Thursday, May 10, 2012

Freeze your way to more in the budget!

It's no secret, my house is on a budget. Not just any budget, but a fairly tight budget. For us, it's a choice. I chose to quit my job to be home with my kids. It took some time for us to adjust to our new budget. Some things were easy to change, like eating most of our meals at home. When I worked outside the home, there were more nights than I want to admit that I didn't feel like cooking because I was tired. We all know how those trips add up over time. Since I was home, it was easier for me to prep and cook our meals. I've developed a process for my meal planning and continue to update and improve my methods. If you haven't already read Mae's meal planning posts to help you with your own planning, check out posts 1 and 2.

I've also learned how to coupon. We're not talking about the crazy folks you see on "Extreme Couponing." That's simply not realistic in our area. But I have learned how to save hundreds (yes, hundreds) of dollars in our budget through couponing. There are lots of blogs dedicated to couponing and I recommend you check them out if you're interested in starting to coupon. You can always comment or message me on my facebook page if you'd like some one-on-one hints.

Meal planning and couponing have been great for us, but I want to share with you three other easy ways you can help stretch your budget (and save you time). Here's the good part, folks. If you've read my recipe posts, you know that when I can, I make double batches of dinners and freeze half. The additional cost is usually cents on the dollar, the effort is rarely more, but it is nice to have meals ready to go in the freezer for those nights that are busy or you've had a crazy or stressful day and want to have something healthy for your family without a lot of effort. Right now, I have 4 meals in my freezer that simply need heating and they're ready to go. I try to have at least 2-3 meals in my freezer at all times.

In addition to freezing meals, I also freeze fruits and veggies to minimize waste. I have been getting 90% of my produce through Bountiful Baskets (which I highly recommend for those who have it in their area. It's an amazing food co-op and the value far exceeds what you contribute. Perfect for budgeting families to get fresh fruit and vegetables!) We will go through most of a basket in a week, but sometimes there are veggies we don't eat often or we don't have meals planned to use what was in our basket. Unfortunately, I don't have canning supplies, so I have to rely on freezing (and the internet to educate me on the best way to preserve). I have herbs, fruits and vegetables in appropriate serving sizes in my freezer. Again, having produce basically ready to go is a big time and money saver. Plus it helps me in my meal planning because I have more variety already at home and less money being spent at the store! Whether you can take advantage of Bountiful Baskets in your area, or simply stock up when the supermarket has produce on sale, buying in bulk can save money if you can use or freeze while the produce is still good. This picture shows my basket one week. Only $30 for all this produce!!

The third thing I do to help stretch my budget is to make homemade basics and store or freeze them. Mae mentioned she makes her own bread and pitas. One of my favorite things to make at home is marinara sauce. I use lots of the fresh veggies and herbs from our baskets and make up at least a half gallon of sauce per batch. The recipe varies from batch to batch based on which veggies I have on hand, but the result is always delicious! I usually brown up some sausage and freeze some sauce with meat and keep some vegetarian. I like knowing exactly what is in the sauces my family is eating and it doesn't take very long to make up a batch and let it simmer. I have 5 pints in my freezer right now!

I've also found a great homemade taco seasoning recipe on Pinterest. It is very inexpensive to make (we're talking about $0.10 to season a pound of burger) and the flavor is amazing. I recently discovered a basic cream soup recipe that you can mix up, store powdered and just add water and veggies (if desired). The canned cream soup price continues to rise and there is so much sodium and preservatives, I love having an alternative. You'll notice I recycle empty containers to hold my homemade mixes. :)

I also made up a few pints of homemade strawberry jam. I purchased 8 pounds of strawberries in my basket last week. My oldest wanted to bring fruit kabobs to preschool to celebrate her birthday. I still had 6 pounds of strawberries left, I thought I'd make up some jam. I just make a freezer jam, so it's simple and quick, but it tastes so good! It's another instance of feeling good about what I'm feeding my family. Now we have both strawberry and raspberry jam in our freezer!

There are lots of things you can make at home for a fraction of the cost and very little time. I admit, some things will be more of a time investment and it's important to weigh the value of your time to the convenience of buying store bought. If you want to give it a shot, I suggest taking an afternoon on a weekend (how about when your kids are napping?) and see what you can make in a few hours. I have a friend who works 12 hour shifts and is the mom of a teenage boy and a loving wife and she can make up nutritious meals for all week in a Sunday afternoon. You'll be amazed how much you can accomplish!

Freeze your way to more money in your wallet and time on your hands.
  • Make a double batch of a meal and freeze half for another day
  • Buy your vegetables and fruit in bulk or on sale and freeze to preserve.
  • Make homemade sauces, jams, breads and sauce mixes for economy and quality.

Friday, May 4, 2012

How do you get it all done?

It's the dilemma of every mom I know. It doesn't matter if the mom works outside the home or inside the home. There is a list of chores that fills a page. Your child(ren) need fed or bathed or both. Your dog needs walked. The laundry is piled up taller than the kids. You need to pay bills. Your cupboards and refrigerator are empty. You'd love to squeeze in some exercise (alone) or a shower or a glass of wine with a friend. How do we get it all done? Here's my story of how I worked out my cleaning needs. I would love for you to share how you "get it done" in your homes.

When I quit my job to stay at home with my kids, I thought it would be so much easier to "get it done." After all, the 11+ hours I spent commuting and working would now be plugged into my kids and my house. Surely I could be this stellar mom and housewife, right? Wrong. It still wasn't easy. Yes, I was home many more hours of the day, but I chose to play with my kids and do crafts and read to them and go on walks and ride bikes. Suddenly the 11 hours I gained at home turned into 1 or 2 extra hours when the kids napped. This wasn't exactly what I planned, but I could still take care of it all.

I tried cleaning every day. That failed miserably. Things didn't get done and I'd feel guilty or things did get done and the kids didn't get as much attention and I'd feel guilty. I tried cleaning at night when the kids went to bed. This didn't work either. I missed out on time with my husband and didn't feel like I had time to rest and recharge. I decided I needed to let go and not worry about cleaning everything everyday. I went back to cleaning on the weekends like I had done when I worked. The letting go part was harder than I imagined. I picked up on a daily basis, but didn't do any of the cleaning tasks until Saturday. Unfortunately, it would take up a whole day for me to get my stuff done and I'd just "wasted" an entire weekend day.

I thought I'd try something different and my current schedule was born. I started assigning tasks to certain days of the week. I'd make each day's task something I could do including the kids or while we played. If it was something that required more of my attention, I would make it something I could do while they napped and not pile several tasks on that day. It took some tweaking, but I finally had a schedule that allowed me to keep my house clean and not feel like I was neglecting my kids and still allow me to relax in the evening and have the weekends to spend with my family.

My schedule looks something like this:
Mondays-Kids' laundry
Tuesday-This is our errand day, so I don't plan on any chores this day
Wednesday-Clean bathrooms
Thursday-My laundry and Kids' laundry
Friday-Vacuum upstairs, sweep and mop, dust
Sunday-Family room

Fortunately, my husband is pretty helpful around the house. He does his own laundry which saves me a day. He also helps clean the kitchen and takes care of the yard work like mowing/weed eating. We often will tackle the family room together so it goes pretty quickly. Friday is our big day during the day, but I've made it a game with the kids. They like to get the swiffer dusters out and do the dusting in the living room. Is it perfect? No, but it teaches them to be involved and includes them in the family chores for our home. We play a game of chase with the vacuum. They run and scream and laugh and I still get it cleaned. They are also responsible for picking up their own room so I can vacuum. Often times, we do messy craft projects on Fridays because I know I'll be cleaning anyway. It's the perfect time to paint! After lunch, I move all the kitchen chairs to the living room and make a train or a blanket fort for the kids to play while I sweep. Once they nap, I mop (so there's no little footprints on my floor for a few hours).

Clearly, there are other things that need cleaned or organized and I tackle them as they come along or fit them in on a monthly basis too. Since implementing this schedule over 6 months ago, my house is cleaner, my kids still get my time and attention and I'm not feeling guilty for what I'm doing or not doing. It's not a perfect system, but it's working for us.

I realize this is a long narrative for what seems like a simple solution. I had to work through several  options to find out what worked best for us. With my two kids and my day care kids, I simply couldn't clean every day. It required me to let go of a few ideas and create a working plan.

My guest blogger, Mae, is helping outline some meal planning. I'm hoping to introduce some ideas for planning around the home, such as this cleaning schedule. How do you keep your family's home clean? What other tasks have you created a schedule to ensure they're completed? Let me know! If you're interested in sharing, I'd love to feature you as a guest blogger for a day or a series.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Meal Planning by Mae

Mama in Montana is proud to welcome Mae from Strive for Progress back to continue her lessons on meal planning. Take a look at the next steps to help your family get the most out of your budget, time and meals!

My last few weeks have been crazier then I thought! Guess what? We always had a meal to eat because I always had a plan! That is why you are here today to learn more about menu planning and how to make your food dinnertime come successfully not frightfully! I want to apologize that it took me so long to get back to Mama In Montana!

Did you take my advice since my last post? You were supposed to break three weeks up and do a few easy steps each week to figure out what your schedule was like, what your family likes for food, where to find coupons for the stores and products you shop for. You were also supposed to try some new recipes and find where you can save some money with coupons if you would like.

Now that you have accomplished all the steps from the last post here is what you need to do. Once a week or a month, assuming you have your weekly/monthly activities planned out on the calendar, sit with your recipes and your calendar. Have about 4-5 dinners recipes, 2-3 different breakfast and about that many lunch recipes that you want to use that week. Plug those recipes into the days. Here is a screen shot of my menu planning software that I use (I will give you details of meal planning software on my next guest post).  (Click to enlarge)

This meal plan was my “Vegetarian Delight” meal plan from my blog. For breakfasts I do oatmeal on the busiest mornings, we rotate through different kinds of cooked grains, so it is not just the same old rolled oats every time. I like to make a baked goodie for breakfast once or twice a week. I also treat my kids and I to a breakfast at our favorite coffee shop. This particular week we had muffins two days in a row, I simply made enough muffins to last two days. Lunches are leftovers (which can consist of dinner or breakfast leftovers) and smoothies most the time. Sometimes I will do PBJ’s or mac and cheese.

I am a very creative person in the kitchen, I rarely do the same recipe twice, if I do it’s because we ALL liked it as a family or it’s a fast recipe that I can do super quick! You will notice on this week I had more lunch leftover meals then dinner leftover meals. Just remember the more times you can have leftovers the less expensive your meal plan will be. I am an all organic girl, most everything I buy is from my town's co-op and it’s not cheap! So I am all about what can I make organic and keep it cheap. Leftovers are a great way to do that. Another tip to saving money is making items from scratch. Anything you can from scratch is almost always cheaper and you can add more variety in your meal plan that way. For instance, I make my own hamburger buns and I make my own pitas & hummus. Those are made for just pennies instead of buying pre-made ones at the store. So keep cost down by using leftovers and making your own things. One other way you can keep costs down is making a meal that has ingredients you can use in future meals. For instance you can make hamburgers one night and the next night use leftover hamburger in a spaghetti sauce or tacos. Build meals on top of each other. I will sometimes have waffles or pancakes for dinner and make enough extra for breakfast. Below is one other example of a meal plan from my “A Taste Of Italy” meal plan. Both of these meal plans and more are on my blog. I post a new meal plan every week. (Click to enlarge)

Now that you have the basics and some ideas to create your meal plan, you’ll need to contend with your shopping list. This is easier then you think but a little time consuming and that is where technology is awesome but for the next few weeks just do it with plain old paper and a pen. On a notepad create different columns. Meat, Dairy, Produce, Spices/Baking, Dry Goods, Frozen, Can/Jar, Misc. Go through your recipes and start putting what you need down in each category. Be sure you write your list close to the kitchen. You want to be able to jump up to check your cupboards or just write it all down and check your list before you go to the store. If you are uber organized or slightly OCD (like me! lol) you can take that notebook paper and re-write your list in the order of how you will walk down your store isles. Since I started using a planning program I do not do that now.

Now that you have your list, grab your coupons if you need them and get on your way! Spend the next three of four weeks planning your meals this way. When I return I will be telling you about an awesome program you can use to make meal plans using technology. You may be wondering why I don’t tell you now. Well basically when you learn how to do something “from scratch” then you understand it and get better at it. It will make learning the technology part “that” much easier! Now go forth and plan!!!

Mae is the writer and owner of At Strive For Progress, Mae aims to inspire and motivate people in everyday life. She lives in the USA with her highschool sweetheart Mike, three beautiful kiddlets, a lovable Great Dane and a crazy tabby cat!