Category Archives: Informative

Track Your Finances: Mint.com

 

Everyone wants to have healthy finances. We all want to feel the freedom to spend our money however we please, to not have to worry about bills or making ends meet. And we probably all know a budget is the best way to make that happen.

The simplest way is to just sit down yourself and draw up a budget. You can use plain paper and pen, or fancy Excel spreadsheets. The most important thing is to be realistic and thorough. You need to know exactly how much money you bring in each month, from your job or business and investments, and how much money you spend each month.

Then, you need to make The Gap as large as possible. This means when you subtract your spending from your income, you have a positive number. The more positive the number, the more you can save for big goals like retirement, college, a vacation, or starting a business. You should also budget in some “discretionary spending” each month, so you do not feel deprived and unable to buy yourself small treats. Just make sure you keep it small.

Make sure you have an idea of how much you actually spend in various categories.

Consider the following categories of spending:

  • Housing (mortgage, HOA, insurance, taxes, rent)
  • Utilities (water, trash, sewer, gas, electricity, phone, internet)
  • Food (groceries, dining out, fast food, convenience foods, lunches at work, kids school lunches)
  • Health care (premiuims, copays, medicines)
  • Travel (gas, car maintenance and repairs, insurance, auto loans, bus passes, air fare, cabs or uber rides)
  • Gifts (birthday, Christmas, graduations)
  • Clothing (work clothing, uniforms, replacement or updates to you wardrobe)
  • Pets (vet bills, food, toys, leashes/collar, tags, shots, spay/neuter)
  • and even more categories if you’re a parent (diapers, formula, school expenses, doctors, child care, babysitter, activities, etc.)

The best way to get an idea of what you spend is to keep all your receipts for a month, or better yet a year. But who has the time and patience to collect all the receipts, keep them safe in one place, then add them all up by category?

Mint.com, that’s who!

Mint.com is my personal favorite finance tracking website and app. They have a super secure site, and amazing features. It enables you to link all you financial accounts: loans, direct deposits, credit cards, checking, savings, 401k, IRAs, and more.

Now Mint has three separate products:

  • Mint
  • Mint Bills
  • Mint Credit Score

mint product

I use the classic Mint, because I signed up with the site many years ago. The Bills feature allows you to link all your bills in one place, and set a date each month to pay them off. This automates all your payments, so you are never late on a bill again, avoiding costly late fees and dings to your credit.

The Credit Score feature helps you get your free credit score, and see ways you can make it better. There are many factors which go into calculating your credit score, including total available credit, total credit use, length of credit history, and more.

The most widely used credit scores are FICO® Scores, the credit scores created by Fair Isaac Corporation. 90% of top lenders use FICO® Scores to help them make billions of credit-related decisions every year. FICO® Scores are calculated based solely on information in consumer credit reports maintained at the credit reporting agencies.

You have the right to access your credit score for free, once per year, from three separate companies:

It is recommended that you check one site each 4 months, thus enabling you to keep tabs on your credit throughout the year. Set alarms on your phone calendar or write it in your planner to help you remember when it’s time to check.

Back to Mint. There are several features which I love. First of all, they categorize all your spending. You can set up categories if there is something you spend money on regularly, such as “online video games”, “basketball season tickets”, or “Parks pass”.

You are also able to go in and manually change expenditures and put them into categories. If the program does not know what an expense is, it goes into “uncategorized”, like checks.

mint trends

As you can see above, all expenses for the past year are laid out in a pie chart. You can click on any piece of the chart to open that category and view each purchase. For example if you click “home” you would see each month a check or charge for the amount you spend on rent or mortgage.

This is a fantastic feature because if you’ve ever looked at a credit card bill and thought “WHAT the heck am I spending all that money on??” This chart can help. You can click through the “uncategorized” and “bills” and “shopping” and see each and every charge add up. It even adds you spending over time and tells you the categories in order of spending. So if you spent 12000 on housing, and 3000 on utilities, and 1200 on food, it will list those in order.

You can also break it down over time. So you can see how much you spent this month, the past 3 or 6 months, the past year, or over all time you have been part of mint. This helps track longer term spending, if you are trying to get a better hold of your budget, you can see your progress or backsliding.

Another feature, in the regular Mint, not even the Mint Bills, is their bill tracking feature. The software learns which bills come through at the same time each month, and can track the anticipated days you will be charged. Then you can see on a calendar all your upcoming bills for the week or the month.

mint budget

And finally, the budget tracking feature. Super amazing. You can set up as many or few categories as you want, and set your expected spending amounts per category. The program then tracks each expense for you, and shows you how much you have left to spend. This is a nice visual so you can see on the 20th of the month, you have $120 left budgeted for food, so you can keep your spending within budget.

The software can also add up all your expenses and debts, as well as any income and investments, and tell you your net worth. You can track this over time, as it is the greatest indicator of your overall financial health. A steadily increasing net worth is the greatest feeling there is. Link up your car loan, mortgage, student loans, etc. and track your progress paying them down. It is great motivation, and they regularly offer advice and ways to save even more money.

Of course, this only works if you actually check it regularly and stick to it. Luckily, Mint also has an app available for Android and iPhone, so you can track and check yourself on the go.

There are many other tracking softwares and options out there. This is just one, use a few and see what works best for your budgeting style and your life. Ultimately your budget is personal and unique to you, and its up to you how you want to maintain it.

 

Disclaimer: I am in no way receiving compensation from Mint.com or any other financial entities. This piece is author’s opinion.

 

Book Review: Plant-Powered For Life by Sharon Palmer, RD

 

Do you want to feel vibrantly alive? Do you want to be in the peak health of your life, no matter your age? Do you want to enjoy a constant kaleidoscope of rotating colors, flavors, textures, and aromas in your meals? Do you want to do your fellow mankind, animals, and the planet a huge favor?

Living a plant-powered life can give you all that and more.

I had the great honor of being asked to read and write a review for “Plant-Powered For Life“, the recently-released second book by Registered Dietician Nutritionist Sharon Palmer. Also the author of “The Plant-Powered Diet“, an avid blogger and speaker, and with hundreds of hands-on hours helping people empower their life and better their health through diet, Ms. Palmer knows her food.

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This is an insightful, instructive book which focuses on a whole-lifestyle approach to better health through better eating. It is exactly the kind of book I have been looking for. It includes tons of practical tips from how and what to shop for at the grocery store, to ways to prepare and cook different vegetables, to 125 plant-powered recipes.

There are also gorgeous full-sized photos of various recipes and produce sprinkled throughout every chapter. The food looks so tasty, it would make even the most hard-core carnivore crave a Farro and White Bean Burger, Thai Lettuce Wrap, or Strawberry Soy Lassi.

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She begins the book simply, by asking the reader to create a plant-powered life goal. There is a whole spectrum from die hard carnivores simply aiming to include more plants in their daily diet, to going full-blown vegan. You choose how vibrantly plant-powered you want your life to become.

Since I am a lifelong omnivore, I’d like to add more veggies into my diet every day, as well as having a minimum of one meatless day per week. I will keep packing in more and more veggies, until they begin to supplant the meat naturally.

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The book is broken down into 52 chapters, and each is a call to action about changing one small segment of your life. You can choose to take on one chapter per week for a year-long journey to plant power, or you can skip around to whatever chapters best fit in your life and speak to you.

Included in each chapter is 2-3 plant-powered recipes. These recipes feature seasonal produce, and a rainbow of variety. Ms. Palmer repeatedly makes the point that eating varied, whole, plant-based foods is the most ideal diet humans can follow.

Each fruit, vegetable, legume, or grain has a unique mixture of micro- and macro-nutrients that contribute to vibrant health. We need a rotating variety of these vitamins and minerals to achieve and maintain ideal health.

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All the recipes have suggestions for substitutions or variations; for example, if you follow a gluten-free diet for dietary reasons there are substitutions included to make the recipe gluten-free. Most have very brief ingredient lists, and prep/cook times under an hour. I have already found at least a dozen recipes I am super excited to try and get into my weekly meal rotation!

I am so happy to have this handy plant-based eating guide slash cookbook on my kitchen shelf. I’m sure I will refer to it for advice, ideas, and inspiration for years to come. Count me in for eating more plants this year!

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The best part of this article, is that Ms. Palmer’s team has been generous enough to enable me to give one lucky reader a copy of their very own! Below is a Rafflecopter giveaway; you can earn up to four entries, plus an extra one each day you Tweet about us!

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This giveaway begins at midnight MST on Sunday January 25, and ends Sunday February 22nd at noon MST.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Coffee Body Scrub

 

Don’t you just love the feeling of soft, smooth skin? And doesn’t the smell of coffee energize you and wake you right up in the morning? It doesn’t hurt that I love finding new ways to use up things I would otherwise throw out, like used coffee grounds.

How about we combine those two things into a simple, practical body scrub!

You can make this for yourself to make mornings more tolerable, or gift it to other special people in your life. It’s sugar and coffee particles scrub skin smooth, the oil hydrates and softens, and the coffee scent just perks you up.

No one needs to know it took mere minutes to make (because there are only three ingredients), and is absurdly frugal to put together!

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon white or brown sugar
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon olive oil (or coconut oil)
  • 3 tbsp fine coffee grounds

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Step 1: Just mix all three ingredients! You can scale up to make gifts by combining 1 cup sugar and 1 1/2 cups grounds, then adding oil and mixing until it reached a wet sand consistency. Put in a cute clear jar and tie a little ribbon around it.

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Or, if this is your own personal spa treatment, this small batch is perfect to whip up before your morning shower or for a relaxing afternoon soak. It exfoliates, has anti-inflammatory properties, and helps tighten skin. The perfect way to start a beautiful day!

Can you can beans?

 

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I enjoy everything about canning. It is an easy way to save extra seasonal produce before it spoils. It keeps for a very long time with proper storage, so you can be sure you always have food available. It looks pretty on your pantry shelves. It teaches self-sufficiency. And assuming you keep it up all your life and re-use the jars, it can be extremely frugal!

Combine a very frugal hobby/life skill with one of the most frugal foods on the planet, beans, and you have a very happy budget epicurean! Canned beans at my store typically run 50-90 cents for store brand to over $2 per can for fancy organics. When you buy dried beans in bulk, and re-use cans over the years, you can easily get the price per can down to mere pennies.

I love having canned beans in my pantry so I can whip up a quick chili, tortilla soup, or refried beans for tacos or tostadas without having to pre-soak for hours. Though some sources say that not only is pre-soaking not required, but it actually hurts the taste and quality of the final product.

Most vegetables or fruits are safe to can and store. Typically you need to add sugar (for fruit) or acids like vinegar (for vegetables) in order to ensure their shelf-safety. But are beans safe to can at home? And there is also debate over the worthiness of canning beans, since dried take up much less space. But you can’t beat ready-to-go cans for last minute recipes.

Most resources say a pressure canner is an absolute must to kill everything. No one wants botulism. The pressure canner causes high heat and pressure much higher than could normally be achieved inside the canner. This is the only sure way to kill spores, which are able to resist the heat of normal boiling water.

However, what can one do if you don’t have a pressure cooker? Can you still can beans the usual way, with a large pot of water?

Sorta.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, health professional of any kind, or nutritionist. I am not encouraging anyone to try this. I am simply relating my own experience.

I had bought a 5 pound bag of pinto beans, but am bad at pre-planning my meals when I get busy. So I would want to make tacos for dinner or something, and be out of canned pintos. I had not soaked the beans, and wanted to eat within the next hour or two, so cooking up the dried ones was not really an option.

I decided to try canning some beans. I do not have a pressure cooker. The reasons I took the chance included: 1) I stored the processed cans in the refrigerator until I used them 2) I used all the cans within a month, presumably too short a time for anything too dangerous.

This site says there are several factors that contribute to growth, including salinity, acidity, moisture level, and temperature. Some strains of botulism cannot grow at low temperatures, while others are able to, if slowly. So, for science.

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound dried beans
  • Lots of water
  • 2 tbsp salt
  • 4 tbsp vinegar

Step 1: In a large pot, you can soak your beans overnight if you want. I just went ahead and cooked them. Cover the beans in water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 2-6 hours, depending on how soft you want your finished product and how much time you have. Add the salt and vinegar.

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Step 2: Either boil your jars and lids, or run through the dishwasher to sterilize. You will need about four pint jars for one pound of cooked beans.

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Step 3: Fill each jar up to the top, leaving 1-2 inches of space. Cover with the cooking liquid. You should have a faint scent of vinegar, and the liquid becomes cloudy after cooking the beans. Wipe the rim, seal, and place the entire jars in a large pot of rapidly boiling water. Process the jars for 45-60 minutes.

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Step 4: Remove the jars from the hot water with tongs, and place on a towel on a solid surface. Let them cool without moving them for at least 6-8 hours. You should hear the “pop” of the lids sealing. If any do not seal, put in the fridge and use within a week.

Now you have your own crazy-cheap supply of canned beans to turn into chilis, spreads, soups, or any number of recipes.

 

Frugal Last-Minute Gift Ideas

 

So the clock is ticking down, and you realize you only have a few days (or hours) until it’s present time. What are you to do?! Shipping won’t get here in time, and going to the store to fight crowds sounds like your idea of torture.

Not to worry! I have put together a list of clever last-minute ideas you can make yourself, using things you likely already have around the house. Don’t panic, you don’t even need to be that crafty.

First up are “Craft” ideas, with directions and occasional pictures. All these things are things I’ve made before, or would make now. After that are the “Cooking” ideas, which are edibles of course.

Frugal Craft Ideas:

  • Seed Bombs
  • Letter wine cork board
  • Door snake – if you have a sewing machine
  • Personalized mug
  • Body scrub
  • Picture Frame Pin Cushion
  • Scrabble letter ornaments
  • Bonus: Survival Altoids Tin (opens in new window)

 

Seed Bombs – for the green thumb

This is an idea I saw somewhere one year when I myself was looking for ideas. They are perfect for any time of year, Christmas works because you have plenty of time until spring to plan where you will plant these adorable little gems!

You will need:

Step 1: Shred one sheet of paper in whatever color you like. Cover with water for 2-3 minutes. Put the paper and water in a blender and pulse until it becomes pulp.

IMG_6412Step 2: Pour the paper and pulp through a piece of cheesecloth to drain. Put a few seeds of your choice in the center. You can make each one a different color flower seed, or use vegetables, whatever you have and whatever your recipient would enjoy.

IMG_6416Step 3: Put some more pulp over the seeds, and squeeze out the excess water.

IMG_6418Step 4: Let the seed bombs dry, and now you have an adorable gift for someone special! You can make as many different colors as you like, the size of the paper sheet will determine how big a bomb you can make.

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Letter Wine Cork Boards – for anyone really

The gift recipient doesn’t need to be a drinker for this project, just you do! Kidding. But you will need to obtain 10-50 wine bottle corks. How many will depend on the letter you want to make, and how big you want the letter to be.

You will need:

  • Wine corks
  • Craft wire
  • Super glue
  • Optional – paint, pretty ribbon, tacks, photos or mementos of you and the gift recipient

Step 1: Arrange the corks into the shape of the letter you want to make. This will help you decide how big you want to make it. Then, using the craft wire, wrap around the corks, weaving in and out. Use super glue every few corks to hold them together. And that’s it! Let your masterpiece dry.

Bonus points if you used corks with varying colors of red on them, and grade the color across the letter. Or you can paint over the end to make the letter all one color. Add a pretty ribbon to the top to hang it, and tack on some fun photos. If you are unsure of your artistic abilities, you can buy a wooden letter at a craft store to use as a guide, and glue the corks to that instead.

Another option: place the corks flat onto a picture frame or serving tray in a fun pattern. Paint over the whole thing with glue. Now you have a flat, fun patterned cork board!

 

Draft Stopper or Door Snake – for anyone who has a door in their home

These little guys are awesome to put under your doors to stop cold drafts from coming in. You can help a friend be more comfortable this winter and even lower their energy costs! *This craft does require a sewing machine*

You will need:
  • 1 sewing machine (or needle, thread, time, and patience)
  • Material approximately 1 yard by 1 foot (use thicker cloth to stand up to more wear)
  • Approximately 6-10 cups filler (rice, beans, sand, salt, kitty litter, etc)

Step 1: Lay your fabric pattern side up, then flip it over onto itself so the “inside” faces out and pin along the open side. Measure your doorway, and using a basic stitch sew along the pins to that length plus about 4 inches, trimming the excess. This creates a tube.

Step 2: Sew up one end of the tube, making sure that it is fully closed. You don’t want any kitty litter leaking out onto your clean floors later. Now flip the tube inside-out so that the pattern is on the outside.

Step 3: Fill the tube with your filler, rice or kitty litter is best. You can hold it up to your doorway to make sure it is long enough but not too long, and trim as needed. Leave 2 inches on the un-sewn end.

Step 4: Fold the cut ends into the tube, so you now have four layers. This looks cleaner. Then sew up the other end of the tube, going over it a few times to make sure it is sealed well. There you have it. A cute, cheap way to save some money on heating bills for years to come. If you are super crafty, you can even sew some washable covers for the stopper itself so that it can be used for decades to come.

 

Personalized mug – for the coffee or tea drinker

These mugs are infinitely customizable and completely adorable. No one has even been mad about a cute coffee mug as a gift. And when tailored to the recipient they are even more special.

You will need:

  • A white ceramic mug
  • A Sharpie pen
  • An oven
  • Optional: creativity, coffee, tea, hot cocoa mix, etc.

Step 1: Take a white (or other light color) ceramic mug and a Sharpie marker. Using a stencil, or your own talents, draw on your desired picture, phrase, word, etc. Some ideas include: “Good morning”, “For him  & For her”, a quote from a favorite person or book, initials, the person’s home state.

Step 2: Place the mug in the oven at 350 degrees for 30 minutes to set the ink. Now your mug can be used, washed, run through the dishwasher, and not smudge! To fancy up the gift even more, fill the mug with the receiver’s favorite tea or coffee, a peppermint swizzle stick, a bag of cocoa mix and marshmallows, or whatever else fits.

 

Picture Frame Pin Cushion – for the crafty sewer

This idea from Love Grows Wild. You don’t need to be able to sew to make this gift either! Do be cautious when working with hot glue.

You will need:

Step 1: Take the glass and anything else out of the frame. Trace around the glass onto a piece of cardboard to make the back of your pin cushion. Use the glass to trace the shape onto your fabric, centering the design if there is one. Cut it out, leaving plenty of extra, and make sure it still fits into the frame with the added fabric. Trim anything necessary to make it fit.

How to Make a Picture Frame Pin Cushion - a simple project to help keep your pins in check while you sew! via www.LoveGrowsWild.com #diy #tutorial

Step 2: Flip the fabric over and place a handful of batting in the center. Place the cardboard on top, and begin hot gluing the fabric along the edges. It will bunch up, that is ok. Leave a 1 inch space open on one side. Keep checking to make sure it fits in the frame, adding or taking out batting as needed.

How to Make a Picture Frame Pin Cushion - a simple project to help keep your pins in check while you sew! via www.LoveGrowsWild.com #diy #tutorial

Step 3: Finish hot gluing the edges, and put inside the frame. Close it or hot glue the cardboard all around the edges. Now your frame can sit or stand up, and will look totally adorable on your crafty friend’s table or sewing machine!

To take it up yet another notch, use these steps but on a small pint-size mason jar. Hot glue the fabric to the lid, then fill the jar with small sewing accessories. You can get a mini kit at most dollar stores, and add in anything else you think your crafty friend would need. Then you have a hand-crafted mini sewing kit!

 

Body Scrub – for anyone who likes soft, nice smelling skin

This is a great idea not only for the holidays but year round. There are so many scent combinations you could try, like peppermint, grapefruit, lemon, green tea, chocolate, coffee, and brown sugar vanilla. You can also use epsom salt in place of the sugar if you like. I will keep this recipe in my back pocket for anytime I need a quick, cute gift for a girlfriend or relative!

You can also get a little creative here. The basic recipe below is just an outline, experiment with types of oils and amounts until you find what works for you. And the packaging is also key. A clear glass jar will show off layers of different colors, or pieces of crushed candy cane. Make sure to use a wide-mouth lid however, so your recipient can reach in and get a handful of skin-softening goodness out.

You will need:

  • 1 cup sugar (white or brown)
  • 1/4 cup oil (coconut, olive, vegetable)
  • Scent of your choice
  • Optional: food coloring, crushed candies, zested citrus

Step 1: In a large bowl, mix the sugar and scent of your choosing. If you have something liquid like lemon juice, factor that in when deciding how much oil to add. Then mix in oil, a little at a time, until you have the consistency of packing snow. Depending on how many gifts you are making, you can do a large batch or a single jar.

For the jar, if you don’t want to or can’t spend the money on new jars, simply save glass jars from foods throughout the year. Things such as empty Frappuccino cans, salsa jars, or spaghetti sauce can be washed, labels removed, and new pretty labels printed and added. These make an extremely inexpensive, yet uniquely thoughtful gift for mother’s day, teacher appreciation day, birthdays, or holidays!

 

Scrabble Ornaments – for anyone with a tree

This super-simple, super-cute idea comes from I Heart Naptime. You can pick up a game of Scrabble very cheaply from any thrift store or scout garage sales. Or if you are really crafty you can purchase thin strips of wood, cut into squares, and burn or paint your own tiles.

You will need:

Step 1: Decide what you want your ornament to say. Ideas include: peace, love, joy, Christmas, believe, noel, or the name of the gift recipient. Hot glue the letters together one at a time, letting dry fully. Then hot glue a piece of ribbon to the back and let dry.

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These make an absolutely adorable tree accent. You can make as many or few as you like. For other times of the year, you could switch this up by taking mini magnets from a craft store and hot gluing to the back instead of ribbon for a cutely customizable magnet gift.

 

And now for those who are less crafty and more cook-y, gifts from my favorite place: the kitchen! Most of these take very little time and effort, and you likely have the ingredients in your cupboards already. All look adorable when packaged up into clear containers or holiday tins with a bow on top.

Your recipient is bound to love eating your homemade treats, knowing you put the time and effort in to making them happy.

Frugal Cooking Ideas:

 

Peppermint Meringues – for those who like crunchy sweet treats

Meringues seem hard but they are honestly super simple. The only requirements are the time put in to make the egg whites fluffy, and making sure there is no fat in the bowl at any time.

It is amazing how much four egg whites can fluff up into. You can use fewer, or double or triple the batch to make simple gifts for teachers, relatives, coworkers, friends, or neighbors.

You will need:

  • 4 egg whites
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsp peppermint oil
  • Sprinkle of sea salt
  • Optional: few drops food coloring

Step 1: Separate the eggs into whites and yolks. If you want to be super cautious, break each egg into one bowl, then combine them all in a separate bowl. This ensures absolutely no yolk gets in. The fats in the yolk will ruin the meringue and cause it to not rise.

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Step 2: Beat the crap out of the egg whites. Seriously, let it go for about 20 minutes. The eggs should bubble, then begin to “fluff” up. Continue until soft peaks form. That means if you dip a spoon in, it can pull up a peak, but it flops over when you remove the spoon.

IMG_6261Step 3: Add in the sugar and the peppermint flavoring. You could also try anise, vanilla, lemon, almond… let your imagination run wild. Sprinkle in about 1/4 tsp of salt, and continue to beat until stiff peaks form. If you stick in a spoon, you can pull up peaks that then hold their shape.

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Step 4:You can either put it into ziplock bags with a hole snipped in the corner and pipe it onto cookie sheets, or just use a tablespoon to plop dollops on.

Bake in the oven at 250 for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until fully hardened. You can also prop the door open and leave them overnight. I use a foil sheet so they are easier to remove. Also, you can add in a drop of food coloring at step 3 for fun holiday swirls!

 

Peppermint or Almond Bark – for anyone with a sweet tooth

Barks are a family tradition at my house. They are incredibly simple to make, mostly just requiring time and that you not eat it all! You can customize them however you like with combinations of different types of chocolate, candies, nuts, or caramel. These are great gifts year-round!

You will need:

  • 1-2 cups baking chocolate
  • 1/4 cup crushed candies, chopped dried fruit, or nuts
  • Optional: flavoring such as peppermint extract

Step 1: Melt the chocolate(s). Pour onto a sprayed baking pan and let cool. If using two colors, pour second layer on and let cool. Just before completely cooled, sprinkle on your crushed candy or almonds.

Step 2: Once cool, cut into squares or break into rough pieces. Wrap up and give as gifts, or scarf down the whole tray, I won’t tell.

It really is that simple. You can get creative with this and layer white and dark chocolate together, add almonds to one layer with something different on top, whatever you like.

This can be tailored to whatever event is happening such as birthdays, Halloween, Easter, St. Patrick’s Day, anything.

 

Cookie in a Jar – for those who also bake

This is an inexpensive gift that can be tailored to your recipient. Basically it entails layering the dry ingredients of a recipe in a clear jar, and usually includes the recipe which tells them what other ingredients to add and how to complete the recipe.

As an example, I’ll use the Dark Chocolate Andes Mint idea from The Frugal Girls.

You’ll need:

  • 1 box Dark Chocolate Cake Mix
  • 1 bag Andes mints or baking chips
  • 1 quart sized glass jar with lid
  • Optional: Ribbon, pretty scrapbook paper

Step 1: Pour the cake mix into the jar and pat down. Pour the baking chips on top. Put the lid on, and wrap a pretty ribbon around it. Attach labels to the front and the lid, or write on the front in Sharpie.

Andes Mint Dark Chocolate Cake Mix Cookies

Add a recipe card that says:

Beat 2 eggs and 1/2 cup vegetable oil in a bowl. Pour in entire contents of jar, and stir well. Drop by tablespoon onto an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 8-9 minutes or until done.

You can use this basic idea to make any kind of cookie or cake mix you want to give. If you are a true baker yourself, or have a favorite family recipe, you can also layer individual ingredients like sugar, flour, baking soda, etc. Just be sure to add in the recipe so the recipient knows what else is needed.

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This can also be transferred as an idea to soup recipes. Simply layer in beans, rice, spices, dehydrated veggies, etc. and attach a recipe stating how much water to add and any other ingredients to complete your favorite soup. Tie up with a pretty bow or ribbon and your recipient has a thoughtful, easy future meal.

 

Peanut butter fudge – for when you seriously have 3 minutes

This is my mom’s super secret, ridiculously easy fudge recipe. With only two ingredients (YEAH, TWO) anyone can make this, even if the doorbell literally just rang with unexpected guests.

Obviously you can find much more involved recipes all over the internet, and no one has ever been angry about fudge as a gift. But for times when you really need a sweet treat pronto, this is a good go-to.

You will need:

Step 1: Mix both room-temperature ingredients well. Microwave 2 minutes, in 30-second bursts, and mix again. Refrigerate until solid and cut into squares.

You can get fancy and top with chocolate chips, or melt chocolate and layer the chocolate and peanut butter. Or just stick with simple and classic. Wrap in cellophane or put into cute tins and watch their faces light up when they bite into a piece.

 

Canned Jam/Jelly/Salsa/Fruits – for friends who appreciate handmade foods

Really the only things you need for wonderful handmade food items is the jars, some time, and the particular recipe’s ingredients. Canning is not at all intimidating once you try it a few times. The initial investment is $10-20, but you can make plenty of foods without a pressure canner at first, including jam, salsa, green tomato salsa, and canned fruit such as peaches.

You will need:

Step 1: For salsa: Chop up 2 cups tomatoes, 4 tbsp onion, and if you want to add 1 clove garlic, black pepper, hot sauce, jalapeno, and/or cilantro. For jam: Put 2 cups berry of choice in a sauce pan, and add 1/4 cup sugar and 2-4 tbsp water and bring to a simmer. Cook for 20-30 minutes, until berries are completely liquid. Most berries will gel on their own, but you could also add 1 tsp of pectin.

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Step 2: Bring the large pot of water to boil, and add your jars to sterilize for 10 minutes. You can also run them through the dishwasher. Use the funnel to fill your jars, and a wet towel to wipe off the rims. Screw on the cap & lids, and submerge in boiling water for 45-60 minutes.

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Step 3: Remove the jars from boiling water with tongs and set on a counter top. Make sure they are not disturbed as they cool. You should hear the “pop” of the jars sealing. Let cool overnight, then check in the morning that all have sealed. If not, re-process or put in the refrigerator and use within a month.

 

 

Candy Cane Popcorn – for anyone who likes sweet holiday snacks

As a total popcorn addict, I am super stoked about this recipe from I Heart Naptime! Like a combination of rice krispies and kettle corn, this gift from the heart is sure to please. As they mention, some recipes use white chocolate so you could try that instead of the marshmallow, or something uniquely you.

You will need:

Step 1: Pop a big batch of popcorn, microwave or stove top. Melt the butter and marshmallows together, and crush the candy canes.

Candy Cane Popcorn

Step 2: Add peppermint extract to the butter, then slowly stir in the popcorn, being sure to remove all kernels. Sprinkle in the crushed candy canes while stirring. Transfer to your desired gift bag or tin. This can be eaten warm or cooled, and likely all in one sitting!

 

Compound butter – for the savory foodie

A compound butter is just a fancy name for butter with something else added to it. This extra something can be garlic, herbs, berries, or honey. It adds a little extra something special when spread over crackers or fresh bread. Heather from WhipperBerry has three delightful recipe ideas to share.

You will need:

  • 4 sticks of unsalted butter
  • Approx. 1 cup of add-ins
  • 4-ounce glass jars with lids
  • Optional: Adorable labels and gift tags; fresh bread or crackers

Step 1: In a large mixing bowl, combine one pound unsalted, room temperature butter and your desired add-ins (such as 1 cup honey, 1 cup fruit preserves, or 1 cup roasted garlic). Whip well. Spoon into sterilized 4 ounce jars, and store in the refrigerator or freezer until ready to use.

Sweet and Savory Compound Butter with Free Printable

That’s all there is to it friends! And you thought baking up a gorgeous, unique, and tasty treat would take you a lot of time and effort. Now get out there and gift some memories this Christmas.

 

Of course these are only a few ideas of many. Think about your gift recipient, and your particular talent.

Can you craft your own jewelry? Maybe a cute, unique pair of earrings would be just the ticket. Does your person love to read? Create a one-of-a-kind book marker for them. Photos are always well-received, and there are infinite ways to customize them. A dozen homemade cookies of any kind are always a sure crowd pleaser.

Whatever you do, the gift recipient will know you were thinking of them this holiday season!

 

Do you have any frugal last-minute gift ideas to share??

Post 300! — Walmart Party To Go

 

WOW how time flies! This is my 300th published post on this blog.

I am amazed that it has kept up, and even gotten better over time. Thanks to all you wonderful people who continue to read, comment, ask questions, and make suggestions. I am always looking for ways to better serve my readers, so if you ever have something you want to see here or know about, please shoot me an email (budget epicurean (at) gmail (dot) com). Again, thank you!

In other news…

A while ago I was contacted by media representatives for Walmart. The company offers a delivery service for anything you order online, called Walmart To Go. Now they are expanding it to the Denver area, and wanted some locals to try out the service and see if it was a good fit for their lives.

I decided to throw a dinner party. Some friends of mine I hadn’t seen in a long while had had a baby, another had just successfully defended his thesis and was awarded a PhD, and another was the only remaining member of our first year class who stayed in PhD school.

Not to mention it is the holiday season, when we want to surround ourselves with joy and make happy memories with people we care about. All these reasons are reasons to party!

Disclaimer: The food and decorations for this party were provided by Walmart.

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I was given a set budget, and challenged myself to come up with the nicest-looking decor and spread as I could on that budget. If you have followed my blog at all, you know that is kind of my thing. I usually am a bargain-hunter with food, but for all other items this would be a challenge.

After I placed my order, I simply waited. The delivery person gave me a call 15 minutes ahead of time to let me know he was on the way. I appreciate that in case you were just about to shower, on the phone with a parent, taking the dogs for a walk, whatever, you know when to expect a knock on the door.

He showed up right on time, with several bags full of goodies. I did not know that the delivery persons are not allowed to enter your home. They must hand your bags through the door to you. That makes sense for everyone, safety first, and they don’t want to accidentally break anything inside the house by knocking it over with a full bag.

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So Thursday night, my kitchen floor covered in food and decorations, I had about 20 hours until the party, and felt mostly prepared already.

You can see that a $100 budget gets you quite a lot of food! I shopped smart, and chose non-name-brand items mostly. The ravioli were $2.79 per bag, all salad fixings were about $6 total, garlic bread for just over $1 per piece.

The large olive oil, beans, and rice cost about $10, but will make tons of meals! A simple beans and rice for a side, or with the frozen broccoli thrown in to make it a meal, and that $10 can turn into 50 cents or less per serving.

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The decoration budget netted: 5 strings of lights, 5 light-up candy canes, light hooks, a rope light, a big red bow for the front door, a wax melter, and a nice tablecloth. The original plan was one light-up reindeer and 2 light-up trees, but I think we ended up with a lot more bang for our buck this way.

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The light-up candy canes were adorable, but they do have a limited stretch of wire between them. If you want more than a foot between each one, you will also need some small extension cords.

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My boyfriend is nuts, and thinks climbing around on roofs is a fun hobby. He didn’t use a ladder, just jumped right up there and started clipping lights to the gutters. All told, it probably took about 2 hours of work the morning of the party to decorate, inside and out. We did run out of lights, and had to go get one more strand.

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The finished product came out really well, I’m very happy with how it looks! You can see our two terriers in the door there wanting to come outside with me.

The food budget covered: cheese and beef ravioli, tomato and alfredo sauce, 2 loaves of garlic bread, spinach, romaine, broccoli slaw mix, ranch and Italian dressings, fruit dip, apples, bananas, strawberries, an apple pie, green tea, beans, frozen broccoli, olive oil, and rice.

I also added in paper plates, napkins, utensils, and wet wipes and spray cleaner for after the party. (You can see in the corner of the photo my homemade draft stopper! This thing is awesome in the winter to keep the chill from the garage out)

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This is proof that you can eat healthy foods on a budget as well. The two apples, strawberries, one pear, raspberries, and dip all cost less than $10 and made a lovely platter with more left over.

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I took the black silverware and wrapped them in white napkins. Then cut 1 inch strips of crepe paper and wrapped it around the bundle for color. Red, green, and white to go with our holiday theme. Boyfriend asked, are we saluting Italy?  =)

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The smaller red plates I put on top of larger white plates, which matched the beige tablecloth on top of a red one. The table has extra leaves, and when stretched out it is too long to fit just one tablecloth. Good thing we had the extra-long red one too!

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The wax melter in the background made the room smell like cinnamon, and the red candles on the table were a nice centerpiece for now. On to the cooking part!

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I boiled all the pasta ahead of time, and then kept it warm in the oven on low. We had beef ravioli and five-cheese ravioli. I also made a box of penne because we had several kids coming and I wanted to be sure there would be something everyone would eat. Sauteed asparagus with Italian dressing was a nice hot side dish.

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Everyone fit just perfectly in this cozy dining room, and there was plenty of food to go around. People loved having the choice of beef or cheese, and which sauce to use. I was proud of my friends for how much of the salad was eaten too!

We actually had so much food that the rice and the bean salad were not needed. And I totally forgot about the garlic bread! No one seemed to mind, and now I have that for a future party.

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We did have one bad experience, halfway through the meal one friend of mine was cutting her ravioli and the fork broke right in half! Luckily the box has more than enough extras so it wasn’t a huge deal. But just know these plastic utensils have a breaking point, and it’s pretty low.

All in all it was a lovely night. We had a great time catching up with each others’ lives, and everyone said the meal was delicious. I ended up with plenty left over too! The delivery eased the stress of having to go to the store, though I ended up having to run out once anyways (for penne and extra lights) but that happens. You can’t plan for everything all the time.

I think I would use this service again, especially for big parties which are planned ahead of time so I know the menu. For everyday cooking, I like physically going to the store, seeing what is on sale, and creating meals in my mind. I’m going to plan another party in a few weeks, for my birthday, and we will see how that goes!

If you want to try Walmart Grocery To Go yourself, click on this referral link: Walmart Grocery To Go.

Meals Under $5

 

We all experience some times where we are on a tight budget. Maybe that time is only during college, and you are lucky enough to get a good-paying job with degree in hand. Maybe that time is during the holidays, when food budgets are stretched with all the family get-togethers and parties. Maybe that time is your whole life. Maybe you have plenty of cash to spare, but want to use it for things other than extravagant meals.

Whatever the case, making a frugal meal definitely does not have to be tasteless and boring!

With my “Less Than 5” category, I am aiming to create and share recipes which take less than $5, less than 5 minutes to make, and/or less than 5 ingredients. Bonus points for me if all three apply!

I will update this post periodically as I continue to add more “Less Than 5” recipes. This one will be specific to meals which will cost less than $5 per serving. So if you only have a few dollars in your pocket, you are better off reading these recipes and heading to the grocery store than blowing it all at once on a dollar menu. These recipes will (mostly) be filling and somewhat healthy for pennies a plate.

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First let’s get the classic budget recipes in a list:

  • Peanut butter & jelly sandwich
  • Macaroni & cheese (though with the price of cheese soaring, I don’t know about homemade mac n cheese anymore)
  • Ramen noodles
  • Beans & Rice
  • Tuna salad sandwich

Now these are a little bit more creative:

Do you have any recipe ideas that are less than $5? Please share in the comments!

Creative Recipes for Thanksgiving Leftovers

 

Since Thanksgiving was already a few days ago, you readers may be tired of turkey sandwiches by now. Or perhaps you went to a potluck and didn’t get saddled with 10 pounds of leftovers, but want to take advantage of steeply discounted holiday foods at the store. Either way, this list of leftover options is sure to help empty that fridge to make room for more culinary masterpieces!

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First of all, Peter at Feed Your Soul 2 has already made a handy list for his Friday Five collection all about Thanksgiving Leftovers. And if you’d like a super simple casserole recipe to use up all the leftovers in one delicious swoop, try Jeanette’s Layered Thanksgiving Leftovers Casserole.

The Turkey

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The golden centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table, the turkey is a classic. And with the deals offered this time of year (0.50 per pound, what?!) you can’t pass that up. Even if you just scooped up an extra on sale and now it’s in your freezer, these recipes are great for using up that extra fowl.

From Gina’s Skinny Recipes, we start our day with a Turkey & Sweet Potato Frittata. You know I’m a huge fan of frittatas for their adaptability and ease. See the ham section.

If you shred up the turkey meat, you can easily replace chicken for this south-of-the-border Meat & Cheese Enchiladas

Likewise, just replace the shredded chicken with shredded turkey in this White Bean Chicken Chili for a new twist

From Southern Living, try some Turkey Tostadas with Cranberry Chipotle Sauce for a double whammy

For a long list of 16 more amazing turkey recipes from around the food blog-o-sphere, check out This List Here.

The Ham

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A classic for a reason, Scalloped Ham & Potatoes is a delightful comfort food great for using up both ham and extra potatoes that didn’t get mashed.

As the turkey frittata above mentioned, I love putting anything into scrambled eggs, like this Ham & Greens Frittata

Your Home Based Mom has a great list of tried and true recipes her family loves for using leftover ham

On a chilly winter day, try this comfort food classic of Ham & Potato Soup from All She Cooks. You might even be able to sneak in some leftover mashed potatoes to score a double

The Potatoes

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For adorable, portable snacks little ones and grown-ups alike will love, make these Cheesy Mashed Potato Puffs from The Kitchn

This is a simply brilliant recipe from the One Ingredient Chef: Vegan Lentil & Sweet Potato Shepherd’s Pie

Try whipping up a loaf of easier-than-you-think Sweet Potato Bread

Potatoes are a great base for latkes, and you could use any other filler in there, including turkey meat. Or switch it up from fowl and pork and try my Salmon Latkes

Stuffing/Dressing

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Whether you call it stuffing or dressing, made by hand or from a Stove-Top box, Thanksgiving is incomplete without the starchy side dish. If you have a bowl or three in your fridge, try some of the recipes below to revamp your bread bits.

While there are ten great leftover recipes in this post by Trisha, the Stuffing Waffles are by far the most intriguing to me!

Pull off a dinner-party worthy main dish with little effort with my Stuffing-Stuffed Pork Chops

Try this triple-threat of Turkey, Mashed Potato & Stuffing Patties from the Pocket Change Gourmet

Half Hour Meals has a great list of 7 ways to use stuffing ranging from stuffed mushrooms to meatloaf

Cranberry sauce

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There are tons of ideas out there, I’ve been seeing lots of versions of the Cranberry-Grilled Cheese this year. Here’s a great list of 9 different cranberry ideas, I particularly like mixing it into plain cream cheese as a different and delicious bagel topping!

Brittany Angell has a gigantic list of 35 Ways to Use Leftover Cranberry Sauce with a plethora of ideas that might inspire you to use cranberry sauce year-round

Green Bean Casserole

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Kevin here put together this Green Bean Casserole Pasta on the fly, but it is brilliant and the cream sauce just kind of works. Must try.

Similarly Greta puts leftover roasted Brussels sprouts in pasta and claims even kids will eat it!

Chef Pete brings us a Turkey, Green Bean & Stuffing Strudel, as well as a “Thanksgiving Cosmo” drink recipe for excess Cranberry Sauce

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Of course, if you are tired of cooking at this point and just can’t summon the energy to re-purpose those leftovers, the classic Thanksgiving Leftover Sandwich will do.

Keep in mind that many of these freeze well, so if you just can’t face the gallon of cranberry sauce or two pounds of turkey breast, stick it in a freezer safe plastic bag or container and wait out the holidays. Perhaps a cranberry brownie will sound better in February, or by Easter you can use up those ham chunks.

Hope all my readers had a delicious and thankful Thanksgiving this year!

 

What do you do with leftovers?

How to: Make a simple wreath for under $10

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This is a fun holiday craft I took on last year with really impressive results. You will be amazed by how gorgeous a piece you can make in just a little time with things you can find in your neighborhood. Could be a good kids craft or bonding time for couples. Just be careful if using real pine, the needles of some can really be sharp.
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Since you can use real pine branches, this wreath is super cheap. Just make sure you are collecting from a tree you own or are allowed to use… Then embellish with other things from nature, or some cute colorful things you can pick up at a craft store or Goodwill.
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You will need:
  • Several pine branches (real or fake)
  • Super glue/hot glue
  • Craft wire
  • Pine cones or other forest accessories
  • Embellishments, preferably in pretty colors like red, silver, green, or gold. You could go with any color theme you like.
  • Optional: Glitter, ribbons, etc.
Step 1: Begin forming the branches into a circular shape. Just move the branches around and piece it together into what looks best. Use the wire to hold pieces together once you like the look
Step 2: Once the branches are held together well, you can also hot glue them. Then start strategically placing your accessories. Intersperse colors with neutrals, like I did with the red fake berries and the pine cones.
Step 3: Spread glue around, and sprinkle with glitter for a little extra shine. If you don’t have a nail or hanger on your door, you can also now hot glue a thick ribbon onto the wreath to hang it.
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And now you can enjoy your unique, homemade holiday decoration. This would also be a great frugal Christmas gift.

Home-canned peaches

 

When I was a kid growing up, I remember all-day-long canning sessions at my grandmother’s house. We would get the whole family together for steamy, tomato-scented days of carrying bushels of fresh tomatoes down from the giant overgrown garden, slicing and dicing, pushing them through the enormous, older-than-my-mom tabletop canning device, squeezing out seeds, stems, juice, skins, pulp.

Pouring thick red liquid into piping-hot Bell canning jars, just out of the rolling, boiling water, screwing on the lids and popping them back into that steamy water bath. Placing them in rows upon rows along the kitchen table, and listening for the “pop” “pop” “pop” of lids being sealed.

Lining those jars, still warm from the boiling water, along the shelves of the basement pantry. Knowing that meant months later, in the dead of winter, we could have huge platters of pasta with sauce that taste like summertime, and know that I helped make that happen.

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That may sound quaint and overly-dramatic, but canning has always stuck with me and is something I desperately hope to continue into my adult life. I think our American lives of over-abundance and convenience takes a lot of the charm, knowledge, and wisdom out of feeding ourselves. We know nothing of how “food” is created, we just go to the grocery, pick out the boxes and cans, put them in the microwave and sit down in front of the TV to “eat” it.

I love the feeling of looking at something I personally created, start-to-finish, especially if it involves food I myself grew, picked, or somehow preserved. There is nothing like it. Sometime when your store has a sale on produce you like, give it a try and see for yourself.

Not only is home preserving fun and good for the soul, it is also good for the waist and pocketbook! Canning or freezing your own food lets you control what is put into it and avoid massive amounts of sodium, preservatives, colorants, etc. in commercially preserved foods. And though canning supplies may be a healthy chunk of change to begin with, you can re-use jars and rings nearly forever, with only new lids to buy each season.

Now, there are some dangers to home canning. Always read up on proper methods on how to can or otherwise preserve food so you and yours don’t end up sick. Take a look at the CDC article on avoiding botulism,  the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning article with tips and tricks, or Foodsafety.gov Home Canning advice.

This is my most recent adventure, when Colorado Palisade Peaches were at their prime. They are legendary for good reason, with such perfectly firm yet soft flesh and oodles of juice to drip down your chin. I of course ended up over-buying, and rather than commit the mortal sin of wasting produce, decided to can the excess.

You can use the outline of this recipe for just about any fruit, homemade salsa, or pre-cooked vegetables (like carrots, green beans, or beets). For more recipes specific to fruit types, head over to PickYourOwn.com, a wealth of home preservation tips. For tips on individual types of veggies, SimplyCanning.com has a whole library.

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Ingredients:

  • About 2 pounds peaches
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • 3-5 canning jars, lids, and rings
  • Large pot
  • Optional: Tongs, Funnel, Pressure canner

Step 1: Cut the peaches into slices. It is up to you if you want to peel them or can with peels on. To peel them, boil for 5 minutes, then submerge in ice water. The peels should slide off. I left the peels on cause I’m lazy and I like the extra nutrition.

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Step 2: Mix the sugar and water and bring to a boil. Stir in the peach slices, and simmer 5-10 minutes.

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Step 3: While peaches are cooking, bring a huge pot of water to a boil with your jars, lids and rings inside. This sterilizes the jars. You can also run them through the dishwasher.

Step 4: After boiling the jars, use the tongs to pour the water out of them. Fill the jars with the peaches, using a spatula to press them down and squish in the edges. Leave 1/4-1/2 inch space, and put the lids on.

Step 5: Put the jars back into the boiling water, and process for 15-20 minutes. Make sure the jars are fully submerged. This will help kill any microbes, and seal the jars.

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Step 6: Use the tongs to remove the jars, and place on a towel or hard surface to cool. Don’t disturb the jars for 6-12 hours, or until you hear the “pop” sound of the lid sealing. If after overnight cooling any jars have not sealed (the lid won’t be sucked in, and sort of springy when you push on it) put those jars in the refrigerator and use within one month.

It is normal for some canned fruit to change color slightly over time. But if you notice extreme discoloration, a bright red, or green color, get rid of that food immediately!

Jars processed this way should be stored in cool, dark, dry areas and are good for quite a long time. If properly processed, they are theoretically good forever. But I doubt they will last that long! 😉

Happy canning!