Chocolate Peanut Butter Buckeyes

 

O – H !

Anyone?

(The correct response is, I – O!)

If you’ve never had a Buckeye candy, boy are you missing out! They are balls of sugar and peanut butter dipped in chocolate, and so rich and creamy it is positively mind blowing. We have started calling them sugar-sugar-peanut butter-butters, because that is an accurate reflection of the ingredients list.

They are named after the state tree of Ohio, the Buckeye tree. A buckeye nut is dark brown with a lighter brown circle, and is a part of the chestnut family. The buckeye nut itself is not edible, but this candy after which it is named most certainly is edible! It is darn near irresistible, in fact.

The Ohio Buckeye nut, photo from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aesculus_glabra

I made a big batch of these for a cookie swap with some friends, and they were a total hit! Only one person had had them before, so it was extra fun to watch my friends experience these for the first time. They were described as “peanut butter fudgy wrapped in chocolate” and “like a ball of Reese’s” and “mmmmmmmmmm…”

They are very quick and easy to make, with just a handful of ingredients. And they are no-bake! That’s right, no oven required. All you need is a refrigerator or freezer to get the peanut butter balls to harden before dipping, and a microwave to melt the chocolate. Honestly, the inside peanut butter ball is so tasty and fudge-like, you could probably get away with no coating it and just calling it fudge!

This recipe makes approximately 5 dozen Buckeyes, depending on how large or small you roll them. You will also need at least one toothpick, for dipping the peanut butter balls.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups peanut butter
  • 1 cup butter (1 stick)
  • 4 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tbsp vanilla flavoring

Coating:

  • 1/2 cup chocolate melting chip, baking chocolate, or chocolate chips
  • 1 – 2 tbsp coconut oil or Crisco

Step 1: In a stand mixer or with a handheld mixer, cream the butter and peanut butter well. Blend until it becomes soft and thick.

Step 2: Add the vanilla, and then slowly add the powdered sugar. Be careful not to just dump it all in, or the powdered sugar will explode everywhere! Not that I know from experience or anything…

Step 3: Once it is all mixed and has become a soft but firm dough, scoop out by teaspoon-fulls and roll into balls. Put the peanut butter balls on a wax-paper or foil-lined pan, and refrigerate or freeze for an hour or more. You want the balls to be hardened and cold, so that the liquid chocolate solidifies faster once they are dipped.

Step 4: In a microwave safe bowl, add the chocolate and the oil. Microwave in 30-second bursts, stirring in between, until it is melted. Take your peanut butter balls, and stick a toothpick in one side. Dip the ball into the chocolate and swirl it around a little, leaving only a small section of light brown at the top. Let the melted chocolate drip off, and then place back on your tray.

Put them back in the refrigerator or freezer to let the chocolate harden. They will keep in the refrigerator for about 3 weeks, and they can freeze well for up to 3 months. They are super rich and addictive, and so easy to make! In about an hour, you can create several dozen of these treats to share, sell, or keep all to yourself. Enjoy!

 

Have you ever had or heard of a buckeye? Do you have any family recipes that you make every year?

The 12 Days of FI Christmas!

For a little holiday fun, I Dream of FIRE, My Sons Father, and yours truly, the Budget Epicurean, have put together a fun-filled Financial Independence related take on the 12 Days of Christmas! if you’d like to know the full story of how this creative genius came about, the post is right here on I Dream of Fire’s site.

Featuring financial lyrics and several of the top FI bloggers of all time, we hope you enjoy our music video:

Full lyrics

On the first day of Christmas my good friend gave to me
A paid-off mortgage (debt free!)

On the second day of Christmas my good friend gave to me
2 IRAs and a paid-off mortgage (debt free!)

On the third day of Christmas my good friend gave to me
3 Vanguard funds, 2 IRAs and a paid-off mortgage (debt free!)

On the fourth day of Christmas my good friend gave to me
A 4 percent withdrawal rate, 3 Vanguard funds, 2 IRAs and a paid-off mortgage (debt free!)

On the fifth day of Christmas my good friend gave to me
5 rewards cards, a 4 percent withdrawal rate, 3 Vanguard funds, 2 IRAs and a paid-off mortgage (debt free!)

On the sixth day of Christmas my good friend gave to me
6 tax write-offs, 5 rewards cards, a 4 percent withdrawal rate, 3 Vanguard funds, 2 IRAs and a paid-off mortgage (debt free!)

On the seventh day of Christmas my good friend gave to me
7 percent markets, 6 tax write-offs, 5 rewards cards, a 4 percent withdrawal rate, 3 Vanguard funds, 2 IRAs and a paid-off mortgage (debt free!)

On the eighth day of Christmas my good friend gave to me
8 Bogle books, 7 percent markets, 6 tax write-offs, 5 rewards cards, a 4 percent withdrawal rate, 3 Vanguard funds, 2 IRAs and a paid-off mortgage (debt free!)

On the ninth day of Christmas my good friend gave to me
9 dividend stocks, 8 Bogle books, 7 percent markets, 6 tax write-offs, 5 rewards cards, a 4 percent withdrawal rate, 3 Vanguard funds, 2 IRAs and a paid-off mortgage (debt free!)

On the tenth day of Christmas my good friend gave to me
10 rental houses, 9 dividend stocks, 8 Bogle books, 7 percent markets, 6 tax write-offs, 5 rewards cards, a 4 percent withdrawal rate, 3 Vanguard funds, 2 IRAs and a paid-off mortgage (debt free!)

On the eleventh day of Christmas my good friend gave to me
11-year-old cars, 10 rental houses, 9 dividend stocks, 8 Bogle books, 7 percent markets, 6 tax write-offs, 5 rewards cards, a 4 percent withdrawal rate, 3 Vanguard funds, 2 IRAs and a paid-off mortgage (debt free!)

On the twelfth day of Christmas my good friend gave to me
12 months of YNAB, 11-year-old cars, 10 rental houses, 9 dividend stocks, 8 Bogle books, 7 percent markets, 6 tax write-offs, 5 rewards cards, a 4 percent withdrawal rate, 3 Vanguard funds, 2 IRAs and a paid-off mortgage (debt free!)

Featuring (lego) appearances by:

Just click the links to go to their blogs, and find out more! Thanks for watching and reading, have a Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

Think this is awesome? Tell all your friends! And share it on Twitter:

Check out the 12 Days of FI Christmas music video! https://youtu.be/9rOS6ZENyX4 via @I_dream_of_FIRE, @My_Sons_Father, & @budgetepicurean Click To Tweet

Cracker Cookies: An Heirloom Family Recipe

 

There are certain things about your childhood that you will never forget, and experiencing or thinking of these things just takes you back. Maybe you had a particular place you always vacationed (oh hey, Conneaut Lake Park), or a song that every time you hear it you are transported to a certain place and time, or a specific smell or meal that always reminds you of happiness.

For me, it is cracker cookies.

They are called many things, from wafer cookies to sandwich cookies, but I have always known them as Cracker Cookies. Cracker cookies have always been my favorite Christmas cookie. Those light, buttery, sugar bombs were so dang addictive, I couldn’t trust myself around them.

We used to spend hours in the kitchen together, my mom and I, and usually my sister or grandmother. Mom would be rolling the dough, lovingly trying to get it to just the right thickness to be crispy and wafer thin but not crack in half under minimal pressure. I’d have a bowl full of sugar and a fork, and mom would toss the little rounds of dough at me as they came off the shot glass.

I’d wriggle the dough around until nicely covered in grains of sugar, and line them up in neat rows on the baking pan. Then I’d stab-stab-stab-stab, exactly 4 times, to make holes with the fork. I never did know why… maybe to bake evenly, maybe it just made them look pretty, maybe mom just needed to keep me busy until the first batch was done and could come out of the oven.

Regardless, we would then have dozens of little dough circles, piled on the cooling racks and waiting to be filled with yet more butter and sugar, to create a cavity causing sandwich of happiness.

The dough recipe is the original recipe my family has been using for decades, whereas I tried a new filling recipe this year. You can find infinite icing recipes online using regular sugar, powdered sugar, cream cheese, and all sorts of what-have-you. The beauty is that you can change your filling at any time, you could even go super crazy and try something fruit-focused like jam.

Another fun fact of these is that they are not just Christmas cookies.

Oh no. These little minxes can be changed up with the drop of a dye, to become wedding colors, or graduation centered, or a pastel array for a baby shower. The dough can be dyed as well as the frosting, for infinite variations. If you are super ballsy, you could even dip the finished sandwiches in chocolate! Whoa, nelly, make sure you have an appointment with your dentist lined up soon 😉

Recipe makes approximately 36 cookies, or 18 sandwiches. Can easily be doubled, tripled, or quadrupled for your cookie swap. If you’d rather watch me make these in Virtual Reality, simply Click Here or scroll to the bottom of the post!

Ingredients:

  • 1 stick room temperature butter (1/2 cup)
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup plain white sugar
  • 2 tbsp vanilla
  • 2-3 tbsp half and half or milk
  • Extra sugar for coating
  • Plastic wrap
  • Rolling pin
  • Baking sheets
  • Stand or hand mixer

Directions:

  1. In a stand mixer or with a handheld mixer, cream your butter well for about 5 minutes. You want it to be very soft and light, almost liquid.
  2. Add the flour, sugar, and vanilla. Let it mix for 7-9 minutes; it will become quite dry and crumbly. At this point you may lose faith, but trust me, this will become dough very soon.
  3. Add 2 tbsp of milk or half and half. You can also use heavy whipping cream for richer flavor, or almond or coconut milk. The dough should begin coming together and smoothing out. If it remains a little too crumbly, you can add one more tbsp slowly.
  4. Once the dough has become smooth and sticky, scrape it out onto some plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, up to a week. You could also freeze it for up to 6 months at this point.
  5. After 2 hours or 2 days, take the dough back out and flour a large surface. You can use your counter, tabletop, or a large cutting board or silicone baking mat.
  6. Place the dough on the flour with the plastic wrap on top. Begin rolling out the dough, pressing down firmly and evenly. Flip the dough, replace plastic wrap, and roll some more on the other side. You want to roll until it becomes about 1/4-1/8 inch thick.
  7. Once the dough is rolled out, cut circles with a 1-2 inch cutter, or use a plain shot glass. This is the easiest method I’ve found.
  8. Put the circles into the sugar, and mix it around to coat well on both sides. Place on an unsprayed cookie sheet.
  9. Bake at 350 for 7-9 minutes, turning once. You want them to be just barely beginning to brown on the bottoms.
  10. Take them out and let sit for 3-5 minutes on the pan. Remove and cool on a wire rack. Once cool enough to handle, you can begin filling them!

 

Filling ingredients:

  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 1 tbsp milk (if needed)
  • 2-3 drops food coloring

Directions:

  1. In a large bowl, cream the butter for about 5-7 minutes, until softened.
  2. Add the powdered sugar, a little at a time, and mix well. Add in the vanilla as well.
  3. As it comes together it will thicken and become smooth. If not, you can slowly add a tiny splash of milk.
  4. Color it however you like, and spread a teaspoon onto one cooled cookie. Gently press another on top to complete your sandwich.

 

Cracker Cookies: An Heirloom Family Recipe

Yield: 18

Cracker Cookies: An Heirloom Family Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 stick room temperature butter (1/2 cup)
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup plain white sugar
  • 2 tbsp vanilla
  • 2-3 tbsp half and half or milk
  • Extra sugar for coating
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 stick of butter
  • 1 tbsp milk (if needed)
  • 2-3 drops food coloring

Instructions

  1. In a stand mixer or with a handheld mixer, cream your butter well for about 5 minutes. You want it to be very soft and light, almost liquid.
  2. Add the flour, sugar, and vanilla. Let it mix for 7-9 minutes; it will become quite dry and crumbly. At this point you may lose faith, but trust me, this will become dough very soon.
  3. Add 2 tbsp of milk or half and half. You can also use heavy whipping cream for richer flavor, or almond or coconut milk. The dough should begin coming together and smoothing out. If it remains a little too crumbly, you can add one more tbsp slowly.
  4. Once the dough has become smooth and sticky, scrape it out onto some plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, up to a week. You could also freeze it for up to 6 months at this point.
  5. After 2 hours or 2 days, take the dough back out and flour a large surface. You can use your counter, tabletop, or a large cutting board or silicone baking mat.
  6. Place the dough on the flour with the plastic wrap on top. Begin rolling out the dough, pressing down firmly and evenly. Flip the dough, replace plastic wrap, and roll some more on the other side. You want to roll until it becomes about 1/4-1/8 inch thick.
  7. Once the dough is rolled out, cut circles with a 1-2 inch cutter, or use a plain shot glass. This is the easiest method I've found.
  8. Put the circles into the sugar, and mix it around to coat well on both sides. Place on an unsprayed cookie sheet.
  9. Bake at 350 for 7-9 minutes, turning once. You want them to be just barely beginning to brown on the bottoms.
  10. Take them out and let sit for 3-5 minutes on the pan. Remove and cool on a wire rack. Once cool enough to handle, you can begin filling them!
  11. In a large bowl, cream the butter for about 5-7 minutes, until softened.
  12. Add the powdered sugar, a little at a time, and mix well. Add in the vanilla as well.
  13. As it comes together it will thicken and become smooth. If not, you can slowly add a tiny splash of milk.
  14. Color it however you like, and spread a teaspoon onto one cooled cookie. Gently press another on top to complete your sandwich.
Recipe Management Powered by Zip Recipes Plugin
http://www.budgetepicurean.com/comfort-food/cracker-cookies/

 

 

It’s the world’s first Virtual Reality Cooking Show!

Want to watch me make these cookies start to finish, real time, in Virtual Reality?! You know you do. While watching, simply click and drag the screen to get a full 180 degree experience. Or if you have a VR head set, you can watch it in VR and feel like you’re right there in my kitchen with me.

Let me know what you think, and we may bring you more delicious content soon.

 

 

This post contains some affiliate links to Amazon products. They are the exact products I have and use, and if you purchase through these links this site receives a small commission. Thanks for stopping by!

Ultimate Epicurean Gift Guide

Obligatory Disclaimer: This blog is part of the Amazon Affiliate program. If you click on some links and purchase products, this blog receives a small payment at no extra charge to you. This is in part how we keep the good stuff coming, so thank you!

 

When you need to get a gift for someone, but you don’t really know what to buy, you inevitably turn to the internet to help with your search. Whether you are counting down the days until Christmas and frantically trolling through Amazon or ThisIsWhyImBroke, or you have a birthday, wedding, a baby shower, anniversary, or a house warming coming up, everyone has got to eat & drink.

Anyone who is a frequent home cook, aspires to be a more frequent home cook, or is just a lover of food is bound to find most of these things useful. All of the items on this list are things which I personally have and use, or would be thrilled to receive as a gift! I’ve researched the best brands and deals, so you don’t have to.

Obviously, if you already have an Amazon Prime membership, the free 2-day shipping is an added bonus. If you want to try a FREE 30-day trial, sign up here! But even without it, you have enough time until Christmas if you order now.

Price Range: $5 – $20

Rbnexia Metal Long Chopsticks Set of 10: $5.99

If your giftee likes to make their own sushi, or often enjoys eating sushi or other Asian-inspired meals, consider this lovely set of chopsticks. Stainless steel metal chopsticks are reusable, and dishwasher safe. Think of all the bamboo saved by using these year after year rather than the disposable packs from Sushi Palace.

Tea Spot Steep & Go in Green Tea: $8.95

This is the Steep & Go adaptable tea strainer I reviewed a few years back, and it is still going strong. With adaptable rings to fit to almost any bottle size, this little guy makes having your tea anytime, anywhere a breeze. No hot water required. By the way, there were only 19 left as of writing this, so get to it! If Amazon happens to be out, you can check the Tea Spot’s website for other cool steepware options, as well as all kinds of teas to go along with your gift.

Amazon Basics Silicone Baking Mat Set of 2: $9.62

Silicone baking mats are a gift from above to regular bakers. For holiday cookie making, easy cleanup after roasting, to fruit leathers and protecting your counters from dough and mess, silicone mats can do just about anything parchment paper or aluminum foil can do, but they are freezer, oven, and dishwasher safe and reusable up to 1000 times!

Bamboo Cutting Boards Set of 3 Sizes: $12.99

A key aspect of healthy cooking is lots of fresh produce, and possibly protein from meats. But it is important to keep those items separate while prepping. With this set of 3 different size cutting boards, it is no problem to know where to cut the peppers and where to cut the chicken. Bamboo is also a highly eco-friendly material, as bamboo is fast-growing and easy to cultivate, while the handles allow for ease of grabbing them out of cupboards.

Desert Creek Cinnamon Creamed Honey: $14.57

If you haven’t tried creamed honey, you haven’t lived! It is honey, but creamy. I don’t know how to describe it, just trust me, it is delicious. Try it on fresh hot toast, in your tea, or on top of desserts.

Stainless Steel Chilling Stones: $14.99

These reusable chilling stones are like ice cubes that won’t water down your drinks. Keep them in the freezer, and you will be ready any time for ice cold whiskey, wine, orange juice, tea, or water, but without the extra water. Well, maybe you don’t need these in your water but… you do you.

Glass Caffeine Mug with Silly Scale on Back: $15.00

Coffee is what makes the world go ’round and powers the adult world. If your giftee is a java-lover, and/or a science nerd, they are bound to giggle at this chemically accurate mug with accompanying accurate silly scale on the opposite side. Watch them go from Zombie to Genius as they sip their morning cup-a-joe.

Justin’s Nut Butter Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups: $15.02

Justin’s Nut Butters does some great work, and makes some amazingly delicious products. Especially their Almond Butter. This is the cleanest substitute for a Reese’s addict like myself. Chocolate and Peanut Butter are just meant for each other. I’ve got one waiting for me after my holiday diet wraps up in January!

Cuisinart Set of Three Strainers: $15.47

I received this exact set of strainers as a wedding gift, and had no idea at the time how critical they would become in my kitchen! The large strainer is perfect for making my homemade chicken stock, to get out all the little bits of carrot and herbs and leave a clear stock for making minestrone, ham and white bean soup, and chicken tortilla soup. The smaller one is perfect for straining kombucha, to make sure no chunks of SCOBY get into the finished product, or to make loose leaf tea drinkable (since I lost my mana-tea).

EcoDefy Automatic Soap Dispenser: $15.95

We all know that moment when your hands are covered in bread dough, icing, or raw chicken, and you need to wash your hands. But how do you get soap and turn on the water without contaminating your whole sink?! Automatic soap dispensers were one of the best investments we made when we first moved into our house. We ended up buying one at first for our kitchen, and loved it so much there is now one in every bathroom as well. You will also need 4 AAA batteries per dispenser, and maybe some soap to go with it. I like the Softsoap moisturizing Milk & Golden Honey.

Multiuse Silicone Dishwasher Safe Spoon Rest: $15.99

If you’re like me, you usually have at least two if not five different utensils sitting in or around your spoon rest at one time. You may need a spatula, whisk, spaghetti spoon and soup ladle all in one day. The spoon rest gets crowded, the utensils awkwardly fall off the side, and your counter is covered in sauce. No more! This silicone, dishwasher safe set of 2 rests has you covered from any angle.

Or, for the more whimsical among us, this adorable “I licked the spoon” kitty cat spoon rest: $13.18

 

Hammond Candies Holiday Classics Hard Candies: $17.00

The Hammond’s Candies factory in Denver, Colorado has been in operation since 1920 making holiday classics like candy canes, peppermint sticks, and ribbon candies. Transport yourself back in time with this Holiday Classics assortment of hard candies in an adorable holiday tin.

Ovente Black 1.5L Glass Electric Tea Kettle: $18.99

When you want to heat up more water than would fit in one cup in the microwave, but don’t want to wait until a pot on the stove boils, an electric kettle is the perfect answer. I find that the 1.5 L size is about right for 3 cups of hot tea, and it stays hot enough throughout all three cups. This one has a handy LED light that turns blue when it’s boiling, and a stay-cool pouring handle.

Haitian Organic Superfood Dark Chocolate 5 Pack: $19.90

These beautiful 70% dark chocolate bars are nonGMO, vegan, gluten-free, soy free, filled with superfoods, made in Haiti, and Fair trade certified. That’s a big mouthful to say; delicious!

Mr. Kitchen Glass & Steel 8 Cup French Press: $19.95

I have this exact 32 oz size, and it makes more than enough for 2 large steaming cups of coffee, or a double batch of hot loose leaf green tea. Perfect for when you don’t want to make two trips, or have more than one person to serve. The double filter keeps grounds and leaves out of your cup, and makes the perfect, smooth cup of coffee without the bitter aftertaste. Use together with the electric kettle above for the perfect hot beverage.

Glass Locking Oven Safe Meal Prep Containers:$19.99

Definitely one of the most-used gifts I’ve ever received, these glass containers make meal planning and food storage a dream. The lids lock in place, meaning they are completely spill proof. Never again will you have to clean out spilled chili from your lunch box, or wipe fruit juice off your refrigerator shelf. They are also completely oven, freezer, dishwasher, and microwave safe, meaning you can transport your food straight from cooked to frozen and back to the microwave for lunch without a second thought.

Amish Country Hull-less Popping Corn 4 Pack: $20.88

Popcorn is an awesome frugal snack, and can be made easily on the stove top with oil, using an air popper, or by putting 1/4 cup kernels and 1 tbsp oil in a paper bag and microwaving it. This set of 4 types is hulless, meaning less “digging in your teeth and gums for days after eating it”, and more enjoying.

Price Range: $21 – $35

Reversible Memory Foam Anti-Fatigue Chef’s Mat: $22.99

Our kitchen has a memory foam mat which was purchased on a whim when we first moved in. It has turned out to be one of my favorite kitchen accessories, as it really keeps your feet and back from getting sore after hours of slaving over the stove  😉

Kusmi Teas – One Moment Assortment of 5 Flavors: $26.50

This is a brand I found on our honeymoon in France, and fell in love with. When I came back to the states, I immediately put it on my Christmas wish list. My current favorite is their “Spicy Chocolate” black tea from their “Afternoon Teas” set.

18-Piece Canning Starter Set: $26.99

Dang, for less than $30 you can get your friend or family member started on a lifelong skill that can save thousands of dollars over the years. All you need is a large pot to boil the jars, and you are on your way to making home-canned peachescanning your own beans, and preserving garden fresh salsa and pasta sauce. This set comes with 4 quarts and 4 pints with lids, a funnel, and a recipe book. May I also suggest these Tattler reusable canning rings & lids for extra savings?

Hamilton Beach 7 Quart Programmable Slow Cooker: $29.96

I actually did a double take when I looked this one up. Slow cookers are so affordable, it is silly to not have one! All you need to do is make 2 home-cooked meals rather than go out to a restaurant and it’s paid for itself. You can of course get a low-maintenance basic one, and those run even less. I recommend the larger one if you’re cooking for two or more, or do big batches to freeze. Slow cookers can save you money in so many ways:

  • Make big batches of cheap staples like rice or beans
  • Save money by making crazy-cheap soups and stews
  • Cheap cuts of meat become fork tender with long-time cooking
  • Home cooking is easier & faster with minimal prep
  • Avoids the temptation to just order take-out or pizza
  • Cook ahead and freeze extra for instant meals later
Simply Gourmet Stainless Steel Measuring Cups & Spoons: $29.99

These spoons are extra-long, which is handy if you need to get the last tablespoon of baking soda out of the box. The cups and spoons have a hole in the handle, which means you can easily add an O-ring to connect them all together, and avoid digging through your drawer looking for the size you need.

Hottest Hot Sauce Gift Set 4 Pack: $29.99

I had to throw this one in there since I’m a Carolina girl now, and have recently acquired some Carolina Reaper peppers. This is legit the hottest pepper in the world, and the Scorpion, Ghost Pepper, and Habanero are nothing to laugh at either. Use with caution!

Cuisinart Immersion Blender: $31.95

Anyone who makes smoothies, milkshakes, pesto, hummus, soups, beverages, and/or sauces could use an immersion blender! I’ve used this guy in my own kitchen to create the perfect smoothness in my tomato basil soup, vegan dark chocolate peppermint hot cocoa, black bean soupgreen tea matcha latte, and to mix up my breakfast coffee protein shakes (sans banana). It is WAY easier to clean than a full blender when you have a small job to do.

Spices of the World Gift Set: $34.95

This is the Budget Epicurean, and what could be more epicurious than trying a new spice blend from an exotic cuisine? This World Spice set of 16 different mixes contains the flavors of Ethiopia, India, Africa, South America, and more. With everything from Za’atar and Tikka Masala to Chinese Five Spice and Harissa, these spices will entertain in the kitchen for months to come.

Price Range: $36 & Up

Cuisinart Electric Wine Bottle Opener with Vacuum Sealer: $37.22

This electric opener and sealer makes a nice glass of red easy breezy. With the touch of a button, pop that cork and get your relaxation on. Then don’t worry about having to finish the whole bottle, because it also has a vacuum sealer to keep unused wine fresh for days.

Home Brew Ohio 1 Gallon Wine Making Kit: $38.42

This is the kit that got us started on our home-brewing adventures! We have made 2 gallons of grape wine so far, and are working on our first gallon of mead now. This kit has everything you need to get started except the juice. Buy it as frozen concentrate or as 100% juice in any flavor you want to try. The carboy, airlock, bucket, and tubing can be reused over and over. If they like wine making, it will only cost a few dollars in upkeep to replace the other ingredients, and keep the homemade wine flowing.

NeoMega Avocado Oil Super Pack 4 Flavors: $39.99

We all know that avocados are the darlings of the millennial food scene, but there are many scientifically proven benefits to avocado oil, like reducing cholesterol, it contains leutein (important for eye health) and oleic acid, a healthy fat, and it may help gum disease and promote wound healing.

Neomega Nutritionals was started in 2016 by local Durham NC mom of three. After leaving the world of clinical research, she decided to pursue her passion for clean eating and healthy pantry options. With flavors like Ginger Turmeric Orange, Chili Pepper, Roasted Garlic, Rosemary, and Basil, this oil is perfect for all your soup-finishing, fish or chicken-drizzling, salad-dressing needs.

Sunbeam Stand Mixer With Dough Hooks & Beaters: $59.99

A stand mixer is SO GREAT if you make any amount of dough based items. I use my stand for my homemade pretzels, pizza dough, and plain and ciabatta bread. It’s also awesome for holiday cookies. This is basically a newer version of the old one my grandmother gifted to me about 7 years ago, and mine is still goin’ strong. No need to spend hundreds on a fancy gadget with a dozen attachments when a whisk and a dough hook does the trick for just about anything.

Ninja Professional Blender 1000: $75.99

If you have a gift exchange with a $100 limit, or a recipient you really like, consider giving them the gift of fresh smoothies, soups, and milk shakes on demand. This is the exact blender I asked for about 2 years ago, and it is still going strong. After endless peanut butter banana smoothies, blender pesto, blender hummus, smoothies, and more, the Ninja keeps performing day after day. With 1000 watts of power, it crushes ice like a champ and blends to perfection, and the best part is that it is all dishwasher safe!

Authentic Italian White Truffles 1 oz: $270

If you want to prove your love to someone, or show off your ridiculous wealth, consider supporting the Italian economy while making someone’s pasta taste weird and earthy. Just kidding, if you are this wealthy, please email me immediately so we can be friends*.

 

 

There you have it, my epicurious friends, a personally curated list of the Budget Epicurean top gift picks. Hopefully someone on your list will love these things, and you will make someone else’s table a little brighter this holiday season.

Xoxo,
BE

 

*Meant in the spirit of jest and sarcasm. Obviously, this is also a perfectly legitimate gift option if this is your price range. However, you are likely on the wrong blog…

Best Black Bean Soup

My whole life up to this point, I have thought “Bean soup? Why would anyone just eat pureed beans?” I’ve read dozens of black bean soup recipes and thought either that it sounded way too simple, so how could it possibly be tasty, or that it was too complex because “toast your cumin seeds lightly  until fragrant and then grind in a spice grinder”; ain’t nobody got time for that.

But then one day, I had a big batch of fresh slow cooker black beans and several jars of slow cooker chicken stock in the refrigerator at the same time. And I thought to myself, self, broth based soups are very good for you and low in calories, and so are black beans.

Why not give it a try?

Lo and behold, with some very simple staple spices, I put together a black bean soup that was out-of-this-world tasty. You can probably pull this together in minutes at any time with what you already have in your home. It would also be very easy to adapt to a slow cooker, just add everything and cook on low for a few hours. Additionally, it would freeze beautifully to be enjoyed at a later date.

I wolfed down half a batch, felt guilty, checked the calorie count, and felt guilty no more, because the whole thing will cost you less than 1000 calories total. And it’s super filling because of all the fiber from the black beans, so you can easily get 3-4 bowls from this recipe.

I used chicken stock that I made in the slow cooker from a whole chicken carcass. I recommend using homemade because you can control the amount of sodium, or add extra flavors you like such as bay leaves, lemon juice, or jalapenos to the broth while it cooks. If you want to keep it vegetarian, just make vegetable broth by putting a bunch of veggies in a slow cooker with some water for hours, and then strain it.

I also usually add a can of stewed whole tomatoes to my broth, and I loved that one tomato got added into this broth. I think it adds a nice layer of flavor, but your black bean soup won’t suffer without it. Feel free to leave that part out, or add more based on your taste buds.

This recipe makes a little more than a liter of soup, enough for 3-4 good sized bowls with some chunky bread and/or a salad on the side, or two really hearty meals. It takes approximately 10 minutes total, which does not include cooking time for the beans themselves or the chicken stock if you make that as well.

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups cooked black beans^
  • 2 cups chicken stock*
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp dried chopped onion
  • Optional: 1 whole tomato, quartered
  • Optional: 1 tsp liquid smoke
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

Step 1: If cooking your own beans, soak them at least 8 hours, then cook them on low overnight or over 6-8 hours, and drain. If using canned beans, drain 2 cans but don’t rinse. Add the vegetable or chicken stock and the spices to your beans in a large bowl.

Step 2: Use an immersion blender or an upright blender to blend the soup to your desired thickness. I enjoy a few beans left whole, so I just pulsed it several times, but you can also blend the crap out of it until totally homogenized.

And that’s all there is to it! Since I regularly cook up large batches of dried beans on the weekend, I think this will become a standby recipe in my repertoire. It is super healthy, low calorie, very filling and crazy cheap.

Price Breakdown

Black beans: $8.84 for 12 lbs
2 cups dried = ~.66lb = 4 cups cooked
$8.82/lb /12 lb * 0.66 lb = $0.48

Chicken stock: I consider it free because most people throw away the carcass after eating the meat. But if we consider the cost of the whole chicken just to make stock: $3.61 + maybe $2 of other ingredients (1 jalapeno, 1 can tomatoes, 1 onion, spices) = $5.61
This makes approximately 1 gallon stock, 1 cup = $5.61/16 = $0.35

Onion: $5.98 for about 96 tbsp
1 tbsp = $5.98/96 = $0.06

Garlic powder: $8.94 for about 96 tbsp
1 tbsp = $8.94/96 = $0.09

Whole chicken 5.47 lb 3.61
12lb Black beans 8.84
Minced onion 5.98
Garlic powder 8.94

 

Total: 0.48 + 0.35 + 0.06 + 0.09 = $0.98! Total!

Therefore, even if you only get 2 bowls, that’s $0.49 per serving. Not too shabby at all.

^You can use 2 cans of black beans, drained but not rinsed, if you don’t want to make them from dried.

*You can also used canned or boxes of chicken stock if you don’t want to make your own, or use vegetable stock, to keep it vegetarian/vegan.

 

Best Black Bean Soup

Yield: 4

Best Black Bean Soup

Ingredients

  • 4 cups cooked black beans
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 whole roma tomato, quartered
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp dried chopped onion
  • Optional: 1 tsp liquid smoke
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. If cooking your own beans, soak them at least 8 hours, then cook them on low overnight or over 6-8 hours, and drain. If using canned beans, drain 2 cans but don't rinse. Add the chicken stock and the spices to your beans in a large bowl.
  2. Use an immersion blender or an upright blender to blend the soup to your desired thickness. I enjoy a few beans left whole, so I just pulsed it several times, but you can also blend the crap out of it until totally homogenized. 
Recipe Management Powered by Zip Recipes Plugin
http://www.budgetepicurean.com/vegan/best-black-bean-soup/

 

My Top 10 Money Saving Strategies

If you read enough personal finance and frugality articles, you will see a definite theme. Spend Less. Save More. (Next level? Pay off debt, start investing).

There are thousands of ways to save tiny amounts of money by shopping less and shopping strategically, making and doing things yourself, and getting creative. You can also really slash your money needs if you focus on reigning in your biggest expenses: housing, transportation, and food.

I can’t really talk about saving money on housing (can I say how good it feels to finally own a house and NOT be paying someone else’s mortgage?), but I can tell you about my transportation tips, and as the Budget Epicurean I hope I know a thing or two about saving money on food! Food spending is in fact one of the lowest hanging fruits when first looking to trim the budget, as I will show you below.

Over the past decade or so, I have read and learned a LOT, and built upon my semi-frugal upbringing. We had leftover nights and no exotic weeks long overseas vacations, but we also ate out on occasion and never had to scrimp for new school clothes. I’ve tried out several hundreds of frugal strategies and tips, and kept the ones that work for me. You should do exactly the same!

All advice does not work for all people. Some people have a one-person household in a small apartment to care for, while others may have multiple children and pets, a blended or extended family, or you may be elderly and living alone without a next generation to be concerned about. Take this advice with a grain of salt, and look at it through the lens of your own situation. I hope you find it helpful!

And now, on to my top ten money-saving tips:

1. Meal Planning

In my 2014 article about meal planning, I explained how simple it can truly be to plan your meals, and not much has changed over the years. Sure, now I write mine out on a fancy whiteboard, but that’s just because I got tired of wasting so much paper!

Creating a meal plan each week (or each month, if you’re really ambitious!) is a top ten frugal strategy because it keeps your grocery bill low in many ways.

You can plan meals around what is on sale this week, lowering your total at the cash register. You can take stock of your pantry and freezer, using up food items you’ve already paid for. And you can plan for batch cooking and using leftovers, keeping you from throwing hard-earned money right into the trash because you forgot to eat it before it spoiled.

Start slowly. Maybe just write a list of things you know how to cook or enjoy cooking, and make one of those meals this week, plus a little extra, and freeze it. Then write in that leftover meal for one night next week.

Try to creatively use ingredients in multiple meals in one week, like my multiple uses for a pork roast, or a cook a whole chicken and use the meat all week. Plain cooked grains (rice, quinoa, couscous, barley) or cooked beans can be mixed and matched endlessly, and they also freeze well for later.

A word of caution: don’t try to become someone you’re not.

Make sure to add in meals you know you and your family will like, and write in “dinner out” or “order pizza” or “leftover buffet” occasionally to keep your plan in line with your lifestyle. If you eat a “flexitarian” diet now with occasional meat, you may have a riot on your hands if you try to plan vegetarian only meals for a month. Similarly if no one likes soup and you make ten gallons, the odds of food waste are high, and that’s what we are trying to avoid!

2. Cooking at Home

To go along with tip #1 to plan your meals, also try to cook at home as much as possible. When you order food outside the house or go to a restaurant, you are paying for the food in addition to the time for someone else to make it, package it, and clean up after it. You are paying for the convenience. You may also be paying taxes and tip on top of all that.

When you make your food at home, you pay for the food.

Cooking is a skill, and it is one that must be learned and practiced over time. If you have never so much as scrambled an egg, don’t panic. Just start small, have fun with it, and accept that every meal doesn’t have to be a four-course five-star success.

Breakfast is a simple meal to start cooking at home. Try make-ahead egg muffins, breakfast burritos, orange-cranberry muffins, or make your own granola or granola bars. Then work your way up to making lunches like tuna salad, grilled cheese, salmon-couscous salad, or a big batch of chili or minestrone soup.

Pack your own snacks, like hard boiled eggs, peanut butter and apples, turkey cheese roll-ups, or trail mix. Before you know it, you won’t even have to think about it, and will be cooking up whole food healthy meals for pennies on the dollar.

This goes for drinks too!

Soda, teas, fruit juice, energy drinks, and sports drinks are not only sugar and calorie bombs, but come at a premium price outside the house. If you must have your Gatorade or Diet Coke, at least save yourself several hundred dollars over the years by buying a 12-pack at the store and bringing it from home rather than paying $2 per day at a vending machine.

3. Eating Leftovers

When I got to college, and even more so when I moved off campus to an apartment, one of the biggest surprises for me wasn’t how much laundry I can produce in one month, how little sleep I can function with, or even how often people fall asleep in lecture halls.

It was how many people hate leftovers.

I met so many people who wouldn’t even take leftovers home from a restaurant meal, or would put boxes in the fridge to be ignored and then eventually thrown out weeks later.

You are literally throwing your money in the trash! I wanted to yell.

When you buy a meal out and eat half of it, then bring the other half home, that is like $5 of the $10 total sitting in your refrigerator. If you eat that meal, you’ve now had two $5 meals. If you throw it away, you have had one $10 meal, wasted perfectly edible food, and contributed to our growing food shortage crisis and landfills.

Why??

I grew up with the concept of a leftover buffet almost every week. On a busy weeknight, mom would just pull out all the containers in the refrigerator, spread them out on the kitchen table, and we got to pick and choose and put together a meal. Sure, maybe it was meatloaf and stir-fried rice and a bowl of wedding soup, but it was an already-made meal that we were not going to waste.

Weekly Eating 8/7/17

In my series “weekly eating” I try to showcase how I use leftovers creatively to become new meals, and even plan for it on purpose. This enables me to buy in bulk and on sale, to use freezer meal cooking, and to make “free meals” where I use scraps that could be tossed and instead turn them into soup or casserole or stir fry.

All these tactics together can save you thousands of dollars!

So suck it up, buttercup, and have the other half of that chicken pesto panini or leftover Pad Thai for lunch today. Is it as good as it was fresh? Probably not. Is it cheap and a hell of a lot better than ramen or cereal? Probably yes. You may find it tastes even better after sitting overnight.

4. Buy & Try Generics

So you’re at the store, auto-piloting through your grocery list, with some other household items in mind as well. You cruise up and down the aisles, grabbing your Tostitos chips and Pace salsa, Oreos as a treat, a refill on Bounce dryer sheets, and some Dawn. A case of Diet Coke and a box of Frosted Flakes get thrown in the cart too.

If you grew up eating, drinking, or using a certain brand, you may have an emotional attachment to it. You truly believe that brand of product is the best one at what it does. Or you’ve seen enough commercials for it you can quote them word for word. Or there is one type of snack that you just have to have in the house at all times.

What you don’t realize is how those nickles, dimes, and dollars are bleeding your bank account dry year after year.

The difference between a name-brand product and a similar (or nearly exact) generic or “store brand” item may be just a few cents, or it may be $5. The point is, it all adds up over time. For example, if you just tried one new item in the generic form rather than the name brand each week, you could save yourself maybe $4 per month.

The items that you find taste or work the exact same way as the brand you like? Keep using them! Automatic savings. The ones where there is a noticeable difference in taste or outcome? Switch back! It really is that simple.

In my house, we will only use Dawn dish soap for greasy pots and pans, because I really think it works better, faster, and more completely than other store brand soaps I’ve tried. I save the dollar store soap for washing the car or the floor.

But when it comes to paper towels, I have yet to find a $3 per roll brand that can’t do the same job as a $0.50 roll of “Thrifty”, or whatever is on sale. I also can’t tell the difference between $1/jar Kroger brand pasta sauce and $3/jar Bertolli. The line of where it becomes worth it is different for everyone, but you owe it to yourself and your bank account to find that line.

5. In-sourcing

As a semi-famous mustachioed genius once said, “Muscle over Motor” is a great way to save money.

By that I mean, do physical chores with the type of tools your grandparents would have used rather than buying a gas- or electric-powered version to do it faster (and more expensively). Use a rake to rake leaves rather than a leaf blower. Shovel show with an actual shovel. Mop the floors with a mop, or even better, a washcloth and a bucket of hot soapy water.

Household tasks like lawn care, landscaping, gardening, pet maintenance, personal grooming, cooking, and cleaning, are all things that we have varying degrees of love, hate, or tolerance for. And we could easily fork over a few hours’ of our labor in the form of cash to outsource these tasks to someone else.

Or, you could learn and practice useful life skills, and keep your money for yourself!

For example, we bought a $20 electric razor kit, and now my husband never has to go pay for a haircut the rest of his life. I trim my own hair between (every other year) cuts too. We mow our own lawn, rake our never-ending leaves, clean our gutters, snake our own drains, fill the cars’ wiper fluid and check oil levels, change our own wiper blades, trim our own trees, bathe and anti-tick and clip the dogs’ nails and fur, and more.

These small tasks may be annoying, or tedious, or an interruption to an otherwise Netflix-and-video-games filled weekend. They may also be a little scary because you’ve never done it before. That’s what YouTube, or your dad or neighbor are for.

The time spent insourcing our own tasks is time well spent because we did not have to pay someone with time spent at our day jobs to get it done. Many small, regular preventive maintenance tasks also keep your home/appliances/car/self running better longer, keeping you from having to pay for a more  expensive repair or replacement later down the road.

6. Frugal Hobbies

We all have the same number of hours and minutes in each day. And we all get to choose how we spend those hours and minutes.

A few of these hours have required items, they are spoken for. We must eat, and we must sleep. That is basically it. We do need to house and clothe ourselves, we almost all have relationships we participate in, and we must find ways to pay for our necessary expenses (if you don’t already have passive income taking care of that for you). How we do these things is up to us.  We also get large sections of “Free Time” which is not yet spoken for.

Even if you have an expensive commute, eat all organic and expensive foods, have a large family, and wear the nicest name-brand work clothes, you can still cut corners in your personal time.

There are many “toys”, sources of entertainment, hobbies, and past times that are just huge money-sucks.

For example: boats, jet skis, skiing, golfing, shopping, having to play the newest video games, frequent movie-going, concerts, or nightly partying at the bars downtown. It is so easy to blow $50 on one night of drinking and dancing, or $500 on a weekend at the lake, or $5000 on a ski trip to Breckenridge twice per season.

I definitely think it is important to be social, to find like-minded friends and nurture those relationships. But you don’t have to blow your whole paycheck every weekend to do so!

By cultivating frugal hobbies, you can entertain yourself and possibly others, while doing small or no damage to your bank account and future financial goals. There are plenty of hobbies which may even further enrich you!

Some ideas might include: bird watching, baking, board games or card games, reading books, drawing, knitting, dog walking, nature hikes, blogging, cycling, or geocaching.

These types of hobbies and entertainment can provide the same kinds of enjoyment and escape from the mundane and from work or home life, but without causing you to have to work more to support paying for them.

Use your ‘free time’ to free yourself from having to trade your time for dollars.

7. Ignoring “the Joneses”

As you cultivate these new frugal hobbies and pastimes, and begin cooking at home more and cutting your own lawn, you may feel some judgment from those around you. Your friends, neighbors, coworkers, or even your family may discourage your new habits.

Ignore them.

How you live your life only impacts you and your immediate family. If your neighbor buys  a new Bentley, you don’t feel the weight of that car loan, he does. And if your aunt tells stories about her latest and greatest European vacation, you can enjoy the photos but not the credit card bill that comes due every month.

In the same way, if you are making good choices like cooking at home twice a week and taking your lunch to work, your coworkers might miss you at Chilis but you won’t miss that missing $50 every week. Instead you can transfer it into your savings account, pay down your student loans or mortgage faster, or buy some stocks.

And the best part is, as you are ignoring those who choose to be spendier than you, you will also be putting yourself in good places and a good mindset to start meeting people with similar goals and lifestyles. Maybe your neighbor asks to borrow your ladder rather than buy one too, or your coworker starts chatting with you about that delicious looking chicken salad sandwich you brought, and you discover a mutual love of Go Fish. You never know.

8. Driving an Older, Paid-off Vehicle

I wish I could also say that I save money by having a small commute or being able to walk or bike, but I did make a bit of a commuting mistake, as I wrote about here. If you are able to telecommute (work from home), or live close enough to your place of business to walk and/or bike or take public transit, I highly recommend that.

However, if as I do, you have a long commute every day, you can still make frugal choices to slash the amount of stress that commute puts on your yearly and life-long cash-flow.

In 2017, we have set a new record: the average new car loan has topped $30,000 for the first time ever. A record 17 million Americans have a car loan, and we are taking out bigger and bigger amounts to be paid back over longer and longer periods of time.

Average loan: $30,032
Average monthly payment: $503
Average payback length: 68 months

That is FIVE AND 2/3 YEARS. To pay off a car, that you will be tired of after three, and continue driving for what, maybe 8?

Rather than take on that crazy payment for a depreciating item, why not save up over time. Keep your crap car, or walk, and pay yourself what you would have taken out for a car loan, by putting it aside in a savings account. Then, after 2 or 3 or 5 years, you have a few grand saved up and can buy an older used car outright!

Of course, this in itself is a balancing act.

All cars, no matter how well built or maintained, do have a finite lifespan. Unless you have access to new parts and a ton of machine know-how, there comes a time when maintaining an older vehicle is more costly than replacing it.

If your beater car is worth $500, starts making weird noises and/or shaking weirdly and you find out there is a minimum $3000 you have to put in to get it running again, I’d say cut your losses and start looking for your next ride.

9. Recycling, Creative Re-Purposing, & DIY

My grandma used to have a phrase that I assume was learned from living through the Great Depression:

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”*

I LOVE that saying. Because it strikes at the heart of much of what frugality is. (It does kind of tap dance on the line between frugal and cheap, but that’s a whole other discussion). One of the greatest destroyers of wealth is shopping, plain and simple.

We live in such a throw-away culture, where devices are purposefully built to last only a few years or less, people are wasting up to 40% of all the food that enters the house (see the leftovers rant above), and if something gets a scratch or even slightly malfunctions we simply chuck it in the bin and buy a new one to have delivered in two days.

Wasting and re-buying these things, or even buying in the first place, is also chucking your hard-earned cash money in the trash bin.

Why not try to imagine a creative way to turn something you no longer like/use/works into something else? Maybe someone else  has a vase you can borrow (or keep) rather than buy a new one with each bouquet, you can turn wooden pallets into all kinds of creative decor and projects, a broken picture frame plus wire can become an earring holder, a burnt out lightbulb can become an oil lamp, there are literally infinite ideas online.

Sometimes all you need is a new perspective, a fresh coat of paint, and a free afternoon to create something functional, interesting, beautiful, or useful, and also save yourself some serious cash. You might be surprised at all the ways you can turn trash into treasure.

*Qualifier: This isn’t the Depression, of course. There are obviously products you should spend some money on, like good shoes or a set of quality pans. I’m saying be mindful of your purchases and think about the long-term cost per use rather than whip out the credit card just because you like that shade of blue on that pillow.

Quality over quantity, folks.

10. Planning Purchases & Avoiding CC Debt

Ah, delayed gratification. That beautiful, crucial life skill which makes you much more likely to be successful, and yet so many people lack these days.

In the era of exponential technological advances where nearly anything can be learned, watched, bought, or done with the swipe of a finger, the art of waiting is something which we should all try to cultivate.

We have tons of data on past sales and price fluctuations, use that knowledge to plan when is the best time to purchase anything. For example, do you want to remodel your living room? Maybe wait until April for discounts on carpet, and May for cheap paint. Whether you have kids or not, you know August is the time to stock up on cheap school & office supplies. And go figure, November & December are the best times to invest in a new gas grill. When no one is grilling.

Almost all of our purchases can and should be anticipated and planned for. We know how long phones tend to last, we know we will need furniture, lawn equipment, when family and friends’ birthdays are (well… maybe not those of us with horrible memories), the dates of anniversaries and national holidays. There is no excuse to not have a plan for these events.

As for regular, everyday purchases like paper towels, Windex, dish soap, diapers, deodorant… you can keep a running list on the refrigerator, in a Google doc, or on your phone. Then you can order it all at once, or make one large trip, saving yourself the temptation from multiple store runs. Simply avoiding impulse buys ever can save you hundreds, even thousands of dollars each year.

A handy rule I used before I had my iron will fully developed is to wait 7 days per $50. So if there was something I wanted because I saw it in an ad or someone told me about it, I put it on a list.

And then I waited, researched it, and comparison shopped. If, after a week, you still want the item, it is something you legitimately need and or will use regularly, you know which place has it for the best price, and assumedly have read reviews saying it is a worthwhile thing to have, go ahead and purchase it.

If you find yourself hardly remembering what it was you wanted last Tuesday? Not a thing you need in your life.

Before long, this process becomes second nature, and you find your life much less stressed from lack of money, because now you have more, and lack of space to put all your stuff, because there is less stuff!

 

 

What are your best frugal tips? Do you already do any or all of these?

Turkey, Ham n Cheese Pinwheels

 

You know how sometimes, you get invited to a potluck at the last second? Or you get home from school/work and are totally starving but don’t have the time or energy to make “real food”? Or you need a lunch or snack that will keep at room temperature for a few hours, but want something a little better than PB&J?

Pinwheels to the rescue.

Pinwheels are essentially a wrap, sliced into little sushi-like bite sized pieces. You can use any type of meat and/or cheese, as well as any condiment or topping you can think of. I’ve made these little guys for plenty of potlucks, holiday parties, picnics, and impromptu get togethers, as well as when a snack attack hit but I didn’t want to make a full meal just yet.

Try: turkey, ham, chicken, roast beef, cheddar, gouda, swiss, provolone, mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, guacamole, sriracha, hummus, cream cheese, plain Greek yogurt, tzatziki. Add spinach, lettuce, bean sprouts, tomato, onion, cucumber, carrot slices, beets…

To make my favorite kind, I use a mixture of ham and turkey, and white and yellow cheddar. I also usually add a few leaves of spinach, to convince myself they are good for me. 😉

Makes about 20 pinwheels.

Ingredients:

  • 4 large tortillas
  • About 1/2 lb lunch meat
  • 4 slices cheese
  • Handful of spinach
  • Optional: cream cheese

Step 1: Layer the meat, cheese, and toppings on your tortilla. Roll it up tightly.

Step 2: Slice into 1-inch thick pieces. Spread them out on the plate, and prepare for ooooh and ahhhhs. And a quickly empty plate.

 

 

LASIK eye surgery: is it worth it?

 

If you have perfect or near-perfect vision, imagine that one day you wake up and the world is kind of blurry. Within a week, you can see nothing with any clarity farther than 6 inches in front of your face. Now imagine living with that for over a decade. That’s how bad my vision was for most of my life.

Starting around grade school, it became hard to see the blackboard. And then hard to see road signs. And then I could hold my hand out at arms’ length, and my fingers were a blur. Every year I’d go for an eye exam, and they would tell me my vision had gotten worse by a half point or more.

For those of you who also have terrible eyes, I had a +6.5 in my left and a +7.0 in my right eye. For those who don’t have bad vision, just know that I was basically blinder than a bat (which, btw, is a totally inaccurate saying, but what can you do.)

If this were prehistoric times, I would be eaten by a Saber-tooth before you could say “hunter-gatherer”. Thank goodness we live in an era of modern medicine, so that I have the benefits of human technology to keep me alive, functioning, and productive.

Biannual eye exams, vision insurance, super thick glasses lenses, new frames every few years, two packs of contacts per month, a few contact cases and 2-packs of contact solution really adds up, especially when you are a high school student, a super poor college kid, and then a similarly broke graduate student.

I looked into LASIK eye surgery many many times, but kept getting sidetracked by the fact that most reputable places won’t even think about touching your eyes until 24, and the cost. The cost is pretty pricey, but varies widely. Most surgeons charge between $1000 – $2500 per eye, so $2,000 – $5,000 total. Yikes.

While I was a graduate student making only $10,500/year, I didn’t think this was at all possible. However, when I eventually decided to make the hard choice to leave the pursuit of a PhD in exchange for a different career path, I wound up in a job making $14/hr.

Now, this is not a hugely Earth-shattering amount of money, but it was significantly higher than the minimum wage, and enabled me to start saving a larger percentage of my take-home pay each month.

I had already paid down a big chunk from my (admittedly minuscule compared to average) undergraduate loans, and now finally had a 401K to contribute to. This career path was working out great for me, I totally loved it and was secure in the position. My then-boyfriend (now husband) and I lived together, were both quite frugal, and made more than 4x our rent per month combined.

It felt like the time had finally come.

Are you ready for LASIK?

If you are considering undergoing LASIK yourself, there are several things to keep in mind:

  • Are you at least 18 years of age or older? Your eyes continue to grow and change shape until your mid-20s, so you shouldn’t be undergoing a procedure like this until then
  • Can you handle the financial impact? If you are under crushing student loan / car loan / credit card debt, and are paying more than 20% of your income towards such things, maybe wait…
  • Are you squeamish about pain or eye drops? Some people flinch and can’t handle it; if so find a family member/S.O./close friend to help, because at 2am when you’re in pain, you need those drops
  • Has your prescription remained stable for at least 1 year? You don’t want your eyes to change as soon as you get the surgery
  • LASIK is irreversible. You cannot un-laser your eyeballs
  • There are a lot of very serious risks and possible side effects. Not to scare you away, but just know about it and be prepared to deal with these things
  • This will not prevent age-related decline in eyesight. You may still need reading glasses again in your 40s, in fact you likely will. LASIK does not change that, but the younger you are when you do the surgery, the better you recover and the longer it lasts

Even if you think you are 100% ready for this, and cannot wait to throw your contact case or glasses in the trash, make sure you are aware of the risks, and have all your questions answered. Find a qualified physician who performs the procedure, and ask him or her lotttttttts of questions.

If they are good at what they do, they will likely answer many right up front, they will encourage you to ask, and they will answer honestly and thoughtfully, not just pressure you with a sales pitch.

Finding the right Doc:

If you are considering LASIK, you probably already have an optometrist you see regularly. You can ask them, if you like and trust them, for recommendations. Or you can ask around with your friends, coworkers, roommates, or family. You will definitely need at a minimum, a pre-surgical exam for the doctor to get an idea of the baseline status of your eyes.

You are able to go for a second opinion, or really to as many docs as you like, before making your decision. Talk to your insurance too, and see if they will cover anything at all: the pre or post-op exam, the eye drops, special eye coverings or sunglasses, etc. Make sure you understand the total cost, and any payment options available. Ask about the typical recovery time, and any symptoms you may have or that you should be concerned about.

Some sites or doctors will request you stop wearing contact lenses, if you do, for a few weeks’ beforehand, though my eye doctor did not. They told me my eyes were at the border of how bad they could get before nothing more could be done. So I decided to take the plunge.

One day, while living in Colorado, I heard an ad on the radio. Basically one of the nations’ top eye docs had his office right down the road from my office, and was running a holiday special. They were charging about $3000 for both eyes, if you came in for your free consult before the end of the month.

I had to use a special credit card account through a company called Care Credit. This was mandated by the office that did my procedure, I did not have a choice in the matter. Luckily, I had very good credit (always have) and qualified right away. I don’t think their screening was very thorough anyhow.

The terms were set with a planned repayment program, with no interest at all as long as you paid the total by or before the end of 3 years post surgery. Not a problem for me, in fact I paid a little extra a few times, and my very last payment (the only debt carried by myself or fiancee at the time) I timed to be the morning of our wedding day, so we could officially start our marriage debt free!

I signed up for the card, finished the pre-op exam, and scheduled the surgery date. I was so nervous, but also really excited! My mom, who is a registered nurse, volunteered to come out to stay with me for a few days too, to help with the drop administration and recovery part. I’m a lucky girl.  🙂

The procedure & recovery

The doc I used was great about preparing me for the day of surgery. They went over what would happen each step of the way, so I had a reasonable expectation of sensations and timeline.

  1. You get to the office, and they put you in a room. You get numbing eye drops, and then sit back to relax for about 30 minutes while they take effect.
  2. A doc or tech comes to get you, and leads you to the laser room. At this point, everything is super blurry, so I definitely held their arm and trusted they knew what they were doing.
  3. You lay back on the surgery chair/table, and they lower a big device over your face. Starting with one side, they have a clamp to hold your eyelid open. Your eye is numb, so it mostly doesn’t hurt, but the clamp thing puts a lot of pressure on your ocular bones; that part did hurt and gave me a headache 🙁
  4. The world slowly goes black as they laser the lens and peel it back. You also smell burning, which is super freaky. But I was warned, so I was ready for it.
  5. After about 2 minutes, the world becomes bright and blurry again as they replace the lens.
  6. The pressure is removed, and the big machine moves to your other eye and clamps it open.
  7. Repeat the black – burning smell – back to light on the other side.
  8. Pressure is finally gone, you can sit up and leave.
  9. They give you plastic eye guards (so you can’t unthinkingly scratch your eyes and for while you sleep), pain drops and antibiotic drops, and send you on your way home.
  10. You must put in both drops every 4 hours. Trust me, you want the numbing ones. Because about 8 hours after, right before I could put in drops again, my eyes were on FIRE. I wanted to cry because it hurt so much, but that would just make it hurt more.
  11. The pain only lasts about 24 hours, then it kind of goes away to just a dull throb, with a little dryness lingering a week or so. Keep using the drops as long as they tell you to.
  12. You go for a post-surgical checkup exam after about a month.

I KID YOU NOT, the second I sat up from the procedure, I could read the pictures on the walls, and the name tag on the shirt of the nurse helping me from the room. Modern medicine is miraculous.

I was driving the very next day. IT WAS A MIRACLE, forreal.

Other than the worst hour (the hour in the middle of the night right before I was allowed to put the numbing drops in again) there wasn’t very much pain at all. And the dryness went away within a week or so, though I think I wore the (really sexy) eye covers to bed for about a month. You do not want to tear the lens in your sleep!

Since having LASIK done, I have never once regretted it. I no longer have to worry about whether I have enough contact solution or where my glasses are. I can go swimming and not worry about losing a lens, or ride a jet ski, or read late at night, or a myriad of other things you don’t really think about with good vision.

The only lingering side effect? Onions bother me now.

I know some people will say “That’s silly, onions bother everyone”. Not true, as a foodie, I’ve diced my fair share of onions and then some. And they have never made me tear up. But post-LASIK, as soon as knife hits flesh on an onion, here come the waterworks. In terms of trade-off, I’ll take it.

Almost 4 years later, it still hits me once in a while what a miraculous thing eyesight is, and how blessed I am to have 20/20 vision now.

How much did I spend vs save?

Clearly, from a lifestyle perspective, I think LASIK was well worth it.

But, was is a sound financial decision? I ran the numbers, and you can see for yourself. I added up what I would spend in a typical year on glasses and contacts, these numbers may vary based on how good your vision insurance is, where you buy your lenses, what brand/type you use, how often you change them, etc. This is just based on my experiences, in Ohio and Colorado prices.

  • 12 contact lenses = ~$38 per box x 2 eyes = $76 (+tax)
    Year’s supply = $152 (+tax)
  • Contact solution = ~$4 per 3 months x 4 = $16
  • Contact cases = $2 (I’d lose at least one per year)

Yearly cost = approx. $170

LASIK surgery performed at 26 should last me approximately 20-25 years, meaning the cost of not buying contacts (plus about $200 for new glasses roughly every 4 years) would be:

Total over 20 years: ($170 x 20) + 800 = $4200

And if it lasts me even longer, then so much the better! Therefore, at a minimum, if LASiK lasts 20 years and I paid $3000, then I will have saved myself $1200. Along with a lot of headache and annoyance, which is worth even more than that to me.

 

 

Have you had or are considering LASIK? Do you think it’s worth the risks/worth it financially?

Give Thanks

 

The Budget Epicurean is taking a Thursday off from posting to enjoy the Thanksgiving Holiday. I hope you all have good food, a warm roof over your head, and loving relationships!

Things I’m thankful for:

  • Good health
  • Working heart, lungs, joints, brain…
  • My BFF/hubs
  • A loving family
  • Amazing friends
  • 2 cute furbabies
  • Clean drinking water
  • HOT, running water
  • Washer/dryer
  • Dish washer!
  • Electricity
  • Air conditioning
  • Enough $ to pay the bills
  • More than enough $, to invest
  • NO DEBT* (except mortgage…)
  • *An affordable house I own
  • Education
  • Medicine
  • Insurance
  • A secure, great job
  • The blogging community
  • Pumpkin scented candles
  • Colored leaves
  • PIE
  • Mochas
  • Probiotics
  • Popcorn
  • Red wine
  • Laughter
  • Board games
  • The internet
  • Netflix
  • Mutual funds
  • Kind strangers
  • Kroger freebie Fridays
  • ALDI / LIDL
  • Reusable grocery bags
  • Coupons
  • Freedom
  • Choice
  • Rational thought
  • Personal & civic rights
  • PP & IUDs
  • Holiday-only cookies
  • Hot cocoa
  • Hot apple cider
  • Hot tea
  • Fuzzy socks
  • Fuzzy blankets
  • Heated car seats
  • Honda engines
  • Earmuffs
  • Boots!
  • Garden planning
  • Sunlight
  • Root vegetables
  • Poinsettias
  • Life renewal in the spring

 

I could probably keep going, this is just off the top of my head! May y’all have more things to be thankful for than not.

<3  B.E.

Diet Update: 2 weeks in

Disclaimer: some of these links lead to product pages, which if you buy them, will not affect the price but will earn this blog a tiny fee, to keep me supplied with kale & yoga pants. I am not a health professional, I am just relaying my own personal experiences and opinions. This is not meant to be health or dietary advice for the general population. 

As I’m finishing up the first two weeks on my holiday diet, I have learned a lot of things about food, myself, and dieting in general.

  • Portion sizes matter
  • Food type/substitutions matter
  • Vitamins & Nutrients matter
  • Exercise matters
  • Balance matters

Before we go into each of these topics, let’s review what the goals were. At a starting weight of 156, and a goal weight of 135, I hope to lose a grand total of 21 pounds in 7 weeks, which is 3 pounds per week. I would not recommend this to most people.

However, I have always been curvier and lead a pretty sedentary lifestyle, though I get 10K steps on most days and am capable of light jogging for 30 minutes at a time. I am young (ish) and in decent shape, so I know this particular diet and exercise plan will not jeopardize my overall health.

Week 1-2 (Nov 3 – 16):
  • Daily – 20-30 minutes of yoga, 15-30 minute walk
  • MWF (or 3x/week) – body weight workout video or run

Having a supportive hubs is the top tool in my arsenal so far. He has been SO helpful in keeping me motivated on days I don’t want to work out, usually even joining me for the short 10-15 minutes HIIT videos. He has been great at not tempting me, and asking how things are going to keep me on track.

I have added workout tracking to our handy-dandy whiteboard, where I add different symbols on days I complete a yoga workout vs a HIIT workout. I have not been able to motivate myself to run, with the changing weather making it so cold outside and dark by the time I get home. I’ve been holding pretty steady to both of my goals, with one or two missed days.

Yoga I normally do in the morning. I use the YouTube series Yoga with Adrienne. This is a good time to breathe, meditate, get a good stretch in, and focus for the day. If I miss it in the morning because I was running late or couldn’t get myself to do it, then I do a video at night before bedtime.

My job is pretty sedentary overall, so having a FitBit Alta now has also helped a lot. It vibrates every hour that I have not yet taken 150 steps to remind me to get up and move a little. The people in my building probably think I’m weird for just walking around the halls doing laps every hour, but it’s worth it. We also try to go for a walk every night, when it isn’t raining or too cold.

You can see from the tracking table above that I’ve gotten in at least 30 minutes of walking on most days. I’ve also hit my step goal of 10,000 per day a little more than half the time, as you can see from the graph below.

Last weekend, my mom was in town and we spent some time at the beach with her friend. There was some exciting news that required celebrating, so we convinced her to go out dancing on Saturday (11/11). It was exhausting, I haven’t stayed up past midnight in a long time, but boy was it fun and totally worth it!

Clearly, the biggest pattern I see is that weekends are far lazier than week days for me. Especially Sunday. Both weekends I barely hit 5000 steps. Though the night we went out dancing was obviously very active, as I ended up with over 16,000 steps! Maybe I should consider joining a line dancing group or something for cardio.  🙂

 

Food Plan

  • 3-5 meals per day, for a total of ~1000-1200 calories
  • Very limited carbohydrates
  • Daily green drink + vitamins
  • One cheat meal or snack/weekday, one per weekend
  • Only snacks allowed are green tea, raw whole fruits, raw veggies (RV) or steamed veggies (SV)
  • Unlimited salad greens or raw non-starchy veggies

Overall I did a pretty good job of hitting my goal calorie range. This is made much easier by eating a lot of salads, broth based soups, raw fruits and veggies, and my favorite low-cal protein breakfast shake. Go figure, following all the typical dietary recommendations works!

Below you can see a typical days’ meals. Breakfast is a chocolate protein shake with a half of a banana, with the coffee in it as well. This has become my go-to because it is so fast and easy, and I can drink it in the car on the way to work. I also had dried some apples in the oven, with nothing on them at all, to take as a snack with my green drink. More on that below.

Lunch was a salad, with some low-cal toppings of sunflower seeds and craisins for variety, taste, and extra nutrients, and (measured) 3 ounces of boiled chicken breast. I have a small food scale that I’ve been using. I cook a large batch of chicken, steak, or chili and then measure out exactly 3 ounces at a time, or 1 cup servings, and then package them individually so lunch is easy peasy.

I’ve also begun boiling a dozen eggs over the weekend, peeling them, and then packing 2 or 3 in ziplock baggies so I can grab and go as a perfect high-protein snack. I feel guilty about throwing out the yolks but I just can’t with that nasty chalky taste… oh well. And dinner was a serving of my delicious sweet potato and chickpea curry.

I’m gonna be honest here, there’s a little gap over last weekend, because of my point about balance. I didn’t even bother to track the totals. I’ll tell you more about that in a minute.

As for weight, I’m gonna be honest here too. I haven’t unpacked my scale since we moved… a year ago.

I pulled it out this weekend, dusted it off… and the battery is dead. So no update on weight for you.  🙂  Like I said, weight and BMI is not that great of a way to measure health, but I can tell you that my regular work pants have been feeling a little looser.

On to the lessons!

Portion sizes matter

In general, we do not comprehend or realize how seemingly tiny differences in serving size or food choices can make such a huge impact on weight. As little as 100 extra calories per day can add up to 10 pounds of weight gain over the course of a year (source).

For example, go take a look at the different NIH suggested meal plans for weight loss. It was a little bit surprising, even to me, that as little as 1/2 cup of cantaloupe and banana, less than 1 cup of orange juice and milk, 1/2 oz of roast beef, 1 ounce of chicken, and 1 tbsp of guacamole can change a day’s caloric intake from 1200 calories to 1600 calories.

This is the example meal plan for wight loss using Mexican-American cuisine

If you are not using actual or accurate measuring tools, i.e. food scale and measuring cups, it is SO easy to over-estimate. How many people can accurately measure exactly one tablespoon of peanut butter every time, or 3 ounces of chicken?

 

Food type/substitutions matter

The food items highest in calories and generally not as high in nutrition include:

  • Fats/oils*
  • “White” grains (bread, rice, flour)
  • Processed/packaged goods
  • Meats
  • Dairy products

Of course, in nutrition there are almost no absolutes. I would NEVER recommend anyone go 100% fat free (source). Fat is not the enemy. You just need to monitor the amount very carefully, as one tablespoon of olive oil has about 120 calories, and it is so easy to over-pour or estimate high.

And you also need to be discerning about your source. One avocado has  260 calories from fat, but so would a doughnut, or 2 small slices of pepperoni pizza. Guess which one is a more sound nutritional choice? When it comes to dairy, I would far prefer a single ounce, one die-sized cube, of a super sharp white Vermont cheddar to a heaping cup of the packaged-with-sawdust-so-it-don’t-stick bagged grocery store cheese.

The same can be said of all the other high-impact foods. Be more mindful of your meats (if you eat meat), including where it came from and what type of cut it is. Check out my post on pig parts  breakdown, and see this post for chicken, this post for the deets on beef, and this and this for all your oceanic questions.

 

Vitamins & Nutrients matter

Basically, any restrictive diet has a risk of not getting all the vital vitamins and nutrients your body needs to function, grow, rejuvenate and repair cells. Don’t know what kinds of vitamins there are or why they are each important? I wrote an article all about it, and a special one for the whole family of B vitamins.

Though this diet has a heavy focus on lean protein, fresh fruits, and vegetables, I want to make sure I am not missing anything my body needs day to day. We tend to crave foods that will fill a need, so I listen to my body (which is made easier through the mindfulness and meditation of yoga) and if I’m feeling particularly drawn to a certain food or food type, I will have some.

But just to make sure all my bases are covered, I also take a daily multivitamin for adults, drink a daily green drink, and make a protein shake on most days. For now I’m using the Centrum Complete Adult Multivitamin. It isn’t a super-huge horse pill, so swallowing it isn’t a problem, unlike some multis I’ve tried in the past.

The daily green drink I’m loving right now is Amazing Grass Green Superfood (30 servings size, or for bulk pricing the 60 servings size). They are all organic greens grown and dehydrated in Kansas. They use a start-to-finish cold processing and packing process to keep as many nutrients as possible.

They also have flavors, like Berry and Orange Dream, immunity boosting and antioxidant packed versions, blends that include protein, as well as one that contains natural caffeine from yerba mate and matcha green tea to replace your morning coffee. All of their products are:

  • Certified Organic by CCOF
  • Gluten Free
  • No Sugar Added
  • Plant Based
  • Non GMO
  • Kosher
  • Vegan

The Protein powder I’m using right now is Muscle Milk, chocolate flavor. The 10g of protein per scoop comes from milk (whey protein isolate) so be cautious if you have a dairy intolerance. My absolute favorite thing to do with it is to combine it with a half of a banana and a tbsp of PB2 peanut powder for a chocolate peanut butter banana shake. It makes a great under-300-calorie breakfast, or post-HIIT workout drink. I even add coffee to it sometimes for an all in one breakfast/caffeine rush on the go.

 

Exercise matters

As I said above, I really do believe that increasing my activity level has helped me have more consistent energy throughout the day. I am noticing, at the 2 weeks mark, that that energy is starting to wane. I am getting sluggish upon waking again, hitting snooze and having to literally drag myself up.

This could be due to all the excesses of the past weekend, or it could be my body’s way of readjusting to its new normal.

But I am also noticing an increase in my cardio and strength. I can do more push-ups now before I collapse, and more jumping jacks before I’m out of breath. I did yoga pretty often previously, so I can hold a plank for a minute or more. I still struggle with jump squats, but I’m getting better at it. Improvement is the name of the game. And no matter how long I make regular exercise part of my life, I will never like burpees. Never.

 

Balance matters

Now, keeping in mind all I’ve said so far about the positive aspects of these lifestyle changes, I am still a passionate believer in balance. Balance in all things. Eating better, moving more, and regular sleep are all very important aspects of holistic health and happiness. But, so is friendship, adventure, and wine.

I stand firm in my view that the 80/20 rule is the best way to live life. Essentially, you follow strict rules 80% of the time, and relax a bit 20% of the time. The 80% effort is enough to bring you the results you want, while the 20% helps you from feeling repressed and chained to a system and rebelling or “falling off the wagon”.

In this case, I stuck to my diet very strictly, until the day I got to the beach to hang out with my mom and her friends. There, I kept my good intentions in mind, but also allowed myself to taste some of the cookies we made at our cookie swap, and indulged in a few glasses of wine. We went out and danced like crazy, burning off some of those excess calories, and laughed a lot, which also burns calories and makes you feel good.

Will I Keep Going?

Absolutely. Though I don’t know my first two weeks’ weight change, I can say I believe it has been successful. I know this is a very ‘soft’ way of measuring, but I can literally feel my regular pants loosening. The button doesn’t leave an imprint after I’ve been sitting a while, the inseams aren’t pulling at the thighs, and I just feel better overall.

I have also noticed much more even, sustained energy levels. Previously I would have more peaks and valleys (usually tracking along when I drank coffee…) but these past 2 weeks I’ve had pretty steady and consistent levels. I also seem to be sleeping better, with fewer times spent awake in the night. I also love knowing I am increasing my chances for a longer, healthier life.

These things put together equals a general happier me, an overall sense that this is working and worth it, and something I want to continue. Ultimately, I am hoping these changes become the new normal for me, since it takes an average of 2 months to create and stick to a new habit. I want to make regular exercise part of my daily life, along with as clean eating as I can accomplish while still allowing that 20% for fun and letting go.

 

 

Disclaimer: some of these links lead to product pages, which if you buy them, will not affect the price but will earn this blog a tiny fee, to keep me supplied with kale & yoga pants. I am not a health professional, I am just relaying my own personal experiences and opinions. This is not meant to be health or dietary advice for the general population. Please speak with your own doctor or health professional before starting a diet of your own.

The fusion of food, fun, frugality, and curiosity.