Tuesday, August 31, 2010

5-Minute Beans and Rice

I must admit, there are days when five minutes of preparation for dinner is about all I can handle. Typically these are tuna fish sandwich nights.

But in my noble attempt to provide something warm and filling for my sweet family (not to mention that we've been eating tuna fish - without the bread , I'll have you - for three days now) I decided on beans and rice in the crock pot. This has never been attempted before in The Little White Kitchen, and knowing what I know now, nor should it have been.

The preparation seemed easy enough - place 1 1/2 C uncooked rice in bottom of crock pot, mix in some olive oil, chopped red onion, and Cajun seasoning. Layer black beans, pinto beans and a can of diced tomatoes on top. Add another two cups of water. Close the lid on Ol' Bessie and let her go to work. Four hours later - dinner is served.

I should have known. In concept, 5-Minute Rice and Beans in the crock pot is a rich and worthy use of my precious time. In reality, 5-Minute Rice and Beans in the crock pot is mush.

Despite the mush for dinner, we still danced...

Sunday, August 29, 2010


And the countdown begins. Only 37 more weeks until that glorious graduation day for my sweet husband. We're working hard to make this final year's balancing act an enjoyable one.

So I'm gearing up my meal planning in an effort to keep the peace around here. And the plan goes a little something like this:

Basket on the left = Six food categories

Basket on the right = Six preparation methods

Select one item from the right, one from the left. This is Sunday night's dinner.

Repeat six nights in a row.

Seventh night, take a break and eat leftovers or eat out if there's money left.

The categories are this:

Beans & rice

15-minute stove top

The meal plan actualized looks a little something like this:

Sunday - bbq chicken/ potato salad
Monday - beans and rice
Tuesday - taco nachos/ refried beans
Wednesday - salmon over garlic quinoa/ salad
Thursday - spinach salad with strawberries and glazed walnuts
Friday - white bean and black olive soup/ salad
Saturday - leftovers or out-to-eat

Recipes forthcoming.

And the Countdown Begins...

This weekend I can officially put the wrap on the First Week of the worst thing that's happened to me in the past few years. (And honestly, if this is the worst, life really ain't that bad! I'm not complaining. Just a little tired, that's all.)

It's not reading the textbooks titled Information Technology Management, writing the papers, poring through lifeless case study after lifeless case study, or pointless hours of online commenting that kills me. For it's not me who's toiling this way. It's him.

But I must admit, while he's been doing all of that plus full-time work over the last three years, I've slowly been dug three feet under. Halfway to the grave. The burden has been great back at the homestead with a young family to raise while attending to the special dietary needs of my eldest and my youngest sons.

I couldn't have been more ecstatic this summer when he told me that he planned to finish up school in two more semesters. Albeit by taking three grad level courses per semester.

And so the countdown begins. What in the past has seemed like an endless infinity to that glorious day when I would see my husband more than eight hours a week -- has now turned into small weekly stepping stones approaching mid-May. I'm not sure, but I might be the only woman standing in that auditorium soaking wet in my little commencement dress. Not from perspiration from the terrible early summer heat but instead from the tears of joy streaming down my face landing all over my tired ol' self.

And now.... the point of this blog. The thing that makes my life easier. The thing that makes my kids tolerable to be around. The thing that brings a smile to my husband's face. The thing that helps me get through the day without falling over faint. The thing that makes my bank account happy. And in turn, affords me the opportunity to buy tickets to see my favorite band on a date with my love!

Yes, yes, yes. That dreaded ol' thang that sets women's nerves on end. That dreaded 'ol thang that when neglected leads to many nights in a row of carry-out. That dreaded 'ol thang that sends tired husbands to the store at all odd hours of the day and night.

Meal Planning. Here we go...

Friday, August 27, 2010

Friday Night Round-Up: 38 Weeks and Counting

It's time for the weekly round-up. Heading into the weekend I must assess the spendature to date which will give me a gauge on what happens over the next few days. (Namely, do I make a stop to the liquor store tonight or not?)

Sunday was grocery shopping day. It looked like this:
$85.26 Natural Food Grocery Market
$29.45 Whole Foods
$27.98 Walmart

Total = $142.69

NONE - That is, until yesterday's spur of the moment after-school trip to the swimming pool. People were hungry. Mama didn't pack any snacks. Opps. Burger King drive-thru is so darn convenient in times like these:
$9.11 Burger King

Grand Total = $151.80

Alright. Since this is my second official week on the $150/wk budget I'm going to call that good. No liquor store tonight. Still have the materials to make hummus, tuna salad, chicken salad and granola bars. Here's to that carrying us through 'til Sunday's shopping trip!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Word about Out-to-Eats

I contribute 75% of our food spending woes to eating out. Years ago we could grab a quick bite out-to-eat at a restaurant for $15 or less. We'd walk away satisfied and more than pleased that someone else did all the prep and clean-up. Even as small children started entering the picture it was not that difficult to keep the spending to a minimum when out. Slice of pizza. Grilled cheese. Chicken strips. Sure go ahead, gorge yourself on that bread basket, it's free!

Everything changed when our son was diagnosed with Celiac Disease. Sushi became the new pizza - quick, convenient and delicious. The prepared foods aisle at Whole Foods replaced sub sandwiches - small containers filled with chicken salad and quinoa. We said a swift goodbye to kids meals at the Mexican restaurant - and a hearty hello to the full entree portion of fajitas. Overnight our food spending more than doubled.

For years now we've continued to partake in the ol' American pastime of going out to eat - with friends, after a long day at work, in between games on a busy Saturday, when I feel lazy, craving something fried, or just don't want to look at another dirty dish in my kitchen sink. In my book, there is always an occasion to eat out!

Every month when I take time to reflect on where all the money has gone, I get a very clear response from my debit card report. Restaurants. Always the culprit. Every time.

Nonetheless, I am continually surprised and appalled by the numbers. Anywhere from 30% - 50% of money spent on food in the month is in the form of out-to-eats. The shocking part of all of this is that the weekly grocery bill is never affected at all by this frivolous reveling in modern convenience.

My mama once heard on a radio show, "when trying to get out of debt (or not enter into it), the only time you should step foot in a restaurant is if you're working there." The only foreseeable way to make this $150/week food budget work is to heed this advice. We're a few weeks into the challenge and so far so good. If I spend less than $150 at the grocery store this week there may be room for the $11 fajitas at our favorite Mexican restaurant!

But first, one more important item of business before I sign-off -- A definition of what's included in my $150 weekly food budget:

All food from the grocery store.
All food from restaurants.
All alcohol from the liquor store.

Now that's what I'm talking about. A true challenge.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Dancing in the Kitchen on a Sunday Afternoon

A new ritual has been instituted here in the Little White Kitchen.

Imagine if you will...

A stove full of pots boiling - potatoes, eggs, soup - just try to forget about the 100 degree weather that day, no air conditioning and very little cross ventilation

Country music - playing on the radio in the corner, yes, a real radio with antenna and static

Shirtless hubby - with an old straw cowboy hat on top

Close dancing - apron on and wooden spoon in hand

Dishes piling up - and getting washed almost immediately (my favorite part of the whole experience)

In between the dancing and the talking and the laughing and the dreaming we made homemade potato salad and egg salad and pumpkin soup and pizza. This Sunday afternoon cook session felt like a dream come true. Me and Hubby concocting all kinds of delicious creations. Kids gathered around the kitchen table coloring. Chickens clucking away in the backyard. This week, we start off right by making a refrigerator full of yummy nutritious food. No more "I'm starrrr-ving". No more "Aghhhhh" from the baby. We're going to eat well this go 'round.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bulk Herbs & Spices

I was once again reminded today about the key to flavorful cooking on a budget... Bulk Herbs & Spices. I couldn't have had a bigger smile on my face when my dear husband walked in the door from his grocery trip yielding four herb refills for my spice rack.

Normally, I would be filled with a slight sense of dread as I add spice after spice to my weekly grocery list. This is the kind of purchasing that breaks the budget. In the past I was under the (false) impression that it was necessary to purchase herbs and spices in cute little jars for obscene amounts of cashola. It was only recently in my adult life that a good and trustworthy friend clued me in to buying my herbs and spices in bulk.

Knowing that I'm a thrifty woman, she told me that the experience will knock my socks off. She also warned me at how surprised I will be each and every time I come home with the bulk spices to fill up my cute jars paying only pennies for the contents.

Well dog gone it, she was right. It's been over a year now that I've been heeding her advice. Those spices come into my kitchen, I start filling the cute jars, my smile goes ear to ear, and I get so excited that I nearly jump for joy. My husband gets his ear talked off. "Can you believe these prices?" "How is it that I spent that much money on this stuff for so many years?" "How come I never knew about this?"

These two cute little jars prove the point. Marjoram = $0.32. Thyme = $0.76.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Praise Worthy Pancakes

Seeing how yesterday unfolded, I didn't care for a repeat today. Impromptu after-schoool project: pancakes.

Lucky for me, when I was in my time-out last night I was browsing through a little "Gluten Free Made Easy" pamphlet from the grocery store and eyed an easy looking pancake recipe. Surprise! They are some of the best gf pancakes we've had to date. The payoff happened ten minutes ago when my son muttered, "Mom, these are the best pancakes we've ever had." We even ate them with no syrup and no butter. Delicious just as they are!

Granted, these are typical gf in that they are fairly flat, not fluffy at all.

The trick here is to cook them until deep brown so that the middle isn't mushy. For an added treat add chocolate chips to the finished pancake and roll it up like a taco. Chocolate taco. Now this is what I've been waiting for all week. Thank heavens for an afternoon full of happy campers.

Here's what we did:

1 cup white rice flour (Ener-G brand)
2 Tbs brown sugar
1 Tbs baking powder
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp salt
1 large egg
1 cup skim milk (we used plain rice milk)
1 Tbs canola oil
1 tsp vanilla extract

Combine dry ingredients in large bowl. Beat egg in small bowl, then whisk in milk, oil, and vanilla. Stir egg mixture into dry ingredients. Let rest 5 minutes.

Coat skillet with cooking spray (or butter), and heat over medium-high heat. Pour 1/4 cupfuls of batter into skillet, and cook 2 to 3 minutes, or until edges bubble. Flip; cook 1 minute more, or until golden on both sides.

(Note: This recipe was taken from the Optimum Wellness Magazine, http://optimumwellness.com/)

School Lunches - Lord Have Mercy

For three days now I've sent my child off to school with food packed neatly in his Star Wars lunchbox. Meat rolls, carrots, dipping sauce, potato chips, apple, nectarine, almonds.

Each day he's come home without a scrap left. "Mom, you've got to pack more. I'm starrrr-ving." Lord Have Mercy, I don't know what else to send with the child. Normally, I would send a thermos with the remains of last night's dinner but each meal I've served this week has been devoured down to the last lick of the bowl.

I had a break down last night. It was bad, very bad. I got sent to my room - by my husband. I'm trying hard to make this week's grocery budget work. But honestly, I think every last soul in this house feels the same way as my first grader. They're all STARRRR-VING. Eliminating the convenience foods from the grocery cart has meant that we've eaten all of the whole foods twice as fast. Now I know why my grocery bill was half the cost, the food only lasted half the week. Dang. There is still food to eat around here - turkey burgers from the freezer and soup materials from the depths of the pantry. But there is little left to snack on and the natives are getting restless.

With a full flight of whine last night at dinner it became clear that the spinach salad with tuna salad on top didn't cut it for my three little monsters. Thirty minutes into the incessant "I'm hungry" from the girl, "I'm starrrr-ving" from the boy, and "ahhhhhh" from the baby, I got an overwhelming urge to locate a bag of bagels and short-stack of pancakes and start shoving them into the short people's mouths. My better judgement kept me from making this gluten-fest a reality, knowing full well that doing so would bring a sleepless night of gut pain and a morning full of diarrhea.

All this to say, I have a few lessons learned for next week's grocery trip:
1) Plan to double and triple the recipes for everything I make.
2) Make at least two batches of homemade snack items that will last the whole week.
3) Get a membership to Costco where I've heard you can get gluten-free snack bars for 1/3 the price.
4) Locate tasty gluten free bread that doesn't cost an arm and a leg.
5) Don't forget the rice cakes!

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Challenge Gets Real

Back at home, the day started something like this... awake, brush teeth, shower (ah-ha, I did it, this is bound to be a good day), eat oatmeal, begin sipping a cup of coffee, consider meal planning, stare blankly at my scrap paper, settle two kids at table eating oatmeal, continue staring at my scrap paper...

Despite the early morning bathroom pep talk about reducing our grocery spending and enjoying the challenge, meal planning this week seemed daunting. I am tasked with planning based on what we have in the cabinets. Eat it all (and I mean all) before we spend more at the store. Of course we need some of the basics from the store today - fruit, veggies, meat - but the meals need to come from the depths of lower cabinets. Old lentils, beans and rice. My recipe catalog is intimidating. Not that the recipes are intimidating, for they are glorious, scrumptious and divine. Rather the price of the ingredients can be downright scary. So I took to the internet for inspiration. 7am - My heart was pitter-pattering in my chest.

Ah-ha. Eureka. The Mennonites have come through for me. The influence of coffee in my veins must have stirred sweet memories of our time at the Netherlands L'Abri where delicious food was served morning 'til night, and where I was first introduced to this cookbook. Years ago The More With Less cookbook fascinated me with the simple premise that "There is a way of wasting less, eating less, and spending less which gives not less, but more. The gain is so great that the phrase 'cutting back' doesn't fit at all." Yes. Yes. Yes. This is the kind of inspiration I need this morning.

The grocery trip was a success. I spent half of what I normally do. Tonight was orange lentil soup over quinoa with lettuce salad. Feeling proud.

Let's see how I feel when the morning comes and I need to pack a lunch. No bread. Aghhhh!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Lessons Learned from the Sea

My beach vacation comes to a close today. Day after day of nothing to do but mozy my way down to the seashore, build castles of sand with the kids and float along with the ocean tide will soon turn into early mornings getting three kids dressed and out the door before the rooster crows, frantically packing lunch, and all the rest of the household norms - laundry, cook, sweep, laundry, organize, garden, scrub toilet, purchase laundry detergent, homework, laundry, cook and dishes. Somewhere in there I will sit down for five minutes - on the toilet - if I'm lucky. This all starts the day after tomorrow when I spring out of bed with the morning songbirds.

But, as with every other year as I leave this place, I intend to keep the beach alive in me. A few lessons I take from the sea:

A) The tide rises and the tide falls. When it's high, you float. When it's low, all kinds of things are exposed. One is not better than the other. They are just different. You respond differently. Same goes for the flow of the household (especially the finances and budget). Varying circumstances require varying response. Nothing is constant except the inevitability of change.

B) Get wet. Gazing at the ocean offers a certain serenity and awe. Getting in it is downright humbling. Willingly walking into something so grand and powerful will always bring you back to right where you need to be. In my family and in my life, that IS where it's at. In the thick of it. In the middle of the currents and the waves. What I'm looking for isn't around the next corner, or in the next house, or with the next job. It's here and now and there is profound beauty in that.

C) Connect with the process. At the crack of dawn every morning there are a handful of surfers standing on the precipice. They gaze out at the surf with such focus and wonder. The connection is deep, the bond is strong. This may sound silly but I need a little more of that in my day to day. Fully engaged in my process, for what it's worth - I intend to give over to the act of doing laundry. Invest fully in what I'm cooking for my family. Take pride in tidying the dining room after a meal. Being present is the key to fruitful living. No worrying about the future. Or crying over unfulfilled expectations of the past. Today is where the living happens.

Monday, August 9, 2010


We've arrived on our yearly family vacation to the seashore. With my toes in the water and ass in the sand there was not a worry in the world for me and my crew today.

All of this sun and sand has, however, given me opportunity to think through precisely what it is that I'm trying to accomplish.

Over the next nine months, while my husband wraps-up the fourth year of his Grad School program and our life is totally crazy, I want to...

1) Reduce our grocery spending by half
2) Increase our standard of living so that everyone's physical and emotional needs are being met
3) Make my return to finding pleasure in the simple things of life

Going back to my first post, the second two items hinge on the first. In our intense budget review, there seemed no room for spending reduction but in this one area. And reducing spending on food means that I get to see my husband more because he works less. When I see him more, I am a happier wife. The kids are more fulfilled. I enjoy cooking dinner again. We sit together at the table. And, 'voila', our standard of living has gone up.

And from there pleasure returns to the things that best own pleasure - a simple sunset, a hug from my baby, walking in the cool evening air, eating wholesome and delicious food crafted by my own hands, dancing wildly in my living room with folks I love, floating down a free river in a borrowed intertube, being together. This is what my next nine months are about.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Plan Thwarted

My plan has been so easy thwarted. Disappointing, but we will carry on. It all feel apart around noon yesterday.

Six kids sitting around the lunch table, Pops cooking up a big batch of pasta, and then the request. "Babe, can you run to the store and pick up a loaf of bread. I cannot eat this meal without bread." To which I replied, "Well honestly babe, if I continue buying loaves of bread that last us only one meal at $5.49 a piece, there is no hope for my budget reduction plan." But when a man wants bread on the rare occasion that he sits for lunch with his family, how could I deny his sweet request?

So yes, I did run out to the store to grab that oh-so fluffy gluten-free loaf, part discouraged that I made it less than a week before I gave in, but a little light on my toes that I was going to delight in the simple pleasures of perfectly crafted gluten-free bread with my meal.

On the bright side, my 6:30am departure for the Saturday morning Garage Sales was fruitful and fulfilling. I was back home by 8:30am with a few new threads perfectly suited for my wardrobe revolution. It's the little things that mean the most...

Friday, August 6, 2010


Feeling good. And tired. Just wrapped up my Friday night ritual of searching for tomorrow morning's garage sales on Craigslist. This is actually where all of my thrifty ways start. I cannot bear to spend $70 on that cutie little summer dress when instead I can wake my tired ass up on a Saturday morning and get it just the same for $.50. Maybe a little worse for wear, but honestly, sometimes things are better when they are a bit worn in. You know what I mean?

When done the right way, I can find every good and useful thing for my family between the hours of 7-10am on any given Saturday morning. First things first, there will be a cup of coffee in hand. Then I'm free as a bird as I cruise along the open road in search of the master find of the weekend.

Last weekend it was the college girls who were selling everything to begin fresh after graduation. I scored the best dress of my life! Bright green and yellow with splashes of white, fit perfectly - I don't think I've ever gotten as many complements as I did later that evening. Here's to another successful morning... on the cheap.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Two Guiding Principles

In my slumber last night I pondered what it is going to take to achieve this seemingly impossible feat. It came to me about 5:30 this morning. The two guiding principles that will be my beacon: One - Listen to your mother. Two - Don't spend money you don't have.

As I continue to play house in my 10th year of marriage I can hear this little voice - not always so soft - playing in the back of my head... Turn the lights out when you leave a room, finish the food on your plate, don't touch the thermostat, Why are you standing there with the refrigerator door open, do you think we're cooling the neighborhood?

When I was young these constant reminders of conservation were nothing less than annoying. Now as the mother of three young kids myself I completely understand the need for this type of rambling. Sky high electric bills, wasted food, over heated dwelling space, and dull stares into the refrigerated abyss are things I must keep in check. When cutting dollars at every corner it's the little things that count. And so I find myself ladling a smaller portion on my plate at dinner time. Heaven knows I'll soon be eating the leftovers from the kids plates in my attempt not to waste.

As I finish off the last bit of beef stew from my one year old's tiny bowl, I channel my grandfather, mother and all the other caretakers who've gone before. Making sure that my offspring have enough to grow healthy and strong and take the scrapes left behind for myself. But truly, this way I spend less and waste less and am more able to follow Guiding Principle #2.

Spending money I don't have will only lead me to spending more money I don't have until I'm dizzy in the downward spiral of debt for the simple sake of consumerism.

It makes more sense to adjust my lifestyle now while I'm still without burden of servitude to the almighty credit card companies. Maybe this way I'll be able to fulfill my dream of taking off to Costa Rica on a whim with my family and living on the beach for months without a care in the world. It's only a dream, but one that will never come true if I'm stifled under the weight of paying three times the price for that darn granola I so love to buy pre-made.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Cheap Challenge

My husband and I just finished chatting over the changes that are in store as Fall approaches. Decreased salary, increased expenses. You know the story. We spent an hour or so pouring over the family budget - trying to sneak ten bucks here and twenty there. But honestly, it doesn't seem like there's much room for cutting expenses. And Lord knows we've tried it before. "Honey, can you do your best not to spend so much at the grocery store" inevitably turns into me hiding the receipts the minute I walk in the door. How deep in this trash can I bury this darn thing?

Cutting the grocery bill down has been something I've been tasked with for the past two years. Have I succeeded? NO. Will I succeed without making big changes to how we're eating at home? NO. I'm not into cutting coupons. Nor do I have the time to search for online specials or which grocer has the best price in town. I need to walk in that store and walk out. Three little kids at home, husband working full time AND in evening grad school full time, me running my own business. Seriously... I'm impressed when I've both showered and brushed my teeth in the same hour.

With our new future coming at us quick, I need to figure out how to cut my grocery bill in half. Just like the coupons, I'm not into putting Ben & Jerry's on the credit card. That is insane.


Like my grandpa used to say, "You don't have the money for it unless you have the money for it." Following in my grandpa's shoes, I begin my journey into buying what I can afford. Which as of 11 o'clock tonight, looks like we won't be buying boxes of cereal or loaves of bread anymore.

I don't think this challenge would be too hard if it weren't for one little thing... 4 out of the 5 of us in this family are Celiac. That means we don't eat $0.69 pasta, 2 for $2 bread, $0.39 mac & cheese, or $0.33 corn muffins - like in the old days. Rather, we've been spending $5.49 for a loaf of bread that is half the size of your average Wonderbread. And we go through five of those a week, at least. That's just the start to our "special" foods - rice milk, almond milk, all-natural meat, gluten-free granola, gluten-free pizza crust, gluten-free granola bars, and the list goes on. My challenge is to cut expenses in every corner of the grocery mart. We start tomorrow...
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