Monday, 31 January 2011

Saving money in the kitchen

By Aurora @ Island Dreaming

The spectre of food price inflation has reared its head once again in the last few months, which can be a daunting prospect for those managing already tight budgets. Most of us do not stand completely defenceless however. The kitchen is a place where an awful lot of fat can be trimmed, so to speak. In the process of writing this post I have begun to twig the full scope of this subject and the scale of the adjustments that we have made over time to cut our food budget down to size; this is a list of starting points that each warrant a post in themselves.

Over the last few years we have begun to:

Cook from scratch - using quality, nutrient dense raw ingredients. It is much cheaper to invest in some basic ingredients than processed foods. Processed foods may look cheap gram for gram, but they certainly won’t be in terms of nutritional value.

Stock a basic pantry – impulse food purchases often stem from feeling that you have nothing in for dinner, or that you fancy something sweet and toothsome. Making sure that your pantry includes ingredients to rustle up a quick meal or baked goodies will lessen the urge to go shopping. Your pantry will probably change with the seasons, but some basics will always stand you in good stead. Draw up a list of what you have now, what you use regularly and what seem to run out of most frequently; and plan your shopping from that.
Ask ‘Could I live without that?’ - Some people are born gourmets; but novelty doesn’t always come cheap. A food budget is a lot easier to manage if you can be creative with a few versatile staple ingredients and seasonings. Rosewater, whole tamarinds, dried apricots and bottled sour cherries are just some of the things that seemed like a good idea at the time but will never grace our shelves again. That said, a willingness to try new foods is a good thing, meaning that you can capitalise on special offers and gluts. If you are willing to try new flavours and textures you will be able to make the most of the food that comes your way. Now is the time to get over any food prejudices that you may have.

Plan meals – planning helps you to use food when it is freshest. It also allows you to make the most of leftovers; the remains of a Sunday roast can stretch to several meals through the week and a big pot of soup will cover a few lunches. Knowing which days you need to soak beans on, defrost meats, prepare packed lunches or buy fresh vegetables will save a lot of time and money. This is one area where I am disappointed with our progress, as when we have managed it for a week or more we have saved a lot of time and money.

Control portions – many people don’t know what a healthy portion of pasta or cheese or vegetables looks like and may consume far more than they need, or leave it on their plates. This can turn into quite an expensive (and unhealthy) habit.

Plan our shop – my own method is to ‘stockpile’ a few months worth of basics which we buy online (where I am less likely to impulse buy); and to buy perishables from local shops as we need them. The general advice to never shop on an empty stomach, to wise up to the marketing tactics of retailers and to stick to a shopping list is all golden, too.

Eat less meat – not necessarily give it up, unless you are that way inclined, but eat it less frequently. I have friends that barely go a meal without including meat (they feel that it wouldn't actually be a meal without it); an expensive rut to be stuck in. Learning to cook with pulses, tofu, dairy and eggs will lead to many satisfying, frugal meals.

'Bulk out' meals – adding lentils, grains or extra vegetables to meat dishes such as lasagne; and pairing expensive ingredients with complementary cheaper ones will stretch your resources further.

Learn how to store food – Everyone at one time or the other has let lettuce turn to mush at the bottom of the fridge or left half open packets of grain to attract mites. You do not need expensive kilner jars and Tupperware. Old food jars, plastic milk cartons, old crockery and ice cream tubs will all work fine. 
Watch our fuel consumption – some methods of cooking and food storage are fuel intensive. Cook one-pot dishes, or several foods in one pan, as much as possible. Lids, or even dinner plates balanced on top, save a lot of energy and mean  that you can use a lower flame. If you use the oven, fill it with several dishes to optimise energy use. The more adventurous might want to consider fuel-less cooking methods such as hay boxes and solar ovens, or eschewing electric 'labour savers' or even fridges altogether. In addition, consult your appliance manuals for optimizing energy usage. My own freezer apparently works best when stuffed full, but my fridge is better left with space for air to circulate.

There are thousands of resources out there on this topic, not least many of the kitchen and budgeting posts here at the Coop. One of the best UK sites on food waste, Love Food Hate Waste gives useful information on portion sizes, using leftovers and storing foods optimally. I suspect that most of the best information however will not be on the web, but in old home economics books from more austere eras, ready to be retrieved in the nick of time as domestic budgeting becomes an important skill once again. I know that readers here will have many hints, methods and reading lists of their own to share, so please leave a comment if you have something to add.

    Sunday, 30 January 2011

    5 signs that its time to declutter

    by Eilleen
    Hello everyone,

    I hope the weekend is treating you well. Readers of my personal blog would know that I moved house last month. Someone once told me that moving house is right up there on the list of major stresses in life. And having done it recently, I think one of the causes of this stress is that its one of the few times in life when our stuff-overload blindness (SOB) is ripped off and we see how much stuff we actually have. To save you from clicking on the link, SOB is basically my ramblings on how we use stuff to project our identity but we don't actually see how much stuff we (or others) have.

    When I prepared for my move, I was very surprised at how much stuff I had accumulated in the two years since I started my new life as a sole parent. (I started my new life with only a bed, dining room table, kettle, iron and ironing board.)

    I had accumulated so much so that I ended up having to declutter again. The declutter consisted of:
    • 1 commercial van load of stuff given away
    • 1 commercial van load of stuff I sold
    • 2 full car loads of stuff sent to the op shop (charity shop)
    Those who have been to my old place (you can see my old place starting from this post) have often commented on how uncluttered my house is. Despite that, I *still* found - if not exactly clutter - then excess stuff I don't/barely use.

    So now I've realised that in order to keep to the level of "decluttered-ness" that I'm happy with, I have to regularly declutter. And I've realised that the time to declutter (for me) is now. Why?


    1. I'm realising that there are now too many instances when I can't find things that I know I have.
    2. I am spending a lot of time thinking of storage solutions (do I really need that much storage?).
    3. The kids are finding it difficult to keep track of their stuff and to keep their rooms tidy.
    4. I keep tripping over stuff.
    5. I am starting to feel overwhelmed at what I have to clean-up/tidy-up at the end of the day.

    Now I know that my current state of clutter is partly due to the fact that I still have stuff from my old (and bigger) place which don't really fit into my new (and smaller) place. But really, to determine what else has to go its time I take heed of the signs and start decluttering.

    So for the month of February, I hope to get rid of a whole heap of stuff. Wish me luck!

    My living room in my new house (and yes, I have put the Christmas tree away for now)

    Friday, 28 January 2011

    Storing Fresh Greens

    by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
    I've read that families, on average, throw out one-third of the food they buy. That's like going grocery shopping with $100, and just tossing $30 into the wind before you enter the store! Most of what is thrown out is because of poor planning or improper storage of produce and leftovers; things go bad before we can eat them. Besides being a waste of your money, it's also a waste of the resources needed to grow, package, and transport that food.

    I grow quite a bit of our fresh produce. Stretching the fresh-eating time for various produce is sort of a hobby for me - I like experimenting (which is why I still have a couple of eggplants and a zucchini, grown last summer, in January). Plus, I have to admit - I'm a bit lazy when it comes to putting up food. I like it when I find ways to preserve food that doesn't involve heating up the kitchen with boiling water in the heat of summer, or fill up the little freezer compartment of our refrigerator. So I'm always interested when I read about low-energy storage methods, or hear a bit of folklore about bygone ways of keeping foods fresh.

    A thrift-store find was my key for finding the best way to keep fresh greens like lettuce and spinach. Whenever I'm in a thrift store, I gravitate to the linens department. I have a special weakness for old hand-embroidered cotton tea towels and pillowcases, linen napkins and tablecloths. Years ago, I found a strange little x-shaped piece of cotton lawn, its scalloped edge finished with buttonhole stitch. The decorative embroidery gave me a clue as to its intended use. "Lettuce," it said, and I realized it was just the right size and shape to wrap up a head of lettuce.

    I'd always seen lettuce and other greens in the stores sold wrapped in plastic. So I'd always thought that was the way to store greens in the refrigerator, even though it didn't work very well. Parts left of whole heads would turn brown and wilt, cut greens would get slimy. My embroidered lettuce wrapper is way too pretty to use in the refrigerator. Pressed with a bit of spray starch, I use it in my kitchen as a decorative cover for my little coffee maker. But it did give me the idea for a better way to store fresh greens.

    I started experimenting using some old ripped or stained, but clean, cotton tea towels. Greens wrapped in cloth alone, and stored in the veggie crisper drawer of my refrigerator, still wilted. But greens wrapped in a thin towel and then in plastic, kept nicely.

    So now, that's what I do. Fresh-cut greens, right out of my garden in the summer, keep best. Besides obviously being fresher than anything from the store, I think organically grown produce, in general, keeps better (I'm not going to try growing things laden with chemicals to test this hypothesis, however). But this method works quite well with wintertime purchased greens too.

    A couple of years ago, I bought an 8-pack of green plastic produce storage bags. I've reused those same bags hundreds of times. I take care not to puncture them, closing them only by twisting or tucking the open end underneath, hand-wash and air-dry after each use. I like the convenience of having salad and sandwich greens ready to use throughout the week. So, in summer, I'll cut a big bunch of greens, wash them in a sink filled with cold water, and country-spin them dry (which means scooping the clean, wet greens out of the sink, loading them into a wire basket, and then taking that outside to "spin" the water off by windmilling it up and around overhead; stop, fluff the greens mashed into the bottom of the basket by the centrifugal force, and then give it another vigorous go-round with the other arm). Wrapped in a clean tea towel (be forewarned, the towels can suffer some green staining on occasion - best to keep some just for veggies, others reserved for drying dishes or decoration), then in a bag and refrigerated, the greens stay crisp and green, and are easy to take out as needed. In winter, I store greens purchased during my monthly grocery shopping trip the same way.

    Want to stop wasting food and money? This website has recipes and more tips to make the most of the food you buy.

    Monday, 24 January 2011

    Houseplants for Clean Air

    by Chiot's Run

    Many of us spend a lot of time indoors, particularly this time of year here in the northern climates. We can't open windows and the air inside can get a little stale. You've probably hear that the air in our homes can often be more polluted than the air outside, due to cleaning products, chemicals released into the air by furniture and building materials. Formaldehyde is found in just about all indoor areas. It is used in just about everything now, especially pressed wood and particle board but also comes from things like: carpet, clothing, fire retardants, etc. Other sources come from our heating systems and cigarette smoke. This formaldehyde can cause eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, as well as headaches, dermatitis and allergy problems. It is also linked to a rare type of lung cancer. The scary thing is that formaldehyde is only one type of indoor pollution we also have to worry about: benzene, xylene and toluene and I'm sure more we don't know about yet.
    My Indoor Garden
    Of course you could get a pricey air cleaner that uses electric and that's most likely made out of plastic, which ironically will probably offgas chemicals into your home while it cleans the air. Houseplants do a much better job and do it for free (after purchase of course, but you can get them free often if you know someone that has a few, most are quite easy to propagate). One potted plant will clean roughly a 100 square foot space in the average home or office. I live in a 1000 sq foot home and I have a plant in each room, 15 in the living room, 7 in the kitchen/dining and about 15 in the basement to help clean the air down there.
    Houseplants and Clean Air
    Certain plants work better than other things at cleaning the air in our homes. Different plants help clean different chemicals out of the air, so it's beneficial to have a variety of plants. You can even have plants that are edible so you get food as they clean the air.
    Houseplant and Clean Air
    Here's a list of a few plants and the chemicals they each clean out of the air.

    Boston fern, golden pothos, philodendron, and spider plants reduce levels of formaldehyde.

    Areca palm, moth orchid, and the dwarf date palm can remove xylene and toluene.

    Gerbera daisy, chrysanthemum, spider plants and peace lily can remove benzene.

    Other beneficial houseplants include: bamboo palm, Chinese evergreen, English ivy, indoor dracaena species and the snake plant (also known as mother-in-law's tongue).
    Houseplants and Clean Air
    I have always had houseplants (probably because I grew up in a jungle of houseplants). The pothos in the first photo was on the stage at our wedding, and it's been cleaning the air in our various homes for the past 13 years. I also have a dwarf citrus, a few other pothos that I've propagated from this mother plant, baby tears, mother-in-law's tongue, dumb cane, a few ivy plants, aloe, a few succulents, and a collection of herbs including: lemon thyme, seasoning celery, parsley, rosemary, lemongrass, lemon geranium, lemon verbena, and a few more. We have houseplants not just to clean the air, they also provide some much needed green in the our home during the dark snowy winters in Ohio which is good for the soul!

    Do you have houseplants? Are they for cleaning the air or for enjoyment?

    I can also be found at Chiot's Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, beekeeping, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Not Dabbling in Normal, and you can follow me on Twitter.

    Blending Old and New Traditions

    by Throwback at Trapper Creek

    Times change and people pass away, and many times celebrations and family traditions are lost to the progression of time. I grew up in a family with several birthdays and anniversaries that were around the Christmas and New Year holidays. I noticed as a child that special efforts were made by my mother to differentiate those special days from the hub-bub that surrounds that time of year.

    When you start a family you don't think of such things much, or at least I didn't. And then my daughter was born on my deceased mother's birthday - 3 weeks late. So now I had the task of making my daughters birthday her special day, and not go on and on about a grandmother she would never know. We also didn't want to go the route that many of our friends were taking with elaborate birthday parties and over the top gifts, we wanted to keep the day simple and special.

    At our house the person whose birthday it is gets to pick the meal, (I usually pick someone else cooking it!) And sometimes we go out for a lunch combined with a shopping trip to a store of the celebrant's choice. Over the years for our daughter's birthday we have went antique shopping, to a reenactors fair, used book store and this year we went to a leather store for some tack supplies.

    Establishing new traditions was important but keeping some old traditions going too was significant. My brother was born during WWII on Christmas Eve, times were tough and goods hard to come by. To differentiate my brother's birthday from the usual dinner and gift giving, my aunt and uncle gave him a very large candle for his first birthday. December 24th was also my aunt and uncle's wedding anniversary. A special night. The big birthday candle was always the centerpiece and was lit before dinner. We never thought about the candle, except to dig it out and light it for dinner and put it out later and pack it away again for the next year. The candle would flicker, and melt and get shorter and shorter. We always joked and speculated about how long would that candle last anyway? Sometimes the candle would burn until the wee hours of the morning, it seemed like it would last forever. Sometimes forever is not very long. My brother was diagnosed with cancer, and we started fretting about burning that candle on Christmas Eve - we didn't light it until we sat down to eat, and we quickly put it out as soon as presents were opened. No one had a plan, we just did it. We quit joking about the candle lasting. Somehow we thought if we didn't use it up, my brother would not be used up either. Secretly we all wished we hadn't let that candle flicker for hours on end in years past. But, it didn't turn out that way - my brother passed away 21 years ago, and the candle is still here.

    We burned my brother's candle on his birthday until my mom died, and then I stopped using it. But, I really liked the tradition of the gigantic birthday candle, and the memories that surrounded it. In keeping with old and new, we bought our daughter a huge candle for her first birthday. May it burn for many years keeping a simple birthday tradition alive.

    Please share traditions you have kept or shed in your family celebrations.