Showing posts with label Dollar Stretching. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dollar Stretching. Show all posts

Nov 10, 2014

The Tiny House Movement Comes to...Our Motorhome

I have big, scary (to me) news: We're moving into a "tiny house."

You may have heard about tiny houses before; they've been the topic of many magazine articles, books, and documentaries - all of which seem to feature absolutely gorgeous houses of about 400 sq. ft. or less, with cute little lofts and really clever pull out tables and hidden drawers. Yeah, they are cool. But our tiny house won't be like that. Our tiny house is...a motorhome. This one, in fact.


When my husband first proposed the idea of living full time in a motorhome, I admit it - I cried and said, "I don't want to talk to you about this right now. I need to go talk to Jesus!" For years, I've thought the tiny house movement was interesting. But I also always thought, "Maybe when the kids grow up. I can't imagine living in a tiny house with two young children."

But my husband's thoughts were persuasive. If we could move into a motor home - at least for a little while - our living expenses would drop dramatically. And that would let us save more money for our dreamed-for homestead. Which we could then possibly pay for in cash.

Even so, it's tough for me to think of moving into about180 sq. ft. when my current home's kitchen is already frustratingly small. Still, millions of humans live in places at least as small as a motorhome. But after years of living in a house that's been in disrepair, I want to live someplace reasonably pretty. Motor homes are many things, but most are definitely not pretty.

Nonetheless, I told my hubby to go ahead and look at some motorhomes on Craigslist, and I'd pray and think on it some more. Almost instantly, he found a deal that seemed to come from God. It was a high end motorhome - albeit from the 1980s - at a ridiculously low price. (Much lower than any tiny house I've seen. Did you know tiny houses generally cost $200 - $400 per sq. ft., or $23,000 on average?) Why was this motorhome priced so low? Turned out, the engine wasn't working right. We actually think the seller believed the motorhome required a new engine, though he never came out and said that. But my husband is an extremely talented mechanic, and he knew the fix was an easy one - no new engine required. We bought the motorhome, even though I hadn't seen the inside.

The day my husband showed me the inside of the motor home, I cried again. I hated it. Really hated it. It was so ugly. And there was no place for the children! There was only one bed - and not even a kitchenette for eating or doing schoolwork. And did I mention that the one thing I'd told my husband the motor home had to have was permanent bedding for the kids? Sigh.

But I continued praying, and kept hearing, "Be anxious for nothing." So I tried to breathe. And I remembered that if I wanted to, I could tell my husband, "No way. We aren't doing this and that's that," and he would  acquiesce.

But instead, I started looking for ideas on how to cram our family of four into a 180 sq. ft. motorhome. Accidentally, I ran into RV makeovers on Pinterest. Amazing RV makeovers. This made me feel better. Although I didn't want to throw a bunch of money into our motorhome, I was beginning to see that, with a lot of work, I could make the thing more homey, bright, and cheery. Others live with so much less. Surely this is do-able.

So now the motorhome is working well, and I'm scheming about how to put beds and an eating area into it. I've figured out a way I think I can live with the strange lavender/power blue tile, tub, and bathroom sink. And last weekend, I started cleaning the filthy cabinetry in preparation for painting them. (I spent 3 1/2 hours cleaning the cabinetry on just one side of the bedroom.)

Yes, I'm concerned about privacy. Not just about the type you're thinking about, but also the type that introverts require (there are three of them in our family). I'm concerned about the fact that anyone who stirs early in the morning is going to wake us all up...and I'm already so sleep deprived. BUT God is working on me. Stretching me. This is do-able. Sometimes I can even laugh about this; I'm starting to call it my mid-life crisis.

It's not what I dreamed of. But it will certainly be an adventure.

And as we prepare the motorhome for full time living, and as we learn to live there, you can be sure I'll keep you updated. This tiny house thing. It's more than a trend.

Nov 3, 2014

Toys That Have Endured

Are you thinking about Christmas gifts yet? I am...and as I look around our house, I realize that even though most of the things my children have received as gifts haven't endured, some gifts certainly have. My children play with them over and over again.And I'm betting yours will, too.

Geotrax

I don't think I've ever met a kid who doesn't like train sets. But by far the best train set for children is, in my opinion, Geotrax. Why? It's easy to put together, the tracks don't fall apart easily (yet they are still not hard to take the tracks apart), it's durable, the remote controls are simple to use - and it's just plain fun! We started out with a basic set purchased at a toy store, then added additional tracks that I found used on Ebay. All the Geotrax stuff is interchangeable, which is another excellent feature.

Pattern Blocks Puzzle

At my house, puzzles generally get put together once or twice, and then my kids aren't interested in them any more. But this puzzle set is something both my children continue to use. When young, my kids use the picture boards that come with the set. Later, they use the blocks to create their own designs. I've even used this set for homeschooling - to teach geometric shapes and for symmetry lessons.


Wooden Blocks

If my kids could only have one toy, I'd make it a set of blocks. Toddlers love them. Gradeschoolers love them. Even tweens love them!

Legos

This classic building toy is a must have for any child who likes to build and create. At this point, we've stuck mainly to the larger style Duplo blocks (the ones just one size down from "regular" Legos); this seems a bit more manageable when pick-up time comes along.

Magna Doodle

My kids love Magna Doodles, even though they have plenty of access to paper, pencils, crayons, and pens. The cool thing is, Magna Doodles require none of these, and are perfect for taking in the car, to doctor's offices, or on road trips. My kids have literally worn theirs out after years and years of use!

Felt Calendar

Both my kids learned their days of the week, months of the year, seasons, years, and more about numbers by using a felt "calendar." There's something about the set up of this thing that kids love! (TIP: I used simple songs to teach the days of the week and the months of the year alongside our felt calendar. My preference is "There are Seven Days a Week" sung to the tune of  "Clementine" and "These are Twelve Months of the Year" sung to the tune of "Ten Little Indians.")

Puppets

Of all the toys my kids use for pretend play, puppets are the most enduring. We have finger puppets, hand puppets, and even a simple marionette we found in a thrift store. They get used nearly every day, by both children.





Be sure to also check out our family's favorite board and card games.
 

Sep 10, 2014

Walmart's Savings Catcher: Hit or Miss?

Perhaps a month ago, my local Walmart began touting what they call "Savings Catcher:" a website or app customers can use to automatically check for lower prices at mother grocery stores. If the Savings Catcher finds a lower price, Walmart gives the customer the difference. So, if for example, you purchased a certain brand and size of cheese at Walmart, but store #2 has the exact item on sale for a buck less, Walmart will give you that dollar. Sounds great, right?
Well, the first time I tried Savings Catcher, I had zero savings. The second time, after a large shopping trip that would feed us for at least two weeks, I received a whopping $1.62 in savings. Hmmm...

How Walmart's Savings Catcher Works

After you shop at Walmart, you can either scan a smart phone QR on the bottom of the Walmart receipt (after downloading the Savings Catcher app), or you can use your computer or other online device to go to Savings Catcher online. (I don't have a smart phone, so I can only give details about what it's like to use Saving's Catcher on my computer.)

Once at the Savings Catcher website, you'll need to set up a password, then enter a 21 digit number off your receipt, plus the date of purchase. That's it; the website does the rest. You'll receive an email that your info was received by the site and then, within a handful of days, you'll get another email explaining whether Savings Catcher found any better deals at other grocery stores. If it did, the email tells you how much money is going back into your pocket.

According to the Savings Catcher FAQ, each customer may enter up to seven receipts per week, and there is no minimum number of items that must be on the receipt. However, receipts can be no more than seven days old.

The Good

* Savings Catcher online is very easy to use, taking no longer than two minutes, tops, to enter your password and receipt information. Presumably, using a smart phone scan is even easier.

* Any money that comes back to you can be saved up - or turned into a gift card right away.

* According to a news release, Savings Catcher will soon include produce and general merchandise.


UPDATE 10/7/14: Click here to learn how to double your Savings Catcher funds.

The Not So Good

* Not too surprisingly, there are a number of items Savings Catcher does not consider. It doesn't compare prices on advertised sales that offer a percentage off, that require a separate purchase to get the advertised price, BOGO deals where no price is listed, online purchases, store brand items, deli, bakery, weighed items (like meat), consumables (like toilet paper), health and beauty items, and "select general merchandise items...including, but not limited to, electronics, media and gaming, toys, sporting goods, housewares, small appliances, home d├ęcor, bedding, books and magazines, apparel and shoes, jewelry, furniture and seasonal products...tobacco, firearms, gasoline, tires, prescription drugs, optical and photo products and services, or products that require a service agreement such as wireless, automotive or financial products."

* If Savings Catcher finds an item at a lower price, you can only get the savings in the form of a Walmart gift card.

* Each customer can earn a maximum of $599.99 Reward Dollars per year.

The Bad

* The Savings Catcher website says they "compare advertised prices from the top retailers located nearby the Walmart store where you shopped." The list of stores they compared prices with is available once your receipt has been processed and you've received information on what (if anything) you saved. In my case, none of the stores were what I'd consider comparable to Walmart; they were stores that very, very rarely have prices lower than Walmart. Worse, we have at least two grocery stores - closer than some of the stores Walmart used as comparables - that are what might be called "discount" grocery stores, with prices more in line with Walmart, that the Savings Catcher did not include. I hate to say it, but this seems pretty disingenuous; if Walmart really wants to make comparison shopping unnecessary - if they really want to "offer customers yet another reason to trust us when it comes to helping them save" -  then they need to compare prices with ALL the grocery stores in a given area - even those that may have lower prices than Walmart.

* Savings Catcher appears to work best if you buy a lot of processed food. The only items I saved money on were two processed food items my husband likes to eat once in a while. I suppose this shouldn't be a surprise since the Savings Catcher FAQ says they don't compare prices on anything weighed - which is a good portion of what we buy when we cook from scratch. (That said, Walmart is promising to soon include produce in the Savings Catcher; that could make Savings Catcher more worthwhile.)

Conclusion

While I'm not very excited about how Savings Catcher currently works, I do think it has potential. If Walmart will compare prices with all grocery stores in a given area, and if they will include produce and meat, Walmart will really have a competitive edge. In the meantime, I will probably continue adding my receipt information into Savings Catcher - at least for a time - in the hopes that it will improve.



Jul 28, 2014

Why Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables are Important

Not long ago, I was on a gardening forum where someone asked if it was okay to eat produce with holes in
it. "My family says no, because bugs have been eating it," the man typed. This received a variety of replies, but only one respondent typed what I was thinking: "Well, if you don't want to eat veggies with holes nibbled in them, you can go and buy some poison, sprinkle it on your food, kill all those nasty bugs, and you'll have 'perfect' little veggies to eat."


* * *

Last year, my mom- and sister-in-law attended a class on orchard keeping. At the beginning of the class, the teacher asked everyone to come forward and choose an apple from a box on his desk. When every student had done so, all the perfect-looking apples were gone, and all the imperfect apples - those that were misshaped or had worm holes - were left in the box. "Until this changes - until people start choosing and buying produce that's less than perfect, organic food will not become the norm," the teacher said.

* * *

Did you know that in the U.S., 40 - 50% of all food that's ready for commercial harvest never gets eaten? Some of this is due to modern methods of harvesting - machines that don't take corners well, for example. (Which, incidentally has lead to a rise in the biblical practice of gleaning - not a bad thing!) But a good portion of that is food that's misshapen or otherwise considered imperfect - for example, carrots with two or more roots - and are just thrown away.

* * *

Last week, I saw an encouraging news story. In France, one supermarket chain is putting an end to this kind of food waste - and helping consumers reduce their food bills, too. They are taking all that imperfect produce ("inglorious fruits and vegetables," they call them) and putting them on their shelves at reduced prices. And the French are eating them up! So much so, the chain is having trouble keeping enough "inglorious" produce in stock.

And while the news story doesn't mention it, the acceptance of less than perfect produce opens the door wide to more - and more affordable - organic produce. Why? Because organic practices lead to more bug nibbles - and because an item like a perfect-looking organic apple takes many more man hours to produce, and therefore costs much more than conventionally grown apples.


What do you think? Are you willing to eat imperfect food in order to end food waste and make organic more affordable?

Jul 21, 2014

Make Your Produce Last Longer

"My produce always goes bad before we can eat it all," I overheard a woman complain to her friend. "I spend all this money on healthy food, and most of it gets wasted!" She's not alone. Experts estimate Americans throw away 14 - 25% of their food, costing the average family $1,365 - $2,275. This is tragic, considering an estimated 842 million people worldwide don't have enough to eat.

What can you do to end food waste in your household? Check out the tips below. (And be sure to see the other articles I've written about food waste, too.)

"And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples,
'Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.'” 

* Buy only what you can reasonably expect to eat before it goes bad. Even if it means extra trips to the farmer's market or grocery store.

* Keep one drawer in the fridge for fruits, and another for veggies. Never store them together because many fruits release ethylene gas - —a ripening agent that makes veggies rot faster.

* Don't refrigerate bananas, garlic, apples, winter squash, potatoes, or onions. Tomatoes tend to turn mealy in the fridge, too. (Be careful to keep onions and potatoes apart, since onions hasten the demise of taters.)

* Freeze certain veggies. On shopping day - or perhaps the day after shopping - chop up produce you'll use for cooking, like onion, green onions, herbs, and sweet peppers. Pop them in a freezer bag, and you won't have to worry about them going bad.

* Use up the most perishable items first. For example, snack on bananas before you start in on the apples. You'll also want to plan your meals so the most perishable foods get used up first.

* Learn to use up just-about-to-spoil produce. You can make smoothies with them. Or freeze them. Or dehydrate them.

* Don't store countertop produce in a hot or sunny location. Keep them in a cool, dark location and they will remain fresh longer.

* Immediately remove produce that's overripe or spoiling. For example, if you keep an apple that has a spoiled spot in with the other apples, it will hasten the spoiling of them all.
I wouldn't want to have to do without my Progressive Keepers.

* Use Progressive International Keeper containers. They really work! There is a water reservoir at the bottom of the containers, plus adjustable venting - and all the information you need for correctly storing produce is right on the container itself. (Some people also swear by Tupperware Fridgesmart containers.)

* Don't wash fruits until you're ready to eat them; experts say water decreases fruit's life by 40%. Some people swear by rinsing them in vinegar and water; I've never tried this becauee I find fruits and berries last a long time in my Progressive containers.

* Remove ties and rubber bands before storing.

* Don't stuff fridge drawers. If you let produce have a little room to breathe, the food will last longer.

* Place plastic wrap over the stem end of bananas. Some people claim separating them makes them last longer, too, but I haven't found this to be the case. And while you're at it, buy green bananas and let them ripen on the counter. They'll last many more days this way.

* Consider whether it needs ripening. Avocados, tomatoes, stone fruits, mangoes, melons, pears, bananas, and apples, will continue to ripen if you leave them on the counter. Citrus, berries, grapes, and bell peppers will not ripen on the counter and will spoil quickly there.

* Buy from local farmers. The food is fresher than what you buy at te grocery store; therefore, it stores longer at home.

* Don't toss it just because it looks bad. With heads of lettuce or cabbage, remove the outer leaves and you'll find fresher leaves inside. Cut away bad spots in fruit, eat the rest.

* Compost! If all else fails, compost spoiled produce to feed the soil in your yard! Also, if you have critters (like chickens and rabbits) that can eat produce, it's fine to give them wilty, dry, or otherwise unpalatable produce - but never give them anything that's rotten.

 

Jul 2, 2014

How to Get the Most From Your Freezer

Want to be frugal and cut down on your grocery bill? You need a freezer - and not just the one attached to your fridge. Having a dedicated freezer allows you to save money by stocking up on food when it's on sale, preserving your home grown foods (if you don't can or you don't like certain foods in canned form), and freeze extras for quick, easy meals later (a much cheaper - and healthier - alternative to pizza or fast food).
But many of us don't use our freezers to their greatest advantage. If you want to save money, energy, and time using your freezer, keep in mind these things:

* Upright vs. Chest Freezers. Yes, upright freezers save space, but chest freezers are far and away more efficient. So if you're thinking about buying a freezer, you definitely want to go with a chest style.

* Temperature. Keep it at 0 degrees F. or below. This will preserve the food best.

* Keep it Full. A full freezer is a more efficient freezer. And if the power goes out, the food will stay frozen longer. Don't have enough food to fill the freezer? Fill empty milk and juice containers with water and pop them in the fridge.
* Maintenance Matters. Once every year or so, defrost the freezer to keep it running efficiently. That's also a great time to clean the freezer (it's amazing how dirty it can get!). I like to use Windex for this job; it's easy to use and the ammonia in it kills any bad germs. If you prefer, ordinary soap and water works, too. In addition, you should vacuum the freezer coils about once a year. Dust and grime on the coils makes the freezer work harder, making it use more energy and wear out more quickly.

* Stock It. Freezers make it possible to never pay retail on food. Why pay full price for meat, for example, when you can stock up when it's on sale? Freezers also prevent waste by making it easy to preserve leftovers - including things like enchilada or pizza sauce. Some people also keep a special freezer container where they put extra, leftover veggies; I recommend putting the extras on a baking sheet, then popping that into the freezer; once the veggies are frozen, add them to the container. When the container is full, it's perfect for pot pie, shepherd's pie, or soup. If you really have your act together, you can also stock your freezer with complete meals. There are two ways to to do this. The easiest is to cook double; for example, if you make lasagna, make two: One to eat that night and one to freeze. If you're really ambitious, you can plan out a lot of meals and spend a day cooking and freezing them.

* Keep Inventory. It is way too easy to loose track of what's in the freezer - and if it gets left in there long enough, it will become unappetizing. Truly the best way to keep track of what you have is to write or type up a list, like this:
Then keep this list someplace handy. You could tape it on the outside of the freezer itself, or on the inside of the pantry door, or on the front of the fridge. (I've seen some blogs suggest keeping your inventory on the freezer itself, written with dry erase pen. The problem with this is the ink can wipe away with one careless finger - and over time, the ink is difficult to remove.)

To make this list really work, though, every time you remove or add something to the freezer, you must mark it on your list.

* Organize It. Even if you keep an inventory, it helps tremendously if you organize your freezer in a logical way. That is, instead of just cramming stuff in wherever there is a hole, assign each area a type of food. For example, you might have one area that is beef, another that's chicken, another that's herbs, and another that's vegetables. Some people like to use plastic bins to keep everything neat and tidy. Others find plastic bins get too brittle and hard to handle, and use fabric bins or bags instead.
Canning jars without shoulders are suitable as freezer containers.
* Contain It. I like freezer bags better than containers, mostly because I don't have any space for storing extra freezer containers. Bags also take up a lot less space in the freezer if you fill them, seal them, then lay them flat until they are frozen. Additionally, it's easier to remove excess air from bags, which makes the food last longer. Just seal the bag most of the way, leaving enough room for a straw to fit in one corner. Put your mouth on the other end of the straw and inhale the excess air. If you do prefer to use containers, though, you can save space by using square and rectangular ones only. For liquid items like soup or stock, canning jars (real ones - not just ordinary glass jars) are a handy freezer container. Be sure to avoid jars that have "shoulders;" jars that are straight at the neck are much less likely to crack or break in the freezer. Also, be sure to leave an inch of "headspace" (empty, unfilled space) in the jar.

* Label It! Never, never, never, ever put a container or bag in the freezer without labeling it clearly! Trust me; later you will have no idea what it is or when you put it in there. Be sure to write the contents and the date on every package.


* Portion It. A huge container of food is usually harder to use than smaller containers of that same food. It usually makes sense, then, to freeze food in portion-sized amounts. That could mean freezing enough soup for the whole family, or it could mean freezing just enough for one person. If you want to freeze a larger bag of anything, use this little trick to keep the food from becoming a solid, frozen-together mass: Lay the individual pieces (whether berries or chicken legs) on a baking sheet and pop it into the freezer. When the food is frozen, transfer it to a bag.

* Prevent Freezer Burn. Using freezer bags (and getting the excess air out) really helps here. If you have things that won't fit in a bag, double wrap them in heavy foil or butcher's paper that's well sealed.

* Use It! Aside from having an inventory that you look at when planning meals, it helps to place newer foods in the back of the freezer and reach for the things in the front first. Rotating food ensures nothing will be forgotten and wasted.

Jun 30, 2014

How to Buy Half a Beef (or a Quarter, or a Whole!)

Once you realize grass fed beef is better for you, it's not long before you understand you need to find a more affordable source for it than the grocery store. I think it's fantastic our two local grocery stores carry grass fed beef - but it's pricey! (An example: Our Walmart sells wee packs of grass fed ground beef - enough for maybe two tiny hamburgers - for $9.)

In the past, we'd often thought about saving money by buying beef from a local farmer. Now that we've made the commitment to eat grass fed for our health, we knew we needed to stop thinking about it and just do it. But if you've never bought a quarter, a half, or a whole beef before, it can be a little intimidating. So let me walk you through the process. (Incidentally, the process is the same for grass fed bison, which is becoming more and more common for farmer's to raise.)

How Much Do I Need?

First things first; you need to consider just how much meat you want to buy. This really depends upon your family's eating habits. Some people eat very little meat - and some eat meat every day. Also, if you can buy meat in bulk and save money doing so, consider that you might eat more beef than you currently do.

For an idea of how much beef you eat in a year, approximate how much meat you consume each week, then multiply the number of pounds by 52 (the approximate number of weeks in a year).

Finding the Beef

Now to find beef! Sometimes a local, old fashioned butcher shop (not attached to a grocery store) can help you with this. Either the butcher can connect you directly with a farmer, or he can act as a go-between. I recommend dealing directly with the farmer, as the cost is likely to be lower. (Although the butcher will come into play later, as I'll detail in a moment.)

Other places to connect with farmers selling beef include:

* Craigslist
* A local farmer's market (Ask around!)
* The county fair (Again, you'll have to ask around.)
* The Local Harvest website
* Or, if you have a friend who raises cows, ask them to raise a cow just for you

Questions to Ask Before Buying
Butcher paper wrapped (left) vs. plastic wrapped (right)


If you're fortunate, you'll have more than one farmer to contact. Give him or her a call and ask:

* Is the beef entirely grass fed, or has it been given grains at any time? (Some cattle are entirely grain fed, which you should avoid; others are fed grain most of their life, then allowed to graze on grass before being butchered; again - avoid that. What you want is cattle that's grazed on grass all its life.)

* Is the beef hormone and anti-biotic free?

* What breed does the beef come from? (It should be from a meat breed or a dual purpose breed, like a Holstein.)

* How is the beef available? (Usually you can buy a quarter, a half, or a whole cow. Don't panic if only whole cows are available; you may be able to find a few other families who are willing to buy the cow with you.)

* Approximately how many pounds is each quarter, half, or whole? (The number varies a lot, so this is a vital question! Be sure to find out the hanging weight, not the live weight of the animal.)

* Exactly what are all the costs? (Typically, there is a kill fee, which varies according to how much of the cow you a buying. There is also a price per pound of hanging weight, which should pay both the farmer and the butcher - or there may be a price per pound of hanging weight, plus a butcher's fee per pound.)

* When will you butcher? (Often butchering happens in late summer or early fall.)

* How will the meat be packaged? (Usually the choice is between butcher paper - which does, indeed, prevent freezer burn - and shrink wrapped in plastic, like a FoodSaver does.)

* At pick up, is the meat frozen or fresh?

* How does payment work? Will I have to pay in full up front? Part up front? Or can you pay in full upon pick up?

Grass fed eye fillets.
Storing the Beef

Before you commit to buying beef in bulk, you need to consider how you're going to store it. Most people freeze their beef. But how much freezer space will you need? 1 cubit feet of freezer space hold approximately 35-40 lbs. of wrapped beef.

Of course, the amount of space needed also varies according to what types of cuts you decide to buy. (More on that in a moment.) For example, ground beef takes up less space than, say, roasts. Remember, too, that you won't want to keep the beef frozen for more than about a year, or there will be some quality loss.

Another option is to can some or all of the beef - but you will still need freezer or refrigerator space to store the beef while you're working on the canning.

Comitting to Buy

Once you've figured out how much beef you want and who to buy it from, call the farmer and commit to buy. It's best not to wait too long to do this, because farmers usually only raise as many cows as they feel sure they have customer's for. So if you wait too long there might not be enough beef to go around.

Deciding What to Buy

Once you've comitted, you can expect to hear from the farmer's butcher shortly before butchering day. He will want to know how you want your beef packaged and what type of cuts you want.

This last part can seem pretty intimidating; most of us have no idea how many cuts we can get from a steer. To help, look at a cut chart, like this one. Bare in mind, too, that you can make your own ground beef with an inexpensive meat grinder. (If you have a KitchenAid mixer, you can also buy a meat grinder attachment for it.) That said, the butcher will probably recommend grinding the tougher cuts into ground beef.

Other Considerations

* If you're ordering steaks, be sure to specify the thickness you desire.

* Consider how much meat you want per package. For example, do you want ground beef in 1 lb. or 5 lb. packs? What about stew meat?

* On average, butchers usually age the cow for 7 to 14 days. You can request a longer aging, although it might not be available. Experts often recommend 10 - 20 days. (Aging gives the beef more tenderness and flavor.)

* Be sure to ask for the bones! It's very easy to make your own beef stock for freezing or canning. If you have dogs, you might want the bones for them, too.

* Think about any organs you'd like to have, also. If you're not buying a whole cow, not all organs may be available (if the person buying another part of the cow wants them). Some organs to consider: shanks and oxtail (for stews and soups), liver, tongue, heart, and cheek. You can even ask for the suet (fat) for rendering tallow (lard) or making soap; the butcher might even grate it for soapmaking, if you ask.

Bringing it Home

When your beef is cut and packaged by the butcher, you will receive a call to come pick it up. Be sure you have your freezer all ready to go! You may also want to bring a few coolers for transporting the beef.

And How Much Does it All Cost?

I have yet to find a farmer who is selling bulk beef for more than the grocery store - especially if we're talking grass fed beef. To give you an idea of the savings, below I've detailed the costs of the half beef we are purchasing this year. These prices are VERY competitive because we're buying from a family who raises beef for themselves, plus a few extras to pay for the cost of raising their own meat. Expect to pay at least a dollar more if your purchase from a professional farmer.

Weight for half beef (Holstein): about 270 lbs.

Kill fee: $27

Price per pound: $1.90, hanging weight

Butcher's fee: $.50/lb., hanging weight

Total cost of half beef: $675

Total price per pound: $2.50

And this is for grass fed beef! What a deal!

May 9, 2014

Switching to Grass Fed Beef: Why & How to Do it Affordably

Maybe you've seen a "grass fed" label at the grocery store and wondered what it was all about. Maybe you've heard something about grass fed meat being healthier or more sustainable. Maybe you've even decided to switch to grass fed meat...but aren't sure how to make it happen. Not long ago, I began the switch to grass fed meat. Here's what I've learned.

Why Switch to Grass Fed?

Because, well, it's natural. It wasn't until the 20th century that cows and other farm animals were fed a diet consisting mostly of grain. (And then only because of an over-abundance of corn, followed by the realization that corn fed animals gained weight very quickly.) Cows are designed to eat grass. They are designed to spend their days grazing. And when we eat grass fed beef, our health benefits.

For one thing, grass fed beef is higher in Omega-3s that help keep us happy and make our bodies work better. Plus, grass fed beef has less fat, is lower in calories, has more vitamin A, E and beta-carotene, and is higher in antioxidants. (Source.) Better still, grass fed meat is usually also free of hormones and antibiotics that can reduce our health. (Read labels to be sure.)

But Not All Meat!

If you're buying beef, bison, venison, or lamb, by all means look for grass fed. But grass fed chickens and pigs? Nope. Both chickens and pigs naturally eat meat - and depriving them of their natural diet isn't healthy for them. (We don't really know for sure how it affects humans who eat them.) The good news is, in the U.S. it's illegal to sell chickens that have received hormones. Hormones are illegal for pork, too.

Grass Fed vs. Grass Finished

Read labels carefully! There is a big difference between "grass fed" and "grass finished." "Grass finished" means the animal was fed grain in a stall most of it's life, but then was allowed to graze or eat grass shortly before butching. "Grass fed" means the animal grazed all it's life.

But It's Expensive!

Yes, grass fed beef is more expensive than conventionally raised beef. But that's changing. More and more people are interested in eating grass fed meat, which should bring prices down. But there are at least four ways I've found to reduce the cost of grass fed meat right now.

#1: Look for sales. My local grocery store frequently has grass fed meat on sale. Better yet, they often put it in their clearance section where I can buy it for the same price (and sometimes less!) than coventially grown meat. (Just know that clearance meat has been sitting around a bit; it should be eaten that day, or frozen for later use.)
Grass fed beef has less fat, but it's easy to make it tender.

#2. Buy it from a farmer. Many local farmers raise grass fed animals and will sell you a whole, half, or quarter of a cow. This requires a large freezer and a chunk of money to buy your meat in bulk, but it is generally cheaper in the long run. (Bear in mind that most farmers butcher sometime in the late summer or fall.)

#3. Choose a different meat. Many of us love our beef, but there are definitely cheaper meats out there. One that might surprise you is lamb. I've found that I can often buy grass fed lamb at the grocery store for much less than any other type of meat.

#4. Check local butchers. Sometimes - but not always - it's cheaper to buy grass fed meat from a good old butcher shop, rather than a grocery store. Especially if you look for sales. For example, one of my local butchers recently announced they had more than the usual amount of grass fed bison, so they were selling it cheap, first come, first serve.

But it Tastes Different!

I've not found this to be true at all. In fact, when I switched to grass fed, I was surprised by how much fat there was in my beef; I'd always read that grass fed beef was super-lean, and expected it to taste differently because of this. That said, the leanness of grass fed can make the meat is a bit tougher. It's pretty easy to work around that, though. Just use a meat tenderizer; or put salt on the cut overnight, then wash it off; or use a cooking method (like braising or stewing) that's often used for tougher cuts.

Have you switched to grass fed meat? 

Apr 18, 2014

How to Buy Bath Towels that Last

Are you tired of buying bath towels only to have them shrink, fade, and unravel a short time later? Next time you're shopping, use this bath towel buying guide and avoid the disappointment and waste!

#1: Materials Used

The first thing to look for in quality towels is the type of material they are made from. The best towels are made of either cotton or bamboo. Cotton comes in several quality levels:

100% Cotton - 100% cotton towels are the minimum in quality you should look for. Many durable bath towels are made of ordinary cotton.

Prima Cotton - This type of cotton is made from the same plants that make the best Egyptian cotton, but are grown in the United States. A brand name for prima cotton is Supima cotton.

Organic Cotton - This type of cotton is about giving you a more natural product. Towels marked as made from 100% certified organic cotton are made from fibers that were never treated with chemicals while growing.

Turkish Cotton - Made from cotton that's grown in the Aegean region. Turkish toweling is almost as absorbent as Egyptian cotton, and is usually fluffy and thick.

Egyptian Cotton - The highest quality cotton available. The fibers are extra-long, highly absorbent, and very durable.

There are also micro fiber towels whose primary advantage is they dry quickly after use.

Be sure to read fabric labels carefully. Look for "100%" (i.e., "100% prima cotton"). Towels labeled "made with" (i.e. "made with prima cotton") include other fibers - usually synthetics.


Cotton plant.
#2. Construction
 
 In addition to the type of material used, consider the fabric weight. Sheets are given a thread count, but towels are measured by grams per square meter, or GSM. A lower GSM means the towels are thinner and lighter; a higher GSM means they are thicker and heavier. I recommend only considering towels 400 GSM or higher.

400-600 GSM towels are often used for beach towels or guest towels that aren't often used. They are medium weight, and each additional 100 GSM makes the towels a little more absorbent and heavy.

600-900 GSM towels are of the highest quality. They are heavier, more absorbent, and more durable.

You may also see references to "twist" - or the number of twists per inch made with the yarn during constructing. A lower number means the towel is softer and more plush; a higher number means the towel is more durable and heavy.
 
Some other construction methods are of note, too. For example, if the towel is combed cotton, the material is literally combed so that only the strongest and longest threads remain. Terry cloth towels have extra yarn and longer thread loops, making them more absorbent. Ringspin cotton is made from finer, smoother yarn, resulting in a softer towel, while two-ply towels are made with double the amount of yarn, making the towel absorbent, durable, and heavy.


#3. Size Matters

It's not true that all bath towels are of the same size. Some manufacturer's cut corners by making them smaller - and some more luxurious bath towels are considerably larger. The standard size of a bath towel is anywhere from 27 x 52 inches to 30 x 58 inches. If you want over-sized towels, look for "bath sheets," which are usually about 35 x 60 inches to 40 x 70 inches.

Hand towels are 16 x 28 inches to 18 x 30 inches in size, finger towels are about 11x18 inches, and wash clothes are about 13 x 13 inches.


#4. Making the Purchase


It may seem that buying towels in person is the best way to go. After all, if you can handle the towels, you can tell by feel how soft they are, and you can look closely to see how well made they are. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for manufacturers to apply a finish to the towels to make them feel softer or look shinier - and that finish will go away the first time the towels are washed. And unless you can see that the towels are raveling in the store (highly unlikely), it's pretty tough to tell much about the quality of the construction by just looking.

Instead, I recommend buying towels online - or at least consulting the store's website to look at online reviews. Begin by seeking out towels with 4 and 5 star ratings. From there, look at the worst reviews for the towels. Read those reviews carefully. Is the customer really complaining about the quality of the towels, or something else? It's also important to note how many great reviews there are vs. how many bad reviews there are. If, for example, a set of towels has one hundred 4 star reviews and 2 bad reviews, it's likely you will be pleased with the towels. Another thing to look for, however, is how long the customers have had the towels. Some people leave a review immediately after buying the product - perhaps even before using the product. Such reviews aren't very helpful. But reviews written by customers who've used the product for, say, a month or more, are highly useful.

Apr 7, 2014

Equipping Your Kitchen - at the Thrift Store

Kitchen tools can be costly. A good mixer is over $200. A good bread machine, over $100. Even smaller tools like strainers and spoons add up quickly. And yet good tools can save you a lot of time and effort in the kitchen, making healthy, from scratch food much more do-able.

When it comes to equipping your kitchen, if you're on a budget, thrift stores are your best friend. In January, I made a list of kitchen tools I wanted to acquire, and by shopping at thrift stores, I've already obtained most of them - and for very little money! I've purchased an electric knife to make my homemade bread much less crumbly ($3; savings $17), a salad spinner ($1; savings $20), a manual beater (50 cents; savings $19), and a Food Saver that looks like it's never been used ($9; savings $151). My total cost? $13.50. Total savings? $193.50!

Of course, this takes a wee bit of dedication. I visit a thrift store at least every other week - once a week is better. It's smart to get there on a Friday, before the stores are inundated on the weekend - but I rarely get to go before Saturday or Sunday, so this isn't a must. Some weeks I walk away with nothing. Other weeks, I seem to hit the mother load.

Not all thrift stores are created equal. Those in my town (which is not prosperous) have much slimmer pickings than a thrift store I frequent in a nearby town that's a bit more affluent. Some thrift stores have higher prices than others. Some thrift stores seem to have a better selection of kitchen gear than others. So you need to be willing to explore a bit.

And, frankly, some items are very difficult to find in my local thrift stores. For example, I haven't yet found a coffee grinder or the large stainless steel bowls I'd like to add to my kitchen.

Yet even if you only acquire a small portion of your kitchen tools from thrift stores (or, for that matter, garage sales or Craigslist), you'll still save a lot of money!

Mar 12, 2014

17 Upcycled Seed Starter Pots - and how to use them

How much do you spend on seed starting supplies? If you are buying anything more than seeds and soil, you're wasting money! That's because it's so easy to start seeds using materials you already have on hand:

Salad container turned seed starting container.
1. Salad containers. If you buy greens or salads in plastic containers with lids, these are perfect seed
starting containers. (In fact, they are my favorite!)

2. Cookie, donuts, and other sweet containers. The kind that are plastic with a lid. Again, these are ideal for seed sowing.

3. Toilet paper and paper towel tubes. If you fold the ends under, they make perfect little pots that are biodegradable. (Learn how to make these pots in my free ebook Starting Seeds.)

4. Newspaper. It's easy to fold these into individual seed starting pots. (Learn how my free ebook Starting Seeds.)

5. Plastic soda pop and water jars. Just cut off the tops of plastic jars to make them a suitable height. If you like, duct tape the tops back on, to make a mini greenhouse.

6. Milk and juice jugs and cartons. Treat the plastic jugs just like soda jars. Cut cartons down to height -
Seed pot from a toilet paper tube.
even the single serving cartons work!

7. Yogurt tubs. Also tubs from cottage cheese, Cool Whip, ricotta cheese, and so on.

8. Aluminum soda pop and beer cans. These can be tricky to cut in half (Use caution! The cut edges will be sharp!), but they do work as nice little seed pots.

9. Styrofoam, plastic, and wax-coated paper disposable cups. The kind with domed plastic lids are perfect for making little greenhouses, but even lid-less types work.

10. Aluminum cans from canned food.

11. Aluminum roasting pans. Cheap ones from the Dollar Tree are just fine - or, if you buy rotisserie chicken, the pans they come in work great, too. Ideally, use the type with clear plastic lids.

12. Coffee cans.

Seed pot from newspaper. No special tools needed!
13. CD/DVD cases. The type you buy blanks in.

14. Chinese takeout boxes.

15. Plastic or Styrofoam takeout boxes.

16. Old Tupperware-style containers.

17. Cereal boxes. Just cut down their height.


And a few containers I don't recommend:

* Egg cartons. They aren't deep enough for seedlings to develop healthy roots.

* Ice cube trays. Again, unless they are unusually deep, the seedlings won't develop good root systems.

* Egg shells. Again, the problem is no room for roots.

* Citrus halves. No room for roots!

* Plastic berry boxes. These may seem ideal, but they have holes all over them, and this defeats the wonderful mini greenhouses effect of boxes with lids. If you have plastic berry boxes, go ahead and use them, but plan on using something else to create a greenhouse effect

* Glass jars. All seed starting containers need to have drainage holes...and you can't put drainage holes in glass.


How to Use Upcycled Materials for Seed Starting Pots:

1. Make sure the container has good drainage. Unless the container is paper (like a toilet paper tube), that means poking some holes in the bottom. At least 3 will work for a very small container, like a yogurt cup. For larger containers, like a salad greens box, use 5 - 8. If the material of the container is thin, you may be able to carefully poke drainage holes using one blade of a pair of scissors. Be careful! And make sure you're creating a hole, not just a slit. Otherwise, I recommend using either a hammer and fat nail or an electric drill.

2. Make sure the container is clean.

3. Add new soil - not soil from the garden and not soil that's been used before (unless you know how to sterilze old potting soil). You can use soil designed just for seed starting, but I have great success using plain old potting soil.

4.  Thoroughly dampen the soil. Make sure it's wet all the way to the bottom of the container.

5. Plant the seeds, according to seed packet directions.

You can now leave the containers as is, but you'll have better success if you create mini greenhouses that hold in moisture and heat:

6. If the container came with a clear plastic lid, make a few slits in the lid carefully using a pair of scissors or Exacto knife. Place the lid securely on top of the container. Within a few minutes, the container should fog up. If it doesn't, either the lid isn't a tight enough fit or the soil is too dry. As the seedlings grow, gradually cut away more and more of the lid until the plant is ready to go into the garden.

7. If the container has no lid, you can still create a greenhouse effect by putting a plastic Ziplock-style bag
over the top of the container, open end down. (Stiff freezer bags are easiest to use; if the bag wants to sag and not stand upright, place a few sticks in the seed pot to hold the plastic up.)

8. If you have many small seed pots (for example, toilet paper tube pots), you can put them in a plastic tub, old Tupperware-style container, roasting pan, or a plastic greens box from the gocery store. Make sure the larger container has some drainage holes and use the container lid (with air circulation slits) to cover the seedlings. Or, cover the large container with plastic wrap, loosely placed on top.

For more information on how to gradually acclimate seedlings to the outdoors, and how to use winter sowing or grow lights to create healthier seedlings, download the FREE ebook "Seed Starting."

Feb 10, 2014

Drought Gardening - How to Grow Food in a Drought

Parts of the U.S. are experiencing droughts this year. This likely means grocery store food prices will increase - which makes this year a great year to grow your own food. (Actually, every year is a great year to grow your own food!) But what if you're living in a dry area? How can you grow food during a drought? What are the tricks to drought gardening? And, even if you aren't experiencing a drought, how can you conserve water in the garden?

* Don't intensive garden (space plants closer together than the seed packet recommends) or grow food in raised beds or containers. All these methods require more watering.

* Place plants far apart; generally at least 1 1/2 times more than seed packet guidelines. This allows plant roots to spread far underground, searching for water and nutrients. Naturally, this works best if you have plenty of room for a garden. (For more information on this method, read Steve Solomon's free Gardening Without Irrigation; also, "Steve Solomon's Garden Innovations.")

* Use cisterns (or buckets or other containers) now to capture all possible rainwater. You can use rain barrels, too, but rooflines tend to harbor animal feces, chemicals, molds, and fungi, which all run directly into rain barrels. (NOTE: It may be tempting to use gray water - such as from your clothes washer - for watering, but this water may contain human feces, and therefore isn't recommended for edibles.)

A soaker hose in action.
* Use drip irrigation or soaker hoses. This brings water directly to the base of plants, where it is needed.

* Learn how to tell if the garden actually needs water. With a trowel, remove the top three or four inches of soil; stick your finger into the bottom of the hole. If the soil feels dry, it's time to water. Also, there are critical times in a plant's life when it needs more water. See Old Farmer's Almanac for more information.

* Water in the morning, before the heat of the day. If you water later, much of the water will evaporate. (You might be tempted to water in the evenings, but this can leave plants damp - especially if you use a method other than drip irrigation - and this leads to disease.)

* Water deeply. This allows you to water less frequently and encourages a deeper root system in plants. To this end, try inserting a bit of PVC pipe with holes drilled throughout or a soda bottle with holes punched in it, near the base of plants. This is an especially good strategy for plants that require more than average water, such as tomatoes. Or bury clay pots in the soil near plants. (Regular terracotta pots will do, as long as you cover the tops with saucers to help prevent water evaporation; in addition, you can purchase clay pots made just for irrigating.) Fill the pots with water and the liquid will gradually seep from the pots, watering the plants.

* Add organic matter to your garden. This includes compost, mulches, and aged manure. Science has proven that healthy soil retains water much more effectively than soil that's depleted of organic material. To that end, you might try clear fallowing: Don't grow anything in the garden area for one year, but leave behind the remains of previous crops. (Alternatively, leave behind the remains of a cover crop.) This acts as a mulch, helping to retain moisture in the soil. This obviously works best if you have room for more than one garden area.

* Mulch heavily. Use about six inches of straw, hay, shredded leaves, wood chips*, or other organic materials over your irrigation hoses. However, make sure the soil is warmed up before you lay mulch down in the spring. Also, don't let mulch touch the stems of plants. (*Not sawdust or bark mulch; and don't even use wood chips if you till your garden, since it will rob the soil of nitrogen if tilled in)

Weeding conserves water for desirable plants.
* Weed, weed, weed. If there are weeds in your garden, they are using up precious moisture; remove them ASAP.

* Choose plants that come to harvest quickly. The less time plants spend in the soil, the less water the crop will need. All seed packets should indicate how many days it takes for the plant to become harvestable; if you have a choice between a plant that is ready in 75 days and one that is ready in 30 days, choose the 30 day plant.

* Focus on a spring and fall garden. More than likely the weather will be more moist and less hot during these seasons. This means growing mostly cool season crops - but there are lots of great cool season crops to choose from.

* Select drought resistant plants, such as mature rhubarb, okra, and peppers. For more ideas, visit Native Seeds, which specializes in plants that grow in arid locations; see also Burpee's list of heat tolerant vegetables.

* Use windbreaks to prevent wind from sweeping across your garden and taking water with it.

* Shade cloth placed over the garden in the heat of the day helps prevent plants from expiring so much water. You can use hoops to hold the shade cloth in space, or simply tie a shade cloth to posts or fences in the garden area.

* Try the dry gardening method of "dust mulching." This means cultivating the first two or three inches of soil to slow the wicking of water; this keeps more liquid in the soil just below the cultivated area. Dust mulching should be done after the garden is irrigated, or after a rain. (This method, while traditional, is controversial. Read more here.)

Dry farmed Early Girl tomatoes. Via CUESA.
* Dry farm your tomatoes. This only works if you have soil that's high in organic matter. Water the tomato only when the leaves start to yellow and completely stop watering the plant once it fruits. The plant yield will be less, and the plant will look ugly, but the tomatoes are said to taste superior.

* Don't fret about wilting. It's normal for plants to wilt in the afternoon heat. They will recover as the day cools. If, however, plants are wilted before the heat of the day, they require water.

* Look at the desert tribe gardening techniques of Native Americans. They sometimes built gardens that were not level; the planting area was low-lying, and small trenches were dug to funnel water toward the plants. Sometimes one end of the garden was higher and a ramp was formed out of the earth to funnel water down to plants. Creative thinking about funneling what water is available to your plants makes your job a lot easier.


This post featured at Crafty Garden Mama.