Save Money on Earth-Friendly Products!

Earth Day is coming up in less than a month!  What will be your Earth Day resolution?

One easy thing to do is to switch to a more earth-friendly version of something you use regularly–like toilet paper.  There are many brands of toilet paper on the market now that are made from post-consumer recycled paper (that’s paper that good citizens put into recycling bins) and either not whitened or bleached with oxygen instead of chlorine bleach–and they are not all scratchy!  In fact, I haven’t encountered a scratchy recycled-paper toilet tissue in about 15 years.  If you’re really particular about texture, buy a small amount of a brand before you try my money-saving tip.

One objection to switching to a better product may be that it costs more or it isn’t sold at your usual store.  Of course, nobody wants to make a special trip every time they run out of toilet paper or wants to spend a lot of money on it.  There’s a simple solution to both problems, and it will make your life more convenient, too! Read more…

Two Affordable GMO-Free Cereals

I don’t trust genetically modified food to be safe for our health or environment.  About five years ago, I realized that several of our favorite breakfast cereals contained corn, and I’d been reading that most corn grown in the United States that isn’t organically grown is now GMO.  We gave up buying those cereals routinely…but it was hard to resist the best sales!  We love eating cereal, and the mainstream brands are inexpensive, especially on sale, whereas the organic brands are priced so much higher that we’re rarely willing to pay for them (except for this delicious, low-sugar granola from Costco).  We wound up getting most of our cereals from Trader Joe’s, where all house-brand products are GMO-free and the prices aren’t too bad.

Did you know that Cheerios contain corn?  You probably think that’s an oat cereal.  But if you compare Cheerios to most of the store-brand imitators, the flavor is a bit different: The generic ones taste more plain, while Cheerios have a particular roasty-toastiness.  The difference in ingredients is that Cheerios contain a small amount of corn.  Therefore, no more Cheerios for my family.

We were still buying Post Grape Nuts, though.  No corn in those!  But one day I noticed that the box said, “Now with more protein!” and read the ingredients for the first time in years: They now contained soy protein.  Most non-organic soybeans grown in the United States are now GMO, too.  Sigh.  No more Grape Nuts.

Then, one wonderful day last year, I noticed a sign above the enormous pile of yellow boxes that were on special at Costco: GMO-free Cheerios.  Really?!  I examined the box excitedly but saw nothing there about GMOs one way or another.  Warily, I bought one of the big double packs at the bargain price, and when I got home I searched for information online.  I learned that General Mills decided to put in a little effort to use non-GMO corn and sugar in original flavor Cheerios because the recipe is so simple (compared to flavored Cheerios) that this was easy to do.  Hooray!

Not long afterward, I was craving Grape Nuts, saw them on sale, and noticed the Non-GMO Project logo on the box!  Right next to it was a circle saying Soy Free, and sure enough, isolated soy protein is no longer in the ingredient list.  Post took the soy out of Grape Nuts to make them GMO-free to appeal to certain target markets–like me!

I’m so glad that my family can have convenient snacks of affordable Cheerios and Grape Nuts again!  Our nine-month-old daughter can practice her pincer grip on crunchy little circles without being exposed to weird untested ingredients, and when she accidentally scatters some of them on the floor I don’t freak out about wasting expensive food.  (I do eat Cheerios that have been on the floor, sometimes….)

I know that some of the most serious healthy eaters these days won’t eat any ready-made packaged cereals or won’t eat any grain foods at all.  I’ve heard the arguments against them–but I feel that my family is thriving on grains as a part of our diet, and some of the simpler and less sweetened cereals are some of the grain foods we eat.  It’s great that some of the major brands are responding to consumer pressure to sell foods free of GMOs.

These two nutritious cereals that I’ve been enjoying since childhood work for me now that they are GMO-free!  Visit Real Food Friday for more articles on healthy eating!  Visit the Hearth & Soul Hop for more great food ideas!

Four Weeks of Pesco-Vegetarian Dinners (winter, with a baby)

A pesco-vegetarian is someone who eats no meat except fish. That’s what we do when we’re at home and most of the time when we eat in other places.  Our 8-month-old daughter, Lydia, is abstaining from cow’s milk until after her first birthday, because I have some family history of dairy allergies that may have been triggered by too-early exposure to cow’s milk.  However, she’s an enthusiastic eater of just about everything we’ve let her eat!  We also have a 10-year-old son, Nicholas, whose preferences have some effect on our menu.

I highly recommend the book Feeding the Whole Family by Cynthia Lair, not so much for the specific recipes as for a laid-back, nutritious approach to feeding a baby, toddler, or preschooler.  I’ve been looking at it often to get ideas for ingredients we could set aside or prepare a little differently for Lydia, and to support my conviction that we can (again) raise a child who’s open to trying lots of interesting foods.  The Picky Eater’s 30 Family-Friendly Recipes are great inspiration, too!  Unlike Nicholas when he was little, Lydia is not keen on being fed ground-up food with a spoon but prefers to feed herself, so we’re constantly looking for soft foods that can be picked up in blobs and for foods that are firm enough to be cut in chunks but soft enough to be bitten and chewed without teeth.

Here’s what we ate for dinner for four weeks in December and January.  I plan our menu up to a week in advance and do the weekend cooking and some ingredient preparation during the week, while Daniel cooks our weeknight dinners so that we can eat as soon as I get home from work.  Lunches are usually leftovers and sandwiches.

Week One:

  • Sunday: Masoor Dal over rice and lettuce leaves left over from making the salad to go with our Christmas Stuffed Shells. Plain yogurt on top for the dairy eaters.  Lydia loves Masoor Dal as much as the rest of us!  We didn’t even tone down the spices for her.  She was wearing a large bib, and I kept pushing up her sleeves, but still she managed to mash oily, turmeric-seasoned lentils all over her clothes.  I changed her outfit and doused the stained one with Bac-Out immediately after dinner!
  • Monday: Sauteed mushrooms and kale, in lots of olive oil with lots of garlic, over whole-wheat couscous.  I mixed some nutritional yeast flakes into mine.  Lydia sampled a mushroom slice but had trouble with it–she doesn’t have any teeth yet–so her main course was leftover Masoor Dal.
  • Tuesday: Falafels made from bulk mix.  Cucumber slices.  The last of the lettuce.  Yogurt.  Lydia was happy eating just the falafels.  We make them small (easier to get them cooked all the way through without burning or crumbling) so they were an appealing size for her to pick up, hold, and gnaw on.
  • Wednesday: Japanese Udon Noodle Soup with daikon radish, sweet potato, mushrooms, and nori seaweed.  I got to cook this meal, after leaving work early on New Year’s Eve.  I made the daikon and sweet potato into strips about 1″ x 1/4″ x 1/4″ and cooked them soft, but not falling apart, so that Lydia could hold and eat them.  She loved them!  Each of us older people also had a scrambled egg in our soup.
  • Thursday: We thawed out quarts of Mexican rice and black beans that I’d brought home in November, when somebody had ordered far too much food for an event at work and the leftovers were up for grabs.  The only meal cheaper than beans and rice is FREE beans and rice!  We also had avocado with this meal.  Avocado is a great baby food, and I remember Nicholas loving it, but Lydia ate only a few strips in favor of totally chowing down on the beans!  We couldn’t believe she packed such a large volume of beans into her little body!  An almost equal volume of beans was scrubbed off her highchair, face, neck, hair, arms, and floor…and the hideous black stains were completely removed from her clothing by Bac-Out!  I expected some diapers filled with masses of obvious black beans, but in fact she digested them quite fully.
  • Friday: Whole-wheat spaghetti with homemade marinara sauce from the batch I’d made for the Stuffed Shells–similar to this sauce.  Lydia ate a lot of saucy spaghetti (as well as admiring the wiggly noodles and tossing them about) and 24 hours later had a diaper rash from too much citric acid.  We need to be more careful about tomatoes and other acidic foods until her digestion matures.
  • Saturday: We visited Daniel’s grandfather in Ohio for his 99th birthday!!!  We had an excellent brunch of baked oatmeal and various egg dishes at the Green Marble Coffee Shoppe, where Lydia enjoyed the fruit served on the side–it seems cantaloupe is her favorite–as well as a jar of apricot baby food.  Then we visited with Herschel at his home until late afternoon.  We got home around dinnertime and decided to go out to the New Dumpling House, the Chinese restaurant near home, for hot and sour soup (contains pork), tofu with black mushrooms, and mixed vegetables in garlic sauce.  Lydia had been asleep in the car, fell asleep again as we walked over to the restaurant, and stayed asleep in the sling carrier while I ate most of my dinner!  That was nice.  She woke up in time to enjoy some tofu.

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Flexican Cornbread Pizza

Meatless MondayTasty TuesdayHearth & Soul Blog HopWorks-for-Me Wednesday

This recipe has a history.  It started with my mom’s trusty recipe for Mexican Pizza.  Then came my serendipitous discoveries that (a) it can be adapted to a non-Mexican-flavored version, which my family loves just as much as the Mexican version, and (b) it can be baked in a toaster-oven.  More than a year ago, I opened a contest to name this recipe…but none of the suggestions really grabbed me.  Meanwhile, my life-partner Daniel has referred to it at least once as Flexican Cornbread Pizza, which I think is a pretty good name, and he’s been kind of depressed lately, but he really enjoyed this meal when I made it last night, so…

THE WINNER IS DAN EFRAN, CREATOR OF COOL STUFF TO BRIGHTEN YOUR DAY!!!  YAAAYYY!!!

Absolutely no nepotism was involved.  It’s really more about my fondness for words that combine two other words.  This recipe is flexible and can be Mexican in flavor, and it’s like a pizza with a cornbread crust, so Flexican Cornbread Pizza is a perfect name.  Unless we come up with something even punnier.

This recipe can be adapted to the vegetables and herbs you happen to have on hand.  You could even use leftovers!  That makes it very frugal.  Here is the Mexican version, and here is an Italian version I made on a hot summer day, and below is the recipe with general guidelines plus specifics on last night’s cozy January dinner.  It’s vegetarian and can be made vegan.  From start to finish, you can make it in 30 minutes or less, even if your onions or other vegetables are frozen shredded–they’ll thaw easily in the first stage of cooking.

These instructions are for baking in a standard oven, on a cookie sheet with sides.  See the above Italian version to adjust quantities to make a 9″ square pan to bake in the toaster-oven.

To make 6 main-dish servings, you will need:

  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups cooked and rinsed beans. I used pinto beans last night; I rinsed 2 cans, set aside 1/4 cup for the baby’s dinner (she also had black olives and Cheerios), and used the rest on the pizza.
  • 1/4 to 1/2 onion, or 1 or 2 green onions.  I used the last bits left over from a sweet white onion we’d cut up for other meals.
  • vegetables.  I used 4 big leaves of kale, 8 large white button mushrooms, and a big handful of black olives.
  • herbs, fresh or dried.  I used 1 stalk dried rosemary and 2 stalks dried thyme.  (Did you know?  Most fresh herbs will turn into dried herbs if you just put them in an open-topped plastic bag in the refrigerator and forget about them.  It doesn’t work with basil or parsley because they’re too wet and will get moldy.)
  • other seasonings to taste.  I used about 1/4 tsp. each of sea salt and white pepper.
  • Optional: 1 cup marinara sauce.  We didn’t use any this time.  Another option is to leave it off the pizza but serve it on the side.
  • 3 Tbsp. olive oil.
  • Grease for the baking pan. I used coconut oil.
  • 1 cup cornmeal.
  • 1 tsp. salt.
  • 1 cup flour.  I used whole-wheat flour.
  • 1 Tbsp. baking powder.
  • 1 cup plain yogurt, applesauce, or pumpkin puree. I used yogurt. (If applesauce is sweetened, omit syrup/honey.)
  • 1 Tbsp. sorghum syrup or honey.
  • Optional: 1 egg.  The crust holds together better if you use egg than if you don’t.
  • Optional: 1 cup grated cheese.  I used mozzarella.

Dice onion, any fresh herbs, and vegetables.  Saute them in 1 Tbsp. olive oil, in a skillet, for a few minutes, crumbling in any dried herbs and adding other seasonings.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 425F.  Grease the cookie sheet, bottom and sides, from one end to about 3 inches from the other end.  (If you want your crust really thin, you can grease the whole pan.  I prefer to make it thicker.)

Mix cornmeal, salt, flour, and baking powder in a bowl.  Make a well in the center and put yogurt, syrup, 2 Tbsp. olive oil, and egg in it.  Mix them together and then mix with the dry ingredients; don’t mix too long or hard, just until combined.  (Over-mixing will pop the bubbles created by the baking powder, resulting in less fluffy cornbread.)

Pour the batter into the pan–start at one end and spread batter toward the other end, using a rubber scraper, until you begin having trouble getting it to stay together–it should be about 1/2 inch deep.

If using sauce, spread it over the batter.  Sprinkle vegetable mixture and beans evenly over the batter.  Sprinkle optional cheese evenly on top.

Bake 10 minutes.  Check to see if you can lift the edge of the crust easily with a spatula.  If not, keep baking and checking every few minutes until it’s done–typically 15-20 minutes.

Cut into rectangles and serve with salad or fruit for a nice meal.  Leftover pieces easily reheat in the microwave or toaster-oven.

Our Green Christmas Tree (now with photos!)

Back in 2007, I wrote about the little tree Daniel and I, with the help of former housemate Bill, made for our first Christmas together, back in 1996.  Made mostly of repurposed materials, this is a great alternative to cutting down a real tree or using a factory-made artificial tree.  It’s still going strong!  I’m finally responding to all the requests for photos of it.  Sorry I don’t have any pictures of the construction, but I’m reprinting the verbal description, and I bet you can figure it out–it was easy to make.

Christmas tree on the game cabinet

We just set it up for our 19th Christmas together.  Every year, we simply bring it up from the basement, wipe off dust with a damp cloth, and decorate!  Here’s how we made it: Read more…

DIY Instant Oatmeal: Ditch the Packets!

I love oatmeal.  It’s nutritious, with plenty of fiber and minerals and Vitamin B1, and has many health benefits.  It’s filling.  It can be seasoned any way you like.  Quick-cooking oats are really easy to make–I don’t even bother cooking them in a pot, just mix them with boiling water in a bowl–and very low-priced, especially in bulk at the food co-op or in a large canister at GFS Marketplace.  I have a favorite recipe for oatmeal that includes other healthy and filling ingredients like almond butter, and I also make fruit-flavored oatmeal whenever we finish up a jar of jam.

But in my workplace, I can’t store a lot of ingredients, nor do I have a nice counter space to assemble food.  I don’t want to be licking sorghum syrup and almond butter off my filing cabinet!  I do have a very nice electric kettle which provides properly boiling water (much better than a microwave) suitable for cooking oatmeal….

At times, I’ve bought instant oatmeal in single-serving packets.  They’re okay.  Some of the flavors are quite tasty, and a snack of oatmeal is very satisfying.  But seeing those plastic-lined packets piling up in my wastebasket makes me feel a little sick.  And a packet costs about 5 times as much as a serving of quick oats with embellishments.  The giant boxes of packets, with a lower price per serving and slightly less cardboard waste, inevitably are “variety packs” including at least one flavor that I don’t like as well as the others.  The less-expensive brands of flavored oatmeal usually include weird ingredients that might not be so healthy, plus a lot of sugar.  Some flavors contain dried fruit, but after being stored mixed into the oatmeal it is so dry that it isn’t very appetizing.

Now that I’m a nursing mother again, I’m especially in need of healthy snacks, and oatmeal may increase milk production–it does seem to have that effect on me.  A few months ago, Costco had a sale on Nature’s Path organic instant oatmeal with no weird ingredients…and I plowed through those 32 packets in less than 6 weeks.  Furthermore, I felt that a packet wasn’t really quite enough food for me now, so I sometimes ate two packets together.  I had to find a less wasteful option! Read more…

Roasted Tomatoes

Late last summer, we took a tip from our CSA farm‘s newsletter and converted some of our surplus tomatoes into roasted tomatoes, which we froze and later used in a spaghetti sauce.  This year, when I’m not pregnant and feeling weird about food, I am even more excited about delicious roasted tomatoes, and some experimentation has shown us that they’re even easier to make than we’d thought.

Roasted tomatoes are very flavorful, kind of sweet.  If you season the oil in which you roast them, they can serve as pasta sauce all by themselves.  They’re also delicious in omelets.  Roasting reduces the volume of tomatoes so that you can freeze them in less space than diced raw tomatoes–and freezing doesn’t really change their texture and flavor.  Roasted tomatoes also last longer in the refrigerator than fresh ones.

Even over-ripe or slightly under-ripe tomatoes roast well.  As long as they’re not moldy and don’t smell terrible, go ahead and use them, even if they’re past the point when you would eat them raw.  You can even use the good parts of a big tomato that’s gone partly bad.

Our farm advises roasting the tomatoes at a relatively low temperature, like 200F, for an hour or more.  Apparently this eventually will give them the texture and flavor of sun-dried tomatoes.  I don’t like sun-dried tomatoes, so I stopped earlier, while the tomatoes were still somewhat juicy.

We’ve now discovered that if you roast tomatoes like any other vegetable, at 400F, they are just as tasty and are ready sooner!  Just be careful not to burn them.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Trim the stems out of the tomatoes and remove any rotten spots.
  2. Take out the biggest clumps of seedy pulpy stuff.  Eat them.
  3. Cut the tomatoes into bite-size pieces.
  4. In a bowl, combine olive oil (about 1 Tbsp. per tomato) with salt, pepper, garlic, oregano, and basil to taste.
  5. Place tomato chunks in the bowl and toss with a slotted spoon.
  6. Scoop out the tomato chunks and spread them in a single layer in a glass or ceramic baking pan.  If you only have metal pans, you may want to line them with parchment paper to prevent the acid in the tomatoes from reacting with the metal.
  7. Bake at 400F for 10 minutes.  Stir.  If they are beginning to brown, bake another 5 minutes before you check them again; otherwise, give them another 10.  Keep baking until they look very cooked and smell delicious!
  8. If not serving the roasted tomatoes immediately, store them in a glass jar in the refrigerator, or freeze them.
  9. Make sure to eat the delicious oil left in the baking pan!  Soak it up with bread, or toss leftover cooked rice into the pan and stir it around to pick up the oil, if you don’t have any better ideas.
  10. If you have trouble removing blackened tomato juice from the pan, try this frugal scouring powder!

Roasting tomatoes works for me!  Visit the Hearth and Soul Blog Hop for more great food ideas.  Visit Waste Not Want Not Wednesday for more ways to make the most of your resources.

Why I’m Sleeping in the Dining Room

Welcome to the September 2014 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Home Tour

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have opened up their doors and given us a photo-rich glimpse into how they arrange their living spaces.

***

When Daniel and I bought our house 12 years ago, we made sure to choose one that had space for a child.  We planned to have one child; we thought we might consider having two, but in choosing the house we were allotting space for one.  Here’s the whole story that led to our daughter Lydia being born in May, nine years younger than her brother Nicholas.  “Everybody knows” that siblings with such a large age gap don’t share a bedroom and/or that siblings of opposite sexes don’t share a bedroom…but I’ve never quite understood how a newborn baby can share a bedroom even with her three-year-old sister: Doesn’t the baby’s crying to be fed every few hours disturb the older child’s sleep?

Besides, our experience with getting Nicholas to sleep put me firmly in favor of co-sleeping with my baby at least until she’s weaned.  It’s just so convenient to respond to those 2am whimpers by opening my nightgown and cuddling the baby closer, instead of dragging myself out of my warm bed and into a chair in another room where I’d have to stay awake the whole time she’s nursing!  Daniel fully supports my sleeping with our babies, but he isn’t all that keen on sleeping with anyone and is sometimes disturbed even by my presence; a few weeks of sleeping with the newborn Nicholas (and me) convinced Daniel that co-sleeping was something he could handle only on an occasional basis.  Therefore, we couldn’t use our master bedroom for co-sleeping with baby Lydia–and for many reasons, we’d concluded that having the family bed in the kid’s room works best for our family.

The trouble was, we didn’t have a spare room that could become Lydia’s bedroom.  Our house has three private, upstairs rooms, but the back one seems to have been built as a sleeping porch and later enclosed–it partially overhangs the back yard, and that half of the room is encased in siding rather than brick–and although we got extra insulation added when we had the siding replaced, that room gets much colder than the rest of the house in the winter.  That’s why we use it as Daniel’s home office rather than a bedroom.  It would not be a healthy sleeping place for a baby.  Also, Daniel works from home and is an introvert; he needs his own room.

We thought back to what we’d learned from the apartment where we couldn’t sleep in the bedrooms and the home-buying process that inspired: Instead of making a list of rooms we needed, we made a list of spaces we wanted to have.  When we toured a house that we thought might be the one, we tried to work out where each of the spaces would fit.  One of the things that attracted us to this house we bought was the large and versatile dining room.

Read more…

This regular bra works as a nursing bra!

I bought all my nursing bras from Target, and I hate them all.  Target makes great nursing camisoles (with shelf bra) which I was wearing all the time on maternity leave earlier this summer and will wear as undershirts when the weather gets colder; if you are small-busted, they have adequate support and are very comfortable.  But Target’s nursing bras, all 3 different styles I bought, are uncomfortable, stiff in the wrong places, and oddly proportioned, at least compared to my body.  One style looks really lumpy under clothes, while the others are so padded that it’s difficult to get the cup out of the way for nursing.

While I was pregnant, I bought a few bras of the same style I had been wearing for a few years before, but in a larger size.  I am thrilled to discover that they work as nursing bras!!  They are Barely There Invisible Look Wirefree bras, sold at Kohl’s and other stores.  They have “convertible straps” which means the front end of the strap detaches from the cup so that you can crisscross the straps if you want.  The fastener is a snap kind of thing that stays together really well (never comes undone in the washing machine, even) but can be quickly undone with one hand when you want to, with a little practice.  Here I am holding it with two hands just so you can get a good look at what kind of fastener I mean. Read more…

Green Ribbon Lentils

Almost two years ago, I saw this recipe for Garlicky Lentils and Tomatoes, which is very flexible.  We have tried it several different ways, and this variation has become a favorite.

This recipe is easy, cheap, and pretty quick!  It is vegan and gluten-free.  It has lots of fiber, vitamins, protein, and iron.  It can stand alone as a meal or be eaten with bread, over rice, or even on a bun like Sloppy Joe.

It’s a great way to use some of the tomatoes that are so abundant at this time of year–but it also tastes great made with canned tomatoes at any time of year.  It’s also yet another way to use kale, a vegetable that tends to be affordably priced year-round and freezes well.

Best of all, this recipe appeals to our nine-year-old son, and it gets a lot of healthy dark-green vegetable into him! Read more…

5 Tips for Green Lunch Packing

It’s back-to-school season!  If your child brings a lunch to school, now is the time to think about how to pack that lunch.  If you bring your lunch to work, this is a great time of year to rethink what you’re packing, too.

Choosing the right lunch-packing habits can make a big difference in how much garbage you create.  Reducing waste often saves money, too. If you shift from eating out of plastic wrappers to eating out of washable containers made of glass, metal, or other safe materials, you’ll be taking in fewer harmful chemicals.  So it’s a win all around, not just for the environment!

Here are a few main ways my family makes our school and workplace lunches more environmentally friendly.  This is not a sponsored post.  All of the specific products mentioned here were chosen by my family and purchased at full price, and all opinions are our own.  These tips are written as if you, the reader, are the lunch eater, but they all apply to packing kids’ lunches, too!

1. Use what you have.

The greenest type of reusable item is one that you don’t buy new, because even the most ecologically-produced objects take resources and energy to make.  Here are some things I’ve repurposed for packing my lunch: Read more…

Why I Spent My Birthday Money on Socks

My partner’s grandfather, Herschel, has a tradition of giving everyone a birthday gift of the number of dollars that matches her age, so he gave me $41 last month. I used it to order 8 pairs of socks from Maggie’s Organics.

What a boring gift! It brings to mind the 1980s “Saturday Night Live” skit in which Hanukkah Harry, the Jewish counterpart of Santa Claus, brings a good little child a big box of…socks. Why didn’t I spend this money on something luxurious and fun?!

Read more…

Saving Money on Sports Fan Gear

We aren’t sports fans in our family.  Exercise is good, but we’re not much interested in playing sports and even less interested in watching sports.

But we live in Pittsburgh, a city with three professional sports teams that are a major focus of the local culture.  We can’t help noticing when one of the teams is doing well: We see people wearing black and gold even more often than normal, all the city buses have some slogan like “Beat ‘em Bucs!” flashing across their foreheads in between route announcements, and we know when a game has been won because we hear people hollering, “Woo!!” as they drive down the main street behind our house.  Sometimes even we feel caught up in rooting for the home team–after all, it’s in our best interest for our fellow citizens to be happy instead of dejected.

When our son Nicholas was four years old, the Steelers made it to the Super Bowl.  Attending preschool that fall and winter, he could not help noticing that all the other kids had Steelers shirts and the teachers were constantly talking about Steelers.  This was not the first time he’d asked for a Steelers shirt, or a Penguins shirt, or a Pirates shirt–these garments are popular even among the youngest children and typically are pretty sharp-looking compared to standard little kids’ clothes–but this was the point at which Daniel and I began to think it might really make sense to get him one.  We believe that resisting peer pressure is a valuable skill and have modeled questioning what “everybody” does, but we also remember the feeling of wanting to fit in with our classmates.  While we aren’t really into sports, we don’t think they’re a terrible evil to be avoided on principle.

The trouble is that official licensed sports team logo gear is expensive.  We didn’t want to pay $20 for a tiny shirt our kid would outgrow in a year!  But the cheap knock-off gear is not only less attractive and poorly made, it’s technically illegal.  Luckily, we learned two handy ways around this dilemma:

  1. When the team is winning successive rounds of championships, the merchandise commemorating the previous win will go on sale.  Nicholas didn’t mind at all that his first Steelers shirt said something about divisional champs.  We picked it up for $6 in the supermarket the week after the Steelers’ next victory.
  2. Kids outgrow their team shirts, and these tend to be sturdy garments that are re-sold in good condition.  There’s nothing illegal about this, as the team received the licensing fee at the first purchase.  We’ve picked up half a dozen Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates shirts for $2 or $3 at Goodwill or yard sales.

It works for me!  Visit Waste Not Want Not Wednesday and Fabulously Frugal Thursday and Thrifty Thursday for more money-saving ideas!

Fishgiving: A Feast from the Freezer!

Last weekend, my family enjoyed a spontaneous and somewhat silly holiday feast.

A few days earlier, we had finally gotten around to baking an acorn squash and two butternut squashes we’d received in our CSA farm share back in November.  Each of the three of us ate a big chunk of squash as a side dish to the Honey Baked Lentils we baked at the same time.  Actually, I like to eat my lentils in the mashed and buttered squash, and I packed up another portion for my lunch the next day.

Then we were left with 5 servings of baked squash and no more lentils.  On Saturday I asked my nine-year-old Nicholas to help me decide what to make for dinner with the squash–Butternut Squash Burritos?  No, he wanted it to be a side dish to something.  Okay, how about fish?  We had 4 fillets and some odd bits left in a big bag of frozen pollock.  Nicholas agreed to a meal of fish and squash.

Suddenly he said, “Can we make the squash like Grandma’s sweet potatoes?”  I was sure that we could adapt the New England Yam Bake recipe to the squash.  Nicholas and his father Daniel were planning to go to the supermarket in the afternoon anyway, so I checked the recipe and the pantry and put canned pineapple on the shopping list.

I was getting out the fish to thaw when Nicholas had another inspiration: “Since we’re having the squash like at Thanksgiving, can we have cranberry sauce?”  We happened to have a can of cranberry sauce in the pantry–and thinking of Thanksgiving reminded me that we still had a quart of stuffing and a quart of mashed potatoes in the freezer!  (We were among the few relatives who traveled by car rather than plane to Daniel’s family’s large Thanksgiving gathering, so we brought home all the leftovers we could manage.)  I got those out to thaw, too.

We baked the fish plain, with just a little olive oil for moisture.  We scooped the squash out of its skin and mashed it into a large flat baking pan, put the pineapple on top, and mixed up the crumblies according to the Yam Bake recipe.  Nicholas coaxed the cranberry sauce out of the can onto our official cranberry sauce server, which Daniel and I bought at a yard sale years ago when we were first living together because we just couldn’t resist the idea that for only 50 cents we could own a crystal plate and silver serving tool specifically designed for the elegant serving of canned gelatinous cranberry sauce!  (We think it’s from the 1950s, judging by the art on the box.)

Fish with Thanksgiving side dishes is just as good as turkey.  The squash bake was excellent.  We really enjoyed our festive meal!  Nicholas began speaking of “Fishgiving Dinner,” and I tried to make up a legend about how this was the commemoration of how the Indians taught our ancestors to eat fish, but he wasn’t buying it.  We had enough left over from our meal of leftovers to reprise Fishgiving Dinner on Sunday night.

Enjoying the autumn harvest to the fullest, with a random celebration in March, works for me!  Visit the Hearth & Soul Blog Hop for more food-related articles!  Visit Waste Not Want Not Wednesday and Fabulously Frugal Thursday for more ways to make the most of what you’ve got!

How to use long-frozen cookie dough

When my parents visited us the Christmas before last, my mother made her grandmother’s traditional animal cookies: a buttery dough that you roll out and cut with cookie cutters (they don’t have to be animal shapes, of course) and bake and frost.  The recipe makes a huge batch, so she divided it and froze two portions, and we made cookies from the rest.

My son Nicholas and I defrosted one blob of cookie dough last spring and baked cookies for church coffee hour.  But the other blob was still sitting in our freezer, 15 months later.  I was beginning to wonder if it was still good and how we might get around to baking some cookies, because I’m seven months pregnant and would like to be filling that freezer space with leftovers to eat postpartum, but I’m so tired so much of the time that rolling out cookies does not seem to be within my capabilities.

One evening last week, nine-year-old Nicholas ate a healthy dinner and then asked for a bowl of berries (we have a big bag of frozen organic mixed berries from Costco, which we’ve been defrosting in the microwave one serving at a time) with yogurt.  I had to tell him I had finished off the yogurt at breakfast.  He was upset.  Berries with milk would not be as good.  We did not have ice cream.  After a while he started asking for “a bready topping”.  No, NOT oatmeal!  Finally I thought of the cookie dough.

We removed the blob of dough from its plastic bag and put it on a plate in the microwave on “defrost” setting.  After 5 minutes the dough was workable.  We defrosted about 2 cups of berries, warming them just to the point where they weren’t stuck together or too icy to handle.  Nicholas formed the dough into 7 pancake-like circles and wrapped each one around a handful of berries.  We put the blobs in a baking pan, poked the tops with a fork, and baked at 350F until they were crusty on the outside, about 15 minutes.  They got larger and stuck together, but they were easy to separate with a spatula.

The result was a sort of dumpling that could be hand-held while eating.  They tasted great!  The cookie dough was sweet enough that the berries didn’t need additional sugar to taste like dessert.  The dough wasn’t stale or freezer-flavored at all.  (I’m impressed, given that our refrigerator+freezer malfunctioned for several months last year before we decided to replace it, so everything from the freezer got semi-thawed and refrozen at least once.)  A little bit of berry juice had leaked through the crust, but the dumplings weren’t soggy, probably because Nicholas ate the last layer of berries at the bottom of the bowl and most of the juice from thawing was down there.

Using the old cookie dough to make fruit dumplings worked for me!  Visit the Hearth & Soul Blog Hop for more food-related articles!  Visit Fabulously Frugal Thursday for more ways to make the most of what you’ve got!

Four Weeks of Mostly Meatless Dinners (February)

I’m not using the term “pesco-vegetarian” in the title like I have for many of my other multi-week meal plans because I think “meatless” is the more common word people are searching for in Lent.  My family eats no meat at home except occasional fish–which does not count as “meat” in many fasting plans, for some reason–so our menus are ideal for Lenten fasting or any time you want to avoid eating red meat and poultry.  Recently, I have been eating meat in restaurants a bit more often than usual because I’m seven months pregnant and have developed anemia, and the iron from turkey and beef is supposed to be the most absorbable…but in general, I still prefer a low-meat diet.

This menu features two new gadgets we got for Christmas: a slow cooker and a Vidalia Chop Wizard.  We’re finding both of them to be pretty useful.

Here’s what we ate for dinners in February.  Our weekday lunches are leftovers and occasional restaurant meals for the adults and a lunchbox meal (using leftovers where feasible) for third-grader Nicholas.  Weekend lunches tend to be leftovers, too; the ones that weren’t, or that made some notable use of the leftovers, are listed here.  I plan the menu, but my partner Daniel cooks our weeknight dinners so they’re ready when I get home from work, while I cook on the weekends and sometimes prepare ingredients during the week.

Week One:

  • Sunday:
    • Lunch: Pizza and salad left over from the previous night, when we had friends over for dinner.  They brought a “salad bar” (greens, shredded carrot, cherry tomatoes, avocado, and beets in separate containers) and we bought the pizza at Mineo’s.  I made Italian salad dressing–I don’t really have a recipe, but my method goes something like this: In a glass jar, put 2 parts olive oil and 1 part apple cider vinegar; sprinkle in plenty of sea salt, black pepper, dried minced onion, and granulated garlic and smaller amounts of dried red pepper flakes, nutritional yeast flakes, dried basil, dried oregano, and dried parsley; close jar tightly and shake it; taste it and adjust as needed; set jar inside a shallow dish to protect the tablecloth from oily drips.  This dressing can be stored at room temperature for a couple weeks.
    • Dinner: Lemon Creamy Salmon with Tangy Greens.  I used frozen kale for the greens and heated up leftover rice for my carbohydrate and leftover whole-wheat couscous for the guys.  Now we had a second jar of homemade salad dressing, a different flavor; I put them side by side in a small oval dish. Read more…

Humidify Your Home the Cheap and Easy Way!

Our house has forced-air heat: The furnace blows warm air through the ducts and out through vents in most of the rooms.  Our vents are in the baseboards, so they push out the air horizontally at floor level.  This tip also would work with a wall vent that is just above a shelf or table, and would probably work with floor vents or a floor furnace as well.  (If you have ceiling vents or another type of heat, such as radiators, and have a humidifying tip, I’d love to hear it!  Please post a comment.)

The trouble with forced-air heat is that the air coming out of the ducts is very dry.  Most winters this has bothered me a bit, but this year it’s really getting to me!  Maybe I’m more delicate because I’m pregnant.  I have awakened at least once almost every night with my mouth completely dried out, and I often have a slight nosebleed in the morning.  Our whole family had viral bronchitis in January, and the dry air was making our coughing worse.  We needed more moisture!

We tried an electric humidifier.  I could see mist coming out of its spout some of the time, so I knew it was doing something, and it did seem to make the air slightly gentler.  But there were several things about it that bothered me: Read more…

My Top 3 Kitchen Time-Saving Tips

Katie at Kitchen Stewardship is asking everyone to share our top 3 kitchen time-savers this week!  I work full-time outside the home, and although my partner Daniel has been doing more than half the cooking in the past few years, I do most of the planning, shopping, and preliminary preparations.  He works from home and tries to continue getting work done after our nine-year-old comes home from school, so it’s important to him to be able to spend less than an hour making dinner.  Here are our top tips:

Prepare ingredients for multiple meals at once.

When you’re going to the trouble of cutting up some food, using cutting tools that will have to be cleaned, you may as well cut a whole lot of it!  While you’re at it, measure the portions you’ll need for several recipes, and wash the measuring cup just once.  If you preserve some of the food (we freeze any we don’t plan to use within a week), you can stock up when it’s on sale and use it over a long period of time, instead of buying smaller amounts at higher prices.  Here are some specifics: Read more…

GAME SHOW!! with math practice

My third-grade son and I came up with a game that was a lot of fun and valuable math practice and physical exercise for him, while being very easy for me and using only a few basic supplies that were easy to set up and clean up.  This is a perfect activity for families in which all available parents are still recovering from viral bronchitis (or similar debilitating illness) while one or more kids are fully recovered and going stir crazy, but it’s too cold to play outside.  It could easily be adapted for multiple players.

Materials:

  • large supply of fake money, such as from a Monopoly or Life board game.  If you don’t have this, you can keep the kid busy with a preliminary activity of making fake money!  You want at least 20 bills in each of several denominations.
  • stopwatch.
  • area of clean floor.  Have the child sweep the floor before playing.  If possible, use an area at the foot of a staircase or outside one end of a hallway, near a couch or bed where the parent can be comfortable.
  • two receptacles of some sort, which can hold a handful of fake money or a small trinket.  I grabbed some Christmas stockings that are still waiting to be put away.  (We got sick right after Christmas….)
  • a few small trinkets.  These do not have to be anything actually exciting–you’re just going to pretend they are.  Another option is to cut some photos of desirable items out of an advertising flyer.

Prerequisite: Child should have at least one experience of watching a typical television game show, such as “The Price Is Right”, to learn the appropriate ridiculously enthusiastic behavior and when to deploy it vs. when to listen carefully to the game show host’s instructions.

Set Up: Scatter the fake money in a big, festive pile on the clean floor.  If desired, decorate the staircase/hallway/approach to the pile with some of the money along the edges of the path and/or with whatever tinsel garlands or anything you happen to have lying around.

How to Play:

  • Contestant [child] runs down the stairs/hallway while game show host [parent] enthusiastically announces, “Come on doowwwwnn, Nicholas!!!”  Contestant bounces next to the money for a moment of imagined applause.
  • Host announces, “Your challenge is to pick up . . . exactly . . . ONE THOUSAND TWO HUNDRED FORTY-SIX DOLLARS!!  Go!!” and starts the stopwatch.  (Choose a number you’ll easily remember, like the last 4 digits of a familiar phone number.  You don’t want any confusion over what the number was.  If this is difficult for you, use a phone book or other printed source of numbers, and check off each one after use.)
  • Contestant scrambles to pick up the correct amount of money as quickly as possible.
  • Host stops the stopwatch and announces the time: “He did that in just twenty-eight seconds!  But . . . is it the correct amount?”
  • Contestant shudders in suspense while host counts the money.
    • If amount is correct, host announces, “Congratulations!!  You are the winner of one thousand two hundred forty-six dollars!!  YAAAAYYY!!” and tosses the money over the contestant’s head while the contestant does a victory dance.
    • If amount is too large, host is very shocked: “One thousand two hundred sixty-six dollars?  How greedy!”  Contestant shrivels in shame and pays a penalty equivalent to the difference ($20 in this example) from his previous winnings.
    • If amount is too small, host is sympathetic: “Aww!  One thousand one hundred forty-six dollars!  You are not a winner.  Better luck next time.”  Money goes back to the pile while contestant walks away sighing.
  • Repeat over and over and over again for as long as contestant and host can stand it.  (Of course, each round uses a different amount of money.)
  • About every tenth win, host announces, “You’ve unlocked the Special Bonus!!!  Which of these hidden prizes will you choose?”  Host holds up the two receptacles in which she has hidden the prizes.  Contestant chooses.  Host reveals the prize, for instance a card depicting Mickey Mouse: “You’ve won . . . free admission to Disney World!!  YAAAAYYY!!”  Contestant hyperactively celebrates.  Host then reveals the other prize: “But look at what you could have won!  This fine bottle of hand lotion!”  (You might want to make one prize really exciting and the other something of a dud.)
  • If anybody needs to get a drink, go to the bathroom, etc., host announces, “We’ll be back after these messages!”  (Set up the next Special Bonus when child is out of the room.)

Because Nicholas was the only contestant, we weren’t keeping score; he was just enjoying the challenge.  He made only three mistakes in nearly two hours of play; usually, he was able to scoop up the correct amount, even though he completed every challenge in less than 40 seconds and some in as little as 7 seconds.  I’m impressed!

With multiple contestants, you could set aside the winnings–or add up a running total on a scoreboard so that you can return the money to the pile, as well as getting addition practice–and see who gets the most money.  You might incorporate the time in the scoring, too.  If contestants are at different ability levels, give the younger one simpler rather than smaller amounts of money, like $3,000 while the older one has to find $2,917.

This homemade game show worked for me!  Visit Mom’s Library for more activities to do with kids!  Visit Waste Not Want Not Wednesday for more low-cost do-it-yourself activities!

Wearing a stretchy tummy band instead of maternity pants: A review

Soon after my first pregnancy, it became fashionable to wear a top over another top that is longer and sticks out at the bottom. Soon after that, I heard about a garment called the Bella Band that is simply a wide band of stretchy fabric worn around the abdominal area, such that it looks like a longer undershirt but serves the function of holding up one’s unzipped pants. This innovation enables expectant mothers to continue wearing pants that no longer zip over the expanding tummy. I saw several bloggers raving about it, and it sounded plausible to me.

Ten weeks into my current pregnancy, my jeans–which are high-waisted and relatively close-fitting on my non-pregnant body–could still zip but gave me a feeling of pressure that really bothered my queasy stomach, especially right after a meal. However, when I tried on my old maternity pants, they were too loose. I went looking for one of these stretchy bands.

The brand I bought is the Tummy Sleeve, sold at Motherhood Maternity stores. It was $17, which seemed a bit steep. (However, the store gave me a free baby bottle and a packet of really good coupons!) It is made of nylon spandex and available in several colors.

I wore it every day for 7 weeks. Then I started wearing my slimmest maternity pants some days and the band on other days, for a few weeks before I began wearing maternity pants all the time. At 24 weeks, I can still get into my jeans with the band, if I want to. It looks like this:

Read more…