Category Archives: Finances

Articles concerning finances. This is the “budget” Epicurean after all.

Pantry Challenge – Week 3

 

So now we are in the home stretch of this challenge!  Week 3 of January has come and gone, and I’m planning our final week of January and eating from the pantry.  If you’re just tuning in and want the full scoop, check out these posts:

How it all started & Why
Week 1 Update
Week 2 Update

The only wrench in this week so far is the impending snow storm the East is getting this weekend.  As I write this early Saturday, we already have a few inches of accumulated snow, with more on the way all weekend long.  But I’m not worried.  We have plenty of food still stocked in the freezer & pantry, including non-cook items like packaged salmon & tuna, granola bars, and pop-tarts (yeah, I still have a few boxes I bought on sale a while ago hanging out…)

Chair covered with snow

To prepare for the snow storm, we also brought in three extra stacks of fire wood and piled it in a corner of the living room, found three flashlights and made sure there were new batteries, and have lots of water stored away, just in case.  When it comes to Mother Nature, you just never know what she’s gonna throw at you.

This week, all I’ve bought at the grocery store includes:

Dairy Fruit/Veg
Kefir (2) 5.28 Avocado 0.98
Half and half 3.98 Apples (3) 1.87
Ricotta cheese 3.47 Bananas (9) 0.86
Yogurt (8) 3.64 Oranges (2) 1
TOTAL $21.08 Pears (2) 1.32

 

I’m just over my $20 limit, which is fine.  All told, I’ve gone over each week, but by $3 or less each time.  If this were an actual life-or-death financial situation, I would definitely not be buying as much fresh produce, or any at all.  Sometimes, you have to sacrifice short-term nutrition until you are in a more stable financial place before you can add back in fresh produce and dairy.  But I am lucky enough to have the resources to not worry if I go over my budget by a dollar or two, and am very thankful for that!

This past week’s menu included:

Jan 16 – Butternut squash macaroni & cheese for lunch, Olive Garden for date night dinner
Jan 17 – Black bean turkey burgers & fries, salad
Jan 18 – Chicken cacciatore
Jan 19 – Leftover burgers, asparagus, potatoes
Jan 20 – Burritos
Jan 21 – Stuffed shells, salad
Jan 22 – Leftover buffet

Breakfast was mostly oatmeal (steel cut oats, dried cranberries, cinnamon & water or nut milk) or toast & almond butter, and lunches were almost exclusively leftovers from dinner.  One day I went and got lunch from a food truck at work, and one night we used a gift card from Christmas to go to Olive Garden for dinner.  Both of those occasions ended up giving us enough leftovers for two more meals as well, so one time eating out = 3 meals total.

Butternut Squash Macaroni & Cheese

Overall, this challenge is not as challenging as I thought it might be, but that is likely because I’ve stocked up so thoroughly before now that I have too much excess.  So I guess I’ve learned I need to either calm down on buying when there are deals (sad face) or have these challenges on a more regular basis, where I use up a good portion of pantry items before I buy more.

It is also teaching me to be more creative about leftovers.  For example, I had a butternut squash that I had used for decoration for Halloween (yup, they last a looooong time) and also some cracker-sized cheddar cheese slices I’d bought on sale and we never used.  Therefore, I naturally decided to make butternut squash mac & cheese.  Even using only half the squash made a TON (there is still enough for another serving or two…) and I have half a cooked and mashed squash, to turn into soup, or butternut squash gnocchi this week!

Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese

Just looking in the fridge at what odds and ends are still hanging around can give you ideas about what to make that will cost you little to nothing extra for a whole new meal, so this is a big money-saver.  And of course, if all else fails, make soup!  Now with winter finally roaring to life, there’s nothing quite so warm and comforting as a hot bowl of soup.  You can throw just about anything into a pot, add water and spices, and have a meal ready in 20 minutes flat.

Stay tuned for the final week!

 

Pantry Challenge – Week 2

 

To read earlier posts on this challenge, why I’m doing it, and how the first week went, go here:

Welcome to 2016!
Pantry Eating Challenge – Week 1

This is week 2 update.  Things are still going well.  I have to fight the urge to go grocery shopping almost every day, which I know makes me a total weirdo. 🙂  I went to the store twice this week, once for bananas, and then again because we were almost out of milk, yogurt, kefir, and fresh vegetables.  I still hadn’t used the asparagus I bought last week, but we went through milk faster than I thought we would.

What did I buy this week?

Dairy Fruit/Veg
Yogurt 3.9 Bananas (8) 0.6
Kefir 8.37 Blueberries 1.49
Gallon milk 2.69 Can pineapple 0.99
Spinach 1.49
Org. bananas (6) 1.82
TOTAL 22.34 Cucumber 0.99

 

The first store trip was just for the organic bananas, and I picked up a cucumber as well because I knew I had a little bit of dill left from 2 weeks ago.  Mixed with plain greek yogurt, it made an awesome topping for lemon pepper fish.  The second trip was Thursday, and I absolutely love that ALDI is on the ball with healthy offerings!  They now have many items from their own label which are gluten-free, organic, natural, etc.  They offer some of the best prices around.

Yogurts and bananas are a staple we go through pretty quickly.  The blueberries, to be honest, were an impulse buy because they were on sale and looked so good!!  And they really were, totally worth it.  Then the spinach was another staple item, and we were almost out of milk & kefir.  The pineapple was another impulse, because it’s high in vitamin C and I anticipated making smoothies at some point.  Or potentially another batch of cranberry sauce, because I still have about a pound of raw cranberries in my refrigerator.

The menu from this week included:

Jan 9 – Leftover seafood linguini
Jan 10 – Steak, rice, & steamed broccoli
Jan 11 – Lemon pepper breaded fish with cucumber dill yogurt and mashed potatoes
Jan 12 – Quinoa & red beans
Jan 13 – Beef roast, chopped potatoes & carrots, asparagus
Jan 14 – Shrimp fried rice
Jan 15 – Leftovers

Breakfasts included oatmeal with dried fruits & nuts, whole wheat English muffin with almond butter & jam, smoothies, or a fried egg sandwich on whole grain toast.  The bread products were purchased on super sale a while ago and in the freezer, as were the beef roast, steaks, white fish, and shrimp.  Potatoes can last for months at room temperature away from light, and carrots can last several months in the crisper.  Even if they start growing eyes or hairs, they are still edible.

Quinoa is a very healthy seed, and a whole grain.  I chose to use quinoa instead of white rice for the red beans, and it was a perfect match.  The beef roast I pulled out of the freezer and thawed in the refrigerator a day before cooking.  Fried rice is always a good choice, because you can add pretty much any vegetable ever, so it’s a good way to use up what’s about to expire and also you can spread out a smaller amount of meat to feed you several meals.  I used a pound of shrimp here, and the bag I purchased was two pounds, so I still have one more pound of shrimp in the freezer.

You’ll also notice that I incorporate leftover nights often, as well as taking leftovers for lunch.  I often make lots more than we need for one meal on purpose, because then I just pack it into single serve tupperware, and we have another meal just waiting to be heated up.  This makes packing a lunch super easy, and on days when I don’t want to cook dinner, we already have several different options available from the past couple of days.  Leftovers are an awesome way to cut down on the time spent cooking, as well as save yourself some money too.

Let’s see how this week goes!  Halfway there…

 

 

Clam & Garlic Pizza

 

One of my favorite parts about living in New England is the abundance of seafood.  I wrote Tuesday about seafood linguini, and today is all about clam pizza (don’t worry, I actually made and ate them on separate weeks.  Unless seafood every day is appealing to you, in which case rock on).

Seafood is pretty darn healthy for you on the whole, be it lobster, clams, shrimp, crab, or any other shelled ocean dweller.  Clams are a good source of several nutrients and minerals, including magnesium and manganese, phosphorus, potassium, copper and selenium, and a very good source of Vitamin B12.  Read More Here.  They are also naturally low in fat and high in protein.

Bakers Dozen Clams

These clams were from a local farmers market (if you’re local to New Haven, check out the City Seed network of markets).  I met the woman who captains the boat that harvested these guys, from the river and bay less than an hour from my house.  She showed me photos of the boat, the other deck hands, and a typical day’s haul.

She also explained the difference between several different types of clams, mostly size and thus what types of recipes they are best for.  Of course I don’t remember most of it, but the point is it was super cool to meet the actual person who obtained the food I was planning to eat.  I got this baker’s dozen of clams for only $5 too.

Once I saw the clams, I knew I had to have them.  And once I had them, I knew that clam pizza was gonna happen.  If you’ve ever been to New Haven, or even if you haven’t, chances are you’ve heard about Pepe’s Pizzeria, and their famous White Clam pie.  It was named the best in the country!  I am not arrogant enough to claim that I can make it just like Pepe or better, but I wanted to at least give it a shot.

Bowl of open clams

This woman also gave me some good advice on how to open and cook them, since this was my first time cooking with fresh clams.  A nice trick is to freeze them for an hour or so, then thaw them in a pan over medium low heat.  This makes them pop open really easily.  Or you can thaw them on the counter, just make sure to use a container to catch all the flavorful juice they release!  That’s good stuff.

The next step of this pizza was making the dough.  I could have bought it pre-made at the store, but I wanted to be all Suzy Homemaker and do it all from scratch.  Turns out, pizza dough isn’t even that hard to make!  And you can make a double batch, and keep half in the refrigerator or freezer to use again later.  This may become a regular weekend project now.

Ingredients for Pizza Dough:

  • 2 tsp yeast
  • 3 tbsp warm water
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 cup warm water
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2-3 tsp sea salt

Step 1: Put the yeast, water, and sugar in a bowl and mix to dissolve.  The water needs to be just warm, not too hot to kill the yeast.  This is called “activating” the yeast.  It wakes up and starts eating the sugar.  Let it sit for 10-15 minutes at room temperature.

Activating Yeast

Step 2: In a large bowl, or stand mixer, mix the yeast with the flour, rest of the water, oil, and salt.  Mix until the dough is sticky yet pulls away from the sides of the bowl.  Let it sit at room temperature 1 hour, so go do laundry or watch a TV show or run errands.

Pizza dough rising on pizza pan

Step 3: Punch the risen dough down, mix for a few minutes.  Let it rest again for 1 hour.  (This is kind of an all-day project, but with very little hands-on time.  Plenty of breaks to get stuff done, and you don’t have to babysit the dough in between.)  Either cut the dough in half for two smaller pizzas, or spread it out on a pizza pan (for round) or cookie sheet (for rectangle).  Heat the oven to 400 F.

Pre-cooked pizza crust

Step 4: Spread your dough, and poke a few holes in it with a fork to prevent big bubbles.  Bake the dough for 5-7 minutes, until lightly browned.  Then top with whatever you like, and bake another 5-7 minutes, until toppings are warm, browned, and/or gooey.

 

For my topping, I mixed clams, garlic, and olive oil for a pungent dose of flavor.  While the oven was heating, I took an entire head of garlic and cut off the tops.  I drizzled a tbsp or 2 of olive oil over it, wrapped it in tin foil, and baked it at 400 for about 15 minutes.  This cooks the cloves, turning them soft and brown and mellowing the garlic flavor.  Mix this with oil and chopped up clam, and you have heaven in the making.

Clams and Garlic

Ingredients for White Clam Pizza Topping:

  • Dozen clams, chopped, with juice
  • 1 head of garlic, baked, mushed with a fork
  • 2 tbsp olive oil + 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2-3 tbsp lemon juice
  • Sprinkle of sea salt
  • Dash of Italian seasoning
  • Optional: 1/2 cup Parmesan or mozzarella

Pizza with clam and garlic topping

Step 1: Cut the top off the garlic, drizzle with oil, & wrap in tin foil.  Bake at 400 for 10-15 minutes.  Squeeze the cooked garlic into a bowl, and mash with a fork.  Add clams, clam juice, oil, lemon, salt, and seasoning and mix well.

Baked Clam Pizza

Step 2: Take your dough, and spread the toppings all over it.  Sprinkle again with salt or seasonings, or a squirt of lemon if desired.

Clam Pizza with Cheese

Step 3: Optionally, sprinkle on a handful of shredded parmesan or mozzarella cheese.  Bake in a 400 oven for 7-10 minutes, until heated through and cheese is melted.

Clam pizza and lemon juice

You can serve with extra lemon wedges for sprinkling over the slices.  This is garlic and seafood heaven!  It smells amazing, and tastes even better.

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Oh, and I had only used half the dough on the clam pizza, so I took what vegetables were hanging out in the refrigerator and also made an awesome Brussels sprouts, beet, mushroom, and onion pizza!

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Pizza dough you make yourself is delicious, and far more healthy than a packaged box full of leaveners, preservatives, flavorants, and who knows what other chemicals.  When you make things at home, you know exactly what goes into them, save yourself some cashola (because it is almost always cheaper to make things from base ingredients than pay the convenience fee of someone else making it) and can add a little love too. 😉 That’s what my grandma always said, and I think she’s right.

 

 

How about you?  Ever made pizza dough at home?  What’s your favorite pizza topping?

Pantry eating challenge – week 1

 

So for the New Year, I decided to try a cook-from-the-pantry challenge.  See this article for full details, but pretty much the plan is to cook mostly from what is already in my house (fridge, freezer, pantry) and $20 per week for fresh produce & dairy.

How’s it going so far?

Pretty darn well, actually.  I’ll try to keep posting updates every Sunday on how the previous week went, and at the end summarize the whole month.  But for the first week, things are going along as normal.  Here’s the week’s menu:

Jan 1 – Pork roast & sauerkraut (leftover from day before, and it’s good luck on New Years Day!)
Jan 2 – Chicken & rice soup
Jan 3 – Chicken quarters & rice & broccoli
Jan 4 – BBQ spare ribs & baked potatoes
Jan 5 – Crock Pot Turkey Chili
Jan 6 – Seafood linguine (recipe coming Tuesday!)
Jan 7 – Pork chops w/apple chutney, mashed sweet potato, and cranberry sauce
Jan 8 – Spinach stuffed chicken rolls, rice, salad

You get one bonus day because Jan didn’t start on a Monday. 🙂

For breakfast, I have had smoothies using frozen fruit & fresh, wheat English muffins (from the freezer) with almond butter & jam, and cereal (cold and hot).  Lunches are most often leftovers from one of the dinner meals, and one day this week I had a caprese sandwich for lunch out with some coworkers.

Oh, how am I doing with not shopping?  That part is a little harder… as you may know, I’m a sucker for a good sale, and have no qualms snagging them and stocking up when I find it.  Well, that’s a no-no this month, I have to make a strict list of only fresh veg and fruits we want or need, and stick to it.  For me, this is the toughest part of the challenge so far.  So, what did I buy this week?

Dairy Fruit/Veg
Kefir (2) 5.92 Bananas (5) 0.96
Org. milk 1/2 gal 3.5 Spinach (12 oz) 1.49
Heavy cream 1.69 Kiwi (4) 1.49
Asparagus (1 lb) 2.69
Romaine (3) 1.99
Avocado (2) 1.98
 TOTAL $23.30 Raspberries 1.59

 

Yup, I went over budget by a little more than 3 dollars… but honestly that’s still pretty good, given on average I spend $100 per week on groceries.

The cream was so I could make our own coffee creamer, (we are trying to get away from packaged, processed chemicals as much as possible) and organic, grass-fed milk is way more expensive than factory milk.  But it is a choice we are making, to be healthier all around.  The same goes for adding kefir to our diets, to get more gut-healthy probiotics.

The fruits will mostly be eaten as snacks and in lunches, and added to smoothies.  The spinach & romaine will be salads to go with things from the freezer & pantry, and compliment any frozen veg. I already have.  The fiancee eats a banana per day for breakfast, and both the asparagus & raspberries were on sale, how could I not buy them?!

Well, that’s it for this week, stay tuned for next week!

 

How about you guys, ever done a no-spend or low-spend challenge?  Do you think you have more food in the house than you think you do?  Could you go a month without grocery shopping as usual?

 

How to Clean & Organize Your Freezer

 

Though at the time I did not time this clean-out purposely, it will be a huge help as I complete my January pantry-clean-out challenge! (Read the full details of the challenge here).

Anyone who has a large freezer knows that it can be hard to keep it organized.  The freezer tends to accumulate random bits of meats and beans, half-cans of items, extras of meals we prepared previously, and somehow have forgotten it exists.  Even if you already use a freezer to help prevent food waste, if you don’t know what is inside and it ends up freezer burned and in the trash 8 months later, that defeats your goal in the first place.

A regular freezer deep clean is a great way to keep in mind what you have, what you need, and how much space is still left.  I have a bad habit of majorly stocking up on good sales, so that my freezer tends to always have very little space.  This creates a jenga-effect, and also obscures my view of what is towards the back or the bottom.  By cleaning it out & re-organizing at least every 6 months, I pull the things in the back towards the front, and remind myself of what needs cooked soon.

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Step 1: The first step in cleaning out a freezer, whether standing or chest, is to pull out everything.  Just make a big pile on the floor.  I promise, in the few minutes it is out of the freezer everything will not thaw.

Step 2: Take this pile of food, and begin to organize it.  For example, I put all meats on one side of the freezer, and all frozen veggies and fruits on the other side.  You could categorize by the shape of the package, by ready-to-cook meals versus ingredients, whatever makes sense for you.

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Step 3: Now look at your nice, empty freezer.  Are there random puddles of frozen icky stuff?  Are there a few loose peas rolling around?  Now is the time to bust out the cleaning solution and a few rags, and scrub it up nice and clean.  Starting fresh always feels great!

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Step 4: Return everything back to the freezer, nicely organized.  You can, if you have the time, write down all the contents prior to putting them back.  Whether on paper or in a note on your phone or an email to yourself, having a list of everything can be SO helpful when you are meal planning later.  Whether you do or don’t write it down, the final step is to put all the food back into the freezer in a more organized way.

And now sit back, relax, and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment!

These same steps can be applied to the refrigerator and the pantry as well.  It is so helpful to go through this process once or twice a year at least, to keep fresh in your mind what types of foods and how much you have on hand.  This way you can take advantage of sales as they happen, and keep your savings by using up the items you buy.

Going forward, it is helpful to have a permanent organization system.  This will be different for each person/household/family based on what you eat and how often.  Maybe you can keep a written notebook, where you cross out items as you use them each week.  Or you could try a dry-erase board, where you add or remove items as you use them and re-stock.  Or if you’re the digital type, you could have an online document that keeps a running list.  Use whatever works for your style.

 

Do you have any freezer organizing tips or tricks?  Please feel free to share in the comments!

Gift Idea: Altoids Survival Tin

 

With Christmas mere days away, the panic of gift-giving may be setting in.  It is unfortunate that a holiday meant to be about love and family and reflection has instead become a race through the mall and price-comparing online… but I digress.

For anyone who has a friend or family member who is “that guy” (or girl), you know the one, super hard to buy for, they have everything they already want, or they don’t really want anything, I have a solution that will make both them and you happy!

The Altoids survival tin.

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That’s right folks, a harmless little $1 or $2 tin of mints can be transformed into an actually useful, potentially even lifesaving gift with just a little time and creativity.  Based on what you already have laying around your own house, it may even end up being a free gift!

And it will certainly be unique.  (Unless your giftee is a hard-core preparedness and/or survival expert, then they probably have a few dozen kits like this, and much fancier. But it is still the thought that counts, and I’m sure they are never mad about extra prepper gear!). You can get kids involved too, they love to come up with fun ideas for tiny, useful items, and tetris things together until they fit.  It becomes a game of how much can you stuff into this tiny box!

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For these kits, all you need is a small Altoids tin (or any other small, sealable metal tin) and an assortment of survival related items. There are infinite sites around the internet with suggestions and recommendations on what to add to these kits, ranging from meds to tarps to fire starting equipment.  Some even show youtube videos on how to turn the tin itself into a knife or saw, which you should only attempt if you are educated on how to use the tools to do so.

It is best to take into consideration the personality of the person you are creating this kit for, and the likely scenarios in which they could need this.  It could be a beauty emergency kit for a female friend, in which case you would want to include things like hair bands, bobby pins, safety pins, oil blotting papers, Q tips, and maybe tiny samples of makeup or makeup remover pads.  It could be a “Bad Day” emergency kit, and contain things like a mini bottle of wine, pieces of chocolate, and uplifting sayings on pretty paper.

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For the preparedness/emergency kit, you want to include things like pain medications, matches and candles, ways to collect or purify water, and items that have multiple uses like string.  Keep in mind that even things used to hold together other items, such as electrical or duct tape, string, or rubber bands, can themselves be useful too.

The kits shown above contain:

  • 3 matches taped together with electrical tape
  • 2 small birthday candles
  • 3 feet of string tied with a twist-tie
  • A toothpick
  • A safety pin
  • 1 antibacterial moist towelette
  • 2 Band-Aids
  • 200mg ibuprofen tablet
  • 1 ml of bleach in a sealed plastic tube
  • 1 small trash bag (to hold water to add the bleach to, or provide a tiny bit of coverage from rain or sun)
  • 1 stick of gum
  • 1 packet of lettuce seeds
  • A rubber band to hold it all together

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The beauty of this kit is that it is tiny enough to fit into a pocket, so for something as simple as a road trip or a camping trip or going to work in the city, your recipient can know that they have a small advantage should the S hit the F.  Happy gifting!

 

Have you made a survival tin like this before?  Do you have other things you would add or take out?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

Ten Crock Pot Freezer Meals in 1 Hour

 

This post is about my newest addition to my Kindle offerings: “10 Crock Pot Freezer Meals”!  You can see for yourself at my Budget Epicurean Kindle Author page.  The eBook contains a complete      grocery list, with the items categorized in order to easily breeze in and out of the store in minutes, as well as ten of my best & most loved slow cooker recipes, including Cranberry Spiced Chicken,     Orange-Glazed Pork Chops, and White Bean Chicken Chili.  I even    added some handy, easy printables to label your bags, so you know what you have days or weeks later!

To watch the short video on how easy it is to shop for and assemble everything, check it out here!  Of course ALDI was the store I went to (I just love them for their focus on providing the best prices over flashy ads or in store perks).  I had my list in hand, and the total for everything that was going into these ten meals (minus just a few    pantry staples) was $87.  Given that each meal is made to serve 4, that is only $2.18 per meal!!

ALDI sale on black beans

Of course, you can substitute as needed, such as if you have a hatred of a specific type of bean, swap it for a different kind, or if you do not eat pork, use chicken or beef instead. Definitely the highlight of the trip was finding this little bonus deal: $0.35 for canned, organic,         reduced sodium black beans!!! Oh yeah, I bought 2 cases. That doesn’t count towards the meal totals…

The entire shopping trip took me probably about a half hour. And that is with writing down prices of things, and forcing my significant other, who was such a trooper, to take pictures and help me double check that I hadn’t forgotten anything.  🙂

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http://www.amazon.com/Budget-Epicurean/e/B00KM8JR4U

As a reminder, you can purchase the nice printable ebook HERE.

Freezer Cooking Meal Ingredients on Table

First things first, I got everything organized.  This means putting all the ingredients for each recipe into a pile.  Some ingredients were used in multiple recipes, so I put those piles next to each other.  Then I cut out the labels, and taped them onto a bag.

Next, take a cutting board, and for each recipe that requires dicing, chop up the peppers, or onions, or whatever, and place the raw veggies in the corresponding bag.  It is best to get all that out of the way first.  I actually ended up wearing goggles, because the onions were so strong and stung my eyes so that I couldn’t see for all the watering they were doing!

Next, take a can opener, and open up all your cans.  Drain things like beans if you like, I didn’t even bother, just dumped the whole thing in there.  Pour the canned goods into the bags.  Any seasonings like chili powder or honey, pour those in next.  Finally, open the meats (if using) and add those to the bags last.  Be sure to keep meats separate otherwise so as to not cross-contaminate, and wash your hands after touching them.

Crock Pot Orange-Ginger Glazed Pork Chops Ingredients

Orange-Ginger Glazed Pork Chops

Slow Cooker BBQ Pulled Pork Ingredients

BBQ Pulled Pork

Crock Pot 5 Bean Vegetarian Chili Ingredients

Crock Pot 5 Bean Vegetarian Chili

Crock Pot Classic Salsa Chicken

Salsa Chicken

Crock Pot Creamy Italian Chicken Ingredients

Creamy Italian Chicken

Crock Pot Tortilla Soup Ingredients

Tortilla Soup

Crock Pot Spiced Cranberry Chicken Ingredients

Spiced Cranberry Chicken

Crock Pot White Bean Chicken Chili Ingredients

White Bean Chicken Chili

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Garlicky Sweet Lemon Chicken

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Garlicky Sweet Lemon Chicken

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Chicken Cacciatore

Once you have your bags filled, you can take them to your freezer.  Ideally, freeze them laying flat so that you save freezer space.  You can also put any of these recipes straight into the crock pot, as I did with the garlicky sweet lemon chicken.

The day before you plan to eat one of these meals, just take the bag from the freezer and put it into your refrigerator.  Preferably put the bag onto a plate or in a bowl, just in case it leaks or drips water as it thaws.  The next morning, pour the whole contents of the bag into your slow cooker and cook as instructed.  You can use each recipe’s suggestions, or serve with whatever you have handy.  And there you have it! Ten meals that serve 4, from cans to freezer to cooked!

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Freezer meals assembled and ready to go!

 

You can purchase this list of ten slow cooker, freezer-approved recipes, plus a complete one-page shopping list, serving suggestions, and printable freezer bag labels on Amazon!

Just search “Budget Epicurean”. Or visit this link: http://goo.gl/VtfKOq

I’m hoping to expand these meal plan offerings soon to include a vegetarian option, diabetic meal plans, gluten-free meal plans, and more! Please let me know if you have any feedback, questions, or something else you want to see in the future in the comments below or by email at budgetepicurean (at) gmail (dot) com!

You can view the video of how easy the shopping & assembly is here:

 

Many many food bloggers and regular people alike love this method of cooking!  It is hard to overstate how much time, energy, and cash you can save by cooking this way.  If you’re already experienced with meal planning based on grocery store sales, or want to try coming up with your own recipes, here’s a great article from one of my favorite frugal sites, the Simple Dollar, fully explaining the process!

How to Build a Pantry Immediately Under $50

 

This is an article on how to start building a pantry immediately, with very little up-front cost. If you already have ten years’ worth of canned beans in the basement, that is awesome, but this article is not for you. I am writing this article to the people who:

  • Are tired of looking at bare cupboards.
  • Can’t sleep at night because they just used up their last box of <insert boxed food here>.
  • Just like to be prepared for stuff.
  • Would really love to have the makings for a meal readily available without having to go to the store.
  • Want to eat real food, without spending a lot.
  • Know winter is coming.
  • Like to save money!
  • Want to have some kind of food around no matter what.
  • Don’t have much money to spend building a pantry.

asian spices & sauces

Whether you are preparing for a hurricane, tough economic times, flexibility in meal planning, or just because you know you’d sleep better at night, you can start building a pantry right now, and for less than $50 per person.

A pantry by definition is a room or place in which food is stored as an ‘extra’ or backup to the kitchen. There is a wide variety of ways      people build pantries, from an extra can of soup on the top shelf to a maximum-prepper-root-cellar type pantry with hundreds of freeze dried meals, and everything in between. If you have a few boxes of ramen under the bed, that’s a pantry. If you have a stash of your      favorite cookies hidden somewhere you don’t have to share, that’s a pantry.

Home Canned Tomatoes

This article will give you an exact idea of how to build a pantry in one shopping trip, for less than $50 (per person) which could provide  enough calories to survive for 1 month. But, keep in mind this is “survive”, not eat like you’re on a cruise ship vacation. It is, however, way better than ramen noodles, and is real, healthy, good food.       (Heck you could even just use this as your personal “less than $50 monthly grocery shopping list & meal plan” any time).

Prices are based on stores in the New Haven, CT area.  Prices may vary based on where you are located, sales and/or coupons, and time of the year.  Feel free to make certain substitutions tailored to your situation.  If you have access to free or cheaper foods, stock up on those as well (for example, a garden, barter system, foraging, etc).

Always be on the lookout for opportunities for urban foraging like an overhanging apple tree, rogue tomato plant, whatever. Also, many plants we consider weeds are edible. Just be sure to read/watch enough to know what you are doing before eating      anything wild you pick.

Stocked freezer

This plan is meant to provide enough food for one person for three meals for thirty days.  Most meals will be very simple, but will be enough to survive. And this is real food, not freeze dried astronaut ice cream. You could eat any of these suggested meals at any time.  If you have more room in your budget, you can add more “comfort” foods like sauces, spices, dried fruits, desserts, snacks, or other items you desire.

I’d recommend ALDI if you have one near you. (Go here to see their locations). They have the most consistently low prices overall for packaged and even fresh foods that I’ve seen. Otherwise, find the store nearest you that has good deals. Follow general grocery rules, like shopping produce that is in season, making a list, buying in bulk when the prices are low, etc. to save even more.

Purchase per person:

  • 3 cans chicken — 2.97
  • 5 cans tuna or salmon — 5
  • 15 lbs beans (any type) — 8.50
  • 5 lbs rice — 2.99
  • 5 lbs potatoes — 1.99
  • 1 large canister oats — 2.29
  • Tortillas (12 pack) — 0.99
  • 10 bags frozen vegetables — 10
  • 2 cans any type fruit — 2
  • 1 jar pasta sauce — 1
  • 1 pound pasta — 0.88
  • Dozen bananas — 2.22
  • 1 jar peanut butter — 1.49
  • 1 jar jelly — 1
  • 5 cans diced tomatoes — 4.40
  • 2 loaves bread — 1.70

Grand Total: $49.42

These items can sit wherever you have extra room, and you know they will be there in a pinch. You can also add any items that your family specifically goes through a lot of, such as chickpeas, eggs, or a certain spice mix.

Be sure that you use these items prior to their expiration dates by incorporating them into what you already cook. There is no sense in spending even a small amount of money on food that you end up not eating. A list of many suggested meals using these items is below.

Suggested meals:

And if you happen to have a pantry already, hopefully this list can help jump-start your creativity. Just a few simple ingredients can quickly come together to create a satisfying meal for far less than you would spend outside the home. Having a well-stocked pantry means you can have a snack or meal ready to go in minutes, and without having to wait in line or drive 30 minutes.

Counter covered with groceries

To continue to build your stockpile, simply pick up one extra item each time you go to the grocery store. Add two jars of pasta sauce to your cart when you only need one, and now you have a spare. When there is a great sale on peaches and you can afford to, stock up. That way you keep your overall cost lower, by purchasing frequently      eaten items in bulk when the price is low. Just don’t get too crazy, you don’t want to buy way more than you will ever eat or buy things you end up hating and throwing away.

Also keep an eye out for mark-downs on products that are about to expire (like meats & fresh vegetables, but use or freeze ASAP), slightly dented (I’m lookin’ at you, 10 cent dented cans of soup), or out of season (sprinkles in the shape of a leaf are still sprinkles in the summertime). One extra can or bag at a time can make a big impact on your yearly grocery tally. And you will get the satisfaction of knowing that you have a buffer of food for whenever, whatever, happens.

(Title picture is of pantry items used to make Salsa Chicken Soup)

5 Ways to Preserve Tomatoes

 

As summer winds down into the gorgeous chill days of fall, gardens are finally running out of steam on producing tomatoes.  If you’ve read earlier articles you know how much fun I’ve had with gardening in my neighborhood this summer!  Baskets upon baskets of these lovely red jewels.  And now, sadly, my final harvest is coming to fruit on the vine, and soon I’ll pull up the plants before Jack Frost takes them away.

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For those who still have one last bumper crop, or have a huge pile on the counter starting to soften, here are 5 ways to easily preserve tomatoes for all year round.  From as simple as cut & freeze to the process of canning (made simple with my one easy trick!) there are lots of ways to put up what you have now for when it is no longer available fresh, and preserve the lovely nutrients inside.

Option 1: Cut & Freeze

The simplest of all: just cut up your tomatoes into halves or quarters, and toss into a freezer bag. Label and put in the freezer. Later, you can use these tomatoes in sauces, soups, stews, and chilies with no problem. If you want to remove the skins, simply defrost and the skins will fall right off! Or you can leave whole, or puree them with the skins on.

Option 2: Oven Drying

Oven Dried Tomatoes in Olive Oil

It is oh-so-easy to dry your own tomatoes! All you really need is a wire rack, a knife, oodles of tomatoes (preferably roma), and some time.  See my article How to Make Oven Dried Tomatoes.

Option 3: Canning diced tomatoes

Quarts of Homemade Canned Pasta Sauce

Canning your own diced tomatoes is a snap! As long as you have the time to invest, canning your own will create a much healthier, flavorful option than store-bought cans. Simply dice up your tomatoes, place in a canning jar, and process. Be sure to always follow the rules of safe canning whether using a water bath or pressure canning method.

Option 4: Canning pasta sauce

Canning Pasta Sauce

Canning pasta sauce is only slightly more involved than diced tomatoes in that you add spices to the jars. I added fresh basil, garlic salt, and dried onion. Read the full article HERE.

Option 5: Turn them into tomato products

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If plain tomatoes aren’t your favorite, there are still SO MANY tomato-based products we use daily that you can make in your own kitchen. Give some or all of them a try:

And there you have it, easy ways to preserve tomato bounty! Any home gardener who has weathered at least one tomato season has had more chopped fresh tomatoes than they could handle, and these are all tried-and-true preservation methods. Using these techniques you can enjoy the flavor of summer all year long.

How to Make Oven-Dried Tomatoes

 

Since between my own backyard garden and my generous neighbor who has a football-field-sized garden I still had a bumper crop of tomatoes, even after canning oodles of quarts and pints of sauce and tomato broth and salsa, I decided to try my hand at oven-dried tomatoes packed in olive oil.

Dried tomatoes in olive oil are delicious little flavor bombs to add to garlic bread for a simple bruschetta, toss into salads or pasta, or top a pizza. The oil itself can also be used in salad dressings or anywhere tomato-flavored infused oil would be tasty. Very popular in the Mediterranean region such as Greece and Italy, this preservation method has been around for a very long time, and I had bags of romas just begging to be bathed in high quality oil that was on sale.

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But a jar can be quite pricey, up to $10 in the supermarket. It is far cheaper to can your own! You must invest in the jars and good-quality oil, but it is worth it for the superior taste and nutrition of using local tomatoes, and you can re-use jars forever.

All you need is some wire racks, an oven, and some time. If you have the oven on anyways, to make a roast or cookies, or perhaps to heat the house in the chill of autumn, this is the perfect project. This oven heat is conducive to drying many things, so you could also make a platter of dried apples or sweet potato chips at the same time.

There is some debate over the safety of dried tomatoes and botulism risk. It is possible that small droplets of water may stay inside the tomato and provide a medium for botulism or bacterium to grow. Obviously read up on facts and use your own best judgment when deciding whether to refrigerate, process, freeze, or store at room temperature. This article is not advice, just what I chose to do in my own kitchen with my own produce.

Ingredients:

  • 40-50 tomatoes, Roma are the best for drying
  • 2 wire racks (cookie sheets work too, you’ll just have to flip them halfway to make sure they dry on all sides)
  • 2-3 cups extra virgin olive oil
  • 1-3 canning jars, lids, & rings

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Step 1: Cut the tops & cores out of the tomatoes, slice them in half, and push out as many seeds as you can with your fingers or a knife. Save the seeds for planting, drink them, use in a soup, or compost.

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Step 2: Place the tomato halves on a wire rack or baking sheet, cut side up, and put into the oven at 200 degrees. Crack the door open if  you don’t mind the heat to allow more air circulation. Let them dry for 1 hour, then flip them if using baking sheets and check the dryness levels.

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Step 3: Take the completely dry tomatoes and begin packing them into sterile mason jars. The tomatoes are ready if they are rubbery with absolutely no water when squeezed, but you don’t want them so dry they are crunchy with no give. If you choose to use a vinegar dip, use tongs to dip each tomato prior to placing in a sterilized jar.

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Step 4: Pour in olive oil to cover the tomatoes. Make sure they are completely covered. If you feel okay with it, you can now store your tomatoes this way in a dark cabinet, or in the refrigerator.

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You may also choose to water-bath or pressure can your jars at this point. Totally up to you.

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These little jars will store for about 2 weeks in the refrigerator, and potentially up to a year in the cupboard if processed. They make lovely presents, if you can bring yourself to part with them. I recommend putting them somewhere easily accessible as you are likely to want to use them all up within days.

For ideas on how to use these, start here:

Check it out on Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/350506783478334749/
Check it out on Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/350506783478334749/