Monday, February 28, 2011

Air Freshener Alternative--Monster Spray

Using essential oil blends is a much healthier, cheaper alternative to Fabreeze or other artificial air fresheners, and they are so easy to do, even a child can do it.  A couple popular blends in our house have been dubbed "Bad Guy Go Away" Bedtime Spray and Monster Spray.  Both of these blends are actually to help get the kids to relax and be able to sleep, but as far as they know, they are a way to actually make "monsters" go away, so they are especially good at calming their fears.  At bedtime, we'll mix these up, if there isn't already some made up, and then I let the kids spray them at will, in order to make them feel better.

A werewolf from S's imagination
These sprays also make the house smell really nice.  With all essential oils, though, it is important to know what effects they have, since some can have negative effects.  For example, the clary sage oil used in the monster spray should NOT be used around pregnant women, so these blends, like all essential oils, use caution if you are unsure of all their uses.

"Bad Guy Go Away" Bedtime Spray

16 oz distilled water
10 drops tangerine essential oil
3 drops patchouli essential oil
3 drops ylang ylang essential oil

Mix together in a spray bottle.  Shake before each use.

Monster Spray
16 oz distilled water
10 drops lavender essential oil
5 drops clary sage essential oil

Mix together in a spray bottle.  Shake before each use.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Hardcore Gardener's Spring Planting Chart

It seems that every chart I come across lists when you can plant different vegetables in alphabetical order.  Frequently, though, what I want to know is what can I get away with planting now?  For others like me, here is that chart.  Unfortunately for you, I'm only figuring out things I'm planning on planting and I'm only going by my expected last frost date, which I'm guesstimating to be mid-May.  I may adjust the actual dates I plant as we get into May, if it looks like that may not be accurate.  I'm drawing on a number of sources for these and sometimes the sources disagree, so I'm using my best guesses as well as setting dates I'm most likely to get a chance to do it, which for me means weekdays.

Planned planting date          
(indoors/transplant/outdoors)            Crop                 
March 8 (indoors)                             Broccoli
March 8 (indoors)                             Cabbage
March 15 (indoors)                           Lettuce
March 18 (indoors)                           Tomatoes
March 18 (indoors)                           Green Peppers
March 30 (outdoors)                         Carrots
April 4 (indoors)                                Ground cherries
April 6 (outdoors)                              Peas
April 6 (outdoors)                              Spinach
April 13 (transplant)                           Broccoli
April 13 (transplant)                           Cabbage                               
April 13 (outdoors)                            Broccoli
April 13 (outdoors)                            Onions (sets)
April 14 (indoors)                              Cucumbers
April 14 (indoors)                              Melons
April 14 (indoors)                              Winter squash
April 14 (indoors)                              Zucchini
April 17 (transplant)                           Lettuce
May 11 (outdoors)                             Cabbage
May 11 (outdoors)                             Lettuce
May 16 (outdoors)                             Basil
May 16 (outdoors)                             Beans
May 16 (outdoors)                             Pumpkins
May 16 (outdoors)                             Sunflowers
May 16 (transplant)                            Cucumber
May 16 (transplant)                            Green Peppers
May 16 (transplant)                            Ground cherries
May 16 (transplant)                            Tomatoes
May 16 (transplant)                            Winter squash
May 16 (transplant)                            Zucchini
May 27 (outdoors)                             Corn


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Seed Porn

Woo hoo!  I'm getting closer and closer to getting my garden planted!  My husband mounted the shop light above the kitchen counter that I'll be using to start seedlings and I have all my seeds either on hand or on order!  Since I garden on such a small scale, I usually have lots of seeds to save from year to year, so I save the leftovers in an airtight plastic container in the refrigerator. I still have basil, squash, green beans, pumpkin, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe, and cucumbers from last year.  I've made arrangements with a fellow gardener to share seeds, so she'll be giving me some broccoli, green pepper, and cabbage seeds.  I decided to not bother with shells peas or potatoes again this year, because I think with this huge garden expansion, it would be too much work for those two things since I'd have to build my potato growing area and I can get them elsewhere.  I also decided not to add more berry bushes or dwarf fruit trees at this point, until I can learn more about growing them in containers or we move onto some more permanent property--although I'll probably change my mind on that in a couple months.

I just placed my seed order last night.  I'm quite pleased that I got to order from the Seed Savers Exchange this year, so I have some extra awesome plants planned from there.  Here's what I ordered (pictures and blurbs taken from SSE website.  Clicking on the pictures will take you to the site to order them.):

Scarlet Nantes Carrots(Daucus carota) (aka Early Coreless) Dates to the 1850s; original seed developed by Vilmorin in France. Cylindrical roots are 7" long with blunt tips. Fine-grained bright red-orange flesh is nearly coreless. Great flavor, sweet and brittle. Good when used as baby carrots. Excellent for freezing and juicing. Widely adapted, stores well. 65-75 days.

Blue Jade Corn: (Zea mays) Miniature plants (up to 3 feet) bear 3-6 ears with sweet steel-blue kernels that turn jade-blue when boiled. One of the only sweet corns that can be grown in containers. 70-80 days.

Oaxacan Green Dent Corn: (Zea mays) Grown for centuries by the Zapotec Indians of southern Mexico where it is used to make green flour tamales. Traditionally grown with squash and beans which climb up the corn stalks. Drought resistant, sturdy, 7' plants produce emerald green kernels on 10" ears. 75-100 days.

 Aunt Molly's Ground Cherry: (Physalis pruinosa) Native of eastern and central North America. Outstanding Polish variety prized for its unique flavor. Easy to grow, prolific, and super sweet. Can be used for preserves, pies, over ice cream, or in fresh fruit salads. The ½-¾" fruits are encased in a papery husk that turns brown when the fruits ripen. Stores 3-4 weeks in the husk. Productive plants have a sprawling habit. 70 days from transplant.

 Amish Snap Peas: (Pisum sativum) Superb snap pea reportedly grown in the Amish community long before present snap pea types. Vines grow 5-6' tall and are covered in 2" translucent green pods. Yields over a 6-week period if kept picked. Delicate and sweet even when the seeds develop. Snap, 60-70 days.

Black Beauty Zucchini: (Cucurbita pepo) The standard summer squash, introduced to U.S. markets in the 1920s. Compact everbearing bush plants are loaded with glossy green-black fruits with firm white flesh. Best eaten when under 8" long. Excellent variety for freezing. 1957 All America Selections. 45-65 days.

Rostov Sunflower:  (Helianthus annuus) Classic Russian sunflower. Heads grow up to 12" in diameter on 6' stalks. Large plants are sturdy and withstand wind. Very good variety for edible seed production. Annual, 70 days.

Now I just have to wait as patiently as I can for my seeds to arrive and figure out how soon I can start planting!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Masses of Meatballs

Making meatballs is another way I can stretch a little meat a long way.  I make giant batches of meatballs at once, freeze them, and just pull out as many meatballs as I need for a meal.  I find that about 4 meatballs makes an adult happy in a meal, when properly sauced, and children will usually be happy with less.  A pound of ground meat goes really far this way!  I generally use either ground venison from my husband's hunting, or ground turkey that can be found in the frozen food section of the grocery store for $1.59 regular price, but I generally pick it up for a $1 a pound on sale.  Any ground meat would work in this recipe though, so use what you like.
Half a batch

6 lbs ground meat
2 2/3 cups dry outs or cooked brown rice
2 cups onion, diced
1 tbsp salt
2 tsp garlic powder
8 eggs
2 2/3 cups ketchup or tomato sauce

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Combine all ingredients in a large bowl, using hands if necessary to thoroughly mix.  Form into small balls using a small cookie scoop or tablespoon.  Place the meatballs on a greased baking sheet (if you wish to save a lot of cleaning time, you can also line the baking sheet with aluminum foil, but that obviously would be a lot less frugal).  Bake for 20-30 minutes or until lightly browned and no longer pink in the middle.  At this point, you can either use some right away, or cool them for freezing.  Freeze directly on cookie sheets then transfer to a large freezer container or freezer bags once frozen, so that you can pull out just what you need.

Here are some of my favorite sauces for these meatballs.  For all of these, I just make the sauce as directed, then add meatballs and heat through.  Ideally, the meatballs would be thawed first, but I honestly never remember, so I end up throwing them in frozen and heat them a bit longer.
  • Brown gravy
  • Salisbury sauce (1 1/2 cup white sauce plus 2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce)
  • Barbecue sauce
  • Spaghetti sauce
  • Teriyaki sauce

Thursday, February 24, 2011

How to Stretch a Chicken (Part 3)--soup recipes

Part three of my "How to Stretch a Chicken" series is about soups.  I don't generally care for a lot of soups, so I don't have a lot of recipes for soups to share.  I tend to like thicker brews when I do, like a stew or chowder, so the chicken soup/stew recipes I have to share reflect that as well.

Chicken Stew with Dumplings
I love this recipe!  Since it is composed almost entirely of things from my garden (or my mom's garden) and leftovers, I can feed the whole family (usually with some leftovers) for about a dollar!
 2 tbsp butter
1 small onion, diced
2 carrots, sliced
1/4 cup fresh parsley
1 tbsp fresh oregano
salt and pepper to taste
5-6 cups chicken stock
1 cup peas (optional)
3 potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 tbsp butter
approximately 1 cup cooked chicken
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 cup milk
3 tbsp butter
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup milk

Melt first 2 tbsp of better in a large saucepan or stew pot over medium heat.  Add onion, carrots, parsley, oregano, salt, and pepper.  Cook and stir until the vegetables are soft.  Stir in the chicken stock and bring to a boil.  Add the potatoes and cook until tender but still firm.

In a separate saucepan, melt 2 tbsp butter.  Stir in the chicken and 3 tbsp flour.  Add the 1/2 cup milk and heat through.  Stir the chicken mixture into the vegetable mixture and cook until thickened.

Cut the remaining butter into the remaining flour, baking powder and salt with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles fine crumbs.  Stir in the remaining milk.  Drop dough by spoonfuls onto the hot chicken or vegetables in the boiling stew; do not drop directly into the liquid.  Cook uncovered 10 minutes, then cover and cook for 10 minutes longer.

Broccoli, Cheddar, Chicken, and Potato Soup

1/4 cup butter
1 onion, diced
2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp ground white powder
2 cups broccoli (fresh or frozen, thawed)
4 cups chicken stock
2-3 potatoes, cubed
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cup milk
approximately 1 cup chicken
8 oz cheddar cheese, shredded
salt to taste

Melt butter over medium heat in a stockpot or large saucepan.  Cook onion in butter until softened.  Add garlic and pepper; cook for 1 minute then stir in broccoli.  Stir in chicken stock and potatoes.  Bring to a boil until the broccoli is tender and the potatoes are soft, about 10-15 minutes

Meanwhile, whisk flour into milk until dissolved.  Stir into soup, stirring frequently until thickened.  Add chicken.  Reduce heat and stir in cheese until melted.  Season to taste with salt.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Homeschooling is Cheaper than that "Free" Public School

There are lots and lots of excellent reasons to homeschool (many of which can be found in Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto), but one of concerns people seem to have before taking that step is money.  One of the first questions people always seem to have about homeschooling in my experience is either "isn't it expensive?" or "how much does it cost?"  My answers to those are no and less than sending you child to a public school.  That second part surprises a lot of people, but it is true in a lot of other people's experience as well as mine.  When you send a child to school in the fall, oftentimes there is a list of supplies that they are required to have and some of these lists are quite expensive.  I've seen parents spend well over a hundred dollars, some even over $200 for supplies for kindergarten or preschool!  Of course that number is going to vary wildly depending on the grade level, teacher, income level of the school district, and any number of factors, but the National Retail Federation says that the average spent on school supplies in 2010 was $96.39, with an additional $181.60 for school related electronics and computers.  And the spending spree doesn't stop there--the average family also spent $328.41 on back-to-school clothes and shoes.  Wait, there's more.  Once the kid gets to school, they have fundraisers galore that you, as their parent, feel guilty if you don't support.  There are special lunches either to purchase at the school (gross!) or to make and pack.  Some other kid's got-to-have thing may mold into your kid's new favorite got-to-have thing, through that demon of peer pressure.'t....stop..... EVER!

<Here I pause dramatically while you run screaming around in circles, clutching your head with the agony of all this money wasted when there is a better way.>

So how much does it cost to homeschool?  As little or as much as you'd like it to.  You don't have to buy what the teacher says all right now.  You can buy what you need as you need it, so if you anticipate the needs a little bit, you can save a lot of money.  I'm especially fond of those 90% sales on school supplies after the non-homeschool kids have been shuffled off to their classrooms (jail cells?) for the school year.  Plus, you can be a lot more discretionary on what you do decide to purchase.  For example, I'm not a big fan of markers because my soon-to-be 4 year-old daughter thinks she is especially beautiful multicolored, so I don't use markers in our "classroom".  Realistically, I'd say I spend about $15 or less a year on the actual supplies, maybe take it up to $30 or $35 if you include printer ink and paper.  We have a zoo membership and museum membership that my parents get for us for Christmas each year (Yay Mom and Dad!), but for the sake of argument, I'll throw them in here too, so that's another $110 for both memberships.  The museum has monthly homeschool days that we try to attend that have a $4 lab fee, so, assuming we actually made it to all of them, that would be another $32.  I really liked the member worksheets at for what I was looking to teach this year, so I splurged on an annual membership there at another $20.  A lot of the materials for his lessons are food we'd eat anyway or things for the garden we'd be using anyway, (since you can learn a lot about math, science, reading, writing, and a miscellany of other things by cooking and gardening!) so I'm not going to even include those items in the total.  Aaaaaaaaaaand...I just bought the child in question a new pair of shoes the other day for about $20.  Most of his clothes I get as hand-me-downs from Freecycle or other such places, or occasionally as gifts, so I don't need to include any cost in there.  (Clothes aren't nearly important without that peer pressure demon around.  He's happy with whatever he's got!)

So right now, I'd say this year of homeschooling will cost a grand total of $216, but really only $106 out of pocket, since some of this stuff was Christmas gifts.  Compare that to the National Retail Federation's figure of $606.40.  Yeah.  If you aren't going to homeschool your kids, it isn't because of the money.

<Cue random homeschool pictures to show how much more fun it is to be homeschooled than to sit in a classroom>

Keeping that in mind, I thought it would be fun to show interested people in some of the things we do day-to-day in our little home school by sharing my lesson plans with the public.  Something to keep in mind about these lesson plans, though, is that it isn't a complete picture.  My son and I kind of clash a bit on our styles, so we compromise.  I like unschooling a lot and would love for our family to just live that way, letting learning happen organically as we go through our day to day lives.  My son, on the other hand, wants more structure.  As a result, we've been kind of following a loose curriculum, mostly involving reading some stories, doing related worksheets I find on the internet, and then doing a craft or making something, ideally cooking (because then that creeps back into unschooling territory, but he loves it anyway).  There is a lot more learning taking place here than these lesson plans show, but the main point is to show you how easy it is.  I think this age, pre-reading is the hardest part to homeschool too, since I have to lead him through everything and can't just have him read his own directions or information.  Also, I show the products (books, toys, etc) we use to show how simple it can be.  The books are from the library in our case (although I could buy $500 worth and still be paying $0.40 less than the average for sending a kid to "free" public school!  Ha ha!), or or we just happen to have it and I don't really know where it came from.  The toys were mostly gifts or garage sale finds.  These lesson plans can be seen at my spin-off blog at Lesson Plans of a Thrifty Mama (currently dormant because we've been doing more unschooling this year).  Enjoy and I hope you find some inspiration there!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Cheap Reads

My workspace and a few of my books
I love books.  I've often said that I'm addicted to books.  I certainly show some signs of being addicted at times, getting shaky and irritable if I'm kept from an engrossing tale too long or spending grocery money on books instead of food--actually, that's part of how I got so good about feeding people on such a tight budget!  Fortunately, I have a couple thrifty ways to deal with my addiction.

The number one way I get books is from the library.  I feel incredibly blessed that we live in an area with a fantastic library system.  We have 13 branches plus a bookmobile for areas not near a permanent branch, but I'm only about 3 miles away from one of the branches so I haven't personally interacted with the bookmobile.  They have just about any book I want somewhere in the library system, so all I have to do if I want a book is request it online and it will magically appear at the front desk, usually within days!  I can even preorder books that haven't come out yet, sometimes months in advance, so I'm not tempted to buy them.  On the rare occurrence that they don't have a book I want, Michigan has an amazing interlibrary loan system set up as well.  Between our local library system and the state's interlibrary loan system, I have easy access to just about any book I could possibly want.

Trade Books for Free - PaperBack Swap.
The only problem then is that sometimes, I don't want to give the books back and renewing only goes so far.  This rarely happens for my fiction books or the homeschooling books for the kids, but there are a lot of nonfiction books that I like to use again and again.  For these, I had to have a different source.  I know a lot of people like to browse used book stores, but for me, this is too chancy.  I have high standards of finding the exact books I want, so for this, I turn to a much larger online source, primarily  This is my absolute favorite of all the book swapping sites I've found on the web, and believe me when I tell you that I've tried a few!  One of my favorite things is that the site is free.  Just join, login, post books for trading and you get a couple credits each good for a book (or 2 credits for an audio book) right off the bat.  Once you mail off the books you have listed, you get a credit for each book, good for any other book in the system and right this second there are nearly 5,000,000 books in the system!  That's a pretty darn big used book store!  And you only have to pay for postage (about $2.50 for most books)!  It is super easy to mail a book from this site too.  When a book is requested, tell it you can mail the book and by when, then click the prompts to print your mailing label.  It even gives you the option to print the postage right onto the label from home.  Then, depending on the weight of the book and whether you put postage on it or not, you can either drop it off in your mailbox at home or take it down to the post office.  That's it.  Easy peasy!  If you want a book that isn't in the system, there is even a wish list feature, so you can let know that you'd like a book when it does become available and it sticks you in line for that item.  When it becomes available, you have 48 hours that it is held just for you before it goes to the next person in line or to the general public if no one else has it on their wish list.  Nice!  Most of the books in the picture above came from over the years that I've been using the service!  According to the site, I've saved over $3,000 by trading books there instead of buying them from a used bookstore.  I'd hate to see how much I'd have spent if I was silly enough to buy all those books new!

My third favorite place to get books is by random people giving them to me.  Sometimes this is people I know, sometimes it is strangers through Freecycle or a similar organization.  Again, this is a very random way to do it, but at least they are free and a lot of times books I don't want are listed on someone else's wish list on, so I can trade them on there for something I do want!

Monday, February 21, 2011

My 2011 Urban Homestead Plan

Since my yard is again buried under a layer of ice and snow, I'm again dreaming of spring and my urban homestead to be.
A quick peek out of my front door as the snow started.  We ended up with about 7 inches.

I've been wavering on whether I should consider my little piece of the word an actual urban homestead, not because some pompous people in Pasadena foolishly decided to trademark a phrase that has been part of the lexicon for many years, but since it is in the country, at least 16 miles from anything that actually would be considered truly urban.  I've decided it does qualify, since it is in a trailer park, so it is still an area where people and properties are practically piled on each other, just like a true urban area.  Despite this, I engage in a number of homesteading activities, so it is a real urban homestead.

This year is the first year I've been able to have free-range on what I can do with my yard with a few minor caveats (like filing a form at the park office) and just one major one (no livestock *sigh*), so I'll be turning almost the whole yard into a garden, just reserving a few paved or otherwise unsuitable for gardening places for the kids to play.  My husband still thinks I should run my plans by the park office, just to be safe, but I don't anticipate any problems, since I asked lots of questions before we even signed a lease.  He's mostly concerned about the Three Sisters up front, but if they don't like it, I'll move it more to back of the lot.  I haven't decided where to put a lot of my other crops yet, so I still have some wiggle room on where to put things.  I know for sure that I will have a variety of berry bushes in containers around the front and side of the house, and a number of mounds around the yard mostly filled with vining plants, like watermelon, cantaloupe, and zucchini.  I also plan on building a box to grow potatoes toward the backside of the lot.  I'm thinking of using some rhubarb as a border on the outside of the potato box, since by the time the potatoes are ready, the rhubarb won't care about being disturbed. A lot of the not-so-cute plants, like carrots, onions, leaf lettuce, spinach, cabbage, and some of my peas will be tucked into the back raised bed.  The plants that I'll want quick access to, like some tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli (got to keep a close eye on them so the caterpillars don't eat 'em up!), basil, green peppers, spinach, and leaf lettuce will be in the raised bed right outside the front door, so I can pop out and pick something right before dinner.  I'll also have sugar snap peas right outside the front door, growing in buckets, for quick snacking or grabbing as a last minute addition to a stir fry.  I'm not sure where to put the ground cherries, since I haven't figured out yet what the plant likes or even what it looks like, which makes it harder to plan.  I'm thinking of putting the sunflowers toward the back of the lot as well, in the area that I can't count on sun for the whole summer, since that's something I wouldn't be as upset about losing if a trailer did move into the next lot.  Last fall, I tucked away the beginning of a compost pile (euphemistically called a "dirt pile" when within neighbors' hearing range, just to be safe) behind the house, so I plan on continuing that as I go.  Jeez, looking at it like this, I may have more room than I thought!  Hopefully one of these days, when I can see my yard again, I can get a better feel of how much room I have left to play with!

I'll also be continuing my urban homesteading journey of doing things indoors, like of learning how to make things from even more basic sources (vinegar?  Maybe!), learning more about preserving my harvest, making yogurts, baked goods, and maybe even cheeses!  I'm also hoping that, as I meet more people in the area, I'll be able to find a good local source for pastured chickens and some nice milk so I can make my own butter as well.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Amazing Power of Baking Soda

Baking soda has got to be one of the most amazing substances in the world!  It is so versatile for cleaning and household tasks, but it is so mild we eat the stuff!  How many other cleaning substances can you say that about?  Rhetorical question.  I know there are quite a few, and I use many of them (vinegar and lemon juice come to mind), but you generally won't see these products advertised on television as cleaning products (stupid television commercials!).  Instead, they advertise chemical laden, highly toxic substances that you then have to worry about your kids or pets getting into and, if you are considerate enough, worry about any friends or family coming over that may have asthma that you could potentially kill with the fragrances and fumes they put out.  Or worse yet, have a family member that lives in the home that has breathing difficulties or other health problems from being around them.  Not in my house!

Here is a list of the various uses I've found for baking soda around my house:
  1. Scrubbing crayon off the walls.  With very creative small children in the house, this is big around here.  Simply make a paste of baking soda and water, dab a rag in the paste, apply to crayon marks and scrub away.  I've found this to be easier on wallpapered walls, but it does work on painted walls as well.  Someday soon, when I get the chance, I'll be finding out if it works on textured ceilings as well.  *sigh*  This frequently works for mystery smudges on walls that sometimes appear around kids as well.
  2.  As a substitute for washing soda in my laundry detergent recipeIf you haven't found a source for washing soda yet, but have borax and the Dr. Bronner's soap for making the laundry detergent I posted, and want to get started making your own, or if you run out of washing soda and haven't got around to going to the store for more yet, you can substitute in baking soda.  Just use twice as much baking soda as you would washing soda and be very careful when you pour it into your storage jug because it will foam a lot more.
  3. As an alternative to commercial fabric softeners.  Add about a 1/2 cup in the rinse cycle.
  4. To eliminate clogs from drains.  Jam as much baking soda as you can into a clogged or sluggish drain, add vinegar, and cover the drain until it stops making fizzing noises.  Rinse with warm water afterwords.
  5. Extending dishwasher detergent powder.  For a lot of the same reasons I have to make my own laundry detergent, I'm very limited on what dishwasher detergents I can stand.  I basically have to use ones from brands like Seventh Generation.  I find the prices of that to be (quite a bit) higher than I like, so I make a mixture of 1/3 commercial dishwasher detergent, 1/3 borax, and 1/3 baking soda.  I store some premixed in a small container so I can just pour it in when I do my dishes.  The same blend should work of liquid dishwasher detergent too, but you'd have to add it separately each time.
  6. To clean the oven.  Sprinkle the bottom of the oven with about 2-4 cups baking soda and moisten thoroughly with a spray bottle of water.  Keep it moist by spraying more water every few hours.  Leave overnight and scoop out, along with the grime, in the morning.  Rinse well.
  7. Getting the kids to clean the toilet...or, in a pinch, do it yourself.  The kids love a good harmless chemical reaction, so show them some science and get them to clean the toilet at the same time.  Sprinkle some baking soda into the toilet bowl and let it sit for a half hour or so.  Then, add a squirt of Dr. Bronner's liquid soap and some vinegar.  The kids will have a blast scrubbing with those fun bubbles (at least my kids do, when I let them).
  8. Shower/tub scrub.  Make a paste of baking soda and liquid soap and scrub away.  Rinse with warm water.  If you need a little extra scrubbing bubbles or enjoy a nice lemon scent to your bathroom, add some lemon juice to the mix, but you'll probably want to wear gloves to clean if you're going to do that.  Tough mildew stains may require a thicker paste with more baking soda.
  9. Removing mineral buildup from showerheads.  Mix together 1 part baking soda to 2 parts vinegar in a plastic bag (a grocery bag should work okay for this as long as it doesn't have any holes).  Submerge the showerhead in the bag and secure the bag to the showerhead with a rubber band.  Let it soak for at least an hour then rinse the showerhead by running very hot water through it for a few minutes (don't want any of the vinegar getting in your eyes next shower.  OUCH!).
  10. Deodorizing trash cans and diaper pails.  Sprinkle some baking soda in the trash can or diaper pail for disposable diapers after each time you empty it.  For a cloth diaper pail, you can sprinkle some in the pail itself, but if you use a cloth bag for a liner (and throw the whole thing in the wash with the diapers), you can also sprinkle some in the cloth bag to give the laundry extra oomph as well as deodorizing the diaper pail in between washes.
  11. To make urine smells disappear from the carpet or upholstered furniture.  Whether it be from a kid or a cat, I've had a lot of luck sprinkling some baking soda on tinkled on areas (if it is still wet, dry up as much as you can with a towel first), let it sit for at least fifteen minutes, then vacuum up.  If it is in an out of the way place, like behind a couch, the baking soda can just be left there until your next regularly scheduled vacuuming.
  12. Fill in nail holes in the wall.  A super cheap way to save on your security deposit if you rent is to fill all those nail and tack holes with a paste of baking soda and white glue and let dry.
  13. To remove black scuff marks on shoes.  Make a paste and scrub away.  You can follow up with some polish after you wipe off the paste if you desire.
  14. For underarm deodorant.  Dust a little on the area with a powder puff if you have one (a washcloth can work in a pinch).
  15. In baking.  A lot of recipes call for it, so don't forget to keep some in the kitchen for when you need it!
With all these uses for baking soda and about a billion more I didn't include because I haven't tried them myself, I skip the little boxes.  It is well worth it to spend the two dollars and change to get a 2 lb generic box (or bigger?  Do they make them bigger?) and save yourself even more money!

Here are a couple books with more great ideas for baking soda that I haven't tried yet:

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Making a Meal Plan & Grocery List

It occurred to me that if someone had never made a meal plan before, that they may have no idea how to do it.  Since I need to do this before going grocery shopping today anyway, I figured I might as well take you all with me to see how it is done.  There are lots of ways to go about this.  This is simply my thought process to do it today.  Since my husband gets paid every two weeks, I try to do our main grocery shopping done on the weekend of payday (this weekend for example), so that way I don't have to worry about running out of food if we run out of money before the next payday.  If money permits, I'll do a supplemental food run the off-pay weekend as well, to add more fresh food and possibly even some treats.  If you are just starting to make meal plans, you may want to strictly take it one week at a time though.

The first thing I did was pull out my Master Meal List out of my "Brain" to see what looks tasty.  Tacos, roast chicken with potatoes au gratin and some sort of vegetable, chicken teriyaki, chicken fajitas, chicken stew with dumplings, shipwreck (a dish involving ground meat, potatoes, kidney beans, and tomato soup), chili, Mexican egg rolls, meatball stroganoff on rice, black beans & rice, a chicken broccoli rice casserole (new recipe idea I had the other day), and pseudo-French bread pizzas sound good.  I find that about a dozen dinner ideas is usually sufficient for a two week period, since we'll probably end up having at least one leftover night, be invited to someone else's house for at least a meal, or possibly even eat out once.

Next, I checked my fridge to make sure there wasn't anything in there that needed eating up soon that wasn't covered by these meals.  The only perishables in there that need used up in a meal soon are tomatoes and lettuce that I picked up last week for tacos (a meal we didn't end up getting around to eating) and some bread dough (in the bucket on the bottom shelf) that I mixed up for the bread with the corn and potato chowder last week, but some of that will be used for the pizza and I'm hoping to try to make bagels one of these days, so that should take care of that.

One of my "helpers" assisting in my inventory
Then, I checked my planner to make sure there weren't special concerns with time on any of the days in question.  In this case, two of the kids have tap dance class one evening a week, but our round trip to there, the class time, and the trip back, with extra time thrown in for kids not wanting to change shoes or put their coats on or getting into their car seats without a fuss is still under an hour and a half, so I could cook the chicken dinner (approximate cooking time 2 hours) one week and let the chili simmer the whole time.  In both cases, I'll start dinner before leaving and it will be ready shortly after we get home, thereby eliminating the temptation of running out for some fast food after class, a savings of about $25 each time we don't grab fast food with our family size.

The last thing I checked before making my list is the ad flyer for the grocery store I'll be going to, to make sure there aren't any super deals I couldn't pass up that might influence what we eat for the week.  I need to make sure before we go because, if you recall, if it isn't on the grocery list, I'm not going to buy it.  Period.  Actually, we might cheat on that this week since my husband will be going shopping with me his week and he's horrible about slipping extra goodies in the cart, but I'm going to try to budget in some wiggle room for him to do that without sending us over budget.  If I was running really short on food and on a super tight budget this week, I would have started with the ad flyer and built my menu up from that, but since I have a fairly healthy stock of a lot of things and a looser budget this week, it isn't as crucial.  Nothing really jumped out at me for meals that will influence my menu this week, but I did mark several items on my grocery list that I wanted for general supplies that were on sale, as well as some good produce deals that I want to grab for snacks for the kids.

Lastly, I went through my menu for the next couple weeks and figured out what I have on hand to make it and what I need.  The tacos, I don't need anything because I was planning on having that this past week.  The roast chicken and potatoes au gratin, I don't need anything because that is all super basic ingredients that I always have on hand (I stocked up on chickens humanely and healthily raised by Amish people in the fall, before the season for them ended).  I continued down my list I made and discovered the only thing I need to buy for this cycle of dinners is some egg roll wrappers, which usually run about $1.50 a package.  This frees up almost my entire budget to stock up on supplies that are on sale, items for breakfast (lunches generally consist of dinner leftovers), and any goodies my husband wants to slip in!  After marking those items (except my husband's "surprises") on my list, it looks like the "real" groceries will likely be somewhere between $20-$30 for two weeks, depending on how many of the desirable sale items are in stock!  Since I think I remember reading somewhere that the average food expenditure for a family of 4, a smaller family size than ours, is upwards of $155 per week in the United States, I'd say a little planning can save a lot of money!

Friday, February 18, 2011

My Future Garden (Semi-urban homestead?)

Today, for the first time in months, the snow was melted enough that I could see what I have to work with for a yard.  This is the blank canvas on which I will be working my garden magic this year.  Somewhere on this limited land, I'm looking to grow beans, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, pumpkins, corn, at least two kinds of peas, carrots, onions, broccoli, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe, potatoes, green peppers, rhubarb, zucchini, cabbage, cucumbers, and ground cherries.  If I can figure out a way to do it in containers with dwarf trees, I'd also like to grow some peaches, apples, cherries, lemons, and plums.  That's right--I said lemons.  In Michigan.  I've heard it is possible if the tree is stored inside in the winter, so I'm considering it.  That's right:  I'm looking to turn this tiny trailer park lot into an urban homestead.

You can see the two garden boxes I had at our previous residence in the first and third pictures, one by the front stairs and the second by the garage.  Right now, the lot next to us is empty, so there is lots of sun coming into the yard, but I can't count on that being the case the whole summer, which adds an additional challenge.  The front yard faces the south, so that should get some good sun, so I'm thinking I'm going to plant my most sun loving plants there.  I'm thinking of trying to grow the "Three Sisters" (corns, beans, and squash) together there, since that is a traditional gardening method in this region so I think it should work pretty will with minimal maintenance.  That's about as far as I've gotten with figuring out where everything goes, but I'm confident I should be able to eek out a good portion of our food, at least for the summer if not for the whole year in our tiny lot.  Stay tuned for details on how I manage this miracle.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

How to Stretch a Chicken (Part 2)--non-soup recipes involving stock

Well, if you cooked up a chicken after my last How to Stretch a Chicken post, and you have any pieces left (I'm assuming you cooked your chicken stock overnight, so they were separated out on the 14th), you'll need to use them up today or freeze them, since like I mentioned before, if you let them sit in your fridge too long, you'll be inviting Salmonella to dinner too, and she's not very friendly so I wouldn't suggest welcoming her into your home! (Holy run-on sentence, Batman!)  Anyhoo, since I'm sure you have a couple cups of chicken pieces and a lot of stock laying around, I figured I probably should give you some nice recipes to use them in (getting out my great big blue personal cookbook...).  There are no soups in this post because Blogger ate them after I got them typed up, so I took that as a sign I should save them for another day.  Bon appetit!

Chicken Asparagus Stir-fry

This is actually the recipe that the picture of my cookbook is open to in my post about my personal cookbook, so now you don't have to try to figure out how to magnify the tiny picture to swipe the recipe!

1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 lbs fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into bite sized pieces
1 cup chicken stock
2 tbsp water
4 tbsp soy sauce 
2 tbsp cornstarch
1/2 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp dry mustard
1/4 tsp salt
1-2 cups cooked chicken pieces

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat.  Add the asparagus, stirring to coat with the oil.  Cook and stir 5 minutes, until tender but firm.  While the asparagus is cooking, whisk together the chicken stock, water, soy sauce, cornstarch, sugar, mustard, and salt in a small bowl.  Pour the broth mixture over the cooked asparagus and cook for about 3 minutes or until it thickens.  Add the chicken and continue cooking until it is heated through.  Serve over cooked rice.

"Chickenherder's" Pie

I call it this because it is very much like a shepherd's pie, but with chicken.  If you have leftover gravy (also made from your homemade chicken stock, I presume), you can substitute that for the butter, flour, and stock in the recipe.

4 tbsp butter
4 tbsp flour
salt and pepper
2 cups chicken stock
1 cups frozen peas
1 cups frozen sliced carrots
1 cups frozen corn
1 cup chicken pieces
3 cups mashed potatoes
1/2 cup cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Melt butter in a saucepan.  Stir in the flour.  Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until mixture is smooth and bubbly; add salt and pepper to taste.  Stir in chicken stock.  Heat to boiling, stirring constantly; boil and stir one minute or until thickened.  Add vegetables and chicken and heat through.  Pour vegetable mixture into an ungreased 2-quart casserole dish.  Cover with mashed potatoes.  Sprinkle with the cheese.  Bake for 30 minutes.


1/2 lb sausage (I like venison or turkey sausage, to keep it a tad lower fat)
1 onion, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
2 cups (or one 14.5 oz storebought can) diced tomatoes, undrained
2 cups chicken stock
1 1/2 cups uncooked white rice
1 bay leaf
1/3 tsp white pepper
1 tsp garlic powder
1/3 tsp onion powder
1/3 tsp ground red pepper
1/3 tsp paprika
1/3 tsp black pepper
1-1 1/2 cups cooked chicken

Brown the sausage.  Drain and set aside.  In a large saucepan, combine the onion, bell pepper, tomatoes, broth, rice, and seasonings.  Mix well and bring to a boil over medium heat.  Reduce heat to low and add sausage and chicken.  Cover and simmer until the rice is tender, about 35-40 minutes.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Truly Free Market

Just some of the random finds at the giveaway at the homeschool Valentine's Day party
I found a wonderful surprise when I took the kids to the day late homeschool Valentine's Day party yesterday.  Along the back wall, someone had set up a table with all sorts of things on it and taped a sign to the wall saying something along the lines of "If you can use it, you can have it."  There was everything from food to toys to a vacuum to books to computer games and all sorts of other things on the table and a couple boxes by the base of the table.  I wish I knew that was going to be going on before I had gone, since, just yesterday, I took about 4 boxes of things out of my house to the garage awaiting the chance to give them away at just such a thing.

I've long been a fan of these kinds of giveaways, often going to them as part of various Freecycle "Free-4-All"s, or through the similar ReUseIt Network (don't know if they have an official cutsie name for them though), and even helping organize a Free-4-All in conjunction with a local community college as part of their campus Earth Day celebration a couple years ago.  Last summer, I started to organize monthly "Really, Really Free Markets" at parks around Jackson, MI, but those have not been running the past few months since the weather got too cold to have them outdoors and we couldn't find a free place to have them inside.  Hopefully, they'll regain the momentum they were gathering before winter struck when the spring arrives.
The first Jackson, MI Really, Really Free Market--August 2010, Cascades Park
Jackson (MI) Really, Really Free Market--September 2010, Loomis Park
I've gotten a lot of really great stuff at giveaways, regardless of what you call them, just about anything you could imagine, really--anything from clothes (some even brand new), household items, furniture, purses, toys and games for the kids, a stereo, books, videos.  More importantly, I've been able to get rid of a lot of things that I didn't need, that were cluttering up my life and draining my energies just by being there.  Let me tell you, it can be quite a sanity saver to have less stuff (don't get me wrong, we still have a ton of stuff...this is an ongoing process to "destuff" our lives!) since it means less stuff to worry about getting out of place and cluttering up the house (especially true of kid stuff), less stuff to clean, less stuff to worry about someone stealing or breaking.  I know this is counter what is advertised on television, with the commercials constantly telling you that you need more stuff, specifically whatever stuff they are trying to sell you.  They lie.

You probably know this intellectually but really take it to heart--there is nothing advertised on television that you need.  So rather than spending your hard earned money, probably earned doing something you weren't too thrilled to be doing in the first place if your job is like most people's, on this junk, save it for stuff you really do need, like maybe keeping a roof over your head, or spend it doing something with someone you care about.  And what if instead of supporting a "free market" that costs us all in the time it takes to earn the money we are supposed to spend on this "free market" (not to mention potential environmental damage or societal damage it creates in the long run--a topic for another day), instead we support a gift economy that is a truly free market, where we all share our stuff we don't need, our ideas, our talents, and work toward building more of a community than holing ourselves up, isolated with our stuff?

These kinds of giveaways are easy to organize.  Pretty much everyone has stuff that they don't want or need anymore, so it is simply a matter of setting a time, a place, and promoting the heck out of it.  Promoting can be word of mouth, email, through email groups, Facebook, through, or even old fashioned flyers around town.  As Mahatma Gandhi said, "You must be the change you want to see in the world."   Personally, I'd like to see people be less focused on stuff and more focused on each other, so that's what I'm working toward.  In other words, like I always tell the kids, "Share!"

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Gardening in Small Spaces

The past couple days, we've had hints that spring may be coming soon, with temperatures soaring into the 40s and snow melting like crazy.  As a result, I find myself itching to get gardening.  I can't even calculate how much money I've saved over the past few years with my modest garden, and I'm planning a much larger one this year!   The first couple years I gardened, I only had two 4'x4' boxes to grow things in.

However, using the square foot gardening method, a lot can be grown in a 4'x4' box!  This is one of my two boxes last year during its peak prettiness:
This box contained onions, green pepper, broccoli, corn, carrots, cantalope, cucumbers, beans, and pumpkins!  The other box contained carrots, cayenne pepper, broccoli, heirloom tomatoes and watermelon at the time.  One of the tricks of square foot gardening is to make sure your squares are never vacant. When you harvest one, replant it as soon as possible to maximize your limited space.

Last year, I decided that I wanted more gardening space, so I expanded to container gardening.  The place we were living in was pretty strict about what could be laying around the yard, so I had to be creative with my use of space.
Here is my stairwell garden of sugar snap peas, strawberries, tomatoes, peppers, raspberries, and blackberries (didn't get any raspberries or blackberries last year, but it was my first year with those plants, so that isn't really a surprise).
Five-gallon buckets with holes drilled near the bottom provided a shed border of squash, zucchini, and pumpkin.
I also had a bucket-based potato patch hidden behind the shed!

This year, I am really looking forward to getting my garden going, since I pretty much have the landlord's go-ahead to do what I want, turning the whole (although much smaller) yard into a garden!

I have friends that aren't so fortunate to have that kind of space, as modest as it is.  My friend Zoë has a third floor apartment in Boston, and still manages an extremely impressive garden on her balcony.

As you can see from Zoë's beautiful garden and mine, with our eclectic pots, buckets, and other found materials being used as pots, you don't have to spend a lot of money to do this either.  A guide to tell you what size pot, and I use that term loosely, you need is very handy though.  Zoë recommends McGee & Stuckey's Bountiful Container and I prefer The Apartment Farmer (which also covers information about gardening inside, something I haven't attempted yet, but likely will sooner or later) for this purpose, but there are other books out there too, so you may want to look at a few of them to see what suits your needs the best.  Zoë has a blog as well, so that will be another resource for ideas for extensive container gardening ideas.

Sometime in the next few days, I'm hoping the snow will have melted enough that I can actually see my yard well enough to plan what I want to do with it, so keep watching for more great ideas for getting the most out of a small yard!

Here are some books that might help inspire and inform you when it comes to your own unconventional gardening efforts:

Monday, February 14, 2011

Eliminating Food Waste

Waste not, want not, right?  According to research, the average family of 4 throws away 14% of their food purchases, or an estimated $590 worth of food a year!  I don't know who these people are, but I know I certainly don't have that kind of money (or even worse, the $786.67 it would be if you adjusted it for my family's size!) just to throw away.  In my house, darn little food goes to waste, so today, I'm going to share some tips on how to prevent a lot of this atrocious waste!
A pantry arranged so everything can be seen at once and everything is kept in its place

The first step is to make a list before you go to the grocery store of exactly what you need and make sure you really need it.  To figure out what you really need, figure out a meal plan for the week and look at what you have on hand to use in those meal plans before adding to your grocery list, so you only add the items you actually need.  This most easily done if your food storage areas are organized in such a way that you can see exactly what you have.  Organize your pantry area, so everything has a place and all labels are facing forward so you can see what you have at a glance.  For many things, like rice, flour, or cereal, I like to store them in airtight storage containers so I can see exactly how much I have left of that item.  Out of all the storage systems I've seen for this kind of thing, I've discovered I like the Lock & Lock brand square storage containers, since they stack nicely for easy organizing, have an extremely tight seal for freshness, and they come in a variety of sizes so you can use the size you need to maximize your space.
Keep an eye on when you need to restock things like sugar, flour, rice, and cereal by keeping them in clear storage containers.

When figuring out meal plans, you also want to take into consideration when things need to be used up.  For example, if you have fresh produce you bought the previous week, you will want to plan to use that up before eating something else.  Or, if you cooked up a chicken as talked about in a previous post, you'll want to make sure to use up that chicken before it goes bad.  Incorporate you leftovers into your meal plans as well, either by cooking up the leftovers into a new dish (like mentioned in the "Dealing with Leftovers" post) or having one day be a designated "leftovers night".

So now you have your shiny grocery shopping list in hand, ready to go shopping.  Before you go, eat.  Don't go grocery shopping hungry.  It makes it a lot harder to stick to your list.  And that is key:  stick to your list.  If it isn't on the list, don't buy it.  Period.  And double check your list before getting into the checkout line to make sure you got everything on the list.  It would be bad if you went to make one of your carefully thought out meals and discovered last minute that you were missing a key ingredient.  You may have to run out to the store last minute to get it, thereby spending more in gas and probably impulse buying at least a couple items, since you were at the store anyway.  If you discover you have problems sticking to your list, start calculating how much just the items on your list would be and just take enough cash to cover them to the store with you, leaving any other forms of payment at home, so you have to stay within your budget.

When you get home, rotate your stock.  If you've ever worked in any sort of food service or food retail business, you know what this term means, because it is crucial in that sort of business.  It is crucial at home too.  When you bring something new home, or have fresh leftovers, put them behind the older stuff on the shelf, so you use the older product up first.  This makes it much more likely that you will use everything before it is expired.  Do this in your pantry, freezer, refrigerator, and any other cabinets or shelves you might keep your food.

You also want to make sure you store your food for optimal freshness.  You probably already know to keep bananas on the counter and potatoes in a cool, dark place, but make sure you know how to keep everything you use, so it keeps as long as you need it to.  Things like snack crackers, cereal, and chips can also be kept a lot fresher depending on how you store them.  That's another reason I love those Lock & Lock storage containers--they keep things as fresh as when I initially open the package!  I actually tested this a couple weeks ago by just using a chip clip to close a bag of tortilla chips on one package and keeping another package stored in the container designated for tortilla chips (this wasn't actually on purpose; my husband opened a second bag of tortilla chips, not realizing there were already some in the storage container).  I then tasted both and was amazed at the difference.  The ones still in the bag (which was actually the more recent package) didn't really taste stale, but the taste and crispness paled in comparison to those in the storage container!  They may seem kind of pricey, but they are well worth the price in the long run, since they ultimately will save you a fortune in food freshness, and if you get them as gifts like I did, they are an especially good deal!
Opened packages of chips and snack crackers stay much fresher when sealed in a storage container