Thursday, April 30, 2009

Cooking Philosophy and Tips

I am working on the first menu, but it is taking longer than I expected. It will be up soon, but in the meantime, I have a million ideas that are swimming around in my head, so I thought I better write them down.

I like delicious food, and I also like to cook. This means that I enjoy spending time making a great dinner or special treat. However, I teach piano lessons most afternoons, which means that by the time I am finished up with lessons, I don't have that much time to get dinner on the table (usually less than 30 minutes). I accomplish this by doing a lot of prep work ahead of time.

I also get a thrill out of seeing how good we can eat on as little money as possible. I love to have dinner be only $4 or $5 dollars total. Of course, this is not always possible, but on average, I try to have the total cost of groceries for the week be no more than $50-75. Some weeks I may spend more, some weeks less.

Understanding the previously mentioned philosophies is critical to understanding the development of my meal plans. First and foremost, the only way that I am able to do this each week is because I sit down on Sundays and plan out the week. What does this planning entail? Most importantly, what I am in the mood to eat. This is the privilege that the cook gets for doing all of the work! I enjoy cooking the meals so much more when it is something that I am looking forward to eating. This is also where having the week's meals planned out is helpful. If on Monday I am not in the mood to eat or cook my planned meal for Monday, I at least have several other meals already thought through, with the ingredients to make them.

In order to eat inexpensively, it is absolutely essential to know the best prices for your most purchased items. Only buy these items when they are at their best price. Then buy a lot if they are freezable. I have a large freezer just for this purpose. To keep costs down, it is more important to plan your meals around what you have in the freezer or what is on sale versus a particular recipe you want to make. In the Atlanta area, here are my price points of common things I buy:

Boneless, skinless chicken breasts: $1.99/lb (Kroger)
Split chicken breasts: $.99/lb (Kroger)
Chicken leg quarters: $.59/lb (Kroger sold in 10 lb bags)
Flat iron steaks: $3.99/lb (Kroger)
Boneless pork shoulder: $1.50/lb (Costco)
Pork shoulder with bone and skin: $.99/lb (Kroger/Publix)
Pork loin: $1.89/lb (Costco)
Salmon: $5.99/lb (Costco)
Tilapia: $4.99/lb (Costco)
Ground Beef: $2.20 (Costco) This is not the cheapest available, but the quality is unbeatable

Ethnic markets are my best friend. Specifically Asian markets. Their cuisine relies so heavily on produce, that produce at Asian markets is invariably loads cheaper than standard grocery stores. For example:

Cilantro: $.33/bunch
Limes: 5/$1 or better
Tomatoes: $.60/lb
Fresh or dried spices: TONS cheaper than the grocery store
Green onions: 5 bunches/$1.00

It is important to note that I am a stay-at-home mom. This means that I have the luxury of time earlier in the day to prepare dinner ahead of time. I understand that this is not possible for everyone. In addition to prepping earlier in the day, I also take advantage of preparing more than one meal at a time. For example, if I am going to the effort of cooking chicken one night, I will cook whatever extra I may need for another meal later in the week. Or perhaps to freeze. This doesn't work will all foods, of course, but I utilize this strategy all of the time when I know that later on in the week I will be pressed for time one night. Again, this is where a weekly meal plan is crucial because I have already thought through the food requirements and what I can do ahead of time.

I think that is all for now. Hopefully I will be finishing up my Menu #1 shortly, and I am anxious to hear any critiques that you have!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Menu Coming Soon

Most of you know that I love to cook. Combine that with my love of list-making, and you have every meal that we've eaten for the last 4 years!

Of course, not all of those meals have been good - some have even been downright terrible. However, I have also discovered quite a few great meal plans, as well.

I have been wanting to publish some sort of cookbook for a while, now. However, I always end up feeling overwhelmed and intimidated. Add to that the many ideas I have for how to best organize it, and you understand why I haven't done anything about it yet.

However, I thought that the best way to start would be to just simply start. So this week I am going to put up my first planner for a week of meals. Try them out, tell me what you think! Some will be recipes from cookbooks, some will be from online sources, and many will be my own. I'll be sure to write the source.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Speed Dial Add-on

Now I know that I have written about Speed Dial on my Facebook page, but I simply have to put a plug in for it again. I LOVE THIS APP!

If you are like me, then when you log onto the internet you go to the same 3 or 4 pages: maybe your email, the bank, facebook, or even your blog. Speed Dial lets you see all of these webpages as a little picture on your homepage. And get this - has an option to open all your pages at once.

Not only that, but I have it set up for Quinton, which is a huge help since now he can navigate the computer all by himself. See the picture below for how I have his homepage set up. He has his own profile on the computer, so he logs on as himself. Then when he sees the wireless turn green, he knows he can click on Firefox. His homepage is set up with all of his favorite games, so I don't have to keep navigating for him.

Again, I love this Application!

Friday, April 3, 2009

Writing/Talking Style

So I just read my Organizing Post and there is nothing like reading your own posts to realize your many errors in speaking and/or writing! Sorry in advance for all of the "quite's" and "I find's!"

Organizing Fun

Is my house always clean? Or, put better, is it ever totally clean? Well, not really. I often joke that I can only keep one level of my house clean at a time. It would probably be a funnier joke if it weren't true. However, one of my favorite activities is organizing. I have a ton of stuff. However, my house doesn't look like I have a ton of stuff (I am not a big fan of clutter) because I have it very organized and out of the way.

I get frustrated sometimes reading magazines (typically the January issue) which feature articles on organizing your home. My frustration is from the fact that most all of their organizing ideas require buying expensive organizing boxes and baskets. I don't know about you, but I don't have the resources to pay $15 for one box or magazine file. So here are some pictures from things around my house that I use to organize.... hopefully this can help someone else out there who is looking for an effective, but affordable, way to organize.

These two pictures are a perfect example of how I save nice containers to reuse them. Baby wipe containers are perfect for sorting and storing craft supplies, and Swiffer containers are great for larger supplies.

I have quite a collection of sewing patterns, and at first I had them stored in miscellaneous boxes. These inexpensive boxes from U-Line (I believe about 40 cents each) are the perfect solution. I made sure that they were exactly the right size to fit patterns in and not stick out from the edges of my shelves. I think that the simple repetition of same-sized boxes with uniform labels makes it appear much neater even though they are just cardboard boxes!

In our house we are lucky to have a storage room in the basement. I have heavy-duty storage racks where I keep decorations, clothes the kids have grown out of, and all the other sort of stuff a homeowner has stored away. I ordered these boxes that are just the right size to fill these shelves the entire length (about the length of two Xerox paper boxes together) in order to maximize the use of these shelves. In the past, I had the shorter boxes stacked two deep, but then I never knew what was in the back! These boxes solve that problem.

This was one of my very first do-it-yourself organizing projects. I made this makeup organizer out of basic white tile that I bought at Home Depot. This project actually was not cheap - costing me about $40 - but I was able to create exactly what I wanted. Those clear plastic ones that they sell in the store never had the kind of compartments that I wanted. One of my favorite things about it is that it is made of tile - so it blends perfectly with my bathroom!

One of my all-time favorite organizing finds has been this corrugated cardboard bin from U-Line. As you can see from the many pictures from around my house, I use them to organize all sorts of things. I bought them originally to help me corral all of Quinton's clothes since his bedroom has built-in shelves, but no drawers. I loved them so much, that I started finding uses for them all over the house. They cost $1.53 each, so although not super cheap, they are certainly less expensive that other options out there. Granted, they are not as pretty as those $15 boxes I was talking about earlier, but I find that grouping many boxes together, as long as they are identical boxes, makes a neat presentation.

I save all sorts of sturdy boxes. I find that low boxes - the kind that perfumes or stationary come in - are perfect for using in drawers. Here is an example of that drawer we all have in our house - you know the one with the miscellaneous hardware, batteries, tools, etc. I play around with several combinations of boxes until I find a perfect fit.

This is another example of using boxes to organize my knife drawer. I personally like to keep all of my sharp knives and kitchen shears in one drawer so that I only have to worry about keeping the kids out of one drawer instead of several.

Here is a picture of our library. You could say that my husband and I have quite a collection of magazines (almost all free subscriptions, by the way!) Neither one of us is good at throwing them away, so I have to figure out what to do with all of them. These magazine files are from Ikea. They are corrugated cardboard and sold flat in packs of 5. The printed ones sell for ~$5 a pack, and the white ones sell for about ~$3 a pack. I have found that all white files look too utilitarian, so I intersperse the less expensive white files with the printed ones. They are certainly not as durable as a leather magazine file, but hey, it is not like I am throwing them around!

Okay, so here is a picture of one of my spice drawers. One of my favorite resources for organizing tools is U-Line. They offer many products in bulk at great savings. The real clincher, however, on why this is such a good deal for me is that they have a warehouse a few miles from my house so I am able to pick up my order and avoid any shipping charges.

These 8 oz clear jars, for example, cost me 60 cents each. I buy all of my spices in bulk at ethnic groceries (where they are invariably loads cheaper) or bulk at Whole Foods.

Another advantage of these jars is that they stack easily, so I also have them in my cupboards. Granted, I love to cook and so it is a sort of hobby of mine to collect spices, so this method has saved me a lot of money compared to the $3 and $4 I used to pay for .75 ounces of McCormick brand spices at the grocery store!

I am a huge fan of Costco, and I probably do about 90% of all my shopping there. Instead of having tons of bags in my pantry, I put everything possible into cans. I save cans from everything, formula, nuts, dry milk, etc. This picture of cans stacked up doesn't look particularly beautiful, but it is an extremely efficient way to keep my food fresh and stackable.

Here is a picture of another shelf in my pantry. I find that the most difficult food to work with comes in bags, so I do my best to make it stackable. For example, I always opt to buy powdered sugar or brown sugar in boxes. It is infinitely easier to stack several boxes of powdered sugar than it is to stack several bags of powdered sugar. When I don't have a choice of a box (chocolate chips, for example), I group them with like products and put them in boxes, as you can see here with the "Dried Fruit" and "Baking Chips" boxes.