Garden 2019 Update

It’s been a handful of weeks since I posted about planting the garden.

Truth is, I’m still working on flower beds, but all the veggies are in the ground and we are anxiously awaiting their bounty.

While the weather was a bit of a mixed bag this past weekend, we did enjoy some Vitamin D (complements of the sunshine) and I was able to snap some pictures of the beauty flourishing out back.

This gorgeous flowering bush was hidden under awful pine trees we had cut down a few years ago. I cut this guy wayyyy back and allowed him to re-group – and boy did he!

All of the pepper plants are sprouting flowers!!
ALL of the tomato plants inside the greenhouse are in flower mode! I can almost taste that fresh tomato juice and smell that pasta sauce simmering on the stove.
This year I planted sweet peas in a container with a tomato cage for them to climb up. This will allow me to do a second planting in the fall and simply move the container into the greenhouse (which gets much too hot in the summer for peas) on frost-ridden nights.
Oh how I love these lilies! I only wish they would flower longer!
Ahhhh the excitement when fruits appear! This is the cherry tomato plant – my kiddos will be THRILLED! They could live on cherry tomatoes!

What’s exciting in your gardens (veggie and/or flower)? Still planting or wrapped up that project days <or weeks> ago?

Pointers for Weekly Food Prepping

This has become somewhat a series, going through weekly meal planning, meal planning on a budget, budgeting for groceries, and today some tips/tricks for meal prepping that can help you stay on track to at-home cooking instead of eating out or opting for convenience foods at the store (which also helps staying on track with the grocery budget).

Meal prepping has become essential for our smooth(ish) functioning during the week.

Let’s get real: the time of day that you are most depleted of energy (and maybe motivation) is the time of day you really have to rally because it’s just so darn busy.

Getting dinner on the table, eating, baths, and bedtime routines for a crew of littles, kitchen clean up and dragging your own exhausted self to bed (hopefully after a shower to remove the days worth of vomit compliments of the littlest who struggles with reflux and is a barfing machine)…

It’s a lot.

And it’s easy to look at the clock and think “ughhh….uber eats tonight?”.

BUT, if you have food already bought and prepped in the fridge that can come together more quickly and simply than starting from scratch you’re most definitely more likely to choose that route versus Uber Eats.

If you are like me, there is a fine line between prepping ingredients for a quicker come-together during the week, and having everything fully made for re-heating during the week (leaving you feeling a little like you’re just eating a bunch of leftovers night in and night out).

Some recipes lend themselves well to a complete assembly prior and a simple re-heat. In fact, some recipes are BETTER this way. Soups and casseroles tend to be good examples.

It will take some time for you to determine where this line is with your recipe line-up (and I will try to do better to give the prep-ahead tips I use on my recipes going forward) and prep accordingly.

Here are some things I take the time to knock out on the weekends to ensure meals can meet that “quicker and easier” standard through the week:

Cook all Pastas and Rice

Rice, in particular, takes a long time to cook. This can be a deal breaker for assembling a meal on a week night when you’re already fried. I’ve found that rice is often times actually better after it’s been cooked and had time to chill in the fridge.

In fact, I’ve been known to cook a whole large batch of rice at once and then freeze it in smaller portions. It thaws and re-warms wonderfully (side note: rice in the freezer has come in handy when I’ve had sick kiddos who need a bland bit of something for their tummies and waiting around for rice to cook simply wouldn’t be an option).

Ever been working on a recipe only to discover that you didn’t get the water for your pasta set to boil…and now you’re standing around literally waiting for a pot to boil?

Pasta also cooks and re-warms well.

Cook your rice and pasta (cook pasta to al dente) then store in air-tight containers in the fridge until ready to use.

Rice will need a simple stir and re-warm in the microwave if your recipe can’t do the re-warming and pasta can use a quick rinse under warm water and you’re all set!

Wash and Chop All Fruits and Veggies

Once fruits and veggies are washed and cut into their recipe appropriate size and shape, store in the fridge in airtight containers by recipe and timing of addition for cooking.

Example: if I have a stir-fry on the menu that calls for garlic and onions to be added to the wok before the peppers, I will store the garlic and onions in one container and the peppers in another. Then, if I also have a roasted veggies side dish planned for another night, I will prep all those veggies and store them together in yet another container.

You get the idea…

It can add up to a lot of containers, yes. I have a dishwasher so I don’t get too worried about that (and honestly, from night to night it really isn’t a stack of dishes). If you worry about the abundence of dishes, zip-top bags are an option as well (they’re just an added expense).

A note about potatoes: If prepping potatoes (chopping, cutting into wedges, etc.) prior to cooking, be sure to store completely submerged in water otherwise they will turn black. Added bonus of soaking in water before cooking? Water will pull some starch out of the potatoes and they will crisp up nicely when it comes time to cook.
Fully cooked potatoes can be prepped ahead of time, start to finish, and stored in the fridge until ready to re-warm. See this example for mashed potatoes made in large quantity and kept in the freezer

Cut Meats According to Recipe Specification & Start Marinades

Having meats already cut, and stored in containers per recipe, is a time and mess saver on a busy night.

Added bonus? If a recipe calls for a marinade and you prep this detail on the weekend you 1) won’t forget and run out of time for the marinade to work its magic and 2) your meat will have time to absorb LOTS of flavor, which is the whole point of the marinade to begin with.

Brown Hamburger and Sausage

Cooking meats ahead of time isn’t typically a recommendation of mine but hamburger and sausage is the exception. You won’t notice a bit of difference re-warming either of these when it’s time for your recipe to come together.

Cook with appropriate seasonings and store in air-tight containers in the fridge until time to use.

Added bonus tip: I tend to use the same pan for browning these meats. Hamburger first, drain and quick wipe with a paper towel, then brown sausage. ONE pan to wash when it’s all said and done!

Assemble Soups, Sauces, Casseroles & Dressings

Soups, sauces, casseroles and dressings tend to get better after the ingredients have time to mingle. Assembling them on the weekend and allowing a few days before eating will add an extra element of YUM when it comes time to eat.

Note: if you are preparing a sauce that will go over pasta later in the week, I’d recommend storing each separate, then re-warming and adding sauce to pasta the night you serve that dish. Otherwise your pasta may over-absorb the sauce and get mushy.

Assemble Crock-pot Meals

Any crock-pot meals you have on the agenda during the week can likely be assembled in large containers or zip-top bags for an easy dump-and-go (or do yourself one better if you have the fridge space and assemble in the crock of the crock-pot, pop the lid on and the day of simply pop the crock in the cooker and turn on).

See? So much can be done on the weekend, saving you precious minutes during the week and helping keep you on track to at-home cooking/eating.

I promise the day you food prep your kitchen will be a HUGE disaster! My husband always just shakes his head. BUT, remember that mess would happen eventually anyway and clean up really doesn’t take all that long in the grand scheme of things. I know I’d rather tackle that task along with the bulk of the cooking when I have more hands on deck for entertaining the littles.

Wouldn’t you?

Photo Credit: Photo by Katie Smith on Unsplash

Setting a Grocery Budget

Isn’t it amazing how time can get away from you?

I cannot believe that it’s FRIDAY. I have no idea what happened to my week; what I even really accomplished. Stuff got done, don’t get me wrong, I just have no real recollection of who, what, when, where, why and how.

At any rate, I’m sliding in under the wire with the post I promised last week (when I shared with you some tips for meal planning on a budget) about setting a grocery budget.

There are lots of ways to go about setting a budget, so let’s get your wheels spinning on a few different options and you can figure out what might work best (and be most realistic) for you.

Side Note Before We Jump In: I can’t stress realistic enough. I’ve read plenty of articles about families of six living on a $35/week grocery budget. And while I’m not saying that isn’t possible, I AM saying it’s not realistic for us. I simply can never imagine a time when I will omit meat as a staple in our diet. No judgment either way for those that have…but I’m a Nebraska girl and meat is where it’s at! And I like to include as much fresh as I can (as opposed to lesser expensive canned and frozen options – which I’m not mad at, it just all has a time an place in my meal planning and cooking).

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics = 15%

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that Americans spend between 11%-15% of their annual budget (which is after tax, take home income) on food each year. A simple mathematical equation for figuring your food budget based on this information is to determine what your monthly take home is and calculate out the 15%. Divide that by four and you have <roughly> a weekly grocery budget.

Grocery Budget Calculator

Iowa State University website hosts a grocery budget calculator that will help you assess your spending, suggest what you should be spending and give ideas to cut costs.

Assess and Re-Assess

Or, you can do what I did…which was mostly a process of trial and error based on what I could easily find in my budget and later making adjustments based on what grocery necessities were costing (based on a standard of eating I wanted to achieve. I suppose we could all just live on hotdogs and mac and cheese if we want to get down to the nitty gritty).

When I first set out to establish a grocery budget, I had to start by putting pen to paper and figuring where my money was going each month. This included ALL spending (mortgage, utilities, phone, fuel, groceries, entertainment, etc.).

That was compared to my income followed by a critical review of wants versus needs. Setting a strict budget meant NO SPENDING ON CREDIT!

As it turned out, with my adjusted income (remember the story I shared about changing jobs at a far reduced salary?), I was easily outspending what I was bringing in every month. Not only was my debt rising, it also meant nothing was making its way into savings.

Cuts had to be made.

Cable TV was the first to go.

This essentially became my grocery budget and I worked a plan to stay within that budget for two months.

After the 2 months, I re-assessed.

While I was staying within the budgeted amount, I wasn’t eating as well as I would have liked and it was a struggle not to over-spend. I knew that I had other areas of spending I could trim that could help me increase my grocery budget AND start stashing money into savings.

So, I made a small adjustment to the grocery budget (it’s amazing what the additional $25’ish could accomplish) and the rest tucked neatly into my savings account.

At that time, as a single gal, I spent no more than $100 on groceries monthly, and had separate budgets for Other Necessities (i.e. household, health and beauty items), Entertainment (i.e. eating out, trips out of town, unnecessary shopping, movies, etc.), Fuel, Etc.

Once J and I merged our lives the budget increased to $250/mo. Feeding a man requires a little more than what it took to feed only myself.

And now with the addition of our kiddos we stick to $350/mo (though, in full disclosure, because our oldest two are part of the foster system, they do get a few grocery benefits that amount to about $50/mo and will continue to receive that benefit until age 5).

Our babe has his own budget for formula, food, diapers, wipes, etc.

And anytime things start to feel tight (think: as the kiddos grow and begin eating more OR when the baby came on the scene and we needed a budget for his necessities) we return to our budget and re-assess.

Wants versus Needs.

It might mean foregoing some non-essentials more frequently. Or finding a bit of side-work for a few extra bucks. Or spending a little more time finding rebates, sales, and discounts to tap in to. Or getting more creative in the kitchen and figuring out ways to make meals that stretch further and don’t cost as much to make in the first place.

We make it a priority to keep our debts low. Other than my student loans and our mortgage (which we pay extra on every month in an effort to pay them off sooner) we strive NOT to live on credit AND to have a comfortable cushion of savings should push ever come to shove.

It’s not always easy.

We certainly don’t live a glam life (like I have the energy for that anyway LOL). BUT we are still making memories as a family on the cheap.

I can’t tell you the last vacation we went on. Actually, I can, it was our honeymoon over FIVE YEARS ago…unless you count the trip to New Mexico we took over two years ago, where we landed at our sweet friends home (they graciously hosted us) and mostly hung out visiting and bobbing around their pool and relaxing.

Our eating out at least a couple times a week as a couple without kiddos has drastically reduced to maybe a couple times a month.

I could go on and on…but put simply: it’s all about priorities.

A grocery budget is just one place to start.

Do you need a budget? Do you have a budget that needs re-visiting? Are you feeling at all compelled and inspired to take another run at this? Have you devised another method for figuring your grocery budget that you wouldn’t mind sharing? Let us know in the comments below!