1.                   Get all my bills caught up

2.                  Pay off my student loans

3.                  Pay off my car

4.                  Save up for a down payment and buy a house by the age of 30. 

In four years I was able to complete every one of them.  If nothing else it proved to me that I could do anything I set my mind to.  I’ve been setting goals and accomplishing them ever since. 

I always set goals for the New Year as my way of jumping into it feet first.  Sometimes they are big goals and sometimes it is just a bunch of small ones.  But I think it is important to always be working toward something.  Have a sense of purpose in our lives. 

Do you set goals and, if so, what are you going to achieve in 2012?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Friday, December 23, 2011

Last Minute Christmas Cookies

Need a couple easy and budget friendly Christmas cookies to whip up at the last minute?  No worries.  I’ve got you covered. 

Thumbprint Cookies 

2/3 c. butter or margarine
½ c. sugar
2 egg yolks (save the whites)
1 tsp vanilla
1 ½ c. flour
jam, any flavor 

Beat sugar and eggs together until creamy.  Add egg and vanilla to butter and sugar mixture.  Combine well.  Stir in flour.  Cover dough and chill in the freezer so dough is easier to handle. 

While the dough chills make this next cookie. 

Coconut Macaroons – A Five Ingredients Or Less Recipe 

2 egg whites
½ teaspoon vanilla
2/3 c. sugar
1 1/3 c. flaked coconut 

Preheat oven to 325 °.  Lightly grease a baking sheet, set aside.  In a medium mixing bowl beat with egg whites until peaks start to form.  Add vanilla.  Gradually add sugar and continue to beat until stiff peaks form.  Fold in coconut with a wooden spoon carefully so you don’t over mix.  Drop by rounded spoonfuls onto baking sheet.  Bake for 20 minutes until they just begin to brown.  Remove to cooling rack.  Store in an airtight container.  Makes two dozen cookies. 

While the cookies bake: 

Remove the other dough from the freezer and roll into one inch sized balls.  Place balls on baking sheet about one inch apart.  Press your thumb into the center of each ball.  Bake cookies at 375° for 10 to 12 minutes.  Remove to cooling rack.  Fill each depression with a little jam and allow cookies to cool completely.  Makes about 3 dozen cookies. 

There you have it!  Two very simple recipes to whip up five dozen delicious cookies with minimal effort and ingredients.  They look so pretty and you will get rave reviews on these cookies too.  Enjoy!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Monthly Meal Planner - January

Over the weekend I posted our monthly meal plan on the side of our refrigerator giving our family a glimpse into their culinary future.  I thought I would go ahead and share it with you as a source of inspiration, if nothing else.  I enjoy checking out other’s meal plans to give me ideas too. 

I rely heavily on the use of leftovers and I do this for two reasons.  The first, and most important, is to stretch our grocery budget and eliminate as much food waste as possible.  The second is to save time and keep me from having to cook a new meal every single day. 

Here is a list of what we will be enjoying next month: 

·         Homemade Asian Food – pot stickers, egg rolls, fried rice, snow peas
·         Turkey Noodle Soup – that Thanksgiving turkey just keeps on giving
·         Hamburger Mushroom Gravy & Rice – a meal from back when my son was very young and times were tough.  My family still loves it and isn’t ready to give it up yet.
·         Homemade Pepperoni Pizza
·         Chicken Enchilada
·         Sweet & Sour Pork
·         Grilled Cheese Sandwiches & Asparagus Soup
·         Cheese Omelets
·         Lemon Chicken & Rice Pilaf
·         Fajitas
·         Chili Mac – another kid pleaser
·         Broccoli & Cheddar Quiche
·         Roasted Chicken
·         Breakfast for Dinner – scrambled eggs, biscuits & homemade jam
·         Spanish Rice Casserole
·         Pasta Alfredo
·         Tater Tot Casserole
·         Roast Turkey – again that turkey… with stuffing & gravy, green beans

With the exception of some dairy items and fresh produce I already have everything I need on hand.  I’ll be posting some of the recipes later on.  It all sounds pretty good to me.  What are you having?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Home Hair Care

I was fortunate to have been blessed with a moderate ability to cut hair.  As a self taught stylist I began honing by skills in high school after watching the barber and beautician closely while they worked.  Thanks to the courage and patience of my brother and father I practiced on them and was able to get pretty good at it. 

While growing up my son never had is hair cut by anyone other than me until he joined the Army.  When he came home on leave after basic training he instructed me on the proper way to give him a “high and tight”.  I learned another style! 

We always want to look nice and maintain our appearance on a budget without looking like we are on a budget.  I schedule haircuts and colors just as if I were going to the salon every time.  Every eight weeks I trim or cut my girl’s hair. 

Because it is difficult for me to cut my own hair I schedule a cut with my stylist every four months and maintain it in between visits by trimming my own bangs.  I also color my hair with a good quality color. 

Every couple of months one of my favorite stores will run a sale on my hair color and I will buy two boxes, usually with coupons.  My color typically ends up costing about $7 each time I do it and my stylist heartily approves.  I also use a shampoo and conditioner for color treated hair that I purchase on sale, with coupons, at the store.  I do not buy salon products. 

If you aren’t gifted in the art of cutting hair but are in need of saving money in this area, no worries.  Here are some ideas: 

1.                 A really good simple cut from a good stylist will last a long time.  Go a little shorter to make it last longer.
2.                Consider going to a barber or cosmetology school for a low-priced cut.  Remember the simpler the cut the less likely you are to leave unhappy.
3.                  Typically a barber charges less than a cosmetologist.
4.                  Watch the papers for coupons to chain salons.
5.                 Have a friend or relative help you with coloring your hair if you aren’t comfortable doing it yourself.  Read and follow the directions carefully.
6.                There are community educations classes available in some areas that each home barber courses.
7.                 Videos are available online and the last time I bought a pair of clippers it included a DVD.
8.                 Shorter hair styles often require more frequent maintenance than longer ones.
9.                  Keep it simple and avoid fad styles.
10.              Ask your stylist for tips.  Quite often they are happy to help you. 

It is quite easy to drop a small fortune at the salon and on a routine basis too.  Not everyone is able or willing to be a home barber but there are plenty of ways to save and stay looking gorgeous.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Easy Pasta Supper - A Five Ingredients or Less Recipe

A simple, easy and nutritious weekday meal is pasta and kids love it too!  As much as I would love to have a nice slow cooked sauce it isn’t exactly practical when I need to get dinner on the table after work.  I try to make my weeknight meal prep last no longer than 30 minutes and this fits the bill just fine. 

Spaghetti Sauce 

½ to 1 pound lean bulk Italian pork or turkey sausage
1 26 oz. can garlic and herb spaghetti sauce
1 15 oz. can Italian style diced tomatoes
1 tsp. dried basil 

1 pound pasta – spaghetti, linguine, fettucine, rotini, or penne 

Start by filling a large pot with salted water and bringing it to a boil.

While you wait for the water to boil use a medium sized pot over medium high heat to brown the sausage.  Drain any fat and add sauce, tomatoes and basil.  Stir to combine, reduce heat and allow it to simmer while pasta cooks about 8 minutes or until tender. 

While the pasta finishes prepare a quick salad or vegetable as a side while someone else sets the table and gets everyone a drink. 

This recipes is more than plenty for four people and can be doubled to accommodate additional servings and for extra leftovers. 

The reason I use the spaghetti sauce rather than to make my own is because a certain brand (Hunts) goes on sale quite regularly for much less than what the equivalent in tomato sauce would cost.  I also stock up on the tomatoes and pasta when they go on sale as well.  Tomato sauce doesn’t seem to go on sale very often and when it does it is only for a few cents per can, not a huge savings.

Thrifty Tip:  Before making this recipe remove ½ c. sauce from the can of spaghetti sauce to a small freezer container and save for a future pizza.  I do this all the time.  You can also sneak ½ cup of the browned sausage out of the pan and do the same thing to add as one of the toppings on your future pizza.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Stocking Stuffers

When Santa comes to our house on Christmas Eve he fills the children’s stockings and leaves a family gift.  In recent years our family gift has been given a DVD for Family Movie Nite or a game to play on Family Game Nite. 

When it comes to the stockings Santa’s practical and thrifty nature are evident in the items he chooses to fill them with.  I very much appreciate his thoughtfulness in the useful items he has brought my children in the past: 
  • A brand new toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste (every year)
  • Hair brush, comb or hair accessories
  • Bracelets, necklaces, beads, etc.
  • Shower gel, lotion, shampoo, etc.
  • Lip balm, nail polish, nail “jewelry”
  • A book, comic book or magazine
  • Sugar free gum and a little bit of candy (must be why there is a toothbrush)
  • Nuts
  • Fruit (usually oranges)
  • Gloves, hats, ear muffs and scarves
  • Socks or underwear
  • Pens, pencils, markers or crayons
  • Notepads, post-it notes or tablets
  • Wild shoelaces
  • Lottery or scratch tickets 
Simple little treasures that make the stockings the best part of opening gifts on Christmas morning.  Santa sure has some great ideas.  What kinds of things has he put in stockings at your house?
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