Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Mo' Money, Mo' Grind

Things have settled down a little for me financially - I was feeling the pinch of consumerism earlier this month, but that's mostly gone away now. The biggest reason is because we are basically ready for the newest Moneybags to join the family - we've got everything we need on hand, mostly thanks to the most recent kids' consignment sale. I got a whole boy's first nine months wardrobe and a double stroller for $150, and I sold enough stuff to make almost $90 - not a bad deal! I also swapped a bunch of clothes with my NICU mom friend - girly stuff for her, adorable boy stuff for me (with nary a baseball or football on them, all monsters and bears and dinosaurs, yay!).

Since then, Pickle and I have been out and about enjoying the summer, and not focused on acquiring things for the new baby. We've visited local parks, playgrounds and pools as well as a children's museum (we bought a membership). We haven't been taking too many stroller walks because I need to be off my feet a lot, but we're spending tons of time in the backyard - someone put one of those turtle sandbox things out by their mailbox with a "free" sign on it, and I snatched it up and turned it into a wading pool for her. She's fascinated by airplanes, so we like to sit in the shade and making zooming noises as they go by.

Which reminds me, if you've got a little aerophile like I do, a great free thing to do is head somewhere near your local airport where you can watch planes take off and land. We haven't done it yet, but a great place to do this in the Twin Cities is the rooftop parking lot of the Mall of America - the planes come in right overhead; you can almost see the people in the windows! We'll be doing that at least once in the coming weeks.

I have a few more projects that I'd like to complete before baby arrives - eventually we will be redoing the nursery and I've got some things I can do now to make the space work better for two than for one. These Ikea spice rack bookshelves are at the top of my list. The other thing we have coming up is Pickle's second birthday next month. We will be having a small, family-and-friends-who-are-family-only party at our house, with cake and ice cream. (Last year I also made dinner for everyone, but that's not happening this time.) I am thinking about making an Elmo cake, since that's her newest obsession (thank you, Grandma), but I'm not sure if it would freak her out to actually eat Elmo. We'll see.

Anyway, that's what's been new around here - it's been nice to have a break from all the money thoughts for a while.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Sous Chef: Chicken Burrito Bowl


Prep: One pot, minimal attention, half an hour to table, inexpensive - meets most of my criteria for a great dinner. I forgot to thaw the chicken ahead of time and had to cook it from frozen, which took a little longer but didn't ruin my plans or anything. Easy clean up.

Taste: Really good! The Mexican Quinoa recipe is basically a variation of this, and I think I like that slightly better than the rice, but this is really good, filling, tasty, family-friendly, and makes good leftovers.

Reaction: Thumbs up all around - this is another good one to keep on the menu on a regular basis.

Anecdata: Makes four servings, if I remember correctly.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Sous Chef: Slow Cooker Cheesy Chicken and Rice



Prep: This is an easy slowcooker meal that dirties only the crockpot and rice cooker (unless you use rice made earlier in the week, which you could easily do). Takes almost no attention or time.

Taste: The taste was okay but this was really dry. Part of the problem is that the recipe doesn't have amounts in it, and I used plain rice instead of boxed rice, so I think I used too much. I even added milk which didn't seem to make a difference at all.

Reaction: Meh. I like the flavor but the texture left something to be desired. One thing I like is that this is really easy to pair with a veg and salad, so I'll be tweaking it to get a better consistency.

Anecdata: The recipe said to cook on low 7-8 hours but I don't think I'd do more than 5 hours next time - it smelled and looked done by then. On high would be just a couple hours, enough to cook the chicken through. Also, possibly because of my rice enthusiasm, this made a TON of food. I'm going to have to figure out how to make it creamier for us to eat up these leftovers.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Rethinking freezer cooking

I have flirted with freezer cooking for years, but have not had a lot of luck doing it. I've tried doubling recipes and freezing half for later, freezing leftovers, freezing extra bits of things (like half a can of coconut milk or enchilada sauce), and Once A Month Cooking (a special kind of hell where you spend an entire day slaving away to make sixteen versions of basically the same dish and you are so tired of looking at them that you never want to eat them again). The only things that have really worked for me are taco meat and breakfast burritos.

My problems are as follows:
1. Freezer burn. I have tried wrapping in plastic, foil, and freezer bags. I have tried freezing in the dish. I have tried flash freezing. None of it seems to work - food that's cooked and then frozen just tastes like that when you reheat it - it's not as good as if it were made fresh.
2. Storage space. We have a freezer on top of our fridge as well as a chest freezer, but it seems like the kinds of thing I'm storing don't fit well in either freezer, and it's hard to get to the older things first, which means I use up new stuff so the old stuff just sits in the back and gets more freezer burned.
3. System. Keeping track of what's in the freezer and when it was put there is somehow beyond me. Writing the name of the contents on the bag is a good idea, but it doesn't do much good when you forget that it exists. We have a list on the fridge of what's in the chest freezer but I never look at it and it never gets updated. And the reorganization of newer stuff to the back/bottom of the freezer just doesn't seem to happen in my house.

I'd like to get better at this, because we're going to need some stockpiles of stuff for when the newest Baby M comes home. And "freezer meals" has been on my "before baby" checklist since we found out we were expecting, but I have been avoiding this task like the plague.

Cue a new idea!

What if I thought about freezer cooking in a totally different manner? What if I thought about it as stockpiling meals, rather than freezer specific cooking? What if I looked for components of meals on sale, stocked up on those, and froze the perishables, withOUT cooking them ahead of time? Keeping cans of soup, frozen veggies, rice or quinoa, and frozen chicken breasts on hand is not complicated, but toss all of those things in a slow cooker and you've got dinner! If I cooked them ahead of time and then froze them, I would never eat them - but knowing that I have the components on hand would be easier to organize and keep track of, and easier to throw meals together with some semblance of variety.

So. Here's my NEW freezer cooking plan:
1. Stockpiling. Keep an eye out for the following staples, and scoop them up x3 whenever they are on sale: chicken breast, ground beef, canned cream of ______ soups, canned corn, shredded cheese, frozen veggies.
2. Preparing. Chop chicken into bite size pieces, bag up into meal-size bags, freeze. Turn ground beef into taco meat, freeze. Freeze frozen veg (obviously) and shredded cheese (we do this with mozzarella for pizza; surely it would work with cheddar or mexican, right?).
3. Organizing. Get some shallow baskets for the chest freezer. Chicken goes into one basket, taco meat into another, cheese into another, etc. Add new bags to the back of the basket, take from the front. Baskets should be stackable so things don't get lost in the bottom of the freezer.
4. Preparing. Sous Chef posts are focusing on easy throw-together dinners that make use of these kind of staples, as opposed to requiring all fresh ingredients or things that I would only buy for that purpose. So hopefully when the time comes, I will be able to have a basic fresh produce shopping list for adding veggies and fruit to our meals, and otherwise be able to shop the pantry to make slow cooker or one-pot meals for my bigger family.

This seems like something I will actually be able to stick with. I already kind of shop this way - buying extra brats or cereal when they are on sale. I don't know why it never occurred to me to do it with meal components as well.


Friday, August 1, 2014

Ugh, I feel like such a CONSUMER

Seriously, I don't know what is going on with me lately, but I feel like all I'm doing is trying to find ways to spend money.

I blame the pregnancy for the most part. Early on when I had a hard time being interested in food, I gave myself permission to go get whatever sounded good at least every couple of days. Usually I wanted a chicken sandwich and fries from Wendy's, so it wasn't that expensive, but it started a bad habit of talking myself into a "treat" every time I leave the house. I've been combating this by bringing snacks and water with me everywhere now that I'm feeling better, but the habit remains. It mainly stuck out the day I went to the zoo with some friends - I was looking forward to the outing in general but also as a chance to get to eat out, and they all brought food with them. I wound up waiting in line forever with a fussy toddler for greasy park food that wasn't that good but was super expensive. Ugh.

So now I've been trying to be better about not falling into the trap of getting a treat just because I want one. I've been buying soda and ice cream at the grocery store so I have them on hand for cheaper. But then another problem came up - I'm not on bedrest or anything, but I do have to take it easy. When Baby M and I go to the park, I can't push her in the stroller; I have to drive. I kind of rolled my eyes at my doctor's request about this, but it really is too difficult for me to handle the walking and the heat and the stroller and everything else - I start getting lots of contractions and that's not a good thing.

So now we're driving everywhere all the time, which makes it SO EASY to just pop into Target or whatever. And I am relishing the ability to take Pickle out in public - she spent two winters in heavy isolation and just loves going places. She pretends to eat all the food at the grocery store and goes "WOW! WOW!" to almost everything we pass. But of course, I almost always wind up picking up a few things on these trips. I try to go with specific lists and I'm pretty good about it but it's still money that we probably don't need to be spending.

And now I am in full on nesting mode for the new baby - I just want to buy all sorts of cute little boy outfits and get the new cloth diaper stash put into place and everything, and it's just money money money flying right out the window. I have restrained myself so far (with the exception of two sleepers that were at Goodwill for $.75 each) because the kids' consignment sale is coming up next week and I can probably do all my shopping then at once. I'm limiting myself to going on half-price day in hopes that it does some good.

Still, I don't like the way my brain seems to constantly be in "acquiring" mode. It's tiring and distracting, and I don't know how to turn it off. Does anyone else know what I'm talking about?