Sunday, January 29, 2012

Menu Plan January 30 - February 3

Ok, first of all, can someone please tell me what the heck happened to January?  I mean, there we were, enjoying a nice relaxing week after Christmas, and now, all of a sudden, BOOM!  It's practically February.  Time really needs to slow down - I can't keep up. 

I'm learning a few things now that I'm getting back into the whole "working full-time so I get up at 5:30 a.m. every morning" thing.  For instance, I'm completely exhausted by Wednesday, and by Friday I'll fit right in when the zombie apocalypse hits.  Which means that while it's all fine and good to plan somewhat involved, make-it-when-I-get-home meals for the beginning of the week, by the end of the week I really need to be planning super-simple food or I'm just going to stop at Taco Bell on my way home.  I'm not ready to surrender to a completely processed food diet yet (which is funny, considering that Taco Bell is the alternative), but I also have to accept that I may not be cooking from scratch every night. 

So, that said, here's the plan for this week:

Monday:  Bacon Cheeseburger Biscuit Cups
Tuesday:  Tuna casserole 
Wednesday:  Taco Salad
Thursday:  Cranberry Chicken
Friday:  Jambalaya

Have a great week, everyone!  And remember to visit every week for tons of great menu ideas!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Cooking and freezing dried beans

There are lots of ways to save a little here and there on grocery money.  One of the best, in my opinion, is cooking dried beans instead of buying canned.  Canned beans tend to have a lot of salt and also typically have BPA in the lining of the cans, which is something I'm starting to avoid when I can.  I keep a few cans of beans on hand for nights when I need something REALLY quick (and canned chili beans to feed my child's addiction - she loves them straight out of the can), but I also try to keep a good selection on hand in the freezer. 

At the moment, I have a batch of black beans simmering on the stove.  The house smells great because I add a few extra ingredients to the pot to give the beans a little extra kick of flavor (more about that in a minute).

Beans are so easy to prepare.  They take quite a bit of time, but it's almost entirely cooking and soaking time, with very little hands-on needed.  You can cook any amount, as long as you have a pot big enough to handle it.  I usually buy in bulk, so I tend to cook two cups of dried beans at a time.

First, put your beans in a dish (I use a pie plate) and pick through to remove any small rocks or bad beans.  I remember watching a Food Network show where the host was picking through a dish of beans and found three rocks in it.  I found it odd, because I have NEVER found a rock in my beans.  But I always check, just in case.  Rinse the beans in a sieve and put them in a pot (I use a two-quart stock pot).  Now, you have two options:

Option one:  Add cold water to cover with at least two inches of water over the top of the beans.  Set aside and soak overnight.

Option two:  Add water to cover with at least two inches of water over the top of the beans.  Put on your stove and bring just to a boil.  Turn off (do not drain) and let the beans sit for two hours.

At the end of the soaking time, drain and rinse your beans.  Put back in the pot, add water again to cover by two inches.  Bring to a boil, then turn down and simmer.  I find that if I cook the beans too hard, the skins fall off, so keep it at as low a simmer as possible. 

If you want to add a little flavor oomph to your beans, add a bay leaf, a few cloves of sliced garlic, and a couple of onion slices to the cooking water.  If you have a specific recipe in mind, you can also add the same seasonings called for in your recipe to help bring an extra layer of flavor to your dish.  Be careful, however, not to add any salt or seasoning including salt, or your beans may not soften.  Always salt at the end, when your beans are fully cooked.

After 90 minutes, start checking your beans to see if they're done.  I usually taste one or two, and then add five or 10 minutes to the cooking time before I check again.  Keep going until your beans are fully cooked. Be careful not to overcook them, though, or they'll just get mushy.  Drain, saving the liquid if you're going to freeze them, remove any large pieces of seasoning (such as the bay leaf and onion slices - I usually leave the garlic), and let cool. 

If you aren't using the beans right away, they freeze beautifully.  I usually freeze them in two-cup portions, which works for me for most recipes.  Just put the cooled beans in a freezer-safe container, add cooking liquid just to cover (this will help keep the beans from drying out in the freezer), and pop them in your freezer. 

Enjoy your beans! 

Menu Plan January 23 - 27

I didn't write out a menu plan last week.  I kind of regretted it.  I had a rough plan in my head, but I didn't really follow it, both because whatever I was thinking about just didn't sound good (like the day I was planning on stir fry, and it poured down rain and I just wanted comfort food), and the day when hubby said "can we have Pad Thai?", which wasn't even on my radar screen (but I had everything in the house for it, which is rare, so I made it.

I also had three days of just not so good cooking last week.  It's strange for me. I'll never be a chef, by any means, but I consider myself to be a pretty darn good cook, and I just couldn't get it together this week.  The Pad Thai sauce tasted weird (I think I accidentally put too much fish sauce in it).  I tried using coconut oil instead of butter in my biscuits, and they tasted weird (would have been fine in a sweet setting, but not with creamed tuna).  The kielbasa and cabbage turned out more steamed (and soggy) than fried.  Ugh.  So when hubby sent me a message on Thursday and said "let's have Taco Bell", I was happy to oblige.

But, today begins a new week, so let's put the past behind us and move on, shall we?

Here's the plan for this week:

Monday:  Teriyaki chicken with sesame rice
Tuesday: Spaghetti
Wednesday:  Chorizo black bean soup (crockpot, using canned beans this time).
Thursday:  Beef stroganoff
Friday:  Corned beef hash

Have a great week everyone!  Remember to visit Menu Plan Monday at for amazing menu ideas!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Pasta Fagioli

Today we got our first snowfall of the year.  Not much to speak of (it melted about half an hour after it hit the ground), but enough that a big pot of soup and a fresh loaf of bread sounded like just the ticket for dinner tonight.  So, my daughter and I whipped up a couple of loaves of 30-minute baguettes and I made a pot of this soup.

Pasta Fagioli

1 T. olive oil
1 pound Italian sausage, removed from casings if necessary (I used chicken this time, because it's what I had in the freezer)
2 cups kale, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 quart chicken broth
1 8 ounce can tomato sauce
2 cups uncooked small pasta (I used bow ties)
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 1/2 tsp. Italian seasoning
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
pinch red pepper flakes
1 can cannelloni beans, drained

In a large saucepan, heat the oil over medium high heat.  Add the sausage and cook until browned.  Add chicken broth, tomato sauce, and garlic.  Bring to a boil. 

Stir in pasta, half of the cheese, seasoning, and beans.  Cover and simmer until pasta is tender (between eight and 20 minutes, depending on what variety you use). 

Serve with the remaining cheese sprinkled over the top. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Things I'm learning about the grocery budget

I'm halfway through my first month's attempt at sticking to our grocery budget.  So far I've gleaned a few bits of knowledge, mostly things that I already knew but have definitely been reinforced.

1.  I need to stop buying organic milk.  This is a tough one for me, because I love organic milk and all that it stands for (the brand I buy, while not technically local, it at least regional; it tastes fresher; and I believe in supporting the organic farming community).  But really, my little family goes through at least two gallons a week, usually three.  At more than $5 a gallon, that's typically 1/4 of my weekly grocery budget.

2.  I spend more when I bring the coupons along, no matter how great I think the deals are.  It is virtually impossible for me to stick to my budget when I have the coupons.  My $60 a week budget is basically enough for us to buy the fresh food we need and whatever few pantry staples we are out of.  I would do better to leave the bulk of the coupons at home and only use those for the things we actually need that week.

3.  When I can shop kid-free, I need to shop at a different store.  It's true, I go to one of the more expensive grocery stores in the area.  Not the MOST expensive, by any means, but certainly not the cheapest.  Why?  They have two beautiful features - they bag the groceries, and, most important of all, they have PLAYLAND.  Playland is like a mini-Disneyland to my daughter.  They have amazing toys, she always meets someone new, and she LOVES the girl who works there. So, when she's with me, I either have the benefit of dropping her off there if she's healthy, or if she's not (or if Playland's closed), at least I don't have to worry about trying to bag my own groceries and keep an eye on her.  These are things I'm willing to pay a little more for.  Also, our inexpensive grocery store has TERRIBLE meat and produce, but I could be shopping there for other things. 

4.  I lack list discipline.  I've known this for years, but when you're trying to stick to a limited budget, it becomes a bigger issue.  Case in point - I went to the meat market this morning, to buy hamburger and maybe a package of chicken sausages if they had any.  I came out with hamburger, chicken sausage, pork sausage, and chorizo.  And spent $7 more than my budget.  I need to keep reminding myself that the list rules - if it's not on the list, it waits till the next shopping trip.

Life's a process, right?  These are things I know, and so they are things I can work on.  In the meantime, I'll be interested to see how we come out at the end of the month, if I continue to be honest with myself and on top of things.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Buffalo Chicken Strips

I was in the mood for something spicy for dinner tonight, and this fit the bill perfectly - quick and easy, with plenty of heat!

Buffalo Chicken Strips

1 pound chicken tenderloins (cut lengthwise if you like a skinnier strip)
1 cup flour
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. smoked paprika
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1/2 cup buffalo wing sauce (we like Frank's Red Hot)
1 cup panko bread crumbs

For serving:  extra wing sauce (mix with a bit of melted butter if you'd like), ranch dressing, or blue cheese dressing, as desired.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.   Grease a baking sheet or line it with parchment paper.  Set up your dredging station - in one bowl, mix your flour with the garlic powder, smoked paprika, salt, and pepper.  Put your wing sauce in a second bowl, and the bread crumbs in a third bowl.

Take a tenderloin and dredge it in the flour to coat.  Dip it (completely) in the wing sauce, then roll in the bread crumbs.  Place on the baking sheet and repeat with the remaining tenderloins.

Bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes, or until cooked through.  If desired, serve with extra wing sauce and ranch or blue cheese dressing.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

What to eat, what to eat.

Gah, here it is, Sunday again, and I need to plan a menu.  The stomach flu paid us a visit last week, and food still isn't sounding too good right now.  And can someone please explain to me how a three-year-old with the stomach flu can be bouncing off the walls, while a 37-year-old with the exact same illness can barely get off the couch???

Fortunately, though, we didn't eat much from the menu last week (hubby, who won't cook for himself, basically subsisted on leftover pizza and Burger King all week), so I can pull from that again.  I made the turkey tetrazzini on Tuesday, and that was it.  So here we go...

Monday:  Chicken casserole
Tuesday:  Pork fried rice
Wednesday:  Crockpot ham and potato soup
Thursday:  leftovers
Friday:  Cabbage roll casserole

I'm also happy to report that I'm doing REALLY well in the grocery shopping arena.  So far we've spent $121.22 at the grocery store, $8.99 at Costco, and $25.32 at Trader Joe's.  I think the rest of my Costco and Trader Joe's money for the month will probably be spent on a trip I'm planning to Bob's Red Mill with my friends next week.  I love this store with all my heart - it's a cook and baker's paradise! 

But enough about my budget.  Have you planned your menu for the week yet?  If not, why not?  Need ideas?  Click on the pic above to go to Menu Plan Monday at, for a ton of great ideas!

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Changing the Game Plan

For nearly three years, since I went back to work after maternity leave, I've been working part time. Until September, this enabled us to always have someone home with our daughter.  This was always my goal - even if I had to go to work, I really wanted to make sure that she spent maximum time with one or the other of us.  With my husband's impending layoff, though, we knew we needed to start changing things to ensure that we can stay financially stable.  Health insurance is now a must for my hubby, and, no matter how we buy it, it's EXPENSIVE.

In September, I was given the opportunity to add an addition eight hours to my work schedule.  At that point, my daughter started going to day care at a neighbor's house two days a week.  It's been an adjustment for all of us, but she's having a good time being around other kids, and has learned some very valuable lessons about sharing and getting along that would be a lot harder for her to learn, being an only child.

Once again, an opportunity has arisen at work.  Week after next, I will once again be working full time.  My daughter will go to day care five days a week.  This is not at all how I envisioned our life, and there was really no decision to make, in spite of my stress and tears as I agonized over the situation (I'm not exactly dry-eyed as I type this).  I know that we have been blessed to be home with her as long as we have, and have had an opportunity that many families never dream of.  We can bank some extra money now, and afford health insurance when the time comes.  And, once my husband loses his job, he'll be able to be home with her until we figure out what's coming next (he's planning to go back to school).

Now I have to rethink a lot of my cooking and organizing strategies.  Rather than making dinner every morning, I'll be back in the 5:30 rush as I make it when I come home from work.  Weekends will be spent doing laundry and preparing for the week to come.  I'll have to force myself to go to bed at a decent hour, and figure out when I'm going to have time for myself, since it will no longer come at 10 p.m.!

It'll take some adjustments, in mind and attitude, and I'm sure it'll be a little rocky at first.  But we'll do it together, as a family.  Look for some posts here about my trials, successes (and hopefully not too many failures) as I approach these changes.

Starting a book list

A few months ago, I bought two beautiful journals from Paper Coterie.  Both of them have my daughter's picture on the cover.  When I bought them, I wasn't sure what I was going to do with them, but I knew they'd have something to do with Caitlyn.  I keep thinking one of them will be for writing down the funny and amazing things she says, but I seem to always forget to actually write them down (though I'd get several if I spent some time combing through my posts on Facebook). 

A while back I read a really great memoir by a daughter whose father who made the commitment to read to her every night.  It started when she was in fourth grade, and didn't stop until the day he dropped her off at college.  The Reading Promise intertwines the stories they read with the events that were happening in their lives at the the time.  I consider it a must-read.

One of the things that disappointed me, though, was that they didn't keep a list of the books they read together.  I think that would be such a great resource to have - something she could build on someday when she has her own children.  I remember several books my parents read to me when I was a child, but not all.  I remember Mom cringing, and eventually refusing, every time I asked her to read Fox in Socks.  I know they must have read Flip at least a hundred times, because it was the first book I remember actually "reading" on my own so I must have had it memorized. 

So, I've decided that one of those journals will be used to keep a running list of all the books Caitlyn and I read together.  Most nights, we only have time for one or two books, but some days we read more.  We've been reading Walter the Farting Dog for 13 days straight, ever since she got it for Christmas, but I'm sure at some point she'll go back to wanting a little variety in her nightly reading selections! 

Monday, January 02, 2012

Menu Plan January 2 - 6

Another year, another menu plan.  I have some leftover meat that really needs to be used up this week, so that's going to be the main focus for the menu. 

Today:  Pizza (last night of vacation, so we picked up a take-n-bake)
Tomorrow:  Turkey Tetrazzini
Wednesday:  Crockpot ham and potato soup
Thursday:  Pork fried rice
Friday:  Chicken casserole (I'm going to just throw something together with leftover buttermilk chicken and noodles.

Have a great week, everyone!  And click the graphic above to visit for many more menu ideas!

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Grocery Challenge Recap & A New Challenge

Last month, I challenged myself to only buy fresh food for our regular meals, leaving the rest of our budget for all the extra food we always buy during the holidays and other special December celebrations.  I did...ok.  I was really, really good at the beginning of the month, only truly buying what I intended, but somewhere along the line I strayed off course and ended up failing miserably by the end.  Case in point - my husband and I were off work all last week, and we decided we were going to get out the smoker and smoke some meat, something we haven't done in far too long.  So off I went to the grocery store, to buy full-price roasts on a whim.  Something I normally wouldn't dream of doing.  Then we got lazy and didn't get the smoker out.  So I added two more roasts and another pack of chicken thighs to my already-overflowing freezer. 

Then, I got the brilliant idea to start couponing again.  Nothing wrong with this, really, except when I used great coupons that were about to expire and were combined with a sale price, every item I bought went straight into the pantry.  Kind of defeated the whole purpose of using the stockpile, right?  Sigh.

So, this month, I'm going to try a new tactic.  I'm going with the cash system.  I'm going to take the money out of the bank at this week, and that's going to be it.  We don't have any parties or celebrations planned this month, but I'll hold back a bit in case something comes up (we sometimes want candy or ice cream for "movie night" at home, or we'll get snacks for impromptu get togethers with family).  Here's how it should break out:

Total budget:  $350
Regular grocery store @ $60/wk:  $240
Meat market:  $20
Costco:  $30
Saved for unanticipated activities:  $20
Specialty stores (Trader Joe's, Asian market, etc):  $30

Obviously, we're still well stockpiled, so we won't need much more than fresh food at the grocery store this month.  I'll need to pick up a bag of chicken tenderloins and a bag or two of chicken strips at some point during the month, and the rest of my budget can go toward taking advantage of coupons and loss leaders.

I will need to pick up some ground beef at the meat market.  It's a small meat processing plant a few blocks from my house.  All the beef is grass fed, hormone and antibiotic free, and raised not too far from my town.  Costs a bit more, but it's worth it.  They also have pork - I just wish they had chicken! 

We don't need much at the specialty stores this month.  My mom goes to Costco for me, and I only need one or two things, so if I don't spend it all, I'll save the remainder for a future month when I need more.  I really want to go to the Asian market, but I can't think of anything I actually *need*, so I'll probably skip it and avoid temptation.  I will pick up some things at Trader Joe's, and I may organize an expedition across town to Bob's Red Mill - we'll see. 

That's the plan!  Stay tuned for updates!