Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Grocery Shopping + Budgeting + Recipe Links

A couple of friends have recently asked me to share a little bit about my weekly grocery trips and lists and how I stay on budget.  I don't have a revolutionary system, but I have figured out the way that is the least amount of work for me with the highest amount of savings. (Just FYI, this will be a long, boring post if you aren't interested in this type of thing.)

Here are the three main things that make up my system:

1. I exclusively shop at Kroger, with the exception of some things, like diapers and clorox wipes, that I order from Amazon's Subscribe and Save...and with the exception of most toiletries, which are just flat-out cheaper from Walmart.  Part of why I picked Kroger over Walmart as my go-to is because I'm happier with the quality of their store brand as opposed to Walmart's, I love the fuel points I get by shopping there, (I always do the survey found on your receipt and receive 50 bonus fuel points, which adds up to 200 extra points - 20 extra cents off gas - per month!) and their mobile app is easy to use. The night before my weekly grocery trip, I check the weekly savings ad on my Kroger app so that I can have an idea what's on sale.  Then, I check their coupon section and can upload coupons directly onto my Kroger card, which means I don't have to keep up with paper coupons.  (Because I always forget them.  Always.)  I'm not an extreme couponer, by any means, but I can usually save about $5-$10 per trip with coupons, and while that doesn't seem like a lot, if you're on a tight budget, every little bit helps! Also, Kroger offers "Best Customer Bonus" coupons to customers who use the app regularly, and those coupons are personalized and tailored to what you normally buy.  I often get special coupons for frozen fruit, french bread, coffee, and baby supplies.

2.  My best tip for staying on budget is also my most time consuming.  While shopping, I keep my calculator pulled up on my phone, and I add up each item as I put it into my cart.  Yes, this is a little bit of trouble, but once you get used to it,  it becomes an automatic reflex and really is easier than you think.  This has been the biggest help to let me know EXACTLY how much I'm spending.  It makes me less likely to add unnecessary items on impulse, and it lets me knowledgeably choose between store brand/name brand based on how much my tally is when I'm picking out that item. (For example, I prefer name brand pasta.  But if I'm in the pasta aisle and my total is higher than I'd like, the number on my screen makes me reach for the store brand instead.)  Before doing this simple thing, I'd have a vague idea how much was adding up in my cart, but I'd often be $15-$20 off when I went to check out.  That pesky tax always threw off my calculations and I never remembered to factor it in. Ha!)
I know that lots of people only carry cash with them to the grocery store, and I'm sure that's a really amazing way to ensure you stay below your budget!  However, I like to have the ability to spend a little extra $ on a reduced item not originally in my budget, or to stock up if there's an amazing sale on something we use every single day.  (For example: cereal.  Tyler eats cereal every day, and Honey Bunches of Oats and Frosted Mini Wheats are expensive.  BUT Kroger puts those two cereals on an excellent sale periodically, and I usually buy 10 or so when that happens. Obviously that puts me over budget a bit, even though I make up for it the next few weeks.)
Also, maybe everyone knows this, but Tyler didn't, and so just to make sure, because it's my biggest crutch, every price tag has a price per ounce or unit on it, which makes it easy to compare brands or sizes and know what is really the best deal.

3. The night before my grocery trip, I scroll through my Pinterest food board and see if any recipes jump out at me.  If they do, and I don't have the ingredients required, I'll add those to my list.  That is, I'm afraid, the grand extent of my meal planning, although I'd like to do better about that in the future.  What I find in the reduced meat section heavily influences my meal plan for the week though, so it's difficult to have one set in stone in advance, not knowing what I'll run across.

Just for kicks, here's my grocery list from this week, and links to some of the recipes I'll be making for supper.

  • Quinoa (for this)
  • 1 Rotisserie Chicken (perfect for adding to recipes, like the Quinoa Enchilada Casserole above, and for making quick sandwiches. Also, had a $1 off coupon)
  • Package of Smoked Sausages + baked in-store buns, to grill and eat with the leftover potato chips from our Super Bowl party (I never keep potato chips, but might as well use them up!)
  • Cereal
  • Milk
  • Cheddar Cheese (one block)
  • 1 Lemon 
  • 1 bunch Kale
  • 1 head Broccoli and 1 head Cauliflower (both for roasting with salt+pepper+olive oil)
  • 2 apples (whichever type is cheapest per lb, not counting red delicious)
  • 1 yellow Bell Pepper (to sauté with onions for the smoked sausages)
  • 2 large Sweet Potatoes (for these muffins and for cubing and roasting with olive oil+dried rosemary)
  • Salad Greens
  • 1 loaf Potato Rosemary French Bread (best customer bonus coupon = free!!  I love having a loaf of french bread to serve with dinners throughout the week, and if there's leftovers at the end of the week, I make croutons with it.)
  • Chicken Thighs (for this)
  • Orzo  (for this)
  • Dried Thyme (one of my favorite herbs)
  • Whole Wheat Flour (for this bread, which has never failed me)
  • 1 can Black Beans
  • 1 can Rotel
  • 1 package Kroger brand Frozen Peas
  • 1 package Kroger brand Frozen Corn (best customer bonus coupon = free!!)
  • 1 package McCafe' coffee (I base my coffee brand choice on whatever coupon I have + what is on sale.  I get either Starbucks, (Tyler's favorite, but also the most expensive,) or Gevalia, or McCafe'. Surprisingly, McCafe' coffee is very decent.  I never buy Folgers or any of its equivalent, because even though my husband has low standards, he does have standards. ;))
  • 1 Arm and Hammer Free and Clear Laundry Detergent (don't fall for the expensive Dreft, mama ladies.  Any Free and Clear detergent is perfectly fine to wash wee baby's clothes.
Items not on my list but that I purchased:
  • 2 packages of reduced pork chops, 1 for dinner this week and 1 for the freezer
  • 2 bottles of Bolthouse Farms Fruit Juice Smoothies, because they were buy 1 get 1 free, and everybody needs to splurge now and then. :)
  • 1 pack of cut-out Peanuts Valentines for Jeffrey to give to his cousins at our annual Valentine's Day breakfast at Mama's. (I'd like to be a crafty Pinterest mom, but no way is that happening this year!)

So, like I said, my system isn't completely new and exciting and life changing, but it works really well for me, and I hope something here has helped you! To end, here's a picture of my adorable baby "helping" me shop a few weeks ago. Now he sits in the cart itself, which makes everything way more interesting! I have a cart cover with toys attached to it, and that's a lifesaver.    

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Sweet Potato Muffins

These muffins are fairly healthy... or at least not unhealthy...and they're delicious. They're a little earthy and substantial thanks to the oats and flecks of sweet potato. They'e the perfect treat for a crisp Autumn evening or morning.  (Or, if you live in Mississippi, they can be the perfect treat for a hot, steamy, very summery evening, even though THE CALENDAR CLEARLY STATES THAT IT'S FALL.  Okay.  Moving on.)

You'll Need:
1 & 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup brown sugar (see, barely any sugar! definitely not unhealthy!)
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp pumpkin pie spice (you could just use cinnamon)
1/2 cup old-fashioned oats
1 egg
1 cup milk
1/2 cup mashed sweet potato (What I do is stick one medium sweet potato in the microwave for about 3-4 minutes until it's soft and steamy, then peel the skin off and roughly mash the potato on a plate with a fork.  It doesn't need to be perfectly smooth.)
1/4 cup melted butter

Combine all the dry ingredients in a large bowl.  In another bowl, combine the melted butter and the sweet potato and whisk together, then add the rest of the wet ingredients.  Stir to combine.  Then add the wet to the dry and whisk together until all the flour is incorporated. It will be a bit lumpy because of the oats.  That's perfectly fine.  Spoon the batter into a greased muffin tin, filling the cups 3/4 of the way full. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 400 for about twenty minutes.  Makes 12 muffins.


Friday, October 9, 2015

Some Thoughts on Co-Sleeping, and on Blessings

Jeffrey starts out each night in a little crib beside us, but he won't go back to sleep in it after his first nursing of the night, (trust me, I've tried...and tried...and tried.) And while co-sleeping was never ever ever my plan, since J was a really awful sleeper from the get-go, (in the hospital, two different nurses remarked something along the lines of "wow, they don't usually fight sleep like this so early," and I knew then that I was in trouble,) I learned that me getting some sleep is more important than my pre-baby principles, and I also have kind of fallen in love with having him in bed with us for most of the night. It's a season of life, and I know it will pass some day. That is a happy thought and a sad thought.

I think part of the reason I'm so willing to co-sleep...so willing to give up my space and nightly energy...is because I remember my time in Ethiopia. I remember the rows of metal cribs and the motherless little babies sleeping alone, night after night. The orphanage staff at Layla did a good job, but they were vastly outnumbered by the babies, and so often when I arrived in the morning some babies were still in their cribs, lying there in soaked, dirty cloth diapers, (I remember that every single baby there had terrible diaper rash,) and I vividly remember the look of surprise on their faces when I would come up to their beds with my arms outstretched. Some of them would come eagerly and immediately. But some would stare at me for several seconds, as if saying "what? What are you here for? Oh, for me? Really??"

It broke my heart then, and it breaks my heart now to remember those faces and to know that there are so many, many motherless babies in the world right this minute who are sleeping in beds alone, and have never known anything else.

Then I look at Jeffrey, curled up beside me, his rabbit tucked under one arm and his hand clutching a chunk of my hair with all his might. He is my baby, and I am so humbled by the gift of being his mother. I don't have to wake up every hour with him in the night, (thank you, growth spurt,) I get to. I don't have to give up all my alone time to be at his constant beck and call, I get to. It's not a chore to be his only source of food and therefore his comforter of choice. (Your time is coming, daddy. I promise.) No, it's a gift. And I'm thankful for it every day. Every night. Even the bad, sleepless nights. They're all worth it.

Jeffrey never looks at me with surprise when I lean over his bed to pick him up. Joy, yes. Excitement, yes. Impatience, yes. Surprise? No. He expects me. He knows I'm his mama, and that I'm coming for him. He's not an orphan.

And neither am I. I have such a kind Father, so loving and sufficient, and yet I am often still surprised when He answers my cries in the dark nights. My surprise isn't because He ever ignores me, but rather because I am often afraid of the magnitude of my unworthiness. But, incredibly, He doesn't look at me and see my unworthiness. He looks at me and sees His Son's robes of righteousness clothing me.

Jeffrey and I. Both so loved. Both so protected. Both given no reason to be surprised when our cries are heard.

We both have so much to be grateful for.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Scalloped Sweet Potatoes with Goat Cheese (and Pumpkin Bread!)

There are two reasons why I will never have a truly successful cooking blog. One is that I can never have the patience to take pictures of each step of a recipe, and the other is that I cook too much like my mama. (A little of this, a sprinkle of that, a dab of such-and-such, and voila! I might have a delicious dish but I can't for the life of me tell you exactly how I made it.)

But last night I made up a recipe for scalloped sweet potatoes, and they were scrumptious, so I'm going to tell you how I made them. (Warning, this is a "sprinkle a bit of this" recipe, so if you're a stickler for exact teaspoons and tablespoons, read at your own risk!)

Autumnal Scalloped Sweet Potatoes 

Serves 4, but could very easily be doubled

You'll need: 
2 medium/large sweet potatoes, thinly sliced
1 & 1/4 cup heavy cream 
Cayenne Pepper 
Dried, crushed Rosemary
Goat Cheese 
Sharp Cheddar Cheese, grated 

First, melt a tablespoon of butter in your baking dish,(mine was  about 8×8,) and rub it around the bottom and up the sides. Then, arrange a layer of the sweet potato slices and season them with salt, cayenne pepper, and the dried rosemary. (Don't go overboard with the cayenne, unless you want the dish to be really spicy. You're going to season each layer, so there will be plenty of seasoning.) Then, crumble up some goat cheese and sprinkle it on top of the potato layer. Pour a few tablespoons of the cream over the whole thing. Repeat the process two more times, or more, if you have room in your dish and plenty of ingredients. Don't put goat cheese on the top layer. 

Cover the dish with tinfoil and bake in a preheated oven at  375° for thirty minutes. Take the tinfoil off and bake for another thirty minutes. (Watch to make sure the top doesn't brown too much. It should brown a little.) Five minutes before it's done, take it out and sprinkle the top with the cheddar cheese. Pop back into the oven until the cheese is melted. Take out, and enjoy! 

And, because it's that time of the year, here's Cindy Ballard's recipe for Pumpkin Bread!

You'll need: 
1 & 2/3 cup all-purpose flour 
1 cup sugar 
1 tsp baking soda 
1/4 tsp baking powder 
1 tsp salt 
1/2 tsp nutmeg         {I like to use three tsps of pumpkin pie spice and one tsp cinnamon as the spices} 
1/2 tsp cloves 
1/2 tsp cinnamon 
1/4 tsp allspice  
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup orang juice 
1 cup canned pumpkin 
2 eggs 

Stir together all dry ingredients. In a large bowl, combine oil, oj, eggs, and pumpkin. Mix well. Add dry ingredients and blend thoroughly. Pour into greased loaf pan and bake in pre-heated  350° oven for 60 minutes. Cool for five minutes and remove loaf from pan and place on rack to finish cooling. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Easy, Creamy Chicken Pasta with Greens

This pasta dish isn't for you if you're trying to lose weight or if you don't like butter and cream. (If you fall into the latter category, we just probably can't be friends.) It's so delicious though, and it's incredibly simple to make. I look at it like a good "splurge" meal - sometimes we just need cream and carbs!

Creamy Chicken Pasta with Greens

Serves 4, or 2 with leftovers (yay I love leftovers!)

You'll need:
2 chicken breasts, cubed
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 tsp cayenne pepper (or 1/2 tsp, depending on your spice tolerance)
1/2 tsp garlic powder
2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp salt
2/3 cup whipping cream
2 tblsp butter (or more, if you choose to sauté the chicken in butter rather than olive oil)
2 cups greens of your choice (I used a mix of spinach and baby kale)
Pasta of your choice, cooked according to package directions (for this recipe I usually use linguine or penne)

First, season the chicken with the spices. (I like to use a couple of tablespoons of Emeril's Essence as an easy all-purpose substitute for the other spices. If you do that, just be sure to add salt too.) In a large skillet, sauté the chicken and onion in olive oil, (or butter, if you're feeling particularly decadent,) until the chicken is golden and the onions are translucent. Then, add the butter and cream, reduce the heat to low, and let the chicken and cream simmer until the sauce thickens. (You won't have to add any extra spices to the sauce, because the spices from the chicken will perfectly season it.) Meanwhile, cook pasta. When pasta is finished, drain the water off and add the greens directly to the warm pasta. Then, spoon the chicken and sauce directly onto the pasta and greens, and mix until it's all combined.

Serve with French bread, because, why not? Carbs are amazing. (Also, according to Tyler, the kale and spinach totally negate the butter and cream. Ha) 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

A Few of My Favorite Things for Baby

A few friends who are pregnant with their first babies have asked me what my top must-haves for baby are. 
I thought I'd write about my picks here, and I'm obviously qualified to, because I have one four month old baby and therefore I'm an expert on motherhood and all babies, especially yours. (Ha.)

(Also, I'm not including basic necessities, such as diapers, blankets, and car seats on this list, because...duh, you need those. I always hated when I clicked on Pinterest links proclaiming "best things for baby" or "top picks for baby" and the first one was a car seat. If you don't know you need a car seat, hey, you're in trouble. Also, I realize ten would have been a nicer, more even number than eight, but oh well!)

8. Video Monitor - I like being able to see Jeffrey and know whether he's sleeping or awake, so I love having a video monitor. He sleeps with us at night, but during naps when I'm downstairs and he's upstairs, the video monitor gives me peace of mind. This is ours, and it was the number one pick for video monitors under $100 on several lists, and got decent Amazon reviews, which is why I chose it. We thought about getting a monitor that would use wifi and connect to our iPhones, but after doing a little reading about people hacking those, we opted against a wifi based monitor.

7. Sound machine - i don't know what we'd do without ours. Originally I thought about just relying on a sound machine app on my iPhone, but the reality is that you won't want to leave your phone in the room with baby. So, get a cheap sound machine. Cheap ones do the the job well.

6. K'Tan and Ergo - I love both of these, and I have used them more and more as Jeffrey has grown. He hated being confined when he was a newborn, (he would literally kick and kick and fight until he woke himself up if I put him in bed swaddled,) and so we didn't actually use the carriers as much as I thought we would. But now he likes being carried close to mama and daddy, and I like being hands free so I can actually do stuff! The ergo is a good choice if you want something you and your husband can both wear, because it adjusts. Lots of wraps, including the K'Tan, aren't one size fits all. I didn't get the Ergo until after Jeffrey was born, because Tyler decided he wanted to be able to carry him too, (so sweet!) and my K'Tan was a size small.

5. Stroller - I was actually iffy about registering for a stroller, because I thought I would use it occasionally, but probably not often, and was it really worth the money? Y'all, I'm here to tell you it is. Carting that stroller around in the trunk of my car, and tugging it out every time I need it is a small inconvenience when the other option is lugging around the infant carrier in a store or going through the laborious process of unbuckling Jeffrey out of his car seat and strapping him into a carrier. Ugh. I got this kind of stroller, and our Graco car seat just clicks into the stroller part. No transferring of baby, no waking up baby if he's sleeping. It's the best. 

4. Medela Electric Breast Pump - if you're pregnant and reading this, then I sincerely hope you never have a need for one of these. But Jeffrey had a really weak latch when he was born, and so I relied on one of these to bring in my milk and keep up my supply for a few weeks. There are manual pumps out there, and if you're just pumping enough for a bottle or two along the way, I'm sure a manual one is perfectly sufficient. I definitely wouldn't want to use one as much as I had to unless it was an electric model. Also, per Obamacare, every insurance company is required by law to provide a breast pump to its pregnant clients. Some don't provide really nice ones, but some do. (Mine did!) All you have to do is call your insurance company to find out which models are available to you. 

3. A backpack diaper bag - I actually have this diaper bag, and I really like the way it looks and the amount of storage it has. I get compliments on it all the time. BUT I can't begin to count how many times I've wished for a backpack instead of a bag when I have to tote it around along with the baby, groceries, library books, etc. I think a backpack would be way easier to just throw on and go. Hands free is always a good option, because guess what isn't hands free? That's right...a baby. 

2. Rock 'N' Play Sleeper - I didn't have this when Jeffrey was born. But he was a terrible...and I do mean terrible...sleeper. He absolutely refused to sleep  in his crib for more than twenty minutes at a time, and since I was really uncomfortable with the idea of co-sleeping with a newborn, and didn't intend to do the cry it out method with a two week old, I ended up sleeping on a pallet in the floor in his room with him. This was so healthy for my marriage and good for my back! Not. 
My sweet mother in law bought this bed for us to try, and although it wasn't the magic solution to all our sleeping problems, it did mean that Jeffrey would sleep for an hour or two at a time during the night, and that was a big deal. He also struggled with reflux, and since this bed is inclined, it was helpful with that too! He still starts out the night in his little bed, and naps in it during the day. This definitely falls into the category of "not a basic necessity" and I wouldn't get one unless your baby has a hard time sleeping. (More than a typical newborn, that is, because news flash! most babies are
horrible sleepers.) 

1. Swing - one day, a few days after we brought Jeffrey home, Tyler looked at me and said "you know what I would do if I could go back in time? I would buy a swing the minute we found out you were pregnant! Because can you imagine not having one?!" (Spoken with a look of pure terror on his face.) I have talked to some people whose babies didn't like swings, but I have a hard time imagining that, because mine loved his. It was the only time I could put him down during the day without him fussing, and he did most of his newborn napping in the swing. These last couple of weeks he's enjoyed it a lot less, but only because he's in "stand up, roll around, be constantly stimulated" mode. For three and a half months, it was a lifesaver. Tyler's sweet middle school students gave us ours, and it was one of the absolute best presents we got, and one of the things I *know* I would buy for myself if we had another baby and ours stopped working.

So, there you have it! Mind blowing, right? I know it's not, but I hope it was helpful. Before Jeffrey was born, I read tons of these types of posts, (thank you, Pinterest links!) and they did help me solidify in my mind the things I thought would work for us, and we were so blessed by the sweet generosity of our family and friends who truly went above and beyond to help us prepare for J's arrival. Above all, it's important to keep in mind that our babies need our love and attention more than they "need" all the extras we're blessed to have access to here in America. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Our Home

Back at the very beginning of August, we came home from a week's vacation to discover that the hot water heater had overflowed in the attic - the attic?! who puts a water heater in the attic?! - and that our house was in need of renovation to be livable again. 
For over a month now, we've been living in a hotel room with a three...now four...month old baby and a persnickety cat. (By the way, does anyone want a free cat? Because I know of one you can have.) 

Our house has been pulled apart and put back together, and we are only a few days, (please, God,) from being back home. 

But here's the thing: home isn't home anymore. It's just a house. A dusty, filthy, reeking-of-fresh-paint house. The walls are bare, the little decorative touches I have carefully added throughout the years are packed into boxes and shoved into a storage unit in the yard. The kitchen, so near and dear to my heart, is covered in Sheetrock dust and has been used carelessly by workmen for weeks and weeks. I didn't have a chance to empty the fridge of produce before we hastily packed up and got out, and so the clean, organized refrigerator, the product of my last week of pregnant nesting, is no longer clean or organized. Construction workers' white bread sandwiches reside on its shelves. Yuck
I have grown so accustomed to being away from our house, and have felt so repeatedly betrayed by it, (as crazy as that may sound,) with every new delay and each discovery of additional problems, that I told Tyler the other night, "I've emotionally disconnected myself from the house." 
And I have. 
My home? It's not there. That's an empty shell, not the warm, cozy home we have made our own. 

Now we are heading into the final stretch of work, and we will be moving back in this week. When I think of all the pictures to be rehung, and furniture to be carried back in, and clothes to unpack, dread pools in the pit of my stomach. Jeffrey's room had been so lovingly prepared before his arrival, and now it's empty...mine and Tyler's room, painted a calm, cool, pale grey and such a favorite place of mine to curl up and rest - empty. (Unless you count the dirt and dust. There's lots of that.) 
We will have lots of help getting our house put back together, but, selfishly, all I could think was "but it was so perfect before!"

I knew something had to be done, so last night, I went and sat in the empty, echoing living room and had a little heart to heart with the house while Jeffrey slept in his car seat beside me. I promised to love her again, despite the mold and water damage that forced us to live in a hotel for one and a half months, and despite the fact that for the next several weeks there will be boxes everywhere and I won't really feel peaceful and comfortable. I promised to bake cinnamon coffee cakes in the kitchen, and to swing with Jeffrey on the back porch. I promised to replace my dead basil plants at the front door with living, thriving plants, and I promised to make an even prettier home than before. 

And when I picked Jeffrey up and walked back to my car, away from my empty house, some of the dread about the coming days of chaos had lifted from the pit of my stomach. Because the truth is, I'm ready to go back and make our house a home...again.