22 December 2008

My Challenge - Conclusion

I made it through the entire week of my challenge. Actually, let me amend that - I made it through the entire week of my challenge, less Saturday night dinner.
I was rather surpirsed by the outcome. I had expected to run low on food, completely depleting my supply of fresh fruit and vegetables, and resorting to dry, unappetizing menu options. As it turns out, I actually still have food from my original shopping cart left. I did not touch the cous-cous, chickpeas, green beans or falafel mix. The pork chops are still in my freezer. My crisper still houses half a bag of carrots and a significant number of apples. I still have left-over eggs, bread, raisins, sunflower seeds, oatmeal, and pasta. Shockingly, I even have a small cube of cheese left. I think the groceries that I bought for just over $40 could have fed me for ten days at least. What I did eat more or less met the Canadian nutrition guidelines.

There are nutritious and appetizing options out there for the budget conscious. Lessons learned:

*One pot meals, such as chili which is healthy, yummy, and easy to make, can easily be stretched by serving it with healthful brown rice.

*Cheaper meats are extremely versatile. Two large turkey drumsticks, simmered in the crockpot to make the meat tender (and to provide a week's worth of stock) provided many warming bowls of soup and the base for a delicious stirfry. The soup was fortified by the addition of grated carrots and brown rice.

*Proteins such as beans/legumes and eggs are a wonderful low-cost substitute for meats. They also are an eco-minded alternative to livestock production.

*Organization is key. Plan your menu, buy only what is needed, and cook in advance if possible. Using your stove for the bulk of your cooking only once a week also helps to reduce costly energy bills.

*The cost of one Starbucks tall latte, can feed one person for an entire day!

I know that over the holidays I am likely to be plied with cookies, chocolates, meats, cheeses, and all manner of delectable dishes. My goal for the New Year though is to try to continue this lifestyle as a general rule of thumb. I have a tendency to be self-indulgent and the continual New Year's Resolution to lose weight or be healthier is meaningless, and typically tattered and broken by February. It is easier to make a lifestyle adjustment toward less seld-indulgence when you hear the repeated news of lay-offs, record unemployment, foreclosures, etc.

My early best wishes for a year of stability and recovery in 2009.

Turkey stirfry, with green pepper, onion, carrots and bean sprouts. Cooked in turkey stock and soy sauce, and served over brown rice.

Sweet treat to cure a dessert craving. Apples sauteed with brown sugar and a little water to make a caramel sauce; raisins and sunflower seeds tossed in for good measure.

16 December 2008

Christmas Memories

Our family traditions were pretty simple.

The tree, always a Scotch pine, would go up about week or so before Christmas, decorated year after year with the same glass ornaments; the styrofoam balls pinned with rikrak and sequins that my Mom made; upturned pillbottles filled with a little cotton and a small figure created by my Nana; plus the new ones that we toted home year after year from school.

In grade six we had to sew a stuffed ornament. I made a snowman... called Snowy. Snowy was very lopsided on the bottom and had too little stuffing. I didn't realise you were supposed to stitch and then turn things inside out so that the stitches were hidden. He was lined with horribly crooked, uneven stitches. He was hideously ugly, but Mom put him on the tree every year anyway, and my siblings all laughed at him. It was a mercy for poor Snowy the year a mouse found that box of ornaments and ate him.

The star would always go on last, and always by my Mom.

Along the railing was hung a fluffy gold garland, and from the centre hung an elf dressed in retro gold lame, sitting hugging his knees. There were two reindeer candles, one had his neck snapped cleaned, yet the head remained loosely attached by his cotton wick spine. On each of the front windowsills sat a set of tiny plastic reindeer drawing a tiny Santa's sleigh. One set of reindeer were sans antlers, having been chewed off early in life by my brother when he was a baby.

Once the decorations were in place, the presents needed to be wrapped in gloriously gaudy papers. We took turns going into Mom's bedroom and each wrapping a gift with her, the final touch being peeling off the paper to reveal the underside of a pointy ribbon bow. Once the presents were under the tree, we would have to re-arrange them over and over again everyday until Christmas. The dog would chase the cat up the tree.

We would go to Christmas Eve Mass, and listen to the NATO/Interpol Santa tracking on CFRB radio, before we went to bed. Cookies and milk were left out for Santa, and carrots for the reindeer. Most years, my uncle would come to stay with us. He would sleep in my sister's room so we bunked together on Christmas Eve, and the excited whispers carried on long into the night, despite the repeated threats that Santa would not come until we were asleep.

We always woke up super-early, of course. We could open our stockings right away. Always, there was one of the gigantic oranges and the matching Red Delicious Apple, and a handful of nuts, a candy cane and some miniature toys.

Next would come the big presents, those left by Santa, and carefully selected from our early December letters to Santa. And of course, there was our childhood delight at watching our parents open the gifts that we had chosen for them, decisions which were laboured over, sometimes for minutes. There have been an odd assortment of gifts over the years. Typically Dad was easier, Old Spice, a wallet, a tie. But Mom was harder. We wanted to be sure it would be pretty, yet useful, and something that would surely make her smile... like the frozen meat saw that I bought her one year.

After the unwrapping was a gigantic Christmas breakfast. The rest of the day was spent playing with the new toys, and snacking on Christmas cookies ... shortbread, gingerbread, fruit cake, mincemeat tarts, Nana cookies (not sure what those were actually, other than something that far-far Nana, the one in PEI, used to make at Christmas). And then came dinner. This was always a full-on turkey feast, with stuffing and cranberries. Dessert was a Bouche de Noel or Yule Log.

Boxing Day meant a trip to visit with city-Nana, the non-PEI Nana's house. Again, there would be loads of wonderful baked treats. Each year, Nana would give us each a deck of cards, and usually a sweater. Often times, the three girls would each get the same sweater, each in a different size. In a family fond of hand-me downs, my younger sister could easily wear the same sweater style for 5 years. My older sister was lucky, once she outgrew it, she never had to wear it again.

As we count down to the big day, I wish everyone a wonderful Christmas. I hope you create many happy memories this year.
Please feel free to share your memories here, too.

14 December 2008

My Challenge - Part 2.

I'm a person who prefers to do things on a whim. I don't typically plan my excursions to the grocery store, list in hand. I usually head out when there is little in my kitchen to inspire me, and then head to the store seeking out that inspiration. Having to make a list, and buy only those items, do some preliminary meal planning, etc, is in itself a bit of a challenge for me. I needed to be organized if my experiment was going to be a challenge. Added to that, the fact that my part-time, out-of-the-house job has me working extra hours and odd times over the holiday season, and the fact that I am scattter-brained on the best of days and often forget to tote along my lunch, meaning a quick dash out for a bite to eat, at extra expense. No extra dollars for that sort of carlessness this week.

To keep myself on track, I took a few hours and pre-cooked meals so that I would have meals ready when I needed them. As I suspected, carrots were invaluable additions to most dishes. I tossed my turket drums into my crockpot and added LOTS of water, a bit of carrot and a couple slices of my precious onion, so that I would have an abundance of extra stock for making soup and adding flavour to my cooking through the week.
I browned my ground beef, used 2/3 of the can of red beans, 1/3 can of the diced tomatoes and 3/4 of the can of tomato sauce for chili. It was heavily plumped up with grated carrots.

Using the rest of the canned tomatoes and tomato sauce, I sauteed my full block of spinach (forgetting that I had planned to reserve half for addition to a quiche), mixed in 2 more heaping handfuls of carrots, and simmered the mixture until a half box of whole wheat pasta was cooked. I tossed it all together in a casserole dish, sprinkled it all with a small block of my mozzarella, and baked it. The top noodles ended up a little dry, so I will have to brainstorm a remedy for that.

I have a bowl of grated carrots sitting in my fridge that will be tossed into soup, added to stirfry, and mixed into a carrot salad using the raisins and sunflower seeds.

As far as organization goes, I am not off to a bad start.

In the centre, are the grated carrots. Thank goodness for a Cuisinart; being spoiled I did the quick method rather than hand-grating. On the right is the carrot, spinach and tomato mixture for the pasta. On the left is my pot of chili, heavily mixed with carrots.

My Challenge

Last week as I got ready to make my weekly trip to the grocery store, I decided to see if it was actually possible to maintain a healthy diet on a fixed income. I set myself an initial budget of $20, and sat down with pen and paper to make up a weekly menu and corresponding shopping list. The menu would need to include large one pot meals that would produce many leftovers, or one meal that could be re-fashioned several times over. It would also need to rely on the healthiest ingedieants that my meagre funds could supply. As I scratched items off my list to make less expensive substitutions, I realised it was a near impossibility to subsist, healthfully, on that $20. I revised my plan, confident that I could be successful on $30.

I made the trip to my regular grocery store. I started loading my cart in the vegetable aisle. Bulk bags of carrots ($1.99) and apples ($2.99) were the first in, as they were inexpensive, packed with vitamins and nutrients, and in the case of the carrots at least, multi-purpose. I scoured the produce section for other inexpensive options. Green peppers were on sale, so I tossed one in. I added an onion. Grapefruit, in season, were 2 for $1.49 and large as they were would cover four breakfasts. Green beans, a relatively inexpensive vegetable, were tossed into a bag, and then half of the quantity were pulled back out, worried that they would end up costing too much. This did not seem like an overwhelming amount of fresh food, so I wracked my brain for other inexpensive vegetable options. Salads of any type were out of the question, with both lettuce and tomatoes being too expensive. I recalled my university day saviour... the lowly bean sprout. Handfuls of beansprouts can bulk up a quick stirfry meal for literally pennies. Well, in those days it was pennies; currently a decent sized package costs $1.59. In the freezer section, I added a block of frozen spinach.

Next stop was the meat aisle. I grabbed a loaf of multi-grain bread on the way, adding $1.99 to my current tally. In the meat aisle, I added a full chocken, reasoning that I would be able to toss in the crock pot, have a nice chicken and vegetable meal on night and then use the rest for soup and sandwiches a few more times through the week. The cheapest chicken that I could find was $10. Right there, that was 1/3 of my total budget. I left it in the cart, but continued to fret about it. I added a small package of ground beef for $3.88, and then a package of very thinly sliced pork chops. Cooked alone, and again cut into strips for a stir fry, I should be able to stretch those to two meals. They were a good buy at just $2.91 for 7 chops.

I added a carton of milk to make sure I got some dairy (though in truth I hate milk and it will likely be used simply in coffee and perhaps in a quiche), and a carton of 12 eggs for aforementioned quiche, and for protein on days when I have no meat. I added a small block of cheese. Cheese is my fatal weakness, my kryptonite. I can never pass the cheese aisle. This was my worst splurge, although I laboured over the decision for a full five minutes or more and finally settled, dejectedly, on a small store-brand brick of mozzarella. It was the least expensive cheese there, plus, the one that would be multi-use for pasta, eggs, to top chili, or to simply snack on. If I had to do it again, I would have just avoided the cheese aisle completely.

I moved into the heart of the grocery store. I added to my cart an inexpensive box of whole wheat pasta, luckily on sale that week. In the canned foods aisle I added tomatoes, an inexpensive plain spagetti sauce, chick peas and red kidney beans; inespneisve sources of vitamins and proteins that could be added to various recipes, as well as being the basis for a great big hearty pot of chili that I would be eating often through the week.

I left the canned foods aisle and found myself face to face with a meat freezer, where somewhat poorly packaged and looking sad were gigantic turkey drumsticks - 2 drumsticks for $4.44. I looked into the cart at the $10 chicken. I added the drums to the cart and wheeled back around to replace the chicken. It was simply too much money.

I went to the checkout and watched the figures add up. They added up quicker and higher than I anticipated. Despite a very thoughtful and laboured tour through the grocery aisles, I had well surpassed the $30 budget. I finished at $39.13. I still had a trip to the bulk food store to make. I would have to be very careful there, as it was going to be impossible to stay below $40, I didn't want to break $50.

It was a quick run through the bulk store to avoid the lure of the candy, dried fruits, and other beckoning bins. I picked up few simple, but very useful items. Oatmeal, for hearty, sustaining, hot breakfasts; brown rice to provide healthy carbohydrates to meals, rounding out chilis, stirfries, soups, and if I can stretch it, for use in a rice salad; couscous to mix with beans, and carrots for a simple meal; raisins (which probably should have been skipped as they cost more than anticipated though I chose the most inexpensive option available)to be used to add a little excitement to salads, and as a snack; Sunflower seeds, for the same purpose as the raisins with a little protein punch; and finally falafel mix, an afterthought, but a good alternative to a meaty meal, and a very inexpensive option, costing less than a dollar for a healthy-sized scoop. The total at this store was $5.40.

The total that I spent on my total grocery trip was $44.58. I hope that at the end of the week there will be some food left over. Maybe enough even to stretch my purchases to almost ten days. If I can do that, then I will have spent less than $5 per day. The caveat, for this experiment, I am assuming that staple items are already in place such as flour, sugar, salt, a modest spice rack and cooking oil.

Looking back at the receipts and the purchases that I made, there are changes that I could have made that would have helped stretch those dollars a little further. I should have left the grapefruit and instead bought another three green peppers. I could have bought dried beans for half the cost of canned, which would not have resulted in a huge savings, but when on a budget, every penny counts. I would have left even the turkey drums behind and instead added two cans of tuna and more beans. Proteins are expensive and finding inexpensive alternatives is a challenge if you have any carnivourous tendencies whatsoever.

Hints and reminders:
Buying at bulk food stores is an excellent way to shop as you can control the portion purchased, and you save on expensive packaging.
Store brands are much cheaper and of similar quality when it comes to staple products such as canned foods.
It is more difficult to shop for one as you can not take advantage of bulk or family sizes of meat. If you have the outlay of cash to buy them, split the trays into individual portions and then stash them in the freezer to be eaten throughout the month. This is a great way to reduce costs.
Bringing your own bag saves you a penny per each bag used. Not significant, but as they say, a penny saved is a penny earned. Plus, it does a favour to the environment.

8 December 2008


There is a photo by a French photographer (his name eludes me at this time), taken in Paris, 1944. It is a photo of a thin Santa in a ragged red suit passing out leeks to the children gathered around. There is a heartwarming shine on the faces of the children as they reach out and grab the leeks. There are no toys in that sac for them to collect, no games, dolls, or whistles. Certainly no over-hyped Cabbage Patch Kids, dancing Elmos or Playstations. These children have been given a far greater gift, something that they can rush home and present to their mother and share with their families.... fresh food. Imagine seeing the leaf green tops and plump bulb of a leek after enduring months of food shortages and rations. What a delight. What a happy Christmas that must have been for those fortunate families.

It is easy at this time of year to get caught up in the commercialism of the season, inundated as we are with newspaper inserts proclaiming this or that as the next big, must have toy. Slick television ads showing us decadent little cakes, glossy skinned cooked turkeys, and delicious assortments of mini-foods easily ignored the rest of the year, now tempting us over to the side of gluttony. Rarely though do we stop to remember that there are many, many children who will go without that must-have toy, or any toy, and instead wonder why Santa forgot about them. Countless others will go without juicy turkey legs, candy canes, and shortbreads, they will just go hungry.

In this time of economic uncertainty, when the entire world teeters on the brink of deep recessions, as companies fold, and unemployment lines lengthen, and everyone wonders, what if it is me next, this is the perfect opportunity to practice going with a little less, and sharing a little more.

This is not something I usually discuss, but I am opening my vault here to illustrate a point. My dad died a few months before my 9th Christmas. That Christmas, a hamper arrived at our door, brought by friends and neighbours. It contained Christmas toys for myself and my three siblings, and a small something for my Mom. It also contained all the foods needed for a proper Christmas feast. The people bearing these gifts didn't do this because we suddenly found ourselves without, they did it because in a small community, that is what people do. People look out for one another. Not because they are looking for anything in return, but because that is what it is to be a neighbour, a friend, to be human.

There was nothing that could be done that year to lessen the pain of losing a father, or a husband, but this act of kindness did mean a great deal to us - even if it meant just reducing the stress on my mother of having to go out and do these tasks herself, while grieving and keeping it together for her four kids. Having these unexpected gifts and treats did bring a smile to our young faces, and a warm feeling knowing that there were people who cared, and who were thinking about us as we dealt with a tragedy too great for our ages.

I remember this kindness every year, and I pay back by donating toys, food and healthcare products to local drives. If you find that your wallet is emptier than normal this year, remember that many of these organizations are just as happy to have you donate in time.

If you eschew the concept of charitable giving, believing that people get what they deserve, think again. Most people aren't looking for free handouts, and most aren't too lazy work. Sometimes people just need a little help, for any number of reasons. And now, especially, we all need to remember that next Christmas season, it could be any one of us finding ourselves down on our luck.

Food Banks Canada

6 December 2008

A Few of my Favorite Things

Christmas is around the corner so of course I have been humming tunes from the Sound of Music. With the song "My Favorite Things" haunting me, I exorcised the demon by putting together this lovely little collection of etsy items, all featuring kraft paper and string. Guess what? The treasury collection made it to the Etsy front page this morning.

4 December 2008

Last Chance

Last chance to enter Tiny Fig's blog giveaway to win a free pair of String Me Along hairsticks.

Click the picture below for details: